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!?