Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 17, 2012

My TAM 2012 Experience – The Good, The Bad, The Looking-Forward-to-Next-Year


This is likely going to be a long post, almost a travel log, and I’m writing it both to organize my own thoughts and because some folks asked me to write it. So, here you go, my thoughts from my first TAM (“The Amaz!ng Meeting”) experience at TAM 2012. The theme this year was “The Future of Skepticism.”

I want to make it very clear at the beginning: Overall I enjoyed TAM. It may seem like I complain a lot below, but that’s the nature of most things — it’s much easier to point out what you think was wrong versus everything that was right. And I do realize that this is a JREF fund-raising event. I also want to very much thank DJ Grothe (JREF president), Randi, George Hrab, and all the organizers for the event as I do realize how much work goes into it.

A James Randi Sighting

A James Randi Sighting

Cost Associated

I’m a scientist used to having grants pay for his travel to conferences. I look at the expenses, I generally don’t pay too close attention, though I try to find cheap hotels (if not at a conference center) and cheap flights. Registration costs for the three main conferences I go to each year are $100 student now $215 professional (Lunar & Planetary science Conference), free (Lunar Science Forum), and free (Planetary Crater Consortium meeting). This was the first conference I’ve ever gone to where I’ve had to 100% pay my own way with no expectation of reimbursement. I was a bit sticker-shocked, but I have this section here so that people who have not gone have a vague idea of what to expect.

Required Costs:

Registration: $425 — base cost for early registration, non-student
Additional Registration: $100 — all workshop pass (not “required,” but the only events for one out of the four days of the conference)
Hotel: $341.60 — five nights at the hotel/casino (South Point), Wednesday through Sunday nights, conference rate; I tried to find a roommate but I was unsuccessful (though honestly didn’t try too hard)
Airfare*: $108.80 + $149.80 — between Denver, CO and Las Vegas, NV; both within the USA
Ground Transportation: None, as there was a free shuttle between the airport and hotel.

Total Required Costs: $1125.20

*Note: I followed this conference up immediately with a work conference, flying Denver -> Las Vegas, Las Vegas -> San José (California), and then San José -> Denver (with coincidentally a layover in Las Vegas). The cost may have been a bit different if I had gone directly back to Denver, but I listed the flight out of Vegas as the cost.

Incidental Costs (your mileage WILL vary):

Swag: $82 — I bought a DNA tie for my dad for $22, a Penn Jillette bacon/doughnut party t-shirt for $20 that went directly to the JREF, and two shirts for $40 (one gift of “Praise Bacon,” one “Europa Fishing” for me) where the money went directly to the JREF, too.
Food: $60-70 — I tried to keep track of this but it’s likely I missed a charge or two

Total Incidental Costs: $122

Note: You can easily get by for much less here by not buying any swag and bringing your own food or eating much more cheaply than I. Similarly, you could go much higher on this by getting more swag and buying more expensive food and any alcohol (I don’t drink so that was not a cost I had to deal with). More if you see a show — I was lucky and my significant other was driving through town, met me on Thursday, and took me to a show so this was not a cost for me. Oh … and much more if you end up gambling (I did not).

All told, this conference cost me roughly $1250 USD. Plus, of course, vacation time from work.

Wednesday — Pre-TAM

I definitely recommend arriving Wednesday. Even though there’s really nothing formal going on, many people do arrive on Wednesday and it’s good for meeting people. I held the meetup for my podcast and along with my begging of 6 people to come, I had a total of 10 across the course of a few hours.

On Wednesday night in the Del Mar “lounge” area, I got to meet several “big name” people in the skeptics movement, also in said lounge, including the three Novella brothers (“The Novellum”) and Evan of the SGU, D.J. Grothe and his would-be husband (though I didn’t officially meet Thomas until Sunday night), and a few others such as Joshie Berger.

I should probably note for those who have not been to Vegas before (I had not): Be prepared for rampant commercialism, lots of blinking and flashy lights, and a smell of cigarette smoke wafting everywhere. I was a bit unprepared.

Thursday — Workshops

As I wrote above, I bought the all-workshop pass. I’m honestly not certain I would do that again. I went to Workshops 1B (“From Witch-burning to God-men: Supporting Skepticism Around the World”), 2A (“Dr. Google”), 3A (“Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating “Lights” in the Sky”), and 4A (“Investigative Methods for the Skeptic”).

1B was excellent and I learned a lot about the persecution of anyone who thinks critically in much of Africa.

2A was interesting and I’m glad I went, though it was less of a workshop than mini-lectures by four doctors about why Google isn’t good for finding medical information unless you know what to look for and what to ignore. Steve Novella ran 50% over his allotted 20 minutes, which honestly pissed me off and is generally a pet peeve of mine (it’s rude to the other speakers, rude to the audience, and is arrogant to think you’re so important that (a) you don’t have to follow the rules everyone else does, (b) let others speak, and (c) work to trim your talk to the allotted time like everyone else did). He also was the moderator so he didn’t cut himself off. Otherwise, I would have preferred more interaction (see my discussion about Day 3).

3A I was NOT going to go to, rather I was going to go to 3B (“The Future of Skepticism Online: Crowd-Sourced Activism”). I had been told previously that James McGaha (who gave 3A) was a bad speaker, but then the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society (RMPS) folks convinced me to go anyway and see his approach to the subject. Instead of describing it here, I wrote a blog post describing just a few of the major issues with his presentation.

4A I thought was also an excellent workshop given by the RMPS guys, the hosts of MonsterTalk, and the hosts of the “Oh No Ross and Carrie” podcast. I catered it and got a “shout out” by Bryan and Baxter (the two RMPS guys) as one of the “excellent” experts they call on when confronted with claims they don’t have the expertise to address.

I went to the reception that was the official start of TAM at 7:00, but then left to go out as I mentioned above. I did not go to any of the late night shows that required a separate ticket purchase or other things.

Friday – Day 1

The official start of TAM was an included breakfast (which followed through Sunday) with a live recording of the SGU podcast for an hour. I was a bit surprised with how dirty the guys were when live – several penis and self-pleasuring (this is a PG blog …) references that I would be very surprised if they make it into the actual released show.

The official-official start was humorous and pleasant, as were the first two talks by Michael Shermer and Eugenie Scott (though Shermer had issues finding out where the “Play” button was on the presentation software). Which itself bears mention — the A/V at TAM was not good. It was surprising how often microphones were not working, slides were not working, and the large projectors showed a person’s head behind the podium instead of the slides they had said 5 seconds ago to leave up. I recognize they had four cameras going and three projectors plus microphones and a computer, but given the expense to attendees when compared with the conferences I normally go to with no A/V problems, I was surprised. Moving on …

I didn’t go to the next two talks, but instead became a temporary “groupie” of Eugenie Scott in the hallway and told her that it was she who really got me interested in the creationism stuff and back into skepticism in around 2004 after a brief interest around 1999 sparked by Phil Plait.

The next talk I went to was given by Dr. Karen Stollznow (fianceé of one of the two RMPS guys, so I know her well). I was honestly pleasantly surprised. Her talk title was, “Talking to Tomorrow – Prediction and Language,” and I thought it would be boring from the title — I always hated English class and my one goal in high school was to place out of it for college. Instead, Karen’s talk was about claimed mediums and ways to illustrate that they were con artists (e.g., the channeler and “the voice” speaking through them mispronouncing the same words). I would say her’s was one of the best talks, and I’m not just saying that ’cause I was her date the next day (more on that later).

“Free” (read: “included”) lunch was next and I was surprised with how good the food was for a hotel. I did not go to the fundraising lunch, though I saw the end of a recording of “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast.

I saw the next two talks, the interview with Randi being excellent, and the panel on “The Future of Skepticism” with yet another Colorado guy, Reed Esau, I also thought was pretty good.

I did not go to the next several talks, nor did I go to any of the separate-ticket-purchase-required evening events.

I almost went to a Sylvia Browne protest, but there was not room in the few cars so did not attend. I did get in the photo of the pre-rally, though.

Pre- Sylvia Browne Protest

Pre- Sylvia Browne Protest: Convicted Felon Sylvia Brown is a Horse’s Ass

I did go to Penn Jillette’s “Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party 2: Bring the Stupid” party. It was in the hotel, it was free, it did require a ticket, and it was pretty neat at the beginning. Penn made no pretense about it having good music (it was him singing), but the shear number of doughnuts and amount of bacon – for free – was nice. I also got there early, was able to gift him some bacon-chocolate bark I made (with my professional and podcast business cards in the zip-top bag), and I was close enough to the stage to catch a t-shirt he threw (“Praise Bacon”) without even flashing my moobs. Well, to be completely honest, I co-caught it with Matthew Baxter, but it was a Large size (and he’s taller and larger than I) and he was gracious in letting me keep it. I left after two songs and bought the souvenir shirt, the $20 going to the JREF.

Doughnuts and Bacon at Penn Jillette's Doughnut and Bacon Party

Doughnuts and Bacon at Penn Jillette’s Doughnut and Bacon Party

Saturday – Day 2

I got up early for Day 2 and saw Ben Radford’s talk on 2012. I gave a summary of it here. I did not go to the next several talks because they did not interest me (and I really don’t understand why some of the presenters were even giving talks as I do not understand the reason for their celeb, but that’s all I’m going to say on this matter) except for the 9:00 panel on Skepticism and the Humanities. I regret not going to Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk, though. I did sit in for most of Pamela Gay’s talk and then left to meet people for the included lunch.

I went to most of the rest of the talks, skipping only Elisabeth Cornwell’s “Social Networks” one. During her talk, I went up to my room to change into something more presentable: I was going to the special speakers’ dinner at 6:30.

There were roughly eight of us in the Colorado contingent, and five of us were speakers in some capacity. The speakers’ dinner invites all speakers plus one guest each, so we were all able to go; I was Karen’s “plus one” though when she walked ahead of me with her fiancée, I ended up being Bryan Bonner’s “plus one” (one of the RMPS folks).

The dinner was one of the other highlights for me because, well, I got to gush to more people about how they influenced me and I looked up to them. I brought chocolate and was walking around attempting to network (thanks again to Reed Esau for introducing me to people). I talked with Eugenie Scott again, I spoke with Ben Radford about my issues with his talk in the morning (and he was amenable to the critiques) while explaining to him that I look up to him for his investigations, I spoke again with DJ Grothe about several things (surprised he remembered me from Wednesday) and I offered him my support (despite how relatively insignificant I am) with many of the claims of marginalizing women and sexual harassment at TAM.

(Note here I said “many,” not “all,” and I do not mean to marginalize any legitimate instances of sexual harassment, but I do think that much of the discussion that “went down” a few months ago was blown way out of proportion.)

Reed also put in many, many good words for me with DJ in an effort to get a talk/panel/workshop of some sort next year; DJ said to stay in touch, and I will be following up on that. I also spoke with Ray Hall, Rachael Dunlop, Brian Dunning, and others. With Ray Hall, I got some insight into potentially why my application to talk about 2012 astronomy doomsday stuff had been rejected (he was looking for solid data of influence, changed minds, reader/listenership, etc … none of this was asked on the application, though, which he acknowledged and said he would look at revising). He also said he had thought there would be more of the 2012 stuff at TAM this year and that was likely another reason my application was turned down.

Someone also had an extra ticket to the “A Carlin Home Companion” show, which I went to most of, and then I retired to bed for I was very sleep-deprived. I wish at this point that I hadn’t, though, because the Colorado group went to the Del Mar lounge afterwards and had a gay ol’ time with DJ Grothe and his domestic partner, among others, and I wish I had joined them.

Sunday – Day 3

On Sunday, I went to about half of the papers of which mine was not accepted. Some talks were good, some I was not impressed with. I was tweeted by one person who said one of the talks was so bad he was pretty upset that mine was rejected by comparison. I thanked him but chose not to make much of it and respect those people who did get Sunday morning talks. /me ≠ bitter. As I said, I greatly appreciate the time that people put into organizing this conference.

I went to the next panel on alt. med stuff that I thought was pretty good. I did not go to the next two talks, though I honestly do not remember what I was doing instead. Oh well. I swear I wasn’t drunk. Oh wait, now I remember. I went down to the casino lobby to use the one free wireless internet area because I had run out of the 1GB data plan on my iPad but only had two days before the next billing period so didn’t want to pay $20 for another GB. Since breakfast was the last included meal, I went for lunch in the lobby and then went to the remaining talks and panels.

Unfortunately, I missed most of the “Beware the Religio-Industrial Complex” talk because at 4:00 I went into a small room as someone who may be chosen to be a volunteer for a claimant for the Million-Dollar Challenge (MDC) that would take place starting at 7:30. I was the third to be tested by the claimant and put down as a “maybe” but was then passed over as he found 10 guys strong enough to do what he needed. This also meant I unfortunately missed the closing remarks and Reed Esau being given a prestigious JREF award for all his excellent work in getting Skepticamp created and going.

Reed Esau with James Randi and Reed's Award

Reed Esau with James Randi and Reed’s Award

I sat in workshop 5B, “Promoting Skepticism in Classroom Settings,” briefly before deciding that it was not what I had hoped, and it was less interactive than I hoped. Sorry, but when I hear the word “workshop” I usually think “audience involvement,” not “another lecture.”

I napped and then went to the Million Dollar Challenge. I did not go to the CosmoQuest meetup at 7 because I was still potentially an alternate for the MDC and because I did not have a ride. I went to the MDC and decided that I was glad I was not one of the volunteers selected. They sat up there on stage for 90 minutes doing nothing except for the ~8 minutes they were being tested. I sat in the audience and watched and listened and worked on processing my photos from the December 2010 total lunar eclipse.

December 2010 Lunar Eclipse

December 2010 Lunar Eclipse

There are numerous run-downs of the MDC, so I’m not really going to go into details of what the guy was claiming, how he was doing it, and the protocol established for testing. I’ll say it was a guy who was using applied kinesiology to try to prove that a chip he invented and embedded in a bracelet made your balance and strength better (his initial evidence: it increased his bench press by 20 lbs). There were going to be 20 trials where he had to determine if the band inside an opaque box held by a volunteer was a placebo band or his band. It was double-blinded. He needed to get 17 (or more) correct to pass, which had roughly a 0.1% chance of succeeding by chance alone.

His first trial took around 3 minutes and he got it wrong. I spoke with Banachek at length afterwards (he’s in charge of the MDC) and he said that the look on the guy’s face when he got it wrong was an “Oh sh-t” look, so he thinks the guy is a true believer rather than a knowing deceiver. All other trials took closer to 10 minutes.

The guy got pretty much exactly chance by the 10th try (4 hits, 6 misses), and when Volunteer #7, Rich Orman (another CO guy), was his fourth miss, speculation in the crowd turned from “how long before he’s out?” to, “what’s his rationalization going to be?” To his credit, he continued to try hard to figure out the remaining three (fortunately they all agreed to stop after 10) as opposed to just breezing through to get off the stage to go cry, which is what I would have done.

I thought the crowd was very generous, and I applauded more for him than for any other talk during TAM. It takes guts to stand up in front of hundreds of skeptics and do what he did. He was also gracious enough to take questions from the audience. He still, immediately, said that he believes in his product. The rationalization on why the test failed was that it was blinded and that the people did not know they were holding his band. AKA, they didn’t know they were supposed to experience the placebo effect. He pretty much said that his bands work by doing the placebo effect, which led most of us to think he doesn’t know what the placebo effect is. When asked how he developed it, his answer was the standard new-age / pseudoscience of, “I read” books and NASA sites and other things and put it all together. It should be noted that he did agree — like all MDC claimants — to the experimental protocol in advance.

I went to dinner with many of the Colorado folks afterwards and then went to the Del Mar lounge to try to talk with more of the famous folks. Miranda Hale introduced me to DJ’s partner and he introduced me to a few people. I ended up getting to sit down in a group with Jamy Swiss and Banachek and talk with them for probably close to an hour. DJ and Thomas had gone to bed by that point. I tried to leave to go to bed around 12:30, but it took me around an hour to cross the 20 feet of the lounge because I kept getting into conversations with other people.

Other Stuff

First, I need to state here that though I said above, “I didn’t go to” some talks, I went to about 70% of them. It may have sounded like I went to less, so I wanted to clarify. I’ll admit I have a difficult time sitting in one place for too long and concentrating on people giving lectures for hours in a row.

Next, I suppose I should specify that in previous parts of this post, by “Colorado group,” I meant middle/northern Colorado. There was another contingent from Colorado Springs, and they were generally managing the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science table. I stopped by them many times and hobnobbed.

Similarly, I was at the CosmoQuest (Pamela Gay’s) table a fair bit. Not for any significant amount of time, but I tried to stop by several times a day for a few minutes in case there were any questions on the immediate science we were doing.

Otherwise, there were lots of tables set up with numerous atheist and skeptic organizations. I perused them and bought some stuff (as I mentioned earlier under the cost of this conference). I was a bit surprised at the number of atheist booths. I realize that many skeptics are atheists, but there is a rather significant argument in the movement over how much each should embrace the other. Hence, I was a bit surprised.

I was also surprised – though I really shouldn’t have been – at how much the hotel/casino attempts to nickel and dime you. Need to withdraw money from an ATM? 5% fee. Need a corkscrew for a wine bottle? $5. Having a package delivered for you to the front desk? $5 handling fee. More pillows in your room? Up to 2 more that will be removed the next morning. Wireless? $13 per day per device except in the hotel lobby where all the gambling and smoke is. Power for the tables where people had their stuff set up? $90 per table.

In other “other stuff,” I handed out a lot of business cards for my podcast – probably over 100 – and I’m hoping at least a third of them are kept and the podcast tried out, word spreading, etc., but we’ll see. I also modified my cards for the next printing to include some additional information based on what I had wished I put down as I was handing them out and so had to write down on the back.

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.3b

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.3b

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.4

Exposing PseudoAstronomy Podcast Business Card v. 1.4

Final Thoughts

I guess the bottom-line question at this point is, based on all the above, was TAM worth the time and the expense? I’m sitting here in the Vegas airport writing this post and waiting for my delayed flight (slating this post to be published in a day or two to give the appearance of regular posting on my blog). It’s honestly hard for me to give a giant, resounding, unconditional “yes” that I’ll spend at least $1100 next year to come to TAM. The only way to reduce that cost is to share a hotel room with someone, and that would only cut it down to around $950. Possibly I could drive, as well, but it’s around 14 hours each way and not something I’d look forward to.

I would like to go next year. It was enjoyable, and I met people that I’d like to see again. Being able to talk one-on-one with some of the VIPs that I’ve come to respect (and know by voice) over the last few years was a great experience. I enjoyed many – but unfortunately, not all – of the talks that I went to. I also found the quality of the talks/workshops to be very inconsistent, and technical difficulties became a running joke along with the additional costs for nearly everything at the venue.

I think an improvement would actually be to run parallel talks even for the main ones so that people are more likely to find something they want to listen to the entire time. As I wrote above, there were several talks I had absolutely no interest in.

In talking with a few other people, I also think that there should have been a first-TAMers mixer, I think the MDC should have been closer to the beginning of the conference, and I was surprised there was no SGU informal meetup – at least for SGU fans / forum folks. There were also apparently some other mixers open to everyone, like an LGBT one, but the lack of formal advertisement for these meant that very few knew about them.

With all that said (written), will I go next year? As the Magic 8 Ball would say, “All signs point to ‘Yes.'”


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