Peregrinations: Idaho

Reader and photographer Stephen Barnard kindly invited me to visit his home on Silver Creek, Idaho, near the Silver Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy. This is sunrise from his backyard, with the creek only a few feet away. If you sat watching it, you’d see a cool bird (harrier, hummingbird, yellow-headed blackbird, and so on) every five seconds or so.


Deets, Stephen’s famous sheepdog.


Yesterday morning we went for a walk in Stephen’s aspen grove, hoping to get some good photos. You can see Stephen with his huge lens (and Deets), and although the walk was bracing, we saw little to photograph.

Stephen and Deets
Deets after the walk, covered with burrs:

Deets and burrs

Then we had a two-hour canoe trip on Silver creek. Before we put the canoe in, I photographed these tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Matthew Cobb loves swifts and swallows like these.

Canoing swifts

I paddled in the lead, but of course Stephen was much more experienced, and I provided random propulsion while he provided both propulsion and direction. The river was lovely, with no other canoeists and only a handful of fishermen (Ernest Hemingway, who lived—and died—in nearby Ketchum, often fished this creek). The water was shallow, clear and cold, and large trout lurked beneath the boat. Affronted kingfishers scolded us from the banks.

Canoing, me

As we rounded a bend in the river, I saw the beasts below. So motionless were they that I thought at first they were statues of moose. But they were the real thing (Alces alces), eyeing us balefully from the bank. Stephen told me to stop paddling as we glided by, a mere twenty feet away. Later he told me that moose in the rutting season (male to the left, female to the right) are nasty and sometimes dangerous. I didn’t know that as I snapped away.


After a short nap, it was time to go to the annual pig roast and massive feed of the local fishing club. The pig was roasted (minus parts used to make pulled pork) in a homemade drum:

Pig 1

A porcine dissection. I think they overcooked the skin, which should be the best part but was too tough to eat. The meat, however, was tender and juicy.

Pig 2

There were lots of great homemade dishes: potato salad, cole slaw, beans, guacamole, tortillas (if you wanted to make a pulled pork tortilla), and various salads. The picture below shows only about half of the table.  There were far too many dishes even sample even a bit of everything!


Wonderful desserts. I had carrot cake, the lemon meringue pie in the middle, some blueberry pie (10 o’clock), and spice cake (5 o’clock):

And a lot of delicious fruits too, which I couldn’t abjure:


For entertainment they called on the local Hispanic community. There was a nice mariachi band, but also two local lads who did rope tricks. The younger one was adorable, but also quite talented. Sadly, they performed in front of the Port-A-Potties:

Lassoo 1

The little guy; he was great! Notice the cowboy boots.

Lassoo 2

We went home for the sunset. Stephen played Frisbee with Deets while I watched the birds and waited for the sun to set.

And a gorgeous sunset in Paradise. What a place to live! Many thanks to Stephen for his gracious hospitality, which I could never repay. (Seriously, my crib doesn’t have sunsets like this!)



Spot the ISS

by Grania

WEIT regular Ben Goren sent Jerry this absolutely gorgeous shot of the moon with the ISS passing in front of it. The photograph was snapped from New South Wales, Australia.

Photograph by Dylan O’Donnell

Click through here to see the original image, and here to read the article in 9News by Chris Wilkinson.

Postscript: there are zero nightjars in this picture for reasons of being in space.

Open thread: how did you become an atheist?

by Grania

We’ve often talked about reasons for being an atheist on this site, but not so much about how we became atheists – that is if we weren’t one before. Probably few of us had as dramatic an experience as Jerry’s own Road to Damascus deconversion experience where there was one pivotal moment that marked: Here believer; and afterwards no more. Probably several readers here never believed and grew up in secular homes (you fortunate people). Jerry thought it would be interesting to ask readers: what did it for you?

TL;DR: you don’t have to read my overly-long saga below – you can now skip to the comments and add your own story.

For myself, looking back with the sort of 20/20 vision that hindsight blesses us all with, perhaps I was never a fervent believer. But I certainly had what Dan Dennett would call Belief in Belief. Raised in a moderately conservative family by a Catholic mother and a hard-to-pin-down father (he is technically Jewish, Lutheran on paper and was almost certainly skeptically agnostic but polite enough to never say anything about it).

I received a better-than-average schooling in being a good Catholic than the average Catholic circa 1970s. Unlike some modern Catholics who are outraged when Richard Dawkins had the nerve to point out that they are supposed to regard the transubstantiated communion wafer as the literal body of Christ, I was taught in painstaking detail exactly what Catholics were required to believe in. (Oh dear god, the wasted hours of frustration and boredom… )

I believed because everybody seemed to believe, perhaps not in my particular flavor of Christianity; but certainly pretty much everybody appeared to adhere to one of the myriad versions of it. But I expected more of it than tedious Catechism books and hours spent reciting mind-numbing prayers on and endless repeat cycle. Also the knees, damn wooden pews hurt like a sonofabitch after half an hour. I expected that the very least a benevolent God could do was at least once reply to my earnest prayers. There was never anything though, not even something that a relatively imaginative child could try to pretend might have been a response from a seemingly disinterested deity. The people and priests I talked to about this were kindly and patient and offered me all manner of conflicting advice: pray harder, don’t pray – just listen, read more about your faith (bad advice, really), maybe He has already answered you, sometimes God says No, sometimes God says Wait A While, don’t overdo the bookish learning – too much knowledge is enemy of faith (that’s true).

In the end, what killed my belief – or belief in belief was the following:

  • a serious lack on God’s part of ever trying to acknowledge my existence. That was just plain rude.
  • Latin in High School – Pliny opened my eyes to a version of early Christianity I had not ever heard about in church – especially the bit about female deacons.
  • Actually reading the bible. Paul pretty much made me lose my temper with his sexist twaddle and I couldn’t take the book seriously as a moral guide after that.
  • Law School – courses in subjects such as Comparative Law and Roman Law pretty much destroyed the last shreds of credibility the bible had left and laid bare its cobbled-together, plagiarised and fabricated origins. Ironically two of my very excellent lecturers were Catholics too.

Anyway, I came out of university accidentally unable to sit through any more Sunday sermons without getting fairly furious at the inaccuracies, the omissions and the one-sided version of morality that got served up. I didn’t call myself an atheist for many years to come after that, but I could not take religion seriously any more. It no longer held any interest for me and we parted ways amicably.

Brother Tayler reviews Faith versus Fact

I am collecting reviews of Faith versus Fact (sadly, there haven’t been many so far), and will eventually call attention to both the good ones and bad ones. I won’t try to refute the bad ones—I learned from Nick Cohen not to answer critics), but I think that if I highlight good ones, it’s only fair to call attention to the bad ones. But first let’s have a good one: Brother Jeffrey Tayler’s review in Saturday’s Atlantic, “Can religion and science coexist?” (free link).

Tayler is of course an atheist—and antitheist—which means that I have at least a chance of getting good marks. (I don’t expect to get a single good review from a theist.) And, fortunately, he liked the book and gave a pretty good summary of its contents. Tayler does note that the Pope has somewhat redeemed the Church with his global warming encyclical (which, he claims, lessens the force of my argument that religion makes at least a minor contribution to global-warming denialism), but Tayler neglects to mention that Pope Francis’s solution, which puts the burden on consumers rather than corporations—and totally exculpates population control—is evasive, impractical, and fails to deal with the damaging Catholic dogmas about contraception.

Tayler’s review makes two points that I want to elaborate on. First, he says this:

If there’s a subject Faith Versus Fact could have dealt with in more depth, it’s the question of how people, once shorn of faith, should perceive religion’s astonishing cultural heritage, from literature and music to art and architecture. He only briefly touches on art in the context of its unsuitability as a means of ascertaining truths about the objective world because, he writes, “it lacks the tools for such inquiry.” Works of art “can move us,” he writes, “even change us, but do they convey truth or knowledge?” But he does offer telling asides about his own reaction to such things, to demonstrate that he has a heart, and isn’t just a “cold scientist.”

I suppose the first bit makes a fair point, but I neglected the issue of religious art for two reasons. First, although the artistic heritage of religion is wide and rich, ranging from Leonardo’s paintings to Chartres to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” I have NO IDEA whether, had religion never appeared, artists would have filled the lacuna with equally inspiring nonreligious works. There probably would have been no cathedrals, but art has been secular for a long time, and I find it hard to believe that medieval artists or later musicians wouldn’t have exercised their talents and impulses on secular topics, as did the early Dutch and Flemish painters like Frans Hals or Johannes Vermeer. I’d be interested to hear what readers think about this.

But the main reason I didn’t deal with this issue is that it was irrelevant, or largely irrelevant, to my theses: those involving the competing epistemologies of faith versus rationality in judging what’s true about the cosmos and the life within it. Just as I avoided passing judgment on whether religion has at times been good or bad for society, so I avoided speculating on whether art would have been better or worse without religion. Those issues, while intriguing, are hard to settle and, in truth, tangential to the aim of my book.

Tayler ends his review this way:

Faith Versus Fact could serve as a primer for nonbelievers wishing to present their case to the faithful as well as an aid for doubters struggling to resolve theistic dilemmas themselves. Atheists might hope that it could challenge believers by picking apart arguments for religion’s merits and veracity. But as his book demonstrates, and as the reactions to previous atheistic polemics by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens have proved, it’s unlikely to dissuade those whose faith is strongly grounded. Science might be based on a foundation of rational thought and trial-and-error, but the roots of religion lie in something much more incalculable, and thus much harder to counter.

Indeed, he’s right: hard-core religionists are hard to persuade (but not impossible, as Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” attests). And the arguments of faith, however, wonky, are recalcitrant to reason. But not impossible! Tayler himself writes weekly anti-theist columns for Salon that, of course, are even more “unlikely to dissuade those whose faith is strongly grounded.” But I suspect that both Tayler and I, as he implies above, are aiming at both the doubters and those who haven’t yet been brainwashed by believers.

And a nice tw**t from Tayler:

Screen shot 2015-07-04 at 8.51.44 PMTayler also told me that his review was the most active piece on the front page of the Atlantic, which surprised me. But, sure enough, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, there are already 1043 comments—and the piece was published just yesterday. I read down as far as the second comment (below) and stopped:

Screen shot 2015-07-05 at 2.43.25 PM

Dostoevsky was, of course, referring in The Brothers Karamazov to the notion that there can be no morality without God—a common view of the benighted. But whether Dostoevsky actually believed this himself is a matter of dispute. 


World’s oldest bald eagle dies at 39

by Grania

Sad news from New York, last week a Bald Eagle named Eagle 629-03142 died at the age of 38, significantly older than the usual 20 year lifespan of these birds.

The eagle benefited from being part of a program to replace New York’s decimated eagle population after DDT had ravaged them by the early 1970s, so badly that it was placed on the federal endangered species list. Only one single breeding pair remained in the area at the time.

Elizabeth Deatrick explains:

Biologists had a plan to replace New York’s absent eagles. At just a few weeks old, 03142, as he was known, was whisked from his Minnesotan nest and taken to New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, along with a few eaglets from other states. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which ran the program, wanted the eaglets to imprint on their new location, not on people, so the biologists raised the eaglets using a low-contact technique called “hacking,” hiding from the young birds and housing them in cages on stilts. These “hacking towers” gave the eaglets an excellent view out over Montezuma Refuge, and kept them safe as they grew.

The biologists hoped that the young eagles would stick around their new home after they fledged—and so they did. A few years later, the male half of New York’s last original breeding pair died, and 03142 took his place in the old nest at Hemlock Lake. Over next few decades, 03142 fathered many young eaglets, doing his part to push his species out of danger.

As Deatrick notes, these birds are still at risk from humans in the form of poisoning, shooting and road accidents; but the population has recovered dramatically and is no longer on the endangered species list.

h/t: Taskin

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today we have photos from two regulars. As it’s summer, Diana MacPherson’s chipmunks are busy storing up seeds in Ontario:

My yard is full of several different chipmunks and I suspect they are all females feeding baby chipmunks. There have been several chases that have broken out as a result. Here are a couple pictures I took of one of the females hoovering up seeds on my deck. I’m starting to suspect that a chipmunk found its way into my car’s blower box and filled it up with leaves and seeds last week, costing me $100 to have it cleaned out.
JAC: That’s cute, and easily worth $100!
Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Pauses Between Hoovering up Seeds:
Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Grooms Wet Arm:
And Stephen Barnard sends a photo of a northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) from Idaho with a note:
The female appears to be flying in and out of the nest area, encouraging the would-be fledglings to fly.

In which Science goes on trial and is exonerated all in one morning

by Grania

As Dara O’Briain once noted, of course Science doesn’t know everything. If science knew everything, it would stop and probably go and eat ice cream for the rest of its days. But sometimes we all wish that science had the answer to our particular question du jour. Then again, sometimes just because we don’t know the answer doesn’t mean that science hasn’t already figured it out for us. (Magnets, how do they work?)

This morning on Twitter, writer and journalist Tom Chivers asked this question.

This response came moments later.

(He went on to apologise graciously.)

So what does science have to say on why we think we got a phone-call when we didn’t? The BBC says here:

When your phone is in your pocket, the world is in one of two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. You also have two possible states of mind: the judgment that the phone is ringing, or the judgment that it isn’t. Obviously you’d like to match these states in the correct way. True vibrations should go with “it’s ringing”, and no vibrations should go with “it’s not ringing”. Signal detection theory calls these faithful matches a “hit” and a “correct rejection”, respectively.

But there are two other possible combinations: you could mismatch true vibrations with “it’s not ringing” (a “miss”); or mismatch the absence of vibrations with “it’s ringing” (a “false alarm”). This second kind of mismatch is what’s going on when you imagine a phantom phone vibration.

For situations where easy judgments can be made, such as deciding if someone says your name in a quiet room, you will probably make perfect matches every time. But when judgments are more difficult – if you have to decide whether someone says your name in a noisy room, or have to evaluate something you’re not skilled at – mismatches will occasionally happen. And these mistakes will be either misses or false alarms.

It’s apparently similar to the system smoke detectors use. A false alarm is much less costly and less dangerous than a missed positive.

So there you go, Science is safe for another day. And perhaps you will forgive your neighbours next time their alarm goes off for no reason at all at 3am.




Monday: Hili Dialogue & bonus Leon monologue

by Grania

Good morning all, to those at work and to those nursing food hangovers. Jerry will be back on the road again today, I am sure he will update us regularly, and he already has some pieces ready to be published here on WEIT because he doesn’t really understand the concept of “holiday”.

Hili, who as we know, is the hardworking editor of Listy is earning her keep. Kind of.

Hili: A typo!
A: Where?
Hili: Thrid line, second word.


In Polish:

Hili: Literówka!
Ja: Gdzie?
Hili: Trzeci wiersz, drugie słowo.

Possibly her staff are gently poking fun at her. It’s tough being a feline editor.

In other news, Leon had an adventure. Małgorzata writes:

Someone left a window opened and Leon escaped. He was away for three hours and his humans were out of their minds with worry. But he came back all by himself. He is safely at home now with all doors and windows secured against any possible devious cat’s tricks.


The unrepentant Leon

Leon: I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I just went out to see what’s happening in the town.

The Cobra

I’ve previously published a photo and some information on Stephen Barnard’s Shelby Cobra, but yesterday we got to take it out for a spin. That thing sure can accelerate, and it’s loud and has five forward gears. The tailpipe runs along the passenger’s side, so you have to be careful not to burn yourself when getting out:

Stephen in the car:


A Cobra selfie:


What I was told: the engine is a 427 cubic inch, Ford 351 Windsor, bored and stroked (shades of the Beach Boys!). I’m also told it’s “naturally aspirated” with a four-barrel carburetor, and has 535 horsepower. It could probably go up to 160 miles per hour, but we didn’t take it up nearly that high.


Here’s the owl!

That was an easy one: the owl was at nine-o’clock: about 60% of the distance from the center of the photo to the edge of the tree. Here’s a moderate close-up, and also a photo of a juvenile (undoubtedly its offspring) in the same tree:




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34,453 other followers