Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Phoenix housing inventories for sale continue to climb

To continue from just before where we left off last time... there were 10,748 homes for sale on July 20, 2005, and it had increased by 79% to 19,254 by October 2. Yesterday, it was up a further 69% to 32,512--a 202% increase over the July 20 number. I've seen estimates that about a third are being sold by "investors."

10/1/2005 19333
10/2/2005 19316
10/3/2005 19362
10/4/2005 19463
10/5/2005 19562
10/6/2005 19670
10/7/2005 20052
10/8/2005 20219
10/9/2005 20153
10/10/2005 20324
10/11/2005 20470
10/12/2005 20668
10/13/2005 20850
10/14/2005 21238
10/15/2005 21446
10/16/2005 21463
10/17/2005 21527
10/18/2005 21588
10/19/2005 21795
10/20/2005 21806
10/21/2005 22302
10/22/2005 22719
10/23/2005 22769
10/24/2005 22806
10/25/2005 22976
10/26/2005 23132
10/27/2005 23293
10/28/2005 23681
10/29/2005 23805
10/30/2005 23816
10/31/2005 23790
11/1/2005 23601
11/2/2005 23665
11/3/2005 24193
11/4/2005 24579
11/5/2005 24786
11/6/2005 24717
11/7/2005 24937
11/8/2005 25244
11/9/2005 25333
11/10/2005 25387
11/11/2005 25700
11/12/2005 25685
11/13/2005 25773
11/14/2005 25945
11/15/2005 25913
11/16/2005 25884
11/17/2005 26261
11/18/2005 26098
11/19/2005 26662
11/20/2005 26688
11/21/2005 26684
11/22/2005 26488
11/23/2005 26776
11/24/2005 26819
11/25/2005 26855
11/26/2005 26871
11/27/2005 26890
11/28/2005 26979
11/29/2005 26811
11/30/2005 26797
12/1/2005 26792
12/2/2005 26915
12/3/2005 27238
12/4/2005 27295
12/5/2005 27356
12/6/2005 27387
12/7/2005 27403
12/8/2005 27367
12/9/2005 27649
12/10/2005 27706
12/11/2005 27664
12/12/2005 27512
12/13/2005 27411
12/14/2005 27566
12/15/2005 27517
12/16/2005 27603
12/17/2005 27791
12/18/2005 27776
12/19/2005 27722
12/20/2005 27604
12/21/2005 27554
12/22/2005 27516
12/23/2005 27486
12/24/2005 27311
12/25/2005 27014
12/26/2005 26810
12/27/2005 26822
12/28/2005 26687
12/29/2005 26649
12/30/2005 26547
12/31/2005 26497
1/1/2006 26462
1/2/2006 26401
1/3/2006 26751
1/4/2006 27403
1/5/2006 27564
1/6/2006 28224
1/7/2006 28337
1/8/2006 28542
1/9/2006 28595
1/10/2006 28786
1/11/2006 29222
1/12/2006 29507
1/13/2006 29689
1/14/2006 29899
1/15/2006 30415
1/16/2006 30391
1/17/2006 30707
1/18/2006 30817
1/19/2006 31085
1/20/2006 31457
1/21/2006 31463
1/22/2006 31497
1/23/2006 31607
1/24/2006 31766
1/25/2006 31830
1/26/2006 32142
1/27/2006 32002
1/28/2006 32477
1/29/2006 32458
1/30/2006 32512

Arizona porn spamming proxy abusers busted

The Federal Trade Commission today unsealed and announced its action in the U.S. District Court in Arizona against William Dugger (a/k/a Billy Johnson, d/b/a Net Everyone) of Hawaii (with a business address in Phoenix), Angelina Johnson (d/b/a Net Everyone) of Hawaii and/or Phoenix, and John Vitale (d/b/a Net Everyone) of Phoenix for sending CAN-SPAM-violating porn spam using compromised systems of uninvolved third parties. The Temporary Restraining Order announced today freezes their assets and requires their ISPs to disconnect all of their equipment from the Internet and deny them any access to it.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Congress banned from Wikipedia for abuses

Wikipedia has banned the IP blocks of U.S. Congress from the ability to make changes, due to repeated abuses by Congressional staffers who
repeatedly engage in revert wars, blank content, engage in libelous behavior or violate WP:NPOV, WP:CIV [Wikipedia's standards for neutral point of view and civility]. The editors from these IP ranges are rude and abrasive, immature, and show no understanding of Wikipedia policy. The editors also frequently try to whitewash the actions of certain politicians. They treat Wikipedia articles about politicians as though they own the articles, replacing community articles with their own sanctioned biographies and engaging in revert wars when other users dispute this sudden change. They also violate Wikipedia:Verifiability, by deleting verified reports, while adding flattering things about members of Congress that are unverified.
A newspaper article has been written on this subject in the Lowell Sun by Evan Lehmann.

A list of further details is in the Wikipedia entry on Congressional Staffer Edits.

Kudos to Wikipedia for treating Congress the way it deserves to be treated.

Apparently Sam Coppersmith has never heard of Kelo v. New London Development Corp.

Sam Coppersmith complains that legislators seeking restrictions on eminent domain abuse are wasting their time (and apparently that they are trying to create a diversion from other more important issues). Sure, Arizona has better protections in place than most states (as demonstrated by the decisions in Bailey v. Myers (link is a PDF) and City of Tempe v. Valentine) , but why is it any surprise that there is extensive support for expanding such protections in the aftermath of the Kelo decision? The failure of his column to even mention that decision strikes me as disingenuous.

The Castle Coalition and the Institute for Justice have very strong grassroots support on this issue, and it's not a partisan issue.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Discovery Institute and the status of Intelligent Design as science

The Discovery Institute has lately taken the position (argued by law student Michael Francisco) that Judge Jones was wrong to even consider ruling on the question of whether Intelligent Design is science. This position has been refuted in detail by Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, by John Pieret at Thoughts in a Haystack, and by Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority.

I have one critique of Dunford's argument--I believe he is conflating two positions in order to create a contradiction on the part of the Discovery Institute when he points out that they argued that he should rule on the constitutionality of Intelligent Design, but should not have ruled on whether Intelligent Design is science. These are distinguishable issues and one could hold both simultaneously without contradiction (though not necessarily without error). Where the Discovery Institute contradicted the recent argument from Michael Francisco is that its expert witnesses and its amicus brief did argue for the scientific status of ID, as Brayton and Pieret point out.

Wanchick's moral argument

Richard Carrier and Tom Wanchick have begun a debate over at the Internet Infidels site. Wanchick gives six arguments for Christian theism, one of which is the following "moral argument":
But what makes us obliged not to mistreat humans? After all, if naturalism is true, "a human being is a biological animal,"[16] as naturalist Julian Baggini admits. But unless humans have unique moral worth not had by beasts, it seems objective moral truth wouldn't exist. It wouldn't, for instance, be immoral to rape or kill, for animals do so to each other regularly with no moral significance.[17]
When somebody says "it seems," that may be an indication that there isn't a solid argument. Here, for instance, Wanchick says that unless humans have unique moral worth distinct from all animals, there is no objective moral truth. The conclusion clearly doesn't follow without additional premises. The more obvious conclusion from the premise that humans are not the unique holders of moral worth is that animals also have moral worth, that mistreating and abusing them is wrong, and perhaps that it is immoral to kill animals for food--this is the conclusion drawn by many vegetarians and vegans. Moral worth is a distinct concept from moral responsibility, so the fact that animals don't respect each others' moral worth doesn't make them morally blameworthy. One can have moral worth and rights that deserve to be respected without having the capacity for moral reasoning or responsibility.
Paul Draper pinpoints the problem such properties would cause for naturalism: "every human being has a special sort of inherent value that no animal has, and every human has an equal amount of this value. Such equality is possible despite the great differences among humans, because the value in question does not supervene on any natural properties. It is a nonnatural property that all (and only) humans possess."[18] The great naturalist philosopher J.L. Mackie, and myriad others, agree.
Mackie's "queerness" argument certainly does carry some weight as an argument against the objectivity of moral properties. This argument about equality, however, I find less convincing. I would argue that the inherent value that is "equal" is that we recognize a set of individual rights for those who meet certain minimal criteria of personhood (or sentience, consciousness, capacity for pain, or whatever are the minimal features which give rise to such rights), and it is those rights which are equal, and are so for social and economic reasons. In fact, the actual value any one person has (for themselves and others) does vary from person to person based on natural properties.
Unfortunately, to defend naturalism, Draper and Mackie (like Carrier) have to absurdly deny that humans have such unique inherent worth.[19] Carrier even says some animals are more morally valuable than certain humans in virtue of their superior intellect, rationality, etc.[20] But such positions are obviously false. Humans have moral worth not found in animals, regardless of their comparative capabilities, and the failure to recognize this is simply a lack of moral insight.
There is no argument here except bare assertion: "such positions are obviously false." Those who advocate animal rights would question Wanchick's capacity for moral insight, and since Wanchick supplies no evidence or reasons to support his position on this issue, there is no reason to prefer his position to theirs.
But since these moral properties obviously do exist in human beings and aren't natural, they must have a supernatural source. And since moral properties exist only in persons, the source of moral properties must be a supernatural person.
Again, Wanchick has proceeded by bare assertion--"these moral properties obviously do exist in human beings and aren't natural"--that's two assertions, neither of which he has offered any support for. He then asserts that "moral properties exist only in persons," again without argument. I have some ideas about how such an argument could be constructed, though most of them involve non-objective meta-ethics, which would not support Wanchick's view. I don't think that Wanchick actually believes that "moral properties exist only in persons"--surely he would agree that there are particular actions that are objectively wrong, such as an axe murder. But an axe murder is not within a person, it is an action in the natural world, and for it to be objectively wrong is for that action to have moral properties. If Wanchick agrees with this, it undermines this entire argument. If he disagrees with it, then he owes an explanation for how his view is not a form of subjectivism.
The moral order, then, is evidence of a supernatural person who grounds moral truth. Additionally, at least some moral truths are necessary, and thus their foundation must be a necessary being grounding moral facts in all possible worlds.[21]
Wanchick finishes up with more bare assertion, throwing in his "additionally" remarks without any justification or argument.

I'm not sure if this is the worst of Wanchick's six arguments, but it's quite feeble.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dead In Christ

Maureen, of "Fucktard" fame, was apparently exposed by Justin, at fifteen minutes, as a college student at WVU, and not the poor uneducated woman she claimed to be. By all appearances, she has deleted the Dying in Christ blog and her own Blogger profile.

Justin just posted this (off-topic) comment about it over at Die Eigenheit:

I mainly posted those ones you found at the other site, asking her what they were about and why she swore so much. She deleted them, saying I had blasphemed the holy spirit, so I reposted them... asking if WVU had a policy about using their computers to spread hate speech and the like.She told me she didn't go to WVU, I was clearly wrong and that she "was too old" to go to "university" and blamed the profanity-laced comments on the other blog on "Zach" whom had already apologized for doing such naughty things. I told her they weren't possibly from Zach (or he's the smartest 12 year old in the world), and then within a half-hour... the whole thing was gone.
I don't know about anyone else, but as I sit here and laugh hysterically, contemplating Maureen's accusation that Justin blasphemed the Holy Spirit, I have to admit that I'm going to miss the old broad.

UPDATE: It appears that we are witness to a resurrection, as Dying In Christ has been reincarnated as a blog "intended to start reflecting a more Unitarian/Universalist or a Secular Humanist point of view. More to follow :)".

Sounds like it won't be quite so funny, though.

The Disneyfication of Devo: DEV2.O

This is just too horrifying for words--four teenage kids doing Devo covers, with the blessing of the band.
"I'm honored to be the new Mark Mothersbaugh!" declared Nicole!
says a press release. But I guess it is just the next step in devolution...

They don't do "Mongoloid."

Pushing spyware through search

Ben Edelman points out how Google is a major player in the distribution of spyware by accepting paid advertising from companies that distribute it. The data is now easily available, thanks to SiteAdvisor.com, about which sites are distributing this crap, and if Google really wants to not be evil, they should start refusing the money of these sleazy companies.

This is a parallel situation to Internet providers who provide connectivity to known spammers. I am pleased to work for a company that has a strict acceptable use policy (which I helped write, and which my organization is responsible for enforcing), which allows us to take appropriate steps to keep spammers off our network and quickly terminate contracts and access of those who manage to make it on. But too many are unwilling to say no to the money, and look the other way when their contracts are violated, which unfortunately includes the big guys (SBC, which is now part of AT&T, and MCI, which is now part of Verizon, are two of the very worst offenders out there).

Friday, January 27, 2006

Goldwater Institute: Confused priorities

In today's release from the Goldwater Institute, "The Nanny State Comes to My Mailbox," Andrea Woodmansee complains about the fact that a birthday card from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano contained the statement "One of your most important roles as a parent is to make sure your baby is immunized."

I find it more objectionable that the state spends money to send out cards for all births instead of on more useful things (or did Ms. Woodmansee get special treatment as a result of her proximity to power?) than I am that the card contains an accurate statement about the importance of immunization.

This state contains numerous anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists who put the rest of us as well as their own children at risk by not having them vaccinated.

Failing to have children vaccinated is arguably a form of child abuse--failing to take reasonable steps to give the child proper medical treatment.

I can't bring myself to be exercised about Janet Napolitano promoting vaccination when we have a President who doesn't respect Constitutional limits on his power.

Does anyone doubt that Barry Goldwater would have prioritized George Bush's abuses of power over Janet Napolitano's birthday card promotion of vaccination as a subject of critical attention?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Kudos to James Frey for coming clean

Now that Frey has confessed that The Smoking Gun's expose is quite accurate and his book was filled with fabrications, Oprah has also admitted that she was mistaken to continue supporting him and give "the impression that the truth does not matter."

It's more satisfying to everyone when liars confess than when they continue lying, and when those who make mistakes admit them rather than cover them up.

How you can tell the Discovery Institute isn't doing science

Mike Dunford compares their PR output to their scientific output at The Questionable Authority. They put out a press release at a rate of 0.44 per day, but scientific papers at a rate of 0.0046/day. Another way of looking at it is that it took them over 20 years to generate the 34 papers on their list, but their last 34 press releases have come in the last 77 days (since November 10, 2005).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Stop Badware!

In addition to SiteAdvisor.com, Google, Lenovo, and Sun have backed a project by the Berkman Center at the Harvard Law School, the Oxford Internet Institute, and Consumer Reports WebWatch to create a "hall of shame" for purveyors of spyware and adware, at www.stopbadware.org.

StopBadWare and SiteAdvisor.com should team up, if they haven't already (Ben Edelman was formerly a student fellow at the Berkman Center and an advisor to SiteAdvisor.com and has already created his own hall of shame list for affiliate programs)--the latter's data should be quite useful to the former, and is available under Creative Commons license.

Turning mental institutions into condos

CNNMoney.com's grand-prize winner for dumbest moment of 2005 goes to a plan to convert the creepy Danvers State Hospital into high-end apartments and condos. This mental institution was an example of the architecture known as the "Kirkbride Plan," similar to other Gothic Revival masterpieces like the H.H. Richardson-designed Buffalo State Hospital.

Danvers was the setting of the 2001 film "Session 9."

New Internet consumer protection tool--SiteAdvisor.com

I've been using the Firefox plugin from SiteAdvisor.com for a few days, and I think it's a great idea. They've searched the web, downloaded content, and submitted unique email addresses on signup forms everywhere they find them, to see what happens. They then rate each site for malicious content and the extent to which it generates spam in response to a signup. This database is then used by their browser plugin to display icons next to Google and Yahoo search results indicating whether that site is green, yellow, or red regarding the type of content downloaded, the amount of email you can expect to receive from signing up at the site, and whether it links to other sites that are problematic.

Their privacy policy is good--they don't keep a record of who goes to what site. One feature I'd like to see them add is the ability to not make queries for certain domains (such as Intranet web pages--their current design allows them to map out internal corporate web structures which they should not be able to get).

Their advisory board includes Avi Rubin, a well-known security researcher at Johns Hopkins University (and formerly at AT&T) who has done significant work on e-voting security, and Ben Edelman, formerly of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, who is well-known for his research on Internet subjects such as domain name usage and China's web filtering, as well as his lawsuit against web filtering company N2H2 to defend his right to research its blocking list.

SiteAdvisor has a blog, too (though as of this moment it doesn't have a valid RSS feed, according to Thunderbird).

Cory Doctorow talk at Nature on copyright, SF, online publication, etc.

Cory Doctorow visited the offices of Nature and gave an interesting talk. (Link via Pharyngula.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Skeptics using Intelligent Design for fundraising

The two major skeptical organizations in the U.S.--Michael Shermer's Skeptics Society and Paul Kurtz's Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) (or, actually, its parent organization, the Center for Inquiry)--have both decided to use combatting the threat of Intelligent Design as a major platform of their most recent fundraising campaigns.

The Skeptics Society sent out a card-sized folded mailing with a photo of Darwin on the front with the caption "Help us keep religion out of the science classroom!" The inside reported on recent events, such as Cardinal Schonborn's New York Times piece that the Discovery Institute and their PR agency, Creative Response Concepts, helped arrange. It continues with facts about the amount of funding the Discovery Institute receives, quotes from Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, Harris and Pew poll results showing the general public's ignorance on evolution. So how will collected funds be used to combat Intelligent Design? Apparently Shermer has a new book coming out this year titled Why Darwin Matters: Evolution, Design, and the Battle for Science and Religion (Henry Holt/Times Books), copies of which will be sent "to every Congressman, Senator, and Governor in America, along with the relevant state boards of education, and state legislative bodies contemplating passing pro-creationist legislation." That doesn't strike me as a particularly productive way to combat ID--I suspect most of the recipients will not read the book.

There are other bullet items listed--publication of "a special volume of essays on evolution and Intelligent Design creationism collected from the pages of Skeptic magazine, to be published by the Skeptics Society and widely distributed to science teachers throughout America to give them the intellectual tools they need to deal with ID and creationism." Another is to "distribute free copies to teachers" of the existing booklet How to Debate a Creationist. That sounds much more worthwhile, though I think that it would be more productive to give teachers tools like Eugenie Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction and Mark Isaak's Counter-Creationism Handbook (the online version of which is here--some of the best teacher and student resources are already free and online).

The bonuses for contributors include a free book from a selection of six for $100 "Supporters" (In Darwin's Shadow by Tim Callahan is the only one that appears directly relevant to the topic). $500 "sponsors" get a free 3-year subscription to Skeptic; $1000 "benefactors" get two free tickets to the 2006 Skeptics Society conference on "The Environmental Wars"; and $5000 "patrons" get dinner with Shermer and "a world-renowned scientist (to be announced)" and a private tour of Mt. Wilson's 100-inch telescope and use of the 60-inch telescope, along with the gifts the other levels get.

The Center for Inquiry sent out a more elaborate package, including a DVD presentation promoting the "New Future Fund," a campaign to raise $26.6 million, "the largest sum ever raised in the name of humanism, skepticism, and scientific naturalism." The four major goals for the use of the money are "Legal Activism," "Opposing Creationism/Intelligent Design," "Transnational Development," and "Outreach and Education." The second item, "Opposing Creationism/Intelligent Design," discusses Intelligent Design, and says that "CSICOP is fighting back, mobilizing grassroots outreach and expert scientists when ID proposals threaten. We're especially aggressive online, publishing a stable of online columnists and a dynamic new website, Creation & Intelligent Design Watch." The website has a pretty substantial amount of content, with the November/December Skeptical Inquirer (a special issue on "Evolution and the ID Wars") as the centerpiece (along with other CSICOP-related articles, including many of Chris Mooney's Doubt and About articles), links to items appropriate for classroom use on the left side, and links to current news stories on the right side.

Now, I'm all in favor of a diversity of approaches to promote critical thinking and combat Intelligent Design's political actions, but everyone should keep in mind that the two organizations actually doing the most in this arena are the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which is the only organization devoted entirely to fighting creationism and promoting accurate teaching about evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has provided the legal support for every major creation/evolution courtroom battle. By all means support the Skeptics Society and Center for Inquiry's programs, but if Intelligent Design is a concern, please be sure to support the NCSE and ACLU.

What One Hand Giveth...

May 1, 2003:

Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

The advance of freedom is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror in the world. Where freedom takes hold, hatred gives way to hope. When freedom takes hold, men and women turn to the peaceful pursuit of a better life. American values and American interests lead in the same direction: We stand for human liberty.

Our commitment to liberty is America's tradition - declared at our founding; affirmed in Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms; asserted in the Truman Doctrine and in Ronald Reagan's challenge to an evil empire.

-- President Bush

January 4, 2006:
Coast Guard Repatriates 126 Cuban Migrants

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Loompanics Going Out of Business

Mike Hoy's Loompanics Unlimited, seller of unusual and controversial books for over 30 years, is going out of business--everything is 50% off. It's a sad day, but fortunately most of these books are now easier to obtain than ever. (Hat tip to Patri Friedman at Catallarchy--I haven't received the catalogs for many years.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl is a spammer

As readers of this blog know, I'm no supporter of George W. Bush. I've never contributed funds or worked to support the campaign of a Republican. Yet I received this spam email from Jon Kyl, who is apparently concerned about competition from Arizona Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson in the next election. It's also interesting that Kyl's jonkyl.com website is hosted in Canada, and his campaign webservers are hosted in New Jersey. Way to support your home state, Senator.
From: "Senator Jon Kyl"
Date: Thu, 19 Jan 2006 23:57:14 -0500
Subject: I invite you to join my team...

Today I am writing you for two reasons. One is to say thank you for your past support of President Bush and a second is to ask for your help. I am not asking for money. I am simply asking for your time and energy in helping my reelection campaign.

First, thank you for your help in the 2004 election. Because of your hard work, we had a huge victory in Arizona. One of the key elements of victory was the organized force of Bush Volunteers who registered voters, made phone calls, walked neighborhoods, placed signs and bumper stickers, and helped get out the vote. It was a record setting year, and you were part of that team.

Second, I want to ask for your help. As you may know, I am running for reelection to the U.S. Senate. My opponent is the former Chairman of the Arizona Democrat Party, Jim Pederson. He has personally bankrolled the Democrats' efforts, including against President Bush, to date he has spent over $5 million on Democrats and their causes. He is a supporter of Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy and was a leader in John Kerry's failed presidential campaign. Not surprisingly, John Kerry now is Pederson's biggest contributor.

That is why I need your help. Television and radio alone will not win this election. In order to be successful, we will need to replicate the Bush Volunteer program to run our grass roots campaign. We are currently recruiting volunteers from across Arizona to join our campaign as Kyl Captains. As a Kyl Captain you will be integral in our network of individuals who are willing to help on the campaign. Whether you prefer registering voters, working the phones, or just talking with your friends and neighbors, you will be a critical component of my campaign. Because Jim Pederson will spend what it takes on television, it is very important to have a strong and active Arizona Team on the ground, registering and getting voters to the polls. I am convinced it is the key to victory in November 2006.

Please take a moment and visit www.jonkyl.com and sign up as a Kyl Captain. Your personal commitment to this campaign will make all the difference. It has been the greatest honor of my life to represent the people of Arizona in the United States Senate. With your help I hope to continue that public service.

Again, thank you for your past work on behalf of the President and I look forward to working together in the future.


Jon Kyl
U.S. Senator

P.S. If you have any questions, please feel free to call my office at (602) 840-0306 or visit: www.jonkyl.com

P.O. Box 10246 :: Phoenix, AZ 85064 :: info@jonkyl.com

Paid for by Jon Kyl for U.S. Senate

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Report card on the U.S. government's response to the 9/11 Commission

The U.S. government has failed to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to fix the worst problems. Shane Harris and Greta Wodele of the National Journal have written an article analyzing why this failure has occurred.

Here's the quick list of recommendations which received D or F grades:

Allocate homeland-security funds based on risk: F
Reform intelligence oversight: D

Declassify overall intelligence budget: F
Improve airline passenger prescreening: F
Change incentives for information-sharing: D

Improve government-wide information-sharing: D
Improve checked bag and cargo screening: D
Mount a maximum effort to secure weapons of mass destruction: D
Strengthen the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board: D
Provide adequate radio spectrum for first responders: F
Support reform in Saudi Arabia: D
Set coalition standards for terrorist detention: F
Support secular education in Muslim countries: D

Support scholarship, exchange, and library programs: D

The Idiocy That is John 3:16

People are clearly terrified of death.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (New International Version, Red Letter Edition)

I guess I can sorta see why this verse is so commonly quoted by Christians who are evangelizing—it is, after all, always best to appeal to your mark’s fear and greed—but on close inspection it really proves as empty as any snow job you can name.

“For God so loved the world…”

A loving God? The unmitigated level of sheer evil in the world belies this claim, but one doesn’t even have to look past the almost endless Biblical examples of God’s despicable behavior to conclude that, whatever God’s feelings toward the world, “love” doesn’t seem to count among them.

“…that he gave his one and only Son…”

Oh, look! Here’s a Biblical example right here! God loved the world so much, but really, He couldn’t be bothered, so he sent his son to do his dirty work? Come on! You expect me to believe that the best God could do, given that he loved the world so much was to send his “son,” in human form, to Earth to wander around, give speeches, and arrogantly tell people, over and over again, “Believe that I’m the Son of God or you’re going to burn in Hell!”?

Yeah, so he supposedly cured the sick and made some alcohol, but given the Biblical account, even that wasn’t too terribly convincing, as not even all the witnesses were swayed to believe his claims of divinity. God supposedly really really really loved the world, so couldn’t he have done better than torturing and killing his own kid to “save” the world? I mean, if he wants us to be all worshipful and stuff... If he loves us so much, why not just “save” us all in the first place, and dispense with all the bother (and just who is it that God is “saving” us from, by the way, if not Him)?

And what about that “sacrificing” thing, anyway? So Jesus “died” for us, to cleanse “us” of “our” original sins, and this was supposed to be God’s big “sacrifice” that makes Him all magnanimous and whatnot? What convolution of mind allows anyone to actually believe such an absurdity? Jesus was one third of the triune God, right? So in what sense did he really die? In what sense was this a “sacrifice” at all? The only answer I can come up with is, “It wasn’t,” so the entire edifice of Christian doctrine evaporates.

It’s amazing what straws people will clutch at attempting to avoid facing that final curtain.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

New Testament: The Wine Cooler

Endorsed by Jesus.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

ACLU files lawsuit against warrantless wiretapping

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the NSA asking for an injunction against warrantless interception of communications to international destinations. The plaintiffs include James Bamford (author of The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and A Pretext for War), Christopher Hitchens, Greenpeace, Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and others.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Animal Planet Heroes Phoenix

Tonight is the premiere of Animal Planet Heroes Phoenix, a fifteen-episode series which filmed animal-related emergencies last year which were handled by the Arizona Humane Society's Emergency Animal Medical Technicians (EAMTs), a program launched in September 2002.

The show airs at 8 p.m. MST in the Phoenix market on the Animal Planet channel.

UPDATE: Kat and I attended the Arizona Humane Society's premiere event last night at Harkins Cine Capri. Many of the production crew (from Anglia Television), all of the EAMTs, and many AHS staff and volunteers were present, and available to chat after the show.

The show (an episode titled "Trapped Underground") was alternately heartwarming and saddening. A 14-year-old Spaniel was trapped 20 feet underground in a sinkhole in the owner's yard, a kitten was trapped in the piping of an apartment sprinkler system, a dog and her puppies were stung repeatedly by bees, and a large number of Brussels griffons were being kept in horrific conditions by a hoarder.

The upcoming schedule is a new episode each night this week: "Wandering Beagle" tonight (Jan. 17), "The Dog House" (Jan. 18), "Promise to Mother" (Jan. 19), and "Desert Rescue" (Jan. 20). Information on air dates and times may be found at Animal Planet's site.

ID advocates temporarily back Saddam Hussein's astrologer

William Dembski stopped blogging at "Uncommon Descent," but then turned the keys over to Dave Scot and a few others. A recent post there, quickly deleted, gave a quote from Dr. Raj Baldev criticizing evolution. It was no doubt deleted once the poster became aware that Baldev is an Indian astrologer and swami who endorses palmistry, numerology, and "occult reading," and who gave private consultations to Saddam Hussein when he was in power.

Ed Brayton commented on this posting before it disappeared, and now "crandaddy" at Uncommon Descent has the nerve to criticize Ed for being "bigoted" in pointing this out.

As a commenter on Ed's blog has pointed out, Michael Behe did say in the Dover case that astrology would count as science under the definition of science that admits intelligent design.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Secular Outpost opens for business

A new group blog, The Secular Outpost, is now open for business with a post from Jeff Lowder on J.P. Moreland's claim that Christians are less biased than naturalists.

Wind-powered walking machines

The Animaris Rhinoceros Transport is a type of animal with a steel skeleton and a polyester skin. It looks as if there is a thick layer of sand coating the animal. It weighes 2. tons, but can be set into motion by one person. It stands 4.70 meters tall. Because of its height it catches enough wind to start moving. MPEG video here. (From Jamie Zawinski's blog.)

ASU "Secular Devils" events for 2006

The "Secular Freethought Society" at Arizona State University (also known as the "Secular Devils") has an event calendar for 2006 on the web. Gerda de Klerk, the group's president, sent me an email inviting me to attend any of them, and asking me to pass it on to anyone else interested. The Eugenie Scott talk I've already mentioned is on the list, along with some Darwin Week events for February 13-17, a film screening of "Bob Smith USA" followed by "Normal Bob Smith and his Unholy Army of Catholic School Girls invade downtown Tempe" on March 3, a talk by John Lynch of the stranger fruit blog on the development of creationism into the intelligent design movement on March 28, among others.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Fictional autobiographies: Frey joins Warnke, "Stratford," Esses, etc.

As many people now know, James Frey's bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection A Million Little Pieces has been exposed by The Smoking Gun as a collection of fabrications--yet Oprah continues to support the book.

There's a whole genre (at least one) of phony autobiography, and those who get suckered into believing them often continue to support them even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them. Mike Warnke's book, The Satan Seller, tells of how he was inducted into a coven of Satan-worshippers and became a leader in the group, leading a debauched life before finding God and becoming a Christian standup comedian. The Christian magazine Cornerstone did a comprehensive investigation into his past, and found that none of it was true. Similarly, Cornerstone exposed "Lauren Stratford"'s claim of being raised by Satan-worshippers, forced to participate in sex orgies, and to sacrifice her own child to be the fabrications of a mentally disturbed woman who was raised in a Christian home. Michael Esses told a story of being a God-hating rabbi converted to Christianity in his 1973 book, Michael, Michael, Why Do You Hate Me? John Todd claimed to be a member of the Illuminati. "Dr. Alberto Rivera" claimed to be a Jesuit priest trained to destroy Protestant churches in a story published as a comic book by Jack Chick. Cathy O'Brien claimed in Trance-Formation of America to have been subjected to CIA mind control and made into a sex slave for presidents and celebrities.

The male versions emphasize that the individual involved was a tough guy, a bad guy, and a leader involved in these nefarious deeds; the female versions, by contrast, portray themselves as victims under the control of evil conspirators. In both cases there seems to be an element of pride in the vivid descriptions of the actions confessed--the motivations behind these are no doubt similar to the motivations of false or embellished confessions in rehab and twelve-step programs.

It's worth noting that the same people are behind a number of the Christian fakes--David Balsiger ghost-authored Warnke's book and was director of marketing for the publisher of Esses' book (and has a longstanding reputation for dishonesty), Jack Chick promoted John Todd and "Alberto."

In Frey's case, publisher Nan Talese admits having long-standing arguments with her husband, Gay Talese, about whether "nonfiction" can include fabrications--her husband defending truth in nonfiction while she defends falsehood presented as fact.

Frey, for his part, has admitted that he has taken some liberties, but asserts in the face of overwhelming evidence from The Smoking Gun exposure that his account is still basically accurate.

Why are so many people willing to support and endorse this kind of dishonesty? Some, like Nan Talese, are doing so explicitly--a position that forgives minor distortions, even when they accumulate into major ones. It allows for "bullshitting" and for "noble lies" of the sort the neo-conservatives defend.

I find it fascinating that some of the biggest defenders of this kind of falsehood are people who claim to be absolutists about morality--the only thing that can be said in their defense is that some of them truly believe it and think the exposures can be refuted. Over time, the position can become untenable for most, and the followers of people like Warnke fall away in quiet embarrassment.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Sam Alito's queer mannerisms

I make no claim to have accurate gaydar, but did anybody see the video of Sam Alito walking down the street in D.C. (shown as the "moment of zen" on the Daily Show, Thursday, January 12) and not think he appeared to be a gay man (of the closeted, married variety)?

Apparently he does have a gay-friendly past. Of course, he defended privacy rights back then, too.

Unfortunately, closeted gay conservatives of the Roy Cohn and Terry Dolan variety are not generally good for the country...

Casey Luskin's lack of integrity

Casey Luskin offered a commentary (on the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News & Views" blog) on Kenneth Miller's testimony in the Dover case in which he expounded on chromosomal fusion and evidence for common ancestry between apes and humans. Mike Dunford and P. Z. Myers responded, pointing out numerous errors and misunderstandings in Luskin's argument. Luskin's commentary has been enshrined as a paper at the IDEA Center website called "And the Miller Told His Tale."

If Luskin or the Discovery Institute were serious about "teaching the controversy," they'd at least acknowledge the existence of these responses. But even the trackbacks for the blog entry remains empty...

Eugenie Scott at ASU

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, will be giving the Robert S. Dietz memorial lecture at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 2, 2006, at ASU's main campus (Physical Sciences building, room F 166).

Genie will be speaking on "Creationism and Evolution: Historical, Scientific, Political, Legal and Educational Perspectives." I plan to be there.

Bob Dietz was an early advocate of plate tectonics and one of the primary developers of the concept of seafloor spreading, a major factor in its scientific acceptance. He was the faculty advisor for the Phoenix Skeptics, which I originally started as an ASU student group with Mike Norton and Jamie Busch. Dietz was also on the board of the Phoenix Skeptics after it became a non-campus group, and gave a few talks to the group. He had a great sense of humor, which showed in his book, co-authored with illustrator John C. Holden, Creation/Evolution Satiricon: Creationism Bashed (1987), which included some quotations from a pamphlet I wrote a year earlier, Fundamentalism is Nonsense. He died in 1995.

UPDATE: I described Genie Scott's ASU talk here.

Which has an immortal soul, and which makes good McNuggets?

A Pharyngula reader sent in a photograph asking the above question. I vote for the second answer given...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Mouse burning down house story not true

Turns out the mouse thrown into the fire was dead, and wind blew the fire into the house.

Correction here.

UPDATE January 12: Now Mares is sticking by the original story!

DVD region encoding may kill Spielberg's chances for Bafta awards

The DVD screeners for Steven Spielberg's new film, "Munich," which were sent to members of the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (Bafta) were inadvertently encoded for region one (U.S. and Canada) rather than region two (most of Europe). The DVDs, which had already arrived late due to a mess up at UK Customs, are unplayable in the DVD players of most of the Bafta members who received them.

The region encoding scheme is designed to prevent DVDs sold in one part of the world from being resold in other parts of the world. The encoding is actually fairly trivial to bypass, and many inexpensive DVD players made in China (such as those by Apex) have hidden menu options or easily modifiable firmware which allows DVD encoding protection to be disabled.

Premier PR, the company running the "Munich" PR campaign for Bafta, set up several preview screenings of the film in London, but many members of the organization live elsewhere in the UK.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Los Angeles traffic at night-time

Grass Collective makes "moving art" which includes a DVD of Los Angeles traffic at nighttime. It's pretty hypnotic. (Hat tip to BLDGBLOG.)

Cory Maye update: Public defender fired by town

Bob Evans, the public defender who has taken on the Cory Maye case, has been fired by the town of Prentiss. All appearances are that the mayor and aldermen took this action solely because of his defense of Maye. More at the Agitator.

rx / the party party

If you're not already familiar with "rx," George W. Bush's alter-ego, or if you haven't checked www.thepartyparty.com lately, there are now covers of "White Lines" and "Whole Lotta Love" in addition to "Imagine/Walk on the Wild Side," "My Generation," and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Check it out.

U.S. troops seize Iraqi journalist and tapes

On January 8, 2006, U.S. troops broke into the home of Iraqi journalist Dr. Ali Fadhil, firing bullets into the bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife and children. Fadhil, who is working for UK's Guardian and Channel 4 on a story about misappropriation of tens of millions of dollars of Iraqi funds held by Americans and British, was hooded and taken for questioning, and released a few hours later. Video tapes made for his investigation were seized and have not been returned.

The troops told Fadhil they were looking for an Iraqi insurgent.

More at The Guardian.

Bush advisor says president has legal power to torture children

John Yoo publicly argued there is no law that could prevent the President from ordering the torture of a child of a suspect in custody - including by crushing that child's testicles.
John Yoo is one of the primary legal advisors to George W. Bush, responsible for legal reasoning to justify torture, warrantless wiretapping, and virtually anything else the president feels is necessary. Here's the exchange with Yoo, from a December 1, 2005 debate in Chicago with Notre Dame professor Doug Cassel:
Cassel: If the President deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty.

Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.

Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.
More description and a link to an audio clip here.

Bush circumvents hearing process to appoint unqualified head of refugee response team

George W. Bush continues his pattern of appointing unqualified people and bypassing rules and regulations that get in his way by appointing Ellen Sauerbrey to the post of assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, a post that is responsible for a $700 million budget to address global refugee crises.

Sauerbrey began confirmation hearings in October 2005, but Sen. Barbara Boxer put off the vote until after the winter break. Bush took the opportunity to appoint her and about a dozen other candidates as "recess appointments" while Congress was out of session.

There's more on Sauerbrey's lack of qualifications and her conservative views at Salon.

Iraq war costs underestimated--could reach $1 trillion

In 2003, the Bush administration said that the $200 billion estimate of the cost of the war in Iraq from Larry Lindsey, Bush's economic advisor, was too high. Paul Wolfowitz suggested that the cost of reconstruction would be financed entirely by Iraq. Congress has so far appropriated $251 billion for military operations, and the Congressional Budget Office has indicated that we should expect another $230 billion in costs over the next ten years.

Now a paper by Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes argues that the CBO's estimate leaves out some significant costs, like healthcare for injured soldiers--lifetime care for brain injuries alone may cost $35 billion. Their paper argues that $1 trillion is a conservative estimate of the total costs.

(Story at The Guardian.)

Rev. Lusk's support for Alito

In a Washington Post article about conservative Christian support for the confirmation of Samuel Alito, Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II, a recipient of over $1 million in federal grants from the Bush administration's Faith Based Initiative, says:
"My friends, don't fool with the church because the church has buried a million critics. And those the church has not buried, the church has made funeral arrangement for."
As Pharyngula points out, this sounds a little threatening...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Urban legend becomes reality, again, as mouse burns down house

From the BBC, how not to dispose of live rodents:

A US man who threw a mouse onto a pile of burning leaves could only watch in horror as it ran into his house and set the building ablaze.

Luciano Mares, 81, of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, found the mouse in his home and wanted to get rid of it.

"I had some leaves burning outside, so I threw it in the fire, and the mouse was on fire and ran back at the house," he was quoted as saying by AP.

Though no-one was injured, the house and everything in it was destroyed.

UPDATE: This is not true--the mouse was dead when thrown into the fire, which was blown into the house by wind.

UPDATE January 12: Now Mares is sticking with the original story.

SF Fox affiliate's Emily Litella moment

KTVU in San Francisco used this background image when discussing the NSA warrantless wiretap issue. (John Hazelton on the SKEPTIC list spotted this and got the screen capture.)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Cell phone call records available online

America's Blog has brought up a story that was published in the mainstream media last year (in the Washington Post) and a few days ago (in the Chicago Sun-Times) but which for some reason hasn't resulted in an uproar. The story is that there are sites on the Internet from which you can purchase copies of calling records for cell phones and land lines, such as Locatecell.com. John in DC, who runs America's Blog, purchased his own cell phone records, and indeed got a list of all the numbers he had called.

Cingular thinks this is an "infinitesimally small problem" for them.

How are sites such as Locatecell getting their information? They could be purchasing it from insiders, they are no doubt using "pretexting" (social engineering) to persuade customer support representatives to give them the information, or gaining access to customer account information via the web (Verizon Wireless had another major security hole in their online billing system last year, similar to one in 2001 which they took two weeks to act upon).

Whichever mechanisms are used, it is clear that privacy is being violated and likely that laws are being broken, yet there seems to be little visible interest on the part of the telephone companies in going after the criminals--perhaps because doing so might expose how poorly they are securing the information.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has a good collection of material on this issue here. (Updated January 9: They filed a case against Bestpeoplesearch.com, which admits to using "pretexting" as their method to obtain the information.)

(Thanks to cowmix for bringing this to my attention.)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Phoenix Union High School District: Evolution too controversial to survey science teachers about

The latest issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education includes an article ("The Taboo Standard") by Marni Landry of Paradise Valley High School, who reports that she proposed a study to survey life science teachers in the Phoenix Union High School District on the subject of evolution. The survey, intended to support her M.A. thesis work at the University of Phoenix, asked the recipients whether they agreed or disagreed slightly or completely with the following statements:
I have helped to write the district or state science standards.

I would like to contribute in the writing of the district or state science standards.

I know specifically what the district standards are concerning the theory of evolution.

I have avoided details about the origin of life in order to avoid conflict in my classroom.

The theory of evolution goes against my religious beliefs.

If I were to get into a confrontation with a student or parent concerning the theory of evolution, I feel that [the] administration would support my actions.

I feel that creationism (creation science) should be taught parallel to evolution in the classroom.

I am concerned over the fact that many states have removed evolution from their science standards.

Students must understand the theory of evolution in order to understand the study of biology.

I have experienced conflict with a student, parent, or administrator concerning my teaching of evolution.
This survey and edited versions were rejected by school district administrators as "too controversial." The irony of being unable to conduct a survey of science teachers about a subject that they are required by state science standards to teach is explicitly noted.

The author was able to complete a pilot study, and her article reports the percentages for the above statements (16.5% say that evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs and that creationism should be taught).

The same issue of Reports has stories from Texas and Arkansas about high school teachers being unable to teach about evolution or (in Arkansas) even mention the ages of rocks in millions of years.

This, to me, is far more frightening than attempts to force the teaching of intelligent design or creation science--that teaching about evolution has already been removed from or watered down in many of the classrooms of the United States. It's no wonder that the average American is completely ignorant on the subject.

Jeff Lowder's blog: Naturalistic Atheism

Jeff Lowder, one of the founders and former president of the Internet Infidels, now has a blog, Naturalistic Atheism.

Books Read in 2005

I read (and completed) the following books in 2005. I've reviewed most of them at Amazon.com (where the links point):
I began, but haven't yet finished:

Bush can bypass torture ban

The Boston Globe reports that the "signing statement" issued by George W. Bush after signing the bill outlawing the torture of detainees contains caveats that indicate that the restrictions in the law can be bypassed in situations where he sees fit.

Bush seems to be under the impression that executive powers granted to him as president allow him to violate any law he deems inconvenient.

It's high time for this corrupt, dishonest president to be impeached.

Alito Senate confirmation room anointed with holy oil

Rev. Rob Schenk of the National Clergy Council in D.C., Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, and Grace Nwachukwu, general manager of Faith and Action were barred on Thursday from entering the hearing room where the Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a confirmation hearing for Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court on Monday. They were permitted to bless the doors--reading three Psalms, kneeling to say the Lord's Prayer in front of the doors, and marking a cross in oil on a door.

They also said that they had actually entered the hearing room a day earlier to anoint the seats with oil. "We did adequately apply oil to all the seats," said Schenk.

Schenk and Mahoney say they had done the same prior to the hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and were pleased with the results.

Pastor Arrested for Trying to Have Fun

This story, which came to my attention via the No God Zone, has me incensed. When you first read it, you get the impression that the adamantly anti-gay Pastor offered money for homosexual sex (the word "soliciting" along with the word "prostitute", seen in some versions of the story, conveys exactly that, to me).

While you might agree with me that such an act is entirely harmless, it is clearly illegal, so the arrest of the Pastor comes as no surprise (and in spite of the ultimate injustice of such laws, in the case of this particular Pastor, I can't help but exclaim a rousing rendition of Nelson's "Ha-ha!" - especially if he's even half as out of his mind as this wacko). However, as the No God Zone points out, no such offering of money took place.

So, while the Pastor may be - nay, is - a hypocritical asshole, he apparently was arrested and had his car stolen (a.k.a., "civil forfeiture") for simply asking another guy if he wanted to have sex. The real assholes in this story are the cops, who, it seems, just wanted to harass gays out for a good time in Tulsa, while padding their department budget.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Four-year-old boy on "no-fly" terrorist watch list

A four-year-old had trouble getting on a plane in December:
"I don't want to be on the list. I want to fly and see my grandma," the 4-year-old boy said, according to his mother.

Sijollie Allen and her son had trouble boarding planes last month. "Is this a joke?" Allen recalled telling Continental Airlines agents Dec. 21 at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. "You can tell he's not a terrorist!"

She said it took several minutes of pleading and a phone call by the ticket agent to get on the plane to New York.

Allen, a Jamaican immigrant, said workers at La Guardia Airport were even more hard-nosed before their Dec. 26 flight home. She said a ticket agent told her: "You're lucky that we're letting you through instead of putting you through the other process."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Baby Jesus Burning Party

"They were looking for things to do," Det. Ken Kelly said. "They told us, `We were going to have a baby Jesus burning party.'" One suspect told detectives, "We just wanted to see their heads burning," Kelly said.

The baby Jesus figures, now at the police station, were probably stolen from homes and churches around the Sayreville area within the past few weeks, officers said. "It looked like a maternity ward," Lt. Glenn Skarzynski said of the figurines. He added, "Anyone able to identify their particular baby Jesus will be able to be reunited."
(From Jamie Zawinski's blog.)

Mass computerized wiretapping

More on the implications of massive data-mining and computerized interception of voice calls, from FuturePundit and David Friedman.

FuturePundit asks the question, "Would you rather be watched by computers or people?" and suggests that the former is better--but fails to examine the question of whose computers are doing the monitoring and whether they can be trusted not to abuse it.

Miner Miracle: Religious asymmetry in the media

The Boston Herald's front page proclaimed "MINER MIRACLE! America's prayers answered, TWELVE FOUND ALIVE." The media regularly proclaims any glimmer of positive in a disaster as a miracle for which credit should be given to God, but never pins anything negative on him. But will the Herald issue a retraction?

More at Pharyngula.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

George Bush hypocrisy on medical marijuana

He was in favor of states deciding the issue for themselves, until he was against it.

There are lots more examples of this kind of hypocrisy across a wide range of issues documented in James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal.

Above link is to Dispatches from the Culture Wars, where readers have offered additional examples in the comments.

Italian court to decide if Jesus existed

While it's not quite as spectacular as the story in James Morrow's Blameless in Abaddon, in which God is put on trial before the International Justice Court for crimes against humanity, an Italian court will be having a hearing to see if atheist Luigi Cascioli can proceed with a case against priest Enrico Righi. The charges are violations of "Abuso di Credulita Popolare" (abuse of popular belief, a law designed to protect against con artists) and "Sostituzione di Persona" (impersonation). Cascioli, who, like defendant Righi is a man in his seventies from the town of Bagnoregio, accuses the priest of fooling the people by teaching that Jesus was a historical figure and that he's his representative. Cascioli is the author of a book, "The Fable of Christ," which argues that Jesus never existed.

The view that Jesus didn't exist is a minority position even among atheists--advocates include G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty (whose book, The Jesus Puzzle, is critically reviewed here by Richard Carrier).

Phyllis Schlafly defends liars, by lying

Ed Brayton gives a rebuttal to what is perhaps the most egregiously dishonest critique of the Dover decision so far, by Phyllis Schlafly. John West of the Discovery Institute links to the Schlafly piece with approval.

Two examples which support the heading I've chosen: Schlafly writes of Judge Jones:
He smeared "fundamentalists," impugned the integrity of those who disagree with him by accusing them of lying and issued an unnecessary permanent injunction.
Judge Jones' accusations of lying were directed at two individuals who testified in the trial, Dover board members Alan Bonsell and William Buckingham, not at "fundamentalists" or "those who disagree with him." And he made the accusations because those two board members were lying, as I've previously described (about Bonsell here, about Buckingham here, and there's more in the decision here) and may end up facing perjury charges.

Schlafly further expands upon her misrepresentation of Jones' criticism of these two dishonest board members:
He lashed out at witnesses who expressed religious views different from his own, displaying a prejudice unworthy of our judiciary. He denigrated several officials because they "staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public."
Jones never mentions his religious views, and does not denigrate these board members for expressing religious views different from his own, but for lying. Here is the passage from Jones' decision that Schlafly is dishonestly commenting on:
It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. (p. 137 of the decision)
Ed addresses more of Schlafly's dishonesty at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Remarkable evidence of evolution

Tara Smith comments on Olivia Judson's piece in the New York Times about the wonder of living organisms and the evidence for evolution at Aetiology. Judson is the author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, a book that describes some of the wide variety of sexual practices in nature, some of which make the wildest human perversions look tame by comparison.

An excerpt from Judson's op-ed:

Organisms like the sea slug Elysia chlorotica. This animal not only looks like a leaf, but it also acts like one, making energy from the sun. Its secret? When it eats algae, it extracts the chloroplasts, the tiny entities that plants and algae use to manufacture energy from sunlight, and shunts them into special cells beneath its skin. The chloroplasts continue to function; the slug thus becomes able to live on a diet composed only of sunbeams.

Still more fabulous is the bacterium Brocadia anammoxidans. It blithely makes a substance that to most organisms is a lethal poison - namely, hydrazine. That's rocket fuel.

And then there's the wasp Cotesia congregata. She injects her eggs into the bodies of caterpillars. As she does so, she also injects a virus that disables the caterpillar's immune system and prevents it from attacking the eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the caterpillar alive.

It's hard not to have an insatiable interest in organisms like these, to be enthralled by the strangeness, the complexity, the breathtaking variety of nature.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bush's warrantless interception program

In a New York Times followup about the Bush-approved program to engage in interception of email and voice calls to international destinations without warrants approved by the FISA Court, it is stated that
The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.


What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.


Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages.

This has led to some speculation that the reason the Bush administration didn't even try to get FISA Court approvals is because what is going on here is not wiretapping in the ordinary sense, but data mining along the lines of the "Total Information Awareness" program that was supposedly shut down by Congress after public protest.

Telecommunications companies, either voluntarily or under government duress, are apparently giving the government direct access to voice switches (and perhaps data switches or routers) to enable them to intercept any or all traffic passing through them, using automated tools to examine traffic patterns or content for "interesting" traffic.

Gary Farber has blogged on this at Amygdala. Noah Schactman at DefenseTech. Tim Sandefur has blogged on Robert Levy's criticism of the Bush administration's argument for warrantless wiretaps (FISA has a provision for warrantless wiretaps during the first 15 days after Congress declares war; thus if the September 18, 2001 Joint Resolution by Congress which authorized the President to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against the perpetrators of 9/11 counted as a declaration of war, warrantless wiretaps would only be allowed until October 3, 2001). Ed Brayton has more on that subject at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

(Disclosure: I work in network security at a global telecommunications company which, to the best of my knowledge, is not participating in a program like what is described above.)

Abramoff-connected politicans

Think Progress has a list of politicians who received $10,000 or more in Jack Abramoff-related contributions and how they are associated with Abramoff. A few of these are probably a bit concerned now that Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion and agreed to cooperate with federal investigations.

Abramoff is expected to plead guilty next week to fraud in the SunCruz casino boat case in Florida--the list of politicians associated with that case includes Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) (and his former chief of staff, Neil Volz).

(Hat tip to Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which has further commentary on how this is business as usual for Congress.)

The Windows Meta File (WMF) exploit

The Windows Meta File vulnerability, a problem that seems to be particularly bad in Windows XP, is without an official patch from Microsoft until next week. There is an unofficial patch which is available from the SANS Internet Storm Center, which I would recommend only for organizations that have the ability to install and uninstall patches on user desktops in an automated manner, as the unofficial patch will have to be uninstalled before installing the official patch. For ordinary users, it is an extremely bad habit to download patches from unofficial sources in response to an announcement of a vulnerability like this. It's a habit that is likely to be exploited in the future to get people to install malicious software, so it should be discouraged.

An alternative remedy is to unregister the vulnerable DLL, shimgvw.dll, until the official patch is out next week. This remedy will prevent the Windows Picture and Fax Viewer from being started when you click on an image that is associated with that application.

The WMF vulnerability is currently being exploited through the web, email, and instant messaging, but so far it looks like the main use has been to install spyware and adware on vulnerable machines. It could, however, just as easily be used to install bots or other more seriously damaging malware.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

2006-2007: Years of Mortgage Default?

Over the next two years, $2.5 trillion in U.S. mortgages that are based on adjustable rate mortgages will reset to higher interest rates. There is little question that many people who have been using creative financing to speculate in the real estate market are going to have some serious financial difficulties as a result. More at Ben Jones' Housing Bubble blog.

On never admitting you are wrong--Dembski and Wolfram

Jeff Shallit has an interesting comparison of Stephen Wolfram and William Dembski, and their shared apparent unwillingness to admit mistakes. Over at Recursivity.