Six degrees of Osama bin Laden

The N.S.A.’s Math Problem  by JONATHAN DAVID FARLEY

The National Security Agency’s entire spying program seems to be based on a false assumption: that you can work out who might be a terrorist based on calling patterns. While I agree that anyone calling 1-800-ALQAEDA is probably a terrorist, in less obvious situations guilt by association is not just bad law, it’s bad mathematics, for two reasons.

President Bush is only a few steps away from Osama bin Laden (in the 1970’s he ran a company partly financed by the American representative for one of the Qaeda leader’s brothers). And terrorist hermits like the Unabomber are connected to only a very few people. So much for finding the guilty by association.[…]

A second problem with the spy agency’s apparent methodology lies in the way terrorist groups operate and what scientists call the “strength of weak ties.” […] You might not see your college roommate for 10 years, but if he were to call you up and ask to stay in your apartment, you’d let him. This is the principle under which sleeper cells operate: there is no communication for years. Thus for the most dangerous threats, the links between nodes that the agency is looking for simply might not exist.

The gospel of Judas

The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot?

To most Christians, Judas is seen as a traitor, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver. But a newly restored papyrus document dating to the 2nd century AD portrays a very different man. Judas is shown as Jesus’ best friend, asked by Jesus himself to betray his identity to fulfill the prophecy and liberate his soul to ascend to heaven.

Why Data Mining Won’t Stop Terror

Security wonk Bruce Schneier crunches some numbers in Wired magazine to explain Why Data Mining Won’t Stop Terror. Even a system with a very low rate of false-positives will still still produce a huge number of false alarms. Maybe that’s why leads generated by NSA wiretapping were so useless to the FBI.

This unrealistically accurate system will generate 1 billion false alarms for every real terrorist plot it uncovers. Every day of every year, the police will have to investigate 27 million potential plots in order to find the one real terrorist plot per month.

Raise that false-positive accuracy to an absurd 99.9999 percent and you’re still chasing 2,750 false alarms per day — but that will inevitably raise your false negatives, and you’re going to miss some of those 10 real plots.

American Theocracy

‘American Theocracy,’ by Kevin Phillips

Prophetic Christians, Phillips writes, often shape their view of politics and the world around signs that charlatan biblical scholars have identified as predictors of the apocalypse — among them a war in Iraq, the Jewish settlement of the whole of biblical Israel, even the rise of terrorism. He convincingly demonstrates that the Bush administration has calculatedly reached out to such believers and encouraged them to see the president’s policies as a response to premillennialist thought.

California school cancels ‘Intelligent Design’ course

School Scraps ‘Intelligent Design’

Under legal pressure, a rural school district Tuesday canceled an elective philosophy course on “intelligent design” and agreed never to promote the topic in class again.

A group of parents had sued the El Tejon school system last week, accusing it of violating the constitutional separation of church and state with “Philosophy of Design,” a high school course taught by a minister’s wife that advanced the notion that life is so complex it must have been created by some kind of higher intelligence.

El Tejon Superintendent John Wight said the subject was proper for a philosophy class. But Americans United argued the course relied almost exclusively on videos that presented religious theories as scientific ones.

The El Tejon class “was misconceived,” said John West, a senior fellow at the [Discovery Institute]. “It was almost all about Biblical creationism, not intelligent design.”

Sharon Lemburg, a social studies teacher and soccer coach who taught “Philosophy of Design,” defended the course in a letter to the weekly Mountain Enterprise. “I believe this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach,” she wrote.

Judge rules “Intelligent Design” is re-labelled creationism

Intelligent design is re-labelled creationism

Judge John Jones of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled on Tuesday that requiring intelligent design in public school science lessons amounts to promotion of religion, and is therefore unconstitutional. In doing so, he sided with mainstream science organisations and rebutted almost every argument made in favour of intelligent design, calling it the “progeny of creationism”.

Is Creationism Destructible?

Is Creationism Destructible? – Where to go from Dover.

“Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion,” [Judge Jones] writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, “was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause.” Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.

As Jones makes clear, the Dover case is lousy with evidence of explicit religious motivation on the part of local ID proponents. But is ID, by virtue of being unscientific, wholly and inherently religious—or is there, contrary to the judge’s dualism, a third category? The answer is inadvertently sprinkled throughout his opinion. Statements by ID leaders “reveal ID’s religious, philosophical, and cultural content,” he writes. A strategy document developed by the “Center for Renewal of Science and Culture” is full of “cultural and religious goals, as opposed to scientific ones.” Proponents of ID fear “evolution’s threat to culture and society,” and the Dover board’s collaborators have “demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions.” Cultural, cultural, cultural. Not scientific, not necessarily religious, but cultural.

Psychological origins of religion

THE VAGARIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by Daniel Gilbert

As Albert Einstein wrote:

“(I had) a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies. It was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment ? an attitude which has never again left me.” (Autobiographical Notes, 1949)

Einstein’s orgy of freethinking forever changed our understanding of space and time, and the phrase “Religion for Dummies” became, in the view of many scientists, a redundancy.

[…]

Our tendency to underestimate the power of random processes to create order leads us to seek explanations where none are needed. Our tendency to be satisfied by well-formed utterances that are devoid of content compels us to accept explanations when none are provided.

When people look out on the natural world and declare that there must be a God because all of this could surely not have happened by chance, they are not overestimating the orderly complexity of nature. Rather, they are underestimating the power of chance to produce it.

Luckily for us, the human brain tends to search for and hold onto the most rewarding view of events, much as it does of objects. Our ability to find and embrace the most rewarding view of the circumstances that befall us is nothing short of remarkable, which is why people adapt so quickly and so well to almost every form of tragedy and trauma.

Brains strive to provide the best view of things, but because the owners of those brains don’t know this, they are surprised when things seem to turn out for the best. To explain this surprising fact, people sometimes invoke an external source ? a subliminal message in the laboratory, God in everyday life.

Pat Robertson and the God protection racket

Conservative Christian evangelist Pat Robertson has upped the ante in the Dover, PA “Intelligent Design” court case. After local residents voted out 8 school board members who had promoted ID, Robertson warned the town that God might smite the town in retribution.

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city,” Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club.”
Later Thursday, Robertson issued a statement saying he was simply trying to point out that “our spiritual actions have consequences.”

That’s a comforting thought. Piss off God, and he’ll come after you like Tony Soprano. I wonder what Robertson had in mind. Flood? Fire? Plague of lawyers?

“God is tolerant and loving, but we can’t keep sticking our finger in his eye forever,” Robertson said. “If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them.”

This from the same voice of religious moderation that called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and blowing up the State Department with a nuclear bomb. He also said that feminism causes women to “kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”