Wednesday, August 25, 2004

ε and the Olympics

Back from Disney World and ready to tackle the new academic year. Thanks to Adam Klivans for his guest posts. Interesting to see that COLT glorifies the open problems. In complexity we prefer to see them closed.

Varsha Dani emailed a note about an article describing an Amazon tribe with no concept of numbers. I guess they don't send anyone to the olympics where numbers seem king.

Watching gymnastics I am always amazed how winning seems to depend on sticking the landing. After a rather complicated and lenghty routine why should whether your feet move at the end be the difference between Gold and Bronze? The answer lies in the ε; the best gymnasts can uniformly hit the major elements of their routines but consistently sticking the landing is much more difficult and that what makes or breaks the result.

We see the ε issue in many scenarios, most notably the 2000 US presidential election where confusing ballots in one county created a huge controversy. The budget of the NEC Research Institute is miniscule compared to the revenue of NEC corporate. A couple of years ago NEC eeked out a profit about the same size of the cost of the Institute and all of a sudden the NEC Research Institute looked very expensive to NEC. In another example, consider the relatively large power a small party can have in a coalition in a parlimentary system.

The best way to avoid the ε problem is by decisive victories. Solidly beat your opponent in an election or have enough parlimentary seats so you don't need small partners. Make enough of a profit so that a cheap research lab stays that way. One only gets the ε problem when one has a statistical tie and then the small things take on great importance.

In gymnastics one would want a system where a greatly superior gymnast can score high enough that a small jump on the landing won't make a difference. But the current system doesn't allow that; with a top score of 10 the world's best gymnasts all get well over nine, making it impossible to put enough of a gap between a the best and the rest.

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