Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 18, 2013

#TAM2013 Day ±0 Review by the PseudoAstronomer


Thursday, the day of optional workshops and the evening welcome reception.

Cost for an all-workshop pass is +$100 from the normal ticket price, or it is included with the TAM experience. Or, a single workshop will run you $45. I don’t remember how much the evening stuff was, I think $40.

Early Morning

The day before the official events, there is no provided food other than at the welcome reception that evening. That was fine with me, I was too nervous to eat, giving the first workshop, 1A, “How Your Camera Lies to You.” You can read a description of it on this blog post.

Let me be clear, I’ve given presentations before. To well over 100 people. Both science talks at conferences and public talks. But, this was my second TAM, people had a choice of what to go to (this workshop or a blogging one), and people were actually paying and had the option not to pay and not to go. And it was at 8AM and anyone coming from out of town would likely be jet-lagged … if coming from the East or more than a few timezones West (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). I wasn’t sure if I would be awake.

I set three different alarms on two devices and woke up several times before them, including once due to a nightmare where nothing worked and everyone walked out and DJ Grothe (President of the JREF) had to refund everyone. Not a great way to start the day.

First Workshop Block

Obviously, I went to Workshop 1A. There’s video and photo proof! Or, evidence anyway.

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

Stuart Robbins and Bryan Bonner at TAM 2013, Workshop 1A

The room had 352 chairs (2 macro columns, 16 rows, 11 columns each). I was hoping for at least 100 people, to have more than the blogging workshop (no offense, Skeptic Ink), and good reviews (pending…). I took a photo part-way through, and at 8:24AM, there were 164 people sitting or standing, 2 AV folks, and myself and Bryan presenting. The room looked much more full than that, but 164 people for an 8AM thing is not bad.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Attendance

I think the workshop went well. I got compliments throughout the next few days, people seemed engaged, and they laughed at the correct times (no, we did not have a “LAUGH NOW” sign up, they did it on their own).

Bryan and I have ideas for a follow-up workshop for next year that wouldn’t require having seen the one this year. And I have other ideas for stuff I could present or do a panel on or … well, that’s a separate story. If you went to TAM, and you liked the workshop, please make sure that the JREF knows!

That’s not to say that everything was perfect. It almost wouldn’t be TAM if there weren’t A/V issues. Nothing on our end, but microphones were not working and I had to speak into Bryan’s chest once or twice to use his lapel mic. ‘Sok, we made it funny.

Second Workshop Block

I had friends presenting during the second workshop, but I was too exhausted (and wound up) to go to it and I needed to deposit all my demo stuff in my hotel room. Speaking of hotel room: I was on the 22nd floor again this year. Apparently, you can get a lower floor room just by asking. I plan to do that next year.

Anyway, I instead went to breakfast at the Coronado in the hotel with a few other folks (mostly Colorado folks, incl. the co-presenter, Bryan). I maintain my evaluation from last year: Coronado is SLOW and EXPENSIVE. I do NOT recommend it.

Oh, the options for this block were “Skepticism Around the Curriculum” and “Crowd-Sourcing Skepticism.”

Third Workshop Block

Options during this block were “Physicists, Metaphysicists and Frauds” and “Supporting Skepticism Around the World.”

I went to 3B due to the desire not to work in small groups and because 3B had huge names (Richard Saunders, Leo Igwe, and Sanal Edamaruku — a guy for whom James Randi started at least one standing ovation during his talk). DJ Grothe and Richard Saunders had to leave about 40 minutes into the workshop because of a Million Dollar Challenge development, and Senal came in an hour late. Otherwise, the entire workshop was really more a monologue with different actors — I’m not saying anyone was “playing” a part or that it was scripted, but it wasn’t even much of a dialogue like the panels later on during TAM, it was each person said their bit about skepticism activities and/or persecution in their part of the world, or a part they were interested in.

I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying that any individual was bad. An effectively smaller version of this was what I thought was the best workshop last year. But, it wasn’t a workshop.

Fourth Workshop Block

Neither was 4A, “Science Based Medicine” (your other option was “Preserving Skeptic History” … I always hated history class, so I went to SBM). As last year, it was a few MDs talking about something they wanted to talk about for about 15 minutes and that was about it. If billed as a “lecture,” that would’ve been fine. But I think it’s false-advertising to be calling these things “workshops.”

Fifth Workshop Block

At this point, I was feeling the 3 hrs of sleep 3 days in a row and I really had to nap during this block. The options were, “How Rational Are You?” and “Skeptics in the Dojo: Taking on the Martial Arts.”

The fifth workshop block ended at 5:45, then it was dinner on your own for another hour.25.

Reception

The reception was 7:00-9:00, and this year, with my bf NOT driving through town, I stayed the whole time. I spoke with many people (several dozen?) and some were those who had attended and liked the workshop (yay!). I also got to meet Tom and Cecil of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast, probably my favorite of the 3 new ones I started listening to after my blog post a few months ago about what podcasts I listen to.

The food was free and decent (I went for the chicken and fruit), and I think the alcohol cost money (I don’t drink so that wasn’t an issue).

George Hrab introduced James Randi maybe an hour into the event, and Randi officially kicked off TAM to much applause and then people went back to talking and drinking and eating.

Evening Show: What THEY Don’t Want You To Know

The evening show this night (and all nights) was 9-11. Bryan and Baxter are Colorado skeptic staples, and they’ve been to every Skepticamp I’ve gone to except one in Fort Collins and the one last month in Colorado Springs. And I gave the workshop with Bryan. So, I’m kinda biased, but I’d put them probably first in terms of the three evening shows this year. And I’m saying that as someone who had seen pretty much ALL of the clips they showed.

If Bryan and Baxter are invited back – and they should be – I recommend going to their show.

After the Evening Show

You’d think that after very little sleep, getting up at 6:30AM, getting MAYBE a 1.5-2 -hour nap, and it being 11PM that I would go to bed straight-away. Alas, no. First option is the Del Mar lounge, which is the staple of TAM. The “watering hole” as it were. Or, perhaps, “alcoholing hole.” You might find TAMers there until the very late hours of the night, maybe even up ’til breakfast the next morning.

My alternative option was that the Colorado folks and a few others got a suite on the top floor, and there was booze and actually audible conversation there. And, it was a good place for me to bring the baked goods I brought (candied pecans, chocolate-mint fudge, and key lime meltaway cookies). I stayed up there probably until around 1AM.

Overall Comments

To follow-up on my comments from yesterday when I recommended that you arrive on Wednesday if you can, I’ll modify it to say that if you can’t arrive Wednesday, you need to arrive early Thursday and go to as much as you can. Well, at least the evening stuff. I honestly wish I could recommend the workshops more (other than my own of course, which was EXCELLENT).

To be blunt, and honest, and hopefully not to burn any bridges, I was not impressed/thrilled with the workshop options this year — nothing really “popped” out at me as a super-exciting must-go-to thing (mine being a clear exception in the positive direction, obviously). I also think that they should have been kinda – you know – interactive. When I was begging DJ to let me do a workshop and pitching different ideas to him, one of the two main things I remember was that DJ insisted that the workshop be interactive. That’s the difference between a talk and a workshop.

Bryan and I tried really hard to make our workshop interactive in at least some way. And there was some. It wasn’t a break-into-groups-and-do-something thing or hands-on origami folding, but there was back-and-forth and some audience participation. There was very little of that in any other workshop except I think 3A. There was NONE of it in the two others I went to, 3B and 4A, and those were by some of the biggest names in organized scientific skepticism. That bugs me. Not because I tried hard and did something that others didn’t, but because they didn’t and so their workshops were not as good as they could have been.

I think what TAM needs is to clearly state that there are some workshops and there are some lectures. Mine was a workshop. 3A was a workshop. 3B and 4A were lectures.

My other comment on the workshops is that they were shorter this year — 90 minutes instead of 120. That was hard for me and Bryan (or at least me) because we had SO MUCH CONTENT that we left out because we couldn’t fit it. But, as someone sitting in the audience, I think that this was a better timespan. I mean, my own attention span was lagging during some parts of my 90-minute workshop, and there comes a point where you just have to get up and stretch, or focus on something else for a few minutes.

7 Comments »

  1. I agree with your assessment of workshops becoming group lectures. More like classrooms than presentations on the main stage. Workshop to me does mean breaking down in to groups and “working”. I did a “Dealing with the Media” workshop with Margaret Downey at TAM5 where we did break down with worksheets for developing talking points on a subject given to us there and later 1 person from each group was videoed doing an a TV interview.

    TAM is not that small anymore and I think there is room for small workshops, in depth classes with audience interaction (how I would classify your excellent workshop), and interactive panels since there is no longer questions during the main sessions.

    I went to 5 workshops. Yours was the most informative. The time went quickly and the sessions was enjoyable.

    Comment by Andrew Hansford — July 18, 2013 @ 10:08 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Andrew! Having only gone the last year and this year, I can’t really judge if the workshops have gotten more or less like lectures — can you comment on that?

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 18, 2013 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  2. I enjoyed your workshop and getting the chance to chat.
    The How Rational Are You workshop was interactive though I feel they under estimated the audience. Many of the questions were followed up with “well, hmmm maybe if this was a different crowd we would get the answer we usually expect to get”. They handed out a questionnaire/assessment which was good and they helped with understanding the reason behind certain question types.

    The Physicist and Frauds was ok and was a work a workshop but there really wasn’t enough time for what they had planned.

    I will definitely do my best to continue going to future TAMs, I look forward to future workshops. You forgot to mention Baxter’s photoshop evidence that he presented during the show!

    Comment by eternalsojourn — July 19, 2013 @ 6:59 am | Reply

  3. Several of the workshops I went to had actual activities, not just lectures. The one on blogging, opposite yours, had us break into small groups and review a set of dubious stories for possible blog content. The How Rational are You? session passed out a test, which we were to do quickly. Then the speakers reviewed the answers with us and discussed the biases reflected in them. The best was the Physicist, Metaphysicists and Frauds workshop, where they had three dubious pieces of woo-woo technology, and we broke into smaller groups to discuss how to approach designing a testing protocol for them.

    Comment by ubi dubium — July 19, 2013 @ 7:23 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the comments on interactivity. It sounds like the less well-known workshops were more interactive than the big name ones. I interpret that as good and bad — it means that those who are easing their way into this and are new are willing to go that extra bit and make these more what they could be. But, those who have done this for many years are comfortable coasting on what they’ve done.

    Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2013 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  5. All this talk makes me feel a bit ambivalent about attending next year’s TAM. If there’s only going to be a few workshops worth attending (yours among them), can I justify the cost to myself? I get the impression that meeting various people is far more valuable, since networking is very important in the skeptical community.

    Comment by Rick K. — July 19, 2013 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

    • Obviously you need to make the decision for yourself, but I think that you should wait to see the schedule before making a final decision. I think the people who are giving the workshops and the workshop topics themselves will really be the deciding factor. And, that’s only the zeroth day.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2013 @ 1:01 pm | Reply


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