23 December 2005

Time has named Bill and Melinda Gates, and U2 singer Bono, its people of the year. As Time put it:

2005 is the year when Bono charmed and bullied and morally blackmailed the leaders of the world's richest countries into forgiving $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest... The Gateses, having built the world's biggest charity, with a $29 billion endowment, spent the year giving more money away faster than anyone ever has.

So...what have you done for the world this year?

Posted 06:43 PM

21 December 2005

I must admit, I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for the methods of the more extreme animal rights organizations. Certainly vandalizing laboratories and throwing paint on people who wear fur are criminal acts, and should be prosecuted accordingly. Still, I don't put such acts in the same class as, say, hijacking jetliners and flying them into buildings.

Apparently the FBI disagrees, claiming that environmental and animal rights militants pose the biggest terrorist threats in the US.

Posted 04:27 PM

20 December 2005

The fundamental idea behind all scientific endeavors is the notion that humans can and should trust their own senses to help them understand the world. Detailed observations of planetary motion by Galileo and Copernicus told us more about the structure of the heavens than Genesis does. Careful studies of geological strata and their embedded fossils tell us more about the development of life than Genesis does.

Thus, the most important characteristic of a scientific hypothesis is that it is predictive. It makes an assertion about the world that can be used to predict the outcome of future experiments. If the laws of planetary motion are true, then there must be as-yet undiscovered planets (now known as Neptune and Pluto) that our telescopes cannot yet see. If the laws of evolution are true, then we can make testable assertions about things like the amount of shared DNA between two species that we think may share a common ancestor. Science progresses by making such assertions, testing them through research, and making new assertions that take into account the new results.

Conversely, the most important indicator that a theory is not science is its failure to make testable assertions about the world. Intelligent design theorists argue that the development of species was guided by an intelligent architect. If we assume for the sake of argument that they are correct, then what? What predictions can we make about the world? Without such assertions a theory is neither right nor wrong, but is simply irrelevant to scientific discourse.

Today in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design, like Biblical creationism, is a religious philosophy and cannot be taught as science.

Update: Full text of the court's ruling is at FindLaw. (PDF file, long)

Posted 11:50 AM

Google Then: Don't be evil.

Google Now: Unless there's a 5% stake in AOL riding on it.

Posted 10:13 AM

Suppose that the FBI suspects someone of being a member of a terrorist cell in the US. The FBI calls the NSA, which taps the person's phone. It also gets a list of the last hundred numbers called by the person, and taps those phones as well. After all, those people have "links" to terrorism. Some of them may be bad guys, but some of them are probably average US citizens who have no idea that their neighbor, their friend from the mosque, or the guy who bought their used car is actually a potential terrorist.

But it doesn't stop there. For each of the hundred numbers called by our alleged bad guy, the NSA also gets the last hundred numbers they dialed, and taps them. So we're already up to 10,000 tapped telephones, some fraction of whom have probably never even heard of the alleged bad guy. If there are 100 alleged terrorists on the FBI's list, we are up to 1,000,000 tapped phones. Probably a million monitored cell phones and email addresses, too.

And the president is claiming that the executive branch has the right to do all this without a court order, and that neither the courts nor the Congress can limit this power. Recall that this same president claims the right to hold US citizens arrested on US soil indefinitely, without charge or trial. Recall that this same president has gone to great lengths to keep "enemy combatants" out of reach of the US courts, without even the opportunity to challenge their status.

The last president who asserted such broad executive power resigned in disgrace after it turned out that many of his political enemies were "suspected Communists" on the FBI's watch list. Communism has since collapsed under its own weight, but at the time the Soviet Union was a far more formidable foe than Al Qaeda.

For those who've forgotten, the Bill of Rights can be found here.

Posted 09:29 AM


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