Hello dear readers!
Tonight I want to start a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while now because I think there’s a lot of potential to have some interesting discussions. Penn Jillette and Teller, two of my favorite illusionists, put together a daring kind of show in which they took controversial topics and discussed them from their unique perspective. Sometimes this created shows in which their political ideology trumped science (like the global climate change episode), but other memorable times we got episodes in which they created one of the best visual metaphors for vaccines to date.
If you haven’t seen this series, I encourage you to do so. And one of the first things you should keep in mind (apart from the warnings about nudity and language) is that this is a show about skepticism, and applying skepticism even to the skeptics. The show is called Bullshit! for a reason–the two hosts may be peddling it, and it’s important to call even them out.
Of course, when doing so it’s important to be tactful.
To be fair, I don’t think I was kicking him when he was explaining that he made missteps. It’s hard to convey what you mean on the internet, much less in 140 characters. In case Penn ever sees this post, I want to apologize for the tone–but I was offering an honest critique of the show, not trying to put him down.
With that said, I want to start a “rewatch” and a review of the first episode, entitled “Talking to the Dead.” It’s the first show of the series, and it sets the tone and makes an introduction.
Original Air Date: January 24, 2003
Production Code: 101
The show opens with Penn talking to a prop headstone belonging to Houdini, which is very apropos to the topic and the show itself. Houdini is perhaps the most famous illusionist in history (his name is even an idiom!), and I’m sure both Penn and Teller find inspiration in his life. There’s a lot of humor in the show, which is a necessity because, often, they’re dealing with controversial and difficult topics in the show. Penn, for instance, will say, “See, it’s easy to speak to the dead,” after speaking to the prop headstone as if Houdini was listening to him.
One thing that stands out to me is that Penn admits that they have dealt out bullshit, but that they tell people that they lie. I think that this is particularly why the show works–and it reminds me very much of the work of James Randi, who made his mark by exposing people like Uri Geller as bullshitters. Who better to expose bullshit but bullshit artists themselves?
And in case you’re wondering why the show is called “Bullshit,” Penn explains it is for legal matters; apparently, calling people con artists and quacks will open you up to legal action, whereas saying they’re full of it is a-okay. Admittedly, after watching this episode I’m a bit leery of calling any bullshitter a fraud, but just talking about who they are and what they do is more than enough to get the point across.
So obviously this episode is about people who claim that they can communicate with the dead. It’s important to note that I’m a scientific skeptic and I don’t believe that ghosts or spirits exist, and even if they did, they probably have more important things to do than sit around and talk with us boring idiots all day. But there are certainly powerful emotional reasons for people to buy it–perhaps they miss loved ones, or can’t move past the grief of losing a life partner. These feelings are very understandable and they’re human. We should be empathetic to these people because we’ve all lost someone close to us.
And that’s why the people that take advantage of people in grief need to questioned. If they’re exploiting people, and lying to them, they should be exposed.
I have to agree with Penn when he says that they’re not interested in the money that psychics who claim that they can communicate with the dead are taking from vulnerable people–what matters is that they desecrate the memories that the people hold of their lost loved ones. How are people influenced by exploitation of those memories, and is it harmful? As Penn says, the only thing we have left of the people who leave us behind are our memories of them–more valuable than the money that they take.
Penn also introduces the Center for Inquiry, a group that is famous for its pro-science advocacy and fostering skepticism toward supernaturalism. What’s perhaps most useful is that they list and explain a number of methods that are used by performance artists and psychics to connect with their audiences. The first method is “cold reading,” which is described as a way of fishing for information “while giving the impression that you’re getting this information from some supernatural source…”
Psychics will make a lot of guesses, and eventually hit upon something that’s accurate. It’s a version of the sharpshooter fallacy. The psychics will make many misses, but what are remembered or stressed are the hits that they make. And if you’re a psychic with a TV show, you’re going to be incentivized to edit the show such that the misses are, well, missing.
There is also “hot reading,” in which the psychic gives very detailed or accurate answers, and this is accomplished when they’ve done some prior research or have spied on the people in the audience. It’s kind of a despicable cheating, but for unsuspecting people it’s probably a bit overwhelming. It’s pretty easy to accomplish by putting microphones in waiting areas, or planting people in the audience to suss out information as if they’re just people there to watch striking up a conversation.
I suppose if you’re going in knowing what the show is about, and appreciate a good illusion, there might not be a problem with it. I love watching magicians fool me with illusions, so why not enjoy a good psychic show? There might not be a reason to be so critical if they’re not exploiting vulnerable people and if they come clean about the tricks they use.
Perhaps the most obvious is the “shotgun approach,” where the psychic takes advantage of a large audience and plays the odds. It’s likely if they just throw stuff out at an audience, they’ll chance upon a member who has some connection to a random name they throw out. For example, “does anyone here know an Ed? Edward? I’m getting a name that starts with an E.”
I think that method is kind of ingenious, actually. The audience participates actively–if they hear something that they can relate to, and get involved, they’re probably more willing to be fooled. “Yes, my uncle’s name was Ed!” It’s like the psychic has made a personal connection–and can channel this uncle to them. And when the audience appreciates this by, say, applauding, it reinforces the belief that it’s real. So, in effect, the audience member will supply the information and fill in the blanks, essentially doing the job for the psychic.
I think one of the highlights of the episode is when people involved in the Bullshit show aren’t allowed to bring their cameras into a John Edward live show, and they’re asked to leave the premises. I think that’s pretty revealing, actually–anyone’s skepticism alarm should be raised as soon as they’re disallowed from observing or recording such performances. If anyone could actually speak to the dead as psychics, why wouldn’t they want as many people to see that as possible? What would they be so afraid of? Why not let skeptics bring in their video recording devices? Prove that you can actually do what you say you can?
I think what I appreciate so much about this episode is that they not only list the methods that psychics use, but that they avoid attacking the people who go to the psychics. That’s very important: we’re all vulnerable, and sometimes we all fall for bullshit, but we don’t move past that and do better when people make fun of us and criticize us for our mistakes. We need to empathize with these people–try to help them deal with their grief without making empty promises and bullshitting them.
Penn closes the episode by saying, “You don’t heal a broken heart by pretending its not broken.” Indeed. The showmanship of a psychic is no true balm for the wound of a lost loved one.
Bullshit gets off to an auspicious start by exposing what is essentially an obvious target for skepticism, and it does it in an empathetic and clever way. If nothing else, it provides a good starting point for further research into psychics and people who claim that they can talk to the dead.
The next installment of this series will focus on Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine.” I’m actually looking forward to that one.
First things first: I recently got hired at McLaren Greater Lansing as a Nurse Assistant. I am very excited about this job and I am eager to learn more skills. Everyone I’ve met so far at the hospital has been terrific, and I really believe that I’m going to enjoy my time there.
Second things second: I’ve been working for a while on internet stuff for the Clinton County Democratic Party as the IT Specialist. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done, though by looking at the website you’d never guess it. Still, there are a lot of other factors that go into developing a decent internet presence for a political party than just the website, which is the next big thing to tackle on my seemingly ever-expanding agenda as IT Specialist.
And now, Ultimate Book Tag! I took this from Jackie Smith’s blog A Platform of Sorts. I haven’t written here in a while because life has been busy, so I thought I’d make this post fun.
1. Do you get sick while reading in the car?
Nope. I’ve read in cars for as long as I remember, and never had any problems with it. Even now, when I’m a passenger in a car and reading my Kindle, it doesn’t bother me.
2. Which author’s writing style is completely unique to you and why?
Douglas Adams. Hands down. And it’s not just his writing style, but how turns my expectations on their head. For instance, when describing the Vogon ships in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he writes, “They hung in the air much the same way bricks don’t.” His writing style influences my fiction writing in ways too numerous to count.
My general rule of thumb, thanks to Adams, is “when in doubt, give everything an inner voice. Even composite board bookshelves.”
3. Harry Potter Series or the Twilight Saga? Give 3 points to defend your answer.
a. It’s not Twilight.
b. It’s more original.
c. It’s not Twilight.
4. Do you carry a book bag? If so, what is it in (besides books…)?
I carry a book bag when I need to. I’ll either put my notebooks, folders, computer, or papers in it. I tend to keep all of the papers for my writing projects organized into folders or binders.
5. Do you smell your books?
Who doesn’t like the smell of wood pulp?
6. Books with or without little illustrations?
It really depends on the book, doesn’t it? Sometimes an illustration adds to the narrative in complex or unexpected ways, and that’s very refreshing.
7. What book did you love while reading but discovered later it wasn’t quality writing?
A Song of Ice and Fire–the entire series. The stories are engrossing, complex, original–but Martin’s prose is atrocious. He can spend three pages describing what someone is eating and I just want to tear those pages out to get on with the damn story. His saving graces are the realistic characters he invents and his willingness to go places most writers fear to tread.
8. Do you have any funny stories involving books from your childhood? Please share!
I used to build tunnels with my books so my model trains could go through them. That’s not really that funny, but it’s all I’ve got.
9. What is the thinnest book on your shelf?
The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A. Grube.
It was a close contest, but the winner was The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition.
11. Do you write as well as read? Do you see yourself in the future as being an author?
Yes, I love to write, and I do see myself being a published author in the future. It might take a while, what this this life thing, but I do love writing. If you want to preview some of my short fiction, head on over to my other blog, Fictional Heuristics.
12. When did you get into reading?
I still have my copy of Itchy Itchy Chicken Pox from when I was a kid.
13. What is your favorite classic book?
Ofer-hyda ne gym, maere cempa!
14. In school was your best subject Language Arts/English?
Yes, actually. I won awards for my screenwriting, for being an outstanding writer, and I entered writing contests all of the time. It really wasn’t a surprise when I decided to major in English.
15. If you were given a book as a present that you had read before and hated…what would you do?
I would express my opinion of the book in a friendly way, but keep it in my collection. It’s why I haven’t thrown away Ayn Rand books.
16. What is a lesser known series that you know of that is similar to
Harry Potter or the Hunger Games?
I don’t think I know of one. I haven’t actually read The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series is pretty much a one-off for me in young adult fantasy.
17. What is your favorite word?
Queue. Look how funny it is. I want to pronounce it que-ue.
18. Are you a nerd, dork, or dweeb? Or all of the above?
I’m a geek. I have models of the Enterprise and the time machine from Back to the Future. I have so much Isaac Asimov it poses a small fire hazard.
19. Vampires or Fairies? Why?
I’d go with vampires for no other reason than I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a good book.
20. Shapeshifters or Angels? Why?
Shapeshifters are more interesting. Plus, Odo.
Neither. Boring. Overdone. Next?
22. Zombies or Vampires? Why?
Zombies, because if you can make a zombie movie like George Romero that offers up a critique of consumerism in American culture, you can make on out of a book. Max Brooks comes close.
23. Love Triangle or Forbidden Love?
Neither. Boring, cliche, just…come up with something more original.
24. AND FINALLY: Full on romance books or action-packed with a few love scenes mixed in?
If a choice between the two? The latter. I can deal with love subplots if they’re done right. Romance isn’t my thing.
Well, that was fun! I hope that everyone has had a great International Women’s Day!
I’ve long been a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, and see him as my generation’s Carl Sagan. I think it’s important to have affable people who can communicate scientific ideas and philosophy clearly and an in a friendly manner, especially now that our society is so steeped in anti-science sentiments or largely ignorant of science. Recent headlines, for instance, talk about how 80% of Americans are supportive of efforts to make labeling food containing DNA mandatory.
Sure, there are problems with that study and it should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s part of a larger dialogue going on now about things like genetically modified organisms and medicine. I don’t want to go into the GMO debate right now (suffice it to say I generally and vocally support them–but don’t confuse this with support for companies like Monsanto or personal ignorance about the dangers of modern agriculture from monocultures to fertilizer runoff), and as for the uptick in, say, people sympathizing with homeopathy, I refer you to this news story about a recent study.
I don’t really blame people for ignorance, but I do not suffer it. It’s not that hard to get facts and learn new things with things like the internet (which, to be fair, can also be used to learn absurd and wrong things, like the bone-headed notion that vaccines are bad). So, in the spirit of trying to enlighten people, I want to talk a bit about StarTalk Radio.
Tyson hosts this show (with frequent guest hosts like Bill Nye), and it’s generally both entertaining and enlightening. Topics range from questions about gravity to discussions about technology. One of the better shows is “StarTalk Live: I, Robot” (Part 1, Part 2). Tyson, comedians, and robotics experts discuss the current state of robotics and where it might go in the years to come. It’s certainly not a topic that should be ignored, even by laypeople. Whether we like it or not (I’m looking at you, Luddites) robots and, possibly, superhuman intelligence, will be a part of human society. If we’re smart about how we approach it, we can do amazing things like this:
If we’re not so smart, we could do things like this:
StarTalk has conversations that are worth having, while educating and entertaining you. I really recommend listening to it, even if you don’t know that much about science or technology. Both of these topics should be priorities for a civilization that depends on them, as ours does.
In the future I hope to write more about robots, from ethics about them to their legal status. With the increasing possibility of superhuman intelligences, how we handle synthetic intelligence (and whether or not it constitutes life) will be of increasing importance in the coming years.
I first saw the movie Gravity not too long after it was first released in theaters. Smarter people than I have explained what the movie got right and wrong in terms of science, but that’s not what I would like to talk about. I haven’t seen Gravity since I saw it the first time in theaters, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy on what happens in the movie. Fair warning: there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.
The thing that most interested me about the movie was this theme about rebirth and growth that was developed through the movie, starting with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone and her first spacewalk to service the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is, in fact, one of the most important instruments we’ve ever developed, capturing images of the universe with such clarity that they never fail to leave us stunned. To look at one of the images is to see the breathtaking expanse of space laid out before us, each speck of light representing another galaxy.
Gravity is a movie about space, but not in the way that a lot of other movies are. Sure, there’s the typical “space is dangerous” aspect about the movie. Apart from that, though, I think that there’s a great respect for the physical forces we’re dealing with, and what it will take for humanity to meet the challenges in front of us. We have a long way to go before we’re ready to reach out and touch the stars.
In the movie, Ryan Stone’s inexperience is met with the childish antics of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney. This is Kowalski’s final mission, so he takes the time to enjoy the view and the experience of being in space by floating around with his manned maneuvering unit. To some degree, there’s less a feeling of exploration and pushing the bounds of human knowledge than there is the feeling that this is becoming old hat. How many people are interested in the minutia of what NASA does on versus the number of people who were watching anxiously as man took his first steps on the moon?
The main problem arises when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite puts debris on a collision course with the team and the Hubble Telescope. What follows is a mad scramble to avoid the collision, but ultimately, both the space shuttle Explorer and Hubble are destroyed, and one of the three astronauts dies. Kowalski and Stone then try to get to the International Space Station before the debris spins around the planet to hit them again.
Without doing an in-depth summary of a movie I haven’t seen in over a year, let me get to the point: after Kowalski dies, Stone is on her own, facing circumstances that nobody has ever faced before. There’s a poignant scene in which Stone, after crawling into the space station and taking off her suit, is curled up by a window.
This image calls to mind the picture of a human developing in the womb, curled up with the umbilical cord. And in a way, the space station is Stone’s womb–it’s the thin skin between the cold void of space and certain death and the warmth and air she needs to survive.
Moving ahead a bit, after she crash lands on the planet in one of the Chinese station’s escape pods, she crawls onto the beach. The movie ends as she takes her first, trembling steps on land, signifying her survival and growth from baby in the womb on the space station.
It’s very human–but more than human, it represents the evolution of life. There’s a an idea in science–not quite a theory–called panspermia. There are a lot of different version of this idea, but for me the most attractive is one which posits simply that life on Earth came from space via microorganisms that survived being carried on asteroids and comets. I don’t subscribe to this idea as a good explanation of life, but there are interesting implications. We do know that organic compounds that life depends on can be found on comets and asteroids–so it is, at least, thinkable that the compounds needed for life could have come from them.
There are clear parallels in Gravity and this idea, and furthermore with the evolution of life. Stone survives reentry as all of the metal of the satellites and the two space stations crashes around her. She emerges from the water–as early life did–crawling onto the beach, then on her hands and knees, and then standing on two feet.
So what does this have to do with space exploration and humanity? We reach for space, but come crashing back to Earth. What Gravity does is highlight how hostile space is and how much we actually rely on the safety of Earth. There’s a narrow window in which humans can survive, and once that’s gone, that’s it. As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
We reborn onto the planet Earth, with a new respect for it. We’re ready to take our first steps into space, but with humility and awareness that Earth is who we are. We’re drawn to it, literally and figuratively. From space we can marvel at its beauty, and from the surface we can appreciate how it has nurtured us.
Maybe one day we’ll find life on another planet, or maybe even settle and build on other planets. I tend to think that the future holds boundless potential for humanity, as long as we remember that, when we look at the big picture, life is fragile. Earth is all we have.
I almost decided not to participate in the National Novel Writing Month this year. I missed over a week of writing time due to the elections (I was very busy for the first few weeks of November taking care of campaign-related issues). At the last minute, I decided that I would give it a try.
I chose to write a fantasy story that I came up with by accident. I can’t remember the exact details, but I was playing some kind of game with a group of my friends, and due to my sloppy handwriting, they read the title of a fantasy novel I might write wrongly. Thus, Ser Darkthor’s Court was born; a novel about a Knight Errant who travels the realm and solves crimes. It was envisioned as sort of a Sword and Sorcery version of Sherlock Holmes.
Here’s the synopsis that I put up on NaNoWriMo when I started to write it:
Jesper is a class of Knight Errant called a Red Moon. They are tasked with policing the realm of Ser Darkthor, First of His Name, Honorable and Wise Leader of (Insert Name of Place Here). Jesper’s travels take him to a small village which appears peaceful on the surface, but hides a dark secret that could change the balance of power or something like that. Jesper begins an investigation in a Sherlock Holmes-meets-medieval fantasy novel, and uncovers a conspiracy that does something. I’ll flesh it out. It’ll be great. I promise.
The story, obviously, is much more developed now. Th good news is that I plugged away for the three weeks that I participated and I managed to win! Yay! It’s the third time in a row that I’ve won, and it always feels like I’ve climbed a mountain or explored a new planet.
I’m going to finish this story, clean it up, and probably serialize it on my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics. Look out for that when it happens, because I happen to think it is an interesting story. It’s not the best fantasy, and I might have borrowed a teensy too much from Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin, but I had a lot of fun writing it and I definitely think it is worth sharing.
I’ve actually thought about starting a patreon or something similar to that in case people wanted to chip in a few bucks if they like my fiction. I don’t have a lot of time to write, but if I can make some money doing it I’d carve out a niche for it. I think that’s something to think about for the future, if I can ever manage to get around to doing half the things that I say that I want to do.
Anyway, I hope that my fellow writers found success with NaNoWriMo last year, and I hope they continue to find success in the coming years.
I remember when I first got the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD and I watched the second part, I remember thinking that they represented the future in the movie as if they hired a bunch of futurists and then decided to make what they came up with as absurd as possible. There was over the top holographic movie technology, crazy flying cars, thingies that walked dogs (I’m guessing some sort of hovering robot), and people wore two ties for some crazy reason.
And I remember loving the hell out of that.
Nevertheless, here we are in 2015. We don’t have hover cars. We kinda sorta have something that’s close to what you might recognize as a hover board with either a lot of optimism or a few shots of bourbon. We don’t have those fantastic hydrator thingies, we don’t have dust-repellant paper, and we don’t have cafes that are dedicated to our nation’s rampant 80’s nostalgia.
Nobody really misses Reagan (and most younguns ask “Reagan who?”) and Pepsi is still an
inferior product. They did get the Soviet flag craze right, though!
We do have what we’ve always had: our optimism and willing to dream big. Our drive to understand who we are and our place in the universe. We move forward, through time if not in other ways, because that is our existence. We struggle through our mistakes, and we come together to mourn our losses. We stand athwart those who would seek to divide us, and we honor the fallen with simple phrases that speak volumes. And that’s not so bad.
2014 was a busy year for me, and my posting dropped off almost completely after April. There are a lot of things that I want to catch up on, including writing about my run for State Representative and a few other things. Plus, I’ve got some interesting things to say about John Scalzi’s new novel Lock In, and I really want to get started on some projects I said I would do years ago (I’ve been busy, okay!).
Plus, I’m planning to serialize a novel that I’ve written to my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics.
I look forward to this new year, and obviously I plan on getting a lot of mileage on Back to the Future references. So, to everyone who reads this (and to all of those poor souls who don’t–you know who you are, all 7,400,000,000 of you) I wish a brilliant and amazing 2015.
Let’s make it worth remembering.
If you value your sanity, and if you value reason, science, and logic, for the love of gostack (may gostack ever distim the doshes) avoid this movie.
At all costs.
I really tried to summon the energy to write a point-by-point tear-down of the movie and why it is the worst comedy-masquerading-as-serious-sci-fi film ever made, but the total cost in terms of entropy created by such action was universe-devouring in scope.
Let’s leave it at this: it mangles science, philosophy, sense, and does so at the expense of coherency and enjoyability. There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t facepalming epically during the 90-minute assault on my neurons. When, near the end, Lucy, named–ha ha–in a rather transparent reference to the australopithecus afarensis, gives a bizarre speech about the non-existence of numbers and some nonsense about time, I reached such divide-by-zero levels of fury that I had to consciously stop myself from throwing my shoe at the screen in the theater.
As the credits started to role, and I began to ponder the ending lines, “Now you know what to do with it,” I realized that the proper reaction to this movie is not seething rage, but laughter.
See, the movie is a practical joke, played on all of us.
Damn you, Luc Besson, King of Practical Jokes.