Probability

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Dice
Eight. Photo by Lukasd2009.

I found an inter­est­ing art­icle on the BBC Magazine yes­ter­day: Believe it or not: The battle over cer­tainty. It’s the first in a series A Point of View broad­cast­ing on Radio 4. The whole thing is worth read­ing but there were a couple of standout points.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky as a his­tor­ian, you find a bit of evid­ence which illu­min­ates a big idea. That happened to me this week in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The thought upper­most in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of sci­ence as being about cer­tain­ties and abso­lute truth. Whereas sci­ent­ists are actu­ally quite tent­at­ive — they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the exper­i­mental find­ings so far and a gen­eral principle.

…there’s a lot of fas­cin­at­ing stuff about Huygens and his clocks then…

The most today’s Royal Society is pre­pared to say is that a belief that all spe­cies on earth have always exis­ted in their present form, and that the earth is “not con­sist­ent with the evid­ence from geo­logy, astro­nomy and phys­ics”. And that is prob­ably not enough to sat­isfy ordin­ary thought­ful cit­izens without a sci­entific training.

I won­der about this. I think people do think about life in terms of prob­ab­il­it­ies. In court cases decisions are made based on prob­ab­il­ity. The state doesn’t have to defin­it­ively prove its case — merely that it should be proved bey­ond reas­on­able doubt. That might seem a woolly cri­terion, but that’s the gaps where the law­yers make their money.

A court case is rarely decided by re-running the crime to see what happened. Often there isn’t a con­tin­ous nar­rat­ive and the jury has to decide how to put together the dis­par­ate pieces of evid­ence. There’s uncer­tainty and you build from what you know and try and work out how the pieces fit together.

Science is a pro­cess where you try and answer that prob­lem by re-running events until you think you’ve elim­in­ated all vari­ants apart from the ones you want to study. When this hap­pens a sci­ent­ist has an advant­age a juror lacks. Unfortunately some prob­lems are simply untest­able as they stand. Global Warming, which Lisa Jardine refers to would be a cinch to solve if you had a few thou­sand identical Earths. Having only the one we have to test indi­vidual man­age­able prob­lems and then argue how we put them together.

Events like Global Warming affect us all and so we should all have some input into how we tackle the prob­lem. Warming is hap­pen­ing, the data are expli­cit. Is it all part of a nat­ural cycle as fewer and fewer sci­ent­ists think or are there actions we could take to pro­tect our soci­ety? Which factors would make a genu­ine dif­fer­ence and which would simply be window-dressing? This is why the last sen­tence is so inter­est­ing.

A pub­lic under­stand­ing of sci­ence has never been more important.

If your neigh­bours have the vote, then they have a say on issues that will impact on your family’s future. So will your neighbour’s chil­dren. Are they get­ting the sci­ence edu­ca­tion they need to decide on a import­ant issues like Carbon Emissions, GM Crops or Cloning that will dir­ectly affect you and your family?

It seems in the USA people are by and large very happy as Coturnix reports. Pharyngula also has a post high­light­ing some­thing I liked in the recent Royal Society state­ment which gets lost some­times in the Creationism debate. Children are entitled to an edu­ca­tion.

Introducing the Pyramid of Doom

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I've discovered a new Bosnian Pyramid!

While research­ing to write some­thing pos­it­ive for the Wikipedia entry on the Bosnian Pyramids (I did the Currently Osmanagić states… to …for future gen­er­a­tions bit) I noticed some­thing a bit odd about the map. I wondered if I’d cal­cu­lated the lengths of the wrong tri­angle. It seems I have made a simple mistake.

The cal­cu­la­tion was based on the three pyr­am­ids marked in orange. These three pyr­am­ids come close to mak­ing an equi­lat­eral tri­angle, though with nowhere near the pre­ci­sion claimed by the Bosnian Geodetic Institute. I got these mark­ers from www​.bos​ni​an​pyr​amid​.com and you can down­load them from there to check this for your­self with your own copy of Google Earth. I thought these were the loc­a­tions of the pyr­am­ids and, if you look the map shown at BosnianPyramids​.org shows these are the three loc­a­tions meas­ured. This blog post would also sug­gest that the Pyramid of Dragon is iden­ti­fied cor­rectly as it places the pyr­amid on Bucki gaj.

If you look closely then you can see there’s a ridge between the Pyramids of the Moon and the Dragon. I’ve marked the end of that ridge with the label Bosnian Pyramid of Doom, and >you can down­load the Google Earth book­mark to see it for your­self in 3D (alas lost in the move). Is it high enough to block a line of site between the pyr­am­ids of the Moon and the Dragon? No.

But is is a prob­lem. The Pyramid of Doom is on the end of this long ridge. The pyr­amid of the Dragon is dis­tinct­ively on its own hill. So how do you make sense of this dia­gram at Wikipedia, which is used by the offi­cial site? I made the mis­take of assum­ing that the Pyramid of the Dragon, being under a large hill, was sta­tion­ary. It looks like Osmanagić has dis­covered the world’s first mobile monu­mental pre­his­toric pyramid*.

What hap­pens to the tri­angle if you use the Pyramid of Doom pos­i­tion as the third ver­tex? Then the Moon — Doom baseline is far, far too short to make an equi­lat­eral tri­angle. It’s not even remotely close, which again sug­gests that Bucki gaj is the Pyramid of Dragon. It does leave the prob­lem of an imposter pyr­amid on the offi­cial guides though.

Next week it’s the Bosnian Pyramid of the Molehill — and I’m not sure if I’m jok­ing yet.

*This would explain how the Bosnian pyr­am­ids got to Egypt and Mexico. In one stroke the lack of Bosnian arte­facts is explained as they were built in Visoko and then moved to their new loc­a­tions. We also now know why the Egyptian pyr­am­ids were smal­ler. You wouldn’t want to move a lar­ger pyr­amid would you? The Mexican pyr­am­ids were even smal­ler, but then they had fur­ther to go.

How do you set up a blog?

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Not a sar­castic title, but a genu­ine query. This snip­pet from BlogThings from explains it.


Well, You Know What a Blog Is…


You got 4/8 correct!

But, truth­fully, most blogs prob­ably bore you.

After about a year of run­ning this you’d think I’d know the answer. The reason I don’t is that my under­stand­ing of blog­ging is a bit like the way I think about Wikipedia. I think there’s a dif­fer­ence between the mech­an­ics of set­ting up a blog and the pro­cess of run­ning one. Besides, I know one way of set­ting up a blog but there are almost cer­tainly more. If I were start­ing from scratch today there are things I’d do differently.

I ask as an iScience (inter­dis­cip­lin­ary sci­ence) group blog looks more likely. The cur­rent idea is to set up a group blog that all staff have access to, and pos­sibly the under­gradu­ates too. I fore­see two major prob­lems. One is tech­nical, who keeps an eye on the mech­an­ics of run­ning the blog? There’s a con­stant drive for updates to fight spam­mers and the depart­ment is com­mit­ted to hav­ing com­ments enabled. There are other needs to update soft­ware as older ver­sions become unsup­por­ted. The second aspect is the social, how do you con­vert good­will into actual writ­ing which is a prob­lem we’ll have to work out for ourselves.

The first prob­lem is the one that’s tax­ing me now. In the depart­ment it’s Alan Cann (pod­cast­ing VirologyBytes) and myself who have exper­i­ence. It’s not a prac­tical solu­tion to have either of us being code­mon­keys for the pro­ject. External host­ing seems more more sens­ible because tech­nical prob­lems become other people’s prob­lems — and there’s no pen­alty for suc­cess. I’ve had to upgrade band­width again this month. What I don’t know is the best way to extern­ally host. The three major options seem Blogger, WordPress​.com and TypePad.

The cost rules out TypePad. It’s not that iScience is strapped for cash. It’s that if you need a budget at all then admin-wise there’s a huge amount of hassle. Forms need to be filled, value jus­ti­fied, cheques coun­ter­signed etc, which for the sum of money we’re talk­ing about seems so much hassle. The cost effect­ively doubles and we have bet­ter ways of spend­ing £100 a year. This leaves Blogger, which is Alan Cann’s tool of choice and WordPress, which I use.

The advant­ages I find for WordPress are that it is flex­ible in what you can put in. There is a good WYSIWYG inter­face, the cat­egor­ies are easy to set up which helps in Technorati pinging. The tem­plates are cent­rally man­aged, so that they’re hard to break and it’s flex­ible enough for multiusers.

The thing is that Blogger also cov­ers mul­ti­users well. It too has a WYSIWYG inter­face and while I find it a bit clunkier it’s not dra­mat­ic­ally so. Adding tech­nor­ati tags is more dif­fi­cult and I’m not sure that I’d want to how explain why tag­ging is a good idea to people that will be blog­ging for the first time. An advant­age Blogger has over WordPress​.com is that the tem­plat­ing is more flex­ible if you want to have some­thing that looks unique. There’s also the option to pub­lish to your own web­space which would mean there’s a touch more integ­rate­able­ness in the sys­tem. Both fea­ture the option to invent new words like integrateableness.

At the moment I favour WordPress​.com. The cat­egor­isa­tion tool could be really help­ful for sort­ing posts in what will be an inter­dis­cip­lin­ary sci­ence web­log. But I could be biased simply because I use WordPress here. I don’t think there’s an obvi­ous win­ner and I know most of the good web­logs are on Blogger. Are they there from iner­tia, there’s a cost in mov­ing your blog, or is Blogger the bet­ter option?

Skooldaze

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Skooldaze
Skooldaze. A blast from the past.

I’ve found some­thing that takes me back to my youth. Jasper is an Java based ZX Spectrum sim­u­lator. The Spectrum was my second computer.

I ori­gin­ally had a ZX81, which was a 3.25 Mhz machine with 8k ROM and a whole kilo­byte of RAM as stand­ard. This might not sound like a lot now, but what you have to remem­ber is that back in 1981, it… well it wasn’t a lot then either. That’s why there was a 16k ram pack made to sit on the back in rather wobbly man­ner. It’s the butt of many a joke, usu­ally from people who never had one, as it would often crash. Sometimes as much as once a day if the code was buggy. This was back in the day before most home com­puters ran Microsoft oper­at­ing sys­tems and a crash was con­sidered a ser­i­ous flaw, rather than an oppor­tun­ity to make a cup of tea while the sys­tem reboots.

The Spectrum was a step up with 16k of ROM and 48k of RAM and col­our graph­ics rather than black and white. For a nine year old was import­ant because the games were bet­ter. There is a lot of nos­tal­gia for Spectrum games found on the web. There’s a feel­ing that because pro­gram­mers were forced to cope with the lim­it­a­tions of the machine they were more invent­ive in terms of gameplay.

I can’t see it myself. Manic Miner was good for its time, but its time was a quarter of a cen­tury ago. I think it’s nos­tal­gia for youth rather than the games them­selves. Half-Life or Rome: Total War are far bet­ter games than any­thing ever writ­ten for the Spectrum. The only one which does catch my eye still is Skooldaze.

Skooldaze 2The aim of Skooldaze is to replace your bad school report with a good one. To do this you need to open the safe, and this requires a code. Each teacher has a let­ter of the code and you get this out of them by knock­ing down the school shields. Except for the History Teacher. The History Teacher is so old he’s had to have a hyp­notic trig­ger. He’ll reveal his let­ter when he sees the year of his birth writ­ten. Interviews with the author made it clear he had a sense of humour. On the hints pages of magazines, along with how to kill ali­ens or jump spiders in games were short lists along the lines of “Evesham (1265), Bannockburn (1314), Crecy (1346), Poiters (1356), Shrewsbury (1403)…”.

If his­tory really were about battles and dates then the game would have been sheer genius.

I’ve found this page that gives the instruc­tions on how to play. It’s not as com­plex as it looks and to be hon­est even sur­viv­ing a day in school is an acheive­ment. There was a sequel, Back 2 Skool, but that’s far more com­plex than it looks.

Wikipedia and Me

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Chess
Superiority. Photo by LucasD2009.

I don’t under­stand the Wikipedia.

I know that it’s an encyc­lo­pae­dia that any­one can edit and how to look up the codes, but that’s a bit like telling someone “The Queen can move as far as it likes in any dir­ec­tion, the Bishops can only move on diag­on­als…” and then say­ing they under­stand Chess. While I’m look­ing more at how the Wikipedia could be used, I’m still very cautious.

It seems odd that aca­dem­ics wouldn’t auto­mat­ic­ally accept an con­tinu­ously updated encyc­lo­pae­dia that any­one can access for free. One reason per­haps is how they’re intro­duced to the Wikipedia.
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Trigonometry and Pyramids

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Ravnatelj raises an inter­est­ing ques­tion about my meas­ure­ments of the equi­lat­eral tri­angle. I’ve meas­ured the tops as though they’re on a plane rather than in 3D space. Does that make a dif­fer­ence? It might. It’s a planar prob­lem because there are only three points but the plane is inclined to the hori­zontal and that could make a difference.

moon-dragon-distance

There’s prob­ably an eleg­ant way to find out, but I’ve used plain num­ber crunch­ing. Using the map sup­plied from the offi­cial site, I can see that the Pyramid of the Dragon and the Pyramid of the Moon are both, to within a few metres 660 metres above sea level. So by meas­ur­ing that dis­tance that gives me the length of the side of the tri­angle, which is about 2,250 metres.
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Final thoughts on the Bosnian pyramid

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As it turned out this was a dread­ful title as it just ran and ran and ran…

Possibly not my last ever thoughts, but the only reason I wrote my first post on the sub­ject was that I found the mass accept­ance of what is eas­ily checked non­sense mildly amus­ing. If some­thing endear­ingly bark­ing comes out of Visoko then I may laugh again but my in depth ana­lysis (The sim­il­ar­ity between the Pyramids of the Sun is that the pointy bit is at the top, see below also) is about as excited I can get about it. There is a dark irony to that a coun­try whose her­it­age sites were tar­geted in an eth­nic cleans­ing cam­paign has decided to fin­ish off the job with one of their major sites, but it’s not that amus­ing. On the whole it’s rather dull and I’m sorry to dis­ap­point Billy Rae but I’m not filled with enthu­si­asm to write a com­pre­hens­ive debunk­ing of the site, tak­ing each fact line by line because it’s obvi­ous that Osmanagić isn’t inter­ested in facts. Here are a col­lec­tion of thoughts which might explain why I’m not moved to keep more of an eye on the topic.

Osmanagić is mak­ing claims which he has no evid­ence for

I was going to talk about the align­ments of Mayan pyr­am­ids. This was because one of the reas­ons we ‘know’ the Bosnian pyr­amid is a pyr­amid is because it’s aligned in the car­dinal dir­ec­tions. The reason it’s called the Pyramid of the Sun is that it looks like the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. So I fired up Google Earth to take a look at Teotihuacan.

The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, in Google Earth

Well that’s not car­din­ally aligned.
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