Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Skeptic in the Room Unplugged!

Last weekend I had the chance to perform my song The Skeptic in the Room for the Solstice/HumanLight Party here in Sacramento. The event, sponsored by the local Atheists and Other Freethinkers (AOF) group, was well attended and very upbeat. The Mockingbirds, a local singing group, performed some lively parody carols in the spirit of the (non-religious) season.  Professional dancers Roger and Pam showed off some slick dance steps.  And my son James and I performed Skeptic. This was the first live performance of the song, and, while there were a few hiccups along the way, it was a lot of fun.  

Here's a video of our performance. If you watch it, please keep a couple of things in mind:

1.  We kind of threw this together quickly, so forgive the stumbling over lyrics here and there, and...
2.  Always remember, the camera adds ten, errrrr thirty pounds! (but, oddly, only to me, not to James.  There must be some scientific explanation for that - I suspect quantum physics or nano-particles are to blame).

If you prefer to watch the original, mistake-free version, it is here:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tim Minchin is starting to piss me off!

As is true of all communities of thought, the Skeptical Community has its well known leaders and celebrities. And, as I have immersed myself in podcasts and books and skeptical conferences over the last few years, I have come to greatly admire many of the more prominent skeptics. Many of them exhibit traits I would love to possess myself:  The erudition and facility with language of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins; the commitment and productivity of Steven Novella; the joie de vivre of Richard Wiseman and Phil Plait; the charm of Rebecca Watson; the humanity of Penn Jillette.  

But there is one skeptical luminary that inspires waves of admiring envy in every fiber of my being:  Musician and comedian Tim Minchin.  While I know I’ll never be a microbiologist or a doctor or a scientist, I am a musician and a songwriter. And, like Mr. Minchin, I try to express my skeptical outlook in my music (click here to see what is unarguably my most successful attempt at this to date). But, like Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, I find myself forced to recognize and respect the brilliance and creativity of Tim Minchin while knowing that I, alas, will never match his skills.

And its really starting to piss me off!

Mr. Minchin’s latest triumph only increases my own sense of envy.  The new Musical Comedy Matilda - music and lyrics by Tim Minchin - has taken London’s West End by storm, winning rave reviews and already racking up theatre awards. You can see a promotional clip for the show here.  It is really rare to encounter something in modern musical theater that is truly new and unique, and Matilda appears to be just that - a brilliantly conceived and executed trip into a fantastical world of childlike wonder.  Of course, not having seen the show, I’m making this judgement based on the soundtrack and the clips that are online.  But I’m pretty confident, based also on the reviews I’ve read, that the show really is pretty awesome.

So why does this new Minchin triumph cause me so much grief? Because, along with my more common musical efforts, I have always dreamed of writing a Broadway musical. I’ve begun, but never completed, several such efforts - including shows based on William Tell, on President John Tyler (yeah, that would be popular!) and on famous hoaxes and hoaxers of history. But, again alas, none has amounted to anything more than a ragged collection of songs with no coherent story line.

And so, Tim Minchin, while I applaud your success and will continue to enjoy your work, you’re really starting to annoy me. Must you really be quite so good at everything?!

On the other hand, maybe I could just use Tim as inspiration to take another crack at finishing one of my own projects.  Look out world, here comes John Tyler: The Musical!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bad News for Power Balance Could be Good News for Sacramento

Power Balance, purveyors of those magical wristbands that people (particularly athletes) believe are imbued with magical powers, filed for bankruptcy protection today, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.  All I can say is, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of charlatans!

I won’t go into the copious evidence showing that Power Balance bands are no more magical than the rubber bands cluttering up my kitchen draws.  They have exactly the same efficacy – that is, none whatsoever.  I won’t rag on their scientifically dubious claims, as they have been so thoroughly debunked elsewhere.  And I won’t comment on the silly tests they do to prove the efficacy of their sham bracelets – getting people to believe that they’ve suddenly gained the ability to remain balanced with a foot raised while the person demonstrating this effect subtly changes the angle at which he pushes down on the person’s extended arm (well, I guess I did just comment on that).

But for those of us here in Sacramento (at least, those of us who have bothered to think about it), the news that the company may be facing bankruptcy and (dare we hope?!) liquidation is particularly encouraging. You see, last year Power Balance bought the naming rights to our local basketball arena. And so now, the outdated and rapidly decaying little bandbox, which gained its reputation as ARCO Arena, is known as Power Balance Pavilion.  Ugh.

So, even if the company survives its financial struggles, maybe, at the very least, it will have to cancel its contract and our little arena, if and when it again hosts NBA Basketball games for our beloved Kings, can have a name that will not bring embarrassment with it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hey Ma, I'm a One Hit Wonder!

I just checked on my YouTube account.  I have nine videos posted of songs I’ve written.  There have been 21,294 views of TheSkeptic in the Room.  My next highest total:  294 for TheConspiracy Song.  Exactly 21,000 fewer!  Ha ha.  I think this is what they call a one hit wonder!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Tribute to Impulse Buying

I take a break from blogging about skepticism and politics, to post a new song I wrote recently. This song has no particular reason to exist, except it's kind of catchy and, after all, haven't we all enjoyed picking up items on impulse when checking out at the supermarket or department store?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Christmas Tree Taxes, FDR and Silly Political Discourse

In what is possibly the silliest political kerfuffle ever, today saw the blogosphere riled up about Obama’s new “Christmas Tree Tax.”  It was reported by a conservative blogger and amplified through Matt Drudge (Slate has a good, short recap here) that Obama’s Department of Agriculture had just announced plans to impose a fifteen-cent tax on the sale of fresh Christmas trees.  

On conservative blogs and, apparently, talk shows, this announcement was denounced as everything from a tax on Christians (because, you see, only Christians buy Christmas trees) to President Obama’s lame effort to stimulate the economy to an example of Obama fiddling while Rome burns (millions out of work, and the President wants to tax Christmas trees!). Oh the humanity!

But the reality is that this is the latest in a long, long line of programs created at industry request to raise funds for promotion, research or other marketing by the affected industries.  There are programs that do advertising (think Dancing Raisins and Milk Mustaches), that conduct research into controlling pests or making food safer, and that regulate quality and packing standards (so that, you know, when you go to the store to buy apples they have some uniformity in size, color, shape, etc.).  Some programs are federal and some are state, but they are all created because the growers or shippers of a given agricultural product want them created.

All of these programs stem from the same New Deal legislation put in place under Franklin Roosevelt.  For over seven decades those statutes have been used to justify the creation of these agricultural programs. They are done under government jurisdiction because that way you can get everyone to pay their fair share and avoid the ‘free rider’ problem.

Now, there’s plenty of room for argument or discussion about whether these types of programs are valuable, successful, effective or necessary in today’s world.  Growers have sued to get rid of them in some cases, and in others the programs have simply outlived their usefulness and been voted out of existence by the affected parties.

But to act like this proposed Christmas Tree program is some insidious plot driven by the President is silly beyond words and just goes to underscore how petty and substance-free our political discussions have become.

I’m not a big fan of the President and I'm an opponent of the Nanny State, but if the Christmas Tree farmers want to get together and tax themselves to pay for programs they think will help keep them in business, I say more power to them!

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Being a Libertarian Skeptic

With the presidential campaign season in full swing (for the republicans at least), I've been thinking a bit lately about politics and skepticism. Generally I call myself a Libertarian, but that's pretty much just a convenience so I don't have to identify with either of the dominant US political parties. I resist affiliation with either the democrats or the republicans so that I don’t have to accept or justify rejecting the very significant parts of each party’s platform with which I disagree.

My libertarianism is therefore shorthand for a somewhat common refrain - like many others, I consider myself  to be fairly conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social issues. I agree with the Republican party on many economic issues, but part with them vehemently on things like gay rights, abortion and their antipathy to science. The democrats drive me crazy on fiscal and economic issues, but I'm with them on the social issues.

So there I am, in my libertarian middle ground, cherry picking candidates from the major parties to vote for (I don't actually vote Libertarian, but I would if they’d bring forward some sane candidates: Bob Barr? Really? Ron Paul? God help us!).

When I first happened on the skeptical community a few years ago, I quickly figured out that it was a community that leaned pretty hard to the left. That wasn't a surprise, but it made me hesitant to actively join the fray. One doesn't want to risk getting flamed by someone online for suggesting that, maybe, just maybe, everyone to the right of Dennis Kucinich isn't actually evil.

Luckily there are prominent skeptical voices out there who help make it safe for Libertarian skeptics like me to come in out of the cold and not feel quite so unwelcome. It was encouraging and refreshing to hear Michael Shermer on a skeptical podcast expressing his belief that the best way to deal with climate change is less government interference in the economy and more unleashing  of bright human minds.  And Penn Jillette’s libertarianism, based in a firm belief in the rights of the individual, is a very appealing philosophy.

So, yeah, it’s good to know that you can be libertarian and find acceptance in the skeptical community. I have a hard time imagining a true blue conservative who would feel very welcome, but I also have a hard time imagining a true blue conservative wanting to be accepted there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Our "Nation of Believers" is on Display Again!

The headlines about Mitt Romney's Mormonism (Is Mormonism a cult? Are Mormons Christians? Will Evangelicals ever vote for a Mormon?) reminds me of why I wrote the song "Nation of Believers."  It's not the non-religious asking these questions - it's another round of believer-on-believer crime.  The circular firing squad is on display once again!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mitt Romney and the Republican Debates

It’s probably a sign of some deep-seated psychological problem, but I really love election seasons. I particularly enjoy the debate stage, when you get to see the oddest assortment of political bedfellows duking it out for a party’s nomination.  Since there’s not going to be a democratic debate-fest to enjoy, I’m getting a kick out of the GOP’s.  Most of these characters will ultimately recede back to the world of irrelevance from which they sprang, but its fun to see  them groping for their spot in the sunshine.

This year’s republican debates have been highly entertaining. The sudden rise and subsequent declines of Bachman, Perry and Paul; the constant struggle of the party to find someone - anyone!? - to run against Mitt Romney; the current, nearly inexplicable, boomlet around Herman Cain - all have been fascinating to watch.

Mostly I’ve been impressed with Romney. I certainly don’t agree with all that he espouses (I find his China-bashing to be a xenophobic embarrassment, for example), but he’s sure come a long way since the last time around, and, to my mind, he has come across as a grownup among children in these debates.

Last night was a perfect example. The debate organizers decided to dedicate one section of the debate to letting the candidates ask questions of each other.  Predictably, most of them tried to tee off on Romney, asking him questions designed to show his flip-flopping nature or his lack of conservative bona fides.  But he’s gotten so good at this game, all they did was give him a platform to speak forcefully about his positions. For nearly forty minutes the stage was pretty much Romney’s - in each case he quickly dismissed the insinuation of his rival’s question, then spoke confidently about his plans, proposals and/or visions. Again, agree with him or not, it was an impressive performance.

And when it was his turn?  He didn’t give the stage to Perry or Cain or anyone perceived to have a chance to unseat him as front-runner. He asked a positively-phrased question of Michelle Bachman, setting her up to lay out her conservative principals in a way that would appeal not to Romney’s backers, but to Perry’s. It was, I thought, quite a brilliant strategy.

It certainly seems likely that Romney will secure the Republican nomination, and that will bring a fascinating year of electioneering. Having been raised Mormon myself, I don’t have any qualms about Romney’s religion, but I’ve been surprised at opinions expressed by some of my acquaintances, who feel his Mormonism will be a crippling handicap for him. It will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are There Any Grownups in the White House?

When I first heard about it, I thought it was some Internet meme gone viral – a classically satiric riff on today’s wired world. The Obama administration was launching a new website where concerned citizens can report unfair attacks on the President – attacks that could then be countered by facts from the White House.

And then I found out it was real. Yup, real. Truly real.


And once again one ponders the eternal question: What the fuck were they thinking??

As Reason online puts it here, some adult in the White House should perhaps have pointed out that “encouraging Americans to inform on their fellow citizens carries a whiff not just of Nixonian creepiness but of totalitarian menace.

Sure, I get it, nobody’s being asked to report their neighbors as communists, atheists, tea party activists or other fellow travelers (well, maybe tea party activists), but the whole business is just juvenile and pointless.  Given the connected landscape out there, the White House can both track unfair attacks and put out its own arguments or counter-arguments without needing to enlist citizens in the dirty business of opposition research.

It’s unseemly and tiresome. Not what we were expecting when we elected President Obama.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Rift in the Fraud/Hoax Continuum!

This morning my usual routine of reading our great metropolitan newspaper was partially spoiled when I noticed an ad for an upcoming appearance in Sacramento by the famed mentalist John Edward. His "show" is called "Behind the Curtain" and the ads promise that there will be "question and answer sessions and messages from the other side."  Ooooooh.

The price for this hogwash:  A cool $150 (not counting the inevitable handling charges, I'm sure).

Nothing quite gets my blood boiling like this kind of blatant exploitation of people's gullibility and/or grief. In the immortal words of Tim Minchin, do we really think that that dead would want to talk to pricks like John Edward?!

Edward is appearing at a local Holiday Inn, but really he ought to be appearing at our basketball stadium, which is now the Power Balance Pavilion (since Power Balance bought the naming rights last spring).  Seems to me that John Edward appearing at the Power Balance Pavilion might just bring enough pseudoscientific nonsense into one place that it could cause a major rift in the fraud/hoax continuum!

(Oh well, I think that's a funny line).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Faith, Works and Magic!

Early in his new book God No! Penn Jillete riffs on the dubious intersection between faith and magic.  He scoffs at the idea that “any magician can be spiritual,” and the he criticizes “hippie Magicians” who use cheap magic tricks and then pretend “they're expressing something real,” and on “gospel magicians” who’ll do a “cheesy ‘cake in the hat’ trick and tie it to the resurrection of Christ.”

Those comments got me reminiscing about a moment in my own life when faith and magic intersected. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I spent the first 25 years of my life is a fairly active member of the Mormon church . But I also started to enjoy performing at a fairly young age. I was in several song and dance groups, rock bands, and other performing groups in the suburbs just south of Seattle.

Along the way, one of the groups I was in was taught a number of magic tricks. I can't remember exactly why, but we were going to incorporate some magic into a performance. I learned a couple of pretty impressive card tricks, how to vanish a thimble, and how to make small objects disappear and reappear in a “magic” handkerchief.  I was pretty impressed with myself, armed as I was with this awe-inspiring assortment of magic tricks.

About that time, I was asked to give a talk in church. For those unfamiliar with the Mormon faith, there is no paid clergy, and all members take their turns giving talks in the various church meetings. Since I always struggled with the idea that I had anything to say to anyone about faith, on this occasion I decided to treat it more like a performance.

When the particular Sunday rolled around I took the podium in front of the congregation to speak about the concept that faith without works is dead. I pulled my “magic” handkerchief from my suit coat pocket and told the congregation that I was going to demonstrate the concept of faith and works for them.  I pulled out a scrap of paper on which the word faith was written in letters large enough for the congregation to read.  And then I made this paper magically disappear into the handkerchief. Just like that, I said, faith alone is insufficient. I produced a second scrap of paper on which the word works was written. This too disappeared into the magic handkerchief and I explained that doing good works alone is also not sufficient to achieve salvation.

I then managed to make a third piece of paper appear from the void into which the first two had vanished - and on this this third sheet were written the words Faith + Works = Salvation!

A pretty good demonstration of the concept, I thought, and I expected to receive widespread applause for the way I had demonstrated an important concept of Mormon theology (not actual applause, mind you, as that would not be acceptable in a Mormon church meeting). But alas, I was mistaken.

Although no one took me aside and told me why, I did definitely get the impression that my approach to demonstrating church doctrine was not greatly appreciated by the powers that be. People were clealry and decidedly uncomfortable that I had used a magic trick to illustrate a principale of faith. Only much later did I realize that I had moved close to some dangerous ground. If you start showing through magic tricks how easily people can be deceived, then perhaps you're getting a little too close to causing people to think critically about the mystic aspects of religion itself. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I was surprised and disappointed at how little positive feedback I got for my little performance.

So I definitely agree with Penn that magic and religion really don't mix.  And who knows, maybe it was that brief flirtation with the art of magic that set me on my ultimate course away from faith and to a secular mindset.

One final note on this, I forgot the card tricks soon enough, but I continued to do my thimble trick for years and I was gratified when my son Ryan, now a professional magician in San Francisco, referenced it in one of his routines. Click on the link below when you can see him performing and demonstrating just how strong my magical influence was on his ultimate destiny (right Ryan?).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New Song and Video: Nation of Believers

It takes, of course, no brilliant insight to point out that most religions do not get along very well. Centuries of animosity, war and hatred are quite well documented, and most people would simply shrug and assume that the fault lies with whatever systems of faith lie outside their own.

But we are often told through the media that 1) nearly everyone believes in some kind of religion or holds some kind of spiritual faith in America and 2) that's supposed to mean something (like the old argument that you need faith to be moral).  So this song tries to playfully point out that we may be a "Nation of Believers" but that doesn't really mean anything in the long run.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Now Blogging With Me: My Son James

Last month I enjoyed attending my first TAM (The Amazing Meeting, for the uninitiated) in Las Vegas.   Not only was it a great experience to finally manage to attend this centerpiece of the Skeptical world, but it was made even more enjoyable as I was joined there by my two sons, Ryan and James.  Ryan is a professional magician in San Francisco, and James is a student of molecular biology at UC/Santa Cruz, so an environment that was rich in both magicians and scientists was very much to their liking.

Anyway, we left the conference with lots of ideas about how we might communicate our thoughts and ideas about science, magic and skepticism, and in the very near future we will launch the website Skeptic and Sons, where we will do exactly that. In the meantime, my son James has penned the thoughtful piece below about some new advances in video game technology and what they might mean for us in the future.


Guest Blog: A Program Within A Program

Although I don’t really put stock in it as an explanation of our universe, I’ve always been rather interested in the idea that our universe might be a simulation in some giant supercomputer.  It’s probably possible, depending on your view of the world.  If your belief is that the “soul” is separate from the physical world constructed of atoms, then this is probably not a thought experiment for you.  But if your belief is that the correct arrangement of atoms taking the form of a human makes that human sentient, then there’s no reason why a collection of programmed atoms in the same formation should not produce the same result.  Of course, if this were the explanation for our universe, that presupposes another universe that requires an explanation.  Supercomputer simulation perhaps? A program within a program…

Anyhow, I just found an article and demonstration (http://www.consolelink.com/2011/08/next-gen-visuals-will-be-made-of-tiny-atoms/)  describing a new technology that is going to revolutionize the gaming graphics industry.  Euclideon (http://www.euclideon.com/home.html), a gaming technology company, has new software that they call “Unlimited Detail” that allows game designers to use an almost infinite amount of tiny “atoms” when creating landscapes and objects.  The idea is that you can create (with the right artistic flair) flawless in-game graphics.  Unlimited Detail (the Australian company’s only claim to fame) would render polygon-based graphics obsolete. 

This is a far cry from a fully functioning artificial world though.  All this engine can handle right now is keeping track of where these “atoms” are at a given moment.  In order for any truly real simulation to occur, meaning creating “matter” that behaves exactly the way matter in our universe behaves, several more details would have to be added.  The obvious one is that the atom isn’t the smallest unit of matter, so the program would have to go smaller than that.  Subatomic particles have to be programmed with the same constants as in our universe to give atoms the same properties.  Once an atom behaves exactly as an atom should, the only thing left is achieving enough computing power to handle it all.    The correct behavior at the atomic level will make everything else right as well. 

Obviously this doesn’t mean that in the near future we will see a booming new market of universe synthesis, but this kind of technology (if it works well) would be one step towards a future where we can try.  Personally, I think it would be an interesting experiment even if it doesn’t work.  

By James Scott Horsfall

Monday, August 1, 2011

Big Sur, Art and the Cosmos!

I’m not really much of a nature guy, by nature. I like my creature comforts, my HDTV, my air conditioning...by and large I’m comfortable not forcing myself to confront the wild very often. After all, it’s called “the wild” for a reason, right?

But every now and then I take advantage of opportunities to experience the awesomeness of nature. This past weekend was one of those occasions. I was in Monterey, California, and, having some free time and a new camera I wanted to try out, I spent several hours on Saturday driving down the Coast highway through Big Sur and back. I’ve been there before, seen it before, but every time I make that drive I am awed by the majesty and sheer creative power of nature.

I know that many people see something like these incredible cliffs as the hand of God in action, but I’m awed knowing that they were created bit by tiny bit over a vast, nearly unfathomable span of time by the powerfully artistic hand of nature. And I marvel that we, as humans, have evolved over vast millenia ourselves to a point where we can see, process and appreciate something like a Grand Canyon or a Yosemite Valley or a Big Sur as the things of beauty that they are.

Driving back I had my ipod playing random music through my car’s sound system when I had one of those serendipitous moments that the randomness of life provides. Tim Minchin’s “Not Perfect” played just as I was driving along one of the more scenic stretches of my journey, and somehow these lyrics seemed to fit the moment perfectly:

This is my Earth
And I live in it
It’s one third dirt
And two thirds water
And it rotates and revolves through space
At rather an impressive pace
And never even messes up my hair
And here’s the really weird thing
The force created by its spin
Is the force that stops the chaos flooding in
This is my Earth, and it’s fine
It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time
It’s not perfect, but it’s mine

This then reminded me of another impressive bit of art - a poem written by a young man named Victor Harris. He shared it as part of a art in skepticism panel at the recent SkeptiCAL conference in Berkeley, and I found it really inspiring.  Victor posts his poetry at the Mad Art Lab website, and you can find this particular poem, entitled Weird Science, here.  I particularly like this section:

...I am left breathless by the understanding
that my continuance is an example
of the improbable versus the impossible,
and despite what some might think
this gives my life more meaning,
makes each day more precious,
brings into sharp contrast
the importance of each interaction,
lends weight and reality
to the precious actuality
of each person I allow into my life...

I try to remind myself to feel that way - to remember that we’re just tiny passengers on a vast cosmic vessel that has been churning and moving and evolving and creating great art for longer than I can begin to fathom. And that’s truly awesome!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


On Monday, viewings of my music video The Skeptic in the Room hit the 20,000 mark - a milestone I would have acknowledged prior to this, except that I had to leave for a business trip to Washington DC that morning, and have been too busy to write a blog post. I’ve been looking forward to to this meaningless and arbitrary milestone for some time. I had hoped I’d reach it in time for the Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas two weeks ago but, alas, I was still about a hundred views short at that time.  Still, I’m pleased to have reached it now, and I thank the thousands of skeptics, free-thinkers, atheists and other disturbed souls who have taken the time to watch my video, the 109 people who have commented on it, and the 424 who have, as of tonight, “liked” it on YouTube (hell, I even thank the seven cantankerous souls who ‘disliked’ it!).

As I said, this is an arbitrary and largely meaningless milestone, but in the spirit of good pseudoscience, let me try to imbue it with some kind of meaning.  20,000 views of an eight-minute video means that people on this planet have spent 160,000 minutes, 2,607 hours or 111 days watching my silly little song about being the skeptic who confronts people about their silly beliefs. That’s a lot of lost man-hours and, for that, I humbly apologize!  

On the other hand, its only 2% of the time people have spent watching this video of a cute kitten, so perhaps I have nothing to apologize for!

Thanks again, everyone, and I’m glad you enjoyed the song!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

And Three TAM9 Complaints

Yesterday I posted my top ten list of TAM9 memories.  Herewith, three things I didn’t much care for:

Technical Glitches. Starting with the unfortunate disruption of George Hrab’s musical medley that started the conference, and running through nearly every presentation and panel, technical glitches were a constant part of the proceedings. They disrupted the flow, disconcerted the presenters and confused the spectators. Not only were there constant problems getting videos and slides to appear, whoever was running the A/V constantly switched from views of the presentations to the presenters and back again, making it difficult to comprehend what was going on in the slides (and don’t get me started on the awful, awful, AWFUL slides used by so many presenters. If your audience can’t comprehend what’s in a slide, DON’T USE IT!)

A Disappointing Dawkins. One of the things we were most excited about was seeing and hearing Richard Dawkins. My son James and I have both read virtually everything the man has written, and I’ve seen him speak passionately and so articulately via YouTube so many times. But I thought his speech at TAM was flat, passion-free and, let’s face it, a bit boring. Maybe he was worried about repercussions from his ‘contributions’ to the previous week’s kerfuffle, but he didn’t do much in the way of inspiring the next generation (although the illustrations in his forthcoming book look way cool).

Coffee! OK, I drink way more coffee than I should anyway, but why oh why did the coffee service keep disappearing from the room?  I mean, come on, we’re in Vegas, we’re all sleep-deprived, but we have this awesome non-stop lineup of presenters - all we need to keep awake and focused is a steady influx of caffeine. That's not too much to ask, right?

All in all, the good outweighs the bad by a huge margin. Hopefully they’ll get those technical details worked out for next year!

Monday, July 18, 2011

TAM9 Top Ten List!

I’ve just returned from The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, my first TAM.  And it was everything I’d heard it was. It was particularly satisfying for me to attend it in the company of my two sons, Ryan and James. Ryan, a professional magician in San Francisco, and James, a student of Molecular biology at UC/Santa Cruz, both found much to engage their particular areas ofinterest during the four days we were in Vegas.

What follows is a highly subjective and personal list of my top ten memories of TAM9. This is a list of those individual moments that I’m certain will live with me for years to come as I reflect on my first TAM.
  1. First appearance of The Amazing Randi, to a loving and thunderous standing ovation. While I have issues with the 'hero worship' culture at TAM, those reservations do not apply to the venerable head of the movement himself. The man is an inspiration and a national treasure. And, given Randi's recent health problems, his appearance that first morning was moving, I think, even for TAM veterans who have experienced it before. For a newbie like me, it was an amazing moment!

  1. George Hrab's opening medley. George Hrab’s performance as MC throughout the three days was brilliant. But nothing topped his opening medley of songs written for and about the event (even the unfortunate technical glitches didn’t derail its impact). From the impressive way he worked every speaker’s name into the song, to the hilarious “Too Many Novellas” interludes, to the song imploring questioners to “make sure your question’s a question,” the whole thing was perfect.

  1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's keynote. There were several great speeches, and Bill Nye deserves at least an honorable mention here, but Tyson really rocked the house. He knew his audience and delivered what we all came to see and hear - a passionate, insightful and enlightening look into his world.

  1. “Say hello to my little friend.” At their second live show, the SGU crew presented a short video of prominent skeptics delivering famous lines from movies. The hilarious capper to the video came when Mr. Deity delivered Al Pacino’s famous line from Scarface "say hello to my little friend," then swooped menacingly past the camera to reveal Randi standing behind him. The Amazing one then deadpanned De Nero's classic "you lookin’ at me?” line as the crowd went crazy.

  1. Future in Space panel smackdown. All of the panels were great, but this one featured an incredible lineup of experts (Phil Plait! Neil deGrasse Tyson! Pamela Gay! Lawrence Krauss! Bill Nye!) getting into real debates about important issues where there were legitimate differences of opinion. In particular the face-offs between Tyson and Krauss were exhilarating and had the crowd in a near frenzy. I wanted to hit reset and run the whole thing over and over again.

  1. Chuck Norris. OK I never actually saw the guy, but when Chuck Norris showed up in the hallways outside the meeting, the Twitterverse erupted with a slew of improvised Chuck Norris at TAM Jokes*. When Richard Dawkins, who was speaking at the time, quipped "I’m afraid I don't know who Chuck Norris is,” he got arguably his most positive response to his entire speech.

*Although I’m biased, my favorite Norris tweet was posted by my son Ryan (@horsfallmagic), who offered this bit of clarification to Dawkins: “for future reference, Chuck Norris is the end result of evolution.”

  1. Skeptics guide video. OK, so admit it, the percolating subtext to this year’s TAM was the elevatorgate debate that had been echoing around the blogosphere for the previous week or so. And, while the powers that be obviously (and rightly) agreed to not let that become a topic that would derail the good feelings and positive energy of the conference, there was one unexpected and hilarious reference.  At their Saturday afternoon live taping of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, the SGU presented a funny and creative faux trailer for a Goodfellas-esque mob movie. One of the ‘celebrity blurbs’ featured was this quote ostensibly from Rebecca Watson: “I would hate to encounter those guys in an elevator!” The place erupted and, in a real sense, that little off-hand joke seemed to deflate the whole issue.

  1. The Million Randi Challenge. Well, if not a million, at least a couple hundred skeptics in Randi beards posed for a group photo with the man himself.

  1. Speaking at the speed of Hecht! Jennifer Michael Hecht's talk on the Philosophy of Skepticism was memorable both for the rapidity with which it was delivered, and for the memorable line: “I know when and why God was made up...because I'm a historian.”
  2. Bacon, Donuts and Rock ‘n Roll. While the Penn Jillette bash fell a bit short of the level of decadence seemingly promised by the famed magician, it nevertheless fully delivered on the bacon, donuts and rock 'n roll!

Honorable mentions:

  • The Phil Plait/Richard Wiseman duality. Jokes about how much the two skeptical celebrities look alike never got old (until they did).
  • George Hrab's listing of fake accomplishments during introductions (Steve Novella is working on his third opera and created his own language!)
  • The diversity panel fiercely debating how aggressively the skeptical movement should take on social issues.
  • "Obama's Elf...don't wanna be...Obama's elf, anymore."

And much, much more!