Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Magic that is π

Unless you've had some sort of high school geometry "PI"-- or the symbol π as its referred to in math & science--probably seems like a meaningless concept. Little do most of us realize how important PI is to our existence. But before I go any further, here is a π refresher for all of you who slept through 10th grade math. π is a mathematical constant that represents the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. If you know the distance around a circle, you can find the diameter as long as you have π. Or if you take the circumference of the circle and divide it by its diameter you will ALWAYS get π. It doesn't matter how big the circle is, it works every time whether it’s a star that's bigger than our own or an everyday basketball. Pretty slick, huh?

So what...what do I care?

Here goes my geekatude at full throttle so get ready. π is 3.1415926535....and so on. The decimal is non-repeating (so far). It also cannot be expressed as an exact fraction, its only an approximation. So technically, you can never create a "perfect" circle. However, over the centuries, mathematicians have been trying to find out a more exact expression for PI. So far, π has been calculated to 1,241,100,000,000 (trillion) decimal places. This was done by computer scientist Yasumasa Kanada and his coworkers at the University of Tokyo Information Technology Center back in 2002 using this formula. (Click here if you want the first 10,000 to impress your friends)

Looks pretty straightforward with all of those "arc tan" thingies and of course the plus and minus signs that we all recognize. Hard to believe that you need a supercomputer that can carry out the 2 trillion operations per second to achieve all of those digits. To put that into perspective, if you counted to one trillion saying a number each second, it would take you 31,000 years to finish! If someone started during the last ice-age, they would still be counting.

To put it bluntly, Mr. Kanada turned it on and let it crank out numbers for a very long time. By the way, in 1999, Yasumasa Kanada worked with researchers to calculate 206,158,430,000 digits of π landing him and his team in the Guinness Book of World's Record for what could possibly be the most academic/nerdiest pursuit of all time. I can't imagine why they got that dubious award. They simply didn't do enough nerdy things to warrant it. (Maybe they should try performing long division on random numbers for a week without sleeping. That will no doubt cinch it for them

Why you ask--for the love of all that is normal--do they not have better things to do with their time? The reason for this is simply to test computer power. Someone very soon, no doubt Mr. Kanada again, will eclipse this record and get nothing for it.

In case you are wondering and I know you are, the 1,241,100,000,000th decimal digit of pi (not counting the initial digit, 3) is 5. Chicks dig a dude who knows this.

Seriously, we all need to pay homage to π. Not because it's a non-repeating (so far), irrational number (a number that can't be expressed as a fraction)--although that pretty impressive too--but because without π, circles or variations thereof would be very hard to come by. Just look around the room for a minute and check out all of the perfectly rounded items. Wheels on your chair, electrical cords, fans, computer CDs, gears on your car or watch or even pendulum clocks just to name a few. Now imagine everything in your life without rounded edges. Sure, curvature would still exist in nature such as plants, animals, humans, etc. But every manmade object of a circular nature requiring exact measurements would be grossly inaccurate. Bridges would be created with asymmetric curvature thus affecting its ability to hold weight. Every time a sea of vehicles would drive on it or a strong wind would blow through its support beams causing the bridge to resonate at an unwanted frequency, its structural integrity would be compromised thus potentially causing the bridge to collapse. Do you like π a little more?

Pi is fundamental to the way in which our universe functions; practically everything is dependent on π at some basic level: light, sound, energy, gravity, electromagnetic fields, the movements of the planets and matter itself. Without π, our understanding of this stuff would be nil. To engineers--who have in essence--designed and created our infrastructure such as roads, bridges, sewer systems, plumbing, and etc-- π is an invaluable number. Imagine a hospital without an MRI or a CT Scan Machine? In other words, without π we'd still be in the dark ages.

I'm not asking all of you to become nerdy, pocket-protector computer geeks, I just think we all, as contributing members of society, need to step back and think about the little things that make life, as we know it, much easier. One of those "some things" is π.

π sounding like your next best friend? I thought so.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Checkout Chaos

Checkout Chaos

Ever since I've been a kid, I've dreaded grocery shopping. Don't get me wrong, I cherished that time with either with my dad or mom. But the hum-drum pace of trudging through 18 isles looking for romane noodles the clueless high school inventory clerk stacked in the wrong spot isn't my idea of world-class usage of free time.

The real reason why the evils of grocery shopping irritate me don't reside in the act of shopping itself but from the proverbial explanation point of the entire process:

Yep, trading currency for the goods in the checkout line.

While waiting in the line to the cash register, we all have our ways of passing the time when the line is long. Maybe it’s reading the tabloids or paroozing through the endless shelves of gum and assorted candy looking for that quick pick-me-up. Shoppers don't

care what you do as long as you follow what I like to refer as "Checkout Etiquette". Invariably,
the first rule in the book is violated every time I step into the line. Wouldn't you know it, it’s always me who gets behind an individual who can't comprehend the novel idea of having money close at hand so as not to "upset the applecart".

Allow me to paint this chaotic picture for you: It’s usually an older individual who is female-not always but most of the time--who has lost some mental dexterity in the mental math department.
The clerk scans the last item and hits the total button which displays the final amount on the screen for all to see. Remember, in the event that the shopper does not see the amount, the clerk also gives the shopper verbal confirmation of the amount as well:

"That will be $54.13, ma'am".

The person then just stands there staring at the amount on the display for 5 to 10 seconds
as if he/she was just blindsided with ultimate shock of their lives. In the checkout line where time is of the essence, 10 seconds seems like an eternity!

Memo to clueless shoppers: the display isn't in Latin! It’s not a language that's from an ancient civilization long since deceased. They're numbers!
Numbers are a series of digits from zero to nine assembled in a specific order to indicate a specific quanity. In this case, the quanity is MONEY!

I am puzzled that an otherwise "normal" individual who has not had any past consumer comprehension issues freezes up like a deer in headlights when the last item is scanned in and its time to fork over the cash?

Why is this such a hard concept to understand?

To make life easier on the rest of us who follow Checkout Etiquette to the letter, please polish up on your number recognition. I thought we all learned them in first grade. Evident ally, some of you were sick that day. And most of all have your money, checkbook or debit card out and ready to go. Using valuable time rummaging through ones belongings looking for denero as if it’s never seen the light of day is a violation of rule number one of the Checkout Etiquette Handbook.

If you follow these simple steps, it will make the miserable experience of grocery shopping a little more tolerable.