Monday, August 30, 2010

Rogers is Evil

We have our home internet service through Rogers. While it usually works reasonably well, when it doesn't, it is really hell trying to go through Rogers customer service.

Here's what happened this weekend. I arrived home, back from Oberwolfach, and our internet service was down. So we tried to call Rogers 24-hour line for internet problems. However, their voice mail menu was also acting strangely. First, it asked me to enter the digits of my postal code, and when I did this, it then said "That was not a valid response." After a second go-round, it then connected me with the Rogers credit department -- not the Internet problem line -- which then provided the helpful message "The Rogers credit department is now closed. Please call back during regular business hours".

Pushing 0 at any point did not help. Either it said "That was not a valid response", or it transferred me to the credit department. We tried over and over again, trying to enter different numbers, etc. We also called other Rogers numbers. Nothing worked.

We eventually got through by calling Rogers from a different phone. So somehow it is recognizing my home phone number and then acting strangely.

Then this morning I tried to explain to Rogers that their voice mail was not working. What a waste of time that was! They seemed completely uninterested in the fact that it is badly broken, and several people I spoke to did not even believe it. Nor are they willing to give me a call when it is fixed. So here I am with no internet and no direct way of calling Rogers from my home phone to report it!

Still not convinced? How about the way they handle distribution of the iPhone 4? Since I'm back from a sabbatical in the US, I'm in the market for a new cell phone. Rogers had a website where you could sign up for iPhone 4 updates. But then it arrived in stores with no notification to me. And now, if you want one, there's no waiting list you can join. If you want one, you just have to show up at a store when they open, hoping this will be your lucky day. There's no rational basis for this kind of crappy product distribution.

How does such a billion-dollar company survive with such lousy customer service?



For mathematicians, it's a little bit like Mecca for Muslims: everybody wants to go at least once in their lifetime.

I first heard about Oberwolfach when I was an undergraduate. My first significant paper had finally appeared in the Journal of Number Theory after a very long delay (that's another story), and I sent it off to some mathematicians I thought would be interested. One replied, "But I just heard Schinzel talk about this at Oberwolfach..." I had been scooped! During the long delay in publication, a Czech graduate student studying in Poland had found the same result. And what was Oberwolfach?

It's a research center and conference site. Nowadays there are several similar places, such as the Banff International Research Station and the Centre International de Rencontres Mathématiques, but Oberwolfach is the oldest and most famous. (There's a history of the place here.)

For those who are not familiar with what happens at a place like Oberwolfach, here's a brief account. For 50 out of 52 weeks of the year (the exceptions being Christmas and New Year's), the Institute is host to about 50 mathematicians who arrive from Germany, the rest of Europe, and around the world. Each Sunday, they typically arrive by train at either Hausach or Wolfach, two small towns in a river valley in mountainous southern Germany. From there they take a taxi to the Institute, which is located on a remote tree-covered hillside that's a good 5 km from the nearest town.

There are two main buildings. One houses the dormitory and cafeteria, the other the library and conference rooms. Oberwolfach provides three meals a day; at lunch and dinner there is assigned seating, which changes at each meal. The main work takes places Monday through Friday, and usually consists of some talks (we had about 4 hours each day) and working on problems in small groups (all the rest of the day and night). There are numerous coffee machines (Paul Erdős supposedly once said that "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems", although it has also been attributed to Rényi), where espresso and café au lait can be had, gratis, at all hours. Drinks, both alcoholic and non, can be bought for very nominal prices. The picture below shows the result after a long night of drinking and mathematics.

The dormitory rooms are very spartan, with no decorations and no TV, radio, or phone. Although there is some wireless internet available in both buildings, most dormitory rooms do not have access. You're supposed to be talking to other mathematicians, not sitting in your room!

I was there for a "mini-workshop" on Combinatorics on Words. We had 17 participants, and there were two other workshops running concurrently. This differs from most weeks, which are typically devoted to a single theme and involve more participants.

Oberwolfach also offers other kinds of programs, such as "Research in Pairs", which allow two mathematicians from different institutions to meet and work together for a longer period.

The library is really outstanding. Unlike many libraries, they have not switched to electronic subscription, and they continue to receive paper copies of journals. It is a real pleasure to walk down the long aisle and pick up a journal to browse. Although I thought I knew the mathematical literature reasonably well, there were still some journals I had never heard of.

Oberwolfach also has a tradition of putting books written by participants on a special shelf in the library building. You can see my book displayed there below.

Another Oberwolfach tradition are the problem books. Any mathematician can provide an unsolved problem, or comment on a previous one, and there are dozens of problems by famous mathematicians like Erdős. Here's a page from the problems book with a problem by Mendès France:

On Saturday, all the mathematicians leave in taxis arranged by the Institute. And on Sunday the cycle begins again.

I had a really great experience there. There were some excellent talks by my colleagues, and I got a chance to discuss some open problems with them. We even solved one problem, and made some progress on others. I'm hoping to go again some day!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Remembering Gene McDonnell

I was very sad to learn this morning that my old friend and colleague, Gene McDonnell, died on August 17.

Gene was actively involved in the development and promotion of APL. He was one of the first people I met when I worked at the IBM Philadelphia Scientific Center, and he later hired me to work for I. P. Sharp in Palo Alto.

Gene had a wide variety of interests. He could talk knowledgeably about mathematics, science and literature, and he had a playful sense of humor. He wrote a beautiful paper entitled "Complex floor", which gave an entirely new way to generalize the familiar greatest integer function (or "floor") to the complex plane. As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on his extension, showing that you could use it to define continued fractions for complex numbers -- though there are still questions unresolved about that!

Gene and I wrote a paper together entitled "Extending APL to infinity", which suggested some ways of adapting the computer language APL to the extended real numbers. We also made a proposal to extend APL to infinite arrays, basically involving some lazy evaluation schemes. As far as I know, nobody ever implemented our ideas, although I still think it would be interesting.

Gene wrote a series of excellent columns for APL Quote-Quad (now sadly defunct) entitled "Recreational APL". For many of us, it was the first thing we turned to when the new issue arrived. I remember in particular one beautiful column about leap years that inspired a paper I wrote, "Pierce expansions and rules for the determination of leap years", in 1994.

Gene was intellectually active up to his last days. The most recent message I received from him was in April, where he proudly announced the publication of his new book, At Play With J, a compendium of his columns from Vector, the British APL magazine.

I'll remember Gene for his bright blue eyes, his warm and engaging smile, and his intellectual achievements. Farewell, old friend.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wi-Fi Hysteria

My local paper has a poorly-written Canadian Press article about a group of Barrie parents who are all worked up and worried that wireless internet in their schools are making their kids sick.

Whatever happened to good science reporting? The supposed effects form a classic list of vague symptoms that are likely to have a psychosomatic component: headaches, dizziness, nausea, racing heart rates. A good reporter should be more skeptical.

The article cites Susan Clarke, "a former research consultant to the Harvard School of Public Health", as claiming that Wi-fi "alters fundamental physiological functioning and can cause neurological and cardiac symptoms". But the article doesn't bother to quote any medical official or researcher to the effect that Wi-fi is safe. Nor does it cite any peer-reviewed studies by Clarke or anyone else on the subject.

Really, a little common sense would be useful here. With Wi-fi available in libraries, cafes, airports, and so forth, for years, wouldn't everybody be reporting these supposed effects?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Barbara Bradley Haggerty - NPR's Worst Reporter

Religion reporting seems to attract some of the very worst elements of the journalism profession. Some, like my local paper's Mirko Petricevic, have never met a religion they didn't like; they never ask a single hard question of a believer. Others, like NPR's Barbara Bradley Haggerty, apparently view their profession as a means to convert others to their religion. (She's a member of the World Journalism Insititute, whose goal is "to recruit, equip, place and encourage journalists who are Christians in the mainstream newsrooms of America first and then the world.")

Haggerty's at it again, with a story about how academia supposedly discriminates against religious conservatives.

Unfortunately, her poster child is Mike S. Adams, a first class looney-tune who has called for "atheist-haters" to join atheist student groups at universities and hence destroy them. Poor Mike S. Adams, who was discriminated against by getting tenure at his university.

That's the best that Haggerty can do to support her claim? Pathetic.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Here's a commentary from the Asian Tribune by Habib Siddiqui, decrying the backlash again the proposed Cordoba Islamic Center in New York City. Shame on those bigots!, he concludes, and rightly so.

So it's rather ironic that he subscribes to three discredited claims about the World Trade Center, which undermine his argument.

First, he claims that "while the number of Jews working in the WTC numbered a few thousands, less than a dozen Jews died there." This is false. "...the number of Jews who died in the attacks is variously estimated at between 270 to 400. The lower figure tracks closely with the percentage of Jews living in the New York area and partial surveys of the victims' listed religion. The U.S. State Department has published a partial list of 76 in response to claims that fewer Jews/Israelis died in the WTC attacks than should have been present at the time."

Second, he claims that "As a matter of fact more Muslims died there that day than Jews". There is no evidence in support of this claim. For example, this page of Muslim victims lists only 60, less than the partial list of 76 Jews mentioned above.

Third, he claims that Jews "were forewarned of the impending attack by an intelligence monitoring service, operating out of Israel". This is a nasty smear that cannot survive even the most cursory examination, and is debunked in the 9/11 commission report.

Yes, the backlash against the Cordoba Center is bigotry and every right-thinking person should condemn it. But publishing discredited anti-Semitic claims is also bigotry. Siddiqui should be ashamed.

Postscript: Habib Saddiqui is even worse than I thought. Compare his piece, as published in the Asian Tribune with what is apparently the the original version as published on his blog.

In the blog version, he's got the following lines: Steve Beckow is one such noble Jew who was a former Member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. He wrote an article “To Muslims of America, I Apologize." He believes that “9/11 was truly, as has been said, an "inside job." It was an engineered false-flag operation in which some Muslims played a role, but in the employ of primarily American agencies like the CIA and FBI. It featured not only some Muslims, but also some Israelis as well as nationals from many other countries.”

This looniness was apparently too much even for the Asian Tribune.

It's really pathetic that some Muslims can't own up to the fact that the WTC terrorists were Muslims organized and directed by Osama bin Laden. Crazed accusations about "false-flag operation[s]" take away every shred of credibility Siddiqui aspires to. Siddiqui should read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. It leaves no doubt about who was responsible for 9/11.

I wondered what kind of person Siddiqui's source for his 9/11 allegations, Steve Beckow, was. So I wondered over to his blog, only to discover a huge fountain of woo. Beckow apparently thinks that "At an early but unknown date, we can expect a world leader (probably President Obama) to disclose the fact that human beings from other star systems are here, in spacecraft around our planet – some cloaked, some in other dimensions – and that evolved life exists in many places in the universe." Yeah, he's a real credible source. Siddiqui should be ashamed to cite this psychoceramic.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Letter to Doug Groothuis

I occasionally visit the blog of Doug Groothuis, a Christian philosopher and intelligent design apologist. I find it a puzzle, because while many of his posts seem to be about the intellectual failings of others, he rarely bothers to provide a coherent argument himself. Instead, his blog seems to be a forum where he can enumerate his prejudices in one or two lines.

This is a typical example: Groothuis describes a presidential proclamation that "Nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a step-father, a grandfather, or caring guardian" as "against all reason". But he refuses to explain why, and he also refused to publish my comment pointing this out.

Like many Christian bloggers, Groothuis routinely censors comments. About half of the things I've submitted have been rejected, with no explanations.

So I was particularly amused to see this post, which expressed Groothuis' "despair" over the "dearth of discourse". Well, if you routinely censor comments, then of course there's going to be a dearth of discourse.

So I wrote to Groothuis, as follows:

Dear Prof. Groothuis:

I'm sending you this comment via e-mail because - ironically - you do not permit comments to your posting of July 11 about comments.

In that posting you express your despair over the "dearth of discourse". I think you're wrong, and here's why:

1. Blogs typically aren't viewed in the same way as academic articles or formal debates. They're typically more like a conversation in your home. In a conversation in your home, people don't expect every utterance to be a formal presentation, and they'd probably leave rather quickly if you insisted on it. If you want a more formal setting, there are lots of opportunities, such as academic journals.

2. I'm not sure you meant "dearth", because later you say "death". But assuming "dearth" is what you meant, I see no "dearth of discourse" in blogs. On the contrary, more people are discussing more ideas than ever before, because the opportunities for discussion are greater. Just look at a newspaper site like the the NYT: in print, the NYT publishes perhaps at most 15 letters from readers a day. But on their website a single article can, and often does, result in hundreds of reader comments.

3. Your implication that discourse is worse off now than in the past is - ironically - not supported by any evidence you have presented. I'd suggest reading /American Aurora/ to see that public discourse 200 years ago suffered from many of the same problems you have pointed out.

4. Your claim that "People do not study the art of argument or the forms of fallacies" is - ironically - unsupported by any actual data. Why not present some?

5. How is a posting where you say "This is a severe attack on freedom of religion and freedom of speech", but without giving any rationale for why you think so, contributing to "discourse"? Another example is "Against all Reason - Obama endorses homosexual parenting on Father's Day." You offer no explanation why you think this is "against all reason". What kind of "discourse" is that? If you don't have time to do so, that's understandable, but then you can scarcely rail against the dearth (or death) of discourse.

The other point I'd like to make is that it's a bit rich to decry the "dearth of discourse" on the one hand and randomly shut off comments on your posts and censor commenters. If you want people to read and react to your blog, then let them. I have, on several occasions, spent half an hour or more composing what I thought was a carefully-reasoned response to your blog, only to have it not appear because it apparently violated some internal rule of yours. This is not conducive to "discourse".

No response from him.

Stupid Letter of the Week

Here's an extract from a stupid letter to the editor of my local newspaper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record:

"Some of the world's leading scientists are wrestling with a number of very big, profound questions, namely: Why is there anything? Why should there be anything? How and when did living cells appear on our planet? What is the essential nature of life? What is the nature of - and relationship between - space and time? Did anything exist prior to the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago?


"...I rather doubt that even Stephen Hawking can imagine, or describe, a perfectly straight line that continues forever, with no beginning and no ending. To do so would be to understand infinity, which is beyond the scope of our finite minds.

"Ideally it would be great if science and good religion could work together, as partners, on these questions."

What confusion! The writer describes a "straight line that continues forever", and then says it can't be described. He also doesn't seem to know that such a line is discussed and described in the 7th grade curriculum. Nor does he seem to know that infinity, in its many variations, is routinely understood by the finite minds of mathematicians.

Then he proposes that "good religion" would be a partner for science to answer his questions. My question is, exactly what would "good religion" bring to the table?

More Bad Science Writing

It always amazes me how people with little or no experience doing science end up as science writers, and, worse, end up being taken seriously as science writers.

The latest example is Mary Roach, author of a book about space travel, Packing for Mars. She was interviewed on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" yesterday, and this hilarious exchange took place:

Interviewer Tony Cox: "Do you know whether or not a gun would even operate in zero gravity?"

Roach: "Oh! You know, ahh, that's something for the Mythbusters to play around with!"

(Now, there is actually a small scientific issue about whether a gun will fire in space, but it has nothing to do with "zero gravity". A gun's firing comes from a chemical reaction, and that chemical reaction needs oxygen. In an oxygen-free environment, if the gunpowder doesn't contain its own oxidizer, the gun wouldn't fire. But, as I understand it, most modern gun cartridges do contain their own oxidizers, so this would not be an issue.)

If you don't know that "zero gravity" isn't an issue for whether a gun could fire, then you have no business writing a book about space travel.

Elsewhere in the program, Steve from Florence, Kentucky said, "I understand that when people are actually put into a Faraday cage so there's no electromagnetic radiation that actually comes in contact with them, they kind of lose the ability to actually think. As I understand it, when humans go into space, this is a problem. How has NASA dealt with this?" And instead of laughing and explaining why this is nonsense, Roach goes off onto a tangent about "space stupids".

Shouldn't a good science education be a prerequisite for science writers?