29 May 2011

Predicting Disaster

The old joke goes like this: What do tornados and divorce have in common?  
Answer: Someone’s gonna lose a trailer.

Harold Camping made millions preaching that the world would end on May 21, 2012.  In his own words, May 21st was one of the worst days of his life.  I suppose it would have been a better day if everyone died?  He claimed to preach from the Bible, but apparently somehow overlooked Matthew 24:36.

Here are some disasters can you can definitely predict:
- a volcanic eruption
- a divorce (for the selfish and unfaithful)

Here are some disasters that you cannot predict:
- mega-earthquakes
- when the world will end

In between these extremes there are some that you can “sort of” predict with varying reach-out-into-the-future time-frames:
- a tornado - by a few minutes to an hour
- the price of oil - up to weeks ahead
- if you buy Lotto tickets there will be one less car during your life that you will replace.

Conservative estimates of money spent world-wide to study earthquakes is in the $50 Billion range - but with no success.  The top earthquake scientists I have talked with, friends of mine, tell me that well, no, we can’t actually predict earthquakes.  You can forecast the statistical likelihood of one, but this makes the assumption that the earthquake-generation process is somehow linked to past events, which is a pretty shaky proposition - because then we should be able to predict them in the first place.    

Some things are random - or at least we cannot find a discernable pattern to them.  Roulette comes to mind.  However, your ultimate success at Roulette is NOT random: You. Will. Lose.  Some apparently random events may simply have causal factors still unrecognized or obscured.  This hope has driven some brilliant people I know to gamble their entire professional careers on earthquake research, and they have all seen little for it.  So far.

When something doesn't make sense, you can either invoke magic - or conclude that you are missing information.  There is at least one reason, one causative variable, for EVERYTHING that happens.

The reliability and safety of your online credit-card purchases depends on being able to generate a random number.  Really: it has to be something that someone else cannot duplicate and therefor use to predict the encryption key.

But here’s the fun part: generating a truly random number is impossible.  Mathematicians and computer scientists have spent decades trying to do this - but hardware that can generate a number by a certain process can be duplicated.  Mathematicians have gotten really, really good at generating pseudo-random numbers: numbers that sure seem to be random... but the fact is that the NSA was able to eavesdrop on conversations in Islamabad that were supposedly encrypted on and after May 1, 2011.  Massive computing power in Fort Meade wins again.  No, the Pakistani leadership really didn’t know that Osama bin Laden was watching porn in their back yard, though in retrospect it sure seems like the best place to hide, doesn’t it?

The take-away here is that nothing just happens.  The Big Bang didn’t just happen.  SOMETHING causes EVERYTHING

And Someone knows all the rules governing them.  


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