Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump Haiku


Craig Kaplan, my brilliant and whimsical colleague, has invented a twitterbot, trump575, that tweets haikus constructed from the opus of Donald Trump. You can follow it here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

You are Not Allowed to Laugh at the Lies and Idiocies of the Right!


Somebody sent me a link to this piece by Emmett Rensin at Vox.

The author's thesis is that liberals have stopped thinking and spend all their time being smug instead -- but this is certainly not true of conservatives. Liberals, according to Rensin, "hate their former allies". Conservatives, by contrast, are open-minded and persuadable. And, Rensin says, The Daily Show is a perfect example of this liberal smugness.

Well, Rensin goes wrong right there. "Smug" is not even close to the right word to describe Jon Stewart. Bill Maher is smug. Jon Stewart is, at times, almost painfully earnest. Does he make fun of people? Absolutely. But modern conservatism has so many targets that the jokes write themselves: Ben Carson and his pyramids that stored grain. Donald Trump and his claim that he saw "thousands and thousands" of American Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Ted Cruz and his "Trus-Ted" slogan, when his record of public dishonesty is hard to deny. Rensin apparently thinks we are not allowed to poke fun at all this idiocy and dishonesty.

Here are some examples of liberal smug ignorance, according to Rensin: "the Founding Fathers were all secular deists". Well, that's clearly not so, but some were, at least during part of their life, like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. But how is this mistake worse than the conservative claim that "94 percent of the [the era of the Founders'] documents were based on the Bible" (debunked here)?

Another one: "that you're actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder". Perhaps the number "30" is wrong, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a significant health risk in owning a gun. And how is this mistake worse than the conservative insistence on "more guns mean less crime"? Pro-gun "researchers" such as Kleck and Lott are treated by conservatives as unimpeachable, when in fact their errors are extensively documented.

Rensin's thesis is essentially a denigration of the importance of knowledge and facts. Who cares, Rensin says implicitly, if watching Fox News makes you less well informed? Pointing that out is just liberal smugness. Knowledge and facts are just unimportant compared to empathy and open-mindedness, which liberals today lack (while, presumably, conservatives have it in spades). Pay no attention the fact that when President Obama cited empathy as a desirable characteristic in a Supreme Court justice, conservatives jumped all over him.

Open-mindedness is a virtue -- I'll agree with that. But open-mindedness without skepticism and facts and knowledge just becomes credulity, a willingess to believe anything if it confirms your world view.

Here are just a few of the things that conservatives "know" that just ain't so: that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet (debunked here); that Bill Clinton delayed air traffic while he was having a haircut (debunked here); that Hillary Clinton was fired from the Watergate investigation for incompetence (debunked here). Visit any conservative website, mention Al or Bill or Hillary, and you'll only have to wait a few minutes before one of these lies is dragged out yet again. I have grad-school-educated conservative friends that proudly repeat these stories, ferchrissake.

Rensin claims that all this liberal smugness has "corrupt[ed]" them, but he gives no examples of corruption. He claims the case against conservatives is "tenuous", but just dismisses evidence like that given above and his own article.

Rensin thinks it is somehow "smug" for atheists to point out the religious hypocrisy of Kim Davis. It is here that his argument (and I use the term generously) becomes the most unhinged. Is it really necessary to be a Christian to criticize Christians? Do you have to believe in the divinity of Jesus or be a professional theologian to point out that Kim Davis cannot find support for her actions in Christian theology? When Mike Huckabee opportunistically elbowed out Ted Cruz to be at Kim Davis's rally, Rensin finds Huckabee genuine and admirable, instead of the pandering opportunity it clearly was.

Rensin is rhetorically dishonest. At one point he tries to refute a claim about the Ku Klux Klan by citing statistics about Stormfront.org. But these are entirely different groups.

Rensin is upset that the Daily Show is "broadcast on national television". Has he never listened to Fox News? Or conservative radio hosts with huge audiences, like Mark Levin and Michael Savage? The vitriol and the outright lies that happen every single day in these venues make Jon Stewart look like gentle fun.

Rensin claims that only Democrats have "made a point of openly disdaining" the dispossessed. One can only make that claim by wilfully ignoring the time Donald Trump made fun of a disabled reporter, or the time a Republican congressional candidate called poor people slothful and lazy, or Mitt Romney's comment that he could never convince 47% of the American people that "they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives".

Rensin thinks liberal smugness is going to ensure a Trump victory: "Faced with the prospect of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the smug will reach a fever pitch: six straight months of a sure thing, an opportunity to mock and scoff and ask, How could anybody vote for this guy? until a morning in November when they ask, What the fuck happened?". Yet who is a better match for the word smug? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? Look, when even Bill Maher calls you smug, you know you've got smug issues.

Finally, I observe that there doesn't seem to be any way to leave comments on Rensin's piece. That seems pretty smug to me.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Small Mind of the Conservative


Here is a splendid example of a certain kind of conservative mind: the kind that can't imagine how things could be any different, or why anyone would want them to be any different, from the way they are today. This kind of person always says, whenever anything novel is brought up, "But we've always done it this way!" Next, they go on to invent all sorts of silly reasons to avoid making any change.

Small-minded is what we used to call this trait, and it's particularly on display here. Mike Strobel, who despite once being Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun doesn't seem to know the difference between "stationary" and "stationery", can't think of a single decent reason to turf the monarchy in Canada.

Instead, he believes keeping them around is a good idea because "the Trudeaus might declare themselves Canada’s royal family and we’d wake up one morning as subjects of King Justin". Perhaps the Queen will save Strobel someday by pushing him out of the way of an errant taxi. Those two preposterous scenarios are about equally likely.

Allan Fotheringham, a commentator that actually has connected brain cells, once said, "Grown-up nations do not need, as head of state, a woman -- however nice -- who lives across a large ocean in a castle in a foreign country." Someday Canada will grow up. Strobel, I'm not so sure about.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Under the Influence - An Amazingly Good Radio Show about Advertising


There are only a few radio shows I listen to regularly, but one of them is "Under the Influence" on CBC, an amazingly good show about advertising, hosted by Terry O'Reilly. I recommend it. O'Reilly may have a kind of whiny voice, but he seems to possess detailed knowledge about all facets of advertising, and he paints great pictures with his descriptions.

The latest show is about business-to-business advertising, and features a couple of famous commercials I had never seen before: the Jean-Claude van Damme ad for Volvo, and the "herding cats" ad for EDS.

Do you know any niche radio shows that are exceptionally good?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How to Be a Good Little Right-Wing Pundit


Right-wing pundits see bullies everywhere they look. But always on the Left, never on the Right.

Right-wing pundits see lynch mobs everywhere they look. But always on the Left, never on the Right.

A great example is Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. As I've pointed out before, when philosopher Thomas Nagel published a book about materialism, he got a lot of public criticism for his silly and uninformed views. But, according to Gelernter, all this criticism was downright unfair: he called Nagel's critics "punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld" and a "lynch mob" and a "mass attack of killer hyenas".

But nobody picketed Nagel, or demanded he be fired from his academic job, or threatened to boycott journals where he published. They just criticized him.

Has Gelernter ever stood up for leftist professors who have been threatened with bodily harm or loss of their jobs for their opinions? Not that I've seen.

The latest right-wing pundit to get into hysterics is Brendan O'Neill. He calls transgenderism "intolerant". Novelist Ian McEwan was "subjected to a Twitch hunt", which is a "bloodsport". Critics of McEwan "went berserk" and engaged in "virtual tomato-throwing". It was "reminiscent" of "the Inquisition". The criticism was "attempted silencing". It was "straight out of Nineteen Eight-Four".

Yup, bullies and lynch mobs everywhere. Except that there aren't any lynch mobs. Nobody attacked McEwan physically. Nobody got in his face, or blocked his path, or threatened him. All critics did was take issue with what he said.

If you want to be a good little right-wing pundit, you have to learn this game. All criticism from the Left is "bullying". All criticism from the Right is "free speech". All criticism from the Left is just like the Inquisition. All criticism from the Right is brave disagreement with the status quo. All criticism from the Left is Orwellian. All criticism from the Right is the true spirit of democracy.

Good little right-wing pundit. Have a puppy treat.

Monday, April 11, 2016

NPR's Word Puzzle


NPR's Sunday puzzle last week was the following: find a five-letter word in which the position, in the alphabet, of the first letter is equal to the sum of the positions of the last four letters.

This week they gave the following answers: maced, table, whack, and zebra.

More generally, one could ask the same question for words of other lengths. Here are a few I found:

cab
hag
jade
leaf
leg
mage
mica
mid
need
pig
rale
real
ride
same
sand
seam
toad
toe
vial
vim
weeded
wend
who
wick
win
yet
yip
zeta
zinc

So "weeded" seems to be the longest word in English with this property. Can you find a longer one?

They also talked about words like "easy" in which the position of the last letter is equal to the sum of the positions of the preceding letters. I found the following other examples:

abbot
ally
away
babe
bail
bendy
bidet
bleat
boar
cachet
debit
dim
draw
eager
fag
feces
flew
gnu
habit
hair
hem
hoax
how
idly
jaggy
joy
kit
lam
man
neat
pact
paddy
sex
tabby
tau
wax

So the longest seems to be "cachet". Can you find a longer one?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

They Offer Nothing But Lies, 6


Once again, the creationists are telling fibs about information theory. Are they dishonest, or just stupid? In the case of Denyse O'Leary, I'm inclined to suspect the latter:

The belief that randomness produces information (central to Darwinism) is obviously false. It’s never been demonstrated because it can’t be. It is assumed.

No, it's not "assumed". It's proved. It's one of the most basic results in Kolmogorov information theory, demonstrated every year in the classes I teach. With high probability, a randomly-generated list of symbols will contain a lot of information. To understand this you can use one of Dembski's own metaphors: the combination lock. Which will be harder for someone to deduce, a combination that is your birthday in the form mmdd, or the first four digits of pi, or a randomly-generated 4-digit code?

This does not seem to penetrate the skull of the rather dense Ms. O'Leary, who then tries to weasel out of her claim by saying

by "information," one means here complex, specified information, produced in vast interlocking patterns on a regular basis.

Oh, so she's not talking about "information" in the way it is used by mathematicians and computer scientists. She's talking about creationist information, that vague, incoherent, and self-contradictory mess invented by Dembski and used by basically no one except creationists.

That mess was debunked years ago.

Here's an example: take any English text T, like the first 10 lines of a Shakespearean sonnet. Now apply any decent encryption function f to it that is not known to an adversary, getting U. To the adversary, U will look like random noise and hence be "unspecified", so it will not constitute creationist information. Now I come along and apply f-1 to U, getting T back again. Voilà! I have now magically created information deterministically, something Dembski claims is impossible.

No matter how many times you explain this, creationists offer nothing but lies in response.