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.


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