Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Insane Faulkner Lawsuit

William Faulkner has got to be one of the most overrated American writers. Now his literary estate is carrying on his tradition by suing Sony because Woody Allen's mediocre movie Midnight in Paris used a 10-word quote from Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun".

The funniest thing is that the quote they are suing over is not even a direct quote. Faulkner wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- that's different from what is in the movie, which is "The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past."

This is not a lawsuit to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. Oops! I hope Dorothy Parker's literary estate is not going to sue me for that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Don't Mess with the Moose

A police cruiser is no match for a moose, in British Columbia.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Baseball Physics

If you've been watching the NLCS on TV, you've been able to see what a high-speed camera does for the physics of baseball. You get to see how the bat dramatically slows down when it hits the ball -- the illusion of a smooth swing is gone forever. You also get to see how the bat deforms and wobbles after impact. Very cool!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Pseudoscience Constellation

Did you ever notice that buying into one form of pseudoscience often begets other kinds of foolishness? Phillip Johnson, the lawyer who had a religious experience after a messy divorce, is not only one of the founders of the modern intelligent design movement; he's also an AIDS denier.

Russell Humphreys, the young-earth creationist, also denies that global warming is a problem.

Recently I learned about another example, possibly one of the most impressive yet. R. Webster Kehr is a Mormon and ex-Marine who

- thinks "evolution is the most absurd scientific theory in the history of science!!"

- denies Einstein's theory of relativity and the photon theory

- thinks that the naturals and the reals are the same size, even though he admits there is no bijection between them. He also describes himself as the author of many mathematical papers, although oddly enough, MathSciNet doesn't list a single one.

- subscribes to cancer quackery

You have to work pretty hard to be so deluded in so many fields simultaneously.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Creationism isn't the Real Enemy; Intellectual Dishonesty Is

Glenn Morton is a former young-earth creationist who could no longer tolerate the endless string of falsehoods put out by creationists, and wrote some helpful pages debunking creationist claims, such as The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism, which I've favorably cited before.

However, he remained an evangelical Christian. And in some ways he continued to argue exactly like a creationist. I remember once on a private mailing list, we had a disagreement about information theory. I quoted definitions from books about information theory to make my point, but these weren't good enough: Morton insisted that he used information theory in the oil industry and was correct and he would not budge from that. No amount of evidence could persuade him.

Now he's had a hissy fit and deleted his own anti-creationism pages. His reason is that most people who fight creationism are "religious bigots" who are taking advantage of his work to further their own agenda.

But take a look at his arguments! They are classic right-wing crackpot stuff:

- "someone got a draft of a book by John [sic] Buell and they were scheming how to put an injunction on his book PRE-PUBLICATION" - Buell's book figured in the Dover trial; I know the people involved and this injunction claim is completely untrue

- "It doesn't matter that the earth stopped warming in 1997 as the UK Met Office reveals in the latest HADCRUT data, one MUST still believe that it is still occurring" - a fabrication, one that was quickly debunked.

- "The president of Chic-Fil-A is not allowed to have freedom of speech or religon if that speech or religion offends the sensitivities of the elitists who think they have a right to hector everyone into their boring conformity." -- Morton clearly doesn't understand freedom of speech; it refers to the right to be free of government censorship, and it doesn't prevent private boycotts of business owned by people you disagree with. The Religious Right puts out boycott requests practically every week; Morton says not a word about these.

- "These same elites will not grant the religious the courtesy and right to put up monuments in the public square." - Morton needs to take a refresher course on the separation of church and state. I defend the right of people to put up religious monuments on private property, but public property is a completely different matter.

- "Why do people think it is ok to ridicule [a Mormon's] beliefs? Debate them, yes, ridicule them? no" - ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule. Labelling them "religious" doesn't get you a free pass.

- "And if a majority want to teach their kids YEC or that the Martians are living amongst us, they should have that freedom" - How about if a majority wants to keep black students out, or teach that black students are inferior? Still OK? There is a clear public interest in having good science in public schools.

- "Freedom is dear; and you, the religious bigot, are a danger to my freedom." - right! That explains why the ACLU consistently supports the religious rights of Christians. And here is my modest contribution.

I'm sorry to see Glenn Morton leave the fight against creationism, but if his reasons are this intellectually dishonest, I say, good riddance.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Political Correctness Run Amok at Queen's University?

The CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) has issued its report on the case of Michael Mason, an instructor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, who was prevented from teaching a course after apparently baseless complaints about the use of racist and sexist speech in his course, History 283.

The report strongly suggests that the complaints by certain students about his teaching were ridiculous and unfounded. Furthermore, it suggests that the complaints were badly mishandled by the administrators, including James Carson, chair of the Department of History, and Vice-Principal Daniel Bradshaw.

Professor Mason deserves a public apology and compensation from Queen's University.

Mathematics Journal gets Sokaled

Over at That's Mathematics, the author reports that his paper of gibberish mathematics was actually accepted by the journal Advances in Pure Mathematics. This gives you some idea of the quality of that journal.

The paper contains such deathless phrases as "By a little-known result of Fibonacci..." and "It is not yet known whether every real, surjective, pairwise regular functor is ultra-standard". The author pairings in the bibliography include Atiyah and Leibniz, and Atiyah and Eudoxus. Very nice work.

Sydney River is the Place to Live

Clearly, Sydney River, Nova Scotia, is the place to live! Especially if you like moose:

Mary Ellen Marsh of Sydney River said she thought someone was at her door and then realized it was a moose. She said the moose was in the neighbourhood for about an hour, going from yard to yard and down the street.

The animal visited Sydney River Elementary, where she made an impression on students.

Mikki Armishaw, the principal, said, “The children just went out of their minds.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Interesting but Little-Known Function

A boolean matrix is a matrix whose entries are truth values, usually represented as 1 (true) and 0 (false). We multiply boolean matrices in the same way that we multiply ordinary matrices, except that instead of sum we use the boolean "or" and instead of product we use the boolean "and".

Boolean matrices have a natural interpretation in terms of directed graphs: given a graph G on n vertices, we put a 1 in row i and column j of M if there is a directed edge in G from vertex i to vertex j, and 0 otherwise. Then the boolean matrix power Me has a 1 in row i and column j if and only if there is a directed path from vertex i to vertex j of length e.

Given an n × n boolean matrix M, a natural question is, what is the largest size s(n) of the semigroup generated by M under boolean matrix multiplication? In other words, how many distinct powers can M have, in the worst case? Believe it or not, this natural quantity has received very little attention in the literature. There is a paper by Markowsky in 1977, and another by Denes, Roush, and Kim in 1983, but that's about it. For small n, it is known that s(n) = n2 - n + 2, while for larger n, it is known that s(n) is approximately g(n), Landau's function, which counts the maximal order of an element in the symmetric group of order n. It is known that Landau's function is approximately esqrt(n log n), so this tells us how s(n) behaves for large n. But to my knowledge nobody knows the exact value, or even small values past n = 20. This might be a nice computational challenge for an undergraduate.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Canada is Number 2, But We Try Harder

Sure, in the US they have raving loonies in power, like Paul Broun (R-GA), who thinks evolution is a lie of Satan and that the earth is 9000 years old.

But here in Canada, we're trying harder. We have a police chief in Winnipeg who thinks the solution to crime in his city is to pray a lot.

The embarrassing thing is not that there are people who hold such beliefs. The embarrassing thing is that we vote for such people, or appoint them to positions of power.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Gulf is Too Wide

From a letter to the editor of our local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, October 4 2012:

"In any sexual union, it is God who decides whether or not there will be conception of a child.

"From that moment of conception, there is a new human life. God wants that human being or the child would not have been conceived."

"What right has the woman to snuff out the life of that human being?"

When someone has such a medieval view of the world, unencumbered by our modern understanding of biology and reproduction, is it even possible to reason with them? I don't think so. The gulf is just too wide.

Baptist Minister Prays for Me

Remember Cal Lord? He's the Rhode Island Baptist minister who wrote a creationist column for the Norwich (CT) Bulletin, criticizing Bill Nye for his support of evolution.

Lord used a quote, said to be by George Wald in Scientific American in 1957, to support his creationist views. Only problem? Wald never said what Lord claimed; it is a well-known fabrication.

I wrote to Lord to point this out. But, despite the fact that he has a weekly column in the Bulletin, he never admitted his misrepresentation in print. Nor did he admit that he gave the bogus quote without citing his source.

Now, out of the blue, Lord writes me again to say that he is praying for me and boasting how about he has grown in his faith since his lies and plagiarism appeared in print.

Lord hasn't grown at all: he's refused to publicly admit his misconduct. He's the typical liar for Jesus: willing to defame a good scientist like Wald by publishing a bogus quotation, but unwilling to retract it publicly.

"This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed."

Thousands of Muslims have protested at the headquarters of Google in London about a Youtube film that mocks Muhammad.

The organizer, Masoud Alam, is quoted as saying, "This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed... Until it is banned we will keep protesting."

Yes, it will be allowed. In a free society, just because you label some belief as "religious" doesn't mean I can't criticize it. And you are free to lie and say things like, "Prophet Muhammad is the founder of freedom of speech", and I can criticize that, too.

Islam is badly in need of a reform movement.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fascism - Canadian Style

It looks like the language fascists in Québec -- the same folks that insisted that stop signs bear the word "arrĂȘt" instead of "stop", when "stop" is a perfectly good French word with a long history; they use it on French stop signs, for example -- can't bear the fact that "Old Navy" is called that and not "Vieille Marine".

Maybe they should change the name of their government to "Vichy". Now that's a language change that would represent truth in advertising.

Then there's Canada's denial of entry to Terry Jones. Sure, Jones is a first-class creep who has nothing to contribute, but they let creeps into the country every day. They let David Irving in, after all.

By refusing entry to Terry Jones, Canada sends the message that there are some ideas that are just too scary for Canadians to hear. That's a bad message, and a bad precedent.

More Crappy Canadian Journalism

Recently there was Wentegate.

Now we have the appalling prospect of Shelagh Rogers interviewing the repulsive Michael Coren, who is allowed to blather on and on about how poor Christianity is maligned and Christians aren't taken seriously, all without her asking a single hard question. Coren even gets labeled an "intellectual"!


Next, in my local paper, columnist Luisa D'Amato calls it "intolerance", "ill will", "oppressive", and "authoritarian" because Federal Minister Rona Ambrose was criticized for supporting the evident scam behind Stephen Woodworth's private member's bill. She thinks this represents a lack of commitment to "free speech" on the part of women's groups.

She's got it exactly backwards. The right to free expression is a restriction on the power of government, not a shackle on the rights of citizens to disagree with the actions of elected leaders.

Whatever happened to good journalism?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Clinking Glasses in Linear Time

This is the kind of question that comes up when you have two theoretical computer scientists at the dinner table. Suppose there are N guests seated around a large table. If everybody wants to clink glasses with everybody else, and the time to clink is proportional to the distance around the perimeter of the table you have to travel to reach them, how can everybody clink with everyone else in time linear in N? You clearly can't do better than linear time, since every person takes up a certain minimum amount of space at the table, say at least 30 cm, so to reach the furthest person away you will need linear time.

On the other hand, there are N(N-1)/2 clinks to accomplish, so you will need some parallelism to do it all in linear time.

Here's how to do it. Let's say that the number of guests N is a power of 2, say 2n. The solution is easily modified for the general case.

Number the guests from 1 to 2n. In round 1, all the guests numbered 1 to 2n - 1 get up, and walk clockwise around the table in synch with each other, clinking with each seated guest (numbered 2n - 1 + 1 through 2n) as they pass them. Having completed a circuit of the table, they now sit down. This round costs N time.

It remains for all the guests numbered 1 to 2n - 1 to clink with each other, and all guests numbered 2n - 1 + 1 to 2n to clink with each other. This is done in the same way as before within each group, except now the guests don't make a full cycle of the table; they just go to the last guest in their group they need to clink with, and then in synch with the others, return back the way the came. The second round costs 2N/2 = N time.

In each subsequent round, the same thing is done, halving the sizes of the groups, so the distance each group has to travel halves as well. Thus further rounds cost N/2, then N/4, etc. So the total time elapsed is bounded by N + (N + N/2 + N/4 + ··· + 1) = 3N - 1.

Here's an example. Suppose there are 16 guests. In round 1, guests 1 through 8 get up, cycle around clinking with guests 9 through 16, who are seated. They make a full cycle of the table and sit down. Next, guests 1 through 4 get up and clink with seated 5 through 8; simultaneously 9 through 12 are up and clink with seated 13 through 16; they then return back they way the came. In round 3, guests 1 and 2 get up and clink with 3 and 4 and return; simultaneously 5 and 6 are clinking with 7 and 8; 9 and 10 are clinking with 11 and 12; 13 and 14 are clinking with 15 and 16. Finally, in the last round, each odd-numbered guest clinks with the person to the right. Here the total number of clinks is 8 · 8 + 2 · 4 · 4 + 4 · 2 · 2 + 8 · 1 · 1 = 120, which is (16 · 15)/2, as it should be.

The Experts Disagree

Is it just me, or is the quality and speed of refereeing deteriorating lately?

I know that everybody's busy. I know that for many professors, class sizes are getting bigger and take more time. But I've had three papers out for refereeing now where two have no decisions after 10 months and 12 months, respectively, and the other -- a paper of only 6 pages -- got reports only after 6 months.

Editors should be more diligent about pursuing reports. In the journal I edit, if we don't get a report after 2 months, we send a reminder, and if we don't get any response after 3 months, we start looking for another referee. The result is that it is extremely rare that a paper takes longer than 6 months to get a decision. A year is unheard of.

Speaking of that 6-page paper, we had submitted it earlier to another journal -- I'll call it "Journal A". After 4 ½ months, we got two reports, one of which I excerpt below:

"This trivial observation is claimed to be the main result of the submitted paper..."
"Although the simple argument provided in the paper is wrong... it could be easily corrected."
"However, the "proof" given there does not even contain any correct idea, which could be used to prove this claim..."
"In conclusion, the paper does not contain any original results..."

This report went on to claim that one of our results was a simple consequence of a known theorem, and then proceeded to outline a wildly incorrect argument supporting this.

Needless to say, on this basis of this report, the paper was rejected, even though all the assertions about the proofs being incorrect or that the last result easily followed from known results, were wrong.

In fact, I think this is a good model of how not to write a report. If you, as a referee, claim that an argument is wrong, it is definitely your responsibility to be specific about what is wrong, not make vague assertions like those above. And you also need to be a little more modest! If something appears wrong in a paper, maybe it is wrong. Or maybe, just maybe, you have simply misunderstood it.

We then resubmitted our paper to "Journal B". After 6 months we got two reports, one of which I excerpt below:

"These results are very interesting and the proofs are correct..."
"I think the construction of the Thm 6 is really brilliant..."

The experts disagree, I guess.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Big Surprise: William Lane Craig Caught Fibbing

Apparently William Lane Craig's version of Christianity requires that animals can't feel pain. Or, if they can feel pain, they're not "aware" that they're in pain. Or if they're aware that they're in pain, they're not aware that they're aware. Or something -- the important thing is that people are different from animals.

Craig has claimed that "science" supports his view. Not so, according to a new video.

Who is surprised? Craig has misrepresented what other scholars say before. Craig is not really interested in the answer to the question; he just wants to accumulate evidence, no matter how tenuous, to support his religion.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Strange New Book about the Periodic Table

As a blogger of influence™ I occasionally get books in the mail to review. The latest is Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified, by Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji.

This has got to be the strangest book I have ever read about the periodic table. Each chemical element is interpreted as a cartoon figure. (I think they're all male, but I'm not absolutely sure. Are there really no female elements?) The noble gases, for example, all have giant hairdos that the author calls an "Afro", but look closer to a shtreimel; the halogens, by contrast, are all "bald and bulbous like a halogen lamp". The elements of antiquity have long beards, and the man-made elements look like robots. A fold-out periodic table summarizes all 118 known elements with their cartoon interpretations.

The book begins with a discussion of elements found in everyday things and how this has changed through time. The next chapter explains the author's coding for the various properties of the elements (interpreted as hairstyle, clothing, obesity, etc.) The bulk of the book goes through each element and discusses their properties and applications.

Most of the facts presented are correct, but not always. For example, about neon lights in glass tubes it is claimed that "The first time this was done was in 1912 in Montmartre, Paris", but this is not quite correct. The property of emitting red light by electrical discharge was noted by the discoverers of neon, Travers and Ramsay in 1898, and commercialization started in the early 1900's. The lanthanides are described as "extremely rare", but this is not really the case. Cerium, for example, is more abundant in the earth's crust than copper, lithium, cobalt, and lead.

The author is also not always careful to distinguish between the pure element and its compounds. Hopefully no child will swallow aluminum foil upon reading that "It has protective properties when applied to stomach membranes".

This little (15 × 18 cm) book might possibly interest youngsters (ages 8-12), especially if they already have an interest in Japanese anime. But for older kids and adults, I think they'd be better served by Emsley's Nature's Building Blocks or Stwertka's A Guide to the Elements.

Rating: two stars out of four.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Kitchener-Waterloo Guitar Society

It looks like the K-W Guitar Society is now a reality. They also have a concert series for 2012-2013 where you can hear classical guitarists such as Victor Villadangos, Marcin Dylla, and others.

As for me, I am currently working on Napoleon Coste, Waltz, Opus 51, No. 8 from the Royal Conservatory book 6.