Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hoax white powder sent to Scientology

Police are investigating mailings of suspicious white powder, which proved to be a hoax (apparently cornstarch and wheat germ), to nineteen Church of Scientology addresses today, which led to evacuations and closures. The LAPD and FBI are both investigating.

The LA Times says that "there was no evidence that Wednesday's mailings were connected to the hacking" ("a cyber attack last week"), though I suspect the mailings were from somebody participating in the "Anonymous" "war" on Scientology.

If they happen to catch the people behind the hoax, I won't have sympathy for them.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a married couple in Stockton were incorrectly targeted for harrassment on the belief they were pro-Scientology hackers.

The Scientology main website has been moved to Prolexic Technologies, a company that sells a service to filter denial of service traffic.

"Google bombing" has been used to make the Church of Scientology's website the top Google search result for "dangerous cult" and the third result for "Scientology."

The Economist has now reported on the battle, under the title "Fair game."

The Wikipedia page on "Project Chanology" is a good place to keep up-to-date on the events of the latest Internet battles involving Scientology.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

George W. Bush's favorite painting

From Scott Horton, "The Illustrated President," Harper's, January 24, 2008:

George W. Bush is famous for his attachment to a painting which he acquired after becoming a “born again Christian.” It’s by W.H.D. Koerner and is entitled “A Charge to Keep.” Bush was so taken by it, that he took the painting’s name for his own official autobiography. And here’s what he says about it:

I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves.

So in Bush’s view (or perhaps I should say, faith) the key figure, with whom he personally identifies, is a missionary spreading the word of the Methodist Christianity in the American West in the late nineteenth century.


Bush’s description of “A Charge to Keep” struck me as very strange. In fact, I’d say highly improbable. Now, however, Jacob Weisberg has solved the mystery. He invested the time to track down the commission behind the art work and he gives us the full story in his forthcoming book on Bush, The Bush Tragedy:

[Bush] came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.

Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled “The Slipper Tongue,” published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.”

So Bush’s inspiring, prosyletizing Methodist is in fact a silver-tongued horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency. Bush has consistently exhibited what psychologists call the “Tolstoy syndrome.” That is, he is completely convinced he knows what things are, so he shuts down all avenues of inquiry about them and disregards the information that is offered to him. This is the hallmark of a tragically bad executive. But in this case, it couldn’t be more precious. The president of the United States has identified closely with a man he sees as a mythic, heroic figure. But in fact he’s a wily criminal one step out in front of justice. It perfectly reflects Bush the man. . . and Bush the president.

In an update, Horton points out that Sidney Blumenthal traced the story of this painting in an April 2007 column at

(Hat tip to Dave Palmer on the SKEPTIC list.)

UPDATE (January 27, 2008): Commenter Bruce points out below that this painting misidentification was discovered even earlier by Jonathan Hutson in a blog post titled "Horseshit! Bush and the Christian Cowboy" at Talk to Action in May of 2006. Hutson uncovers the correct name of the painting and the story it was intended to illustrate, but doesn't point out that the character in the story who Bush identifies with in the painting is a thief fleeing from justice.

Election fraud

After massive election fraud in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, and other countries, it's nice to see that we know how to follow standard procedures and use mechanisms to ensure that our voting is fair and properly secured...

Or perhaps not. The video and the lengthier description at the link are from Beverly Davis' Black Box Voting project's coverage of the New Hampshire recount process.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

False statements from the Bush administration before the war in Iraq

This should be considered old news, but the Center for Public Integrity has done an extensive analysis of statements made by the president, the vice president, and five other senior members of the Bush Administration between September 11, 2001 and September 2003 and identified 935 specific false statements made. These statements are now part of a searchable database, and they've put together a graph that shows how the frequency and number of false statements dramatically increased during the run up to the invasion of Iraq, and then declined as the truth became known in the course of the war:

President Bush, for example, made 232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Powell had the second-highest total in the two-year period, with 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld and Fleischer each made 109 false statements, followed by Wolfowitz (with 85), Rice (with 56), Cheney (with 48), and McClellan (with 14).

The massive database at the heart of this project juxtaposes what President Bush and these seven top officials were saying for public consumption against what was known, or should have been known, on a day-to-day basis. This fully searchable database includes the public statements, drawn from both primary sources (such as official transcripts) and secondary sources (chiefly major news organizations) over the two years beginning on September 11, 2001. It also interlaces relevant information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches, and interviews.

The CPI report is titled "The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Anonymous" launches "war" against Scientology

In a press release yesterday that cites an article I co-authored in Skeptic magazine, a group referring to itself as "Anonymous" has announced that it has declared war against Scientology. The stated justification for the "war" is the Church of Scientology's attempts to keep a video of Tom Cruise off the net. That video, which is still viewable at, was made for a Scientology awards ceremony. The longer video from which it was taken is also now viewable there. responded to a cease and desist letter with a refusal to remove the video, which it considers to be fair use for news and comment, but I'm not so sure that it has a good legal case for putting up more than short excerpts. (In case you're wondering about all the Scientology jargon in the Tom Cruise video, MTV has done a good job of explaining it. Actor Jerry O'Connell has also put out a good parody.)

The "war," which is described at another site under the name "Project Chanology" (a reference to 4chan, a popular message board, where most posts are made by people who don't login and are thus attributed to "Anonymous"), calls for denial of service attacks over the Internet, prank phone calls, spam emails, and personal visits involving vandalism and harassment. Apparently Scientology's main website was down due to denial of service for at least part of the day yesterday.

The press release cites a number of web pages for further information about Scientology, the second of which is the article "Scientology v. the Internet: Free Speech & Copyright Infringement on the Information Super-Highway" which Jeff Jacobsen and I wrote for Skeptic magazine in 1995 after Scientology effectively declared war on the Internet. (A much lesser-known sequel to that article, published only on the web, is "Scientology v. the Internet: An Update and Response to Leisa Goodman.")

I completely disagree with the tactics being used here--Scientology has as much right to free speech and protection of their copyrights as anyone else, though I also condemn Scientology's habitual misuse of copyright to try to suppress fair use of information. To the extent this is a prank designed to get media attention, well done. To the extent it gets taken seriously, though, it's something that may not end well. Read the material, watch the videos, have a laugh, and tell others about the absurdity and abuses of Scientology. But please, don't launch attacks on their websites, harass individuals, or engage in vandalism.

"Anonymous" previously received coverage for attacks on MySpace accounts on Fox 11 in Los Angeles on July 26, 2007.

BTW, the press release gets its facts wrong when it claims that the alt.religion.scientology Usenet newsgroup was "shut down." Scientology attorney Helena Kobrin issued an rmgroup message, but almost all news servers ignored it. The accurate facts may be found in Jeff's and my Skeptic article.

UPDATE: Wikinews and have more.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Message from God billboards

Back in 1999, a bunch of billboards popped up around Phoenix that had white letters on a black background and were signed by God. One I took a bad photo of said "You think it's hot here? --God." They're back. There's now one near Kat's workplace that says "Life is short. Eternity isn't. --God." These come from a group that calls itself GodSpeaks, which doesn't actually pay for or put up the billboards, they just help interested groups in doing it locally.

I'd like to see someone make one of those sign generators for these billboards, so I can make some parodies, which these are just asking for. These billboards aren't as lighthearted as some of the church marquee signs (like this one, for example, which suggests a God who has mellowed considerably from the one who sent the plagues of the Exodus).

Here are some ideas for better content:

Stop putting words in my mouth. --God

If I existed, I'd communicate directly to all people in their own languages in a miraculous manner rather than through billboards put up by people pretending to be me, just as parents pretend to be Santa Claus. -- God

Please post further suggestions in the comments. (And if somebody writes or finds a billboard photo generator, please let me know.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

William Lane Craig weighs in on Antony Flew book

William Lane Craig has given his account of the Roy Varghese book written for Antony Flew in an audio blog, which Richard Carrier ably dissects. Craig seems not to be interested in actually examining any of the evidence in any depth.

(Carrier's blog also had a more detailed post in response to Mark Oppenheimer's article in the New York Times Magazine last November, which agreed with Oppenheimer's analysis but provided further background detail, and he has added a 27 December 2007 update to his article on the Secular Web, "Antony Flew Considers God... Sort Of.")

Thursday, January 10, 2008

FBI Wiretaps Dropped Due to Unpaid Bills

Today's Washington Post reports:

The FBI, which has had trouble keeping track of its guns and laptops, also has a chronic problem paying its phone bills on time, according to audit results released today.

Telephone companies have repeatedly cut off FBI access to wiretaps of alleged terrorists and criminal suspects because of the bureau's failure to pay its bills, the audit found.

The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that more than half of the nearly 1,000 telecommunications bills reviewed by investigators were not paid on time, including one invoice for $66,000 at one unidentified field office.


The report identified one case in which an order obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- which covers clandestine wiretaps of terrorism and espionage suspects -- was halted because of "untimely payment."

The FBI says the problem is caused by an outdated financial management system and is working to fix it. The same Post article also points out that an examination of the backgrounds of the 35 employees with access to FBI funds used to pay for expenses for undercover investigations "found that half had personal bankruptcies or other financial problems" and one FBI telecommunications specialist pleaded guilty to "stealing more than $25,000 intended for telephone services."

The article concludes by observing that Congress is still divided over the issue of granting retroactive immunity to telecoms that have engaged in illegal wiretapping for government surveillance programs and that the most recent extensions of the foreign wiretap law from last summer expire at the beginning of February.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Anti-black, anti-gay, and conspiracy rhetoric in Ron Paul newsletters

James Kirchick of The New Republic has gone back and reviewed the content of Ron Paul's newsletters published prior to 1998, and the results are not at all pretty. They contain repeated anti-black and anti-gay bigotry and conspiracy theory rhetoric, much of it under Ron Paul's byline. And the Paul campaign's explanation is weak:

When I asked Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign spokesman, about the newsletters, he said that, over the years, Paul had granted "various levels of approval" to what appeared in his publications--ranging from "no approval" to instances where he "actually wrote it himself." After I read Benton some of the more offensive passages, he said, "A lot of [the newsletters] he did not see. Most of the incendiary stuff, no." He added that he was surprised to hear about the insults hurled at Martin Luther King, because "Ron thinks Martin Luther King is a hero."

In other words, Paul's campaign wants to depict its candidate as a naïve, absentee overseer, with minimal knowledge of what his underlings were doing on his behalf. This portrayal might be more believable if extremist views had cropped up in the newsletters only sporadically--or if the newsletters had just been published for a short time. But it is difficult to imagine how Paul could allow material consistently saturated in racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy-mongering to be printed under his name for so long if he did not share these views. In that respect, whether or not Paul personally wrote the most offensive passages is almost beside the point. If he disagreed with what was being written under his name, you would think that at some point--over the course of decades--he would have done something about it.

You can find numerous excerpts from Ron Paul's past publications here.

DI's Dissent from Darwinism statement analyzed

John Lynch has looked up the backgrounds of the 300 signatories to the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism" statement who signed in 2004 (it's now up to 700, which he plans to also examine). He reports on the backgrounds of the individuals who signed, finding that "Chemists, physicists, engineers, bench jockeys, doctors and mathematicians account for over 200 of the 300 signatories" but only five organismal biologists. He also notes that there's also at least one soccer coach and a home-schooling mom in the list.

The comments are worth reading as well.

UPDATE (January 27, 2008): John Lynch has a further post on this statement, and commenter Ken, below, points to his analysis of the religious beliefs of signers at his Open Parachute blog.

UPDATE (May 14, 2008): A YouTube video documents further Discovery Institute deception with regard to this list.

New summary of CMI-AiG dispute from CMI

Creation Ministries International has published a new web page summarizing their dispute with Answers in Genesis, much of which is already familiar to readers of this blog. The summary includes an update of events immediately preceding and subsequent to the attempt at arbitration in Hawaii that occurred last August, and links to supporting documents, several of which are newly made public.

New in this report are two interesting emails from Philip Bell, former deputy CEO of AiG-UK, about what was going on inside AiG after the split from CMI. Bell resigned from AiG in June 2006 and is now head of CMI-UK. The first email is quoted in a letter from Carl Wieland to a CMI supporter in Australia who asked why CMI needed to take legal action against AiG, which includes these two paragraphs:

I am very sorry to say that AiG leaders (on both sides of the Atlantic) have engaged not only in unbiblical/unethical behaviour but in the case of AiG-USA, unlawful too—to the great detriment of their former colleagues and sister ministries in the other former AiG countries, particularly Australia—this is not merely what I have been told by colleagues abroad but rather I have personal knowledge of these things. If anyone contacts AiG-USA to find out what’s going on, they are asked to ‘pick up the phone and talk to us’. This all sounds very reasonable but there is no accountability involved because such words are not recorded and amount to so much gossip—they can be flat out denied if it is deemed expedient. I am afraid to say that I have personally witnessed outright lies (of an incredible kind) involving four individual high-ups in AiG (and in one instance I was asked to give testimony to an independent enquiry; something I took no pleasure in doing). CMI’s response has been to put everything out in the open (not without criticism of some Christian brethren of course, some of whom are upset that this seems to amount to ‘hanging our dirty linen out before the world’. I share their dismay but believe that this has to be, if justice is to be done and the Lord’s name is not to be sullied even more in the long run.

I take no pleasure in having to write these things and I know that I speak for my colleagues in CMI-Australia and around the world when I say that we long to get on with the real work that God has entrusted us with. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I have no personal axe to grind with any of the AiG leaders concerned, all of whom I once considered friends and got on with very well. This is not about personal differences but about integrity and honesty—simply put, I left AiG because we had a ministry slogan (which I liked and still like) which said: “We are a Christ-centred, evangelistic ministry dedicated to upholding the Word of God from the very first verse.” I could no longer publicly represent AiG when the actions and words of its representatives were anything but Christ-centred (rather they were/and are often man-centred—pride and an unwillingness to admit fault became the order of the day). Neither could I stomach any longer hearing people talk about upholding God’s truth while I had personally witnessed deceit and even bare faced lies from the same people. I am not their judge and I find it very sobering to even be writing these words (James 4:11-12) but the Scripture also advocates that the Christian is to ‘judge with righteous judgment’. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but it is horrendous when pride prevents people acknowledging sin and they continue to cover their unbiblical/unethical actions in God-speak. Frankly, it appears that there is no fear of the Lord in such people. In spite of my strong feelings, I have continued to pray for AiG to this very day and earnestly desire that there will be a righteous outcome that will not allow God’s name to be sullied before the world.

The second email from Bell discusses a letter sent by Monty White of AiG-UK to supporters about the split (and links to a rebuttal of that Monty White letter) and gives a UK perspective on the AiG/CMI split, and reports that not only Bell but two other AiG-UK staff members, Tim Matthews and Rachel Revell, resigned from AiG-UK over these issues.

Boeing 787 potentially vulnerable to passenger software-based hijacking

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is equipped with systems to provide passengers with on-board Internet access. Unfortunately, the passenger network is also connected to the computer systems that control the plane, as well as communication and navigation systems, which the FAA has complained about in a "special conditions" document that covers issues that are a concern but are not specifically covered by regulations.

Boeing says it has designed a solution that it will be testing shortly, and the FAA says that has to happen before any of these will be allowed to fly.

A Boeing spokesperson claims that the FAA document criticizing the design is misleading because, as Wired reports, "the plane's networks don't completely connect." She goes on in the article to say that there's a combination of physical separation and software-based firewalls. Given the fact that software-based firewalls have themselves had vulnerabilities from time to time, I'd strongly prefer to see complete physical separation.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Andrew Morton's Tom Cruise tell-all

Dlisted has the scoop on Andrew Morton's book on Tom Cruise, to be released on January 15. I would surmise that it will not be published in the UK, which has much stricter libel laws.

Cruise was threatening to sue Morton for this book back in February 2006, before he had even started writing it, because Morton hired gay porn star turned private investigator Paul Baressi, whose allegations of a gay affair with John Travolta were published in the National Enquirer, only to retract them after being sued by Travolta. Photos of Travolta kissing a man on the steps of his private plane during the production of "Hairspray" were widely published in 2006.

L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology consider homosexuality to be a perversion which falls at 1.1 on the tone scale, between fear and anger.

UPDATE (January 12, 2007): Slate reads Morton's book so you don't have to, and reveals that the Tom Cruise of Morton's book is strictly heterosexual.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Notorious major spammer indicted

Alan Ralsky, at one time believed to be the top spammer in the world, has finally been indicted today by a federal grand jury. His home was raided back in 2005, and he's now been charged along with ten other people in "a wide ranging international fraud scheme involving the illegal use of bulk commercial e-mailing." Those indicted include James E. Bragg, 39, of Queen Creek, Arizona.

The indictment alleges that Ralsky's spam gang "tried to send spam" through botnets and engaged in a "pump and dump" stock scam for Chinese companies. The Detroit Free Press's coverage reports: "Prosecutors described Ralsky, 52, of West Bloomfield, as one of the most prolific spammers in the nation. Until 2005, when federal agents raided his home and seized his computers, his operation sent tens of millions of unsolicited email messages daily to Internet subscribers, hawking everything from sexual enhancement drugs, weight loss products and worthless stock, the government said. In the summer of 2005 alone, prosecutors said, his operation generated $3 million."

The DOJ press release is here.

New online atheist newsletter

Octavia, a New Zealand atheist who was formerly an administrator at IIDB until the recent controversies there, has followed through with her proposed creation of a community newsletter for participants of the proliferating atheist and freethought message boards, called Nexus and hosted at the Nontheist Nexus.

I've just started looking at the first issue, and I went directly to the article "Atheist Cop," which was a fascinating read. There's also an excerpt from Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason," some nicely done artwork, some stills from a film being made by one of the board members, an account of a scientist who spent eight months at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, "Sarpedon's Weird Science" with links to interesting recent articles about undersea life, a couple of reviews of "The Golden Compass," a few holiday recipes, and more.

It looks like a great start, and I look forward to reading the rest of this issue and more in the future.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Who's Who in Hell is now online

Warren Allen Smith's massive Who's Who in Hell (2000, Barricade Books) is now online as a wiki, provided by the organization Philosopedia (not yet a 501(c)(3)), which manages a wiki of the same name.

Unfortunately, they're not allowing the public to edit the content. I hope they will at least open it up to registered users in some way. It's also somewhat disappointing that the organization of Who's Who in Hell puts all the entries into 26 wiki pages, one per letter of the alphabet, rather than having a separate entry for each person. My entry on the L page is woefully out of date.

UPDATE: But they're quite responsive... I have a new entry already.