Archive for July, 2009

Richard Feynman on Tuva

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

We can find Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures on physics at the intriguingly named Tuva site:

Dr. Feynman is an engaging lecturer; it is perhaps regrettable that all lectures are not so entertaining.

At one point Dr. Feynman says that “It is impossible, when picking one particular example of anything, to avoid picking one that is atypical in some sense.” Of course, this is true by definition. If we were to find an example that was typical in every sense, it would be atypical in that it was not atypical in some sense, and so it would be atypical in some sense. Oh, the joy of school boy pedantry!

The video is rendered with a Silverlight player, which is perhaps not available on all platforms. It also used 100% of my CPU’s clock cycles and caused the laptop to crash three times. I guess that Silverlight has a long way to go before it can threateningly compete with Flash. On the one hand, it’s a good thing that Flash has some more competition (not that I am accusing the Adobe engineers of laziness, mind). On the other hand, the internet will not be as rich a place as it might be if a lot of content is only available to Microsoft’s customers. I thought that that war had been won a long time ago.

How much does your carbon footprint affect your happiness?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

I clicked through to take a look at the following article:

Britain 74th in world happiness rankings

Such surveys are always a bit of fun. The “Happy Planet Index” apparently places Britain way down the list. I thought that this was a bit disappointing but not contrary to impression given to me by the many miserable gits that I have encountered over the years. However, the rankings seem especially spurious. It’s calculated using life expectancy (measurable), “happiness” (not sure about what units we use for that) and the environmental impact of the country.

What’s the last one got to do with anything? I once flew to Thailand for two weeks in the middle of winter. I’m sure that my carbon footprint must have rivalled Bono’s that January, but I was a lot happier that the S.A.D. sufferers that I left behind. I’m sure there are many people who feel a little bit guilty about not reusing their shopping bags and not unplugging their mobile phone chargers when not in use, but I don’t think that it makes them unhappier than the people of Burma. Nagging guilt about flying with Ryanair to Prague for a stag-do versus cyclones, war and oppression. Hmm? Which is more likely to make people unhappy?

King Canute got his feet wet

Monday, July 6th, 2009

In an article to do with G8 leaders and climate change

G8 leaders to set emissions goals

the journalist reports that “Leaders of G8 nations are to set a target to cut greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050”. This seems like something that is difficult but possible. It is something that can be controlled by humans. I doubt that the leaders of the G8 actually have such power. They might represent the populations that emit the greatest amount of carbon dioxide, and measures that they take might reduce carbon dioxide emissions in their countries. However, their power does not extend to every other nation on the planet, which will probably produce a greater share of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions by the middle of the century. However, global carbon dioxide emissions are controllable by humans.

The article goes on to say that “[the G8 leaders] will also call for any human-induced temperature rise to be held below 2 degrees Celsius”. Is this going to be a legally binding limit? What sanctions will they take against the earth’s climate if it disobeys they proclamations? Xerxes once had the Hellespont whipped after a storm washed away a bridge, will future leaders resort to such tactics? King Canute order the tides to stop but ended up getting his feet wet.

I do not want to appear defeatist. I think that there are measures that we can take in order to reduce the impact of human activity. There are clearly much better ways of producing energy than burning coal and petrol. Governments have a role to play in moving to newer technologies. But politicians are no more able to ban global warming than they are able to set the ration the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

Soju and prime numbers

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Earlier this evening, I went with my girlfriend to eat Samyeopsal, a barbecue pork dish. The traditional accompaniment for this pork dish is Soju, a type of sweet vodka from Korea. One normally drinks the liquor from a two ounce shot glass, so a 360 ml bottle will almost fill seven glasses. Traditionally, one fills the glass of one’s dining partner whenever their glass is empty. If two people drink one bottle, then one ends up drinking four glasses and the other drinks three. If three people drink one bottle, then one person drinks three glasses, but the other two just have two glasses. Because it is awkward for one person to drink alone, one often ends up buying a second bottle to keep the solitary drinker company. The only time that there would not be one shot left over is a table of one (how sad!) or a table of seven (who would certainly order more than one bottle, anyway). Choosing a size of bottle than is a prime multiple of the size of a standard glass is clearly a clever trick from a marketing point of view.

I’m reminded of the periodicity of cicada migrations that Daniel C Dennett writes about in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. Apparently, colonies of different species of cicadas return to different sites at different periods. However, the periods are always a prime number of years, sometimes as long as seventeen years. The explanation that he offers is that if there is a predator that returns to that site regularly (say once ever two years) then the cicadas will avoid that predator more often if the period of their return is a prime number. If they returned with a periodicity that was a composite, non-prime number of years, then one of the factors of that number of years might be the frequency that the predator returned, which would ensure that they met up regularly.

I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords…

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Ant mega-colony takes over world

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