Avert your eyes, if need be. I’m going to describe my experiences (i.e., so I’m not going to describe everything everyone said in their talk, I’m going to mainly describe what I was thinking) at TAM7. I knew I was going to be away for a week so I took notes during TAM so I could remember what I wanted to say, and it’s a good thing I did because there were a few details I would have forgotten about. Which is actually kind of sad, because I wonder what I forgot about that I didn’t bother to write down. Stupid human brain.
Thursday, 9 July – TAM Arrival
I’m never eating Popeye’s again. There was…unpleasantness. We arrived at our connection with only about 20 minutes to spare and Popeye’s was the unfortunate restaurant right next to our gate. If this ever happens to you, go hungry.
After arriving in Vegas, we went to the Canadian skeptics meet-up at a restaurant across the street from the casino where we were staying. We got to meet a bunch of people from Edmonton Skeptics and Alberta Skeptics. For example, @NorthernSkeptic. I didn’t realize who this was until the next day, but it was my first experience in making internet me collide with real life me. Here was someone I had been following on Twitter and reading on Skepchick. Neat.
A few hours later we went to the Drinking Skeptically party put on by NY Skeptics. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long because at this point we had been up for about 23 hours and we felt like death. Time zones are bullshit. We ended up having to go to bed at about 10-11 PM (which was 2-3 AM by our bodies’ count – and we had gotten up at 4 AM AST). Not a great first night. If we do this again, I think I’ll make time to go a day early so we can get over the tiredness and actually have time to do stuff. We didn’t get to see the strip or anything on Thursday, which has consequences later.
Friday, 10 July – TAM Day 1
Awake at 4 AM local time (8 AM according to my body). Great. “At least we’ll get good seats for SGU Live.” Did we ever. Being from the East Coast has its advantages. They’ve already released the TAM episode on iTunes, so go have a listen.
The keynote address was by the apparently controversial Bill Prady of The Big Bang Theory. I’ll talk about this kerfuffle in a separate post. He had a couple of funny anecdotes, such as the one about a friend who couldn’t calculate a tip because he couldn’t quantify waitress/waiter quality (I’ll point out that I added waiter, because Prady only said waitress — maybe it was lazy speech like this that made people so hyper-conscious of alleged sexism during his talk…but I digress).
A few things were poorly addressed, though, such as when Prady said “the show makes fun of astrology, but we get no hate mail”. Ok but then Penny makes fun of Sheldon for making fun of astrology. So if I’m a believer of astrology and I watch the show, maybe that’s all I see — Penny’s zinger. I don’t agree that “no hate mail” is an appropriate quantification of the general public being ok with Sheldon making fun of astrology or of skeptics being generally ok with the show.
His argument for why Penny isn’t sexist was also less than appealing. It essentially amounted to “I don’t think she’s ditsy, so she’s not.” And criticisms against the character Leslie Winkle were poorly addressed. This was not the point of the talk though, so I guess it might have been surprising that people wanted to talk about that. But the TAM audience is an intelligent and critical one and I think these were fair questions. But again, I will discuss The Big Bang Theory in another post of its own.
Then Mojo and I got our picture with Randi!
Fintan Steele then gave a talk about personalized medicine. I’ll just point out one interesting tid-bit. Apparently there’s a skeptical writer who writes mystery/horror novels — Scott Sidler (sp??) so I’m going to check that out when I get a chance.
Then came a surprise talk by Robert Lancaster of stopsylvia.com where he discussed his stroke, the response of the skeptical community, and the issues with his site a while back. We got a picture with him later.
After lunch, it was time for Randi. He regaled us with tales of awesomness about past shows, tricks, etc. I could have listened to him all day, but alas he only got an hour or so. I pictured everyone as little kids sitting cross-legged looking up at him with wide eyes, fascinated by his every word. That description is not too far from the truth.
Jennifer Oulette of the Science Entertainment Exchange then gave a talk about the portrayal of science and skepticism in TV and movies. Apparently, The Mentalist and Lie to Me are good skeptical shows that I haven’t been bothered to watch, so I shall have to check them out.
Then was the anti-antivax panel. Mojo pointed out to me, and I agree, that this is a lot like the anti-anti animal research “battle”. The anti-research activists were always showing pictures of tortured animals or pictures from labs in the 50s as “evidence” of current animal research practices, so the animal researchers began a campain demonstrating scientists’ respect for these animals and the consequences of banning animal research (such as pictures of sick and dying children – particularly cancer). The anti-antivax movement may benefit from the same approach. The antivaxxers are fighting with emotion, so why not fight back with emotion. Just because something is emotional doesn’t mean it’s not rational and it may have more of a public impact in this type of “debate”.
After the antivax panel I went up to talk to Orac of Respectful Insolence. He was appalled that people actually gave a shit who he was.
I will admit to being a bit disconcerted by how many people approached me, wanted to meet me, and even wanted to be photographed with me. It wasn’t P.Z. or Phil Plait numbers, but it was more than enough. No, my mentioning this is not false modesty. I know I’m a really good writer. Rather, it’s a simple, shy streak that I’ve had all my life. (Maybe I really am like my namesake.) Trust me, I’m a lot better than I was several years ago, but if I came off as aloof to anyone who approached me I apologize. I was really trying not to be, and I realize that I probably didn’t always succeed.
I was weirded out later when someone recognized me from the Skepchick comments and was actually excited to have met me. I was like “ooooh, that’s what Orac was maybe feeling when we were talking to him”. But the thing is I don’t like PZ and Phil because their OMGPZANDPHIL, I like them because they are nice people, have interesting skeptical things to say, and run good blogs that I read regularly. Like Orac does. So I’m not sure how to meet people and tell them I like their stuff without giving off the groupie vibe. Suggestions? It was sort of nice to realize that there are people out in internet-land that really exist and actually noticed that I’m here. But weird. So I get it, partially.
The last talk of the day was by Joe Nickell who talked about modern mythology (i.e., bigfoot) and the only thing I want to mention here is a picture he showed that said “Bigfoot Coffee Beanery” because I think beanery is just about the most hilarious word I’ve ever heard.
Yau-Man was on our elevator back up to the room after the day of conferencing. We noticed that he had a name tag and red folder just like everyone else. He was just there. To attend. Awesome.
Then we went to the SGU dinner. We wanted a picture of all of the SGU people, but it was really hard to find them all in one place. We grudgingly played the honeymoon card and Evan suggested that the next day after (or before) SGU live we could go find them. So we thought “sure, sounds good”. But Rebecca would not have that. She wrangled everyone together for us (including some gems such as “Jay, get your fucking ass over here!” across the dining hall) and when people in the room realized that they were all getting together for pictures, they just started snapping. We had given our camera to some guy and couldn’t find him in the crowd so as we looked around we ended up in like 100 random people’s pictures. Rebecca says “everyone’s wondering ‘who the fuck are these 2?'” but we finally found our guy and escaped. Steve even gave me a hug and congrats.
So thanks, SGU (and Yau-Man and Brian Dunning) and sorry we made you have to stay extra so people could paparazzi you.
Shermer gave a talk about Type 1 civilization and mentioned the skeptic vs. libertarian “feud” a bit. He made a good point. When people are saying “don’t be political” it’s usually in circumstances where their politics don’t agree, but lots of things are political. We just don’t always notice things are political when we already agree with the politics.
Adam Savage then gave a talk about fail. For a while I wasn’t sure where he was going with his talk, but after his first anecdote it was clear — taking responsibility for being wrong and building character is part of being a skeptic. I was also glad to hear that Jamie secretly hates their results sometimes because there’s so few data points and wants to say “I dunno” to every result, but Adam reasonably points out that it’s TV and they need a conclusion. They can revisit later if it’s not completely right. But I still wish they would make their methods more transparent and wouldn’t (however lovingly) sigh at viewers for writing in.
Then there was a panel about skepticism in magic. There was a lot of internal conflict about where to draw the line in lying for a trick and they also discussed whether revealing a trick hurts magic. Randi had this gem about professors investigating magicians “They say ‘you can’t fool me’ and then I proceed to fool the asses right off them.” and he talked about how it can be dangerous to reveal tricks because then these people think “ok well that’s how it’s done” and when they investigate someone who does it differently, they may be apt to think that they have real powers. It was a very interesting discussion. And Randi said asses.
After the magic panel was a tribute and talk about Jerry Andrus. I had never heard of him before then (unfortunately), but he was a cool dude. Weird, but cool.
Then came the skepticism in the media panel. I even asked a question! And it generated some good discussion. I asked (for Mojo): What is the biggest epic fail in the general media in applying skepticism? In hindsight, I should have added “and what had been the best example of applying skepticism?” Oh well. Adam Savage talked about torture and NPR. Bill Prady, Penn, and Jennifer Oulette talked about false balance/dichotomy and how there are more ratings when you have 2 nuts yelling at each other. TV is about voyeurism after all.
Penn said something I don’t really agree with and that was: “stop acting like martyrs because we’re not being fucked over”. Yeah. We are. Though I don’t think martyrizing is particularly productive, defending yourself against bullshit is unfortunately necessary because it still happens. There is a big difference between TV skeptic and atheist success (such as Bones, The Mentalist, etc) and individual treatment. Institutional bigotry may be on the downturn, but individual bigotry is still pretty high.
Finally Phil Plait talked about 2012. Sigh. I hate people so much.
Later that night we went to see Penn & Teller (center seats!) and we walked along the strip. This is why we missed the majority of the Skepchick party so when we finally made it, it was like 1 AM and things were starting to die down and we didn’t really manage to talk to many people and meet many skeptics. I guess there’s always next time.
Sunday, 12 July – TAM Departure
After all that awesome, it was time to leave. We hopped on a plane too early to see the MDC, but we caught some of the talks when we went to the conference hall for the last time, with our bags, on our way to the bus to the airport.
So that was our TAM experience (well from my perspective anyway). Sorry for the length, but a lot happened. Since other people have already described the conference in detail, I hope I kept it personal and specific enough to my experience so I wasn’t being redundant to things you’ve probably already read.