Randi comes out

While it would be lovely to live in a world where this sort of thing didn’t matter, we just aren’t in that world. And it’s always courageous to stand up for who and what you are in a world where hate and intolerance are so institutionalized, even if it takes you into your 80′s before you do it.

Now again, compare how positive and life affirming such outings are in the case of Randi, Neil Patrick Harris, and other prominent figures who have recently done so, to how negative and fraught with anguish, self-loathing, and confusion it is in the case of conservative and religious figures whose delayed moments of self-awareness have to clash with a lifetime’s indoctrination in the ideologies of fear. I think people ought to be much more worried about catching teh God than teh gay.

Happy 80th!

Don’t know how I missed this, but James Randi turned 80 yesterday. And here I was thinking he was already well into his octogenerianosity! Well, good, this means we’ll have him around for many more TAMs to come. Happy slightly belated birthday to the man to whom almost every skeptic alive today owes a debt of gratitude, for helping us learn how to throw off the shackles of superstition and appreciate the real world as reason and the scientific method reveal it to us. See you next year in Vegas!

Tammity-tam-tam-TAM!

Sweet! TAM 6 is coming up this week, so I’m heading out to Sin City for the skeptical festivities. This will mean a slowdown in my own posts between now and the time I get there — gotta prep and all — so hopefully Kazim and the others will take up some of the posting slack between now and Thursday, when I start blogging the conference. I know I will be meeting a few AE readers there, so wave if you see me saunter by.

For a bit of headdesk-inducing irony, take a gander at who’s appearing at the conference’s hotel, the Flamingo, just about one month after.

Yes, I know, it’s been rather quiet

That’s because it’s been a rather busy last week or so for me. But I can announce at least one exciting thing to look forward to in June, which is that I am, in fact, attending The Amaz!ng Meeting 6 in Vegas!

Last year’s meeting was an experience I’ll always remember (and you can read my reports about it — which I sadly didn’t get to complete fully, but still — here), not just listening to such fantastic speakers as Phil Plait, Scott Dikkers, Neil Gershenfeld, Mike Shermer, Lori Lipman Brown, Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, plus South Park dudes Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but also getting to meet and chat with Phil, Richard Wiseman, and old Randi himself. This year, guys like Shermer, Savage and Wiseman are back, while PZ will be one of the speakers and the keynote address is given by none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson! Yes, I’ll be blogging the whole conference once more, with photos.

It’s an expensive vacation to take, especially in this year of soaring gas (and everything else) prices, but it’s one I’ll try never to miss, as it’s simply too fantastic to get to hang out with such a great group of skeptics, scientists and thinkers from all over the world in one spot. Onward to Lost Wages!

TAM 5: Saturday coverage, part 1 (before lunch)

As mentioned before, Saturday was a much improved day over Friday, not only because the tech troubles had mostly been solved, but in that the presenters were much more entertaining, though no less substantive than Friday’s. Later on I heard a story I couldn’t prove, to the effect that the possible reason for Friday’s nonstop laptop horrors (it got so bad that the only way Richard Wiseman could get anyone to hear his audio was to hold his mic right up to his laptop itself, which didn’t sound at all good and didn’t make him a very happy man) had to do with Lori Lipman Brown bringing her own sound guy for some reason, and this person is suspected of being responsible for the damaged connector found by JREF’s A/V guy at the end of the day. As I said, no hard evidence here, but it could have been a factor.

Regrettably, I missed much of the first speaker, NPR’s Peter Sagal. But I caught the tail end of his talk and all of his Q&A. Like most of Saturday’s speakers — up until Christopher Hitchens, anyway — Sagal set a lighthearted and humorous tone that would be followed for most of the day. One interesting thing he brought up was that, despite NPR’s reputation for being this leftist bastion, NPR really does go out of its way to avoid offending listeners — with the inevitable result that they reliably end up being offensive to lots of people. Sagal mentioned he thought NPR was actually too cautious about trying not to be inflammatory.

Sagal was followed by a moment of pure hilarity in the form of The Onion editor Scott Dikkers. At first I thought, Hmm, he’s not really being all that funny for a guy who edits The Onion. And then, I of course realized he’s a master of the classic form of deadpan comedy, allowing screenshots of the O to speak for themselves while he delivered his own commentary — the overriding theme of which was that we should always believe everything we read in the media — in a calm, reserved tone. Dikkers’ presentation peaked with his demonstration that The Onion is so true that it’s actually predicted the future, showing articles (all of which appeared as Onion satires before actually occurring in real life) about Chris Farley’s death (whoops!), Gillette releasing a five-bladed razor (here’s the Onion bit, and here’s the real thing released the following year), and Bush’s 2000 win ushering in a brave and courageous end to world peace and domestic prosperity. With such remarkable proof of The Onion‘s precognitive talents on display, Dikkers had no hesitation in immediately demanding the JREF million dollar prize. Somehow, it wasn’t quite enough proof for Randi, who nevertheless told Dikkers he’d made his day. Damn those picky skeptics!

The last speaker in the pre-lunch bald-guy parade (hey, they said it, not me) was Bad Astronomy‘s awesome Phil Plait, who began his talk — in obvious physical pain, I must say — conceding his crushing defeat to Pharyngula‘s PZ Myers in a recent best-of-the-web poll, which PZ eventually won in a “suspicious” eleventh-hour rush of votes that put him over the top. First Phil acknowledged the greatness that is PZ…

…followed by the comforting reassurance that it was just as well PZ won, because if he’d lost, the deal evidently was that PZ would agree to appear in the 2007 Skepdude Calendar. And Phil just happened to have the photo.

Well, I feel luckier already.

Phil then went on, in the spirit of the conference’s media-related theme, to fisk an absurd “documentary” that appeared on (of course) Fox about five years ago that gave credence to that stellar gang of asshats, the moon landing deniers. If you ask me, these people are as big a bunch of reprobates as creationists, and Phil showed how they’re no less brazen in the lies they tell in order to promulgate their crazy conspiracy theories in the media. Plait pointed out just how slickly packaged the show was, and how it sleazily manipulated its audience, not by making any outright, actionable claims, but by what it craftily left out, thus prompting viewers to think, “Well, gee whiz, maybe it was all a big fake!” It was a prime example of how the art of editing can build innuendo, and commit egregious lies of omission in order to get people to take any asinine claim seriously.

What is amazing about the fact anyone takes moon-landing-hoax claims seriously is that the “evidence” these people point to is so pitiful that anyone with the slightest bit of understanding of the issues involved can refute them with no effort at all. There’s just no critical thinking going on at all among these conspiracy kooks. Several moon landing deniers, for instance, claim to be photography experts. And yet they appear unacquainted with such basic photographic issues as lens flare, perspective and horizon lines, and even ASA speeds and exposure times. Why don’t you see stars in any of the moon-surface photos? The deniers say it’s because it was all done on a sound stage in Area 51 (no shit, a guy in the doc actually said “Area 51″). People with brains who know how cameras work will tell you it’s because the astronauts were using slow film and adjusting their f-stops to show a clear lunar surface, not the sky. To expose the film for long enough to pick up a sky full of stars would have resulted in such a blazing white, glared-out lunar surface that the whole shot would have been a loss. As someone who works in the film business myself, allow me to give my expert assessment of Phil’s explanation: Duh! Now someone tell Fox and these shitheads who claim to be photographers.

In this photo, Phil uses his belt to show how a flag can appear to be “waving” in an airless environment.

In all, Phil’s talk was a spectacular and, though funny, deeply sobering demonstration of how easily the media can influence public opinion through deception. It’s one more reason the pro-science camp needs to learn to be more media savvy, in order to find ways to communicate facts to a confused public and show how the truth about science and the universe is far more wondrous and compelling than the bleak fear-mongering and go-nowhere ignorance they’re currently being given. Phil’s final shot was this wonderful autograph from Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean.

Says it all, I think.

Back later with the second half of Saturday.

TAM 5: Saturday a much better day!

The many technical glitches that marred even the best speakers’ presentations yesterday seemed to have been mostly smoothed over and dealt with. Today was, overall, a much more satisfying day. Even the lunch was better: hot food instead of cold cut sandwiches. Consistently funny, engaging, and sometimes contentious, each speaker had a lot to offer.

But I’m going to wait until I get home Sunday night to blog the day, mainly because I’m wiped out. I just feel like coming down and relaxing, and not thinking about recapping and analyzing all the speakers just right yet. So look for coverage and photos of Saturday shortly. For now, I can say that if you ever find it in your budget to go to TAM, go. It’s been a terrific experience and a great little vacation, and TAM 6 is scheduled for summer 2008, not January, giving you 18 months to plan.

Yawn. Me for bed.

TAM 5: Friday afternoon speakers

The general opinion so far of my friends Thad and Stacie Engeling (the latter of whom is Ms. November in the 2007 Skepchick Calendar, by the way) is that TAM 5 has so far not been as good as TAM 4. But a lot of this is probably due to the fact that Friday afternoon’s talks were frought with stupid technical glitches. It can’t be terribly difficult to output audio from a laptop to a public sound system, but it happened with almost every presentation. In addition, presenters with video on DVD-R’s often encountered the aggravating problem of their discs not playing properly. In all, the afternoon was a little bit of a mess, but there were still some fine presentations going on.

Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey from the libertarian Reason magazine were scheduled to follow Eugenie Scott, but as everything was running late they’ve been bumped, so we’ll see if they speak today.

The first post-lunch speaker was a fellow from MIT named Neil Gershenfeld, who talked about advances in nanotech and how they will make manufacturing a much more democratic process. His team has set up “fab labs” all around the world, with the result that even little kids are making some cool gadgets. He’s also pointed out that since he introduced a class at MIT all about this, which he initially expected to appeal only to a handful of engineering dweebs, he has in fact been flooded with hundreds of students who just wanted to make stuff. What he’s discovered is that the killer app for this kind of tech will be personal tech, and not necessarily mass-produced things for the marketplace. I wasn’t expecting to get into this talk that much, fearing it would slide headlong into tech-talk-land and lose me utterly, but Gershenfeld, in full hip-prof mode, made it utterly compelling. It was great to see how young kids living in the developing world, when exposed to this kind of knowledge, really had a hunger for it and absorbed what they were learning like little sponges. I can foresee a time when online communities of fab junkies are trading their manufacturing templates via p2p, and spitting out all kinds of nifty things on home replicators. Time will tell.

What followed was an interview with Randi by his friend Jamy Ian Swiss. We were shown quite a lot of amusing video from a Korean TV show that invited Randi over to debunk a whole host of their local paranormalists. Randi coached the show’s producer on what to look for when he and his crew went out to various psychic presentations, and, in contrast to the way an American TV show would insist on presenting woo with 100% credulity, this producer turned out to be a debunking champ, laying awesome traps for spoon-benders and psychic “healers” that Randi admitted he himself could not have improved upon. A simple hidden camera showed one spoon bender just bending the spoon the normal way when he thought no one was looking, and a Malaysian healer whose schtick is that electricity flows through his body (he did a trick that Randi had no trouble duplicating in the Korean studio) was shown to have tricked out his sandals with a battery pack. The dude also nailed Uri Geller, pissing off the Israeli fruad so much he threw them out of his house. Hilarious.

It was terrific watching these clips, but the whole presentation ended up getting a little overlong and repetitive because the DVD player they were using had the hardest time cueing up to the right spots in the DVD-R.

Technical glitches continued with Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the new Secular Coalition of America, the first lobbying group for atheists. Brown was a decent speaker once she stopped just reading from her prepared remarks, and she presents a nice face for atheism in the public square. Still, she was fairly unprepared for the abject disrespect from Fox News interviewers, getting that deer-in-the-headlights look when confronted by O’Reilly; she showed three clips from Fox News interviews, two from the Factor. Still, she mentioned that she hasn’t received any disrespect on Capitol Hill simply because she’s representing atheists, and I hope once she develops a slightly thicker skin and cangive as well as she gets in front of TV cameras, she might be someone to exert some real influence. She ain’t there yet, though. Overall, her presentation was brief, a nice relief from the extreme length of the Randi interview and its glitchy videos.

A Q&A with the ever-popular Penn & Teller followed, who were both funny and warm as they fielded questions from the crowd, many of whom had clearly worked up the funniest questions they could think of well in advance. Some of the better questions involved the benefits/liabilities of working with Showtime versus using DIY broadcasting technology online like YouTube. They also related the hilarious story of the video game Desert Bus, in which nothing happens except that you drive a bus from Phoenix to Vegas for eight hours.

But as funny as Penn & Teller are, the real comic genius of the day was the energetic Richard Wiseman, who talked at a machine-gun pace, peppering his speech with off-the-cuff jokes that had everyone belly-laughing. Wiseman has a reputation doing lots of debunking over in his native England, most prominently the claims of the kookoo Rupert Sheldrake, who thinks dogs and parrots have ESP. Sheldrake believed he had proven a little terrier was psychic because she always ran to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home, even if the time was entirely chosen randomly. Wiseman set up his own camera
s on Sheldrake’s invitation and learned that the dog was in fact going to the window all the time. (Again, Wiseman had several minutes worth of his own laptop issues before we were able to see the videos.)

Wiseman went on to talk about how he’s seeking to use the media, not just for debunking efforts, but in a way that presents science entertainingly. He gave us the whole story of a stunt in which an investor, a “financial astrologer,” and a five-year-old girl were invited to choose the best stocks, and after six months, the little girl was the only one who hadn’t lost money. Then there was the long saga of the humor research program to discover the funniest joke in the world (it’s not quite) by allowing thousands of people to submit jokes to a website, then screening them through public votes down to the most popular one.

Wiseman, the final speaker for the day, is a hilarious guy, and he’s the kind of bloke I’d love to see doing more work for skepticism in the public arena. After the room was shutting down I managed to locate him and we had a good talk walking back to the elevators. I was particularly interested in his talk, as I told him, because a few years back I got into a brief Wikipedia edit war with a Sheldrake fan and woo believer who was editing Wikipedia’s ESP entry, both to slant the article to a pro-paranormal bias, and also to add about a dozen links driving traffic to his blog. I hadn’t heard about the dog experiment before dealing with this clown (who believed Sheldrake’s results utterly), but it was evident right away to me that the way Sheldrake set up his own test proved the guy has no clue how to run a controlled experiment to save his life. Sheldrake’s response to Wiseman’s findings has, of course, been to lie and say Wiseman got the same results he did. Of course, Wiseman showed the dog did indeed go to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home. But she also went to the window nearly every five minutes before and after that point as well. I’m a dog owner and know full well these are creatures of habit; my dogs know when it’s walk time, and if I’m slacking off online they’ll come to get me and bark indignantly that they’re ready to go. Are they psychic for knowing this? No, they just know how to learn routines. It’s what dogs do. Sheldrake’s work is just a prime example of confirmation bias in action.

Anyway, that was the end of Friday. I’ve decided to skip the continental breakfast this morning. Today has another solid roster of speakers — Phil Plait, Christopher Hitchens, and…wait for it…Trey Parker and Matt Stone! So I hope fewer techie troubles plague the day and everything goes a lot more smoothly.

TAM 5: Friday morning speakers Shermer & Scott

Well, remember what I said last night about being wiped out and going to bed? Wrong! I realized that if I go to Vegas for an awesome conference and crash early, then damn it all, I haven’t been to Vegas for an awesome conference. And so I mustered up my second wind, went downstairs, and saw an impressive performance by the mentalist Banachek. Maybe I’ll discuss that in more detail later, but for now…

This morning’s speaker session began with Hal Bidlack introducing Randi once again. This time Randi said some things that will be music to any skeptic’s ears: the JREF is going on the offensive against paranormalism and bullshit. Randi is revising the terms of the famous Million Dollar Challenge in the interests of rededicating himself to his debunking efforts following his physical recovery.

The problem over the years has been too many Mickey Mouse losers applying for the Challenge, few of whom can even state their claims coherently, and none of whom really has any kind of reputation in the media or elsewhere. Now, Randi’s detractors in the woo brigade often dismiss the Challenge as a publicity stunt, and in truth, publicity is part of the point. The JREF wants to educate and inform the public and promote critical thinking, and reaching the public through the media is the best way to do it. But why should the media care about some kooky dowser from Bumfuck, Iowa?

So the new terms of the Million Dollar Challenge, going into effect on April 1 (heh), will be that applicants must have some kind of media presence, like Sylvia and John Edwards, and that there must be someone in a position of authority and influence — academically or otherwise — who feels that the claimant is worth taking seriously. This will weed out the nonsense, and pique the kinds of media interest that will help bring the message of thinking critically about extraordinary claims to a public who are given far too many reasons to be credulous. I like it. I especially liked the idea that the JREF is considering a major New York Times ad on April 1 announcing the new terms of the Challenge and expressly inviting Sylvia, Edwards, Uri Geller, and James von Praagh to partake. Bring the fight right out in the open!

Finally, Randi announced intentions to forcefully pursue (sorry, split infinitive) legal actions for fraud and other crimes perpetrated by woos shown to be false and who yet continue to take money from the gullible. All good plans!

Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer then came up to give an interesting if not earth-shattering talk on the topic of his next book, the evolution of economic systems. He described both evolution and economics as complex adaptive systems; in small bands like hunter-gatherers, trading was adequate as there are no specific individuals accumulating mass wealth and hogging resources. In bigger civilizations, one gets more disparity, and you end up with the super-rich like Bill Gates, who cause as much discomfort as the super-poor panhandling on the streets (though in Gates’ case, I think envy is playing a role). So more complex economic systems evolve to meet the needs of a larger populace. And this can be tied into our biological evolutionary heritage, which likes the idea of “reciprocal altruism”, i.e., fairness. It isn’t really my field, so the topic didn’t grab me by the nads. But Shermer seems to have thought it out skillfully, so I’m thinking the book with be worth checking out.

Next, the NCSE’s awesome Eugenie Scott took the podium to give the first brilliant talk of the show, tracing the evolution of the creationist movement from “creation science” to ID. In addition to covering the basics, Scott made a number of astute points, some of which I hadn’t considered. One of these I had considered is that the IDers have been more skilled at using the media than pro-evolution scientists. Ironically, they have even been better about getting out the message that they are the ones interested in skepticism and critical thinking, with their “teach the controversy” mantra and their knack for portraying science as a dogmatic practice.

Scott pointed out how the media’s focus on the generally laudable practice of fairness taints the real issues. Proper balance is achieved by presenting both sides of an issue accurately. That is not the same thing as giving both sides equal credibility. IDers have done a remarkable job of working the media and covering up the fact that they don’t really do any science.

Scott suggested that scientists need to counter ID creationism in a positive way that promotes the practice of science and critical thinking and how to apply it well. She pointed to the Kitzmiller trial as a landmark effort in this, in that, for the first time, people who haven’t been at the forefront of fighting ID nonsense for years — like Judge Jones and the army of reporters covering the trial — finally really got it. Michael Behe made a fool of himself on the stand in Dover, and what’s important is that the press understood that, and coverage of Behe was commensurately humiliating. This isn’t and has never been about “dogmatic Darwinists” “censoring” ID’s “controversial” views in order to “protect evolutionary dogma,” to regurgitate a lot of ID buzzwords. It’s just about making it perfectly understood that ID just plain ain’t science. And in science class, it’s about teaching science. Evolution, like heliocentrism or any other settled scientific issue, is not a matter of opinion. Being “fair and balanced” is all well and good when you’re letting people air opinions. But science isn’t about opinions or belief. It’s about empirically demonstrable facts.

Scott accompanied her talk with a host of fantastic PowerPoint slides showing the depth of the swill one has to wade through when combating ID/creationist nonsense. It’s both funny and sad all at once.

Well, I’m taking time out of the lunch break to bring you this. So I’m going back downstairs. (For ten bucks a day, the wifi here sucks ass. What’s the deal with getting no signal at all in the convention center? I mean, duh! Hello?) I may not post the next update for a bit, as I need to renew the service for another day. So I may wait till late tonight in order to stretch my money out better. Of course, anyone who’d like to help defray these little costs can Paypal me at mw_director at yahoo dot com, but, like Banachek was saying all last night in his act, “Now, I’m manipulating you! Don’t let me do that!” Ha!

TAM 5: Shots from the reception

James Randi spoke briefly, thanked everyone for coming and remarked drolly on how amazing it was that he could pull together such a community just by being a guy with a reputation for saying things like “I doubt that.”

Randi gave us some good news about bad news for Uri Geller, who’s the target of condemnation by the Israeli parliament after a video hit YouTube of Geller thoroughly faking a stunt with a compass. He also mentioned he was going on The O’Reilly Factor to confront the notorious Sylvia Browne yet again; much as O’Reilly is an asshole, Randi says the guy hates Sylvia and is on the side of Good (for once) in this battle. We’l see. I’m — ahem — skeptical.

After he spoke, he was surrounded by a gaggle of fans, and I eventually managed to slip in there, introduce myself, and do the usual fanboy gush thing about how much I admired all his work over the years, and all that. He was a really cordial, approachable man, and that’s cool. I know he gets to hear this kind of fawning from his fans almost as much as he hears the slanders of the woo brigade, and he’s used to it. But at least I’ve had the experience of meeting him and shaking his hand. He appears hale and fully recovered from his recent heart troubles, so I predict more years of pissing off the paranormal charlatans are in the offing.

A little more mingling and I crossed paths with Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, who surprised me by recognizing me. I had no idea he had any idea who I was. I knew he was aware of the very active Austin crowd, but I guess he’s seen some episodes of the old AE show when I was hosting. We talked quite a bit, and he mentioned some of his expanding podcasting efforts with The Debate Hour, a less aggressive show designed to draw in a wider audience of believers and introduce them to critical thinking. Really nice guy, Reggie is.

I’m wiped out. My body clock tells me it’s just after 10 PM, while the clock radio by my bed here says it’s only just after eight. Stupid time zones. Some of the guys are planning a pub crawl starting at eleven, which sounds like a great way to hang with some new folks. But having been up now almost an entire day, I don’t think I’m quite up to it. So I’m gonna lame out and crawl into bed.

The speakers begin tomorrow, and I’ll be updating regularly. See you then.

TAM 5 liveblogging: Well, here I am!

Been here a few hours, in fact, but much of the afternoon was spent getting my bearings (including figuring out the wifi situation here — it isn’t free, and in fact the $10/day service is the least rapacious) and registering. But a quick recap of the afternoon so far.

Landing in Vegas to balmy 52 degree weather was like entering paradise after a solid weekend of ice and sleet in Austin. Checked into the Riviera, which I was pleased to find did not live down to the brutal reviews I was reading on various travel sites last night. My room was clean and nice, with a full battery of amenities like any decent hotel, and with no smoky smell, trash, or bedbugs to be found. Now, granted, the Riv isn’t exactly in the “nice” part of Vegas, the new spiffy trendy part where Britney likes to skank around. This is old-school, Rat Pack Vegas, and the Riv caters solidly to the penny-slot crowd. Damn near everyone in the casinos downstairs is retirement age, including the one security guard I saw, walking along with a visible effort. I imagine if Danny Ocean were to pull a heist here and take off at a practiced run, the poor fellow wouldn’t last thirty yards in a foot chase.

Anyway, got checked in, unpacked, and wandered the labyrinthine corridors looking for the TAM 5 registration booth. When I passed James Randi walking the opposite direction, I figured I was getting warm.

He’s a small guy. But a giant in his realm, of course.

So now I am, right this second, blogging to you from the Top of the Riv Ballroom on the 24th floor of Whatever-the-Hell-It’s-Called Tower, at the opening reception, typing away while enjoying horse doovers and a fizzy beer. I’ve been taking some pictures, too, but I went and left the goddamn USB cable to my camera back in the room. So I’ll update later and post those.

I am now going to quit geeking, get another beer, and mingle. Randi is getting ready to speak.

Until later…