Monday, February 27, 2006

A special screening of "Bob Smith, USA"

ASU's Secular Devils are sponsoring two showings this weekend of Neil Abramson's documentary, "Bob Smith, USA":
Bob Smith, USA is a hilarious documentary film that provides a view into American culture through the eyes of seven men named Bob Smith. One of the seven Bob Smiths will be attending the screenings and will discuss the film afterwards.

The filmmakers traveled across the United States documenting the lives of the Bob Smiths. Despite their common names, the men vary greatly - from septic tank repairman to yoga instructor; from twenty eight to eighty-eight years old; from Evangelical Christian to Evangelical Atheist. As each man's story unfolds in their own words, intimate portraits are drawn; creating a poetic, non-judgmental and highly entertaining document of American life.
The showings are on Friday, March 3 at 6 p.m. and Saturday, March 4 at 2 p.m. in ASU's Life Sciences building, room 191. (Map here.) The screenings are free and open to the public, and there will be a party for Bob Smith on Saturday night, details to be provided at both showings.

Since the Secular Devils' event page says that "Normal Bob Smith and his Unholy Army of Catholic School Girls invade downtown Tempe" following the Friday night screening, it's a safe bet that the Bob Smith who will be appearing to discuss the film is Normal Bob Smith, who has some entertaining games and pamphlets on his website.

UPDATE (March 28, 2007): Normal Bob Smith's ASU visit happened to coincide with a Brother Jed preaching tour...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Specioprin Hydrochloride

If the online trailer is any guide, then Special looks like it will be a pretty good--though cringe-inducing--film. I can't find a release date anywhere, though.

UPDATE by Jim Lippard (August 2, 2009): Looks like it never saw theatrical release, but I just watched it on Netflix-on-Demand via TiVo HD. It was pretty good--not fantastic, and indeed occasionally cringe-inducing, but far better than many films that make it to the theaters.

Those who stand up against torture

Jane Mayer has written a moving article in The New Yorker about how Albert J. Mora, former general counsel of the U.S. Navy and David Brant, former head of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, took a stand against torture and cruelty in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, but were mostly thwarted by "a small group of lawyers closely aligned with Vice President Cheney"--Cheney's chief of staff David Addington, Department of Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes II, Air Force General Counsel Mary Walker, and John Yoo.

A scientist walks into a bar...

A scientist walks into a bar. More than 100 people are there, eager to hear all that she has to say and ask a lot of questions. No joke.

That's what happens at the Wynkoop Brewing Company here every month when Cafe Scientifique is held.

More at Here's a strategy Randy Olsen might like...

UPDATE: The international website for Cafe Scientifique is here. There's not one here in Phoenix yet; the closest is in San Diego, which apparently broadcasts live on the Internet.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Real political reform

Matt McIntosh has an interesting article on how, if we want different results from our political institutions, we need to change the institutions, not just the players and which party is in power. Requiring spending items to be unbundled and holding individual Congressmen responsible for each item and term limits are two specific suggestions. (Via Catallarchy.)

Malkin on the ports and CFIUS

Michelle Malkin argues that the CFIUS process is a "rubber stamp" and complains about the fact that financing for the Dubai Ports World acquisition of P&O was underwritten by Barclay's and Dubai Islamic Bank, which were "both cited as probable conduits for bin Laden money."

This latter point, at least with regard to Barclay's, is about as meaningful as claiming that Verizon Wireless is linked to terrorism because a terrorist used a Verizon Wireless phone, and arguing on that basis that Verizon should not be allowed to conduct business in the United States. Barclay's is a global banking and investment company headquartered in London's Docklands, operating the fourth largest bank in the UK.

On the former point, the CFIUS investigation I am most familiar with involved a fairly extensive review, the rejection of one potential acquirer (the application was withdrawn and resubmitted without that acquirer, so doesn't count as a CFIUS rejection), and the implementation of significant and ongoing security restrictions and review prior to approval. It wasn't a rubber stamp, though it did seem clear that most of the government agencies involved were pretty clueless about the technical details (with the exception of the representatives from the NSA and some from the DOD, who were very sharp), and the government ended up outsourcing most of the ongoing oversight of the deal to a D.C.-area private contractor after the acquisition was completed.

Trying to file a complaint against a police officer in South Florida

This is an eye-opening hidden camera investigation showing South Florida police officers' completely inappropriate responses to requests for a complaint form. They clearly do not see their role as "to protect and to serve" the general public. Again and again, the response is "you've gotta go through me first," followed by accusations that the person requesting the form is being unreasonable by not wanting to discuss the issue with the front-line officer, and occasionally graduating to threats, insults, or demands to leave. Tallahassee PD, at the beginning, shows the right way to handle the process. (Via The Agitator.)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Nellie adopted

Last weekend, our foster dog Nellie was adopted. We fostered her for the past five months, a little longer than our average foster time of three months per dog since we started fostering dogs in October 2003 for R.E.S.C.U.E.

Nellie was an owner turn-in to Maricopa County Animal Care & Control. She's a very shy dog who did not do well in the noisy kennel environment and was on her way to euthanization. While in our care she did not fully overcome her shyness and skittishness, but she got much better and was very happy in our house. Our house is quieter without her and we miss her, but she found a great home.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ports acquisition issue

As someone who has seen the CFIUS process first-hand, I agree with Kevin Drum on the ports issue. This isn't a matter of the existing company, the London-based P&O (Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.), being replaced by a Dubai company, Dubai Ports World, it's a matter of acquisition. This will likely legally involve the transfer of the assets to a new corporate entity to replace the existing top-level structure of P&O, with a new board of directors, but if it's like the process I've seen, there may be restrictions on the composition of that board to make sure that U.S. interests are protected. There will probably be few changes in the staff actually performing jobs at the ports, and there will likely be screening requirements for employees as part of the security requirements that the acquirer has agreed to through the CFIUS process. If any of the agreement documents that came out of the CFIUS process are a public record (as was the case when the company I work for was acquired by a Singapore company), we'll be able to see some of the specific requirements that will have to be put in place, which will most likely be greater than the requirements that P&O has today.

Sean Lynch at Catallarchy calls this a win for free trade, which is disputed by The Modulator on the grounds that the acquiring company is owned by a government--the United Arab Emirates. The alternative acquirer, PSA International of Singapore, is also owned by a government (the Republic of Singapore), through Temasek Holdings. It's clearly not "free trade" in the sense of a normal voluntary transaction between two private entities both in light of the government ownership and the whole CFIUS process and mandated agreements imposed by the U.S. government.

UPDATE: Ed Brayton argues against the deal at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and I've offered some comments there, including this paragraph that I think Sean Lynch would agree with:
I'm not sure I see what the big deal is about P&O being owned by Dubai Ports World being owned by the Dubai government (the Hong Kong of the United Arab Emirates), vs. P&O being owned by PSA International being owned by Temasek Holdings being owned by the Republic of Singapore--apart from a general objection to government-owned businesses. I also don't see a big deal in Haier (Chinese company) making Maytag washing machines, or Lenovo making IBM ThinkPads. It seems to me that the more economic interests that cross national boundaries, the less likely we are to have wars.
UPDATE 2: At least some provisions of the agreement (presumably negotiated as part of the CFIUS process) have come out, and while the DHS described the terms as "unprecedented among maritime companies," they sound lax by comparison to the terms that have been used in such agreements for foreign acquisitions of U.S. telecommunications companies. Apparently the Bush administration is more concerned about the flow of information than the movement of physical materials.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Outrageous Manassas Park law enforcement raid on Rack n' Roll Billiards Club

From the Agitator:

On June 2, 2004, police in the the Washington, D.C. exurb of Manassas Park, Virginia brought in a multi-jurisdictional narcotics tax force and officers from several surrounding cities and counties to conduct a massive, 70-90 officer SWAT raid on the Rack n' Roll Billiards Club.

The raid took place on Ladies' Night, a Wednesday. Though the intent of the raid was to collect evidence of drug use and drug distribution by David Ruttenberg, the club's manager, it was conducted under the auspices of an Alcohol Beverage Control inspection. Because ABC is primarily a regulatory agency, the guise of an ABC inspection enabled the raid to take place without a search warrant.

After hours of scouring the club, searching every nook and cranny, and generally turning the place upside down, the only charges to follow against Ruttenberg were for two bottles of beer a distributor had left for sampling that weren't clearly marked "SAMPLE." The bar would later be charged with a few other minor offenses: one incident of serving alcohol to a minor, and with several incidents of flashing from customers during Mardi Gras.

The account at The Agitator goes on to describe continued police harassment of Ruttenberg. Radley Balko suggests that this all began because David Ruttenberg and a Manassas Park police officer (who is now head of the narcotics task force) had a romantic interest in the same woman, and that the continued harassment is an attempt to find a post facto reason to justify the original outrageous raid. If that's correct, the law enforcement officials responsible for this should not only be fired, they should be jailed.

UPDATE (December 19, 2006): Things are not looking good for Ruttenberg, as Radley Balko has described. And it looks like there's serious corruption in Manassas Park.

UPDATE (December 23, 2006): Balko presents evidence that the harrassment of David Ruttenberg has to do with the fact that he's sitting on the prime location for off-track betting in Manassas Park, which could potentially bring in tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the city. The harassment began four months before a referendum on the matter, which was defeated.

UPDATE (December 31, 2006): Here's video footage that depicts two men openly using cocaine in Ruttenberg's bar. He calls police, who refuse to take witness statements, escort the men outside, and let them go. (More info at The Agitator.)

UPDATE (January 8, 2007): And here's a link to some more video of harassment.

UPDATE (January 11, 2007): And here's some more background information on the harassment of David Ruttenberg, where a violent incident at another pool hall across town was added to a report about Rack and Roll.

UPDATE (September 11, 2007): Radley Balko reports that the appropriately-titled vice mayor of Manassas Park, who also worked as a DJ at Rack and Roll, was encouraging lewd behavior and nudity in the club which he photographed, and which ended up in a file in the possession of the city which was used to motivate officials to go after the club. At the same time, however, the city denied the existence of the file when Ruttenberg inquired after it, and Ruttenberg, to the extent he was aware of the activities in question, attempted to prevent them from happening.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Leon Wieseltier's negative review of Dennett's new book

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, has written an strongly negative review of Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell. Wieseltier maintains that religion is beyond the scope of scientific examination, and so takes issue with a key aspect of Dennett's project.

Wieseltier's review has been critiqued by Brian Leiter (at Leiter Reports, here), P.Z. Myers (at Pharyngula, here), Taner Edis (at the Secular Outpost, here), and Michael Bains (at Silly Humans, here). I disagree with Bains about the term "scientism," even though I am quite sympathetic to "naturalized epistemology" and giving science a major role in philosophical questions. There is clearly quite a lot of room for disagreement about the idea that science should be the primary mechanism of inquiry in all domains--most scientists regularly argue that science draws no moral or ethical conclusions, which means they leave that area to philosophy or (a mistake, in my opinion) religion.

There is a key passage of Wieseltier's review that I partly agree with:
It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.
In general, the origin of a belief is irrelevant to its truth or falsity. However, if Dennett's mission is like Pascal Boyer's, to give an account of why people believe in religion in general, rather than to prove that religion is false, then this is not an objection to what Dennett is doing. Further, if the explanation produced is the best explanation around, then that is good reason to believe that explanation (over an explanation that says religion is divinely inspired).

The fact is that there are lots of different religious beliefs that people hold, and they contradict each other. We know from the outset that all religions cannot be true--in fact, the mere existence of the contradictions is sufficient to show that much of the content of most religions must be false. Why people continue to believe it is something that requires explanation.

If the best such explanation is a naturalistic one, and that explanation fits the evidence for all religious belief better than supernatural explanations, then that is good reason to favor the naturalistic explanation over the supernatural explanations.

Wieseltier seems to reject "inference to the best explanation" as a form of reason.

UPDATE: Dennett has responded with a letter to the New York Times, and Wieseltier responds immediately following.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The moral cowardice of Dick Cheney

Talking Points Memo points out that Cheney sent out three surrogates to assign blame to the victim (who then apologized publicly to Cheney!), contrary to Mary Matalin's claim on "Meet the Press"--even though she was surrogate #3!

Controversial hacker publishes cover story in Skeptical Inquirer

The latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2006) features an article titled "Hoaxers, Hackers, and Policymakers: How Junk Science Persuaded the FBI to Divert Terrorism Funding to Fight Hackers" by Carolyn Meinel. The descriptive text on the first page (between the article title, subtitle, and author's name) says "Hoaxers warned of an imminent and deadly electronic Pearl Harbor. Consequently, the FBI diverted resources and attention away from terrorism and toward fighting hackers. This may have contributed to the September 11, 2001, attacks. Use of critical inquiry and the scientific method could have avoided this misdirection."

While most of the article appears to me to be accurate and its conclusion about treating claims from self-proclaimed computer security experts with scrutiny is sound, the article itself contains unsubstantiated arguments (in particular the arguments of the title and subheading) and comes from a self-proclaimed hacking expert of questionable credibility.

Meinel's article is in three sections--an introductory section about the title, a section about specific claims made by two hackers, and a section on "critical analysis of e-terrorism." I find little to criticize in the latter two sections, except for its implication that Peter Neumann's testimony before Congress was unfounded (Neumann is a highly respected expert on computer risks, the editor of the RISKS Digest, and author of the book Computer-Related Risks, 1995, The ACM Press).

Meinel begins by describing Fred J. Villella bringing hackers "Dr. Mudge" (Pieter Zatko, though Meinel never mentions his name) and "Se7en" ("Christian Valor", who was indeed exposed as a chronic fabricator as Meinel claims in the second part of her article) to meetings of federal policymakers where they warned of "a looming electronic Pearl Harbor." The most notable such meeting was testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on May 19, 1998, where the above-mentioned Neumann testimony took place, and where Mudge testified that he could make the Internet unusable with less than thirty minutes of effort.

Meinel argues that this testimony "may have contributed to an entrapment scheme" by the FBI against hacker "Chameleon" (Marc Maiffret, now "Chief Hacking Officer" of eEye Digital Security) as a way to show that "hackers were actually collaborating with enemies of the U.S." But she provides no evidence of a connection between the testimony and the action.

She falsely states that "books (Penenberg 2000; Mitnick 2005) hyped the raid [on Maiffret] to say that hackers were in league with al Qaeda." Neither of these two books says that. Adam Penenberg, in his book Spooked: Espionage in Corporate America (with Marc Barry, 2001, Perseus Books), writes that "Hackers are always on red alert for the FBI. In fact, when Maiffret was contacted over the Internet by the alleged terrorist Khalid Ibrahim, a member of Harkat-ul-Ansar, a militant Indian separatist group on the State Department's list of the thirty most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, he assumed Ibrahim worked for the feds." Kevin Mitnick, in his book The Art of Intrusion (2005, Wiley, pp. 32-34), raises the possibility that Khalid Ibrahim was part of an FBI operation, but questions it on the ground that only Maiffret received any money from him. On the other hand, he points out that Maiffret told Wired News "he had not provided any government network maps" and wonders why, despite his confession to accepting money from an terrorist-connected individual (Mitnick writes "foreign terrorist"), no charges were ever filed. Then, he writes "Perhaps the check wasn't from Khalid after all, but from the FBI." (As an aside, Mitnick's book states that few know the true identity of "Chameleon," but Penenberg's book had already published his identity in 2000.) Perhaps Maiffret avoided prosecution by agreeing to work with the FBI, as other hackers have done (such as Justin Tanner Petersen, "Agent Steal," whose story is partly told in Jonathan Littman's The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen, 1997, Little, Brown).

The specific argument of the title and subheading--that the testimony of these hackers led to a diversion of funding that may have contributed to the success of the 9/11 terrorist attacks--is stated in a single paragraph in the second column of the first page of the article (p. 32). In that paragraph, Meinel states that cyberspace czar Richard Clarke's formation of the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) diverted funding increases "earmarked against terrorism to hire FBI agents for the hacker beat." This diversion of funds led to only $4.9 million spent by NIPC on counterterrorism, and it therefore lacked the resources to follow up on Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams' warning about al Qaeda members training at U.S. flight schools.

This argument assumes that NIPC, rather than the FBI's counterterrorism unit, is the organization which should have followed up on Williams' memo. It also overlooks the role of the FBI's incredibly antiquated computer systems, which technophobe FBI Director Louis Freeh had refused to take steps to upgrade (with Congress withholding $60 million in funding for FBI's IT infrastructure between 1998 and 2000 because of its failure to produce a credible upgrade plan). Not until July 2000, when Freeh appointed Bob Dies to begin work on an overhaul, did Freeh address the issue. The result was that the FBI had 42 separate database systems that could not be searched simultaneously and many agents had computers that did not work or could not display images or connect to the Internet. Many agents used home computers in order to receive email photo images of suspects from local police departments. (See the "Missing Documents" chapter of Ronald Kessler's The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, 2002, St. Martin's Press. Similar observations are made in the "9/11" chapter of James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal, 2004, Palgrave Macmillan. Bovard cites (p. 27) a Los Angeles Times story that reports the FBI diverting $60 million in funds earmarked for IT upgrades in the year 2000 to be used for staffing and international offices. The fact that the dollar figure is the same in Bovard and Kessler may indicate that Bovard is misdescribing the same $60 million Kessler mentions.) By contrast, NIPC's entire budget (PDF) was under $20 million per year through 2000, and Bush requested a budget of $20.4 million for NIPC in 2001. (This is not to say that NIPC was effectively using what funds it had--it wasn't. But Meinel's complaint that only $4.9 million of NIPC's budget was spent on counterterrorism should be put in context--that was a quarter or more of its annual budget.)

These IT failings and the other failures reported in the 9/11 Commission Report and elsewhere strike me as more plausible reasons for the U.S. government's failure to avert the 9/11 attacks than trying to pin it on the hackers who testified before Congress in 1998 about the dangers of cyber attacks. Ironically, in October 2001 an article arguing that the Code Red worm demonstrates that there really are significant risks of Internet-based attacks on U.S. infrastructure ("They would be far worse than not being able to make bids on eBay--potentially affecting product manufacturing and deliveries, bank transactions, telephony and more. Should it occur five years from now, the results could be a lot more severe.") appeared in Scientific American. The author of this article, "Code Red for the Web," was Carolyn Meinel.

It's more surprising to me that Skeptical Inquirer published an article by Carolyn Meinel at all. Meinel's author description printed in SI states:
Carolyn Meinel is a consultant and science writer. She has assisted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with its Intrusion Detection Evaluation Program and its Cyberadversary Workshop, and consults for Systems Advisory Group Enterprises, Inc. (, the Institute for Advanced Technology (, and the Santa Fe Institute ( She may be reached at [email address omitted to prevent spam].
Not mentioned are Meinel's books, web pages, and hacker conference appearances to teach hacking skills or her two articles in Scientific American ("How Hackers Break In... and How They Are Caught" in October 1998 and "Code Red for the Web" in October 2001). The existence of the latter two publications no doubt lends her credibility (and may have helped persuade SI to publish this latest article), but the content of some of her hacker training works and parts of the October 1998 Scientific American article serve to diminish it. The October 2001 article seems pretty accurate to me, and was selected for publication in Matt Ridley's Best American Science Writing 2002 volume. That article, as already observed, does point out the possibility of an "electronic Pearl Harbor," so Meinel avoids self-criticism as being a contributor to 9/11 failures under her own argument only by the month-post-9/11 publication date.

Meinel has long been a controversial character in hacker circles, as can be seen by Googling her name on the web and Usenet (you can search the latter with Google Groups). She also has a degree of infamy from her former marriage to Scientology critic Keith Henson. Henson, who was successfully prosecuted for "interfering with a religion" (Scientology--in part due to an online joke he posted about using a "Cruise missile") and fled to Canada, started the L5 Society with Meinel in 1975. In their divorce proceedings, Meinel apparently made charges of child molestation against Henson which were published by Scientology front group "Religious Freedom Watch" as a way to "dead agent" Henson. Meinel, while supportive of Henson, didn't actually retract the charges, though I took her comments to suggest they were bogus. (UPDATE July 18, 2008: Henson's daughter Val has recently gone public and argues that the charges are true.)

Meinel had a long-running feud with hacker "jericho" (Brian Martin), who runs Martin, as it happens, was once the roommate of phony hacker "Christian Valor" ("Se7en"), but was also one of the people who exposed his fabrications. In addition to exposing other bogus security experts, his site contains a large collection of criticisms of Meinel, her behavior, and her work. Given the personal nature of many of the criticisms it is difficult to know what, if any, to take seriously, except for those which specifically address her accuracy and knowledge of hacking and network security, such as the critique of her 1998 Scientific American article, "How Hackers Break In...", by Fyodor (author of the widely used security port scanning tool, nmap). That article, which may be partly based on a hacker break-in at Meinel's ISP, Rt66 Internet (in which case "Dogberry" may be John Mocho of Rt66), contains a number of questionable statements. For example, the scenario describes the firewall of "" responding to a port scan by launching an attack in response, as though this is a good form of security, and the description of the attack itself suggests that either the description is inaccurate or the attack itself is incredibly naive. The author description on "How Hackers Break In..." stated that Meinel has an "upcoming book, War in Cyberspace" that "examines Internet warfare." As of today, there appears to be no such book.

In 1998, a hacking group that called itself "Hacking for Girliez" or HFG defaced a number of websites, including that of the New York Times. Brian Martin believes he was on the list of suspects. A number of HFG defacements made reference to Meinel (which I interpret to mean that HFG had a grudge against her rather than that she was involved), and she was herself questioned by the FBI and asked to take a polygraph, which she wisely declined (given the lack of empirical support for the validity of the polygraph).

In 2001, Meinel's website was compromised and a piece of software placed on it. A message was sent to the Vuln-Dev mailing list under Meinel's name (apparently a forgery), claiming that the software was an exploit for a vulnerability in the wu-ftpd FTP server; but in actuality it was malware which would attempt to delete files.

Given the lack of support for the title claims in this article and the lack of Meinel's expertise in computer security, I don't think Skeptical Inquirer should have published it, at least in the form it appeared.

Meinel, it should be clear, is not an advocate of illegal hacking--she seems to be fairly emphatic about not breaking into machines unless you own them or have permission to do so. But at the same time, she seems to give a wink and a nod to those who are going to break into the machines of others and has been billed as a "walking script kiddie factory." She also seems to advocate offensive measures as a mode of defense (as described in her 1998 Scientific American article), which is not responsible computer security advocacy.

UPDATE (March 4, 2006): Today I obtained a copy of Gerald Posner's book Why America Slept (2004, Random House), which is cited by Meinel at the end of her paragraph claiming that NIPC budget diversion to cyber warfare was the cause of 9/11 failures. The concluding sentence of that paragraph reads: "Therefore, the FBI lacked the resources to follow up on an agent's warning of al Qaeda members at U.S. flight schools (Posner 2003)."

The relevant section of Posner's book is pp. 169-173. It in no way supports what Meinel has written--Posner makes no reference to NIPC in his entire book, and he enumerates several failures on the part of the FBI with respect to Ken Williams' memo--the lack of communication with the CIA, the failure of middle management of the FBI to recognize the significance of the memo, and lack of resources within the FBI: "The FBI considered the Phoenix idea [to check out the thousands of students at the flight schools] too costly and time consuming, and a few even expressed concerns that such a probe might be criticized in Congress as racial profiling."

The main thesis of Meinel's article is not supported by the facts, and she has misrepresented at least three of the sources she cites--Gerald Posner's book, Kevin Mitnick's book, and Adam Penenberg and Marc Barry's book. That's sloppy work that doesn't deserve publication.

UPDATE (February 19, 2007): I thought I had already added a link to the April 2006 discussion of Meinel's article by Jeff Nathan at the Arbor Networks blog, but I hadn't. This remedies that oversight. There's a good exchange between Nathan and Meinel in the comments.

Also, Skeptical Inquirer published my letter to the editor regarding Meinel in the July/August 2006 issue (p. 62) along with a response from Meinel.

UPDATE (August 8, 2010): James Bamford's most recent book, The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (2008) contains more detail about intelligence screwups that, had they been prevented, might have averted all or part of the attacks of 9/11--but NIPC's budget had nothing to do with it.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Security Catalyst podcast

I recommend Michael Santarcangelo's "Security Catalyst" podcasts, which can be subscribed to at no charge via iTunes or Yahoo Podcasts. He's got additional information and links related to the shows at the Security Catalyst website.

Michael, who I met a few years back through a consulting engagement that was a "death-march project," is a sharp, witty, and well-spoken advocate of and educator for good computer security.

Carrier and Wanchick debate: Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology

I've posted a commentary on the exchange between Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick about this particular argument from Carrier. The post is at the Secular Outpost.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Underground London

Some very interesting photos of old subway lines, former stables, and other semi-abandoned tunnels underneath London. (At BLDGBLOG.)

UPDATE (May 21, 2007): Nick Catford's Subterranea Britannica is the place to go for photos and information about underground sites in Britain.

Coyote Carnival #1

The first Coyote Carnival, a collection of posts from Arizona blogs, may be found here.

Database error causes unbalanced budget

Bruce Schneier reports on how a house in Valparaiso, Indiana was incorrectly valued at $400 million due to a single-keystroke error by an "outside user" of Porter County's appraisal records. This incorrect valuation led to an expectation of $8 million in property taxes due from that homeowner, which led to a erroneous increase of budgets and even distribution of funds. Now the Porter County Treasurer has had to ask 18 governmental units to return funds--the city of Valparaiso and Valparaiso Community School Corp. have been asked to return $2.7 million, which will leave the school system with a $200,000 budget shortfall.

The number of errors here is huge--first of all, an external user shouldn't have access to change budget data at all, let alone by a typo which caused the user to invoke "an assessment program written in 1995" which "is no longer in use, and technology officials did not know it could be accessed." Second, there should have been checks on the data to identify anomalies like a house suddenly jumping in value to $400 million. Third, there should have been checks on the accuracy of budget numbers before the disbursement of funds. And I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface--it sounds like they've got some serious IT infrastructure issues.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

RIAA: Burning CDs to MP3s is not fair use

Every three years, the U.S. Copyright Office accepts comments on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for additional rule-making and exemptions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has given up on participating in the process, which they consider too broken to be worthwhile--consumer interests are simply not taken into consideration.

The RIAA's most recent filing (PDF) in this process shows that they've reversed their position since testifying before the Supreme Court last November in the MGM v. Grokster case, when attorney Don Verrilli stated (PDF, p. 12):
The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it's been on their website for some time now, that it's perfectly lawful to take a CD that you've purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod.
The RIAA's position in the new filing (PDF, p. 22 footnote 46) is:
Nor does the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even "routinely" granted, [...] necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization. In this regard, the statement attributed to counsel for copyright owners in the Grokster case is simply a statement about authorization, not about fair use.
That is, they are claiming that they've given permission for such use, and have the right to take it away at any time, because it is not a matter of fair use. The filing points out that this is the 2003 position of the Register of Copyrights, who is quoted (p.22):
proponents have not established that space-shifting or platform-shifting is a noninfringing use.
On the same page (22), the filing states:
Similarly, creating a back-up copy of a music CD is not a non-infringing use....
(Somewhat less information may be found at the EFF's blog entry which pointed me to this filing, Deep Links.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Geddes on net neutrality

Martin Geddes has a nice commentary on the vagueness of "net neutrality" and its implications (I previously commented on the subject here). He divides net neutrality advocates into bottoms, middles, and tops (based on layers, not giving vs. receiving). "Bottomistas" want neutrality on offered underlying protocols and aren't happy just getting IPv4 (or just IPv6), and at the extreme would want a choice between ATM, Ethernet, their own Layer 2 protocol. The "middlemen" distinguish "raw IP" (which backbones carry, or perhaps which ISPs use internally) from "retail IP" (what the end user customer gets), and endorse neutrality on the latter. The "top" are comfortable with the kind of filtering done by many retail ISPs (e.g., port 25 filtering), but oppose filtering directed at particular service providers or applications.

Geddes argues that the Internet isn't really a thing, but a set of agreements between different entities that are each doing their own thing with their own property--and that "Internet Governance" itself doesn't make much sense outside of IP address allocation and routing.

He raises a host of interesting questions, like:
Is neutrality a wholesale or a retail problem? What if the access infrastructure owner offers “neutral” IP connectivity, but no retail provider chooses to pass that on directly to the public without layering on some filtering and price discrimination?
Oh, and what’s so special about the Internet? Do other IP-based networks need neutrality principles? Do any networks? Should more network industries be forced to forego “winner takes all” rewards? Google looks awfully dominant at adverts, doesn’t it… I wonder if that ad network needs a bit of “neutrality”?
These are the sorts of issues that need to be considered in formulating any kind of "net neutrality" that can actually be put into a statute or regulatory framework, and it doesn't seem likely to me that it will be easy to come up with one that has broad appeal and doesn't trample on private contract and property rights. I think Geddes may be right when he says neutrality is "an output, not an input."

His post is well worth reading, as is the commentary from Brett Watson.

UPDATE: Geddes has more at Telepocalypse.

New Richard Cheese album

Richard Cheese has released a "best of" album, The Sunny Side of the Moon. I was given a copy yesterday by Cheese's alter-ego, Mark Davis, a former Phoenician who I've known since grade school but hadn't seen in person for a few years. I've listened to most of the tracks (and have all of his other albums, Lounge Against the Machine, Tuxicity, I'd Like A Virgin, and Aperitif for Destruction), and it's a better deal than most "best of" albums. There's the standard bonus track not found elsewhere, but there are also several new "big band" re-recordings (completely new versions) and a couple of remixes. And it sounds like he may be doing some shows again in the near future.

Mark has another project in the works, Revolution Central, but he hasn't been able to spend much time on it lately, so there's still a lot of those annoying "coming soon"-type pages.

The Secret FISA Court

Via Steve's No Direction Home Page:

Apparently presidential wiretapping is frowned upon--when it's done by Clinton.

Some of the reader comments are hilarious, viz.:

"Any chance of Bush rolling some of this back?"

"As quietly as possible (although it sometimes breaks out into the open, usually with the sound of gunfire and the death of innocents), a "shadow government" has been set up all around us my friend. It's foundation is not the constitution, but Executive Orders, Presidential Procalamations, Secret Acts, and Emergency Powers."

"This is wherein the danger lies in the precedent set by the Clinton criminal administration. God only knows who will be in power next, but there are no checks and balances anymore. This is exactly the SORT of thing I've been protesting all along. Libs just don't see this!"

Monday, February 13, 2006

UK Terrorism Bill appears to impact ISPs

A "Terrorism" bill in UK Parliament, as amended in the House of Lords on January 25, 2006, looks like it could have considerable impact on ISPs. The first section of the bill, titled "Encouragement of terrorism," makes it a crime to publish a statement or cause another to publish a statement with the intended effect (or with recklessness to the possibility of such an effect) of directly or indirectly encouraging members of the public "to commit, prepare or instigate acts of terrorism or Convention offences." "Indirect encouragement" means "the making of a statement describing terrorism in such a way that the listener would infer that he should emulate it."

The second section of the bill, titled "Dissemination of terrorist publications," is more problematic. It makes it a crime to disseminate terrorist publications "with the intention of directly or indirectly encouraging or inducing the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, or of providing information with a view to its use in the commission or preparation of such acts" (or with recklessness to the possibility of such an effect). The definition of "dissemination of terrorist publications" is extremely broad, and includes those who "provide a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to, or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale, or loan" and anyone who "transmits the content of such a publication electronically" or "has such a publication in possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct" falling within any of the preceding sections (including transmission).

This means that mere possession of such material isn't a crime, but possession with intent to transmit (e.g., hosting or having it in a location shared via P2P) is a crime, as is the transmission itself (if done with intent or recklessness).

The proposed statute provides that someone accused of this crime has an affirmative defense by showing that the material does not express their views and did not have their endorsement and that it was "clear, in all circumstances of the conduct" that those two conditions were met--except in the case of a notification from a constable in section 3 (which applies sections 1 and 2 to "Internet activity").

This notification provision is similar in many respects to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States--if a constable provides notification to a "relevant person" that he is hosting "terrorist publications," that person has two working days to take down the material, or else it is then deemed to have endorsed the publication (unless they have a "reasonable excuse" for their failure to take it down). Unlike the DMCA, there is no counter-notice provision.

The section about Internet activity doesn't define how the constable determines who to notify, or who is responsible for material located downstream of an ISP. If providers are responsible for anything downstream, then this could force an upstream provider to blackhole a server IP that provides many websites to many customers because of illicit content provided by one person. It's also not clear whether a provider could be held responsible for material that it transmits but does not host--in which case this would force ISPs operating in the UK into acting as managed content filtering service providers for the UK government any time a constable designates online material as a "terrorist publication."

The offense carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Offensive radio

Now that Howard Stern has gone to Sirius Satellite Radio and been replaced in the Phoenix market by Adam Carolla, the station has changed its name from "The Zone" to "Free FM" (apparently intended to distinguish itself from pay satellite radio--the result is that it makes me think of Howard Stern every time I hear the name).

I don't have satellite radio in my car, so I occasionally listen to "Free FM," though I believe I'll discontinue that habit. Today on the way to lunch I heard an incredibly obnoxious and offensive commercial--the most blatant Christian evangelizing I have ever heard on a non-Christian radio station.

The spot began by saying something like "Have you ever seen a dead animal in the road and wondered what it was thinking?" (No, as a matter of fact, I haven't.) It went on to say that being in the "middle of the road" is not where God wants you to be, and you need to choose to be on one side or the other, that God has a plan for you, etc. Listeners were directed to for more information. The spot I heard was apparently a 30-second variant of this spot called "The Squirrel." It was offensive on multiple levels--the evangelizing, the horrible attempt at being cool, and the implication that animals get hit by cars out of their own stupidity (as opposed to ignorance) or inability to make decisions. is an apparently new ministry of Sean Dunn of Champion Ministries, based in Castle Rock, CO. I don't know anything about his theology, but his marketing is apparently supposed to be hip and edgy. His website has a bogus story about Albert Einstein which falsely portrays him as a theist (and suggests with its close, "IT IS TIME FOR THE CHRISTIANS TO BE HEARD," that he was an advocate of Christianity). This story is a piece of nonsense that has been circulating the Internet--so Dunn's not only incapable of discerning truth from falsehood, he's presenting an email legend as though it's his own material.

Einstein, by the way, was an atheist or agnostic.

UPDATE (May 12, 2008): A 1954 letter from Einstein to philosopher Eric Gutkind says:
The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Net Neutrality

Larry Lessig's blog has linked to an article by Bill Thompson on the BBC's website arguing for "net neutrality," a position that favors FCC regulations to prohibit providers from blocking access to competitors' services and (in some cases, as in Thompson's) prohibit them from charging content providers for access to different classes of service.

I agree that providers shouldn't be able to block access to competitors' services (except, e.g., when necessary for security reasons, or as part of a service like content filtering being provided to a customer who wants it--but see below for my opinion on putting the FCC in charge of enforcement), but I don't think I agree on the latter point. Thompson argues that classes of service beyond the distinctions which providers currently offer based on overall bandwidth are unnecessary. But he's clearly wrong on that point--as more and more services which are sensitive to latency are added to the network (like real-time voice and video), the argument for putting those services into a higher class of service becomes stronger. Given the fact that there are currently several million compromised machines which are regularly used to engage in denial of service attacks, it is trivial for ordinary Internet bandwidth to be saturated--taking anything riding over that bandwidth out of service.

More and more people are depending on Internet access for voice services, including emergency 911 service. If those services are set up without separating them from ordinary Internet traffic in some way, the risk is created that those services may be unavailable when critically needed. Throwing more bandwidth at the problem doesn't help when you're also throwing more bandwidth to that same set of compromised machines, which can multiply that added bandwidth in an attack. One way or another--and likely through a combination of methods, including better filtering mechanisms and separation of different kinds of services into separate virtual channels--action needs to be taken to protect critical services from such attacks.

One thing that tends to be glossed over by proponents of "Net Neutrality" is that the most likely way of the policy being enforced is through regulatory action by the FCC. That, I think, is a huge mistake--these are the same people who can't create regulations to enforce a relatively simple statute like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) without creating loopholes for telemarketers that are not permitted by the statute (e.g., allowing prerecorded or automated voice messages to deliver advertisements when there's an existing business relationship), and the same people who think it's more important to take action in response to carbon-copied indecency complaints from the Parents Television Council than to take action against telemarketers actively engaged in fraud.

Adam Thierer of the Cato Institute makes some excellent arguments against putting "Net Neutrality" into effect through FCC regulation. Part of the problem is the vagueness of what's being asked for. If it's going to be set in place through the law, I would strongly favor that it be done as simply as possible through a statute that gives a private right of action (through injunctive relief or civil penalties for each day that access to a service is blocked for illegitimate reasons) and leaves the FCC out of it. The worst possible thing that could happen would be for the FCC to be given authority to maintain standards of access and turn it into an authority to maintain standards of content--and if you look at who's running the Commission and how they deal and are planning to deal with content in other realms, you can see that this is a real concern.

Disclosure: I work in network security for a global telecommunications company--one which is not an RBOC or cable provider. Our network (like that, I suspect, of most major Internet backbone providers) uses classes of service internally to differentiate voice, video, IP-VPN, and ordinary IP traffic. If the network didn't use classes of service, the more sensitive classes of traffic would be vulnerable to periodic disruption by Internet denial of service attacks.

Dan Savage on Brokeback Mountain and End of the Spear

Dan Savage has a great op-ed at The New York Times on these two movies, neither of which he's seen. A key paragraph, in which Savage points out the inconsistency of evangelical Christians who have complained about gay actor Chad Allen portraying a missionary in the latter movie:
Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals really believe that gay men can go straight. If they don't think Chad Allen can play straight convincingly for 108 minutes, do they honestly imagine that gay men who aren't actors can play straight for a lifetime? And if anyone reading this believes that gay men can actually become ex-gay men, I have just one question for you: Would you want your daughter to marry one?

Schneier and Paulos on automated wiretapping

Security and cryptography expert Bruce Schneier gave a talk yesterday to the ACLU Washington's membership conference at which he argued that massive automated wiretapping generates too many false alarms to be useful, as described in the Seattle Times. As a commenter on Schneier's blog notes, mathematician John Allen Paulos (author of Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, both of which I highly recommend), writing in a New York Times op-ed titled "Panning for Terrorists," makes the same point.

The problem is essentially the same one that makes it pointless to engage in programs of blanket drug-testing of grade school children or mandatory HIV testing in order to obtain a marriage license--the population being tested contains such a small number of people who meet the criteria being tested for, which means that even a highly accurate test returns vastly more false positives than true positives.

Paulos points out that a 99-percent-accurate sorting mechanism for detecting terrorist conversations, on a population of 300 million Americans that includes one-in-a-million with terrorist ties (300) will identify 297 of them, along with 3 million innocent Americans. That's 297 true positives and 3 million false positives, producing a new sample population that is .009% terrorists and 99.99% innocent Americans who may be wrongly investigated.

"Dick is a Killer"

As you already know if you pay attention to the mainstream media, VP Dick Cheney accidentally shot a 78-year-old man with a shotgun while hunting quail with him in Texas. His hunting partner, Harry Whittington, is in stable condition in a hospital in Corpus Christi, after being sprayed in the face (fortunately not in the eyes) and chest with shotgun pellets.

Whittington, a lawyer who was appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush to the Texas Funeral Services Commission, now has a great story to tell his grandchildren.

(BTW, the title is a reference to a song here.)

UPDATE: Pharyngula points out that the type of "hunting" Cheney engaged in back in 2003 involved having pen-raised animals released for his shooting pleasure. 500 farm-raised pheasants were released for the Cheney party's entertainment, and they killed at least 417 of them, along with an unknown number of captive mallard ducks. I haven't seen an indication that this quail hunting incident was of pen-raised quail, but that seems to be common.

Happy 197th to Charles Darwin!

Today would be Darwin's 197th birthday... as part of the Darwin week events at Arizona State University, tomorrow is a public lecture on "Creationism and Evolution in America: World Views in Conflict" by Regents Professor Geoffrey A. Clark of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change. The event will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Murdock Hall, room 101 (I remember that room well from my undergraduate days in computer science).

The event is sponsored by the Secular Freethought Society (the "Secular Devils"), which has a 2006 event calendar online.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Police protest police behavior at police demonstration

It seems that when police themselves are demonstrating (off-duty NYPD officers at rallies and protests regarding a contract dispute with the city), they don't care for the standard ways that police deal with protesters. NY police and the Police Benevolent Association are suing the NYPD for "spying" and videotaping them, and for intimidation tactics.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fetal pain

While we're legislating what abortion facilities must tell patients about fetal pain, how about also requiring them to tell them that fetuses aborted before the "age of accountability" are guaranteed entry to heaven, while those which are born who grow up to reach such an age may end up spending eternity in hell (not to mention that such unwanted children may be more likely to become criminals)?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cartoon on the Muslim cartoon controversy

From your cousin Vito by way of jwz.

An advantage of not having a soul... can walk into mirrors!

Monday, February 06, 2006

My contribution to "theistic science"

A few recent things I've read, from an advocate of presuppositionalism, from philosopher Evan Fales, and from a book by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, combined to lead me to propose an experimental test of the claim that atheists don't really exist--that we all believe in God, but have a second-order self-deceptive belief that we don't believe in God. Unfortunately, I don't think the test is likely to work (I haven't noticed myself believing in God while riding as a passenger in a car watching the landscape go by), but this illustrates the kind of empirical work that could be done by those who claim to advocate "theistic science."

It seems to me the real self-deception is on the part of those who claim to advocate theistic science but not even make any attempt to do it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Collected Works of George Deutsch

George Deutsch is a 24-year-old Texas A&M University graduate in journalism (class of 2003) who was appointed by the White House to the press office of NASA headquarters after his stint as an intern working in the "war room" of the Bush 2004 reelection campaign. He has gotten some well-deserved press lately for the fact that, despite having no science background, he apparently has had the authority to tell senior scientists at NASA such as Dr. James Hansen what they can and cannot say to the press.

In October 2005, he told a NASA contractor working on an educational website about Einstein for middle-school students that he must add the word "theory" after every occurrence of the phrase "Big Bang," because the Big Bang "is not proven fact; it is opinion. [...] It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator. [...] This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most." As others have noted, Deutsch not only doesn't understand what the word "theory" means, his knowledge of theology seems pretty weak--the Big Bang is commonly used as an argument for the existence of God (e.g., William Lane Craig's version of the kalam cosmological argument, which has as a premise that the universe has a finite past).

World O'Crap has dug up some of Mr. Deutsch's past work at the Texas A&M Battalion, which includes this comment on the Laci Peterson murder:

Still, the defense's main theory -- that a Satanic cult killed Laci -- is actually quite credible. Several impartial witnesses have reported seeing a van adorned with satanic symbols and a man with "666" tattooed on his arm in front of the Peterson home in late December.

The American public seems to dismiss this theory as ridiculous, but Satanic killings didn't seem so ridiculous in the 1980s, when Richard Ramirez -- The Night Stalker -- made California his personal hunting ground. Ramirez, who sat in court with a pentagram etched in his palm and often said "Hail Satan," adds a very real face to the idea of Satanism. Try convincing the families of his victims that Satanic cults don't exist.

And this one on connections between Iraq and al Qaeda:

The ties between al-Qaida and Iraq are clear. So clear, in fact, that there is so much circumstantial evidence linking Iraq and al-Qaida that it would be hard for an informed person not to at least suspect Saddam's regime of having a hand in the attacks.


Cheney went on to mention evidence of a Czech intelligence report, which has yet to be confirmed or denied, that asserts that Sept. 11 hijacker Muhammad Atta met with senior Iraqi officials in Prague just weeks before the attacks.

And this one on Rumsfeld and torture:
"Unfounded Accusations"

There is simply no proof to support claims that Rumsfeld orchestrated an elaborate plan to interrogate prisoners through torture and humiliation - such an assertion is laughable.


[I]t is absurd to think that the secretary of defense for the strongest nation in the free world would encourage torturous interrogation tactics in a war his nation was winning and at the possible expense of his political career. Even more absurd is that his well-thought and "highly secretive" plan would involve unskilled military reservists being ordered to pose for staged photographs with nude Iraqi prisoners.

NASA should fire this incompetent boob.

UPDATE (7 February 2006): Turns out Deutsch isn't a college graduate--although scheduled to graduate in 2003, he left Texas A&M University in 2003 without a degree.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Eugenie Scott gives the Robert S. Dietz memorial lecture

Genie Scott of the NCSE gave a talk on "Creationism and Evolution: Current Perspectives" to a standing-room-only audience of several hundred at the ASU Physical Sciences building. This crowd came out to see her despite the fact that Jared Diamond was speaking at ASU at the same time, about his book Collapse.

The lecture began with a few words about Bob Dietz, who was a strong supporter of evolution and critic of creationism, and showed a few slides of him and his book, Creation/Evolution Satiricon: Creationism Bashed.

Genie gave an overview of creation science, comparing and contrasting it with evolution. She pointed out the logical flaw of the "two model approach" in assuming that evolution and creation are the only two possibilities and that falsifying evolution is all that's needed to prove creationism.

There followed a discussion of the Paluxy river mantracks, and how Glen Kuban's work led even the Institute for Creation Research to stop using them as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together. She talked briefly about some problems with the ark story and the misidentification of geological features as fossilized arks (another example which creationists themselves have refuted).

Genie described the NCSE Grand Canyon raft trips, pointing out how they teach both the evolution and creationist sides of the story, while the ICR raft trip only teaches the creationist version. She put up a photo of Steve Austin and his book Grand Canyon, Monument to Catastrophe, along with a photo of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, pointing out that they should not be confused, even though the creationist Steve Austin does work on cold stone. (This reference worked well with the young audience--my expectation was for a comparison photo of Lee Majors as the "Six Million Dollar Man" as the joke.) She spent some time describing how the Grand Canyon is composed of thousands of layers of sediment which the creationists claim to have been laid down through repeated walls of water and sediment precipitation. This set the stage for Austin's claims about the canyons around Mt. St. Helens, where a 30' deep ditch was cut by water in seven days--thirty feet of unconsolidated ash and loose sediment doesn't compare to four thousand feet of individual layers of shales, limestones, sandstones, etc.

Since the event was at ASU, home of the Institute of Human Origins, she mentioned Donald Johanson tiring of correcting bogus creationist claims about Lucy's knee joint.

She then turned to intelligent design, or "creationism light," which she described as consisting of only a single philosophical claim--that you can detect the evidence of things that are designed and are the products of intelligence, and in particular the product of a divine designer. ID has proposed two concepts for identifying design, Behe's irreducible complexity and Dembski's design inference. She described the Discovery Institute and the Wedge Document, and pointed out that there are many criticisms of Behe's irreducible complexity and Dembski's complex specified information on the web. The structure of the ID arguments, she argued, is the same as that of creation science--that evolution can't do it, therefore it must be intelligent design. Michael Behe's favored example of the bacterial flagellum was shown in an animated slide, and Genie pointed out that they like to use examples of complex systems where we haven't yet developed full explanations, but they ignore other examples of apparently "irreducibly complex" systems where we do have full explanations, like the evolution of the mammalian ear (which she proceeded to illustrate).

She gave a history of the intelligent design movement and its roots in creationism--covering the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas decision, Jon Buell's formation of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, and the publications of Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen's Mystery of Life's Origin and Of Pandas and People. She described the science of the latter as awful, giving as an example its treatment of genetic distances between organisms based on cytochrome c, a demonstration that the authors don't understand evolution (a topic discussed in the Dover case).

Wesley Elsberry's work on word counts of "creationis[t/m]" vs. "intelligent design" in the sequence of manuscripts that became Of Pandas and People was graphically depicted, showing the former dropping to zero and the latter increasing to the level of the former in 1987, after the creationists lost at the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard.

She briefly commented on William Dembski's draft of version three of Of Pandas and People, which used "sudden emergence" instead of "intelligent design," and about the Discovery Institute's move to a "teach the controversy" position which it has held for a few years, and its model policy for school boards to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution adopted by the Grantsburg, Wisconsin school board in December 2004.

She listed seven states that have introduced anti-evolution legislation this year (Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah), promoting books critical of intelligent design and creationism (including Young and Edis' Why Intelligent Design Fails, Pennock's Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, Forrest and Gross's Creationism's Trojan Horse, Miller's Finding Darwin's God, Shanks' God, the Devil, and Darwin, Isaak's Counter-Creationism Handbook, and her own Evolution vs. Creationism, which she was pleased to announce had just been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. She showed a screen shot of listing her book with a sales rank of #284, though she noted this is an hour-by-hour rank and she had to wait until late on Sunday night to get the shot.

In closing, Genie noted that Bob Dietz was a real scientific iconoclast who advocated views that were outside of the mainstream when he initiated them--that seafloor spreading occurs and is evidence of continental drift, that moon craters are asteroid impacts not volcanoes, that shatter cones are evidence of meteoritic impacts. He didn't respond to criticism by starting a policy institute, hiring a PR firm, and lobbying to have his theories taught in public schools--he responded by doing scientific work, by doing research, by writing and presenting papers. That's the work that needs to be done to get things taught in public school science classes.

Afterward, there was a small reception outside the auditorium, and Genie was swamped with people asking questions for quite some time. I was surprised that there were no obvious creationists or intelligent design advocates--those who were present (I'm sure there were some there) kept their views to themselves.

Tom Toles cartoon criticized by all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

This Tom Toles cartoon in the Washington Post has resulted in a complaint letter from all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Amazing helicopter photos of Mexico City

What an amazing city. The Ixtapaluca low-income housing projects (one photo at left) look like a suburban nightmare out of a video game, but these purport to be actual photos taken from a helicopter. (Thanks to BLDGBLOG.)

Sasquatch DNA sample tested

Apparently, Sasquatch is a bipedal bison.

Danish Mohammed cartoons reprinted in France and Norway--and Lebanon

The Danish cartoons of Mohammed have been reprinted in both Norway and France (and may be seen at the link at left). These cartoons have led to hostages being taken, death threats against the cartoonists, and the withdrawal of ambassadors to Denmark by Libya and Saudi Arabia. The reprinting has led to further Muslim outrage, apologies from the publishers, and some firings. Norway has given a state apology and made noises about restricting freedom of speech regarding anti-religious statements. France and Denmark have refused to make state apologies and have defended freedom of speech. The EU and UN have come out against freedom of speech, which are good reasons to oppose UN control of the Internet.

By the way, here are some other cartoons about Mohammed and Islam (thanks to Einzige for the reference).

UPDATE: A magazine in Lebanon, Shihan, has reprinted the cartoons, and in an article with the subheading "World's Muslims, be logical," Jihad Momani (a pseudonym?) asks, “Which one do you think damages Islam more? These cartoons or the scene of a suicide bomber who blows himself up outside a wedding ceremony in Amman, or the kidnappers that slaughters their victims before the cameras?” (Hat tip: Catallarchy, which I inexplicably failed to credit for their posting which first led me to this subject.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Financial freedom

My parents loaned me a set of 13 CDs by a Christian financial counselor named Dave Ramsey, which I listened to in my car over the last several weeks. The CDs are audio recordings of Ramsey's course of lectures that he calls "Financial Peace University."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised--there were occasional references to God and Bible verses, but they were relatively few and tended to be ones that gave sensible advice. It was only the last CD, on charitable giving, which emphasized tithing to a church over other forms of charitable giving, that I found more objectionable than sound. (There were also two bonus CDs, one with samples from Ramsey's radio show, in which I agreed with virtually all of the advice he gave to listeners, and another giving his personal testimony and a "come to Jesus" call that I gave up listening to after about the first 15 minutes.)

The first 12 CDs I give pretty high marks to. Each CD covered a single topic:
1. "Super Savers": how to save money, build an emergency fund, the value of cash purchases.
2. "Cash Flow Planning": how to budget.
3. "Relating With Money": how to communicate about money in a relationship and with your children.
4. "Buying Only Big, Big Bargains": how to find good deals and negotiate on price.
5. "Dumping Debt Part 1": facts about credit cards and how to get out of debt.
6. "Dumping Debt Part 2": more on that subject.
7. "Understanding Investments": some basic information about stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
8. "Understanding Insurance": some basic information about insurance offerings and which ones are a ripoff.
9. "Retirement & College Planning": 401Ks, Roth 401Ks, IRAs, SEPs, Coverdell ESAs, etc.
10. "Buyer Beware": understanding some marketing and sales tactics and how to avoid being pressured by them.
11. "Real Estate & Mortgages": some basics about buying and selling a home, types of mortgages (apparently recorded before the recent popularity of some more creative mortgages), and refinancing.
12. "Careers & Extra Jobs": how to find a job you love, when it makes sense to seek extra income to get out of a problem.
13. "Collection Practices & Credit Bureaus": some basics on collections, how to clean up your credit report, how to get out of bad debt messes when you can't afford to pay all your bills.

Some of the basic messages of Ramsey's plan are to start by building an emergency savings of $1,000, cut up all your credit cards and budget every dollar of income, get all non-mortgage debt paid off, build up savings of 3-6 months of expenses, and start investing 15% of annual gross income in mutual funds (maximizing tax-preferred options). He's very anti-credit card and anti-debt. I agree with the latter (except for a mortgage); the former I don't personally agree with for myself, but I think it's good advice for anyone who doesn't have the discipline to be a credit card "freeloader" (pay off all credit card balances monthly).

He also advises never buying a house with anything but a 15-year fixed rate mortgage, and never with a monthly payment greater than 25% of your monthly take-home pay, never spending more than 20% of your annual income on cars (and always paying cash, never going into debt--and that means buying used).

The average household has about $10,000 in credit card debt, lots of people have been buying their homes with interest-only adjustable rate mortgages where they can barely afford the interest-only payments (or even just the negative amortization option), and many people have been pulling equity out of their homes to pay for consumer goods, and buying homes with interest-only adjustable rate mortgages (some with negative amortization options), and these people are heading for disaster. Ramsey's advice is pretty sound.

UPDATE (January 23, 2007): The Simple Dollar has a good summary of Dave Ramsey's program.

Western Union discontinues telegrams

After 145 years in the business, Western Union discontinued sending telegrams on January 27.

The story behind the Wedge Strategy becoming public

The Seattle Weekly has published a story on the Discovery Institute, including original scans of the "Wedge Strategy" and the story of how it was leaked to the Internet by Matt Duss and Tim Rhodes. More at Pharyngula, including the Wedge in PDF.

I found this paragraph interesting, considering how much the Discovery Institute spends on PR:
Seattle Weekly began making inquiries for this story in mid-2005, but neither Chapman nor any Discovery Institute fellow has been willing to be interviewed. A last attempt to elicit comment, e-mailed to spokesperson Rob Crowther on Jan. 4, elicited the following: "With the start of the new year all of the Fellows and staff are quite busy and their schedules are completely full. I think you'll find more than enough information on our website that you are welcome to quote from. If you want to submit questions in writing, I'd be happy to pass those along and see if anyone has time to respond, but I can't make any guarantees." A number of questions were submitted; none was answered.