Grandstanding (or, Why Popular Science Writing Sucks) 

John Conway and Simon Kochen claim to have proved something:

We're not alone in the universe of free will

by Simon Collins

A fascination with children's games has led mathematician John Conway to a mathematical proof of the existence of free will.

Dr Conway, a British-born professor at America's Princeton University, became famous in the maths world in 1970 when he invented a whole new theory of numbers based on simple games.

Six months ago he and a colleague, Simon Kochen, made another breakthrough with a mathematical proof that, if even a single human being can decide freely whether or not to drop a pen on the ground, then every particle in the universe must be able to exercise similar free will.

"This has changed my view of the universe," Dr Conway said yesterday in Auckland, where he will give a public lecture on his new theory tomorrow night.

Touching a desk, he said: "Inside this table are zillions of independent particles. They are taking independent decisions on whether to 'drop the pen'."


He and Dr Kochen have taken three basic axioms about the universe, such as the constant speed of light, and concluded mathematically that, if even one person has free will, then all particles must have it too.

In essence, they have proved that there is no possible set of "spins" of the three particles that is consistent with all three axioms, so the only way the universe can exist as we observe it is if the spins of the particles are not predetermined.

On a large scale, the universe is still predictable. A crowd may move in a certain direction, overall. The movements of big objects such as the planets can still be predicted hundreds of years into the future.

"It's only a limited amount of free will these particles have. Nonetheless, that's where my free will comes from. I am made of particles. Somehow, their ability to take these decisions is amplified in my behaviour. So I believe the universe is a wilful place, full of free will."

I think what Conway really means to say is that he's proven that a hidden-variables explanation of quantum mechanics is inconsistent, not that the human mind or "will" or something else can enforce the collapse of quantum mixed states onto pure states. And of course, it's quite a leap to go from the behavior of one quantum particle to the behavior of trillions of particles that must work in concert to decide whether or not to drop the pen. This all assumes that the human nervous system is predicated on quantum-mechanical phenomena, of course.

Conway is completely grandstanding here, but the writer swallows the bait hook, line and sinker.

(HT: Pejman Yousefzadeh)


Where are those 30-40% of participants in CNN's web poll who thought that voter turnout in Iraq today would be "low"?


Random flashback 

The Patriots have elected to be introduced...as a TEAM!



I just spent $200 on a singleton U2 ticket. Lower section of the Fleet, to the side of the stage.

After seeing the last tour from the moshpit, I just can't go back to sitting up in the upper deck.


Must scrub image from brain... 

Apparently John Madden was meant to do the MNF skit, not Terrell Owens:

LOS ANGELES (AP) - ABC's first choice for the infamous "Monday Night Football" dropped towel episode wasn't Terrell Owens - it was announcer John Madden.

For reasons that are unclear, Madden couldn't find the time to perform for the skit. Owens, the Philadelphia Eagles receiver, filled in for him in the steamy sketch that drew viewer protests and a network apology, said ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson on Sunday.

In the spoof that preceded the football game Nov. 15, "Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan persuaded Owens to skip the game by dropping the towel wrapped around her and jumping into his arms.

ABC initially thought it would be funny to have the, uh, less attractive heavyset Madden as the subject of Sheridan's ardor, McPherson said.

The towel-dropping was another last-minute addition to the script that plainly backfired, said Marc Cherry, executive producer of "Desperate Housewives," who helped write it.

Cherry said it was all a mistake. But he and McPherson both said they were surprised at the reaction.

"I feel really bad about it," Cherry said. "I didn't want to upset people. I didn't realize that 'Monday Night Football' was such a family viewing experience. I wouldn't let my 5-year-old watch beer commercials with big-busted cheerleaders, but that's just me."

Sheridan, appearing before television writers Sunday, said the purpose was simply to amuse people.

"Taking a pop culture incident like that and having it take precedence over the underlying problems of the world was absurd," Sheridan said.


The writing is on the wall 

Somebody defaced a poster of Kim Jong Il in North Korea the other day. This is a capital offense.

Since I can't read Korean, I have to rely on the translation provided:

The first known visual evidence of dissent within the world's most secretive state emerged yesterday when video footage taken in a North Korean factory showed a portrait of the dictator, Kim Jong-il, defaced with graffiti demanding freedom and democracy.

The 35-minute video clip, said to have been taken in November, was posted on the website of an opposition group based in South Korea. It shows a poster of Kim scrawled over with the words: "Down with Kim Jong-il. Let's all rise to drive out the dictatorial regime.''

Now this could all be a forgery, but I hope not. North Korea almost certainly has functional nukes, so the US really can't do much other than to covertly aid any opposition movement that might arise.

And please don't tell me that I'm a disgrace to my Korean heritage for not being able to read my ancestors' language. I'm already well aware of that fact.

More on women in math(s) and science 

I just finished grading final exams for the multivariable calculus class I TA at Harvard. 18/59 students were women. Their average was identical to the men's average (to within one point in 100). Their grades were spread out, not clumped in the middle. I never noticed much difference between average men and women or between exceptional men and women in any of the other classes I taught either. I doubt that male brains and female brains are wired in a manner that makes raw calculation, abstract thought or problem-solving trickery easier for one sex.

Maybe there's a mathematical genius gene that pops up more frequently in Y chromosomes than in X chromosomes -- is this at all plausible, or is this complete hogwash? I'd bet on the latter.


Math class is hard! 

Harvard president Larry Summers wonders aloud:

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has triggered criticism by telling an economics conference Friday that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate" differences between men and women, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said the remarks have been taken out of context in an ensuing national media frenzy.
MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64 said she felt physically ill as a result of listening to Summers’ speech at a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) luncheon, and she left the conference room half-way through the president’s remarks.

“For him to say that ‘aptitude’ is the second most important reason that women don’t get to the top when he leads an institution that is 50 percent women students – that’s profoundly disturbing to me,” Hopkins said. “He shouldn’t admit women to Harvard if he’s going to announce when they come that, hey, we don’t feel that you can make it to the top.”

But Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, whose own research has examined the progress of women in academia and professional life, said she “was pretty flummoxed” by the negative response to Summers’ speech, which—in her view—displayed “utter brilliance.”

Summers spoke from a set of notes—not a prepared text—so a transcript is not available. But in an interview with The Crimson this evening, Summers said that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses.”

Summers’ speech came against the backdrop of widespread faculty criticism this fall following reports that only four of 32 tenure offers made in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences last year went to women.

Early in his speech, Summers noted that women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of academic and professional life—in part, he said, because many women with young children are unwilling or unable to put in the 80-hour work-weeks needed to succeed in those fields.

“I said that raised a whole set of questions about how job expectations were defined and how family responsibilities were defined,” according to Summers. “But I said it didn’t explain the differences [in the representation of females] between the sciences and mathematics and other fields.”

Goldin, who herself prepared a memo Summers cited in his speech Friday, said the president “had mountains of research” on the subject, although he spoke extemporaneously.

Summers referred repeatedly to the work of University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California-Davis colleague Kimberlee A. Shauman, who have found that women make up 35 percent of faculty at universities across the country, but only 20 percent of professors in science and engineering.

Their analysis of achievement test results shows a higher degree of variance in scores among men than among women. According to Ascherman Professor of Economics Richard Freeman, an organizer of the conference, the research found that “there are more men who are at the top and more men who are utter failures.”

Summers suggested that behavioral genetics could partially explain this phenomenon.

Freeman and Goldin both said that after Summers’ mentioned the “innate differences” hypothesis, he explicitly told the audience: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”

By that point Hopkins, a renowned cancer researcher who last year was inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, had left the conference room. She said she was concerned that it would be “rude” to get up midway through Summers’ speech, but “it was just too upsetting” for her to stay.


Freeman said that he invited Summers to the NBER event “to come and be provocative.”

“We didn’t invite Larry as a Harvard president per se,” Freeman said. “We invited him because he has an extremely powerful and interesting mind. And I think if we had invited him as Harvard president, he would have given us the same type of babble that university presidents give. And thank God we have a president who doesn’t say that.”

Freeman said that Hopkins’ decision to take her concerns to the press was “very bizarre in my view.” Summers said he had not expected that the comments would be published.

“If I disagree with you, I should tell you why I disagree with you and what the evidence for my point is. It shouldn’t be that I leave the room and call up a reporter and complain there,” Freeman said.

Hopkins said she mentioned the Summers speech in an e-mail exchange relating to another matter with Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri on Friday—but that she did not intend for her sentiments to spark the media circus that is already underway. Following a Globe article this morning, the story has appeared across the national media, and Hopkins said she has already received a request to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” as well as several other television shows.

And Hopkins dismissed the notion that Summers’ remarks were meant to be kept private among attendees at the conference. “The notion that Larry Summers’ position should be kept a secret on issues like this – that’s just wrong.”

Goldin said that Summers’ support for women in academia is well-known. “The reason Larry gave this talk is that he’s extremely interested in the way that institutions can enable individuals to perform to their maximum. And it bothers him when individuals do not perform to their maximum,” Goldin said. She added that Summers is “really dedicated to changing institutions” so that women can attain leadership roles throughout academia.

“Everyone agrees that working toward gender equity is vitally important,” Summers said this evening. He said that universities must address discrimination head-on, but that academics must also engage in “careful, honest and rigorous research” to understand the factors fueling the under-representation of females. “My speculations were intended to contribute to that process,” he said.


In the dining halls and on the campus open e-mail lists of Harvard College, Summers’ remarks have sparked a flurry of debate as students take a break from studying for final exams to weigh in on the University president’s latest foray into the national spotlight.

“I think the evidence in favor of an ‘innate abilities’ explanation of the gender gap is very weak,” said Jessica L. Jones ’06, a biological anthropology concentrator in Mather House. “The evidence in favor a ‘social forces’ explanation is very strong.”

“I don’t think ‘innate abilities’ should be our go-to hypothesis when it’s the weakest one we have now,” Jones said.

Andrew G. Barr ’05, a government concentrator in Dunster House, said that “obviously my instinct is not to buy into any theory that there’s any sort of genetic flaw in women that prevents them from being good professors.”

But, Barr said, “it’s too soon in the academic and scientific discussion of this hypothesis to be getting hysterical, and it’s too soon in the story of what President Summers does or doesn’t believe to be getting hysterical.”

I don't have any brilliant insight into the question of whether or not there are innate differences in the mathematical and scientific abilities between men and women. It's a socio-psychological question, and as we know, all socio-psychological research is based on surveys and is therefore complete bunk.

Indeed, sometimes I wonder if it's better for this question to remain unanswered. Judge each person according to his or her abilities, without reference to stereotyped expectations.

(HT: Deadly Mantis)


Life imitates The Onion, part N 

From New Scientist:

THE Pentagon considered developing a host of non-lethal chemical weapons that would disrupt discipline and morale among enemy troops, newly declassified documents reveal.

Most bizarre among the plans was one for the development of an "aphrodisiac" chemical weapon that would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Provoking widespread homosexual behaviour among troops would cause a "distasteful but completely non-lethal" blow to morale, the proposal says.

Other ideas included chemical weapons that attract swarms of enraged wasps or angry rats to troop positions, making them uninhabitable. Another was to develop a chemical that caused "severe and lasting halitosis", making it easy to identify guerrillas trying to blend in with civilians. There was also the idea of making troops' skin unbearably sensitive to sunlight.

The proposals, from the US Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, date from 1994. The lab sought Pentagon funding for research into what it called "harassing, annoying and 'bad guy'-identifying chemicals". The plans have been posted online by the Sunshine Project, an organisation that exposes research into chemical and biological weapons.

Spokesman Edward Hammond says it was not known if the proposed $7.5 million, six-year research plan was ever pursued.


Misleading headlines, part XVIII 

I enjoy a good lawyer joke as much as the next person, so I was initially dismayed to read the headline "pair arrested for telling lawyer jokes" on an AP story. Apparently the guys were making lawyer jokes outside a courthouse.

Of course, eight paragraphs down we read this:

Dan Bagnuola, a spokesman for the Nassau County courts, said the men were "being abusive and they were causing a disturbance."

So it's at least plausible that the guys were doing stuff to get arrested besides telling jokes. It's hard to pass judgment on the case without knowing more specifics, of course. Eugene Volokh, naturally, has a more detailed analysis of the possibilities. But once again, a headline proves to be quite misleading.


Judge orders cocaine addict to stop reproducing; NY Civil Liberties Union complains 

From CNN:

ROCHESTER, New York (AP) -- A Family Court judge who last year stirred debate about parental responsibilities ordered a second drug-addicted woman to have no more children until she proves she can look after the seven she already has.

The 31-year-old mother, identified in court papers only as Judgette W., lost custody of her children, ranging in age from eight months to 12 years, in child-neglect hearings dating back to 2000. Six are in foster care at state expense and one lives with an aunt.

The youngest child and two others tested positive for cocaine at birth and all seven "were removed from her care and custody because she could not and did not take care of them," Judge Marilyn O'Connor said in a December 22 decision made public Tuesday.

"Because every child born deserves a mother and a father, or at the very least a mother or a father, this court is once again taking this unusual step of ordering this biological mother to conceive no more children until she reclaims her children from foster care or other caretakers," O'Connor wrote.

In a similar ruling last March, O'Connor ordered a drug-addicted, homeless mother of four to refrain from bearing children until she won back care of her children. The decision, the first of its kind in New York, is being appealed.

Wisconsin and Ohio have upheld similar rulings involving "deadbeat dads" who failed to pay child support. But in other states, judges have turned back attempts to interfere with a person's right to procreate.

O'Connor said she was not forcing contraception or sterilization on the mother, who had children with seven different men, nor requiring her to get an abortion should she become pregnant. But she warned that the woman could be jailed for contempt if she has another child.

The New York Civil Liberties Union maintained that the opinion cannot be enforced because it "tramples on a fundamental right -- the right to procreate."

"There is no question the circumstances of this case are deeply troubling," said the group's executive director, Donna Lieberman. "But ordering a woman under threat of jail not to have any more babies ... puts the court squarely in the bedroom. And that's no place for the government."

In case anybody is wondering, I truly believe that sterilizing this woman is less cruel than forcing her to abort a child.


Leave it to the New York Times to piss on a man's grave 

They just can't resist taking a cheap shot at Reggie White.

This column on ESPN.com offers a much more appropriate evaluation of White's unfortunate comments to the Wisconsin state legislature.


US to detain Gitmo prisoners indefinitely? 

Not sure how much weight there is behind this idea, but it's definitely a bad idea:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A reported U.S. plan to keep some suspected terrorists imprisoned for a lifetime even if the government lacks evidence to charge them in courts was swiftly condemned on Sunday as a "bad idea" by a leading Republican senator.
The Pentagon and the CIA have asked the White House to decide on a more permanent approach for those it was unwilling to set free or turn over to U.S. or foreign courts, the Washington Post said in a report that cited intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials.

Some detentions could potentially last a lifetime, the newspaper said.

Influential senators denounced the idea as probably unconstitutional.

"It's a bad idea. So we ought to get over it and we ought to have a very careful, constitutional look at this," Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on "Fox News Sunday."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, cited earlier U.S. Supreme Court decisions. "There must be some modicum, some semblance of due process ... if you're going to detain people, whether it's for life or whether it's for years," Levin said, also on Fox.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The State Department declined comment and a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke of the Air Force, had no information on the reported plan.

As part of a solution, the Defense Department, which holds 500 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, plans to ask the U.S. Congress for $25 million to build a 200-bed prison to hold detainees who are unlikely to ever go through a military tribunal for lack of evidence, defense officials told the Washington Post.

The new prison, dubbed Camp 6, would allow inmates more comfort and freedom than they have now, and would be designed for prisoners the government believes have no more intelligence to share, the newspaper said.

"It would be modeled on a U.S. prison and would allow socializing among inmates," the paper said.

"Since global war on terror is a long-term effort, it makes sense for us to be looking at solutions for long-term problems," Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, was quoted as saying. "This has been evolutionary, but we are at a point in time where we have to say, 'How do you deal with them in the long term?"'

The Post said the outcome of a review under way would also affect those expected to be captured in the course of future counterterrorism operations.

One proposal would transfer large numbers of Afghan, Saudi and Yemeni detainees from the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center into new U.S.-built prisons in their home countries, it said.

The prisons would be operated by those countries, but the State Department, where this idea originated, would ask them to abide by recognized human rights standards and would monitor compliance, a senior administration official was quoted as saying.

Probabilistically speaking, a number of these guys ARE terrorists; we just don't have hard evidence on them. We just have to let them go and hope we can kill them in action at a later time. They don't go home to their wives and kids like soldiers do.

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