One Year of Credit Card Solicitations

You know how, through confirmation bias, you will believe something is true even though it objectively is not?

For myself, one of these beliefs was that I was receiving hundreds and hundreds of credit card solicitations a year. It seemed that every second day there were two or three of these pieces of junk mail plugging up my (physical) mailbox.

So, beginning October 24 of last year I started to count the number of credit card solicitations we receive in a single year. I set aside an old milk crate and took pictures as the solicitations arrived. And, even though I was slacking off a bit toward the end (the last few pictures were for multiple days worth of cards) I did manage to get through the year as of October 23 of this year. You can check it out here.

The final tally was a surprisingly small 87 solicitations to both myself and to Michelle (I found I had miscounted a piece of normal junk mail as a solicitation when I was tallying things up) . Don’t get me wrong, it is still silly to be receiving an average of over 1 1/2  of these solicitations per week. But it is what it is.

Broken down by sender the zealots are:

Solicitor Number of solicitations Percent of total
American Express 33 37.9%
Emigrant Direct 18 20.7%
SunTrust 8 9.2%
Citi 8 9.2%
Chase 7 8.0%
Capital One 5 5.7%
Discover 2 2.3%
Fifth Third Bank 2 2.3%
Barclays (Black Card) 1 1.1%
Williams Sonoma 1 1.1%
FIA 1 1.1%
Home Depot 1 1.1%
Total 87

So a little empirical evidence disabuses me of a misconception.

I actually have dealings with about a third of these institutions where they may think they have some kind of relationship with me, including American Express.

However, I think American Express deserves a sound raspberry  for their non-stop efforts in sending us an average of 1 solicitation every 11 days.

Words of Wisdom: More Advice from Sagan

If you’ve never read or heard any of Carl Sagan’s works, you really need to open yourself up to the reality of reality.

There is more wonder in science than anywhere else that I’ve ever seen. It’s bigger and smaller than anything you know, it provides you with the tools to understand what you are seeing. This does not remove wonder, it enhances it.

When I look out at the majesty of the Milky Way Galaxy, it is infinitely more astonishing to me that every pinpoint of light is another sun or bunch of suns around which may be any number of planets and moons than if it were just a pretty glowing thing in the sky.

You grow and learn, childish beliefs and wonders fall by the wayside in favor of more sophisticated and infinitely more wondrous experiences.

FAIL Blog: Pictures and Videos of Owned, Pwnd and Fail Moments

via School of Fail: Words of Wisdom: More Advice from Sagan.

Hypocrisy – So much for divine intervention

This article about a priest telling his parishioners  that it’s OK to shoplift seems to have absolutely given up on the idea that “God will provide”.  I suppose it would be pretty sweet to get the OK to go ahead and get your Christmas shoplifting done guilt free. Of course, I suppose the police will see the matter somewhat differently. But folks trusting (?), naïve (?) or just plain desperate enough to be in a church in the first place are going to take this fellow seriously. This time the silliness can have direct consequences.

Any chance that his church can underwrite the costs for basic supplies for his parishioners? He doesn’t appear to be starving. What about a food drive? i.e. take his position of responsibility seriously and do something about helping his “flock” instead of inciting them to commit crimes that will surely haunt them for the rest of their lives?

Oh, and referring back to this article. Here’s some of the harm… justifying bad things in the name of.. well… you know (check out the dark ages if you’re unsure).

My Current Podcasts

I thought I’d take a moment and note the podcasts that I’m currently enjoying.

There are a LOT of excellent podcasts and there are also a LOT of terrible ones. iTunes’ ratings help somewhat but, just like movie critics, you need to know the reviewer’s biases before you can really trust that their reviews are relevant to you.

If you know me, then maybe you know some of my biases and can figure out based on that if you’d enjoy any of these.

These are listed in order of preference from my favorites to the ones I like enough to listen to if I have the time. Yes, there are 39 of them, no I don’t get to listen to them all all the time. But I like having the option to listen to what I want, when I want.

Part of the reason some shows are more highly rated than others is that they are brief. I have more opportunity to listen to short shows (5-20 minutes) than the longer ones (1-2 hrs) so they get listened to more often.
Some of the podcasts are video podcasts and it again comes down to time available. I can easily listen to a podcast while driving, but a video podcast pretty much demands your full attention and so the opportunities to view them are much more limited.
Also, some of the shows are actually recordings of University courses or are infrequently produced, this will push them down in my frequency of listening and give them a lower rating. Keep in mind that I really like EVERY podcast below otherwise I just wouldn’t bother downloading it.

Just drag any of these to your iTunes podcast window and it will be added so you can check them out.

The Skeptic’s guide to the Universe – This is my favorite podcast of all. They publish regularly on Saturdays. They just published their 200th podcast and I’ve heard every single one of them. A group of intelligent folks discussing current issues with a critical (and often comical) eye. This is what you wish all folks were like when they get together to talk about things.

Slashdot Review – SDR News – Another podcast that I never miss. Published 5 times a week. A short 10 – 15 minutes podcast that’s great for keeping up to date on the latest news in the tech world.

60-Second Science – Roughly 60 second highlight from the world of science from Scientific American.

60-Second Psych – Roughly 60 second highlight from the world of psychology from Scientific American.

Astronomy Cast – A MUST LISTEN if you are at all interested in Astronomy. Start by listening to the back episodes. While they do cover some current topics much of the show is discussing various aspects of astronomy that will be valid for a long time to come. They’ve walked through the planets of the solar system (one per show), black holes, dark matter, interstellar distance, the shape of the universe and on and on. Fascinating stuff. Fraser Cain acts as the everyman asking questions of Pamela Gay, a physics professor with a great talent for clearly explaining the mysteries of the universe.

Are we Alone? – Science Radio for Thinking Species – Put out by SETI this podcast deals with plenty of topics beyond those to do with the SETI mission. Both the hosts, Molly Bentley (rowrrr!) and Seth Shostak offer intelligent discussion and well prepared and entertaining interviews. This is another show that I really look forward to.

Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena – Fairly short (usually under about 15 minutes) summaries of a particular topic. You know how you hear something and think “I wonder if that’s true?”. Well Brian Dunning get’s off his butt and does the research to provide a relevant and useful summary of the topic at hand. Often enough to satisfy your curiosity on a topic but a great launching point if it’s a topic that you have an interest in.

Quirks and Quarks Complete Show from CBC Radio – This is a generally science show, very polished and features interviews with folks on relevant topical science issues and discoveries. The host has a great skill for putting the interviewees at ease and fleshing out the relevant details of the topic at hand.

The Finer Points – Aviation Podcast – if you’ve ever thought of becoming a pilot or already are, you’ll enjoy this podcast. Start at the first one and work your way forward. Each is a 3-5 minute lesson that covers everything from aerodynamic theory to cockpit resource management to taking advantage of ATC resources. Good information and great reminders.

American Freethought – Very well reasoned podcast on topics from an Atheist perspective. Both the hosts are thoughtful in their commentary. If you are of a religious bent you probably won’t appreciate their candor concerning yours or anybody else’s beliefs. But if you can think rationally, you’ll appreciate their perspective. I think they are pretty fair in their assessments and largely non-inflammatory in their expression.

Clark Howard’s Call of the Week – A single call from the Clark Howard show that is thought to be of particular interest. I find it is useful for me about half the time.

Clark Howard’s Rip-Off Alerts
– This just helps me stay on top of the latest scams. As a fairly regular Clark Howard listener I often listen to about 2/3 of this podcast before moving on as much of his advice is common sense that I’ve heard him express before.

Science @ NASA feature Stories Podcast – Great 5 minute or so topical podcast that is essentially Dr. Tony Phillips reading his print article. Great for anybody who is interested in what NASA is up to.

The Clark Howard Show – I enjoy Clark Howard but after listening for a while you begin to get a good sense of what he’s going to say. But for particular topics I’m interested in his viewpoint. So I don’t automatically download all of his shows (2 hours a day… way more than I can hope to listen to). And I “get” (a button in iTunes) only the shows that I think will be novel for me based on the downloaded descriptions. It’s also just the right length for me to listen to while using the rowing machine. I don’t like wearing earbuds when I row and Clark’s voice carries nicely over the sound of the machine.

The Economist – In case you haven’t realized it, there is a world beyond America’s borders. The Economist offers great news and editorial insights from a perspective unlike that which is available from American media sources. Also, listening to the UK perspective on American issues is very eye opening. They’ve broken their podcast down into individual one article podcasts rather than a single podcast to cover the entire week. This is free and more than enough for me, but they offer paid subscriptions for WAY more articles if you’re interested.

Freethought Radio – from the “Freedom FROM Religion Foundation” (ffrf) this is a podcast of the radio broadcast that is hosted by the co-founder of the FFRF and her husband, a former preacher-turned-atheist. They are not ANTI religion but rather they are for both separation of church and state and for critical/rational thinking. This would be a good perspective for religious folks to consider. If you are OK with the government sanctioning religion, would you be so OK if it weren’t *your* particular sect that was the “winner”?

Skepticality – Science and Revolutionary Ideas – this is a pleasant podcast put out periodically and generally focuses on a single issue or interview. Swoopy and Derek are well regarded in the skeptical community and this podcast justifies that regard.

The Skeptic’s Guide 5X5 – This is targeted at folks who are interested in understanding skepticism from a logical perspective. You could take this podcast into a classroom and use it as a great launching point for discussion. Basically you have 5 skeptics talking for 5 minutes on a topic such as “logical fallacies” or “ad hominem attacks”.

IT Conversations – I actually am a paid subscriber. This is their free feed. There is a WIDE variety of stuff covered. My favorites are their keynote presentations from various conferences as well as Dr. Moira Gunn’s “Tech Nation” show. The original mission of IT Conversation was to capture pretty much ALL tech seminars and presentations in America if not in the world. After all, after the presentation is done it often just disappears, it is great to be able to participate in these presentations that I could never afford (either in time or in money) to attend.

Scientific American Podcast – About 20 – 30 minutes, Steve Mirsky often has relevant insights and interesting guests.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Video and Audio Podcasts These are very short videos highlighting current activity at NASA including the Cassini mission and the Mars rovers. This lets you keep up on stuff that is usually ignored by mainstream media because it isn’t “NASCAR”.

The Amazing Show starring James Randi – Although production of this show has fallen off a lot lately, this show has James Randi discussing his life experiences. Relevant for anybody in the skeptical community.

The Finer Points – Aviation Videos – Like the audio podcast, the finer points videos are brief videos covering specific topics in aviation. Very useful when visual aids are required to help get a point across. I find these complement the audio podcasts very nicely.

Cato Daily Podcast – Cato is a think tank and offers perspective on current political and economic issues.

Spill Movie Reviews – definitely an adult podcast, these guys live and breath movies. If you are curious about whether you a movie is worth investing your time in, this podcast can help greatly. They offer some much longer shows as well (LEOG – League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen, Cold Ones) which, while entertaining, are just too long for me to fit into my schedule. If I had more time or less interests I would probably listen to those too. As it is I just delete those.

Slacker Astronomy podcast – This USED to be a great podcast. It had 3 folks including Dr. Pamela Gay (from the Astronomy Cast podcast above) and was put out fairly regularly. But when Pamela left the show the production became somewhat inconsistent. I recommend listening to the earlier podcasts for great Astronomy information. For the current ones, I listen to any that have Dr. Doug Welch. He has a great sense of humor and is a font of knowledge and a real treat to listen to.

AOPA Never Again – I think this is now defunct but it is an audio version of AOPA’s “Never Again” column where pilots write in to tell about bone-headed or unfortunate situations they’ve encountered in hopes of helping other pilots avoid making the same mistakes or recognizing bad situations. Getting the existing podcasts is well worthwhile.

Camera Dojo: Digital Photography Enthusiasts – more targeted toward folks who do photography for a living, these podcasts are nonetheless useful for picking up nuggets for those of us who snap only occasionally. Kerry is the glue that keeps things together while David is somewhat more flamboyant…

TEDTalks (Video) – These are brilliant. Simply brilliant. There are so many that I doubt I’ll ever see them all and keeping up is not possible for me. But these almost always impress me. These are brilliant people who are given 18 minutes to speak about a topic that impassions them. There are some short comic or musical ones too and those are always worthwhile too.

The Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures Podcasts – These are infrequent and about 90 minutes long. An expert on some topic astronomical will fascinate you. I usually listen until somebody puts their kid up to the mike in the Q&A portion.

David Allen Company Podcast – Also infrequent, usually a 5 minute pep session on a particular aspect of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology. I enjoy the refresher.

EFF Line Noise Podcast – Too infrequent, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s podcast will keep you up to date on their trying to keep overly intrusive government or overly controlling corporation activities and the EFF’s efforts to keep them in check.

Humanist Network News – Would be nice if this was produced more frequently. A pleasant podcast presenting information and issues from a humanist perspective.

Mr. Deity (video) – A laugh and a half. Picture “Woody Allen” meets god. I understand these podcasts are presented in biblical forums to stimulate discussion.

This I listen to immediately after I watch the show:
Battlestar Galactica Podcast – Now defunct as the series is over, these are meant to be listened to as the episode plays. I find that distracting so I listen to them a day or so after having watched the episode. The executive producer’s insights very much enhance my appreciation of the series as he explains what he was trying to accomplish and why things are presented in the manner that you are seeing. This same kind of interaction was what made me a fan of Babylon 5. Understanding what is behind the show adds a tremendous dimension to the experience.

These I listen to periodically. The entire session is available but I don’t want to listen to it all in one go. I typically listen to one every couple of weeks or so.
Rhetoric 10: Introduction to Practical Reasoning and Critical Thinking – Obviously a little chemical entertainment is involved in this lecturer’s make-up but that does not detract from the very interesting approach to a world view that Rhetoric offers.

Virgil’s Aeneid – Audio – I enjoy classical literature and don’t spend enough time on it. Classes such as this, that can be enjoyed during my commute are absolutely wonderful.

English 117s: Shakespeare – Spring 2008 Audio – A bit choppy due to the missing copyrighted works and the student questions that are not captured by the microphone but overall worth the effort.

History of the International System – If you enjoyed James Burke’s “Connections” series you’ll probably appreciate this lecture series explaining how we all end up getting along economically and politically.

That’s it (for now). The great thing about podcasts is that you can go back and listen to old ones where it’s relevant and you can skip forward as you see fit or if something is not of interest. Also, you pick up your show just where you left off. I haven’t listened to my radio in… I don’t know how long. The only reason I turned it on before was to make sure it was still working. The control of time-shifting my listening to my schedule is too powerful to allow me to go back to “the old way”…

Quotes – 01

“It is easier to have a strong opinion when you lack information.”

– Michael Crichton

I was listening to a 2003 interview with Mr. Crichton on the “Tech Nation” podcast and he was describing a time shortly after he had written the book “Rising Sun”. There were several members on a board on which he served who were threatening to quit the board if he did not resign since Michael was obviously a racist. On being asked, none of the objecting board members had actually read the book, they had just heard that it was a racist tome.

It’s pretty obvious that, far from making decisions and issues simpler, more knowledge, more information can tease out even more issues that take you from an apparently black and white situation of an idealised fantasy world to the omnipresent gray that represents the real world.

So beware of people who tell you with confidence that their pat, simple answer is the only right way to go. They either do not know what they are talking about, they are ignoring large aspects of the situation or they are lying to you.

It is OK to have an informed opinion, but there is no opinion that is valid out of context. Be sure you understand that context.

What’s the Harm?

A worthwhile resource for when you are presented with questions such as “What’s the harm if Grandma wants to go see a fortune teller?” or “What’s the harm if uncle Jim believes in Feng shui?”.

I have no real problem with educated, intelligent people dabbling in alternative ideas but I want to do all I can to ensure that they are armed with all the knowledge they can have. Unfortunately, the Internet is rife with nonsense and good information, especially about fringe topics, can be very hard to come by.

It’s when folks subscribe to these unproven, unscientific and, sometimes, outright fraudulent notions that I think we all need to make an effort to educate our family and our friends. From Hydrogen (from on board electrolysis) to augment your car’s gas mileage to pulling out your teeth because there is mercury in your fillings it is important to keep a critical eye out for outrageous or alarmist claims to protect not only your wallet but sometimes your health or even your life.

The What’s the Harm? website cleanly and clearly lists example after example of cases where exactly this question is answered.

I listened to a great interview on Skepticality with the creator of the “What’s the Harm?” website and I admire and appreciate his motivation for gathering all of these stories in one place. There isn’t a permalink scheme on their website so you can find the show notes (and link to the mp3 of the interview) HERE probably in mid September 2008, until then just go to their MAIN PAGE to get it.

Homeopathy: A kind of Magic

The UK does not have nearly the issue with religion as we have here. There, folks who are of such a bent tend to proclaim it in rather less strident terms than do folks here in these United States as, for some reason, their culture does not appear to be as enamored of the simple, pat answers provided by these metaphysical philosophies and so views such with a relatively critical eye.

However, nobody’s perfect. So where the UK shows rationality on the big questions concerning the “wherefores” and “whats” of existence (for which the answer is well known to be “42”, but I digress), they do seem to have a love for medical treatment that is well… something less than medical.

In “The end of homeopathy“, Ben Goldacre takes a very critical look at this supposed “Alternative Medicine” and points out the flaws in reporting and the issues in studying it that are so often either ignored by or not easily accessible to, the lay public that may be considering this option for their health needs.

Don’t get me wrong, there is enormous benefit for the placebo effect that subscribers to homeopathic medicine can gain. Our bodies are subject to countless little quirks, aches and twinges that, for the most part, will sort themselves out on their own. But if it makes folks feel better and happier, I think a treatment can be of great comfort and benefit even if it isn’t really doing anything. Medical folks have apparently been doing this for years by prescribing either tremendously under-dosed or even irrelevant remedies in cases where they felt the patient would benefit more from the attention than from any actual medication.

But the danger is always there that either practitioners or patients will take things too far and will eschew proven medical treatments in favor of these placebos when practical, active and relevant treatment is required. Even worse is when dependent folks (either through youth, retardation or old age) are taken down such paths by those responsible for them. For this reason vigilance needs to be maintained in the face of the apparent harmlessness of merely standing by when baseless claims are made to an unsuspecting public.

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:

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.