Saturday, January 26, 2008

If Truong Values the USCF Members' Interests Above His Own, He Should Resign

Just 2 months after Paul Truong was elected to the US Chess Federation Board, a USCF system administrator, Brian Mottershead, released a report that stated that Truong had posted a variety of ugly, inflammatory USENET comments while posing as Sam Sloan or other figures in US chess. Mottershead documents that over a period of several months, the IP address of the inflammatory USENET posts was identical to the IP address of the computer from which Truong was simultaneously logged in to the USCF forums. In the wake of this report, Sam Sloan filed a civil suit against the USCF, Truong, and other individuals associated with the USCF, essentially charging them with a vast conspiracy to thwart his 2007 re-election campaign for the USCF Board.

Mottershead's report rests on a sound technical basis, according to two leading authorities in Internet security who have examined it closely. Supporters of Truong have advanced some rebuttals that have yet to persuade me:

1. Argument: The IP address of the USENET posts could have been spoofed.

True, it is not hard to spoof an IP address. However, how would the culprit have known what IP address to spoof?

2. Argument: A hacker could have taken control of Truong's PC, observed his behavior, and posted to the USENET from Truong's PC at the appropriate moments over a period of several months.

This supposed behavior is completely uncharacteristic of hackers, who generally use compromised computers to host bots (automated programs) that generate spam or participate in "Denial of Service" attacks. In addition, a compromised PC does not explain the USENET posts/logins to from a mobile device in Mexico, at just the time that Truong was traveling in Mexico for the world championship.

3. Argument: Mottershead violated his Non-Disclosure Agreement with the USCF when he released his report.

The fact that someone else may have misbehaved is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Truong misbehaved.

I do think that Mottershead should have given the USCF ethics committee time to perform their work before going outside the normal channels as a whistle-blower. Again, this does not have any bearing on the veracity of Mottershead's report.

This controversy in and of itself does not justify a request for Truong's resignation, though. However unlikely it may seem at the moment, it is possible that Truong will be able to persuade us of an excellent alibi, as he claims he will do, and I am willing to wait for that time to make my final judgment. Rather, the reason Truong should resign is that his interests and the USCF's interests have suddenly diverged in a sharp manner. Here's why: It is in the USCF's best interests to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, and this means releasing all facts pertaining to the issue as expeditiously as possible. There is no other way for the USCF to get past this issue. At the same time, Truong has declined, on the advice of his attorney, to release any information to the public about his connections to the internet during the period in question.

It is Paul's right to conduct his defense as he and his legal team see fit, and I do not question that right. However, it is the right of the USCF to have Board members who will uncompromisingly attend to the interests of the organization first and foremost. Since Truong feels he cannot release any exculpatory data, he is not able to put the interests of the USCF ahead of his own. Thus his one and only honorable course is to resign immediately as a member of the USCF board. In my view, this action would not be an admission of guilt; rather, it would enhance his credibility as someone who cares about the promotion and good governance of chess in our country.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Think, Therefore I Am a Quantum Fluctuation

The dominant theory among astrophysicists assumes that every property of the observable universe is, at root, the result of a random, quantum fluctuation. According to this view, the ultimate quantum fluctuation (from our perspective, anyway) has been the Big Bang, which gave birth to the universe as we know it.

Recently scientists have been pushing this theory to its logical limits. The results, according to an article in this week's New York Times science page, are quite startling:

1. An infinite number of universes can (and will) be created. This is referred to as the "megaverse" theory. These universes may not have the same physical laws as ours, though. In fact, we cannot know what laws they obey, since we cannot observe them from inside our universe.

This leads to the obvious question: how would you prove this megaverse theory to be correct? Scientists are supposed to be all about experimental proof, but you cannot even begin to design an experiment that would prove or disprove the existence of an infinite number of unobservable universes.

2. In a megaverse where an infinite number of quantum fluctuations can occur, the odds are infinitely great that eventually another version of Chris Falter will appear, complete with a corny sense of humor and chess aspirations that outstrip his ability. And another version of you, dear reader, will also appear. Astrophysicists have thus been trading emails, journal letters, and articles that discuss whether this should be considered reincarnation.

3. It is easier for a random fluctuation to produce a smaller, simpler object than a larger, more complex object, much as shaking a box of Scrabble letters is more likely to produce a word than a complete sentence. As a result, in a megaverse of infinitely many quantum fluctuations, it is infinitely more probable that a disembodied brain with your memories, thinking ability, and observations will appear, rather than a brain connected to a body. The disembodied brain (referred to as a "Boltzmann brain" for reasons too arcane to discuss here) may possess the illusion of being connected to a body (and a society and a planet, and so forth), but it is nevertheless disembodied. Given that the disembodied brain is infinitely more probable to exist than an embodied brain, you who are reading this blog post (and I who am writing it) are, to a near mathematical certainty, just disembodied brains experiencing the illusion of conventional life on a planet called Earth.

So physicists are having quite a fun discussion here: starting with a theory of origins that cannot possibly be proven empirically, they end up talking about reincarnation and life as a chimera.

Now let us suppose that someone with an alternate view enters the discussion. She or he states that the odds of random events creating DNA-based life in our universe are infinitesimally small. Therefore, this universe, the only one we can explore empirically, shows evidence of design. And maybe we should think about the origin of that design, as in maybe we are created with a purpose to fulfill.

The discussion stops. The physicists band together, and in unanimous voice, they banish the stupid non-scientist. "You can't talk about intelligent design in science! You are trying to turn this into a religious discussion, and there is no room in science to discuss religion!"

And then the Boltzmann brains return to their discussion of unobservable universes and reincarnation.

Does anyone else find this ironic?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Modern-Day Marcionites?

In our 3-year Bible study plan, we spend the first year studying the Old Testament, the second studying the Gospels, and the third studying the Epistles. In week one, we started with the question: why study the Old Testament?

Let's take a look at what Jesus said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5:17-19

Jesus states that he stands squarely upon the foundation of the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the so-called "Minor Prophets"). His purpose is to fulfill them. How can you understand his ministry unless you really grasp the Law and the Prophets?

Paul also weighs in on the question:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Christians often use this verse to encourage each other to read the Bible, which in practice often means reading a Psalm and a passage from the New Testament. But Paul is not talking about the four Gospels or any of his letters; his admonition is about what we call the Old Testament. The "holy Scriptures" that Timothy had known from infancy could only refer to the Jewish Bible! Paul states that the Jewish Bible makes us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"; it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves and our world so that we know how much we need Christ. For now, I won't elaborate on what it is we need to learn from the Jewish Bible, since I'll be blogging on that for the next year or so. Paul also points out that God uses the Jewish Bible to reshape our attitudes, to correct our behavior, and to make our righteousness grow. We neglect the Old Testament at our peril.

And so many of us Christians are living in peril. I know from my own experience that an evangelical Christian can attend church for years without hearing a sermon based primarily on an Old Testament passage. And even what we do hear presents an incomplete picture; many are the sections of the Old Testament that we neglect. When was the last time you heard a sermon about Habakkuk? When was the last time that you read a chapter from Habakkuk? Can you even find Habakkuk in your Bible?

We are too much like Marcion, the second century heretic who taught that the Old Testament--full of works, law, and wrath--stood in contrast to the Gospel--full of grace, faith, and mercy. This is similar to the way many Christians think; based on Paul's jeremiad against law and works, we often associate Judaism and the Old Testament with a harsh legalism. Marcion accepted only the gospel of Luke and 10 Pauline epistles in his canon, and condemned the reading of the Old Testament. In contrast, we tolerant moderns (who regard the Old Testament as Scripture) just ignore it. You have to give Marcion some credit, though; at least his view of the canonicity of the Old Testament and his behavior toward it were consistent.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we cannot realize that it is as full of grace and mercy as the New. Paul's warning against legalism was not a warning against the Old Testament, per se, but rather a warning against pharisaical pride. Paul's view of the Jewish roots of grace, hope, and mercy are worthy of an entire post. In fact, scholars far more capable than I have written tomes on the subject. For the moment, then, I will simply repeat the observation that Paul heartily commended the study of what we now call the Old Testament.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we can miss its strong concern for social justice. In America, abolitionists and civil rights leaders have drawn their inspiration from prophets like Hosea and Isaiah, and have quoted from them liberally. For decades, though, many evangelicals have acted as if Jesus were the first anti-tax Republican. If we don't pay attention to the prophets, we cannot hear his echo of the prophets' call for social justice.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we may undervalue the role of ritual. True, there is such a thing as empty ritual. But there is also such a thing as empty praise and empty rhetoric. The Old Testament reminds us that God authored a set of rituals for His people. So maybe we evangelicals shouldn't be so suspicious of liturgy.

Finally, when we fail to study the Old Testament, we ignore the history of hope. Hope is everywhere in the Jewish Bible. Ezekiel has a vision of scattered, dry bones taking on new life; Isaiah speaks of a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, the swords will be beaten into pruning hooks, and the crooked roads will be made straight; Jeremiah looks forward to the day when the Lord will establish a new covenant with His people, a covenant in which God renews their hearts. If we do not ponder these passages, the message of the gospel can seem like a glib formula, when it is in fact God's loving plan finally unleashed in a dark and despairing world.

I am looking forward to this next year. I hope you will come back often to share this journey with me.

Blogging Through the Bible in Three Short Years

Our church (New Life Community Church in Irmo, SC) has just started a 3-year "Walk Through the Bible" course, and I'm happy that we are engaging in an organized study plan for the entire Bible. Well, almost; the plan does not really require that everyone read the entire text of the Bible. The week that we study Job, for example, we will just hit a few highlights, rather than read over thirty chapters of Job and his friends' wrestling back-and-forth with the problem of theodicy. Of course, a lot of Christians never even crack open the book of Job, so I am not inclined to criticize the study plan. And frankly, my Bible study intellectual muscles have atrophied a bit of late, so I welcome the training regimen.

In order to maximize the spiritual benefit of our group study, everyone is supposed to keep a journal of their thoughts; since I love to blog, I'll be keeping mine on-line. Roughly once a week I'll be posting my thoughts about the latest stage of our 3-year journey through the Bible. I know that I will find this encounter with the Bible to be both encouraging and challenging; the Scriptures have always moved me. My prayer is that at least a few readers will also be moved by these forthcoming meditations.