Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Moose Blogging

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

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

Hat tip: Anna.

The Evangelical Worldview is Very Fragile

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Canadians are Breathing Easier

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

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Wrong Mathematics in a Jack Reacher Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

John Baird - Hypocrite

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

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

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

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

Baird is a hypocrite.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Christmas Song by My Father

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

The Gift.

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

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Sterility of Intelligent Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Should Barbers Have the Right to Refuse Service to Women?

Should barbers have the right to refuse service to women?

Rex Murphy and George Jonas think so.

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

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

Tal Pinchevsky, "Breakway"

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Waterloo Ignorance Day

Today is Waterloo Ignorance Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Santorum Joins World Net Daily

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

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

Monday, December 03, 2012

My Unremarked Remarks at Eschaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschaton 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I'm Really Glad Steve Fuller is on Their Side

If you are having trouble sleeping, this video of Steve Fuller prattling on and on and on while not saying very much at all is just the thing for you.

Fuller thinks that what the intelligent design movement really needs is another creationist geology book. And he thinks that Dembski is updating Shannon on information theory. (That'll be news to everyone who actually does information theory.) I'm really glad that Fuller is the intelligent design movement's favorite philosopher. Imagine the damage he could do if he were on the side of science and reason!

"Says You" in Syracuse

I finally got to attend a taping of one of my favorite radio shows, "Says You", in Syracuse, New York. That's host Richard Sher at the top, and at the bottom you see panelists Tony Kahn, Lenore Shannon, and Tony Horwitz conferring on a question. The other panelists that night were Carolyn Faye Fox, Arnie Reisman, and Paula Lyons.

Although the show is one of my favorites, I have to admit it was not as good or funny as shows in the past. They sometimes play old shows or highlights from old shows, and you can hear the difference: they used to have lightning-fast wordplay and deductions, and lately they've been slipping a bit. Maybe they need some new blood: some younger panelists.

By the way, if you want to listen to the show, you either have to pay for it, or listen to it live on Saturday or Sunday on your local NPR station, or over the internet.

Do you have some favorite radio shows that you listen to over the internet? If so, give links in the comments.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I Definitely Do Not Recommend This "Book" About Me

On ebay, for only $86.08 you can buy this "book" about me. But I don't recommend it.

This is the usual scam where someone advertises a book that consists of nothing but reprints from freely-available web pages, and then prints a book on demand if someone is stupid enough to buy it.

The same "author" has written 6000 other books.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monckton Spoke at U. Western Ontario ?!?

I don't know how I missed this.

Believe it or not, the Department of Applied Mathematics at University of Western Ontario, located in London, Ontario, invited the loony Christopher Monckton to give a prestigious invited lecture, the Nerenberg lecture, last March. Previous speakers included Roger Penrose.

In addition to being a pompous twit, Monckton is famous for global warming denial and, in his latest schtick, claiming that Obama's birth certificate is fraudulent.

My source tells me that the invitation to Monckton came from Chris Essex, professor of the department, and another global warming denier. Most of the Department boycotted the talk, I was told.

If anybody attended the talk, I would like to hear about it. This is really a disgrace.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Chili Colorado

I made chili colorado from this recipe tonight. It took about three hours. The sauce was too liquidy for my tastes; next time I will add some flour to thicken it. Do you have a better recipe?

The Kurt Mahler Archive

Thanks to the hard work of Jon Borwein, Yann Bugeaud, Michael Coons, and the late Alf van der Poorten, there is now an online archive of the works of the number theorist Kurt Mahler. This is a great resource for mathematicians and more initiatives like this are needed.

I'll just mention one open problem from Kurt Mahler's last paper: what are the positive integers n, not divisible by 7, such that n2 has only digits 0 and 1 when expressed in base 7? The only examples known are n = 1 and n = 20. There are no other solutions with n < 1.67 · 1011.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Waterloo's Dubai Campus Fails, As Predicted

In 2009, despite protests from faculty, the University of Waterloo opened a campus in Dubai.

Now, just three years later, it is closing. Big surprise there. Administrators were warned that it was unlikely to succeed, and if I remember correctly, our School of Computer Science voted against it. There was a lot of opposition to setting up a campus in a place with little protection for free speech and a free press, as well as violations of women's rights and gay rights.

By the way, the article in the Record I pointed to above is the typical shoddy job done by local reporter Liz Monteiro. There is nothing about how much this failure has cost the University (if anything), nor any interview with anyone originally opposed to the campus, nor any investigation of why the campus was set up to begin with. This is not good journalism.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Elections Past

A few buttons from our family collection.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Greedy Millionaire Loses

Last night a greedy millionaire lost an important election vote.

No, I'm not talking about Mitt Romney. I'm talking about a little-noticed ballot measure -- little-noticed, that is, if you don't live in Ontario or Michigan.

Believe it or not, one of the most important crossings between Canada and the United States -- Ambassador Bridge -- is privately owned by a guy named Matty Moroun. For years people have wanted another bridge, because the existing one can't support the traffic. Canada has even offered to pick up all the cost of the new bridge, so it will be essentially free for the US.

Moroun can't stand the competition, and he's tried in every possible way to block the new bridge. Who cares if the bridge will benefit millions of people on both sides of the border? The only thing that matters is Moroun's profit.

He spent $33 million to back a statewide ballot measure intended to block the bridge, but lost badly, 60% to 40%.

Maybe now this important bridge will get built.

Most Americans are Not Crazy

It was a good election. Serial liar Romney, a man completely devoid of honesty, principles, and integrity, was convincingly defeated. I wasn't completely happy with Obama, but he was so much better than the alternative.

Nearly all the crazies lost: Allen West, Connie Mack, Todd Akin, Joe Walsh, and Richard Mourdock. Unfortunately it looks like we are still stuck with Michele Bachmann. And Judge Roy Moore won election in Alabama. Alabama secures its reputation as the worst place to live in the US.

Elizabeth Warren, who was the subject of nasty attacks about her native American heritage, easily defeated Scott Brown. Brown was not nearly as extremist as depicted by Democrats, but he was in the wrong state. He would have been a decent candidate for a state like Indiana or Pennsylvania, but not Massachusetts.

Maine and Maryland legalized same-sex marriage. Minnesota turned down a bid to change its constitution to prevent same-sex marriage. And Washington voters have apparently approved a law allowing same-sex marriage.

Two states legalized marijuana. This may be the start of a sane drug policy.

The mathematical illiterates who were skeptical of Nate Silver were proven wildly wrong. Silver's predictions were basically completely correct.

As predicted, crazies like Doug Groothuis are apoplectic. Groothuis raves as follows: "American [sic] does not know how to think, has no moral or political principles worth having, is manipulated by images and slogans, does not fear the idol of the State does not give a rip about unborn children; we will be taxes [sic] for their murders, does not believe in its own God-given greatness."

The dishonest Charles Krauthammer was raving about the "nationalization" of health care under Obama. Krauthammer is a liar. If you want to see nationalized health care, go to Britain. Obamacare isn't even close to "nationalization"; it's a timid initiative that maintains the status quo in almost every health care aspect except insurance. Bush's prescription drug benefit was a much bigger change.

Americans proved that the majority was not racist and was not fooled by pandering. That's a very good sign.

Friday, November 02, 2012

My Talk at the APL@50 Conference

Yesterday York University hosted a 1-day conference entitled "APL@50", to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kenneth Iverson's book, A Programming Language. This book, and the subsequent implementation of APL, eventually won Iverson the Turing award in 1979.

Here are my slides for the talk.

I said a lot of things that were not on the slides. In particular: "More foolish things have been said about APL than any other programming language, and Edsger Dijkstra was one of the biggest offenders."

In addition to the talks, there were some really nice displays from the collection of the York University Computer Museum. For example there was an IBM 5100 APL machine (one that I spend several years programming as an undergraduate), and an MCM APL machine.

We also saw a short film by Catherine Lathwell, who is working on a full-fledged documentary about APL.

At a panel we were asked to summarize what APL meant to us. I said something like the following: APL taught us that a good notation is half the battle. Computing is ultimately about insight, and a system that encourages experimentation and variation is one that can be used to treat mathematics almost as if it were an experimental science.

Thanks to Zbigniew Stachniak and Catherine Lathwell for organizing this.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Insane Faulkner Lawsuit

William Faulkner has got to be one of the most overrated American writers. Now his literary estate is carrying on his tradition by suing Sony because Woody Allen's mediocre movie Midnight in Paris used a 10-word quote from Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun".

The funniest thing is that the quote they are suing over is not even a direct quote. Faulkner wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- that's different from what is in the movie, which is "The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past."

This is not a lawsuit to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. Oops! I hope Dorothy Parker's literary estate is not going to sue me for that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Don't Mess with the Moose

A police cruiser is no match for a moose, in British Columbia.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Baseball Physics

If you've been watching the NLCS on TV, you've been able to see what a high-speed camera does for the physics of baseball. You get to see how the bat dramatically slows down when it hits the ball -- the illusion of a smooth swing is gone forever. You also get to see how the bat deforms and wobbles after impact. Very cool!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Pseudoscience Constellation

Did you ever notice that buying into one form of pseudoscience often begets other kinds of foolishness? Phillip Johnson, the lawyer who had a religious experience after a messy divorce, is not only one of the founders of the modern intelligent design movement; he's also an AIDS denier.

Russell Humphreys, the young-earth creationist, also denies that global warming is a problem.

Recently I learned about another example, possibly one of the most impressive yet. R. Webster Kehr is a Mormon and ex-Marine who

- thinks "evolution is the most absurd scientific theory in the history of science!!"

- denies Einstein's theory of relativity and the photon theory

- thinks that the naturals and the reals are the same size, even though he admits there is no bijection between them. He also describes himself as the author of many mathematical papers, although oddly enough, MathSciNet doesn't list a single one.

- subscribes to cancer quackery

You have to work pretty hard to be so deluded in so many fields simultaneously.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Creationism isn't the Real Enemy; Intellectual Dishonesty Is

Glenn Morton is a former young-earth creationist who could no longer tolerate the endless string of falsehoods put out by creationists, and wrote some helpful pages debunking creationist claims, such as The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism, which I've favorably cited before.

However, he remained an evangelical Christian. And in some ways he continued to argue exactly like a creationist. I remember once on a private mailing list, we had a disagreement about information theory. I quoted definitions from books about information theory to make my point, but these weren't good enough: Morton insisted that he used information theory in the oil industry and was correct and he would not budge from that. No amount of evidence could persuade him.

Now he's had a hissy fit and deleted his own anti-creationism pages. His reason is that most people who fight creationism are "religious bigots" who are taking advantage of his work to further their own agenda.

But take a look at his arguments! They are classic right-wing crackpot stuff:

- "someone got a draft of a book by John [sic] Buell and they were scheming how to put an injunction on his book PRE-PUBLICATION" - Buell's book figured in the Dover trial; I know the people involved and this injunction claim is completely untrue

- "It doesn't matter that the earth stopped warming in 1997 as the UK Met Office reveals in the latest HADCRUT data, one MUST still believe that it is still occurring" - a fabrication, one that was quickly debunked.

- "The president of Chic-Fil-A is not allowed to have freedom of speech or religon if that speech or religion offends the sensitivities of the elitists who think they have a right to hector everyone into their boring conformity." -- Morton clearly doesn't understand freedom of speech; it refers to the right to be free of government censorship, and it doesn't prevent private boycotts of business owned by people you disagree with. The Religious Right puts out boycott requests practically every week; Morton says not a word about these.

- "These same elites will not grant the religious the courtesy and right to put up monuments in the public square." - Morton needs to take a refresher course on the separation of church and state. I defend the right of people to put up religious monuments on private property, but public property is a completely different matter.

- "Why do people think it is ok to ridicule [a Mormon's] beliefs? Debate them, yes, ridicule them? no" - ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule. Labelling them "religious" doesn't get you a free pass.

- "And if a majority want to teach their kids YEC or that the Martians are living amongst us, they should have that freedom" - How about if a majority wants to keep black students out, or teach that black students are inferior? Still OK? There is a clear public interest in having good science in public schools.

- "Freedom is dear; and you, the religious bigot, are a danger to my freedom." - right! That explains why the ACLU consistently supports the religious rights of Christians. And here is my modest contribution.

I'm sorry to see Glenn Morton leave the fight against creationism, but if his reasons are this intellectually dishonest, I say, good riddance.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Political Correctness Run Amok at Queen's University?

The CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) has issued its report on the case of Michael Mason, an instructor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, who was prevented from teaching a course after apparently baseless complaints about the use of racist and sexist speech in his course, History 283.

The report strongly suggests that the complaints by certain students about his teaching were ridiculous and unfounded. Furthermore, it suggests that the complaints were badly mishandled by the administrators, including James Carson, chair of the Department of History, and Vice-Principal Daniel Bradshaw.

Professor Mason deserves a public apology and compensation from Queen's University.

Mathematics Journal gets Sokaled

Over at That's Mathematics, the author reports that his paper of gibberish mathematics was actually accepted by the journal Advances in Pure Mathematics. This gives you some idea of the quality of that journal.

The paper contains such deathless phrases as "By a little-known result of Fibonacci..." and "It is not yet known whether every real, surjective, pairwise regular functor is ultra-standard". The author pairings in the bibliography include Atiyah and Leibniz, and Atiyah and Eudoxus. Very nice work.

Sydney River is the Place to Live

Clearly, Sydney River, Nova Scotia, is the place to live! Especially if you like moose:

Mary Ellen Marsh of Sydney River said she thought someone was at her door and then realized it was a moose. She said the moose was in the neighbourhood for about an hour, going from yard to yard and down the street.

The animal visited Sydney River Elementary, where she made an impression on students.

Mikki Armishaw, the principal, said, “The children just went out of their minds.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Interesting but Little-Known Function

A boolean matrix is a matrix whose entries are truth values, usually represented as 1 (true) and 0 (false). We multiply boolean matrices in the same way that we multiply ordinary matrices, except that instead of sum we use the boolean "or" and instead of product we use the boolean "and".

Boolean matrices have a natural interpretation in terms of directed graphs: given a graph G on n vertices, we put a 1 in row i and column j of M if there is a directed edge in G from vertex i to vertex j, and 0 otherwise. Then the boolean matrix power Me has a 1 in row i and column j if and only if there is a directed path from vertex i to vertex j of length e.

Given an n × n boolean matrix M, a natural question is, what is the largest size s(n) of the semigroup generated by M under boolean matrix multiplication? In other words, how many distinct powers can M have, in the worst case? Believe it or not, this natural quantity has received very little attention in the literature. There is a paper by Markowsky in 1977, and another by Denes, Roush, and Kim in 1983, but that's about it. For small n, it is known that s(n) = n2 - 2n + 2, while for larger n, it is known that s(n) is approximately g(n), Landau's function, which counts the maximal order of an element in the symmetric group of order n. It is known that Landau's function is approximately esqrt(n log n), so this tells us how s(n) behaves for large n. But to my knowledge nobody knows the exact value, or even small values past n = 20. This might be a nice computational challenge for an undergraduate.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Canada is Number 2, But We Try Harder

Sure, in the US they have raving loonies in power, like Paul Broun (R-GA), who thinks evolution is a lie of Satan and that the earth is 9000 years old.

But here in Canada, we're trying harder. We have a police chief in Winnipeg who thinks the solution to crime in his city is to pray a lot.

The embarrassing thing is not that there are people who hold such beliefs. The embarrassing thing is that we vote for such people, or appoint them to positions of power.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Gulf is Too Wide

From a letter to the editor of our local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, October 4 2012:

"In any sexual union, it is God who decides whether or not there will be conception of a child.

"From that moment of conception, there is a new human life. God wants that human being or the child would not have been conceived."

"What right has the woman to snuff out the life of that human being?"

When someone has such a medieval view of the world, unencumbered by our modern understanding of biology and reproduction, is it even possible to reason with them? I don't think so. The gulf is just too wide.

Baptist Minister Prays for Me

Remember Cal Lord? He's the Rhode Island Baptist minister who wrote a creationist column for the Norwich (CT) Bulletin, criticizing Bill Nye for his support of evolution.

Lord used a quote, said to be by George Wald in Scientific American in 1957, to support his creationist views. Only problem? Wald never said what Lord claimed; it is a well-known fabrication.

I wrote to Lord to point this out. But, despite the fact that he has a weekly column in the Bulletin, he never admitted his misrepresentation in print. Nor did he admit that he gave the bogus quote without citing his source.

Now, out of the blue, Lord writes me again to say that he is praying for me and boasting how about he has grown in his faith since his lies and plagiarism appeared in print.

Lord hasn't grown at all: he's refused to publicly admit his misconduct. He's the typical liar for Jesus: willing to defame a good scientist like Wald by publishing a bogus quotation, but unwilling to retract it publicly.

"This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed."

Thousands of Muslims have protested at the headquarters of Google in London about a Youtube film that mocks Muhammad.

The organizer, Masoud Alam, is quoted as saying, "This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed... Until it is banned we will keep protesting."

Yes, it will be allowed. In a free society, just because you label some belief as "religious" doesn't mean I can't criticize it. And you are free to lie and say things like, "Prophet Muhammad is the founder of freedom of speech", and I can criticize that, too.

Islam is badly in need of a reform movement.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fascism - Canadian Style

It looks like the language fascists in Québec -- the same folks that insisted that stop signs bear the word "arrĂȘt" instead of "stop", when "stop" is a perfectly good French word with a long history; they use it on French stop signs, for example -- can't bear the fact that "Old Navy" is called that and not "Vieille Marine".

Maybe they should change the name of their government to "Vichy". Now that's a language change that would represent truth in advertising.

Then there's Canada's denial of entry to Terry Jones. Sure, Jones is a first-class creep who has nothing to contribute, but they let creeps into the country every day. They let David Irving in, after all.

By refusing entry to Terry Jones, Canada sends the message that there are some ideas that are just too scary for Canadians to hear. That's a bad message, and a bad precedent.

More Crappy Canadian Journalism

Recently there was Wentegate.

Now we have the appalling prospect of Shelagh Rogers interviewing the repulsive Michael Coren, who is allowed to blather on and on about how poor Christianity is maligned and Christians aren't taken seriously, all without her asking a single hard question. Coren even gets labeled an "intellectual"!


Next, in my local paper, columnist Luisa D'Amato calls it "intolerance", "ill will", "oppressive", and "authoritarian" because Federal Minister Rona Ambrose was criticized for supporting the evident scam behind Stephen Woodworth's private member's bill. She thinks this represents a lack of commitment to "free speech" on the part of women's groups.

She's got it exactly backwards. The right to free expression is a restriction on the power of government, not a shackle on the rights of citizens to disagree with the actions of elected leaders.

Whatever happened to good journalism?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Clinking Glasses in Linear Time

This is the kind of question that comes up when you have two theoretical computer scientists at the dinner table. Suppose there are N guests seated around a large table. If everybody wants to clink glasses with everybody else, and the time to clink is proportional to the distance around the perimeter of the table you have to travel to reach them, how can everybody clink with everyone else in time linear in N? You clearly can't do better than linear time, since every person takes up a certain minimum amount of space at the table, say at least 30 cm, so to reach the furthest person away you will need linear time.

On the other hand, there are N(N-1)/2 clinks to accomplish, so you will need some parallelism to do it all in linear time.

Here's how to do it. Let's say that the number of guests N is a power of 2, say 2n. The solution is easily modified for the general case.

Number the guests from 1 to 2n. In round 1, all the guests numbered 1 to 2n - 1 get up, and walk clockwise around the table in synch with each other, clinking with each seated guest (numbered 2n - 1 + 1 through 2n) as they pass them. Having completed a circuit of the table, they now sit down. This round costs N time.

It remains for all the guests numbered 1 to 2n - 1 to clink with each other, and all guests numbered 2n - 1 + 1 to 2n to clink with each other. This is done in the same way as before within each group, except now the guests don't make a full cycle of the table; they just go to the last guest in their group they need to clink with, and then in synch with the others, return back the way the came. The second round costs 2N/2 = N time.

In each subsequent round, the same thing is done, halving the sizes of the groups, so the distance each group has to travel halves as well. Thus further rounds cost N/2, then N/4, etc. So the total time elapsed is bounded by N + (N + N/2 + N/4 + ··· + 1) = 3N - 1.

Here's an example. Suppose there are 16 guests. In round 1, guests 1 through 8 get up, cycle around clinking with guests 9 through 16, who are seated. They make a full cycle of the table and sit down. Next, guests 1 through 4 get up and clink with seated 5 through 8; simultaneously 9 through 12 are up and clink with seated 13 through 16; they then return back they way the came. In round 3, guests 1 and 2 get up and clink with 3 and 4 and return; simultaneously 5 and 6 are clinking with 7 and 8; 9 and 10 are clinking with 11 and 12; 13 and 14 are clinking with 15 and 16. Finally, in the last round, each odd-numbered guest clinks with the person to the right. Here the total number of clinks is 8 · 8 + 2 · 4 · 4 + 4 · 2 · 2 + 8 · 1 · 1 = 120, which is (16 · 15)/2, as it should be.

The Experts Disagree

Is it just me, or is the quality and speed of refereeing deteriorating lately?

I know that everybody's busy. I know that for many professors, class sizes are getting bigger and take more time. But I've had three papers out for refereeing now where two have no decisions after 10 months and 12 months, respectively, and the other -- a paper of only 6 pages -- got reports only after 6 months.

Editors should be more diligent about pursuing reports. In the journal I edit, if we don't get a report after 2 months, we send a reminder, and if we don't get any response after 3 months, we start looking for another referee. The result is that it is extremely rare that a paper takes longer than 6 months to get a decision. A year is unheard of.

Speaking of that 6-page paper, we had submitted it earlier to another journal -- I'll call it "Journal A". After 4 ½ months, we got two reports, one of which I excerpt below:

"This trivial observation is claimed to be the main result of the submitted paper..."
"Although the simple argument provided in the paper is wrong... it could be easily corrected."
"However, the "proof" given there does not even contain any correct idea, which could be used to prove this claim..."
"In conclusion, the paper does not contain any original results..."

This report went on to claim that one of our results was a simple consequence of a known theorem, and then proceeded to outline a wildly incorrect argument supporting this.

Needless to say, on this basis of this report, the paper was rejected, even though all the assertions about the proofs being incorrect or that the last result easily followed from known results, were wrong.

In fact, I think this is a good model of how not to write a report. If you, as a referee, claim that an argument is wrong, it is definitely your responsibility to be specific about what is wrong, not make vague assertions like those above. And you also need to be a little more modest! If something appears wrong in a paper, maybe it is wrong. Or maybe, just maybe, you have simply misunderstood it.

We then resubmitted our paper to "Journal B". After 6 months we got two reports, one of which I excerpt below:

"These results are very interesting and the proofs are correct..."
"I think the construction of the Thm 6 is really brilliant..."

The experts disagree, I guess.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Big Surprise: William Lane Craig Caught Fibbing

Apparently William Lane Craig's version of Christianity requires that animals can't feel pain. Or, if they can feel pain, they're not "aware" that they're in pain. Or if they're aware that they're in pain, they're not aware that they're aware. Or something -- the important thing is that people are different from animals.

Craig has claimed that "science" supports his view. Not so, according to a new video.

Who is surprised? Craig has misrepresented what other scholars say before. Craig is not really interested in the answer to the question; he just wants to accumulate evidence, no matter how tenuous, to support his religion.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Strange New Book about the Periodic Table

As a blogger of influence™ I occasionally get books in the mail to review. The latest is Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified, by Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji.

This has got to be the strangest book I have ever read about the periodic table. Each chemical element is interpreted as a cartoon figure. (I think they're all male, but I'm not absolutely sure. Are there really no female elements?) The noble gases, for example, all have giant hairdos that the author calls an "Afro", but look closer to a shtreimel; the halogens, by contrast, are all "bald and bulbous like a halogen lamp". The elements of antiquity have long beards, and the man-made elements look like robots. A fold-out periodic table summarizes all 118 known elements with their cartoon interpretations.

The book begins with a discussion of elements found in everyday things and how this has changed through time. The next chapter explains the author's coding for the various properties of the elements (interpreted as hairstyle, clothing, obesity, etc.) The bulk of the book goes through each element and discusses their properties and applications.

Most of the facts presented are correct, but not always. For example, about neon lights in glass tubes it is claimed that "The first time this was done was in 1912 in Montmartre, Paris", but this is not quite correct. The property of emitting red light by electrical discharge was noted by the discoverers of neon, Travers and Ramsay in 1898, and commercialization started in the early 1900's. The lanthanides are described as "extremely rare", but this is not really the case. Cerium, for example, is more abundant in the earth's crust than copper, lithium, cobalt, and lead.

The author is also not always careful to distinguish between the pure element and its compounds. Hopefully no child will swallow aluminum foil upon reading that "It has protective properties when applied to stomach membranes".

This little (15 × 18 cm) book might possibly interest youngsters (ages 8-12), especially if they already have an interest in Japanese anime. But for older kids and adults, I think they'd be better served by Emsley's Nature's Building Blocks or Stwertka's A Guide to the Elements.

Rating: two stars out of four.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Kitchener-Waterloo Guitar Society

It looks like the K-W Guitar Society is now a reality. They also have a concert series for 2012-2013 where you can hear classical guitarists such as Victor Villadangos, Marcin Dylla, and others.

As for me, I am currently working on Napoleon Coste, Waltz, Opus 51, No. 8 from the Royal Conservatory book 6.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stephen Woodworth Goes Down in Flames

Stephen Woodworth, our local MP, introduced a private member's bill to have the House study the question of whether a child is a "human being before the moment of complete birth".

Of course, the whole thing is a scam -- one that our local journalists couldn't or didn't see through.

Deep down, I don't believe Woodworth isn't interested at all in this question. I think that what he really wants to do is ban abortion (in consonance with his Catholic duty), and he's using this bill to try to achieve his goal through semantic games.

Suppose you're building a house. You dig the foundation. Is it a house yet? You pour the concrete. Is it a house yet? You start framing the house. Is it a house yet? You put in the window frames. Is it a house yet?

When does it become a house?

Some people might say it is a house as soon as you start building it. Others might say it is a house when it is ready to move in. There's no correct answer here, because the word "house" covers a lot of ground -- think of "abandoned house", "ruined house", "half-built house", "reconstructed house", and so forth.

Any line that you draw is arbitrary.

Of course, for legal reasons, sometimes we have to draw these arbitrary lines. Why should a 19-year-old be able to drink in Ontario, but not someone who is aged 18 years 364 days? This distinction makes no sense at all; it's purely an artificial legal construct that represents a guess about responsibility and maturity.

Arguments about DNA miss the point, too. It's not about whether the fetus has human DNA, because it clearly does. The argument is all about at what stage the fetus becomes a "person" (another ill-defined word!) that has the rights we expect people to have in a free society. And it's about how long those rights can be subservient to the rights of the woman in whose body the fetus is growing.

Viewed in this way, deciding whether a child is "a human being before the moment of complete birth" is just a political game. I don't expect much different from politicians, but I did expect more from Woodworth -- I had much more respect for him before this.

If he were sincere, he would answer my question, "What penalty would be appropriate for a woman who has an abortion?" He refuses to answer, and our local journalists are too cowardly to ask.

I'm happy to see that the bill went down to defeat, 203 to 91. But the main thing is to elect someone else to Parliament next time around.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Cheers for Carol Wainio!

Carol Wainio, who has been exposing the sloppy habits (or worse) of certain Canadian newspaper columnists, including David Warren and Margaret Wente, for a couple of years now, is finally getting some well-deserved attention.

For anyone with a brain, Wainio's carefully-documented examples of what appears to be Wente's serial plagiarism would have required, at the very least, a serious investigation at the Globe and Mail. Instead, Wainio was ignored or insulted.

Not any more.

When the Globe's public editor issued a whitewash of Wente's behavior, they were inundated with complaints.

The CBC -- displaying the journalistic integrity apparently lacking at the Globe and Mail -- has dropped Wente from their media panel.

Will there be further repercussions for Wente? Personally, I think the examples Wainio has assembled amount to a good case for firing Wente. She wouldn't be missed.

Meanwhile, Wainio is shunning the publicity. She deserves an honorary degree, at the very least, for having the courage to persevere in face of the shameless silence of most Canadian media. Or maybe even the Order of Canada.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Religious Philosophy Exposed!

This is great!

Jerry Coyne reports that Maarten Boudry, philosopher at Ghent University in Belgium, succeeded in getting a fake theological/philosophical abstract accepted at two theology conferences. Both accepted it, and Reformational Philosophy put it in the proceedings (look under the pseudonym "Robert A. Maundy").

For those of us who have suspected for quite a while that there is something seriously wrong with some parts of modern academic philosophy (where, for example, Alvin Plantinga is "respected" and his EAAN gets serious treatment instead of laughter), this is some small vindication, although perhaps not proof.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eleven Years Later, 9/11 Truthers Find Ways to Look Even More Ridiculous

Eleven years ago today, I was on sabbatical at the University of Arizona and listening to NPR when I heard the shocking news that the United States had been attacked by terrorists. Most of us quickly suspected Muslim religious extremists were the perpetrators, and we weren't wrong. My colleagues and I speculated that, despite the evidence, conspiracy theorists would quickly find some other group to blame: the CIA, Mossad, Bush, etc., and we weren't wrong either. Soon there were dozens of false claims circulating: that hundreds of Jews had been warned before the attack; that Larry Silverstein, owner of WTC 7, had given the order for controlled demolition of the building; and so forth. Only crackpots, we thought, would subscribe to these nutty claims.

But we were wrong. Many formerly respected academics, and some not so respected, signed on, and some spun elaborate and preposterous scenarios.

Nowadays, with extensive documentation of the role of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen in the attack, such as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, few rational people doubt the generally-accepted account of 9/11. Yet the truther movement lives on, although it has become more and more marginalized. They are reduced to creating self-appointed "expert panels" consisting of physical therapists, actors, and religious studies professors, that do "investigations" whose loony conclusions are pre-ordained.

The really sad thing is that these folks, with their zeal, could have actually done something useful about the real abuses of Bush and Obama: Guantanamo Bay, illegal dententions, the expansion of the surveillance state, and so forth. Instead, they advance lies, sow discord, damage the reputation of the United States, and discredit themselves.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Don't Hit That Moose!

From Recursivity reader D. S. comes this lovely tale of a driver who knows his priorities: avoid the moose at all costs!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bad Referee Reports

Most mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists don't know how to write a referee report. Maybe this is not a surprise, since we don't explicitly teach this in graduate school, and we expect people to pick it up by reading the reports of others. But if most people don't do it well, how do we expect young professors to learn?

Good reports should

  1. put the paper in context - is the subject well-studied? Or is it a backwater where people haven't worked in years? Will people want to read it?
  2. evaluate the paper - Is it a real breakthrough in the area, or just one in a series of similar results? Does the author introduce some new useful technique?
  3. evaluate the writing - is it clear? How could it be improved? Can arguments be restructured to be simpler and clearer? Are too many important subresults left to the reader?
  4. evaluate the bibliography - is it complete enough, or (in the other direction) are many irrelevant papers cited?
Good reports should be specific. Don't just say "the writing is bad"; give specific examples of bad writing and how the writing could be improved.

Here is an example of a really bad report:

This paper is of absolutely no interest. I showed it to my colleague, Professor X, and she agrees. I recommend rejection.

A good referee report should be useful to the author. This report doesn't tell the author anything that he/she can use to improve the paper. Is it bad because the problem addressed is too trivial? Or because the results are already known? What is an author expected to do after receiving a report like this? Commit suicide?

Here's another example of a bad report:

Tiling problems have been studied for many years. They are of great interest in combinatorics and logic. This paper is a good contribution to the subject, and I recommend acceptance.

A good referee report should be useful to the editor, too. This report doesn't tell the editor anything useful! Are the results really deep and novel? Or is it just another in a series of similar small results? Not only that, a report like this suggests strongly that the referee didn't really read the paper with care, and just skimmed the paper in a few minutes. Are there really no papers that the author missed citing? Are all the equations really correct in all respects? Is there nothing that could be improved?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Michael Egnor Fails Intelligence Test

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Alvin Plantinga's EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism) is so mind-bogglingly flawed, that if you meet anyone at a party who claims to believe it has merit, you should immediately find someone more interesting to talk to, because it's really unlikely you're going to have a good conversation.

Any bright high school student can see the flaws in a few minutes. In this way, it functions as a sort of intelligence test for the philosophically inclined. The fact that some philosophers actually took the argument seriously and a few collaborated on a volume entitled Naturalism Defeated? illustrates the sad state of modern philosophy. It's the philosophical equivalent of taking a bogus proof that 2 = 1 and writing an entire book explaining why it is wrong. Yes, you can do it, but why bother?

So guess who accepts it and thinks it is "obviously valid"? Why, that paragon of ignorance and arrogance, Michael Egnor.

It's not surprising, since commenters at his site have tried over and over again to explain to Egnor what the theory of evolution says, but he just can't get it.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Painted Turtles

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), Rockwood Conservation Area, near Guelph, Ontario. The larger one is about 20 cm in length.
Photographer: A. Lubiw.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Green Heron

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Rockwood Conservation Area, near Guelph, Ontario.
Photographer: A. Lubiw.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bem's Silliness Debunked

Over at NeurologicaBlog the irreplaceable Steven Novella summarizes the case against Daryl Bem's silly "reverse causation" claims. I find it really hard to take precognition claims seriously, but I'm glad there are researchers who are willing to test these claims in a rigorous fashion.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who's More Repulsive than Todd Akin?

If you were wondering if there is anyone more repulsive or ignorant than Todd Akin, I have a nomination for you: William Lane Craig.

Craig completely misunderstands Claire McCaskill's comments about the case, claiming her problem with Akin was simply that he was insensitive.

He also thinks Akin is right because Akin "trusts what experts in the field tell him. He listened to what the doctors told him." Which doctors exactly, Dr. Craig?

Craig thinks Akin is right because "The percentage of abortions that occur every year that involve rape cases is a very small percentage of the total number of abortions performed every year".

Craig says, "People who think that abortion is ethically justified in cases of rape simple reveal they don't understand the logic of the pro-life position". No, we understand your "logic" and we reject it. 

And yet there are people who continue to take both these clowns seriously.

Friday, August 24, 2012

If I Were King...

If I were king...

- it would cost nothing to register your car or renew your driver's license -- currently about $75 for both in Ontario. High fees such as these disproportionately affect the poor, who often need a car to get to a job, while they are almost nothing for the rich. Better to fund them through taxes.

- by contrast, gas taxes would be double or triple what they are now. The harmful externalities associated with driving cars should be borne by the people who use them. Yes to the carbon tax!

- if a legislator votes for a bill that is later declared unconstitutional, they lose their seat

- legislators would be chosen, either completely or in part, by random choice. They would be well-compensated and employers would be required to hold their jobs while they serve. After each legislative term ends (say 2 to 4 years), 30-60% would have their terms end and new ones would be randomly chosen to replace them.

- property taxes would be waived or strongly reduced for senior citizens.

- the whole regime of drug testing for professional sports would be done away with. Let athletes who want to achieve more modify their own bodies any way they like - provided they know the likely consequences.

- all places where people travel - airports, railway stations, rest stops, and so forth - would have a secure room with cots where people could take naps cheaply. It's odd how needs like food, drink, and toilets can usually be met for very low cost, but sleep cannot.

- all farm subsidies and price supports for agricultural products would be done away with.

- all local public transportation would be free to users and publicly funded, or there would be strong inducements to travel by public transit (e.g., your bus ticket is also a lottery ticket)

- players of professional sports would get to vote each year on who are the worst referees (or umpires) in their sport; the referees receiving the most votes would be demoted or fired

- all businesses would be required to prominently post the hours that they are open

- the terms of copyright and patent validity would be severely shortened

- the insane and fruitless war on drugs would be ended. Currently illegal drugs would be regulated through the existing prescription process, making them more uniform and safer. The taxes from marijuana alone would be a huge source of government revenue. A proportion of the taxes can be devoted to addiction programs.

Feel free to add your own in the comments.

The Mind of Doug Groothuis

If you want to see a prime example of the crazed, inchoate rage that Obama seems to induce in the Religious Right, you can do no better than to visit the blog of Doug Groothuis, professor at Denver Seminary.

According to Groothuis, Obama is "anti-American" and "a shameless con man". He "wants to preside over America's decline". He is the "quintessence of leftism, statism, and the destruction of our founding ideals". Electing him will be "The End of America".

This kind of unhinged rhetoric has no truth in it all: Obama is actually a timid centrist who continued most of George Bush's authoritarian policies, such as the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. He can be justly criticized for his repeated failures to end right-wing foolishness.

Perhaps Groothuis is secretly worried that Obamacare will do for Obama and the Democrats what socialized medical care did for the reputation of Baptist minister Tommy Douglas and the NDP in Canada. But I guess that would require that he know something about other countries, which doesn't seem very likely.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Geologic Silliness

Earlier this year, at the Niagara Peninsula Gem and Mineral Show , there was a guy, Harry Johnston, selling what he called "The Mystery Stone", which appeared to me to be nothing more than common, ordinary quartz, being sold at rather high prices.

He's got a website in which he describes his rock as "a self cleaning stone of natural energies". It "enhances the energies of other stones, also clearing all Charkra points for most people". What does that even mean?

There was also a guy, Mars Islamov, selling Shungite, which is a form of noncrystalline carbon. Shungite is of genuine mineralogical interest, and there was an article about it by Buseck et al. in the Canadian Mineralogist 35 (1997), 1363-1378. But it's certainly not rare; the article of Buseck et al. says there are more than 1011 tonnes of it near Karelia, Russia.

At his website you can find claims like "Shungite cures, purifies, protects, normalizes, induces recovery and promotes growth in living organisms. Everything which takes a toll on us, is killed; and everything health-giving is concentrated and restored by this miracle rock. Every scientist investigating shungite, declares it to be miraculous." This seems very dubious to me.

I wish geologists and mineralogists would speak up more strongly against these kinds of unsupported claims.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Authoritarian High School Superintendent of the Month

Our nominee for Authoritarian High School Superintendent of the Month is

Rick Martin, superintendent of Prague High School, who in a Kafkaesque move (Prague - get it?), wants to deny a high school valedictorian her diploma because -- gasp! -- she used the word "hell" in her valedictory address.

The people who run high schools in North America behave more like tinpot dictators than educators.

The Bible is Inerrant!

At least according to Doug Groothuis.

No need to even glance at all those lists of biblical contradictions, Doug. You've proved it with logic!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Canadian Solar Farm near Cornwall

If you take the train from Toronto to Montreal, about 10 minutes before you get into Cornwall, there's an interesting sight on the south side: the SunE Rutley Solar Farm. It consists of thousands and thousands of solar panels that generate enough electricity to power 1200 homes. It went by too fast for me to get a good picture, but there's one here that, unfortunately, doesn't really convey how big it appears.

George Jonas Is Very Confused

National Post columnist George Jonas is very confused.

He thinks free speech is "absolute", but then goes on to recite a list of familiar ways in which it can be and is restricted: defamation, fraud, etc.

The US, for example, doesn't have federal laws against "hate speech", but Canada does. So are we to conclude free speech in Canada is magically absolute, even though you can get away with saying something in the US that you could get convicted for in Canada?

He states, "I’ve always had an issue with expropriating public spaces for private or sectarian purposes" - yet all he needs to do is visit his local library, where private groups use public space all the time. Does he really want to end the local knitting club from using the library meeting room?

Jonas apparently seems not to understand that if the government grants permits to speak (say, at Queen's Park), then it can't restrict those permits on the basis of the kind of speech that will occur. Doing so is evidently a restriction on that "absolute" freedom of speech Jonas seems to cherish.

I sentence Jonas to reading Free Speech in an Open Society by Rodney Smolla.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

I'll be Speaking in Ottawa

If you're not busy November 30-December 2 2012, you can come hear some really great speakers such as P. Z. Myers, Ophelia Benson, Chris DiCarlo, Udo Schuklenk, Eugenie Scott, Larry Moran, and others in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at the Eschaton 2012 meeting, sponsored by CFI Ottawa.

Oh, and you can also hear me. I'll be speaking about numerology.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Two Online Courses

You have a choice. You can either shell out some unspecified amount of bucks to take a online course on "Darwinism & Intelligent Design" run by ID hack Tom Woodward.

Or you can take a free online course about genetics and evolution run by an actual biologist.

I doubt that Woodward could even pass a final exam in an evolutionary biology course. Of course, that doesn't prevent him from prattling on ignorantly about it.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Blame the Moose!

It's not easy to be a moose in Saskatchewan. If you're too successful, you end up targeted by hunters. Obviously, killing them is the best solution.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Too Bad This Guy Isn't a Mathematician

The guy at the city of Waterloo, Ontario who helped the mayor of Waterloo get online at the "Chinese Facebook", Sina Weibo, is named Max Min.

What a great name! Too bad he isn't a mathematician.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What's Norwegian and Commutes?

Why, an Abelian plane, of course!

Norwegian Airlines has pictures of famous Scandinavians on the tails of their planes, including the mathematician Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829). You can see some of the other ones here. Oddly enough, the Norwegian Air website itself only lists a few of them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Creationists Try to Do Mathematics - Again

It's always amusing when creationists try to do mathematics.

At the recent very silly Engineering and Metaphysics conference, there were at least three different talks with mathematical content.

But the funniest by far was by Eric Holloway, whose masterful work I admired once before. You can watch Eric

  • claim that intelligent design will revolutionize all human thought
  • shamelessly promote Dembski's "complex specified information", without mentioning that this bogus concept has been debunked in detail
  • claim that physics deals with only two kinds of "agents"
  • claim that a "search process" is not an "algorithm" - and then later talk about "search algorithms" (!)
  • confuse the complexity classes NPC and EXPTIME
  • claim that all polynomial-time algorithms depend on "incrementally find[ing] better solutions"
  • confuse finding solutions with maximizing a function
  • claim that the travelling salesman problem can be solved in polynomial time (at 19:14)
  • claim that humans can solve the travelling salesman problem in linear time
  • repeat Stephen Meyer's lie that "only intelligent agents create information"
  • claim that "clouds" have "no information" (and hence imply that weather prediction can be done without any information at all!)
  • claim that a specific instance of a maze can be changed, by removing a wall, into an NP-complete problem - thus making two fundamental errors in one sentence

All good stuff! You can see why creationists have to set up their own parallel pseudoscience conferences, because junk like this would be laughed out of any real scientific or mathematics conference.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Larry Moran Would Approve

It's pretty easy to get to: you go to Victoria Rail Station, and take the train to Bromley South. Trains run rather frequently. Once at Bromley South, you walk out of the station and up the street to the right a bit, and catch the 146 Downe bus. Your Oyster card works for the train and the bus - very convenient. The last stop is Downe Church, and then it's a short walk up Luxted Road.

The walk along the road is a bit unpleasant, since it is narrow and there is no sidewalk, so here's a tip: walk up until you see a sign on the left of the road that indicates the footpath to "Cudham". Follow this footpath until there is a sign indicating "Down House" to the right.

Inside you will find exhibits about Darwin's life and work, including his study and library. Outside, you find his gardens, and the famous Sandwalk. Not to be missed if you are in the London area!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Map Quiz

This is a rather famous map; indeed, it was even the subject of a recent book. What is it, who made it, and where was this picture taken?

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Death of Nano-Thermite

Did 9-11 "truthers" mistakenly identify ordinary epoxy, clay, and steel as "nano-thermite"?

That's what a new study concludes.

Gee whiz, it looks like the conspiracy crackpots got something wrong again. Who's surprised?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Strangest Textbook Title

There are a lot of strange textbook titles, but this one may be the strangest of all:

Discrete Mathematics with Ducks.

That's just silly! Everybody knows that you do discrete mathematics with geese, not ducks.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Moose Blogging

Here's an account of canoeists who rescued two hypothermic moose.

Hat tip: Anna

Friday, June 08, 2012

Norwegian Moose Dance

You must see the famous Norwegian moose dance.

Hat tip: son #2.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Hard Questions?

Here a very silly person lists 20 questions he thinks atheists are incapable of answering.

Some of them are just question-begging, such as "What caused the universe to exist?". Ignoring the fact that causality is not very well-defined, how do we even know for certain that the universe was caused? And if atheists cannot answer this question, it's not like the theist answer ("God created it") provides any more insight.

Other questions are downright strange, such as "Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?" What this has to do with theism or atheism is beyond me. Mesopotamia had cities even earlier, in 4000-3500 B.C.E. In any event, probably the development of agriculture led to the formation of cities, and once this innovation occurred, it would have spread through trade.

Question 10 asks, "How do we account for self-awareness?" This has a relatively easy answer. Through natural selection, organisms come to model their environment. Sometimes this modelling is reflected in their geometric structure: a camel has a very different body profile than a shark. But organisms also sense the natural world and react to it. Having a better model -- one that allows an organism to predict future events in the world -- clearly would contribute to better survival and reproductive success. As the model becomes more sophisticated, eventually it will have to encompass the organism itself. Self-awareness is just when your model of the world becomes so detailed that it has to include yourself.

I won't spend any more time on this silly list, but readers should feel free to chime in with their own answers.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Don't Attend Crandall University

There are a lot of reasons not to attend Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. For one thing, it used to be Atlantic Baptist College, and today it still describes itself as "Atlantic Canada’s Leading Liberal Arts University Devoted to the Christian Faith". Its motto is "Christ is preeminent". Not surprisingly, it gets crappy ratings, with this place rating it 7748 out of 11,000 North American universities, and 91st out of 98 Canadian universities.

Now there's yet another reason: the people who run it are bigots who won't hire a gay person in a gay relationship.

Programming Contest Results

The results from the 2012 ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest are in, and Waterloo finished 9th in the world. Congrats to my colleague Ondrej Lhotak and to students Tyson Andre, Benoit Maurin and Anton Raichuk.

What's particularly interesting to me is the continued excellent performance of Russia and former-Soviet-Union countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan. What accounts for their dominance? Is there some lesson from their educational system we can draw on in North America?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Well, This Should Certainly Help Baylor's Reputation

Here's a video by creationist professor Bob Marks that claims to be a lecture he gave at Baylor's "Introduction to Engineering" course, ENGR 1302, in Fall 2011 at the invitation of Professor Brian Thomas. It prominently features the logo of the Baylor University School of Engineering and Computer Science. I wonder why Baylor's Engineering department thinks it's a good idea to indoctrinate their freshmen engineers in creationist propaganda.

Watch Marks
- violate copyright by including videos of movies
- repeat the bogus claim that information only comes from an intelligent source (easy counterexample: weather forecasting)
- dramatically overstate the importance of the "No Free Lunch" theorem (which isn't very deep or important; nor does it have any real relevance to evolution). He claims it implies that "all algorithms kind of work on average the same as blind, exhaustive search". The only problem is that this assumes that the "average" is taken over a uniform distribution of all possible assignments of values to elements of the search space. Real search spaces don't look anything like this.
- claim that "The universe is not old enough or big enough to allow the evolution of complex life" (at 50:00)
- talk about his "active information" and "endogenous information" without revealing that the only people who use these measures are Marks and his creationist friends
- misrepresent Dawkins' "Methinks it is like a weasel" example
- claim that "In general, computer programs do not have the ability to create information". (Easy counterexample: write a program to map a string x to xx. By iterating this you can generate as much information as you like.)
- cite another creationist, John Sanford, to try to impugn Avida
- suggest that exhibiting other searches that are more efficient than evolutionary search algorithms casts doubt on evolution

Having faculty deliver creationist lectures like this is certain to improve Baylor's worldwide reputation. Why, I imagine the applications for graduate study will be rolling in. He needs to work on the cheesy sound effects and the hideous cartoons, though. Maybe adding some fart noises or stolen Three Stooges footage might help.

Doves Almost Ready to Fly

Back on May 6 I showed you how some mourning doves have taken over a former robin's nest at our front door. Now there are two baby doves just waiting to make their first flight.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Matthew LaClair: American Hero

Watch this documentary about student Matthew LaClair, who stood up to his Bible-thumping teacher (despite a lack of support from the school administration and fellow students) and struck a blow for the separation of church and state. The teacher, David Paszkiewicz, is exposed as a liar and a moron.

Prize for Dishonest Reporting

You can't make this kind of stuff up. The folks at PJ Media are offering a prize for dishonest reporting, and the committee includes Glenn Reynolds and Roger Simon.

Let's see, shall we nominate Glenn Reynolds for dishonestly attributing a right-wing columnist's views to the Kansas City Star? Or the time he misrepresented economic figures to blame it on Obama? There are just so many examples to pick from.

For Roger Simon, how about his recent interview of uber-fruitcake Jack Cashill about a meaningless error in a 20-year-old biography of Obama?

Or how about PJ Media's own Andrew Klavan for this dishonest commentary?

We could also nominate the Discovery Institute "News & Views" section, for having the most consistently dishonest reporting about evolution. There are so many DI lies to choose from, it's hard to know where to start. I'd nominate Denyse O'Leary, too, except the prize is for reporting, and it's hard to call what she does with that name. "Reprinting" would be a better word.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Discovery Institute Gets a New "Expert"

I have to admit, I find it amazing how desperate the Dishonesty Institute folks are. They're willing to join forces with almost any nonentity, no matter how irrelevant their "expertise", if they toe the "evolution is a hoax and Darwinism is Nazism" party line. I mean, how else can you explain their fascination with David Klinghoffer? Casey Luskin? James Barham? John West? Not exactly Nobel Prize winners there, if you see what I mean.

Of course, their big tent has its limits. Michael Egnor got in a few columns at News & Views, but he's been quiet since this one. Even the Discovery Institute, it appears, has limits on the kind of nonsense they're willing to put up with.

Now they've got a new "expert" on their team: Stephen A. Batzer. Batzer is, at least judging from his cv, the person I might turn to if I wanted someone to give me a "review of recent glazing literature". But the theory of evolution? Not so much.

Here is Batzer's analysis of Sims' famous evolutionary simulation of locomotion strategies: "This program is modeling a very simplistic random search algorithm to produce an output, like a radar searching for an aircraft, or a robo-call computer punching out all the numbers inside of one area code, looking for a mark. The information, process, and therefore success have all been pre-loaded." I mean, you have to really work at it to miss the mark this much.

Congrats, Dishonesty Institute! You and Prof. Batzer deserve each other.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Yet Another P vs. NP Proof

From the Saudi Gazette we read about the truly astonishing work of Dr. Rafee Ebrahim Kamouna, who claims to have resolved the P vs. NP question.

“The paper has been on the site of Cornell University to conform its academic standards. This means the paper is of relevance and of interest to the scientific community."

No, it means he put it on the arxiv, a preprint archive that happens to be housed at Cornell.

"Dr. Kamouna is currently writing a book that will be entitled “Bi-Polarism Theory: The Death of Computer Science, The End of Mathematics, and The Birth of Logical Physics.”

... which we are all looking forward to read with breathless anticipation.

If this silliness isn't enough to satiate you, you can look at Gerhard Woeginger's page.

More Stupidity from Hoffmann

R. Joseph Hoffmann, the world's most boring atheist, is at it again with a new post telling us why the New Atheists are just so stupid and everyone should really be listening to R. Joseph Hoffmann and the even-more-boring Jacques Berlinerblau.

The reason why we laugh at Hoffmann is not because he has anything challenging or thought-provoking to say, but because he is so shamelessly contentless in such a sneering and supercilious manner. He claims the New Atheists do nothing but "shouting at people", but gives no examples, all the while getting in a few shouts himself. (Atheists need to "learn table manners"; they don't have "savvy"; they are "historically [incompetent]".)

Of course the Gnus (and I mean Dawkins, Harris, Rosenhouse, Hitchens, etc.) don't shout, but write intelligently and calmly almost all of the time. And they're fun to read, unlike Hoffmann, who is best read late at night when having trouble sleeping.

He claims that "Americn [sic] secularism hasn’t had the savvy to know how to preach its gospel in a way that (really) ups the numbers". Yet all the polls show just the opposite: atheists' numbers are rising faster than almost every religion. (Facts are not Hoffmann's strong suit. Don't bother correcting him, because he likes to remove comments that are uncomplimentary.)

Hoffmann wonders why there is "profound stress and anxiety about religion in these movements". He could, you know, actually ask someone involved in the "movements" to tell him why. No, it's much for fun for a pundit-wannabee to throw out a bunch of made-up explanations as if they were facts.

I'd be happy to tell Hoffmann why there is "profound stress and anxiety about religion", but first he has to remove the fingers he has inserted so deep into his ear canals.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Does the University of Toronto Demand Payment by Money Order or Certified Check?

Today we had to pay the residence fee for our older son at the University of Toronto. But unfortunately the Residence Office form says they only allow payment by certified check or by money order.

Look, this is the 21st century. I can pay my taxes online. I can buy airline tickets online. I can use a credit card, or a debit card, or paypal. But not, apparently, at the University of Toronto.

Each year thousands of new students move into residences. For each one of those students, parents have to make a special trip to the bank to satisfy this archaic requirement. The University of Toronto should be ashamed for wasting thousands of hours of time just because they can't move into the present.

Stephen Woodworth Refuses to Answer

Stephen Woodworth is a Conservative MP from Kitchener Centre, the Canadian riding (Americans would call it a "precinct") where I live. Although we disagree politically on many issues, I had always been impressed with his integrity and seriousness.

Recently he's become famous for trying to reignite a debate about abortion in the Canadian Parliament, by introducing Motion 312.

In a recent press release, Woodworth claims he "hopes to answer even more questions" about this proposal. He says, "I am more than willing to answer any questions Canadians may have".

Yet he refuses to answer my question, which I have asked twice: were abortion outlawed again in Canada, what should be the proper legal penalty for a woman who has an abortion?

He replied, saying it was premature to ask such a question. That's just avoiding the issue.

This is, I'm afraid, typical of those who advocate stricter controls on abortion.