I've been a fan of Björk since the late 1990s. Her Homogenic album is her best, and I'm not asking anyone to like it as much as I do. There was a DVD released of many of her videos called Volumen that I watched endlessly.
One of my favorite songs and videos is for the song Bachelorette. It's the story of a woman who finds a book that writes itself as she lives her life... and then things get very recursive. And I've just discovered that I live in the video.
Just for fun, I made this grid of ships that I've been on or will be on soon. I've spent at least one night aboard each of these vessels.
Jewel of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas are the only ones I've travelled on twice.
They're all to scale.
Those who know me know might find it hard to believe that I was on the cover of Campus Coalition, the Campus Crusade for Christ magazine. It's true - I took park in a spring break bike trip they offered and managed to get on the cover and featured in the article. I learned some things on that trip, including the idea that I'm not really forcing myself to believe things.
Here is an abbreviated version of that story included in the larger context of bicycles, learning new skills, and learning to change behavior.
In which I re-live a little bit of summer camp. I long for the smell of deep woods off, bacon grease, and the sound of rain on the tent. Two Different Girls.
I was honored to be asked by Brian to guest blog on Skeptoid's blog, and this was my first entry. A couple of people asked me what this had to do with skepticism, and it's simple really: skepticism involves challenging your preconceived notions. Before you say a work of art sucks (be it music, film, or a painting), be sure you understand it. I don't understand Wes Anderson.
I wrote a piece for Two Different Girls about an experience I had at a local gas station regarding a homeless person's plight. This wasn't a very comfortable piece, but it generated some thought. A week after the incident leaves me with no more insight than I had that day.
I was on the train from the apartment to Midway (Chicago Airport). It's not a long ride – 20 minutes or so, and it usually flies by. When I arrived at the platform the large monitors said that the train was due, but I still waited 10 minutes for it to arrive.
When the eight silver cars finally pulled in, I stood the customary six feet away to allow passengers queued in the doorwell to exit. But moments before the door opened, several people filled that gap. When the doors opened, they rushed past the people trying to get off. Rude behavior, but not unusual in the big city.
I chose a seat way at one end of the car. My bluetooth headphones were in and I was listening to a book, so not paying much attention to my surroundings. It was more crowded than usual.
After about 30 seconds, I heard very a loud voice. It actually sounded like a carnival barker calling people up to his stand to see the bearded lady or a goat with two heads.
And in fact, that's what it turned out to be.
A large black man – leather coat, fancy shoes – was talking loudly about how we could make easy money. He pulled out a felt-covered board and produced a red pea-sized ball and three Pepsi bottle lids. Yes, he was pitching the shell game.
"First person who guesses where the ball is gets the money. All you have to do is be first, and show me that you can match the money I have. When you're right, the money's yours."
Predictably, a man jumped forward and said "That one right there!" The man flashed a $100 at the pea dealer and was instantly handed a matching and suspiciously crisp bill. Wow, it's that easy to win!
Another man started hooting and clapping at how much fun this was. The pea dealer shuffled the caps slowly but gracefully.
"Who's going to be first?" A lady from a few seats over jumped up. "It's that one right there!" A crisp $50 appeared from her pocket. The pea dealer lifted the corresponding cap and said, "Yes ma'am, it's your lucky day! And I just happen to have a fifty right here."
The woman sat down but watched on eagerly. Standing up, the dealer asked who was next.
At that moment, we were pulling into a station. I saw the dealer crane his neck nervously. Not seeing any threats, he slid down the car a little and continued while displaying his board.
Two young men who were standing by the door saw the action, and glancing at one another, pulled out their wallets and began counting their money.
"Hmm," I thought. "I should warn them."
But I didn't. By this time it was obvious that the pea dealer was working with friends, and I didn't know who they all were or what they were willing to do to protect their venture. Somewhat ashamed, I decided to look on and keep to myself.
In less than 30 seconds, the two men were fleeced of $80.
They seem confused and embarassed. How could they have missed it? They saw right where the pea went! But of course in the 400 years or so that this scam has been practiced, the donor ALWAYS knows just where the pea went.
The dealer tried to get them to pony up more cash - to overcome the bad luck they'd just experienced – but he had cleaned them out. In search of fresh pickings, he moved down the car towards me. My discomfort grew.
He ignored the older folks closest to him and focussed on a woman in her mid 20's. He began his shuffle. She seemed to be looking on skeptically, but to my surprise she jumped up an shouted "It's right there!" I shook my head at her, but she didn't seem to notice.
"That's right young lady! Now how much money are you showin' so I can match it?"
"Oh, I don't have any money. I just wanted to play for fun."
I chuckled internally and watched the dealer frown and gaze in my direction.
He was shouting his pitch towards my group of seats, hoping to catch my eyes. But I had my headphones in, and stared dumbly about four feet to his right, which allowed me to observe him without making contact.
Another station was upon us, and he gazed at the platform once more. Just as we came to a stop, he pocketed his board and caps and exited the train - closely followed by the "winners" from his first round and another large gentleman who didn't participate. This was the man I was concerned might be there.
I watched them get out of the train and quickly board another train heading in the opposite directly. All four of them crowded the door, pushed past the exitting passengers, and assumed their carefully distributed positions, ready for the next round. My train continued on towards Midway, and I was at ease again.
After a minute or two of silence, the woman across from me started talking.
"Oh, that's such a scam. It's amazing that anyone still does that."
I nodded in agreement and mentioned that I was aware of the game and was careful to not partake. The freshly cashless young men overheard us and look embarrassed.
One of the older gentleman by the door tapped one of the losers on the shoulder and started a conversation.
"Son, you got off easy. Those guys have been pulling that scam for years."
"Well, I lost $40 and so did my friend here. We would have lost more if we had more money. I guess we're pretty stupid."
The older man continued, "You noticed they didn't try it with me? They've seen me here before. They're on the train every day at this time, as am I. You learned a good lesson today, son."
Then the entire car started offering sage advice to the young men, and all were careful to confirm how they'd known it was a scam all along.
"That's a cheap way to learn that lesson!" and "It's a good thing you didn't try to get your money back. They had a friend over here who was waiting for that." and "The money they were showing wasn't even real."
I did not join this fray. Moments before, I'd been ashamed for not standing up to protect someone naive from being taken. And while I still am to some degree, it appears that no one else was willing to take the risk either.
Emotionally, it feels wrong to me that I didn't stand up and do something, but when I do the calculus and consider the risks, I have to conclude that I, as well as everyone else on the train did the right thing. Saving those two guys from losing their money was not worth the risk of physical violence. The bad guys win, and they know this.
But imagine if we used that unison of voice that we had after the gaming party left. Imagine if we had all told the dealer to shut the hell up and find a more honest way to make a living. I'm afraid such behavior is reserved for day dreaming (such as this) and fiction. This same script has played out for generations, and I suspect it will continue for generations to come. And I find it most unsatisfying.
I've waited a few days to post my thoughts about this incident so that more of the facts could precipiate out of the solution of media speculation and conflicting stories.
Costa Concordia was built in 2006 in Italy. She was the largest ship every built in Italy, had an Italian captain, and sailed a regular route of Italian ports. Capsizing near Giglio in Italy makes this a uniquely Italian disaster. She cost nearly $600,000,000 to construct – very near the cost of Walt Disney World if one doesn't adjust for inflation.
It is easily the worst cruise ship disaster since the Andrea Doria.
Many people have been asking me questions about the disaster, and while I'm not an expert on much, I do know the cruising world a bit. I've compiled some of the questions here in the form of a mock interview.
1) How can this happen with all the modern equipment we have?
In the end, someone is controlling the wheel (actually a joystick) and if the ship hits something, bad things happen. Ships like this have a course set and someone on the bridge at all times makes sure the ship is following that course. If the ship veers of the course, alarms sound. At the time of this incident, the ship was being manually controlled to come very close to the shore, in a maneuver known as a "salute." Reports vary as to weather this was being done to honor the head waiter's birthday, or another captain who lived ashore. It hardly matters – it was done.
The odd thing is, this wasn't the first time the ship had done this. Reports are saying the ship had done this five times in the past, with the same captain. Lloyds List proves this with a track of the ship's course in August.
I doubt the captain consulted a chart before making this departure from the official course. He probably did the first time, saw that it was deep water (the seafloor drops off rapidly just off the shore of this island) and sailed the same route again. In the end, just 10 more feet of water or 10 more feet of distance would have let the ship pass by unharmed.
The ship has depth sensors and the like, but there's nothing that's going to protect a ship from a pinnacle of rock while she's underway. The captain simply took his vessel into hazardous waters, and many people have paid the price.
2) Have we learned nothing since Titanic?
Oh, we've learned quite a bit since Titanic, and a lot of it FROM Titanic. The Titanic disaster was caused by one simple problem: they didn't think it was possible for this ship to sink. Hitting the iceberg was a gross error in navigation, but the large loss of life was due to poor planning. Originally, the ship was to have many more lifeboats, but they were removed because they made the ship less attractive. This was the pride of the White Star Line and it had to look impressive, so much so that one of the smoke stacks is actually just a decoration. (Great trivia question.) Since the ship stayed mostly upright for hours, an orderly evacuation into ample lifeboats could have resulted in no lives lost. Instead, the inadequate number of boats and rafts, the lack of training and the lack of preparation lead to a huge loss of life (1,514).
Costa Concordia is a different situation. The ship has more than enough lifeboats and rafts (twice as many, by international law). Everyone is required to undergo a lifeboat drill. Though there were reports that there was no drill, I'm confident there was. It's required within 24 hours of sailing by SOLAS - Safety Of Live At Sea, and International set of guidelines that all cruise lines follow. It was put into place directly because of Titianic.
Some passengers did not get on at the original point of embarkation, meaning they would have missed the lifeboat drill. In such a case, they're supposed to get a briefing from a crew member, but the ship doesn't re-run the lifeboat drill just because a couple of people got on in a port.
Two big problems though: there were at least nine languages spoken on the ship, making emergency communications extremely difficult. And there was the small issue that the ship rolled on its side, effectively removing any ability to deploy lifeboats and rafts.
Lifeboats and rafts depend on gravity to lower them, and on a capsized ship, that doesn't work too well. You can see pictures of life rafts caught on the side of the ship. However, they were close enough to shore that the launched lifeboats could offer taxi service to people if they could only get off the ship. Considering that half of the muster stations were underwater, and the other half useless, it's not surprising there was chaos.
3) Who's really at fault here?
The captain, without any doubt, is responsible for the disaster. It is his job description. There is much conjecture about how he got off the ship, etc, but this is what we do know:
a) He was in control of the vessel when it hit the rocks.
b) The course chosen was not part of the "official" course, however, it was probably sanctioned by Costa, given that it had been used up to five times before.
c) He did not inform the Coast Guard of the enormity of the disaster either because he didn't know how bad it was (unlikely), or because he was hoping to salvage the situation somehow. Hopefully, this will come out in court.
d) He left the ship before the evacuation was complete. He says this was due to him "tripping," but that seems so fanciful that I actually wonder if it's true. And while he could have possibly coordinated the evacuation from a lifeboat, it seems that he did not.
e) "The rock wasn't on the map" isn't much of an excuse. If you take your vessel off the approved course, you are responsible for any obstacle, whether its on a chart or not.
3) What would you have done if you were on the ship?
Who can say? My guess is that I would have followed instructions insofar as was possible, and if I was still on the ship when it flipped, I would have gotten off any way I could have. I'd like to think that I would have helped other people, but there is really no preparation you can make for something like this.
I think the crew were in a similar situation. Since there isn't a lot you can do if the ship capsizes, I don't think they had much training on it. Training's focussed on getting people into the lifeboats and rafts. If that's not possible, they'd be expected to use their wits and get people off as safely as possible. I suspect that's exactly what happened.
I'm a bit miffed with the press for repeating claims that the crew did nothing. I would be very surprised if that were true, and indeed there are stories about the injured purser getting people to safety only to get trapped himself.
4) Do you think this will have a major impact on cruising?
Well, no, not really. I've been reading some of the trade press and they're saying that while this happened at the height of "wave season," when most bookings occur, it actually might increase revenue for travel agents. How? Two factors: 1) a very large ship has been taken out of service, meaning there are fewer cabins to sell and that tends to drive prices up... and 2) more people know about cruising now, so they may be interested.
That may seem counterintuitive, but things do work that way sometimes.
One change I do expect to see is more control over lifeboat drills. Recently, we've noticed a pattern where passengers weren't required to put on their life jackets for the drills. While this makes the drill much easier (and I'd argue, reduces injuries), it creates less of a sense of "hey this is important" and now, people are going to expect that. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some thought given to how to get people off a capsized vessel.
There is some talk of moving ships away from sensitive areas, but that talk is always happening, and usually the money wins. Having 4,000 people descend on your village with tourist money is hard to turn down.
Other than that though, I expect cruising to continue as normal.
5) After this, are you at all concerned about the safety of cruising?
Nope, not really. While I do take note of the fact that one person's poor decision can cause a major disaster, that's how we are in most of our daily activities.
Here are some stats that put things into perspective:
Number of cruise ships: 456
Number of passengers at sea at any given time: about 400,000
Number of passengers sailing in 2011: 19,000,000
Your odds of having an evacuation at sea? Infinitesimal.
6) But I hear about ships sinking and capsizing all the time!
Not from cruise ships you don't. You might hear about overcrowded ferries sinking, but they are not cruise ships. The media often has a hard time telling the difference. The last major incident with a cruise ship was Carnival Splendour (Concordia's sister ship) in 2010. Major fire at sea, ship lost power... number of fatalities: zero. Other than that, there have been a few small incidents here and there, but there really haven't been any major disasters since the Prinsendaam in 1980 (no major injuries or loss of life) or the Andrea Doria in 1953. My parents are sailing on the NEW Prinsendaam as I type this. Yes - it's been nearly 60 years since the last cruise ship disaster with significant loss of life. You are probably safer on a ship than at home or at work and you're certainly safer than in your car, but when has that ever stopped you from running out for an ice cream?
I'll continue to follow the stories. I'm very curious as to whether they'll be able to salvage her and if she'll ever sail again as a Costa ship. She was their top-of-the-line, so there's going to be a major shake up. My personal opinion: Costa is not the best line out there. I found their product to be gaudy with too little attention paid to the food, though the pricing was excellent.
It's heart-wrenching for me to watch passengers scrambling over her beached hull when only hours before they were enjoying their vacation. It could happen to any of us at any time, which is all the more reason NOT to stay home, but to actually get out there and experience things. As my father is fond of saying, "life runs out of 'next years'" and I, for one, take that advice to heart.
I'm happy to talk about this more as I find it very interesting. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ok, I admit it: I've overcommitted myself. I do this often and seem unable to learn how not to do this, but I HAVE to learned to realize it when I have. And I have. Something has to go.
And, I've decided to let something go that hasn't even started yet: The Curious1729 Writers Club. This project, which would have been a simple and supportive writers group. is something that I desperately want to do. But I can't do it justice at the moment, so I have to let it go. Or... I have to shelve it until I can resurrect it... OR.. someone else could start a similar project.
There's enough demand out there amongst my Facebook friends (that most likely includes YOUR Facebook friends) that I'm positive this would be successful. Someone just needs to start it, and I can't right now.
So I apologize to those of you who were interested in joining. If anyone wants to start a group but is afraid of not knowing how or needs some guidance, contact me and I'll share what I know. My basic advice is: do it, and figure out how afterwards.
A lot has changed, and I figured that I'd better make note of things. Here's a list of old projects and new projects, and what their stati are. My reasons for making these changes is complex, and worthy of a blog post on its own.
1) Rational Alchemy Radio Program and Podcast
After several years, I'm stepping down as co-host at the end of August. The show will continue with Nigel and Brian! It's been a lot of fun and I've met some great folks, but I find that I'm much less of an effective spokesperson for "Skepticism" than I once was, so I'm making room for someone with more zeal. If you're interested in applying to be a co-host, send an e-mail to email@example.com
2) Indie Skeptics Blog
I started this blog about a year ago to give a voice to Skeptics who simply wanted to post a few things but not start their own blog. We had some great posts over the year, but in May, posts started to get a little thin. I decided not to pursue new content, and just let things take their course. And they have. Andrew Gould has stepped forward to take over the site and has some great ideas for its future. In the meantime, the content will be staying there, so your links will still work, and if you'd like to submit an article during the changeover, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3) SkeptiQuote Twitter Account
I stopped updating this account a LONG time ago, and no one seemed to notice so I wasn't concerned. However, if you'd like to take this twitter account and turn it into something again,
please drop me a line. A brave soul has taken this on!
4) SkepticsRock IRC Channel
I joined this IRC channel in July of 2005, and it was literally a life-changing event. It has been the focus of my social life since then. But now I find that I'd like to try some new things, and I've decided to leave the chat for awhile. I might be back tomorrow, I might never be back - I just can't know right now. I will say this: some of the finest people I've EVER met, I met through the chatroom. Smart, funny, and generous to a fault, these folks influenced the skeptics community more than anyone will realize.
SkepTours will continue, but I'm going to change the name and expand the focus a bit. I'm going to focus on one trip a year, and aim towards affordability rather than exotica.
I'll be promoting this a lot in the months to come, but the concept is this: a conference devoted to curiosity. Our premiere event will be held in St. Louis, MO at Saturday, May 26th (Memorial Day Weekend). Our goal is to make this conference affordable and fun with interesting speakers, presentations... and probably most important of all... an interesting venue. We've reserved The City Museum! You've seen nothing like this before.
2) The 1729 Writer's Club
As I mentioned on Facebook and Google+ several weeks ago, I'd like to start a friendly, supportive creative writing group. I've set up a Google Groups portal to keep track of things. The concept is this: we help each other get our writing projects done through creative exercises, constructive criticism, and sharing of useful tools, books, etc. After a given a time... a few months... a year... we'll publish our works together in an e-book available for sale in the Kindle store (or wherever). Proceeds would go to a charity of our choosing. I'm doing this because I want to be part of such a group.
3) Chicago Skeptics
Ok, this isn't new, but I'm still going to be involved with Chicago Skeptics. In fact, we're organizing a SkeptiCamp for Chicago at the end of January.
4) Lecturing and Guesting on Podcasts and such
Over the past few years I've lectured in a variety of states and at events such as Dragon*Con, TAM, The Amaz!ng Adventure, SkepTours, etc., and I've been on many of the popular skeptic podcasts. While I won't be seeking out such opportunities, I'll consider them as they present themselves. I'm tentatively scheduled to give a humanist's walking tour of Harvard's Campus in October and I'll likely be speaking at the upcoming Chicago Skepticamp and of course, on the Mediterranean SkepTour. I'm sure I'll do a few more lectures for Chicago Skeptics as well, and I'll definitely be presenting at the upcoming curiosity event in St. Louis. And I've just learned that I'll be emcee at the upcoming Carl Sagan Day in November. If you'd like to hear me flap my gums, drop me a line.