Monday, July 18, 2011

TAM9 Top Ten List!

I’ve just returned from The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, my first TAM.  And it was everything I’d heard it was. It was particularly satisfying for me to attend it in the company of my two sons, Ryan and James. Ryan, a professional magician in San Francisco, and James, a student of Molecular biology at UC/Santa Cruz, both found much to engage their particular areas ofinterest during the four days we were in Vegas.

What follows is a highly subjective and personal list of my top ten memories of TAM9. This is a list of those individual moments that I’m certain will live with me for years to come as I reflect on my first TAM.
  1. First appearance of The Amazing Randi, to a loving and thunderous standing ovation. While I have issues with the 'hero worship' culture at TAM, those reservations do not apply to the venerable head of the movement himself. The man is an inspiration and a national treasure. And, given Randi's recent health problems, his appearance that first morning was moving, I think, even for TAM veterans who have experienced it before. For a newbie like me, it was an amazing moment!

  1. George Hrab's opening medley. George Hrab’s performance as MC throughout the three days was brilliant. But nothing topped his opening medley of songs written for and about the event (even the unfortunate technical glitches didn’t derail its impact). From the impressive way he worked every speaker’s name into the song, to the hilarious “Too Many Novellas” interludes, to the song imploring questioners to “make sure your question’s a question,” the whole thing was perfect.

  1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's keynote. There were several great speeches, and Bill Nye deserves at least an honorable mention here, but Tyson really rocked the house. He knew his audience and delivered what we all came to see and hear - a passionate, insightful and enlightening look into his world.

  1. “Say hello to my little friend.” At their second live show, the SGU crew presented a short video of prominent skeptics delivering famous lines from movies. The hilarious capper to the video came when Mr. Deity delivered Al Pacino’s famous line from Scarface "say hello to my little friend," then swooped menacingly past the camera to reveal Randi standing behind him. The Amazing one then deadpanned De Nero's classic "you lookin’ at me?” line as the crowd went crazy.

  1. Future in Space panel smackdown. All of the panels were great, but this one featured an incredible lineup of experts (Phil Plait! Neil deGrasse Tyson! Pamela Gay! Lawrence Krauss! Bill Nye!) getting into real debates about important issues where there were legitimate differences of opinion. In particular the face-offs between Tyson and Krauss were exhilarating and had the crowd in a near frenzy. I wanted to hit reset and run the whole thing over and over again.

  1. Chuck Norris. OK I never actually saw the guy, but when Chuck Norris showed up in the hallways outside the meeting, the Twitterverse erupted with a slew of improvised Chuck Norris at TAM Jokes*. When Richard Dawkins, who was speaking at the time, quipped "I’m afraid I don't know who Chuck Norris is,” he got arguably his most positive response to his entire speech.

*Although I’m biased, my favorite Norris tweet was posted by my son Ryan (@horsfallmagic), who offered this bit of clarification to Dawkins: “for future reference, Chuck Norris is the end result of evolution.”

  1. Skeptics guide video. OK, so admit it, the percolating subtext to this year’s TAM was the elevatorgate debate that had been echoing around the blogosphere for the previous week or so. And, while the powers that be obviously (and rightly) agreed to not let that become a topic that would derail the good feelings and positive energy of the conference, there was one unexpected and hilarious reference.  At their Saturday afternoon live taping of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, the SGU presented a funny and creative faux trailer for a Goodfellas-esque mob movie. One of the ‘celebrity blurbs’ featured was this quote ostensibly from Rebecca Watson: “I would hate to encounter those guys in an elevator!” The place erupted and, in a real sense, that little off-hand joke seemed to deflate the whole issue.

  1. The Million Randi Challenge. Well, if not a million, at least a couple hundred skeptics in Randi beards posed for a group photo with the man himself.

  1. Speaking at the speed of Hecht! Jennifer Michael Hecht's talk on the Philosophy of Skepticism was memorable both for the rapidity with which it was delivered, and for the memorable line: “I know when and why God was made up...because I'm a historian.”
  2. Bacon, Donuts and Rock ‘n Roll. While the Penn Jillette bash fell a bit short of the level of decadence seemingly promised by the famed magician, it nevertheless fully delivered on the bacon, donuts and rock 'n roll!

Honorable mentions:

  • The Phil Plait/Richard Wiseman duality. Jokes about how much the two skeptical celebrities look alike never got old (until they did).
  • George Hrab's listing of fake accomplishments during introductions (Steve Novella is working on his third opera and created his own language!)
  • The diversity panel fiercely debating how aggressively the skeptical movement should take on social issues.
  • "Obama's Elf...don't wanna be...Obama's elf, anymore."

And much, much more!