Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan


Paul Dempsey doesn’t write love songs

Paul Dempsey is the front man and singer/songwriter for the Australian rock group Something for Kate (SFK).

His most recent release is the solo album “Everything is true“, on which he played every instrument and provided all the vocals.

“Dempsey is a gifted observer of the human condition…a truly beautiful collection.” – The Daly Telegraph

Dempsey’s songwriting is superb and unique, it stands apart in an industry full of three-minute lust songs.

“The tally for genius lyrics per second is positively baffling…eleven excellent reasons to acquaint yourself with one of Australia’s finest songwriters.”Beat said of his latest solo effort

Dempsey is a veracious reader too and the breadth of his literary consumption appears to feed his songwriting; everything from literary classics, 1960’s Sci-Fi from Philip K Dick, to A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines  by Janna Levin, and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

“For me…a half a dozen words, the rights words, arranged a certain way…when you get one line that manages to posses some sort of insight into an aspect of your life is so satifying.” PD on Face The Music Songwriting Segment with Paul Dempsey presented by The Push

When asked once about the breadth of subjects in his songs he said that he actively avoids writing love songs, that the genre has been done to death so why put just another love song out there. There are so many more interesting things to write about.

once in a lifetime she says

the waking life stitched together in your head

well, what if it’s only worth

the bundle of nerves it’s written on?

and i don’t need these arms anymore

i don’t need this heart now, to love

i don’t need this skin and bones at all

Ramona was a waitress

Dempsey is currently in the studio recording Something For Kate’s next album, expected to be released later this year.

Paul Dempsey, Stephanie Ashworth, and Clint Hyndman – Something For Kate

“P” is for Paul Dempsey

Seppuku – a must have for writers of Japanese characters

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to carry out Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582

The concept of Seppuku is so ingrained in the culture and psyche of the Japanese people that, as a western writer, you cannot expect to be able to write believable Japanese characters while it remains abhorrent to you.

I remember when this occurred for me; it was a combination of “a moment of satori” with the realisation of a satirical attack—beginning with an “aha” and ending with me choking on the thought as the illusionary barriers that my subconscious had used to hide, and possibly protect my mind, from the truth. It was while reading a novel set in feudal Japan – loosely based around the Forty-Seven Ronin.

With many concepts that I have encountered in philosophical and martial arts studies it cannot be taught or learnt in isolation it can only be transmitted at the intersection of two minds, with the greater challenge for the recipient; it almost becomes them discovering the concept anew.

Who can be my hero?

Yesterday a television commentator, Mia Freedman from the Today Show, decided that it would be a good idea to tell us who we could hold up as heroes.  She has copped a lot of abuse for her short sited and ill informed rant and some of it went well beyond what is acceptable, which I do not condone.

There have been many educated responses too; such as that made by Dr Bridie O’Donnell in an open letter to Mia.

The incident was precipitated by the Australian Cyclist Cadel Evans’ win at the 2011 Tour de France and the outpouring of emotion from his long time supporters and those who tuned in to the coverage in the last week or so.

Cadel Evans is swamped by his BMC teammates after they cross the finish line.

Although I agree that we are occasionally too quick to class some sports people as heroes but having seen the adversity through which Cadel’s victory has emerged from, and knowing firsthand how tough the sport of road cycling is, I certainly classify Cadel as a hero of mine.

Mia’s argument is the same used to play down artistic or creative endeavours as being less than those of scientists and doctors. It is through witnessing the courage of people like Cadel that the world’s “would-be-scientists” keep slogging away at their study and research in the dark hours of the night.

We don’t live for scientific or medical breakthroughs, we strive for them so that humans can live and grow. What is more important – the doctor who saves a few lives or the writer/singer/sportsperson who inspires millions to keep on going even when the circumstances become difficult and the future looks bleak.

Chapeau Cadel!

Branding the literary works of Authorial Groups?


Popular music is one of the few creative mediums where branding is used to market the work of a group of artists, The Beatles, U2, or Muse for example. People who have enjoyed previously released work from these groups will often purchase a new release, sight-unseen, because they know and love the “brand” of product the group produces. This branding has been used in other creative mediums. In cinema for example the latest “Tarantino” film is almost guaranteed to be well attended because the viewing public have come to know what to expect in one of his films. In the book industry many author’s work is branded more with the author’s name than with the subject matter of the specific book.

A good percentage of popular music releases over the past half a century have been from groups of artists and this continues to be the case today for two reasons. Firstly, the quality of work that can be produced through a collaborative creative process can be much greater than something produced in isolation, and secondly, that the branding of the product is an immediate and lasting marketing tool. Literary products have not embraced this collaborative approach to the degree that the music industry has. We do see products written jointly by several authors but they are marketed under both author’s names rather than an abstract group name.

Is the literary industry missing out on both counts? …I think they are!

In my “day job” I work collaboratively on creative design tasks and I know from personal experience over the past few decades that I could never have produced designs at anywhere near the quality the group has been able to generate, if I had worked in isolation.

When it comes to writing, I have worked in isolation on a large work of fiction for over a year and although some of the writing is of high quality the project is languishing. A few weeks ago when I first began to contemplate the notion of Authorial Groups I decided to seek out one or more writers to work collaboratively on this project with the object of forming a long term partnership where we could brand our joint literary works. I found this step challenging to take, considering the time and effort I have invested  already in research and writing for the work but I am convinced the end product will be of superior quality and has a better chance of reaching the people I intend it to.

The output from groups can also be higher in quantity due to the number of people focused together at the task of writing. This approach should lead to more regular and reliable releases too, which can only help to build the brand loyalty that will ensure the longevity of the process and the group.

In the same way a band leader, or existing band, will audition for new members I decided to approach a writer to work on a short piece of fiction. This on-the-job task may also help to materialise a collaborative writing process that could work for an authorial group.

So, I’ve engaged with another writer and we’ve agreed to collaborate on a short story to both flesh out the process of literary collaboration and group dynamics in writing.  For example, do we collaborate on the plotting and scene development only and then work independently, or do we continue to write as many fingers at the same keyboard, or simply write the text on a white board and transcribe it at a later date?

Trust is a key factor in any partnership, as well as being strong and confident enough to let your ideas to fall dead to the ground if they are not taken up by the group. Luckily I have worked collaboratively with this writer on other creative projects before and we have often joked about each others crap… sorry…outlandish and impractical ideas. In a way we already know how to work together creatively.

The process has started…