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Skeptically Speaking at TAM PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Brownian   

The TAM 7 buzz is finally dying down, but I've received this detailed report from one of a large contingent of Candian Skeptics that I had to share with you. If you've not been to TAM, this narrative might give you an idea of what you're missing. - Jeff Wagg

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 5:15 PM, Edmonton International Airport (curiously located in Nisku)-After months of waiting, it's finally time for TAM. The Edmonton contingent consists of Skeptically Speaking host Desiree Schell, Skeptically Speaking producer Sean Ouimette, Skepchick Jill Powell, Marion Kilgour of the Skeptographers, atheists-and-skeptics-about-town Rodrigo de la Jara and Nathan Hinman, and of course, myself. Jill has never flown before, so I chivalrously suggest she take the window seat, opting instead for the seat between her and Desiree. We taxi halfway to Calgary. Nathan, ever positive, makes a joke about people looking like ants-you may have had to be there. Hey, poker's on the little in-seat TV! We're headed to Vegas.

7:15 PM, McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas-Three hours and one time zone later we touch down. Another joke by Nathan about people looking like ants-where does he get his material?-and we are suddenly surrounded by slot machines. I feel a great disturbance, as if millions of bank accounts cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Nope, it's just Desiree, tugging at my arm. I'm dawdling, and the South Point bus is about to leave. That's why she's the host.

8:00 PM, South Point Casino and Hotel-We check in and are greeted by Surly Amy and Surly Johnny of Surlyramics, who've just driven in from Hollywood. They regale us with movie industry tales over dinner, after which we retire to one of the lounges for bottles of Fat Tire and pints of Sam Adams. I'm the only one without a Surlyramic skeptical necklace. I'll have to remedy this when they've got their wares for sale at the Skepchicks table. We are joined by more TAM goers (TAMers? TAMites? TAMmies?) [Jeff Wagg says TAMsters] and we exchange pleasantries and life histories until we are interrupted by Sean: the Bad Astronomer has landed and is kicking back at the Del Mar Lounge. A venue change is in order.

10:15 PM, Del Mar Lounge-it looks like this is to be the official off-duty lounge of TAM. Lots of people to meet: JREF staff Alison Smith and Sean McCabe, as well as the man himself, Phil Plait. Nathan looks like he might swoon. In lieu of smelling salts I order another round of pints. Michael and Shayla of the Calgary Skeptics' Society are here, and we agree to put aside our differences-hockey season is over anyway-and tip a few in Albertan solidarity. There seem to be a lot of Canadians (‘a lot' being a very precise statistical term), though we might just be louder. Tobias, a tall Dane clad in Hawaiian hibiscus print sets a plush penis atop my head. I'm not exactly sure what the joke is but I laugh anyway. We get down to trading stories and interests: How did you come to be a skeptic? What blogs do you read or write? Is this your first TAM?

2:45 AM-It's late and I'm opining on psychotropic agent-induced secular numinous experiences as a catalyst for apostasy. Just us Canucks and Danes left. I'm feeling like an undergraduate back in the campus pub minus the guilt over the term paper I'd be putting off. Wait-I'm not getting graded for this, am I?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009 11:00 AM-There're a million places to get breakfast, but for now I'm content with my coffee. I swing by the Del Mar Lounge and find Nathan excitedly chatting it up with a jet-lagged Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics, among others. I mingle with them and others for a while before surveying the casino floor. The poker room beckons, but the morning tournament started at 10:00. I step outside and blink at the bleached-white tones of everything under the Nevada sun. It's hot. A local bums a cigarette and tells me his system for playing the ponies. Not being much of a horse man, I go back inside and try my luck at the slots.

2:00 PM-I'm apparently not nearly skeptical enough about slot machine odds. I run into Nathan, Sean, and Ashley Paramore (the healthyaddict) and join them for a late lunch (I never did get around to breakfast). They're curiously dressed-Ashley sports a feathered pirate hat while Nathan and Sean look like they're about to interview for jobs at a funeral home-but refuse to say why other than hinting at a video project. We finish lunch, and I head back to the room for some air-conditioned rest while they set off to find Phil Plait, presumably to show him Ashley's Pastafarian hat.

8:00 PM-After more beer-fuelled mingling, I join Ashley, Nathan, and Sean for a sojourn to the Strip. It's dark out, but still sweltering. We see the famous Bellagio fountain display; I would have preferred a song other than Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA", but I'm certainly no expert on fountain choreography. Everything here is so large. Sean tells us about some ‘moving statues' he saw in Vegas as a child, and we set off to find them. I query more than a few casino staff and we are eventually led to the animatronic "Fall of Atlantis" show at Caesar's Forum Shops. Really, Sean? An animatronic show? You had me asking half of Vegas about ‘moving statues' like some hick from Podunk, Lower Canada? I miss my igloo and sled dog team. We mush back to South Point via taxi. I nearly guess our driver's country of origin by his first name (he's Ethiopian, not Eritrean as I thought) and we chat about the politics of that region, while the others look for a liquor store that's still open. I'm tempted to join them for Screwdrivers in their room, but I'm skeptical about any liquor that comes in a gallon jug for under $10. Back to the Del Mar Lounge it is.

Thursday, July 9, 2009 8:00 AM-Isn't that the way it goes? You spend a goodly proportion of your life wishing you had a phone attached to the wall next to the toilet, and the moment you find yourself in a hotel room with exactly that feature you can't think of anyone to call. I hit up the registration desk to pick up my folder, a JREF lanyard and nametag, JREF Sharpie, and TAM 7 T-shirt. I put on the lanyard (now everyone will know exactly whose educational foundation I'm here to support), stuff the Sharpie in my pocket and stash the rest in my room. Something around here needs to be indelibly marked up; I just don't yet know what. Be patient, my new felt-tipped friend.

Today seems a lot like Wednesday. Not surprising, since the casino seems designed to obscure the diurnal cycle and my diet for the last two days has mainly consisted of only two food groups: hops and malt. I'm not sure why I opted out of today's workshops when I registered way back in February, but I'll be sure not to repeat that mistake next year. Well then, second verse, same as the first. Another late lunch, this time with Desiree, Jill, Rodrigo, and the...uh...Surlys, as I guess they would be called. Espying Jill, her fellow Skepchicks stop by to introduce themselves and say hello.

Note: there seems to be a large body of water in a sculpted concrete container outside, full of frolicking sun-seekers. It is clearly being continuously replenished as this hot dry air vaporizes standing liquids in seconds. After marvelling at this feat of technological prowess, I contemplate exposing my doughy torso and going for a dip, but decide against it-these people haven't wronged me in any way. I go back inside to mingle. The blue JREF lanyards make recognising fellow TAMmies easy. Why yes, Sir, I will have another Sam Adams. The bartenders have already begun to recognise me as a regular. This does not bode well.

5:15 PM-With the reception, TAM seems to have officially begun. The food is exquisite, but the lack of table space make circulating while holding a meal in one hand and a drink in the other difficult. Curse this single pair of grasping appendages! My future cyborg body is definitely going to have the appetizer plate holder option. Phil Plait says something about a charity TAM poker tournament at 6:00. I'm all in.

6:00 PM, South Point Poker Room-Just under thirty of us have assembled to bluff and bully our way through the flops, turns, and rivers of hold ‘em. I've never played poker in a real casino before, and my heart is pounding. A king flops, and his brother shows up on the turn. I've got a pair of queens in my pocket-the best hand I'll see all night, it turns out-but I suspect the big stack across the table has a third king and I'm not counting on a queen draw to a full house to save me. With his stack he'll likely stay for two small to medium bets, so my only option is to go all in now and hope he folds. I try not to look overly challenging (a weak hand tell) as he contemplates his cards and his chips. Success! He folds! I ask the waitress for another pint and a dry shirt.

I know I'm missing the Canadian Contingent Meet-Up across the street, but how can I pass up the chance to play in a real Vegas poker tournament?

7:15 PM-I'm out. I'm sure my homesteading grandfather would've been resourceful enough to make hay with an unsuited jack deuce (though I don't think successful farming relies on your neighbour not having triple canola fields in his back forty to your pair of wheat), but I just don't have the nuts tonight. I didn't make the final table, but I'm happy. I got my tournament on, and made some new friends. Not bad for a $50 investment, and half of it goes to support the JREF. I make my way with Mitchell, another Canadian and slightly better poker player than me, across the street to see what's happening with the meet-up.

7:30 PM-There are only about a dozen or so left in the Boulevard Bar & Grille, though Desiree and Sean assure me the place was full a half-hour earlier. The few left are still happily chatting and trading email addresses and business cards. I'm still too high on adrenaline to sit though, so I wander back to the casino and circulate among the people and the machines. I think about Gil Grissom's comment in an episode of CSI about slot machines all playing C Major. I'd heard that before, but my tin ear can't confirm it. There is a reason for the lack of music, however: music provides an auditory cue to elapsed time, making it less likely that players will underestimate their time spent at the machines. The psychology of it all is fascinating.

Two days later it is announced that the anonymous winner of the tournament donated his prize back to the JREF. I tear up, humbled; I wouldn't have thought to do that. This community truly is amaz!ng.

More mingling; more beer. The conversation is fluid and dynamic and I find myself engaged in a discussion of public health, police work, and martial arts, with Michael Kruse (read his blogs here and here) and David Steele of Toronto, among others. Not for the first time, I lament that there's no list of TAM attendees to be found. It would certainly make remembering whom I'm drinking with a lot easier. We're briefly joined by another couple of Edmontonians: Chris Wisely and Richard Robinson. Exhausted by the flight, Chris retires to his room, and the conversation turns to golf. Midnight rolls past, and I finally muster the energy to head off to bed.

Tomorrow's a big day.

Friday, July 10, 2009 8:30 AM-I'd hoped to be up earlier, but eh, I'm on vacation. I catch a few minutes of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Live! while perusing the tables. I stop by the Skepchicks' table and pick up a couple of Surlyramics from the Surlys: "In Reason We Trust" and a stylized brain with the word "Use." The Skeptics Society is selling books, so I of course purchase a few. Thus outfitted with the necessities, I find a seat next to Desiree and Joshua Hull, Skeptically Speaking's new editor, and settle in for the day.

Despite Master of Ceremonies Hal Bidlack's self-deprecating claim to the contrary, he's actually quite funny. More importantly, he's brief and to the point. Most of us are here to see Randi and Plait, and the crowd is excited. They do not disappoint. Phil Plait is casual and funny though well spoken, a contrast to the poetic gravitas James Randi affects with ease. With the next few days' purpose thus outlined and underscored, on with the show!

I've only seen a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory. As I don't torrent or TiVo (I'm still a television Luddite) I'm at the mercy of TV schedules that often conflict with my personal beer-drinking schedule. However, the few episodes of the show I've seen I've really enjoyed, and if executive producers like Bill Prady have much influence on shows they produce, I can see why. He's passionate about putting out a good product, and specifically one that gets the science right, and he's absolutely hilarious. Head down, doodling like a junior high school student (I found a use for my JREF Sharpie), I find myself laughing throughout. There is a serious message of course, and that it's a good thing that skeptics and rationalists are becoming more prominent characters (even leads, in the case of TBBT), but there's still room for improvement. Personally, it's nice to see them get the guy or girl once in awhile too, though of course not more often than I do. He also makes the case for understanding and respecting those around us who see the world in a different way: TBBT's Sheldon's hyperreligious mother is a case in point. I'm on the alert for any hint of ‘framing', but there doesn't seem to be any. And being neither book-smart nor street smart, but ‘breet' smart (I'm solely but exceptionally good at coining portmanteaus), I have to agree that there are many different types of intelligence. (This is not a copout.)

Up next is Fintan Steele, whose talk covers genomics, bioethics, and Catholic theology, of all things. My studies in biology mostly concentrated on populations and ecosystems, and though I served mass as an altar boy as a youngster, my moderate Catholic upbringing left me with little theology beyond knowing when to ring the little bells. Nonetheless, I manage to muddle through, I think. My summation: genes are but one of many factors determining the health of an individual, so we'd best not count on genomics to miraculously cure every ailment. Somewhere along the line, I hear DeForest Kelley's gravelly exclamation, "Genomics! What is this, the Dark Ages?"

12:00 PM-Robert Lancaster provides another of the many touching moments throughout the conference. The creator and proprietor of Stop Sylvia Browne, he recounts of his first interactions with James Randi and the JREF, the impetus for creating Stop Sylvia Browne, and his stroke and subsequent slow and partial recovery. He runs over his allotted time into lunch, but out of respect for his passion and the work he's done I wait until he finishes, despite my growling stomach.

12:20 PM-At lunch I sit with a post-doc from England, a couple of skeptics from Ontario, Desiree and Josh, and an older fellow named John from Santa Clarita, California. The food is good, and John talks excitedly about Kindles. His enthusiasm is catching and I make a mental note to look into getting one once they hit the 3rd generation or so-I'm not an early adopter-but the part of my brain that won't be tamed can't stop wondering if Santa Clarita is the town with all the damn vampires from The Lost Boys. (It's not.)

After lunch, Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi talk about some key moments in Randi's life. My, but the man has done a lot with his time on Earth. There's something about the quality of both of their voices that I find them exceptionally pleasant to listen to. I'm perfectly content to listen and doodle, but I do look up whenever there's a break in the conversation to see James Randi on video extricating himself from a straitjacket while perched precariously high above some landscape or another. I've somehow never felt more right at home than at this minute.

Another discussion about science in entertainment media-at least, those media that honestly and openly refer to themselves as entertainment, unlike say, some of the major news networks. Jennifer Ouellette, Director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange isn't quite as funny as Bill Prady, but she says pretty much the same thing but from the side of science: scientists have to work with the entertainment industry to assist them in accurately portraying the processes and results we collectively call science, hence the Exchange. I immediately resolve to get my PhD and my own TV show. Seth MacFarlane has only one of those, and he's a member.

3:00 PM-Given the ambient levels of nicotine in the air, I'm not sure why we smokers feel the need to congregate around a few scattered ashtrays during the breaks, but we do. We are indeed social animals.

3:15 PM-In many cases a little irrationality is relatively benign, and in a few cases it can even be beneficial. But perhaps the most pernicious current example of irrationality's ability to spread and cause genuine harm both to its proponents and to bystanders alike is the anti-vaccine campaign, currently lead by toxin crusader, Botox fetishist, and overall lousy actress Jenny McCarthy. The malignant idiocy of these folk is such that they can turn mild-mannered little ol' me into a raging bull, and of course lower immunization rates and cause epidemics. If I could find a silver thread in this anvil head, however, it would be that I get to listen to one of my favourite bloggers, Orac, as a result. Panel discussion bonus: Orac has to be succinct! (Regular readers of Respectful Insolence will understand this.)

I'm destitute due to the aforementioned gambling and book addiction (or at least coming close) so I skip the auction. Desiree rattles off the names of the nearly four hundred people (±200 at α=0.05) she's networked with and given out Skeptically Speaking cards to. When we return to the room, Dr. Joe Nickell is showing slides from his trip to Bigfoot country. We have similar crypto-mythical creatures in Alberta, but we refer to ours collectively as "Effective Opposition to the Conservative Provincial Government".

After a few closing remarks, the events of the day have come to a close. After a brief tour of my room, the pool outside (still filled!), and the casino floor, I find myself back at base camp, the Del Mar Lounge. I run into David Steele and Michael Kruse again, and we decide on Mexican food for dinner. This is the best meal I've had so far, though I just might have been low on vitamin C-lantro. After dinner we return to the Del Mar Lounge, which is so full of skeptics we have a hard time finding somewhere to sit. More stories; more suds. I'd be worried I'm drinking too much if I didn't already know that ship sailed a long time ago.

Saturday, July 11, 2009 8:35 AM-I've been invited to a wedding, and I didn't even have to RSVP or check a wedding registry! By now much of the skeptical community is aware that Skepchick Rebecca Watson and (Skepchap?) Sid Rodrigues got married, at TAM, during the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe Live! A Kovacs officiated, Mythbusters' Adam Savage was the ring-bearer, and skeptical musician George Hrab provided the music. You can see the whole thing here. I know neither the bride or groom personally, but congratulations!

After that lead-in, I almost feel sorry for Michael Shermer. Somehow he manages to quiet the buzzing crowd, probably through the use of colourful slides. First, a survey: how many TAMmies are liberal? The majority of hands in the room go up. How many are libertarian? A sizable minority. How many are Conservative? Maybe a dozen brave hands go up. I sometimes forget just how many skeptics are libertarians as I tend to spend my time at Pharyngula; a site with an openly liberal bias. I like Shermer, and I agree that there's something to be said against the polarisation of left vs. right in politics, as long as non-partisanship doesn't mean some sort of mushy middle. He mentions the Kardashev scale of civilisations, which I'd never heard of before (I must be reading the wrong kind of SF-I've never read anything by Greg Egan about it), so I jot down the term in my notebook, which is actually the back of the book of coupons the casino gave me at the front desk. I love this Sharpie.

Adam Savage is a great speaker, a personable chap, and a-failure?! Yes, indeedy, he has bunged it hard in the past. His solution, to own up to his mistakes, is substantially different than mine, which involves arson and a new alias. I've got to try that sometime. His talk, more than any so far, invigorates and excites me. It also sets the theme for the next panel discussion: integrity and ethics.

10:30 AM-At the break, the usual suspects are smoking downstairs. We are indeed creatures of habit.

It's something to hear Teller talk, though there's no reason to assume he doesn't other than I've never heard him do it before. Penn is brash, outspoken, and occasionally profane, which are all good things in my book. They discuss the ethics of performing as illusionists and magicians, and the importance of not misleading the audience while, er, misleading the audience. I'll buy that, though I try to remember to keep watching their hands. The concept of ‘half-smart' is brought up, wherein someone is just informed enough to think that s/he knows what's going on, and why it's a particularly dangerous and vulnerable place to be. I know all about that! I discussed it in one of my five-minute "Brownian Motion" segments on Skeptically Speaking, so I stop listening, satisfied with my hubris.

12:15 PM-At lunch I find a seat among some of my poker rivals from Thursday night. We discuss the differences between the American and Canadian relationships with their respective indigenous populations. I'm both a skeptic and a storyteller, and I'm finding it difficult to remember I'm the former when I'm acting as the latter. The plural of ‘anecdote' is not ‘evidence'.

After lunch, Steve Bauer talks about magician, illusionist, skeptic, and mad-tinkerer Jerry Andrus and his home, the Castle of Chaos. As the executor of Andrus' will, Steve Bauer has the (un)enviable task of documenting Andrus' possessions, which occupy every corner of the Castle of Chaos, including the ground under the foundation! I feel much better about the packing and moving I'll have to do at the end of the month.

Another panel discussion with Bill Prady, Penn & Teller, Adam Savage, and Jennifer Ouellette. I feel for Jennifer Ouellette; she's surrounded by loud men who are professionally comfortable in front of large audiences, and she occasionally has to struggle to make her points heard. Bill Prady steals the show with a "Father Bruce's Fly-Fishing Fashion" (or something to that effect), a supposed show on Penn's hypothetical gay Catholic fishing channel. Jennifer Ouellette is silent, perhaps trying to figure out how to work that show into her sequel to The Physics of the Buffyverse.

3:30 PM-Another break. I really wish our Skeptically Speaking episode on quitting smoking had stuck.

Phil Plait talks about the evidence for the end of the world in 2012, or lack thereof. I don't know what the Mayans ever did to Phil to incur all this skepticism about a complete re-interpretation of their culture and calendar by latter day acolytes of Erich von Däniken, but there you go. As for me, I'm buying stock in bottled water. I am reminded of the work of University of Chicago palaeontologists J. John Sepkoski Jr. and David Raup, who found certain cyclicities in mass extinction events in the fossil record. Aliens? A hidden, black hole orbiting the sun? Perturbations in the galactic plane? Raup and Sepkoski mention none of those, the clearest evidence of a conspiracy.

Another touching moment: through a food drive and other donations, we raised over $8,500 to support southern Nevada's vaccination program. It's a small start, but it's enough to provide over 300 vaccinations for children in the region, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the US.

And with that comes another auction. I'm exhausted, and I use the confusion to slip back to my room for a quiet nap.

9:45 PM-What the hell?! I slept most of the evening away. I hastily chow down on room service and fall back asleep, still zonked. Let's pretend this never happened, shall we? If anyone asks, I was at the Skepchick party, passed out behind the couch with a lampshade on my head.

Sunday, July 12, 2009, 8:00 AM-I'm totally refreshed! Must have been that great party last night! I'm early enough to get a seat near the front, where I can actually see the presentations on screen, though by this time the organizers have arranged for extra screens for those nearer the back.

The first presentation is absolutely great. Don Riefler teaches critical thinking to underprivileged youth in a children's home in Lafayette, Indiana, outlining fallacies and the ways our own perceptions can trick us. If anyone needs critical thinking, it's these kids.

David Green of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office discusses why skeptic groups are attempting to deny patents for The Perfect Sommelier, a product that uses magnets to magically age wine, or some such nonsense like that. Ugh. Shouldn't intellectual property be intellectual by definition?

Adam Slagell covers the use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) to push security products, ‘security theatre' in airports, and the war on photography. I'll experience a little security theatre myself later tonight when I try to bring a bottle-shaped bottle opener containing a small amount of liquid onto the plane. "Alright, decadent American pilot: this bottle of ginger beer is capped, but it will not remain so for long if you do not do as I say!"

Steve Cuno, author of Prove It Before You Promote It talks about rebranding skepticism. My framing alert kicks in, but he's got only positive messages to promote and says nothing about silencing the more outspoken critics of woo-woo and religion.

Brian Dunning, host of Skeptoid, describes the "Lost Cosmonaut" radio transmissions, a lesser known Cold War event favoured by conspiracy theorists as evidence of Space Race cover-ups. Didn't those sly Russians also dig a hole to hell in the 80s and record the voices of the damned?

I find the final presentation to be the most useful personally. It's an evaluation of the skeptical web presence, presented by What's the Harm‘s Tim Farley and Christian Walters, author of The Man Version. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is something I'm always putting off, but good HTML and linking techniques can mean the difference between a blog that attracts visitors and gets read, and one that languishes in Internet obscurity.

And with that, we're shooed out of the room to make way for the Million Dollar Challenge. No one goes very far, and the hallway outside the conference room provides one last opportunity for networking and making friends.

12:45 PM-In the line for the live Million Dollar Challenge, I chat with David Green about the non-feasibility of large-scale government conspiracies due to the viscosity of bureaucracy (of which we both have first hand experience), patent applications for over-unity machines, and the tendency of their proponents to fall into one of three camps: crackpots, the simply deluded, and frauds. Which of these will Connie Sonne be?

1:15 PM-The room is packed with nearly a thousand silent skeptics as Banachek leads Connie Sonne through a double-blind test of her dousing ‘powers', using a deck of cards. Needless to say, her ‘powers' evaporated as soon as controls were applied. The JREF has posted the video, and I can assure you we are all there in attendance. Ms. Sonne will later claim that she was cheated through slight-of-hand by Banachek, or something like that. I maintain that out of the three categories of woo-peddlers I discussed with David Green she falls into the simply delude, but we might have to append that with a ‘sour grapes' sub-category.

It's all over. Nothing to do but say our goodbyes (and in my case, have a couple of pints for the road.) Someone appears in the Del Mar Cafe with Ms. Sonne's apparently broken dowsing crystal, which we use to successfully dowse for my beer. With eyes open it works just fine, though my reaching hand is just as effective in detecting the half-full glass. The bus appears, and we head back through the heat to the airport. Desiree rattles off a list of projects she's planned with the people she's met, but I'm already thinking of TAM 8.