Monday, December 31, 2007

December's Phoenix Housing Stats Update

By now it's barely even newsworthly that December saw another record number of notices of trustee's sales in Maricopa County (3875, which was more than 300 higher than last month's record high, which was almost 100 higher than October's record high, which was roughly 200 higher than August's record high...).

For some extra context and excellent commentary, after looking at the graphs...
Maricopa County Notices of Trustee's Sales - Click to Enlarge
Maricopa County Median Home Price - Click to Enlarge
Number of Homes Sold Per Month in Maricopa County - Click to Enlarge
...I recommend you check out Mish's Pent Up Housing Demand, and the NYT's Sound of a Bubble Bursting.

Skepticism on the Internet in 1996

Last night while looking for something else, I came across my copy of the September 1996 issue of Internet Underground, a short-lived glossy magazine promoting interesting things on the Internet. This issue featured an article I wrote for them about skepticism on the Internet, which I present for your enjoyment below. If I had to update it today, I'd need to add information about blogs (like Science Blogs), podcasts, and various online forums that have come into existence in the last eleven and a half years or so (including IIDB, its offshoots like Freethought Forum and Heathen Hangout, and skeptical forums like those of the James Randi Educational Foundation and Richard Dawkins), but everything I described below is still around, despite some name and domain changes (I've updated the links) and diminishing significance of Usenet. I'm not sure how I missed the Skeptics Dictionary or, which were both around at the time.

You can see a PDF of the article in its original format here.

403 Forbidden: Skeptics Seek the Cold Hard Truth
By Jim Lippard

The Internet is a place where world views collide. Christianity meets atheist, conventional wisdom meets conspiracy theory, fringe belief meets orthodox science. While most Usenet newsgroups promote particular views and are populated mostly by their purveyors, the critics make up the majority on sci.skeptic. These critics who refer to themselves as "skeptics" have only a tenuous connection to the skepticism of the ancient Greeks, such as Pyrrho, who denied the possibility of knowledge of any kind. Instead, they tend to hold that while knowledge is quite possible, it must be grounded in scientific inquiry and rational investigation. Doubt is valued as a means to reliable knowledge rather than an end in itself.

Skeptics often share an interest in the unusual, bizarre, and the seemingly impossible with the denizens of newsgroups such as alt.paranormal, alt.astrology, alt.alien.visitors, and alt.forteana.misc. There are plenty of fans of The X-Files to be found among skeptics. Where skeptics differ from "believers" is with regard to what are acceptable standards of evidence and what constitutes reasonable methods of investigation. A commonly touted skeptical aphorism is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and testimonials, feelings and handwaving are not considered extraordinary enough to carry the weight.

Yet skeptics are not necessarily dogmatic disbelievers. Skeptics may be knee-jerk naysayers who reject anything supernatural or paranormal, open-minded doubters, or even those who shelter a few fringe beliefs of their own. The most outspoken critics of one paranormal theory are frequently advocates of other fringe theories, and such criticisms are often accepted and promoted by the skeptics. (In a similar vein, it has been pointed out that Christians agree with atheists about the nonexistence of all gods save one.)

Organized skepticism has largely centered around the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP),, since its founding in 1976. But the growth of local, regional and national skeptical groups, and their interaction via the Internet has led to a diversification of approaches and emphases. The Los Angeles-based Skeptics Society,, has published a thick magazine, Skeptic, since 1992 which emphasizes thorough and open investigation of claims, allows detailed responses from those who are criticized, is willing to examine claims within conventional science as well as on the fringes and encourages self-criticism of the skeptical movement. Likewise, the sci.skeptic newsgroup and the SKEPTIC mailing list (skeptic at are places where
well-reasoned arguments by promoters of paranormal claims and skeptical detractors can find an attentive audience (amongst the obligatory flames and ridicule, of course--but flamers may find themselves skewered by their fellow skeptics if they aren't careful).

Within the broad class of skeptics are those who focus on more specific issues, like the Internet Infidels (, whose Secular Web expresses skepticism about the existence of gods and value of religion. The National Center for Science Education ( engages in religiously neutral criticism of creationist pseudoscience. Trancenet ( criticizes Transcendental Meditation. Each has related newsgroups (alt.atheism,, alt.meditation.transcendental) and mailing lists, traffic from which tends to overflow into sci.skeptic, the catch-all newsgroup for skeptics.

The Internet has served as a means for skeptics worldwide to coordinate and expand their efforts; the skeptical organizations and publications have shown considerable growth in the last few years despite the fact that major media tends to give skeptical viewpoints short shrift.

Jim Lippard ([email address removed]), a skeptic, Web administrator and philosopher, is the Internet representative for Skeptic magazine.

Skeptics Society Web

Other Skeptical Resources

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Disney characters explain copyright law

(Hat tip to Scott Peterson on the SKEPTIC mailing list.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

rx videos

rx, who put out some MP3s a couple of years ago that edited samples from George Bush speeches to make him sing songs like U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and John Lennon's "Imagine" mixed with Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," has made videos of several of these and some new songs:

REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It" (Bush):

U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (Bush):

The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" (Tony Blair):

John Lennon's "Imagine"/Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (Bush):

Fundamentalist legalism and murder

Today I've read a few interesting commentaries on the role that certain fundamentalist Christian teachings (specifically a doctrine known as "legalism") have had in producing the outcomes of Andrea Yates murdering her children and Matthew Murray killing several people in Colorado. Murray, who was raised in an ultra-fundamentalist home and home schooled, was in an environment based on the teachings of Bill Gothard, whose "seven basic life principles" may be found here. The obedience to authority component is one which has led to some problems, such as a sex scandal within Gothard's organization. (An online forum for discussing Bill Gothard's teachings, open to both supporters and critics, may be found here.)

Gothard has other teachings beyond his seven principles, some of which are enumerated by a commenter at Midwest Christian Outreach:
Wives who work outside the home are to be compared to harlots — Bill Gothard
It is a total insult in Scripture to be called uncircumcised, and the only moral choice parents can make is to have their sons circumcised in order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus — Bill Gothard
“Unmerited favor” is a “faulty definition” of grace. Grace for sanctification is merited as we humble ourselves before God — Bill Gothard
Females who enjoy horseback riding have a problem with rebellion — Bill Gothard, from testimonies of people who use their real names who have heard him say this in person
Unbiblical submission taught — Abigail was WRONG to do what she did in saving Nabal and his servants — Bill Gothard
Tamar was partially at fault for being raped, because she wasn’t spiritually alert and didn’t cry out — Bill Gothard
Rock music is evil because it is evil — Bill Gothard
Cabbage Patch dolls are demonized — Bill Gothard
Matthew Murray wrote about some of these rules, observing that "I still remember how we were told that 'The Simpsons' was a very evil and Satanic TV show with the intent of causing people to leave Christianity (as if that’s a bad thing). As a teenager my mother had the TV tuner removed by a TV technician so that it could only receive from the AV inputs, meaning, could only watch VHS and DVDs." He specifically blamed Gothard's teachings for his problems:
I am 22 years old and I was raised in Bill Gothard's homeschool program all the way through high school. I went to both the Basic and Advanced Seminars. My Mother was fully into both Bill Gothard's programs AND the Charismatic movement. What I found were all these other rules Irealized I could never live up to, yet, the man seemed to have a biblical basis for everything. In Februrary 2001 at age 17 I plunged into a dark suicidal depression all because I thought I had lost my "salvation" and somehow couldn't live up to the rules. Every single hour of every single day, up until October 2001 I thought about ways of suicide and hating myself for not being worthy enough and failing God. I felt like there was no reason to live because I had lost my salvation and could never live up to the rules.
By contrast, Bill Gothard blames it all on rock music:
Gothard, in an interview Wednesday, said he “didn’t recall"ever meeting the Murray family, but he was sure one of the parents was probably trained in his program. Ultimately, Gothard blames rock music for Murray’s murderous rampage. “That is the most contributing factor,” said Gothard, who is based in a small town south of Chicago. “It’d be important to see the connection between his passion to rock music and how it ultimately brought this on.” Gothard said whenever he gets calls from parents having trouble with their kids, he asks about what they listen to. “In every case, (the kid) is listening to rock music,” he said.
The Andrea Yates case didn't involve Bill Gothard--she was a follower of Michael Woroniecki, a traveling preacher who carried a cross onto college campuses. I met and argued with him at Arizona State University in October of 1986, where he was arrested (via citizen's arrest) for allegedly disrupting a campus event occurring on the mall. The charges were absurd--he wasn't creating a disturbance or disrupting any event--and some other skeptics and I attended his court hearing prepared to speak up for him, but the charges were dismissed when the ASU student who made the citizen's arrest failed to show up. Woroniecki's teachings are similar to Gothard in that he places a strong emphasis on following rules (and against following any church or leadership other than his own, since he doesn't seem to think anyone other than himself lives up to his standards, which apparently presents him with a bit of a problem in maintaining followers). He lacks the sophistication, charisma, and organizational skills of Gothard.

There is empirical evidence that excessively rigid parental control over children can cause serious dysfunction. Christians should take notice of this, rather than resort to blaming rock music.

UPDATE (December 31, 2007): I just remembered, by way of contrast with Bill Gothard's view of The Simpsons, that a Christian satirical magazine, The Wittenburg Door, did an issue on the theology of Homer Simpson back in May/June 1999--the issue immediately preceding their "XENA: Warrior Theologian of the Year" issue. I've got a copy around here somewhere...

UPDATE (February 3, 2010): Joshua Woroniecki, son of Michael Woroniecki, has a blog where he criticizes claims that his father had any responsibility for the actions of Andrea Yates, even denying that she and her husband were followers of his father. That should be contrasted with Wikipedia's discussion.

UPDATE (March 1, 2014): Bill Gothard has been placed on administrative leave as a result of accusations of sexual harassment from at least 34 women.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ron Paul connected to white supremacists?

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out allegations from a neo-Nazi that Ron Paul has regularly met with a variety of white supremacists at a Thai restaurant in D.C. Others have pointed out that Paul campaign expenditures have included expenses at that restaurant and that he has spoken to some questionable groups.

I've also updated this blog's post on "Ron Paul, religious kook" to point out his recent statement that he doesn't accept the reality of evolution.

UPDATE: The alleged campaign expenditure link to Wednesday restaurant meetings with white supremacist groups has been conclusively refuted at the Irregular Times blog, which goes through the expenditures in detail and shows that while Ron Paul has spent money for meetings at the Tara Thai restaurant in D.C. (which is right around the corner from an office he rents in D.C.), none of those expenditures have occurred on a Wednesday. The source of the allegations, Bill White of the American National Socialist Workers Party, is not a particularly credible source, as has been remarked repeatedly in the comments at Ed Brayton's blog (first link above).

However, Paul has definitely taken contributions from and posed for photographs with at least one white supremacist, Don Black, who runs the Stormfront website.

Dembski knew he was infringing copyright

In a September 2007 talk, Dembski used an over-dubbed version of a computer animation of the inner workings of the cell that he took from Harvard and XVIVO, which he subsequently claimed he had downloaded from the Internet in a form that didn't have the credits (e.g., from YouTube).

Peter Irons has now shown that the content of Dembski's latest book, Design of Life, shows that his explanation is a lie. That book includes a reference to the same video, with a link to its original location, marked as "last accessed" on January 25, 2007. Since he knew where the video came from in January 2007, he also already knew in September 2007. ERV points out the details of Dembski's deception.

(Via Pharyngula.)

UPDATE (December 31, 2007): There is an entertaining exchange of letters between Peter Irons, Bill Dembski, and Dembski's attorney John Gilmore posted at Pharyngula.

Chinese intelligence was translating for the NSA

The Washington Times reported on December 21 that several years ago, Chinese intelligence successfully subverted the National Security Agency in Hawaii. First, by creating a company based in Hawaii to do Chinese translations which successfully obtained government contracts with the NSA to translate intercepted Chinese communications. The intercepted communications included sufficient information to identify the sources, giving the Chinese the ability to control what information was obtained by the NSA either by preventing significant information from being carried over by the compromised channel or by introducing disinformation.

This shows one of the problems that faces a world superpower whose own language is commonly used and which does little or nothing to encourage its citizens to learn other languages. Understanding communications in other languages require the assistance of translators who may be working for the enemy, and the enemy can almost get away with speaking freely anywhere while being overheard, since the likelihood of comprehension is so small. The more communications you need translated, the more translators you need, and the greater the likelihood of compromise.

UPDATE (January 2, 2008): Noah Schachtman at Wired and Jeffrey Carr at IntelFusion cast some doubt on this story.

Books Read in 2007

As another year comes to a close, I've again put together a list of the books I've managed to read this year. Once again, there are many that I've not finished, some of which were started but left uncompleted in 2005 or 2006, but I'm not going to bother listing those this year. While in previous years I've reviewed almost every book I read on, this year I've hardly done so at all, and my reviewer rank has dropped accordingly--I had hopes at one time of cracking the top 2000 (and got up to 2,171), but that won't happen if I don't write some more reviews. I'm disappointed with how few books I've read this year--this is the first time I can recall purchasing more new books than I've finished reading, so I plan to use my vacation days (the rest of the year) to see if I can finish a few more.
(Previously: 20062005.)

Chris Hedges gives Huckabee too much credit

Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, has written an article about how the religious right's support for Mike Huckabee "represents a seismic shift in the tactics, ideology and direction of the radical Christian right" in that Huckabee is a candidate who repudiates many of the core principles of conservatism in favor of populism. I'd say he's more of a William Jennings Bryan than a Barry Goldwater.

Hedges' article correctly identifies some very serious reasons to be concerned about a Huckabee candidacy, with his ties to Christian reconstructionism and his complete ignorance of foreign policy. He concludes with a few paragraphs about Huckabee's opposition to the HPV vaccine and his desire to quarantine AIDS patients. It's here that Hedges gives Huckabee too much credit, when he writes that "Huckabee has publicly backed off from this extreme position." In fact, Huckabee hasn't backed off from the position, only from the specific words he used to describe it.

Here's what he said about it to Chris Wallace, as reported at the Huffington Post (with the accompanying video record):
This morning, Huckabee first tried to deny his comments. "Chris, I didn't say that we should quarantine," he said. In fact, he said we "need[ed]" to isolate AIDS patients.

Pressed repeatedly by host Chris Wallace, however, Huckabee relented. "That is exactly what I said. I don't run from it, I don't recant from it. Would I say it a little differently today? Sure, in light of 15 years of additional knowledge and understanding, I would."
That's not backing off from the position.

Monday, December 24, 2007

What would happen if Jesus converted to Islam?

The Onion has the story. The part about Jews for Jesus splitting into three groups is priceless.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Unlike the examples in Alanis Morissette's misnamed song, this is both unfortunate and ironic:

Roofing billionaire dies in fall through roof

The 91st richest man in the U.S., a roofing company billionaire, has died after falling through his home garage's roof, local authorities said Friday.

Ken Hendricks, 66, was checking on construction on the roof over his garage at his home in the town of Rock Thursday night when he fell through, Rock County Sheriff's Department commander Troy Knudson said. He suffered massive head injuries, according to his company, ABC Supply Co.

Lakota Nation withdraws from U.S. treaties

Yesterday, a group of Indians from the Lakota Nation announced that it has withdrawn from all U.S. treaties and will be issuing its own passports and driver's licenses and creating a tax-free state where non-Native Americans are welcome to move so long as they renounce their U.S. citizenship. They've stated that they will be filing liens against the properties within their territory which have been illegally homesteaded, and have contacted the governments of Bolivia, Chile, and Venezuela seeking recognition.

You can find a map of the Lakota Nation territory here, with more detail and explanation here. It covers western North and South Dakota and Nebraska, and eastern Montana and Wyoming.

This declaration of independence was made yesterday by Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement (who was nearly the 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for president instead of Ron Paul), and is based on many years of U.S. government failure to live up to its treaties with Indian tribes. But Means actually has no authority to speak for the Oglala Sioux (the Lakota tribe he is a member of), since he did not win the 2005 election for president of the tribe, though he unsuccessfully contested it.

I haven't seen any specific mention with regard to the Lakota Nation's action of the case of Cobell v. Kempthorne, a lawsuit which has been in federal court since 1996. This lawsuit is over the U.S. Department of the Interior's mismanagement of Indian land lease trust funds, in which they've lost the accounting records for 118 years of data about $13 billion in funds and its accumulated interest, which the plaintiffs would like to see returned to them. (I previously mentioned this lawsuit two years ago as one of the issues former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth was on the right side of.) Eloise Cobell is a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana.

Mention has been made, however, of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision which awarded the Lakota $122 million in compensation for the land that had been taken from them in violation of treaties, but not any land. The Lakota refused the award, which has accrued interest bringing it close to $1 billion today.

Depends on what the meaning of "saw" is

Mitt Romney said on national television several times this year (including at least twice this month) that he saw his father march with Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1978, he claimed to the Boston Herald that he and his father both marched with King.

Susan Englander, assistant editor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, did some research and found that while Gov. George Romney (Michigan) issued a proclamation in support of King in June 1963 for a March in Detroit, he declined to attend, saying that he did not attend political events on Sundays. He participated in a civil rights march in Grosse Pointe a few days later, but King did not attend that march.

Now, after defending the claim repeatedly, Romney has admitted yesterday that neither he nor his father marched with King--but not that he has said anything false. Instead, he says that he "saw" his father march with King in a figurative sense: "If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described. ... It's a figure of speech and very familiar, and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King. I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Blackwater shoots the NY Times' dog in Baghdad

A Blackwater bodyguard shot and killed Hentish, the mascot dog of the New York Times that has lived its entire life in the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. Blackwater claims Hentish attacked one of their bomb-sniffing dogs and had to be shot.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Former U.S. military officials against "enhanced interrogation"

December 12, 2007

The Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV, Chairman
The United States Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Silvestre Reyes, Chairman
The United States House of Representatives
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Reyes and Chairman Rockefeller:

As retired military leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces, we write to express our strong support for Section 327 of the Conference Report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, H.R. 2082. Section 327 would require intelligence agents of the U.S. government to adhere to the standards of prisoner treatment and interrogation contained in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Human Collector Operations (the Army Field Manual).

We believe it is vital to the safety of our men and women in uniform that the United States not sanction the use of interrogation methods it would find unacceptable if inflicted by the enemy against captured Americans. That principle, embedded in the Army Field Manual, has guided generations of American military personnel in combat.

The current situation, in which the military operates under one set of interrogation rules that are public and the CIA operates under a separate, secret set of rules, is unwise and impractical. In order to ensure adherence across the government to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions and to maintain the integrity of the humane treatment standards on which our own troops rely, we believe that all U.S. personnel - military and civilian - should be held to a single standard of humane treatment reflected in the Army Field Manual.

The Field Manual is the product of decades of practical experience and was updated last year to reflect lessons learned from the current conflict. Interrogation methods authorized by the Field Manual have proven effective in eliciting vital intelligence from dangerous enemy prisoners. Some have argued that the Field Manual rules are too simplistic for civilian interrogators. We reject that argument. Interrogation methods authorized in the Field Manual are sophisticated and flexible. And the principles reflected in the Field Manual are values that no U.S. agency should violate.

General David Petraeus underscored this point in an open letter to the troops in May in which he cautioned against the use of interrogation techniques not authorized by the Field Manual:

What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight. . . . is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect.... Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong.

Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone "talk;" however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

Employing interrogation methods that violate the Field Manual is not only unnecessary, but poses enormous risks. These methods generate information of dubious value, reliance upon which can lead to disastrous consequences. Moreover, revelation of the use of such techniques does immense damage to the reputation and moral authority of the United States essential to our efforts to combat terrorism.

This is a defining issue for America. We urge you to support the adoption of Section 327 of the Conference Report and thereby send a clear message - to U.S. personnel and to the world - that the United States will not engage in or condone the abuse of prisoners and will honor its commitments to uphold the Geneva Conventions.


General Joseph Hoar, USMC (Ret.)
General Paul J. Kern, USA (Ret.)
General Charles Krulak, USMC (Ret.)
General David M. Maddox, USA (Ret.)
General Merrill A. McPeak, USAF (Ret.)
Admiral Stansfield Turner, USN (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Lee F. Gunn, USN (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy, USA (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Donald L. Kerrick, USA (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Albert H. Konetzni Jr., USN (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Charles Otstott, USA (Ret.)
Lieutenant General Harry E. Soyster, USA (Ret.)
Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Ret.)
Major General Eugene Fox, USA (Ret.)
Major General John L. Fugh, USA (Ret.)
Rear Admiral Don Guter, USN (Ret.)
Major General Fred E. Haynes, USMC (Ret.)
Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, USN (Ret.)
Major General Melvyn Montano, ANG (Ret.)
Major General Gerald T. Sajer, USA (Ret.)
Major General Antonio 'Tony' M. Taguba, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General David M. Brahms, USMC (Ret.)
Brigadier General James P. Cullen, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Evelyn P. Foote, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General David R. Irvine, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General John H. Johns, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Richard O'Meara, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Murray G. Sagsveen, USA (Ret.)
Brigadier General Anthony Verrengia, USAF (Ret.)
Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, USA (Ret.)

The bill in question has passed in the House. It still needs to pass in the Senate. Bush has threatened to veto the measure.

UPDATE (December 20, 2007): Notes on a few of the above--Taguba did the investigation of Abu Ghraib. Guter and Hutson were Judge Advocates General (i.e., the top Navy-Marine Corps lawyer). Turner was former Director of Central Intelligence (i.e., head of the CIA).

Who gets Jesus' endorsement, and is it a good thing?

This political advertisement explores those questions.

Hat tip to Dave Palmer on the SKEPTIC list.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Untraceable" looks unwatchable

In January 2008 the film "Untraceable," starring Diane Lane, will be released. It looks awful. The premise is that a serial killer is killing people live on the Internet, via an "untraceable website" that is connected to contraptions that kill his victims as more people visit the site.

The whole concept of an "untraceable website" or the idea that such a thing would be unstoppable by ISPs and law enforcement is absurd--the immediate upstream provider of the site would merely need to null route the IP address(es) where the website is hosted, and traffic stops. They'd also be able to quickly identify the customer who owns the server in question. Even if that server was compromised and being used to reverse proxy or redirect traffic to other servers, it would still be a relatively simple matter to track that backwards, though it would be somewhat more difficult than stopping the traffic. Even if the domain name pointed to a new server on a compromised host every second, it would still be possible to contact the domain name registrar and get the domain name shut down.

If users can get to it, it can be seen how and what they're getting to, even if that's only the front end in a chain of successive proxies. If it has a domain name, that provides another path to shutting off access.

UPDATE (January 2, 2008): I came across the script online while searching for information about the writers. Let's just say that my opinion above is not nearly negative enough. In the first 16 pages are at least six or seven scenes that really bring on the stupid. For example, FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh, who works in the FBI's cyber division, is monitoring machines that are being compromised by hackers (honeypots, essentially, though the script doesn't use the word). One of her machines gets compromised and she sees that it copies her files including fake financial information. It then accesses eBay to use a stolen credit card to purchase a watch. In reality, the stolen financial information wouldn't be likely to be used from the same machine, it would be sold to another player in the underground economy. Marsh then types commands to look for the IP address of the connecting host--but if they've already got honeypots or honeynets in operation, that should already be logged. She then does the usual CSI-style conversion of an IP address into a name and address without issuing a subpoena to an ISP, and discovers that it's a home belonging to a 56-year-old woman. She immediately concludes that the actual criminal must be a neighbor using her wireless connection, despite the fact that she has no evidence that the woman has a wireless access point and isn't just another victim with a compromised machine being used as a proxy. Without doing any more verification, she arranges to get a warrant to knock the door of the neighbor down, and it turns out to be a teenage kid.

On p. 16 appears this nice quote: "She types several commands into a unix shell. Trace routing algorithms begin to run. A different screen shows possible IP addresses. The list begins growing, from ten to hundreds to thousands.... Marsh shakes her head at the futility." There are multiple methods of performing traceroutes and even of adding fake hops to a traceroute, but traceroute is unnecessary to find out the IP address of a website--it's only useful for finding the path traffic takes to get to that website, e.g., for finding the upstream provider. But getting a list of upstream providers is better done by looking at routing tables rather than doing traceroutes, anyway. The real investigative steps would be to look at the DNS information for the domain, get the IP address or addresses from the authoritative name server (and check to see if those are changing with a short TTL), then find the upstream providers.

Funniest exchange I've seen so far in the script (p. 26) is this marvel of self-contradiction:
[FBI agent] GRIFFIN: I traced it to a Georgetown sophomore named Andrew Kinross. But then I looked closer and saw the post didn't actually originate from his computer.
MARSH: Our guy got into his computer and posted it from there.
GRIFFIN: That would be my guess.
MARSH: So let's go after the originating computer's IP.
And so far, I've not mentioned how the hacker mastermind hacks into the FBI agent's car (which features the fictional "NorthStar" instead "OnStar")--in the preview, the hacker apparently is able to control the steering of her car. I suspect drive-by-wire steering will come soon in the future of the automobile, but I don't believe it exists today. (Turns out the preview gives a misleading impression of what the script says is happening--the hacker doesn't actually control the steering, but remotely shuts off the car's electrical systems and power steering.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mike Huckabee's problems

Mike Huckabee's problems continue to accumulate. There's the little problem of his son David hanging a dog by its neck, slitting its throat, and stoning it to death--and the fact that Huckabee himself defends this animal cruelty (of the sort that's often a precursor to serial killing of human beings) on the grounds that the dog was emaciated and had mange. (You may recall that Mitt Romney has a similar, though not nearly as nasty, poor record with dogs.) David Huckabee killed the dog when he was 17 and was never prosecuted, but in April he faced a weapons charge for trying to take a loaded handgun through airport security in Little Rock.

Huckabee also claimed to Pat Robertson's CBN that "I'm the only guy on that stage with a theology degree," but he doesn't have a theology degree--he only attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for a year, he's a theology-school dropout.

Then there's his role in calling for the 1999 release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who was strongly defended by Baptist minister Jay Cole, a close friend of the Huckabee family. Some conservative activists apparently defended Dumond on the grounds that one of his rape victims was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton and the daughter of a major Clinton campaign contributor. Several victims wrote letters to Huckabee describing Dumond's brutality, but Huckabee was quoted in a column by Steve Dunleavy titled "Clinton's Biggest Crime--Left Innocent Man in Jail for 14 Years" saying that "There is grave doubt to the circumstances of this reported crime." But as we know today, Dumond was guilty--he was released from prison in September 1999, apparently with some help from Huckabee, and he raped and murdered two women. Huckabee has refused to release his administration's records pertaining to Dumond on grounds that they contain sensitive law enforcement information.

In 1992, Huckabee called for AIDS victims to be quarantined, and refused to retract that position just recently, despite the fact that the disease is not spread through casual contact (which was also well known in 1992).

On top of all of this, Huckabee appears to be genuinely dumb. While governor of Arkansas, Canadian comedian Rick Mercer fooled Huckabee into congratulating Canadians on preserving their capitol building, the national igloo. He is a proud disbeliever in evolution and has publicly supported creationism, though now he refuses to answer questions about it. He thinks that women's role in marriage should be to "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband". And in the December 11 Republican debate, Huckabee pledged to repeal the laws of thermodynamics, stating that "We ought to declare that we will be free of energy consumption in this country within a decade, bold as that is."

Intrade currently puts Huckabee's chances of obtaining the Republican presidential nomination at 16.8%, third behind Giuliani (36.0%) and Romney (22.0%) and ahead of McCain (8.8%) and Paul (8.5%). But it also puts him at the leading candidate for getting the Republican vice presidential nomination, at 28.9%, well ahead of Pawlenty (10.1%), Romney (8.6%), Thompson (7.6%), and Gingrich (6.5%).

UPDATE (December 25, 2007): Mike Huckabee's tied to Christian reconstructionists and thinks that the Ten Commandments are the basis of U.S. law (even though seven of the ten would be unconstitutional).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"War on Christmas" casualties in NYC

When Walter Adler and three friends, all Jewish, said "Happy Chanukah" to a group of subway riders who were yelling "Merry Christmas," they found themselves physically attacked and beaten by the group of ten Christian defenders of the sanctity of Christmas.

Adler and his friends were aided by Hassan Askari, a Muslim student who tried to stop the attackers, which allowed Adler to pull the emergency brake and get help.

Apparently no atheists were involved in the incident.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Do ID theorists generate data?

In an excellent blog post at Quintessence of Dust, Stephen Matheson patiently examines the details of DI Fellow Jonathan Wells' only attempt to engage in scientific research in support of intelligent design by putting forth a hypothesis to be tested. By doing more of the work that Wells himself should have done, Matheson shows that Wells' efforts were far below expectations for scientists and that his hypothesis has subsequently (but with no thanks to ID theorists, who did no work on the subject) been falsified.

(Via Pharyngula.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Signs in my neighborhood

Gives you some idea of the local demographic and economic conditions (or at least what the people behind these signs believe it to be).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali receives Goldwater Award

Last night Einzige and I attended the Goldwater Institute's award dinner for Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, where she was given the 2007 Goldwater Award for her work in support of freedom, in defense of women against the oppression they face in Islamic countries. Copies of her autobiographical book, Infidel, were given to each table and I obtained the copy at our table since most everyone at the table had already read it and no one accepted my challenge to fight for it.

It was a rainy night and it was a huge event, with about 800 attendees. It took me about 25 minutes to get from the entrance of the Phoenician to the event venue, where I later heard that valets parked 400 cars for the event. It seemed as if the Phoenician wasn't used to hosting an event of that size, which can't possibly be true.

I was extremely surprised to see that the schedule for the event included an *invocation*. I have attended multiple Goldwater events in the past (such as the screening of "Mr. Conservative"), but this was the first time I had been to one that included a prayer. I noted at the table that it seemed disrespectful in the extreme that an event honoring an atheist would begin with a prayer. The prayer itself was an ecumenical, non-sectarian "meditation" (as the individual who spoke referred to it) of the sort likely to be as offensive to hardcore Christians as it is to atheists for its failure to appeal to Jesus Christ, but it was still a public verbal appeal to an imaginary being for his approval and support. It reminded me a little bit of the "Agnostic's Prayer" in Roger Zelazny's book Creatures of Light and Darkness, which goes like this (p. 40):
Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you [a man about to die in a "suicide show" who the speaker has put his hand upon the head of] be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.
And I continue to fail to understand why Christians cannot abide by Matthew 6:5-7.

The dinner at the event was phenomenal, though portions were small (filet mignon was the main course). Steve Forbes gave a keynote speech which was well done; it was primarily a recounting of some of the basic principles necessary for economic freedom, such as the importance of the rule of law and a system of stable property rights. Regarding property rights, I was pleased that he commented on a survey of businesses and property in Egypt that found that most businesses and buildings were illegal under the country's laws, and noted that this is common throughout the world. Having recently read Robert Neuwirth's excellent book Shadow Cities, I'm aware that over a billion people in the world live in squatter cities where they are illegally occupying land and often develop their own informal property rights that are not legally enforceable but tend to be respected within their own communities. Countries which manage to give some kind of enforceable title to such people can dramatically unlock wealth and improve their conditions.

The part of Forbes' talk which most caught my attention, however, was his discussion of the current mortgage crisis. He stated that this is a mere blip, so long as the government doesn't overreact. He claimed that there is perhaps $400-$500 billion in losses hiding in securitized mortgage packages, which should be easy for the market to take since that's the amount lost in a bad day on the stock market. The concern is that government or bankers will overreact and withdraw liquidity from everyone (rather than just bad risks) at a time when it is needed. In my opinion, Forbes understates the risks because he repeatedly assumed that the problem exists only within subprime loans, which is already demonstrably false. American Home Mortgage of Tucson, which filed for bankruptcy in August, did not originate subprime loans at all, only "Alt-A" loans, which fall between prime and subprime. The root of the problem has been people of all levels of credit risk using their homes as ATMs who are now underwater, and in particular those using adjustable rate mortgages. This article from someone inside the mortgage industry sets out a worst-case scenario that I think is far more plausible than Forbes' rosy picture, which fails to account for the cascading effects of foreclosures, bankruptcies, and loss of real estate jobs on the broader consumer-driven economy. But in any case, he predicts that the mortgage crisis will be over before the end of 2008, so by this time next year we will know who is right.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's talk was actually an interview conducted by Darcy Olsen, the president of the Goldwater Institute, who asked her a series of questions about growing up in Somalia, her subsequent life, what motivated her to escape Islamic fundamentalism and her arranged marriage, and so forth. She was well-spoken (especially for a non-native speaker of English) and charming, and told of being inspired by works of fiction about individual freedom while living in a community that emphasized submission to family, tribe, and nation. Her sources of inspiration were all secular, of course, though surprisingly included Barbara Cartland romance novels and Nancy Drew mysteries as well as books like Huckleberry Finn.

Afterward, I stood in line to get my book signed, and had a chance to speak to her directly. Although I thought of asking her what she thought of being honored at an event that opened with a prayer, our brief exchange went something like this:

JL: Have you heard of the Internet Infidels?
AHA: No. (She smiles.)
JL: It's at, it is a group critical of religion. Are you familiar with Ibn Warraq? [I had also meant to mention Internet Infidels supporter Taslima Nasrin, but couldn't remember her last name.]
AHA: Yes.
JL: Some of his material is published there, though it mostly focuses on Christianity, since it's a bigger source of problems in this country.
AHA: I think I would disagree that Christianity is a bigger problem than Islam in this country.
JL: It's Christianity that has control of the government here.

And then I stepped away with my book, and joined the long line at valet parking right behind Barry Goldwater, Jr. I tipped my valet with a $20, which he seemed very pleased to receive, and then thought that I should have said "this is a tip from an atheist," since I saw several other people (not Goldwater) apparently fail to tip at all, even though they were more elegantly dressed and driving vehicles several times the price of mine.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali seems to be focused exclusively on Islam--not surprising given her history. Several of her answers were somewhat defensive of Christianity (no doubt appealing to her audience), at least by comparison to Islam, much like her response to me above. Yet the Bible contains teachings very similar to the Koran in regard to calling for the death of unbelievers, the subjection of women, slavery, and so forth--the difference is that there are fewer who endorse those teachings, perhaps in part because Christianity has gone through a Reformation while Islam has not.

UPDATE: Note that Wikipedia reports that Hirsi Ali has admitted to falsifying some information in her application for asylum in the Netherlands (specifically her name, date of birth, and claim to have spent time in refugee camps on the border of Somalia and Kenya), and her family disputes her account of her forced marriage, though Hirsi Ali has provided letters from family members (including her father) to the New York Times which substantiate her account. It was the exposure of her fabrications on her asylum application that led her to step down as a Member of the Dutch Parliament and led to Rita Verdonk saying that her Dutch nationality was therefore invalid, which was subsequently overridden by vote of Parliament.

This blog post quotes from a Reason magazine interview of Hirsi Ali that shows that she is somewhat extreme and illiberal in her position regarding Islam, as well as having some unusual ideas about Christianity (e.g., she thinks Catholics have a conception of God where there is no hell). One commenter at the Reason blog compared her to Ann Coulter. This post critiques her understanding of Islam as overly simplistic, like confusing all of Christianity with its most extreme fundamentalist varieties.

UPDATE (February 20, 2008): I've just finished reading Hirsi Ali's book, Infidel, and I highly recommend it. Contrary to my statement above, it wasn't the "exposure of her fabrications on her asylum application that led her to step down" as an MP; she had been open with many people, including the press, about having used the name Ali instead of Magan on her asylum application and claiming to be a refugee from Somalia instead of a resident of Kenya fleeing a forced marriage to a Canadian.

UPDATE (May 5, 2024): Since at least November of 2023, Hirsi Ali now identifies as a Christian, which for her seems to be a cultural stance not grounded in any reasons for believing Christianity to be true.

Friday, December 07, 2007

False confessions from torture produced Iraq WMD claims

It turns out that part of the intelligence case for Iraq WMD claims and a concern about al-Qaeda trying to obtain them was the result of false confessions extracted via waterboarding and hypothermia treatment.

UPDATE (January 27, 2010): The CIA operative, John Kiriakou, who claimed in the media that Zubaydah produced accurate intelligence information as a result of waterboarding has now retracted the claim in his new book. He gave accurate information before waterboarding, and, as Andrew Sullivan points out in the link above, inaccurate information as a result of waterboarding.

Mitt Romney on religious freedom

Mitt Romney made his long-awaited "JFK-style" speech, which was hoped to alleviate concerns that he would rely on Mormon religious authority as the ultimate authority in making political decisions rather than the Constitution. His statement to that effect was rather weak, however, and he never actually came out and said that he would rely on the Constitution as the ultimate authority for his political decisions. He stated that "I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith." But he did assert that lack of faith was grounds for rejection of a candidate, and made the absurd statement that "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

Romney did say (as the Arizona Republic reported, but CNN did not, in the above link) that "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin." Conversely, the Republic failed to report Romney's "freedom requires religion" statement.

For Romney, it is clear that he does not agree with Jefferson, Madison, and the Constitutional Convention that the First Amendment protects the nonbeliever as well as the believer (as is clear from their writings, their actions as president, and from earlier drafts of the First Amendment that were rejected). Instead, his version of the Constitution requires everyone to belong to some religion, whether it's a cult founded by a con artist or an ancient world religion. He thinks that freedom and religion always must coexist, despite thousands of years and millions of people worth of evidence to the contrary. (Though perhaps his "requires" is a moral claim, that in order to be worthwhile or good, those things must come together--in which case I'd agree that religion requires freedom, but not that freedom requires religion.)

The Republic also noted another serious defect in Romney's comprehension of the First Amendment:
At the same time, he decried those who would remove from public life “any acknowledgment of God,” and he said that “during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”
Such scenes are already welcome in public places, so long as those public places are equally open to religious and secular displays by believer and nonbeliever alike. The only thing that is forbidden is exclusively allowing displays by a particular religion, which of course is what many Christians are actually demanding. For such an exclusive right favoring a particular religion or religion over nonreligion, displays must be on private property. It's a simple and fair concept, but the religious right repeatedly misrepresents it and falsely claims to be oppressed because they aren't given special privileges that no one else has, and whines and complains when something happens like a Hindu giving a prayer before Congress. And nobody has tried to prevent Romney, Giuliani, and the rest of the presidential candidates from their repeated references to God, despite the transparent phoniness of most of their claims to faith. It's clear that most of them are simply signalling to the religious right that they will continue to be granted special preferences, rather than truly displaying what they believe--their records of political expedience and lack of integrity speak more loudly than their words.

With people of such opinions in political power, explicitly willing to deny political freedoms to those who are nonbelievers and grant special privileges to anything calling itself a religion, it should not be surprising that some people will, out of pure expedience and self-defense, take steps to convert atheism into a religion. Yet that should be unnecessary under our Constitution, as a Washington Post editorial on Romney's speech agrees.

UPDATE: DI Fellow John Mark Reynolds comments on and posts the entirety of Romney's speech, which is certainly better than the quotes above would suggest--he does criticize the establishment of religion in the Massachusetts colony, for example: "Today’s generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation’s forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others."

UPDATE: P.Z. Myers and Greg Laden each give their take on Romney's speech. And here's Christopher Hitchens' view.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Christian dating service uses unChristian sales tactics

The "Watchblog" at the Arizona Republic reports on how the local Christian Internet dating site, Equally Yoked Christian Singles in Phoenix, operates:
C[***] P[***] says a sales manager at Equally Yoked Christian Singles in Phoenix blocked her exit, made unauthorized charges on a cutup credit card and told her she would never find a man before the holidays without their help.
P[***], who filed a police report over the incident, says the dating service virtually emptied her bank account to secure a $1,700 membership fee, refused to cancel her contract and demanded that she sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to get a refund.
Other commenters at the blog report similar, though less extreme, experiences:
I feel for this lady, I know from experience what Equally Yoked is like. They used to call me every month or so and literally harass me into coming in for the preliminary meeting. Luckily, I usually so busy I never had time to go in, I am glad I read this article and I will avoid this place like the plague.
A friend joined Equally Yoked a couple of years ago and asked me to join with her so we could attend some of their events. I called them and made an appointment. My favorite cousin's wife died, however, the night of the appointment. I called and got Voice Mail to tell them I was too distraught to make the meeting. They called me back at least five times that night leaving increasingly nasty messages about how unprofessional I was cancelling my appointment. It's 18 months later and they finally stopped calling in October. I would never use Equally Yoked.
The Republic notes that Equally Yoked has had eight BBB complaints in the last 36 months, four of which are contract issues, one a billing issue, one a service issue, and one a product issue, at least six of which were not resolved in a way acceptable to the consumer ("The consumer failed to acknowledge acceptance to the BBB" or "BBB determined the company made a reasonable offer to resolve the issues, but the consumer did not accept the offer."). For the BBB, that's good enough for a "satisfactory" record for a company that's an accredited member. That kind of complaint record would certainly make me avoid such a company, however.

Other complaints about Equally Yoked in other locales can be found online at

The service sounds like a Christian version of another dating company that offered services through local offices in major cities at an equally ridiculous price, Great Expectations. That video-based dating service, once shilled for by Harlan Ellison, has received similar complaints about high pressure sales tactics, deceptiveness, and failure to deliver on promises. Equally Yoked has simply taken this concept and applied it to an even more gullible segment of the population than those who think video dating is a good way to meet people--those who think that an organization catering to Christians (and which suggests, but never actually says that it's run by Christians) couldn't possibly rip them off.

The online dating services that charge minimal fees are clearly a much better deal--they have more people participating, they can often be used without cost or at a minimal monthly cost, and they don't have sleazy salespeople pushing you to sign ridiculous contracts. The one potential advantage of the expensive services is that they may perform criminal history checks, credit checks, and checks to make sure their clients are unmarried, but these are also all checks you can obtain on your own online at a much lower cost. And if you're really looking for someone on the basis of membership in a particular religion, wouldn't a church, mosque, or temple of your favored sect be the best place to search?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hitchens' "Happy Hanukkah" message

Christopher Hitchens gets right to the point with his piece on Hanukkah: celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism's bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back. And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.
A similar point is made, in a more tactful way, in Jennifer Michael Hecht's excellent book, Doubt: A History, which she also told on the New York Times' blog last December. She tells the story of how the events that led to the celebration of Hanukkah were a triumph of religious dogmatism and zealotry over secularism. She recommends lighting an extra candle in the memory of Miriam, the Hellenized Jewish woman who thought sacrifice was superstition and was "punished" for striking the temple altar with her sandal, yelling "Wolf, wolf, you have squandered the riches of Israel!"

Dan Smith's critique of Rep. Jane Harman's HR1955

Dan Smith has written a very nice critique of Rep. Jane Harman's attempt to create a new McCarthyism with her HR1955, the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act."

UPDATE (July 18, 2009): I must agree with commenter Jack--HR1955/S.1959 doesn't criminalize anything or create any law enforcement powers for the commission that it orders to solicit testimony and write a report. There's nothing in the bill that amends the Homeland Security Act to add any new crimes or enforcement capabilities. No doubt the commission will make legislative recommendations (and I think having such a commission is a bad idea), but this bill itself doesn't do so.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Have things finally peaked?

I figured I'd present the foreclosure notice data a little differently, to make it easier visually to compare it with Maricopa County's median price and sales data. If you're interested in seeing the numbers prior to 2001, check out last month's post. And, by the way, if you somehow found your way to this page via a Google search for "Phoenix foreclosures" or something similar and it's not currently December of 2007, you'd do well to click here so you can see the latest information.

November was yet another record month for notices of trustee's sales in the Phoenix area, with 3543 filed.

Maricopa County Notices of Trustee's Sales, Jan 2001 to Nov 2007Meanwhile, home sales are the lowest they've been since January of 2001. Note that the graph's latest data point is from October, since ARMLS is not quick to update its stats, but I can't imagine that November's numbers are going to be any better, since traditionally it's a slow month, regardless.

Phoenix area home sales data

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Texas Education Agency director of science curriculum fired for announcing Barbara Forrest talk

Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign from her position. Her offense? Forwarding an email from the National Center for Science Education announcing a talk by philosopher and intelligent design critic Barbara Forrest, and adding the text "FYI."

The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, formerly at the U.S. Department of Education and former deputy legislative director for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. She wrote in an email to Comer's supervisors that "This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities."

The movie "Expelled" makes a big deal about cases like the Sternberg affair, where nobody lost a job or responsibilities, and the denial of tenure to Guillermo Gonzales, whose publication record didn't merit tenure. But here's a case of someone who appears to have actually been removed from her position for sending out an announcement of a talk critical of intelligent design--a subject which the courts have already ruled is unconstitutional to teach in the science classroom. TEA officials claim that Comer was removed for "repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination," which Comer describes as really meaning her concerns about teaching creationism in schools. The Texas Republican Party platform explicitly advocates teaching intelligent design in public schools.

Wesley Elsberry has more about the Comer case at the Austringer blog, where he wonders whether the Discovery Institute will decry Comer's firing, since they've been willing to stretch the facts to complain about cases with far less substance to them:
Will the Discovery Institute come forward to say that the TEA is repressing Ms. Comer’s free speech rights? Will they urge her to become the star of the “Expelled” movie? After all, she did actually lose her job over her stance on evolution in education, as opposed to various people noted as being featured in the film who did not. But the DI is unlikely to do so because Ms. Comer is on the opposite side of the issue from them. They aren’t defending a principle, they are pushing a particular line of propaganda.
I agree with Wesley. The Discovery Institute has a long record of misrepresenting facts (and not just about science) in order to promote its views. I suspect they will either remain silent or try to defend Comer's removal.

Pharyngula also comments on Comer's removal, including the following explanation from Comer's boss:
the forwarding of this event announcement by Ms. Comer, as the Director of Science, from her TEA email account constitutes much more than just sharing information. Ms. Comer's email implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral. Thus, sending this email compromises the agency's role in the TEKS revision process by creating the perception that TEA has a biased position on a subject directly related to the science education TEKS.
As P.Z. Myers comments: "Whoa. The Texas Education Agency is neutral on the subject of teaching good science? It's bad if the TEA takes a position on the subject of science education? Apparently, TEA members are supposed to close their eyes and maximize ignorance before making decisions. I really feel sorry for Texas."

UPDATE (December 2, 2007): And more, from Texas Citizens for Science (via Pharyngula).

UPDATE (December 4, 2007): The New York Times editorializes on this subject.

UPDATE (December 6, 2007): DI Fellow John Mark Reynolds agrees that TEA is in the wrong here.

UPDATE (December 12, 2007): The Society for the Study of Evolution has sent an open letter to "Texas TEA."

UPDATE (December 20, 2007): Glenn Branch has written a nice blog post about his email that cost Comer her job.

UPDATE (July 3, 2008): Chris Comer has filed a lawsuit regarding her termination.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Theists and atheists less depressed than agnostics?

A letter in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine suggests that theism and atheism are both correlated with "fewer reported depressive symptoms than the in-between state of 'existential uncertainty'."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday School for Atheists

The November 21, 2007 issue of Time magazine includes a story titled "Sunday School for Atheists," about how the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, California has been offering Sunday school classes for kids for the last three years. The article notes that similar programs are under consideration in Albuquerque, NM, Portland, OR, and Phoenix. It doesn't mention it, but the Phoenix group considering offering such a program is the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, a group which has meetings for adults, often with quite interesting speakers, every two weeks. (Kat and I are members, but we have a pretty poor attendance record.)

Also mentioned in the article are Camp Quest, a summer camp program operating in five states and Ontario, Canada, and the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, FL, the nation's first humanist charter school.

UPDATE: Mark at Protestant Pontifications has written a blog post on this Time magazine article, and I've submitted this comment:

When you write “But there is danger in thinking one can siphon off certain aspects of community and still achieve the same result - especially when trying to mimic the benefits of religious community,” do you mean to suggest that any religion can have such benefits, or do you mean to restrict it to Christianity (and perhaps Judaism)?

It seems to me that other religions clearly have communities with the same social benefits and same self-ascriptions of worship and spiritual value. Yet clearly not all religions are true, which means that either some of the participants are self-deceived or that the benefits do not require the religion to be true. I think the latter is better supported by the evidence.

Since I happen to think that there is no true religion, I don’t see the problem with what these humanists are trying to do. I’ve recently attended memorial services of deeply religious evangelical Christians, of a liberal universalist Christian, and of an atheist, and they each evoked the same emotions and sense of community and fellowship with the people at the services; in my case, I felt a deeper fellowship and companionship with those at the atheist service since those are like-minded people. The emotions were the same–a combination of grief at the departure yet happiness at the memories of the departed’s life–yet there was no self-deception about seeing the departed again in the future.

BTW, it is somewhat ironic for a member of such a syncretistic religion as Christianity to criticize an atheist group for “trying to mimic” a religious practice. Virtually every component of the Christian religion was appropriated from other religions, and that’s not even counting holiday celebrations. The most rapidly growing religious sect in the world today, Pentecostalism (from 0 to 400 million members in about a century), is also quite syncretistic, appropriating components of local religions everywhere it spreads.

The Christian CADRE blog has a post on the article titled "The Cult-like Culture of Atheism, Part II," which says that "If atheists cannot see how that is just another step on the road to finally recognizing themselves as a religion then they really need to think a little bit more about how they act." I've responded with this comment:
Humanism (which is not just atheism, it has specific positive tenets, and should be distinguished from "secular humanism") *does* recognize itself as a religion, and has for many years. The American Humanist Association is a 501(c)(3) *religious* organization. It has officiants who perform marriage and memorial services, it has groups that hold regular meetings and social events in most countries of the world. In the Netherlands, 26% of the population consider themselves humanists (vs. 31% Catholic, 13% Dutch Reformed, 7% Calvinist); another 18% are non-religious and non-Humanist.

BTW, "cult" is a term that, in my opinion, should be restricted to religious groups that have most or all of a set of features that include being centered around an authoritarian leader, requiring members to restrict contact with non-members, controlling all aspects of the group's lives, etc. Steve Hassan's book _Combatting Cult Mind Control_ has a good list of cult characteristics. Most sects of Christianity are not cults; there could certainly be atheist cults, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's American Atheists group was probably close to one, if not one, while she was alive.

I disagree with Mr. Ragland [another commenter who said this shows man to be a religious creature] about what this particular evidence shows--I think it shows that man is a *social* creature, though I think there are other reasons (put forth in Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained book, for example) to think that man is, indeed, a religious creature.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Fake weeping Virgin Mary painting

I wish I had seen this before my Channel 3 News interview about a similar painting coming to Phoenix.

From Associated Press, September 19, 2007:

BLANCO, Texas -- Samuel A. Greene Jr., the founder of a monastery that closed amid scandal over the alleged sexual abuse of novice monks and a fraudulent weeping Virgin Mary painting, has died. He was 63.

Greene's death was being investigated as a suicide, but officials were waiting for autopsy results before ruling on the cause of death. Greene's body was found Monday morning in his home on the grounds of Christ of the Hills Monastery.

The monastery was allied with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia from 1991 to 1999, but the church broke ties with the monastery when allegations surfaced of indecency by Greene with a juvenile novice monk.

Greene, who founded the monastery in 1981, pleaded guilty in 2000 to indecency and was sentenced to 10 years probation. In 2006, Greene told his probation officer in a secretly taped interview that he had sexual contact with boys over a 30-year period starting in the 1970s.

Greene also reportedly confirmed that the monastery's weeping painting was fake. Authorities seized the icon, which was said to cry tears of myrrh, a sign of divine intervention. It had drawn thousands of visitors, and their donations, to the area.

The interview also prompted authorities to file child sexual assault and organized crime charges against Greene and four other monks in July 2006. Greene maintained his innocence and was released on his own recognizance because of health problems.

Greene was due Friday in court, where prosecutors planned to seek to have his probation revoked. Assistant District Attorney Cheryl Nelson said she would have asked the judge to sentence him to the maximum 20-year term on each of his nine indecency counts.

This obituary omits what Time magazine reported (I don't have the exact issue, but it was cut-and-pasted into the November 20, 2007 issue of Saucer Smear):
When the compound was closed, investigators found eyedroppers and bottles of rosewater used to fake the tears that prompted donations. Last year Greene confessed to the ruse, and his sexual relations with teenage students, to his probation officer.
It's interesting how AP omitted that information.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Economist Religion Wars issue

In 1901, Bible college students at Charles Fox Parham's Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas prayed to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. At a New Year's Eve service that year, as Parham preached, Agnes Ozman began to speak in tongues, and Pentecostalism was born.

William J. Seymour, a one-eyed black minister, attended Parham's college in Houston, Texas, though he had to sit in another room across the hall and listen in, due to Texas race laws of the time. Seymour moved to Los Angeles, where he sparked the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

Today there are over 400 million Pentecostals in the world, and it is the world's fastest-growing religious sect. The Mormons are lightweights by comparison, having only reached 13 million followers worldwide after nearly twice as long an existence. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built a 12,000 seat church; in Lagos, one church supposedly has 2 million followers; and South Korea is home to five of the world's ten largest megachurches.

What makes Pentecostalism successful? It's not intellectual argument. Pentecostalism is what The Economist's recent special report on "The new wars of religion" refers to as a "hot" religion. It's not particularly concerned about doctrinal details (which is not to say it doesn't have them), but about religious experience and personal interaction and participation. The Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest megachurch in South Korea, has 830,000 members (one in 20 Seoul residents is a member), holds seven Sunday services each of which has 12,000 people in the main auditorium and 20,000 watching on television in chapels in neighboring buildings. While you wait (and you will wait, especially if you want to attend one of the two services led by founder David Cho), you can listen to choirs sing, and sing along with the help of karaoke-style captions on TV screens. Translation is supplied to provide the services in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay, and Arabic.

The Yoido church, like many U.S. megachurches, works by organizing around many small groups. For Yoido, these are "home cells" of around a dozen people that meet in people's homes. Yoido has 68,000 female deacons and half as many male deacons, who may make 35 visits a week to parishioners. There's little hierarchy, and an emphasis on evangelizing, sending out missionaries, and producing more and more "home cells." And it's a methodology that appears to be winning the religious competition.

An earlier Economist story (from 2005, pay content) on the business practices of U.S. megachurches, likewise observed that they function by providing a diverse variety of services to lots of small niches, with groups for hikers, skateboarders, mountain bikers, book readers, and so forth, creating many small communities out of which a larger one is formed.

The lesson I take from this for the nonreligious is that a diversity of groups that cooperate with each other on common causes is far more likely to grow and have influence than individual groups that take a hard line on admissions requirements and require conformity to a narrow notion of what it is to be a freethinker or a skeptic, such as an adherence to scientism or atheism. The late Clark Adams of the Internet Infidels and Las Vegas Freethought Society was a strong proponent of cooperation between a broad set of secular groups as a way of strengthening their influence and being able to create organizations like the Secular Coalition for America. He was also a supporter of groups that engaged in social activities rather than intellectual navel-gazing, and promoted his views with humor and popular culture references more than with step-by-step argument.

If you've thought about starting a secular, freethought, or skeptical group around some interest of your own that's not currently served by an existing group, go for it. is a great way to get started or to find an existing group--you can find atheist groups, agnostic groups, deism groups, ex-Christian groups, Discordian groups, humanist groups, secular humanist groups, brights groups, skeptics' groups, separation of church and state groups, and many more.