“Three! Two! Ten! Seventeen!”

One step away from me, in the world where you know me, Russell Blackford has been suffering through the heat — “around the century mark on the old scale” — to see the fireworks. Here in Boston, we have to brave the cold to see the colorful explosions. It’s a funny round world we live on, isn’t it?

Last night, we confirmed a discovery first made many a year ago: you can’t put any number of MIT and/or ex-MIT people together and give them any sort of numerical task, like paying a restaurant bill or counting down to a zero point, without something going terribly awry. In this particular case, a dozen or so of us were standing atop a building, passing around a champagne bottle and looking off to the east, where the harbor and the explosions were supposed to be. “Ten, nine, eight, seven,” somebody called out, at a random time a few minutes before the New Year. This countdown sputtered into giggles, but then another broke out: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six —” And a medley of other voices joined in: “Seven! Eight! Twelve! Twenty-two! Seventeen! Sixty-nine! π!”

Finally, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and flipped it open.

“Hey, it’s midnight by my cell phone!”

Others soon agreed: “It’s midnight by my phone too! Happy New Year!”

And then the harbor fireworks started, but they were too far away, and with too much of Boston in between us and them, to get a very good view, or to feel the visceral impact of the detonations.

7 thoughts on ““Three! Two! Ten! Seventeen!””

  1. In my experience, calculating a restaurant bill among MIT people almost always led to:
    – everybody throwing in arbitrary amounts of money, with everyone rounding down the amount they owed, so we’d end up with maybe a 5% tip. (If it was somebody’s birthday, that person wouldn’t have to pay, but some other people would forget to pitch in for that person’s share, so we’d end up with a negative tip.)
    – somebody counting the money and accusing everybody of being cheap bastards;
    – people suddenly feel guilty, more money gets thrown in, and the tip ends up being 25% or so.
    We usually left it at that, because we were the kind of parties servers don’t like — we’d show up with fifteen people, who’d arrive over a period of a half hour, and no reservations.

  2. You’re not reading your classics. This phenomenon was detailed in one of the foundation documents of Improbability Theory (Life, the Universe, and Everything – Adams, 1982).
    The branch dealing with this is known as Bistromathics, from the fact that numbers behave differently in small resturaunts than anywhere else in the universe.

    The exact concept you are detailing is what is defined as a hyper-reverse exclusion, a quantity which can be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, if a reservation is made for a party of six at 7:30, from the point of view of a coordinate system having it’s origin inside the resturaunt, the actual number of people arriving can be anything other than six, and their time of arrival can be anything other than 7:30. This phenomenon extends to such quantities as the number of appetizers ordered vs. the number that appear on the table, vs. the number that appear on the final bill.

    The magnitude of the departures seems to be parameterized around the quantity (N), which is given by the number of bottles of wine consumed at the table in question.

    Thus the actual time of reaching zero on your New Year’s countdown can be defined to be any time other than exactly midnight.

  3. True.

    I can always count on the Internet to pick up the jokes I missed! :-)

    Except isn’t the term for a quantity which can only be defined as that which it can’t be called a recipriversexclusion?

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