Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Earth having an indigestion

We humans share a very flawed sense of proportion. We tend to consistently underestimate the relevance of certain events and overestimate others. Social psychologists refer to the general phenomena as cognitive bias.

Environmentalists stay awake at night worrying about global warming. One of the worst-case scenarios of global warming involves the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2, currently trapped under the sea. Recent studies reveal that thawing lakes of the northern hemisphere are releasing methane at an alarming rate. The more Earth temperatures increase, the more frozen lakes and permafrost thaw, the more methane is released into the atmosphere, the bigger the greenhouse effect, the more Earth temperatures rise. This vicious cycle, if unchecked, could wipe out most rainforests, destroy the fertility of many soils and leave the Arctic ice-free even in midwinter. Entire regions will become uninhabitable. Depending on where you live, your country might enter into a war with a neighboring country over fresh water resources.

Study of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show that increases of methane concentrations have occurred the past. According to the anthropic principle, given that life exists on Earth, especially in the form of Homo sapiens, conditions on Earth must be amenable to carbon-based life forms, including us. However, as anyone involved in the stock market knows, past performance is no guarantee for the future. Indeed, the Earth has sustained life for millions of years, however, that is no proof that it will necessarily continue do so in the future.

How is it that we don't seem to worry more about the environment? Is it because the problem is too big to lay on our frail shoulders? Is it because we lack proof about the impending catastrophe? Is it because of insufficient media coverage? Is it because we subconsciously know that, like our own death, Earth's demise is inevitable, so we don't wish too waste time worrying about it? What are the cognitive biases that we need to overcome in order to react more effectively?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Burrowing Animal as defined in R&A Golf Rules

The R&A takes its name from The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which has continuous records dating back to its foundation in 1754. The first thing that struck me about the R&A rules booklet was its length, over 200 pages (French edition). The rules are presented in a dense and legalistic language. For example, here is the definition of "Burrowing Animal"
A "burrowing animal" is an animal (other than a worm, insect or the like) that makes a hole for habitation or shelter, such as a rabbit, mole, groundhog, gopher or salamander.

Note: A hole made by a non-burrowing animal, such as a dog, is not an abnormal ground condition unless marked or declared as ground under repair.

According to the Rules (25-I), if your ball falls into a hole dug by a rabbit, you are entitled to relief (lift your ball and drop it outside the hole), but not if the hole is dug by a dog. A hole is hole is a hole, but apparently not in Golf.

What about the groundhog? Clearly, since the groundhog lives in the burrow, it must be considered as a burrowing animal. So, if your ball falls into a hole dug by a groundhog you are entitled to relief according to rule 25-I.

Now, let us consider the case of the biological family of the Suidae to which pigs, hogs, and in particular wild boars belong. Although common in many regions of the world, including France, the wild boar became extinct in Great Britain and Ireland by the 17th century. Surprisingly enough, wild boar are known to dig holes for shelter and thus are burrowing animals in the sense of the Rules, even if no member of the Suidae family is mentioned in the definition of burrowing animal above, presumably because there are no wild boars in Scotland where R&A is located.

Having established that the wild boar is a burrowing animal, consider the case of a golf course nuzzled by wild boar in search of food, a common occurrence in France as attested by a google image search for "boar golf terrain" (in French). The damage caused by wild boars in search for food can be rather extensive. I have seen areas over 50 square meters damaged by wild boar as if ploughed through by a tractor.

Given the sheer size of the ground nuzzled by wild boar, it is almost certain that your ball will eventually fall into nuzzled ground. The question whether you are entitled to relief according to rule 25-I. You might argue that wild boar are burrowing animals and consequently rule 25-I applies. However, it might also be counter argued that wild boar are not widely known to be burrowing animals. Moreover, wild boar plough the terrain in search of food and not shelter. Let us just say that the applicability of 25-I is questionable in case of damage caused by wild boar.

Some Golf rules can be combined together to make a deliciously confusing cocktail. Consider the case of Rule 3-3 It states that "in stroke play, if a competitor is doubtful of his rights or the correct procedure during the play of a hole, he may, without penalty, complete the hole with two balls."

The rules do not mention the case of multiple invocations of rule 3-3. Can a player complete a hole with 3, 4 or even more balls and still comply with the rules?

Given that there is no upper bound to the number of provisional balls that a player can play (Rule 27-2), given a recurring ambiguity associated with provisional balls, e.g. your provisional balls falls into ground dug up by wild boar, in theory (ignoring time restrictions) there is no limit to the number of balls with which a player may complete a hole. There are of course physical limits.

According to Appendix III, that weight of a ball must not be greater than 46g. Assuming that all matter on earth is transformed into golf balls, and a giant player, e.g. Atlas, capable of carrying the equivalent of the Earth in golf balls, a Titan could complete a whole with 10^26 balls, that is roughly the equivalent of the debt (in Indian Rupees) we are leaving to the next generation.