Monday, January 30, 2012

What We're Up Against

Read these quotes from Francis Schaeffer, and you will see what we're up against.

On the one side, the heritage of the Enlightenment: democracy, free speech, free inquiry, science, pluralism, tolerance, a secular state, and rights of women, gays, and the poor.

On the other side: people like Francis Schaeffer who reject those things because of "a life and death conflict between the spiritual hosts of wickedness and those who claim the name of Christ."

I know what side I'm on. Do you?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stephen Talbott Doesn't Understand Randomness

Anyone who waded through Stephen Talbott's dreary, wrongheaded columns about the Internet 15 years ago know him as a tedious and remarkably uninformed writer.

Here we are treated to yet another case of Talbott's vapid maunderings-- this time about evolution. I don't see that Talbott has any professional training in evolutionary biology, and he repeats creationist canards uncritically. Anyone citing the creationist journalist Tom Bethell (whose work is filled with misunderstandings and falsehoods) favorably is hard to take seriously.

The most remarkable thing about it is that Talbott doesn't seem to have much understanding what the word "random" means in a physical and biological context. "Random" doesn't mean that every outcome is equally likely. For example, if I flip two fair coins repeatedly and write down "1" each time I see two heads, and "0" otherwise, the resulting list of outcomes evidently has a strong random component, despite the fact that any particular bit does not have a 50% chance of being "1" or "0".

Instead, Talbott prefers to give us crap like this: All we can possibly mean by “random occurrences” relative to an organism is “occurrences that have not yet been woven into the meaningful life story of the organism.”

No, that's not all we can possibly mean. There is not a shred of evidence that cosmic rays, for example, are anything but random. (The one paper Talbott cites is largely about exposure to intense man-made radiation sources, not cosmic rays.) Furthermore, Talbott seems to be confusing the role of mutations in germ cells (which are the only ones that are heritable) with others.

Talbott apparently has an aversion to hard science. He doesn't do any experiments, or report his finding in the language of science. His whole shtick revolves around some vague "holistic" analysis which has never produced anything of interest scientifically. That's why he's reduced to publishing his drivel in places like The New Atlantis.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Fossil Meteorite

The Tucker Tower Nature Center in Lake Murray State Park, Oklahoma is a fascinating and weird place.

Built (with state funds!) as a summer retreat for corrupt Oklahoma governor William H. Murray, it now houses exhibits about local fauna in an eccentric 4-story building.

The most interesting object is the main mass of the Lake Murray meteorite, found in Carter County in 1933, weathering out of Lower Cretaceous strata. It is believed to be a meteorite that fell about 110 million years ago and then was incorporated into the sandstone that formed around it. I visited the museum in January 2007.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In Memory of Sheng Yu (1950-2012)

(photo courtesy Manfred Kudlek)

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Sheng Yu, a Chinese-Canadian computer scientist, and a good friend and colleague, died this weekend in London, Ontario.

I first met Sheng Yu shortly after I arrived in Waterloo as an associate professor in 1990, but I can't remember the circumstances. At the time he was working actively with the late Derick Wood (for whom Sheng gave a memorial talk just last year), who taught at Waterloo at the time, so it probably was through Derick.

We wrote a paper together on regular languages with polynomial densities. Later, Sheng asked me an interesting problem about whether it is possible to find a sparse language L such that L2 = Σ*. I found one example, and Andrew Granville found another. In 1994, we all wrote a paper with Per Enflo, who had found yet another example. Our last joint paper was in 2001, joint with Mike Domaratzki, on covers of formal languages. Although we did not work actively together in the last ten years, we often spoke on the phone.

Sheng got his master's degree in computer science from Waterloo in 1982, under John Beatty, and his Ph. D. in 1986 under Karel Culik II. Then he taught for several years at Kent State before taking a position at the University of Western Ontario.

Sheng's work on state complexity is well-known in our community. His influential 1994 paper with Zhuang and Salomaa is his most-cited non-survey paper (with Google scholar giving 156 citations), and re-introduced state complexity as a research topic to the theoretical computer science community. (It turns out that many of the results in that paper were already discovered by the Soviet computer scientist Maslov in 1970, but Maslov's results were either not known or quickly forgotten in the West.) Since then, state complexity became an active area of research, with dozens of papers published.

When I first met Sheng, I thought his only interests were about automata. I quickly found out I was wrong. He was incredibly broad, publishing papers on object-oriented programming, parallel processing, parallel programming, and teaching a wide variety of courses at UWO, including computer architecture, programming languages, and of course, automata theory.

Sheng Yu also had influence in other ways. He was one of the people responsible for the CIAA conference series, and served on the program committee of dozens of conferences. He also was one of the people responsible for the Grail system, which is widely used to carry out experiments with automata. He supervised dozens of graduate students.

Sheng told me a little bit about his life in China. He got his Ph. D. older than many of his contemporaries because his life was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He still had family in China, which he kept in close contact with.

About 5 years ago In 2000, Sheng had a heart attack while playing tennis at UWO. Luckily, he was very near the university hospital, and immediately went there, and the good care he received saved his life. He told me that his family had a history of heart disease and that he had high cholesterol, which he tried to control through diet.

I will miss him as a colleague and friend.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Yet Another Creationist Letter

Yet another creationist letter to the editor in my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record.

There are some really terrific stupid lines in this one:

However, I have never heard an evolutionist give an adequate explanation of how life itself began. There is the big bang theory, but it ignores the fact that such an explosion would destroy any kind of life as we know it.


The theory of evolution seems to propound that given sufficient time -- millions and even billions of years -- all things are possible, even though the chances of DNA and cell changes to produce current results are infinitely small.

Great stuff - typical for our local newspaper.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My White House Petition

Please, publicize and vote up my

White House petition

to improve US government services for the estimated 4 million Americans who live abroad.

Currently we face an array of annoying obstacles, such as US government websites with webforms that only allow US addresses, or agencies with 1-800 phone numbers that cannot be called from outside the US.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cultural Topology?

Maybe somebody can wade through this article entitled "Cultural Topology" by Brent Blackwell, professor of English at Ball State, and tell me if it is a joke or intended to be serious.

With lines like "A kind of patchwork space, topologic analysis can combine incongruent, even contradictory axiomatics by bounding them within a single topologic field", I am tempted to think it is an elaborate hoax. But who knows? The stupidity that lurks in some academic departments can be stupefying.

This link was sent to me in 2006 by the late Norman Levitt, but I didn't take a look until now.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist - American Hero

Watch the video and tell me you aren't impressed with the quiet confidence and intelligence displayed by Jessica Ahlquist, victorious plaintiff in the Cranston, RI school prayer banner case.

Now contrast it with the threats and vituperation of Christians who wanted a different outcome.

Everybody's favorite moron neurosurgeon actually called Jessica a "pubescent brownshirt" and said she was worse than Nazi Youth. It's hard to imagine anything more vile.

The comparison between Ahlquist and her detractors illustrates the utter depravity induced by religion.

Priest: It's Fun to Annoy Secularists

In the National Post, we have yet another example of a theist who thinks that actions that annoy secularists have some intrinsic virtue.

Father Raymond J. de Souza says, "I cheer for Tebow in part because his success annoys grumpy people who think Christians should require special permission to participate in public life."

Father de Souza seems to have no qualms violating the Catholic 8th commandment, since of course there is no one who thinks "Christians should require special permission" to do anything at all compared to non-Christians. And it's hardly grumpy to think that Tebow's repeated ostentatious public display of faith is a little over the top. After all, doesn't Matthew 6:6 say something relevant? Or is pointing that out considered "grumpy"? Of course, if Tebow were a Jew or a Muslim, I bet Father de Souza would have something else to say.

Father de Souza says nothing at all about Tebow's support of Focus on the Family. I guess supporting anti-gay bigots is the Christian thing to do.

De Souza's pleasure in annoying secularists is hardly unique to him; it's a commonplace among conservative Christians. Annoy an atheist, annoy a liberal, annoy a gay person: these are all examples of virtuous conduct to be extolled. That's what Jesus would say. I reckon he would, I dunno.

Addendum: Father de Souza's website here. No surprise - he doesn't allow comments or post his e-mail address.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Another Failure to Master Percentages

Here we have Mother Jones's Tim Murphy, who presumably is an adult capable of filing taxes, claiming that

"Romney ultimately squeaked past Santorum by eight votes on Tuesday day night, in what was by far the closest margin in the history of the Iowa caucuses—30,015 to 30,007, good for a .000065 percent advantage."

Should columnists have to take a refresher course in grade school mathematics before their editors allow them to embarrass their magazines like that?

(There were 122,255 total votes. A margin of 8 votes is .0065%, not .000065%. Murphy forgot to multiply by 100.)

Our Local Hawk

A hawk (probably a Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis) has taken up residence on our street. Yesterday he (she?) attracted a bit of attention, with the neighborhood kids coming by to take photos. This is just one block from the Kitchener bus station!

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Most Boring Atheist

I used to read Free Inquiry, but I was never really crazy about it. Sometimes it published dreck, like an article by philosopher Mario Bunge (Spring 1997) that made the following laughably unsupported claims:
-"there is no algorithm to design algorithms"
- "Only a living brain ... can invent radically new ideas"
- "the Internet will never displace refereed academic journals and books".
(The last one seems preposterous today, but was ridiculous even 14 years ago.) Furthermore, it refused to publish a letter taking issue with those claims.

But the main problem with Free Inquiry was that it was boring.

So I gave up reading it, but I always wondered why it was so bad. After all, its sister publication, Skeptical Inquirer, was often entertaining and lively. But I think I've finally figured it out: R. Joseph Hoffmann was Associate Editor of Free Inquiry from 2003 to 2009.

Yes, the same R. Joseph Hoffmann who loves to write mindless pieces like these two. Hoffmann has got to be one of the most unimaginative, boring writers I have ever encountered.

Hoffman has devoted his life to the study of religion, so it's no surprise that he reacts badly when people point out that gods offer no worthwhile answer to any interesting question. I imagine somebody who devoted their life to studying horse-drawn carriages must have felt the same way when the automobile came along: "Horse-drawn carriages are a big idea. Automobiles are unappealing, and so are their advocates. Only 1% of the population drive cars, so the death of automobiles is just a matter of time."

Another motivation seems to be envy. All those atheists he despises (Harris, Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Rosenhouse) are popular; they're the ones getting the media attention and invitations to speak. No surprise; they're good and entertaining writers, and they have something novel to say. And, irony of ironies, Myers has now been added to Free Inquiry as a columnist. Poor Hoffmann: it must be the final indignity. (Hey, maybe it's time to subscribe to Free Inquiry again.)

But don't bother pointing out any of this on Hoffmann's blog. He's not a big fan of publishing critical comments.