Sunday, August 31, 2014

Huckabee is a Moron

Caught Mike Huckabee on Fox News. (I never watch it at home, but when traveling sometimes you are forced to.) He was asked about the wisdom of arming teachers in schools. Needless to say, he was for it, comparing it to rich or powerful people who have armed guards.

When one Fox News host dared to ask the obvious question -- namely, isn't it reasonable to worry about the misuse of all those guns in schools? -- Huckabee merely dismissed this concern, saying something like 'If this ... if that ... you can waste your time worrying about scenarios like that'.

Huckabee is a moron. The chance that any particular school being attacked by an armed intruder is vanishingly small, and the chances that it occurs and an armed teacher is going to stop it successfully is even smaller. On the other hand, accidents with guns happen every day, and there is certainly a nontrivial probability that (a) an accident will happen (b) a teacher will misuse a gun or (c) the gun will be stolen and used against a teacher or other student.

If you are going to evaluate the wisdom of arming teachers in schools, you have to have some good estimates on the various probabilities. And if the school district is going to pay for all that teacher training, you also have to factor in the costs of doing the training instead of (say) installing higher-security doors or training students how to respond in the unlikely event of an attack. This sensible approach to deciding about the proposal was dismissed by Huckabee as "if this".

It's not just conservatives who are stupid in this way. Sometimes you hear liberals saying something like "if it saves just one life, it's worth it" about some new policy. Well, of course, it's not necessarily worth it. A law restricting the speed limit to 10 mph on US roads would probably save lives, but we deem it not worth it because of the inconvenience and extra time it would cost us.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Robert Marks Caught!

Here you can read the true story of the evil Darwinist censors, not the version of intelligent design creationist Bob Marks.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nonsense from Marks

Intelligent design creationists love to write for conservative political magazines because they know most of their audience won't have the technical skill to spot their bogus claims.

Here's Robert Marks, writing nonsense in Human Events:

"Yet we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji."

We do, eh?

"Since it is our uniform experience that elsewhere, information is only created by intelligent agents..."

Here Marks is just repeating the familiar lie of ID creationist Stephen Meyer, which I pointed out was wrong four years ago.

Repeating lies doesn't make them any more credible.

Addendum: Tom English points out that Marks's claims about the publication of their creationist volume are bogus. Big surprise.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Probable Meteorite Hoax (or Prank)

There have been a number of articles in the popular press about Radivoje Lajic (sometimes rendered as "Radivoke"), a Bosnian man who claims his house has been hit six different times by meteorites.

By and large, press coverage of this guy has been completely credulous, referring to unnamed scientists at "Belgrade University" who have verified that the rocks are indeed meteorites.

In pictures he is shown holding a rock that doesn't look very much like a meteorite.

Here is what I think probably happened: either

  • They're not meteorites, and he is confused, or
  • This is a hoax perpetrated by Lajic himself. Perhaps the rocks aren't even meteorites, although it is easy to buy meteorites, even fairly large ones, at mineral shows or on e-bay. It is then simple to pretend to discover it after you claim it hit your house, or
  • One of Lajic's neighbors is having a little fun with him in the same way.
It is worth noting that the meteorite database contains no mention of the meteorites supposedly found by Lajic. At least, searching for "Lajic" turns up nothing, and only two meteorites are listed as being discovered in Bosnia. Why can't reporters be more skeptical?

My New Book

Here is my new book, Neverending Fractions:

My co-authors, Jon Borwein, Wadim Zudilin, and the late Alf van der Poorten, wrote most of the book. I only contributed one chapter, a couple of sections, and some editing. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Avoid This Conference: CSNT 2015

I strongly recommend avoiding having anything to do with this conference: CSNT 2015.

Here is the solicitation I just got from them:

Dear Jeffrey Shallit,

I am the secretary of the 2015 International Congress on Computer Science and Network Technology (CSNT 2015). On behalf of CSNT 2015 Organizing Committee, we cordially invite you to be a member of Technical Program Committee of CSNT 2015.

CSNT 2015 will be held in Hong Kong, China, from February 10-11, 2015. The main objective of CSNT 2015 is to provide a comprehensive global forum for experts and participants from academia to exchange ideas and present results of ongoing research in the most state-of-the-art areas of Computer Science and Network Technology. More information about the conference, please visit the website:

As a leading authority of the field, your participation and support is essential to the success of the conference. And we believe your participation will bring more glory to this conference!


As a TPC member,

1.    Your paper or papers recommended by you can enjoy a discount on registration fee. -

2.    Your name will be shown on conference website and hardcopy of proceedings.

If you are interested in being a member of TPC, please attach your CV in your reply. Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to hearing from you!

Best regards,

Yours Sincerely,

CSNT 2015 Organizing Committee



Notice everything wrong with this:
  • They invited me to be on the program committee, even though I have never published a thing on "network technology"
  • The solicitation does not mention a single person on the program committee
  • The solicitation is unsigned
All these are major warning signs.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Must Pop Science Writers Know What They're Talking About?

Is it too much to ask that a pop science writer knows what they're talking about?

On the one hand we have the Denyse O'Leary school of journalism, blending lousy writing with an even lousier understanding of her subject matter.

On the other hand we have Carl Zimmer, whose books are praised by scientists knowledgeable in the areas he covers.

In between, we have books like The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean. Kean seems like a nice fellow, not at all like the know-nothing harridan O'Leary. But a master's degree in library science doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he knows what he's talking about. Nevertheless, his books have garnered some positive reviews, so I thought I'd take a look.

I was disappointed. Just to name four howlers:

  • On page 107, Kean reveals that he thinks that Mitochondrial Eve is the "oldest matrilineal ancestor of everyone living today". No, she's the youngest (most recent) matrilineal ancestor. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
  • On page 159, Kean states that he thinks the name "junk DNA" has "haunted [scientists] as an embarrassment ever since". Not so.
  • On page 255, Kean claims that Paganini was not a composer. Even I, a classical music dilettante, know that Paganini wrote many works.
  • On page 267, Kean translates the French idiom "étrangler le perroquet" as "strangling the parakeet". But "perroquet" mean "parrot", not "parakeet", in French. The word for "parakeet" is "perruche".
Kean is not the only one at fault. I also blame the publisher (Little, Brown). Didn't this book get any fact-checking at all?

What the World Needs

Market Street, Philadelphia, August 2014.

Friday, August 01, 2014