23 December 2012

Newtonmas cards

A bit too late, but here are my Newtonmas cards again.

5 December 2012

Corruption index

I just read, via BBC, the existence of an indicator of a country's corruption, called corruption perceptions index, created by an organization called Transparency International (TI). Now, although I don't like single numbers for quality control, and although I have no opinion about this organization's methods and ethos, some of the numbers in their report seem to correspond to common sense:
Worldwide, Denmark, Finland [, New Zealand] and Sweden were seen as the least corrupt nations, while Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia were perceived to be the most corrupt.
No surprises here. Also,
Greece [is the] 'most corrupt' EU country.
Again, this is not a surprise.

What I found rather surprising is the relatively good ranking of Bhutan, Uruguay, Chile and Botswana. Uruguay has a very interesting character as president, José Mujica, who is the world's poorest president, living a very simple life in a farm. In the case of Botswana, perhaps in the character of Precious Ramotswe we see a reflection of reality.

Another thing that is worth asking is this: the perception that Greek governments were corrupt is not new. In fact, I have a hunch that EU did know that Greece was corrupt all along and that the surprise they showed when it was revealed that Greece was faking its balance sheets was not honest. It was, simply, mutually convenient for corrupt Greek fovernment to fake its balance sheets (with the help of Wall Street companies) and for EU to accept them at face value. Convenient, as long as the shit hadn't hit the fan yet.

Also, it is nice to know that I live in the number 4, according to the report, least corrupt country (and hope they clean the roads soon, because the snow doesn't seem to stop falling).

Finally, and rather obviously,
TI believes there are strong correlations between poverty, conflict and perceived levels of corruption.

28 November 2012

26 November 2012

Bertrand Russell's message to future generations

What would you think it’s worth telling future generations about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

Bertrand Russell, 1959

24 November 2012

"Necrophiliac" woman

A couple of days ago, it emerged that a 37-year old woman from Gothenburg was found to have lots of skeletons in her flat, material about necrophilia, photographs of a woman using skeleton parts, e.g., licking a skull. The police entered her flat for some different reason (there was a gunshot) and found the skulls, by coincidence. This Huffington post article (and lots of other newspapers) have the full story as well as photographs from her flat.

The woman was formally charged for the crime of "violating the peace of the dead".

The story reminded me of  "A nadder"'s posting on sexual ethics, claiming that
[n]ecrophilia should be legalised because we don’t have enough organ donors. I’m serious, bear with me. Organ donation rates are abysmal in countries that require people to opt in. Most choose the default (not opting in). Not even from laziness but because people have a cognitive bias of seeing defaults as reasonable, even if they’re ridiculous. The opt-in for donations is a misguided sentiment about human worth. Hundreds die needlessly every day for the sake of human dignity
and that
[t]he only way it would be wrong for the government to make use of your body after death (if you don’t leave instructions to the contrary) is if there was a You that survived death. Otherwise using the harm principle: there’s nobody around to be harmed so it can’t be wrong.
While it is sad that someone would choose to use skulls for sexual practices (yes, I wouldn't want to have her as my friend), I don't see, from a rational point of view, what the crime is. She did not do this in public. She did not share this with someone else who did not want to see it. She (presumably) obtained the skulls and bones legally. (If not, she should be charged for this! I have no clue how one could obtain skulls and bones, but let us assume it is possible...) Now, the argument that she violated the peace of the dead is irrational. It is the only one that may not form the basis of a legal charge, because there is no proof that such peace has been violated.

While I find the woman's practice disgusting, I can't claim we have the right to enter her flat and stop her. If she disturbs the neighbors, yes. There are many other disgusting practices for which people are not charged for crimes. Extreme body modification is such an awful practice. These people pierced a hole below their lips so the can have another exit for their tongues. Of course, they do this to attract attention. (But if we see an African woman with enlarged lips, we talk about different cultural practices which become the subject study of an anthropologist (or a preacher who will seek to convert them to the right faith).)

I think that neither the skeleton-collecting woman nor the people who modify their bodies are commiting crimes. (Compare this to the state: it thinks that the former do commit a crime, but the latter do not.) I don't like either of them and one may wonder if society has to play a role for their decisions, or if it is something in their DNA that makes them behave this way. Be it as it may, a scientific inquiry of these practices is more appropriate than putting them in jail.

20 November 2012

On the Greek neo-nazi party

The crisis in Greece has given rise to a gang, called Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή) who have, at the moment, risen to the third place. There are all kinds of comments about them on the Internet, for example, this one. The members of the gang are unashamedly talking about Hitler as a leader, a person who would have saved Europe from the Jews, would have created a super-state embracing the Greek ideals, and who would have led Europe to prosperity. Concentration camps did not exist--they say--and WWII was started by the Jews. National Socialism, they claim, was identical to the Greek ideology and they are sad that it does not exist now. They look back at the times when Greece was under military dictatorship, and state that these were times of prosperity and security. In brief, anything that would make any rational person sick is part of their "ideology". A few years ago, you would have to search hard to find someone with this kind of distorted mind.

They are in third place not because they are wrong in everything they do, but because they are right at the things they are actually stressing: just as the national socialists, they offer protection to those who need it, and the need is there, now; just as the national socialists, they offer money and food to those who cannot afford it--as long as they are Greek; just as the national socialists, they stress the corruption of the state and point out that those who stole public funds are not in prison.

People, desperate for a quick and dirty solution, turn to the gang and ask for help. As long as they are Greek, white, and Christian orthodox, the gang will, indeed, help them. They will, at the same time, beat everybody else up.

I would *never* have imagined, even 2 years ago, that the time would come when a member of the parliament would openly state that
if you are not white Greek, and if your parents are not white Greeks, then you are not Greek.
This is what the bearded member of parliament tells a Greek woman in the following, recent, video clip, because, as it happens, the woman is black, born of naturalized Nigerian parents:

It is one of the saddest points of Greek history. What is even sadder is that the neo-nazis receive, at the moment, loads of support from many people.

Indeed, the Time magazine article is right: the rise of Greece's Golden Dawn party is bad for Europe too.

If you happen to read this, please do leave a comment.

3 November 2012

Parapsychology and telepathy (and related bogus science)

Every year, in English-speaking countries alone, more than a hundred books that promote the wildest forms of bogus science and the paranormal are published. The percentage of Americans today who take astrology seriously is larger than the percentage of people who did so in the Middle Ages
writes Martin Gardner, in his foreword for the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, concluding that
[the book will perform] a service that our technologically advanced but retarded nation desperately needs.
He is referring to the Unites States where 79% of people believe in miracles, 75% in the paranormal, 18% in ghosts (the number doubled in a decade), and many many other weird and stupid things.

But the phenomenon of retardation is observed in non-English speaking countries as well. Today, a colleague pointed out to me that a Swedish university has established a chair in the field of ... parapsychology and telepathy! Long ago, a rich Danish guy, called Poul Thorsen, wrote a book (Die Hypnose in Dienste der Menschheit, Bauer-Verlag, Freiburg-Haslach, 1960) on how to use hypnosis to have your way with women and left some money for a chair in parapsychology and hypnology. 40 years after his death, the chair was finally established.

Parapsychology is not a science, not a discipline, it is nothing. It is just a bogus, empty field. It is concerned with something called "psi", which nobody knows what it is. Nevertheless, parapsychologists are interested in demonstrating that psi exists (without knowing what it is). Pure baloney, of course.

Another ex-scientist dealing with the field of parapsychology is Brian Josephson, emeritus professor at Cambridge, who, in 1973, received the Nobel prize for the discovery of the Josephson effect. The latter has nothing to do with parapsychology. It is real science, and deals with superconductivity. It is an example of a macroscopic quantum phenomenon. But, somehow, Josephson flipped out and later devoted his life to psi and telepathy and what have you. "Utter rubbish", physicist David Deutsch declared when, a decade ago, the UK Royal Mail accepted a text by Josephson (to accompany a set of stamps commemorating the Nobel prize). The text by Josephson, stated that quantum mechanics may be the explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research.

Well, parapsychology is now in Sweden too. In the UK nobody took Josephson seriously. But are there people taking parapsychology, psi, telepathy, the paranormal, etc, seriously in Sweden? How many? Sweden, supposedly, is not a religious country. But could it be that superstition is widespread? I don't know the answer.

1 November 2012

There will be no justice (Greece's financial scandals)

People ask me, from time to time: why is Greece in such a mess? The answer is simple, but, simply, incomprehensible to non-Greeks: for years, the government and its friends have been stealing the money, slowly but steadily, creating an ultra-corrupt system in which there is not a single culprit but a continuum of individuals. Recently, one, only one, member of previous governments (ex-minister of defence),  Tsochatzopoulos, was arrested for embezzling, stealing, etc., money of the order of magnitude of 1 to 2 billion euro. But he was one of them, only one, the one who, probably, was not liked by anybody else any more.

A couple of years ago, the then French minister of finance, Christine Lagarde, passed on to the Greek government a list of 2000 individuals with accounts in Swiss banks, asking the government to investigate for possible tax evation. Of course, the government did nothing.

Meanwhile, Greece fell into deeper and deeper crisis, resulting in the recent rise of fascists who offer protection to individuals and promise them an eventual "solution". In a bankrupt Greece with huge immigration problems and a dysfunctional police the gangs offer quick and dirty solutions. The state cannot respond. The fascist party declares that "Greece is for Greeks", beats non-Greeks up, makes a lot of noise, attracts more and more supporters, and gets noticed as being bad for Europe.

Lagarde's list was discovered by a Greek journalist, Kostas Vaxevanis, who made it public. In response, Greece’s slow and cumbersome justice system moved with stunning swiftness over the weekend to arrest and charge a respected investigative journalist. "Greece arrests the messenger" was the NY Times op-ed piece yesterday. (See also here.) If we compare the reaction of the Greek justice now with a few months ago (they did nothing) when a member of the fascist party (currently a member of parliament) physically attacked, on live TV, a member of the communist party, we will indeed be amazed at the stunning swiftness that the justice system can exhibit when it wants to do so.

Vaxevanis' trial took place a few hours ago. He was found not guilty. But the question remains: will there be any justice regarding the culprits of the crisis? The answer is: NO.

22 October 2012

The scale of the universe

This nice java simulation was not available when I was a kid. I wish it were.
Click on the picture to find out.

What's even nicer is that this simulation was developed by two kids, Cary and Michael Huang, from Moraga, California. I will suggest it to many adults who don't have a feeling for orders magnitude. Check their site too.

19 October 2012

The moral man will roll up his sleeves and use force

This recent New Yorker article on the Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky came to my attention through a nadder:
The key point is that someone who really wants to rape children will spend a LOT of energy in building up a charismatic persona of the helpful member of the community. An interesting (and useful) read that should dispel the trenchcoat-wearing loner with no social skills as the archetype child sex predator.
It reminded me of two things, first the classic verse from Chapter 38 of the Te:
The kind person acts from the heart,
and accomplishes a multitude of things.
The righteous person acts out of pity,
yet leaves many things undone.
The moral person will act out of duty,
and when no one will respond
will roll up his sleeves and use force.
Secondly, the issue of pedagogical education.

There is much in common between a pedophile, dressed as a charismatic person, a helpful member of the community,  a likeable individual, like Sandusky, and one who claims to be so caring about education that he or she devotes his or her career on the subject, going around teaching others how to educate pupils and students, offering pedagogical approaches, while always maintaining his or her love for education.

What is the common point between the two types is the fact that none of them care at all about what they preach. On the contrary, they try to build an impeccable facade in order to do exactly the opposite. This has always been so obvious to me that I thought it was obvious to others as well. Wrong. I keep meeting people around me who claim that because this or that person is a moral individual, beyond any suspicion for dubious acts, then this is a proof that he or she is actually what he or she appears to be. I also keep speaking to people who are convinced that because that individual is a master in pedagogy, then, certainly, all he or she cares about is the improvement of education.

Lao Tzu warned us a few thousand years ago. Beware of those who have the need to tell everyone that they act out of morality and build a picture about themselves which is impossible to destroy even when dubious things start happening.

Sandusky has always been beyond any suspicion. Playing the role of a lovable goofball, he was never ever going to be suspected for molesting children. Much in the same way, the pedagogical educator who spends 200% of their time in preaching and teaching and applying pedagogical concepts is never going to be suspected for someone who does not give a shit about education. Both Sandusky and the pedagogical educator devote years in building indestructible fortresses.

Our way of seeing things should change: beware of those who preach, look behind the surface, and, more importantly, always question anything that is being offered to you as perfection. Is this so hard? I never thought it could be. And yet, in societies where freedom of thought is not something that individuals practice ("sapere aude" is not obvious) there will always be Sanduskys and other crooks.

6 October 2012

IKEA in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world: double standards?

Everybody has by now seen the scandal that IKEA created by removing women from its catalog in Saudi Arabia. At home, things are very different, as my most viewed posting exemplifies. But the Swedish company IKEA didn't really apply Swedish (and, really, universal) standards of treating humans equally. They decided, for profit reasons obviously, that they should comply with the anachronistic, offensive, stupid, fascist, oppressive rule of a theocratic state, Saudi Arabia, namely, that women are second-rate beings (for religious reasons--don't forget) and remove them from their catalogs:
The question then is this: If we have democracy at home, and certain consequences of it, do we forget it when we go abroad in order to be "nice" to (or make profit in) a dictatorial theocratic regime?

5 October 2012

Greek man arrested for blasphemy and religious insult (and other violations of freedom of expression in Greece)

It is not clear, as I maintained in the past, whether Greece is a theocratic state or not. A recent event confirms this in the affirmative:
A 27-year-old man was arrested in Greece for blasphemy against famous Greek monk, Elder Paisios, Business Insider reported.
Paisios, an Orthodox monk from Cappadocia who died in 1994, [is] highly venerated in Greece and Russia, and formal canonisation as saint in the near future has been speculated.
The unnamed suspect set up a Facebook page using the mocking name Geron Pastitsios, which is a Greek pasta dish.
The arrest was agitated by neo-Nazi Golden Dawn [neo-fascist] party, according to some Twitter users.
Three articles of the Greek Penal Code punish whoever "by any means blasphemes God". Article 199 states that "who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes the Greek Orthodox Church" shall be punished "by imprisonment for not more than two years".
Such things happen from time to time in Greece. But I'm sure that it is not blasphemy against religion which is punishable; only blasphemy against the Greek state religion is punishable. I doubt that anyone would be arrested in Greece for insulting Ahura Mazda or Allah (and they should not).
In 2003, an Austrian writer, Gerhard Haderer, was prosecuted for his book The Life of Jesus, which reportedly portrayed Jesus as a hippie. He was acquitted in 2005.
Elder Paisios is the favourite persona of many reactionary, white supremacist, conspiracy theorist, extreme right-wing Greeks, the prototype of whom being a certain Dimosthenis Liakopoulos who, maintains, among other things, that Elder Paisios has prophesied about the future of Greece, that Vladimir Putin follows Paisios' teaching and is a big brother for Greece, and has many conspiracy theories and explanations about everything, maintaining a conspiracy page. Oh, yes, he also maintains that Greeks are supreme beings because they came from outer space. A few years ago, a blogger was arrested in Greece for linking a blog which was making fun of Liakopoulos.

With the rise of the fascist movement in Greece, due to the financial crisis, the rise of such arrests are growing. It is an alarming phenomenon. The linking of the extreme right and religion has always created big problems.

Freedom of expression is suppressed in Greece.

P.S.  Just today, I became aware, via justar-lawblog.blogspot.se, of two similar incidents:

In 2007, there was a performance, in Athens, of the well-known (musical?)  "Jesus Christ Superstar" of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The person in charge of the performance was sent to court. He was acquitted, but he faced threats and insults.

Yesterday, a crowd of Greeks protested against the upcoming performance of  "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally.
Thirty angry religious Greeks, with icons of saints in arms, among them some priests, and with the assistance far-right group, with Greek flags in their hands, appeared Thursday evening at the theatre in order to prevent and stop the performance Corpus Christi scheduled to take place next week.
[Fortunately] the court ruled against their will.
But the protesters were not happy with the decision. They went to the theatre and demanded that the announcements of the performance be taken down amidst signing of Byzantine hymns and the Greek national anthem.
 The line between what is considered blasphemy or not is, in Greece, fine. Sometimes the state will punish you, sometimes not. But in any case, you will face the anger of [certain] people who will not leave you alone.

29 September 2012

Exams: the fake certificate of knowledge

University courses are typically accompanied by exams. Exams are supposed to test the students' knowledge and are accompanied by a grade given to the student. When a student gets a good grade, they are happy they have learnt the subject. The university is also happy that it has managed to provide the knowledge to the student. The funding body of the university (e.g., the government) is also happy. Everybody is happy.

My experience, however, in several countries shows that exams are not doing what they are supposed to do. (With rare exceptions, of course). The funding bodies of universities put pressure to the universities to maximize the number of students graduating per year. Therefore, it is to the interest of the university not to have failures. Exams are designed in such a way that the students pass. In fact, they do not even test the students' knowledge. Instead, whole courses are being taught in a way that the students pass the exam.

What is absolutely incredible is that, in several countries, like Greece for instance, the student can take a resit exam as many times as they desire, until they pass! This creates an enormous pressure to the teachers to pass the students because they cannot have a growing number of students taking the same exam again and again. In many universities in the UK, students are allowed to take the exam twice per year. In Sweden, they are given three chances per year, and each exam is 5 hours long. Students realize that universities are under a lot of pressure to pass them in the exam and to give them good grades, that they now do not even care about learning the subject properly. Rather, they demand that they be taught material that is examinable. In the US, the problem is solved by grading on a curve. That is, it is predetermined that, say 20% of the students must get an A, 30% a B, and so on, and, regardless of the absolute marks, the scale is adjusted accordingly. A practical solution, actually. Many European countries do even worse things (like multiple resit exams), and often they pretend that exams are flawless testing of students' abilities. Whereas, in reality, it is often a fraud.

Students who want to learn should be aware that exams are designed so that the average student passes immediately. Therefore, those students who feel the need to learn should be aware that exams are not designed for them and should seek alternative routes. Very hard, indeed, but it's much better to tell good students the truth, rather than fictitiously boost their egos by giving them good grades, when the grade inflation is so high, that only an idiot can fail to realize what is going on.

In Scotland, grade inflation starts early on. At early elementary school. Here is a first-hand incident, happened to the son of a friend of mine in a good public school. The kids are given a multiple choice test. After taking the test, the teacher provides the students the answers and asks them to have a second go, without taking the original papers back. In other words, the teacher hints to the students that they can correct their mistakes, based on the answer sheets he gives them. My friend's son found this so hilarious, and, despite his age, he understood the fraud. In this way, the teacher makes sure that the kids in the class (well, those who get the hint that they can cheat) get very good grades. He then goes to the principal and boasts about his class's performance. The principal presents the results to the board of education. The board of education concludes that everything is very good and keeps funding the school. The students' parents are proud of their offspring's performance. Everybody is happy. And the fraud goes on.

This is how ridiculous the whole exam system has become. It is a failed currency, something which does not represent anything real. In fact, I maintain that there is often little correlation between one's grades in exams and one's abilities. Even if things were better (without several resit exams, ad infinitum, without exams that last as long as students like), writing an exam which actually tests what is supposed to test is difficult. And who has the time, or cares, to do so? And why should the teacher care? After all, no university will give such a diligent teacher an award. Awards are only given based on students' impression. If a teacher actually tries to design an exam which will test students' knowledge, then the students will be unhappy, the university will be unhappy with the teacher (who may punish him or her--real cases of this nature do exist), the government will be unhappy, and so on. The teacher who wants an easy way out, will teach the students how to pass the exam, will write exams so that students pass at the first attempt with good grades, will, as a result of this, get a teaching award, and, probably, his salary may even go up.

The story, as I have described it, is quite generic. One may ask if it applies to this or that place. My answer is that it applies much more frequently than not. So frequent and widespread is the fraud, that if one picks a country at random and a university in this country at random, one has a high chance of seeing the phenomena I described above. Notable exceptions do exist, fortunately, but they are becoming rarer and rarer.

The more widespread the fraud is, the more likely it is for a university to have thought through cover-ups, ways of  "proving" that everything works perfectly. For this reason, pedagogical bodies have been formed, which are supposed to test the quality of teaching and education. Endless bureaucrats have designed pedagogical rules which, if followed--they claim--then, undoubtedly--they claim--the education provided will be of first rate.

But the problem remains the same: no matter how many awards are given, no matter how many pedagogical controls are applied, making the exams disjoint from learning is a disgusting practice which is only paralleled by the Catholic Church's cover-up of its pedophile priests.

Pope's ex-butler vs. Pope's sex cover-up

It is quite remarkable that the reaction of the Vatican to the stealing of confidential documents by Paolo Gabriele, the Pope's ex-butler, was so quick. In almost no time, the Pope decided that it was illegal to have documents revealing corruption be stolen, and reacted by sending Gabriele to the justice. He may face a few years' imprisonment in an Italian prison (because the Vatican is not a State and has no prisons).

Now, compare this with the sex cover-up by the Pope. For decades, one could molest children from his position as a priest in the Catholic church, without fearing any legal prosecution.  The Pope, particularly when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, protected the abusers through the Church’s Canon Law and ignored the victims. It took years and years for him to say a lukewarm sorry, without ever acknowledging that he actually protected the sex abusers and, therefore, without facing the legal implications. For a great description of the Pope's involvement in the sex scandals, I recommend Geoffrey Robertson's, The Case of the Pope.
For stealing of documents, one faces the law. For abusing children, thousands are protected by the Church. I don't think more should be said.

As for the argument that the Pope is the head of a State, and that he has immunity from the law, this is wrong. According to international law, the Vatican is not a State. Here is a quick explanation for this, by  Anthony Aust, international law expert on statehood and sovereignty.

11 September 2012

William Lane Craig and “Intellectual” Apologists

Recently, I was disgusted, once again, by the pretentiousness and silliness of the sophisticated-wannabe apologist, John Lennox. First, because he pretends to be totally independent of creationist jerks (he claims that the creationistic beliefs are nonsense), but nevertheless he accepts an award from Phillip Johnson, one of the most despicable creationists. Second, because he, like so many other religious bloggers, has disabled comments on his website and he does not respond to messages. Below is an excellent posting about Lennox-type apologists, namely those who (mis)use science in order to "prove" their point. It is taken verbatim from aNadder.

Different apologists have different styles. One style is to be an academic apologist who is often associated with rigour and intellectualism in the eye of their audience. They often have academic posts and might have a reasonable and decent collection of published work, usually in philosophy. The best examples are probably William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and possibly (as highlighted by a recent post) John Lennox.
I find this type of intellectual style of argument a lot more annoying in the end because I see it as nothing more than marketing/branding. The vast majority of arguments I’ve seen from such apologists are just as bad as any other apologist’s argument. But because of the marketing involved in stating your argument formally, or citing academic references, people often fall for it. This includes atheists, for instance Luke of CommonSenseAtheism often fawned over just how rigorous William Lane Craig is compared to his unprepared and scrappy atheist debate opponents*.
The best antidote to this is Chris Hallquist’s several extended takedowns of William Lane Craig. In 2007, Chris wrote a chapter-by-chapter review of Craig’s book Reasonable Faith. It’s long but I can’t recommend it enough since it goes through loads of techniques common to these apologists. In the last month, Hallquist has also been busy with short blog posts on specific aspects of William Lane Craig’s arguments, which I also recommend (it covers things extensively):
  1. Next up: Everything I have to say about William Lane Craig
  2. A note on my sources for Craig’s arguments
  3. The Leibnizian cosmological argument
  4. Kalam I: Why the Big Bang isn’t evidence for God
  5. Kalam II: Philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe
  6. Kalam III: The very brief part that actually argues for God
  7. Two more revealingly bad cosmological arguments from Craig’s debates
  8. The fine-tuning argument
  9. The moral argument
  10. Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus
  11. Jesus’ resurrection: was Paul hallucinating?
  12. Why is Craig so dishonest?
  13. On Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig
The bottom line is that the intellectual arguments are being given disingenuously and these apologists admit it. As Hallquist documents extensively, William Lane Craig’s actual Christian belief stems from the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He considers unbelief to be a wilful denial of the Holy Spirit and explicitly states that his use of reason is ministerial only (ie. that reason is subservient to the gospels and should only be used as a tool to draw people to Christianity). Similarly, Alvin Plantinga’s hallmark argument is that belief in a Christian God should be considered “properly basic”, meaning at the same level as our other beliefs that we don’t need to justify (eg. that we and the external world both exist).
In the end, the intellectual theatrics of these apologists are a mere tool. They’re meant to convince people of beliefs the apologists themselves admit don’t stem from reason. A good litmus test for this is evolution: Lennox, Craig and Plantinga all have seriously misguided views on evolution that border on creationism. I think they tend to play this down as this would undermine their intellectual branding. This might be a good litmus test for one of those apologists: probe their views on something like evolution a bit more. They may continue to spout the same refuted canards, just using prettier language.
The bottom line is that these are all very smart people. There’s also no denying that they have had legitimate academic careers and have contributed to secular philosophy in various fields. But when they’re arguing for Jesus, they’re not being intellectual at the base level. Which means there’s no reason to give their views more respect than the “obviously ridiculous” apologists like Ray Comfort (aka bananaman).

*I agree that Craig has usually been better prepared and better structured than his opponents. He’s also better at debating tricks and misdirection. But these two things do NOT mean that he has the better argument even in a single instance.

4 September 2012

London Metropolitan University: the real question

We recently read in the news that London Metropolitan University has had its right to sponsor students from outside the EU revoked, and will no longer be allowed to authorise visas.


The UK Border Agency found that some students did not fulfill the residence requirements, that some did not speak proper English and some did not attend classes.

Having worked in the UK, at Heriot-Watt University, I'm all too familiar with the situation: universities (now in Sweden too) would like to attract as many non-EU students as possible, because they bring real income.

Of course, the problems identified by the UKBA may very well be significant. However, the real question, is: are the students qualified to study the field they choose? My experience from Heriot-Watt University is  that many of the students admitted there were not qualified. Obviously, they could pay the tuition, and, most likely, they did have the proper visas. Moreover, they did attend classes because they were asking us, teachers, to monitor attendance (last time I saw this happening was in high school). So, even when all formalities (visa, language, attendance) are satisfied, why is it that nobody asks the real question: do the students qualify? And when I say "qualify" I am using the verb with its proper meaning. Do they have the background (and abilities, of course) to study a particular field in a university?

Once, in Austin, TX, someone had phoned me and told me he wanted to do PhD with me. I asked him to apply. He said he could pay his way through because he had a million dollars. So what? A million, or a billion, dollars should not be a sufficient condition for getting a PhD. He was not happy with what I told him and somewhat threatened me. I told him to go elsewhere.

Obvious question should be, obviously, asked. But I don't see this happening.

The question should be asked by the admitted students themselves: "Did they admit me because I paid a hefty fee, or because I actually am able to study and have the requirements?" At the minimum, it should be asked by those students who both want to get a degree (i.e., a piece of paper) and learn. (The two, unfortunately, seem not to be entirely equivalent.)

The ex-minister of Economics and Technology of Germany, Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, paid someone to write (parts of) his PhD thesis. When that was found out, he had to resign. 

It's not nice to go ahead by paying only. Money should correspond to something real too and this is a contract between the University and the student: the former is obliged to provide the latter a proper education, and the latter must have the intellectual abilities and/or skills in order to attend the course of studies proposed by the former. They should both agree on checking those abilities and skills as a vital part of the contract.

24 August 2012

Jupiter, Moon, Venus (and Aldebaran)

The night of  12 August 2012, there was a peak in the meteor shower of the Perseids. I happened to be in Santorini, so I set my alarm clock for 4:30. It was a perfect, cloudless night with almost no light pollution. So, not only did I enjoy a spectacular shower, but I also saw the rare alignment of 3 celestial bodies: Jupiter, the Moon and Venus. I turned my mobile phone camera to the sky and took a very reasonable photo:
The moon is the brightest spot. Jupiter is just above and to the right of the Moon. Venus is the dot at the bottom. Upon enlarging the photo near the Moon-Jupiter area, one can see, to the right of the two bodies, Aldebaran, a red giant star, 65 light years away, which, compared to our Sun, is 44 times larger (linear scale). It represents a small version of what our Sun will be like in about 5 billion years: it will increase in size by a linear factor of 200. Of course, all life (on Earth) will be extinct by then.

5 August 2012

George Pell: more blunders

In my previous posting I pointed out that, in the Dawkins-Pell Q&A session, George Pell thought that non-randomness is equivalent to "having a purpose". Here are some more of his blunders. He claimed that:

  • Humans evolved from Neanderthals. When Dawkins pointed out to him that this is not correct, because Neanderthals are more like our cousins, Pell defended his position by saying that this cannot be true because he does not see any Neanderthals around. Then Dawkins told him they are extinct.                                                            
  • Jews were not intellectually equal of the Egyptians and Persians. He also said that Jews were shepherds, stuck between great powers, and are still stuck. Here, Pell confuses the term "intellectual" and "great power". He seems to be implying that, because the Persians had a mighty empire, that automatically implies that they were the intellectuals of the day too.
  • Germans [during or after WWII] suffered more than the Jews [during the Holocaust]. Pell mentioned this as a response to a question on suffering. Yes, Jews suffered, but god arranged so that Germans suffered too, he, more or less said, just as much. (He subsequently issued a statement clarifying his comments and insisting he did not intend to offend the Jewish community.)
  • During holy communion, the wafer and the wine turns, literally, into the body and blood of Christ. So that whoever received holy communion actually consumes flesh and blood. I know this is a cliche among Catholics, they actually believe that, but it is funny to hear it from an "authority". His explanation for this miracle is: Jesus said so. (End of story. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.)
  • Science cannot give us the reason why we are here. Correct. But he does not understand that this is a silly statement. Why should there be a reason in the first place? (See previous posting on Lennox too.) Equivalent statements are the following: Astronomy cannot give us the reason for the existence of rings of Saturn. No, George, science is not so petty to deal with this. Science will give you the process for the formation of the rings, not their teleological property which, after all, is a product of projection of human behaviour to nature.
  • One of our problems is that we don't understand why suffering exists, but it is a much greater problem for atheists  to explain why there is goodness and truth and beauty. This is related to the last one.

The discussion was full of such gems. It's a video worth watching. I'll leave it at that. If you spot more blunders, let me know.

John Lennox, his aunt Matilda (and her pies), and Creationism

There are religious folk, like George Pell, who was my previous post's subject, who are decent enough to suggest (or appear to be doing so) that one cannot approach religion through science, that it is beyond it, something else, etc., although they fail to suggest what this something else is. Bill Hick, of Revelation TV is such a decent chap. He has all kinds of crazy beliefs, but he doesn't say that they are the result of a scientific process.

There are others, however, like John Lennox, Oxford Professor in Mathematics (Algebra), who are trying hard to justify religion through Science. In doing so, they use their scientific hat to appear that their arguments come straight from the centres of their prestigious scientific academic establishments. It is easy: most laymen have no idea what's going on in the Oxford Mathematics Department, neither do they know whether Lennox knows Quantum Mechanics or General Relativity. All that Lennox has to do is to pretend that his religious argument comes straight from his "academic works". People will buy that, even if he will never explicitly say so.

I have been in two talks by Lennox (one was a monologue, and the other a debate with Christopher Hitchens), both in Edinburgh. On both occasions he used the following argument, a version of the Pie Argument, as anadder calls it:
My aunt Matilda bakes a wonderful pie. I have two friends, a physicist and a chemist. I ask the chemist to analyse the pie and he tells me, very precisely, of the chemical composition of every part of it. I ask the physicist, who reveals to me all kinds of scientific facts about the pie. But then I ask both of them: "why did aunt Matilda bake the pie?" None of the two can answer the question. No matter how hard they try to analyse the pie, scientifically, they will never be able to answer the question.
(Ergo, god exists; but Lennox, being smart enough, leaves this conclusion to the audience.)

Bravo Lennox! What a wonderful argument. Even a child can come up with a better one.

Again, however, what Lennox's fallacy is, is that he is trying to attach a purpose to the baking of the pie, a purpose which is contained within the pie itself! For better analysis of this stupidity, read anadder.

Let me add that Lennox has declared himself not a creationist, not an intelligent designer. He does not, he appears to be saying, sympathize with these fundamentalists. And yet, this year, Lennox accepted the Phillip Johnson award. Philip Johnson is one of the most despicable creationists. His achievements include: he rejects evolution; he thinks that god can be explained scientifically; he is an AIDS denialist; he fires people who don't agree with him; he suffers from islamophobia; he is, in fact, one of the founders of the intelligent design movement--a creationist spin-off; he is advisor and co-founder of the discovery institute (also known as dishonesty institute); he supports teaching of creationism in public schools. More on Phillip Johnson, here.

Now, how can one reconcile (i) accepting an award that bears the name of one of the most vicious creationists and (ii) claim that you do not support creationism? I'd be really ashamed.

Cardinal Pell: "Could you explain what non-random means?"

In April 2012, the Australian TV hosted a Q&A session with Richard Dawkins and George Pell (Catholic Cardinal of Australia) as respondents. I watched the 1-hour programme on youtube. I recommend it, as an exercise to spotting a large number of rational mistakes by Pell. The most interesting misconception of Pell is that he does not understand the term "random". This is a serious mistake, because he has been all along thinking been basing his belief system on the following:
non-random =[equivalent to] having a purpose
And, therefore, that
random =[equivalent to] not having a purpose
I'll leave aside whether one can always be asking about purpose, and proceed in seeing, exactly, how the Cardinal reveals his inadequacy, clearly and wittingly. He starts by saying that religion is not science (correct) but people can use reason in religion, that they can they have, for example, to reason about the parts of science regarding evolution.The excerpt of the dialogue goes like this:
  • Pell: People have to ask whether they believe that random selection is sufficient. Most evolutionary biologists don't believe in this crude fundamentalist version of random selection that you propose.
  • Dawkins: I do not propose it. I strongly deny that evolution is random selection. It is non-random selection.
  • P: Oh, so there's a purpose to it?
  • D: No.
  • P: Could you explain what non-random means?
And then Dawkins goes on to explain that, in evolution, there is random genetic variation and non-random reproduction, which is why, as time goes by, animals get better at doing what they do. Natural selection, Dawkins says, is quintessentially non-random. And then he explains the obvious: that, in hindsight, it may appear that things (a bird's wing, a human's eye) have a purpose but this is a pseudo-purpose. Darwinian evolution is non-random evolution.

Ok, so Pell has had a misunderstanding of what evolution is about. But this is not his most serious mistake. After all, he claims, that a Catholic may believe in evolution if he or she likes. (Notice how he uses the verb "believe", as if there is a choice to believe or not a scientific fact; for instance, I have no choice in believing that gravitational force varies in inverse proportion of the square of the distance between two bodies, because it is so--period; whether I like it or not.)

His most serious mistake, which can (and I'm surely does) affect all his belief system is that he thinks that non-random is equivalent to having a purpose. It is so simple to realise the falsity of this, that it is painful to have to explain it, so I will leave it as an (easy) exercise. Pell makes this mistake because he badly wants to justify his views, so badly that he alters the meaning of things. Assigning purpose to concepts (such as "randomness") and to natural things (such as "the Earth") is an attempt to anthropomorphize Nature and the kind of Language we use to understand Nature. "God is created in Man's image" is what Pell's belief system is all about, and, therefore, he seems to believe that everything behaves in the same way that humans behave. The purpose found in human actions cannot be transferred to natural objects and concepts (teleology).

Not only the formula "non-random = having a purpose" is wrong because one can show that the two sides are unequal, but it is one which, simply, cannot be written down, like one cannot write down the formula "2+5 = the Moon's beauty".

A similar fallacy can be seen in John Lennox's Pie Argument, of which I'll say something next.


22 July 2012

On Lennox, again

This is a reposting of an older post. Sometime ago, I visited John Lennox's site and made, among other things a comment on the irrationality of choosing religion A vs B and pointed out that Lennox's religion is probably the result of his upbringing. One responded replied thus:
Christianity, of course, provides the best explanation and best evidence over any other religion.
Of course, statement proved, case closed, QED. Don't you love this kind of "rationality"? What is worse is that the respondent is not even aware of the ilogicalness of his claim. I wanted to respond, but Lennox has disabled responses.

21 July 2012

In the Russian Orthodox Chruch

Once upon a time, we used to think that there is one country in the world where religion was playing little role. Yes, that was Soviet Union. Of course, we didn't know that religion cannot be eliminated by fiat. We were naive. We were young. We did know, however, that religion and Soviet do not mix. No proper communist would ever go to church. Certainly not a KGB agent.

But then, one day, things changed. They changed fast. We learned that the Orthodox Church was playing a big role in ex-Soviet Union. That people were queueing in order to enter churches. That the state had endorsed Orthodox religion so much so that religion and state were almost inseparable. Just like in Greece. (Except that, in Greece, there had been no divorce period: religion and state have been living in harmony for a couple of millennia or so.) Even ex-KGB agents became religious.
They had to, I guess. I found this bizarre, in the beginning. But not any more, of course.

And now, some Russians, a minority of course, are protesting. Some, quietly, very quietly. They fear that if they protest openly they might go to jail. Imagine the contrast: 30 years ago, you could receive a Lenin medal for advocating the evil of religion. Nowadays, you just keep it to yourself. You certainly must not offend the State leader. This is a faux pas.

Of course, I know that these silly girls did not have religion as their primary target, but, rather, wanted to pass on a political message. Yet, they chose a church to perform their gig
which I found not distasteful; perhaps a pleasant interruption of the boring church rituals. They were put to jail. They face up to 7 years imprisonment. Some describe them as naive. They are. But they have to be naive, young as they are, in order to attempt this.

19 July 2012

Marcel Duchamp on Takis

Some time ago, the famous Dadaist/surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp wrote a note of admiration on the work of Takis, pointing out, in particular, his oeuvre on magnetic fields:
Of course, he is not referring to me, but to Takis, the artist  whose work can be seen in La Défense, Paris. He  used magnetism as a tool for his installations. I remember some of that from the Berkeley Art Museum. I also remember a stamp, issued by France in 1993, exhibiting a ... rather abstract work by Takis. I used to own the stamp. 

2 July 2012

European Comission's blunder

As "a Nadder" puts it, the following video is a hilariously inept and patronising ad by the European Commission, "trying" to encourage women to pursue careers in science. It's so inappropriate that makes you wonder if those guys have any brains at all. Here it is:

So not just Sweden, but the whole Europe is obsessed with gender. They try to come up with quick and dirty fixes for, say, the discrepancy between the number of women and men in the university (or in engineering, science,...), that the results are often so demeaning to the women themselves, let alone that it is more scientific to watch MacDonald's hamburger ads than the video above. Just plain stupid.

15 May 2012

Arithmetica Universalis

Staffan Rodhe's office door was open today, I was passing by, so I dropped in. I was admiring the collection of ancient mathematical texts on his shelves. I first picked up a book by Lagrange, then one by Euler, and then the Arithmetica Universalis by Newton. I opened it somewhere in the middle and found a square piece of paper  (size around 10 cm) with some equations on one side and a couple of geometric drawings on the other. Clearly, it belonged to an careful reader of some past century. Most likely, Staffan explained, it was written some time in the 18th c. I took a couple of photos of both sides, as well as a copy of the title page of the book because they are, in my opinion, like pieces of art. It also makes me wonder how people thought back then, how similar to us they were, etc.
Note that this edition of Arithmetica Universalis was published in 1732 in Lugdunum Batavorum, i.e., Leiden. There is a free version on the internet from a 1752 copy from Amstelodamum (Amsterdam). The original edition dates from 1707.

14 May 2012

The Dawn and the Golden Dawn

As well-known, in the latest parliamentary elections (6 May 2012) in Greece, the parties Coalition of the Radical Left (ΣΥΡΙΖΑ) and Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή) came, respectively, 2nd and 6th,  receiving 16.78% and 6.68% of the votes,

The somewhat curious coincidence is that the newspaper of the first party is called Dawn (Aυγή), while that of the second one is called Golden Dawn (Χρυσή Αυγή). This is true, albeit curious. It should also be mentioned that the online newspaper of the latter party was hosted by wordpress until 10 May 2012, when it was taken down by wordpress for alleged violations of the host organization's policies, which include spamming, defamation and copyright violation. Golden Dawn folks allege that any resemblance of their symbol to the nazi swastika is totally coincidental.

It is moderately funny that with the omission of an adjective one can swing from far right to far left.

9 May 2012

Obsession with gender

This blog is about rationality. So, when I spot things which are irrational, I write about them. Indeed, an offence to one's sense of logic should be one of scientists' concerns.

In my less-than-two-years sojourn in Sweden, I noticed that there is a certain obsession with the concept of gender. Much in the same way that there was (and still is) obsession with affirmative action in the U.S. So, much so, that the obsession often violates elementary logic.

I pointed out some of these gender-type of obsessions before. For example, here and here. Of course, there is nothing wrong about promoting equality, at all levels, for all people, all genders, all ethnicities. But to be obsessed about it so much so that you feel the need to theorize that "one's sex is not biologically determined but  rather something that is `socially constructed'" is a mere insult to elementary science and elementary logic. True, there are exceptions (as always) to the rule. There are people who may not feel comfortable with the gender they are born with and seek a change at some point in their lives. One should respect this. However, to say that everyone's gender is a social construct is not just absurd, but also idiotic.

Such things are pointed out in an article by Bo Rothstein, professor of Political Science at Gothenburg University. Rothstein refers to the Secretariat for Gender Research (sekretariat för genusforskning), formed several years ago, by the Swedish State. Again, having a body of the government interested in promoting equality of sexes, making sure that neither men are discriminated by women nor women by men, is laudable. But to have statements such as "analyze the need for gender research in all disciplines" is strange. I do not understand the meaning of the phrase. It is, to say the least, strange. It does not say "make sure that there is no sex discrimination in any job". The phrase above presupposes that there is a need for gender research in all scientific disciplines (analysera behovet av genusforskning inom alla vetenskapsområden). It is not unlikely that my Swedish (thanks to Google translate, to be honest) is not good enough, but "vetenskapsområden" means "scientific areas" (vetenskap = Wissenschaft = science). If, then, Physics is a scientific discipline, the phrase above implies that there is a need for gender research in Physics. Since it is true that Physics is a scientific discipline, we conclude that the sekretariat för genusforskning mandates that Physics should also be concerned with gender research. Now, this starts looking very irrational, doesn't it?

Pseudo-scientists who conduct gender research in Physics include a certain infamous philosopher, Luce Irigaray, who, among other things, argues that E=mc2 is a "sexed equation" because  "it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us". She also concludes that fluid mechanics is a neglected discipline because it deals with fluids (duh!) which are feminine in contrast to rigid mechanics which are masculine. For more information on this kind of idiotic research, please take a look at the book "Fashionable Nonsense" by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

Perhaps the Secretariat for Gender Research do not really mean to be irrational. Perhaps the phrase above, taken from their Code of Statutes, means something else. (We should always give someone the benefit of the doubt.) But then it is a mystery what they might mean, if they don't really mean Irigaray-type of pseudo-research.

Last but not least, when we talk about under-represented gender, we may as well remember that such things are, unfortunately, so much embedded in people's minds that people (even the ones who promote gender equality) cannot think of the root of the problem. Rather, they touch upon these problems tangentially, on the surface. As an example, take, for instance, the four monotheistic religions (Zoroastrinism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in chronological order of their foundation). As soon as homo sapiens came up with the idea that there is one god, this god immediately assumed male gender. (Whether this has something to do with a male-dominated society, I'll leave it as an exercise.) Therefore, if the Secretariat for Gender Research want to do something about equality, they should go to the Swedish Church (for instance) and tell them to change, or eliminate, the gender of their deity. At least this is more rational than looking for gender research in Physics. I'm willing to bet, however, that they won't do it.

3 May 2012

New "Proof" of P=NP

Credit goes to Jeff Shallit again, for having found the most stupid "mathematical paper" of all times. It can be found here. After proving that the real numbers form a countable [sic] set, the author "establishes" the proof of a long-standing open problem.

It is a recommended read for those who suffer from insomnia and other maladies. As Shallit remarks, it is "a veritable garden of crankiness".

Oh yes, let us not forget the "proof" of Fermat's last theorem.

22 April 2012

On teaching

From time to time, I write some thoughts about education issues. Not because I'm a great pedagogue, neither because I think I have the best solution to the problem. (Not even because I think that students are bad. Such cliches are just pointing towards an easy way out of the door. In fact, us, teachers are more responsible than students.)  But only because, nowadays, and in many places, "to teach" has become equivalent with "to teach recipes".

I will, from time to time, expand on the subject with my thoughts and examples from personal experiences which, trust me, I've had many, and many unpleasant ones.

There is one thing I take as an axiom (fully justified of course), from which I will never depart, and upon which I have always based and will always base my teaching. Namely:
There is no teaching without explaining what is being taught.
This is a fundamental principle, the basis of everything else. If you disagree with it, then you are essentially applying a procedure which should not be called teaching. You are simply adopting a process which should have another name. Preaching perhaps; Or something less harsh if you wish. But the fact that the word teaching has been usurped by all kinds of classroom activities, does not enlarge the meaning of the word. On the contrary, these activities only provide counterexamples (and frequently good ones) to the meaning of the word teaching.

So, if someone demands from you that, say, you teach Real Analysis by only giving the students a set of ready-made formulae, then your response should be:
"You are giving me contradicting demands: if I deliver to a classroom a set of formulae and examples on Real Analysis, without explaining to them how and why these formulae work, then you are asking me not to teach the subject. Therefore your request implies the clause `please teach Real Analysis without teaching the subject', from which an obvious contradiction arises. As it is impossible to simultaneously do something and the negation of the something, you are asking me the impossible."
Such is the only rational response to irrational demands. It all boils down to analyzing the phrases into its fundamental constituents, taking into account the aforementioned axiom. The person who is asking you to teach without explaining is asking you to do something else. And he or she has to name it. If he or she insists in calling it teaching, please insist in that he or she is violating elementary rules of logic. (If he or she claims to be a scientist but he or she fails to see the contradiction, then matters are worse: this person is violating their claim to adherence to science and is exhibiting religious traits.)

I know that this is too abstract. I will come up with examples in due time.

17 April 2012

The Swedish sj-sound

The word for "shit" in Swedish is "skit", sometimes pronounced very much like the English word, but frequently using the voiceless postalveolar-velar fricative /ɧ/ or "sj-sound" . Roughly speaking, this sound is a combination of / ʃ / and an aspiration (in proportion 1:9, in my opinion). Some people describe the "sj-sound" as doubly-articulated voiceless palato-alveoar-velar fricative. The symbol /ɧ/ appears in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and is only used for this specific sound of the Swedish language, but it is debatable whether the phoneme, as a distinct entity, exists at all. Here is how a Swede pronounces "sju" (seven), using both phonemes (i.e. / ʃ / and  /ɧ/). Someone from the west of Sweden would rather use /ɧ/ in "sju", but someone from Stockholm, or someone wanting to be more pretentious (they tell me), uses  / ʃ /. Other examples of the sj-sound, pronounced both ways, can be found here.

What is of interest (to me) however, is the evolution of the sound. Once upon a time, the "sk" in "skit" was, indeed, pronounced as it is written. The word came into Swedish from the proto-Germanic equivalent, which itself was probably derived from a classical Greek word, which is "skatos" in genitive. The word "sju" was "septem" in Latin, "hepta" in Greek (the aspiration now lost in modern Greek), "sapta" in Sanskrit and, probably, "septm" in PIE. We see that, in both cases, there is an "s" sound there (changed to pure aspiration in Greek).

I am neither a linguist, let alone a phonologist, so anything I write is only a personal theory. It is unlikely (impossible, I would say) that the sound  /ɧ/ existed in old Swedish. Rather, it was an "s" sound which turned into an / ʃ / (much like people in N. Greece pronounce "Serres"). The transformation  / ʃ / → /ɧ/ probably is one of lingustic laziness™ (my terminology), meaning that / ʃ / requires more effort than an aspiration-type of phoneme, like /ɧ/. So "station" (the word for "station" in Swedish) is most frequently pronounced as sta/ɧ/on, rather than sta/ ʃ/on, or, simply, sta/x/on. It appears to me that the the same kind of linguistic laziness™ explains the pronunciation of the phrase "¿como estas?" by Cubans: they replace the first "s" in "estas" by a (voiced) "h" sound and the second one by a voiceless "h", or, by simply omitting it.

This is, at least, my (Occam razor-based) theory, probably badly explained. I have been unable to find any references for the linguistic transformation which resulted in the "sj-sound", and, of course, asking a native speaker doesn't help (one does not think about one's own language). Any tips would be appreciated.

22 March 2012

Quotations (as collected by Paul Chernoff)

The very last one is from a poem by Antonio Machado (scroll at the very bottom of the front page of my blog to see it).

And here is the one above it:
A good mathematical joke is better, and better mathematics,
than a dozen mediocre papers. -- J.E. Littlewood

21 March 2012

"Proof" of Fermat's Last Theorem

Via Recursivity, I became aware of a certain "journal" titled Journal of Mathematical and Computational Science, which publishes articles like this:
A simple proof of the [sic] Fermat's last conjecture and the connection with the Goldbach conjecture, by Ikorong Anouk Gilbert Nemron.
I offer it to my readers as a prime example of a pitiful paper, of no substance at all, which finds its place in a "journal", after, supposedly, having been peer-reviewed by one or more referees chosen by the editorial board. The people at the editorial board should be completely ashamed of letting junk, like the paper above, being published.

But, as a colleague of mine remarked, anything, absolutely anything can be published nowadays, somewhere. The problem with certain journals is that there is zero quality control. I urge my readers to click on the link above and have a laugh. There is material for laugh for everyone.You don't need to know mathematics (neither does the author) to have a laugh. 

20 March 2012

Equinox, or how to define things properly

Google reminded me of Equinox today.
Equinox is defined as a point on the trajectory (and hence a point in time) of the Earth around the Sun at which the line L joining the Sun and the Earth and the axis A around which the Earth revolves are perpendicular to one another. Since A remains, approximately, fixed in space, it turns out that there are exactly two equinoxes (a simple consequence of the intermediate value theorem for continuous functions).

Compare this simple definition with the one given on Wikipedia:

An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth's equator. The term equinox can also be used in a broader sense, meaning the date when such a passage happens. The name "equinox" is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day have approximately equal length.
At an equinox, the Sun is at one of two opposite points on the celestial sphere where the celestial equator (i.e. declination 0) and ecliptic intersect. These points of intersection are called equinoctial points: classically, thevernal point and the autumnal point. By extension, the term equinox may denote an equinoctial point.
An equinox happens each year at two specific moments in time (rather than two whole days), when there is a location (the subsolar point) on the Earth's equator, where the center of the Sun can be observed to be vertically overhead, occurring around March 20 and September 22 each year.

Such a simple concept, but such a convoluted definition. No wonder that many people have little understanding of trivial facts, such as the equinox.

Of course, we should not forget that the definition above will not satisfy some creationists, for whom the Earth does not move, because--they claim--the Vatican believes the same thing, and because their religious texts say so (blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Matthew 5:3).

P.S. The Earth's rotational axis, denote by A above, is not really fixed but moves very very slowly. So slowly that it takes 26 thousand years to complete a cycle. Today, A points towards the star Polaris (the commonly known Northern Star), but 10 thousand years ago it did not. This phenomenon is known as precession of the equinoxes because, as a result of it, the equinoxes change very very slowly too. It was described by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy, about 2000 years ago, who attributed it to Hipparchus who was born 200 years before Prolemy.

8 March 2012

The theorem of option pricing made EZ

I am writing this to convince an analyst friend of mine that the so-called theorem of option pricing has nothing to do with probability and that, philosophically, is very simple.

I will prove the fundamental theorem of option pricing in a trivial case.

Suppose there is a box which transforms the dollars you put in into something of different value. For example, I put 1 dollar in the box and this becomes either 10 dollars or 0.01 dollars. The problem is that I don't know what the output of the box is and also I know nothing about the probability of the outcome. All I know is that 1 dollar turns magically into something else: either 10 dollars or 1 cent.

More generally, suppose that the box takes a token that is valued at $S$ dollars and spits out another token that is valued $S'$ dollars which could be higher or lower than $S$. To be concrete, and also keep things simple, let's say that $S'$ is either $(1+b)S$ or $(1-a)S$. If we put $u$ tokens in the machine, then the machine will spit out exactly the same number tokens all of which will be valued the higher price or all at the lower price. We allow the number of tokens to be any positive number, for example 2/3 of a token is possible. Assume that $0 < a < 1$ and $b >0$.

Now, me being a smartass, tell you the following: "Listen buddy, the machine makes money, not all the time, but sometimes. I give you the following option: You won't have to do anything. I will operate the machine for you. If it makes money I will give you some. If not, you won't get anything."Oh, great", you reply, "go ahead". "Well," I say, "you know, you have to pay me a bit now, so that you get the benefits later." "How much," you ask. "We'll figure it out", I reply.

To make things general let's say that our contract is a certain function
meaning that if the machine turns changes the value of one token to $S'$ dollars then I will give you $f(S')$ dollars.

My rationale is as follows. I'm not a sucker. I won't risk anything at all. I will charge you $X$ dollars and, with this, I will buy $u$ tokens, costing me $uS$ dollars, and put the difference $c = X-uS$ aside. I will put the $u$ tokens in the machine and the machine will change the value of each token to $S'$. In the end, I will have $uS'$ dollars from the machine, plus $c$ aside, which means that I wil have
$Y = uS' + c$ dollars
and since I am a gentleman, I will have to fulfil my promise, meaning that
$Y = f(S')$.
Since $Y-X = u(S'-S)$, we see that
$X+u(S'-S) = f(S')$
must be fulfilled. And this leads to two equations with two unknowns, $X$ and $u$. The equations are:
$X+ubS = f((1+b)S)$,     if the price goes up,
$X-uaS = f((1-a)S)$,    if the price goes down.
Subtracting the second from the first gives
$u = \frac{ f((1+b)S)- f((1-a)S)}{(a+b)S}$.
Putting this back into the second equation, we find
$X = \frac{a}{a+b} f((1+b)S) + \frac{b}{a+b}  f((1-a)S)$.
I observe that my solution is good, because $u \ge 0$ and because both $u$ and $X$ depend on nothing else (not on my astrologer, neither on my mood) except the price $S$ of the token. So I tell you that: I will charge you $X$ dollars. (If $uS$ turns out to be larger than $X$, then I will temporarily borrow $c$ dollars and return them at the end.)

That is all.

Now that you have learned the above, you can create a dictionary of jargon:
  1. Market: it is the box you see above in the picture.
  2. Share: the token.
  3. Stock: a set of tokens.
  4. Bond: the quantity $c$; with $c$ positive (respectively, negative) interpreted as buying (respectively, selling).
  5. Portfolio: the pair $(u,c)$.
  6. Hedging strategy: it refers to the number of tokens $u$.
  7. Option: the function $f$.
  8. Price: the variable $X$.
  9. Completeness: it refers to the fact that there is a unique solution $(u,X)$ to the system of equations. (If $S'$ takes not two, but three values, completeness is lost.)
  10. Arbitrage: the absence of arbitrage is that I make no money. 
  11. Transaction cost: I may charge you an extra fee.
  12. Equivalent martingale measure: You can think of a random variable $R$ taking value $a$ with probability $b/(a+b)$ or value $b$ with probability $a/(a+b)$ (these probabilities constitute the probability measure), write $S'=(1+R)S$ and rewrite the equation for $X$ as $X= E[f(S')] = E[Y]$ (one says that $(X,Y)$ is a martingale).
Who could have ever thought that there is such a rich dictionary behind a simple equation?

By the way, what theorem have we proved? Cast in the fancy terminology, we have proved a theorem saying that, in our complete market with no arbitrage, any option can be priced fairly by using a unique hedging strategy which specifies our portfolio in terms of shares of stock and bonds.

In reality we have proved that I lure you to put your money in the magic box, that I have no risk of losing anything, and that it is you who bears all the risk. However, by charging a bit more than the fair price $X$, by doing the same not just with you but with a few thousand other people whom I attract by designing fancy options $f$, I surely make some money.


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