Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pascal's Global Warming

I was just alerted to the following video supporting strong action for climate change:


The argument is a little dated, actually, most famously presented in the 1600's well before global warming was a concern. The video uses a rehash of Pascal's wager, replacing personal salvation with policy to deal with climate change. Essentially it states that, if the worst case scenario is very bad, then it is better to deal with that worst case scenario with the possibility of it being a waste of resources, because the alternative (not doing anything and being wrong) is much worse. In Pascal's case, he was arguing for a belief in God. If you believe in God and he doesn't exist, then things aren't that bad (some wasted time and effort). If you don't believe in God and he does exist, then you're in big trouble. The expected value of your reward definitely is maximized by avoiding the worst-case scenario.

There are several problems with this argument, as it applies to global warming, many of which apply to the original argument as well. First, one has to look at the probabilities of the events, and not just their existence. It is true that one of the following two statements is correct:

  1. there is global warming, and humans are causing it
  2. there is not global warming or humans are not causing it
If we assign probabilities to the individual events, then the correct policy may not be to address point (1), if it is sufficiently unlikely. Further, even if we assume there is global warming, and humans are causing it, both the amount of the warming and impact of the warming are needed for making policy. So, if the warming is most likely 0.5 deg in 100 years, versus 2 deg in 100 years, then the policy choices should be modified accordingly. Even though there may be a slight chance of a catastrophic warming, we do not need to plan for it if the chance is slight enough. Finally, dumping resources into a non-problem is not just a "waste of money", but of lives. The amount of money being discussed here is in the trillions, which can go a long way to fighting problems that we know are here and are a problem (hunger, corruption, extreme poverty, religious extremism, etc...). We have to look at where we need to place resources in the most efficient way to address the many, and serious, problems that we know exist in the world.

Now a similar, but more persuasive motivation for climate change regulation is simple: we are dependent on unstable governments for our energy and our energy sources have serious environmental impacts. These facts are currently costing us two unwinnable wars and an oil spill that will take decades to clean up. If we could divert the costs that go into those wars and industries, and put them into non-fossil fuel alternatives (i.e. nuclear fission and fusion), then we have a chance of significantly improving our national security, environment, and future. So, in dealing with a known, significant problem we can solve another (possible) problem (i.e. global warming) as a bonus.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Religion and Scientists

A friend of mine posted this Slashdot brief on Facebook, which also links to this summary. The articles both imply a much stronger religiosity among scientists than is traditionally assumed, quoting the work of Elaine Ecklund. Some key quotes from these two short summaries are:

  • "Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion"

  • Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves "spiritual."

  • The study reveals that scientists often practice a closeted faith, worrying about how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.

  • The '"insurmountable hostility" between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality,' writes Ecklund.

So, when I read this, I thought "Wow! Half of these scientists are religious? Spiritual atheists? Closeted faith? That's amazing stuff!". So, as a scientist myself, I decided to look at the study itself. I confirmed what another blogger stated: essentially the conclusions come from some "new math", and vague statements.

The study included these results:

  • 34% chose “I don't believe in God,”
  • 30% chose “I do not know if there is a God, and there is no way to find out.”

which equals 64%. So "fully half" must mean "less than 36%". That's some good arithmetic! Oh, and

  • 8% chose “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.”

So I guess religious doesn't imply belief in God, so it goes in the very vague category. If religious includes a belief in God (and I guess in her book she uses "traditionally religious"), then "fully half" must mean "less than 28%".

So about 25% of all scientists profess a belief in God, compared to a public of about 80%. That's a pretty stark contrast! I'd wager that there must be something (or somethings) that makes this negative correlation between science and religion. I think it is difficult to argue that there is not some inherent conflict between the two given this contrast. What about the closeted religious scientists? Those shouldn't appear in these anonymous polls, and thus do not affect any of these numbers. If a scientist doesn't want to bring up their religion with their peers, then 1) what does that say about the strength of their beliefs and 2) perhaps the religious aspects of their life are irrelevant to their scientific work. The closeted religious were not mentioned at all in the study, by the way.


In another monograph, Ecklund discusses her work. In it she states:

For many of the natural scientists, in particular,
knowledge of the spiritual comes directly from their work. For example, according to one physicist,

When I travel to observatories...and when I finally just have enough time to try to
think of my place in the world and the universe and its vastness, it’s then that I feel
the connection to the world more than I do, say, sitting here in my office. And so that
for me, that’s the closest I can come to a spiritual experience.

This excerpt and the many others like it show that, for some scientists, rather than science
replacing religion, spirituality may be replacing religion.

In this way, it is possible for atheists to be "spiritual". To me, I think this is really bad terminology and easily misused. For most people, "spiritual" implies some some "spirit", or an existence separate from the body. These scientists are making no claim like that, they simply mean a feeling still bound to the biology of our bodies. Unfortunately, by using the term "spiritual" it can be used (as here) to enhance the notion that these scientists are religious, or leaning toward religion, which is misleading at best. A religious friend of mine once recently said that she thought I was spiritual. I thought the term was basically meaningless and ill-defined, and still do.

Religious Scientists

Is it surprising that there are religious scientists? Not at all. Because most of the public is religious, most scientists are raised with some religion. It is also human nature to separate different, conflicting, modes of thinking in different contexts. It is very easy for someone to study superconductivity and not have it interfere or conflict with any of their views of the divine. I've written about religion in other posts, and will only add that I believe that much of religion comes from the skills we have to help our survival: it is better to see a tiger when there isn't one than to not see a tiger when there is one. From there, combine with cultural structures, it is easy to see how religious ideas propagate. The great thing about science is that its methods allow us to transcend these false-positives, and arrive at ways to discern truth from fiction. Because we're human, it doesn't work 100% of the time, but in the long run it has been our most successful human creation.

It is no surprise to me that some scientists are religious. It would have been a surprise to me to hear that "fully half" are religious, and as it turns out that isn't true.

One last TV post, about Battlestar Galactica

No TV posts for a while after this one...just trying to clear my desk.

There are a number of things that bother me about BSG. This list is here for anyone who
wants to challenge me on any of this, comment please! It's in the form of loose-fitting
notes, written over the course of watching the series. There are spoilers, etc...

Once they find out that Cylons look like us, and they consider a Cylon
detector, they seem to hand the entire problem over to Dr. Baltar.
There seems to be no consideration about whether he is a Cylon, or
in league with the Cylons. What could they do differently? Have the
Dr make something that is independently testable, perhaps by Gaita or
others. They don't even consider it.

I find it straining in the extreme to believe that there is no
straightforward test to tell a Cylon from non-Cylon, given the actions
and words of the various people. Cylons:
1) are stronger than people
2) do not tire
3) are able to be uploaded, at least at death
4) have backs that glow under certain conditions
5) have fiber optic interfaces in their arms!

points 1 and 2 would almost certainly leave indicators in the muscle
cells, as well as brain waves. point 3 on brain waves, and point
4 certainly should be detectable. point 5 should be obvious!

At other points, they say that they are basically indistiguishable,
which to my mind means that they have organic processes (even if
artificially made), and even their brain activity is the same, to the
point of being indistinguishable from a person. If that is the case,
then it seems weird to talk about them having "software, not emotions".
It's a looks like a duck, acts like a duck, every possible measurement
confirms it's a duck, but it's not a duck? Sorry, that's just too hard
to swallow.

So you have the problem that, either, they are very different in which
case they should be detectable, or they are identical, in which case
they are no different than humans. The writers seem to want it
both ways.

What would my solution be? If these models were designed for the express
purpose of infiltratration into the fleet, then there would have been
a lot of work to make them undetectable. I would say that the innards
would be clearly mechanical/organic, with an organic outside. The inside
would broadcast signals to fool scans, like MRI and CAT scans, while
the outside would have blood, sweat, etc... to fool observation there.
It wouldn't be too hard to imagine that the only way to test for such
a thing would entail tests that would be lethal to a person, which
might solve some of the writers' problems.

Whenever someone said "they aren't human, they are machines" I cringed, and wanted
to reply: what do you mean by machines? In which ways are they machines and humans
aren't? throughout the series, the cylons were humans when convenient, and
machines when convenient. I don't think the writers had a consistent vision of
what the cylons were, or wanted.

3) WTF is the cylon plan. They want all humanity destroyed, but then
they seem to want humans for procreation and love. They say they want
to protect Sharon's baby, and then the next episode (!) they launch
an all-out attack on the fleet. They have well hidden spies in the
Galactica who could have done damage to the ship, that was going to
be a museum anyway, and they were unable to destroy it? How hard would
it have been to put one of those Cylon viruses in the computer, dormant,
and then when the fleet was assembled have it relay random jump points
to all of the fleet, and then send the Galactica into a star?

The writers seem to use Cylon attacks, and then Cylon pleasantness or
incompleteness, for convenience. It's back to the "not like us, just
like us" problem above which leads to inconsistent behavior. I think
there was no plan, so these inconsistencies keep compounding over time.

4) In flight of the Phoenix, when they disabled a huge number of cylon
raiders, why didn't they capture some of them for use later? Seems
like a major tactical failure.

5) In the 1st season episode when they were looking for Starbuck, who had
crashed on a planet with a cylon, Com. Adama said to his son that if it
were his son that was lost, that he'd never stop searching. That family
was most important. Why, then, in the last episode, is Com. Adama quick
to leave his son, knowing that Roslin was only going to be around for
a short while, and that both would now be alone.

6) In Pegasus, why is Baltar's angel surprised at seeing a beat-up
number 6? Why does she say "it's me", when it really isn't?

7) if ressurection ships are so important, why not guard them better?
why not have 2 ressurection hubs? why not a more distributed system?

8) how far away really is the Cylon homeworld?

9) in E16 2nd season, Sacrifice, we have people who claim the fleet are
cylon sympathizers and hold hostages. Not 2 episodes before, it was all
about cylon sympathizer groups trying to force gallactica to try to get
peace with the cylons. Each lasts 1 episode, and no more. so much
of this would have been better with a plan, built up over several

10) at the beginning of each episode they have a 1-minute "what has
gone before", and then after the credits they have a 30-second flash
of images from the episode. it is as if they don't trust the extended
storyline structure, and they feel that a gimic is needed to entise
viewers to stay.

11) in Season 3 episode 8, Bulldog returns in a cylon raider after
being gone for 3 years. Doc Cottle does a quick DNA test to match it
against his military record, and concludes he's not a cylon. Wow! They
couldn't do that in Season 1? It certainly would have made a huge
difference. As plot holes go, that one is pretty darn big.

12) I find it mindboggling that a race that has mastered organic
technology cannot
a) do a proper quarrantine
b) diagnose a simple virus, that Doc Cottle can in a short while

13) why do the cylons want a new home? why Earth?

14) the incessant use of flashbacks I think is because there isn't a
plan, and this makes it look like there is a consistent backstory

15) the episodes with the coup, ending in the execution of Zarek and
Gaeta...some of the best that the show has had. I'd say, that the best
episodes have been:

Pegasus - Resurrection
New Caprica rescue
Coup (S4ep 13-14)

Notice that these are all the human stories. the cylon stories are not
nearly as good.

16) Episode 15, when Tyrol tells Adama that the ship is slowly breaking
up, and there is cylon tech that can help suddenly Adama is anti-cylon
tech? he changes his mind later, but still, this is inconsistent with
the previous episodes when he was immediately fine upgrading jump drives.
why the sudden change of heart?

17) when the BG makes it's final jump, Adama says: "whereever we are, that's where we're going to stay"

...of course, until the rest of the fleet gets there, and we continue with the
original plan. Why did Adama say this?

18) don't build a city at the end? don't use the technology? that
seems like an idea from an idealist but not very practical - a sure way
to reduce life expectancy in your new home

19) Adama is a cylon. Kara is the harbinger of death. Baltar and Six will be the mother
and father of the human race. prophecies that don't pan out.

20) from someone else, but exactly what I was thinking:
When the season 1 [of Babylon 5] was aired JMS knew why Babylon 4 had
appeared and what
meant the visions saw there... when the first Shadow cruiser appeared
in season 1 he fully knew what it was and who was behind it.. when in
season 1 they talked about why Sinclair was so important and what
secret he had..

All was shorted out in advance.. he even writed "scape doors" in case
some actor stepped out of the series.. like happened with Michael
O'Haire (Sinclair) left at the end of season 1.. he used a scape
door introducing Sheridan..JMS has said he had scape doors for Delen,
Garibaldi, etc..

You think BSG writers knew there was going to be 2 earths?
Or who the remaining 8 models were going to be? Or even that Tigh
and Tyrol were Cylons?... you think they really knew
what the Opera house visions really meant? Or what the plan was?

21) It seems to me that there would be a fool-proof way of killing a cylon
without it able to download: instantly drop it in the engine. unless the
download is able to be done in nanoseconds, there wouldn't be anything left
to download from.

Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Babylon 5: To Plan or not to Plan

I'll get back to more academic things shortly, but I wanted to get this one off my chest. I just finished watching the entire series of Battlestar Galactica, which I did in little bits over the course of a year or so (I don't watch much TV, so I catch it when I exercise, and an occasional lunch time). I've always liked science fiction, was a big Trek fan, and followed Star Trek Next Generation from the beginning through all 7 years. I am a huge fan of Babylon 5, which I still believe to be the best Sci Fi ever to be on television (see full episodes here). Battlestar Galactica could have been that, but failed in one very particular way which I'll get to. Other people said that I'd like Lost, but I refused to watch it until it was done, so I could be told whether it failed as well, which I've been told it did in the same way as Battlestar Galactica (BG). How did it fail?

BG failed, not because of budget (which was probably 10 times that of Babylon 5 (B5)), or acting, cast changes, director problems, or writing (which is some of the best I've ever seen), but because they didn't have a plan. BG and Lost claimed they had a plan, but didn't. On the other hand, the creator of B5 shorted out all of the episodes for 5 years, so he knew where things were going from day 1. B5 is the only show that I know of that has done that, and it is (in my opinion) the only way to do long-running shows like these. Why does this make such a difference?

  1. Inconsistencies. When you have a plan, you don't have nearly as many inconsistencies. You're not trying to hack together a concluding episode, trying to make all of the lose ends tie together in some haphazard way, because you knew how they tied together at the beginning. Star Trek Next Generation solved this problem, mostly, by not having any long-running plot lines. Each episode ends with the characters in exactly the same condition as they started. BG had some good ideas, but its resolution seemed like a hack.

  2. Foreshadowing. When you have a plan, you can have foreshadowing. Not just vague, unexplained claims, but real references to future events. In the first episode of B5, a character refers to a prophetic dream they have about their death 20 years from then. At the time the viewer thinks they understand the dream, or think that it is a toss-off comment, but late 3rd season we see some of the details, and late 5th (and last) season we see the lead-up to those events. The flashback method is the poor-man's (or poor planners) way of doing this, basically saying "we need these events to have happened in the past, to make sense of what we want to show now, but we didn't think of it before so we'll show it now". BG used this a lot.

  3. Larger Story Arc. Even at its weakest points, B5 benefited from its plan. A weak single episode was lifted up if it contributed to the larger story arc. In this way, weak episodes were improved because there was a plan, and the entire series seemed more consistent.

  4. Rewatchability. From a marketing point of view, this seems to me to be a no-brainer, although it is almost never done. Once B5 finished, I wanted to go back and watch it again to pick up on all of those things that were planned, but I missed. How much foreshadowing did I miss? How many little details in the background were there that became important, but I didn't realize? How many decisions of the characters contributed to their final roles? How many seemingly throw-away lines were really important? Now that I've finished watching BG, I don't have any urge to watch it ever again. There's nothing new to see. Finding out in season 3 that Tigh is a Cylon doesn't modify your perspective on any of his actions in season 1. None of the fates of the characters can be seen in the early parts of the series. The so-called prophecies are each stated and resolved in a couple episodes, or so vague as to be meaningless.

I've heard that Lost suffers from this same problem: no plan leads to inconsistent storylines, convenient flashbacks, and an unsatisfying conclusion with loose ends.

Now, B5 wasn't perfect. It could have used more money, better actors, better dialog. It's writing can be corny at times, and there was a studio snafu that condensed some of the plot in Season 4, and made Season 5 a bit thinner than one would like. However, the universe is entirely original, and the 5-year plan was just amazing and makes the series hold up well over time.

I now won't watch much of anything without a's just not worth the ride.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lord of the Rings

I have a backlog of blog posts that I wanted to get caught up on. This blog has been pretty academic lately, so I figured a change of pace would be nice. I figured I'd post some of my thoughts on the Lord of the Rings. To set the record straight, I really like the books and the movies, but I noticed something about the movies which disturbs me somewhat: in nearly every case where the movie deviates from the books, it is in the direction of weakening the characters. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the pattern is held. Here I give a summary list of the changes to the characters. Perhaps there are more examples. Are there any counter examples?

CharacterComment ([M]=movie, [B]=book)

  1. hits his head in Bilbo's home [M]

  2. staff is broken by the Nazgul [M]


  1. falls down, defenseless, when approached on Weathertop [M]

  2. strikes back bravely (although ineffectually) at Weathertop [B]

  3. ditches Sam in the middle of Mordor! [M]


  1. nearly gets killed by an orc, and needs to be revived [M]

  2. is not strong enough when looking in the Palantir, to counter Sauron (drops it) [M]


  1. information about the attack on Minas Tirith is leaked to Pippin's mind during the contact with the Palantir [M]

  2. Everyone knew where the next attack would be, and the attack is rushed due to Aragorn's confrontation in the Palantir [B]


  1. Eowyn is clearly afraid up to and including the battle [M]


  1. Faramir is seduced by the ring, and takes Frodo to Osgiliath [M]

  2. Faramir is only momentarily seduced by the ring, but quickly comes to his senses and lets Frodo go [B]

Eomer + Minas Tirith

  1. Rohan and Minas Tirith are not enough to combat the first army of Sauron, and need the dead (called by Aragorn) to clear them out. [M]

  2. Only the back-up armies and navies of Sauron are cleared out by the dead called by Aragorn, and the Rohan is enough to fend off the armies at Minas Tirith itself. [B]

King Theoden

  1. Theoden needs Aragorn's prompting to help Minas Tirith. [M]

Any more?