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.

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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Connie Sonne follow-up the JREF video

Not much to say here. The JREF has released the video of the Connie Sonne MDC preliminary test.

I'm linking them here for ease of reference to my other post about it.





Riveting, huh?

And the press conference on Skeptic Zone #40

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

At Long Last, the Beginning

Finally, after much Tarantinoesque discontinuity, here I am at the beginning.

At roughly 9am Hal Bidlack took the stage announcing himself as the host (as he is every year) for the next 55 hours worth of content.

He did a quick straw poll of how many people were attending TAM for the first time.
The answer – a lot. Somewhere between a third and half. I expect that a lot of Trans-Atlantic skeptics forsook TAM this year for TAM-London, bringing the overall number as well as the number of returnees down a bit... but that is little more than a guess. It would certainly be good for skepticism if it were true, as the conference had a record number of attendees this year.

Indeed it was a very full room.

A picture is worth a thousand nerds.

He also announced that the greatest percentage of women had shown up ever – 30%.

He noted the shift of presidency from founder James Randi to celebrity astronomer Phil Plait. The Amazing Randi is getting old, and while still full of energy he is focussing on writing and other things one would associate with someone in the winter of their season doing so as to do their best to tie a bow on their life's work.

He noted that despite being TAM-7, that this was in fact the 8th TAM due to TAM 5.5.

He imparted the story of his family going on an accidental ghost-tour through the building that Stephen King wrote The Shining in (often mistaken as the place where it was filmed.) He told how the guide pointed out that over a dusty carpeted staircase was the best place in the house to shoot ghost-orb photos... if you know your flash-photography you know why that is.

He encouraged us to make the most of the conference to remind ourselves that we are not alone – a subject that many a newly-minted skeptic (even as recently as myself in the 'awareness of the movement' sense) needs demonstrated to them – and TAM could not be a better place for it. As he said "we are already friends... we are a large family... at the James Randi family reunion."

After a failed joke (Which apparently happens regularly with Hal – he later in his greeting alluded to the long standing tradition of the audience "pretending to not like" his jokes.) he informed us that his only real joke would occur Saturday at 3.

He made a quick outline of SkeptiCamp – which would be the only mention of any depth of it on stage, though there was a SkeptiCamp booth (which I manned at lunch with Jesse Brydle from the Vancouver CFI) at the back of the room which provided people with information all weekend long. It sounds (incidentally) as though at least one SkeptiCamp has risen from the weekend – as it's to be hosted by the NYC Skeptics it'll probably dwarf all of us early adopters in no time.

He also reminded us that we – the people who attend TAM are "no more cookie-cutters than those who argue which Star Trek series is the best. Oddly he got the answer to that wrong, by identifying "The Original Series" instead of DS9 – a ridiculous error that only the misinformed could make. We are a large tent and there is a sense of inclusion. We can disagree. Randi is an atheist, Hal is rather famously not.

Another stat he threw out which became a running joke over the weekend was that twenty eight people at the conference were named 'Dave.'

Before wrapping up he thanked a number of folks who deserved thanking for their part in making the conference happen.

He then announced something that had been brewing since before people started arriving... there was no conference code for the WiFi. Excuse a tangent... the WiFi situation at the hotel was ridiculous. It cost $13 per day for internet in your room – PER COMPUTER. If you wanted WiFi in the conference centre – it was an additional fee (I believe it was $80 for four hours!) I had paid for one day of in-room WiFi the day before around 5pm. Later Friday afternoon around 2 (I only arrived at the hotel at 2 the previous day.) I went to the room to get a few messages off (including a post or two on this blog) before my time ran out. My "24 hours" was over. What a fucking joke. I was so incensed that I decided they were getting no more of my WiFi money over the weekend. To be fair – the conference itself eventually found itself a work-around. There were a lot of computer folk in that room to trouble shoot it. By that time I'd already relaxed into a wirelessless routine and didn't worry about it.

And... I need to remember this... TD Bank has a special promotion wherein the bank will donate a portion of your yearly balance at no cost to you to the JREF. Gotta sign up for that. The James Randi Educational Foundation Affinity Program. And Amazon has a JREF store – but you have to go to Amazon through the JREF web-page. Standard affiliate marketing – good for the JREF, at no cost to the purchaser.

Then he introduced Phil and Randi... (Funny... Dr. Phil Plait is "Phil" but James Randi is "Randi.")

Phil didn't spend much time talking. He said that we were there for three reasons:
  1. To hear the speakers – of course.

  2. To see Randi – he is the father of the modern skeptical movement.

  3. For the community. "There are so many people here because there are so many people here." Somehow the JREF reached critical mass and became the touchstone of the skeptical movement.
One important thing Phil said that I'm going to transcribe directly:

As Hal said, we may disagree on religion, we may disagree on politics – I'll guarantee you that, we may disagree on the existence or non-existence of UFOs. But we all agree on how to disagree, we all agree on how we decide whether were going to agree or disagree and we all agree on how we're going to reach those conclusions. That's the rational process, skepticism, critical thinking and hopefully the lack of logical fallacies that we see out there so much. And it's those logical fallacies that we are here to try to minimize. ...As long as we have squishy grey matter in our heads we are never going to totally get rid of them.

He used that thought to segue into discussion of the Million Dollar Challenge and the test that was coming on Sunday. After a brief overview of the intent of the MDC and the decision that was previously made to discontinue it, Phil announced that that decision had been over turned and that the MDC will continue into the future. That received a big round of applause. While the MDC is a hammer – when you have a hammer, everything is a nail. They need to adjust the process to make it less work than it has been, but they are going to continue using it as a tool to show the world what is reality.

When Phil turned the podium over to Randi the applause went on for about thirty five seconds and he hadn't even said a word. I think that many of us have been having similar thoughts. Randi is getting old. Every TAM may be his last, and the fact that he had be not in the least bit inconspicuously going around in a wheel-chair could not have been far from folks minds. Paul and I had mused about it as we got ready that morning – was it part of the 'mentalism feat' he was to perform at the end of the weekend – was it showmanship? Or was it for real? We did not know at that time that the mentalism had been cancelled and that we were about to find out that it was in fact real. Randi wasted very little time telling the crowd some sad cryptic news...

"Greetings all. I have a lack of shirts at home in Plantation Florida and they
are used for different purposes.... This is my happy shirt. I look out and see
this crowd that goes back as far as my eyes can penetrate in the haze. Feeling
extremely proud and humbled by the fact that all you folks have shown up here to
hear what we all have to say about the skeptical movement. ...The JREF staff and
I have been repeatedly astonished over the years if not amazed... and we are
appropriately grateful and humbled for your presence here, but I must explain my
somewhat subdued appearance. This what we call folks a major bummer. During a
routine examination a more than a month ago we found that I had a rather nasty
visitor inside of me. Yet another stunning example of intelligent design at
work. My doctors went in and removed it and things are looking up again. I'll be
weak for a few months yet. ...but I'll be able to keep up with my duties as the
treatment proceeds. ...My prognosis is good eventhough I've decided to go along
with this old fashioned, what do you call it? Oh yes, orthodox medicine."
(Edited for brevity.)

Randi took special effort to thank his assistant Shawn McCabe as well as a small army of JREF staff members and Volunteers without whom the conference would only operate as a pale shadow of the version we were witnessing.

Randi also expressed his great pleasure that Bob Lancaster – creator of the Stop Sylvia Brown web-site – who suffered a stroke last year was able to make it and that he was in such great condition.

He went on noting other notable skeptics in attendance before announcing that 1007 people had registered as of him taking the stage and that the number was inevitably going to grow as late-comers arrived over the weekend.

He expressed his delight thinking about TAM London being sold out in an hour of going on line and that preparations for TAM 8 were already in the works.

He re-affirmed that people should genuinely feel free to greet him and by extension all other skeptical friends celebrities and otherwise before assuring us that he would beat his current health issue and thanking the crowd deeply for simply being in attendance.

Prady Disappointing

Okay, so clearly I am an unreliable liar.

I'm skipping ahead again... though only barely this time.

I'm skipping Hal Bidlack's emcee greeting, and Phil Plait & James Randi's combined opening president & founder's address and going right to the Keynote speaker – Bill Prady.

I'm skipping ahead because Bill Prady's keynote has been causing not a small amount of controversy on-line in the past few days. I'll add a few relevant links at the bottom.

It was apparent by lunch of that first day that there were some folks with their nose out of joint over his speech. There were a few things which spurred people's disapproval. For starters, his opening joke... about being disorganized and ill-prepared turned out to not be a joke. It seemed he had said most of what he talked about before, but had been over confident in his ability to present it fluidly. Was it bad? No. But it was disappointing to be thinking about what his speaking engagement price would be and to compare that to how he seemed to be pulling it out of his ass.

Secondly and more contentiously, there were a number of accusations of it being sexist. Honestly, I didn't notice. I was kind of geeking out on him. I doubt there were more than a handful of screenwriters in that audience. Myself, Michael Goudeau (who has been nominated for an Emmy for Bullshit!) and Mr. Prady himself might have been the only ones – no doubt it is an under-represented demographic in that room.

There has been a lot of discussion of the keynote online, and I haven't got a lot to add. There has been a lot of excerpting of it, but I have yet to find it in a complete form. I think that the best I might be able to contribute is to transcribe it here so that anyone who feels like they are only getting a portion of the picture can better judge for themselves.

I have only transcribed the keynote itself – not the ten minutes of Q & A that followed, as most of the criticism has been levelled at the speech itself.

I've stolen the text of Bill Prady's bio directly from the JREF site for convenience, but it is also linked.

Bill Prady is a television writer and producer who has worked on American sitcoms and variety programs, including Married With Children, Dream On, Star Trek: Voyager, Dharma & Greg, and The Gilmore Girls. He began his writing career working for Jim Henson's Muppets. He wrote the Disney Theme Park attractions Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. He is currently the Executive Producer and co-creator of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. In 2003, he was a candidate for the office of Governor of California. He is a graduate of the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 1991, Prady was nominated for an Emmy award for co-writing the posthumous tribute to Jim Henson entitled "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson."

In his keynote speech for TAM 7, Bill will talk about science, geekery, and how The Big Bang Theory is once again making it cool to be a nerd.

And with that... Bill Prady...

Am I... Am I up on the big screen? Yeah? Okay. Uh... that means that I can't lie to the people at the back and say that I'm much better looking, uh than I am.


Well I'm very excited to be here and as I understand it, the purpose of a keynote address is to set the tone for the entire conference. So if that's the case, based on this keynote address, the conference will be disorganized and ill-prepared.

I made some notes... (Inaudible – 1 second.) ...the fundamental problem I'm having speaking to you this morning. Ummm.... I was very excited when Phil uh called and said uh "would you do this?" and I've been looking forward to it for uh – I think he called back in the spring. I've been looking forward for months to doing this, and about two weeks ago I said "Well I really should organize some thoughts, because... so that – sort of a pre-requisite to speaking, and uh... I looked up on the website to see if there were some clues as to what I would be speaking about. And I – I came across this... and uh it's a description of me (Inaudible – 1 second.) "Bill Prady, producer of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory – and that is true – Bill is a bonafide science-geek who makes sure that every episode of The Big Bang Theory is chock-full of science, science-fiction and comic-book references as well as jokes" and so on and so forth – and then it says this: "At Comicon last year, Bill had the audience laughing so hard they were afraid they would miss the next thing he said." Now I presume you all read that and that means that all I can do this morning is disappoint you horribly.

So, here is what we are going to do. Well I think some of you may know the show and some of you may not, so I asked our editor to cut together a very short little uh... collection of clips that might be of particular interest to this group – so if this piece of technology works I'm going to – is this all set to go? Okay... (about 10 seconds of silence) ... Good so far.

At this point a collection of clips from Big Bang Theory were shown. The audio was bad, I'm not inclined to find the clips on line – if they are there at all – so I am merely summarizing the six pieces thusly:

  • Sheldon rants at Penny about Astrology.
  • Sheldon and his creationist mother.
  • Howard attempts to woo Missy with (bad) sleight of hand.
  • More astrology bashing from Sheldon.
  • More Mother – "all that science stuff, that comes from Jesus."
  • Howard's terrible ideas of how to approach women.

There is plenty of appreciative laughter & applause.

So uh, here's how I thought we'd spend the next uh little bit of time together. Ummm I – I thought that aspects of this will be of – some aspects of what we're doing on The Big Bang Theory will be of interest to some of you other aspects will be interesting to others. So I thought we – we'd start – we'd talk a little bit about me and then we'd move on to issues of interest to me, and then we'd move on to how we went about creating The Big Bang Theory and reaction of the network and the studio audience and the public to – I think, and I – I you know I maybe I somebody out there'd share your thoughts, but I think that this maybe the first television show where the central characters take a scientific and skeptical view of the world. I – someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but there have always been peripheral characters that have this particular outlook, but our show features the – the – the central characters have this outlook.

We can talk a little bit about how we try to make the science in the show right - umm, how Leonard and Sheldon function in a – in a non-skeptical world. Uh, maybe a little bit about my own thoughts about functioning in a non-skeptical world. Uhhh... maybe a couple of questions at that point. I haven't (Inaudible – 1 second.) and gardening tips.

First uh... first I just want to say – and this is the part where I'll talk about myself for a second, and I'll focus on the specific aspect which is where I from the time I was about twelve to the time I was sixteen or seventeen I – I earned pocket money doing magic shows for children's birthday parties. And uh, and during that period of time I was a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and I had a lapel pin to prove it. And I lost it – for uh a couple days ago I couldn't find it. I – I would often get my copies of Linking Ring and Genie magazines in the mail – often with the Amazing Randi on the cover. And I'm sitting down here next to them – to him – and for me it's a delightful and remarkable experience. So I thank you Sir for the opportunity to join you today.


Uhh. I – I – you know I spent a long time umm, uh, on various television projects but before I did that I uh was a computer programmer and before I did that I was a college drop out. Uh and uh, working in the world of computers as I'm told some of you do – uh, we... uh I think at times it's a chicken and egg question. By the way... and I don't know if anyone thought about this – the chicken and the egg question is resolved if you accept that we know it to be true that evolution is the choice of – of – of life on Earth – we know the egg comes first, because the thing that lays the egg is as near to being a chicken as it can possibly be and then a chicken hatches. If you have that other point of view that the chicken comes first, then it happens magically in a few days. Umm but the chicken/egg question about computer programmers was "do people who think like us become computer programmers or does computer programming in some way cause this?" Ummm... but the people that I worked with were people like Leonard and Sheldon – and me. And um, and I – I thought about these guys for a long time and when Chuck Lorre who produces uh – created Dharma and Greg, and Grace Under Fire, and Two and a Half Men, and some other shows and I said let's try and uh... do a show together. I started talking about these remarkable people who I knew and he said, well he said "well that's a show."

I want to think that I tried to (Inaudible – 1 second.) about all of us back then is that there were two qualities. One – one was critical thinking. One was these were people who looked at the world through – you know, with the intent to understand it – with the intent to understand it without thinking about it. But the other was a lack of judgement about each other. And that – that to me was powerful. Because they were – I worked with some unusual people. I worked with a guy named 'Ken' and Ken had some interesting qualities. One of them was that Ken could not go by himself some place that he had never been before. And we were in New York City – New York City is a grid. So we say "well Ken it's at the corner of 47th and 7th and we're at the corner of 47th and 6th." And he'd say "well I've never been there, so I can't go." And he didn't go.

And Ken was also an amazing mind. He y'know – when programming, we would often have to convert stuff from decimal to hexi-decimal and it was easier to just ask Ken to do it in his head than to find a stupid HD calculator. But Ken could not calculate the formula for a tip in a restaurant. And y'know... we – we – we knew this and the reason was – very interesting – the formula for a tip in a restaurant is 15 to 20 percent depending on the quality of service and Ken could not quantify that. And, what Ken would do he would say "well is it the speed with which the food arrives?" And we'd say "No, well that could be the kitchen." And y'know "Is is the fact that the waitress was friendly?" "No she could be soliciting a tip." And then we'd say "Well why don't simply just leave seventeen and a half percent?" And he said "Well no, statistically that means that half the time it's likely that I'm over-tipping and rewarding poor service and half the time I'm under-tipping and short-changing someone. So someone else figure out the tip."

So Ken and all the – all the people I worked with at the basis for the characters on The Big Bang Theory. The umm the uh – Leonard's difficulty with women, uh, is based on I don't know – we did – we did a show.... I think it was the first season, we did a show where um – Penny is the girl he loves. The girl across the hall. At a Hallowe'en party she's had too much to drink and she's furious with this fellow she's been seeing and – and she kind of makes herself available to Leonard. And Leonard says "No way. This is – this is not right. This is not how I'd like things to begin between us. And when I told that real and personal story in the writer's room and said that maybe this might be an episode of The Big Bang Theory I got two reactions – one is that the other writers said "my god what a, what a great story that would be" and the other was "You idiot!"

So that's how we came to create The Big Bang Theory.

And um, when – the other thing was when I getting ready to an-and come and talk to you guys this morning I asked my assistant I said "Listen, we do a show – the name of the show is The Big Bang Theory. The opening title sequence of the show depicts – accompanied by a wonderful song by the Barenaked Ladies, as best we could do the entire history of the universe in I think about twenty seconds. And we have characters go one a regular basis challenge creationism and astrology and things like that. And what I'd really like to do. What would be really fun for the gang at The Amazing Meeting is to if I could read some of the angry letters we get.

(Massive applause.)

Hang on! Hang on! Because she said "well we don't have any."


An editorial aside... he's a writer. He should know better than to set-up a promise he can't fulfill. For me this was the most disappointing element of the address.

And I told her that's not possible! I said – and there's a PA – a production assistant whose job it is to open all the letters and to read them. And there's a – there's a folder, and the folder is marked 'disturbing letters.' And I said "Well get that folder!" (Inaudible – 1 second.) I turned into Shatner for a second there, did it? "Get me that (Inaudible – 1 second.)" Do you think that just happened to him one day? "Bill, did you want to come to a party? Sure I'd love to I'll.... I'll – sit – here." He just talks that way now. Alright well, we'll cast him.

An editorial aside... huh?

(Inaudible – 2 seconds.) ...disturbed letters. So I opened the folder of disturbed letters and in the folder of disturbing letters and they are from inmates in love with Kaley Cuoco our (Inaudible – 1 second.) Now they are very disturbing, but they they they didn't address this issue. So I called over to CBS and CBS answered the phone – they are a hive mind – they answer together. And and said uh "I need the letters the need the letters from the fundamentalist Christians who object to the name of the show; I need the letters from from the new age folk who – who are disdainful for our denigration of astrology...."

Ummm... and I thought that there are a whole bunch of things we have to get to... I – I wrote a piece – I wrote a scene that takes place in a drug store because it drives me crazy that you go into a drug store and next to things that will help you are silly things that you can waste your money on and they are right there next to each other. And so I wrote a scene for Sheldon and Penny and Penny has a cold and goes to the drug store but we cut it for time. But I – I swear I will get to safe medicine in stores.

Um, but I said "Where are the letters, CBS?" Not one. And we've been on two years. Not one.

So here's what I was going to say to you because everybody who – who feels that they are in some way different from the general population tends to internalize that and – and be given you sort of get the feeling you are an oppressed minority. And the fact that, you know 12 million people watch the show every week and - and um no one – no one seems to be upset by what we are doing. And I – I would pass that along to you as a bit of reassuring. That the things you see that outrage you and bother you are absolutely there, but it – it may not represent the sentiments of everybody and I think that may be a thing to feel good about.


I thought that would be an applause line. (Inaudible – 2 second.) So I'd like to try an applause line. Who here likes applause?


(About 30 seconds of largely inaudible – lots of laughter in between

scattered identifiable words.)

When you look at the show, we – we – we're very proud to write the characters of Leonard and Sheldon and and – Koothripali and Wolowitz and the people they meet – the people in their world. They are physicists and engineers. Umm, but I'm also proud of the way we write the other characters and the way we represent their beliefs. Umm. Penny will always believe in astrology. You can – You can - You can quote studies to her all day long and she will say "yeah, I just like looking at my horoscope in the morning." And Leonard - Sheldon's – Sheldon's mother – Mary who you saw in a couple of clips there and you'll see again in our season opener in September – um she – her faith is the thing that let her cope with a son she didn't understand. We often say Sheldon was a bit like a cuckoo's egg, he feels like a cuckoo's egg – like he was somehow hatched in the Texas Christian family and he became this critical thinking scientist. But it is to his mother he returns when he is sad. And he did it in the first season and he will do it again in the opening episode of the third season. And it's very important to us that we depict the other points of view as real as deep and complex because otherwise they become paper tigers. It's just too easy. It's just too easy to create characters that don't share your point of view that you make stupid or you you you give their argument short shrift that you don't do the work of understanding why it is they think the way they do, because it then makes your characters less powerful, less interesting. In other words if we say "well Sheldon's mother is a fundamentalist Christian and therefore she's an idiot" so when Sheldon deals with her he can steam roll over her because he's got the truth. Well it make Sheldon less interesting. It makes Sheldon's point of view less interesting. It makes his argument less interesting. And I guess what I'd say is – is maybe that's something you can take out of the writing process and that you can – that you can put in your mind as you deal with the people who don't share your point of view. I will probably say our point of view – my point of view. Because someone's belief system is the thing that gets them through the day. It's the thing that get's them through the day. So when someone says "I believe in a guy with a white beard who rules all of us... and apologies I'm not referring to you sir. Or they believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever it is they believe... Any Pastafarians here?


Remember that they're not saying "oh please help me abandon the thing that gets me through my illness, my unemployment, my kid who doesn't understand me." This is the thing that gets them to the night so they can go to sleep so they can get up and do it again. People's beliefs are not a contest. You don't win. You don't win at the end of the day.


A small injection here – I think the above sentiment was the most powerful and affecting thing Prady said. If there was nothing else to grok from his speech, this was the essence... sadly he continued and almost immediately hit upon the points which have been controversial.

I'd also like to phrase it a different way... and this goes back to when uh.

.. when Phil and uh and Adam Savage asked me to do this and they said "well what will you talk about?" I said "I know. I know exactly the - the title of my keynote address will be 'We can continue to telling women in bars that astrology isn't real, but we won't get to have sex.'

I'm just going to say for the single gentlemen out here who may have other agendas in Las Vegas... and by the way, umm and, if - if - if a beautiful stunning woman comes up to you in a hotel bar and offers to spend time with you and you think she might be interested in the way you are dressed – be skeptical. There may be a financial transaction in the offing. But if you find yourself in a sincere conversation and a woman says "you're very interesting, let me tell you a little bit about myself – I'm a Pisces" you have two choices. I suggest you conduct a series of experiments. Divide the women into two groups. This does require that you get two different women – minimum – to hit on you. Group A respond with a detailed explanation of the 'time and twins study' out of England - which fairly conclusively proved that people born at the same time and the same place are not alike. To the second group say "I – I'm sorry, wow. You have the most incredible eyes." See what happens.

So I'll end off on that. Here is a note to remember that I wrote that says "don't be tedious." Oh no, that was a note to myself.

Alright, umm, you know what, it has been said, uh, a number of times, this is your conference. I'm excited to be a guest at it. And umm, again a keynote is to set the tone... By the way – I – I – one of my favourite things when people speak is when they begin with a dictionary definition. When somebody begins their speech "Webster's defines a keynote address as..." It's the laziest writing in the world. What and I going to say (Inaudible – 3 seconds.) But a keynote address is to set the tone and and um I'm glad to share with you what - what I know from my experiences and um, and – and I'd like to give control of the rest of my time to you...

I will summarize the Q & A in a later post. Maybe even tomorrow!

If anyone who reads this has a better quality recording and can decipher any of the inaudible portions noted above, please send me the text and I shall amend.

And lastly - though perhaps it shold have been first... a touch of framing and context.

To the best of my knowledge the first written discussion (I did hear some at the Pool Bar at South Point, and the last question Mr. P addressed in Q&A too - which will have to wait.) about any kind of controversy was from Barbra Drescher - her concerns go well beyond anythign said in the keynote though.

A response here at Skepchick.

And it wouldn't be right to not include a clarification on the same blog from the man himself.

Haven't even read that last one yet myself - I suppose I probably should.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic" finds a life of it's own

Previously in this blog I did an entry about my thoughts on "Asshole Skepticism" and when I was at TAM I found myself in a number of conversations about the idea. It was an interesting mix of views. Some of my thoughts were echoed, some were expanded upon, some were recieved with caution and others were refuted - occassionally with a vehemence that was an ironic display of, you guessed it, Asshole Skepticism.

It was a very interesting experience and I continue to roll the ideas around in my head. Developing the ideas on my own and hopefully with some well needed 'peer review' from others in the skeptical community.

Asshole Skepticism is definitely alive in the world. It presents itself in many ways and it's not a notion that will allow itself to be summed up with concision. It's hardly my sole domain - not even close - but I do intend to take it on as mine for exploration. To ask myself the questions of "how is it defined?", "who are it's biggest practitioners?", "what is it's place in the movement?", "how is it best wielded?", "when is it best set to the side?", "who is best equipped to practice it?" These questions hardly exhaust the possibilities. The term itself is deliberately provocative, but don't mistake - it's not my intention to set out to be an asshole, it's merely an acceptance of the condition that many of us find ourselves in - we are better suited for broad and brash provocation than a universally gentler version of activism. I'm even going to go so far as to say that the gentler version is almost certainly more effective in most circumstances - and there are definitely many situations where the asshole approach is a VERY bad idea - such as when dealing with friends.

I have created a new blog Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic as my working document on the concepts. I could have simply continued using this blog for that purpose, but it seems to me that it's a specific enough subject that it needs it's own intellectual playground. I will be retiring this blog once I've finished talking about TAM (an effort that may still take months at my current rate). I will post occassionally in the Asshole Skeptic blog as reasons arise, and then once my work is finished here I'll focus my skeptical blogging over there.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Breakfast Shows

Once again my intention to move sequentially has been scuttled by a lack of foresight. Because the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe was recorded over the course of Friday and Saturday morning breakfasts, and the entire show was posted in their podcast feed today, I'll cover both in one shot here and now.

Friday morning began really early.

I dragged myself out of bed around 6:30 am after having laid awake for over half an hour already. I had last looked at the clock a little after 2:00 am. That was my fourth night in a row with less than four hours of sleep. It was not the last. I figure I was still pretty excited about the upcoming days' events, so I'm going with that as the reason I would wake so early without provocation.

Paul and I each showered and compared notes on our plan of attack for the day. Before we knew it, it was after 7:00. We already knew that there were around a thousand registrants to the conference, so getting a good seat would be... well, hardly a given.

We arrived at the conference centre before 7:30. Even though it was in the same building, the trip easily took over five minutes most times. Depending on elevator traffic it often took even longer.

Walking into the room, there was already a line-up for the breakfast buffet, and 80% or so of the seating in the front-most section (There were four or five roughly even sections front to back.) was taken already. The second section was beginning to fill and there were scattered people throughout the remaining sections.

1000+ chairs... it was a BIG room.

We chose a pair of seats close to the door in the front row of the second section. It turned out to be a pretty good seat. Good for people watching as there was a lot of traffic – including virtually ALL of the celebrity skeptics at one point or another – and it meant that for taking video I didn't have to deal with people sitting right in front of me... though the nearly constant traffic was an ongoing issue.

The line-up for breakfast was quite long, but as it split into four, it moved quite quickly. It was in the breakfast line that I had my first realization that despite the great level's of friendliness in the group, due to the specific demographic there is going to be a higher than usual level of socially awkward men. I tried to strike up a conversation with the fellow in front of me, but it was a painful experience. I honestly would not have been surprised had he started mumbling about his stapler.

As I was making my way back to my seat the familiar opening of the SGU began and TAM7, for me had truly begun.

If there was one thing I was most excited about in advance of the conference it was attending the SGU live recording. It was definitely fun to have done and I doubt that ever going again will match the experience of those two mornings. The show itself had a lot of visual content so doesn't play as well in the audio-only podcast format.

Saturday morning also started early – again I failed to get more than four hours sleep. Paul beat me out of bed Saturday morning. I got up while he was in the shower. He headed for poolside to do some blogging while I went and reserved some seats in the conference room. I could have had the exact seats we had on Friday, but I opted for a pair in the same row, but on the opposite side of the room.

The SGU recording on Saturday was less in depth than the previous morning. It began with the premiere of Jay's ghost-hunting movie – which has already been linked in a previous entry.

There was one more news item: "Genie Sued" – the other four news items were recorded the first day.

On Friday morning, Evan's regular segment, "Who's that noisy?" had been a special "TAM" version – I assume it's never going to appear in the show. "Who's that noisy?" is a weekly clip of audio – sometimes a quote, sometimes... well, a noise – which the listeners are challenged to identify, with the answer being revealed the following week. For TAM the noise was a heavily processed voice laughing maniacally and declaring itself to be Satan. My first thought was it might be Phil Plait the president of the JREF, but I settled on a guess of Penn Gillette. It somehow seemed more likely to me... I don't know why, I should have gone with my first guess. It WAS Phil Plait as revealed on Saturday.

Following "Who's that noisy?" was a second Q&A session, there had been a first session on Friday morning. The second question was Sid Rodriguez... I've mentioned and linked this previously too.

Sid & Rebecca got married on stage. For real. As pointed out in the SGU podcast (which featured an edited version of it) it may have been the world's first podcast wedding.

It was fun to witness, and be a part of – it was kind of a skeptical 'in-joke' as Rebecca has been fielding marriage proposals since she first joined the SGU. Hopefully putting the wedding on the podcast will put an end to all that for her once and for all.

But I have a small issue with it. As can be heard in the podcast, it was played – reasonably well – as an ambush of Rebecca. It seems as though they have anticipated every single reservation she has and answered to them. On the audio-recording I made Paul and I wonder if this is for real, or is it all set-up. We decide (or to be fair, I decide and then inform him) that it is for real when one of the Skepchicks – I'm not sure who – takes the mic and excitedly squeals about how hard it was to keep it a secret (presumably from Rebecca first and foremost). I may have misinterpreted this, but listening to it all again on the podcast... I think it was still part of the facade that Rebecca had no idea what was about to happen.

And it was a facade. Rebecca, without ever copping to it being a deliberate attempt to mislead, does outline in a post on Skepchick all of the planning that went into it and it is clear that she was in on it from the start. At least it's clear now – and if it had been a deliberate effort to mislead they didn't stand behind it for long at all.

Anyhow... I'm not going into further detail on the two SGU recordings as most of it is either already posted earlier in this blog or can be heard on the podcast for the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

The Adventures of Connie Sonne & the Million Dollar Challenge

The Amazing Meeting wrapped up with a live "Million Dollar Challenge."

I'm skipping ahead to it for a variety of reasons – for starters, it's the part of the conference that has garnered the most attention on the JREF forums; so there is a lot of dialogue out there about it already.

As I explain in the video diary entry, we weren't allowed recording devices in the room so it's the one part of the conference I don't have a record of to spur my recollection & discussion, so I should do it as soon as possible.

A few additional links:

The primary post mortem article from the JREF, addressing the protocols and the opportunities Banacheck had to "cheat."

The Million Dollar Challenge folder in the JREF forum – which includes information and discussion on each of: General details of the MDC; Connie Sonne & her claims; the test, her failure & her response.

And... here is the only video of the test I can currently find. It DID stream on Ustream. I expect that the full test will be available somewhere sometime, but for now all we have is this:

The good news is this video is just the result – it spares you the interminable dousing – which was only gripping for the first seven minutes she unceremoniously held the crystal over the cards; and it also cuts out just as the endless wrapping up of the protocol is about to begin.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I don’t make mistakes. I make lessons.

Okay, so my experiment is a bit off the rails.

The audio I have is unpublishable – which is okay, I can still use it as a guide for writing about the conference, but not ideal.

The video I took is... who knows... I'm a bit in a corner on it as I'm having a technical issue – not an insurmountable one, but a very real one. How dare firewire become obsolete? It could be weeks before I capture the video as I have committed to loaning the camera out. Doh! And on top of that, I only got bits and pieces. I do have a very specific intent for it, but it's hardly a good archive in and of itself.

As to still shots? Well I was so focussed on the other two that I didn't get many good stills. The distance to the stage was just enough that all my zoomed in shots are ALMOST in focus. I avoided using a flash as I knew it would just bounce off the row in front of me (and be distracting) and over expose the portion of the picture I wasn't interested in keeping. That too was a bust.

Oh well. Like I said... it was all an experiment. And I have definitely learned some useful things for 'next' time.

So I go back to the beginning...

I'm going to forgo further detail on the reception, Canadian Contingent Meet-Up and the "Beast..." screening as I've already kind of covered that.

So, up next – probably starting tomorrow – I'm going to aim for a detailed report on one presentation or event each day until I'm done. And maybe by then I'll be ready to do the video work I wanted to do.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Interview on Radio Freethinkers

The day after returning from The Amazing Meeting I was interviewed on Radio Freethinkers.

All episodes appear on the feed page, so the longer after the publish date of this post, the further down the page you'll have to scroll. For (relative) ease it's the July 14th 2009 episode, episode #17.

It was their cryptozoology episode, so naturally we talked about The Beast of Bottomless Lake.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Decompressing from TAM

Jodie messaged me this morning asking if I felt like my 'vacation' had lasted longer than four days. While I enjoyed the hell out of my long weekend, it doesn't really match my definition of 'vacation.'

I've already mentioned that sleep has been a precious commodity for me this past week. Last night I finally slept solidly more than four hours – six in fact and that leaves me feeling positively perky. By last night I was approaching incoherence. I could hardly focus long enough to complete a cogent thought, and yet sleep itself... the body just wasn't allowing it. Saturday we had a break of many hours between the sessions and the Skepchick party. I laid down, feeling utterly spent... nothing happened. I closed my eyes and waited... still awake. After about 45 minutes I gave up and went to hang out at the bar with Jesse, John, Rob and Jessica.

The non-stop schedule and the infamous timelessness of being inside a casino kind of screwed up my inner clock. If someone told me I'd only been gone a day – no make that two days, I'd be ALL over the lie if it were merely one day – or if they had told me I was gone a week, I'd be hard-pressed to doubt them.

The dryness... apparently the number one selling item in the casino giftshop is lip balm. I am really not a fan of the feeling of lip balm on my lips, so I eschewed it, but if I'd been there any longer I would have had to give in. I pretty much just met my limit. Other parts of my skin suffered as well.

Tandem to the dryness – which was caused in part by the ever present air-conditioning – was the heat. I had no idea that the Mojave desert is the hottest place on earth. I assumed it was the Sahara. I can't believe people live out there – it's truly not fit for human life, yet we wrestle it into submission. The two hottest experiences of my life straddled the temperature outside in Vegas while we were there. Going outside was hardly a pleasant trip. Wearing sunglasses and the hot wind whips around them creating tiny convection ovens between then and your eyeballs... it's awful. To say nothing of the dry nose... it's just this side of gross.

One thing that really surprised me was how much of a news bubble we were in. I had forgotten that Michael Jackson died until I got home and started listenign to four days of backlogged news podcasts. The South Point Casino was a Jacko-free-zone.

And there's still so much to really absorb. So many ideas that are developments on what I already knew; so many brand new bits of information that I didn't know yet; so many creative thoughts to sift through and choose to act upon.... I'm looking forward to going through all my media and refresh what I learned. Maybe I'll get it all done in time for TAM8.

A Pair of Highlights - SGU Live Taping / Watson & Rodriguez Wedding

I mentioned this earlier. I don't want to post any extended clips that I videoed as it was clearly stated that any recordoing was to be for personal use only. So here's the link from the USTREAM broadcast of the event.

It's the Saturday Morning Skeptics Guide to the Universe taping. It begins with Jay's ghost hunting parody movie, and then Rebecca Watson being ambushed in the Q & A session at about the 25 minute mark. If you watch from the end of Jay's movie at around 19 minutes you can get a better sense of how oblivious she is.

This was one of the most surreal things I have ever witnessed.

At the "Skepchick Party" / reception I got my invite signed.

Oh and... this ws also kind of a big 'in' joke as when Rebecca first joined the show she was hounded with marriage proposals and was teased about it for years


Made it.
So much to catch up on.
Could have frikken Twittered this.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Flight Delayed

I'm sick of the noise of Vegas. The incessant slot machine racket and the boorish yahoos behind me who I'm guessing are leftovers from the UFC event last night. Why won't they all just shut up!?!?!

And the flight is delayed. It's going to be dodgy making it to our connecting flight.

TAM7 Ends With a Case Study in Why a Skeptical Cable Network Would Fail

Don't get me wrong. TAM was a LOT of fun. But it was not without issues – like the one which has prevented me from blogging pretty much throughout.

I have kept a lot of notes and have a wealth of media from it to get around to posting, but it's going to take some time to organize it all.

I will try to start posting immediately. I'll keep it accurate as possible and try to recapture my emotional state along the way. But for now, I'll simply touch on a few highlights.

No doubt it's old news as I post this that Sid Rodriguez and Rebecca Watson had a Vegas wedding yesterday in front of the TAM audience. It was truly surreal.

Naturally I made some new friends in other places. Desiree from Skeptically Speaking and I had a few excellent chats – including one where she recorded me ranting about my thoughts on the previously posted 'Asshole Skepticism.' (More on that in a moment.) And at lunch yesterday a woman sat down beside me and we started chatting. Her name is Tamara. The long story short is that just last week I started reading her blog. More on both in good time.

Last night at the Skepchick party, shortly after my Asshole Skepticism rant, Desiree was being accosted by a fellow who wanted her to take his email and mail her info on her show. He then overheard me talking about Skeptoid and demanded that she add that info to the email. I muttered "Oh for Christsake" and pulled out the sharpie that came as our registration gift. And wrote Skeptoid on his chest. He claimed "Well I can't read that in the mirror." So without dropping a beat I pulled a stupid human trick and wrote it backwards right above the original.

He then suggested that Desiree should write something on his ass. She pondered out loud what she would/should write. "Asshole Skepticism!" I suggested. Long story short – he would have had to scrub hard this morning if he was not going to walk around all day with "Asshole" written on his left buttcheek and "Skepticism" on his right. ....and there's video.

The Million Dollar Challenge today ended with a total failure. And it was terribly boring and fascinating at the same time. It would have made lousy TV. Yesterday at a panel on skepticism in broadcasting it was suggested that there should be a Skeptic cable channel. The MDC was proof positive that it would be a bad idea.

MAJOR kudos to Connie Sonne for having the grace and the jam to stand up in front of 1000 skeptics and put it on the line like that.

I mentioned to Tamara as we were lining up to go in that if she succeeded we would turn from being a 1000 skeptics to just a room full of assholes.

"Asshole" seems to have been my word of the weekend.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The First Night

Okay... that was cool.

So the short version is:

Our room number is 2012 and everyone thinks that's funny.

I walked right into Brian Brushwood at the opening reception. Had an excellent chat about passionate skepticism and podcasting and magic.

At the Canadian contingent meeting Paul was a star. His professional trials stole the show. A BIG round of applause. Very cool.

Screened "Beast" to about a dozen folks (about the right number for the room) and it seems to have been a roaring success. Was asked to do an interview for a radio show based on the strength of the screening.

Oh... and THIS came up in my news feed just before I wrote this... weird.
And now... Bed.

8am SGU show will come fast.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Room 2012

Go figure.

The end of the Mayan calendar. Hysterical.

At least it'll be easy for people to remember the room number for the "Beast..." screening – 8:30 tonight, simultaneous to the magic show.

Have already shook hands with Yau-Man Chan and introduced myself to Joe Nickell (he recalled hearing about the movie – tied it to Moby Dick, proving his knowledge) had a good but short chat.

Seen a few other prominent skeptics, but that'll happen all weekend.

37823ft...somewhere near the Oregon/Nevada Border – though I can’t see a line painted on the ground from up here.

The flight is filled with people attending the big UFC event in Vegas. I got lucky. Many of these folks are BIG. Not too many are the pound-packing tubs'o'lard that I really hate sitting beside, but a lot are heavily muscled pound-packers who look to be wanna be Brock Lesnars. No, I'm the widest load in these three seats.

Got lucky and got the window seat. The lady at check-in told me it was the last window seat left on the flight. Have been able to see some cool stuff. Mount St. Helens was obvious. And there was a weird cloud that looked like a Man'o'war jellyfish. And I may have seen crater lake... then again I wouldn't really know it to see it, but I'm guessing it was about the right latitude... though I think we were too far East – so who knows what it was.

Read the entirety of the 98-page advertisement they call in in-flight magazine and also a good portion of a back-issue of Skeptical Inquirer that I hadn't managed to finish yet.

According to the in-flight real-time map we've crossed into North East California since I started this post. I'm beginning to doubt the accuracy of the map. Detail out of Vancouver and over Washington was quite good – though that was where I began to feel like the precision was off. Oregon was little more than a half dozen cities a mountain or two and Crater Lake National Park. California has even less specific detail surprisingly, but at least there's a (probably faux) topographic overlay. Nevada... nothing but Carson, Reno, Vegas and two highways... though we aren't over it yet according to the map.

Really starting to look like desert down there. I'm guessing we'll start descending soon.

Gate 83

Checking in... no line up.

Immigration... no line up at any of the three stages.

Security... no line up.

Tim Horton's coffee... 20 minute line up.

I've twittered my arrival time for McCarran and hoping someone identifies my t-shirt at the Airport and we can share a cab. I found out too late that reservations for the shuttle need to be made 24 hours in advance – DOH! Called to reserve and they didn't quite laugh at me. Paul and I will have to co-ordinate and reserve our out-bound shuttle ASAP.

Tweets from the Science Based Medicine conference are pouring in.

A highlight quoting Steve Novella: Homeopathy's prior plausibility is as close to zero as anything in science. If it's true, chemistry/physics are wrong.

Should be boarding in a few minutes.

Can’t Sleep

Couldn't sleep 'til after 2am and I still woke up of my own accord before 6. I'm more anxious/excited than I realized. Fortunately I am able to function quite well on less than six hours of sleep a night for weeks on end. Eventually I crash and catch up, whether it's on my terms or not, but I'm far from that point this weekend as it happened last on this past Sunday.

Got up and took care of a few final bits, that were on the list – like clipping my nails really really short. Those bastards who screwed air-travel up for all the rest of us... damn them and their conspiracy (of 19 men in four planes and probably a few more in the planning stages – none of whom worked for the US government at ANY level)! I have a small pathology whereby I can't have my nails grow long – it totally sketches me out. So by not being able to bring nail clippers on the plane (not checking any bags – just carry ons) I have to plan in advance and cut my nails as short as possible so that by Sunday I'm not losing my mind. (If it happens I'll just buy clippers there – it'll only be a few bucks thrown away.) TMI?

I lay awake last night unable to stop myself from formulating all kinds of imaginary interactions – whether it was celebrity skeptics like Adam Savage or Phil Plait, or just plain ol' folk. I think I've already lived through 3 or 4 different iterations of the Canadian Contingent Meet-up. Apologies to James Randi for not including him on the 'celebrity list' – it is after all his foundation that sponsors the event. But I already had my own run in with him earlier this year. The thought of talking to Bill Prady one on one nearly sends me into a fugue.

The Amazing Randi was doing the keynote address for the UBC science week. I went to it and then to an off-schedule Skeptics in the Pub. Ninety minutes into the SitP who should walk in and plop himself down right beside me but James Randi. Randi made his well-worn declaration about how when people tell him they are skeptics he fires back with "I doubt it!" There was a prolonged pause as people found themselves star struck. I was the first to pull out of that mental tail-spin and asked Randi a question that was well off the beaten track. "Mr. Randi, can you tell me about Alice Cooper?" I am sure that he must get asked all kinds of questions on a regular basis and his days with Alice Cooper can't be too high on the list. He was there perhaps forty five minutes. He talked about Alice Cooper for at least fifteen of them.

Which leaves me with the question... "What the hell do I ask Bill Prady that he doesn't hear all the time?" Perhaps I'll quickly google him. I have the time, even though I just heard the alarm go... I am now well ahead of my schedule.

NOTE: I suspect from here on out my postings will be late and possibly back-dated. I'm not going to have the time to post them promptly.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Few Flies in the Ointment

I've found out a few things over the last day that will get in the way of doing this smoothly, but I guess that's just part of the learning curve...

For starters - and this is really just common sense and not really a surprise:
The sessions in the conference while allowing for recording, those recordings are intended to be used for personal use only. Totally understandable, that one. That will limit how much I post from the session, though I don't think I would have posted much anyhow.

Secondly - and this is the one that really burns my ass: No free WiFi. In the hotel room it's $25 for 24 hours (and we won't spend a lot of time there); and in the convention centre it's something like $80 for 4 hours! Burn. So I'm thinking I'll spend do a lot of prep off-line (like ye olde days) and then go find an internet cafe or coffeehouse with free WiFi.... assuming I'm not being naieve about coffeehouses in Vegas.

At least there's a free shuttle to & from the airport. That'll save some bucks. Perhaps Paul and I can pool what would have been cab-fare into the WiFi for our room.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Speaking of Asshole Skeptics....

Funny that I should come across this the same day I made my previous post...


Some good fictional skepticism from one of my favourite authors, David Brin. I'm not too jazzed on the 'alien voice' in the reading - it's annoying to listen to.

And as for the 'asshole skeptic' opinion of the host at the end... well that's jsut a touch of irony.

Confessions of an Asshole Skeptic

I used to think of myself as a 'bad skeptic' – actually I AM a bad skeptic in a host of ways, but that's beside the point. I used to think of myself as that particular type of bad skeptic that can't express their skeptical opinions without coming across as a dickhead.

This is a pretty common stage for freshly minted skeptics to go through, so I don't feel particularly self-victimized or otherwise special for it. Typically it's the sort of thing that people eventually grow into. They learn that there are ways to bring skepticism into a conversation without scoffing or sounding elitist.

Tactics for being a 'softie skeptic' (uh-oh is my bias showing?) include couching the skepticism as a series of questions – drilling down through the bullshit by making the other person confront their own rational failures; or by addressing the common ground and building a bridge to a more evidenced position. I am far better at the former than the latter, but neither is really where I live.

I have always been more of the truth-screaming variety of person in general. I do not suffer fools much at all, let alone gladly. As a consequence I have never really been prone to trying to make my skepticism easily digested. I recognize the value of it, but I don't often exercise it.

A few cases in point:

Back when Provost Pictures had our first media explosion (it was a slow news day and our story caught national attention) I was in the middle of interview three or four of the day – it was a live interview on the radio, TO a radio station in the Okanagan Valley where the lake is that Ogopogo (the subject of our film) is imagined to live in. Much to our publicist's horror I said, on the air "Only whack-jobs believe in this thing!" Yeah. Not such a great move.

That burst of media had not been expected at all, and we were not prepared. Had we been prepared we would have known that we would be asked if the Ogopogo exists and would have prepared answers that wouldn't alienate listeners or be lies. Indeed, by the very next interview, minutes later, we'd figured out a polite way for me to avoid saying I don't believe. Something to the effect of "Well, I believe in evidence, so until it's proven that it doesn't exist I'll withhold judgement." Of course, any science or logic minded person knows that you can't prove a negative... anyone who wanted to put more than a moment's thought into it would see through to my sub-text, but on the surface I wasn't denying Ogopogo's existence.

As an in joke, we wrote both these thoughts into the mouth of one of the characters in the film – the character I played.

On our second date I blurted out in response to something Jodie had said about a friend getting energy-based healing, "Reiki is so full of shit!" It was kind of rash seeing as I liked this girl a lot on those first two dates. But then again, if she couldn't handle my scoffing attitude, we weren't going to last.

But we did last.

Last week we were at a party. Later in the evening I was on the periphery of a discussion between two 20-somethings that culminated in a statement that read to the effect of: "It doesn't make sense. Why would a company make a drug that could cure a disease when they can make more money with drugs to treat the symptoms?" I dug deep and tried my hardest to inject a sensible answer without being an asshole about it. "Perhaps because pharmaceuticals are a competitive industry and a company that cures a disease are going to corner that market, making all competing products obsolete?" I could have continued, but it was clearly pointless. I was shot a pair of looks that clearly stated to me that I had bought in to 'the man.' Yep, it's official; I am one of those older sheeple who cannot be trusted.

Soft-peddling my skepticism is clearly not my bag. Never really has been – even when it was fledgling knee-jerk skepticism.

While there is definitely some value in trying to make my points digestible, it simply isn't in my temperament to put in the effort to do it all the time. I've faced it, I am an asshole skeptic. Simple as that. If Dawkins can (and I do believe he is absolutely right) espouse the value and need for militant atheism, then I reserve the right to be a hard-to-swallow skeptic.

I think there is a place in the world for both approaches. Without a doubt, the rational position is going to be good for pulling on-side the fence sitters and those who are on the verge of a break-through in their critical thinking skills, but at the same time, I think there is also a case to be made for the truth screamers. Anne Coulter (my fingers burn just typing in her name) and Michael "I Wish He Weren't On My Side of the Political Spectrum" Moore each have made careers out of their outrageous declarations, right or wrong. Why can't there be a place for irrational rationalism? It's not going to be the best place to make effective arguments, but what good do effective arguments have against the Gish-gallop? Penn & Teller's Bullshit! heads in this direction. The point of this sort of skepticism is to draw attention to issues with the force of one's claims – with intensity and flare.

I'm still honing this principle, but it seems to me that making (seemingly) outrageous claims that happen to be based on reality is largely un-explored territory. I am not a great debater, but I don't think that is the foundation necessary for this. The cornerstone is in fact a willingness to cry "Bullshit!" without getting mired in the minutiae of facts, yet without ignoring the end result of the facts. Yes, it will on the surface occasionally wear the skins of the other side – it's hard to shout "Bullshit!" without at least the impression of an ad hominem attack being an inevitable part of the mix. This is the kind of skeptic I am naturally pre-disposed to being, though I expect that there is someone out there better suited than I am at taking it to its extreme.

Perhaps you are that person. Perhaps you aren't. But if you find that any of this rings true to you and that you find that you agree with the intellectual position of the skeptical community, but aren't really equipped with the skills to be a well-behaved debater and/or aren't tempered to be the sort that "won't stoop to the level of the opposition" keep in mind that perhaps the generally accepted notion that we as skeptics don't behove ourselves by stooping to their level is itself BULLSHIT. It's a false dichotomy! There is a spectrum of possible responses and the default position on the side of polite response is NOT the only option. The process of rational-thought is definitely the way to go when it's time to finish the fight. It MUST be the way, but in order to engage certain elements of the public, antagonizing them and making them mad may actually make them hear and think about parts of the argument that they aren't currently hearing. It's not the answer for everyone, of that I am sure. But being a little outrageous gets attention and without attention from someone who isn't already on-side, what is the fucking point? We're just preaching to the converted.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Becoming a Skeptic

I figured that this was a personal story and that it would be better suited for a (rather long-winded) video diary. I had to put the process to the test at some point, better now than at TAM.

It's a quick overview of how I became a skeptic.
Despite what I say in the beginning of it... I really hope I can get better quality down the line. YUCK!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Brief Summary of How to Identify the Unexplained

If it's below you: It's a Lake Monster
If it's on the ground: It's a Sasquatch
If it's floating above the ground: It's a Ghost
If it's between your head and the clouds: It's a UFO
If it's beyond that: It's God

Friday, July 3, 2009

Annoying video issue...

I don't know what's up with my webcam, but it is suddenly not behaving. Hopefully I can solve this before next Thursday. If not there are some work arounds - I do have two other video options available - just not as convenient for immediate personal recording and posting.

For some reason when I turn it on it spends a moment in the standard recording mode, then after a few seconds it switches to a posterized version - sometimes worse than other times, and the audio goes WAY out of sync.

Not very convenient or appealing. Going to try to fix this.

Too bad... I recorded a video entry on how and why I embraced skepticism. It sucked.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My Approximate Schedule

There is little doubt that my schedule will morph over the course of the weekend, and really, I'm not sure what the point of posting it in advance here is, but just for yuks...

I'll be departing Vancouver Thursday morning (less than a week to go now!) - arriving in Las Vegas a little after 1pm. By that time the Science Based Medicine Conference will be well under-way. It's a bit of an add-on to TAM, without actually being TAM itself.

There are also a number of paid workshops going on on Thursday afternoon which I will be missing.

Paul and I can get in our room at 3pm.

From 5 to 6 there is an opening reception, and at 6:30 the 'Canadian Contingent' has a dinner nearby.

I'm thinking that if there is interest I may do a sneak preview of the film later Thursday night, just for the heck of it – probably while the Banachek (et al) show is going on.

Friday morning starts early with a live recording of the SGU over breakfast, followed by welcomes, intros and the Keynote.

I am really looking forward to the keynote. It's going to be Bill Prady the Executive Producer of The Big Bang Theory. BBT is a very funny show, and I am a sucker for 'scientist humour.' "Beast..." is scientist humour, and like BBT it's hardly limited to that tiny tiny demographic in it's appeal.

I won't get into a breakdown of all the speakers over the weekend, that'll most likely get covered as I update the blog.

At lunch on Friday I am signed up to helm the Skepticamp table for an hour. I'm tag teaming with Jesse from the Vancouver Centre for Inquiry. I'm thinking that we'll be a well paired team with differing styles and skeptical foci. If I'm wrong, we can settle it the following week at Skeptics in the Pub. Heck! We can dress up one as a monkey and one as a bird and settle two arguments at once! (That was a skeptical joke. If you're in – don't say anything.)

The afternoon has a bunch of interesting speakers, including Joe Nickell who co-wrote the 'go-to' skeptical book on lake-monsters. Whee!

That evening there is a paid optional event which I might pay for if it's still open at the time, and that's also the night of the infamous SGU dinner... which I am signed up for, but I haven't paid for yet. I tried to pay, but PayPal wasn't liking me that afternoon and I didn't have time to trouble shoot. I should try again today.

Saturday is probably the day I am most looking forward to. There are a number of panels and speakers who I am really excited about. Including Adam Savage, Phil Plait and Penn & Teller.

That night is the "Secret Vegas Prayer Meeting" AKA the Skepchick Party. Apparently it's always a hoot – though often shut down by security... I mean it's REALLY a hoot!

Sunday is a much lower key day. Paper presentations in the morning – which I've been warned can be rather dry.

The entire event wraps up with a mentalism presentation by James Randi (who I saw in February and then happened to be at the bar he came to afterwards... that was a blast.) followed by a Live Million Dollar Challenge.

I suspect I will have to miss at least the Million Dollar Challenge if not the mentalism as well if I am going to catch my plane....

Paul and I head out on Sunday leaving at roughly 5 pm with a number of crappy lay-overs getting me back to Vancouver around 11pm.

Cool News...

Brian Brushwood has done interviews on two of the major skeptical podcasts in the past week. I've been watching his podcast - Scam School - for months now. I enjoy trying to figure out the puzzles myself (and usually fail). I try to learn all the card tricks... I'm lousy at card tricks, but I can (and do) carry a deck of cards with me all the time, 'cause you never know when a card trick will come in handy.
And his trick from episode one - The Human Chimney - is awesome and blows people away all the time... well, except Jodie - who saw right through it.
Really I'm mostly saving up tricks to show Kaz - my niece.

Anyhow... on both the podcasts (Skeptics' Guide... & Skepticality) Brian was hemming and hawing about whether he was going to TAM. Today I saw a re-tweet... he has booked it. He'll be at TAM. Yay!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why am I going to TAM?

I've been aware of TAM for about a year and a half now – roughly as long as I've been aware that there is a (semi-orgainized) skeptical movement in the world.

I considered going last year, though I can't recall exactly why I didn't... I think (ironically) because I thought I was too busy with my movie.

So here is it a year later and I'm in the final weeks of post-production on the film and I'm going to TAM. It's almost stupid.

However, it kinda makes sense. The film is about the Ogopogo – Canada's equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster – which, skeptically speaking is low-hanging fruit. But who cares if it's one of the more ridiculous, relatively harmless and easily debunked targets of the skeptical community – cryptozoology is a cornerstone of classic skeptical inquiry.

Back in February my friend Paul – who started to get into the organized skeptical community somewhere around the same time I did, but I'm not sure exactly when - suggested that we should go. He actually started pushing for it rather hard. I definitely thought it was a great idea, but I hedged for a bit. Then finally one day in March he called while I was in the editing suite. I had been thinking about it. I wanted to go. I was concerned about the finances – the costs of the film are mounting up and though we did get a reasonable amount of investment percentage-wise, but the remainder is self-invested and it's mounting up. But that also led me to the reasoning that allowed me to justify the expense. TAM is only once a year, the skeptical community is definitely a demographic we want to hit... this is our best chance to get out and talk about the film to that segment of people. I may even be able to write it off in the end – not against the film's expenses, but in my taxes.

But who am I kidding? Really I just want to go to TAM.

So Paul (who is also going for reasons hedging on professional, but I'll need to check with him before I detail that in any fashion – it's his business not mine) are going to be roommates, and just today we got an upgraded deal on our room that'll save us almost a third of our hotel expenses... things must be hurting in Vegas due to the economic crisis, deals abound.