Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Month: December, 2012

“…and the best time is had by those who’re best able to deceive themselves” – The character Svidrigailov from Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’

A journey through Hawking’s imagination on life beyond our planet

A journey through Hawking’s imagination on life beyond our planet

“…My name is Stephen Hawking; physicist, cosmologist, and something of a dreamer”

‘Into the universe with Stephen Hawking’, the 2010 series communicating the mesmerising insights of one our greatest living thinkers, is a journey through those features of the universe that I think we all consider the most compelling, the most captivating. In this episode he discusses alien life; what might these organisms be like? In what environments could they exist? Would they necessarily require the conditions that have led to the spectacle of life we see on earth? And, with undertones of his famous comments on our own survival hopes, what traits might make for a successful civilisation?


“Everyone you ever meet will know something you don’t” – Bill Nye

“A remarkable aspect of Ben’s dominance of his professional field was that he achieved it without that narrowness of mental activity that concentrates all effort on a single end. It was, rather, the incidental by-product of an intellect whose breadth almost exceeded definition. Certainly I have never met anyone with a mind of similar scope. Virtually total recall, unending fascination with new knowledge, and an ability to recast it in a form applicable to seemingly unrelated problems made exposure to his thinking in any field a delight” – Warren E. Buffet on Benjamin Graham after his death.



TED talk: Kirk Sorensen: Thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel

TED talk: Kirk Sorensen: Thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel

The energy problem that humans face, how we can meet our energy needs in a sustainable way, can only be considered a political, or human issue, being that the solutions we need are even today ready and waiting. The way we currently produce the vast majority of our energy is harming the planet in ways hugely alarming to those who have taken the time to educate themselves on the delicate planetary systems that are being so emphatically abused or over-strained.

To the extent that I am familiar with the convictions of those considered the most informed on this topic (the planetary boundary scientists amongst others), it seems that the best solution for our energy production system would comprise a base-load provided by nuclear power, augmented with renewable solutions to cover varying demands above that.

Many of the myths surrounding nuclear power are put to rest in Mark Lynas’ excellent book The God Species that I reviewed in an earlier post ( One statistic that stands out is that all the so-feared nuclear waste that France has produced in the last quarter of a century, lies under the floor in a single room, emitting no radiation to the outside world. When considering that the alternative, fossil fuel derived energy, may be driving  us to extinction, the ‘dangers’ of nuclear power are shown to be the surreptitious influences of powerful people, or simply uninformed hysteria. Those who have stood to lose out from the acceptance of nuclear energy, fossil fuel tycoons with political influence as hard to believe as their solipsism, have lobbied against it since its arrival. This has extended beyond the influence of media conjecture alone, to the falsification of scientific reports (hardly an extraordinary thing when you cast a discerning eye to the practices of the pharmaceutical industry, just to start).

In this very interesting TED talk Kirk Sorenson shines light on some of the recent advancements in nuclear power technology that further its attractiveness still. He also gives yet more tantalising insight into the innovative brilliance that seems to have littered every project NASA has devoted a department to.



The cost of travel

Traveling by train requires a similar amount of energy per distance as that required of a bicycle, per person. The typical measure of transport efficiency is energy per unit distance; per passenger. This is usually expressed as Mega Joules per passenger kilometre (MJ/passenger-km). As a very rough guide walking might take around 0.78 MJ/passenger-km. Cycling slowly, at around 16 km/h, say, would require 0.11 MJ/passenger-km – let’s assume the determined commuter will be demanding double that. Working to those assumptions; locomotion by train, in fact for freight as well as for people, has remarkably high efficiency. The average train might require somewhere below 0.6 MJ/passenger-km, and newer trains are quite exceptionally efficient: When full, the trains in Basel require 0.085 MJ/passenger-km. The East Japanese Railway manages 0.35.

Simply for a little perspective the average car might demand two or three MJ/passenger-km; passenger aircraft around 1.4 MJ/passenger-km. No satisfaction can be taken, however, from the lower values of any of the modes of transport mentioned here because, whether fossil fuel or largely non-nuclear derived electricity, the source of energy is just as harmful for each… except arguably the humble bicycle, of course. Just to mention in passing, as if you couldn’t guess yourself, helicopters are among the least efficient.

“Overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.” – Daniel Kahneman

Cognitive biases 002 – The overconfidence effect

Cognitive biases 002 – The overconfidence effect

Introduction (

Perhaps one of the cognitive biases we can, or should, all relate to the most (for the reflective individual) is that of unfounded confidence. Evident too often each day, each conversation, to possibly count; this bias manifests in front of our eyes, in others and in ourselves, moment after moment, assertion after assertion. We feel certainty in our beliefs to the extent that we allow ourselves to become emotional in their defence, and even less rational still as we stand by views often unreceptive to new information or logic. How often do we make fools of ourselves as we lay down pragmatic thought to argue with those around us as if to prove our intelligence, our wisdom – what irony that practice carries. All of us have been shown the fallacy of our ways on enough occasions that it is to our sincere discredit that we still will stand by our opinions with such strength, and with such vanity, that to the keen observer far too many disputes are simply a primal clash of egos.

How frequently will we not only arrest our own efforts of analysis, of self-scrutiny, too early; but will also wager our credibility on the certainties we have that our ‘opinions’ are correct. Clearly, forgetting that inducting philosophy of wisdom; that we “know nothing except the fact of our ignorance,” is a practice we engage in interaction after interaction. The maturity and wisdom shown by those who have the strength of character to second-guess their views, particularly when those views are public, and go on to admit they are wrong, is something we should all aspire to.

Luckily these days we are able to support these philosophies empirically. Socrates had no such data to go on when he stood alone in asserting the wisdoms that have been held in the highest regard by the greatest minds that followed him, to his unending credit. On the one hand his commitment to logic was exceptional, and on the other it was hugely brave considering that, then more than now, challenging the fear-alleviating beliefs of his brothers and sisters carried the risk of death or worse.

The overconfidence effect describes the difference between the certainty that we feel, to ourselves or openly to others, and the actual accuracy of our views. This bias, like many, will manifest differently from person to person and across varying circumstances. The bias is often discussed as one of the most dangerous that is prevalent throughout humans given its likely role in financial bubbles, foolish lawsuits and wars and conflict.

There is one specific example that paints very elegantly how absurd our confidences are. Participants answering quiz questions, and giving confidence ratings, were wrong 40% of the time that they reported feeling 99% certain of their answer. Indecision is final; and probably the organisms that practiced this old cliché were left behind by those that acted on their first impressions; instantly, without contemplation. In the world of today, though, how foolish they seem.


Book Review: Antonio Damasio “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”

Book Review: Antonio Damasio “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”

Anyone who has seen Damasio’s lectures, or read some of his work, will I’m sure have been struck by what a remarkable man this is. One of the most respected authorities on consciousness, and cognition in general; Damasio has a wealth of life-changing insight which he blends with his excellent taste and rich life experiences to produce an engaging masterpiece of literary achievement, rather than just a scientific feat alone. If Damasio goes on to write a more accomplished book we can only wait with excitement as to what mysteries he will trace with his relentlessly fair, wise and rational analysis.

Like every brilliant scientist Damasio follows the evidence he has as far as it will take him and no further. It is not enough for him to explain and harmonise the different experimental observations made; Damasio qualifies every theory or hypothesis in the context of evolutionary pressure (of functional significance) – why would an organism with this trait outperform one with that? What value was there to an autobiographical self that meant it prevailed? He addresses, throughout the book, many questions with a haunting relevance to our lives; our plights; our well-being – our happiness.

I have not read another book as challenging as this one. Einstein once observed that things “should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Damasio achieves this here, but the subject matter is complex, or perhaps simply abstract compared to lines we have drawn ourselves about the nature of our consciousness. After an introduction that discusses why brains were an evolutionarily successful trait; what came before brains; and how they improved from their inception, Damasio goes on to tackle the task of communicating the mechanisms we believe contribute to our consciousness of today. He rattles off, chapter by chapter, explanations detailing the workings of the various compartments of the brain considered to have a role, leading or not, in the eventual spectacle of contemplative, autobiographical consciousness. These are complicated chapters. Damasio teaches, though, with excellent skill. After explaining concepts in the simplest terms he can, which may not be simple at all, he then recruits the most elegant metaphors that paint perfectly the picture of what it is you must understand to move on. This style is continuous, so even when you are pressing through the most complicated sections, solace can be taken that it will soon be put in context for you effortlessly. After passing over each important contributor to the consciousness process, Damasio rounds off the book with a collection of concluding chapters that cover, in exquisite fashion, the various products of consciousness such as language, economics, moral codes, written records, poetry, politics, and, finally, art.

If on the one hand this book is an achievement because it is communicating the acclaimed work of a great thinker, then on the other it is animated by Damasio’s style, wit and taste.