Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History Repeats

Following-up on my previous posting, The Black Spot, about Nancy's Melanoma - Since my annual checkup with my Dermatologist earlier this spring, a painful little nub showed up on MY forearm recently. This time it was Nancy who suggested I have it checked; I did and it was removed and biopsied last Thursday.

I just got off the phone; the pathologist report came back Squamous cell carcinoma. I go back in the day after tomorrow to have them carve into me a little deeper.

The upside: Nancy and I will now have "matching" forearm scars... and hopefully live to share them with one another for some time in the future!
I have also posted a follow-up on post publishing the two videos of the interview with Bill Clinton. (The Man Knows) Many of my overseas readers said that they are blocked from viewing the videos; I have added a link that shows how to circumvent the blocking. Special thanks to the blogger at Broken Secrets. The link to the fix is in the updated post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Black Spot

Nancy is a lovely fair skinned blonde; and because of this, she and direct sunlight do not get along well. It’s often humorous to see pictures of the two of us vacationing in tropical climates – we are the ones under the sun umbrella with cover-up on.

One day I noticed Nancy had developed a dark mole on her forearm. Tucked away in our medicine cabinet we had one of those little paper cards with pictures of various skin cancers printed on it in color. The mole on Nancy’s arm looked an awful lot like the photo example of Melanoma. She was scheduled to see her physician shortly anyway so I reminded her to have her doctor have a look at that mole.

When she came home from her exam I asked what her doctor had said about the mole. “The doctor said it was nothing; she told me that she had done her residency in dermatology and for me to not be concerned about the mole.”

But I was concerned... very concerned, in fact! For one thing, the picture of the Melanoma example on the card could have been taken from the mole on Nancy’s arm. So if what was on Nancy’s are was NOT Melanoma, then of what use is the stupid card? Troubled by this, I asked Nancy to go back to her doctor and have the mole removed anyway.

Nancy agreed and again visited her doctor. They discussed doing a simple a “punch biopsy” but then opted to allay everyone’s concerns (especially mine) and have the whole mole completely removed.

A week later we were out driving in the car, Nancy became very quiet. Then said she needed to tell me something; the results of the biopsy had come came back – Melanoma!

We immediately scheduled Nancy with a dermatologist who promptly carved a deeper chunk out of her arm. Nancy ended her relationship with that general practitioner.

Being scientifically trained, I have a healthy respect for professionals, experts in their fields. It is why we consult lawyers, accountants or landscape specialists rather than try to bang everything out ourselves. It is a perfectly reasonable approach; we recognize that these people have devoted full attention into their interest of study. We correctly rely on the fact that they are the consummate experts in their respective fields.

However, part of being of a Skeptic is to not “blindly” accept the testimony of all “experts” unquestionably. At some level we need to have at least rudimentary knowledge to assess the expert opinions given to us, seeing if they match up with our internal “reasonableness meter”. If the information doesn’t, then it is incumbent upon us to request clarification or justification from the expert until we are satisfied that their expertise is indeed sound.

I am sure there are many people would have just accepted their doctor’s opinion thinking, “Well, she’s the expert”. But I know that had we not questioned the advice we were given, we would have faced a very different and unpleasant outcome. Would we have still celebrated a 25 year anniversary?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Man Knows

Update - Viewing blocked video:
My overseas readers have informed me that they are unable to watch this video content due to internet blocking. However, a timely article just appeared in another blog, BrokenSecrets.com which explains how to use a Firefox plug-in to circumvent the blocking. Give it a try; I'd be curious to know how well it works.

Former president Bill Clinton
recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It was a surprisingly sober, but enlightening, exchange for a comedy news show. In fact, Stewart remained remarkably quiet during the interview.

This is because, regardless of what your opinion is of Clinton, the man knows about government and the economy. The shows producers apparently thought so as well; they made the unedited video available on the Comedy Central web site.

These two videos are very much worth watching. Clinton tells it like it is regarding the economy, the intent of the Conservatives to further dismantle government to convert more power into private hands, and the role of the Tea Party as dupes to this end.

My apologies to my readers overseas as this deals mainly with American politics, yet there may be something of value for you here as well.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Bill Clinton Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill Clinton Pt. 2
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

[Note: in some cases this may take a while to load... apparently it is receiving a LOT of views.]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Fairy Scientist Returns

Back in February I produced a short film as an entry in Sam Harris' "Project Reason" video contest. My original "The Fairy Scientist" (YouTube) starred my granddaughter, Lydia, as she attempted to employ the Scientific Method to discover if one of her favorite things in the world, Fairies, really exist.

Though the short was selected among nine finalists, unfortunately if was not selected among the top three winners. However, it did receive a lot of attention on the Internet and was featured on the MSNBC and Discovery Channel web sites, to name a few. And it got the attention of the Walt Disney Company!

I received a call from the promotional department at Disney about featuring Lydia as the Fairy Scientist in promoting their new film, "Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue" set to be released on DVD September 21st. The film is about Lizzie whose father is a scientist and fairy non-believer. Lizzie meets Tinkerbell and all manner of excitement and drama ensues between Lizzie and her scientist father.

My initial response was skeptical (no surprises there). I made it clear that we did not want to participate in anything that might convey the idea that fairies were in any way "real". My production company, Skeptical Media, is a fairly small operation; Disney, on the other hand, is a somewhat larger company. This was a first time experience for both companies, contracting with an independent producer for content not created within Disney's studio control.

Negotiations took several months to put together a contract. But due to the looming release date, we went ahead and began filming. We were under a non-disclosure agreement and a remarkable amount of behind-the-scenes regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles had to be cleared. For example, we needed to obtain a work permit for my 7-year old granddaughter to work in the film industry. Disney required assurances that all the legal hurdles were being cleared.

As was the case with our first Fairy Scientist video, the film was not scripted - captured are Lydia's own unique thoughts on how one would determine if fairies are real or not. She develops her hypothesis then searches for evidence while keeping a journal of her findings, much as Lizzie does in the Tinkerbell DVD.

We received great feedback from Walt Disney Entertainment and are proud that Lydia could participate in helping to promote enthusiasm about science among girls. Our short will be used by Disney on marketing and social networking sites to promote the release of "Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue".

Here is Lydia, The Fairy Scientist, in her latest video:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

25 Years

Today is Nancy’s and my 25th wedding anniversary. I had planned on a longer post for today; stories of how Nancy and I met and relating some of our adventures along the way. However our lives are rather hectic at this moment so those interesting tales may have to wait for another blog.

I will say that my partnership with her has been a remarkable experience. Anything I could imagine about the perfect wife has been far surpassed by the reality. She has made my life immeasurably profound and richer and I am damn lucky to have found her.

We met through singles ads; this was pre-Internet times we are talking about. I asked her to marry me after we had known each other only ten days. I guess we have answered the question already about whether it will last.

We had tentative plans to arrange a celebration with friends and family; well, the family is scattered here and there and the friends are traveling and we are up to our ears in managing the mundane, time consuming, aspects of our busy lives. But then that is what our marriage has always been about: working together, building a life together.

It’s been a great ride for 25 years and we will continue to appreciate each day together for as long as we can hold our feet on this planet.

Happy Anniversary, Nancy – I love you more than I could ever fully convey.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mining the Miners

When I was a little kid growing up in California I recall my father referring to me as a “49er”. Puzzled, my father explained that the “49ers” were the men who had come to California seeking riches mining for gold – the California Gold Rush. My dad was, of course, teasing me – I had been born in 1949, a century late for the Gold Rush.

The California Gold Rush is one of those stellar periods in western history, conjuring up all the values associated with the quintessential American individual; full of pluck and ambition, self reliance, rugged determination, entrepreneurship. How we love those stories of self-made men and women who grab opportunity by the horns and make their mark.

I can say now, though, that after residing just over half-century on the planet, this “49er” has become skeptical of buying into this mostly a great American myth.

The historical truth is that not one single millionaire was ever unearthed from the Gold Rush. Instead, the men who came to California to "strike it rich" more often fell into poverty; owning worthless claims and suffering fruitless labor. But three men did become very wealthy during those times: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington. These men came to California with a more shrewd plan – they became millionaires by “mining the miners”.

These businessmen, who would later join with Charles Crocker (“The Big Four”) and invest in the Central Pacific railroad, instead made their initial fortunes through selling picks, shovels, provisions and equipment to the gold miners. The real gold was to be found in the pockets of the eager “49ers”.

My wife and I have long understood the concept of “mining the miners” over our careers. For example, we encountered it during Nancy’s brief foray into real estate sales. As an agent, she was constantly presented with opportunities to part with her money. There were (required) regional, municipal and professional association licensing and membership fees. There were companies hawking customer management software and marketing gimmicks such as personalized pens, magnets, and sign riders. She was constantly bombarded by someone pitching a device, tool or fool-proof marketing system. Real estate agents were exposed to perpetual shake-downs; and she bought a lot of this stuff.

I was exposed to marketing hype as well as a filmmaker. I began searching for a distribution channel after my documentary was completed. Film festivals are often to most accessible venues for emerging filmmakers. Submitting a film to the Sundance Film Festival costs $75. But Sundance is only one festival; there are hundreds of them, each requiring a separate submission fee and one or more copies of your film. For the privilege of sending your money and free films, scant few festivals even bother to e-mail you that your film was rejected. From most, you hear nothing. There is even a company that will broker this shakedown for you – pay by credit card and enter as many festivals as you like. Oddly the two festivals my film was selected for contacted me, requesting me to submit my film.

On the other hand, we have successfully played the “mine the miners” game ourselves. During the High Tech Boom, back when everyone was going to get rich investing in web sites, we took a queue from “The Big Four” and invested instead in companies that supplied the infrastructure; the picks and shovels, for the emerging Internet. Sun Microsystems and CISCO Systems made the servers and routers on which these ethereal web sites would pay to exist. For a short time, at least, we enjoyed feeling a little smug about our nice returns.

Still our society is awash with “mine the miners” schemes; multi-level marketing, online investment opportunities, franchises, work-at-home schemes, “natural” products with miracle health properties. Attend the free seminar and learn how to become independently wealthy without leaving your home. The pitch usually focuses on getting you to imagine how you will spend your newly acquired wealth. Yeah, there is wealth there to be had – by selling these schemes to others.

Success stories are the darlings of the media, and there seems to be on end to them. What you never hear are the stories of the majority who tried, failed and went broke or quit. Whenever we see these stories about some entrepreneur who plied their great idea into a successful business, we often wonder; what part of the story are they leaving out? The secret truth is often a bit more arcane; how the individual had an inside track to the people who could facilitate the idea, or the vague source of adequate capital backing by the unseen investor. Sure it has probably happened where someone has gone from “rags to riches”, but dig deeply enough and more likely you will find an unseen hand and/or luck were involved.

The “49’ers” often sold their only possessions to book passage to California; most left family behind, or hauled them across the plains at great cost and personal sacrifice. I recently read an article that sadly revealed today many low-income people actually purchase lottery tickets in a servile attempt at retirement planning. I guess desperation makes the odds appear better than they are.

Still, in America, “there’s gold in them thar hills!!” – the trick, it seems, is knowing whether you should be the one buying, or selling, the shovel.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Round of Golf

This was a family weekend, spent with kids and grand kids, good food and a healthy dose of Grand-Bob's silliness. We took the grand kids out for a round of miniature golf which was riotously entertaining. Now they are hooked and want to golf every day. Mostly the cousins got to bond with one another.

So no discussion regarding the origins of the universe, political insanity, economic woes or the myriad of moronic banalities, were indulged - There's plenty of that waiting in the wings for all of us during the remainder of the week. Just a simple round of golf. Our only concern this weekend was keeping the players out of the water hazard.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Something from Nothing

You can’t get something from nothing”, as the old saying goes. But it turns out there is an exception; one thing you CAN get from nothing is – a Universe.

It is truly a remarkable time indeed to be living on this planet. Although there is much yet to learn, for the first time in history humanity is on the cusp of truly understanding how WE came to be. I woke up this morning to the announcement of Stephen Hawking’s latest book “The Grand Design” in which he explains that we need not a god to explain the creation of the universe. The universe can, and most probably did, come from “nothing”.

For a number of years I personally was on the fence as an “Agnostic”. Loosely this definition meant one who did not believe in a Theistic god; and certainly not a mythological biblical god of wrath and salvation. The Agnostic posture allowed me to remain open to the possibility of some “cause” for our ultimate existence. That has since changed as I have educated myself more deeply into the origins of our existence.

This view has also sometimes been referred to as Deism; sort of acceding to god as the ultimate creator for lack of a better explanation. Some of our earliest American scientists were deists; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example. Their skepticism of organized religion influenced their design in drafting the core governance of this nation. But at that time in history, they had neither sufficiently advanced technology nor the means of experimentation which would come in later times.

But now, Hawking’s contribution is both remarkable and timely in this point in human history. This is not his accomplishment alone but through standing on the shoulders of the giants who came centuries and decades before him; Newton, Einstein, Penrose, Krause, and many more – the combined body of knowledge which has brought us to the cusp of our understanding of our true origins.

Though I am not a sufficiently good enough writer, let alone science writer, to adequately convey the concepts for which I have barely the intellectual skills to grasp myself, I'll give it my best shot:

Essentially, the universe is not made of “nothing”. All that we can see, stars, galaxies, dust, gasses, all the observable “stuff” amount to less than 1% of the makeup of our the universe. What we don’t see is the roughly 70% of the universe that is made up of Dark Matter and the remaining 30% which constitutes Dark Energy.

The stuff we don’t see, the nothing is really not “Nothing”. But more importantly, it fully explains why our universe is expanding and why the rate of expansion is accelerating. And it explains how the preexisting concoction of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, like fuel and air, could result in a Big Bang, lit by a match called Quantum Fluctuation… particles which spontaneously come into existence and annihilate one another randomly. These particles mostly balance one another out, but sometimes they are out of balance... and POP - a universe is born.

The ramifications for this are history making; for the first time on this planet Man no longer needs the belief in a supernatural creator god as an explanation for how our universe came to be.

To help explain the science behind the concept, follower blogger and skeptical cohort, Dr. Mom (aka: The Mother’s Handbook) just recently sent me a YouTube link to an excellent explanation of this “nothingness”, the composition, origin and fate of our universe, by Dr. Lawrence Krauss. “A Universe From Nothing”. It is well worth devoting an hour to watch.
~ ~ ~
Post Script:
As pleased as I was to hear of the release of Hawking’s new book, I also learned today that sadly, our fellow blogger whom I posted about yesterday, Penny, did not survive her injuries. My thoughts are with her family and friends today as well.

Such confluence of events reminds me that, for all the things that science can tell us about the world we inhabit; it is inadequate in helping us reconcile what it means to be Human. I closed yesterday’s post with a quote from my friend and documentary subject, Jerry Andrus. I didn’t think that merely scant hours later, two significant sources of information would make my universe simultaneously seem both so infinitely large and yet exceedingly small.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Penny's Word"

The list of blogs I have been following has been steadily increasing as I continue to stumble upon other interesting writers. Predictably, my time available to keep up with them all is suffering. I appreciate those of my fellow bloggers who regularly write twice a week or less – I am usually am able to keep up. The daily bloggers, well… that is a bit more difficult. I’ll catch you when I can.

Surprisingly, though, a few blogs have disappeared; yanked from the bloggosphere for reasons unknown. But recently one blog’s disappearance left me very sad.

Penny’s Word was authored by a wife and mother living outside a small town in Australia. She blogged about the everyday things happening in her life but always had a lovely and interesting way in which she revealed her life. Her photographs she took and posted of nature in her area of the world were stunning; the birds particularly. I always shared the bird pictures with my wife, an avid birder herself, and who would give anything to see such colorful species in the wild.

Penny visited my blog and commented as well; her comments were always gracious, thoughtful and welcome. She had just started to learn how to weave and had begun posting about her new skill, what she had learned and made.

Then one day recently this month her daughter posted in her behalf – Penny had been in a serious car accident. She was in the hospital in extremely critical condition having been placed in an induced coma. She was expected to recover but with serious and permanent disabilities. Her husband then posted an update on her condition, acknowledging all who had commented and wished her well. He warned that it would not be likely Penny would be blogging again anytime soon.

I was stunned. Though I’ve never seen her face nor heard her voice, the mind and spirit of this woman had touched me. Now hearing of the tragedy brought upon her left me feeling badly… and helpless.

Her blog is now gone. Clearly, with all the pressing issues her family must now deal with, maintaining a blog is of trivial importance. Still, as I read the blogs of my new followers, I cannot forget Penny, that her blog is missing from the list for very abject reasons. I understand fully why things like this happen and that they happen every day to people we don’t know. But understanding this does nothing to take away the sadness. I can only hope that she recovers and , just maybe, she will speak to us through her blog again.

I find some small semblance of comfort in the words I captured in my documentary about the remarkable Jerry Andrus:
“We’re each a unique mixture of sub-atomic particles. And so the only thing that’s left other than our remains is the effect that we might have had on other people or maybe will have on other people. "