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The Amazing Meeting, Jan, 13 - 16, 2005

The Amazing Meeting logo

I swore to myself that after the first Amaz!ng Meeting that I would try harder to keep a travelog. Suuuure. I didn't even do one last year, and it's only now, a week after The Amaz!ng Meeting III finished, that I've had time to write anything.

Better late than never.

First, if you don't know who James Randi is, or what the Amaz!ng Meeting is, go read my travelog from the first meeting. It'll catch you up. Also, from here on out, I'll just be calling it TAM III for short.

The meeting this year was once again held in Las Vegas, though at the Stardust Hotel (last year it was at the Tuscany). The Stardust is an aging but reasonably comfortable hotel. Like every hotel/casino in Lost Wages, you need to go through a maze of slot machines to get anywhere, but I'm used to that. Having gone native in California, the cigarette smoke is a bit of a nuisance for me, but for three days, and the opportunity to be at TAM III, it's worth it.

an actual sign on the bus at the American ASTRONOMICAL Society meeting I got to the hotel in Vega$ late Wednesday night. I had just spent almost a week at the American Astronomical Society meeting, and I was already tired. That meeting was for professional astronomers, and was the biggest on record, with about 2500 astronomers there (having more in one place would violate several federal Geek/Nerd laws). It was fun, but a lot of work. My work here on this website is getting me recognition among astronomers and astronomy teachers, and in fact I heard from a lot of folks at the AAS meeting who use my site in their classroom, which is tremendously gratifying.

So after that week-long astronomy meeting I was tired, but excited about TAMIII, and already primed to once again assume the mantle of The Bad Astronomer. After TAMII, Randi invited me to TAMIII. But, clearly susceptible to the ravages of aging, Randi decided that I should not give an astronomy talk at TAMIII, but should instead host for one day, acting as Master of Ceremonies (MC). I'm not sure what was the bigger thrill: being able to introduce a stellar line-up of people who gave dynamic and fascinating talks, or getting the red "Master of Ceremonies" ribbon on my name badge. It turns out the duties were better, but more about that in a moment.

Randi's website has an active bulletin board much like mine, with a community of people who know each other fairly well, even though they hardly ever meet physically. I was glad to find out after I arrived in Vega$ that they were gathering at a nearby restaurant, so after I did a quick unpacking I hoofed it over there, and spent the evening getting reacquainted with old friends, and meeting new ones face to face for the first time.

The next day was the unofficial start of the meeting. About 140 people had signed up for a workshop on how to communicate skepticism to the public. This topic is a sore point, since even the notion of what skepticism is is so widely misunderstood. It is not simple naysaying, denial, and curmudgeonly cynicism. Skepticism is instead the process of not simply accepting something because someone told you. It is the process of examining claims scientifically, demanding evidence before making conclusions.

The workshop was interesting; I was not originally scheduled to help, but Andrew Harter, who volunteers for Randi at the James Randi Educational Forum, asked me to join in. We broke up into small groups to discuss the issues. I was paired with noted skeptic, thinker, and friend Michael Shermer. We had an enthusiastic crowd and had fun talking about how to go about getting the word out to people on how to think critically. Andrew had excellent advice, encouraging people to start local clubs, and get together to do just fun activities, like picnics, get-togethers and the like, and not just have monthly meetings. A sense of comraderie and friendship will help maintain a group, and attract others as well.

Julia Sweeney and me After that we had a little while to decompress and eat. At 7:00 Julia Sweeney (yes, who did the character "Pat" on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s) performed her one-woman play "Letting Go of God", about her journey along the path of critical thinking to become who she is today. Despite a series of technical glitches due to hotel equipment and crew, the show was wonderful. She is a dear, sweet, person, and another person I am proud to call my friend. She was so busy at the meeting that I hardly had time to talk with her, and she had to leave early to go back to Los Angeles to do another performance. I can't wait to get down to L.A. to visit her again (and quite a few other people from the meeting as well).

typical skepchicks, and a bad astronomer That night I spent some time again catching up with old friends (so many!). I also tried to crash the infamous Skepchick Pajama Party, but was roundly thrown out of the room by what I thought was at least six or seven women, but turned out to be just one, Renata, who evidently has authority issues (for those unfortunate souls who don't know, Skepchicks are female skeptics, but somehow vaguely cooler). I dropped by the party again later to say hi, but missed most of the antics. I did manage to score a Skepchick t-shirt for my daughter, though, who, even at the tender age of 8.75, certainly deserves to be called Skepchick.

The next day was the start of the meeting proper. I was excited, but also more nervous than usual. I had never MCed such an event before, and was edgy about it. I had written intros for the speakers (humorous ones, so I thought, knowing that I could improvise jokes and banter if needed), but I didn't know a handful of them, and was nervous about introducing a stranger.

Me MCing, with me projected bigger than I should be I think things turned out well though. The Amazing One himself opened the day, and then introduced me. Having been to the previous two meetings, a lot of the folks were familiar with me. Still, the meeting was big-- 560 attendees, up from 350 the year before-- so I was a bit daunted by the size of the crowd. But they made me feel welcome instantly, laughing at my dumb jokes, and letting me ramble for a few minutes about how important it is to remain skeptical in an increasingly vapid world. I talked about how the first thing I saw when I arrived at the Las Vegas airport was an oxygen bar that also had aromatherapy concoctions. On the shuttle to the hotel I listened to a chiropracter prattle on about his profession, and how they were pursuing lawsuits somewhere to get insurance pay for what he does... even though much of chiropracty is fraught with pseudoscientific nonsense. I also talked about the recent huge tsunami that killed so many thousands of people in southeast Asia just weeks before, and how even this had spawned so much pseudoscience. There have been all sorts of dubious causes ascribed to the tsunami, including an asteroid impact, global warming, and a test of super-weapons. People will resort to anything except for the most obvious explanation: the tsunami was a completely natural aftereffect of a huge earthquake. One particularly galling example was about one nonsense-monger who, using his own brand of pseudoscientific garbage, caused a panic in India when he issued a warning -- remember, based on nothing but unscientific claptrap-- that another earthquake was likely. This is a real case where the kind of garbage I fight did cause real damage, and could easily have resulted in more deaths from panic.

As awful as that is, it serves as a cautionary tale to us all, and should give us reason and determination to continue to fight the good fight.

Teller, Penn, and Randi In happier news, I was then able to introduce a series of spectacular people, including Michael Shermer, seance-debunker Rick Maue, superstition-basher Margaret Downey, iconcoclast Christopher Hitchins, and master magician Jamy Ian Swiss. Randi and his restraining order Randi himself introduced the world-famous duo of Penn and Teller, and they promptly chained him to an anvil. In the picture, you can see him patiently trying each of the 40 or 50 keys they gave him, one of which actually fits. To my delight, Randi was called away for a few minutes (they then gave him the real key, which Penn had palmed, but the last laugh was on them: Randi simply slipped his hand right through the cuff, seriously shocking Teller), and I had the distinct pleasure to give P&T their plaques for service to the JREF. Me giving Penn and Teller their plaques That was a real thrill. P&T help sponsor the meetings in a very big way; Penn even auctions off tours of his house (which he calls "The Slammer") on eBay, and gives the money to JREF.

I did the best I could MCing. It's tougher work than I expected; I was constantly checking my watch to make sure the speakers stuck to their time limits (fat chance), talking with JREF people to make sure things were okay, and so on. I found myself just wanting to sit back and enjoy the talks! But that had to wait until the next day.

After the official meeting ended for the day, I didn't get much of a chance to relax, though. I was hustled off to the hospitality suite to do an interview with... (get ready for it) the Penn and Teller TV show! The name of the show is not exactly family-friendly, so I'd rather not name it here. However, here's a link to the show. They debunk all kinds of nonsense, and an upcoming episode is about conspiracy theories, with emphasis on the Moon Hoax. They interviewed me for about an hour about it. I'm not sure how I did-- it's hard to know when you're repeating things many times. I guess I'll find out eventually.

You be the judge: Bain, or cheese? The P&T crew had been filming people all day. There had been a bit of a ruckus at lunch when a crowd formed around them: they were interviewing the guy who represented an online casino which bought a $28,000 grilled cheese sandwich on eBay. The sandwich supposedly had a face in it that people were claiming looked like the Virgin Mary (though to me looked like Space:1999 actress Barbara Bain). I have my doubts about its authenticity. After all, I saw Lenin in my shower curtain! Still, the sandwich is something of a skeptic icon now.

So, who's cheesier? So when, right before the interview, the Penn and Teller producer asked if I wanted to see the sandwich, I said duh! So he opened a briefcase (how secret-agentish!) and behold, there it was. Up close, my conclusion that it looked like Barabara Bain was strengthened. However, I did note the sandwich had not gone moldy, even though reportedly it was many years old. I cannot verify the age, but it was certainly many weeks old given the time I first heard about it. The lack of mold is interesting, but not what I would call miracle status. Maybe they used Velveeta. What mold would eat that?

Mmmmmm, chocolate In a food-related item, that evening was the famous Chocolate Challenge, where JREF forum members bring chocolate from around the world, and judges rate them. I was the first volunteer to be a judge, not being a complete idiot. Once again, my own local chocolate, Scharffenberger won. The mysterious hot tub, with foggy skepchick It's very good, but I suspect it tastes better when surrounded by skepchicks in fishnet stockings, another tradition. Later, at some point, a hot tub was discovered near the hospitality room, and the less said about that the better.

Saturday brought more speakers and more fun. I got to relax and let Michael Shermer MC, and I enjoyed myself immensely. The surprise hit of the meeting was Dr. Richard Wiseman, who does research in peoples' belief in luck.
Who is whom? He was a very funny and entertaining speaker. Oddly, he and I look quite a bit alike, and he said a lot of attendees came up and talked to him thinking he was me! Obviously, he is a very good-looking man. In reality there are lots of differences between us, but from a distance I was struck by how alike we look. I think next year we can have some fun with that at TAMIV...

Randi and Richard Dawkins Saturday night dinner was very special. The JREF invited the speakers to a special dinner, and I attended. I sat next to Richard Dawkins, a famous author and lecturer about evolution and creationism. Looking around the people with whom I was sitting, I found it funny to be there. I get a little star-struck, I suppose, like many people, so it's fun to be with all these people. But I still think sometimes that I'm just a 13-year-old kid attending a science fiction convention and being overwhelmed to shake some author's hand. To be considered a peer still just strikes me as funny.

I'll add that at these meetings, I am treated like a bona-fide celebrity. I don't feel like one! Sure, I've written a book, and a hundred magazine and newspaper articles, and I'm frequently on radio and TV... oh, wait a sec. OK, I guess I can see why some people treat me like a star. But I never feel that way. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, I'm just this guy, y'know? But it's nice to be treated with respect. It makes me feel that what I do is important, and it helps inspire me to keep it up, even when sometimes (OK, lots of times) it's really hard to slog through all the rotten garbage I fight.

Randi, me, and all of creation And some of this fame I owe to Randi. I called him years ago and asked him to write a blurb for the back of my book, and I was shocked when he agreed. Since then, we've become friends. And when he gave me my plaque for being MC at TAMIII, I gave him an inflatable beachball with an image of the leftover radiation from the Big Bang on it. I told him that I owed him more than the world, so I hoped the whole Universe would do...

So the dinner was wonderful, and afterwards we went to see magician Lance Burton, which was fun. My good friend Hal Bidlack and I were able to hitch a ride with the truly one-and-only Banachek and his wonderful wife Heidi. They are really such sweet people, and I love them to death. After the show, we went to a bar for some drinks, which turned out to be a mistake: the casino smoke upset my tummy, and I only got about 4 hours of sleep before Sunday's events.

Sunday was a short day, with "science" presentations; basically, research that people have done. These can be very interesting short talks. One presenter gave a talk called "Legalized Child Abuse: Faith Healers and Child Deaths", a very disturbing look into how pseudoscience quackery can kill, and kill those who have no defense against people in whom they place their trust: parents and church.

Unfortunately, my plane left at 1:30, so I had to leave before the end of the talks, and I also regretfully missed the auction to raise money for JREF (Randi: hold those auctions earlier!). They auctioned off poster-sized versions of the flyer they sent out announcing the meeting, first having had them autographed by all the speakers (including me!). I was sorely tempted to bid on one, but instead got my actual flyer signed by the speakers. I'll frame it eventually, along with my "Master of Ceremonies" ribbon and badge. It will find its way on my office wall, next to my three TAM plaques.

I had a blast at this meeting. Personally, it is incredibly stimulating and exhilarating to have so many people confirm that what I do is important, and needs to be done. It gives me momentum. But the meeting is also a place where people can get their eyes opened to the literally incredible amount of chicanery, charlatanism, fraud, and self-deception in the world. But it's also a positive meeting: we show each other that such things can be fought. People can learn how to think, and to do so critically. They can have the scales fall from their eyes, so to speak, and understand that there are people out there trying to fool them, and that people-- the vast majority of people-- are all too willing to be fooled. It's up to us, you and me, to show them that there is more to the real world than there ever will be in the fantasy world.

My thanks to skepchick Margery "Red" Kimbrough for the use of some of her pictures on this page.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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