Monday, February 28, 2011

Famous Astronomer with Moose

OK, it's not as good as Alan Turing with a moose, but still...

Tycho Brahe with his moose.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Any" Considered Harmful

Edsger Dijkstra wrote a famous letter in the Communications of the ACM that appeared under the heading "Go To Statement Considered Harmful".

I'd like to make a case against the use of "any" in mathematical discourse.

The problem with "any" is that it can mean both "for all" and "there exists", and it's not always clear what is meant. "It's true for any x" probably means "for all x". But "The theorem is true for S if any element of S is a square" probably means "it's true if S contains at least one square".

I was just attending a meeting at Dagstuhl in Germany where one speaker said something like "If L is regular, then u is equivalent to v if and only if for any state q of the minimal DFA for L we have δ(q,u) = δ(q,v)". Now if you know the theorem, the meaning is clear. But if you don't, you might be left wondering, does he mean "u is equivalent to v if there exists some state q such that δ(q,u) = δ(q,v)" or "u is equivalent to v if for all states q we have δ(q,u) = δ(q,v)"?

Because of this ambiguity, I think we should avoid the use of "any" in mathematical discourse. We can replace it by "all x" or by "some x", according to what we mean.

Who's with me?

Friday, February 18, 2011

More Mary Poplin Nuttiness

I forgot to mention one more nutty claim by Mary Poplin at Waterloo: "John the Baptist recognized Jesus while he [John] was in the womb" -- and this is proof that the Jews of the 1st century had advanced medical knowledge because "only recently did scientists figure out that babies could hear and react to stimuli in the womb". She mentioned this as the way that Christianity would be useful for medical science.

No claim, it seems, is too deranged for Prof. Poplin - provided Christianity says it is so.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Waterloo's "Watson" Connection

Here's Waterloo's own Jesse Hoey and Robin Cohen being interviewed about "Watson".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'Watson' on Jeopardy

Well, the first episode of 'Watson' on Jeopardy was shown last night. I didn't see it live, but luckily it's available on Youtube, at least for a little while.

It's a great achievement. Question-answering systems are a hot topic now - my colleague Ming Li, for example, has created such a system, based on word associations it finds on the Internet. But Watson is much better than anything I've seen before. A system like Watson will be extremely useful for researchers and libraries. Instead of having to staff general inquiry telephone lines with a person, libraries can use a system like Watson to answer questions of patrons. And, of course, there will be applications like medical diagnoses and computer tech support, too.

I predict, however, that the reaction to Watson will be largely hostile, especially from Mysterian philosophers (like Chalmers), strong AI skeptics (like the Dreyfus brothers), and hardcore conservative theists firmly committed to the special status of humans (like David Gelernter). We'll also hear naysaying from jealous engineers (like this letter from Llewellyn C. Wall, who earns my nomination for Jerk of the Week).

Despite its impressive performance, we're going to hear lots of claims that Watson "doesn't really think". Critics will point gleefully to Watson stumbling on an answer, replying "finis" when the correct response was "terminus" or "terminal" -- as if humans never make a mistake on Jeopardy. We're going to hear columnists stating "But Watson can't smell a rose or compose a poem" - as if that is a cogent criticism of a system designed to answer questions.

I predict none of these naysayers will deal with the real issue: in what essential way does Watson really differ from the way people think? People make associations, too, and answer questions based on sometimes tenuous connections. Vague assertions like "Watson doesn't really think" or "Watson has no mental model of the world" or "Watson is just playing word games" aren't going to cut it, unless critics can come up with a really rigorous formulation of their argument.

Watson is just another nail in the coffin of Strong AI deniers like Dreyfus - even if they don't realize it yet.

Addendum: Ah, I see the moronic critiques are already dribbling in: from Gordon Haff we get typical boilerplate: "Watson is in no real sense thinking and the use of the term "understanding" in the context of Watson should be taken as anthropomorphism rather than a literal description." But without a formal definition of what means to "think" in a "real sense", Haff's claim is just so much chin music.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mary Poplin Round 2

Mary Poplin, this year's Pascal lecturer at the University of Waterloo, returned for a second lecture, entitled "Is Anything Sacred?: A Conversation With Students". Like the first one, the second was poorly attended -- I'd estimate there were no more than about 15 people in the room, including some of the organizers.

Just as in the first lecture, she repeated her claims that Christianity is "under attack" at universities, and that Christians are unfairly excluded, censored, marginalized, etc.: "At the University every idea is engaged, but not Christianity" - a claim that would surprise the students enrolled in dozens of Waterloo courses with titles like History of Christianity, God and Philosphy, Jesus: Life and Legacy. Heck, if there's anything wrong with the way Christianity is treated at the University of Waterloo, it's that it's treated too seriously. There's also some sort of breathtaking irony involved in talking about how Christianity is "censored" while giving 3 invited 1-hour lectures with the sponsorship of a committee that sees its mandate as "challenging the university to a search for truth through personal faith and intellectual inquiry which focus on Jesus Christ." Why the heck is a public university sponsoring a lecture series that is clearly evangelical in nature?

She repeated her assertion that Christianity offers a useful standpoint from which to examine issues of the University, but she never really gave a single example how this could work. In response to a friendly question from someone on the committee who invited her, she could not come up with an example of how Christianity would be a useful perspective in physics, engineering, or mathematics. She did give a rather rambling and incoherent account of her work with teachers (work that, by the way, I fully support and think there should be more of) whose moral seemed to be that whatever religion you were, you came up with the same answers -- which seemed to completely undermine her point.

Personally, I reject her entire thesis. To the extent that Christianity is marginalized and excluded in academia, I see nothing wrong with it. Lots of bad ideas are rejected and marginalized: the idea that Zeus creates lightning, the idea that people have past lives, the idea that homeopathy is effective. In fact, the whole point of an intellectual enterprise like the university is that students need to be taught the intellectual tools they need to understand why some ideas are supported and others are not. Many Christian claims are rejected and marginalized because they have either been thoroughly refuted or because people have finally recognized that they do not represent serious knowledge claims. I wouldn't want a student citing the Bible on a biology exam as support for some supposedly scientific view.

Basically, Poplin wants her religious claims validated without doing the hard work she needs to do to convince others. She wants an intellectual free pass. And she wants this free pass solely on the basis of the fact that lots of people are Christians. She told me this on Thursday night, after the lecture, when she said that a good reason for treating the claims of Christianity seriously is that "a third of the world believes them". Well, worldwide there are lots of animists, too, but that doesn't mean we have to take their claims seriously.

Other things we heard about: before she became a Christian, Poplin was "not a nice person" and "slept with other people's husbands". She tried a succession of spiritual beliefs before settling on Christianity. She had encounters with "demonic spirits". I found her tale quite familiar: many people without a firm ethical compass drift from one religion to another, hoping to find something they lack internally.

We also learned that Poplin is a firm believer in the reality of miracle healing. She should read William Nolen's book Healing: a Doctor in Search of a Miracle. Nolen, a Christian, spent years looking for a legitimate example of faith healing. He found hucksters and fraud, but no actual examples.

Speaking of being "not a nice person", Poplin asserted that Christian students would be afraid to speak to me. (Ironically, in the audience was a former student of mine, a really bright guy who I never knew was religious. He had come to me for advice about graduate school just a few months earlier.) If so, that's bad. I never inquire about the religious beliefs of students and I try to treat all students fairly. But it never seemed to occur to her that, as an outspoken Christian, atheist students might be afraid to speak to her.

Altogether, this talk was even worse than the preceding one, if that's possible. Poplin rambled, failed to make any coherent point, and proved to be a sloppy thinker on the issues she spoke about. A waste of time. Let's hope the Pascal lecture series brings someone next year who might really have something to say - perhaps Ken Miller.

Harris v. Wolpe

This is an oldie, but a goodie: Sam Harris versus David Wolpe:

I think Harris definitely gets the best of Wolpe, although Wolpe's no slouch. There are so many good lines by Harris it's hard to list them all. For example, "We need to cease to reward people for pretending to know things they do not know. And the only area of discourse where we do this is on the subject of God."

What interests me more, though, is Wolpe's utter confusion when it comes to understanding neuroscience (at 44:50):

"The reason that our minds can do something more than just operate on instinct is because we operate all the time with things that are not physical, right: ideas, words... I can say something and change the physiology of your brain. Now how is that unless there's something more to your brain than physiology?"

This is remarkably dim. Ideas and words are not physical? An idea is a certain pattern of our neurophysiology. Spoken words are vibrations of the air. The patterns thus formed are interpreted by the nerves in the ear and are transmitted to the brain as electrical signals. Calling these things "not physical" betrays an ignorant, pre-scientific view of the world.

I wonder where Wolpe thinks ideas reside, if not in the brains of humans and other animals? In some magical ethereal realm?

I can say something and change the physiology of my computer. Heck, if my toaster is hooked up to some voice recognition, I can say something and change the physiology of a piece of bread. How does that imply that there's "something more" to a piece of bread?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rock Lobster - Performed by Old Computers & Robots

I remember seeing the B-52's give a free concert in Sproul Plaza back around 1980. But I think I like this version better.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Pascal Lecture: Another Year, Another Embarrassment

It's time again for that excruciating annual exercise at my university called the "Pascal Lectures".

Inaugurated in 1978, the purpose is to "bring to the University of Waterloo outstanding individuals of international repute who have distinguished themselves in both an area of scholarly endeavor and an area of Christian thought or life. These individuals discourse with the university community on some aspect of its own world, its theories, its research, its leadership role in our society, challenging the university to a search for truth through personal faith and intellectual enquiry which focus on Jesus Christ."

From its very first speaker - Malcolm Muggeridge - this series has been an embarrassment. Muggeridge, you may recall, was the credulous journalist responsible for the Mother Teresa cult - and even claimed that the light used in the filming of a BBC documentary Mother Teresa's orphanage was miraculous: "In the processed film, the part taken inside was bathed in a particularly beautiful soft light, whereas the part taken outside was rather dim and confused.... I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light [Cardinal] Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn. ...[The love in the home is] luminous, like the haloes artists have seen and made visible around the heads of saints. I find it not at all surprising that the luminosity should register on a photographic film. ...I am personally persuaded that Ken recorded the first authentic photographic miracle."

But the cinematographer had something different to say: "And when we got back several weeks later, a month or two later, we are sitting in the rushes theatre at Ealing Studios and eventually up came the shots of the House of the Dying. And it was surprising. You could see every detail. And I said, 'That's amazing. That's extraordinary.' And I was going to on to say, three cheers for Kodak. I didn't get a chance to say that though, because Malcolm, sitting in the front row, spun round and said: 'It's divine light. It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy.' And three or four days later I was being phoned by journalists who were saying things like: 'We hear you've just come back from India with Malcolm Muggeridge and you were the witness of a miracle.'"

To give you some idea of Muggeridge's intellectual acuity, here's a quote from What I Believe (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1984): "Nor, as far as I am concerned, is there any recompense in the so-called achievements of science. It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and the mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded history. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity. The atom has been split; the universe has been discovered, and will soon be explored. Neither achievement has any bearing on what alone interests me -- which is why life exists, and what is the significance, if any, of my minute and so transitory part in it."

And in the first Pascal lecture, Muggeridge had this to say, in answer to a question: "I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially the extent to which it's been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has. I think I spoke to you before about this age as one of the most credulous in history, and I would include evolution as an example."

Isn't there something perversely fascinating about a man who can dismiss one of the best-supported scientific theories -- evolution -- while railing about credulity AND also jumping to the conclusion that good photographic film is a Christian miracle?

This drivel is what the Pascal committee apparently thinks is a good example of "challenging the university to a search for truth".

Not every Pascal lecture was as bad as Muggeridge. Howard J. Van Till, who spoke in 1999, was a physics professor from Calvin College, and is one of the few evangelicals I know who can approach evolution with something resembling intellectual honesty. And - no surprise - he was investigated by his own university for heresy simply for being honest. And Donald Knuth, a personal hero of mine, spoke in 2000.

In 2007, MIT computer scientist Rosalind Picard spoke. She's infamous as one of the signers of the Discovery Institute's A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism letter -- despite having, as far as I can tell, no advanced biological training. This didn't prevent her from using her professional affiliation at MIT to sign. I once asked her if she thought this was ethical, but she didn't reply.

This year's speaker was Mary Poplin, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School. I knew what to expect, since I had already watched one of her videos. I got exactly what I expected. Speaking in a nearly empty hall that could hold over 700 people but probably held about 50, she provided

* a phony quote in support of Christianity
* slurs directed towards atheists and Christopher Hitchens
* vague complaints that Christianity is "suppressed" or "censored"
* crackpot claims that the Bible holds important medical knowledge
* a conversion story based on emotions and dreams rather than any evidence

The quote story is rather interesting. Jürgen Habermas is an elderly German philosopher who Poplin quoted as follows: "Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

This quotation is phony, but is very popular among Christians.

Its origins have been carefully traced by Thomas Gregersen, who writes:

But this is a misquotation! The reference is an interview with J├╝rgen Habermas that Eduardo Mendieta made in 1999. It is published in English with the title "A Conversation About God and the World" in Habermas's book "Time of Transitions" (Polity Press, 2006).

What Habermas actually says in this interview is:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f)."

The misquote rewrites Habermas's statement and changes its meaning:
(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of egalitarian universalism - not the foundation of human rights today.
(2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.
(3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to this legacy ("Erbe" in German) - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.

In the question-and-answer-session after the talk, I informed Poplin of the phony quote and asked her to withdraw it. In response, she claimed that Habermas had been asked about the quote at a lecture and did not deny it! So she knew the quote was dubious, she knew there was no actual original source confirming the phony quote, but she proffered it anyway with no disclaimers. In my opinion, this constitutes serious scholarly misconduct.

Later, I discussed the quote again with Poplin. She admitted she had no source for the quote, but she insisted it was legitimate because it accurately reflected Habermas' ideas, even if it was not his actual words. She again referred to this video, claiming that Habermas was asked about the quote and did not deny it. Watch the video, and see if it supports Poplin's interpretation. I don't think it does.

Here are some other aspects of Poplin's talk, with brief commentary:

- She claimed that "arch-atheist" Hitchens was practically the only author taking issue with Mother Teresa's career. This is simply untrue; authors such as Michael Parenti, Aroup Chatterjee, and others have criticized Agnes Bojaxhiu.

- Like many Christians, she seemed really disturbed that university students sometimes have sex with each other, and she claimed this was due to the loss of "ability to have a moral conversation" about anything. (I don't have any idea what she's talking about: questions of ethics routinely come up even in our computer science curriculum.)

- She dismissed the Christian pastor who wanted to burn a Koran as unrepresentative of North American Christianity

- She claimed "advocates of secularism try to keep orthodox Christianity a secret". Not so - I'd like it to be exposed in all its silliness.

- Secularism has "diminished the Academy"

- the University is hostile to "God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit". Yes, but in exactly the same way it is hostile to any claim presented without evidence, such as Bigfoot, UFO's, and homeopathy.

- She approvingly quoted C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity, claiming "If Christianity is true then it ought to follow (a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. (b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before." (I wonder what a non-Christian David Bahati might be like.)

- And, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, she both praised the Roman Catholic church for helping the poor and sick in the 15th century, and dismissed its role in genocide in the New World and its role in the Crusades as complaints by ignorant critics.

Overall, this was probably the shallowest, most anti-intellectual Pascal lecture I've attended.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

World's Dumbest Scammer?

This is the word-salad recently received from a spammer-scammer:

Anti-Terrorist and Monitory Crime Division.
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Daniel McMullen (Special Agent in Charge)

Attn: Beneficiary,

This is to officially inform you that it has come to our notice and we have thoroughly investigated with the help of our Intelligence Monitoring Network System that you are having an illegal Transaction with Impostors. We the Federal Bureau Of Investigation want you to stop further communication with any Impostors claiming to be official. During our Investigation, we noticed that the reason why you have not received your payment is because you have not fulfilled your Financial Obligation given to you in respect of your Contract/Inheritance Payment. Therefore, we have contacted the Federal Ministry of Finance Nigeria on your behalf and they have brought a solution to your problem by coordinating your payment in total $5,900,000.00(Five Million Nine Hundred Thousand Dollars).

Since the Federal Bureau of Investigation is involved in this transaction, you have to be rest assured for this is 100% risk free it is our duty to protect you. We the Federal Bureau Of Investigation want you to contact the ATM CARD CENTER via email for their requirements to proceed and procure your Approval Slip on your behalf which will cost you $150 and note that your Approval Slip which contains details of the agent who will process your transaction.

NAME: Mr. kelvin Williams
Address: 18 Koffi Crescent Apapa Lagos Nigeria

Do contact Mr. kelvin Williams of the ATM CARD CENTER with your details, and you full information So your files would be updated after which he will send the payment information which you'll use in making payment of $150 via Western Union Money Transfer or Money Gram Transfer for the procurement of your Approval Slip after which the delivery of your ATM CARD will be effected to your designated home address without any further delay. We order you get back to this office after you have contacted the ATM SWIFT CARD CENTER and we do await your response so we can move on with our Investigation and make sure your ATM SWIFT CARD gets to you.

Thanks and hope to read from you soon.

Daniel McMullen
Special Agent in Charge
Criminal Division
FBI Los Angeles
Suite 1700, FOB
$15000 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California

Man, this guy needs to take a course in English composition.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Fibonacci Quarterly Goes Electronic

The Fibonacci Quarterly has gone electronic! And they've put all their articles before 2006 online for free.

When I was a teenager, this was one of my favorite journals - because, unlike most math journals, I could actually understand most of the articles in it. My parents thought it was weird, but they were very understanding, and even got me a subscription.

I remember one of the articles that blew my mind was Aho and Sloane's Some Doubly Exponential Sequences. The authors found beautiful analyses of some nonlinear recurrences, including one of my favorites:

y1 = 5; yn+1 = (yn - 2)2.

The first few values are y2 = 9; y3 = 49; y4 = 2209; and it is not hard to prove that yn = L2n + 2, where Li is the i'th Lucas number.

It's still a good and worthwhile journal, even if it doesn't usually get much praise from the kind of people who publish in Inventiones. It struggles from time to time with quality issues, and I really dislike the typesetting, but there's often something interesting in it.

So, congrats to the Fibonacci Quarterly for taking this step. If only they'd put in a search function for titles and authors...