Captain Disillusion

A little campy but his mission is good. “Captain Disillusion” looks at YouTube videos, especially those spreading paranormal bunk, and breaks them down so you can pretty clearly see far more likely explanations for the phenomena than “ghosts”, “ghoulies” or other such nonsense.

He is well spoken and, even if he is targeting primarily a younger audience, there are MANY adults that I know who could stand to benefit greatly by reviewing these videos.

You can subscribe to Captain Disillusion on YouTube here

Here is one that I particularly enjoy:

Posted under Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on August 19, 2008 at 6:57 pm

In Las Vegas for TAM6

Ooh La LaTAM6 is “The Amazing Meeting” ‘s 6th incarnation. Since I’ve been listening to and reading about many of these folks for years I thought it would be a lot of fun to attend this year to see these folks live and interact with some like minded folks.

TAM spans Thursday through Sunday but my chief interest was with the core Friday and Saturday presentations so that’s what I signed up for. Michelle and I flew down on Wednesday so we could enjoy some time in Las Vegas doing some of the “strip” stuff together before I went off to attend the TAM presentations.
As luck would have it, my mother decided she could join us, so Mich and her could have fun together when I’m not there. For the uninitiated among you, Mich and my mom get along together famously so this is actually a *good* thing… just ask her yourself! 🙂

On Wednesday (June 18) Mich and I arrived in Las Vegas at about 3:30 pm and immediately headed out to do a bit of exploring on the strip. Wow! It’s as hot as I remember from my last trip back in 2001. Every time you go outside it’s as if you are opening an oven door. 106 degrees and 5% humidity. Oh yeah baby!

Anyway, after bopping over to Treasure Island to pick up our show tickets for that night (Mystere) we headed over to Margaritaville and enjoyed some libations and split an excellent club sandwich (I recommend it).

Mystere was superb. I’m not sure if there’s a bad seat in the house. I sat 4 rows back from the stage about 45 degrees off of center. What a spectacle that was!

This is the third, permanent venue (not in tents), Cirque de Soleil that I’ve seen and I would recommend any of them. As amazing as Mystere was, my absolute favorite so far is “O” and I would go back and see that one again any day in a heartbeat.

Just one gripe so far, I’m sure this applies to all the hotels here, but I’m staying at the Flamingo (since that’s where TAM 6 is being hosted and I wanted to be close to the action) and MAN, do they ever nickel and dime you to death for EVERYTHING! When I got to my room and tried to access the internet I found that there was a daily charge for it ($13). In checking back to see the room descriptions I see that I had interpretted “Internet Data Port” as meaning actual access rather than merely the (needed to be paid for) potential for access. I haven’t had to pay for internet access in a hotel room in years.
Also, I just came back from attempting to access the fitness center where I was surprised to find there was a $10 a day access fee. Since I had shown up with just my workout clothes room key and my iPod I was not in a position to shell out for this. I’ve *never* had to shell out for a fitness center before.

I suppose it’s truly a capitalist venture. Not everybody who uses a hotel room needs internet access and far fewer still take advantage of the fitness center, so it could be argued that it makes sense to have folks pay for exactly the amenities that they use.

Thursday had us exploring the city (visited the Stratosphere – it’s definitely past its prime). As with the last time we were here, Caesar’s Palace is always entertaining. Enjoyed lunch at “Mon Ami Gabi” one of the restaurants associated with the Paris Casino and Hotel. On the outdoor patio you can watch the fountains of the Bellagio hotel go through their gyrations, something we really love.

That evening we attended “The Blue Man Group” show and, as expected, we loved it too. We saw them when we were last in Las Vegas and they didn’t disappoint this time either. Always lively and fun! Afterwards we had dinner in the Venetian “The Grand Lux Cafe” – another recommendation from me – the food is great. And the server girls in the casino are sporting easily my favorite outfits on the strip.

James "The Amazing" RandiFriday saw me at TAM 6 so Mich and my mother went on the town. Check out my Flickr set for pictures and some brief opinions from TAM 6. I won’t go into the content because, frankly, many others have already done that and they do a better job of it than I would. I *really* enjoyed watching the recording of “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”, Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a great talk and, surprisingly, Alec Jason’s talk about forensics was fascinating. In truth I have to say I loved pretty much everything. The exceptions I noted in my Flickr stream.

That evening we ate at “The Eiffel Tower Restaurant”, again in the Paris Hotel. We had a great view of the Bellagio Fountains which are truly breathtaking at night.
The meal was incredibly expensive, but in Vegas you largely do get what you pay for. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a filet mignon as wonderfully tender as the one I was served. Exquisite!

That night I came down with a terrible cold and ended up missing the 2nd day of TAM 6. I was very disappointed (frankly I just slept and blew my nose all day) I REALLY wanted to hear Phil Plait’s and Michael Shermer’s talks. I understand there was a problem with the audio recordings made of TAM and that there is a chance that the DVDs may not be available for that day. I’m keeping my eyes open, I hope they are able to piece those together from audience-captured audio.
Just as bad, I missed Penn & Teller’s show that night. Mich ended up going alone as my mom had already purchased tickets to see Elton John that night.
Michelle as quite thrilled that she was seated only a couple of rows away from Adam Savage (one of the few TAM folks that she would recognize). Penn & Teller’s show was, I am told, fabulous too. 🙁 Next time!!!

Later Saturday night Mich came in after having won something like $80 on the slot machines (I was still recovering from my cold so I stayed in), but my mom came in at some crazy hour (2 am?) after hitting a jackpot and cleared $2,940 (before $900 was expropriated by “da gummint” – something puzzling to a Canadian where winnings are not taxable).

So Sunday morning started with a grand room service feast which we enjoyed before packing up to head back home.

Posted under Photos, Science, Skepticism, Travel

This post was written by Marc
on August 10, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Charlie Brooker’s screen burn

I really liked this article from Charlie Brooker of “The Guardian“.

In it, he succinctly and effectively expresses my own views on the subject of reality vs. fantasy and folks’ propensity to eschew the former for the latter no matter the cost.

Posted under Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on August 2, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Here Be Dragons

You really want to take a look at this video. If you’re already a skeptic, then you will find that it nicely reinforces your thinking in an entertaining fashion.
If you’re of a superstitious bent or if you tend to favor “alternative” practices or subscribe to conspiracy theories, this video probably won’t shake your faith, but it may encourage you to take a closer look at both your beliefs and the source of your beliefs.

In our journey to the 21st century most progress has been wrought through intelligent people carefully examining the world around us. Be one of those people.

Personally, I find the source for the human need to subscribe to religion, “alternative therapies” and conspiracy theories to be neatly summed up at about 30:40 in the video – the desire for easy answers.

Near the end Brian recommends 4 books. I’ve read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark” and absolutely love it (get the audio book if you can). I talk about it here. I’ve got a copy of James Randi’s “Flim Flam” by my bed and am looking forward to reading it in the next month or so. I’ve not yet read Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, but based on Twains other works I know I’ll enjoy it and will be picking it up. I’ve heard all of Brian’s “Skeptoid” podcasts and heartily recommend them. The book form is a good outreach for people who are not quite in the 21st century yet and for whom podcasting remains an elusive art. Get a copy for your folks…

For more info on this video head over to Here Be Dragons.

Posted under Opinions, Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on June 14, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Atheist (non-theist?) Resources

Whether you’re of a religious bent or you favor a more naturalist view of the world, these resources are well worth the effort to review. For the religiously inclined, exploring supposed flaws and inconsistencies in your faith can either help you to better understand and concretize your world views or it can allow you to honestly evaluate those views against new criteria.
Those who are not religiously inclined will find that understanding some of the myriad religions, especially those prevalent where you live, gives you new perspectives. I have personally found it very enriching to actually read the bible and to be able to recognize its influences on other literature and media.

There are a few problems with using the word “atheist” to identify one’s religious affiliation. Strictly speaking everybody’s an atheist. It really just depends which god(s) you choose not to believe in. Most Christians could be considered atheists where Thor is concerned for example.

Another issue is that the word is so very charged. Every word has a degree of charge, ranging on a spectrum from Positive, through Neutral to Negative. Calling someone a “Freethinker” or a “Humanist” brings about subtle, yet important connotations versus labeling them as “atheist” even though we may understand rationally that they all imply the same things.

The other really big problem with the word “atheist” is that it defines someone, who has no stake or attaches no significance to religion, in religious terms. So the label is misleading.
Being a-theist or non-theist is very different from being anti-theist. This can be a subtle distinction, but it is one that most people get wrong.

Regardless of your religious leanings, developing your skeptical toolkit is paramount and so these skeptic resources are very useful. I believe that skepticism and religious faith can and do coexist well together. Whether traditional religions can withstand skeptical inquiry is perhaps another question, but if skepticism leaves your faith intact but not the institution representing it, well you can decide what to make of that…

Some of my favorite resources:

The Institute for Humanist Studies – Humanism, per their website, is “a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by reason. It provides the basis for a fulfilling and ethical life without religion.” They have a pretty good monthly podcast if you want to keep abreast of developments or if you’re simply interested in hearing folks discuss Humanist topics. They have several links on their site that may also be of interest but I have not perused these.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation – A major objective of this group is to maintain the separation of Church and State. This is something that is in everybody’s interest as, with so MANY religions including sects within these religions, if any one were to gain authority as the state religion what do you suppose would happen to all the others? And what do you suppose are the odds that your religion would emerge victorious? No, the freedom to practice your religion, or to not practice any religion at all, rests with ensuring that no group, not even humanists / atheist / freethinkers, gets into a position to dictate how the citizens of this country may pursue their faith.
I enjoy listening to their weekly podcast – also on Air America – it can be a bit corny at times (I’m not a real fan of their brand of music) and sometimes one of the show’s co-hosts, Annie Laurie Gaylor, can seem a bit strident at times. But they do have a lot of relevant things to say.
An added bonus is that the other co-host, Dan Barker, is actually a former minister. His knowledge of the bible and Christian teachings is extensive and gives him a solid background for when he conducts interviews or offers editorials.

American Freethought – I have only recently started listening to their podcast and have not had a chance to thoroughly check out their website. The podcast seems to come out every 2-3 weeks. Right out of the gate it was professionally done and obviously carefully prepared. They seem to focus more or less on a single issue per episode and I find them to be quite appealing. The background of one of the hosts involves a fair amount of activity in this realm (non-theism) and he brings some good insights to the show. I don’t know about the other host’s background as I don’t see much about him on the site, but he is also very engaging and they make a solid duo.

There are a plethora of freethinker, humanist and other non-theist resources available. Probably you can find most of them through the links in the sites above. But, with a day job and other interests, these are the ones that I’ve had the chance to check out and would recommend.

Oh, and no list would be complete without including Mr. Deity. This video series (they are still producing new shows) pokes fun at some of the inconsistencies or perceptions of the Judeo-Christian faith and expand on them. Apparently a number of religious groups show these at their gatherings to use as talking points, so they can’t be all that offensive. But they are entertaining.

Posted under Metaphysics, Opinions, Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on May 1, 2008 at 9:29 pm

Skeptic resources

If you are new to being a skeptic or are interested in learning more about it, the links below will prove invaluable.

Most important to remember is that a skeptic is not (necessarily) a cynic. A cynic is essentially a nay-sayer. Someone who will take the most negative connotation or meaning from a situation or who always starts with a negative premise.

A skeptic is someone who requires evidence before they will accept assertions. The wilder the assertions – i.e. the more they contradict what is already known to the skeptic – the more evidence is required to justify that novel position.

Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the darkFor those interested in exercising their rational minds in the world we live in, I can think of no better book to start with than Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark”. This superbly written work is a must read for establishing, not only your skeptical toolkit, but why such a toolkit is needed in the first place. He discusses the actual harm that can come about by not challenging superstition and pseudo-science and does so in the engaging and grounded fashion that is such the hallmark of Dr. Sagan’s work.

Next stop is the podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” (SGU). I already detail my impressions about it in the linked-to blog entry so I won’t go on about it here.

Then there are a series of good websites, one of my favorites is Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog. This started off as a website highlighting bad science (particularly astronomy, duh) in movies and other published venues. The moon hoax debunking is brilliant and well worth the rather extensive read. Phil has branched out somewhat and his daily blog covers topics ranging from interesting astronomical happenings through to foolish legislation based on poor understanding of science, to the invasion of “Intelligent Design” (aka creationism) into the science curricula of our nation’s classrooms.

Appealing to a somewhat less science-focused, but still rigorously skeptical community is Rebecca Watson’s “skepchick” blog. Rebecca’s sometimes sardonic wit is legendary in the skeptical community. She is extremely adept at getting to the heart of an issue, clarifying it and, if warranted, poking fun at it. She also participates in the SGU if you want to hear her in her element. The blog actually has several contributors which adds diversity but also means there is a fair amount of content.

Other resources:

PZ Myer’s “Pharyngula” blog
. I have just recently started reading PZ Myer’s work and am impressed so far but I don’t know enough to comment yet.

The “Amazing Randi’s” website “James Randi Educational Foundation” has some good information although I tend to find it a little hard to read. There is information there on TAM (The Amazing Meeting) that is supposed to be a mecca of all things skeptical. I hope to attend TAM6.

From any of the above resources you will find links to still further skeptical sites and information.

Posted under Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on April 29, 2008 at 4:06 am

James Randi explains homeopathy

Wow! Pretty succinct… well as succinct as 14 1/2 minutes can be. But a very good description of Homeopathy nonetheless.

When I was younger I explored a lot of alternative practices and was very seriously considering entering the field as well. Fortunately, my grades in university in computer science were so much better than my grades in my pre-med subjects that they convinced me that my forte really lay in programming and analytical pursuits.

There is so much to know in this world that you often have to pick your authorities for the things you don’t have the time or inclination to pursue yourself. You end up trusting folks’ word and believe that they know what they are talking about. Of course, implicit in this is the assumption that they have either done the research themselves, reviewed the research first-hand or that their choice of a trusted authority has a good handle on the subject.
Homeopathy, was something that I was never able to reconcile with reality. The testing modality assumed “energies” that could not be measured and treatments that relied on “vibrations” or “energies” that could not be detected or explained.

The premise of “like cures like” was a wild stab in the dark from a pre-science era and was pretty cool reasoning for its time. But with the advent of the scientific method, understanding that perhaps 60% of anything you’d see a doctor about will fix itself ultimately anyway, and knowledge that the placebo effect is quite a powerful one, it seems clear that folks need to weigh the efficacy of such a questionable and unproven modality. Especially one that can be so expensive.

I *do* rather wish Mr. Randi had taken a few moments to explain Avagadro’s number a bit more carefully. Basically, Avagadro’s number expresses how many molecules would be contained in a quantity of a substance whose mass in grams is equal to it’s formula weight (thanks Wikipedia!). i.e. a mole of Carbon-12 atoms would be 12 grams. So his argument for the odds of finding even a single molecule in the quantity represented is modestly tainted

Posted under Opinions, Science, Skepticism

This post was written by Marc
on September 23, 2007 at 11:33 am