Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Words of the President

I've become somewhat of a fetishist regarding President Bush's speeches, starting from around January, 2002, up to the present day. They're all available at the White House web site in transcript form, with many also in video. For some reason I find it fascinating to watch his mind-numbingly repetitive talking points evolve over time. It's also fascinating to read his stammering--faithfully transcribed, mind you--when he gets asked that oh-so-rare "tough" question by one of the press corp. Reading his words like that, you wonder (or I do, anyway) why his lies weren't immediately clear to everyone.

So I found this little Daily Show video essay particularly enjoyable. It's hard to imagine a more brilliantly funny parsing of presidental spin. I keep half-seriously wondering when that show is going to get yanked off the air and Jon Stewart sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Theo's Prophecies

As President of the Internet Infidels, I occasionally get some interesting email. Yesterday, a guy named Theo sent me a list of three prophecies which he claims will prove the existence of precognition. Here are his three prophecies:
1. Between September 7-9 (probably on the 8th) police make dramatic news of a crazy person doing something. Lots of drama. Alot of people die.

2. On September 17 someone of importance is assasinated in the middle east. This may be related to terrorism.

3. On September 26 thousands of people are forced to relocate due to either tornado or earthquake.
I objected that the first happens every day somewhere, and asked him to make it more specific--by "crazy person" did he mean someone who is mentally ill? Is the crazy person causally related to the people dying? How many people is "a lot" (at least give an order of magnitude).

On the second, again I said that is nearly a daily event. Could he narrow it down to a country, or the field in which the assassinated person is "someone of importance"?

On the third, I asked whether the date is the date of the event or the relocation, and whether he could be specific about the nature of the disaster and add a geographic location.

Theo also claims that he predicted Hurricane Katrina "right to the day" (but didn't say which day of the multi-day event he predicted), and in a later email said that he had made three similar prophecies (presumably one of them was about Katrina) last month, but he hasn't yet given me the specifics. I'll press him, and post here if I get the details. (Update: Theo says I can find the information in AOL's "Christian Living" chat room logs, but didn't provide them. In response to my request for specifics about what he said, he says "Several weeks ago I predicted that a major catastrophe would occur in this country and that thousands would be forced to relocate between August 29-30." What happened to a "right to the day" prediction of a hurricane?)

In my response, I asked him if he could be more specific, in which case I'd be willing to entertain a $500 wager on it with him (with proceeds donated to the charity of his choice if he gets all three right, and donated to the Internet Infidels otherwise). He told me that I don't understand how precognition works and that my demands are unrealistic.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How to Stop Worrying...

Ever been walking along somewhere, when suddenly you wonder, "If the bomb went off now, would I be vaporized instantly, or would I be one of the unlucky ones? Could I 'duck and cover' and be okay?"

Well, wonder no more! This site has come to your rescue!

Now you can know your minimum safe distance from, e.g., a 50 Megaton thermonuclear detonation. In my case, if we assume the Capitol building as Ground Zero, then out here in Reston, VA, I'm just outside the "widespread destruction" radius, but well within the "3rd degree burns" radius. Uh oh.

Or, just for fun, plug in the historical values for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki fission blasts (a quaint 0.15 and 0.22 Mtons, respectively).

You'll gain a new appreciation of Seizo Yamada's picture of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, taken at about 7 km.
Or, perhaps even better, this shot of the "Buster Dog" troop test in Nevada, 1951. These guys are roughly 13 km away.

"What seems to be the trouble, soldier? You look a little bit worried."

The Discovery Institute misleads the New York Times

That they are primarily involved in a PR effort is made clear by the way they declare victories where they've lost, as they did with regard to science standards in New Mexico. This time, they suckered the NYT into repeating the falsehood.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Things the Intelligent Design camp doesn't talk about

An excellent article at The Panda's Thumb about the evolution of the blood clotting system and the flagellum (Michael Behe's examples of "irreducibly complex" systems) that ID theorists don't seem to want to discuss, as evidence that ID advocates aren't practicing science.

The Price of Oil

In spite of the evidence that Lew Rockwell seems intent on sullying the name of Ludwig von Mises with his antics, I can't help but admit that the Rothbard/Hoppe Institute's daily articles are almost always interesting and informative.

Today's article, on oil's price fluctuations over the past 35 years, I found especially good.

My favorite quote is this reminder of the beneficial role that speculators--selfish money-grubbers, all--play in the health of a complex economy:

Of course, all speculators render a useful service by conveying the market’s evaluation of scarcity. Their activity also evens out price movements over time: in the case of oil, they buy now, when prices are lower (in their expectations), in order to sell later, which will bring future prices down. As usual, greed is useful.

Another thing that caught my eye was the graphical representation of the fall of oil's price in 1986, when the OPEC cartel collapsed. It would also seem--at first glance anyway--that they've never really been able to get their act together again.

One of the Notes for the article links to this fascinating page that goes into the details surrounding Julian Simon's bet with Paul Ehrlich. Definitely a fun read. We need more Julian Simons.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Intelligent Design and Genetically Engineered Bioterror

Blogger Tacitus makes a weak argument that Intelligent Design may be good for science. What caught my attention is a comment under the heading "Andromeda Strain" by user Irving, who writes:
Certainly normal statistical models "do not work for such things." That's the point of the find new models and frameworks.

...and we may not need to rely on merely statistical models either.

Let me put this another way in a story perhaps more attuned to the Tacitus readership...

In a period of 24 hours 3,000 people contract an illness in Omaha and die mysteriously. The country is alarmed. Medical teams have recovered bodies and isolated the causing organism. In the White House Situation Room the President ask the CDC...Is this the result of a chance mutation, or is this organism evidence of a specifically, genetically-engineered biological warfare attack? What does this organism tell us?

Perhaps an important with critical, far reaching impacts to National Security.

Now some are saying that it will forever be impossible for science to know...perhaps to prove. That development of such an analytical framework is impossible (and a waste of even any effort). That such an analytical process must forever remain a mystery of the universe and that if you can't prove it, there is zero value in any effort to even try to develop a framework that might establish design as--likely. And others are saying that any effort to do so is not even science at all.

I suggest that that is dogmatic fundamentalism from the Evolution camp which is willing to trash the foundational elements of science in a "means justifies the end" battle in the Culture Wars. I contend, that while it may turn out to be impossible, or at least beyond our current technology...that the efforts to distinguish design from nature can have positive impacts in society, and at the least, is legitamite scientific research.
Irving has created a straw man--I don't think any opponent of ID would argue against the possibility of methods (forensic or otherwise) for determining whether human beings--entities whose behavior we can study--are responsible for observed effects. What is questioned is whether it is possible to have methods which determine whether a deity--an entity whose behavior we cannot study, and who is capable of bringing about any possible state of affairs--is responsible for observed effects. (Now, certainly if such an entity existed it could bring forth evidence conclusive of its own existence, or at least fully persuasive of its own existence, but in the absence of its desire and action to make itself known, such evidence is not forthcoming.)

Irving also fails to notice that ID theorists are arguing for a position which amounts to the elimination of the distinction he argues science should be able to discover. According to ID theorists, biological organisms are produced by the interventions of an intelligent designer, not chance. (Presumably most ID theorists also maintain that even nonbiological things are the product of the interventions of an intelligent designer, so the distinction between natural and artifact disappears, leaving only the distinction between divinely created artifact and non-divinely created artifact.)

Opponents of ID oppose teaching ID in science classes (as do the major advocates of ID, now that the Dover, PA case looks like it's going to go against them) because ID has yet to put forth any theories or methods which have been shown to work. If ID can put forth methods that can distinguish between design and non-design--or between human interventions and natural occurrences--then they will have something that's scientifically useful. But it doesn't look like the advocates of ID are even working on such methods.

An Atheist's Self-Deception

I can see that the combination of work, calculus, and an attempt at having some sort of a life is going to make it difficult for me to contribute to this blog all that often, but after Jeff Downs put up the link to a Greg Bahnsen article on Tom Wanchick's The Good Fight, I just had to say something.

Calculus can wait a few minutes while I riff on some of the stupider things in the article.

[The Apostle] Paul asserts that all men know God so inescapably and clearly from natural revelation that they are left with no defense for their unfaithful response to the truth about Him.

Well, then, if Paul said it, it must surely be true! After all, it's in the Bible! This argument is so bald-faced in its arrogance (what the hell does Paul--or anyone else, for that matter--know about my beliefs and mental states?) and stupidity (it assumes, after all, what it is trying to prove) that it makes me want to... well... beat up a Christian fighter!

Christianity can be shown to be, not 'just as good as' or even 'better than' the non-Christian position, but the only position that does not make nonsense of human experience.... Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself. [my emphasis]

The first question that comes to mind, here, is: Which "Christianity"? The second one is this: If the whole of logic and epistemology is dependent on the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave 3 days later, then wouldn't it be possible--in fact inevitable--that people engaged in philosophical or scientific inquiry would be able to derive Jesus's sacrifice entirely independent of exposure to the Bible? Has such a thing ever happened in the history of science or philosophy? And how, then, does one account for the inconsistencies between the 4 gospels?

The article goes on for a considerable stretch after that. It would be tiresome to attack the rest of it, since its foundation is entirely baseless, anyway. Calculus awaits.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Carnival of the Godless

The twenty-first Carnival of the Godless may be found here. The P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula) contribution is particularly noteworthy.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Truth and Bullshit

Here's an interesting essay/review from The New Yorker about Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, Simon Blackburn's Truth: A Guide, and the difference between liars and bullshitters (the former care about the truth but want to lead away from it, the latter have complete disregard for truth).

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Hoppe on "Libertarian Society"

An, uh, interesting excerpt from Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God that Failed:

"In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one's own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal."

For inquiring about some of the implications in that paragraph, John T. Kennedy, of the No Treason blog, became the first non-spammer to be kicked off the (sic) blog. You can read that exchange here.

Now, what is one to make of the Hoppe quote above? Should we, like the more rabidly dogmatic Rothbardian "paleo-libertarians," put it down to simply unclear writing that has been taken out of context anyway? Or should we, like John T. Kennedy and some of the other "atheist individualist left-libertarians," count it as incontrovertible proof that Hoppe is a Nazi in disguise? (The "Nazi" accusation is more an insinuation than an actual bald assertion, to be sure. In fact it's often hard to figure out just what it is, exactly, that those no-treason and left-libertarian guys are saying.)

Now, I'm no fan of Hoppe. I think he's an embarassment to the Austrian school of economics (his "Argumentation Ethics"--which would undoubtedly get him laughed out of any college sophmore's philosophy class--are a perfect example of the depth--or lack thereof--of his thinking). But I'm not entirely sure yet whether we should really throw Hoppe out with the bathwater.

I want to take a little time and really dissect what Hoppe said, in as unemotional a way as possible, since that didn't happen on the "Mises Institute" blog. So, let's begin...

In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one's own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism.

What Hoppe seems, at root, to be saying here is that it would make no sense to join in a covenant with a person or persons who question the legitimacy or the very idea of covenants. I'm with him so far, but he loses me here: " one is permitted to advocate...democracy and communism." Can someone please explain how that follows logically? And what exactly is meant by "[not] permitted"? Hoppe, at least in this quote, doesn't provide much of a clue, though what he implies doesn't seem too pleasant:

There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal.

What I find most damning to the Rothbardian position that Hoppe is simply describing the optimal arrangement for the functioning of stable and thriving voluntary private communities is the phrase "libertarian social order." I could understand a community getting together and mutually agreeing to kick out anyone who didn't tow the Rothbardian line, but isn't that a far cry from "[t]hey will have to be physically...expelled from society"?

You've Got Mail--From the Pope

German Catholics who can't attend a talk from the Pope can get it text messaged to themselves.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The CatsupCrapper

MIT remains on the forefront of robotics and AI with the CatsupCrapper.
Thanks to Jerry Goodenough via the SKEPTIC mailing list for the link.

Richard Bejtlich reviews Extreme Exploits

Richard Bejtlich of Tao Security (a prolific reviewer) has posted a four-star review of Extreme Exploits, a book I did the technical editing on.

"Teach the Controversy"

The Intelligent Design movement recently hired a PR firm to promote its views. A critic using the name "vax" commented on this at William Dembski's (the "Isaac Newton" of ID) blog:
Why would ID need to be ‘promoted’? If it is science (as claimed) then the arguments and facts and should speak for themselves.

If it’s just a public relations exercise combining religion, politics and deceptive scientific-sounding jargon, however…

This led to a response from "Dan":

It is obvious why it needs to be promoted…because it is being shut out by radical left wing atheists that control the science ciriculum at the University level who control the peer reviewed journals. Also, ID is young and it has the right to have time to germinate or die-with a fair hearing.

To which "vax" replied:

Sounds a bit paranoid to me - not all scientists are “radical left wing atheists”! In fact there are scientists across the globe of every political hue and holding every creed who understand that all living beings on this planet share common ancestry. How do they know? Because the hypothesis has stood up to intense scrutiny over the past 150 years. ID is not science because there is no hypothesis; nothing that could be falsified.

“ID is young and it has the right to have time to germinate or die-with a fair hearing.”

Yes, that’s true, but ID proponents don’t want a fair hearing. They want to bypass the hypothesis, the data collection, the analysis, the peer reviewing etc, and have their ideas placed straight into school science classes! To be taken seriously by the scientific community (radically left wing or otherwise) perhaps the discovery institute would be better off using their money to fund actual research rather than for hiring a top public relations firm (Creative Response Concepts).

The result of this exchange? William Dembski bans "vax":

Vax, you are repeating the party line. I have no patience for it here. You are out of here. –WmAD

More commentary may be found at The Panda's Thumb blog.

Christian apologetics

Christian apologetics is the process of defending the faith by constructing rational arguments to particular predefined doctrinal conclusions, and presenting those arguments as a defense of the faith. The presentation of the arguments may either be in the form of monologue (such as through printed publication in a forum where no responses are possible) or in a dialogue, where the only acceptable outcomes are a revision of the steps of the arguments, but not the ultimate conclusions.

Sometimes, those involved in the process do not even bother to make sure their apologetic arguments are consistent with each other--they engage in a shotgun approach of throwing out whatever arguments they can come up with to reach the desired conclusion.

Examples of this may be found at Tom Wanchick's "Christian Fighter" blog. In a discussion of an essay by agnostic Paul Draper, Wanchick notes that "Draper goes through the arguments for theism and naturalism and finds the cases for both worldviews equally compelling. Neither has a clear advantage." But then, Wanchick notes:
But Draper makes an interesting statement at the end of his contribution. He notes that this situation with the ambiguous evidence appears almost intentional, as if humans have been given enough evidence to find God, but not enough to give them utter certainty regarding His reality.
In other words, the fact of the ambiguity is itself evidence for theism. But Wanchick goes on to say:
I disagree with Draper in that I think the evidence for theism is far greater than any purported evidence for naturalism. Thus, theism is the clearcut winner. But even granting his point, the Christian position comes out on the winning end.
Wanchick's has thus argued that (a) there is an ambiguity, which is evidence for theism, and (b) there is no ambiguity, theism is the clearcut winner. He clearly favors (b), which is inconsistent with (a), but he seemingly still wants to advocate (a), since it leads to a conclusion he favors, as he writes that "the apparent ambiguity seems intentional," implying that he thinks the ambiguity exists. (Thanks to Einzige for pointing out this last point--Wanchick really does seem to advocate both contradictory positions.)