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Archive for March 2007

Spock’s Principle: The Many, The Few, The One

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or…”Ethics and Emotions

There’s been quite some interest in new scientific evidence about “the Heart ruling the Head“. But I haven’t read any mention of its extreme consequence: the extraordinary, apparently illogical moral code we reserve for the special persons in our life.

A new study published in Nature has hinted on the fact that ethical decisions are a combination of emotional and rational choices:

[Some] philosophers […] psychologists and neuroscientists [argue that] when faced with a moral dilemma […] we rely on emotional reactions as well as our powers of reasoning. In a study of brain damage […] neuroscientists report evidence that emotions indeed exert a powerful influence on moral judgments.

Paradoxically, of all the fictional characters ever imagined, the one that comes nearest to declare as much is logic-fixated Mr. Spock, when in the second Star Trek movie uses this line to justify his sacrifice to save others:

“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few … or the one.”

In fact, one can easily follow the reasoning about “the many” vs. “the few”…but was there any need to specify “the one“?

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There was. Because it’s easy to speak in general terms, but much more difficult if we are personally involved in the outcome.

For example, more or less everybody will declare that bringing down an airplane of 100 is morally justifiable if such an action will save the life of 4,000 (even if the German Constitutional Court was not impressed by similar thoughts last year). It is much harder if not impossible to follow the same line of thought, when the plane is carrying is one of your special Ones, a close friend or family member.

Who could honestly say that they’d kill without any doubt or ado their mother or son or husband or daughter or father or wife, or best friend?

Even when things may rationally be clear-cut, we are likely to end up emotionally scarred. In the movie I, Robot Will Smith’s character Del Spooner cannot bear the thought of having been rescued by a robot that abandoned a little girl instead on the basis of survival chances: a little girl that became for a few, very important moments the One for Spooner.

Is this because of innate tribal solidarity? Would life be bearable otherwise? Whatever the reason, we are indeed hard-wired to this apparently “irrational” behaviour. And so, in the third Star Trek movie, Kirk tells the resurrected Spock how little he actually cares about the latter’s original thought.

Because the needs of the One really outweigh “the needs of the many“.

(this expands on my previous blog The One And The Many – The Truth Behind Spock’s Principle)

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/31 at 22:35:55

Posted in Ethics, Humanity, Star Trek

The Average Brit Flying to Work at 18,000mph

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So what is my local car rental manager doing, parading in NASA coveralls in London’s Queen Mary University Theatre in late November 2006?

No, wait: it must be Gary Lineker, guest speaker of the British Interplanetary Society, with a 8’-by-5’ poster of Saturn and the secret aim of taking chips and sweets from the noisy local student contingent.

Or…is that a bird? Is that a plane? No, it’s Piers J. Sellers, Ph.D., former Global Warming researcher and now Space Shuttle crew member and quasi-UK Astronaut Extraordinaire (“quasi” as UK persons need opt for a different citizenship to work in Earth orbit).

Sellers, born in Sussex in 1955 but now an American citizen, is following up his July STS-121 mission with a UK trip that has generated good-natured interest in the press, and even some air time on BBC Radio4’s Today.

Luckily (for Sellers) and blissfully (for all of us), Sellers’ Shuttle trip companion astronaut Lisa M. Nowak hasn’t yet destroyed her career by wearing nappies for a 1,000-mile drive to pepper-spray a love rival in February 2007.

And so instead of a sex scandal, the talk is about the less risky enterprise called space travel, as told by a bloke so average in appearance and so relaxed about himself to make taciturn Neil Armstrong a veritable space alien.

Aliens won’t invade us, because [on streets like Mile End Road] they can’t find where to park”: Sellers is definitely no warplane pilot turned moonwalker spiritualist. He’s “simply” a space walker, slightly “disoriented” only by the first sight of the white-and-blue jewel called Earth.

His description of the piling up of task upon task may sound familiar to office workers the world over. Still, very few of those usually validate if their cubicles will destroy during atmospheric re-entry, as Sellers and the rest of the STS-121 crew did after the Columbia tragedy of February 2003 and the half-botched first “return-to-flight” mission of STS-114 in July 2005.

A NASA video hints at the peculiarities of working in space. First of all there is nobody within a 3-mile radius of a ready-to-start Space Shuttle: and for good reason, as the bunch of aviation and navy pilots, space commanders and Ph.D’s collectively called “astronauts” are literally sitting on top of a giant bomb hoping it will explode in a controlled manner, pushing them upwards and forwards rather than into smithereens..

There is lots of sound and bouncing at lift-off. Somebody touches a control button, but Sellers reassures “We were just pretending to work. The launch [really] blew me away.” Orbital life is a piece of cake in comparison, with a couple of days of procedures to proceed and checklists to check, before approaching the International Space Station at the snail-like pace of 1m/sec (a little more than 2 miles an hour).

The video recording moves on to Lisa Nowak working with a large boom, at the time not to threaten a love rival but to move cargo to the Station with fellow astronaut-ess Stephanie Wilson, and then finally on mission day five maneuvering Sellers and colleague Michael Fossum locked on top of a 100-foot pole.

Sellers recounts a few funny details. For example, even in the most comfortable spacesuit one better gets used to spending up to ten hours without luxuries such as toilet breaks and nose scratching. And so a big deal of one’s resting time is spent cleaning up bodily odours and outpours from the spacesuit (no mention of any solution to the nose itching problem).

Furthermore, gloves for orbital work are more apt for a The Thing impersonation from the Fantastic Four, and so one handles multi-million-dollar wrenches knowing some will drop on their own sidereal orbit. Last but not least, one gets occasionally stuck in a phone-boot-like airlock for more than one hour.

Back inside the spaceship, in-between risky zero-g adventures with M&M’s of all things, one can look forward to a “shower” of damp cloths, a dinner of bland food and a night chained to a bed (kinky orbital fun, anybody?). Ah, and the toilet has a noisy fan and too thin a door really.

After some four days of that, it’s time to pull the jet brakes on the Shuttle (“feeling like on a truck slowing down”, Sellers remembers) to start the “unforgiving landing sequence”, after gulping in a disgusting salty drink designed to help the body readjust to Earthly life.

Outside the vehicle, “cherry-red windows” show the same tongues of fire that consumed the unfortunate Columbia astronauts a mere three-and-a-half years earlier. Falling almost helplessly, the Space Shuttle is somehow guided without engines to a hard touchdown, at the end of which gravity is felt like having “brick on the shoulders”.

Still Sellers opines, “The real dangerous bit is the lift-off.” No need to remind anybody of the crew of six that died on the 1986 Challenger accident, during the ascent phase.

Has Sellers got any chance of going back to the Space Station? “Sure. There is plenty of work available,” he answers. “Perhaps there will be 15 missions with 7 astronauts each between now and 2010.” Such chances are presumably slightly larger now than Ms. Nowak has been removed from NASA’s roster.

Before a strange, nostalgically catchy set of photographs of Seller’s mission is shown to the tune of Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound”, the evening fades away in a torrent of questions about medical facilities (“We can’t do heart transplants in space as yet”); rubbish management (“Thrown overboard”); launch delays (“Frustrating”); the justification for space budgets (“The money is spent on Earth”); and Orion, the Space Shuttle replacement (“Safer and cheaper and brings us back to the Moon”).

There! Has anybody else caught the tiny sparkle in Sellers’ voice when mentioning future manned Lunar exploration? Who knows, by 2025 the UK government may have found the negligible additional resources to fund a trip to the Moon for a couple of lucky British passport holders.

For the time being, I better check if my local car rental manager has moved to Houston.

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/28 at 21:58:54

About Intellectual Dishonesty

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Recently, concentration-camp doubter David Irving moved to a different table rather than have lunch with a Shoah survivor. As Leo Tolstoy (may have) said:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

Yet, there is a straightforward way out of intellectual dishonesty: and it is to declare publicly under which circumstances one will agree to change one’s mind and conclusions.

This tells healthy skepticism from denial and close-mindedness.

And it applies to all sorts of circumstances. For example, try asking a person that doesn’t believe people landed on the Moon in 1969, what kind of proof he or she will accept, to change their mind…

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Myself, I will convert to the Climate Change scenario, as soon as any part of the world climate will change in a manner as significant, say, as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

And I will be convinced of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) when that change will happen in ways that are overwhelmingly explained with increases in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

In fact, it’s been a couple of years since I have asked, even on pro-AGW sites such as RealClimate, for anybody able to point me to any recent “change” in climate, of any sort but not just in temperatures, apart from known natural variability factors such as, of course, the NAO.

I am still waiting…

And I am still waiting for pro-AGW campaigners (and Moon-landing doubters) to explain what if anything would change their minds.

If nothing will, the only wise choice is to abandon them to their lives of self-deception.

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/27 at 21:16:39

Gordon Brown’s Not-so-Green Car Tax

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There is something rather fishy about Gordon Brown, the UK Treasury/Finance Minister, increasing taxes for larger cars from £200 this year to £300, then next year to £400 (a little less than $800) “to combat greenhouse gas emissions”.

Who in their right mind will be deterred by a £400/year car tax after having bought, say, a £40,000 Land Rover???

On the other hand, if Brown had raised taxes to £3,000 or more, there would have been just too many brand new cars suddenly destined to be recycled (or sold to places with lower taxation): hard to see the greenery of that situation.

Perhaps it could have made more sense to introduce a £3,000+ yearly tax on new large cars: like a “buy at your own risk” alert for everybody thinking of getting a pickup truck.

Or maybe not: the unintended consequence would be to keep old cars on UK roads…

The whole thing will just end up as a boost for the UK Treasury, with no discernible advantage on the CO2 emissions side.

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Methinks the old tax of £200 was just too cheap. But fellow big-car drivers are the first victims of the Anthropogenic Global Warming steamroller, that provide the likes of Brown with the excuses necessary to sneak in tax increases of all sorts.

Anyway, I suggest drivers of smaller cars to refrain from schadenfreude, drawing pleasures from so-called gas guzzlers’ misfortunes.  

AGW hysteria will soon hit your wallets too.

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/22 at 12:57:40

Controversy-free Scientific American

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On the Scientific American (SciAm) web site, George Musser has recently posted a blog “Please Stop Talking About the Global Warming Consensus“.

IMNSHO Musser is on the right path to an “undestanding” of the huge issue caused by Holier-Than-Thou attitudes used by environmental activists to effectively undermine their own work and aims (alas, just as by a lot of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW)-concerned climate scientists).

The last thing the AGW debate needs now is any hint of debate-stifling.

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Anyway, the above reminded me of my main criticism of SciAm: namely, how hard it is to find the magazine putting forward non-conformist scientific views.

One wonders if the Editors are pursuing the misguided goal of trying to prop up Science against the Forces of Obscurantism, and in the process anything not smelling of 100% scientific mainstream is left out in the cold.

If anybody wants to know a couple of articles that should have been on SciAm, here they are:

(1) Terry L. Hunt, “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island“, American Scientist, September-October 2006

New evidence points to an alternative explanation for a civilization’s collapse

(2) Richard Seager, “The Source of Europe’s Mild Climate“, American Scientist, July-August 2006

The notion that the Gulf Stream is responsible for keeping Europe anomalously warm turns out to be a myth

(3) Carl Wunsch, “The Myth of Gulf Stream Shutdown” (expanded from a Letter by Wunsch published on The Economist)

Obviously one could simply get a subscription to American Scientist but that’s besides the point. My question is: have the SciAm people (the Editors that is) become simply too buttoned up? Is SciAm in danger of drowning in a sea of “consensus”?

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/20 at 23:20:54

BBC: Last for News

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Either the people at BBC News are having a Seriously Bad Monday, or there is something fishy in the relationship between the BBC and British Airways.

(Alternatively: here some evidence of BBC incompetence and tardiness:)

British Airways has been forced to reveal that there is free upgrade to First Class available for you and your family, if you happen to die during the flight.

As of now (10:30AM GMT) , such piece of… news is absent from BBC News.

According to Google News, it is appearing in 45 other news outlets on the web, first of which was 21 hours ago.

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I always find it suspect that the BBC News web site mostly finds lead stories in the morning, rather than randomly during the day. So much for being a leader in web-based news provision. The first-class-corpse episode just will make things look even odder…

As for Brutish Airways, why oh why am I not surprised to find them out once again with procedures taking precedence over common sense?

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/19 at 10:38:36

Gulf Stream Myths

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Myth #1: The Gulf Stream will fail if a massive outpour of freshwater will come out of Greenland glaciers due to increasing temperatures.

Answer: No, it most definitely will not. As explained by Carl Wunsch, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at the MIT in Cambridge, Mass. (USA), in a letter published on The Economist:

The Gulf Stream is a wind-driven phenomenon (as explained in a famous 1948 paper by Henry Stommel). […] Shut-off would imply repeal of the law of conservation of angular momentum […] focusing on near-impossible Gulf Stream failure is an unproductive distraction

Myth #2: The Gulf Stream is responsible for the milder weather in the United Kingdom and part of Northern Europe than North American regions at similar latitudes.

Answer: No, it most definitely does not. As explained by Richard Seager, Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in an article published on American Scientist:

That the Gulf Stream is responsible for Europe’s mild winters is […] nothing more than the earth-science equivalent of an urban legend.

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Seager’s comments are particularly telling on how current Climatology is self-destroying by way of catastrophism:

Pretty much everything we had found could have been concluded on the basis of results that were already available […]

All Battisti and I did was put these pieces of evidence together and add in a few more illustrative numerical experiments. Why hadn’t anyone done that before? […] The blame lies with modern-day climate scientists who either continue to promulgate the Gulf Stream-climate myth or who decline to clarify the relative roles of atmosphere and ocean in determining European climate. This abdication of responsibility leaves decades of folk wisdom unchallenged, still dominating the front pages, airwaves and Internet, ensuring that a well-worn piece of climatological nonsense will be passed down to yet another generation.

Written by omnologos

2007/Mar/18 at 09:24:49