Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prediction vs. Intervention - Weather and Climate

1. Let's start with the weather, 
then go from there to climate


. . . My lab was involved in an interesting weather research project

. . . Later, let's discuss if the results apply to climate...

Predicting the Weather

Remember "Spoil Sports of the Prediction Game"?

. . . That's why weather forecasters have a bad reputation

. . . . . . It's not their fault!

. . . . . . They're doing the best they can

. . . They often do okay short term

. . . . . . We'll never predict the weather on this date next year

. . . . . . Delphi method: how far in advance do you think we'll get?

2. What about weather control?
. . . Keeping the streets open costs a lot!

. . . Like here in the US in, say...

. . . . . . Minneapolis (straight north of Little Rock)

. . . . . . Buffalo (lots of Great Lakes-related snow)

. . . . . . etc.

. . . Little Rock -

. . . . . . Snow equipment costs a bundle, hardly ever needed

. . . . . . Cheaper just to shut down the city

. . . . . . . . . That's expensive too (but at least you get an extra vacation day!)

Moscow has
(a) a lot of snow, and
(b) budget problems

Credit: Igor Tabakov, Moscow Times, 10/15/09,

The Russian Air Force sprayed clouds with liquid nitrogen, silver (iodide?), and cement
. . . in 2009
. . . see news article link under image above
. . . no word on whether it worked

3. Interestingly, you can buy weather modification equipment

. . .

. . . How well it works is another issue...

4. What's easier, predicting or controlling weather?

. . . What would you guess?

5. About research from my lab

. . . Experiments done by former grad student Dongping Xu

. . . . . . as-yet unpublished research

We asked:

What predictions are more reliable:

Forecasting the weather?


Forecasting the effects of weather modifications?

How we answered

1. Predict the weather using MM5 on given initial weather pattern

2. Add a bug to MM5, run it again

. . . what is a bug?

Source:, in

3. Do this for many different bugs

4. Calculate the average amount of change caused by a bug

. . . that is, change to some quantitative weather value

Why care about how MM5 acts when bugs are added?

6. Now do another experiment
(This is a little more complicated)
1. Run MM5 to predict the weather
1a. Change an initial condition a tiny bit and run it again
1b. Determine the change in the prediction
1c. Calculate sensitivity s:
s  = change in output / change in input
   = change in predicted value / change in initial condition
   = Δ output / Δ input
(Delta is a Greek letter that is a triangle)
"Δ"  means "change"

2. Add a bug to MM5, run it again
3. Do this for many different bugs
4. Calculate the average amount of change (in sensitivity, this time) caused by a bug
First part:
How resistant is weather prediction to software bugs?
Second part:
How resistant is weather intervention prediction to bugs?

7. Weather prediction is considerably more bug-resistant than weather intervention prediction
"We can't predict the effects
of weather modifications very well,
unless we get rid of all bugs,
and we already know we can't do that."
This leads to the big remaining question:
. . . Only a few people care about weather modification
. . . A lot of people care about changing global warming
. . . But can we tell how much change is actually needed?

HW 9

IFSC 4399 Computing, Information and the Future (due W 11/3/10)

Q1) We discussed in class how there is no such thing as a "scientific proof." Explain in your own words.

Q2) Write a new part for your project report of 200 words or more (or show equivalent progress if you are doing something else).

Q3) This course has been designated as able to help keep our curriculum accredited! Therefore we need to ask students to answer certain questions. This week's question is:

Assess the impact of information and/or computing on individuals (rather than, say, organizations). Assess this impact on the following dimensions:
  • a) privacy
  • b) security
  • c) quality
  • d) some other one of your choice
(In case you were wondering, next week's HW will extend your answer to other technologies and to the future. But that's not for this HW.)

Trend analysis

1. Separating the 
signal from the noise I

Consider the graph below

Suppose this graph shows a fact about how bar height changes as we proceed rightward

Suppose further the data are noisy

What do we mean by "noise"?

We want to shrewdly determine the fact by mentally discounting the noise

Without giving any hints to your neighbors...

Take another look, then decide on the mostly likely fact:

a) Height decreases the farther right we go
b) Height starts out at a high plateau on the left, then switches to a low plateau as we move rightward
c) Height decreases at first, then increases ("U" curve) as we move rightward
d) Height increases as we move rightward
e) Cannot tell from the given data


2. Separating the 
signal from the noise II

Consider the graph below

Suppose this graph shows a fact about how bar height changes as we proceed rightward

Suppose further the data are noisy

We want to shrewdly determine the fact by mentally discounting the noise

Without giving any hints to your neighbors...

Take another look, then decide on the mostly likely fact:

a) Height decreases the farther right we go
b) Height starts out at a high plateau on the left, then switches to a low plateau as we move rightward
c) Height decreases at first, then increases ("U" curve) as we move rightward
d) Height increases as we move rightward
e) Cannot tell from the given data


Note! Both graphs show the same data


Monday, October 25, 2010

Earth 2100 Discussion

1. Discussion related to "Earth 2100" (an ABC production)

Some initial comments and questions
before the general discussion

What is the difference between:

2. Math: 
prove new things 
     based on 
existing knowledge

Mathematical reasoning is:

  • 1+1=2
  • 2+2=4
  • Therefore, 
    • 1+1+1+1=4
    • (proof by substitution)

  • All men are mortal
  • Socrates is a man
  • Therefore, 
    • Socrates is mortal 
    • (proof by "syllogism")

  • Deduction can prove things
  • Mathematics uses deduction
  • Therefore, 
    • mathematics can prove things 
    • (proof by syllogism again!)

3. Science is different from math!

  • Science is based on:
    • induction
    • (not deduction)
  • All apples that break off the tree, 
    • fall down
  • Therefore, if I shake this apple tree,
    • and an apple breaks off,
    • it will fall down
  • Not a proof! 
    • Can you think of a counterexample?

  • That which goes up has always come down
  • Therefore, if I throw this up, it will come down
  • Not a proof! Can you think of a counterexample?

4. Science needs more than induction

Humankind has always sought reasons

Scientists call those reasons
       "theories" and "hypotheses"

Theories are the big ones
  • relativity
  • evolution
  • continental drift/plate tectonics

Hypotheses are the ---little--- ones
  • If the ground gets waterlogged,
    • water will get into my basement
  • IFSC majors learn 
    • more employable things than physics majors

Conclusion. . .
Math proves; 
science does not prove!

Science disproves 
      (by refuting inductive "truths")

Science explains
     (using theories)

Science predicts
     (because the theories predict)

5. The phrase "scientific proof" makes no sense!
  • Science does not prove things!
  • It explains things and finds evidence
  • If only everyone actually knew that
  • Not just you, but also
    • reporters, 
    • spokespeople, 
    • politicians
    • the average person

6. Comments on Earth 2100

. . . Worst case scenario
      consistent with best science available

. . . The main cause depicted was

           global warming

. . . Secondary causes were

           deadly disease
           rising sea level
           poverty and hardship

. . . Effects were ultimately

           Governmental collapse
           Technological regression

. . . . . . So things could be that bad, but might not

7. Climate science uses theories
implemented as complex
computerized models
  • There are variations among 
    • different models
  • Their global warming computations make
    • different predictions

Almost all (never all, right?)
climate specialists agree:
  • Global warming is happening, will get worse, and is a serious problem
  • That is the consensus among climate scientists
  • No math-style deductive proof is possible

8. Politics and special interests 
are a different ball game

. . . Some economic interests 
      benefit most 
      if nothing is done

. . . . . . Naturally, they will impede change

. . . . . . . . . That is one case of
                  famous economist Adam Smith's  
                 "Invisible Hand"

9. Your turn: 
Earth 2100 discussion

What technologies are envisioned 
and what are their plausibilities?

10. The sea wall concept
  • We live in Arkansas,
    • which is in the United States,
    • we are Americans and
    • speak English

  • Some people live in Holland
    • What is the elevation in Holland,
    • what country is it in,
    • what is the nationality of its people, and 
    • what language do they speak?

What can we say about
its storm surge barrier?
Called the "van Maeslantkering"
See also, query Maeslant

Ever see the doors of the lock of the Big Dam Bridge?

11. What is the connection between 
epidemics and global warming?
  • Any diseases already spread to the US?
  • Any that may soon?

What are some tipping points to social stability?

  • Long-term blackouts
  • Transportation network breakdown
  • Where would you want to live if things went bad?
  • How about Arkansas?
  • Little Rock?

What can you do now?

12. Could Earth 2100 
really happen like that?

There are different cases:
   intermediate (many)

Earth 2100 depicts the worst case
   Probably won't be that bad
   But it is possible
   Hard to predict for sure: (Chaos (Lorenz) wheel as a garden water feature)
   Still, beachfront property cautiously

What signs portend a worst case scenario?
   CO2 is a relatively known factor
   CH4 (methane) is less so
   . . . but it has strong greenhouse effects
   If northern ice melts
   . . . and dark permafrost ground is exposed
   . . . and warms up from sunlight
   . . . and melts
   . . . and releases methane
   Then start worrying more
   If oceans start releasing methane
   . . . due to warming waters
   Then start worrying more

   No methane spike, no worst case
   . . . probably
   Bottom line:
   . . . watch for news on methane releases

13. Hyperpowers are historically limited in time
  • Mongolia
  • Rome
  • UK
  • US

We're #1!

But how can we stay that way?

14. What are the natural tendencies that 
cause hyperpowers to be time-limited?

  • Rigidity
  • Over-confidence from past successes
  • Inner rot

What can be done to prevent it or delay the inevitable? 

Why successful societies collapse

Earth 2100 quotes someone asking what
the person who cut down
the last palm tree on Easter Island
could have been thinking

That is straight out of Diamond's book

(Diamond appeared several times in the movie)

Easter Island, Rome, the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Greenland Norse, ...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Earth 2100

Movie discussion: Earth 2100 (an ABC production)

part 1 (10 min.) (skip 1:21-5:00),
part 2 (10 min.),
part 3 (skip after first couple min.),
part 4 (10 min.),
part 5 (10 min.),
part 6 (10 min.),
part 7 (10 min.),
part 8 (10 min.),
part 9 (5 min.);
Transcript and notes

Please take notes below on how things in this movie could relate to your chosen topic:


Homework #8, due next Wednesday 10/27/10

1) Recall the show Earth 2100. How does your best judgment about the years up to 2100 compare with the vision provided by the show? For example, if you were to give a younger brother or sister advice on what things will be like, how would that compare to the show?

2) Add more to your project writeup (assuming your project is a report). Focus on, or at least mention,  climate change as it could relate to your topic.

Questions 1 and 2 together should add up to 300 words or more. (If your project is not focused on a report, then you may need to explain how you modified this guideline.)

You may take notes if you wish on how the video relates to your topic as we watch it:


Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Due next Wednesday (Oct. 20, 2010)

1) Post, on your blog, 200 words or more commenting on the "spoil sports of the prediction game." For example, you could discuss which "spoil sport(s)" bug you the most. You could find out more about any of them and relate what you learned. You could review the videos and what was good or not so good about various of them, or review other videos.

2) Discuss: how do the "spoil sports" apply to your project topic?

3) Request a slot for presenting your project. Any class between now and the end of the semester is alright, up to two people on a given day, first come first served. The course index/topic list shows the available class days. Ignore what is already listed under future dates - we can schedule you any time. Do this by email to

Monday, October 11, 2010

Spoil Sports of the Prediction Game

You can chase the future. But you'll never catch it."

Can one predict the time evolution of a system?

(Weather, pool (billiards), family relationships, Brownian motion, the world's technology about___, etc., etc., etc....)

Ever have a day when everything went wrong? Say you predicted you would have a normal college day. But your alarm clock didn't ring. Already running late, you couldn't find your backpack (briefcase, USB drive, etc.). Finally you stagger out the door, but your car won't start. Later, you find out you missed a surprise quiz. It's a bit like that for the entire field of forecasting. Here's why.

1. Spoil Sport of Prediction #1: the Observer Effect
To figure out what happens next, you need to know where things are now. For example, if you hit a billiard ball, you can't predict what will happen next unless you know the current layout of the pool table. Unfortunately, as a matter of principle, the observer effect holds that the act of finding out "where things are now" (i.e. determining the current state of the system of interest) changes it to something else (i.e. perturbs the system). In physics this is most noticeable for very small things or faint effects. In principle though, it applies to any scenario.

Light pushes

Electrical measurements effect the electricity

Asking someone something about themself changes them (This Kelly Neill apparently sings, but is not the same Kelly Neill who teaches voice at Harding U. in Searcy)

She also narrates
("A conscious universe - the observer effect")

A little more detail... ("The observer effect - an historical perspective")
(2009) (removed - why?)

It is also a Star Trek episode: (30-sec. trailer)
(11 minutes of the episode)

2.  So. . .
 . . . Can you think of some examples of the observer effect?

Does the observer effect help understand
any of our topics of interest?

. . . Future of telepresence (P)
. . . "Unikey" (C)
. . . Template-based sentence analysis (C)
. . . Robotic surgery (O)
. . . Virtual education (M)
. . . How does our age affect how we think about the future (C)
. . . Future of government (M)

Here are a few more
. . . if you are watching over kids, they act different
. . . people in general
      - remember we mentioned the
        social competition theory of human brain genesis?

. . . Ever try to look at
      the back of your head
      using two mirrors?
      It makes you move your head around!

. . . If you shine a light beam
      through dusty air in a dark room,
      the light will affect the dust a little bit.

      Or dust in a sunbeam.

. . . What about watching a pool game?

. . . What about measuring the weather
      for weather forecasting?

. . . What about measures of
      the economy
      printed in news articles?

3. So you've controlled the observer effect

. . . now just figure out the 6-D position-&-velocity of everything

. . . . . . and crunch with a computer to tell the future! Right?

. . . Unfortunately, no. This just brings us to:

4. Spoil Sport of Prediction #2: 
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
(2:49) ("AP Chemistry: Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle")

Nota bene: it applies to all particles, not just electrons

Here it is with photons (light):
(copy at

. . . And now, let's try it with
      a laser pointer and
      a piece of black plastic cut from a notebook cover!

           (Since I demo'ed it last time,
           let's pass it around
           and you can try it yourselves)

The Uncertainty Principle says that
you cannot precisely know both
the position and momentum
of a particle.

The uncertainty in position,
delta x,
times the uncertainty in momentum,
delta m,
= h/4*pi
where h is Planck's constant.

Since momentum is velocity times mass,


we have uncertainty about velocity too (and mass too, for that matter). So there is uncertainty about position, velocity, and mass of any object. Let's focus on position and velocity, out of tradition.

5. More Details

To fully describe a system, such as the universe,
or some smaller part of the universe, we need simply
list the position and velocity (and mass) of everything in it.
How many numbers are needed to describe the position?
Three, a side-to-side location, a front-to-back location,
and a height (also known as x, y, and z coordinates).
How many numbers are needed to describe the velocity,
where velocity consists of a speed and a direction?
Three - a side-to-side speed, a forward backward speed,
and an up-down speed.

6. This concept is easiest to visualize in
a 2-D simplified example.

7. So we need six numbers for every object
to fully describe the system
(actually seven, since each object has a mass as well).
Unfortunately those six numbers are in principle
impossible to get with full accuracy,
because they include both velocity and position (and mass) values.
The Uncertainty Principle tells us that
higher accuracy for one results in
lower accuracy for the other.

8. In short, if the Observer Effect
doesn't stop our prediction ambitions,
the Uncertainty Principle will.
But what if we could control both?
Well we can't!
But suppose we could just enough
to predict futures with confidence.
Alas, we're not out of the woods,
because of the esoteric physics phenomenon called
"quantum tunneling."

9. Spoil Sport of Prediction #3: Quantum Tunneling
According to quantum theory,
objects are not as localized in space as we intuitively think.
Instead, they have wave-like characteristics and
are actually "smeared" over a space
within which they may be said to exist
with some probability at each point within that space.
A tiny object like a subatomic particle,
if near enough to a thin barrier,
thus has a certain probability
of being on the other side of the barrier.
It may be observed there, and if so,
it has thus "tunneled" through the barrier
without making a hole in it.
This is quantum tunneling.

10. Actually, the term quantum tunneling
is applied to the ability of objects to "tunnel"
through other kinds of barriers than a solid one.
For example, consider the somewhat notorious
example of an idealized pencil balanced on its tip.

If the tip is sharp, except for a tiny flat spot
(say, a couple of atom wide)
it might be difficult to balance,
but one might think that
with sufficient care it could be done.

Well not exactly.
Because the pencil is actually "smeared" a little bit,
it has a certain, rather small probability
of being tipped enough to lose balance and fall.
Since the smearing is symmetric,
it could in fact fall in any direction.
The probability of being tipped enough
to lose balance is small and a single such pencil
would be unlikely to fall for a long time
(Easton, 2007, p. 1103).

But get enough pencils together
and one will fall soon enough.
For example,
balance an array of 1000 x 1000 pencils
and one will fall,
knocking over other pencils
and leading to a general domino-like conflagration
with an average (but unpredictable) delay of around a month.

What pencil will start the general crash
and in what direction the pencils fall
is impossible to predict.

11. But maybe the system we're interested in
predicting the future of
is not so finely tuned.
Maybe we can handle the Observer Effect,
the Uncertainty Principle,
and quantum tunneling
adequately for our system.
Alas, our troubles are still not over!

12. Spoil Sport of Prediction #4: the Butterfly Effect

The idea:
a butterfly flapping its wings
will create a small atmospheric disturbance.
That disturbance will propagate unpredictably.
Some time later (how long?),
the paths of hurricanes will be determined by those tiny flaps!

One mathematical description
of atmospheric cycles
whose future behavior depends seemingly unpredictably
on small present events,
may be modeled by a special kind of water wheel.

“When our results concerning
the instability of nonperiodic flow
are applied to the atmosphere,
which is ostensibly nonperiodic,
they indicate that  
prediction of the sufficiently distant future
is impossible by any method, 
unless the present conditions are known exactly. 
In view of the 
inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness 
of weather observations, 
precise very-long-range forecasting 
would seem to be non-existent.” [emphasis added]
— Edward N. Lorenz

Let's discuss what butterflies might affect our topics of interest:

. . . Future of telepresence (P)
. . . "Unikey" (C)
. . . Template-based sentence analysis (C)
. . . Robotic surgery (O)
. . . Virtual education (M)
. . . How does our age affect how we think about the future (C)
. . . Future of government (M)

So you think you've
controlled the Butterfly Effect
and all those others?
Then welcome to...

13. Spoil Sport of Prediction #5: External perturbations

To figure out what happens next,
you need to know where things are now.
But you also need to know
what outside influences
will impinge on the system between "now" and "next,"
whenever "next" is.

Those influences
can affect the evolution of the system
- that's why they're called "influences."

Imagine, for example,
the Lorenz water wheel,
but while it's raining.

Every raindrop is another butterfly
whose tiny actions
change the direction of the wheel
at some future time.

More generally,
every external nudge to a system
is like that butterfly.

Let's identify some external influences
likely to affect
the future course
of some of our topics of interest:

. . . Future of telepresence (P)
. . . "Unikey" (C)
. . . Template-based sentence analysis (C)
. . . Robotic surgery (O)
. . . Virtual education (M)
. . . How does our age affect how we think about the future (C)
. . . Future of government (M)

Computer round-off error
is another source of perturbations
from outside the system under study.

14. Spoil Sport of Prediction #6: Existentialist Angst - Why Care (About the Future)?

Does the future matter?

Does the existence of humanity matter?

Does it matter what kind of existence?
. . . Difficult struggle for existence

. . . Prosperity

. . . Expansion beyond any set boundaries

. . . Regardless of what we should do, what do we actually do?

"Eat dessert first" - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die" - Isaiah 22:13

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" - Bobby McFerrin

15. Decisions often focus on the short term

. . . Business decisions focus on short term

. . . Political decisions focus on short term

. . . Many people focus on the short term

. . . What about animals?

. . . Why is it good to focus on the short term?

. . . Why is it not good to focus on the short term?

. . . Why is it good to focus on the long term?

. . . Why is it not good to focus on the long term?

16. Existentialism

A school of philosophy

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
was a key figure in its development

. . . Danish philosopher and theologian

"...focused on subjective human experience
rather than the objective truths
of mathematics and science..."

"...interested in people's quiet struggle
with the apparent meaninglessness of life..."
- Wikipedia,

        What do you think of that?

17. Discussing the future of humanity is nice, 
but what about my future??!

. . . If life is meaningless,
      then does the future matter?

. . . Is life meaningless?

. . . Is the question meaningless?

. . . Is it important to give life meaning?

. . . What should one try to do with life?

. . . My conclusion:
      reasoning from accepted first principles
      does not resolve these

      Therefore you can choose the answers you prefer!
      (Or not choose, it's up to you)

              Equivalently, you can choose
              to add first principles
              as needed to get the answers

. . . . . . You could pick pessimistic answers,
            you could pick optimistic ones too

. . . . . . Pure logic won't say which is right

. . . . . . Better to pick the optimistic ones!
                Because life's more fun that way

. . . That seems like common sense...

           Yet it is not always a matter of conscious choice

                    "Breaking up is hard to do"
                     Optimistic and pessimistic moods

                     Taken to extremes - bipolar illness

                     That's brain chemistry not choice

                           Yet... optimism can be taught & practiced!

18. How societies "think" (actually, act) about the future

Source: J. Diamond,
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Recall pre-"discovery" Easter Island and the canoes
A big palm tree was needed to build a good canoe
A good canoe was needed to get plentiful seafood
So why on earth did someone cut down the last palm tree?
      (read aloud from p. 410?)
      What do you think?

19. Why societies can collapse
(Another kind of existential problem)
You might think that societies would try to
anticipate and control existential risks

      But sometimes they don't
      What existential risks are possible for us?

Here is a taxonomy (from Diamond)

Failure to recognize a critical problem before it happens

Example: foxes and rabbits in Australia
Anasazi civilization (Arizona) did not anticipate local climate change (drought)
France built the Maginot line for defense, but lost WWII in mere weeks
Etc. (can you think of any)

Failure to recognize the problem when it happens
Examples: any slow-moving trend obscured by short-term effects
Note the noise-and-signal issue
Also called "creeping normalcy"
Let me read from Diamond (p. 426) more about the palm trees...
Etc. (Can you think of any examples?)

Failure to try to solve the problem after it is recognized
Why on Earth would anyone or any group do that??
Yet according to Diamond this "failure is the most frequent"!
. . . Failure may benefit influential special interests that therefore push it
. . . Greenland Norse leaders kept cows (unsuited to the cold)
. . . The few pike fishermen stocked pike in Montana waters,
       destroying trout for the many more trout fishermen (p. 427)
. . . "Throughout recorded history,
        actions or inactions by self-absorbed
        kings, chiefs, and politicians
        have been a regular cause of societal collapses" - p. 431
. . . Any examples closer to home of
      benefiting a few at the expense of the rest?
. . . Is this rational behavior?
. . . Unregulated access to common resources
. . . . . . "If I don't take as much as I can, someone else will"
. . . . . . Pretty soon it's gone!
. . . . . . Any examples?
. . . . . . Is this rational behavior?
. . . . . . Solutions?

Irrational causes of societal collapse
. . . Beliefs that aren't right
. . . Taking a gamble and losing
. . . Etc. (any others you can think of?)

Try but fail to solve the problem
Greenland Norse colony: "The cruel reality is that...Greenland's cold climate have posed an insuperably difficult challenge to...a long-lasting sustainable economy." - p. 436

20. Spoil sport of prediction #7: The care horizon

How much is the future of the human race worth? We'll increase it later, but let's start with an admittedly bargain basement $100. If you had $98.04 now, and put it in the bank at an interest rate of 2% per year, then in a year you'd have $100. That means getting $100 one year from now is only worth having $98.04 now, at least from a "Time Value of Money" perspective. Similarly, getting $100 in 2 years is only worth $96.12 now, because adding 2% to $96.12 gives $98.04 in one year, and compounding by adding another 2% gives $100 a year later. Extending this reasoning further, the human race in a modest 233 years would be worth just under a dollar now. In 466 years? Less than a penny.

It's fair to say that a hundred dollars is an underestimate for the value of the entire human race. So let's increase it to a fair (or at least fairer) price. We might multiply the number of people by the value of the life of each and every person on the planet. What is the value of a person's life? Economics (known as the dismal science, even to economists) tells us that the de facto value society places on a human life can actually be calculated, and courts of law in fact sometimes do such calculations. Answers vary, of course, but a few million dollars is often not that far off the mark. Multiply that by the number of people in the world and you get a biggish number, $100 quadrillion at the most for the value of the human race.

But wait - maybe you don't trust the financial and legal wizards with something so important. After all, we already trust them with some pretty important things, and they periodically betray that, seriously screwing things up. Maybe we should use a higher number, just to be more sure we aren't under-valuing ourselves.

How about a dollar for every single atom in the known universe? That's around $10^80 (1 followed by 80 zeroes dollars)? It is a lot of cash. Way (way way) more than the United States has ever printed. There are literally not enough atoms in the known universe to even print that much money. Yet, if that is the value of humanity's existence 9,070 years from now, the value at present would be...$100! A scant 466 years after that? Less than a penny. How about the present value of humanity existing in a million years? The answer is a fraction of a penny so tiny that popular spreadsheets, calculators and computer programming languages can't even state it. They typically just think it is 0, but if you must know, it's actually about  $0.0000001.

Wait - someone in the back has a question - yes? "But it's not just the value in year on million we're after. We also need to add in the value in year 1,000,001, year 1,000,002, etc., forever and ever. That's got to add up, eventually." Well, only a little, it turns out. The value now is "bigger," but still less than $0.0000001 even at a dollar an atom. The upshot of all this is that there is no good financial reason to care whether humanity exists in ten thousand or a million years - at least according to an economist. Therefore there is no need to plan that far into the future, or go to trouble and expense to preserve the Earth indefinitely, or even to bother predicting that far ahead. The time value of money seems indeed to be a spoil sport of the prediction game.

21. Making it personal. Maybe you are still unconvinced.
Such sophistry fails to capture the real facts at a gut,
common sense level, you might say.
Then consider the following argument.

You care about yourself, so you don't want humanity to end while you are still alive (it might not be pleasant). You care about your children (or you will if you have any some day, or maybe you care about some or even all other children). So you don't want humanity to end during their lifetimes, even if you are already gone. You probably even care (or will care) about your grandchildren because you will hopefully get to know them personally. Furthermore, you care about their grandchildren (though probably less) simply because you care about your grandchildren, who care about theirs. But you have no gut level reason to care about the generations after that, because neither you, nor anyone you care about will ever know them. To put it another way, how much do you care about your grandparents' grandparents, and how much did they care about you? Still care in some more abstract, dispassionate sense? Then see the previous paragraph.

Maybe you are a fast enough breeder, and long enough liver, that you'll care about your great grandchildren and theirs, instead of just grandchildren. Yet that is still only 6 generations into the future, not even the biblical 7, a couple of centuries or so at the most. So relax, quit worrying, eat dessert first.... In particular, don't bother with predicting past the 2-century "care horizon," because there's little point to it. The 2-century care horizon is, thus, our last spoil sport of the prediction game.


D. Easton, The quantum mechanical tipping pencil - a caution for physics teachers, European Journal of Physics, vol. 28 (2007), pp. 1097-1104.

R. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Oxford University Press, 2004

"Time Value of Money": TVM is standard terminology in the finance and accounting world.

"Well, only a little, it turns out." There is a formula for calculating the sum of a geometrically decreasing, infinite series. Look it up (or play with a spreadsheet instead).

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Due next Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

10 pts. extra credit: go to the "UALR Writer's Network's first event for this year.  It is a workshop designed to help students write stronger academic essays led by Dr. David Fisher of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing on Monday, October 11, from 1-2 pm in the Donaghey Student Center Room 205D."

Request a slot for presenting your project. Any class between now and the end of the semester is alright, up to two people on a given day, first come first served. The course index/topic list shows the available class days. Ignore what is already listed under future dates - we can schedule you any time. Do this by email to

1. Put your answer to this question on your blog under the heading HW7, and label it "1." Regarding your term project topic, give a list of references to useful Web sites and other information. Check the blogs of the others in the class because, for HW #6, people were asked to provide some Web sites relevant to your topic and provide reviews of them. You may quote the reviews in your document (use quotation marks) if you like. The basic idea here is to begin to assemble everything you have on the topic in one place so you have something to work with. Here are the blogs of the members of the class:

Append to your posting any other information you have gathered about your term project topic in previous homeworks. This includes any notes and graphs based on the Delphi method, discussions on TRIZ or prediction markets relevant to your topic, etc. Don't worry about organization for this question, just get it all in one place. 

2. Give your answer to this question the label "2." Design an outline for your report (if you are going to do a report). If you are going to write a story, design something about it (a plot? An outline? Some alternative possible themes? Whatever - if I had experience as a creative writing instructor I might be able to provide further guidance.) If you want to do something besides a report or a story (say a program, or whatever it is), you are welcome to check with me for suggestions, or just figure out yourself what to do for this question that is equivalent. Give the outline.

3. Give your answer to this question the label "3." Reorganize your answer to question 1 using the outline of question 2. The resulting report is a start to your project, and is the answer to this question!