This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

At Long Last, the Beginning

Finally, after much Tarantinoesque discontinuity, here I am at the beginning.

At roughly 9am Hal Bidlack took the stage announcing himself as the host (as he is every year) for the next 55 hours worth of content.

He did a quick straw poll of how many people were attending TAM for the first time.
The answer – a lot. Somewhere between a third and half. I expect that a lot of Trans-Atlantic skeptics forsook TAM this year for TAM-London, bringing the overall number as well as the number of returnees down a bit... but that is little more than a guess. It would certainly be good for skepticism if it were true, as the conference had a record number of attendees this year.

Indeed it was a very full room.

A picture is worth a thousand nerds.

He also announced that the greatest percentage of women had shown up ever – 30%.

He noted the shift of presidency from founder James Randi to celebrity astronomer Phil Plait. The Amazing Randi is getting old, and while still full of energy he is focussing on writing and other things one would associate with someone in the winter of their season doing so as to do their best to tie a bow on their life's work.

He noted that despite being TAM-7, that this was in fact the 8th TAM due to TAM 5.5.

He imparted the story of his family going on an accidental ghost-tour through the building that Stephen King wrote The Shining in (often mistaken as the place where it was filmed.) He told how the guide pointed out that over a dusty carpeted staircase was the best place in the house to shoot ghost-orb photos... if you know your flash-photography you know why that is.

He encouraged us to make the most of the conference to remind ourselves that we are not alone – a subject that many a newly-minted skeptic (even as recently as myself in the 'awareness of the movement' sense) needs demonstrated to them – and TAM could not be a better place for it. As he said "we are already friends... we are a large family... at the James Randi family reunion."

After a failed joke (Which apparently happens regularly with Hal – he later in his greeting alluded to the long standing tradition of the audience "pretending to not like" his jokes.) he informed us that his only real joke would occur Saturday at 3.

He made a quick outline of SkeptiCamp – which would be the only mention of any depth of it on stage, though there was a SkeptiCamp booth (which I manned at lunch with Jesse Brydle from the Vancouver CFI) at the back of the room which provided people with information all weekend long. It sounds (incidentally) as though at least one SkeptiCamp has risen from the weekend – as it's to be hosted by the NYC Skeptics it'll probably dwarf all of us early adopters in no time.

He also reminded us that we – the people who attend TAM are "no more cookie-cutters than those who argue which Star Trek series is the best. Oddly he got the answer to that wrong, by identifying "The Original Series" instead of DS9 – a ridiculous error that only the misinformed could make. We are a large tent and there is a sense of inclusion. We can disagree. Randi is an atheist, Hal is rather famously not.

Another stat he threw out which became a running joke over the weekend was that twenty eight people at the conference were named 'Dave.'

Before wrapping up he thanked a number of folks who deserved thanking for their part in making the conference happen.

He then announced something that had been brewing since before people started arriving... there was no conference code for the WiFi. Excuse a tangent... the WiFi situation at the hotel was ridiculous. It cost $13 per day for internet in your room – PER COMPUTER. If you wanted WiFi in the conference centre – it was an additional fee (I believe it was $80 for four hours!) I had paid for one day of in-room WiFi the day before around 5pm. Later Friday afternoon around 2 (I only arrived at the hotel at 2 the previous day.) I went to the room to get a few messages off (including a post or two on this blog) before my time ran out. My "24 hours" was over. What a fucking joke. I was so incensed that I decided they were getting no more of my WiFi money over the weekend. To be fair – the conference itself eventually found itself a work-around. There were a lot of computer folk in that room to trouble shoot it. By that time I'd already relaxed into a wirelessless routine and didn't worry about it.

And... I need to remember this... TD Bank has a special promotion wherein the bank will donate a portion of your yearly balance at no cost to you to the JREF. Gotta sign up for that. The James Randi Educational Foundation Affinity Program. And Amazon has a JREF store – but you have to go to Amazon through the JREF web-page. Standard affiliate marketing – good for the JREF, at no cost to the purchaser.

Then he introduced Phil and Randi... (Funny... Dr. Phil Plait is "Phil" but James Randi is "Randi.")

Phil didn't spend much time talking. He said that we were there for three reasons:
  1. To hear the speakers – of course.

  2. To see Randi – he is the father of the modern skeptical movement.

  3. For the community. "There are so many people here because there are so many people here." Somehow the JREF reached critical mass and became the touchstone of the skeptical movement.
One important thing Phil said that I'm going to transcribe directly:

As Hal said, we may disagree on religion, we may disagree on politics – I'll guarantee you that, we may disagree on the existence or non-existence of UFOs. But we all agree on how to disagree, we all agree on how we decide whether were going to agree or disagree and we all agree on how we're going to reach those conclusions. That's the rational process, skepticism, critical thinking and hopefully the lack of logical fallacies that we see out there so much. And it's those logical fallacies that we are here to try to minimize. ...As long as we have squishy grey matter in our heads we are never going to totally get rid of them.

He used that thought to segue into discussion of the Million Dollar Challenge and the test that was coming on Sunday. After a brief overview of the intent of the MDC and the decision that was previously made to discontinue it, Phil announced that that decision had been over turned and that the MDC will continue into the future. That received a big round of applause. While the MDC is a hammer – when you have a hammer, everything is a nail. They need to adjust the process to make it less work than it has been, but they are going to continue using it as a tool to show the world what is reality.

When Phil turned the podium over to Randi the applause went on for about thirty five seconds and he hadn't even said a word. I think that many of us have been having similar thoughts. Randi is getting old. Every TAM may be his last, and the fact that he had be not in the least bit inconspicuously going around in a wheel-chair could not have been far from folks minds. Paul and I had mused about it as we got ready that morning – was it part of the 'mentalism feat' he was to perform at the end of the weekend – was it showmanship? Or was it for real? We did not know at that time that the mentalism had been cancelled and that we were about to find out that it was in fact real. Randi wasted very little time telling the crowd some sad cryptic news...

"Greetings all. I have a lack of shirts at home in Plantation Florida and they
are used for different purposes.... This is my happy shirt. I look out and see
this crowd that goes back as far as my eyes can penetrate in the haze. Feeling
extremely proud and humbled by the fact that all you folks have shown up here to
hear what we all have to say about the skeptical movement. ...The JREF staff and
I have been repeatedly astonished over the years if not amazed... and we are
appropriately grateful and humbled for your presence here, but I must explain my
somewhat subdued appearance. This what we call folks a major bummer. During a
routine examination a more than a month ago we found that I had a rather nasty
visitor inside of me. Yet another stunning example of intelligent design at
work. My doctors went in and removed it and things are looking up again. I'll be
weak for a few months yet. ...but I'll be able to keep up with my duties as the
treatment proceeds. ...My prognosis is good eventhough I've decided to go along
with this old fashioned, what do you call it? Oh yes, orthodox medicine."
(Edited for brevity.)

Randi took special effort to thank his assistant Shawn McCabe as well as a small army of JREF staff members and Volunteers without whom the conference would only operate as a pale shadow of the version we were witnessing.

Randi also expressed his great pleasure that Bob Lancaster – creator of the Stop Sylvia Brown web-site – who suffered a stroke last year was able to make it and that he was in such great condition.

He went on noting other notable skeptics in attendance before announcing that 1007 people had registered as of him taking the stage and that the number was inevitably going to grow as late-comers arrived over the weekend.

He expressed his delight thinking about TAM London being sold out in an hour of going on line and that preparations for TAM 8 were already in the works.

He re-affirmed that people should genuinely feel free to greet him and by extension all other skeptical friends celebrities and otherwise before assuring us that he would beat his current health issue and thanking the crowd deeply for simply being in attendance.

1 comment:

  1. By chance do you have a recording of Dr. Fintan Steele's presentation? If so, I have a couple of questions I wonder if you could answer by email (you can reach me at my last name at