Gen Con 2010 and 2011

First, Don has posted video from two of last year’s Gen Con skepticism panels. I can’t watch it myself yet–my voice sounds all weird when I’m not hearing it through my bones–but I encourage all of you to do so, if you’re so inclined. Here’s our General Skepticism one, and you can view “Cargo Cult Science” at A Place for My Stuff or YouTube.

Second, as you may be aware, Gen Con 2011 is this week, and the Skeptical Gamers are back in force, with a whole bunch of panels and presentations to expose skepticism to the gaming masses. Somehow I got myself involved with four of these presentations, but don’t let that keep you from attending. There are lots of other awesome people involved, and if you happen to find yourself in Indy, I recommend dropping by. Feel free to come up and say hi!

Answering a Challenge

Akusai and I have been conversing quite a bit lately over GMail Chat about the recent skeptic infighting. Yesterday’s exchange was very odd, with an unintentional one-upping of overextended metaphors. The end result had Akusai literalizing “grassroots” and me coining the term “Joe Everygay.” As a challenge, Akusai said my next analogy should involve the Transformers. Well…

At least they color-coordinate well.So, there’s this faction of Autobots called the Protectobots. As their name implies, their role is mainly to protect people. Their alternate modes are all rescue vehicles–a MedEvac helicopter, a fire truck, a police car, etc.–and they combine to form the giant robot Defensor.

Now, the Protectobots are useful, don’t get me wrong. They’ve successfully defeated the brutal Combaticons, and they’re one of the few early Autobot combiner groups. But mostly, their utility is in defense (as the name implies), rescue work, and cleanup. It doesn’t help that at least two of their members are pacifists, which has caused friction in the past (like when Defensor was left with only one arm because pacifist medic First Aid refused to fight). They may be great if you’re a wounded Autobot or a human trapped in a burning building, but they aren’t much use at actually driving off the Decepticon invasion.

On the other hand, you have the Dinobots. As their name implies, they turn into dinosaurs (sort of; I mean, I’m pretty sure pteranodons aren’t technically dinosaurs, but you get my drift). They’re strong and loud and not particularly subtle, and they can often be found taking on significantly larger enemies with little regard to whether or not they’re outclassed. Much gooder! But not more gooder enough!They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they’re certainly the heaviest, and they’re loyal to a fault–at least, to whomever happens to be strongest. In a fight, you want the Dinobots on your side–and you want to stay out of their way.

Most Autobots fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two groups. Warpath is a loud and energetic little tank whose eagerness to fight far outstrips his ability. Perceptor is a thoughtful scientist whose capabilities in battle are limited by his microscope alternate mode. Kup, Ironhide, and Optimus Prime are all old warriors, willing to fight when necessary and preferring diplomacy when possible, but always striving for peace and an end to the Decepticon menace–which is ultimately the goal of all Autobots, whatever their role happens to be in the war.

If all the Autobots were pacifistic Protectobots or battle-hampered scientists like Perceptor, the war against the Decepticons would have been lost ages ago. Things would be similarly dire if all the Autobots were as blunt and unrestrained as the Dinobots–sure, the Decepticon forces might be damaged, but so would everything else around them. Were all the Autobots to rush in like Warpath, not thinking ahead or considering the odds, a well-crafted Decepticon plot could wipe them out just as effectively as wiping out the pacifists. The Autobot army needs both groups to function–but moreover, it needs members with versatility: Blaster‘s boombox alternative mode is mostly suited to communications and entertainment, but he is able to use that in an offensive manner when necessary; Ratchet might be a medic, but he’s no slouch with a gun. Some Autobots are able to use their specializations offensively; some Autobots are just able to move seamlessly from defense to diplomacy to offense as the need arises.

Altogether, they make a pretty effective team. The Dinobots and their ilk can charge in, attack and distract and occasionally demolish an enemy; the Protectobots can clean up and attend to the bystanders, ensuring that any collateral damage is minimal, and the rest of the Autobots can assist one, or the other, or both, or work in totally separate areas on different problems. The Protectobots would assist no one by insisting that the Dinobots be less aggressive, and the Dinobots would get nowhere by trying to make the Protectobots take the offense. The team’s effectiveness comes from their differences in focus, specialty, attitude, and strategy, and from the willingness and ability of most members to support and assist with any plan of action. Those who would lead the Autobots would do well to recognize and accept this state of affairs, and to realize that it’s foolish to try to apply the same tactics, strategy, and soldiers to every situation.
Also, skeptics can turn into cars. True story.

How’s that for an analogy?

Cheaper by the Dozen

So, Bronze Dog and King of Ferrets both tagged me with a meme, the rules of which are as follows:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Since I got tagged twice, I might as well double it up, right? Here are twelve random things about me.

  1. I haven’t looked it in a month or so, but I was working again on memorizing some favorite poems and passages. Off the top of my head, I can do Puck’s speech from the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the full text of Sonnet 130. I know most of Sonnet 116 and some of this bit from King Lear. I used to know all of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,” but I’ve more or less lost the middle two stanzas at this point. I’ve always wanted to memorize Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” so that’s high on the list, and I’ve also printed out Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” and Raleigh’s brilliant reply “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” since I randomly quoted a line from the former recently. While in the past, I kind of focused on renaissance poetry (as ought to be obvious at this point), I also started working on Poe’s “The Raven” and Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” the former largely because it was around Halloween when I started, the latter because it’s fun and easy (I’ve got two stanzas down just today–three if you count that the first one is repeated at the end). If I had the time and a better memory, I’d add Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to the list, but I think Poe and Marvell are already pushing it as far as length.

    Yes, I recognize how useless and geeky this is, but I decided to do it after I had an epiphany about the scads of useless knowledge already rattling around my head (Jaster Mereel!) and figured I could at least put some culture in there. Besides, I tend to neglect my literature geek side, and it deserves a bit of love now and then.

    Incidentally, I can recite large swaths of “Green Eggs and Ham” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” which really put everything else on the list to shame.

  2. I think “The Exorcist” is vastly overrated, and I didn’t find it to be even the least bit scary. It’s been awhile since I watched the flick, so this is from a few-years-old memory, but it seems to me that it took the same approach to horror that Carlos Mencia takes to comedy. Loudly saying curse words and doing moderately shocking things for no apparent reason neither equals humor nor horror. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m seriously bothered by villains who have no discernable motivation–with the possible exception of Michael Myers in the original “Halloween,” who was more “force of nature” than “villain”–and I don’t understand why the Lord of Lies and King of the Underworld would waste his time dicking with a teenage girl and a couple of priests. Really, Satan? That’s the best you got? It’s certainly no wonder God won that war, but I really can’t fathom why fundies and such would legitimately fear you. The film makes Satan look like a petty middle-aged loser who never grew out of the pranks he pulled with his frat brothers. In fact, “The Exorcist” makes the Devil look an awful lot like Biff Tannen.
  3. For close to two weeks now, I’ve lost sensation in my big toe on my left foot. When I was moving out of my apartment, I spent a lot of time in boots, out in the cold, and I was on my feet almost constantly for eleven hours on the day I finally checked out. About halfway through that marathon of packing, I noticed that it felt like I’d worn a hole into the sole of my left boot, and my big toe was in some kind of indentation; when I took the shoes off, it felt like my toe was asleep. The sensation hasn’t gone away since, leaving about half of that toe numb. I saw my doctor, who prescribed arch supports, steroids, soaking in warm water, and a follow-up visit. So far, not much change.

    On a possibly related note, the skin on several of my fingertips has been really rough lately, and I suspect that it’s due to some frostbite, damage from the moving process, and exposure to rock salt, though I can’t be totally sure. For a couple of days after moving, though, it felt like everything I touched was made of sandpaper.

  4. I picked up the first “Fable” game, and I started playing it. I haven’t gotten very far (and I haven’t really touched it in several weeks), but so far I’m not entirely sure what the hype’s about. I expected the black-and-white moral system, thanks to chats with the Action Skeptics crew at GenCon, but I didn’t realize the story would be quite so terribly clichéd. I mean, spunky kid whose small farm town is razed by villains, killing his whole family, who then gets adopted by a wizard of some sort? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s even mentioned in the Evil Overlord List.

    On the other hand, I’m about as far into “Psychonauts” time-wise as I am with “Fable,” and it’s living up to my expectations so far. If someone had told me before that it had a graphic style somewhere between “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Aaah! Real Monsters,” I would have picked it up months ago.

  5. Speaking of XBox games, I’ve gotten burned thrice now with superhero games on the console. I posted my lengthy thoughts on Spider-Man: Web of Shadows here. I don’t regret buying Incredible Hulk, but it generally feels like a pale imitation of Hulk: Ultimate Destruction on the previous generation consoles, albeit with a more destructible landscape. I played Iron Man for an hour or so before giving up due to the terrible flight controls (I got spoiled by the near-perfect flight mechanics in Superman Returns) and imprecise directions (how am I supposed to stop the jets without killing the pilots when all I have are missiles and lasers?). Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a great game, and DC Universe/Mortal Kombat was pleasantly surprising (because I had no expectations for it), but other than that, I don’t think I’ve played a really good superhero game on the system. Am I just stuck waiting for M:UA2, or are there games that I’ve overlooked?
  6. I’ve watched a few episodes of the “new” Unsolved Mysteries, and I’m not sure what bugs me more: the fact that they’ve dubbed Dennis Farina over the reused Robert Stack segments, the fact that the show is so insanely credulous, or the fact that I watched it completely uncritically for most of my childhood. It’d be one thing if it just went after missing persons and unsolved murders, but they throw in every bit of crazy ghost, alien, and psychic woo-woo that they possibly can. Pitting the two together lends the fantasies the credibility of the realities–inasmuch as the criminal cases are realities and not conspiracy theories.

    At least I can have a chuckle that a show which used to air exclusively on Lifetime: Television for Women now airs exclusively on Spike TV: Television for Men.

  7. Mercifully, my allergies haven’t been acting up much this break. Usually on breaks, the time I spend at home and at my girlfriend’s house leaves me in cat-induced misery, but I’ve only had one real reaction all this break, despite routinely forgetting to take my Claritin. Lucky me, I guess.
  8. Jesus' mom has got it goin' on!I recently saw another of the Jesus figures at the Wal-Mart where I bought mine. Alongside him: Mary, his inexplicably hot mom. She wasn’t particularly impressive, and I didn’t have any real ideas for fun scenes with the two of them, but I may pick her up next time I’m there, just because I’m curious if she talks, and what she would say if she did? “Blessed art I among women”?

    If they’d had Moses, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Incidentally, I bought a large Thor figure for god-battles, but had to return him when he broke immediately after being opened.

  9. I’ve been getting dragged to church on a slightly regular basis since I moved back home. As a kid, I spent the time mostly playing Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman on the back of bulletins; when I got a little older, I started working on various stories or writings on the bulletins. What I generally didn’t do was pay attention to the sermons, which really didn’t hold much meaning for me. Lately, though, I’ve listened in, and it’s been enlightening. The sermon this past Sunday was one of the most inept public speeches I’ve heard since High School. It was long, it was rambling, it was boring, it was weepy, it was filled with “ums” and “likes” and the other placeholder sounds that demonstrate that you’ve not written out careful enough notes or practiced your speech enough, and it was occasionally hilarious. I’m paraphrasing, but I’m absolutely serious: ‘you know how sometimes you’re out shopping, and you find a really great sale, and you just can’t wait to call your friend so you can tell someone? Like, oh, I got such a great deal, and I thought you should know about it. You’re just so excited that you need to tell someone? Well, that’s how you should be about Jesus, so excited that you just can’t wait to tell someone!’ My eyes just about rolled out of my head at that point. “Hey Barb, didja see that Jesus is on clearance at the Cracker Barrel? You better hurry down, ’cause there’s only one left in your size, and you wouldn’t want a Jesus that’s too small.” Jonathan Edwards she wasn’t.
  10. I’m itching to liveblog A Haunting again.
  11. Shouldn't it be 'Mntn Dw'?I’m really confused by the new Mountain Dew packaging. What the hell is up with that? Are they suddenly too extreme for vowels? Does Mountain Dew make you too fast-paced to use full words? I can’t wait to try the new Sr Mist and Pps and Dr. Pepper…okay, maybe the last one is a bad example.
  12. Unlike Bronze Dog, I never managed to get into Magic: The Gathering. I’ve got gajillions of Overpower cards if anyone wants to play, though.


They found our lack of faith disturbing

Continuing my convention report, I figured I’d briefly mention our encounters with fundies over the course of the weekend. Akusai wrote about it here (and here’s his first convention post), but I’m writing this before I read that, so my perspective isn’t tainted by anything except standard two-weeks-later memory loss.

According to the con-veterans, fundies at GenCon is a new phenonmenon this year. In any case, they were out in Force (pun intended, as you’ll see shortly). Sadly, the first one we encountered was probably the most entertaining, although the second set could have been fun if we’d been able to stick around.

So, I may be a little off on the whole timeline of the situation, but I think the first fundie was on Friday. We were walking out of the convention center toward either the parking garage or Video Games Live, and there was a guy on the corner in a Hard Rock Cafe: Sydney t-shirt handing out what looked like business cards. I took one and glanced at it:Holy Sith!And naturally I assumed it was for some store or new gaming system or something. I mean, it’s a convention, and it was a Star Wars business card; such things are a dime a dozen.

At some point, though, I turned it over. The giant wall of text was the first tip-off that something was wonky. Two sentences in, I made some sacred and profane exclamation, and showed it to the rest of the group. To those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, “every painting needs a painter” is like a foghorn screaming “Ray Comfort”! The unconnected, back-and-forth non sequitur nature of the text, the list of rapid-fire asinine apologetics, and the way it violated copyrights to make its point all confirmed it in my mind. We had just been evangelized by one of Ray Comfort’s cronies. The website confirms (at the very least) that “Redeemed Scoundrels” takes inspiration from Comfort’s Living Waters Ministries.

So, as luck would have it, we had made a wrong turn and had to pass by our evangelist pal (heretofore referred to as “Smiley,” due to his perpetual, implacable, totally blank ear-to-ear grin) again. He tried to hand me a second card, and I just brandished the first and said “Ray Comfort? Really? Really? Is that the best you’ve got?” I shook my head and we walked to the corner.

Smiley followed us after a few moments and asked me “How do you know Ray Comfort?” I replied “Vapidity and insipidity of that magnitude can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the planet.” Note that the phrase I was looking for at the beginning was “arrogant ignorance”–not that what I said and many things besides aren’t equally true. Smiley was silent, his shit-eating grin totally unfazed. I just kind of looked at him, waiting for a response. Eventually Akusai said (something along the lines of) “We’re saying he’s kind of a shithead.”

At about that point, the traffic light changed and we began to cross the street. Akusai shouted back (again, something including but not limited to) “God doesn’t exist, and you can take that to the bank!” About another third of the way through the crosswalk, Smiley shouted a lame “Every painting needs a painter!” And we just laughed.

Somewhere in all that, or it may have even been later that day, Jason (one of our group) was somehow singled out to receive a pamphlet and a Book of Mark from a Jew for Jesus. The pamphlet was pretty funny–it had clearly been made in the very early ’90s, and referenced the Star Wars films, Burton’s Batman movies, Home Alone, and the Alien series, all as sequels that would pale in comparison to the second coming. It’s interesting how pure serendipity masked its total irrelevance, since there have been recent Star Wars, Batman, and Alien sequels. Sadly for our Messianic Semite pal, Home Alone still dates the piece. We didn’t have much contact with the Jew for Jesus, and the pamphlet wasn’t extreme enough to warrant extended blog attention; still, I’m not sure I understand what exactly the Jew for Jesus thing is. Are they just Christians who keep kosher, or what? What makes them not Christians?

We came out of Video Games Live later that night, and we noticed that a bunch of apocalyptic preachers had set up shop on the street corner, complete with a giant cross with a purple loincloth draped over it. I didn’t hear much beyond the usual end times clichés–something about this being the 40th generation or whatever the prophecy is. It would have been nice to stick around and mess with them, but we were all pretty tired by that point.

The remainder of the weekend provided us with only two more examples. First, on the same street corner as Smiley, there was a kid dressed in goth-punk garb, silently handing out the Star Wars cards. I took a second one in passing, just in case, and told him “that’s some real half-assed evangelism there. Congratulations.” He didn’t react much, and we didn’t see him again.

Finally, after the gothtastic White Wolf party, we were all riding home in Akusai’s car. We passed by a theater where signs proclaimed that Bill Maher was performing. And outside the theater? A candlelight vigil. Oh, how I wish we could have participated in that.

Coming in the next day or two, I’ll finish stuff off with a brief recap of the White Wolf party (we saw the Prime Minister!) and a sentence-by-sentence evisceration of the Sith card. Hokey religions and ancient apologetics are no substitute for a good argument at your side.

The Big GenCon Report

I’ve had the better part of a week to recover from the GenCon weekend, so I’d better start writing things down before I forget it all. In a word, it rocked. There were some serious moments of fail, and convention fatigue settled in pretty heavily by the end, but overall it was a blast. The cast of characters includes Akusai, Magus, and the Girlfriend, Wikinite, Jon, the Action Skeptics’ friend Jason, and a few assorted others. What follows is a catalog of my impressions, in no particular order.

  • GenCon was a very different experience for me, compared to my last three trips to Wizard World. Since I was there as an attendee rather than an employee, I wasn’t tied to any one spot for any length of time. While that allows for some freedom, it also meant that I didn’t have any place where I could go, leave my stuff behind, sit down for awhile, and just chill while still on the convention floor.
  • Besides that, it’s been years since I picked up dice in an RPG setting, and I’ve never been much of a board game geek or a MMORPG player. The convention, consequently, was directed at an audience slightly to the left of me. So, while at Wizard World I’m scrambling to do all the things I want to do, buying everything in sight, and getting autographs from everyone I recognize at various booths, I was a lot more laid back at GenCon. I kind of went with the crowd, stopping occasionally to admire or purchase things. While I was easily the most purchase-happy person in the group, I really only bought a few things–the five printed collections of Order of the Stick and a bunch of Doctor Who toys. I exercised restraint in the latter instance, deciding against buying the TARDIS interior playset. Gotta leave something for next year’s convention season, after all.
  • And yet, despite not really having any kind of plan or driving intent, I did an awful lot of things. In fact, about the only thing I didn’t get to do enough of was hanging out with Diamondrock. Our schedules (and my cell phone reception) didn’t allow more than a bit of smalltalk over the course of the weekend, and that’s regrettable. I think I’m going to have to make the trip out to his neck of the woods one of these coming weekends.
  • One other thing that differed between this convention and Wizard World: the prices. At WW, booths are falling over themselves to see who can offer the best deals and cheapest books. Cover price is usually reserved for the newest releases and the graphic novels at Graham Crackers; comics and books go for ridiculously low prices, which is why I buy so many. At GenCon, not so much. There were places with boxes of RPG books or out-of-print stuff at discounted rates, but most folks were selling at or over retail on most things. It wasn’t the bargain-crazy atmosphere I expect from conventions these days.
  • Indianapolis was gorgeous. It was my first time in the city (as far as I can remember), despite the fact that I spent a good portion of my formative years in Fort Wayne, and I really liked the atmosphere. It felt a bit like a smaller, more manageable Chicago, or a slightly less walkable Denver, albeit with more panhandlers-per-capita than I’ve noticed in either place before.
  • And the food! Oh, the food was magnificent. I had fish and chips at the Claddagh; I had a burger the size of my plate at a Scottish place, where I also tried a bite of Wikinite’s haggis (a bit like sticky meatloaf–not bad, because I like meatloaf, but not something I’d order for myself) and ate some scotch eggs (hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, breaded, and deep fried–the egg didn’t really do anything for the snack, but it was good); I went to P.F. Chang’s for the first time, where I learned of the wonders of lettuce wraps and tried tofu (not a fan) and lamb (for the first time in a non-gyros context). Even the place we went for breakfast on Sunday was pretty good, despite the fact that they actually served “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” Also, the usual standbys like Steak ‘N’ Shake and the Olive Garden.
    About the only place I wasn’t happy with was RAM, a bar and grill near the convention center which was plastered with D&D and other game-related posters and such, and which had renamed many of their dishes after fantasy characters. Magus and Wikinite were unhappy that their Guinnesses were served in keg cups like we were at some frat party (the waiter brought an extra one to make up for it, to his credit); I was slightly more unhappy that I had to scrape cheese and mustard off my burger, even after the waiter repeated my special request back to me. But, you know, one bad eating experience out of the whole weekend still averages out to damn good.
  • It was wonderful to pick up dice and character sheets again, for the first time since High School. Wikinite started an Amber diceless game (which, I guess, had neither dice nor character sheets–the point stands, nonetheless) on Thursday or Friday, based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. The first book is good so far (though I haven’t made any progress in it since…well, Friday), and the game was a blast. We made our characters in something of a vacuum, which meant that my steampunk alchemist/scientist was a bit out of his league when compared to Magus’s aging Arabian assassin, Akusai’s soul-stealing mad god, and Jason’s otherworldly shadow-manipulator. On the other hand, I got to be snarky, indignant, frequently exasperated, and compared to Xander. So, you know, it evens out. I hope we can get together to finish the game at some point; heck, I wouldn’t mind doing it over Skype or something–in fact, that’d be pretty cool.
  • Akusai and Magus ran a game of Mage: The Ascension on Saturday, which was made of win and full of awesome. Wikinite played a stoner whose powers centered around marijuana; Jon was a bum who believed himself to be Jesus and had the powers to back it up; an ailing Jason played Madame Charlatanne, a psychic of the Sylvia Browne persuasion; and I took up the mantle of Zariel the Blacksun, depressing super-goth extraordinaire. The plot of the game took us up against Jack Thompson and his army of video game-destroying Furries, a gaggle of geeky fantasy authors including “S.A. Ralvatore” and “Ted Greenhood,” Charlton Heston, Robo-Hobo and his mighty bumsaber, and finally Rev. Harry Ballwell and his army of cloned Jesuses Jesii.
    For those who don’t know much about Mage, most mages have some kind of focus–a ritual they perform in order to cast their magic spells. Jon’s Bum-Jesus had to recite a Bible passage, Wikinite had to toke up, and Zariel the Blacksun had to recite terrible Goth poetry. Akusai and Magus had the foresight to print some out along with the character sheets, but I decided early on that it would be fun to do some ad-libbing. Judging from the reactions of the group, that decision was probably for the best, if only because it led to masterpieces like this (from memory–this isn’t exactly it, and I kind of wish we’d been writing these down):

    Spirits, we invoke thee, using the power of three
    Three, a number of great power
    Three, the number of cuts in the perfect suicide
    One across, the classic
    One down, for practicality
    One diagonal:

    And so forth, reciting in the most pretentious, self-absorbed, overly-serious voice I could muster. I reached down into the deepest depths of my teenage angst and poured forth some hilarious poetic dreck, and it was good. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play the character again, and I hope I get the chance.

  • The costumes worked out pretty well (pictures forthcoming). On Saturday, Magus and Akusai went as Dante Hicks and Randall Graves from Clerks II (respectively), and I went as Silent Bob, with a costume that was a bit of a hodgepodge of the various View Askew films. It’s a shame Jon couldn’t get a Jay costume together, but things worked out pretty well. We had several people hit us up for pictures, which is pretty exciting since I spent a grand total of, like, $45 on that costume. Akusai, the Girlfriend, and I went to Lafayette’s finest costume shops in search of a wig on Wednesday, and the Girlfriend was probably right in the one she pointed out, but the one I ended up buying actually worked pretty well…after Akusai and I took a knife to it Saturday morning.
  • I bought my first pack of cigarettes for the costume–I just bite it; it’s for the look, I don’t light it. On one hand, I totally get why people would carry them around. It was very handy to have something to gesture with, to fiddle with absentmindedly in my hands, and so forth. It felt very natural. On the other hand, it started making my lips numb whenever I held it in my mouth for more than a few seconds, and the sweet tobacco smell became sickening after a little while–especially with the way it lingered all over my hands and stuck in my mouth. I inhaled once with the thing unlit, and I about choked on the awful taste–I can’t imagine how or why people can stand it on a regular basis.
    To split the difference, I’m seriously thinking about taking up bubblegum cigarettes. Failing that, I may finally invest in a bubble pipe.
  • I’m going to leave it there for now. The various fundies and the EVP presentation will probably be the next post, and at some point I’ll talk a bit about the White Wolf party. Stick around!

The crazy train keeps a-rollin’

PZ, bless his heart, posted a bunch of the angry e-mails that Bill Donohue’s clueless masses sent his way following Crackergate. I haven’t been able to read through all of them (bring a sandwich and find a comfortable chair if you plan to), but one of them got me thinking.

Well, actually, lots of them got me thinking. Most of the thoughts were “these people are utterly clueless if they think [PZ would hesitate to insult tenets of Islam and Judaism / Insulting the Eucharist is a “hate crime” / PZ is somehow using University time or resources to blog / PZ is a math professor]” and “these people have no idea what precipitated this post.” Also, “[any God who could be threatened in cracker form / any God who would get his followers so worked up over a snack food] is clearly sillier than either the “body mutilation” or “wear these clothes” gods.”

But, back to the point, one post got me thinking about something specific:

I know you are smarter than most people and probably even God himself, if you even believe in God.

Besides the obvious (hey, check the blog header or the big red A in the sidebar for Dr. Myers’ belief-in-God status), this got me wondering about being “smarter than God.”

See, my first inclination (and a couple of commenters in the original thread said it as well) would be to say that I’m smarter than God. After all, I don’t believe that God exists, and obviously I’d be smarter than something that doesn’t exist.

But then I thought, if someone asked me “do you think you’re smarter than Batman?” I’d probably say no. And yet, my position on the existence of Batman is exactly the same as my position on the existence of God.

Which brings me to the realization that while I don’t think God or Batman exist, the fictional characters of Batman and God absolutely do exist. And those fictional characters have defined traits–in these cases, exceptional intelligence.

So, how do you respond to such a question? Do you answer in terms of reality, and declare yourself smarter than everything that doesn’t exist? Or do you answer in terms of character traits, and respond that the fictional character possesses the greater intellect?

I guess the best response is the one that clarifies the answer. “Obviously, I’d consider myself smarter than any nonexistent person, but as the character is defined, I think he’s probably more intelligent.” Or something.

And now I’m going to spend the next day or so running over these weird “one hand clapping” questions in the back of my mind–“Am I taller than Superman? Am I more muscular than the Hulk? Am I as observant as Hercule Poirot?”

I Ought to be a Woo: My Brain

This is the first post in what will probably be a long and rambling introspective series on how it’s a miracle* that I ended up as skeptical as I am. First up: how my brain works.

Yesterday I was listening to a “Doctor Who” audio drama on my iPod and thinking a little about continuity–not “Doctor Who” continuity, even…I think I was considering something about Kryptonite for some reason. Anyway, my years in various sorts of fandom have taught me that I’m very good at rationalizing things. Give me any continuity error, quibbling (“Han was bluffing Obi-Wan; obviously a parsec is a unit of distance. As he showed with the Death Star communicator, he’s not always good at bluffing”) or monumental (“Due to the traumatic regeneration, which took place on Earth instead of in the TARDIS, the Doctor took on some terrestrial biological characteristics for his Eighth Incarnation; he’s ‘half-human’ on the side of his mother–Mother Earth”) and I can smooth it out with some post-hocking. I don’t even have to try particularly hard, except when I start applying this kind of thinking outside of fiction.

Moreover, I’m pretty good at drawing connections between otherwise disparate things. It makes compare/contrast essays really easy, and I imagine it’s a large part of why I’m so fascinated with Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn off. I find myself sometimes assigning thematic significance to things that happen in my life. I often hear new bands or see movies and begin describing it in terms of other bands or films–for instance, when I was riding with a friend yesterday, I described the band he was listening to as “Wall of Voodoo meets Tom Waits.” I then promptly felt like an asshole hipster and wanted to shoot myself. But that kind of thing happens all the time; I look at Xander from “Buffy” and can’t help thinking he must be Bruce Campbell’s secret love child, or I watch a preview for “P.S. I Love You” and think that it’s “Saw” as a love story. My brain is forever drawing connections.

As anyone who’s had any experience in the Skeptosphere already knows, post-hoc rationalization and connection-drawing are foundational to a variety of different types of magical thinking and woodom.

Post-hoc rationalizations require two things: first, an assumption of the truth, and second, an inconsistency between that assumption and observation. In fandom, that might look something like this:
Assumption: The “Star Wars” series is coherent and without contradiction.
Inconsistency: Princess Leia says in “Return of the Jedi” that she remembered her birth mother, who was “beautiful, kind but sad.” But we see in “Revenge of the Sith” that Padme Amidala dies in childbirth; how could Leia possibly remember that?
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Leia is Force-sensitive, and so her memories are influenced by telepathic impressions she received of her mother pre- and immediately post-natal.

See how it works? You start with your pre-existing worldview, and then iron out any inconsistencies with easy hand-waving explanations, ignoring totally the simpler, more parsimonious explanation that your initial assumptions may be flawed. For instance:
Assumption: God exists and answers prayers from His followers.
Inconsistency: Not all believers’ prayers get answered.
Post-Hoc Rationalization: They weren’t praying/believing right.

Or how about:
Assumption: Sylvia Browne has psychic powers.
Inconsistency: She told this lady that “the reason why you didn’t find him [her late husband’s body] is because he’s in water.” But the woman’s husband was a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center, not “in water.”
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Well, Sylvia was getting the water impression from the water used by the firefighters to put out the fire. The spirits, you see, they’re hard to hear, and maybe he didn’t die in the tower at all, or…

Did someone say World Trade Center? Why, I do believe that brings us to “drawing connections” (see how I drew that one? Not yet? Oh, well, wait a minute). Without the tendency to draw connections between otherwise unrelated things, there would be no conspiracy theories (get it now?), and alternative medicine types would have a much harder time hocking their wares. Connection drawing requires, in most cases, a great deal of cherry-picking, an affinity for analogies, and a tendency to inflate “connection” into “causal relationship.” It’s a boon for English majors, because it allows us to do things like literary interpretation and analysis, and pretend to have some degree of certainty.

As an example, I recently had to write a research paper on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” One of the ideas I had was that the vampires in Dracula (especially the Count himself) are 19th-century anti-Catholic caricatures. There’s the easy bits, like the fact that Stoker was an Anglican and the whole blood-drinking thing (since Catholics believe in real, not symbolic, transubstantiation). Our protagonists are largely Church of England, and are rather blasé about their faith; Jonathan Harker thinks that the Eastern Europeans he encounters are silly and superstitious, and he tries to refuse the Rosary one woman gives him. The vampires are all cowed and harmed Catholic iconography–the Host, crucifixes, etc.–which are used by our protagonists like magical spells. Only the vampires (and the “superstitious” characters) recognize any power in the icons, for everyone else, they are meaningless. This is a reference to the common characterization of Catholicism as witchcraft (and perhaps to Medieval Catholicism, where the illiterate laity incorporated those same Catholic icons in their old pagan magic rituals).

See, I could have built a pretty decent paper around that thesis, even though I recognize that it’s probably utter bullshit. I doubt that Stoker wrote his book as an anti-Catholic polemic, and if he did, then I doubt many of his readers would have gotten it. And to make the case, I have to ignore the fact that the most lauded character in the book is the obviously Catholic Abraham Van Helsing, or the various other details that don’t support (or actively contradict) my thesis. But I can cherry-pick details all day long, maybe do some quote-mining, and get a good essay out of it.

The same kind of thing is necessary for alternative medicine, astrology, or any other woo that posits a cause-effect relationship between otherwise unconnected objects. And conspiracy theories thrive on this. The phrase “do you think that’s [the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts/the government’s reluctance to release details about purported UFOs/the crash of Flight 93/the ‘expulsion’ of these ID advocates from academia/etc.] a coincidence?” is testament to that. I could offer up an example here, to match my term paper paragraph, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These are natural human drives. We are built to make connections; our ability to infer causal relationships and plan accordingly is one of the biggest survival advantages we have–it just doesn’t have a great deal of precision. And we crave explanations for things, any explanations, even ones that are pure guesswork, because that’s still more satisfying than not knowing.

When we combine these tendencies, to draw connections and iron out inconsistencies, we end up with neat, emotionally-satisfying narratives. In narrative storytelling, events must be connected or significant somehow. Everything fits together in a neat package, usually with some kind of moral center. There’s a climax and a resolution, and all the loose ends are tied up in a way that provides fulfillment and closure. We understand that kind of story; what we have a hard time grasping is reality, where things aren’t all connected and symbolic and leading to some emotionally-gratifying conclusion.

Maybe it’s hubris or shame or something that causes me to think that I’m somehow abnormal in having these connection-building and rationalizing drives in overdrive. Maybe I’m not that much different from anyone else. But it still seems amazing that I could become skeptical–heck, that anyone could become skeptical, with these cards stacked against them.

I think the first step is becoming aware of the common faults of human thought. In order to overcome the tendency toward erroneous thinking, you have to know that there’s something to overcome. It always comes back to education, doesn’t it?

That seems like enough rambling for now, but I’ll come back to this topic periodically.

Our First Last Supper

So, everyone else has already blogged about our Monday night mayhem, even including someone who would have only been there in spirit, if such a thing existed. I’m a little late to the game, admittedly, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks.

As I mentioned, last Monday ’roundabout 3:15, Jon and Jess climbed into my station wagon, and we barreled down the rural roads to arrive about 40 minutes before Google Maps suggested. Which put us there an hour and a half early.

After wandering around like fools for a bit, I gave UofI alum Eric a quick call, and we were soon in the right building. Along the way, I picked up a weird Christian newsletter called “Christ is Victor,” which I assumed would lead to hilarity later (it did). Now, I’m not much of a Christian, but I seem to recall Christ’s name being Jesus, not Victor. Is there another Christ I haven’t heard about? Besides Craig, I mean. Maybe Victor Christ is the one responsible for bringing Jesus back from the dead! “It took three days, Igor, but look! It’s alive! Aliiiiive!”

Once in the right building, I began an epic quest for the men’s room, meeting Ben from the Gateway Skeptics along the way. Turns out that Ben and Flavin (at least) were both attendees was an attendee of the Society of Physics Students meeting that was held at Augie a couple of years ago, so this is the second time I’ve met them him. This time was better, as I wasn’t conducting an awkward trivia contest at any time during the evening.

We decided to go find seats, and it’s a good thing we did. The place was fairly empty when we got in, which meant we were able to get seats close to the front. While going up the stairs, I noticed that we passed a guy in a black trenchcoat and hat. I can’t say I thought much of it, until he came down toward the stage and I realized that beneath the oh-so-theatrical outfit was The Amazing Randi himself. That was pretty cool.

While Randi and the techies started setting up, I was just enjoying the feeling of being in an auditorium where I could be reasonably certain that the vast majority of people around me believed the same things I did. Just in my immediate vicinity was someone wearing a Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers t-shirt and two people in the “Science: It works, bitches” t-shirt from XKCD (which I want desperately). It was tremendously liberating; someone remarked at the ease with which 80-year-old Randi hopped onto the stage, I said that it was because he knew The Secret, and we all shared a hearty laugh. I was even able to tell the “why women love Jesus” joke, out loud in a room full of people. Yeah, it’s a small and fairly childish thing, but damn if it didn’t feel good.

Not much happened until I noticed Akusai, Magus, and (though I didn’t know who he was yet) Wikinite come down the aisle. We traded introductions and handshakes, and they sat behind Jon, Jess, and me (carefully avoiding the obviously broken seat). We all talked a bit about various things: our favorite trolls, the new waves of atheist/skeptic bloggers, what we expected from the evening, and so forth.

At some point, a girl in an “Atheists, Agnostics, & Freethinkers” t-shirt sat down near our group, and joined in various conversations going on around us. She seemed nice and all, but…she was really into being an atheist and really trying hard to impress everyone with how much of an atheist she was. Yet, she seemed kind of clueless; now, I don’t expect all atheists to be active in the blogohedron or anything, but she seemed genuinely surprised by some of the really, really basic arguments and names and so on. I don’t know, I kind of got a “protest too much” vibe off her; the Action Skeptics crowd got more of a “trying to seduce someone/anyone” vibe. Both seem like valid hypotheses, but I’m not in a hurry to validate either one.

Anyway, the first speaker of the night was Nobel prize winning biologist Richard Roberts (HT to Akusai and Wikinite for the link), who while interesting, clearly didn’t win his Nobel prize in public speaking…or anthropology, or history, or psychology. It would be easy to say that I’m only drawing the comparison because of the “white-haired British biologist talking about atheism and religion” connection, but he really was like Dawkins-lite. To the point where he was saying a lot of the things that Dawkins says, or saying things that sound like what Dawkins says, and not understanding why Dawkins says those things. The most egregious mistake (on that particular front) was his mention that he thinks religious indoctrination is child abuse. He didn’t elaborate, and it was pretty clear that he was trying to echo Dawkins, but Dawkins’ contention is with religious labeling–calling children “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish” or even “Atheist” children–not with parents’ rights to raise their kids to believe what they want. While I’m sure he’s got issues with that too, it’s much more morally muddy territory, and there’s no good solution to indoctrination that doesn’t remove essential parental rights.

There were other problems with his speech as well; his definition of Bipolar disorder was, in a word, wrong, and his ideas about the development of religion were overly simplistic at best. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a variant on the Courtier’s Reply (in this case, “how much have you studied religion”) and thought it was a valid criticism. On a more technical note, it’s clear that Roberts was working without notes, and while I found the brevity of his PowerPoint presentation refreshing, it was a little too brief, offering him little guidance with the points he wanted to cover (and leading him to decide on occasion “I don’t want to talk about that”). He could have done with a little more of everything, and consequently we all could have done with a little less of him. At least his anecdotes were entertaining, and it’s always nice to listen to British men talking about biology and atheism.

After Roberts, someone from the UofI Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers group gave an overly long introduction for the man who needed none, James Randi. I’m not sure entirely how much I can say about Randi’s speech; he did some neat tricks to underscore our collective assumptions and imperceptions, he did a neat bit of magic, and he brought out a nice homeopathy debunking that taught me things I didn’t know about Zicam (not actually homeopathic, that’s why it works) and HeadOn (apply directly to the trash can). He was funny, informative, terse, and incredibly sharp, and it was just an absolute joy to listen to him.

Highlights of the Randi talk: calling Montel Williams a “whore,” talking about an Israeli mentalist (“no, not that one”), talking about that Israeli mentalist, and propositioning his magic trick volunteer for coffee and dinner as if he were a shy schoolboy. Randi? Awesome.

After Randi spoke, they opened up two mics on the floor for questions. I don’t remember if this kid was first or second, but one guy–heretofore referred to as “The Preacher”–started off with (some variant of) those dreaded words “before I get to my question…” It seems to be a rule that 95% of the time, people who say “before I get to my question” are going to hog the mic talking about stupid shit that no one wants to hear for a very long time. The Preacher didn’t disappoint. He began with a lengthy, rambling story about how he was involved in a hit-and-run car accident, which he survived “by the grace of God,” and how he was so ashamed of it (so ashamed that he decided to spend five minutes telling it in excruciating detail to a roomful of people). He said we all have things we’re ashamed of, something about God, and (as nearly everyone in the room was calling for him to get to the point) finally ended with “can science prove love?”

Roberts and Randi answered in unison: “No,” then moved on to the next question. I could write a blog post parsing out a longer answer (and touching on the inanities inherent in the question), and Bronze Dog already did, but that was adequate for the time allotted. Akusai wrote a bit more to give context to the answer, and mentioned his brilliant “Someone taze him, bro” comment, but since you’ve already read his post, you already knew that.

The Preacher stood at his mic for a good long time, periodically asking “can I just finish point,” and at one point screeding* off into John 3:16. As if no one in the room, no one on stage, had heard “For God so loved the world yada yada yada” before. What is it about (certain) Christians that either makes them think that “John 3:16” is some magic convert-the-heathens incantation (see also: John 14:6, the “Sinner’s Prayer,” etc.), or that they’re the first people to ever mention it to atheists, despite its omnipresence in our Christianity-soaked culture?

Other people (at the other mic) asked more relevant questions while they cut The Preacher’s mic. That wasn’t exactly the end of his tenure at the head of that line, sadly. You almost have to admire his tenacity; he stood there for a good ten minutes or more, even after someone else took the mic away from him to ask a question. A few other theists asked questions (including the girl in front of me in line), but were generally more polite (if not more coherent) about it.

When I got to the mic, I briefly thanked both of the speakers for coming and mentioned how much I enjoyed Flim-Flam, then asked how they deal with having to answer the same questions and debunk the same things over and over, year after year, without losing hope. There were some noises of approval and understanding around the audience, so I clearly wasn’t the only person with that particular experience (obviously, since Akusai and Magus were in attendance). Randi mentioned the importance of education, and that we do make some progress. I can’t hate Roberts, for all his speech’s flaws, because his answer was more-or-less tailor-made, comparing it to education and “if you reach even one student, then it’s a success.” Like everything else he said, I have some reservations with that as well, but it was a surprisingly apt answer.

After the Q&A was done, I stuck around, thanked Dr. Roberts, and humbly asked Randi for a picture and an autograph. He very kindly obliged, though his fountain pen didn’t work (that wasn’t a joke about his age–he actually had a fountain pen) and he was forced to use a ball-point. He expressed surprise that I owned a hardcover of the book, and I mentioned that I got it on Amazon after his column talked about the problems in the Prometheus Books printing. And then this:

It’s not the best quality picture, but it’s not the picture that matters. It’s the memory of doing something I’ve dreamed of for years–something that, given average human lifespan, I doubted I would ever do. I met James Randi. How cool is that?

After the picture taking and autographing, we met back up with the various skeptics and followed a pirate treasure map toward an initially-elusive pizza restaurant called Papa Del’s. The conversation continued more or less non-stop from then until we got back to our cars at the end of the night, encompassing everything from “Preacher” (the comic series, not the microphone troll) and the current status of Spider-Man to the truth value of cake and the morality of pirated video games, among other things. And the pizza! Oh man, the pizza would have been divine, if there was such a thing. In any case, it was easily the best deep-dish I’ve ever laid tongue on.

As soon as we saw the tables at Papa Del’s, Jon suggested that we take our very own Last Supper picture, something that Jon and I do whenever we get a chance. This time, though, there were almost enough people for the whole crew.
I'm pretty sure this picture means that Magus and I fathered a line of holy descendants or something.
I got to be the big guy, by virtue of how we sat down, but I personally think it should have gone to Magus, who has a much more Jesusy look. I will maintain, however, that Jesus was an avid drinker of Mountain Dew, and that any Last Supper is made better by having a James Randi book in the middle of the table.

The whole thing was a blast. I was incredibly glad (and a little relieved) that I got along with the Action Skeptics guys as well in person as online. But I’ll talk more about that in another post. Suffice it to say that it was a fantastic experience, far better even than I’d hoped, and I hope we can do it again. I’m probably not going to WizardWorld this summer, so that leaves me with a free weekend and a little spending money. Maybe next time we can move it a little farther south, maybe bring Bronze Dog and Bob in on the action.

Anyway, I leave you with the words of Randi:
Just like on the Swift columns!

*Yes, “screeding.” I made it up, and I like it.


So, James Randi’s speaking at UIUC tomorrow, and I’m-a heading down with some friends for an evening full to the brim of skepticism. It looks like I’ll be attempting a meet-up with the Action Skeptics crew and some other blogger-types, which ought to be almost as Amazing as that certain Meeting that’s too expensive for a poor grad student to attend.

Anyway, for those folks I haven’t met in meatspace, this is roughly what I’ll look like tomorrow evening, shirt, book, and all:
That's right, first edition.
Hopefully we’ll all be able to find each other. Personally, I can’t wait. And I hope Randi’s doing some signing after the speech.

This is pretty much my life

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!
“They’re talking about acupuncture, babe. Acupuncture!

From XKCD.