Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Moose Blogging

What to do when your moose population is too inbred? Why, set up a way for those single moose to mingle.

As Woody Allen once said, "The moose mingles. Did very well. Scored."

Hat tip: Anna.

The Evangelical Worldview is Very Fragile

So fragile that it can be challenged by a university education. That's why you have to read evangelical propaganda and study with Christian apologists.

I can guess the title of one book that's not on the curriculum in Doug Groothuis's courses: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Canadians are Breathing Easier

The US has Fort Knox. Canada has the strategic maple syrup reserve.

Canadians are now relieved that arrests have been made in the great maple syrup heist.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Wrong Mathematics in a Jack Reacher Novel

Lee Child is the author of the popular Jack Reacher thriller novels. He's probably going to get a lot more attention soon, now that the first Jack Reacher movie is headed for release next week.

Five years ago, I discussed some mathematics in Bad Luck and Trouble. I complained that suddenly, a new characteristic of Reacher was unveiled: he was a gifted mental calculator who could determine the primality of numbers quickly, and he was interested in properties like 'square root of n equals sum of n's base-10 digits'.

Now, in the new Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, Child returns to this numerological interest of his main character. First, Reacher is thinking about automorphic numbers: these are positive integers n such that n2 ends in the same base-10 digits as n.

Then (on page 64), Reacher is thinking about 81, and he "muse[s] about how one divided by 81 expressed as a decimal came out as .0123456789, which then recurred literally forever, 0123456789 over and over and over again..."

The problem? That's not the decimal expansion of 1/81. It's actually 0.012345679012345679012345679012345679012345679012345679012345679 ..., where the period of the expansion is 012345679 and not 0123456789. The "8" is missing! The reason for this is not so surprising, and generalizes easily to the expansion of 1/(n - 1)2 in base n.

A savant like Reacher, who can determine the closest prime to a randomly-chosen 6-digit number in a matter of a few seconds, would not have made such a silly mistake. Maybe Lee Child needs a mathematical consultant for his next novel. Hey, I'm available.

Friday, December 14, 2012

John Baird - Hypocrite

John Baird is a Canadian MP and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Harper government.

Back in May, he gave a speech at the "Religious Freedom Dinner" in Washington, DC, in which he decried persecution of religious people, but said not a single word about the very real persecution of atheists and other non-religious people around the world.

But it's even worse than that. He actually repeated the tired, old claim that "We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion."

But freedom of religion, if it means anything, must include the right to practice no religion at all.

Baird is a hypocrite.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Christmas Song by My Father

Here's a Christmas song written by my father in 1966. The music was written by my brother, Jonathan Shallit, at age 14. Not surprisingly, my brother went on to become a professional violinist and music professor.

I guess my father liked the tradition of Christmas songs written by Jewish guys.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Sterility of Intelligent Design

One thing that separates pseudoscience from science is fecundity: real science takes place in a social context, with an active community of scholars meeting and exchanging ideas. The ideas in one paper lead to another and another; good papers get dozens or hundreds of citations and suggest new active areas of study.

By contrast, pseudoscience is sterile: the ideas, such as they are, lead to no new insights, suggest no experiments, and are espoused by single crackpots or a small community of like-minded ideologues. The work gets few or no citations in the scientific literature, and the citations they do get are predominantly self-citations.

Here is a perfect example of this sterility: Bio-Complexity, the flagship journal of the intelligent design movement. As 2012 draws to a close, the 2012 volume contains exactly two research articles, one "critical review" and one "critical focus", for a grand total of four items. The editorial board has 30 members; they must be kept very busy handling all those papers.

(Another intelligent design journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, hasn't had a new issue since 2005.)

By contrast, the journal Evolution has ten times more research articles in a single issue (one of 12 so far in 2012). And this is just a single journal where evolutionary biology research is published; there are many others.

But that's not the most hopeless part. Of the four contributions to Bio-Complexity in 2012, three have authors that are either the Editor in Chief (sic), the Managing Editor, or members of the editorial board of the journal. Only one article, the one by Fernando Castro-Chavez, has no author in the subset of the people running the journal. And that one is utter bilge, written by someone who believes that "the 64 codons [of DNA are] represented since at least 4,000 years ago and preserved by China in the I Ching or Book of Changes or Mutations".

Intelligent design advocates have been telling us for years that intelligent design would transform science and generate new research paradigms. They lied.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Should Barbers Have the Right to Refuse Service to Women?

Should barbers have the right to refuse service to women?

Rex Murphy and George Jonas think so.

But it's not so clear to me. After all, discrimination in employment, housing, and even public accommodation like hotels is outlawed. Why should be it different for services like getting haircuts?

Does the reason for declining to cut the woman's hair matter? Would it be different if the barber pleaded incompetence at cutting women's hair, or if he did for the reason he stated: his Muslim beliefs prevent him from servicing women? How about if he refused to cut the hair of Jews, or blacks? Would that be more or less acceptable?

Tal Pinchevsky, "Breakway"

I'm a big fan of escape literature -- not escapist literature, but literature about clever escapes from prison camps and totalitarian regimes. So I approached Tal Pinchevsky's new book, Breakway, with some anticipation. It's the story of hockey greats from behind the Iron Curtain who gave up their homelands to play in the NHL: people like the Stastny brothers, Petr Klima, and Sergei Fedorov.

Of course, these players didn't have to endure anything like the conditions of World War II POW's, and the contracts they got when they arrived gave them unprecedented riches, which they sometimes squandered on alcohol. So I don't really have much sympathy for them to begin with.

Nevertheless, some of the stories are interesting and, not being a hockey fan, I hadn't heard any of them before. Unfortunately, the writing is not very good and the editor didn't bother to fix the problems: misspellings, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences can be found throughout.

Bottom line: 2.5 stars out of 5, suitable mostly for hockey fans.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Waterloo Ignorance Day

Today is Waterloo Ignorance Day!

No, it's not a day devoted to Michael Egnor: that would be Egnorance Year (or perhaps Egnorance Lifetime).

Instead, you'll hear 10 15-minute talks centered around the theme of "What I Wish I Knew about the Mind, Brain, and Intelligence".

One thing I can guarantee you won't hear is nonsense like this, from Ed Feser:

"Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes."

Only a creationist (like V. J. Torley)* could be so utterly moronic. While Feser and his friends are declaring it impossible, real neuroscientists and neurophilosophers are busy figuring it out.

* Feser seems to think I was calling him a creationist, and on re-reading I understand how he could think that. By "creationist" I intended to refer to the person who quoted Feser and thought Feser's claim deserved quoting. Clearly, though, I was wrong: there are people who are even more moronic than creationists. I apologize for the lack for clarity, and I apologize to creationists for this undeserved association with Feser.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Santorum Joins World Net Daily

As Ed Brayton would say, this is comedy gold: Rick Santorum is going to write a column for World Net Daily!

I can't think of a columnist and a website more suited to each other. We can look forward to four years of utter insanity.

Monday, December 03, 2012

My Unremarked Remarks at Eschaton

At Eschaton 2012, I was asked to appear on a panel about "skeptivism" - a word I'd never heard before, but apparently means "skeptical activism".

I don't know anything about being an "activist", but I prepared some remarks anyway. Then, when it came time for the panel, people were more interested in asking Sara Mayhew and me questions about our talks, so that's the way it went.

Since I prepared these, this is as good a place as any to record them:

1. It pays to complain. (title of a recurring column in Freethought Today): when you see church-state violations, or creationism in the public schools, or silly pseudoscience or outright scams, complain! Write a letter to the editor, or e-mail to the school board, or report scams to the police. You'd be surprised how much mileage you can get out of a single complaint.

2. Adopt your own style. You don't have to destroy a communion wafer to reach people. If you're comfortable with a more confrontational style, that's fine, but if you're not you can still have an effect.

3. Be scrupulous. You don't have to adopt the tactics of creationists. If you cite a quote, check it out first to make sure it's authentic. If you make a mistake, admit it. "Always do right," Mark Twain said, "This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."

4. Ask hard questions. If your local elected representative has a meeting, go and ask how old he or she thinks the earth is. Ask their opinion of evolution and global warming. If they say something stupid, you can say "You are aware, I assume, that the scientific consensus is uniformly against you?"

5. Don't pay any attention to foolish detractors, whether they're atheists or not. No matter what you do, there will be critics; the "old school" of atheists like R. Joseph Hoffman are sometimes the silliest of all. Listen to people that have something valuable to contribute and ignore the rest.

6. Learn to be a good speaker. Record yourself and watch it. Watch videos of good speakers, such as Christopher Hitchens, and try to learn from them.

7. Know what you're getting into. Depending on where you live, speaking up might cost you your friends, subject your to attacks on you and your property, or get you fired. Choose your battles wisely! Not everything is worth your job.

Eschaton 2012

Had a great time at the Eschaton 2012 conference in Ottawa this past weekend.

Larry Moran exposed the appalling stupidity of the Discovery Institute and everybody laughed at them.

P. Z. Myers gave a good introduction to incomplete lineage sorting and coalescent theory for a general audience, and he explained why it is not at all surprising that part of the gorilla genome is closer to humans and chimps than humans and chimps are to each other. Along the way, Casey Luskin was exposed as a fool or a liar. Everybody laughed again.

P. Z. Myers talked about Canada's "neighbor to the south", but little did he know that his hometown Morris, Minnesota is actually north of Ottawa!

And here's my talk on numerology, if you're interested.

Congratulations to the Watsons and to CFI for a well-run conference!