In my household, we have this inviolable tradition we call “Birthday Week.” My partner and I have birthdays merely 72 hours apart; some years ago we decided to celebrate them collectively, enrichingly and extensively. During the ideal Birthday Week we attend a play, have a nice experience at an upscale restaurant (I had my first foie gras and sweetbreads during one), delight in a concert, and take in a science lecture or two. The lecture is often the highlight – often involving some local but non-trivial travel to meet and hear an author we respect. We also often include our dear friend Shiloh in our brainy bacchanalia, insofar as schedules permit. In former years we have celebrated our annual circumsolar orbit by, for instance, attended lectures by Richard Dawkins in Minneapolis and Michael Shermer in Milwaukee.

This past year, some rude confluences of bad luck and the failure of many increasingly desperate Google searches conspired to keep us nestled in our home theater, watching science videos instead. Sure, that saved gas, but we missed mixing with other seekers after enlightenment, and were sad to not be able to meet another admired author. This year, we found only a sold-out Fermilab lecture and some (quite fun!) local gatherings (or should we say Meetups) of like-minded folk. Foiled in our pursuit of proximal science stimulation, nonetheless our sleuthing had turned up an amazing and delightful-sounding meeting of science and skepticism lovers, well-peopled by numerous writers and bloggers! Dissuasively many miles and months away, it still beckoned alluringly in the person of an honest-to-gosh tiny gnomish mage as host and sponsor! If only The Amazing Meeting were in early March… Now that looked like a real hootenanny (pardon, my Ozark roots are showing)! It was far away and a bit pricey, but we had talked about attending for the past few years. A quick check, recheck and triple-check of our bank account and vacation-time allotments and a few chats about maximizing utility and opportunity costs, and a deliberate consideration of a study concerning the value of shared experiences versus say, a new astrograph telescope or a liquid nitrogen generator (don’t ask); and we were off to purchase our early-bird-discounted TAM 2012 tickets!

Two-thirds of us had never before been to Las Vegas, nor the desert southwest surrounding it. That fact, combined with the price of three airline tickets versus gasoline, persuaded us to drive there from our suburban Chicago home. Has anyone ever complained to you that Nebraska and Iowa are boring? Well, let me presume to be the first to tell you that a few engrossing podcasts and a captivating audiobook about the neuroscience of magic can make those otherwise nearly indistinguishable miles zip right by! Why, it seemed like we were white-knuckle-hydroplaning through a monsoon downpour in the outskirts of Denver before we could say Triskaidekaphobia thirteen
times
!

We did some easy “middle-aged computer-professional physique” friendly hiking near Leadville Colorado. The mountain air and scenery were inspiring and refreshing. Having brought scads of memory-cards with me for my Canon pro camera setup, I decided to do mostly HDR imaging from there on out. Such imagining entails taking several (3 to 7) exposures of the same scene with different exposure values, then combing results into a a final image with much greater shadow, highlight and color detail. It was generally fruitful, however. When we got to Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon the technique really yielded some pretty results. Personlally, the three of us who undertook the adventure had a great time on the road: With one of us snorkling his way through a Moon Pie and another leaving mostly-complete ice cream sandwiches in incongruous locations, while the third one drove at insane speeds to ensure his shutterbug partner captured the last fleeting rays of sunset at a scenic overlook; the trip itself provided a large bounty of memories.

Then there were the stars! From our vantage at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we could see the resplendent smear of the southern Milky Way, stretching from the horizon to the zenith and beyond. I’m a bit of an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer, and I adore the universe when it shows off. Geology, biology and astronomy entail some of the showiest phenomena I know; and the indigo desert sky was littered with a thousand billion stars – as if a crate of silver dust had been dropped onto the celestial sphere.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who encouraged us to marvel at what a vast collection of hydrogen atoms could do, given many billions of years, and a few basic forces of nature. Indeed. Regarding time, I didn’t come across a single book, speaker, pamphlet or placard at the Grand Canyon that even mentioned, much less gave credence to anything less than a many billion year history for Earth, and millions for the Canyon. It was refreshing to see reality displayed so proudly and prominently; a point punctuated by the guest astronomers at the North Rim lodge who told visitors about the ancient light of the heavens their own eyes could apprehend by looking into the volunteer’s mammoth telescope. In any case, beholding ancient stars and ancient geology at the same venue was profound.

After our sight-seeing, we headed to Vegas and the South Point for TAM 2012. We arrived Wednesday evening, and spent that evening seeing a Chris Angel magic show, largely motivated by the previously mentioned audio book. The show was mediocre, and we were later told by someone “in the know” that it’s one of the least good magic shows in Vegas. We probably should have gone to see Penn & Teller.

Thursday, we attended a workshop “The Future of Skepticism Online: Crowd-Sourced Activism” . The overall content was quite good, and we learned about several new tools for promoting skepticism. However, I would not call it a workshop. I agree with another commentator that my workshop, like the one Stuart mentions, was mostly another lecture. In my opinion, a workshop should be interactive. One should be provided opportunities to test one’s own biases, knowledge, creativity and methodology. In short, a workshop should be interactive, not passive. As an example, I can imagine holding a workshop on spotting logical fallacies in political discourse, or advertising. One could throw out some particularly juicy dollops of unreason, and constructively argue what biases and fallacies are in play. If, as another example, one facilitates a workshop focused on woo-woo in geology, biology or astronomy, one should solicit answers to interesting and relevant questions from the audience; then seek to disabuse attendees of misconceptions.

That brings me to my biggest disappointment with TAM 2012; a lack of interactivity. The schedule was so full, that those of us who are not insomniacs had every opportunity to fill our days with passive entertainment and education; between the days-long lecture series and the evening shows. The only times provided specifically for social interaction were the lunch breaks and the reception. Albeit there were also opportunities to obtain signatures and handshakes from most of the luminaries present (with my personal experience being that Michael Shermer was particularly accessible and friendly – as always). But like most collections of people, folks tended to fracture into the smaller groups with whom they were already comfortable and familiar. In my opinion, much of the TAM experience could have been similarly conveyed via videos or podcasts. Much – but not all: There was some interaction and it was great to see so many “like-minded folks” gathered in one place. They did try to instigate conversation during one lunch by putting “topic placards” on tables, and then inviting the random people gathered at said tables to use that as a launching point for discussion. Interestingly, in the room I and my friends were in (BTW, we sat at different tables), we did not have said placards, and my attempts to start conversations otherwise met with limited results.

Two moving and thought-provoking talks are especially worthy of mention: the ones by Jamy Ian Swiss and Dr. Pamela Gay. These two folks gave the most moving, substantive and impactful talks of the event, in my opinion. Jamy’s treatment of the differences between skepticism, atheism and humanism was both nuanced and clear. And; it was great to hear somebody outside my living-room call out the inanities of Bill Maher! Pamela Gay delivered a very personal talk about the career hardships she has faced from the action of bigoted “men in charge”. She covered other issues as well, but the injustice of sexism – which always pisses me off – brought tears of sympathy and outrage to my eyes. Her courage was moving and her scientific mind is laudable.

I also want to give a shout-out to Dr. Carol Tavris who spoke about pseudoneuroscience with eloquence, wit and wisdom. I believe she got more laughs out of me than any other speaker, particularly with her recitation of the tale of the fMRI done on a dead salmon. Every other speaker I heard (and I believe I attended all but two lectures) was at least competent to quite good.

One of my skeptic heroes, Dr. Shermer, seemed to have a lot to try and get through in his allotted time, but his graphs about how the world is getting better were well-received. He seemed to draw on research he’s doing for a new book about the arc of human progress. It seems like a topic that has been handled recently by others as well, such as Steven Pinker in his “Better Angels of our Nature” and one of my recent favorites, Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty“. The message they all cover is so valuable, and so overlooked, that I welcome Dr. Shermer’s adroit contribution to the growing corpus of knowledge. For if anything should hearten we rationalists, we lovers of reality and decriers of charlatans and sloppy thinking – it is that by dint of the tremendous willpower, efforts and creativity of our fellow humans, we are indeed building an ever better world.

But back to the interactivity gripe. I wonder if the organizers would see benefit from having the various celebrity guests each sit at a different table during lunch, to inspire conversation. Also, making certain that everybody participated in at least one interactive break-out workshop could help. I suspect most of the attendees, like most human beings, aren’t exceedingly ebullient or extroverted. Structuring activities, games and venues to encourage interaction and discussion should be a typical part of TAM. Too often we skeptics feel isolated – TAM should not be one of those times or places. As it was, the three of us, who are neither shy nor inarticulate and introverted, did not make any new friends or contacts. That was our biggest personal disappointment.

One of the best things that happened to me at TAM 2012 was that I discovered Penn Jillette to be a wonderfully cheerful, inquisitive, competent and all around delightful person. I wish I had gotten the chance to have shared a bottled water with him (he doesn’t drink alcohol or soda, from what I understand). Well, not the SAME bottle water, because that would be kind-of icky – but you know what I mean! His interview with Dr. Lawrence Krauss about the Higgs boson, and other discursive delights for “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast was particularly fun. It inspired me to grab more Sunday School podcasts he’d made – they’re generally wonderful!

Overall, I valued the experience. To quantify it, I’d say that on a one to ten scale, I give it a solid seven. As a series of mostly good to occasionally excellent lectures, it was enlightening and entertaining. As an opportunity to meet and network with others, it was a let-down. I personally was not bothered by a perceived lack of “star power”, as I loved the presenters I saw and met. I also didn’t witness any uncouth or caddish behavior on the part of my fellow TAMers, though I gather some have raised these issues.

On the other hand, my friend Shiloh says that it is not uncommon to gain more social contacts at subsequent event meetings, as one recognizes faces and names. Perhaps I shall find out, for I look forward to meeting my fellow TAMers again, at TAM or other similar gatherings!