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Miscellaneous Topics
Short exchanges on various subjects.

Copyright © 2008, Paul LutusMessage Page

Population I | Population II | The Dangers of Ocean Sailing | Facebook and Flickr | Woo-Woo Physics

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Population I
I just thought you might find this book [that dismisses population as a problem] interesting. I have been reading your articles and I came across your presentation on problem solving.

This is related to your solution — of having less children to solve the problems of depletion of natural resources.
That's not my solution! I don't badger individual people to consider having fewer children (please say "fewer", not "less", children, and see below for the reason). I (and many other scientists) think overpopulation is the single most important problem we face, but this doesn't mean there is any point in haranguing individual people to have fewer children.

The reason I don't is because of the population paradox — the idea that if you exhort people to have fewer children, those most likely to listen and act will be more sensitive, concerned and intelligent than the average. This means the next generation will be less sensitive, concerned and intelligent! So a campaign to persuade individual people to have fewer children is not merely ill-considered, it will have an unintended and perverse effect on future generations.

But my unwillingness to tell individual people what to do with their lives doesn't mean overpopulation isn't a problem — in fact it is the most serious problem we face.

Some people will say the real problem is global warming, or inefficiencies in agriculture, or inequitable distribution of resources, or crime in the streets, or a breakdown in civil behavior, or religiously inspired wars in which the point is to kill everyone who doesn't share your beliefs. But all these issues are symptoms of the underlying population problem, and about that problem, the only civilized remedy is universal education (educated people tend to have fewer children).

In the meantime, there's no excuse for writing feel-good books that claim we can feed 40 billion people but deny the present reality that tens of thousands of Third World children die daily of starvation and disease. They die because their parents don't have access to effective family planning measures, because of pandemic disease gradually creeping up on the more densely populated parts of the world, and because there is no realistic prospect of feeding those already alive, much less any new people. In this report —

The State of the World's Children 1998 (UNICEF)

— UNICEF tells us that 12 million — that's 12 million — children under the age of five die annually (that's about 1,370 children per hour), about half from starvation and half from disease. This is just one article, there are many more like it, and the authors have no reason to lie about the problem.

A book like the one you found is ridiculously out of touch with reality and can only be written by someone with no research skills and zero incentive to look at the world objectively. The book is designed to appeal to the mentality of the people I mentioned earlier — those lacking in sensitivity, concern, or intelligence. On that basis alone, the book should become a best-seller.
If you have time I hope you have a chance to read the book, and perhaps let me know what you think. After thinking for myself, I have have a feeling that scarcity is a deep seated myth. With all respect, if even one of the 12 million dead children per year were your own, I think you would feel differently about this issue. And I want to warn you about something called "confirmation bias," a tendency to select evidence for what we already believe and to ignore contrary evidence. I am teaching myself basic programming and I have to say that this site is one of the inspirations for doing so. Thank you. You're welcome, but please try to apply your newly developed logical and mathematical skills to the problems of the real world. Remember that children have children of their own, therefore population growth is an exponential function and we can write this simple population equation:
fp = pp × gryr
  • fp = future population
  • pp = present population
  • gr = growth rate expressed as a ratio
  • yr = year argument, start with zero
According to Wikipedia, the present world population growth rate is 1.19% per year. On that basis and assuming the present world population to be 6.7 billion people, this is what we have to look forward to:
                pp = 6.7 (billions)
                gr = 1.0119
                Year    World Population, billions
                2008     6.70
                2018     7.54
                2028     8.49
                2038     9.55
                2048    10.75
                2058    12.10
                2068    13.62
This means with the present growth rate, the world's population should more than double in 60 years, which would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Of course, that outcome isn't realistic — instead, a lot of children are going to die. Meanwhile, according to Ms. Feelgood [of the book described above], everything will be all right and scarcity is a myth.

Thanks for writing, and ... it's time to think a bit more deeply.

(About "less children" — use the word "fewer" for enumerable sets: "Fewer oranges." Use "less" for a continuous quantity: "Less orange juice." When Bush says there will be "less" soldiers in Iraq next year, I cringe — for more than one reason.)
Population II
Since you are being very straightforward, I will respond accordingly. First of all, UNICEF and Wikipedia are not exactly balanced sources, so it is hard to accuse me of "confirmation bias" without first examining if your own use of neutral information [sic]. Where is your evidence that Wikipedia and UNICEF are not "balanced sources" with respect to the present topic? Ask yourself why Wikipedia or UNICEF would try to lie about a mathematical value trivially derived from population statistics. Ask yourself why there aren't any credible contradicting numbers available (there aren't).

To the owner of a factory, the population numbers are good news (more customers in the future). To a public policy advisor, they are bad news (eventual disintegration of social order). But neither of those parties entertains the fantasy that the numbers are wrong, and anyone can derive their own numbers from the raw data. The reason there's no dispute about the population numbers is because there are too many independent ways to derive them.

When you try to challenge a piece of evidence, first you have to find a basis for doubting it. Saying, "these sources aren't balanced" isn't an argument about the evidence, it's just a hand-waving diversion.

Your first mistake was to say that Wikipedia and UNICEF might not represent balanced sources without bothering to give a reason why they might not be, or how they could fake widely available population statistics. This approach would honor the ascendancy of evidence over cocktail chatter.
But more importantly, since you mentioned global warming, I am assuming you mean the threat of anthropogenic global warming. I alluded to a widely discussed public issue without taking a position on it, and no, I didn't ever say or imply anthropogenic global warming. You have just constructed a straw man. This is actually a side comment that disturbs me more than anything, because I had assumed you had done your research. I have. Now do your own. No responsible person claims that all global warming is caused by human activities, and I never made this claim — but this didn't stop you from trying to assign that viewpoint to me. These aren't neutral websites, but they provide a different perspective. Noted. You've made the claim that Wikipedia and UNICEF aren't balanced, and on that basis you've linked to three Websites that are very clearly unbalanced. Meanwhile, scientists with no axe to grind have found what appears to be a correlation between human activities and global warming, and no responsible scientist claims the connection is proven. By the way, that's how science works — theories can only be disproven, never proven.

The book alluded to in your first post says we could in principle feed 40 billion people. That may be true, but it doesn't save the lives of even one of the 12 million children who die needlessly every year in the Third World. My point? The book draws an absurd conclusion from a questionable premise. The premise is that we could feed many more people than we are feeding now. The absurd conclusion is that we will do that. It's absurd because we have never done it before, we aren't doing it now, and there's no reason to think this will change in the future.

I can see where this will lead — you or someone else will say I'm complaining about the First World's treatment of the Third World. But I'm only saying we can't excuse ourselves on the basis of a theoretical future solution already disproven in the present. I never said we were required to offer an excuse — that would be a a moral, not a logical, argument. Only logical arguments should steer public policy — moral arguments are for personal reflection.
If it is all right with you, I would prefer if you do not post our latter exchanges on your website. Sorry. We both have the right to post our writing on our respective Websites. Welcome to the modern Internet. This is just because I am not too comfortable with having my words posted on the internet, even if it is anonymous. If the words are anonymous, then they aren't yours, are they? Thanks! You're welcome!
The Dangers of Ocean Sailing
Hello I am doing research on the dangers at sea from either loose, abandoned shipping containers, or whatever else. I have been invited to sail to [ ... ] from [ ... ] and it would be my first passage. What is the type of boat that would be safest if one were to run into someething along the way, such as you did? Steel hull, several watertight compartments in the front/sides, etc? A typical ocean-rated fiberglass boat is quite safe. A steel boat is safer if it's designed properly, but not all steel boats are safer than fiberglass boats. A wooden boat is the least safe.

I knew a sailor with a steel boat who fell asleep as he approached the breakwater in Suva, Fiji. The sea threw his boat up on the breakwater's rocks, then bashed and banged it all night long. The next day someone pulled him off the breakwater and he sailed into the anchorage. That day he crawled around inside his boat with a hammer, banging out the dents in the steel. No serious harm done.
I have a feeling that I'll be too nervous to do this trip, as I am finding out more and more about the dangers. You know, the biggest danger in life is not to live it. You've been given a life, and the point is to live it, not try to avoid it. Life necessarily involves danger, and every meaningful, worthwhile activity is dangerous to some degree. For me I don't think the pleasure will outweigh the stress I may feel on the trip. In the final analysis, the risk of sitting alone in a room is much greater than the risk of going sailing. The reason? We are meant to live our lives, not try to save them up in a psychological piggy-bank.

In my opinion, sitting alone in a room worrying about risk is a rehearsal for death, and houses are substitute coffins. I respectfully suggest that you go outside and take a walk. Feel the wind in your hair. Then go sailing.

I sailed around the world for four years, and I hit a waterlogged freight container one night. I sailed away from the collision. I saw the scar on my boat's hull months later, during the next haul-out. On another occasion I met some pirates, a situation I dealt with by waving a shotgun at them. But the biggest danger of all is the possibility that I might not live life to the fullest. I've managed to avoid that danger.
what do you think? Your article was helpful and put some realistic respect into my mind about sailing... The more you learn about sailing, the more confident you will be, and the same can be said about life. The basic strategy is to accept that you cannot avoid risk, educate yourself, then make choices that realistically balance risks and advantages.

Sitting alone in a room worrying about life is very dangerous, both physically and mentally. Don't expect to be able to avoid risk — the only people beyond risk are the dead.


I guess I could have spent a bit longer composing the above exchange, and after replying I thought of a few additional points regarding blue-water sailing:

  • If you are a new sailor who has never sailed on an ocean, be sure that at least one person on board has done so — don't set sail with a group of beginners.
  • Decide in advance who is in charge, and while underway don't argue with the person you have chosen — it might be dangerous to start a debating society just as the wind picks up.
  • Make sure the boat is intended to be sailed on the ocean. Most sailboats are not designed for this activity. One good sign is the boat seems entirely too big and heavy for a fun sail on a local lake — that's by design. This is not to say that all big boats are suitable for ocean sailing on that ground alone.
  • Don't set sail with your chosen lifetime partner just to test the depth of your relationship — I can't tell you how many versions of that story I've heard. Many perfectly normal people make terrible captains, some people can't stand to be ordered about, and during a storm at sea, someone has to be in charge.
  • If a person says his boat is unsinkable, get off the boat immediately.

And about life itself, you redeem nature's gift of life by living it. The whiners, the narcissists, are ungrateful children who insult nature. The only reason nature lets them exist is for the comic relief they provide.

Facebook and Flickr
have you ever thought of using flickr for your pictures, and a blog or facebook for your articles and other news? For years I've been trying to slow the commercialization of the Internet as well as the shameless exploitation of user ignorance. I understand this is a holding action with little prospect for success, but Facebook in particular is a terrible example of customer relations — Mark Zuckerberg has a history of trying one shameless exploitation after another just to see what his minions will tolerate.

As to Flickr, people don't have any difficulties locating my images as things are, and if I joined I would be providing free content to accompany advertisements from which someone else profits. That makes no sense. That, by the way, is a property of all such social networks — the operators of these sites invariably exploit their users without sharing the profits.

It's no accident that Zuckerberg is a multibillionaire — his clients are, simply put, stupid. They're voluntarily handing over something of value without demanding compensation.

If you ask, "how can 250 million people all be stupid?", I have to say I wonder that myself — but they certainly are.

Thanks, but no thanks.
Woo-Woo Physics
I did want to ask you a question about how you view the issue that the in Quantum Physics about how the Observer can affects the out come of the experiment. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have conducted a highly controlled experiment.. Using a beam of electrons, they have been able to show that it is affected by the act of being observed. This is the standard outcome for an experiment in which subatomic particles are influenced by observation, and it is not unique to this institution, nor is it a new finding. But "observation" has a special, and strictly defined, meaning in this connection — it can mean a sensor that causes a needle to move, or a pen that makes a mark on a piece of paper. It doesn't have to be a human being. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of "watching," the greater the observer's influence on what actually takes place. That's wrong. Observation is observation — it doesn't have an amplitude. Once a quantum wave function collapses, it can't be influenced more by more observation.

There is a classic thought experiment that reveals this relationship — the name of the experiment is "Schrödinger's Cat". In the hypothetical experiment, a radiation source, a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, and a cat are hidden in a box, out of view.

The next radioactive disintegration will trigger the Geiger counter, which will cause the poison to be released, which will kill the cat. And the timing of the radioactive decay is governed by quantum rules. But, unlike conventional physics, it is not that the cat has some unknown time to live, but that, once the box is closed, the cat is neither alive or dead, but in a superposition of states, a "quantum wave function."

If we open the box, we don't find out whether the cat is alive or dead, instead we collapse the wave function and the cat becomes either alive or dead. Before we open the box, the cat is neither alive nor dead.

But the box can open on its own, with no human intervention, with the same outcome — human consciousness has no special role in the process, only a macroscopic outcome for a microscopic process.

Also, for various practical reasons, the thought experiment cannot actually be carried out. It's instructive, but hypothetical.
Do you think this is proof that our thoughts are affecting the universe around us? No, not at all. Not in any way. This is one of the more deplorable New Age beliefs about physics, but with no connection to reality. New Age believers think human consciousness is required to make the world function as it does, and supposedly quantum physics offers evidence. But, as is so often the case, the New Agers haven't thought through their position — if human consciousness is required to make the universe tick, how did the universe get along without us until 250,000 years ago? And if any kind of consciousness is required, how did the universe get along before there was life of any kind, i.e. before about 3.6 billion years ago (here)?

It's easy to set up an experiment in which the "observer" is a simple machine that registers an outcome — a pen on paper, a needle, a colored indicator, no consciousness required. Anything that produces a macroscopic outcome for a microscopic stimulus. This kind of experiment is well-understood by scientists, but it has no effect on the New Age believers.
If so... this leads to a rabbit hole of possibilities. "Rabbit hole" is the right expression for this — it's a fantasy without any connection to science, a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole with no way out, and no rationale. I'm interested in your opinion ... What I've just written is not mere opinion, it is the outcome of any number of experiments. Remember that science is steered, not by opinion, but by evidence.

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