Category Archives: General

Australian Skeptics National Convention 2014

Are you available from the 28th till the 30th of November? Can you make it to Sydney? If you can I’d like to suggest that you head over to the Australian Skeptics National Convention 2014. It will be an amazing event including talks, drinks, dinner and even musical entertainment!

Speakers include:

  • Dr Karl Kruszelnicki
  • Robyn Williams
  • Dr Rachel Dunlop
  • Dick Smith
  • George Hrab
  • The Chaser (Julian Morrow, Kirsten Drysdale and Chas Licciardello)
  • The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (Dr Steven Novella, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein and Rebecca Watson)
  • Me

Check out the webpage, book your tickets and come say hi to me. If you want to follow things on Twitter, use the hashtag #AusSkepCon14.

Register here.

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Highlights of the Australian Skeptics National Convention

It’s been a month since the Australian Skeptics National Convention and I have been terrible lax in not writing anything about it. It’s actually been a little difficult for me to write anything because I honestly don’t know where to begin.

Simply put, it was one of the best weekends of my life.

Thursday night was a very special (and exclusive!) fund raising dinner. 20 guests got to mingle with James Randi, D.J. Grothe, Brian Thompson and Rebecca Watson for an amazing dinner at the Royal Society of Victoria. The special guests moved around the room to sit at a different table each course. What made the evening wonderful was the opportunity to chat about things non-sceptical with the guests. I discussed Dr. Who fans with Brian, horrible siblings with Rebecca, favourite comic books with D.J. and Isaac Asimov with Randi. Plus, Randi showed us a rude trick you can do with a spoon. Dinner just doesn’t get any better than that.

Friday night kicked off with a meet and greet cocktail party at the Immigration Museum. It was a great way to start the event as it gave me the opportunity to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while (such as Lawrence Leung and Eran Segev) plus meet some people I had been contact with but never met face to face (like Tim Mendham and Lynne Kelly).

Saturday was the big day for me. I was given the opportunity to truly live the expression “hard act to follow” by giving my talk directly after Randi. Fortunately my nerves kept themselves under control and I was able to enjoy his presentation without fear of killing him.

I gave my talk and answered a few questions. I think it went well judging by the laughter. I get nervous making small-talk but I love being in front of a large crowd. I think I should admit that the only reason I became a teacher was for the captive audience.

Later in the day Dr. Krissy Wilson gave a very entertaining talk about her research into the psychology of belief and her research laboratory, Science of Anomalistic Phenomena (SOAP). According to her profile page at the Charles Sturt University website, her main claim to fame is once playing a prostitute on The Bill.

Lynne Kelly gave a riveting talk on the history of oral cultures and some of the techniques they used to remember the vast amount of knowledge needed to survive in the world. Her doctoral theory is that stonehenge is a giant mnemonic device used to record information. What I loved about her work was that everything she said made so much sense and made me think “That’s so obvious! Why didn’t I figure that out?” I love that feeling.

Rebecca Watson gave a fantastic presentation on how to use social media to further the goals of scepticism. She also showed us some interesting techniques that can be used to determine whether or not an image file has been altered. Many photos of cats were also shown.

Saturday evening was capped off with a gala dinner hosted by the wonderfully funny and sardonic Brian Thompson. He shared his thoughts on Australia with us to great applause until he lost us by criticising Vegemite. A rookie mistake which I’m sure he won’t make on his next visit. One of the personal highlights for me happened during the dinner but I will speak of that in a future post.

Sunday was opened with a talk by D.J. Grothe about scepticism around the world. We tend to hear mostly about scepticism in Australia, America and England so it was wonderful to hear about what is going on in other countries.

A thrill for me was when he displayed a photo from my website and said he wished he could bottle me and send me around the world. D.J., I would love to. Also, a 1.5l bottle would easily be big enough.

During question time I asked him whether or not we were winning. His answer was “yes and no”. We are constantly preventing the spread of dangerous thinking but it keeps springing up all over the place. The trick is to not stop fighting.

Lawrence Leung stole the show by giving the funniest talk of convention which was appropriately enough about using comedy to engage people with scepticism. He shared some highlights and behind-the-scenes stories from his sensational TV series,  Unbelievable.

Dr. Rachael Dunlop spoke to us about scepticism in science, and when it can go too far. What is worth delving further into and when should we walk away?

Finishing off the convention was a twitter quiz led by Rebecca Watson. Contestants were Brian Thompson, Lawrence Leung, Richard Saunders and myself. She asked a series of science and scepticism themed questions which we had to answer while the audience sent their responses to the big screen via twitter. I had a wonderful time, especially after making a joke that earned me nothing but silence. A great feeling.

A student of mine was at the convention and Rebecca asked her to be the judge on the quiz. As a teacher the sensation of being marked by a student was an uncomfortable one and one I hope I never have to experience again.

During the lunch break on Sunday I had a moment that I will never forget. James Randi took me aside and showed me an old magic prop of his. He explained what it was and how it worked, then handed it to me and said “I want you have this.”

Day. Made.

All photos shamelessly stolen from Mal Vickers.

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Cheltenham Psychic Expo – The bad, the ugly and the really ugly.

On the weekend I was unexpectedly driving up the Nepean Highway in Cheltenham due to a surprise invitation to lunch by some friends. At a very specific moment of my journey I happened by chance alone to turn my head to the right and noticed a sign proudly claiming “Psychic Expo”.

Clearly, this was no coincidence.

In fact, one of the vendors inside told me that to my face.

At $5 entry I figured, why not? It should be a good way to kill a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon and possibly learn a little bit more about what these chaps were up to.

The event was held in the Kingston City Hall and was not particularly busy. There were around 15 vendors inside and possibly 30 visitors. More came in over the two hours I spent there but I don’t think they would have had more than a hundred or so altogether.

I have ranked them from what I think were the least to most harmful. A couple were fairly innocent, just a bit silly. Others angered me to the point of contacting the city council and asking them why they allowed such people to sell their wares in an official city building.

The Bad

A very nice lady was selling some very nice children’s books full of positive messages such as “I love family” and “I love breathing.” She told me how thinking “I love my body” could really help, and I asked her if she meant that I could stop going to the gym. She said no, just that being positive about it meant I would be more likely to take care of it. She was definitely the least kooky of the bunch.

Only slightly more kooky was the lady selling the Himalayan salt lamps. Apparently they emit negative ions which counteract the harmful positive ions produced by electronic devices in your home.

I asked how a big a lamp I would need to balance my 48-inch TV and I was told to go by feeling, not size. She suggested at least one in each room, especially children’s bedrooms. I commented on the irony of the fact that the lamps contained positive ion emitting light bulbs but she said they don’t, they just heat the salt which is what makes them work.

More bizarre were the heart shaped salt rocks labelled “angel poo”. Apparently angels defecate in the shape of a heart. Who knew? Ultimately I didn’t find these terribly bad. The science behind her claims is non-existent but at least she wasn’t making any real health claims.

Also, the lamps were quite pretty so I can’t fault her aesthetics.

The Ugly

Most of the tables were for the fortune tellers. All of them had Tarot cards but a couple also claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits.

“What are spirits?” I asked.

“They’re just dead people, basically. Yeah, they’re dead people.”

Gotcha.

One said she might be able to contact my father (alive and well in Healesville) but couldn’t make any guarantees. They’re still people so who knows what they’re up to!

Prices varied from $20-$30 for 15 minutes up to $45 for a half hour. I decided to give the cheapest tarot reader a go and this is where I learned my first lesson: you get what you pay for.

I spent the reading looking for cold-reading techniques and trying my best to not give away any information through my body language. I needn’t have bothered as she didn’t look up from the cards once.

She had me shuffle and deal out eleven cards onto her green velvet draped table, which were then arranged in some kind of pattern. I got told that I am very organised (I’m not) and that there will be a lot of retrenchments at my business (I’m a teacher) and I would rise to a leadership within the next six months (no chance in hell). My three-year old daughter (I have no children) was very wise for her age and that my wife and I don’t see each other as much as we’d like to (we’re both teachers and see each other too much, according to my wife).

I did notice a couple of cold-reading techniques coming out. I’m fairly convinced that she wasn’t aware she was using them, or least wasn’t doing anything deceitful. She clearly seemed to believe in what she was doing.

Psychic: You are very organised.

Me: No I’m not.

Psychic: Well you could learn.

See what she did there? She turned her miss into a hit. Of course I could learn to be more organised, pretty much anybody could!

“You’re a ballerina!” “No I’m not!” “Well you could take lessons!”

I asked her to tell me about my family and she dealt out some cards, one of which was the two of pentacles.

Psychic: “Do you have two children?”

Me: “No, I have one daughter.”

Psychic: “Well it must mean your wife and daughter.”

Another miss turned into a hit! The third time I noticed it was when she turned a miss into a hit by telling me that I was wrong and she was right.

Psychic: “Is your daughter an Earth sign?”

Me: “No, she’s a Sagittarius.”

Psychic: “Well she has a lot of Earth sign characteristics.”

One of my students pointed out that she was essentially saying that I couldn’t trust astrology, anybody could be anything.

$20 later I looked around for something else to do.

The Really Ugly

More disturbing than most was the representative from a cult known as Eckankar who taught me a magic word that could be used to communicate with God and reveal my past lives. The word is HU (pronounced hew). This will open your body (or your soul, they’re essentially the same thing) and then you chant MANA (pronounced marna).

He spent a lot of time trying to give me free books and pamphlets and encouraging me to attend their fortnightly chanting sessions. Of course, he was very friendly and open but cult recruiters generally tend to be.

Not so encouraging was the Scientology man. I spent around twenty minutes with him, learning about them and what they do. He showed me a booklet containing an emotional scale known as a “tone scale”. 1.5 is anger, 2.5 is boredom, 3.5 is cheerful and so on. Apparently everybody has a base level which they will revert to. A person whose base level is 1.5 will generally be angry all the time. They may feel more positive emotions from time to time but will eventually default back to anger.

I took an E-meter stress test to see how I was doing and apparently I am a 3.45, quite cheerful! This pleased me no end.  The fact that I could make the little needle on the machine jump around by moving the handles was irrelevant, I suppose.

What hurt my feelings was that he made absolutely no attempt to recruit me. He didn’t tell me where they met, he didn’t try to sell me a book or DVD, he didn’t tell me how much better my life would be if I joined them. Am I not special enough? Could he sense my lack of riches? Was my slack-jawed yokel impression not good enough to mask my cunning intellect? I felt like writing Tom Cruise a letter to complain.

It was actually a lot of fun pretending to be completely ignorant because these people were falling over themselves to get their message out there. No question was too stupid for them to answer. I did feel very welcomed there and I see that as a real danger. It would be a very tempting place for somebody who was feeling lost or alone.

Even worse than the cults (in my opinion, anyway) were the alternative medicine pedlars. One lady told me that she could reverse type-2 diabetes through diet and twice-yearly detoxes. She couldn’t use the word “cure” due to legal reasons but had cleverly discovered that saying “reverse” meant the same thing and didn’t incur the wrath of the diabetes foundation.

The stall that really upset me was run by a lady who sold magical rocks. No wait, they weren’t magical. Actually nothing at the entire expo was magical. They were all 100% scientific. These scientific rocks grew in the earth and contain minerals. We contain minerals. Therefore these rocks can help us by giving out powerful emotions. She had bowls full of beautiful little stones, all shiny and polished and in varied hues and colours. Each one has a different effect, such as tektite which is as follows:

  • Is a meteorite and is believed to enhance connection to other worlds
  • Delves deep into the heart of a situation, so you see the cause and effect
  • Bio-magnetic energy around the body
  • Signify spiritual change & development
  • Bury near your front door to guard against fire, storm, hostility & to attract abundance
  • Too powerful to use on children & animals
  • Reduces fevers, aids circulation and prevents transmission of diseases, skin disorders, illnesses that drain strength

Worried about the spread of HIV in Africa and the fact that the Catholic church tells them that condoms are evil? No problem! Just give them a small piece of tektite. Sick of replacing your smoke detector batteries? Just bury one by your front door and you’ll be fine.

That’s not even the bad part. She mentioned using one for her son who suffers from migraines. One placed under his pillow at night fixes them right up. I asked her what else her rocks could cure and she dropped the big C right on me.

Cancer.

Cancer is nothing more than repressed emotion, apparently. And what is the cure for repressed emotion? Amethyst. Carried with you, worn as jewellery or placed under your pillow at night time won’t just prevent cancer but completely cure it. I agree that repressing your emotions isn’t healthy but it sure doesn’t cause cancer.

As funny as I found some of the exhibitors ($80 for a badly drawn picture of a guardian angel) I can’t find a single thing to laugh about here. Even one person taking her advice over a doctor’s would be one too many. How would you feel if somebody close to you abandoned their medical treatment for a magic rock?

I do understand that desire, cancer treatment is no picnic and I don’t think we can blame people for wanting an easier, less scary option. What we can do is blame the people pushing these decisions. They are taking advantage of people’s fear and weakness and turning it into a profit.

I’m not going to call this person a con artist because I think they believe in what they are doing. That still does not excuse the fact that an untrained individual is giving out very serious, very flawed and very dangerous medical advice.

Given that this event was held in the Kingston City Hall I have written to the council expressing my anger and concern. Finding people making unsupported medical claims and two cults operating out of an official city building is not the type of thing I expect. I have no doubt they will respond with something along the lines of “It is not up to us to monitor every stall holder and people have the right to express their opinions yada yada yada.”

I hope I am wrong.

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Radio silence

I will be off the air for a couple of weeks during the school holidays. Please do not call the police in a panic.

Next term we will be looking into outer space and contemplating the existence of aliens. Plus, our homeopathic visitor will be joining us very soon so expect a full of report of that!

Don’t forget to book your tickets to the Australian Skeptics National Convention. They have an amazing list of speakers including international guests James Randi, DJ Grothe and Rebecca Watson, plus little old me.

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Why I am attending the marriage equality rally this Saturday

All of my friends are straight.

All of my family is straight.

I am straight and so is my wife.

Allowing gay people to marry will have absolutely no affect on my life.

But imagine what the world would be like if people only stood up for themselves.

I don’t believe any of this “homosexuality is a choice” crap.

I especially don’t believe that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to people marrying animals, objects and children.

I don’t care what the Bible says about it because not everybody follows the Bible.

I don’t care if homosexuality makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not theirs.

If you feel that marriage equality will threaten your marriage then maybe you need to look at your own relationship.

On Saturday the 12th of May I will be attending the marriage equality rally at the State Library of Victoria along with many other teachers and students from my school. Despite the zero affect this issue will have on my life, it will have major affects on the lives of others. I don’t want to be the type of person who only looks out for themselves.

I am a straight man and I support gay marriage.

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6 reasons why Phil Plait must be stopped

Originally posted at Subterranean Death Cult. Yes, it is a joke.

A bad, bad man.

Phil Plait is a bad man, and a bad astronomer. Known at the rubber plantation where I work as ‘El Destructor de los Sueños’ or ‘The Destroyer of Dreams’. He is technically an astronomer, blogger and host of Bad Universe but in reality he chews up the hopes and inspirations of millions of people worldwide.

Phil wrote a book called ‘ Bad Astronomy‘ which attempts to tear apart what he considers to be conspiracy theories. Theories such as the fact that the moon landing was faked and instead filmed in a television studio inside a volcano fortress. Phil refuses to acknowledge our reptilian overlords and does not even believe that aliens have ever landed on Earth (hereafter known as Home Planet Alpha) and probed my bottom.

He recently authored an article entitled ‘6 reasons why aliens would NEVER invade Home Planet Alpha‘. In it he comes up with some wishy-washy attempts at logic to justify his pay-cheque and try to convince us that we are perfectly safe from aliens. Allow me a moment to pick through them all.

1. They have superior technology

Phil (rightly) asserts that any invading alien race must posses superior technology. This is a valid point but he errs when he suggests that our technology would never overcome theirs. Phil is forgetting the classic MacGyver episode (season 4, episode 20) where he fights the aliens using only the finger bone of his son and a can of WD-40.

2. They don’t need our resources

Now he suggests that aliens wouldn’t bother coming here for resources because they are so plentiful in the depths of space. He is deliberately leaving out the high import taxes involved in asteroid/comet/nebula mining which, as any space accountant knows, are negligible when dealing with type 0 civilisations, as Home Planet Alpha certainly is.

3. Aliens don’t like the taste of human flesh

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Ask any cannibal and they will tell you how tender, succulent and appetising human flesh can be when prepared properly. Had Phil ever come to one of my Long Pig parties he would know just how ridiculous he is being.

4. Aliens would have no reason to fornicate with us

Apparently the aliens would be too genetically removed from us to able to breed so why even bother? Here Phil is showing his true Catholic colours. He clearly believes in the idea that copulation is for the purpose of bearing children and nothing else. I have a news flash for you, Phil! Some people actually enjoy the physical contact! That’s what I’ve heard anyway, my wife says otherwise.

5. Human slaves would be useless to them

Sure, our alien masters probably have enough cheap robots to obviate the need for human slaves, but here Phil is ignoring the human race’s inherent ability for choreography. Can you just imagine the sight of 7 billion humans popping and locking in perfect synchronisation? A robot may be programmed to do the same thing, but it will never have the heart.

6. There really isn’t any other reason for them to come here

Phil suggests that they wouldn’t need to move in, because there would be plenty of suitable, uninhabited planets closer by. Any religious message they wish to spread could be done via email. So why bother coming at all? This is where it becomes clear that Mr. Plait truly hates Home Planet Alpha. He does not bother mentioning our pristine beaches, alpine mountain ranges or bevy of amusement parks which are fun for the whole family. To an alien, Home Planet Alpha may not be a great place to stay, but it sure would be a lovely place to visit.

If you want to truly understand why Phil is such a dangerous figure, make sure you check out his blogbook, other book and tv show.

Together, we can end this.

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A History of Stupidity

One of the best examples of the dangers of irrational thinking is the anti-vaccine movement. They are thoroughly convinced that vaccines are one of the most dangerous inventions of mankind. From autism to outright death, they believe that vaccines will cause them all. It is not uncommon for them to claim that SIDS is an invention designed to cover up the supposed vaccine-induced deaths.

I recently wrote an article for the King’s Tribune magazine about an organisation called the Australian Vaccination Network who purport to be a vaccine information centre but in reality will do their best to wipe out the “scourge” of vaccination.

Needless to say, they are misguided and extremely dangerous. Vaccinations are one of the greatest developments in the history of humanity, having literally saved millions of lives over the last two centuries.

My article gives some of the history of vaccination plus a look at the AVN’s leader, Meryl Dorey and what people are doing to try and stop her.

A History of Stupidity

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