Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Unconscious decision-making

Evidence continues to mount that human decision-making occurs in the brain prior to conscious awareness of the decision, which is evidence against the common religious view of a soul, separate from the brain, which is the seat of all of our mental capacities. It's also at odds with an overly intellectualized view of human beings held by some atheists (as well as all Scientologists, who consider unconscious decision-making by the "reactive mind" or festering "body thetans" to be the cause of human unhappiness), on which we must strive to make all of our decisions based on conscious, deliberative reason. I don't think this is a very common view among atheists today, who tend to have some familiarity with evolution and cognitive science, but there are still some out there who have an overly idealized view of what a rational human being should be.

A view of human beings that focuses solely on the intellectual and reason is not only at odds with the facts about how our cognition works, it gives short shrift to the importance of social bonds and emotion, which are areas that some religions focus on to the exclusion of the intellectual--with great success in expanding their memberships, at least over the short term.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

George W. Bush on the difference between democracy and dictatorship

"It's important for people to understand that in a democracy, there will be a full investigation. In other words, we want to know the truth. In our country, when there's an allegation of abuse ... there will be a full investigation, and justice will be delivered. ... It's very important for people and your listeners to understand that in our country, when an issue is brought to our attention on this magnitude, we act. And we act in a way in which leaders are willing to discuss it with the media. ... In other words, people want to know the truth. That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this. A dictator wouldn't be saying that the system will be investigated and the world will see the results of the investigation."

And on the treatment of war crimes: "War crimes will be prosecuted, war criminals will be punished and it will be no defense to say, ‘I was just following orders."

The former quote is from the video below, the latter quote is from this March 2003 CNN transcript.

(First quote via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, second quote via The Agitator.)

And, for your edification, please read Scott Horton's article, "Busting the Torture Myths."

"Fleeting expletives" FCC rule upheld

The FCC rule on "fleeting expletives," permitting massive fines even for individual occurrences of the "seven words you can't say on television," arguing that they always have sexual connotations even when used as an intensifier, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision. The decision is noteworthy for using the terms "F-word" and "S-word" and "f***ing" and "s****" in its text, rather than spelling them out.

Clarence Thomas' concurrence in the majority, however, questioned the constitutional basis of the FCC's ability to regulate content. It should be just a matter of time before the FCC's ability to regulate indecency is curtailed, but the Supreme Court did not rule on that issue in this case.

Adam Thierer at the Technology Liberation Front has a thorough commentary:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Thierer points out that Scalia, purportedly a strict constitutionalist, in his decision has endorsed a brand-new justification for the FCC's power to regulate broadcast content. The original justification was that the airwaves were a scarce resource that needed to be protected for productive uses; the new argument is that because there are so many unregulated alternatives like cable, satellite, and the Internet, that the government needs to protect one last refuge from offensive content.

(Previously, previously.)

Obama's $100M proposed budget cut, in perspective

A nice visual depiction of what it amounts to.

(Via The Agitator.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

ApostAZ podcast #15

Whoops, forgot to report on this one when it was released last month:
Episode 015 Atheism and wheat-gluten-Free Thought in Phoenix! Go to for group events! All Music from Greydon Square- CPT Theorem and Compton Effect,Group Events, Sao Paulo- Making Hard Decisions is a Crime Against the Church, Half of UK Folks Agree that Evolution Makes God Obsolete, Thunderf00t's PEARL of a Youtube vid.
Comments: The woman who claimed that someone being "dead" and resuscitated after eight minutes was miraculous is a bit off in her claim, since hearts and lungs are routinely stopped in open heart surgery for 4-6 hours, though that involves oxygenation of the blood by a heart-lung bypass machine. Perhaps more to the point are some hypothermia near-death cases, some of which have lasted for hours, like this recent case in Minnesota.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nassim Taleb's ten principles for a black-swan-proof world

At the Financial Times (with more detail for each item):

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning .

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

(Via Will Wilkinson.)

The banker who said no

A banker who resisted the urge to invest in toxic assets during the boom is cleaning up during the bust. Andy Beal of Beal Bank in Plano, Texas "virtually stopped making or buying loans" from 2004 to 2007, leading people around him to think he was crazy. Now he's buying up loans at fire sale prices and has tripled his bank's assets to $7 billion in the last 15 months, and without government bailout money.

Beal is also known for high-stakes poker games against the top poker players in the world, in which he has lost more than he's won, but occasionally taken for a lot of money (including an $11 million win in one day).

What the laws of physics say about sustainable energy

Cambridge University physicist David MacKay's book, Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, is available for free download or perusal in a variety of forms including HTML, PDF and PostScript, at the website

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The ICR does law as well as it does science

The Institute for Creation Research Graduate School has filed a lawsuit in the state of Texas over its inability to advertise master's degrees in science that it is not accredited or permitted to offer in the state of Texas.

An attorney evaluates their lawsuit and finds that it's as crazy as their science, and doomed to dismissal.

(Via Pharyngula).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

American Religious Identification Study 2008

The American Religious Identification Study 2008 has been published, and the only group to grow across the entire country is the "no religion" group.

Here's how Arizona's religious identifications have changed in the last decade:

1990: 24% Catholic, 57% other Christian, 3% other religions, 13% none, 3% don't know/refused to answer.

2009: 29% Catholic, 44% other Christians, 5% other religions, 17% none, 5% don't know/refused to answer.

The states with the highest percentage of persons identifying themselves as having no religion in 2008 are:

Vermont, 34%
New Hampshire, 29%
Wyoming, 28%
Maine, 25%
Washington, 25%
Nevada, 24%
Oregon, 24%
Delaware, 23%
Idaho, 23%
Massachusetts, 22%
Colorado, 21%
Montana, 21%

(Via the Secular Outpost.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

AiG/CMI dispute settled

CMI has taken down its AiG-critical material and posted a notice that reads:
CMI and AiG are pleased to inform you that the dispute between the ministries has been settled to their mutual satisfaction. Each ministry is now focused on its respective mission, having put this dispute behind them in April of 2009.
Nathan Zamprogno noted in a comment on my last blog post on this dispute that AiG still had some of its CMI-critical material about the case online, but it now appears to have been taken down as well.

Jeff Benedict and Little Pink House

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing writer Jeff Benedict speak about his book, Little Pink House, which is the story behind the Kelo v. New London case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. That case, which ruled that New London did have the right to use eminent domain to seize private property and turn it over to another private entity--effectively retranslating the Fifth Amendment's use of the words "public use" into the meaning "public benefit"--was a case I thought I was familiar with. But Benedict's talk revealed that while I was aware of some of the facts relevant to the legal case, I really had no idea about the whole story. In his short talk, he conveyed some of the events and details that did not make it to the national press, but which make the story all the more interesting. The political battles between state and city government, the plan to get Pfizer to stay in Connecticut when it was looking elsewhere, and the personalities involved made for a genuinely moving talk even when we already know how the story ends.

I look forward to reading his book.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Cybersecurity Act of 2009

There's FUD spreading about Sec. 14 of the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, maintaining that it amounts to an effective repeal of the 4th Amendment for the Internet. That's not so--the scope is restricted to "threat and vulnerability information" regarding the Internet, which I interpret to mean network service provider knowledge about compromised systems, botnets, etc., much of which is no doubt already being voluntarily shared with the government as is permissible under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, when, in the course of a provider's normal service monitoring, it becomes aware of possible criminal activity.

I expect I'll have more to say after I have a chance to read through the whole bill (PDF).