Whole Life Expo Updates

First, let me say a hearty thanks to everyone who shared yesterday's post about my Whole Life Expo experience.  I'd like as many people as possible to know how they treated us, and your kind words and networking support is helping in this regard.

I also want to say thank you to everyone who attended the event with us.  The Association for Science and Reason (formerly Skeptics Canada, the same organization that hosted me for a Skeptics in the Pub last January) were well represented, as were the CFI and CASS (Centre for Inquiry and Centre for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism, respectively).  Of course, there were several Skeptic North bloggers in attendance, as well as some regular commenters and readers of the various outlets.  Thanks to everyone who came:  Your presence was a tremendous support network that we can all now use when these sorts of SNAFUs happen.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that there would be new updates, and there are.

Firstly, Skeptic North blogger Mitchell (whose experience was even more hostile than mine) wrote his review of the event, and I encourage you all to read it here.

Secondly, Justin Trottier, president of CFI Canada also provided an account of some more sobering events, including the threat of physical violence.  Read it here.

Pictured, "Gary", whom I mentioned in the last post, and one of the principal aggressors.

That's all for now, friends.  Keep reading, and keep watching the skiis!

Uh, skies.

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This post is going to be written in a flurry, as I want to get everything down while it is still fresh in my mind.

Today, along with around 15 other skeptic friends, I went to the Whole Life Expo in Toronto.  The experience was, to put it mildly, unsettling.  I went last year with fellow Skeptic North bloggers Mitchell and Scott, and I got a decent amount of writing material out of it (Here, here, and here).  Last year we took pictures, engaged exhibitors in conversation, and generally were awed at some of the claims being made.  While it was a bit of a mind blowing experience, it was not altogether negative in any significant way.

This year, however, I received a taste of the subtle fascism of hidden agendas.

Readers of Skeptic North will know that we announced on our blog that several of the Toronto-area bloggers and friends would be attending this year.  In the comments section, we were met with a bizarre combination of belligerence, welcome, and insult at our desire to attend a public expo. There were even some comments from one of the Expo organizers, Julia Woodford, who expressed herself with a modicum of civility (a trait, I later learned did not fully extend into the real world).

After we bought our tickets, we all went upstairs to the convention hall. My little sub group of four people walked in first, and we were tagged instantly.  Without exaggeration, we were not more than 4 steps into the hall when Mitchell was stopped by a man (I will call him "Gary," because he reminds me of a jerk Gary I once knew) aggressively asking, "Are you with Skeptics North?"

"Uhhh....yes", replied Mitchell.

To which "Gary" pointed a stern finger, warning, "Get my picture off your website.  Now!"

It took me a while to figure out what the heck "Gary" was on about, when I saw his face again (because he was following us), and remembered this photo thread in the Skeptic North comments section, where Mitchell provided evidence that the Whole Life Expo sold illegal ear candles last year.

Less than 5 minutes later, we were again tracked by "Gary", and another event staffer named Jodi (which was on his name tag).  Jodi was carrying a large sign in front of him that laid out the Expo's rules against recording anything on the exhibition floor without the permission of the exhibitor.  He had his muscle ("Gary", a physically imposing man) in tow, and he made sure, quite aggressively, that we all understood the Expo's rules (which were nowhere to be found on their website).  We calmly explained that we did, and that despite his claim that he would confiscate our cameras if we broke the rules, he was not legally allowed to do that.

We did not photograph the sign that Jodi was carrying, but the exact wording was,

"Video, Audio, and Photography may only be recorded in the exhibit hall and lecture areas by accredited media pre-authorized by Whole Life Expo show management.  (All others risk confiscation of their recording devices)"

After Jodi and "Gary" "walked away" (which really means they kept us in sight for about 30 minutes until we scattered), only 5 minutes passed before we heard on the Public Address (P.A.) system (and to the best of my memory),
"Attention to all Exhibitors: There are four members of Skeptics North in attendance dressed in black carrying unauthorized recording equipment.  If you see any of them taking pictures, please report them to event staff".
About 15 minutes passed, and we heard another similar announcement:
Attention to all Exhibitors: A reminder that there are skeptics in black from Skeptics North with unauthorized recording equipment.  They are not authorized to take pictures or to record.  Please be diligent!
To my knowledge, no similar announcements were made for anyone else in the crowd who might have been taking pictures.  They clearly singled us out and wanted to send a loud message to everyone: Look out for the Skeptic North people!  Report any wrong doing!  Skeptics in Black are here! Fear! Foes! Awaken! Fear!

Courtesy of Mitchell Gerskup via Flickr

Most of my time in the Expo was relatively uneventful.  I asked several exhibitors some questions, and never once did I raise my voice, or openly challenge anything that was said.  I tried that once last year and got into a fruitless argument with an anti-vaccinationist who advocated taking colloidal silver to prevent H1N1. This time around, I simply asked questions, grabbed some 'literature', thanked the exhibitors, and walked away.

One exhibitor does get a special shout out here.  His name was Stephen, and he ran a chakra-balancing booth with his girlfriend.  Stephen granted us all requisite permissions to record him in any way that we wanted.  That kind of openness, I can respect.  He also admonished the peculiar anti-skeptic announcements on the P.A., saying, "That was uncalled for.  You guys aren't doing anything wrong at all.  We need skeptics like you!"  Needless to say, I don't agree with Stephen's assessment of chakras, but his openness and his mature sense of accountability (largely absent at the Expo) was a heartwarming highlight.  Stephen's basic sense of respect was so charming, that I'm even going to link to his website, Celestial Healer.  Stephen and I may not see eye to eye on this, but I know that if there were more respectful, honest people like him, we at least could have some potentially productive dialogues.

Stephen, thank you very much.  You truly were the highlight of the day for me.  I wish that the event organizers and staff were as honest in their pursuit for truth as you were.

After about 2 hours of mingling about (I also bought four really cool looking stones for a great price.  And hey, pretty stones are pretty stones!), our group decided it was time to leave.  We had agreed that we would leave at around 12:30, and meet near the entrance to wait for the rest of the party.  It was at this time that we were "kicked out".

Jodi had returned and he was bragging that he had kicked our friends out for breaking the rules (taking pictures), and told us that we were also kicked out.  The people who took pictures were not in the exhibit hall, but outside it, on a catwalk.  According to their ad hoc signage, this was not forbidden.

Again, we were leaving.  So he kicked us out.  It's a bit like one of those madcap 80's sitcom jokes of "You don't quit, you're fired!"

I wasn't sure where all the group was, so I decided to wait around for any stragglers.  It was at this time that I spotted Julia Woodford, doing some cheap imitation of subterfuge, taking pictures of the others as they were leaving, and of me as I was standing there. After the aggressive speech they gave to us about not taking pictures, I thought this a bit rich.  I calmly walked over to Julia and explained to her that I'm not against her taking pictures of me, and she needn't hide it.  She need only tell me, and I'd be content.  She told me that they were not going to publish them, and that they were only for their own "internal records."

Translation: Don't ever come back. We know who you are.  If you try to come back, we'll stop you.

After watching Jodi continue to get angry and aggressive with my friends, I took the time to thank Julia for ensuring that illegal ear candles were not sold at the Expo, as they were last year.  Followers of Skeptic North might have noticed a rather heated debate in the comment thread regarding ear candles (which are illegal to sell in Canada), and Julia assured us that they would not be sold this year.  For all the animosity that was thrown our way by Julia and Jodi that afternoon, I felt it necessary to make sure that she knew I appreciated her compliance with the law, and explained to her that we don't choose which laws we wish to obey.  What probably could have been a rather ugly encounter with Julia ended lukewarm (at best), so there is something positive that came out of that discussion.

But any sense of diplomacy I may have gleamed was quickly washed away a minute later.  As the remainder of our party (sans a few others, which I will explain in a moment) waited in the main Convention Centre lobby, we noticed that we were once again being photographed by convention staff!  A blonde woman was quite clearly taking pictures of us as she sat behind the ticket counter.  I let loose a roaring laugh when I saw this (theatre of the absurd knows no bounds), and I think several people waved.

Now, I mentioned that there were a few people missing in the lobby.  Several of my friends got kicked out.  As I understand it, and my memory may be incorrect, here's how it went down:  Two (or more) skeptics were taking pictures from outside the exhibit hall, looking in (from atop a catwalk one story up, and not part of the exhibition hall).  They were kicked out.  Some aggression ensued on the part of the Expo people (Jodi and "Gary"), and they also issued a threat of physical violence.  I was not there, and the incident did not involve me directly, so I cannot comment much.  But I can say that police reports have already been filed.  But I promise you, you will hear more about this in the weeks to come.  Threatening physical violence is never okay, and it's a crime.

Last year was kind of fun, whimsical and eye opening.  This year was largely ugly, dirty, and third eye opening.

Walking away from this, my second Whole Life Expo, I have a few questions:
  1. Why were we not allowed to take pictures?  I should think that all the exhibitors and organizers would echo Julia's call for "a healthy dose of skepticism".  If they are legit, then the VERY LEAST they can endure should be photos.
  2. Why did the announcements single Skeptic North members out, and not the countless other people I saw with recording gear (and no press pass)?
  3. Most, nay, all of the exhibitors I talked with were civil, polite, friendly, and respectful.  It is a courtesy I returned, because being nice to people is a lot easier on my nerves (and probably theirs too) than being aggressive.  Why was this a trait to be found in the exhibitors, and not the organizers?
It was immensely clear that for all the talk of welcoming and inclusivity that we often hear (and did hear) from the purveyors of these sorts of events,  reality was far from theory.  They talked a game of openness, but as soon as this openness was put to the most basic of tests (ie: recording the claims for, well, for the record), the "healthy dose of skepticism" turns into a microcosm of fascism.

They threatened to confiscate our cameras (which they're not allowed to do), photographed us with subterfuge (like the Scientologists and other cults do), attempted to intimidate us with physical gestures and verbal harassment, publicly singled us out (as though we were enemies of the state), and even threatened us with physical violence.

I'm sure that once this story gets out there (and it will, I promise you), the Whole Life Expo people will try to spin this to their advantage, painting us as troublemakers who showed up just to cause trouble.  But I will remind you: We broke no rules, and broke no laws.  Nobody was rude, disrespectful, or aggressive.  I sadly cannot say the same for the organizers of the Expo.

Also, to Julia, Jodi, "Gary" and the guy who called us "fuckin' losers" as I was leaving, know this: If we ever have a Canadian skeptics conference, you are all welcome to attend.  Depending on how the event is organized, you may even be allowed to take pictures, and no one will follow you, threaten you, or insult you.  Every time you slam the doors of debate shut, we'll keep prying them open, inviting you in.  Every time you try to control information, we'll make sure that it's accessible. 

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Hear me! Hear me!

Okay, last week was pretty trying.  I'm not going to get into further detail, but I want to thank everyone for their kind words of support and friendship.  This coming week should be a little better, and I'll tell you why!

I was the guest on a recent episode of a neat new podcast called, "Meet The Skeptics", hosted by Chris Brown. Chris has interviewed the likes of Jay Novella, Derek Colanduno, and James Randi, so I'm honoured to be counted in such company.  Chris and I chatted for nearly two hours and he whittled our conversation down to the usable bits.  If the sound quality seems a little low on my end, that's entirely my fault.  My internet has been maddeningly slow since I moved here, and the skype call kept dropping, so we chatted on the phone. 

To hear the episode of Meet the Skeptics, go here!

This Friday, at 8:00 EST, I'll be making another appearance on Skeptically Speaking!  I'll be on with fellow Skeptic North blogger Erik Davis to talk about the difficulties in accepting consensus science.  The impetus for us coming on was primarily the recent (and ongoing) WiFi hubub, but we'll also be discussing AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) and "alternative medicine".  The topic is pretty deep, and the discussion promises to be interesting and engaging.  I will probably make dick jokes and fart noises.

Tune in this Friday!  Call in, question everything.  Ask difficult, probing questions...but softball questions are also welcomed ;)

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Flick's Story.

 This entry won't be skeptical, political, or funny in any way. It's just a personal story that I need to tell for my own sake.  This is my catharsis.  If you don't read this, I won't take it personally.

My cat died today.  Her name was "Flick" and this is her story.

When I was 16, I got a gray tabby named "Shadow".  She was bad, had peed everywhere, and was aggressive and anti-social.  But on the night before I moved away to college for the first time, Shadow came into my room and lovingly cuddled up onto my chest and slept with me.  Every time I came home she ran to the door to greet me, and when I was done college and moved back home, she was always my cat.  In the early spring of 2003 she suffered liver failure and had to be put down.  I was in the room with her, holding her little paw as the lethal cocktail was injected into her sickened body.

Shadow,  1996-2003.
I was pretty devastated after that, and felt like I failed her.  We had other cats and a dog, and I loved them all, but Shadow was my friend: she never got along with other people the way she snuggled and played with me.

Then in the late summer a neighbour angrily appeared at our door holding a little kitten by the scruff of the neck demanding to know, "Is this yours?!"  (We had a bit of a reputation in the neighbourhood as being the house with the animals).  My dad said no, but he would look into it.  By "look into it", he meant "Get one of the kids to deal with it".  An hour later I went to the woman's house and picked up this little waif of a kitten (who looked like she hadn't eaten in days and whose long fur was beginning to mat) that she had cornered in her backyard shed, and I carried her home as she struggled with fear at every passing car and noise.  Once home, I put her in a little room that I used for gaming and gave her some milk and wet food, which she devoured.  I gave her seconds, and she ate them at the same speed.  Then she slept.  And slept.  And slept.

I went to work, returning to learn that she had not woken up once.  I was beginning to think she was sick, but after a 32 hour nap, it was clear that she was just tuckered out, and for the first time in her life, she felt safe.  So soon after losing Shadow, I wasn't looking for a new cat, but this little ball of fur and tree sap was just to much for me to resist. A few dead-end calls to the animal shelters asking if anyone had reported a lost tortoise shell kitten later, I took her in, and named her Flick.

After a few days we introduced her to the "general population" of cats and a big doofy dog.  She held her own against the matriarch, Marble (who accepted her), and played with the lovable one, Space.  The dog wanted to meet the new family member, and flick greeted her with a swipe on the nose and 5 years of playful torment, ambush and chasing.

As Flick got older, she grew into one of those really interesting cats.  You know the kind: the ones with weird personality quirks.  She was the only cat would would dare (and was allowed) to sleep on the kitchen table, whereupon she would stand up on her haunches and bat her front paws up in the air like she was boxing. 

She was one of those "princess" cats who would, after playing/sleeping outside, would whine and cry to get you to let her come back inside. Once you opened the door, she would lay down, sprawl on her back and get you to pick her up and carry her inside.

Many times, I saw her sleeping on the roof under the stars.  I envied her for that.

She would eat at our house, and demand to be let out.  Then she would go to the neighbours houses and get food there too.  She would sometimes sleep on their couch.

She she didn't feel like venturing to the neighbours, she would scamper upstairs and spend the day with my grandmother. 

Marble, 1987-2008.
Space, 1991-2010
When I moved away for good, I couldn't take any of the family cats with me.  Flick would be especially hard to take because she was such an outdoors cat (and was very clever in finding ways to get outdoors).  I eventually did get my own cat, Genghis, but I always had a special place in my heart for the family pets, Marble, Mation, Space, Flick and Chance.

Marble and Chance died in 2008.  Marble at age 21, Chance at age 16.  Both respectable ages, and I know that they both lived long, happy lives.  Space, my beloved orange tabby, died earlier this year at the age of 19.
Space was a particularly affectionate cat, and his death shook me kind of hard too. 

My girlfriend and I went back to my parents house for thanksgiving this year (A note to my American friends, Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the first Monday of October) and Flick occasionally popped in to say hello, and "get pets" from the hoomans.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, because Flick was young, and in her prime.  She still had many a mice to torture yet.

Fast forward two weeks and I get a call after work from my mom telling me that Flick has been drooling steadily and not eating as much.  They took her into the vet and it was discovered that she had a very fast-growing lump under her tongue.  The vet took a sample and sent it off to the labratory for testing. My family (and later, I) was told that nothing was conclusive at the moment, but it didn't look good, and we should prepare to put her down. After confirming that it was the most aggressive form of cancer that a feline can get, my sister made arrangements to do what had to be done.

One week later I drove home to visit Flick.  I knew that it was less a "How are you doing, Flick?" and more of a "Goodbye, Flick" kind of trip.  It was harder to deal with then I expected.

When I saw her, she was sleeping on my parents bed, nestled snugly in a sunbeam.  Her fur was heavily matted and her paws and tail was wet from her drool.  She couldn't close her mouth all the way, but she was very happy to see me, and started purring gently.  I wanted to make sure she got her rest, so I walked off to the kitchen.  She got up and followed me.  She kept looking up at me, no doubt expecting to be let out or fed.

I made her a bowl of some high-quality soft wet food, and a bowl of warm water.  After placing it on the kitchen table (her "spot"), she happily jumped up and started drinking.  This was what partly was so bothersome: she was still happy. My family picked up a kitten early in the year and Flick growled at her she she came near.  Flick still had her fire. She looked up at me and gave me her customary meek little meow and then I saw the growth in her mouth.  Her tongue was curled up to one side and looked like it had been inflated to 5 times its normal size.  But she was still hungry, and wanted to eat.  So she very slowly and carefully took in tiny bites of the food, tilting her head to the side of her mouth where the tongue hasn't bulged.   What would have taken her 1 minute to eat just a month prior, took her 30 minutes this time.

Because her tongue was incapacitated, she couldn't lap up her drool.  I tried to wipe it away with a tissue, but she growled at me when I got close to her food....something she has always done with everybody, human or animal.

Her personality hadn't changed at all.  She was purring, growling, playing, trotting, and even meowing.  She stared longingly out the window for many hours. In her mind, such as it exists in housecats, she was perfectly fine.  With the other cats, their minds and bodies started to deteriorate slowly, and together.  When they passed away, we all knew it was the right time.  But Flick was fine just three weeks earlier when I saw her last.  It wasn't fair, and it's not her time.

I, like I'm sure many of you, get very attached to my pets.  When they die unexpectedly, it's especially hard to deal with.  A happy, purring, playing cat should not have to struggle to eat a few grams of soft food.   And as with Shadow, I can't help but feeling I failed her.

I was one of Flick's guardians, one of her caretakers. Yet right when she was in her prime, she was struck down by a heartless, thoughtless disease incapable of distinguishing a young and happy cat from an old and senile one. 

I feel as I let Flick down, and I want to apologize to her, but I can't.

Flick, thank you for being my cat.  I'm sorry I let you down, and I'm sorry I don't get to see you grow old.  It's not fair to you, and I'm sorry.

Flick, 2003-2010.

I love you, Flick.

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