Saturday, March 28, 2009

SkeptiCamp Phoenix today

Today is the big day for SkeptiCamp Phoenix, starting at about 12:30 p.m. this afternoon.

Magic Tony, one of our presenters, will be live-blogging the event at his blog, and there may also be twittering at #skepticamp. No live video this time, but there will likely be video of at least some talks put online after the event, along with photos, presentations, and recaps.

I received the t-shirts last night (the back of which is shown in the photo) and the official SkeptiCamp 2009 banner earlier in the week, and I've got boxes of Skeptic magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and some books for distribution to participants. Thanks to the generous contributions of our sponsors, the Skeptics Society/Skeptic magazine, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry/Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and the James Randi Educational Foundation, who provided the materials and funds for the t-shirts (which will also defray a portion of our dinner tonight after the event at Tempe's Rula BulaBoulders on Broadway).

It looks like we'll have about twenty people physically present at the event, and twelve or thirteen presentations, some 30-minute presentations and some 10-minute presentations. The current list of presentations:

Tony Barnhart, Methods of the Pseudo-Psychic
Abraham Heward, What's the difference between skepticism and denial? (led discussion)
David Jackemeyer, Henry Hazlitt's Thinking as Science
Don Lacey, Words Important to Skepticism (PowerPoint 2007)
Jim Lippard, Positive Side-effects of Misinformation (SlideShare)
John Lynch, Academic Freedom and Intelligent Design (SlideShare)
Shannon Rankin, Skepticism for Dummies
David Weston, Creating Skeptical Happiness (PowerPoint)
Jack Ray, Skeptical Dating
Mike Stackpole, Practical Techniques for Street Skepticism
Charlie Cavanaugh Toft, Teaching Critical Thinking
Xarold Trejo, Why I am a Skeptic

SkeptiCamp Phoenix will be the first live-blogged SkeptiCamp event, and this is also the first day on which there will be two SkeptiCamp events in the same day--the other one going on today is SkeptiCamp Vancouver, which is occurring this afternoon at Langara College, with the sponsorship of the BC Skeptics.

UPDATE (April 2, 2009): Don Lacey of the Skeptics of Tucson, who participated in SkeptiCamp Phoenix, offers his thoughts at the James Randi Educational Foundation's Swift blog. ScienceBlogger and SkeptiCamp Phoenix participant John Lynch gives a recap at his blog.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, in Spanish

Dan Barker's book, Losing Faith in Faith, has been translated into Spanish and is available as a free PDF download, Perder la fe en la fe.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Corrupt drug cops in Philadelphia

From the Philadelphia Daily News:

ON A SWELTERING July afternoon in 2007, Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and his narcotics squad members raided an Olney tobacco shop.

Then, with guns drawn, they did something bizarre: They smashed two surveillance cameras with a metal rod, said store owners David and Eunice Nam.

The five plainclothes officers yanked camera wires from the ceiling. They forced the slight, frail Korean couple to the vinyl floor and cuffed them with plastic wrist ties.

“I so scared,” said Eunice Nam, 56. “We were on floor. Handcuffs on me. I so, so scared, I wet my pants.”

The officers rifled through drawers, dumped cigarette cartons on the floor and took cash from the registers. Then they hauled the Nams to jail.

The Nams were arrested for selling tiny ziplock bags that police consider drug paraphernalia, but which the couple described as tobacco pouches.

When they later unlocked their store, the Nams allege, they discovered that a case of lighter fluid and handfuls of Zippo lighters were missing. The police said they seized $2,573 in the raid. The Nams say they actually had between $3,800 and $4,000 in the store.

The Nams’ story is strikingly similar to those told by other mom-and-pop store owners, from Dominicans in Hunting Park to Jordanians in South Philadelphia.

Via The Agitator. Officer Cujdik has other issues.

Immigration and jobs

Despite the common concern that immigrants to the U.S. take jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens, immigrants actually create jobs and promote innovation. Two recent articles in The Economist look at this topic. In the March 7, 2009 issue, a study by Harvard economist William Kerr and University of Michigan economist William Lincoln looked at how patent production changes in response to changes in the number of H-1B visa holders, immigrants with technical skills. When the number of H-1B visas was increased by 10%, total patenting increased by 2%, caused mostly by patent activity by immigrants. However, rather than reducing the number of patents by the native population, those also increased.

In the March 14, 2009 issue's special report on entrepreneurship, it's noted that H-1B visas are capped at 85,000/year, and a maximum of 10,000 from any one country, increasing the wait for large countries such as India and China, where the wait time is about six years. There are over one million people waiting. This issue also notes that about half of Silicon Valley's startups are founded by immigrants, and about 25% of all U.S. science and technology startups have a CEO or CTO who is an immigrant, and these companies employ 450,000 people and generate $52 billion in annual revenue. A quarter of U.S. patent applications in 2006 name foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Physical spam

On our dog walk this evening, we found that two neighborhoods to the south of us have been targeted by a new sort of marketing technique--in each yard was a bag containing a few rocks and a business card, apparently dropped by someone driving by who was too lazy to deliver them to the front door. In one neighborhood, these were like the ones pictured, in a ziploc bag with a card advertising a landscaping service. In another neighborhood, they were in twist-tied baggies with a piece of paper advertising a cleaning service.

This doesn't seem to me like a very effective method of advertising. The door hanger flyers are annoying already, but these are worse--it's like tossing trash into people's yards.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Some interesting technology

The March 7th, 2009 issue of The Economist Technical Quarterly has some items of interest:

Cool Earth Solar of Livermore, California is using balloons as solar energy collectors.

Narasimharao Kondamudi, Susanta Mohapatra, and Manoranjan Misra of the University of Nevada at Reno have found a way to turn coffee grounds into biodiesel.

David Whitten of the University of New Mexico and Kirk Schanze of the University of Florida have built "micro-sized 'roach motels'" for capturing bacteria in hospitals and on the surfaces of ships.

Nicholas Kotov and his team at the University of Michigan have come up with a way to coat cotton threads with carbon nanotubes which can be used to carry electricity, and to add an additional material that reacts with human serum albumin, in order to detect bleeding, which might be used by the military in monitoring soldiers.

The success of drug decriminalization in Portugal

Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, and Glenn Greenwald discusses the evidence that he says shows it has been "an unquestionable success, leading to improvements in virtually every relevant category and enabling Portugal to manage drug-related problems (and drug usage rates) far better than most Western nations that continue to treat adult drug consumption as a criminal offense."

Answers in Genesis censorship turns old-earther into young-earther

Commenter Tim H pointed me to a post at Tim Martin's Beyond Creation Science blog about another Answers in Genesis controversy. Old-earth creationist Charles Spurgeon delivered a June 17, 1855 sermon (four years before Darwin published Origin of Species) in which he stated that the earth had to be "many millions of years" old. When Answers in Genesis published that sermon on their website, they omitted that sentence, "We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be-certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam."

After Martin pointed out the omission, Answers in Genesis inserted a footnote containing the omitted sentence, stating that this footnote was inadvertently omitted from their publication of the sermon. But they made no apologies for removing the sentence in question from its proper context and relegating it to a footnote.

UPDATE: AiG did more than just remove that sentence--they revised language throughout the sermon, which in some other areas also changed the intended meaning to bring it in line with young-earth creationist dogma.

The U.S. Nazi dirty bomb plot

Remember how the press was all over the story of the 29-year-old millionaire white supremacist and fan of Adolf Hitler in Maine who was building a dirty bomb that he planned to set off at Obama's inauguration, but it didn't happen because his wife shot and killed him?

Me neither, but James G. Cummings of Belfast, Maine, had (quoting Wikileaks) "four lots of one gallon containers of bomb-grade hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium (also radioactive), lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium (radiation booster), boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon" which he somehow planned to set off at the inauguration. Personally, I don't think that volume of material could have been easily smuggled in anywhere near the inauguration activities without raising suspicion.

Why no press coverage of this story, apart from the Bangor Daily News?

Wikileaks has a summary; Wonkette has summarized that; the Washington D.C. Regional Threat and Analysis Center report (PDF) is here.

Pat Robertson on Christians studying the Koran

From the J-Walk blog:

Pat Robertson answers a question from a "pastor of a ministry to international college students" who asks whether his ministry leaders should be permitted to study the Koran in order to understand Islam, which he thinks is a bad idea since "there are plenty of Christian resources out there to get information on other religions."

Robertson's reply:

Kelly, it won't be wrong if somebody studies Islam, but they need guided study, because somebody needs to go along and point out the incredible inconsistencies in that book. And if you have a guided study of the Koran and see how much in there is just repetitious, how much comes out of the Old Testament and the New Testament, how much is just plagiarism from the Bible, etc.?.

If you will go through it with them, I think it would be a very helpful exercise. But I doubt very seriously by reading the Koran they're going to get converted to Islam. I wouldn't worry about it. But I think they need to see it. They need to see what is in there. Many people who are Muslim don't know what the Koran says. And when you begin to tell them, they say, "Well, I don't believe that." And you say, "Well, it's in your sacred book. It's supposed to be holy words." So it won't hurt, but guided study.

Blogger John Walkenbach responds: "Now, turn that answer around a pretend it's in response to a Muslim asking if he should study the Bible. It still works!"

Indeed, with a few small changes. (Hat tip to Dave Palmer at the SKEPTIC list for the pointer to Robertson's Q&A.)

Copyright treaty classified on national security grounds

The U.S. government is negotiating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a treaty which imposes new controls over copyright, but refuses to let the general public know its specific content. In response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from Knowledge Ecology International, the Obama administration responded that the content is classified for national security reasons pursuant to Executive Order 12958, a Clinton order from 1995.

As Declan McCullagh points out, the executive order "allows material to be classified only if disclosure would do 'damage to the national security and the original classification authority is able to identify or describe the damage.'" He also points out that one of Obama's first acts as president was to sign a memo that said that FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure."

The claim that this treaty cannot be disclosed for national security reasons sounds bogus, but if it's so, what's the purported damage being prevented? In the absence of a clear rationale, this treaty should be openly discussed and available to the general public.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SkeptiCamp Phoenix

On March 28, SkeptiCamp Phoenix 2009 will take place at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Participants include Mike Stackpole of the Phoenix Skeptics on "Practical Techniques for Street Skepticism," John Lynch on "Academic Freedom and Intelligent Design," and Tony Barnhart on "Methods of the Pseudo-Psychic."

The event is sponsored by the Skeptics Society/Skeptic magazine, the Center for Skeptical Inquiry/Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and by the James Randi Educational Foundation. It will be the fifth SkeptiCamp, after two in Colorado, one in Vancouver, and one in Atlanta.

For more information on the event, see the SkeptiCamp Phoenix 2009 wiki page, the SkeptiCamp Phoenix registration site, or the SkeptiCamp Phoenix Facebook page.

For more on SkeptiCamp, see Reed Esau's "The Skepticamp Bargain" in JREF's Swift and his article "Raising Our Game" (PDF) published by the Skeptics Society.

(Previously, previously, previously.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Scientology and religious visas

Jeff Jacobsen has a new article on Scientology's use of religious R-1 visas to bring people from other countries to the U.S. to work at menial labor for $50/week (with billion-year Sea Org contracts). R-1 visas are supposed to be for religious ministers who have been working for the U.S. organization sponsoring them for at least two years, and it appears that Scientology has abused these conditions to get cheap labor. And in the process, they've brought in people like Artur Solomonyan from Armenia, who was subsequently arrested and found guilty of illegal weapons sales after trying to sell weapons including surface-to-air missiles to an FBI informant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Legalize pot and tax the crap out of it

Today's Overcompensating makes a timely proposal. Just as the repeal of Prohibition during the Great Depression helped economic recovery and reduced associated criminal activity, repealing the drug war could do the same. Legalizing prostitution along the lines of the New Zealand model (adopted in 2003, and in 2008 in Western Australia) is also a good idea.

Now that Attorney General Eric Holder has confirmed Obama's campaign promise that the feds will not engage in drug raids against medical marijuana operations in states that have legalized such activity, the time is right.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

2 fatally killed after fight near house party

The Arizona Republic reports:

2 fatally killed after fight near house party

Two men are dead after an early morning shooting in south Phoenix, police said.

Officers responded to a shooting near 36th Avenue and Broadway Road a little after midnight Friday, police said.

Officers arrived to find numerous people fleeing and were directed to a 27-year-oldman who was dead in the alley from gunshot wounds, police said.

Police later learned that another victim, a 20-year-old man, died as he was being driven to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Investigators received initial reports of a party in the area and a fight nearby.

No further information was available.

It's too bad they weren't non-fatal killings. (Perhaps an editor changed "shot" to "killed"?)

UPDATE: They changed the link to say "2 fatally shot" and on the story itself to "2 shot, killed after fight near house party."

Using the stimulus to accelerate the downturn

$10.1 billion in federal stimulus money has been released to the states by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Arizona is receiving more than $150 million of that. And what is that money to be used for, in a state where there are tens of thousands of homes for sale with few buyers (50,000+ in Maricopa county alone)?

Building more housing.

The Arizona Republic reports that
Millions of dollars more will go to state and local programs. That includes $32 million to begin construction of affordable rental housing, $22 million to prevent homelessness and $12 million to build or repair public housing across the state.
To the extent this money is used to build new homes, as opposed to repairing deteriorating ones, it's just going to accelerate the decline of home prices, putting more homeowners underwater and providing them with more incentive to walk away from their mortgages. Now, I think that a further decline in home prices is inevitable, no matter what the stimulus money tries to do, but it's ridiculous to throw additional money at accelerating that process. It makes about as much sense as using federal stimulus money to give grants to investment bankers to develop more complex collateralized debt obligations.

Now, this isn't actually quite that bad, since it does apparently focus on some particular communities--a third of the money is for Native American communities that didn't get a housing bubble of speculative buying. Some of it is also for families that need short-term help with utility bills, rent, or other expenses (something that the Modest Needs Foundation has been doing for years with private donations). And Tucson is apparently using it to improve energy efficiency of existing public housing units. Those are all much more reasonable uses of the money than building more houses.