17 December 2010

xkcd xmas

Another image which can be used as a card.
No comments needed.

Source: xkcd

Happy Newtonmas cards (reposting)

Due to popular demand, I am reposting this:

I designed some cards for the season. Please feel free to copy, print on hard paper, and send them around. There is a front side and a back side which should be glued together. Depending on taste, you may pick any of the front side versions.

16 December 2010

Thanksgiving sales

Thanksgiving in the US is always on a Thursday. The day after (known as black Friday)  is apparently the biggest shopping day of the year and marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping period. I was in Bellevue, Washington and noticed a lot of advertizing on the streets: people holding signs for sales, waving them up and down, as cars drove buy, to attract consumers' attention. The one below is particularly interesting: a young girl, dressed in military outfit, advertizing guns and ammo (ammunition).

Vietnamese restaurant

Last week, in Bellevue (Washington State, USA), I saw a Vietnamese Restaurant with a pretty original name: What the Pho'. I was driving but I had to stop to take a photo:

People say it's quite successful and the food is good. I wonder how much the name helps. It certainly helped this store.

10 December 2010

A list of 100 books: how many have you read?

Have you read more than 6 of the following books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed below (via A Nadder).

Here's what to do: Bold those books you've read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish or those from which you've read an excerpt. 

Here's how I scored.
How about you?

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling 
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll 
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma -Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno - Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad 
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

5 December 2010

Stoning in Iran

I wrote about stoning before. In particular, we noticed that stoning, although present in the Deuteronomy, has been eliminated in Judaism, but not in Islam. I'm sure there are Muslims (the majority I hope?) who are appaled by what some of them are doing, but the crux of the matter is that stoners, e.g. in Iran, are doing so in the name of their god and their law: they justify killing a person in this most brutal manner by convincing themselves that it is their god who told them so, or it is the god who told their lawmakers, and the stoners are acting as agents.

I saw the link and the pictures below in this blog. I repost it, albeit brutal, because I think we should all be aware of what kind of barbarism humans are capable of, in the absence of rationality, and with the help and support of their religious and political (which are identical in the case of Iran) leaders.

Actual source of graphic images: National Post. See also article on Iran's stone age justice system.

2 December 2010

A snow bear (or is it dog?)

There is snow, a lot of it, in many place in N. Europe. The following snow sculpture, from Edinburgh, is worth looking at:

28 November 2010

Creationist mathematics

I wrote a couple of days ago about creationists and the like. Today I want to give an example of their scientific stupidity by pointing out one of their latest articles on infinity. I first read it in Recursivity.

Creationists have a presence on the Internet via the site "Uncommon Descent". People like Dembski often write stupid articles trying to prove that gods (they call them intelligent designers) exist. In this article, Robert Sheldon writes:
For example, take the number line from 1 to ∞. It’s infinite of course. But now divide every number by the largest number on the line, and we have mapped the entire number line into the fractions between 0 and 1. 
What the hell does he mean by "divide by the largest number"? He may have heard that the transformation x → 1/x maps (0,1] onto [1, ∞) but he hasn't quite understood this high school concept.
So the rational numbers contain the entire integer number line between 0 and 1, and the rational numbers go up to infinity too. 
Excuse me? The rational numbers contain what? The... integer (?) line? And how does this follow from the above?
Then the rational numbers are at least ∞2 bigger. (Yup, I’m being sloppy, because Cantor also showed how to map x2–>x, so instead of calling it ∞2, he called it ℵ0 cardinality where integers and rational numbers have the same size infinity.)
Here he is, again, completely off. So much so that it smells from quite far.
[The cardinality of the irrrationals] really is bigger [than the cardinality of the rationals], and Cantor called it ℵ1 cardinality.
Mr Sheldon, go do your homework before you write anything on infinities.
Now if you are like Cantor's left wing critics, then arbitrary things must be random. It is a peculiar property of atheists that they all worship the god of Chance. It would seem possible that they might worship Lady Luck instead, but no, Xaos, Random Chance, must remain the king of the modernist pantheon. So this contingency drives them bonkers.
This is so funny! Left wing critics of Cantor? Atheists worshipping the god of Chance? What about communists? Homosexuals? Liberals? Punks? People with tattoos? (I think the latter folk don't like Cantor either.)

This is the kind of "mathematics" typically used by creationists. The religious folk will, at the same time, applaud them because, in their eyes, they are oh so sophisticated!

For another example of creationist maths look here.

Creationists and similarly-minded religious imbeciles should leave mathematics for mathematicians and scientists. Instead, they should just go to their church to light a candle or whatever their particular religion tells them to do.

26 November 2010

A blog's purpose OR creationism: a recurring theme

I couldn't decide which of the two titles I wanted to have on this posting today. I wanted to express my belief that a blog can help see another point of view and, indeed, show that some things that would never see the light of Earth can surface and be discussed. I am talking about an idiotic movement, mainly in the US, but with branches in the UK and elsewhere, called creationism. It is also called intelligent design. It is nothing new. People, from ages ago, wanted to have their holy texts the only ones that they would read (out of laziness, for instance). They said that you don't need science, just the bible is enough. Some are more radical than others claiming that the Earth is flat or that the Earth is the center of the Universe, some get pimples when they hear the word (Darwinian) evolution, and some do accept science, but get irritated when someone tells them that gods are not a necessary ingredient in any mathematical or physical theory. The latter type of creationists have call themselves intelligent designers and try to "prove" that some intelligence (a.k.a. god) is needed.

Mention these things to an average person in Sweden, a country I live in, and we'll have a laugh and then a beer (if we can afford it--it's too expensive here). But mention these things to an average US-person and you're in for a big surprise. More to the point, it is almost impossibe for a European who has not lived in the US to understand why those people over there are so fanatic about religion and creationism. Vice versa, your average US creationist or religious person has hard time understanding a secular, plain rational, point of view. (Be careful: I said "average", in the common sense of the term. There are people on the other side of the Atlantic who are much more sophisticated than those one meets on this side of the Ocean on a daily basis.)

Some blogs' purposes is to speak openly about these things. The average creationist can (although I doubt it it will happen any tie soon) realize that his/her beliefs are idiotic and that all this intelligent design hoopla has purposes and roots that have nothing to do with science.

It is interesting to take a look at Jeff Shallit's blog. He often writes about creationism. And he gives very good answers to many intelligent design desperate attempts to (ab)use science/mathematics in their arguments. A very good example of the abuse of mathematics in creationism is William Dembski, the leading member (founder?) of a certain theological institute called Discovery Institute whose purpose is to prove that a certain god (called intelligent design) is necessary in Physics. Dembski was a PhD student of Patrick Billingsley with a PhD in Probability Theory. But he didn't do much with mathematics. Having failed in his field he turned to theology.

In Shallit's blog you will also find a recurring theme, called Miranda. This person, apparently a creationist, tries to attack each and every posting of Jeff's that has to do with intelligent design. As an example, read the posting on Harun Yahya (a creationist of Muslim type--yes, they are not necessarily Christian) and read Miranda's replies here. Shallit wrote
Yahya isn't much different from the theocrats at the Discovery Institute, who want to link Darwin to both fascism and communism. 
Miranda, in her replies, wrote that
Richard Evans, historian at Cambridge University, has explained, "The real core of Nazi beliefs lay in the faith Hitler proclaimed in his speech of September 1938 in science--a Nazi view of science--as the basis for action. Science demanded the furtherance of the interests not of God but of the human race, and above all the German race and its future in a world ruled by ineluctable laws of Darwinian competition between races and between individuals."
I asked to explain what she meant. She replied:
My conclusion is that Jeff's charge: "the theocrats at the Discovery Institute, who want to link Darwin to both fascism and communism" is shared by reputable historians.
Miranda attempts here to obfuscate the dialog:
  • Jeff mentions that the Discovery Institute theocrats link Darwin to fascism.
  • Mirand replies that, in her understanding, Hitler also linked Darwin to his ideology.
So what? Even if the latter is true, what does this tell us about the Discovery Institute and its attempts to show that gods are needed in science?
Miranda, I'll tell you this: it's so nice to live in a country (Sweden) where almost nobody--as far as my limited experience has been--cares about creationism/intelligent_design/religious crap. It's so refreshing not to have the crowds around you who want to explain science through the bible and holy texts. I feel happy I can look at these idiocies from a distance and have a laugh at them. But I do care about people who live on the other side of the Atlantic and have to constantly put up with all this nonsense, sometimes on a daily basis. 
 Perhaps, with the help of blogs or otherwise, Miranda can see that her fellow creationists are a largely American phenomenon. A phenomenon which, in other civilized countries of this world, fortunately does not exists (in such a scale). If creationists could broaden their horizons, perhaps they could embrace a more rational standpoint. Instead, they shelter themselves from everybody else, they build fairy taile-like theme parks (creationist museums), and live with false beliefs. The apotheosis of all is the so-called Holy Land Experience, a Disney-like theme park in Orlando Florida (next to DisneyWorld), where, instead of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the pious creationists, intelligent designers, religious folk, can experience the reenactment of Jesus' crucifixion, on a daily basis:

Now some creationists/inteligent designers may complain that Jesus has nothing to do with their efforts. True, for instance, Yahya's version of creationism is different. Nevertheless, they're all the same in spirit: in that they abuse science and mathematics and make claims that are completely irrational

24 November 2010

Galileo was wrong. Vive la Bible!

Damn! I missed the conference. It took place on 6 November 2010. Just a couple of weeks before my visit to the U.S. Otherwise I would have gone to learn the truth: the Earth is at the center of the Universe, as proven by scientific experiments (e.g., reading the Bible carefully in ancient Hebrew).

According to Dr. Robert Sungenis,

Scientific evidence available to us within the last 100 years that was not available during Galileo's confrontation shows that the Church's position on the immobility of the Earth is not only scientifically supportable, but it is the most stable model of the universe and the one which best answers all the evidence we see in the cosmos.

The consequences are amazing. One of them is, surely, that aliens will reach us soon, since we are the center of the Universe and they surely are looking for it too.

23 November 2010

The monetary value of a professor

According to this Wall Street Journal article, Texas wants to assign a monetary value to each of its university faculty members. For example, Carol Johnson (Biology) is worth minus $279,617,  a colleague of hers, Charles Criscione is worth minus $45,305, history professors are worth minus a lot more, and so on.

Students are customers, and as such, they have every right to receive royal treatmement that goes all the way to assigning a value to each of their lecturers.

The logic is simple: If a professor is worth plus something, then keep them. If a professor is worth minus something, then fire them. And the savings can be used for increasing the other professors' salary.

So what's gonna happen? There will be a university with no languages, no history, no biology, no mathematcs, none of these subjects which generate negative profit. The university will comprise of Business, Marketing, Media--whatever it generates immediate profit.

Performance metrics they say, and they mean it in Texas. Texas wants it BIG. No small potatoes, but big bucks.

The article above mentions, in particular, Chester Dunning, a history professor, has won several teaching awards. According to a report by the chancellor, he also loses money for the university, though his department is in the black overall.

What is the solution? I propose one, Texas-style: Get in his office and shoot him!

5 November 2010

The fear of OMEGA

A few weeks ago I finished teaching (yet another time) a sort-of upper division undergraduate probability course. What I want to talk about is the beauty and fear of Ω.

As everybody knows, many undergraduate texts in probability start (pompously so) by putting the subject in its proper basis: A probability space is a triplet (Ω, F, P), where Ω is a set, F is a sigma-algebra of subsets of Ω and P is a countably additive function from F to the nonnegative real numbers such that P(Ω)=1.

And then they go on by giving the reader (only) some trite (silly) examples of probability spaces (such as the set {1,2,3,4,5,6}). After going throuh this rite, the quickly forget Ω.

Poor Ω, you seem to be condemned to death right away, from the start. We talk about you, we make you appear stupid, and then we tell the students: We shall not use this from now on.

What makes things worse is that when we speak of random variables, we immediately tell our students that we shall never write X(ω), but, simply, X. There are, of course, very good reasons for doing so, and, indeed, many times, we need not think of random variables as functions, but, simply, be able to handle probabilities associated with them.

In doing so, we immediately destroy the power of Ω, and tell the student that it's not really there. We condemn it to death. We make students fear of them. Some students graduate, they go to get a Master's, maybe a PhD later, and they reach the professorial levels, all the way having the fear of Ω. So much so, that they often miss a huge part of Probability because they are unwilling to delve into Ω and see that it is there and exists!

I am starting a campaign: Re-introduce Ω and keep it up to the surface, by giving, right from the beginning, meaningful examples where the construction (rather than the axiomatization) of Ω is used.

It took people long time to talk about Probability correctly and now what? Should we pretend we don't know what it is? And keep going on teaching the subject as if it were not understood?

No, I am NOT claiming we should teach it a la Bourbaki. No. I am just saying that, while we do speak of Probability in terms of dice, coins, coincidences, noise, etc., let us not forget that it lives on some Ω which can be used, whenever convenient.

1 November 2010

Language fashions

I called a friend in Greece yesterday but the connection was not possible due to technical problems. A recorded message announced:
Η τηλεφωνική σύνδεση που καλέσατε δεν είναι εφικτή για τεχνικούς λόγους.
(The telephone connection that you called is not possible due to technical reasons.)
I've been hearing this message for a few years: it has been the standard recorded message of the Greek telecommunication company during the last, say, 6-7 years. What's wrong with this? Well, we do not call a telephone connection. We either call a telephone (number) or we establish a telephone connection. To call a telephone connection is, simply, an absurd expression.

So I will make a prediction: because this message has been on for many years, and because nobody has bothered to change it, this will become a de facto expression in the Greek language: "to call a telephone connection". I don't complain when a language changes (like nite instead of night or gonna instead of going to), but, nevertheless, it seems peculiar when a language changes due to a stupidity. The example above is a change witnessed in action.

Here is another example, a phonological change this time: The double consonant 'γγ' in Greek is sometimes pronounced as 'ng' (i.e. nasalised hard g), as in αγγελος (a'ŋgelos), and sometimes as 'ŋγ' (i.e. nasalised soft g) as in the word
συγγραφέας (writer)  :   siŋγraféas
The reason is simple: the latter word is formed by joining a prefix (συν) with a word derived from the verb γραφω (to write):
συν + γραφέας = συγγραφέας
The nasal consonant ν becomes γ in front of the (soft) consonant γ. While the writing changes, the pronunciation remains unaltered. Nevertheless, many younger Greeks pronounce the word as
i.e. (i) they drop the nasal sound completely and (ii) the harden the γ. So the 'υγγ' in 'συγγραφέας' sounds like the 'ig' in 'dig'. The result sounds both funny and ridiculous.

How did this come about? It appears that several years ago some illiterate TV news broadcaster, or some other popular TV personality, started pronouncing the word as 'siGraféas'. Probably, this became the cool thing to do. And, lo and behold, we have a generation of Greeks pronouncing the word in a funny way. (Please don't ask me for references; this is, simply, my guess...)

Again, it is silly to complain about changes in language (it changes all the time), but it does sound a bit funny when the changes are due to errors that can be witnessed in action.

My final example, again of phonological nature, is the triplet of months
Οκτώβριος,  Νοέμβριος, Δεκέμβριος (October, November, December).
They derive from the latin words octo, novem, decem, meaning eight, nine, ten, respectively. Notice that the nasal consonant 'm' appears at the end of only two of these numerals. Therefore 'October' is not pronounced 'octoMber'. However, modern (i.e. the last 5 years or so) Greeks, and learned ones, supposedly (such as politicians and lawyers), say
Why? Well, I don't know. Apparently, Since Νοέμβριος and  Δεκέμβριος are pronounced as NoéMvrios and DekéMvrios, some not-so-cautious Greeks started inserting a nasal consonant in Οκτώβριος as well, making it, effectively, Οκτώμβριος. And since people like to behave as the ones whom they consider superior to them, the latter pronunciation of our second autumn month has been accepted.

Well, October (or should I say Octomber to be cool too) ended up yesterday. We're already in November and I need to do get some work done....

(Besides, my problem, now, is pronouncing Swedish, which is tougher than Finnish, and, oh boy, how much I have to learn (but can't face it yet).)

19 October 2010

Christine O'Donnell

Today  I saw, on the front page of the German newspaper, "Die Welt" the picture of  a woman, called Christine O'Donnell, together with an article titled "a quite normal American". Not having followed the latest developments of American politics, I was ignorant about her existence. The article starts as follows:
Christine O'Donnell is Republican and the number two in the ultra-conservative Tea Party. She hates communism and Selbstbefriedigung. She knows witches well and once had a date on a satanic Altar. But let us not forget: She is a candidtae in the the midterm elections for Congress. She has become a nightmare for the Democrats. Mrs. O'Donnell said simply of herself: I'm a normal American. The people on the street are enthusiastic.
 Who? What? I don't know her. I don't understand German that well. Did I understood incorrectly? Ok, she hates communism, she is super-conservative, she sounds like Sara Palin, but what? She knows witches? She dated a satan? Is she an idiot?

So, let me go ask a German colleague. (I'm in Oberwolfach, for a mathematical workshop.) "What's Selbstbefriedigung?", I ask. The German colleague smiles, hesitates to answer, and I tell him that I saw it in front of Die Welt. He then explains: "Selbstbefriedigung means to satisfy yourself... sexually..." 

Oh, is that so? So I translate again:
Christine O'Donnell  hates communism and masturbation.
 What is this? Is she a complete idiot? Why does Die Welt feel that this statement is so important that it appears on its front page? Is this woman even worse than Palin? Can that be?

So I checked. Indeed, my suspicions are true. She hates communism. She condemns masturbation as sinful. She does not accept the theory of Evolution. She hasdated or been a friend of people who practiced witchcraft. She is against abortion. And the list goes on...I won't give links because the Internet is littered with her portraits; and they're neither pretty nor funny.

She is a normal American. She expects to be elected by people who have the same values. There are, apparently, many--too many--of them.

Here is the transcript from a very recent debate between Christine O'Donnell (republican candidate), Chris Coons (democratic candidate) and two moderators. I learned it through Evolutionblog. That she is an idiot can be witnessed from the following excerpt:
BLITZER: Let's give you a chance to respond to some of the things she said because in a television appearance back in 1998 on Bill Maher's show you said evolution is a myth. Do you believe evolution is a myth?
O'DONNELL: I believe that the local -- I was talking about what a local school taught and that should be taught -- that should be decided on the local community. But please let me respond to what he just said.
BLITZER: We'll let you respond but answer the question. Do you believe evolution is a myth?
O'DONNELL: Local schools should make that decision. I made that remark based on --
BLITZER: What do you believe?
O'DONNELL: What I believe is irrelevant.
BLITZER: Why is it irrelevant?
O'DONNELL: Because what I would support ...
BLITZER: Voters want to know.
O'DONNELL: What I will support in Washington, D.C. is the ability for the local school system to decide what is taught in their classrooms and what I was talking about on that show was a classroom that was not allowed to teach creationism as an equal theory as evolution. That is against their constitutional rights and that is an overreaching arm of the government. But, please allow me at least the full minute to respond to what he said because he said these statements that we made should be taken into consideration when casting your vote. So then I would be remiss not to bring up the fact that my opponent has recently said that it was studying under a Marxist professor that made him become a Democrat. So when you look at his position on things like raising taxes, which is one of the tenets of Marxism; not supporting eliminating death tax, which is a tenet of Marxism -- I would argue that there are more people who support my Catholic faith than his Marxist beliefs, and I'm using his own words.

15 October 2010

"From the soul"

I don't think that the following video needs too much introduction. It's best experienced by devoting 6 minutes in watching it. 

7 October 2010

Lars Vilks' talk: all was OK

I didn't go to Vilks' talk, but I heard and read that nothing special happened. Vilks gave a 2-hour talk and it went smoothly. As it should. But 130 police were brought to the university, and it cost more than 700 thousand Swedish krona (more than 100 thousand US dollars). Here is the article from the local newspaper.

5 October 2010

Respecting freedom of speech

Back in May 2010, the artist Lars Vilks gave a talk in my university (Uppsala) about free speech. He is a well-known artist who provokes religious sentiment by depicting, though drawings and video, certain aspects of christianity and islam in a non-conventional way. During his talk he was assaulted by muslim activists:

The lecture was interrupted and Vilks had to leave. A few days later, his house was attacked by arsonists. Lars Vilks keeps receiving death threats.

A few months after the unfinished lecture, the Philosophy department of Uppsala university decided to invite Lars Vilks to finish his lecture. The whole rationale about the invitation can be found here. Notice that the university does allow for protests, as long as the protests respect the law of the country. There will be a question-answer period and everyone who wishes to object Lars Vilks' work can do so. Demonstrations are also possible and legal.

What is not acceptable is physical violence and interruption of the talk. From what I have seen, I don't like Vilks' work, because I find it against my artistic taste. But I don't care what he does as long as he doesn't force me to watch his art or pay for it. And he doesn't. Nobody should take issue with Vilks' talk and let the guy say what he wants to say.

Based on the emails we receive however, I'm afraid there is going to be a lot of tumult tomorrow. Since the auditorium is next to the restaurant, we will be searched by police if we go for lunch. The state is paying money to protect its citizens from a small minority who, because they feel offended, want to cause trouble.

The philosophy department of Uppsala university states:
It is a serious matter indeed for a university lecture to be stopped by violence, regardless of the content of the opinions that provoked these reactions. It is incompatible with the fundamental values that democracy rests on. In order to assert these values, we are inviting him back.

So let him speak and, simply, don't go to his talk. Or, if you go and happen to disagree, do say so, do write about him, do draw cartoons depicting him like a dog--if you so wish, do organize a demonstration. But do not physically assault him

2 October 2010


In his posting "a rant about fractions", Jason Rosenhouse makes some good points about the way fractions are taught in elementary and middle high school math classes. For example, he says that kids get taken points off if, when adding two fractions, they find a non-reduced result, like 10/24. Instead, teachers tell them they should have found 5/12 immediately. Read the posting for more information on silly things going on in the teaching of elementary mathematics. No wonder, says Jason, that most people end up being afraid or hating mathematics.

Here is something else, from my recent university experience. I taught for a while in a department of Statistics & Actuarial Mathematics (where some very funny things are happening in eduation, both for students and teachers alike) in the UK. In Spring 2009 I was asked to solve some exercises for an elementary probability class, for first or second year students. The students had taken calculus before. We had to compute a certain integral (related to a density function) and I asked the students to do this by themselves. I asked a student to tell me her answer and she, correctly, responded b-2b/3.
"So," I continued, "this is equal to what?"
"I don't know", replies the student (who had done the integra correctly), "I'm not good with fractions."
"What about the rest of the class?", I asked the handful of students who were present. 
Apparently nobody knew how to subtract two thirds from 1.

So, remembering my elementrary school days, I turned back to the blackboard, and drew a pie:

(Actual picture from the lecture)
"So, if I cut a pie into three pieces and take out two, how many pieces remain?, I ask.
"One", replies the student.
"Very good", I enourage.
"Oh, that was easy", says another, "even my daughter could have done this".
When Jason, correctly, expressed his frustration with the teaching of fractions, he referred to elementary and middle school education. I repeat that the example above is taken, from personal experience, from university education.

There seemed to be something very, very, wrong in this system. This is why I left.

30 September 2010

University of Texas shootings

A couple of days ago, someone  in the University of Texas at Austin started shooting with an AK-47 assault rifle. He finally shot himself to death. The story is here and here.

As you can see in the pretty image above, the campus was searched by police. Nobody was hurt except the gunman who happened to be an actuarial maths student.

It's not the first, nor the last, time that things like that happen in US campuses. I have first-hand experience, having worked at UT Austin for many years. Back in the 90's, I had a colleague, the infamous Gary Wise,

who used to threaten me and others ("I'll shoot you with my gun"). Wise was a probabilist of sorts, a peculiar guy whose goal in life was to destroy other people's work. He even wrote a book, a bad book, which was published by Oxford University Press.

The university of Texas didn't care about Wise's threats and didn't take our reports seriously. For many years, despite our complaints that Wise used to harass students and faculty alike, Wise was allowed to teach and harass. He was mentally disturbed. I had complained to the university that this person may actually have guns and that he was able to come and start shooting. But police had told me that he had no guns registered in his name. This lasted until the day when he insulted the Dean of Engineering. They then made sure to fire him. Later, he was caught shooting the dean's car.

He was sent to jail. In his apartment, police found numerous assault weapons, undeclared, of course. it is relatively trivial, in Texas, to buy a gun, even without a license. All you have to do is go to the so-called "gun and knife shows". I remember those being advertised outside the university campus.

Recently, he has been charged for murder plots: he was planning to hire a gang member to use an AK-47 to kill the dean.

Gary Wise used to conduct Bible Studies and was therefore liked by the university. And he was favorite among students because he would give an exam and leave students alone to copy from one another.

I remember that once a university administrator (I think he was a vice-provost) told me that if I was afraid that my neighbor has a gun, then I should get a gun too. (Never mind that guns are not allowed on campus or, for that matter, that I never wanted to have a gun!)

Look at this video clip appearing on the ABC newsarticle about the gunman of 2 days ago:

Around the 1'50'', a police officer appears saying that students should be mentally prepared that, now and then, a gunman may show up on campus and advises them to be alert.

I wouldn't be surprised if further advice was given that people should carry guns in order to protect themselves. This is not uncommon in the US. Instead of trying to put a restriction on guns when fatalities happen, it is peculiar that they want exactly the opposite: they are convinced that gun fatalities can only be prevented by more guns.

Absurd. Very absurd.

10 September 2010


Sitting in a coffee shop in Uppsala.
Things are a bit on the rough side at the moment, due to my recent move here.
Lots of things to take care of, hurdles to overcome and so there is little time for any research or fun.
Hopefully, this will change soon.
But here are some photographs from my new home town.
I wish I could speak Swedish. Contrary to popular belief, not everybody speaks English here,
and amongst those who do, many only speak the tourist version of it.
C'est la vie.

26 August 2010


I am puzzled by the origin of the Swedish word "gammal", meaning "old". I was in Gamla Stan (the old city [of Stokholm]) the other day and also live not too far from Gamla Uppsala. Why should "gammal" mean "old"?

A possibility offered by several etymological dictionaries: it relates to the Proto-Indo-European word *ǵʰéi-mn̥- (χιών in Greek) for winter.

But I was just informed that this may not be correct.

The mystery remains.

25 August 2010


Delcamp's guitar site rocks! It has become even better than before. I am thrilled with all the music scores made available there and also
and here
and here
and here
and here.

18 August 2010

Joaquin Malats: Serenata Española

 I am reposting a piece of music which I had originally posted some time ago. Thanks to a comment, I remembered how brilliant this piece of music is, both as a composition and as a performance.

Joaquin Malats (1872-1912) was a Catalan composer and pianist from Barcelona. One of his most melodic pieces is the Serenata Española. It was written for piano but it is its guitar transcription by the great composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909)  that is well-known.  Often transcriptions surpass the original composition and this one (click here for the score) is so well-made that it really makes the instrument sing. Of course, it was not done by an arbitrary person but by Tárrega, one of the greatest guitarists. He knew the instrument well.

In the video below we can see Julian Bream perform the piece. Notice the nuances, the expressions, the slurs, the colour of its performance.  Truly outstanding!

Incidentally, the score linked above is provided by the site of Jean-François Delcamp, a site devoted to classical guitar, containing both music scores and audio files.

13 August 2010

Aristotle, the church, and vegetables

I never quite understood why Aristotle, out of all ancient philosophers, was Christianity's favorite child. It is said that Aristotle was widely read and taught by Christian theologians and that his works greatly influenced Orthodoxy and Catholicism alike.

I think that the theologians who studied Aristotle never bothered to study his works too carefully; or that they skipped the parts they didn't like.

I am referring, in particular, to several paragraphs in Aristotle's Metaphysics (Book 4) where an argument is made about those who cannot understand that we cannot claim that something and the negation of it are simultaneously true.

Aristotle writes:
εἰσὶ δέ τινες οἵ, καθάπερ εἴπομεν, αὐτοί τε ἐνδέχεσθαί φασι τὸ αὐτὸ εἶναι καὶ μὴ εἶναι,  καὶ ὑπολαμβάνειν οὕτως. (There are some who, as we said, assert that it is possible for the same thing to be and not to be, and they accept this.)
And concludes:
ὅμοιος γὰρ φυτῷ ὁ τοιοῦτος ᾗ τοιοῦτος ἤδη. (Any such person is therefore no better than a vegetable.)
When you tell religious people that there are contradictions in their arguments, in their statements, in the way they behave, in the things they believe, in their sacred texts..., they reach a point when deus ex machina comes to save them: this is due to “faith”, to “mystery”, to something that I cannot understand because I don't believe what they believe. (How could I? Even if I was willing to believe blindly, whose belief should I espouse? Well, it is a mystery...)

Daniel Dennet uses this Aristotelian quote to make a point:
All parties to a reasonable conversation have to agree at the outset to set aside any trump cards their religion commends. So what if the Bible, or the Quran, says something? Since not everybody accepts that these texts are infallible, citing them as if they were is just rude.
Those who believe that their holy texts are infallible have a tough task ahead of them: convincing the rest of us, point by point, that they are right, starting from common ground.
Indeed, they have to. Otherwise, I can, using their argument, claim that a scribbling done by Kanzi (the famous bonobo ape) is, according to my belief, sacred, and proves whatever I want to prove.

Dennet concludes:

People whose religion does not permit them to engage in such open-minded discourse are in an important sense disabled: They may be the nicest people in the world, but they are incompetent participants in an open forum, and must be excused. Perhaps somebody else can be found to take on the task of representing their point of view while abiding by the basic rules of inquiry.
I agree. They are nice guys and gals, I've met many of them and share many common interests, values and passions. But they better get someone else to argue for them. (And good luck in finding this person...)

10 August 2010

P is not equal to NP ?

A few days ago, Vinay Deolalikar of HP Research Labs, Palo Alto made public a paper claiming that P ≠ NP. The proof in this 100-page document remains to be checked and scrutinized.

If correct, it will be a staggering achievement.

It is quite interesting that the approach of the paper is based on Probability. If correct, it will be a triumph for the author, a triumph for humanity, and a triumph for Probability. We strongly feel that Probability plays a very important role in mainstream Mathematics and, if correct, this result will be yet another affirmation of this feeling.

Let us not forget that the P vs NP Problem is one of the Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium problems.

7 August 2010

TV vs. Wikipedia

I just learned that the total time spent for watching TV is 2000 more times bigger than the total time spent on Wikipedia development:

The question is: Would you want the average TV watcher be responsible for encyclopedia articles? Hm... Let them watch their TV...

5 August 2010

UK libel laws are unjust

UK libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised - there is urgent need for reform. [Source]

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. UK current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.

Several people, in the UK and beyond, have taken the initiative to urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.

UK libel laws are so bad that attract the so-called libel tourists, i.e. people who want to sue someone for "libel" but, because of freedom of speech regulations, cannot do so in their own country. They therefore go to the UK, where libel laws are terrible, sue, and have a high chance of winning. The reputation of the UK for lack of freedom of expression is very bad. On the positive side, The US senate passed, on 20/7/2010, legislation to protect US journalists, writers and publishers from libel tourists— litigants who sue Americans in foreign jurisdictions which place a lower emphasis on free speech. [Source]

The legislation was specifically designed to negate the threat of English laws, amid claims that the UK has became an international libel tribunal. One case in particular incensed US politicians, that of New York based academic Rachel Ehrenfeld who was sued in London despite only 23 copies of her book, on the financing of terrorism, being sold in the UK. The bill, co-sponsored by Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Jeff Sessions has broad cross-party support. If passed, the proposal will prevent US courts from recognising foreign libel rulings that are inconsistent with the First Amendment. During the debate Leahy argued that foreign courts were chilling open debate and “undermining” freedom of speech in the US. In a statement he said:”While we cannot legislate changes to foreign law that are chilling protected speech in our country, we can ensure that our courts do not become a tool to uphold foreign libel judgments that undermine American First Amendment or due process rights.” The SPEECH (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) Act will now go before the House of Representatives.

It is a complete shame to have laws passed in other countries (and rightly so) to protect  their citizens from being sued in UK courts. What needs to happen is a complete change of UK libel laws. Apparently, one reason for their existence is because they bring a sizeable income to the UK from litigants who can afford to pay a million pounds in order to get rid of people who freely express their opinion.

4 August 2010

Promoters of Science and Mathematics need to understand Science and Mathematics

In my previous posting I talked about a case of someone who feels the need to introduce religion into science.
Changing gears now, I would like to talk a bit about those people who do like science and mathematics but are not qualified to promote them.

Take, for instance, the case of someone writing an article about the need to use Probability Theory, say, in estimating the risk for the purposes of insurance. For example, how much should a chemical factory pay to insure against the possibility of explosion? To answer this, one needs to know both the details of the factory operation (and enough chemical engineering) as well as enough mathematics and probability. Also, one needs to have some data.

Suppose now that a science lover writes an article in an applied mathematics/statistics journal promoting the need to use mathematical models for problems as the one I described above. But let's say that his main argument is this:

"We need to use mathematics when we take decisions (such as deciding the level of insurance payment), and not leave matters to politicians. For if we don't use mathematics and science we may make horrible mistakes. For example, there is a well-known case in the State of Indiana where, in 1897, they almost passed a law saying that π = 9.2376. My main concern  is to show that mathematics needs to be done before laws and regulations are passed so that we avoid mistakes such as the equivalent of having to use π = 9.2376 in our calculations."

My question is this: Would you publish an article whose purpose was to promote the need of use of mathematics for the purpose of not overestimating π? What would you say to the author of such an article? Is this not a poor, very poor, reason for doing mathematics? Would you not tell the author to try harder to come up with a better reason? Or tell him or her that enthusiasm for mathematics is not, by itself, sufficient enough to warrant publication?

More generally: While it is easy to dismiss people (such as the one in my previous posting) claiming that religion and science should be taught and done together, we should not encourage promoters of science without proper understanding of the subject. Just as Shallit wrote, science writers need to know science, so should promoters of science understand what they are promoting. Otherwise, weak arguments like the above can leave the door of science open to anyone from clueless politicians to religious fundamentalists.

What is your opinion on the matter?

3 August 2010

Say again, science and religion have a joint role?

Via Shallit's blog, I just learned about a profound (for its naïveté) article published in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. I repost it below [the emphasis is mine].
Science, religion have a joint role
In recent months we’ve read some interesting articles in The Record regarding the important research currently underway at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. Some of the world’s leading scientists are wrestling with a number of very big, profound questions, namely: Why is there anything? Why should there be anything? How and when did living cells first appear on our planet? What is the essential nature of life? What is the nature of — and relationship between — space and time? Did anything exist prior to the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago? Fascinating questions indeed.
Experts in the fields of mathematics, physics and related sciences are addressing these issues. I would like to suggest that the above questions are essentially metaphysical in nature, and that the research team should include a spiritual component. There is mystery here. I rather doubt that even Stephen Hawking can imagine, or describe, a perfectly straight line that continues forever; with no beginning and no ending. To do so would be to understand infinity, which is beyond the scope of our finite minds.
Ideally it would be great if science and good religion could work together, as partners, on these questions.
Paul Zacharias
 Huh, Mr Paul, have you ever opened a textbook in Relativity? Even worse, have you ever opened a schoolbook on mathematics that children learn in elementary school? Do you understand that in order to describe infinity or a straight line you don't need to have an infinite mind?

No, surely you haven't opened a textbook and surely you haven't understood what infinity means, otherwise you wouldn't be writing such stupidities. Or, perhaps, you have opened some books but failed to go past page 0 (which is often intentionally left blank), otherwise you wouldn't be saying such nonsense, not even if you were drunk.

I'm afraid that Mr Paul won't be hired by the Perimeter Institute as a consultant.

1 August 2010

Russian Creationism Sounds Frighteningly Familiar

Another reposting from http://www.huffingtonpost.com, regarding promoting of creationism in Russia by religious fundamentalists there, using the same tactics as their American counterparts.
According to a news story released by Reuters, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church recently called for Russian schools to begin teaching "religious explanations of creation ... alongside evolution." The Archbishop wants to end what he called "the monopoly of Darwinism."
Archbishop Hilarion went even further, noting that "Darwin's theory remains a theory. This means it should be taught to children as one of several theories, but children should know of other theories too."
Why would Russians, apparently coming out of a godless state (apparently, I repeat), would embrace creationist nonsense, is also discussed in a recent New Scientist article. No answers are given, but the following is mentioned:
Orthodox Christianity is, however, Russia's dominant religion, and services are attended by the country's leaders, prime minister Vladimir Putin and president Dmitry Medvedev.
With pressure from evangelicals for the US to abandon the division between church and state insisted upon by Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers, and the growing influence of the Orthodox church within Russia, we could see an unlikely alliance forged between former enemies. Jefferson and Lenin would be spinning in their tombs.

Why, indeed why, would a former KGB agent become a pious follower of the Orthodox Patriarch? (Hint: were they not both doing the same job?) Is there much difference between Orthodox indoctrination and Soviet-style communism? (Yes, there is, but are there not similarities too?) How far is creationism from the dominant religion in Russia?

We don't know. But we can only observe that Orthodoxy can rapidly replace "Communism" in the minds and practices of many Russians (and they feel no contradiction at all!). And the step to Creationism is just a small one after that.

Friday Links

Not much time for blogging these days--I'm preparing for my move to Sweden--but I feel like reposting the Friday Links from http://anadder.com/:

23 July 2010

Harmonic series (further test in LaTeX)

I learned yesterday, through Evolutionblog, that I can write LaTeX as long as I put a little script at the bottom of the posting, which can be found here. This is my attempt to make it work.

Well, since the actual posting on Evolution blog was on harmonic series, let me write Pietro Mengoli's proof of its divergence. Recall that the harmonic series is
S = 1 + \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} + \cdots.
Let us prove that $S=\infty$. Mengoli did the following. He grouped all terms, except the first one, in triples:
S = 1 + \left(\frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{4} \right)
+ \left(\frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{6} + \frac{1}{7} \right)
+ \left(\frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{9} + \frac{1}{10} \right) + \cdots
Then he observed that each triple is larger than three times the middle term:
\frac{1}{n-1} + \frac{1}{n} + \frac{1}{n+1} > \frac{3}{n}.
And so he wrote
S > 1 + \frac{3}{3} + \frac{3}{6} + \frac{3}{9} + \cdots = 1 + 3S.
Since no finite positive number can be larger than 3 times itself plus 1, he concluded that $S=\infty$.

To see that the inequality above is true write it as
\frac{1}{n-1} + \frac{1}{n+1} > \frac{2}{n},
which is equivalent to
\frac{2n}{n^2-1} > \frac{2}{n}
which is obviously true.

Another way to see the inequality (and more) is to observe that if $X$ is a positive random variable, which is not a constant, then $E(1/X) > 1/E(X)$. To see this, let $Y$ have the same distribution as $X$ but be independent of it. Since $X^2+Y^2 > 2 XY$ we have $2 < \frac{X}{Y} + \frac{Y}{X}$, and, by taking expectations, $2 < E(X) E(1/Y) + E(Y) E(1/X) = 2 E(X) E(1/X)$, as claimed. Then apply this to a random variable $X$ which takes values $n-1$ or $n$ or $n+1$, each with probability $1/3$. This gives Mengoli's inequality. Mengoli also showed that the alternating harmonic series converges to the natural logarithm of 2:
1 - \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{5} - \cdots = \log 2.
Mengoli was born in 1626 in Bologna and died in 1686 in the same town. He also computed the sums
 \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{n(n+k)},
for $k=1,2,3,\ldots$ and showed that the result is always a rational number. He naturally wondered what the sum equals to when $k=0$. This was the famous Basel problem, which he posed in 1644. It was shown by Leonhard Euler in 1735 that the sum, for $k=0$, equals $\pi^2/6$. It is not surprising that Mengoli could not find this.

I'm still not happy with this way of writing LaTeX. I can't figure out how to number equations. If only html and LaTeX were fully compatible...

22 July 2010

Successful blogging

I guess this is why my blog is not too successful.

this is a test

$\int_{M} d \omega = \int_{\partial M} \omega$

20 July 2010

New date for the end of the world: 21 May 2011

A certain simpleton, called Harold Camping, has "proved", using "mathematics", that the world will not end in 2012, as the Mayans, allegedly, predicted, and as the recent Hollywood movie proclaimed, but in 21 May 2011.

Here is how he did it:
  • Jesus was crucified on 1 April 33.
  • 2011-33 = 1978 years.
  • 1978 x 365.2422 days (the number of days in each solar year) = 722,449.0716 days. That is, approximately, 722,500 days.
  • But 722,500 = (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17).
  • And the Bible says (so says the above simpleton):
  • 5 = Atonement
  • 10 = Completeness
  • 17 = Heaven
And then he said:
"I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that: 5 times 10 times 17 is telling you a story, it's the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you're completely saved."
Why, he is absolutely right! Perfect line of reasoning. No flaws, no nothing. Just the truth, a heavenly one, that is.

We know that this time, Camping is right. Indeed, we can forgive his earlier mistake:
On Sept. 6, 1994, dozens of Camping's believers gathered inside Alameda's Veterans Memorial Building to await the return of Christ, an event Camping had promised for two years. Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven. But the world did not end. Camping allowed that he may have made a mathematical error. He spent the next decade running new calculations, as well as overseeing a media company that has grown significantly in size and reach.[source]
And his efforts were redeemed: not only did Camping learn more mathematics (indeed, how could he ever come up with the complicated formulas above), not only did he read the Bible line by line, but he also asked for forgiveness for his previous error and is now, I suppose, preparing for the doomsday. Apparently he has more followers now.
Rick LaCasse, who attended the September 1994 service in Alameda, said that 15 years later, his faith in Camping has only strengthened.
"Evidently, he was wrong," LaCasse allowed, "but this time it is going to happen. There was some doubt last time, but we didn't have any proofs. This time we do."
Yeah! PROOFS! They have proofs. And so we must accept them. They are fullproof foolsproofs proofs.

19 July 2010

"a Nadder!"'s Friday Links

The Friday Links from the blog of a Nadder are not to be missed, He does a great job and I'd like to encourage him by reposting here:



Last night I made the mistake of going to watch Inception, a new film by Christopher Nolan. The verdict:
Complete, utter trash.
It starts as a boring story. It gets more boring by trying to be complicated, it develops into a boring scenario, when it becomes so boring that you have to walk out.

So I did: After an hour or so, I couldn't take it any more and walked out feeling that I had (i) wasted money, (ii) wasted time, and (iii) become irritated by my stupid choice to go see an idiotic film.

But I should have known better. I should have read the New Yorker's review of the film:
Christopher Nolan, the British-born director of “Memento” and of the two most recent Batman movies, appears to believe that if he can do certain things in cinema—especially very complicated things—then he has to do them. But why? To what end? His new movie, “Inception,” is an astonishment, an engineering feat, and, finally, a folly.
He has spent 10 years contemplating the movie and finally came up with total trash.
He has been contemplating the movie for ten years, and as movie technology changed he must have realized that he could do more and more complex things. He wound up overcooking the idea.
If only I had spent 5 minutes looking at the review I would have realized the unfathomable stupidity of the film whose main idea is that we are watching people dreaming about dreaming:
Nolan gives us dreams within dreams (people dream that they’re dreaming); he also stages action within different levels of dreaming—deep, deeper, and deepest, with matching physical movements played out at each level—all of it cut together with trombone-heavy music by Hans Zimmer, which pounds us into near-deafness, if not quite submission.
I would have known that Nolan makes films at the level of Big Brother, for audiences who love watching films in order to kill 2 hours of their time:
Dreams, of course, are a fertile subject for moviemakers. Buñuel created dream sequences in the teasing masterpieces “Belle de Jour” (1967) and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), but he was not making a hundred-and-sixty-million-dollar thriller. He hardly needed to bother with car chases and gun battles; he was free to give his work the peculiar malign intensity of actual dreams. Buñuel was a surrealist— Nolan is a literal-minded man.
If only I had realized that Nolan was the one who took a wonderful Norwegian film, Insomnia, a 1997 film by Erik Skjoldbjærg, and made it into a Holywood blockbuster in 2002, a very poor immitation of the 1997 original, I would have known that Nolan's films are to be avoided at all costs. But I hadn't relized that Nolan is the same joke of a director who spoiled the Norwegian film.

David Denby, in his review for the New Yorker, concludes thus:
In any case, I would like to plant in Christopher Nolan’s head the thought that he might consider working more simply next time. His way of dodging powerful emotion is beginning to look like a grand-scale version of a puzzle-maker’s obsession with mazes and tropes.
I absolutely agree. However, I'm afraid that as long as there are Big Brother watchers, Nolan's films will keep generating money for him and his sponsors.

17 July 2010

Mao feng tea

I am, at the moment, enjoying a cup of mao feng tea (), one of the top varieties of Chinese green teas,

 grown in Mount Huang (Huangshan) in the Anhui province of China.

I discovered the mao feng tea thanks to my ex-colleague Yuanhua Feng (who managed to escape from Heriot-Watt university some time ago, and is now professor in the University of Paderborn, Germany) who had given me a box of it a couple of years ago.

The shape of the processed leaves resembles the peak of a mountain. An ancient Chinese legend about the tea goes as follows:
It is said that young scholar and a beautiful woman who worked in a tea plantation were madly in love. One day a local landowner saw the woman and wanting her for his own, seized her and forced her to become her concubine. The woman escaped only to find that the landowner had killed the young scholar. When she found this out, she immediately went to his grave which was located high on a mountainside. She wept uncontrollably until she became the rain, and the young scholar became a tea tree. It is said this is why the area where Huangshan Mao Feng Tea grows is cloudy and humid all year.
As for the meaning of the name "mao feng", and the qualities of the tea, we note that
"Mao" means fluffy, and "Feng" means mountain peaks. Although it is not a scented tea, it has many properties similar to scented tea. The tea liquor has an apricot flavor, and a fragrance like magnolias. No apricot trees or magnolias grow in the area, so it is unknown how Huangshan Mao Feng gets its unique flavors. There is however wild peach trees that grow in close proximity to the tea plants, and that may be the cause. Huangshan Mao Feng Tea drinkers say that the first brewing is fragrant, the second brewing is sweet, and the third brewing is strong. The tea tastes clean and refreshing, and lasts a long time on the tongue.
I agree with the last two sentences.

29 June 2010

The Edinburgh Creationist Group, part II

For part I, see here.

The Edinburgh Creation Group is a group of "pseudo-scientists": see, e.g., the naive, silly, uninformed, statements by Prof. Andy C. McIntosh and Dr. Marc Surtees on Thermodynamics and Feedback Control, respectively.

They seek to inject religious fundamentalist ideas to people. But they do so by abusing science!

At the surface, they may appear to be associated with "charities", such as the Edinburgh City Mission. I was informed that these charities have nothing to do with helping people in need.

Creationism appears with other names also, such as "intelligent design".  Whatever their name may be, two things certain: 
(1) they have nothing to do with science.
(2) they have nothing to do with humanitarianism or benevolence.

24 June 2010

My Einstein and Erdős numbers

Although it's rather silly (who cares? what does it mean? why bother?), I was informed today that my Einstein number is 5 and my Erdős number is 3:

Takis Konstantopoulos coauthored with Paavo Salminen MR2488533 (2010d:60205)
Paavo Salminen coauthored with Endre Csáki MR0891709 (88k:60145)
Endre Csáki coauthored with Paul Erdős MR0771472 (86f:60086)
Paul Erdős coauthored with Ernst Gabor Straus MR0058863 (15,437d)
Ernst Gabor Straus coauthored with Albert Einstein MR0012947 (7,87j)

It's always amusing to me that people feel the need to attach themselves to someone important in order to feel important themselves. You hear people saying "I have met so and so". Or: "My great-grandfather was an important mathematician". And at times: "God spoke to me last night and gave me a message".

But the silliest thing of all, is the attaching of abbreviations after one's name. For instance,
Prof. Xyie Ziabwi [say...], CBE,  PhD, MSc, BSc, FeFA, FeIAs, FeSS, FeIMA.
The more acronyms someone attaches to one's name, the more important he/she feels. 

Oh, the futile seeking of a bit of fame!

10 June 2010

Mongoose traditions


Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) have been observed to show certain social traditions. Each pup pairs up with an older (escort) mongoose and learn how to imitate them. Two scientists placed an artificial food item (rice and fish contained in a plastic egg) and watched what the escorts did to open the eggs: they held them with their paws and bit into them. Pups observed their escorts and, months later, had learned the technique and could imitate it. Some other escorts did something completely different: they threw the eggs on a hard surface. Well, their pups also learned this technique from their escorts.
-- Nature 465, 668 (10 June 2010)

7 June 2010

Combinatorial species and a masterpiece in the philosophy and practice of mathematics research

I recently discovered the book Combinatorial Species and Tree-like Structures by Bergeron, Labelle and Leroux, a systematic treatment of combinatorial species, a rigorous formalization of the concept of a discrete structure.

What I would like to discuss here is the extremely interesting, for many reasons, foreword written by Gian-Carlo Rota. He talks about the dynamics of progress in mathematics, pointing out of the ways that the disciplines moves forward.

The first way, Rota writes, occurs when a long-standing problem is solved; e.g., Bieberbach's conjecture or Fermat's last theorem. These are holy grails in mathematics, problems which puzzle generations of mathematicians, leading to surprising developments in the field, until, one day, someone finally gets credit for the solution. While the person who finally obtains the solution rightly deserves the credit, Rota points out that the `genius' does not, simply, belong to one individual but it is a collective, cumulative intelligence belonging to generations of hard-working people.

The second way is also very interesting. There are ideas circulating in mathematics for years and years, collective intuition, one might say, things that people work on, use, but no one dares to put down rigorously for fear (perhaps) of formalizing a triviality, or, simply because nobody knows how to formalize the intuition, or because nobody wants to do that. The second way that mathematics advances is when a commonplace idea finally finds a proper, solid, rigorous home. Rota tells us that mathematicians are reluctant to publicize this second way that the field advances. But when it happens, properly so, that is, it opens a new window into a new way of thinking.

Rota gives a few examples belonging to the second way. The first is the formalization of group theory. The second is category theory. And, of course, Rota points out that the topic of the Combinatorial Species book is, precisely, an advancement of the second kind: someone (André Joyal) found a correct way of associating a combinatorial structure to a generating function and formalized the notion of combinatorial species. Rota points out that species relate to generating functions in much the same way that random variables relate to distribution functions.

My favorite example of the second kind of advancement is Stokes' theorem. Stokes' theorem is a generalization of the fundamental theorem of calculus to higher dimensions and, indeed, in a geometric setup. It states that the integral of a differential form over the boundary of a smooth oriented manifold equals to the integral of the derivative of the form over the manifold. The proof of the theorem is a `triviality'. It is a triviality that takes lots and lots of pages of setting up the scene properly: multilinear algebra, differential forms, manifolds. Once the scene is established, and once dozens of `trivial' lemmas are proven, Stokes' theorem comes out easily.

When progress of the second kind occurs in mathematics, Rota points out, it is met with distrust until many papers are written, using the theory and showing to the old fogies that things are done in a much nicer way using the newly established setup. After this happens, the old fogies will take notice. (Some will pretend they "knew that all along''.)
At first, the old fogies will pretend the book [Bergeron et al.] does not exist. This pretense will last until sufficiently many younger combinatorialists publish papers in which interesting problems are solved using the theory of species. Eventually, a major problem will be solved in the language of species, and from that time on everyone will have to take notice.
He makes an analogy:
Those probabilists of the thirties who held on to distributions, while rejecting random variables as “superfluous,” were eventually wiped out, and their results are not even acknowledged today.
People, including mathematicians, are very protective of their way of doing things. I have met mathematicians who are completely reluctant in accepting a new way of seeing things, a different point of view. Once, when I was a fresh MSc student at Berkeley, Eugene Wong told me that there are two ways of thinking: one is geometric, the other is analytical; but the best progress is made by people who can use both.

Now, I daresay add something more to Rota's prediction. You see,  once the distrust phase is gone and everybody is happily using the ``new math'', it is the old, pedestrian, way of doing things that is forgotten: everybody (even the enemies of the new field) has converted. But there still remain problems which are best attacked by the good-old intuitionistic way, the one used before the formalization occurred. At this point, the ones who are going to have an advantage are those who can effortlessly combine both points of view.

Here is then the exact article by Rota. It is taken from Bergeron's webpage:

[to Combinatorial Species and Tree-like Structures by Bergeron, Labelle and Leroux]
by Gian-Carlo Rota

Advances in mathematics occur in one of two ways.

The first occurs by the solution of some outstanding problem, such as the Bieberbach conjecture or Fermat’s conjecture. Such solutions are justly acclaimed by the mathematical community. The solution of every famous mathematical problem is the result of joint effort of a great many mathematicians. It always comes as an unexpected application of theories that were previously developed without a specific purpose, theories whose effectiveness was at first thought to be highly questionable.
Mathematicians realized long ago that it is hopeless to get the lay public to understand the miracle of unexpected effectiveness of theory. The public, misled by two hundred years of Romantic fantasies, clamors for some “genius” whose brain power cracks open the secrets of nature. It is therefore a common public relations gimmick to give the entire credit for the solution of famous problems to the one mathematician who is responsible for the last step.
It would probably be counterproductive to let it be known that behind every “genius” there lurks a beehive of research mathematicians who gradually built up to the “final” step in seemingly pointless research papers. And it would be fatal to let it be known that the showcase problems of mathematics are of little or no interest for the progress of mathematics. We all know that they are dead ends, curiosities, good only as confirmation of the effectiveness of theory. What mathematicians privately celebrate when one of their showcase problems is solved is Polya's adage “no problem is ever solved directly.”
There is a second way by which mathematics advances, one that mathematicians are also reluctant to publicize. It happens whenever some commonsense notion that had heretofore been taken for granted is discovered to be wanting, to need clarification or definition. Such foundational advances produce substantial dividends, but not right away. The usual accusation that is leveled against mathematicians who dare propose overhauls of the obvious is that of being “too abstract”, As if one piece of mathematics could be “more abstract” than another, except in the eyes of the beholder (it is time to raise a cry of alarm against the misuse of the word “abstract,” which has become as meaningless as the word “Platonism.”)
An amusing case history of an advance of the second kind is uniform convergence, which first made headway in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. The late Herbert Busemann told me that while he was a student, his analysis teachers admitted their inability to visualize uniform convergence, and viewed it as the outermost limit of abstraction. It took a few more generations to get uniform convergence taught in undergraduate classes.
The hostility against groups, when groups were first “abstracted” from the earlier “group of permutations” is another case in point. Hadamard admitted to being unable to visualize groups except as groups of permutations. In the thirties, when groups made their first inroad into physics via quantum mechanics, a staunch sect of reactionary physicists, repeatedly cried “Victory!” after convincing themselves of having finally rid physics of the “Gruppenpest.” Later, they tried to have this episode erased from the history of physics.
In our time, we have witnessed at least two displays of hostility against new mathematical ideas. The first was directed against lattice theory, and its virulence all but succeeded in wiping lattice theory off the mathematical map. The second. still going on, is directed against the theory of categories. Grothendieck did much to show the simplifying power of categories in mathematics. Categories have broadened our view all the way to the solution of the Weil conjectures. Today, after the advent of braided categories and quantum groups, categories are beginning to look downright concrete, and the last remaining anticategorical reactionaries are beginning to look downright pathetic.
There is a common pattern to advances in mathematics of the second kind. They inevitably begin when someone points out that items that were formerly thought to be “the same” are not really “the same,” while the opposition claims that “it does not matter,” or “these are piddling distinctions.” Take the notion of species that is the subject of this book. The distinction between “labeled graphs” and “unlabeled graphs” has long been familiar. Everyone agrees on the definition of an unlabeled graph, but until a while ago the notion of labeled graph was taken as obvious and not in need of clarification. If you objected that a graph whose vertices are labeled by cyclic permutations – nowadays called a “fat graph” – is not the same thing as a graph whose vertices are labeled by integers, you were given a strange look and you would not be invited to the next combinatorics meeting.
The correct definition of a labeled graph turned out to be more sophisticated than the definition of an unlabeled graph. A labeled graph – or any “labeled” combinatorial construct – is a functor from the groupoid of finite sets and bijections to itself. This definition of a labeled object is not “abstract”: on the contrary, it expresses in precise terms the commonsense idea of “being able to label the vertices of a graph either by integers or by colors, it does not matter,” and it is the only way of making this commonsense idea precise. The notion of groupoid, which is one of the key ideas of contemporary mathematics, makes it possible to withhold the assignement of a specific set of labels to the vertices of a graph without making the graph unlabeled.
Joyal’s definition of “labeled object” as a species discloses a vast horizon of new combinatorial constructions, which cannot be seen if one holds on to the reactionary view that “labeled objects” need no definition. The simplest, and the most remarkable, application of the definition of species is the rigorous combinatorial rendering of functional composition, which was formerly dealt with by handwaving – always a bad sign. But it is just the beginning.
Species are related to generating functions in much the same way as random variables are related to probability distributions. Those probabilists of the thirties who held on to distributions, while rejecting random variables as “superfluous,” were eventually wiped out, and their results are not even acknowledged today.
I dare make a prediction on the future acceptance of this book. At first, the old fogies will pretend the book does not exist. This pretense will last until sufficiently many younger combinatorialists publish papers in which interesting problems are solved using the theory of species. Eventually, a major problem will be solved in the language of species, and from that time on everyone will have to take notice. The rewriting, copying and imitating will start, and mathematicians who capitulate to the new theory will begin to tell us what species really are. Considering the speed at which mathematics progresses in our day, that time is more likely to come sooner than later.
The present book is the first thorough treatment in English of the theory of species. It is lucidly and clearly written, and it should go a long way to making this fundamental chapter of combinatorial mathematics available to the entire spectrum of mathematicians, computer scientists and cultivated scientists generally.


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