Sunday, June 21, 2009

Perez Hilton is a Sexist Bigot: A Rant on Misogyny and Math

While researching for my last post on Fox News and informed blog readers, I read too much Perez Hilton. Perez Hilton traffics in negative stereotypes damaging to young girls. He thinks stereotyping himself gives him license to stereotype others.

In a recent post on Jessica Alba playing a mathematician in an upcoming movie , Hilton wrote:

They want us to buy into her as a math genius?

Ha ha ha ha!
To help things along, we bet she's going to do the 'ugly' thing, a la Charlize Theron in Monster, right?

What a joke.
The formatting is the original with internal links suppressed. Perez Hilton thinks that hot chicks can't do math. I have taught math to children of a variety of ages. It is difficult to convince young women in our society that they can do math. Young women often lack self-confidence about mathematics. Many of them think that "only the ugly, unpopular girls" do math. One high school student once told me that she didn't want to go to a summer math program because if she did "everyone will think I'm uncool."

Perez Hilton reinforces this perception. Hilton is gay, an oppressed, frequently stereotyped minority- and he fits the stereotype. He does after all work as a "reporter" on celebrity gossip. He thinks stereotyping himself allows him to do the same to others.

One might say: "well, maybe Perez is correct." He's not. Danica McKellar, who played Winnie on The Wonder Years, is an accomplished actress, a published mathematician, and is smoking hot. There are many examples of female accomplished scientists and engineers who are very good looking. Julie Payette is Canada's most accomplished astronaut and was described by one teenage acquaintance as an "AILF," an acronym I will not spell out so I can keep this blog's PG-13 rating.

Perez, sir, you are an ass. You are actively harming young children's education. You are perpetuating damaging prejudices. Think before you speak. Or even better, just do the mathematicians and math teachers of the world a favor and shut up.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bloggers, Fox News, and an Informed Audience

In April of 2007, the Pew Research Center released a study about the knowledge levels of individuals in the United States. Many self-identifying liberals and liberal bloggers have pointed out that the study showed that regular viewers of Fox News have one of the lowest levels of political knowledge compared to many other groups. Only 35% of Fox News viewers were classified as being in the high knowledge group. This was low compared to many other samples. For example, 41% of CNN viewers, 54% of Daily Show watchers, and 54% of users of major newspaper websites were classified as being in the high knowledge group.

However, these bloggers have ignored other data in the study. In particular, the study found that people who use blogs as a news source are almost as ignorant as Fox News viewers. Only 37% of people who use blogs as a news source are in the high knowledge group. The difference between the Fox News viewers and the blog readers is statistically indistinguishable. Moreover, although Fox News viewers performed poorly, by some metrics conservatives performed better than liberals.

How were people determined to be in the high knowledge group? A series of 26 questions was asked of which 23 (decided in advance) were used to judge the examinees' knowledge level. An example of the questions asked is what party is currently in control of the House. People who correctly answered 15 questions or more were placed in the high knowledge group; people who correctly answered 10 to 14 questions were classified in the middle knowledge group; people who answered fewer than 10 were classified in the low knowledge group. The study had a total sample size of 1,502 and a percent error of 3.5%.

One interesting question to ask is if a breakdown of the mid -and low level knowledge groups allows us to distinguish the knowledge levels of the blog readers and the Fox News viewers. Here again, Fox News viewers perform poorly. 35% of Fox News viewers fall into the low knowledge group. Fox News has the second highest percentage of people in the low knowledge group (excepting people who do not get news regularly). However, the real poor performers are the blog readers of whom 37% fall into the low knowledge category. What is happening with these blog readers? I propose five possible explanations.

First, it is likely that part of this result stems from the aggregation of all blogs compared to just a single news network. Thus, the group of blog readers includes those who are reading Perez Hilton or TMZ and not much else. Thus, they only know about what celebrity is cheating on whom or what celebrity threw a tantrum. These celebrity gossip mongers could be reducing the apparent knowledge base of blog readers. One way to test this hypothesis is to examine the breakdown of what blogs people are reading. However, the study does not do so. It is likely that the inclusion of Perez Hilton readers and the like is bringing down the knowledge numbers for the blog readers. However, I doubt that this explains entirely the extremely poor performance of blog readers.

Second, a liberal can point to the low knowledge level of Fox News viewers and suggest that conservatives as a whole have poorer knowledge levels. From this premise, the argument would continue, what is bringing down the knowledge level of the blog readers is the presence of conservative blog readers who have abysmal levels of knowledge. However, this argument doesn’t fit with the other data from the Pew survey: viewers of the O’Reilly Show and listeners to Rush Limbaugh both score relatively high for news awareness (51% and 50% in the high knowledge group respectively). Furthermore, Democrats were substantially more likely to fall into the low knowledge group than Republicans, with 26% of Republicans in the low knowledge group and 31% of Democrats. This may be due in part to the slightly lower average income of Democrats .The study confirmed a strong correlation between income level and knowledge level, but did not investigate whether Democrats and Republicans have closer knowledge levels when income is a fixed variable.

In short, the Pew data refute the standard liberal perception that viewers and listeners of conservative shows are uninformed. Presumably, O’Reilly and Limbaugh’s audiences are at least as conservative as the generic Fox News viewer. Consequently, there is no reason to think (given this data) that readers of conservative blogs are less informed than readers of moderate or liberal blogs or that conservatives are in general less informed than liberals.

Third, the apparently low knowledge numbers for blog readers could be due to the highly specialized nature of many blogs. If a person only cares about a small number of issues, he may only read blogs focusing on those issues. If those issues have little to do with general political concerns, he may not have reason to learn or recall data such as who controls Congress. This is again a hypothesis that could be tested by looking in more detail at what blogs people are reading.

Fourth, many of the most successful news blogs are hosted on major news websites. A variety of New York Times reporters have blogs at where they report on stories, add their own commentary or add follow up notes to earlier articles they have published. This leads to the question of what one means by blog. The Pew study made no attempt to provide a coherent definition. Thus, people who read blogs by reporters may be classifying those blogs as part of major newspaper websites which could be leading to an artificially uninformed collection of people who identify themselves as reading blogs.

Fifth, blog readers could be genuinely unknowledgeable. This is, to me, the most distasteful explanation. However, it is the simplest explanation for the data and does bear serious consideration.

Note that the percentage of Fox News viewers who are in the high knowledge group is not low compared to the overall percentage of people in the United States who are in that group. That number is also 35%, and is brought down primarily by the large number of viewers of local TV news and viewers of network morning TV shows. So under this metric, blog readers and Fox News viewers look very much the same, with political knowledge levels close to those of the general population.

One implication of the Pew data is clear: Liberal bloggers need to stop using this study to attack Fox News and must stop attacking the knowledge base of conservatives as a whole. More studies need to be done. If this data continues to hold under further scrutiny and when Hilton-type blogs are removed from the picture, then bloggers as a whole need to ask why their readership is so dismally ignorant and what bloggers can do to alleviate the situation.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Iran and Gratuitous Promotion of the Other Brother

Normally when I point to something a sibling has on the Huffington Post it is something by my twin. However, this time, there's a piece by my little brother. Nathaniel talks about the history of the V for Victory symbol and how it is now making its way into Middle-East politics. It is very worth reading. The history of the symbol and how it has evolved makes for fascinating reading. I think that he may be underestimating how diverse its symbolism is in the Middle-East and how fast the symbol's meaning is changing. Anyways, check it out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Yeshiva World News creates Anti-Semites

Many readers are likely aware of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Leib Glanz. Rabbi Glanz is a part-time chaplain for the New York City corrections department who came under scrutiny after reports emerged that he had used his influence to help a convicted criminal hold his son’s Bar Mitzvah at the prison. The event included about 60 guests. Prison employees were paid overtime to help with the event. This by itself showed an astonishing lack of judgment on the part of Glanz. However, further details emerged which showed a pattern of Glanz systematically performing favors for Orthodox criminals, especially Satmars, the chassidic sect of which Glanz is a member. A member of the clergy who is corrupt or has severely misplaced priorities is such a common event that it is usually not worth noting. What is worth remarking on is the reaction to these events in a part of the larger Orthodox community.

Yeshiva World News, a popular ultra-orthodox news publication, ran an editorial on Wednesday that argued that the real problem wasn’t anything that Rabbi Ganz had done. No, the real problem was that the matter came to the attention of the proper authorities in part because fellow Jews had told the government and the press about Ganz’s behavior. The article is misleading in that it implies that the criminal in question, Tuvia Stern, was merely awaiting charges . This is not accurate. Stern was convicted and is serving a sentence. Moreover, although Rabbi Ganz is a chaplain for The Tombs which is used primarily as a holding prison for not yet convicted criminals, most of the favoritism he is accused of providing benefited convicted prisoners.

From the article (comments in brackets are my translations of relevant Hebrew and Yiddish phrases):

The inmate had arranged to have his son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration in the jail where he was being held. This information was subsequently leaked to the press at which time they had to act on the information. And act on it they did. What a travesty!

This has caused an obvious chillul Hashem [disgrace to God’s name] of the highest magnitude and has put the orthodox community at large and all frum [orthodox] inmates, once again, under great and unwarranted scrutiny. It has had a tremendous ripple effect and has left in its wake the evisceration of years of mesiras nefesh [self-sacrifice] and infrastructure that has been built for inmates past, present, and future.

We all know how important the mitzvah of Pidyan Shvui’im [redeeming andcomforting captives] is and it is not our place to judge another Jew. That is a job for Hakodosh Baruch Hu [The Holy one Blessed be He] alone. Our job is to make sure that we do all we can to facilitate these individuals and their families in their time of need to the best of our ability. No one would condone any of their alleged behavior and some may agree or disagree with the considerations they may have received until this point, but no one would disagree that we must stand by our fellow Jews and help in any way we can. Unfortunately, that was all lost and a lesson that will come at a severe price. Who knows what will, Lo Aleinu [God forbid], await these prisoners as they get shipped off to Riker’s Island. Their potential mistreatment is beyond our comprehension as they will be in the company of the worst criminals in our state.

Does someone really believe a good thing was done here? Is this what our Torah teaches us? The anti-semitism this has caused will be on their head and only death can be m’chaper [atone] the chillul Hashem [disgrace to God’s name]. We, as Jews, must think long and hard of the far reaching ramifications of our actions.
So to be clear: An Orthodox Rabbi engaged in behavior that was at best ethically dubious, he got caught, and YWN is complaining that fellow Jews reported on him.Centuries ago, one of the worst things a Jew could be was a “mosser,” a term generally translated as “informer” but more accurately rendered as a “snitch.” A mosser was someone who reported the transgressions of other Jews to the non-Jewish government. In an era when pogroms could occur on the flimsiest pretext and where Jews handled most legal matters internally, this was a reasonable stance. However, this has not been the case for hundreds of years in most of the world, and has never been the case in the United States. Yet, here in the United States in 2009, we have an Orthodox Jewish publication criticizing Jews for reporting clearly inappropriate behavior out of concern that such reporting will lead to increased anti-Semitism. This position is both reprehensible and short-sighted. I know what will lead to increased anti-Semitism: Non-Jews learning that a substantial part of the Jewish community considers itself so divorced from the civic life of the United States that it thinks that people who report the failures of government employees are worthy of death.

I hope that the sane elements of the Orthodox community will condemn this outrageous editorial in the strongest possible language. Jews are American citizens with the same rights and the same obligations as all other American citizens. The United States has welcomed and extended civil rights to Jews in a historically unprecedented fashion. This editorial displays profound unawareness of and ungratefulness for that reality.

Hat tip to Onion Soup Mix.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Captain Kirk and Kashrut

New technologies frequently raise new questions for systems of law. In this regard, halachah, the system of Judaic law as used by Orthodox Judaism, is no exception. However, since halachah concerns itself with many ritualistic issues that would not be of concern to most other legal systems, questions related to new technologies arise more often in halachah than in most other systems.

The rapid growth of modern technology has left Orthodox Rabbis almost overwhelmed in dealing with new issues. It is therefore not surprising that they have had little time to address questions of predicted technologies and discoveries which do not yet exist. This has not stopped the laity from speculating about such issues, especially when prospective technologies are connected to popular culture such as Star Trek and Star Wars. This post will discuss two of the major halachic questions raised by Star Trek and outline their possible resolutions. First, is replicated food kosher? Second, can aliens or androids convert to Judaism?

The first thing that many people think about when they think about Orthodox restrictions is kashrut, the traditional dietary restrictions on religious Jews. Star Trek: The Next Generation and later shows have a technology called “replicators” which allow users to materialize practically any food from pure energy. This technology raises a variety of issues. First, can an Orthodox Jew replicate non-kosher food such as pork and then consume it? The answer appears to be yes. Kashrut does not depend so much on the chemical composition of a food, but its history. For example, gelatin made from a ritually slaughtered animal is kosher while gelatin made from an improperly slaughtered kosher animal might be chemically identical and yet not be kosher.

However, there is an halachahic question whether food that looks non-kosher can be consumed. For example, many will not consume fake bacon made from beef or cheeseburgers which use soy meat. If one believes that such foods are unacceptable, then replicated pork would be likewise unacceptable.

There are however, other problems raised by replicators that only become obvious if one has spent far too much time with Star Trek. In particular, the Enterprise 1701-D has a hydroponics garden. Fans traditionally explain this garden by pointing out that in Star Trek canon certain molecules cannot be replicated and others are very difficult to replicate. Thus, when called to replicate food that contains those molecules, the replicators transport the molecules from stored material, in some cases, material harvested from the hydroponics garden. While for most purposes plant matter is always kosher, there are two circumstances where this is not the case: First, grape products have their own rules of kashrut for historical reasons. Second, during Passover, leavened products are not kosher. Thus, it is possible that material in the Enterprise’s garden could result in the replicators making unkosher food. This is a serious issue, since tools used to prepare non-kosher food can under many circumstances become not kosher themselves and transmit their kashrut status to any new food subsequently made with them. It is not clear from the description of how replicators function to decide whether or not replicators have this problem.

One general question that is raised by many science fiction shows is whether aliens can convert to Judaism. This question is difficult in that there’s no clear halachic definition of what constitutes a person. If one is a Young Earth Creationist, then this shouldn’t be a hard question to answer: people are those beings descended from Adam and Eve. However, Star Trek is explicitly not YEC, so that answer is out. Moreover, in the Star Trek universe it is possible for humans to interbreed with certain types of aliens (Spock of course is only half-Vulcan). Thus, an interfertility test as favored in the biological species definition may not work.

Moreover, it isn’t clear that a nonhuman being could not still be subject to halachah if that being was sufficiently sentient. This is connected to the more realistic question of whether an African Grey Parrot can convert. I have been told but not seen in any source that the test for whether someone is too mentally challenged to be able to understand enough to convert is whether they can recite and explain the Shemai. It isn’t clear to me that a Grey Parrot would not be able to do so (although whether you could convince an African Grey that this vaguely defined, amorphous, unobservable “God” entity existed is not at all obvious to me).

A question related to that of aliens converting is that of robots. In this case, there is a more direct precedent, in that this question has been asked previously about golems. A golem in Jewish folklore is a large creature made of clay which is animated by mystical rituals. (Under no circumstances should one confuse a golem with a small creature with a magical ring that it calls its Precious. That would be confusing fact with fiction) Golems cannot convert and cannot take part in any mitzvah since they have no souls. Presumably, the same result would apply to robots and androids. So if anyone of you wanted to see Data as a cantor, you are out of luck.

So the food on the Enterprise is kosher, but you can’t form a minyan with Data.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New Mersenne Prime Found

Mersenne Primes are primes that are one less than a power of 2. Small examples are 7 (one less than 8) and 31 (one less than 32). I've blogged before about Mersenne primes here and here. To recap, each Mersenne primes corresponds to an even perfect number. It is unknown whether there are infinitely many Mersenne primes. However, we do understand them well enough that we have a very fast test for whether a Mersenne number (a number one less than a power of 2) is prime. Thus, the largest primes known are generally Mersenne prime.

The newest Mersenne Prime is 2^42643801 - 1. This is in fact not the largest prime discovered because it is actually smaller than the previously discovered Mersenne prime. This prime, like most of the other Mersenne primes recently discovered, was discovered by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. This project uses a distributed computing system to search for Mersenne primes. Volunteerrs install the GIMPS software on their machines and the program runs in the background, quietly searching for Mersenne primes. The program is set up to only use processing power that the computer is not otherwise using. Thus, the program has no negative impact on performance. This is another example of the triumphs of modern technology and mathematics.

One other thing to note: There are technical reasons to suspect that 2^n-1 will be more likely to be prime when n-1 has a lot of small prime factors. In this case, 42643800 factors into 2^3 * 3^3 * 5^2 * 53 * 149 so n-1 does in fact have many small prime factors in this example.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Awkward Parties and Ramsey Theory

Suppose you are throwing a party. Suppose further that you decide that you wish to make sure that, at the party, there is a minimum of awkwardness in the social interaction. To minimize awkwardness, you want to be sure either that there are at least three people at the party all of whom know each other or that there are at least three people who all don't know each other. Is there some number of people we can invite to guarantee that one of these two conditions will occur?

The answer is yes. In particular, if there are at least six people at your party, you will have three mutual strangers or three mutual acquaintances. Let's convince ourselves this is true: Assume there are at least six people at your party. Pick one of them, say Alice. (If you do have Alice, I incidentally recommend that you don't invite Eve since they don't get along well.) Now, of the at least five other people at the party, assume that Alice knows at least three (the argument is identical if she doesn't know at least three). Now, if any of those three people know each other, then that pair form a set with Alice of three people all of whom know each other. Then we are done. But if all three of those do not know each other, then they form a set of three which all don't know each other. So we either way, we must have our group of three people.

This problem, although it seems trivial, is an example of a problem from Ramsey Theory. Ramsey Theory is, roughly speaking, the study of inevitable structure, i.e., if we make certain types of objects large, what will we necessarily find in the objects? In this case, the objects in questions are examples of what are called graphs. By a graph, we mean a set of points (which we call vertices) and a set of edges connecting some of the points. In the situation above, we draw an edge between two points if and only if two people are friends.

Thus, the above result says that, given a graph with at least six vertices, there are either vertices forming a triangle or there are three vertices with no edges connecting them. There are two minor helpful pieces of notation: We say a graph is complete if, for any pair of vertices, there is an edge connecting those two vertices. We say a graph X is a subgraph of another graph Y if one can obtain X by cutting out some number of vertices from Y and then throwing out any edges in the remainder that do not connect on both ends to the remaining vertices.

With this notation, we have an easier way to visualize this problem: Is there some n such that a complete graph of n vertices with all edges colored red or blue must contain a red or blue triangle?

One might wonder about our original problem whether six is the minimum number of people? As it happens there is a pretty diagram we can draw to show that five is insufficient:

(Creative Commons 2.5 license. Original at )

Given this framework, it is also natural to generalize to the following: Given some k, is there an n such that a party with at least n people must have a collection of either k mutual acquaintances or k mutual strangers? Or, framed in terms of red and blue edges, given some k, is there an n such that any complete graph of n vertices must contain a complete k subgraph with all blue edges or a complete k subgraph with all red edges?

Surprisingly, the answer turns out to be yes. However, to prove it we need to consider a slightly more general question. We define R(r,b) to be the minimal n (if it exists) such that a complete graph of n vertices with edges either red or blue must contain either a complete subgraph of r vertices with all red edges or a complete subgraph with b vertices with all blue edges. In our earlier party notation, R(r,b) counts the minimum number of people needed at a party such that no matter who is at the party there will be r people who are all mutual strangers or b people who are all mutual acquaintances.

We shall show that R(r,b) exists and is bounded for all r and b. Since our original problem is essentially R(k,k), this will answer that question. We first note that we easily have a few small values of R. For example, R(1,1)=2, R(1,n)=R(n,1)=1, and R(2,n)=R(n,2)=n. By our earlier remarks, R(3,3)=6. We need, however, a more general statement.

Lemma: For all positive integers r,b > 1, if R(r-1,b) and R(r, b-1) exist, then
R(r, b) ≤ R(r - 1, b) + R(r, b - 1) + 1.

Proof: Assume as given and consider a complete graph Z with R(r - 1, b) + R(r, b - 1) + 1 with all edges painted either red or blue. Pick a vertex v, and partition the remaining R(r - 1, b) + R(r, b - 1) -1 vertices into two sets X and Y. A vertex m goes into X if v has a blue edge to m and otherwise goes into Y. (For those still using the party analogy, we have picked a specific individual at the party, say Veronica, and now have split the entire party into people who either are friends or are not friends with Veronica).

Now, let us denote how many vertices are in X by |X| and how many vertices are in Y by |Y|. It is clear then that |X|+|Y| ≥ R(r - 1, b) + R(r, b - 1). Thus either |X| has at least R(r, b-1) elements or |Y| has at least R(r-1, b) elements. Assume we are in the first situation (the case in which |Y| is at least R(r,b-1) is essentially identical). Now, since X has at least R(r,b-1) vertices, we know that X either contains a complete subgraph of r vertices with all red edges or contains a complete subgraph of at least b-1 vertices with all blue edges. Now, if X contains a complete subgraph of all red vertices, then we are done (since X is a subgraph of our original graph Z). If X instead contains a complete subgraph of b-1 vertices with blue edges, then that subgraph with v thrown in now has all blue edges (since everything in X connects to v by blue edges) and has b elements. So in either situation we have a graph of the desired size.

From this bound it easily follows that R is always defined and bounded since we can always break R(r,b) into being bounded by values of R for smaller arguments. It isn't that hard to make this bound slightly stronger. It is more difficult to find lower bounds of R(r,b). The first such non-trivial lower bounds (i.e. bounds that were not just linear) were found by Erdos who used a then very clever method that is now a standard technique for these sorts of problems. Erdos constructed an estimate for how likely a random graph was to contain a complete subgraph of all red or all blue vertices. That is, Erdos estimated the probability that a given graph with n edges (with the edges randomly colored blue or red) contained a complete graph with k blue edges or k red edges. Erdos was able to show that if the graph was small, then the probability that a graph did not contain such an object was less than 1. If the probability was less than 1, there had to be some graph with that many edges which did not have the complete graph. Using this, he was able to show that R(k,k) > 2^(k/2).

Note that this procedure is completely non-constructive. It doesn't tell you how to even make such a graph for a given k. It simply says that if you keep randomly picking colors for a graph of that size then you will eventually hit a graph that shows that R(k,k) < n.

R(k,k) grows very quickly with respect to k. Moreover, R(k,k) is not at all easy to calculate. We know for example that R(4,4) =18. But even R(5,5) is unknown. (We know it lies somewhere between 43 and 49). The range is even worse for R(6,6) which we know must lie between 102 and 165. The problem looks at a naive glance like it can be brute forced. However, in order to show that R(k,k) = n, one needs to show that any graph with n vertices has the desired property. It is not hard to show that complete graph with n vertices has n(n-1)/2 edges. Thus, if any edge is colored either red or blue, we would have 2^(n(n-1)/2) different cases to check. Thus, to verify R(4,4)≤18 by brute force one would need to check 2^(14*(13)/2) = 2^91. That's about 10^27 cases. That just isn't doable. And the numbers get even more daunting for larger k.

There is a story that Erdos used to illustrate the comparative difficulty of this problem by constructing the hypothetical of an alien species landing on Earth and threatening to destroy us if we cannot give them the value of R(5,5). In that case, Erdos thought it would make sense to get all the world's mathematicians to drop what they are doing and work on the problem. However, if the aliens instead asked for R(6,6), we would be better served trying to fight the aliens. Calculating the exact values of R is really hard.

Now, one might not like the exact parameters of the problem. One might object that people don't simply know other people or not. They might have never met them before but have heard of them. Or they might recognize their faces but not have talked. Or they may have only talked briefly. Or they may be good friends. Or they may have known each other in the Biblical sense. So what happens if instead of just two possible colors between edges, we generalize to c colors? It turns out that the argument used above can be generalized to any finite number of colors. But the values get bad much faster. Generalizing the notation in the obvious sense, it is possible to show through not too difficult arguments that R(3,3,3) ≤17 and in fact it is known that R(3,3,3)=17. However, R(4,4,4) and R(3,3,3,3) are both unknown.

Some readers may also object to the party statement of the original problem. First, presumably for most parties the host knows everyone present. Does that simplify the problem? While one might guess that assuming that there is a vertex that has all blue edges would simplify things a lot, it turns out to be not substantially different than the original problem.

Another objection is that having a large number of people who don't know each other at a party doesn't make it less awkward, but rather more so. Consider a party with n people, n-1 of whom all know each other and the nth person who doesn't know anyone else. This could be very awkward for the nth person. Alternatively, the nth person could be some sketchy dude who is much older than everyone else and wandered in from the street (he probably has a mustache too). In that case, everything is much more awkward for the n-1.

There is however a practical solution: Every person knows at least one other person. And as long as you have at least one other person to talk to it substantially reduces awkwardness (even if it doesn't minimize it). So if we invite every single human being to the party everyone will have at least one friend to talk to. Therefore, I'm inviting the entire human race to a party next Saturday evening at 7 PM Eastern Standard Time. The venue is planet Earth. It is the third planet in the Sol system. If you have trouble finding it, just look for the big source of radio emissions that isn't the local star.

Please show up. If you don't, your absence might make it very awkward for someone who does come.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Haunted Locations

Many years ago, I ran across a website devoted to chronicling haunted locations throughout the United States. The website was full of fascinating entries. By happenstance, I recently found the website again and it has not lost its amusement value.

The website,, has user-submitted entries for haunted locations. The entries have minimal punctuation and grammar, rendering some of them borderline incoherent. But entries that aren’t incoherent are often hilarious. I’ll avoid mocking the writing because that’s just too easy. Many of the entries report electric lights flickering and unexplained power failures. Apparently none of these people have heard of bad wiring or old buildings. It might be interesting to interview these people to see how much their reasoning resembled that discussed in my earlier post on electronics and the supernatural.

Let’s start with my home state of Connecticut. One highlight is Loomis Chaffee High School. We are told that “One can expect that such an old establishment would have a history.” Yes, because 140 years old is so old. I’m surprised that every city in Europe isn’t crawling with ghosts.

Albertus Magnus College in New Haven is listed as having no less than four haunted sites. One of them, Rosary Hall, has a no longer functioning elevator. The area must be haunted because “staff have reported an evil presence it, as well as freezing cold blasts of air and moaning sounds.” Yes, elevator shafts never make noise. Nor do they ever have wind come through cracks. Elevator shafts after all aren’t long columns that can easily funnel air.

In Illinois, we have a cursed graveyard. What is the main evidence that the graveyard is cursed? “Some murders took with place within a mile.” I used to be a skeptic, but now I’ve seen the definitive evidence to convince me that there is real supernatural evil in the world. After all, some murders took place within a mile of a location said to be haunted. One question: there have been murders about a block from my house. Should I be worried that I’m at the epicenter of a horrible curse?

In Pennsylvania we have a place where dowsing rods were used to verify the presence of ghosts. I guess dowsing rods don’t just find gold and water anymore. Now they also find ghosts. And this also explains why all controlled tests of dowsing rods have failed: obviously they were done in locations where ghosts were present and the dowsers’ readings were confused by the ghosts. No doubt the evil skeptics make sure to perform the tests over old Native American burial grounds.

Let’s jump over to Massachusetts. We have an abandoned train tunnel where “On some nights temperatures drop several degrees.” Right, getting colder at night is a sure sign of a haunting. In Haverhill, we have among other locations “Lizzie Bordens lawyers house” (ERV would be happy about the lack of apostrophes). Apparently if a murder is famous enough, the lawyers get to haunt places also. After the lawyer died, a family lived there but there were problems: “The family moved out that month of fright and fear.” I think I’ll go back on my promise of not mocking the writing style by noting that that sentence did not have a period at the end; I had to add that. But even with the bad grammar, I’m really scared now. I wouldn’t have believed if the family had only moved out of fear or out of fright. But they moved out due to both. The ghost must be real and very dangerous. And now we come to the entry that forced me to write this blog post.

In Marblehead there is a middle school that is severely haunted. According to the page:

In the girls’ locker room there is a ghost of a young man who died in a motorcycle and he haunts the girl room. Also there was a report of UFOs over the school and it was even in the local news paper there was a photo of the UFOs. The town of Marblehead was a built on a psychical portal a sort of window that lets in both negative and positive spiritual energy, a “hellmouth” as it was called in the 17th century.
I thought that the idea of a “hellmouth” as a magical portal was a late 20th century idea. By sheer coincidence, the only other one of which I’m aware also happens to be at the site of a school. That school is Sunnydale High in Sunnydale California. Apparently someone has been watching too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Aside from notable individual entries, there are also larger patterns in the entries. None of the Ivy League schools are haunted. Harvard isn’t mentioned at all. Yale is only mentioned in passing when talking about a building bought by the earlier mentioned Albertus Magnus. Similar results apply to the rest of the Ivy League. What could explain this apparent lack of ghosts? Here are a few possible explanations for this apparent lack of otherworldly manifestations: One explanation is that the ancient Ivy League schools already have a secret society devoted to stamping out ghosts and so everyone else not involved do not get a chance to notice the ghosts. This society might not only be devoted to dealing with ghosts. They might also deal with other threats, especially when they work with their colleagues from Miskatonic University. Yale no doubt plays a critical role in all this since it has the Voynich Manuscript, which we all know is really the Necromonicon.

This hypothesis however isn’t satisfactory. Many other schools also aren’t mentioned. Stanford does not have any entries nor does the University of Chicago. It seems like the more prestigious the school, the fewer ghosts it has. Maybe there are ghosts at those institutions but the ghosts are scared that, if they manifest themselves, then the smart people at those schools will make proton packs and go all ghost busters on their asses.

Another possibility is that the people at these schools are just more closed-minded. They have their “books” and their “science” and their “critical thinking.” Consequently, even when they see clear evidence of ghosts, they rationalize it away by saying things like “Hey, a mile from a location is pretty far away” or “elevators shafts are long and generally leaky. Wind can go through them easily” and other stuff that is generally said by closed-minded, skeptical meanies.

Now, suppose for a second that we set aside the convincing evidence of ghosts that we’ve seen. Forget about the cursed graveyards with murders within a mile. Forget about the haunted elevator shaft. Definitely forget about the hellmouth which has nothing at all to do with a fictional television show starring Sarah Michelle Geller. What other explanations could exist for this apparent disparity in ghost reports? Two possible explanations then emerge: First, people at more prestigious schools are more skeptical and so say things like ““Hey, a mile from a location is pretty far away” or “elevators shafts are long and generally leaky. Wind can go through them easily” and other stuff that is generally said by people who bother to use their brains. However, my own experience with Yalies does not make me inclined to think of them as a terribly skeptical group. Second, people at such schools don’t feel a need to tell spooky stories to give their schools a unique reputation. If your school isn’t so well known, having a ghost might make you feel like you’ve got some unique flavor.

Full disclosure: Boston University, where I am a graduate student, has an entry: The room that Eugene O’Neill died in is said to be haunted by his ghost. So far, the ghost has bothered none of my classes.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama in Cairo

I don't have time to blog on this topic but there are few pieces I'd like to recommend.

First, of course, is my twin's piece at the Huffington Post where he looks at some of the influences that went into the speech. He argues that the speech used a variety of lines that taken in historical and literary context are less unambiguously positive than one might think. I'm tempted to argue that what Obama did amounts massive quote mining, taking many religious quotes simply out of context. Read the piece and be the judge.

There is also been some complaints in the atheist end of the blogosphere that Obama implied in the speech that all Americans believe in God. This strikes me as an opinion worth reading but overall is naive and misguided. Given what he did in this speech and what Obama is setting out to accomplish, I don't think people should seriously have expected any form of inclusion of atheists and agnostics that would not have resulted in backlash from the Islamic world. Obama explicitly mentioned non-believers in his inauguration speech. Be happy with that.

Also, David Horowitz has an interesting piece praising Obama's speech from a neo-conservative perspective. If David Horowitz is praising something Obama did, we can safely assume it was the correct thing to do.

Finally, see also Ed Brayton's piece also taking a very positive stance on the speech.