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.


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