Thursday, August 28, 2008

Evolution Relationship

I was watching some videos on TED, a site which I highly recommend. Lately I have been watching random videos when I feel bored. I came across a video on genetic tracing of humanities origins. (Spencer Wells - Building a family tree for humanity) It is a good watch. The thing that I really liked and would like to point out is this idea of our relation to other animals. Typically we just get compared to apes, we came from apes, yada yada. This idea gets some people upset. Instead if we take this a little deeper, the greater idea is that we are related to all the animals on the planet, not just the apes. To me this seems like a incredible viewpoint which is much more 'religious' and uplifting. I wish more people would mention it.

That is all, watch some more videos on TED, like these:

Jane Goodall on what seperates us from the apes.
Hans Rosling shows the best stats you've ever seen.
Murray Gell-Mann: Beauty and truth in physics
Joshua Klein: The amazing intelligence of crows

That should be enough to get you hooked.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Olympic Judgement

I was talking to my Dad about the Olympics. He hasn't watched a lot of it but He started to complain about the sports which give judged scores, preferring the ones with definable quantitative measures. I thought this was interesting since I've complained about this as well. Are we genetically predisposed to complaining about gymnastics scoring? :)

I think it is pretty evident that the scoring system just does not work. This is evident in the spread of the scores given by the judges. If all the judges gave nearly the same score you may be more inclined to believe that the score they gave is what the athlete deserved. Instead, the Olympic judges, presumably the best judges around, cannot give consistent scores between themselves. Right here I would like to run through some numbers, calculating standard deviations of the group scores and compare that verses the variation between athletes. Unfortunately I don't remember enough of my statistics class to do a good job of that quickly. (If someone wants to give it a shot, I'd appreciate it, maybe I'll try later.) Though, I am confident that the variations between the judges is far beyond the differences which determine gold and silver and bronze.

The problem is, I really enjoy many of the judged events. It is amazing what these athletes do. I am in awe. How can we help to increase the confidence in the scores? I think this could be done. I started thinking about diving. A computer-camera system could be put into place which would estimate the angles of the body, determining rotation, separation of the legs, and ultimately it could put a quantitative measure the amount of water displaced. Similar systems could be used in gymnastics as well.

A system like this would not solve the problem outright, but it would give the judges more to work with. It also would give the audience some tangible scores that they could appreciate and understand. In the end the variation between the athletes would need to be accounted for. This would all come down to human judgment, but maybe with some engineers help we can reduce the error within the judges and insure that the athletes get the metals that they deserve.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Electricity vs. Gasoline

I got fired up to write this article because of hippies. I think they are a frequent source of inspiration for us on this blog. In essence, I was reading a forum and as usual someone has to complain about people driving and that you should just move closer to work and bike. We'll that is great if you can do that, but it is obviously not a solution for everyone. (I am not going to get into the details here but... cost of living, city life, raising kids are good reasons.)

This example wasn't the entirety of my frustration. This kind of mindset is typical of the now more popular casual environmentalist claiming that individuals need to make drastic changes to their lifestyle (possible significantly detrimental ones) in the name of the environment. I think this kind of argument is bound to fail. Individuals will not change make significant changes easily, especially if they are going to inconvenience themselves. Instead, what should the environmentalist ask:

Can we create a global system which has the advantages of our current system without the pollution? How do we accomplish this? What technologies need to mature? What is the impact on the economy or the average joe's wallet? (it needs to be minimal, preferably create a system which makes money) How are we going to address growing energy demands?

If they maintained this attitude (an engineering approach to the problem - maybe they could actually get involved in the engineering and science themselves) they might make more significant changes. This is the point - the environmentalists agenda will not be fulfilled by making everyone feel guilty, instead it will happen if people can make money at it. This is only going to happen if technological advances allow it. Simple, science + money = solution, that is how you change the world.

Somewhere in the middle of this all I was researching carbon dioxide release from several energy sources. People have a tendency to blindly trust what they have been told. I asked myself, how much CO2 is created while driving a car vs. consuming electricity? Here are the numbers. A gallon of gasoline produces around 20 lbs of CO2. That may seem odd, since a gallon of gas only weighs about 6 lbs, but it is mostly carbon and it combines with oxygen from the atmosphere. O2 is much heavier than Carbon. Thus, heavier CO2.

On the other hand, a coal plant might produce around 2 lbs of CO2 per kWh. To put this in perspective lets say a home is using 11000 kWh/year. (An average value) This equates to around 22,000 lbs of Co2/year (if they ran off a coal plant) or maybe as low as 10,000 lbs of CO2. (if they have other combustion energy sources, natural gas, etc) This is equivalent to 500 to 1100 gallons of gasoline per year or 1.36 to 3.01 gallons per day. In a 30 mpg vehicle this equates to 40 to 90 miles of driving per day.

Thus, a 20-45 mile commute to work (everyday) in a vehicle with a reasonable gas mileage will produce about as much CO2 as a typical home.

I like numbers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

World Records

Josh and I were chatting about the breaking of world records the other day. In specific, during the 4x100 mens freestyle relay 4 teams were past the previous world record. We thought it odd that after all these years a world record could be crushed like that. One would expect some humans would reach some sort of limit, at least limiting world record breaking. To satisfy my curiosity I just had to plot the data.

So there it is. The data shows some sort of limit being reached. This last world record has been a bit of a jump, but not significantly more than previous jumps. I actually love the first set of data, from around 1932 to 1954, that is the trend which one would expect.

It seems as if though individuals, or teams come along at times and make sudden changes. This last Olympics may be an example of that. Here is data from the 400 meter medley which Phelps won a few days ago.

Again we see some leveling off of the records. I noted two swimmers and their records just to show the influence of an individual. This shows you a bit of Phelps true skill. He was able to snap the limit of the records and make significant changes, improving year to year on his own records. Interesting.

The data:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Nature of the Olympic Games

I'll begin by apologizing in my lack of contribution to the blog over the last month. Things have been hectic and I'm sorry to say this had to play second fiddle for awhile. I hope I haven't lost any of our few regular readers.

Recently I received a lot of grief for my excitement for the Olympic Games. To be completely honest, I was surprised and a little dismayed because of it. The summer games have been a very powerful generator of emotion for me since I was a little kid. I don't see why they wouldn't be significant for everyone.

Deep down do I care about swimming, track and field, weightlifting, etc.? No. If it was on TV on any usual Saturday afternoon I might watch it for a while. During that time I would appreciate it, but I don't follow those sports with the same zeal as I do with SEC football. That's not the point. The Olympic Games stand as a symbol of Humanity.

Consider this: when NASA sends deep space probes with the potential goal of contacting extraterrestrial life they use what we comprehend as universal symbols; namely numbers (prime numbers I think). That symbolizes intelligences. They also include symbols of Humanity. If an alien life came to earth and asked "what does it mean to be human?" we would recognize it as a pivotal point for all humans whatever nationality, color, or creed. Now consider the Olympic Games. There are other international competitions like the Olympics, but since their grandeur is less inspiring I will consider them as being less significant.

Because of its broad spectrum of sports, a large portion of the world is able to participate. The spirit of competition shines through in that international differences are ideally, if not always practically, set aside. There was a symbolism when Kerry Strug stuck the landing in '92 that defines the essence of being Human. It is that symbolism that Humans can be defined by perseverance against adversity. On a larger scale we see nations that are not strong players in the world community being forces to be reckoned with in Olympic competition. Kenya has their runners, Romania their gymnasts. Although ultimately insignificant in a capitalistic world market, these are symbols of perseverance and inspiration. They could be springboards for national pride, national identity, and ultimately international security. Perseverance over adversity is a reoccurring theme in many (all) cultures. Nations are forged by the fire of conflict, oppression, and inspiration. It has shaped the course of human history and is so universally shared that it should be considered a defining factor of what we are as a world society.

I also considered art, architecture, music, etc. as being symbolic of Humanity. After considering this for a moment, I realized that those things are a testament to Humanity, not a definition. These things are a product of something greater. The spirit of creating or the ability to inspire through creation or action is much more significant than the creation itself. These things are intrinsic to the spirit of the Olympics.

The very fact that Olympic champions are timeless and borderless shows potential for Humanity to survive. Take note to how many times you see a clip of Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 performance on American TV during the games. She was not American and she put those marks up 7 years before I was born. However, she is a household name. A name I've known my whole life. She has nothing to do with stop the conflicts in Africa, or supplying aid for the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. She has nothing do with ending the Cold War or reconciling the differences between feuding religions. Or maybe she has everything to do with it. Back to the original consideration. If it was my job to answer the question of "what does it mean to be human?" this is how I would respond. To be Human is to so much more than just a species.

And now a deep thought…

In the short time between the starting gun firing and the tape at the finish line breaking, there are no white men or black. No Christians, Muslims, or Hindus. No Americans or Russians or Iraqis. Perhaps it is only in that brief moment that we can simply be Human.