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July 3, 2014

Sort of apology (3/7/2014)
The domain was unreachable from late on Sunday, June 29, to Wednesday, July 2, and visitors were seeing a message saying that the account had been suspended. This was caused by a bureaucratic and administrative problem at the hosting company. Annual renewal of the hosting contract was due on June 29 and was paid two days earlier, but the payment was not processed for some reason. It took me three days of emails and phone calls to sort it out (although it has not yet been fully resolved and the reactivation is temporary while an investigation takes place).

I apologise for any inconvenience, but I can assure you I was as inconvenienced as anyone. I had much better things to do this week than chase this up, including setting up a new laptop computer to replace the trusty old one that died after ingesting too much beer (don't ask!) and handling all the usual end-of-financial-year nonsense. Because I effectively lost a week of real working time I haven't had time to do much here, so I will be back on July 12 with lots of interesting stuff.

Don't worry, I'm not going away any time soon. There have been many announcements of the closing down of this site in the past. All of them have been inaccurate. I think my favourite was the threat by Tim Bolen, spokescloaca for quacks, who predicted in 2012 that the crooks at Doctor's Data would take me to court and I would be "gone from the internet, a bad memory, like a fart in an elevator". I'm still waiting.

July 12, 2014

Disruption! Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. (12/7/2014)
Well, if Jesus can quote Yeats for his purpose, who am I to do otherwise. Following on from the disruption caused by the temporary disappearance of last week, I've been busy writing my speech for SkeptiCamp, finishing off my new book (to be officially launched at the event), writing more chapters for my book about management, getting my car fixed (I drove it somewhere and when I got back in the previously perfectly working brakes were no more. A mechanic is now looking at it. It's a Falcon and it could not hear my commands – more Yeats!), thanking the deities that the huge storm which tore the door off my garden shed threw it at a tree and not at the glass doors at the rear of the house (I have since reviewed my house insurance), working for a living, and generally getting on with life. Things will return to normal (I hope) after SkeptiCamp.

See more Jesus and Mo here

The new book (12/7/2014)
I Things I Think About – Volume 1have been writing and speaking in public for a long time, so I decided to collect all the speeches and articles together in a handy anthology. The first volume, covering late 1999 to mid 2003 is now available. I had been writing for newspapers long before this, but a lot of the words have been lost in the evolution of email programs and word processors over the ages. Someday I might do some archeology and publish a prequel.  Unless a generous publisher offers to pay for printing paper copies the new version is only sold online and is distributed in digital form.

The introduction to the book says:

I love writing and I have been contributing to magazines and newspapers for a very long time. In 1996 I was commissioned by Choice Books (part of the Australian Consumers' Association) to write a book, How To Connect To The Internet, which was published in 1997 and was rumoured to be the best-selling non-fiction book in Australia in that year. When I decided to put together a collection of things that I've written I had to pick an arbitrary starting date so I chose 1999, which happened to be the year I started publishing an online magazine called The Millenium Project (the spelling is intentional). For the first item I chose the first article I had published in The Skeptic, the journal of Australian Skeptics Inc. I had given a talk at an Australian Skeptics national conference and I was approached by the magazine editor immediately afterwards and asked to write up the talk for publication. As they say in the clichés, the rest was history. This volume covers the period from late 1999 to June 2003. There will be more later.

I make no apology for writing about things that interest or concern me, and I have been lucky over the years in that editors have generally given me freedom to write about what I want in the style that I want, although obviously there have been occasional suggestions for topics. I like to think that I have a broad range of interests, although I might go through periods when one thing interests me more than others. The thread running through everything is skepticism – I like facts and I like those facts to be supported by evidence, or at least reasoned argument.

Get your copy from Amazon.

The Vaccination Chronicles (12/7/2014)
My friend Richard Saunders has just released his new video, The Vaccination Chronicles, containing interviews with people with direct experience of some of the diseases that we rarely see today because vaccines against them exist. It is an inexplicable tragedy that there are people who want us to return to the days of iron lungs and children dying from diseases for which there is safe and effective prevention.

Richard should be congratulated loudly for this. It will probably come as no surprise that I personally know many of the people interviewed.

Other people's books (12/7/2014)
I'm an avid reader and I rarely leave my local library without a few more books to read. The last time I was there I borrowed a book ostensibly about the study of ignorance. It had the title "Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance", an anthology of scholarly papers edited by Robert N Proctor and Londa Schiebinger. It was not quite what I expected, so I've written a review of it.

I saw this book in my local public library and it caught my eye because I'm interested in ignorance. It is ignorance that drives many of the matters of interest to The Millenium Project – ignorance of science, ignorance of logic, ignorance of culture, ignorance of religion (even by believers who should be expected to know their own faith), ignorance of philosophy, ... . I thought it was about time that someone looked at the phenomenon, maybe following up on the work of Dunning and Kruger.

You can read the rest of the review here.

See more of Tim Whyatt's work here

And I write more stuff (12/7/2014)
The latest edition of that fine magazine Australasian Science is on the newsstands and as usual I'm in it. I have to admit that with winter coming to the Blue Mountains I have to carefully consider the policy of getting into character to write my Naked Skeptic column. I have a similar but unrelated problem in bush fire season when I have to be prepared to evacuate my dog and belongings to a safe place at a moments notice. Even when the weather is perfect there are still potential problems. I answered a knock on the door mid-column once and found a lady from the Post Office there to deliver a parcel. She was off work on PTSD leave for months and now my deliveries from eBay are just thrown from the street onto my verandah. I put out a mattress or two if I'm expecting anything fragile.

But on to the latest column. It's about a famous visitor to my neighbourhood in 1836, Charles Darwin.

I live about 900 metres above sea level. Beneath me are layers of sandstone, coal, and shale built up over hundreds of millions of years of erosion, sedimentation, and compression. About 150 million years ago an enormous slab of this was forced upwards by tectonic forces, and this was followed by a period of volcanic activity caused by the movement, with volcanoes pouring a layer of basalt over the top. Weather, water, and gravity then conspired to create great cavities in the rock formation – the valleys we see today. The locality might be called the Blue Mountains, but really it's a huge plateau with very big holes in it. And it's not blue – the predominant colours are the yellows and oranges of the sandstone and the dark grey-green of gum trees. The name comes from  what Darwin called "a thin blue haze", caused by vapour emitted by the billions of eucalyptus trees.

You can read the rest here.

July 26, 2014

He talks to people (26/7/2014)
On Saturday, July 19, I spoke at SkeptiCamp in Brisbane. I have to congratulate the organisers for putting on one of the best conferences of any kind I have ever been to. The model for SkeptiCamp was changed to that of a conventional conference, with a published list of speakers and a timetable, and reservations were taken for attendance. The $0 entry fee, the free food, and the cupcake competition were retained. Special mention has to go to the way the audio-visual matters worked. All speakers were set up with a lapel microphone well before going on stage so there was no microphone tapping and "Is this thing on?", all PowerPoint shows were loaded onto a single computer before the event so we were spared the tedium of watching speakers trying to get their own laptops to communicate with the world, and everything worked just as it should. I have been to some very expensive conferences which could learn a lot from how this one was run. I could thank individual people but I would inevitably leave someone out, so I'll just send a generic "Thank you, and congratulations".

I only had two problems – I spoke just before the meal break and by the time I disentangled myself from people who wanted to continue the Q&A almost all the food had been eaten. There was however a pristine bowl of crunchy things, still with its clingwrap covering, that had obviously not appealed to anyone. Perhaps it was because of the sign saying "Gluten free and vegan". The nuggety things were delicious (and not just because I was hungry) but don't tell anyone about the sign or my credibility will be in smithereens. (Please note that I have never said that gluten-free or vegetable-only food tastes bad. I just object to faddishness, self-diagnosis of disease, and high-horse and self-congratulatory justification.) The second problem was the volume of the band in the after-event Skeptics in the Pub. They were reasonably good musicians and played songs that might have only been familiar to old folk like me (I did point out to someone that the last time I had heard "Folsom Prison Blues" in a pub I was one of the people singing it), but it was a pub, not a football stadium. Their rendition of "Khe San" was pretty ordinary, but most singers aren't Jimmy Barnes and anyway it was late so the crowd were either not paying attention or were deaf.

The next day several of us agreed to meet at the Coffee Club only to find that there are several such establishments within a small radius in Brisbane. This wasn't so much a problem as a confusing and amusing adventure. Perhaps we should have arranged to meet at the coffee shop across the street from the hall where the conference was held. There was plenty of parking available, if you had a Range Rover (and no, I'm not going to repeat the old riddle about the difference between a Range Rover and an echidna). Interstate visitors have been informed that when they come to Sydney in November for the Australian Skeptics' convention we will all be getting together at McDonalds.

So what did I talk about? Continuing my tradition of delivering something at SkeptiCamp that I haven't talked about before I spoke about the impact of moral philosophy on the practice of science. but unfortunately you won't be able to see my slideshow or my joke about being a journalist, or to hear Depeche Mode deliver a rebuke to some foolish scientists. (They are in the video below.)

Some prominent scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have recently declared that philosophy is dead and provides nothing that scientists need to know or worry about.

One problem is that people misunderstand and misquote philosophers. I used the expression "philosophy is dead", which might remind people of Nietzsche saying "God is dead". This was not a statement of atheism, it was a statement about morality – as people tended to base moral decisions on the teachings of religions, would it be a problem to establish a moral framework in the absence of directions from some assumed deity? (The old "Atheists have no moral compass" and "Good without God" arguments.) Karl Popper didn't say that scientists spend their time trying to falsify what everyone else was doing, he was talking about the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Thomas Kuhn didn't say that science progresses like a form of punctuated equilibrium with revolutions occasionally throwing over the consensus and totally new theories replacing old ones, he was saying that even well-accepted theories might not explain everything and there can come a time when the unexplained anomalies reach a mass where a different explanation is required.

Read the rest here

Here is the actual talk. There is a period of silence when a song was played. This was done to avoid any accusation of copyright violation.

See more Close to Home here

He writes stuff for people (26/7/2014)
I was going to condense my SkeptiCamp talk down to the 800 word limit for my next column in Australasian Science, but apart from the problem of cutting it in half and still making sense I realised that I had written about a similar topic earlier this year. The drawing board was dusted off and I wrote about something else entirely. One unfortunate aspect of the change of plan was that I was originally going to write it in Brisbane where the weather was perfect for getting into Naked Skeptic character but instead I had to do the work back here in the Blue Mountains where it's cold enough to make jokes about freezing things off billiard tables. It won't be in the newsstands for a few weeks but you can read a sneak preview here.

I've written here before about the hijacking of the word "skeptic" by people who should properly be called "deniers". It was even adopted by an anti-vaccination organisation when they were forced to change their deceptive name. They, like climate change deniers, insist that they are the true skeptics because they question the orthodoxy that is supported and promoted by the majority of scientists. They love to point out that science isn't a democracy or a popular vote, that Ignaz Semmelweis was ignored, and that "they all laughed at Galileo". None of this changes the fact that they are misusing the word "skeptic".

Read the rest here

My car has been fixed (26/7/2014)

See more of Cectic here.

The Freethunk web site disappeared in January 2020.
It went to Facebook and then disappeared from there also.

Look who's coming to town (26/7/2014)

James Randi will be making what could possibly be his last visit to Australia in December 2014 for screenings of the film "An Honest Liar". Following the film there will be an interview and a Q&A session. Dates are:

Here's a trailer of the film.


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