I Am The Yeggman

Recently I was reminded about an unfamiliar word that plays a part in my family history: “yegg”.

According to the OED, a “yegg” is a burglar or safe-breaker, and its etymology is given as “Said to be the surname of a certain American burglar and safe-breaker.”

The earliest citations given in the OED are

1903 N.Y. Evening Post 23 June (Cent. D. Supp.), The prompt breaking up of the organized gangs of professional beggars and yeggs.

1905 N.Y. Times 2 Jan. (Cent. Dict. Suppl.), Detective Sergeants..captured on the Bowery three men who, they say, are among the most successful ‘yeggmen’, or safe~crackers, in the business.

A related word is “yeggman”:

1906 A. Stringer Wire Tappers 100 ‘Now, nitro-glycerine I object to, it’s so abominably crude.’.. ‘And so odiously criminal!’ she interpolated. ‘Precisely. We’re not exactly yeggmen yet.’

However, using a newspaper database, I found several earlier citations:

Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 25 1899, p. 12: …for Mr. Alness did not know until the detectives told him that “John Yegg & Co.” is a bit of thieves’ slang, “yegg” standing for one who is ready to beg or steal, stealing preferred as more honorable…

 

Bloomington, IL Pantagraph, December 28 1899, p. 3: The gang … numbers at least twenty-five members, who call themselves Yeggmen.

New York Sun, January 22 1900, p. 2: Four crooks, whom the Pinkerton agents describe as hobo safe burglars belonging to a new fraternity known as “Yeggs,” were arrested in Newark last Thursday night…

The uncommon words “yegg”, “yeggs”, “yeggman”, “yeggmen” reached the zenith of their popularity around 1920-1935 and are only rarely used today. Here is a google ngram search:

Uncommon Descent Lies Again

The blog Uncommon Descent is, of course, one of the two main propaganda arms of the intelligent design movement — the other one being “Evolution News”. Since the ID movement is essentially based on religious dogma and deception, it’s no surprise that these blogs have a large amount of fake content. But I am always surprised at how shamelessly they mislead.

One of the recent entries at Uncommon Descent is a good example. They refer to a 1980 article of Hamming entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”. It’s not hard for anyone to verify that what I just wrote is the correct title of Hamming’s article; indeed, the full text of the article is easily available online.

I am not going to criticize Hamming’s article in much detail here. There is much that is good in it, but I feel his final conclusion is unmerited. On what rigorous basis can we measure how effective mathematics is, and on what basis are we allowed to conclude that the effectiveness we observe is “unreasonable”? It seems purely a matter of personal taste.

My own personal taste is that mathematics is remarkably ineffective, because the vast majority of events that we see in the physical world are quite difficult to model accurately. If we release a single tritium atom in a lecture hall at 10:00 AM, where will it be at 11:00 AM? No physicist in the world can tell you with very much precision.

Similarly, Hamming asks, “How can it be that simple mathematics, being after all a product of the human mind, can be so remarkably useful in so many widely different situations?” Well, lots of mathematics is not remarkably useful. Much of what I personally do has little real-life application. So how can we measure, in a precise way, when that usefulness is “remarkable” and when it is not? Hamming does not tell us. My own personal view is that humans tend to use what is effective and discard what is not. If, for example, dancing were more effective in describing the physical world, scientists would be ballerinas.

In any event, Hamming’s observations are not my main point. My main point is that, at Uncommon Descent the title of Hamming’s article has been altered from “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics” to “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics vs. Evolution”. Whether this change is a matter of deliberate deception or pure incompetence, I am not certain. But it is part of a larger pattern that we see repeated.

Bad Mathematics on Π Day

Every March 14 you can expect a flood of stories about the famous number π = 3.14159… . And you can also expect that most of them are bad, written by people who know very little mathematics and don’t bother to get their facts checked by a mathematician.

Here’s an example: the writer, Tia Ghose, says that π is “an infinitely long, nonrepeating number”. Later she says “Because pi is an infinite number…”.

This is not correct. More than that, it illustrates a very, very common misunderstanding:  confusing a real number with its representation in some base.

Real numbers do not have “lengths” and are not “infinitely long”. π is not an “infinite number”. (All real numbers are finite.) Instead, one could speak about the base-10 representation of a number (or, more generally, about the base-k representation of the number for some integer k ≥ 2). This representation is “infinitely long”, but so is the representation of every real number! For example the base-10 representation of 1/3 is 0.3333…. and the base-10 representation of 1/2 is 0.5000…. . The thing that makes π different from these examples is not that π’s representation is “infinitely long”, but rather that it is not ultimately periodic. “Ultimate periodicity” means that, after some point, the representation consists of a single block of digits that repeats forever, so the representation looks like x.uvvvvvv…. for some blocks x, u, v.

That’s what the author apparently means by “nonrepeating”, but “nonrepeating” is such a vague term that it should be avoided.  Some kinds of repetitions are inevitable in the base-10 representation of anynumber. For example, in the base-10 representation of π we quickly find the repetitions “33” and “88” and “99”. The first group of three consecutive identical digits to appear is 111; the first group of four consecutive identical digits to appear is 9999. At the same position we even get 999999 ! Now, not every real number will have a base-10 representation with blocks of consecutive identical digits, but there are beautiful theorems, like Dejean’s theorem whose proof was recently completed, that say specifically what kinds of repetitions cannot be avoided.

More bad math follows in the same article. The writer claims that “normal numbers” are those “numbers that have the same frequency of all the digits”. This is not correct. A normal number to base 10 satisfies a much stronger property: namely, that every block of digits occurs with the expected frequency: if the block has length t then it must occur with limiting frequency 10t. An example of a number that “has the same frequency of all the digits”, but is not normal, is .01234567890123456789… = 13717421/1111111111. No rational number can be normal, because the number of distinct blocks of length t that appear in a rational number is eventually constant.

What happens when bad mathematics journalism like this gets reposted by the World’s Worst Journalist™, Denyse O’Leary? Why, she just quotes it verbatim with no understanding. Despite the fact that nobody knows for sure whether π is normal, and despite the fact that nearly all mathematicians suspect it probably is normal, she insists that it is not! Even when commenters try to set her straight, she still doesn’t seem to understand that “normal” is a term of art in mathematics, and does not correspond to the ordinary English meaning.

Bad mathematics all around.

Evangelical Persecution Complex

This interesting article in the Atlantic, about how evangelical Christians perceive that they are the victims of persecution, is very revealing.

And so is a comment chain on Facebook about it by a guy whose name I will omit. Bracketed comments are inserted by me for clarity. It’s like a greatest hits of creationist foolishness.

“They are [indeed discriminated against] and it mostly comes from the left. Which seems to be embracing islam.”

“OK if my son who is also a Christian desides he would like to pray or read his bible on his free periods during the day he will be stopped and told that he can’t do that in public schools. The same school will turn a blind eye to a Muslim. The poor kid has to listen to and be tested on the theory of evolution which is just a theory because there is no more proof of it than there is creationism. That’s pretty big to a Christian. Another thing is Christians are refused certain venues and of course the reasons for that aren’t stated because those venues could be sued. If you are a Christian and you want to be a journalist you will have a tough time getting a job at mainstream media outlets other than fox. The list goes on and on. There is a war against the sis white male and that include Christians. Don’t act like you don’t see it.”

“There is not ample proof of evolution. At least macro evolution. There is and will never be proof of one species evolving to another. No such missing link has been found. And yes the sic white male is under attack and will eventually be downtrodden if leftist have anything to do with the laws”

“Whether it is legal or not it happened. I am not mixed up in the slightest bit. You are.”

“There is no concrete evidence of it. When scientist discover anything that contradicts the theory of evolution they are laughed at and defunded. They have been standing on that falsehood for years and they refuse to let any evidence prove them wrong. The fact is they have never produced a missing link, they try to prove the earth is millions of years old with radiocarbon dating and calibrate that to striations and when asked how they know how old the striations are they refer back to radiocarbon dating. Circular logic. Most scientist worth their salt will tell you the if the planet was even a million years old there wouldn’t be any carbon 14 left.”

“Oh no Tim you just showed me a picture of fossils. Sorry that does not prove macro evolution. I do not reject science, in fact I have an engineering degree. Science is very important. The lack of proof of macro evolution is why I have a problem with it. And science has never been wrong about anything, right? I suggest that you look into it farther before you jump on the bandwagon. Here’s a question that you won’t read in natgeo because they can’t answer it without having to throw evolution out the window. There are tons of fossils that are supposed to be millions of years old that still have soft tissue attached to it. By their own guidelines that tissue is not supposed to exist unless of course the animal was alive less than 1000 years ago. So to me I feel sorry for you for being suckered into believing lies. That’s fine that you believe them but they don’t show proof of any animal in transition from one to another. Fact”

“None of them [the examples given by another commenter] display macro evolution.”

“So when they found a t-rex fossil with soft tissue on it. They can’t explain why though.”

“I did not make that up. Look into it.”

“You are a fool. It is useless to argue with someone that has already convinced himself of the lie of evolution.”

“Just for the record you have produced no facts of macro evolution.”

“That’s funny. I don’t see an scientific understanding coming from any of you trolls. Your lack of evidence is solid proof of your ignorance”

“I haven’t seen any substantial evidence of how old the earth is or real evidence of macro evolution. You guys on here are just trolling. Why is it so important to you that my son learns some thing that is still and will always be labeled as a theory, not scientific fact? Is it because you hate God for some reason?”

“I have studied it and I am not in the least bit humiliated.”

“No Ann. I was indoctrinated with the theory of evolution from as long as I can remember. When I was saved I realized that to be a believer I couldn’t just pick and choose what parts of the bible to believe. This was a big hurtle I had to get over so I started researching the so called evidence and I have found enough hole in it. I would like for my son to learn about all theories but I don’t want him to be miss led into believing the theories are actual facts. They aren’t.”

“John you are a God less idiot”

“If you all are so smart than why did you start the name calling?”

“Tim, it’s hard to find evidence that simply don’t exist!”

“John, I wonder if you will say that when you are face to face with Jesus? All knees shall bow.”

“I have wasted enough of my time arguing with Godless Sodomites for the night. I will pray for you all.”

It’s like they exist in a different universe. No fact can penetrate a brain this deluded.

Creed for the Trump Age

It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that Trumpism destroys. Trump theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘Liberal Science’, ‘Progressive Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.

(with apologies to George Orwell).

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.

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 disapproval, 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. Reporters will be harassed and attacked. However, it will quickly escalate once Kim Jong T**** takes office. 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.

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.

 

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?