Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Monday, June 30, 2008

That Infamous Engine of Grief (Part I)

Earlier I alluded to my hometown's proud tradition of prominently displaying a certain engine of grief as a sacred homage to human sacrifice - wherever and whenever possible, regardless of state law. Here for once we have a good news story of a cross restored to its proper place on church property, rather than being held in trust by the taxpayers for the unconstitutional propagation of the Christian religion. Everyone wins!

The monument formerly situated on the state fairgrounds now resides on the narrow DMZ between Quail Springs Baptist and Quail Springs Church of Christ. Your intrepid reporter has confirmed that it remains there to this day, braving no less than a massive church picnic in order to do so.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bible Belt Discover Between NE, SW

Turns out (against conventional wisdom) that the belt runs roughly from the SE tip of Florida to the NW tip of Idaho. Here is the map of those states where at least one in three Americans take their scriptures very literally:

Map of Bible Belt
Percentage of population that view scripture as the
Word of God literally true word for word.

Good news for Okies - we aren't the buckle after all! If the data from the Pew Forum's new Religious Landscape Survey are to be trusted (and I'm none too skeptical for once) that dubious distinction goes to to the Old South, both geographically and in terms of raw data.

Note that if you mentally block out the mustard-coloured states, you still get a contiguous belt centered upon Dixie, but aligned roughly east-to-west. That would be, I suppose, the traditional (fuzzy) conception of the proverbial belt. It is this inner-belt which votes most reliably in favor of the GOP, and which borders upon such key swing states as Florida, Ohio, Missouri, and Colorado, where a slim majority of citizens have not yet drunk the Kool-Aid.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Middle East Meets Modernism

I love Google. It can be so rapidly and readily illuminating:

I've often wondered why my lefty friends at AU bash Israel while giving the mullahs a free pass. Maybe they know something I don't about who is doing a better job of separating secular governance from theocratic impulses.

I should probably mention at this point that I'm neither homosexual nor circumcised, so I've no real preset biases on these matters. Come to think of it, maybe I should not have mentioned that.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trippier than a tripping trip...

Try listening to Infected Mushroom's album (pictured just below)
while reading Pascal Boyer's book (pictured just above).
It is at least as freaky as syncing up Pink Floyd
albums to the History Channel.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Four Pillars of Edmond

Our beloved hometown was founded on these four great pillars:
  • Shipping and industry lead by the transcontinental railroads,
  • Homesteading pioneers rushing in to claim unfenced prairie,
  • Institutions of higher education founded for future teachers,
  • The lower-case letter 't' - vital to all such pursuits
    (and so much more)

Some radical religionists have heretofore claimed that the 't' actually represents an archaic device for performing brutal ritual human sacrifice, deemed necessary to slake the bloodthirst of some ancient deity, but such superstitious nonsense surely has no place in our modern secular society.

Atheist Pride and Prejudice

Above: Proud athée okies supporting GLBT community outreach by adding some necessary ideological diversity to the festival's 'church row'.

Remarkably, none of the small children in the background decided that they might seriously consider an alternative lifestyle over conventional sexuality. No doubt their abuelos will be greatly relieved.

It should be noted that our reception was generally positive this time around, with very few (if any) of the negative comments of previous years.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reading this week

Contra Susan Jacoby, we shameless iPod addicts can be a fairly literate bunch. This week I'm going through a collection of freethinkers both ancient and modern, most of which are collected in this lovely tome edited by the incomparable Mr. Hitchens, which I won at an atheist solstice party gift-swap at an Xmas, er, winter solstice party.

From skimming so far it looks like a perfect romp, with no concessions made to those who read below a college level.

Susan Jacoby: luddite, drug addict, or slut?

I've just finished reading Jacoby's new book over the weekend, and cannot recall ever being so deeply disappointed with the analytical shallowness of an author from whom I've come to expect a certain level of profundity. Maybe we should stop expecting historians to assess the present, much less predict the future.

According to Jacoby, it is "more insulting to call someone a Luddite than to call her a cheat, a drug addict, or a slut."

Ye gods, how I wish that were truly so. After several chapters of explanation (and well-deserved excoriation) of the faith-based and anti-intellectual movements throughout American history, Jacoby makes it clear which of these epithets she most fears and deserves, as she diagnoses our national cultural problems primarily in terms of "screen media," notably failing to draw any significant distinctions between the various kinds of screens that are drawing Americans away from her lovely and nostalgic world of ink impressed upon flattened trees.

In the realm of new technologies that are displacing traditional reading, the concept of "enough" does not exist. The marketing triumph of Apple's iPhone in the summer of 2007 is the most recent example of the public's obsession with the acquisition of devices that provide instantaneous and continuous access to video and audio distraction - anywhere and at any time. [T]he iPhone is a powerful handheld computer offering Internet access and combining most (though not all) of the functions of the telephone, a music-storing iPod, a camera, and many other audio and video devices that used to be tethered to large machines in one's home, or, at the very least, to a heavy laptop.


The whole point of the iPhone, however, is it comprehensiveness; the availability of more distraction that can literally be held in the palm of one's hand will surely reduce whatever part of personal time is still devoted to reading. You'll never walk alone.

Jacoby implicitly assumes that the iPhone (not to mention those heavy laptops) will be used primarily for distraction rather than autodidaction, and she may well be right on this point. Perhaps people will not use their iPhone to listen to Jacoby's book, read Shakespeare or Arthur Conan Doyle, or conveniently grep through innumerable intellectual publications using Google Reader. Maybe they won't fill up on free videos from the CFR, the BBC, or the brilliant minds over at TED. They might well ignore countless educational podcasts offered courtesy of Canadian, British, and Australian taxpayers.

No doubt many people will continue to prefer entertaining themselves to a conscious program of personal development, but the genie is out of the bottle and all we can do is give people the tools they need to thrive in the brave new world.

It would be better if Ms. Jacoby was a drug addict or a slut, at least such folks are not actively working to dampen the flow of technological innovation.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Naturalism to supernaturalism - for kids!

We've become so jaded by evangelicals engaging in anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific activism that I was genuinely shocked to see a pro-science approach used as a pedagogical device in attempting to turn children on to the joys of the Bible.

This phenomenon must be observed to be believed:

Yes, that is an actual microscope center-left, and yes, there are kiddie-friendly experiments all around, the sorts of DIY science demos that I loved to do as a kid.

So the big concept here is to get the kids into the idea of learning about nature and how it works, then sell them on the Big Guy who makes (and breaks) the Laws of Nature. Clever ruse, if ever I've seen one.

Quick, get 'em while they're too young to think for themselves!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Art, Blasphemy, Courage, & Disestablishmentarianism

I'm unsure precisely what point the esteemed Mr. Bolt is trying to make here, but it is undoubtedly a good thing that the Aussies aren't taking their ancient common law heritage too terribly seriously nowadays, or this Ferrari fellow would surely get strung up, or at least pierced by a red-hot poker.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reading this week

UnreasonI am only a few chapters into this one and already a bit disappointed with its tone and substance. Jeremiads I can handle, but only when the call to repentance embodies something more than mere cultural conservatism for its own sake.

"Hey, you kids, get off my cultural landscape!"

I love reading Shakespeare while listening to Bach at least as much as any thirty-something I've ever met, and guess what: I can do both on my eeePC laptop or my iPhone! Luddism is not the answer, Ms. Jacoby. Using our new technology in an ongoing exploration for ever expanding knowledge by internalizing a sense of intellectual curiosity is a far better hope for ourselves and our progeny, and it may be far easier to do this using screens than forcing ourselves back to ink and paper.

Better 'blagging' bennies beginner bloggers

My fellow athée okie and fav science blogger is giving away free advice on how to blog better than I ever will.

BTW - She also lectures better than I do.

Bolt blogs Benedict/Bush

My favorite conservative Aussie keeps me in the know on our globetrotting prez.

In addition to the uncritical loyalty of countless faithful devotees, Bush and Benedict apparently share "the temerity to act upon faith" in their respective leadership roles. I would suppose they share this vital feature with Al-Qaeda's leadership, leading Iranian clerics, and other assorted faith-based self-fulfilling prophets of doom.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Happy Flag Day!

I almost never post merely to refer to other people’s posts, but this takedown piece on The Pledge of Allegiance is truly and utterly priceless. One people, one country, one flag!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another photo album

The end of the roads will be a growing collection of roads that ended and ends of road. This one is from an obsolete strip (formerly SE 74th) at 35.391761° N, 97.386332° W.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Genes, Memes, Temes

It would seem that the brilliant minds over at TED are catching up with the speculative fiction of Ghost in the Shell and only a decade or so after the original prophecy:
Project 2501: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory... and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.
Genes – a genetic “program designed to preserve itself”

Memes – “intangible memory” which “defines mankind”

Temes – “a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own”

How are all three concepts fundamentally similar? You'll have to watch the video for yourself. (If you happen to be reading this on an iPhone, here is the lower-quality YouTube version.)

Ever since WWII

In a recent post Andrew Sullivan asked "[W]hen did it become normal for one country to be stationing troops in the heart of another one?"

In brief: Ever since WWII. (Alas!)

We Americans have footed most of the defense spending bill for most of our regional strategic allies for over half a century now.

I'm still trying to find a map which adequately illustrates this point for Sullivan's readers' edification. This may take a little while, but for now, check this out:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Reading this week

PEACE KILLS P.J. O'Rourke is almost as insightful as he is hilarious. Good stuff! Still waiting to find a unifying theme or some sort of thesis statement, but in the meanwhile it's a pretty good ride.

Probably I'll leave a few comments later, but for now, here is a representative sample from the first chapter about why we Americans just don't like dealing with foreign policy:

Being foreigners ourselves, we Americans know what foreigners are up to with their foreign policy—their ven­omous convents, lying alliances, greedy agreements, and trick-or-treaties. America is not a wily, sneaky nation. We don’t think that way. We don’t think much at all, thank God. Start thinking and pretty soon you get ideas, and then you get idealism, and the next thing you know you’ve got ideology, with millions dead in concentration camps and gulags. A fundamental American question is “What’s the big idea?”

Americans would like to ignore foreign policy. Our previous attempts at isolationism were successful. Unfortunately, they were successful for Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan. Evil is an outreach program. A solitary bad person sitting alone, harboring genocidal thoughts, and wishing he ruled the world is not a problem unless he lives next to us in the trailer park. In the big geopolitical trailer park that is the world today, he does.

America has to act. But, when America acts, other na­tions accuse us of being “hegemonistic,” of engaging in “unilateralism,” of behaving as if we’re the only nation on earth that counts.

We are. Russia used to be a superpower but resigned “to spend more time with the family.” China is supposed to be mighty, but the Chinese leadership quakes when a couple of hundred Falun Gong members do tai chi for Jesus. The European Union looks impressive on paper, with a greater population and a larger economy than America’s. But the military spending of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy combined does not equal one third of the U.S. defense budget. The United States spends more on defense than the aforementioned countries—plus Russia plus China plus the next six top defense-spending nations. Any multilateral mili­tary or diplomatic effort that includes the United States is a crew team with Arnold Schwarzenegger as coxswain and Nadia Comaneci on the oars. When other countries demand a role in the exercise of global power, America can ask another fun­damental American question: “You and what army?”
Ah, P.J., you just slay us with your war stories. Want more? There is an extended excerpt over at The Atlantic.

God with us

In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep through villages, and after forcing the villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns. On one such occasion, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave. Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner. “God is watching what you are doing”, he said. And then he was shot dead.

What Hitler did not believe...and what the SS did not believe ... and what the functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

- David Berlinski, Jewish "agnostic"
Here is a relatively concise (1,003 word) response:

No, that's not photoshop, and yes, the notion was rather widely publicly supported within the Nazi party and the German public. To claim the pervasive antisemitism of WWII Europe had its roots in anything other than Christian tradition is to ignore continental history. Berlinski may be brilliant, but he's no historian.

Agnostics Anonymous Artfully Advertised

This one takes the prize for subtlest free-thought sticker I've ever seen.  I would assume the driver is pro-science and not quite a full-on unbeliever.  Either that, or the scarlet "A" is considered non-symbolic and the driver is a bit of a purist on such matters.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Another TED talk worth watching

Today I caught a lecture by Paul Ewald explaining how a few fairly low-tech solutions could lead to an upward spiral of public health by taking advantage of the rapid evolutionary capability of virulent micro-oganisms. I've covered some of this material before in my wife's intro to evolution text, but this lecture makes the material more broadly accessible.

Ways to "manage" the germs' virulence range from blocking waterborne transmission (cholera) to building vector-proof houses and hospitals (malaria) to reducing the potential for sexual transmission (AIDS) to designing vaccines that disfavor virulent variants (TB).
TED 2007 Conference Notes

Or, we could keep asking the Pope to keep the poor and suffering in his prayer journal.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


The next president of the U.S. just gave his 'presumptive nominee' speech in St. Paul, MN. He hit upon various unifying themes we've heard time and again, but fired off an opening salvo across the bow of the U.S.S. McCain.

I'm proud to have supported this campaign, but remain undecided as to November.

Favorite line:
Obama disparaged those who would use "religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon."