Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ernie and Bert do Casino

(Thanks, Jami!)

Crucifolks, "Reason is the enemy of faith"

From the Adult Swim series "Moral Orel," a song by the Crucifolks, "Reason is the Enemy of Faith":
Reason is the enemy of faith, my friend
A head that's filled with knowledge
soon is too bloated with its own weight
to fit through heaven's gate
So think with your heart
it's the only organ for salvation
think with your heart
don't deduce yourself to eternal damnation
think with your heart
'cause you know that the almighty sees us
think only with your heart
whoever heard of the bleeding brain of Jesus?
think only with your heart
More on Moral Orel here.

UPDATE (October 4, 2007): The comments on this post got way off track from what this song is saying, with olvlzl riding his own hobbyhorses to the extent that I think he completely missed the point. When he says to me, "If you don't agree with the song lyrics, I'm glad to hear it," I can only wonder if he bothered to read them. The lyrics are parody, expressing an extreme Christian anti-intellectualism that sees not only education but reason itself as something evil and in opposition to faith that must be avoided at all costs. Of course I disagree with that, as does anyone who values reason. What makes it funny is the extreme to which it takes the view--but what makes it disturbing is that there are anti-intellectual Christians who see knowledge and attempting to seek it as evil practices. They are the sort who say that all the knowledge they need is in the Bible (and these are often the King James Version only sorts, as well), so there is no need to read anything else.

olvlzl, by contrast, is looking at the reverse position, that there is no need for faith. But that's not what the song is about, or what "Moral Orel" is about.

Onward Christian soldiers

Jeremy Hall, an atheist soldier stationed in Iraq, attempted to form a meeting of his fellow atheists, after receiving permission to do so from an Army chaplain. That meeting occurred on August 7, and was attended by Hall's supervisor, Major Freddy J. Welborn, 44, an evangelical Christian who broke up the meeting and threatened to charge Hall with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as to block Hall's reenlistment if the group continued to meet.

Hall filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon and Welborn for injunctive relief to prevent such unconstitutional abuses.

In response to his lawsuit, Hall has been assaulted by fellow soldiers and threatened on blogs with being killed by friendly fire. (There have been some allegations, not substantiated to my knowledge, that Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire may have been the result of his outspoken atheism.)

Welborn, who was initially misidentified in the lawsuit as Paul Welbourne, was tracked down via his MySpace page, a visual monstrosity which says that he is a member of the "Department of Eternal Affairs," his primary occupation is "Bible Study," he has a Bachelor's Degree from Tennessee Temple University with a major in "Pers. Evangelism" and minor in "Biblical Worldview," and he attended Tara High School from 1976 to 1983. (In fairness to Welborn, the heading says that the school information is for "MAJ Freddy & HIS Girl," so the dates probably include "his girl"'s high school career along with his own, rather than indicating that he took seven years to get through high school.)

The U.S. military has had a serious problem with Christian evangelicals who don't understand what freedom of religion means. Earlier this year, the Pentagon Inspector General's office issued a report that officers who appeared in uniform in a recruiting video for Christian Embassy, a group that promotes Bible studies by senior government officials, violated military rules by doing so. Two years ago, evangelical Christians proselytizing at the Air Force Academy led to a review of the Air Force rule for chaplains which says that there can be no proselytizing those of other religious faiths, but it's perfectly acceptable to proselytize to "those who are not affiliated." A lawsuit against this evangelizing was thrown out of court last year, but the rule for chaplains with the double standard was revoked.

More on the Hall and Christian Embassy cases may be found at the Questionable Authority blog, as well as the links in this post.

UPDATE (March 7, 2008): Hall has updated his complaint to include a charge that he has had a promotion blocked because of his unwillingness to "put aside his personal convictions and pray with the troops."

UPDATE (July 10, 2008): The government has filed a motion to dismiss (at the last available moment to do so), arguing that Hall lacks standing to sue and did not take advantage of all available remedies within the military to pursue his complaint before suing.

UPDATE (April 26, 2008): The New York Times has now covered this story. (About time!)

UPDATE (April 28, 2008): Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars asks the question of why Hall had to be transferred out of Iraq for his own safety, rather than the commanding officers telling the troops to leave him alone or be punished.

UPDATE (October 18, 2008): Hall has withdrawn his lawsuit on the grounds that he will soon be out of the military and suspects the case will be dismissed for lack of standing once he's out. A second case filed by Dustin Chalker will continue.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

9/11 Truther returns to reality

Mike Metzger, co-founder of 9/11 Truth UAlbany, has abandoned the 9/11 Truth movement and returned to reality after actually starting to listen to the debunkings and think about the evidence and the methods of argument used. He's posted a letter explaining his change of heart.

Good for him.

I've yet to see a 9/11 Truther actually attempt to systematically address the content of any of the critiques, nor put together a scenario that even attempts to be a comprehensive explanation of the events leading up to and including the 9/11 attacks (such as the actions of Osama bin Laden and the hijackers, described in the 9/11 Commission Report, Gerald Posner's Why America Slept, James Bamford's A Pretext for War, and elsewhere). Instead, their methodology resembles that of creationists and Holocaust deniers--identifying apparent inconsistencies, and constructing a fantasy around them without any regard for the enormous collection of facts at hand. Their defense then becomes progressively more delusional attempts to explain away the contrary facts that they've not bothered to address.

The "Screw Loose Change" annotated version of the "Loose Change" 2nd edition video may be found here.

3D scanner made out of a webcam, Legos, and milk

Friedrich Kirschner has built a device to make 3D image scans of objects placed in a small plastic container, using a webcam and a platform built of Legos, and some milk.

(Hat tip to Dave Palmer on the SKEPTIC list.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

September's Fall

Finally, we see a break in the past year's almost relentless upward trend in Maricopa County's Notices of Trustees Sales...

Click for Full Size
September's total was 2836 - well off from last month's high.

Something tells me, though, that this is not the start of a new trend downward, just yet.

Oh, I should note that I've changed the graph this month so that the vertical axis starts at zero instead of 400.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Liberty, security, and death

"Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"
--Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
--Richard Jackson, motto on title page of An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania, 1759 (often attributed to its publisher, Benjamin Franklin)

"And I hear from time to time people say, hey, wait a second. We have civil liberties we have to worry about. But don't forget, the most important civil liberty I expect from my government is my right to be kept alive, and that's what we're going to have to do."
--Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate debate, September 5, 2007

(Also see the Reason blog on "Civil Liberties Check-Up.")

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hacker finds vulnerability in Adobe Reader

A hacker has found a flaw in Adobe's PDF file format which can be used to exploit Adobe Reader 8.1 on Windows XP.

Dave G. at the Matasano Chargen blog predicts that such attacks--targeting popular applications--will become more common. PDF in particular is a likely target due to its ubiquity and its complexity.

Instructor fired for saying Adam and Eve story shouldn't be taken literally

In Red Oak, Iowa:
A community college instructor in Red Oak claims he was fired after he told his students that the biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted.

Steve Bitterman, 60, said officials at Southwestern Community College sided with a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a western civilization class Tuesday. He said he was fired Thursday.

"I'm just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master's degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job," Bitterman said.
Bitterman said he called the story of Adam and Eve a "fairy tale" in a conversation with a student after the class and was told the students had threatened to see an attorney. He declined to identify any of the students in the class.
Even most Christians on the planet don't think that the Adam and Eve story is literally true, so it's hard to see why this would even be a controversial statement in a western civilization class. The quotes in the article from the school suggest that Bitterman was fired for something else (a "personnel issue"), but the firing immediately following the class with the student threatening legal action seems to support his account.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Blog of unnecessary quotation marks

There are some hilarious sign photos at the blog of unnecessary quotation marks.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Naomi Wolf on 10 steps to a fascist America

I just saw Naomi Wolf on The Colbert Report (Wednesday night's show), discussing her new book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. She only had time to list a few of the ten steps on her list, but I found all ten in an article from the Guardian:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2. Create a gulag
3. Develop a thug caste
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Harass citizens' groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Target key individuals
8. Control the press
9. Dissent equals treason
10. Suspend the rule of law

Boston police arrest MIT student for blinking nametag

Boston authorities have filed another set of bogus "hoax device" charges, against Star Simpson, a 19-year-old MIT student who was wearing a sweatshirt with a homemade electronic nametag stuck to the front of it. The device was made of a breadboard with LEDs and a 9V battery, and Simpson was also holding "a lump of putty" in her hands, as she was waiting at Logan airport for a friend's flight to arrive. She explained that she made the device for career day because she wanted to stand out. She was released on $750 bail and will have to appear in court on October 29 on charges of "possessing a hoax device."

The Boston Globe's article says:

Outside the terminal, Simpson was surrounded by police holding machine guns.

"She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands, and not make any movement so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device," Pare said at a press conference at Logan. "There was obviously a concern that had she not followed the protocol ... we may have used deadly force."

Catch that last part--the police might have killed her for wearing an LED nametag.

AP and Information Week reported the device as a "fake bomb." It doesn't look at all like a fake bomb--if there was intent to do anything of the sort, I suspect it was to show how ridiculous the Boston authorities still are after the Mooninite scare. Would a jury decide that a reasonable person would think it was a bomb?

(Via Bruce Schneier's blog.)

UPDATE (September 21, 2007): I think this case is less absurd than the Mooninite one, where the devices were clearly professionally made to look like light-up cartoon characters. Questioning her was appropriate, but I don't think charging her was unless there is some evidence of intent to commit a hoax that hasn't yet been reported.

Bruce Schneier has previously reported a list of "terrorist dry run" items that TSA issued warnings about, in which each case actually had a valid explanation (though we still haven't seen what the explanation was for the "wire coil wrapped around a possible initiator, an electrical switch, batteries, three tubes and two blocks of cheese").

Odd, unexplained items are deserving of questioning and scrutiny, I think we can all agree.

UPDATE: Boing Boing has more details.

Who called the housing bubble and who didn't

It's interesting to look back at old blog posts and comments to see who correctly identified that we were in a housing bubble and who inaccurately denied it.

Jane Galt (Megan McArdle) at Asymmetrical Information called it correctly, way back in January 2004.

I called it in September 2004, suggesting a drop in "the next year or two." The peak for Phoenix was in the fourth quarter of 2006, so I was pretty close, but I expected the drop to come a bit earlier than it actually did.

Economist Tyler Cowan was still in denial in April 2005.

In the June 2005 issue of Business Week, Frank Nothaft of Freddie Mac and James F. Smith of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors said that the housing bubble was bunk and they saw no possibility of national price declines in the future. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research called it a bubble. Mike Englund of Action Economics fell somewhere in between, saying that "It's bubble behavior" but "not clear that the recent price gains in the housing market are a bubble."

Economist Edward Stringham told me he didn't think there was a housing bubble in November 2005.

Economist Greg Mankiw hinted that he thought there was a bubble in June 2006.

In the Fall 2007 issue of USAA Magazine, just delivered to my home yesterday, an article titled "Real (Estate) page turners" quotes "The Apprentice: Season 3" winner Kendra Todd, author of Risk and Grow Rich: How to Make Millions in Real Estate:
Ms. Todd disagrees with those who say there has been a bust for real estate. "What's dropped in some areas is market expectations more than market values," she argues.
I think Ms. Todd should start working on her manuscript for Risk and Grow Poor: How to Lose Millions in Real Estate. Of course, I doubt she makes most of her income from real estate investing, rather than book sales and her hosting of HGTV's "My House Is Worth What?"

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Republican San Diego mayor signs resolution for gay marriage

The Republican mayor of San Diego, Jerry Sanders, has signed a resolution supporting gay marriage, stating that:
"In order to be consistent with the position I took during the mayoral election, I intended to veto the council resolution. As late as yesterday afternoon, that was my position.

"The arrival of the resolution -- to sign or veto -- in my office late last night forced me to reflect and search my soul for the right thing to do.

"I have decided to lead with my heart, which is probably obvious at the moment -- to do what I think is right, and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice. The right thing for me to do is sign this resolution.

"For three decades, I have worked to bring enlightenment, justice and equality to all parts of our community.

"As I reflected on the choices I had before me last night, I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community they were less important, less worthy or less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of marriage -- than anyone else -- simply because of their sexual orientation.

"A decision to veto this resolution would have been inconsistent with the values I have embraced over the past 30 years.

"I do believe that times have changed. And with changing time, and new life experiences, come different opinions. I think that's natural, and it's certainly true in my case.

"Two years ago, I believed that civil unions were a fair alternative. Those beliefs, in my case, have changed.

"The concept of a 'separate but equal' institution is not something I can support.

"I acknowledge that not all members of our community will agree or perhaps even understand my decision today.

"All I can offer them is that I am trying to do what I believe is right.

"I have close family members and friends who are a member of the gay and lesbian community. Those folks include my daughter Lisa, as well as members of my personal staff.

"I want for them the same thing that we all want for our loved ones -- for each of them to find a mate whom they love deeply and who loves them back; someone with whom they can grow old together and share life's experiences.

"And I want their relationships to be protected equally under the law. In the end, I couldn't look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationship -- their very lives -- were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife Rana. Thank you."
(Via Donna Woodka's blog.)

British bands banned from U.S. visits

It's becoming a problem for newly popular British bands to tour in the United States, because they are being denied P-1 visas unless they can prove that they have been "internationally recognized" for a "sustained and substantial" amount of time.

Recently the band New Model Army, which has actually been around for decades, were denied visas to perform in San Francisco at the DNA Lounge.

I hope this doesn't happen to Sprint's WiMax plans...

Municipal wireless has been a failure. The City of Tempe projected 32,000 users, but only had 600 at its last published count, which was back in April 2006. It's also failing in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, and Taipei.

(Also see Technology Liberation Front, which makes the same point.)

UPDATE (November 8, 2007): Sprint and Clearwire have scrapped a plan to jointly build out their WiMax networks, and it looks like Sprint may scale back its own WiMax plans, as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moody's revises its housing price predictions

Last October, I reported that Moody's was predicting that the Phoenix housing market would see price declines of 9.3% between the first quarter of 2006 and the second quarter of 2008, which I called "wildly optimistic."

Now Moody's has issued a new report which claims the Phoenix housing market will see price declines of 17.8% between the second quarter of 2006 and the second quarter of 2008--they've doubled the percentage of drop for a time period that's three months shorter.

I'm guessing this will be closer to accurate--but still shy of the mark, unfortunately.

The report also predicts a drop of 11.7% for Tucson, lower than October's prediction of a 13.4% drop.

Lessons for information security from Multics

Bruce Schneier brings attention to a 2002 paper by Paul Karger and Roger Schell (PDF) about lessons learned from Multics security that are still relevant today, and Multicians come out of the woodwork in the comments.

Karger and Schell were part of the Air Force "tiger team" that ran penetration attacks against Multics in the 1970s. They were successful, which ultimately led to a Multics security enhancement project, the result of which was that Multics was the first commercial operating system to obtain a B2 security rating from the National Computer Security Center. I played a small part in that project, fixing some bugs and helping to run tests of Multics' Trusted Computing Base (TCB).

Wilkinson critique of framing

Blogger Will Wilkinson has posted a lengthy critique of George Lakoff's "framing" arguments that the Democrats have lost elections because the Republicans have changed the meanings of words. He cites the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to offer a different conclusion:
Haidt’s research leads him to posit five psychological foundations of human moral sentiment, each with a distinct evolutionary history and function, which he labels harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity. While the five foundations are universal, cultures build upon each to varying degrees. Imagine five adjustable slides on a stereo equalizer that can be turned up or down to produce different balances of sound. An equalizer preset like “Show Tunes” will turn down the bass and “Hip Hop” will turn it up, but neither turn it off. Similarly, societies modulate the dimension of moral emotions differently, creating a distinctive cultural profile of moral feeling, judgment, and justification. If you’re a sharia devotee ready to stone adulterers and slaughter infidels, you have purity and ingroup pushed up to eleven. PETA members, who vibrate to the pain of other species, have turned ingroup way down and harm way up.
Rather than recommend that liberals fake religiosity, he offers a different suggestion:
Democrats can try to appeal to religious American voters by giving some ground in the culture wars. But it seems unlikely they will find an effective balance. There is no point conceding stuff too trivial to really matter, such as school prayer, and comically pretending to be moved by the pure and the foul. And there is even less point in nominating religiously convincing candidates who really do believe embryos have the spark of divinity, that gay is gross, etc. Socialized health care isn’t worth it.

Democrats should play to their own moral-emotional strengths, not apologize for not having different ones. Haidt’s early research on moralized disgust shows that its cultural manifestations vary. The Japanese apparently find it disgusting to fail their station and its duties. And here at home, formerly “repulsive” practices, such as interracial marriage, have become mere curiosities.


Democrats shouldn’t cater to and reinforce sensibilities that both hurt people and hurt the Democrats’ prospects. Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn’t pretend to feel what they don’t. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

I find Wilkinson's reasoning to be sounder than Matt Nisbet's and Michael Shermer's.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mirrors without glass

Daniel Rozin's Weave Mirror uses 768 motorized C-shaped prints in what appears like a basket weave patterned screen, each of which can rotate independently to change its shade, producing a grayscale image of whatever is in front of it.

Photos and video at Engadget.

This reminds me of Julius Popp's Bitfall, which draws images with falling water drops.

How to avoid advancing the gay agenda

Ed Brayton has an excellent post at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, from which I've borrowed the title of this post, in which he points out that anti-gay bigots like the American Family Association who want to boycott corporations that have gay-friendly policies have their work cut out for them now. The Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index has been released, and the number of companies scoring a perfect 100 has gone up from 138 companies last year (and a mere 13 in 2002) to 195 this year. Where Donald Wildmon's AFA protested against Ford Motor Company, a perfect scorer on the index, for its advertising its cars in gay magazines, they now have 194 other such companies to boycott.

Ed writes that, if you want to avoid advancing the gay agenda, you have to avoid nearly every major airline and automobile manufacturer, major retailers, most consumer products, major financial institutions, major health insurance providers, most pharmaceuticals, and even most American beer brands. As commenters point out, even some of the exceptions he lists as possible candidates don't work (e.g., Volvo is currently owned by Ford, and K-Mart is owned by Sears, and both Ford and Sears scored 100 on the index). Commenters also point out that the major technology companies that make the Internet possible are high scorers, and that the most common piece of software on mail servers, sendmail, was developed by a gay man.

Read Ed's piece for his list, and don't miss the comments.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Microsoft updates Windows XP and Vista without user permission or notification

Microsoft has admitted that it has updated nine executable files in XP and Windows on users' machines even when they have turned off automatic updates. These files are part of the Windows update feature itself. Corporate users who use SMS rather than Windows update for OS patches are not affected.

Bruce Schneier raises the question of whether this ability to force updates could be exploited by a third party. I would hope that such updates are digitally signed, so that they can only come from Microsoft, but a commenter at Schneier's blog notes that even if that is the case there is a potential vulnerability created:
There may be an attack vector, even if the updates are signed by Microsoft. The signed updates would always be silently accepted. If Microsoft ever signs an update which later turns out to be vulnerable to some attack (this has happened before with signed activeX components), an attacker could re-push this vulnerable update and introduce a known vulnerability into the target system.
Another commenter notes that this feature could be used by law enforcement to install a keylogger on a machine, if Microsoft agreed to do it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Anti-P2P company suffers major security breach

MediaDefender, a company that attempts to disrupt the sharing of copyrighted material owned by its clients on peer-to-peer filesharing networks, has suffered an embarassing security breach--the leaking of 700 MB of emails from senior employees in the company. The leak allegedly occurred because one senior employee was forwarding company email to his Gmail account, and he used the same password for his Gmail account that he used to register for a P2P service of some kind.

This breach demonstrates the importance of adhering to corporate policies about use of external mail providers and using good password security--anything really important should have a unique password, not the same one used for accessing a variety of online websites and services.

UPDATE: It's now being claimed that MediaDefender's phone systems have also been compromised for the last nine months, and a 25-minute phone call between MediaDefender and the New York Attorney General's office is circulating, as well as a transcript. The transcript indicates that the AG's office was concerned (rightly so, apparently) about a possible mail server compromise at MediaDefender; the MediaDefender representative states at one point that he is speaking over a VoIP connection.

UPDATE: It seems the record companies are using information about P2P downloads collected by MediaDefender to make marketing decisions. Here's a quote from one of the leaked emails (quoted from SlashDot):
Subject: Nicole Scherzinger
Date: Fri, 24 Aug 2007 15:14:31 -0700

Nicole from pussy cat dolls has a single called "whatever u like". It's not selling well on itunes or playing that great on radio. A song called "Baby Love" just leaked (I don't know how long ago). Interscope wants to know if Baby Love is picking up steam on p2p. They need to make a decision by early next week on whether they should switch to this song as the single. Please get me a score comparison on Monday for these two tracks. Also, please put beyonces, fergie, gwen, and nelly furtado singles as comparisons.
UPDATE (September 17, 2007): Ars Technica has a good summary of the breach and what the leaked information shows about what MediaDefender has been up to with its video upload service (apparently designed to encourage the upload of copyrighted content as a sort of sting operation), MiiVi. MediaDefender says it was an "internal project" that was supposed to be password protected but was inadvertently made public.

CNet has a story on MediaDefender which notes:

Some of the tactics employed the movie and music industries in their fight against copyright infringement have come under scrutiny of late. The Motion Picture Assoc. of America acknowledged recently that it paid a hacker $15,000 to obtain private e-mails belonging to TorrentSpy, a company accused by the MPAA of encouraging file sharing.

The MPAA said it believed the e-mails were legally obtained.

In that case, the MPAA obtained the emails from a former TorrentSpy business associate, Robert Anderson, who signed an agreement saying that he obtained the emails legally, telling the MPAA he obtained them from an "informant." The CNet article on that controversy says that "records show" that Anderson "allegedly 'hacked' into TorrentSpy's e-mail system and rigged it so that 'every incoming and outgoing e-mail message would also be copied and forwarded to his anonymous Google e-mail account." In other words, it has some similarities to the MediaDefender case--likely unauthorized forwarding of email (though Anderson may not have had any authority to see those emails at all), and obtaining the email from a GMail account (though in the MediaDefender case the mail was obtained by someone other than the owner of the account).

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Kathy Griffin's Emmy jokes and Lauren Green's historical revisionism

There has been an all-too-predictable Christian uproar about Kathy Griffin's Emmy acceptance speech, in which she said that Jesus had nothing to do with her win, the award was now her god, and "Suck it, Jesus!" These remarks are apparently being edited from the broadcast to protect Christian sensitivities.

Lauren Green, former Miss America turned religion correspondent for Fox News, wrote an article claiming that Griffin's remarks and her winning of the award were only possible because of Jesus. Some bloggers are jumping to agree with her, without recognizing how off-base her historical argument is.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out the historical inaccuracies in Green's article, such as this one:
Ninety-four percent of America's founding era documents mention the Bible; 34 percent quote the Bible directly.

Ah yes, that old canard, which has been debunked time and time again. The phrase "founding era documents" is quite slippery; she doesn't bother to say, doubtless because she has never read Lutz' study and hasn't a clue what it actually says, is that most of the documents in his study had nothing at all to do with the founding of the country and were in fact reprinted sermons. Small wonder that sermons contained Biblical references.

In fact, Lutz' study notes that at the time of the drafting and ratification of the constitution, 1787 and 1788, there were precious few references to the Bible or to Christianity and none at all in the public writings of any of the Federalists who were explaining and defending the Constitution to the citizens. Lutz wrote of this period in his study:

The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists' inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.

Lutz' study clearly argues against the notion that the Bible influenced the Constitution, not for it. If Green had bothered to actually read the study, she would know that. But instead, she credulously repeats religious right talking points. Then again, she does work for Fox News, so this is hardly a surprise.

The See for Yourself blog responds to Green by taking her argument a step further:
If Jesus really did have everything to do with Kathy Griffin's award, and think Lauren Green has undoubtedly shown that to be true, then that means Jesus had everything to do with Kathy Griffin saying "Suck it Jesus! This award is my God now!" And since Lauren Green makes it clear that she finds self-effacing humor to be amusing, why is it that Lauren Green is unamused by Kathy Griffin's remarks, which is essentially Jesus' own self-effacement? Jesus is Lord of Comedy, but Lauren Green is won't scarf down his tasty communion wafer.
Now, I very much believe that Lauren Green and Bill Donahue and Fox News would never have said anything if Kathy Griffin had only disavowed the involvement of a 2,000 year old fictional Jewish zombie. They would have gladly ignored that, and nobody would have censored remarks on the broadcast, and Lauren Green never would have written her well-reasoned column.

But why turn the other cheek if you won't accept the inevitable re-slap? Why doesn't Lauren Green have a sense of humor when Jesus uses an irreverent comedian to make a little fun of himself?
Ed Brayton concludes his piece with the point that Christians should be offended when people make claims to the media that God or Jesus was responsible for their winning a sports event or prize--as if God plays favorites in such events--and that this is what Griffin was making fun of.

UPDATE (September 27, 2007): Bob McCarty has been claiming that the Founding Fathers made the U.S. a Christian nation at his blog in the comments, and has not approved my comments responding to some of his bogus claims. Here's the text of my second attempts to post a rejoinder:
Bob: You didn't approve/publish my previous comment responding to your Sep. 15 comment. I'll try again.

Your citation of "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" as evidence of the U.S. being founded on Christian principles shows your lack of research--the former did not appear on coins until 1854 and on currency until 1957. The phrase "under God" wasn't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.

I also suggested you read more of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, including his letter to his nephew Peter Carr on August 10, 1787, in which he wrote "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
and, in a separate comment, after I remembered that I had also made this point in my first attempt:
Oh, and I also recommended that you check out the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified by the Congress and signed by President John Adams, which contains the statement that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Tripoli violated the treaty and a new treaty was negotiated in 1805 without that language, but it is significant that both the Senate and President approved that language.

Lomborg, global warming, and opportunity costs

I've not read Bjorn Lomborg's new book (nor his previous one), but I have read enough of what he has written to suspect that some of those who are ridiculing one of his arguments don't understand it. For example, Bob Park of the American Physical Society's "What's New" writes:
Bjorn Lomborg's "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming" is out. Well, yes it is getting warmer he finds, but aside from polar bears, it just means more beach weather. We've got bigger problems, he says. Instead of spending all that money trying to prevent warming, let's focus on making everyone rich so they can all buy air conditioners.
P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula writes:
He also has a bad argument about relative spending: he suggests that spending on climate change would reduce spending on other pressing issues, like the fight against malaria. It's a bad choice. Malaria research is already underfunded — it's a third-world disease, don't you know, one that mainly affects those tropical countries, so the wealthy western nations typically don't prioritize it very highly. We don't take our big pots of money and allocate it into aliquots appropriate to the world's needs already, so for an economist to sit there and pretend that climate research is a drain on tropical disease research is comical. Especially since he seems unaware of how one feeds into the other. Hey, if the world warms up, tropical diseases will creep northward into Europe and North America, and then we'll be fighting the economic effects of both direct effects of climate change and new diseases.
But as I understand it, Lomborg is making a simple point about opportunity costs--that money spent on climate change mitigation can't be spent on other things, and that it would be better off spent on things like fighting malaria (which I'm sure he would agree with Myers is underfunded, since it's #4 on the Copenhagen Consensus 2004 list of "very good projects" to spend money on), because the amount of benefit received for each dollar spent is so much greater.

To make the same point--I have looked into putting solar cells on my house, both to reduce my carbon footprint and my long-term energy costs, but I've decided against it because even with the tax incentives and my power company's willingness to subsidize half the cost, it's still not cost-effective. (I'm hoping new solar cell technologies will improve efficiency and lower cost so that I will be able to become less dependent upon the electrical grid). Instead, I've spent much smaller amounts of money that have had far more bang for the buck, replacing my incandescent lights with CFLs (though LEDs and other new promising technologies are on the way as better sources of light), adding insulation, and improving the efficiency of my air conditioning units through regular maintenance. These things I've done not only have an impact on my energy use and climate change, they are things which provide me with direct economic benefit as well--thus these are things that rational people will be doing independently of government regulation and spending.

Lomborg--or at least the Copenhagen Consensus--is not saying that climate change deserves no attention. The premise of the Copenhagen Consensus is that if the world spent an additional $50 billion over the next five years to address ten categories of global challenges (one of which is climate change), how would that money best be spent to provide the greatest net benefit. That seems to me to be an entirely worthy effort, and this kind of cost-benefit calculation should be given greater weight in public policy decisions. Instead, however, most politicians like to make arguments based on the assumption that any law, regulation, or government spending that saves even one life (or prevents one child from seeing something offensive) is worth doing, whether or not that generates enormous opportunity costs.

My personal behavior--and I suspect that of those criticizing Lomborg on this point--demonstrates that I don't consider climate change my number one priority. In my case, I live in a large house that uses a lot of electricity, I travel frequently by plane, I drive a car instead of using public transportation, I eat meat instead of being a vegetarian like my wife. Each of these things causes, directly or indirectly, an increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the alternatives.

UPDATE (December 16, 2008): I just came across this description of Lomborg's overall behavior with respect to the climate change debate, which I think is likely accurate.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boob Scotch

Last night, Einzige sent me an email (which I opened this morning) pointing me to a video of a song by Bob Log III called "Boob Scotch" (NSFW). Bob Log III is a guy who performs wearing a motorcycle helmet, singing through a telephone microphone, and simultaneously drums and plays guitar. The sound was very familiar, reminiscent of a band I saw perform at the University of Arizona Social Sciences Auditorium back in 1994 called Doo Rag. As it turns out, Bob Log III was half of Doo Rag, the guy I remember singing through a vacuum cleaner hose.

The other bands who performed at UA that day (April 30, I'm a bit obsessive about collecting information) were Formica Bob, A Band Called Moss, Teeth, Click, Cortex Bomb, Irving, The Lonely Trojans, and the Fells. I was there with my friend Pam, who knew people in Irving and The Lonely Trojans, the latter of which included a student, Chris Morrison, from one of my philosophy classes, who's now using the name "C.S. Morrison" for his music, probably due to the large number of other musical Chris Morrisons.

Pam's two friends in Irving were Greg Petix and Gerard Schumacher who were also in the Lonely Trojans. The two went on to form another band called the Weird Lovemakers, and Gerard still has a band called The Knockout Pills.

Wikipedia seems to have way too much information about Tucson bands... I just learned that Schumacher was also in The Fells and intends to return to Australia this year, and that Petix formed a band called The Cuntifiers (no albums released yet).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Internet People

Dan Meth's song and animated tribute to virtually every major viral video of the last several years.

UPDATE (September 30, 2007): Rumors Daily has tracked down links to the videos referenced.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Our dogs featured on RESCUE's new website

Arizona RESCUE has gone through a website redesign, and the new design now features photos of our dog Otto and our former foster dog Ollie. The front page cycles through photos of rescued dogs and cats at the top right; Otto is the black and white dog with the ball in his mouth and Ollie is the bassett hound. Both can be seen simultaneously on any of the other web pages, such as the "About RESCUE" page, where Otto's second from the left and Ollie is third from the right.

Kat previously blogged about Ollie almost a year ago.

Also check out RESCUE's donation page...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Marcello Truzzi's Zetetic Scholar online

Eastern Michigan University sociology professor Marcello Truzzi was a co-founder and co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now just CSI) and the editor of its original magazine, The Zetetic (later renamed Skeptical Inquirer). After he broke with the group over what he perceived as dogmatism and a desire for a more academic than popular approach, he published his own journal on paranormal and fringe science subjects, the Zetetic Scholar.

George Hansen has now put the first five issues of the Zetetic Scholar online at his website as PDFs, along with the tables of contents of issues six through eleven. (Only one other issue, a larger one identified as a double issue, twelve and thirteen, was published.) Issues 9, 10, and 11 are noteworthy for publishing debate about CSICOP's "Mars Effect" controversy. My personal collection includes only issues 9 through 12/13, so I'm happy to see the older issues made available.

Truzzi died of cancer on February 2, 2003. He was a meticulous researcher who was very generous with his time and sources. I corresponded with him on a number of occasions, and had several telephone conversations with him about skepticism and the Mars Effect controversy, about which I've assembled a very lengthy chronology and bibliography (large RTF file). When I wrote a chapter on "Veteran Psychic Detective Bill Ward" for Joe Nickell's book Psychic Sleuths, Truzzi provided me with a few newspaper clippings on Ward that he had obtained while researching his own book on psychic detectives, The Blue Sense.

Truzzi was agnostic to a fault--he would refrain from coming to conclusions even when evidence was overwhelming.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Maricopa County foreclosure and notice rate database

The Arizona Republic has an online database of 2007 foreclosures and notices of trustee's sales, searchable by community (mostly cities), region, or zip code. I'm sorry to see that my neighborhood (mostly built up in the last 3-4 years) has pretty high rates of 25.9 foreclosures per 10,000 households and 115.94 notices per 10,000 households. At least I'm not in Surprise's 85388 zip code, which has seen 310.9 foreclosures per 10,000 households and 997.8 notices per 10,000 households. Ouch! That's over 3% of the zip code foreclosed upon already, and another 10% in danger, and we haven't even seen the peak of ARM resets yet.

Draper vs. Plantinga on Evil and Evolution

Part two of the Internet Infidels' "Great Debate" project has been posted at the Secular Web, on "Evil and Evolution." Draper makes an argument for atheism on the basis of a version of the problem of evil informed by evolution, and Plantinga gives a version of his argument that evolution undermines naturalism. Each offers an objection to the other, followed by a reply.

Reader questions are being solicited for the next couple of months, which the authors will respond to on the site.

Two free issues of Reports of the NCSE

I have two extra copies of the latest issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, which contains my article, "Trouble in Paradise: Answers in Genesis Splinters," which I'll send to the first two U.S.-based readers of this blog to request a copy in the comments.

This is getting ridiculous

Click for full size
August's total was 3249, beating last month's record high by an additional 746!

Memory and the persistence of falsehood

From the Washington Post:
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.
The article suggests that when we hear or read a denial of a statement, we tend to remember the association of the items in the statement but not the fact that the statement was a negation. Thus nonsense tends to persist in the face of refutation.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Radical Honesty

There's an interesting and entertaining article at Esquire about Brad Blanton's Radical Honesty movement, which seems to me to take a good idea--being honest--too far into inappropriate sharing or "too much information." I think even little white lies (and especially "bullshit") can be extremely insidious, and should be avoided, but that doesn't mean removing all filters between thought and speech.

James Morrow wrote a 1992 novel called City of Truth in which he described a world where everyone always speaks the truth in a way quite similar to the radical honesty movement, but the main character finds a need to lie in order to save his son's life.

Plato and Machiavelli would agree with each other that no political leader could survive by adopting the radical honesty approach. I think that's disappointingly true.

(Via The Agitator.)

Another Sony rootkit

F-Secure announced yesterday that it has found another Sony product that installs a rootkit and hidden directory on Windows machines. Last time it was the copy protection associated with music CDs, this time it's software associated with a fingerprint reader for the Sony MicroVault USM-F memory stick, which Sony says is now no longer for sale. The use of the memory stick causes files to be installed into a hidden directory on your hard drive which is hidden from the operating system, including antivirus scanning. This means that, like the hidden directory created by the CD copy protection scheme, the directory can be used by other malicious software to hide itself.

Back from D.C.

Kat and I returned yesterday from a week-long trip to our nation's capitol to visit friends, family, restaurants, and museums. We apparently just missed the worst of the summer's heat wave and had mostly excellent weather.

One of my must-see places for this trip was the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center, an extension of the National Air and Space Museum located near Dulles Airport. The second picture above was taken there, and shows one small piece of one wing of the Center, with an Air France Concorde in the center and a Lear Jet 23 above it. The Center also has an SR-71 Blackbird, the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and a huge variety of military and commercial aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. Two of Paul MacCready's planes are at the Center--the high-altitude solar-powered Pathfinder and the English Channel-crossing human-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor. MacCready's Gossamer Albatross, the first human-powered aircraft capable of sustained flight, is down at the Mall in the main National Air and Space Museum, which we also visited on this trip.

We spent much of our last day in D.C. at Arlington Cemetery--the first picture above shows Pierre L'Enfant's grave, overlooking a great view of the city he designed. We visited the usual sites such as JFK's grave, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and the Custis Lee Mansion. I also tracked down the gravesite of John Wesley Powell (first or possibly second man to travel the length of the Colorado River by boat and second director of the U.S. Geological Survey) and a number of other lesser-visited gravesites (e.g., a number of Supreme Court justices buried near JFK, the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie memorial, and President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft's grave, which although well-marked did not seem to be well-visited).

We also visited the Freer and Sackler Galleries' exhibition on "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," saw what was open at the Hirshhorn during some maintenance, made a quick pass through the mammal exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, saw some part of the collection at the National Gallery of Art's West Building, visited the Washington National Cathedral, and spent a day at Mount Vernon.