Archive for the ‘Knowledge’ Category

Do we know what we don’t know?

June 15, 2011

There’s an interesting exposition of the reason why claims of alien (extra-terrestrial) contact with this planet is extremely unlikely.

I most agree with it: the distances, the length of time it would take technology to develop that would make interstellar travel possible, the sheer luck that would be needed to stumble upon another civilization.

In fact I would go further, I think there’s a chance civilizations discover something like limited control of anti-matter, which it only takes a single nutter to detonate, taking out an entire solar system. We call them “supernovas.” We assume they’re all natural phenomena. If the technology to travel between stars is as powerful but takes longer than the development of a self-extermination bomb, the latter will be developed first by a death cult (easier to make an UNCONTROLLED explosion than a controlled one). Therefore no two interstellar civilizations will ever meet. The upside of this is that this will always be fiction.

But that’s where I have to draw the line.

A test for the “Wisdom of Crowds”

January 10, 2010

Tomorrow (that’s Monday, 11th January 2010), I shall be giving a talk about James Surowiecki’s excellent little book, The Wisdom of Crowds, at the Institute of Education in London, at an event organised by “the other LA.”

Given the inclement weather, the fact it’s the first meeting of the year, there’s a new venue, I only told friends about it this evening, and the problem that either the speaker or the subject might not be as exciting to others as it is to me, I consider this a good test.

If no one shows up, how can I possibly argue that crowds lack wisdom? But then if I’m right, surely lots of people will want to know more about it.

I shall be talking about markets, taxes, voting, opinion polls and fairness. There will also be a little quiz.

If you cannot (or will not!) make it, I suggest Surowiecki’s book to anyone remotely interested in psychology, economics or epistemology, or to use less fancy language: how people think, work together and acquire and use knowledge.

It’s very readable, it has only one error of reasoning in my opinion [not fair to tell yet] and the only technical flaw is the lack of an index.

[UPDATE 8 Feb 2010: The flaw mentioned above is the claim that taxpayers consent to being taxed. The missing ingredient is the extent to which coercion (actual or potential) affect one’s decision to comply with taxation or not. If the various tax authorities of the world did not have the power to drag people before courts, confiscate assets and prison sentences weren’t relatively longer than say, for stealing food, I imagine that tax revenue rates would plummet.]

Smallville, China

January 3, 2010

A spectacular, if botched demolition in Liuzhou, caught my attention on several grounds. First the awesome image here of what was briefly a leaning tower to make that of Pisa look stable.

But two other thoughts occurred. First, this is no clearing of slums, or destruction of an ancient residential quarter. I’d guess the building being demolished was no more than 20-25 years old. I find this a telling incident in the development of China as a leading industrial country.

Destroying a recent structure to put up something more useful is not something one does when money is tight, or investment prospects are uncertain. It may be a case of Parkinson’s Law concerning new buildings, but I suspect not.

The second is that this story is a reminder that outside the tourist destinations and familiar names of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, perhaps Nanjing and Guangzhou, there is a huge country. Here’s a list of Chinese cities with a population estimated at over 2.5 million inhabitants:

[taken from Wing Chan “Misconceptions and Complexities in the Study of China’s Cities: Definitions, Statistics, and Implications,” July/August 2007 issue of Eurasian Geography and Economics, which was cited here.

Shanghai 13.46 million
Beijing 9.88 million
Guangzhou 7.55 million
Wuhan 6.79 million
Tianjin 6.76 million
Shenzhen 6.48 million
Chongqing 6.17 million
Shenyang 4.6 million
Chengdu 3.96 million
Dongguan 3.87 million
Xi’an 3.76 million
Nanjing 3.51 million
Harbin 3.46 million
Dalian 2.87 million
Changchun 2.75 million
Qingdao 2.72 million
Kunming 2.64 million
Jinan 2.64 million
Taiyuan 2.54 million
Zhengzhou 2.5 million

To put this in context, here’s the equivalent table for the European Union [adapted from national data here].

London 7.56 million
Berlin 3.43 million
Madrid 3.21 million
Rome 2.73 million
Paris 2.20 million

Anyone wondering how long China will pretend to pay lip service to Western political correctness may do well to ponder where current demographic and economic trends are taking us.

Creationist victory on Facebook?

October 31, 2009

UPDATE: WordPress has been crashing on Firefox for some time, with not just mine but lots of other WordPress blogs too.

So far, no one at WordPress seems to care enough about this to let me know why it happens or how to fix it. The result is that the post below crashed in the middle of posting, so it didn’t appear two weeks ago as planned. I apologise for this.

For what it’s worth, ONLY WordPress blogs seem to crash, and they do so less frequently on Safari or Internet Explorer than Firefox.

I’ve just voted in a poll on Facebook as to whether I believe in evolution or creation because I was curious to see the results.

With just over 40,000 votes in (a lot more than any market research company is likely to commission) the results were 39.5% in favour of evolution and 60.5% for creation.

Facebook did not previously strike me as the sort of forum where relious zealots were dominant. So either there is a silent majority that rejects Darwin (I’m guessing this is a reaction against school), or the poll is unrepresentative.

Either way it reminds of this comment I left on Brian Micklethwait’s blog:

I caught snippets of a two-part documentary on twins which made the interesting claim that a belief in God is likely to be genetic (identical twins were a lot more likely to agree the existence/non-existence of God than non-identical twins).

If true, this again raises one of my favourite paradoxes, whether Darwinism as a belief system is viable on strictly biological reproductive grounds. I suspect it isn’t.

If it is true that people carrying the God gene are more likely to reproduce (partly because they believe they’ve been told to by God “Go forth and multiply!”), then it stands to reason that over time the number of people carrying the God gene is likely to expand relative to the non-God gene carrying population.

This could curiously result in a paradigm shift where a Darwinian process (evolution) generates a Creationist hegemony.
Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 October 2009

As for my own opinion, I can find good reasons to doubt both points of views. What is particularly striking at present, is the stridency of some calls to accept as orthodoxy the Darwinian position and the intolerance of any questioning one might make of it.

I don’t think the fossil evidence is sufficient to demonstrate whether evolution is a gradual or an abrupt process. I cannot see how it is possible to logically demonstrate that the Big Bang (if that theory isn’t shown to be wrong, or incomplete by further research) wasn’t something like a switch being thrown. At the very least, there might be a genetic basis for people to be theists or deists. All of which make me ask: why?

What I am certain of, is that evolution, as a scientific theory, is on the way out for practical purpposes. In 50 years I expect fewer people to believe in it than do today. One reason for this is that the creationists reproduce. Another is that some of them have learned to argue from scientific principles. Leading advocates of Darwinism, on the other, have reverted to name-calling and hectoring. Which, if they don’t procreate, suggests they’re not going to win friends and influence people either.

Quote of the day

September 28, 2009

I suppose if one can bury bad news, one can also, conversely, unearth amazing news. Truly, this middanġeard is full of marvels, even now.

Fugitive Ink

The only person I know who would include middanġeard and charmingly forget to include the translation in a blog post. 🙂

Lest we forget…September 12

September 12, 2009

Today the continental breakfast was invented. It’s the only day of the year that I have a croissant and coffee (with milk) at home.

September 12th 1683 is the date of the raising of the Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire, which represented the turning point for Turkish expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.

It is said that the armies of Poles, Germans and Austrians that drove the Turks and allies (notably some Hungarians) from the siege camp found curious crescent-shaped pastries and coffee. A Capucin monk is supposed to have added cream to soften the bitter taste of the unfamiliar dark hot drink to create capuccino.

I’m sure the more literate Turks celebrate the Battles of Manzikaert (1071), Myriocephalum (1176) and Hattin (1187)*. I don’t suppose, however, that they found anything from their defeated opponents of such lasting gastronomic influence as the capuccino and croissant breakfast.

* I apologise to Turkish readers wishing to celebrate the exact dates. I don’t have them to hand.

Bad boy?!

September 12, 2009

What to make of this from Compare Friends on Facebook?

Changes in your ranks:

#12 most attractive (gained 1 place)
#13 nicest smelling (gained 1 place)
#16 person with the best sense of humor (gained 1 place)
#18 best mannered (lost 1 place)
#19 best catch (gained 1 place)

Moral: ditch the holding doors for ladies, use nicer deodorant, tell better jokes.

What’s Maths for then?

March 4, 2008

Here’s something new from this morning’s Metro but for whatever reason, it’s not on the website.

I’ve been thinking about the significance of mathematics recently, what with Brian Micklethwait’s writings on the subject of teaching.

Professor Darren Crowdy, of Imperial College London, has apparently “fixed” a flaw in the Schwarz-Christoffel formula, which as the Daily Telegraph helpfully explains:

was independently discovered by two mathematicians in the1860s to enable them to translate the unusual and angular shapes of the real world, whether brains or aircraft wings, into a simpler circular shape so that they are much easier to model and analyse.

It sounds like a perfect answer to two questions I imagine Brian hears: “What’s Maths for then?” and “Haven’t they worked it all out yet?”

The whole story has a very Arthur Conan Doyle feel to it, I think:

“Its importance can hardly be exaggerated. It has been the most jealously guarded of all government secrets. You may take it from me that naval warfare becomes impossible withing the radius of a Bruce-Partington’s operation.”