Continuing my descriptions of Sunday's paper presentations...
Lee Graham on "Artificial Creatures, Real Evolution": Lee Graham, a Ph.D. student in computer science and member of the Ottawa Skeptics, gave a fascinating presentation about his 3D virtual creature evolution program (3DVCE), which he said was inspired by and based on 1994 work by Karl Sims of Thinking Machines Corporation on "Evolved Virtual Creatures." He developed software to evolve simulated creatures. The simulated creatures have perceptual sensors that detect surface inclines, contact, and proprioception (position of body parts), he measured fitness in terms of distance traveled, jump height, etc., and then engaged in selection of parents and reproduction based on that fitness, producing new offspring with both mutations and crossover (mixing of genes from the parents). While it is far from a complete model of evolution--lacking such features as food and environmental threats such as predators--it is sufficient to show that new complexity can evolve.
He showed a video of various creatures that evolved in the world, such as an interesting worm-like creature he called an "end-over-end worm," and then asked where does the complexity and information come from? There's the fitness function, the choice of primitive components, and the environment, each of which have counterparts in reality. But the real answer is from the process of variation plus selection. The development of complexity simply does not require top-down design.
Christopher French on anomalistic psychology: French, founder of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London, gave a talk that was supposed to be about his own research, but there was a mixup with presentations and it was an earlier version of his talk. APRU does research, teaching, and public education on anomalistic psychology, a field that I believe was first named by Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones' book, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking (the second edition from 1989 now sells for $129.45, I wonder what my first edition is worth?).
Tim Farley of whatstheharm.net on "Building Internet Tools for Skeptics": Tim Farley gave an excellent talk about developing new technological tools using the web in order to promote skepticism and critical thinking. His talk used a minimalist approach on his presentation, with slides containing individual words and phrases about each point he discussed (a technique promoted by Larry Lessig and known as the "Lessig Method" or the "Takahashi Method"). Farley spoke about the battle on the Internet between information and misinformation. Skeptics are using blogs, social networks, social linking, and search engines (e.g., Google bombing), but these methods are ad hoc and tend to promote preaching to the choir. We need to extend our reach and be more systematic, making use of new Web 2.0 methods for community, specialization, programmability, and mashups. Farley suggested the following steps to apply Web 2.0 to skepticism: work smarter, not harder--use services like Yahoo Pipes to filter RSS feeds to present on web pages. Specialize--find and fill a niche. Open up your data, so that others can make use of it in their web pages. Mash up data--combine geocoded data with Google Maps, for example. Appeal to people who are neutral.
He's working on creating a filter that searches just believer sites, which will allow the ability to search the entire web minus the believer sites. whatstheharm.net is a collection of victim reports, and a useful rhetorical tool for answering the question when people ask, "What's the harm in believing X?"
He suggested that all sites should publish their data using RSS, use iCal for calendar information, and use microformats like hReview so that you can show approval or disapproval of the things you link to.
Farley strongly advocated the use of geocoding and geoRSS, as well as KML (like RSS for maps, used by Google Earth) in order to put links on maps. He gave the example of the Church of Scientology in Boston on Beacon Street, where there are links to YouTube videos of protests in the intersection near the facility on Google Earth.
He gave the examples of disbeliefnet.com, promoting Bill Maher's new film "Religulous," which has a section called The Heretic Press which uses Yahoo Pipes to automatically pull in crazy religious stories.
Farley's new site of tools for skeptics is called skeptools.com, and you can find a version of his presentation there. Check it out.
Brian Dunning of the "Skeptoid" podcast, on "The Skeptologists": Brian Dunning, executive producer of "The Skeptologists," showed the whole pilot episode, which had some over-the-top music. He brought on stage his fellow executive producer and director Ryan Johnson, and they described the show. Where most pilots are kept secret, they are making theirs widely known in order to promote skeptical interest. He took questions from the audience, one of the most interesting was, "Do you have any plans to show things that turn out to be true?" Unfortunately, the answer was no, though that they will try to show real science for things "that have some similarity to the bogus claims." This makes it more of a preconceived debunking show rather than promotion of science and critical thinking.
At the end of the conference, Hal Bidlack suggested that next year's TAM may have a panel discussion on who's been sued and for what, along with a lawyer, on steps to take to avoid lawsuits.
There may have been a bit more after that, but things were a bit behind schedule and I had to rush off to catch a shuttle to the airport, so that was the end of the conference for me.