Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel Was No Hero

I have a mathematician colleague, a leftist, who, for many years, proudly displayed the collected works of Stalin on his office shelf. I am pretty sure this fellow actually admired Stalin for the way he transformed the Soviet Union from an agricultural country to an industrial power -- an admiration I find completely incomprehensible, in the same way that I find admiration of other murderous totalitarians incomprehensible. Che Guevara is another one that, to my mind, does not deserve to be revered. When I see someone wearing a Che t-shirt, I want to shake them and say, "Do you actually know what this guy did?"

Now that Fidel Castro is dead, I am sure there will be a lot of Castro hagiography on the left. Castro, we will be told, was responsible for universal health care, literacy, and improved education in Cuba. But probably few will talk about the thousands killed by Castro, killed simply because they opposed him politically. Few will talk about his mass imprisonment of dissidents, or about the hundreds of thousands that fled his illegitimate regime. Cuban refugees are celebrating today because Castro was a tyrant, a megalomaniac, a mass murderer, and a thug. I believe on judging a person on their complete record, but Castro's evil deeds far outweighed any positive effects he may have had on Cuba.

For those who want to read the stories of the murdered and imprisoned, visit the Cuba Archive.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

How Trump's Minions Will Attack

This story, about a pizza establishment targeted by deranged Kim Jong T**** followers, is just the start of what's going to happen to anyone and everyone who dares to defy the cheetoh-in-chief.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What is Coming

Congratulations, America. You elected a racist, sexist, admitted sexual assaulter, and a petty, vindictive, con man and pathological liar to the highest office in the land. You elected a man who claims to be a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third to the 2nd highest office (an American didn't even figure in the list). I think we have seen enough of D***** T**** and Mike Pence to know what is coming.

It is not pretty.

Here are my predictions. After eight or (hopefully) four years from now, you can see how many I got right. I hope to be wrong on all of them, but I don't think so.

1. Attacks on minorities of all kinds will go through the roof compared to previous years. I expect the rise of the Klan, neo-Nazis, and similar vigilante organizations. Jews, Muslims, black people, gay people, Latinos: all will be targets. Non-white and non-Christian students will be harassed in schools. Muslims will be attacked in the streets. At first it will be minor, like hijabs being pulled off, and orthodox Jews being beaten up. But the Justice Department will respond only tepidly to such attacks. There will be no effort at all to monitor the far Right. This stuff has been bubbling just below the surface for years (remember Alan Berg?) and now it will achieve legitimacy, or at least not outright disapproval, under the new president.

2. The full force of the federal government will be brought against critics. At first this will be in minor ways: direct criticism from the president via twitter, or reporters being shut out of press conferences. However, it will quickly escalate once Kim Jong T**** takes office. Reporters will be harassed and attacked. We will see the IRS used as a routine tool to harass and investigate individual critics and larger organizations, such as the ACLU and the FFRF. Existing tax exemptions will be removed for these groups. We will see passports of critics being denied renewal, or being confiscated at the border. We will see US citizens and (particularly) permanent residents denied re-entry into the country on bogus grounds. US citizens living abroad will be easy targets because they have little or no representation; the tax treaties with other countries can be abrogated and such citizens will end up paying double taxes. Kim Jong T**** has shown to be petty and vindictive and to hold a grudge for decades (remember Rosie O'Donnell)? Now he has the power to get revenge.

3. Intellectuals -- always a target of authoritarians -- will come under attack. At first it will be minor things, like withholding federal funds from institutions who employ intellectuals disliked by the administration. Later, it will progress to outright harassment through tax law changes and immigration. Permanent residents will have their right to stay revoked. Perhaps some people will be jailed under bogus terrorism charges for their controversial opinions. The Department of Education will be destroyed. There will be a renewed push for creationism, intelligent design, denial of human-caused global warming, and other crackpot theories in the public school curriculum. Educational institutions will suffer because excellent people from other countries will not want to come to the US where they might be targets. Graduate study will suffer. Pure research will suffer. NSF priorities will be shifted to things like exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels. Federal funding for research into alternative energy sources will dry up.

4. The Federal government will be turned into a money machine for Trump and his cronies. Once a grifter, always a grifter. Kim Jong T*** and his millionaire and billionaire friends will get huge tax cuts, while taxes for the poor and lower middle class will go up. The deficit will skyrocket. Friends of Kim Jong T**** will amass huge fortunes because of tax law changes and biased infrastructure allocation, while all critics will be shut out of participation. Cities traditionally run by Democrats will get shut out of funding for infrastructure projects.

5. Extremists will be appointed to the Supreme Court. They will make rulings that will significantly reduce access to abortion. Religion will be allowed as an excuse to disobey almost any law (as long as you are white). Advocating creationism will be allowed and even encouraged in public schools. Textbooks will be altered to remove discussion of evolution. Voting rights will be under attack, with bogus allegations of fraud as the justification. Redistricting will occur and strongly favor Republicans.

6. Blacks, Jews, Muslims, and gays will not sit by silently as these changes occur. I predict the rise of radical groups, much like the Black Panthers of the 1960's, that will retaliate in increasingly violent ways. There will be more street protests and violence. If you thought Black Lives Matter protests were violent (they were not, as a rule), you ain't seen nothing yet. Probably there will be bombings by groups like these. The need for crackdowns on these groups will be used by Kim Jong T**** as excuses to violate civil liberties. New intrusive laws allowing surveillance will be passed.

7. Finally, and this is the least likely (but the warning signs are all there), the US will degenerate into a fascist dictatorship, perhaps after some sort of Reichstag incident, with Kim Jong T**** as supreme leader. He will start by having the Republican-controlled Congress vote him some emergency powers. In an ironic reversal, the only country in Europe (after Marine Le Pen is elected) that will stand against Kim Jong T**** and stand for freedom and democracy will be Germany. They remember the last fascist dictator to take power and what happened.

I don't want any of these things to happen, but I predict many of them will.

For the moment, Canada is safe. Probably there will be an exodus of intellectuals and minorities from the US to Canada rivalling the Vietnam war days. But with the world's most powerful country becoming the fascist dictatorship next door, I don't know how long that safety can last.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Steve Goodman Sings About the Cubs

When I lived in Chicago, I often went to folk clubs on the North Side (now mostly gone) -- Holstein's, for example. There I got to hear some of my favorite folksingers, including Steve Goodman and Michael Peter Smith. Once I even got to sit next to Steve at the bar and have a chat with him.

Here are Steve's two famous songs about the Cubs. He tried to get "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" accepted as the Cubs official song, but for obvious reasons, it was not taken. So then he wrote "Go Cubs Go", which eventually became the unofficial Cubs anthem, played after every win.

Steve Goodman died of cancer in 1984. We miss you, Steve.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Psychology Experiment: How Does the Human Brain Unscramble Words?

Oddly enough, many neuroscientists and psychologists don't appreciate that insights from the study of algorithms and the theory of computation are very relevant to understanding the brain and how it accomplishes what it does.

Here's an example. Consider the humble jumble, a game involving scrambled words that's been around for over 60 years. Players get words of length 5 or 6 and have to unscramble them. How, exactly, does the brain do that? And why are some words harder than others to unscramble?

Computer scientists will instantly think of two different algorithms. The obvious algorithm, given a word of length n, takes about n! log D time, where D is the size of the dictionary. To accomplish this, try all n! permutations and look each up using binary search in the dictionary, which we have presorted in alphabetical order.

A less obvious but much faster algorithm is the following: first, sort each word in the dictionary, putting the letters in each word in alphabetical order. Then sort these words relative to each other in alphabetical order, together with the original unscrambled version. Once this preprocessing is done, to unscramble a word, rewrite its letters in alphabetical order and look up this reordered word in our reordered dictionary, using binary search. This takes about (n log n) + log D time, which is enormously faster.

With other techniques, such as hashing, we could even be faster.

I doubt very much the brain could be using this second algorithm. That's because we probably don't have access to all the words that we know in any kind of sorted list. So probably some variant of the first algorithm is being used. Our brains probably speed things up a bit by focusing on word combinations, such as digrams and trigrams (two- and three-letter word combinations), that are common, instead of uncommon ones. Thus, I would expect that unscrambling length-n words with distinct letters would, on average, require time that grows something like (n/c)! for some constant c.

We could actually test this with a psychology experiment. I searched the psychological literature using a database, but found no experiments testing this idea. Are there any takers?

Update: to address the issue of whether the brain could have "random access" to a dictionary of words, we could ask subjects to produce what they think the first English word that lexicographically follows a given word is. This is likely to be difficult for people, but it is very easy for computers. For example, what do you think the first word after "enzymology" is?

Psychology Experiment: How Does the Human Brain Unscramble Words?

Oddly enough, many neuroscientists and psychologists don't appreciate that insights from the study of algorithms and the theory of computation are very relevant to understanding the brain and how it accomplishes what it does.

Here's an example. Consider the humble jumble, a game involving scrambled words that's been around for over 60 years. Players get words of length 5 or 6 and have to unscramble them. How, exactly, does the brain do that? And why are some words harder than others to unscramble?

Computer scientists will instantly think of two different algorithms. The obvious algorithm, given a word of length n, takes about n! log D time, where D is the size of the dictionary. To accomplish this, try all n! permutations and look each up using binary search in the dictionary, which we have presorted in alphabetical order.

A less obvious but much faster algorithm is the following: first, sort each word in the dictionary, putting the letters in each word in alphabetical order. Then sort these words relative to each other in alphabetical order, together with the original unscrambled version. Once this preprocessing is done, to unscramble a word, rewrite its letters in alphabetical order and look up this reordered word in our reordered dictionary, using binary search. This takes about (n log n) + log D time, which is enormously faster.

With other techniques, such as hashing, we could even be faster.

I doubt very much the brain could be using this second algorithm. That's because we probably don't have access to all the words that we know in any kind of sorted list. So probably some variant of the first algorithm is being used. Our brains probably speed things up a bit by focusing on word combinations, such as digrams and trigrams (two- and three-letter word combinations), that are common, instead of uncommon ones. Thus, I would expect that unscrambling length-n words with distinct letters would, on average, require time that grows something like (n/c)! for some constant c.

We could actually test this with a psychology experiment. I searched the psychological literature using a database, but found no experiments testing this idea. Are there any takers?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Local Pastor Wants More Internet Censorship

When you hear that a local parent wants more Internet censorship in schools, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that somewhere there's fundamentalist religion lurking behind as a driving force.

Take a look at this website, which claims it wants to "keep Waterloo region schools safe". Click on "who we are", and you get "We are parents who would like WRDSB to use Internet technology more responsibly." But who's behind it?

You probably wouldn't know unless you read the local paper, because there doesn't seem to be any information on the group's own website. But in the Record you learn that the group is really Jacob Reaume, a "pastor and father". That's this guy, pastor at the "Harvest Bible Chapel" and educated (big surprise!) at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

The good pastor wants to censor Youtube in schools. But what's missing is any actual evidence that Youtube poses any threat to the safety of Waterloo Region students.

It's a shame that fundamentalists are not content with controlling the education of their own children. They want to control the way everyone else's children are educated, too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

For Good People to Do Evil, that Requires....

Steven Weinberg famously said, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil---that takes religion."

Keep Weinberg's quote in mind when you read this appalling story of how a British Columbia man was forced to endure agony rather than get a physician-assisted death as he requested.

Why was he forced to do this? Because his hospital was a religious hospital.

Look, clearly most of the people who work in such a facility are humanitarians. But when the hospital's ideology prevents a dying man to be helped out of his pain at his own request, that's pretty sad.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Visit to Nari

Readers of this blog know that I like to travel. I've been to about 30 countries and every continent except Antarctica. However, like most people in the West, I had never been to the tiny island nation of Nari. Recently I had a chance to visit this little-known country.

Because of its unusual customs, Nari is closed to most foreigners, but I had a professional contact, Ila, who agreed to sponsor my visit and be my guide. After a connection in Delhi, I arrived by plane, and upon stepping off the jetway I immediately felt very out of place. It was not jet lag. The reason why will be clear in a moment.

Religion is one reason that Nari is the way it is. 99% of the people on Nari adhere to the religion of Malsi, a poorly-understood sect (some would say a cult). The word "malsi" is difficult to translate, but a rough equivalent in English is "lack of inhibitions". (There are a few people on Nari who do not follow Malsi, but rather the Iahab faith, but they are unfortunately mistreated and generally persecuted.)

Malsi is hard for outsiders to understand. Adherents must engage in prayer rituals, which take place five times a day, where they face South and silently reflect on their inhibitions and work to overcome them. They must make a pilgrimage to a neighboring island, called Accem, at least once in their life. During one month each year (Nadamar), devotees eat constantly throughout the day, gorging themselves on the local fruits, which include nolem and etad. I was not there during Nadamar, but I still found the nolem and etad delicious, and much better than most fruit we could get here in North America.

But the most outstanding aspect of Malsi -- the one that everybody wants to know about -- is that believers largely reject Western notions of clothing. It's hard to be delicate about this, so I'll just say it: on Nari everybody walks around naked nearly all the time. Well, almost naked -- the belly button is always covered with a small round adhesive patch. Now you understand why I felt out of place. Old and a bit overweight, I didn't really want to follow the local custom. Any my navel is probably my best feature.

Since Nari is a tropical island, the weather makes the lack of clothing feasible. In Nari it is almost always 25 degrees C (77 degrees Fahrenheit), and the sun shines many hours during the day. Narians have a beautiful golden-bronze skin from their constant exposure to the sun, and most of them look extremely healthy. Needless to say, there are no tan lines.

When my guide Ila met me at the airport, I observed, as I stepped off the plane, that nearly everyone produced a small, colorful bag. Sitting on the benches throughout the airport, the Narians took off their clothes with athletic grace, and placed them in the bag, as I gaped in astonishment. Most were now barefoot, although some still wore their native sandals.

In my Western clothes (a t-shirt and shorts), I felt very much out of place. Indeed, as Ila (totally naked except for his belly-button patch) and I walked through the airport, I felt stares and disapproving glances from all sides. Ila laughed at my discomfort. "It's alright," he said. "We're just not used to many Westerners here. People look at you ... they know you do not follow Masli, and they are offended. But no one will hurt you." I felt reassured, but as we entered the parking lot, a man spit at my feet and then tried to pull my t-shirt off. Ila intervened and exchanged a few words with the man, and he went away, cursing. Ila apologized profusely.

Ila explained that one of the tenets of Malsi is that all people have malevolent inhibitions that must be overcome to achieve enlightenment. Their prophet, Dammahum, discovered this in the 6th century, and ever since, the Narians have followed his teachings. At an early age, children are taught to be outgoing and not shy. They are encouraged to take pride in their bodies. As part of this, clothes are regarded as useful only in the rare bouts of very cold weather, or for doing tasks that might be dangerous if uncovered, such as construction.

The navel is the exception. Narians regard the belly button as the seat of the soul, and hence it is only bared in the presence of extremely close friends and lovers. "It is the most intimate thing," Ila explained. "I can still remember the first time I saw my wife's navel. It was the most beautiful and tender moment of my life."

I was curious about how Narians dealt with some obvious problems. For example, did people really want to sit directly on chairs where other people had recently been sitting, naked? Wouldn't it be unhygienic? I quickly learned that Narians had developed solutions to almost every objection I had. For example, in Narian movie theaters and other public auditoriums, there are always dispensers on the wall that provide a small soft cloth that one places on the seat before sitting down. At the end of the event, these cloths were placed in a bin for wash and reuse. No one seemed to find this the slightest bit unusual.

We took a taxi to Ila's house, where I met his wife Mayram and his children. I have to admit feeling embarrassed when Ila's wife hugged me and unclothed parts of her jiggled against me. Seeing me blush, Mayram laughed. "You take off clothes, and go native!" she said. I apologized and said I was used to my own customs.

As part of my visit, I had agreed to visit a Narian university, where I would answer questions about the West. Very few Narian students have ever been to a Western country and they were puzzled about various aspects of life there. Perhaps not surprisingly, most questions focused on clothing. But it was not our custom of wearing clothes in public that had them interested; it was the way the West treated women and men differently.

"Why," I was asked, "do Westerners subjugate their women by forcing them to wear items of clothing that conceal their breasts?" I explained that breasts are erogenous zones, and in the West we feel it is best that these be covered in public. "Then why do you not insist that the chests of men also be covered? Do not your men have nipples, too?"

I struggled for an answer. "Nakedness of women's breasts is ... uhh... distracting," I said. "Men would focus on sex and not get any work done. If women wear tops, then we can focus on them as people, without the distraction of sex."

"So you are saying that Western men are unable to control their sexual impulses?" Everyone giggled. "Not exactly," I replied, although I had to concede that sexual harassment was indeed a problem in many countries.

"Tell us, is it actually illegal for women to go topless in North America? You would put your women in jail for such a normal thing?" I was asked. I had to concede that, although it is now technically legal in Ontario for women to go topless, this was still not the case for most jurisdictions in Canada and the US.

"And even in Ontario, what would happen to a woman who walked around without a top?" I was asked. I was forced to admit that they would often not be treated respectfully and that much social pressure would be brought to bear on them to cover up. Some women might even be attacked and beaten up. I heard a murmur of disapproval go through the room. Many students were shaking their heads at the backwardness of my society.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the Narian students that Western clothing was not a tool designed to subjugate women.

At the end of the event, I asked some Narian students about their navel patch. They seemed astonished that Western women would brazenly display their belly button in public (and indeed, Ila explained that there was a thriving trade in underground pornography in Nari, where Western women are shown in bikinis). "But aren't you afraid of someone seeing your soul?" they asked. I had to explain that many Westerners think the soul is an immaterial thing that one cannot see. They all laughed at that. "How could you possibly be so sure that an immaterial thing exists?" they asked. I could see their logic.

As I left Nari, I felt like my ideas about social behavior had been turned upside-down. Although I didn't agree that Western clothing was just a tool to subjugate women, I had to admit that our apparel is probably nothing more than a social convention, not a code ordained by a god or by nature. Perhaps our clothing rules are rooted in custom and tradition, and not on any actual rational or moral basis.

The Narian navel patch is as incomprehensible and foreign to us as Western clothing is to them.

I don't think I will visit Nari again, but it did make me think.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Was the Moose Hurt?

From New Brunswick comes the sad story of a moose that was hit by two cars.

Inexplicably, the newspaper story does not explain the fate of the moose.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

World's Dumbest Journal Name

I think I have found the world's dumbest journal name. It is the International Refereed Journal of Scientific Research in Engineering.

The barely-literate web page tells you that it is a "reputed journal", and has a block of moving text that announces proudly that "IRJSRE is International Peer Reviewed Journal".

It also informs you that IRJSRE "provides new information, knowledge, analysis and developments in the Engineering and Science fields to cater the requirements of academic and practitioners". I never saw a journal announce that it was a caterer before.

The web page features a button that says "Call for Paper". Just one? Or maybe their photocopier ran out.

Another helpful button offers a "modal paper". I wonder if that means it's made of rayon.

And I wonder who would submit their paper to this journal.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Berlinski Exposed

Well, it looks like I was right when I guessed that David Berlinski was behind the scenes of the very strange online thing calling itself a "an independent quarterly review of the sciences", Inference Review.

For a long time they hid their editorial board. To what end, I don't know. Maybe they were embarrassed that Berlinski was involved. (I certainly would be.) But now they have come out and admitted that Berlinski is a "Contributing Editor". The other people involved are

Steven Wheeler
Executive Editor

Maud Kozodoy
Senior Editor

Hortense Marcelin
Managing Editor

Hélène Cambour
Marketing Director

Jean-Michel Gruet

Well, at least we know now who is responsible for the appalling and grotesque caricatures.

The editors claim "We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever." If you believe that, I've got some intelligently designed real estate to sell you. For god's sake, their latest "issue" has an article by James Tour.

What a joke.

Hat tip: GB.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Brain and Computation

Further to my previous posts about the brain being a computer, take a look at this special semester at the Simons Institute at Berkeley: The Brain and Computation. Note the very high quality of the people involved, and the unashamed analogy between brains and computers.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Beating the Dead Horse of Intelligent Design

The funniest thing about this new interview of Bill Dembski is not that it's conducted by Sean McDowell, who has a "Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" and is the son of the well-known evangelist Josh McDowell.

It's not that McDowell doesn't ask him a single probing question.

It's not that Dembski reveals he has a new book on intelligent design coming out, co-authored with the illustrious Robert J. Marks II; the table of contents can be found here.

It's not that Dembski still doesn't understand that the source of information in biology is well-understood biological processes such as mutations, recombination, gene duplication, and gene transfer.

No, the single funniest thing is that Dembski points to his nearly-dead, on-its-last-legs vanity journal Bio-Complexity as one of the ID movement's greatest scientific successes.

As I've pointed out before, Bio-Complexity is a great example of the utter intellectual vacuity of intelligent design. Despite having an editorial board of 31 people, in 2014 the journal managed to publish exactly 1 research article and a total of 4 papers. In 2015 they published a total of 2 papers. In 2016 so far they've published exactly 1 paper. (At that rate, in 2017 they'll publish half a paper.)

Wow! That is a research record to be very proud of! It really shows that intelligent design is fruitful, and inspiring top-quality research from scientists all over the world! The only downside is all the hard editorial work that needs to be done by those 31 members of the editorial board. Why, if they didn't have to spend all their time reviewing papers, they might be publishing some intelligent design research of their own. Truly, it's a scientific success.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Robert Marks: Two Years Later, Still No Answer

One characteristic of creationists is their unwillingness to follow the usual academic norms. To name just a few things:
  1. While a tiny fraction of them publish papers in legitimate peer-reviewed academic journals, they typically do not publish their creationist views or evidence for creationism and intelligent design in such journals. Instead, they invent their own bogus journals, which then struggle to stay afloat for lack of acceptable submissions. Do any of you remember Origins and Design? I think it died around 2000. Do you remember Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design? It died around 2005. Now the intelligent design crowd has Bio-Complexity, but it has published only one paper so far in all of 2016. It, too, is headed for death.
  2. They typically do not present their creationist views at legitimate peer-reviewed conferences. The few exceptions seem to be closed, invitation-only conferences devoted only to creationism or intelligent design. You do not see, for example, William Dembski (the supposed "Isaac Newton of information theory") presenting his work at the top information theory conferences, such as the IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory.
  3. They inflate their credentials.
  4. They hold meetings at universities by renting space and then suggest or imply that the university somehow sponsored their meeting. The 2011 "biological information" meeting at Cornell is an obvious example.
  5. They are prone to making public claims that they are not willing to justify.
The illustrious Robert J. Marks II, professor at Baylor University, is an example of this last characteristic. Back in 2014, he made the following claim: "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". I wanted to see the details of the calculation justifying this claim, so I asked Professor Marks to supply it. He did not reply.

Nor did he reply when I asked three months later.

Nor did he reply when I asked six months later.

Nor did he reply when I asked a year later.

It's now been two years. Academics are busy people, but this is pretty silly. Who thinks the illustrious Professor Marks will ever show me a calculation justifying his claim?

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Grammatical Rule that Isn't

A lot of my friends and acquaintances have been Facebook-sharing the following excerpt from a book by Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence:

Forsyth gives a good general rule for English, but like most grammatical rules, it's easy to find exceptions. For example, the American poet Benjamin Ivry wrote, in his poem "Ici Mourut Racine", of a "square little cottage".

So a challenge to readers: come up with the best natural-sounding exception to Forsyth's rule of English. You get bonus points if you violate Forsyth's order in multiple ways, and even more bonus points if you can find it in the published work of a native English-speaking author. No prizes for citing non-native speakers clearly lacking English skills.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Anonymous Theist Coward Tries to Get Me Fired

Last month, an anonymous theist coward with e-mail address "" sent e-mail to at least 35 members of my department, informing them that I am an atheist (gasp!), and trying to get me fired.

This isn't the first time this happened. About twenty years ago, some local evangelicals were actually picketing outside the gates of my university with the same goal. They failed, but everybody had a good time laughing.

I am happy to say that DrIntellectual's plan also backfired. Nearly everybody ignored DrIntellectual's message, except the Dean, who wrote me to offer his support. I guess DrIntellectual has never heard of "academic freedom" and what it entails.

The two things that drove DrIntellectual to inchoate rage seem to be my review of Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell, and my review of Patrick Glynn's book, God: The Evidence. But DrIntellectual offers nothing against the views I presented there, except some variations on "Wow! Oxygen! Hence, God!". This is literally an 18th century view: it was Dartmouth's founder, Eleazar Wheelock, who reportedly once offered the prayer, "O Lord! We thank Thee for the Oxygen gas; we thank Thee for the Hydrogen gas; and for all the gases." But it's the 21st century now. We don't burn witches any more, either.

Why is DrIntellectual driven to act like this? I don't know, but it's typical behavior for a certain species of theist. This kind of person is so steeped in Jeebus that it's literally inconceivable that anyone could believe differently. Furthermore, anyone who disbelieves must be evil, and therefore no tactic against them is too slimy. (It's the same method used by Scientologists on what they call "suppressive people".) Luckily, these dirty tricksters are usually too impotent to do much harm.

What DrIntellectual is really saying by his actions is that my book reviews are powerful. They represent such a threat to his insecure world view that he has to resort to this kind of poison-pen attack. He can't simply leave a comment on my blog or write his own rebuttal. No, the rest of the world has to coddle DrIntellectual's weak faith by removing all obstacles to it. He even resorts to implicit threats, writing "in the end, there will be a test, a very important test. Don't fail it." Threats like these are the theist's weapon of choice.

The Internet is the most powerful weapon against this kind of theism ever devised. When people of good will see the kinds of tactics some theists have to resort to, they know very well who is winning the argument. We are.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Friday Moose Blogging: Colorado Moose!

Moose in Mineral Creek, near Silverton, Colorado. We saw a bunch of people stopped along the highway, and we stopped, too. Glad we did!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Egnor Doubles Down

Creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor doubles down in his latest at the misnamed site. He's still claiming that animals don't have language.

He really has nothing new to say. He provides no evidence for his claims, just a series of assertions:

"Language in animals has never been demonstrated": actually, it has. I gave several citations, but Egnor didn't address any of them. There is a whole subfield of ethology that deals with this. Egnor didn't even seem to know the name of the field.

"because animals are incapable of language.": pure assertion.

"Claims of animal language have been made by some ethologists, but those claims are mistaken": Egnor suddenly starts using the word "ethologist", which he didn't before. I am glad to have informed him of the name for the practitioners of the field he is criticizing. Again, pure assertion. He doesn't actually address any of the cited studies.

"We should begin with an examination of what we mean by language.": Egnor is not a linguist, either.

"The confusion between signals and designators is at the root of ethologists' misunderstanding about animal "language.": Yeah, all those ethologists who actually study animal language are wrong, but Egnor (who didn't seem to even know the word "ethologist" until two days ago) is right, despite not working in the field. Remember the word "egnorance" and why it was coined?

"Natural animal signals have no grammar": Probably not true. For example, see here and here and here. Now one could certainly take issue with any or all of these, but the point is that there is a large literature that needs to be assessed carefully, and which cannot be addressed by categorical denials of the kind Egnor makes. Egnor does not do this. He just knows he is correct, because ... Aristotle.

"Animals do not signal abstract concepts": pure assertion.

(Quoting de Waal): "We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species": A red herring. Nobody said animal language was as "rich and multifunctional" as human language, just that it exists, contrary to Egnor's claims. This is the traditional creationist technique known as "moving the goalposts".

Finally, Egnor insinuates that I haven't read de Waal's books, when I was the one who introduced them to him. He urges me to read de Waal's books. I have. My records show that I read Good Natured in 1996, as well as Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Yet More Egnorance

We haven't heard from creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor lately. (If I had to guess, I'd wager he's writing a book, in order to cash in on the unlimited religionist thirst to have someone with credentials confirm their world view.) That's too bad, because Egnor was a neverending source of amusement. He is, after all, the man for which the word "egnorance" was coined: "the egotistical combination of ignorance and arrogance".

That's why it's such a delight to see Egnor make a fool of himself yet again, with this Discovery Institute column about animal intelligence and language.

Egnor claims that "cats can't do logic, mathematical or otherwise, and they never will". Here is one of his arguments in support of this claim: "they don't do logic. Because they're cats." Well, that was certainly convincing.

Showing that Egnor knows even less about logic than he does about evolution, Egnor goes on to claim that "A logical statement is true inherently, independently of the particulars that occupy the place-holders". Really? This will certainly be news to actual logicians, who labor under the delusion that a statement like "for all x, there exists a y such that x = 2*y" is a false statement in the logical theory known as "Presburger arithmetic".

Like most religionists, Egnor seems to have a real need to believe that people are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. He claims that "What distinguishes men from animals is this: men, but not animals, can contemplate universals, independently of particulars. Animals cannot contemplate universals. Animal thought is always tied to particular things." He goes on to claim, "Animal thought lacks abstraction" and "In fact, an animal cannot think about universals, for the simple reason that animals have no language."

How does Egnor know these things? He offers no empirical evidence in support of his claims. Empirical evidence is absolutely necessary, since there is nothing logically impossible about animals thinking abstractly. After all, Egnor's own holy book, the bible, depicts talking snakes and talking donkeys. While I am amused to see Egnor undermine the claims of his own religion, animal language and thought are questions that have to be resolved scientifically.

And there is an area of science that is actively interested in testing these kinds of claims, although you'd never know it from reading Egnor. It is a branch of ethology, which is the science of animal behavior. (I am not an ethologist by any means, but I can recommend the eye-opening books of primatologist Frans de Waal.) Contrary to Egnor's claims, the evidence for animal language is quite strong, although of course there are doubters. Animal language exists in many different animals, including bees, elephants, dolphins, baboons, and whales.

So how does Egnor back up his claims? By citing Aristotle. That's it. He writes, "This rudimentary fact about animal and human minds was noted by Aristotle, and was common knowledge for a couple thousand years. Moderns have forgotten it, and it has led to a morass of confusion about animal minds and the differences between human and animal thought."

I suppose if one's worldview depends on a 2000-year-old book written by people lacking scientific knowledge of the universe, then it's not a stretch to get your understanding of animal language and thought from a philosopher who lived 2300 years ago, and who simply asserted his claims without doing any experiments at all.

There is also evidence for abstract thought in animals other than people. Evidence exists for dogs, baboons, and crows, to name just three examples. Of course, all these examples are debatable (although I find these and others pretty convincing), and will likely continue to be debated until we know more about how abstract concepts are represented and processed in brains. Nevertheless it is pretty obvious that this is a question that, at least in principle, is capable of being resolved empirically.

I'll conclude with the words of David Hume: "no truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as man. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant." Or maybe that should be "egnorant".

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


I've been watching a bit of the British TV show QI lately, and they mentioned the fact that the word "typewriter" can be written using the top row of keys on a QWERTY keyboard.

This got me wondering about what commonly-used words are the longest for each row. In addition to "typewriter", other 10-letter words you can type exclusively on the top row include "perpetuity" and "repertoire". Claims for "teeter-totter" seem to be cheating, as it is almost always written with a hyphen. The OED lists a few more such words, but none that are common ("pepperwort"?).

For the middle row, the longest seems to be "alfalfa".

The poor sad bottom row seems to have no examples at all, unless you include "zzz", which is sometimes used to indicate the sound of sleep.

On a French AZERTY keyboard, one can type the English words "appropriate", "perpetrator", "preparatory", "proprietary", as well as the winner, "reappropriate". The longest French words on their national keyboard seem to be "approprieriez" and "pirouetterait".

Friday, July 01, 2016

Happy Birthday, Jonathan Richman!

Somehow I missed this: May 16 was the 65th birthday of singer Jonathan Richman.

Jonathan Richman is really hard to describe, but he's sort of a weird blend of children's singer Raffi and the Ramones. When I lived on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley from 1979 to 1983, he lived quite nearby, and we often saw him performing in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus (where the photo above was taken, in 1981), or the club Berkeley Square on University Avenue. Once I saw him walking down the street, ran up to my apartment, and got one of his albums out for him to autograph, which he gladly did. I even have a picture of Jonathan and me together, but I only show it to close friends.

Here are a few of my favorite Jonathan Richman songs:

Happy 65th birthday, Jonathan!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Michael Savage and Mark Levin

Lately I've been listening to right-wing talk radio, to try to understand its attractions. In particular, I've been listening to Michael Savage and Mark Levin. These men are both conservative radio hosts with millions of weekly listeners. I have to admit, after more than a month of listening, I find it really hard to understand their appeal.

In some ways, Savage and Levin are very similar. They both use extensive call screening, so that practically no dissenting voices are ever allowed on the air. During the past month, I think I haven't heard a single liberal caller on either program. If they do manage to get on somehow, they typically get shouted down and cut off.

They both shill for their own books, with Levin pushing Plunder and Deceit and Savage pushing Government Zero. They both advertise their books about dogs, with Savage pushing Teddy and Me, and Levin pushing a book written by his father, My Dog Spot. They both shill for companies that sell precious metals as investments, with Levin pushing Goldline and Savage pushing Swiss America. Levin also shills for AMAC (which bills itself as the conservative alternative to AARP) and Dollar Shave Club.

For radio professionals, they both seem to have trouble pronouncing certain words. Levin once referred to Mallorca as "Mall-er-ka", and Savage pronounced "fiefdom" as "fife-dum".

They both always refer to the "Democrat party", a typical epithet of the far right.

They both love to name-call. Levin constantly uses terms like "puke", "hack", "jerk", and "punk" to describe anybody he disagrees with. Sometimes he calls people "subhuman". If there exists a single person in the world who is both personally honorable and disagrees with Levin on some substantive issue, you would not know about it by listening to him. For example, he called Elizabeth Warren "one of the biggest idiots", "a complete freak" and a "dimwitted buffoon". (He has a particular dislike for university professors.) Levin routinely refers to the New York Times as the "New York Slimes", the Washington Post as the "Washington Compost", MSNBC as "MSLSD", Associated Press as "Associated Depressed", Hillary Clinton as "Hillary Rotten Clinton". I guess he thinks he's being clever. Savage, on the other hand, routinely refers to people he disagrees with as "garbage" or "vermin". He particularly dislikes Muslims, which he enjoys calling "Moose-lims". He calls Rachel Maddow "Rachel Madcow".

Both Savage and Levin like to portray themselves as brave, honest commentators who say what others dare not. When Levin says, "There! I said it!" you know for sure that something particularly ignorant has just preceded it.

Probably the most important commonality between Levin and Savage is they both lie. Unrelentingly. Repeatedly. In listening for a month or so, there were so many lies that I often had trouble recording them all. They're not lying about things whose truth is hard to determine, either. Here are just a few:

  • Mark Levin claimed "nobody watches CBS News". In fact, in 2015, viewership was 6.8 million, up 4% from previously, or about the same as Levin's own audience size.
  • Michael Savage lied about what Mark Tushnet said here, claiming Tushnet advocated treating conservatives like Nazis.
  • Mark Levin claimed Marx and Engels invented the term "middle class". Not true, of course: it was James Bradshaw in 1745.
  • Michael Savage claimed Japan never apologized for the Bataan death march. But they did, 6 years ago.
  • Mark Levin twice claimed that "gun shows are the safest place on earth", despite being informed that this is simply not the case: accidental shootings at gun shows are routine.
Many more examples can be found on my twitter feed. Despite these lies, in my listening for more than a month I never heard either host issue a correction or retraction about anything. (In contrast, Rachel Maddow issues corrections all the time.)

Both hosts have their obsessions. Levin is completely obsessed with Barack Obama; nearly every show is on the same theme, about how Obama is destroying America. Obama, Levin claims, is "sick" and "hates America". Similarly, Savage is obsessed with Obama, calling him a "psychopath", but his obsessions also include George Soros, Google, Hollywood, and Facebook, frequently insulting Mark Zuckerberg (often with exaggerated Jewish accent) and Jeff Bezos. Indeed, although Savage is Jewish (his real name is Michael Weiner), many of his comments seem either overtly or covertly anti-Semitic.

Both hosts have extremely high opinions of themselves. Savage has a doctorate from Berkeley in ethnomedicine, which he frequently likes to mention (callers often call him "Dr. Savage"), and likes to boast for minutes at a time about how smart he is compared to everyone else. He says, "I'm far more creative, inventive, entertaining, informative, educated than everyone else in the history of radio." However, he's not as smart as he thinks: for example, Savage frequently uses the term "coelenterate" and says it means the same as "worm". (Coelenterates are not worms or even closely related to them. They are creatures like jellyfish and sea anemones.) Here Savage quotes Hillel's famous questions, but attributes them wrongly to Maimonides. On the other hand, Levin's website describes him as "The Great One" or "Denali", terms which Levin embraces with enthusiasm. He frequently turns testy, telling callers that he is going to "educate" them.

Despite their great similarities, both hosts apparently dislike the other one. Indeed, it seems that both are quite reluctant to mention the other by name. Levin has called Savage "a real cancer" and a "phony, fake conservative".

Nevertheless, there are some differences between them. Savage, by far, has the stranger life story, whereas Levin had a more conventional career at the fringes of American right. Savage supports Donald Trump and Levin was a strong supporter of Ted Cruz. (Whether Levin will eventually back Trump is hard to tell, although I suspect he will eventually cave.) Savage seems to have no coherent political philosophy at all, other than his dislike of various minorities. For example, he seems to hate gay people, once telling a caller that he "should get AIDS and die ... eat a sausage and choke on it". Like his hero Trump, Savage seems to be a fascist in training; he admires Vladimir Putin and thinks bringing back the House Un-American Activities Committee would be a good idea. Levin is somewhat more consistent philosophically, claiming to be a "constitutional conservative". However, his idea of the constitution is extremely narrow; it never seems to occur to him that there might be two or more different ways of interpreting constitutional provisions. Levin used to work under Ed Meese, whom he calls a "great man". But remember that Meese did not believe in the principle of "innocent until proven guilty"; he once said, "If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect." Levin also buys into the typical craziness of the right, denying man-made global warming and claiming that environmentalists are responsible for the deaths of millions of people from malaria.

Savage seems genuinely unbalanced to me. For example, he thinks seltzer water is dangerous and claims that seltzer water has damaged Bernie Sanders' sanity. He says things like, "I am a prophet. I have been a prophet. I was appointed to be a prophet since birth." Levin is better, but his sanity is also not so clear to me. He once claimed violating transgender guidelines will get you put in "Leavenworth Prison" and once agreed with a caller that if Obama had been president during US Civil War "he would have continued slavery". But perhaps these are just wild hyperbole as opposed to being actually crazy.

After a month of listening, I still don't quite understand their appeal. Savage is an ignorant narcissist who is filled with hate. Levin is a boring partisan and ideologue with a single theme that he repeats with hardly any variation. Neither host is much concerned with the truth. Both like to hear themselves rant, and, despite praising their audience, rarely genuinely engage with any caller.

If these are the minds that the American right listens to on a daily basis, it's no wonder that the right is so badly misinformed.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Can Stephen Talbott Be Taken Seriously?

Stephen Talbott, one of the dreariest writers on subjects that should be interesting, manages once again to flail around a topic without saying much at all. He babbles meaningless garbage like "As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation." And when he does manage to say something factual, he is, not surprisingly, wrong.

In his latest piece, Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?, Talbott (who apparently has no advanced training in evolutionary biology) once again takes on the theory of evolution, without exhibiting much understanding at all.

Rather than write a complete critique, I'll just excerpt some of the stupider parts of his screed, with comments.

I would like to suggest that if half of all American citizens have become (as certain arch-defenders of biological orthodoxy like to put it) “science deniers”, then something important is afoot, and it does not look good for science. At the very least — if we assume the denial to be as unreservedly stupid as it is said to be — it would mean that science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system.

As is usually the case with those who want to cast doubt on evolution, the fact that Americans have trouble accepting it is trotted out as something significant about the theory. Talbott makes no effort at all to look at acceptance in other countries because (I suspect) it would completely undermine what follows in his piece. After all, if you have to admit that the majority accepts evolution in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan, UK, Norway, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Hungary, Luxembourg, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Czechia, Estonia, Portugal, Malta, Switzerland, and so forth, then maybe ridiculously overblown claims like "science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system" would be seen for what they are.

Now any fair-minded person knows very well what separates the US from the countries in the list above: it is that many Americans are under the grip of the appalling and anti-intellectual influence of fundamentalist Christianity. The evidence that religion is responsible is easily available and hard to contest. But the words "religion" and "Christianity" appear nowhere in Talbott's piece.

Organisms are not machines.

Of course they are. Anybody who says otherwise is simply being ridiculous. They obey the laws of physics like other machines. The only citation Talbott gives for this claim is his own work.

No one has ever pointed to a computer-like program in DNA, or in a cell, or in any larger structure. Nor has anyone shown us any physical machinery for executing such program instructions.

Of course they have! I wonder what Talbott thinks ribosomes do?

how can it be that, 150 years after Darwin, we still have no widely accepted theory about how all the different body plans arose?

Let's see... could it be, perhaps, because those events occurred hundreds of millions of years ago and didn't leave behind much trace for us to find now? After all, my grandparents arrived here from Russia in 1912-1913, but there is no widely accepted theory about how they got from their home in Vitebsk to Hamburg. Did they walk, or take a train, or use some other method? We don't have a "widely accepted theory" because the evidence is gone now.

If a beautiful, crystal-clear vision of “how evolution works” doesn’t give us answers to key questions about how evolution has in fact worked, perhaps we should begin to ask questions of the vision.

We know many different mechanisms of evolution. (Talbott seems not to know this.) If Talbott thinks there is another mechanism, why doesn't he propose one?

This enables us to greet with a certain recognition the nagging question that has bothered a number of the past century’s most prominent biologists: “What does natural selection select — where do selectable variations come from — and why should we think that the mere selection of already existing variants, rather than the creative production of novel variants in the first place, directs evolution along the trajectories we observe?”

Umm, we know where these variations come from. One place they come from is recombination in sexual organisms. Another source is mutation, often induced by cosmic rays. This is taught in every introductory course on evolutionary biology. So why doesn't Talbott know this?

What is life? How can we understand the striving of organisms — a striving that seems altogether hidden to conventional modes of understanding? What makes for the integral unity of every living creature, and how can this unity be understood if we’re thinking in purely material and machine-like terms? Does it make sense to dismiss as illusory the compelling appearance of intelligent and intentional agency in organisms? No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers.

We have no answers to "What is life?"? Say what? Talbott doesn't seem to know that there are books devoted to this question, one of the most famous being by Schrödinger, and another one, more recently, by Addy Pross. The problem is not that we don't have answers -- many answers have been proposed. The problem is, like every complicated concept (even the philosopher's famous example of "chair" suffices) no single brief definition can capture all the nuances of the concept.

As for the other questions, I absolutely do deny that vague babble like "integral unity" has anything useful or helpful to say in trying to understand biology. And there hasn't been a single advance in biology that comes from thinking in other than "purely material" terms. If there had been, you know Talbott would have shouted it to the rooftops.

Talbott does no experiments in evolution. He publishes no papers in evolutionary biology journals. As far as I can see, he has no expertise in evolution at all. He publishes his stuff in obscure venues like New Atlantis. Why would anybody take this vapid stuff seriously? Answer: you take it seriously if you're a creationist. No one else should.

P. S. The Nature Institute, where Talbott works, is apparently strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, the cult leader and quack who is responsible for the nutty Waldorf schools. Big surprise.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Actual Neuroscientists Cheerfully Use The Metaphors Epstein Says are Completely Wrong

Here is yet more evidence that psychologist Robert Epstein is all wet when he claims that computation-based metaphors for understanding the brain are factually wrong and hindering research.

Actual research neuroscientists, summarizing what we know about memory, cheerfully use phrases like "storage of information", "stored memory information", "information retrieval", "information storage", "the systematic process of collecting and cataloging data", "retriev[ing]" of data, and so forth. Epstein claims the brain does not form "representations of visual events", but these researchers say "Memory involves the complex interplay between forming representations of novel objects or events...". The main theme of the essays seems to be that spines and synapses are the fundamental basis for memory storage.

So who do you think is likely to know more about what's going on in the brain? Actual neuroscientists who do research on the brain and summarize the state of the art about what is known in a peer-reviewed journal? Or a psychologist who publishes books like The Big Book of Stress-Relief Games?

Hat tip: John Wilkins.

P. S. Yes, I saw the following "Further, LTP and LTD can cooperate to redistribute synaptic weight. This notion differs from the traditional analogy between synapses and digital information storage devices, in which bits are stored and retrieved independently. On the other hand, coordination amongst multiple synapses, made by different inputs, provides benefits with regard to issues of normalization and signal-to-noise." Again, nobody thinks that the brain is structured exactly like a modern digital computer. Mechanisms of storage and retrieval are likely to be quite different. But the modern theory of computation makes no assumptions that data and programs are stored in any particular fashion; it works just as well if data is stored on paper, disk, flash drive, or in brains.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Epstein's Dollar Bill and What it Doesn't Prove About the Brain

I hate to pick on poor confused Robert Epstein again, but after thinking about it some more, I'd like to explain why an example in his foolish article doesn't justify his claims.

Here I quote his example without the accompanying illustrations:

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Here is her drawing ‘from memory’ (notice the metaphor):

And here is the drawing she subsequently made with a dollar bill present:

Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical. As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times.

What is the problem? Don’t we have a ‘representation’ of the dollar bill ‘stored’ in a ‘memory register’ in our brains? Can’t we just ‘retrieve’ it and use it to make our drawing?

Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found.

Now let me explain why Epstein's example doesn't even come close to proving what he thinks it does.

First, the average person is not very good at drawing. I am probably much, much worse than the average person in this respect. When I play "pictionary", for example, people always laugh at my stick figures. Yet, given something to look at and copy, I can do a reasonable job of copying what I see. I, like many people, have trouble converting what I see "in my mind's eye" to a piece of paper. So it is not at all surprising to me that the students Epstein asks to draw a dollar bill produce the results he displays. His silly experiment says nothing about the brain and what it "stores" at all!

Second, Epstein claims that the brain stores no representation of a dollar bill whatsoever. He is pretty unequivocal about this. So let me suggest another experiment that decisively refutes Epstein's claim: instead of asking students to draw a dollar bill (an exercise which evidently is mostly about the artistic ability of students), instead give them five different "dollar bills", four of which have been altered in some fairly obvious respect. For example, one might have a portrait of Jefferson instead of Washington, another might have the "1" in only two corners instead of all four corners, another might have the treasury seal in red instead of the typical green for a federal reserve note, etc. And one of the five is an ordinary bill. Now ask them to pick out which bills are real and which are not. To make it really precise, each student should get just one bill and not be able to see the bills of others.

Here's what I will bet: students will, with very high probability, be able to distinguish the real dollar bill from the altered ones. I know with certainty that I can do this.

Now, how could one possibly distinguish the real dollar bills from the fake ones if one has no representation of the real one stored in the brain?

And this is not pure speculation: thousands of cashiers every day are tasked with distinguishing real bills from fake ones. Somehow, even though they have no representation of the dollar bill stored in their brain, they manage to do this. Why, it's magic!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Yes, Your Brain Certainly Is a Computer

- Did you hear the news, Victoria? Over in the States those clever Yanks have invented a flying machine!

- A flying machine! Good heavens! What kind of feathers does it have?

- Feathers? It has no feathers.

- Well, then, it cannot fly. Everyone knows that things that fly have feathers. It is preposterous to claim that something can fly without them.

OK, I admit it, I made that dialogue up. But that's what springs to mind when I read yet another claim that the brain is not a computer, nor like a computer, and even that the language of computation is inappropriate when talking about the brain.

The most recent foolishness along these lines was penned by psychologist Robert Epstein. Knowing virtually nothing about Epstein, I am willing to wager that (a) Epstein has never taken a course in the theory of computation (b) could not pass the simplest undergraduate exam in that subject (c) does not know what the Church-Turing thesis is and (d) could not explain why the thesis is relevant to the question of whether the brain is a computer or not.

Here are just a few of the silly claims by Epstein, with my commentary:

"But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently."

-- Well, Epstein is wrong. We, like all living things, are certainly born with "information". To name just one obvious example, there is an awful lot of DNA in our cells. Not only is this coded information, it is even coded in base 4, whereas modern digital computers use base 2 -- the analogy is clear. We are certainly born with "rules" and "algorithms" and "programs", as Frances Crick explains in detail about the human visual system in The Astonishing Hypothesis.

"We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them."

-- We certainly do store words in some form. When we are born, we are unable to pronounce or remember the word "Epstein", but eventually, after being exposed to enough of his silly essays, suddenly we gain that capability. From where did this ability come? Something must have changed in the structure of the brain (not the arm or the foot or the stomach) that allows us to retrieve "Epstein" and pronounce it whenever something sufficiently stupid is experienced. The thing that is changed can reasonably be said to "store" the word.

As for rules, without some sort of encoding of rules somewhere, how can we produce so many syntactically correct sentences with such regularity and consistency? How can we produce sentences we've never produced before, and have them be grammatically correct?

"We don’t create representations of visual stimuli"

-- We certainly do. Read Crick.

"Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not."

-- No, organisms certainly do. They just don't do it in exactly the same way that modern digital computers do. I think this is the root of Epstein's confusion.

Anyone who understands the work of Turing realizes that computation is not the province of silicon alone. Any system that can do basic operations like storage and rewriting can do computation, whether it is a sandpile, or a membrane, or a Turing machine, or a person. Today we know (but Epstein apparently doesn't) that every such system has essentially the same computing power (in the sense of what can be ultimately computed, with no bounds on space and time).

"The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors."

-- This is just utter nonsense. Nobody says "all computers are capable of behaving intelligently". Take a very simple model of a computer, such as a finite automaton with two states computing the Thue-Morse sequence. I believe intelligence is a continuum, and I think we can ascribe intelligence to even simple computational models, but even I would say that this little computer doesn't exhibit much intelligence at all. Furthermore, there are good theoretical reasons why finite automata don't have enough power to "behave intelligently"; we need a more powerful model, such as the Turing machine.

The real syllogism goes something like this: humans can process information (we know this because humans can do basic tasks like addition and multiplication of integers). Humans can store information (we know this because I can remember my social security number and my birthdate). Things that both store information and process it are called (wait for it) computers.

"a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found."

-- Of course, this is utter nonsense. If there were no representation of any kind of a dollar bill in a brain, how could one produce a drawing of it, even imperfectly? I have never seen (just to pick one thing at random) a crystal of the mineral Fletcherite, nor even a picture of it. Ask me to draw it and I will be completely unable to do so because I have no representation of it stored in my brain. But ask me to draw a US dollar bill (in Canada we no longer have them!) and I can do a reasonable, but not exact job. How could I possibly do this if I have no information about a dollar bill stored in my memory anywhere? And how is that I fail for Fletcherite?

"The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous"

-- Well, it may be preposterous to Epstein, but there is at least evidence for it, at least in some cases.

"A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks."

-- So what? What does this have to do with anything? There is no requirement, in saying that the brain is a computer, that memories and facts and beliefs be stored in individual neurons. Storage that is partitioned in various location, "smeared" across the brain, is perfectly compatible with computation. It's as if Epstein has never heard of digital neural networks, where one can similarly say that a face is not stored in any particular location in memory, but rather distributed across many of them. These networks even exhibit some characteristics of brains, in that damaging parts of them don't entirely get rid of the stored data.

"My favourite example of the dramatic difference between the IP perspective and what some now call the ‘anti-representational’ view of human functioning involves two different ways of explaining how a baseball player manages to catch a fly ball – beautifully explicated by Michael McBeath, now at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in a 1995 paper in Science. The IP perspective requires the player to formulate an estimate of various initial conditions of the ball’s flight – the force of the impact, the angle of the trajectory, that kind of thing – then to create and analyse an internal model of the path along which the ball will likely move, then to use that model to guide and adjust motor movements continuously in time in order to intercept the ball.

"That is all well and good if we functioned as computers do, but McBeath and his colleagues gave a simpler account: to catch the ball, the player simply needs to keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery (technically, in a ‘linear optical trajectory’). This might sound complicated, but it is actually incredibly simple, and completely free of computations, representations and algorithms."

-- This is perhaps the single stupidest passage in Epstein's article. He doesn't seem to know that "keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery" is an algorithm. Tell that description to any computer scientist, and they'll say, "What an elegant algorithm!". In exactly the same way, the way raster graphics machines draw a circle is a clever technique called "Bresenham's algorithm". It succeeds in drawing a circle using linear operations only, despite not having the quadratic equation of a circle (x-a)2 + (y-b)2 = r2 explicitly encoded in it.

But more importantly, it shows Epstein hasn't thought seriously at all about what it means to catch a fly ball. It is a very complicated affair, involving coordination of muscles and eyes. When you summarize it as "the simply needs to keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery", you hide all the amazing amount of computation and algorithms that are going on behind the scenes to coordinate movement, keep the player from falling over, and so forth. I'd like to see Epstein design a walking robot, let alone a running robot, without any algorithms at all.

"there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience."

-- Perhaps not. But there is reason to believe that many of us are changed in approximately the same way. For example, all of us learn our natural language from parents and friends, and we somehow learn approximately the same language.

"We are organisms, not computers. Get over it."

-- No, we are both organisms and computers. Get over it!

"The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way."

-- Say what? The computational model of the brain has had enormous success. Read Crick, for example, for an example of how the computational model has had some success in modeling the human visual system. Here's an example from that book I give in my algorithms course at Waterloo: why is it that humans can find a single red R in a field of green R's almost instantly whether there are 10 or 1000 letters, or a single red R in a field of red L's almost as quickly, but has trouble finding the unique green R in a large sea of green L's and red R's and red L's? If you understand algorithms and the distinction between parallel and sequential algorithms, you can explain this. If you're Robert Epstein, I imagine you just sit there dumbfounded.

Other examples of successes include artificial neural nets, which have huge applications in things like handwriting recognition, face recognition, classification, robotics, and many other areas. They draw their inspiration from the structure of the brain, and somehow manage to function enormously well; they are used in industry all the time. If that is not great validation of the model, I don't know what is.

I don't know why people like Epstein feel the need to deny things for which the evidence is so overwhelming. He behaves like a creationist in denying evolution. And like creationists, he apparently has no training in a very relevant field (here, computer science) but still wants to pontificate on it. When intelligent people behave so stupidly, it makes me sad.

P. S. I forgot to include one of the best pieces of evidence that the brain, as a computer, is doing things roughly analogous to digital computers, and certainly no more powerful than our ordinary RAM model or multitape Turing machine. Here it is: mental calculators who can do large arithmetic calculations are known, and their feats have been catalogued: they can do things like multiply large numbers or extract square roots in their heads without pencil and paper. But in every example known, their extraordinary computational feats are restricted to things for which we know there exist polynomial-time algorithms. None of these computational savants have ever, in the histories I've read, been able to factor arbitrary large numbers in their heads (say numbers of 100 digits that are the product of two primes). They can multiply 50-digit numbers in their heads, but they can't factor. And, not surprisingly, no polynomial-time algorithm for factoring is currently known, and perhaps there isn't one.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Give Carol Wainio an Honorary Degree in Journalism

Carol Wainio catalogues once again a list of Margaret Wente's journalistic transgressions.

This is a story that Canadian media is not addressing with much intellectual honesty. Take this grotesque column by Emma Teitel, for example.

What journalism school in Canada will be brave enough and honest enough to recognize Wainio's work -- for example, by awarding her an honorary degree?

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Christian god to Ted Cruz: "Drop Dead"

Poor Ted Cruz.

First, his god tells him to run for President of the US.

Then, his god humiliates him in primary after primary.

Ted wanted his Republican opponents to pray and drop out of the race.

But it didn't quite work out that way.

What a capricious puppet-master god Ted worships!

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Columnist Margaret Wente Caught Plagiarizing Again

Although columnist Margaret Wente has been caught plagiarizing yet one more time by visual artist Carol Wainio, the Globe and Mail refuses to take real responsibility for it, saying only that "This work fell short of our standards, something that we apologize for. It shouldn’t have happened and the Opinion team will be working with Peggy to ensure this cannot happen again."

But it has happened again. Again and again and again and again.

Any reputable newspaper would have, in my opinion, fired Wente long ago. Inexplicably, the National Post's Terence Corcoran actually defends Wente. He can only do so by keeping his eyes firmly shut.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trump Haiku

Craig Kaplan, my brilliant and whimsical colleague, has invented a twitterbot, trump575, that tweets haikus constructed from the opus of Donald Trump. You can follow it here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

You are Not Allowed to Laugh at the Lies and Idiocies of the Right!

Somebody sent me a link to this piece by Emmett Rensin at Vox.

The author's thesis is that liberals have stopped thinking and spend all their time being smug instead -- but this is certainly not true of conservatives. Liberals, according to Rensin, "hate their former allies". Conservatives, by contrast, are open-minded and persuadable. And, Rensin says, The Daily Show is a perfect example of this liberal smugness.

Well, Rensin goes wrong right there. "Smug" is not even close to the right word to describe Jon Stewart. Bill Maher is smug. Jon Stewart is, at times, almost painfully earnest. Does he make fun of people? Absolutely. But modern conservatism has so many targets that the jokes write themselves: Ben Carson and his pyramids that stored grain. Donald Trump and his claim that he saw "thousands and thousands" of American Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Ted Cruz and his "Trus-Ted" slogan, when his record of public dishonesty is hard to deny. Rensin apparently thinks we are not allowed to poke fun at all this idiocy and dishonesty.

Here are some examples of liberal smug ignorance, according to Rensin: "the Founding Fathers were all secular deists". Well, that's clearly not so, but some were, at least during part of their life, like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. But how is this mistake worse than the conservative claim that "94 percent of the [the era of the Founders'] documents were based on the Bible" (debunked here)?

Another one: "that you're actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder". Perhaps the number "30" is wrong, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a significant health risk in owning a gun. And how is this mistake worse than the conservative insistence on "more guns mean less crime"? Pro-gun "researchers" such as Kleck and Lott are treated by conservatives as unimpeachable, when in fact their errors are extensively documented.

Rensin's thesis is essentially a denigration of the importance of knowledge and facts. Who cares, Rensin says implicitly, if watching Fox News makes you less well informed? Pointing that out is just liberal smugness. Knowledge and facts are just unimportant compared to empathy and open-mindedness, which liberals today lack (while, presumably, conservatives have it in spades). Pay no attention the fact that when President Obama cited empathy as a desirable characteristic in a Supreme Court justice, conservatives jumped all over him.

Open-mindedness is a virtue -- I'll agree with that. But open-mindedness without skepticism and facts and knowledge just becomes credulity, a willingess to believe anything if it confirms your world view.

Here are just a few of the things that conservatives "know" that just ain't so: that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet (debunked here); that Bill Clinton delayed air traffic while he was having a haircut (debunked here); that Hillary Clinton was fired from the Watergate investigation for incompetence (debunked here). Visit any conservative website, mention Al or Bill or Hillary, and you'll only have to wait a few minutes before one of these lies is dragged out yet again. I have grad-school-educated conservative friends that proudly repeat these stories, ferchrissake.

Rensin claims that all this liberal smugness has "corrupt[ed]" them, but he gives no examples of corruption. He claims the case against conservatives is "tenuous", but just dismisses evidence like that given above and his own article.

Rensin thinks it is somehow "smug" for atheists to point out the religious hypocrisy of Kim Davis. It is here that his argument (and I use the term generously) becomes the most unhinged. Is it really necessary to be a Christian to criticize Christians? Do you have to believe in the divinity of Jesus or be a professional theologian to point out that Kim Davis cannot find support for her actions in Christian theology? When Mike Huckabee opportunistically elbowed out Ted Cruz to be at Kim Davis's rally, Rensin finds Huckabee genuine and admirable, instead of the pandering opportunity it clearly was.

Rensin is rhetorically dishonest. At one point he tries to refute a claim about the Ku Klux Klan by citing statistics about But these are entirely different groups.

Rensin is upset that the Daily Show is "broadcast on national television". Has he never listened to Fox News? Or conservative radio hosts with huge audiences, like Mark Levin and Michael Savage? The vitriol and the outright lies that happen every single day in these venues make Jon Stewart look like gentle fun.

Rensin claims that only Democrats have "made a point of openly disdaining" the dispossessed. One can only make that claim by wilfully ignoring the time Donald Trump made fun of a disabled reporter, or the time a Republican congressional candidate called poor people slothful and lazy, or Mitt Romney's comment that he could never convince 47% of the American people that "they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives".

Rensin thinks liberal smugness is going to ensure a Trump victory: "Faced with the prospect of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the smug will reach a fever pitch: six straight months of a sure thing, an opportunity to mock and scoff and ask, How could anybody vote for this guy? until a morning in November when they ask, What the fuck happened?". Yet who is a better match for the word smug? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? Look, when even Bill Maher calls you smug, you know you've got smug issues.

Finally, I observe that there doesn't seem to be any way to leave comments on Rensin's piece. That seems pretty smug to me.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Small Mind of the Conservative

Here is a splendid example of a certain kind of conservative mind: the kind that can't imagine how things could be any different, or why anyone would want them to be any different, from the way they are today. This kind of person always says, whenever anything novel is brought up, "But we've always done it this way!" Next, they go on to invent all sorts of silly reasons to avoid making any change.

Small-minded is what we used to call this trait, and it's particularly on display here. Mike Strobel, who despite once being Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun doesn't seem to know the difference between "stationary" and "stationery", can't think of a single decent reason to turf the monarchy in Canada.

Instead, he believes keeping them around is a good idea because "the Trudeaus might declare themselves Canada’s royal family and we’d wake up one morning as subjects of King Justin". Perhaps the Queen will save Strobel someday by pushing him out of the way of an errant taxi. Those two preposterous scenarios are about equally likely.

Allan Fotheringham, a commentator that actually has connected brain cells, once said, "Grown-up nations do not need, as head of state, a woman -- however nice -- who lives across a large ocean in a castle in a foreign country." Someday Canada will grow up. Strobel, I'm not so sure about.