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Lap vs length

Friday 31 July 2015

My exercise is swimming, and it's an important part of my day. I track my distance. Usually I swim a mile or so. To swim a mile in a 25-yard pool, you have to make 36 round trips.

I say this as, "36 laps." The sign at my pool says a mile is 36 laps.

I was listening to the How to Do Everything podcast, and they had a question about whether a lap is once across a pool, or there and back. I smugly thought to myself, "there and back, of course."

To answer the question, they asked Natalie Coughlin, an Olympic swimmer, who said,

In swimming, the lap refers to swimming from one end of the pool to the next. Without a doubt, it's one end of the pool to the other. It's not back and forth.

What!? How does this make sense? We already have a word for one end to the other, "a length." Are we really going to use both words to mean the same thing, and then have no word for there and back?

In any other sport, a lap takes you from a starting point, out some distance, and then back to where you started. Why should swimming be different? I thought this was supposed to be an erudite sport?

Looking for a higher authority, I consulted the glossary at USA Swimming:

Lap: One length of the course. Sometimes may also mean down and back (2 lengths) of the course.

Thanks a lot... This definition both exposes the absurdity, by defining lap to mean precisely "a length," and then throws out there that some people use the word differently (in the useful way), so we really don't know what we're talking about.

Can we do something about this? Can't the universe make just a little more sense?

The Lone Confused Expert

Wednesday 8 July 2015

If you participate in mailing lists or IRC long enough, you will encounter a type of person I call The Lone Confused Expert. These are people who know a lot, but have gotten something wrong along the way. They have a fundamental misconception somewhere that is weaving through their conclusions.

Others will try to correct their wrong worldview, but because the Lone Confused Expert is convinced of their own intelligence, they view these conversations as further evidence that they know a great deal and that everyone around them is wrong, and doesn't understand.

I'm fascinated by the Lone Confused Expert. I want to understand the one wrong turn they took. One of the things I like about teaching is seeing people's different views (some right, some wrong) on the topics we're discussing. Understanding how others grasp a concept teaches me something about the concept, and about the people.

But the LCE is just a tantalizing mystery, because we never get to uncover their fundamental understandings. The discussions just turn into giant foodfights over their incorrect conclusions.

As an example, recently in the #python IRC channel, someone learning Python said (paraphrased),

Python calls old datatypes new names to make them sound like new things. A dict is just a rebranded list.

I'd like to know what this person thought a dict was, and how they missed its essential nature, which is nothing like what other people call lists. Perhaps they were thinking of Lisp's association lists? That seems unlikely because they were also very dismissive of languages other than C/C++.

Typical of The Lone Confused Expert, the discussion balloons as more people see the odd misconceptions being defended as a higher truth. The more people flow in to try to correct The Expert, the more they stick to their guns and mock the sheeple that simply believe what they've been told rather than attaining their rarer understanding.

Two more examples, from the Python-List mailing list:

At a certain level, these statements are simply wrong. But I think somewhere deep in The Lone Confused Expert's mind, there's a kernel of truth that's been misapplied, some principle that's been extended beyond its utility, to produce these ideas. I want to understand that process. I want to see where they stepped off the path.

There's just no way to get at it, because the LCE won't examine and discuss their own beliefs. Challenges are viewed as attacks on their intelligence, which they hold in higher esteem than their knowledge.

In idle moments, these statements come back to me, and I try to puzzle through what the thought process could be. How can someone know what a punched card is, but also think that characters on it cannot be tokenized?

I wonder if a face-to-face discussion would work better. People can be surprisingly different in person than they are online. It's easy to feel attacked if you have a dozen people talking to you at once. I've never had the opportunity to meet one of these Lone Confused Experts in real life. Maybe I don't want to?

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