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.


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