Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Probable Meteorite Hoax (or Prank)


There have been a number of articles in the popular press about Radivoje Lajic (sometimes rendered as "Radivoke"), a Bosnian man who claims his house has been hit six different times by meteorites.

By and large, press coverage of this guy has been completely credulous, referring to unnamed scientists at "Belgrade University" who have verified that the rocks are indeed meteorites.

In pictures he is shown holding a rock that doesn't look very much like a meteorite.

Here is what I think probably happened: either

  • They're not meteorites, and he is confused, or
  • This is a hoax perpetrated by Lajic himself. Perhaps the rocks aren't even meteorites, although it is easy to buy meteorites, even fairly large ones, at mineral shows or on e-bay. It is then simple to pretend to discover it after you claim it hit your house, or
  • One of Lajic's neighbors is having a little fun with him in the same way.
It is worth noting that the meteorite database contains no mention of the meteorites supposedly found by Lajic. At least, searching for "Lajic" turns up nothing, and only two meteorites are listed as being discovered in Bosnia. Why can't reporters be more skeptical?

My New Book

Here is my new book, Neverending Fractions:


My co-authors, Jon Borwein, Wadim Zudilin, and the late Alf van der Poorten, wrote most of the book. I only contributed one chapter, a couple of sections, and some editing. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Avoid This Conference: CSNT 2015


I strongly recommend avoiding having anything to do with this conference: CSNT 2015.

Here is the solicitation I just got from them:

Dear Jeffrey Shallit,

I am the secretary of the 2015 International Congress on Computer Science and Network Technology (CSNT 2015). On behalf of CSNT 2015 Organizing Committee, we cordially invite you to be a member of Technical Program Committee of CSNT 2015.

CSNT 2015 will be held in Hong Kong, China, from February 10-11, 2015. The main objective of CSNT 2015 is 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 Network Technology. More information about the conference, please visit the website:

http://www.as-se.org/conf/csnt2015/

As a leading authority of the field, your participation and support is essential to the success of the conference. And we believe your participation will bring more glory to this conference!

Note:

As a TPC member,

1.    Your paper or papers recommended by you can enjoy a discount on registration fee. -

2.    Your name will be shown on conference website and hardcopy of proceedings.

If you are interested in being a member of TPC, please attach your CV in your reply. Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to hearing from you!

Best regards,

Yours Sincerely,

CSNT 2015 Organizing Committee

Email: icsnt2015@hotmail.com

Website: http://www.as-se.org/conf/csnt2015/

Notice everything wrong with this:
  • They invited me to be on the program committee, even though I have never published a thing on "network technology"
  • The solicitation does not mention a single person on the program committee
  • The solicitation is unsigned
All these are major warning signs.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Must Pop Science Writers Know What They're Talking About?


Is it too much to ask that a pop science writer knows what they're talking about?

On the one hand we have the Denyse O'Leary school of journalism, blending lousy writing with an even lousier understanding of her subject matter.

On the other hand we have Carl Zimmer, whose books are praised by scientists knowledgeable in the areas he covers.

In between, we have books like The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean. Kean seems like a nice fellow, not at all like the know-nothing harridan O'Leary. But a master's degree in library science doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he knows what he's talking about. Nevertheless, his books have garnered some positive reviews, so I thought I'd take a look.

I was disappointed. Just to name four howlers:

  • On page 107, Kean reveals that he thinks that Mitochondrial Eve is the "oldest matrilineal ancestor of everyone living today". No, she's the youngest (most recent) matrilineal ancestor. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
  • On page 159, Kean states that he thinks the name "junk DNA" has "haunted [scientists] as an embarrassment ever since". Not so.
  • On page 255, Kean claims that Paganini was not a composer. Even I, a classical music dilettante, know that Paganini wrote many works.
  • On page 267, Kean translates the French idiom "étrangler le perroquet" as "strangling the parakeet". But "perroquet" mean "parrot", not "parakeet", in French. The word for "parakeet" is "perruche".
Kean is not the only one at fault. I also blame the publisher (Little, Brown). Didn't this book get any fact-checking at all?

What the World Needs


Market Street, Philadelphia, August 2014.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Monday, July 28, 2014

Conversation with a "Cantor Crackpot"


As readers of this blog know, I'm fascinated by how people come to decisions about things and the various ways they can go wrong.

A few weekends ago, I got a chance to chat with a "Cantor crackpot". This is not pejorative; it is the term he used to describe himself. S, as I'll call him, is a pleasant and educated person, but he is convinced that Cantor's proof of the uncountability of the real numbers is wrong.

Here is what he recently wrote to me (paraphrased): Cantor's proof is wrong because the diagonal method that he used fails to produce a number not on the list. He illustrated this with the following example, in which S purports to give a 1-1 correspondence between the integers and the real numbers:

integer <-> real
23456 <-> 0.65432
23457 <-> 0.75432
23458 <-> 0.85432
23459 <-> 0.95432
23460 <-> 0.06432

This is a common misunderstanding among people when they first see Cantor's proof. I think this misunderstanding is essentially rooted in the following misconception: either that the only real numbers are those with terminating expansions, or that the set of integers contains objects with infinitely long base-10 representations. In this case, having talked with S, I know his misunderstanding is of the latter type.

In his example above of the purported bijection, we can ask, what integer corresponds to the real number 1/3? Its decimal expansion is 0.33333... where the 3's go on forever to the right. This must correspond to the integer ....3333333 where the 3's go on forever to the left. But this is not an integer!

So in this case the misunderstanding is really of a trivial nature. I would be interested in speaking to people who deny the correctness of Cantor's proof based on more elaborate misunderstandings.

Silly Barry


The ID creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, just gets more and more amusing now that lawyer and certified public accountant Barry Arrington has taken over.

For some comedy gold, read this post and enjoy the logical fallacies, straw man arguments, and misspellings. (Barry also doesn't seem to know what "antecedent" means.) It looks like it was written by an 8th grader, not a member of the bar.

Let's start with the first line: "Living things appear to be designed for a purpose. That statement is entirely non-controversial." Well, I dispute it. Living things don't really appear designed to me, much less designed for a purpose. Most of the designed things I know look like artifacts: the characteristic product of human activity. Mark Isaak even wrote a paper in which he tried to list commonalities among designed things. Living things don't fit very well.

As for "designed for a purpose", what purpose would that be? What is the purpose of the Ebola virus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the tick, the cockroach, and Celine Dion? A commenter tried to ask this, but didn't get any sensible answer.

Barry's post is called "Denying the Obvious". Lots of things which people used to think were "obvious" turn out to be not so obvious. It was "obvious" for many years that the earth was flat. It was "obvious" for many years that the earth was stationary. It was "obvious" for many years that witches were real, that slavery was the natural order of man, and so forth.

Barry thinks the denial of design is dishonest: "Dawkins and his ilk deny design, however, not because the evidence compels them to deny it, but because their a priori metaphysical commitments compel them to do so." Actually, they don't, at least not for me. I think it would be really mind-blowing if we discovered that life on earth (in general) or people (in particular) were part of an extraterrestrial engineering experiment. But since there is currently no evidence for this, pardon me if I am skeptical.

Barry thinks "Materialists must deny the existence of libertarian free will". Well, not this materialist. I don't deny it because I don't think anybody --- and certainly not Barry --- has a coherent definition of "free will". I do think that the folk and religious understanding of free will is very, very likely to be wrong, or at least wildly simplistic, as we are finding out from neuroscience. I think ultimately we will come to a scientific understanding of the various phenomena we currently lump under "free will". Progress is unlikely to come from philosophers and even more unlikely to come from theologians or certified public accountants.

Barry thinks "A man’s body is designed to be complimentary [sic] with a woman’s body and vice versa. All of the confusion about whether same-sex relations are licit would be swept away in an instant if everyone acknowledged this obvious truth." Well, no, it's not "an obvious truth", even if one uses the correct word "complementary". And even if it were, what does that have to do with whether same-sex relations are "licit", by which I assume Barry means "lawful"? After all, hammers are designed for hammering, but does that mean if I use a hammer as a doorstop I am breaking the law?

Barry illustrates the truth of William James' observation, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

James Keegstra Dead


Most people, if they think of Red Deer, Alberta at all, think of famous native sons like actor Jacob Blair or hockey player Ron Anderson. For me, however, Red Deer is (in)famous as the home of James Keegstra, who died last month.

As a public school teacher in nearby Eckville, Keegstra spread his anti-Semitism to a captive audience in the Eckville public schools for years with hardly any complaints. When his lies were exposed, many in the community came to his defense. He was even Mayor for a time.

Keegstra was the classic fundamentalist Christian anti-Semite. He learned his anti-Semitism from crackpot Christian tracts like The Talmud Unmasked. Keegstra taught his students all sorts of nonsense, from the claim that John Wilkes Booth was Jewish, to Illuminati conspiracies, to the claim that Jews killed Franklin Roosevelt and that they were behind all kinds of world disasters, to Holocaust denial --- and his students duly repeated these claims in their essays. (One student essay contained the line "we must get rid of every living Jew so that we can live in peace and freedom.")

It was only when some courageous parents finally spoke out against Keegstra that the school board took action. It was actually his anti-Catholicism that got initially got him noticed; echoing today's crackpot claims of Rebecca Bynum and Jody Hice about Islam, Keegstra claimed that Catholicism was not a religion but a "humanly created ideology". In 1982 he was finally suspended from teaching. Later, he was prosecuted under Canada's hate speech laws. (Personally, I think the prosecutions were misguided; they only served to make Keegstra more of a martyr. He should not have been teaching his pernicious lies in the public schools, but neither should he have been convicted for believing them.)

If you would like to know more about Keegstra, a good source is Bercuson and Wertheimer's book A Trust Betrayed: The Keegstra Affair.

Believe it or not, there are people who praised Keegstra. For example, Joshua Blakeney, a former Alberta graduate student who was actually awarded a Queen Elizabeth II graduate scholarship for his bizarre "investigations", tweeted a recommendation of this Press TV article eulogizing Keegstra. (Warning: you're likely to want to wash your hands after clicking the link.) In case you didn't know, Press TV is a propaganda arm of the Iranian government. Blakeney is, by the way, also heavily into 9/11 conspiracies. Blakeney was a student of Lethbridge professor Anthony Hall, whose reasoning ability can be gauged from this article.

More praise from Keegstra comes from Arthur Topham who was (you guessed it) a recent guest on Blakeney's podcast.