16 January 2007

The Science of Procrastination

So, a new year has just started not too long ago. Made your New Year Resolutions? If yes, then here's some scientific excuse for yourself not to follow them.

According to this article from ScienceDaily (which I arrived via Slashdot), it concluded that

  • Most people's New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure

  • Most self-help books have it completely wrong when they say perfectionism is at the root of procrastination, and

  • Procrastination can be explained by a single mathematical equation

Heh heh, this is quite interesting. As the professor explained, "Perfectionism is not the culprit. In fact, perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more." Well, does that mean that we should not aim for a too well-rounded resolution or goal when setting one?

Steel says motivational failures such as difficulty in sticking to diets and exercise regimes -- frequently the focus of New Year's resolutions -- are related to procrastination because impulsiveness is often at the root of the failure.

So a resolution or a goal should be one which is carefully thought out, not one that is made over dinner or during a conversation. I think the typical goal-setting plan should kick in here. To avoid procrastination in a plan, one has to set many mini-goals within a reasonable timeframe to motivate one to continuously achieve.

Interestingly, the article points out that

The good news is that willpower has an unusual capacity. "The old saying is true: 'Whether you believe you can or believe you can't, you're probably right'," Steel says. "And as you get better at self control, your expectancy about whether you can resist goes up and thus improves your ability to resist."

But what if a person doesn't believe in the existence of free will? Then there is no willpower to talk about, and if one is meant to procrastinate, one has to procrastinate. More motivation to find out if free will exist then? Oh well...

Procrastinate now without worry, for you have the backing of science!

12 January 2007

Nuclear Power in Question

In the 80s and 90s, nuclear (fission) power was greatly shunned by the public, with many advocacy groups called a complete ban of it. This was partly due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as several disastrous nuclear accidents.

In recent years, nuclear power is back in the limelight, not as the object of criticism but as a possible alternative to the growing energy crisis. Considering that it is clean (no carbon emission) and its fuel not running out any time soon, it looks more and more promising as an alternative candidate with the rising price of oil and environmental concern with coal (for example, a coal-burning power plant releases radioactive products into the air, exposing people to radiation several times more than a fission power plant). Other promising alternatives like solar and nuclear fusion are still not practical.

However, not all is smooth for nuclear power. The journal Nature carried a recent news article (obtained via Slashdot) that demonstrated past methods in disposing nuclear waste is not as safe as previously thought.

Quoting from the article,

A fast-moving alpha particle knocks into hundreds of atoms in its path, scattering them like skittles. Worse still, the radioactive atom from which the particle comes is sent hurtling in the other direction by the recoil. Even though its path is even shorter than that of an alpha particle, the atom is much heavier, and can knock thousands of atoms out of place in the ceramic.

All this disrupts the crystalline structure of the ceramic matrix, jumbling it up and turning it into a glass. That can make the material swell and become a less secure trap. Farnan says that some zircons that have been heavily damaged in this way by radiation have been found to dissolve hundreds of times faster than undamaged ones. So if the ceramic gets wet, there could be trouble.

There are, of course, other concerns, such as how one can lower the chances of nuclear accidents like the Three Mile Island accident. And then of course there's always the controversy linked to nuclear weapons. I cannot, however, comment from a technical point of view, since my course on Nuclear and Particle Physics has only started, but I guess that even after that, my knowledge is still too insufficient.

09 January 2007

Free Will (Part III)

(This entry is the third part of my train of thoughts about free will. The previous two entries can be accessed here: Free Will (Part I) and Free Will (Part II).)

This is an absurdly overdue entry. But there is a reason for the delay - the concept of free will has burrowed into the depths of obscure philosophy, and each logical step has to be taken carefully and examined thoroughly, and often ending up in a terrible blur. Since the last post, I've read numerous articles and had several discussions, and I think it's time to pull some meat slices out from the murky soup.

In summary, the previous two entries talked about how free will cannot be possible if our physical laws are deterministic (classical mechanics) or random (quantum mechanics). Since then I explored the various underlying assumptions of this view and how they can be made to be otherwise. One possibility Yao has highlighted to me was that there is a concept that is not subjected to physical laws, which is, for a lack of a better word, "reason", or the connection between cause and effect.

By this I mean something like, for example, the presence of a mass will result in a force - (Newtonian) gravitation. The presence is the cause and the force is the effect. The connection is the ability to see that the presence of mass causes the force. If I apply a force on an object, the object will accelerate. In this case, force is the cause and acceleration is the effect. To be able to understand that this cause "causes" the effect, is what I mean here by "reason".

But what does "reason" has to do with free will? Well, nothing that I know of! Yes, "reason", as far as I can see, has nothing to do with free will. But all Yao is trying to raise is the argument that there may exist certain mental process that are not subjected to physical laws, and it is there that free will can exist.

The trouble with this concept is that, perhaps, it's just inventing something up to satisfy our opinion. That is, there is no meaning in objectifying the bridge between cause and effect, because there is simply none! It's somewhat like saying, there's an apple in a basket and I put in one more apple. So 1 + 1 = 2, and now I have two apples in the basket. And free will hides in that equal sign.

But if we assume that everything is subjected to physical laws, then how can free will exist? One notion I've heard/read more than once is that although the basic laws, the first principles, the underlying equations... they're all deterministic (or random), when you add them up, you'll get something extra. So the equation becomes 1 apple + 1 apple = 2 apples + 1 free will. Putting it another way, if we can make computers as complex as the brain, then it will have free will.

But does it? Does a sufficiently complex mind have free will? Or does it have the illusion of free will?

The sad thing is, we may not even find out, because mathematically that is impossible, thanks to mathematical genius Kurt Gödel. Quoting from this article which touches on his theories on logic,

Another implication is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. Any way to find out would be tantamount to doing the calculation itself.

According to this, it means that when a certain complex mind, build up by basic blocks of deterministic calculations, is presented with two options, whether its choice is fixed or based on free will, there is no simple formula, or a shortcut, to find out. The only way is to run through the algorithm of making the choice, which is the mind making the choice itself.

Zooming out, we see more and more experiements "infringing" on free will. From the same article, an experiment on making random actions showed that

brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.

Of course, this does not mean free will doesn't exist. As the article summarises,

the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing.

Which means we may not have control over the unconscious brain, there is still this glimmer of hope that we may have control over our conscious brain and hence our choices.

But that experiment was conducted decades ago. This more recent one has shown that, in an experiment involving fMRI,

the authors were able to successfully predict whether the study participants would decide to purchase each item.

Again, this doesn't mean that free will doesn't exist. What it has showed is that many other measureable factors play a part in decision-making. And these may even be undeterministic (i.e. free will).

But somehow, as science rumbles on, I'm beginning to feel that the arguments for free will wearing thin...

05 January 2007

Movie Review: Curse of the Golden Flower

It's not a movie I was dying to watch; it's not even one which I would consider watching. But since some friends have asked me to join in, I thought I might as well do so, since I haven't watched a movie some time, and I was pretty impressed by Zhang Yimou's Hero as well.

So how does Curse of the Golden Flower measure up? It's certainly not Heroic, but I do think it is better than Zhang's other film House of Flying Daggers. It has Zhang's trademark use of staggering visuals and colours in his scenes, but it also has (at least for his internationally successful movies) his trademark of a simple storyline spun into a confounding plot.

I'm not sure if that was deliberate... a choice of his... but I thought he could do better with a deeper or more meaningful story. This one is mainly about betrayal and assassination within the royal family, and once one strips off the confusing excesses, the plot is pretty straightforward. And this movie is a love story/soap opera, which isn't my genre of movies or stories.

As mentioned, Zhang's use of colours and breathtaking visuals are excellent, as usual, though this time most of the scenes take place indoors. The music, on the other hand, is rather crappy. There was consistent use of choir-like music (no words though, just singing of the tune) which seemed to be a blend of those Latin choir pieces that Hollywood likes so much nowadays and traditional Chinese orchestral music. I don't know what other people think, but I found it disappointing. In any case, I did not stay during the credits to listen to Jay Chou's song for the movie, so no comments on that.

Oh, if the music director did a bad job, the costume designer was even worse. Before watching the movie, I already heard complaints of scantily clad actresses in the movie (excluding those that are not supposed to look nice). And they certainly weren't exaggerating. Looking at the progression of Zhang's movies since Hero, I see a trend of females wearing less and less. I suppose in his next few movies we can expect ancient Chinese women prancing around in bikinis or nipple rings.

Lastly, the acting was disappointing. It had strong and experienced artistes: Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li, but I didn't see any brilliance in them. Okay, Gong Li wasn't that bad, but I was far from impressed by Chow Yun-Fat. For some reason, I doubt he is suitable for that role. As for Jay Chou, I think for a newcomer he's fine. Not unexpectedly, he's not very capable of showing expression (he somehow seemed to be stuck eternally in his boh chup (nonchalant) look), but if he puts in more effort in his future movies, he'll turn out to be a decent actor. After all, given his huge fan base, most movie producers would like to have him in.

Before I end, I must say that I currently may not be in the most lenient mood to judge movies. Having finished, from renting VCDs, certain critically acclaimed movies like The Constant Gardener and The Pianist, it'd be hard for movies to look good in my eyes. Curse of the Golden Flower is decent, but it could've been better.