TAM Friday

First up this morning was a marginal breakfast.  I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit.  Cooked fruit is not chocolate.  It does not make things better.  It makes them measurably much worse.  Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside.  It’s gross.

George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker.  It was pretty funny.

Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about.  I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.

Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV.  I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view.  When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t.  Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.

Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff.  If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.

Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there?  No, not at all.  And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines.  Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids.  Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV.  Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV.  There’s more than the Discovery Channel.

They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be.  I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor.  They’re tricksy people.

*deep breath*

Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.

Next up was Lawrence Krauss.  A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls.  There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM.  If that happened, I couldn’t tell.  There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.

He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.

Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing.  Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians.  It shows how lame psychics are.

Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around.  I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around.  I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.

And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people.  Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved.  So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it.  If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities.  South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion.  Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time.  These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live.  Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate.  And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.

Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.

After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast.  She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History.  She was fantastic.  She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention.  Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.

They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious.  Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary.  He was talking about the biology of aliens.  I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.

He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like.  Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science.  What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science.  The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue.  Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in.  It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on.  That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere.  I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.

And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever.  I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again.  It was a panel on the future of humans in space.  It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss.  NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass.  He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything.  The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence.  Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.

NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end.  I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine.  He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about.  Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up.  His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true.  I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud.  Hysterically funny.  I want it to happen.

And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day.  I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs.  I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books.  It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table.  After that, I went down to eat.  Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party.  I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.

Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them.  They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well.  I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others.  I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun.  It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half.  Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.

AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!

TAM 9 Thursday

So, yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas.  It was hot, but actually less hot than it was in Columbia, SC for the last few days.  I then immediately got some Baja Fresh, because brown salsa is amazing.

Then iw went to the hotel.  I ended up hanging out with Heidi Anderson in the speakers rooms with the logic that I am speaking.  I ended up spending time with the awesome Ginger Campbell, a fellow women’s soccer fan, Elizabeth Loftus, and a guy named McGaha.

We ended up talking a lot about the ethics of the porn industry, which wasn’t what I was expecting to talk about in the speakers room.  They must keep that coolness on the DL.

Then was dinner with the SC contingent.  And then the reception.

I hung out with Jennifer Michael Hecht, Jennifer McCreight, Greta Christina, Sean Faircloth, Richard Dawkins, Jamila Bay, Debbie Goddard, Sara Mayhew, and lots of other people who didn’t have their names listed in the program.

After the reception, I went to drinking skeptically where I had a diet coke and saw some people from the SCA Summit. 

Then it was time for HP7.2!  It was amazing.  Despite the fact that it didn’t start until 3AM eastern time, I didn’t almost fall asleep once.  It did complete justice to Snape, Neville, and Mrs. Weasley.

So far, there’s been a fair amount of talk about elevatorgate, but not too much.  A few jokes, some serious conversation.  Also, there’s apparently a musical, “Menopause the Musical” – I’ve heard it’s very dry.

75 Books 36-40: Meyer, George, Sharlet, Chabris and Simons, Hines

I have just finished book 41, which puts me a bit ahead of the game for the year.  Which is good since TAM will be a non-reading sort of a place.  Though the flights will be good reading time.

 

36. The Tudors – GJ Meyer

This is a history of the entirety of the Tudors, which in reality isn’t that big —  just over 100 years.  Henry 7, 8, Edward 6, Mary, and Elizabeth.  Unfortunately, despite claiming to be a history of all the Tudors, it was probably 3/4ths devoted to Henry VIII.  There was almost nothing about Henry VII, and not nearly enough on Edward, Mary, or Elizabeth.  I appreciate that there’s a lot written about all of them elsewhere, but the comprehensive claim the book makes is absurd.  It should have been called Henry VIII and Family.

One thing I really liked about the book was that between each chapter about the Tudors, there was a chapter giving background on general life in England or Europe at the time.  It was very helpful.  I also liked the fact that, unlike most writers, Meyer had a fairly negative view of the Tudors — a very interesting shift in perspective.

B-

37. Princess of the Midnight Ball – Jessica Day George

I have two favorite fairy tales: Donkey Skin and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  This is based on the latter.  The book is fairly similar to the original telling, just much expanded.  I enjoyed George’s writing style, and I particularly liked how much she weaved knitting into the story.  Seriously, the book has knitting patterns in the back for the knitting that took place within the story.  Goofy?  Yes.  Awesome?  Probably.

B+

38. The Family – Jeff Sharlet

I have been reading this for like 4 months.  It is a slog, and incredibly depressing.  Not bad, mind you, just dense.  The book follows three basic stories: the rise of fundamentalism, the power the family has in American and World Politics, and the importance of political power to Christianity.  I particularly enjoyed the parts about Ted Haggard, who was an even bigger player behind the scenes than I had realized, and Hillary Clinton, who I am horrified to know actually has worked with the Family on numerous occasions.  As Sharlet says, in the US there is only one party, they just are smart enough to pretend like people have choices.  The information is important, but not terribly well-organized, and it can be difficult to read at times.  It seems to flop back and forth between third and first person too much.

B

39. The Invisible Gorilla – Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Non-fiction usually takes me a long time to get through.  I guess because there’s no plot, or maybe because writers don’t think they have to be entertaining or provide forward motion for a book that’s mostly about facts.  This book was the first non-fiction book I’ve read in a while that was easy to get through.  It’s a fascinating exploration of how terrible our minds are at a lot of different things.  We’re bad at noticing unexpected things we aren’t paying attention to, we’re bad at remembering things accurately, we’re bad at differentiating between confidence and skill — our intuition about our brains is usually wrong.

They talk about film editing and continuity, which I found very interesting because we know we can get away with a lot.  When you’re editing, particularly non-scripted, you use a lot of stuff that has horrible continuity errors.  Have people talking to each other when they’re not even in the same room, cut to a different day and pretend it’s the same one because the shirts look close enough, cut from the exterior of one car to the interior of a different car.  We do some blatant crap in the editing room, and it’s almost always missed.

Another interesting thing about this book is that, during this whole Elevatorgate thing, Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear has come up a few times.  I was required to read the book for a self-defense class I took in college.  It was, I thought, fairly useful — though depressing, since it was basically aimed at women because women need to be vigilant at all times.  It is truly a gripping book, but it talks a lot about relying on intuition, which is sort of funny next to a book that says how wrong our intuitions are.  I suppose when in a situation where you feel threatened, it’s better to get out of it than to try to clinically dissect whether you’re being reasonable or not.

Not that The Invisible Gorilla really addresses anything like that, it’s just fairly anti-intuition.  Anyway, the book was a fantastic read, and I recommend it highly.  Particularly to anyone who thinks they’ve got an accurate memory.

A

40. Goblin Quest – Jim C Hines

This book is like reading a Dungeons & Dragons game play out, except it doesn’t suck.  I know, that’s very confusing to you, it was confusing for me too.  Basically, in a sort of Pratchett-esque way, it tells a very good adventure quest story while making fun of all of the conventions of adventure quest stories.  Sort of meta like that.  It was very entertaining, easy to read, and my only real disappointment with it was the ending, which I felt was abrupt and unnecessarily got rid of interesting characters.  The interesting characters only matters because there are sequels.  I did like that the end sort of emphasized how miserable it is to return to your small life after living a larger than life adventure.  It’s difficult to grow and change and have everyone you know stay the same.  I’m upset that my library has only the first and last in the series.  I’m going to have to buy the middle one.

A-