15 January 2014

Guns in churches "protect against Satan" [PH Series posting 1]

I'm starting a new series of postings which I will label "PH Series", that is, Personal History Series, where I will collect several anecdotes from my personal history, events and incidents which, to me, are quite memorable for certain reasons. I start by reposting the following story.

In the 90s I lived in Austin, Texas. One of the things that impressed me tremendously was the relation of people with guns. The following describes an incident which took place in a church. I think it's quite revealing of the mentality of (many) people, and this is why I kept a copy of the newspaper which reported the story.

In September 1999, a crazy guy entered a Baptist church in Fort Worth, and opened fire. He managed to kill several people before shooting himself. (A common phenomenon in the US. Mass shootings take place frequently.)

Back then I remembered how I was impressed, not by the shooting itself, but by the reaction of victims' relatives. Not a single one of them thought that guns was the problem. Rather, they thought it was Satan who did it and responded by saying "we need more guns!"

This was the first time I heard such an irrational statement. It impressed me so, that I made a copy of the New York Times article (click on the photo for detailed image):

The story impressed me a lot. I underlined some statements which I found incredibly disturbing, and here they are (emphasis is mine):

  • Blame is placed on society and the apocalypse, but not on guns.
  • No one blamed guns
  • Some say they see the massacre at Wedgwood Baptist Church as the making of martyrs and a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They point to the reports that the shooter, Larry Gene Ashbrook, shouted anti-religious obscenities as he attacked.  
  • Ms. Bernall is spoken of by many evangelicals as a modern Christian martyr because she was asked by one of the gunmen whether she believed in God, to which she defiantly answered, "Yes I do," and was instantly shot. Her story is being passed among many churches and youth groups, her parents have written a book, , and there is a campaign to have students wear T-shirts to school saying "Yes, I believe in God." 
  • [T]he victims at Wedgwood Baptist were killed for their faith.
  • "It is the enemy 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. The guy who did this was obviously angry. Satan uses anger."  
  • "I don't believe this is necessarily the end [of the world]," Ms. Turner added, "but it's definitely getting closer."
  • Inside the blood donation center, the soundtrack from the movie "Top Gun" carried over a partition to the padded reclining chairs where two men were having their arms swabbed with yellow sterilizer.  
Here, then, my friends, is what many Americans (and some others) believe: If someone shoots and kills people in a church (or elsewhere) using a gun, the last thing we should blame is the gun. We can blame Satan, the absence of more guns, attack on Christianity, that people are losing their faith, anything but guns.

10 January 2014

What does "why" mean?

The following short clip shows Richard Feynman answering the question why two magnets attract or repel one another. The person asking the question is trying to understand why he has this feeling when he holds two magnets close to one another.

Feynman answers the question by not answering it! It is brilliant. He says that in order to answer the question he must know what the truth basis of the person asking it is. He digresses giving a number of interesting examples. He says that a first-order answer, such as "it's due to the magnetic force", may satisfy the person who asked but may not be an answer at all. A second why may follow, and a third, and so on. (Does the guy know what a magnetic force is? Is this not just a reduction of the problem to another problem?) A basis for truth must be known before the question can be answered. Feynman points out that the `magnetic force' (whatever this is) is intimately related to the `electric force' (whatever this is) and that the two are, essentially the same. (A consequence of a happy marriage of Electromagnetism and Relativity. In fact, the latter was borne because of the first.) But, Feynman continues, when guy asking the question rests his arm on the chair he doesn't ask (or even think that he could ask!) why the arm doesn't go inside the chair. Ultimately, it's an electric force keeping the arm where it is, but it does not seem as `unnatural' as a magnet. They are, however, the same kind of forces. So, he concludes, he can't answer his question, because, clearly, the person asking has no basis for understanding it.

Watch the video and read some more comments below.

As an electrical engineer, I find these things quite natural. This is due to the things I learned in the university and to the work I did. I am also puzzled as to how to explain certain concepts to people who want to know but who have no time or desire for a bit deeper studies. One can give `popular' answers, but over-popularizing is always--to some degree--cheating.

You may (correctly) argue that I shouldn't expect a lay person to study relativity before he or she can understand the answer. No. But I would expect an academic  to have the scientific curiosity (and integrity) to learn further.

Another thing that comes to mind when listening to Feynman's `explanation' is the word `pedagogy'. For several years now, universities (especially in certain parts of Europe) keep getting infested  by a new species of people who claim to have answers to all `pedagogical questions'. In fact, they are so sure of themselves, that they have convinced universities that they should train others on the matter. And yet, they themselves cannot answer simple, pedagogical, questions. The example above is perfect. One would expect that a lecturer in Physics ought to be know what Feynman is talking about, including the meaning of `why'. Traditionally, teachers learn these things by `doing' teaching, by practice. Now, if the species of pedagogues wants to train a teacher in physics, then one would expect that the pedagogue would be in position to teach what Feynman has in mind. Alas, this never happens. Pedagogical courses are, by and large, void of content. I've seen young guys and gals suffer in the UK by the pedagogical training they receive. Nobody has ever gone to a pedagogical class watching, for instance, a Feynman lecture. Why, in order that this happen, the pedagogues themselves must be in a position to understand what Feynman is talking about, from a pedagogical point of view. Unfortunately, pedagogical classes teachers seem to have no qualifications other than dissemination of bureaucracy. (Example: they train teachers how to fill in forms.)

7 January 2014

Emails from a disturbed individual

Everyone in academia has, from time to time, received mails from people who make extraordinary claims. Recently, I received at least 2 emails from a person called Thierno M. Sow claiming:
The goal of [my paper] is to prove the ABC Conjecture, the Beal Conjecture, the Goldbach Conjecture, the Riemann Hypothesis and the Twin Primes Infinity.
Take a look at the paper he sent me (and others) to see that he is, most likely, a disturbed individual. I am not a psychologist, but it is rather clear that this person suffers from some disorder. His paper contains "mathematics" and "chemistry" and claims to have solved some of the most difficult problems. All in 12 pages. Oh yes, it is also devoted to the memory of Nelson Mandela!
Page 1 of Sow's paper
Page 11 of Sow's paper

5 January 2014

Half of the Republicans reject evolution

According to Courrier International, more and more of Republican sympathisers in the US do not believe in the theory of evolution. In 5 years, among people who call themselves republican, the percentage of those who accept evolution has dropped by 11 points and has reached 43% today according to Pew Research.
On the other hand, the percentage of Democrats who accepst evolution has remained constant at 67%. The differences between the two groups remain the same even if one takes into account other characterstics, like race, education or religion.

The most skeptical of all are white evangelical Protestants comprising a powerful conservative political force in the ultra-conservative Tea Party. Nearly 2/3 of them simply reject evolution and claim that "humans and other living beings have existed during all time in their present form." The fraction of all Americans who say likewise is 1/3.
Design from the article linked above

Note: To understand how ridiculous those who do not accept evolution are, compare with this: Evolution is as well established as the fact that the Earth rotates around the Sun. Even though this was established long ago, during "dark ages", lots of people did not believe it. They were "sure" the Earth was at the "center" (and were called geocentrists; laughably, there are still some of them, but nobody takes them seriously.)

4 January 2014

My top five postings

No 1:   Swedish pedestrian crossing signs   2001 hits
No 2:  "Necrophiliac" woman                     1540 hits
No 3:  Saint Joseph Stalin                           1116 hits
No 4:  Stoning in Iran                                   919 hits
No 5:  Joaquin Malats: Serenata Española    702 hits

The first two refer to Swedish things. (For those who ask me why I, sometimes, blog about Sweden, the answers are: (i) because I live in Sweden and (ii) I don't only blog about Sweden.)

The third refers to a Russian, and--to a certain extent--global phenomenon. Of all WWII criminals, Stalin is still considered a benevolent one. So much so that (some) Russians think of him as a saint.

The fourth refers to a phenomenon which takes place in many Islamic countries, Iran being an example: the stoning of women. Although stoning appears in the Torah (roughly the Old Testament), Jews and Christians have gotten rid of it. (Criminals excepted.)

The last one refers to one of the most beautiful classical guitar pieces, a transcription of Malats' Serenata Española.

2 January 2014

How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science

The following great article appeared in the  The Guardian, Monday 9 December 2013, and contains a number of accurate and important points. Many people in Academia would agree with it, but few would dare speak about it. I reproduce it below verbatim. Please notice that the emphasis is mine. Note, in particular, how the author speaks about the concept of "impact factor" (a gimmick!), and how it urges scientists (including administrators) to seek the truth, rather than fall victims of a fake-bonus practice. Indeed, one's achievements should NOT be measured as a function of impact factor and other silly criteria (like the h-index), but as a function of one's research and scholarship. But this would pose extra work for the heads of university divisions, for the committees deciding on one's promotion, and for the funding agencies. But, hey, learning something about the work of the person you judge ain't that bad, right?

The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking

Litter in the street
The journal Science has recently retracted a high-profile paper reporting links between littering and violence. Photograph: Alamy/Janine Wiedel

I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession's interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.

These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals' reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called "impact factor" – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

It is common, and encouraged by many journals, for research to be judged by the impact factor of the journal that publishes it. But as a journal's score is an average, it says little about the quality of any individual piece of research. What is more, citation is sometimes, but not always, linked to quality. A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. This influences the science that scientists do. It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies.

In extreme cases, the lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent. Science alone has recently retracted high-profile papers reporting cloned human embryos, links between littering and violence, and the genetic profiles of centenarians. Perhaps worse, it has not retracted claims that a microbe is able to use arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus, despite overwhelming scientific criticism.

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.

Funders and universities, too, have a role to play. They must tell the committees that decide on grants and positions not to judge papers by where they are published. It is the quality of the science, not the journal's brand, that matters. Most importantly of all, we scientists need to take action. Like many successful researchers, I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel prize for medicine, which I will be honoured to collect tomorrow.. But no longer. I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise.

Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.


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