TAM 4 Report (Originally Posted Feb 14, 2006)
The following is reproduced from the original Skepchick Magazine, a monthly effort that predated the Skepchick blog. All the images are original to the post, but the original captions are now mouseover text.
Stepping off the plane in Boston after a week in Las Vegas, the first thing I realize is how cold and gray the world is. There appears to be a distinct lack of neon, the carpeting has less than three colors, and I am not allowed to carry a giant sippy cup of whiskey down the street. And where are the pirates? I miss the pirates. But most of all, as I stand in a bar that night listening to a woman talk about her chakras without the slightest hint of irony, I miss the skeptics. Oh, how I miss the skeptics.
I had attended The Amaz!ng Meeting 4, the James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual conference bringing the world’s greatest critical thinkers together for a weekend of lectures, panel discussions, and performances. The conference featured speakers such as Murray Gell-Mann, Michael Shermer, Carolyn Porco, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wiseman, Nadine Strossen, the Mythbusters, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Phil Plait, and far too many more to list. Surrounding the educational portion of the conference were an outrageous number of social activities not officially sanctioned by the JREF; because, when you decide to have a conference in Las Vegas, some extracurricular fun may occur. Hereâ€™s a quick overview of the weekend, leaving out only the most salacious stories (I’m not going to tell you who broke that headboard, or how), so you’ll have to use your imagination.
I stepped off a plane in Las Vegas around midnight. On the flight, by sheer coincidence (or was it?), I sat next to the parents of JREFâ€™s own web flunky, Jeff Wagg. This was fortunate for me, since 1.) his parents are very nice and 2.) it guaranteed me a ride to the hotel. Jeff picked us up, and immediately handed me several hotel key cards with names written on them. I had come to Vegas with no set plan of where I would sleep â€“ I assumed that either someone would just scoot over in the bed, Iâ€™d nap in a bathtub, or I just wouldnâ€™t sleep. Thankfully, random strangers from the Internet stepped forward to offer me a bed, and luckily I have no qualms about sharing rooms with random strangers from the Internet. Okay, technically they weren’t completely random – I “knew” them from their posts on the JREF forum.
After I dropped off my suitcase in my first room, I traveled downstairs to one of the hotel bars, where I found about five people hanging out. I had met one before, and the rest I knew by funny names and avatars on the JREF forum. We all drank and talked for a few hours, but I have no memory of what was said. This is probably for the best.
I visited the hotel gym to work out just before 7am. I felt so productive. There were four other freaks of nature in there with me.
In the hospitality suite, the JREF gang (including Randi, Linda â€œQueen of JREFâ€ Shallenberger, her hilarious husband Karl, Hal â€œNot Really Such a Prudeâ€ Bidlack, and Scott â€œVolunteer Coordinatorâ€ Romanowski â€“ sorry Scott, Iâ€™ll come up with a more exciting nickname for you later) were preparing for the conferenceâ€™s start the next day by assembling welcome packets. I pretended as though I was going to help out, and then slipped into the next room with Randi. He showed me a bent paperclip and explained that it was way too cold in the room earlier, so he picked the lock to the thermostat and turned up the heat. Then he noticed that the door to the outside was open. Good times. I finally decided to help the crew by putting together name badges, which I took outside by the pool. There, I was approached by a young man whose first question to me was, â€œAre you here with your grandmother?â€ The level of discourse did not necessarily improve from there, and after about ten minutes he left. Try as I might, I was unable to indoctrinate him into the skeptical cause.
All the volunteers (that included me, since technically I helped) went to lunch at the restaurant across the street, the Peppermill, where they serve ice cream sundaes practically by the bucket and plates of nachos that can best be described as â€œLouie Anderson Approved.â€ When we left, we discovered that someone else in the group had paid for our meals, just because. Who says skeptics arenâ€™t charitable?
After lunch I went for a relaxing swim in the pool. The hotel’s security team was very accomodating when pointing out the “CLOSED” sign. Apparently 70 degrees and sunny is not considered swimming weather by Vegas standards.
More and more people showed up over the course of the day as we sat at the bar near the check-in counter. As conference-goers arrived with their bags, they joined the party, recognizing us either by having met one of us in the past, having seen pictures online, or just overhearing someone rant about homeopathy. I hugged at least a dozen people, and I had no clue who any of them were. We stayed up until the small hours of the morning discussing all the things old friends discuss over beers, except that most of us had only just met for the first time.
I woke up early again and worked out in the gym. Two days in a row! I again felt healthy and productive.
Afterward I met up with a giant group of skeptics to hit the Stardustâ€™s breakfast buffet, where I loaded up multiple plates with pancakes and French toast and doused them in syrup and strawberries. Then I had dessert.
The reception that night included hundreds of people mingling with many of the speakers who would be appearing in the coming days. I met up with Phil Plait, who I first met at TAM3 when we were both squeezed into the corner of the kitchenette at a party, sharing a bottle of vodka. Nearly 90% of all photos taken of Phil or I over the course of TAM4 feature us wrapped around one another. Please note: Phil is married. Married to the best, most understanding woman on the planet. I met Ray Hyman for the first time and was blown away by how funny, insightful, and nice he was. Ditto for Michael Shermer â€“ his was the first â€œskepticâ€ book I ever read, Why People Believe Weird Things. I was astounded that he could be just as sharp in person as his writing. Randi was ubiquitous, constantly regaling crowds of partiers with tales of the incredible. Or, the Amazing, as it were.
That night, there was a skeptics-only poker tournament benefiting the JREF. Players caught with rabbitsâ€™ feet, clovers, or an unrealistic grasp of probability were shot on sight. Iâ€™m proud to say that Ms. May from the Skepchick 2006 Calendar won second place, beating out 22 others. Go Ms. May!
I believe I ended up in bed around 4am, which was better than my most recent roommate who was out until around 5am winning big at poker. I did not make it to the gym that morning. I resolved that I would run twice as far on Saturday.
The first day of lectures began with returning speakers from TAM3 Christopher Hitchens and Michael Shermer, who got things off to a great start. Murray Gell-Mann told entertaining stories about the past 9 or 10 presidents (I’m exaggerating, but not by much), Stanley Krippner spoke eloquently about the life or death importance of critical thinking concerning the AIDS pandemic, and perennial TAM favorite Penn Jillette shared his opinions on the importance of utilizing a reserved and obsequious approach to countering pseudoscience. Note: the previous clause was run through the JREF nannybot censor and edited appropriately. Speaking of censorship, ACLU President Nadine Strossen made a splash discussing the current political war on science before joining a panel of speakers for a rousing discussion of the same.
At lunch, Carolyn Porco attempted to CUT IN FRONT OF ME in the buffet line. If she thought she was going to bypass the line just because she happens to be a brilliant rocket scientist, well . . . yeah, she was right. She made up for it by sharing with our table with some great stories involving profanity and science, two of my favorite subjects.
Friday night was the famed annual Skepchick pajama party. A few special TAM guests were there along with many other pajama-clad skepchicks to drink free booze and partake of the chocolate brought to us by adoring males. Nipples were set on fire. I can’t say any more, for fear of breaking the first rule of Pajama Party, which is don’t talk about Pajama Party. Wait, no — the first rule is talk about Pajama Party just enough to drive the men insane.
At the conclusion of the party, I returned to my hotel room to discover that it had been overrun with boys drinking whiskey in a blatant attempt to create a male counterpart to the Pajama Party. I fell asleep in my bed, and presumably all the party-goers left eventually.
I woke up just in time to scramble down to the lectures. No gym again this morning, but I was sure that I’d work out three times as much on Sun . . . oh, screw it. I ate a bunch of pastries and briefly lost the ability to remember the names of vegetables.
Saturday’s lectures began with Richard Wiseman. I won’t mention here how funny and entertaining he was, or how he once again received some of the highest praise from the attendee surveys, as it’s just likely to give him a big head and then we’ll never hear the end of it. Daniel Dennett delivered another well-received lecture on the evolution and future of religion in our world. The line-cutting Carolyn Porco showed astronomy buffs the photo album of a lifetime, and Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, and Kari Byron got a fantastic reception, despite the fact that they didn’t blow up a single thing. Paul Provenza said some things that would have landed him in jail in some countries, Ellen Johnson gave a fantastic retrospective of Madeline Murray O’Hair, and Hal Bidlack discussed his personal views on theism, providing a transition into a spirited discussion on whether or not a skeptic can believe in a god. The answer was . . . well, you’ll just have to buy the TAM4 DVD to find out.
Carnie Todd Robbins ran this year’s auction, raising thousands of dollars for the JREF. Popular items included an American flag shirt worn by Penn earlier in the conference (which Randi then put on and danced around the stage – classic), a can of farts donated by the Mythbusters (yes, a can of farts, don’t make me repeat myself), and a Skepchick calendar, signed by every skepchick in it, which sold for (I believe) $425.
I managed to get some time alone with Adam, Jamie, and Kari of the Mythbusters in order to give them each a signed Skepchick 2006 Calendar. They appeared to like them, and hopes are high for convincing one or all of them to join in on the 2007 calendars. In the approximately 40 minutes I spent with them, we were interrupted at least 300 times by autograph seekers, many of whom were not in Vegas for TAM. It’s beyond cool to see how they’ve taken critical thinking out of the lecture hall and into everyday life. They make me wish that I had cable. Or a television.
Saturday night was the annual Forum Party, which each year reaches new levels of debauchery so incredible that I can scarcely even think about it without blushing. Keynote speaker Murray Gell-Mann looked quite happy with his well-heeled (pun) company, Richard Wiseman made me laugh so hard I think vodka came out my nose, and Phil Plait bogarted most of the truffles. The party features an annual chocolate challenge, expertly run by Christian, a German with some kind of obsession with proving German chocolate is the best in the world. I’m pretty sure it has never won. There was so much delicious chocolate from around the world that I almost feel ashamed that I didn’t gain 10 pounds before I left. And I left, by the way, at around 1 am when the party was still raging. Also, I was wearing UK skeptic Sid Rodrigues’ Chuck Taylors — yet another example of a charitable skeptic, this time helping out a girl with cold feet who couldn’t stand to wear her pink high heels a second longer.
On Sunday I ate an entire bucket of pure sugar and one stick of butter. I considered going to the gym, but instead I got two hours of sleep and considered buying one of those Rascal scooters for the elderly and lazy as I ran to the conference room.
Luckily, the paper presentations were split into two groups in two different rooms, so I had to keep moving around which kept me awake. I faintly remember CSICOP’s Ben Radford and the JREF forum’s own Robert Lancaster delivering some outstanding presentations, but I’m going to have to buy the TAM DVDs to be sure.
Talented geologists Ray “Slick” Beiersdorfer and Evelyn “Kitten” Mervine (you think I’m making those nicknames up but I’m not) then led five carloads of skeptics on a tour through Red Rocks Canyon. I was lucky enough to sit in the backseat of a car between Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait and Ray “Hot Fudge Sundae” Hyman (okay, I made up that last one but I swear it’s appropriate). We had a great time exploring the breathtaking landscapes, getting mildly lost, and wedging ourselves into small gaps in the rocks for the benefit of funny pictures.
That night was the last night many people were in town. We went to dinner, and then a large group ended up once again in my hotel room. The party was raging, and I was wilting. Something about the multitude of things I had to do at this TAM combined with the non-stop partying started to get to me. In the middle of the party, I picked up my plastic cup of whiskey and walked barefoot down to the hotel bar. I assumed that if everyone was in my bedroom, I’d get some privacy anywhere else.
I walked into the darkened lounge. It was after midnight and they were closing down, but in Vegas apparently you can just go wherever you want no matter what. As I walked past the bar to the tables in the back next to the giant glass doors that overlooked the pool, I saw that there was one other person there. Sid, who had so graciously given me his shoes a few nights ago, sat alone smoking a cigarette and enjoying a beer. At this point, as I settled in next to him to just be quiet and stare out the windows, I realized my favorite aspect of TAM. Somehow, wherever you go, you’re not alone. In a vast world that seems so fraught with misinformation and superstition, we collect in this basin of sin and false promises and we make it our own. We overrun the bars and the elevators and the poker tables and pretend for a weekend that we live in a world of logic and intellect.
Sid and I talked a while, and decided that we should get married next year in Vegas, at TAM 5. He folded me an engagement ring out of a ten dollar bill and told me he didn’t mind if I hocked it the next morning for some breakfast (I was bluffing, I wouldn’t dare).
So if you’re interested, you’re all invited to the wedding. I was thinking we’d have Randi perform it, maybe in an Elvis get-up. I haven’t run this past Randi yet, but I think it’s right up his alley. After all, what else are we going to do to top this year?