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/:


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