Wednesday, 30 July 2014

UFO Over Toronto!

I knew it! I knew that if alien life ever flew across the inconceivably vast expanses of cold empty space at mind blowing fast speeds they would ultimately make their presence known to us lowly humans just outside Toronto in North York! Doubters, I am now vindicated!

Was that a UFO above Toronto last weekend?

Well, yes, it was a UFO. Because, as I've mentioned before on this blog, a UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object. It is indeed an object in the sky that has yet to be identified. Which means we do not know they are aliens! I really wish people would understand this.
Toronto police responded to calls last weekend after a video was posted that shows a series of lights in the night sky above Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue.
Here's the video report from CBC on this.

The expert UFO researcher they got for this story, Victor Viggiani, is somehow able to look at this flickering dot and conclude that it cannot be man made! We have these credentials to base our assessment of his conclusion:
Victor Viggiani is a recently retired school Principal from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology and Psychology (York University Toronto Ontario Canada) and a Masters in Educational Administration and Curriculum Development (Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada).
He assures us he'll send the video to another expert who has a computer able to enhance the image enough to tell us what it is. I've got a degree in Computer Science, and I'm not really certain how this will be done, but best of luck to him.

It turns out there is a perfectly plausible explanation and the reporter, to her credit, covered it well. Night kites, often LED remote controlled kites, are now commonly flown around the Toronto area. I will admit they are weird enough looking to be confused for some alien craft. One of the eyewitnesses even mentions a brilliant tail to the UFO, which very nicely matches the appearance of these kites.

Here's one now viral video (almost 1,000,000 hits) that started this whole thing off. I see a UFO, but I don't see any indications of aliens or secret government experimental aircraft. Just a bright dot in the sky. Can we please stop seeing spooks in places where there is no evidence for them?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Is "Magic In The Moonlight" A Good Movie About Skepticism?

Scene from Magic In The Moonlight (source)
This isn't so much a movie review as a call from me to all you moviegoers for advice about Woody Allen's latest flick, Magic In The Moonlight. Although Allen's personal life creeps me out a bit, I do know he is an atheist and that he started out wanting to be a magician and magicians have had a long and glorious history of being top rate skeptics. Here's the synopsis of the film from Entertainment Weekly.
Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-renowned illusionist in 1920s Europe who works under the exotic stage persona of Wei Ling Soo, a master of magic from the Orient. With his embroidered chinoiserie robes and diabolical Fu Manchu mustache, he mystifies audiences with his seamless sleight of hand. Backstage, though, when he reverts to being Stanley, he's just an arrogant British stick-in-the-mud who dismisses his audience as a bunch of dim-witted suckers. How could any reasonable person possibly believe in magic? So when a magician friend (Simon McBurney) asks Stanley to join him in the south of France to debunk a phony mystic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who may or may not be taking advantage of a rich American family, he finds the offer too juicy to resist. It's an improbable setup, to be sure, but Firth is such a convincing grouch, you get the sense that Stanley would travel just about anywhere to dash someone's belief in life beyond the physical world.
I bolded the parts that portray skeptics -- and presumably atheists -- as dour and grouchy individuals. I am so so tired of this inaccurate trope. Although I have deliberately avoided reading any spoilers, I can plainly see that Emma Stone's woo woo character is bubbly and full of life and that he's likely to fall in love with her and believe in magic after all -- but maybe not? Have any fellow skeptics out there seen this? I mean, what can I expect from Entertainment Weekly anyway?

What this really reminds me of is Harry Houdini, who was a magician well known for his relentless debunking of spiritualists around the same time in which this movie is set. Who can say he was a grouchy old stick in the mud?
In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums, a pursuit that inspired and was followed by latter-day stage magicians. Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None was able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery".

Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, co-authored with C. M. Eddy, Jr. (uncredited). These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was "debunking". This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.
I wonder if any of this really comes through in the movie. It should, because this part of Harry's life would make a cracking film.

In the preview below, there is a scene where the skeptic character brings the Stone's medium character to an observatory. He seems decidedly jarred by the enormity of the universe while she finds it beautiful, which is also a bit of a red flag to me.

Anyway, I guess I ought to go see it... Perhaps it could use a good debunking.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Help A Bright Light Of Reason Shine Again In Uganda

From their website.
Just in case anyone missed it -- it's been announced by PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta and Becky Friedman -- the critically important group Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability based in 'kill-the-gays-law' Uganda has been effectively put out of commission by a robbery.
The thieves have taken all 6 computers, 2 laptops, power cables, their projector and camera, three guitars, a desktop printer, and even the office phone was taken. Some cash due to be paid for rent was also stolen. (The security guard is now conscious again, by the way!)
This has severely impacted this group's ability to carry out important work.
“HALEA staff and members are devastated with this development, we have lost the important tools that enable us to operate and surely this is a great set back in the history of the organization. This has happened at a time when we had so many vital activities going on and many pending.”
Most recently, you can hear an interview on Ask an Atheist with Norm Allen, founder and former director of African Americans for Humanism.

You can help the group by using PayPal over at IHEU. The estimated required $10,000 was last updated July 23rd, so we know we have a ways to go.

Remember, even one laptop would at least return some of the group's original online presence.

I'll leave it to you to read the details about this in the posts and interview above. I just wanted to add my small voice to the group of bloggers and radio hosts out there who are calling attention to this small group. It's small groups like these along with Humanist schools that will hopefully one day turn the tide in Uganda and, with a new generation, reverse dreadful laws and persecution against people because they are gay or do not believe in God.

Just watch God Loves Uganda on US Netflix if you want motivation to help this group.