Humanity’s existential threats (sans alarmism)

July 13, 2017

Many so-called “scientists” indulge in phony-science which is entirely geared to winning funding. Alarmism is often misused. Such “scientists” and insurance companies cannot be trusted with risk assessments. They have a vested interest in exaggerating the risk, either to get more funding or to increase the sale of highly profitable insurance products.

(Insurance companies are expert at assessing risk. However their business is built on perceived risk being higher than actual risk. Their profits provide the evidence for how well they have succeeded both in raising perceptions of risk and in accurately predicting actual risk. “Scientific” papers authored or sponsored by insurance companies and their reports must always be taken with a large bushel of salt. Their publications are all about building up risk perceptions. They are probably very good at assessing the real risk, but that material will never get published. The risk of alarmism is multiplied when scientists are sponsored by insurance companies).

Politicians like exaggerated risk assessments where the causes of the risk are outside their control. This provides a bottomless pit of “allowable taxes”, ostensibly to “fight” against causes which are not understood and outside their control, but  provide for increased budget revenues.

Scientists, politicians and insurance companies inevitably try to arouse emotions and “fear level” to their own purposes.

The actual existential risks for humanity are a long way below what the alarmists would have us believe and need to be considered unemotionally. Risk assessment is an exercise which primarily needs common sense and which must not get mired in  “political correctness”.

The most serious existential threats facing humanity in the next 1,000 years come from the almost inevitable eruption of a super-volcano (which is overdue) and the continuing decline in global fertility which could give serious depopulation by 2100.

(I am quite happy to offer odds of 10 million to one to anybody who wishes to place money on a large asteroid impacting earth – say – within the next 5 years. The risk that the punter and I will both survive such an event. such that I have to pay out, is as close to zero as you can get).



The Ship of Theseus paradox is no paradox

July 12, 2017

A dictionary definition would define identity as the characteristics uniquely determining what makes a thing, whether living or inanimate. Consider what is necessary and sufficient to define an identity.

Inanimate things can have identity. The Great Pyramid, or the Empire State building or even that particular, nondescript boulder just there, has an identity. That particular boulder, with that volume and that physical composition and which now is located in my garden in Sweden, may have been formed when it was ejected after a volcanic eruption on Gondwanaland some 500 million years ago. Or it may have been formed 100 years ago when rocks in this region were blasted to build a road. The key point here is that this particular thing had a beginning on the time line of the universe. This beginning, this begin-time, is inextricably tied to the identity of this boulder. This identifiable boulder may have lost some mass by erosion over the years or it may have (though much less likely) grown in mass by accretion. Its mass may have changed over time and its shape and volume may have changed. Even its composition may have changed somewhat as chemical reactions with the surrounding atmosphere slowly occurred. At any given time however, the thing having identity uniquely occupies a physical space.

The Ship of Theseus (see Theseus paradox) had an identity.

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

I now borrow the concept of a control surface from fluid dynamics

In an inertial frame of reference, a control volume is a volume fixed in space or moving with constant velocity, through which the fluid (gas, or liquid) flows. The surface enclosing the control volume is referred to as the control surface.

Analogous to a control surface, I define an identity control surface. It is abstract (no mass, no thickness, no volume, no energy) but it is definable in 3-dimensional physical space at any instant of time. Unlike in fluid dynamics, this control surface does not enclose a fixed control volume, but physically encloses that which has identity. Whenever that boulder was formed, it was physically enclosed within an elastic identity control surface. The identity control surface is dynamic, elastic and permeable. It is not however fixed in space along the time axis. Its permeability allows the flow of material in both directions, but the integrity of the identity within is not compromised as long as the flow is small relative to the material enclosed. The elastic identity control surface maintains the identity enclosed as it accommodates gradual growth or a shrinkage of the enclosed physical material. The dynamic ability of the identity control surface maintains the continuity over time of the identity enclosed. An identity control surface may be embedded within another identity control surface as would happen if our boulder was used in a building which had its own identity.

This now gives me the two characteristics necessary to define identity. A thing has an identity if it has:

  1. an identity control surface which is physically definable at any instant of time, and
  2. a discrete beginning for that identity control surface on the time line of the universe (a history)

Both are necessary and are together sufficient to define the identity of an inanimate thing. The Great Pyramid and the Empire State Building comply. Their identities will end when the identity control surface is breached sufficiently to create a death on the time line of the universe.

With an identifiable identity control surface and an identified begin-time, Theseus’s ship no longer presents a paradox. As long as the replacements to the ship are small relative to the whole, its identity continues. Even if 100% of the original ship’s timbers are eventually replaced it retains its identity. However another ship gradually built up from the original (discarded) timbers would have a new beginning and a new identity surface and a new identity. Note that each timber as it was discarded would no longer be a part of identity that was Theseus’s Ship. The rebuilt ship would be a reconstruction, albeit with the original materials, of Theseus’s ship but it could never have the identity of Theseus’s ship. There is no ambiguity about identity.

It seems to me that these two characteristics would also be necessary and sufficient to define the identity not only of inanimate things but also of all living things including humans.

For all living things the identity control surface would come into being when the unique genetic make up of that entity was established. For a tree it would enclose the seed or enclose the fertilised egg for a chicken or for a human. For humans, conception or the point at which a fertilised egg embeds itself in the uterus, would seem to be appropriate as the begin-time of that identity. Initially the newly created fetus identity would be enclosed within the identity control surface of the mother and would separate at birth. As humans grow, the elastic identity control surface expands to accommodate that growth. At any time this control surface can be physically defined. The identity within remains continuous, from its begin-time till that identity control surface ceases to exist (and of course that could be some little time after death). Suppose bodies could be put into cryo-storage. Mr. X’s frozen corpse would retains its identity (as Mr. X’s body), even if Mr. X was long since dead, until decomposition destroyed the identity control surface. There is no contradiction here. The fact of being alive or not is then merely a characteristic of the identity.

The brain is not then necessary for an identity to exist. After a brain transplant – if such was possible – the identity continuing would that of the person receiving the brain. Neither is a soul a necessary condition for an identity though that does not say anything about whether a soul exists or not. The identity of each living thing, and that includes the 7 billion humans on the planet, is each uniquely characterised by its identity control surface and its begin-time. This does not address what makes a living thing human, and that would surely involve the brain and whatever one may define as being soul.

There have been suggestions that identity is virtual and based on information (Budimir Zdravkovic in The Oxford Philosopher):

….. when an entire individual is cloned; not just their DNA but their memories and experiences, too. If we assume that a person’s memory and experience is just information stored in the human brain (and the rest of the human nervous system) then in theory it should be possible to completely clone an individual with all his or her experiences, habits and memories included, providing we can reconstruct their body and nervous system.

The concept of complete human cloning is very much in line with the idea that biological identity consists in virtual information as opposed to material constitution. Since information is virtual, a person can be reconstructed eons after his death and still continue to live his life. The person’s identity becomes a function of all the information stored in his DNA, brain, and the rest of the body. After we have sufficient knowledge of the entire human brain and nervous system, in principle we ought to be able to achieve immortality via this complete human cloning.

But this is about creating replicas and not really about identity. You may be able to create an identical, cloned human, but the clone would have a different begin-time and a different identity control surface. A clone might be identical to an original but would have a completely different identity. The clone and the original would have both different begin-times and different identity control surfaces. As identical twins also have completely different identities. Even if their begin-times are identical, they occupy separated physical spaces and different identity control surfaces.

So, the reconstruction of Theseus’s ship would give rise to a new identity with a different identity control surface and a different begin-time.



Logic is discovered, language is invented

July 9, 2017

Logic is inherent in the universe. It is not a creation of man and is not dependent on observation or what kind of brain perceives the universe.

The laws of logic are taken to be unchanging over space and time. Logic now, is as logic was, and as logic will always be. Logic here, is as logic is there and everywhere.

Language, however, is invented. All languages (including mathematics or chemical notation or Boolean algebra or …..) must have a structure which is compliant with the logic of the universe it is used to describe. We perceive a logic in the universe and express it through the inbuilt logic of our language(s). We use the one to describe the other and they are both the same.

How not?


Nuclear weapons are necessary to avoid another Hitler

July 8, 2017

Yesterday the UN again demonstrated its uselessness. More, it demonstrated, again that majorities are very often wrong and can be just plain stupid.

Countries without nuclear weapons voted among themselves that countries with nuclear weapons should not have them. The stupid voting among themselves that the more intelligent should not be so intelligent.

The UN adopted a global treaty banning nuclear weapons. Only 124 nations of 193 participated. The treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 countries in favor with one NATO member, the Netherlands, voting against and with Singapore abstaining.

The stupidity of the resolution and the vote lies in that neither those who have nuclear weapons, nor those who have experienced a nuclear strike, even participated.


  1. None of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, UK, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — took part in the negotiations or the vote.
  2.  Even Japan — the only country to have suffered atomic attacks, in 1945 — boycotted the talks and the vote.
  3. The only NATO country to participate, the Netherlands, voted against.
  4. The other NATO countries not participating were Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States.

The UN is good at sanctimonious, feel-good resolutions which are “full of sound and fury” but “signifying nothing”. It is, in fact, the presence of nuclear weapons which has put a cap on the number of deaths by war.


During the 31 years leading up to the first atomic bomb, the world without nuclear weapons engaged in two global wars resulting in the deaths of an estimated 78 million to 95 million people, uniformed and civilian. The world wars were the hideous expression of what happens when the human tendency toward conflict hooks up with the violent possibilities of the industrial age. The version of this story we are most familiar with is the Nazi death machinery, and we are often tempted to think that if Hitler had not happened, we would never have encountered assembly-line murder.

…… As bad as they are, nukes have been instrumental in reversing the long, seemingly inexorable trend in modernity toward deadlier and deadlier conflicts. If the Nobel Committee ever wants to honor the force that has done the most over the past 60 years to end industrial-scale war, its members will award a Peace Prize to the bomb.

Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented.

The simple fact is that it is the existence of nuclear weapons which has prevented the blood-letting of WW1 and WW2 from happening again.

And which prevents another Hitler from appearing. And which will prevent Kim Jong-un from ever becoming another Hitler.


Science (and the gods) rely equally on magic

July 3, 2017

The fundamental assumptions of science can be written in various ways but, for me, seem to boil down to four:

  1. The Universe exists
  2. Laws of nature (science) exist
  3. All phenomena are constrained to obey the laws of nature (science)
  4. The laws of nature (science) apply everywhere in the universe

The laws of nature are such that compliance with these laws is inbuilt. If there is any non-compliance it is not a law of nature. If compliance is all that we observe then it is a law of nature. But why the laws are what they are are usually beyond explanation.

Assumptions are not amenable to further question. You could apply an “if” to them or question “why” the assumption is true, but that is futile for there are no answers. They are just taken as self-evident and the starting point of rational thought. They are never, in themselves, self-explanatory except in the trivial form. (Assume that 1+1=2. Therefore 2+2=4 and that proves that 1+1=2).

I apply the word “magic” to all that is inexplicable. And all the fundamental laws of nature (science) are built on a foundation of inexplicable magic. How many fundamental particles exist and why? It’s magic. If the laws of science only apply after the Big Bang but don’t apply at the Big Bang singularity itself, what laws did? It’s magic. If the laws apply to a supernova but not inside a black hole, it’s magic. (Never mind that a black hole seems to be a part of the universe where the laws of science do not apply which violates the assumption that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic (Assumption 4 above). Why are there 4 – and only 4 – fundamental forces in nature? It’s magic. How did time begin? It’s magic. Can empty space exist without even the property of dimensions? It’s magic. Can time be a dimension and not have negative values? It’s magic. Dark energy and dark matter are merely labels invoking magic. All science which relies on fundamental assumptions is ultimately built upon and dependent upon a set of inexplicable, fundamental statements. They are just magic.

A fundamental flaw with the claim of physics, that all of history up to just after the Big Bang is explainable by the laws of science, must also mean that all of the future is also fixed and determined by the laws of science applied to conditions now. What will happen was therefore fixed for all time by the Big Bang itself. And that, too, is indistinguishable from magic.

Religions do not just rely on magic, they claim the magic for their gods. Modern, “with-it” religions, which try to be “compatible” with the latest knowledge discovered by science, merely claim that their God(s) pushed the button which caused the Big Bang. That my God is greater than your God is magic. That there is a life after death, or reincarnation, or rebirth or an ultimate state of grace is also just magic.

Shiva, Kali, Jesus, Allah, nirvana, dark energy, dark matter and the Big Bang singularity are all labels for different facets of magic.

Magic, by any other name, is just as inexplicable.


In the galaxy of my childhood

June 30, 2017

Long away and far ago, in the galaxy of my childhood, in a space-time continuum that has ceased to be:

  • Nothing was impossible,
  • Banks were known to handle cash,
  • customers were always right,
  • shop-keepers thanked you for your custom,
  • restaurants were happy for you to eat and dawdle,
  • the milkman brought the cow around every morning and evening to be milked,
  • coffee beans were roasted and ground every morning for the day’s consumption,
  • if it wasn’t raining it was hot,
  • if it wasn’t snowing it was cold,
  • ice cream and chocolate bars came once a week,
  • cakes were for birthdays,
  • a girl could be a tomboy and remain a girl,
  • scientists were skeptical,
  • the postman was always on time,
  • extreme weather was just extreme weather, 
  • newspapers told the truth, and
  • everything was possible



June 29, 2017

It is one of the worst feelings one can experience. To have reality intrude rudely on illusions one has cherished.

And the worst of the worst is when it is another person who is the disillusionment. When somebody turns out to be not quite what they seem to be.


When acquaintances pass away

June 28, 2017

The bulk of those we “know” are acquaintances and they may number from several hundred and up to a few thousand.

If the Dunbar Number postulation is correct, we can have strong, stable, close relationships with about 150 people (minimum about 50 and maximum about 250). We  can also “feel” strong, one-way relationships with a few public figures we may never have met, and who may not even be aware of our existence (musicians, actors, politicians ….).

When somebody close passes away the measure of our grief and our reactions is dominated primarily by the closeness of the relationship and then by the circumstances surrounding the death. This has probably been much the same for humans through most of history. However it is our reaction to the passing away of acquaintances which may say more about our changing attitudes to life and death.

I am of an age now where hardly a week goes by without the passing away of an acquaintance. I am also of an age where new acquaintances come slowly. So my circle of acquaintances is beginning to reduce. Trying to observe myself, I would generalise my reactions to the death of an acquaintance as follows:

  • Less than 50 years old : Futility, cruel, tragically young
  • In their 50’s                   : Sorrow, regret, before their time
  • In their 60’s                   : Sadness, misfortune, not very old
  • In their 70’s                   : Regret, it happens, a good innings
  • In their 80’s                   : Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance
  • In their 90’s                   : Acceptance, celebration, a long span
  • In their 100’s                 : Wow! Was he/she still alive?

Of course the circumstances of a death also play some part in the reaction  – but not so much, it seems, once an acquaintance has passed 80. The same kind of tragic accident which takes the life of a 50 year old, seems not so tragic when an 80 year old is the victim. A few months ago a good acquaintance died in his 50’s following a bicycle accident, and it all seemed such a terrible waste. About a year ago an 83 year old acquaintance also died following a bicycle accident, but his death did not seem as tragic, and even included a hint of “what on earth was he doing on a bicycle at that age?”

I suppose it is because the probability of an 80 year old dying is so much higher than that of a 50 year old. Our sense of regret and loss reduces as the probability of death increases. The circumstances surrounding the death seem less important.

At 50 the probability of death is about 1: 300 but at the age of 80 this has increased to 1:20.

UK data image bandolier

Our reactions, I conclude, are probably strongly influenced by the probability of death of that acquaintance. As longevity changes, the probability of death changes, and our reactions follow suit.



Without first having religions, atheism and agnosticism cannot exist

June 27, 2017

I take science to be the process by which areas of ignorance are explored, illuminated and then shifted into our space of knowledge. One can believe that the scientific method is powerful enough to answer all questions – eventually – by the use of our cognitive abilities. But it is nonsense to believe that science is, in itself, the answer to all questions. As the perimeter surrounding human knowledge increases, what we know that we don’t know, also increases. There is what we know and at the perimeter of what we know, lies what we don’t know. Beyond that lies the boundless space of ignorance where we don’t know what we don’t know.

Religions generally use a belief in the concept of a god (or gods) as their central tenet. By definition this is within the space of ignorance (which is where all belief lives). For some individuals the belief may be so strong that they claim it to be “personal knowledge” rather than a belief. It remains a belief though, since it cannot be proven. Buddhism takes a belief in gods to be unnecessary but – also within the space of ignorance – believes in rebirth (not reincarnation) and the “infinite” (nirvana). Atheism is just as much in the space of ignorance since it is based on the beliefs that no gods or deities or the supernatural do exist. Such beliefs can only come into being as a reaction to others having a belief in gods or deities or the supernatural. But denial of a non-belief cannot rationally be meaningful. If religions and their belief in gods or the supernatural did not first exist, atheism would be meaningless. Atheism merely replaces a belief in a God to a belief in a Not-God.

I take the blind worship of “science” also to be a religion in the space of ignorance. All physicists and cosmologists who believe in the Big Bang singularity, effectively believe in an incomprehensible and unexplainable Creation Event. Physicists who believe in dark matter or dark energy, as mysterious things, vested with just the right properties to bring their theories into compliance with observations of an apparently expanding universe, are effectively invoking magic. When modern physics claims that there are 57 fundamental particles but has no explanation as to why there should be just 57 (for now) or 59 or 107 fundamental particles, they take recourse to magical events at the beginning of time. Why there should be four fundamental forces in our universe (magnetism, gravitation, strong force and weak force), and not two or three or seven is also unknown and magical.

Agnosticism is just a reaction to the belief in gods. Whereas atheists deny the belief, agnostics merely state that such beliefs can neither be proved or disproved; that the existence of gods or the supernatural is unknowable. But by recognising limits to what humans can know, agnosticism inherently accepts that understanding the universe lies on a “higher” dimension than what human intelligence and cognitive abilities can cope with. That is tantamount to a belief in “magic” where “magic” covers all things that happen or exist but which we cannot explain. Where atheism denies the answers of others, agnosticism declines to address the questions.

The Big Bang singularity, God(s), Nirvana and the names of all the various deities are all merely labels for things we don’t know in the space of what we don’t know, that we don’t know. They are all labels for different kinds of magic.

I am not sure where that leaves me. I follow no religion. I believe in the scientific method as a process but find the “religion of science” too self-righteous and too glib about its own beliefs in the space of ignorance. I find atheism is mentally lazy and too negative. It is just a denial of the beliefs of others. It does not itself address the unanswerable questions. It merely tears down the unsatisfactory answers of others. Agnosticism is a cop-out. It satisfies itself by saying the questions are too hard for us to ever answer and it is not worthwhile to try.

I suppose I just believe in Magic – but that too is just a label in the space of ignorance.


“Nigerian” scam letters – why do they continue?

June 26, 2017

The first time I saw a “Nigerian” scam letter was probably around 25 years ago – on paper and delivered by regular post. Since then they have proliferated on emails and paper copies which require some real expenditure for postage are probably obsolete. The stories they present are just as ridiculous now as they ever were and these days such emails hardly ever get past my spam filter.

This morning I noticed two scam letters as I was clearing out my spam folder and I looked at them out of sheer curiosity. One was a very “traditional” Nigerian letter and the other apparently from Brazil. It surprises me that anybody still falls for these but presumably they do since such letters continue. If anything the Nigerian letter is even more inane than those of 25 years ago.

Nigerian letter:

This purports to be from the FBI  in Washington (.jp email address) advising me that together with the IMF they have discovered that $8 million owing to me is lying in an escrow account at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The money has been approved for release to me but a Mrs. Joan B Melvin of New York has claimed to be acting on my behalf because I am ill. I am therefore warned to shun all other contacts and to reconfirm all my personal details to a Mr. Godwin Emefiele at a Nigerian address but an aol email address!!!!! The author of the letter purports to be an Andrew Mccabe of the FBI in Washington  with an aol email address!

Godwin Emefiele is actually the Governor of the real Central Bank of Nigeria but he certainly does not use an aol email address.

Brazilian letter:

Here a certain Robert Phillip (with a .br email address) writes “I have a High Profile Client who has $68million to invest. This client of mine has mandated me to source for someone with wealth of experience in Financial Management that can have her funds invested judiciously with excellent Return on Investment. Therefore if this offer falls within your areas of specialization, you are hereby advised to respond with your Telephone Number and your Personal Profile so we can discuss further.” I am to get in touch  immediately to roph at a gmail address!!!!!

 They do have a certain amusement value though it is the amusement reserved for very bad clowns.(The letters are attached below for the amusement of all). But if it is so that some people are still gullible enough to fall for these, it would be evidence that the world is dumbing down.

The Central Bank of Nigeria, as a central bank of a sovereign country, does not have personal or company accounts. It has this notice on its site:

  • Do you intend to claim an inheritance or lottery?
    The CBN is the apex bank in Nigeria – much like other central banks and reserve banks in other countries. CBN does not maintain accounts for individuals or private companies. If you have received memos, faxes, telephone calls, e-mails, etc in respect of any inheritance claim or lottery win purporting to emanate from the CBN, you must have been contacted by fraudulent scammers. CBN does not keep account of any inheritance or conduct any form of Lottery nor engage in transfers of winnings of any lottery in Nigeria or any other country.

Couldn’t the scamsters at least have tried to make their letters the tiniest bit plausible. They ought to be thrown out of the Scamsters Union for incompetence.

Nigerian letter

Brazilian scam letter



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