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.

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