Saturday, March 29, 2014


Originally posted September 7, 2013

The latest episode of Monster Talk features an interview of Prof. Asa Mittman.  Mittman is a medieval art expert with a particular focuses upon monsters in medieval art and maps.  I often blog on how much I enjoy Monster Talk podcast, and what a thoughtful interviewer is the show's host and producer Blake Smith.   However, this episode really knocked my socks off.  Unfortunately, Smith shares that material was left out from the original interview as the recording suffered technical problems that caused a portion of the interview to be lost.   
Mittman was slatted to be a continuation of the theme of the last episode that featured an interview with Chet Van Duzer on the monsters that decorate the edges of medieval maps.  (That was a good episode too.)  Mittman continued on this general topic, and shared how when viewing a pre-modern map the document is not just recording where things are geographically, but also how things are viewed by the map makers' culture and society.  Mittman explained that the center of the map is the center of that society's world.  In the West the center would be taken up by Jerusalem.  The next zone out from the center are the civilized peoples. This is followed by the next zone on the map of the allied peoples, and the farther you get from the center you end up where the uncivilized monsters and barbarians dwell.  What was stunning with the Mittman's interview is that the episode took a turn explaining how the 'monsters' reflected the underlying prejudices of the society of the map maker.  
The episode dived into the world of modern human prejudice and, yes, touched upon social justice.  However, it was not a self righteous 'check your privilege at the door' discussion of social justice, nor was the conversation preceded with a "trigger warning."  No.  It was a discussion that flowed naturally from the topic of monsters that dovetailed into a social issue that still haunt modern society. Mittman discussed how the underlying themes of some of the monsters illustrated on maps in the pre-modern world still exist to this day.   Mittman shared an anecdote of one his students sharing some terribly anti-jewish thoughts in the class, and such prejudices have a thread leading back to medieval thoughts on monsters.  Blake and Mittman also discussed the origins of the term 'monster' and race' and what it originally meant compared to the generally understood definitions today.   
What I found fascinating was that Monster Talk, which I would argue is a bastion of old school 'Big Foot Skepticism,' was able to deftly discuss a very new school social justice issue that was topical and informative without being preachy or self righteous. There are opportunities for classic skepticism to touch upon contemporary social issues without forcing the issue. I do wish the portion of the interview that was lost could be retrieved as I suspect some very good material was lost to the ether.   
On Skeptics with a K Michael "Marsh" Marshall shared his experience attending and speaking at the European Skeptics conference, which was recently held in Sweden.  Marsh gave a candid assessment of some of speakers which was not all butt kissing positive which is appreciated.  He shared some constructive criticism of some of the lectures.  
 What I found particularly interesting was Marsh's take on how (at least in part) skeptics ought to word out to a larger audience of their work.  I am paraphrasing but his prescription is to put the work into a press release.  Marsh argued that the media is handed print ready material all the time by the cultural competition, and therefore the overburden press have ready to publish material handed to them.  Skeptics do some work and debunk some flimflam, and yet other than floating in the blogosphere is goes  unknown by the public.  Marsh shared that when the Merseyside Skeptics did their Shuzi band test they gave a press release to the papers, and it was published.  The results of their Shuzi experiments broke out to the wider public.  It's skeptical promotion by press release. Marsh also shared his thoughts on how to communicate with the press to avoid the woo peddler from being viewed by a journalist as the victim compared to big science, and publishing a story that puts skeptics in a bad light.  Marsh's thought is that you have to tell the story of the woo receiver being the victim of the woo peddler, and use the science to explain how the victim was wronged.  Marsh goes into greater detail on his thoughts and reasoning in this regard, but I found him quite persuasive.  
The finally bit on SwaK was how old and once thought lost episodes of Dr. Who produced in 1960s and 1970s are being saved and remastered.  The BBC did not save the original video tape recordings of the episodes as they erased and reused the tapes for other purposes.  The BBC had no archiving system in place until the end of the 1970's.  It may sound shocking to modern ears but N.A.S.A. recorded over the original moon lading telemetry tapes too.  I guess folks at the time did not think much about posterity.  I am not a Dr. Who follower, although I do hope to give it a try sometime soon.  However, the tech geek side of me was fascinated by how engineers are able to take old Betamax video recordings of episode from private collections, black and white filmed versions of original color episodes, and mix them together to resurrect the shows from modern viewing.  I am not sure what this had to do with being skeptical, but sometimes a bit of variety keeps things interesting.  

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