Tonight, I was finally able to snag a decent shot of Mars. This is extra special for me because a) I've been after one for well over a year, but the planet was either on the opposite side of the sun, or hanging around at terrible hours in retrograde(my previous attempts at photographing Mars have been fantastically lackluster), and b) this marks the first time I've ever photographed some surface detail of another planet. Sure, I've photographed some cloud detail before, but actual surface features? That's a new one for me (and no, I don't count the moon, silly). Unless I get a super-mega backyard scope, Mars may be the only surface detail I'll ever be able to photograph in our solar system, but it's still a nice milestone.
Right now, Mars is reasonably close to the Earth, and just a couple of days ago it was at "opposition", a term that essentially means that, from our perspective, the planet is on the exact opposite side of the sun. Previous times when Mars has been at opposition it was much closer, but we're still afforded a reasonably nice view. Mars is currently shining at -0.81 apparent magnitude, which makes it one of the very brightest objects in the night sky right now (after the moon, it is just slightly dimmer than Sirius, the brightest night-sky star). As an added bonus it happens to be at a particularly neat position: Sitting smack-dab in the constellation Cancer, bright-orange Mars shines nicely with other bright shining colourful objects, such as deep orange Betelgeuse, bright-blue Rigel, and crystal-white Sirius. Procyon, Castor and Pollux are in the region too, and if you wait a few more hours, another orange-star, Arcturus will show up. The winter sky is putting on a particularly nice show, and will be for the next few weeks. The great thing about the bright winter sky stars is that even in a light-polluted city, you can still see the colours of the stars.
But there's something else which occurred to me as I was loading up these pictures onto my computer: Because the Earth sits between Mars and the Sun, our world would only visible to Mars viewers in the twilight hours. Like Venus is for us, Earth is Mars' morning and evening "star". There's something about that that makes me smile.
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First off, I know that making a Dark Knight reference so long after the film's release is a little lame.
Second off, I get it: accuracy is important.
Third-off, I know that writing about these meta-skeptic issues is awfully presumptuous of me. Believe me, it makes me a little uneasy trying to tell my fellow skeptics about skepticism. It's arrogant, I recognize this....but I need to get something off my chest, and Skeptic North is not the place for it (since these are my own words and opinions, and not necessarily of anyone else). I ask your indulgence. (How Canadian is this? I'm apologizing for expressing an opinion! Sheesh)
Now, on to the meat.
I don't know if it's just me, but I've been noticing an increase in aggressive, condescending rudeness in the guise of pedantry and accuracy. I (and several other of our Skeptic North colleagues, as well as some of my friends over at Skepchick and elsewhere) have been accused of playing foot-loose and fancy-free with the facts to either a) suit a 'skeptic agenda' , or b) fulfill some poetic license which constructs a pre-conceived narrative.
But here are some of the comments that have been coming through (usernames and URLs will not be included for what I hope are obvious reasons) lately:
Or,While you're on your "There's no link between Mercury and Autism" rant, here's a link to an article from Science Daily you might find interesting.
Since you claim to be so knowledgeable on the subject, I'm sure you're familiar with the article, but maybe you'd now like to point out that Science Daily is a woo-based rag pushing the anti-vax agenda......
Great. After having just done so to a great degree, such a disclaimer is meaningles [sic]and empty. Not to mention that you've set us up to make any disagreement with you appear as a personal assualt. [sic]Way-to-go with the manipulation.I fail to see anything in your post that speaks to skepticism, objectivity, balance, accurate history (aside from the obviousness of the foolishness of holocaust denial), or even a reasonable degree of non-bias.Or,
I know this is a hostile comment, and I intend it as such. Your post is incendiary, heavily biased, emotionally triggered, and woefully subjective. So I am responding in kind, though I am attackiong [sic]the post, not you, even though the structure of your post makes that a near impossibility.I do not and never have celebrated mass murder, whether it is defensive or offensive. That was then, this is now. It's time to stop destroying the people of the world for the sake of political, religious, and corporate expediency. And that starts with stopping the celebration.
Blog readers cannot be mind readers, and should not be required or expected to be.Or,
Blog writers (all writers) should avoid the trap of presuming/assuming comprehensive common ground or universally understood information and experience even within a similar cultural milieu.
A proficient writer avoids the trap of assuming that the reader knows what is unstated and buried within the writer's personal experience.
This would appear to be but a thinly disguised right wing diatribe to denigrate one of the most respected families in US history. Yes , their dirty laundry was hung out for all to see. But not content to celebrate (discreetly , of course) the assasination [sic] of the two borothers [sic] , John F. and Robert , and demonize in death the late Senator Ted Kennedy , their family is dragged through the mud over scientific data that may be inaccurate. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin would have been proud of you.
Sorry, Steve, you are an asshat and don't even realize that. These people know what they are referring to, but that fact just flies over your head. It's normal for stupid and ignorant people to think that everyone, whom they don't understand, is stuid. [sic]
In reality t's[sic] the opposite.
This does sound a little extreme, but over the course of any given week, I'll see a comment (or connected series of comments) not too dissimilar from this one. Some people have even decided to take their complaints to my email inbox (which I "love" to read after 6 hours of teaching electric guitar to kids). Oftentimes I'll see comments accusing the author of poor spelling or grammar in a comment that is itself, riddled with grade 7-level mistakes.
I don't know precisely why we / I get these sorts of comments. They are certainly not representative of MOST of our comments (which are generally respectful, civil, helpful and insightful), but it's one thing to correct a single typo that slipped through the net (it happens everywhere), it's quite another thing to cry foul that because that typo, I am an embarrassment to skepticism.
It might be because a) It's the internet, and trolls no longer live under bridges, b) Skepticism can attract a certain, pariah-type personality that is prone to thinking that contrarianism for its own sake is what matters, c) We (both Skeptic North and my own independent material) are getting more traffic, and this could simply be an artifact of those increased numbers. I really don't know what's going on here, but it really stinks when you spend hours to produce some content that some know-it-nothing then decides it is their solemn duty to point out that because of this one turn-of-phrase in one side-point that has little to do with the main issue is not 100% up to agonizingly detailed standards, that I'm somehow and idiot.
Thanks for allowing me to stand on this soapbox. I honestly don't like doing it, but I hope you understand that I think I have good reason to.
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It's been a slow week at Oot and Aboot, mainly because Some Canadian Skeptic had stuff-to-do coming out the wazoo (which is, if you check, where it comes out). I won't bother listing everything that I had to do this past week for fear of sounding whiny, but I would like to say a final word of thanks to the ASR for a great Skeptics in the Pub talk on the 22nd! I also owe a thanks to everyone who came out and asked questions and shared drinks and conversation. I had a wonderful time and it was great to learn that digital friends were actually real people, and that I have a lot of new skeptic friends out there in Toronto.
I'm glad the talk went as well as it did, and I'd like to port it to other venues. So if you'd like to have me speak at your venue, my speaker's fee lies somewhere between a Ferrari and a sandwich.
Speaking of expertise, there are only two (maybe three) areas of knowledge that think I can justifiably call myself to have any level of expertise: Music (and I guess by extension music education) and political science. Since the former doesn't often come up in skepticism (very rarely), and the latter is explicitly out-of-bounds at Skeptic North, I was considering offering more political analysis as it relates to skepticism here at this blog (which, as you'll note in the disclaimer, does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the team at Skeptic North). However, I realize that this is a potentially problematic idea. I'd like to get your thoughts on this issue:
I'm a left-leaning political economy kind of academic, and any politics/skepticism analysis will reflect such an intellectual framework. I'm starting to miss academic political science, and am considering using this venue to explore what I was exploring before taking this teaching job.
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Just as reminder to all my Toronto-area skeptic friends, I'll be speaking at tonight's Toronto Skeptics in the Pub, hosted by the Association for Science and Reason.
The event will be at the Fox and Fiddle (across from Wellesley Station), and begins at 7:00. If you're on Facebook, why not RSVP?
I'm really looking forward to meeting so many of you who have only existed in a digital world for me, so I hope you can all make it out for some nice food, drinks and conversation!
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Daniel Loxton may be Canada's most prominent skeptic, and I've always looked up to him as a model skeptic and a model Canadian: civil, thoughful, deliberate, and humble. I'm very proud to be able to call Daniel a colleague and a friend, and his impact on me as a skeptic activist has been enormous.
I'm very, very pleased to do my part to help get the word out on Daniel's new book, Evolution: How We and All Living Thing Came to Be, which is NOW on sale!
Furthermore, this book will come free with a minimum donation of $100 to the Skeptics Society.
If you've ever lamented how children just don't understand science these days, this would be a great way to combat that feeling!
This book will surely affect many kids to think about science, and it wouldn't be the first time!
Great work, Daniel!
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A year ago, I made my skeptic predictions for 2009, and compared to certain big-ticket psychics, I did remarkably well. I think that I did so well largely because I used every psychic trick in the book for these sorts of things, specifically use of vague and open-ended criteria and liberal use of wide error-margins. Psychics often make predictions of things that won't happen, and then claim victory. I'm reasonably educated, and I read the news, so I would stack up my political insights over any psychic around.
Last year I made 16 predictions, but scoring was kind of difficult: it took a ridiculously long time to check up on everything, and some predictions had up to 6 points of information that I had to research. In order to save some time and frustration next January, I'm going to limit my scope and size.
So, what do I predict will happen in 2010?
1) An election will be called in Canada, and the Liberals will win a minority government.
2) There will be a modest civil rights demonstration in Vancouver during the Olympics.
3) The price of oil will not change more than 30% from current prices (as of today, A barrel of oil costs $82.94).
4) Just like in Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia legislatures will pass laws granting naturopaths the right to prescribe science-based medications.
5) The Democrats will lost their filibuster-proof majority in Congress after the November elections.
6) Iron Man 2 will be the biggest summer blockbuster, followed by the next Twilight movie.
7) Scientists will observe what they think may be water on an earth-like extra-solar planet.
8) The Mars Spirit Rover will go offline.
9) Space X will continue their success, and expand their operations
10) The BCA will drop their lawsuit against Simon Singh
11) The extra-solar planet count to over 500 by year's end, thanks largely to NASA's Kepler Mission.
Okay, that's all I feel like writing for now. Check back in a year and see how I did. Better yet, check back often and keep reading :)
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Now that the holidays are over I've been busy doing meta-skeptic issues more these days: fewer skeptical analysis, more skeptical activism. I've been busy with Skeptic North, doing my part in trying to work out how we're going to expand into the near future, but there are two things in particular that I'd like to draw your attention to:
1) Grassroots Skeptics printed a guest post of mine that primarily deals with how Skeptic North was formed, and the type of actitivism we're trying to engage in. Thanks to K.O. Myers for printing it!
2) If you're in the Toronto area on Friday Jan 22, why not come down to the Toronto Skeptics in the Pub, (hosted by the Association for Science and Reason, formerly Skeptics Canada) where I'll the guest speaker discussing digital social networking in skeptic activism and how to organize, execute and promote skepticism. Thanks to the ASR for allowing me a chance to speak, and thanks to fellow Skeptic North member Aysha, who no doubt offered some Grima Wormtongue-like advice to the ASR brass in making the recommendation of me.
So I hope to see you all at the Skeptics in the Pub (directions can be found at the ASR's events page). Come say 'hi', and maybe we can have a good discussion about skepticism, astronomy, alt-med, and Arrested Development!
For some more Some Canadian Skeptic goodness which fuels my ego (and, strangely enough, my Mechano Set), don't forget to check out my appearance on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and my joint-appearance on Skeptically Speaking.
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A year ago, I made my 2009 Skeptic Predictions. I wrote these predictions the way any psychic would: some with vague, open-ended criteria, some with extremely specific information. With the vague ones, it would be easy to claim accuracy, and if the specific ones turned out to be accurate, then I could WAY focus on those (and if I turned out to be wrong, the file drawer-effect of the memory of the believer could easily forget my misses). I also tried to include vapid, superficial predictions from the celebrity world (which I don't follow at all). I'm going to score myself, where each prediction is worth 2 points (which would allow me, and any psychic who does this sort of thing, to claim a prediction to be half-right). Let's see how I did:
1) Unemployment rates in the United States and Canada will reach levels between 8-10% by April, drop slightly over the summer, and plummet to 10-12% again in September.Well, looks like there is a error in what I wrote...I think when I said "plummet" I mean to say rise. But regardless, in April the U.S. the unemployment rate was 8.1%-8.5%, and in September was 9.8, so that's close enough for a psychic to say it's correct. (source) In Canada, the numbers weren't all that different, but in September, we fared slightly better than the Americans (source). There were six points of information in this prediction, and 3-4 of them I'm claiming turned out to be true. So for this one, I'm scoring myself a 1.
2) A senior state official in the Middle East will be assassinated by March, and another by October.In October, several Iranian state officials (commanders) were assassinated, but I couldn't find any assassinations for March. 1 point.
3) Lindsay Lohan will be seen in public being intimate with a man, throwing doubt on her homosexuality (and will make headlines again).Ugh. I can't believe I bothered with this one. AND THAT I WAS RIGHT! 2 points.
4) Britney Spears will briefly re-lapse into her crazy-fits, but she will find solace and sanity from a religion and loved ones.While Britney did indeed embrace religion, it largely started in 2008, and this year was a slow one for her anyway. 0 points.
5) Contrary to many psychics predictions, there will be no significant race-riots in the United States beyond the odd bar-fight among hillbillies.I know, I know. I predicted that something wouldn't happen. Psychics do this all the time. And this prediction turned out to be right. 2 points.
6) Afghanistan will destabilize further, forcing some states to withdraw their troops entirely, and the remaining states to increase troop presence.Sadly, This VERY turned out to be true. No special insight required here. Just a basic understanding of the history of conflicts in that area, and a close attention to the news. 2 points.
7) Much to the disappointment of Paramount Studios and Star Trek fans, the Star Trek film will be a commercial failure, and Paramount will release a statement that the franchise is now dead.I'm very glad that this prediction turned out to be false. The movie was rad, raked in a tonne of cash, and there will be two more Star Trek films under the J.J. Abrams helm. Star Trek was made cool, possibly for the first time, and it's worth be getting 0 points for this.
8) Facebook will face major legal battles with the governments of China and the United States surrounding police crackdowns in the former, and leaked access of information in the latter.China is fighting Facebook, and Facebook's America troubles are mounting, and in both cases, it's for the exact reasons I predicted. 2 points hardly seems enough to reflect my awesomeness.
9) The price of oil will regain some of its value by May-June, rising to $70/barrel, but will not rise further unless the economy can recoverIt's almost scary how accurate this was. 2 points.
10) The death-toll from anti-vaccinationists will reach a fevered pitch, causing widespread vilification and backpedaling of people like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.The former is true, but the latter is not. This is 1 point I wish I didn't get to grant myself.
11) A major psychic will claim to make contact with the spirit of Heath Ledger.This turned out to be true. And goddamnit, it's this asshole:
2 points. Goddammit. Asshole.
I spent all the time I felt like trying to find if this turned out to be true. Doesn't appear to be. 0 points.12) A 70's rock star will get involved in a near-fatal car accident while an 80's rock star will be implicated in a sex-scandal.
13) Oprah Winfrey will come out of the closet as a lesbianAgain with a gay thing? Sheesh. Anyway, as best I know, this didn't happen. 0 points.
14) The price of food staples will become so high as to result in as much as 10 million deaths in the developing worldThis one was intentional. Food staples are always too expensive for most of the world to be able to afford. 10 million deaths of starvation is a modest estimate. 2 very sad points.
15) Several countries will nationalize some of their major industries, much to the chagrin of the United States and the IMF, who will both be powerless to stop it.Iceland nationalized the Straumur Investment Bank and the savings bank SPRON. On January 15, 2009, the Irish Government announced plans to nationalize Anglo Irish Bank in order to secure the bank's viability. The United States also pseudo-nationalized several of its investment firms and auto-companies. 1 point.
16) Russia will attempt to overthrow one of its neighbours governments by either military means, or by economic means (such as controlling the flow of resources).Russia has been steadily putting the heat on neighbouring Georgia for the past two years, but I can't claim victory on this one. 0 points.
Out of a total of 32 possible points, I scored 18, or 56%! Since most psychics generally get 10-20% right, this is a pretty damned good score. Why, even the folks at Australia's The Skeptic Zone podcast manged to do only slightly better at 60% Not bad for my first try!
Obviously, I don't have any magical powers, and I would bet my left thumb that no one on earth can see into the future. If a person pays reasonably close attention to the news, they'll be able to accurately predict a surprising amount of things. Remember that the next time you see Sylvia Browne prattle on about her past accuracy.
In a few days I'll make my 2010 predictions. Maybe less than 16 so that next year I don't have to spend so much time researching my accuracy.
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I've been wanting to tell this story for a while. But it's a big story, and a up until now, the rage that I felt when thinking about it prevented me from writing too much about it. Many people in my immediate and academic circles know full-well this story, and some of my skeptic friends only know bits an pieces (told in fragments, and heavily truncated because I didn't want to talk about it), but I think I can tell the story now, and in full (any errors and omissions are due entirely to errors of memory, not because of deliberate falsification). It's long, but I need to tell this story while I still have most of the memories. Here it is:
Early in my 4th year at my old university, Trent , I wrote an opinion-piece in our student paper (the original link, along with all the articles from that year have since been removed) criticizing my department (politics) for over-embracing post-modernism. My point was that although there is a value to post-modern analysis, its application into political matters should take a significant step back to more difficult issues of historical materialism and political economy. I found (and still do) that when we obsess on matters of identity to explain politics (also known as identity politics), we engage in little more than narcissistic academic navel-gazing. There's work to do, and post-modernism, identity politics, and phenomenology (that ruled the roost at the Trent politics department) had little-to-no praxis with which we could use. But this entry is not about post-modernism.
A sub-section (and largely un-related) of the politics department has graciously offered publish to the article on their own website. To read it, click here.
Well, the article itself set off what can best be described as a "shit-storm", but I would also classify it as a "hissy-fit".
The reaction from the student body was fairly mixed: of those that agreed with me, I found many surprising friends and allys in what would later become a fight. But if a person agrees with an article, chances are their voices of support are drowned-out by the angry voices of opposition: I've heard my name ridiculed by people in my own department, in related departments (such as Cultural Studies) and in entirely un-related departments (such as Nursing). The fact that the reaction spread far outside the boundaries of the Politics dept kind of underscored my point about the entire university being usurped by postmodernism, but I suppose that the irony was lost of those calling for my head.
But it was the reaction of the professors and administration that was especially damning, and taught me more in a few months about the academy's reaction to dissent and disagreement than 5 years of study.
I've debated internally whether or not I should say names here. I've decided to include their names because a) It's a matter of public record, b) it's my blog, and c) they did a lot more than simply "say" my name: they used official university channels to drag my name and reputation through the mud...so all I'm doing is telling what happened.
The then-head of the department, Professor Elaine Stavro (who taught a course that was actually named "The Political Imagination") devoted an entire 2-hour lecture in front of 40-50 of my fellow students to explaining to her 4th year students why I was wrong. Professor Nadine Changfoot (teacher of "The Politics of Creativity" and in another course had an assignment where she wanted the students to "bring in a physical manifestation of their inner-academic...in a 4th year course!) devoted 30-minutes of her 1-hour lecture in a similar way, also asking her students, "Which one of you is Steve Thoms?". Professor Veronica Hollinger (of the Cultural Studies dept) at least took the time to respond in the original forum (the student paper), but her argument wasn't an argument at all, but a bibliography effectively saying, "read this, then complain!" In the year that I wrote the article, I did not have any of these professors as my instructors. However, there was one of my detractors that I did have:
Professor James Driscoll, while teaching my class, "Law and Constitutional Issues" threw out the following line in lecture, "...The hell with Steve Thoms". I'll remind you, this was a tenured professor, during lecture time, at a public university, who was defaming one of his students, who was sitting right there. All because of an opinion piece in the student paper. I kept my cool during the remainder of the lecture and did not confront him until class ended. He confessed that he did not know who I was to look at me, and his eyes widened when I explained to him that I was the student that could go to hell. He re-composed himself, patted me patronizingly on my arm saying "its all in the same spirit". "Not really" I responded. I pressed on him for information, since he was the first department professor that I actually was able to talk to.
I asked him about a recent meeting that the politics department faculty had, where they called-in the editors of the student paper. I wanted to know why they called-in the editors of the piece, and not the original author. He didn't have an answer beyond "We're politics professors, we play politics". I asked why they threatened the editors with libel. He said "We did not threaten them with libel, but we did express concerns that there were some slander issues with the piece". Again, I asked "so why not take the issue up with the author?", and continued with "Can you point out a single instance of slander? Because there isn't any, and I think you, and the entire department shouldn't offer a thinly-veiled legal threat against two inexperienced editors when the author is waiting around watching everyone talk about him, but never TO him. I think the behavior of the departments betrays a lot if immaturity and insecurity and I think you owe me, and the student paper an apology"
Needless to say, he didn't take the call for apology well. He started walking out of the lecture hall, and that was the last time I saw him.
I decided that I couldn't let the issue rest there...a university professor can't talk about a student like that, and not let it go unchallenged. I made an official complaint to the then-Dean of Arts and Sciences, Christine McKinnon, who invited me in for a meeting. The details of the meeting are confidential, but I can say that I walked away furious, feeling like I had little-to-no recourse, and that the Office of the Dean was professionally and/or ideologically aligned with the politics department.
Over the next few months, I had heard countless other insults thrown my way, many of whom came from supposedly 'professional' professors of the department. I was well-within my rights to sue the university, and maybe I should have. I had hoped that we could settle this with words like adults, and I didn't want to use the legal system that the department was eager to use before trying to even engage in a dialogue. University was really tough on me after that. I lost a lot of sleep, my health plummeted and it was all underscored by a regular twitter of "Steve is an idiot" popping up every now and again, often from people in positions of authority.
I've toyed with the idea of going back to academics, but I keep thinking about that terribly poisonous experience, and then I remember that these days I'm very happy teaching music to kids. I may have committed academic suicide by writing this entry (or maybe an academic appendectomy or amputation might be more accurate), but I have never compiled my side of the story in writing before. It's been more than 2 years since the original article, and even though I've pretty much severed all my ties with Trent, I'm glad I finally got this out there.
I wonder if this will find its way to the computer screens of some of the professors and students* who thought it was very important to use university time/money to call me an idiot when they could be teaching students instead. Judging by their reaction, they will think about ways they can sue me, realize that they can't, and then dismiss me as a jaded former-student who tried to bite the biggest dogs in the yard. They may think of other ways to get back at me, because these are powered people who are not secure or mature, nor who can handle criticism from someone without power. They may have all kinds of power, but these days they have little power over me.
Some people in that department taught be well: I know my right to free speech very well, and I'm not concerned.
* I ask that unless you have a personal or professional relationship with the professors named in this article, that you do no send them this article. I don't wish to spam of flood anyone's inbox, even if they do deserve it.
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