Wednesday, July 16, 2008

TAM6 - Day 4

The final day of TAM began with the normal continental breakfast. Since there was no early event today, I actually sat in that room and enjoyed my food, along with some friendly, talkative companions. This morning closed the conference, consisting of 20-minute paper presentations by a variety of individuals with very mixed results.

First up was John S. Janks, a retired remote sensing scientist from Texaco/Chevron. His talk attempted to demonstrate that "hard scientific data can successfully explain...the Marfa Lights of West Texas." It was, arguably, the least interesting talk of the entire conference.

Don G. Nyberg, Professor of Analytical Chemistry (SUNY), took the stage next to discuss "What Every Student Needs to Hear from Every Science Teacher." His fairly hardcore viewpoint says that students with preconceived pseudoscientific beliefs need to be confronted with evidence-based science and the methodology of critical thinking and scientific inquiry. The talk was pretty interesting (if somewhat on the extreme side), but Professor Nyberg was not well-prepared for this audience - he prepared what looked like a 60-minute talk (for a 20-minute slot) and expected only about 15 people (instead of the 300 or so in attendance).

At 9:20(ish), Steve Cuno, the chairman of RESPONSE Prospecting & Loyalty Strategies, talked about "Niche Pseudoscience" and the need to fight pseudoscience in very specific niches, such as his own field of marketing (many examples given). It was an interesting talk, although Mr. Cuno had an odd speaking style.

Next up was Tracy King, Managing Director for February Marketing, assistant to Richard Wiseman, Miss February in the 2008 Skepchick Calendar and TEEK on the JREF Forum. She discussed what she called "The Most Famous Science Video in the World" (the Colour Changing Card Trick) and "How to Make your Message Famous." In addition to various marketing techniques for creating successful marketing campaigns she also discussed other viral videos such as the Evolution of Dance (love that one), Filipino prisoners, Star Wars Kid and the Gorilla Drum commercial. Informative and entertaining, as I would expect from an associate of Wiseman.

After a short break, Lee Graham, a PhD student at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) took us on a tour of his zoo of 3D virtual creatures in a talk about "Artificial Creatures, Real Evolution" where he discussed his project to use evolution rules to evolve computer-generated creatures. It was a fascinating discussion. My favorite creature shown had to be the end-over-end worm, shown below. More of his work can be seen on his project site. We can even play in his zoo, although his program only operates on Windows and I'm nearly purely Mac-based now.

Following the 3DVCE presentation was a discussion on the "Psychology of Anomalous Experiences," by Christopher C. French from the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College in London and editor of Skeptics Magazine, U.K. Although somehow he managed to have the wrong version of his presentation on hand, the talk on the "study of extraordinary phenomena of behavior and experience, in an attempt to provide non-paranormal explanations in terms of known psychological and physical factors" went well nonetheless. Interesting, although Sue is more the psychological type than I am.

Tim Farley, creator of "What's The Harm," discussed "Building Internet Tools for Skeptics" to help disseminate the information needed to encourage critical thinking. The site seems pretty interesting and I plan to delve more deeply into it.

Finally, Brian Dunning, host of Skeptoid, took the last spot, showing us the making of "The Skeptologists." At some point during the conference (possibly today), we actually got the watch the entirety of the pilot episode. I think the cast they have chosen is potentially a good one (with an excellent scientific/skeptical background), but the scripting and other technical work could stand to be handled by those with more experience. I do hope the show gets picked up by a network so it gets the chance!

All in all, TAM6 was a fascinating experience. It would have been a bit better if I had gone to it with a friend or two (people who knew me, as opposed to the couple dozen people I knew who have no idea who I am) - I am not gregarious enough to spontaneously generate new friends wherever I go, although I did meet a few folks.

The rest of the day was spent largely in the main bar chatting with various TAM attendees (none of whom seem to have gone home after the convention!).

TAM7 will be held at the new Southpoint Casino in Las Vegas (off the Strip) from July 9th through 12th in 2009. We'll see if I brave a second trip out to Vegas for it!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

TAM6 - Day 3

Saturday at TAM began the same as Friday - the long, obnoxious trek to grab breakfast and back to the conference room. This time I took a tip from the prior day's experience and claimed a seat before heading to breakfast. Even at that I was four rows back - some folks had begun claiming seats the night before (or, likely, kept them claimed at the end of the conference the previous day). Another interesting SGU live podcast and then the talks began.

Hal Bidlack brought on Michael Shermer by saying "A man who needs no introduction to this audience..." and walking off the stage (to much laughter). Shermer showed us one segment of the Skeptologists pilot before launching into a discussion of his upcoming book, "Why People Believe in Unseen Things." I took a few notes on Type I Errors (false positives - believing something is real when it is not) and Type II Errors (false negatives - believing something is not real when it is) before fading off. His talk went on a bit longer than I could handle at that hour.

After Shermer, Newsweek senior editor Sharon Begley took the stage with a talk titled "Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs: The Role of the Press (Hint: Don't get your hopes up.)" It was an interesting talk on how the press has been reacting to various movements (e.g., bringing in opposing views on science stories where there really is no serious science opposition). All in all, interesting although not terribly exciting.

Steven Novella
from the SGU (as well as publisher of the Neurologica and Science-Based Medicine blogs) spoke on Dualism and Creationism. He describes dualism (the idea that the mind and brain are separate entities) as neuroscience-denial and creationism as evolution-denial. As always, Steven was entertaining, well-spoken and well-prepared.

Continuing the "war" between Pharyngula and Bad Astronomy, PZ Meyers interrupted Hal's introduction of Phil Plait with a bribe to give a humorously scathing introduction of Phil. Phil responded by commenting (to a room of atheists) that "PZ's writing is godlike" before going on to give a tour of the solar systems from Mercury outwards. Poor Pluto got dissed again. When he got to this poor binary planet system, Phil merely said "This is Pluto. Since it's not a planet, we don't care" and clicked to the next slide. His final slide stated it all: The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it!

Next up, Mythbuster's Adam Savage talked about his obsession with recreating rare items (such as a dodo bird skeleton) through sculpture in a hilarious tale about his quest to rebuild the perfect Maltese Falcon. He also discussed the Mythbusters viral videos concept, the "Plane on a Conveyor Belt" advertising debacle and then went on to show us what he and Jamie call "Explosion Porn" to uproarious laughter. Finally, he indicated he had brought 1000 of the ping-pong balls that he and Jamie used to raise a sunken ship and gave them away to anyone who wanted one (along with an autograph). Adam seems a rare celebrity - someone who loves being amongst his fans and willing to just sit and chatter with them all day long (with many, many breaks for snapshots and autographs).

Following Adam was Matthew Chapman, the great-grandson of Charles Darwin, discussing some of his experiences related to evolution (e.g., The Dover Trial) and organizing ScienceDebate2008 (which, sadly, is being ignored by both Republicans and Democrats).

Another quick auction raised a boatload more money for JREF in the form of $800 for Adam Savage's steel-toed boots (worn an entire season of Mythbusters), $400-$2600 for signed posters from prior TAMs, and $2000 for a nice, useable set of bent silverware (in a gorgeous wooden case) from Banachek.

Richard Wiseman came up next to entertain us, talking about his upcoming 20-part BBC series on psychology, "Change Blindness" (or the psychology of magic misdirection), including outtakes from the wonderful "Color Changing Card Trick" video (it took 62 takes to film!). He brought in a guest spoon-bender - Teller! - to teach us how to do spoon-bending, then regaled us with a tale of spoon bending and an heirloom 12-place dinner setting (moral: Make sure you're not doing it with an irreplaceable piece of art!). He finished up his talk by filming what he hopes is a world record-breaking bending of 800 spoons simultaneously. You can read about it and see the video at his new site. (I am visible in the video at 0:57, fourth table back on the left, 2nd person in.) Richard is an amazingly-dynamic person. I could listen to him talk for hours.

The day closed with a Q&A panel on the "Limits of Skepticism" consisting of Steven Novella, Ben Radford, Banachek, Adam Savage, Richard Saunders, George Hrab and James Randi. The best quote of the day, from Adam, was "The plural of anecdote is not evidence."

Saturday, July 05, 2008

TAM6 - Day 2

The Friday sessions of TAM6 started with a continental breakfast which took place at the extreme far end of the hotel (and two floors down) from the conference room. To make it worse, simultaneous with breakfast was a live SGU podcast in the main room, so the start of the day went like this: Take elevator from my room to the 3rd floor. Walk halfway down the length of the hotel to reach conference room. Find out breakfast is elsewhere. Turn around walk all the way past the elevator and continue walking the same distance again, down several flights of escalators and enter breakfast area. Pile up a sufficient amount of pastries and fruit for the morning. Grab a glass of juice and, balancing the food carefully, begin the long walk back to catch the rest of the podcast.

Not a fun way to begin the day.

Fortunately, it got better! The SGU podcast was informative and amusing as always, talking about such things as the recent psychic claim of child sexual abuse of an autistic girl, running a Q&A session and offering SGU trivia.

Next, Hal Bidlack welcomed us all and officially opened the conference, bringing James "The Amazing" Randi up onto the stage.

Dr. Ben Goldacre gave a talk on homeopathy. Goldacre is an amusing Brit and offered a well-explained definition of just what homeopathy is and the problems associated with it. He also discussed the amazing, still not understood, ability of placebo effect to offset symptoms.

Finally, what many consider the main event of the whole conference, the keynote speech by Neil deGrasse Tyson. My first exposure to Tyson was during a show about Pluto's demotion from planet to minor planet. I was on the "leave Pluto alone" side and he was in the other camp, so I was not really fond of him. I have changed my mind since then. The man is an amazing speaker. His speech was supposed to last about an hour. We forced him to go 90 minutes and would gladly have sat through a full two hours, even though it would have destroyed the rest of the schedule. He opened up by first establishing his geek cred, having everyone with a laser pointer (mostly everyone - we got one free at registration) to shine their pointer at the far end of the room. Then he whipped out his uber-green laser pointer and outshone every other light in the room even though he had the maximum distance to cover. Nice touch.

Tyson's talk was an eclectic group of topics he called "Brain Droppings of a Skeptic." He covered UFOs, alien abduction, inept aliens (you flew trillions of miles just to CRASH at the very end of the trip?), conspiracy theory, astrology, birth rates & full moons (means you got knocked up during a previous full moon), behavior and full moons, surviving terminal cancer (more likely to believe God did it than that you had 3 idiot doctors and a misdiagnosis), swami levitation, the moon landing "hoax," Mars "virus," fear of numbers (13th floor!), naming rights (scientists are on currencies worldwide - the Germans even have a Gaussian chart - but not in the U.S.), his experiences with jury duty, math (an educational report was alarmed that half of the schools in the district were below average), George W. Bush, Intelligent Design/Stupid Design (the human body, the universe trying to kill us), religious penetration (80%-90% of Westerners, 60% educated people, 40% scientists, 7% "elite" scientists), the bible in science classrooms and Albert Einstein and God (no, he was not a believer). It was very, very fun, well-paced and informative.

Next up, Alec Jason, the man who, along with Randi, helped expose televangelist Peter Popoff as a fraud, discussed his experiences with crime scene analysis. The information content had the potential to be interesting, but the talk itself was fairly dull (especially coming after Tyson).

After a lame lunch (with good pastry desserts), the fun continued with Penn & Teller. They didn't do a mini-show or even a talk, but did more of a Q&A session (yes, Teller talks and is of normal height - Penn is just freakin' huge). Interesting, but not what I anticipated.

George Hrab hit the stage for brief chat ("Good news: We'd like you to perform at TAM6! Bad news: You're going on after Penn & Teller.") and performed "God is not Great" (from Christopher Hitchens' book title). It occurred to me that Hrab reminds me of a bald Weird Al.

Biologist blogger PZ Meyers then came up for a talk on bat embryology. The talk was interesting, but the interplay with Phil Plait, continuing their very friendly blog competition, was the entertaining part.

President of the Australian Skeptics and first-time TAM-goer Richard Saunders (coincidentally a pseudonym of Ben Franklin) was up next, talking about the "TANK Vodcast" and his origami books (Pigasus!) before performing a water divining experiment using educators from the audience. Very entertaining.

Following Richard was an auction for tickets to visit Penn's house, "The Slammer." They sold about 15 of these tickets, each for around $1000 (proceeds to JREF).

Finishing up the day was a panel discussion. Randi, Phil Plait, PZ Meyers, Michael Shermer, Hal, Margaret Downing (from AAI) and someone whose name I didn't catch discussed the main theme of the conference: Identifying as a Skeptic.

That evening was an SGU Meet & Greet at one of Caesar's restaurants. We filled that restaurant's available seating (80) and apparently overflowed into a second restaurant to the point where they had to turn folks away as well. Pretty popular. The Italian food was good, my tablemates were excellent (I wish I had written down their names!) and the SGU rogues totally blew us off (outside of a very brief flyby by Jay), apparently preferring to spend their time at tables with copious quantities of alcohol (by chance, our table all stuck with water and lemonade). I do recall that one of the guys may be starting up an econ-based skeptic blog sometime soon, so I will look for that announcement and try to contact him then.