Sunday, November 11, 2012

Atheist Prayer Experiment

I like to listen to the podcast (and radio show) "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio. They sometimes have interesting debates. But not often.

The episode today hurt my head. In it, they revealed the results from their Atheist Prayer Experiment. Their idea was based on the paper

Mawson, T. J. (2010). "Praying to stop being an atheist", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 67(3), 173-186.

I have not read the paper, but here is the premise. If someone wants to have a good reason not to believe in a god, then they should at least try looking for one first.

After the 40-day experiment, where atheists or agnostics pray to god for a revelation, here are their results.  Of the 71 atheist or agnostic participants,
2 now believe in God
2 failed to take part in the experiment
52 did not find reason to believe in god 
15 have not yet reported

I'm not surprised. But not because I think there IS NO a god.

During the podcast, they played an audio clip of one of the participants praying. He said he felt humiliated praying. He said stuff like, "Please God, reveal yourself to me in any way you deem appropriate." To me, this begs the question... just what counts as a revelation? Dr. Mawson brought up the point that the feeling of humiliation might be the sign that God sent. How clever... of Mawson, AND of God.

The problem here is that without well-defined criteria of what constitutes a sign, there is no way to objectively evaluate the results. Naturally, God does not like to be told what to do, so that's why one can't prescribe the parameters. Such unfalsifiability is bread-and-butter for the religious apologists.

I didn't take part in the experiment. Why? Well, I don't take hallucinogenic drugs or drill holes in my head because I don't want to compromise my brain's ability to function. I try to avoid being brainwashed. That may make me sound scared, like I don't want to face the reality of God. The truth is, no one wants to have their beliefs challenged. On the contrary, we guard our beliefs.

One of the atheist participants being interviewed said, "We don't choose our beliefs." I agree with that. But we CAN set up the circumstances whereby our beliefs can change. That is, our beliefs can change, but it's not usually through conscious deliberation. Emotional and physical duress can do it. And sometimes simple emotions can tip the balance. I don't want to take the risk of going off the deep end of religion. I'm perfectly capable of believing whole-heartedly in God... but that wouldn't make me right. Check out the book On Being Certain by Robert Burton.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Class picture

Here we are, standing in front of the AIMS building. Emma, the lead tutor, is on the left (right behind me). The other tutor, Fadoua, was away for the photo, unfortunately.

Classes end today. It's been quite a ride. I have learned a lot about computational neuroscience, and how to teach it. Thanks to all 15 students who worked hard to do the assignments I gave them. I hope they got the message that the brain is a network of neurons, and that our behaviour -- though complex -- is the result of interactions between billions of neurons. And that mathematical and computational models can be used to study those dynamics.

I finished off with the same thing I said on day 1: The brain is a complex mapping between sensory input, and motor output.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mystery fruit

Oh look, a pear as part of our breakfast.

Guess again.

Apparently, it's guava. I expect I've had it before, but never in this form. You eat the seeds too; they're very crunchy. The guava has a slightly sweet, and slightly tart, refreshing taste. I liked it... so I had a second.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Shark siren

I heard a long wailing sound, and thought that it might be the fabled shark siren I've heard about. In the mountain next to the beach there is an official "shark spotter" who radios down to the beach when they see the ominous shadow of a shark. The siren means that a shark has been spotted.

Ordinarily, the waves are littered with surfers. But when I arrived at the beach, this is what I saw.

No surfing
Sure enough, that sound was the shark siren, initiated by a helicopter that had flown over and observed a dark figure in the water. After about 30 minutes with no further sightings, the beach was declared safe once again (I guess "safe" is a relative term).

It didn't take much coaxing for these eager surfers to jump back in.

I guess I would compare it to Canadians going outback camping... where bears live.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Words for names

Not surprisingly, names are quite different here than in Canada.  In particular, I've noticed that some people have names that are words. Adjectives and nouns for positive attributes, to be more precise. For example, I chatted with "Marvellous" at dinner yesterday. Another student is named "Fortunate". And I was just having breakfast with "Trust".

Of course, that does occur in the west sometimes. For example, "Charity", "Faith", "Hope".

I asked Trust about such names, and he told me that it's common practice in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.  He is from Zimbabwe. And sure enough, Marvellous is from Nigeria.

Fortunate is from South Africa, which is -- unfortunately -- a counter-example.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Happy birthday to me

Today I get to open the present that was stashed in my bag. And... it IS cocaine.  Just kidding. This is what I got.

Front of the shirt
Back of the shirt
It's a running shirt. Which is perfect because I only brought one, and it's always stinky because I'm running quite a bit (or "hiking" might be more accurate, depending on the slope). I'll wear my new shirt for my run tomorrow.

Thank you Trish and family. It feels great to know I'm so loved.

As I mentioned, my birthday is not on the AIMS birthday calendar. I am a little relieved that no one has made a fuss.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


One of the tutors here, Emma, organized a trip to see a rugby game. It was at Newlands Stadium, home of the South African team, Springbok (have you seen Invictus?).

The match was between the hometown Stormers (in blue) and the Cheetahs (in white), part of the Super Rugby league. I really don't understand the rules of the game. I guess I understand the general play, but I usually can't figure out what happened when play stops, eg. for a penalty. But one thing that transcends the rules... how tough the sport it. These guys run into each other, and they're big.

We joked that one of us visitors would stand up and yell "TOUCHDOWN!"

The Cheetahs almost made a come-back in the second half, but the Stormers won 16-14.


There was a fight during the match. Here it is.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nots frum hom

In the days leading up to my departure, I could tell that something was up. Hush-hush talk between Addie, Heather and Trish. And sure enough, there was a mysterious envelope in my backpack as I got ready to leave.

They had written me lots of notes, more than one per day. Every morning, I pull one or two out and read them. Here is a sampling of the ones I've read so far.

Multi-coloured typesetting. I love the creativity. 
Addie's note, with her trademark monkey sticker. She's right, I miss her.
My collection of read notes (so far).
And today I pulled out one from Trish. Thank you Heather, Addie and Trish for your thoughtfulness. I am blessed.

My birthday is in a couple days, and I also found a wrapped gift in my bag with instructions not to open it until May 14 (I had to lie at the airport when asked if I packed everything myself... I hope it's not a parcel of cocaine).

More running sights

The hills beside Muizenberg are a treasure trove of things to see. I ran up to Muizernberg peak again yesterday, and here's what I saw.

I kept noticing scurrying on the rocks, and it didn't take me long to see that some species of geckos lived in the neighbourhood. This was a good morning to sun themselves on the rocks.
Some sort of gecko (yes, this is the best shot I got)
Many people pray and worship on in the hills. It's common to hear chanting and observe people in a trance-like state. I tried to be discrete as I took a quick picture of this man praying.
Man praying and chanting
He was chanting loudly, repeating the word "baba" throughout. It seems to mean "father" in many languages (such as Turkish), though Google translate says it means "baby" in Afrikaans. In any case, I'm pretty sure he's not referring to the Baba I know.

Finally, my reward for the 490m climb. A 360o panorama from the top of Muizenberg peak. (click on it to see a larger version)

Monday, June 11, 2012

She arrives in one week

In exactly one week, I'll be at the Cape Town airport to pick up Trish. She'll be dead tired, I'm sure (two overnight flights in a row).

It's exciting knowing that I'll be able to share some of my discoveries and experiences with her. Usually when I go away, it's to a conference, and Trish stays home to look after the kids. This time, my mum has agreed to take care of our kids for about 10 days while Trish comes to Cape Town. I'm so excited!

One week.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

People from different countries

Cape Town has lots of different races. Whites, blacks, browns. The one notable exception is Asians... I don't see many of them here. Of course, I haven't done a systematic study; this is just what I've noticed.

A colleague was talking about Madagascar, and I thought I misheard him when he said "Malagasi". He did in fact say Malagasi... that's what you call people from Madagascar. And their names tend to be VERY long. For example, "Randriafanomezantsoa".

Someone from Botswana was also at the table. "Motswana" is the word for people from Botswana, where their language is Setswana.


It's also feels different having so many countries on one continent. I'm not sure why. I live in North America, where there are only 2 countries (excluding Mexico). So, if you're not from Canada, then you're either American or from overseas (I don't actually encounter many people from Mexico or other Central American countries). Here, all the students are from Africa, but from many different countries: Botswana, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, Rwanda, Malawi, Nigeria, ...

Friday, June 8, 2012

13 days away

I've been away from home for 13 days now. This is easily the longest I've ever gone without seeing my kids in person. It feels weird, especially when I can see what they're up to on my wife's blog.

My lecture tomorrow has been moved into the morning slot so I can go with some colleagues to Stellenbosch.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Interesting meals

I've had some interesting meals since arriving here (meals are supplied for us). One breakfast was pieces of liver in a gravy, dumped on a piece of French bread. And the dinner I just ate was tripe, cow stomach in a spicy gravy (along with potatoes, etc.). According to my colleague, it's a local dish.

I ate them, though a certain amount of concentration was required, reminding myself that it's perfectly good food. They tasted fine, but I'm not used to those types of meals.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


There is a tradition here at AIMS, as I'm told. I've witnessed it twice so far. Birthdays are not just politely acknowledged by friends. They are celebrated by the whole community. Here's how it goes.

First of all, there is a Google calendar that has birthdays on it.

During dinner in the dining hall, someone will clang their glass to get everyone's attention. Then they inform us that it's someone's birthday today, and that we should stick around after dinner for cake and celebration.

He said "cake", so I stuck around.

After dinner, out comes the goodies. But they're not distributed yet. The birthday person (today it was Stanley) sits in a chair and everyone gathers around. There is a "sharing" time when a few people tell stories, or express their gratitude to the guest of honour. Sometimes it's a bit of a roast, but all in good fun. Lots of laughing.

Then we sing Happy Birthday in about 3 different languages.

The birthday person often says a few words, and then they hand out the cake and icecream. Since the kitchen is closed at this point, we have to make do with cake on napkins, and icecream in plastic cups... no spoons.

The students and postdocs have an awesome time celebrating together... it's great to see.

The big question for me... my birthday is coming up in 8 days (May 14). But it's not in the Google calendar. What's going to happen?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Teaching African students

I've now taught for one week. It's about time I commented on what it's like teaching here in South Africa.

I have 14 students in my class, and they're all from South Africa. AIMS Cape Town takes students from all across the African continent, but also has a class allotted for South African students; that's the class I'm teaching.

For the most part, the students apply themselves to their studies in a serious way. For example, it's Saturday evening as I write this in my office, and I've had a number of students drop by asking questions about the assignment I gave them (the computer lab is just down the hall).

One thing I noticed is that many students seem to find some of the programming tasks difficult to understand. It's not that they can't program, but rather that they find it hard to map the task I give them onto a program. For example, I supplied them with a program that takes input X and computes output Y. The assignment asks the students to produce a plot of X vs. Y for a variety of X-values. Some needed that explained, in considerable detail.

Of course, it might be the case that my Waterloo students are exactly the same. But I don't hang out in the computer lab at Waterloo, so I'm not around for them to ask.

Part of the issue could be that they're learning a new programming language. Though I expect it's probably got a lot to do with the fact that these are math students, and not computer science students.

Our progress is slower than I anticipated, but not much slower. I think they're understanding the basics of how a neuron works, though. And that's my goal, at this point.

Day-trip to Cape Town

I hopped on the train and headed for Cape Town this morning. The train fare was a whole 22 Rand, return. That's about CDN$2.80 (Canadian dollars). Moreover, that was the first class fare (though there's not much "first class" about it... just less crammed, and probably safer for tourists).

Luckily, it was a beautiful day. Here are some photos I took.

Cape Town has palm trees.
Table Mountain, as seen from downtown Cape Town.
Under construction!
I saw species of birds I didn't recognize.
(It's an Egyptian Goose, thanks Jan G.)
I walked to a touristy area called the Waterfront. Lots of knick-knack stores that sell elephant trinkets, etc. There's also a rather large mall, very much like a North American mall.

I was watching some boats manoeuvre in the harbour, and I noticed a line of bubbles coming my way. Sure enough, I saw a big seal gracefully swoop by under the water.

After the Waterfront, I headed to the Iziko South African Museum and accompanying Planetarium. At the front desk, I was afraid to ask how much it cost. He said admission to the museum was R20, but for R25 you could also see the planetarium. For those keeping score, that's about CDN$2.50 for the museum, and an extra 65 cents to see the planetarium. That's crazy cheap, especially considering how big this museum is. In North America, I would expect to pay at least $20.

Here is a tiny sampling of the sights.

Blue whale skeleton
When I saw this cute little primate, I immediately heard a tiny voice with an English accent, "Please, sir... might I bother you for another crust of bread for me mate?"
All-in-all, the trip was a great success. The only hiccup was being honked at while crossing the road. The walk sign turned green, so I started walking. However, the walk signs around here only stay green for about 4 seconds, then flashes red. I was half-way across the road when a van stopped beside me, honking. I looked up and saw the flashing red. But it was green when I started. Frick, you'd have to be in starting-blocks to make it across in time. I was pissed, but wasn't about to raise a scene. I was probably in the wrong... somehow.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I went for a run today (May 4) up in the hills beside Muizenberg. As usual, I took my iPhone for reasons thrice:
  1. tracked my route via GPS
  2. listened to an audiobook
  3. had a camera to record the scenery
Here are some of the pictures I took. First is this panorama. Click on it to see it in full (it'll take you to the 360 Panorama page where you can really appreciate it.

I came across this rocky outcrop. There is a cave underneath it. These HUGE rocks are held up by the smallest contact points.

When reviewing the pictures after I got back I noticed something. Is it just me, or does this rock look just like Africa?

Hence, Africa is fractal. QED.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

African observations

Here are a few things that are different here than back home in Canada.
  1. There are no screens on windows (OK, it's like that in Vancouver).
  2. Cars drive on the left side of the road. That's why I almost get hit every time I try to cross the road.
  3. Drainage pipes run along the outsides of the buildings (see photo).
  4. The milk for cereal is heated.
  5. A barbecue is called a "braai" (pronounced "bri", as in "Brian"). And they rarely use propane, but rather briquettes and wood.
  6. No salad dressing.
  7. LOTS of French.
  8. There are far more Blackberries here than iPhones. That's good to see, being a Waterloo home-owner.
More later.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Pull back on the reins

I use Matlab for my research and teaching at Waterloo.  However, AIMS encourages the use of open-source software, and that's not Matlab.

The students have been learning SciPy, a python-based scientific programming language. I decided I would use that for my computational neuroscience course. I've been wanting to learn Python for a while, anyway.

Over the past few months, I've been working on converting my basic neuroscience code from Matlab to SciPy. It's not easy. The hardest part is that in Matlab the basic data type is the matrix. But in SciPy there are different, but similar, data types. For example, if I create an array with 2 rows and 3 columns, I can store it as an "ndarray", or a "matrix". The problem is that how you can use the data depends on which type it's stored as. In particular, a plot can look totally different, even though the underlying data is the same... the data type can drastically alter how the data is interpreted. I find that annoying.

On the first day of lectures here, the instructor of the other course, Raouf Ghomrasni, said he is going to use Scilab. He said it's a free Matlab work-alike... I immediately started salivating.

Later that day, I downloaded Scilab, and found it to be excellent. In in that few hours of exposure, I decided to abandon all my SciPy preparation, and instead teach the course using Scilab.

I must admit, I feel a bit bad for the students. They know SciPy, and yet we're thrusting ANOTHER language on them. But I can make myself feel better when I consider that:
  1. Matlab is one of the most common scientific programming languages, so learning it would be an asset to these budding scientists.
  2. The students would likely stumble over the same SciPy ndarray/matrix issues I was having.
  3. Using Scilab will save me a lot of time in the long run. I'll be teaching a course on computational neuroscience at Waterloo in the fall, and I'll use Matlab for that. Investing in a Matlab-like language now will transfer more easily to that course.
So there.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

All in one place - the AIMS philosophy

AIMS South Africa is - to a large extent - a one-building institute. That is, the main AIMS building contains:
  • the student residence,
  • the cafeteria,
  • the classrooms,
  • the library,
  • the computer lab,
  • faculty and tutor offices,
  • social spaces,
  • and also houses visiting lecturers (like me).
In other words, I live and work in the same building that my students live and work. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to throw myself into this environment, and it's amazing. I actually know all my students' names, and that's quite a feat when you consider they have names like Vuyokazi, Mashudu, and Tshepisho.
Sidenote: I showed my class a couple pictures of my cats, and they chuckled. It later occurred to me that our cat Charles has the same name as one of the students. I mentioned THAT at the next class, and they laughed.
There are about 50 students here in total, and they all seem to know each other. What do you expect in this incubator?

I can easily imagine how each of these students will take their place in a pan-African network of math professors, teachers, researchers and innovators. Years from now, these students will look back in awe at how special a place this is.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Moving money the old-fashioned way

AIMS purchased the ticket for my wife, Tricia, to come to Cape Town to join me for a vacation. It was just easier for them to book both sets of tickets so that we could fly back together on the same plane. Of course, we must pay them back.

In this age of PayPal, VISA, debit cards and world banks, you would think that moving money around the world would be as easy a pressing a few buttons. So I went to my bank branch and gave them the account information for where our money should go. The teller said that "wiring" the money would cost me $30, and intermediate charges would be levied resulting in an additional $45 charge when the money is claimed on the other end.

So, it would cost about $75 to take some of my money and transfer it into a South African bank account.

Does that sound ludicrous to anyone else?

Instead, I had a certified cheque printed and sent via registered mail for a total of $26. That's right, a piece of paper is going to embark on a journey half-way around the globe.

It's time for the banks to wake up to the information age. If they don't, then they'll be overcome by the PayPals of the future.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hike up a mountain

In just one hour of walking, we made it to Muizenberg Peak. One hour of brutal up-hill walking, that is. But it was worth it. Check out the view!

That's Muizenberg in the background. I'm about 500m above it.

The arrow shows the main AIMS building.
And here's the opposite view, looking up from Muizenberg.

I found out today that "Muizenberg" is Dutch for "mouse mountain". I guess I can see that.

Monday, May 28, 2012

AIMS: Why me?

AIMS was started in 2003 when Neil Turok's family donated a hotel in Muizenberg, a coastal sub-urb of Cape Town, South Africa. I heard of the school from Neil's TED talk.

One day I got an e-mail at work, sent to everyone in my faculty, stating that if we wanted to teach at AIMS, we could fill out an online form. I did that, but thought it would just disappear into the ether and I'd never hear about it again. But I got an e-mail a few months later asking if I'd consider making the trip to teach the course I had named "Modeling Neural Systems". I was ecstatic! I've never taught that kind of course, though. Neuroscience, I mean. So I've spent time over the last year patching up holes in my knowledge, preparing to teach the basics of computational neuroscience. You know what they say, "If you want to learn something really well, teach it."

Getting to South Africa

Total travel time: 28 hours, consisting of a 7.5 hour flight to London (Heathrow), an 8.5-hour stopover, and then a 12-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa.

The first flight was tough; the plane was packed, and we flew through the night. I don't sleep well, or at all, in those situations. I watched a National Film Board documentary called Project Grizzly.

Turns out that an 8 hour layover in London is plenty of time to take the "tube" (subway) from Heathrow to downtown London. That's what I did, and it was very nice. Had lunch in an English pub, walked around "London's Eye", saw Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and a few other sights. I was intrigued by the Wellcome Collection, but didn't think I had enough time to do it justice. I'll go there some other time.
Lunch (calm down... I had food too.)

London's Eye

Thankfully, the second flight (London->Cape Town) was only half-full, and everyone had an empty seat beside them. I was able to lay down for this over-night leg of the journey. That helped a lot. First I watched Mission Impossible (not bad), and then Rise of the Planet of the Apes (mediocre). Notice the trend... the more sleep deprived, the worse the movie seemed.

I arrived on time, and was greeted at the airport by the groundskeeper, Igsaan. During the 30-minute drive from the airport, I got up to speed on AIMS and some local info.
  • We drove past some shanty towns. Very interesting to see.
  • I learned that about one person is killed by a shark every year.
  • Don't go on the trains at night, and don't go out alone after 10pm.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Series: African Institute for Mathematical Sciences

If you talk to me at all, then I've probably told you that I'm going to Cape Town, South Africa, to teach a course at the African Institute for Mathamatical Sciences (AIMS). The following series of blog posts are like my travel diary, outlining what I did and what I noticed. You might notice that as you're reading, I'm actually back in Canada. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I didn't want to advertise to the world that I'm far away from my wife and kids for an extended period of time. Each blog post is scheduled to appear exactly one month after being written. For example, I wrote this post on April 27, but it will appear on May 27.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Google street view protects the identity of statue

I thought this was cute. You know how Google street view blurs out faces to protect people's identity? Well, it offers the same courtesy to statues too. Like this one in Kalk Bay, South Africa.

Addendum: The statue's true identity revealed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A proofreading service for those who hate themselves

I got this e-mail from Eureka Science Ltd. regarding their "Proof Reading solutions". The letter was OK, until I got to the last line, which reads,
Should you not want to receive any further emails, and then please click here Please also provide any other email address that you might be using for complete unsubscription
Copied verbatim.

I think I'll send my proofreading elsewhere, thanks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Virtual Barber Shop

You've got to try this. Get your headphones and listen to this video (there's nothing to look at... it's just sound). Don't worry, it's not some trick to scare the crap out of you. It just sounds like you're really there. Amazing!


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Goalie's perspective

I took the kids to the Museum in Kitchener, Ontario. They had an Easter egg hunt. But there was also a hockey exhibit. Check out this display. You put your face up to the goalie mask and look inside. Then you press a button.
You know how when you get hit in the head, you hear it but don't really FEEL it? It's the same shocking feeling that this contraption gives you. After I tried it, I felt like I'd been hit in the face for realz.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pascal Lecture: Dr. Charles Rice

I attended this year's Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University.  It was delivered by Dr. Charles Rice, a Professor Emeritus of the Notre Dame School of Law.

Dr. Rice promotes "the natural law".  The thesis of his talk was that without objective moral truth (ie. God), the world would be a bad place. Object moral truths are basically moral laws that are handed down to us by a higher power. These morals are not negotiable, but dictated. He outlined a few arguments for why one should believe in objective morals, and then talked about how scary and sad our lives would be without objective morals.

I won't bore you with a point-by-point rebuttal of his talk, but I'd like to share a few points.

First of all, he spent about the first 10 or 15 minutes of his talk addressing the elephant in the room... the crowd of protestors outside the building.
Rice made no bones about his stance on Catholic doctrines... he said he believes in them all. In case you're not sure, that means he thinks being gay is an abomination. Hence, the protest. Dr. Rice said he admires the protestors for standing up for what they believe in. Fair 'nuf. In fact, I thought Rice was very charismatic as he spoke.

Of course, that doesn't mean I believe in his worldview. I don't.

He started out trying to convince us that objective morals are intuitively obvious. I had trouble following his logic. He held a pen and asked someone what it was. "A pen." He said he could dig a small hole with it, so it's a shovel. Or he could throw it, so it's a missile. Then he dropped this one... "It can't be a pen and not be a pen". Ummm... OK... but it can be a pen AND be a shovel. Clearly, I didn't get the point of that one.

He criticized moral relativism, the notion that there are NO objective moral truths. He says that without objective morals, people are free to choose their own morals. In that framework, laws are decided by majority vote, and there is no such thing as an unjust law. So the holocaust could not be considered unjust. He says there's no way to decide good actions from bad actions. For example, someone could murder someone else and then claim that it was the right thing to do according to their moral code.

Yes, I agree with all of those points. But I don't see why believing in an ideology makes things any better.

His main point seemed to be fear-mongering. That a fully secular society would be totalitarian. He claims that if there are no objective morals, then the only way to keep the peace would be by force.

Actually, that's totally opposite to how I see it. People generally want to be good, both secular and religious people. There are good reasons for that, stemming from evolutionary theory. Despite our do-good drive, the use of force will always be helpful to dissuade people from taking advantage of each other. However, when you want people to do things and believe things they don't want to, now that takes real force - brutal dictatorial force. Like shoving your religion down someone's throat, or suppressing other ideologies that inconveniently contradict yours - serious deadly force.

I found it interesting that he brought up Rosa Parks as an example at one point. Doesn't he see that the church's condemnation of gays is pretty much the same thing as racial persecution?

The question period was rather short, but interesting. One guy asked Dr. Rice what could be done about the fact that many universities are liberal, left-leaning, and secular. They seemed to agree that was a problem. Rice mentioned homeschooling.

Though I didn't get a chance to, I wanted to ask, "There are many, MANY different religions, and many of those contradict each other. Given that "Follow Christ" probably won't resonate with most other religions, how do you propose we establish what the real objective moral truths are? Which holy book should we take them from? ... Is there some mechanism by which we can agree on a common reality?"

Of course, I already have an answer. Can you guess what it is?

PenguinCam and LineLook

Trish pointed out this Penguin Cam,

Video streaming by Ustream
It sort of reminds me of this webcam I happened to discover this morning.
It's to see how long the line is for the University of Waterloo Book Store.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Wish I'd thought of that... Wait, I DID!

Whenever I'm in an airplane, I look through the SkyMall catalogue. It's always an interesting mix of great ideas, snake oil, and raw consumerism.

An ad for image mosaics caught my eye. You can see an online version here.

Basically, they created a mosaic of Lincoln using political campaign buttons. What a great idea! I wish I'd thought of that!
Image mosaic of Lincoln
Close-up reveals that it's made of buttons.
Oh wait, I DID have that idea. Or, more accurately, Craig Kaplan and I did.

It's from our 2008 NPAR paper.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I frequently get e-mails from students asking if I'll supervise them for a master's or Ph.D. degree. A letter I received a few days ago includes this text:
Whether do  i need to have GRE and TOFEL even i already had bachelor degree from USA and the coming master degree?
The acronym TOEFL (not TOFEL) stands for "Test of English as a Foreign Language".

A grad-student's command of the English language is a very important consideration. A word of advice. Make sure your cover letter isn't peppered with grammar mistakes.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Your 3-Pound Thinking Machine

I'll be talking about your brain.

Though it might be hard for you to accept, your mind is the result of neurons firing in your brain. It's called and the computational theory of mind. Understanding how this electrical activity relates to your mind is largely a computer-science problem.

This lecture is designed to be comprehensible by anyone and everyone... no equations.
    Wed. Feb. 22
    7:00 - 8:00 pm
    Reception 8:00 - 9:00 pm
    Room 1006, Mathematics 3 (M3 on map)
    University of Waterloo

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Congrats to gays and lesbians in California!

I'm happy to report that today (Feb. 7, 2012) a federal appeals court overturned California's Proposition 8, thus reinstating the rights of same-sex couples to be legally married. The ruling made it clear that
Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently.
It continues to say that "There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted." And gets even more direct,
All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation of 'marriage,' which symbolizes state legitimization and societal recognition of their committed relationships.  Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.
Well said. Do I hear wedding bells?

Conservative MP wants to create false dichotomy

CBC News reports that the Member of Parliament for the Kitchener Centre riding, Stephen Woodworth, wants to know when life begins.

It's probably no surprise that Woodworth is in the Conservative party, noted for their anti-abortion stance.

Woodworth brings up a good point... that we already have a 400 year old definition of when someone becomes a human. From his press release, "The important question is whether this 400 year old Canadian law is supported by 21st century medical science and principles of human rights." I agree. The definition should be looked at, and then tossed away.

So, what's wrong with trying to determine the instance when life begins?

The problem is that it's a false dichotomy. The terms "life" or "alive" are used to label categories of things that usually exhibit certain properties: reproduce, consume resources. But there isn't any scientifically defensible definition for life. After all, we're all just bundles of atoms moving around. For example, if a person is blown to bits by a bomb, their cells will continue to live for a time in clumps strewn on the ground. Is that person dead or alive? Neither... it's a false dichotomy.

This definition (or lack thereof) for life might strike you as shocking. But it's the same for the term "species"; we have no bullet-proof definition. The widely used "population of organisms that can interbreed" seems okay, until you find two populations that CAN interbreed, but don't because they're too far apart. So, many define a species as a geographically localized population of organisms that can interbreed. In the end, though, the word "species" is just a label to help us categorized what we see. Just a word. It does not carry the fundamental cleaving of reality that most people think.
Life is the same way. It's not an all-or-none phenomenon.

The logical snags of the question even show up in Woodworth's own words, "Is it a correct principle for a Canadian law to designate anyone who actually is a human being as a non-human?" Huh?!

In the end, trying to paste a starting-line on when life begins is - at best - a value judgement, and - more probably - an attempt to make an end-run around science and install good'ol religious fundamentalist values into Canadian's lives, whether they like it or not.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Have you met Linda?

Here's an interesting factoid you probably didn't know about yourself. Let me introduce you to Linda.
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?
  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Go ahead, pick one.

If you're like most people, you picked the second one. However, that's not correct. Why? Answer this similar question.
Consider of a room containing 100 people.

How many of those people are:
  1. bank tellers?
  2. bank tellers who are also active in the feminist movement?
Which set of people is larger? Of course, option one contains all bank tellers, both feminist and non-feminist.

This is an example of the conjunction fallacy, in which people answer the probability question by instead thinking of plausibility. But when you're asked the same question in terms of concrete numbers (instead of percentages), you are more likely to answer correctly.

I got this from Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Why do we vote in churches?

I'm listening to the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It's a fascinating book about the interaction between intuition and deliberative thought (though he uses the terms "system 1" and "system 2" for those). In it, he discusses voting.
Our vote should not be affected by the location of the polling station, for example. But it is. A study of voting patterns in precincts in Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location [1]. A separate experiment [1] showed that exposing people to images of classrooms and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to support a school initiative.
(2:34:36, chapter 4) 
As far as I can recall, my voting station is always in a local church. Could that be helping our local Conservative politicians? Recall that in 2008, the Liberals lost our riding by a mere 17 votes.

[1] J. Berger, M. Meredith, and S. C. Wheeler, "Contextual priming: Where people vote affects how they vote," Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, no. 26, pp. 8846–8849, Jul. 2008. (link

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Great quote by Steven Pinker

I'm listening to an audiobook version of How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. It's excellent, if long (over 26 hours!). But it's a tour de force of human behaviour, with explanations from both neurology and evolutionary psychology.

Near the beginning of chapter 8, entitled "The Meaning of Life", Pinker writes,
Given that the mind is a product of natural selection, it should not have a miraculous ability to commune with all truths. It should have a mere ability to solve problems that are sufficiently similar to the mundane survival challenges of our ancestors.
According to a saying, "If you give a boy a hammar, the whole world becomes a nail", if you give a species an elementary grasp of mechanics, biology and psychology, the whole world becomes a machine, a jungle and a society.
He goes on to say that religion and philosophy are, in part, the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve.