Archives August 2009

BillDo Teaches Us About Moral Absolutes

BillDo in his
1998 annual report:

March 25

Comedy Central’s “South Park” continued its notorious Christian-bashing, with an episode that linked Christians to Nazis as oppressors of homosexuals. In a segment describing homosexuality throughout history, the character “Big Gay Al” interrupted his commentary to say, “Uh-oh, look out, it’s the oppressors—Christians and Nazis and Republicans.” The scene showed Hitler with a Catholic priest to the right and a Republican on the left—the priest waving a cross, the Republican an American flag.

BillDo in 2004:

George Soros, the billionaire left-wing Bush-hater who funds the website ( has compared Bush to Hitler)

BillDo in 2006:

Want a sample of his politics? In 2005, McCourt took part in a rally, ‘The Call to Drive Out the Bush Regime,’ that compared the Bush administration to Hitler’s regime.

BillDo in his
2008 annual report:

Bill Maher continued his non-stop assault on Catholicism in 2008 by lashing out several times on TV and in movies. After he mocked Transubstantiation early in the year, I said on TV that I would love to step into the ring with him in Madison Square Garden so I could “floor him.” The comment was made in jest, but he kept repeating it all year, feigning victim status. His rant against the pope, made just before the Holy Father visited the U.S. in April, included a comment calling Pope Benedict XVI a Nazi. He apologized (sort of) after we went after him.

So I think the lesson is clear: comparing people to Hitler or Nazis is
unacceptable, and rightfully causes outrage. Right?

BillDo yesterday:


Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments on last night’s edition of Penn & Teller’s show. The program aired on Showtime which is owned by CBS:

The Nazis couldn’t have done better.

Ah, but that’s different, isn’t it? Behavior that’s completely
unacceptable in one set of circumstances may be okay in another.
Right, Bill?

BillDo in 2002:

Moral relativism is not only an intellectually bankrupt idea, its real-life consequences can be deadly.

Not until our society comes to accept
what the Catholic Church teaches—that there are moral absolutes and that all
life is sacred—will we turn the corner.

BillDo in 2004:

What I’m a little bit tired of is the same kind of cruel caricature. And I love the way the movie ends. You know, here we have this idea that moral absolutes are bad. We need gray areas. Oh, really? Let me tell you something, Brian, you made this movie. Millions of people have lost their lives in the last century because of selling the idea that there are no moral absolutes. If there are no moral absolutes, we are back to different strokes for different people. We put pizzas into ovens in this country, they put Jews into ovens in Nazi Germany. Yet, that may not have been your intention, sir, but you’re selling an idea which is toxic.

BillDo in 2005:

Pope Benedict XVI knows that a society absent moral absolutes is capable of great evil. His homily on the "dictatorship of relativism" owes much to John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, one of the most brilliant statements ever written on the relation between morality and liberty.

Hm. Maybe BillDo should learn how to delete embarrassing archives from
his site.

Or maybe the lesson to be learned is that pointing out Billy-boy’s
hypocrisy is like walking up to a barrel filled with slow-moving fish,
with a rocket launcher bolted to the side and aimed straight into the
barrel, and only someone with too much time on his hands, like me,
would bother to actually pull the trigger.

Does the Pope Shit on the Woods?

I keep hearing that atheists attack a strawman version of religion,
that sophisticated theologians don’t make the sorts of simplistic
arguments we attribute to theists, and the like.

On Wednesday, the Pope gave a
speech about the environment,
in which he said:

Experiencing the shared responsibility for creation (Cf. 51), the Church is not only committed to the promotion of the defense of the earth, of water and of air, given by the Creator to everyone, but above all is committed to protect man from the destruction of himself. In fact, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected in society, environmental ecology also benefits” (ibid).

That’s rich, coming from the head of an organization whose policy
forbids family planning through birth control, a guy who himself, just
five months ago, said that
condoms make the AIDS problem worse,
in short, a guy who advocates policies of population growth checked
only by disease and competition for resources like water.

And then there’s the second half of that paragraph:

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.

As a matter of fact, Mr. Ratz, no. Inconsiderate use of creation does
not begin where the existence of your magic man is denied, it begins
where people don’t think their actions will have undesirable
consequences. And by the way, if you’re going to rail about people
pursuing “a feverish race to possess the most possible”, may I suggest
that you take off the silk robes and step outside of your
palatial summer residence?
Just a thought. Might make you look a little less of a hypocritical

As for who owns the Earth, let’s take a look at the
Bible, page 1,
right after the copyright page:

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

The NIV says “rule over”. The NRSV says “have dominion”. I think it’s
clear how this can lead to a “fuck you, it’s my earth, I can do what I
want” attitude, the “final authority” attitude that Ratzinger
deplores. And creationists in Darwin’s day didn’t believe in
extinction, on the grounds that God would never allow one of his
creations to die out.

As for “inconsiderate use of creation”, I shouldn’t have to point out
that if there are no gods, then they can’t save us or the planet, so
it’s up to us. If we don’t take charge of passing on to the next
generation the kind of planet we’d like to have, who will? In fact,
the pope’s next paragraph says as much:

Creation, matter structured in an intelligent manner by God, is entrusted to man’s responsibility, who is able to interpret and refashion it actively, without regarding himself as the absolute owner. Man is called to exercise responsible government to protect it, to obtain benefits and cultivate it, finding the necessary resources for a dignified existence for all.

except that he has to throw in a wholly gratuitous referece to God.

I can easily get behind a lot of what the speech said about protecting
the environment. But I can’t help noticing that the pope had to ignore
the Bible, his own policies, and a big chunk of the history of
religion in order to justify his conclusions with vague platitudes
about how “that covenant between the human being and the environment
that must be a reflection of the creative love of God”.

All of which would be mostly harmless if he hadn’t just taken a dump
on people who have been making those arguments long before he got
around to considering catching up to the 20th century, on the sole
grounds that they recognize his magic man for the superstitious tripe
that it is.

I keep hearing that morality has to come from God. And this is a
perfect example of that attitude: the leader of the single largest
sect on the planet saying that atheists must ipso facto be
inconsiderate and greedy.

So fuck you, Ratzi. Fuck you with a rusty crucifix.

Truncated Headlines
RIP Ted Kennedy

As you’ve no doubt heard,
Ted Kennedy has passed away.
My earliest memory of him is from my college days, when he and Bob
Dole had a five-minute debate program on WTOP that I enjoyed listening
to on my way to school.

He was also the guy who, every year, introduced a bill to raise the
minimum wage. Every time, it got shot down, and every time, he
introduced another one, until one finally passed.

Last, and certainly least, he spoke with a true New England yankee
accent. In an age when it seems that American regional accents are
being eroded, Kennedy’s speech had a certain exotic quality about it.

Truncated Headlines

For those who don’t know, when Google News creates an entry for a
story in one of its RSS feeds, it picks an article from one of the
newspapers that reported the story, and generates a title for the RSS
entry by taking that paper’s headline, followed by its name.

But to prevent overflows or something, the headline is truncated to 36
characters, sometimes with amusing results. Here are a few I’ve
noticed recently:

  • California Senate OKs plan to reduce … – Los Angeles Times
  • US officials eye hanging chads — in … – Los Angeles Times
  • Kennedy asks Massachusetts to change … – Los Angeles Times
  • Prison plan clears Senate, but faces … – San Jose Mercury News
  • Authorities in Midwest crack down on … – Chicago Tribune

I’m not picking on the LA Times. They just happened to be bitten by this behavior most often.

Bill Dembski Gets A Paper Published

Huh. Looks like Bill Dembski got a paper published in IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Part A: Systems and Humans, Volume 39 Issue 5, Sept. 2009.

I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but here’s the abstract:

Abstract—Conservation of information theorems indicate that any search algorithm performs, on average, as well as random search without replacement unless it takes advantage of problem-specific information about the search target or the search-space structure. Combinatorics shows that even a mod- erately sized search requires problem-specific information to be successful. Computers, despite their speed in performing queries, are completely inadequate for resolving even moderately sized search problems without accurate information to guide them. We propose three measures to characterize the information required for successful search: 1) endogenous information, which measures the difficulty of finding a target using random search; 2) ex- ogenous information, which measures the difficulty that remains in finding a target once a search takes advantage of problem- specific information; and 3) active information, which, as the differ- ence between endogenous and exogenous information, measures the contribution of problem-specific information for successfully finding a target. This paper develops a methodology based on these information measures to gauge the effectiveness with which problem-specific information facilitates successful search. It then applies this methodology to various search tools widely used in evolutionary search.

From a quick glance, it looks like he’s still on his No Free Lunch Theorem kick. In the conclusion, the authors write:

To have integrity, search algorithms, particularly computer simulations of evolutionary search, should explicitly state as follows: 1) a numerical mea- sure of the difficulty of the problem to be solved, i.e., the endogenous information, and 2) a numerical measure of the amount of problem-specific information resident in the search algorithm, i.e., the active information.

which to me sounds like they think that people who use evolutionary algorithms are cheating by using a search method that performs well given the problem at hand.

In any case, I’m sure this paper will be bandied about as a sterling example of the research cdesign proponentsists are doing.

Update, Aug. 21: Mark Chu-Carroll has weighed in on this paper, and pretty much confirms my suspicion: at the core of the paper is a moderately-interesting idea — that it’s possible to quantify the amount of information in a search algorithm, i.e., how much it knows about the search space in order to produce quick results — along with some fluff that allows him to brag that he got a “peer-reviewed pro-ID article in mainstream […] literature“.

Wednesday Playlist: Travel Edition

For a friend who’s flying off to a vacation in the Caribbean today:

  1. Viva! Sea-Tac, Robyn Hitchcock
  2. Music for Airports, Brian Eno
  3. Aéroplanes, Serge Gainsbourg
  4. The Night Flight from Houston, Laurie Anderson
  5. Jetstream, New Order
  6. Learning to Fly, Pink Floyd
  7. Fly Like An Eagle, Steve Miller Band
  8. Listen Over the Ocean, The Violet Eves
  9. The Beach, New Order
  10. Caribbean Blue, Enya
  11. Puerto Pollo, Michael Land
  12. Vacation, Freezepop
Some Bloody Obvious Observations About Health Care

In all the recent talk about US health care reform, one comparison
that hasn’t been made enough, IMO, is with public schools.

Yes, US public schools have their share of problems (don’t get me
started on students who can’t find the US on a map), but they do serve
two important functions: they’re a backstop and a floor.

Backstop: if, for whatever reason, you can’t send your kid to a
private school — perhaps your school of choice is too far away,
or too expensive, or the uniform clashes dreadfully with her hair, or
whatever — there’s always the public school option. That is, you
never have to choose between education you can’t afford and no
education, only between education and better education.

Right now, too many people are having to choose between health
insurance they can’t afford, and no health insurance.

Floor: private schools can remain in business only if they suck less
than public schools. If you’re of the “government can’t do anything
right” school of thought, this sets the bar low enough that it
shouldn’t be a problem.

But on the whole, public schools haven’t driven private schools out of
business, any more than public libraries killed off Blockbuster or
Netflix. the US Postal Service has killed off UPS and FedEx. In fact,
those two came along after the USPS, and thrived because USPS
was widely seen as being sucky.

So a government-run health insurance plan would define the lowest
level of quality that a plan would have to achieve. If your insurance
company sucks more than the federal government, you don’t deserve to
remain in business.

Backstop again: a lot of jobs that the government does are ones that
are unprofitable, but ought to be done. When No Child Left Behind
required schools to show how much bang they were giving for the
education buck, a lot of private schools tried to dump their special
needs students, simply because kids who need special attention or
staff training are less profitable than average kids. Public schools
don’t have that option. Again, by analogy, a public plan should cover
those people too unprofitable for private plans (I’m thinking Stephen
Hawking without the wealth and fame).

Now feel free to leave a comment saying how fucking obvious all of
this is.

Some Meta-Arguments Against God, Part 1

It’s widely acknowledged that it isn’t possible to prove absolutely
that no gods exist, any more than it’s impossible to prove absolutely
that no invisible unicorns exist. Every atheist I know freely
acknowledges that. But at the same time, one can easily argue that
gods (or invisible unicorns) are very unlikely to exist.

A lot of these arguments are meta-arguments, in that they don’t stand
on their own, but build upon arguments made by theists.

Lack of evidence

Despite what a lot of people think, atheism isn’t the firm belief that
there aren’t any gods. Rather, it’s a lack of belief in gods.
To put it another way, the atheist position is “You believers haven’t
made your case. I’m not convinced that you’re right.”

So the lack of evidence is the big one. There is no good evidence for
any gods. No verified miracles, no verified prophecies, no burning
bushes, no nothing.

There’s a saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of
absence”. This is true as far as it goes, but absence of evidence
where we would expect to see some is evidence of absence.
If I say that there’s a Thai restaurant at 15th and K, the fact that
you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. If, however, you
go down to 15th and K, and look all over, and fail to find the Thai
restaurant, that is good evidence that I’m wrong.

Theists have had thousands of years to demonstrate that their various
gods are real. And they’ve tried. Oh, boy, have they tried. And so
far, bupkis. No divine abodes on top of Mount Olympus, no rainbow
bridge to Asgard, no Noah’s Ark, no nothing.

Okay, so maybe gods aren’t directly detectable, either with our senses
or simple measurement devices. Maybe they don’t reflect visible light,
or emit sound waves, or pull compass needles toward them. That still
leaves indirect evidence.

I’ve seen satellite photos in which you couldn’t see ships, but you
could see their wakes. A lot of extrasolar planets have been
discovered not by direct observation, but by they affect the orbit of
their sun. Heck, if it comes to that, all nuclear physics is done
through indirect observation: protons and electrons are too small to
see, but we can observe the shape of trails in a bubble chamber, or
flashes of light on a CRT.

It’s not just the so-called hard sciences, either: there are
statistical methods for figuring out whether an election was rigged by
looking for anomalies in the results, the sorts of things that would
be introduced by a cheater, but unlikely to come up by chance.

And yet, nothing. No good direct evidence, no good indirect evidence.
The Templeton Foundation keeps throwing money at trying to come up
with evidence of a god — studies on intercessory prayer, that
sort of thing — and so far they’ve come up with two kinds of
results: ones that come from flawed experiments, and ones that show no

I don’t think it’s just me being overly skeptical: after 2000 years,
Christians have still failed to convince two thirds of the world’s
population that they’re right. Jews and Hindus have had even longer.
Miracles of Islam
are not convincing to anyone but Muslims. And so on, and so forth.

Secular Bible Study: Ecclesiastes

Here are the
in org format)
for the Secular Bible Study presentation I’m going to be giving in an hour or so, about the book of Ecclesiastes.