Posts Tagged ‘the amazing meeting’

No, I’m not there. But in the absence of any particularly interesting reporting from me lately, I highly recommend catching up on what’s been going on lately in Las Vegas, at the latest Amazing Meeting. There’s a lot of info on the site, a continual stream of news on the Twitter #TAM9 hashtag, and The Friendly Atheist has a lot of liveblogging going on, recapping each morning and afternoon in separate chunks, with plenty of photos (including here, here, here, and here). There’s a lot of geeking out over Bill Nye going on, and numerous other attractions too, for those (like myself) for whom The Science Guy doesn’t have the childhood nostalgia draw he holds over some.

I’ll make it to one of the Vegas meetings someday. The London ones were great, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s gearing up for another one of those anytime soon, sadly. More blogging will happen later, when there aren’t more fun things to be doing. (I’m going to start watching The Killing, for one. If it turns out to be rubbish I shall be very annoyed with you, internet.)


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I’ve been lazy today, so have little of substance to say. But the latest Carnival of the Godless is up, and worth a read, so I can spare a moment to direct you there.

Also, you really need to see the latest video from Captain Disillusion. He’s always awesome anyway, and his latest long-awaited update is finally here. It’s split into five clips on YouTube, so make sure you catch it all. The stuff from The Amazing Meeting is hysterical, and he does a very cool debunking of that Derren Brown lottery prediction thing from a while back. Enjoy:

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So I meant to comment on this sooner but, y’know, lazy. I did want to draw a little attention to it, though, and highlight a couple of things.

DJ Grothe has taken over as President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, the daddy of skeptical activist organisations. A couple of weeks ago now, he posted about his recent visit to their headquarters at Ft. Lauderdale, and his ideas for how they’re going to move forward in coming months.

This provides the most detailed and best articulated explanation I’ve yet seen of just what the JREF does, beyond presenting the Million Dollar Challenge as a handy rhetorical tool, and it’s a pretty awesome set of goals. Things that were particularly happifying for me to see:

3. Resources for schools and such. Yes. We definitely need to see more of this. It will need to be done with a modicum of care, but these are smart people behind these ideas, and I trust the rest of the skeptical community to let them know if they’re ever in danger of pushing an unwelcome agenda too far. There will be god-freaks and woo-mongers who’ll overreact and oppose the idea anyway, of course, but don’t let’s worry about people who don’t understand the distinction between indoctrination of propaganda and education. Important difference, folks. Encouraging and enabling a deeper appreciation and understanding of the scientific method is a good thing.

4. More Amaz!ng Meetings all over the place. Yay! Australia could definitely do with more of this sort of thing, I think, given how bad they’ve had the anti-vax nonsense lately. A sequel to TAM London sounds like it’s definitely on the cards too.

8. Publicly exposing nonsense, and working with the media to help educate the public on scams and dangerous nonsense. Another yes, if this goes the way I’m hoping it will. I can really imagine the skeptical community’s take and blogosphere’s consensus becoming a significant part of regular news reporting. Ben Goldacre has already had some success at becoming a go-to guy many journalists turn to for a skeptical comment on medical stories. I love the idea of it becoming a widely understood thing by the public: there’s this bunch of people who are good at critical thinking and all that sciencey stuff, and who you should listen to what they have to say when you read some new science thing in the papers, because they know about all that stuff and can often tell you what’s really going on, about scams and paranormal stuff and all that kind of thing. And I love the idea of being a part of the blogging network that people think of like that.

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A little background first, for those unfamiliar with what exactly is going on here.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organisation based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the intent of promoting critical thinking among the public, and trying to disseminate reliable information on subjects where credulity and irrationality abound. In January 2003, they held the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting, where 150 people gathered in Fort Lauderdale to hear a selection of prominent scientists and skeptics give lectures, and mingle with like-minded folk over several days.

The next year, it moved to Las Vegas, where it’s been an ever-growing annual event ever since. It’s expanded to include several Amaz!ng Adventures also, and this past weekend I was one of 600 attendees at the first international meeting, in London. Various awesome people spoke, lectured, mingled, answered questions, sang, danced, and fumbled comically with a number of technological hurdles.

So, the people I experienced over the weekend were as follows:

  1. Richard Wiseman compèred the whole thing, introducing each new speaker, keeping the crowd entertained with some jokes and semi-serious magic tricks while the next bit was being got ready, and covering whenever a technical hitch threatened to derail things. He did a fabulous job of being charming and (giving the illusion of) being in control throughout.
  2. Brian Cox, physicist and Supreme Allied Commander of CERN. Well, okay, he just works there. He spoke about the CERN lab, the Large Hadron Collider, and why he really believes that this kind of science is important and worth investing in. There were some great collider pics, including some of the damage caused when they broke it last year, and a more comprehensive explanation of just what went wrong than I’d heard at the time. There was also a lot of background info about particle physics, to explain exactly what it is they’re trying to do there. I’m a physics geek already, I’ve read books about string theory and quarks and extra dimensions of space-time, but I still felt like I learnt something new about the Standard Model. He’s a terrific speaker, with a real knack for making these potentially mind-mangling topics accessible and fascinating.
  3. Jon Ronson is hilarious and wonderful. In many ways, he might seem at first glance like a somewhat unlikely orator; he looks like a classic nerd, tends to hold his arms against himself a little awkwardly, and has an occasional head-nodding tic. But in actual fact, he has great stage presence and tells a hell of a story. He really knows how to make his encounters with crazy people sound touching, human, and very funny, both in print and in person, and provided some of the biggest laughs of the weekend.
  4. Simon Singh spoke about his ongoing libel case, giving some more background than we’d heard before and some interesting updates. He was also given an award by the JREF, for Outstanding Contribution To The Services Of Being A Fucking Hero. Or something like that. Seriously, I think the importance and bravery of what he’s doing, fighting for the right to speak openly and critically about scientific matters and standing as a figurehead for the campaign to change this country’s insane libel laws, is going to be looked back on with awe and amazement in years to come. He also broke the news that he and his wife are expecting their first child next year.
  5. James Randi, the man himself, who couldn’t attend the conference himself due to health issues, but appeared via a live video link-up, looking in good spirits and on fine form. He fielded some questions, and the computer equipment seemed to require mercifully little wrangling to make it happen.
  6. Ariane Sherine was an absolute delight to see in person. She seemed a little nervous at first, but not to a degree you could fault her for, given how much less often she’s done this than everyone else on the bill, and how effortlessly she was chatting with her audience within a few minutes. She told the story of the Atheist Bus Campaign, with some brilliant visual aids and musical montages. Hopeless geek crush #43729 blooms still.
  7. Mil Millington happened to be attending, and was recognisable by his hair. I love the guy’s writing, but he actually looked a little… Walter Kovacs-y. Yeah.
  8. Ben Goldacre was his usual awesome self. The bizarre details of the media’s approach to the MRSA thing in particular continues to blow my mind. I should write about that properly someday.
  9. Robin Ince hosted a comedy evening on Saturday. He chatted about Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, as he ever does, but you could tell how thrilled he was at playing to a crowd who’ll respond with applause to names like that. The usual suspects were there: Josie Long, Christina Martin, Philip Jeays, and so forth. At times it felt pretty similar to the Night of 400 Billion Stars earlier in the year, but mostly they’re all such good company that this didn’t count against it at all.
  10. Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters, which was fun. I’ve never really seen the show properly, but the clips I’ve been pointed to on the internet I’ve always enjoyed, and he was great to watch and listen to here. (I’ve skipped over the two acts before him on Sunday morning, because I gave myself a lie-in and didn’t get there until the start of Adam’s set. I’ve never been a huge George Hrab fan, and Glenn Hill’s name didn’t mean anything to me. He’s actually the son of one of the girls who took the Cottingley Fairies pictures, and in retrospect I would’ve quite liked to hear from him.)
  11. Tim Minchin. Holy fucking shit, Tim Minchin. Unbelievable. Highlight of the whole weekend. I mean, I knew the guy was good, but wow. He wasn’t there for long, but it was an incredible set. The awesomeness of Storm is barely diminished by the fact that I know it by heart, and the brief preview of the animated version being made looks like it’ll be fantastic when it’s finished. He did a couple of numbers I’d never heard before, which were musically brilliant and genuinely hilarious in equal measure. And his song about Christmas is perfect. Goddamn, that man is something special.
  12. Phil Plait, President of the JREF, spoke about skepticism in general, and his particular field of astronomy in particular. Much of it was a sort of preview of his latest book, Death From The Skies!, of which I picked up a copy in the foyer (along with a couple by Jon Ronson, and Bruce Hood’s Supersense).
  13. Heather and Colm, the only two people with whom I really managed any socialising. (If either of you happen to find this, say hi. I’m sorry we got separated before I could find out where to stalk you on Twitter.) I decided not to aim too high, in terms of personal expectations for social interaction. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and talkative, and I’m sure the random interruptions I would’ve loved to make to introduce myself would have been welcomed, but I’m not going to berate myself for not having the nerve to go up to any famous people off of the internet. I did fine, for me.

I guess that’s as good a link as any to some more general rumination. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting as regards the format of the evening, but from what I understand of the Vegas meetings, they’re generally in a pretty open-plan space, often with different things going on in different areas at the same time, and with various bars and other areas where it’s easy to gather and congregate when nothing big’s happening. TAM London was somewhat smaller in scale, and felt rather more regimented. Superb though all the presentations were, we did all just file in and out of the one auditorium together, and there wasn’t much going on in between except a general milling about. There were a few stalls downstairs, but nothing really conducive to natural socialisation.

In fact, Jon Ronson’s just twittered a link to this review, which makes a number of good points. I didn’t feel that everyone was being quite as isolated and monastic as it apparently seemed to Luke; I thought it was mostly just me. And I’m not sure to what extent it’s up to the organisers to get the socially awkward nerd demographic talking to people they’ve never met before, or how much it’s something we’ll just have to figure out by ourselves. But a bit more infrastructure in between the talks might be something to aim for next time. And I agree that somewhere to sit for the bangers and mash dinner would definitely have been nice, and possibly more conducive to conversation.

Anyway, that’s what I did with my weekend. I may not have been as socially interactive as some, but it got me out of the house, and I hope I’ll be able to attend an even bigger and better show next year.

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Guess who’s just bought his ticket to TAM FUCKING LONDON, bitches!

(Hint: someone whose crappy annoying cold/flu symptoms had fucking better have cleared up properly by next weekend.)

Yeah, I’m still ill and have nothing to add today. Except that the new Skeptics’ Circle is up. Go there. I sleep now.

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I have got to get me to one of them TAM thingumawows one of these days. I’m missing all the fun. For one thing, Rebecca Watson and Sid Rodrigues got married live on stage yesterday.

So, yet another of my hopes has been tragically dashed. Obviously I never really had a chance there, what with us never having met and not actually having a great deal in common, but I know I’m not the only one feeling a slight pang at having it so dramatically and suddenly brought home, totally out of the blue like this. I know it was never anything more than idle daydreaming, but now even that has been irreparably grounded by this heart-rending reality. I suppose I just have to sigh a sad goodbye to what might have been.

Sid, what can she ever give you that I couldn’t?

Ahaha. Of course I kid. I joke to hide the tears.

Anyway, many congratulations to the happy couple. They are actually a pretty awesome pair. Given time I’m sure I can come to accept the sad truth that I’m probably not going to get off with many people I fancy on the internet.

And in the meantime, the live coverage continues. Right now as I type this, there’s live streaming footage over at randi.org of a dowser being tested for the million-dollar challenge. I must confess to not being on the edge of my seat as to the outcome, but it’s still fun to see happen. I’ll catch up later when my connection’s being less temperamental.

I’m consoling myself with the possibility that some TAM London tickets might still become available. If not, I guess I’ll have to start practising my remote viewing so I don’t miss any of the action. Either that or resolve to be quicker to book my ticket next year.

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