Monday, April 27, 2009

POLYGAMY: Call it "Marriage"

Once upon a time a guy got hauled before the King's Court for calling the Princess "Miss Piggy".

He was ordered to make an apology and pay a fine. He did so and then asked the judge if it was OK for him to call a pig "Princess".

"I don't see why not," replied the Judge.

The guy walked by where the Princess was sitting in the courtroom, bowed to her, and said, "Good afternoon 'Princess'!"

No matter what you call it, a pig is a pig. On ABC News this evening, it was reported that representatives of the swine industry want "swine flu" to be called "hybrid influenza". Whatever you call it, it is a dangerous disease and it came from pigs.

Which brings us to the main topic here, polygamy. If people of the same gender who love each other can call their civil union "marriage" and be legally married in a growing number of states, why not give the same right to a man and two or more women who love each other?

In other words, if Miss Ellen Degeneres and Miss Piggy can be legally married to each other if they are in love and want to be legally married, why not the "Ménage à trois" of Mr. Kermit the Frog and Miss Ellen Degeneres and Miss Piggy if they all love each other and want a polygamous marriage?


At chumash (bible) study in our synagogue a couple days ago, the subject of Jewish polygamy came up. If you Google "Rabbi Gershom polygamy" you will find many links to recognized Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Encyclopedia and discover:
"In Biblical as in Talmudical times polygamy was a recognized institution ... So long as a man could support them, he was free to have as many wives as he chose, even against the wish of his first wife ... "
So, where does Rabbi Gershom come in?
"The rabbinical prohibition against bigamy dates from the beginning of the eleventh century; Rabbi Gershon b. Judah of Metz forbade it under penalty of excommunication. His decree was accepted without opposition by the French and German Jews; though not in the Orient and in Spain and Portugal, where his authority was questioned. Polygamy is still actually to be found among the Jews in Oriental countries where it is permitted by the law of the land.

"Among the Jews of Europe, bigamy is now a crime in the eyes of religion, because of the prohibibition of Rabbi Gershon, and because custom sanctions monogamy; he who transgresses is excommunicated. A curious suggestion that R. Gershon's prohibition was intended to hold only until the year 1240, the beginning of the fifth millennium of the Jewish calendar ... was never recognized ..."
So, at least among Jews, there is no Biblical prohibition against polygamy. Some Jews living in countries that allow polygamy have had multiple wives even in modern times.

Rabbi Gershom's temporary cherem (ban) was imposed in the tenth century only in Europe and only because of Christian pressure at the time. In any event, the ban may have expired in 1240 AD.

Indeed, in Israel, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi has proposed recinding the ban that dates from the independence of that country on the basis that many religious Jews who come from the Sephardic (Spanish, North African) branch of our religion have ignored the law and that there is a shortage of marriage age men.


European Christian monogamy did not become law until 1139 AD when Pope Innocent II declared polygamy a sin.

The ban on same-sex marriage goes back much further in Judeo-Christian history, but it has been overturned in several states. It may well become the law of the US in our lifetimes if the complexion of the US Supreme Court changes. If that happens will legal polygamy be far behind?

Of course, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) practiced polygamy. The main LDS church in the US discontinued official sanction of multiple marriages in 1890 after a Supreme Court verdict. Splinter Mormon groups continue the practice to this day.

With the ascendance of legal same-sex marriage in the US, can legal polygamy be far behind? Indeed, questions were raised about the possibility legalized same-sex marriage in Canada could justify the practice of polygamy. A 2001 Law Review article argues
"... the Free Exercise Clause protects religiously motivated polygamy for two separate but interrelated reasons. First, because marriage is a fundamental right, the situation presents a hybrid claim of interference with a fundamental right as well as a Free Exercise claim. Second, ... the prohibitions are not of general applicability but rather are aimed at a specific religious practice because they are born of antipathy to the underlying religion..."

Are we in the west really monogamous? Of course not!

Half our marriages end in divorce and so may be considered serial adultery! Sex outside marriage is common even when couples do not divorce.

The "casting couch"

"... is a euphemism for a sociological phenomenon that involves the trading of sexual favors by an aspirant, apprentice employee, or subordinate to a superior, in return for entry into an occupation, or for other career advancement within an organization. The term 'casting couch' originated in the motion picture industry, with specific reference to couches in the offices of casting agents that could be used for sexual activity between the agents and aspiring actresses. But it is now often used in reference to other industries besides entertainment."

Our political leaders seem especially prone to abuse their powers and privileges by straying from their wives. From Bill Clinton and the whole Kennedy family to Newt Gingrich, members of both parties have admitted to straying.


Nearly all mammals practice polygamy. The "alpha-male" gathers as large a harem as he can defend and fathers as many offspring as he can get away with. Our nearest relatives, the Great Apes, are no exception. Polygamy is an adaptation!

Among the eusocial insects (ants, bees) the practice continues in the reverse direction. A single female, the "Queen" is sought after by all the male "Drones".

Perhaps it is natural that the most succesful males in society should father the most offspring? It seems that would promote the most "fit" genes. If polygamy was legal, and the children were not only fathered but also raised by the most successful males, the most "fit" memes would also be promoted.

It may be ideal for a man to start with one wife. She would be his sexual partner, bear him children, and look after the home. If he is successful in his occupation, she would be promoted from the bedroom to an active role in running the business and be replaced by a younger wife who could take over the duties of main sexual partner, bearer of children, and manager of the home. When the first two wives reached 40 years of age, they would be "promoted upstairs" and replaced by two 20 year olds.

I don't dare do anything about it, but I really like to think about that option!

Ira Glickstein

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Medical Ethics

[from John] Joel’s previous topic on medical ethics raises the broader question of medical ethics in its many forms. I would like to explore one or two points at this time.

Is it ethical for the nation or the state, to control the following medical practices if the individual wishes to participate? I’m discussing ethics not the law. I believe that these are personal choices and that the state has no ethical authority to interfere.

a. Use of drugs that are legal in other nations but not here. Drugs that are legally available in other countries may help an individual when drugs currently available in the US are not as effective.
b. Use of experimental drugs. Experimental drugs undergoing human blind test may help an individual, should it not be his choice?
c. Medical use of marijuana. The same argument as above.
d. Personal use of drugs now illegal.

In the last case ( d ) and as a second point the state will claim that it has an obligation to protect its citizens against the abuse of certain habit forming drugs is this a valid ethical position or a sophism? I don’t have the figures nor do I have the energy to pursue them however, intuition leads me to the conclusion that there is little valid evidence supporting their position. How does the state, ethically justify legalizing tobacco and alcohol, yet banning other drugs?

Does the zero tolerance policy make rational or ethical sense? Today we have locked up thousands for minor drug offensives. The illegal drug trade thrives as it did when alcohol was banned. What are we accomplishing?

In the early 1900s, we amended the constitution banning alcohol. It did not significantly reduce the use of alcohol rather it resulted in an active trade in contraband alcohol. The amendment was reversed after a few years. The illegal trade disappeared. Now that it is legal, does the use of alcohol present a serious problem for the nation? No.

Drugs are easily available today, in large quantities, if we are to believe the media, yet we are not swimming in drug addicts. Does anyone know the population of true drug addicts? How does that population compare to the population which uses the cancer causing drug tobacco or those using the legal drug alcohol? I would venture to say that the population of true drug addicts is small. The major harm to the nation is to the individuals incarcerated for minor drug offenses and the cost of fignting an ineffective war on drugs which in turn encourages a dangerous trade in illegal drugs.

Do irrational, illogical standards of medical morality and ethics guide our national policies rather than rationality and justice? I vote yes!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Aristotle's Physics - the Five Elements

Joel posted Is PowerPoint Anti-Intellectual? earlier this month in which he claimed:

"If Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had had PowerPoint available, there might not have been any western philosophy handed down to us."
I replied:

"I'm not sure what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have done with PowerPoint. I guess Socrates would have avoided it. Plato would have used it grudgingly, but Aristotle -OH! ARISTOTLE- he would have been (almost) as good as me!"

Well. that remark has cost me dozens of hours during which I have been researching Aristotle's books on Physics and Meteorology and building the PowerPoint charts I think he would have created had they been available in his time, some 2300 years ago. In particular, I tried to explain Aristotle's view of the Five Elements (Aether, Air, Fire, Earth, and Water) as well as his take on the Four Causes (Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final).


Once I made the PowerPoint charts I decided to go the extra step and use them to construct two new Google Knols. The first, on the Five Elements was published today and another, on the Four Causes, is under construction and will follow soon.

Like me, you may find philosophy hard to understand. As my PhD advisor (Howard Pattee) told me, philosophers make simple things complex, using a language specially created for that purpose!

You have undoubtedly heard about "the five elements" of the ancient philosophers. I couldn't understand how the ancients thought Fire was a basic element, or that the essence of Air was wet or of Water cold. It turns out they were not using these words according to the literal, narrow scientific meanings we employ. They were thinking about what we would now call the qualities of "energy" and "fluidity". They used Air, Fire, Water, and Earth as examples of things that had a lot or a little energy and/or fluidity.

Modern scientists dismiss the concept of Aether out of hand. However, the idea of a non-material substrate is important if we want to understand what the most intelligent and well-informed humans of two millenia ago were thinking. (If modern string theory, which says there are ten or eleven dimensions of which humans may comprehend only four, holds up to scientific examination, it may turn out that the six or seven "tightly curled up" dimensions we humans cannot comprehend might be what the ancients called the Aether!)

The graphic that appears at the head of this posting is the first chart and there are two others described in the Knol:

Have a look at the Five Elements Knol and please comment on it!
Ira Glickstein

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ethical Dilemma 1

[From Joel]
At my local philosophy club we experience a downturn during the summer months. It becomes even harder than usual to find topics and speakers. In exploring possibilities for breaking the barriers that people have in preparing a talk, I devised this possibility and used myself for the guinea pig. I presented several ethical dilemmas that have appeared on the television show "Boston Legal," prefacing them with a short general view of ethics as viewed by Aristotle. The audience response was excellent. Watching a television show and reporting on the ethical dilemma presented doesn't seem like too difficult a chore. Unfortunately, we aren't in the early days of television when E.G. Marshall and "The Defenders" was popular. That would have made it quite simple.

The first dilemma concerns a powerful person (PP) being sued by a not powerful person (NPP). They are both dying of cancer and participating in a drug study. It turns out that the PP has used his influence to assure that he is part of the 50% getting the real drug, while the NPP takes his chances with the rest of the study group. Not actually being a fan of the TV program, I didn't hang around to find out the ultimate result, but it looked like there was going to be an out-of-court monetary settlement. Be that as it may, I asked our club to discuss, not the specific question of whether or not PP and the doctor acted unethically, but rather whether or not the use of placebos as a statistical tool in research studies is moral and ethical. What do you say? with respect -Joel

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Constitutional Amendment

[from JohnS]
The evolution of the two party system has distorted the intent of the founders in choosing our elected representatives by preselecting candidates for office without direct input from the electorate thereby making office holders more obligated to their party than the people and by creating career congressional office holders by perpetuating terms of office.

Consider the following:
1. The parties provide our only choices for our President, we the people do not.
2. The parties choose who runs for the Senate and House, again we the people do not.
3. If the people become discontent with their federal congressmen the parties provide alternate candidates.
4. The Electoral College makes the final choice for our President.
5. Party loyalty can assure one of a lifetime career in politics.
6. Today, fund raising is the primary tasks of our congressmen.
7. The two-party system, as exists today, thwarts the intent of our founders.
8. The two-party system, as exists today, isolates the people from the government.

Pressure from the electorate cannot change the system and there is no resolve or incentive within the congress to change their gravy train; the system will continue to reach new lows until it is changed. The only solution is to change our constitution. The following amendment will effectively control the two-party system while retaining the intent of our founders. (My comments appear in blue)

Proposed Amendment to the Constution

Article XXVIII

Bill of Citizens Rights - to provide a more representative government.

Section 1. Term Limitation.
a. Legislative term limit shall apply as follows: Members of the Senate two terms of six years, Members of the House of Representatives four terms of two year. Having served at least one term in office, members of either the Senate or House of Representatives shall not run for reelection until one full additional term has passed.
b. Federal justices, with the exception of Supreme Court Justices, shall be limited to two terms of 5 years. (Term limits will break the stranglehold the two-party system has on our federal government. Those running for legislative seats, knowing their time in office is limited will be less inclined to tow the party line knowing they will be returning to civilian status shortly and will have to live with the consequences of their legislative action. Assuming this amendment passes a review will probably be needed examining the benefits congressmen receive upon leaving office. I include judicial limits in this legislature although I am reluctant to limit terms for Supreme Court Justices; there is already too much politics in their appointment.)

Section 2. Voting Procedure.
Article XII is repealed. The following replaces paragraphs 1 through 3 of Section 1 Article II.
Each State shall appoint, in such manner, as the Legislature thereof may direct, an Elector, but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
Each State shall receive, a number of Electoral votes, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress. These votes must be assigned to the person receiving the greatest number of votes within the State for President and the person receiving the greatest number of votes within the State for Vice President.
The Elector shall tally the votes within his State, certify the vote and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole Number of Electoral votes. and if there be more than one who have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President; and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said House shall in like manner choose the President. However, in choosing the President, States, the representation from each State having one vote, shall take the votes; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a majority of all the States shall be necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the Person having the greatest number of electoral votes shall be the Vice President. However, if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President. (This eliminates the Electoral College and the electors’ ability to override voter’s choice while retaining a fair vote amongst all states.)
Section 3. Sunset Laws.
All legislation authorized under section 7 of Article I shall
a. Contain a termination clause not to exceed 10 years. The legislation may be re-introduced at any time up to and including the termination date.
b. Be confined to a single purpose. All additions, amendments, modifications or adjustments shall only address the single purpose of the legislation. (The purpose is to stop pork and earmarks outside the specific purpose of the legislation, and omnibus legislation that our legislators do not have the time to read and understand.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

International Hits on "Piracy on the High Seas"

Capt. Richard Phillips was freed by US Navy Seals after days on the lifeboat with four pirates, three of whom were killed in the rescue. Great work by the Capt. and the Seals. The precedent of not paying ransom for US-flagged ships and personnel has been preserved.

The 10 April 2009 Blog posting Piracy on the High Seas has generated lots of hits, many of them international. South Africa, Pakistan, China, Croatia, Nigeria, India, ... and even Massachusetts! (How many flags did you recognize? Can you match them to the countries listed?)

To see which topics have garnered interest over the past few days, scroll down the right-hand column and look for the Live Traffic Feed, then go to the bottom of that box and click Watch in Real Time. Joel's Is PowerPoint Anti-Intellectual?, and my Where Have All the Sunspots Gone? and Female Mind vs Male Mind and others continue to attract readers.

I find it interesting to look at the wide variety of national and international lurkers we have reading our stuff!

Here are the folks following the Piracy posting, and, in some cases, you can click the hypertext and see the Google search they did to learn of the posting:

Johannesburg, Gauteng arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
Islamabad arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
Chengdu, Sichuan arrived on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas".
Sandwich, Massachusetts arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club" by searching for moral and phylisphocal problems with paying ransom demands.
New York arrived on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas".
Rokovci, Vukovarsko-Srijemska arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
San Diego, California arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
Bénin, Edo arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
Gary, Indiana arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for
Sandwich, Massachusetts arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club" by searching for moral and phylisphocal problems with paying ransom demands.
Kochi, Kerala arrived from on "The Virtual Philosophy Club: Piracy on the High Seas" by searching for

I take this as proof the Earth has developed a central nervous system. The stuff you and I write on this Blog is distributed and alerts are sent in real-time to interested people all over the world.

IMHO, this develpment has wide-ranging implications for the development of an international conscousness and unprecedented shared values and civilization over the coming decades!

Ira Glickstein

Friday, April 10, 2009

Is PowerPoint Anti-Intellectual?

[from Joel] Generally speaking, I cringe when a speaker sets up for a PowerPoint presentation. The format used is generally that taught by the military: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. I find these presentations stultifying, suitable for learning how to disassemble a weapon or how to avoid a venereal disease, but not helpful in a subject requiring thinking. There are too many graphs and bullet points to allow the audience to formulate questions or objections. Unfortunately, scientific presentations have become powerpoint presentations in the past ten years. I happen to run across an interesting article on the web that documents my point of view. Y'all might find it interesting. If Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had had PowerPoint available, there might not have been any western philosophy handed down to us. Do we need to shoot the "messenger"? -Joel

Piracy on the High Seas

Some serious ideas on reducing piracy - but also some philosophy from "The Pirates of Penzance". W.S. Gilbert's words are over a century old, but he distills the essence of the world's reaction to piracy so far.


It is admirable that the American crew of the Alabama resisted the pirates. I hope and pray the brave and dutiful Capt. Richard Phillips survives the ordeal and that the pirates and their leaders face justice.

The economics for the shipping companies and their insurers and consultants and go-betweens in paying ransom is clear. Why lose a $100,000,000 ship and cargo over a mere $5,000,000 ransom? Why should the consultants, who earn large fees for each successful "rescue" suggest a more forceful solution that might greatly reduce piracy instead of encouraging it?


Back in 1904, when an American, Ion Perdicaris, was held ransom by a bandit named Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a short threat: "We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead". He did not have to invade Morocco to get action, what he did was to "Speak softly and carry a big stick".

We need to reinstate the great old American slogan: “Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute”.


Although the Capt. and crew of the Alabama appear to be an exception, it seems our political and even military leaders have become overly intellectual - "paralysis by analysis". In Penzance, the main character introduces himself:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral, ...

I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse...

I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

Yet, he recognizes he has a lot to learn about the military:

... when I know what is meant by 'mamelon' and 'ravelin',
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by 'commissariat',

When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery -
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee...

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General....


Our reaction to the pirates shows too much understanding of the plight of their people in Somalia. Indeed they are very poor and have no effecive government. The proceeds of piracy are about all they have to live on. Perhaps our recognition of that explains why the international community has been so timid in reacting to the growing piracy epidemic.

In Penzance, the constabulary is assigned to counter the pirates. They too are overly analytical and caught up in soft-hearted sympathy for victimhood. Like too many leaders, they reject the idea the western democracies could become the "world's policemen". The constabulary in Penzance lament the sad situation of law enforcement when the felon is an ordinary human being like themselves as they prepare to do battle with the pirates:

When a felon's not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty's to be done.
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.

When the enterprising burglar's not a-burgling
When the cut-throat isn't occupied in crime,
He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling
And listen to the merry village chime.

When the coster's finished jumping on his mother,
He loves to lie a-basking in the sun.
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman's lot is not a happy one.


It seems the shipping company consultants and experts are like dermatologists. They are better off when the patient gets a bit better but doesn't get cured, and they collect their fees so long as he does not die.

In Penzance, the constabulary prepares to go into a battle they fear:

Though in body and in mind we are timidly inclined,
And anything but blind to the danger that's behind,
Yet, when the danger's near, we manage to appear
As insensible to fear as anybody here...

The constabulary, like so many diplomats in their glory, pose and promise to go "forward on the foe!" but they march around the stage, quivering in fear, and for a long time, they don't go.


Short-term: In the short-term we need to place armed guards on at least one out of every five US- flagged ships as they enter pirate-infested waters. The 18 US Navy guards who were assigned to the Alabama a day ago as it steamed to its destination in Kenya are an example. Perhaps the armed guards should be active-duty Navy men and women, but, over the longer term, this task would be perfect for private security firms.

All ships traveling in troubled waters should at least get some animated mannikins dressed in Navy uniforms that could be set at the rails of the ship so the pirates won't know which ships actually have armed guards aboard and which do not.

Congress must do their part and pass laws that authorize and require US-flagged ships to have armed guards and to hold the guards (and private companies if this work gets contracted out) personally not responsible for actions taken within the scope of their employment.

Middle-Term: We need laws that prevent payment of ransom to pirates. Any shipping company that pays ransom is endangering all other ships that must travel through that area, in return for a short-term financial advantage. Congress must pass a law forbidding any US-based shipping company from paying ransom. Any company that retrieves a ship by paying ransom should be forced to surrrender that ship and it should be resold to the highest bidder, with the US Taxpayers getting the proceeds.

I do not know if the laws of the sea would allow it, but it would be nice if the US Navy seized a few non-US-flagged ransomed ships and escorted them to neutral ports that would serve as two-year "penalty boxes". That would discourage foreign-based shipping companies from paying ransoms.

We should also consider direct air attacks on the "mother ships" the pirates use to launch their small boats that carry the attacking pirates. If satellite imagery proves a pirate attack was launched from a given mother ship, or that the ransom payment was delivered to that ship, it should be fair game. The crew of the mother ship should be warned to leave in their small boats, the ship should be destroyed, and the pirates should be picked up and put on trial.

Long-Term: With GPS and satellite communications and other modern technology, there is no need for human crews to be on ships while they are on the open seas. The ships could be adapted to travel on any preset course, using remote control via satellite communications.

Crews are certainly required when ships are in port and in crowded waters near ports. They could be removed by helicopter when in the open seas near pirate-infested waters and returned as the ship neared a port area.

If pirates boarded a remote-controlled ship, it would continue on course or be re-directed to facilitate intervention by the US Navy. If the pirates attempted to manually steer the ship to a pirate port, the engines could be disabled via remote control.

Ships could also be equipped with remote-controlled devices that would release tear gas or gas that would incapacitate any pirate crews that boarded them. That could help the US Navy recapture the ships without gunfire.

Ira Glickstein

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bayesian AI Advisor - Drill Here? Drill Now?

Today, April 7, is the deathday of Rev. Thomas Bayes who was born c. 1702 and passed away April 7, 1761.

His great contribution to mathematics was Bayes Theorem, seen on the t-shirt to the left. Bayes came up with what is called inverse probability at at time when only forward probability was generally known.

In short, if you know the probability of some event B given some other event A, and if you also know the probabilities of A and B, you can figure out the inverse probability of A given B.

Many people think -incorrectly- that forward and inverse probabilities are the same. That is, if a given test detects, say, 99.9% of people who have used illegal drugs recently, they think anyone who fails that test is 99.9% certain to have used illegal drugs. NOT SO! In some cases, "false positives" can outnumber "true positives" by a factor of two or more.

Here is a great example of how much forward and inverse probabilities may differ. The probability a person is female given that they are pregnant is: P(F;P) = 100%. But probability a person in pregnant given that they are female is: P(P;F) ~ 3%


Bayesian probability means, using oil exploration as a practical example, you can figure out the probability you will strike commercially-viable oil if you drill a well at a particular location given that a seismic test was positive. With the value of petroleum going up and down so rapidly in the past few years, this illustrates the fine line between making a big profit and going broke in the oil patch.


Some years ago I created a Bayesian AI ("Artificial Intelligence") Advisor spreadsheet that runs on Excel. I've recently improved the Bayesian AI Advisor and today I published a new Google Knol that explains its use. You are invited to download the Bayesian AI Advisor to your PC.

Of course, Bayesian probability applies to many areas in addition to oil exploration. My Knol looks at targeted marketing (what is the chance a given person will buy my product given that he or she has bought some other product in the past?) and medical testing (what is the chance a person has a particular disease given that he or she tests positive?)


The figure shows three cases for oil exploration with three different recomendations. I think this illustrates the risk of oil exploration and that it could be applied to the financial implications of investment in alternative forms of energy.

The user has to input the data in the clear cells, based on known probabilities and financial factors. The leftmost panel shows a case where the Bayesian AI Advisor recommends Test first, If Test is Positive, do the Procedure - in other words, do a seismic test and, if the results are positive, drill.

The middle panel shows the case where all factors are the same except the value of petroleum has gone down by 15% and now the recommendation is Hopeless venture. (Can you reduce expected ROI?) - in other words, do not waste money doing the seismic testing because, even if you get a positive result, it will not pay to do the drilling given the financial assumptions you have entered, unless you are willing to increase the risk to your investors by reducing the expected Return on Investment.

The rightmost panel shows the case where, in a different location in the oil patch, the probabilities of success are much better. Now the recommendation is No Need to Test. Go ahead with the Procedure. - in other words, this area is so good you don't have to waste money doing seismic testing, just go right ahead and drill and you are likely to strike commercially-viable oil and get rich.

Ira Glickstein

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Decisions, Decisions - Here's a Method and Tool That Could Help

I recently posted another Google Knol - a bit of knowledge. This one is a rational method for chosing one item from a group of attractive alternatives, particularly in the case where your spouse or business associates differ. It is a process we called a "Trade Study" at work.

"Buying a house, car, pet or PC? Choosing among alternative courses of action at work? Do you and your spouse or your colleagues differ on which choice to make?

"Here is how to get everyone involved to 'put their cards on the table' and make a rational choice that will best serve your needs. A relatively simple Excel-based tool helps you make the right decision, including decisions in the face of uncertainty! It is available for FREE."

The Knol is at and it contains a link to a Decision Tool that runs atop the MS Excel spreadsheet that one of my students back at Binghamton University created some years ago and I have upgraded over the years.

If you have a decision to make, have a look!

Ira Glickstein