Today would have been the 100th birthday of the late polymath and influential skeptic Martin Gardner. Gardner – who passed away aged 95 in May 2010 – published more than seventy books on such diverse topics as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature and skepticism. For a quarter of a century he was also the writer of the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American, and as a consequence he has influenced many of the modern day’s top academics in the hard sciences. Douglas Hofstadter described Gardner as “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” and Arthur C. Clarke once labeled him a “national treasure.”
Gardner was also one of the major voices in the skeptical movement; George Hansen describes him as “the single most powerful critic of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. Gardner was writing ‘skeptical’ books long before the modern movement ‘began’ in earnest with the inception of CSICOP (now known as CSI) in the 1970s – his seminal deconstruction of pseudoscience, In the Name of Science (later renamed Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), had been published two decades previous in 1952. Like Randi, he could be a rather nasty skeptic too, sometimes embracing debunking over debate (he once commented that in certain circumstances, "One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms").
The occasion of Gardner's 100th birthday has led to a number of tributes on major news sites this week, from the BBC to the New York Times. And rightly so, there is no doubting that he inspired a number of today's leading academics. But I also thought it worth pointing out his fallibility, by relinking to my article "How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics", which I think (hope!) does a good job in deconstructing the truly awful 'skeptical' essay he wrote about the medium Leonora Piper. Rather than denigrating Gardner's memory, I would hope that a man who esteemed skeptical thinking as much as Gardner would appreciate my critique of this particular work of his. It's a long piece, so here's the summary:
Unscientific skepticism of the type exhibited by Gardner and Cattel is a corrosive one which, rather than defending science, instead shields it from possible new discoveries and viewpoints through irrational over-protectiveness. It also brings skepticism as a whole into disrepute when such cheap tactics are employed. In his article “How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James”, Martin Gardner ignores the original scientific work done, misrepresents the competency of the investigators, and misleads the reader both through incorrect statements and loaded language. This is hardly the type of writing we would expect from “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century.”
Sadly for Martin Gardner, perhaps the most succinct summary of his essay can be found in James Hyslop’s caustic response to Hall and Tanner’s Studies in Spiritism, written nearly 100 years previous: "The calm critic can only say that the book either displays the grossest ignorance of the facts and the subject, or it is a colossal piece of constructive lying. The authors may take either horn of the dilemma they like."
Link: Skeptical of a Skeptic
Related: Vale Martin Gardner
A few years ago a controversy erupted in the U.K. concerning allegedly nefarious techniques being used by popular 'psychic', Sally Morgan. At the time, I wrote a commentary concerning how quickly skeptics turned hearsay into a witch hunt (literally?), based only on anecdotal evidence. Now comes a new controversy, though this time there is far less reason to offer any defence of Morgan. In the above video (NSFW language), skeptic Mark Tilbrook documents the harassment and threats directed his way by Psychic Sally's husband (and tour manager) John Morgan while handing out skeptical information regarding psychics outside of one of Morgan's shows:
As I explained in the Guardian on 7 October, 2014, I decided earlier this year to leaflet outside various psychic stage shows, encouraging members of the audience to ask themselves questions about psychic ability. My first three visits were to shows by Sally Morgan, and on each occasion her husband John Morgan approached me. I found him to be threatening and abusive.
After being threatened during my first encounter with John Morgan, I felt it necessary to have a camera with me when leafleting, to record events and provide evidence of the threats I faced. This footage shows what happened on the third occasion, at the Shaw Theatre in London on March 30, 2014. I’ve subtitled the video as accurately as I can make out, and you can make up your mind about his behaviour after seeing it for yourself.
None of this has stopped me from being determined to continue leafleting at psychic stage shows. This is why I have been working with the Good Thinking Society to hand out more leaflets at psychic shows throughout October 2014. You can find out about 'Psychic Awareness Month' at the Good Thinking website
Now while I don't think this necessarily provides any direct evidence that Sally Morgan is a fraud, and can understand family members sticking up for their loved ones, in this case things are beyond the pale. John Morgan comes across like a standover man and a bigot, with his threats against Tilbrook surely verging on being criminal (caveat: I'm no expert on British law). I have no problem with Tilbrook providing information outside the theatre - indeed, I encourage people to understand the debate about psychic abilities as thoroughly as possible - as long as he wasn't bothering those attending, or causing real distress to Sally Morgan in some way.
Hayley Stevens has written an intelligent blog post pointing out that, in the somewhat dodgy world of people claiming psychic ability, when too many incidents start adding up, perhaps it might be time to consider the likelihood that you're being fooled (and also, whether you're fooling yourself) - rather than making excuses for the behaviour of people like John Morgan.
When people make excuses for this sort of behaviour what they’re actually doing is acting in their own best interests. They are convincing themselves that the person they have put their faith in- Sally Morgan -is not dodgy in any way and that the beliefs they have invested in are not tainted by any of this controversy. It is difficult to accept that a psychic you so strongly believe in has fooled you into thinking they are psychic and are a good, caring person… but at what point to do you accept that you’re wrong?
While I would say Hayley's list of negatives against Sally Morgan is longer than mine would be - e.g. I don't blame anyone for not being tested within James Randi's framework - it is a very good point. As Robert Anton Wilson once counseled, in regards to the tension between not being dogmatic but needing to make decisions: "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions." At a certain time, too many suspicions should at least set alarm bells ringing.
For her part Sally Morgan has sacked her husband, saying she is "utterly ashamed" of his behaviour and is not sure where this leaves their marriage. But perhaps at this point further redemption is needed - such as allowing herself to be tested by open-minded scientists endowed with enough skepticism to provide a valid examination of claimed abilities.
Though I'd like to see some sort of system doing exactly that for all professional psychics, regardless of how dickish their spouses are...
I've long been a critic of the writings and methods of high-profile 'skeptic' Michael Shermer (I explained why way back in 2004). A long-time columnist for Scientific American, Shermer has regularly pointed out the many ways that anomalistic events are in reality caused by faulty thinking - sometimes employing pseudoscientific techniques, and perhaps even outright deception - to make his point.
Which makes his most recent column for Sci-Am, "Anomalous Events That Can Shake One’s Skepticism to the Core " quite a weird one. Because in it, he admits that a recent experience (which occurred on his wedding day) rattled him. Check out the column for the full anecdote, but here's his conclusion:
Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.
Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.
The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.
Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that Michael Shermer has finally seen (at least some of) the light when it comes to the personal impact of anomalistic experiences, and how pat explanations offered by others sometimes just don't cut it. I'm just a bit...skeptical...that a guy who has for years talked down on and attempted to debunk these type of events suddenly flips in his view. Perhaps the event really did rock him to his core; or perhaps he thought his old-school debunking attitude wasn't playing as well in 2014, or perhaps he just needed a bit of a controversy to drum up some page hits, or even distract people from other events (Shermer has recently been at the centre of somewhat of a controversy regarding his interactions with women in the skeptical movement).
Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic that one of the leaders of the 'skeptical' movement has had a genuine insight to 'the other side'...
An interesting development in the last few hours at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF): a short statement has been posted to their website under the title "Los Angeles Office Closed", advising that the headquarters of the organisation is moving across the country to Virginia. Oh, and also as an aside (in a statement released at the end of a long weekend) that the President of the organisation, D.J. Grothe, "is no longer with the JREF"!
In order to achieve cost-savings and greater efficiency, the Los Angeles office of the JREF has closed effective September 1, 2014. All operations have been moved to Falls Church, Virginia.
DJ Grothe is no longer with the JREF. James Randi has taken over as acting President.
This restructuring is part of an enhanced educational agenda aimed at inspiring an investigative spirit in a new generation of critical thinkers by engaging children and their parents, as well as educators and the general public, in how to think about the many extraordinary claims we hear every day.
With the lack of information in the statement, it's difficult to say too much about this development. I might guess - given that the JREF is quite a professional organisation - that the abruptness of the statement, and silence from D.J. Grothe's camp since the announcement, that Grothe was dismissed from his position with little notice (interestingly, D.J.'s name has immediately disappeared from the 'Staff' listing on the JREF site, while his own social media accounts still list him as President of the JREF).
It's interesting to note as well that the shift in headquarters (which only moved from Florida to Los Angeles a few years ago) is to the administrative offices of the JREF, which is centered around JREF board member Rick Adams (the wealthy pioneering internet entrepreneur who financed the Million Dollar Challenge). Adams has previously sat in the background somewhat, but has also recently taken on the job of shifting the JREF's forum away from the official website.
Is the change-up due to a dire financial position? On Twitter, Jim Lippard has posted the JREF's recent revenues, which have almost halved in the last 3 years (2011: $1.56M, 2012: $1.29M, 2013: $887.5K). JREF backer Rick Adams isn't short of coin though...but as a successful businessman, perhaps those figures necessitated change. Or perhaps there was a personality clash? All speculation at the moment...perhaps it's all amicable and pre-planned. Certainly doesn't seem like it at this point though...the burying of the lede in that statement is truly bizarre.
Leading skeptic Brian Dunning, of the popular Skeptoid podcast, has this week been sentenced to 15 months in a Federal prison for defrauding eBay of hundreds of thousands of dollars. His incarceration will begin on September 2.
Dunning has now posted 'a message' about his conviction and sentencing on his website, a move which some skeptics have applauded as taking ownership of his crime, while others aren't as impressed. While I really don't care to get too deep into this affair, I'd have to side with the latter. In particular, unless there are more details I'm not party to, Dunning's description of how he earned his riches (through his company Kessler's Flying Circus, or KFC) seems rather misleading:
[W]e developed a pair of useful widgets: ProfileMaps, that showed a map of visitors to your MySpace page; and WhoLinked, a WordPress plugin that showed who has linked to your blog. These both included an eBay advertisement. Amazingly these both went viral, and through 2006 and 2007 our ads drove enough new customers to eBay US to earn KFC about $5.3 million dollars. Keep in mind that was the company's gross revenue; we had overhead and employees and costs like every other company. I was the second highest paid employee, and I did earn over a million dollars personally over 2006 and 2007 before taxes. [my emphasis]
The original indictment describes the crime, involving 'cookie-stuffing', in a very different way:
[T]he defendant provided free applications at two of his websites that users could download and use on their own websites: "ProfileMaps.info," which showed the physical location of visitors to a MySpace profile, and "WhoLinked.com," which showed who was linking to the user's website or blog. Any visitor to those websites could download either or both applications. Both applications included code that operated as follows: when a user visited a website that had installed the Profilemaps or Wholinked applications, the code would cause the user unknowingly to receive an eBay and/or CJ cooke with KFC's Affiliate ID without the user having clicked on an eBay ad or link, without the user knowing that his or her browser had been re-directed to the eBay and/or CJ affiliate tracking server, and without the user seeing any content of an eBay site. As a result, KFC would be paid if that user subsequently conducted an eBay revenue action within a certain period of time. [my emphasis)
I was also a little...skeptical...about Dunning's final words, in which he says though he regrets "this stain", he will "own it". From what I have seen, apart from this 'message' that some others have linked to on social media, Dunning has assiduously avoided taking ownership...his Twitter feed does not mention his sentencing or link to the message, neither does his Facebook page. There is no link to the message, or mention of his conviction/sentencing, on the front page of his own website. And perhaps worst of all, there seems to be absolutely no mention of it anywhere on the Skeptoid site - a venture which regularly asks for financial donations from listeners (the most recent being an August 1 podcast release titled 'Listeners Have Another Say'). Top left of the site does feature a link to 'Support Skeptoid' though.
In fact, Dunning's done such a good job of 'owning it' that today, while browsing various skeptical websites discussing this topic, I've seen a number of comments posted by Skeptoid supporters who were totally unaware of not only his prison sentence, but the conviction (which was recorded more than a year ago) [Update: an example here].
But it's not really my concern - I leave it to the real skeptics to dissect the case in more detail.
[Update: Skepchick have done a very good job of exactly that in this blog-post - it pretty much touches on everything I was thinking]
Whether exploring the fringes of science and history for new breakthroughs or conspiracies by looking for odd patterns, or promoting materialist philosophy by preaching that the mind is obviously a function of the brain on the basis of the effects of brain injuries, we are all in danger of making the occasional incorrect assumption that a correlation equals causation. Just to make the error obviously clear, the Spurious Correlations website features graphs of two obviously distinct and unrelated datasets overlaid to illustrate how things can sometimes look to be connected even if they aren't. Although it's fun just to imagine how some of these might be linked.
Have to say though, I'm leaning towards the possibility that the Nicolas Cage films/Drowned in Swimming Pool correlation could have something to it...
(via Boing Boing)
In mid-January prominent 'skeptic' Brian Dunning was a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. If you can spare the time, it is a 3-hour education in how *not* to do science and skepticism outreach. There's sponsor messages and the like at the beginning, so hang in there - the interview starts 3:48 in (some NSFW language):
Now firstly, I have to say I was surprised that Joe Rogan had Dunning on his show. In fact, I'm amazed Brian Dunning is still even relevant in skeptical circles given that he plead guilty to fraud last year, for his part in a scheme to 'hack' eBay's affiliate marketing program - a scheme which netted his company some $5.2million.
That doesn't mean that Brian Dunning hasn't made positive contributions to skepticism, but to me, a fraud conviction - especially one based on the abuse of the trust of his readers and users of his software, should at the very least put him 'off-limits' for a while until he's served some penance or shown some contrition (he is awaiting sentencing). Instead, he retains a large fanbase, one which contributed $15,000 to a Kickstarter campaign he ran just a few months back.
Dunning however has also made some very sorry contributions to skepticism, such as this blog post in which he suggested that Stanton Friedman was the author of the MJ-12 documents, and that Philip Klass flushed him out with a genius plan. That particular blog is either written from a complete lack of familiarity with the case, or is a bunch of misinformation meant to smear Friedman's name (or maybe Dunning was just trolling for extra hits on his blog post). To compound the idiocy of his post, Dunning then went on to berate me in the comments after I tried to point out his errors, suggesting that I may have "clinically crossed the line to a diagnosable, treatable mental illness". It is this aspect of his character that has dominated most of the articles and presentations of his that I've come across. It's for that reason mainly that I'm surprised Joe had him on the show.
As the old saying goes though, give a man enough rope...and Joe Rogan handed out 3 hours of it, during which Dunning came across as arrogant, unwilling to concede points, and keen to 'get' Joe.
Make no mistake, this was a fantastic opportunity to spread some good thoughts about critical thinking. Joe Rogan has 1.25 million Twitter followers, and a huge audience for his podcast. He's a guy who is curious about lots of things, loves science and is (as far as I've seen) always a gracious and polite host to his guests, whether he agrees with them or not. But that curiosity has also led Joe to contemplate the type of things we discuss here on The Daily Grail regularly, and for that, Brian Dunning had previously put Joe on a list of "Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience". So, you can imagine where Joe started. And for most of the next 3 hours, Joe and Brian Dunning were at odds - but with Joe remaining calm, polite and self-deprecating, while Dunning had to continually defend indefensible statements, unwilling to concede points to Joe. A number of these exchanges offered some fascinating insights though.
At one point during the debate over Joe Rogan's inclusion on Brian Dunning's 'naughty list', Dunning brought up Joe's statements that the collapse of one of the buildings on 9-11 looked like a controlled demolition, intimating that it was reckless of him to do so unless he framed it as an example of how easy it is to be mistaken. Joe's response was spot on: "Why do I have to do that, to observe something that's fascinating? Dunning goes on a few minutes later to read through his 'rap sheet' of Joe Rogan's promotion of pseudoscience, and after reading it out loud is moved himself to note, "God this makes me sound like an asshole". Joe responds: "Well it's just factually inaccurate on so many different levels, I don't understand why you wrote it". He goes on to point out a key part of being a true explorer of knowledge - willing to look foolish exploring and debating strange areas:
There's things that you said I believe that I don't, and I've never said that I do. What I'm willing to do is look stupid. And by talking about things and saying "that looks like a controlled demolition", I know that puts you in the nutter camp. But I'm not saying it's a controlled demolition. But...not being willing to debate it and being too insecure to discuss the reality of what you're viewing is silly, it's preposterous. It doesn't mean I'm promoting the idea that 9-11 was an inside job or that it was a plot by the government. I don't think that, I've never thought that. But I do think that building looks like a controlled demolition. That's all. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that.
Given the length of the interview, I won't post excerpts from the entire conversation - please do take a listen if you can spare the time though. If you want to get a feel for how the audience felt about Brian Dunning's appearance on the JRE podcast, I dare you to look in the comments thread on YouTube (NSFW). Yowzers...
To his credit, after the interview, Joe asked people not to post angry diatribes towards Brian Dunning, saying he was a good guy and deserved some respect. Dunning's response today left a fair bit to be desired: to update his list saying "Joe did not convince me that he should be removed from this list. Indeed he certified it stronger than ever... Joe did deny that he ever believed 9/11 was a conspiracy, but then spent half an hour convincing me that it was." This appears to have been the final straw for Joe Rogan - understandably, given the discussions about his 9/11 views during the show - with the stand-up comedian calling out Dunning on the updated list (his follow-up tweet, not reproduced here, has more...colourful language):
— Joe Rogan (@joerogan) February 4, 2014
Maybe Brian Dunning is just trolling for hits to his website, looking after his own finances, I don't know. All I can say is that in terms of promoting skepticism, he failed epically. I'm sure many 'skeptics' will blame the irrational hordes of JRE listeners for not getting what Brian Dunning was saying, but they would be fooling themselves. They should pay attention to how Dunning himself realized, when reading his criticism out loud, that he sounded "like an asshole". Talking down to people, and telling them that they need to be saved from their own irrationality/stupidity, doesn't tend to work so well. Try and be a little more relaxed, have some fun...and don't fear the woo.
Update: Brian Dunning has now posted a long and detailed blog post with his reasoning for not taking Joe Rogan off his list. Oh and he also posted this 'music video' of himself rapping about science. I don't even...
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Early last year I reviewed Will Storr's book The Heretics, a wonderful exploration of how we reinforce our own belief system and fight off attacks upon it. I also noted a controversial story that emerged with the book's publication - James Randi's defence of Social Darwinist philosophy, not to mention his admission that he lies to win arguments. For those that haven't got around to buying the book yet, you'll be happy to learn that The Heretics is now out in a very affordable paperback edition, which you can grab from Amazon UK. Here's the blurb:
Why do obviously intelligent people believe things in spite of the evidence against them? Will Storr has travelled across the world to meet an extraordinary cast of modern heretics in order to answer this question. He goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of neo-Nazis, experiences his own murder during 'past-life regression' hypnosis, takes part in a mass homeopathic overdose, and investigates a new disease affecting tens of thousands of people - a disease that doesn't actually exist. Using a unique mix of personal memoir, investigative journalism and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology, Storr reveals why the facts just won't convince some people, and how the neurological 'hero-maker' inside all of us can so easily lead to self-deception and science-denial. The Heretics will change the way you think about thinking.
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From Jerry Coyne, the blogger that originally whined to TED about Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, kicking off the whole later controversy, comes a new round of whiny whining: he's going to lodge a protest that Sheldrake will be giving a talk on science to one "the most prestigious “public schools” in the UK".
It’s outrageous that someone with such wacko ideas is not only being honored this way, but will be given the chance to corrupt young minds with ideas about morphic resonance, psychic phenomena, and How Dogs Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. And the lecture blurb actually boasts of this stuff, characterizing Sheldrake as “one of the world’s most innovative biologists and writers.” “Notorious” would be a better word than “innovative.” Sadly, a bunch of kids in this sold-out lecture will get to hear that materialism is a dying paradigm in science. What were they thinking?
I feel sorry for the lost opportunity to turn kids onto real, genuine, materialistic, hard science rather than fluffy woo. I don’t know about you, but I’m at least going to register a small protest.
Sheldrake is a 'woomeister' eh? I think we can comfortably label Coyne a douchemeister using the same intelligent system of categorisation...
(h/t Michelle Gibson)
On October 23rd, the London Fortean Society celebrated "The Late Great Robert Anton Wilson" at the Horse Hospital in London. featuring lectures by our good friend John Higgs as well as Daisy Eris Campbell. John's well-presented talk, in which he riffs on RAW's thoughts about belief and reality, has been uploaded to YouTube and I heartily recommend it - in fact, I wish everyone on Earth would hear what John is talking about, because it's such a key aspect of the ways in which we fool ourselves (often to the detriment of others). I've embedded the talk below (John's talk is just over half an hour, followed by about 15 minutes of questions and money burning...literally), and after it I've pulled out a short quote from John's talk that resonated strongly with me (also, to whomever produced the video, I enjoyed the easter egg!):
The reason why I think Bob is important, and Bob is different, I think it can be summed up in a principle he talks about called the 'cosmic shmuck' principle, and it goes like this. If you wake up in the morning and you do not realise that you are a cosmic shmuck, you will remain a cosmic shmuck. But if you wake up in the morning and you think 'oh god, I'm a cosmic shmuck', you'll be very embarrassed [and] you'll want to be less of a cosmic shmuck; you'll try to be less of a cosmic shmuck; and slowly, over time, you'll become less of a cosmic shmuck.
And the fact that the underlying principle of Robert Anton Wilson's philosophy is "I know I'm wrong, I want to be less wrong", is very different to now, our current internet culture, where the underlying philosophy is "I'm right, and I want you to know that". And if you go onto any internet discussion, or debate, or things like that, you find people declaring certainties loudly, people with very fixed positions that they can express in 140 characters, that they hunker down and defend, and don't listen to anything else, and attempt to drown out all the others. That's so different to Robert Anton Wilson: he believed – hang on, the word believe is difficult with Bob – he thought that what you believed imprisoned you, he thought convictions create convicts.
His philosophy can be called 'multiple-model agnosticism'. That's not just agnosticism about God, that's agnosticism about everything...
There's a key core point [to Bob's philosophy], this phrase 'reality tunnel', that's at the heart of all Bob's thinking, so I think it's worth defining for you. A reality tunnel is the model of reality that you build in your head. It's not reality, it's what you think reality is. Just as Korzybski said, "the map is not the territory"; as Alan Watts said, "the menu is not the meal"; in the same way, your reality tunnel is not reality. It's a model you personally built over your entire life, based on your experiences, your memories, your senses, your prejudices, your culture, and to a large and surprising degree, language. And that's fine, that's normal, we need models. We need models to understand what's going on around us, to predict what's going to happen next. But a model is, by definition, a simplified version of something. It may look roughly the same, and it gives you a good idea of things, but there are going to be places where it lacks the detail, or it's just wrong or it's different. And when your reality tunnel doesn't map reality, then you are wrong. And the fact that we use these things means that we will always be wrong.
You can read more of John's thoughts on these topics in his fantastic books, The Brandy of the Damned, and The First Church on the Moon (both fiction), as well as The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds (non-fiction, even though it might seem more fictional than the first two).
Update: Here's part two of the event, Daisy Eris Campbell's discussion of her own links to Robert Anton Wilson - not least her conception backstage at her father Ken Campbell's epic stage adaptation of RAW's Illuminatus! - as well as her own upcoming adaptation of Cosmic Trigger (NSFW language warning):
My sincere thanks to the organizers of the event, and those who took the time to upload the video to YouTube - fantastic for people like me who would have loved to have attended in person.