Silliness as a Discovery Process

The Internet, like Monty Python’s Camelot, is a silly place.

That’s why it’s valuable.

Here’s what I mean.

Back in 1929, the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy developed the idea of “six degrees of separation,” which states that everyone is linked together by chains of connection no more than six links long. That idea was then picked up and made famous by the playwright John Guare in his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation.

In 1994, some snowbound college kids (obviously well educated and quite possibly chemically enhanced) were watching Footloose. They connected the popularity of lead actor Kevin Bacon with their knowledge of Guare and Karinthy, and the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was born. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, the object is to connect any actor — through his or her films — to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps. The casual game became a website called “The Oracle of Bacon.”

Out of silliness came a second career for Kevin Bacon who has been smart enough to have fun and do some good with his status as the oddball darling of social media.

So far, so silly.

But just this month a group of scholars from Carnegie Mellon has released the beta version of a website called “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” The website is a collaborative envisioning of the early modern social network. It tracks 13,000 early modern people, shows us who is likely to have known whom, and allows us to track the connections they have in c…

Militia boss threatens to arrest lawmakers on Iran deal

(ROLL CALL) — Capitol Police are investigating a man identifying himself as an “Oathkeeper” and an “American Patriot who has everything to lose” who has threatened to arrest Sen. Debbie Stabenow for treason because of her support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Jon Ritzheimer, the Arizona resident who reportedly attracted FBI attention when he organized an anti-Muslim protest rally and “draw Muhammad” cartoon contest at a Phoenix mosque, shared his plan to organize with fellow U.S. Marines in an open letter posted online Monday.

“We are planning on arresting Senator Debbie Stabenow, who voted yes to the Iran Nuke Deal. She will be arrested for treason under Article 3 Section 3 of the Constitution,” states the letter. “We have chosen her as our first target due to our strong ties with the Michigan State Militia and their lax gun laws that will allow us to operate in a manner necessary for an operation like this.”

Homeschooling Is a Threat to Public Education

According to my local government, I’m just now beginning my fifth year as a homeschooling dad. That’s how long state law has required us to file the paperwork.

In that time, I’ve heard homeschoolers called elitists (because not everyone can afford to educate their own children), snobs (because it is assumed that we look down on those who send their kids to group schools), religious fanatics (because, well, aren’t all homeschoolers Bible-thumping snake handlers or something?), hippies (because if you’re not locking your kid up with a Bible, you must be one of those barefoot, patchouli-scented unschoolers), negligent (because what about socialization?), and just plain selfish.

All the epithets sting, but that last one feels the most unfair.

We are selfish, apparently, because we’re focused on the well-being of our own children and families instead of the larger community. But not only do many homeschooling families devote their time to volunteer work and charity, and not only do we evolve spontaneous extended community co-ops, but some parents also become ardent activists, making homeschooling a political movement and not just a personal choice.

That activism has at least one academic calling for greater government scrutiny of homeschooling families.

In a recent City Journal article, “Homeschooling in the City,” Matthew Hennessey quotes Georgetown law school professor Robin L. West, who “worries that homeschooled children grow up to become right-wing political ‘soldiers,’ eager to ‘undermine, limit, or destroy state functions.’”

I assume that for West, the “right-wing” label subsumes all of us who seek to “undermine, limit, or destroy state functions” — you know, people like John Locke, <a href="…

Media group launches fact-check network

(AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) — Fact-checking has a new global network after the media studies Poynter Institute announced plans Monday for a new body to support efforts to root out false claims from the media.

The project “will support and study the work of 64 fact-checking organizations spanning six continents,” Poynter said in a statement.

Funded by grants from the Omidyar Network of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Fact-Checking Network will be based at Poynter’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida.

What War and Terror Do to Principles

Editor’s note: War is hell. And for those living in Syria, hell is currently a way of life. Armchair statesmen and foreign policy mavens have a lot to say about these matters. Here at FEE, we advocate “anything peaceful,” but often in distant, theoretical terms.

In this article, we present the unique opportunity to hear from someone who has lived the Syrian conflict. We cannot verify all of the author’s claims, but we can offer a glimpse into the mind of someone who, though he desperately wants to cling to his ideals, struggles to maintain them as he witnesses his homeland being torn apart.

I lived in Syria for three out of the four and half years of war. I’ve never been physically harmed, even though there were several close calls. In another sense, though, I’ve come to realize this war has killed so much in me that I’ve turned into something completely unfamiliar; something that often works like a calculator.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither.”

Not a long time ago, he used to be my example. I often repeated that line to those who defended the Assad rule, to those who said that his reign was better than the chaos the country had endured from 1958 to 1970. After a catastrophic union with Egypt between 1958 and 1961, Syria had to deal with the aftermath of its failures until 1970, when the late Hafez al-Assad stabilized the country. Until 2011, Syria was very secure socially, economically, and militarily. Damascus was one of the safest cities in the world — but that was irrelevant to me. I believed in certain principles and demonized the regime that failed to live by them.

I would soon change my mind.

Over the last five years, the Syrian establishment has grown more brutal. Those reforms that were foreseeable in 2011, such as limiting the secret service’s influence and empowering political pluralism, n…

Atheist Dawkins calls out Muslim clock-boy ‘hoax’


Richard Dawkins, ever the skeptic, isn’t buying the official “clock” tale told by Muslim high school student Ahmed Mohamed.

The famous atheist went on Twitter on Sunday and shared a video by electronics expert Thomas Talbot, who demonstrated the fraudulent nature of the ninth-grade MacArthur High School student’s claims. The young man was temporarily detained by law enforcement personnel  Sept. 14 and then suspended when school officials thought he created a homemade bomb.

Mohamed insists he invented a clock, but evidence indicates he may have taken parts from an existing clock and placed them inside a suitcase.

“All he did was remove the plastic case from the alarm clock. This is not an invention. This is not something that someone built or even assembled,” Talbot said in his video, WND reported Sunday.

“If this is true, what was his motive?” asked Dawkins on Twitter. “Whether or not he wanted the police to arrest him, they shouldn’t have done so. If the reassembled components did something more than the original clock, that’s creative. If not, it looks like hoax.”

Dawkins immediately faced backlash to his tweet, to which he responded “He didn’t only claim to have built it. He claimed, on Youtube, that it was his INVENTION. … Possibly wanted to be arrested? Police played into his hands? Anyway, now invited to White House, crowdfunded etc.”

The 74-year-old atheist later apologized if his “passion for the truth” came across as “over the top,” the Huffington Post reported.

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Fellow famous atheist Bill Maher also cast a questioning eye on Mohamed, saying on his HBO “Real Time” show Friday, “People at the school that it might be a bomb, perhaps because it looks exactly like a f***ing bomb,” Mediaite reported. “This kid deserves an apology. No doubt about it, they were wrong. But can we have a little perspective about this? Did the teacher really do the wrong thing? … What if it had been a bomb? … Somebody look me in the eye right here and tell me, over the last 30 years, if many young Muslim men (and he is young, 14) haven’t blown up a lot of s**t around the world?”

NBA owner Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks told Maher he spoke with school employees in Irving, Texas, who said Mohamed got through six periods of school before there was any trouble.

“One of the teachers, an English teacher apparently, said ‘Look, you’ve got to put it in your backpack because it’s going to make people nervous and it’s making me nervous,’” said Cuban. “And again, second hand, he wasn’t responsive [to instructions] at all.”

Ahmed, who has been invited to the White House by President Obama, said he plans to transfer to a new high school.

‘Confederate heroes matter’ banner flown over Richmond

(Richmond Times-Dispatch) Community activists and historic preservationists got help from an unusual source to draw attention to their protest today of monuments to Confederate leaders on Monument Avenue during the first day of training for the UCI Road World Championships.

A small plane carrying a banner with a Confederate battle flag and the phrase “Confederate heroes matter” circled above Monument Avenue, where the protest had gathered at the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

But the drone of the aircraft did not drown the half-hour protest of the Richmond 2015 decision to make Monument Avenue a focal point of the world bicycle competition.

Dozens of groups urge pardon for Edward Snowden


Dozens of organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to Guns Owners of America on the right, are urging President Obama to pardon National Security Agency whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden.

“We call on you to actively endorse S. 794, legislation introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that would restore whistleblower protections for IC contractors,” the organizations said in a joint letter Friday to Obama.

Snowden, an NSA private contractor, leaked government documents showing the agency was spying on Americans, including through monitoring cell-phone data.

He ended up a fugitive in Russia.

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Since the beginning of the Snowden case, nearly 170,000 people have signed an online petition seeking “a full, free and absolute pardon” for Snowden over whatever he revealed about the NSA programs.

Lisa Monaco, a White House adviser on homeland security, responded online by blaming Snowden for not “constructively” addressing the concerns and suggesting he would “come home” and be judged by a jury.

“The balance between our security and the civil liberties that our ideals and our Constitution require deserves robust debate,” she wrote.

However, the organizations said in their letter the White House response “grossly misleads the American public by implying that – 1) there were constructive channels in place for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to challenge widespread domestic surveillance, and 2) Mr. Snowden and other contractor whistleblowers within the intelligence community have protections against retaliation.”

While Congress enacted whistleblower rights for some IC contractors in 2007, including those at the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the NSA, the protections lasted only from 2008 through 2012.

At that time, the Senate expanded the protections, but a “closed conference committee removed all preexisting and new IC whistleblower protections from the bill before passing it,” the letter said.

“Six months after IC contractor rights were rolled back Mr. Snowden disclosed the U.S. government’s sweeping domestic surveillance programs,” the letter said.

The programs have been the focus of a multitude of lawsuits.

Snowden explained to those who questioned him at the time: “The charges they brought against me … explicitly denied my ability to make a public-interest defense. There were no whistleblower protections that would’ve protected me – and that’s known to everybody in the intelligence community.”

He continued, “There are no proper channels for making this information available when the system fails comprehensively.”

The letter was over the signatures of some 40 groups, including Access, ACLU, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Center for Digital Democracy, Citizens for Health, Coalition for Change, Constitutional Alliance, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, Defending Dissent Foundation, Demand Progress, Drum Majors for Truth, Equal Justice Alliance, Essential Information, Expose Facts, Federal Ethics Center, Federally Employed Women Legal Education Fund, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Golden Badge, Government Accountability Project, Gun Owners of America, Human Rights Watch, International Association of Whistleblowers and Judicial Engineering Documented and Impeded.

Other groups are National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, National Employment Lawyers Association, National Forum on Judicial Accountability, National Judicial Conduct and Disability Law Project, OAK, OpenTheGovernment, Patient Privacy Rights, Plea for Justice Program, Power Over Poverty Under Laws of America Restored, Privacy Times, Project of Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Restore the Fourth, RootsAction, State Community Councils, Sunlight Foundation, Rutherford, United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, Whistleblower Alliance and Whistleblower Support Fund.

Rutherford issued a statement explaining that the legislation would allow workers to “file a whistleblower complaint and provide them access to district court and a jury trial to challenge retaliation.”

“In our current governmental climate, where laws that run counter to the dictates of the Constitution are made in secret, passed without debate, and upheld by secret courts that operate behind closed doors, obeying one’s conscience can well render you a criminal,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.

“If we are to have any hope of restoring transparency and accountability to our government, it is more critical than ever that we stand up for the rights of those whistleblowers who dare to speak out against governmental wrongdoing.”

The Senate plan, the letter said, “would give intelligence whistleblowers incentives to work within the system, thus protecting taxpayer money from waste, fraud, abuse and misuse.”