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Friday, September 28, 2007

Five generations

Five consecutive generations of first-born sons is quite a rare event: it may be expected to occur in about one in 32 families. The recent delivery of James Allan (Jimmy) to my son Alun and partner Trudy on 15th September 2005 was such an occasion.

Information about Number One (James Allan) is scarce, having died at the early age of 49 before I was born. It is known that he was a tea-merchant that travelled widely and lived for some time in Burry Port, in South Wales (coincidentally now the home of my second son Carwyn and his wife Kathryn). Photographs of Number One appear to be scarce.
Number One, James Allan (arrowed), with No. 2, Allan James
(the groom).
(Click to enlarge)

Number 2, Allan James, my father, was a merchant seaman during the Second World War, sailing around the world from as far apart as Australia and the Murmansk convoys. He retired from the Merchant Service after the war and became a postmaster in Colchester and died in 1970, age 53.

An early picture (c. 1944) of Number Two (Allan James) with Number 3 (James Allan)

Number Two with Number Three, c. 1968

Number Three (James Allan) was born in Cardiff in December 1943 and became a biologist, the father of Number Four (Alun James) who was born in New Zealand in 1971

Number 3 carrying Number 4 (Alun James) in New Zealand, 1973

Number 4 (Alun James), New Zealand, 1973

Number Four also became a pharmaceutical biologist and, with partner Trudy, fathered Number Five (James Allan) in September 2007

Trudy with Number Five (James Allan), September 2007

Number Four (Alun James) bathing Number Five (James Allan), September 2007

James Allan with James Allan September 2007

Number Four with Number Five

Numbers Three, Four and Five

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pascal's Wager and Northern Rock

Or, Who trusts a politician?

Pascal's Wager (see below) can be applied to many situations where a decision has to be made by taking into account the risks involved and the likely consequences of acting or not.

A highly publicised example occurred in Britain recently when there was some uncertainty about the reliability of the Northern Rock Bank/Building Society. Due to financial chaos over mortgage debts in the USA there were "knock-on" consequences for banks elsewhere which affected their liquidity (cash flow) rather than their actual security.

In the case of Northern Rock, the Bank of England promised to support the bank through its "temporary" crisis when other banks would (or could) not. Even though the bank's directors and Government Ministers give multitudinous assurances that Northern Rock was profitable and that depositor's savings were absolutely safe, there was a run on the bank with ugly scenes of depositors (savers) queuing outside local branches to withdraw their savings "just in case".

It is obvious that most of the depositors were subconsciously applying Pascal's Wager in their decision making.

In this case the four possible situations are:

Situation 1. Northern Rock is failing and savings are withdrawn.
Situation 2. Northern Rock is failing and savings are NOT withdrawn.
Situation 3. Northern Rock is SECURE and savings are withdrawn.
Situation 4. Northern Rock is SECURE and savings are NOT withdrawn.

Let us examine the possible consequences of each situation:

Situation 1. Northern Rock is failing and savings are withdrawn.
Consequence: You have done the right thing. You can go to the jeweller and buy up some gold.

Situation 2. Northern Rock is failing and savings are NOT withdrawn.
Consequence: You stand to lose your life savings.

Situation 3. Northern Rock is SECURE and savings are withdrawn
Consequence: Very little. You may incur some penalties for withdrawing some funds early, or loss of interest while the money is not in the bank

Situation 4. Northern Rock is SECURE and savings are NOT withdrawn.
Consequence: You have done the right thing, your savings are safe and accrue interest whilst others lose theirs.

In situations 1, 3 and 4, nothing much happens to your wealth and if Situation 1 prevails you may even congratulate yourself on your astute judgement on fiscal policies, and/or your scepticism in the assurances of politicians.

However, if Situation 2 prevails, you are stuffed, rooted, destitute and may be pension-less.

It is clearly this situation which many depositors feared and which caused the queues at the banks.

It boils down to a matter of judgement of the risk, and your trust in the assurances of politicians.

As we all know with hindsight, Northern Rock did NOT fail, depositors savings WERE safe and those who stood in queues and withdrew their cash suffered minor losses. What is clear is that Northern Rock was never going to be allowed to fail.

So, who trusts a politician these days? It is clear that we should have trusted them in this instance!

Here endeth the trilogy about Pascal's Wager.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pascal's Wager and Global Warming

Now that we have got to grips with the principle of Pascal's Wager, we can apply it to the more pressing problem of Global Warming.

There is no doubt that the climate is changing: everyone appears to agree that there is an upward annual trend in average global temperature.

What is in dispute is whether it is caused by us (anthropogenic) through our burning of fossil fuels, or whether it happening because of some factor beyond our control, for example, by solar activity? And then, should we try to do anything about it by reducing our carbon emissions?

So again we can postulate the four possible situations:

Situation 1. Human induced global warming is happening, and we try to do something

Situation 2. Human induced global warming is happening, and we don't try to do something

Situation 3. Human induced global warming is NOT happening, and we try to do something

Situation 4. Human induced global warming is NOT happening, and we don't try to do something

Here, the consequences of the different options are not quite so clear cut as in the original Pascal's Wager. Let's consider them.

Situation 1. Human induced global warming is happening, and we try to do something
Consequence: we may succeed and stabilise the climate

Situation 2. Human induced global warming is happening, and we don't try to do something
Consequence: Climatologists predict that the earth may become close to uninhabitable

Situation 3. Human induced global warming is NOT happening, and we try to do something
Consequence: Unlike Pascal's wager, we would still incur a benefit. At least, our fossil fuels will last a little longer and give us time to develop alternative technologies.

Situation 4. Human induced global warming is NOT happening, and we don't try to do something
Consequence: We carry on as we are, being profligate with our resources with evident environmental deterioration.

Now, unlike Pascal's Wager, "doing something", whether human induced global warming is happening or not, brings a benefit to humanity.

On the other hand, the risk of NOT doing something, if it is actually happening, is too awful to contemplate.

Of course, in reality, the situation is more complex than this. It presupposes that any "action" is effective, and that we haven't already passed the "tipping point" (point of no return). If you can spare a few minutes, please take a look at this U-tube delivery of the argument in full (it is called "The most terrifying video you will ever see").

If you are gluttons for punishment, there is a lengthy discussion of the position on a forum here.

It's up to you.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was an extremely influential French mathematician who contributed to many areas of mathematics and who laid the foundations for the theory of probability. Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he abandoned his scientific work and devoted himself to philosophy and theology.

His eponymous Wager might be described as an “insurance against hell”, expressed something like this: "If you believe, and God exists, you gain everything. If you disbelieve, and God exists, you lose everything."

We can analyse this in a little more detail by recognising the following two possibilities:

God either exists or he doesn’t; and you believe in him or you don’t.

Logically, this generates four possible situations:

Situation 1: God exists and you believe in Him

Situation 2: God does not exists and you believe in Him

Situation 3: God exists and you do not believe in Him

Situation 4: God does not exist and you do not believe in Him

We can consider the consequences upon death for each of these situations.

Situation 1: God exists and you believe in Him
Consequence: you may surely expect to go to heaven

Situation 2: God does not exist, and you believe in Him
Consequence: nothing, but you are deluded and you waste time and effort on Earth

Situation 3: God exists and you do not believe in Him
Consequence: you burn in hell for eternity!

Situation 4: God does not exist and you do not believe in Him
Consequence: nothing.

In summary, the worst that could happen to a believer is nothing; the worst that could happen to an atheist is eternal damnation.

There are many well-known flaws in the logic of Pascal’s Wager that are listed at this website.

For me there are two that are particularly obvious. Firstly, any omniscient (“all-knowing”) God would surely know if anybody was simply “going through the motions and believing out of convenience” in order to earn a place in heaven and did not truly believe He would condemn them to hell anyway for being hypocritical.

But secondly, and more importantly, it raises the question of “which God?”.

There are plenty of different Gods in which to believe, and all of them threaten
eternal damnation to those that that do not subscribe to their particular cult. For example, Jesus Christ said "I am the way, the truth and the light. None shall come to the Father except through me."

Gods are vengeful, wrathful authorities, it says so in most of the “holy books”.

The problem is that conviction (the strength of your faith) is absolutely no guide at all to which God you should worship. There is no point in saying: “I know that my God exists and that he will save me”. Members of all religions say that and, as we know only too well, there are plenty of people queuing up to die for their particular God, especially if they can take a few members of alternative religions along with them.

Which God you end up worshiping is invariably decided by the family, location and culture that you were born into. That is, an accident of birth.

Now, would someone please tell me which almighty, everlasting heavenly father, who knows everything, would decide to pre-ordain those who will be born into an environment that leads to eternal salvation; and those who will not, and so will burn in hell for ever? What selection process is used? Why are millions (maybe the majority) of innocent babies apparently condemned to eternal damnation, simply on the grounds of where (or to whom) they were born? This does not sound like a "heavenly father" to me!

I think that if I were a god-fearing person, I would not pray to any single God for salvation. I would be quaking with fear that I was backing the right horse. Eternity is at stake!

Personally, I choose to adopt the alternative version of Pascal’s Wager that has been called The Atheists’ Wager, which goes something like this:

"It is better to live your life as if there are no Gods, and try to make the world a better place for your being in it. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, He will judge you on your merits and not just on whether or not you believed in Him."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Arctic Equinox

With the proximity of the Autumn Equinox, I once again experienced those innermost stirrings which pulled me to the Arctic in order to bid the Sun farewell on His sojourn to the Southern Hemisphere. And so it was Ryanair to Tampere in Finland in order to get as far north as was practicable in the conditions. One aim was to find the mysterious Siberian Jay, which I missed on my previous trip to Lapland.

My route north was by the Karelia Way along the border with Russia, and on the second day I was entering the circumpolar taiga forest ecosystem and spotting typical taiga bird species such as Black-throated Diver, Smew, Goldeneye, Northern Grey Shrike, Hazel Grouse and Black Woodpecker. I pitched camp close to the Oulanka National Park which is an outstanding wilderness area with mountains, forests, lakes, streams and deep ravines with spectacular rapids and waterfalls. In September many of the summer birds had already migrated south and the forest sounded eerily quiet but nevertheless there were waterfowl like Velvet Scoter and divers to be found on the lakes, and Black Grouse and Willow Tits in the forest.

Rapids through a gorge in the Oulanka National Park
Forging north towards the Lapp town of Ivalo, I felt I was in the heart of the taiga ecosystem when I reached the Urho Kekkonen National Park. This park has a number of nature trails of varying lengths, and I set out on the longest, aptly named the "Siberian Jay Trail", with high expectations. It was from raised ground in this park that I was able to gain some comprehension of the vastness of the taiga ecosystem which, from my viewpoint, spanned as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon.
The taiga extends beyond the horizon continuously into Asia and around the north pole

Depressions in the taiga ecosystem become filled with water and sphagnum mosses and form the mires beloved of wading birds, cranes and waterfowl

The dominant tree species in the taiga is the Siberian Spruce that has evolved with downward sloping branches so that snow may slide off without too much damage to the tree

unlike this birch tree whose branch has been broken by the weight of winter snow.

A couple of reindeer emerge from the forest
Suddenly I heard some raucous bird calls I was not familiar with. Could they belong to the elusive Siberian Jay I was so keen to see? Shortly a family party of these small crows with reddish wings and tails crossed the track in front of me and I was able to watch them feeding on berries of the forest at close range!

This Siberian Jay posed briefly for a photograph!


With the "birding essential" completed it was time to consider the serious aspect of my visit to Lapland. I was aiming for the shores of Lake Inari that lies 162 miles (260 km) north of the Arctic Circle and I reached it as the wind turned to the north I encountered the first frost and there was ice on my tent at night. The rituals are known to Courtiers (The Royal Maalie Court: Manual of Ancient Customs and Practices, Vol. 1, page 1). They involved the final supper before turning south.

Communion with the land: reindeer meat stew with root vegetables

Communion with the lakes: fresh perch

Communion with the forest: these sweet- tasting cloudberries (red) and bilberries (black) carpeted the forest floor at this time of year

Sunset over Lake Inari which in a matter of weeks will be cloaked in darkness and ice

For the route south I adopted the well-worn route of Santa's Road which led to Santa's Village at Rovaniemi situated right on the Arctic Circle. The village is a marvellously constructed affair with displays of all things Yuletide to scrutinise. I was really quite impressed though, for my taste, there were far too many nauseating kids around. Maybe it would be better on a weekday when they are all in school.

I could scarcely conceal my astonishment that among the racks of tree decorations and cuddly reindeer, with strains of "Rudlof the Red-nosed Reindeer" filling the air, there was also a cabinet where you could buy reindeer meat! I looked for a red nose but it must have been sold already.

The "Official" Arctic Circle, location of Santa's Village

The route south took me to the west of Finland down the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. A birder's "must see" is the Liminganlahti Bay, just south of Oulu which is the primary Finnish wetland for breeding and migrating birds. Althought the breeding season was well over, I was able to add migrating Common Crane, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Bluethroat and Lesser Whitethroat to my bird list.

I made time to spend a day in the wonderful Seitseminen National Park that I had visited on my two previous visits to Finland. There are some excellent hiking trails and on this occasion my 16 km route revealed the changing colours of the birch trees.

The Seitseminen National Park in its Autumn glory

Sunset over the Baltic. I noted that the sun set a couple of degrees north of west; in a few days it will set due west, and then slide away to the south until it commences its return at the Winter Solstice

My route:

North from Tampere via Jyvaskjla, Kuopio, Iisalmi, to camp nr Suveka (1 night). Kajaani, Suomussalmi then minor road 843 to Kuusamo then Juuma for camp (2 nights). Minor road 950 via Salla and Savukovski to Sodankyla. Through Ivalo to Inari (2 nights). South 955 to Kittila, 79 to Rovaniemi, 78 and 924 to Simo, camp just South from Oihava. Main road to Himanka, camped near Lohtaja. Kokkola, Seinajoki to camp at Parkano. Via 332 to Kuru and Tampere.