30 November 2009

A bit of fun: fossils say no

This picture is not new. I've seen it many times on the Internet.
Nevertheless, it never seizes to intrigue me. I can't imagine what's in the brains of the car owner. He (say it's a "he") is a "proud American", an "anti-evolutionist", he wants "god" to "bless America", and he believes he has a proof for all this because he probably lives in a redneck corner where other morons like him will honk every time they drive by. And he will feel justified with so many people supporting him. Even if, occasionally, a rational person happens to disagree, this car owner will feel even more proud for his holding his beliefs and for managing to annoy some people (a minority, I suppose, in the place where he lives). There is something deeply perverted about this thing...

The white ribbon: a review

The 150 minutes long black&white film portrays a repressed society in a small German village just before the beginning of WWI. Although there is no central story, the film does not feel as long as it is because it manages to capture the spectators' attention who are seeking to comprehend every little detail in it. Even staring at the closed door, for what seems a long time, listening to childrens' screams, while they are being caned in a ritual punishment ordeal by their father (the priest), is not boring and makes you wonder. A society where almost nobody dares question the status quo be it patriarchical, feudal, religious, or sexual sadistic. Things are they way they are and must remain so, most villagers think. There is no escape from tyranny, work for the Baron is the only option available, and fun is only permitted when the Baron says so. One must feel guilty at all occasions: in school, at home, at work, in the church. Love, if it exists, is only in moderation and must not be seen or acknowledged.

Where are members of such a society led to? No wonder, they become torturers, killers, abusers, repressed individuals. Some of them have no choice because they have never been permitted to show their anger even as little kids. This anger grows and grows and, in the end, we know what happens: The little child will become the Nazi killer later on (no the film does not go there, but it clearly suggests so).

Yes, there are unresolved mysteries in the film, we wonder who did this hideous things, we start suspecting, and, in the end, perhaps we know. But this is not the point of the film. The film is not about trying to find the culprits as it has been suggested in many reviews. This is a secondary point, one that, if you wish, you can see in this way, but you'll be missing the central idea which is a bit more subtle. Or you can ponder on it later...

What I find most interesting in the film is not so much the direct punishment itself, but rather the implicit suppression of all kinds of things, including your thoughts, your opinions, your expressions... You are not allowed to even have a thought that may be different from the one imposed upon you by the feudal or religious establishment. If you do, you better hang yourself. There are, fortunately, survivors of this, and the narrator himself, the teacher of the village, is a rational person, one who will express what he feels and thinks. Fortunately for him, and for everybody else, deus ex machina in the form of WWI comes to provide a kind of cleansing: there is no other way for this society to heal itself other than be destroyed. Thus, the narrator, never has to go through the painful process of exposing his findings. He is saved.

The film is a psychological masterpiece. In it we can see all kinds of human emotions and acts: anger, revenge, love, repression, humiliation, pride, subordination, perversion, faith, exasperation, hope,.... We can take a look at what has happened, time and again, happens and will happen in human societies. And we can learn that, unless we question those out there who tell us how to think, when to laugh or cry, what to believe and how to behave, we will constribute, especially if this happens en masse, to our self-destruction.

27 November 2009

The white ribbon (das weiße Band)

I'm looking forward to seeing this new film, by Michael Haneke. In two hours, at the Filmhouse. The film is about "the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature." It's set up in a village in northern Germany in 1914, just before WWI. Strange incidents occur, acts of vandalism and violence, which gradually assume the character of a ritual punishment.

From the Filmhouse description:
The White Ribbon is not about the repercussions of a single buried event, but a continuous diseased process, in which those without power – children and disenfranchised adults – are in a permanent state of futile rebellion against authority, expressed in spiteful acts of anonymous nastiness; these trigger spasms of fear in both the community and their masters, who respond by redoubling their resented discipline. 
The White Ribbon has an absolute confidence and mastery of its own cinematic language, and the performances Haneke elicits from his first-rate cast, particularly the children, are eerily perfect.
The film won the palm d'or award at the May 2009 Cannes film festival. Report on it afterwards. My report on it later.

24 November 2009

Welsh Police consult with psychics

The following piece of news needs no comment or explanation for its absurdity:

Earlier this month it emerged that Dyfed Powys Police had spent £20,000 following a line of investigation in a murder inquiry, based on information passed on by a medium.
Joe Power [a "psychic medium"] says that he was contacted by the Metropolitan Police, asking for assistance on a very high profile murder investigation. "I got an e-mail from the Met police asking for assistance," Joe Power insists."I gave them some information that was coming through the murder victim and people on the other side. Without a doubt they followed up on it." In an initial statement, the Metropolitan Police denied Joe had any involvement in the case.... A former Scotland Yard man who now practises as a medium, he says: "I think the police are sceptical, but they have a right to be so because some mediums and psychics make false claims." "But, ultimately officers don't mind where the evidence comes from as long as it proves or disproves the case."... While police forces across the UK refuse to either confirm or deny their use of psychics in major investigations, it is difficult to gauge how widespread the practice is. But Joe Power is in no doubt that he and others will continue to play a role in solving crime: "I predict that in the next 30 to 40 years you will actually get people like me who will find bodies, where there's no question about it. "The psychic world is moving on very fast and it's getting more accurate with the information all the time."
I thought that mediums, psychics, fortune tellers, etc. are there for morons only, for those idiots who have extra money to waste. But when you hear that the state is using them then you must be alarmed!

23 November 2009

Charles Freeman

I'm looking forward to getting hold of a copy of Charles Freeman's new book, "A New History of Early Christianity".

The book was just published by Yale University Press and there are not many reviews around. A description of the book, taken from Yale U.P., is as follows:
The relevance of Christianity is as hotly contested today as it has ever been. "A New History of Early Christianity" shows how our current debates are rooted in the many controversies surrounding the birth of the religion and the earliest attempts to resolve them. Charles Freeman's meticulous historical account of Christianity from its birth in Judaea in the first century A.D. to the emergence of Western and Eastern churches by A.D. 600 reveals that it was a distinctive, vibrant, and incredibly diverse movement brought into order at the cost of intellectual and spiritual vitality. Against the conventional narrative of the inevitable 'triumph' of a single distinct Christianity, Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. Tracing the astonishing transformation that the early Christian church underwent - from sporadic niches of Christian communities surviving in the wake of a horrific crucifixion to sanctioned alliance with the state - Charles Freeman shows how freedom of thought was curtailed by the development of the concept of faith. The imposition of 'correct belief', and an institutional framework that enforced orthodoxy were both consolidating and stifling. Uncovering the church's relationships with Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman society, Freeman offers dramatic new accounts of Paul, the resurrection, and the church fathers and emperors.
Judging from his earlier book, "The Closing of the Western Mind: the Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason", where Freeman gives a superb account of how, around the 4th c. AD, there was a phase transition: whereas science and reason was thriving in the early AD years as a direct continuation of the ancient Greek tradition, something happened in the 4th c., and rationality was suddenly lost; science was condemned and even thinking was considered dangerous. We all know what followed for hundreds of years to come. In the words of Freeman himself,

My thesis is that Christianity was heavily politicised by the late Roman empire, certainly to the extent that it would have been unrecognisable to Jesus. Note the linking of the church to the empire's success in war, opulent church building and an ever narrowing definition of what beliefs one had to hold to be saved. (Hand in hand with this went an elaboration of the horrors of hell, a radical and unhappy development which can only have discouraged freedom of thought.) My core argument is that one result of the combination of the forces of authority (the empire) and faith (the church) was a stifling of a sophisticated tradition of intellectual thought which had stretched back over nearly a thousand years and which relied strongly on the use of the reasoning mind.
I did not depend on Gibbon. I do not agree with him that intellectual thought in the early Christian centuries was dead and I believe that the well established hierarchy of the church strengthened not undermined the empire. After all it was the church which survived the collapse of the western empire. Of course, Gibbon writes so eloquently that I could not resist quoting from him at times but my argument is developed independently of him and draws on both primary sources and recent scholarship.
On the relationship between Christianity and philosophy I argue that there were two major strands of Greek philosophy , those of Plato and Aristotle. The early church did not reject Greek philosophy but drew heavily on Platonism to the exclusion of Aristotle. In the thirteenth century Christianity was reinvigorated by the adoption of Aristotelianism , notably by Thomas Aquinas. It seems clear that Christianity needed injections of pagan philosophy to maintain its vitality and a new era in Christian intellectual life was now possible. I don't explore it in this book. Even so, when one compares the rich and broad intellectual achievements of the `pagan' Greek centuries with those of the Middle Ages, it is hard to make a comparison in favour of the latter. Where are the great names? (The critic who mentioned the ninth century philosopher Erigena should also have mentioned that he was condemned as a heretic.)
When one reads the great works of second and third century AD thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy and Plotinus, which are remarkable for their range and depth, one cannot but feel that much has been lost in the west by the fifth century. Something dramatic happened in the fourth century. In 313 Constantine brought the traditional policy of Roman toleration for different religious beliefs to its culmination by offering Christians (who had condemned the pagan gods as demons) a privileged place within the empire alongside other religions. By 381 the Christian emperor Theodosius when enforcing the Nicene creed condemns other Christians as `foolish madmen.. We decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics . . .they will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority , in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decided to inflict'.If this is not a `closing of the western mind' it is difficult to know what is. It goes hand in hand with a mass of texts which condemn rational thought and the violent suppression of Jewish and pagan sacred places. There is no precedent for such a powerful imposition of a religious ideology in the Greco-Roman world. The evidence of suppression is so overwhelming that the onus must be on those who argue otherwise to refute it.
Some readers have related my book to the present day- I leave it to them to do so if they wish -it is important to understand ANY age in which perspectives seem to narrow and religion and politics become intertwined as they certainly did in the fourth century. After all American Christianity was founded by those attempting to escape just such political straitjackets. Christianity has never been monolithic or static. In fact,as my book makes clear, one of my heroes is Gregory the Great who, I believe, brought back spirituality, moderation and compassion into the Christian tradition after the extremes of the fourth century. It is the sheer variety of Christianities which make the religion such an absorbing area of study.
I hope Amazon readers will continue to engage with my arguments whether they agree with them or not. Keep the western mind open and good reading!

22 November 2009

The Book of Genesis

By Robert Crumb, now available at amazon.

While creationists/intelligent-designers/religious-morons are usurping the science classic, Darwin's Origin of Species, by publishing it together with an introduction by a parasite, called Ray Comfort, and distributing it for free to US university students, here is another classic, a religious classic this time, presented from the marvelous point of view of Robert Crumb, the underground comics dude, the one whose illustrated stories are full of lewd, perverted but very much loved and admired content by many. A much better text, to be sure.

I suggest that people buy Crumb's Genesis and hand it to creationists as a response to Comfort's book. And watch their reaction.

Crumb's Genesis has been promoted as racy, and the front cover warns "adult supervision recommended for minors". Book of Genesis 'teases imagination', says the BBC.

Well, this is not a surprise. The original Genesis, as well as the whole Bible, should come with adult warnings. It is full of hideous acts that, if read by minors, and not only, might cause major disturbances to society. But what am I saying? Sorry. The Bible HAS caused major disturbances for several millennia.

21 November 2009

On professionalism

The word "professional'' as been used and abused. It is nowadays often confused with "bureaucrat'' or with "wearing a suit and a tie''. But let's see what Schopenhauer had to say when he contrasted professionals to dilettantes, an also confused word:

"Dilettantes! Dilettantes! - this is the derogatory cry (directed at) those who apply themselves to art or science for the sake of gain raise against those who pursue it for love of it and pleasure in it... The truth, however, is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is diretly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage-earners, that the greatest things have always come." Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851 (Essays and Aphorisms, R. J. Hollingdale, trans., London Penguin Books, 1970), p 227.

18 November 2009

What qualifies as a religion?

From today's news:

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has said he will consider calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the Church of Scientology. But he said the evidence must be looked at carefully before proceeding. Senator Nick Xenophon launched a scathing attack on Scientology, citing letters from former followers alleging extensive criminal activity: "letters received by me which were written by former followers in Australia, contain extensive allegations of crimes and abuses which are truly shocking." Senator Xenophon said their correspondence implicated the organisation in a range of crimes, including forced imprisonment, coerced abortions, physical violence and blackmail.

Good. I have no problem in questioning each and every religion of crimes and abuses made in the name of god. It seems, however, that in order to put a religion in a corner we must classify it as a sect:

Given [that Scientology has] religion status in many countries, it enjoys tax-free privileges - but revelations from former followers have sparked huge legal battles in Europe where in several countries it is deemed a sect, not a religion.

So, what, exactly, is a religion and what a sect? Is it a matter of age? Christian Science, the Bahai faith, Wicca, and Raelism, for example, are all relatively new religions. Or are they sects? What is the difference? Is it a matter of number of followers? Or is it, simply, a matter of whether, by classifying them as religions we make them tax exempt? At some point, all religions were young. And they were considered as sects. It seems to me that the division is arbitrary and the survival of the fittest rule applies here. If your religion makes it for a couple of hundred years then you're in good shape. Your descendants will benefit tax-free privileges and respect from all because their beliefs and acts will be blessed by some mataphysical, divine, superhuman force. Or so they will claim.

Last month, a French court convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud.
Excellent. I want to see the French court convict the Catholic Church of fraud and I want to see the Greek court convict the Orthodox Church for fraud too.

14 November 2009

European court of human rights bans crucifixes in Italian schools

In 1920, when Italy was a fascist state, crucifixes were made compulsory, by law, in the classroom.

Recently, an Italian mother (born in Finland), Soile Lautsi, who wants to give her children a secular education, brought a case, against the depiction of crucifixes, to Italy's Constitutional Court and her case was thrown out. She appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. And she won. The seven judges said state schools had to "observe confessional neutrality". Well-said. Article from the Guardian here. Article from BBC here.

Not surprisingly, there was an uproar in Italy by fascistoids (Berlusconites and the Northern League), by Catholics, and the Vatican. Outside Italy, the first to react was another reactionary organization, the Greek Orthodox Church. Even though they believe and teach that the Pope is a fool, they decided to offer their unanimous support to those Italians opposing the Human Rights Court decision.

In Greece, things are just as ridiculous as in Italy, or even worse: In the courts of law there are icons (not just symbols) of saints from above the judge's bench. The gospel is be used for swearing oaths in the witness box and every time one assumes a public post (e.g. professor in a university). Crucifixes abound in Greek schools, just as in Italy. Education in Greece is intricately linked to Greek Orthodoxy. Everybody in Greece pays the salary of Orthodox priests via taxes--no exceptions made. The Greek Church is afraid to lose all its state-supported advertising. And this may have financial cosequences: The Greek Church is ridiculously wealthy, usurping a large fraction of the Greek Economy.

A human rights group called Helsinki Monitor is seeking to set the Italian case as a precedent in Greece. In fact, I hope they do. I am going to write to the European Court of Human Rights asking them to apply justice to the theocratic state of Greece as well.

12 November 2009

Crossing boundaries

I was inspired to write this entry, mainly as a reminder to myself for future reference, when I learned, yesterday, that a plant geneticist, Dr John C Sanford, wrote a book titled Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome in which he probably abuses the concept of entropy in order to draw conclusions about his own field: "This book strongly refutes the Darwinian concept that man is just the result of a random and pointless natural process." The sentence, appearing in the book's description is wrong: the Darwinian process is not just random and cannot be described, merely, as a random process. (I also say "probably abuses" because I have not read the book yet.) I'd be interested to see if Jeff Shallit has spotted this, as he often likes to comment on the abuse of Information Theory by Creationists/Intelligent designers.

People transgress boundaries all the time, especially in Academia, and, often, for good reasons. In fact, I am a big supporter of cross-disciplinary research. However, it is not enough to merely have a haphazard knowledge of a secondary field: experience and knowledge are necessary. Otherwise, funny things can happen. Just as the Sanford example I mentioned above. Let me mention a few more:

The domain of biologically-inspired computing: Although I don't condemn the field, there are many silly papers written all the time. Here is one, published in the IEEE Transactions of Evolutionary Computation. This paper says the following, literally: If you have 1 million grains of sand numbered 1, 2, up to 1 million, one of which is red, but you don't know which is red, then there is no algorithm that will perform better than blind search; that is, choose a grain at random, look at the colour, and keep doing it until you find the red one. This theorem, now known as the No Free-Lunch Theorem (NFLT) is proved in a convoluted (and silly) manner in the paper. Many papers of this sort are produced (daily?) by Computer Scientists, Mathematicians and Engineers who decided to use Biological language in their research (without, perhaps, understanding this discipline).

The mathematically-inspired research on religion: Religion, per se, is, of course, not an academic discipline (or should not be), just as Astrology is not. (The study of the religious phenomenon, as a social phenomenon, on the contrary, is an academic discipline, just as the study of mental diseases is.) However, there are many researchers and "researchers" in Academia who have decided to use Mathematics to prove that their religion is correct. I'm saying it bluntly, but it is so even if they pretend to be arguing only about the existence of a deity or about design in the universe. Ultimately, they are only arguing from their own religious viewpoint. Two examples here: William Dembski, Professor of Theology and Science at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, ex-mathematician, is constantly abusing his prior field, Mathematics, in order to promote the so-called Intelligent Design (ID) ideas, which are versions of the so-called Creationism. In his Jesus Tomb Math paper is not the worst example. But his papers where he "uses" Information Theory for ID purposes are a good laugh. Second example is John Lennox, Professor of Algebra at the more reputable University of Oxford. He is a mathematician and a priest and uses mathematics to "prove" that god exists. I've written about him before.

The physico- mathematically-inspired research on post-modern philosophy is another case, beautifully exposed by Alan Sokal. In his paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", he exposes the idiocies of post-modernism, by writing a paper on this field, a paper which he managed to publish! Irene Irigaray is one of the post-modern philosophers who, among other things, argues that equations in Physics are predominantly male.

Examples of this sort abound. I can think of some more. I would be interested in discovering the ones I am not aware of.

11 November 2009

Criticising Khamenei

Defying all conventions, a young mathematics student in Iran, Mahmoud Vahidnia, stood up and openly criticised Khamenei, talked about lack of freedom in Iran and lack of freedom of speech. His talk lasted 20 minutes. The official claim is that he is not arrested but, of course, we do not know for sure.

In a rational world, everybody and everything should be subject to criticism, questioning and doubt. There is no democracy without rationality. And this is true at all levels. At the moment we feel fear of raising a question we (should) know that something is wrong; and we should have the courage to admit so, at least to ourselves. Unfortunately, most will suppress their very thoughts and even subject themselves to self-brain-washing: this is the most comfortable approach.

9 November 2009

Professors in the UK are required to act as police agents, Part II

Earlier this autumn, I wrote a post explaining how we, professors, are requirted to monitor students with visas and report back to the university who will report to the UK Border Agency. Another bureaucratic rule established means one more opportunity for the administrator to rejoice and one less opportunity for those of us who would like to engage in actual education and research, rather than bureaucratic meetings.

Rules, rules, and more rules is what will bring the university down.

But let's momentarily have a laugh about the whole thing by looking at some cartoons:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What bothers me is not the rules themselves, neither the people who establish them. This is their job. They have to justify their salary, invent something, keep the wheels rolling. What bothers me is that nobody in the academic establishment talks about this. It is as if anything goes. Which raises the question: What if we lived in a dictatorship? Would everybody keep their mouths equally shut? (I'm afraid, yes...)

P.S. Thanks to Michael Fridman for the cartoon references.


What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant