18 December 2014

Dying in Sweden during the summer is not advisable

One thing that happens every summer in Sweden, especially after the so-called mid-summer day, is that the country closes down. It is very hard to do anything during the summer, from fixing your car to seeing a doctor.

But even dying is not advisable during the summer.

Why? Because there is nobody around to bury the dead body.

Here is the story: three years ago, the (Swedish) husband of a woman (whom we know) died suddenly in the middle of the summer by a wasp sting. This was very unfortunate and very sad. Very unexpected also. Indeed, some people may die from insect venom anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction). These fatal allergic reactions frequently, but not always, occur in people who have had a previous allergic reaction to the same type of insect.

Once the first shock passes, the dead person's wife tried to arrange for a funeral.  Funeral offices abound in Sweden and, as I explained in an earlier posting, they have a very different look than in other countries because they display their products (coffins, urns for ashes, etc.) in their windows. In the previous posting, I also analyzed the concept of a funeral office magazine which is issued at the hefty price of 9.50 USD. We receive it for free. And I described its contents. Therefore, funeral offices exist and are very well-organized. They even produce software for the management of death-related operations. (See my previous posting.)

However, they apparently all (or almost all) close down during the summer, so much so, that the unfortunate woman could not find any funeral office in Stockholm or in a nearby area in order to bury her husband. She searched and searched and nothing was available. Instead, she was told to wait until September, to have the body frozen until they reopen in September and resume business as usual. To be accurate, I believe that there are some funeral offices open but they work at a very low pace during the summer so they're fully booked. Hence the waiting time.

It appears, therefore, that dying during the summer should be avoided in Sweden. Or, if one expects to die, he or she should make a reservation with a funeral office a few months in advance. Perhaps this is why the funeral office magazines are being sent out: as a reminder to reserve a spot should you plan to die during the summer.

14 December 2014

Funeral office magazine sent to us for free

Back in 2011, I noticed that some funeral offices in Sweden are very different from funeral offices in any other country I'm aware of. That is,  funeral offices here advertise their products: coffins, cremation urns, etc.

Another interesting thing is that funeral offices produce magazines. For four years now, we've been receiving, at home, magazines from funeral offices, at least biannually. The latest magazine just arrived a couple of days ago and is a special issue for the Christmas season. It is called memento:
Translation: Top left: from the funeral office.  Title: The Nordic essence; mythical creatures from the graveyard. Bottom right: Price 70 Swedish Crowns (approximately 9.50 US dollars)
So, I guess, we are lucky! We get the magazine for free and don't have to pay.

Let's take a look at what's inside. It advertises coffins of special elegance. A picture (bottom right) shows the craftsmanship going into the material on which the dead body will rest, while another picture (top right) shows a path converging to infinity (of presumably metaphysical/religious significance)--the interpretation is left open for the reader.
A new age coffin, the path to eternity, and craftsmanship of the coffin's velvet interior
It also advertises hearses, that is, automobiles carrying the coffin with the dead body to the burial place. This particular company prides itself in being "a new generation of building concepts" and, in addition, offers extra long hearses. As this chart shows, Swedes are typically tall (and taller than in the past), so funeral offices with long hearses are doing better businesses. Interestingly, however, the taller a Swedish man is the less likely he will commit suicide, according to this paper.
Translation: Extra long hearses have been designed to facilitate your working day. High comfort and smart solutions provide a good working environment
The main story of the magazine is about mythical creatures that one can encounter in Swedish cemeteries. They look like this
They are called "myling" and are ghosts of children who died before they had a chance to be baptized.

The magazine also contains an article about death and art, photographs from graveyards, and an article about cancer
Death art
A photographer who sees death all the time
Dead bodies as art
Translation: Much remains even if the cancer is gone.
Interpretation: So be ready to die, we'll take care of you
and an ad about a computer program, "eulogica", for managing death operations:
Software for the management of death operations

Persons portrayed in this magazine often have their look of dead on their faces. This lady seems to be smiling at us in a very sinister manner
He he he ...
while this one's face is almost grey (I don't know if the color can be accurately reproduced, but it's true--welcome to take a look at my copy of the funeral magazine), as if she's about to die or just resurrected from the dead, like Lazarus.
Translation: We help you [so that when you die you won't have to carry your own coffin]

And, of course, since we're so close to the Festive Season, there is even a Santa Claus acting like everybody else around: typing away on his computer.
Translation: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
This time of the year, there is just darkness around. We never have sunlight (5 hours in total during November). And there are no lights either. Strangely enough, lots of public places dim their lights down when darkness hits. I don't go to restaurants because I have trouble reading the menu--it is so dark.In general, it feels as if we're playing along with Bengt Ekerot in Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal:
If you ever wondered what Bergman's films mean, you haven't spent much time in Sweden
Fortunately, nobody committed suicide this year (as opposed to last year) at the university.

10 December 2014

"Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List" is an actual science paper accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.

The International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology accepted a paper by computer scientists David Mazières and Eddie Kohler titled "Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List".

In 2005 they created this highly profane ten-page paper as a joke, to send in replying to unwanted conference invitations. It literally just contains that seven-word phrase over and over, along with a nice flow chart and scatter-plot graph:

An Australian computer scientist named Peter Vamplew sent it to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology in response to spam from the journal. Apparently, he thought the editors might simply open and read it.  [Source.]

Instead, the journal automatically accepted the paper — with an anonymous reviewer rating it as "excellent" — and requested a fee of $150.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of journals like this online these days. They publish anything for a fee. They do not review, they don't even open the papers submitted. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, keeps an up-to-date list of them to help researchers avoid being taken in; it currently has 550 publishers and journals on it.

But the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology is not  the most dangerous of its kind. It can easily be dismissed as bogus. The danger lies in semi-serious journals that pretend to be more scholarly and which are taken seriously by university departments. The list of them is endless. Everybody is trying to publish, whatever, whenever, and wherever, and the result is the creation of these crappy journals.

Why do these journals survive? Because, clearly, someone, some people take them seriously. Alas, these people are not closer than we may think.

7 December 2014

Two videos, two murderers

In the first one, a soldier describes how he murdered innocent people and how he regrets it.
In the second one, a police officer is seeing murdering a guy on the street.

In both cases, the murderers acted because they had been trained to be so, and had been indoctrinated in believing that their country was behind them and supporting them.

There was no murder conviction in either case precisely because the murderers had been taught to never think and always believe in those who teach them: any conviction would necessarily require conviction of those who instilled in the murderers' minds the belief that they are allowed to kill.

In both cases, the murderers had been stripped off their faculty of reasoning.
This is why belief is such a stupid and irresponsible thing.
The sleep of reason begets monsters.

4 December 2014

Jehova's witnesses: finally, they found me!

I've been told that Jehovah's witnesses exist in Uppsala and they do their usual thing: go from door to door, in pairs, trying to convert people. I've been in Sweden for more than 4 years and haven't met a single Jehovah's witness. And finally it happened. Twice in a week.

Last weekend, in the center of Uppsala I saw a bunch of guys distributing some kitsch-looking pamphlets in English and Spanish. I stop for a second and looked. One of them approached me and asked me if I wanted one. What are you, I asked. Jehovah's witnesses, he said. Oh, there they are, I thought. But why in Spanish? Well, there are South Americans in Sweden and we try to get to them. Are you Swedish, I asked. No, Greek, he says, I was born in Athens but lived in Sweden all my life. Do you know about Jehovah's witnesses, he says, in Greek? Sure, I said. Interested? No, thanks, no. I don't like religions, especially those that were established in the US and brought over here, like you, Mormons, Pentecostals, and others. (Not that I like non-US religions, but I felt like saying this to point something out he probably didn't want to acknowledge.) He looked at me puzzled. We're not an American religion, he says. Sure, you are, check your facts. Ok, he says, sure, the first people who thought about the truth were American, but this does not mean that we're an American religion, we've gone everywhere, we're international... We exchange a few friendly sentences in Greek, he asks me about my religion and wish him well and good luck and go.

This morning it happened again. The bell rings. I open the door and two friendly women introduce themselves to me. While doing so, I look at what they were carrying so I saw similar kitsch-looking pamphlets and I guessed... Yes! They were Jehovah's witnesses. Are you interested in.. event... tomorrow.. bla bla... No, no, thank you. Take this leaflet. No, thanks, I won't. Smile. What do you believe in, they ask? Believe? What is "to believe"? I consider the word "belief" something that has to be avoided as much as possible (while, of course, being aware of the impossibility and slight irrationality of the statement I'm making), but, in fact, I don't believe in believing. So we chat for a few minutes. Nice ladies, quite charming, not pushy at all, I felt I could be as pushy as I wanted, but, hell, why should I do that? We talked about the perils of believing, they kept referring to the bible, even though I told them it's not a book that contains uniformly consistent and contradiction-free information, to which they replied (I guess it's one of the things they learn by heart when they receive their training) that it depends on how one reads the book. I gave them a disapproving look so we switched to a different topic. They seemed to be happy with our conversation because, as they said, Swedes typically don't speak to them and that, at least, I had lots to say and that all made sense. It took about 10 minutes of discussion and then they said goodbye and left.

So, am I in the Jehovah's witnesses' friend list now? I don't know. Let's see.. Should I do like the father of someone I know who tells me that he's been inviting Jehovah's witnesses for tea every time they knocked at his door and that, at some point, they wondered "how come, after so many visits, you are still not convinced?" Answer: "oh, because it was me who was trying to convert you." I believe they didn't show up again.

P.S. This posting was discovered by a religious site. Look!

29 November 2014

American priest visits Nordic countries in search of religion!

Recently, an American priest (probably of the creationist type), Marty McLain, from Georgia, US, visited three Nordic countries in search of his quest for god. He summarized his experience very simply, by using a monosyllable word: WOW!!!

Marty McLain’s starting point are his beliefs: “I believe in creation, I believe in the fall, I believe in the garden of Eden, I believe in restauration, I believe in hell, I believe in revelation”, he states clearly.  He also believes we are all born with a sin nature!!! There is no room in his mind for questioning the word belief, which, demonstrably, is something that should be avoided. Admitting that one “believes” in something is neither honourable nor smart and, certainly, not rational. But he has convinced himself that there are some things which should never be questioned. He probably grew up in a (particular version of) Christian environment, so he became Christian, and has convinced himself that this is the best thing in the world, and never questions his beliefs. He believes in everything that his holy book quotes (but does not believe, I’m sure, in the writings of someone else’s holy book). So he came to the Nordic countries assuming that people here also act similarly. Wrong. And when he found out that people don’t care about his beliefs he said WOW!!! And then he said: WOW!!! And then again WOW!!! That’s all he could say. 

The Finnish television YLE made a little documentary on McLain’s visit here:
For a shorter version click here.
I’ll summarize some points.

McLain: Do you believe in god?
Responder A: No. Responder B: No. Responder C: No. Etc….
Responder M:  Of course I do.
McLain: Are you a Christian?
Responder M: No, I’m a Muslim?
McLain: Muslim? WOW!!!

And he keeps asking and asking. Sometimes he gets an answer of the form

Responder X: Yes, I believe.
McLain: Are you from here?
Responder X: No, I’m from the Baltic countries. I’m a Catholic.

He visits Leif Jansson, a humanist, from Jönköping, who tells McLain that Jönköping is the bible belt of Sweden with 13-15% active Christians, as compared to 3% in other areas of Sweden.  McLain asks him about the origins of life. He doesn’t get the answer he likes, so he, unashamedly, states: “I believe that evolution is by faith, because it has not been proven and because there was nobody there to witness it.” McLain is a person of “faith”, so, clearly, there is no room for questioning anything. Leif also states his beliefs (he should know better not to do so—to avoid this word—but anyway): “I believe in science, in humanity, in human rights; I don’t need a god, to put it bluntly”. And McLain gives his favourite reply: WOW!!!

Finally, he finds a Swede who gives him the response he wants.

McLain: Do you believe in god?
Responder H: Eeeeh, yea.
McLain: Are you a Christian?
Responder H: Eh, yea.
McLain:  It’s good to see someone here. I knew it would be at McDonald’s. I knew that if I came to McDonald’s  I’d find someone who believes in god.

(Interesting fact: Sweden has the largest number of McDonalds per capita in Europe and, perhaps, outside the US.)

He goes to Copenhagen and meets with priests (dressed in some funny clothes). He is stunned to realize that the Danish church performs same-sex marriages.  He can't comprehend this. To him, this is alien. “I believe same sex attraction is a sin”, he says.

He then meets with people from the newest religion in Sweden: the church of kopimism. They tell him they believe in filesharing, that this is a religious act. “And what about eternity?” And they tell him that they believe that by uploading their brains they can live forever. “So, are you Christian?”, McLain insists. Reply: “No”. He can’t understand that the Swedish government recognizes anything that has a belief system (and fulfils certain other criteria) as a religion. To him, apparently, religion is something that must be “old”. And, yes, kopimism is an official religion in Sweden

At some point McLain is challenged by someone who asks him if he has a gun. McLain replies he owns a shotgun. Would he use it if there was a burglar? Sure he would, he says, in order to protect his family. And what about turning the other cheek, he is asked. Well, that’s personal, McLain says; when it comes to family, he will shoot. No surprises here. From my experience in Texas, those who have bibles also have guns (and vice versa). Guns in the US are used for everything, including protecting them from the satan. Again, McLain believes in all these things and does not occur to him (or did not occur to him prior to his visit to Nordic countries) that his beliefs are quite conditional and dependent on the fact that he lives in Georgia, US and that his family told him to be a Christian (perhaps indirectly, by the usual means of child indoctrination/abuse).

One hilarious incident is when he visits the Pitäjänmäki church in Helsinki and attends a religious service performed in heavy metal music.
 He is amazed. (I would be too.) He says he doesn’t find the music inappropriate (I would) but, upon insistence of the guy who asks him, he admits that he finds the movements of the people “not godly like”. Why would anyone have heavy metal in a church is another matter—I’d rather not have a church at all—but the fact of the matter is that McLain does not seem to realize that the phenomenon of crazy body motion in churches occur also in the US. Perhaps not in his version of Christianity (he is a Baptist) but in other versions (Pentecostals) people get crazy in churches and move like lunatics

Too bad that McLain did not come to Uppsala where he would find the religion he was looking for. Uppsala has some weird churches, all of them, apparently, “imported” from the US (Livets Ord, Pingstkyrkan, Mormons, Jehova’s witnesses, etc.)  Too bad he didn't realize that there Swedes who find religious signs in fish, just like there are Americans who find religious signs on toasted bread. And just as there are religious killings in the US and elsewhere, so there are in Sweden too. So, McLain, would have found something he likes here.

People in the Nordic countries are, mostly, secular. Nevertheless, they keep the churches for decorative purposes. Actually, many of them have no clue what their churches are for and, for some mysterious reason, some of them keep going to them and perform certain church rituals. McLain finds out that people go to church to get married, etc., but, at the same time, they don't think much about religion. It's just a ritual. Like going to IKEA. (From the point of view of the church, I guess, just like IKEA, it's business.)

15 November 2014

Penrose tiling in Helsinki

Downtown Helsinki I stepped on a pedestrian street tiled with the standard nonperiodic Penrose (kite and dart) tiling.
This tiling consists of two basic shapes, the kite and the dart, both derived by taking a canonical pentagon inscribed in a circle, splitting it into 5 triangles with common vertex the center of the circle, and then making a variation on one of these isosceles triangles: take the side of the triangle which corresponds to a chord of the circle and make an inwards bump to obtain the dart (blue figure below) and an outwards one to obtain the kite (red figure).
Then follow some rules on how to join copies of these pieces so as to completely cover the plane. The result is a non-periodic pattern: no finite portion of it can describe the whole tiling. In particular, the tiling has no translational symmetry and is self-similar. Here is another picture and below it my attempt to show you its basic shapes. Kites are red, darts are blue.

The interesting thing with this tiling is that it appears as if it will repeat itself after a while, but it won't (this is a theorem). Nevertheless it is not random because it is created from a set of specific rules.

The tiling was discovered first by Roger Penrose 40 years ago. It was known that one could produce non-periodic tilings with a finite number of shapes but Penrose managed to do this with only 2. In nature, there are materials (quasicrystals) exhibiting such behaviors. Since the Penrose tiling is based on the pentagon, the so-called golden ratio plays a fundamental role. Indeed, if we call  A, B, C, D, E the vertices of a canonical pentagon (in the ordered traversed when going around in one direction) and let X be the point of the intersection of the chords AC and BE then, using similar triangles, we see that AX/AB = AB/AC. (The triangles ABX and ACB are similar, i.e., one is a scaled version of the other.) If we let AB=a and AX=b, then we see that AB=a and XC=a, so AC=AX+XC = b+a. The equality of the ratios above then becomes b/a = a/(a+b), so if we let  φ be the ratio b/a, we have φ = 1/(1+φ) which means that φ2 + φ = 1. But (φ+(1/2))2 = φ2 + φ + (1/4) = 1 + (1/4) = 5/4, and so φ = (√5 -1)/2, a number known and used since times immemorial.

If you have java installed and enabled on your browser, you can play with trying to create variations of non-periodic tilings using the Penrose tiling applet. (Or see the PhD thesis of Craig Caplan.)

But the interesting thing is what a then young PhD postdoctoral physicist, Peter Lu, found out some 10 years ago in (the Islamic) Darb-i Imam shrine in Isfahan, Iran, dating from 1453. He observed that the patterns forming the wall decorations form a non-periodic tiling, just as the Penrose tiling. In fact, you can see the kites and darts in the picture below.
He then wrote a paper with (P Steinhardt) analyzing this.I think that, since then, non-periodic patterns have been discovered in other places in the Islamic world. And businesses have grown out of it.

The fascinating thing about this discovery is two-fold. First, its mathematical interest and the fact that non-periodic tilings had been discovered more than 500 years ago. Second, the fact that they had been discovered empirically. Which makes us wonder why on earth would those Muslim decorators be interested in creating something so complex. My reasoning is as follows. It is known that, in Islam, people are very restricted with what kind of things they are allowed to decorate their temples/mosques/shrines. Gods and the like are not allowed. Human forms are not allowed. Animals or plants are not allowed (exception: in Iran, but that is, I am being told, a remnant of the pre-Islamic religion). Any concrete objects are not allowed. This is why Muslims have very few things they can play with: abstract patterns, tilings, geometric figures. But, even within this restricted framework, humans' minds can be quite creative. Humans have an innate need to be free, to explore, to wonder, to create. When authority or religion impose restrictions and rules, humans will try as much as they can to break them, even unconsciously. It seems that this is a prime example of the innate need for freedom of expression.

11 November 2014

Visiting Aalto University

Here are a few pictures from the main building of Aalto university in Helsinki,  designed by the great architect (a genius,  according to Frank Lloyd Wright, or, as others have put it, the Finnish Frank Lloyd Wright).
An eloquent humanist, as well as one of the great architects and designers of the 20th century, Alvar Aalto breathed life and warmth into modernism, placing emphasis on "organic" geometry; supple, natural materials; and respect for human feeling.
Finnish architecture and design are some elements of this country I noticed quite some time ago.

30 October 2014

Unfortunate business names

Tonight, I noticed the following sign of a cycle shop in Uppsala:
From where I was sitting, I read it as SKITOTAL. Depending on where you separate the word it may be something stinky.

One can understand why IKEA in Thailand didn't notice that Swedish product names meant something offensive or sensitive in Thai (see Wall Street Journal article here) but one wonders how come that a Swedish company didn't notice the stinkiness of its name in Swedish.

28 October 2014

Universities and tabloids

Have you noticed that, more and more, university web pages resemble tabloids?

The first page below is from a major university: "Best sex positions for women with bad backs" is on the front page.
The second page is from a major tabloid: "Just when we had sex, I noticed..." is on the front page.
Both are catch phrases of similar type. Their goal is to attract the customer's [sic] attention so that they click and read further, and, possibly, contribute some money. By subscribing, in the case of the tabloid, or by contributing towards the 250 thousand dollar goal, in the case of the university (top right corner of first image).

Some time ago we used to think that universities were serious institutions of higher learning and research. With some exceptions, of course, this is not the case any more. A large number of academic institutions are usurping the terms "research" and "teaching" and use them for services that have nothing to do with the original meaning of the words.

19 October 2014

The eerie silence

I recently read a book, "The Eerie Silence", by physicist Paul Davies. Paul Davies is the head of project SETI. The book is about the search for extraterrestrial life/intelligence. Of course, to-date, there has been no hint of any life whatsoever outside our own planet. Nevertheless,  the 50-year old project SETI, apparently now privately funded, is alive. There are many excellent reviews of the book on the Internet, for example, on the Guardian (see here and here), the New York Times, Goodreads, Science News, and others. The book is, indeed, interesting. It debunks UFO stories, discusses the issue of whether life is a commonplace in this galaxy (or in the universe)--with no conclusions, of course, the issues of habitable zone and multiple biospheres on Earth, the probability of intelligent life elsewhere (and Drake's "equation"), the need for less anthropocentric search methods, the possible ways that aliens might communicate with us (which may be far from what we currently think of or use), the inability we might have in even recognizing advanced extraterrestrial technology, various philosophical issues, what would happen if we ever recognized that life existed, and an optimistic conclusion.

Now, all that is great, we need to be optimistic, we need to keep searching and wondering and, as is well known, the answer to the question "is there life elsewhere" would be profound regardless of whether it is positive or negative. But the book is rather long and tends to get a bit boring at times. Drake's "equation" for instance is hardly anything remarkable. It's just a back-of-the-envelope calculation that anyone with high school knowledge can think of (except that data may be missing, and they still are). At times, there are diversions towards religion, history or philosophy. What I found remarkably shallow is the author's claim that it was monotheistic religions (and, by this, he means the Abrahamic religions) are conducive to science. Namely, Davies claims, in the book and elsewhere, that, as opposed to Hinduism, the Abrahamic religions hold that the universe had a beginning. He also claims
The Greek philosophers taught that humans could come to understand the world by the existence of reason, which achieved its most disciplined form in the rules of logic and mathematical theorems that followed therefrom. They asserted that the world wasn't arbitrary or absurd, but rational and intelligible, even if confusing and complicated. However, Greek philosophy never spawned what today we would understand by the scientific method, in which nature is `interrogated' via experiment and observation, because the Greek philosophers' touching belief that the answers could all be deduced by pure reason alone.

Meanwhile, monotheism increasingly shaped the Western world view during the formative stages of science. Judaism represented a decisive break with almost all contemporary cultures by positing an unfolding cosmic narrative based on linear time.

The concept of linear time, and a universe created by a rational being and ordered according to a set of immutable laws, was adopted by both Christianity and Islam, and was the dominant influence in Europe at the time of Galileo. The early scientists, who were deeply religious, regarded their work as uncovering God's plan for the universe, as revealed through hidden mathematical relationships. What we now call the laws of physics they saw as thoughts in the mind of God. Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic, quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms.
Davies' claims suffer from a number of historical and logical inaccuracies.
  1. It is true that ancient scholars had not fully developed the scientific method, but it is not true that they only relied on things they could do in their heads. Indeed, the name of Archimedes is never mentioned in the book. Neither is any mention of the Antikythera mechanism. It is true that these things belong, perhaps, to the domain of engineering, but it is clear that nobody could have built them by thinking only, without any kind of experimentation. The claim that "nature [was not] `interrogated' via experiment and observation does not seem to be correct.
  2. When Davies speaks of monotheistic religions, he means the Abrahamic ones. There have been other monotheistic religions which are not included in his `reasoning', for instance, Zoroastrianism.
  3. Davies speaks of what--he thinks--monotheistic religious scientist achieved several centuries after these religions were invented, but he never mentions what happened, for example, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Who got rid of all work in mathematics and reason, up to that point, if not the new monothestic religion (or the particular version which the emperors adopted)? 
  4. The claim that "linear time" and "universe which has a single beginning" are both mentioned by monotheistic religions does not imply that monotheism implies these concepts. It is, merely, an accident that these concepts were adopted by the Jews (and hence by Christians and Muslims). The implied implication is not valid. 
  5. "Early scientists were deeply religious." We've heard this argument many times. But why is not Davies considering the obvious fact that those scientists had to be religious in order to be allowed to do what they were doing. Yes, some of them believed in god (there was no alternative anyway), some did not, but everyone had to pretend and behave as if they actually believed. So we will never know the truth. Imagine, for instance, the future historian who will claim that "in 20th. c. America, every president was highly religious and always appeared to pray in public". We, of course, know that without appearing to be religious they stand no chance of getting elected.
This is a weak point of the book. Other than that, I liked it, but, as I said, I could have read the same things in half the space.

Davies seems to be a smart person. So let us examine why he often digresses to praise monotheism. Well, there are several reasons, among which I can identify at least two:
  1. First, he's director of SETI which is privately funded, so he needs to please donors. Many of them (by virtue that they come from a religious country) are probably religious.
  2. Second, he probably likes awards. For example, he's a recipient of the Templeton prize. This is a very peculiar prize because it is given to all kinds of people, including ones who have caused harm. The prize has been criticized by Richard Dawkins ("[the Templeton prize is] usually [given] to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion"),  Sean  Carroll (people cannot take Templeton research grants when they do not support Templeton's beliefs) and Martinus Veltman ("the Templeton prize bridges the gap between sense and nonsense")
Davies' claims that monotheism is conducive to science gives religionists ground to support their irrational beliefs. Some Muslims believe that the Quran contains science and they sometimes quote Davies as scientific support of this ridiculous claim.

On the Christian front, Davies seems to be a friend of John Lennox who likes to use "mathematics" and "logic" and "science" to support his religious claims. (The worst of all, in this conversation, is that Davies and Lennox, a physicist and a mathematician, discuss "specified complexity", a bogus concept invented by William Dembski for the sole purpose of promoting creationism.)

Last but not least, I can't fail but notice that the website (mentioned in the Eerie Silence) IETI (invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence, created because if--they claim--aliens get in touch with us, they might do so over the Internet) contains 100 individuals (inviting aliens) among which a certain Sohail Inayatullah who "brings an Islamic and Indian tantric perspective to understanding the Other, space travel, and alternative futures."

The upshot of all this is that, by trying to please everyone, including those who have nothing to do with science, one ends up having their work used for the purposes of the those who do nonsense.

10 October 2014

New Christian film: "The Lock In"

First of all, about the concept of "lock in":
A sleepover party, usually held in a public place such as a church or school, in which the participants are not allowed to leave until the next morning.
Indeed, churches (in the US, of course, but I wouldn't be suprised if it happens in  churches of the American/lunatic type  in Sweden too) have lock ins for teenagers. For example, the Springfield Church of Christ is one of them: they lock the kids in for a weekend and, among other things, they
set aside time for small group devotions and bible study, incorporating games such as "find that verse" or other Bible trivia.
And, now, there is a new movie out, "The Lock In", a Christian film, produced by some kind of American Baptist Church, a film that teaches the horror of porn. It teaches that watching porn is a danger to one’s mortal soul. The working premise is that the devil and other demons lurk inside women's genitals.
The film introduces us first to the idea of the church lock in, terrifying in its own right. A group of teens lock themselves in a Baptist church overnight with an old pastor. Fun times ensue. We’re then shown a cast of unlikable Christian teens: Justin, the almost unseen cameraman, filming the lock in because why not? Blake, the rowdy, outrageous ringleader who just wants to have a good time. Nick, the lovelorn lead we’re supposed to relate to. And Jessica, the target of Nick’s insatiable lust. The three boys, thinking it would be hilarious, bring a dirty magazine they found into the church. This lets the Devil in. The Devil then traps the hapless Scooby Gang alone in the church and fucks with their recording capabilities until they go insane. Why? Because porn.
The story here is that the footage was found (and edited) by some church pastors and was so horrifying that they immediately resigned to go sell insurance instead. This horrifying imagery includes a trash can falling over on its own, a shot of a dark hallway suddenly getting kind of yellow, a strange “Braugh!” sound coming from somewhere off-screen (about four times), and the four leads sitting on the floor talking about how they like to look at porn at home. Oh, a random child also appears and makes the same “Braugh!” sound, causing our heroes to run frantically and then spend three minutes recapping what we just saw (they do this a lot).
It goes without saying that the movie, as a movie, is total crap. Everything about it is terrible. I have not seen it, but I read the reviews, here, here, here, and here. Oh yes, and here is a review from the Christian Film Database site (which finds nothing wrong with the film, of course.) Nevertheless,
‘The producers of the film hope that not only will it be entertaining, it will also be used as a tool for conversations about the dangers of pornography and the importance of being aware.’

P.S. If you like Christian films, there seems to be many of them. For instance,  "Harry Potter: A Spirit Conspiracy?" (Harry Potter is a seducing spirit as prophesied of in the Bible),  "The Visitation" (miracles performed by a charismatic guy),  "The Sins of the Fathers" (where one has to decide whether the dreams of a woman are spiritual or not), "The Last Messengers" (disasters happen everywhere, and then Christ appears). In view of all this wealth, "The Lock In" may not be the worst film of all.

4 October 2014

Statistics Workbook for Dummies

Some time ago, I came across a book titled "Statistics Workbook for Dummies". The for-dummies series is well-known and is supposed to be a series of popular math/science/etc books. But this book is, really, for morons, written by morons. On page 102 of the book, the central limit theorem is "explained" or "motivated" thus:

Of course, this is misleading and is not an explanation of the central limit theorem at all.

The central limit theorem is a theorem in mathematics which has some physical consequences. Its proof requires some mathematics and cannot be fully understood without it. Can it be explained, however, to a non-specialist? Sure, but the explanation is not as trivial as the phrase above suggests. For those who want to apply the central limit theorem, understanding what it is about is essential. Like many other "popular" books in mathematics, statistics, phsysics, science, ... this one makes a bad job. Not surprising. It's one of many many others.

But the problem, you might think, is that the book is, indeed, for dummies. After all, it says so in its title. So, you might think, if you go to the university and take a statistics class in a "quantitative department" (by this I mean, mathematics or engineering or physics, or some other department which does not shy away from mathematical symbols....) you will understand the central limit theorem. Wrong. I have seen generations of students graduate from various reputable "quantative departments" who never learn a proof of the central limit theorem nor what the theorem is about. What is the problem? Well, many of the people who teach that stuff do not know themselves what mathematics is about and yet insist in teaching mathematics. Amazing as it may sound, it is not far from the truth.

Summary: "Statistics Workbook for Dummies" is doing a bad job but this bad job is not much worse than the job being done in many self-proclaimed reputable universities.

9 September 2014

Happy birthday Tolstoy (and a few thoughts)

Through the evil Google, I learned that today is Leo Tolstoy's birthday (whatever this means: dates then, 1828, and now, keep shifting as the period of the Earth's orbit around the Sun and around its axis are not rationally related and so, to catch up, we have to revise calendars) and the following sprang to mind:
How come some nations, some peoples, have a much richer literature than others? 
I do not know the answer: Is it education?  Is it social structure? Is it wealth? Is it religion? Is it language? Is it history? Is it political freedom or its absence? A combination of the above? Which combination? Why? The answers are not straightforward because for every yes there is an exception and for every no there is another exception.

It is a fact that, had the world been without modern (19th c. and later) Russian literature, it would have been a much poorer world: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Lermontov, Gogol, Pushkin, etc. etc. They have formed an inspiration for the whole world.

Which brings forth the next observation: When learning a language, one of one's criteria (at least mine) has been the ability to see a new world through the writings in this language. And Russian is worth learning not least for this reason. (Alas, I do not know Russian beyond tourists' phrases.) Even though, as modern linguists tell us, all languages have the same expressive power, it is not true that all languages have achieved the same quality of literature. One criterion for learning a language is one's ability to communicate with the speakers of this language: languages whose speakers are good communicators can be learned more easily. Another criterion is the writings in this language: literature inspires and opens up new worlds. (By analogy, why should one read poor mathematical/scientific papers?)

7 September 2014

Scandinavian airlines and the refusal of responsibility: a reply

SAS sent, through my travel agent, a reply to my grievance against them. In my previous posting, I explained in detail that I went to Stockholm airport in order to fly to Buenos Aires via Frankfurt, the flight was delayed, SAS refused to help me, and when I pointed out to them that they have a responsibility to do so, they replied that "out of all people, a Greek should not talk about responsibility".

The SAS letter is below (in Swedish). They basically say, without going into any specific details, "sorry, we are going to tell the people at the airport not to do this again" and that "we offer you a gift voucher in the amount of 20 Euros". Their reply shows that they still avoid to take any responsibility about the fact that they refused to help me, they do not mention at all the insult, and, in addition they insult me further: they offer me 20 (twenty!) Euros. That is, they insult me further! What do they think, that I am a beggar or what? I would rather they addressed my concerns directly, rather than offer me pennies. I told the travel agent to send the gift voucher back with the reply that I remain offended by their ridiculous gesture.

Amazing, isn't it?
Has anyone encountered a company that avoids responsibility as much as SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) does?

From: sascustomercare@sas.se
Sent: den 2 september 2014 12:02
Subject: SE- Customer Care 14-056336/JP (KMM6306571V29192L0KM)
Det var mycket tråkigt att höra om bemötandet på Arlanda, och det är absolut inte så det ska gå till. Å SAS vägnar ber vi om ursäkt, och jag kommer att skicka vidare din feedback till personalansvarig på Arlanda och vi kommer internt att ta åtgärder så att detta ej sker igen.
Sen till själva ansvarsområdet så är informationen från LH samt från check in-personalen en sanning med modifikation. Vi hjälper enbart LH med incheckningen av väskor då det inte finns någon LH-representant på Arlanda. De är dock fortfarande ansvarig över resan, medan all information som läggs till och dras ifrån en biljett ska gå via dom som du har köpeavtalet med (inom de regelverk som resebyrån har givetvis). Det innebär att blir det en förändring i flygschemat ska den informationen skickas till resebyråerna som sedan ska informera passagerarna.
Dock är det annorlunda när det gäller ofrivilliga schemaändringar tätt inpå avgång. Rutinen är att det flygbolaget som påverkar reseplanen ska göra sitt bästa för att få passageraren vidare till sin slutdestination. Detta resulterar i att man antingen blir ombokad till en senare/tidigare flight, eller blir ombokad till ett annat flygbolag. Anledningen till varför SAS-personalen ville att du skulle resa vidare till Frankfurt är för att där skulle LH strukturera upp den nya resan till dig (då vi som sagt inte har någon LH-representant på Arlanda). Sen går vi även över till Star Alliance-samarbetet, vilket innebär att de olika biljettkontoren, ex. LH och SAS, kan endast använda sig av de egna flighterna. Hade passageraren rest till Frankfurt, hade personalen där kunnat använda sig av resterande Alliance-flyg för att ta sig vidare till Buenos Aires.
Dock innebär inte detta att vi har uppträtt korrekt, utan jag vill erbjuda passageraren ifråga en kompensation för dåligt bemötande med en giftvoucher till ett värde av EUR20. Vänligen återkom med hemadress så skickar vi dessa med posten så fort vi kan.
Hjälp oss att bli bättre! Klicka på bifogad länk och besvara några enkla frågor om hur du upplevde din e-postkontakt med oss. Tack för att du vill hjälpa oss att ytterligare förbättra vår service.
Med vänlig hälsning
Customer Care Team
SAS Visit us at flysas.com

27 August 2014

Bullets and Burgers

Anyone who is right in their mind will tell you not to give an Uzi submachine gun to a child. But there are lots of cretins out there, in Arizona this time (last time it was elsewhere), who take their kids to places where they can stuff them with hamburgers and shoot Uzis at the same time.

The establishment is called Bullets and Burgers and has great reviews on tripadvisor. It would have gone unnoticed, in the same league as other American weird "fun" parks, such as the Holy Land Experience and the Disney World (the last two are next to one another), had it not made the news today: Someone gave a nine year old girl an Uzi and taught her how to shoot. The girl lost control of the assault weapon and killed the instructor.

No wonder. Why would a nine year old child be taken to a place to be taught how to use submachine guns and eat hamburgers (and freedom fries)? I think the answer is: because it usually is fun! Well, it is so, until, one day something goes wrong.

But we know the response of most Americans, don't we?
Some of them will say:
Guns don't kill, people do. The girl was not properly taught. Instructors need more pupils of that age in order to teach properly. So, more guns are needed and more children who will shoot them.
Others will say:
It is Satan conducting spiritual warfare. It's an attack on Christianity in general, on Christians, and it's Satan trying to stop God's work in the earth. He'll use whoever he wants, whoever he can. It was Satan who guided the girl's hand.
In all cases, the response to this sad incident will be: More guns, more children using them, and prayers to god so that Mr Satan goes away. Actually, they're probably right. Because if you look carefully at the video below (someone thought it would be so cute to film the nine year old girl with the Uzi) you will see Satan at the upper left corner. Remember that, after all, Satan was seen again during the 9/11 attacks.

And, by the way, educate your kids:

According to Arizona law, it's OK for a child above 8 to have a machine gun (under the supervision of an adult). The law doesn't care if the adult or the child gets killed. "A nation, trained to arms, is an American linchpin of freedom, and is respected in Arizona like nowhere else." "We in Arizona seem destined to set [...] a shining example of gun rights for all free peoples of the Earth."

26 August 2014

Scandinavian airlines and the refusal of responsibility

I was recently invited to go to the Stochastic Processes conference in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to go because of a delayed flight and the refusal of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to assume any responsibility in helping me. The actual description of the events is here, but here is a short summary:

On 25 July 2014, I went to Stockholm airport to catch a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, followed by a flight to Buenos Aires. The flight to Frankfurt was delayed and so I would miss the flight to Buenos Aires. SAS represents Lufthansa (both members of Star Alliance) at the Stockholm airport. When I asked for help to find a next flight they replied:
We can't help you, we have no responsibility, get on the plane and go to Frankfurt to find out what will happen to you.
When I replied that it is irrational to go to Frankfurt and, possibly, get stranded, they repeated the same. When I asked them to find out when the next flight would be before I went to Lufthansa they repeated that they have no responsibility. When I insisted that they should, being a partner of Lufthansa and member of Star Alliance, take on the responsibility of finding out when the next flight is (so I don't have to wait in Frankfurt), they looked at my passport and said:
Who speaks of responsibility, a Greek?
I then contacted Lufthansa myself on my mobile phone and told me there would be no available seat for me for the next 5 days and there would be no point in me going to Frankfurt. They also said that SAS is clearly responsible for helping me in this situation. I had my mobile phone on speaker-phone mode so that the SAS people could hear Lufthansa's response.

They still insisted they had no responsibility whatsoever.

I have, through our university travel agent, filed a complaint and ask for compensation. Let's see what happens. Responsibility seems a word which is despised by SAS.

31 July 2014

La filla del marxant and Miguel Llobet

I've heard "complaints" that I haven't posted anything for a while. This is true. But times have been busy and tumultuous.

This little posting, however, was motivated by a double encounter of Spanish speaking people today. First, at the optician's shop where I was helped to choose glasses by a friendly and pleasant Spanish girl from Segovia. Second, at a restaurant where I helped three Catalan ladies choose food (they didn't speak English well and the Indian waiter was confused).

I spoke about guitar during both occasions. In the second instance, I had a short discussion about Catalan folk songs and when I was asked what my favorites ones where I mentioned, among others, "la filla del marxant".

Here is the version I know by Miguel Llobet.

I discovered the following recording of Llobet himself playing guitar! This is quite rate. At the time (1920s) there was no Andrés Segovia and classical guitar had not become popular yet. Llobet was a student of Tárrega, both great guitarists and composers. The great thing about the recording is that we can hear something about the Tárrega style. This is quite amazing.

Two chance encounters led me to post this. Unfortunately, these people don't know my blog so they'll probably never find out I've been speaking about them here and will never read this. 

6 May 2014


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

27 April 2014

My Kalavryta pictures

Mary asked me to post them here. Pictures I took last week. In Kalavryta.
Kalavryta is known as the place where one of Wehrmacht's worse war crimes took place.
Here is the account of an Irish agent's personal story. He was there when the mass killing took place in December 1943.

8 April 2014

Faith is irrational

In my previous posting I discussed any religion's Achilles heel. That is, belief. And I argued that without belief any religion falls into pieces. All religions demand belief. And some demand it so vehemently that any follower must feel fear: the fear that he or she will be punished (by the mullahs, the priests, the devils, the spirits...) if he or she does not confess belief.

Belief in belief has become a "virtue". Religion has succeeded in not only demanding belief but also in elevating the concept of belief into nobility. Even non-religious people are supposed to respect those who believe. Belief in belief has become a de facto concept. And we are not supposed to question it.

I watched (on youtube) a great debate on the question of  "does science refute god" which took place last August, under the auspices of an organization called intelligence-squared. The party supporting the proposition consisted of Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer and those against were Dinesh D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson (an MIT engineer). Krauss and Shermer spoke based on logical arguments. The other two appeared reasonable at times but could not escape the fact that they are both supporters of a particular religion (and, of course, this immediately weakens any kind of arguments they may have). I had never heard D'Souza before but he appeared to have nothing novel to say. In particular, I was totally taken aback when he reached the point to defend faith. He said: "faith is rational". I found that amazing. He gave an example. He said that if 95% people in a village believe that there is a guy called Bill (but have never met him) and 5% don't then we must accept their opinion. Same is with god, he implied. Krauss (or Shermer--I can't remember) replied that there is a subtle point: we know that there are Bills in this world. :-) Both D'Souza and Hutchinson claimed that, through religion, they seek (and find) knowledge which is not provided by science. And, by this, they meant questions like "what is the purpose of our existence?" or "why did I make a cup of tea?" and the like. As usual, the fail to see that some questions are non-questions. Why should one even suppose that these questions are answerable. Why should there be a purpose at all? Cry as you like, there might be no purpose in your being here and no purpose in the existence of the universe. This (answers to these questions), they call "knowledge". And they claim they obtain this knowledge through religion. Not just any religion, but through the particular religion they happen to support. D'Souza was asked how come he doesn't see that religion is so much connected to someone's background/location. He replied that he grew up in India where most people are Hindu, Jain, Muslim, and Christianity is a minority. He didn't understand the question: even if he himself chose an uncommon (for his milieu) religion, the fact is that there is a very-very strong correlation between one's religion and one's place of birth. Besides, I checked it on wikipedia and saw that he was raised in a Catholic family (kind of obvious from his surname, a remnant of Portuguese colonialism).

Faith is rational, they said, and this is something I've never heard before from, supposedly, intelligent people. Hutchinson is a prof. at MIT. I don't know what D'Souza's job is. He appears to be someone who doesn't like Obama and is paid to prove that the Republican party will save the world. And then, of course, he must be a Christian. He has to be. He can't be involved in American politics without showing how much of a believer he is.

Belief/faith are not virtues. They are to be avoided. We use them, unavoidably, because we don't have infinite amount of time to check everything, but we are free to question anything. The fear to open one's mind up and ask questions (or dare express doubt) is what leads to faith. The fear of punishment also leads to faith. People in North Korea must believe in the superpowers of their leader. They must have faith. They must appear to be professing this faith publicly (else their heads will be chopped off). Tit for tat when it comes to religious faith. Or any kind of faith for that matter.

Sorry Dinesh, but faith is irrational. It makes sense only in the presence of fear or in presence of monetary incentives (being a political advocator of the Republican Party without publicly proclaiming that you are a good Christian believer will reduce your monthly salary. Guaranteed.)

4 April 2014

The weakest point of any religion

Religion is a term which does not have a very good definition. Attempts for it can be found in the literature. For example, the father of sociology, the philosopher Emil Durkheim, defines religion as
a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
My fellow blogger Sabio spends quite a bit of blogging energy to elucidate this point. I am not a scholar of religion, neither a philosopher, and certainly not one who would devote time to come up with definitions of religion. (I don't have much time to waste.) Nevertheless, I think I know what religion is when I encounter it.

I am talking in rather vague terms because "religion" is not just a system which calls itself a religion. Example of these systems are Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism (all of which have the common feature of being monotheistic). It is also a system which resembles what one traditionally would call a religion. For example, the North Korean Juche is a religion. When people blindly obey someone else's orders and have reached a point where questioning them is inconceivable, then this is religion.

One can argue, based on what almost all religions proclaim, that the main requirement of every religion is the concept of belief. Now, the word itself can have many meanings. Religious belief, however, can be characterized rather precisely. After all, all religions require belief. They require faith. Have faith and you shall be saved! Have faith in god. Tony Blair established his Blair Faith Foundation in order to teach how religion influenced his politics.

Religion requires belief. Religion requires faith.

Belief is a complex concept. It is a word that can have many meanings. But religious belief has a very important feature making it uniquely distinguishable.
Religious belief about a concept X is an increasing function of the amount of evidence against X.
That is, the more we learn about the ridiculousness about X (say X=miracles), the stronger the religious belief about X is.

But belief is the weakest point of any religion. What religious people cannot get is that any time one is asked to believe without asking, without investigating, then they are possibly being tricked into something untrue. I grew up understanding that the concept of belief is terrible. I can, of course, temporarily accept something in order to go on, but I have to question it at some point.

People believe for various reasons. One is that belief is easy. It is much easier to convince yourself to believe rather than to understand, for example. Because believing takes little work. But understanding often takes a lot of hard work. Any rational person can obviously see the flaw of the (religious) belief concept.

When I teach I ask my students not to believe me. This is tough. Students have been conditioned on the idea to believe their teacher. Again, this is because it makes life easy. A student is tuned to believe that a continuous function, which takes value 1 at the beginning of an interval and 2 at the end, must take any value in between. Sure, the teacher says so. But a proof is needed. Belief is the easy thing. Proof is, typically, the hardest.

In the recent years, a number of so-called apologists (mostly of the Christian kind, but there are Muslim too) have  sprung. See, e.g., here and here and here. There are many examples of that kind. These are people who appear to be intellectual and are typically holders of advanced degrees, awards, have done serious work on some (non-religious) subject but, at some point, go crazy and start arguing that (their particular version of) religion is explained via logic, science, empirical observation. And they have lots of supporters. Sure, people are thirsty to believe; to believe that their religion is explainable because this is what these famous, important, outstanding public "intellectuals" advocate. They become the heroes of the unthinking masses. Despite all their attempts to "scientifically prove" that belief is not the main characteristic of religion, they fail, and fail badly. Religious belief remains religious belief and none of these pseudo-intellectuals have provided a gram of evidence against it.

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John, 20:29]

God will test believers to make sure they believe and are afraid. If they fail a second test they will suffer a painful punishment: 
O you who have believed, Allah will surely test you through something of the game that your hands and spears [can] reach, that Allah may make evident those who fear Him unseen. And whoever transgresses after that - for him is a painful punishment. [Quran, Sura 5:94]


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