Sunday, June 28, 2009

Republican states lead in divorce, teen pregnancy, and porn subscriptions

Charles Blow has an op-ed piece in yesterday's The New York Times commenting on the spate of recent Republican sex scandals which contains this infographic (an aptly named "blowchart") ranking the states based on divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, and subscriptions to online porn sites as a percentage of broadband subscribers.

Blow suggests that conservatives address this hypocrisy by becoming more concerned about what goes on in their own bedrooms than in everyone else's. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education.

(BTW, the data for the third column comes from the work of Ben Edelman (PDF), who I've cited here before for his excellent work on spyware and adware, and on the ineffectiveness of TRUSTe.)

UPDATE (June 30, 2009): There's at least one error in this chart, in that Tennessee should be red, not blue, near the bottom of the broadband porn column.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bad military botnet proposal still being pushed

I just came across an April 2009 BBC story which shows that USAF Col. Williamson is still promoting his idea of building a U.S. military botnet to engage in offensive denial of service attacks against foreign targets on the Internet.

But I haven't seen him respond to any of the criticisms of his bad idea, including in the online forum of the journal where he published it.

I think a more effective idea would be to adjust the computer crime statutes to provide immunity to prosecution (or at the very least an affirmative defense to criminal charges) for private responses to attacks that meet certain criteria, so that ISPs, security researchers, and competent individuals could engage in offensive actions against compromised machines to disable malicious software or take them off the network. Perhaps some kind of licensing or bonding would do the trick, and ISPs could put an exception into their acceptable use policies for entities that met the criteria.

That's also my partial response to this more recent BBC story about "what rules apply in cyber-wars" which led me to find the Williamson article.

$40 million in federal housing stabilization money not working in Phoenix

In April 2009, the city of Phoenix received $40 million in federal stimulus money under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. This program is designed to put a floor on house prices by providing zero-interest loans of up to $15,000 to home buyers to cover downpayments and closing costs on purchases of foreclosed homes.

The number of home buyers who have used this program to date: zero.

Several hundred people have applied for the program, but none has purchased a home yet.

The program requires that buyers have incomes between $55,350 and $104,400, depending on size of family, must complete eight hours of financial counseling in budgeting and home ownership, and must invest $1,000 of their own money. The NSP loan must be repaid in the event that the home is sold or refinanced.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

John Wilkins on atheism and agnosticism

John Wilkins has written a blog post on definitions of atheism and agnosticism, in which he suggests that the definition of atheism has been shifting of late (and encroaching upon agnosticism's territory). His discussion and that which follows in the comments is well worth reading.

Mark Sanford wants me to join him...

Talk about great timing--a few minutes ago, I received an email from "Governor Sanford" with the subject "Join Me." I thought perhaps it might be an invitation to travel to Buenos Aires. But no, it's an appeal from the Goldwater Institute to join, signed by Mark Sanford, the Republican Governor of South Carolina who is in the news today for confessing that his recent week-long disappearance was to visit a woman in Argentina that he's been having an affair with.

I suppose they can be sure the recipients are more likely to open such an email today, though I'm not sure how much Sanford's name will result in people giving them money.

BTW, Fox News ran a caption on Sanford's confession press conference identifying him as a Democrat, just like they did with Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida back in 2006.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obama's record of kept and broken promises

Radley Balko summarizes PolitiFact's report card on Obama's promises, as:

31 promises kept, of which 20 expand government power and 6 of which make it smaller, more transparent, or more accountable, and 5 are neutral.

6 promises broken, 5 of which would have limited presidential power, provided tax breaks, or more transparency or accountability to federal government, and one of which was symbolic (recognizing the Armenian genocide).

No promises broken which expand government power.

Part 3 of SP Times series on Scientology

The third part of the St. Petersburg Times story on Scientology, "Ecclesiastical justice," is out, and it's a bit of a disappointment. It's a few more charges of abuse by the four high-ranking defectors that were already summarized in the first part, plus some accounts of the well-known Sea Org practice of "overboarding," used with swimming pools when ships aren't available. Surprisingly, the story doesn't mention that the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the Scientology "Gold Base" compound in Hemet has a faux ship, the Star of California, built into the hill next to it.

Today's stories also include some more detail about the departures from Scientology of the four senior-level defectors interviewed for the story, and some media and Internet reactions.

All in all, I think this new series of stories is not as damning as, say, Janet Reitman's "Inside Scientology" that appeared in Rolling Stone in 2006, nor as any of the older classic exposures like the six-part Los Angeles Times series by Joel Sappell and Robert W. Welkos from 1990, Richard Behar's "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" from Time magazine in 1991, or Richard Leiby's work in the Clearwater Sun in the 1970s and 1980s and the Washington Post in the 1990s.

I hope someday we'll see a more detailed exposure of Scientology's battle with the IRS, and the role of the Church of Spiritual Technology/L. Ron Hubbard Library in the Scientology organizational structure, and why its trustees are lawyers who aren't Scientologists, including a former Assistant Commissioner of the IRS.

UPDATE (August 2, 2009): Other Scientology defectors are now coming forward with their stories, some of which confirm the accounts of abuse given by Rinder, Rathbun, and De Vocht.

Monday, June 22, 2009

CMI makes Darwin docu-drama

Via John Lynch's blog, I see that Creation Ministries International has made a docu-drama about Darwin titled "The Voyage That Shook the World," featuring professional historians who are well-known experts on Darwin. And why did these historians participate in a creationist project?

It seems that CMI took a page from the producers of "Expelled" and set up a separate production company, and failed to disclose the nature of their production to the historians in question. That suggests to me unethical deception--lying by omission--though I'd like to know what exactly the historians were told and what releases they signed before they participated.

Updates to come if I find out.

UPDATE (June 27, 2009): CMI describes its process for the documentary, including the document sent to interviewees, on its website. No mention is made of CMI or a creationist slant to the film. The director says that "if anything, CMI’s influence was one of moderation, ensuring that all sides were fairly represented," but if he is himself a creationist and set out to make the film from a creationist viewpoint, this isn't much of a defense. Note that at least one participant questioned who was providing the funding, and was told only "private investors." And one participant tried to return his fee in order to not appear in the film.

The proof will be in the pudding--it will be interesting to see what the film's narration says and how they fit the interviews into it. There's clearly no defense if it says things that are false or misleading.

Implicit in the CMI position is that creationism is a valid, reasonable, and evidence-supported viewpoint that deserves equal representation, but that's not the case.

One thing that's clear is that anyone being interviewed for a documentary in the age of Borat and Expelled should do some due diligence before signing a release.

UPDATE: John Lynch has responded further, as well, and I agree with everything he says. Their statement about atheists having "no compunction to be truthful at all" is false and offensive, and their analogy to an investigation of the Communist party is a bad analogy.

UPDATE: P.Z. Myers has weighed in. This may be the sort of online media coverage they're hoping for--the film is showing at so few places that the biggest place in Arizona to see it is a church in Miami, AZ (population < 2,000).

UPDATE (June 29, 2009): The CMI web page contains this statement under the movie poster image: "The Voyage that Shook the World, CMI’s documentary, has atheists ranting and raging. Rather than critique the film, they falsely accuse CMI of deception." This statement itself is dishonest--the accusations of deception are accurate, and the current complaints are not necessarily in lieu of critiquing the film, if it becomes feasible to view it.

UPDATE: John Lynch responds further to CMI, and notes that he has been incorrectly identified as an atheist (he's an agnostic).

SP Times Scientology article on Lisa McPherson

Part two of the three-part series in the St. Petersburg Times on Scientology has been published, and it's a detailed account of the death of Lisa McPherson. Some of the previously unpublished details include that David Miscavige was personally monitoring McPherson's auditing over closed circuit television and deemed her "clear" in 1995, prior to her minor car accident and subsequent death after being held for 17 days in the Fort Harrison hotel and being subjected to the "introspection rundown." This is according to Tom De Vocht and Don Jason, both former high-ranking Scientologists in Clearwater. The Church of Scientology denies that Miscavige was even present in Clearwater.

In December 1999, when a judge ruled that Miscavige could be added as a defendant in the McPherson wrongful death case, he allegedly became more abusive and irrational. The criminal case against the church fell apart when the medical examiner changed her ruling from undetermined cause of death to accidental death. Former Scientologist Marty Rathbun, one of the critics speaking out for this series, agrees with the church on this point that the medical examiner's decision was based on the evidence rather than on blackmail or pressure from the church.


(Photograph is of a Scientology Sea Org bus near the Fort Harrison Hotel, with a couple members of the Sea Org in uniform, on June 25, 2005. Sea Org members sign billion-year contracts.)

Creationist oil drilling

More on Zion Oil and Gas, a company tied to Hal Lindsey that picks sites to drill for oil based on misinterpretations of the Bible--and they're looking in Israel. The Bronte Capital blog writes about the company as a counterexample to the claim that all oil exploration work uses mainstream old-earth geology, so now, to be accurate, you need to say that this is true of all successful oil exploration work. (I believe Uri Geller allegedly helped in some oil or mineral exploration in the past, so the former claim had already been falsified, though I think the latter still holds.)

Bronte Capital notes that since Zion can claim that it is making its decisions based on constitutionally protected religious belief, that may be a defense against accusations of stock fraud.

Zion's stock trades on the American Exchange under stock symbol ZN. It has a market capitalization of $85.17 million, and closed last week at $8.00/share, near the bottom of its 52-week range ($5.07-$17.68). The company formed in 2000 and has offices in Texas and Israel.

The company's stock is, unfortunately, not available for shorting.

Here's a Zion promotional video:


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Former high-ranking Scientologists speak out in SP Times

It turns out former head of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder, who left the Church of Scientology in 2007, has decided to speak out after all. And so has Marty Rathbun, who was Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center, the organization that acts as agent for all of Scientology's intellectual property and was prominent in legal action against online critics.

The St. Petersburg Times is running a multi-part story on their allegations of corruption and abuse inside the Church of Scientology, confirming and expanding upon stories that have long been staples of online criticisms of the church:

• Physical violence permeated Scientology's international management team. Miscavige set the tone, routinely attacking his lieutenants. Rinder says the leader attacked him some 50 times.

Rathbun, Rinder and De Vocht admit that they, too, attacked their colleagues, to demonstrate loyalty to Miscavige and prove their mettle.

• Staffers are disciplined and controlled by a multi­layered system of "ecclesiastical justice.'' It includes publicly confessing sins and crimes to a group of peers, being ordered to jump into a pool fully clothed, facing embarrassing "security checks'' or, worse, being isolated as a "suppressive person.''

At the pinnacle of the hierarchy, Miscavige commands such power that managers follow his orders, however bizarre, with lemming-like obedience.

• Church staffers covered up how they botched the care of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died after they held her 17 days in isolation at Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel.

Rathbun, who Miscavige put in charge of dealing with the fallout from the case, admits that he ordered the destruction of incriminating evidence. He and others also reveal that Miscavige made an embarrassing miscalculation on McPherson's Scientology counseling.

• With Miscavige calling the shots and Rathbun among those at his side, the church muscled the IRS into granting Scientology tax-exempt status. Offering fresh perspective on one of the church's crowning moments, Rathbun details an extraordinary campaign of public pressure backed by thousands of lawsuits.

• To prop up revenues, Miscavige has turned to long-time parishioners, urging them to buy material that the church markets as must-have, improved sacred scripture.

Church officials deny the accusations. Miscavige never hit a single church staffer, not once, they said.

This is likely to create a huge uproar within the Church of Scientology, and provoke more significant departures over the next few years.

The first of three parts is up at the St. Petersburg Times, which gives some highlights of the allegations, Scientology's response, and a brief history of Scientology's "Operation Snow White," David Miscavige's rise to power as head of the church, and the church's battles with the IRS, which culminated in a secret agreement that gave Scientologists tax deductions no other religions get. (They get to write off the full value of their payments for "services," not just the portion above the value received in return--though perhaps that's just an implicit acknowledgment that they have no value.)

Scientology has responded by attacking the sources in its usual manner, arguing that they had ethical problems while they were in Scientology (they agree--Rinder admits he lied to the media when he was working for Scientology) and releasing their confessions to wrong-doing from auditing sessions. They also have produced current Scientologists who deny the accounts of abuse by Miscavige, and included "a story of Miscavige spotting an injured sparrow, talking to it and checking back later to see if it lived. 'It was immensely tender.'" And they assert that this is part of an extortion campaign by the former members.

Part two will focus on the Lisa McPherson case, which was brought to the world's attention when critic Jeff Jacobsen, my co-author on "Scientology v. the Internet" for Skeptic magazine, discovered it and recognized its significance. (Also see Jeff's more recent article on "Anonymous" and Scientology.)

Part three will have more information from recent high-ranking defectors--in addition to Rinder and Rathbun, Amy Scobee of the Church's Celebrity Center network and Tom DeVocht, who oversaw the church's "spiritual headquarters" in Clearwater, Florida (where Lisa McPherson died), have spoken to the Times.

(The photo is of the Scientology "Super Power" building in Clearwater, Florida, taken on June 25, 2005.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Technology tidbits

From the Technology Quarterly report in the June 6-12, 2009 issue of The Economist, a few articles of interest:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A code of conduct for effective rational discussion

John Wilkins sets out "a code of conduct for effective rational discussion," a list of principles for debate and discussion that aims at approaching truth rather than winning a rhetorical battle, at the new location of his Evolving Thoughts blog.

The list of proposed principles is:
  1. The Fallibility Principle
  2. The Truth-Seeking Principle
  3. The Clarity Principle
  4. The Burden of Proof Principle
  5. The Principle of Charity
  6. The Relevance Principle
  7. The Acceptability Principle
  8. The Sufficiency Principle
  9. The Rebuttal Principle
  10. The Resolution Principle
  11. The Suspension of Judgement Principle
  12. The Reconsideration Principle
  13. Fleck’s Addendum
Check out Evolving Thoughts for discussion of each of these principles.

Evolution, religion, schizophrenia, and the schizotypal personality

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky giving a lecture on the evolution of schizophrenia, and how schizotypal personality and its associated "metamagical thinking" may be adaptive, and a source or driver for religious belief in a community.

(Via boingboing.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

ApostAZ podcast #16

The latest ApostAZ podcast is now out:
Episode 016 Atheism and Bleep-Free Thought in Phoenix! Go to for group events! Special Guest August Berkshire. August Berkshire is vice-president of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), and past president of Minnesota Atheists.

He is also in the midst of a three-week tour through the midwest and southwest visiting various atheist groups along the way including our own Phoenix Atheist group. Intro: Roll with an Atheist by Charlie Checkm. Outro: Fallen on the Front Lines by Galt Aureus.

August is the owner of the “ATHEIST” license plate for Minnesota and is proud to be listed in the reference book Who’s Who in Hell.
Origin of the "Seven Deadly Sins":

Goldwater Institute hires investigative journalist

As newspapers decline and die, it's good to see other opportunities opening up to support investigative journalism. Along with wire services, which are beefing up their staffs and seeing growing profits as their content is syndicated to more and more places including websites and broadcast media, think tanks are also getting into the business. (There are also other nonprofits that support investigative journalism, such as the Center for Public Integrity.)

The Goldwater Institute has hired investigative reporter Mark Flatten from the Tribune to investigate and report on cases of government corruption, abuse, and waste. Flatten is an award-winning reporter who has covered state government for nearly 20 years in Arizona, including covering the impeachment of former Gov. Evan Mecham, the AzScam corruption scandal, and the alternative fuels fiasco.

Flatten is the only reporter who has ever been banned from the floor of the state legislature, which occurred at the order of former Arizona Speaker of the House Don Aldridge (R-Lake Havasu City) because of Flatten's reporting on links between Aldridge and Max Dunlap, who was convicted for his part in the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. In 1976, Aldridge was a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and he accompanied Dunlap to the law office of Neal Roberts on June 2, the day a bomb went off under Bolles' car, allegedly about a runway paving problem at the Mohave County Airport (as reported in the Kingman Daily Miner, June 28, 1976). On June 3, Roberts and Dunlap met at Durant's Restaurant to discuss raising $25,000 for the defense of Bolles' killer, John Harvey Adamson, who was at the time facing a minor criminal charge and had not yet been caught for the murder.

A May 10 NPR story describes the Goldwater Institute's job ad for this position and raises concerns about political bias infecting any stories produced. While I think that's a real concern, I think it's often better to have stories come from an advertised bias rather than pretend objectivity. In any case, Flatten's stories have gone after abuse regardless of party (Mecham was a Republican, the alternative fuels fiasco was caused by a Republican, and AzScam caught both Republicans and Democrats taking bribes).

I look forward to seeing what he will investigate and write about in this new role.

UPDATE (October 19, 2009): Flatten has published his first major investigative piece since being hired by the Goldwater Institute, and it's an account of how a federal program designed to provide business opportunities to the disadvantaged is being used by political insiders for their own benefit, including County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. Wilcox obtained the Chili's Too franchise in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor Airport as an Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE), which requires that the owner participate in the day-to-day operation of the business, which she does not (though perhaps her co-owner does?). She also received a $450,000 loan from Host International which meant she didn't have to bring any money to the table, a loan which violated city policy (the City of Phoenix owns and operates Sky Harbor).

Flatten's "High Fliers" report may be found here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

David Paszkiewicz takes students to Creation Museum

David Paszkiewicz, the Kearny, NJ high school teacher who was proselytizing for Christianity and creationism and then lied about it when his student Matthew LaClair complained, only to be caught because LaClair recorded the evidence, is taking students from the school on a field trip to the Creation Museum. Paszkiewicz, who is also the advisor for the school's Christian Club, wants students to be exposed to the "science behind creationism."

Apparently the original plan was to take this field trip during school hours using taxpayer funds.

Matthew LaClair will be discussing this tonight on Equal Time for Freethought on WBAI radio 99.5 FM in NYC at 6:30 p.m. EDT, 3:30 p.m. MST (Arizona). WBAI broadcasts on the Internet in several streaming audio formats, so you don't have to be in NYC to listen.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

My AHA workshop session on Thursday

I'll be giving a talk during the pre-conference workshop sessions at this week's American Humanist Association conference, which is being held June 5-7 at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel.

My talk is on Thursday, June 4, from 4-5 p.m. in the Palm F room. While there is ordinarily a $20 charge for the pre-conference workshops, readers of this blog may attend for free (but donations to the AHA are appreciated).

My talk is entitled "Lessons learned from 25 years of battling creationists, Scientologists, and fundamentalists online."

I'll also be representing the Arizona Coalition of Reason at a press conference on Friday morning about a new billboard campaign.

More about that on Friday.

UPDATE (June 4, 2009): My presentation (Keynote format) is here, published with a Creative Commons license (noncommercial, attribution, no derivative works).

UPDATE (June 8, 2009): Friday's press conference was held by the American Humanist Association, the United Coalition of Reason, and the Arizona Coalition of Reason. Roy Speckhardt of the AHA introduced the press conference, Fred Edwords of United COR announced his new group and that it plans to start up about 20 COR groups throughout the country by the end of the year, and I spoke on behalf of ArizonaCOR. We have a billboard up at 44th St. and Washington, on the southbound route into Sky Harbor airport.

We got press coverage from ABC Ch. 15, Fox Ch. 10, and independent Ch. 3, from the Arizona Republic and New Times, and from KTAR radio. ASU's State Press will also be running a story.

Most spun the issue as a big controversy, but that seems outlandish to me. Fox's "man on the street" interviews ended up with two atheists out of five interviewed, and most didn't seem to think it was a big deal. The owner of the business near the billboard made some strange argument about how the billboard should have required special regulatory approval, since he needed to get approval for his own business's signs--but apparently didn't recognize that such approval would only be needed for the billboard itself (unless it was grandfathered), not for its content.

UPDATE (June 21, 2009): Here's my presentation, embedded via SlideShare:

UPDATE (June 29, 2009): Leslie Zukor of the Reed Secular Alliance at Reed College gives a recap of the AHA conference.