Thursday, July 31, 2008

Foolish man attempts to rob liquor store

Kat's trip to work this morning was delayed by road closures due to the aftermath of a foiled attempt to hold up a neighborhood liquor store, Minute Liquors, owned and run by a Bulgarian immigrant couple of our acquaintance. The gunman who chose their store to rob made a slight miscalculation, since the store is directly across 16th St. from a Department of Public Safety facility. The robber came out of the store to face about a dozen officers, who were at the facility preparing for training when they were informed of a robbery in progress across the street. The armed robber was shot in the abdomen and taken to the hospital.

A librarian responds to a parental challenge

A parent complained about Sarah Brannen's book, Uncle Bobby's Wedding, about same-sex marriage, that was in the children's book section in the Douglas County Library system in Colorado. Librarian Jamie Larue wrote an excellent, kind, and thoughtful response to the library patron about why the library is not going to move or remove the book.

FFRF billboards are coming to Phoenix

It's official, the contracts have been signed and paid for--the Freedom From Religion Foundation's billboards will be coming to Phoenix. There will be five of them, all in central Phoenix, and both of the FFRF's designs will be represented. There's the "Imagine No Religion" billboard, pictured here in Denver, and another design that says "Beware of Dogma."

The billboards will appear starting September 1, and I'll post some photos once they're up. The billboard locations will be:
#1103 Cross streets: 3rd Ave & Van Buren. Located on 3rd Ave just north of Van Buren. Best viewing occurs while traveling northbound on 3rd Ave approaching Van Buren. At this intersection look forward and right. The sign is setback from a parking lot which makes for clear viewing and efficient picture taking. The Arizona State Capital, Phoenix City Hall, FOX News, and the Arizona Republic are all within a few blocks.

#1245 Cross streets: 7th St & Coolidge. Located just north of the downtown area on 7th Street. Best viewing occurs while traveling southbound on 7th Ave just south of Camelback Rd but just prior to Coolidge. The sign is on the east side of 7th Street.

#2005 Cross Streets: Jefferson & 13th St. Located just east of the downtown area and Chase Field on Jefferson Street. Best viewing occurs while traveling eastbound on Jefferson just after 13th Street. The sign is on the south side of Jefferson Street.

#2501 Cross Streets: 19th Ave & Fillmore. Located just west of the State Capital area on 19th Ave. Best viewing occurs while traveling northbound on 19th Ave just prior to Fillmore. The sign is on the west side of 19th Ave. This location is within a few blocks of the Capital Complex.

#2911 Cross streets: McDowell & 14th St. Located just northwest of the downtown area on McDowell Rd. Best viewing occurs while traveling eastbound on McDowell just after 14th St. The sign is on the north side of McDowell. The Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center is within a few blocks.
When these billboards have gone up in other locations, they've usually generated some protests and complaints, as well as competing billboards, such as this one in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania which accused atheists of hating America. That misses the whole point--the point is to let nonbelievers know that they are not alone, and to put them in touch with the FFRF and other local groups of people with similar opinions about the supernatural. One can certainly express disagreement with the sentiment (or the likelihood of a world without religion--I think it's unlikely that religion will disappear from the world as long as there are social groups of human beings on it), but a response that claims that atheists hate America or are engaged in persecution is to mistake reality for a caricature like the one depicted in Robby Berry's "Life in Our Anti-Christian America."

Funding for these billboards was a joint project of the FFRF and various Meetup groups led by some folks from the Phoenix Atheists Meetup group, which is now up to 411 members. There are plans for a followup billboard, for which funds are still being raised, which will advertise a website promoting a diverse set of groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists, brights, and freethinkers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dubious Documents of American History

At Rational Rant is an excellent three-part critique of a document that's been floating around the Internet which claims to support the case that America was intended by its founders to be a Christian nation. In fact, the document is a mish-mash of fabricated quotations and misinformation. Rational Rant has gone to the trouble of digging up the details and even comparing four different versions of the document.

"Dubious Documents": part one, part two, part three

Randy Pausch's "last lecture"

He actually did give at least one more lecture after this at another university, but this was his last lecture at CMU, given on September 18, 2007 for a series originally titled "The Last Lecture." Pausch was born October 23, 1960 and died today, July 25, 2008. You can read his story at his CMU web page, at least once the traffic dies down.

This lecture is on achieving your childhood dreams, most of which he did, and on enabling the childhood dreams of others. Pausch was the founder of the Alice Project, which is a 3D programming environment for teaching students.

UPDATE (July 26, 2008): I'm getting lots of traffic to this post from people searching for Randy Pausch's name and the word "atheist," apparently from people trying to find out if he was an atheist. His CMU web page thanks his church, so he belonged to one, whatever his religious beliefs may have been. He didn't say anything in his lecture to indicate what they were. As an atheist, it doesn't matter to me so much what he believed, as opposed to how he lived. That is in sharp contrast to several Christian sites which have condemned him for being a nonbeliever (which they don't know to be the case) or for failing to evangelize. These people strike me as angry believers looking for reasons to criticize someone who led a good life. One Christian writer criticized Pausch's talk by attempting to paraphrase it as "I lived a meaningless life following meaningless rules, so should you." The same writer says, "Yes, he lived a nice and successful life, but so what? Who cares? He will be forgotten as were many people before and after him. His impact on the world would soon disappear. Whatever he achieved in research will soon become useless." What nonsense! So what? Those who knew him and worked with him disagree. He will eventually be forgotten, as we all will, but it will always be the case that he did live and he did make a mark on the people around him and his time was not wasted. And he will be no more harmed by his nonexistence after his death than he was by his nonexistence before he was born.

I question the motivation of those who argue critically of those who have lived happy and productive lives, arguing that so much better are the lives of those who live miserable, angry, critical, and destructive lives, just so long as they accept Jesus before they die. Surely the universe they want to believe in is an unjust and immoral one.

Update on CMI-AiG lawsuits

Creation Ministries International has updated its website about its legal battles with Answers in Genesis of Kentucky. The latest addition reports that in April, AiG served CMI with a lawsuit in the United States trying to stop the legal action in Australia--even though one of the two contracts AiG is trying to enforce specifies the law of the Australian state of Victoria as the governing law and forum. CMI will be defending itself in the U.S. against the new action.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shootings at South Mountain Community College

Kat saw multiple police cars on her way home and now we hear a bunch of helicopter action nearby, and it appears there has been a shooting incident at South Mountain Community College, with three victims and a suspect in custody.

UPDATE (5:08 p.m.): The shooting apparently took place at the campus Technology Center around 4 p.m., and the campus was quickly locked down, but the suspect had already left. The suspect was arrested at around 23rd Ave. and Grove, near his home. The news is reporting four victims admitted to the Maricopa Medical Center, two men aged 17 and 19, one 20-year-old woman, and one possible additional victim not confirmed. At least one male victim was aware and speaking as he was admitted, and the woman spoke with her father, Otis Williams, by cell phone after she was shot.

One news report claims the suspect was known on campus, and that was apparently why he was quickly apprehended.

Students are now being permitted to leave campus. Classes for the rest of today and tomorrow are cancelled.

UPDATE (5:22 p.m.): Apparently the suspect, a black male driving a white truck, drove home where his father persuaded himself to give himself up to police, which he did. Police and fire department officials were on site at the campus within about five minutes after the first reports of a shooting (both police and fire stations are quite close by).

UPDATE (6:04 p.m.): The ages of victims have been changed--the woman, a pharmacy student, from 22 to 20, and the 25-year-old male to 19. The 17-year-old has been identified as Christopher Taylor, by his brother Jay. A student reports that the shooter was one of two men who had been fighting in the computer center. The 19-year-old victim is reported in critical condition, while the other two victims are in stable condition. (Yet CNN reports that the woman was shot in the abdomen while the other two victims were shot in the leg. It describes the males as aged 17 and 25.)

The alleged fourth victim apparently didn't exist, and was incorrectly reported by one of the news reporters on the basis of watching people being brought in to the hospital. Or perhaps there was a 25-year-old shot in the leg and a 19-year-old who received more serious injuries?

UPDATE (8:24 p.m.): CBS News 5 reports that there was a long-running dispute between the shooter and one of the victims, and police say that the shooting was gang-related.

UPDATE (July 25, 2008): The shooter has been identified as 22-year-old Rodney Smith, a former SCC student and known as a regular at the computer lab, who came to campus to pick a fight with 19-year-old Isaac Deshay Smith, who was shot in the leg and was still in critical condition last night. The other two victims caught in the crossfire were 20-year-old Charee Williams, who was shot in the hip, and 17-year-old Christopher Lee Taylor, who was also shot in the leg. Five family members and friends of Rodney Smith were also taken into custody last night for interfering with the investigation and disobeying police officers. The most recent report does not mention gangs, but only a long-standing feud between the two Smiths.

UPDATE (July 26, 2008): Rodney Smith has apologized to his "innocent victims" in court, and it has been reported that Isaac Deshay Smith and two others were involved in a fight last year in which Rodney Smith was punched and kicked while lying on the ground and his jaw broken in two places.

P.Z. Myers has desecrated a cracker

P.Z. Myers has eloquently described what he did, after a bit of history from 1215 to the present. There's so much well-described in his article that I resist the urge to quote from it at all--go read the whole thing, "The Great Desecration," at Pharyngula.

UPDATE: Bill Donohue has used the occasion to issue yet another apoplectic press release.

UPDATE (July 30, 2008): The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the First Amendment in their condemnation of Myers' action. They seem to think it means that you can't make fun of a religion unless you're a member of it, and that everybody has to be a member of some religion.

Klingenschmitt: Intellectually dishonest or merely lazy?

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars reports on his recent exchanges on a religion law mailing list with former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, in which Klingensmitt repeatedly makes false statements and attacks straw men.

UPDATE: After reading more about Klingenschmitt, I'm going with dishonest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Medical marijuana in California

There's an interesting article in the July 23, 2008 The New Yorker by David Samuels, "Dr. Kush: How medical marijuana is transforming the pot industry." It describes the current state of medical marijuana business in California, where the operators of small dispensaries, which are fully compliant with state law but not federal, are not prosecuted despite occasional fed harassment. That harassment will no doubt continue until either Raich v. Ashcroft gets overturned (it was a terrible Supreme Court decision) or the feds decide to decriminalize marijuana themselves, one of which I expect to happen in the next decade.

Oldest complete manuscript of Bible to be available online

The Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century biblical manuscript that includes the oldest complete new Testament and a partial Old Testament in Greek (the Septuagint), will be available online at beginning tomorrow, July 24. The site is currently live with a few page images from the manuscript, which was written over 1600 years ago (between 330-350 C.E.). Tomorrow, you will be able to look at images of the pages, see the Greek text in a window next to it, and translation into another language in a window below that--English, German, Russian, or Greek (presumably modern Greek).

Mexican suicide aid

The New York Times reported Monday about Mexican pet shops selling pentobarbital, which is being purchased by international visitors for euthanasia purposes. The pet shops sell it for pet euthanasia, and were apparently surprised to hear that their recent sales have been for use on humans.

Car dealer strategies

A few years ago, people were using their homes as ATMs to purchase all sorts of consumer goods including cars. More recently, desperate home sellers were offering to throw in a "free" car with the purchase of a house. Now at least one auto dealer is offering to pay your mortgage.

This morning I heard a commercial for one of the local Phoenix Nissan dealers (one that receives frequent complaints from people who appear to not pay very close attention to what they are purchasing). The ad offers to make your mortgage payments for the rest of the year when you buy a car from them, even if your mortgage is as much as $2,000, without changing the sale price of the car. I suspect that means without lowering the sale price of the car below the point of profit.

It doesn't strike me as a sensible way to avoid foreclosure.

Nice article on Camp Inquiry

There's a good article on Camp Inquiry in the Buffalo News:
Deep in the Holland woods, D.J. Grothe wowed a group of kids at summer camp with a series of magic tricks. Seemingly impermeable steel rings were combined and separated again; rubber bands were melded into each other; coins vanished and returned in the unlikeliest of places.

Then, Grothe, national field director for the Council for Secular Humanism, did something even more amazing: He gave away the trick, detailing exactly how anyone can do magic.

It was another day at Camp Inquiry, where instead of swapping ghost tales or learning Bible stories, children take a critical look at claims of magic, the supernatural and even religion.

The camp's mission: Help young people "confront the challenges of living a nontheistic [or] secular lifestyle in a world dominated by religious belief and pseudoscience."

The unusual camp, now in its third year, brings together curious children from across the country to hone their skills as skeptics and critical thinkers.

Twenty-seven campers spent the past week following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, digging up fossils and learning how to face moral dilemmas.
See the full article here. I'm glad to see it's not just a camp for atheists, but is open to theistic freethinkers as well:
Organizers don't specifically address faith or religion in their planned programming, which also includes a variety of art, music and leisure activities.

But the topics arise frequently in casual discussions among campers. Some profess to be atheists, others refer to themselves as secular humanists, and a few say they believe in a higher power.
Much better than Jesus Camp.

UPDATE: I originally referred to Camp Inquiry as Camp Quest, a different set of camps with similar aims. Thanks, Carol, for the correction.

UPDATE (August 9, 2008): NPR has also done a good story on Camp Inquiry.

Skeptics Society 2008 conference

The Skeptics Society has officially announced its 2008 conference, and the topic is not the one that was first suggested, war, terrorism, and security. Instead, this year's conference is on "Origins: The Big Questions," and is co-sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

The conference will be held at Caltech on October 3-4, and the speaker lineup includes Sean Carroll (the Caltech theoretical physicist, not to be confused with Sean B. Carroll, the University of Wisconsin at Madison professor of molecular biology and genetics), Paul Davies, Stuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Kenneth Miller, Nancey Murphy, Donald Prothero, Hugh Ross, Victor Stenger, Leonard Susskind, Michael Shermer, Philip Clayton, and Mr. Deity.

It's an interesting mix of speakers for the subject matter, and I suspect I will attend, but I'd really rather go to a conference that brought critical thinking to the subjects of war, terrorism, and security.

Best run city in the world?

A month or so ago, we got a mailing from the City of Phoenix, which bills itself as the "best run city in the world" on the basis of an award it won in 1993, telling us that our garbage and recycling pick up days would be changing. You can see that mailing here (PDF); the announcement is on the right hand side of the first page. The flyer states that pickup days will change the week of July 14, but notice that it doesn't say when or how they are changing. Instead, it says "Watch your mail for additional information." It didn't say to call in, and it didn't say to check the city's website. In fact, it says "Residents impacted by these changes will be notified through multiple mailings identifying the specific changes to their homes." That turned out to be false.

A week or so later, a second mailing came from the city. It also didn't say how the pickup days were changing, and it also said to watch for a further notification in the mail. It didn't say to call in, and it didn't say to check the city's website.

No further notification came. Everyone in my neighborhood apparently continued to put out recycling and garbage bins on the same days, and they didn't get picked up. Kat called today, and the person answering the phone for the City of Phoenix waste disposal said that they did no specific mailings, rather, they expected people to "get curious" and either look online or call them.

Well, we did indeed "get curious" as to why our garbage wasn't picked up, so I guess their expectation was valid. My initial assumption was that we had a new garbageman who didn't know my house was on his route, since I've had to call a few dozen times in the past about garbage and recycling not being picked up for that reason.

I've put out the recycling bin for pickup tomorrow--next to the full garbage bin that will be sitting out there until next week. So far, none of my neighbors have done the same.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Phoenix foreclosures spreading

The Arizona Republic is catching up with reality:
Foreclosures across metro Phoenix number 16,647 for the first half of the year compared with 9,966 during all of 2007 and 1,070 in 2006.
"It has become more of an equity problem than a subprime problem," said Tom Ruff, a real-estate analyst with Information Market.
Notice of trustee sales, or pre-foreclosures, also continue to climb. There were 35,111 pre-foreclosures filed in Maricopa County through July. That compares with 30,166 for all of 2007.
The article also notes that the median resale price for a home in Phoenix is now $210,000, down 30% from the peak in 2006.

More people are speculating about reaching a bottom. That would be nice, but we've still not seen a peak on preforeclosures, which set another record in June (6929, vs. 6416 in May). For comparison, the total sales volume in June was 5748 (and 5656 in May), according to the Arizona Realtor's Association. (These stats via Einzige, thanks!)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Did Diebold tamper with Georgia's 2002 elections?

Former McCain advisor and security researcher Stephen Spoonamore suggested at a press conference on Thursday that Diebold tampered with Georgia's 2002 elections for Governor and Senator, in which Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss defeated incumbent Democrat Sen. Max Cleland. Spoonamore was given a copy of a patch applied to Diebold machines in two strongly Democratic counties, DeKalb and Fulton, by Diebold CEO Bob Urosevich, allegedly in order to fix a clock-related problem. Spoonamore found that the patch did nothing to correct the clock problem, and contained two copies of the same program, but was unable to determine exactly what it did without access to the Diebold hardware. He has supplied a copy of the patch, which he obtained from a whistleblower in the Georgia Secretary of State's office, to the Department of Justice.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Netroots and telecom

There's a telecom panel at the Netroots Nation conference today on the subject of "Big Telecom: An Emerging Threat to Our Democracy?" The implied answer is yes, and it appears that every participant on the panel will be making that case. Here's the description of the panel:
Massive telecom companies control virtually all of our voice and internet communications these days—and new evidence shows a near-total lack of commitment to our democracy. AT&T has proposed filtering all content traveling on its network. Verizon tried initially to block NARAL's pro-choice text messages. Most telecom companies are fighting net neutrality. Can democracy survive an assault by those who control the tubes?
The panel members don't include anyone with any experience managing or operating an actual telecom network, but instead includes two people who have repeatedly demonstrated not only an ignorance of telecom law, technology, and policy, but who have misrepresented facts and failed to engage with the arguments of their critics, Matt Stoller and Timothy Karr (see posts on this blog in the "net neutrality" category). The closest person to a representative of a telecom is Michael Kieschnick of Working Assets, a company that is a reseller of long distance and wireless service on Sprint's network.

I agree with many of their positions--I don't think ISPs should be allowed to block websites on the basis of disagreement with content. I think ISPs should be transparent about their network management processes and filtering. Where I disagree with them is that they advocate that the FCC step in to regulate the Internet in a way that it has never had authority to do so before, and demand that network operators not be allowed to implement classes of service with different rates of charges, or even usage caps. Art Brodsky expresses the point which has also been made by Robb Topolsky of Public Knowledge, Timothy Karr of Free Press, and Matt Stoller:
In the name of "network management," some companies want to throttle down the use of legal applications, like BitTorrent which may, coincidentally, provide competition in entertainment programming. They want to impose usage caps across the board on all customers which would stifle innovation and curb the use of video (there's that anti-competitive meme again) without actually solving the problem of the so-called "bandwidth hogs." The way caps are being discussed now, they would only lead to higher prices and less usage for an industry that already charges more for less than most broadband providers around the world. Parts of our broadband industry may be the only sector in the world that wants to cut down the amount of its product it wants customers to use.
Brodsky's last sentence is clearly false--broadband is like a fixed-price all-you-can-eat buffet. All businesses want to maximize their profits by maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. When bandwidth is sold at a fixed cost in unlimited amounts, where a small number of users are consuming the majority of the service, it's in the business's interest to restrict those users or charge them more for what they consume in order to satisfy the rest in a cost-effective manner. The options are few--you can either restrict the "bandwidth hogs" in some way, charge them more so that they pay for what they use, or raise the price for everyone. These guys seem to advocate the latter approach, while I'm in favor of allowing all the options to be used in a competitive market. Where I disagree with Comcast's approach in issuing RST packets to block BitTorrent traffic is not that they did it, but that they were not transparent about what they were doing (and apparently didn't quite get it quite right--it should not have completely broken BitTorrent, but only slowed it down).

Brodsky's suggestion that Comcast has an interest in blocking BitTorrent because it provides competition in the entertainment space is absurd--they have an interest in blocking it because it's a very popular application which itself exploits Internet protocols in a way not anticipated by the designers in order to consume more bandwidth, getting around the congestion controls in TCP/IP by using multiple TCP streams. If BitTorrent traffic wasn't filling up the majority of Comcast's bandwidth, they'd have no interest in it, except when the MPAA and RIAA issue them subpoenas about their users infringing copyrights.

If the government prohibits the use of differential classes of service (which is already heavily used by private companies to give priority to applications within their enterprise which have requirements for low latency and jitter, such as real-time streaming audio and video, including Voice over IP) and requires that congestion be dealt with by building out infrastructure sufficiently that there will never be congestion no matter how many users max out their connectivity with BitTorrent, that will reduce competition by culling smaller companies out of the picture and making market entry more difficult. In any environment where a provider's upstream capacity is less than the sum of the capacity to every customer (and that's everywhere, today, and always has been), all-you-can-eat bandwidth is like a commons. The more that is available, the more the heavy users will consume, to the detriment of each other and the light users. Without setting caps and having tiered pricing or implementing technology that prioritizes packets and drops from the heavy users and from less-realtime-sensitive applications first (like BitTorrent), there are no incentives against consuming everything that is available.

I also think it's a huge mistake to have the FCC start regulating the Internet. FCC chairman Kevin Martin would no doubt love to place indecency standards and filtering requirements on Internet content. Once you open the door to FCC regulation of the Internet, that becomes more likely. And the FCC has been completely ineffectual at dealing with existing abuses like fraudulent telemarketing, illegal prerecord calls to residences and cell phones, caller ID spoofing, etc., already covered by statute and regulation. I'd rather see clear statutes that include private rights of action than entrust control of the Internet to the FCC. The FCC is a slow-moving bureaucracy, and AT&T and Verizon have the deepest pockets, the most lawyers, and the most personnel who have shuffled back and forth between government (including the NSA) and industry. That gives AT&T and Verizon the tactical advantage, and leads to less competition rather than more.

Which brings me to the warrantless wiretapping and telecom immunity issues, which Cindy Cohn of the EFF no doubt addressed on the Netroots Nation panel. I suspect I have little if any disagreement with her. I've long been a supporter of the EFF, as are many people involved in the management of ISPs. I strongly oppose telecom immunity for warrantless wiretapping, a complete abdication of Congress' responsibility to support the U.S. Constitution. But this shows the power of AT&T and Verizon. Not only did they get what they wanted, but the very infrastructure which was built to do this massive interception of traffic for the NSA and for law enforcement interception under the CALEA laws was built for them with assistance from government funds. All telecoms have to be compliant with CALEA (now including VoIP and broadband Internet providers), but the big incumbents who were most capable of affording it on their own got it at the lowest costs, while their competition was required to build it out at their own expense even if it never gets used.

But there are legitimate uses for deep packet inspection, for understanding the nature of the traffic on a network for management purposes, including tracking down security and abuse issues. Since it is in the hands of the end user to use encryption to protect sensitive content, I think use of DPI by network providers is reasonable for the purposes of providing better service in the same way that it's reasonable for a voice provider to intercept traffic for quality measurement purposes. It's also reasonable for interception to occur for "lawful intercept," but it should always require a court order (i.e., both executive and judicial branch approval) on reasonable grounds. The difficulty of obtaining wiretaps depicted in the television program "The Wire" is how it should be.

I've written a lot on these issues, much which can be found in this blog's Network Neutrality Index.

If any reader of this blog happens to have attended the Netroots Nation telecom panel or comes across a description of its content, please point me to it, as I'd like to see what was said. I don't have high hopes for the accuracy or reasonability of statements from Stoller and Karr, but I could be surprised, and the other panelists probably had interesting and important things to say.

(See my Blogger profile for the disclosure of my employment by Global Crossing, which is currently listed by Renesys as the #3 network provider on the Internet in terms of number of customers, ahead of AT&T and Verizon, behind Sprint and Level 3.)

UPDATE: The "Big Telecom" panel was live-blogged (dead, unarchived link:;jsessionid=C865142FFB85E14AAD27045B9A342B15?diaryId=7032"). Stoller's anecdote about the Bill of Rights on metal is referring to Dean Cameron's "security edition" of the Bill of Rights, which was also promoted by Penn Jillette.

San Francisco's city network held hostage

The mainstream media has reported the arrest of the City of San Francisco's network administrator, being held on $5 million bond, as though he had secretly taken control of the city's network and servers and held them hostage, and implies that he has access to data stored on servers on the network. The reality, however, appears to be somewhat different.

Paul Venezia at InfoWorld has dug a little deeper, and found that Terry Childs, a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE, Cisco's top certification), was responsible for managing San Francisco's "FiberWAN" MPLS network, which he, though not the top network architect, built and managed himself. He has always been the only one with access, which he protected vigorously for fear that no one else around him was competent to do so. His paranoia seems to me excessive and misplaced--the risk of no one else having access is itself a single point of failure, and the fact that he originally refused to write remote configuration to flash, meaning that in the event of power failure the devices would not come back up and function properly without intervention, shows him to be a bit off.

Childs never "tampered" with any system or network device to take it hostage, he simply maintained control of what he built and refused to give others access to it. He never has had control of any servers or databases apart from the ones directly involved in managing the network, such as the authentication servers for the network. So the talk of data being stored on the network including "officials' e-mails, city payroll files, confidential law enforcement documents and jail bookings" appears to be irrelevant. Nothing has been done to prevent anyone from accessing any of those things or to gain unauthorized access to them; the network is still up and functioning normally, and Childs didn't have any special access to or manage or control the host-level access to the servers with that data. Now, he was probably able to intercept data transmitted on the network (necessary for troubleshooting), but if sensitive data was only accessed via encrypted sessions, even that risk wouldn't exist.

Childs' problem appears to be that he was overprotective, untrusting of the competence of his peers and management (perhaps with some justification), and placed technological purity and security over business requirements. Not unusual features for people with a very high level of technical skill.

Check out Venezia's article--it looks to me like he's got the goods on this story.

UPDATE (July 23, 2008): Childs gave up the passwords to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, after a secret visit arranged by his attorney, Erin Crane, with the mayor. Childs' attorney's statements are consistent with Venezia's article:

In her motion to reduce bail, Crane said Childs had been the victim of a "bad faith" effort to force him out of his post by incompetent city officials whose meddling was jeopardizing the network Childs had built. At one point, she said, Childs discovered that the network was at risk of being infected with a computer virus introduced by a colleague.

"Mr. Childs had good reason to be protective of the password," Crane said. "His co-workers and supervisors had in the past maliciously damaged the system themselves, hindered his ability to maintain it ... and shown complete indifference to maintaining it themselves.

"He was the only person in that department capable of running that system," Crane said. "There have been no established policies in place to even dictate who would be the appropriate person to hand over the password to."

The defense attorney added that "to the extent that Mr. Childs refused to turn over the password ... this was not a danger to the public."

Childs intends to fight the computer tampering charges:
Referring to the felony computer-tampering counts, Crane said, "Mr. Childs intends to not only disprove those charges, but also expose the utter mismanagement, negligence and corruption at (the Technology Department) which, if left unchecked, will in fact place the city of San Francisco in danger."
UPDATE (September 11, 2008): Venezia has a new story about the latest round of motions in the Childs case, where the prosecution has filed some apparently technically inept documents. I've also come across an affidavit supporting Childs' arrest from SFPD Inspector James Ramsey (PDF), which presents a very strong case that Childs was up to no good--he had set up his own racks of equipment including modems in a training room, was running his own mail servers and intrusion detection systems, and connecting his own personal equipment to the network. He had cut holes in a locked cabinet next to his cubicle to run cables into them, where he had placed a dialup modem and a computer to allow himself unauthorized access to the city network. The guy seems like a bit of a nut who was engaged in some highly inappropriate behavior meriting termination and criminal prosecution.

UPDATE (August 22, 2009): The judge in the Childs case, Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy, has dismissed three charges of tampering, leaving one count related to his initial refusal to give up the passwords, which has a maximum sentence of five years. Childs has served over a year in jail, due to his inability to raise $5 million in bail. He will appear in court on Monday regarding the final charge. Childs gave up the passwords to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom after spending eight days in jail.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Another reason to hope Obama wins the election

Stephen Baldwin says he will leave the country if Obama wins. But will he stay away for at least four years?

Of course, he's just mocking his brother Alec's statement that he would leave the country if Bush were elected in 2000, which he didn't follow through on, either.

ApostAZ podcast -- Apostamini #1

The latest ApostAZ podcast is available, and it's an "Apostamini"--a short one. This one has a short commentary from me about The Amazing Meeting 6.

Apostamini 001 Atheism and Freethought in Phoenix- "Squared" from Greydon Square's 'The Compton Effect'. Ingersoll's Vow. Amanda :). Pope George Carlin. Jim Lippard illustrates the cool points of TAM6 in Las Vegas ( Greydon Square, "Dream" from 'The Compton Effect' album.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moon transits earth

As seen from the Deep Impact probe, 31 million miles away.

(Via Bad Astronomy, where you can find more information and some related videos.)

Rock, Brock, and the Savings Shock

Via Long or Short Capital comes a children's story authored by FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair. The blog gives two versions of the story, first from the Amazon description of the book:
Rock and Brock may be twins, but they are as different as two twins can be. One day, their grandpa offers them a plan-for ten straight weeks on Saturday he will give them each one dollar for doing their chores. But there is a catch! Each dollar they save, he will match.

Rock is excited-there are all sorts of things he can buy for one dollar. So each week he spends his money on something different-a toy moose head, green hair goo, white peppermint wax fangs. But while Rock is spending his money, Brock is saving his. And each week when Rock gets just one dollar, Brock’s savings get matched. By summer’s end, Brock has five hundred and twelve dollars, while Rock has none. When Rock sees what his brother has saved, he realizes he has made a mistake. But Brock shows him that it is never too late to start saving.

And a second version based on Sheila Bair's recent urging that lenders freeze mortgage teaser rates and the government create a $50 billion loan program for mortgage holders in trouble to pay down their mortgages:
I think it is time to tell the real story of Rock and Brock. The one, where Brock puts his money into an FDIC insured savings account, while Rock asks his friend Kerimov to hook him up with some later-untraceable source of leverage, investing the proceeds in Russian oil assets. At the end of 10 weeks, Brock’s savings bank is kaput, wiping out most of his savings. Over the same period, Rock’s oil assets have doubled, which leaves him with enough cash to purchase the operating assets of Rock’s S&L, after negotiating a free put from the Fed. And a Ferrari Enzo.
Long or Short Capital is excellent for cynical and hilarious commentary on current financial events.

Man arrested for photographing cop

Scott Conover was arrested by a Johnson County, TN sheriff's deputy for taking his picture during a traffic stop--not his own, someone else's. He drove up to a stop in progress, slowed down, took a picture with his iPhone, and kept going. Officer Kenneth Lane went after him, pulled him over, falsely claimed that taking a picture of him was illegal and that he had to turn it over, and then arrested the guy, using two sets of handcuffs. The charge: "disorderly conduct, unlawful photographing, and pointing a laser at law enforcement officers"--all three of which were bogus.

More information, including a link to the officer's barely literate report, written four days after the fact, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

UPDATE (August 9, 2008): Turns out there's more to the story, and it makes the cops look even worse. Conover was taking a picture of what was part of an ongoing campaign of harassment against him, by going after the patrons of his bar. In this particular case, Conover knew that the driver of the car was a woman who was acting as designated driver for her husband, and only the husband had been drinking, and so he followed to take pictures to document what was going on. And this harassment of his patrons began after Conover was a witness to deputies beating up a man outside of his establishment, and he made a statement supporting that man. Conover had also previously sued the sheriff's department and settled for an undisclosed sum.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Colorado initiative to define personhood as beginning at conception

Colorado voters will get to vote in November on a proposition that defines personhood as beginning at conception. This will have the implication that in vitro fertilization involves murder, as the process standardly involves the disposal of fertilized eggs. As right-to-lifers are also often advocates of IVF, this places them into a bit of a quandary. In my opinion, this should even have the implication that all frozen embryos need to be brought to term--it's surely wrong to freeze people and prevent them from living their lives without their consent.

Presidential Prayer Team asks your support for biblical marriage

The Presidential Prayer Team has called for supporters to "Pray for the President as he seeks wisdom on how to legally codify the definition of marriage. Pray that it will be according to Biblical principles. With any forces insisting on variant definitions of marriage, pray that God's Word and His standards will be honored by our government."

A piece of unattributed email has been going around in support of this proposition, with the following suggested Constitutional amendment to put that into effect:
Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5) Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives. (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21) A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deut 22:13-21) Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden. (Gen 24:3; Num 25:1-9; Ezra 9:12; Neh 10:30) Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9) If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen. 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10) In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your dad drunk and have sex with him (even if he had previously offered you up as a sex toy to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. Of course, this rule applies only if you are female. (Gen 19:31-36)
For some reason Len Munsil's Center for Arizona Policy organization hasn't pushed this amendment in Arizona, instead preferring the unbiblical idea, not even widely recognized yet at the time of Charlemagne, that marriage should only be between one man and one woman.

Lippard-related crime update

Tredell County deputies have confiscated 175 marijuana plants from a barn on Lippard Farm Road in Statesville, NC. No arrests have been made in that case, but "charges are pending."

Come on, North Carolina. If you can grow tobacco, why not marijuana?

Ed Brayton on David Kupelian's latest foolishness

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has a nice takedown of David Kupelian's article at the WorldNutDaily bemoaning how atheists are being allowed to publish books in these Christian United States. Ed shows that Kupelian has no idea what he's talking about when he writes about Christianity in American history.

Obama the Lightworker

Mark Morford at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, back on June 6:
Barack Obama isn't really one of us. Not in the normal way, anyway.
Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
Sorry, but this is crazy talk--and crazy talk of the sort that the religious right will grab a hold of, translate "Lightworker" into "Light bearer" into "Lucifer," and decide that Obama's the Antichrist.

Morford writes that he doesn't literally believe this, and warns up front that:
Warning: If you are a rigid pragmatist/literalist, itchingly evangelical, a scowler, a doubter, a burned-out former '60s radical with no hope left, or are otherwise unable or unwilling to parse alternative New Age speak, click away right now, because you ain't gonna like this one little bit.
But even on a non-literal level, I don't like it. The job of the president is to lead the executive branch of the government, not to be national daddy, mommy, or Messiah. Obama clearly has a lot of charisma and speaks very well, which is something that can be used positively or negatively--and more often than not it's the latter.

Network World covers biscuit cult death threat and firing

Network World has a good summary of the story of the firing of Melanie Kroll's firing by 1-800-Flowers. Kroll was fired after her husband Chuck sent a death threat to P.Z. Myers using her corporate email account, saying that if he didn't quit his job by the first of the month, he would "get [his] brains beat in." Chuck Kroll, presumably a conservative Catholic, issued this threat because Myers blogged in support of University of Central Florida student Webster Cook, who took a consecrated host from a Catholic church in Orlando, Florida. Cook was accused of a hate crime equivalent to kidnapping by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. After receiving threats, Cook returned the magic cracker. Cult members believe the wafer has been literally transformed into the body of Jesus, while also retaining the properties of a cracker. This is not to be confused with Scientology, which believes that we are infested with the bodies of murdered space aliens, though both views seem to be on a par with respect to their reasonableness and quality of supporting evidence.

UPDATE (July 16, 2008): Melanie Kroll has been active in the comments at Greg Laden's blog, where she claims she was not connected to her company VPN when the email was sent. This is patently false, since otherwise her computer would not have been able to send the email through the company mail server from an RFC 1918 private IP address, which it did. It seems that she, like her husband, is incapable of taking responsibility for her own errors. She also writes this, by way of explanation for husband's behavior:
My husband went on to the drudge report site that he reads and clicked on a link and came across that man pz's notice and responded as he always does when he is upset. Was his text extreme yes it was, would he follow through, never.
So he always sends email to the authors of people who write things that make him upset, threatening to beat their brains in if they don't quit their jobs by the end of the month? That sounds like a very serious personal problem.

Analysts say 150 U.S. banks will fail in next 18 months

The New York Times says that some banking analysts (two of which are mentioned by name) predict that "as many as 150 out of the 7,500 banks nationwide could fail over the next 12 to 18 months." If that were to happen, that would likely exhaust the Deposit Insurance Fund of the FDIC, which will be spending $4 to $8 billion to cover the insured deposits of failed IndyMac bank. The Deposit Insurance Fund had about $52.4 billion at the end of 2007.

The worst case scenarios I've seen frequently discussed are hyperinflation and a Greater Depression. The way to survive the former would be to keep funds in more-stable foreign currencies and gold; for the latter it would be better to stay in cash and bonds (so long as none of the bonds default). A diversified set of investments is still your best bet, in my opinion.

UPDATE (September 12, 2008): The Economist (August 30, 2008) reports that the FDIC has 117 banks on its watch list, compared to 90 at the end of March, and reports that the drawdown on the Deposit Insurance Fund for IndyMac is sufficient to trigger a required funds "restoration" plan within the next 90 days.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Luskin's latest howler

Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, writing at the Evolution News & Views blog (which accurately describes itself with its motto that begins "The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site"), has outdone himself again.

Regarding a paper by Neil Shubin about Tiktaalik, Luskin complains that Shubin makes a comparison to the wrist bones of tetrapods, but never identifies any by name:

When discussing Tiktaalik's "wrist," Shubin says he "invites direct comparisons" between Tiktaalik's fin and a true tetrapod limb. Surely this paper must have a diagram comparing the "wrist"-bones of Tiktaalik to a true tetrapod wrist, showing which bones correspond. So again I searched the paper. And again he provides no such diagram comparing the two. So we are left to decipher his jargon-filled written comparison in the following sentence by sentence analysis:

1. Shubin et al.: "The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations." (Note: I have labeled the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)

Translation: OK, then exactly which "wrist bones of tetrapods" are Tiktaalik's bones homologous to? Shubin doesn't say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding "wrist bone"-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.

As P.Z. Myers points out, Luskin apparently doesn't realize what the word "eponymous" means. The wrist bones that the intermedium and ulnare bones of Tiktaalik are homologous to in tetrapods? The bones that are "eponymous," that have been given the same names: the intermedium and the ulnare.

Carl Zimmer points out the same Luskin faux pas.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cops and DUI

If you're the wife of a criminal defense attorney, you can get arrested for DUI even if you've not had a single drink. (This one was right here in Mesa, Arizona.)

If you're a cop, the expectation is that you won't get arrested for DUI even if you crash your car because you're so drunk you can't remember what year it is. Because if a cop arrests a cop for DUI, things get ugly.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Guillermo Gonzalez' new school

Guillermo Gonzalez, one of the proclaimed victims of oppression and infringement of his academic freedom in the film "Expelled," has taken a job at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. The school has been under censure by the American Association of University Professors since 1963 for its failure to respect academic freedom. A report by the AAUP Investigative Committee concluded "the absence of due process [in the dismissal of professors at Grove City] raises...doubts regarding the academic security of any persons who may hold appointment at Grove City College under existing administrative practice. These doubts are of an order of magnitude which obliges us to report them to the academic profession at large."

More at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


There’s a saying in the non-profit world that people don’t donate to organizations, they donate to the individuals that represent them. Let me introduce you to two wonderful representatives of RESCUE:

Otto was saved from the euthanasia list in December 2001.

Fred was saved in August 2002.

Otto and Fred were both found on the streets of Phoenix and wound up on the kill list. They would not be with us if not for RESCUE. Otto and Fred are just two examples of the over 9,000 lives that RESCUE has saved thanks to donations. All of RESCUE’s cats and dogs are taken directly from the kill list at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control. If you have not donated to our largest fundraiser of the year – Bowl-A-Rama, PLEASE do so today! No donation is too large or too small.

If you are outside of Arizona and can spare $5, please make a donation, there is an informal competition to see who can get donations from the farthest place. Be sure to put Jim or Kat Lippard as the referrer.

Please help us help them!

Bush July 4 speech censors Jefferson

President George W. Bush gave a speech at Monticello on July 4 that said, quoting Jefferson:
On the 50th anniversary of Americas independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away. But before leaving this world, he explained that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were universal. In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, May it be to the world, what I believe it will be to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
Here's what Jefferson actually wrote:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
As Wonkette aptly notes, "Yeah dude, looks like you forgot the good part." (Though Wonkette incorrectly attributes the Constitution to Jefferson along with the Declaration of Independence.)

(Thanks to Scott Peterson on the SKEPTIC list.)

UPDATE (July 16, 2008): Roger Kimball has responded to this issue, and Ed Brayton points out what he's gotten right and what he's gotten wrong about Jefferson's views on religion. (Contrary to Dawkins and Hitchens, Jefferson was no atheist, nor even a deist. He referred to himself as a Unitarian, and Brayton calls him a "theistic rationalist.")

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wacky cult wants magic biscuit back

Webster Cook smuggled a magic biscuit out of the service of a lunatic cult, in order to show a friend what it was like. Members of the cult issued death threats, the local spokespeople for the cult suggested that he was in danger of eternal damnation and called it a "hate crime," and completely insane national spokespeople claimed that he had committed the moral equivalent of kidnapping.

Details at Pharyngula. This sounds like something that could have fit in Bill Maher's "Religulous."

(Hat tip to Wowbagger for the title.)

UPDATE (July 10, 2008): The Pharyngula post linked to above has resulted in Bill Donohue of the Catholic League taking notice and calling for P.Z. Myers to be fired. That in turn has resulted in P.Z. Myers receiving 39 pieces of hate mail so far today, of which 34 have demanded that he be fired and four have included death threats. 25 have suggested that, instead of desecrating a cracker, Myers should desecrate a Koran--showing that those individuals don't think the tolerance they demand for themselves applies to other religions. (Sounds like our commenter Jenn!)

UPDATE (July 11, 2008): The Catholic League has issued another press release, which contains this insanity:
As a result of the hysteria that Myers' ilk have promoted, at least one public official is taking it seriously. Thomas E. Foley is chairman of Virginia's First Congressional District Republican Committee, a delegate to the Republican National Convention and one of two Republican at large nominees for Virginia's Electoral College. His concern is for the safety of Catholics attending this year's Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Myers' backyard. Accordingly, Foley has asked the top GOP brass to provide additional security while in the Twin Cities so that Catholics can worship without fear of violence. Given the vitriol we have experienced for simply exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, we support Foley's request.
It's the Catholics who have been comparing taking instead of eating a cracker to kidnapping and hate speech, and issuing death threats against someone who suggested doing the same. But now the Republican National Convention, being held 150 miles away from Myers' home, needs extra security because of his proximity? Lunacy.

Myers has also published the email he's received. Some of the alleged death threats don't, I think, pass legal muster as such, but I think this one does:
You are really fucked now. Lock your doors at night, and check under your car before you turn the ignition key.
This one doesn't quite make it:
IF Catholics had half the testosterone of muzzies, the answer would be simple. Holy hollowpoint. But alas, I expect they will whimper and grovel as usual.
UPDATE (July 12, 2008): Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars weighs in. Andrew Sullivan, after taking Myers to task, publishes dissenting opinions that make better arguments than his. Ed Brayton responds to Sullivan. P.Z. Myers catches Catholic sock puppets commenting on his blog. John Wilkins writes an insightful comment on "Desecration, blasphemy in public, and manners."

UPDATE (July 13, 2008): P.Z. Myers has received more nasty email, which he has posted with full headers. If the first one is not actually from Melanie Kroll at, I'd say she has a compromised machine, and it's a clear death threat. The second is from Steve C. Montemurro, a 41-year-old conservative Catholic from Hastings on Hudson, NY, and it appears to be more of a wish for Myers' death than a threat.

UPDATE (July 16. 2008): Turns out the email from Melanie Kroll's machine was the result of a compromise of sorts--it was from her husband, Chuck Kroll, and she lost her job as a result of it. Makes sense--she shouldn't have allowed her husband to use her computer to access her work resources at all, let alone to send death threats. Details at Pharyngula.

UPDATE (July 18, 2008): Network World has coverage of Melanie Kroll's firing. The Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed down during the Republican National Convention as part of the security measures for the Xcel Energy Center, across the street. As P.Z. Myers observes, there's a metaphor in that.

UPDATE (July 26, 2008): Webster Cook has been impeached and removed from his position in student government at the University of Central Florida, and both he and his friend Benjamin Collard have been charged with misconduct, disruptive conduct, and giving false identification and had a hold put on their ability to sign up for classes. The school is buckling under to pressure from Bill Donohue and the Catholic League to persecute these students on trumped up charges. P.Z. Myers suggests writing to the UCF president; I suggest the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education get involved.

P.Z. Myers has posted another selection of crazy Catholic hate mail he's received. Do these people genuinely think they are doing the Lord's work?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Spread falsehoods about evolution, become a pastor

I just came across Doug LaPointe's "Top Evidences Against the Theory of Evolution" which is noteworthy for being wrong in every point, including the bogus argument about "Lucy"'s knee joint which I refuted in a Talk Origins FAQ. LaPointe wrote his article of nonsense while a student at the Calvary Academy, a Christian school in Lakewood, NJ. It is responded to point-by-point by "A Critical Look at Doug LaPointe's 'Top Evidences Against the Theory of Evolution,'" which includes reference to my FAQ in part 2. (I can't vouch for the rest of the response, as I haven't reviewed it in detail, and I see that it misspells "hominid" repeatedly in part 2, but a quick scan looks like the author has otherwise done a decent job.)

So what is LaPointe up to today? He's a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Stuart, FL, and still proudly advertises that he is the author of "Top Evidences Against the Theory of Evolution." A naive person would think that a man of God would correct his mistakes. A cynic would think that a man of God makes a living from spreading falsehoods.

The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder

That's the title of Vincent Bugliosi's latest book, which just reached #14 on the New York Times bestseller list on Sunday despite having virtually no mainstream media attention. It has sold 130,000 copies, but ABC Radio refused to allow an advertisement for the book on the Don Imus show, and both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report declined to show any interest in having Bugliosi on as a guest.

The book sets out a legal case for a criminal prosecution of George W. Bush as being criminally responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles County prosecutor with a perfect record of murder prosecutions, including the prosecution of Charles Manson which he recounted in his book Helter Skelter 30 years ago, most recently authored the book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a massive 1,612-page book that responds in detail to conspiracy theorists. That book is being made into a 10-hour miniseries by Tom Hanks for HBO. A shorter book, drawn from the content of Reclaiming History, has been published under the title Four Days in November.

The Amazing Spoonbending Video

The website and YouTube now has the video of the world record for largest simultaneous spoonbending activity (816 spoons) that took place at TAM6 under the guidance of Richard Wiseman and following the tutelage of Teller. Be sure to check out the second video at on "The Science of Spoonbending." (Looks like the Podblack blog has video of Teller's lesson on spoonbending.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Orson Welles meets H.G. Wells

A short conversation between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells (MP3) aired live on KTSA radio in San Antonio on October 28, 1940. The main subjects are the Welles' radio production of Wells' "War of the Worlds," from two years prior, the accuracy of Wells' science fiction, and a Wells-incited plug for Welles' "Citizen Kane."

(Via Alan Dean Foster's remembrance of Arthur C. Clarke in the July/August 2008 Skeptical Inquirer.)

ApostAZ podcast #5

The fifth ApostAZ podcast (MP3) is out:
Episode 005 Atheism and Freethought in Phoenix- "Every Sperm is Sacred" from Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life'. Group Events. Phoenix, Billboards! Suckics hone in on Autism. Astromnology. Us vs Them? Phelps Hallucinations. Gay marriage, still an issue, still a tax money black-hole! Greydon Square, "Dream" from 'The Compton Effect' album.
I didn't get my contribution in on time, but I'll have a science and skepticism segment in episode 006.

My comments on this episode:

While McCain opposes gay marriage and pays lip service to the idea of same-sex civil unions, Obama also opposes gay marriage (though says he'd like to repeal DOMA and institute a federal law supporting same-sex civil unions, even in front of audiences that oppose gay rights, so he is somewhat better than McCain on that issue). They also both support faith-based government programs--neither is a strict separationist on church and state. (But again, I think Obama is slightly better than McCain on that subject in terms of what he says--at least he opposes giving federal funding to groups that discriminate or proselytize, though it's unclear he'll take action to stop it.)

On abortion, there can certainly be secular moral arguments for restrictions on late-term abortion, just as there can be secular moral arguments against infanticide. Arguments that abortion involves killing a person, a being with a right to life, need to come to terms with Judith Jarvis-Thomson's violinist argument, which argues that even if a fetus has a right to life, it doesn't have the right to be supported by its mother's body if the mother did not consent. This has further implication that if the fetus could be transplanted or removed and survive on its own (e.g., it's already reached the point of viability, which is the standard applied by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade), then that's immoral and criminalizable. But it also implies, it seems to me, that there is a reasonable range of actions which could constitute consent to supporting a fetus--such as voluntarily engaging in sex without contraception, which any reasonable person should know has a reasonably high probability of producing a child.

My own view is that abortion is immoral to the point of justifying legal prohibition in any case where (a) there's such at least tacit consent to carry a child and (b) the fetus has reached a point of brain development where there's a reasonable case to be made for personhood. I'm not convinced that (b) ever happens in reality, since I think there's a strong argument that personhood requires a capacity for self-awareness, which doesn't seem to occur until about six months after birth, but I can certainly conceive of empirical evidence that would change my mind about when that point is reached. There may be other cases where abortion is immoral, e.g., intentionally waiting until late in the pregnancy, and then terminating for a trivial reason of convenience.

On the Biblical justification for opposition to medical treatment: Jehovah's Witnesses oppose blood transfusions on the grounds of Old Testament prohibitions on consuming blood (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11-14, and Acts 15:20, 29), even though those all refer to consuming animal blood and have nothing to do with transfusions of human blood. Christian Scientists oppose medical treatment not on the basis of anything in the Bible, but based on the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. Their view is that everything good and holy is spiritual, while everything physical or material is evil, yet is also illusory or at least a distortion of the spiritual world. This has some resemblance to Buddhist views of "maya," and also to the early Christian heresy known as Docetism, which was the view that Jesus' humanity was an illusion, because the physical cannot be holy. Thus, under this view, engaging in physical repair (medicine) of what is an illusory distortion of the underlying spiritual reality is not only a waste of time, but sinful--the only real repair possible is spiritual, through prayer. (And further, illness itself is of the physical, and thus illusory.)

The ApostAZ website is here.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The country shrink's other points, and my response

The country shrink, whose point #2 from his post on "some psychological aspects of atheists" I critiqued in my previous post, also listed six other alleged characteristics of atheists. These were:

1). They tend to take the moral high ground. They look down on believers as simplistic, uneducated, stupid, weak, intolerant, gun toting, racists, and simple minded dolts.

2). [Responded to in my previous post.]

3). There is something in their lives that they are afraid they would have to give up if they believed in God. It’s usually some pattern that brings them pleasure in a way that they feel believers might label as immoral. They are typically not conscious of this.

4). They portray themselves as enlightened, intelligent, tolerant, moral, caring, accepting, loving, peacible, and kind. And sometimes, they really and truly are. I’ve known them and met them. However, they are not tolerant, in general, of the beliefs of “believers.” They can tolerate anything but that.

5). Just like the fervent believer, they have trouble avoiding proselytising their belief system. They often try to promote their views to believers. They get a kick out seeing believers squirm when they ask them some deep philosophical question which the believer has not considered nor been confronted with.

As an aside, in treatment, I’ve noted a number of youngsters who are constipated, like to “crap on people rather that in the toilet.” Once they start utilizing the toilet appropriately, they stop utilizing people as a repository for their bound up bodily functions. They have to be taught to drink appropriate amounts of water and eat fiber to achieve this.

6) They find a replacement for “religion.” Whether it’s the environment, political causes, sociological wrongs, whatever, but they find a replacement. They have the notions of sin, redemption, and salvation, in their substitute belief system.

7) They pretend their emotional and psychological system has nothing to do with their lack of belief. But readily attribute psychological factors to those who do believe (i.e., needing a crutch, simple minded, lacking education, delusional). They espouse that naturalism is the true faith of intellectuals. Only a simple and weak minded fool would believe anything different.

Here's my response to these (also posted in comments at his blog):

Re: #1: I think “taking the moral high ground” is a good thing, but that’s probably not what you mean–I think what you mean is claiming to have the moral high ground (and, by implication, when one doesn’t actually have it). Nobody likes arrogant people with an air of superiority, but we also must admit that there are also people who genuinely are stupid, small-minded, uneducated, ignorant, etc., and in my opinion, nobody should be exempt from criticism. If an atheist criticizes something a Christian says as stupid, ignorant, or fallacious, that may mean that the atheist is an arrogant jerk, but it may also mean that the Christian has said something stupid, ignorant, or fallacious.

Re: #3: I think this is much rarer that most Christians seem to think. In any case, the public behavior of prominent Christians shows them to actively engage in any sort of immorality I can think of (whether a genuine immorality or simply something that conservative Christianity labels as such), so Christianity doesn’t seem to be any barrier to such actions.

Re: #4: Most atheists of my acquaintance genuinely have most of those characteristics. Some do not. Most Christians of my acquaintance genuinely have most of those characteristics. Some do not. As for tolerance, in my experience atheists are far more tolerant than Christians (including more tolerant of Christians than Christians are of atheists).

Re: #5: Among my acquaintances, I don’t see any greater proclivity towards proselytization by atheists than Christians–in fact, it seems to me that it’s the reverse. There are numerous Christian streetcorner and campus preachers, Christian missionary organizations, etc., but I’ve yet to run into any similar atheist streetcorner or campus preachers or missionaries. If somebody knocks on your door to tell you about their religious views, the safe bet is that it’s an advocate of some sort of Christianity rather than an atheist.

Re: #6: If person A has a life filled with a rewarding career, raising a family, contributing to the community through public service, engaging in recreational activities, while person B is cloistered and spends all of his time praying and chanting, would you say that person A has replaced religion with other activities and has a less well-rounded life than person B? How do you distinguish someone simply filling their life with valuable activity from someone who is “replacing religion with a substitute”? I can think of some activities which are religion-like, including sports fanaticism, but I don’t think most atheists find religion substitutes which include correlaries to the notions of sin and salvation.

Re: #7: You really make two points here. One is a claim that atheists don’t recognize their nonbelief as a (or the) cause of their psychology. I think that in many cases, it’s not. Most atheists live lives that are indistinguishable from those of most nominal or mostly secularized Christians (of the sort who make up the majority of Christians in Europe). Your second point is that atheists often attribute some delusion or pathological need to religious believers. On that point I think you are correct, and that atheists who do that are mistaken. Pascal Boyer’s excellent book Religion Explained argues, correctly in my opinion, that religious inferences are just like other kinds of inferences that we make, and that it is the natural state of humans that they infer agency behind causes. Unfortunately, our natural inference patterns get it wrong much of the time–when we inferred that lightning bolts were thrown by the gods, that was incorrect, for example.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Atheism and the difference between consistency and entailment

A Christian rural psychologist has posted on his blog about "some psychological aspects of atheism," where he claims that:
[Atheists] tend to not be able to understand that their position means “anything goes,” with respect to morality. If there is no God, then there is no objective thing as morality. It’s all subjective… They always find some way to justify the fact that they practice at least some moral principles. Whether they think it’s biologically ingrained through millions of years of evolution or morality is simply “adaptive in allowing the species to survive.” Most often; however, they have never even considered the logical consequences of atheism and morality.
He also engages in some armchair theorizing about atheism being caused by absent fathers, being intolerant, etc., all without any reference to empirical evidence. (And given the recent Pew Forum survey results where one in five self-reported "atheists" say that they believe in God or a higher power, I think any study of atheists needs to make sure that it's dealing with people who actually know what the word means.)

But the quoted passage is completely off-base. Atheism is a denial of the existence of gods. That entails the falsity of divine command theory as a basis for morality, but not much else. Most philosophers have rejected divine command theory as an adequate basis for morality since Plato wrote the "Euthyphro" and asked the critical question, "is the pious [or right] loved by the gods because it is pious [right], or is it pious [right] because it is loved by the gods"? Either fork of the dilemma leads to bad consequences--if the former, then there must be some other ground for moral rightness than because the gods will it to be so, and so the gods themselves are unnecessary. If the latter, then the gods could make acts that we consider to be clearly immoral into right actions according to whim. The latter seems more consistent with the morality of the Bible, since God is depicted therein as commanding murderous acts including the killing of women and children, but it is simply a "might makes right" philosophy of morality. But I think the former is clearly the right horn of the dilemma to grasp--morality is not something which requires gods.

Now, there are certainly atheist philosophers who have argued that atheism precludes more than the divine command theory. The atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie, in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, argues against morality being objective properties of the world on the basis of their "queerness." And I think he is probably right at least to the extent that moral properties are not human-independent properties. My view is that there are certain basic values, held by most human beings and evolutionary in origin, essential to social organization and beneficial to our survival and thriving, which objectively entail moral consequences for us, composed as we are and in the environment (physical and social) we find ourselves in.

But my view is not important for confronting the claim of the quoted passage. All atheism means is the denial of the existence of gods. It is not a complete worldview, it is simply a single component in an infinite number of possible consistent worldviews. An atheist can, like J. M. E. McTaggart, believe in reincarnation and immortality. An atheist can believe in the paranormal, in ghosts, in supernatural beings other than gods. An atheist can be a nihilist, a relativist, a utilitarian, a contractarian, an existentialist. An atheist can be a conservative, a liberal, a socialist, an anarchist, a monarchist, a libertarian, a Marxist, or hold any other possible view of political philosophy that doesn't entail the existence of gods. All of these views are consistent with atheism, meaning simply that no contradiction is produced by the combination of the views.

Amorality and nihilism are consistent with atheism--it is certainly possible for an atheist to hold that there are no moral truths, that there is no difference between right and wrong. But mere consistency is not the same as entailment--it does not follow that if you are an atheist, it logically follows or is necessary to hold such views. Yet that's what the quoted author is falsely claiming to be the case.

Note that amorality and nihilism are also consistent with theism--and in my opinion, both are possible for theists whichever horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is grasped. If the ground of what is morally right is something independent of the gods that does not exist, even while gods do, then that's an amoral theism. And if all there is to morality is what the gods will it to be, that makes morality dependent upon the values of the gods--if the gods choose to be amoral or nihilists, then again there's amoral theism.

The Christian psychologist goes on to write (citing this very blog for the quote):
Now, I have only seen or read about one logically consistent atheist…..Jeffrey Dahmer. There have been philosophers, I know, who have come to this logical conclusion. But I’m talking about someone who logically practiced what he believed.
“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…” (1)
So said Dahmer.
The "what's the point" question is easy to answer--there are clearly consequences for us to our own behavior regardless of any accountability to God. Sane, rational people desire to live good and happy lives, rather than follow the example of Dahmer. Even leaving God out of the picture, where is the slightest appeal in following Dahmer as a model of rational living? I see none.

But the position this psychologist takes opens up an obvious question that he doesn't notice--God isn't accountable to anyone. Why should God be good, instead of acting maliciously, callously, and evilly, in the absence of any accountability to anyone? According to this psychologist, the answer should be that God should rationally act as an omnipotent Jeffrey Dahmer. Having no greater God to hold him responsible, he should not be bound to any code of morality, his word should be valueless, and every action based on the whims of the moment without regard to any future consequences.

That should be considered a reductio ad absurdum of his position. Either there are rational reasons to not act like Jeffrey Dahmer independently of being held accountable to a higher being, or God behaves irrationally by not acting like Jeffrey Dahmer. (Or perhaps, given the content of the Old Testament, God does act like Jeffrey Dahmer.)

UPDATE: I've engaged in further argument with the psychologist in the comments of his blog, as have others.

UPDATE: After a few back-and-forth exchanges, I don't think the psychologist means to talk about logical consequences of beliefs. I think probably the best reconstruction of his actual argument is something like this:

1. Human beings find it psychologically necessary to believe in an objective external source of morality. (In order to be happy, function well psychologically, etc.)
2. Atheism doesn't provide such a source by itself.
3. Those whose worldview is composed entirely of atheism, without augmenting it with some objective external source of morality, have no psychological reasons to act in moral ways.

This is a much more plausible argument. He says something very much like (3), and goes on to say something to the effect that none of these substitutes are sufficient, and his reason seems to be along the lines that people's choices for these substitutes are arbitrary or that they are not externally imposed. But his reasoning is faulty--the fact that people choose for themselves doesn't mean that their choices are arbitrary (they can have good reasons), and external imposition seems to be irrelevant. Presumably he would agree that someone who converts to Christianity as an adult can have all of the psychological benefits he's claiming for theism. And what of the thousands of other religions, sects, and interpretations that can be acquired from one's parents or others? His argument doesn't have any way of singling out Christianity (or any particular version thereof) as special in this regard. It seems to me that it really comes down to an argument about the social and psychological benefits of adopting the beliefs of one's culture that most people accept--though I'm sure he doesn't want to accept the cultural relativism that seems to me to be implied by his position.

UPDATE: The "Country Shrink" has resorted to "let's agree to disagree" without even attempting to respond to the criticism of his claim that morality requires theism, nor has he responded to my attempted reformulation. Instead, he has asked whether my impressions of atheists differ from him--claiming the moral high ground, intellectual superiority, etc., to which I responded that I see that as most prevalent among atheists who were previously evangelical Christians, and that he's likely attributing causes to the wrong place. I don't think it's caused by atheism as much as by reaction to Christianity.

UPDATE (July 6, 2008): The "Country Shrink" has made a followup post in which he takes a stab of sorts at addressing some of the philosophical arguments I made, but mostly by engaging in argument from ignorance and attempting to shift the burden of proof to me, even though he is the one maintaining that it is impossible for there to be any objective meta-ethical framework without gods. He also asserts (rather than argues) that incompatibilism is the correct position in the free will debate and that consciousness cannot be explained naturalistically. I don't discern any actual arguments for either of those positions other than failure of imagination.