This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

C'Est Tout!

Okay, I conceed.

I was foiled in part by really bad audio on the magic in skepticism panel, which resulted in me taking a break from working towards finishing.  Then I got happily sucked into the skeptical vortex of Skeptic North.  And somewhere in there I promised myself that I was soon going to hunker down and finish what I started.  More recently I shifted to telling myself that I'd get around to officially can it quits in a public fashion - but even then it took weeks to get around to today.

Anyhow, I'm calling it.  I need to give myself permission to move on.

Maybe, just maybe I'll come back and post the audio - despite it's quality - just to have a complete record.  There is some good stuff, like Phil Plait's 2012 discussion.  But technically it's not mine to post in such a fashion.

Anyhow... it was fun.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No-Frills-Adam Fails Upwards

I was pretty damned excited to hear Joe Nickell talk and Jennifer Ouellette (SEO pros would be appalled at how much I'm linking back to my own post about her) turned out to be my surprise favourite speaker, but if there was one person who I was excited about from the start who did not let-down in the least, it was Adam Savage from MythBusters.

Adam's presentation was unique. Everyone else – to a man (plus Jennifer) – had slides and many had audio and/or video. Adam – whose show regularly creates contraptions of boggling yet limited practical prowess – brought absolutely nothing with him. He didn't use the podium. He simply sat on the front edge of the table used for panel discussions with the microphone and talked.

Despite my intention to only video record bits and pieces of people's talks I broke down and videoed almost the entire thing. ....Which is kind of ironic as it was the least visually engaging in any immediate sense. But there was something in the Spalding Gray-esque simplicity of it that was wholly compelling.

Adam's talk was about failure.

He never explicitly said so, but I don't think it was lost on anyone that failure is important to science. Admitting failure and learning from it is one of the distinguishing features of science that separates it from most of the world's ideologies. Science, practically by definition, self-corrects.

I have said for years that I do not make mistakes – I make lessons. Adam's talk showed that he too has lived by that credo (whether in those terms or not) and that he has out-performed me in at least the latter side of that equation, if not (and possibly even because of) doing so on both sides.

He made almost the exact same talk at Maker Faire in May, so I'm gonna cheat... it's worth it.

Shermer Rises Above

While Friday had been an entertaining day, and even had my favourite individual speaker (Jennifer Oullette) Saturday was the best day of the conference.

It started off well with the surreal SGU breakfast, and the first speaker of the day set us off in grand fashion. (That said, it was a dense talk requiring an ability to maintain early points through to the end. The distilling of the details here was a chore. One which I have probably failed at.)

But first, Hal Bidlack started the morning off with a group ovation for all the science teachers in the room. And then announced that the next speaker needed no introduction... and left the stage.

It was true. That speaker was Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and you could have probably counted the number of people in the room who didn't know his name on one hand.

He began with a straw poll: "By show of hands, how many are here for their first time?" I think the figure is around 1/3 of us were there for the first time. The second part of his poll was: "How many of you have never been to TAM before? Let's see a show of hands." Some hands raised, but most people just laughed. "Those of you who raised your hands twice, you need to join the Skeptic Society and subscribe to Skeptic Magazine right away."

He had the good grace to chuckle at his own shameless plug. He went on to talk a bit about the magazine and some of the subjects they'd covered in the past.
It was a successful ploy. I proceeded to later in the day go to the Skeptic Magazine table at the back and buy a couple of back issues including one on 9/11 conspiracies that he specifically mentioned in his talk.

He did make it clear as he was talking that yes, he does think there was a 9/11 conspiracy. Nineteen men organizing themselves to hi-jack four planes and fly them into key targets on American soil constitutes a conspiracy. He does not think that it was an inside job. I'm not getting into it now, but essentially I agree. It doesn't mean there aren't some nagging questions, but the core claims supporting a cabal within the Bush White House – as much as I wish it were demonstrable that they were shit-eating-mother-fucker-crooks – fall apart under scrutiny. I'll cover that at some point on Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic.
Michael's main, and admittedly somewhat facetious, contention that the best evidence that the Bush Administration was not directly involved in the attacks is a good one: "It worked." (And if that makes you wonder about his political leanings, he identifies as a Libertarian.)

His subject was the need for us as people to "Rise Above."

To rise above our tribal instincts; our xenophobia; our belief that we have the one true religion; our evolutionary environment. Rise above our inner warrior and rise to our inner Oskar Schindler or reasonable facsimile.

He used a still from the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within" where Kirk was split into his two polar personality components to illustrate the conflict within ourselves.
Naturally this was a crowd that didn't need much explanation of the reference.

He agreed with the thesis of the episode – that both sides are necessary characteristics. We are by nature moral and immoral, good and evil, rational and intuitive, selfish and co-operative and so on.

We care the most about ourselves and our immediate family - our parents – related genetically above – and our offspring below.
Outwards from there we have connections to our siblings, half-siblings, cousins, and so on in an expanding circle. The closer to centre are the people we care most about and the further out, the people we care less and progressively less about. Kin-selection results in us taking care of those family members who aren't vertically genetically linked... and then beyond that we have a reciprocally altruistic relationship with our community.

This was as far as we needed to go in a tribal society as these were all the people we knew – at least with any level of intimacy. Treating these people well was, in fact, good for us as it protected ourselves and our offspring. In short – morality grew around solid evolutionary social traits, from the bottom up.

But we don't live in that world anymore. We live in a world-wide culture.

Being good to our neighbours and warlike with those dangerous folks from over the hill is no longer a beneficial survival tactic for the species.
We must rise up to caring about the species, the bio-sphere and people we don't know. We need to rise above the old right/left political spectrum. It's broken. It's over simplified.

And here, to my mind, he pulled a little bit of a psychological fast one on us... though it may have been incidental. He brought up the above diagram with Liberal on the left, Conservative on the right and Libertarian, his own declared leaning, on top.
He asked everyone to – by a show of hands – demonstrate their personal affiliation... And I quote "to the left of centre there, to the right, or above with the Libertarians." (Emphasis added.)
He never acknowledged any deliberate suggestion. I do think it was most likely incidental, but I did find it curious. His thesis being that there is virtue in 'rising above' and what was above on his diagram – his personal political bent. But I digress...

A bit more than half the audience, perhaps even as much as two thirds raised their hand for Left.
About four raised their hands for Right. (Giving credence to the aphorism "Reality has a left-wing bias.")
And about half raised their hand for Libertarian.

Yeah, it doesn't take much to figure out that more than a few people raised their hand for both Left and Libertarian – myself included, and the fellow beside me for that matter.

He went on about the stereotype of "Liberals think that the right are a bunch of hard-drinking, gun-toting, hummer-driving, fist-pounding, bible-thumping, morally hypocritical boors."
And conversely the Conservatives think the left are a bunch of "tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, hybrid-driving, wishy-washy, namby-pamby, bed-wetters."
Both of these generalizations got big rounds of good-humoured applause... I guess we all know who we are and what we think!

He then presented us with a trio of graphics.

The first how Conservatives see the world:

The second, how Liberals see the world:

When in actual fact it's more purple when you break it down by counties:

The matter is more complicated than that even. He moved on to a brief look at Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundation's Theory wherein five values cover virtually everything anyone on the spectrum cares about: Care/Harm; Fairness; Loyalty; Respect/Authority; and Purity.

Liberals tend to value the first two more, and Conservatives value the last three more, though all five group more together when charted for Conservatives. (This is a gross oversimplification on my part for expediency.)

This is not a North American or even Western phenomenon. There are shades of difference, but world-wide the graphs are very similar.

Michael says there is no 'right or wrong' people just emphasize different things.

He went on to say that he disagrees with the notion that politics is something that is not open for discussion – something that skeptics shouldn't even talk about. His own writings about Libertarianism have provoked greater responses than what he has written about religion. "Skepticism is apolitical" as one respondent wrote. But he contends that in fact how people feel is that if they agree with him then it's apolitical, but if they don't agree then he has ventured into verboten territory. I tend to agree with him. Politics should not dictate the evidence, but the evidence absolutely should dictate your politics, allowing for room for differences to fall in differing camps where matters of opinion are concerned.

Shermer cites 9/11 as being a turning point. It caused a dilemma for Liberals. Wherein they were forced to give more value to group loyalty and respect for authority. I don't think I agree with him on this. He is right in that extreme fundamentalists are difficult to impossible to reason with and thus need to be dealt with in more direct, physical, defensive manners. Sam Harris argues even further – and I agree with him as I think I understand the point – that religious moderates are even dangerous as they reinforce the beliefs of the extremists.

And so we remain tribes behind walls and on those walls are men with guns.

To illustrate the teasing apart of the individual rights and the importance of group loyalty he turned to a classic scene from Rob Reiner's excellent film "A Few Good Men" – written, significantly, by Aaron Sorkin creator of The West Wing. Shermer calls it his favourite film.

Shermer cut it off at approximately the three minute mark – just after Nicholson responds to Cruise's demand "Did you order the Code:Red!?!" with "You're God damned right I did!" To quote Shermer, "Heh, heh – got 'im." But he also asks "How are we getting around this problem?" (The tension between these two realities.)

Moving into the second part of his talk, he shifted the subject towards types of civilizations as understood according to the Kardashev Scale.

We are a type zero... or at least below type one. We use dead plants and animals as our primary energy source. He suggests that we are in the neighbourhood of a century away from being a Type One civilization.

Shermer doesn't want to look at the idea based on it's typical terms – energy usage and how we might use the signature that another civilization might leave behind in the cosmos – his terms are more social and political. Based on the existing literature we passed the .7 level sometime in the 80s and will surpass the .73 level in the next few decades. But how does our tribalism match up within our Kardashev Type?

  • As a group of loosely organize primates – call that a .1
  • As nomadic hunter gatherers - .2
  • Tribes of settled communities - .3
  • Chiefdoms of various scopes - .4
  • States - .5
  • Empires - .6
  • Democracies - .7
  • Liberal democracies - .8
  • Liberal democratic capitalism - .9
  • A globally connected world community – Type 1.

(Note: I have to admit, that somewhere in there I seem to have missed a step in his thinking. I've gone through the talk several times and can't identify the gap between where we go from being a .73 on the Kardashev scale to Shermer's matched scale having Type 1 being our next apparent step... unless the point is that the world as a whole has not made it to .9 – which he failed to explicitly say. And that doesn't even address the politico-centric view this represents... a view I agree with, I might add, despite recognizing that it is vaguely self-congratulatory of Western Culture.)

His definition of Type One from this perspective includes the entire world being wireless and everyone having access. (I personally think we are far closer to being there than a century... but it's his talk.) We would switch from fossil-fuel to renewable energy. (That may be closer to a century in absolute terms, but I believe we are witnessing the beginning of this transition here and now in ways that have never been so clearly defined.) We will have a global language – he suggests it unequivocally will be English. (I think it's still too early to make that call.) There will be a global communications system – the internet – and culture will be shared by all. There will be a global democracy that will break up the power blocks. (...And now we see why a century may be naively optimistic in my mind.) There will also be global free-trade. Things like eBay and Amazon are making the latter surprisingly close to real – though we still have a way to go. Why is it a good thing? Because it breaks down natural tribal barriers.

He went on to cite a study of 371 international wars (the name of the researcher is lost in the bad audio) where at least 1000 people were killed. There were 205 wars between non-democratic nations; 166 between democratic and non-democratic nations; and zero wars between democratic nations. Therefore the trend towards Liberal Democracy is a good thing. There is a question of what precisely is a democracy, but as an approximation, it is an encouraging set of statistics.

He wrapped up by reading from his latest book, The Mind of the Market:

The treaty of Rome gathered "...disparate and historically divided European nations under one economic umbrella. Where once nations in wars were common-place through a thousand years of European history, they are now unthinkable. Try imagining Germany invading France and waging war upon it. Picture France marching it's armies through the Chunnel and marching into London to declare the country French. What once made for dramatic literature now sounds like pulp fiction. The 'wikification' of the economy – wikinomics as it's becoming known – adds to the Google-theory wherein the entire world economy is participated in my billions of people. Wikipedia is the right analogy of this emerging world-wide phenomenon. It's the collaboratively created encyclopaedia that runs on wiki-software that allows real-time editing and updating of documents by anyone anywhere anytime. It's an open-sourced, peer-reviewed, mass-collaborated, bottom-up, self-organized emergent property of millions of people choosing to build the modern equivalent of the Alexandrian Library, whose purpose it was to make the sum of the world's knowledge available to everyone in one location. Granted the Alexandrian scholars had far less knowledge to store than we do by many orders of magnitude, but we have the world-wide web. In the long run, no dictator, demagogue, priest, president or any other pretender to power will be able to control the googlefication, wikification, ebayification, mapquestification, youtubeification, myspaceification..." stops and adds as an aside "I guess I should add twitterfication since that came out since I wrote this" and then continues after incorrectly identifying the emergence of Twitter as 'like about a month ago', "...of information, knowledge, geography, personal relationships, markets and the economy. Chinese bureaucrats can try to put all the firewalls and controls they want in front of a billion potential Chinese web-surfers, but they'll never be able to prevent knowledge, products and people from finding a way to those who seek them. Freedom finds a way."

During the question session immediately following he admitted that he likes the Haidt parameters as an alternate heuristic for identifying what people believe. He dislikes the standard labels and doesn't even like calling himself a Libertarian due to "eat the poor" baggage people associate with it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Just a small acknowledgement that I'm skipping the first event of Saturday morning – the SGU breakfast. I already covered it in a previous post. Jay premiered his film and Rebecca got married.

But the other thing I wanted to mention, I've finally solved by video issues. So soon I'll be able to add some clips of my own. I'm going to have to get some capturing and editing done first, but it'll happen soon enough.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bring on the Night

With the first day's formal activities complete it was time to move on to the evening's scattered brou-ha-ha. I mixed up my evening with a variety of events, organized, un-organized and downright disorganized.

Upon leaving the convention centre I headed up to Paul and my room. He was diligently hammering away at his keyboard, putting together material for his blog on TAM. He was publishing live and he didn't get into as much detail. But his blog is complete and has been for a month.

We chatted for a while, discussing how he might push his on-line career 'over the top' as we both got ready to head out for the evening.

We did have one specific plan – we'd both laid down $55US for the SGU Dinner.

But first we joined a few of our Vancouver compatriots at the Pool Bar for drinks.

Rob and Jessica were both very excited that the bartender knew how (and had the necessary ingredients) for a Caesar. Apparently it's a drink that isn't normally served in the States. I had no idea! But the barkeep had Clamato juice as he is accustomed to Canadians asking for Caesars. It seems most places if you go and ask for a Caesar, you get a perplexed look followed by the single word question: "Salad?"

I had – for the first time in my life a Foster's 'Oil Can' – my god that's a big can of beer.

We discussed our various plans for the evening. Rob and Jessica were going to the Cirque du Soliels show – "O". I began to grill Rob on his poker win from the night before but we got WAY off track. I do have that on video – perhaps if I ever get around to editing that material (which will first require finding a way to capture the footage – could I subjugate this line of thought any further? (No.)).

Before too long it was suddenly 7:30 and the SGU Dinner was starting without us.

When we arrived the dinner itself had not started but the room was FULL. There were not many seats left at all but we did manage to find a table with two chairs left.

We barely got seated when Steve welcomed us all and reminded everyone present that first thing in the morning session (which would begin again with a live recording of the SGU over breakfast) that the short film Jay had made would premiere. Jay admitted to being really nervous about it. In his words, "I'm shitting bricks." The Steve announced that the buffet was open and that people could serve themselves at their leisure, there would be no effort to organize serving by table. That effort seemed to work surprisingly well and considering I've been to weddings with fewer tables it makes me wonder why people even bother?

Paul decided he was going to go get food immediately. I stayed behind, as did much of our table. I had used up pretty much the entirety of the tape that was in my video-camera, and I figured I should change it so that I was ready for action should it happen.

As I was fumbling with the tape, a familiar voice asked across the table – is this seat taken?

It was none other than Steve Novella. It turned out that a few of our fellow table-mates were contributors to the Science Based Medicine Blog and Steve wanted to take the opportunity to touch base with them on a few matters. For truly the only time at the conference I was genuinely, cripplingly, star-struck. I could make excuses about how he sat down to talk to them and how they had something specific and important they were discussing, but honestly, if it had been the most casual of conversations I STILL would have been tongue tied. Dr. Novella is one of the sharpest knives in the skeptical drawer. He is both Hard Drive and RAM. He seems to have a bottomless pit of facts filed away in his head, but his analysis of practically anything seems to be instant and constantly on the money. Really, if I were to have a conversation with him I wouldn't know where to start. I would simply be intimidated by the idea of having a conversation with him, so I just smiled, listened and continued to unwrap my MiniDV tape.

When Paul returned I said "We've got a guest."

To which he responded "We do? Oh! Heh-ha-ha! He's the reason I came to the whole thing. Not the only reason. Just the first reason."

At which point I got up to get food for myself.

In line the woman beside me showed me a great (and simple) idea for double-siding our name tags by sticking the dinner sticker on the back of the plasticized JREF dongle. In exchange I taste tested a few buffet items to see if they were vegetarian for her.

When I returned to our table Paul was deep in conversation with Dr. Novella. It was immediately clear that they were discussing Paul's Simon Singh-esque problem. By the time I got there they had already got to the point where Dr. Steve was letting Paul know that if things were to go bad for him that he could expect a substantial level of support from the internet-based skeptical-medical community.

If anything I would go so far as to say that there was a bit of a sense of "chomping at the bit for the fight" from the SBM blogger-crowd. But I guess that is kind of the point – they are eager to take up the fight when it becomes a chance to promote science over insanity... er, I mean magic... or alternative medicine... Okay, I don't think there's a squeak of difference between the latter and the other two.

As I said to Paul once Dr. Novella left, "I'm guessing that just paid for the cost of your dinner." Though in retrospect, it could prove to be worth the price of the entire conference.

The food at the dinner was truly awesome. I had to go back for more risotto and salmon and really kind of wished that I'd known how fantastic they were going to be so I could just load up on them in the first place and forget the rest.

Conversation around the table them moved to a discussion about how learning about science is not about collecting perceived wisdom it is about learning the process. The conversation was very focussed on medicine and alternative medicine which left me feeling a little on the outside, but not begrudgingly so, it merely meant that the conversation flitted in and out of a realm where I understood the specifics and made it hard for me to participate directly – though I did try a little.

Shortly after I finished my food I went on walk-about. I went and found Jay who happened to be un-assaulted by other fans just as I moseyed-up. I offered my hand and said "Jay, I'm a film-maker and I'm really looking forward to tomorrow." I have a bad feeling that that came across as "I am so looking forward to witnessing you fall flat on your face" – which was not my intent, but his response was probably more in line with that intention. "Oh my god, why would you tell me that?" He asked what kind of films I make – which has never been a question I've ever felt like I've answered both concisely and well and I maintained that streak in this conversation. We talked about how film-making in an ongoing learning process and that it doesn't matter if it's your first or your 100th film, you are always going to be making a movie that by the time you are finished you have learned SO much more about the process that you will be disappointed on some level with the results. I tried, but kind of failed to encourage him to enjoy the screening in the morning – you only lose your virginity once. Screening your first film the first time... that's never going to happen again. It was clear that he had SO much fun making it that nothing else was really going to matter, and I was encouraging him that the audience was going to love it. He asked if I'd give him some feedback, and I promised to forward him some once it was all done. And – skipping ahead - I did.

From there I went and introduced myself to Derek Colanduno. If you don't know who Derek is, he is one of the hosts of Skepticality, which was the original skeptical podcast. I admit it's not my favourite of the options out there, but it has one thing that none of the other have – a story arc. It was inadvertent – accidental, I suppose – but it was, even still is, a thing of great emotional beauty. I admit that I cried when I listened to the SGU episode where they announced that Perry DeAngelis died. Hell, I cried on a city bus-load of people – and when I started listening to the SGU I hated Perry. But that truly paled to what happened on Skepticality. In September of 2005 Derek suffered a stroke. He was just 31! It happened during a celebration dinner for the podcast. His podcasting partner Swoopy (a pseudonym – her real name is well known, but let's stick with Swoopy) gave the news on the podcast. She was clearly distraught. Up to that point Skepticality had pretty much felt like the Derek show, with Swoopy riding along. After his stroke, everything changed. The show stuttered a bit in it's production – understandably. Various guest hosts helped Swoopy out along the way, but before too long she has really stepped up to the plate and took the reigns. Meanwhile Derek gradually got better, and Swoopy kept us up to date on his progress. And after a while he returned to the show – and we, the listening audience, witnessed as he proceeded to get better and better. At first he was reluctant, but that passed. Swoopy over the same time grew in her capacity as primary host, and today the show is probably more her's than Derek's – in so far as who seems to be the main personality. In the end Skepticality has become a podcast about triumph and flying in the face of adversity as much as it has been about critical thought. I really felt a need to thank Derek (Swoopy was not at TAM this year.) for his part in that beautiful story. He directed me to his blog about his recovery as an additional resource. He told me that he had trouble listening to Swoopy talk about his progress before he could come back on the air – her emotion was overwhelming. (It is gold.) It had been apparent to me before that they have a very special friendship, but perhaps I only scratched the surface of understanding. He described it as "surviving his own funeral." He compared his stroke to Robert Lancaster's – Lancaster had had some prior warning in his medical history which allowed for a certain amelioration of the effects – whereas Derek's was out of the blue. Apparently, according to Derek, the only way to really know that such a thing is likely or not (along with a few other diseases) is to do a sleep study. At that point we kind of got interrupted as the evening morphed into a group photo opportunity with a spectrum of skeptical celebrities – including Derek.

Before too long the mic was being passed around again. Rebecca told a brief anecdote about how the dinner was intended to be a fundraising affair. But somewhere along the way things went pear-shaped. They set the price at $55... but when Evan priced the dinner with the casino the price was $56 per plate... "fund-raising fail!" She went on to joke about the 'job' of pod-casting "giving away stuff for free for a living" and how really the dinner was not about making money, it was about spending time with "you guys." Evan echoed her comments. Steve thanked everyone for coming and that was pretty much that as far as formal stuff went.

Meanwhile another event was beginning – the entertainment show of the night, which I would hear about later.

People milled about for a bit and Paul and I made an effort to get in and shake hands with a few people who were high on our list of notable skeptics to meet. As Paul put it "let's go collect skeptics."

Bob commented on how often people just can't distinguish between he and Jay – which strikes me as absurd, how can they not notice the difference, yeah they are brothers, but they aren't twins! And for that matter, Steve is their brother too! Paul and Bob compared notes on how the iPhone was far more visible in this crowd than anywhere else they'd ever been.

A number of people were getting autographs, I was saving that for books that I planned to buy.

Paul and I compared notes with Evan about the people we have introduced to the podcast. Paul claimed that he'd brought dozens to the show. I admitted that they only person I know of for sure, is Paul.

From there I stepped into the concourse and joined a conversation with Yau-man Chan. He was talking about his Survivor experience. He told a tale about commenting on the 'fake boobs' of some female contestants to Jonathan Penner and one of the women overheard him and got upset and ran up the beach and took off her top and demanded that he feel her breast to prove that they were real. Penner accused Yau-man of making the comment in the first place just to get that reaction... which he denies – though he did check the veracity of the breast in question. It was never relevant to the show so it was never used. Yau-man said that a lot of interesting and funny things happened that didn't support the story, and that plenty of things get used at times that were temporally well out of sequence.

People were filing into the show – the "Nigerian Spam Scam – Scam" (What is it with the names like this at the conference? Anti-Anti-Vax Panel, Nigerian Spam Scam – Scam?) and our discussion drifted to the spam-scams. How they much have a low-hit rate, but the hits they do get are lucrative enough to make it worthwhile.

And then... my first experience with – him. I didn't know it then, but he is infamous at TAM. Politely speaking there are a number of socially ill-adjusted guys in the TAM crowd. There is a certain inevitability about it. It seems that he is the poster boy. I want to be clear that everyone is welcome at TAM. It is a deliberately inclusive circle. But that doesn't mean that all behaviour is welcome within that circle. He joined the group and hi-jacked the conversation via massive non-sequitur. It was rude and annoying and ultimately inappropriate. If I knew then what I know now (that this is SOP for Him) I would have made a point of letting him know that his interjection into our conversation needed to be approached in a different manner.

He began subtely with a tenuous, but legitimate connection between our actual topic and South Park, but his point was so circuitous that by the time is became at all clear, the conversation was now about South Park. I like South Park and I think many skeptics do too... but it wasn't what the conversation was about. So we talked about South Park for a bit... except it wasn't so much us talking about South Park... one of us would attempt to make a point – critical or supportive – and before a comment of any weight could be formulated He was jumping off on a interrupting tangent struck from some minor aspect of what the speaker had said. On top of it he felt the need to explain each reference he made about the show in condescending detail. Eg. "Big Gay Al – their quintessential homo-sexual guy is a scout master and he's really good at it and they kick him out 'cause he's openly gay and they have this guy who is like conservative military..." Yeah, buddy, we've all seen the show, and perhaps you haven't got it yet, but this conference is a place where smart people hang out – we got your fucking reference.

Shortly after the above reference the conversation began to drift to something slightly new – Seth McFarlane – when out of the blue He assaults us with the following phrase: "This thing is, I've never been fucked in the ass on South park." Before I go further I want to stress that this was not misheard, I corroborated it with others in the conversation. I'm not easily offended, and no I wasn't specifically offended by this. What bothered me was that WE WERE MOVING ON! To be honest, it wasn't 'til this point that I decided that there was something socially wrong with him. Now there WAS a point to his comment, but – I repeat – WE WERE MOVING ON! That pretty much ended the conversation. He may have been trying to keep control of the topic to himself, but it had the effect of shutting it down – ruining it for everyone.

Paul called it 'a night' after the dinner was over, but I went down to the bar – Del Mar to socialize with skeptics I don't know.

I joined a table of people who didn't look the least bit familiar, but who all were wearing tags from the conference – one of them was one of the many Daves at the conference. I figured it was as good a place as any to see what might transpire. They quickly assessed that I'm from Vancouver and in almost the same sentence asked if I knew Fred. Everybody knows Fred. He is (and I say this in the most positive way possible) such a keener. At the SGU dinner he was one of the few who were able to claim to have been at each SGU dinner over the past three years.

Dale, the woman sitting beside me, was a science teacher from New Hampshire. She'd followed her husband to TAM originally, but now comes back every year to find new things to take home and teach.

I had a discussion with another fellow who compared his experience at the workshops on Thursday with mine at the SGU dinner an hour earlier. I kind of felt like I had spent fifty-five dollars to shake hands with some celebrity skeptics... when at TAM you can do that practically anytime. The dinner itself was good – but it wasn't a fifty-five dollar meal. He agreed in terms of the workshops. He didn't really learn a lot that he couldn't have got elsewhere.

The conversation moved on to personal experiences relating to the Anti-anti-vax Panel. One thing that struck me immediately and pleasantly was that we skeptics have a lot to laugh at. Not in the sense of ridicule – well perhaps, yes. But more in terms of comedy is pain... and there is a lot of tragedy in the world that we can only laugh to relieve the pain. An interesting idea did come out of the discussion... those of us who are old enough to have vaccination scars should make a point of wearing them proudly. They are our badge against the anti-vax lobby.

Another fellow at our table talked about his sister who out of high-school decided to go and live with the Amish. She didn't last. She left after a year and went back to college, but still makes her own clothes and adheres to some other tenets of their faith. He had gone to visit her once while she was still with them and came back with some fascinating and even scary stories... none of this Harrison Ford in Witness stuff. It's not quaint. It's a cult. Perhaps a relatively benign cult, but a cult none the less.

Eventually we were joined by a fellow named Andrew who had just arrived. He'd missed the entire first day but was eager for the second day's events. We chatted for a bit. I asked him what his story was – why he'd come to TAM. He challenged me. "Go for it. Cold read. See how well you do." So I did. I went largely by instinct based upon the few things he had already told me. And I can't effectively recount here what it was that made me think along the lines I did, but I know it wasn't totally from whole cloth. I said that he'd been born into a seriously religious family that he'd broken out of at some point and had an "atheist experience" awakening towards critical thinking and had come to TAM to see more about what it was all about. I had been going for a high-chance hit. And I pretty much nailed it. He had actually found the depths of God that he went to on his own – not through a devout family – but I'd otherwise been bang on. If I were claiming psychic abilities that would have been a grand-slam. He added that he would like to meet critical thinkers who are making a living from it, 'cause that's what he'd like to do.

Shortly after that John showed up and told me about a party that was happening upstairs. A group of Australian skeptics had loaded their fridge and were inviting people up. I followed. There were only a dozen or so folks there and it actually seemed to be winding down. Brian Dunning showed up while I was there. It wasn't in fact much of a party. I spent most of my time chatting with Jesse and John about their car-troubles. Things broke down shortly after Brian Dunning left... and that was pretty much that. I went to bed. Six AM was going to come fast.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Audience with the Master

One of the things I underestimated about TAM was just how populated it is by the blinding-light deities of skepticism. You could throw a rock and hit a prominent skeptic. Truly. Having been in the entertainment industry for pretty much my entire adult life means that by now I've largely overcome the sensation of being star-struck. But I've got to say that at TAM I was overcome by it more regularly than I thought would still be possible for me. I AM fairly well equipped to handle it when it does happen:

  1. Treat the person in question as a person, not some kind of precious glass object or religious icon;
  2. Decide fast whether you really have something worth saying to them and get it said efficiently, chances are you won't really have a conversation, merely something that has the illusion of being one;
  3. If you are going to beat yourself up for not saying 'hi' to them then christalmighty say 'hi', but remember points 1 & 2;
  4. If other folk are waiting to bask in the glory of their celebrity, remember point 2 and move along as fast as feasible – get your photo and get out;
  5. If by some chance you actually have a chance for a real conversation, make it a real conversation – none of that "remember when you were in the Beatles" stuff – talk about something current & relevant to you both
  6. Be respectful, thank them for their time/photo/autograph/hand-shake and don't be mad at them that they haven't got more time for you – the fact is there are a million of you in their lives.

I may have blown it once at TAM, but generally I did well.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I met Joe Nickell. Pretty much first thing. I turned around from registering and there he was, talking to another attendee. He was my first TAM celeb. Not two hours earlier I'd been reading an article of his in the Skeptical Inquirer at fifty-thousand feet. I had an internal moment of "Oh my god! That's Joe Nickell!" and then I reminded myself that if I didn't say 'hi' I'd be mad at myself. I had no idea at that point how many opportunities I would have.

I walked up and as his conversation with the other delegate wound down I shook his hand and told him that we'd used Lake Monster Mysteries as a resource on "Beast..." – he said "Oh yeah? Is that the Moby Dick film?" The answer of which was "yes, yes it is." (Inside the answer was more like "YES! Omigod-omigod-omigod! Joe Nickell knows about our film!!!" But that wouldn't have been cool... nor "cool".)

We talked briefly. There was no one else around so it was really kind of an actual conversation. I took the opportunity to invite him to the sneak preview of the film that night. Joe (he insists you call him 'Joe' not 'Dr. Nickell.') politely declined, but asked if we'd send him a copy when it was available.

Skipping back into the chronological timeline again....

After the Anti-anti-vax Panel was the first of two fund-raising auctions. I knew I didn't have the money to truly participate so I didn't stick around. I went out into the concourse and found some of my fellow Vancouver Skeptics.

As we talked there was another conversation going on nearby. Michael Goudeau from the panel was talking with someone else – Oh my god! It was Penn Gillette! He wasn't even 'on' until the next day. Of course they work together on Bullshit! I asked myself if I had anything to say to Penn... and the answer was somewhat surprisingly 'no'. I had nothing to say that wouldn't fall into the category of "Hey, you're famous. I want to talk to you because you're famous." I actually had more to say to Michael Goudeau at that moment, and I'd only ever heard of him an hour earlier. But between the two of them they had amassed a quick crowd and I didn't really feel like I had much more to offer than "Thanks for your brief but heartfelt input. It's so good for us as a community to know that there are sane parents of autistic children out there."

So I chatted with the Vancouver crew. I was surprised to find that many of them – not all – felt underwhelmed by the presentations thus far. No doubt I'd enjoyed some more than others, but overall I was having a good time. I think a significant portion of the lack of enthusiasm was based on reactions to Bill Prady – both his apparent failure to prepare, and his comments that were interpreted as sexist by some folks, but I've covered that elsewhere. I have to wonder what people were expecting for content? I really can't imagine. A number of them had decided to take advantage of the imaginary break that the auction was providing (many others people had stepped out during the auction) and call it quits for the main session of the day. There was only one talk left, so they were heading for the poolside bar.

Only two of us, myself and Fred, returned for the last talk – Joe Nickell! Many other folks also did not return. I'm not sure what the logic of that scheduling was. I'm guessing the JREF anticipated that Joe would be such a draw, being of the reknown he is, that he'd keep people waiting through the auction. Sadly they were wrong. Fred and I were able to move up into the first section of seating – within about three rows of the front for Joe's talk. It was a worthwhile experiment, but I found that I liked my original seat – with a table and the open aisle in front of me and immediately beside – better than being close but without a table.

I have to admit that Joe's presentation was not my favourite of the day – not really even in the running – but it was one I was NOT going to miss. He was truly one of the people I had come to see. He could have talked about beaded glass-work (Why, I don't know.) and I would have sat still in my seat with tightly focussed attention.

His talk was about Sasquatch and Alien Visitation.

He began with a quick message to Randi, wishing him well in his convalescence, pointing out that he is the 'toughest guy I've ever known' and then moved into the meat of it.

Part of what makes Joe's approach so special is that he truly is an open-minded skeptic. Every time he approaches one of his paranormal investigations he beings with the evidence, not the conclusion that the claims are hokum. It's admirable and must take an awful lot of discipline to maintain. Most of 'us' simply will not bother. The sort of claims he investigates have generally if not specifically be studied over and over in the past with no supporting results forthcoming. So, for the average critical thinker, we write it off under the well-used (and rightfully so) adage that "exceptional claims require exceptional evidence" which essentially places the burden of proof upon the claimant where it should be. Do those claimants ever bother to proceed with properly constructed investigations? No. They don't. They might claim they have, or even think they have – but when asked to present, their efforts always fail to pass muster for a variety of reasons. I'll save numerating those reasons for another time. But Joe, Mighty Joe Nickell, he is almost masochistic in his willingness to get in and do what should be their work for them – and the skeptical community is very appreciative of that. He wades in without an a priori debunking agenda (in fact he is quite insistent that he is not a 'debunker') and assesses each piece of evidence on its own merits – even take a forensic approach as necessary. Not to look for evidence to support one's claims, but to look at the evidence and let it lead where it will. The way "the debunking takes care of itself."

As a result of his respectful approach there are those amongst the believers who are more than willing to accept his findings. Case in point, he investigated a weeping icon in Toronto – and when he declared it a fake, the church supported his finding. THAT is what makes Joe Nickell great.

His secret for walking on fire? When friends try to take a picture. DO NOT STOP AND POSE.

He has demonstrated inflicting stigmata upon himself with sleight of hand (ouch!) (& no pun intended) to show how easily it can be achieved.

He has gone undercover to expose psychic healers.

Today Joe was talking about mythology.

"Most of us when we think of mythology, we think of something way back in time that the Greeks and Romans did" but in truth Joe contends that myths are "stories that are made up to explain certain phenomena." He cited Zeus making thunder, Poseidon controlling the seas and the Abrahamic 'god' creating the heavens, earth, animals and mankind. He went on to call Noah's flood "not a true story, but a true myth."

But other subjects fit the definition of myth. For example Faeries or talking to heaven. People have powerful emotions that they would like to attribute to guardian angels... or even the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

And then there are the mythologies of our time – extraterrestrial visitors to the planet earth making crop circles or passing on wisdom to our ancestors.

Joe once did a study on the evolution of crop-circles. They began simple, but they became more and more complex. Developing an increasing mathematical elaboration and artistry – to the point where some are far more 'art' than 'math' as they once were – clearly indicating a case of one-up-manship... more than likely human. In his exploration he actually went out and made crop-circles with "pros" – not professional alien astronauts, professional artists with experience in crop circles... it CAN be done my mortal men – why do the doubters refuse this when it has been accomplished time and time again. (The farmer was paid for the damages incidentally.)

Anthropomorphisizing from ancient times 'til modern is a regular aspect of mythologies. From the earliest records man has made the central figures in his mythologies in his own image. Take for an example, ghosts – a transparent form of us; angels a holy winged form; bigfoot a lunk-headed ancestral form; vampires, us with an attitude; or even the standard image of E.T.s – a futuristic form with a message.

We are interested in the figures that are like us. The abominable snowman came to public awareness in the 50s. Before that there wasn't much interest in bigfoot and it's cousins. But now it has flourished and evolved from the concept of man-beast. Joe's investigations unearthed a huge variety in the reported nature of the beast – some horned, some fanged, some walked on all fours and some walked upright, the colour range seemingly represented the entire spectrum and they had anywhere from two to six toes. There is a trend towards standardization after the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film.

Joe outlined his trip through Northern California looking for Bigfoot... sounds like a beautiful place. He went to the same area where the Patterson-Gimlin encounter occurred. They didn't see bigfoot. Not that that is definitive. But more than anything they took note of the culture of bigfoot in the region. They went to the bigfoot museum. They spent a night at the Bigfoot Motel. Bigfoot is everywhere... in the culture. But everytime they had a bigfoot sighting it was a mural or a business – Bigfoot Hardware, Bigfoot Burger, Bigfoot Books, Bigfoot Coffee. (We found the same thing with Ogopogo in the Okanagan. The only thing that springs to mind is 'Ogopogo Automotive.')

He showed many photos of bigfoot sculptures – many tongue in cheek as he admits – most carved with chainsaws from huge chunks of wood.

"Bigfoot is a metaphor for our past, and at the same time on this same lonely planet we are looking outward and we're seeing aliens. Bigfoot is now behind us and here the future – UFOization."

Joe talked about the Roswell 'crash' – going over the same old information; how the original crash information from Project Mogul has been wilfully corrupted – that the debris was made of high-tech materials beyond man's ability to make (apparently foil and rubber was beyond our abilities in the 1947s by the measure of the Roswell proponents), and how an 'alien body' has been added to the mythos despite the original report.

"We know what crashed at Roswell. One thing that crashed there was the truth." Excellent line there Joe. Absolutely quote worthy... but I suspect that it too will too easily be co-opted by the credulous.

He went on to show his timeline of the evolution of the alien images that haunt us.

He finished by reading from a blog he did on the subject:

"Essentially bigfoot is becoming a true myth a story, presenting super normal episodes that are powerfully explanatory. As our planet shrinks, with wilderness places becoming fewer and less remote, hairy man-beasts survive mythologically as evolutionary throw-backs, endangered species of an imperilled planet. 'Bigfoot is an eco-messiah' states anthropologist David Haglund(?) 'if it survives; nature survives.' And as we turn from bigfoot metaphors of our past we look ahead to the frontiers of the universe with its mythological futuristic appearing humanoids. Various contactees and abductees claim to receive messages, often telepathically from extra-terrestrials. Messages like one about 'the danger facing the earth – ecology.' As time when the old myths including those of the great religions are in decline, we stand witness to vibrant new ones spawned for by concern for our planet and our place in the cosmos. These are developing right before our eyes. While sometimes the mythic beings are bogeymen representing our primal fears, at other times they are expressive of hope. Prophetic beings offering us a type of salvation."

He ended there.

Having gone back and re-listened to Joe's talk, I have got more from it a second time. Most of the talks at TAM were largely pragmatic in nature, but not Joe's. Ultimately his talk was far more about the psychology of how and why we develop these powerful myths to fill the gaps in human culture. As he himself said (I paraphrase) – he is getting older and trying to pull his life's work together; trying to make sense of it all and give it a shape. In that context it makes far more sense. I have to admit I got lost (read: bored) in the bigfoot portion (which I have significantly truncated here) and upon going back I was better able in translating it to this entry to assimilate his greater point without getting lost in the details.

And thus ended the first day's sessions. But the day was not over yet. There was still the SGU dinner to follow and a certain amount of sitting around in the bar afterwards just shooting the shit with people... but that is at least one, maybe two posts in it's own right.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Anti-Anti-Vax Panel (Get that? I had to read it thrice.)

Presumably, if you are reading this blog you are doing so because you already have an interest in critical thinking and if you already have an interest in critical thinking then you more than likely already know at least a little about the Anti-vaccination movement. It may actually be the most important clearly cut battle that we are fighting today. There are others that are important. I believe that science in education and more specifically evolution as that is where the lines are currently drawn is very important, but I believe we can afford to simply hold our ground for the time being. Religion v. Atheism (very very closely related to the previous one) is an ongoing concern, but that battle will not be won in my lifetime. Global Warming/Climate Change is obviously a big issue that may make the previous one moot in short order, and though it is an issue that is much clearer now than it was even a few years ago there is a lot of clarity yet to be found. It may not be a big issue, but 9/11 Truthers just make me furious... but really, are they killing children through negligence? (No, they are not.) But those fucking Anti-vaccination assholes... we have got to turn that tide, NOW.

I am writing this assuming the reader has a basic level of understanding about the issue. If not, here you go – trusty ol' Wikipedia.

The Anti-Anti-Vax Panel was made up of:

Dr. Steve Novella has in just a few short years as host of Skeptics Guide to the Universe (and other projects) made himself one of the most important skeptics in the world.

Dr. Harriet Hall is the SkepDoc for Skeptic Magazine.

Dr. Joe Albietz – I admit I'd never heard of – is a contributor to the JREFs Swift Blog, and (this just came up in a search as I tried to find info on him) JUST TODAY was announced as a new contributor to Science Based Medicine.

Dr. David Gorski outted himself at TAM – during this very panel – as the infamous medical blogger ORAC.

Michael Goudeau is not a doctor. He's a juggler. He is a father of an autistic child. He writes for the TV show Bullshit! And he thinks Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield are assholes.

Derek Bartholomaus is also not a doctor but is the creator of the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website.

Dr. Novella spoke first outlining his own experience in becoming aware of the Anti-vax debate. How he researched the background about Andrew Wakefield and the concerns about MMR and by extension Thimerisol. Initially, looking at the earliest evidence he felt that there was a possibility of an actual effect, but as he delved deeper into the published research the claims against it looked weaker and weaker, and by the time he was ready to write an article he was convinced that there was no connection between Thimerisol and autism. The nail in the coffin being that by 2002 Thimerisol had been removed from vaccines and new autism rates were not dropping as logic dictates they would should there be an actual connection. The Anti-vax advocates moved the goal-posts to 2007... still no effect, yet they still fight – indeed they are more vibrant than ever.

Dr. David Gorski was second up. After making a brief professional disclaimer disassociating himself from his statements from his employers opinions he proceeded to let anyone in the room who did not already know (I was amongst the unknowing) that his alter-ego was in fact ORAC as I mentioned above. He commented upon how the anti-vaxxers don't want to be known as anti-vaccination advocates despite being exactly that! What the hell?!? No, the anti-vaxxers will declare that they are not anti-vaccine, they are pro safe-vaccines, they are anti-toxin – all accompanied by wounded righteous indignation. Jenny McCarthy herself rails against how people are indignant about second hand smoke yet are perfectly willing to "inject their children with the second worst neuro-toxin on the planet." Jenny McCarthy has also been known to tout the miracle of Botox. Botox, just in case you don't know or missed it in the inference, is the MOST dangerous neuro-toxin on the planet. The woman, frankly, is a fuck-nut. From there he continued to cite other contradictions and goal-post moving evidenced by the changes in their websites courtesy of the internet archive... funny how people think their past web presence just disappears with a delete button...

Dr. Albeitz focussed his portion of the discussion on why we should care about this issue. That IS of course why this is an important issue and not just cause for amused finger-pointing at fools, like say at Sasquatch advocates. The reason quite simply is children are dying. Small pox – eliminated with vaccines. Polio – very nearly eliminated from the planet forever with vaccines... until the anti-vaccination movement opened a window of opportunity and polio is back on the rise. About two dozen different diseases are vaccinated against. While not all of them were on the ropes yet they were all on the decline. But that war is being lost now because of the anti-vaccination movement. Individual and herd immunity is compromised and children are dying as a direct result of a lack of critical thinking.

Dr. Harriet Hall began her portion by pointing out that the study that began the entire issue, Andrew Wakefield's 1998 Lancet article, was conducted upon a mere twelve kids. Not a sufficient sample size. The article itself even declared that no connection was conclusively proven. Nevertheless Wakefield immediately called a scare-tactic press-conference and publically released his bogus interpretation of the results. It is now known that Wakefield had a conflict of interest – was paid to find evidence against vaccines (not how science is done – looking for a specific result) and manipulated data in order to achieve his ends. The study has been discredited and 10 of his 12 co-authors have retracted their interpretation of the results. She also addressed the contentions about Thimerisol – the mercury-based preservative that came under fire. There are two types of mercury. Methyl mercury – the toxic variety that stays in your system and can cause nerve dysfunction, and ethyl mercury which you body will expel and is non-toxic at the volumes used in Thimerisol. Indeed test show that it is safe at 20000 times the dosage of Thimerisol in vaccines.

Michael Goudeau... I think I'm just going to transcribe what he said...

"Hi, I'm Michael Goudeau... ummm.... I'm a juggler." Big laugh from the crowd. "...and I'm a writer for Bullshit! And I'm going to tell you that Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are assholes." Cheers from the crowd. "I'm here because I have a son who has autism, and speaking for people whose families are affected by autism... we're not all crazy. You know sometimes we're just sad about our kids. And I want to tell you also – you people already know this – but tell your friends – don't base your opinions on the 'science' of celebrites." Applause. "And don't base your opinion on the science of jugglers. Read about it. It's all out there. Thank you."

Derek Bartholomaus spoke briefly about his creation of the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website. And how he mentioned it 'only' on Facebook and Twitter yet within the first week it had appeared on the front page of each of Bad Astronomy, Respectful Insolence, Pharyngula and the Swift Blog. Four of the higher hitting skeptical blogs in the world – and all the others followed soon thereafter. "A grand-slam" in Derek's words.

The second half of the panel was the questions section. I've not spoken much about the content of question sections in the speakers presentations as the questions tended to be really far reaching and not always clearly on topic. But for the panels... that is kind of the point. I'm going to try to give each germane question it's due – though I am not actually quoting as it may appear below. I am severely paraphrasing and attributing the answers to the person who fielded it.

Q: Jenny McCarthy (and other parents of autistic children on the anti-vax side) just want someone/thing to blame for their children's problems. Aren't we just making martyrs of them by attacking their emotional position?

SN: We need to remember that in fact we are all on the same side. We all want to protect the children. So no, it doesn't help to call Jenny McCarthy dumb despite the fact that when a claim of hers is debunked she wilfully continues to make the claim. The rank and file anti-vax autism-parent is being victimized by mis-information. We should defer to sympathy for them and try (hard) to get the facts straight with and for them. We all have a horse in this race. We are interpreting the evidence in diametrically opposed ways, we just happen to have the science on our side.

DG: There are those who will use their victim status as a shield against criticism. A very effective shield. But we must still try to reach those who can be reached. Jenny McCarthy cannot be reached, so why be too gentle with her?

Q: Does Oprah know the B.S. that Jenny is slinging?

DG: Oprah giving Jenny a show many have been a step too far. It has received far more criticism than just about anything she has done. We need to hit the advertisers.

Q: What is the demographic info with regards to income levels?

JA: It's an interesting dichotomy. But there are failures on each end of the spectrum and they tend to be for different reasons in each set.

Q: What is the international situation?

SV: The polio resurgence in Nigeria is linked more to rumours that the virus was causing HIV. That has started to turn around and get back on track. The autism scare seems to be linked to more affluent cultures.

HH: There have always been anti-vaccine people. What we are witnessing now is more a matter of magnitude than attitude.

Q: The anti-vax message has done an excellent job of branding itself. Is there anyway that our message is getting out that speaks simply and doesn't sound like it's coming from eggheads, or are we just shouting in an echo-chamber?

MG: I'm willing to show my tits. (Quite possibly the funniest thing said in the main sessions.)

Q: Naturopaths, homeopaths and chiropractors often advocate not vaccinating too without being in precisely the same camp as the typical anti-vaxxers and they add a patina of credibility by dint of being (ahem) doctors. What can we do about this?

SN: There are more fronts to this war, not just the 'Mommy instinct' anti-vaxxers. The alt med movement has all of it's own variations of reasoning and practices which impede vaccination. Improving science literacy is really the only long term solution.

HH: I reported a homeopath to the authorities because he was selling homeopathic remedies for small-pox and anthrax. Working forward from the homeopathic principle of like cures like that would imply that he had and was using small amounts of those viruses. And if he could get it – so could the terrorists.

DG?: Because vaccines are successful, people don't realize how dangerous viruses are. People under fifty have never really witnessed the full-scale effects of a whooping cough epidemic. So they think they are rare and uncommon illnesses. But they are rare and uncommon because of vaccines.

JA: There is also an attitude of "if it's natural it must be better. " So if you get it naturally that's better than injecting yourself with unnatural toxic vaccines.

SN: Many people will cite that people react to vaccines in minor ways, not unlike responding to the disease itself. That is the entire point. To 'catch' a reduced version of the disease – to provoke an immune response before the full-version gets to you.

Q: How can we fight the emotional appeal of the "Mother" card?

DG: Jenny McCarthy will say "nobody knows your child like you do." For most things this is undoubtedly true. But when it comes to medicine the mother-child bond is nothing more than an anecdote. Worse yet, it's an anecdote with a huge amount of emotional baggage.

SN: You can't reason people away from a conclusion that isn't reasonable in the first place. The data is not good on 'changing your mind.'

The panel concluded with each speaker taking a moment to make a final statement. Again, paraphrasing, not quoting directly – except where there are quotes.

DB: What can people do about skeptical activism? Find a cause and address it. Like I did with my website. People ask why I only deal with the US body count – 'why don't you do the entire world?' – I don't read other languages. But other people are certainly welcome to do that.

MG: It's impossible to battle the emotion of a parent who believes their kid got autism from vaccines. You can't yell "I got my kid vaccinated and he didn't get autism!" Hopefully the parents whose children died because of a failure to vaccinate will stand up. They are the only ones with the emotion to really fight the emotion of the other side with effective passion.

HH: "Science rules!"

JA: (Inaudible. Sorry.)

DG: The one outcome that might work that we really don't want to have as the tool of reason is that the return of vaccination preventable diseases causes and uproar that turns the tides back. It would work, but at what cost?

SN: Thanks to the JREF for recognizing the importance of this issue. If there is anything that is going to mitigate this problem it's people like the people in this room. Not just the scientific community but the people who understand the way these issues work and who intersect with the public.

One last thing about vaccinations. There was a pledge drive for vaccinating children in Nevada at TAM. Over 12 thousand dollars was raised.

A Personal Paradigm Shift

There were a number of really inspiring moments at TAM for me, but the first and possibly greatest was Jennifer Ouellette's presentation on Friday.

Before I get into her presentation it is probably worth contextualizing my own position in the skeptical world. I – if you've been reading much you know this – am an artist. A film-maker specifically. And frankly, my business is rife with woo. Yes, there are plenty of folks who are rational in 'the biz' but we are out-numbered I am certain. Further I am confident that the creatives (my world) are the ones who are more likely to be the woo-mongers. Who in the film industry is more likely to be rational? The technicians. To be fair – thank goodness it's that way. I think it's even Darwinian. If a technician fucks up (and everything technical is ultimately science) it could mean someone gets hurt or even killed or at least money is wasted. But it is contingent upon the creatives to expand their minds – often magically. And while those of us who are rational thinkers are capable of imaginary magical thought, it is not contingent upon success to be able to cross that barrier... I'd even argue that it's beneficial to be prone to avoiding the world of rational thought – though I could argue the other side easily too. I don't really know what proportion of folk at TAM would be connected to the entertainment industry (especially when you discount celebrity skeptics who are often presenters and panellists) but I suspect we are not well represented amongst attendees.

I had never heard of Jennifer Ouellette before Tam. But I expect I will never forget her.

Unfortunately I was a dumbass and neglected for the first time all conference to turn on my audio recorder until well after she'd started. It would happen again.

Ms. Ouellette is the Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange (SEE), a program of the National Academy of Sciences. It is actually quite a new organization so the focus of her talk was on what SEE does.

SEE's mission is to facilitate a greater connection between real-world science and popular entertainment. Primarily this is done through maintaining a stable of scientists in a wide variety of disciplines who are interested and available to act as consultants to film, television, video-games and in theory other art-forms as applicable. They act as a nexus between the two communities.

The goal of SEE is to improve the way science is portrayed in popular media. Not simply in terms of getting more correct facts and processes out in films and TV, but in how scientists themselves are portrayed. (Not many wear lab-coats and few do it regularly.) They don't have illusions about reforming the art of good story-telling on a show like Fringe, or correcting details like DNA test results taking a few hours on CSI. (Which would regularly make the show dull, dull, dull.) There are a variety of ways in which real science can be used to enrich a story. Most simply, there are any number of times where fact-checking does no harm to the plot of a story. One of the ways they are used most often is as a creative think-tank. Before charting a season of a show, a roomful of appropriately skilled scientists and the show writers can sit down for a free-form discussion to see what possibilities lie in the real science that surrounds the concept of a show. This way the writers can form their ideas from the outset around plot possibilities that are rooted in real science rather than extrapolated from whole-cloth and their own often mistaken ideas of what is possible. But even more than that there is the ability to find teaching opportunities within the bad-science that does make it through. For example on a DVD there could be a featurette on the physics behind space-flight in a movie space-opera.

As a writer and producer this talk excited the hell out of me. It was encouraging and inspiring. When Ms. Ouellette started her discussion by asking "how do we get better science into TV & film?" my side-long response to Paul was "hire more writers like me." Knowing that there is momentum out there to bring more science to our programming makes me feel less like an outlier. In fact her presentation in many ways set the tone of the conference for me. Between Bill Prady, Jennifer Ouellette, the panel on Skepticism and Broadcasting to follow on the next day, as well as my own science-themed film screening the previous night I felt as though the theme of TAM had been about bringing better science to the big and large screens. It wasn't, of course. It just felt that way to me.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe interviewed Ms. Ouellette at TAM, the interview aired last week on the podcast.

I bought Jodie a copy of Jennifer's Buffy book as a present from my trip to TAM.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Holy smoke this is taking forever!
One month ago tomorrow marks the one month "annniversary" (Why do people use that word? It's latin root is (off the top of my head) 'annum' which means 'year'.) of the opening of TAM7.

I'm still not finished the first full day! I still have a substantial portion of Friday, all of Saturday and then Sunday to report on. Sigh.

I have been very distracted by a combination of:
  1. Finishing my film - which I've mentioned here previously.
  2. Finishing one screen play with my writing partner.
  3. Starting a new screenplay.
  4. Thinking and beginning the earliest writings on the Asshole Skeptic blog.
  5. My personal blog.
  6. Did I mention my awesome girlfriend Jodie and the other things that represent 'having a life' in my world?
  7. The fact that the audio on many of the tracks from TAM is very difficult to listen to.

No doubt I am missing something. Anyhow...

The film is getting closer - though as the technical winds down the legal ramps up.

Roger and I have technically finished 'Siege at Oasis del Sol' - though that means we now need to sell it.

'Guerre des Mondes' (No not all my screenplays have Spanish titles... though an unusually large number do for an Irish Canadian writer.) is ramping up... that isn't helping.

The Asshole Skeptic blog will go at it's own pace. Nothing wrong with my thinking getting way ahead of my writing. It simply means my writing will be more intellectually developed when I do get to it.

Personal blog... whatever. It gets attended to when I have time and material.

Jodie is awesome... did I mention that? It's weird. She is very independent and that means she's really great about giving me time when I need it. Ironically, that makes me want to spend more time with her. Argh!

Bad audio.... yeah well... push through.

Okay, I swear I'm not making another excuse in this blog no matter how long it takes. I promise I'll finish well before TAM8.

A Discussion with Randi

Coming off a lunch that was a bit confused – ‘chaotic’ would not be fair – we were treated with a discussion between Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi. It was in many ways a bit of a palate cleanser. One of the lighter portions of the day. I didn’t really get the opportunity to pay close attention to the beginning of the presentation as I was wrapping up my duties at the SkeptiCamp table.
The intent seemed to be to have a casual conversation with James Randi. Jamy Ian Swiss – a sleight of hand expert – conducted the talk which was structured around a series of clips from Randi’s past.

I won’t bother interrupting the flow of the discussion to outline every technical glitch that occurred. Suffice to say that there had been some kind of issue with the laptop to be used for the presentation and Vancouver skeptic Fred Bremmer leapt into the fray with his laptop as an alternate which worked reasonably well – except that Mr. Swiss was clearly not familiar with the operating specifics of the Mac and as a result kept getting a panoply of brief but troubling results. Several times Fred had to leapt to the stage and assist. Additionally there was a feedback problem with a mic which was punctuated by Jeff Wagg dashing across the stage fixing the error in transit. It was amusing at the time.

The discussion began with a chat about an escape attempt made for BBC to commemorate Harry Houdini. There was also some story which I believe happened in Quebec where Randi was under police escort for some reason and much to their chagrin he demonstrated a hand-cuff escape. Unfortunately all this portion of the discussion happened as I was wrapping up at the SkeptiCamp table so the audio is poor and my attention at the time was tenuous.

The next clip was from Randi’s first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As I was finding my way back to my seat, again the specific point it was largely lost on me. Though as I got to sitting down and setting up my various gakk I started to tune in and recognized that Randi was describing a gag I have seen in a variety of busking acts over the years – particularly back when I was touring festivals. Essentially, in the process of executing an escape trick the magician has an audience member assist in locking him up. Once his hands are supposedly secure, the magician proceeds to casually slip one hand out of the binds and give the audience member visual aid in their next instructions – typically pointing at the next prop that will be necessary in the trick – before returning the hand to the binds in one swift move. In my experience the audience usually noticed, but the audience volunteer was too engrossed in their own task to realize what had occurred. Always good for a laugh.

(Oh my god the audio on this is bad! Why is it so bad on this track?)

I think they’re talking about each of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson for a bit here. I can’t make out much that is triggering my memory. I know there was something about Johnny taking magic lessons ‘from the best’ and also that Randi was one of the few guests that Johnny liked to talk with before they got on stage.

This Steve Allen clip looks familiar to me, so I’ll include it for yuks...

The audio gets a bit better now... As they talk about Randi’s years of doing daredevil stunts.

He did an underwater escape of some sort on the Today show.

He mentioned in slight detail the technique – controlled breathing, not eating for a certain time in advance so as to slow the metabolism – and the despite the efforts he was VERY ready to come out.

Next up was a trick where he was entombed in a block of ice on the Dick Cavett show. Randi spoke briefly about how he had to stay clear of the end as they broke him out so as to protect himself from both ice chips and the implements used to emancipate him. He laid on a sheet of cardboard so his skin didn’t stick to the ice.

The next trick – was my favourite, too bad I can’t find footage – was on the Shari Lewis show. Randi re-enacted a Houdini trick where he got into a canister – kind of like a giant milk-jug – filled with water. It was sealed and then hidden from view for a moment and when it was revealed, there he was sitting right on top. If they mentioned how this was done I did not hear it either in the discussion and definitely not on the audio recording. There was a mention about wetting himself down before the reveal – which makes me think they edited the show... which would not have been an option for Houdini back in the day. Anyhow – as Penn Gillette would make clear later in the panel on Skepticism & Magic the next day – not many people really want the illusion ruined anyhow. Randi also had an anecdote about David Copperfield – which was too inaudible on the audio to make sense of.

Swiss then asked who in the audience would know what he was talking about if he said `Billion Dollar Babies?’ I could not raise my hand, though I suspected where we were heading... Alice Cooper... and I was right. I actually got to ask the Amazing Randi personally back in February about his days with Alice Cooper. I thought I had done a blog post about that, but I can’t find it. What I can find is Randi talking about it all on his podcast in two parts. (Part one & Part two.) He covers pretty much all the same material – often with exactly the same phrasing... clearly he’s said it all before.

And here’s some visuals to make some sense of the tales:

James Randi: Dentist

James Randi: Executioner

From Alice Cooper they moved on to talk about Randi’s various upside down straight jacket escapes, including this one over Niagara Falls.

He talked about how cold it was (it was early January) with his face mere feet from the edge of the falls. He could not even properly speak when he got down, because his beard was frozen solid. Meantime, park access had been closed off, but somehow a family of Chinese tourists managed to hike through, totally by mistake. They sat on the edge of the river astounded, shaking their heads at these crazy Canadians. (Yes, Canadians – Randi is Canadian by birth and the stunt was done on the Canadian side of the falls.) He went on to joke that they went home and told their friends about the Canadian tradition to tie up a tiny bearded man in a straight jacket and hang him over the falls, and how if he got out Spring would come early. That got a BIG laugh.

He made a similar escape hanging from a helicopter over Tokyo where, much to his surprise, after he’d escaped they flew around Tokyo with him hanging upside down from the helicopter for over an hour.

And with a few kind words from Jayme Swiss – “I don’t think the word ‘Amazing’ will do...” – that was that for the Amazing Randi.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This Just In

I'm preparing a post about the next portion of TAM 7 – which was a discussion between Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi accompanied by various video clips.

I'm trying to see if I can find any of the clips on line. Not having much luck thus far, honestly. But I did find this.

Randi speaking briefly at the opening reception.

Once again I am WAY out of sequence.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Robert Lancaster goes into lunch

Next up, Phil Plait talked briefly about JREF scholarships. If memory serves, there were over 40 of them - more than 40 people attending TAM on scholarship. 4% - I'd call that pretty good, myself.

He then turned the floor over to Robert Lancaster.

I have to admit that this is where writing gets tough. I feel like a bit of an ass talking about it at all, but I really want to make some effort to tell it like it is, and not add gloss where it was not already in place.

I don't think there was likely a single person in that room that wouldn't call Robert Lancaster a skeptical hero. If you do not know, he is responsible for the Stop Sylvia Browne website. If you don't know who Sylvia Browne is and why she needs to be stopped, then go to the site.

About a year ago - shortly after the last TAM to my understanding (certainly not before as one of the highlights of the Stop Sylvia Browne website is his recounting of his post-TAM6 encounter with that hideous harpy herself) - Robert Lancaster suffered a stroke. He is still recovering.

Mr. Lancaster seems to be the most pleasant human being you could imagine. I have no idea what he was like before his stroke, but today he could not come across as more gentle. And the respect in the room for him was palpable. There was a long ovation for him as he came on stage in his wheel chair. I mean long in the Hirohito's Funeral sense. And unfortunately that set the tone for the presentation.

Like I said, this is where it gets difficult. I don't know if Mr. Lancaster has always been such a slow speaker - I suspect not. I also do not know if he had seriously given consideration to the length of his presentation, but it was long. Very long. And it seemed longer as a result of his presentational style.

He was informed that he was going long, and presumably he began editing himself at that point, but he still went well into lunch before he was virtually cut short.

I know I was torn. It was difficult maintaining attention and out of deep respect I made every effort. So did most of the people in attendance. But with lunch pending and people getting hungry something had to break.

I was expected to man the SkeptiCamp table at lunch, so once I realized that we were past the time I was supposed to take the table over, I bit the bullet and left my seat. I honestly do not know if Mr. Lancaster got to a point in his talk where the various elements of his discussion came together in a unified manner, and as a result it's actually hard to summarize what his talk was about.

At it's core he was discussing the pre-history of his stroke, his desire to talk to other skeptics who had suffered from strokes - Derek Colanduno of Skepticality being the notable example. (I too wanted to meet Derek.) - the support of his wife and his appreciation of the people who helped maintain the Stop Sylvia site during his convalescence.

There is no doubt that getting up and walking away from his presentation was the hardest thing I did during the conference.


Over a month before TAM I volunteered to man the SkeptiCamp booth during lunch on Friday. I had made a few assumptions that resulted in me chosing that time. I had first assumed that the booth was outside the conference hall (Wrong! All the tables were at the back of the hall.) and that if I manned it at any other time I'd be cutting into the presentation time and who knew what great stuff I'd miss. I also assumed that lunch was not provided. I figured that people would be scattering in various groups to the numerous establishments within and nearby the casino. (Wrong again! A lunch buffet was part of the conference and that lunch-time mingling was a core element of the event.) Silly me. I assumed that by manning the table I'd actually be increasing the amount of interaction I had. Nope.... well, that's not fair.

Jesse Brydle - fellow Vancouver skeptic and CFI organizer - was also signed up for that window. We had a good chat while we sat there virtually alone. Got to know each other a bit better than Skeptics in the Pub had thus far allowed. We spelled each other off so we could go grab a plate of food from the buffet. (My bad on that, I grabbed a plate and sat a table with Ray Hyman briefly to listen, thinking that I'd scarf my food down and then tag-off Jesse and he could come do the same. But then they started packing up the buffet! So I ran back and sent him to get food before he missed his chance.)

As lunch wore on people returned to the tables, including Reed Esau who started SkeptiCamp. Reed fielded the most of the questions once he showed up. I suppose in a pure sense we could have abandoned our post then. Or official relief didn't show up so we ended up manning the table until the NEXT shift showed up just as the next round of presentations began. No issue with that really. I was happy to be chatting with people and talking about my SkeptiCamp experience.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fintan Steele

Dear me, this IS going slowly. I shouldn't be too surprised I suppose. I do have a lot on my plate. Starting the Asshole Skeptic blog; finishing Beast of Bottomless Lake; doing final re-writes on another project; having a life; earning a living – the list goes on.

Here we are two full weeks after TAM (At about this exact hour two weeks ago I was standing in line at McCarran airport wondering why it was taking so long for every single person in front of me to check in to their flight and praying that Paul and I wouldn't suffer the same fate as it seemed to be causing not little amount of distress to the people actually talking to airline representatives.) and I'm still only just getting around to the first of the standard presentations.

Fintan Steele, besides having a name that evokes mid-80s TV has a resume that mind boggles. He works at Johns Hopkins and was at one point in time as an ordained monk.

His talk was one of the less easily followed of the entire weekend, but it was that way because it was crammed full of high-functioning information. He spoke about personalized medicine. "It's all the rage for pretty horrifying reasons."

He began with Hippocrates and the "significant step" that was the "the four humours." How having your humours out of balance was believed to cause virtually all maladies. If you weren't feeling well it was simply a matter of rebalancing your humours – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Steele contends that Hippocrates medicine was effectively personalized medicine of its day. Each person was individually diagnosed and treated with the limited procedures of purging and bleeding and so one that were available at the time. They filled in the gaps – and there were many – with theology and superstition... aren't they the same thing?

After roughly two centuries of this limited form of medicine it became gradually apparent that environmental circumstances also impacted significantly upon a patient's well-being. (Funny how self-evident that seems now.) It was also noted that deliberate application of various compounds could similarly affect people in both positive and negative ways. Even to the point where a small amount of something might be positive, but a large amount would be detrimental to health. But it was still all very alchemical in its approach.

The line continued to be pushed further and further as we began to understand human anatomy and get a better observational sense of medicine.

He pushed on ahead to the current century (and I am a little unclear as to whether he meant that literally as in the last nine years, or if he meant it a bit more colloquially to include part if not all of the 1900s as well.) And how we have good analytical tools and a growing genetic understanding and a really quite remarkable knowledge base of how the human body actually works – all supported by the processing power and data crunching blunt force of modern computers. This has brought us to a place where we can provide the illusion of good understanding of precise personal circumstances and convince ourselves that there is a real opportunity to practice personalized medicine.

"This brave new world is driven by technology; basically science-based; and generally over-hyped."

I found this statement to be quite interesting. There is a lot of dealing in practical or actual absolutes in skepticism. "This IS true." "There is a utter lack of data supporting those claims." "The chances of that being true are diminishingly small." Yet here we had one of our first speakers of the weekend saying "Gee this is neat. It may even be close. It's certainly well-meaning. But we aren't really 'there' yet." The detractors of skepticism would serve themselves well to note that we aren't strictly sticks in the mud. We are merely cautiously pragmatic.

From there he moved into a discussion of genomics. The first genome was sequenced in 2003 for a cost of about 10 billion dollars. Of the data collected, roughly 1.5% (a bit more) currently means anything to us. Since then the speed and cost of sequencing had dropped considerably. "By this time next year it will be possible to sequence an entire human genome in a week for the cost of about a thousand dollars." As a result we are gathering useful data at a huge rate (currently 3 petabytes) and increasing fast – with a major point being that variability is vast and countless.

Sampling the genome is much cheaper than full sequencing – so we can look at relevant areas and skip the parts that can be predicted with accuracy or that aren't relevant. IE. If you are concerned about a specific inheritable disease (there are many if you include propensities), you can look for that disease's genetic flags and ignore eye-colour. There are plenty of 'association areas' for different diseases – I assume that means correlated genetic patterns – and this IS cool information.

As time has gone on different diseases have fractured. Steele uses the example of leukemia – which prior to the 1900s was indistinguishable from lymphoma, but then became identifiable as a separate disease. It then fractured into acute and chronic forms and by now is a spectrum of various types of leukemia – to say nothing of over fifty different lymphoma types.

This growing awareness of variety helps us understand why some people respond to certain drug but not others. Some people might have a specific genetic pre-disposition to react favourably to certain medications. See where this is going? If we can understand the specifics of a person's genetics then we can recognize how they will respond to different treatments, or narrow down the possible specific maladies they might be more susceptible to. We are walking towards the notion of personalized medicine. But we are not there yet. Recall we have only got 1.5% of the information applied in any useful manner.

The promise of personalized medicine is still premature. Yet it has still entered the marketplace. Companies say that they can provide it, but it is a lie. Statistically there are still far too many holes (which on an editorial note, I suspect are in part the exploitational opportunity that is needed for said companies to be able to take advantage of people) for true efficacy.

The science behind it is solid. But the reasoning and expectations that have followed is where the failure lies.

He then moved into a tangent about how ordering your moral hierarchy of a list of various acts – including masturbation, incest, homosexuality, rape, and beastiality amongst others – depends on your first principle. If you believe sex is foremost about procreation, you order the list differently that someone who doesn't. It was interesting, but I don't really think it was necessarily relevant to his larger talk.

His following point essentially pointed out that our scientific knowledge when compared against biological complexity has (my term) a breaking point. We absolutely DO understand a lot. But it is easy to misapply the bleeding edge of that knowledge. Anything beyond that line is hokum – magical thinking. Genomic study is not to be dismissed – it is very important but it is far from really being an understood and manageable knowledge base. But our current appearance of dominion is illusory hubris. For one thing, the understanding of genomics is working towards understanding how biology works – not how the individual works. Perhaps we'll take that next leap some day, but it's not today and it's not in three years when we can sequence a genome between breakfast and lunch for two hundred dollars.

Personalized medicine is popular because its "all about me" and we are narcissistic at the core. It sounds scientific – it uses the language of science. It doesn't take a fool to fall for this – not at the least.