Friday, June 27, 2008

Vegas, baby. TAM edition.

So on Friday and Saturday I attended The Amazing Meeting 6 in Las Vegas. Originally I was going to attend merely the Friday, but it turned out that my wife got bored of listening to me talk about it and sent me back for the second day so she could relax on her own.

Vegas, it seems is designed intentionally to make sure you don't actually get anywhere, as this would allow you out of the casino. A few times on the way to the Flamingo this became intensely, frustratingly apparent. The Luxor with its size, floor plan, and emergency lack of tram service to the nearest monorail station seemed to be actively conspiring to keep me where I was. And let's not even try to discuss the idea of cashing a traveller's cheque with a Japanese driving license. So my Tilley adventure clothing started to come in handy, as I was going to be safari-ing my way to the TAM venue, almost a full kilometre away.

Meeting up with Friend DEG (man the bridges, brave Horatius) I took my seat two-thirds of the way to the back of the room and got ready. So here in a mix of coherent and stream of consciousness are my impressions. Everything comes with a grainy photo that was taken with a weak flash and full telephoto from my seat. Quality.



Hal Bidlack was the MC/host and got things rolling. To me, being at my first TAM, the most important thing he said was that everyone was friends. If they're wearing a name badge, they're approachable. Given my inactive schmooze gene, this gave me a the nuts to actually walk up to George Hrab and talk to him about the tequila bit on his podcast, Penn Jillette about the psychic bit in his show, Lori Lipman Brown about her secular advocacy, or Michael Shermer about nothing worthwhile at all.

James Randi welcomed everyone and wanted everyone to speak to him at least once during the meeting. As always he was the stern, witty grandfatherly presence. He also struck an emotional note on Saturday when reaching out to CSICOP to repair the rift that's been sitting between them.


Ben Goldacre of the Guardian gave a talk on homoeopathy, familiar to anyone who listens to the Guardian science podcast or reads his blog, but welcome none the less. Rhetorically asking why bother with something so silly on its face at the start of the talk he gave 3 reasons: a) claims are just interesting to investigate b) homoeopathy supporters habitually undermine the idea of evidence c) homoeopathy actually presents a public danger.

His talk was informative, dryly amusing and a really good start to the meeting.


Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the keynote for the meeting and it was a barnburner. Tyson clarified that he considered himself a scientist, not a skeptic but kept coming up against unskeptical, unscientific questions from audience members when he gives talks or from his correspondence.

During his talk, entitled Brain Droppings (which I'm sure was also a George Carlin book), he covered a range of topics from UFOs, alien abductions, conspiracy theories, astrology, full moons, bean based levitation (don't ask), moon hoax and many, many more. Tyson's delivery is smooth, enthusiastic and energetic and had the audience from word one. When he stating that he'd run over time and was going to leave the talk incomplete he was cheered into finishing no matter the time.


As a first time TAMmer I couldn't have started on a higher note than these two presenters.

Alec Jason gave a look into forensics by going through the methodology of three cases, including the Peter Popoff case he assisted Randi with.

Penn and Teller did a Q&A with the audience and showed a satirical video called The Cold Reader. It's a great story of a shifty psychic and lovely takedown of the whole business.

By the way, Teller spoke a fair amount, but let's be honest, there's a reason he's the silent partner of the duo.


George Hrab performed God is Not Great and Skeptic. I'm not convinced that the singalong was ever going to be successful in this crowd.


P.Zed Myers gave a talk about bat genes. A lot of it slid past me although the gist stuck. Essentially when moving a bat gene associated with fore-limb development to a mouse, the mouse fore-limbs tend to be about 6% longer than the standard mouse. What does this reveal?  One: redundancy. It's not a single gene that runs most things. Understanding development will come from understanding more about how many genes are involved in a feature and how the genes are regulated. Two: any research in genetic engineering will have to take this into account. Three: creationism is aided by this by [crickets chirping]. Hunh. Look at that. Any other points didn't make it into my notebook.

Aside from the playful baiting of Phil Plait a couple of things came through. Myers is an amusing, soft-spoken man, different from his firebrand image on his blog. Clearly when writing for Pharyngula he's fed up with bullshit, but his written tone and spoken tone almost seem like they're from different people.


Richard Saunders gave a divining demonstration used to show the value of the double blind study to school kids. Maybe pitching a bit low for the age of the group, but very enjoyable.


And of course the panel discussion that I didn't take many notes about.


And a couple of Random Photos:

DSC00184 DSC00185 DSC00186  DSC00187DSC00188  DSC00189

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