Sunday, April 30, 2006

Golden Rule Aftermath

I'm tired. Being the autocrat of an SCA event just takes the energy right out of you.

The event did come off pretty well, though. Final attendance was 134, which is more than I expected for the first time we've had an event on this date (we should have the last weekend of April as a regular date going forward). I also had several people tell me that they had a really good time, which justifies the mileage I put on my body getting it together. This is a testament to all the citizens of our shire who put in a lot of hard work to make the event possible and to the many volunteers who put in their time to help out.

Renting a dance tent turned out to be a good call, in my opinion, since we ended up with a dry, non-gravelly place to dance even though it rained for a couple of hours before dancing opened. We wouldn't have been able to dance if I hadn't gotten the thing,even though the cost of it means that, financially, the event was probably break-even at best. I'm not going to worry about that, though; we are a non-profit organization, after all.

The card games in the tavern after feast turned out to be a big hit, and I would like to very publicly thank my Lady Fjorleif for thinking of it and Lord Sean for running the tavern. I think the games definitely need to become a regular feature of our events. It was nice to see all the attendees stay at the hall after feast to socialize instead of scattering away to their own camps to chat around their camp fires.

The weather was mostly cooperative for fighting. During the day it was calm, mostly cloudy, and cool, which is ideal weather for SCA combat. We had three heavy fighting tournaments during the day, and I'd like to say a special thanks to Sir Griffin and Baron Malachi for arranging them. I didn't see much of the smiting, but it looked like they were having a good time beating up their friends over there. I'd also like to thank Lord Schreck for arranging a Youth Combat practice and tournament. I'd like to see Youth Combat activities take off even more at our events. Finally, with regard to Fencing, I'd like to thank Lord Corbin and Lady Ysabel for being all set to implement my hare-brained chess match idea. There was a surprising lack of fencers at Golden Rule, and they efficiently turned what I thought would be a big tournament into a small practice.

I think all the fencers must have gotten lured away into Her Ladyship Lora's archery tournaments. We had twenty-seven people sign up for archery activities. That's quite extraordinary, I think. It's also a testament to what entertaining archery activities she came up with.

Additional specific thank-yous go out to His Lordship Reinmar, Mistress Stephanie, Her Ladyship Fionnabhair, and of course Lady Fjorleif for handling troll, the hall, A&S activities, and the feast, respectively.

I would like to have included pictures in this report, but I don't think we even remembered to take the camera, and I certainly never thought of it while I was there. I shall have to get in touch with Sir Jean-Claude, who I know was taking pictures, so I can get some visuals both for the Saga and for the shire website.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Lennon Speaks – Maybe – If You’re Willing to Pay

Reuters is letting us know that you may be able to hear John Lennon speak from beyond the grave, assuming you’re willing to give up ten bucks for the opportunity.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A controversial television seance airing on Monday will claim it has reached the spirit of John Lennon, but viewers will have to pay $9.95 to find out what the peace-loving Beatle has to say.
Basically, the program relies on the human behavior known as pareidolia and the honesty of an “EVP Specialist” – EVP being the supposed voices of the dead making themselves heard via radio, television signals, or recording media – who claims it’s “the real deal”.

The movies White Noise, The Sixth Sense, Poltergeist, and The Changeling all use the “phenomenon” in their stories when disembodied characters or ghosts speak through the static of a blank TV station or in the background of a tape recording. Alas, there are all kinds of perfectly mundane ways for radios, TVs, or even cheap microphones to pick up stray signals from mundane sources like CB radios, baby monitors, and other RF equipment, so hearing mysterious voices isn’t exactly astonishing. Furthermore, believers will interpret any garbled noise that sounds vaguely like a human voice as the one they’ve been hoping to hear.
Producer Paul Sharratt, who heads Starcast Productions and who calls himself a skeptic, said hearing the voice has made him a believer.
Sure. He also, according to the article, hopes “to lure an audience that now loves such prime-time network TV shows as Ghost Whisperer and Medium.” If a previous show organized by the same producers to contact Princess Diana is any indication, this new show should bring in several million dollars from the believers. In his shoes, I think I'd claim to be one, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Babylon 5 Geekery

Babylon 5 is probably my favorite science fiction series of all time. In my opinion, its story surpasses Star Wars, Star Trek, and every other SF tale told to date. Like many SF francises, it has a loyal following of geeks who like to obsess about the minutia of the series. We argue over unimportant things like how fast the ships can go, how powerful their weapons are, and whether a B5 telepath could smack down a Star Wars Jedi Knight.

You can learn some interesting lessons from the whole process, though. I sharpened up math skills that I hadn’t used for years and re-learned principles of physics and chemistry that I had mostly forgotten. I can easily tell you the difference between a material’s specific heat and its heat of fusion, and I can remember that you need to start correcting kinetic energy estimates for relativity if an object’s speed starts to reach a significant fraction of lightspeed.

Naturally, people have different opinions and heated arguments develop. The argument between fanatical Star Wars fans and fanatical Star Trek fans over which side has superior technology, culture, etc. has gone on for years. B5 fans entered the game late, but they quickly moved to establish their place with the “big boys”.

This is going somewhere; believe me. You see, the usual method for determining who has the more powerful weapon or the faster ship is to treat these television shows and movies as if they were documentaries of actual events (with a hat tip to Galaxy Quest). Scientific analysis of this “documentary evidence” let’s you estimate the power, speed, or other property demonstrated.

Now, I’m an analyst for the BabTech on the Net website, and we’re working on an update for one of our pages that includes an estimate of a ship’s firepower. In a scene from one episode, one ship melts a line down the hull of another with a laser beam. We can estimate the width of the beam, the length of the line on the hull, and the thickness of the hull to determine how much material melted. Assuming the hull to be steel (an extremely common construction material in modern warships), we can use the thermal properties of iron to estimate the amount of energy required to melt the hull. With this estimate of the energy and the amount of time it took to cause the damage, we can estimate the minimum amount of energy the beam is transferring to its target. The exact results aren’t important, but you can read the analysis if you like.

Another Babylon 5 fansite, the B5 Technical Manual performs a very similar analysis with a couple of key exceptions. After performing all of the steps I described above for analyzing the incident, he finds a result that doesn’t satisfy him, so he makes two additional assumptions:
As we know that the Omega's armor is NOT comprised of iron, and the general
consensus is that the Earthforce armor is at least 20X stronger than our base

Also, this is a standard discharge, not a maximum burst. Assuming
that a standard discharge is 30% of critical power,....

Without any sound justification, he just inflated his estimate by a factor of about 67. The results of a legitimate scientific analysis didn’t suit him, so he invented additional evidence to make the results fit his expectations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have just shown you an example of the Intelligent Design / Creationist mentality in action.

Like the author of the B5Tech analysis, ID proponents don’t like what the evidence tells us about human origins, so they twist the evidence to support the conclusion they want or dismiss it without justification. Michael Behe, for example, claims that living organisms are too complex to have evolved naturally, but he has never produced any evidence to support his claim; he just makes dubious analogies to modern technology and arbitrarily rejects any amount of research showing how complex organisms could or did evolve.
In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough."
-- from the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial decision
ID proponents aren’t the only fanatics with this problem, obviously. You see the same attitude in global warming deniers, holocaust deniers, and fanatical trekkies.

The trick for you is to see how biased presenters introduce hidden assumptions, alter evidence, change standards, or fix analytical methods to achieve the results they wanted from the beginning. A good scientific analysis will define its assumptions and methods before presenting and analyzing the evidence, allowing you to judge the quality of their process before you judge their results.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

No WoW for a While

I turned off my World of Warcraft account today. It was a tough call, because I enjoy the game, but I'm currently not enjoying it enough to justify the $15/month cost. Maybe I'll take it up again in the winter, but I've got too many other things that will be taking up my time for the next few months, at least.

Shameless Commerce

Having gotten nearly ten thousand hits in a year, I figure that there's an off chance this blog might actually help me pay a bill or two. To that end, I wondered how I might go about putting some ads on the site.

I briefly considered signing up for Google-Ads, but I rejected that pretty quickly. Their system selects ads based on site content, but it it does so rather stupidly. I'd undoubtedly end up with ads for World of Warcraft gold and homeopathic remedies coming out my ears, and I definitely don't want to support such people.

Fortunately, I discovered that Revival Enterprises has an affiliate program, so I can place ads on my weblog that are actually appropriate to my areas of interest. At the moment, the ads are kind of obscure, since I don't really want to emphasize them, but scroll down the right column for some fencing supplies and books.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dungeon Escape!

Remember the old Dragon's Lair arcade game? Imagine the same thing in flash, with stick figures. There are hours of wasted time in this thing.

Skeptics' Circle 32 Posted

The 32nd Edition of the Skeptics' Circle is now up at Pooflingers Anonymous. It's a big issue, with lots of great stuff.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cruising for Scientology… Again

My, my... two skepticism articles in one week. Truly the nonsense is flowing freely in the world this week. This little gem turned up during a brief browse of the Internet Movie Database.
Tom Cruise is attacking those who prescribe psychiatric drugs again in the May issue of men's style magazine GQ. The Mission: Impossible III actor, who embarked on an anti-drug tirade in TV interviews last summer on behalf of his Scientology beliefs, has launched a fresh attack on psychiatry, calling for prescription pill poppers to think carefully about the harms they're doing to their bodies. He tells the magazine, "I've always found the 'if it makes me feel better, it's OK' rationale a little suspect. I think it's appalling that people have to live a life of drug addiction when I have personally helped people get off drugs." In the interview, the actor claims he can get someone off heroin in three days through Scientology's detox programs.

-- IMDB News

Will celebrities ever shut up about fields in which they have no qualifications? The Scientology detox program is known as Narconon, and there is no evidence to back the claims that Cruise makes for it. You can get details from the Narconon Exposed website, but here are some of the basics.

  • Narconon publishes its own studies of the effectiveness of the program without peer review. There have been no neutral clinical trials of the program’s effectiveness.

  • The program was invented by L. Ron Hubbard, who had no medical qualifications of any kind.

  • The program’s methodology of “cold turkey” detoxification, massive overdoses of vitamins, and vastly prolonged sauna sessions is inherently unsafe.
It would be interesting to see Narconon’s records opened up to thorough scientific scrutiny to see if they support the program’s claims, and a genuine clinical trial of the procedure wouldn’t hurt, either. Neither of these actions is likely, though, as Narconon is essentially a “faith-based” organization run by the Church of Scientology.

I don’t doubt that Tom Cruise absolutely believes his own rhetoric about psychiatry and Scientology, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s just blowing smoke; his beliefs stand on feet of clay. It’s almost like an actor giving medical advice because he plays a doctor on TV, but Cruise doesn’t even have that negligible level of qualification.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Jesus on Thin Ice

The news has been aflutter this week with the story of an oceanographer who came up with a hypothesis for how Jesus could have walked on water.
Doron Nof, a professor of oceanography, said a rare combination of water and atmospheric conditions in the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago may offer a scientific explanation for one of the miracles recounted in the Bible. Nof said a patch of ice floating in the Sea of Galilee — which is actually a freshwater lake — would have been difficult to distinguish from unfrozen water surrounding it.
--USA Today
I really don’t understand why some people feel the need to try to justify Biblical miracles scientifically. Either you believe in miracles or you don’t; there’s just no point in trying to come up with some hypothetical freak circumstance that would make the miracle into a plausible natural event. Such hypotheses generally just diminish the event into something inconsequential, anyway.

In another example, a preacher told my youth group years ago that there’s a place in the Sea of Reeds where if a strong wind blows in the right direction, it will literally part the waters and make a dry path across. If the Biblical translation were a bit off – the Red Sea was really the Sea of Reeds – Moses’ parting of the waters would actually have been possible. The rub, of course, is that the water is never more than a few inches deep in that spot to begin with. Talk about a pointless miracle.

Any attempt to scientifically justify a miracle is pretty much doomed to failure. You could probably find ways to simulate any given miracle with a modern illusionist’s tricks or a wildly improbable set of natural circumstances, but that’s totally missing the point of the story, a waste of a scientist’s time, and an effective way to offend religious sensibilities for no good reason.

Biblical miracles don’t need rational explanation. In fact, there isn’t supposed to be a rational explanation: that’s what makes it a miracle. DUH!

What science can do is evaluate modern claims that a miracle occurred. The claims of faith-healers and psychics are certainly subject to scientific study. They may claim that their abilities go beyond the realm of known science, but that’s really irrelevant. Science can determine – through double-blind clinical trials and similar experiments – whether modern psychics, faith healers, and the like can actually do what they claim to do; figuring out how it happens would then be a subject for further study.

So, Professor Nof, could you please stop pointlessly annoying Christians with unlikely rationalizations of religious stories? Save your time and credibility for useful research, eh?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Scott Kurtz Understands Skepticism

Scott Kurtz, the author of PVPOnline, started a series of cartoons about administrative foolishness with the March 31 issue of his online comic. Before this storyline, I hadn’t actually thought of the character Max Powers as someone with a “woo woo” mentality.

I’ll stop with that little bit of description, since I don’t want to spoil the joke.

Spring Coronation

Spring Coronation has passed. All Hail King Godwine and Queen Francesca. For those who didn’t hear the story yet, Queen Diedre was kidnapped on her way to set up a shrine to house some saintly relics, and King Boru abdicated so he could go to her rescue.

I realize that it’s important business, but coronation is actually a pretty dull event if you’re not a peer, which means you have meetings to attend with the new crowns. There were also a couple of heavy fighting tournaments during the day, but that’s it. It’s probably not feasible to have much more going on, since those meetings tend to tie up the most productive people in the kingdom for most of the day, but I can see why people who aren’t peers don’t feel very motivated to go to coronation.

I would like to thank Duchess Katrina, the Honorable Lord Gareth, the Honorable Lord Reinmar, the Honorable Lady Lora Greymare (new award!), Lady Francesca, and of course my Lady Fjorleif for helping me organize the White Rose Ball. I felt rather overwhelmed by the ball, since there’s a lot more protocol and ritual to it than I realized, but with their help I think it came off fairly well (but only fair; thanks from crowns and others notwithstanding, I’m a bit disappointed with myself). I’ll add a special thanks to the Meridien Musicians Guild for providing live music, including two rounds of Hole in the Wall.

Next weekend we’ll be doing demos with the Shire of Loch Cairn at the Winchester Dogwood Festival.