Back to The Kil Report
By David Glück
Posted on: 6/20/2009
An epic! Two years in production! One to write it and then sit on it. Then one to sit on it and then edit it.
I need to come clean about this once-missing report. I am now going to let it be published as it is. There is no point hanging on to it any longer. It is incomplete, but really, there is enough of it for me to just let it go and not worry about offending people who should be in it but are not.
The Sunday portion of the event proved to be exceedingly difficult for me to write about and then the problems I was having became insurmountable. And here is why:
As I report in the essay, I arrived at TAM5 with a fever. I was sick. Whatever virus it was that dogging me while I was there was manageable for the first few days. But on Sunday morning, my fever shot up and really, I had no business even going down to the event hall. Being the trooper that I am (stupid) I went anyway. As I sat there trying to take the paper presentations in, just about all I could think about were the body aches and pains I was experiencing. I was in the hall, but I wasn’t there.
To make matters worse, our own beskeptigal was one of the presenters. I know what her talk was on because we sat together through much of the event. Hell, I probably could have faked her part of it. She talked about the importance of language and how we might do well by borrowing some of the tactics of people like Karl Rove, but in an honest way. I know bgal did a good job, but I have no real recollection of her talk. The same goes for Kylie Sturgess, who I don’t know personally, but she posts at the Skepticality forums and has the great PodBlack Cat blog. Her talk was on the difficulties of teaching critical thinking in the classroom and how she is working through the problem. I only know her presentation from what Michelle had to say about it and from listening to the CDs that she left for anyone interested to take home and listen to. (Michelle was still teaching at the time and grabbed one.)
But I honestly have little or no recollection of what the other presenters were talking about, and I didn’t want to just make stuff up. So I got through Saturday night and shut down. The truth is, I could have released this report at anytime, the way it is now with the above explanation for its incompleteness. But for some reason, I kept thinking I would finish it, as though my memory of the paper presentation would come flooding back to me. Ain’t gonna happen.
I must now begin my TAM6 report, so I need to get the burden of finishing my TAM5 report out of the way. With apologies to Ginger, and especially to our forum members, who sent me to TAM5, here is what I do have…
[Note: click photos for full-sized versions.]
TAM5 began for me back in September, when we figured out that the only way to get me there was to take up a collection. So I begin my report by thanking all of the Skeptic Friends Network, the staff and especially our members for seeing to it that I had the means to attend this years Amazing Meeting.
1. Well, wouldn’t you know it? TAM5 was nearly upon us and two days before our flight to Las Vegas, I came down with a cold. And, a particularly nasty one at that. (At the time, before leaving, I didn’t know how nasty that cold would become.) I was determined. I was not going to be stopped by a little cold. And so I laid in a good supply of over-the-counter remedies and vitamin C (it couldn’t hurt) and took some advice from people who I trusted would not intentionally do me harm.
Everything was in order. Our shirts had arrived from CafePress in time and Michelle managed to get the whole of Thursday off. That took a lot of the pressure and worries out of getting to the airport on time; flying being what it is these days. We put every questionable item into our checked baggage so as to expedite our way through the airport security. All we had were IDs and an old laptop PC. I lugged that stinking laptop around for five hours that day and almost as long for the return trip home and never once used it. Next time, that laptop stays home.
Up we went and down we went. The flight to Las Vegas took just under and hour. Getting out of the airport and over to the Riviera was another thing altogether. My job was to lug the laptop around while Michelle took care of finding our luggage. And that was how it had to be since I wouldn’t have known my bag if someone had picked it up and hit me with it. They all looked the same to me. Right outside the baggage claim area, and after the first of what was to be many long walks, were two guys holding up a cardboard sign with “JREF” written on it. After finding the correct carrousel, I left Michelle to watch for our bags because I was curious about the sign. It was our first sure indication that our plane had brought us to the correct airport (besides being able to see the Strip from the airport and all of the other signs around.)
One of the guys turned out to be Phil Plait and the other was Scott H. from the JREF forum crowd. I said “hi” to Phil, we shook hands, and I asked what was up? He said they were picking up some latecomers from the forum and he apparently invited us to ride back to the Riviera with them. (I say apparently because I didn’t hear him. And let me tell you, I am very sorry that I didn’t. I’m sure they got back long before we did.) Anyhow, I didn’t want to linger and leave Michelle with having to handle our luggage by herself, so I hurried back. Round and round the carrousel went.
Now in all honesty, it may not have taken as long as it felt like it took to get our bags. But I was anxious to get out of there and over to the hotel, check in and register for TAM in time to make it up to the reception. It was my mission to make it to the reception.
Outside and with our bags we opted for a shuttle bus. I had not thought about it but that really could have only worked out in one of two ways. Since the Riviera is all the way at one end of the strip. We were either going to be let off first, or last…
Over an hour later we arrived at the Riviera. With our bags in hand we ran to the registration area for TAM. They were packing up but registered us anyhow. (Thank you Brad!) Then we hurried over to the check in. Standing in front of us at the check in was Michael Shermer. I know because when he turned around I said “you’re Michael Shermer,” and he said, “I know.” I fumbled my way through with something like “just testing you” and he just smiled and walked on. Oh well. This would not to be the last time I embarrassed myself at the event.
(Now, according to Michelle, and her version is probably the correct one, I was busy talking to different people, prattling on about TAM, SFN and skepticism with some folks who had read essays of mine, also headed in the same direction whilst Michelle carried all of the bags. It gets worse. I was huffing and puffing being sick and in hurry and all when, I believe it was beskeptigal asked me if I was okay. I assured her that I was fine while Michelle, bringing up the rear, lugging our stuff, was also huffing and puffing herself. So here it is. I am now making a public apology to Michelle for my being an inconsiderate ass by not realizing that skeptic Kil was attending the event with skeptic Michelle, who is my partner and not my entourage.)
We found out that a reservation for specific items in our rooms were really requests at the Riviera and subject to their whims. For example, Michelle and I scored two double beds in our room even though we only required one king and had asked for one king. I didn’t have time to argue and I was sick anyway, so we just took it and ran. Better two beds than to further the risk of infecting Michelle. So we just let it be.
We changed, freshened up a bit hurried down to the reception. It was clearly winding down by then but the bar was still open and there was bread and lunchmeat and other goodies on the tables about the room. And people. Lots of chatting and greetings were going on. One of the first people I found was beskeptigal who I will now call Ginger from this point on because that is her name. (It gets a bit weird trying to figure out what to call people you know from online. I usually go with a real name if I can.) Ginger was chatting with a woman I had never met, and I confess that even though we talked and ate together a couple of times, I don’t recall her name. She said she enjoyed my writing, and now, that little tid-bit only serves to make me extra embarrassed. (This name thing would dog me all the way through TAM. It may have been due to my cold or my age or who knows what? I have never been good with names anyhow.) I would see a lot of Ginger over the next few days and that along with Tim, (Boron10) due to arrive on Friday, meant that there were actual Skeptic Friends at this year’s TAM, and not just me and Michelle as was the case at TAM4.
Anyhow, I did have a beer to loosen up. Michelle drank wine. While she slipped out for a smoke, I found Derek, his wife Susan and Swoopy. Way cool! They greeted me like an old friend of theirs. Derek said something about having me be on the show sometime, and I said, “no no, that will never happen.” And to tell you the truth, I don’t know why I said that. (So, Derek, if you are reading this, I take it back.) They introduced me to the Infidel Guy, whom they had just met as well. They live and work in the same town but had to come all the way to Vegas to finally meet. He’s a cool guy and knows SFN. I do wish I had talked to him more. And in retrospect, that would happen a lot. So many people, so little time. We ran into Derek and Swoopy a few times after that. Mostly, it was in the long hallways of the Riviera, and mostly we were traveling in opposite directions.
After the reception, Michelle and I played a bit in the casino. I tried my sure fire method for winning at the blackjack slots and did walk away ten dollars up. But it took more work then I thought it would. And I wasn’t willing to put more than a dollar into quarter slots. And even with my plan, Michelle still did much better than me.
We tired of that after a while and had dinner at the buffet. Not spectacular, but it did the trick. After that we checked out Circus Circus across the street. I was dragging by then, so we made an early night of it. (Michelle was kind of stuck to a sick guy. She was good about it but I know I ruined some of the Vegas part of being in Vegas plans for her.)
2. I woke up early, as is my habit. Michelle still slept, but I didn’t want to miss a thing. Wearing my new SFN T-shirt, two buttons (Skepticality and SFN) and my name-tag (that didn’t have my avatar on it as promised on the JREF forum because one sheet of avatars was lost), I headed down for breakfast. Michelle was still sleeping, as is her habit. I figured she would be down soon enough.
Continental breakfasts are really a diabetic’s nightmare. Sweet rolls, croissants, fresh fruit (a good thing) and coffee were the deal. The only protein is in small half-and-half single serve containers and I like my coffee black. Most people at TAM get through the morning flying on sugar and caffeine for fuel. But no one seemed the worse for wear because of it, and spirits were high with anticipation. (I do love those sweet rolls with the lemon stuff on top.) After breakfast, TAM5 would officially kick in, as the main event would soon begin. I didn’t want to eat alone and I saw the woman whose name I do not know at a table with one or two empty chairs. I asked if I could horn in and she said, “sure!” I had breakfast with some people I should have known but didn’t yet (more on that later).
So we ate and talked and I drank two cups of coffee and as people started to file into the main hall, I grabbed another coffee and headed on in. Like last year, I chose a spot close the door at the back of the hall in the second row. I took off my jacket so that Michelle could see the “Skeptic Friends Network” across my back when she arrived. Ginger found me and took a seat next to me. I gave her an SFN pin to wear.
Note: Like last years report of TAM4 I will only go into as much detail about the actual talks as I must to further my story. There were almost three days of lectures, and I couldn’t possibly do them justice without turning this article into a book. In fact, that wouldn’t do most of the talks justice either. Plus, my memory isn’t that good. A DVD set will soon be available from the JREF of TAM5 if you want to get it all.
Hal Bidlack acted as Master of Ceremonies, and, of course, the first person he introduced was James Randi for his welcoming speech. Randi had a major announcement to make to the skeptical world. The JREF will be changing the terms of its Million-Dollar Challenge by actively calling on famous psychics like John Edwards, Sylvia Browne and Uri Geller to prove themselves. No more waiting for these people to come to them. The JREF is going on the offensive. On April First, the day set for the change in terms, they also tentatively plan to place a full-page ad in the New York Times to announce the challenge, and the people they are targeting in the challenge, as a way to reach a much larger audience. They are planning to use legal actions, perhaps class action suits, against those who continue to defraud their clients and take money under demonstrably false pretenses.
I see this as a sort of coming-out for skeptics. The Million-Dollar Challenge has been mostly passive in the past. With the challenge leading the way, it’s about time that we skeptics go on the offensive. We need to be more forceful in our questioning of non-evidence-based claims. All too often we find ourselves preaching to the choir, I think. I’m not sure how we should go about that without the means of the JREF, but I am thinking about it.
As you can imagine, Randi’s announcement was very well received and a great way to kick off TAM5.
Michael Shermer was up next with a talk about the subject of his next book, The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics. His topic was on the evolution of economics as an adaptive system that grew and evolved along with our own move away from small groups of hunter-gatherers to the kind of complex societies and economic systems we have now, and what goes with that increase in complexity such as the moral and ethical baggage we brought with us from those times when people were much closer to each other. Oh, and libertarianism crept into his presentation. Natural selection favors capitalism being at least a part of his hypothesis. (I hope I didn’t slaughter the subject of Shermer’s talk in the above summary.)
(It seems to me that Marx said communism was the next evolutionary step.)
Next up was the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Eugenie C. Scott, with a talk about the fairly successful move by creationists away from “creation science” to the Intelligent Design movement, which are really the same thing. They have done a better job of getting their message out, by being good at appealing to media’s sense of fairness (misplaced), than has the scientific community. She talked about the Grand Canyon creationist book being sold in the bookstore there. The Dover case was a bright spot in the reporting of the debate in that, for the most part, the reporters finally saw ID being defended as a science, heard what the scientists had to say about it, and, along with Judge Jones, gave the nod to science. She said that scientists should do more, and do it more effectively, to make the case for science.
Like the above summaries, the morning ran long and the next scheduled speakers were bumped to later.
I ran into Michelle on the way to the door. She hadn’t found me, so she found another seat. (All through the morning’s schedule, I thought she might still be sleeping.) We got in line at one of two buffet tables and chose our lunch. Like last year, we all sat at round tables that were set in white formal fashion. Waiters brought our drinks to us. (Ice tea or water.)
This first lunch was a bit on the strange side for us. We seemed to have found a table of people who hated everything about where they were from. They hated “fundies,” they hated their newspaper, they hated the schools and all of the “regular” people who lived there. Here, they finally felt at home, among like-minded people. I wondered, did they mean their friends? All of them? There was no talk of what had just transpired in the morning session. No talk of those things of concern to skeptics. Just a whole lot about how awful their lives were.
Now, I realize I didn’t have to bring our table company up. And I certainly didn’t have to tell you what we talked about. (Them.) It puzzles me though. Why pay for TAM5, travel all the way from (I’m not telling), place yourself among some of the brightest and most fun people you would ever want to meet, in Sin City no less, only to bring down anyone who will listen to stories about how dismal your life is, or how dismal it is living where you do? Why not leave that stuff at home? Here’s a suggestion, go start a skeptic’s group! Advertise it in the local paper! Join a forum! Do something fer-cryin’-out-loud! Hell, we were having fun! And I am just not willing to believe that you are the only “smart” people who live in your area, even if you do picture yourselves as trapped in a city of idiots and fools like some Wobbly-Headed Bobs.
The afternoon session began with Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, talked about the development of Fab labs (short for “Fabrication Laboratories”) and the potential of these computer programs for outside-the-box thinking about, and the creation of inventions for, problem solving at the local or individual level. Gershenfeld offered many examples of the Fab Labs uses so far, including children from third-world countries inventing cool stuff, many humorous offerings like an alarm clock you must fight with in order to prove you are awake and a farmer who developed a system for keeping track of his sheep, the point being that anyone can learn to use the Fab Labs successfully. Gershenfeld’s talk turned out to be one of the hits of the show. It even entertained me, and I’m pretty much a tech idiot and bore easily when the conversation moves in that direction.
Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi took the stage and talked about some debunking of local psychics that Randi did on South Korean television. It was an informal discussion with clips of the psychics and Randi, doing his thing, for example, foiling a human magnet with a little (baby?) powder. The session was marred somewhat by bad editing which messed up the pace, but oh well. It was still fun.
(Technical glitches were just a part of things on Friday. Most of them were soon sorted out, but they did cause the day to run long. Still, what the heck, crap happens, even in a room full of scientists, educators and techies.)
Next up was Lori Lipman Brown, Director of Secular Coalition for America, and the first full-time lobbyist in Washington working on issues of concern to freethinkers. Gotta like her. After she got past the glitches, we were entertained by clips of her appearances on shows like the The O’Reilly Factor. Her work in Washington is important and I found her talk to be both interesting and educational.
Penn and Teller did a question-and-answer thing. And it’s always great to see Penn and Teller. It’s also great to hear Teller talk, even for the novelty of it, even though Penn did most of the talking. When Teller was asked who his hero is, his reply was simply “Penn”. For Penn’s part, he brought the family and his stopping to see if it was his baby who was crying (it was) was kind of touching. Not an adjective that would normally jump to my mind when describing Penn. There was nothing really earth-shattering during their time up on stage. Amusing was Penn’s response to the question “Doesn’t the show Identity reinforce stereotypes?” Penn’s response; “You cantankerous bitch!”
Michelle thinks she detected a softening in Penn’s general demeanor. I really couldn’t say.
My fave rave from the previous TAM was Richard Wiseman. And here he was to close out the Friday session. Cool! While delivering his opening remarks he mentioned that he isn’t a great fan of Freud’s “because his theories are not testical.” Michelle, who’s screen name on SFN is froydnslp, nearly fell out of her chair laughing. He talked about some psychic debunkings that including one of a dog who ran to the door a few minutes before his owner would arrive home, every time. He (Wiseman, not the dog) set up a camera in the dog’s home to investigate. Sure enough, the dog did run to the door when his owner was almost home. Only problem was, the dog ran to the door every five minutes or so both before and after his owner arrived. Apparently, that little detail did not seem of great importance to the owner’s claim. So much for doggie ESP. After a few more tales from his psychic investigations, which lead to similar results, he talked about his Laugh Lab and the search for the world’s funniest joke. There is a winning joke and you can read it at the LaughLab site. I don’t want to ruin it by telling it from memory.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, CNN blew into town to interview Robert Lancaster and Randi for Anderson Cooper’s 360, which was to air that evening. The Shawn Hornbeck story, found alive after four years missing, was in the news. And also in the news, but not nearly as in the news as it would soon be, was Sylvia Browne, who had told Shawn’s parent’s, on a Montel Williams show four years earlier, that their son was dead.
So, after Richard Wiseman, the last speaker of the day was done, an announcement was made before we got up to leave. Anderson Cooper’s 360 would be aired at 7 PM on the big screen in the main room. Well, well. What a happy coincidence. A show critical of Sylvia Browne, complete with the before-mentioned interviews was going to be played live, to a very large audience of skeptics, in one place, at one time.
3. On our way out of the hall, I was approached by the woman whose name I do not know. She asked me if I was going to go over to the Peppermill for dinner. It seemed that that was the plan for a few of the skeptics in attendance. I figured, why not? Michelle opted out. Her fear was that she would wind up in another “I hate where I live” discussion with strangers. I, on the other hand, wanted to meet people. Our plan was to hook up later and go out. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed with Michelle, if only to spend more time with her. I must admit to being almost obsessively committed to TAM the exclusion of health considerations and even Michelle. My bad.
The Peppermill was a kind of blur. I found our table and sat down and ordered. And I was absolutely not clicking on all cylinders. But here is who I think was there. Next to me was Harriet Hall. She would be delivering a paper on Sunday and was the Doctor who challenged the cholesterol guy at TAM4. Only, I didn’t realize at the time who she was or that I had written about her. Across from me was Ray Hall, I think. And I do believe, though my recollection is bad, that Robert Lancaster joined us. And silly me, I didn’t know who he was either. I was introduced by the lady whose name I can’t remember as a founder of the Skeptic Friends Network. We had a nice conversation, I think. It’s sad, that I don’t really remember what we talked about. I probably shouldn’t have had the beer with my dinner in the condition I was in. Oh, well. I just hope I didn’t say anything to embarrass myself, even though at that point it would have been par for the course. (Too bad Michelle wasn’t there, if for no other reason than to jab me in the ribs or kick me under the table if I said something stupid. I can’t tell you how many times she has been my lifeline.)
Me and Robert Lancaster doing our
impression of bookends.
At around a quarter-to-seven, everyone hurried back to the hall to see the 360 episode. I sat down in back in the seats that were now ours by squatter’s rights.
The show came on the big screen. There were cheers from the skeptics every time Anderson Cooper referred to Sylvia Browne as an “alleged psychic”. There were boos when clips of Browne were shown, getting it wrong about Shawn Hornbeck to his parents. There were cheers for Robert Lancaster and Randi. What fun! Nothing like a big win for skeptics played out in front of an audience of skeptics. Now that doesn’t happen every day.
After the show I rushed up to our room to see how Michelle was fairing. She had watched the show on television and was pleased. It was still early so we decided to have some fun on the strip. (There were evening TAM events that we passed on. And I hear that they were great too. But we wanted to have something of a Vegas experience as well, and spending every moment in the Riviera wasn’t going to do that for us. Michelle was headed for a TAM overload and so we needed to get out for a while.)
We chose Paris again, because we had so much fun there last year. And again, we had tequila shooters and played the cheap machines. Only this year, being sick and all, I kept my eye on the time. It seems that sometime, probably right after we left last year, they hid my favorite blackjack machine. Try as I might, I couldn’t find it. My system went straight to hell and any thought of walking out with more money than I came with went with it.
Free tequila though…
We goofed around there for a couple of hours and then headed for the Peppermill. Michelle was hungry and the Peppermill has good food. She had fun listening in on the conversation of some girls prattling on behind her in the next booth and reported back to me the juicy parts.
After that, bedtime.
4. My son Tim (Boron10) and his girlfriend Jamie flew in from San Diego on Friday evening. They had signed up for Saturday and Sunday at TAM. Since they were staying at the Aladdin, meeting up on Friday night was pretty much out of the question. So the plan was to meet at the TAM continental breakfast, load up on sugar and coffee and do the rest of TAM together. Tim made it. Jamie would join us latter. As it turned out she too had a cold. Michelle slept in some and would also be late.
On the way in to the main hall we ran into Derek and Swoopy. They seemed to be everywhere. I introduced Tim to them. We also ran into Ginger who was now sporting a volunteer ribbon that hung from her nametag. Only she wasn’t sure of what her job was at the moment. Tim and I sat down. Ginger soon joined us, as the day’s official events began.
Three Skeptic Friends.
Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” show was up first and of the main speakers, stuck the closest to this year’s theme of “Skepticism in the Media.” He talked about how the media pretty much filters information through whatever point of view they wish to convey using the “narrative of the week.” He also mentioned that NPR does try to not offend and in doing so probably offends even more people than it otherwise would.
Editor-in-Chief of The Onion, Scott Dikkers, was killer funny. From letters to the editor from clueless people who didn’t understand that the paper is satire, to what was for me, the absolutely funniest moment of the whole show. Dikkers presented an uncensored audio-tape of the first landing on the Moon. Forget “one step…” How about (and sorry but I must paraphrase here but I am sure that I’m not far off) “Holy shit! I’m standing on the fucking Moon!!!” As I understand it, Phil Plait, who was up next, laughed harder than any of us. And that has to be some pretty hard laughing.
Somewhere in here, before Phil Plait was announced as the next speaker, or during the announcement, the picture of him from the Skepdudes calendar that the SkepChicks put out was displayed on the big screen. Sigmund Freud once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I suppose the same can be said about telescopes. But no one would have had a reason to say that until now.
Phil Plait discussed the myth of the Moon-landing hoax in all its media gruesomeness. He described the hoax and the problems with the evidence for that particular bit of conspiracy foolishness. And of course, he pointedly described how the FOX Network helped to give the deniers of a Moon landing credibility by presenting a slick review of the evidence for a hoax, almost completely without criticism, in the show it did about the claimed hoax. (FOX sure knows how to turn a buck. I remember the alien autopsy that they aired. First they presented it as the real deal, and then they debunked it on a later show. Both shows were presented with much must-see fanfare, as though they had a news exclusive. To my knowledge, they have not debunked the Moon-landing hoax claim.) I also enjoyed the video clip of astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who is no spring chicken, punching the much younger Bart Sibrel in the mouth after Silbrel called him a liar. While I’m no advocate violence, seeing that punch was very satisfying, I must admit. I had seen Plait give a similar talk at the CFI-West. But as always, with the Bad Astronomer, there is something new and lots to laugh about. His talks are both educational and entertaining. Who could ask for more?
The meeting broke for lunch. Ginger left us to do whatever her job was as a volunteer. Michelle and Jamie were not there yet. (I found out later that Michelle was looking for a spa treatment and also looking into renting a car for that evening through Sunday because we would have several hours to kill before our flight home after the event was scheduled to end. She was thinking ahead.) So Tim and I got in line for the buffet.
The lunch menu made up for whatever was lacking at breakfast, like protein for example. There were a lot of choices and the food was good. We found an empty table and sat down. As luck would have it Robert Carroll and Ray Hall joined us at the table. Well, they took some empty seats anyway. I took the opportunity to finally thank Dr. Carroll in person for including one of my essays at the Skeptic Refuge area of his Skeptic Dictionary site, under “essential reading.” And what a cool guy he is. I once again pointed out that I felt especially honored to be there among the likes of Carl Sagan, Randi, Ray Hyman and others as probably the only carpenter to get a link.
I asked if he would pose with me for a picture, which he was happy to do. I was so focused on Robert Carroll that I forgot to ask Ray Hall into the photo, a situation that Dr. Carroll took care of. Sorry Ray. It wasn’t meant as a slight. That was just one of a series of goofs that I managed at TAM. Anyhow, we got the photo and another one of my wishes from last year was fulfilled.
Ray Hall, Robert T. Carroll and me, after lunch.
Back inside a wonderfully entertaining talk by John Rennie, the editor of Scientific American, kick-started the afternoon session. At the heart of Rennie’s talk was how Scientific American got involved in the spiritualism movement of the 1920’s by offering a $5,000 prize for any medium who could produce genuine photographic and physical evidence of the spirit world. (No one collected the prize.) SciAm was blazing the trail for scientific skepticism in a very real way, including their own look and debunking of Albert Abrams’ Electronic Reactions devices that Abrams claimed could diagnose and treat disease. They were doing what today’s skeptics are doing and they were doing it 80 years ago. Cool talk.
Okay, I am not sure of the order of things because I didn’t take as many notes as I should have, as usual. But I think the auction happened after John Rennie’s talk. In any case, it happened at some point around this time, and once again, not being interested in it, since I couldn’t afford anything being offered up for auction, I wondered out for a smoke. (I know, I know…) Tim came along. It happened to be cold in Vegas and the smoking was done outside of the hallway door leading to either the casino and the rest of the Riviera, or, in the other direction, the convention hall. Down some steps and into the cold was where the heartiest of smokers gathered. At the bottom of a flight of stairs, Christopher Hitchens was holding court. With a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he was talking to and answering questions brought up to him by other smokers. If you wanted to get up close to Hitchens it was a definite advantage if you also happened to smoke. I kid you not. So I seized the moment and after a brief conversation I got him to pose for a picture with me. Some thought went into it too. He had to decide if he would wear his glasses in the picture and there was some discussion about where we should stand for best effect. The resulting photo is my favorite from the entire event. It’s my favorite because every time I look at it, it makes me laugh…
Jamie showed up and we took our seats. Tim was now surrounded by sick people. Ginger soon joined us.
Next to take the podium were Nick Gillespie and Ronald Bailey from Reason magazine. They talked about how the media presents news stories to suck is in while at the same time creating a what-we-want-to-hear bias. They both seemed very knowledgeable about the media and I was enjoying their talk right up to the commercial for Libertarianism. (I should mention that our packets came with a copy of Reason magazine.) Yes indeed, before they were done they plugged their favorite political party. They took a show of hands from the TAM audience to see how many skeptics were also Libertarians. I figured the count at about one third. Michelle showed up right about then. Tim was just leaving for some coffee and I had my head in my hands while slumping down on the table in front of me and Ginger was clearly unhappy.
It’s not that I hate Libertarians, though I do think they could do a better job of thinking things through. What bothered me was the niggling feeling I had that we were being told, by Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller (by reputation only) and by these guys and others that skeptics should be Libertarians. Here is my thinking. If skeptics ever become associated with any particular political party it will become way too easy for a whole lot of people who happen to belong to other parties to simply dismiss us. The skeptic community should be apolitical. Personal politics should be just that. And anyhow, Libertarianism makes as many fuzzy assumptions as any party out there. What in the world makes them the correct party for skeptics?
Posing with Skepchick, Rebecca Watson.
Michelle had brought us a bag of chocolates. Really good ones, too. Perfect timing.
What can I say about Christopher Hitchens? He comes with that slushy English accent that makes everything he says sound interesting and smart. It’s sort of like special effects. And while I may agree with him on subjects like Mother Theresa, I can’t really go with him on his contention that invading Iraq was a good idea. At TAM5 he spoke about the Danish cartoon controversy and his belief and outrage at the news media for caving into Islamic demands which took the form of self censorship by not publishing the cartoons as part of an important news story. I can’t actually say that he set the room on fire, but listening to his voice wafting over the room does make you feel a bit smarter than you really are. Again, special effects.
4½. Before I go on to the rest of Saturday’s speakers, I need to take a moment to describe things that happened during some of the breaks. I have lost much the chronology, as all breaks are a blend in my memory at this time. Once again, I should have taken better notes. Next time I will bring along a little Dictaphone and take my notes that way. It will be far more efficient and much less time-consuming, which means I might actually wind up with something that I can use later.
Posing with Harriet Hall, “The SkepDoc.”
Here is a quick rundown of just some of the folks I met during the breaks. Get ready for some name-dropping. I met Robert Lancaster who posed for a picture with me. I met Rebbeca Watson, lead Skepchick, who also took a moment to pose with me. (When I ran into her, I had my camera but for some reason, no one else was with me. Phil Plait was standing near by and I called out to him and asked if he would take the picture. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it at the time but I should have reversed that process and gotten one with Phil too. I guess the one from last year will have to do.) I ran into Harriet Hall again (though I think that happened on Sunday) and offered my apologies for not immediately putting her name and the person I wrote about last year together. I met Adam Savage after he and James Randi had a lively and fun discussion in the hallway.
There were many people I missed who I would have liked to have met. Trey Parker and Matt Stone come to mind. Also, Richard Wiseman and Eugenie Scott would have been great to meet. But honestly folks, I was sick and my energy level was not all it might have been. So I just didn’t seek out anyone at all. If I hadn’t just happened to run in to those I do have pictures with, I wouldn’t have met those people either.
A lively conversation in the hall.
Notice Adam Savage’s finger. Being
a Mythbuster is dangerous business.
Adam Savage is a cool guy.
4¾. Mythbusters Adam Savage and Tori Belleci took questions from the audience, as did Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Penn Jillete moderating their portion of the event. Not to shortchange these “speakers,” but the sound quality wasn’t all that great from where I was sitting and I really didn’t get much. Plus the conversational tone of these segments led to a lot of conversation in the audience, rather than the attention they gave to other speakers at the podium. The question of the Dawkins episode of Southpark did come up and so did their handling of John Edwards. I really do apologies for not tuning in as sharply as I might have. Oh, well.
Next was the panel discussion, which I hung around for this year. I was almost sorry until it came to life when Christopher Hitchens attacked Scott Dikkers on his accusation that the West helped to create our problems with Islamic fundamentalists. I learned that you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a Hitchens attack, even when he is wrong.
TAM5 adjourned for the day.
5. Serious decisions had to be made. Like where to have dinner, would we rent a car? (We did.) And so on. We wanted to eat at the Thai restaurant that several of the JREF forum members had dinner at but I couldn’t get a reservation. As it happened, Jamie, who had lived in Las Vegas for a while, knew of a Thai restaurant that she said was excellent. In fact, until we found out otherwise, we thought these two places might have been one and the same. Tim, Jamie, Michelle and I headed out for parts unknown to all of us accept Jamie. It was well off the strip. I will say this about the restaurant: the food was spectacular. Nothing was less than great. However, the restrooms were to be avoided at almost all cost. On that, I will not go into any more detail.
We dropped Tim and Jamie off at their hotel and headed over to the Mandalay Bay. It was a mission of discovery in that Michelle had never been there. Her enthusiasm for the mission far outweighed my own, being sick and tired and overly stuffed from dinner. It’s a big place, and walking was not exactly what I wanted to be doing, but Michelle was not averse to dragging my sorry ass along. I do wish I could have been more fun for her. We were in Las Vegas, after all.
There is an aquarium in the Mandalay. Nice for the middle of the desert, but no match for The Aquarium of the Pacific, which is not all that far from our home. After touring the aquarium we headed back to the Riviera.
Somewhat revived after our ride back, but still tired, I did want to at least visit the JREF forum party. Michelle chose not to go.
The party was in full swing. It took place in a suite that was filled, wall-to-wall, with people. It reminded me of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera. I looked in the door and wondered how I would fit into the room. Someone who seemed rather oblivious to the crowd welcomed me in. Traversing the rooms would have been no small feat, even if I had been small of foot. I wandered around mostly, and as best I could, hoping to find a familiar face.
I worked my way through the main room and out onto the balcony where Christopher Hitchens was holding court again with the smokers, and maybe some folks who just needed some air. Back inside, I saw Jim Underdown of the CFI-West and said hello to him. (He never remembers me even though we have met several times. This time I pulled out my CFI membership card, and he smiled.) I was making my way to the next room of the suite where I was stopped in a little hall by someone with a very large video camera. He wanted a shot of my T-shirt for some reason. (It was an SFN T-shirt.)
What was left of the chocolate at the party.
In the next room there was a table of different chocolates that had been fairly well picked-over. (I was too late for the chocolate contest.) I was kind of inching for the door when an old member of the SFN, Badger, recognized me. He introduced me to a few JREF folks as one of the people who got him into skepticism by way of this site. A complement if ever there was one!
After a little conversation with some new faces, I left.
6. Every year, there is a call for papers, and those that are chosen are presented on Sunday, the last day of TAM. Ginger was to be presenting which rates pretty high on my cool list for the final days event.
Ginger delivering her paper.
I met Tim downstairs and we boosted up on sugar and coffee. By this time I had a fever of who-knows-what and my energy level was waning. (It did occur to me that I might be the Typhoid Mary at this TAM. My intentions were to not breathe in anyone’s direction.)
Jamie and Michelle, as is their custom, would not be there until later that morning.
7. I took some photos and found Derek and Swoopy sitting in the front row and got a few more pictures with them.
The rest of the day is a haze. My illness had caught up to me with a vengeance. Michelle took care of checking us out (and really, everything else. I was a mess and very close to useless by then) and we took a little side trip to visit the hotel that Tim and Jamie were staying at. Nice place. It made the Riviera look like a dump.
Kil, Swoopy, Derek and Boron10 (Tim)
I felt so sorry for the woman who sat on the other side of me on the plane ride home. My voice was nothing more than a croak by then and I was coughing a lot. I knew that she knew that she would soon become sick. (Of course, she might have taken some Airborne and felt protected by its invisible and non-existent shield.)
Michelle’s mother and step-dad (whom you met in my TAM4 report) picked us up from the airport, and I could see the look of horror on Sharon’s face when she heard what was left of my once beautiful voicebox. She did not face me for the rest of the trip home. Good thinking on her part, I thought.
Finally home, I went to bed. I was down for a while. I took several days off work to recover. I’m sure I made myself sicker from the trip than I would have otherwise been. But it was worth it.
I felt a bit guilty when I heard that several people at TAM were ill, or became ill after returning home. But then I read that several people had arrived at the Riviera with a cold. So don’t blame me if you were there and got sick. I may have been Typhoid Mary, but there were plenty of us Marys around. As I understand it, post-TAM fever has become something of a joke because it happens every year. Maybe holding it in June next year will help. I don’t know, but I doubt it.
Addendum: Just so you know, in this ridiculously late article I mention that a TAM6 report is on the way. That was my plan when I sent the article to Dave before TAM6 for editing. I instead did bit of blogging about TAM6 in this thread. I have no plans to do a complete write-up of the event, nor do I plan to do it for TAM7, which is coming up. I will once again take a Macbook and blog from there, by way of posting on the forum.
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