Online resources for The Amazing Meeting #TAM2014

JREF14_tam_logoFour weeks from right now, the annual Amazing Meeting will be in full swing. This year is the 16th such event put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation, and it is being held in Las Vegas from July 10th to 13th.

Long time readers of this blog are probably expecting one or more posts from me about now with various tips and advice about attending the show, using the wireless at the hotel and so on.

However this year is a bit different. My position as a JREF Fellow ended this past February. I’ve decided (for various reasons) not to attend TAM this year – the first time since I first attended in 2007.  As a result, I don’t have a ton of new information to share with you about attending, as I haven’t been preparing a trip myself.

That’s the bad news. The good news is TAM is being held in the same hotel and in virtually identical format that it has has for several years. This means that almost all of the great tips from past years from myself and others still apply.

With that in mind, here’s a set of links that will get you to the posts that will help you out the most.

  • Last year I collected TAM Tips from Twitter on Storify – they include travel and entertainment advice about the show itself, Vegas in general and more. Most contain links to other useful content, and come from several long-time attendees including myself.
  • A critical tip from that list is to visit the Amazing Meeting section of the JREF Forum, where you can meet other attendees, arrange room sharing or ride sharing, side trips and so on.
  • If you plan to post on the Internet while at the show be sure to read my post from last year about my conference gadget kit and familiarize yourself with the wireless situation at TAM via my 2012 post.  One update since then – WiFi in your room at SouthPoint Hotel, Casino & Spa is now bundled into the room fees, there’s no longer an optional daily charge.
  • Smartphone users should install the Lanyrd app then find the TAM2014 page and mark yourself as attending. Once the schedule is up, you should be able to track events, find your favorite speakers in the schedule and so on.
  • The late Eric Broze (who lived in Las Vegas) wrote this great guide to TAM last year containing lots of great local information.
  • I also recommend you visit the TAM category of Kitty Mervine’s blog Yankee Skeptic, where you will find many interesting posts.

That’s all I have for you. I hope everyone has fun at this year’s TAM, and maybe I’ll see some of you at Dragon*Con Skeptrack later this summer!

Two cases of “truther” nonsense undone by photo/video tech expertise

Photographer by Nicolás García, licensed CC-BY-SA-2.5

Photographer by Nicolás García, licensed CC-BY-SA-2.5

I noticed an interesting parallel between two cases involving different flavors of “truthers” in the last two weeks. Both involved observers applying some knowledge of digital photography technology to undo the nonsense being perpetrated by conspiracy theorists.  One involved a classic debunk of a claim involving video footage, the other involved some good old fashioned detective work set in motion by a clue in a digital photo file.

Both cases remind us that skeptics need to be aware of the ins and outs of technologies used (and misused) by those who would feed the misinformation to the general public. Awareness of these technologies can quickly lead to skeptical wins.

Read on for more…

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Mixing curation and crowdsourcing in skeptic event planning

Neil Degrasse Tyson at TAM9

Neil deGrasse Tyson at TAM9 by Jamie Bernstein, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

As the annual schedule of skeptic and freethought events continues to expand, there’s more variation and experimentation going on. Specifically, some skeptic conferences are mixing old and new techniques in creating their schedule of events. They’re combining old-school curation with newer crowdsourcing techniques.

Traditional skeptic conferences – those run by CFI, JREF and so on – have been heavily curated affairs. The sponsoring organization and planning committee have complete control over all content presented, which is sometimes planned up to a year in advance. One slight exception are the Sunday Papers at The Amazing Meeting, which has an open submission process with an approval committee.

In 2007 my friend Reed Esau broke the mold by bringing the “unconference” model (from the world of high-tech) to skeptic events, and Skepticamp was born. These events solicit all their presentations from attendees, and only lightly curate the content (if at all). This idea was borrowed from the high tech world where the constant need for new knowledge and skills transfer did not fit well with the curated model. (The high-tech prototype for Skepticamp was called Barcamp). Reed’s idea has been very successful – there have been 84 events held since the first one in 2007, and they’ve been held all over the world.

Now in 2014, several skeptic/secular events are starting to experiment in other ways. Find how after the jump.

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Online science of interest to skeptics this week at #ICWSM

I know many tech-oriented skeptics are paying attention to the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, wanting to find out what’s next in Macs, iPhones and iPads. But I’d like to call your attention to a different conference – a scientific conference – also going on this week. The conference is the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, it runs through tomorrow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

ICWSM logoIt might surprise you to learn there is a great deal of peer-reviewed science going on around blogs, social media and other newer online technologies. Curiously, while I see skeptics blogging about studies in alt-med, psychology, biology or physics almost daily, I rarely see skeptic blog posts about studies on Internet technology. (There are exceptions, of course). I see much more interest in this among the computer scientists, data scientists and journalists I follow online.

I suspect one of the reasons is studies in older scientific fields have more application to pseudoscience, the paranormal and other things skeptics seek to critique. But this newer Internet research can address the methods and techniques of skepticism itself. Many skeptics these days do a great deal of our work online. We should take advantage of the available science in this area to make our online efforts more effective.

One nice thing about the AAAI conference going on this week is much of it is published online already – indeed, full copies of all the papers to be presented were available online before the conference started.  I find a number of them cover topics that will be of interest to skeptics. One of them is specifically about sending Snopes.com links to people on Twitter – a common pursuit. And another may confirm some things we know about trolls.

Let me give you a peek.

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Beware: tools for creating fake news (Virtual Skeptics)

Virtual Skeptics logoOn Virtual Skeptics this week I talked about the flip side of this website’s normal topic – tools to create misinformation instead of tools to debunk it. Of course any tool designed to work with real information can be used to distort as well.

We saw that this week when a news hoax was perpetrated via CNN’s “iReport” site – a place for citizens to submit journalism.  It was a poorly written prediction of apocalypse for the year 2041 which credible sources like Phil Plait quickly debunked. Many sites including Doubtful News chided CNN for taking 22 hours to notice and take down the bogus story.

But there are also online tools designed specifically for creating hoaxes like this. They are usually intended for playing pranks on friends and the like. A new one emerged this week, which was my topic on Virtual Skeptics. Since my segment is very short (just over 6 minutes) I thought I would go ahead and embed it here so you can see what was discussed.  Video and supporting links after the jump…

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Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) pleads guilty for the second time

Dennis MarkuzeEarlier today in Montreal, Dennis Markuze – better known to skeptics and atheists online by his online persona “David Mabus” – pled guilty to three counts including harassment, threatening a police officer, and breach of probation. The victim of harassment in this case was the author of this blog.

Paul Cherry in the Montreal Gazette was in court and has the full story:

Dennis Markuze, 43, a man who often uses the alias David Mabus when he makes threats, appeared before Quebec Court Judge Jean-Claude Boyer at the Montreal courthouse on Thursday where he entered a plea to three charges in all, including a breach of his probation.

The breach of probation charge was from his first guilty plea on May 22, 2012 and was what led us to campaign for his arrest the second time back in November 2012.  As my earlier blog post explained, the authorities were not supervising Markuze, and seemed unaware that he had resumed posting online in violation of his plea agreement.

The news article has more on Markuze’s mental state:

On Thursday, Markuze’s lawyer, Richard Bellefeuille, told Boyer that a psychiatrist who evaluated Markuze in February again attributed his actions to an abuse of cocaine and alcohol. The psychiatrist also noted that Markuze is being treated for a delusional disorder “which could explain his Internet activities.”

An expert at the Philippe Pinel Institute who examined Markuze earlier in the current case had determined that Markuze’s mental health problems could not be used as a defence if his case ever went to trial.

I had been told of the additional threats Markuze made at the time of his second arrest, but not their exact nature.  The article reveals that he told the police officer, “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Centre) twin towers in 9/11.”

As in previous stages of this long case (in which skeptic activists had to exhibit patience at every step) we will have to wait for a full resolution. Sentencing has been set for November 21 (six months from now) to give time for the Crown to verify that cocaine and alcohol abuse “are the only problems Markuze has.”

I sincerely hope that investigation will finally result in Markuze getting the treatment he clearly needs.

Misleading posts in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed verge on trolling

Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, photo by Mitchell Aidelbaum licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Susan Gerbic contacted me the other day. She was confused by an unsolicited message she had received from none other than Deepak Chopra on Twitter. To save you the click – it’s just a bare URL in a tweet, no other explanation. Presumably Chopra wants Susan to read that blog post?

More on that later, but I told Susan I’d seen odd behavior before in Chopra’s Twitter feed. He sometimes seems almost obsessed with the idea of getting those who criticize him to read his columns and blog posts. I had made a note to myself to investigate this as part of my bad behavior series. I thought it would be an interesting follow up to my previous post about Deepak Chopra’s employee acting as his sock-puppet on Wikipedia.

It used to be that digging around in old tweets was very difficult, because Twitter’s search function only went back a few weeks. But last year Twitter enhanced search to include years of old tweets. Using Twitter’s advanced search function (which has also been recently enhanced), I dug deeper into Chopra’s Twitter feed to see how often he does things like this.

What emerges is a sad pattern of a man who has almost 2 million followers (and a verified account!) acting as if it is vitally important his followers see that he is debating with certain key atheists on Twitter. He also seems bizarrely obsessed with getting certain people to read his blog. In the process I believe he’s skirting the Twitter rules on spam, and encouraging bad behavior in some of his co-authors as well.

So let’s use that enhanced Twitter search and look a little deeper….

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When you’re not here to create an encyclopedia, your Wikipedia statistics show it

Rupert Sheldrake at a conference. Photo by Zereshk licensed under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Rupert Sheldrake at a conference. Photo by Zereshk licensed under a CC BY 3.0 license.

I’ve been promising for a while to follow up on the Rupert Sheldrake Wikipedia controversy that exploded in the press and the blogs last fall. (I’ve previously written on this topic in two different posts). What’s kept me from writing this follow-up is the huge volume of debate back and forth that has gone on. Frankly, it is quite tedious to wade through and it is hard to cut through the bull to make any sense of it. It is also spread through numerous blogs and various back pages of Wikipedia, so it isn’t even all in one place.

And it continues today. Just this past weekend one of the pro-Sheldrake editors filed a Wikipedia Request for Arbitration regarding the matter, listing all sorts of complaints about alleged wrongs by skeptical editors. This person even dragged my name into it simply on the basis of my blogging here (which of course is protected free speech) even though I’ve never edited the Sheldrake page myself! The request was curtly denied.

It’s almost as if all of this was intended to be hard to grasp – and maybe it is. I’ve long had the sense that a large part of this was a drummed up manufactroversy created deliberately by the Sheldrake camp. I hate to use an overused word, but it really feels like some of these people are simply trolling Wikipedia.  But is there a way to succinctly demonstrate that?

The other side certainly isn’t succinct – Craig Weiler has blogged at least nine times on the subject of Wikipedia (plus more on other Sheldrake issues). That’s over thirteen thousand words. Rome Viharo has built an entire website around the controversy, containing another thirty five thousand words (largely nonsense). He’s also attempted to troll me on Twitter and within the comments of this blog.

It’s all so tedious. It makes me want to say, “Enough arguing, either put up or shut up!”  And that got me thinking – if you apply “put up or shut up” to Wikipedia, what does that mean? I think I have an idea.

Read on to find out what it is…

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Useful links and resources from the #SkepTech 2 security panel

Skep Tech 2 LogoToday in Minneapolis I was on a panel with Neil Wehneman of Secular Student Alliance and Jason Thibeault of Freethought Blogs. It was moderated by Sean Wurgler. The panel was frankly titled “How to protect your shit online” and this was the summary:

Even “real life” activists have to navigate online spaces–online activists obviously more so. Unfortunately, the power that online activism can lend can easily turn against activists. How do we protect our content from hackers, spammers, and trolls? How to we maintain security while simultaneously engaging in online activism–an act that requires us to put our content out into the interwebspaceplace? Expect conversation on basic content protection measures, DDOS attacks and how to subvert them, and beyond.

In this post I will attempt to gather up the links and resources we mentioned during the panel and closely related ones as well. Feel free to chime in with other good resources in the comments. Read more of this post

Skep Tech 2 is but 7 days away. Don’t miss it!

Skep Tech 2 LogoIf you are going to be anywhere near Minneapolis next weekend (April 4-6), I highly recommend you attend Skep Tech 2. This is the sequel to last year’s inaugural conference on skepticism and technology, put on by a coalition of three student groups at Minnesota universities.

I knew I had to attend when I found out this event was being planned back in 2012. After all, skepticism and technology is the focus of this blog! I contacted the organizers and they were nice enough to add me to their speakers list somewhat late in the invitation process.

I didn’t know what to expect, of course – first year events are often quite disorganized. But the students involved were up to the task. Not only did they manage to put on a successful event, but they made it free to attend and got an award for their efforts.

This year’s event promises to be even better. For a preview of this year’s event and more, read on.

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