Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Literary hoaxes

Now that Berkley Books has just cancelled Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived after the core story about how he met his wife while in a concentration camp was proven false, ABC News has put together a slide show of some other famous literary hoaxes.

The list includes, in addition to Rosenblat:

James Frey
JT Leroy
Norma Khouri
Margaret B. Jones
Misha Defonseca
Anthony Godby Johnson
Lauren Stratford
Clifford Irving
Araki Yususada
Jayson Blair
Binjamin Wilkomirski
Forrest Carter
Kaavya Viswanathan
Tom Carew
Janet Cooke
The Hitler Diaries
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

There are a few others they could have covered--there are entire genres of hoaxes, like Christian conversion stories of fake Illuminati, witches, Satanists, Jesuits, and terrorists, stories of fake undercover agents and spies, stories of mind-controlled sex slaves, and so on. The Christian conversion stories are the ones I'm most familiar with, many of which have been promoted by Jack T. Chick of Chick tract fame, or have involved film producer David Balsiger (see especially footnote 7 of the linked article).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anchoring and credit card minimum payments

"Anchoring" is the psychological effect that, when presented with a sample number prior to being asked to estimate some quantity, people tend to stick closer to that sample number than they would if no number were mentioned, even if the number is completely irrelevant to what's being estimated.

A study by Neil Stewart at Warwick University suggests that minimum payment amounts on credit card bills cause people to pay less on their credit cards per month than they otherwise would, since the minimum payment tends to be extremely low. While it has no effect on those who intend to pay off the full monthly amount (the only reasonable way to use credit cards, in my opinion), Stewart's work suggests that those who pay less than the full amount pay 43% less on average than they would if no minimum payment were specified.

While this might be interpreted as counter to the intent of a minimum payment, I suspect it's exactly the intended effect from the credit card companies--to drag out payments over the longest possible time and accumulate the most interest.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Books Read in 2008

Once again, here's my annual list of books I've read in the last year. I did somewhat worse than last year in finishing books I started, and I found last year disappointing. The piles of started but unfinished books are growing--but perhaps I can match last year's total by the end of the year (I'm only threetwo short at the moment). I've not done a good job of writing reviews of any of these, though I've put a few short comments on Facebook's Visual Bookshelf for a few of these. I owe Guy Harrison an review/blog review/etc. for his excellent book, which I recommend as a nice (and less threatening) companion piece to Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction as an introduction to atheism.

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
  • Matthew Chapman, 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania
  • Anderson Cooper, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival
  • Cory Doctorow, Little Brother
  • Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
  • Joseph Finder, Paranoia
  • Guy P. Harrison, 50 reasons people give for believing in a god
  • Gene Healy, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Presidential Power
  • Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War
  • Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
  • Robert A. Levy and William Mellor, The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom
  • Maureen McCormick, Here's the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice
  • Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
  • William C. Speidel, Sons of the Profits
  • Jim Steinmeyer, Art & Artifice and Other Essays on Illusion
  • Jim Steinmeyer, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
  • Carl Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--And How It Changed the World
  • Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It

  • (Previously: 2007, 2006, 2005.)

    Thursday, December 25, 2008

    Looking for donations, again!

    I am once again asking for donations. I will be walking January 25, 2009 in the 1st annual PetSmart PetWalk to help raise funds for R.E.S.C.U.E.

    Please visit my donations page and help out if you can, as always, donations are tax deductible.

    Happy holidays!

    Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced with the most enjoyable traditions of religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. We also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2009, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make our country great (not to imply that the United States is necessarily greater than any other country) and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

    By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms: This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

    Disclaimer: No trees were harmed in the sending of this message; however, a significant number of electrons were slightly inconvenienced.

    (From; a repost from 2006.)

    The Hound of Mons

    In the January 2009 issue of Fortean Times, Theo Paijmans reports the following story of "The Hound of Mons," quoted from the Ada Evening News, Ada, Oklahoma, 11 August 1919:
    That weird legend of No Man's Land, the gruesome epice of the "hound of Mons," has, according to F.J. Newhouse, a returned Canadian veteran, been vindicated throughout Europe as fact and not fiction. For four years civilian skeptics laughed at the soldiers' tale of a giant, skulking hound, which stalked among the corpses and shell holes of No Man's Land and dragged down British soldiers to their death. An apparition of fear-crazed minds, they said. But to the soldiers it was a reality and one of the most fearful things of the world war.

    "The death of Dr. Gottlieb Hochmuller in the recent Spartacan riots in Berlin," said Capt. Newhouse, "has brought to light facts concerning the fiendish application of this German scientist's skill that have astounded Europe. For the hound of Mons was not an accident, a phantom, or an hallucination--it was the deliberate result of one of the strangest and most repulsive scientific experiments the world has ever known.

    Teeth Marks in Throats.
    What was the hound of Mons? According to the soldiers, the legend started in the terrible days of the defense of Mons. On the night of November 14, 1914, Capt. Yeskes and four men of the London Fusiliers entered No Man's Land on patrol. The last living trace of them was when they started into the darkness between the lines. Several days afterward their dead bodies were found--just as they had been dragged down--with teeth marks at the throats.

    Several nights later a weird, blood-curdling howl was heard from the darkness toward which the British trenches faced. It was the howl of the hound of Mons. From then on this phantom hound became the terror of the men who faced death by bullets with a smile. It was the old fear of the unknown.

    Howl is Heard.
    Patrol after patrol, during two years of warefare, ventured out only to be found days later with the telltale marks at their throats. The ghastly howl continued to echo through No Man's Land. Several times sentries declared that they saw a lean, grey wraith flit past the barbed wire--the form of a gigantic hound running silently. But civilian Europe always doubted the story.

    Then after two years, while many brave men lost their lives with only those teeth marks at the throat to show, the hound of Mons disappeared. From then on the Germans never had another important success.

    "And now," says Captain Newhouse, "secret papers have been taken from the residence of the late Dr. Hochmuller which prove that the hound of Mons was a terrible living reality, a giant hound with the brain of a human madman."

    Hound Had Human Brain.
    Captain Newhouse says that the papers show that this hound was the only successful issue of a series of experiments by which Dr. Hochmller hoped to end the war in Germany's favor. The scientist had gone about the wards of the German hospitals until he found a man gone mad as the result of his insane hatred of England. Hochmuller, with the sanction of the German government, operated upon him and removed his brain, taking in particular the parts which dominated hatred and frenzy.

    At the same time a like operation was performed on a giant Siberian wolfhound. Its brain was taken out and the brain of the madman inserted. By careful nursing the dog lived. The man was permitted to die.

    The dog rapidly grew stronger and, after careful training in fiendishness, wa taken to the firing line and released in No Man's Land. There for two years it became the terror of outposts and patrols.
    Back before the Internet, the local newspapers met our needs for fabulous hoaxes, and many of them applied, at least periodically, the journalistic standards of the Weekly World News--you only need one source.

    UPDATE (April 25, 2009): Fortean Times reader Alistair Moffatt writes in a letter in the May 2009 issue (p. 73) to point out that while F.J. Newhouse did exist, there was no Captain Yeskes of the London Fusiliers and Yeskes is an American or Canadian name, not a British one, suggesting a local origin for the above tale. He also notes that the Battle of Mons took place in August 1914, not November. He suggests that the tale may have originated from a propagandized and heavily distorted account of Captain Max von Stephanitz's breeding of the German Shepherd.

    How to get on an atheist's good side

    Greta Christina writes a list of "nine tips for believers who want to reach out" to atheists:
    1: Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists -- and don't perpetuate them.
    2: Familiarize yourself with what it's like to be an atheist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.
    3: Find common ground.
    4: Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.
    5: Be inclusive of atheists.
    6: Don't divide and conquer, and don't try to take away our anger.
    8: Do not -- repeat, DO NOT -- talk about "fundamentalist atheists."
    9: Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.
    Read her article for the details.

    Wednesday, December 24, 2008

    Rick Warren caught lying

    Last Sunday, Rick Warren recorded a video for his congregation in which he denies ever comparing gay marriages to incest or pedophilia:
    I have been accused of equating gay partnerships with incest and pedophila. Now, of course as members of Saddleback Church, you know I believe no such thing, I never have. You've never once heard me in thirty years talk that way about that.
    But Rachel Maddow shows that he made exactly that comparison:
    I'm opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

    Q. Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?

    Oh, I do!
    Rick Warren has been caught lying, in addition to being anti-gay and anti-evolution. He should ask to be taken off the agenda for the inauguration, and if he doesn't, Barack Obama should just withdraw his invitation to speak.


    At Not Exactly Rocket Science is a video of a man navigating a hallway filled with obstacles, even though he's completely blind--he has zero conscious awareness of visual perception and his visual cortex shows no activity when given visual tasks (most of which he fails), but he does have an ability known as blindsight. He became blind as a result of strokes which caused damage to the occipital lobe of his brain, including his visual cortex. Yet his eyes still function and there is still some visual processing occurring without rising to the level of conscious awareness. He can perform a number of visual tasks with perfect accuracy, even though his conscious perception is that he is simply guessing.

    (Hat tip to Dan Noland for the link.)

    Anthropogenic global warming debate

    I just came across this post from Duae Quartunciae from July about the American Physical Society's publication of pro and con arguments on the subject of anthropogenic global warming, and I direct it to your attention now because it has a very lengthy, detailed, and respectful debate in the comments.

    I recently heard Jane Orient of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons speak about global warming (she thinks it's a pseudoscientific scam), in which she promoted the paper she published by Arthur and Noah Robinson and Willie Soon and the Petition Project. Before the event, I sent an email to the event organizer with links to Michael MacCracken's critique of that paper (PDF) and a wiki page critiquing the paper and the Robinsons' Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (where Dr. Orient is listed on the faculty as a professor of medicine; she also teaches a course on "global warming controversies" for the Schlaflys' Eagle Forum University). While my links weren't redistributed to the other attendees of the talk, I did get a chance to express my skepticism in the discussion, which led to an email exchange with Dr. Orient.

    She took the position that advocates of anthropogenic global warming are engaging in pseudoscience and are biased by their own need to keep up the hype in order to continue to receive government funding, but will ultimately be refuted by a growing disconnect between the projections of the climate models and the facts--she seems to think that the recent warming trends have been the result of solar irradiance and that we are now on a cooling trend. She stated in her talk that James Hansen is unreliable because he falsely claimed that 1998 was the warmest year on record, and was forced to retract it and admit that 1934 was the warmest year on record; and similarly was forced to retract an incorrect claim that October 2008 was the warmest October on record after Steve McIntyre found that there was an error in some of the reported data. I pointed out that her first claim is incorrect--1998 is still the warmest year on record for global temperatures, but the second-warmest for the contiguous 48 U.S. states after 1934, which is what Hansen said. And while she was correct about October 2008, after the correction it still remains the fifth-warmest October on record. The top three years for global temperatures are 1998, 2005, and 2002; the eight warmest years on record are all since 1998; the fourteen warmest years on record are since 1990.

    I also pointed out Skeptic magazine's recent critique of the Petition Project, which she dismissed as a criticism of Robinson for not using methodology to do something he was not trying to do; that all he was trying to do is show that there is no consensus among scientists. I compared the Petition Project to the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism," which she said she did not see as analogous.

    We found some points of agreement--we both support the legitimacy of questioning, and of science over pseudoscience, though we disagree about who's doing science and who's doing pseudoscience.

    UPDATE (December 16, 2009): The "Petition Project" isn't a petition of scientists, it's a petition of people with at least a bachelor's degree in a science-related field. Whittenberger at eSkeptic points out that the signature breakdown by level of education was 29% Ph.D., 22% M.S., 7% M.D. or D.V.M., and 41% B.S. or equivalent. By field, it was 12% earth science, 3% computer science or mathematics, 18% physics and aerospace sciences, 15% chemistry, 9% biology and agriculture, 10% medicine, and 32% engineering and general science. The percentage of Ph.D.s in relevant areas isn’t available, but it’s clear from the breakdown that at least two thirds have less than a Ph.D. and at least 80% do not have education in a relevant field. I conclude that it's not possible to conclude on the basis of that petition that there's dissent among scientists with relevant credentials--it is just like the DI petition in that regard.

    Tuesday, December 23, 2008

    Arizona Court of Appeals overturns CityNorth subsidy

    The City of Phoenix's $97.4 million sales tax subsidy to the CityNorth retail center project in north Phoenix has been declared unconstitutional, a violation of the Arizona Constitution's gift clause. All three members of the appeals court agreed, writing in their opinion that "We think these payments are exactly what the Gift Clause was intended to prohibit."

    The city's subsidy would have granted $97.4 million in sales tax revenues (or less, not to exceed 50% of the sales taxes collected by CityNorth businesses) over 11 years to the project developer, the Klutznick Company, in return for 3,180 parking spaces, including 200 parking lot spaces set aside for public use for "park and ride," for the next 45 years. The ruling found that the only public benefit for which the city could legitimately be paying were the 200 "park and ride" spaces, and that the city may still pay market rate for those 200 spaces (probably about $6 million over 45 years), but not for the other 3,180 spaces. The appeals court's ruling may be found here (PDF).

    Congratulations to Goldwater litigation director Clint Bolick and the owners of the six small businesses that were plaintiffs in the case: Meyer Turken of Turken Industrial Properties, Ken Cheuvront of Cheuvront Wine and Cheese Cafe and Cheuvront Construction (and Democratic State Senator), Zul Gilliani who owns an ice cream shop at Paradise Valley Mall, James Iannuzo of Sign-a-Rama, Kathy Rowe of Music Together, and Justin Shafer of Hava Java.

    The Goldwater Institute team initially lost the case, Turken v. Gordon, at the trial court level in Maricopa County Superior Court. The City of Phoenix tried unsuccessfully to get an award of $600,000 in attorney's fees from the Goldwater Institute in an attempt to chill future public interest lawsuits; now they'll no doubt appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.


    More police puppycide

    The cases continue to mount--when police officers come to search property and they are confronted by dogs, they often shoot and kill them, even if they are puppies.

    A Milwaukee resident whose Labrador-Springer Spaniel mix was killed by police in 2004 has filed a lawsuit against the city, and she requested a list of every dog killed by city policy for the last nine years. There were 434--a dead dog every seven and a half days, and that's just one city.

    In Oklahoma, a police officer pulled into a driveway to ask a woman for directions, and when the woman's Wheaton Terrier came bounding toward him, he shot and killed it. The police refused to do anything about the woman's complaint, and tried to pay her off to shut her up when she let them know that her security cameras had captured the incident. She also sued.

    Radley Balko at The Agitator has been doing a great job of collecting and reporting on cases of unwarranted police killings of dogs. His latest summary of cases, from which the above two cases were taken, is his 16th "puppycide" blog post.

    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    Unintended side-effects of speed cameras

    In Montgomery County, Maryland, teens have found a new use for speed cameras--getting revenge on people they don't like or who have wronged them. Since the tickets from photo radar cameras are issued to the owners of the cars whose license plates are captured, they print out fake license plates on glossy photo paper, stick them over their own license plates, and then go out speeding.

    This shows yet another flaw in the photo radar ticket process. I've speculated that registering your cars in the name of an LLC or trust is probably sufficient to make it difficult to assign individual responsibility to a speeding incident.

    UPDATE (December 23, 2008): In Australia, an even more creative revenge against a mobile speed camera--have it issue tickets to itself! They could have just noted the plate number and followed the example of the Maryland teens, rather than stealing the actual plate... (Thanks, Adam, for the link.)

    Diskeeper sued for Scientology indoctrination

    Two ex-employees of Diskeeper Corporation have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court after being fired, charging that the company makes Scientology training a mandatory condition of employment. Diskeeper founder and CEO Craig Jensen is a high-level Scientologist (OT VIII) and member of the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE), which means that he follows Hubbard "management technology" in how he runs his businesses and donates a portion of revenues to the Church of Scientology.

    UPDATE (December 25, 2008): Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has more.

    Arpaio foes arrested for clapping

    Four people associated with the anti-Arpaio group Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability, were arrested on Wednesday for standing and applauding a speaker at the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting. The East Valley Tribune notes that:
    A double standard clearly was in effect during the Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday. At one point, public-transit advocate Blue Crowley used part of his public-comment time allotment to sing a birthday song to [MCBoS chairman Andy] Kunasek. Kunasek blushed and several people applauded, but none was ordered to leave or threatened with arrest.

    However, Kunasek, deputies and security officers refused to tolerate applause after the anti-Arpaio speech minutes later.
    The criminal clappers were charged with "suspicion of disorderly conduct and trespassing."

    This brings the arrests of MCSA members to eight for the week and nine for the last four months.

    Four other members of MCSA were arrested on Monday, after a group of 20 went to Andy Kunasek's office to talk with him and he refused to meet with them. Sheriff's deputies asked them to leave and arrested the four who refused.

    The other arrest was MCSA co-founder Randy Parrez, who was arrested on September 29 outside a Board of Supervisors meeting on similar charges--suspicion of trespassing and disorderly conduct.

    All but one of the members of the Board of Supervisors are Republicans. The Tribune article quotes Supervisor Max Wilson (R-District 4) as saying, "I don’t tell the police how to do their job. I don’t instruct them to do it or when to do it. They’re professionals at it and that’s the way they handle it." The lone Democrat, Mary Rose Wilcox (D-District 5), however, stated that she thought the arrests were excessive and that she would talk to security about it.

    Friday, December 19, 2008

    PATRIOT Act NSL gag order unconstitutional

    For a second time, a U.S. appeals court has found unconstitutional the provision of the USA PATRIOT Act which forbids recipients of National Security Letters from disclosing that they have received them. After the first time around, Congress amended the law to introduce some minimal judicial review, but maintained the burden of proof on the recipient if the government claimed there were national security reasons for the NSL to remain secret. The courts have ruled that this burden needs to fall on the government.

    If this continues to stand, then perhaps the warrant canary will become superfluous.

    Credit Suisse helps solve the toxic debt problem

    In a fiendishly clever plan, Credit Suisse Group AG has found a way to reduce its exposure to toxic securities and transfer risk off its balance sheets--it's paying senior executives' bonuses with them.

    Managing directors and directors, the two highest ranks at the Zurich-based company, will be paid year-end bonuses in its most illiquid loans and debt. Those assets will be transferred to a "Partner Asset Facility," and those directors will receive shares of ownership in the facility. Those assets will make semi-annual payments to the owners, with the full value only to be known as the assets mature or default.

    A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant

    Last night Einzige, frequent commenter Schtacky, and I went to see "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" in Tempe, put on by the Stray Cat Theatre. By lucky coincidence, local Scientology expert and critic Jeff Jacobsen was also attending (see his recent article), and we sat with him in the front row for what proved to be a very enjoyable performance.

    On the way to work this morning, I heard Robrt Pela of Phoenix's New Times reading his review on the local NPR station, and his review describes our experience quite well:
    About three minutes into Stray Cat Theatre's newest production, I found myself thinking: This can't be really happening. When you go to see it — and you must, if you do nothing else this holiday season, go see this astonishing stage production — you will almost certainly experience the same sense of delighted confusion. ... I rarely stopped laughing during this barely-hour-long show, and my single complaint about A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is that it ended too soon.
    The play was a special treat for those of us who already know something about Scientology and the life of L. Ron Hubbard.

    The production tells the story of L. Ron Hubbard's life ("writer, explorer, nuclear physicist ...") and how he came to develop Dianetics and Scientology, in the form of a children's holiday pageant. Cheesy props and frequent costume changes are used to portray rapid changes of location, from Hawaii to New York to China. Much of what is presented is accurate--Hubbard's birthplace, some of his claims about his life, and especially the content of Dianetics and Scientology. A few liberties are taken in the story of his life, though fewer than Hubbard himself and contemporary Scientologists take in describing his achievements. While there are countless amusing and disturbing events of Hubbard's actual life that could have been used for comic relief but were omitted, we were surprised at how much they managed to pack into a short show. If you want the longer version, you can read Russell Miller's biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, online, complete with supporting documentation including paperwork from his FBI files.

    The show continues tonight and tomorrow--if you have the opportunity to see it, take it, and you'll be very glad you went.

    Thursday, December 18, 2008

    Bank slogans as signals to depositors

    The traditional bank lobby, filled with expensive marble and and furnishings, is designed to signal to the customer that the bank is stable and isn't going anywhere.

    Some recent failed banks have used advertising slogans also designed to inspire confidence, such as IndyMac's "you can count on us."

    Others, however, should perhaps have been recognized as clues of impending problems:

    Dexia: "The short term has no future."
    Fortis: "Here today, where tomorrow?"
    Countrywide: "[A] lender that actually finds ways to make loans."
    Fannie Mae: "As the American dream grows, so do we."
    Washington Mutual: "Whoo hoo!"

    (Via The Economist, October 2, 2008.)

    Sean Hannity: Media Matters' Misinformer of the Year for 2008

    The award appears to be well-deserved.

    (Hat tip to Schtacky.)

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    Jeff Jacobsen article on Anonymous protests against Scientology

    Jeff Jacobsen has written a detailed article about the Anonymous protests against Scientology, which brings the reader up-to-date on Internet-supported counter-Scientology protesting since the article we wrote for Skeptic in 1995, "Scientology v. the Internet: Free Speech and Copyright Infringement on the Information Superhighway."

    The new article is called "We Are Legion: Anonymous and the War on Scientology." Check it out.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Wine accelerator from SkyMall

    If there was any doubt that the SkyMall catalog is full of bogus products that are complete ripoffs for idiots, that should be removed by this product--a "wine and liquor accelerator" that "surrounds the beverage with a powerful triangular-shaped magnetic field, and in just 10 seconds, you'll taste a premium drink's smooth, mellow flavor equal to years of traditional slow aging."

    And here, Alex Chiu has been telling us that magnetic devices slow aging, not speed it up.

    Not to mention that aging is not something that tends to improve the quality of wine.

    The Center for Public Integrity is doing great work

    The Center for Public Integrity has published a slew of new investigative reports:

    "Global Warming: Heated Denials"
    -- reporting on climate change denialism pseudoscience from the Heartland Institute.

    "The Shadow Government"
    -- 900 little-known federal advisory committees wielding influence over public policy.

    "Divine Intervention"
    -- how the Bush Administration's initiative to fight AIDS abroad is hampered by conservative ideology.

    "Broken Government"
    -- an assessment of 128 executive branch failures since 2000.

    Check them out, and consider providing financial support for this organization, which is one of my top organizations to support.

    Beware the feral hogs

    This is what we need more of in apocalyptic future science fiction--rampaging herds of feral hogs:
    There are thought to be between 4m and 5m feral hogs at large in America, spread across 38 states. The biggest population is in Texas, but states from Florida to Oregon are infested and worried. Feral hogs destroy the habitats of plants and animals, spread diseases, damage crops, kill and eat the eggs and young of wildlife and sometimes menace people with their aggressive behaviour.
    The problem originated with the Spanish conquistadors, who took herds of pigs with them as they marched across the American continent. Stragglers reverted to their wild state. Much later “sportsmen” began releasing hogs into reserves for commercial hunting. More recently still declining pork prices have induced farmers to turn some of their stock loose rather than continue feeding them. Pigs produce so many piglets that a feral herd can double or even triple within as little as a year.
    Via The Economist.

    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Bill of Rights celebration at the Wrigley Mansion

    Kat and I attended Alan Korwin's Bill of Rights celebration, celebrating the 217th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, which was held this evening at the Wrigley Mansion. There were several hundred people in attendance, mostly civil libertarians of both liberal and libertarian varieties, including people from the Institute for Justice and the ACLU. We were asked in the invitation to think about which Amendment is our favorite--I would probably rank the 1st and 4th at the top of my list, of which the 1st is much healthier than the 4th. I'd also put the 8th and 5th high in importance, both of which have taken some recent hits but are showing signs of recovery. And of course the 6th, and the under-utilized 9th... ah, heck, they're all important. The crowd seemed dominated by 2nd Amendment fans, not surprising since Alan Korwin is the author and publisher of numerous books on U.S. gun laws.

    The reading of the Bill of Rights and its preamble was excellent, but I was disappointed that the event included a Patrick Henry impersonator played by Lance Hurley of Founding Fathers Ministries. Hurley is a Christian who endorses David Barton's works of pseudohistory on his website (for which the antidote is Chris Rodda's Liars for Jesus), and at the event argued in character, with quotations from Henry, that the 2nd Amendment came from the teachings of Jesus Christ, that the American revolution was fought on Christian principles, and the Constitutional Convention succeeded because of Ben Franklin's prayer. He also stated, when there were discussions of the health of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, that freedom of religion is in serious danger, because no one can mention God in schools but the Koran can be discussed. This is simply untrue--God and the Bible can be discussed by students, but such discussions cannot constitutionally be imposed by state agents such as teachers and administrators in a way that constitutes an establishment of religion. The Bible can be legally taught as the combination of myth, history, poetry, literature, and religious doctrine that it is, but Christianity cannot be endorsed as true by state agents. The same rules apply to the Koran. Hurley seems not to realize that Madison's version of the First Amendment won out, not Henry's. Some Christians--and it appears that Hurley may be one of them--have a view that their freedom of religion is infringed if they are prevented from legally imposing their religion on others through acts of state agents.

    I'll find it amazing that Christians consider themselves to be a poor, persecuted minority prohibited from expressing their religious views when they are, in fact, regularly engaging in establishment clause violations, and Congressmen are signing on to bills like last year's House Resolution 847.

    Hurley does public speaking as both Patrick Henry and George Washington--I wonder if his George Washington is historically accurate with respect to Washington's religious views. He's also an advocate of conspiracy theories (Illuminati, Trilateral Commission, Bilderbergers, etc.) and an advocate of the National Day of Prayer.

    Further fringe elements were represented at the event by Ernie Hancock of the Ron Paul Revolution, who distributed multiple pieces of literature promoting his Freedom's Phoenix website, billed as "uncovering the secrets & exposing the lies." That site also promotes conspiracy theory, including "9/11 truth" conspiracy claims.

    In the discussions, several people brought up Phoenix's recently installed freeway traffic speed cameras as evidence of the sickliness of the Bill of Rights, though no one really offered an explanation of how the Bill of Rights is violated by them. And the objection seemed to only be to the cameras, not to speed limit laws. I'm not a fan of speed cameras, and I agree that they are more of a revenue generation method than a safety measure, but I don't see an obvious case that they violate the Bill of Rights.

    That's not to say that the event was entirely dominated by the lunatic fringe--one woman in the audience commented that she was particularly concerned about the 4th Amendment, because she is now regularly stopped at a "border checkpoint" while driving between destinations well inside the U.S. border, because of the 100-mile "Constitution-free zone" that the courts have created around the perimeter of the U.S. And Jennifer Perkins of the Institute for Justice pointed out that even though the U.S. Supreme Court blew a gigantic hole in the 5th Amendment with the Kelo case, nearly all of the states have passed legislation adding further protections against eminent domain abuse (and Arizona's are the strongest).

    There was one critical mention of the USA PATRIOT Act (by the Patrick Henry impersonator, to well-deserved applause), but no mention of Guantanamo Bay, the Military Commissions Act, or torture that I noticed. I think concern over traffic cameras is at least a bit lower on the priority list than any of these items. A point in favor of the Patrick Henry arguments is that he correctly identified the risk of expanding executive power and judicial decisions that disregarded basic rights (the fact that the Bill of Rights, as well as the Constitution itself, has many passages that have effectively been written out of it, is testament to the accuracy of that prediction).

    The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, at least, is alive and relatively well.

    UPDATE (December 16, 2008): Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out that Ron Paul introduced the American Freedom Agenda Act which would:
    Repeal the "Military Commissions Act of 2006" and thereby restore the ancient right of habeas corpus and end legally sanctioned torture by U.S. government agents

    Restore the "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" (FISA) and thereby outlaw warrantless spying on American citizens by the President of the United States

    Give Congress standing in court to challenge the President's use of "signing statements" as a means to avoid executing the nation's laws

    Make it illegal for government agents to kidnap people and send them abroad to be tortured by foreign governments

    Provide legal protection to journalists who expose wrong-doing by the Federal government

    Prohibit the use of secret evidence to label groups or individuals as terrorists for the purpose of criminal or civil sanctions

    Ed suggests, and I agree, that writing or calling your elected representatives and asking them to support this bill is a good way to do something to preserve and protect the Bill of Rights.

    Otto on a fundraising mailer

    Our dog Otto continues his celebrity career by being featured on the front of a "save the date" postcard for a fundraiser for Altered Tails, a local charity that provides low-cost spaying and neutering for dogs and cats. The image is a painting done by local artist Susan Barken.

    Who started the "War on Christmas"

    I had previously been aware of Fox News "The Big Story" anchor John Gibson's book, The War on Christmas, as well as former National Review author John O'Sullivan's 2001 article on the subject, and of course Bill O'Reilly's repeated misrepresentations on the subject. But until I read Max Blumenthal's article, "Who Started the War on Christmas?," I wasn't aware of VDare founder Peter Brimelow's role. Turns out he blames it on the Jews.

    (Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.)

    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    Drunk driver kills someone, yet gets only a speeding ticket

    Mario Chavez was driving drunk when he hit another car, killing its driver, 20-year-old University of Maryland student Brian Gray. Gray's mother was traveling behind him in another vehicle, and watched her son die. When police arrived at the scene, they did not bother to give Chavez a test for his blood alcohol level. Chavez lied to investigators about what he was doing prior to the crash, claiming he was sleeping even though his cell phone records show that he was talking on the phone. He didn't lose his job and he has only received a speeding ticket. Brian Gray, however, had blood taken from his dead body to see if he had been drinking, but he had not.

    It seems the rules are different when the guilty party is a police officer. Mario Chavez is a Prince George's County, Maryland police officer who was driving his patrol car at the time of the accident. For some reason the black box recording device for his police cruiser has not been checked for evidence due to "software problems." A page of nurse's notes about Chavez after his admission to Prince George's Hospital after the crash has also disappeared.

    (Via The Agitator.)

    Saturday, December 13, 2008

    Quarterbacks, teachers, and financial advisors

    I'm generally quite averse to watching sports, let alone reading about them. But I did read Michael Lewis's Moneyball at one sitting and just read Malcolm Gladwell's "Most Likely to Succeed" in the December 15 issue of The New Yorker.

    Gladwell's article looks at examples of jobs where there are few, if any, available measurements of performance available before hiring that correlate with success in the position. The performance of college quarterbacks doesn't track their success in the NFL (apparently due to factors such as the sizes of players and the types of offensive formations used), and none of the items on a resumé seem to predict the success of teachers or financial advisors.

    Yet quality of teaching is a huge factor in student educational success (as I've previously noted on this blog with regard to an Economist article about a McKinsey & Co. study that compared education across OECD nations). As The Economist article I referenced noted, "Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else."

    Gladwell suggests that we should find a way to hire more teachers, have them apprentice with demonstrably successful teachers, and weed out the bad ones. But the most successful nations do not follow Gladwell's suggestion of increasing the number of new teachers, instead doing nearly the opposite. Again quoting The Economist:

    Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite. Singapore screens candidates with a fine mesh before teacher training and accepts only the number for which there are places. Once in, candidates are employed by the education ministry and more or less guaranteed a job. Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them).

    South Korea shows how the two systems produce different results. Its primary-school teachers have to pass a four-year undergraduate degree from one of only a dozen universities. Getting in requires top grades; places are rationed to match vacancies. In contrast, secondary-school teachers can get a diploma from any one of 350 colleges, with laxer selection criteria. This has produced an enormous glut of newly qualified secondary-school teachers—11 for each job at last count. As a result, secondary-school teaching is the lower status job in South Korea; everyone wants to be a primary-school teacher. The lesson seems to be that teacher training needs to be hard to get into, not easy.

    Gladwell's suggestion of apprenticeship, however, fits with the McKinsey & Co. study suggestion of improving teacher training and encouraging good teachers to share information and lesson plans with each other, as well as having top teachers provide oversight to teacher training.

    Thursday, December 04, 2008

    Wal-Mart pricing on Jesus shirts

    (Via FailBlog.)

    Wednesday, December 03, 2008

    A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant

    Tempe's Stray Cat Theatre is performing "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant," December 5-20.

    The East Valley Tribune has described the show, and more details may be found at the Stray Cat Theatre's website.

    UPDATE (December 19, 2008): A few of us went to see the show last night, which I've described in a separate post.

    Roger Ebert reviews Expelled

    In what may be the most entertaining review of "Expelled" yet, Roger Ebert gives Ben Stein what for in the Chicago Sun Times:
    This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion.

    And there is worse, much worse. Toward the end of the film, we find that Stein actually did want to title it "From Darwin to Hitler." He finds a Creationist who informs him, "Darwinism inspired and advanced Nazism." He refers to advocates of eugenics as liberal. I would not call Hitler liberal. Arbitrary forced sterilization in our country has been promoted mostly by racists, who curiously found many times more blacks than whites suitable for such treatment.

    Ben Stein is only getting warmed up. He takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.