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.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bring on the Night

With the first day's formal activities complete it was time to move on to the evening's scattered brou-ha-ha. I mixed up my evening with a variety of events, organized, un-organized and downright disorganized.

Upon leaving the convention centre I headed up to Paul and my room. He was diligently hammering away at his keyboard, putting together material for his blog on TAM. He was publishing live and he didn't get into as much detail. But his blog is complete and has been for a month.

We chatted for a while, discussing how he might push his on-line career 'over the top' as we both got ready to head out for the evening.

We did have one specific plan – we'd both laid down $55US for the SGU Dinner.

But first we joined a few of our Vancouver compatriots at the Pool Bar for drinks.

Rob and Jessica were both very excited that the bartender knew how (and had the necessary ingredients) for a Caesar. Apparently it's a drink that isn't normally served in the States. I had no idea! But the barkeep had Clamato juice as he is accustomed to Canadians asking for Caesars. It seems most places if you go and ask for a Caesar, you get a perplexed look followed by the single word question: "Salad?"

I had – for the first time in my life a Foster's 'Oil Can' – my god that's a big can of beer.

We discussed our various plans for the evening. Rob and Jessica were going to the Cirque du Soliels show – "O". I began to grill Rob on his poker win from the night before but we got WAY off track. I do have that on video – perhaps if I ever get around to editing that material (which will first require finding a way to capture the footage – could I subjugate this line of thought any further? (No.)).

Before too long it was suddenly 7:30 and the SGU Dinner was starting without us.

When we arrived the dinner itself had not started but the room was FULL. There were not many seats left at all but we did manage to find a table with two chairs left.

We barely got seated when Steve welcomed us all and reminded everyone present that first thing in the morning session (which would begin again with a live recording of the SGU over breakfast) that the short film Jay had made would premiere. Jay admitted to being really nervous about it. In his words, "I'm shitting bricks." The Steve announced that the buffet was open and that people could serve themselves at their leisure, there would be no effort to organize serving by table. That effort seemed to work surprisingly well and considering I've been to weddings with fewer tables it makes me wonder why people even bother?

Paul decided he was going to go get food immediately. I stayed behind, as did much of our table. I had used up pretty much the entirety of the tape that was in my video-camera, and I figured I should change it so that I was ready for action should it happen.

As I was fumbling with the tape, a familiar voice asked across the table – is this seat taken?

It was none other than Steve Novella. It turned out that a few of our fellow table-mates were contributors to the Science Based Medicine Blog and Steve wanted to take the opportunity to touch base with them on a few matters. For truly the only time at the conference I was genuinely, cripplingly, star-struck. I could make excuses about how he sat down to talk to them and how they had something specific and important they were discussing, but honestly, if it had been the most casual of conversations I STILL would have been tongue tied. Dr. Novella is one of the sharpest knives in the skeptical drawer. He is both Hard Drive and RAM. He seems to have a bottomless pit of facts filed away in his head, but his analysis of practically anything seems to be instant and constantly on the money. Really, if I were to have a conversation with him I wouldn't know where to start. I would simply be intimidated by the idea of having a conversation with him, so I just smiled, listened and continued to unwrap my MiniDV tape.

When Paul returned I said "We've got a guest."

To which he responded "We do? Oh! Heh-ha-ha! He's the reason I came to the whole thing. Not the only reason. Just the first reason."

At which point I got up to get food for myself.

In line the woman beside me showed me a great (and simple) idea for double-siding our name tags by sticking the dinner sticker on the back of the plasticized JREF dongle. In exchange I taste tested a few buffet items to see if they were vegetarian for her.

When I returned to our table Paul was deep in conversation with Dr. Novella. It was immediately clear that they were discussing Paul's Simon Singh-esque problem. By the time I got there they had already got to the point where Dr. Steve was letting Paul know that if things were to go bad for him that he could expect a substantial level of support from the internet-based skeptical-medical community.

If anything I would go so far as to say that there was a bit of a sense of "chomping at the bit for the fight" from the SBM blogger-crowd. But I guess that is kind of the point – they are eager to take up the fight when it becomes a chance to promote science over insanity... er, I mean magic... or alternative medicine... Okay, I don't think there's a squeak of difference between the latter and the other two.

As I said to Paul once Dr. Novella left, "I'm guessing that just paid for the cost of your dinner." Though in retrospect, it could prove to be worth the price of the entire conference.

The food at the dinner was truly awesome. I had to go back for more risotto and salmon and really kind of wished that I'd known how fantastic they were going to be so I could just load up on them in the first place and forget the rest.

Conversation around the table them moved to a discussion about how learning about science is not about collecting perceived wisdom it is about learning the process. The conversation was very focussed on medicine and alternative medicine which left me feeling a little on the outside, but not begrudgingly so, it merely meant that the conversation flitted in and out of a realm where I understood the specifics and made it hard for me to participate directly – though I did try a little.

Shortly after I finished my food I went on walk-about. I went and found Jay who happened to be un-assaulted by other fans just as I moseyed-up. I offered my hand and said "Jay, I'm a film-maker and I'm really looking forward to tomorrow." I have a bad feeling that that came across as "I am so looking forward to witnessing you fall flat on your face" – which was not my intent, but his response was probably more in line with that intention. "Oh my god, why would you tell me that?" He asked what kind of films I make – which has never been a question I've ever felt like I've answered both concisely and well and I maintained that streak in this conversation. We talked about how film-making in an ongoing learning process and that it doesn't matter if it's your first or your 100th film, you are always going to be making a movie that by the time you are finished you have learned SO much more about the process that you will be disappointed on some level with the results. I tried, but kind of failed to encourage him to enjoy the screening in the morning – you only lose your virginity once. Screening your first film the first time... that's never going to happen again. It was clear that he had SO much fun making it that nothing else was really going to matter, and I was encouraging him that the audience was going to love it. He asked if I'd give him some feedback, and I promised to forward him some once it was all done. And – skipping ahead - I did.

From there I went and introduced myself to Derek Colanduno. If you don't know who Derek is, he is one of the hosts of Skepticality, which was the original skeptical podcast. I admit it's not my favourite of the options out there, but it has one thing that none of the other have – a story arc. It was inadvertent – accidental, I suppose – but it was, even still is, a thing of great emotional beauty. I admit that I cried when I listened to the SGU episode where they announced that Perry DeAngelis died. Hell, I cried on a city bus-load of people – and when I started listening to the SGU I hated Perry. But that truly paled to what happened on Skepticality. In September of 2005 Derek suffered a stroke. He was just 31! It happened during a celebration dinner for the podcast. His podcasting partner Swoopy (a pseudonym – her real name is well known, but let's stick with Swoopy) gave the news on the podcast. She was clearly distraught. Up to that point Skepticality had pretty much felt like the Derek show, with Swoopy riding along. After his stroke, everything changed. The show stuttered a bit in it's production – understandably. Various guest hosts helped Swoopy out along the way, but before too long she has really stepped up to the plate and took the reigns. Meanwhile Derek gradually got better, and Swoopy kept us up to date on his progress. And after a while he returned to the show – and we, the listening audience, witnessed as he proceeded to get better and better. At first he was reluctant, but that passed. Swoopy over the same time grew in her capacity as primary host, and today the show is probably more her's than Derek's – in so far as who seems to be the main personality. In the end Skepticality has become a podcast about triumph and flying in the face of adversity as much as it has been about critical thought. I really felt a need to thank Derek (Swoopy was not at TAM this year.) for his part in that beautiful story. He directed me to his blog about his recovery as an additional resource. He told me that he had trouble listening to Swoopy talk about his progress before he could come back on the air – her emotion was overwhelming. (It is gold.) It had been apparent to me before that they have a very special friendship, but perhaps I only scratched the surface of understanding. He described it as "surviving his own funeral." He compared his stroke to Robert Lancaster's – Lancaster had had some prior warning in his medical history which allowed for a certain amelioration of the effects – whereas Derek's was out of the blue. Apparently, according to Derek, the only way to really know that such a thing is likely or not (along with a few other diseases) is to do a sleep study. At that point we kind of got interrupted as the evening morphed into a group photo opportunity with a spectrum of skeptical celebrities – including Derek.

Before too long the mic was being passed around again. Rebecca told a brief anecdote about how the dinner was intended to be a fundraising affair. But somewhere along the way things went pear-shaped. They set the price at $55... but when Evan priced the dinner with the casino the price was $56 per plate... "fund-raising fail!" She went on to joke about the 'job' of pod-casting "giving away stuff for free for a living" and how really the dinner was not about making money, it was about spending time with "you guys." Evan echoed her comments. Steve thanked everyone for coming and that was pretty much that as far as formal stuff went.

Meanwhile another event was beginning – the entertainment show of the night, which I would hear about later.

People milled about for a bit and Paul and I made an effort to get in and shake hands with a few people who were high on our list of notable skeptics to meet. As Paul put it "let's go collect skeptics."

Bob commented on how often people just can't distinguish between he and Jay – which strikes me as absurd, how can they not notice the difference, yeah they are brothers, but they aren't twins! And for that matter, Steve is their brother too! Paul and Bob compared notes on how the iPhone was far more visible in this crowd than anywhere else they'd ever been.

A number of people were getting autographs, I was saving that for books that I planned to buy.

Paul and I compared notes with Evan about the people we have introduced to the podcast. Paul claimed that he'd brought dozens to the show. I admitted that they only person I know of for sure, is Paul.

From there I stepped into the concourse and joined a conversation with Yau-man Chan. He was talking about his Survivor experience. He told a tale about commenting on the 'fake boobs' of some female contestants to Jonathan Penner and one of the women overheard him and got upset and ran up the beach and took off her top and demanded that he feel her breast to prove that they were real. Penner accused Yau-man of making the comment in the first place just to get that reaction... which he denies – though he did check the veracity of the breast in question. It was never relevant to the show so it was never used. Yau-man said that a lot of interesting and funny things happened that didn't support the story, and that plenty of things get used at times that were temporally well out of sequence.

People were filing into the show – the "Nigerian Spam Scam – Scam" (What is it with the names like this at the conference? Anti-Anti-Vax Panel, Nigerian Spam Scam – Scam?) and our discussion drifted to the spam-scams. How they much have a low-hit rate, but the hits they do get are lucrative enough to make it worthwhile.

And then... my first experience with – him. I didn't know it then, but he is infamous at TAM. Politely speaking there are a number of socially ill-adjusted guys in the TAM crowd. There is a certain inevitability about it. It seems that he is the poster boy. I want to be clear that everyone is welcome at TAM. It is a deliberately inclusive circle. But that doesn't mean that all behaviour is welcome within that circle. He joined the group and hi-jacked the conversation via massive non-sequitur. It was rude and annoying and ultimately inappropriate. If I knew then what I know now (that this is SOP for Him) I would have made a point of letting him know that his interjection into our conversation needed to be approached in a different manner.

He began subtely with a tenuous, but legitimate connection between our actual topic and South Park, but his point was so circuitous that by the time is became at all clear, the conversation was now about South Park. I like South Park and I think many skeptics do too... but it wasn't what the conversation was about. So we talked about South Park for a bit... except it wasn't so much us talking about South Park... one of us would attempt to make a point – critical or supportive – and before a comment of any weight could be formulated He was jumping off on a interrupting tangent struck from some minor aspect of what the speaker had said. On top of it he felt the need to explain each reference he made about the show in condescending detail. Eg. "Big Gay Al – their quintessential homo-sexual guy is a scout master and he's really good at it and they kick him out 'cause he's openly gay and they have this guy who is like conservative military..." Yeah, buddy, we've all seen the show, and perhaps you haven't got it yet, but this conference is a place where smart people hang out – we got your fucking reference.

Shortly after the above reference the conversation began to drift to something slightly new – Seth McFarlane – when out of the blue He assaults us with the following phrase: "This thing is, I've never been fucked in the ass on South park." Before I go further I want to stress that this was not misheard, I corroborated it with others in the conversation. I'm not easily offended, and no I wasn't specifically offended by this. What bothered me was that WE WERE MOVING ON! To be honest, it wasn't 'til this point that I decided that there was something socially wrong with him. Now there WAS a point to his comment, but – I repeat – WE WERE MOVING ON! That pretty much ended the conversation. He may have been trying to keep control of the topic to himself, but it had the effect of shutting it down – ruining it for everyone.

Paul called it 'a night' after the dinner was over, but I went down to the bar – Del Mar to socialize with skeptics I don't know.

I joined a table of people who didn't look the least bit familiar, but who all were wearing tags from the conference – one of them was one of the many Daves at the conference. I figured it was as good a place as any to see what might transpire. They quickly assessed that I'm from Vancouver and in almost the same sentence asked if I knew Fred. Everybody knows Fred. He is (and I say this in the most positive way possible) such a keener. At the SGU dinner he was one of the few who were able to claim to have been at each SGU dinner over the past three years.

Dale, the woman sitting beside me, was a science teacher from New Hampshire. She'd followed her husband to TAM originally, but now comes back every year to find new things to take home and teach.

I had a discussion with another fellow who compared his experience at the workshops on Thursday with mine at the SGU dinner an hour earlier. I kind of felt like I had spent fifty-five dollars to shake hands with some celebrity skeptics... when at TAM you can do that practically anytime. The dinner itself was good – but it wasn't a fifty-five dollar meal. He agreed in terms of the workshops. He didn't really learn a lot that he couldn't have got elsewhere.

The conversation moved on to personal experiences relating to the Anti-anti-vax Panel. One thing that struck me immediately and pleasantly was that we skeptics have a lot to laugh at. Not in the sense of ridicule – well perhaps, yes. But more in terms of comedy is pain... and there is a lot of tragedy in the world that we can only laugh to relieve the pain. An interesting idea did come out of the discussion... those of us who are old enough to have vaccination scars should make a point of wearing them proudly. They are our badge against the anti-vax lobby.

Another fellow at our table talked about his sister who out of high-school decided to go and live with the Amish. She didn't last. She left after a year and went back to college, but still makes her own clothes and adheres to some other tenets of their faith. He had gone to visit her once while she was still with them and came back with some fascinating and even scary stories... none of this Harrison Ford in Witness stuff. It's not quaint. It's a cult. Perhaps a relatively benign cult, but a cult none the less.

Eventually we were joined by a fellow named Andrew who had just arrived. He'd missed the entire first day but was eager for the second day's events. We chatted for a bit. I asked him what his story was – why he'd come to TAM. He challenged me. "Go for it. Cold read. See how well you do." So I did. I went largely by instinct based upon the few things he had already told me. And I can't effectively recount here what it was that made me think along the lines I did, but I know it wasn't totally from whole cloth. I said that he'd been born into a seriously religious family that he'd broken out of at some point and had an "atheist experience" awakening towards critical thinking and had come to TAM to see more about what it was all about. I had been going for a high-chance hit. And I pretty much nailed it. He had actually found the depths of God that he went to on his own – not through a devout family – but I'd otherwise been bang on. If I were claiming psychic abilities that would have been a grand-slam. He added that he would like to meet critical thinkers who are making a living from it, 'cause that's what he'd like to do.

Shortly after that John showed up and told me about a party that was happening upstairs. A group of Australian skeptics had loaded their fridge and were inviting people up. I followed. There were only a dozen or so folks there and it actually seemed to be winding down. Brian Dunning showed up while I was there. It wasn't in fact much of a party. I spent most of my time chatting with Jesse and John about their car-troubles. Things broke down shortly after Brian Dunning left... and that was pretty much that. I went to bed. Six AM was going to come fast.

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