Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Well, actually, it's aitch. But why? Here's how I work it out.

I use a method I developed for myself around year 8 or so when I was trying to figure out the H problem (you can't apply the null hypothesis here unfortunately).

I asked myself which would be the most obvious one. Imagine you're a kid again and just learning the alphabet. Your teacher shows you the letter


and says "Pop quiz! You have two options. One is the correct answer and one is false and made up by me: Aitch or Haitch?"

You'd pick haitch, right? It seems to be the obvious choice because it has the letter h in it. Why would you call it something that doesn't sound like the letter?

But in real life, you realise that people all around you use aitch almost as regularly as haitch, and that's not an accident. The two words are similar enough that one is derived from the other. One must be the original word, and one must be the later derivation. The original word may even come from an ancient time when H was pronounced differently or is a corruption of the word taken from another language. These could explain how H could have a name that doesn't sound like its modern pronunciation.

If the original word were haitch, and someone started saying aitch, why would that catch on? It's silly to omit the one letter that makes it make sense in modern pronunciations of the letter and word. However, if the original word is aitch, the pop quiz example shows how alluring it is for us to want to add the h to the beginning in order to make the word more representative of the letter in modern pronunciation.

So I'd conclude that the more likely scenario is that aitch is the original and correct word and that haitch is simply a modern corruption.

And thus incorrect.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is an incredibly potent tool for truth-seeking. It is the tool by which science functions. It really is an incredibly simple concept to understand and is so important a tool in helping us to make good objective decisions that it amazes me that I have to explain what it is to so many people that I meet, including scientists. I believe that everyone ought to know what it is and it should probably be taught in schools at an early age.

So what is it?

If you want to know whether something exists/works or not, you invoke the null hypothesis.

The hypothesis is that said thing does exist/work.

The null hypothesis is that said thing does not exist/work.

If you can’t provide significant evidence to support the hypothesis, then you reject it and accept the null hypothesis. This is always the default position. Innocent until proven guilty. You always assume that said thing doesn’t exist/work unless shown otherwise.

Why do you always accept the null hypothesis as the default position, and not the other way round? If the system were the other way round, you would have to believe in everything until shown otherwise, which is clearly a mad, mad concept. In fact an impossible concept, since in accepting every possible thing that could exist you invoke paradoxes faster than you can say "omnipotence."

What if a situation arises where you can't decide which isthe null hypothesis? Which possibility do assume is true before testing the other? Well there's an easy way to determine which one is the null hypothesis. It is the simplest, least complex option. Usually this is easy to spot.

Let's look at a story for an example. A car repairman is out on call in the middle of nowhere. He's finished his work and walking back to his truck. On the way he passes a phone booth. As he walks past, the phone rings. The man stops, puzzled. Who could be calling this booth in the middle of nowhere? Curious, he answers the phone to find that the caller knows his name and began talking to him about a business appointment he had the next day. He realised that he recognised the caller's voice as his secretary. He asked her how she had found the number to the booth but she implored that she had dialled his new mobile number. She checked her papers and realised that really she had accidentally dialled the number written just below: his paycheck number. It just so happened that his paycheck number matched the number of the phonebooth he walked past and she just so happened to call him just as he was walking past. Coincidence? Some people say that it's easier to invoke some sort of supernatural power than attribute it to coincidence, so supernatural powers should be the default belief, until proved otherwise.

But imagine two parallel worlds; one in which supernatural powers are the cause and one in which coincidence is the cause. Now reduce both worlds as far as possible. In other words, identify and consolidate everything about those worlds that is exactly the same. You end up with one model of the world, and a second model of the same world, plus supernatural powers. So it's actually the supernatural powers that are the hypothesis since they represent the highest complexity. And the null hypothesis is that supernatural powers do not exist and that coincidence is the only remaining explanation.

Or as Carl Sagan elegantly put, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Don't Blink

Stop. I am Bernard, and my time is infinite.

I can think a million thoughts in the time it takes the penny you dropped to plink against the floor. I can write my thesis in the time it takes for the plink to reach your ear.

Everything is possible. I can conquer every situation. With time, I am never unprepared. I can learn, train, think my way through anything. Ever had one of those moments in your life where you have to make a choice and it’s like there are two paths before you and everything’s moving so fast and you can’t think, your mind’s just filled with the ticking of your watch and you wish it would all just stop. Pause to breathe. To clear your mind. To make the right decision at the time it matters the most. I can do that.

And since I have time in which to think, I took the time to wonder how it is that this whole thing works. It appears that, apart from me, the rest of the world freezes like a moment captured on the film of a Polaroid. If that be the case, then I make two conclusions.

The first, that my time is in fact not infinite. I simply become unstuck from the rest of time, but time still courses through my body. My own timeline is unaffected and I will still grow then age like the rest of us, and when I rejoin the flow of time that the rest of the world follows, I will be robbed of a few moments of my life.

But the first depends on the second not being true. In fact my whole existence depends on this not being true. Take a look at that Polaroid again. See that coin frozen in mid-air? If everything is totally still, then it must be so right down to every atom in every molecule in everything around me. No matter is moving. So what? Well temperature is a measure of the speed of vibration of molecules in space, right? The faster they move, the hotter the entity they belong to feels. The slower, the colder. And what if they’re not moving at all? That’s what they call Absolute Zero. We’re not even equipped to deal with -40oC, let alone -240oC. I shouldn’t last two minutes at this temperature.

But it's ok; I am made immortal by the power of CITV.