kottke.org posts about religion
Interviewed by Gay Byrne for a program called The Meaning of Life, Stephen Fry shared what he would say to God if Fry met him at the gates of heaven.
Bryne: Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?
Fry: I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.
Byrne: And you think you are going to get in, like that?
Fry: But I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They are wrong.
A few days ago, I watched An Honest Liar, a documentary about the magician and charlatan-debunker The Amazing Randi. I had forgotten that in the 70s and 80s in America, belief in psychics like Uri Geller, faith healers like Peter Popoff, extraterrestrial abductions, and the like was not all that far from the mainstream. Such events and people were covered in newspapers, on the evening news, and featured on talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The media is awash in pieces attempting to explain the success of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Many are puzzled…how could this happen in America!? After watching Randi debunking hoaxes, I’m no longer surprised at Trump’s success. Maria Konnikova, author of a recent book on scams and cons, wrote about Trump and con artists for the New Yorker.
A line, thin but perceptible, divides even egregious liars from confidence men. People deceive one another for all sorts of reasons: they might lie to stay out of trouble, for example, or to make themselves seem more interesting, or to urge a business deal toward its consummation. David Maurer, a linguist turned historian of the con, said, “If confidence men operate outside the law, it must be remembered that they are not much further outside than many of our pillars of society who go under names less sinister.” Still, there is a meaningful difference between an ordinary liar and a con artist. A grifter takes advantage of a person’s confidence for his own specific ends — ends that are often unknowable to the victim and unrelated to the business at hand. He willfully deceives a mark into handing over his trust under false pretenses. He has a plan. What ultimately sets con artists apart is their intent. To figure out if someone is a con artist, one needs to ask two questions. First, is their deception knowing, malicious, and directed, ultimately, toward their own personal gain? Second, is the con a means to an end unrelated to the substance of the scheme itself?
She doesn’t express an opinion on whether Trump is a con artist — it’s difficult to tell without knowing his intent — but it’s clear that like Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, Trump is adept at making people believe what he is saying without a lot of hard evidence. Like The Amazing Randi said in the movie: “no matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” Hopefully, like Geller, Popoff, and UFOs eventually did, the idea of Trump as a viable candidate for President will soon disappear back into the fringes of American discourse.
Vanity Fair had Sam Roberts, an obituary writer from the NY Times, come up with an obit for Jesus, as it might have been written 2000 or so years ago.
His father was named Joseph, although references to him are scarce after Jesus’s birth. His mother was Miriam, or Mary, and because he was sometimes referred to as “Mary’s son,” questions had been raised about his paternity.
He is believed to have been the eldest of at least six siblings, including four brothers-James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon-and several sisters. He never married-unusual for a man of his age, but not surprising for a Jew with an apocalyptic vision.
The “about 33” in reference to his age is a nice touch.
In the latest issue of Nextdraft, Dave Pell points to an episode of the Reveal podcast that goes behind the scenes of the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal depicted in Spotlight.
Spotlight (one of the key contenders in the Oscar race) is an excellent movie that tells the story of an endangered species in American life: a well-funded, local, investigative reporting team. My friends at Reveal go behind the scenes to provide the backstory on how Boston Globe reporters broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and provide a look into the latest developments in what is, sadly, an ongoing story.
Spotlight was one of my favorite 2015 movies.
Pastrami on Rye is a full-length history of the NYC Jewish deli, written by Judaism scholar Ted Merwin. From a review in The Economist:
Jewish delicatessens may now be known for knishes, latkes and pastrami sandwiches, but back in their heyday, during the 1920s and 1930s in the theatre district in New York, they also served beluga caviar, pâté de foie gras and Chateaubriand steak. Jewish classics were gussied up and defiled: chopped chicken liver was served with truffles. Treyf, like oysters and pork chops, was eaten with abandon alongside kosher delicacies.
That reminds me…a trip to Katz’s is looooooong overdue.
Jonathan Merritt writes about Fred Rogers, ordained Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV show host who used his faith and TV to help millions of children.
Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. Behind the cardigans, though, was a man of deep faith. Using puppets rather than a pulpit, he preached a message of inherent worth and unconditional lovability to young viewers, encouraging them to express their emotions with honesty. The effects were darn near supernatural.
I watched Mr. Rogers religiously growing up, pun intended. Actual church, with its focus on rites, belief in the supernatural, and my pastor’s insistence that the Earth was only 6000 years old, was never appealing to me, but Mr. Rogers’ unconditional, graceful, and humanistic brand of religion was just perfect. I heard him say this line at the end of his show hundreds of times:
You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.
It’s easy to roll your eyes, but when you’re six or eight years old, such a simple message from someone who obviously loves you can mean everything.
Tyler Cowen on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and our selective preference for some religious beliefs over others.
Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer. But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.
To the non-believer, the Scientologist’s belief in thetans and the vengeful sky god of Christianity are both equally implausible.
From Zain Khalid at McSweeney’s, The Four Horsemen of Gentrification: Brine, Snark, Brunch, and Whole Foods. From the book of Millennials of the New Standard Greenpoint Bible, chapter 6, verse 1:
Then I saw when the Landlord broke one of the rent-controlled seals. I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Gentrify.” I looked, and behold, a green horse, and he who sat on it had a mason jar; and a fedora was his crown, and he went out pickling and to pickle.
From photographer Richard Silver, vertical panoramic photos of churches that emphasize their often incredible ceilings. (via ignant)
Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura took cultural historian Erica Robles-Anderson to the Soho Apple store. Robles-Anderson recently studied the use of technology in churches and Laskow wanted to know: are Apple stores the new temples?
“People have used technology for a long time to speak to the gods,” she says — to create collective experiences of the sublime.
These days, technology is more often talked about as a way to create personalized, individual experiences, but Robles-Anderson thinks that’s only part of the story. Communal ritual is always a part of technology: Early computers came into group spaces, like families and offices. (Mad Men understood this dynamic: the computer as an event weathered together.) Powerpoint presentations gather people to look at giant screens. Even using an iPhone to tune out the human beings around you requires being part of a larger group.
And Apple, more than any other technology company, has been able to access both these experiences, the individual and the collective. “They feel iconic, like an emblem of the personal,” says Robles-Anderson. “And yet it’s a cult. Right? It’s so obviously a cult.”
The architecture of the stores contributes to the sacred feeling of cult membership.
“The oversized doors are fantastic,” says Robles-Anderson. “There’s no reason for them.” They’re there only to communicate that this place is important. Also, they’re heavy, like church doors, to give purpose and portent to the entry into the space.
We walk inside. It’s light and bright, and immediately in front of us, a wide staircase of opaque glass sweeps up to the second floor.
This is an old, old trick. “It’s used in ziggurats, even,” Robles-Anderson says. “It creates a space that emphasizes your smallness when you walk in. You look at something far away, and that makes your body feel like you’re entering somewhere sacred or holy.”
It’s the Pope’s first time in America and we sent him straight to Congress. That doesn’t exactly seem like we’re putting our best foot forward. In his historic speech to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis addressed climate change, capitalism, the death penalty and immigration. MoJo pulled out the ten most important lines from the speech.
“This Pope often operates through symbolism and gestures that convey his intentions in ways that words never could.” The New Yorker on Pope Francis and his little Fiat.
Oliver Sacks was a champion of one of humankind’s most admirable qualities: Curiosity. The neurologist and writer died on Monday. He wrote beautifully about his impending death in a piece published a couple weeks ago:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life…
Longform has a collection of links to some of Sacks’ most popular essays.
BuzzFeed’s Tom Chivers asked several atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe.
The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.
These kinds of questions always make me think of Richard Feynman on beauty, science, and belief.
From the NY Times, Nine Are Killed in Charleston Church Shooting; Gunman Is Sought.
An intense manhunt was underway Thursday for a white gunman who opened fire on Wednesday night at a historic black church in this city’s downtown, killing nine people before fleeing.
The police chief, Greg Mullen, called the shooting a hate crime.
Chief Mullen said that law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. and other federal agencies, were assisting in the investigation of a shooting that left six women and three men dead.
Chief Mullen said the gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended the meeting for about an hour before open firing. Among the dead, according to reports, was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.
From the David Rumsey Map Collection, a remarkable timeline/history of the world from 4004 BC to 1881 called Adams’ Synchronological Chart. This is just a small bit of it:
According to Rumsey’s site, the full timeline is more than 22 feet long. (via @john_overholt)
Update: A replica of this chart is available on Amazon in a few different iterations…I’m going to give this one a try. Apparently the charts are popular in Sunday schools and such because the timeline uses the Ussher chronology where the Earth is only 6000 years old.
“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.
James Krupa teaches a mandatory biology class at the University of Kentucky and some students have a difficult time because Krupa refuses to shy away from evolution.
Rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about human evolution in high school biology. Those who did usually attended high schools in large urban centers like Louisville or Lexington. Given how easily it can provoke parents, the teaching of human evolution is a rarity in high school, so much so in Kentucky that it startled me when I first arrived.
The story of our evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed — a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found — despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.
I personally don’t understand the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Christianity Krupa emphasizes in his class, but I guess it helps to meet people halfway?
I, for one, welcome our new ROBOPRIEST overlords. I found ROBOPRIEST on artist Josh Ellingson’s website. The robot costume-for-two was intended to perform wedding ceremonies and is the brainchild of Ellingson and Selene Luna, a 3’10” performance artist. It speaks in a robot voice, has flashing eyes, and the interior of its hatch is decorated with dirty pictures.
The idea of ROBOPRIEST started as a joke on Twitter between me and Selene Luna, an actress friend of mine in Los Angeles. We were trying to come up with funny ideas to collaborate on wedding services.The joke then turned into reality when Selene asked me to build ROBOPRIEST for her one woman show, “Sweating the Small Stuff” in San Francisco. The costume consisted mostly of cardboard and foam rubber with a skeleton of plastic hula hoops. The “eyes” are speakers equipped with voice-activated electro-luminescent wire. The audio for ROBOTPRIEST’s voice and various sound-effects were created by sound designer, Jim Coursey.
Its components include children’s toy claws, silver lame, ductwork, an iPod, and a harness that enables Luna to operate the costume from inside while riding piggyback on Ellingson.
Selene pilots ROBOPRIEST from a harness attached to my back. The harness is called The Piggyback Rider and is really just a backpack strap with a bar that runs along the bottom. This allowed Selene to comfortably stand on my back and easily hop off if needed. The top of ROBOPRIEST is equipped with a hatch from which Selene can address her minions. The inside of the hatch is decorated with a collage of nudie magazine clippings (NSFW), something that I thought appropriate for the insides of a repressed robot’s head at the time, although it may just have been all the hot-glue fumes getting to me.
Ellingson’s site has sound clips and a video of ROBOPRIEST announcing himself, and there are lots of photos on Flickr showing the build process.
“Severed goat heads keep turning up in nearby Prospect Park,” reports Adrien Chen. Was it religious sacrifice? A prank? Something else?
A mysterious flood of goat heads is the only interesting thing that has happened in Park Slope since I moved to the neighborhood three years ago. Yes, the rush to blame a little-understood religion practiced largely by immigrants smacked a bit of lazy xenophobia, but the idea of Park Slope as a hotbed of animal sacrifice, in addition to child-friendly bars, was undeniably intriguing. In a city where everyday occurrences are casually weighed against the events of September 11, 2001, it was shocking to find that so many of my neighbors and I were actually shocked. The goat heads seemed to rear out of some shadow New York City that was even gnarlier than the pre-Guiliani version I’d seen in the movies, and at the edge of Brooklyn’s most thoroughly gentrified neighborhood, to boot. When New York asked me to investigate the goat heads, I leapt at the chance. I wanted to see if the world they hinted at lived up to the hype.”
His investigation includes a Freedom of Information Law request (“‘I’VE SEEN AS MUCH AS SEVEN SQUIRRELS DEAD IN THE PARK,’ went one report. ‘I’VE SEEN ONE THAT’S DECAPITATED’”), a Vodou priest, and multiple trips to the butcher.
Sometimes religion and a bit of wordplay come together to make something clever. So it is with Neil DaCosta’s project, The Book of Mormon Missionary Positions, a collection of photos depicting two fully clothed Mormon Missionaries in various sexual positions, as in the Kama Sutra.
NSFW, I guess…I felt a bit sheepish scrolling through that page at the office even though everyone is fully clothed. (via a photo editor)
At Reddit, a user called Cabbagetroll posted a very short summary of the Bible.
God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
Satan: You should do the thing.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
God: What happened!?
Adam & Eve: We did the thing.
THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.
People: We won’t do the things.
People: We did the things.
Every year, evolutionary biologist and professor David Barash gives his students The Talk about how evolution and religion do and do not get along.
It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.
Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.
This is the sort of thing Barash talks about:
The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
In late March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate group were found dead in a mansion in California, having committed mass suicide in anticipation of being picked up by a spacecraft following the Hale-Bopp comet. When police discovered the bodies and word began to spread via national news, mailing lists, and online forums, a major point of focus was the extensive amount of information left on the group’s website.
Whether Hale-Bopp has a “companion” or not is irrelevant from our perspective. However, its arrival is joyously very significant to us at “Heaven’s Gate.” The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the “Kingdom of Heaven”) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the “marker” we’ve been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to “Their World” — in the literal Heavens. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — “graduation” from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave “this world” and go with Ti’s crew.
If you study the material on this website you will hopefully understand our joy and what our purpose here on Earth has been. You may even find your “boarding pass” to leave with us during this brief “window.”
Which website, as Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg reports, is still very much operational, thanks to the efforts of a pair of Heaven’s Gate members who chose to remain in their fleshy “vehicles” on Earth.
Every month, the bills get paid on time. The emails get answered, and any orders filled. Which, for HeavensGate.com, is positively extraordinary. Because as far as the public is aware, every last member of the suicide cult died 17 years ago from a cocktail of arsenic and apple sauce. A few stayed behind, though. Someone had to keep the homepage going.
The site is still up, in part, because the group supported themselves financially by running a web design business.
As far as early 90s web design firms go, Higher Source did it all. And looking back at the archived site for the group’s occupational design firm, while they never directly mention their affiliation with the Heaven’s Gate cult, subtle references to the company’s origins abound. With Higher Source, you were getting “a crew-minded effort” from people who have worked “closely” together for 20 years. Of course, close in this case meant literal bunkmates.
You were getting a lot more than that, though. UFO and suicide cult connotations of hindsight aside, this is one of the most pristine testaments to early internet web design around. Not only could Higher Source program in Java, C++, and Visual Basic as well as use Shockwave, QuickTime, and AVI, they could gradient the hell out of your word art, too.
In 1997, I was working as a web designer for a small web development firm in Minneapolis. Our homepage and services offered were not all that different than Higher Source’s. I remember vividly being in the office when the news of the suicide hit and a bunch of us gathered around a computer, browsing through the site before the TV news mentions finally crashed it. It was the first time an internet meme was a major aspect of a national news story. Like, holy shit, they are talking about web design on CNN!
What I don’t remember clearly is if Heaven’s Gate / Higher Source was being discussed online before the suicides happened. It seems like a UFO cult that also did web design would have been a prime topic for conversation in web development circles. Does anyone recall either way?
Update: Meant to add, watching the videotaped statements of each Heaven’s Gate Member before they killed themselves is weird and chilling. They’re almost giddy!
Over at McSweeney’s, David Tate imagines more engaging copy for the Ten Commandments, aka you won’t believe what God said to this man…
At the Beginning He Had Me Confused, But by Minute Two I Knew That I Shouldn’t Have Other Gods.
37 Things in Your Bedroom That You Need to Get Rid of Right Now, Like Adulteresses.
This was one of my favorite scenes the film…Russell Crowe’s Noah telling his children the creation story, which ends up being half supernatural and half evolution.
Worth watching for the special effects alone.
From God’s Twitter account, a new set of ten commandments:
3 Say please.
8 Don’t hate.
9 Cut the bullshit.
I am not a religious person, but Reverend Smith spoke a few lines of the Prayer of Saint Francis on an episode of Deadwood I watched recently and I can’t stop thinking about it. The prayer in full:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The Reverend put it slightly differently:
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand, than to be understood, to love, than to be loved…
Believer in eternal life or not, that’s a way of living life I can get behind.
There are too many camels in the Bible. Evidence suggests they were domesticated in Israel centuries after the events in Genesis took place.
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac.
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”
Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.”
Update: Added “in Israel” to clarify the camel domestication timeline…they were domesticated much earlier in the Arabian Peninsula.
Archaeologists have established that camels were probably domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula for use as pack animals sometime towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. In the southern Levant, where Israel is located, the oldest known domesticated camel bones are from the Aravah Valley, which runs along the Israeli-Jordanian border from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and was an ancient center of copper production. At a 2009 dig, Dr. Ben-Yosef dated an Aravah Valley copper smelting camp where the domesticated camel bones were found to the 11th to 9th century BCE.
The other day, Bill Nye debated Ken Ham about evolution and creationism. At the event, Matt Stopera asked self-identifying creationists to write question/notes to those who “believe” in evolution. Here’s one:
Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy responded to each of the 22 notes/questions from the creationists. Here’s his answer to the comment above:
I agree; it is amazing! I’ve written about this many times. But we know that complexity can arise naturally through the laws of physics. It doesn’t take very complex rules to create huge diversity. Look at poker; a simple set of rules creates a game that has so many combinations it’s essentially infinite to human experience. We can figure out the rules of nature by studying the way processes follow them, and deduce what’s going on behind the scenes. And whenever we do, we see science.
This makes me think of Richard Feynman’s ode to the scientific beauty of a flower:
I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
This morning, Time magazine named Pope Francis their Person of the Year.
He took the name of a humble saint and then called for a church of healing. The first non-European pope in 1,200 years is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century.
On Monday, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy argued that Edward Snowden deserved the honor.
According to Time, its award, which will be bestowed on Wednesday, goes to the person who, in the opinion of the magazine’s editors, had the most influence on the news. By this metric, it’s no contest. In downloading thousands of files from the computers of the electronic spying agency and handing them over to journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman, Snowden unleashed a torrent of news stories that began in May, when the Guardian and the Washington Post published a series of articles about the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities. Seven months later, the gusher is still open. Just last week, we learned that the agency is tracking the whereabouts of hundreds of millions of cell phones, gathering nearly five billion records a day.