Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel Was No Hero


I have a mathematician colleague, a leftist, who, for many years, proudly displayed the collected works of Stalin on his office shelf. I am pretty sure this fellow actually admired Stalin for the way he transformed the Soviet Union from an agricultural country to an industrial power -- an admiration I find completely incomprehensible, in the same way that I find admiration of other murderous totalitarians incomprehensible. Che Guevara is another one that, to my mind, does not deserve to be revered. When I see someone wearing a Che t-shirt, I want to shake them and say, "Do you actually know what this guy did?"

Now that Fidel Castro is dead, I am sure there will be a lot of Castro hagiography on the left. Castro, we will be told, was responsible for universal health care, literacy, and improved education in Cuba. But probably few will talk about the thousands killed by Castro, killed simply because they opposed him politically. Few will talk about his mass imprisonment of dissidents, or about the hundreds of thousands that fled his illegitimate regime. Cuban refugees are celebrating today because Castro was a tyrant, a megalomaniac, a mass murderer, and a thug. I believe on judging a person on their complete record, but Castro's evil deeds far outweighed any positive effects he may have had on Cuba.

For those who want to read the stories of the murdered and imprisoned, visit the Cuba Archive.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

How Trump's Minions Will Attack


This story, about a pizza establishment targeted by deranged Kim Jong T**** followers, is just the start of what's going to happen to anyone and everyone who dares to defy the cheetoh-in-chief.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What is Coming


Congratulations, America. You elected a racist, sexist, admitted sexual assaulter, and a petty, vindictive, con man and pathological liar to the highest office in the land. You elected a man who claims to be a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third to the 2nd highest office (an American didn't even figure in the list). I think we have seen enough of D***** T**** and Mike Pence to know what is coming.

It is not pretty.

Here are my predictions. After eight or (hopefully) four years from now, you can see how many I got right. I hope to be wrong on all of them, but I don't think so.

1. Attacks on minorities of all kinds will go through the roof compared to previous years. I expect the rise of the Klan, neo-Nazis, and similar vigilante organizations. Jews, Muslims, black people, gay people, Latinos: all will be targets. Non-white and non-Christian students will be harassed in schools. Muslims will be attacked in the streets. At first it will be minor, like hijabs being pulled off, and orthodox Jews being beaten up. But the Justice Department will respond only tepidly to such attacks. There will be no effort at all to monitor the far Right. This stuff has been bubbling just below the surface for years (remember Alan Berg?) and now it will achieve legitimacy, or at least not outright approval, under the new president.

2. The full force of the federal government will be brought against critics. At first this will be in minor ways: direct criticism from the president via twitter, or reporters being shut out of press conferences. However, it will quickly escalate once Kim Jong T**** takes office. Reporters will be harassed and attacked. We will see the IRS used as a routine tool to harass and investigate individual critics and larger organizations, such as the ACLU and the FFRF. Existing tax exemptions will be removed for these groups. We will see passports of critics being denied renewal, or being confiscated at the border. We will see US citizens and (particularly) permanent residents denied re-entry into the country on bogus grounds. US citizens living abroad will be easy targets because they have little or no representation; the tax treaties with other countries can be abrogated and such citizens will end up paying double taxes. Kim Jong T**** has shown to be petty and vindictive and to hold a grudge for decades (remember Rosie O'Donnell)? Now he has the power to get revenge.

3. Intellectuals -- always a target of authoritarians -- will come under attack. At first it will be minor things, like withholding federal funds from institutions who employ intellectuals disliked by the administration. Later, it will progress to outright harassment through tax law changes and immigration. Permanent residents will have their right to stay revoked. Perhaps some people will be jailed under bogus terrorism charges for their controversial opinions. The Department of Education will be destroyed. There will be a renewed push for creationism, intelligent design, denial of human-caused global warming, and other crackpot theories in the public school curriculum. Educational institutions will suffer because excellent people from other countries will not want to come to the US where they might be targets. Graduate study will suffer. Pure research will suffer. NSF priorities will be shifted to things like exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels. Federal funding for research into alternative energy sources will dry up.

4. The Federal government will be turned into a money machine for Trump and his cronies. Once a grifter, always a grifter. Kim Jong T*** and his millionaire and billionaire friends will get huge tax cuts, while taxes for the poor and lower middle class will go up. The deficit will skyrocket. Friends of Kim Jong T**** will amass huge fortunes because of tax law changes and biased infrastructure allocation, while all critics will be shut out of participation. Cities traditionally run by Democrats will get shut out of funding for infrastructure projects.

5. Extremists will be appointed to the Supreme Court. They will make rulings that will significantly reduce access to abortion. Religion will be allowed as an excuse to disobey almost any law (as long as you are white). Advocating creationism will be allowed and even encouraged in public schools. Textbooks will be altered to remove discussion of evolution. Voting rights will be under attack, with bogus allegations of fraud as the justification. Redistricting will occur and strongly favor Republicans.

6. Blacks, Jews, Muslims, and gays will not sit by silently as these changes occur. I predict the rise of radical groups, much like the Black Panthers of the 1960's, that will retaliate in increasingly violent ways. There will be more street protests and violence. If you thought Black Lives Matter protests were violent (they were not, as a rule), you ain't seen nothing yet. Probably there will be bombings by groups like these. The need for crackdowns on these groups will be used by Kim Jong T**** as excuses to violate civil liberties. New intrusive laws allowing surveillance will be passed.

7. Finally, and this is the least likely (but the warning signs are all there), the US will degenerate into a fascist dictatorship, perhaps after some sort of Reichstag incident, with Kim Jong T**** as supreme leader. He will start by having the Republican-controlled Congress vote him some emergency powers. In an ironic reversal, the only country in Europe (after Marine Le Pen is elected) that will stand against Kim Jong T**** and stand for freedom and democracy will be Germany. They remember the last fascist dictator to take power and what happened.

I don't want any of these things to happen, but I predict many of them will.

For the moment, Canada is safe. Probably there will be an exodus of intellectuals and minorities from the US to Canada rivalling the Vietnam war days. But with the world's most powerful country becoming the fascist dictatorship next door, I don't know how long that safety can last.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Steve Goodman Sings About the Cubs


When I lived in Chicago, I often went to folk clubs on the North Side (now mostly gone) -- Holstein's, for example. There I got to hear some of my favorite folksingers, including Steve Goodman and Michael Peter Smith. Once I even got to sit next to Steve at the bar and have a chat with him.

Here are Steve's two famous songs about the Cubs. He tried to get "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" accepted as the Cubs official song, but for obvious reasons, it was not taken. So then he wrote "Go Cubs Go", which eventually became the unofficial Cubs anthem, played after every win.

Steve Goodman died of cancer in 1984. We miss you, Steve.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Psychology Experiment: How Does the Human Brain Unscramble Words?


Oddly enough, many neuroscientists and psychologists don't appreciate that insights from the study of algorithms and the theory of computation are very relevant to understanding the brain and how it accomplishes what it does.

Here's an example. Consider the humble jumble, a game involving scrambled words that's been around for over 60 years. Players get words of length 5 or 6 and have to unscramble them. How, exactly, does the brain do that? And why are some words harder than others to unscramble?

Computer scientists will instantly think of two different algorithms. The obvious algorithm, given a word of length n, takes about n! log D time, where D is the size of the dictionary. To accomplish this, try all n! permutations and look each up using binary search in the dictionary, which we have presorted in alphabetical order.

A less obvious but much faster algorithm is the following: first, sort each word in the dictionary, putting the letters in each word in alphabetical order. Then sort these words relative to each other in alphabetical order, together with the original unscrambled version. Once this preprocessing is done, to unscramble a word, rewrite its letters in alphabetical order and look up this reordered word in our reordered dictionary, using binary search. This takes about (n log n) + log D time, which is enormously faster.

With other techniques, such as hashing, we could even be faster.

I doubt very much the brain could be using this second algorithm. That's because we probably don't have access to all the words that we know in any kind of sorted list. So probably some variant of the first algorithm is being used. Our brains probably speed things up a bit by focusing on word combinations, such as digrams and trigrams (two- and three-letter word combinations), that are common, instead of uncommon ones. Thus, I would expect that unscrambling length-n words with distinct letters would, on average, require time that grows something like (n/c)! for some constant c.

We could actually test this with a psychology experiment. I searched the psychological literature using a database, but found no experiments testing this idea. Are there any takers?

Update: to address the issue of whether the brain could have "random access" to a dictionary of words, we could ask subjects to produce what they think the first English word that lexicographically follows a given word is. This is likely to be difficult for people, but it is very easy for computers. For example, what do you think the first word after "enzymology" is?

Psychology Experiment: How Does the Human Brain Unscramble Words?


Oddly enough, many neuroscientists and psychologists don't appreciate that insights from the study of algorithms and the theory of computation are very relevant to understanding the brain and how it accomplishes what it does.

Here's an example. Consider the humble jumble, a game involving scrambled words that's been around for over 60 years. Players get words of length 5 or 6 and have to unscramble them. How, exactly, does the brain do that? And why are some words harder than others to unscramble?

Computer scientists will instantly think of two different algorithms. The obvious algorithm, given a word of length n, takes about n! log D time, where D is the size of the dictionary. To accomplish this, try all n! permutations and look each up using binary search in the dictionary, which we have presorted in alphabetical order.

A less obvious but much faster algorithm is the following: first, sort each word in the dictionary, putting the letters in each word in alphabetical order. Then sort these words relative to each other in alphabetical order, together with the original unscrambled version. Once this preprocessing is done, to unscramble a word, rewrite its letters in alphabetical order and look up this reordered word in our reordered dictionary, using binary search. This takes about (n log n) + log D time, which is enormously faster.

With other techniques, such as hashing, we could even be faster.

I doubt very much the brain could be using this second algorithm. That's because we probably don't have access to all the words that we know in any kind of sorted list. So probably some variant of the first algorithm is being used. Our brains probably speed things up a bit by focusing on word combinations, such as digrams and trigrams (two- and three-letter word combinations), that are common, instead of uncommon ones. Thus, I would expect that unscrambling length-n words with distinct letters would, on average, require time that grows something like (n/c)! for some constant c.

We could actually test this with a psychology experiment. I searched the psychological literature using a database, but found no experiments testing this idea. Are there any takers?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Local Pastor Wants More Internet Censorship


When you hear that a local parent wants more Internet censorship in schools, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that somewhere there's fundamentalist religion lurking behind as a driving force.

Take a look at this website, which claims it wants to "keep Waterloo region schools safe". Click on "who we are", and you get "We are parents who would like WRDSB to use Internet technology more responsibly." But who's behind it?

You probably wouldn't know unless you read the local paper, because there doesn't seem to be any information on the group's own website. But in the Record you learn that the group is really Jacob Reaume, a "pastor and father". That's this guy, pastor at the "Harvest Bible Chapel" and educated (big surprise!) at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

The good pastor wants to censor Youtube in schools. But what's missing is any actual evidence that Youtube poses any threat to the safety of Waterloo Region students.

It's a shame that fundamentalists are not content with controlling the education of their own children. They want to control the way everyone else's children are educated, too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

For Good People to Do Evil, that Requires....


Steven Weinberg famously said, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil---that takes religion."

Keep Weinberg's quote in mind when you read this appalling story of how a British Columbia man was forced to endure agony rather than get a physician-assisted death as he requested.

Why was he forced to do this? Because his hospital was a religious hospital.

Look, clearly most of the people who work in such a facility are humanitarians. But when the hospital's ideology prevents a dying man to be helped out of his pain at his own request, that's pretty sad.