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?

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.

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.

A Visit to Nari

Readers of this blog know that I like to travel. I’ve been to about 30 countries and every continent except Antarctica. However, like most people in the West, I had never been to the tiny island nation of Nari. Recently I had a chance to visit this little-known country.

Because of its unusual customs, Nari is closed to most foreigners, but I had a professional contact, Ila, who agreed to sponsor my visit and be my guide. After a connection in Delhi, I arrived by plane, and upon stepping off the jetway I immediately felt very out of place. It was not jet lag. The reason why will be clear in a moment.

Religion is one reason that Nari is the way it is. 99% of the people on Nari adhere to the religion of Malsi, a poorly-understood sect (some would say a cult). The word “malsi” is difficult to translate, but a rough equivalent in English is “lack of inhibitions”. (There are a few people on Nari who do not follow Malsi, but rather the Iahab faith, but they are unfortunately mistreated and generally persecuted.)

Malsi is hard for outsiders to understand. Adherents must engage in prayer rituals, which take place five times a day, where they face South and silently reflect on their inhibitions and work to overcome them. They must make a pilgrimage to a neighboring island, called Accem, at least once in their life. During one month each year (Nadamar), devotees eat constantly throughout the day, gorging themselves on the local fruits, which include nolem and etad. I was not there during Nadamar, but I still found the nolem and etad delicious, and much better than most fruit we could get here in North America.

But the most outstanding aspect of Malsi — the one that everybody wants to know about — is that believers largely reject Western notions of clothing. It’s hard to be delicate about this, so I’ll just say it: on Nari everybody walks around naked nearly all the time. Well, almost naked — the belly button is always covered with a small round adhesive patch. Now you understand why I felt out of place. Old and a bit overweight, I didn’t really want to follow the local custom. Any my navel is probably my best feature.

Since Nari is a tropical island, the weather makes the lack of clothing feasible. In Nari it is almost always 25 degrees C (77 degrees Fahrenheit), and the sun shines many hours during the day. Narians have a beautiful golden-bronze skin from their constant exposure to the sun, and most of them look extremely healthy. Needless to say, there are no tan lines.

When my guide Ila met me at the airport, I observed, as I stepped off the plane, that nearly everyone produced a small, colorful bag. Sitting on the benches throughout the airport, the Narians took off their clothes with athletic grace, and placed them in the bag, as I gaped in astonishment. Most were now barefoot, although some still wore their native sandals.

In my Western clothes (a t-shirt and shorts), I felt very much out of place. Indeed, as Ila (totally naked except for his belly-button patch) and I walked through the airport, I felt stares and disapproving glances from all sides. Ila laughed at my discomfort. “It’s alright,” he said. “We’re just not used to many Westerners here. People look at you … they know you do not follow Masli, and they are offended. But no one will hurt you.” I felt reassured, but as we entered the parking lot, a man spit at my feet and then tried to pull my t-shirt off. Ila intervened and exchanged a few words with the man, and he went away, cursing. Ila apologized profusely.

Ila explained that one of the tenets of Malsi is that all people have malevolent inhibitions that must be overcome to achieve enlightenment. Their prophet, Dammahum, discovered this in the 6th century, and ever since, the Narians have followed his teachings. At an early age, children are taught to be outgoing and not shy. They are encouraged to take pride in their bodies. As part of this, clothes are regarded as useful only in the rare bouts of very cold weather, or for doing tasks that might be dangerous if uncovered, such as construction.

The navel is the exception. Narians regard the belly button as the seat of the soul, and hence it is only bared in the presence of extremely close friends and lovers. “It is the most intimate thing,” Ila explained. “I can still remember the first time I saw my wife’s navel. It was the most beautiful and tender moment of my life.”

I was curious about how Narians dealt with some obvious problems. For example, did people really want to sit directly on chairs where other people had recently been sitting, naked? Wouldn’t it be unhygienic? I quickly learned that Narians had developed solutions to almost every objection I had. For example, in Narian movie theaters and other public auditoriums, there are always dispensers on the wall that provide a small soft cloth that one places on the seat before sitting down. At the end of the event, these cloths were placed in a bin for wash and reuse. No one seemed to find this the slightest bit unusual.

We took a taxi to Ila’s house, where I met his wife Mayram and his children. I have to admit feeling embarrassed when Ila’s wife hugged me and unclothed parts of her jiggled against me. Seeing me blush, Mayram laughed. “You take off clothes, and go native!” she said. I apologized and said I was used to my own customs.

As part of my visit, I had agreed to visit a Narian university, where I would answer questions about the West. Very few Narian students have ever been to a Western country and they were puzzled about various aspects of life there. Perhaps not surprisingly, most questions focused on clothing. But it was not our custom of wearing clothes in public that had them interested; it was the way the West treated women and men differently.

“Why,” I was asked, “do Westerners subjugate their women by forcing them to wear items of clothing that conceal their breasts?” I explained that breasts are erogenous zones, and in the West we feel it is best that these be covered in public. “Then why do you not insist that the chests of men also be covered? Do not your men have nipples, too?”

I struggled for an answer. “Nakedness of women’s breasts is … uhh… distracting,” I said. “Men would focus on sex and not get any work done. If women wear tops, then we can focus on them as people, without the distraction of sex.”

“So you are saying that Western men are unable to control their sexual impulses?” Everyone giggled. “Not exactly,” I replied, although I had to concede that sexual harassment was indeed a problem in many countries.

“Tell us, is it actually illegal for women to go topless in North America? You would put your women in jail for such a normal thing?” I was asked. I had to concede that, although it is now technically legal in Ontario for women to go topless, this was still not the case for most jurisdictions in Canada and the US.

“And even in Ontario, what would happen to a woman who walked around without a top?” I was asked. I was forced to admit that they would often not be treated respectfully and that much social pressure would be brought to bear on them to cover up. Some women might even be attacked and beaten up. I heard a murmur of disapproval go through the room. Many students were shaking their heads at the backwardness of my society.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the Narian students that Western clothing was not a tool designed to subjugate women.

At the end of the event, I asked some Narian students about their navel patch. They seemed astonished that Western women would brazenly display their belly button in public (and indeed, Ila explained that there was a thriving trade in underground pornography in Nari, where Western women are shown in bikinis). “But aren’t you afraid of someone seeing your soul?” they asked. I had to explain that many Westerners think the soul is an immaterial thing that one cannot see. They all laughed at that. “How could you possibly be so sure that an immaterial thing exists?” they asked. I could see their logic.

As I left Nari, I felt like my ideas about social behavior had been turned upside-down. Although I didn’t agree that Western clothing was just a tool to subjugate women, I had to admit that our apparel is probably nothing more than a social convention, not a code ordained by a god or by nature. Perhaps our clothing rules are rooted in custom and tradition, and not on any actual rational or moral basis.

The Narian navel patch is as incomprehensible and foreign to us as Western clothing is to them.

I don’t think I will visit Nari again, but it did make me think.

World’s Dumbest Journal Name

I think I have found the world’s dumbest journal name. It is the International Refereed Journal of Scientific Research in Engineering.

The barely-literate web page tells you that it is a “reputed journal”, and has a block of moving text that announces proudly that “IRJSRE is International Peer Reviewed Journal”.

It also informs you that IRJSRE “provides new information, knowledge, analysis and developments in the Engineering and Science fields to cater the requirements of academic and practitioners”. I never saw a journal announce that it was a caterer before.

The web page features a button that says “Call for Paper”. Just one? Or maybe their photocopier ran out.

Another helpful button offers a “modal paper”. I wonder if that means it’s made of rayon.

And I wonder who would submit their paper to this journal.