Monday, May 31, 2010

Righteous Indignation, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, and The Token Skeptic

As I tweeted earlier this week, it was a busy weekend at world wide Skeptical Review Headquarters located in scenic and tourist laden Hershey, Pennsylvania.  We attended a wedding, a bbq to celebrate a dual graduation, and Memorial Day picnic.  All this being noted, Trystan Swale posted a review of a brand spanking new podcast from his good country of England, Just Skeptics.  So far I have listened to the first episode and it sounds promising, although rough as nearly all first three to six episodes are with a new effort.  I look forward to seeing which direction the show takes during the coming weeks and months.

Here are a few thoughts on my Memorial Day podcast listening.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe covered a number of items in the news including findings regarding the early source of energy for some of the initial forms of life on Earth, a study showing that vaccines are safe to give children whether on the normal course or the slower course, and an article on the psychological effect of convincing people of the benefits of science such as vaccines.

The Rogues discussed how the last planned flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis was ending as they were recording.  As pointed out by Jay, there is no solid plan for a continued independent launch capability for the United States in the foreseeable future given President Obama's plan to end or at least extremely curtail the Constellation Program.  As readers know, despite certain optimistic opinion with the approach by such respectable folks as Dr. Phil Plait, I think it sucks.  The whole idea of the winding down of a manned space program that started heaving men into space since May, 1961 makes me depressed.

On an even more depressing note, the Rogues covered a story of once convicted rapist in Vietnam being exonerated of the crime, not by DNA evidence, but by the testimony of an acupuncturist.  The acupuncturist testified that a capillary in the rapist's penis was unbroken which shows he never had intercourse with a woman.  The rules of evidence in Vietnam and the learned bench of this up and coming nation just might have a long, long way to go.

James 'the Amazing' Randi made an appearance on the show to reminisce about an old friend and colleague, the recently deceased Martin Gardner who was a founding father, if not the founding father, of modern skepticism.  Randi first met Gardener in his twenties and stayed in touch with him until near the end of Gardner's life.  The story that struck me was Gardner finding in an old bookshop a copy of a book that his father gave him as a boy.  I mean the actual book itself.  The chance of this occurring was astonishing to say the least, but it was chance alone and not fate.  Although to many folks, those who are far from sympathetic, it sure feels like guided fate.  I also did not realize that Gardner was a diest, but he did not let this bit of non-rational thought bleed into his other works.  It was a touching interview.

Interestingly, this week and I believe last week's episode did not contain an Audible ad.  I wonder if they decided to forgo the funding source or if audible had second thoughts.

Over in Britain, the folks at Righteous Indignation celebrated their 50th episode with an interview of Janis and Emma of the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society, along with Trystan, Hayley, and Marsh discussing various topics.  The Indignates did a quick and tasteful overview of some of the high and low points of their first years of podcasting.  This blog received a brief shout out for Karl's written interview of Trystan which is very kind and appreciated.

Janis and Emma are starting a society of woman discussing skepticism in coffee shops sort of as a tangent (I dare not say auxiliary) of the skeptics in the pub movement.  I think it is a good idea, and is not a bad idea to have an alternative to a pub-based discussion regardless of gender.  They also discussed how there are other ideas for skeptics in the park, but I would push for skeptics at the breakfast buffet with an omelette-maker.  While the skeptics in the pub phenomenon has been, and seems to be, a continuing grass roots success, hanging out in saloons is not for everyone.  As long as the various different ideas for meeting places does not fragment too much, I laud the initiative.

The Indignates discussed the bizarre but weird story of the Austrian government paying for druids to cast spells or equalize the energy of some dangerous spots on the Austrian highway system.  Apparently this has been going on for a bit, and according to the Austrian authorities the druids have had great success lowering the death rates on the various "treated" sites.  There are a few spots in my local area that are automotive death traps, but we're low on druids in Central Pennsylvania, and I wonder if Native American healers can do the same thing here.  I must talk to the local county commissioners, and tell them to call Austria for a reference.

The most interesting topic this week was more political than anything else, and that is the ticket prices for TAM London.  The ticket prices are £208 or about $303 for the weekend not including room or board.  There was a flurry of tweets on twitter earlier this week on the topic.  It is about thirty pounds more than last year, and is prohibitive to those of lesser means, or means a large sacrifice in other areas of someone's life to attend.  Any excess money goes to the JREF for other activities that is left over after paying for expenses.  My own take is that this amount is fine since it is expected to sell out quickly, and therefore is a price that the market can bear.  If the JREF lowered the price it would still sell out, but the JREF would have less money to do its various activities.  All this being noted, I would have that a large portion of the money raised would kept local and not be a fiscal drain from the UK to the US.  I would also hope that there would be a process for a scholarship program to be started for educators, and skeptics in the media to attend at a lower rate.*  I do not know if either of the above occur.  I know I would love to attend TAM Las Vegas someday, but I would also love to renovate my bare bones 1950's kitchen.  Unfortunately, the kitchen wins and Karl will have to be there for me in proxy.  I'll get to TAM someday, and by then it'll be on the downhill slide and be held at Circus Circus.

Down in the Southern Hemisphere, Kylie Sturgess on the Token Skeptic Podcast covered trial by ordeal, and in particular the trial of accused witches from ordeal stories in the bible through medieval times to most tragically currently in Africa, and even worse the ordeal and torture of children.  Apparently in Nigeria, there is a Pentecostalist movement that preaches that certain children are witches and possessed.  Children are at best abandoned by the side of the road, and at worst tortured to death with fire or worse to drive out the 'evil.'  For some reason, while the witch trials in Salem for example are terrible chapters in history, they are distant and I can keep them at arms length, but when they are happening with regularity today it is distressing to say the least.  Continuing stories like these are all the proof that is needed to show why free skeptics and rationalists are a necessary part of any healthy society.  It is a mercifully brief episode, but the point is well made by Sturgess.

I am currently halfway through the Skeptic Zone, so I will refrain from commenting on the show at this time beyond we wish Richard Saunders well as he recovers from a broken nose and laryngitis.

Final bit of personal news.  My iPad desire has been quenched as I have received my silver and black window into the future, and I have not been disappointed.  With the arrival of the iPad and a new pair of spectacles tomorrow, look for a revised logo in the near future.  My next object of techno lust is an iPhone.

*When I was in college I used to volunteer at the Gettysburg Civil War Institute, and it was not cheap.  However, it did have a scholarship program in place which made it somewhat more open.  The head of the Institute always reminded the overworked and under-slept staff that for many of the attendees this was their one and only vacation for the year or two, and not to screw it up for  them.  I trust the JREF follows this guideline as well.  

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