Welcome to Part 13 of my 20 part series “Better Know a Speaker.” Today’s speaker: Hilary Mark Nelson: the fighting dude with a chick’s name!
Hilary is the son of a Dickens scholar (his father) and a ruthless editor of grant proposals (his mother), which explains why his grant proposals are always turned down for being too wordy. Though he was born on the East coast, he grew up in a small Iowa college town and identifies as a midwesterner.
His defining childhood experiences included inner-tubing down the Upper Iowa River, a year in Bergen, Norway when he was 8, and another in Innsbruck, Austria at age 12. During his teenage years he spent a lot of time hanging around a commune, where he learned construction skills and soaked up buckets of counter-culture woo. Few things beat hippies for woo-woo.
After failing to worm his way into the University of Iowa’s graduate program in art, he decided to visit friends in San Francisco. He liked it there so much that he stayed for 5 years: half in San Francisco and half in Los Angeles. His sojourn in the land of the lotus eaters was financed by work as a busboy and waiter with additional beer money provided by the occasional free-lance illustration job.
While in California he took up motorcycling and hang gliding. As if those activities weren’t dangerous enough separately, he pushed it to the next level and had a custom trailer hitch made for his motorcycle so that he could tow the bundled-up hang glider behind his bike. He did not take the leap to hang gliding while on his motorcycle, but certainly, had he stayed there, he would have figured it out eventually.
After deciding that being a waiter who’s working on a screenplay wasn’t the career move that it seemed at first, he headed back to the Midwest to take another stab at grad school. Showing a remarkable lack of imagination, he aimed for Iowa City again, but missed and ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.
He missed grad school, too, and fell into computer graphics instead. Madison also introduced him to sailing, wind-surfing, snowboarding, ice-sailing, and his wife.
From there it was back to California for a 4-year stint in Berkeley (another haven for hippies), where his wife did her postdoctoral work. He split his time between being Mr. Mom for the two babies they made there (out of Legos and duct tape, one presumes), and working from home on a dot-com era website. Somehow he managed not to make a killing during the bubble, but he didn’t lose his shirt either, so let’s just call it a win.
Hilary decided early on in his life that his pastor was clueless, and his source text made no sense whatsoever. He delighted in baiting the poor man in Sunday school to draw out the all the biblical non sequiturs and inconsistencies he’d found. He told his dad that he didn’t believe in the Christian god when he was around 11, but he went ahead and got confirmed just to keep his grandparents from having heart attacks.
Rejecting his received religion didn’t mean that he’d developed a good critical approach to all the ideas that came his way, though. Hilary happily lapped up all sorts of hippieish, New Agey woo, even going so far as to study the occult under a witch during his years in San Francisco. And, hey, if you’re going to study the occult, the hometown of Anton Szander LaVey really is the place to do it.
The internet was Hilary’s savior. He started getting a bit more savvy when people began emailing chain letters and hoaxes of one sort or another. He always seemed to be the one who would go look them up on snopes.com, and point out to the sender that they were forwarding something that had been exploded years before.
Once he started working at Purdue and marinated in the college of engineering for a few years, he was finally ready to jettison all the crap and get serious. Skeptoid, Skepticality, and the SGU led to a dozen more podcasts, and he was hooked. TAM 7 sealed the deal, which is where I met him on a shuttle bus to the hotel; we had taken the same plane out from Indianapolis. He’s my friend to this day, a fine example of the proximity effect in action.
Hilary’s talk is titled “Defensive Consumerism: Pseudoscience and the Saltless Water Conditioner” and it will be a light-hearted look at how he almost got suckered into buying a saltless water conditioning system to replace a failing water softener, and why he’s confident that the product is, in fact, bogus. It’s a case study in defensive and skeptical consumerism.
Check back soon for more “Better Know a Speaker!”
–Speaker Conjurer Don