Tuesday, June 11, 2013

For those who say they have nothing to fear from government spying...

 One feeble excuse some people give for condoning massive spying is, "I have nothing to hide."

Does that include your social security number, your credit card numbers, and your bank account numbers?  How about all your passwords?  Aye you sure government doesn't know them all?

There are over 1 million people in the US with top-secret security clearances.  How confident are you that all of them are to be trusted?

Water in the Anthropocene

A brief, beautiful overview of worldwide water shortages.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Friday, June 7, 2013

Reducing population without war, famine and disease

The following is a copy of an email I have just sent to Albert A. Bartlett.

I have enjoyed immensely your lecture about the exponential function.  Your web site states you have given this lecture 1600 times.  This is an incalculable contribution to the world.

The version I saw was a YouTube video that you gave perhaps 15 or 20 years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb3JI8F9LQQ&list=SP6A1FD147A45EF50D&feature=plpp_play_all

At the end of the video, you asked for corrections for any calculations that might be in error.  I only know of one such--your discussion of population in that lecture is misleading.  Perhaps you have already corrected it :-)

At about the 9 minute mark of part 2 you said the following: "I have to realize that anything that just lowers the death rate makes the problem worse." Consequently, you say that the items on the left hand side of the Table of Options (shown , Medicine, Public Health, Sanitation and Peace "makes the problem worse".

While strictly true (almost by definition), nevertheless your statement is highly misleading.  Perhaps even tragically misleading.  Indeed, Medicine, Public Health, Sanitation and Peace do not just lower the death rate.  They also tend (in the long run) to lower the birth rate even more!  Indeed, disease, famine and war typically tend to increase population.  The best (perhaps the only) way to control population is the increase the well-being of mothers and infants.

This was the message of the late, great James Grant of UNICEF.  Imo, every person who talks about population issues really must understand this counter-intuitive fact if they are to avoid uttering nonsense.

To see the truth of Grant's assertion, it pays to study very closely the statistics at the back of every edition of UNICEF's State of the World's Children reports.  The 2013 report is at http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf

As you will see, as death rates decline, birth rates decline more.  This is why many countries in the world have total fertility rates below the replacement rate.

The correlation between U-5 mortality rates and total fertility rates holds true both "horizontally" and "vertically".  That is, the correlation holds at any particular time when comparing different countries.  Countries with lower U-5 mortality rates have lower fertility rates.  But the correlation also holds in any single country over time.  As death rates decline, fertility rates decline even more, in any country you choose to study.

Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, it is fairly easy to see what is leading to reduced fertility rates.  As death rates decline, there is no need for mothers to raise "extra" children to replace those expected to be lost to disease, wars and famines.

There are, of course, other factors at work.  I highly recommend this report: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf There are many interesting things in the report.  To highlight a few.

1.  You will not be surprised to learn that seemingly minor changes in projected fertility rates have huge consequences when "multiplied" over many years.  In a sense, this report merely illustrates the properties of the exponential function.

2. The essay in part 2 of the report are fascinating.  Population experts can interesting and important things despite massive uncertainties.

Again, many thanks for the enormous contributions you have made to the world.  I trust you will come to agree that the best way to reduce world population is to reduce the death rates among infants and children everywhere.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shocking conclusions from basic arithmetic

George sent me this link as a response to a previous post:


This is a fascinating, brilliant video.  It vividly demonstrates the utter cluelessness of large parts the economic and business world to the implications of basic mathematics as they apply to non-renewable resources.

Monday, June 3, 2013

When you pray to God, what are you praying to?

Science is now in the position to tell us what praying to "God the Creator" means.  It means praying to evolution!

The scientific evidence is overwhelming that evolution, and nothing else, created all living things. For a refutation of creationist claims, see: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html  Or read, Why Evolution is True

Praying to evolution is hopeless.   Evolution is a blind, uncaring process, not a being.  Evolution is not the kind of thing that could "hear" our prayers, or care about our prayers, or do anything about our prayers.

Otoh, mindfulness meditation, something that could be called a form of prayer (but not a prayer to anything or for anything) is, in my experience, quite valuable.  The reason is straightforward: mindfulness meditation requires no intellectual baggage.

Equating evolution with God immediately clears away massive amounts of confusion:

1. All theological debates become moot. For example, the question of why "evil" exists is transformed.  As theology, the question disappears.  As a topic for inquiry in the biological sciences it has great interest.  It leads to the notion of  Evolutionary Stable Strategy which is well worth a separate blog post.

2. All concerns about "what God wants us to do" disappear.  All morality, or lack thereof, comes from us (by way of our evolutionary makeup)!

3. The belief that "everything has a purpose" or "everything is for the best" is seen as the risible nonsense that it is.  Evolution has no purpose!

Before any of you despairs, I would like to point out one not-so-obvious consequence of evolution as designer: namely that our understanding of evolution does not directly affect the world as it is in any way!  That is, the world we inhabit, in which love, morality, purpose, truth, beauty exist, is not affected by the theory of evolution.  They still exist, just as they have always existed.  The only difference is that we are seen as the authors of love, morality, purpose, truth and beauty, not some non-existent God!

When we rid ourselves of childish, pre-scientific notions of God, we free ourselves to ask much more interesting questions, such as, "what evolutionary forces act on us and societies so as to affect our choices?"

Why I am finding it difficult to concentrate on computer programming

The evidence is overwhelming: on humanity's present course of inaction, world civilization has just *decades* left before it starts to unravel into famine and war caused by global climate change.  Civilization might hold on for another 5 or 6 decades; it might collapse in as little as 15 or 20 years.

For those of you who still don't get it, here is a comprehensive rebuttal of climate-denial cliches:
99 One-Liners Rebutting Denier Talking Points — With Links To The Full Climate Science

The catastrophic effects of climate change are not news, but the quickness of the impeding collapse was news to me just a few weeks ago. Here are some sources:

An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces

Climate wars, by Gwynne Dyer

The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal and Gas. So How Do We Quit?

TED Talk: Climate Change is Simple

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

It seems too late to hope for real governmental action to reduce CO2 emissions directly, though some government ministers are beginning to wake up.  Here's something encouraging from today's news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22745578.  Otoh, President Obama is finding it hard even to kill the Keystone pipeline!  Hope for a carbon tax seems forlorn.

The last, faint, hope is to discover ways of removing *billions* of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and the oceans. This isn't completely impossible, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_removal, but the world needs to be removing those billions of tons of CO2 *now*.  We are nowhere near doing that. At best, we have preliminary research, such as:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: P. furiosus turns CO2 directly into industrial chemical

You can also google "CO2 to fuel" to see other approaches.

My children are increasing likely to die from the direct and indirect effects of mass starvation, wars, civil unrest and the general breakdown of society that ensures. The odds that my own generation of 60-somethings die from those effects are also increasing at an alarming rate.  (Those who don't understand how such probabilistic statements could make sense might want to study Bayesian statistics. A good introduction from a recent pycon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bobeo5kFz1g)

In short, business-as-usual and life-as-usual seem pretty much irrelevant.

One part of the practice of mindfulness meditation is the development of the awareness of the "impermanence of all things".  One exercise asks us to imagine everything (and everyone) around us disappearing or dying. Imo, this is an excellent spiritual practice.  Alas, we can now see *how* everything will *actually* disappear.  Way before we are ready ;-) It's a truly terrifying prospect.  It is as if we were living in 1935, facing world war two without any hope of winning.

The only positive responses I can see to this situation are

A) telling as many people as possible about the impeding catastrophe in the hope that something might (finally!) be done and

B) attempting to maintain as much personal equilibrium as I can.

In fact, the famous zen story has always applied to everyone and everything:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger.
He fled, the tiger after him.
Coming to a precipice,
he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above.
Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.
Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine.
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.
Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!