Thursday, 1 July 2010

England In Despair

Well, it gives me no pleasure to have been proved right in my earlier predictions - on Sunday the English football team were indeed humiliated and sent home by a clearly superior Germany.  At least Germany had the grace to inflict a heavy defeat during normal time, without it having to go to penalties.  Indeed, at 4-1 it was England's heaviest ever World Cup defeat.

Yes, Lampard's goal was disallowed, and maybe in some alternate universe it proved a turning point, inspiring England on to victory.  But in this 'verse Germany weathered some pretty sustained pressure and then simply ran the length of the pitch and scored.  Twice.  The disallowed goal will give the disaffected fans something to whine about for the next few years (alright, for many, many years), but it finally makes up for England's disputed goal against Germany in the 1966 final.

Overall it was a lacklustre campaign.  This wasn't helped by the fact that the British press are both vicious and fickle, and having whipped up national hopes (as always) to near-hysterical levels, will now turn on the team, looking for blood.  The goalkeeping error against the USA was instantly (and rather brilliantly) dubbed 'The Hand of Clod', and Monday's headlines proclaimed 'Rout of Africa' and 'Fritz All Over Now'.  The fate of Fabio Capello's stint as boss must now be in the balance.

So what's a nation to do?  Why, turn to tennis, of course.  Andy Murray's through to the Wimbledon semi finals tomorrow.  He's Scottish, but that's near enough for the English papers, who conveniently refer to him as British while he's winning.  And the cricket's going rather well, although the prospect of a whitewash in the current one day series has been spoiled by Australia rather inconveniently winning the fourth test to bring the score to 3-1.

Oh, one more thing.  My wife has asked me to point out that, despite my previous snide comments, she does indeed understand the football offside rule.  And she gave a very convincing demonstration of this using the kitchen table, assorted condiments for players, and a handy hard boiled egg for a ball.  I most humbly apologise.

Enddianness and Neddiness

This is not an article about byte ordering

Nor is it a discussion of the correct way to eat your eggs

Rather, it is an exposition on the inability of the human brain to grasp the implications of statistics.

I'm writing this on a Saturday evening.  On Friday night, the last thing I did before leaving the office was to start a stress test running on one of my chip designs.  It's testing the chip communications.  I'm testing that under no circumstances will the chip lock up, or fail to respond correctly to communications.  I'm running the test because previous designs on other silicon have exhibited failure modes in which it was possible for the chip to stop responding to communications.

On Monday morning the first thing I will do on going into the office will be to see if the LED attached to the chip is still blinking, indicating that the test is still running, and no failures have occurred.  I've been running this same test every night and every weekend for about three weeks, and seen no failures yet.  Does this mean that the communications in this chip is bulletproof?  No, it does not. 

The highly recommended book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, talks about the nature of randomness, and in particular what the author dubs Black Swans - events deemed to be of very low likelihood, that have a devastating impact, and that can be explained away after the fact by experts with a little judicious hindsight.  (In this podcast, Taleb describes this as "a retrospective ability to weave a causal link", which is a rather wonderful turn of phrase).  These would be the self same experts who were completely blindsided by the events themselves, but who can confidently explain them away after the fact.  Events such as the two World Wars and the various economic disasters of the last century or so are all Black Swans. 

Taleb, in both this book and the earlier Fooled by Randomness, pours withering (and often entertaining) scorn upon such experts.  Economists, stock traders, MBAs, and indeed anyone having the temerity to make predictions about the future based on past trends, are all mercilessly ridiculed.  (He makes a few honourable exceptions - Karl Popper, George Soros, and Benoit Mandelbrot have all earned his respect.)

In one chapter of The Black Swan Taleb discusses the nature of human fallibility.  In it he talks about the medical acronym NED (No Evidence of Disease).  Apparently this is written on a patient's records after some tests have been run, and no sign of any malignancy or unusual activity has been found.

What, Taleb points out, doctors will never write is END - Evidence of No Disease. That is, they will happily say that they did not see any sign of a problem, but they will never say that there is no problem.

As engineers, it behooves us to adopt the same approach.  If you have been working as an engineer for any length of time, you will have been caught out by the apparent absence of any problems in just the same way that I have in the past.  Just because we have run tests for a period of time and seen no bugs, this does not mean that there are no bugs - it just means that we have not seen any.  But even though I'm now on the lookout for feathery portents of doom, I'm still really hoping that that LED will be blinking on Monday morning.