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The Amazing Meeting/TAM 6


The Amazing Meeting (TAM) is a weekend conference of science and skepticism put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) every in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. TAM 6 was my 1st conference.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

At the airport, waiting.  Security was surprisingly easy, even considering that I left my car keys in my back pocket. 

I happened to notice the gentleman next to me had his laptop open to the Skepchick website.  I decided to be brave and asked him if he were going to TAM6.  He was and so was his wife.  M & E were vets from Maine on their first vacation in ten years (they had spent the decade having and raising their four children).  It was their first TAM and they had also decided to splurge and got a room at the Bellagio overlooking the fountain. 

As we boarded the plane I noticed a familiar face; it was Paul A from the JREF forum, whom I had met at Mumchup’s party last Thanksgiving.  I introduced myself again and we began to chat.

M, E, Paul A and I sat together.  It was a long flight but between the conversation, the very funny Southwest crew, and good books, we made it through. 

As we landed I could see the Luxor in the distance.  I couldn’t believe I had finally made it; first vacation in eight years, first TAM, and only hours away from seeing Penn & Teller for the first time. 

We shared a taxi from the airport, watching the people, gawking at the buildings, thankful that the 103 degrees temperature was desert not east coast. 

Checked into the huge Flamingo.  Scary to think that the Flamingo is considered small by Vegas casino standards now.  I could hear the low, constant hum behind the chings of slots and games. 

I went first to the TAM conference room to pick up my registration package.  As I had pre registered, everything was waiting for me.  Also got a free t-shirt and laser pointer and a book  from the Atlas Society (Ayn Rand followers). 

Who should I see but the Bad Astronomer Phil Plait.  I read his blog everyday and enjoyed his talks on the previous TAM dvds.  I introduced myself and he recognized me from myspace (oh my, I didn’t think anyone actually read my blog!).  We chatted for a few moments, I gave him a hug (just an FYI: Phil is an excellent hugger), then headed off to my room.

The room....well, maybe I should’ve had the taxi from the airport wait.  It was on the 21stfloor overlooking Harrah’s.  It was a long hike from the elevator, to the point that the decor changed from pink and white to a tan bamboo accented look.  Finally found it and got in a great shower (aaahhhh) and changed into jeans and my pink and black tiger stripped shirt. 

I went back to the conference area to wait for C, with whom I was sharing the room.  Said hello to Jeff W., JREF’s general manager, whom I had met last September at a lecture Randi gave in Montpelier, VT.  He was very friendly (second hug of the day) but very, very busy.
C was running late and when he did show up he had already been to the room (I had put his name on the reservation).  As I had not eaten since 8 am est we went to Margaritaville (one of the cheaper, closer places, right in the Flamingo).  Margaritaville was loud with Jimmy Buffet music and pirate decor.  There was a mermaid statue, nude from the waist up, that for some reason I actually had the urge to grope (like rubbing buddha’s belly only maybe instead of good luck it would be to get laid...but since I didn’t want to have sex with a mermaid I controlled myself).  I had a great burger and did a shot of tequila the proper way (lick it, slam it, suck it) and I really felt it!        

Time for Penn & Teller.  I had hoped to meet The Wild Bunny from the P&T forum at the Flamingo taxi station but missed her.  I taxied over to the Rio, which is off the strip.  Gawked at more of the strip as we drove. 

I didn’t have time to really explore the Rio but I did see floating ships with dancing girls going around the ceiling in one area.  Gamblers Heaven I suppose.

The Penn & Teller theatre is attached to the Rio.  It opens an hour before the show, 8 pm, and Mike Jones and Penn play some jazz from stage left for the audience as they file in.  They are in a roped off area, black background with blue and red speckled lights behind them. 

My seat was fourth row, center, aisle, stage right. 

The curtain is open.  There is a red screen upstage center with a red ampersand on a screen (there are also red ampersands on the walls on either side of the stage).  Slightly downstage center is a bulletin board with today’s date on it and a large envelope.  In between songs Mike Jones asks audience members to go up and sign the envelope (“Do you have a friend who complains that you never take them anywhere?  Bring them with you to be part of the Penn & Teller envelope signing experience”).

The show began at 9 pm sharp.  It is very tight, very fast paced.  Not in order: The block trick (P&T and an audience member), cups and balls (I was able to get one of the foil balls they throw into the audience), the dance like slight of hand routine from Penn & Teller Go Public (Penn on bass and Teller basically dancing with his hands), a beautiful red ball act that made me think of the film The Red Balloon (by Teller), coins and fish (Teller and an audience member, this is the one that I would’ve loved to have been chosen for but Teller always went off stage left to pick an audience member), romantic fire eating (Penn and Georgie with Mike Jones and Teller musically accompanying), a destroy/create newspaper trick (by both with Penn keeping up running jokes, “Oceanographers in Washington state are trying to figure out the mystery of the dead sea lions.  I always thought the Dead Sea Lions was an Israeli football team”, “Smuckers and Folgers have merged; they’re going to call themselves either Smolgers or...well, they’re going to call themselves Smolgers”), cutting a woman in half (complete with intestinal fall out, Penn, Teller, and Georgie), a fantastic routine based on parapsychologist Richard Wiseman’s work involving attention, deception and disguise (Penn, Teller, and an audience member), a simple but pretty handkerchief to glitter trick (Teller with an audience member), “mind reading” with audience participation (and the signed envelope) by Penn, a subtle and powerful flag burning (Penn, Teller), and ending with the Magic Bullets (Penn, Teller and two audience members).

I’ve only been a Penn & Teller fan for a year and a half or so but it was love at first sight.  Through their show Bullshit they’ve really helped wake me up from an almost twenty year sleep.  I’ve found JREF through them, Dawkins, Shermer, etc, people and work I admire.  I’ve never been one for magic but they are the exception.  I just don’t want to look away; but as they are masters of distraction I do look away...but only when they want me to. 

I was not disappointed. 

Afterwards, both Penn & Teller came out to sign autographs.  I had brought my childhood bible for Penn to “improve and or correct.”  I thanked him for Bullshit and how it had helped me wake up.  Penn was very gracious, polite (saying thank you after every picture and or autograph), called me (and everyone) “boss.” 

This may sound strange, but the one thing that surprised me immediately about Penn when I saw him signing autographs was that he wasn’t as tall as I thought he’d be.  He’s a bit over a foot taller than me yet he seemed shorter than I had imagined.  Maybe it’s just my glasses, I need a new prescription desperately. 

As Teller’s line dwindled I heard someone say my name.  There was a beautiful young lady who asked me if I were Tressa.  She introduced herself as Bunny.  We hugged and laughed, happy to finally met. 

At this point, we were the last ones left for Teller.  I took pictures of her with him and they chatted a bit about Macbeth (where they had met previously).

I had Teller sign his book about his parents which I had given to my gram last year for mother’s day.  He thought that was very sweet and signed it “To Gram, from Joe and Irene’s Kid, Teller” and dated it.  I thanked him for Bullshit and how it had helped me wake up. 

At this point Penn was done signing and had invited Bunny to the Monkey Room (lucky!).  I said goodnight and Big Frankie, another P&T forum member who had come with Bunny, and I shared a cab and good conversation back to the Flamingo (he was also attending TAM6).

I felt a bit badly that I had missed my chance to quickly mention my grandfather going across country via train jumping during the depression (although I do think I said I wish my grandfather had been able to read his book about his parents), gram being a painter and keeping his book by her chair, ie, how his story not only introduced me to his parents but made me appreciate my grandparents more. 

Sometimes I think my life is filled with lost chances.

Ah, but Teller was also very gracious and seemed very touched that my gram had enjoyed his book.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Due to the time change, the long flight, the erratic eating, and the excitement of seeing P&T for the first time, I was up very early.  Not feeling all that great; tired and headachey.
C and I went to the TAM breakfast.  Fruit and very sugary muffins and the like.  We met up with Bunny and shared a table and then went to the conference room.  The three of us sat together for the lectures. 

I broke down and bought excedrin and a power bar at a little store in the lobby and also had a coffee.   That killed the achy feeling for sure!

Dr. Ben Goldacre, young, British funny, talked on homeopathy. 

The keynote speaker, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, was great; fantastic, humourous, brilliant lecture called Brain Droppings of a Skeptic, which covered UFOs, alien abduction, etc (he went over time with the audience’s applauding him on and got a standing ovation when he was done). 

Alec Jason, real life CSI who helped Randi expose Popoff, spoke about critical thinking in forensics.  As I watch CSI: Miami (my, as one reviewer called the show, eye candy porno) I found his talk really cool.  He did mentioned that he does not like any of the CSI shows as, being a real CSI, the places where the shows change or distort the job for dramatic purposes drives him nuts.

During the morning break I bought a Randi doll, as did Bunny.   As I was paying Linda, Randi’s secretary, she asked if I was the Tressa who had sent the statue to Randi (it was a wizard on throne with books and a dragon, I painted it in ceramics class, putting Randi’s book titles on the spines and Million Dollar Challenge across the dragon).  She asked if Randi had sent a thank you; I replied yes I had received a thank you email about two weeks ago (which was about three months after I sent the statue).  Linda rolled her eyes, a definite look of “that man” (pertaining to how long it took for him to send the thank you).  I assured her I hadn’t expected anything in return and was thrilled with getting the email.

I was able to catch Randi and get a picture of myself, Randi and Randi’s mini me.  When I reintroduced myself, saying we had met in Montpelier, VT last September he said he remembered me.  Very sweet.  Bunny also got in a picture with Randi and his mini me. 

Lunch was actually very good but the buffet room was a bit of a hike from the conference room.  From what I had heard of TAM5, the bathrooms had been far away and the buffet close, and this time it was the reverse (which I think is better, allows people to sneak in and out of the lectures quickly if they have to).                                                     

After lunch, P&T arrived.  They could barely make it through the back of the hall.  C knew that I hadn’t had a chance to get pictures with them the night before and he, politely but forcefully, got me in pictures with both.  Penn looked great in his hat.  Very polite again, “boss” and “thank you”.  Teller, again very gracious.  I thanked him for signing my grandmother’s book and he said “oh yes, gram.”  (He didn’t know how close he was to ending up in my carry on bag, I know I could fit him in it.)

It’s amazing how something so small can impress so much.  It was only last night but they meet hundreds of people six nights a week.  I just wanted to cuddle Teller!

I thanked C for being so forceful.

P&T’s Q&A was excellent as always.  They also showed a short film done by a friend called “The Cold Reader” which was very good, informative, quick and entertaining. 

George Hrab was next.  He is a musician.  Too be honest I didn’t hear to much of his work as I took that moment to leave for break.

Dr. PZ Myers was next.  This was his first TAM.  His lecture was on bats, mice and evolution in increments.  He took up busting Phil Plait as Phil had busted him at last year’s TAM (all good naturedly).

Richard Saunders, from Australia, did a water divining blind and double blind experiment geared for school kids. 

Randi, PZ Myers, Margaret Downey (American Atheists Association), Phil Plait, Hal Bidlack (TAM emcee), Michael Shermer and Randi then did a panel discussion, “Identifying as a Skeptic.” 

It’s all so much to take in.  I still can’t believe there is more to come. 

C had plans for the evening.  Bunny and I split with plans to meet at the P&T theatre. 

I skipped dinner as the closest, cheapest place, Margaritaville, had too long a wait. 

Tonight my seat for P&T was second row, center, stage right (Bunny had front row center).

Great to watch closer.  Teller’s hands are so elegant; watching him move really is like a dance.  Penn really knows how to draw an audience in; friendly intimacy.
                                                                                   
Of course, I and Bunny stayed behind for autographs again.  I had the P&T show booklet and Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends for them to sign. 

Tonight we went to Teller’s line first as it was dwindling quicker than Penn’s.  I properly introduced myself this time; a small and probably ultimately unimportant thing, but it seemed somehow discourteous to me not to do so (even though I know he’ll forget me name within minutes, that’s not the point though).  He pronounced my name correctly and then spelled it back to me correctly.  I thanked him and mentioned that most people don’t pronounce it correctly never mind spell it correctly.  I asked if he had time for a picture and he said “whatever you want” (hmmm, oh wait, magician; this is a trick statement).  Bunny took a picture of us during which Teller held up my TAM6 name badge and said something to the effect of “I can pronounce and spell Tressa correctly.”

(I hate to admit this but it wasn’t until I am writing this, three days later, that I get what he did.  Thankfully I am not breeding so the idiot genes will not be passed on.  Oh well, I lived through being beaten up for my looks as a child, I can live through my obvious lack of intelligence being made fun of by a magician.  I do kind of wish he hadn’t done it though.  Oh my teeny tiny little ego.)

I took a picture of Teller and Bunny for her and she got a book signed (I can’t remember which).  By this time Penn’s line was gone and I was able to get my items signed by him and Bunny got a picture of us.  Penn signed Bunny’s book (I can’t remember if I got a picture of them for her) and he invited her back to the Monkey room (lucky, lucky girl).          

Unfortunately this meant we could not meet up with Jomadge for P&T Get Killed.  I had no way to contact Jomadge nor she me but I believe Bunny called her as soon as she could from the Monkey room. 

No offense to either Bunny or Jomadge but I would pin a twenty to my grandmother’s collar and say “see you back at the hotel room” if I got invited back to the Monkey room! 

On the way back to Flamingo the taxi driver, in a heavy I believe Irish brogue, asked me how my evening was going and what I was in Vegas for.  I explained a bit about JREF and TAM.  He suggested I read the author Neil Postman and mentioned that his mother had been a teacher for fifty six years and was now ninety five and surviving on cigarettes and attitude. 

Met up with C in our room after I got back from the Rio.  He had just gotten in as well.  We decided to head back out.  We went over the walk way to Caesar’s and the Bellagio.  Caught the fountain show and checked out the Bellagio lobby.  We then headed back, caught the last fountain show, then hit a little hot dog place I had seen during a taxi ride to the Rio behind the Flamingo.  C called it the soft underside of Vegas.  They had great hot dogs and I had two with a watery midori sour for a dollar fifty. 

Saturday, June 21, 2008

C and I went to breakfast but didn’t find Bunny.  TAM really needs to get something non sugary in the breakfast buffet (bagels or toast). 

We met up with Bunny in the conference room. 

Dr. Michael Shermer showed a preview of The Skeptologists and spoke about belief. 

Sharon Begley lectured on Creationism and other weird beliefs: the role of the press.

Dr. Steve Novella, whom I listen to every week on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast spoke on dualism.  I am sorry to say I did not get a chance to speak to him during the conference.  I enjoy his work very, very much; he’s a pleasure to listen to and read; very insightful.

During the lunch break the full version of The Skeptologists was shown.  C, Bunny and I missed some of it as we were not able to take food from the buffet room.  What we did see was still rough but looked promising.

Phil Plait spoke next.  He is an absolute riot.  “The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it.” 

Adam Savage, from the show Mythbusters, was up next.  I have never seen Mythbusters but everyone else obviously had.  The audience loved him and he was very energetic and humourous and showed some great clips from the show.

Matthew Chapman, Charles Darwin’s great, great grandson, who is behind the Science Debate 2008 movement, was up next.  Very nice, very British (he’s an American citizen now). 

Dr. Richard Wiseman’s talk was on a form of color blindness; how people can not see what is outside their main focus.  Teller did a five minute mini lecture on spoon bending, telling a great story about a man who did the spoon bending trick at a dinner party and unwittingly ruined the hostess’s very rare and expensive one of a kind set of silverware (Oops! just doesn’t cut it in moments like that).  Wiseman then passed out prestressed spoons to everyone, did a run through rehearsal of how to bend spoons using a video tape with dialogue we had to repeat as well as stage directions, and then filmed everyone at TAM spoon bending (which was a world record).  He also filmed quite a few people reading not only the dialogue but the stage directions as well.

Next up was Randi being presented a surprise gift from everyone at TAM.  It was a glass bowl with notes from everyone stating how Randi and his work had changed their lives.  Randi seemed very choked up and moved.  He deservedly got a standing ovation. 

Next was a panel with Steve Novella, Benjamin Radford, Banachek, Adam Savage, Richard Saunders, Daniel Loxton, George Hrib and Randi on The Limits of Skepticism.

I headed over to the Rio early and stopped at the Starbucks right outside the P&T theatre for a bite.  They didn’t have anything appetizing so I just got a piece of pound cake and ice tea.  Bunny came by, in yet another fabulous dress (she had a great one for every night).  Jomadge approached us and introduced herself.  Finally we meet! 

Bunny had a seat up in the mezzanine this time.  I was back in my fourth row, center, aisle seat, stage right.  Jomadge was front row center.  About five minutes before the show Jo came over and said “switch seats with me.”  I said “are you sure??”  She said, yes, this was the twenty first time she would be seeing them and my third. 

So thanks to the generosity of a long time P&T fan I got to see P&T as close as I could.  Wow.

Afterwards, Jo came down front and reminded me to check the stage for any coins left over from the fish and coins (found one).  She also found the paper used in the handkerchief and glitter trick and gave it to me.  I did find a coin at the edge of the stage as well.  I told her that if I was ever lucky enough to see P&T twenty one times and met up with a newbie like myself now, I would remember her and give them my front row seat.  Awesomely generous.

We all waited around for autographs.  It took a long time as a lot of JREF people were there last night.  Jo called another P&T friend and stood in line so she could quickly say hi to both P&T via cell.

Bunny really wanted Randi’s autograph so I gave her my little notebook and pen, took her books and she went off and got the alpha male of skepticism’s signature.  A JREFer noticed her getting the autograph and suggested he get Banachek’s as well, which she did.

Jo went and sat down toward the end of the hallway while we waited.  Penn was finished first and came over to Bunny.  I was able to get How To Play With Your Food and How To Play In Traffic signed.  He invited Bunny back to the Monkey room.  Bunny and I were saying good bye when he said I could come to. 

I checked for Jo but she was gone from the seat.  I knew Bunny had a cell and Jo’s number so I went (we called from a room with really bad reception adjacent to the Monkey room as soon as we could).                        

(Here’s something awful that I hope I didn’t do.  I was not expecting to be invited backstage.  I hadn’t really talked to Penn or Teller too much.  Penn, I’m sure, was just being polite as he had seen me with Bunny for a few nights running (although she had seen the show before I arrived).  There is no reason he or Teller has to extend an invitation to anyone simply because they are with someone they want to invite (and it certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate for Bunny to ask if she could bring someone along).  The awful thing that I may have done is, I think, well, I know I “brain bumped” for a moment due to shock, when Penn asked me back, and I can’t remember if I said thank you or not.  I would hope that I did but in all honesty I can’t remember the moment!  I was so stunned that I’ve completely lost the next few seconds.  I have since then, sent Penn a note apologizing if I did indeed inadvertently behave rudely and also offered a belated thank you.  I worded so as not to require a reply, I just wanted send the thank you and possibly needed apology, but Penn did reply.  He didn’t say whether or not I had said thanks but stated that I had been asked back because I had seen a few shows and he thought I might enjoy it.  With all the people that come through that theatre six nights a week I am amazed he can remember any one person; I would think it would be like the blob with a thousand heads.  Very, very sweet and very, very thoughtful.  I am really impressed with the time and openness Penn shares with his fans.  I sent a short note thanking him for his thoughtfulness, that I did enjoy being there, a highlight of my first vacation in eight years, and that I looked forward to seeing him and the show again during TAM7 next year.)

There were JREFs swinging in the Monkey room, including George Hrab, Adam Savage, and Randi (how’s that for a visual).  I had a short but nice conversation with Mike Jones (Jonesy) outside the Monkey room while looking at pictures of celebrities who had seen P&T.  Exchanged a few words with Randi; spoke quickly with Emily when she arrived (she has a vivacious smile).  As I didn’t get to stand in Teller’s line for autographs, at the end of the evening (only there about an hour and a half) I was able to ask Teller to sign my last two books theirs.  He asked if I would like them personalized.  I said yes and spelled my name for him and he said, “oh yes, Tressa” (yes, I was still wearing the TAM6 name badge but as he wasn’t looking directly at me he may not have seen it and he looked like he was fading fast, to the point where I had to stop myself from saying “remember, there is two Ls in Teller”, of course, now I wish I had said it...okay, okay, okay, I did it again, sheesh).  I also made sure that Bunny got her copy of Teller’s book about his parents signed.                        

Sunday, June 22, 2008

At breakfast, C & I met up with Jeff W’s parents (whom I had met in Montpelier).  Very nice to chat with them again.

The Sunday papers are short thirty minute lectures done by first time TAM speakers.  Unfortunately they started at 8:30 am instead of the usual 9 am so I missed the first speaker, John S. Janks, whose lecture was titled; Reflected Car Headlights: The ONLY Solution to the Marfa Lights. 

The next was What Every Student Needs To Hear From Every Science Teacher (Or, What Most Students Never Hear From Any Science Teacher) by Don G. Nyberg, which was very good.

Next up: Niche Pseudoscience: Hidden Bastions Of Thriving, Unchallenged Irrationality by Steve Cuno, which was also good.

Fourth: The Most Popular Science Video In The World - How To Make Your Message Famous given by Tracy King (tking on the JREF forum).  Also well done.

After a short break we had Artificial Creatures, Real Evolution by Lee Graham.  Virtual creature evolution, looked cool, totally beyond me.

Then The Psychology Of Anomalous Experience by Christopher C. French; quite good.

Building Internet Tools For Skeptics: Weapons For The War On Woo by Tim Farley, the creator of the website whatstheharm.net.   Very informative.

The Making of The Skeptologists by the man with The Voice, Brian Dunning (Skeptoid podcast).  Really good.  Brian Dunning is another I would’ve loved to have shaken hands and gotten a picture with but there never seemed to be a moment.                            

Finally caught Phil Plait for a picture.  He teased me about my very old camera (“Oh my god, is there actually film in that thing?”). 

At the end of TAM, it was announced that TAM7 would be held in July at the new South Point Casino and that there might be a second TAM held in the UK.

C was staying an extra day to see Death Valley.  Bunny and I went off for lunch at Margaritaville.  Meeting Bunny was a great highlight of TAM and I hope that we can travel the six hour drive between us and meet again sometime before the snow falls. 

Yet again, M and E and Paul A and I sat together on the flight home in, eerily enough, exactly the same seats as the flight to Vegas.   I am hoping that M and E might be able to make it down from ME to my house for one of the parties I try to have for JREFers every other month or so.  It was good to see Paul and I hope he can make a party too.

I took today, Monday the 23rd off.  I am still so not ready to go home.  TAM6 was everything I hoped it would be.  I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was afraid that TAM6 might be too much for me.  I have very little science, math, computer, technical, etc, background.  Even though I had seen dvds of previous TAMs I was afraid I might not be able to keep up.  Yes, there were some moments that were a bit much but they seemed more due to my not having a special interest in the topic as opposed to it being above my educational level.  But I also never felt talked down to or that the speakers had to dumb it down.  Maybe I’m just moving up, but of course, I’ll always have the moments with Teller and my TAM6 namebadge to remind me of how far I still have to go.

Ah, P&T.  Consummate professionals.  Onstage, they were flowing, liquid diamonds; sometimes a brook, sometimes a tidal wave, never losing the audience along the ride.  They dealt with the different personalities of audience members they invited onstage with wit and gentleness.  Ofstage, they were polite and generous with their time.  They must know that, even though they won’t remember those moments of flashes and signatures specifically, the people waiting will.  I love the stuff they’ll never remember.  They brought me not only their magic but they brought me to Randi, JREF, TAM6, and all that that entails.  For many reasons, I feel I’ve been asleep for about the last twenty years and they’ve been a big part of my wake up call. 

I’ll remember for both of us. 

Except maybe the name badge thing; that we can all forget.                           

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