Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why Don't We Get Miracles (Like They Had in Bible Days)?

One of the many questions I have about the Bible (and for the believing believers who believe in it) concerns miracles. The wonders of the Biblical "record" - the creation, the flood, the tower of Babel, the ten plagues  the miracles of Jesus, etc.- make for great stories and Hollywood extravaganzas. But if you believe they really happened, then at some point you have to ask yourself why God, if such shows of power and authority were so important to him in Biblical times, doesn't continue to wield such creative might in the world today?

At least I've often found myself asking that question.

And here, I ask it again, through lyrics and melody. Why don't we get miracles, like they did in Bible days?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Ewoks Are Not Dancing (Anymore)

I wrote this song quite a while ago and had it up on YouTube for a few months before taking it back down. But, with all the talk of Disney buying the Star Wars franchise and the possible advent of episodes VII, VIII and IX...well, it seemed like a good idea to put it out there again.

The premise: it's thirty years after the events we see at the end of episode VI. Luke has been rejected by the Jedi (he is, after all, the bastard son of the worst bad guy the Galaxy has known), Han and Leia are long since divorced and, worst of all, the Ewoks are not dancing anymore!

Yes, it's a distopian view of what became of our heroes after the defeat of the Emperor and Darth Vader.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Random Thoughts on the 2012 Elections

Well, November 6th has come and gone - after seeming like election day would never arrive, it now seems like it hardly happened at all! Perhaps that’s because, at the national level, all the sturm und drang of the last two years resulted in virtually no change.  Barack Obama will remain President for four more years, the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans have a firm hold on the House of Representatives. 

On paper, anyway, not much has changed.

I’ll admit that I’m among those surprised that Mitt Romney didn’t fare better than he did. While I was never quite convinced he would actually win (and, as a Libertarian, I found things to like and to greatly dislike about both parties’ candidates and positions), I certainly looked at all the traditional signs and indicators (particularly the weak economy) and assumed they’d have the same kind of influence they’d had in the past. I totally overlooked the power of demographics and what I now think is a strong wellspring of good will towards the President. At the end of the day, the voting power and turnout of the Democratic Party’s key constituencies was critical, and the economy improved enough to allow people who wanted Obama to succeed to feel good about granting him another term.

I am guardedly optimistic about the next year or two. I’m usually of the opinion that a president and Congress can really only create substantive change in the first year of a term - by the second year, the entire House and much of the Senate is in re-election mode and the third and fourth are dominated by the President’s re-election campaign. Positions become rigid, officials dig in, the media starts playing horse race and gotcha games, and nothing gets done.

Since Obama will have no reelection campaign to distract him, maybe this Congress can tackle real issues in year one and year three - that would be a substantial improvement. Does that mean they actually get serious about debt, deficit and serious budget issues? Probably not...but marginal action is better than no action, right?

And perhaps the Republican Party, rocked not just by their loss at the Presidential level, but also in every swing state and Senatorial election, does a bit of soul-searching and evolves into a movement that can recapture the support of some portion of segments of the population that are currently lost to them (African Americans, Hispanics  single women, young people, gays and lesbians...and on and on).  If the Republicans can’t figure out how to be credible voice on fiscal and economic issues, where there needs to be a hearty and substantive debate, and not simply knee-jerk social issues bigots (as they’re perceived by so many to be), they deserve to wander in the political wilderness for a long time. 

Beyond the national political scene, the election brought some positive moves in the area of marriage and gay rights. The positive results on gay marriage referenda in several states puts an end to the old chestnut that, when put to a vote, people always vote against marriage equality. The tide of history continues to move in the direction of greater acceptance and equality, and that’s a great thing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Think Richard Dawkins is Coming Unhinged

I will be really happy when this election is over, because I’m starting to get a little worried about Richard Dawkins’ mental health. It’s clear, from the tone and volume of the eminent scientist’s public utterances (ie, tweets) over the last several months, that his obsession with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is taking him to some perplexing places.

Now, I’m a fan; I own and have eagerly read all of Richard Dawkins’ books. I think his ability to put complex scientific concepts into words that the layman can understand and appreciate is phenomenal. With the sad departure of Christopher HItchens (who accomplished the same feat but with more wit and elegance), Professor Dawkins is clearly the world’s leading atheist and freethinker.

But I think this election is making him just a tad unhinged - particularly since his only apparent interest in it (other than the usual academic’s squishy liberalism) is the religious affiliation of the Republican candidate. 

Dawkins obviously disdains Mormonism and all that it represents. Having been raised Mormon, I certainly understand where he’s coming from. The religion’s founding principles and the Book of Mormon itself are goofy and clearly non-scientific.  I too find it odd that people can accept the precepts and premises with such devotion. But, really, I find the same thing odd about believers in all other religions and goofy ideologies. 

And that’s where Dawkins is losing me. He appears to be making the case that Romney’s belief in his Mormon faith singularly disqualifies him from high public office (never mind that, as near as I can tell, he’s made no such judgments about Senate Majority Leader Harry Read, also a Mormon in good standing who, in a divided Senate, wields about as much power over lawmaking as any president).

The most recent example that has me shaking my head is this Twitter exchange between Dawkins and James Taranto, a Wall Street Journal writer:

  • This week, Dawkins tweeted:  "Romney believes a religion which is not only barking mad and utterly unscientific. It is also deeply racist.
  • Taranto: "Who wants to break it to @RichardDawkins that Obama is Christian?"
  • Dawkins: "He SAYS he is but it means nothing. All US politicians have to have a religion. But Romney really IS Mormon--a bishop!"
  • Dawkins, later:  "I don't like it, but a president who lies out of political necessity is a lesser evil than a stupid president."

So it’s better to have a president who actively and consistently lies to the public about his beliefs than one who actually believes in what he professes - because what he believes is somewhat more goofy than what most people believe? 

According to Dawkins, President Obama says what he says about his faith “out of political necessity.” If that's true, doesn't it show an incredible level of disdain for the American people? It's as if President Obama is saying "hey you stupid people, I know you need to think your president believes in God, so I'm gonna say it all the time but," wink wink, (then whispers) "I don't really mean it!"

And it's better to vote for that guy than the one who, however much we may disagree with his faith, clearly believes in it?

Sorry, Professor, I'm not buying it*.

So thank goodness the election is fast approaching. Hopefully, after November 6th, Dr. Dawkins can settle down and focus on making the world safe for evolution again.

*that's not to say that I'm not voting for President Obama. I just thing there are lots of legitimate reasons to do so.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Just How Fundamentalist are Mormons Anyway?

On this week’s Penn’s Sunday School podcast, Penn Jillette and Bill Nye (the Science Guy) were having an interesting conversation about creationism and belief and the like. Penn asked Bill a question about the last time he (Bill) had had an in-person conversation with somebody who truly believed in the inerrancy of the Bible and in creationism. Bill’s answer was that his most recent experience in this regard was when a couple of Mormon missionaries knocked on his door a few years earlier.

They didn’t pursue the conversation very far, and Bill didn’t offer any specifics but the answer he gave struck me as very odd.  Having grown up Mormon and served as a missionary myself, I would never think of lumping Mormons into the fundamentalist camp when it comes to Biblical accuracy. Certainly I was never raised to believe that the Earth was only six or ten thousand years old - yes, Mormons believe in creation as an act of God, but they don’t believe the Bible is any sort of inerrant history text (in fact, that's part of the reason the Book of Mormon was necessary, to correct the errors that had crept into the Bible over the centuries). 

In my experience, Mormons have a healthy respect for, and invest a huge amount of money in, modern science. Certainly many paleontologists are Mormons (lots of dinosaur bones out there in Utah).  I remember being taught evolution in science classes at BYU, and, when some students complained about it, the professor calmly explained that, whatever anyone’s religious beliefs, evolution was the state of modern science, and it was the University’s obligation to teach it. That’s maybe not the most ringing endorsement of evolution one could hear, but it’s a far cry from what you’d get at a fundamentalist Christian college.

So the conversation made me curious. In the 25 or so years since I've been to church, have things changed in this regard? Are missionaries now out there extolling the virtues of young Earth creationism?  

Certainly Mormons have made common cause with fundamentalists in the political arena in recent decades, so maybe they’ve changed the way they look at and teach these doctrines as well. My hunch, though, is that the very fact that Mormons and conservative Christians have been so publicly supportive of each other politically has led people to lump them into that same category. But I'm definitely curious.

I’ll have to check it out.

What Are They Teaching (in Alabama)?

If there's one thing I really don't understand, it's Biblical literalism. The idea that the Bible -- as important as it is -- can be taken as some sort of actual historical text just boggles my mind, and always has. I would consider it just an odd bit of religious flotsam, and add it to the long list of strange things that people accept on faith and talk about amongst themselves on Sunday, if said people weren't so insistent about pushing the concept of creationism on our kids. In a world where we need the smartest, most well educated citizens to help keep pushing the boundaries of science and knowledge, saddling them with the archaic idea that the planet is only 6,000 years old because some holy book says so is unconscionable.

And, as usual, the best way for me to express my feelings on this was through music, so here's a song about what I think we ought, and ought not, to be teaching in schools.

You can find all of my skepticism-themed songs and music videos at The Skeptic's Songbook.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

New Page Launched: The Skeptic's Songbook

So, even though I post all of my songs on this blog, I also tend to ramble on about other topics at some length, and the songs can get lost. I decided to make it easy for anyone who actually wants to check out my catalogue of skepticism-themed or inspired videos by creating a new blog:  The Skeptic's Songbook.

I'll still post new songs here as I finish them, but the other site will simply exist for the music.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A New Song: The Universe is Awesome!

I was thinking recently about some of the amazing scientific advances we’ve been privileged to witness over the last few months - the potential discovery of the Higgs Bosun, the discovery of huge numbers of planets that could harbor life and, most recently and impactful, the landing of Curiosity on Mars. 

If you pay attention, the advances of science are mind-boggling. And for those of us who have adopted a science and critical thinking-based view of life it is, well, worldview-affirming.  It’s almost enough to make you think that the woo and magical thinking we encounter around us every day will finally, inevitably, fade away amidst an onslaught of new knowledge and, you know, facts.

It won’t, of course. But one can hope.

Anyway, these kinds of discoveries do continue to convince me that the world and the universe we live in are, in fact, awesome. Far more awesome than any myths or magic or fables that we creative humans can come up with.

So I wrote a song with that theme - and the not-at-all-subtle title “The Universe is Awesome!”


PS. I want to thank my son James, a far better musician than I will ever be, for contributing the guitar solo to this recording.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The American Atheists' Counterproductive Billboards

This week the American Atheists unveiled two billboards that the organization will post in Charlotte, NC during the Democratic National Convention.  The billboards, the group proudly proclaims, expose “the foolishness of religion in the political landscape.”

Except they don’t do that. They don’t even try to do that.

One of the boards mocks Mormons for their, um, unorthodox beliefs about baptisms for the dead and their wearing of “magic underwear.” The other takes broader shots at Christianity in general, mocking Jesus as a “Sadistic God,” and “Useless Savior.”  Neither of the billboards mentions politics, the influence of religion on politics, any particular concerns about the separation of church and state or anything about why people should be concerned about Democrats or Republicans of faith.

In what would be considered ripe irony if only it were meant ironically, the billboards also tout atheists as “simply reasonable,” an image of atheists the billboards do just about everything they possibly can to subvert.

On a personal level, I was raised Mormon and came later in life to a worldview that does not include belief in the supernatural (or, in short, atheism). In my dealings with friends and families, I’ve tried to use reason and science to illustrate why I can no longer believe what I used to believe. A billboard that holds what my friends believe to be sacred up to public ridicule just makes my job that much more difficult. If that’s what atheists are, why the hell would they want to consider joining us!?

The funny thing is, mocking Mormons is probably a great way to entertain fundamentalist Christians, but the second billboard ensures that that larger group is also going to hate us.

On a less personal level, and speaking as someone whose career has been spent in marketing, advertising and public relations (I know, evil, right?), I’m at a total loss to understand what the American Atheists are trying to accomplish from a communications standpoint. I assume the goal here is not to win friends or influence people, but rather to engage in a PETA-style “engage-in-the- most-outrageous-stunt-imaginable-so-that-the-media-covers-us” PR effort.

But at least PETA, despite their overboard tactics, is promoting a cause to which most people, at some level, are going to be sympathetic. American Atheists can’t draw on any base of support among the general population. So a campaign like this just further defines us as cruel, sanctimonious and full of hate. Sure, let’s reinforce the worst things that most people already believe about us! That'll show 'em!

Yes, the media is covering and will continue to cover these billboards, providing advertising “value” that massively dwarfs the actual costs of the campaign. In PR, that’s always the goal. But in this case, what’s the point? They’re not making any case for separation of church and state. They can’t seriously be saying we shouldn’t vote for someone who is either Christian or Mormon or both, ‘cause who’s left?

And they’re making it that much harder for those of us who are atheists but who aren’t interested in being dicks to talk to our friends and families about our worldviews.

So thanks American Atheists.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Download an mp3 of "The Skeptic in the Room"

Every now and then someone encounters my song The Skeptic in the Room on YouTube and asks for an mp3. It was available on OpenDrive, but that doesn't seem to be working very well. So, as of now, it's available on  If you'd like a copy, you can download it here:

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Wins; Science Takes Silver; Mankind Takes Bronze!

I will be, I'm sure, only one of thousands who will take to the Internet today to heap praise on the brilliant scientists and determined bureaucrats (yes, even them!) who made last night's apparently flawless landing of the Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars a reality.

As a non-scientist myself I have nothing to add to the technical musings of those are in a position to explain these things.  But, precisely as a non-scientist I stand in awe of those who could make this happen.  Dropping a one-ton Rover onto the surface of a planet that is over 100 million miles away? Doing it precisely on time and exactly where they wanted to? Capturing photographs of the landing by maneuvering another already-in-place Orbiter into exactly the right position in space? All of it boggles the mind! Who can imagine such things, let alone carry them out?

I can't really comprehend what all of this means for science. Sure I understand the goal of searching for past signs of life on Mars, and I really can't wait to see what they find (although, really, I just can't wait to see more high definition color photographs from freakin' Mars!). But knowing they were able to pull this off just makes me believe that much more in the power of man's ingenuity, creatively and, yes, curiosity.

As I surfed the web today and read what people were saying about last night's accomplishments I came across this bit from the "Bad Astronomer" himself, Phil Plait. I found it totally compelling and poetic:

"When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people."
I love the movie Apollo 13, and always get teary-eyed in that scene when the capsule finally reappears and the room full of exhausted scientists erupts in jubilation. And last night, watching the live NASA feed, I got teary-eyed again seeing that moment reenacted in real life and in real time. Truly awesome!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Buzzword Song!

One of my favorite talks at last week's TAM2012 was the Friday keynote speech by Dr. Carol Tavris.  Among other things, she drew attention to how the word "Neuro" is being widely mis-used in the sciences these days. That got me thinking of all the other buzzwords people use (and too often mis-use) in science, media and marketing these days -- words like "quantum" and "nano" and "organic."  And that, of course, led to a song. 

As you will quickly note, this is not an original tune, but, with apologies to Uncle Walt and to Julie Andrews, I give you, "The Buzzword Song."

Monday, July 23, 2012

TAM 2012 - a Few Memorable Quotes

Last year, following my first TAM experience, I was excited to quickly write a blog post detailing the many memorable moments that I knew would stay with me for a long time. That post, my TAM Top 10 List, is far and away my greatest success as a blogger (in terms of readership)

This year, although many of the things that made 2011 memorable for me were still in place (particularly in that I got to share the experience again with my sons James and Ryan), I don’t find myself quite as fired up and full of memories.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it - I certainly did. I think it’s more that, after hearing about TAM for several years, going to that first one was something I’ll never forget. Sure, the speaker lineup this year had less star power, but it was still solid. The evenings were fun, the parties were great, we attended some podcast tapings that were unique - but I guess it’s true what they say: you never forget your first time (or is it "your first TAM"?)

So, rather than write up a list of top moments, I thought I’d just share a few of what I consider to be the top quotes from the conference. So, in no particular order, here are some of the insightful, funny and memorable quotes from TAM2012:

Ben Radford: “Some say the world will end in horrible ways, you know disembowelings, Pauly Shore movies, you know.”

Jamy Ian Swiss: “Atheism is skepticism directed at one extraordinary claim”.

Dierdre Barrett: “We are raising free range chickens to feed to couch potato people.”

Tim Farley: Stop wasting so much of your time online. Do something online that will actually make a difference.

Lawrence Krauss: “You are far more insignificant that you can possibly imagine. We are just some cosmic pollution in a universe of dark matter.”

Penn Jillette: “I have been attacked more for not being a liberal than being an atheist.”

Carrie Poppy: “Truth without compassion makes you right, but makes you lonely.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht: “The meat wrote Paradise Lost, ...the meat made the iPad.”

The Amazing Randi: “Geller’s a charming guy. A snake is charming too."

Jamy Ian Swiss: “In Israel, magicians are born with a bent spoon in their mouths.”

Barbara Drescher: “Climate change deniers will cause a ruckus at TAM15, to be held at the South Point Casino and Seaport.”

And my personal favorite:

Dr. Steven Novella: “Science works, bitches!”

Monday, July 9, 2012

Of Cathedrals and SuperColliders - Thank you Dr. Krauss!

As someone who really loves science and the scientific method, I suffer from a very serious problem. I am not, in even the slightest sense, scientifically literate. As much as I love reading about scientific advances and improvements, when I go to talk about them later, the specifics I just read will have already flown from my mind. Instead, I end up stumbling to remember words and concepts that, moments earlier, seemed to enlighten my entire worldview.

Contrast that with the fact that I can remember, at a moment's notice, the words and chords to songs I learned on the guitar or sang along with on the radio forty years ago with unerring precision, and you can see pretty much how my mind is wired. I’m a words and music kind of guy; math and science, not so much.

I often find myself wishing that each scientific breakthrough came with a set of ‘talking points’ aimed at people like me – people who want to understand the basics of what is being discussed and why it's important, but who don’t have the training or expertise to sort through the actual science.

Which is why an article as brilliantly written as this one by Lawrence Krauss on the Higgs “particle” discovery, it makes me feel very happy. Dr. Krauss is, of course, appropriately renowned for his brilliance, but here he manages to make a bafflingly complex scientific principle understandable to the common man or woman.

I mean, talk about ‘talking points': here is his summation of why the Higgs discovery is important:

·   First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.
·   Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — further proof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.
·   And finally, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization. 
That’s brilliant, simple, almost poetic.  Krauss goes on to explain the physics behind the discovery in terms that are accessible to anyone with a high school degree who wants to try to grasp what he’s saying. And he likens the CERN supercollider to the great Cathedrals of Europe. Both are “works of incomparable grandeur that celebrate the beauty of being alive.”

He finishes with the following bit of inspired analogy:
 …last week’s discovery will change our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Surely that is the hallmark of great music, great literature, great art ...and great science.
Amen to that, Brother Krauss!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Another Meaningless (well, not to me) Milestone!

Just a quick note to acknowledge that, this week, viewings of The Skeptic in the Room, topped the 25,000 mark! It means little in the big scheme of things, of course, but is very gratifying. Thanks to all those who have watched, re-watched, tweeted about and (hopefully) enjoyed my contribution to the skeptical movement.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dining With Ghosts in Monterey

Last week, while on a business trip to Monterey, California, I had dinner one night at a restaurant called 1833.  The menu featured some oddly intriguing items (my deep fried crispy hen egg over spinach appetizer was outstanding!), but the restaurant’s main claim to fame seems to be that it is haunted.

And sure enough, our server quickly launched into a well-rehearsed history of the building and its ghostly manifestations. The story revolved primarily around two previous occupants of the building - James Stokes and Hattie Gragg.

James Stokes bought the original small adobe structure on the site in 1833.  He was a colorful shyster who passed himself off as a doctor when he jumped ship in Monterey in 1830 and parlayed his sudden popularity into, eventually, a turn as Mayor and an advantageous marriage to a widowed mother of four (our server maintained that the marriage only became possible because Stokes’ failures as a doctor led to the demise of the woman’s husband).  Stokes may have been responsible for several other deaths, including one governor of the territory, either through his medical incompetence or more nefarious actions.  Significantly for our story, he also committed suicide many years later, perhaps as the result of some scandal (one source suggests embarrassment over an incestuous relationship with a daughter, but who knows).

The second player in our historical drama is one Harriett “Hattie” Gragg, who owned the building from 1890 to 1948 with her husband Mortimer (and really, shouldn’t any good ghost story feature a character named Mortimer?).  Hattie and her husband were active socialites and their home was reported to be a constant center of parties and celebrity sightings (our server mentioned the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe, while one website suggested a more plausible John Steinbeck).

After Hattie died in 1948, the house eventually became a restaurant called Gallatin’s, and has continued as a restaurant through a succession of owners and under a variety of names ever since.

It was only after the building became Gallatin’s, that the ghostly sightings started occurring. According to many accounts, a man dressed in 1800s garb is sometimes seen climbing the stairs and/or passing through walls. This is presumed to be the ghost of James Stokes. Other accounts tell of a beautiful young woman in a party dress floating through the building. This is said to be the ghost of Hattie Gragg, who, the story goes, abides in the building, always seeking the next party.

Other signs of the building’s haunted nature ranged from the traditional (lights coming on for no reasons, chairs being mysteriously moved, disembodied voices being heard) to the endearingly personal – Hattie was, according to our server, quite the prankster, and sometimes her ghost will surreptitiously put a pinch of salt into someone’s wine glass or tap a person on the shoulder to see their reaction when they turn to see…nobody.

Our server wrapped up his tale with his own personal experience (I got the feeling having a personal encounter with the local ghosts was kind of a job requirement there).  His was a somewhat confusing narrative about seeing ghostly apparitions moving in the restaurant’s windows in his car’s rearview mirror while talking on the phone late one night. OK. Sure.

My immediate reaction to all of this, as it generally is in such situations, was to roll my eyes and ask things like “so, how did the ghost go from floating through walls to grabbing a pinch of salt? Wouldn’t her fingers go right through the salt?” But, since I didn’t want to immediately fall into the role of “that guy”, I instead asked for a show of hands as to who believed that the house, based on what we’d heard, was actually haunted. And, much to my surprise, almost every hand went up, some a little more tentatively than others. It turned out that, other than me, there were only one or two people at that table (of twelve) who didn’t believe that paranormal activities were real and probably accounted for at least some of the mysteries we’d heard about.

There ensued a lengthy discussion, with several of my dining companions trying to convince me that there are just some things that can’t be explained (leading, of course, to the conclusion that such mysteries could only have paranormal causes). One woman told me in great detail of a specific experience she’d had involving a premonition that had, weeks later, turned out to correspond “exactly” with an event that had actually taken place far away from her and which she “couldn’t” have known about.  While I tried to gently explain confirmation bias and to suggest just how lousy human beings are at remembering exact details, my protestations lost out to everyone else’s quiet acceptance of her supernatural experience. Other stories ensued, as pretty much everyone had either had some sort of paranormal experience, or knew somehow else who had.

Pondering all of this later, I realized again how challenging it is out there for a skeptic. I mean, despite the fact that there were no paranormal sightings during our very delicious and expensive meal, somehow the event only served to confirm everyone’s preexisting beliefs about the paranormal.

Obviously, the evidence for paranormal happenings at 1833 was scant, at best. There were scattered tales told and retold and embellished over the years, which happened to mesh nicely with the colorful histories of some of the building’s past occupants. The stories made nice marketing fodder for the current and previous owners, bringing the curious not only to gawk but also to dine. The Internet keeps the tales current, making it easy for believers to find and repeat the tales.

In short, a whole lot of nothing becomes something that confirms and solidifies people’s goofy beliefs. 

How do I explain all the stories of ghostly happenings at 1833? With a shrug. Things go bump in the night, somebody hears a noise she can’t explain, there’s a trick of light or shadow spotted out of the corner of one’s eye…these become stories that get passed on and embellished and, before you know it, you have a haunted house.

But the food was good and the company was quite enjoyable. And nobody – ghosts or otherwise – put any salt in my wine!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Go Go Randi!

Last July my sons Ryan and James and I attended our first Amazing Meeting (TAM9) in Las Vegas. As I wrote in my recap of that outstanding conference, one of the highlights of the event was the first time James Randi was introduced to speak to the crowd - to a thunderous standing ovation. If you are involved at all in the skeptical community, you quickly develop a true appreciation for The Amazing Randi - thanks to his decades of creative, honest and tireless work on behalf of science, reason and logical thinking.

The morning we checked out of the hotel we ran into Randi in the lobby. We spent a few very pleasant, unforced moments with the Amazing One, moments that left all three of us even more impressed with his openness, genuineness and all around awesomeness. Somehow, coming out of that discussion, one of the boys suggested we create a song about James Randi.  

So we did. Unfortunately, Ryan wasn’t able to get to Sacramento to collaborate on this (he’s working hard to succeed as a magician in San Francisco), but James and I spent part of our Memorial Day weekend putting on the Randi beards and lip-synching to the song we’d recorded earlier.  

It’s a little fun and goofy, but hopefully people will take it in the spirit in which it is intended - as an honest tribute to a guy we really do admire greatly!  And let’s hope the Amazing Randi keeps going and going and going for a long time to come!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Song of the Huckster (People are Sheep)

A few years ago my sons and I had the idea to write a musical about the world’s greatest frauds and hoaxes.  Both boys were (and are) performers and actors, and, as a family, we were every much into musical theatre. So it seemed logical to put our “talents” towards creating a theatre piece. I wrote a bunch of skeptical-themed songs, my son Ryan started writing a script and my son James started writing a rock opus about little green men.

Inevitably, as time went on, the boys graduated from high school and moved on to other pursuits (Ryan’s a magician in San Francisco now, and James is finishing his second year of studying molecular biology at UC/Santa Cruz), and the project languished.

But I still have all these songs. So I figured I might as well record and post them. This song is called “Song of the Huckster (People Are Sheep),” and it was written to be sung by a character based on PT Barnum. The idea was that this character, who makes a fabulous living by capitalizing on the gullibility of the masses, would sing this song about his philosophy – summed up in the phrase “People are sheep.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Reverend Wright Kerfuffle

Yesterday’s political tempest-in-a-teapot over some Republican bigfoot’s supposed plan to sink $10 million into an ad campaign highlighting President Obama’s ties to hackles-raising preacher Reverend Jeremiah Wright was highly entertaining.  Not entertaining in any positive or instructive way, but entertaining in a look-how-idiotic-the-whole-process has become sort of way.

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:
  • The New York Times, in its usual too-cool-for-school fashion, publishes a front page story about how billionaire Republican backer Joe Ricketts plans, through his SuperPAC, to air $10 million worth of negative ads about President Obama’s ties to Reverend Wright, The good Reverend, we recall from his brief moment of infamy four years ago, is famous for shouting out incendiary things like “God Damn America” to his cheering constituents (of which Obama was one for many years).
  • The Twitterverse erupts in a fury! Obama operatives demand that Romney control this rogue Republican before children start getting hurt! Romneyites tut tut about how the SuperPAC’s aren’t under the Romney campaign’s control and, besides, maybe the media should pay a little attention to Obama’s history this time around.
  • The cable news networks and the increasingly irrelevant nightly network news programs all make the kerfuffle the focus of the day’s coverage  – many of them trotting out the exact same damaging footage of Reverend Wright that the ads would presumably have featured.
  • Romney issued multiple statements condemning the idea and, eventually, Mr. Ricketts insists this was always just one approach being considered and that the ads probably would never have run anyway.

So, like some political version of the mayfly, the whole story lives and dies within one 24-hour news cycle, and with what result?

Is it a “win” for the Timesa case of good, old-fashioned investigative journalism making the world safer for mom, apple pie and apple-cheeked children everywhere? 

Is it a win for Romney, who was allowed to take a principled stand and deplore character-assassinating negative political advertising?

Is it a win for Mr. Ricketts, who gets to generate far more media coverage than his $10 million would have bought, all highlighting the President’s ties to a damaging part of his personal history?

Or is it just another sloppy day on the campaign trail, with the usual nitwits striking the usual postures, all in the hopes of tarnishing “the other guy” in order to make a handful of swing voters less comfortable with the idea of him as president?

And to think, we get to enjoy five more months of this daily insult to our collective intelligence.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

President Obama and Marriage Equality - Meekly going where no one has gone before!

I don’t often find myself nodding along with PZ Myers (while I usually agree with him on substance, I don’t share his no-holds-barred approach to skepticism),  I did agree with his take on President Obama’s tepid acknowledgement that he now supports gay marriage. And everything we’ve learned since – that the President's hand was somehow forced by Vice Buffoon Biden’s unscripted comments, that he immediately turned his weak-ass comments into a fundraising letter, that he won’t actually support efforts to bring about a fairer world – just makes it seem that much less impressive.

As proverbial “leader of the free world,” Obama could have made a bold statement backed up by strong indications of what he, as president, would do to change policy and make the world safe for marriage equality. But he didn’t…he made a meandering statement that was weak on substance and hard to accept as particularly sincere, and then his people did everything they could to portray him as weak and buffeted by events, rather than strong and forceful.

So, while I acknowledge the importance of the moment – and I don’t want to take away from the fact that a sitting president has gone where no high elected official has gone before - I wish I could write that he had “boldly” gone there.

And the funny thing is that it’s hard to conclude that this is anything but a statement of conviction on his part. I don’t see how it’s a boost to his electoral campaign, particularly in the handful of swing states that he has to carry to win reelection. From a purely political standpoint, it seems like it would have made a lot more sense for him to continue offering guarded support for gay rights while waiting to complete the “evolution” of his views once he was firmly entrenched in a second term.

So, if you’re going to make a statement of conviction – why not make a strong one. I’m puzzled.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What I Believe; One Skeptic's Credo

I believe that the universe is understandable and explainable through science, reason and logic...and that that is awesome!

It is awesome to see a new photograph from outer space, knowing that I'm looking not just at something achingly beautiful in its own right, but that I’ve also been granted a momentary glimpse into an unfathomable past. And it’s awesome to know that people who are much smarter than I am will use that photo to decipher the mysteries of our universe, answering questions that I would not even know how to ask and, yes, raising new and perplexing questions as they do so.

I am awestruck when I read about evolution, as made comprehensible by Richard Dawkins.  Or when Laurence Krauss explains, in terms I can almost understand, how we came to have a universe from nothing. And when Penn and Teller use humor and magic to show just how important a scientific worldview is.

The universe we live in is so compelling and complex and it is science that is making it comprehensible, and that’s pretty awesome!

I believe that our existence is understandable and explainable through science, reason and logic...and that that is liberating!

It is liberating to forgo the mental gymnastics required to make what we know and see and understand of our world correspond with dogma or superstition. It is liberating to shun magical thinking and to reject manufactured or bastardized evidence in support of the unsupportable.

It is liberating when one is not required to make leaps of faith.

This is liberating, not in the sense that one is freed from moral responsibility, but because one can focus on being moral for the right reasons - reasons that are hard-wired in us as a community of human beings who need each other to thrive.

I believe that life is understandable and explainable through science, reason and logic...and that that is fulfilling!

I don't need anything else to give my life meaning. No magical beings, no higher powers, no ancient astronauts, and no promises of future glory, salvation, reincarnation or eternal sessions of cloud-based harp playing!

It means I can focus on this one infinitesimally short life here on this unremarkable planet. And when it's finished? Then the molecules and quarks and atoms of my body will rejoin that great expanse of stardust from which we all are made. 

And just how awesome is that!?

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Greatest Skeptical Hits ("Hits" Being a Relative Term)

I want to thank Richard Saunders for featuring my new song Mighty Mystic Power Bracelets on his week’s Skeptic Zone podcast. It was quite a thrill to hear my music on such a respected podcast!

And, just in case you are finding their way to my blog for the first time as a result of the Skeptic Zone podcast, I thought I’d put links to some of my more popular songs from my skeptic’s songbook (not that the “Skeptic's songbook” actually exists…yet!).

So, if you’re a skeptic, and interested in some music that playfully espouses the rational and scientific point of view, here are a few of my videos you might enjoy:

The Skeptic in the Room

I have been writing all kinds of songs for a long time, but a little over a year ago I decided to start trying to write specifically about my skeptical worldview. The first song I posted is The Skeptic in the Room.  This nine-minute ditty describes the experiences a skeptic often has when confronting a friend or acquaintance about their pseudoscientific beliefs.

Shortly after I posted this song in January of 2011, the video was featured on a host of skeptical websites and achieved something like viral success. This surprised and thrilled me, and I am very grateful to all those members of the skeptical community who featured, liked and helped promote it.

There is Nothing Like Science

This song is the ideological flipside to The Skeptic in the Room.  Where that song focuses on things I find unreasonable or pseudoscientific, this one happily expresses my belief that the world is made comprehensible and infinitely better through science, reason and logic.

This video was featured on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website, which is kind of a thrill in and of itself, as having my work affiliated in any way, however tangential, with the name Richard Dawkins is pretty awesome!

The Conspiracy Song

As with all varieties of pseudoscience, I find myself skeptical of virtually all conspiracy theories - especially the “big” ones like elaborate Kennedy assassination theories and one world governments and trutherism and…well, you get the idea.  These are conspiracies so vast that logic dictates they would be virtually impossible in reality, given the large number of people who would be required to keep secrets in a world where almost nobody (and certainly no government body) can keep a secret at all!  So, a song…

Thank You God

I have always been annoyed by athletes who wear their religiosity on their sleeves, crediting their or their team’s success to the influence of the Almighty.  In this song I try to posit a few questions that I find very reasonable – in a nutshell, I’m saying “Hey, God, all that infinite power and knowledge and you’re messing around fixing football games?! Really?!!”

Turtle Science

This song actually predates all of the others listed here. It came to me while listening to several science and skepticism podcasts a few years ago (and I’ve incorporated bits of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe crew in the video).  The discussions were about a new fossil discovered in China and the light it shed (or maybe not) on turtle evolution.  The consensus of opinion was that turtle science will never be the same again.  This song is silly, but I quite like it.

Mighty Mystic Power Bracelets

And that brings us, once again, to my latest effort, a little song about those magical, mystical energy bracelets that are supposed to improve one’s balance, flexibility and well-being.  Um, they don’t, actually.

I have other songs posted, which you can find at my YouTube channel (  But these are the ones of which I am proudest.  And keep checking back, as more music of a skeptical nature will be forthcoming.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

New Song: Mighty Mystic Power Bracelets

Few things get a skeptic's heart pounding the way some pervasive bit of pseudoscience worms its way into public acceptance.  And, along with homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine, one of the most pervasively accepted pseudoscientific success stories is the widespread use of "energy bands" by athletes, coaches and even my dentist.

Here in California's Capitol city of Sacramento, our little basketball arena last year sold its naming rights to one of the companies promoting this nonsense, and is now known as Power Balance Pavilion, to the great shame of our city (in my humble opinion).

So, while I can't really do anything about that situation, I can write a song about these miraculous bits of rubber, which is what I've done.  And here it is:

You can find more of my songs at my YouTube Channel:

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Reason Rally in Ten Minutes

So, while we were sitting in the rain at the Reason Rally in Washington with 20,000 or so of our closest friends, the boys and I also did a bit of filming and took a bunch of photos. I've put some of it together in this short video - its an attempt to give a feel of the event in less than ten minutes.

We didn't get footage of everyone, and we ducked out just before Bad Religion took the stage, but these snippets from Dawkins, Randi, Minchin, Izzard, Savage and several others should give you a feel for what it was like to be there. And you don't even have to sit in the rain to do it.

More Thoughts on the Reason Rally - What Was it All About?

I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s Reason Rally in Washington DC – an event I thoroughly enjoyed. It was well worth the cross-country jaunt and the soggy hours in the rain to be entertained and inspired by the illustrious presenters.

But I’m also plagued a bit by some nagging concerns – what was it really all about and just how much did it help us move towards our common objectives? Some somewhat random thoughts follow:

·      What does the lack of media coverage mean?  On my way home last Sunday, I bought and read three major newspapers – the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee (OK, one can certainly quarrel with my inclusion of the Sac Bee as a “major” newspaper, but just go with me here).  I was shocked to see that not one of those papers had any coverage of the Rally. No articles, no photos, not even a blurb in their National Digest sections!

After getting home I did some Internet searching, which confirmed that my random newspaper impressions were no fluke. Overall the Rally just didn’t pop as a newsworthy event.  Certainly if there had been more “drama” – some kind of physical clash between angry atheists and protesting Christians, perhaps – there would have been all kinds of (mostly negative) coverage. But as it was, this largest gathering of atheists and secularists in the history of the country just wasn’t deemed newsworthy by our media gatekeepers.

·      The Rally as Advocacy.  This is touchy ground, but I question how much the Reason Rally accomplished as an act of advocacy for secular causes. For one thing, I don’t think, as a movement, we’ve really figured out how to win friends and influence people in Washington. I got a sense of this last year at TAM, when Sean Faircloth was presenting the ten-point secular manifesto. I remember thinking that we’d have a lot more luck pushing maybe a three-point plan that includes issues that believers and unbelievers alike could support, rather than presenting a laundry list of statements that no elected official in this country could publicly endorse!

Elected officials are essentially hardwired to their polling data, and their constituents are largely religious (and certainly many of their most vocal constituents are very religious). Asking politicians to support things like teaching science in schools and honoring the separation of church and state leaves lots of room for common ground. Insisting on the elimination of every religious reference from the public sphere really doesn’t.

·      Red Meat for the Critics.  I mentioned this the other day, and I don’t want to come across as one of those damned accommodations or something, but we are unlikely to achieve much progress for secular causes if we insist on going out of our way to piss off the rest of society. This is dicey, because we love hearing Richard Dawkins tell us its sometimes necessary to ridicule other people’s beliefs, or PZ Myers telling us to be “bad without God” or Greta Christina giving us a laundry list of things about which she is justifiably angry. I enjoyed it and I clapped as loudly as anyone. It’s a great message for a group of skeptics and atheists. But if our goal is to forge coalitions and make progress for our causes on the National stage, it’s not really very helpful. We can’t make progress without coalitions, because we do not control enough votes as a movement to influence politicians.

Ultimately, where the Rally excelled was in giving the audience what it came for. And that’s not nothing.  Preaching to the choir, when the choir members have been so ignored and isolated, undoubtedly gave us a sense of unity and community. It’s a foundation and it’s a great start.

I would just like to see the powers that be organizing a more coherent and possibly successful advocacy effort around the next Reason Rally!

One more thought - it is perhaps a reminder of just how far we have to go that, one day after the Reason Rally brought maybe 20,000 non-believers to the national Mall in Washington DC, some 300,000 believers attended a Catholic Mass with the Pope in Cuba.