Saturday, March 31, 2007

Musings on losing weight

For the last little while I've been on a diet. The telltale sign that I needed to lose weight was that my Bermuda Shorts, which fit me when I arrived here, now cannot even be closed around my waist - a sign that I've been putting on a few pounds since I've been here. Actually everyone calls it the "Doha 2 inches", something that appears to happen to everyone who moves here. It's not too surprising that it happens, with the heat and distances between places you pretty much have to drive everywhere, and with the heat 6 months of the year you absolutely have to drive everywhere. Excercise becomes limited to gyms.

So I've been cutting back on the sweet stuff and trying to hit the treadmill every day. After three weeks results look promising - the shorts now fit. Very tight, but they fit. My aim is to get to the point where I need a belt to keep them on. I don't know exactly what my weight is, I'm using the shorts as a measure instead of worrying about pounds/kg.

This has made me understand how hard it can be to lose weight. Just the other day I hit the treadmill, showered, went to a cafe for a coffee, then proceeded to order a monster-sized chocolate pudding along with it. All the while the back of my mind was going "don't do it!" but I did anyway. What in the world was I thinking? That was the entire treadmill session nullified right there. To make up for it dinner was severly low-cal (carrots, some other raw vegs, whole wheat bread) but I can't be eating dinners like that forever. Willpower is easier said than done.

But the shorts fit now! Just gotta keep the program going.

Time for a change

I started wondering why I don't update my blog as often as I should. On average I'm posting to it maybe every four days or so, sometimes the gaps are even larger. Not a good thing.

I do know that I have been travelling A LOT in the last few months but still, I could be blogging more often. And I came to the conclusion that I don't blog as often as I should because the things I've been putting on this blog are not really all that exciting to note. If I'm going to blog more often it's going to have to be about things that I want to talk about right there & then - analysis of current events, gripes, changes, and so forth.

So henceforth this blog is going in a new direction. I'm going to lose a lot of the generic commentary that I've been maintaining and get more into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, news, current events, & things on my mind. Maybe then I'll be inspired to blog more often.

So starting tomorrow, a new beginning . . .

(I'll still have the occasional post about some vapid things, like how much I'm currently enjoying my Babylon 5 DVDs. Just occasionally though.)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The World Tour Part 6 - Last day of TAM

TAM – the finale

The last day of TAM is always for paper presentations. Months before the meeting JREF asked people to submit papers, and a number are chosen to present them at TAM.

I’ve always found this to be the day that has “more meat, less filling” as it were. Presenters only have 25 minutes, most have no book to push, and are not famous so irrelevant questions aren’t asked of them. With only 25 minutes you don’t have much choice but to condense the work down to the main points. Sadly audience attendance isn’t as strong as the previous two days as many are burned-out from all the late nights or have early flights to catch. I’m guilty of this myself having missed the first two of the eight talks this year as I needed some extra sleep. I think I got to bed at 3:00am the previous night and the talks started at 8:30. On the plus side I did win money that night!

Anyway there was one paper that stood out for me – Lee Graham developed an Irreducible Complexity applet which was way cool. It takes a simple program for diverting falling balls down a grid and includes evolutionary mechanisms (occasional random mutation, death of algorithms whose scores are consistently poorer than others etc.) and then you can run it for numerous generations to see what happens. It serves as an interesting computer model for simple evolution by showing how complex structures could be possible over many generations.

Check it out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The World Tour Part 5 - TAM Day 2

Okay, on to the second day of TAM, I’ll try to keep it a bit briefer so that I can continue on blogging about my life in general. I think TAM is important though, if only so that someone reading this might think “Hey, that might be worth checking out next year”.

Peter Sagal, NPR Radio host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a radio game show involving recent news stories and other trivia.

One of the few speakers whose talk was really related to the main theme of TAM - “Skepticism and the Media”. But can I remember exactly what it was he discussed? No. Sad, isn’t it? I recall that it was about media and the public but none of the specifics. I do remember being impressed by his presentation skills, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he is a good speaker given that he hosts a radio show. Sorry for my bad memory Peter!

Scott Dikkers, Editor for The Onion.

If you’ve never heard of the Onion then add the link to your favourites, it’s a favourite of mine. If you’re a regular reader of it then his talk was nothing exciting, essentially showing a number of slides with some of the Onion’s crazy stories, as well as discussing some of the feedback The Onion has received from people/media who actually believed a story the Onion made up. Underlying message: people need to really think critically about the media otherwise they’ll read papers like the Onion and figure it’s real news. The fact that there are people out there who have believed that an Onion story is real news does not surprise me but saddens me nonetheless. Hilarious site, check it out at least once a week.

Phil Plait, Bad

Phil’s website is already on my link list and he is a TAM regular. Phil spends a lot of time debunking woo astronomy that always circulates around, usually involving UFO’s, astrologers, the Moon Landing Hoax believers, or doomsayers that are big into making predictions about the end of the Earth (you know the types: “Comet XYZ will collide with the Earth on April 12, 2008. We’re all doooooooooomed! But buy my books and DVDs before we go!”)

Phil discussed the many Moon Hoax myth perpetrated by Moon Hoax conspiracy theorists and why they are wrong. I stepped out for a bathroom break and snack so missed much of it but I knew the stuff already from hanging out at forums and

John Rennie, editor of Scientific American magazine

An interesting talk about some of the debunking work that SciAm has done over the years (including when it didn’t go so well, such as an investigation into a medium back in the 1920s who seduced one, maybe two, of the investigators). Also reviewed some of the scathing mail it receives from godly-inspired critics of mainstream science theories like evolution. Did you know the Unibomber loved reading SciAm and sent letters to them? They didn’t either until the FBI came knocking. Great talk.

Christopher Hitchens, journalist

Love him or hate him he’s an interesting speaker. He is another TAM regular and I looked forward to his talk. His talk at TAM3 ranged from an extensive dissing of Mother Teresa to his support of the Iraq War. Controversial, but unlike many he appears to research and know his stuff before spouting off about it. I have one of his books, Love, Poverty & War, a collection of articles he has written over the years, and it is an enjoyable read that offers insight into the man.

His talk was primarily about Islam and how fundamentalists are intimidating the media in the West, the prime example of course being the Muslim cartoon controversy. He pointed out that certain mullahs deliberately orchestrated the mass outrage at the printing of the cartoons – and while expressing outrage and threats of retaliation against papers that publish them were handing copies of the cartoons out themselves to Muslims so that they could be outraged as well. Meanwhile most of the media towed the line in fear of retaliation. Christopher showed great concern over the Western media allowing themselves to be intimidated by religious fundamentalists and what that might bring in the future. I’m concerned as well.

I don’t think I agree with many of Christopher’s views but I would need to do a lot of research to determine why, because the man knows his stuff. And he’s a good writer to boot. Skim a couple of his books next time you’re in a bookstore to see what you think.

Adam Savage – Mythbusters

The Mythbusters have a huge fanbase at TAM, and they themselves are big fans of critical thinking. Their show is one of the few that teaches people the value of thinking critically, not believing everything you hear, and the value of testing/research to determine whether something is a hoax or not. Adam and Tory (not Jamie, who couldn’t make it this year) did a presentation on the show and had a Q&A with the audience. You know the show so nuff said.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone – South Park

If you stop to think about it, South Park is a show that is part comedy, part gross-out, and part critical thinking. Stan & Kyle are always the voice of reason to Cartman and the adults in South Park who are generally pretty gullible and ready to buy into everything. And South Park’s parodies of popular icons and religions is hilarious! So coming to give a talk at a TAM about media and skepticism was right up their alley.

Penn (of Penn and Teller) interviewed them on stage for a while about the creation of South Park and the resistance they have received from some of their shows and movies. A Q&A with the audience followed, which I recall included a mix of on-topic questions with some inane fan-boy stuff, but not as bad as the Penn & Teller Q&A from the previous day. In essence, there are people who dislike South Park because it attacks them or their treasured beliefs, but the studio is pretty good about letting Trey and Matt have free reign over what they produce. It was surprising to find out that many of their support staff were believers in a lot of woo nonsense that Trey and Matt ended up attacking, like John Edwards talking to the dead - T&M were surprised when some of their staff said, “his powers are for real – aren’t they?” (for the record – NO!)

Finally came the Panel discussion with most of the speakers from today. Highlight was Scott Dikkers placing some of the blame for world woes on American foreign policy (this and the rest of the paragraph is a BIG general summary by me recalling what happened over a month ago, do not take it as verbatim), then Hitchens verbally went after him on it, basically saying that was liberal crap. Things got a little heated but John Rennie challenged Hitchens in a polite manner, implying that Hitchens comments on Islam appear to paint all Muslim nations with the same brush without taking into account the various differences between the individual countries. Moderators cooled things down and moved on. In discussions I had afterward some conference attendees thought Hitchens was too harsh in his rebuttal to Dikkers, while others supported Hitchens’ right to “call it like you see it” on general unsupported comments. Hitchens is not one to blunt his commentary anyway.

Whew, Day 2 done, but there is one day to go, the paper presentations for Day 3, summary coming up in the next entry but don’t worry - I’ll keep it short. There is definitely one website you gotta check out from Day 3!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The World Tour Part 4 - more TAM

Okay, sorry about the delays. My mother was down visiting for the last two-and-a-half weeks so my days have been spent working or touring around. Not only did we travel all over Qatar but we did trips to Dubai and Muscat just so she could have a feel for the region. By the way Muscat is really nice and if anyone in the region is reading this I recommend Muscat for a nice relaxing getaway vacation, moreso than Dubai.

Anyway, back to TAM. What’s sad is that it has been more than 5 wks since TAM ended and I haven’t finished my review. I have really got to get my butt in gear on these things.

Day 1 continued:

Lori Lipman Brown – Secular Coalition of America
The SCoA is an organization that lobbies for tolerance for all faith practices, including for atheists, humanists and other nonthiests. Though most of their members are not religious per se their website states that they welcome religious members who support the right of people to practice their faith/non-faith without discrimination. Lori discussee life as an atheist/nontheist lobbyist in today’s America as well as upcoming projects by SCoA (I can’t make myself shorten it to SCA as my whole life I’ve known the SCA as those guys who wear medieval armour and do battle). The highlight project for the SCoA is the official announcement of the ‘coming out’ of a member of Congress/Senate as a nontheist, which is to happen shortly. At least it was at the time of TAM – that announcement has now been made. (Congressman Pete Stark, D-California)

Penn & Teller – professional magicians
If you’ve never heard of Penn & Teller, these guys are top-tier magicians who have a nightly show at the Rio in Vegas, and also host the TV Show BullSh!t where they take a critical look at various topics. Big fans of JREF, they’ve been presenters at all three TAMs that I have attended.

This year they decided to just do a Q&A from the audience, something that I’m not supportive of. If you’re scheduled to give a 45-minute talk the least you can do is prepare something in advance, even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes, then have a Q&A. Don’t just walk onstage and go “any questions for us?”

Well they found out why doing that might not be a good idea – without presenting something first to give a general topic for people to ask questions about you open yourself up to be bombarded with anything – including the most inane and random questions. There were times that as soon as the question was asked they’d both look at each other like ‘huh’. So remember folks, if you just have a Q&A without specifying a topic, prepare to be asked if you and your sons are circumcised (no, I’m not making that up)

Richard Wiseman – psychologist & magician

Richard Wiseman is another TAM standard, having been at all three TAMs that I’ve attended. A researcher in Britain he is also a consistently entertaining presenter, he’s funny and combines his presentations with some magic tricks to keep things. You learn while you laugh.

Like many of the presentations that day his slideshow was plagued with technical difficulties, primarily due to a faulty cable in the Riviera’s IT set-up. It appeared that Richard was getting a little upset with the problems and I don’t blame him, when you give high-energy presentations you don’t want the flow to be interrupted with tech problems.

Richard discussed some of the investigations he made during the year, including a ‘telepathic dog’ that would go to the window whenever its owner was about to come back to the house from whatever errands she was on. I think this dog got a bit of press in Britain for its ‘powers’, but Richard and associates filmed the dog while its owner was out for many hours, finding that the dog went to the window numerous times (multiple times an hour) thus shedding some much-needed doubt on this dog’s telepathic abilities. Why are people so willing to quickly accept things like telepathic dogs anyway?

Anyway he also discussed another project that gained some press in Britain – research into finding the funniest joke. This proved to be a huge success with their internet site getting flooded with jokes that they had to wade through and grade using various processes. I won’t give away the eventual winner, you will have to look it up yourself.

Despite the technical delays Richard gave a great talk as always.

Thus ended the first day. The rest of the evening was taken up with dinner, drinks, gambling and fun. Just the way I like my Vegas!

Day 2 summary to follow tomorrow, I promise!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Stop Sylvia Browne

Sylvia Browne is a well-known "psychic" and spiritualist, you can see her on the occasional talk show and has a number of books in the self-help or spiritual section (i.e.: the section in your bookstore with all the new age woo-woo books on stuff like chakra balancing, astrology and past life regression). Like all psychics she makes a lot of incorrect predictions but that doesn't stop her from charging suckers $750 for a phone-call reading.

Well a guy is doing something about it and he has started a website:

I fully endorse what Robert is doing I think it's high time psychics get called to the carpet to finally prove their abilities under testing. Be sure to read/view the articles that Robert has posted which shows Sylvia in action. Googling "cold reading" could also be informative.

This site is going up on my links!