Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Religious epistemology: what to believe

The New York Times reports:
A documentary by the Discovery Channel claims to provide evidence that a crypt unearthed 27 years ago in Jerusalem contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

Moreover, it asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that the couple had a son, named Judah, and that all three were buried together.

The claims were met with skepticism by several archaeologists and New Testament scholars, as well as outrage by some Christian leaders. The contention that Jesus was married, had a child and left behind his bones — suggesting he was not bodily resurrected — contradicts core Christian doctrine.
In an earlier post I asked how religious adherents decide which statements in their religious literature to believe. After all, very few people, even the most religious, believe everything they read in their religious literature. So would it matter (and I'm not passing judgement on this particular claim) whether this or some future archaeological find is determined to be the bones of Jesus?

Certainly physical resurrection is a core Christian doctrine. But Christians have given up many beliefs. I suspect that no one believes that the story of the Garden of Eden is literally true. Pardon my Biblical scholarship, but here is one version of Genesis, chapter 2.
2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

2:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

2:22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
It might be harder to back away from a belief in physical resurrection than from the Garden of Eden. But would it destroy the faith of the faithful? Should it? The bigger question is: how do people decide which religious beliefs to accept?

It had always seemed to me that the term religious epistemology was an oxymoron. But clearly it isn't. There seem to be serious religious epistemological questions. I have no idea how they are dealt with or if anyone has even raised this question before.

Ning - Trying to be MySpace


If you build a social network and no one joins, do you exist?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Jeff Han's Perceptive Pixels

I mentioned this earlier. Here's a video. (The opening ad is only 15 seconds.)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Rogue aid

Moisés Naím, editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, writes in an op-ed piece in the NY Times.
In recent years, wealthy nondemocratic regimes have begun to undermine development policy through their own activist aid programs. Call it rogue aid. It is development assistance that is nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice, and its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting ordinary citizens. …

The World Bank … proposed a project [to repair the Nigerian railroad system] based on the commonsense observation that there was no point in lending the Nigerians money without also tackling the corruption that had crippled the railways. After months of negotiation, the bank and Nigeria’s government agreed on a $5 million project that would allow private companies to come in and help clean up the railways.

But just as the deal was about to be signed, the Chinese government offered Nigeria $9 billion to rebuild the entire rail network — no bids, no conditions and no need to reform.

China is actively backing such deals throughout Africa; its financing of roads, electrical plants, ports and the like boomed from $700 million in 2003 to nearly $3 billion for each of the past two years. Indeed, it is a worldwide strategy. Beijing has agreed to expand Indonesia’s electrical grid in a matter of months. Too bad the deal calls for building several plants that use a highly polluting, coal-based Chinese technology. No international agency would have signed off on such an environmentally unfriendly deal. …

Nor is China the only regime offering rogue aid. President Hugo Chávez has not been shy in using his nation’s oil money to recruit allies abroad. …

Mr. Chávez’s financial aid to Cuba far exceeds what the island used to get from Leonid Brezhnev during the heyday of Soviet communism, and it has dashed hopes for Cuba’s opening as a result of Fidel Castro’s demise and the island’s bankruptcy. Because of Mr. Chávez’s artificial lifeline, Cubans will be forced to wait even longer for the indispensable reforms that will bring their society opportunities for true prosperity and freedom.

Iranian aid to Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon may have increased Iran’s influence in the region, but it is damaging to the people in those countries for the same reason that Venezuelan aid hurts Cubans. The same can be said of Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship, in countries like Pakistan, of religious schools that fail to equip students with the skills they need to get jobs. …

States like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have the cash and the will to reshape the world into a place very unlike the one where we want to live. By pushing their alternative development model, such states effectively price responsible aid programs out of the market exactly where they are needed most. In place of those programs, rogue donors offer to underwrite a world that is more corrupt, chaotic and authoritarian.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What does religion have to say about the natural world?

In the debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris (and in many other debates about religion) a central question often seems to be whether there is any "scientific" evidence for any of the supernatural claims religion makes. In my comments, I've made the point (somewhat implicitly) that this is the wrong question. Here I'd like to clarify this point. It seems to me that the important question is not whether secular human inquiry can confirm supernatural religious claims but whether religious claims can add anything to secular human inquiry about the natural world.

Most modern adherents of religion would say that religion can't add anything to secular human inquiry about the natural world. Only certain fundamentalists and other religious intransigents now claim that religion can compete with science or other forms of secular human inquiry in determining facts about the natural world. Religion no longer claims to have a position about issues such as evolution or whether the earth orbits the sun. Issues such as these are left to secular inquiry.

Recent attempts to measure the efficacy of anonymous prayer in healing illustrate the sort of question that might be used to establish a claim that religion can add to our understanding of the natural world. Studies about such effects were first published in reputable journals but later withdrawn. If this work could be put on a more firm foundation, it would provide evidence that religion has something to say about the natural world that is not accessible through other forms of inquiry.

On the other hand, if no such evidence is brought forward, then it seems to me that religion as a theory about the natural world is essentially impotent. One may believe it or not with no intellectual consequences either way.

Of course whether or not religion has anything to add to secular inquiry regarding the natural world, religious beliefs certainly affect how many people act. But that's an entirely different issue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More from Andrew Sullivan

In The Unclean Glass, Sullivan responds to Harris.
So let me put this in a context that might appeal to you, as a rational, empirical person. How do you explain Christianity's enduring power? Is it all a terrible, ugly blight on the human mind that must be thrown out in favor of "truly honest, fearless inquiry"? But wouldn't "truly honest, fearless inquiry" into religious faith begin by asking how Christianity came to exist at all?

Consider the evidence. I do not believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate. We have no evidence of a flying spaghetti monster. But we have solid evidence of Jesus' existence. We have a handful of independent historical artifacts that attest that a minor Jewish rabbi in first century Israel was executed by the Roman authorities. We have many Gospels that date from the period after his death testifying to the power of his message. Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way - and not just remembered but worshiped over two millennia later in the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Does this not intrigue you? Have you never asked in the spirit of "truly honest, fearless inquiry": How on earth did this happen?

As a simple piece of historical inquiry, it's an astonishingly unlikely turn of events. Within a short period of time, not only was an obscure, failed Jewish rabbi remembered, his teachings became the official religion of the empire that had executed him. In the ensuing centuries, his life and teachings inspired many of the greatest minds, souls and talents humankind has ever produced. The collapse of the empire that elevated him did not lead to the disappearance of Christianity. It led to its eventual re-emergence as a vibrant, beautiful, rich experience for millions. Only Muhammad and the Buddha rival the story of this man - a fact that leads me to ask questions of both (particularly Buddhism), but which prompts you to condemn and anathematize all religious claims of any kind.
I think that Sullivan misunderstand probabilities. This reminds me of the football betting scam.

On the first weekend of the football season the scam artist sends out email messages to millions of people predicting the results of one of the games. In half the messages, he predicts team A will win. In the other half he predicts team A will not win.

On the second weekend, he send out messages to those who got the correct message the previous weekend.

He repeats this weekend after weekend until after a string of "correct predictions" he proposes to sell his final prediction to his remaining message recipients. Of course these people, having received a string of correct predictions will be hard pressed to resist.

One can make a similar case for Sullivan's story. As he points out, "Purported messiahs and crucifixions were not uncommon at the time. But only one of the thousands of Rome's victims is remembered in this way." Given the human inclination to believe, it's not unlikely that humanity will have adopted some religion. The particular religion it adopted (and it adopted a number of them) does not argue for the correctness of that religion. It does argue for a propensity of human beings to adopt beliefs. But that's not Sullivan's argument.

Elsewhere in the same piece, Sullivan attacks science as follows.
Science, your preferred mode of human understanding, is not contingency-free either. I know of no scientist who would claim so. It is shot through with contingency. It is the consequence of millennia of human thought, logic, experiment, argument, discovery, thesis, antithesis, synthesis - propelled by human curiosity, pride, obsession, and error. What science knows at any given moment is a function of everything it has ever known. And it is built and unbuilt by human minds with human weaknesses.
Of course he's right. As Richard Feynman, has said, "Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is." Science is not a doctrine, it is a search for understanding. It is a significant misunderstanding of science to portray it as comparable to religion as a way of viewing the world. Science is a commitment to do the best we can to understand the world, wherever that journey leads. Sullivan's religion appears to be a decision not to ask certain questions but to accept certain positions "on faith." These are not different doctrines or different bodies of knowledge, they are different kinds of approaches to examining one's life and one's understanding of nature.

Of course Sullivan may reply that his religion does not deny the truths of science. (He has said something like that elsewhere.) But in that case what is he claiming other than that the truths he argues for are beyond the scope of human reason and understanding. (He has said something like that elsewhere also.) But that brings us back to the position that everyone can accept. Sullivan is arguing for a position that has no intellectual consequences for the world in which we live. The only real consequences for religious beliefs with no implications about the natural world are the actions taken by believers as a result of holding those beliefs. Sullivan and Harris can then argue about the overall positive or negative effect on the world of religion.

It seems to me still open to debate whether religion has been a force for good or ill in the world. It's unlikely that this will be settled soon. To settle this question we will have to identify the distinct effects of religion and separate them from the way that human beings act without religion. Since we human beings seem to be built to construct and hang onto religious beliefs, I suspect that it will be extraordinarily difficult to characterize what a fully non-religious human being would act like. Perhaps it is a person who is open to questioning everything, if that is possible. Since there have probably been very few such human beings, a study of their effect on the world vs. the effect of everyone else is unlikely to yield much insight. The Buddha may be taken as prototypical of the person who is willing to question everything. How would one compare the effect of Buddhism to the effect of faith-oriented religions? Even that isn't a fair comparison since many Buddhist traditions have developed their own faith-like belief doctrines.

But all that is a completely different argument from one about whether religion includes anything comparable to what we would normally refer to as facts about nature. If both sides agree that religion does not assert any claimed facts about nature, then the two sides can agree on this common position. Those who find comfort in holding such beliefs may do so. Those who don't need not. Let there be peace among them.

Myths and Realities About the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)

Paraphrased from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If you believe any of the following about the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) you're wrong.

Myth 1: The AMT is (or is rapidly becoming) a “middle-class” tax.

More and more middle-class tax-payers are paying some AMT-triggered taxes, but the bulk of the AMT tax receipts are from upper income earners.

Myth 2: The growth in the AMT was unanticipated and accidental, and so the cost of repeal should not have to be offset.

The Republicans deliberately used the AMT to mask the effects of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. It is doing what it was anticipated to do.

Myth 3: The only way to protect middle-class households from the AMT is to repeal it.

In truth, the AMT is doing just what is was supposed to do: keep top earners from escaping taxation. It may need reform as a way to redefine what "top earners" means, but it should not be repealed as the Republicans want to do.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Is this the gateway to complex systems on a chip?

From BusinessWeek.com
Computing took a leap forward when chipmakers started putting more than one core—or central brain—on a single chip. It was a way to make machines work harder even as they consumed less power. Just wait until a single chip can sport 80 cores.

The wait won't be long. Chipmaking giant Intel (INTC) on Feb. 11 said it has successfully produced just such a chip, the size of a fingernail, capable of processing a mind-boggling 1 trillion calculations a second. The chip, which Intel claims is the fastest ever made, could start being used commercially in 'in five years, if not sooner,' Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner says. …

The main stumbling block to widespread acceptance of such chips, however, is the difficulty in writing software to take advantage of multiple cores. Even as Intel and AMD race to deliver quad-core chips in the next few months, software developers continue to struggle to write threaded applications to take advantage of just two cores. Intel's Rattner suggests the chipmaker made the announcement of the new chip early to get software developers thinking about massively multicore chips. "If we just go two, four, eight cores, we'll never get there [with software]," he says.
The only realistic way to use chips like this is to let each core run independent tasks, as in agent-based computing. The alternative is to attempt to break up linear tasks into parallel subtasks. That seems a losing proposition. If we have a large collection of cores running many different tasks, we will be dealing with systems that function as agent-based models. This implies lots of indeterminism and the need for lots of self-awareness, self-governance, self-protection mechanisms.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

More from Andrew Sullivan on his Faith

From Beliefnet.com
I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God's existence - of a force beyond everything and the source of everything - goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall 'finding' this faith nor being taught it. So when I am asked to justify this belief, as you reasonably do, I am at a loss. At this layer of faith, the first critical layer, the layer that includes all religious people and many who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, I can offer no justification as such. I have just never experienced the ordeal of consciousness without it. It is the air I have always breathed. I meet atheists and am as baffled at their lack of faith - at this level - as you are at my attachment to it. …

I simply grew up from my earliest childhood in complete acceptance of this reality. … I have had two serious crises of faith - but neither came close to a loss of faith in God's existence. The first crisis was the worst. Almost fourteen years ago, it occurred to me not that God didn't exist - that never occurred to me - but that God might be evil. …

The sense that evil was the ultimate victor in the universe, that evil is the fundamental meaning of all of this, that "none of this cares for us," to use Larkin's simple phrase: this sense pervaded me for a few minutes and then somehow, suddenly, unprompted by any specific thought, just lifted. … [That moment] represented for me a revelation of God's love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes. …

You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly. …

I believe what I specifically believe - but since the mystery of the divine is so much greater than our human understanding, I am not in the business of claiming exclusive truth, let alone condemning those with different views of the divine as heretics or infidels. …

I should add that this unchosen belief in God's existence - the "gift" of faith - does not prompt me to lose all doubt in my faith, or to abandon questioning. I have wrestled with all sorts of questions about any number of doctrines that the hierarchy of the church has insisted upon.
These thoughts by Sullivan remind me of the following Buddhist story from Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, “Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart,” extracted in Everyday Mind, Jean Smith (ed).
One day, Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance and evil, was traveling with his attendants through the villages of India.

He saw a man doing walking meditation. The man’s face was lit up in wonder.

He had just discovered something on the ground in front of him.

Mara's attendants asked what the man had found.

“A piece of the truth,” Mara replied.

“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.”
Hence the line at the top of this blog.

Send in the Marines

From The Washington Post
'There's no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy. Period,' Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the House Armed Services Committee. He added that potential enemies may take some comfort from the rancor but said they 'don't have a clue how democracy works.'
It's striking that a simple, boldly stated assertion can be so effective. Why is it that we are so easily moved by the appearance of strength and confidence? Simply make an assertion, and project lots of strength and confidence when making it, and much of the world will agree with you. I guess it's part of what's called leadership. In this case, I'm glad for what Pace said. But it's unfortunate we make decisions about important issues on the basis of who seems more confident when making assertions.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Multi-touch screens

From NYU
On the 12th floor of 719 Broadway, two projectors blazed satellite images of New York City behind him. Han fixed his two index fingers together and placed them on the map. Throwing his hands apart like a conductor, the image seamlessly zoomed in on NYU's campus. He placed two fingers on the left side of the screen, then with his other hand, rotated the axis so that he could get a better view into the buildings' windows.

'There's no manual,' said Han, a consulting research scientist in NYU's computer science department. 'It's natural. You just reach out and do it.'

Touch screens are about to enter the next generation, thanks to Han's work. He has contributed to the multi-touch screen, a technology that has so far been rarely utilized, yet is now attracting attention from Apple and the makers of its new iPhone.

Touch screens have long been a staple of consumer life, from the ATM to the movie theater. But those screens can only take input from one finger at a time.

The screens Han works with can register as many fingers as one can fit on its surface area - all the fingers of the human hand, or those of 20 co-workers. A touch pen, bottle or any other object works just as well.

It's a dangerous world out there on the net for computers

A University of Maryland study reports a
near-constant rate of hacker attacks of computers with Internet access — every 39 seconds on average — and the non-secure usernames and passwords we use that give attackers more chance of success. …

Most of these attacks employ automated scripts that indiscriminately seek out thousands of computers at a time, looking for vulnerabilities. …

The vast majority of attacks came from relatively unsophisticated hackers using "dictionary scripts," a type of software that runs through lists of common usernames and passwords attempting to break into a computer.

"Root" was the top username guess by dictionary scripts-attempted 12 times as often as the second-place "admin." Successful 'root' access would open the entire computer to the hacker, while 'admin' would grant access to somewhat lesser administrative privileges. Other top usernames in the hackers' scripts were "test," "guest," "info," "adm," "mysql," "user," "administrator" and "oracle." All should be avoided as usernames.

The researchers found the most common password-guessing ploy was to reenter or try variations of the username. Some 43 percent of all password-guessing attempts simply reentered the username. The username followed by "123" was the second most-tried choice. Other common passwords attempted included "123456," "password," "1234," "12345," "passwd," "123," "test," and "1." …

What are the hackers trying to accomplish? "The scripts return a list of 'most likely prospect' computers to the hacker, who then attempts to access and compromise as many as possible." … "Often they set up 'back doors'-undetected entrances into the computer that they control-so they can create 'botnets,' for profit or disreputable purposes." A botnet is a collection of compromised computers that are controlled by autonomous software robots answering to a hacker who manipulates the computers remotely. Botnets can act to perpetrate fraud or identity theft, disrupt other networks, and damage computer files, among other things.

It's official. Texas is the worst place to live in the US.

From Bay Area Houston
If you haven't been paying attention, or your head has been stuck in the sand for the last 6 years, or you've been too busy working making ends meet and keeping your kids in school, then you probably haven't notice that Texas is now the worst place to live in the United States.

The report titled 'Texas on the Brink'by State Senator Eliot Shapleigh paints a bleak picture of Texas in almost every category used to rate places to raise a family. …

For example, … this is how Texas ranks among the 50 States today.

  • Income Inequality Between the Rich and the Poor


  • Percentage of Population without Health Insurance


  • Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) Scores


  • Percentage of Population over 25 with a High School Diploma


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Word of the day: ambient advertising

I recently came across the use of ambient to refer to advertising in the environment. As in ambient light, it's just there. The advertisers' hope is that such ads are not seen as being projected from a source (like a billboard or TV) toward the potential customer but that they are just there as part of one's environment.

While looking for web references I found the World Wide Words website. This is from its Ambient Advertising page.
… almost any kind of advertising that occurs in some non-standard medium outside the home. Examples are messages on the backs of car park receipts and at the bottom of golf holes, on hanging straps in railway carriages, on the handles of supermarket trolleys, and on the sides of egg cartons …

Ambient advertising contains the seeds of its own destruction … because once the approach is copied and becomes commonplace, it ceases to surprise.
[Guardian, August 1997]
Ambient advertising was in the news most recently when blinking lights were scattered around Boston as part of an advertising campaign. They were at first thought to be terrorist devices. Turner Broadcasting has agreed to pay a fine of $2 million.

It seems to me that what was striking about these ads was not that they were ambient — ambient advertising is ubiquitous these days — but that they didn't look like advertising.

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder"

co-researcher Cohen-Or. "Beauty is merely a function of mathematical distances or ratios. …

Three Israeli computer scientists from Tel Aviv University (TAU) have developed the ultimate enhancement tool for retouching digital images. Called the Beauty Function, their program scans an image of your face, studies it and produces a slightly more beautiful you. …

In developing the Beauty Function, they surveyed 300 men and women and asked them to rank pictures of peoples' faces with varying degrees of beauty, on an attractiveness scale of 1-7. The scores were correlated to detailed measurements and ratios of facial features such as nose width, chin length and distance from eyes to ears.

Some 250 measurement points were taken into account and once formulated, researchers developed an algorithm that could let them apply some of the desired elements of attractiveness - as mathematical equations - to a fresh image.

The result is a computer program that within minutes can decide how to make you more beautiful.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Lively Market in Software Bugs

From The New York Times
This month, iDefense Labs, a subsidiary of the technology company VeriSign, said it was offering $8,000 for the first six researchers to find holes in Vista, and $4,000 more for the so-called exploit, the program needed to take advantage of the weakness. …

The Japanese security firm Trend Micro said in December that it had found a Vista flaw for sale on a Romanian Web forum for $50,000. Security experts say that the price is plausible, and that they regularly see hackers on public bulletin boards or private online chat rooms trying to sell the holes they have discovered, and the coding to exploit them. …

[T]here appears to be nothing illegal about the act of discovering and selling vulnerabilities. Prices for such software bugs range from a couple of hundred dollars to tens of thousands. …

Marc Maiffret, co-founder of eEye Digital Security, a computer security company, said prices in the evolving black market quickly proved higher than what legitimate companies would pay. “You will always make more from bad guys than from a company like 3Com,” he said.

Even ethical researchers feel that companies like iDefense and TippingPoint do not adequately compensate for the time and effort needed to discover flaws in complex, relatively secure software.
I think this is great. At least it brings security holes into the marketplace. Now we know what they are worth.

Microsoft has apparently refused to pay people who discover security holes in its software. That's both foolish and stubburn. A Microsoft error now has a real market value price. Since it's an error Microsoft made, it should accept responsibility for it and pay for it.

This sort of market might also allow victims of security holes to establish a price if they sue for negligence. If Microsoft refuses to pay for information that would allow it to fix one of its own mistakes and then someone suffers a loss as a result of that security hole, Microsoft looks very vulnerable.