Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Q: What was the first digital newspaper in the world?

This is a provocative question, and it really depends on what you mean by a digital newspaper.

Arguably any written language formed out of a well-understood dictionary of symbols (like letters) could constitute a digital newspaper, since the signal distinguishing feature of "digital" technology is that a static discipline ensures that marginal inputs can become perfect outputs. This makes perfect copies possible and allowed scribes to preserve our culture for thousands of years, longer than the life of any physical medium.

Under this definition, the earliest handwritten gazettes, or even the texts of ancient civilizations could count.

But a major leap happened when perfect copies became not just possible, but easy and capable of mass production -- so maybe we should focus on the first typesetnewspapers.

Yet another leap happened when news began to be distributed not just in mass-produced digital form (the typeset broadsheet) that could be "easily" copied, but in electronic form that could be "instantly" copied.

Here we would be talking about the rise of telegraphy, which allowed the first stock tickers and the Associated Press and other newswires.

In the 60s and 70s, newspapers began to distribute national and international editions, sending their pages by satellite to printing presses across the country or in Europe. A battle ensued between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times over the appropriate "digital" way to distribute their copy. The New York Times "digitized" its pages by scanning them and preparing a facsimile raster image, transmitting that pixel by pixel, and having it lithographed at printing presses across the country. The Wall Street Journal digitized its pages by coding the contents of each article letter-by-letter and sending that, along with a layout, to typesetters at each printing press who would have to re-typeset the pages before lithographing them. In John Hess's book "My Times," he describes how the NYT facsimile approach proved impractical with the technology of the day and was soundly beaten by the more data-frugal WSJ approach.

The 70s and 80s also saw the rise of electronic distribution to businesses and the public, with newspapers transmitting news copy to databases like Nexis and posting articles on online services like Compuserve and AOL. The 90s obviously saw extraordinary growth in the electronic distribution of news, as newspapers began posting their entire editions on the Internet.

I think if I had to pick one development along this timeline that signaled the birth of "digital" newspapers, it would probably be the invention of typesetting and the printing revolution, which made the mass-produced newspaper possible. It looks like that means I have to pick Carolus's "Relation," whose first edition was published in 1605.

But surely the invention of the telegraphic newswire is also a major, major advance that you could call the first "digital" newspaper.

And I think the anthropologists might point to the invention of written language in the first place -- and what it meant, namely the ability to perfectly copy texts and preserve them for longer than the life of any physical artifact -- as the signal development in our ability to use "digital" means to distribute and preserve our culture.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Q: Is the Charles River safe to swim in?

It depends -- on the day, your location in the river basin, and who you are.

The short answer is that if you are young and have a robust immune system, swimming east of the Harvard Bridge, without recent rainfall, you should be fine. I have done it on hot summer days and it was beautiful. The government, which plays these things pretty conservatively, agrees that on most days, the river basin meets the standards for swimmability below the Mass. Ave. bridge.

The longer answer is that the conditions vary depending on where you are in the river and the day. For centuries, the Charles was practically Boston's sewer, not just for human waste but also for all manner of industrial heavy metals.

In 2010, most sites east of Magazine Beach would have been "swimmable" about 75% of the time. See this presentation last October by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. (http://www.charlesriverconservan..., slide 14)

Unfortunately, last year we had a problem with "Harmful Algae Blooms," perhaps caused by hot water runoff from power plants. The state posted an algae advisory from July through September. See http://www.charlesriverconservan..., slides 14-16.

During the summer, the Charles River Watershed Association maintains a system of weekly monitoring and flies flags to show whether the water is "safe for boating" at nine places. You can get the data at http://www.crwa.org/water_qualit....

As I understand, the standard for "safe for boating" is less than 630 colony-forming-units of E. coli per 100 mL, plus an acceptable level of blue-green algae. The EPA standard for swimming is tighter, I understand around 225 colony-forming units, plus a limit on Enterococcus.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Q: Do the odds in a horse race add up to more than 100%?

It doesn't quite make sense to sum odds. But if we talk about converting the odds into the probabilities of each horse's winning, then yes, they do add to more than 100% -- because the house takes more than 16% of every dollar bet!

For example, let's say we had two horses in a race, equally favored to win. A "fair" race chart, with no house take, would give each horse 1:1 odds against winning -- meaning a successful $1 bet will pay back a total of $2. The probability that corresponds to 1:1 odds is 1/(1+1), or 50% -- and two of these sum to 100%. Say you want to be guaranteed to walk away with $1. Then you need to bet 1/2 dollar on each horse. Exactly one horse will win (paying off 1:1, so you'll get a dollar back), so you will break even.

In reality, the odds won't be 1:1 for each horse. It will be something like 2:3 odds for each horse, meaning a successful $3 bet will pay back a total of $5. The probability that corresponds to 2:3 odds is 3/5, or 60%. Two of these sum to 120%! Say you want to be guaranteed to walk away with $5. Then you must bet $3 on the first horse, and $3 on the second horse. You've bet $6 to be assured of winning $5 -- the house has taken 16.7%.

We can see this if you look at the chart from yesterday's running of the Kentucky Derby (http://www1.drf.com/tc/kentuckyderby/2011/pdf/2011-kentucky-derby-chart.pdf ):

The race went off like this:
  • Animal Kingdom, 20.90 (odds $1)
  • Nehro, 8.50
  • Mucho Mucho Man, 9.30
  • Shackleford, 23.10
  • Master of Hounds, 16.80
  • Santiva, 34.70
  • Brilliant Speed, 27.90
  • Dialed In, 5.20
  • Pants On Fire, 8.10
  • Twice the Appeal, 11.90
  • Soldat, 11.90
  • Stay Thirsty, 17.20
  • Derby Kitten, 36.30
  • Decisive Moment, 39.30
  • Archarcharch, 12.50
  • Midnight Interlude, 9.60
  • Twinspired, 32.90
  • Watch Me Go, 33.60
  • Comma to the Top, 35.80

Let's say on each horse we made a bet "to win" in the amount of what it took to be assured of walking away with $1. Exactly one bet will succeed, so the amount we need to bet is the reciprocal of one plus the odds. (E.g. if the odds are 9.60 against 1, we can bet 1/10.60 dollars to receive $1 if it's a success.)

The total we need to bet is

1/21.90 + 1/9.50 + 1/10.30 + 1/24.10 + 1/17.80 + 1/35.70 + 1/28.90 + 1/6.20 + 1/9.10 + 1/12.90 + 1/12.90 + 1/18.20 + 1/37.30 + 1/40.30 + 1/13.50 + 1/10.60 + 1/33.90 + 1/34.60 + 1/36.80 = 1.195...

So it takes about $1.20 to be assured of walking away with exactly $1. The house is taking about 16%.

(To be fair, the house is not just one house -- OTB facilities take a cut, etc. etc. But from the perspective of the gambler, the house advantage in horseracing is much higher than even the worst casino games.)