Thursday, November 29, 2007

Runescape and inflation - the Grand Exchange

I have just started playing Runescape a little. No, you're right, I don't have time ....

A couple of remarks. Firstly, it would be nice if some of the players could get over the desire to announce "Noob" whenever they see a new player. Presumably they were one once. Does this happen in every MMORPG, I wonder?!

Secondly, the powers that be have just opened what they call the "Grand Exchange". One of the problems in MMORPG's is inflation, I understand. People can mine ores, or cut down trees, and these things are infinitely replaced, and the drive to continue to do this is to increase your level in mining, smithing, woodcutting or whatever. So the universe is increasingly awash with material and wealth in general.

Hitherto, in Runescape, if you sold stuff to a shop, it would only get a fraction of its value. So one block of silver ore, for example, if you bought it in a shop, would cost (say) 280 "gold pieces". But if you sold it to a shopkeeper, you might only get 30 gold pieces for it. And this is quite sensitive to demand - if a shopkeeper has a lot of something in, the price they pay seems to fall quite quickly. The effect of this is to limit the rate of growth of an individual's wealth.

All this has changed with the arrival of the Grand Exchange. Now, you can cut out the middle man, and offer anything direct to potential buyers. The turnover of shops must have plummeted - but since they aren't players, and the land of Runescape as a whole accrues no benefit from taking this money out of the system, this doesn't really affect them (though I wonder whether some will end up closing down - ah, the harsh economic truths of a virtual world!). The finances of "rich" player characters will only marginally change - they continue to buy things as they require, to do what they want with. What changes most drastically is the finances for "new, poor" players. All of a sudden, it's possible to get an income of 260 gp for a piece of silver ore, rather than 40 or so. Higher income leads to access to better equipment (although its use will still require work to achieve suitable levels), and so the Grand Exchange should lead to a significant redistribution of virtual wealth. We shall see.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The intellectual

Kyl, in a comment on this post by the Constructive Curmudgeon, writes:
In the book Habits of the Mind Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling James W. Sire offers an initial definition of what an intellectual is. Sire writes,
“An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.

A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.”
Sorry about nested quotes.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why, why, why ...

... is it so difficult even to get intriguing, interesting, well-written, well-researched, provocative books like this, this, this, this and this published, when people like this, this and this can rake in royalties for books that in some cases, they didn't even write?


Are bloggers journalists?

A federal court says yes. This is being spun as a victory - it meant that the person could use a company logo within an article that he had written.

Well, that strikes me as a pyrrhic victory. I suspect that if you are a journalist, then your accountability for the things you write will be considered to be higher. I suspect there are many bloggers who don't consider it necessary to properly source comments, to differentiate between opinion and fact or to present information in a way that is reasonable. As usual, I suspect the real winners will be the lawyers.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thoughts on Iraq - rather late, I guess

I suppose I ought to be pleased that a church in Baghdad has re-opened. But the goodness of that news is overwhelmed by the badness of the news in general about Iraq over the last few years. I am under no illusions about the wickedness of Saddam Hussein. However, the wickedness of a leader doesn't provide justification under law for intervention in the internal affairs of a nation, and the moral case for intervention is undermined by the indifference of the same leaders who intervened to wicked governments elsewhere in the world, and their own use of morally unacceptable means in pursuit of their aims.

In addition to which, the situation in Iraq is now far less sympathetic to Christianity than it was under an authoritarian regime - and if in the fullness of time the democracy decides to establish an Islamic regime, or if the country decides that balkanisation is the way forwards, or if the new regime is unable to prevent a slide into anarchy - all of which options seem as likely as the "dream scenario" of a stable, tolerant, liberal democratic government - then the environment for Christianity will have been substantially weakened.

The intervention of the US/UK and other members of the international community in Iraq was not a "Christian" action - the Christian message is not directed towards international politics, and does not give guidance in this area to leaders of nations who happen to be Christians, other than the general principles (things like acting justly, loving mercy, walking humbly before God).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What is it with people who write spam/phishing emails?

I mean, surely they'd assume that people doing a real mailshot from a bank would know how to spell "received"? And can there really be such a desire for male "medications" and replica Rolex watches for people to make any money from sending emails to everyone in the world? It is all just such a stupid waste of bandwidth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Evolution in civil engineering

One of the issues at the heart of the debate between proponents of darwinian evolution and proponents of intelligent design is the ability of a darwinian process to come up with solutions to problems. One of the things about a "system", beyond its inputs, outputs, energy supply and processing, is that the system as a whole carries out some function, and the function is a solution to a problem.

It is difficult to identify systems in nature where an evolutionary process has solved problems. The famous example of the apparent development of antifreeze glycoproteins in notothenioid fish is a candidate. A partial solution to the "problem" of malaria can be found in sickle cell anaemia - a genetic problem in humans that otherwise would not have provided a selective advantage (see "Edge of Evolution"). So it is quite often the case that when challenged to offer evidence of the power of evolution to solve problems, proponents of darwinism may point to its success in non-biological areas.

One example I've been pointed to more than once is the "evolutionary" process which led to novel designs for IC layout. Another one featured in the February 2007 issue of "Civil Engineering", the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. An article entitled, "Going organic: using evolution in civils design," by Pasquale Ponterosso (what a good name for a structural engineer!) and Dominic Fox from Portsmouth University, introduced the genetic algorithm to civil engineering designers, and presented "summaries of recent research areas of application, including reinforced earth embankment design, truss optimisation, masonry arch collapse loads and mechanisms, and yield-line analysis of reinforced-concrete slabs."

Good stuff! How powerful is darwinism, if it can do all that for us!

But it's not quite that simple. The achievements claimed are somewhat more modest. In engineering terms, the problem has to be fairly well defined, and the parameters of the solution are also set by the programmer/engineer.
Due to its random nature, the genetic algorithm is not expected to provide the optimum solution. The normal procedure is to run the genetic algorithm several times and use the best answer obtained over a number of runs. This tends to limit applications of the genetic algorithm to problems where a good solution is acceptable (rather than the optimum one), and where the search space is so large that conventional numerical optimisation techniques are not practical in a reasonable timeframe.
So in engineering terms, this is good for finding "local optimums" in a large search space, but doesn't provide a means of knowing whether the best solution has been obtained. If this sort of genetic algorithm is to be used as an analogue for real biological systems, I think it is then necessary to apply this back to those systems, and demonstrate that the problems solved are of this sort. Certainly the search space is large enough. But is it too large? - is it the case that improvements in fitness are too scarce to start with for darwinian processes to make any headway in establishing fitness? This harks back to my queries from some time ago about the actual size of the search space for biological systems, which was never satisfactorily answered. It is a crucial question if darwinism is to be a creditable explanation.

Finally, the authors warn:
As with most engineering software, it cannot be blindly assumed that the output is correct or that the result is aesthetically pleasing.... An incomplete evolutionary system or fallacious or incomplete input, or inaccurate boundary conditions, will lead to erroneous output. Engineers must always be the final authority.

The genetic algorithm cannot replace an engineer's experience or judgment, but may be useful as an aid to design thinking or to creativity.
Obviously, nobody will willingly surrender their own responsibilities to a computer. But there is more to it than that. The writers are arguing that in addition to the definition of the problem and the parameters of the solution, there is a need for intelligent input to evaluate the solution. A darwinist would perhaps argue that the real world provides an environment in which evolutionary solutions face the ultimate test of their fitness. However, at least in the context of evolutionary design in civil engineering, a great deal of intelligent input is required to make this blind, random process yield something worth looking at. This input isn't available to the materialist.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A History of Scientists who were Christians

Not the most beautiful of videos, but it makes the point - and it's a song by Sixpence I'd not heard before.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Platonism a means, not an end?

In "A Meaningful World", Wiker and Witt write, on Euclid's demonstration of Pythagoras' theorem:
Like the circle, [the right triangle is] one of the sturdiest things in the cosmos and, at the same time, utterly immaterial. Physical circles are never really perfectly circular; physical right triangles always fall short of perfection. We grasp such geometrical figures only with our minds, never with our hands. When we do grasp the demonstration, even though we may do it through particular drawings, we lay hold of why it must be so in any particular case from the nature of the right triangle as such - but there is no "right triangle as such" out there floating in the cosmos that we can either see with our eyes or grasp with our hands. The struggle to understand the demonstration about right triangles is the struggle to grasp something that is immaterial.

But if we are successful in this struggle, and we glimpse the necessity of the geometric relationships as such, then and only then can we see why it must be so in every possible case and not just in this or that particular drawn triangle. Even more profound, if we reflect on our own reflection, we receive a more beautiful proof, a demonstration that we have, in our reason, a power to grasp immaterial truths - a power that somehow exceeds the particular, physically defined powers of our senses and imagination and is capable of grasping universal truth. Could this be a proof of the immateriality of the soul?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Doctor Who Battles in Time Invaders card list

I can't find a list of these cards on the internet, so here's the information that I have. Please comment any additions or corrections.

Frequency - C=Common, R=Rare, S=Super-rare, U=Ultra-rare ?=Don't know
# Frq Name
376 R Sun-possessed Tenth Doctor
377 C Carrionite 1
378 C Morgenstern
379 C Pig Laszlo
380 C Professor Lazarus
381 C Plasmavore (suck attack)
382 R Dalek Sek Mutant
383 C Face of Boe
384 R Mother Doomfinger
385 C New New York Businessman
386 R Son of Mine
387 C Sally Sparrow
388 ? Professor Yana
389 C Lilith
390 C Pharmacist 1
391 ? Weeping Angel 1
392 C Captain Jack (resurrected)
393 ? Toclafane
394 C Refugee 1
395 S Judoon Captain
396 C Solomon
397 C Mother Bloodtide
398 C Pharmacist 2
399 S Pig Slave 1
400 C Francine Jones
401 C Jeremy Baines
402 C Judoon Trooper 1
403 C Martha Jones (Mood Patched)
404 ? Carrionite 2
405 C Padra Toc Shafe Cane
406 C Albert Dumfries
407 C Weeping Angel 2
408 ? Face of Boe (dying)
409 C Mother of Mine
410 C Time Lord 1
411 C Tish Jones
412 ? Sally Calypso
413 C Lilith (as a witch)
414 C Korwin McDonnell
415 ? Joan Redfern
416 ? Futurekind Chieftain
417 S Carrionite 3
418 C Malcolm Wainwright
419 C William Shakespeare
420 ? Macra 1
421 C Lois
422 C Lazarus Creature
423 ? Mr Stoker
424 C Toclafane (attacking)
425 ? Light Storm Tenth Doctor
426 C Milo
427 R Carrionite Pair
428 C Professor Lazarus (reborn)
429 C Kathy Nightingale
430 C Daughter of Mine
431 ? SS Pentallian
432 ? Traffic Jam
433 R Radiation Blast
434 ? Dalek Embryo
435 C Bliss Mood Patch
436 C Fob Watch
437 U Judoon Unmasking
438 C Macra Grip
439 C Carrionite Puppet
440 C Vortex Manipulator Teleport
441 C Lucy Cartwright
442 R Harry Saxon
443 C Dev Ashton
444 C Tallulah
445 C Judoon Trooper 2
446 ? Dolly Bailey
447 ? Pig Slave 2
448 C Tenth Doctor (frozen)
449 ? Farmer Clark
450 C Macra 2
451 C Lady Thaw
452 C Tom Milligan
453 ? Sun-possessed Korwin McDonnell
454 C Pale Woman
455 ? Human Dalek 1
456 C Lady Thaw (drained)
457 C Scarecrow 1
458 C Old Novice Hame
459 C Shakespearean Actor
460 ? Judoon (Scanning)
461 C Empire State Building Foreman
462 S Weeping Angel (feral state)
463 C Pharmacist 3
464 C Professor Lazarus (resurrected)
465 ? Clive Jones
466 R Family of Blood Weapon
467 ? Escape Pod
468 C Wallpaper Warning
469 ? Laser Screwdriver
470 C Mutant Attack
471 C Judoon Ship
472 ? Happy Mood Patch
473 R Valiant
474 U Lazarus Mutation
475 C Door Hacker
476 C Will Kempe
477 C Macra Group
478 S Age-accelerated Tenth Doctor
479 ? Human Dalek 2
480 R Lazarus Creature (attacking)
481 C Time Lord Citadel
482 C Archangel Network
483 ? Watch Attack
484 ? Stasis Chamber
485 ? Toclafane Invasion
486 C Judoon Justice
487 C Life Force Drain
488 ? New New York Senate
489 C Journal of Impossible Things
490 C Magnetic Overload
491 ? Refugee Group
492 C Larry Nightingale
493 C Father of Mine
494 ? Lucy Saxon
495 C Slab
496 C Cheen
497 C Richard Burbage
498 ? Human Dalek 3
499 ? Julia Swales
500 C Scarecrow Group
501 ? Timey-Wimey Detector
502 C GMD
503 ? Master Statue
504 U Carrionite Transformation
505 ? New New York Car
506 C Genetic Transfer
507 R Countdown
508 C Vortex Manipulator
509 ? Letter from Katherine Wainwright
510 ? Sun Blast
511 C Wiggins
512 R Thomas Kincade Brannigan
513 C Disguised Plasmavore
514 C Human Dalek Army
515 R Scarecrow 2
516 ? Erina Lissak
517 R Weeping Angel (attacking)
518 ? Leo Jones
519 S Toclafane
520 C Wiry Woman
521 C Shakespeare (Carrionite Influence)
522 C Mr Diagoras
523 ? Tim Latimer (as a War Veteran)
524 R Sun-possessed Dev Ashton
525 C Mr Phillips
526 ? TARDIS crew
527 C Time Lord Novice
528 ? Scarecrow 3
529 ? Tanya
530 C Captain Jack (in chains)
531 C Gamma Strike
532 C Lucy Saxon (one year on)
533 ? Tenth Doctor (aged by 100 years)
534 ? Pig Slave 3
535 C Riley Vashtee
536 C Valerie Brannigan
537 C Queen Elizabeth I
538 ? Judoon Trooper 3
539 C Laszlo
540 C Tim Latimer
541 C Lilith with Puppet
542 ? Creet
543 ? Billy Shipton (as an Old Man)
544 C The Master (with Laser Screwdriver)
545 C John Smith
546 U Blink
547 ? Solar Fuel Ejection
548 C Sleep Patch
549 ? Judoon Scanner
550 ? Open Fob Watch
551 C Rocket Base
552 ? Chipped TARDIS Key
553 C Carrionite Flight
554 C Saxon Campaign
555 C Judoon Fleet
556 C Peter Streete
557 ? Kath McDonnell
558 R Dalek Sek Hybrid (chained)
559 C Family of Blood
560 C Chantho
561 C Time Lord 2
562 ? Cameraman
563 C Vivien Rook
564 ? Untempered Schism
565 C Martha Jones (Resistance Fighter)
566 C Carrionite Group
567 ? Professor Docherty
568 C Futurekind 1
569 C Orin Scannel
570 C Bedlam Jailer
571 ? Pig Slave Group
572 C Hutchinson
573 ? Billy Shipton
574 ? Toclafane Group
575 ? Jenny
576 C Refugee 2
577 R Captain Jack (with Vortex Manipulator)
578 C Headmaster Rocastle
579 C Futurekind 2
580 C Lynley
581 C Judoon Group
582 ? Abi Lerner
583 S Dalek Sek Hybrid
584 C Sinister Woman
585 C Macra 3
586 U The Master's Regeneration
587 C Cricket Ball
588 ? Laz Labs
589 ? Honesty Mood Patch
590 C Compensation Form
591 C Missile
592 C Psychic Connection
593 C Vivien Rook's Message
594 ? Crystal Ball
595 C Tooth Identification
596 C President Winters
597 C Time Lord 3
598 C Ben Wainwright
599 C Martha Jones (in disguise)
600 R The Master

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Oh very young

By Cat Stevens.

Shouldn't it have been "O very young"?

Writers' strike

Well, anything that gets the tedious, smug David Letterman and Jay Leno off air for a while is good for me.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Love it!

From here
"... lines can't really go extinct, so there isn't a word for when that happens, so I have to use some word."

Their sister nodded. "It's like God having to talk to us using human language. Sometimes you just have to make do."

The single book I would most like my friends to read

Well, other than the Bible. It's "A Meaningful World", by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. I've already reviewed it, here. It had no reviews on Amazon in the UK, so I've just written one. Here's what I wrote:
The debate between theism and atheism has led to the publication of some outstanding written work over the last twenty years - probably some of the defining books of the era. Of all the books on the great debate that I have read - and there are a fair few on both sides! - this is probably the one I have enjoyed the most, and the one which ought ideally to have the most potential to influence.

The debate has been dominated by the field of biology - Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould versus a variety of less well-known creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design. Astronomy and cosmology have also featured to a lesser extent, with people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking more recently being matched against Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards ("The Privileged Planet"). But to the best of my knowledge, most of the books in the genre have focussed on one "specialist subject" - interaction more broadly with a range of human knowledge has generally been absent.

Wiker and Witt's thesis is that the universe is rich in "meaning" - the dominance of the materialist worldview has blinded us to this. And the "meaning" testifies to a creative genius. To make this case, they start in English literature, looking at Shakespeare, and then move into mathematics and chemistry before revisiting the world of biology. In the process, they identify depth, clarity, harmony and elegance as hallmarks of genius, and for good measure rehabilitate the study of Shakespeare and geometry!

They set their view against the reductionism of materialism - which, for example, talks about the evolution of the eye without recognising that sight is actually part of the whole organism, or talks about the fact that a panda's thumb (which not opposable: it is used by the panda to strip bamboo) is not the optimum structure from a design perspective without considering that there might be more to design than an optimum engineering solution to a problem.

Unsurprisingly, their conclusion is that the meaningfulness that is found at all levels in the universe is indicative of an underlying creative genius.

This book captured my imagination like only a few others that I have read before ("Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter, "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder, "How Should We Then Live?" by Francis Schaeffer). It took a discussion that had reached a sterile impasse and presented it from an entirely new perspective. For theists, this book has the potential to help them see beyond the wrangling over details of materialism again, and remind them of how rich the universe is. For atheists, this book has the potential to lift their eyes from narrow discussion about whether or not it is possible to prove that bacterial flagellum evolved, to take in again the vast panorama which once captivated and amazed them.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Big Challenge - Getting Carbon out of the Ecosystem

From here:
The “big problem” that our use of fossil fuels has created is that large amounts of carbon deposited in the form of oil and coal a long way underground has been burnt as fuel, ending up in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

One of the preferred strategies for dealing with this at the moment is by reforestation - planting new forests either to replace forests that have been removed or simply for growing trees to remove CO2 and convert it to wood. Whether this will work is not clear - however, the carbon isn’t really removed from the ecosystem; it is just locked out of the atmosphere - at least until the tree dies and degrades.

The challenge: is there an alternative? For example, I wondered whether putting large amounts of plastic into deep landfill isn’t a bad idea - we are told, for example, that it takes hundreds of years to degrade, so won’t go anywhere fast. The UK government also recently failed to take advantage of a proposal to pump CO2 into the space from where an oil company had just finished extracting gas. Does anybody else have any other ideas?
To discuss this, go to the Open Solutions blog.