Friday, December 30, 2005

Write a letter to your Representative about domestic espionage

I wrote a letter to my Congressman about the recent revelations of domestic wiretaps by American spies of American citizens without a warrant, authorized by the American President. I'm posting this letter so other people can read it and, if inspired, learn more about these issues and send a letter to their Representative.

You can read all about the domestic surveillance scandal in a New York Times article that broke two weeks ago, reproduced here. There are also several good posts by security ruminator (and computer security expert) Bruce Schneier on his weblog with pertinent links. Here's what he said about the NYT article: "This is a very long article, but worth reading. It is not overstatement to suggest that this may be the most significant violation of federal surveillance law in the post-Watergate era."

The upshot is that if you want to begin surveillance of an American citizen, you need a warrant; if you don't have probable cause, you can get a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) from a secret court. All you have to do is show that someone may be the agent of a foreign power.

President George W. Bush repeatedly authorized a program in the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap American citizens without any warrant whatsoever. Recent news reports are that purely domestic calls were intercepted.

Aside from being illegal on its face because it violates FISA, the program smacks of an illegal search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The President says this is justified by executive "war powers" under Article 2 of the Constitution, but this would make a mockery of our checks and balances. By his legal theory, he can break laws that the Congress creates in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. What could he do next?

In a last great irony, now people charged with terrorism are using this revelation to assert that evidence against them was obtained illegally and should be thrown out. If you watch Law and Order you know that the worst thing that can happen to the lawyers is when the cops do some monkey business like not reading a suspect their Miranda rights. Cases get thrown out on these technicalities. If you want to read about how deep this goes, read this take from a former prosecutor.

So here is the letter I wrote. Crib from it, love it, weep for our country, laugh at the bleeding-heart. But the year is steadily churning backward from 2005 to 1984. We are the worse for it as a nation.

Dear Congressman Bishop:

I write to you asking for representation on a very important issue: the domestic surveillance of American citizens, without a warrant, by the chief executive. As you no doubt already know, this surveillance occurred (and still occurs) as a secret program in the NSA with no meaningful Congressional or judicial oversight.

There are practical reasons to abhor such a scheme. It violates the privacy of presumed-innocent American citizens. The potential for abuse is unchecked; for example, the system could be abused for partisan political purposes, or even for personal reasons, whether by the executive branch leadership or by individual NSA employees.

Still worse, the program is illegal. It violates explicit surveillance powers of the President set out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. A warrant must be obtained to spy on Americans, and it can only be granted if the American is an agent of a foreign power. No such warrants were obtained.

The President justifies this illegal behavior by claiming that his emergency war powers in the war on terror trump Congress' passage of legislation restricting his freedom and barring such actions as criminal. In the long run, I believe this specious reasoning will be exposed. There are many reasons why, but the main one is that it makes a mockery of the rule of law.

A President defying Congress through emergency powers in a years-long emergency, in a war on terrorism that has no final enemy and no foreseeable final victory, is a grim and terrifying specter for our democratic ideals. To a crime without charges, a prison without a country, a cell without a number, a prisoner without a name, and torture without practical or moral justification, we can now add a wiretap without a warrant. Against these horrors we had set blind justice, that no violators would be safe from the law, that all victims would be secure in the law.

I appeal to your principles. Protect the innocent by taking this oversight seriously. Call for and participate in hearings on domestic espionage, FISA, and presidential war powers. Don't let the terrorists win by destroying the great principles our country was founded on. Believe in our system of government: in checks and balances, in innocent until proven guilty, in no person above the law.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.

Daniel Lewis

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Quick Hits

Someone searched in looking how to tune a mandolin by the hertz. This should be easy enough to find out, but the easiest way is to tune the bottom strings to a standard acoustic G string (from EADGBE), then tune in fifths (7 frets) up the instrument.

Here are my initial brief takes on Kuhn, though I haven't quite finished the book. I haven't started reading in my area yet, but the technology is new enough that I may be embarking on a pre-paradigm specialization for my thesis. This makes me very nervous, so I am entering the next semester with a lot of questions about how to search for standard methods, algorithms, data tests in natural language processing.

Second, I am interested in analogies to historiography, historical paradigms. It seems to me the main difference between history and science is that history never repeats, so there is no consensus reality. This makes different paradigms legion, because not only are the same facts interpreted from different paradigms as in science, but different facts are admissible. I think this makes crisis and revolution dependent on unimpeachable facts that alter a dominant paradigm. I don't know if that makes revolutions rarer or not in historiography.

Third, and somewhat related, I am interested in how coherence theories of truth work for religion. I've read a lot of unclear arguments about religion that pretend it is possible to criticize one religious paradigm in terms of another, or look for disproof of a religious paradigm in its anomalies. All theories have certain anomalies in them. Even in the physical sciences, it can take decades or even centuries before they are resolved, but they don't necessarily lead to a crisis. What that means is that you shouldn't take rejecting a religion lightly; that goes equally for my opinion of Islam as it does for someone else's opinion of Jesus.

This point of view is helping me think through some well-meant but naive things I have done in my life with religion, especially talking to other people about Christianity. Sigh. One that came to mind as I was typing is the Campus Crusade 4 Spiritual Laws/Knowing God Personally tract. It is a thumbnail sketch of Christianity, but calling it a presentation of anything like the Christian paradigm (or even the 21st century Protestant paradigm) is laughable. Evangelism revolving around such a tract seems dreadfully untenable to me, but YMMV.

So Mere Christianity looms ever larger as a primer on Christianity, because it isn't a sustained argument; it is a paradigm presentation, or using a term from David Tracy, a systematic theology. It is the story rather than the apologia, so it actually communicates with people of other paradigms. Lewis writes something like "I believe Christianity... because by it I see everything else." The connection to Kuhn is clear. If you think about religions as paradigms, ways of seeing, as opposed to theories to accede to, religious dialogue changes a lot.

For one thing, we would all have a lot more listening to do.

I got to think about all these things in depth yesterday on a very relaxing day off for my 3rd wedding anniversary. I have a thousand days of marriage under my belt... and boy are my arms tired! Insert your own joke. Anyway, here's hoping for many more.

That in-depth thinking time was at least partially inspired by this essay. I heard many echoes of myself in it; time will tell if I become rich and famous through science though. It's entertaining either way.

Tonight Sarah's brother Brian is coming over to watch Alex so Sarah and I can go out to Belated Anniversary Dinner Date, then we'll play his newest addiction, Settlers of Catan, which we got for Christmas. Yes, we hooked another one. First one's free! Seriously, download Sea3D at the link to the left if you want to know what the hubbub is about.

Happy New Year, and go Pac-10!

Friday, December 23, 2005


Yet Another Gone For Christmas Post.

As you may have been reading elsewhere, there is a war. A war on a holiday. That holiday is on Sunday.

Well, I am a soldier in that war. This "Christmas" has left me no spare time to become rich and famous through blogging. Instead it takes all of my money and renders me more profoundly insignificant than several months of idiotic blather. This is an affront to my patriotic sensibilities.

Unfortunately, I must march half a mile half a mile half a mile onward in my struggle with "Yuletide". So actual thinking must be deferred in favor of Southern Comfort eggnog, Shaq v. Kobe, Amazon wish-lists, and sundry carols, presents, seasonal films, et al.

A thousand apologies.

[The actual thought most on my mind this week has been our President's unilateral circumvention of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution (prohibiting unlawful searches and seizures). He did this by wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. There are lots of reasons you don't want the President to do this, but the simplest one is that it is completely illegal.

Running a close second, I've been reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the first time, and trying to decide how to apply it to my research. With the book in my left hand and a pen in my right hand, writing in a diary. Very interesting stuff, but I feel somewhat adrift without knowing much of the history of science.

Back to normal in a long time.]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

To my newest readers

Hello, all. I have been detoxifying from a particularly stressful semester and have been unable to come to the blog or the internet. Time with family. Meanwhile, I have been reading your blogs (friends, you know who you are) and I will be back shortly... more longly than shortly, it appears, but still. I will be glad to talk to you.

More long thoughts in a few.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Light posting

I was up pretty late working on finals, so I won't be posting till tomorrow. Instead, it's a post-semester celebration and an early bedtime.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005

Busy bee

I had a couple of projects due over the weekend. I'm happy to say that the one I really cared about came out fantastic. The other one was ok, but probably too much work for one man anyway.

I can't wait for the week to be over. This semester has been too much for me and I am ready to become a genius in thinking computers and concentrate on my thesis.

    1. Write a thesis in knowledge-leveraging natural language processing.
    2. Work for Google? Or...
    3. ????
    4. Profit!!

Longer thoughts coming after the end of the week...

I'm almost done with A Tale of Two Cities. I am noticing some weird stuff with how Dickens did long time dilations. Where a modern author would just skip ahead and fill in the pieces slowly, he always provides a transition from this week to 3 YEARS LATER, like the white text at the bottom of some political thriller movies. Also, I don't know if I'm getting a sense of how the story is coalescing exactly. The nouements aren't hitting me quite right, with Charles returning to France. Maybe it's because I kind of remember the story from high school, but not completely. I'm enjoying the language but, hey, I'm an adult and so is Dickens, maybe the plot sucks.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Site design

It just occurred to me that for a blog about Letters and Papers, I have a pretty bland site design. I have all 26 letters at my disposal, as well as countless pictures of piles of paper, things made out of paper, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and so on. So my blog could look pretty cool. All I have to do is learn CSS and graphic art and have fun. I like the current colors, but perhaps I need a little more zazz to become rich and famous through blogging.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Free Time + Carol Sunday = ... ?

Here's a little ditty I composed the Tuesday morning after we did Christmas Carols for church, on few hours' rest, while waiting for a Software Engineering teammate.

What spy is this, who cover-blown,
Keeps Rove and Cheney from sleeping?
Whom pundits greet with yawnings sweet
While prosecutors watch are keeping?

This, this, is Valerie
Whom agents guard and traitors flee
Haste, haste to come to trial
The Plame, the spy N.O.C.

When will she bring the civil suit
Where unindicted are paying?
The president drinks because he thinks
The architect won't be staying

I guess that is rude, but the whole story is pretty rude (not to leave out treasonous).

Monday, December 05, 2005

An atheist's take on religious people,3604,1567604,00.html

This article does some interesting talk about whether religion actually changes you, not just the moral stuff we all agree on (religion or no). "Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night," the atheist writes. He can't quite put his finger on what is different about these people, or rather, what mysteries and miracles have to do with the moral stuff he agrees with.

For me, the Christian answer is that the disconnect the author sees is between belief and action. There is the stuff we threaten to threaten to threaten to do (an Andrew Bird allusion), then there is the stuff we actually do, and they are not close to the same. One contrast with other religions is that Christianity has a theory about how to alter your human condition; many other religions just order you to get busy altering, adding rituals and theology, maybe, but basically leaving the onus on you. What this turns into is another set of beliefs that cannot be rejoined to action. What can you do when you are the problem? Christianity sees this as the human condition that Christ changes, in a mysterious spiritual way, by way of his death on the cross; Jesus extends to people the opportunity to be remade and live differently.

This opportunity is extended in community, in churches and small groups of friends. Christians (with their hearts in the right place, one hopes) bring people into the new life, not into some farcical parroting of the Christian doctrines. The missionary impulse is to help people live authentically, to give people true action to match their deeply held beliefs. Like the columnist says, rich men become poor to advance the cause of authentic, new life.

The columnist's evidence is all anecdotal, but clearly your religion is working right if it's taking you places you don't want to go, to serve those with whom you disagree, for the sake of a mystery that "civilized" people think is fairy circles and moonshine, to honor a God that you can't see. I don't mean this as an argument that the religion is true; but the religion is lived out in your life, and that's more true than the finest theology. And this kind of religion is hard. Like he says, these religious people have gravitated toward "the monotonous performance of the unpleasant tasks that relieve the pain and anguish of the old, the sick and the homeless".

That reminds me of another man.

Interlude: A dumb post on Washington Monthly

[This is a post for Don P, a poster on the Washington Monthly who said some truly stupid stuff about how Christianity is the vilest thing on the planet. If you don't care about my rebuttal, skip this post. Otherwise, read on.]

Don P, "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" is an overreach. But your list of claims about Christianity, I can only assume is not a troll because you have argued for so long and vehemently in this thread. But they sound like a troll anyway, so you got me; I'll bite.

The first non-starter in your list is the meaning of the word "Christianity", as in "Christianity has traditionally oppressed women." One wonders what evidence could possibly disprove this sentence. Christianity is not a character in history; it is not a person. It is a hodgepodge of religions, streams flowing from a vast ocean. There are three enormous divisions between the traditions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, and the subdivisions of Protestant are too numerous to count; if you want to throw Mormon and Jehovah's Witness into the mix, Protestantism has spawned whole new religions. The Quakers, Lutherans, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Messianic Jews aren't even included in the above divisions.

"Tradition" also cuts broadly. Do we pay attention to the GWB Christian right or the backwater missionaries or the Sunday upper class publicity whores or the ritualized pre-Vatican II ultra-Catholics or the revival altar-call walkers or the pacifists or the soldiers or the dark poets? And that's just in the last few decades. How about a Japanese Catholic novelist educated in Europe in French literature who sees a certain resemblance between a view of Christ that emphasizes his weakness and Mahayana Buddhism? Is that not also Christianity?

Frankly, the varieties of Christian experience are unclassifiable as a whole, and take an especially vague character in the grand statements divorced of cultural and historical context that you've made. The form of the argument is so bad that I'm not going to list counterexamples. If you can't agree that Christianity is at least a mixed bag, full of sinners and saints like all of humanity, including atheists, Hindus, Muslims, artists, scientists, feminists, mothers, and favorite uncles, you're not only wrong, you're blind. e.g.

The most charitable spin I can put on your argument is that some statements in the Bible are so full of oppression and vileness and have twisted so many people to evil, that they are responsible for the ills of the human race. It would be quite a testament to the writing's power to move, for good or evil, that such a thing was true.

So let's examine some of your statements and see if the premise that "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" actually have support in things Jesus said. I'll give examples of things Jesus did and said, and things that the New Testament Christians did and said, that cut against the grain of your worthless generalizations.

"Christianity has traditionally oppressed homosexuals... Christianity has traditionally oppressed Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities."

Jesus was silent on the subject of homosexuality generally, but had a lot to say and do for minorities. For instance, he frequently held up Gentiles, people who did not believe in Yahweh, as examples of great faith, like the Roman centurion and the Syrophoenician woman. He appeared to Peter in a vision and said "Let no man call unclean what God has made clean," which caused the early Jewish Christians to abandon their tribalism (they were "God's chosen people") and accept people of other backgrounds as brothers and sisters. He preached a parable about a Good Samaritan being more holy in God's eyes than a priest or a Levite. This would be like a neo-Nazi telling a positive story about a black man. This is also the same Christianity that proclaims loudly that "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The kinds of things he did not say were "Black people are inferior to white people" (unless you think the Mormons represent all Christianity, and even they changed it eventually) or "Jews are better than everybody". He spent his public life reviling the most religious people in his religion and had no respect for class.

I admit that the record of Christians through the ages toward minorities is mixed (witness the Abolitionists vs. the Race Rehabilitationists, or today's religious right vs. the Christian left).

"Christianity has traditionally regulated sex, marriage, reproduction and family life very strictly."

It's true Jesus did affirm the Jewish view that marriage is when "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." But he also said that a man's right to divorce his wife for any reason (which his culture promulgated) was illegitimate, and that divorce apart from infidelity was adultery. For the man this is stricter; for the woman this is safer. He elevated the rights of the woman in marriage to equal to the man's. Paul did this too when he said that "the wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife." And it's true that Jesus believed in sex within the confines of marriage but not otherwise. But I think his treatment of prostitutes tells us more about how important he thought issues of sexual sin were.

"Christianity has traditionally supported economic and political policies that produce large economic and social inequalities."

In Jesus we find a penniless preacher, not a political program. Remember, the same Jews that welcomed him in to Jerusalem on Sunday as the political Messiah who would free Israel and rule the new kingdom killed him days later after he preached in the temple square daily. What did he say, I wonder? There is some speculation that he freed the Jews from the very illusion you ascribe to Christianity; that it has a well-defined political or social program. When Pilate was trying Jesus for treason, he asked if Jesus was a king. He responded, "My kingdom is not of this world."

Your statement applies with more force to modern capitalism than Christianity, as in "Modern capitalism has traditionally supported..." You could also say "The Hindu caste system" or "Communist China" though.

"Christianity has traditionally taught the reality of heaven and hell, judgment and damnation, and that unrepentant sinners are cast into hell where they are punished for all eternity."

That's more or less true, Jesus talked about it a good deal. I'll give you the reality of heaven and hell, judgment, and damnation. Who exactly goes to hell and what exactly is going on there are subjects of considerable debate in the breadth of Christian tradition.

What I fail to see is how this meme has affected humanity. Unlike the others in your list, this is a point of theology without an obvious story of woe attached. Bach? Dante? Thomas Aquinas? They believed this story and it didn't seem to make them into serial killers. I believe this story and all I am is a Christian blog commenter who is feeling a bit snarky at the moment.

"This all seems to be considerably more consistent with James Dobson's version of Christianity than with contemporary liberal Christianty, which often seems to be little more than the Golden Rule dressed up in a bit of religious drag."

So let's be frank. You make sweeping generalizations about my religion, compare two sects to each other and decide that one is more faithful to the breadth of Christian tradition than the other, which breadth you show no signs of acknowledging or understanding. You would rather trot out the same tired cases and tropes of the evils of organized Christianity; as if every other society had no evils of its own! As if the evils of Christianity were beyond comparison! How is that less hidebound and anti-intellectual than the fundamentalists themselves? How am I supposed to intelligently come around to your views? Maybe I haven't been snorting the same propaganda.

hamletta said "I think comparing him to the whole of Christian history is dopey." You said "Why?" Well, the answer is that you can make broader generalizations the wider you draw your view, but the generalizations are more likely to be wrong. The devil is in the details, but God is in the details too. On a scale from dopey to inane, I give your generalizations a resounding 10.

So you ask, "Why? The claim was that James Dobson, and presumably conservative Christians in general, does not represent real or authentic or true Christianity. Why should we believe contemporary liberal Christianity is more real or authentic or true as Christianity than Dobson's variety?"

Well, I guess to answer that question we would have to take up a long comparative study and define things like "true Christianity" and "represent". I've made a few quotations and claims above that suggest my idea of true Christianity, and I could go on.

The dominant threads I might suggest as a starting point are "But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." and "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!"

But it's sufficient just to say that the arguments are fraught with difficulty and intelligent people have disagreed for hundreds of years, so strong statements like yours are not credible.

So I'll let Billy Madison have my last word:

"Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Day After Yesterday

Well, I did some kind of weird stuff at the concert, like take short videos with our Kodak EasyShare from the balcony and write down all the set lists for both bands (the better to remember you with, my dears), but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time.

I went with my friends Paul and Stacy Petersen. They were excited about the concert as I was, and we bought our tickets pretty early. We were lucky, because it sold out in six weeks. We had a nice drive down, discoursing on many topics, and got some pizza on the way. I thought I was getting sick because of the weird taste in my mouth at dinner time, but it turns out it was the water in our pitcher. Somehow I don't find that reassuring. The parking lot was full, so we had to park at the high school next door. We walked out on the black-iced blacktop and slid into our seats right on time, just as the head honcho of the theater introduced the first act, Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird is quite stunning live. You have never seen anything like him, I tell you. He was a scarecrow in a three-piece suit, and he still looked like his thin legs shouldn't support his weight. His hair flew around when he shook his head in time to his music. He gestured with his violin bow, not like a conductor, but like a fiery orator stabbing his finger into your chest to convince you otherwise. And that wasn't even the music.

Paul says he sounds like Beck, but with a good voice. Here is how you do that: He starts a groove pizzicato on his violin, then sends it looping, then another one and loop. His drummer comes in and starts an awesome beat, then he starts whistling pure notes and playing the glockenspiel at the same time. A few times through the loop, then he starts singing and playing the electric guitar. Later, the drummer starts playing a keyboard with his left hand. You just won't believe it if you don't see it.

He is on the Live Music Archive, so you can listen to tons of his music. His album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs is very different from the live shows and can be heard in its entirety at the link. And I just found something awesome: a live video of a concert he did in May 2005. I managed to get it running ok at 56K in IE (I have 256k DSL and would prefer Firefox, but this is what I got to work) so you will probably need a true 500K connection to see it well. So you can see for yourself; the drummer is in that one.

The song of the night was probably "Capital I". I have heard a lot of runs of this song, but that one was incredible. It will only see the light of day in concert because the lyric, "We all live in a capital I," is from a song on Sesame Street ("Capital I" is about why kids are so mean to each other, and the answer turns out to be something like the number 1, Isolation, Independence, and I; maybe a religious person would add Iniquity). If you listen to his live shows, listen to that and you will see how arresting it is. He played a new song too, "Plasti-cities", that I'll call second best. It was very human, about the power of art and song against the dehumanizing marketing and consumerism of modern Plastic society (at least, that's what I took from it; I only heard it once). It was catchy, and, for a song lionizing art, more free from the arted-up filigree than some of his songs from his latest album.

In "Why" he did something very interesting; I never imagined it while I was listening to the live concerts on the Archive. He played this part in the song very strangely, like not with the loop or in rhythm or in tune; he is a sort of twitchy artist live, but this looked like he was totally nuts, like he was really frustrated and barely able to handle himself. So right in the middle of the song, he does this sort of dialogue where he says, for the audience, "Why'd you do that?" Then he answers for himself, nervously: "Why'd I do what? I'm just standing here, you know." And so on, listen to this to hear what one is like (incidentally, "Why" is also in the video I linked above). It was like an Andy Kaufman joke where you can't be quite sure if he's pulling your chain. The more I thought about it, the funnier it was.

He finished his set, took a bow, and then quickly dismantled so Nickel Creek could come on. Paul and I used the facilities, then headed back in.

They dimmed the lights once, then dimmed them down all the way. I'd just finished telling Paul that they would probably be introduced (Andrew Bird had gotten an introduction last time). But instead Nickel Creek all came out together. The cheering was electric, so loud. I hope they felt like rock stars. I really think my voice wasn't very loud because I had yelled it out the other day. But I clapped with the best of them.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

What not to do the night before a concert:

Do Johnny Bravo impression by making muscle poses and expressive grunts, just because it makes your son cackle like a drunken sailor.

My throat may be too hoarse to scream at Andrew Bird, and Nickel Creek.

There is a video.