Saturday, October 24, 2009

Very Funny Story By Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker writer and author of Blink and The Tipping Point recounts a very funny story about a wedding song gone completely wrong in an episode of "The Moth Radio Hour".

To listen, go here, and click on the arrow that appears immediately under "The Moth Radio Hour 4". The story starts at 35:10 -- but the other two stories are worth listening to, also.

A more direct link is here, but I don't guarantee it will work.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Liveblogging President Obama at MIT

12:13 PM. Woman is singing the national anthem.

12:14 PM I'm in a room in the Stata Center with about 50 others. We didn't get tickets to the event, held in MIT's Kresge Hall, but it is being broadcast here. People are talking about all the Secret Service agents around the campus, some people on roofs. Kids outside Kresge Hall, shouting "Obama!" over and over. Airspace near Logan was closed, with Air Force authorized to use deadly force against aircraft that didn't obey the temporary flight rules.

12:17 PM Stage is empty.

12:31 PM Presidential seal is affixed to podium.

12:42 PM Finally, some action. Susan Hockfield, President of MIT, is introducing Obama, talking about the MIT energy initiative.

12:44 PM Ernest Moniz, head of the MIT Energy Initiative, is speaking. "The President has expanded our energy vision..."

12:46 PM Obama on the stage. Large amount of applause. "Thank you, MIT!" "It's always been a dream of mine to visit the most prestigous school in Cambridge, Massachusetts..." "Students put my motorcade on top of Building 10." "Everybody hands out periodic tables - what's up with that?"

12:48 PM He thanks Eric Lander and Eric Moniz. Also acknowledges Governor Deval Patrick, Lt. Governor Tim Murray, Attorney General Martha Coakley, etc.

12:50 PM He's talking about some of the energy innovations of MITEI: windows that funnel sunlight to solar cells, etc.
"You just get excited being and seeing these young people here at MIT" "It's the legacy of a nation who supported those intrepid few willing to take risks that might fail".

12:54 PM "There will be a debate of how to move from fossil fuels to renewable fuels ... but no question that we must do it."
"Rising energy use imperils the planet." "Nations everywhere are racing to find new ways to produce and distribute energy."
"I want America to be that nation" [to win the race]. Bill we passed in January "makes the largest investment in renewable energy in history".

12:56 PM Initiative by Deval Patrick will allow researchers to test very large wind turbine blades, the size of a football field, as part of the Recovery Act.

12:58 PM Recovery Act, the Stimulus Bill, is responsible for the largest increase in funding of science in history.

12:59 PM Renewable energy will be the profitable kind of energy in America. A bi-partisan issue. We'll have an energy system that is more efficient, cleaner, and independent. Safe nuclear power, sustainable biofuels, wind & solar power. Consensus is growing. Pentagon has declared energy-dependence a security threat.

1:02 PM Climate denier's only purpose is to "defeat or delay the change that is necessary". Pessimism is also a problem.
We can do it. "This is the nation that pushed westward and looked skyward." "This is the nation that has led the world for 2 centuries in the pursuit of discovery."

1:05 PM Speech is over, Obama is shaking hands.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roger Penrose is Much Smarter than I Am. But...

Roger Penrose is much smarter than I am. But I think he is completely wrong when he says

In my view the conscious brain does not act according to classical physics. It doesn’t even act according to conventional quantum mechanics. It acts according to a theory we don’t yet have. This is being a bit big-headed, but I think it’s a little bit like William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. He worked out that it had to circulate, but the veins and arteries just peter out, so how could the blood get through from one to the other? And he said, “Well, it must be tiny little tubes there, and we can’t see them, but they must be there.” Nobody believed it for some time. So I’m still hoping to find something like that—some structure that preserves coherence, because I believe it ought to be there.

We don't have any evidence at all that brains don't follow physical theories.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking for Graduate Students

My sabbatical will end on July 1 2010, and I'm looking for good graduate students -at either the master's or the PhD level - in computer science who are interested in working on problems in automata theory, formal languages, combinatorics on words, complexity theory, number theory algorithms, or algebraic algorithms, beginning September 2010.

You can see the kinds of things I've been working on lately here.

The University of Waterloo offers excellent financial support for graduate students. You can get information about our School of Computer Science and about the application process for admission to graduate school by clicking on the links.

If you're interested, send me e-mail (which you can find by going to my home page, and tell me what you've done and what you're interested in doing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why Do Web Page Creators Make It So Hard to Contact Them?

One of my pet peeves is that if you see an error on a web page, and you want to notify someone in charge, it is usually difficult or impossible to do so. As a challenge, try to find the web page where you can report an error in Google Maps. It's not easy.

Here's another example. I recently bought a Canon scanner, and was curious about the technology. So I turned to their web pages, and found this page, which discusses it.

In the middle of the discussion, however, you find this bizarre sentence:

Yes, but I'll change it.

Obviously this was left in from the editing process. But how can you report it? Canon's web page doesn't have a "report error on this page" link, and their on-line form demands you pull down menus to pick a particular product (which isn't really apppropriate). Then, after I went through the whole process of filling out their form, and clicked "send", it reported that there was an error with their server.

I guess Canon is simply not interested in people pointing out silly errors on their pages.

I've Never Liked Bill Maher

I've never liked Bill Maher, and I've felt that way ever since I saw a video he did mocking Dan Quayle. Now to me, Dan Quayle exemplifies everything that is wrong about American politics: his frat-boy ignorance, his contempt for learning, his loony religious cult wife, etc., etc. So I was certainly prepared to like the video and laugh at Quayle. Instead, the treatment was so sneering, and so insulting, that I was left with a bad taste in my mouth and I was sorry I had wasted my time.

Sure, Maher is funny sometimes. But a lot of the time he is just ignorant. And now Orac has been showing us in detail that Maher is a raving lunatic when it comes to medical issues. How he was ever given the Richard Dawkins Award is beyond me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Big Surprise

Michele Bachmann, intelligent design advocate, is a pathological liar. Who would have guessed?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No, Really! Stalin Was Really a Nice Guy!

I suppose we should be grateful that a Russian court has ruled against a descendant of Joseph Stalin in a suit brought by Stalin's grandson against Novaya Gazeta because the paper described Stalin as a "bloodthirsty cannibal".

What gets me is that apparently you can sue under Russian law for defamation against a dead person. That's a law that's ripe for abuse.

If this trend is adopted elsewhere, we can expect see a lawsuit brought by Alessandra Mussolini to restore the reputation of her grandfather, Benito; a lawsuit brought by Michael Reagan against Eric Alterman for calling his adopted father, Ronald Reagan, a "moron" and a "pathological liar"; and a lawsuit brought by the Catholic Church against Christopher Hitchens for his book about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Attention Francophones

If you are Francophone, you can read Jean-Paul Allouche's brief discussion of my paper on optimal coin systems here.

William Lobdell - Losing My Religion

William Lobdell is an American journalist. He rediscovered religion at age 29, became a "fully developed Christian", and got a job covering religion for the Los Angeles Times. As a reporter, he was exposed to the many misdeeds of organized religion, and in covering the religion beat, he eventually lost his religion - and wrote a book about it, called Losing My Religion (HarperCollins, 2009).

I wanted to like the book - but I didn't. Here's why.

1. The writing is clunky. Just because you're a journalist doesn't mean you can write a full-length book; the two crafts are very different. Reporters tend to write short, punchy sentences, and most don't have the time, inclination, or mandate to get deep into details. And reporters are always writing about other people, which means that when it comes time for self-reflection, they're often at a loss. The result is often self-indulgent (think of Anna Quindlen).

Here's an example:

So I began to pray. I asked God for a religion-writing job at the Los Angeles Times. I prayed for it in the morning, at night, and in between. On my weekly runs, I asked again. So did Hugh. We prayed and prayed and ran and ran -- and nothing happened. The prayers continued for four years. But my faith remained strong, and I didn't think about giving up.

And for a book by a reporter, there are surprising lapses. A Muslim football team is described on page 80 as being called the "Infitada". Where was the editor there?

2. Lobdell comes off as gullible and not particularly bright. I never got the impression that he thought deeply about his conversion -- or his deconversion. He calls C. S. Lewis "one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century", which doesn't convince me of Lobdell's acuity. And he actually liked The Screwtape Letters, one of the dreckiest books ever written. Lobdell writes that he was "moved" by the story of Charles Colson, former Watergate criminal who now spends part of his time lying about evolution and homosexuality.

He "eagerly read[s]" Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, a book whose entire premise is so clearly dishonest that any reporter should immediately be tipped off. Lobdell writes that Strobel's book "chronicles the author's spiritual journey from skeptic to devout evangelical as he investigates the scientific and historical evidence for Christianity". But this is a very misleading description of what Strobel does. In his books, Strobel typically doesn't present evidence on both sides of the questions he considers -- we get just one side, the evangelical Christian side. This dishonest presentation doesn't escape skeptical reviewers, but it seems to have entirely escaped Lobdell.

Lobdell's conversion seemed more emotional than rational, more about how religion and the church made him feel. And his deconversion (see below) was largely along the same lines.

3. Lobdell seems impressed by the argument from authority. For example, he writes "I needed to hear Christians more intelligent than I who had the utmost confidence -- and evidence to back it up -- in what the Bible said, even those uncomfortable passages that most believers skip or ignore." But why didn't he make any effort to seek out people who didn't have that confidence, and also had evidence to back it up?

4. Lobdell doesn't seem to understand the role of a reporter. The job of a journalist is to "print the truth and raise hell", to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". But not, it seems when reporting about religion. He writes, It's drilled into journalists that "if your mother tells you she loves you, better check it out." But such journalistic standards can't be applied to much of faith reporting. But it's precisely this mistaken belief that explains why so much religion reporting consists of little more than taking dictation from believers, instead of challenging them on their claims.

Here's an example: Lobdell writes, The worst a cynic could say about them [Billy Graham and Rick Warren] is that they encourage belief in things that might not be true. Really? That is the worst that a cynic could say about them?

Hardly. How about calling Rick Warren a clueless hypocrite who encourages his followers to vote against gay rights? Or that Warren's highly-publicized crusade against AIDS actually involves sidekicks who advocate burning condoms and arresting homosexuals?

5. His deconversion, when it comes, comes for the wrong reasons. He didn't give up Christianity because its claims are false or not supported by the evidence, but largely because of the wrongdoing of many Christians (especially Catholic priests). It wasn't an intellectual decision, but an emotional reaction to the wrongdoing by Michael Harris, Michael Pecharich, John Geoghan, and other priests. While we agree that the Catholic child abuse scandals are symptomatic of a unredeemably corrupt institution, I don't agree that these scandals are a particularly good reason for giving up Christianity. There are so many better reasons!

To be fair, there are also some things about the book that I liked. Lobdell appears to have done some genuinely good investigative work on Catholic child abuse scandals, and he wasn't scared off by the hostile reaction of many Catholics. He also broke the story on Paul Crouch's attempt to buy the silence of an employee about their sexual encounter. But in the end, I found the book unsatisfying. I hope that wherever his future career takes him, William Lobdell makes more of an effort to investigate claims skeptically, and to rely more on reason and less on emotion.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!

I attended the NPR radio show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! last night in Boston, with son #2, in the absurdly overdecorated Wang Theatre. Somebody's making some serious bucks there - 3000 people at roughly 50 bucks a head... I only hope some of it goes to WBUR, our local station. Impressions: Carl Kasell is surprisingly spry and graceful at age 75; Peter Sagal looks a little like a Jewish version of Jack Nicholson; the bell is not rung by Carl, but by a producer.

Guest was actress Ashley Judd (who was not very funny, but very, very earnest and rather pleased with herself, and gave the host a heart attack by being in the loo when it was her turn to appear); panelists were Roxanne Roberts, Charlie Pierce, and Tom Bodett. (I would have preferred to see Mo Rocca and Paula Poundstone, but at least the obnoxious and unfunny P. J. O'Rourke wasn't there.) No real side-splitters, although the funniest line of the night was after the show taping ended, when somebody asked host Peter Sagal if he ever does bar mitzvahs. He replied that he did one once, but it didn't work out very well.

If you want to hear my own appearance on Wait, Wait back in 2003, go here and click on the "Bluff the listener" link. They gave me some Wait, Wait gear in honor of the event, but I didn't get Carl Kasell's voice on my home answering machine.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Creationist Response Dice Game

From SMBC:

Hat tip to Jerry Kuch.

The Worst Piece of Classical Music

I attended the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, and while much of it was enjoyable (for example, Beethoven's 4th) and all of it professional, there was one piece that I would nominate for the worst piece of classical music ever written: Elliott Carter's "Mosaic" for harp and chamber ensemble. It was absolutely unlistenable. When a cell phone went off in the middle, I sighed with relief: at last, some tonality.

What are your nominations for the worst piece of classical music ever?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Jonathan Wells: Another ID Creationist Who Doesn't Understand Information Theory

Intelligent design creationists love to talk about information theory, but unfortunately they rarely understand it. Jonathan Wells is the latest ID creationist to demonstrate this.

In a recent post at "Evolution News & Views" describing an event at the University of Oklahoma, Wells said, "I replied that duplicating a gene doesn’t increase information content any more than photocopying a paper increases its information content."

Wells is wrong. I frequently give this as an exercise in my classes at the University of Waterloo: Prove that if x is a string of symbols, then the Kolmogorov information in xx is greater than that in x for infinitely many strings x. Most of my students can do this one, but it looks like information expert Jonathan Wells can't.

Like many incompetent people, Wells is blissfully unaware of his incompetence. He closes by saying, "Despite all their taxpayer-funded professors and museum exhibits, despite all their threats to dismantle us and expose us as retards, the Darwinists lost."

We don't have to "expose" the intelligent design creationists as buffoons; they do it themselves whenever they open their mouths.

Innumeracy in a Ken Goddard mystery

From Ken Goddard, First Evidence, Bantam Books, 1999:

[the scientists sequence some alien DNA and find two new bases, M and J, in addition to the usual 4]

"The average DNA molecule is made up of approximately three billion base pairs ... code units, whatever," Jody said, as much to herself as the other two. "Which gives us six possible codes instead of four at the first base-pair position; a total of thirty-six possibilities instead of sixteen in the first two positions; one hundred and ninety-eight possibilities instead of sixty-four in the first three..."

Yup, Jody actually claimed that 63 = 198.

And, one page later, we find one of the most unintentionally funny lines I've ever seen in a mystery novel:

[they're discussing what creatures with this unsual DNA might look like]

"But what would you do with a DNA molecule like this?" Melissa asked, her dark eyes gleaming with excitement. "What
could you do?"

"If this were human DNA, I'll bet you could change your shape at will," Jody Catlin ventured.

Yup, that's exactly what I would first guess.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

When Wish Replaces Thought

When Wish Replaces Thought is the title of an interesting but flawed book by Steven Goldberg.

It seems particularly appropriate, though, when looking at this bizarre press release from a guy who calls himself "Adam Dreamhealer" and claims to "[conduct] unique group energy treatments around the globe as he coordinates the energy of all participants into a coherent frequency."

I'd be willing to bet that this guy really believes he has magic powers. But wishing doesn't make it so. I'd be more convinced he's got some powers if he could heal a few amputees on camera.

[Hat tip: Terry Polevoy]