Friday, March 31, 2006

Youth minister smites dodgeball opponent

In Liberty, Missouri, from CNN:

A youth minister was charged with assault for allegedly knocking down a 16-year-old boy and kicking him in the groin after taking a head shot from the teen in a dodgeball game.

David M. Boudreaux, 27, was charged Wednesday with one count of third-degree assault. According to court documents, the incident happened in February at Crescent Lake Christian Academy.

Authorities said the teen missed Boudreaux with one throw but then knocked the youth minister's glasses off with the next.

The boy apologized, authorities said, but Boudreaux pushed him backward, and when the teen got up again Boudreaux kicked him in the groin and left.

The teen suffered whiplash and post-concussion syndrome and had blood in his urine after being kicked, according to court records.

Boudreaux later apologized, prosecutors said.

Jeanne D. Hewitt, administrator of Crescent Lake Christian Academy, said Boudreaux had been placed on administrative leave.

Big companies funding adware: Netflix, eHarmony, etc.

Ben Edelman has a report on some big or well-known companies that are funding adware on the Internet, this time through the company Direct Revenue. They include Citibank, HSBC,, United Airlines, Sprint, United Online (NetZero), People PC, Sage Software (maker of Act! contact manager software), T-Mobile, and Vonage. They include Cheap Tickets, Howard Johnson, and Super 8 (all Cendant properties). They include Travelocity, eHarmony, Blockbuster, BMG, CarsDirect, Chase, and Netflix.

On Ben's previous report, he listed advertisers paying for adware through 180solutions, which has now also been reported by the Center for Democracy and Technology (PDF). Some of the companies reported there were Altrec, Club Med Americas, eHarmony,,, Netflix, NetZero, PeoplePC, PerfectMatch, ProFlowers,, uBid, and Waterfront Media.

Ben also notes that the Interactive Travel Services Association has actually come out with a policy promoting the use of adware! ITSA members include Cendant, CheapTickets, Expedia,, Hotwire, Orbitz,, Sabre, Travelocity, and

If you are a customer of any of these companies, let them know that you don't appreciate their paying for advertising through adware and demand that they stop.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Phoenix housing bubble deflation update

The number of homes for sale has gone over 40,000 (at last check it was 37,217 on March 6). Home builders are offering incentives like a free car or free upgrades (like granite counters, flooring, and cabinets) in order to avoid reducing prices, but price reductions are inevitable. And when price reductions occur, those who've already signed contracts at higher prices will be more likely to walk away... the rational response when an asset class you want to buy is deflating in price is to wait as long as possible, because the deals will only get better. (That's why I'm content to live with year-or-more-old computer technology; my last upgrade for a home system was to buy somebody else's used system.)

More at Ben Jones' Housing Bubble Blog.

The 31st Skeptics Circle

The 31st Skeptics Circle is hosted at Terra Sigillata.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Constitution, schmonstitution

The most recent budget which passed the House and the Senate and was signed into law by George W. Bush has a little constitutional problem. The problem is that S. 1932 differed from the House version of the bill. A small difference in text (the Senate version had a 13-month limitation on rental of medical equipment for Medicare patients; this was erroneously changed to 36 months by a Senate clerk before sending the bill to the House) led to a huge difference in effect ($2 billion more for the House version). Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert modified the House version of the bill to be identical to the Senate version without putting it to another vote, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist concurred that this was sufficient. Unfortunately, this means that the text of the bill Bush signed was never passed by the House of Representatives, as required by the Constitution.

Considering that Congress often doesn't read what they're voting on anyway, I'm not sure this is such a big deal compared to, say, the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act which were passed without being read--but it's a bad precedent nonetheless if allowed to stand.

Public Citizen has filed a lawsuit over the issue.

CBS series pilot based on Scientology?

A CBS series called "Orpheus" sounds like it involves a fictional cult based on Scientology. In the pilot script, a group called GD or "Grand Design" is based on a popular "quasi-philosophical" book that resembles Hubbard's Dianetics. Members of the group are ranked, with a level called "Galatean" that may be equivalent to an Operating Thetan (OT) level. A CBS Paramount spokesperson said that "The cult is an amalgamation of all cults throughout history." The show stars Nicholas D'Agosto and Mena Suvari, and is being produced by Nicholas Meyer.

Let's hope Tom Cruise doesn't cause this to be killed--it is another Paramount property, like Mission Impossible 3, so the possibility is certainly there.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Britannica asks Nature for retraction on Wikipedia comparison

Back in December, I wrote about criticisms of Wikipedia in Communications of the ACM and a study published by Nature which found that Wikipedia's coverage of scientific subjects was about as accurate as that of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Now Britannica has demanded a retraction of the Nature study on the grounds that its "research [is] invalid, its study poorly carried out, and its findings [are] 'so error-laden that it was completely without merit.'" (Inside quote is from Britannica's response, outside quote from Seattle Times coverage.)

Britannica's website has a 20-page PDF (7 pages of response, 13 pages of supporting information in two appendixes) that is a response to the Nature study, titled "Fatally Flawed: Refuting the recent study on encyclopedic accuracy by the journal Nature." This response states that "Nature's research was invalid. As we demonstrate below, almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica."

The initial criticism of the response is that, while the Nature study headline claimed that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries," the actual study showed that Wikipedia had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica.

The next criticism is that as they reviewed the alleged inaccuracies, they "discovered in Nature's work a pattern of sloppiness, indifference to basic scholarly standards, and flagrant errors so numerous they completely invalidated the results." Nature refused to supply the complete reviewer reports comparing Britannica to Wikipedia articles, so Britannica reviewed the truncated reviewer reports that had been posted to the web, along with the articles which were supplied by Nature.

Several of the Britannica articles reviewed were not from the Encyclopedia, but from editions of the Britannica Book of the Year. Britannica notes that "Yearbook authors are often given greater latitude to express personal views than writers of encyclopedia articles." In one instance, a sentence in an article on Steven Wolfram "in which point of view figured significantly" was counted as an inaccuracy. In one case, an article on ethanol, the source of the article was from the Britannica Student Encyclopedia, "a more basic work for younger readers."

A more significant flaw was that in some cases, reviewers criticized articles for omissions when they were only sent excerpts from the articles. The report notes that the reviewer of an article on lipids was sent only a 350-word introduction rather than the full 6,000-word article, which covered the items marked as omissions on the basis of the introduction alone. Similarly, what was delivered to reviewers as articles on kin selection and punctuated equilibrium were actually only sections from a longer article on the theory of evolution, and what was identified as an article on field-effect transistors was a section of the entry on integrated circuits. In another case, an article on aldol reaction was composed of selections taken from two separate Britannica articles, connected together with language apparently authored by Nature's editors.

Another flaw in the Nature study was that Nature did not require reviewers to document their assertions; where they disagreed with articles being reviewed, the reviewers were taken to be authoritative. The Britannica response supplies two examples where the reviewers were incorrect.

Finally, Nature failed to distinguish minor from major errors, treating all as equal even though Wikipedia had more significant issues, and counted as omissions cases where Britannica made editorial judgments to cover specific information in either a different way than the reviewer preferred or in other articles in the encyclopedia.

I think Britannica makes their case--the study shouldn't be relied upon as evidence that Wikipedia's coverage of science is as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Anybody need any oranges?

We've now completed our second weekend event attempting to get all the oranges picked from our trees--an annual struggle, as we have many (see photo, which shows most of the backyard trees). A few weeks ago, United Food Bank sent out volunteers to try to fill four large bins which each hold 1,000 pounds of oranges. We filled one and part of another one in the course of the day--the volunteers were four families and their children, who picked oranges for several hours along with us. This week, we had signs out advertising free oranges, all you care to pick, and also advertised it on Craig's List. We put out the two remaining United Food Bank bins to be filled with oranges we picked ourselves, and for any donations others cared to drop in. Unfortunately, a woman who spoke only Spanish came by while we were inside and took all of the fruit out of the bins, so when the Food Bank comes to pick them up on Tuesday they'll only get whatever Kat and I pick between now and then.

We had quite a few people come by and pick bags full of oranges, but the trees still appear to be as full as ever.

If you're in or near South Phoenix and would like to pick some oranges and take them home (or to donate to a food bank), let me know. If you're from somewhere other than Phoenix and ever plan to be here in March, April, or May, those are the months these Valencia oranges are ready for picking.

Ed Brayton on Slavery and the Bible

Over at the Secular Outpost, I've directed readers to some recent posts by Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars about slavery and the Bible (here, here, here, and here).

It's interesting to me how many members of the religious right, while usually trying to take the moral high ground and arguing positions on the basis of absolute moral values, suddenly shift to more relativistic, situational, and utilitarian positions on subjects like slavery, torture, war, executive power, and deception by national leaders.

Minds, brains, and rationality

Tom Gilson has posted some thoughts on the "self-undermining" arguments about rationality and naturalism that have been made by C.S. Lewis, Victor Reppert, J.R. Lucas, Richard Taylor, Alvin Plantinga, and others. The basic argument is that if our thoughts are the product of natural causes, then we have no reason to trust that the inferences we make are rational. There are many variations on the argument, and I think this basic line of argument goes back to ancient arguments about determinism.

I offered my thoughts in the comments on Vic Reppert's blog, and repeat them here:
The conclusion that rationality is *undermined* doesn't follow--at best the conclusion is that the connection between the physical causes and the rational inferences is at best a contingent one that is in need of explanation, which I think is a valid conclusion. But it's one that is in the process of being answered as we learn about how the brain and perceptual systems work, how language develops, and how the mind evolved.

If the fact that the brain operates in accordance with physical law undermined rationality, then the fact that computers operate in accordance with physical law would undermine their ability to perform logical inferences and computations.

The real question is *how* brains came to be able to engage in rational inferences in virtue of the way that they physically operate, not *whether* they do. Gilson (and Victor) argue that they could only have this ability by being divinely designed to do so--a thesis that doesn't seem to be particularly fruitful for scientific exploration.
Naturalists and supernaturalists agree that we do engage in rational inferences. The supernaturalists think we do so using magical non-physical properties; many of them think that our minds are completely independent of our brains, though I think this is a position that is untenable in the face of empirical evidence from neuroscience (evidence which I have yet to see a substance dualist even attempt to address). In the face of arguments about the fact that computers are physical devices which engage in computation and inference, they respond that this is not real computation and inference, but only a derived computation and inference that is fully dependent upon human computation and inference.

Naturalists, by contrast, think that our abilities to engage in rational inference and language have evolved, and that they are both dependent on natural causes and productive in generating additional natural causes of reasoning and action. They are far from perfect--we can identify systematic failures of reasoning that occur (e.g., examples of the sort in Kahneman & Tversky's classic Judgment Under Uncertainty). And our understanding of our own abilities is far from complete--but is growing rapidly.

Scientific examination of our cognitive capabilities has been extremely productive, while the supernatural thesis has been moribund.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Christian support of torture

An October 2005 Pew poll shows that American Christians (and Catholics in particular) have remarkably strong support for the use of torture, while secular Americans more strongly oppose it. This is another piece of evidence against the common claim that morality requires religion, or that religious people are more moral than nonreligious people.

More details at the Secular Outpost.

UPDATE (March 25, 2006): Steve Hays at Triablogue has chimed in with some highly critical comments on my post, mostly based on incorrect inferences about what I was arguing. (I didn't actually spell out an argument in any detail, so I'll accept some of the blame for that--but it's funny to see positions attributed to me that I don't hold.) I've posted comments in response to him on his blog, and spelled out an actual argument in the comments at the Secular Outpost:
1. Torture is prima facie wrong; it is only justifiable, if ever, in rare circumstances.

2. Those who advocate widespread, common use of torture against suspected terrorists are less moral than those who oppose most or all use of torture against suspected terrorists. (I could also insert here some premises about the use of the word "suspected" here--I believe the intent of the use of the term is to make the point that we don't know that these are terrorists and probably wouldn't have sufficient grounds to convict them in a court of law--e.g., like many of those being held in Guantanamo Bay).

3. Those who describe themselves as secular are more likely to oppose torture than those who describe themselves as Christians.

4. Those self-descriptions are mostly accurate.

5. Therefore, with respect to the subject of torture of suspected terrorists, those who are secular tend to be more moral than those who are Christian.

6. This is a point of evidence against the thesis that those who are Christian are more moral than those who are secular.
Steve's main three points of criticism on my original post were these (he has more to say at his blog):
i) Notice how he assumes, without benefit of argument, that “torture” is always wrong. That’s the nice part of being a secular rationalist. You don’t have to give reasons for your rationalism. [...]

ii) He also doesn’t bring any critical thinking skills to bear on whether we should frame the issue of interrogation in terms of torture. Surely there’s a continuum here, is there not? There are many degrees and kinds of coercion.

In addition, if we capture a high-level terrorist, and he doesn’t want to talk, should we do absolutely nothing to extract actionable information from him?

If that’s the position of secular humanism, then secular humanism is one of those useless ideologies like pacifism which is incapable of meeting the challenges of a real world situation.

iii) Then there’s his position that belief in use of “torture” under any circumstances makes you a worse person than someone who rejects the use of “torture” under any circumstances.
To which I responded in comments on the post:


Your post is a bit heavy on the ad hominem and you have drawn inferences about my position and circumstances that aren't based on what I actually wrote. If you read the comments on my original post at the Secular Outpost, you'll see that my own answer to the survey question is "rarely" rather than "never."

So, to address your points in order, your claim in (i) that I assume without argument that torture is always wrong is mistaken. I neither said nor implied that--the most you can infer from what I wrote is that leaning in favor of widespread use of torture is less moral than opposition to most use of torture. For the record, I do think that torture is prima facie wrong, and as a public policy matter should be prohibited across the board. There are possible circumstances where the use of torture to obtain information may be the best possible course of action on utilitarian grounds, just as there are possible circumstances where murder or cannibalism may be the best possible course of action--but I don't think that calls for a revision of public policy to have anything other than an absolute prohibition on them. There is always the necessity defense in a court of law. I happen to think that the U.S. should abide by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) which the U.S. Senate ratified in 1994. What do you think?

In response to (ii), I agree that there are interrogation techniques that fall short of torture, which also have the added benefit of being more reliable--recipients of torture tend to say what they think their torturers want to hear. You say I don't bring my critical thinking skills to bear on a topic that I didn't even discuss.

In response to (iii), again you've fabricated a position for me to disagree with (i.e., you've engaged in the straw man fallacy). My actual position is that those who fall on the end of the spectrum of endorsing widespread use of torture are less moral than those who fall on the end of the spectrum of opposing most or all uses of torture. Likewise for murder.

To bring home a more specific example--Bush administration advisor John Yoo (who, along with Alberto Gonzales, was the primary architect of the Bush administration's position on torture) has said that the president has the authority to order that the child of a terrorist be tortured, by crushing his testicles, in order to get the terrorist to talk.

Do you think that such an action could be moral? I don't, and I think it not only should be [illegal] but is illegal as well (I strongly disagree with the "unitary executive" arguments for expansive presidential powers that seem to have completely lost sight of the fact that the judiciary and legislature are supposed to have equal weight to the executive branch).

Also, you stated as a premise in your argument to the erroneous conclusion that I'm "intellectually isolated" in the sense of not having any non-like-minded friends that I have posted "many ill-informed or ill-reasoned posts." Which posts are you referring to, can you point out a few of the many, and possibly explain why you characterize them as such?

Finally, why didn't you link to the post on the Secular Outpost you are responding to? That reduced the likelihood that I (or other Secular Outpost readers) would see your comment. Fortunately, Sean Choi pointed it out, encouraging some cross-blog and cross-worldview interaction, which I welcome.
Steve made reference to some other posts he made on the topic of torture and coercive interrogation, including this one, where he debates someone named Shamgar in the comments. I think Shamgar, who has the last word, has the better argument.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dirty Politician: John McCain

John McCain hired Terry Nelson as a senior advisor. Nelson was deeply involved in Tom DeLay's money laundering of corporate contributions scandal, but the mainstream media was lax about even asking McCain questions about this issue until after a Seattle radio show caller asked him about it:
CALLER: Thanks, I had a question for the senator. For a reformer, I'm kind of curious why he would hire a guy like Terry Nelson as a senior advisor. Here's a guy who was actually in the indictment of DeLay on his money laundering charges. When he was at the RNC, he agreed to take the corporate contributions from DeLay's PAC and then recycle them back into the Republican congressional races.

And he was also, this guy Nelson was also the supervisor of James Tobin, who was the guy convicted last year for helping jam the Democratic get-out-the-vote lines in New England a couple years ago.

So I'm curious why would you hire someone with such a shady background?

MCCAIN: None of those charges are true.

CALLER: You don't believe what was actually written in the indictment from Texas?


CARLSON: All right.

[nervous laughter]

MCCAIN: I will check it out. But I've never heard of such a thing. I know that he was a grassroots organizer for President Bush year 2000 and 2004, and had a very important job in the Bush campaign as late as 2004, but the other charges I will go and look and see if any of them are true, but I've never heard of them before.

If McCain had heard of this, he's a liar. If he really hadn't heard of it, he hasn't been properly backgrounding people he hires. Contrary to McCain's claim that none of the charges are true, the caller had it right (also see here).

If McCain doesn't fire Nelson, it's clear that he's a dirty politician.

Matt McIntosh on Iran

Matt McIntosh at Catallarchy has been making an interesting series of posts about Iran and the United States. In part 1, he points out that U.S. policy with respect to Iran has been completely irrational and counterproductive:

Consider: the United States military takes down two governments to the East and West of Iran, both of whom the Iranians had longstanding feuds with, leaving Iran the only regional power left standing. Rather than working with Iran from the get-go on both of these operations, which would have been the natural Machiavellian thing to do, the Bush administration chooses instead to antagonize them and continues to do so even now. The Iranians shrug and play right along, allowing al Qaeda members to stay in their “custody” and meddling in Iraq, since there’s nothing in it for them to do otherwise – and every reason for them to keep the US bogged down and busy, since Bush has already telegraphed a big fat “YOU’RE NEXT” message to them.

If you’re the Iranian Supreme Leader, what do you do in this situation? Pretty much what they’re doing now: jerk everyone around and eat the clock, all the while reaching for the Bomb as an anti-invasion insurance policy as fast as you can get it. All you have to do is get one functioning nuclear missile and you’re set, and the odds of anyone being both able and willing to stop you are slim. The Iranians are not stupid; they know full well that there’s currently no political will in the US for yet another war, and that starting one would be political death for the already beleaguered Republicans.
In Part 2, he sets out and argues for some basic assumptions about dealings with Iran:

1) Iran is not going to give up the quest for nukes voluntarily.

2) Democratic revolution is not going to happen.

3) Ahmadinejad does not matter unless people let him.

4) The Iranian regime is deterrable.

He further argues that, based on these assumptions, covert or overt U.S. support of dissident groups within Iran is likely to be counter-productive, causing those groups to be treated with more suspicion within Iran.

Now, in Part 3, he points out some things the people of Iran want and that we should find desirable for them to have--economic freedom at the top of the list. He suggests that we effectively offer a bribe--removal of sanctions and reopening of diplomatic relations in return for their cooperation in ending violence in Iraq; unfreezing billions of assets if they turn over al Qaeda leaders they supposedly have under arrest. Combined with this, he suggests that we let them continue with their nuclear program so long as they are transparent about it and understand that any nuclear explosion in a populated area will be blamed on untrustworthy nuclear nations (North Korea, Iran, Pakistan) and will result in nuclear retaliation.

I'm not particularly happy with that last suggestion--but McIntosh's suggestions seem more credible overall than current U.S. policy. On the nuclear issue, the current U.S. plan seems to be to try to get Iran to agree to stop its nuclear program completely and allow them to purchase non-military nuclear technology that is less likely to be usable for military applications, perhaps years in the future. Specifically, the U.S. is devoting resources (through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) to develop fast-burning reactors which can be used in developing countries, loaning them fuel and then taking spent fuel back for recycling and burning down, so that those countries have no need for enrichment or extraction technologies. If Iran could be persuaded to enter into such an arrangement, that would be far preferable to them having possession of military nuclear capability.

How to spot a baby conservative

A new study published in the Journal of Research Into Personality by a UC Berkeley professor, Jack Block, who followed 95 children for 20 years. Those who were whiny, paranoid, and complaining as children turned out to be conservatives. Those who were confident and self-reliant turned out to be liberals. This is supporting evidence for similar work by John T. Jost at Stanford, but Block's work is labeled as "biased, shoddy work" by Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. (Link is to coverage in the Toronto Star.)

UPDATE: There are some good criticisms of the Block study by Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy (here and here).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dirty Politician: John Boehner

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was named Speaker of the House to replace Tom DeLay. It's already been pointed out that he lives in a D.C. apartment that belongs to a lobbyist. The Center for Public Integrity has looked further at his record, and found that he
  • has taken dozens of trips on private jets owned by corporations that have legislative interests before Congress
  • has accepted scores of privately sponsored trips (often categorized as having fact-finding or educational purposes) to some of the world's premier golf spots and foreign locales
  • has hosted many high-end fund-raisers to wine and dine potential donors and Republican colleagues
  • has donated millions of dollars to election campaigns of fellow Republicans.
All legal, but the first two items are equivalent to receiving substantial gifts from special interests, and the second two are equivalent to passing some of them on and seeking more.

The CPI's website also has a Google Map of Boehner's trips and expenses for 2005 which includes a Scottsdale, Arizona connection--he spent thousands of dollars at the Talking Stick Golf Club at 9998 E. Indian Bend Rd:


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Fox News: Isaac Hayes did not quit South Park

Roger Friedman at Fox News reports:

Isaac Hayes did not quit "South Park." My sources say that someone quit it for him.

I can tell you that Hayes is in no position to have quit anything. Contrary to news reports, the great writer, singer and musician suffered a stroke on Jan. 17. At the time it was said that he was hospitalized and suffering from exhaustion.

He goes on to quote Hayes defending the show--including the Scientology episode specifically--on The Onion's AV Club:

AV Club: They did just do an episode that made fun of your religion, Scientology. Did that bother you?

Hayes: Well, I talked to Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] about that. They didn't let me know until it was done. I said, 'Guys, you have it all wrong. We're not like that. I know that's your thing, but get your information correct, because somebody might believe that [expletive], you know?' But I understand what they're doing. I told them to take a couple of Scientology courses and understand what we do. [Laughs.]

If Friedman is right, this wouldn't be the first time that Scientology spoke inaccurately on behalf of a member.

UPDATE (March 22, 2006): Next week's new episode is titled "The Return of Chef."

Monday, March 20, 2006

"Industry sources" confirm Cruise role in "South Park" controversy

A story on CNN reports that, according to unnamed "industry sources," Tom Cruise refused to participate in Mission Impossible 3 publicity for Paramount unless the Scientology episode of "South Park" was pulled from reruns on Comedy Central. Comedy Central and Paramount are both owned by Viacom. This appears to be confirmation of the rumor that had already been reported on numerous blogs.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Carnival of the Godless #36

The 36th Carnival of the Godless is at Daniel Morgan's blog.

The Liberty University debate team: They're not really #1

The Liberty University debate team continues to get undeserved press for their highly misleading way of claiming to be #1, when in fact they can't remotely compete against the best debate teams in the country. (Latest story, in the New York Times Magazine.) Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars exposes the truth, yet again. Mainstream media: Pay attention, and stop spreading misleading information. [Link updated 6 June 2013 to point to a more recent Ed Brayton overview.]

Saturday, March 18, 2006

21 airports fail bomb screening test

Investigators for the General Accountability Office conducted tests at 21 airports to test screeners' ability to detect bomb components powerful enough to blow up the trunk of a car. They successfully got the parts past security screening at all 21 airports.

The TSA responded by saying that the tests "failed to consider the full array of air travel security measures." That response doesn't seem to be to the point--the parts were successfully smuggled past security checkpoints, meaning that there was no effective countermeasure in place.

The U.S. Air Force's institutionalized Christianity

Jeff Lowder reports on a new lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force for religious discrimination:
The 12-page court filing says guest speakers at conventions of Air Force recruiters in 2003 and 2005 told Burleigh and other recruiters that "they needed to accept Jesus Christ in order to perform their job duties" and "to use faith in Jesus Christ while recruiting."
When the plaintiff resisted his superiors' efforts at proselytizing, he became the target of lower performance ratings than peers who attended religious activities such as prayer groups and church.
This is following a previous lawsuit last October by Mikey Weinstein against the U.S. Air Force regarding institutionalized Christianity at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs:
Over the past decade or more, the suit claims, academy leaders have fostered an environment of religious intolerance at the Colorado school, in violation of the First Amendment.

Weinstein claims that evangelical Christians at the school have coerced attendance at religious services and prayers at official events, among other things.
Lowder's blog post also reports on the creation of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to combat these unconstitutional practices in the military. This foundation was started by the same Mikey Weinstein who filed the October 2005 lawsuit. On the advisory board is Pedro L. Irigonegaray, who did an excellent job cross-examining witnesses who promoted intelligent design at the Kansas Kangaroo court hearings last May.

Cory Maye Update: Radley Balko visits Mississippi

Radley Balko has visited Prentiss, Mississippi, and has returned with photos of the duplex (inside and out) where the raid occurred, some interesting information about what happened to the drug dealer, Jamie Smith, who was the target of the original raid, and details about the firing of Bob Evans, the public defender. He also interviewed one of the two black jurors, and finds that she wasn't sure Maye was guilty and didn't seem to have much understanding of her responsibility as a juror. The more facts come out, the worse it looks for Prentiss officials and law enforcement.

The Creationists' Miss Information: Nancy Pearcey

Jeff Shallit reports on Nancy Pearcey, a young-earth creationist who used to be a regular contributor to the Bible-Science Newsletter (and some of those pieces became part of the intelligent design textbook, Of Pandas and People, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics). Jeff checked out her 1994 book, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, co-authored with Charles Thaxton (who was also the co-author of The Mystery of Life's Origin, the first book from the FTE). He shows how her book gives a simple, short, clear, and straight-forward description of information theory, which suffers only from being completely wrong.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Comedy Central pulls Scientology episode from reruns

Comedy Central has pulled the "Trapped in the Closet" episode, which criticizes and exposes Scientology, from reruns. Rumor has it that Tom Cruise threatened not to do publicity for the movie "Mission Impossible 3," which will be released this summer, unless it was pulled. As Paramount, the distributor of the Cruise film, and Comedy Central are both owned by Viacom, this has some plausibility.

A Cruise representative denied the rumor, phrased in a way that may have been crafted to be literally true but misleading (a method frequently used by George W. Bush, as documented in the book All the President's Spin).

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

UPDATE (March 18, 2006): Trey Parker and Matt Stone have declared war on Scientology:
Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the animated satire, are digging in against the celebrity-endorsed religion after a controversial episode mocking outspoken Scientologist Tom Cruise was yanked abruptly from the schedule Wednesday - with Internet rumors it was covert warfare by Cruise that led to its departure.

"So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun!" the "South Park" creators said in a statement Friday in Daily Variety. "Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies... You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail!"

Punishing the Poor

Matt McIntosh at Catallarchy points out that the effective U.S. tariff rates on imports are significantly higher on the poorest countries. For example, Bangladesh paid about the same amount in tariffs on exports to the U.S. as France ($331 million vs. $330 million), despite only exporting $2.53 billion in goods to France's $30.023 billion. That's a 14.1% tariff on Bangladesh, where the per-capita GDP is $370, versus a 1.1% tariff on France, where the per-capita GDP is $24,170.

By abolishing tariffs, we could instantly provide significant benefits to the poorest countries, as well as to U.S. poor, by reducing the cost of goods like clothing.

Hypothetical Nanofactory Animation

Over at Multipolarity Memes there’s a post about a short (though large), 3D-rendered, animation of a hypothetical nanofactory.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert at this stuff, but I did take some intermediate chemistry and physics classes in college, so the animation immediately raises a number of questions in my mind; viz.:
  • At that size, can they realistically assume that the envisioned structures will be as rigid as they make them out to be?
  • What about Brownian motion?
  • What about transfer of heat—especially given that there are, presumably, chemical reactions taking place, and these reactions will involve energy transfers?
  • What type of bonding is happening at the transfer points? Chemical reactions don't happen magically—and they don't happen without some energy input or energy release—neither of which are being obviously represented in the video.

It's a pretty fantasy, but how realistic is it, really?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security gets an F in computer security

For the third year in a row, DHS gets an F for protecting its computer systems:

Most federal agencies that play key roles in the war on terror are doing a dismal job of protecting their computers and information networks from hackers and viruses, according to portions of a report to be released by a key congressional oversight committee Thursday.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with setting the government's cyber security agenda, earned a grade of F for the third straight year from the House Government Reform Committee. Other agencies whose failing marks went unchanged from 2004 include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, State, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.

The House Government Reform Committee is expected to award the federal government an overall grade of D-plus for computer security in 2005, a score that remains virtually unchanged from 2004.

Several agencies saw a considerable drop in their scores. The Department of Justice went from a B-minus in 2004 to a "D" in 2005, while Interior earned failing marks after getting a C-plus in 2004.

The scores are "unacceptably low," committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said in a statement. "DHS must have its house in order and should become a security leader among agencies. What's holding them up?"

The annual report bases the grades on the agencies' internal assessments and information they are required to submit annually to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The letter grades depended on how well agencies met the requirements set out in the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

The FISMA program is based on compliance with NIST computer security standards.

Formation of the Arbonian sea

BLDGblog has some great photos of the rifts opening up in the ground in central Ethiopia, where parts of the Afar triangle have already sunk to more than 100 meters below sea level. What's now a 37-mile-long fissure will apparently take a million years to reach full ocean status.

Skeptics Circle #30

The 30th meeting of the Skeptics Circle is up at Paige's Page.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Targeted bioweapons

Worried about biological weapons that can be specifically targeted to, say, disable the ability to store memories, cause the autoimmune system to attack myelin (i.e., mimic multiple sclerosis), or target specific ethnic groups? If not, you might be after you read this article from Technology Review. Unfortunately, some of these things may even be feasible to produce with old technology that is easily available--and if they aren't now, they will be.

(Via Bruce Schneier's blog.)

Spammed by the Arizona Republican Party

I don't know how they got my email address--I've never been (and never will be) a registered Republican.
From: "Chairman Matt Salmon"
To: [my email address]
Subject: Arizona Republican Party Roundup - March 15, 2006
Date: Wed, 15 Mar 2006 10:53:37 -0600

Attention Republican Clubs and Organizations - Submit your events to

In This Issue:
Chairman Salmon on the Death of State Senator Marilyn Jarrett
Capitol Update
Kyl Immigration Provisions Moving Forward


Paid for by the Arizona Republican Party

(602) 957-7770

Not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee.


This email was sent by:
Republican Party of Arizona
3501 N 24th Street
Phoenix, AZ, 85016, USA
The actual email came from, whose anti-spam policy says:

Anti-SPAM at ExactTarget

ExactTarget believes, practices, and requires its clients to practice only permission-based e-mail marketing. Our clients certify that they will use our software only to send e-mails to customers and prospects that have directly consented (opted-in) to receive their e-mail. They are forbidden to transmit unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) via our system.

Members Agreement

Our clients agree not to use our system to send unsolicited e-mail. For any opt-in list of e-mail addresses used in ExactTarget's system, clients agree to provide us with the source of the e-mail addresses, the method used to capture the data, and verification of the consent to receive e-mails from such client. We also encourage our members to respect their customers' time and attention by controlling the frequency of mailings to individual e-mail addresses.

Our clients certify that they will not use rented or purchased lists, e-mail append lists, or any other list that contains e-mail addresses captured in any other method than opt-in. The use of opt-out lists is prohibited in our system. ExactTarget retains the right to review client lists and e-mails to verify that clients are abiding by the privacy and permission policies set forth herein. However, our clients are ultimately responsible for compliance with our policies.

I don't think there's any way my email address would have ended up on their list except by email appending.

I've complained to them and to ExactTarget's abuse address, asking both for an explanation and what they're going to do to rectify the situation. My guess is that they will continue to spam for the Republicans--in which case they deserve to be added to anti-spam blocking lists.

BTW, for anti-spammers, the originating MTA was (, on Time Warner Telecom's network. The IP block is SWIP'd to TW Telecom, and TW Telecom's rwhois shows it assigned to Exact Target. The company has had a few previous incidents with spamming, but the blog of Chip House, their VP of Privacy and Deliverability, endorses decent principles.

UPDATE: "Nate Romance" of Exact Target responded to my complaint, stating that:
At ExactTarget we take these complaints very seriously and we work hard to ensure that our clients send mail only to people who have asked to receive mail. Clients who do not adhere to our policies face an escalating series of penalties, including but not limited to: chargeback fees, mailing restrictions, and termination. Our Privacy Policy located here:

and our Anti-SPAM policy located here:

will provide you with additional information and should answer any questions you might have.

Additionally, we will investigate this issue with our client, and determine what we can do to ensure that it does not persist. In the meantime, I have added your email address ([address deleted]) to our "Master Unsubscribe List" which will ensure that you do not receive email from the Arizona Republican Party or any other client of ExactTarget.

Thanks for bringing this matter to our attention and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Please let me know if there are additional items I can assist you with.

Virus propagation via RFID tag

Ed Felten writes about a new paper that discusses the possibility of RFID tags being used to exploit flaws in RFID reader software to propagate a virus. The paper, authored by Melanie Rieback, Bruno Crispo, and Andy Tanenbaum of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, includes a description of a proof-of-concept the authors developed. By including a SQL injection flaw in the reader software they wrote, and RFID tag containing appropriate malicious code, the reader then propagated the malicious code by writing it to new RFID tags. If such a flaw exists in real reader code, the potential exists for a virus to be transmitted from reader to reader via RFID tags, with each infected reader writing the virus out to additional tags.

BTW, this is the same Andy Tanenbaum who wrote the classic textbook Operating Systems: Design and Implementation and developed Minix, which inspired Linus Torvalds to create Linux.

Rieback gave a talk at last year's "What the Hack" hacker conference in Amsterdam on "Fun and Mayhem with Radio Frequency Identification."

Create your own police department

Bruce Schneier reports on a case of "police department privilege escalation," where, because California allows transit companies to create their own police departments, Yosef Maiwandi was able to do so. He created the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority, a nonprofit operating out of an auto repair shop that gives bus rides to disabled people and senior citizens. He then created the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority Police Department, and made Stefan Eriksson a deputy police commissioner of their anti-terrorism division, and gave him business cards.

Eriksson is the guy who went drunk driving in a million-dollar Ferrari Enzo that crashed into a telephone pole in Malibu--he claims he was the passenger, but no other driver has been found.

UPDATE (March 19, 2006): There's now video that shows Eriksson and another person--Trevor Karney--in the Ferrari.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pocket-sized spectrometer from the University of Arizona

NASA's 2009 Mission to Mars will carry the Mars Science Laboratory, which includes a cell-phone-sized device capable of identifying minerals in the Martian soil. The device, designed by Robert Downs at the University of Arizona, shoots a laser at materials to be identified, causing its atoms to vibrate at different frequencies and generate a detectible signal. The process, known as Raman spectroscopy, is a quantum mechanical process that earned its discoverer, Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the Nobel prize in physics in 1930.

Excerpts from an interview with Downs:
I know that Miami Police Department has about 220,000 spectra of all the illicit drugs that are out there in the world. You just take these things; you can shoot them and ten second later you know what they’re holding: is it baby powder, is it cocaine? Really easy to tell. This little white powder that came in envelopes that the post office was getting. Bonner Denton has a demonstration he uses upstairs. He takes a bottle of Tylenol, a white plastic container and the pills are inside. You can shoot the Raman and a laser goes through that white plastic, it identifies the three parts of Tylenol and it tells you what the plastic is made out of. It works on leaves. I can identify the species of trees by shooting their leaves. I don’t think the biologists are aware of this yet.


There is about just over 4000 mineral species that are known and we’ve shot about 700 of them so far; so, one fifth of the way. I think it will be about a six-year project to complete everything we know found on Earth. And we’re also looking at the meteorites as well with the NASA people.
(Via jwz's blog.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Matt Stone calls Isaac Hayes on his double standard

Isaac Hayes has quit "South Park"--no more appearances from Chef, at least not with Hayes' voice. His reason, however, is bogus:

"There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," the 63-year-old soul singer and outspoken Scientologist said.

"Religious beliefs are sacred to people, and at all times should be respected and honored," he continued. "As a civil rights activist of the past 40 years, I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."

"South Park" has been bashing religious views other than Scientology since began in 1997. Hayes is only upset now because his religion, Scientology, was targeted last season in the "Trapped in the Closet" episode, which correctly described some of Scientology's crazy cosmology.

"South Park" co-creator Matt Stone calls him on his hypocrisy:

"This is 100 percent having to do with his faith of Scientology... He has no problem — and he's cashed plenty of checks — with our show making fun of Christians." ...

Stone told The AP he and co-creator Trey Parker "never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we did Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own, and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin."

Parker stated that they intentionally avoided the subject of Scientology--while taking on Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism and Islam--because of Hayes. "We knew he is a Scientologist and he's an awesome guy. We were like, 'Let's just avoid that for now.'"

"South Park" creators Stone and Parker also created a spoof of the Scientology-related film "Battlefield Earth" in 2000 for the MTV Awards, which Isaac Hayes did not play a role in.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

CIA employee identities discoverable via web searches

The Chicago Tribune has reported that it was able to identify 2,653 employees of the CIA, including covert agents, from online data providers who charge for access to public records. The Tribune reports that it identified agents through telephone listings, real estate transactions, voting records, property tax records, and other documents, and that they were able to identify internal CIA phone numbers, covert mailing addresses, and two dozen CIA facilities. One facility, "The Farm" at Camp Peary, VA, was looked up via ordinary Internet searches, which yielded the names of 26 people who work there. (John Young's cryptome site features this May 31, 2005 New York Times story on Camp Peary.)

Saturday, March 11, 2006 removes all customer reviews

It appears that has removed all customer reviews from their website, and has introduced a new beta feature called "Customer Discussions" for each product.

There are still customer rankings (the "Rate it" feature) and editorial reviews, but all the customer reviews are gone, the reviewer ranking is gone, and the helpful/unhelpful votes are gone.

A pity, as I was hoping to someday make the ranks of the top 1000 reviewers--my best rank was 2,171 in late February of this year.

This move seems to be really poor judgment on's part. I heavily relied upon customer reviews when making purchasing decisions, and I considered the reliability of individual's reviews by comparing them to other reviews by the same person. Now, that feature of is unavailable, as the huge existing database of commentary has been removed. Perhaps the "Customer Discussions" will replace it, but if the purpose is for people to go back-and-forth debating specifics of the content, rather than giving an overview and opinion of the work as a whole, it won't be the same.

It was also rather rude of to delete, without notice, the substantial contributions of its top reviewers. I was ranked only 2,171, but I reviewed 113 books to get there--and there were several million reviewers. Top reviewers reviewed thousands of books. That's an enormous amount of customer contribution to just throw away without notice or acknowledgment.

UPDATE (12:35 p.m. MST Sunday): As cowmix pointed out, the reviews are back. I spoke with a friend who works at, and he said that it is common for to make changes like this which are only visible to a test population of users, for a short period of time that's long enough to obtain information about how it affects customer behavior.

Global Crossing blog

Last week Global Crossing, my employer, unveiled a corporate blog site. The current bloggers there are David Siegel, writing on the future of the Internet (and most recently on the IPTV World Forum), Adam Uzelac, writing on VOIP technology, Norm Schilacci, writing to clarify new technologies and concepts for the layman, and Paul Kouroupas, writing on public policy issues and regulatory matters (most recently on net neutrality, in which he recommends an excellent paper by Blair Levin, Rebecca Arbogast, and David Kaut of Stifel/Nicolaus, "Net Neutrality: Value Chain Tug of War").

In conjunction with this blog site, Global Crossing has defined a fairly open blogging policy for employees to comment publicly about the company. The policy contains most of the core and common policies described at the CorporateBlogging Blog.

I've tended (with a few exceptions) to avoid blogging specifically about my employer here, and this is the first time I've specifically named the company on my blog. That's a tendency I plan to continue here, though I expect to comment from time to time on the company blog site. (You can find a couple comments of mine in the DRM thread on Siegel's blog.) Lest there be any doubt, any opinions I express on this blog (or on the company blog) are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

Antony Flew on advisory board of Scientology front group

Lest anyone think that Flew's only lapse of judgment has been his off-again, on-again (PDF), off-again support for intelligent design and theism, it seems that he has also lent his name to the advisory board of Scientology's anti-psychiatry front group, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which opposes the use of drugs to treat mental illnesses.

Psychics and missing persons

Kelly Jolkowski is the mother of a child who has been missing for nearly five years. She has begun authoring a series of blog posts about psychics and the search for missing people from her perspective--and she characterizes them as "Advantage Takers" who are exploiting people at their most vulnerable. (Hat tip: Respectful Insolence.)

Former White House domestic policy advisor arrested for retail fraud scheme

Claude Allen, who was up February 9 the White House domestic policy advisor, advocating abstinence education, school prayer, and opposition to abortion, was arrested this week in Maryland for a retail fraud scheme. Allen, who was previously a deputy secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, would purchase items at Target or Hecht's, take them out to his car, return with the receipts and take an identical item off the shelf and "return" it for a credit back to his credit card. He apparently did this more than 25 times between October 29, 2005 and January 2, 2006, defrauding the stores of more than $5,000. This from a guy who was making $160,000 a year. His attorney says it's just a misunderstanding.

(From Talking Points Memo.)

UPDATE (March 14, 2006): Claude Allen has an evil twin. No, really!

UPDATE 2 (March 14, 2006): But the twin wasn't the one who admitted the scam.

Arizona legislators sponsoring bills for Scientology front group

The Arizona Republic reports today that a number of Arizona legislators have been sponsoring bills on behalf of Scientology's Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), an anti-psychiatry group. Several of them have taken trips to Scientology events at the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles to meet with John Travolta.

The CCHR and Scientology have a religiously-based opposition to psychiatry and medicine pertaining to mental health. This derives from L. Ron Hubbard's own opposition to psychiatry and his development of Dianetics as an alternative to psychological therapy. When he created Scientology (after having temporarily lost control of his Dianetics organization to his partner Don Purcell of Wichita, Kansas), he adopted the trappings of religion and invented a cosmology involving evil intergalactic psychiatrists who assisted the warlord Xenu in order to eliminate those who opposed him. They did this by injecting billions of people with alcohol and glycol, loading them onto space planes that looked just like DC-8s, and flying them to planet Teegeeack (Earth), where they were dumped into volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs. Their souls (or "thetans") departed their bodies and are still here, attached to our own souls and causing all manner of psychological ills for us. Psychiatry and psychology, according to Scientology, are bogus methods which do nothing to address the real problems caused by these "body thetans" attached to us--only the Scientology process of auditing with an e-meter can free us from them.

(You can find more details about Scientology's cosmology at Wikipedia, which has a very comprehensive set of articles about the religion, as well as at Operation Clambake. I also highly recommend Russell Miller's book about L. Ron Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, which is online in its entirety.)

So who are the Arizona legislators working with CCHR and attending Scientology functions?

Sen. Karen Johnson (R-District 18, Mesa). Karen Johnson is on the Family Services, Finance, Appropriations, and K-12 Education committees. She is one of the nuttier fundamentalists in the legislature, a member of Concerned Women for America and in tight with James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Gary Bauer's Family Research Council. Johnson has gone so far as to lend her name to the CCHR's Advisory Board.

Sen. Linda Gray (R-Glendale, District 10), who is on the K-12 Education, Higher Education, Government, and Family Services committees and is a big supporter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She has degrees in recreation administration and sociology.

Sen. Carolyn Allen (R-District 8, Scottsdale), who is on the Commerce and Economic Development, Health, and Transportation committees.

Sen. Marilyn Jarrett (R-District 19, Mesa). She just died on Friday after having a stroke in her office on Thursday.

Sen. Albert Hale (D-District 2, Window Rock). Former president of the Navajo Nation, on the Government Accountability and Reform, Government, and Higher Education committees.

Rep. Tom Prezelski (D-District 29, Tucson). On the Counties, Municipalities, and Military Affairs, Federal Mandates and Property Rights, and Transportation committees.

Rep. Pamela Gorman (R-District 6, Anthem). A member of "Pure Heart Christian Fellowship," the Arizona Women's Shooting Association (she holds a concealed carry permit), and Concerned Women for America. She's on the Appropriations, Transportation, and Ways and Means committees.

Rep. Russell Pearce (R-District 18, Mesa). A pro-lifer and strong advocate of English-only and against illegal immigration.

Sen. Thayer Verschoor (R-District 22, Gilbert). On the Family Services, Government Accountability and Reform, Higher Education, and Transportation committees. Verschoor is the guy who introduced a bill to require state universities to "provide a student with alternative coursework if the student deems regular coursework to be personally offensive" where "a course, coursework, learning material or activity is personally offensive if it conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion." He didn't introduce this over the issue of evolution, but because of the book The Ice Storm, which features a 1970s "key party." He missed the point that it was not portrayed in a favorable way.

Rep. Lucy Mason (R, District 1, Prescott). She's on the Appropriations, Natural Resources and Agriculture, and Universities, Community Colleges and Technology committees.

Kudos to Sen. Robert Cannell (D-District 24, Yuma), the only M.D. in the state legislature, for calling them on this. Any legislator dumb enough enough to promote bills based on Scientology advocacy and pseudoscience is unfit for public office and should be voted out at the earliest opportunity. (By the way, this doesn't mean that every position the CCHR advocates is wrong--but when they're right it's generally not for the right reasons, and they are completely unreliable on the science.)

(My previous blog entry on Scientology recounted my experiences interacting with the church when it decided to declare war on the Internet, and an earlier one reported on the updated "Space opera in Scientology" Wikipedia entry.)

Rain, at long last...

It finally started raining last night, ending a five-month drought in Phoenix. It last rained on October 18, 2005, which was while I was having my house hooked up to the city sewer system (I have an older home that had two cesspools).

Despite this long drought, the area's lakes and water reservoirs have still been filled to greater capacity than they had been for the last several years, which had caused Salt River Project to reduce irrigation deliveries an unprecedented two years in a row, returning to a normal schedule in February 2005.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Phoenix housing bubble deflation update

Not only are there 33,270 homes for sale in Phoenix, 14,601 of them are currently vacant. Many speculators purchased homes and never lived in them so that they could be resold in "new" condition.

The average price of homes listed for sale is $484,594. The number of pending sales is 8,125. The average price of the pending sale homes is $378,573.

(From Ben Jones' Housing Bubble Blog.)

Inexperienced 28-year-old named executive director of Homeland Security Advisory Committees

From TPM Muckraker:

The Bush administration has appointed 28-year-old Douglas Hoelscher to be executive director for the Homeland Security Advisory Committee, an amalgam of 20 panels of outside experts and officials who advise the administration on homeland security matters.

Hoelscher is said to have no management experience. He came to the White House in 2001 as a $30,000-a-year scheduler.

And more at Effect Measure:
Suppose you are a young 28 year old with no management experience but, according to your profile a good listener and someone whose favorite books include William Bennett's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals. You aren't entirely inexperienced. In 2001 you were a $30,000 a year low level White House staffer who arranged presidential travel. Not enough for you? How about a top level job in the Department of Homeland Security? That can be arranged.

Welcome Douglas Hoelscher, the new executive director of the Homeland Security Advisory Commitees (plural). Hoelscher is now
the "primary representative" of department Secretary Michael Chertoff in dealing with more than 20 advisory boards. Among them is the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which includes such high-powered figures as Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, former Lockheed Chairman Norman Augustine, and former Defense and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger. (Shane Harris in the National Journal)
(Via Tara Smith at Aetiology.)

ATM PIN security breach--Citibank, Bank of America, etc.

Back on March 4, the story broke from an American traveling in Canada that something had gone wrong at Citibank, causing it to shut off access from the ATM networks of Canada, Russia, and the UK. Bruce Schneier picked it up on March 6, and now it's hit the mainstream media with more details, with some attributing the problem to OfficeMax.

The symptoms from a bank customer's perspective are debit cards being replaced by the banks (which Citibank, Bank of America, and Washington Mutual have been doing since at least last month) and an inability to make withdrawals with current cards from ATMs in Canada, Russia, or the UK. At least some of the banks have now admitted to ATM fraud occurring, with Citibank admitting to "several hundred transactions" in three countries, while some western Massachusetts institutions have seen fraud in Spain, Pakistan, and Romania. The attribution to OfficeMax comes from investigations in Massachusetts.

Tech Web News' report is the most detailed to date:
The unfolding debit card scam that rocked Citibank this week is far from over, an analyst said Thursday as she called this first-time-ever mass theft of PINs "the worst consumer scam to date."

Wednesday, Citibank confirmed that an ongoing fraud had forced it to reissue debit cards and block PIN-based transactions for users in Canada, Russia, and the U.K.

But Citibank is only the tip of the iceberg, said Avivah Litan, a Gartner research vice president. The scam -- and scandal -- has hit national banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Washington Mutual, as well as smaller banks, including ones in Oregon, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, all of which have re-issued debit cards in recent weeks.

"This is the worst hack ever," Litan maintained. "It's significant because not only is it a really wide-spread breach, but it affects debit cards, which everyone thought were immune to these kinds of things."


Litan's sources in the financial industry have told her that thieves hacked into a as-yet-unknown system, and made off with data stored on debit cards' magnetic stripes, the associated "PIN blocks," or encrypted PIN data, and the key for that encrypted data.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model

The San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model is a 1.5-acre model of the San Francisco Bay built in 1957 and used until 2000 "to evaluate circulation and flow characteristics of the water within the estuary system" by the Army Corps of Engineers. Nice photos and story at BLDGBLOG.

Atheist sells chance to save soul on eBay

CHICAGO - Hemant Mehta, a 23-year-old Atheist from Chicago, asked eBay bidders last month to send him to church.

The winning bid of $504 came from Off-the-Map, a Christian organization with the mission of "normalizing evangelism for ordinary Christians." Off The Map's slogan is "Helping Christians be normal."

More at the Secular Outpost. (The above two paragraphs are from the Secular Student Association's blog. Mehta is chairman of the Secular Student Alliance.)

Bizarre bicycle safety film from 1963

I had the privilege of viewing this film, "One Got Fat," two or three times in grade school in the early-to-mid seventies. It's the story of Filbert, Nel, Stan, Mossby, Rooty, Floog, Orv and their friends--all creepy monkey-faced humans--who bicycle ride to a park nine blocks away, all but one coming to an unpleasant end. (Hat tip: Radley Balko at The Agitator.)

Dirty Politician: Rick Santorum, again

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who was previously pointed out exchanging donations to his charity for government contracts, now denies that the charity, Operation Good Neighbor, is his. Sure, he founded it, but he says (in a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) that he's had nothing to do with it since then:
I do not have a personal charity. The reference was an allusion to Operation Good Neighbor, a charitable organization that I founded in 2000. Since then, I have had no control over its direction. My involvement is limited to being honorary chairman of the board -- a board that includes former Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode, a prominent Democrat -- and lending my name to fund-raising events. That's it.
Attytood shows, with quotes and photos, that Santorum's a liar.

Also in today's news is that Barbara Bonfiglio, former treasurer of political action committees for the indicted Sen. Tom DeLay (R-TX), Santorum, and convicted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), has resigned from the D.C. law firm of Williams & Jensen and from her post as treasurer of dirty politician Rep. Rich Pombo (R-CA)'s political action committee. Her lawfirm bio says "She also advises the firm's clients on matters involving House and Senate ethics rules, as well as compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act." She was treasurer of Santorum's charity, Operation Good Neighbor.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Santorum lied when he said he would stop regular meetings with lobbyists:
After saying in January that he would end his regular meetings with lobbyists, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, has continued to meet with many of the same lobbyists at the same time and on the same day of the week.
(Via Talking Points Memo and TPM's Daily Muck.)

UPDATE: At least three lobbyists have been working at Santorum's charity--in addition to Barbara Bonfiglio, mentioned above, lobbyist Rob Bickhart, whose offices are also the home of Santorum's PAC and re-election campaign, works for the charity. And the charity is spending as much as 60% of its money on non-charitable things, like $200,000 for travel expenses and meetings. Santorum's response, when asked about this, was to deny that Bickhart is a lobbyist.

Computer issue at The Economist

This morning I received nine emails from The Economist with the subject "Address confirmation." Each message was identical, and stated:

Thank you for amending your address details.

We have updated our records accordingly and will deliver your copies of The Economist to the amended address shortly.

If you encounter any problems with the delivery of The Economist, please call Customer Service on 1-800-456-xxxx.


Customer Service.
Since I hadn't amended my address details, I called the Customer Service line (after I had only received three copies of the email)--and it was busy. After a few tries, I got through and waited on hold for quite some time, and then reached a human being. She informed me that this was an "error" and that the entire subscriber base had received these emails, which was the cause of the difficulty getting through on the phone.

This will no doubt be an expensive "error"--but my fear is that this may have been caused by an intrusion, resulting in the exposure of my information. Since there are no doubt numerous California subscribers affected, if this is the result of a hacker compromise they'll be required to issue notifications under California's SB 1386.

UPDATE: An email from the publisher says it was a technical error and not a security issue:
From: "Paul Rossi, Publisher of The Economist" [comcast email address omitted]
Subject: Apology from The Economist
Date: 09 Mar 2006 23:31:01 GMT

Dear Reader,

I am writing to apologise for any e-mails you may have received today from The Economist.

I sent an e-mail this morning asking you to confirm your address details. I understand that in error, we may have sent further e-mails confirming a change to your address.

This was caused by a technical error on our part and I am very sorry for the inconvenience and irritation that this may have caused you.

I want to reassure you that your address and all of your personal details have at all times been secure and will remain so.

If you did not change your details, we will continue to deliver your copies of The Economist to the usual address.

We are aware of the problem and are dealing with it. In the meantime, if you wish to contact me regarding this please e-mail [email address at omitted].

Yours sincerely,

Paul Rossi
Publisher, North America
I never received an email asking me to confirm address details as described in this email. Spamming for "net neutrality"

Mark Cuban reports that he's been deluged with form letter spam from, which has mistakenly identified him as a telco (depicting him with devil horns), just because he wrote a blog post saying that he thought there could be value to tiered levels of service.

If this is now the nature of the debate, it doesn't appear that "net neutrality" advocates have reason on their side. (My previous remarks on "net neutrality" are here and here.)

The Spam Kings blog points out deficiencies in the email subscription process used by Kintera, the provider for

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Another creepy robot

This one, a six-legged robot from Carnegie Mellon University, climbs trees and walls using claws, micro-claws, or sticky material, as appropriate for the surface. Again, there's video. (Again, via jwz's blog.)

Previous robot, "Big Dog" the robotic pack mule, here.

Good Math, Bad Math Blog

Mark Chu-Carroll (who I remember as an active participant of the newsgroup back when I was also active there) has started a blog on "Good Math, Bad Math." His first postings include a discussion of a study linking autism and thimerosol (bad math) and cellular automata (more bad math).

Faith-Based Homeland Security

George W. Bush has issued an executive order creating "a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Department of Homeland Security." The Center will be run by a Director appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security after consultation with the Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The original Director of WHOFBCI, John DiIulio, who blasted the Bush administration in Esquire magazine in 2002 and then quickly attempted to retract his criticisms.

Once again, reality matches The Onion.

(UPDATE: This is apparently primarily focused on disaster recovery efforts--but it still seems quite wrong for the government to engage religious organizations via contract or grant to aid in disaster recovery efforts, when these are voluntary charitable organizations. It not only involves taking from the general public to support a particular religious viewpoint, it turns a voluntary charity into a taxpayer-supported service.)

Blogger's spam-prevention robots are defective


This blog has been locked by Blogger's spam-prevention robots. You will not be able to publish your posts, but you will be able to save them as drafts.

Save your post as a draft or click here for more about what's going on and how to get your blog unlocked.

Clicking there yielded:

Your blog is locked

Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. (What's a spam blog?) Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.

You won't be able to publish posts to your blog until one of our humans reviews it and verifies that it is not a spam blog. Please fill out the form below to get a review. We'll take a look at your blog and unlock it in less than a business day.

If we don't hear from you, though, we will remove your blog from Blog*Spot within 10 days.

Find out more about how Blogger is fighting spam blogs.

That's what I saw Wednesday morning... afternoon Thursday, it's still locked.

Your blog has been reviewed, verified, and whitelisted so that it will no longer appear as potential spam. If you sign out of Blogger and sign back in again, you should be able to post as normal. Thanks for your patience, and we apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

Blogger Support
And it's back, apparently since shortly after I last checked and found it locked, based on the timestamp on this email.

Dirty Politician: Conrad Burns

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) says that Jack Abramoff never influenced him, but Abramoff says in Vanity Fair that he got everything he ever asked for from Burns:
"Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns' committee] we got. Our staffs were as close as they could be. They practically used Signatures [Abramoff's restaurant] as their cafeteria."
Burns' former staffers have also made millions from going to work for telecom and tech firms that have received funding from Burns earmarks.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The McPassion

Mel Gibson missed the chance for this tie-in promotion.... (Hat tip to Dave Palmer on the SKEPTIC mailing list.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Google's Phoenix-area location: Tempe or Scottsdale

Google plans to hire about 600 people in the Phoenix area, and they've chosen Tempe for a temporary facility of about 100,000 square feet. It looks like their permanent facility will either be in Tempe or South Scottsdale (at ASU's "SkySong" business park, which used to be the site of Los Arcos mall).

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Carnival of the Godless #35

The 35th Carnival of the Godless is here.

The re-formation of AT&T

Now that AT&T has announced that it is acquiring BellSouth, the only original RBOC left today, it's worth reviewing the history of AT&T's divestiture and the subsequent recombinations which will leave us with AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest as the three major players for local telephone service (at least, as local analog wireline telephone service continues to exist, which is probably not for very much longer).

In 1984, U.S. District Judge Harold Greene issued a decision that led to the divestiture of local telco properties from AT&T and the creation of the seven "Regional Bell Operating Companies" from 22 Bell operating companies. The seven RBOCs and the original Bell companies which made them up were:

Pacific Telesis (PacTel): Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, Bell Telephone Company of Nevada.
Ameritech: Illinois Bell Telephone Company, Indiana Bell Telephone Company, Michigan Bell Telephone Company, The Ohio Bell Telephone Company, Wisconsin Telephone Company.
Nynex: The New York Telephone Company, New England Telephone & Telegraph Company.
Bell Atlantic: New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company of Maryland, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company of Virginia, Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company of West Virginia, The Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania.
Southwestern Bell: Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.
BellSouth: South Central Bell Telephone Company, Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company.
U.S. West: Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Company, Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company, Diamond State Telephone Company.

Nynex merged with Bell Atlantic in 1997.

Bell Atlantic merged with GTE in 2000 to become Verizon (spinning off its Internet business--the former Genuity and BBN Planet--as Genuity).

Southwestern Bell acquired PacTel in 1997 and started using the name SBC, and then acquired Ameritech in 1999.

U.S. West was acquired by Qwest in 2000.

SBC acquired AT&T in 2005, and took on its name.

Most of this history is recounted in more detail, with maps and logos, here.