Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Crazy Journal Solicitation

Dear Shallit, Jeffrey,

With great sincerity, we are writing to you today.

We happened to have the opportunity to read your paper titled "On NFAs where all states are final, initial, or both" recently and are impressed by your research work in this field. Given that you share the same research interest with our journal Progress in Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials (PNN), we are writing to sending you our earnest invitation for paper submission.

No, you morons, nanotechnology has basically nothing to do with nondeterministic finite automata.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Denial Has Many Forms

Recently I spent about a week in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I ate a lot of good food (I can recommend Parker's Barbecue in Greenville, NC) and met some genuinely nice people, including some distant cousins.

But some things I saw reminded me that the states of the former Confederacy are, in some ways, very, very different, even today, from the North. It's not just the statues of the confederate soldiers (here, from Windsor, NC):

(When I was in Colerain, NC in the summer, I met a guy with a Glock on the passenger seat of his pickup who told me to visit this statue in Windsor before "the niggers" got it taken down. He told me that the gun was to "put the fear of God" into anyone who would try to take it away from him.)

In Richmond I visited the Museum of the Confederacy. There were two men out in front, waving Confederate flags and handing out literature. The current museum location is scheduled to join forces with the American Civil War Center and move to a much larger venue elsewhere in Richmond. The protesters complained that the new sites are not "Confederate-friendly" and are "all about slavery".

I pointed out to one of the men protesting that slavery was obviously an important cause of the Civil War, but he denied this.

I find it a little surprising that 150 years later, there are still people fighting this war. In order to do so, they have to deny the words of the secessionists themselves. For example, here's what Mississippi wrote (in part):

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Here's what Texas wrote (in part):

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

And so forth.

I certainly concede that Lincoln didn't believe in the equality of races. I certainly concede that there were major issues other than slavery that contributed to secession. I certainly concede that the Civil War took a huge toll on both Confederate and Union lives, and had disastrous consequences for the South. I'll even concede that war might possibly have been avoided if Lincoln had attempted to simply buy the freedom of all slaves in the South. But to claim, as the men protesting outside the Museum of the Confederacy tried to do, that slavery was not an essential cause of the Civil War, is either dishonesty or lunacy. The seceding states themselves admitted it in detail.

When I came out of the museum, the protesters were gone. I saw a guy standing outside the museum, smoking a cigarette and walked over to him. It turned out to be S. Waite Rawls, CEO of the museum. In response to my question about the protesters, he rolled his eyes and said, "You can't reason with those folks." And I think he's right. The zeal of those protesters and their willingness to ignore the evidence reminds me of Holocaust deniers and evolution deniers. They have invested so much of their own identity in believing a falsehood that nothing could possibly convince them of the truth.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Virginia Heffernan Exemplifies What is Wrong With Journalism

Both my parents were journalists. In fact, in 1939, my mother was the first woman reporter at the Florence Evening Star in South Carolina -- a newspaper started by Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who helped capture Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. My mother was a good writer who wrote about many topics, but she didn't write about science or mathematics. She never wrote about those topics because she didn't know anything about them. In fact, she never mastered long division. But she could write emotional and moving stories that would bring tears to your eyes. So I have great affection for journalism and its practitioners.

But my mother, and the editors who hired her, understood her limitations. They wouldn't have sent her to cover a science story because they all knew what her areas of competence were. Reporters were expected to know the basics of the area they covered.

That doesn't seem to be true for much of modern journalism. I hear over and over from scientists that whenever they read a popular article that touches on their area of competence, the writer gets everything wrong. And it's often true, in my experience, for articles discussing my own areas of mathematics and computer science.

This also seems to be the affliction of Virginia Heffernan, a writer who "came out" as a creationist earlier this year. According to Wikipedia, Heffernan has no advanced training in science or technology at all. Yet she happily wrote about technology and was described as an "Internet guru".

In her widely criticized Yahoo article, she claims to have read Darwin, but summarizes his argument incorrectly as "Whatever survives survives". (Has she been reading Michael Egnor?). She confuses evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology; she doesn't understand the difference between "hypothesis" and "theory"; yet she feels competent to comment on evolution. Likewise, she characterizes the Big Bang theory as "something exploded". Maybe she confused the scientific theory with the TV show.

In her article, she cites Yann Martel for justification as follows: "1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story."

No, Virginia, science doesn't work like that. The universe isn't a story you can just "choose". The virtue of the scientific method is that it gives a way to distinguish between stories that make you feel good and the real state of affairs, using hypothesis testing, strong skepticism, and peer review. Despite her Harvard education, Heffernan doesn't show any sign of understanding this. You'd think that would make her question the value of her Harvard Ph. D., instead of questioning the science that allows her to post drivel on Yahoo.

Heffernan reminds me of another journalist: Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge didn't understand or care very much about science either; he once wrote, "It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and the mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded history. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity." Muggeridge's lack of interest in science had consequences: he once confused a good photographic film with a miracle. That's the kind of nonsense that happens when you think the universe consists of stories whose truth you can just choose at your whim.

Heffernan willingly exposed the limits of her competence and discredited herself. (In another example, she recommended a denialist blog here; it didn't seem to raise many alarm bells at the New York Times.) In the future, no responsible editor should hire her to cover science and technology. The real issue now is whether editors get the message Heffernan conveys, and do a better job assigning reporters to cover stories in their competence.

Friday, December 27, 2013

More Philosophical Silliness

While reading this moral argument against Darwinism by Doug Groothuis, keep in mind that the author reminds us, whenever possible, that he holds a Ph. D. degree.

Arguments like these convince me that a lot of philosophy is a kind of cargo cult mathematics. Practitioners don't do actual reasoning; they construct assemblages of words that mimic mathematical arguments, but fall far short of what a mathematician would consider acceptable.

Let's look at some of the techniques Groothuis employs:

1. Reliance on vague terms that one cannot possibly measure, test, or verify, such as "essential nature", "intrinsically valuable", and "human dignity". (If you have no argument at all, then you can always decry some practice you don't like by claiming it offends "human dignity"; it's a favorite ploy of Robert George.)

2. Quotation fabrication: Darwin never spoke of "less favored races", as Groothuis claims, and the term "favored races" that appears as a subtitle in On the Origin of Species actually refers to what biologists now call "varieties". If you google the phrase "less favored races", you find that it appears largely in creationist websites and a Republican congressional candidate.

3. An incoherent argument that concludes "But (4) is false, because of (5)" and "Therefore (6) is false because of (5)" But the terms (5) and (6) refer to nothing at all!

4. Rewriting history to claim that "our moral intuitions and the history of Western law" provides support for believing that "every human being, irrespective of race" possesses "intrinsic human dignity". Really? Whatever happened to slavery in the history of the US? How about all the Christian Southerners who claimed that slavery was ordained by God? How were black people treated in the US Constitution? In what year were women allowed to vote? If the history of Western law shows us anything, it shows us that our "moral intuitions" are not precisely fixed and are subject to change.

5. Pretending rigor by explaining grade-7 concepts like "modus tollens" and "reduction ad absurdum". Bad arguments don't get better when you use Latin.

But the silliest thing of all is the attempt to defeat a scientific theory, the theory of evolution, using moral reasoning. This makes no sense at all; it's like trying to justify a claim about chemistry by appealing to political theory.

I feel sorry for Groothuis's students.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Southern Confederacy Arithmetic

Here is an interesting piece of mathematical Americana: The Southern Confederacy Arithmetic by the Reverend Charles E. Leverett, published by J. T. Patterson & Co., Augusta, Georgia, 1864.

Probably not too many Northern mathematics texts had questions about bales of cotton (p. 140):

Example 1. — A factor sells 25 bales of cotton at $100 per bale : what is his commission at 2½ per cent. ?

Similarly, a Northern text would probably not have an example of an order from Jefferson Davis (p. 209), or helpful explanations such as "In some States there is no capitation tax, and the sum to be raised for the expenses of the Government is collected from each individual, in proportion to his property. In South Carolina, this is on land and negroes, and is called the general tax." (p. 142)

You can also find questions such as (p. 13)

(19.) From the creation of the world to the flood was 1656 years ; from that time to the building of Solomon's Temple, 1336 years; thence to the birth of our Saviour, 1003 years : in what year of the world was our Lord born ?

I suppose it's not as bad as it could be. There are no questions like "Nathan Bedford whipped 3 slaves every day of the week except the Lord's day. How many slaves did he whip in total?"

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Value of Personal Knowledge - The Answer

Here's the answer to yesterday's quiz.

1910 was a different world.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Homeopathy Kills

I have a lot of sympathy for Tamara Lovett, whose child Ryan recently died, apparently because she tried to treat his serious illness with worthless homeopathic remedies.

I'm not sure she's the real culprit here. By all accounts so far, she was a good mother who cared about her child. But she was misled by homeopathic and naturopathic propaganda to believe that plain water constituted medical treatment. When homeopathic remedies are sold openly in Canada's drugstores and natural food stores, what is an uneducated person to think? To them, it certainly seems that this kind of nonsense is legit medicine. After all, the government doesn't prohibit it, and a place calling itself a "homeopathic medicine clinic" looks a lot like a real clinic.

Shutting down homeopathic clinics wouldn't necessarily prevent deaths like Ryan Lovett's. But it would go a long way.

The Value of Personal Knowledge

This is part of an advertisement from a magazine in 1910. Can you guess what the key to "achievement of the highest excellence is"? (Answer tomorrow).

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Creepy Deal Creating Public Religious School Finally Ends

I only live 20 minutes away from this school, but I never knew about it. Believe it or not, there's a Canadian public school that
  • has Bible reading
  • recites the Lord's Prayer every day
  • only allows Mennonite children to enroll
  • has no sex education
  • has no teaching of evolution.
Thankfully, the school --- which is about the best example of illegitimate Christian privilege I've ever seen --- is about to close. Just imagine if there were a public school that allowed only Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists to enroll!

But why has it taken so long?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Are There so Few Famous Dutch Composers?

I know little about classical music, but I have no problem listing, off the top of my head, German composers (Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart,...), French composers (Berlioz, Ravel, Messiaen, ...), British composers (Britten, Dowland, Elgar, maybe Handel counts again, ...), Italian composers (Verdi, Puccini, Corelli, Vivaldi, ...), American composers (Copland, Gershwin, Glass,...) and so forth.

But I can't name a single Dutch composer.

Here's Wikipedia's list, and I'll be damned if there's a single name I recognize.

It's strange, because there are so many famous Dutch people in other walks of life: scientists (Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, de Waal,...), mathematicians (de Bruijn, Lenstra,...), artists (Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer,...), and so forth.

Where are all the great Dutch composers hiding? Or am I just that ignorant?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Got Moose?

From longtime reader D. S. comes this story about the UN encouraging the production of moose milk.

Moose cheese is already produced in small amounts in Sweden. It's my dream to try that someday.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Full of Hot Air

Stephen Woodworth, our local Conservative MP, is back with a new motion about the definition of "human being". He's also published this bizarre allegory that he thinks explains why.

It explains a lot. The engineer in his allegory doesn't like balloons. Stephen Woodworth doesn't like abortion.

The engineer in his allegory can't convince anyone to outlaw balloons. (Maybe that's because, at least in the allegory, not a single argument against balloons was offered.) So he tries an end-run around the issue by suggesting a bogus study of "aviation principles".

Then, despite his irrational hatred of balloons, the engineer is surprised that people see through his ploy and "accuse the aviation engineer of being a ballooning-hater whose only motive was to destroy the ballooning industry". Well, in the allegory, that was true, wasn't it? In the first paragraph, we learned that "He actively spoke and wrote against ballooning, penning letters to the editor and articles in professional journals to express this opposition to ballooning." So these accusations are perfectly justified, aren't they?

That allegory doesn't mean what Woodworth thinks it means. Somebody's full of hot hair.

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Ago Today

When I was a child, I had this issue of My Weekly Reader on my bulletin board for many years.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Government Behaving Badly

There are so many stories of people in government behaving badly lately, it's hard to know what to pick out. Here are just a few:
  • Health Canada torpedoes a cool magnetic pen for ridiculous reasons.
  • Canada's Justice Minister Peter MacKay is all upset that Justin Trudeau talked about marijuana legalization in front of teenagers, because we have to keep the phony war on drugs no matter what, or something.
  • US House Speaker John Boehner hosts extremist anti-gay group.
  • Toronto mayor Rob Ford wants to sue former staffers who revealed his misconduct to investigators, despite no legal ground to stand on. Oh, and he also discusses his sexual practices in detail.
  • Wisconsin Republicans restricted early voting because, you know, early voters tend to be Democrats.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Not Quite A Moose Blogging

Here's a video of an elk on a trampoline. Not quite a moose, but close.

Hat tip: reader D. S.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Good Environmental News from Utah

Good news from Utah: a federal court has struck down the Bureau of Land Management's insane plan to designate over 4000 miles of Utah trails as suitable for off-road vehicle travel. Unrestricted ORV use tends to destroy streams and and soil and plants. The BLM's plan would have destroyed some beautiful wilderness areas. The decision will likely be a precedent for overturning similar plans elsewhere.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Hell Would Be Having to Listen to Francis Spufford

Some atheists are really boring, such as R. Joseph Hoffmann. But I've got to admit, I'd much rather have dinner with Dr. Hoffmann than Francis Spufford. Spufford, a Christian, an author, and a teacher of creative writing at Goldsmiths College, makes the history of NASCAR seem fascinating by comparison.

Take this Spufford piece, for example. It just rambles on and on, with paragraphs the size of the Himalayas, saying not very much at all, and doing so in the most supercilious and insufferable manner imaginable. This man actually teaches creative writing? Students of Spufford: run, don't walk, to the nearest exit, and learn writing from someone who can write, not someone who uses the phrase "bizarre category error" twice in the same essay. (Even using "category error" once by itself merits a big horselaugh -- R. Joseph Hoffmann is fond of it, too.)

Spufford starts with a healthy dollop of religious persecution complex; he thinks that being a Christian means there will be atheist "voices ... getting louder and louder" and "shouting right in ... [the] ear" of his daughter, telling her she's wrong. Funny, the only voices I hear shouting when I walk around my town are drunk people, insane people, and fundamentalist preachers. I'd really like to visit Spufford's town to see all these shouting atheists; it must make quite a show.

Spufford claims that "belief ... involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable." Really? You mean so uncompromising that you don't actually address the fundamental question of whether your beliefs are true or not? Spufford seems to think that his religious beliefs are justified because (a) they're normal (b) they're part of his imagination and (c) they make him feel good. Most of us have grown up enough to realize those aren't particularly compelling reasons.

He then spends a quarter of his essay attacking a London bus ad which said, "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Spufford apparently thinks the ad means that "enjoyment" is the sole goal of life and that the ad will be poor consolation for people with lives stricken with poverty, disease, or personal tragedies. But that's not what it means and not whom the ad is directed to, as anyone with connected brain cells can figure out. Hey, why not attack "Coke - Life begins here" instead? How limited must a man's Weltanschauung be if it has to commence with a carbonated beverage!

Like many North American atheists, I used to be a Christian. I ceased to become a Christian because the fundamental claims of Christianity -- which involve a unique all-powerful god, who is actually three different gods, that raped a woman to conceive a son, which is one of those three gods, who then died (but did not really die) to remove sin from me which is only sin because he decided it would be so, and which is not my sin, but rather the sin of a nonexistent ancient ancestor, and I must believe this or be consigned to a fiery hell, and he knows the future and hence everything I will do (but I also have free will) and he also loves me and cares about me, but if I put my hoohah in someone else's doohickey, I'm toast -- are simply not believable to anyone who spends 5 minutes thinking about it. Only someone who was propagandized from birth that this load of puerile nonsense is plausible could fall for it. For me it makes no logical sense, but also no emotional sense. A grotesque fable of one person's sin "redeemed" (whatever that is supposed to mean) by the execution of another, probably mentally deranged, has no emotional resonance at all for me.

What I find more interesting are the reactions to Spufford's piece in Salon. Thirty years ago, the comments would have been largely supportive. Those pesky atheists, they're juvenile, and stupid, and they miss the big picture... how right you are! Now, though, there's a sea change. The vast majority of comments are negative, pointing out the deficiencies in Spufford's reasoning (if one can call it that) and writing style. Now that is progress.

I really think that "Spufford" should be a verb: "to bore with ponderous incoherence". We went to the lecture, but the guy was just spuffording, so we left early. Now, where's that history of NASCAR?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More Bad Math in a Jack Reacher Novel

This is getting to be a series! In 2007 I criticized Lee Child's Jack Reacher hero for suddenly gaining the ability to perform lightning mental calculation, and for treating boring problems as if they were mathematically significant. Last year, I pointed out that (at least in one edition) Jack computed the decimal expansion of 1/81 incorrectly.

Well, happy 53rd birthday to Jack, who was born on October 29 1960. But I can't help complaining about yet another mathematical error, this time in Child's latest book, Never Go Back. On page 379 of the Canadian edition, Reacher muses,

"His ears had the center whorls intact like any other guy, but the flatter parts around them had been cut away, probably with scissors, very tight in, so that what was left looked like pasta, like uncooked tortellini florets, shiny, the color of a white man's flesh. Not exactly hexagons. A hexagon was a regular shape, with six equal sides, and Shrago's stubs had been trimmed for extreme closeness, not geometric regularity. They were irregular polygons, more accurately."

Sorry, but a hexagon is not necessarily a "regular shape"; that would be a regular hexagon. A hexagon is any polygon with 6 sides; there's no symmetry implied.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Eric Hehner Replies

Eric Hehner apparently could not figure out how to post this reply to my blog because of some character limit, so he asked me to post it. Here it is. I'll reply below.

Wow! I merit a tirade by Jeffrey Shallit. Thank you, Jeffrey. I hope your blog piques interest in my upcoming lectures. You have kindly included links to the work in question, so I hope people will read the work and judge for themselves, rather than accept your opinion.

I'll pass over the parts where you ridicule me by associating me with fraudulent archaeology and people who think 1>2 and circle-squarers. Your first direct volley is aimed at my paper “Beautifying Gödel”. The title comes from the fact that the paper was a contribution to a book titled Beauty is our Business. I set out to write the simplest, most elegant presentation that I could of one of Gödel's theorems. The paper does not suggest that there is anything wrong with Gödel's theorem. The simplifications come from our modern familiarity with the character string data type (so we don't have to encode programs as integers) and with programming language interpreters; these were unknown to Gödel. My presentation has been used by various authors and textbook writers (e.g. What Computing is All About, a textbook used at CalTech).

I am a fan of Torkel Franzén and his wonderful book Gödel's Theorem: an Incomplete Guide to its Uses and Abuses. His criticism of my paper was very mild (especially compared to his pointed criticisms of almost everything else). It seems to arise because he, like most mathematicians, is a platonist (he believes mathematical objects exist, independent of people; we just try to find out some truths about them) whereas I am a formalist (I believe mathematics is a formal language created by people to describe some aspects of the world). In particular, soundness is stated differently. Perhaps formalist mathematicians are “fringe”; if so, it's an august group that I am happy to be part of.

You cite my paper “the Size of a Set” as fringe mathematics. You say I deny “that it is reasonable to say that a set A is the same size as set B if A is equipollent with B”. Then a few sentences later, you say “But who cares what Prof. Hehner thinks is “reasonable”?”. When you quote the word “reasonable”, you are quoting yourself, not me; the word “reasonable” does not appear in the paper. You say “There are other problems with Hehner's paper”. First, I “present the minor technicality of some numbers having two different base-k representations as something that has to be “repaired”, when in fact this problem simply does not occur in Cantor's proof when correctly presented”. Your comment is entirely unfair. I first present the popular form of the proof, point out the problem, and repair it. I agree that the problem does not occur when the proof is correctly presented.

The next problem, you say, is that I “claim the proof is informal when in fact formalizing it is trivial”. The wordy proof is informal, and I formalize it. How is that a problem?

Finally, you say I “confuse the notions of cardinality and computability”. I most certainly do not. I present two analogous arguments, and point out the important difference that one talks about “having” a list, and the other about “generating” a list. Your criticisms are false and unfair.

Here is the conclusion of my paper; judge it, remembering that I speak from a formalist point of view: “It is popularly believed that Cantor's diagonal argument proves that there are more reals than integers. In fact, it proves only that there is no onto function from the integers to the reals; by itself it says nothing about the sizes of sets. Set size measurement and comparison, like all mathematics, should be chosen to fit the needs of an application domain. For all application domains that I know of, Cantor's countability relation is not the most useful way to compare set sizes.” How does that conclusion draw such ire?

Now let's get to the papers that upset you most: my claim that Turing's proof of the incomputability of the Halting Problem has serious flaws. You say: “If Prof. Hehner claims that this proof is flawed, then he must point to the exact line of the proof that he disagrees with.”. Yes! That is precisely the content of the paper (although it's not just a single line that I find fault with). Continuing, you say “Instead, what he does is translate this simple proof into his own private language in a flawed way, and then raise several objections to his own translation.”. By “translate” you mean formalize the proof. The “own private language” is the assignment statement, if-then-else, and while-loop. They are the basis for all current popular languages. I chose the language because it is standard. As for “in a flawed way”, formalization makes clear one's understanding of an informal, English-language proof, and one can never be sure that one has formalized correctly. After I had done my formalization, I read the formalization in Boyer and Moore's paper “a Mechanical Proof of the Unsolvability of the Halting Problem” JACM 31, 3, 441-458, 1984. I was delighted to see that they had formalized the problem the same way I had (except that they used LISP). That gave me confidence in my formalization. I added a section on the Boyer and Moore formalization and proof to my paper.

You say I “seem a bit confused” about what the computability hierarchy is. The paper begins with a very clear construction of the hierarchy. [Dear reader: judge for yourself.]

You cite a paper by Huizing, Kuiper, and Verhoeff, “which generously takes his work seriously and points out the flaws. If Prof. Hehner has a response, I have not seen it.”. So here is my response. I was the (one and only) referee for this paper; I accepted it. It makes good, valid points, and does not invalidate my paper, although they thought then that it did. I spent some time talking with them at the Turing100 celebration in Manchester last year. They suggested another way I could present my case; it became the paper “Reconstructing the Halting Problem”, which you cited.

How can I know if I am a crackpot? On the one hand, a person whose work and opinions I respect, Jeffrey Shallit, tells me so. On the other hand, there's a wonderful book named the Experts Speak by Navasky and Cerf that has a long list of major scientific achievements that were ridiculed by the reigning scientists (the “experts”) of the time. Usually, one is not called a “fringe” scientist just for making a mistake (I don't think I have made a mistake, but I can't be sure). You call me “fringe” because I am challenging an established result of computer science. One way science is distinguished from religion, at least in principle, is by not having any sacred truths that must not be challenged. Unfortunately, I am discovering, some scientists treat some of their truths as sacred, and become quite upset when they are challenged. Challenging sacred truths can be dangerous to one's reputation and career: the priests who protect their truths will attempt to assassinate your character by writing insulting blogs. That's why I waited until retirement to pursue this topic. Here is the real danger: if challenging basic accepted results becomes too costly (it's not easy to bear the insults), science loses its self-correcting character that distinguishes it from religion.

“It is our unfortunate duty to host this nonsense at the University of Waterloo at 4 PM on Thursday, November 28, in DC (Davis Centre) 2585.” See you there!

My reply:

Eric Hehner:

You seem confused. I didn't call your work "fraud" in my post, I did not use the word "crackpot" there, and I never said a word about your "character", much less "assassinate" anything. For all I know you're probably a nice guy who is kind to your pets. My post was about your work, not you. I think your work on the topic of Cantor and Turing is junk, and I said so.

I'm certainly uninterested in a long back-and-forth about this, but I will say a few things. Your work (and the venue you publish it in) speaks for itself, I think. You also confuse "ire" with "amusement"; I think your criticism of Cantor's work is trivial, silly, and is likely to be completely ignored for those reasons and others.

Your presentation of the proof of the unsolvability of the halting problem (on page 1 of "Problems with the Halting Problem") is not the one I present in class. It is also not the one in any standard textbook on the subject that I looked at (e.g., Sipser, Hopcroft and Ullman, etc.). You certainly do not take the standard proof and point to the exact line that you disagree with. That is your obligation, and you didn't fulfill it.

Blogs are not the place to reply to the Huizing et al. paper. If you contest their conclusions, publish a paper specifying exactly where they went wrong. That's the "self-correcting" nature of science you seem to think highly of.

the priests who protect their truths will attempt to assassinate your character by writing insulting blogs: oh, please. I'm not a priest, just a guy with a blog who is pointing out your silly claims and is sorry that my university is giving you a venue. I didn't say anything about your character. By the way, you forgot to compare yourself to Galileo.

science loses its self-correcting character: you're confused. The self-correcting character is precisely that you offered a bogus refutation of the standard proof, and I'm pointing out that your refutation is bogus.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Eric Hehner's Fringe Computer Science

Fringe science -- making claims, with little evidence, that nearly everyone who works in the field recognizes as wildly wrong -- is nothing new. In archaeology, fringe science includes promotion of artifacts like the Vinland Map (now completely discredited) and the Kensington Runestone (likewise discredited). There are two very good books discussing fringe archaeologists and their "methods": Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology and Kenneth Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology.

You would think that in a field like mathematics, it would harder to be fringe. People don't normally debate whether 1 > 2, or whether ½ is a rational number. Nevertheless, there is a surprising amount of fringy mathematics. I'm thinking, for example, of circle-squarers, who continue to try to construct π with straightedge and compass long after Lindemann's proof that it cannot be done. In 1977, the Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik published a fringy proof of Goldbach's conjecture that, needless to say, is not widely accepted.

While most people engaged in fringe mathematics are amateurs, there are a few professionals. It used to be pretty hard to publish fringe mathematics in journals, but with the rise of open access journals of questionable credentials, it has become a lot easier. Not all fringe mathematics is wrong, but most of it is.

Up until now, I hadn't seen too much fringe computer science. But now I have. And to make things worse, we have apparently asked the author of these fringe works to come speak at our university.

The work in question is that of Eric C. R. "Rick" Hehner, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto. Hehner worked in what is called "formal methods", which concerns logical formalisms for computer science constructs, such as those in programming languages. On his web page, you can find a list of his publications.

Hehner seems to have done some reasonable work in the past, although I'm probably not the very best judge. Some other people apparently disagree. For example, Hehner lists a paper called "Beautifying Gödel" as among his very best; yet the late Torkel Franzen, an expert on Gödel's theorem who published an eponymous book on the subject, said that Hehner's paper "contains some odd misunderstandings" and exhibits "some standard confusion regarding the soundness condition needed".

Lately, however, Hehner's work can, I think, fairly be characterized as "fringe computer science". For example, he claims that our modern understanding of uncomputable problems, such as the halting problem is completely wrong and that the standard proof of unsolvability, taught in nearly every undergraduate course on the theory of computation, is bogus. (Another version of Hehner's claims is here.) As a result, Hehner denies the existence of something he calls the "computability hierarchy" (although he seems a bit confused about what that is). At the end of this piece, Professor Hehner reveals that his focus on the halting problem dates from the 1980's.

Prof. Hehner has recently branched out into another favorite of the fringe mathematician, Cantor's proof of the uncountability of the reals. Prof. Hehner's paper is not the worst anti-Cantorian work I have read --- it seems that, at least, Hehner does accept that Cantor's proof is correct. He just denies that it is reasonable to say that a set A is the same size as set B if A is equipollent with B. (There are other problems with Hehner's paper, such as (1) presenting the minor technicality of some numbers having two different base-k representations as something that has to be "repaired", when in fact this problem simply does not occur in Cantor's proof when correctly presented; (2) claiming the proof is informal when in fact formalizing it is trivial; (3) confusing the notions of cardinality and computability.) But who cares what Prof. Hehner thinks is "reasonable"? There's a lot of beautiful and interesting mathematics that arises from this definition, and mathematicians find it useful. If Prof. Hehner does not, he is free to make a case for a better definition. But he does not, not in any serious way. In this sense, his case is entirely a negative aesthetic one: he doesn't like Cantor's definition, and can't imagine why anyone else would. This is not a basis for good science.

The reception of Prof. Hehner's claims about computability and Cantor -- which would be revolutionary if accepted -- has been, I think it is fair to say, silent or negative. There are only a handful of citations of the relevant papers, mostly self-citations. One exception is this paper by Huizing, Kuiper, and Verhoeff (behind a paywall, probably, if you aren't at a university) which generously takes his work seriously and points out the flaws. If Prof. Hehner has a response, I have not seen it.

Professor Hehner seems unhappy that his work is not treated seriously, and that some people who object to it do not always point out specific problems with his reasoning. But I think he's got it exactly backwards. The uncomputability of the halting problem has a proof, and we teach that proof in most introductory courses in theoretical computer science. The proof doesn't have many steps, the steps are very simple, and it is accessible to any bright junior-high school student. If Prof. Hehner claims that this proof is flawed, then he must point to the exact line of the proof that he disagrees with. Instead, what he does is translate this simple proof -- as in this video -- into his own private language in a flawed way, and then raise several objections to his own translation. This tactic is well-known as the "straw man". It is not a serious scientific attack on our understanding of the problem.

It is our unfortunate duty to host this nonsense at the University of Waterloo at 4 PM on Thursday, November 28, in DC (Davis Centre) 2585. The public is welcome. If it had been up to me, I would not have extended an invitation to Prof. Hehner to speak on this topic because (1) I am not convinced, based on what I've read, that he has a deep understanding of the material and (2) I do not think, based on what I've read, that he has anything interesting to say. But a great feature of a university is that all kinds of ideas, from the well-supported to the fringe, can be discussed.

Sometimes, though, we pay the price.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They Offer Nothing But Lies, 4

I only had the chance to catch about 15 minutes of Stephen Meyer on the Michael Medved show today (and of that 15 minutes, probably about half the time was devoted to ads -- how do people stand listening to that?), but in that brief time I heard three lies.

Meyer made his usual false claim about "information" and how it can't be generated through evolution. Of course it can; any random process will generate "information" in the sense used by mathematicians and computer scientists. The creationist version of "information" espoused by Meyer is different, but even there it is easy to see that mutation can generate it (take a program that does something and change one character so it doesn't compile; then a mutation that restores the function will create creationist information).

Meyer made a false claim about Dawkins only being interested in genes and not being interested in organisms. Of course, that's a lie, and anyone who has read Dawkins (e.g., The Extended Phenotype) knows this to be the case.

Meyer also repeated his usual lie about how "Darwinists" expected there to be junk DNA and how recent findings by "ID scientists" (as if there is such a thing!) show the Darwinists to be wrong. (Larry Moran has discussed this false claim many times, so there's no point to discussing it again.)

Three lies in 15 minutes. That's pretty good, even for Meyer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Suspect Journals

The new "open access" movement has spawned too many doubtful journals. Here's a useful list of suspect journals and publishers.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Local 9/11 "Truthers" Make Documentary

I'm sorry I missed the event last week where the local 9/11 truthers presented their truther "documentary".

It amazes me that there are folks who are still flogging their silly conspiracy theory, and that some people actually take them seriously. That Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11 is documented in great detail in books like The Looming Tower and is established beyond reasonable doubt.

To get some idea of the ragtag bunch of people who endorse this crap, take a look here: a professor of public administration, a professor of economics, a professor of physics, a professor of economics, a professor of mathematics, and a professor of English. Not a single person with any expertise in politics, Middle East studies, architecture, or building design among the endorsers.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Discovery Institute Hires World's Worst Journalist™

Exciting news! The Discovery Institute, not content with such luminaries as Casey Luskin, John G. West, and David Klinghoffer, has reached even further into the bottom of the barrel.

Yes, believe it or not, they've hired Denyse O'Leary, the world's worst journalist™, to write for them.

We can look forward to hours of fun: mangled syntax, clichés, punctuation chosen at random, repetition of signature buzzwords like "Brit toff" and "tenure bore", unfounded accusations of racism and Nazism against reputable scientists, neologisms that only O'Leary understands, and a thorough misunderstanding of anything she discusses -- not to mention that Denyse never ever interviews anyone she disagrees with.

Congratulations to both the DI and Denyse! You definitely deserve each other.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Pleasures of Editing a Journal

The following exchange is fictional, but not by much. It is based on several different experiences I've had as editor of the Journal of Integer Sequences.

From Joe Smith:

Here is my submission, entitled "1 + 1 = 2", to the Journal of Integer Sequences. It gives a simple, new, and cute proof of this famous theorem which I know you will want to publish.

My response:

I'm sorry, this is simply too trivial to publish in the Journal.

Smith's response:

How disgraceful that an honest person seeking to publish their work in a forum belonging to an elite that think they hold the absolute truth, and deliver their decision based on an incredibly deprecatory pseudo review, are frustrated by your dishonest response!

I will give you one week to accept this paper. If not, I will destroy the reputation of the Journal.

My response:

I'm sorry, the decision stands.

Smith's response:

Can you please suggest another journal where I can publish my result?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Oath to Queen Upheld Even Though It Violates Free Speech

Bad news for those who want to become Canadian citizens but can't bring themselves to swear an oath to support "the Queen, her heirs and successors": a suit to end this silly practice has failed in a ruling by Justice Edward Morgan.

Morgan found the practice does violate free-speech rights, but is a "reasonable limit on the right of expression".

Despite the ruling, it's time to end the requirement. It could be replaced by an oath to defend Canada and uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Someday Canada will grow up and ditch the monarchy, but it looks like it's not going to be soon.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"By the Usual Compactness Argument"

It's a sad truth, but the mathematics research literature is very tough going for beginners. By "beginners" I mean bright high-school students, or university students, or beginning graduate students, or even professional mathematicians who are trained in an area different from the article he/she is trying to read.

As a high-school student, I used to go to the mathematics library at the University of Pennsylvania to look up and try to read articles articles in number theory. Usually I couldn't understand them at a first reading, so I'd photocopy them and take them home to puzzle over. I remember being completely flummoxed by a paper on Bell numbers that used the "umbral calculus"; I just didn't understand that you were supposed to move the exponents down as indices. That is, in an equation like
B4 = (B + 1)3
you were supposed to expand the right hand side, getting
B3 + 3B2 + 3B1 + 1
and then magically change this to
B3 + 3B2 + 3B1 + 1 .

I had nobody to ask about stuff like that. Although my high-school teachers were great, they didn't know about the umbral calculus.

Things like this permeate the mathematical literature. Take compactness, for example. Compactness is a marvelous tool that lets you deduce -- usually in a non-constructive fashion -- the existence of objects (particularly infinite ones) from the existence of finite "approximations". Formally, compactness is the property that a collection of closed sets has a nonempty intersection if every finite subcollection has a nonempty intersection; alternatively, if every open cover has a finite subcover.

Now compactness is a topological property, so to use it, you really should say explicitly what the topological space is, and what the open and closed sets are. But mathematicians rarely, if ever, do that. In fact, they usually don't specify anything at all about the setting; they just say "by the usual compactness argument" and move on. That's great for experts, but not so great for beginners.

I really wonder who was the very first to take this particular lazy approach to mathematical exposition. So far, the earliest reference I found was in a 1953 article by John W. Green in the Pacific Journal of Mathematics 3 (2), 393-402. On page 400 he writes

By the usual compactness argument ([2, p.62]), there does exist a minimizing curve K.

Can anybody find an earlier occurrence of this exact phrase?

Silly Journal Title of the Month

It seems that every month there's a new silly journal title out, where by "silly" I mean ridiculous and/or ungrammatical.

This month's is the International Journal of Advance Innovations, Thoughts & Ideas.

It doesn't get much sillier than that. Then again, some of the titles of the articles they publish are silly in the same way:

  • "Structural Facilities Criteria for Anti-Terrorism (A Defensive Approach towards Safer Nation on Building Sciences)"
  • "Computer Forensic: An Evidence of various analytical tools for legal constitution"
  • "What is Data Warehouse?"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Creationists' Real Agenda Revealed

The fun thing about creationists (and I include ID proponents there) is that if you wait long enough, their real agenda gets revealed. Here's an example: the ID folks are fond of claiming they don't want to suppress the teaching of evolution; they just want the "evidence against evolution" taught as well. But Denyse O'Leary gives away the store! She admits that she wants to ban discussion of evolution in textbooks.

We all know why, of course. If people accept evolution, they'll be less likely to follow Jeebus.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Yet More Bizarre Conference Spam

I really don't understand it! If you don't speak English as a native language, and you're running an international conference, why don't you bother to check to see if the name of your conference is grammatically correct?

The 1st International Conference on Computer Science and Application
(ICOCSA 2014)
January 10 to 11, 2014, in Indiana, USA

Dear Author,

ICOCSA 2014 aims to provide a comprehensive global forum for experts and participants from academia to exchange ideas and present results of ongoing research in the most state-of-the-art areas of computer science and application. Click here to know more about ICOCSA 2014:

All accepted papers in English will be published by International Journal of Computer Science and Application (IJCSA) which has been indexed by ULRICHSWEB, ckan, WorldCat, Rice St, Yandex, AcademicKeys, dogpile, WIPO, Google Scholar, getCITED, JournalTOCs, etc.

Topics include but not limited to:
Computer science
Computational mathematics
Software and hardware manufacturers
Machine Intelligence
Diagnostic and Decision Supporting Systems
Data and Web Mining
Fuzzy Systems
Chaos Theory and Evolutionary Algorithms
Knowledge Extraction and Knowledge Management
Applications of Computer Science in Modeling
Visualization and Multimedia
Data and Information Systems
Internet and Distributed Computer Systems
Graphics and Imaging
Natural Language Processing
Computational Mathematics
Robotics and Micro-Robotics
Theoretical Informatics
Quantum Computing
Software Testing
Computer Vision
Digital Systems
Pervasive Computing
Computational Topology
Human-Computer Interaction
Signal Processing
Digital Forensics

Important Dates
Submission Deadline: October 24, 2013
Acceptance Notification Date: November 7, 2013
Conference Date: January 10 to 11, 2014

Online Submission System:

Call for Attendees
If you want to present your research result at conference, but do not wish to publish a paper, you can simply submit an abstract to our submission system.

Call for TPC Members
This conference is calling for TPC Members. If you wish to serve the conference as a TPC Member, please send an email to us with your CV attached.

Best regards,
ICOCSA 2014 Organizing Committee

In addition to the ungrammatical title, there is the ridiculously broad coverage of the subject matter, and the extremely vague conference location of "Indiana, USA".

Why would anyone submit to this conference?

Monday, September 02, 2013

They Offer Nothing But Lies, 3

Darwin was insane? And a sadist? Those are the nutty claims of Colorado "pastor" Kevin Swanson.

Swanson also thinks Mark Twain was possessed by demons.

People like Swanson offer nothing but lies, because their whole world view is based on lies.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Clumsy Russian Moose

From reader D. S., we have this video of a clumsy Russian moose.

In Canada we teach our moose at Arthur Murray dance studios.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I Feel Sorry if Any Boring Arising From This Posting

Recent conference spam:

We feel sorry if any boring arising from this message, you can click to Unsubscribe

2013 International Conference on Intelligent Materials and Mechatronics (IMM2013)

November 1-2, 2013, Hong Kong, China

2013 International Conference on Intelligent Materials and Mechatronics (IMM 2013) will be held in Hong Kong, November 1-2, 2013. The forum aims to bring together researchers, developers, and users from around the world in both industry and academia for sharing state-of-art results, for exploring new areas of research and development, and to discuss emerging issues facing Intelligent Materials and Mechatronics.

And they thought this was appropriate to send to me?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Apparently I am an Expert in Robotics, Too

Received in today's e-mail:

Dear Dr.Jeffrey Shallit,

OMICS Publishing Group successfully publishing quality open access journals with the support from scientists like you.

We are aware of your reputation for quality of research and trustworthiness in the field of "Journal of Advance Robotics and Automation "

and that is why you have been chosen as an Editorial Board Member of our Journal of Advance Robotics and Automation

... We may again assure you of international quality and standards of our articles published in our journals, Using state-of-the-art prominent reviewers and editorial board. We also assure you of our best co-operation always...

Well, you could start by having a grammatical title for your journal.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

An Unusual Hotel

We stayed in a hotel near Providence, RI, with the following strange set of choices of elevator buttons:

There are apparently two different floors numbered 4 -- on different levels -- and no floor 3. And why do the restrooms need their own floor?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Atheist Elixir

Spotted in a store in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I Get Email

My name is E*** S****** and I am a communication Engineering student from United Arab Emirates. I was trying to integrate some difficult integral and I really spent a lot of time trying to work it out using different software and referring to different table of integrals books, however all my trials failed. So I thought that the mathematicians from the University of Waterloo will help me to work it out, so if you can please help me with this.

The integral is attached as a pdf file ...please have a look at it.

Thank you so much and sorry for the inconvenience.

Hint to students: don't do this! This kind of message is appropriate only if you are addressing a question that is directly in the specialty of the person you are writing to. I am not a specialist in integrals.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

More Bizarre Journal Spam

I like this one!
  • It is addressed, not to me, but to another professor in the department.
  • I am somehow an "Excellency".
  • It is a "strictly intellectual journal". Glad to see there aren't any distracting centerfolds like those other journals.
  • It has "an internationally recognized Editorial Board Members", who are "well-built"!
Dear Professor

It is with pleasure to invite your Excellency to take part in an academic opportunity through submitting your research paper for possible publication in a strictly intellectual journal named "International Journal of Advanced Science and Engineering Technology" (IJASET),(ISSN: 2225-9686). Our journal here is a peer reviewed scholarly kind of bulletin which in its natural existence devoted for publishing high-quality papers with an internationally recognized Editorial Board Members. The well-built editorial board welcomes all kind of papers regardless of their academic tendency in a way that transcends all the scientific and theoretical concepts into a new era of enlightenment and insight; the journal is issued on bi-monthly bases and supports all kind of topics and streams including:

- Research and Reviews Articles, Scientific Commentaries in the Fields of Applied and Theoretical Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Zoology, Medical Studies, Environmental Sciences, Geology, Engineering, Short Communications, Computer Science, Technological Sciences, Medicine, Industrial, Mathematics, Statistics in addition to all other Applied and Theoretical Sciences

For author Instructions Indexed/ Abstracted in

Index Copernicus

Awaiting your papers.

Yours sincerely,
International Journal of Advanced Science and Engineering Technology
Article submitted through E-mail: ;; or online submission visit

Friday, July 26, 2013

Moose Picture of the Day

From my friend A. G. comes this nice picture of two moose in British Columbia.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

CFI Canada has a new web page

CFI Canada has a new web page. Are you a member yet?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Canada Shouldn't Honor Pope John Paul II

Here's Canada's national treasure, Udo Schuklenk, weighing in on why there should not be a special day devoted to honoring Pope John Paul II in Canada.

Schuklenk, by the way, is an respected ethicist whose clear thinking contrasts sharply with the muddled views of people like Margaret Somerville.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Barry Arrington to the Rescue! And Sal Cordova, Breathless Liar

How cute! Lawyer and certified public accountant Barry Arrington thinks that there is something called "design theory", and furthermore, I am just too stupid to understand it.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Barry, but there's no such thing as "design theory". Yes, there's the pseudoscience of intelligent design, but there's no coherent body of knowledge (much less science) about intelligent design that remotely approaches a "theory". That's why intelligent design advocates like yourself are unable to respond to even the most basic challenges concerning your pretend "theory" and why even your own vanity "journal" can hardly find anything to publish, even though it almost exclusively publishes the droolings of its creationist editorial board.

As for understanding, Barry, let me just note that I have published an article (with Elsberry) in a philosophy journal on intelligent design in which we spell out, in detail, what's wrong with it, and why the math is bogus. You could try reading it. I know it's a bit of intellectual effort, but heck, knock yourself out.

While you're at it, you may want to admonish your friend Sal Cordova (who for some strange reason is sometimes referred to as "Slimy Sal") for lying on the same blog entry. Dembski did not "dedicate" his first book to me. Yes, it's true that he tried to gain some intellectual respectability by dropping a whole bunch of names and thanking them, but that's not the same as a dedication; it's an acknowledgment.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

100 Years Ago Today - Conclusion

When we last left the story of the journey of my grandmother, Zipporah Levintan, from her home in Velizh, Russia, to the USA, she had just boarded the Merion in Liverpool for the transatlantic trip, accompanied by her three children and one stepchild.

A hundred years ago today, she arrived, at a dock at the foot of Washington Avenue on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The newspapers of the day were not concerned with her arrival, but they were full of another story: the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Veterans from both sides of the battle converged on the small Pennsylvania town 100 miles west of Philadelphia, for remembrance and reconciliation. My grandmother never told me about her arrival, so I have to reconstruct it from short accounts from others.

Here is what my uncle Si had to say about it: I cannot remember my own arrival at the Pier. I was just a tot being carried in my mother's arms. My father had come here about a year ahead to get things ready for the rest of the family. I'm told that Mom couldn't recognize the Old Man. For horror of horrors...the yeshivah bocher who left Vitebsk with a luxuriant, black beard had shaved it off. When this "stranger" took us in his arms and murmured "meine kinder", we cried. We'd never seen this beardless character before!

And, if all goes well, on the hundredth anniversary of my grandmother's arrival in Philadelphia, I will be walking the streets of Velizh, the little town where she was born. (I have written this post ahead of time, as I anticipate no internet access for a few days.)

I am not expecting much in the way of historical finds related to my family, since Velizh was directly in the path of the brutal German invasion of Russia in 1941. I once asked my father if he still was in contact with relatives in Russia. He replied that there were some letters up to 1941, but nothing after that. And according to a 1942 dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, any relatives left behind in Velizh were probably murdered by the Germans:

Only Seventeen Jews Escape Massacre by Nazis in Russian Town of Velizh
September 9, 1942
A harrowing account of how the German occupation forces in the town of Velizh, in the Vitebsk district, used machine guns, the noose and fire to murder all but seventeen of the 1,440 Jewish residents of the village is related in a letter from one of the seventeen – a young half-Jewish girl – shown to this correspondent today.

The letter, written by Lida Grigorieva to her father, a Red Army man at the front, tells how the Germans drove all the Jews of the town into a ghetto as soon as they occupied Velizh. Nine hundred of them were confined in a pigsty. Every day groups of Jews were led to the outskirts of the town and shot, while others were hanged in the town itself, Miss Grigorieva writes.

When the Nazis were forced to abandon Velizh, they locked all the Jews in the pigsty, sprayed kerosene over it and set it afire, the letter discloses. Those who tried to escape were mowed down by machine guns. Only seventeen Jews remained alive.

My grandmother probably found her new life baffling and difficult. She had to adjust to new customs, a new language, and a new name. (Upon his arrival, my grandfather had his name arbitrarily changed to "Shaltz" by a confused immigration agent. With an anglicized first name, my grandmother then became "Celia Shaltz".)

My grandmother and my uncles and aunts were fortunate to leave when they did. I am very grateful to their determination to find a better life in America; I only wish they had told their stories in more detail. I have only been able to reconstruct a pale shadow of their experiences and journeys.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Confusion Everywhere

Over at the creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, there's a discussion where, remarkably, everybody is confused - both the intelligent design advocates and those arguing against them.

The example is given of flipping a presumably fair coin 500 times and observing it come up heads each time. The ID advocates say this is clear evidence of "design", and those arguing against them (including the usually clear-headed Neil Rickert) say no, the sequence HH...H is, probabilistically speaking, just as likely as any other.

This is an old paradox; it goes back as far as Samuel Johnson and Pierre-Simon Laplace. But neither the ID advocates nor their detractors seem to understand that this old paradox has a solution which dates back more than 15 years now.

The solution is by my UW colleague Ming Li and his co-authors. The basic idea is that Kolmogorov complexity offers a solution to the paradox: it provides a universal probability distribution on strings that allows you to express your degree of surprise on enountering a string of symbols that is said to represent the flips of a fair coin. If the string is compressible (as 500 consecutive H's would be) then one can reject the chance hypothesis with high confidence; if the string is, as far as we can see, incompressible, we cannot. It works because the proportion of compressible strings to noncompressible goes to 0 quickly as the length of the string increases.

So Rickert and his defenders are simply wrong. But the ID advocates are also wrong, because they jump from "reject the fair coin hypothesis" to "design". This is completely unsubstantiated. For example, maybe the so-called "fair coin" is actually weighted so that heads come up 999 out of 1000 times. Then "chance" still figures, but getting 500 consecutive 1's would not be so surprising; in fact it would happen about 61% of the time. Or maybe the flipping mechanism is not completely fair -- perhaps the coin is made of two kinds of metal, one magnetic, and it passes past a magnet before you examine it.

In other words, if you flip what is said to be a fair coin 500 times and it comes up heads every time, then you have extremely good evidence that your prior belief about the probability distribution of flips is simply wrong. But ID advocates don't understand this and don't apply it to biology. When they view some biological structure, calculate the probability based on a uniform distribution, claim it is "specified", and then conclude "design", they never bother to consider that using the uniform distribution for probabilities is unfounded, because the causal history of the events has not been taken into account. Any kind of algorithmic bias (such as happens when random mutation is followed by selection) can create results that differ greatly from the uniform distribution.

Elsberry and I discussed this in great detail in our paper years ago, but it seems neither side has read or understood it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Hundred Years Ago Today - Part III - On Board the Merion

One hundred years ago today, a Rembrandt portrait sold at auction for $104,000. William Jennings Bryan temporarily blocked plans to create the US Federal Reserve banking system. And Harvard beat Yale 4-3, in 14 innings of baseball.

But for me, this is the hundredth anniversary of the day -- June 18 1913 -- that my grandmother, Zipporah Levinton, boarded the ship in Liverpool, England that would take her to her new life in America.

As I imagine it, it must have been an interesting sight. Hundreds of steerage passengers lined up, clutching their belongings from little towns in Russia, Poland, Romania, and elsewhere, and holding kosher provisions for the voyage that were kindly supplied to them by relief agencies... my grandmother trying to keep her young children happy and occupied, while the first-class passengers boarded in luxury. The first-class passengers would have even received a little guidebook, detailing the many services of the ship and the names of the other first-class passengers, like the one shown here. First-class passengers would have eat breakfast at 8 AM, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 6 PM and 7:15 PM, and supper at 9 PM. But passengers like my grandmother probably had a menu something like this one.

The name of the ship was the S. S. Merion, built in 1902 in Scotland. It was 162 meters long and 18 meters wide, and had her maiden voyage on March 8 1902. For most of her career, she sailed for the American Line from Liverpool. Although most people have a picture in their minds of all immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York, in fact many arrived elsewhere, including Baltimore and (in my grandmother's case) Philadelphia.

My family did not save any records of that trip, or if they did, they are long gone now. But I managed to find a postcard of the Merion, and here it is:

If you look closely at the postcard, you can see what appears to be a rabbi in the front left section of the card.

And here is my grandmother and her children (and one from my grandfather's first marriage) listed in the Outwards Passenger Lists from the Records of the Board of Trade and of successor and related bodies, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England: Transatlantic ship travel was not completely safe. Of course, it was just the year before that the Titanic hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic and went down. (My grandfather emigrated on the Pisa in February-March 1912; just a month later, the Pisa encountered ice and was in the general vicinity of the Titanic when it sank.) And the Merion herself had several accidents, including a collision with a tanker on December 24 1912, off the coast of Delaware.

In August of 1913, the ship's commander would have been J. Beattie Hill, and the outgoing passenger records indicate he was the commander for my grandmother's trip, too. The ship records show that the Merion stopped on August 19 in Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland to pick up more passengers. All together there were (from the records I have access to) 1,036 passengers on the Merion headed to Philadelphia.

In 1914, the Merion was sold to the British navy, where it was used as a "decoy", and outfitted to look like the British battleship Tiger. On May 29 1915 this decoy ship was sunk by a German submarine.

For now, I'll leave my grandmother on the Merion, as the whistle sounds and the ship slowly leaves the port in Liverpool...

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Hundred Years Ago Today - Part II: Liverpool

Previously I wrote about my grandmother's trip to Hamburg on her way to the United States. There, she boarded the Stockport for the ten-day trip to Liverpool.

A hundred years ago today, she arrived in Liverpool. The ship from Hamburg stopped in Grimsby, on the east coast of England, before traveling to the west coast and Liverpool.

What else was happening in the world at that time? In Stamford, Connecticut, a train accident killed 5 and injured 17. In New York City, a subway cave-in crushed 12 laborers to death. And in Canada, the Atlantic Navy was disbanded.

But my grandmother didn't know about any of that. Like thousands of others, she was fleeing persecution in Russia, and (according to the Merseyside Maritime Museum), "Liverpool was the most popular port of departure for emigrants from Europe to the Americas and Canada."

As in Hamburg, my grandmother would have been assisted by Jewish emigrant groups. According to the Jewish Chronicle, "The Mansion House Relief Committee, convened by the Lord Mayor of London and supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Darwin and others, raised what in today’s terms would be millions of pounds to assist the journeys of Jews to America... People lodged in a hall ["Hachnasath Orechim"] capable of holding 400 and were provided with kosher food, clothing if needed and money. Many stayed, building Liverpool into at one time the most populous regional Jewish community. For others who passed through, preserved kosher meat was sent on to steamships for passengers — and letters of thanks in Hebrew for the good treatment the Jews on the boats received were presented to captains." Famous passengers who passed through Liverpool include movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and comedian Henny Youngman.

My grandmother would have had to wait several days to board the ship to Philadelphia and her new home. (to be continued...)

Friday, June 07, 2013

Alice Walker is Bonkers

From Jonathan Kay in the National Post, we learn that writer Alice Walker is a lunatic, apparently having bought into David Icke's claim that "Earth is secretly controlled by giant inter-dimensional lizards who have taken human form".

Icke is also an anti-Semite, claiming that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are genuine. Walker herself apparently refuses to allow her book The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Creationists Get Their Book Published

When intelligent design advocates recently tried to get their creationist conference proceedings published by a major academic publisher, they got a rude surprise. Once they realized what was up, Springer apparently cancelled their acceptance.

So the creationists apparently moved to a different publisher, World Scientific Press. Although many books published by World Scientific are OK, they also publish some real dreck. In fact, I recommend that they add "real dreck" to the keywords for this new book.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One Hundred Years Ago Today

A hundred years ago today -- June 4 1913 -- a British suffragette, Emilie Wilding Davison, threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby, and was gravely injured. She died 4 days later. On the same day in France, Aristide Briand, a former Premier, almost died in a car accident. You can read about these events here.

But in Hamburg, Germany, another event took place that you won't find in any newspaper: my grandmother, Zipporah Levintan, boarded the Stockport to Liverpool, on the middle leg of a journey that would take her to join her husband (my grandfather) in Philadelphia.

In Hamburg she was likely helped by Jewish groups that assisted emigrants. Between 1901 and 1906, the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actiengesellschaft built an emigrant city in Veddel (the port area of Hamburg) with a canteen, a sleeping hall, and a synagogue. This wonderful page has pictures of the city and its buildings. Note the inscription "Mein Feld ist die Welt" on the wall in the emigration hall.

How she got to Hamburg, I don't know for sure. In 1912 she was living on Pokvrovske Street in Vitebsk (now in Belarus), according to a ship manifest for my grandfather, who had already emigrated the year before. ("Pokrovske" was the Yiddish name for "Pokrovskaya", the celebrated street where Chagall lived; today there is a museum honoring him there.) In 1913, according to a bank record, she was living in the small town where she was born: Velizh, Russia. Perhaps she would have travelled by land; the German government had set up immigrant checkpoints at Eydtkuhnen, on the border with Lithuania (now Chernyshevskoye in the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia) and Ruhleben (near Berlin). Or perhaps she made her way to Lithuania or Latvia, and then caught a boat along the Baltic Sea to Hamburg. I only know that the manifest of the Stockport, which lists her previous place of residence (Bisheriger Wohnort) as "Kowno" (now Kaunas in Lithuania).

I haven't found a picture of the Stockport, but there is a postcard that shows its sister ship, the Bury, here. And this page tells more about the ship, which was owned by the Great Central Railway Company, one of a number of "feeder" ships that brought emigrants to ports like Liverpool for the longer transatlantic voyage that awaited them.

The ship manifest shows that my grandmother was accompanied by four children: Schmuel, age 9; Dwoire, age 7; Salman, age 3; and Mendel, age 17. I would know them by different names: Sam, who died four years before I was born; my Aunt Dorothy, my uncle Si, and my father's half-brother, Max, who died ten years before I was born. Like many Russian Jews of the period, they were leaving to escape persecution (my grandmother's grandfather was falsely imprisoned in the Velizh blood libel incident) and for a better life in America. As my uncle Si once wrote, "What if Washington Avenue was a dirty, grimy street? What if freight cars loaded with soot chugged up and down? What if the streets were not paved with gold as they had told us back in our little ghetto town in Russia? Here we had found something far more precious: freedom!"

The voyage to Liverpool took 10 days. I don't know for sure what the conditions must have been like, but since my grandparents were terribly poor, I imagine they were pretty awful. Unable to read or write, my grandmother must have found the trip baffling and frightening. She died in 1964, when I was only 6, so I never had the chance to ask her for her memories of the trip. For now, I leave her here in Hamburg, about to board the ship...

(To be continued...)

Saturday, June 01, 2013

More Academic Spam

Lately, I'm being spammed every day by journal announcements from Science and Engineering Publishing Company. Today I got one as follows:
Call for Papers

- Vehicle Engineering

Dear professor,

You are cordially invited to submit or recommend articles to Vehicle Engineering (VE, ISSN Print: 2328-1677), which is an open access journal dedicated to publishing the latest advancements in vehicle engineering research. The goal of this journal is to record the latest findings and promote further research in these areas. More relevant areas of this journal can be found at the VEhomepage.

About Open Access Publishing

Researchers around the world have full access to all the published articles, and download them for free. What is more, an open access article stands more chances to be used and cited than does one behind subscription barriers of traditional publishing model. Therefore your article's impact will be improved once you become an OA author.

Paper Submission Online

All manuscripts to be considered for publication in VE have to be submitted online. To submit a manuscript please visit the above website, select Submission and follow the appropriate prompts. 

Upon submission an editor will be assigned and s/he will make due arrangements to have the manuscript peer reviewed. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Relevant Areas
(not limited to the following fields)

Vehicle structure
Friction clutch
Manual gearboxes and overdrives
Hydrokinetic fluid coupling and torque converters
Automatic transmission
Transmission bearings and constant velocity joints


Contact US

I complained to the person listed as the Editor-in-Chief of this journal, Ahmed Elmarakbi, and he replied as follows:

"Please note that I have nothing to do with this journal. I have requested to get my name off the editorial board but it seems that my name still there. I will contact the people at Science and Engineering Publishing Company on Monday again to make sure that my name is off. Any issues with this journal you need to contact them directly. If they do not take my name out I will take further actions with them."

Sounds like a great journal when the editor-in-chief claims he has nothing to do with it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

No, Denyse, Frank Church is not a Geneticist

Denyse "Sneery" O'Leary apparently thinks that the late Frank Church, long-time Democratic senator from Idaho, is a "pioneering professor of genetics".

Pic, because probably it will get silently corrected or deleted:

The real geneticist is George Church. Why he would endorse creationist Stephen Meyer's book is an interesting question, but one I can't answer for now.

As for the other endorsers, who is surprised that longtime ID advocate Russell Carlson would endorse Stephen Meyer's book? After all, Carlson was apparently not astute enough to detect all the problems with Dembski's claims about information.

Who is surprised that J. Scott Turner would endorse the book? Like Carlson, he's on the editorial board of the intelligent design vanity journal, Bio-Complexity. And, in the past, Turner has shown himself less than perceptive about the ID movement.

Who is surprised that creationist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, also on the board of Bio-Complexity, would endorse the book?

As for the other endorsers, anyone who would accept Dean Koontz or George Gilder's opinion about a scientific issue gets exactly what he deserves.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Boycott Australian National University

I announce that I am boycotting Australian National University (ANU) for one year, unless the Vice-Chancellor resigns or apologizes. I strongly encourage other academics to join me and do likewise.

ANU's student newspaper, the Woroni, published a satirical cartoon about Islam, one in a series of similar cartoons that had already been published about Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism. The cartoon can be found here. Of these five groups, apparently only Islam had adherents that couldn't handle the rather gentle satire in the cartoon, and complained to the Vice-Chancellor's office.

The Vice-Chancellor, Ian Young, took the most heavy-handed route possible, threatening the students unless the cartoon was removed. His rationale was a textbook example of the heckler's veto, in which speech is restricted because of the claimed potential for inducing violent behavior in others.

The Woroni issued a statement in which more details can be found about the incident.

This kind of censorship is utterly reprehensible in my view. No sensible or reasonable person could see that cartoon and believe it was over-the-top. I urge everyone to write Ian Young directly to let him know your view of his authoritarian and irresponsible action, and join the boycott of ANU.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Denyse The Incompetent

As I predicted, Denyse O'Leary's return to Uncommon Descent just keeps giving and giving.

Here she cites an article in the Washington Post about the distribution of atheists worldwide. Not bothering to even read the article carefully, Denyse opines, "Canada is a pretty “free” nation, but I doubt you’d get five percent to say they were definitely atheists."

Screenshot, in case it goes the usual way of stupidity on Uncommon Descent and vanishes without a trace:

Had Denyse bothered to follow the link right in the article she cites, she would have found that the figure for Canada is 9%.

But, you know, responsible journalism is what we can expect from that old stupid "legacy media".

Denyse Doesn't Fail to Amuse

I'm really enjoying the return of Denyse O'Leary to Uncommon Descent!

One of her recurring fantasies, as RationalWiki puts it, is that "New York Times subscribers [will be] tuning out of print media and tuning on to her bottom barrel blog sites."

Take a look at this one. Why, it's just the thing for New York Times subscribers! Or at least those subscribers who don't care about

  • the bizarre fantasy that "Arun Smith [is] a heroic censor". (Heroic to whom? And why would a university "administration [love] him"?)
  • the raving incoherence that "Today’s journalist thinks you mean that women should be stoned to death for adultery". Who the heck is the "you" here, and what does it refer to?
  • the lack of punctuation at the end of sentences. I guess those periods are just for "legacy media".
Yes, it's amusing. But I really wonder why would anyone in their right mind hire this deluded hack to write anything?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

One Million Views

This blog finally hit a milestone: a million page views:


                    -- Site Summary ---                     

            Total ...................... 696,357            
            Average per Day ................ 316            
            Average Visit Length .......... 1:04            
            This Week .................... 2,213            

          Page Views

            Total .................... 1,000,155            
            Average per Day ................ 404            
            Average per Visit .............. 1.3            
            This Week .................... 2,825  

Strange to think that I reach so many more people through this blog than I do with my "real" work: mathematics and computer science.

Sneery O'Leary Returns to Uncommon Descent

I am very happy to see that Denyse "Sneery" O'Leary, the world's worst journalist™, is back as a daily contributor to the creationist site, Uncommon Descent.

We can now look forward to months of mangled syntax, non sequiturs, sneers and defamation against legitimate scientists, vapid and effusive praise of anyone she thinks is a Darwin denier, and relentless plugging of her books. It promises to be a real cornucopia of stupidity.

In just her first week back, she

What you will never see, however, is Denyse actually interviewing anyone other than her favorite anti-evolutionary crackpots. Because that, you know, would actually involve real journalism. Why do real work when you can just summarize pop science?

Welcome back, Denyse! Get the popcorn.