Bay Area Skeptics Isn't Here

(Summary: My successor as Chair of Bay Area Skeptics misappropriated my copyrighted Web content. I objected, was thereupon asked to resign from the BAS Board of Directors, and did so. My work was posted to a different site without my permission, and was reattributed to another person with its copyright notice removed. I have removed the BAS content formerly at this site.)

It was the day after Super Bowl Sunday, February 1999. I was in a great mood, because I always get my best long-distance bicycle rides in, taking advantage of roads temporarily devoid of American football fans. I love it.

In the afternoon mail was yet another odd note from my successor as Chair of Bay Area Skeptics, Patrick O'Reilly. Some of you[1] will know that I've been a director and leading spokesman of BAS for nearly its entire existence, since shortly after its founding in 1982. More about that, later. Patrick requested the pleasure of my attendance at a Board of Directors meeting -- the previous day.

Sheesh. Bloody typical.

Patrick had been repeatedly declaring and then cancelling/rescheduling meetings via e-mail, on extremely short notice, completely ignoring the meeting advance-notice provisions in our corporate by-laws[2], several times over the preceding month or two.

Prior to that, I had missed a couple of Board meetings because both Patrick and two other Board members persisted in ignoring my repeated pleas for a telephone call, a page, or an e-mail when meetings were coming up, since I tended to run a couple of weeks behind on USPS (paper) mail. Consequently, I had attended only one Board meeting of the several in 1998, and that only by continually calling Patrick myself. This time, however, I was on top of the mail-queue problem. But it didn't help, because Mr. P O'R had just called a meeting I could attend only with a time machine.


Things had been rocky with Patrick, in part because he was a greenhorn Chair, but in larger part because of his impenetrable, indeed crusading, ignorance about technology.

I'm a professional WAN/LAN consultant and Unix systems administrator, and run a Web-hosting business on the side. As such, I had created vast amounts (hundreds of megs) of online content for BAS and hosted it for free, for many years. I also was BAS's sole on-line voice, trusted by the Board for two decades to officially represent BAS on Usenet, e-mail mailing lists, CompuServe fora, and dial-up BBS networks -- some of which I created personally. (For seven years, I also ran, funded, and maintained the world's first on-line forum for skeptics, The Skeptic's Board BBS in San Francisco.)

For his part, Patrick was a classic technopeasant AOL user, whom I had tried in vain to educate about Internet technology. He also persisted in making incredible, repeated blunders as Chair, for lack of consultation with me and the other four prior Chairs on past lessons. I kept sending long e-mails about those lessons, so he wouldn't get us into lawsuits or worse. And it wasn't working.

Patrick and one other Board member had recently filed objections to my expansion plans for the Web pages I created, funded, and carried on my business Web server for BAS's benefit (previously at this URL): I had casually mentioned that I'd be adding hyperlinks to all manner of fringe-science material on the Net, with a witty, brief description/review of each -- but that there would be no finger-wagging segregation of these into "good" vs. "bad" sites, no BAS Seal of Approval or such rubbish.

"That's terrible!" I was told. "We have to inform the public of which ones have scientific merit." What, I said, were we suddenly elected the arbiter of TRVTH for the American public, and I missed it? How exactly are they going to develop an ability to judge for themselves, in the unlikely event of our appointing ourselves as gatekeepers? Isn't the aim to teach critical thinking, rather than leading people by the nose on particular sets of facts?

(My earlier pride and joy, The Skeptic's Board BBS, had been famous for the broadminded way in which it gave users access to paranormal/fringe-science materials with the most encyclopedic coverage I could manage, and zero editorialising. I trusted to the readers, and didn't think it was any of my business -- or Bay Area Skeptics's -- to tell them what to think. That had been my principle all along, and I was sticking to my guns.)

Such had been the discussion when we (re-) raised the discussion at the last Board meeting I attended. Impasse. However, I figured I created and hosted this stuff; if they wanted to pay a whopping monthly bill elsewhere, they were welcome to do it their way.

This, too, was a point they didn't seem to quite get. I started hearing (after the fact) of Board resolutions, passed behind my back, requiring that BAS's Web pages must follow any dictum of the Chair.

That's all very well, I pointed out, and BAS could do that with its Web pages if it had any -- but it seemed more than a little cheeky when applied to my Web pages that I had created (and funded, and hosted, and copyrighted) for BAS's benefit.

Patrick, our AOL-using friend, decided about this time that he objected to a text file I had in my personal ftp-files collection (in a directory tree with thousands of other files), which he characterised as being "on BAS's Web page", and suggested I move it to "my personal Web page". His notion, such as it was, was that people would think BAS endorsed the file. In vain, I tried to point out the distinction: It wasn't on "BAS's [sic] Web page", and was not even an HTML file. I pointed out that it was easier to reach the North American Man-Boy Love Association[3] from "BAS's Web page" than the file he disliked, yet that fact didn't mean BAS endorses NAMBLA.

Wasted effort. He didn't get it, at all -- and became fixated on this, as supposedly showing defiance of our Board of Directors.

I did not make an issue of Patrick's technical-education problems or copious blunders among the Board, figuring that this too would blow over, but instead just quietly commiserated with a couple of past Chairs and kept my peace.

In December 1998, Patrick suddenly announced that he would be "moving" (copying) all of my work to a different Web server, at some unspecified hosting service. I reiterated that BAS was welcome to create pages of its own to replace mine, and that I would then just expunge the BAS name from mine and have them revert to being Rick Moen's "skeptic" pages. However, I pointedly explained, it was not at all OK for him to duplicate my copyrighted work, which would be not only entirely improper but also a violation of Federal law. Copyright violation. Theft.

He replied extremely belligerently. So, I removed my work from public access entirely: "chmod 0 *", and all that. Thereby preventing the threatened misappropriation.[4]

Which brings us back to the Monday following Super Bowl Sunday -- and the "announcement" of a meeting the day before. I made a few 'phone calls, and found out that the meeting had indeed occurred, that former Chair Larry Loebig among others had likewise gotten his "meeting notice" only on Monday, and that every Board member but me had been telephoned well before the meeting. I shrugged. Sad, but probably harmless.

Three days passed, and I got mail from Wilma Russell, BAS's Secretary, requesting that I resign from the Board of Directors. No reason cited, no discussion, no complaint, like that.

So I did -- and that's what happened to the pages that used to be here. My apologies to those who used to rely on them, but I simply didn't want my work ripped off -- and later just didn't want the hassle of dealing with Patrick any more.

Bay Area Skeptics has had a distinguished history. I'm genuinely sorry not to be contributing to it any more, but I seem to have been frozen out -- for no reason I can see other than standing still and quietly going about BAS's on-line business as I did for the prior two decades. I wish the group well, and hope its (perceived) interests and mine re-converge at some point in the future. If it survives.

Two decades of hard (and carefully responsible) work. Sigh.

In the meantime, there's no Bay Area Skeptics here, and it looks unlikely there will be any.

[1] Most of the rest of you are now wondering what the hell a "skeptics" group is. It's a little difficult to explain, but the general concept is that some particular fringe-science claims just might have something to them despite pervasive flakiness, and that therefore fair scrutiny of them should be encouraged and supported for (at minimum) entertainment value, and we just might find some surprising results from time to time.

[2] Which would tend to make those meetings illegal in more than just a technical sense. Their entire contents would be "ultra vires" (without effect) at best, and potentially a legal risk. Not to mention that the reason for such notice being required was mostly to prevent doing an end-run around directors' participation.

[3] This was in correspondence not included in the file linked to the words "pointedly explained", three paragraphs further on (where I referenced a "Dilbert Correlation Factor" ftp file to make the same point). I frequently had to use multiple metaphors to convey on-line concepts to Patrick: More often than not, he either could not or would not understand. It was difficult to tell which.

[4] Later, Patrick was able find part of my HTML-format work, perhaps in someone's Web cache. Thus, large parts of that work now (July 1999) appear at the new site he spoke of, purporting to be the work of one Yves Barbero, with no credit to me and my copyright notice stripped.

Last modified: July 8, 1999

Rick Moen copyright © 1999

Top of page