Saturday, April 29, 2006

Welcome to the Machine

We've been making a transition to the national security state for quite some time now. If Bush wants, he can jail you, surveil you, nail you, and impale you. If you disagree, the national security apparatus takes a dim view of your protestations. After all, the President is the decider-in-chief of our national security. He decides what's best. In practice, this has made the executive into the judge, jury, and executioner. That's why people have been dying in our non-secret prisons and doubtless in our secret prisons. [That last article won the Pulitzer Prize this year, and for good reason.]

On the theory that there is more than one branch of American government, some enterprising people at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (an advocacy group for internet and telecommunications freedoms) decided to take it to the next level and sue AT&T for allowing the government to hook up listening machines with massive data mining capability to the telephone and internet systems. These machines listened indiscriminately to millions of people, looking for various keywords and patterns thought to be suspicious (again, according to the national security apparatus). AT&T also opened their customer database to the feds, comprising 300 million megabytes of private information.

This stuff is as illegal as aggravated rape is. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows for surveillance of American citizens on a showing of probable cause, or a lesser standard in the presence of a clearly-defined connection from the person to a foreign power. Not only was there no warrant for these searches, they listened to everyone. Since December, whistleblowers have been trying to get this very important story into public view. This EFF lawsuit would have done the same to the nth degree: operating surveillance outside the bounds of the law carries a fine of up to $10000 per occurrence. AT&T could have been liable for billions.

On the theory that what happens in the executive branch stays in the executive branch, the feds plan to invoke the State Secrets Privilege to stop the lawsuit. They say that learning about how AT&T screwed us all would damage national security.

Anyone who doesn't smell the coverup a mile away needs to get their nose checked.

Sorry if this posts twice on anyone's reader. Hit a bad key.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Living with War

Neil Young, you might remember, wrote a protest song called "Ohio" after four student protesters were killed by police at Kent State University. More recently, he wrote a song called "Let's Roll" about 9/11.

Living with War is another protest album. I think I read that the session singers (about 100) finished in one twelve-hour day. It sounds like it too, rough around the edges and urgent.

Living with War is about the direction our country has been rolling since 9/11. Neil Young thinks, and I agree, that we had been galvanized as a country, for better or worse, by 9/11. It was up to our leaders to take us further, to create a new vision for our democracy. Our national tragedy created a war for the soul of our country. At the moment, we're losing.

Instead of turning outward and embracing the world, we have become more insular and belligerent. We have debated in public whether the most powerful man in the world can spy on whoever he wants to, jail whoever he wants to, torture whoever he wants to, and make war on whoever he wants to. Shouldn't these debates have been over before they started? Now we are living with the consequences.

What should we do? How should we feel? What can we say? Neil Young really tapped in here. I'm glad he made this album, which I know not everyone will listen to or approve of.

You can listen to the whole thing here.

Update: An Anonymous Coward informs me that the choir was made up of 100 people, not 300 as I misremembered. So thanks, AC, for correcting my statement, which was obviously made in too much haste to be posted on the Internet.

AC takes me to task for being another non-fact-checking blogger. "I know it's a pain to fact-check, but c'mon, guy!" I am not offended by AC's correction. I welcome it. However, pace Comic Book Guy, "Ooh, your powers of fact-checking are exceptional. I can't allow you to waste them here when there are so many crimes going unsolved at this very moment. Go, go, for the good of the city."

Here's the New York Times article on the album; lovers of pesky facts can read it instead of, or in addition to, this humble blog entry, which after all, may not be as full of facts as it seems to be.

Seriously, though, you can nitpick about easily corrected, non-germane details, or you can engage with discourse at the height of its power. It's a choice that occurs in Christian apologetics, in politics, in all walks of life. Smart it up or dumb it down. Meet it where it is or reach to where it's coming from.

AC's personal response to Living with War is not available. I invite them to respond to the other 400 plus words in this increasingly lengthy and annoying blog post.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Sarah asked me the other day why I don't blog about her and Alexander here. I can think of all kinds of rationalizations, but I guess what's at the heart of it is that it doesn't occur to me to be Insightful, Informative, Interesting, or +5 Funny about my family.

In a way, this blog is like an unending series of Slashdot comments on self-selected topics [Slashdot is a large, large community tech news site]. There are no moderators and I say whatever's in my head. I don't need to do first posts because I always get the first post. But also like Slashdot, if I don't have something cool to say, I don't say anything at all.

I don't know if I need a sort of narrative distance from my family to catch something I am observing and twist it; that's what I'd usually do on Slashdot. I've also kept some privacy about my family on here. I'd definitely stay private on Slashdot, where no one cares much about my family, except in the sense of "Everyman's insights about fatherhood" comments.

I'll continue thinking about this.

I want a T-shirt

In honor of the fast-approaching three-year anniversary of the end of major combat operations in Iraq, May 1, I would like to propose a T-shirt with Photo and Caption along the following lines:

Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Short musical interlude from 1973

us and them
and after all
we’re only ordinary men

me and you
god only knows
it’s not what we would choose to do

forward he cried
from the rear
and the front rank died
the general sat
and the lines on the map
moved from side to side

black and blue
and who knows which is which
and who is who

up and down
but in the end
it’s only round and round

haven’t you heard
it’s a battle of words
the poster bearer cried
listen son
said the man with the gun
there’s room for you inside

down and out
it can’t be helped
but there’s a lot of it about

with without
and who’ll deny
it’s what the fighting’s all about

out of the way
it’s a busy day
i’ve got things on my mind
for want of the price
of tea and a slice
the old man died

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Occam's razor kills a few more fairies

While I was cramming for my machine learning test last night, I came across an interesting passage on induction and Occam's razor. Induction is the red-headed stepchild of deduction, deduction being reasoning logically from firm premises to new conclusions. For instance, premises like "Guys are scum" and "You're a guy" imply the conclusion that "You are scum" as long as you believe the premises. The philosophical quest for deductive thinkers is to discover unshakeable premises and go from there. One of the most famous such premises is "I think, therefore I am."

Out here in the real world, we have no such foundational premises, or we don't know how to find them (unless someone in the know tells us, which is what revelatory religion is all about). To revelation and deduction, we add induction, which is trying to find the common thread in a dizzying array of experiences. Induction never really ends, because as far as we have seen (ha ha), the universe is a continually surprising place, and snips that common thread as fast as we can spin it. What this also means is that information we learn by induction is never unshakeable; the process of induction is a bit more risky than safe, justifiable deduction (in fact, it is famously difficult to justify induction, after Hume). We might be learning probabilities, or we might be finding red herrings, or we might be stumbling across fundamental truths. But we never really know, because we never really think that we have seen everything.

It is impossible to number the many possible theories about what we have seen and experienced. Witness the wild array of sciences that continually proliferate surrounding the physical (and theoretical and mathematical and computational) universe. We will never come to the end of them. When two theories conflict, like the gravitational theory and the gravity fairy theory, which one should we believe?

One way to decide between competing theories, not a law exactly, but a sort of heuristic, is called Occam's razor, after William of Occam (also spelled Ockham, I think). It has many paraphrases. I believe the original one was in Latin and meant literally "Do not multiply entities without cause". You could also say "The simplest explanation is the best explanation" or "Favor the shortest theory".

The idea is that you can lay out two theories, and if one explains all the things the other theory does, but also requires the existence of gravity fairies while the latter doesn't, we should believe the latter theory. Another extended example is materialism vs. theism. The classic design argument says that the universe is so complex that it implies a creator; the materialist response is "who created God?" Once the theist says that God is uncreated and eternal to escape an infinite regress ("who created the thing that created God?" ad nauseam), the materialist asks "why can't the universe be uncreated and eternal?" and then says, "Your God doesn't add anything to our concept of the universe, and by Occam's razor, we shouldn't multiply entities without cause, so God doesn't exist. Snap!"

Once we get beyond trivial thought experiments like these, though, we encounter a lot of problems; what does "entity" mean in Occam's razor? How about "simple"? Isn't the shortest theory "For the Bible tells me so"? Worse, in Theory A, we have magic fairies which don't exist in Theory B, but on the other hand, in Theory B we have fields and forces that somehow influence all of space-time at arbitrary distances that don't exist in Theory A. In fact, you might not even be able to compare these theories so directly; it might instead be impossible to explain Theory A in terms of Theory B because the concepts just don't translate. In these cases, which theory should we pick?

Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, essentially advocates a pragmatic approach; in some sense, science is what scientists do and what scientists say it is. A scientific theory works if it surprises you and enables you to do things you couldn't do before. A theory is interesting if it is beautiful or elegant, if it slides into place and clears up many mysteries in a straightforward and devilishly clever way.

But there are no obvious measuring sticks for these qualities, either. Eventually even Kuhn has to throw up his hands and say that the best theory is the one that all the scientists in a discipline eventually vote for. It allows some new possibilities but eliminates others. It still circumscribes that corner of the universe, just with a different shape than the old theory. It has the allegiance of the crowd, but so had the other theory. The crowd is committed to good theories, to clear description, to quantification and anomaly, to elegance, beauty, and truth, to verification by reproducible experiment. But even this doesn't really get to the heart of why one scientific theory is better than another one.

It's amazing that new technology appears with aplomb when the philosophical foundations of science itself seem so slippery to catch hold of, and ordinary scientists can study their stars or DNA or President's correspondences without worrying much about these concerns. But the explanation is obvious once you think about it:

Science fairies.

Iran, or how I learned to stop worrying

Over at Glenn Greenwald's blog, some warmongering fools think a US preemptive strike on Iran (using nuclear weapons) to destroy its nuclear program would be better than letting Iran get the bomb in 5 to 10 years.

This is completely foolhardy for several reasons.

First, a group of scientists has created a flash video which explains how a nuclear bunker buster used against an Iranian nuclear site would cause a fallout cloud that would kill millions of people and reach all the way to India.

Second, the United States has nuclear primacy, and no one else in the world has a credible deterrent now. We would basically be in uncharted political and psychological waters if the world's hyperpower starts incinerating people without provocation. I don't know what would happen next and neither do you.

Third, we already have a belligerent foreign policy; the United States was lied right into a war by the most powerful person in the world, a war which has since been revealed to be devoid of justification, completely incompetent, and incredibly violent. Adding a nuclear weapon to that mix is not going to make a new war, the selling of which has been ramping up hourly, come out out any better.

Fourth, unprovoked first strikes are among the most profoundly immoral foreign policy choices available. It is like killing someone if they look at you cockeyed, the dark secret lurking in the heart of Rex Banner.

Still, like blogger Billmon says, it's hard to understand why this war propaganda effort, which is so like the last one for Iraq, has not turned on BS detectors all across the country. It is so easy to imagine the country being spun by our President into another nightmare, so easy to feel helpless against the PR machine. So tell a friend about the fallout video. It made me feel a little better.

[Edited to add: I forgot to add the insane contradiction at the heart of this idea, so here it is. Fifth, the whole point of this campaign would be to prevent Iran from taking their bomb (next decade) and blowing it up in downtown Tel Aviv. Goes the logic, to stop one bomb from being used, we have to use another bomb. But by this policy it should be clear that we are not opposed to bombs going off, overmuch; it's just that if any bombs do go off, they're going to be ours. Melted people for thee, not for me.

I hope that everyone agrees with me that this is a very shaky moral position for us to take before Iran even gets a bomb, much less shows serious intentions of using it. Friends don't let friends shoot each other in the face (unless you happen to be friends with the vice president). The real reason people want to use bunker busters on the Iranians is that they think the Iranians are not our friends, and never will be. I hope that we can do better than that hatred.]

Monday, April 17, 2006

Can't say ----

I'm reading a law article on the great unprintable word [long alert; pdf alert; endless swearing alert; you've been warned]. It's quite interesting, but only if you're into that sort of thing. The word occupies a curious no-man's-land in current jurispridence, where free speech and the public good collide.

At the moment I've detoured into an article it cites from last August, about President Bush's deteriorating mood and profanity-filled tirades. Capitol Hill Blue, if I understand it, is kind of a rag sheet for the DC political scene. I don't really buy the armchair psychology that all the rage has to do with alcoholism in the second half of the story (any more than I buy Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn)'s long-distance "diagnosis" of Terri Schiavo). But I do buy the first half, which is all sourced to White House insiders.

The picture of President Bush flipping off the camera is pretty priceless. Of all the reasons the evangelicals should dump him, this is the main one: he's not some special great Christian on a personal mission from God. He's a man making lots of important decisions who is as sinful and faulty and vulgar as you or I. He gets a free pass on Iraq, Katrina, the Constitution, and so on, because he's a "good Christian man", and he tries to "do the right thing".

When we get beyond that Christian image, there is a lot of incompetence that man has to answer for.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

US religious maps

I'm a bit busy and behind my email and this blog, but I did notice an interesting collection of maps on American religious affiliation, by county. It doesn't cover all religions; it is mostly Christian denominations, with other major religions not subcounted by subsect.

I have no reason to suspect that if your religion was left off, it was for a more nefarious reason than that the small percentages around the country don't add up to an interesting map. So, there's no Baha'i, no Sikh, no Hindu (which surprised me), no Buddhist (another surprise), no Shinto, etc. The page indicates that the maps were also selected for interesting regional patterns (e.g., the map of Baptists, which is concentrated in the South, or the map of Mormons, which is concentrated on Utah). The Baptist church my family goes to doesn't even register as a blip in Northern Utah's Cache County, so don't feel slighted.

I guess the maps are out of a larger book which goes into the finer detail. The data are from large church bodies which are in some sense self-selecting, as explained here. So take with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Bible for Dummies 2

[Time for another episode in our ongoing series on the Bible for Dummies. This time, it's a comment on Crooks and Liars that provokes the beast. Edifying enough that I thought everyone should have a look.]

"Kindly note that the New Testaments composed just 4 main Gospels and were deliberetely chosen by the Church Council in the 4-5th centuries AD. Many Church writings were excluded that did not fit the Church idea of its history such as the Gnostic writings, which included writings by Jesus as a man, not as a son of god, and pieces that made it clear that events like the snake and the apple were just moral fables and not historial facts."

This is a very strange reading of the history of canonization. The earliest known canon (list of trustworthy books) is called the Muratorian fragment (or canon) and it dates c. 170 AD. It is a survey of books approved for reading in church. Every book in the New Testament was acceptable except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John (on which books the list is silent). The canon includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter (although admitting that not everyone accepts the latter). I think this is the Wisdom in the Catholic deuterocanon. The survey also excludes books now understood to be spurious or heretical (for instance, rejecting a psalm book written under the influence of the Marcionite heresy, which heresy originated c. 130 AD, and also The Shepherd of Hermas, which was not a bad book, but not for church).

The church councils in large part served to carve out official orthodoxy against heretical movements (as for instance, the Athanasian Creed was written as a response to the Arian heresy), but they did so in a context of unofficial orthodoxy.

I say this to note that the locus of canonical Christian documents crystallized much earlier than 300-400 AD. In fact, you would have to date it to 170 AD at the latest because the Muratorian fragment was written in such a context of unofficial orthodoxy. Canonization was a fluid process, because people had different opinions on the merit of X or Y book (still happens; mister sola scriptura himself, Martin Luther, disliked the book of James and wished it wasn't in the New Testament), but there was a large consensus on the whole.

Read all about it in Metzger's The Canon of the New Testament.


That's the end of the original comment, but I'll add a personal note. During college when I was supposed to be figuring out what to do with my life, I used the amazing University of Washington Libraries to figure out what to do with my religion. I was attracted mainly by CS Lewis' mere Christianity and GK Chesterton's romance of orthodoxy. The idea was that people will disagree about doctrines here and there, but there is a real Christian core that has been preserved beyond differences of culture (or perhaps through differences of culture). I wanted to find out what it was.

This took me into a study of early Christianity, which I strongly, strongly recommend to anyone who gives a fig about Jesus, God, and Christianity. The largest lesson I learned was that God wants us to pursue grace and love and mercy and justice, not just truth and right belief and bright lines between Christianity and not-Christianity.

But I also learned a lot about what those early Christians thought Christianity was all about. It turns out the line is very muddled, especially on the boundary cases. Any straightforward definition of Christianity is bound to be deceptive. To me this is a feature, not a bug. It means the faith is squishy and alive, not just carved in tablets on Mount Sinai.

The reason I recommend the study of early Christianity is that you will see the faith growing in real time, see people honestly wrestling questions that had no pat answers back then. Instead of parroting what their pastor told them, they had to figure it out on the fly. What is the Bible? What is God? Who is Jesus? What is a right relationship with God? What is salvation? What is true doctrine? Does it matter?

You learn more from this than just what answers they came up with. Human life in the twenty-first century holds many questions for Jesus and Christianity (whether you believe it or not). The way we respond to those questions with our words and deeds should be a living, honest struggle. Would we could do it as well as the early Christians, whether or not we agree with what they eventually produced.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Tomorrow is the first day of my second year of blogging. It's been somewhat successful. I've managed to air my dirty laundry and innermost thoughts, and my theological mutterings. My home and my inner life have been much better for it.

At the same time, I feel like this blog lacks that vision thing. It's not a single-issue site. I like to think that I would welcome opposing viewpoints, even if my writing can be stridently liberal from time to time. (With DeLay, Abramoff, Reed, Norquist, Scanlon, Rudy, Rove, Libby, and so on, maybe this political bias is regrettably necessary at this period in history.) Not that I get many comments, but to my commenting readers and faithful subscribers both, thank you.

People arrive at this blog in some pretty interesting ways, whether they're Nickel Creek fans or have an unhealthy interest in me writing their term papers for them. They look for examples of specialized letters to invite people to musicals. They want to watch and rewatch the Svarnik and Byll videos. Once in a while they even search for Dan Lewis. I keep thinking I should cull some of the best searches and put them on the front page.

Feel free to suggest improvements to the blog. Content suggestions or questions to explore might be nice, even fun. I said something once about a site redesign involving books, letters, paper, and CSS, but nothing has come of it yet. This is your big chance for the year, so don't let it slip away.

Enough metablogging. I saw an excellent episode of Nova this weekend, "The Great Robot Race". This is about the recently concluded DARPA Grand Challenge: build a robot vehicle, which, given only a long list of a bunch of GPS waypoints, can drive itself through varied terrain and obstacles across a hundred miles of desert within a certain time limit (ten hours or so). And here's the catch: no human intervention whatsoever once the race starts. It was astounding to watch. And five robot cars really did it. The technology in those things is just astounding, and related to my interests, learning and intelligence. The video image processing they did was amazing too.