Archive for August, 2006

Breaking Mahmoud news — too hot for Slashdot

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

If you hadn’t been reading the comments on my last post, you might not know that my old chum Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had launched his own blog on Sunday. Along with a rambling autobiography, this exciting new blog (which I’ve added to my linklog on the right) also includes a poll:

Do you think that the US and Israeli intention and goal by attacking Lebanon is pulling the trigger for another word [sic] war?

When I first visited, only 5% had voted “yes”, though it’s now up to 50%.

But wait, it gets better: if Mahmoud’s site identifies your IP address as coming from Israel, then it tries to install a virus on your computer by exploiting an Internet Explorer vulnerability. (Thanks to an anonymous commenter for bringing this to my attention.)

I suppose we should grateful that, at least for now, defending oneself against the modern-day Hitler is as simple as installing Firefox.


Saturday, August 12th, 2006

Sorry for the long delay! I had to be in Washington D.C. this week, for reasons I’m not at liberty to disclose. (Yes, I’m serious, and no, it’s not as interesting as it sounds.) Oh: on my way back to Canada, for some strange reason they confiscated my Blistex. I guess airport security guards get chapped lips a lot.

As our world descends even further into war, terror, and Armageddon, I have an exciting complexity-theoretic announcement. Building on the Complexity Zoo, Greg Kuperberg has created a “Robozoologist”: an expert system for reasoning about complexity classes. What’s more, Greg is releasing some spinoffs of his project to the masses, including a JavaScript-powered inclusion graph, and an automatically-generated RoboZoo. I can still remember them frontier days of 2002, when I had to herd the BP operators with my two bare hands…

Merneptah and Spinoza

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

A reader from Istanbul wrote in, asking me to comment on the war in Israel and Lebanon. In other words, he wants me to make this blog the scene of yet another intellectual bloodbath, with insult-laden rockets launched from untraceable IP addresses and complexity-theoretic civilians trapped in the crossfire. What a neat idea! Why didn’t I think of it before?

Alright, let me start with some context. No, I’m not talking about the Gaza pullout, or Camp David, or the last Lebanon invasion, or the Yom Kippur War, or the Six-Day War, or the War of Independence, or the UN partition plan, or the 1939 White Paper. I’m talking about the first appearance of Israel in the extrabiblical historical record, which seems to have been around 1200 BC. Boasting in a victory stele about his recent military conquests in Canaan, the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah included a single sentence about Israel:

Israel is laid waste; his seed is destroyed.

Sure, the pharoah was a bit premature. But give him credit for prescience if not for accuracy. Unlike (say) pyramid-building or Ra-worship, Merneptah’s Jew-killing idea has remained consistently popular for 3.2 millennia.

Today, in the year 2006, as the LHC prepares to find the Higgs boson and the New Horizons probe heads to Pluto, Am Yisra’el (literally, “the people that argues with God”) is once again surrounded by enemies whose stated goal is to wipe it off the face of the Earth. And, in the familiar process of fighting for its existence, that people is grievously, inexplicably, incompetently, blowing up six-year-olds and farmers while failing to make any visible progress on its military objectives.

So what is there to say about this that hasn’t already been said Ackermann(50) times? Instead of cluttering the blogosphere any further, I’ll simply point you to a beautiful New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Goldstein, commemorating the 350th anniversary of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. Actually, I’ll quote a few passages:

Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason.

Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago.

America the nonexistent

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006

A commenter on a previous post writes:

A lot of great discoveries came from non-scientific losers. E=MCC. Airplanes. America. Someone discovered how to make an airplane by playing with a box. Physics is mostly theoretical. America, I guess, is the most scientific discovery. They applied the scientific method to determine its existence, but they used no control group, and no placebo. For that, America’s existence is not yet proven. There seem to be other ways of establishing truth than just the scientific method. Scientists are contemporary soothsayers. They should use every means possible of proving a fact.

Despite its insightfulness and coherence, the above argument raises some immediate questions:

  1. What does it have to do with anything I said?
  2. E=MCC?
  3. What would mean to use a placebo or control group to test America’s existence? Would it mean sending a ship in a different direction, and checking that it didn’t also reach America? Would it mean verifying that America can’t be reached from Europe by foot — since if it could, then it wouldn’t be America, but rather part of Eurasia?
  4. Has England’s existence been scientifically proven? What about France’s?
  5. Where do so many people get the cockamamie idea that there’s such a thing as a “scientific method” — that science is not just really, really, really careful thinking? (I blame the school system.)