technical issues

Energy, the Environment, and What We Can Do

Monday, April 9th, 2012

John Baez gave a Google Tech Talk on the issue. The slides include links to more detailed arguments and his home page also links to the Azimuth Project wiki is collecting information and ideas from a larger group of participants.

Now We are Seven Billion! La, La, La

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Despite the evident threat to the well being of our descendants some idiots keep asserting that the "Population bomb theory is a myth".

What complete nonsense! For one thing China's "economic miracle" comes after 30 years of having a one child policy, for another, despite improvements in some areas we still can't provide decent standards for a substantial fraction of the world's population, and for a third, to maintain the standards of those who do now live in luxury is already having environmental consequences (eg ocean acidification and global warming) that appear to be beyond our control. It is thus grossly irresponsible to keep betting on future technology to provide an acceptable standard of living for a population that keeps growing faster than we can bribe it into satiated infertility. Shame on those who continue putting all of our children at risk!

Selfish Blogger Syndrome

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The Selfish Blogger. Well that could certainly be me! So I'll stick to form and post my thoughts here rather than in Tony Bates's comment stream.

I have not been following #Change11 except through the blogs of people I found interesting in previoous MOOCs like #CCK11 and #PLENK2010, so without Jenny's (selfish?) post I would never have read Tony's piece or the presentation it refers to. And part of what I took as takeaway from the CCK experience is that what Tony describes as selfish is in fact the best way for all of us to be sharing. One thing I did not like in PLENK was the difficulty of recovering my own thoughts from the Moodle comment stream and I liked the CCK11 emphasis on facilitating communication and connection between individual blogs.

Tony is concerned about not being able to see and follow the comments on his work but I think we now have the technology to address that without forcing everyone to give up ownership of their own contributions.  It is true that once, in the absence of appropriate technology, it was always necessary for people to meet in person to exchange ideas. Then we invented writing, and all that was needed was a common location for all the written material. Then we invented telecommunication and computers, and the libraries and discussion threads became accessible remotely. And now we have trackback...

It seems to me that whatever the limitations of trackback, the issue is one of technology and the answer to Tony's complaint is not to force everyone back into the domains of recognized "leaders" as in a prehistoric centralized community, but rather to appropriately extend and use the technology of networking to allow each voice its own home while collecting whatever is relevant to any particular individual's interest in a particular chain of discussion for easy access as needed.

What seems to me to be needed is to integrate trackbacks and pingbacks into the comment stream (rather than listing them separately as an afterthought) and displaying a more useful excerpt  so that they actually do contribute tot he conversation. (This might require some slight extra work from the responder when posting so as to identify an appropriate "teaser",  and ideally the technology should be extended so that eg replies to me in Tony's comment stream would appear also here as comments and vice versa)

 

 

No Liability for Linking

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Michael Geist - Supreme Court of Canada Stands Up for the Internet: No Liability for Linking. Well, duh! In one sense it's amazing how this could ever have been an issue, but on the other hand publishing a link/reference to something could legitimately be seen as promoting whatever the target contained at the time the link was created, and so if "promoting" a point of view were illegal, then perhaps links would sometimes be liable.

What is most interesting to me about this is on the converse side. Justice Abella's  comment that she "would conclude that a hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as “publication” of the content to which it refers" appears to provide protection against those who would presume to declare that others should not link to their material. Such declarations are clearly nonsense as it is the responsibility of the publisher to control access if that is what they want and if they choose to make their material freely accessible via a public address then anyone else is free to refer to that address.

 

Sustainable Energy Choices

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Barry Brooks at 'BraveNewClimate' has made a brave effort at summing up the need for nuclear power as part of the CO2-free mix in a brief video, but parts of it still felt to me like “industry propaganda” – to the extent that I might be a bit embarrassed if anyone seeing my earlier references to the BNC site should subsequently come across it.
My first concern is that very little argument is given to support the claim that non-nuclear options won't suffice. No-one is likely to be convinced that just because Denmark has not yet displaced anything close to the major part of their coal use with wind that they may not eventually do so (though I suspect that in fact they won't), and the use of that as an apparent argument will just make the case seem weak and forced. Another point that troubles me is at the conclusion where the video compares the golf ball sized lump of nuclear fuel that is capable of providing enough energy to meet the needs of a typical western human lifetime with the many tons of coal that it would "displace". I suspect that this will seem obviously “unfair” even to those who cannot say why (The only comparison that really matters is with volume of ore rather than volume of fuel).

Of course is hard to tell the full story so briefly, but if it can’t be done well enough then it were better not done at all. The BNC site has a lot of credibility but the video actually undermines it so I actually hope  it doesn’t "go viral".

 

Twisted Language in Physics

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

From the discussion in Quantum Diaries, it seems that helicity is a property of motion and chirality a property of shape (where, in the case of an elementary particle, this might be represented by something like the shape of a level surface of its wave function).

The language chosen by physicists is unfortunate as a helix is an object with fixed chirality but the chirality of the path of a “helical” motion depends on the relative motion of the medium in which it is traced.

Creationism at the Royal Society

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

This would be old news but for the fact that the Royal Society's president at the time was Martin Rees - who might now be seen by some as finally getting his reward for letting it happen.  On the other hand, Rees does seem genuinely bemused about the award so perhaps, in his mind at least, there is no connection. Many evangelical atheists object that Reese's accepting the Templeton prize lends credibility to the foundation - something I wouldn't have given much credence to except for the fact that someone called Mark Vernon is crowing exactly that.

Retail Internet Pricing - Without Slogans

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

All sides in the debate on "Usage Based Billing" are off base. The issue is quite complicated and not helped by the use of simplistic slogans which often either ask for the impossible or run counter to the interests of those tricked into reciting them. ...more »

Legitimate Concerns and Overstated Rhetoric

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Colin Macilwain has unfortunately marred a reasonably sensible article in Nature News by adding unsupported inflammatory rhetoric in the opening and closing paragraphs. In between these he refers approvingly to a much better article by Charles Ferguson which appeared a week earlier, and makes some legitimate points of his own about real failings of the nuclear industry (and those that dictate the circumstances within which it operates).

The comments by tas yoto and Chris Phoenix both bear repeating. ...more »

UBB - How Should Cost and Price be Linked?

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Michael Geist is concerned because internet service providers do not match price of service at all levels to its actual cost.

But when a commodity is in short supply, selling at the cost price will lead to shortages. (In the internet billing situation, users downloading tons of movies will degrade the quality of my own less demanding service)

What the ISPs are doing is aggressively penalizing heavy use in order to keep the total demand within the capacity of the system (or perhaps just to make a lot of extra money). It should be noted that despite the rhetoric this is NOT "Usage Based Billing". It is a differential pricing scheme set to penalize both high and low usage rates.

Perhaps a fairer idea is to have true Usage Based Billing with the uniform unit price matching what the cost of  supply would be if supply were extended to meet all demand (and then get on with actually providing that extended service).

Anti-Nuclear Inflation

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

I was disappointed to see Geoff Olson's citation  of a totally bogus figure for the number of deaths due to Chernobyl in his anti-nuclear panic piece in the Vancouver Courier on Friday.

The particular figure, which he quoted fourth hand (from another journalist's report of a translation of a collection from various other sources), is a hundred times higher than the World Health Organization estimate. This is so far from anything remotely plausible that one suspects it may even be a misprint.

In fact the New York Academy of Sciences explicitly denies editorial endorsement of the book in question (which consists of translations from a wide variety of Eastern European sources), saying "The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own."  It may have been legitimate for the NYAS to bring these materials to the attention of the Western scientific audience for consideration and assessment, but for Olson to report their most extreme assertions as fact was totally irresponsible.

And They have the guns!

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From Discover Magazine:

Moral Realism

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Sean Carroll has taken issue with Richard Carrier over the latter's position on Moral Realism.

On reading Carrier  I think that his real point is (or should be) that realism and relativism are not in conflict. Moral values, like the economic value of diamonds, may be relative but are real nonetheless. The existence of absolute moral values on the other hand is not supported by anything in his argument.

Carrier is probably correct in asserting  the existence of such things as “moral facts” that are “true independent of your opinion or culture” in the sense that our moral sense probably does include principles that are the same in all human cultures, and that we may sometimes be mistaken in our judgement of what action will subsequently give us the greatest moral satisfaction. But he provides nothing to support the idea that such principles are mutually consistent or that their "value" has any meaning outside the context of human culture.

I would add that Carrier shares with Sam Harris the blunder of referring to things like “the consequences you would want most”(assuming blah blah blah) without understanding that there is probably no single real variable which measures our level of “total satisfaction” at even a single instant (let alone integrated over time).

Don’t Stop Darlington

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Here is my (slightly edited) version of the Greenpeace Letter.

Dear Premier McGuinty:

I’m writing to support your plan to maintain the nuclear option by continuing with the development of new  reactors at Darlington and to encourage you not to be swayed by ill-informed fear mongering.

Like so many others, I am saddened by the tragedy taking place in Japan, but I am also awed by the fact that 40 year old reactors have withstood the worst natural disaster imaginable without contributing significantly to the resulting loss of life. The experience at Fukushima, I believe, will provide lessons that should enable even safer designs and protocols to be applied in the future and so should encourage you to continue with your plans for new reactors.

For this reason, I oppose the calls by Greenpeace and others to stop all approvals of new reactors.

The environmental assessment hearings set to begin next week will provide an opportunity to address the capability of the proposed designs to resist the impacts of a major geophysical catastrophe and I encourage you to proceed with those hearings in order that we can have an informed public evaluation the cost and risks of building new reactors.

Most importantly, we must seriously look at continuing our use of the nuclear option as the most viable high baseline source of non-combustion-based energy.

Sincerely,

Alan Cooper

no analytics, :-)   ;   no conversation, :-(

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The blog blog analytics issue means little to me as I am here mainly to clarify my own thoughts rather than to find an audience, but D'Arcy Norman's comment that "distributed blog conversation has basically vanished" disappoints me (especially in the light of what people are trying to do in distributed learning exercises like cck11 and ds106).  Twitter and Facebook may be useful for becoming aware of new conversations but, so far as I can see, they do not provide either the opportunity for really extended comments nor the control necessary to keep track of them.

Flex in a Week video training | Adobe Developer Connection

Monday, February 28th, 2011

I was using Flash back at the end of the second millennium when it was still called 'FutureSplash' (and was identified by the visionaries at CodeMonkey as a "Plugin that Sucks"). Now it is often buggy and crash-prone and Apple is trying to kill it, but I wouldn't count it out by any means yet. So although I haven't used it in a long time I may check out this Flex in a Week video training from Adobe Developer Connection.

Algorithmic Babies and the Chinese Room

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

I commented at Stephen Downes' website on Patricia Kuhl's TED talk about "The Linguistic Genius of Babies". My quibble was less with the content than with the sentimentalized headline, because, although the babies' brains do appear to implement a sophisticated statistical algorithm (to identify the phonemes of relevance to the language of their community), there is of course no serious suggestion that they actually understand the process any more than our immune system understands the "algorithms" by which it operates or  snowflakes and other crystals understands the symmetry groups which govern the way they construct themselves. ...more »

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word "unsupervised" from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a "scientific" theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  "unpredictable" must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word "unsupervised" was indeed just plain wrong. ...more »

"The Belief Instinct"

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct" is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations - which lead him to identify "adaptive illusion" as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this "marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating". He says he does not like the mix of  "experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors", but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering's thesis then a "possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame." And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either "begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public" or be subject to "sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception". There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Christopher Norris Defends Philosophy

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Christopher Norris has written an article in Philosophy Now defending the Philosophy of Science from allegations of its irrelevance by scientists (most recently Stephen Hawking for example).  Norris alleges the existence of "scientists’ need to philosophize and their proneness to philosophize badly or commit certain avoidable errors if they don’t take at least some passing interest in what philosophers have to say", and he asserts that modern theorists  "appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification..."  and further that "scientific theories – especially theories of the ultra-speculative kind that preoccupy theoretical physicists like Hawking – involve a great deal of covert philosophising which may or may not turn out to promote the interests of knowledge and truth". All of these claims might be considered plausible on the basis of attempts to "explain" quantum physics (and beyond) in popular literature, where analogies (which often really are used by physicists, but just to help guide their intuition) are often all that is provided.   It is true that some of these accounts can be faulted for not admitting that that is what they are doing, and perhaps that needs pointing out. But Norris seems to be doing the opposite by confusing the intuition-guiding analogies with the theories themselves.