Saturday, November 29, 2014

Dubious religious defenses

I listened to this C-SPAN BookTV podcast (mp3):
Karen Armstrong talks about her book, [Fields of Blood], in which she examines the intertwined relationship of faith and violence by walking through the history of every major religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism.
She defends Islam:
Islam has been for centuries, until the modern period, a far more tolerant religion than Christianity. ...

The word "jihad" (and its derivatives) only occurs 41 times in the Koran, and in only 10 of those instances does it refer unambiguously to warfare. [39:40] ...

Muslim law speaks about defensive warfare, not aggressive warfare ... the empire had reached its limits, but they had to defend their frontier; so it is very much a defensive warfare, not aggressive warfare. [41:50]
She mocks Moslem terrorists as people who ordered "Islam for Dummies" and "The Koran for Dummies" from Amazon. [51:40]

So how has Islam been more tolerant? It gained its empire by conquering and subjugating. The Koran is a book about warfare against infidels. But somehow it is more tolerant because once it gained subjects, it was largely concerned with maintaining its gains?

Christianity does not teach war against infidels and has a long history of tolerance of other faiths. I guess it did resist Moslem invasions, but does not have a history of forced conversions and subjugated infidels, like Islam.

Another Islam apologist, Reza Aslan, has made millions of dollars trashing Christianity while lying about his supposedly scholarly credentials. A lot of people bought his book thinking that he was unfairly maligned, but he deserves worse criticism.

An anonymous Jewism comment:
American Jews generally poll in favor of less immigration.

The main documentation in support of the “Jewish open borders” stereotype comes from Kevin MacDonald. ...

So not only are Jews among the least authoritarian of religious groups, according to Altemeyer highly religious Jews are among the least authoritarian of the highly religious.
His support is this immigration poll (and of course he calls anyone who disagrees with him "antisemitic"). But in fact that poll shows Jews as more pro-immigration than any other sampled religious group. Jews overwhelmingly support limiting Israel immigration to Jews, but opening up American immigration to more and more Third World people.

His source on authoritarianism is this pdf rant that claims that Jews score low on right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). That is no surprise, as they mostly belong to the Jewish left. Jews are mostly left-wing authoritarians, not right-wingers.

A couple of years ago I would have guessed that Catholics were more authoritarian than Jews, because Catholics have a Pope and Jews do not. Catholic priests are authorized to perform the sacraments, but otherwise Jewish rabbis are much more authoritarian. Jews often go to rabbis and even a Jewish court to make decisions that a Catholic priest would not make. And Jews tend towards authoritarian views, whether religious or not.

Update: Sam Harris responds to Aslan over whether some people must be destroyed for their beliefs.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Celebrating abstract nonsense

Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel writes in the NY Times:
Alexander Grothendieck, who died on Nov. 13 at the age of 86, was a visionary who captivated the collective psyche of his peers like no one else. ...

Grothendieck’s genius was to recognize that there is a “being” hiding behind a given algebraic equation (or a system of equations) called a scheme. The spaces of solutions are mere projections, or shadows of this scheme. Moreover, he realized that these schemes inhabit a rich world. They “interact” with one another, can be “glued” together and so on. ...

Though one might ask if there are any real-world applications of his work, the more important question is whether having found applications, we also find the wisdom to protect the world from the monsters we create using these applications. Alas, the recent misuse of mathematics does not give us much comfort.

For example, according to published reports, the National Security Agency inserted a back door in a widely used encryption algorithm based on “elliptic curves” — mathematical objects illuminated by Grothendieck’s research. Though that specific algorithm was developed much later, Grothendieck recognized the potential dangers of such misuse of math and sounded the alarm. He was incensed when he learned that IHES, the mathematics institute near Paris where he worked, received funding from the French Ministry of Defense. In protest, he resigned from the institute in 1970 at the height of his power. He had hoped that his colleagues would follow him, but none did.
They did not follow him because he was going crazy. He spent the last 20 years writing unintelligible rants.

Grothendieck’s life story is a wild one. He was the illegitimate son of anarchist parents, and grew up without nationality or parents. He is mainly famous for what mathematicians affectionately call abstract nonsense, and recast the foundations of algebraic geometry in that style. He had a cult-like following of some of the world's smartest men. There are no practical applications, as far as I know, even tho his Wash. Post obituary said:
His contributions to mathematics were often likened to those of Albert Einstein in physics. ... Other scholars came to apply Mr. Grothendieck’s theoretical frameworks to such fields as computer programming, software development, satellite communications, classification systems and the study of biological data.
The analogy to Einstein is strange. Einstein is mainly famous for popularizing relativity theory, and relativity was pivotal for XX century physics. Maybe a better comparison would be to Kurt Goedel, whose work was of pre-eminent foundational importance, but of little consequence to the rest of mathematics or the real world.

Frenkel suggests that Grothendieck might have objected to an NSA-designed random number generator. Maybe so, but that would be more proof of his paranoia. While the news regularly has news of security breeches affecting millions of people, there is no evidence of anyone being adversely affected by that random number generator.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New movie distorts Turing's life and work

Computer scientist Alan Turing has become a gay martyr, and his story is told in the new movie, The Imitation Game. Expect everyone to praise this movie, but it is horrible. A London newspaper reviews:
The Imitation Game jumps around three time periods – Turing’s schooldays in 1928, his cryptographic work at Bletchley Park from 1939-45, and his arrest for gross indecency in Manchester in 1952. It isn’t accurate about any of them, ...

The Imitation Game puts John Cairncross, a Soviet spy and possible “Fifth Man” of the Cambridge spy ring, on Turing’s cryptography team. ... In the film, Turing works out that Cairncross is a spy; but Cairncross threatens to expose his sexuality. “If you tell him my secret, I’ll tell him yours,” he says.

The blackmail works. Turing covers up for the spy, for a while at least. This is wholly imaginary and deeply offensive – for concealing a spy would have been an extremely serious matter. Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason? Creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man’s reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another.
Turing was a mathematical genius who figured out how to apply Goedel's work to computability. Since 1966, a Turing Award has been the top prize in computer science.

His arrest occurred when he tried to frame a teenaged boy for theft, and the police discovered that Turing had been committing statutory rape of the boy. Two years later he died of cyanide poisoning that was presumed to be suicide from eating half a poison apple, altho there is considerable doubt about that.

But Turing was never a traitor. Homosexuals were long denied security clearances, because some famous spies were, such as at least a couple of those Cambridge Five.

This movie is being celebrated by the gay press.
it is elegantly made, beautifully filmed, and loyal to its source material (in this case, Andrew Hodges’s excellent 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma). But what brings the film to life is Cumberbatch’s immensely engaging performance as Turing, a misfit at ease with his homosexuality (he named his computer Christopher after an unrequited schoolboy crush), but utterly at odds with the world around him. To use David Leavitt’s apt comparison, Turing was a kind of real-life Mr. Spock, insensible to human discourse, and wholly unable to “read between the lines.”

Turing was 41 years old when he was found dead by his housekeeper, a half-eaten apple by his bedside. The apple — which urban legend suggests was the inspiration for the logo for Apple computers — is commonly believed to have been laced with cyanide, though this theory has been challenged by some biographers who claim his death was an accident. ...

Cumberbatch, who has clearly done his research, thinks the persecution of homosexuals in the U.K. has its roots in the Cambridge Five, a group of men, some of them gay, at the highest echelons of society, who had been recruited to spy for Moscow. “It was our form of McCarthyism,” he says. “If you were intellectual, if you were gay, if you had any kind of liberal ideas, you were immediately a threat to national security.” ...

For all that The Imitation Game is a period drama, Cumberbatch is anxious that Turing’s story be kept alive as a parable on the price of intolerance. “It’s not a history lesson — it’s a warning that this could very easily happen again,” he says. ... You have to have a point where you go, ‘Well, religious fundamentalism is wrong.’ ”
Apple (Computer) Inc. is one of the gayest companies in the USA, outside the fashion industry. Its CEO is gay, and its marketing is based largely on a gay style to its products. I did not know that gays see the company icon as a symbolic suicidal gay poison apple.

Hollywood always portrays mathematicians, as mentally ill misfits. Examples are Good Will Hunting, Pi, Proof, and A Beautiful Mind. This is another gross distortion.

The actor complains that gay were considered a national security threat, but he has falsely added to that stereotype by portraying Turing as someone whose homosexuality led to him betraying his country.

This movie is offensive on several levels. Someone who used to be praised for his ideas, theorems, and national service is now mocked for an assortment of alleged personality and character faults.

This movie is not going to convince people of the evils of intolerance. The more likely conclusion is that he would have led a happy productive life if he had married his fiancee and avoided homosexuals.

Update: The NY Times A.O. Scott review warns:
“The Imitation Game” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Illicit sex, cataclysmic violence and advanced math, most of it mentioned rather than shown.
So I guess the three most offensive things in the movies are sex, violence, and math. The reviews also says that the film places Turing "somewhere on the autism spectrum". That is another offensive stereotype. There is no mention of the gross inaccuracies.

Update: The screenwriter replies:
When you use the language of 'fact checking' to talk about a film, I think you're sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don't fact check Monet's 'Water Lilies'. That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That's the goal of the piece.
By all account, the movie does not describe the character of Turing well at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Strongest evidence for being born gay

Conventional wisdom is now that homosexuals are born that way, and NewScientist says this is the strongest evidence:
A genetic analysis of 409 pairs of gay brothers, including sets of twins, has provided the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay. The study clearly links sexual orientation in men with two regions of the human genome that have been implicated before, one on the X chromosome and one on chromosome 8.

The finding is an important contribution to mounting evidence that being gay is biologically determined rather than a lifestyle choice. ...

Whatever the results, Sanders stresses that complex traits such as sexual orientation depend on multiple factors, both environmental and genetic. Even if he has hit on individual genes, they will likely only have at most a small effect on their own
So this is the strongest evidence? It is extremely weak, as there were no straights in the study and the genes had only a very tiny effect.

Most human behaviors are attributed to some complicated combination of nature and nurture. There is an extreme view that claims that it is 100% genetic, so far they have only shown it is about 0.01% genetic.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Buzzfeed corruption exposed

Buzzfeed has gotten enormous publicity for its allegations against Uber, including two NY Times articles, claiming that Uber going to expose a SJW (social justice warrior) journalist. Now it turns out that Buzzfeed's own coverage is corrupt, as it is publishing these articles in order to profit in its investment in an Uber competitor.

The Buzzfeed articles do not includes quotes of the controversial Uber executive remarks, or an explanation of the SJW journalist issue, or a disclosure of its conflict of interest. And yet it got its story out to the mainstream news sites.

I do not have any opinion about Uber. I am just noting how some slimy hired guns like Buzzfeed can manipulate the mainstream press to advantage their financial interests. You cannot trust stories like this.

The Dilbert cartoonist points out:
Michael didn't "suggest" doing anything. Nor did he - then or now - even want to dig up dirt on journalists. Assuming Buzzfeed's reporting of the details is accurate, all he did was make a dinner party intellectual comparison between the evil of the media that was unfairly attacking them (which I assume is true) and their own civilized response to the attacks.

Michael's point, as Buzzfeed reports it, was that horrible people in the media mislead readers and there is nothing a victim can do about it within the realm of reasonable business practices. The Buzzfeed business model is totally legal. But, as Michael explained, probably over a cocktail, the only legal solution to this problem would be to use freedom of the press to push back on the bad actors by giving them a taste of their own medicine.

But it was just private cocktail talk. It wasn't a plan. It definitely wasn't a "suggestion." It was just an interesting way to make a point. The point, as I understand it from Buzzfeed's own reporting, is that Uber DOES play fair in a fight in which the opponents (bad actors in the press) do not. I find that interesting. It is also literally the opposite of what the headline of the story "suggests" happened.

And Michael made his point in a room full of writers/media people. Obviously it wasn't a plan.

It's not as if Michael was talking about manipulating the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Those publications might get some facts wrong now and then, but they don't have a business model that involves intentionally taking things out of context to manufacture news.
Buzzfeed does have a business model of manipulating the mainstream papers, I guess, and the papers fall for it.

Another obnoxious thing is that Buzzfeed implies that Sarah Lacy (editor of PandoDaily) is some sort of criminal or guilty of something seriously embarrassing. Buzzfeed does not say, and I do not know. I can only assume that Buzzfeed is blackmailing her, and is threatening to expose her if she does not play their game.

Monday, November 17, 2014

No good AI in new Terminator movie

From 4 Signs the New 'Terminator' Movie Is Doomed:
This means we're getting a new Terminator trilogy that kicks off with a future John Connor sending the original Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator farther back in time to raise Sarah Connor (she calls him "Pops") and fight a younger T-800, which in turn creates an alternate universe. Also, Arnold will look like a 67-year-old robot,
Sounds like a disaster.

I would have like to see a Terminator sequel that gave a technologically plausible rise of SkyNet. The movie could have skipped the time travel, and shown the progression to the great war between humans and machines in the future, as the Terminator movies allude.

We are seeing many AI advances coming, such as the internet of things, self-driving cars, voice-controlled agents, etc. If you believe the technological singularity seers, these and other AI advances will bring some radical changes in a couple of decades. I am not sure that they are right, but they certainly have visualized a future that is plausible enuf for a movie.

So I would show a near future where ordinary lives increasingly come under the control of machines, and people accept it. I would show some occasional machine mistakes that are also accepted. Then I would show a machine making some logical but shocking decision, such as killing an innocent baby to prevent some greater tragedy.

John Connor would see the dangers in this, and maybe commit some criminal sabotage against the machines. The machines then conspire against him. There are a lot of possibilities here.

Arnold would be an engineering genius robot designer. He would be a good guy, because he is too big a star to play bad guys anymore, but his products are programmable and some of his customer turn them into ruthless security guards, drug deals, hit men, and worse. Because he is the designer, some of the cyborgs look like younger versions of himself. This is how he can be an old guy in the movie.

It appears that the Terminator movies will do none of this. Other AI movies have been disappointments. Someone will surely make a good AI movie.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Why Microsoft's browser is hated

A geek site explains:
It’s common knowledge that almost every single geek hates Internet Explorer with a passion, but have you ever wondered why? Let’s take a fair look at the history and where it all began… for posterity, if nothing else. ...

And here’s where we come to the real issue — the whole reason that geeks can’t stand Internet Explorer:

Geeks everywhere were forced to use Internet Explorer at work even when there are better browsers, forced to support it for corporate applications, forced to make sure web sites still work in IE, and we couldn’t convince everybody to switch to a better browser.

Geeks don’t hate something that’s inferior — but they do hate it when it’s forced on them.
Yes, I think that is much of the reason, but there is more.

Microsoft designed IE to use a loophole in an anti-trust judgment -- it argued that it was allowed to bundle IE anti-competitively as long as it was integrated into the operating system.

IE and other browsers are used for things like viewing internet porn. For Microsoft to say that IE was integrated into the OS was the same as saying that porn had to be integrated. Who wants that?

The legal argument was dubious. The judgment allowed MS to improve the OS with innovation, but not to force bundling.
Thankfully, it seems like Microsoft has finally learned from their many, many mistakes in the browser world.
I don't think MS has learned. Has it repudiated the idea that it is trying to integrate porn into the OS? I don't think so. If I use IE to view porn, then the images are still cached in my system files.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ten Items or Less

Psychology professor Steve Pinker has a new grammar book:
Now, you might think that if "more" can be used with both count and mass nouns, so can "less". But it doesn't work that way: you may have "less gravel", but most writers agree that you can only have "fewer pebbles", not "less pebbles". This is a reasonable distinction, but purists have extended it with a vengeance. The sign over supermarket express checkout lanes, "Ten Items or Less", is a grammatical error, they say, and as a result of their carping upscale supermarkets have replaced the signs with "Ten Items or Fewer". By this logic, off licences should refuse to sell beer to customers who are "fewer than 21 years old" and law-abiding motorists should drive at "fewer than 70 miles an hour". And once you master this distinction, well, that's one fewer thing for you to worry about.

Clearly, the purists have botched the "less-fewer" distinction.
No, I think Pinker botches it.

"X less than Y" means X < Y, as real numbers. "X fewer than Y" means X ≤ Y-1, as integers. You do not say "fewer than 70 miles an hour" because that would mean 69 mph or less, whereas a speed limit of 70 mph means that 69.9 mph is allowed.

"Ten Items or Less" makes sense because 9.5 items would be allowed, if the supermarket sold half items.

The term "less pebbles" seems to be used about the same as "fewer pebbles". The word "fewer" might be preferred if you are counting the pebbles, but in most situations, "less" is just as good.

I am saying that the less/fewer distinction is about real numbers and integers, and not about mass and counting nouns.

Pinker also gives his blessing to "very unique", and presumably "more unique". Again, I don't think that he gets to the heart of what is really a math problem, not a linguistic problem.

The word "unique" means unequal to all others. It is not clear how something can be very unequal or more unequal. If you want to emphasize how different something is, you could say that it is very different. X is very different from Y if |X-Y| is large. But something being more different does not make it more unique. 10 is more different from 2 than 3, but it is not more unique.
Great writers have been modifying absolute adjectives for centuries, including the framers of the American Constitution, who sought "a more perfect union". Many of the examples pass unnoticed by careful writers, including "nothing could be more certain" and "there could be no more perfect spot". Though the phrase "very unique" is universally despised, other modifications of "unique" are unobjectionable, as when Martin Luther King wrote, "I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers."
King was "rather unique", but not claiming to be more unique than others. The trouble with "very unique" is that it claims to be more unequal than others, and that makes no sense.

The term "more perfect" has the obvious math interpretation of being closer to 100% of what it is supposed to be. My dictionary gives these examples:
"a perfect circle"; "a perfect reproduction"; "perfect happiness"; "perfect manners"; "a perfect specimen"; "a perfect day"; "a perfect idiot"; "perfect timing"
Most of these uses are such that a perfect example could be replaced by a more perfect example. The one exception might be the perfect circle, if it is an abstract mathematical circle. But then you would not call it "perfect", because all such circles are perfect anyway. In all other cases, the perfect can be more perfect.