Freakin’ creepy

The New York Times reports that advertisers are experimenting with using hidden cameras to track who looks at billboards, and how long. Apparently software measures viewers’ facial dimensions to determine their age and gender. And race.

The goal, these companies say, is to tailor a digital display to the person standing in front of it — to show one advertisement to a middle-aged white woman, for example, and a different one to a teenage Asian boy.

Sound familiar?

Oh, yeah, I cannot wait for the day when billboards know my name.

91-octane from algae

Over on Sapphire Energy says it will be producing up to 10,000 barrels of carbon-neutral petroleum in the next five years. How? By extracting the oil from algae. That’s biofuel made from pond scum. It sounds promising to me; algae should be able to grow with minimal energy inputs and with much less land use than even switch grass.

Reporting undercover from an evangelical spiritual retreat

Via BoingBoing, where I seem to be spending a lot of time lately: Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi attends a spiritual retreat run by John Hagee‘s Texas megachurch and lives to tell the tale. Taibbi paints a picture of desperate, manipulable people who come to the retreat for spiritual direction, culminating in a frankly creepy exorcism of “demons” ranging from “lust” to “intellect.” And the picture that develops is not good: by the end of the retreat, the attendees accept anything their leaders might assert:

Once a preacher says it, it’s true. No one is going to look up anything the preacher says, cross-check his facts, raise an eyebrow at something that might sound a little off. Some weeks later, I would be at a Sunday service in which Pastor John Hagee himself would assert that the Bible predicts that Jesus Christ is going to return to Earth bearing a “rod of iron” to discipline the ACLU. It goes without saying that the ACLU was not mentioned in the passage in Ezekiel he was citing — but the audience ate it up anyway.

And I guess that’s where this gets scary; the “retreat,” though it strongly resembles a secular self-help workshop, turns into an indoctrination session.

In which I finally get myself excommunicated

Last night I opened my copy of The Mennonite (the denominational magazine of Mennonite Church USA), to find a review of that paragon of investigative reporting, Ben Stein’s anti-science movie Expelled. Just so the reader can’t possibly mistake it for an informed evaluation of Expelled‘s perfidy, the review is titled Clearly the product of intelligent design. The author basically swallows the Expelled talking points hook, line, and sinker:

By interviewing professor after professor who lost their jobs for merely suggesting, in peer- reviewed publications, that intelligent design (ID) might be a plausible explanation for the origin of life on Earth, [Expelled front man Ben] Stein makes a strong case that a conspiracy exists to eliminate anyone who would challenge the accepted evolutionary theory.

And, better yet:

Stein’s calm demeanor and dry sense of humor are disarming. The result: those he interviews open up to him in surprising ways. … After one scientist tells his de-conversion story, I realized that those depicted in the film who vilify proponents of ID are themselves ardent atheists.

So I spent my evening putting together a letter to The Mennonite, with a little help from NCSE’s handy reference Expelled Exposed:

Steve Carpenter’s review of the pro-Intelligent Design (ID) movie Expelled (in the issue of 20 May) was deeply disappointing, because the author obviously has very little background knowledge of the film or the subjects it addresses. Expelled is full of factual inaccuracies — for instance, both Richard Sternberg and Caroline Crocker, who, according to the film, were fired from academic positions for supporting ID, actually continued in their positions after the incidents described. The anti-ID scientists seen in Expelled were hand-picked for their known antipathy to religion, and were given a false understanding of the film’s subject matter when they were interviewed. While many scientists are nonbelievers, many others (including myself) are confessing Christians, and the vast majority see no incompatibility between belief in God and acceptance of scientific fact.

Furthermore, Expelled‘s attempt to link Charles Darwin’s work to the Holocaust is tantamount to blaming Saint Augustine for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. While Darwin anticipated the misapplication of evolutionary thought to human social planning, he explicitly decried such ideas. (Expelled selectively quotes his writing to give the opposite impression.) Darwin was deeply opposed to slavery and gave generously to charity. In The Voyage of the Beagle, he wrote, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

For a much more accurate, thoughtful, and highly readable alternative to Expelled, I recommend Michael Ruse’s excellent book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press: 2001). I hope it won’t spoil the ending if I say that the answer, contrary to what Expelled would have you think, is a resounding “yes.”

Jeremy Yoder
Moscow, Idaho

We’ll see if it makes it into the magazine. If it does, it’ll be the first time I’ve really stood up for science in a public, church-wide forum – and I anticipate that it’ll get a mixed reception at best. (No, I don’t think I’ll actually get excommunicated for being a scientist. With no Mennonite congregation in Moscow to expel me, it’s kind of an academic question anyway. Back in Lancaster County, Mom and Dad may have some awkward conversations during the Sunday morning coffee break, though.)

Why, oh why?

Via BoingBoing: a Ford dealership in Mojave, California, is bashing atheists to sell cars.

But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don’t tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up.

Even leaving aside the silly assumption that everyone who professes a belief in God is a Christian, this is one of those things that makes life as a Christian among mostly non-believing collaborators and colleagues that much more awkward. It’s just embarrassing.

Here in Moscow, the closest we come to Kieffe & Sons is the Christian Reconstructionist Christ Church, the affiliated pseudo-accredited New Saint Andrews College, and an assortment of businesses run by church members, which are often marked by a window sticker bearing NSA’s logo. Although I’ve heard that a Christ Church-friendly coffee shop refuses service to homosexuals, I’m not aware of overtly bigoted advertising from these folks. And they’re Neo-Confederates. In both the case of the crazed Ford dealer and Christ Church, though, the best response by sane locals is simple: cringe, and take your business elsewhere.

[additional info appended 27 May 2008]
On NSA’s “pseudo-accreditation” – the college is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which originated to legitimize schools that teach Creation Science.

Guilt is good

Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum makes the case that liberal guilt is no cause for shame – and calls out “moralistic” conservatism on its weird disdain for guilt:

Shouldn’t conservatives feel guilty about slavery and racism and the consequences thereof, or must they disdain such feelings, however moral, because they are associated with liberals? Do they choose their moral priorities because of their popularity among others? That doesn’t seem like a conservative way of thinking about moral values. It sounds like a form of relativism. It’s the kind of thinking that treats values as a brand identity. Guilt over racism is not part of the conservative brand identity. The more shame if that be the case.

Reading Left Behind with brain engaged

Slacktivist is a lefty Christian blogger who, among other things, is reading Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s apocoly-porn Left Behind and posting periodical reactions. (Full disclosure: in high school, I worked at a Christian bookstore that did brisk trade in LB and its multifarious sequels, which approached the Second Coming like Achilles chasing the tortoise. I still feel kinda icky about that.) But back on topic, Slacktivist hits the nail on the head w/r/t LaHaye and Jenkins’s theology:

Their Antichrist is an anti-christ, an anti-messiah, in the sense that he is a false liberator who brings slavery. But where Carpathia chooses to pursue power, those who oppose him do the same. L&J’s version of the evil beast will be defeated, ultimately, not by the lamb, but by the good beast. In Left Behind, good triumphs over evil not because it is intrinsically different, but because it is simply more powerful. God has a bigger gun than the devil.

Needless to say, I’m going to have to keep following this one.