KentPresents report: Day 3

August 24, 2018 • 9:30 am

The last day of KentPresents Ideas Festival 2018—a meeting I went to in Connecticut last week—was a great sendoff. (See earlier reports of Day 1 and Day 2). The schedule is here, and I learned earlier in the meeting that the presenter at the first talk, Robert Lang, was a reader of this website (we had a long talk at the speaker’s dinner the first night). What I didn’t know was that he’s also one of the world’s great origami artists, and his talk, a Q&A with biologist Harold Varmus, was called “Origami: The Art and Science from a Master.”  (Lang will take commissions; his website, with many fantastic creations, is here.)

Lang (left) and Varmus in conversation.

Robert showed slides of many of his creations, nearly all made with a single sheet of paper. These days origami artists often use math and computers to design the folding pattern (Robert was a physicist before he realized he could make a living from his beloved hobby), but there’s always an element that can’t be preplanned. Here are some of his works.

A turtle:

Stag beetle:

Praying mantises (in copulo, I think):

Another beetle:

A lovely owl (look at those feet!). Robert goes to Japan to teach people origami; he says that the art was slow to gain acceptance because it started as a pastime for children.

A really hard one: an organist. I’m not sure if this is one piece of paper or more.

This cactus is from a single sheet of paper, and Robert said it was the hardest origami he ever folded. He had it sitting around for eight years as he couldn’t be arsed to keep folding all the spines:

Lang told me that one of the hardest animals to fold is a cat, as it’s hard to capture the essence of the beast in paper. D*gs, in contrast, are dead easy. (See a Lang cat here.)

Here’s a short video from Lang’s website:

As for the science, Lang has used his skills in unexpected ways, for example helping experts design space telescopes that could fold and unfold properly:

. . . and to design a portable kayak that fits in a backpack:

He even showed how one could fold DNA itself (using a method I can’t remember, but the reference is here) into funny shapes:

I missed some of the “North Korea versus the US” talk as I got caught up in a conversation when it had already started, but the discussion featured Nicholas Burns (former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece, now a professor at Harvard), Christopher Hill (former Ambassador to South Korea, Iraq, Poland and Macedonia), and David Sanger (chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner). Hill doesn’t appear to be in the photo, but was apparently replaced, and I can’t recall who replaced him. Nor can I give many details of the talk, but it will be online. In the meantime, the slide behind the discussants paints a grim picture.

One of the best discussions I heard was “Wrongful convictions in the post-DNA era”, featuring Nina Morrison, Ekow Yankah, and Robert Jones. Yankah is a law professor at Cardozo and on the Board of the Innocence Project, an initiative that aims (with great success) at exonerating criminals who have been wrongly convicted. Morrison is the Project’s senior attorney, who has helped exonerate many innocent people, some on death row.  Yankah and Morrison talked for about twenty minutes, and their indictment of the criminal justice system, where prosecutors often ignore exculpatory evidence and defendants, even if innocent, are urged to take plea bargains, was scathing. Many men have had 20 or 30 years cut out of their lives by such bargains, and a disproportionate number are black and can’t afford a lawyer. Overworked public defenders simply can’t give these cases proper attention. The result: imprisonment of the innocent, and racial injustice caused by poverty. 

Morrison (right below, with Yankah on the left) had some gruesome tales about miscreant prosecutors, and it was a fascinating if sobering lesson about the flaws in our justice system:

They then introduced Robert Jones, one of their success stories. Jones was wrongfully convicted at age 19 (the prosecutor willfully withheld exonerating evidence), and was sentenced to life plus 121 years in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, one of America’s most horrible prisons. He served over 23 years—in the meantime getting his degree and acting as a jailhouse lawyer—before he was completely exonerated. There’s a civil suit filed in which Jones hopes to collect substantial remuneration for the lost years of his life, and perhaps establish a precedent (not yet existing) in which prosecutors can be made to ante up for engaging in habitual misconduct like withholding evidence on purpose.

As someone who once worked as an expert witness for the lawyers who founded the Innocence Project (I testified against government misuse of the statistics associated with DNA evidence), I was once again reminded at how tilted our justice system is. While there are honest prosecutors, many merely want to get a conviction, for district attorneys are judged on their ability to convict people for horrible crimes. Public defenders, on the other hand, simply need to show that there is reasonable doubt in a prosecutor’s case, and they almost never withhold evidence. I remember how often I had to go up against a prosecution who knew better but was determined to discredit me. They were interested not in justice but a conviction.

At any rate, Jones is on the right below, and gave heartbreaking testimony, sometimes in tears, at how he fought for exculpation and release (somebody else did the crimes of which he was accused). He’s now a judicial activist and speaker. And he got a standing ovation—the only one I witnessed during the whole three-day meeting:

Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York Magazine and a new Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, spoke about “The contemporary art world; the good, the bad and the very bad; tips, lessons, and warnings.” (Saltz had agreed with me at Thursday dinner that the Isenheim Altarpiece was one of the world’s best pieces of art.) Since most of the attendees were either gallery owners, collectors, or somehow connected with the art world, Saltz’s talk was directed at them, and he dropped many names that I didn’t know. His talk was akin to a comedy routine—as if Woody Allen was delivering art criticism—and was hilarious in places, but I was unable to discern how Saltz winnowed bad from good art. To be fair, he said that his talks usually last longer than two hours, and he had only 35 minutes.


The last talk I went to, before I delivered my own, was a discussion of “Sexual Harassment and Assault in the #MeToo Era”, featuring Lisa Bloom (civil rights attorney and television presenter), Marjory Fisher (The Title IX Coordinator at Columbia University), and moderator Faye Wattleton (former CEO and President of Planned Parenthood, and a well known feminist activist and speaker).  It was a good discussion, and I don’t think anybody here would disagree with the panel’s conclusion that we need to fight harder against the misuse of power to leverage sexual harassment and assault.

I did have two quibbles with Fisher’s statements (she’s on the left below, with Bloom in the middle and Wattleton at the right): she seemed to favor the current standards for adjudicating harassment/assault cases in colleges, which simply calls for a greater likelihood of guilt than of innocence, whereas I’d favor a stronger standard, more akin to the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used by the courts. Further, she mentioned Emma Sulkowicz (“Mattress Girl”), a highly publicized case that took place at her university (though not, I think, under Fisher’s watch), implying that Sulkowicz was a victim without mentioning that Sulkowicz’s accused “assailant” was found not culpable by Columbia and the school has given him an undisclosed settlement.  On the other hand, Fisher gave an excellent response to a questioner who asked, “Why does the University have to adjudicate these cases? Why can’t those claiming assault go to the police?” (A: The police can’t do stuff like remove an accused assailant from campus to prevent him meeting the alleged victim).

As I said, I think my own talk went fairly well, and was almost entirely about the evidence for evolution. But several people pushed back on my statement that religion was responsible for creationism, including an angry (and to my mind, misguided) Jesuit priest. I answered with my take on why evolution (and science in general) was incompatible with religion, and recommended that people read Faith versus Fact to learn more.

The wrap-up talk was wonderful: the great jazz musician and composer Wynton Marsalis (founder of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program) had a conversation with Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Marsalis would illustrate some of his points by playing the trumpet, accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner. Despite his prodigious talent, Marsalis seemed like a really lovely down-home guy, and, drawn out by Walker, told some fascinating tales. He played not only New Orleans style early jazz, but finished by performing one of his own compositions, called “Goodbye”. I made a small video of a snippet, but the whole thing will be on the KentPresents website, and that piece is worth the price of admission. Here’s Marsalis with Walker and a portion of the music.

And goodbye it was—to a great meeting. Thanks to Ben and Donna Rosen, Julia Benedict, and Sam Cournoyer for their invitations and assistance.

KentPresents Report: Day 2

August 23, 2018 • 10:15 am

(The report for Day 1, last Thursday, is here.) I went to four discussions/talks on Friday, August 17, and then repaired back to my B&B, the Old Drovers Inn, to rest, work a bit, and have dinner there, as the food is highly reputed.

The full schedule for Day 2 is here; I neglected to take photos of the Social Media talk.

The morning kicked off with a Q&A session, “Universities and Free Expression” featuring Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago (and mathematician on the faculty), who was interviewed by John Donvan, newscaster and moderator for the Intelligence Squared Debates. Zimmer, pictured below, gave a good explanation of our free speech policy (see the University’s “Statement on Principles of Free Expression“), and his talk included this:

  • Any faculty member or student group who invites someone to speak will be accommodated by the University, which will also provide security
  • Students who disrupt or attempt to disrupt a talk will be removed and possibly disciplined
  • Students are free to protest outside the venue according to University regulations, and they’re welcome to organize a “counter-speech” session
  • The University discourages but does not prohibit the use of “trigger warnings”, as that is a slippery slope that prevents the free exchange of ideas so crucial to the university. However, reasonable accommodations can be made, such as indicating possibly triggering material on the syllabus
  • The University does not endorse “safe spaces” because they also inhibit the free discussion that Zimmer and his predecessors have considered essential to the functioning of a great university.

I agreed with everything Zimmer said save one minor point. When asked by Donvan if it was now mostly the Left that tries to shut down speech on campus, Zimmer said that censorship came from both Left and Right. Well, technically that’s correct, but if you look at FIRE’s “disinvitation database,” you’ll see that, over the last four years or so, the bulk of deplatformings, disinvitations, and disruptions of invited speakers in the last five years has come from the Left.

Beyond that, I was proud of what Zimmer said, which reflects the free speech principles of my own university.

Zimmer (left) and Donvan

A succeeding talk on “The Social Media Crisis” featured Rana Foroohar, editor and writer for the Financial Times and CNN’s global finance analyst, Roger McNamee, social media expert and investor, and Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. As I didn’t take notes, I can remember just a bit, which included McNamee, who was a big investor in Facebook, indicting those big platforms for manipulation of advertising and adding, in effect, that one should stay off social media. Newport, who wrote a bestselling book, Deep Work, argued the thesis of the book, which was that you don’t need to be on social media to advance your profile or career (although it’s worked for some small businesses), and that you’re wasting your time and professional advancement by frantically perusing social media. I have to say that I’d like to go off the grid for a while and see what happens, but I must maintain this website. But even when I don’t, I spend too much time reading unenlightening stuff, and suspect that if I stopped doing so much Internet Inspection, I’d learn a lot more by reading books.

Sean Carroll spoke before lunch on “The Big Picture on Life, Meaning, and the Universe”, a broad topic to be sure. As you’ll know if you’ve heard him, Sean is an enthusiastic and clear speaker, and tried to compress the thesis of his latest book (he’s now writing another) into 35 minutes, which included questions. His talk was a distillation of the hourlong talk below given at LogiCal, which I heard live. One of his big points was that we fully understand the basic physics of everyday life, giving the equation presented in the talk below. He also said, and I hope the audience got it, that there’s no way that there can be a non-physical soul that can interact with a physical body. Sean, of course, is an atheist, but is less pushy and obnoxious about it than I am.

Judging by the applause, the audience really liked Sean’s talk. There does seem to be a dearth of real science at KentPresents compared to politics, technology, and sociology, and I think that in the future they might consider programming more scientists.

Sean in Kent:

Lunch: herbed chicken with three salads (garbanzo bean, watermelon and arugula, and spinach), raspberry iced tea, and a ripe peach (I’m eating healthier these days). I even eschewed dessert. There was a buffet every day, so you could eat as much as you wanted, but I exercised restraint.

Outside the lunchroom door was a bowl of beautiful ripe peaches. There are few fruits both more beautiful and more tasty than a tree-ripened peach:

One of my gustatory discoveries at the meeting was this wonderful carbonated Italian drink, which is made from the juice of blood oranges. I guzzled as much as I could, but others had also discovered it, so I had to be quick at the bowls of iced drinks.

After lunch was the Big Talk of the Day, with CBS news correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewing former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, now 95 years old and running a consulting firm. Many of you will know of Kissinger from having lived during the Nixon and Gerald Ford era or having read Christopher Hitchens’s book about him. Kissinger lives in Connecticut not far from Kent; at dinner the night before I was introduced to his wife Nancy.

Lesley was staying at my Inn, and when we rode back in the limo with her husband the night before, we discussed what she was going to ask Kissinger and how he might respond. It went pretty much according to her predictions. I did have a lot of trouble hearing Kissinger because he has a heavy German accent, his voice has gotten even deeper with age, and my own hearing has always been subpar. Lesley tried to get him to pronounce on current affairs like the Middle East and Russia, but Kissinger talked a lot about other eras, including his growing up in Nazi Germany and his relationship with Richard Nixon. (He did say that Nixon deeply wanted to change the world, but was hampered because his personality was such that he simply could not abide criticism.) As Stahl had predicted, Kissinger was loath to criticize Donald Trump, and in fact said exactly what she said he would: he would never criticize a President himself (though he did diss Nixon a bit), but only a President’s policies.

But about Trump’s policies he had little to say (I might have missed something, and at any rate the videos will be online at KentPresents after a while). When Lesley asked Kissinger if it was a mistake for Trump to have talked to Putin one on one without notes, in effect negotiating with Russia, Kissinger responded (after some pushing) that yes, it was a mistake. One-on-one meetings between leaders, he said, should be largely a venue for the exchange of pleasantries, and the spadework of negotiating should be done in advance not by the President, but by diplomats and professional negotiators. Finally, Kissinger said that he considered the Middle East the biggest international problem facing America, but he had no advice on what we should do about it, simply offering the bromide that we should try to be amiable with each other. But of course he was holding back his real opinions on the issue, which he probably gets paid to tender via his consulting firm.

Photos of the conversation:

At times I got the impression of Yoda

I skipped the other talks that day to repair to my B&B for rest, work, and dinner, missing the fancy dinner at the meeting that night. But I didn’t miss much, because dinner at The Old Drovers Inn was superb.

It started with a plate of crudités and a basket of warm homemade bread. (I had a stout instead of wine):

Then a fantastic “shrimp cocktail” which was more like a ceviche, with lightly cooked shrimp, avocados, tortilla strips, and a delectable sauce:

Then a salad with feta cheese.

And a wonderful plate of softshell crabs with greens and two huge French fries. I was too full for dessert.

At dinner I noticed a ghoulish figure in the wood of the wall next to me:

And a bit of solipsism: a selfie in a mirror at the Inn, blurry because it was so dark and the shutter speed was about 1/5 of a second:

Kent Presents report: Day 1

August 20, 2018 • 10:30 am

I’ll put up a few reports about the KentPresents conference I attended, held from last Thursday through Saturday at the Kent School, a four-year (and very expensive) private “prep school” in Kent, Connecticut. Most of the students live on campus as boarders. It’s about two hours to the nearest airport (Hartford) and so is isolated, but in extremely beautiful country. Here’s a view of the school taken from its website. A perfect place for a conference.

There were a series of both discussions and lectures (more of the former), held simultaneously in two venues: a large auditorium and a smaller recital hall. I went to as many as I could given that I needed an occasional break, but had to miss some events since at most you could go to half of them. (I spoke the last day.) I’m told, however, that the discussions and talks will be put up on the conference’s website, since everything was filmed. (The lineup is here, the schedule here.)

Let me say first that this was one of the best meetings I’ve gone to, and the best “diverse” meeting not dedicated to a single theme (the “theme” meetings would be the first Imagine No Religion meeting I went to, as well as the Atheist Alliance International Meeting in 2009, which was the first big secular meeting at which I spoke). KentPresents is a melange of politics, science, sociology, art, and, well, everything you could think of. The organizers, Ben and Donna Rosen, went to an enormous amount of trouble to arrange it, and it went off without a glitch. The talks were good, the food was fantastic, and the logistics impeccable. There’s only one paid employee, too: everyone else, including speakers, volunteers their time and presence. The money ($2500 per ticket, but still sold out) goes to local charities.

Ben and Donna:

The diversity of local charities to which the money goes:

Just a few words and photos on the first day’s events I attended (photos are mine):

TRUMP VS. HIS OWN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT Preet Bharara, Jeh Johnson, Trevor Morrison. From left to right: Bharara (former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York), Johnson (former Homeland Security Secretary under Obama), and Morrison (Professor of Law and Dean of New York University Law School). These guys knew their onions, and speculated on what Mueller was going to do as well as dissecting the legal ins and outs of the case. Consensus: Trump would not be indicted, but Mueller would issue a “just the facts” report at the end of his investigation. It would then be up to the House of Representatives to decide, based on the facts, whether to impeach. (Of course they wouldn’t!). It was a pleasure to listen to these eloquent guys.

WHERE IS THE SUPREME COURT HEADED? with Kristen Clarke, Samuel Issacharoff, and Jim Zirin. Left to right: Issacharoff (Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law), Clarke (president & executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under La), and Zirin (former Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and author).

This was again a really great panel.There was some disagreement between Issacharoff and Clarke, as the former thought that Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was not an unusual appointment for any Republican president, while Clarke, who works on civil rights, thought that this was a deeply offensive appointment and reflected a far more Rightist perspective than normal. She was particularly upset that the documents requested for the period when Kavanaugh worked in the White House (he was Staff Secretary under George W. Bush) were not fully turned over: only about a third of them have been; and Clarke thought that the remainder might show incriminating stuff.

Everyone thought that the new more conservative court would try to dismantle Roe v. Wade, but Issacharoff thought the court would do it via “death by a thousand cuts” method, just letting increasing state restrictions on abortion stand, which is what it’s doing now. As for the court being highly politicized, Issacharoff said, in effect, “that’s just the way things work”, and that every President picks a nominee that reflects his values, “freezing in amber” the political ideology held at the moment. In general, the panel’s prognostication was gloomy.

“YOU NEVER KNOW”: THE WORK OF DIANE ARBUS with Jeffrey Fraenkel, Wardell Milan, and Elizabeth Sussman.  Fraenkel is founder of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco and probably America’s premier marketer of photographs and author about photography, Milan is a prolific artist and photographer, and Sussman is an author and curator of photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (I don’t have a picture of this one.)

I went to this small but crowded venue as I love Diane (pronounced, as I learned, “DEE-anne”) Arbus‘s photography. The format was great: each of the three presenters started out their 15-minute segment describing how they became acquainted with Arbus’s work, and then chose and discussed three of their favorite Arbus photos. As far as I can recall, here are Sussman’s three choices (she curated the biggest exhibit of Arbus’s work to date):

Is she looking at you or through you?

NSFW: “La Dolce Viva”, showing the Andy Warhol movie star Viva, is shown from an article in The Cut called “The Diane Arbus photo that nearly killed New York Magazine.” It did, too, for advertisers fled from what looked like a photo of a drugged-out sex maniac. (Read the article; the story is more complicated.) Sussman liked this because it displayed Arbus’s talent for taking pictures of subjects who were seemingly unaware of the photographer (even though Arbus was close up with her big camera) but deep in their own thoughts.

This photo, which is untitled, was a take from Arbus’s only multi-photo project: documentation of the residents at two institutions for the mentally ill (see here for more information). The photographs are haunting, and this is the most famous: the residents dressed up for some fete. It looks, said Sussman, out of time, as if the photo could have been taken from a medieval painting (her example is below the photo). This is a deeply disturbing and yet mesmerizing photo; one of the greatest by Arbus.

Sussman said the photo reminded her of this Breugel painting:

Parable of the Blind, Detail of Three Blind Men, 1568, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

PSYCHEDELICS: HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND, with Corby Kummer and Michael Pollan. In this talk, author Michael Pollan described his new book on psychedelics, titled as per the seminar. Pollan was extremely eloquent and well drawn out by Kummer, a senior editor at the Atlantic. Pollan’s talk covered some new research on psychedelics, especially that dealing with the effect of psilocybin on terminal cancer patients. It turns out that in a large portion of these patients, ingesting the drug  just once largely removes their anxiety and fear of death, apparently by making them see that they’re part of the Universe and taking them outside of themselves. (There was also an active placebo trial.)

Pollan also describes his six “trips” taken on drugs ranging from LSD to ayahuasca (all illegal trips, he confessed), and what effect they had on him. His experience rang true, jibing with my own psychedelic experiences in college, and he and I both are sad that it’s so hard (and illegal) for people to undergo such a profound and mind-altering experience. Based on his talk, I’m definitely going to read Pollan’s new book.

The accommodations and food afforded the speakers (and the lunches and dinners given the attendees) were superb. I stayed at the Old Drovers Inn, a colonial era B&B (built 1750) in New York—about 15 minutes drive from Kent (they gave us limos!) Here’s the Inn, my room, the sitting room, the breakfast menu, and my oatmeal breakfast:

I had the oatmeal with pecans, apricots, and maple syrup with cream, accompanied by a bowl of fresh fruit. I had the omelet, the yogurt, and a Belgian waffle on the three other days; all were fantastic. (The Inn is known for its food.)

There was a speakers’ dinner the first night, held at the Kent Firehouse. We chose a colored card from a basket at the beginning and sat at the table where the balloons of that color were arrayed. We were also greeted by a line of staff proferring drinks:

A welcome sight after a long day of talks!

The dials on a nearby pumper engine:

How lucky was I? I got to sit at a table with Lesley Stahl, Jeh Johnson, the art critics for both the New York Times and New York Magazine, and a famous food writer. Stahl is one of my news heroes, for I always watch 60 Minutes, the CBS show for which she’s a correspondent. (It’s the only non-news show I watch.) It turns out that she and her husband were staying at my B&B, and we rode back to the inn together that night. I got to ask Leslie what she was planning for her interview with Henry Kissinger the following morning, but what she said I’ll keep off the record. Here she is at dinner sitting next to Jeh Johnson. (Dinner consisted of salad, chicken, a superb shrimp jambalaya, and a panoply of small desserts.)

At at the next table sat the subject of Leslie’s interview: Henry Kissinger, still fairly spry and mentally keen at 95.



Report from Jerry: Phoebe’s gone again

August 17, 2018 • 9:00 am

Anna reported yesterday that, after spending a day with Honey in the pond, Phoebe departed again. Perhaps this time it’s for good, but it was time for her to leave, and at least she had a grand reunion with her mother before taking off.

Now I’m not sure whether Phoebe really has flown the coop (or the pond), as she’s disappeared before. But if she’s emigrated, I’d prefer her to go this way than to be scared into flight by chainsaws. I will of course report if I get more news.

Honey remains, and according to Anna is looking “happy and beautiful”. I’m sure she’ll be there when I return Sunday, and I’ll be around to see her annual departure with a champagne toast.

The KentPresents meeting is wonderful, with lots of really absorbing talks. Last night I got to have dinner at a table with the art critics for the New York Times and New York Magazine respectively, a molecular gastronomy expert, the former head of Homeland Security, and CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl (one of my news heroes). I learned a lot, and was pleased to find that both art critics agreed with me that the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Mathias Grünewald, is one of the greatest paintings of all time. We even did a fist bump when we found our agreement.

I had a long conversation with Robert Lang, who happens to be a reader here and is one of the world’s experts on making Origami. He’s speaking Saturday.

I will report all this when I return, as I have lots of news and pictures, including one of Henry Kissinger, who’s being interviewed by Lesley Stahl onstage today. I have an idea what she’ll ask him (we rode back to our inn together last night), but more later. Yesterday I went to discussions about the Supreme Court, Trump versus his Justice Department, photographer Diane (pronounced DEE-ANN) Arbus, and a absorbing discussion by Michael Pollan about his latest book on psychedelics.

This is all I have time to report; it’s off to breakfast and the meetings to hear my own University President, Robert Zimmer, talk about free speech. Sean Carroll, our resident website physicist, is also speaking. I talk tomorrow.

Meeting next week: KentPresents Ideas Festival

August 10, 2018 • 8:45 am

From August 16-18 (Thursday-Saturday of next week), I’ll be attending and speaking at the KentPresents Ideas Festival in Kent, Connecticut, a lovely area. The festival, founded by Ben and Donna Rosen, is a melange of interesting people from many fields and is dedicated to helping others: we receive no remuneration (nor do Ben and Donna), and the money from ticket sales goes to local charities.

There are both panels and speakers (list here); I’m one of the latter and will be talking about evidence for evolution and why the “theory” is hard for Americans to swallow.  On the front page you can see the lineup, and there’s several of these people I want to see and perhaps meet (I’ll be bringing my book to get it autographed for charity). Imagine a festival that includes Wynton Marsalis, Lesley Stahl, Michael Pollan, Harold Varmus, and Faye Wattleton, not to mention Henry Kissinger. Among the working scientists besides Varmus and me there will be Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll, and a number of people involved in conservation. And there’s a performance by the dance company Pilobolus.

It promises to be a good time. Tickets aren’t cheap ($2500), but the money goes to charity. You can, if you have the dosh, buy tickets for the whole event here.  I hope to report from the Festival, so stay tuned.


Moving Naturalism Forward videos now online

May 27, 2018 • 2:30 pm

Six years ago about 20 people attended a Moving Naturalism Forward conference in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (see my posts here, here and here, with a travel post here). Organized by physicist Sean Carroll, its aim was expressed in the conference title: to define the aims of naturalism and point out fruitful directions.

I’m not sure whether it did that, but it was pretty much fun, although the scientists there, like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Janna Levin, and me, sometimes got either baffled or frustrated by the assertions and musings of the philosophers (participants are here). But the company was good and I met some interesting people, plus I got to sit next to a Nobel Laureate, who scribbled physics equations on paper during much of the meeting).

For me the epic bit was my battle with Daniel Dennett over free will (with the Great Man shamelessly insisting that he go first after we’d agreed otherwise), a battle that continued during the entire three-hour post-meeting drive from Stockbridge to Boston (remember the song with that phrase in it?). Dan, who can be rather forceful, insisted that a). compatibilism was good and b). it gave us true moral responsibility. I’m still proud that I, a puny worm, held out against his stentorian lucubrations, and I remember well the last words Dan said to me when I exited the car in Cambridge: “I’M NOT THROUGH WITH YOU YET!”


And I still remember well Weinberg expressing amazement that—despite his being an atheist, physicist and determinist—there wasn’t contracausal free will.

At any rate, it’s been a while, and I don’t want to relive it–especially my part–but Sean has made the videos available with an introduction that’s indented below. Go see them if you’re game:

The arc of the natural universe is long, but it bends toward getting things finished. More than five years after our Stockbridge workshop, I have finally succeeded in (finding a competent editor who would take on the job of) wrestling the long video proceedings from Moving Naturalism Forward down to a collection of short, content-focused videos. You can find them on the web page:

Just click on the various Video categories on the sidebar to the left.

There are over eighty videos here, of median length around 5 minutes. Some consist of one person giving an argument for a point of view, others capture a back-and-forth conversation between a few of us on some specific topic.

Enormous thanks to my friend Gia Mora, who did all the work here. She knows all of our voices by now much better than anyone should be asked to.

Comments welcome, and please do share with potentially interested audiences.

Consider it shared!

Talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas

November 25, 2017 • 10:15 am

So far I haven’t said much about the talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico.  I’ll mention just a few of them here, but there were so many, and spread out over three days from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., that I didn’t hear even most of them. I’ll give just a short report on the highlights for me.

Here’s the venue which, I was told, seats over 5,000 people; it’s the local civic auditorium whose use was donated to the conference. I took this onstage while we did our “practice” (learning how the screens and timer worked). I think there were about 3,000 people during the big talks; there are two levels above the floor:

David Buss gave a good talk the first day on “Beyond strategies of human mating: The evolution of desire”. He reprised evolutionary-psychology view of human mating, described a lot of studies of differential selectivity, adultery, and so on. It was great hearing someone describe the data unapologetically, without those odious nay-sayers who totally reject evolutionary psychology on ideological grounds (though they pretend they reject the whole field on scientific grounds). After his talk, an artist drew David’s caricature, as they did for many of the speakers; here he is (left) with the artist:

The opening talk was by Steve Pinker, called “Beyond violence” (the theme of the conference was “Beyond X”). I had hoped he’d talk about his new book, out February, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (this will be a must-read)but he told me that his publishers wanted him to hold off on that until a bit closer to release time, for talking about a book before it’s out doesn’t really boost sales. He did talk a bit about the values of reason, science, and humanism extolled in the new book, and also struck back, as you can see in the second photo, against his left-wing detractors who repeatedly criticize him for both having faith in progress and, in his last book, documenting it. The slide shows some criticisms leveled at Better Angels. The fuzziness is due to low lighting and a hand-held camera with no flash:

Afterwards I got a surreptitious shot of Steve’s cowboy boots: black quill ostrich. He has six pair now, and I take some credit for that. After all, cowboy boots are the Official Footwear of Atheists and Humanists™

And of course, as a big macher, Pinker was interviewed in the Green Room after his talk by a passel of reporters. The hair is unmistakable, even from a distance. In the background is the pastry bar.

For me the conference’s highlight was supposed to be a 1.5 hour discussion: a “Beyond Doubt Debate” on global warming.  At the beginning it was announced that all the speakers, pro and con, accepted anthropogenic global warming, and the debate was going to be on what we should do about it. But it turned out that the debate was largely about whether global warming was even real, and here we heard the familiar arguments of the climate-change deniers. The “pro-warming and we need to deal with it side”, had, I thought, the better arguments. But I’m sure the audience, faced with a barrage of conflicting statistics, was a bit confused. Andrés Roemer moderated, keeping strict time (one speaker got cut off despite protesting they he more to say).

Here are the “denialists” which I call those who might admit that climate change was real but not a danger. (The names of most everyone are underneath, but I’ll include links, for the Wikipedia pages, sans Krauss, describe their stands on global warming.)

Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist:

Lord Nigel Lawson, a British Tory politician and journalist (he’s the father of cooking star Nigella Lawson):

William Happer, a physicist and professor emeritus at Princeton.

And the “acceptance-ists”: those who thought global warming was a serious problem AND that we need to do something about it now.

Lawrence Krauss, whom we all know. He was eloquent and aggressive, as always, but made one tactical mistake, saying that behind all climate denialists was big money from conservatives like the Koch brothers. When the other side protested that none of their research was funded by any of these groups or people, it made Krauss (who had made a serious point) look a bit ad hominem, and the other side, having no great arguments of their own, tended to harp on that over and over.

Mario Molina, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what caused the hole in the ozone layer—a very important discovery. I believe he’s Mexico’s only Nobel Laureate in science. He started off amiable and soft-spoken, but after hearing the distortions and arguments of the other side, got increasingly angry—to the point that he told one of them, who had interrupted him—to “shut up!”

Noam Chomsky had an onstage conversation with Andrés Roemer and Lawrence Krauss. Chomsky had his own special chair, something that Julia Sweeney pointed out (below) looked like either devil horns or angel wings. It was largely about politics, and I had trouble hearing it through the monitor. Chomsky had several choice comments on Trump and his administration, which to him was only the worst bit of an America that he thinks (as you know) is generally horrible. Chomsky is 89 now, and his mind is as clear as ever, even if I don’t agree with a lot of what he says.

Julia Sweeney gave the last “talk,” which was really her humorous take on selected talks, mostly from the last day. She had a hard job: I sat next to her right offstage watching her make notes on the talks as she watched the monitor in real time. At the end she went onstage and managed to synthesize the whole weekend into a humorous bit, along with some savvy comments and then a generous acknowledgment to Andrés Roemer and the rest of the organizers. Here’s Julia watching the proceedings. I have enormous respect to stand-up comics who can go onstage (she with just a tiny scrap of paper with notes) and extemporize a good bit.

I got her autograph for the copy of Faith versus Fact that will eventually go on auction for charity. (Other new signers included Pinker and two Nobel Laureates).

Going to Mexico!

October 28, 2017 • 11:00 am

If you’re not a resident of Mexico, you’ll probably not be going to the tenth meeting of the Ciudad de las Ideas series in the lovely city of Puebla, Mexico, but it’s a great time and a lot of good speakers. This series has been organized at great effort by Andrés Roemer and his team of associates, and it runs like clockwork, with tons of chances to interact with people. I was there once, in 2009 (the only time I met Christopher Hitchens), and I loved it.

The theme for this tenth iteration of the event is “Beyond X”, and it’s happening November 17-19.  I’ll be there, too, talking—for 7 minutes!—in the “Beyond Design” segment that starts at 11:45 AM and finishes at 13:15 PM.  The 7-page list of speakers is here (shorter version here) and the entire program is here. I’ve reproduced it below; you’ll see there are lots of interesting people and lots to do. It’s always great for speakers, too, because they take good care of us (including assigning each speaker a host who takes them around, shows them the best local restaurants and sights, and so on).

Puebla is about 2.5 hours by car from Mexico City. If you’re going, I’ll be delighted to see you there.

Look at all those people! Even Noam Chomsky! And Pilates!

INR, Evening 1

June 3, 2017 • 11:00 am

Yesterday was check-in and an evening social for the Imagine No Religion meeting in Toronto; it’s in the Airport Sheraton, so I doubt I’ll see anything of this lovely city.

The speakers did get nice rooms, though:

. . .with nice bathrooms. I LOVE hotels and have never gotten over the luxury of staying in one:

A kindly reader came up to me and gave me two bottles of Riesling in a wooden box, with the bottles shaped like cats! What a treat!

Self portrait with Hawaiian shirt:

Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the the U.S. Center for Inquiry, with Leonard Tramiel, a physicist on the CfI board of directors.

The evening social had a poutine station, so my trip for dinner poutine was unnecessary. Here’s Richard Dawkins helping himself to poutine. The talks start in earnest today; the schedule is here. I speak Sunday at 2 pm.