Friday, January 15, 2010

You won’t believe who is running companies these days


Jewish date:  29 Ṭeveth 5770 (Parashath Wa’era’).

Today’s quasi-holidays:  Personal Firewall Day, Hat Day, Humanitarian Day.

Worthy causes of the day:  “Take Action: No legitimacy for Bashir | Save Darfur”.  Furthermore, probably practically everyone by now has heard of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti.  Both the Red Cross and Orthodox Union are taking donations.  If you do not have money and are able (or even if you do have money), please consider donating blood, which they can also use.

Today’s news and commentary:
Today’s weird thing has been contributed by Malcolm NC-17, included below.  Enjoy, share the weirdness, and Shabbath shalom.


Regarding the weird thing yesterday in which some Peter Backus used the Drake equation to calculate the odds of finding a girlfriend: Maybe it's an interesting use, but it's wrong.  And here's why:

The Drake equation is basically a sieve.  You start with the rate of star formation, which limits the next factor, the fraction of stars with planets.  The fraction of stars with planets limits how many stars with planets have planets that can support life.  And so on down to how long civilizations put out detectable radio signals. Each category is rigid and each factor chops down the number before it, so the number you get has to be much, much smaller than the one you started with.

This is not how it works with people.  Let's say you start in a city of 10,000,000 people and you want a girlfriend.  Does that mean you're limited to the female half of those, about 5,000,000?  No. Strictly speaking, your girlfriend just has to be female and human. (To keep things simple, we will assume strictly heterosexual relationships between humans and that the girlfriend has to be on the planet, but the same logic here can be extended beyond those situations.)  Admittedly, it's a little difficult to have a meaningful relationship if you're in London and your girlfriend is in Botswana, but not impossible.  More realistically, you'll prefer girlfriends who are closer, but there are plenty of people with long-distance relationships.  So we can more realistically assume that 1) the probability that someone will be your girlfriend is inversely related to distance but does not fall to 0, 2) distance will become less important with the ability to
travel, and 3) the better the relationship, the more willing people will be to travel.  So instead of being limited to the original 5,000,000 in the above example, someone with a car, gas money, and the time to travel could realistically have a girlfriend well outside of town and well beyond that 5,000,000.  And this just assumes the people have to meet to be considered in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.  With the Internet, you could arguably have a pool of billions of potential girlfriends out there.  (Once the relationship is established, of course, it becomes much more likely that one will move much closer to the other, solving any remaining distance problems.)

The same lack of rigidity applies to almost everything else you can think of.  Backus limits "age-appropriate" women to between 24 and 34 years.  What if he met an otherwise-okay 23- or 35-year-old?  Is he going to turn them down?  Probably not.  How about a 22- or a 36-year-old?  Frankly, most guys would slippery-slope the age thing all the way back to 18, and some even further.  (And shame on them!)  And depending on how long it's been since he got some, at least 40 is more likely.  So instead of his narrow ten-year age limit, he is more realistically likely to choose someone from a much larger set.  The so forth for education, attractiveness, etc.  He could, of course, set arbitrary criteria which he rigidly sticks with.  We all do that. Some of them even make sense; for example, I would always rule psychopaths out as potential girlfriends, as well as anyone convicted of a violent crime.  But if he wants a 34-year-old college graduate who lives in
London and he turns down a 35-year-old who is successful without getting a college degree and lives just outside of London on an underground route, he's just being too picky.

And if that does not expand the pool enough, there is also the issue of how will he set limits around particular combinations.  Are some criteria more flexible than others?  Suppose he met an educated Londoner who was fascinating and attractive but was 45?  Would he turn down a chance for true love just because of the age difference? Many guys would give it a chance, but the way Backus reasons, someone like this never has a chance.

Backus estimated there were 10,510 potential girlfriends out there out of the approximately 30,000,000 women in the UK alone, about 0.04% of the population (to be generous).  Because a more realistic calculation requires some higher-order math, giving a good counterestimate is hard, but I'd be surprised if there weren't a million or more suitable women in and around southeastern England alone.  Based on all this, I have two conclusions:  1) The logic behind the Drake equation may be wrong, in which case there may be a whole lot more civilizations out there.  2) Backus is picky and there's a whole lot of potential mates out there for anyone willing to go after them.  Don't be a Backus.

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