Friday, November 18, 2005

Catholics Less Nutty Than Protestants

Some of the recent evidence:
Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
October 05, 2005

THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.

"We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision," they say in The Gift of Scripture.

The document is timely, coming as it does amid the rise of the religious Right, in particular in the US.

Some Christians want a literal interpretation of the story of creation, as told in Genesis, taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, believing "intelligent design" to be an equally plausible theory of how the world began.

But the first 11 chapters of Genesis, in which two different and at times conflicting stories of creation are told, are among those that this country’s Catholic bishops insist cannot be "historical". . .

. . .

Followed by:

Vatican wants to end battle with science
Cardinal says unreasonable religion can fall prey to fundamentalism

Nov. 3, 2005

VATICAN CITY - A Vatican cardinal said Thursday that the faithful should listen to what secular modern science has to offer, warning that religion risks turning into "fundamentalism" if it ignores scientific reason.

. . .

Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest, reaffirmed John Paul’s 1996 statement that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis."

"A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false," he said. "(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof."

. . .

Followed by:

Vatican Official Refutes Intelligent Design
By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer
November 18, 2005

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican's chief astronomer said Friday that "intelligent design" isn't science and doesn't belong in science classrooms, the latest high-ranking Roman Catholic official to enter the evolution debate in the United States.

The Rev. George Coyne, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, said placing intelligent design theory alongside that of evolution in school programs was "wrong" and was akin to mixing apples with oranges.

"Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be," the ANSA news agency quoted Coyne as saying on the sidelines of a conference in Florence. "If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science."

. . .

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sam Alito: Stealth Candidate

The title of this entry is a touch ironic, but it is not sarcastic.

In sharp contrast to Harriet Meiers (and even John Roberts), Sam Alito has left in his trail an extensive collection of judicial opinions for court-watchers to peruse. I submit, however, that these tell us very little about how Alito will rule on various issues as a Supreme Court Justice.

Judge Alito's Third Circuit opinions are characterized by an effort to discern and apply Supreme Court precedent faithfully. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for example, Alito's dissent focused on applying Justice O'Connor's "undue burden" test to the facts before him -- without commenting on whether he believed the test to be constitutionally apt.

The other opinions that I've read by Judge Alito are marked by the same fidelity to Supreme Court precedent, and the same refusal to pronounce judgment on that precedent's wisdom.

Once he is on the Supreme Court, of course, Justice Alito will be unconstrained by precedent from a superior court. He will not have to follow O'Connor's "undue burden" test in abortion cases, or the Lemmon test in Establishment Clause cases, and so on. He will be free to apply whatever test he thinks is appropriate -- and on such matters he has given no hint in the opinions I've read by him.

Court of Appeals judges tend to decide cases based on their interpretation of controlling Supreme Court precedent. Supreme Court justices tend to decide cases based on their interpretation of the text of the Constitution (or other law) as well as relevant public policy considerations. Extrapolating from one to the other is fraught with uncertainty.

Not all Court of Appeals judges are so coy about their constitutional philosophies, by the way. Edith Jones, for example, has made no secret of her disagreement with Roe v. Wade. Nor has Janice Rogers Brown. But Samuel Alito's judicial opinions have been devoid of gratuitous dicta. Trying to figure out his own view of Roe v. Wade based on his Third Circuit dissent in Casey is little more than guesswork.

We may learn quite a bit about Alito's own constitutional philosophy during his Senate confirmation hearings. Until then, there is little to go on. His opinions from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals are simply not all that probative.

Posner, Easterbrook, and A3G's "Principled Hack Theory"

Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, judges on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, are two of the most highly qualified candidates for nomination to the Supreme Court. They rank #1 and #2 by a large margin, for example, in the Choi-Gulati Bill James-like attempt to evaluate federal judges by objective criteria. They are both Republican appointees, so why didn't they garner more consideration as potential SCOTUS nominees in the last couple months?

Article III Groupie offers an explanation:
What every president is looking for in a Supreme Court nominee is "a principled hack." This contradiction-in-terms sounds nonsensical, but it's actually quite logical; allow A3G to explain.

Presidents want the justices that they appoint to be political hacks -- i.e., reliable votes in favor of the president's desired political outcomes, be they liberal or conservative. But presidents also want their nominees to have a pre-confirmation record of adherence to principle. Besides being a good thing in and of itself, a record of being principled may facilitate the confirmation process, by allowing the candidate to defend prior rulings or past actions by saying, "Hey, look, those weren't my personal views; I was just following certain principles." Once the nominee gets confirmed, the ability to appear principled continues to be a helpful, since the nominee can justify votes in favor of a particular outcome by reference to a larger jurisprudential framework (e.g., the originalism of Justice Scalia, or the originalism-with-minimal-stare-decisis of Justice Thomas).

Jurists like Judge Easterbrook, Judge Posner, and Judge Kozinski are very committed to principles and the rule of law (which is why they are so widely admired, in addition to being brilliant). The problem with them as Supreme Court nominees comes from the second part of the test: they are insufficiently hack-like. They are not rigid enough in their voting patterns, occasionally voting for outcomes that are politically unpalatable, when their review of the law convinces them that such a result is required. In short, they vote with their consciences, deciding cases based on their honest views of the law, with no consideration for how their ruling might affect their possibilities for promotion.

With Posner, at least, there's probably more to it than that -- namely, his 1978 article (with Elizabeth Landes) suggesting that babies be bought and sold on a free market as a more efficient alternative to government-regulated adoption. (With no price mechanism in place, the demand for newborns far outstrips the supply even while millions of unwanted fetuses are terminated.) For some reason that was considered controversial in some circles. Nonetheless, I think A3G's analysis is largely correct and is a big part of the story.

By the way, Judge Posner's got a blog (along with economist Gary Becker). Check out the link over on the right.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Deleting Yahoo! Messenger Malware

And a Few More General Firefox Tips

I installed Yahoo! Messenger yesterday. I uninstalled it today. It made changes to my browsing experience in Firefox that I wasn't happy with at all.

1. It installed the Yahoo! toolbar into my browser, giving me easy access to a bunch of programs I don't use (the Yahoo! search engine, Yahoo! mail, etc.). This isn't the most inconvenient thing in the world, but it does reduce the amount of visible space available in the browsing window. More than that, though, it's just sneaky and intrusive.

2. It added the Yahoo! search engine to the search box (in the upper right corner of Firefox) and gave it top billing, bumping Google down into second place. Google's search engine is far superior to Yahoo's, so this change was annoying.

3. It hijacked the location bar in Firefox such that, when I typed in a word (as opposed to a URL) into the location bar, I was taken to the Yahoo! search results for the entered term. It used to be that if I typed in "Gmail" and hit enter, I'd be taken to Gmail's website. Same with Hotmail, Amazon, eBay, Wikipedia, IMDB, Google, and so on. But after the Yahoo-ification of my browser, if I typed in "Gmail" and hit enter, I was taken to Yahoo's search results page.

I didn't expect or desire any of these changes, and I doubt I'll ever use any Yahoo! software again. Instead of Yahoo! messenger, I'll use Trillian. The basic version is free, and is fine for chatting with people using any other popular IM software. The $25 professional version also supports video chat.

In any event, in case any of you are wondering how to de-Yahoo-ify your Firefox, here's how to do it. (We're talking Windows here.)

1. Run "Add or Remove Programs" from your control panel, and individually uninstall each Yahoo! application. I think there were four of them, but I didn't make any notes while doing this.

2. To get rid of the Yahoo! Toolbar, click on the little pencil icon in the toolbar and choose "Uninstall." If for some reason that doesn't work, click on the "Tools" drop-down menu in Firefox and select "Extensions." Find the Yahoo! Toolbar extension and click "Uninstall."

3. To get rid of the Yahoo! search engine in the search box, go into C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\ (or whatever installation directory you used for Firefox), then go into the searchplugins folder, and delete Yahoo.gif and Yahoo.src.

4. To stop Firefox from returning Yahoo! search results when you type terms into the location bar, type "about:config" in the location bar, then type "keyword" in the Filter field. Double-click on "keyword.URL", and then copy & paste "" into the dialogue box (without the quotes). Presto. This will make Firefox take you directly to Hotmail when you type "Hotmail" (and so on) instead of taking you to Yahoo's search results. (It is actually taking you to the "I'm Feeling Lucky" search result from Google.)

While we're fiddling around with Firefox, here are a few more tips.

Using the Search Box

You can add new search box plugins from Mozilla's products page. Instead of going to Wikipedia's page and doing a search from there, you can simply search Wikipedia using the search box in your browser. Same with Merriam-Webster, IMDB, eBay, and more. I used to use this feature fairly often before I discovered Firefox keywords, which make searches even easier. (See the section on keywords below.)

If you want to change the order in which the different search engines appear in the search box drop-down menu, type "about:config" in the location bar, then type "" in the filter. The rest is self-explanatory -- just change the values to reflect your preferences.

Using Keywords

Keywords are customizable shortcuts you can type into the location bar to take you to a specified webpage. They work through Firefox's bookmark feature. When you bookmark a page, you can choose "Manage bookmarks" from the Bookmarks pull-down menu, right-click on a bookmark, select "Properties," and enter a short string of characters to act as the keyword for that page.

Let's use this blog as an example. Let's say you want to be able to visit the blog just by typing "mt" into the location bar and hitting enter. Just bookmark the blog and then enter "mt" under Properties-->keyword. Now whenever you type "mt" into the location bar and hit enter, it will take you to

The cool thing is that, since you can use any URL you want as the referent for a keyword, you can use keywords to do any search you'd otherwise do from the search bar, plus many more.

Here are some of the ones I've got:

Google Groups search (gg):
Google Video search (gv):
Wikipedia search (wiki):
Bible verse lookup (bible):

Many more can be found at Leaky Tap.

The characters in parentheses above are the keywords and the corresponding URL's are their referents. So if I type "gv kournikova" into the location bar and hit enter, I get the Google Video search results for "kournikova". Pretty nifty, eh?

The Most Useful Extensions

I don't need to write much here because Paul Phillips has already done all the work. I'll just note that BugMeNot has saved me many hours' worth of filling out forms (since I have to read articles in countless different online newspapers for my work at Footballguys). And StumbleUpon, even though I've given it only a limited amount of feedback, does a surprisingly good job of pointing me to websites that I find cool and interesting.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Port-o-Clone V7000: a short story

Year: 2392

Tom looked forward to returning home. He'd been on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, for three long years. Now he was headed back to base, where after receiving a proper send-off from the rest of the crew, he'd step into the Port-o-Clone V3000 . . . and step out a moment later in Boston.

The Port-o-Clone V3000, manufactured by Zippy Corp., is a remarkable machine that has rendered traditional methods of space travel obsolete. A person or object placed into its sending chamber is quickly and painlessly disassembled, molecule by molecule, producing an atomic blueprint to be transmitted at the speed of light to a distant receiver. The receiver, in this case located in Boston, reassembles the person from its local stock of atoms, preserving all his memories, thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

"Beam me across the solar system, Scotty!"

Tom stepped out of the receiving chamber in Boston and was greeted by his wife, Sarah. He had enjoyed his last few weeks on Titan and was proud of his work on Stage Four of the terraforming project; but it was good to be home.

Tom and Sarah stared at each other. Compared to when Tom left three years ago, nearly every cell in Sarah's body was different. But there she was -- the same person. Of course, the same was true for Tom, but it had been just two minutes since all of his cells were replaced.

Year: 2477

The prototype of the Port-o-Clone V7000 was finally completed, and Brad was eager to test its new features after having worked on the design of its latest software module. Not only would the new model atomically disassemble and reassemble people like its predecessors did, but it could also build new people from scratch according to whatever specifications were fed into it. The human genome had been extensively mapped nearly half a millenium ago, but only now was it possible to accurately model the physical development of a person based on a given set of DNA instructions along with various inputs regarding his simulated developmental environment.

You want a 32-year-old, five-foot-nine gentleman of Arabic descent, fluent in French and well-trained in archery? The Port-o-Clone V7000 will generate one at the press of a button. It will, that is, if it works like it is supposed to. That's what Brad aimed to find out as he ran it through a series of tests.

The idea during the tests was not to actually create a slew of new persons. Forming a person in a receiving chamber without simultaneously un-forming him in a sending chamber technically fell under the Human Cloning Act of 2251, as amended, and was heavily regulated by the world government. Besides, what would Brad or Zippy Corp. do with a bunch of 32-year-old archers?

No, the plan was just to see if the prototype worked, and Brad would therefore be disassembling any persons he formed a fraction of a second after assembling them -- just long enough to get a molecular snapshot of the person to check against the blueprint and see whether everything came together correctly.

Brad first programmed the machine to produce a 50-year-old philosopher from Spain. After feeding the V7000 the necessary instructions, he pushed a button and . . . with a flicker, a human form appeared and disappeared so fast that Brad would have missed it if he'd blinked at the wrong time.

Brad checked the molecular scan and smiled. It worked. According to the data he was looking at, that flicker really was a Spanish philosopher, just like he ordered.


Next up was a 22-year-old female saxophonist with green eyes and a fondness for tapioca.

Flicker. Success.

A 38-year-old left-handed Hispanic woman with a genius IQ and a broad nose. A double-jointed novelist with typo "O" blood. A balding Jew with dimples. An albino.

Flicker, flicker, flicker, flicker; success, success, success, success.

Brad wrote up the results of his tests and prepared for the news conference Zippy Corp. would hold the next day.

* * * * *

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney . . ." Brad stopped listening to the officer as his thoughts wandered to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. Handcuffed and helpless, he was being charged with multiple counts of homicide. Once the results of his tests were publicized, the state district attorney wasted no time in going after both Brad and Zippy Corp.

On the first count, Brad was charged with murdering a 50-year-old philospher from Spain. . . .

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Theories and Facts

There's a trial currently taking place in Harrisburg, PA, challenging the Dover Area School District's policy requiring biology teachers to read a statement to their students regarding evolution and intelligent design. The two-paragraph statement begins:
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.
The rest of the statement is no better, but this blog entry will focus on just those two sentences -- mainly on the second one. "The theory is not a fact." What does that mean?

Usually when a person says that evolution is "just a theory," it's because he or she doesn't know what "theory" means in a scientific context. As Stephen J. Gould explained, "In the American vernacular, 'theory' often means 'imperfect fact'—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess." Not so in science. While usage among scientists isn't always consistent, the essential difference between theories and facts might be framed thus:
theory: an idea that is testable
fact: an idea that is correct
It should be obvious that an idea's testability says nothing about its correctness. Some testable ideas are correct; some are incorrect. Saying that evolution is "a theory, not a fact" is like saying that King Kong Bundy is "bald, not fat." It is possible to be both.

The difference between evolutionary theory and Intelligent Design creationism -- what makes evolution scientific and Intelligent Design unscientific -- is that evolutionary theory is testable. It is in fact being tested all the time. New observations are constantly being made, new experiments being done, that could falsify evolutionary theory as we know it. Many observations would be inconsistent with current evolutionary theory (e.g., "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" -- J.B.S. Haldane), but no possible observation could ever falsify Intelligent Design creationism.

So evolution is a theory. Is it a fact? Scientists really don't speak much of facts (as opposed to data, observations, measurements, or the like), so that's kind of a funny word for the Dover statement to use in this context. But evolutionary theory has been tested with great rigor for over a century, and it is the only theory of the origin of species we have that has not yet been falsified. Nothing in science can ever be proven beyond all doubt, but the correctness of evolutionary theory is about as sure a thing as the correctness of atomic theory or of the germ theory of disease.

In other words, yes. It is a fact.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

John Haught To Testify in Dover Case

I majored in theology in college, and my two favorite professors were Langdon Gilkey and John Haught. Gilkey taught my senior seminar in religious pluralism. Haught taught my classes on theological method and systematic theology, and was also my academic advisor.

A few years after graduating I found out that Langdon Gilkey had been one of the key expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in the 1981 "Creationism Trial" in Little Rock, Arkansas. He wrote a thoughtful and entertaining book about that experience, and covers some of the same issues in this lecture (Real Media). (Judge Overton's opinion awarding judgment in favor of the plaintiffs cites Gilkey's testimony a number of times.) Professor Gilkey passed away last November.

More recently I learned that Professor Haught will provide expert testimony for the plaintiffs in the Dover, Pennsylvania, Creationism trial set to start on Monday (9/26). Cool! Statements about the case from all seven of the plaintiffs' experts can be found on this website maintained by the ACLU.

Annie Duke at Warwick's

Annie Duke's booksigning was very enjoyable. She spent about 45 minutes addressing a crowd of maybe 65 people, mostly just answering questions from the audience. I came away extremely impressed with how articulate, smart, and personable she was. Despite whatever problems she has with anxiety (which she covers in her book), she's a fantastic speaker.

She spoke about Phil Hellmuth's ego, reading an opponent's body language, giving off fake tells, Dan Harrington's books, poker as a career choice, and a bunch of other topics. I'm glad I went.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

My first blog post

This blog will not have a well-focused theme. I'll probably review some books; I may review some other blogs; I'll comment on an occasional news item. The subject matter will bounce around from law to poker to economics to football to science to politics to who-knows-what.

I plan to post at least once a week, and believe I'm about even-money to follow through.

Tonight I'm heading down to a local bookstore for Annie Duke's booksigning. I haven't yet read her book, but will pick up a copy tonight. I enjoyed her sister's beautifully written second book, Poker Face, and her dad's hilarious first book, Anguished English. Her brother's website contains some of the most penetrating articles on poker strategy I've seen. (I just wish he'd add more of them.) So as an author, Annie has a lot to live up to.