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 (  describing a new technology that is going to revolutionize the gaming graphics industry.  Euclideon (, 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 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!