Tuesday, July 22, 2014

iOS App review: Overcast

Overcast is a new, and much anticipated, podcast app from Marco Arment.  Arment was part of the team that created and launched Tumblr. He is known for Instapaper, and is a guest, host, and pundit on numerous tech podcasts.  I have tried a number of podcast apps over the years on my various iOS devices and while some are definitely better than others, I have yet to find the definitive app.  After Overcast, I am still in search of the definitive podcast app.  This is not to say Overcast is a bad app.  I am rather impressed by it, would recommend it, but it still has some foibles.

The user interface is quite attractive to my eye and was clearly designed with the iOS7 aesthetic from day one.  It was relatively easy to import my podcast feeds from Castro and Downcast.  One can only import the feeds and not actually download the episodes.  After listening to Arment discuss his app on The Talk Show, apparently this is a function of Apple’s sandboxing than a misstep by Arment. 
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Downcast has some neat tricks.  When playing back a podcast, the app not only allows the listener to hear the podcast played back at increased speed, but also something called ‘smart speed’ where the playback compressed quiet periods between spoken sections.  This alone appears to save speed up the playback by 10% or so, and the listener can increase the playback speed to boot.  It seems to work fairly transparently, and only on occasion does the algorithm cause distortion.  For those of us with a long podcast queue, this is a big time saver.  Also, one must register to use Overcast, which I have never had to do for a podcast player before.  Reason for the account is if one logs into the Overtime website, you can see your podcast feed list and start listening to individual podcast episodes where you left off listening on your iOS device.  It’s pretty slick.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections on The Amazing Meeting: Volume Two

Part II: Life Under TAM

Bill Nye on stage
Highlights from TAM: Bill Nye was fantastic.  He had the audience in the palm of his hand the entire time.  No surprise with that one, but he completely met and exceeded my expectations.  The Million Dollar Challenge was fascinating to behold.  Not so much for the event itself on stage, but for the audience’s behavior.  The crowd was completely silently and other than a few coughs no one uttered a peep for the 30 minutes or so of the test.  Carole Tavris's lecture on the skeptics' approach to rape allegations was the most thought-provoking talk of the entire convention.  It was thoughtful.  It was hard hitting.  It was not over the top.  I am sure if I read a transcript of the talk I would find things that I disagree with.  However, taken as a whole, Tavris will likely catch heat for the talk once it is released on video. But, in my opinion, it was the most important talk of the event.  I really enjoyed my time hanging out with Karl (including his lovely girlfriend) and Stuart.  I had a bit of apprehension that our chemistry in person would not match our mutual support online.  I had nothing to fear.  All five of us got along smashingly, and the other folks I got to meet especially Linley and Reed were wonderful people to get to know.  The dinner the Editor and I had with Torkel Ødegård was a wonderful time to catch up with a friend. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reflections on The Amazing Meeting: Volume One

Intro: TAM and Peace

I rambled so much while composing this piece that I decided to split it into two parts.  I apologize for the wordiness of this eventually two part post, but given the whirlwind that is TAM a single post just won't do.  I hope to post the Part II in the next day or so.  

Part I: The Coming of The Amazing Meeting

I have finally attended The Amazing Meeting.  The first TAM I was aware of occurring was the one held in January, 2006.  It did not even cross my mind at the time to attend, but as the years progressed, it became something I knew I ought to attend.  Finally, this year the stars aligned and the Editor and I were off to Las Vegas for a weekend of immersed skepticism, nerdiness, and hopefully fun.  I tried to keep my expectation in check before attending.  While many have raved about TAM, it did not necessarily hold that I was going to enjoy it.  

Instead of writing a blow by blow account, I am just going to bullet point various thoughts regarding the event.  Many of my thoughts are not going to be unique, but shared by others who have blogged about TAM. I know over the years I gobbled up everything I could learn about what it was like to attend, and I hope a few of my notions are unique or at least are helpful to a prospective attendee. I see this post as adding to that body of work.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The SGU: a live recording.

I attended the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe live recording on the second day of T.A.M.  The panel consisted of the Novella brothers, Evan Bernstein, and special guest Rogue Banachek.  Banachek dressed like a million bucks and fit right into panel.  He's a consummate professional.  Actually, it was quite clear the SGU is a well-oiled machine.  Everyone was quite comfortable behind the mic and on the stage.

I am wondering how the episode will be edited and how it will come across on the released podcast.  In particular, the visual put up on the twin screens obviously won't be viewed by the listener.  Also, there were a number of audio/visual glitches on some of the slides with which T.A.M. as a whole has been riddled.  Luckily, none of the glitches got in the way of the recording.  
James Randi crashes the recording

Dr. Novella discussed a study where people generally chose being electrically shocked than be left alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.  The panel discussed how the study could be skewed by the pool of subjects picked from a public place, and Banacheck pointed out being voluntarily left alone with one's thoughts might be tougher than being told to be left alone with one's thoughts.  

Evan shared a recent story of the pro-U.F.O. folks making a big deal out of Buzz Aldrin reporting back during Apollo 11 an anomalous object.  The Rogues discussed reporting a strange observation is not the same as reporting seeing an alien craft.

Jay's news piece was basically a comic bit.  Jay was reporting on an Indian guru whose followers think is in deep meditation, but is much more likely deceased.  Jay was about to go into a bad Indian accent, which turned into a bit of a JREF intern having Jay do a test and sign document to be permitted to do his accent. It was cute, but went on two beats too long.

Bob reported that some initial exoplanets that were initially thought to be within the Goldilocks zone for life actually do not exist.  These planets were actually just within the noise of information from early exoplanets studies. Bob did a good job of it.  It is a good example of an evolving field of study.

James Randi made a truly impromptu appearance on the episode riffing off the Buzz Aldrin story that even Astronauts can be wrong, and shared how Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is a highly gullible believer in Uri Gellar.

On a highly positive note, the Rogues briefly discussed how the B.B.C. has introduced a new policy of training its journalists to not give false balance in its stories but proportional balance.  Therefore, instead of having equal space to science-based climatologists versus proponents that climate change is a hoax, reporters should write the story based on the science.  This led to a discussion of the shading scale of journalists' integrity. Stories with no skepticism or science; stories with a token skeptic; then to false balanced and finally proportional reporting based upon the evidence and scientific consensus.  

The recording ended with science or fiction which we both got wrong.  But, it made the Editor's day to get to play along live with science or fiction. At least we were in good company as the panel was all wrong too. Chalk up a win for Dr. Steve Novella. The Rogues were joined by Mae Moon who I think won the honor to be on the episode. 

Interestingly, there was no question and answer period or ads done during the recording.  (Ed. Note. Thank god no Q&A; always awkward and cringe-worthy.)

Overall, I thought it was an enjoyable hour.  I have not been listening to the SGU regularly, and this event has not convinced me to put it in my regular rotation again.  Yet, it was fun.  The show is quite polished and would recommend it to anyone who wanted one stop shopping for weekly skeptical content. 

Dr. Stuart Robbins is doing twice daily T.A.M. updates on his Exposing PseudoAstronomy, which it is recommended one seek out if you want to follow the events of T.A.M. with a brief lag time.

-I will add links upon my return home. I am rocking the iOS Blogger app.  I apologize.-
--Links are added.--