Friday, June 4, 2010

The tables are turned: Interview with Karl Mamer, Conspiracy Skeptic

Lady and I decided it was high time to interrogate the interrogator, and pay a visit to Karl Mamer, the Conspiracy Skeptic. Karl is also a contributor to this blog and others including Brian Thompson's Amateur Scientist website, The Long Run blog, and a fixture on the SGU forums. We dropped the critters off to my parents for care, and boarded the train in Elizabethtown for the 36 hour journey to Toronto via Philadelphia and New York City. After taking a cab from Union Station to our lodgings at the Victoria Hotel for a quick shower and nap, we received a phone call from the front desk. A telegram had arrived from a Mr. Mindme. I asked the concierge to read it to me. "Dear Nigel and Lady welcome to Toronto. stop. Please meet me at the Woo Restaurant and Lounge at 9pm. stop." With that Lady and I were off with iPod recorder in hand and down the street to meet the most impressive skeptical podcaster (alphabetically at least) according to the current President of the JREF, D.J. Grothe.

We were ushered to a quiet booth, and there sat a surprisingly short man with a kind face. He quickly recommended the Vietnamese Pork Leaf, and we got down to business.

Nigel: Karl you are probably most widely known now for your Conspiracy Skeptic Podcast, but you have also been on other podcasts in the past. Could you share what they were and briefly describe them?

Karl: Well, I started the Seoul Survivors podcast while I was living in Seoul, Korea. I used to download and listen to Penn Jillette & Michael Goudeau on their CBS Radio show and then Skeptics Guide to the Universe and I thought "boy, I'd like to do a podcast!" But I had no clue what I could do it about. Every day I'd walk home from the subway, mentally compiling all the new urban survival tips I figured out for being a whitey in a city of 10 million Koreans, and eventually it dawned on me "Oh, jeez. Why not do a podcast about living in Seoul as an ex-pat and teaching English?" I'm kinda an expert there.

I rounded up a couple cohosts -- initially Sarah (a Floridian) and John Mcintosh (from SoCal and a US navy man). Sarah and John eventually moved back home and I had a brief cohost named Pam (again from SoCal). Pam was cool but doing a weekly podcast is a time sink, especially for a young sociable woman like Pam. After Pam Seoul Survivors settled down to Jennifer Young (from Louisiana) and Joe McPherson (from Alabama). Joe and Jennifer eventually went on to do the Seoul Podcast after I moved back to Canada. I'm an occasional guest host on that show, I guess.

You'll notice I never acquired any fellow Canadian co-hosts or anyone really north of the Mason-Dixon line. I guess I just really like Americans and Southerners in particular. You and Lady Nigel are from South Pennsylvania, right?
On Seoul Survivors we only used our first names and varied our recording locations. Korea still has criminal libel laws on the books and it seemed wise to not to risk pissing someone off and landing in jail for making jokes about Samsung.. You think Apple is bad. Samsung recently had some foreign journalist arrested for making a single joke about Samsung in a Korean newspaper.

Actually, we were probably more afraid of other ex-pat "player haters" than thin-skinned Koreans who might not get the jokes. On Conspiracy Skeptic I use my real name, of course. Oddly enough, I'm less afraid of 9/11 Troothers, Anti-vaxxer nuts, Identity Christians, and the Army of Light fighting the New World Order than drunk Canadian ex-pats who have issues with the nail that dares to stick up a little more.

Nigel: You have mentioned a number of times that your have lived in Seoul, South Korea and exotic Seattle, Washington. Without being overly nosy would you mind sharing what took you to South Korea, and how long were you in far East? While you were in Seattle did you ever run into any member of Nirvana or the Foo Fighters?

Karl: I was in Seattle from roughly 2000-2003 and Seoul from 2003 to 2008. Basically 8 years abroad. I worked for a software company in Toronto that got bought out by a Seattle dot com and the lot of us were transferred out there. The Seattle company mostly just wanted to acquire our storefront technology and took along some of the key people. They never ended up using what they bought and basically they head hunted about 15 employees for $35 million. I was a paper dot com millionaire for a while in Seattle but the crash wiped out my stock options before I could sell them. Oh well.

After the dot com bust I was growing tired of the world of software. I think lots of people went into other careers. I had a boss that started a kaitan sushi restaurant in Seattle. Lots of people seemed to be training to be chefs and real estate agents. A boss who had taught in Korea suggested I consider ESL teaching. I went to Korea a couple times on holiday, mostly because it was cheaper than Japan (I call Korea "Japan Lite" but don't tell the beautiful Korean women in my life that… they'd disown me). I found the kids amazingly CUTE and figured I sure could try teaching. I have a nephew I'm crazy about and my logic went "if one kid is great, 30 kids must be 30 times as great!"
Yes, parents are laughing right now.

I never did meet any members of Nirvana or the Foo Fighters in Seattle. I did work with a woman who had the last name Vedder, as in Eddie Vedder. I asked her if she was related. She quickly denied it. I always wondered, however, if she was like a cousin or something and just learned to deny any blood relation because too many people were trying to stuff demo tapes down her coin slot. You know? Her dad worked for FEMA and I mentioned conspiracy nuts thought they were the key truncheon men of the New World Order. She mentioned it to her dad. Her dad had a good chuckle.

Lady Whitehall: Why are we not interviewing Brian Thompson right now?

Karl: Alas, after Brian's month long celebrathon pledge drive the poor man is exhausted and has entered semi-seclusion. You try staying up for 720 straight hours and enduring a timpani roll every hour on the hour. After the 120th timpani roll you're pretty much a babbling bag of skin kept going only by chugging Lavoris and codeine-laden Tylenol 222s smuggled in from British Colombia.

Lady Whitehall: Have you met Brian Thompson, or at least spoken to him, and can you give me his number?

Karl: I've never met him personally although I have been a guest on his podcast and he's been a guest on mine. Oddly enough, he's been a contributor to Skeptical Review and Skeptical Review has reviewed his show and interviewed him. I think you can see where this is going. No one has ever seen me, Brian, Nigel, and Bigfoot in the same room together. We could really be the same person. As Nigel's wife, do you find it exciting Nigel could have three identities and also a secret life as a backwoods cryptid? Oh wait. You're asking the questions. Sorry. Hard to be the ummm "catcher" for a change.

Lady Whitehall: Can you give me a compelling reason why we should not, as the song says, "Blame Canada"?

Karl: Personally I think the song is brilliant. I was living in Seattle during the Oscars when it was nominated for Best Song. The morning after the Oscars my co-worker Rosalyn (who was married to a Mexican) came up to me and apologized on behalf of all America for what she considered numerous offensive stereotypes portrayed in the Oscar night performance of Blame Canada. The convo went something like:

"If the song was called Blame Mexico, I would be embarrassed and offended on behalf of my husband."
"Well, I thought it was pretty funny. I didn't see a problem with it."
"But they called Anne Murray a bitch. And they made fun of your Mounties."
"Honestly, Canadians like it when Americans make fun of us. I don't know why but we find it kind of a compliment. I'd rather have Americans laughing at us and not bombing us."

Nigel: On the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe forums you are an institution, and exceedingly knowledgeable and level headed. How long have you been a skeptic, and engaged in skeptical activism? Perhaps I should ask this first, what is your working definition of a skeptic?
Karl: I only appear level headed on the SGU board because my old teacher message board in Korea was basically a urinal and SGU members seem amazingly level headed by comparison. It's pretty easy not to get all fired up by the minor flame wars and disagreements that spring up on the SGU board. Unlike my Korea teacher message board, I'm pretty sure no member of the SGU board is trying to figure out where I live so they can make an anonymous call to the cops claiming I'm a dope dealer. Did I mention I totally enjoyed my time in Korea?

My definition of skepticism is I think one that Dr. Novella uses. When people take extraordinary but testable claims directly to the public instead of submitting them for peer review, skeptics help the public evaluate the strength of these claims.

I've been a skeptic since at least university. I took a lot informal logic courses in university and that opened my eyes to logical fallacies. My degree was in psychology and one day I noticed all these parapsychology journals in the library. I started to thumb through them and saw all these papers and thought "wow there must be something to this". Right next to the parapsychology journals were bound editions of Skeptical Inquirer. I started reading that and then it made sense.

I can't really say I engage in skeptical activism, not like say Trystan, Hayley (praise be her name), and Marsh of Righteous Indignation. I did organize a small skeptics in the pub event in Toronto. But that's about the closest I came to being something other than a keyboard warrior.

Nigel: The Conspiracy Skeptic was impressive enough to rate on D.J. Grothe's list of skeptical podcasts he enjoys. Can you share how large is your audience, and how you go about producing an episode? I recall when the show first began it was just you discussing a particular conspiracy, and now you have a guest. Why the change in format?
Karl: I was really surprised and delighted DJ mentioned me in an issue of SI. It can't hurt that the president of JREF kinda, sorta knows who you are. Right? I keep the issue on my bookshelf and show it to women who come to my place. Until I win a Nobel Prize for Literature or a Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour it's the best I can do to impress women.
As I say "in the fullness of time" most eps get about 4,000-5,000 downloads. Who know if people listen all the way through. But even if 10% actually listen from the opening notes of the B52's "Planet Claire" to the end of the 1 minute 30 second clip of various 80s new wave closing tunes I use to play out the ep, that would be great. I get maybe 2-3 emails a month from people saying they like the show. Maybe I've only ever got one wing nut. My email volumes are not huge and I don't mind because I'm bad with getting back to email.

I produce a show by pretty much recording via Skype. Nothing really complicated. I edit it on Goldwave. I mostly edit on my netbook in Starbucks. I use the free version of Pamela call recorder which only lets me record in 15 minute spurts. I don't mind that because it makes it easier to edit it in chunks than bringing 2 hours of audio into my editor as one file. I'm usually in discussion with 2 or 3 people a month about being a possible guest. Sometimes they have to remind me I wanted them on the show. Eventually schedules align and I get them on the show. Mostly they choose their topic but sometimes I throw out some ideas of things that haven't been covered.

I changed the format because I wanted to keep the show going. I set out to only do up to a dozen eps but I was getting a lot of complimentary email from people saying they hope I keep it going and I'm sucker for compliments and I don't like disappointing people. Even strangers. I felt the interview format was a good way to shift some of the writing burden and it would let me schmooze with a lot of people I really admired in the world of skeptical podcasting/blogging.

Lady Whitehall: Do you think that conspiracies really and truly can exist or do you think by their very nature they will always be suspect?
Karl: I think conspiracies exist. There are even laws against it and people are convicted of it all the time. When we talk about conspiracies on Conspiracy Skeptic we tend to tackle the "I might not be able to define art but I know it when I see it" type. But basically they're claims of conspiracy that:

a) necessarily involve an improbably huge number of people who need to remain silent.

b) are not defined by positive evidence (e.g., "here's a document signed by VP Johnson ordering the death of Kennedy") but are defined by anomalies and "just so" stories ("if x is true then y could have happened and if y then see we never landed on the moon!").
c) the conspiracy requires an amazingly powerful body of conspirators, displaying a level of intelligence and organizational mastery I've never encountered in any office environment, and yet these vastly intelligent conspirators make dozens of fundamental errors that anyone with one year of university can spot.
Nigel: How long do you think you'll be producing the Conspiracy Skeptic? Are there any planned changes for the future, or any conspiracies you are hoping to cover but just have not covered yet?

Karl: I bring the show out once a month, usually mid-month. It's not an onerous production schedule and fits with my current life style. So unless the whole podcasting thing goes terribly, terribly out of fashion like painter pants or someone starts to pay me real money to write about skepticism I'm going to keep turning out eps for the next few years. I'll probably do a 9/11 show eventually. I think with Bush out of office much of the anti Bush RAGE that informed this brand of lunacy has diminished. I noticed the 9/11 troothers in Toronto have now moved on to vaccine denial. *face palm* I just need to find the right guest.

I'd love to get Evan Berstein of SGU on my podcast. He's kind of the quiet one on SGU but I think he's one of those "still waters run deep" types. I have a future guest in the works to do the David Icke/space lizard thing. It's always a great comic throw line in scepticism but it's kind of missed the Conspiracy Skeptic treatment. Your recent Falklands conspiracy show and Rich's Denver Airport conspiracy show kind of pointed the way to doing some more shows on lesser known conspiracies and delving a lot more into the historical background.

Nigel: Any kids, ex-wives, or other skeletons in your past? Do you date a different leggy Korean woman each weekend?

Karl: I have one blood related nephew. I have two awesome nephews via my mum remarrying. My brother recently married a woman with two kids via a previous marriage so now I have a niece and another nephew. Dancing with my new niece at my brother's wedding was a joy I never even thought about. I love being an uncle. I like the conspiratorial aspect of uncle hood. You know you can get 'em all hepped up on Coke and Wendy's triples behind mom's back. Kids have an intuitive sense that when they're in the uncle bubble mom's rules don't apply but that bubble is only a small vacation from mom's reality. When I think of my childhood I think of it as a magical time thanks to my awesome aunts and uncles and I try to make sure I do whatever I can to fill the lives of my nephews and niece with magic and laughter. But yeah, no I've never been married and never had any children of my own. I wouldn't mind marrying a woman who already has children. I'm a bit afraid what my genes would produce and I kind of like the idea of knowing what I'm getting well into their growth cycle.

Alas I don't even date that often. I have a lot of women friends but it's pretty platonic. I keep a tight budget and at the end of the month if I haven't spent all the money I though I would spend on groceries/Starbucks/general living expenses/gasonline I like to call up a woman friend and go "I'm $100 under budget this month, want to throw on a little black dress and hit a swanky restaurant with me?" Women friends are great for that.

Lady Whitehall: Would you like me to tell Hayley how handsome you are in person?
Karl: I don't know about handsome but if you could tell her I chew with my mouth closed, leave the seat down, and don't crane my neck around constantly to check out other women, that would be swell.

-Nigel & Lady

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