Saturday, January 31, 2009

D.C. and the inauguration

Kat and I made arrangements to travel to D.C. for the inauguration a few months before the election. Our plan was to attend regardless of who was elected president, but we preferred Obama over McCain and his winning the election solidified our plans. We flew to D.C. on U.S. Airways Flight 44 to see the 44th president inaugurated, leaving 72-degree weather in Phoenix and arriving to 26-degree weather in D.C. We had prepared with layered clothing, but I found that my toes were still freezing in my shoes with two layers of socks, so we visited a mall near our hotel and found evidence of massive price deflation in coats and boots. I picked up a nice pair of Dupont "thinsulate" insulated boots, and Kat bought a full-length padded coat, each of which were only $20. We saw some further evidence of price deflation in goods at the Smithsonian gift shop in the National Museum of the American Indian, where T-shirt prices had been lowered from $20 last time we visited to $16 this trip. Food prices, however, seemed to be about the same, and the price of a 7-day Metro pass had climbed from $20 to $26.40 (no doubt still a subsidized price).

On Saturday, we visited the newly-reopened National Museum of American History, where there were special events going on with actors portraying figures from American history such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. We paid a visit to the American flag from Fort McHenry (the star-spangled banner), the First Ladies' dresses collection, the pop culture exhibit, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," musical instruments, the Gunboat Philadelphia, and a few other exhibits. We followed this up with lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian, then checked out the new Capitol visitors' center and took a look at the setup for the inauguration. We then walked over by the Newseum, passing the Canadian Embassy and its huge banners welcoming President Obama.

The theme of pending change was everywhere--not only the expected political banners, but in commercial advertising (e.g., Metro ads from Pepsi and Ikea), religious advertising (the Seventh-Day Adventists were handing out a magazine with Obama's photograph on the front), and even by the homeless begging for "change I can believe in."

On Sunday we went to the Columbia Heights Metro station and were amazed at how much the area has changed. We visited an apartment building in the area where Kat used to live in the 1990s, finding it boarded up and for sale (last sold 10/16/2008 for $1.1M). Next was Adams-Morgan, where there was a kiosk to "Tell the President ... tell him what you think! tell him what you want!" by sticking up handwritten notes. A few examples: "TAKE A STAND 4 PALESTINE," "WE ARE HUMANS NOT MACHINES," "GAY MARRIAGE," "Make Weed Legal," "fix our schools," "NO MORE LIES PLEASE," "Respect our privacy! Stop USA spying on Americans!," and "MAKE LOVE TO ME."

We visited a friend's clothing store (Redeem, on 14th St. south of S), walked past the Church of Scientology near Dupont Circle that was in the act by offering free "touch assists" for D.C. visitors, and approached as close as we could to the White House, which was to walk on Pennsylvania Ave. near the president's inaugural parade viewing stand. From there we could hear U2 playing at the "We Are One" concert on the Mall, which we chose not to brave the crowds to see.

Monday we spent time with family in the early afternoon, and spent the rest of our afternoon paying a visit to the American Humanist Society's MLK Day open house. In the evening, we went back to Dupont Circle, where a giant inflatable George W. Bush with a giant nose labeled "GIVE BUSH THE BOOT" was available to throw shoes at.

Tuesday morning, we got up at 5:30 a.m. and got to the Silver Spring Metro Station by 6:40 a.m. The station was packed, and we squeezed into a very crowded train. We got out at Gallery Place and walked towards the Mall, where we ran into an immense crowd at 7th and E that was waiting to go through security screening to the inaugural parade seats. We hung out there for a while, where several people from were handing out nametags and pens, and then walked around the security perimeter to the west to get to the Mall. This required us to go back north to I St., and west to 19th St. (we could have gone down 18th, but 19th was less crowded). We went through no security and had no trouble getting to the Mall.

We walked east past the Washington Monument, but U.S. Army soldiers suddenly closed the road at 15th St. and so we went back and found a good spot in front of the Jumbotron just northeast of the Monument. The crowd continued to build, and the Jumbotron showed a replay of the "We are One" concert from Sunday (which would might have been annoying if we had already seen it).

At long last, the Jumbotrons switched to a live (with audio slightly delayed) feed, with a live mike somewhere in the expensive seats that seemed unintentional. We got to hear one side of multiple conversations, including Sen. Joe Lieberman telling someone, "I love your mother!" The captioning was a little behind the already-delayed audio, and occasionally bizarrely off. When Aretha Franklin sang, one caption at the end of her song said "THREAT RING."

I thought that Pastor Rick Warren's invocation was awful--it was sectarian and it was blatantly hypocritical (cf. Matthew 6:5-7), and I considered it, along with the cold, to be the low-light of the swearing-in ceremony.

George W. Bush attracted some mild booing, and we almost (but not quite) felt sorry for him. But the crowd was ecstatic at Obama's being sworn in (and at Bush's helicopter leaving).

Obama's inaugural speech seemed to mostly be fairly generic new-politician-in-office platitudes, but there were a few standout positive points for me. First, his acknowledgement that some Americans are nonbelievers and we have a stake and a voice in this country was a breath of fresh air. I cheered that line, and several people near by looked at me and smiled. His affirmation that science must be "restore[d] ... to its rightful place" was another good one, as was his statement that we cannot give up the Constitution for safety.

It is a pleasure to again have a president who can speak in complete English sentences and not make me cringe every time I hear him.

After the swearing-in ceremony was over, it took us well over an hour to leave the Mall. People were packed in trying to leave, and at one point we saw the crowd knock down a barricade on the north side of the Mall, and a second barricade just north of that, to get access to Constitution. We moved in the opposite direction, which proved to be the right move to get to a flowing stream of people moving towards the actual exit. Police showed up at the downed barricades after about ten minutes, and put them back in place.

On Wednesday, we visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America, on the grounds of Catholic University of America. It was interesting to see the different ethnic versions of Mary, Mother of Jesus in the Shrine, including Our Mother of Africa, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnam). We did a little shopping for Obama swag at Union Station.

On Thursday, our last day in D.C., we visited Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Ave., a little-known burial ground of Union soldiers killed at the battle of Fort Stevens, the only Civil War battle that occurred in D.C. We also visited Fort Stevens itself, which has a monument where President Lincoln stood on the rampart and was told to "Get down, you fool" as he was likely to be killed by attacking Confederate soldiers there. Finally, we visited the recently restored Lincoln Cottage at the Old Soldier's Home, just north of Catholic University of America, where Lincoln spent about a quarter of his presidential term, made many of his decisions, and drafted and finalized the Emancipation Proclamation.

ApostAZ podcast #13

The latest ApostAZ podcast is now available:
Episode 013 Atheism and Shit-Free Thought in Phoenix! Go to for group events! All Music from Greydon Square- CPT Theorem, Ten Things the Pope Hates About Reality, Some Obama Topics, Family Planning and Stem Cell Research, REBT: Self-Downing.
Jan. 31: Filming for ArizonaCOR welcome video (happened today).
Feb. 13: Phoenix Atheists meetup new member welcome at Baby Kay's.
Feb. 15: SMOCA 10th anniversary, Phoenix Atheists will attend.
Feb. 18: Daniel Dennett speaking at ASU on "Darwin's Strange Inversion of Reasoning." Phoenix Atheists will attend.

Comments on this episode:

I don't think the difference between a religion and a cult is just the number of members, though growing large enough certainly tends to change social perception. As I've written previously at this blog, I think the characteristics that make a group a cult are something like Steve Hassan's BITE model (Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, Emotional control) or better yet (since it doesn't depend on questionable notions of mind control), Isaac Bonewits' Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (ABCDEF).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bart Simpson shilling for Scientology

Via the Village Voice, a prerecord call promoting a Scientology event by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson (and a Scientologist):

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama odds and ends

Obama's inauguration speech was censored in China. They didn't like these two sentences:

"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions." The words "and communism" were removed from the Chinese translation by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history." That whole sentence was removed from the Chinese translation.

Rick Warren's invocation speech was the low point in the career of a U.S. Army officer who gave in to pressure to conform when his commanding officer expected everyone to applaud, saying "God Bless him for having the courage to pray for all of the lost souls in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ!"

On Obama's first day in office, he issued executive orders to suspend military commissions for 120 days, close Guantanamo Bay in the next year, require all government agency interrogations to comply with the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation, freeze salaries for the 100 top executive branch officials, reverse George W. Bush's executive order allowing former presidents and their relatives to keep presidential materials out of the National Archives beyond the 12-year statutory limit, close all CIA secret prisons, and call for a review of all U.S. government detention procedures.

The Obameter is tracking Obama's campaign promises. So far he's kept five, compromised on one, stalled on one, taken no action on 488, and broken none. He will need to delay, if not break, some of his spending promises...

UPDATE (February 17, 2009): So far, it appears that Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to post all bills to the web for five days of public comment prior to signing them. He's broken that promise repeatedly already.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Petwalk donations plea!

This Sunday, January 25th is the first annual Petwalk. Fred and I are participating and need your help in the form of a donation. Sure the economy looks bad right now, but if you can spare just $5 for a great cause, I'd really appreciate it. To learn more, please visit my donation page.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

NY conference on the religious-secular divide

A conference on "The Religious-Secular Divide: The U.S. Case" will be held on March 5-6, 2009 at The New School in New York City. The conference will:
explore the tension between religion and secularity in the United States, which is long-standing, widespread, and increasingly intense. This is evident in contemporary debates over such issues as evolution and intelligent design, the importance of religion in political decision-making, and in spiritual or faith-based philanthropy. These issues will be addressed from the perspectives of religious studies, legal studies, political science, sociology, and philosophy. Charles Taylor will deliver the keynote address on March 5th at 6:00pm.
The conference website may be found here. The current speaker list is:

Richard J. Bernstein
Jose Casanova
David L. Chappell
William E. Connolly
James Davison Hunter
Daniel Dennett
Noah Feldman
Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad
Susan F. Harding
George Kateb
Mark Lilla
David Martin
Michael W. McConnell
James A. Morone
John T. Noonan, Jr.
Ann Pellegrini
Winnifred Sullivan
Charles Taylor
Peter van der Veer

Big Brother, meet Little Sis

The Sunlight Foundation, promoting transparency in government, has issued an invitation to check out the beta of Little Sis, a wiki described as "an involuntary Facebook of powerful Americans," created by the Public Accountability Initiative.

You can sign up for an account to edit the wiki at, or just check out the site at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Does It Take for a Police Officer to Get Fired?

Radley Balko, guest-blogging at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, describes three police officers, asking whether each has engaged in egregious enough conduct to be fired:

Shoving a 71-year-old Walmart greeter to the ground and, when another customer came to assist, shoving that customer through a glass door?
How about three DWI incidents within a one-year span, including one in which the officer ran a roadblock, then had to be tasered, pepper-sprayed, and wrestled to the ground; another in which he hit another car, then left the scene of the accident; and another in which he fell asleep in his cruiser in front of a school, while in drive, with his foot resting on the brake?
How about an officer with an otherwise stellar record, who has a reputation in the department for honesty, but who became an outspoken critic of the war on drugs, and on one occasion declined to arrest a man after finding a single marijuana plant growing outside the man's home?
Can you guess which of these officers lost their jobs for the described conduct? Read Balko's post to find out.

ApostAZ podcast #12

The latest ApostAZ podcast is now available:
Episode 012 Atheism and Nonsense-Free Thought in Phoenix! Go to for group events! Solstice Party Wrap Up, January Events, UK Atheist Bus, Papua New Guinea Witch Burning... In This Century! Yeah! Jeremy's Funeral Proselytization, REBT: Unconditional Other Acceptance.

The "penis panics" (also known as "koro" or "genital retraction syndrome") are typically in Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin, but have also appeared in parts of Asia such as China and Singapore.

Jeremy's funeral proselytization story is unfortunate. I've attended a few too many funeral services of late (six so far this century), of which four have been religious and two have been completely secular. All of the religious ones had a tone to them that occasionally seemed to assume that everyone present was Christian, but none had a hellfire component or a call to Jesus that I remember--they were focused on remembering the person who was gone and addressing the loss of the people present. I have heard of churches that emphasize the hellfire component, and in 2003 a priest at the funeral service of Ben Martinez in Chama, NM, said that the deceased was a lukewarm Catholic who now burns in hell. The family filed a lawsuit over it.

Shannon and Noel, congratulations on your engagement!

Re: Jeremy's godfather story--you should say sure, you'll be happy to tell the kid all about their faith, thinking to yourself, "including that most of what you believe is not true."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Job creation by president

The creation of jobs in the economy is neither the president's responsibility nor within his power to do anything other than influence through policy, but it's still interesting to look at the record of job creation under the last eleven presidents (Truman to Bush Jr.), as presented at Barry Ritholtz's blog (from the Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics):

Friday, January 09, 2009

Welcome, Pharyngulites!

The photo P.Z. linked here with was taken in Phoenix, Arizona in February 1999, near the intersection of 19th Ave. and Campbell. The post at this blog which links to it is this one.

While you're here, here's an index of some of my better posts.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Utah Sen. Chris Buttars' Mormon Gulag

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out an account of a 15-year-old kidnapped from his grandmother's house at the request of his parents, and taken to the Utah Boys Ranch, then run by Utah Senator Chris Buttars. Apparently the mind-control treatment didn't take, and he started the Utah Boys Ranch Network to expose the abuse.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

CC-licensed NIN album is Amazon's #1 MP3 seller for 2008

The record labels and the RIAA have insisted that peer-to-peer filesharing is cannibalizing the music industry and that aggressive lawsuits and copy protection are necessary to protect the industry. But Nine Inch Nails released Ghosts I-IV under a Creative Commons license which allowed free redistribution from its initial release, while also selling it in MP3 format from its website and via, with no copy protection. The result--it's the #1 selling MP3 album on for 2008 and generated $1.6 million in revenue for the band in its first week, with no cut to a record label.

Looks like record labels are now superfluous for established artists, who no longer need to see their revenue cannibalized by middlemen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Scientology vs. the Internet history lesson

Jeff Jacobsen and Mark Bunker are hosting a 90-minute Internet radio show on the battle between Scientology and the Internet that took place before Anonymous, and it's about to start now (4 p.m. Arizona time, 3 p.m. PST, 6 p.m. EST). A number of old-timers from alt.religion.scientology will likely be calling in.

It's on blogtalkradio, show title is "Old-Timers give a history lesson."

First guest: Modemac, skeptic, SubGenius, and author of an Introduction to Scientology website, on the early history of alt.religion.scientology.

Second guest: Paulette Cooper, author of The Scandal of Scientology, an early major book-length criticism of Scientology, who was the victim of dirty tricks including framing her for a bomb threat and filing 19 lawsuits against her.

Third guest: Ron Newman, author of the Church of Scientology vs. the Net web pages and alt.religion.scientology regular.

Fourth guest: Yours truly.

UPDATE (January 5, 2009): A few clarifications and additional links:

The "Miss Bloodybutt" story Modemac referred to is described in the article Jeff and I wrote in Skeptic magazine, which includes dates. The -AB- posting didn't predate the event and included information from the police report. I interviewed Tom Klemesrud and Linda Woolard as part of my research for that story.

I was taken out to lunch by Scientology's Mesa Org OSA Director, Ginny Leeson, who asked what they could do to stop the criticism and pickets. My reply was that if they stopped suing people and trying to stop criticism, the pickets would probably stop. Ginny Leeson was soon replaced by a new OSA Director, Leslie Duhrman, who was a lot more hostile and aggressive--she went after picketer Bruce Pettycrew with legal action. I have received legal threats from Scientology and a DMCA notice, but nothing ever came of them; I periodically see Church of Scientology IP addresses visiting my web sites (also here).

My Scientology private investigators page is still online, though woefully out-of-date.

I wasn't the one who first called for coordinated international pickets, that was Jeff Jacobsen. I did issue (on behalf of the "Ad Hoc Committee Against Internet Censorship") the first coordinated press release about why the picketing was occurring, in response to Scientology's "Cancelbunny" that was issuing cancellations of Usenet posts containing their secrets.

There was a article in 1999 about Susan Mullaney ("xenubat")'s posted audio files of L. Ron Hubbard saying embarrassing things, which Scientology used the DMCA to shut down. She issued a counter-notice and the material came back online. Some of those clips were used in very funny Scientology-critical songs by "Enturbulator 009" or the "El Queso All-Stars."

I've previously posted a "Scientology sampler" of my history of Scientology criticism and some posts about the "Anonymous" protests. This blog has a "Scientology" label you can click to find all my Scientology-related posts.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Facing the Fire: creationist video

The creationist video I was filmed for, Creation Ministries International's "Facing the Fire," a documentary about the 1988 creation/evolution debate between Ian Plimer and Duane Gish, is available on YouTube in four parts (and embedded below). I first appear around 4:34 in the first segment, at 1:06 in the second, at 1:04 in the third, and at the very beginning of the fourth segment.

I described my experience being filmed and reasons for appearing in this documentary here, my reaction to the result here (which includes links to critiques of Gish), and you can find the articles I refer to in the documentary here:

"Some Failures of Organized Skepticism," The Arizona Skeptic vol. 3, no. 1, January 1990, pp. 2-5.
"How Not to Argue with Creationists," Creation/Evolution vol. 11, issue XXIX, Winter 1991-92, pp. 9-21.
"How Not to Respond to Criticism: Barry Price Compounds His Errors," FAQ, 1993.
"Criticisms from an Obscure Corner of the World," review of Plimer's Telling Lies for God.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4: