Sunday, December 31, 2006

What are you optimistic about?

That's this year's question from Daniel Dennett's answer is "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion". He claims that
Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.
He doesn't cite his source for this claim.

Two other sources for optimism on the first page of responses were (a) the decline in violence over time — notwithstanding current and recent past events — and (b) the likelihood that we will be able to support the world's population, both (i) because the rate of population growth declines (eventually to zero) with a rising standard of living and (ii) because we will learn how to make effective use of energy from the sun.

Videos of people who died and ideas that came alive in 2006 from

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fair use

US copyright law has this to say about Fair Use.
[The] fair use of a copyrighted work … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —
  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
For academic work published by a commercial publisher this poses a problem and a number of questions. It is normally not considered a violation of copyright for the author of an article to give copies to people who request them. Yet presumably it would be a violation of copyright for an author to post the article on his website.

One can imagine a range of intermediate possibilities.
  • What if the author published his vita on his website (including a citation of the article in question) and responded to email requests for copies of the article by sending them out to each requester? It's been my experience that most authors will respond to requests for copies of papers by sending them out. I do. Therefore publishing a citation to a paper is in most cases an implicit invitation to request a copy.
  • What if the author included an explicit invitation telling visitors to his or her website that if they wanted copies they should contact him or her?
  • What if the author included his or her email address in the invitation?
  • What if the author forwarded all such requests to a department secretary, who sent out the copies?
  • What if the email address for the article was a special email address that was used only for requests for this article? What if the author created a separate email address for each article? This would make it easier on the secretary.
  • What if the author's department set up a server that responded to each email request by sending out the article automatically?
  • What if the author's web page included a form that a reader could use to request any of the author's articles? What if the form was processed by the web server so that all requested articles were sent out automatically?
  • What if instead of a form there was there was a button next to the citation that requested the article? When a reader clicked the button a request was sent to the web server, which sent out the article by email. (Presumably somewhere else on the page the reader had entered his or her email address.)
  • What if the button looked like a pdf icon?
  • What if instead of sending out the article by email the web server sent it to the reader's own web browser? That would save the requester the trouble of entering his or her email address.
What all of the above have in common is the fact that the article itself is not published on the web — that is, the content is not visible on a web page. Since the actual content is not made public, there can be no copyright infringement. The only argument that infringement has taken place must focus on the copying that takes place when a request for a copy is fulfilled. Since by long-standing convention authors are permitted to supply copies of their work upon request, that activity cannot be considered infringement either.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Atheists as an oppressed minority

Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken defenders of atheism, works hard to explain his position. He doesn't always speak to the real issues that the religious struggle with. (See, for example, my posts on arguing about religion and anthropocentrism.) But I think he does attempt to deal with the issues he discusses in a thoughtful way. His latest, 10 myths—and 10 truths—about atheism, is an article in the LA Times, which he has reprinted on his own website. I think it's worth reading.

My favorite line, although one that some religious people may find offensive (tell me if you do or don't), is the following quotation from historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) of the University of Sydney, Australia. (Picture to the right.) When talking to a religious friend, Roberts once said:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
The cleverness of the preceding notwithstanding, atheism is not doing very well — especially in this country. Harris' article attempts to confront that fact.
Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims “never to doubt” the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.
Although most intellectually honest religious people don't believe that atheists are by nature intolerant, immoral, etc., it's worth watching how Harris answers these charges.

Harris is really fighting two battles. On one front he argues that religion is a danger to society and that we would be better off without it. On the other he is fighting the defensive battle against the view that atheists are morally corrupt and generally unacceptable to much of society. As Harris says,
[atheism] has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not).
I wonder how different we as a society would feel if atheism were as socially acceptable as faith.

One doesn't have to argue against religion to argue for tolerance of atheism — although Harris might claim that most religion is incompatible with tolerance of atheism. In the current atheism vs. religion debate, I'd like to see some prominent religious spokespeople argue for tolerance of atheism.

It might make more strategic sense for Harris to fight for tolerance of atheism (just as other oppressed minorities have argued for tolerance) than to focus on attacking religion. Not only would this challenge people in a more acceptable way, it would also force them to think through their own convictions. Pushing people to defend their convictions against his challenges produces defensiveness rather than self-awareness. Asking religious people to speak out in favor of tolerance is more likely to produce self-awareness on their part.

Just as people had to become personally aware of the prejudices they harbored against other oppressed groups before they could rid themselves of those prejudices, the same is true for their anti-atheism prejudices. The most important task is to create a climate in which people will examine their own beliefs with openness and honesty.

It seems to me that the struggle that will almost certainly ensure among the devout when they are confronted with the request to express tolerance for atheists will have a much more beneficial effect than any argument that Harris can mount.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A church-state cartoon?

Slate published this cartoon by Glenn McCoy.

Clearly the man objecting to the teacher's mixing church and state is drawn to look ugly. After all, why get so upset about a silly story about bells and angels?

But what if one asked the question without the overlay of excessive emotion? Should teachers really be telling students that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? I wouldn't want teachers to say that sort of thing. After all, what are students supposed to make of it? Teachers whose students are young enough to think that their teachers mean literally what they say (which is apparently the age of the child in this drawing) should be careful not to mislead their students like this.

This isn't so much about religion; it's about how one thinks about the world. Teachers are supposed to be a source of reliable knowledge. In this case the teacher is confusing his/her students by telling them something that is not intended to be taken at face value.

If the students are understood to be sophisticated enough to understand the difference between literal and figurative speech, then what are we to make of the teacher's statement? At its most innocent, it means something like "think of something nice when a bell rings." I don't see any harm in that. But I would think that a teacher has some obligation to make it clear to his/her students that his/her intent is to be understood figuratively — which in this case the teacher apparently failed to do. The father shouldn't be looking to the ACLU for help, he should be looking to the teacher education system, which failed to educate the teacher adequately.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

 Reinstatement of Pay-As-You-Go Is a Welcome Step toward Fiscal Responsibility, 12/20/06

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a generally liberal policy study group. I'm glad to see them supporting Pay-as-you-go.
House and Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to reinstate the “Pay-As-You-Go” rule early in the 110th Congress. Such a rule, which was in effect in the 1990s, helps to enforce fiscal discipline by requiring that any tax cut or increase in entitlement spending be offset by an increase in other taxes or reduction in other entitlement spending, rather than being deficit financed.

Reinstating a PAYGO rule that bars consideration of tax cuts or entitlement increases that would increase the deficit will not guarantee that the Congress and the President act in a fiscally responsible manner, but it will indicate that the leaders of the new Congress:
  • Recognize that the nation faces a serious deficit problem and that enacting legislation that would make that problem worse is not desirable;
  • Reject the notion that tax cuts are different from entitlement increases and should not have to be paid for; and
  • Accept the proposition that budgeting requires tradeoffs and that tax cuts or entitlement increases that are worth enacting are worth paying for.
The reinstatement of the PAYGO rule represents a limited, but significant, step toward a more fiscally responsible budget process. Those who recognize that the continuation of current budget policies would lead eventually to economically dangerous levels of debt, and also erode the ability of the government to meet the needs of the American public, should welcome reinstatement of the rule and hope it encourages policymakers to take further steps to deal with the long-term budget problems we face.

Copy cat

The New York Times has copied my blog — although they aren't giving me credit. Now when you read a NYTimes article, you can hold down the ALT key and click on a word to get reference information. they are using, which looks like a nice service.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Scientific realism

In my previous post on Anthropocentrism I may have left the impression that I think that our ideas are not connected to reality. That's not the case. (A simple argument against that position is that we evolved to be able to have thoughts presumably because having thoughts had survival value. It's unlikely that thoughts that aren't connected to reality have that sort of survival value.) My position is what is commonly referred to as Scientific Realism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it a follows.
Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. According to scientific realists, for example, if you obtain a good contemporary chemistry textbook you will have good reason to believe (because the scientists whose work the book reports had good scientific evidence for) the (approximate) truth of the claims it contains about the existence and properties of atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, energy levels, reaction mechanisms, etc. Moreover, you have good reason to think that such phenomena have the properties attributed to them in the textbook independently of our theoretical conceptions in chemistry. Scientific realism is thus the common sense (or common science) conception that, subject to a recognition that scientific methods are fallible and that most scientific knowledge is approximate, we are justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists "at face value."
Given that, how can I also argue that our ideas are anthropocentric? Even though I would agree that electrons, dogs, cats, stars, etc. are real entities in Nature, I would also argue that they don't come with labels attached. You won't find an electron with a little tag that says electron. You won't find a star with a tag that says star. (Some cats and dogs may have attached labels, but that's because we put them there.)

So even though our ideas refer (perhaps very accurately) to reality, they are still ideas and are part of reality only to the extent that our brains and the subjective experience that those brains give rise to are also part of reality. Our ideas themselves do not appear in any free-standing way outside of our heads and as part of reality on their own — Plato notwithstanding.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

David Pogue on Internet etiquitte

David Pogue, New York Times technology columnist (I wonder why he isn't restricted to TimesSelect), discusses the decline of online etiquitte.
Lately, an increasing number of the discussions devolve into name-calling and bickering. Someone might submit, say, this item to Digg:685 diggs.

“AWESOME astronomy poem.” (posted by MetsFan 3 days ago)
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.

Before long, the people’s feedback begins, like this:

by baddude on 12/11/06
What’s yr problem, moron. You already said it’s a star, why would you then wonder what it is. Get a clue, or a life.

by neverland2 on 12/11/06
Dugg down as inaccurate. Stars do not twinkle. It’s the shifting atmosphere that causes an apparent twinkle. Or were you stoned all through science class?

by mrobe on 12/11/06
yo neverland2–It’s a poem, idiot. Nobody’s claiming that stars twinkle. Ever heard of poetic license?Honestly, the intellectual level of you people is right up there with a gnat’s.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


P.S. Here's the original.


A discussion of the previous post on ideas raised the issue of anthrocentrism or anthropocentrism. A Google search for anthrocentric turned up this on a page of "logical fallacies" from Philosophical
anthrocentric (human-centered) fallacy — This one isn't found in standard texts, but was described by John Stuart Mill in System of Logic. Consider the example of a preacher who one day takes someone supposedly possessed of a demon, throws his hand on her forehead, and shouts, "Get out! Leave this body!" Even supposing that demons exist, one might find it curious that they understand English, obey peremptory commands, and are easily influenced by incantations and rituals. The a.f. here occurs at the presupposition level: human language, reason, instincts, and desires are assumed to be the orbit around which everything else in the universe (including the aforementioned demons) revolve.
I think that's quite right.

The nicest definition of anthropocentrism I came across is this one from a call for papers for a 2002 conference called Beyond Anthropocentrism.
Anthropocentrism … a view or doctrine that regards humankind as the central fact of the universe to which all surrounding facts have reference (OED).
Certainly the two most widely understood cases in which humanity has had to back away from our (built-in and understandable) anthropocentrism are the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The universe does not revolve around us astronomically, and we are not unrelated to the other species on earth.

Anthropocentrism is, in my view, a very understandable error. It seems to me that we can't help but be anthropocentric. Each of us necessarily sees the world from the perspective of our own existence. We have no other choice; we have to understand the universe as it relates to us and as we relate to it. As the Philosophical Society entry pointed out, anthropocentrism occurs at the presupposition level: that the human perspective is central to everything else.

And, in fact, it is. We think only because it is we who are thinking. Our existence is "the central fact of the universe to which all surrounding facts have reference" — at least to the extent that having reference is understood to mean having a meaning about which we can think. If we didn't exist, we couldn't think.

The challenge this poses for us is to become aware of how we tend naturally to include this presupposition in our thinking unless we become aware enough of it to factor it out. Our (implicit or explicit) belief that our ideas frame reality is simply another example of our failure to disengage ourselves sufficiently from our own thoughts. When we let go of that notion we will have taken another step in the de-anthropomorphising of our relationship with nature. Of course since it is our relationship with nature, it can't ever be completely de-anthropomorphised.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ideas out of the mind

It's obvious (or at least it seems obvious to me) that an idea exists only when someone is thinking it. That is, after all, what the word idea means.

Interestingly, there is no entry for idea in either the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or the Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind.

Merriam Webster's idea entry has the following under synonyms:
IDEA, CONCEPT, CONCEPTION, THOUGHT, NOTION, IMPRESSION mean what exists in the mind as a representation (as of something comprehended) or as a formulation (as of a plan). IDEA may apply to a mental image or formulation of something seen or known or imagined, to a pure abstraction, or to something assumed or vaguely sensed .
Wordnet defines idea as
thought (the content of cognition; the main thing you are thinking about)
(It defines thought the same way.) It defines cognition as
knowledge, noesis (the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning)
To sum it all up: an idea is a subjective experience.

This doesn't mean that our ideas are not useful for looking at and understanding the world. (Understanding is also a subjective experience.) After all, we evolved to be able to think presumably because thinking is useful. But that still doesn't mean that our subjective experience is anything more than that, a subjective experience — no matter how well our subjective experience matches reality.

All this was brought to mind because I was listening to a discussion of the recent decision by Conservative Judiasm to allow gay rabbis — but to (continue to) condemn male anal sex. During the discussion the issue arose whether same-sex sexual relationships violated halacha, Jewish law as spelled out in the Torah.

So here (finally) is the point. A law is an idea. The meaning of a law exists only when someone is thinking it. Surely we can write down what we are thinking in the hope that when we (or someone else) reads it, "the same idea" will be evoked in that mind. But the written version of a law (or of any idea) is not an idea. It is just scratch marks on paper — or bits in a computer, or some other means of recording something. The idea itself exists only when it is being experienced in someone's mind.

The notion that there is such a thing as Halacha is based on the idea that God created these laws — that God also has ideas. This may not seem surprising. Most religious people are comfortable speaking as if God has a mind. "God knows this." "God wants that." God loves you." Etc. What suddenly struck me about this sort of talk was how audacious it is. By allowing ourselves to speak of a presumably non-human entity as having a mind, like ours, that has ideas, we elevate the status of our own ideas to something that exists outside of our own minds. That's quite a promotion: from subjective experience to real entity.

This is truly extraordinary. Certainly we all like to think that our ideas matter — and even more that in some sense that our ideas are real. As a philosophical position, this can be traced to Plato. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, that
the world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world.
It's hard for me to believe that there are any current adherents to this notion, i.e., that there is in any literal sense
a more real and perfect realm, populated by [eternal] entities (called “forms” or “ideas”).
But that's what Plato's position along with religion do for those who adopt them. They allow their adherents to suppose that the ideas that they experience are not just subjective experience but in some sense reality — even a higher level of reality since in both cases the realm in which ideas are presumed to exist is granted exalted status.

What's even more interesting about this perspective is that it isn't made to seem self-serving. Those who hold these positions claim that they are simply describing the nature of reality: there is a God who has ideas, or ideas exist in some more real and perfect realm and they live there forever. But in fact, it is quite self-serving. It is a way (and I suspect that this "philosophical move" was taken unconsciously) to claim that ideas trump reality — and (conveniently) that it is most likely the ideas of the people who are saying these things that are the right ones to use to trump reality.

My position is that ideas are wonderful. I spend most of my life playing with ideas. I enjoy it a lot. This blog entry is a typical example. But an idea is just an idea, and it exists only in the mind of the thinker. As Blue says about our species:
Humans: smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Perfect freedom, peace, tranquility, and happiness?

I sometimes quote from Tricycle's Daily Dharma. Realism is fine, but perfect freedom, peace, tranquility, and happiness? That seems to be promising a bit more than realism is likely to deliver.
Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things objectively. It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool's paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.
— Walpola Rahula

Arguing about religion

Nicholas Kristof is a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian — I'm not sure which. Yet his columns tend to be quite open and liberal; he has been consistently critical of Bush. Recently he published a column with the teaser: "We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance." (Kristof is a columnist for the NY Times and publishes behind the Times Select firewall.)

Apparently Kristof was responding to the increasing criticism of religion by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (see the Beyondbelief2006 website) and pleading for tolerance.

Harris and Dawkins responded to Kristof's column with letters to the Times. Here is Dawkins' letter.
Nicholas D. Kristof is one of many commentators to find the tone of the newly resurgent atheism “obnoxious” or “mean.”

Ubiquitous as they are, such epithets are not borne out by an objective reading of the works he cites: Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” my own “God Delusion” and (I had not been aware of this splendid Web site; thank you, Mr. Kristof).

I have scanned all three atheist sources carefully for polemic, and my honest judgment is that they are gentle by the standards of normal political commentary, say, or the standards of theater and arts critics.

Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion. Ears calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious. Without wishing to offend, I want “The God Delusion” to raise our consciousness of this weird double standard.

How did religion acquire its extraordinary immunity against normal levels of criticism?
It seems to me that Dawkins and Kristof are deliberately not talking to each other. In my opinion, Dawkins is right that religion is wrong when it makes claims about the physical world. He is right in criticising those claims. And he is right that for the most part the criticisms of those claims are stated in relatively moderate tones. It's so easy to make the case that religion is wrong about the physical world it can be made in very moderate tones. These are very easy points to score.

Kristof is right that most religious people are not religious because of the claims religion makes about the physical world. They are religious because they value the perspective religion provides on subjective experience and on questions related to subjective experience such as "What is a good life?" and "How can I come to terms with death?". Kristof is right that a failure to respect how people deal with such personal and fundamental questions can seem intolerant no matter how gently that lack of respect is expressed.

This entire controversy could be settled if religion would forswear making claims about physical reality and if the critics of religion would recognize that the value religion has for most people has little to do with those claims — even if many defenders of religion don't realize this. But both sides seem to be too stubborn for something so simple.

World chess champion loses to computer

From the Associated Press
World chess champion Vladimir Kramnik lost his final game in a match against computer program Deep Fritz, a commercially available chess program that runs on a powerful personal computer, … ceding a hard-fought Man vs. Machine series 4-2.

Kramnik, seeking a final win to level the match, played an unbalanced opening with Black. He built up a good position and equalized. But he then went astray, losing a pawn from which he never recovered.
And he is so young to be made obsolete by a commercially available chess program!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

We are now losing out to China in food!

From the New York Times
Other specialty crop groups [besides garlic, discussed earlier in the article] are also struggling with foreign competition, in particular from China, which has geared its agriculture industry towards labor-intensive, higher-value fruits and vegetables. China has begun to dominate everything from apples to onions. Chinese exports have also eaten into American growers’ share of markets in Japan and Hong Kong for items like broccoli and lettuce.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sony's Dancing Robots

This is extraordinary.

I've never seen robots move in such a life-like way.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Will American justice have the courage to do justice?

Click here for the video. From an email message by Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU.
[Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen] was forcibly abducted in Macedonia while on vacation, handed over to the CIA and flown to a secret interrogation center in Afghanistan where he was beaten, drugged and repeatedly denied legal counsel. After two months, CIA operatives informed director George Tenet that they were holding an innocent man. But it still took two more months before he was released -- flown in secret to Albania and left alone on a hillside in the middle of the night.

People need to hear his story, and the agencies and private companies responsible must face real justice for their violations of U.S. laws as well as universal human rights laws.
In a legal maneuver that is now familiar, the government is trying to use the veil of secrecy to avoid accountability for its actions. But yesterday, we argued that the government's official recognition of the program and information already available about this case show that the lawsuit does not jeopardize national security and must be allowed to continue.

Our government would rather you didn’t hear his story. The last time Mr. El-Masri tried to come to the U.S. -- to hear his own court case -- he was denied entry because he did not have a visa, even though German citizens don’t actually need visas to enter the U.S. This week, Mr. El-Masri witnessed his court proceedings and will also be meeting in person with members of Congress to share his story. As he told the Washington Post today, “I never thought badly of the United States. I do think badly of the foreign policy aspects and the sitting government.”

More Beyond Belief

Scott Atran, a particpant in the recent Beyond Belief conference (see posting immediately below), writes the following.
The main underlying current of thought at the Salk Institute's recent conference on 'Beyond Belief' was that until now science and reason have too passively surrendered or compromised to religion and unreason, which are wily and ruthless street-fighters. Think of … Socrates meekly swallowing his poison for telling the truth, Galileo abjectly renouncing his own seminal discoveries, or Pakistan's greatest scientist, physics Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, professed over and over again his undying love for the Holy Qur'an to a government that condemned him as a heretic, and which today even more than before treats Darwin's teachings as if they were criminal.

Now, according to Salam's colleague and co-Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, scientists must rise up to the challenge of liberating humanity from 'the long nightmare of religion.' Biologist Richard Dawkins tells us that we need to 'come out of the closet' and form a political lobby of committed atheists and scientists to do public battle with religion and other forms of 'rubbish' that tyrannize the mind. For neuropsychology student Sam Harris, technological advances in the ability to terrorize and wage war require an uncompromising and unrelenting intellectual struggle to destroy religion — especially, but not exclusively, Islam — and banish unreason beyond the pale of civilization.

I find it it fascinating that among the brilliant scientists and philosophers at the conference, there was no convincing evidence presented that they know how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based. It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and atheist. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that scientists have a keener or deeper appreciation than religious people of how to deal with personal or moral problems. Some scientists have some good and helpful insights into human beings' existential problems some of the time, but some good scientists have done more to harm others than most people are remotely capable of.
The rest of this piece along with a response by Sam Harris is at The Reality Club: BEYOND BELIEF.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Science speaks up

From the New York Times
Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for “progress in spiritual discoveries” to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book “The God Delusion” is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told. [emphasis added] …

There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of “anti-Templeton”), the La Jolla meeting, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all. (Unedited video of the proceedings will be posted on the Web at
The videos are now available at Beyond Belief.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A political interest group for every interest

From InformationWeek
Online gamblers miffed at recent federal legislation that seeks to block Internet gambling were cheering after Representative Jim Leach, R-Iowa, the sponsor of the anti-gaming legislation, was defeated in this week's election.

'A victory for Internet gambling as Jim Leach gets voted out,' crowed Gambling911, a pro-gambling Web site, for instance.

Leach had served for 30 years as a congressman from Iowa. He was narrowly defeated by Dave Loebsack, the Democratic Party challenger. Leach was the sponsor of HR 4411, the bill that stops U.S. banks and credit card companies from accepting payments for online gambling.

'A lot of poker fans were lobbying against Leach,' said former New Jersey gaming regulator Frank Catania. 'Poker players have been organizing. They could eventually be a (lobbying) group like the Sierra Club.'

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Case Against Faith

In the current issue of Newsweek, Sam Harris makes the case that faith is dangerous. Here's his concluding paragraph.
Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs. [Emphasis added.] And yet these beliefs regularly determine what they live for, what they will die for and—all too often—what they will kill for. Consequently, we are living in a world in which millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairy tales. We are living in a world in which millions of Muslims believe that there is nothing better than to be killed in defense of Islam. We are living in a world in which millions of Christians hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history. In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

CFA's "public witness" website

The California Faculty Association (CFA) recently launched an investigative web site, CSI:CSU that will provide students, parents, staff, faculty, and even those within the Administration with a forum to communicate publicly or anonymously about the problems they see with the leadership of the California State University system.

The web site is a take off on the CBS hit series “CSI,” as the CFA believes that the California State University administration is abusing taxpayer dollars and corrupting higher education in California. Numerous media reports over the last several months have exposed that the CSU administration has been handing out millions of dollars in golden parachute deals to former executives and that the Board of Trustees is making critical budget decisions based on politics instead of on what is best for the students of the CSU system.

Students and faculty are especially outraged that behind closed doors, the Board approved the hiring of Barry Munitz, the former CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust who was forced to resign from the non-profit after he misused the non-profit’s funds. He is being paid $163,776 - almost double the typical salary of $85,000 for a Cal State professor with 25 years of teaching experience.

The new web site features a “public witness blog” where bloggers can post their thoughts about the administration’s betrayal of trust and a tips hotline for users that want to submit anonymous tips via email or telephone. The investigative team, led by the faculty, staff, and students, will look into each lead as they look to hold the CSU administration accountable for their actions.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Trading freedom for security

We all know that Benjamin Franklyn is credited with saying,
People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.
But who said this?
There's only an up or down -- [up] man's old -- old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
This is from a 1964 speech, "A Time for Choosing." Click here to see whose speech it was.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Another reason disallowing gay marriage is foolish.

In "The GOP's Bad Bet," I quoted from a column by conservative writer Charles Murray, who wrote that "society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid." This applies especially to so-called moral laws, such as the law that prevents gays from participating in the legal status of marriage. A significant number of reasonable, responsible citizens think that such a law is stupid. This reduces the general respect for the law among all citizens. As Murray said, "law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support." It is harmed when laws are passed simply to satisfy the parochial inclinations of some of a country's citizens.

It is illegal to whistle for a lost canary before 7:00 A.M.

I just came across this website of "wacky laws." Here's the page on California. No citations were given.
  • It is against the law for women to drive while wearing a bathrobe.
  • It is against the law for animals to mate publicly within 1,500 feet of a tavern, school, or place of worship.
  • Apple Valley - it is illegal for ducks to quack after 10:00 PM within the city limits.
  • Bellflower - the law states that 'a drunken man has as much right to a sidewalk as a sober man since he needs it a great deal more.'
  • Bonsall - it is against the law to read the Sunday paper while sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch while church services are in session.
  • Berkeley - it is illegal to whistle for a lost canary before 7:00 A.M.
  • Beverly Hills - the law states that 'no male person shall make remarks to or concerning, or cough or whistle at, or do any other act to attract the attention of any woman upon or traveling along any of the sidewalks.'
  • Buena Park - the law prohibits males from 'turning and looking at a woman in that way' on the Sabbath. If a second offense occurs, the assailant is required to 'wear horse blinders for a 24-hour period in public.'
  • Camirillo - it is illegal for any man to purchase liquor without the written consent of his wife.
  • Carmel - it is against the law to eat ice cream while standing on the sidewalk.
  • Castaic - the law states that if a dentist accidentally pulls the wrong tooth, then the patient has the right to pull one of the dentist's teeth.
  • Compton - it is against the law to have hip pockets in pants "since that is a good place to hide liquor."
  • Costa Mesa - it is illegal to enter a movie theatre within four hours of eating garlic.
  • Covina - according to this local law, a husband is not guilty of desertion if his wife rents his room to a boarder and "crowds him out of his house."
  • El Monte - it is against the law for a horse to fall asleep in a bathtub unless the rider is sleeping with the horse.
  • Gardena - it is illegal for any woman to chew tobacco without having the permission of her husband.
  • Glendale - the law allows horror films to be shown only on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.
  • Hesperia - the law states that "no one is allowed to duel if the opponent selects water pistols as weapons."
  • Inglewood - it is unlawful "for any male person, within the corporate limits of the city of Inglewood, to wink at any female person with whom he is unacquainted."
  • Long Beach - any female attending a dance "must be found wearing a corset. A physician is required to inspect each female at the dance."
  • Los Angeles - it is against the law to bathe two babies in the same bathtub at the same time.
  • Los Angeles - a man can legally beat his wife with a leather belt or strap, as long as the strap is no wider than 2 inches. The wife must give her consent in order for him to legally beat her with a wider strap.
  • Los Angeles - it is illegal for the customer of a meat market to poke turkey to see how tender it is.
  • Malibu - it is against the law to laugh out loud in a movie theatre.
  • Monrovia - the law states that in order to get married, a man must "prove his manhood" by shooting six blackbirds or three crows and bringing them to his prospective father-in-law.
  • Ojai - it is against the law for a woman to stand within five feet of a bar when she takes a drink in any public establishment serving alcoholic beverages.
  • Ontario - rooster crowing is outlawed within the city limits.
  • Pacific Grove - bothering the butterflies carries a $500 fine.
  • Pico River - it is against the law for women weighing over 200 pounds that are attired in shorts to ride a horse.
  • Pomona - the law states that "no person shall hallo, shout, bawl, scream, use profane language, dance, sing, whoop, quarrel, or make any unusual noise or sound in any house in such a manner as to disturb the peace and quiet of the neighborhood."
  • Prunedale - it is illegal to have two indoor bathtubs in your house.
  • Rosemead - it is against the law to eat ice cream in public with a fork.
  • Riverside - it is illegal to carry a lunchbucket on the street.
  • Riverside - it is illegal to stick your tongue out "in the direction of" a dog.
  • San Francisco - there is a law that guarantees sunshine for the people.
  • Santa Ana - it is illegal to swim on dry land.
  • Santa Ana - it is against the law for a horse to sleep in a bakery.
  • Santa Monica - the law states that "any person who shall in the city of Santa Monica use or carry a concealed or unconcealed any bean snapper or like article, shall, upon conviction, be fined."
  • Temecula - it is illegal to play cards with children or pregnant women on the curb of a street.
  • Upland - it is unlawful for the owner or keeper of horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs to "run at large."
  • Ventura - it is illegal to make "ugly faces" at dogs that are found "freely roaming the community".
  • Victorville - it is against the law to shoot open canned goods with a revolver.
  • Whittier - the law states "two vehicles which are passing each other in opposite directions shall have the right of way."
  • In some small community, a law was passed that forbid anyone from trying to stop a child from playfully jumping over water puddles.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Which diploma mill paid off Schwarzenegger?

Assembly Bill 2069 (Maze) from this past legislative year would have provided that
if a requirement for a position with a public agency … is the possession of a particular degree, then that degree must be from an accredited or approved institution.
The bill passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. Bill Maze, the bill's sponsor (and a Republican), bragged about it on his website. Yet Schwarzenegger vetoed it!

Which diploma mill paid him off? Or is Schwarzenegger just adopting the traditional strategy of bullies and demagogues that the less well educated the population, the easier it is to fool them. Is this the man we want for governor?

For the legislative history of the bill go to Bill Information and search for 2069.

Schwarzenegger's argument, by the way, was that the state should not be setting standards of honest dealing for local public agencies. He apparently believes that if a local public agency says it requires a degree for a particular job but accepts a diploma mill degree, the state should close its eyes and ignore it. I wonder what responsibility Schwarzenegger thinks the state has with respect to how local public agencies act.
  • If a local public agency requires an MD for a particular job, shouldn't the state insist that it hire someone with a real MD? Are our lives and our health so unimportant that a phony MD is just fine for government work?

  • If a local public agency requires an accounting degree for a particular job, shouldn't the state insist that it hire someone with a real accounting degree? Is public money so unimportant that a phony accounting degree is just fine for government work?

  • If a local public agency requires a civil engineering degree for a particular job, shouldn't the state insist that it hire someone with a real civil engineering degree? Is public safety so unimportant that a phony civil engineering degree is just fine for government work?
On the other hand, if a local public agency doesn't require a real degree for a job, then it shouldn't say it does. We should be able to expect a basic level of honesty and integrity in how our public agencies operate. But then Schwarzenegger's record with respect to honesty and integrity is not all that strong. It's probably foolish to expect him to require a fundamental level of intellectual honesty in public agencies when he doesn't behave that way himself.

Still, one has to wonder about his motivation. This was a bill that was approved unanimously. Every Republican and every Democrat voted for it. This was not a controversial issue. And even if Schwarzenegger doesn't understand the importance of intellectual honesty in public life, I doubt that he vetoed the bill simply as a way of thumbing his nose at that principle. I suspect there was a payoff somewhere. I wonder where.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

FuturePhone and the 712 Area Code

Alec Saunders explains how FuturePhone makes money.
Ever wonder why it is that FuturePhone, Radio Handi, FreeConferenceCall, and PartyLine Connect all have access numbers in the 712 area code? These services all provide “free” services to you. There’s “no catch”. You just have to make a long distance call to get them.

So how do these services get paid, and why are the access numbers all in Iowa?
The short answer is tax subsidies. The 712 model, as I refer to it, is really a variation on the 900 number model, but financed by taxpayers. Take a low cost call, terminate on a high cost carrier, and pocket the difference. …

Most Iowa telephone companies (and there are a lot!) participate in the NECA Access Fee Pool [about 3 cents/minute]. [To make an international call using FuturePhone, all] you have to do is call 712 858 8883 (a number provided by the tiny Superior Telephone Coop in Estherville, Iowa), and then enter the international call you want to make using the standard 011 prefix. …

So how [does FuturePhone] make money? Since we don’t know know what FuturePhone’s actual termination costs are, let’s make an estimate. We do know that Jajah provides services to the same 50 odd countries for a retail rate of 2.5 cents per minute. So, let’s assume a 50% cost, and say that FuturePhone’s cost to terminate the call is 1.25 cents. That leaves 1.75 cents per minute to split with the folks at Superior Telephone Coop. Give them half, which leaves you 0.875 cents per minute, and you’ve got a pretty attractive proposition! It’s certainly a lot more profitable than SipPhone, charging 1 cent per minute, and probably about as profitable as Skype at 2 cents per minute. It’ll definitely keep bread on the table.

The G.O.P.’s Bad Bet

In an article criticizing the recent law attempting to ban Internet gambling, Charles Murray of the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute writes
If a free society is to work, the vast majority of citizens must reflexively obey the law not because they fear punishment, but because they accept that the rule of law makes society possible. That reflexive law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support, even though people may disagree on means.

Thus society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong.
George Will, the conservative Newsweek columnist, had similar thoughts this week — although he found a way to blame the Democrats.

Will Republican extremism finally boomerang on itself?

From the Washington Post
Paul Morrison, a career prosecutor who specializes in putting killers behind bars, has the bulletproof résumé and the rugged looks of a law-and-order Republican, which is what he was until last year. That was when he announced he would run for attorney general -- as a Democrat.

He is now running neck-and-neck with Republican Phill Kline, an iconic social conservative who made headlines by seeking the names of abortion-clinic patients and vowing to defend science-teaching standards that challenge Darwinian evolution. What's more, Morrison is raising money faster than Kline and pulling more cash from Republicans than Democrats.

Nor is Morrison alone. In a state that voted nearly 2 to 1 for President Bush in 2004, nine former Republicans will be on the November ballot as Democrats. Among them is Mark Parkinson, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, who changed parties to run for lieutenant governor with the popular Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius.

"I'd reached a breaking point," Parkinson said, preparing for a rally in Wichita alongside Sebelius. "I want to work on relevant issues and not on a lot of things that don't matter." …

"So what in the world has happened?" [Johnson County Sun] publisher Steve Rose asked in a recent column. "The Republican Party has changed, and it has changed monumentally. You almost cannot be a victorious traditional Republican candidate with mainstream values in Johnson County or in Kansas anymore."

Bush's Petro-Cartel Almost Has Iraq's Oil

Two long articles about Iraq and oil from AlterNet.
Iraq is sitting on a mother lode of some of the lightest, sweetest, most profitable crude oil on earth, and the rules that will determine who will control it and on what terms are about to be set. …

Iraq's energy reserves are an incredibly rich prize. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "Iraq contains 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the second largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia), along with roughly 220 billion barrels of probable and possible resources. Iraq's true potential may be far greater than this, however, as the country is relatively unexplored due to years of war and sanctions." For perspective, the Saudis have 260 billion barrels of proven reserves.

Iraqi oil is close to the surface and easy to extract, making it all the more profitable. James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, points out that oil companies "can produce a barrel of Iraqi oil for less than $1.50 and possibly as little as $1, including all exploration, oilfield development and production costs." Contrast that with other areas where oil is considered cheap to produce at $5 per barrel or the North Sea, where production costs are $12-16 per barrel.

But the real gem -- what one oil consultant called the "Holy Grail" of the industry -- lies in Iraq's vast western desert. It's one of the last "virgin" fields on the planet, and it has the potential to catapult Iraq to No. 1 in the world in oil reserves. Sparsely populated, the western fields are less prone to sabotage than the country's current centers of production in the north, near Kirkuk, and in the south near Basra. The Nation's Aram Roston predicts Iraq's western desert will yield "untold riches."

Iraq also may have large natural gas deposits that so far remain virtually unexplored.

But even "untold riches" don't tell the whole story. Depending on how Iraq's petroleum law shakes out, the country's enormous reserves could break the back of OPEC, a wet dream in Western capitals for three decades. James Paul predicted that "even before Iraq had reached its full production potential of 8 million barrels or more per day, the companies would gain huge leverage over the international oil system. OPEC would be weakened by the withdrawal of one of its key producers from the OPEC quota system." Depending on how things shape up in the next few months, Western oil companies could end up controlling the country's output levels, or the government, heavily influenced by the United States, could even pull out of the cartel entirely.

Both independent analysts and officials within Iraq's Oil Ministry anticipate that when all is said and done, the big winners in Iraq will be the Big Four -- the American firms Exxon-Mobile and Chevron, the British BP-Amoco and Royal Dutch-Shell -- that dominate the world oil market. Ibrahim Mohammed, an industry consultant with close contacts in the Iraqi Oil Ministry, told the Associated Press that there's a universal belief among ministry staff that the major U.S. companies will win the lion's share of contracts. "The feeling is that the new government is going to be influenced by the United States," he said.

The articles make the case (which was made before) that the real reason we are in Iraq is for its oil. Although oil probably doesn't justify the war, the article does raise the issue of what is going to happen to those resources — and whether we care.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Free calls

once you connect to Iowa. Future Phone. David Pogue has an article about this.

It seems so much more real when it's about a single person

I just got this email from one of the people supporting Radio Almahaba. Of course this sort of thing happens every day in Baghdad. Even though the victim is someone I don't know, it seems that much more real because the attack affected someone else enough to write about it.

Hi, everyone! I am sorry to send you this terrible news, but the security guard for Radio Almahaba was kidnapped and harmed on Monday. Fortunately, he was released and his life is not in danger despite serious injuries, but he was released with a death threat as you see below in the email received from the RA station manager.

One of our supporter suggested that if we could all send emails of get-well wishes to Mr. J and support for Radio Almahaba, it may be most appreciated by these people who are literally risking their lives going to work everyday to help the people in Iraq. Please address your email to

Also, there was an attack on a TV station our time last night and 11 staff members there were killed, and this was the second attacks with fatal consequences on Iraqi TV stations in a short time.

We would appreciate your emails of support to our injured security guard and dedicated and brave RA staff members.

Thank you for your support!

Akiko Y Swabb

Acting Executive Director

Opportunities for Kids International

(during Ms. Bowers’ leave of absence)

Yestarday morning and as he was going to his place of work in our radio station Mr. J (the daytime guard in our station and in addition to his original work he is the resposible on the receptions and taking care about the electrical generator ), he subjected to kidnapping process by armed people driving two black OPELS and he subjected to hard beating from them by their hands, legs and steel sticks that cause fracture of his right leg with sever injuries in different parts of his body in a way that he couldn't talk with us in the cellular phone after they relaese him in one of the streets of Al Sadr city where he was kidnapped, so temperarily he moved to live with one of his relatives whom one member of the BOD of our station that he asked us to give him 10 days vacation and I think it's one of his legal right in such situation, I agree personally on the vacation, but I want just to tell you about it, although the real motives and reasons not clear till know, also the kidnappers who they are members of known sectarian militia took the SEM card of his cellular phone, and they told him that this is just warning and if he stay in his job so they will kill him.

As we can release the danegerousness of the security situation that the whole country live now we want to ensure you that this accident and anything like it will not bend our determination the stuff of the station from being continue the work and creation.



Sunday, October 08, 2006

God's Test

It's worth reading: God's Test.

Guantánamo defense lawyer forced out of Navy

From The Seattle Times
The Navy lawyer who took the Guantánamo case of Osama bin Laden's driver to the U.S. Supreme Court — and won — has been passed over for promotion by the Pentagon and must soon leave the military.

Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, 44, said last week he received word he had been denied a promotion to full-blown commander this summer, "about two weeks after" the Supreme Court sided against the White House and with his client, a Yemeni captive at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Under the military's "up-or-out" promotion system, Swift will retire in March or April, closing a 20-year career of military service. …

In the opinion of Washington, D.C., attorney Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, Swift was "a no-brainer for promotion," given his devotion to the Navy, the law and his client.

But, he said, Swift is part of a long line of Navy defense lawyers "of tremendous distinction" who were not made full commander and "had their careers terminated prematurely."

"He brought real credit to the Navy," said Fidell. "It's too bad that it's unrequited love."

Swift's supervisor, the Pentagon's chief defense counsel for Military Commissions, said the career Navy officer had served with distinction.

"Charlie has obviously done an exceptional job, a really extraordinary job," said Marine Col. Dwight Sullivan, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, calling it "quite a coincidence" that the Navy promotion board passed on promoting Swift "within two weeks of the Supreme Court opinion."

In June, the prestigious National Law Journal listed Swift among the nation's top 100 lawyers, with such legal luminaries as former Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson, 66; Stanford Law constitutional-law expert Kathleen Sullivan, 50; and former Bush campaign recount attorney Fred Bartlit, 73.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A good way to support peace in Iraq

I just got this email from Radio Almahaba
Dear Supporters of Radio Almahaba (Voice of Iraqi Women):

Finally we can announce the several miracles which have come to Radio Almahaba, because today they have been made public through a press release and a pubic announcement from the Satellite Sisters.

In June I was contacted by Harris Corporation with an offer to build and donate a 5kw transmitter for Radio Almahaba to replace the one they lost almost a year ago by terrorists’ bombing. After RA lost their transmitter, they rented an old transmitter, but due to the dramatic shrinkage in the broadcasting area, they lost all advertisers and the revenue from them. So the salary of the staff was cut to half and they have been surviving with the income given from some of their founders themselves and donations from the people in this country and other countries.

The first miracle came because Ms. D. McAdams, the managing editor of TV Technology magazine, heard an April NPR interview of Ms. Bushra Jamil, the spokeswoman of Radio Almahaba. Ms. McAdams was very moved listening about this independent secular radio station in Iraq which was not only informing and educating the women and their families in Iraq, but also was providing talk shows through which people could share their views and experiences with other people. So Ms. McAdams appealed to the industry she worked in and Mr. E. Klein relayed the appeal to Harris Corporation.

Harris Corporation not only built the transmitter for Radio Almahaba, they air shipped it to Baghdad. Ms. McAdams again helped by contacting her dear friend in Iraq and made a special arrangement for its safe delivery to the station about a month ago. Since the arrival of this miracle transmitter, RA management has been comparison shopping for necessary auxiliary parts despite the difficult security situation and sky-rocketing prices.

Today, they finally got the needed parts and brought them back safely to the station, but with a nerve racking and yet funny incident. On the way back to the station, the manager was stopped by police at a check point. They wanted to confiscate all the equipment on the truck. Luckily, someone intervened and the manager was allowed to leave with all the just bought equipment. When the manager was leaving, he realized that the policemen were listening to Radio Almahaba! So he told them to call the radio station to gain benefit from their program! They hope to start broadcasting using this new state of the art transmitter later this week.

The second miracle came in a form of a big fund raising effort by the syndicated radio talk show in this country, the Satellite Sisters. They interviewed Bushra while she was visiting us this April and they announced their $100,000 campaign for Radio Almahaba on the day they received the National Gracie Award in NYC in June. Since then this campaign has raised over $30,000 cash plus $10,000 pledge and the campaign is still continuing. They have received donation not only from this country but from Europe and Japan.

The third miracle came from University of Illinois Department of Journalism. Their Academic Programs Coordinator, Professor L Holley offered to help Radio Almahaba. She and her friends donated a laptop computer as well as five digital audio recorders. Now she has invited Bushra to come to Chicago on November 1st for an interview with WGN and possibly some other media stations, and then to U of I for a panel discussion and reception.

So despite the suicide bombing occurring just outside their building last month, losing their two former colleagues just recently by bombing at a market, the brave and dedicated staff members of this courageous first women’s radio station for Iraqi women and families even go to work on foot despite the curfew. They do so because they know that

the majority of the Iraqi people want to have peace and true democracy, freedom and justice based on human rights for everyone regardless of religion and beliefs. They do so also because they know that there are those in far away countries, from the USA, UK,. Europe, Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan who are supporting them and praying for their success.

Could you please help spread the news of these miracles to your friends? In the face on the daily atrocities and tragedies, Radio Almahaba will be heard again by many people in Iraq. Soon no one in the area has to risk their lives by going up to their roof to string a wire to catch the station’s broadcast signal!

On behalf of Radio Almahaba, I would like to thank from bottom of our hearts each one of you for your support for Radio Almahaba, for the Iraqi women and their families. In fact, as you read above, even Iraqi policemen are listening to Radio Almahaba which also receives calls daily from many women and men, young and old. Please continue to keep them in your prayers and positive thoughts. Each one of the RA staff members read your name and is encouraged by your support. I am attaching a photo of some of the RA staff members at their station.

With deepest gratitude,

Akiko Y. Swabb

Schwarzenegger vetos plan to reform electoral college system

Schwarzenegger is still a Republican. I thought he had reformed himself.

From the New York Times
Saying it ran “counter to the tradition of our great nation,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have automatically allocated all the state’s 55 electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate received the national popular vote.

The bill, which passed the state’s Legislature this summer, was devised by John R. Koza, a computer scientist who envisioned a system in which a series of states holding the number of electoral votes needed to elect a president — 270 — would commit their electors to casting ballots for the winner of the popular vote, regardless of how their individual electorates voted.

Mr. Koza said the goal was to force presidential candidates to campaign nationwide, rather than concentrating on a small number of battleground states — like Ohio or Florida — that have a lot of electors. California, while having more electors and voters than any other state, is considered reliably Democratic, and thus not often a part of the presidential campaign.

Thomas J. Umberg, the bill’s sponsor in the California Assembly, said that he was disappointed by the governor’s decision “to maintain the status quo” and that he would consider taking the proposition to a ballot measure.
See previous post.

Man Sues Secret Service Agent Over Arrest After Approaching Cheney and Denouncing War

From the New York Times

Steven Howards, right, of Colorado with his lawyer, David A. Lane.
[Steven] Howards, 54, said at a news conference [in Denver] that he was taking his 8-year-old son to a piano lesson on June 16 at the Beaver Creek Resort about two hours west of Denver when he saw Mr. Cheney at an outdoor mall. Mr. Howards said he approached within two feet of Mr. Cheney and said in a calm voice, “I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible,” or as the lawsuit itself describes the encounter, “words to that effect.”

Mr. Howards said he then went on his way. About 10 minutes later, he said, he was walking back through the area when [Secret Service agent Virgil D. Reichle Jr.] handcuffed him and said he would be charged with assaulting the vice president. Local police officers, acting on information from the Secret Service, according to the suit, ultimately filed misdemeanor harassment charges that could have resulted in up to a year in jail.

A June 16 article in The Vail Daily quoted a spokesman for the Secret Service, Eric Zahren, as saying that Mr. Howards “wasn’t acting like other folks in the area,” and that he became “argumentative and combative” when agents tried to question him. Mr. Howards said Tuesday that he was never threatening and did not become upset until his arrest.

“This was not about anything I did — this is about what I said,” he said.

Mr. Zahren declined to comment on the suit or on his original description of the event.

Mr. Howards said he was released on $500 bond after about three hours in jail. A state judge dismissed the charge about three weeks later at the request of the Eagle County district attorney, Mark Hurlbert.

“It was our understanding that the vice president did not want to prosecute,” Mr. Hurlbert said in a telephone interview. “The original indication was that he had pushed the vice president. Later it looked to be that he had just spoken to him.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why is open source so fast?

Premkumar Devanbu … of UC Davis has gotten a $750,000 grant to tackle one of computing's great mysteries — why does open source development go so fast? He … told reporters that while most projects move at the pace of the slowest team member, open source projects proceed at the pace of the fastest one and that, when more people are added, things move even faster.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What we care about

My friend Bob Weber points out that Newsweek's world-regional covers illustrate what we care about.

Subtle restraint of trade

Jakob Nielsen made this comment in the email message accompanying his Alertbox for September 25.
One of the main reasons Baidu is winning search share in China over Google, Yahoo, and MSN is that users complain that the foreign search engines are too slow. Of course, it's well-known that download times is a key factor in usability and that users prefer fast sites. What's less well-known is that the reason for the slow performance of the GYM sites is that the Chinese government has artificially reduced the speed of accessing sites outside China.

China should be reported to the WTO for restraint of trade for delaying foreign websites' download times.

I strongly doubt that the State Department has anybody at the policy level who understands usability, so most likely nothing will happen.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

An end-run around the electoral college

The New York Times reports that
a bill approved by the California legislature that would allocate the state’s 55 electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote sits on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.
I had heard of this before, but I didn't know that it was John Koza, inventor of genetic programming, who came up with the idea. The plan is that if states with enough votes to form a majority in the electoral college agree, they would all cast their votes for the popular winner — independent of how that candidate did in the individual states. I think it's a great idea.

Perhaps even more forceful would be for coalition of states with a majority of electors to agree to cast their votes for candidates who won the overall popular vote in just those states. That would encourage the other states to join the coalition.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dualism defended

The New York Times reports:
They meet every year, the eminent German professor and his old doctoral students, for a weekend of high-minded talk on a chosen topic. For years it was nothing more than that.

But now the professor, once called Joseph Ratzinger, has become Pope Benedict XVI. And this year, for three days beginning Friday, the topic on the table is evolution, an issue perched on the ever more contentious front between science and belief.
This apparently is a serious discussion of evolution — and Ratzinger is a sophisticated thinker. His problem, as expressed by Rev. Joseph Fessio, an American priest and former student of the pope’s is the following.
[T]he pope, based on his statements and writings, remains deeply concerned specifically about the contention among some supporters of modern evolution that the theory refutes any role of God in creation.

“Given this ideology, the temptation or danger is real to say that you don’t have any need of God [emphasis added], that the spirit doesn’t exist,” said Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, an Italian priest and paleoanthropologist. “And the church should keep guard against this and denounce it.”
It's fine with me for Pope Benedict to be concerned about and want to defend the need for God. Need is a subjective experience. He may very well need the idea of God, no matter what evolution says — and he may think everyone else needs God also.

The problem arises when the church fails to distinguish between statements about the physical world and statements about subjective experience. The church gets into trouble whenever it espouses a view about the material world as a consequence of religious doctrine. That is simply not supportable. Science is the road to knowledge about the material world. What we still don't understand, though, is subjective experience and the meanings and values we associate with it. That's where the church can play a useful role. Ratzinger seems to know that.
In his book “Truth and Tolerance” (Ignatius Press, 2004), written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote of what he called an effort to turn evolution into a “universal philosophy” that explained all of life.

“This evolutionary ethic that inevitably takes as its key concept the model of selectivity, that is, the struggle for survival, the victory of the fittest, successful adaptation, has little comfort to offer,” he wrote. “Even when people try to make it more attractive in various ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic.”
This concern has nothing to do with the theory or mechanics of evolution. It is about the meaning of evolution. The theory of evolution doesn't discuss meaning. If some people see it as bloodthirsty, that's up to them. If others see it as the working out of God's plan, that too is up to them. Those sorts of issues are outside the realm of science. Ratzinger would do all of us a great service if he made clear that the bounds of the church stop at the end of subjective experience and do not include theories of the material world.

What has a soul?

You have probably heard of a Study [that] Reports [a] Method Of Creating Stem Cells Without Destroying Embryos. You may not have heard that Brian Hart, a spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), said that the new technique amounts to "creating a twin and then killing that twin."

It's silly to get involved in debating these people — but it's hard to resist. I wonder if they have a constructive definition — i.e., a test that can be carried out in a formal, objective manner — for determining when a soul exists. That is, if the objection is to killing something with a soul, how do we know when a bit of matter has a soul? What are the criteria for dividing the material universe into the ensouled part and the non-ensouled part?

Presumably, such test could also serve as a definitive test for death. If it can detect a soul, it can determine when a previously ensouled body no longer has its soul and should therefore be declared officially dead. That would make it much easier on the medical profession, which has struggled with this problem for years.

If I recall correctly, people who take this position, don't believe that animals (other than humans) have souls. So the test will have to be able to distinguish a fertilized human egg cell (just egg and sperm at a moment past the moment of conception) from that of any other animal. I doubt that this is easy to do using current techniques without an exhaustive DNA analysis. I wonder how they would go about it.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

What happens to most pieces of truth

From Tricycle

One day Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance and evil, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. He saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him.

Mara's attendants asked what that was and Mara replied, 'A piece of truth.' 'Doesn't this bother you when someone finds a piece of the truth, O evil one?' his attendants asked. 'No,' Mara replied. 'Right after this they usually make a belief out of it.'

As we already noted: humans, smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hamas Spokesman Blames Palestinians for Gaza Chaos

From the New York Times
In an unusual instance of self-criticism, a well-known Hamas official has deplored the collapse of Gazan life into chaos and has said that much of the blame belongs to Palestinians themselves.

"Gaza is suffering under the yoke of anarchy and the swords of thugs," Ghazi Hamad, a former Hamas newspaper editor and the spokesman for the current Hamas government, wrote in an article published Sunday in Al Ayyam, the Palestinian newspaper.

After so much optimism when Israelis pulled out of Gaza a year ago, he wrote, "life became a nightmare and an intolerable burden."

He urged Palestinians to look to themselves, not to Israel, for the causes. But he appeared not to be placing the blame on Hamas or the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas. He said various armed groups in the Gaza Strip — most affiliated with Fatah, Hamas's rival — were responsible for the chaos.

"We've all been attacked by the bacteria of stupidity," Mr. Hamad wrote. "We have lost our sense of direction." He addressed the armed groups: "Please have mercy on Gaza. Have mercy on us from your demagogy, chaos, guns, thugs, infighting. Let Gaza breathe a bit. Let it live."
It's good to see at least some Palestinians taking responsibility for their lives.

US polygamy sect leader arrested

Warren Jeffs, 50, was pulled over by a Nevada Highway Patrol on Monday along with his brother and one of his wives.

He went into hiding in May after being charged in Arizona with sexual misconduct for allegedly arranging marriages between minors and older men. …

Warren Jeffs, who is reputed to have 70 wives, took over the leadership of the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in Arizona and Utah] after his father Rulon died in 2002. …

The 10,000-strong FLDS split from the Mormon Church more than a century ago after the latter renounced polygamy. The sect dominates the towns of Colorado City, in Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, less than a mile away.

Members of FLDS believe a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven.
It doesn't make sense to me to say that polygamy is illegal. It simply is not possible to marry multiple women — unless one lies when applying to be married, and even in that case, the second (and any subsequent) marriage will probably be rules invalid. It's significant that Jeffs was not charged with polygamy; he was charged in relationship with sex with minors.

Poverty Remains Higher, and Median Income for Non-Elderly Is Lower, Than When Recession Hit Bottom

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Overall median household income rose modestly in 2005, while the poverty rate remained unchanged. For the first time on record, poverty was higher in the fourth year of an economic recovery, and median income no better, than when the last recession hit bottom and the recovery began.

In addition, the 1.1 percent increase in median income in 2005, which was well below the average gain for a recovery year, was driven by a rise in income among elderly households. Median income for non-elderly households (those headed by someone under 65) fell again in 2005, declining by $275, or 0.5 percent. Median income for non-elderly households was $2,000 (or 3.7 percent) lower in 2005 than in 2001.

In a related development, the median earnings of both male and female full-time workers declined in 2005. Median earnings for men working full time throughout the year fell for the second straight year, dropping by $774, or 1.8 percent, after adjusting for inflation. The median earnings of full-time year-round female workers fell for the third straight year, declining by $427, or 1.3 percent.

Furthermore, the poverty rate, at 12.6 percent, remained well above its 11.7 percent rate in 2001, while median household income was $243 lower than in 2001 (not a statistically significant difference). In addition, both the number and the percentage of Americans who lack health insurance climbed again and remained much higher than in 2001. Four million more people were poor, and 5.4 million more were uninsured, than in 2001. The percentage of children who are uninsured rose in 2005 for the first time since 1998.

The poor also became poorer. The amount by which the average person who is poor fell below the poverty line ($3,236) in 2005 was the highest on record.

Data released today by the Census Bureau show that the number of uninsured Americans stood at a record 46.6 million in 2005, with 15.9 percent of Americans lacking health coverage. “The number of uninsured Americans reached an all-time high in 2005,” said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It is sobering that 5.4 million more people lacked health insurance in 2005 than in the recession year of 2001, primarily because of the erosion of employer-based insurance.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pictures from Beijing

Beijing 2006
Aug 9, 2006 - 178 Photos

One more day in Beijing. We're leaving for Tibet Sunday.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

News from the administration

The following is the complete text of a message from the Office of the Vice President of Administration and Finance and CFO of California State University, Los Angeles.
Campus-wide email – Please do not reply

It has been determined that the information in Administrative Procedure 205, Position Management/Salary Savings, is obsolete. Consequently, the procedure has been removed from the Administrative Manual. Please update your department manuals accordingly.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Posting from Beijing

We're here in Beijing. I can get to to post this, but I can't get to to read it! Is one of the URL's that are blocked in China?

Monday, July 31, 2006