Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sen. Jon Kyl's flip-flop on judicial filibustering

On May 19, 2005, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) spoke out against filibustering judicial nominations of President George W. Bush, and said he was willing to give up the tool permanently, and not block future Democratic presidential nominees:
"Republicans seek to right a wrong that has undermined 214 years of tradition - wise, carefully thought-out tradition. The fact that the Senate rules theoretically allowed the filibuster of judicial nominations but were never used to that end is an important indicator of what is right, and why the precedent of allowing up-or-down votes is so well established. It is that precedent that has been attacked and which we seek to restore....

My friends argue that Republicans may want to filibuster a future Democratic President's nominees. To that I say, I don't think so, and even if true, I'm willing to give up that tool. It was never a power we thought we had in the past, and it is not one likely to be used in the future. I know some insist that we will someday want to block Democrat judges by filibuster. But I know my colleagues. I have heard them speak passionately, publicly and privately, about the injustice done to filibustered nominees. I think it highly unlikely that they will shift their views simply because the political worm has turned."

But now he suggests he's willing to lead the filibustering against any Obama nominee who uses empathy:
The Senate's No. 2 Republican on Sunday refused to rule out an effort to block confirmation if President Barack Obama seeks a Supreme Court justice who decides cases based on "emotions or feelings or preconceived ideas."

Sen. Jon Kyl made clear he would use a filibuster, a procedural move to delay a final vote on a bill or nominee, if Obama follows through on his pledge to nominate someone who takes into account human suffering and employs empathy from the bench.

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

UPDATE (May 28, 2009): Kyl continues to expand upon his hypocrisy on this issue:

Kyl, when Bush was in office, about the lack of necessity for long hearings on judicial nominees:
One might wonder why we would need more than just a couple of days of debate (the average of recent nominees is two to three days), especially since nothing new has been said for weeks. But, if the public has noticed anything during this process it is that senators value their right of unlimited debate.
Kyl on the need for long hearings on judicial nominees, now that Obama is in office:
"To that end, when John Roberts was first nominated on July 19, 2005, and subsequently re-nominated to be Chief Justice on September 6, 2005, Senate Republicans afforded the minority ample time to adequately examine his background and qualifications before he received a confirmation vote 73 days later.

"When Samuel Alito was first nominated on October 31, 2005, the minority was afforded 93 days before he received a confirmation vote on January 31, 2006.

"I would expect that Senate Democrats will afford the minority the same courtesy as we move forward with this process."

There's a bit of further irony here in that the delay for Alito's hearing, originally scheduled for December 2005 but moved to January 2006, was caused by Republican Senators Kyl and Mike DeWine (R-OH), because they needed the time for campaigning for re-election in their home districts.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ian Plimer on climate change

As was mentioned last August by commenter Ktisophilos, Ian Plimer has a new book out on climate change, titled Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science, in which he challenges claims of anthropogenic global warming.

Plimer is an Australian professor of geology who I criticized for his methods in debate with creationists, as well as for his reliability and accuracy. He responded by criticizing me with more misrepresentation in his book Telling Lies for God, which contained numerous errors, as well as multiple cases of failure to properly quote and cite sources that he used in writing the book. (The Creation Ministries International documentary for which I was interviewed, Facing the Fire, is about Plimer's 1988 debate with Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research.)

It now appears that Plimer's latest work is also extremely sloppy and contains erroneous source attributions. Tim Lambert at the Deltoid ScienceBlog identifies a long list of problems in the book by page number, points out the facts about Plimer's misleading figure 3, which doesn't originate from the source Plimer has claimed, and about another misrepresented source and graph.

Some Christians who found Plimer to be worthless as a source on creationism as a result of my critique have nonetheless found him to be a worthwhile source on anthropogenic climate change, such as Bill Muehlenberg and some of the commenters at his CultureWatch blog. This strikes me as an inconsistent position--Plimer has demonstrated unreliability in both debates, and shouldn't be relied upon as a source for either. That doesn't mean to ignore what he says, or that everything he says is wrong--it's just that everything he says needs to be thoroughly checked for accuracy. If it checks out, then it's better to cite the original source, not Plimer.

UPDATE (May 26, 2009): Commenter Paul points out a review of Plimer's book by Barry Brook, which also includes a link to a point-by-point critique of the book by Prof. Ian Enting of the University of Melbourne (PDF). (This link has been updated as of June 1, 2009 to point to a location that will continue to maintain the most recent version of the critique, as per a comment below from Prof. Enting.)

UPDATE (May 28, 2009): Bill Muehlenberg still appears to be refusing to publish contrary opinions from me, continuing his past record. I posted the following two comments on his blog, which he has not allowed through moderation:

1. Comment submitted on the evening of May 22, 2009:
I am a critic of creationism and skeptic who challenged Ian Plimer's methods and reliability in his criticisms of creationism (cited by one of your commenters above). I am sorry to say that Plimer's methods and reliability continue to be unsound in his contribution to the climate change debate. For example, see the following two blog posts that document errors and falsehoods in his new book:



I think that Plimer is mostly correct about creationism (it's nonsense) and mostly incorrect about climate change (there are real trends that correlate with human activity), but given his record he shouldn't be relied upon as a source in either debate without carefully checking up on everything he says.
2. Submitted on the morning of May 23, 2009:

I do hope you will let my comments through moderation.

Here is another post from the Deltoid ScienceBlog about Ian Plimer misrepresenting one of his own sources:

UPDATE (September 2, 2009): Plimer has descended further into irrationality in his exchange with George Monbiot.

UPDATE (December 17, 2009): Plimer engaged in a debate, of sorts, with George Monbiot, on Australia's "Lateline" program. Monbiot offers his overview of how it went.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tracking cyberspies through the web wilderness

Yesterday's New York Times has an interesting article about how security researchers at the University of Toronto have helped uncover online spy activity, apparently conducted by the Chinese government, against the Dalai Lama's office in India.

One odd comment in the article: "And why among the more than 1,200 compromised government computers representing 103 countries, were there no United States government systems?"

I find this particularly odd in that I've seen compromised U.S. government systems plenty of times in my information security career, including spam issued from military computers. I don't find it plausible that the U.S. government has recently improved the security of all of its computers and networks so that there are no more compromised systems.

In the context of the article, it's discussing more specifically compromises due to the particular spy ring being monitored. The preceding sentences point out that they weren't able to determine with certainty who was running it, and the immediately preceding sentence asks, "Why was the powerful eavesdropping system not password-protected, a weakness that made it easy for Mr. Villeneuve to determine how the system worked?"

The question should actually have asked why it wasn't encrypted, rather than "password-protected," but the possibilities suggested to me here are that (a) this particular activity is being run by amateurs or (b) this particular activity was intentionally detectible as either (i) a distraction from other, more hidden activity or (ii) to put the blame on China by somebody other than China.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ambiguous letter in Smithsonian magazine

The April 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine prints two letters about February's "Darwin and Lincoln" article under the heading "Twin piques." The first reads:
The only place Darwin and Lincoln are equals is in the mind of author Adam Gopnik ["Twin Peaks"]. What a stretch to weave their lives together because they share a birthday. "High peaks [that] look out toward each other"? Total hyperbole.
Rick Munsell
The Villages, Florida
Unfortunately, Dr. Munsell, a veterinarian from Florida who got his college degrees in Mississippi, doesn't tell us which reputation he thinks is exaggerated. Given his status as a southerner, he could either be a fan of the Confederacy and southern secession, or he could be an anti-evolutionist. Then again, perhaps he just thinks nobody is ever equal to anybody else...

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lippards sight flying snakes

In any event, the next Carolina sighting is only briefly detailed, sadly, since it sounds even more interesting than most. On the afternoon of 16 September 1904, in the countryside near Troutman, North Carolina, Mrs John B Lippard and her children saw "30 or more large snakes sailing through the air" over their farm. Each was about 5ft (1.5m) long and 4-5in (10-13cm) wide. "They watched the snakes sail around and alight in a piece of thickety pine woods... Most assuredly these people saw something." (Statesville Landmark, 20 Sept)
Quoted from p. 34 of Jerome Clark, "Sky Serpents," Fortean Times magazine, #248, June 2009, pp. 30-36.

UPDATE (12 September 2014):  There are, in fact, gliding snakes in the jungles of south and southeast Asia.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Who's behind the financial meltdown?

The Center for Public Integrity, an organization I support, has just published the results of an investigation into the roots of the recent economic crisis and the major players involved:
The top subprime lenders whose loans are largely blamed for triggering the global economic meltdown were owned or backed by giant banks now collecting billions of dollars in bailout money — including several that have paid huge fines to settle predatory lending charges. The banks that funded the subprime industry were not victims of an unforeseen financial collapse, as they have sometimes portrayed themselves, but enablers that bankrolled the type of lending threatening the financial system.

According to the analysis:

  • At least 21 of the top 25 subprime lenders were financed by banks that received bailout money — through direct ownership, credit agreements, or huge purchases of loans for securitization.
  • Nine of the top 10 lenders were based in California, including all of the top five — Countrywide Financial Corp., Ameriquest Mortgage Co., New Century Financial Corp., First Franklin Corp., and Long Beach Mortgage Co.
  • Twenty of the top 25 subprime lenders have closed, stopped lending, or been sold to avoid bankruptcy. Most were non-bank lenders.
  • Eleven of the lenders on the list, including four recipients of bank bailout funds, have made payments to settle claims of widespread lending abuses.
Check out the full report.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Greater percentage of nonreligious join religion than vice-versa

In an op-ed at the New York Times, Charles Blow offers a rebuttal to the claim that most people follow particular religions because they are raised in those religions with the following:

Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.

(It should be noted that about a quarter of the unaffiliated identified as atheist or agnostic, and the rest said that they had no particular religion.)
I don't think this is particularly informative or much of a rebuttal, given that most of those "unaffiliated" were not actually raised atheist or agnostic, and that it would not be particularly surprising that someone raised in an unaffiliated-but-religious environment would end up joining a particular church that they found compatible with the views they were raised with. Without more specific data, I don't think this at all refutes the claim that most people follow the religious traditions and views they are raised with, which I think is very well supported by the geographical distribution of religious belief.

It is still interesting, however, that a majority of the unaffiliated become affiliated, and that the number one reason for that, according to Blow, is that "Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met." Blow writes:
As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.
Here, I think he makes a good point, though I think the label of "spiritual needs" is a misnomer. This is, I think, the same point I've made in a few posts at this blog, including one on April 29 where I wrote that an overly intellectualized understanding of human beings is a mistake that some atheists make, and one on how Pentecostalism has been tremendously successful with its focus on these other aspects of humanity.

By the way, it's important to note that even if a greater percentage of the nonreligious join religion than vice versa, that doesn't mean that a greater number of the nonreligious join religion than vice versa, and in fact we know that isn't the case from the data that shows that the "unaffiliated" group is the fastest growing group in the U.S.

Same-sex marriage in Christian history

Jinxiboo's blog reports on Saint Sergius and Bacchus, officers in the Roman army exposed as secret Christians and martyred in the fourth century:
A Kiev art museum contains a curious icon from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai in Israel. It shows two robed Christian saints. Between them is a traditional Roman ‘pronubus’ (a best man), overseeing a wedding. The pronubus is Christ. The married couple are both men.

Prof. John Boswell, the late Chairman of Yale University’s history department, discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called the "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th century), and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century).

These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiatied in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.

Such same gender Christian sanctified unions also took place in Ireland in the late 12thand/ early 13th century, as the chronicler Gerald of Wales (‘Geraldus Cambrensis’) recorded.

Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe list in great detail some same gender ceremonies found in ancient church liturgical documents. One Greek 13th century rite, "Order for Solemn Same-Sex Union", invoked St. Serge and St. Bacchus, and called on God to "vouchsafe unto these, Thy servants [N and N], the grace to love one another and to abide without hate and not be the cause of scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God, and all Thy saints". The ceremony concludes: "And they shall kiss the Holy Gospel and each other, and it shall be concluded".

Another 14th century Serbian Slavonic "Office of the Same Sex Union", uniting two men or two women, had the couple lay their right hands on the Gospel while having a crucifix placed in their left hands. After kissing the Gospel, the couple were then required to kiss each other, after which the priest, having raised up the Eucharist, would give them both communion.

Records of Christian same sex unions have been discovered in such diverse archives as those in the Vatican, in St. Petersburg, in Paris, in Istanbul and in the Sinai, covering a thousand-years from the 8th to the 18th century.

The Dominican missionary and Prior, Jacques Goar (1601-1653), includes such ceremonies in a printed collection of Greek Orthodox prayer books, “Euchologion Sive Rituale Graecorum Complectens Ritus Et Ordines Divinae Liturgiae” (Paris, 1667).

While homosexuality was technically illegal from late Roman times, homophobic writings didn’t appear in Western Europe until the late 14th century. Even then, church-consecrated same sex unions continued to take place.

The evangelical Christian response will likely be to either question whether these were really like "marriage" or reject them as Satan-inspired evil that shows how far astray the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have gone.

Wikipedia has more on Sergius and Bacchus.