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The Kil Report
The Kil Report: Alternative Medicine,Scientific Method, Evil Skeptic, Scams, Fraud, Hoaxes, Critical Thinking, Enforma
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TAM4

By David Glück
Posted on: 3/11/2006

Flying, Foolish Behavior, Smart People, Food and Coffee.


1.

Michelle and her parents conspired to get me to and into The Amaz!ng Meeting 4 (TAM4). That was my Christmas gift from them. While Michelle worked the JREF side of things (including, with the generosity of the JREF, a partial scholarship for the two of us) her mother and stepfather, who happen to own Justice Aviation, worked out the means of getting us there. I am still floored at receiving TAM4 as a gift.

I have, what I believe to be, a rational fear of landing unexpectedly and at a much higher velocity than would be generally regarded as safe. I know that Joe, Michelle’s stepfather, flies every day. That’s what he does. He teaches other people to fly as well. He has been doing that for a very long time, and is as good at it as a person can be. That said, I have managed to dodge every opportunity to allow myself to be placed in one of those little flying machines. And even with TAM4 and Las Vegas as our destination, I was not sure until I was on the plane and we were in the air that I would be able to do this thing. I pictured myself screaming as the three of them dragged and pushed me up the stairs and into the plane. I thought I would have permanent handprints on my ass that would baffle the forensic experts after my body was found. I thought my fingers would leave little dents around the door as I pushed back like a spider crab did when it took exception to my pushing into a pot of boiling water. Wrapped his legs around the side of the pot and pushed back.

But none of that happened. By the time we were to leave, I had resigned myself to whatever fate awaited me. The pull of TAM was too great. And the idea of having the people I was flying with see a grown man whine and cry and chicken out was a strong motivator, once I was at the airport. I got on the plane as though I had nothing to fear. And the truth was, I really had nothing to fear.

Note: clicking any image will display the full-size original.



Don’t I look like I do this everyday? Look at the air of confidence that I am exuding.

I sat in the copilot’s seat. The headset is really cool. I could hear all of the chatter that goes on between towers and the pilots. On the instrument panel there is a computer screen that displayed our course and a small plane (us) on the course line. It looked kind of like a video game with nothing to shoot at. Lots of controls and dials and gauges fill the cockpit. There is all that stuff to look at and listen to, plus the ground to look at way below. Also, Joe kept me up on everything he was doing. All in all I was having fun and my fear faded away. Ultimately, the geek in me rules, I guess.

Small plane travel is unique. I can’t imagine a better way to get from Santa Monica to Las Vegas short of a transporter ala Star Trek.

We flew over nighttime Las Vegas, a sight to see, and then landed. A van was there with guys who guided Joe’s plane into a parking spot, took our bags and shuttled us to the small terminal where Joe’s rental car was waiting. Into the car, a few minutes to the Strip, and we were at the Stardust Hotel. To put that into perspective, we left Santa Monica around four thirty. We were at the Stardust by seven with no baggage check in or check out, and no six-hour, pretty-much-nothing-to-see kind of drive. No muss, no fuss.

Michelle checked us in to our hotel since she had the reservations. Our rooms were on the top floor of the Stardust. The 32nd floor. Nice view… I wouldn’t see Sharon, Michelle’s mom, and Joe again until Sunday.

2.

We changed, hit the buffet at the Stardust and headed over to the TAM4 area for a look-see. Plus, we were hoping to register before the following morning’s events. There were a few people milling around a table with fantastic visual illusions on it. Jerry Andrus, who calls himself a “visionary illusionist, skeptic and magician,” was on hand to explain his creations. Our first TAM experience was very cool indeed.



Go ahead and stare…
We hung around for a while, looking at Andrus’ creations. It turned out that there was no one there to register us, so we made our way to the Strip. By then it was only nine PM on Friday night and we didn’t have to be back at TAM4 until the next morning at eight. We started walking…

And we walked and we walked. Through one casino after another, we walked. Of course, we stopped along the way to leave each casino a bit of our gambling money. We were very democratic about that. While no casino was going to get much richer off of our 25 cent to dollar bets, we made sure to spread it around. And while the architecture in some of the places we visited was sometimes as spectacular as it was tacky, all in all, one Las Vegas casino is like the next. They are a cacophony of lights and bells and electronic jingles coming from hundreds of machines and mixed with the sound of wall to wall people drinking and spending and losing and winning, but mostly losing, and still, mostly, having a good time. Free drinks and smoking indoors, how can you beat that? We drank tequila.



This was not really Friday night. But I felt that a visual aid might be needed here.
Anyhow, eventually, we made our way to Paris. It’s always dusk in Paris. I found out that I enjoy playing electronic blackjack. Why? Because I can keep a dollar going for twenty or thirty minutes playing one game. Oh sure, I could have cashed out and made some money, but I just knew I could top my previous high before the machine took it all back. I was wrong about that. And every machine I played knew I would go for it. I was always up before I went bust…

Free tequila though.

The problem with it being dusk at all hours is that you lose track of what hour it really is. At two in the morning, we made our way back to the strip and, being a couple of miles away from the Stardust by now, flagged a cab. I was pretty much past the pain of walking due to being somewhat anesthetized, but I was still aware of the TAM schedule and began to worry.

Back in our room I phoned for a seven o’clock wake up call and we slept the little time that we had left to sleep. Okay, so I was going to be in a room full of some of the smartest people on the planet and I was going to be overtired and hungover. Dribbling on myself perhaps. Perfect…

3.


The phone rang…

There was a little coffee maker in our hotel bathroom. I doubled up on the packets of coffee and made myself a cup. It was good. I woke Michelle up.

These were the parts of my uniform that mattered for the day’s events; my Skeptic Friends Network sweatshirt and a Skepticality button that I wore on my pants pocket.

We made our way to the continental breakfast. Even before we registered we drank coffee and ate sweetrolls. We didn’t have our name cards indicating that we were TAM4 attendees yet. No one said anything. Everyone was nice and polite and perhaps some were even as hungover as we were. We found a section of table inside the lecture hall, put our coffee and sweetrolls down to mark our spot, and registered. We were given our tags and blue folders with our names already on them. Inside there was a schedule and other goodies including a certificate of attendance. We were also given very cool T-shirts commemorating the event. On each table there was a pad of paper and pens for taking notes. No trick was missed. Those pads and pens came in handy too.


Okay, here’s the thing. I looked up from my sweetrolls and scanned the room. It was a large hall of tables and chairs facing a stage with a podium. Above the podium was a big sign proclaiming “The Amazing Meeting 4.” A smaller sign with the TAM4 logo was also on the podium. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing: no matter what direction I looked, there was someone I admire. Michael Shermer (and his fancy shoes, Michelle wants me to note) chatting with one of the Mythbusters. There was Ray Hyman. Moving in and out of different groups of people, constantly moving, it seemed to me, was James Randi. It pained me a little that I had to miss the first couple of days of the event but I was at TAM4 now and I was happy. What’s more, I was awake. And a bit star struck.


Before I get too far into the telling of my two days at TAM4 itself, I want to make clear that this is about my overall experience at TAM4. And while I may or may not include a short synopsis of the lectures, I am not going to go into much detail about them unless the details help to tell my story. There are blogs all over the Internet that may go into more detail about the lectures. There will also be a DVD of TAM4 that can be purchased at Mr. Randi’s site.

Anyhow, Michael Shermer opened the Saturday portion of this event as MC. After a few words he introduced Richard Wiseman. Wiseman is a gift to skepticism. He started out as a successful magician and his interest in his ability to fool people led him into a career as a psychologist and paranormal investigator. His talk was called “Mind and Magic”. It turned out to be my favorite lecture of the day. (I later learned that he received the highest praise on the attendee survey.) He demonstrated the psychology of deception and how easy it is for us to fool ourselves into seeing or hearing what we expect to see and hear rather than what is there.

And Wiseman was very funny going about that. With the aid of a large screen he did a card trick and demonstrated some cool optical illusions. He also played small parts of a Britney Spears song and a Led Zeppelin record backwards. Once he suggested what we should be hearing, we all heard it. I didn’t know Zeppelin was into Satan. Wiseman introduced a film of an experiment he conducted and left the stage. The film was of people being interviewed. At some point and with a bit of misdirection the interviewer was replaced with a different person. None of the people being interviewed seem to notice.

Okay now, as it happens Michelle and I placed ourselves pretty close the back of the hall. So when Wiseman returned and the people in front started laughing, we at first didn’t know why. It turned out that Phil Plait, who looks a lot like Wiseman, and dressed like Wiseman, came back out to continue the lecture. I read later on The Bad Astronomy Blog that the attempted deception didn’t go exactly as planned. Plait was hoping that no one would notice the switch for at least twenty or thirty seconds. He had even practiced an English accent like Wiseman’s for the stunt. We soon realized why everyone in front was laughing. No matter that it didn’t go off as planned, it was very funny anyhow.

Next up was Daniel Dennet, philosopher and evolutionist and the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, to talk about his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He convincingly suggests that we should take a scientific approach to the study of religion in the hope that what is learned by looking at religion the way we look at any natural phenomena that we all have to live with will be useful to those who lead the faithful, as a way to understand religion itself, while deepening our understanding of why religion persists in the world at large. It was a fascinating talk and I will absolutely read the book.

Break time. Michelle took off for a nap. I loaded up on more coffee. One thing about being in Las Vegas is that smoking is possible without going outside. (I had planned to stop smoking before this trip but I couldn’t resist one last fling in a town that doesn’t treat smokers as subhumans.) After my smoking and coffee break I meandered back into the hall and saw Phil Plait talking with a woman near to where Michelle and I had staked our claim. I moved in, waited until they were done talking, and started to re-introduce myself to him. I mentioned that we had met at a talk he gave at Center for Inquiry-West (CFI-West), and before I got much further he said “you’re Kil, right?”

Well, I was wearing my Skeptic Friends Network sweatshirt but I can’t be the only person in the world who might have worn one of those, and especially at a shindig for skeptics. I was flattered that he remembered me, whether it was from our site or from our brief meeting at the Center For Inquiry. I asked him if he would be willing to be a guest at one of our scheduled chats. He didn’t say no. What he did say is that he is not sure if he remembers his password to our site. I told I would be emailing him if that was okay, and we could make it for anytime that was convenient for him. So, hopefully, we will have him here sometime soon.

After the break, Carolyn Porco, a veteran imaging scientist and the team leader of the Cassini mission to Saturn, presented us with breathtaking photographic images of Saturn and many of Saturn’s moons. She stressed the importance of the scientific exploration of Saturn and the outer planets as a way to learn about alien planets and how our own solar system developed. She also warned of the shifting priorities of NASA to higher profile missions that Bush and other politicians favor. And that smaller programs with more likelihood of delivering good science will have to yield to the larger due to budget constraints. Politicians, and not the scientists, are deciding what our scientific priorities should be…

An auction was scheduled next, but the morning’s activates had run a bit long, so they rescheduled it for after the lunch break. We were now off to an included buffet meal held in a building next the main Stardust hotel building and joined by a covered walkway. Many beautifully set round tables filled the room. The buffet table itself was very long, or it was several long connected tables. And it was a feast. The JREF really knows how to put on a feed.

Michelle and I loaded up on salad and found a place to sit, kind of away from the center of things. My plate was piled pretty high and I had my doubts about making it back for any of the entrées. Stanley Krippner, one of the scheduled speakers, joined us at our table. He gave the fourth talk on Friday, and since we flew in on Friday, we missed it. He spoke on the AIDS pandemic and how poorly it is being fought. We enjoyed a bit of small talk. The truth of it is I didn’t realize that we were sitting alone with one of the speakers until Michelle, who remembers names much better than I do, pointed it out later. Or maybe it was on his name tag. She can also be more observant than I.

We were pretty full after our salads and I’m sure all the morning’s coffee had taken a toll on my appetite even as the tiredness came creeping back. Since the auction was next on the agenda, and we weren’t really interested in the auction, and lunch had barely begun, we figured we had time to go up to our room and rest a bit. I felt uncomfortable with leaving Dr. Krippner alone at the large table we sat at, and told him so. He said if anyone wanted to talk to him, he was there and to not worry about it. So we left.

Michelle is good at napping. I’m not. It takes me hours to recover from a nap. So I just plunked myself down at the table by the window and looked out our 32nd floor Stardust window over Las Vegas. I read up on the speakers’ topics for the afternoon and just kind of dawdled over the blue folder materials.



Lunch was in the white building at the foot of the Stardust. We were up on the 32nd floor resting up…

4.

We freshened up a bit. For me, that meant splashing cold water in my face. It was now a little after one and we didn’t want to be late for the Mythbusters so we hurried back down.

The auction was still going on. We just sort of meandered into the hall and I spotted Ray Hyman standing alone, looking very much like he was just kind of taking in the goings-on. I had spoken with him once before, briefly, after a talk he gave at the CFI-West back when Michelle and I were working on our false memory essays. Because he once sat on the advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and subsequently removed himself from that board, and because he is a psychologist of some note, and add to that one of the founders of CSICOP (among other things of no small interest to us skeptics), he was the person there that I most wanted to talk to.

And I got my chance. I reintroduced myself to him, mentioned our previous encounter and told him about our essays and how they had faired. He suggested that perhaps interest in the subject had waned some when I told him that we expected to be heavily criticized by the skeptical community. Anyhow, we spoke about repression and False Memory Syndrome and some of the people central to the controversy that has become known as “the memory wars.” We probably talked for about 15 or 20 minutes without interruption. He stayed fairly neutral on the subjects like repression and the question of whether there really is a false memory syndrome, which was fine with us because we were calling for a neutral position by skeptics in our essays. I can’t say for sure what his actual positions are on some of the questions we put to him, but I can say for sure that he is a very gracious man and seemed willing to talk with us for as long as we wanted to talk to him. The Mythbusters were being introduced and about to take the stage and people in the hall were taking their seats. It was time to be quiet. Before I sat down, as a way of saying goodbye, Dr. Hyman told me to stick to my guns…



Me, posing for a picture with Ray Hyman.

As a bonus, Penn Jillette sat with the Mythbusters as MC, which made perfect sense to me, given that they are all experts in special effects and being loud, in a good way. There was an onstage interview that made the point that good science can be done by anyone, and as entertainment, an understanding of how science works can make its way to a large audience. A good thing. There was a film presentation of outtakes from the Mythbuster show that was very funny. The Mythbuster part of the event was fun kick off to the afternoon schedule. Oh, and nothing was blown up.

Next up was Lawrence O’Donnell who talked about the politicization of science. It was another great talk on a subject that should be of grave concern to skeptics.

It was break time again. Michelle took off for a bit to touch base with her parents. On the way out, in search of another caffeinated beverage, I spotted Penn making his way around the buffet area set up outside the main hall. I walked over to him when he was done talking with a group from the JREF and had just begun to move on. I told him I was a fan and would be going to the Penn and Teller show that evening at the Rio. Penn is a big guy. And he moves fast. And it was fairly obvious he wasn’t going to slow down much to talk to me. He said “Thanks!” and I really had the feeling that he was going to pat me on the head and say, “now run along kid, I’m busy,” which may have been the case. I’m sure that leaving me with that impression was not his intention and may have had something to do with his size and trajectory relative to where I was standing. Oh well. Anyhow, I would be seeing him later and I was really looking forward to finally going to a Penn and Teller show. Other than going to TAM, a Penn and Teller show would rate as the only other reason I might have to ever go to Las Vegas.

Inside again and it was time for some stand up atheism with Paul Provenza. He’s the comedian who teamed with Penn Jillette to make the movie, The Aristocrats. Provenza was very funny and did material that would surely get him lynched in some parts of our country. (As I understand it, some people were a bit dismayed by what they saw as an aggressively anti-religion stand-up routine that seemed better suited for a late night audience.)

Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists was up next. Apparently, she did not know much about Randi or what this meeting was about because she asked, “Are there any skeptics here?” Go figure. She spoke about the groundbreaking work of the American Atheists founder, Madalyn O’Hair. And I have to say I learned something. I am old enough to have seen O’Hair in action and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that her style put me off. That said, she laid down much of the groundwork for the freethinking community by putting herself out there as an atheist without apology, gung ho and political at a time when we often didn’t speak of such things. O’hair put the freethinking movement on the map.

Did I mention that between each speaker some of us ran out for a cigarette? I was getting to know most of the skeptic smokers at TAM4. We gathered around conveniently placed ashtrays. In all honesty, there weren’t that many of us. I guess that we’re a dying breed.

Dr. Hal Bidlack was next. I love this guy. He demonstrates that a person can believe in God and be a good skeptic. He is a friend of James Randi and big at the JREF. And, he believes in God. I have been arguing, for just about as long as I have been a skeptic, that a God belief does not necessarily demonstrate an inability to think critically. Bridlack is a deist. And there are other functional deists out there who have proven themselves of great value in the pursuit of science and skepticism. Personaly, I wouldn’t even limit being a good skeptic, as far as the God question goes, to those who are strictly deist in their belief in God, as long as they can separate their faith in whatever religion they practice from the study of the natural world. (Dr. Kenneth Miller comes to mind.)

If personal spiritual fulfillment and the quest for knowledge of how the natural world works are not in conflict in the mind of the believer, why should I care if they go to church every Sunday? If a person’s religiosity and my view on the God question becomes a minor point of disagreement, and with all we have to do as skeptics to bring reason to an irrational world, does our disagreement really matter? In my view, the more critical thinkers out there, the better. It isn’t as though all skeptics agree on all things. And it isn’t necessary that we do. If what we actually bring to the table serves to make this a more rational world, I will be content with that as the eventual outcome of our endeavors as skeptics.

Ok, so I digressed a bit. Sorry Hal. Among other things, Bidlack told a very personal story about his prayers to God during his wife’s losing struggle with cancer. He seemed to wonder if the prayers were really intended to give him comfort. One very funny anecdote he told us was of a bumper sticker he saw that read “Militant Agnostic, I don’t know if there’s a God and you don’t either!”

The panel discussion was next on the agenda. As it turned out, I had been sitting next to Karen Russell for most of the afternoon. And she was to be part of the discussion that was originally titled “Can a skeptic believe in God?” I, of course, had no idea I was sitting next to one of the panelists. We had a brief conversation about where I might obtain the same caffeinated beverage that she was drinking.

Randi introduced the panel discussion. After Hal Bidlack’s talk I think it was a wise move to broaden the discussions focus to include science and a belief in God. The panelists were Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, Randi, Hal Bidlack, Paul Porvenza, Michael Shermer, Ellen Johnson and Karen Russell.

And here comes my confession. Even with this all-star cast, I couldn’t have cared less about the subject of the discussion. Frankly, the subject seemed rather ill-conceived to me. Since there are skeptics and scientists of note who hold some sort of God belief, clearly the answer to the question, to my way of thinking anyway, is yes. I had mentioned that earlier to Michelle, up in our hotel room. And given the continuing attack on science by the current administration and the religious right, not to mention other pressing matters of concern to skeptics, I think the time might have been better spent discussing how best to defend rationalism in light of this seemingly growing hostility toward science, critical thought and freethinking. But hey, that’s just me. We left early…

5.

We had very little sleep the night before and we still had a long night ahead of us. So we headed back to our room to rest up a bit and change for our trip to the Rio to see the Penn and Teller show. Our plan was to eat at one of Las Vegas’s heralded buffets before the show. Michelle thought Caesars Palace was the place to go. But we were supposed to pick up our tickets at the Rio’s will-call an hour before the show, so I was told when I purchased them. And we had to dress and get over there. I just didn’t see how we would have enough time to hop from one hotel to another in the time we had. I suggested having dinner at the Stardust and taking a cab over to the Rio. Michelle frowned. I suggested that we eat after the show, but we were both hungry, so that wouldn’t work. We struck on a compromise decision. We would go straight to the Rio and eat there. We readied ourselves and headed out.

There is a tram that goes up and down the Strip for very little money. And at every hotel, I guess, there is a tram stop. The line for a cab was long, and we thought we had plenty of time so we waited at the tram stop. And we waited and we waited. After some time we gave up and moved ourselves over to the rear of the cab line. Eventually we had our cab and were whisked off to the Rio. In all the time we were in the cab line the tram continued to be a no-show. Our cabbie informed us that if we were planning to gamble, the Stardust paid out better then the hotels in the area of the Strip he was driving us to. It is my guess that it was after seeing my long graying hair and beard he opined that the music of the sixties was way better than the junk people listen to today. The cabbie had just done a cold reading on me! Of course, I had to, at least in part, agree with him and left him a tip commensurate with the good conversation as well as getting us to the Rio in pretty short order…

I’m going to cut to the chase. Our dinner was not what we had planned because we ran out of time for anything extravagant, or, at least, time consuming. I will say this. The french fries at the Rio are world class…

We headed for the Penn and Teller Theater. They have their very own theater. How cool is that? Once inside the lobby I started to worry about staying awake. As luck would have it, there was a Starbucks in the Rio just a few steps from the lobby entrance. More coffee. Our seats were great. I had purchased the tickets few weeks before the show. That turned out to be a good move. Over to our right, on the stage, a piano player and bassist were playing some pretty cool jazz. The bass player seemed strangely familiar. Every now and then the piano player invited any and all of the audience up to the stage to examine a trunk and sign an envelope. I’m not sure if this always happens but there was, I can almost guarantee, a group of determined skeptics over from TAM who spent a very long time looking at the trunk. They turned it, they leaned it this way and that, they looked under it, they laid it on its side, and they even took turns getting inside the trunk.

The trunk and the envelope were a part of the show. But, in the spirit of not giving away any part of the show, I’m not going to give away the illusion, since I have no idea how it was done, nor am I going to tell you what the illusion was. And since I didn’t ask Penn and Teller if I could tell you what they did, sorry…

What is safe is to say that the show included a very entertaining demonstration of a cold and hot reading. There were lots of illusions and juggling and the kind of stuff that give Penn and Teller the reputation for being the bad boys of magic. It was a wonderful show and I recommend it to all who visit Las Vegas. As I said before, Penn and Teller, for my time and money, are the only reason, if TAM is not in town, to even visit Las Vegas. (This is, of course, a matter of taste and I, for one, prefer the less hectic pace of a weekend getaway to Mexico. Not that it matters.)

After the show, Penn and Teller ran out to the lobby to visit with the audience.



We didn’t bring our camera to the show, so Michelle used her cell phone camera to get these pictures…
I asked Penn if he remembered me from the afternoon. “Sure, I remember you…” I asked Teller why he didn’t make the discussion we ditched out on, since he was listed as one of the panelists. He told me that he had done a fundraising lunch for the JREF at his home with some of the TAM attendees, and the day’s events had run too long for him to make it. Cool.

We took a cab back to the Stardust. We had no problem resisting the nighttime temptations of Las Vegas. We were both very tired.

6.

We slept in a bit and missed the morning’s continental breakfast and Phil Plait’s opening remarks. The Sunday session was divided into two groups. Session one was on “Critical Thinking, Science and Society.” Session two was on “Skeptical Investigations.” We chose the former, though I suppose we could have moved between the two rooms based on our interest in what was being discussed at the time.

As it happened we arrived in the middle of Jim Underdown’s talk on starting local investigation groups. Underdown is the Executive Director of the CFI-West. We have met and talked a few times at CFI-West functions, and yet he never seems to quite remember me or much about the Skeptic Friends Network. I guess he is a busy man. Oh well. I am a member of the CFI-West and I plan to join their Independent Investigations Group, or at least check it out in the near future.

Next was a talk on “Science, Race and Politics” by Ann Palkovich. Michelle stayed back for this one while I slipped out for some coffee for the both of us. In the lobby I ran into James Randi. Over the last couple of days I had noticed that he was all over the place. Taking care of this or that thing I suppose. He seemed tireless and always moving. The truth is that he and the JREF had managed to put together a spectacular event, almost without a hitch that this observer could see. I figured that there would be no way for me to get close to Randi because his busy-ness would naturally create a lack of access. But there he was, in the lobby and very generous with his time. I asked if he would pose for a picture with me and he just stopped what he was doing, smiled and said sure. He would be happy to. Lucky for me, there was someone near by who knew my camera and took the picture.



What you are seeing here are two guys who, shortly after this event, are going to have heart attacks. Go figure. In all honesty, I hope I am in as good a shape as Randi is when I am his age. At TAM4 he was the picture of good health and humor. I am sure those attributes have served him well in his recovery…
Back inside, David Richards, also from the Independent Investigations Group at the CFI-West gave a talk on the rise of supernatural subjects in the movies. We would have liked this talk to have gone longer. I hope, after his research is done, there will be a paper or book on the subject.

The break was next. Michelle and I hightailed it to the buffet restaurant in the Stardust for breakfast. Lots of good stuff and all you can eat. That meant a lot of bacon along with fresh fruit and eggs and, well, you know. It’s funny how wide our eyes get when we know we can have a whole lot of a whole lot of various foods presented to look as appetizing as possible. And then, of course, how very quickly we fill up before taking advantage of most of what is there to eat. And even though I left full, I had the niggling feeling that I had just been to a kind of food hell where being truly satisfied is, by the very nature of the place’s promise, unattainable.

Well, we missed most of “The Sexy Skeptic: Marketing Critical Thinking for a New Generation” talk. And I am sorry we did.

“A skeptical View of Cholesterol Phobia” presented by Marshall E. Deutsch was not without controversy. According to Deutsch, cholesterol levels don’t really matter much in light of actual mortality rates among those who have high or low blood cholesterol. Oh really? The whole time he spoke I kept thinking, “Oh really?” I am taking Lipitor to lower my cholesterol levels so this was not of little interest to me.
(What I didn’t know at the time was that one of my heart’s arteries was probably already closed due to a plaque buildup caused, at least in part by cholesterol, and that another had only a 15% blood flow, which put me in the hospital only a couple of weeks later.) After his talk, a woman stood up and asked why he had not replied to some questions and criticisms that she had already put to him in Skeptic magazine, where he had an article published on the subject. She was Harriet Hall, MD, who strongly objected to his being a speaker at TAM4. (See also Hall’s response and a discussion on the JREF forums.)

I told my physician about the talk and he asked me what the guy was selling? I do not know enough about the debate to sort it out yet. I can say without a doubt that skeptics are of more than one mind about it. And given my position on False Memory Syndrome, that fact alone makes me happy.

Next, and last up, Darren McBride gave a scathing talk on the effects resulting from “The 1994 Dietary Supplements Health Education Act (DSHEA)” have had on our ability to stem the tide of quackery in the market place. Not much to disagree with there…



It was now time for closing remarks. That honor fell to me. Randi introduced me and I just winged it. The audience reaction was phenomenal! (Okay, that was total bullshit. We got the shot on the right when the hall was almost empty and they were tearing down the stage and about to cart off the podium.)
TAM4 was over. Michelle had already checked us out and our bags were outside the hall. I caught Phil Plait making his getaway and stopped him for a picture. I assured him that this was not a stalking incident…



The Bad Astronomer and the Evil Skeptic
We still had some time before Joe and Sharon were to pick us up outside of the Stardust. Michelle, as a thank you for being such gracious hosts and for making this trip possible for us, joined the JREF, and bought a t-shirt and a book. On our way out we played a few slots with what quarters we had left. I was in a bit of a haze. There was so much information, so many people I finally got to meet or see, so much had happened packed into such a short time that it would take me days, or even weeks to sort out what the last few days had meant to me. I had some regrets too. I wish I could have been there from the beginning. In a way, I felt a bit like an outsider and I think that had something to do with dropping in at the middle of the event. I regret not meeting Bob Carroll who I would have liked to have personally thanked for including one of my essays at the Skeptic Refuge part of his site. I’m sorry that Derek and Swoopy were not there. Seeing other members of the Skeptic Friends Network would have been nice too. Oh well…

7.



We waited outside for Joe and Sharon. We may be around next year, but the Stardust will not be. It is scheduled to be torn down this year.


Back at the airport, me, Sharon, Joe and Michelle ready to blow town.
So there it is, my little tale of TAM4 and our adventures in Las Vegas. This trip would not have been possible without the generosity of Joe and Sharon, the James Randi Educational Foundation and most of all, Michelle. She put the pieces together and made it happen. So I am forced now to forgive her for keeping me up until three AM on Saturday morning exploring and gambling, while drinking tequila shooters and beer that left me with a three-day hangover and the grave possibility of finding out what caffeine poisoning is all about. We had fun…


Phil Plait, if you are reading this, then know that I expect you to honor your ambiguous answer to me and join us as a guest in chat.



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