August 12, 2019

» Douglas Hofstadter on “Number Numbness” (1982). He is the author of “Goedel, Escher, Bach”, and also coined “Hofstadter’s law”:

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

The article makes a great point of people not being able to grasp very large numbers:

I once taught a small beginning physics class on the thirteenth floor of Hunter College in New York City. From the window we had a magnificent view of the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. In one of the opening sessions, I wanted to teach my students about estimates and significant figures, so I asked them to estimate the height of the Empire State Building. In a class of ten students, not one came within a factor of two of the correct answer (1,472 feet with the television antenna, 1,250 without). Most of the estimates were between 300 and 500 feet. One person thought 50 feet was right-a truly amazing underestimate; another thought it was a mile.

Though the rest of the article focusses more on truly large numbers, like the difference between a million, a billion and a trillion, this quote shows that people have already difficulties with numbers which aren’t that big.

» Someone has surfed the web on a budget of 50 MB per day:

I’m going to limit my browsing today to 50 MB, which in Zimbabwe would cost around $3.67 on a mobile data tariff. That may not sound like much, but teachers in Zimbabwe were striking this year because their salaries had fallen to just $2.50 a day.

For comparison, $3.67 is around half the $7.25 minimum wage in the USA. As a Zimbabwean, I’d have to work for around a day and a half to earn the money to buy this 50MB data, compared to just half an hour in the USA. It’s not easy to compare cost of living between countries, but on wages alone the $3.67 cost of 50 MB of data in Zimbabwe would feel like $52 to an American on minimum wage.

The article comes with hands-on tips on how websites could improve and shows impressively just how unethical poor web performance is.

It’s ironic, though, that the page where he posts his results is also guilty of transferring a lot of data - I measured a whooping 10 MB when accessing the page.