Wednesday, January 28, 2015

James Randi Retires

Photo credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

In an open letter on his website, he writes:
At 86 years of age, I feel that it’s now well time to officially retire, so I’m stepping down from my position with the JREF –- the James Randi Educational Foundation.

This doesn’t mean that I’m retiring from my battle against the so-­called psychics, faith healers, paranormalists, and the assorted frauds I’ve encountered in my worldwide wanderings. I’ll in no way relax the critical attention I’ve given to them over the last busy 73 years, I promise you. I’ll still lecture and write, here and abroad – but now on my own time – not on the exhausting schedule that I’ve had these past few years.
He has certainly earned it, but I worry that the JREF doesn't have anyone to take his place. I don't mean in running the foundation -- Randi hasn't done that hands-on job for several years -- but being the public face of the world's largest skeptical organization. There are plenty of other skeptics (from Adam Savage to Penn & Teller to Michael Shermer to Bill Nye to Jamy Ian Swiss), but none of them has enjoyed the global reputation Randi has for fighting back against the con artists who pretend to be psychic, or faith healers, or homeopaths, or inventors of bogus bomb-sniffing devices.

For decades, Randi has been a hero to me and lots of other people, many of whom have joined the skeptics movement in the last decade when they discovered The Amazing Meeting, read his books, or saw him in person. My wife and I have supported Randi since before he even founded the JREF, and hope that his important work continues long past his retirement. He says he'll be at TAM this July, and I bet a lot of people who've thought about going in previous years -- but haven't -- will want to be there for his swansong.

Meanwhile, it's not like Randi is dead:
No, I’ll not yet hang up my cape nor sheathe my wand, be assured. I’ve still a few “tricks up my sleeve,” as they say, so stand back!
Read Randi's full retirement letter here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

You Had One Job

I've become enamored lately of the Twitter feed "You Had One Job," which posts newspaper headlines like "Homicide victims rarely talk to police," "Hispanics ace Spanish tests," and "Church closes food bank because it attracts poor people." plus lots of photos like these:

My favorites are the ones captioned, "Some people want to watch the world burn"...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Worth A Link

  • This proposed bill in Nevada could mean the end of poker players being staked to enter The Main Event and other tournaments.
  • The numbers show that podcasting isn't growing as much as hyped, so it's harder than some think to make it a business.
  • Teller reveals seven ways magicians fool your brain.
  • A group of skeptics protested outside a John Edward appearance, and the con man's people weren't happy.

Hey, Pancreas!

After reading the story of a 4-year-old boy in Australia being fitted with the world's first artificial pancreas for treatment of his diabetes, this Heywood Banks song popped into my head:

Bletchley Circle

Yesterday, I wrote about "The Imitation Game" and Alan Turing's work at Bletchley Park, an area in England where he and his colleagues broke the Enigma code the Nazis used during World War II.

Before I leave the subject entirely, I want to recommend the TV show "Bletchley Circle." It was made a couple of years ago for British TV and then aired here on PBS, but I missed it until my wife noticed that it was streaming on Netflix.

It starts in the same intelligence compound where Turing and his colleagues worked, but focuses on some of the women who worked there deciphering Enigma messages for the Allies after Turing broke the code. They, too, used their talents as puzzle-solvers to contribute to the war effort, but when the war was over, they went their separate ways, sworn to never reveal what they'd been a part of.

Seven years later, one of the women became obsessed with the story of a serial killer in London. She noticed a pattern in the crimes, but when the police wouldn't pay any attention, she tracked down some of her former colleagues to help her solve the case. Playing out over the three episodes of its first season, the plot was tense, clever, and engaging. The four actresses were really good, and the direction kept us in suspense as they worked through the clues.

The women of the Bletchley Circle returned for a four-episode second season to solve two more crimes, but weren't renewed for a third. I'm surprised no American network has bought the rights and turned it into a series here. Perhaps they're reticent to base a show on four middle-aged women in England in 1952-53, but the concept could easily be transposed to a modern scenario with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who've been involved in covert code-breaking who team up to solve crimes.

Until that happens, "Bletchley Circle" is streaming on Netflix and certainly worth your time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Movie About The War Hero

There hasn't been as much discussion of the movie about the war hero as I thought there would be.

I'm not talking about "American Sniper," the story of Iraq war vet Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history. I'm talking about "The Imitation Game," the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who broke the unbreakable Enigma code during World War II.

While Kyle's marksmanship may have saved hundreds of lives, there can be no doubt that Turing's work, in developing the world's first computer and using it to decipher coded messages the Nazis used about troop movements and war maneuvers, saved millions of lives. His accomplishments are credited with helping bring the war to a much earlier resolution than it otherwise would have.

Yet most Americans were never taught about Turing's story. I'd never heard of him until seeing "The Imitation Game." Part of the reason may be that his work was kept secret for decades, so he could never write a tell-all of his exploits. Kyle, on the other hand, did write a book about his life, war experience, and battles with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a bestseller and brought him national attention. When Kyle died at 38 at the hands of another veteran he was helping, his funeral was attended by tens of thousands at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. He was considered both a hero and a man's man.

Turing, on the other hand, was gay -- at a time when that was against the law. Like 60,000 other British men of his era, he was prosecuted (which meant losing his security clearance, and thus his career) and offered the choice of jail or chemical castration. He chose the latter, which led to his death a couple of years later at age 42. That may seem extreme, but remember that our government kept thousands of gay Americans from having a role in the US military until just a few years ago.

It wasn't until the 1960s that his academic contributions to the birth of computers were acknowledged with the creation of the Turing Award, still given annually by the Association of Computing Machinery -- but even then, his role in helping end World War II was kept secret for two more decades before his achievements were unclassified and he began to get some of the recognition he deserved.

I have no problem with "American Sniper," which is a well-made story about a man, his gun, and the travails of war. Bradley Cooper is terrific as Kyle and Sienna Miller is equally good as his wife. But when we talk about war heroes, we shouldn't forget the man so superbly played by Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game" -- Alan Turing.

We have lots of opportunities to cheer for Navy Seals, Marines, and other soldiers, but it's not too often that we get to praise brilliant, life-saving mathematicians.

One side note...

Lots of right-wingers went batshit when celebs like Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin made remarks they considered negative about "American Sniper" and Chris Kyle. This is such hypocrisy, especially exemplified by Dean Cain, who was famous for a little while 20 years ago. As a friend of Kyle's, Cain took their remarks personally -- and threatened Moore and other critics of the movie with bodily harm.

This, not long after most on the right (and the left) were shouting about how we need to protect freedom of speech in light of the Charlie Hebdo and "The Interview" stories. You can almost hear Cain and other loudmouths not connecting the dots in their own pronouncements:
  • "How dare some Muslims kill cartoonists for depicting Mohammed in a disparaging way!"
  • "How dare North Korea try to tell Hollywood who to make fun of in a movie!"
  • "Hey, what did that guy say about the Chris Kyle movie? Let's get him!!!"

DVR Alert

While you're overcoming your depression about no longer being able to order a tongue scraper from the SkyMall catalog in your airline seat pocket, set your DVR to record "American Masters" on KETC/9 at 3pm today. They're airing the Ricky Jay documentary, "Deceptive Practice," which I praised on this site 13 months ago. If you miss it on TV, it's streaming on Netflix, too.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Best Thing I've Read Today

The former president of the United States holding hands with an oppressive Middle East dictator.

I was going to write about how I've been sickened by the praise pouring in for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who died this week at age 90. I was going to rant yet again how we need to stop sucking up to tyrants just because they have oil under their sand. I was going to suggest that whoever represents the US at Abdullah's funeral (Obama/Biden/Kerry) should have a woman drive the limo to the service.

Then I read this piece by David Keyes, who says everything I would have and more:
Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the king was “brave” and “courageous,” a man of “wisdom and vision.” President Obama recalled his “genuine and warm friendship” with the king. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Abdullah a “powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace.”

Amina bint Nasser and Abdul Hammid al Fakki, beheaded for witchcraft under King Abdullah, were unavailable for comment. So too was Raif Badawi, lashed and jailed for opening a liberal online forum. Human rights lawyer, Waleed Abul Khair, jailed under King Abdullah also could not be reached.

In 2005, Abdullah said women would be allowed to drive. Ten years later, they’re still denied this most basic right. The King chose to appoint his draconian Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, crown prince and next in line to the throne until he died shortly thereafter. Abdullah massively funded the religious police, who continue to enforce gender discrimination and apartheid. The King did next to nothing to dismantle the guardianship system, which keeps women as effective slaves in their country, denied the right to travel without a man’s permission.

Why was the king considered brave? Did the he favor the right of non-Muslims to step foot in Mecca? No. Did he defend the right of people to openly question Islam? No. Did he allow direct critique against himself? No. Did he stand up for the rights of religious minorities? No. Did he pardon women from being beheaded for witchcraft? No.

The late king’s maneuverings were little more than slick PR gimmicks aimed at securing Western arm sales and diverting attention from his country’s gruesome record. Did he believe blasphemy, atheism, and homosexuality should be criminalized? Yes, yes and yes.
Read Keyes' full piece here.

Previously on Harris Online...

Love Letters To Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, the brilliant evolutionary biologist and author of "The God Delusion" and other bestsellers, reads some of the vitriolic mail sent from fundamentalists who hate him because he's an outspoken atheist. Each missive is ugly and awful -- like most online comments sections -- some including death threats. In fact, the tone and verbiage aren't all that different from the overheated rhetoric we hear from other religious fundamentalists around the world. If these were Muslims, they'd be referred to as extremists, but these are Christians, so they must be filled with love. Right?


The PBS series "American Experience" will air a documentary about Thomas Edison this Tuesday, so I invited its writer/director, Michelle Ferrari, to talk about the great inventor on my show.

We discussed his inventions, from the electric light bulb to the phonograph to the movie camera. I also asked her about other inventors he competed with or borrowed from, whether he liked being famous, and if anyone since has come close to him in the annals of invention. She also told an amazing story of why Edison paid his own son to change his name, and explained the rivalry between Thomas Edison (DC) and Nikola Tesla (AC).

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Harris Challenge 1/23/15

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "War Movies Not Named American Sniper," "First Ladies," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 1/23/15

This edition of Knuckleheads In The News® includes stories about a violent anti-violence concert, a man who bulldozed his wife's house, and a complaint about legal bigamy. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!