Sunday, February 28, 2010

Solution to the Coin Quiz

I asked, What US coin has the highest value, according to the denomination in numbers (not words) given on it?

To start off with, you need to know that in the early days of US coinage, some coins expressed their value as a fraction of a dollar. For example, here's the reverse of an early half-cent:

See where it says 1/200? That means (1/200)th of a dollar, or half a cent.

Similarly, the old large cents said (1/100) on the reverse, meaning (1/100)th of a dollar.

Except that in 1801 and 1802, somebody wasn't paying attention and didn't engrave the dies properly. So you got some large cents in 1801 and 1802 with the following reverse:

See where it says 1/000 ?!?

So the answer to my quiz is, the largest denomination on any US coin was infinite.

Sorry - but I warned you it was a trick question.

The Big Beethoven Poll (2nd attempt)

Sorry, I completely messed up the wording for the first poll, so I cancelled it and let's try it again now.

Again, this is in reference to a discussion that ensued in a previous post.

Sorry about the error - it was too early this morning when I filled out the form.

If you voted before, go ahead and vote again.

It Must be Tough to be a Schlafly

Imagine growing up in a household where Phyllis Schlafly, that hypocritical harridan, was your mother. You'd hear things like "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape". You'd have to live with the contradiction that your mother fought against the Equal Rights Amendment while simultaneously taking advantage of the improvement in women's rights brought about by the people supporting the ERA. Wouldn't it mess with your head?

So I feel sorry for Andy Schlafly, founder of "Conservapedia" (which is to Wikipedia what Fox News is to real news). But that doesn't prevent me from laughing when I read that "conservatism is mostly logic, and ultimately logic prevails". This from the same person who writes things like "conservative insights increase over time at a geometric rate, as in 1-2-4-8-16-etc" and had his butt handed to him by Richard Lenski.

And - only if your irony meter has been recently calibrated - go read the Conservapedia entry on relativity, in which one of the "counterexamples to relativity" is (I kid you not) "The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54". Yup, that's "mostly logic".

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Coin Quiz

OK, here's a coin quiz:

What US coin has the highest value, according to the denomination in numbers (not words) given on it?

Yes, it is a trick question - but one a mathematician should appreciate.

Put your guesses in the comments.

For the surprising answer, come back tomorrow.

More Anti-Science Stupidity from Non-Scientist

Here is yet another "oh those nasty scientists" rant from the senior managing editor of the New English Review, Rebecca Bynum. Some highlights:

The high priests of scientism, from Stephen Hawking to Richard Dawkins... illustrates one of the most clichéd tropes: castigate scientists by using religious language. Honestly, can't the science haters come up with something new? This one is really getting boring.

For example, science can describe the effects of electricity, but it cannot tell us what electricity is any more than it can tell us what life is or what gravity is. This poor woman obviously did not attend 10th grade science, or she would know that electricity consists of a flow of electrons. And heck - philosophers can't even give a perfect definition of the word "chair", so why should Ms. Bynum expect one for "life"?

And if pattern does not exist in mind or as mind, then where does it exist? Utterly moronic. Pattern exists as a configuration of atoms and molecules. I wonder what she thinks differentiates hexane from dimethylbutane.

Islam is, in essence, an extremely materialistic religion with many similarities to secular materialism: both remove human dignity and envision man as a slave. Right - all the materialists I know are slaves, and no slaves were ever enslaved by Christians.

Language alone, with its well neigh infinite complexity, were it genetically based, would logically require an immense amount of genetic space. And if language cannot be found in our genes, how could art or culture be found there?
Ms. Bynum must be horsing around - "well neigh" indeed. And what Ms. Bynum thinks of as "logical" is far from it. She's throwing around terms like "complexity" and "genetic space" with no understanding.

Ms. Bynum's real beef is that science has shown that man is an insignificant speck in an enormously large universe. Man is the product of evolution from those inferior "animals". Them's the facts, Ma'am, and none of your agonizing is going to change them. It's time to grow up.

Severin Blanchet

Severin Blanchet was a French actor, writer, and filmmaker. He starred in the movie "Jardins en Automne", where he played Vincent, a French cabinet minister who is ousted from his position, loses his wife, but ends up happier for it. Here's the trailer:

He was a member of Les Ateliers Varan, an organization devoted to documentary film, and spent much of his life teaching young people in places like Papua New Guinea how to make their own documentaries. His mother was Narda Blanchet, who had a career in film herself in her old age and just recently passed away.

Severin was my wife's first cousin, once removed, but we never met him. We had just written to him last week to express our condolences on the death of his mother. He had just left Paris for Afghanistan, where he was teaching young Afghans how to make movies.

Severin Blanchet was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan yesterday morning by a suicide bomber.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stanley Fish is a Moron

Stanley Fish is a moron.

Yes, I know he's a "literary theorist" and "legal scholar" and he has a Ph. D. and wrote 10 books and has a lecture series named after him. But he's still a moron.

Want proof? Read this column in the New York Times. There Professor Fish, favorably quoting a book by Steven Smith, tells us that "secularism" is completely incapable of answering any "real" questions: "...there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another."

So what does Fish think provides these reasons? Why, religion of course.

This argument is so stupid that I find it hard to accept that Fish really believes it. So either he's dishonest (which wouldn't surprise me), or he's a moron. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the latter option is more palatable.

"Secular" analysis just means thinking about things without relying on religious dogma. When Muslims outlaw interest because their holy book forbids "usury", secular thinkers can point to economic analysis that is noncontroversial outside religious communities: that having money today has value over money ten years from now. When Jehovah's Witnesses prevent their children from having blood transfusions that would save their children's lives because of their interpretation of the Christian bible, secular thinkers can point to the safety of the procedure and the likelihood the child will die without it.

Social science research can reveal aspects of the human character that suggest some ways of structuring our society are better than others. By "better" I mean that they result in happier, prosperous, and freer people, and a more just society. Fish may answer that my devotion to these principles is not "secular". But it clearly is - it is driven by my own self-interest and by principles that are generally accepted, without any reliance on religion or "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature". And evolutionary psychology can help explain why people think and act they way they do.

"Secular" analysis doesn't mean all secularists will agree on everything. Some may think (as I do) that a woman's right to autonomy over her own body clearly trumps the right of an embryo to come to term, while others may disagree. But neither do all theists agree: Christians can't even agree on the most basic fact about Christianity, whether good works or faith alone gets you into their heaven. So advancing religion as the answer to ethical quandaries is not in the least helpful.

"Secular" analysis has one big advantage that religion doesn't have: it can appeal to people of all faiths (and of no faith). If I argue that repealing Sunday blue laws will help the economy, that argument has an appeal for everyone, an appeal that is quite different from one relying on a particular interpretation of a particular holy book that Sunday is "God's day". Similarly, if I argue that not repealing Sunday blue laws is better because it gives small business owners a respite from having to run their business 7 days a week, that argument is accessible to everyone. But arguments that depend on one particular dogma and implicitly demand that I take the dogma seriously or at least "respect" it, fail by their very nature to have universal appeal.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Genetic Journey (Part 2)

About a year and a half ago, I got a kit from National Geographic's Genographic Project to determine my paternal "deep ancestry", and I talked about the results here.

This year I got a kit to do my maternal line, through mitochondrial DNA, and the results are depicted below:

No real surprise: I am a member of haplogroup H, the most common mitochondrial haplogroup in Europe. My great-grandmother was Emma Hesburn Dean, whose ancestors likely came from England or Ireland. (I don't know more because she was adopted at an early age, and I've been unable to locate her parents, who are said on her death certificate to be Charles Dean and Barbara Hall, in any genealogical records.)

Mitochondrial Eve, the most recent common ancestor (along the female line) of all humans, probably lived about 150,000 years ago in East Africa. From there, mutations in the particular region of mitochondrial DNA suggest the following line of descent: L1/L0 -> L2 -> L3 -> N -> R -> pre-HV -> HV -> H. L3 corresponds to the first humans to have left Africa. N lived in the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia. HV corresponds to Turkey and Georgia. Finally H corresponds to the rise of the Aurignacian culture in Western Europe. H probably arrived in Europe about 30,000 years ago. My maternal ancestors probably lived in England or Ireland for thousands of years before emigrating to the US - perhaps in the 1800's.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Eulogy for Kenneth Iverson

Kenneth Iverson (1920-2004) was a computer scientist who invented the computer language APL. I was invited to speak at the Iverson memorial in Toronto on November 18 2004. I had lost my notes for my eulogy, but luckily Catherine Lathwell, who is working on a documentary about APL, has a copy of the videotape, and you can watch it here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Test if You Know What You Don't Know

One of my favorite quotes is due to the American humorist Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw):

"I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain't so."

Sometimes this is reported as:

"It's not what you don't know that scares me; it's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

Now here's a little test that claims to identify your "risk intelligence quotient": not what you know, but how accurate your estimates are of what you do know.

I'd love to see the blustering creationists Denyse O'Leary and Kirk Durston take this test. My guess is, they wouldn't score very high.

So take it, and leave your score in the comments.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Vacuity of Intelligent Design

Lawyer and ID advocate Barry Arrington has a post up at Uncommon Descent in which he says that ID is not bogus because his grandfather could tell the difference between an arrowhead created by prehistoric Native Americans and a rock. Arrington writes, "In my grandfather’s judgment each rock he added to his collection was different from the thousands upon thousands of rocks he rejected because it bore complex marks that conformed to a specified pattern."

Let's remember that ID advocates claim to have provided a mathematically-rigorous method to detect design. In The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, William Dembski supposedly laid out a series of mathematical steps required to infer design. These steps require a pattern specification, a rejection region, a list of background knowledge, etc., etc. Now, the ability to tell a genuine artifact from a natural rock would be of great benefit to archaeologists. So where is the specification for arrowheads? What is the rejection region? What is the background knowledge? Why aren't ID "theorists" publishing papers in archaeology journals providing their revolutionary method for distinguishing artifacts from natural objects? This was one of our challenges from 2003. Here it is 7 years later, and not a single intelligent design advocate has taken it up. ID is scientifically vacuous.

Arrington says, "Once one concedes that at least in some instances intelligent agents leave behind objectively discernable indicia of design, the intellectual jig is up – you have left the door wide open for the theory of intelligent design." Why? The examples he cites - forensics, archaelogy, cryptology - aren't about design in the abstract, but rather about the specific case of human design. No archaeologist holds up an artifact and pronounces, "This was made by an intelligence." Rather, part of archaeology (and not even the most interesting part *) is about distinguishing human-made artifacts from natural ones. We recognize artifacts not because they satisfy some "design inference", but because we recognize them as the characteristic product of human activity, and because they fit into a larger picture of our understanding of a culture obtained through other means (e.g., radiometric dating).

Arrington writes, "My grandfather knew absolutely nothing about the Indians that carved his points; yet that did not preclude him from making a design inference. Similarly, ID acknowledges that the empirical evidence tells us nothing about the identity of the designer, who may be natural or supernatural." But this is untrue. When we find an arrowhead, we infer it was made by people, who are biologically identical to us, with the same basic needs of food and shelter -- not by intelligent crabs, robots, or magical beings. Because of this, we can deduce the purpose of an arrowhead, and with more work, we can determine what kinds of animals were killed and how they were butchered. With radiometric dating, we can figure out when the events took place. And it's not just the arrowhead that tells us something about the people that made it: multiple lines of confirming, independent evidence (from DNA analysis of native Americans to studies of butchered bones) can help build a picture of the arrowhead's creator.

But ID advocates don't even know that there was any agent around at the time they claim DNA was created, and they offer no independent way to check that this agent existed. Further, they don't allow us to inquire about the nature of the agent. ID is vacuous because, contrary to the claims of advocates, it doesn't provide anything that scientists actually want.

* The interesting part is to determine who made an artifact and why, and how it fits into our understanding of the culture. For example, when archaeologists discovered Bronze Age wall paintings at Thera, they didn't proclaim "These were made by an intelligence!" Such a pronouncement would be regarded as idiotic. The interesting question is to determine the purpose: were they purely decorative, part of a shrine, or did they have some entirely different meaning? However, ID advocates tell us that we are not allowed to inquire as to the nature and purpose of the designer, at least when the designer is the one (ones?) who designed DNA.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Update on the Rom Houben Story

You may recall my previous discussion of the Rom Houben case. Houben is the Dutch man who has been in a coma for over 20 years, and was "discovered" to be conscious and capable of expressing his thoughts coherently through the bogus technique of "facilitated communication", or FC.

I and many other skeptics had doubts about the facilitated communication part of the story, while creationists such as Denyse O'Leary bought it unquestioningly. Creationist Kirk Durston joined the fray in the comments here, with Kirk claiming it was "doubtful that this team of scientists, headed by Laureys, is falling for fake messages typed out by a crackpot assistant" and assuring us that "We can infer from that, that what we are seeing in the video is a method that Laureys’ team has developed, or helped develop." Further, Durston accused another skeptic, the renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of being "unethical" for pointing out that the bogus FC technique had been used.

Now Orac reports that O'Leary and Durston were wrong on all accounts. Further tests have shown that, indeed, Houben was not able to communicate through FC, and that Laureys and his team were, in fact, taken in by the bogus claims of an FC practitioner.

I also observe that FC has nothing to do with the other work of Laurey's team, namely developing a way to communicate with patients by asking them to associate "yes" with, e.g., thinking about playing tennis and "no" with thinking about being in his house. That's an interesting, though still controversial, idea that may be useful. It is a shame that Laureys' reputation will certainly suffer from his association with FC on Houben and his failure to use adequate controls when testing the FC claim. I also note that Laureys did not forthrightly respond to questions about his use of FC and never answered my query about it.

I feel very sorry for Rom Houben, who may be conscious but has had his voice stolen by FC crackpottery that Laureys helped publicize.

As for Denyse O'Leary and Kirk Durston, they were insufficiently skeptical and came to the wrong conclusion. Will we see them admit it? Will Durston apologize for his libel of Caplan?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cornelius Hunter on Parsimony

The creationist Cornelius Hunter has a post where he attempts to cast doubt on the evolution of placental mammals because he finds the current explanations too complicated. Science values parsimony, he says. This explanation is too complicated and hence we should doubt it.

I really wonder if Hunter has ever studied geology. Explanations for the current configuration of the earth are often extraordinarily complicated. Just study the geology of Idaho. Even the basement rock alone has a description as complicated as:

"The Albion and Pioneer Ranges contain metamorphic core complexes, which expose middle-crustal metamorphic rocks in the center, beneath younger sedimentary rocks along a low-angle normal fault. The Archean and Proterozoic metamorphic rocks contain gneiss and schist that originated as part of the Archean continental crust as well as Paleoproterozoic juvenile volcanic arc rocks. They have been subsequently metamorphosed and intruded, notably in Cretaceous, Eocene and Oligocene time. They are exposed today from Neogene regional extension of the Basin and Range Province."

Why is geology so complicated? Well, largely because it is contingent: it depends on many factors, such as the composition of the early earth. And that, in turn, depended on cosmic bombardment during the formation of the solar system. And that depended on a supernova event prior to the solar system. Add meteorite strikes from outer space, catastrophic floods, and the effects of continental drift and various orogenies, and you've got a recipe for complication.

Well, biology is like that, too. But it's even worse, since in biology we have imperfect self-replication together with contingency. Pretending that this is not likely to result in complex outcomes and a convoluted evolutionary history is an absurd fantasy.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Recursive Podcast

In keeping with the title of this blog, you may enjoy this video of a podcaster demonstrating how to play his own podcast:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Suzan Mazur - Perpetually Clueless

Suzan Mazur is the "journalist" who attended a meeting on evolution, misunderstood nearly everything that was going on, and has now cashed in on her misunderstanding by writing a book. Needless to say, the people who organized the meeting were not amused.

Now she's back, as clueless as ever, with an article at Counterpunch on peer-review.

She claims "Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini report colleagues attempted to silence them from publishing in their new book that Darwin's claim was wrong about natural selection." But somehow these attempts failed, since not only did Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini manage to publish their book, but they also got a long article in New Scientist about it. What was the nature of these "attempt[s] to silence them"? Mazur, the eminent journalist, doesn't tell us, but she does refer to "dark forces". (No, really!) For some amusement, read the comments in New Scientist on the article of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmirini. A rough estimate shows that about 90% of the comments are negative to their claims, pointing out that the article is misinformed and inaccurate.

I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that these "attempt[s] to silence them" consisted of their friends telling them they would make laughingstocks of themselves if they proceeded to publish their half-baked ideas. And their friends were right.

Mazur asks, "Why not just thrash these ideas out in the open as in other professional fields[?]" But in fact, there is peer-review in all professional fields. Try to get an article published in a law review or an engineering journal while demanding it not be peer-reviewed, and see how well you do.

Clueless Mazur says, "I was curious how journal reviewers are paid...". Well, that just shows she knows absolutely nothing about peer-review. But her own ignorance of the system is not the fit subject for an article.

She then asks, "What then is the incentive? Why do these extremely busy scientists work as slaves?" but doesn't manage to find the answer. Here are the reasons:

1. Every field has a certain deontology. In science, you are, as a member of the community, expected to do things like review grant proposals, referee papers, and write letters for students and colleagues. Only very rarely do you get paid to do this. Those who don't pull their weight are essentially freeloaders on the system.

2. By refereeing papers, you (sometimes) get to see interesting ideas before publication. By making suggestions, you get to help shape the ideas and the presentation. Heck, if you have something worthwhile to say, sometimes you even get to be a co-author.

3. By refereeing papers, you get to learn what other people are working on. Sticking to your own ideas can sometimes be sterile.

4. When it comes time for your annual report to your department, showing that you are refereeing papers is a sign that your work is respected in the community.

5. Finally, I'll quote what Leonard Eugene Dickson said when asked why he spent 10 years of his career writing the 3-volume History of the Theory of Numbers: "it fitted with my conviction that every person should aim to perform at some time in his life some serious useful work for which it is highly improbable that there will be any reward whatever other than his satisfaction therefrom".

Mazur asks, "But could such journal board positions simply be fast-tracks to publication of an editor’s or an editorial board member’s own work and a tool for access to grant money?" No, to the first. It is considered a conflict of interest for a journal to allow an editor to handle his/her own paper. I edit a journal, the Journal of Integer Sequences, which would be a good venue for much of my own work. But none of my work is published in that journal. As for a "tool for access to grant money", whether someone referees papers or not is rarely or never considered in deciding whether to award a grant. Service on editorial boards may help you a little, but not as much as good work.

Mazur gives other stories about authors who've had trouble getting their paper published. She sees it as conspiracy or incompetence. But she fails to consider the most parsimonious explanation: papers usually get rejected because they are crap. I just got a paper rejected because I and my co-authors didn't know about some previous work, but you don't see me whining about it. Instead, we'll rewrite the paper and make it better.

Mazur seems to find it incomprehensible that a paper can get rejected within 36 hours. I edit a journal, so I know what they're like. I have rejected a paper even quicker. It is pretty easy to tell whether a paper is completely bogus or out of scope for my journal. When a paper gets rejected that quickly, it's a fair bet that one of those two reasons applies.

Too bad there wasn't some peer review for Mazur's own uninformed and silly article.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Cashill on Sternberg

It's interesting to compare this screed by creepy far-right loony Jack Cashill on the Sternberg affair with this one by Ed Brayton. Sternberg, as you may recall, was the editor who published Stephen Meyer's lousy paper on intelligent design in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Note the differences: Cashill claims Sternberg "learned first hand the lengths that establishment will go to suppress dissent", while Brayton observes that "The evidence does not support the conclusion that Sternberg was discriminated against in any material way".

Cashill claims Meyer's paper was "tightly argued" but somehow fails to mention the fact that the paper's claims have been rebutted in detail. Cashill also somehow fails to mention that the Biological Society of Washington issued a disclaimer about the Meyer paper.

Cashill claims that "hell ... rained down upon" Sternberg after the publication of the paper. But Brayton points out that, in fact, "Sternberg has grossly exaggerated several alleged instances of “retaliation” in the early days of the scandal."

But when you're a far-right loony commentator, the facts don't really concern you. All that matters is making points against those damned godless liberal evilutionists.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Test for Intelligent Design

Intelligent design advocates claim over and over again that their pseudoscience is just "the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence". They claim to have a mathematically-rigorous way to detect design. Oddly enough, however, they have been unable to apply their methods to anything outside toy examples.

Wesley Elsberry and I posed eight challenges to intelligent design advocates in 2003. Now, almost seven years later, none of those challenges have been met.

Well, here's another opportunity for ID to prove its worth. The Cygnus bubble is a very unusual configuration discovered in July 2008. Although some think it is a nebula, others have suggested it is a Dyson sphere, proposed hallmark of an advanced civilization. Resolving this question is precisely what ID claims to be able to do.

So, how about it, intelligent design advocates? Let's have your answer, including full calculations.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Meyer's Interview of Berlinski

Here's an interview of David Berlinski by creationist Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell.

It's really fascinating for all the mistakes and false claims made by Berlinski, none of which are corrected by Meyer. Here are just a few:

1. Despite the fact that he claims to be intimate with Marco Schützenberger, Berlinski mispronounces his name consistently as ending in "berger" with a hard g, instead of soft g as in French.

2. He claims that Schützenberger was a "professional biologist". This is not accurate. Schützenberger's first doctorate was in medicine, not biology. He apparently did publish at least one paper on a biological topic, but one paper does not make someone a "professional biologist". (I've published a paper in a philosophy journal, but no one would call me a "professional philosopher".) In this interview, Schützenberger admits forthrightly that "Biology is, of course, not my specialty."

3. He claims that Schützenberger was a "world-famous physician". As far as I can tell, this is not true.

4. Berlinski draws an analogy between evolution and the difference in computational power of finite automata and pushdown automata. In finite automata, only simple outcomes are possible because they have no memory; pushdown automata can do more interesting things because they have an unbounded stack. Evolution has no memory, Berlinski says, and therefore is analogous to finite automata.

But this analogy is simple-minded for a variety of reasons. First, while finite automata are limited in their computational power, in practical applications this can sometimes be remedied simply by increasing the number of states. Second, neither finite automata nor pushdown automata are self-replicating models. Third, if you consider that replication is based on DNA, which is potentially unbounded in size, then evolution does have access to a form of memory that is, for all practical purposes, unbounded in size.

5. Berlinski claims that "Until about 1950 or 1960, the mathematicians had not really interested themselves in Darwin's theory of evolution". This is false. The Hardy-Weinberg theorem, for example, dates from 1908. Population genetics was developed by biologists and statisticians in the 1920's and 1930's. Population dynamics goes back to the 1800's.

6. Berlinski claims that "Every mathematician that I've known ... they all had the same reaction [about evolution]: it's kind of nutty." Berlinski knows me - we have corresponded - and I never expressed this reaction to him. There are many books and papers about mathematical biology, and essentially none of the authors express this view.

But then, we already know that Berlinski's claims about what mathematicians believe about evolution are not reliable.