Tuesday, 16 January 2007

I've been meaning to write about this...

Turns out, there's a formula for procrastination. Piers Steel of the University of Calgary took 10 years to find it (or at least, he took 10 years to publish).
The equation's factors are the desire to complete the task (U); the expectation of success (E); the value of completion (V); the immediacy of task (I) ; and the personal sensitivity to delay (D). The magic formula is U = E x V / I x D.
(From Lifehacker via Scientific American via Procrastinus)

This seems like too simplistic an equation to have taken a decade to develop, but I'll assume that most of that time was spent just collecting data before a final mad rush to get something publishable before the grant money ran out.

What's not clear to me is what I'm supposed to do with this equation (I could read the article--maybe it has suggestions--but I don't really want to). Right now, I'm using it to procrastinate, and I'm debating on whether that's clever or just annoying.

Friday, 12 January 2007

truth's frosty reception

From Slashdot:
BendingSpoons writes "A Seattle school board has placed a moratorium on screenings of 'An Inconvenient Truth', having found its subject matter too controversial. Echoing the language of the evolution debate, the school board found that students must be told that global warming is only a theory and presented with an opposing viewpoint. The ban was prompted by the complaints of a parent: 'Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher,' said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old. 'The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD.'"
A guy named Frosty is keeping people from seeing An Inconvenient Truth? I hope this is a joke.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

the anthropic principle

Why are string theorists using the anthropic principle? The anthropic principle begins with the recognition that the universe is shockingly hospitable given our current theories on how it all got started. Complex structures like galaxies, planetary systems, and life itself are famously unlikely to occur--but they have. The anthropic principle is the observation that if the universe had not turned out to have all of those complex structures, there would be no one around to notice. I am a fan of snarkiness, but it is not helpful in this case. The fact that a situation obtains is not an explanation for its obtaining. It of course occurs to me that string theorists are pretty smart, and maybe I've simply misunderstood. I just don't see how.

Is there something privileged about our location in space and time? Yes, but only in a restricted sense. Earlier in the universe, there was no life. Later on, there won't be life either. We're in the privileged middle ground, where things are Goldilocks--just right. But again, that's at best a statement of condition. It doesn't explain anything.

Perhaps the complex structures of the universe should not have been so unexpected after all. I'm not mathematician or cosmologist enough to know the details of the models that have been explored, but my guess is they're highly simplified and linearized--how else could we solve them? If my work in complexity theory has taught me anything, it's that natural systems are rarely simple or linear. There is no contradiction in the universe starting out simple and homogeneous, becoming briefly complex and heterogeneous, and then fading into simplicity and homogeneity again. In fact, in a nonlinear world, it's to be expected.

Then again, maybe I've just made the same error as those who cite the anthropic principle as explanation: I'm expanding an observation about present conditions into a hypothesis about the overall condition of the universe.