Saturday, August 26, 2006

Tech Liberation Front brings on a Discovery Institute representative

The Technology Liberation Front is a blog I've been reading for a few months for its quality contributions on issues involving technology, regulation, copyright, digital rights management (DRM), network neutrality, and so on. It covers a lot of the same topics as Ed Felten's excellent Freedom-to-Tinker blog, with a strong libertarian bent.

What a disappointment it was to see that the newest contributor, Hance Haney, comes from the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute. While Haney is in Washington D.C. and is not affiliated with the intelligent design wing (the Center for Science and Culture), crackpot George Gilder is a senior fellow of the TDP.

I commented to this effect at the Technology Liberation Front, which prompted a response from Lewis Baumstark:
As I have no previous knowledge of Hance or the Discovery Institute, I prefer to allow him to live or die here on the merits of his debate and analysis, not on his link to a pro-ID institution.
Lewis should remedy his ignorance of the Discovery Institute before coming to a conclusion about whether such an association taints Hance's reputation and credibility--surely he would not have said the same if Hance was a representative of the (in some ways more honest) Institute for Creation Research or International Flat Earth Society. As readers of this blog know well, the Discovery Institute has a long history of dishonest and deceptive public statements and attempts to influence public opinion, public policy, and educational standards. Do a Google search for "Discovery Institute" or "Dembski" for numerous examples at this blog; many more can be found at (especially Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Pharyngula) or The Panda's Thumb.

Jim Harper of TLF responded to Lewis's comment by writing "And the winner is . . . Lewis Baumstark! Curious. Courteous. Way to go, Lewis!" How odd that he would declare Lewis the "winner" when Lewis claimed ignorance of the Discovery Institute, or call him "curious" when his comment betrayed no interest in rectifying that ignorance. "Courteous," I'll grant.

I agree with the comment at TLF from Cog (of the Abstract Factory blog):

The Discovery Institute ought to be shunned by all right-thinking people, simply as punishment for so shamelessly polluting our public discourse about science. Everybody associated with the Discovery Institute should know, and never be permitted to forget, that their affiliation with that institution tars their name and calls their integrity into question.

This isn't to say that we should pre-emptively dismiss everything Hance says, but that he should never forget the cost that this affiliation will have for his professional reputation and all the views that he professes to hold. The suspicion of Lippard and others (myself included) is entirely rational, and promotes the proper working of the information ecosystem, just an investor's skepticism about former Enron executives would be rational and promote the proper working of the market.

Precisely so--it's not that Hance can't make valid or useful contributions, it's that anything he says needs to be given extra scrutiny because he willingly associates with and is employed by an organization with an established and continuing record for deception and dishonesty. "Guilt by association" is fallacious for evaluating the validity of an argument, but the company you keep is often a good indicator of your character and can create prima facie evidence about your reliability that your own words and actions may then confirm or refute.

I've experienced this myself--I'm employed by a company with a financial scandal in its past (Global Crossing). I continue to work there because I believe that the scandals are in the past and those responsible for them are no longer associated with the company, though my resume will likely always be somewhat tainted by the association and give me an extra hurdle to overcome. I consider myself fortunate that not only has the company cleaned up its act (the financial filings under the current CFO have been praised by former critics of the company for their completeness and transparency) but that my area of employment was quite distant from the scandal and has received public praise.

UPDATE August 28, 2006: Julian Sanchez comments on this subject here. Adam Thierer has responded to the controversy at the Technology Liberation Front, but he does not even attempt to address the issue raised by the Discovery Institute's regular practice of deception and dishonesty.

UPDATE August 30, 2006: Tim Lee has responded to the controversy head on at TLF.

Ed Brayton fisks Seth Cooper

At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has an excellent fisking of Seth Cooper, former attorney for the Discovery Institute. Cooper tries to argue that Judge Jones (of the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board case) displayed bias and hostility towards Jon Buell of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics both in his behavior and by refusing to allow the FTE to intervene in the case.

Brayton points out that there's no evidence of any hostility in the questioning of Buell and that the facts and legal precedent strongly supported the refusal of FTE intervening one month before the end of discovery. He points out dishonesty by Buell, who falsely stated that "Neither "Creationism" nor its synonym, "Creation Science" was ever used in any Pandas manuscript, as alleged."

The post is a pleasure to read, go see it here.

Friday, August 25, 2006

John Mueller: Is there still a terrorist threat?

In the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, OSU professor John Mueller has an article titled "Is there still a terrorist threat?" He argues that the best explanation for the lack of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and the failure of authorities to uncover and prosecute any terrorist cells in the U.S. is that there are "almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad."

I think it's a mistake to minimize the threat just as it is to exaggerate it, but I think he makes a strong case that the threat has been greatly exaggerated.

Also see Mueller's related Fall 2004 article in Regulation, "A False Sense of Insecurity? How does the risk of terrorism measure up against everyday dangers" (PDF), which I referred to in this blog post.

Accidentally drop iPod in airplane toilet, get caught in a Kafkaesque mess

This is complete absurdity. This bureaucratic overreaction (in Canada) should never have happened.

Some of the more interesting questions from the interrogations:

What do you think about 9/11?
What are your views on the Iran issue?
Do you think government is too big, too powerful?
Do you connect to the Internet on this laptop?
Have you downloaded any images?
Do you have any pornography?

Via Bruce Schneier's blog.

Phoenix comes in at #22 in Forbes list of drunkest cities

Phoenix made the list of Forbes magazine's "drunkest cities" in America, coming in at #22. 35 cities for which the appropriate data were available were ranked on levels of alcoholism (actually, based on number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the city), number of binge drinkers (from CDC survey data), per-capita drinkers (from CDC survey data), per-capita heavy drinkers (from CDC survey data), and state laws about alcohol (with least restrictive laws counting towards "drunkest"--it would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between this measure and the others). The specific ranking measurements are described here.

The full list:

1. Milwaukee
2. Minneapolis-St. Paul
3. Columbus
4. Boston
5. Austin
6. Chicago
7. Cleveland
8. Pittsburgh
9. Philadelphia (tie)
9. Providence (tie)
11. St. Louis
12. San Antonio (tie)
12. Seattle (tie)
14. Las Vegas
15. Denver/Boulder
16. Kansas City (tie)
16. Cincinnati (tie)
18. Houston
19. Portland
20. San Francisco-Oakland (tie)
20. Washington-Baltimore (tie)
22. Phoenix
23. Los Angeles
24. New Orleans (tie)
24. Tampa (tie)
26. Norfolk
27. Dallas-Fort Worth
28. Atlanta (tie)
28. Detroit (tie)
30. Indianapolis
31. Orlando
32. New York
33. Miami
34. Charlotte
35. Nashville

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Deception from Jonathan Wells

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula reviews chapter 3 of Jonathan Wells' new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, as part of a series of critiques of the book which will appear at The Panda's Thumb. The chapter, titled "Why you didn't 'evolve' in your mother's womb," includes quote mining of this sort:
This is the heart of Wells' strategy: pick comments by developmental biologists referring to different stages, which say very different things about the similarity of embryos, and conflate them. It's easy to make it sound like scientists are willfully lying about the state of our knowledge when you can pluck out a statement about the diversity at the gastrula stage, omit the word "gastrula," and pretend it applies to the pharyngula stage.
As background, it's important to note that the "developmental hourglass" (Myers provides a couple of diagrams to illustrate) is a summary of a century and a half of observations showing that organisms tend to be diverse in form in the earliest stages of development (blastula, gastrula, and neurula), converge on a similar form at the pharyngula stage (from which Myers' blog gets its name), and then diverge again into a diversity of adult forms. Thus, if a creationist engages in the above tactic, they will take a quote about differences at an early stage and make it look like a denial of similarity at the pharyngula stage.

Myers points out a specific example where Wells does exactly this with a quote from developmental biologist William Ballard. Wells writes, quoting Ballard:
It is "only by semantic tricks and subjective selection of evidence," by "bending the facts of nature," that one can argue that the early embryo stages of vertebrates "are more alike than their adults."
As Myers points out, multiple quotes stitched together in a sentence like this are a red flag in the writings of creationists and intelligent design advocates. The full passage Wells is quoting says:
Before the pharyngula stage we can only say that the embryos of different species within a single taxonomic class are more alike than their parents. Only by semantic tricks and subjective selection of evidence can we claim that "gastrulas" of shark, salmon, frog, and bird are more alike than their adults.
Ballard did not mean to assert that these "semantic tricks" and "subjective selection of evidence" are used to claim that there is similarity at the pharyngula stage, as he also writes:
All then arrive at the pharyngula stage, which is remarkably uniform throughout the subphylum, consisting of similar organ rudiments similarly arranged (though in some respects deformed in respect to habitat and food supply). After the standardized pharyngula stage, the maturing of the structures of organs and tissues takes place on diverging line, each line characteristic of the class and further diverging into lines characteristic of the orders, families, and so on.
This is a clear case of deceptive writing by Jonathan Wells.

Read the rest, which includes further examples of dishonesty by Wells, at Pharyngula.

Soap writer Kola Boof joins the bogus sex slave claim party

There's a market for books by women who claim to have been the sex slaves of the famous. In Cathy O'Brien's book, Trance Formation of America, she claims to have been raised to be a mind-controlled sex slave for presidents and celebrities on behalf of the CIA. The book is filled with completely absurd claims and unbelievable scenarios, and written in such a way as to be simultaneously titillating gossip about famous people and condemnation of such immoral acts. In short, it's pornography for gullible prudes, much like the Meese Commission Report on Pornography that was sold by Focus on the Family (with the nastiest parts edited out). "Brice Taylor" (Susan Ford) was another mind control sex slave claimant, whose book Thanks for the Memories is similar in content to O'Brien's--she tells of being the sex slave to both Henry Kissinger and Bob Hope.

Kola Boof, a Sudanese-American raised in Washington, D.C. who has written for the soap opera "Days of Our Lives," claims that she was Osama bin Laden's mistress in Morocco in 1996. (A time when Bin Laden was in Sudan.) In addition to claiming that Osama bin Laden was interested in Whitney Houston and liked to listen to the B-52's, she says she was forced to have sex with other al Qaeda members, including two terrorists who were long dead at the time she describes.

The publisher of Boof's book has been contacting bloggers who refer to Boof as a "sex slave," stating that she was bin Laden's mistress. Wonkette has an appropriate response.

Boof may not be as crazy as Ford and O'Brien, but it sounds like her book may fall into the same genre.

Evolutionary biology dropped from Dept. of Education list of majors eligible for grants

The New York Times reports that the Department of Education has dropped evolutionary biology from the list of majors eligible for federal grant money. A DoE spokesperson stated that this was a "clerical error" that will be corrected.

The list of eligible majors is online here (PDF), and still has a blank space at 26.1303, where the major of evolutionary biology used to be listed.

More at the Secular Outpost.

Arizona Rep. Trent Franks won't cut and run from his friend Tom DeLay

In the Arizona Republic:

"As GOP stalwarts try to distance themselves from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Arizona's Rep. Trent Franks has remained by his side.

"The embattled DeLay spoke at a Franks fund-raiser on Capitol Hill in December. Franks gave $4,200 to DeLay's re-election committee in March, nearly six months after the then-Texas congressman was indicted by a grand jury on money-laundering and conspiracy charges. . . .

"'Congressman Trent Franks isn't going to cut and run from a friend when the going gets tough,' said [Franks spokesman Sydney] Hay, a former 2002 congressional candidate."

When DeLay gets convicted, I suggest Franks offers a sympathy resignation.

(Hat tip to Talking Points Memo's Daily Muck.)

What the Terrorists Want

Bruce Schneier has an article at his blog that also appeared on

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.

We're all a little jumpy after the recent arrest of 23 terror suspects in Great Britain. The men were reportedly plotting a liquid-explosive attack on airplanes, and both the press and politicians have been trumpeting the story ever since.

In truth, it's doubtful that their plan would have succeeded; chemists have been debunking the idea since it became public. Certainly the suspects were a long way off from trying: None had bought airline tickets, and some didn't even have passports.


Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists' actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

Barry Goldwater's son defends commemorative coin ripoffs

The Arizona Republic reports today that Barry Goldwater, Jr., son of the famed Arizona Senator and himself a former California Congressman, is a director of a company that sells "non-monetary" commemorative coins. Goldwater is a director at National Collector's Mint, Inc., and allows his name and likeness to be used to promote their coins.

Last year, the company paid over $2 million in restitution to customers who purchased its "Freedom Tower Silver Dollar," after being sued by NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. They also paid $370,000 in civil penalties. The company had claimed that it was a "government issued" silver dollar and a "U.S. territorial minting" from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The islands use U.S. currency and are not authorized to mint their own. Perhaps not by coincidence, these islands were a client of Jack Abramoff which brought out Tom Delay on junkets to play golf. Congressman George Miller (D-CA) has said this about the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands:

“Let’s remember what they paid for: a protection racket that sheltered a sweatshop industry that systematically exploited tens of thousands of impoverished foreign workers -- mostly Asian women -- who were little better than indentured servants; a sweatshop industry that earned some of the heaviest fines in U.S. history for violating labor laws; an industry repeatedly cited by the Departments of Justice, Interior and other federal agencies. They were defending a corrupt immigration system that regularly approved visas for non-existent jobs, resulting in hundreds of women being forced into the sex trade, including prostitution.

“They killed my reform bills year after year. And even when an immigration reform by Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican, was approved by the full Senate, they blocked it repeatedly in the House. Abramoff took credit and was paid handsomely for that, too.

“This corrupt system existed because the CNMI slipped under federal labor and immigration laws. Abramoff, his lobbying colleagues, and some powerful friends in Congress are proud they prevented bipartisan reforms from being implemented.

“The outstanding investigations by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Associated Press and others confirm the depravity of this protection racquet: the sweatshop industry, past CNMI administrations, Washington lobbyists and House Republican leaders who washed each others’ hands.

“Everyone seems to have made a lot of money, except the poor and disenfranchised women who toiled in the sweatshops and the brothels. These people have so much to be ‘proud’ of.

“And still, no congressional committee is investigating this aspect of Abramoff’s work, even though information indicates that Congress played a pivotal role in this protection scheme. This operation is beginning to look more and more like criminal activity and Congress must immediately launch a thorough investigation of this issue. The House Committee on Resources has jurisdiction over the Mariana Islands and I have already called on the Chairman, Representative Richard Pombo, to investigate this matter."

The Arizona Republic fails to comment on these other scandals related to the Mariana Islands and the Republican Party.

It does, however, go on to challenge some of the company's claims about their coins. Their new "Fifth Anniversary World Trade Center Commemorative" coin, which sells for $29.95, is advertised as "non-monetary" (wording likely chosen for its likelihood to not be understood) and claims to be made from silver from "a bank vault found under tons of debris at ground zero." The Republic points out that the company claims it can verify this claim, but would not provide any evidence to support it.

The coin is made out of 15 mg of 24-karat gold (worth 33 cents yesterday) and being 0.999 pure silver (worth 1/6 of a cent yesterday). The Republic quotes Michael Higdon of the American Bullion & Coin Co. in Flagstaff: "There's not enough silver or gold in it to make it valuable, and it never will be valuable. Ever."

The National Collector's Mint claims to have given more than $1 million of proceeds from its 9/11-related coin sales to charity (including $5 from each sale of the "Fifth Anniversary" coins), of which the Republic was able to confirm $30,000 given to Tuesday's Children, one of the charities named.

If they're giving away $5 of each sale, the materials are worth 34 cents, and the manufacturing, shipping, and overhead costs another $5 per coin, they're still pulling in $19.61 in profit per sale. If they've given away $1 million to charity, then at $5 per coin they've sold 200,000 coins, which would generate $3.9 million in profit.

Goldwater says he believes the company is complying with the law, and that "the people involved are very good people, and they're solid citizens who are out there working hard to make a living and provide a product and a service."

Seems to me a lot closer to a scam than a service.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

AT&T sues data brokers selling phone call records

AT&T has filed a lawsuit against 25 unnamed data brokers for using "pretexting" to obtain customer call data records. These data brokers would pose as the legitimate customers in order to obtain billing records for third parties for a fee. Data brokers selling this data over the Internet got some negative public attention last summer and in January of this year, but Congress has not made pretexting illegal for phone records the way it is for financial records. It came out in June of this year that law enforcement and federal agencies were active customers of these data brokers, using them to obtain data without having to go through the process of getting warrants.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center already filed an FTC complaint against one data broker,

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Snakes in a theater

A 10-inch rattlesnake was found in a hallway at the AMC Desert Ridge 18 theaters at Tatum and Loop 101 in Scottsdale on Friday. This led to a rumor that "rattlesnakes were let loose during a showing of Snakes on a Plane."

A security guard swept the snake outside and trapped it in a Tupperware container until the Arizona Herpetological Association could come and get it.

Apparently the theater had earlier called about a rattlesnake outside the building.

This led to the wildly exaggerated claim that:
Two live rattlesnakes were released in an Arizona theater during a showing
of the new film, 'Snakes on a Plane.' The snakes were released after the
film began rolling in the dark theater at the AMC Desert Ridge multi-plex
at Tatum and the 101 in north Phoenix.
Good story, but it's not true.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Phoenix housing bubble deflation update

Phoenix's inventory of homes for sale continues to rise (continuing from where we left off on June 16). My first report, in October 2005, showed an inventory of 10,748 homes on July 20, 2005, rising to 19,254 on October 2. (Data comes from, via posts to Ben Jones' Housing Bubble Blog.)

6/17/2006 49402
6/18/2006 49546
6/19/2006 49504
6/20/2006 49432
6/21/2006 49453
6/22/2006 49867
6/23/2006 50296
6/24/2006 50599
6/25/2006 50526
6/26/2006 50413
6/27/2006 50295
6/28/2006 50395
6/29/2006 50878
6/30/2006 50347
7/1/2006 50492
7/2/2006 50404
7/3/2006 50264
7/4/2006 50511
7/5/2006 50284
7/6/2006 50227
7/7/2006 50667
7/8/2006 50944
7/9/2006 50638
7/10/2006 50167
7/11/2006 51396
7/12/2006 51124
7/13/2006 50995
7/14/2006 51302
7/15/2006 51478
7/16/2006 51642
7/17/2006 51698
7/18/2006 51704
7/19/2006 51682
7/20/2006 51557
7/21/2006 51758
7/22/2006 52110
7/23/2006 52363
7/24/2006 52137
7/25/2006 52019
7/26/2006 52540
7/27/2006 52228
7/28/2006 52595
7/29/2006 52413
7/30/2006 52482
7/31/2006 52535
8/1/2006 52230
8/2/2006 52396
8/3/2006 52337
8/4/2006 52600
8/5/2006 52802
8/6/2006 52845
8/7/2006 52953
8/8/2006 52560
8/9/2006 52513
8/10/2006 52681
8/11/2006 52417
8/12/2006 52895
8/13/2006 53126
8/14/2006 52757
8/15/2006 52793
8/16/2006 52693
8/17/2006 53102
8/18/2006 52855
8/19/2006 53014
8/20/2006 53350

10,748 on July 20, 2005 to 53,350 on August 20, 2006--that's a 496% increase in inventory in 13 months.

Einzige--how about an update on trustee sales?

Drive with cash, you're presumed guilty

The U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, ruled last week that if you are driving around with large amounts of cash, the government may presume that you are guilty of drug trafficking and seize that cash.

The case in question was United States of America v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency (forfeiture cases name the seized items as the defendant). Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez was pulled over for speeding in Nebraska in 2003 while driving a rented Ford Taurus. In the car was a cooler with $124,700 in cash, which was seized on suspicion of a drug crime. A drug-sniffing dog barked at the car and the cooler, which was taken as evidence.

Friends of Gonzolez testified that they had pooled their life savings to purchase a refrigerated truck in order to start a produce business. Gonzalez was sent on a one-way ticket to Chicago to buy the truck, but it had already sold. He had no credit card, so had a third party rent a car for him. He says he hid the money in a cooler to prevent it from being stolen.

The District Court had found for Gonzolez, saying that there was no evidence of drug activity. The Appeals court disagreed, with a strong dissent by Judge Donald Lay.

Forfeiture laws have long been heavily abused in the name of the war on drugs. In 1991, the Pittsburgh Press ran a six-part series on forfeiture abuse called Presumed Guilty: The Law's Victims in the War on Drugs which can be found in various places online.

UPDATE: Ed Brayton has also commented on this story at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Police laugh about shooting protester in the face

ABC News:
"The lady in the red dress," Kallman says on the tape, to cheers and laughter. "I don't know who got her, but it went right through the sign and hit her smack dab in the middle of the head."

Another officer can be heard off-camera, asking, "Do I get a piece of her red dress?"
Sgt. Kallman, rather than reprimand officers who shot Miami protester Elizabeth Ritter four times with rubber bullets on November 20, 2003, including once in the face (through her sign, which read "Fear Totalitarianism"), complimented them.

A public apology was made by the department only after the videotape of officers laughing at the day's events became public.

As Ritter asks, "What type of training leads people to laugh about shooting an unarmed citizen for merely holding up a sign that says 'Fear Totalitarianism'?"

Here's the video:

Hat tip to Radley Balko at The Agitator.

Trying to file a complaint against a police officer in Missouri

In February, I commented on an undercover investigation in South Florida about what happens when you try to obtain a complaint form to file a complaint against a police officer. Many locations were aggressively uncooperative.

Things are much, much worse in Independence, Missouri.

Hat tip: Radley Balko at The Agitator.

UPDATE (January 8, 2007): Greg Slate, the individual in Missouri who had his head slammed into a plexiglass window for asking for a complaint form, was found not guilty of inciting a riot on November 8, 2006. The officer was not disciplined. (Via The Agitator.)

Killer runs for state legislature

I live in a heavily Democratic district of Arizona, in South Phoenix. Last election, the Republicans didn't even bother to field candidates. This year, however, Daniel Coleman of Laveen is seeking one of the two House seats as a Republican.

In 1997, Coleman was arrested for DUI and convicted. In 2003, he was living in the very tiny southeastern town of Portal, Arizona (the location of Crystal Cave--I've camped and done some spelunking there). He went with his date Gail Chalker, her two sisters Annette and Carol, and Annette's fiance, Colby Rawson to the nearby town of Rodeo, New Mexico, for an evening of drinking at the Rodeo Tavern. Annette and Gail got into an argument over an air compressor that Annette wanted to borrow. Coleman and Gail and Carol Chalker returned to Portal at 10:30 p.m., and Rawson and Annette Chalker and her two children drove up to Coleman's home shortly before midnight to pick up the air compressor that was kept on the porch. She opened the door and called to her sister, and when the screen door slammed shut, Coleman and Gail Chalker were awakened. Coleman grabbed his .38 pistol, and the two of them left the bedroom and saw Annette Chalker in the entryway. Gail Chalker says that Annette charged them and was trying to grab her by the throat, and Coleman's gun fired, shooting a bullet into Annette's face below her left eye, killing her. Coleman said it was an accident, and Gail Chalker corroborated his story.

Coleman was indicted on charges of first-degree murder but was never prosecuted for lack of evidence. He was sued by the Chalker family for wrongful death, which was settled.

When asked about Coleman, Arizona Republican Party chairman Matt Salmon said, "I've never met the guy. This is the first time I've even heard about this guy. ... The Republican Party did not recruit him to run. ... I'm very discouraged about anybody who has a DUI in their background."

Coleman is a 1993 Rutgers University graduate who has worked in the Phoenix area since 1997 as a computer contractor for the state Department of Economic Security. He runs a consulting company called Candia Systems Associates. He grew up in Cochise County, where his family had a ranch. His stepfather was Wyatt Earp researcher Glenn Boyer, an amateur historian who has been charged with fabricating material in the book I Married Wyatt Earp, which billed Josephine Earp as the author and Boyer as the editor. That scandal first came to public view as a result of investigation by Tony Ortega, then of Phoenix's weekly New Times. Ortega went on to work at the Los Angeles New Times (now defunct) and has written several in-depth investigative pieces about the Church of Scientology.

Coleman's mother (and Boyer's wife) is Western novelist Jane Candia Coleman.

(Most of the above is from the Arizona Republic story on Coleman.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

9/11 Myths debunked

I've just come across the 9/11 Myths site, which debunks a lot of the bogus claims made on the Internet by conspiracy theorists. It's well worth checking out along with the Popular Mechanics website and "Loose Change" debunking website referenced in this posting on the conspiracy-mongering Scholars for 9/11 Truth.

Also check out the Nyctohylophobia blog debunking 9/11 conspiracy claims, run by a bright Catholic high school student.

UPDATE September 1, 2006: The Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories site is also a good resource.

Abstinence-only sex education = 13% of female students pregnant in one year

Timken High School in Canton, Ohio has had an abstinence-only sex education program for the last 18 years. The program has not been updated during that time. In the last year, 65 of the 490 female students in the high school became pregnant. The school board has now voted to update the program and include safe sex information in the curriculum, while continuing to promote abstinence.

More at

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bears and the convenience/security tradeoff

Bruce Schneier points out a problem at Yosemite National Park--how to make garbage cans that resist the ability of bears to get into them, yet are not so complicated that tourists can't figure out how to put their trash into them. Best quote, from a park ranger: "There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists."

There are some great comments on the thread--e.g., Saxon:
How long before the bears start lurking near the cans, waiting for a human to open one so the bear can "mug" the human and get at the contents (rather like an ATM mugger)? Based on my experiences with the black bears in New England, this would not be beyond a bear's reasoning capacity.
and Mike Sherwood:
The party putting stuff into the trash is willing to spend about 10 seconds on the activity, whereas the party getting stuff out has no time limit. In order to cater to the lazy and stupid, someone has to do more work.

The configuration given doesn't work because it has the traditional open and closed configurations, while making the switch between those configurations needlessly complex. In this case, they need a recepticle that fails secure.

A mailbox like solution seems pretty obvious and rational to me. A cylinder with a horizontal axis has to be rotated to a position where it is accessable only from the outside in order to put trash in, then it rolls back to the position where the contents drop into a storage bin. A simple lock on the bin would keep everyone but the trash collector out of the bin, but allow everyone to deposit their trash in a designated location.

However, the trash can design could have been someone's thesis paper to prove that bears are pretty smart and a lot of humans are dumber than paste.

Attacks on a plane

Ed Felten raises some very interesting points about the recent terrorist threat against planes and our response:

Just as interesting as the attackers’ plans is the government response of beefing up airport security. The immediate security changes made sense in the short run, on the theory that the situation was uncertain and the arrests might trigger immediate attacks by unarrested co-conspirators. But it seems likely that at least some of the new restrictions will continue indefinitely, even though they’re mostly just security theater.

Which suggests another reason the bad guys wanted to attack planes: perhaps it was because planes are so intensively secured; perhaps they wanted to send the message that nowhere is safe. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that this speculation is right, and that visible security measures actually invite attacks. If this is right, then we’re playing a very unusual security game. Should we reduce airport security theater, on the theory that it may be making air travel riskier? Or should we beef it up even more, to draw attacks away from more vulnerable points? Fortunately (for me) I don’t have space here to suggest answers to these questions. (And don’t get me started on the flaws in our current airport screening system.)

The bad guys’ decision to attack planes tells us something interesting about them. And our decision to exhaustively defend planes tells us something interesting about ourselves.

Massachusetts State Police arrest man for linking website to arrest video

Paul Pechonis was arrested at his home for allegedly threatening the life of a police officer on his website. This was a police officer who allegedly threatened to hold a gun to the head of his son. That arrest was videotaped with the consent of all parties except the police, by a camera in Pechonis' home. The video was placed online by Mary Jean, who has been threatened with felony charges for posting it. A federal judge issued an injunction supporting Jean, which the Attorney General has appealed. Jean has the support of the ACLU of Massachusetts and the lawfirm of Choate, Hall & Stewart.

Jean is the webmaster of, a website critical of Worcester County district attorney John Conte, which is where the video is hosted.

You can also find the video on YouTube. Although the video has been described by some as showing an "invasive search" without a warrant, the officers say they are just checking the home to see if anyone else is present. They are not shown moving or opening anything on camera, and the search is very brief (just a few minutes)--I don't see any evidence of an "invasive search."

Now prosecutors have threatened Pechonis, issuing a cease and desist order for merely linking to the video of his arrest from his own website.

Good job, prosecutors--you've just ensured that there will be much more attention to this video and Pechonis' case.

(Hat tip to The Agitator.)

Is it worth shutting down botnet controllers?

Gadi Evron has now suggested, following Paul Vixie, that it's a waste of time to fight botnets by shutting down botnet controllers. Here's what I wrote to some colleagues when I read Vixie's statement that stomping out botnets is not only a waste of time, but counter-productive because it causes botherders to change their behavior and find new malicious techniques:
1. If you don't stomp them they are *still* going to develop new ways of doing things as a result of internal competition. It may happen more slowly, but it will still happen. There's no getting around an arms race. Even taking his analogy seriously, he wouldn't recommend that we stop using antibiotics.

2. Waiting on law enforcement to start effectively prosecuting will take a long time, and I don't think I'll be happy with what it will take for them to do it (I'm already unhappy with the new CALEA draft bill that's circulating). Criminal prosecution will likely never target more than a minority of offenders--mostly the high-profile cases.

3. Taking action raises their costs, which applies more broadly the same economic effect as prosecution does in a narrower and stronger manner. Again, if we take the antibiotic analogy seriously, a diversity of approaches is better than relying on a single approach.

4. Our experience seems to indicate a drop in botnet controller activity when we hit them consistently. If the bulk of miscreants follow the path of least resistance, putting up a fight will tend to push them to environs where people aren't putting up a fight.
Shutting down botnet controllers does have positive effects--and it's much quicker and reliable than law enforcement prosecution. I think a diversity of defensive actions is important, and we need to continue developing more of them--as I said above, it is a continuing arms race.

Richard Bejtlich has also commented on this subject at his TaoSecurity blog, and there's some good discussion in the comments. David Bianco has offered a suggestion at the InfoSecPotpourri blog. Bianco's suggestion is to modify the botnet C&C traffic, which in order to be most effective would have to occur at either large consumer ISPs (where 99+% of the bots are located) or at a small number of high-volume, low-cost webhosting companies (where 75+% of the botnet controllers are located).

There are a number of approaches that are being developed, which I won't describe in any detail here, but I agree that new approaches need to go more strongly after the bots themselves rather than just the botnet controllers. Those approaches need to use Netflow, and they need to use DNS. We also need to provide incentives for consumers with old, unpatched, vulnerable systems to protect themselves and to be protected by their ISPs--that's where the biggest bang for the buck will occur.

W. Virginia water bottle's explosive residue turns out to be makeup

Yesterday there were numerous news reports about a woman's water bottle testing positive, twice, for explosive residue and being identified as problematic by a bomb-sniffing dog. She was allegedly taken for questioning by the FBI. Today, there seems to be little followup about the fact that it was actually makeup that triggered false positives.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nick Carr's bogus criticism of the blogosphere

Nick Carr writes of the blogosphere:
What we tell ourselves about the blogosphere - that it's open and democratic and egalitarian, that it stands in contrast and in opposition to the controlled and controlling mass media - is an innocent fraud.
What's the fraud? Carr claims that the top-ranked blogs have established a hierarchy of control over the entire blogosphere:
The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated - with the best of intentions, mind you - by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.
But Carr is not only ignoring the facts of a comparison between the blogosphere and the mass media (the point of his initial comparison), he's ignoring mobility of rank and the specifics of the audiences of lower-ranked blogs. I've seen my blog get visits from all sorts of interesting places, by people I would not ordinarily be able to speak to.

John Koetsier at bizhack (who I've only come across because of this topic) says it very well when he points out the role of luck in getting a mass audience:

This is real life
This isn’t the movies. And this isn’t the crazy-stupid-brilliant flash-in-the-pan that you hear about from time to time, and wonder why you didn’t think of.

Anything worth doing is hard. Doing anything well is hard. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes talent. It takes skill.

But sorry, that’s not enough.

The L factor
Here’s the hardest part for any of us to accept: It takes luck.

We’d have it a lot easier if there was a clear-cut algorithm for success. Do X amount of work for Y number of days with Z degree of skill, and you’ll be successful.

Sorry. I wish it was true. But it’s not.

Some weird magic happens in the world.

  • Some wacked-out left-field idea like Snakes on a Plane just comes out of nowhere and hits a home run.
  • Some odd idea like getting people to write secrets on postcards and send them to you so you can post them on a website results in a top ten blog and a successful book.
  • Some 18-year-old kid creates a piece of software that others start contributing to that turns out to be really good and amazingly popular.
  • Some slightly-shady entrepreneurs take an old idea and a lousy site and sell it for over half a billion.
  • Some crazy geniuses create the best hardware/software combination the market has ever seen and spend decades struggling to get to 5% market share.
  • Some other crazy geniuses with duct-taped glasses buy a piece of junk software, land a distribution deal with a clueless giant, and become the most profitable company in the world.

He goes on to point out some numbers:

The reality is, the blogosphere is a big place. Lots happens. Conversations abound. Blogs proliferate. Attention is limited. Blogs shoot up, blogs tumble down. Enough churn occurs to make me believe that success is still possible.

But you are already more successful thank you know. Think about it: there are now 52 million blogs. 52 million!

Let’s say your blog is ranked 39,756 (coincidentally, just like the one you’re reading right now.) How lucky are you?

Let’s break it down:

  • If you’re in the top 5 million, you’re 1 out of 10
  • If in the top 500,000, you’re 1 out of 100
  • In the top 50,000, you’re 1 out of 1000
  • just for fun, let’s continue …
  • Top 5000? 1 out of 10,000
  • Top 500? 1 out of 100,000
  • And top 50? 1 out of 1,000,000

See the point? Even being in the top 100,000 is an accomplishment! (Of course, for all of us who are serious about this blogging journey, it may not be enough. It may not satisfy.)

He's spot on.

Tim Lee at the Technological Liberation Front makes some of the same points, first about rankings and quality of who you get to interact with:

Seth gives the impression that he toils in obscurity, with maybe 20 or 30 people reading what he writes on a good day. Yet Alexa ranks Seth’s site #84,819 among all web sites, with a “reach” of 24 readers per million web users. In contrast, TLF is ranked #295,434, and we have a “reach” of 4 per million. Technorati tells a similar story: TLF is ranked #7076 among all blogs with inbound links from 294 sites. Seth’s blog is ranked #5443, with inbound links from 365 blogs.

Now, TLF obviously isn’t an “A List” blog. We’re probably not even a “B List” blog. But if our traffic stats are to be believed, about 1500 unique individuals visit our site (or at least download our content to their RSS aggregators) each day. Extrapolating, I think it’s safe to say that Seth gets at least a few hundred, and probably several thousand, daily readers. Even if we assume that many of those are people who never actually read the sites their aggregators download, it’s safe to say that Seth gets more than “a few dozen” daily readers.

Personally, I think TLF’s readership—even if it’s only a couple hundred people—is fantastic. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I get to write about whatever strikes my fancy and have several hundred people read it and give me feedback. A decade ago, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve that without getting a job as a full-time journalist.


The far more important motivation is that I enjoy discussing ideas. I think it’s fantastic that I sometimes get to interact with prominent tech policy experts like Ed Felten and Randy Picker. I love the fact that I can post half-baked policy arguments and get virtually instantaneous feedback from people who possess much deeper technical knowledge than me. And most fundamentally, I enjoy the process of writing itself, when it’s about a subject I’m currently interested in. I think the intellectual questions related to technology policy are fascinating, and I find writing to be a form of intellectual exploration: sometimes I’ll finish a post (or series of them) in a different place than I expected to be when I started.

And about mobility within the rankings:
Carr is equally wrong to portray the elites of the blogosphere as some kind of closed, self-perpetuating club. The blogosphere is only about 5 years old. Even if it were true that the same bloggers have dominated the elite ranks since the blogosphere’s inception, that wouldn’t prove very much—the elite newspapers have dominated the national debate for decades. But Carr’s caricature isn’t even accurate. As just one exampleompare Instapundit, which ruled the blogospheric roost in 2002-04 to Daily Kos, a site that was obscure at the start of 2003, surpassed Instapundit in mid-2004, and today (according to Alexa) gets more than double the traffic. Sure doesn’t look like a closed elite to me.
So, good job to Carr for getting the attention of some new people through this topic--but perhaps he's done so with the strategy of saying something obviously false or outrageous designed to stir up the blogosphere and thereby increase his rank? It seems to be a relatively common and effective tactic--we could call it the Ann Coulter method. When pro-life blogger Pete wrote a post about an article in The Onion as though it were factual, he not only got hundreds of blog comments, links, and trackbacks, he got written about in a feature story on!

41st Skeptic's Circle

The 41st Skeptic's Circle is now out at Interverbal, in the form of an Awards Night presentation.

Judge grants injunction against warrantless wiretapping

Although the ACLU's lawsuit against AT&T in Illinois was thrown out, a separate case in Michigan filed on January 17 of this year against the NSA for warrantless wiretapping without approval of the FISA Court has resulted in a ruling by U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor that the practice is unconstitutional and must stop immediately. This is not the final decision in the case, but the granting of an injunction for the plaintiff.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against AT&T also continues.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Forbes' Best Places for Business

Phoenix cracked the top ten for the first time in Forbes magazine's best metropolitan areas for business (at #6); Arizona is down at #15 in the list of best states for business. Tucson ranks #77.

Phoenix scored high for colleges, cost of doing business, culture and leisure, job growth, and net migration; it scored poorly for cost of living, and crime rate, and was somewhere in the middle on educational attainment, cost of doing business, and income growth. Tucson scores better than Phoenix on educational attainment and income growth, but is worse on every other measure.

Arizona was ranked highly for labor costs (#7), economic climate (#1), and growth prospects (#13), poorly for regulatory environment (#36) and quality of life (#43), and in the middle for business costs (#24).

Arizona has four billionaires--John Sperling and his son Peter of the Apollo Group (and University of Phoenix and Kronos Group), Campbell Soup heir Bennett Dorrance, and Arturo Moreno of Outdoor Systems.

An interesting point in the summary is that the United States now has the highest corporate taxes of any OECD nation.

UPDATE (March 9, 2007): Forbes has updated its billionaire list for 2007, and there are no changes for Arizona--the same four Arizonans are billionaires, with none dropping off the list and no new ones showing up. Bennett Dorrance is at #432, Arturo Moreno, John Sperling, and Peter Sperling are all tied at #799. Last year the list was much smaller--Bennett Dorrance was at #153, John and Peter Sperling were tied at #297, and Arturo Moreno was at #354.

Skepticism about the UK liquid bomb plot

Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray raises some questions about the UK liquid bomb plot. Bruce Schneier points to a similarly critical discussion by Perry Metzger on Dave Farber's interesting people list.

Help expose earmarks

The Sunlight Foundation (along with Porkbusters, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth, and the Examiner Newspapers) is attempting to identify the sources of over 1,800 earmarks in the 2007 appropriations bill for the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. They've got a Google Map showing the locations of each recipient. There are a number of them in Arizona; a cursory look suggests that most of them are in the districts of Arizona's Democratic Representatives, Grijalva and Pastor.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How the terrorist watch list decreases border security

The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General has issued a report on U.S. Customs and Border Patrol activities at U.S. ports of entry that "indicates a significant decrease over the past few years in the interception of narcotics and the identification of fraudulent immigration documents, especially at airports." The problem is that when people are stopped whose names resemble those of individuals on the terrorist watch list, they have limited discretion about how to proceed, which causes them to spend a large amount of time dealing with each such case. Spending time on those cases detracts from their ability to do anything else, and the accumulated information collected in such incidents doesn't appear to be put to effective use:
When a watchlisted or targeted individual is encountered at a POE, CBP generates several reports summarizing the incident. Each of these reports provides a different level of detail, and is distributed to a different readership. It is unclear, however, how details of the encounter and the information obtained from the suspected terrorist are disseminated for analysis. This inconsistent reporting is preventing DHS from developing independent intelligence assessments and may be preventing important information from inclusion in national strategic intelligence analyses.
The report advises giving more discretion to supervisors at ports of entry, giving security clearances to port of entry counterterrorism personnel, establishing consistent reporting standards, and reviewing port of entry staffing models. It also advises that port of entry personnel collect biometric data from persons entering the country "who would not normally provide this information when entering the United States."

More at Bruce Schneier's blog.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Travel with liquids--the viscosity test

In Stephen Colbert's discussion of the liquids he takes with him while traveling (on YouTube), he asked whether custard is a liquid. A USA Today "Today in the Sky" blog entry on "Putting TSA to the viscosity test" reported on the author's experiment to see what she would be forced to discard. She carried a number of items in her bag to the screening area at the Baltimore airport for a flight to St. Louis on Friday night. The items were a container of Silk soy milk, Edge shaving gel, Ban deodorant, a small container of yogurt, a sealed two-pack of Advil capsules (gel caps), some makeup items, and a packet of mustard (see photo).

She was only required to discard the soy milk, one of the makeup items, and one other item (the mustard?).

I don't remember the details and cannot verify them because USA Today has removed the blog post, probably on the grounds that it encourages readers to test the limits of security screening. But shouldn't the rules about what is permitted be clear?

Is water in a frozen state permitted?

Are there any beverages or food items which have the properties of being thixotropic (solid until shaken) or rheopectic (temporarily solid after being shaken)? There's now (at least temporarily) a market...

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Schneier on security theater

Bruce Schneier writes about last week's terrorism arrests:
Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week's foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 -- no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews -- had anything to do with last week's arrests. And they wouldn't have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn't have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It's reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details -- much of the "explosive liquid" story doesn't hang together -- but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won't make us safer, either. It's not just that there are ways around the rules, it's that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets -- stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security -- and too many ways to kill people.

More at Schneier's blog.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Naked air travel

Tisha Presley, bound for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, hurriedly sipped from her bottled water before going through security at the Atlanta airport.

"I assume before too long we'll be naked on the plane -- and that's fine with me," she said.
My wife Kat jokingly suggests that TSA require passengers to change into TSA-provided unitards, returned for cleaning and reuse upon arrival at the destination.

Of course, the real question is whether air travel continues to be economically viable under high levels of travel restrictions without completely transforming the industry's business model.

One thing for sure--the level of restrictions currently imposed in the UK will provide incentives for telecommuting and audio and video conferencing, which are services provided by the company which employs me, Global Crossing.

Sierra Mist commercial and the liquid explosives plot

Comedy Central is still showing this commercial, which weakly foreshadowed the restriction on liquids put in place on Thursday. This restriction occurred months after the UK and U.S. governments were aware of this recent plot and eleven years after they were aware of the existence of terrorist plots involving liquid explosives (and twelve years after such a device was successfully tested--it killed one passenger and injured between five and ten).

ZeFrank on London liquid explosive terror plot

The Brits caught some douchebags who were going to blow up some planes.

Now, the way I see it, you can't have terrorism without terror. The strategy of terrorism is to use isolated acts of violence to instill fear and confusion into the population at large. A small number of people can incapacitate a society by leveraging our inability to understand risk.

Airline industry stocks plummetted today, while the industry braced for a rash of cancellations. This, despite the fact that even with the risk of airplane bombings it's still more dangerous to drive your car. Or smoke cigarettes.

As long as a small group of people can inflict mass panic across a large population, the tactic itself will remain viable. One way to deal a blow to the effectiveness of terrorism is to deal with the terror itself.

London's police deputy commissioner Paul Stevenson said that the plot was "intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale." No, it is imaginable: between three and ten flights out of thousands would have resulted in the terrible loss of human life.

Bush today said this country is safer today than it was prior to 9/11. Personally, I don't think he knows. Whether we like it or not, terrorist attacks on Americans are now part of the global reality. They will continue to happen. Many places around the globe have had to deal with a similar reality for years. India, Ireland, England, Spain, Russia, to name a few. In many cases, these societies have pulled together and not allowed isolated acts of violence to tear at their fiber. Like disease and the forces of nature, it's a risk that we have to rationally come to terms with. The government's responsibility is to make sure that fear and terror are not disproportionate to the reality of the situation.

Today the President said, "This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom to hurt our nation." Generalized statements like this which instill nebulous fear without specific information are exactly in line with the goals of terrorism.
Video here. (Hat tip to James Redekop on the SKEPTIC mailing list.)

Along similar lines is John Mueller of Ohio State University's "A False Sense of Insecurity? How does the risk of terrorism measure up against everyday dangers?" (PDF), published in the Cato Institute's Regulation, Fall 2004.

The additional security measures, which are creating long queues of people waiting to go through security checkpoints, are actually creating greater risks of terrorism--against those people waiting to get through the checkpoints. But that risk pales in comparison to every day risks which we accept (or allow others to accept) as a matter of course: falling off ladders, driving in automobiles, eating fast food, smoking. If a terrorist act on the scale of 9/11 occurred every month in the United States, it would only begin to approach the number of Americans killed every year in automobile accidents, and would still be far short of the number who die as a result of smoking.

Responsive actions like unreasonable and inefficient security screening measures increase rather than decrease the costs of terrorism.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Hate mail from suggestion that Jesus was a liberal

There's a website,, which suggests that Jesus was a liberal. (I'd go further and suggest that Jesus offered some views which were close to communism.) This site has provoked some interesting hate mail which seems somewhat at odds with what Jesus would do.

How to get a charitable donation tax deduction and get the money back

The Leavitt family gave $443,500 to the Dixie and Anne Leavitt Foundation, which gave it to the Southern Utah Foundation, which gave the money to Southern Utah University (along with another $135,000 from Leavitt Land and Investment), which gave the money to students in the form of scholarships that could only be used for housing at apartments owned by the Leavitt family. The Leavitt's Cedar Development Company got $578,000 from the student rent payments.

The Leavitts specifically asked the Southern Utah Foundation (whose board member Steven Bennion was also president of Southern Utah University) for the arrangement.

The really interesting part? One member of the Leavitt family involved in these decisions is Mike Leavitt, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration (and former Governor of Utah).

The Leavitt Foundation had already been under scrutiny because the Leavitt family had made large donations but the Foundation had paid out little to charity until last year.

The IRS is investigating. The Leavitts, the foundation administrators, and the university say they see nothing wrong with the arrangement, and a Leavitt spokeswoman says that the Senate Finance Committee reviewed this arrangement as part of Leavitt's confirmation last year.

This kind of arrangement is not surprising to me given what I've heard about other Mormon business arrangements, which commonly use family-owned companies and partnerships to do business with each other in order to gain tax advantages.

(Hat tip to Trent Stamp at Charity Navigator.)

Time fountain

Here's a gadget Harold Edgerton would have appreciated--Nate True built a little device that pumps dyed water through a tube, drops at a time, with strobe lights that illuminate individual drops as they fall. You can adjust the frequency of the strobe lights so that the drops appear to change in speed, freeze in place, or move backwards. He calls it a "time fountain."

Girl takes picture of herself every day for three years

This is an interesting video--though it will be more interesting if she continues the project, so that she visibly ages. (Looks like this is 2001-2003.)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

U.S. acceptance of evolution ranks us 33 out of 34 countries polled

In a short Eugenie Scott co-authored study published in Science, the United States had the 33rd lowest acceptance of evolution out of 34 countries polled; only Turkey had lower acceptance. No doubt Harun Yahya had something to do with that.

The measurement was whether one thought the following statement was true or false: "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals." Answers were multiple choice: true, false, not sure or does not know.

The full ranking:

(Via stranger fruit, where commenters have noted a possible correlation with rankings of levels of happiness. It doesn't look like much of a correlation--the happiness rankings were 1. Denmark, 2. Switzerland, 3. Austria, 4. Iceland, 5. Bahamas, 23. United States, 35. Germany, 41. Britain, 62. France, 82. China, 90. Japan, 125. India. There's a slightly better correlation with rankings of percentage of atheists: 1. Sweden, 3. Denmark, 4. Norway, 6. Czech Republic, 7. Finland, 8. France, 10. Estonia, 11. Germany, 13. Hungary, 14. Netherlands, 15. Britain, 16. Belgium, 17. Bulgaria, 18. Slovenia, 21. Latvia, 22. Slovakia, 23. Switzerland, 24. Austria, 27. Spain, 28. Iceland, 32. Greece, 34. Italy, 37. Lithuania, 42. Portugal, 43. United States. Turkey and Cyprus didn't make the top 50 for percentage of atheists.)

UPDATE (February 20, 2009): It is interesting that western democracies without a strong history of church and state are those where religion is weakest and acceptance of evolution is highest. Turkey, the only OECD country with lower acceptance of evolution than the United States, is a Muslim democracy with a strongly enforced separation of church and state. Iceland and Denmark, the top two, are Lutheran, and Sweden, at #3, was officially Lutheran until it began introducing the separation of church and state in 1995. France and Japan, at #4 and #5, are perhaps counter-examples, both rounding out the bottom of the top five and having fairly strong separation of church and state, though Japan's was first imposed by the U.S. occupation after WWII. The UK, at #6, is Anglican; Norway, at #7, is Lutheran but expected to remove the official religion clause from its Constitution by 2012; Belgium, at #8, is officially Catholic and also funds other religions; Spain, at #9, is officially Catholic; Germany, at #10, guarantees freedom of religion but the state funds both Catholic and Protestant churches via "church tax"; Italy, at #11, is Catholic; the Netherlands, at #12, has constitutional freedom of religion but funds religions.

AOL user identified by searches, plans to cancel account

The AOL user identified as 4417749 in the recently released three months of AOL search data has been found by the New York Times. She's Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow in Georgia who has often done searches about medical conditions for her friends, as well as about such things as how to deal with her dog's urination problem. The article includes a photo of her diaper-wearing dog, Dudley.

The article points out both how the search results can be used to identify the real-world user as well as how they can be misleading.

She says at the end of the article that she plans to cancel her account.

Deceptive Goldwater Institute article on CO2 and global warming

The Goldwater Institute sent out an email today titled "Some Like It Hot" by Robert C. Balling, Jr., a global warming skeptic who is a climatology professor at Arizona State University (and a Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow). It's short, so I'll quote it in full:
This summer treated us to the films "Too Hot Not To Handle" and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," as well as news that the Supreme Court will decide whether carbon dioxide (CO2) should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Reinforcing the idea that CO2 is a pollutant, Gore and others often speak of "CO2 pollution." Before you train yourself to add the "p" word to your vocabulary, consider that CO2 comes from the Earth itself and its levels have fluctuated greatly throughout history.

At one point, atmospheric CO2 levels dropped drastically and came perilously close to suffocating the global ecosystem. If someone is concerned about dangerous levels of atmospheric CO2, too low is far more dangerous than too high.

Experiments show that when CO2 levels increase, plants grow faster and bigger. In order to make CO2 more sinister, claims are made that ragweed and poison ivy will grow more vigorously in the future, and indeed they will. But so will every tree in the forest.

There is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that when elevated will act to warm the Earth. However, its levels have fluctuated enormously over the history of the Earth, and the ecosystems of the planet have adjusted to cope with these variations. The Supreme Court ruling will be interesting, but Mother Earth has clearly ruled that CO2 is not a pollutant.

Dr. Robert C. Balling Jr. is a Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow and is a professor in the climatology program at Arizona State University, specializing in climate change and the greenhouse effect. A longer version of this article originally appeared on
The big problem with this piece is a very critical omission. The last paragraph admits that CO2 elevation causes global warming, but says that its levels have "fluctuated enormously" over the history of the earth. But it fails to tell us what the record of CO2 fluctuation shows and where we stand today in comparison to the existing past record, leaving the reader with the false impression that the current levels are within normal historical fluctuations. CO2 levels today are much higher than they have been in the last 400,000 years (which I believe has now been extended to 600,000 years), as documented by CO2 levels in Antarctic ice cores.

To quote Steve Albers at NOAA:
The reason I would be most concerned is not what has happened so far, but what can very possibly happen if we stay on the present course. Carbon dioxide (CO2) mainly from fossil fuel burning is being released into the atmosphere faster than natural processes can remove it, thus increasing atmospheric concentrations. The rate of rise in CO2 concentration has been increasing as well, from about 1.3 parts per million per year several decades ago to about 2.2 ppm/yr in 2005. The natural background is about 280ppm and current CO2 concentrations are about 380ppm. A linear extrapolation of the 2005 trend would yield a doubling of CO2 over natural values by around 2080. It is often suggested that short of that, values of just 450ppm would represent a threshold of unacceptable changes in the environment. These values are potentially just a few decades away.

If we wait until things get obviously worse before we take action it could be too late for reasonably quick action to restore our familiar climate. One reason is because the ocean reservior of CO2 might be filling up and it would then take hundreds of years or more to reverse the CO2 back to its "natural" level to undo the warming effect. Another aspect of the carbon cycle is that even if the global emission rate is held constant, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would continue to rise for quite some time (e.g. one or more centuries) and reach levels several times what it is at present. Alternatively, to hold the CO2 concentration at current levels, the emission rate would have to be cut by roughly one-half (without considering the effect of the ocean reservoirs filling up). To hold the currently elevated temperature constant the emission rate would need about a two-thirds cut. Even if we magically turned off all emissions at once, it would probably take 100-300 years for CO2 levels to come down close to the natural background levels. The corresponding "half-life" would be something on the order of 50 years, subject to changes in the various CO2 sinks.

Since carbon emissions are continuing to grow (primarily because the major method of electricity production around the globe is burning coal), the levels are continuing to rise (graphs are from Wikipedia).

For whatever faults one might find in Al Gore's presentation in "An Inconvenient Truth," at least he presents the data to support what he says--and I recommend that everyone see that movie.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jesus shrimp

A California man has seen the face of Jesus on a shrimp tail. Heidi Hamilton and Frosty Stilwell nearly simultaneously dubbed it a "Christacean" when reporting this on their syndicated radio show today.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The eight things you must do to get into heaven

An entertaining YouTube video, I've embedded it in a posting at The Secular Web.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Coulter's Godless has fake footnotes, too

Since Crown Publishing Group responded to the charges of plagiarism against Ann Coulter's latest book, Godless, in part by appealing to the support provided by its 35 pages of footnotes, Media Matters decided to analyze the footnotes. It turns out they provide further evidence of her irresponsibility and disregard for accuracy (as if the existing evidence isn't enough). One example:
On Page 248, Coulter wrote:

In an article in the New York Times on intelligent design, the design proponents quoted in the article keep rattling off serious, scientific arguments -- from [Michael J.] Behe's examples in molecular biology to [William] Dembski's mathematical formulas and statistical models. The Times reporter, who was clearly not trying to make the evolutionists sound retarded, was forced to keep describing the evolutionists' entire retort to these arguments as: Others disagree.2

That's it. No explanation, no specifics, just "others disagree." The high priests of evolution have not only forgotten how to do science, they've lost the ability to formulate a coherent counterargument.

The New York Times article Coulter cited -- "In Explaining Life's Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash" -- appeared on August 22, 2005, as Part 2 of a three-part series on the debate over the teaching of evolution. Coulter's claim that the article's author, reporter Kenneth Chang, offered "[n]o explanations" and "no specifics" from the proponents of evolution is flat-out false. Chang offered detailed explanations of how evolutionary mechanisms gave rise to blood-clotting systems, modern whales, and speciation among birds on the Galapagos Islands ("Darwin's finches"). Chang also noted: "Darwin's theory ... has over the last century yielded so many solid findings that no mainstream biologist today doubts its basic tenets, though they may argue about particulars." Finally, and most egregiously, the phrase "others disagree" appears nowhere in the article.

Hat tip to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

AOL releases user search data, tied to individual users

AOL has published logs showing web activity data for 650,000 users--it's 20 million searches in about 800MB. Although the AOL screen names were converted to random numbers, the numbers are consistent across an individual user's activity and in many cases is no doubt sufficient to identify the individual based on ego surfing and other activity.

As Tech Crunch points out:
The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with “buy ecstasy” and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless.
The Paradigm Shift blog notes an instance of an AOL user who appears to be plotting to kill his wife (though there are, of course, possible innocent explanations). Commenters note that over 100 users used search terms which included references to child porn. There is no doubt that this will be used to argue for greater release of data to the government with fewer safeguards against misuse; commenters have already made the claim that "if you don’t do anything wrong, then you have nothing to be afraid of - even if people can view your search history." Commenter Robert follows up with a good response:
Do you ever search for your SSN#, phone number and/or name on line to see if it was posted without your consent? Do you ever worry your day care provider might be a child molester so you search for child molestation and the care takers name or their business name? Do you ever want to find ways to explain sex to your teen age daughter? Gee I wonder what those search terms might look like? Are you famous? Imagine if you type in the name of restaurant you want to go to and the word paparazzi to see if they are known to hang there. Let’s hope they do not see that? Oh, do you have a rare disease or maybe you are pregnant and are looking for clinic in your area so you type in your zip code? In a rural areas that might leave oh 1-30 people it could be? Oh, maybe you think your son is gay? I wonder what you would search for then? Do you have any fetishes or other unusual hobby that might be embarrassing for people to know about but is not illegal. Remember that rural issue again? Getting it yet, because I could go on and on. This is an personal invasion at its most basic level. Not only does it expose personal details of peoples lives, but it is open to wild misinterpretations. Take the wife killing search. Has anyone thought they were simply looking for news they had heard of on the topic, looking for a good book they had heard about with that topic whose title they could not remember, were a wife worried their husband was thinking about this, or maybe that it was exactly what they were looking for but it was only a private fantasy that let them cool off one day after an angry argument? Without context any term can seem scandalous or even criminal. Finally, there is the greater issue. When you start taking away more and more privacy. Each time you chip away at the greater fundamental concept that you deserve this right at all.
Releasing this data to the general public was sheer idiocy on AOL's part (and apparently a mistake), and demonstrates that an AOL account is not a good idea even when it's free.

The data has been downloaded hundreds of times and is now being redistributed on other websites.

UPDATE August 8, 2006: AOL has admitted and apologized for its mistake. has an article which gives some more examples of the kind of information that can be gleaned from the search records.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Scholars for 9/11 Truth

The group "Scholars for 9/11 Truth" has just gotten considerable press via CNN's website, which attempts to portray them as serious scholars with genuine academic credentials.

But the list of their members shows a few that are well beyond the pale, such as:
Paul Andrew Mitchell (AM)
Federal witness; Criminal investigator; Private attorney general
This associate member is known for filing absurd lawsuits over copyright infringement for his work "The Federal Zone: Cracking the Code of Internal Revenue," which appears to be a crackpot tax evasion guide. He once named Primenet (my employer at the time) as defendant in one of these lawsuits, because we rebuffed his demand that we remove a link to a nonexistent document on the website of one of our users. Primenet was never properly served, and one of the other defendants got the entire case thrown out. Another website on Mitchell that includes the text of some of his lawsuit documents is You can see a page of one of his complaints that includes Primenet as a defendant here (line 50). This one is dated August 1, 2001--Primenet had ceased to exist as an independent entity in 1997.

Among the full members are
Jim Marrs (FM)
Author, Researcher, 9/11, JFK, more
Marrs is a well-known JFK conspiracy theorist whose book Crossfire was used as part of the basis for Oliver Stone's movie, JFK. One of his arguments for JFK conspiracy is a list of mysterious deaths, examined further here.
James H. Fetzer (FM)
Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, a former Marine Corps officer, author or editor of more than 20 books, and co-chair of S9/11T
Fetzer is another JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, who claims that the Zapruder film was fabricated by the conspiracy. (Some critiques are here and here.) Fetzer has complained about Wikipedia reverting his changes to pages about September 11. Fetzer also thinks the Apollo moon landings may be fake.
Robert M. Bowman (FM)
Former Director of the U.S. "Star Wars" Space Defense Program in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and a former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with 101 combat missions
Bowman is also, according to Wikipedia, the "founder and Presiding Archbishop of the United Catholic Church, an "independent Catholic fellowship" created in 1996 and held to be connected through apostolic succession to the Old Catholic Church." He attempted to gain the Reform Party nomination for president in 2000, but it went to Pat Buchanan [not John Hagelin, this has been corrected]. (I wonder if he is the father of Robert M. Bowman, Jr., of the Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical Christian apologist who is critical of cults?)

On Bowman's political campaign website, he gives this resume:
Dr. Robert M. Bowman, Lt. Col., USAF, ret. is President of the Institute for Space and Security Studies, Executive Vice President of Millennium III Corporation, and retired Presiding Archbishop of the United Catholic Church. He flew 101 combat missions in Vietnam and directed all the “Star Wars” programs under Presidents Ford and Carter. He is the recipient of the Eisenhower Medal, the George F. Kennan Peace Prize, the President’s Medal of Veterans for Peace, the Society of Military Engineers' ROTC Award of Merit (twice), six Air Medals, and dozens of other awards and honors. His Ph.D. is in Aeronautics and Nuclear Engineering from Caltech. He chaired 8 major international conferences, and is one of the country’s foremost experts on National Security. Dr. Bob was an independent candidate for President of the US in 2000, beating Pat Buchanan in Iowa, Illinois, and California. He has resided on the Space Coast for 16 years.
"lechrus2" has commented on his findings about some of the claims on Bowman's resume, and others have pointed out similar problems in comments at DailyKos. Apparently Bowman claimed to have twice won the Society of Military Engineers Gold Medal, but the list of all such winners since 1926 does not list his name; the list now says "ROTC Award of Merit" instead of "Gold Medal." He claims to be a recipient of the Eisenhower Medal, but the list of recipients of the American Assembly's Eisenhower Medal does not include him. There is a Milton Eisenhower Medal for Distinguished Service to Johns Hopkins University, but I haven't found a list of recipients. He claims that he (secretly?) headed the "Star Wars" program during the Ford and Carter administrations, even though the program was initiated under Reagan in 1983. No one has yet been able to verify the existence of a "George F. Kennan Peace Prize." The Millennium III Corporation has a website with a front page and a bunch of bad links. The domain is registered to a John Gantt, 1623 33rd St., Washington, D.C. 20007, with a contact address and a phone number which is listed to David H. Barron at that same address. The address is missing a "NW," but is in Georgetown. (A David H. Barron was chairman of the Young Republicans from 1981-1983, but this David H. Barron appears to be involved with the World Wildlife Fund and/or the International Conservation Partnership.) If John Gantt is John B. Gantt, there are D.C. listings for him at two different addresses, one of which is an office building at 1919 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, and the other of which is an office building at 1401 H. St. NW. Anyone want to investigate Bowman's claimed military rank and Vietnam missions, his Caltech degree, or Millennium III?

The other co-chair of the group is Brigham Young University physicist, Steven Jones, who has argued that the World Trade Center building collapses must have involved controlled demolition. Former Scientific American columnist A.K. Dewdney is also a member; he has argued that it was impossible for cell phones to have been used from the hijacked planes, and therefore they must have been faked.

UPDATE August 8, 2006: Maddox addresses some 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Here's a detailed critique of "Loose Change."

Here's the Popular Mechanics article on 9/11 conspiracy theories.

UPDATE August 9, 2006: Correction to the above--Pat Buchanan was the Reform Party candidate, not former Natural Law Party candidate, physicist, and TM practitioner John Hagelin (though he also tried for the nomination).

UPDATE August 16, 2006: By way of comparison to Scholars for 9/11 Truth, here's a list of the individuals who consulted on the Popular Mechanics article referenced just above.

UPDATE August 19, 2006: Also check out the 9/11 Myths website.