Stupid math tricks on social media

Recently as documented by this New York Times article, this rather ambiguous math problem (middle-school pre-algebra level) has been making the rounds. The article references the Yanny/Laurel controversy as well as the dress that people saw as different colors. I didn’t really take a side in either of those, but this one highlights some of the potentially ambiguous nature of mathematical notation.

The math problem in question:

x = 8 ÷ 2(2+2)

First, let me state the obvious: this is poorly written, and normally when using algebraic multiplication notation, i.e. putting the terms right next to each other, one would also use the fraction bar or vinculum instead of the obelus (“÷”) symbol. So instead, one would write either the equivalent of:

x = (8÷2)(2+2)

or

x = 8 ÷ (2(2+2))

Indeed, in the computer programming language Forth, which I have spent a bit of time dabbling in (still need to package up some of the code I’ve written into a proper release), there is no need to memorize the time-honored mnemonic of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally for the order of operations (parentheses, then exponentiation, then multiplication and division, then addition and subtraction). One would code either of the following:

8 2 / 2 2 + *

or

8 2 2 + 2 * /

The first one gives you 16 as in the first example above (with the 8÷2 grouped together), the second one gives you 1 as in in the second example above (with the 8 being a term by itself).

The article’s author seems to imply the “correct” answer is 16. The fact that there’s any debate on the correct answer, and that I apparently arrived at the “wrong” answer despite my stellar math background (I aced every high school math class except geometry and that one only because I blew off all the major projects), says to me there’s something wrong with how the question is written. Nobody, and I mean nobody, uses this half-baked obelus symbol notation for division at any serious level of mathematics unless they are printing calculator buttons. This type of problem is one reason. The other is that a sloppily written (or blurry-printed!) obelus can look way too much like an addition symbol. Indeed, the author of the article goes on to state:

No professional mathematician would ever write something so obviously ambiguous. We would insert parentheses to indicate our meaning and to signal whether the division should be carried out first, or the multiplication.

The lessons to be learned here are:

  1. Be careful how you write math problems; and
  2. Apparently anything is fair game to debate on social media.

Red Medicine and the no-shows

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, no longer have restaurant reviews been the exclusive domain of professional restaurant critics. Services like Yelp have enabled reviews of restaurants (and other establishments), both for better and for worse, by average customers.

But, suddenly some no-show customers at a Beverly Hills restaurant found the shoe on the other foot. This story on KGTV (San Diego ABC affiliate) made a lot of waves, because this time Noah Ellis, the owner of Red Medicine, tweeted the full names of several no-shows after getting sick and tired of losing money from people either missing their reservation or cancelling at the last minute.

This tweet:

All the nice guests who wonder why restaurants overbook and they sometimes have to wait for their res should thank people like those below.

and this quote from the owner (which came from the KGTV story) should give you some idea of the frustration level involved:

The (expletive) who decide to no-show, or cancel 20 minutes before their reservation (because one of their friends made a reservation somewhere else) ruin restaurants (as a whole) for the people who make a reservation and do their best to honor it. Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables.

And if that’s not enough this LA Times article has this quote from a competing chef:

[A competing chef] said he usually responds to no-shows with “Cursing, a lot of f-words and other kitchen-speak. It’s the equivalent of being stood up. Not that I’ve ever been stood up. But I can imagine how it feels with how many no-shows and last-minute cancellations we’ve gotten.

And then, days later, this article on grubstreet.com details that at least one of those no-showing had a death in the family which she found out about less than a half-hour from making the reservation, and that she had only called in the reservation at 6pm for dinner at 7:30pm. According to her, staff at Red Medicine had her cell phone number and never called to see what had happened, and it was (understandably) the last thing on her mind to call and cancel the reservation.

(For the moment, I’m going to set aside that this is the same restaurant that once refused service to S. Irene Virbila and her party, and posted her picture, back in late 2010. As it happens, I blogged about that one too; if you want my post about that incident, you’re welcome to go back in the archives and read it.)

I can see both sides of the story here. Since I’m not a restaurant owner, first I will approach this from the point of view of a restaurant guest (which I have been many times, though not often at the level of restaurants similar to Red Medicine).

I think a death in the family is a valid reason to skip a restaurant reservation. For me, hearing a relative had just passed on would certainly ruin my appetite. If I had made a restaurant reservation at 6pm, and gotten that call around 6:20-6:30pm, it would depend a lot on circumstances if I was able to keep my thoughts in order long enough to remember to call to cancel; I might be able to, and then again I might not. Certainly, though, if the restaurant has my phone number and call to ask where I am, I’d tell them why I wasn’t able to make it. So if the woman’s story is true, then Red Medicine’s staff really dropped the ball and made an already bad situation even worse for at least one potential customer.

We don’t know the stories behind why the other six no-shows didn’t honor their reservations, and in all likelihood, we probably never will. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and assume that the others had reasons which were much less serious than a death in the family. If it was simply a case of someone else in the party having reservations elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer: I would call and cancel as soon as I know. Even if it’s something like accidentally losing the credit/debit card that I was going to pay for dinner with, or problems with the vehicle I’d be driving down there (let’s face it, Red Medicine’s clientele don’t hop the bus down there), I’d rather call and cancel than just no-show.

From a restaurant owner’s point of view, perhaps more could have been done so that things didn’t get to this point. I certainly would want to know why people are no-shows at my restaurant so often. Maybe Noah and his staff already knew or at least already thought they knew. While I’ll probably get my share of flames for just trying to see Noah’s side of the story, it’s entirely possible this has been an ongoing problem they have been trying to resolve for months or years.

That said, there’s enough controversy about this that this isn’t something every restaurant owner should seriously consider. Red Medicine got at least three one-star reviews on Yelp in retaliation that I saw (and no telling how many others which will bubble up to the top once the reviewers better establish themselves), one of which suggested the restaurant should consider converting to walk-ins only. While I’m sure the reviewer meant well, that kind of a change either goes very right, or very wrong. Most places which require reservations require them because otherwise they’d lose many more customers without them, since many are bound to give up on a restaurant as the odds of getting a table equal and then become far worse than winning a decent amount on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Only time will tell just how right, or how wrong, this move was. One thing’s for sure: if I get to visit LA and dine at Red Medicine, I will honor any reservation I make. The last thing I need is bad publicity.

The IOC vs. social media

A recent article on Mashable about the 2012 Olympics in London again shows just how crazy the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gotten when it comes to regulating its event.

It’s being billed as “the first social media Olympic Games” but with the IOC’s rather anti-social policies it’s questionable just how social they will be.

Athletes will not be allowed to tweet photos of themselves with
products that aren’t official Olympics sponsors or share photos or videos from inside the athletes’ village.

Fans, too, could be barred from sharing on Facebook and YouTube photos and videos of themselves enjoying the action.

Business owners will have restrictions as well. They won’t be able to lure customers by advertising with official Olympics nomenclature such as “2012 Games.” Regulators will scour Olympic venues to potentially obfuscate non-sponsor logos on objects as trivial as toilets.

The restrictions on business owners are somewhat understandable. But obfuscating logos on everything at venues down to the toilets? I think that’s taking it a bit too far.

From later in the story, the restrictions on athletes appear to be tied to the IOC’s desire to control the message. Quoting Alex Huot, the IOC’s head of social media:

We encourage athletes to share their Games experience. The Olympic
Athletes’ Hub has been in part built for this. We have created a place for them to join and connect with our millions of fans around the world and to share not just during the Olympics but long after the Olympics are gone.

Unfortunately the athletes themselves have personal brands to build as well. This works out well for the IOC, at the expense of the athletes, and certainly looks like the first step down an extremely slippery slope.

The IOC seems to be forgetting without the athletes, the Olympic Games would cease to exist. As a fan, I should be allowed to follow my favorite athlete through his/her regular social media feeds–whether or not they are at the Olympic Games. To expect me as a fan to “switch channels” to the Olympic Athletes’ Hub is ludicrous, and to prohibit the athletes from building their own personal brands during the Games is something I find nearly unconscionable.

I honestly wonder how long it will be until an alternative quadrennial/biennial athletic competition to replace the over-commercialized Olympic Games becomes a reality. I don’t think it will be too much longer before someone decides “enough is enough” and gives the IOC a swift kick in the pocketbook.

I acknowledge every sport requires rules. But do we really need to have such fascist rules about what amateur athletes tweet and blog while in competition? Until and unless it compromises the integrity of the competition itself, the IOC should keep its hands off.

Television, football, advertising, and strategy

After probably the most anathemic event to hit any Houston area fan of amusement parks, the shuttering of Six Flags Astroworld in 2005, I would never have expected the scene to feel so empty. Four years and change later, and still nothing permanent has been built on the former site. It’s a huge change for Houston to be without what was once an iconic amusement park; it’s definitely not quite the same city now.

But that’s not what this is about. One typically does not appreciate the full impact of a change until well after it has happened. Such is the case with Pepsi’s decision not to advertise during Super Bowl XLIV, choosing instead to concentrate on social media. Remember, this was the same Pepsi to be flamed to a crisp for changing its logo. Heck, even I reacted on Twitter to what I felt was an absolutely horrible branding move, and I still don’t look at a can of Pepsi the same way.

The full impact of that change was Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper commercials picking up the slack. I didn’t realize how different it was until I saw them myself. (Aside: I really didn’t plan to watch the Super Bowl at all this year; it was my mom’s idea for us to go watch the game at a local bowling alley, 300 Houston, which has television screens above the lanes as well as in the bar area. We had a great time.)

Anyway, it wasn’t until well into the fourth quarter that it really hit me just how big of a change this was. I didn’t realize just how big of a player Pepsi was in Super Bowl TV advertising. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, used social media to complement the rest of their Super Bowl ad campaign.

It remains to be seen exactly how each move will pay off for the respective beverage giants. However, the more I think about it, the more I think Pepsi’s marketing team will be kicking themselves for skipping the Super Bowl this year. I’d expect Pepsi’s departure from Super Bowl TV advertising to be a one-year thing, and some heads to roll once the shareholders realize what has transpired.

One giant step over the line in Illinois

Pete Cashmore’s recent article for Mashable and an article in Salon report on Governor Pat Quinn signing into law a bill that prohibits registered sex offenders from using social media sites.

At first glance, to the masses, it looks like common sense legislation aimed at protecting us from the likes of child predators and serial rapists. The problem is, some offenses considered sex crimes that require registration are as piddling as public urination, a misdemeanor. That’s just one small example; many other offenses that fall far short of the stereotypical child predator or rapist one thinks of when they hear “sex offender” would also be barred from using Facebook, Twitter, et al. For life.

It disgusts me enough that Facebook feels it necessary to bar access to anyone who is a “convicted sex offender” when that term is not clearly defined elsewhere in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR). One must assume that this is any offense for which registration as a sex offender is required. I voted against the revised SRR for this reason, and I feel no particular shame for having done so.

If society as a whole does deem this kind of law necessary, I think the least we can do is restrict it to those who have exhibited actual sexual predatory conduct or are at high risk of doing so, not college kids who got caught peeing behind the frat house.

It’s also time to put an end to rubber-stamping conditions of probation for any remotely sex-related crime with prohibitions on any Internet use. That, in 2009, makes about as much sense as prohibiting someone from using a telephone.

In case anyone is wondering, no, I am absolutely, positively, not related to the governor of Illinois, despite sharing the same last name. To be honest, that makes his signature on this bill all the more embarrassing. Thus, the reason I’m debuting a new tag, “box-of-rocks-dumb,” for when “galactically-stupid” just plain doesn’t do justice.