Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 30, 2013

New Interview of Me Is Up on The Conspiracy Skeptic Podcast

Filed under: podcast — Stuart Robbins @ 9:12 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Conspiracy Skeptic himself, Karl Mamer, has posted a 69-minute interview of me. In the interview, we discuss numerous things but try to focus on TAM and my new blog, WND Watch.

Sorry for the lack of posting lately (and my suspended TAM series … that’ll continue soon). I’m in the process of moving from one city to another and despite my planning, it’s taking a lot more time than I had expected.

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July 18, 2013

#TAM2013 Day ±0 Review by the PseudoAstronomer


Thursday, the day of optional workshops and the evening welcome reception.

Cost for an all-workshop pass is +$100 from the normal ticket price, or it is included with the TAM experience. Or, a single workshop will run you $45. I don’t remember how much the evening stuff was, I think $40.

Early Morning

The day before the official events, there is no provided food other than at the welcome reception that evening. That was fine with me, I was too nervous to eat, giving the first workshop, 1A, “How Your Camera Lies to You.” You can read a description of it on this blog post.

Let me be clear, I’ve given presentations before. To well over 100 people. Both science talks at conferences and public talks. But, this was my second TAM, people had a choice of what to go to (this workshop or a blogging one), and people were actually paying and had the option not to pay and not to go. And it was at 8AM and anyone coming from out of town would likely be jet-lagged … if coming from the East or more than a few timezones West (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). I wasn’t sure if I would be awake.

I set three different alarms on two devices and woke up several times before them, including once due to a nightmare where nothing worked and everyone walked out and DJ Grothe (President of the JREF) had to refund everyone. Not a great way to start the day.

First Workshop Block

Obviously, I went to Workshop 1A. There’s video and photo proof! Or, evidence anyway.

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

The room had 352 chairs (2 macro columns, 16 rows, 11 columns each). I was hoping for at least 100 people, to have more than the blogging workshop (no offense, Skeptic Ink), and good reviews (pending…). I took a photo part-way through, and at 8:24AM, there were 164 people sitting or standing, 2 AV folks, and myself and Bryan presenting. The room looked much more full than that, but 164 people for an 8AM thing is not bad.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

I think the workshop went well. I got compliments throughout the next few days, people seemed engaged, and they laughed at the correct times (no, we did not have a “LAUGH NOW” sign up, they did it on their own).

Bryan and I have ideas for a follow-up workshop for next year that wouldn’t require having seen the one this year. And I have other ideas for stuff I could present or do a panel on or … well, that’s a separate story. If you went to TAM, and you liked the workshop, please make sure that the JREF knows!

That’s not to say that everything was perfect. It almost wouldn’t be TAM if there weren’t A/V issues. Nothing on our end, but microphones were not working and I had to speak into Bryan’s chest once or twice to use his lapel mic. ‘Sok, we made it funny.

Second Workshop Block

I had friends presenting during the second workshop, but I was too exhausted (and wound up) to go to it and I needed to deposit all my demo stuff in my hotel room. Speaking of hotel room: I was on the 22nd floor again this year. Apparently, you can get a lower floor room just by asking. I plan to do that next year.

Anyway, I instead went to breakfast at the Coronado in the hotel with a few other folks (mostly Colorado folks, incl. the co-presenter, Bryan). I maintain my evaluation from last year: Coronado is SLOW and EXPENSIVE. I do NOT recommend it.

Oh, the options for this block were “Skepticism Around the Curriculum” and “Crowd-Sourcing Skepticism.”

Third Workshop Block

Options during this block were “Physicists, Metaphysicists and Frauds” and “Supporting Skepticism Around the World.”

I went to 3B due to the desire not to work in small groups and because 3B had huge names (Richard Saunders, Leo Igwe, and Sanal Edamaruku — a guy for whom James Randi started at least one standing ovation during his talk). DJ Grothe and Richard Saunders had to leave about 40 minutes into the workshop because of a Million Dollar Challenge development, and Senal came in an hour late. Otherwise, the entire workshop was really more a monologue with different actors — I’m not saying anyone was “playing” a part or that it was scripted, but it wasn’t even much of a dialogue like the panels later on during TAM, it was each person said their bit about skepticism activities and/or persecution in their part of the world, or a part they were interested in.

I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying that any individual was bad. An effectively smaller version of this was what I thought was the best workshop last year. But, it wasn’t a workshop.

Fourth Workshop Block

Neither was 4A, “Science Based Medicine” (your other option was “Preserving Skeptic History” … I always hated history class, so I went to SBM). As last year, it was a few MDs talking about something they wanted to talk about for about 15 minutes and that was about it. If billed as a “lecture,” that would’ve been fine. But I think it’s false-advertising to be calling these things “workshops.”

Fifth Workshop Block

At this point, I was feeling the 3 hrs of sleep 3 days in a row and I really had to nap during this block. The options were, “How Rational Are You?” and “Skeptics in the Dojo: Taking on the Martial Arts.”

The fifth workshop block ended at 5:45, then it was dinner on your own for another hour.25.

Reception

The reception was 7:00-9:00, and this year, with my bf NOT driving through town, I stayed the whole time. I spoke with many people (several dozen?) and some were those who had attended and liked the workshop (yay!). I also got to meet Tom and Cecil of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, probably my favorite of the 3 new ones I started listening to after my blog post a few months ago about what podcasts I listen to.

The food was free and decent (I went for the chicken and fruit), and I think the alcohol cost money (I don’t drink so that wasn’t an issue).

George Hrab introduced James Randi maybe an hour into the event, and Randi officially kicked off TAM to much applause and then people went back to talking and drinking and eating.

Evening Show: What THEY Don’t Want You To Know

The evening show this night (and all nights) was 9-11. Bryan and Baxter are Colorado skeptic staples, and they’ve been to every Skepticamp I’ve gone to except one in Fort Collins and the one last month in Colorado Springs. And I gave the workshop with Bryan. So, I’m kinda biased, but I’d put them probably first in terms of the three evening shows this year. And I’m saying that as someone who had seen pretty much ALL of the clips they showed.

If Bryan and Baxter are invited back – and they should be – I recommend going to their show.

After the Evening Show

You’d think that after very little sleep, getting up at 6:30AM, getting MAYBE a 1.5-2 -hour nap, and it being 11PM that I would go to bed straight-away. Alas, no. First option is the Del Mar lounge, which is the staple of TAM. The “watering hole” as it were. Or, perhaps, “alcoholing hole.” You might find TAMers there until the very late hours of the night, maybe even up ’til breakfast the next morning.

My alternative option was that the Colorado folks and a few others got a suite on the top floor, and there was booze and actually audible conversation there. And, it was a good place for me to bring the baked goods I brought (candied pecans, chocolate-mint fudge, and key lime meltaway cookies). I stayed up there probably until around 1AM.

Overall Comments

To follow-up on my comments from yesterday when I recommended that you arrive on Wednesday if you can, I’ll modify it to say that if you can’t arrive Wednesday, you need to arrive early Thursday and go to as much as you can. Well, at least the evening stuff. I honestly wish I could recommend the workshops more (other than my own of course, which was EXCELLENT).

To be blunt, and honest, and hopefully not to burn any bridges, I was not impressed/thrilled with the workshop options this year — nothing really “popped” out at me as a super-exciting must-go-to thing (mine being a clear exception in the positive direction, obviously). I also think that they should have been kinda – you know – interactive. When I was begging DJ to let me do a workshop and pitching different ideas to him, one of the two main things I remember was that DJ insisted that the workshop be interactive. That’s the difference between a talk and a workshop.

Bryan and I tried really hard to make our workshop interactive in at least some way. And there was some. It wasn’t a break-into-groups-and-do-something thing or hands-on origami folding, but there was back-and-forth and some audience participation. There was very little of that in any other workshop except I think 3A. There was NONE of it in the two others I went to, 3B and 4A, and those were by some of the biggest names in organized scientific skepticism. That bugs me. Not because I tried hard and did something that others didn’t, but because they didn’t and so their workshops were not as good as they could have been.

I think what TAM needs is to clearly state that there are some workshops and there are some lectures. Mine was a workshop. 3A was a workshop. 3B and 4A were lectures.

My other comment on the workshops is that they were shorter this year — 90 minutes instead of 120. That was hard for me and Bryan (or at least me) because we had SO MUCH CONTENT that we left out because we couldn’t fit it. But, as someone sitting in the audience, I think that this was a better timespan. I mean, my own attention span was lagging during some parts of my 90-minute workshop, and there comes a point where you just have to get up and stretch, or focus on something else for a few minutes.

#TAM2013 Day -1 Review by the PseudoAstronomer


Wednesday, the day before workshops and the welcome reception.

(Note: Last year I did a massive TAM 2012 review. I’m breaking it up into days this year.)

Getting There

I had a 9:30ish AM flight, meaning I had to leave my place around 6:30, meaning I got very little sleep. Not a good way to start things off.

I had called the South Point hotel to get a reservation for the 11AM shuttle. The next shuttle wouldn’t come until 12:30; the shuttles are at Terminal 1, and you cannot walk to it. My flight got into Terminal 3 at 10:20, and Frontier decided not to tell us that the baggage carousel was not working and didn’t switch to another one. Perhaps needless to say, I missed the shuttle.

Fortunately, I met two other TAMers on the interterminal shuttle, and we split cab fare to the hotel. The total was around $28. Check in went fine, and I got a late lunch in the hotel at the buffet (I didn’t get to try it last year). Wasn’t bad.

Afternoon

I really should have slept, but I didn’t. Checkin for TAM was going to be at 1PM, but due to computer issues, it started at 3PM. I spent time talking with the friendly atheists from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (I know them reasonably well since they’re from Colorado Springs and they and us (the Denver folks) go to similar events like Skepticamp).

They also set up around 4:30 to interview me (they interviewed around two dozen presenters and will be putting out videos later — I’ll link when I know where they are, or where mine is). The interview was to last ~15 min and be boiled down to ~5 min, but since I was the first and we did many takes, I was there for about an hour. All good. And then re-did on Sunday (that’ll be on the Day +3 post).

I then napped.

Evening

I had a cheap-o dinner at Steak ‘n Shake inside the casino. I took my milkshake to the venerable Del Mar lounge to talk with other TAM folks and pimp my workshop that would be starting in about 11 hours. I met two fans of my podcast (yay!) and convinced a few people to come to the workshop.

When the rest of the Colorado folks arrived around 10:30ish, Bryan and I sat down to go over the presentation for the workshop.

And then there was bed.

Overall

Not a bad start. Well, bad start with transportation, but once I got there, I had a good time and met new people (my second-main goal this year was to be more social).

I honestly recommend that if you’re going to TAM, you get there on Wednesday. It’s so much less pressure to go to stuff, you just get to ease into Vegas (something this country boy needs), and there are fewer people there so you can actually hear yourself talking to others.

And if you happen to be doing a workshop the next morning at 8AM, you can try to talk people into going.

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

February 18, 2013

I’m Goin’ to TAM 2013 (The Amaz!ng Meeting)


Introduction

Yup.

I wasn’t entirely certain based on last year’s experience (it was my first time, and I was pretty overwhelmed, but one’s first time is always kinda special in its own way). To repeat the relevant parts from my post summarizing my TAM experience last year:

I guess the bottom-line question at this point is, based on all the above, was TAM worth the time and the expense? … It’s honestly hard for me to give a giant, resounding, unconditional “yes” that I’ll spend at least $1100 next year to come to TAM. …

With all that said (written), will I go next year? As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “All signs point to ‘Yes.’”

Presenting!

I can’t honestly say that there aren’t some extenuating or special circumstances towards me going this year that a lot of people have helped make happen. Well, one, really … I’m presenting! I’ll be doing a workshop that has, as of this writing, been scheduled for first thing on Thursday morning, Workshop 1A, 8:00A.M. sharp. Someone needs to make sure I’m awake, please. Appropriately, I’m in the “Skeptical Education” track as opposed to the “Skeptical Activism” track.

The workshop title is: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From UFOs to Ghosts, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.” I’ll be co-leading it with a veteran presenter, Bryan Bonner of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society. Bryan was a professional photographer for many, many years (maybe still is? I’m actually not entirely sure what his day job is).

I already have a fairly fleshed out outline for the workshop, and I will be giving at least one short version of it at the Denver Skepticamp in April. But, there’s always room at this point for changes, additions, and deletions.

Rough Outline

To give you an idea at this point …

First third is going to be more of a (I hate to use the word, but …) lecture-style where Bryan and I are going to talk about how cameras and various forms of detectors (film, tape, CCD) work with an emphasis on – especially these days – how cameras cheat and lie about what they really imaged in order to be faster and cheaper that, in most cases, don’t matter, but can result in anomalies that someone will point to and say is Nibiru coming to get us.

The second third is going to be more interactive and focus on purposeful human manipulation. Bryan will talk about old darkroom tricks while I’ll focus more on the basics of image processing in a digital age. We’ll bring in examples of some of the more famous anomalies in images, such as some famous ghost images, UFO photos, and the Face on Mars.

The next third is going to be an in-depth image analysis that will be very interactive. The idea is that we’ll present some images and have you try to figure out what’s going on and how to tell if it’s been manipulated and, if so, how that may have happened … or at least how you can tell if it’s been manipulated. Cue the lunar ziggurat or Hoagland’s pink energy beam.

The fourth third is to leave a block of time at the end for any questions.

Interactivity

Something D.J. (JREF president) emphasized to me is that interactivity should be a major part of workshops at TAM. That’s the point of a “workshop” versus a talk or panel. And I honestly was disappointed last year that many of the workshops were NOT interactive and yet they were two hours long.

This year, we have 90 minutes as opposed to 120. But, I would like to know what you folks think would be good ways for us workshop presenters (myself and Bryan) to better make this interactive. Ideas at the moment are:

  • Obviously questions can be asked.
  • The audience trying to figure out what’s going on in the images.
  • Soliciting people who are going to the workshop to send in photos that we could choose from to analyze during the workshop.
  • iPod/Pad/Phone and/or Android “app” that covers the basics we’ll talk about, and/or a handout.

For that last bullet point, if anyone thinks this is a good idea, please also suggest a programmer who’d be interested in working on this for free. Yes, I’m a part-time freelancer/contractor, and I read the “Clients from Hell” blog, so don’t lecture me about expecting stuff for free being foolish. Ideally the person is already into science/skepticism/education/etc. and so understands that there is no budget for this and it’s community outreach.

Final Thoughts

All that said, I’m looking forward to this but I’m also pretty nervous. This is a big step up from doing a blog, or a podcast, or an interview, or a local talk. After this, I’ll be able to say I did a show in Vegas!

We’ll see what happens. And, over the next few months as TAM gets closer, I’ll be planning this out more and post more details.

So, if you’re planning on going to TAM, and you can manage to be awake at 8AM, please consider coming to Workshop 1A!

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