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John, Jenn, Fifi and Bob Cat, off on another adventure!

Monday, July 21, 2008

TAM 6: Jenn's Journal Part 4

Friday June 20th 2008
Sometime around 8:00AM.
The SGU are on stage doing a live podcast. Breakfast with the SGU and the SGU dinner will be our highlights. This is so much fun, although I am exhausted. My arse woke up at 6:30AM. I am still on East Coast time. Ugh. But it's really fun being here. The people are nice and the food is good and Vegas is so much fun.

Sometime around 9:30AM.
Hal has asked us to turn off our damn laser pointers (registration freebie) and gave a really nice intro. My favorite quote from him was "Lives well lived are to be honored." Then he introduced Mr. Randi, who always does the opening and closing comments. He talked about TAM attracting female skeptics as well as the tribute table to Jerry Andrus, who passed away this year. From this point on, Jerry will be, in some form or another, at every TAM. This TAM he was represented with a very nice lighted photo on a back table with some of his props. Mr. Randi asked us all to stop by the table at some point, feel free to look at his props and, if you felt like it, to lightly touch the picture.

Dr. Ben Goldacre
Dr. Goldacre writes the Bad Science column for the U.K.'s Guardian and has a website www.badscience.net. He is an award winning writer, broadcaster and M.D. Also very cute in a smartie Colin Ferrell kinda way. His talk at TAM was entitled Squabbles Against Homeopathy. Why give a hoot about the homeocrapiola? Because, as Dr. Goldacre points out, we're science geeks, and pullling stuff apart and investigating is interesting and fun. Dr. Goldacre argues that homeopathics undermine the public's understanding of the evidence based practice and hard work of doctors.
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine based on the use of very tiny quantities of remedies that, in larger quantities produce effects similar to the disease being treated. The word homeopathic, translated from the Greek, means "similar suffering." It is inspired by the philosophy that "like cures like." For example, let's you and I make up a disease. This disease causes you to have millions of disease causing agents in your blood- let's call these agents the toxic red-suited tellers. You go to a homeopath (someone who specializes in homeopathy) and the homeopath examines you. He uses his homeotool, scans it over your body and reports that your blood is now about 70 percent infected with the toxic red-suited tellers. And boy do you feel like crap. Not to worry, the homeopath says- you simply take a red-suited teller vitamin. This vitamin has a much smaller amount of, but, according to the homeopath, very effective dose of red-suited tellers as well. But these are good, sweet and nice red-suited tellers. These red-suited tellers are friendly, compassionate and wanna help you get better. The homeopath explains that when you take this pill, the good red-suited tellers in the pill will be released. These saintly red-suited tellers will remember and recognize their wayward cousins the bad red suited tellers and make them stop making you sick. And in a few days these good red-suited tellers will make all your problems go away. You go home, you call in sick. You drink plenty of fluids. If you have children, you foist them off on some simp relative whose willing to put up with them. You give your spouse a twenty and tell them to go buy something pretty or if you are female, tell him to go to a strip club. You lay down on your sofa with your favorite blankey, your dog and your cat and watch DVDs of Maude. Viola, in a few days you start feeling better. You chalk it up to those smart good red-suited tellers for your good health. That is the kit and kaboodle of homeopathy.
Yeah. Okay. Now here's the real deal. The dilutions of the substances are too small to have any effect. And the good red-suited tellers don't remember or feel compassion for you. They really don't give a shite. They're molecules. They don't have memory or feelings or capabilities of social ethics. You coulda saved about 2 hours of your life by not going to this dude or dudette who gave you a vitamin of good vibes and spent more time on the couch laughing at Bea Arthur and most likely you woulda gotten better. Or you could have gone to your primary care doctor who actually uses his medical degree appropriately. He would use medical practices and testing that has been proven via good research methods to be accurate in most cases. If the red-suited tellers are within reasonable limits according to his exam, he most likely he would tell you to go home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, and watch Maude (okay, maybe not that last part, but hey, Bea Arthur will cheer you up when you're feeling blue). Or, if, upon exam with blood tests he finds that you are one sick puppy, he'll admit you to the hospital because you need a bit more help in dealing with your red-suited teller problem- maybe an antired-suitedteller medication that needs to be adminstered and monitored a special way by medical staff. I think this makes a bit more sense.
Dr. Goldacre states that most of the results that people claim are due to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you think you've been given a substance and you actually show signs of improvement, except that the pill or substance you've been given has no medication in it whatsoever. For example, for some reason I find that when I drink O'Douls, it gives me the giddies and the buzzies almost as if I was drinking some nice merlot. Except that O'Douls has very very little alcohol in it. I belive it has less than one percent. Certainly not enough to get one shnockered so badly one-oh, I don't know- does Rockette-style high kicks whilst balancing on a table. Well, as Dr. Goldacre explains, and this Rockette agrees, the placebo effect is probably one of the most interesting phenomenons in medicine. Understanding it is the key to understanding homeopathy.
Dr. Goldacre also mentions that the research available by proponents of homeopathy is quite flawed- the studies are often bogged down with insignificant details. The lab data that is used often contains small numbers that are measured with overly sensitive equipment (remember when the homeopath told you that you were over 70 percent infected with the red-suited tellers? You may or may not have had 70 percent of red-suited tellers. You may have had only about 30 percent. But his homeotool was tweaked to superscan. A doctor would have most likely taken a second blood sample to rule out a false reading. This is science. Did you notice that the homeopath didn't do that? He didn't go and get another homeotool. Nor did he reexamine you. Wouldn't you want to know if you had 30 percent or 70 percent? I would, but maybe I'm just a nosy bastard that way.) Also, a lot of data is presented online via journal clubs, websites and U-Tube videos, not in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Over 200 trials have been done in about 150 years. When one looks at these studies, often the evidence is presented in such a way to make it look bigger and better than it is (also known as cherry-picking, in which the positive evidence is reported and the negative evidence is ignored). To do a fair trial, Dr. Goldacre suggests it needs to be randomized and double-blind so as not to prevent bias. Sadly, not a lot of this type of research has been done in the last 150 years by the proponents of homeopathy, and most of the scientific evidence based medicine has discounted homeopathy as effective in treating disease. So, I am gonna have to side with Goldacre on this and NOT recommend homeopathy to anyone at this time. But I'm always willing to keep my eyes and ears open for new evidence.
Sometime around 10:30 AM
Dr. Neil De Grasse Tyson presents: Adventures in Scientific Illiteracy...
Brain Droppings of A Skeptic.
Fasten your seatbelts. This one is a fun ride!!! Dr Tyson is onstage in a kickin' vest and a stylish suit. He takes the mic off the stand and walks around during his lecture. Well, if one can call it that. This is so much more fun. Learning is fun. I am so happy right now. I'm gonna refrain from any enhancement here. This is pure Dr. Tyson and his "brain droppings":

On UFO Sightings
"Remind people what they 'U' in UFO stands for- it stands for UNIDENTIFIED. We don't know what it is. Yet these people will most likely tell you they saw an alien ship. But you remind them that the U stands for UNIDENTIFIED. Until they can clearly identify it, we can't say aliens exist!"

On Alien Abductions
"Alien abductions are often based on eyewitness evidence. Eyewitness evidence is the lowest form of evidence in science. Ask them for real proof- the next time they are abducted, ask them to grab something off the ship. Think about it, they're on a table, surrounded by tons of sophisticated medical equipment within grabbing distance. Why don't they just reach out and take something? But they never do!"

On Conspiracy Theories
"This is easy. A conspiracy theorist basically admits to you that (s)he has insufficient data. Otherwise it would be a real theory. Just tell these people to come back when they have all the data."

On Debating Someone Not Skeptical
"If an argument lasts more than 5 minutes, both sides are wrong."

On Astrology
"Get a room of people together. Read out an anonymous horoscope. Chances are the people in the room will each tell you that they identify with it in some way. And not all these people will be Libras."

Birth rates on nights with a full moon
"You give birth under a full moon because you most likely got knocked up under a full moon."

Surviving Terminal Cancer
"Why believe it was God who cured you? Wouldn't it be easier to believe that it was your doctor who knew what he was doing? Or, to go to the other extreme, maybe God didn't cure you because you weren't really sick. You were misdiagnosed."

On Swami Levitation (This is Jenn's Personal Favorite)
"There are no laws of physics that make this impossible. Just consume 1000 cans of beans and hold in the methane. Find a place to sit, let go and fly!"

The Moon Hoax
"I actually like the fact that there are people who don't believe we landed on the moon. In fact I'm proud. We walked on the moon. This is such an accomplishment that some people can't fathom it. This is a statement of pride! Of course you can just learn the rocket equation and do the math."

The Mars Virus (this Dr Tyson's term for the public spazzout every couple of years when Mars gets really close to Earth)
"The last Mars virus occurred in 2003. But still the same stupid chain email gets sent out every August- MARS IS COMING!!!! AAAAAAHHHH!!!! You can only see it with a telescope. And also, we were closer to Mars about 60,000 years ago. Mars and Earth are in an elitpical orbit around the sun. Sometimes we get closer together, sometimes we get a little further away. It's going to be okay."

Fear Of Numbers
"This hotel has no 13th floor. They skipped it. Hey- people on the fourteenth floor? Guess what floor you're really on!"

Honoring Scientists
"How do we honor our scientists? We put them on our money."

The Periodic Table of The Elements (this is why I was front and center! I actually did learn something, too!)
"If the scientists in your country discover an element, your country gets naming rights. We discovered Plutonium. In the same year, we discovered Pluto. Is anyone concerned about the creative knowledge of our scientists? What is the cost of society if we do not invest in knowledge? How many secrets of the universe lay undiscovered?"

Wow. Awesome.

Somewhere around noon
Alec Jason is onstage now. At first I feel sympathy for him for having to follow Dr. Tyson. But Alec Jason is a fascinating guy. He is a Certified Crime Scene Analyst. A forensics guy. And a good one. He's an expert witness in crime scene analysis, officer involved shootings, blood spatter interpretation, shooting incident reconstruction, and forensic ballistics. He showed us how he solved a case with a husband whose wife was shot and killed as she drove them down a secluded road. The forensic world welcomes skeptics, as it is a daily exercise of critical thinking skills. Also, Mr. Jason assisted Mr. Randi in recording televangelist Peter Popoff's secret transmissions from his wife. Popoff had his wife feed him information about people in the crowds of the prayer meetings, to make it look like he was obtaining the information supernaturally. People thought he was actually somewhat divine, and Mr. Popoff got very very rich. Jason told of his dressing up in custodial uniforms in order to set up equipment in the arenas where Popoff traveled as to decrease suspicion from his minions. Just like Hannibal from The A-Team. We then saw the clips of Mr. Randi exposing Popoff on the Johnny Carson show. Anyone who figuratively bodyslams Peter Popoff is a-okay in my book.

Sometime around 2
Penn and Teller's Q and A was great. TAMmers may recognize me- I was the girl in the Ramones tee who asked the first question. I figured I would ask them what they felt their greatest skeptical achievement was. Teller answered that it was the ability to market both skepticism and naked breasts via Bullshit. We found out that they are going to do an episode on NASA, as they were criticized for not going after subjects that they respect and like.

PZ Myers
For some reason I am very excited that PZ Myers is onstage right now. I am not disappointed. PZ's lecture is about his specialty, developmental bio. Evolution. The control of the development of life by ecology. This is the subject of his latest column in Seed Magazine. Dr. Myers has been studying bats. Did you know that bats have the same extremity (arm/leg/paw) bones as mice? The bat bones differ because they are stretched and expanded (in order to create wingspan). So, Dr. Myers asks, what process modified to change mice into bats? Scientists hypothesize that all mammal arms/legs/paws start as short paddles. Natural selection takes care of the rest.Hamsters use their paws slightly differently than cats. And cats use their paws slightly differently from chimps. Chimps and dolphins use their extremities in differing ways. And then there are humans, who use their paws slightly different from other mammals. The key, according to Dr. Myers, lies in the genetic makeup of the DNA coding regions. Did you know that mice and bats have 2 amino acid differences between them? And in the amino acids of the bats there is a sort of bat paw enhancer, that, as bats develop, makes their paws stretch and expand? (Betcha you didn't know that!) Dr. Myers says that "biology is beautifully complicated and all about change." I was really enthralled. Not only did Dr. Myers have tons of slides of cute furrie mousies and cool bad arse looking bats, but his passion for biology is contageous and he really makes the very beautifully complicated subject matter very layperson friendly. I mean, if I could follow along, anyone can.

Sometime around 4.
Richard Saunders.
By this time, the Flamingo has provided us with mass quantities of cookies coffee and soft drinks, so I am buzzing on caffeine as Richard Saunders takes the stage. The really neat thing he does first is point to the I, Skeptic banner hanging across the top of the stage and say, "My name is Richard Saunders, and I am a skeptic!" very proudly. We all cheer. Saunders is an absolute doll of a man who has helped enhance the skeptical movement in Australia. He's gonna play the Criss Angel-type skeptical judge in an Australian version of the Uri Geller show Phenomenon.
Mr. Saunders also talked about his program of bring skepticism and critical thinking to school children in his native Australia. He demonstrated his dowsing lesson. He pretended we were schoolkids. He pulled about six folks onstage and gave them makeshift dowsing rods (dowsing: the action of a person using a rod, stick, or another device to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, lost people, treasure, oil, golf balls, The Others by occult means- i.e. psychic powers.) and a bottle of Flamingo Spring Water. He then produced about 5 opaque baskets and put the water under basket number 4. Then he had the dowsers walk past the buckets with their rods to see how accurate they were with their dowsing powers. Would you believe it? They all correctly dowsed and found that the water was under basket number 4!!! We were wowed. Dr Saunders picked the best dowser, who we will call Fred, of the group and had the rest of them sit down. He then explained that he was now going to show us how to test dowsing a bit better. He had Fred close his eyes. While Fred closed his eyes, Dr. Saunders put the water bottle under basket #2. He had Fred, who this time had not seen where the water was put, dowse again. Unfortunately, this time Fred was wrong. He picked number 3. He also picked up a bottle of water someone had left next to the lecturn. Fred is the class clown.
Dr. Saunders explained to us that sometimes, when kids see their friend up onstage, they will often send out unintentional cues to him/her. For example, they might gasp excitedly as the kid gets closer to the correct basket and therefore, the data analysis could be biased, as the kid could use that to his advantage and guess the right one. Dr. Saunders explained also that some kids may look at the experimenters for cues as well. So, Dr. Saunders explained, we were next going to test Fred using a double blind method. Dr. Saunders had Fred close his eyes again. He also told us to close and cover our eyes as well- he also explained there were always one or two jokesters who peeked, but still a small percentage and margin of error. He then battered around the baskets and hid the bottle under one of the baskets. Then he said that we all could open our eyes. Then he said in order not to unintentionally cause Fred to find cues, Dr. Saunders turned away as Fred once again attempted to correctly dowse where the bottle was. Fred let Dr. Saunders know when it was okay to look, and said that the bottle was under basket number 5. Dr. Saunders uncovered the baskets and we saw that the bottle was under number 2. Fred has no career in dowsing in his future- at least we think he'll sorta suck at it. And we had a very fun refresher on teaching kids about double-blinded studies.

Sometime around 2AM???
Tonight, fueled by mucho booze and the secular blessing of the SGU, we formed RAFTS (Richmond Area Free Thinkers and Skeptics)!!!
And, it was not, by ANY stretch of the imagination, intelligently designed!
It was TOTAAL BIG BANG all the way!!!
Hey! How'd we get back to the room?

The story begins on June 20th (tonight), approximately 1750, 2008 AD (or C.E. for those who completely insist) when Patrick, Jenn and John happen to meet on the road (or rug rather, as Cesear's Palace is carpeted) to the SGU Dinner at TAM 6, which was being held at Trevi in Cesear's Palace. We three, through our "brilliant" investigation skills found out we had a common bond- we lived about 5 miles away from each other in Richmond!!! We had to go to frackin' Vegas to meet!!!
We sat down at a table and met Peter and Crystal, who were SGU fans from Northern VA (our cup runneth ovah!), and we all started talking. One SGU fan announced that she would be buying wine for all the tables.
The details are sketchy at this point on. As I imbibed yummy delicious, and once again free wine, Patrick texted back and forth with his friend John- also a skeptic but unable to make it. Coincidentally friend John, like husband John, is a graphic designer, and smack my ass, by glass o'wine number three these two geniuses had a website, a group name and we are now planning Skeptics in The Pub events!!! Then our food came. John had angel hair pasta. I had something with creamy sauce and penne pasta and chicken. From what I can remember it was delicious!!! Then we had another bottle of wine. I do remember Crystal and I picking out the wine, as she is more of a zin kinda gal we stuck to the sweet n' fruity types. At one point I think I tried to tell Steve Novella that we had formed a skeptical group and that it was all because of the SGU. I think I rather slurred it to him. Steve joked that they would totally take the credit. I think we had dessert too!!! I remember floating around the Flamingo lobby shortly after that. It seems to be about this time that Jay Novella and Evan and John had become chums! There were hundreds of skeptics crowded into the Flamingo Bar shooting the shit and drinking skeptically. I remember standing around watching the rogues play blackjack. Bob Novella asked me, "Do you know who you look like?"
"I've been told Kelly Bundy and Helen Hunt." Smooth, Jenn. Really cool. Way to impress!!!
"No!!! You know that girl, um- Ashley Tisdale?"
"Um, yeah- I hearda her. (Sort of- I think she's Hannah Montana or High School Musical chickie or something teenyboppery that the kids like. I guess she's blonde) Wow. Thanks Bob!"
(Later I looked her up online. She sorta looks a little like me. She definately wears more makeup and hairspray and is tanned. But, she's totally cute! Thanks Bob!)

I still can't remember how the hell we got back to the room.

Next up---- Michael Shermer, Sharon Begley, Dr Phil Plait and we get invited to Rebecca Watson's Infamous Skeptical Partaay!!!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

TAM 6: Jenn's Journal Part 3

TAM 6: Jenn's Journal Part 3
Sometime around 10PM
Meet and Greet Cocktail Par-tay! Wow. Cinderella has returned from the Ball, except at the end of the night there is only one Pumpkin (our friend Dorothea whose screen name is littlepumpkin) and a whole lotta princes and princesses! (Also lots of yummy alco-ma-hol!)
First of all, everyone is really really cool. The reception was wonderful. Hal Bidlack and Mr. Randi kicked it off with a bit of a toast to a great TAM. There were about 300 or so people there. Guestimations on the number of TAMmers this year is about 900, the most ever!!! I met the following folks:

Phil Plait- OMG!!! He's the smart girls Jonahs Brothers, except there is only one of him, but three times as cool! He was really really nice. He got a kick that I had his pic near PZ Myers pic in the scrapbook. The two of them have a very friendly science bloggy rivalry. He also loved the fact that I was married to John Young: "Dude, you look really good for a guy who walked on the moon thirty years ago!" Phil totally was my wing man to meet Richard Saunders- Dr. Saunders loved my book and gave me a small pink oragami pigasus (his mascot) to put in it.

The SGU. Although we met Jay and Steve during the daytime on Wednesday, it still was fun hanging out with them. At one point, someone passed out at the party. Luckly, the person was surrounded by 9 doctors- a neurologist, a former flight surgeon, a gas passer (anthesthesiologist) etc. , 3 EMTs, and at least one nurse (me), at least, that's what Hal told us. Both Steve and Harriet Hall were by the persons side within seconds, and the person recovered nicely. The SGU were really nice. And it was so funny matching the voices from the podcast with the people standing in front of me. Steve was really nice and answered all of my nerdy neuro questions. They all signed my book. One of the pages had a picture of late New England Skepticical Society founder and SGU rogue Perry DeAngelis. I thought it was important for him to be there in some way, as the first person I really remember from the SGU, other than Rebecca, was Perry. All the SGU expressed that they loved the picture, and the boys signed next to the picture. While chatting with Richard Saunders, we met Rebecca Watson. I really love her, and was so glad to meet her. She looked through my book and signed next to the pic I had of her and Jay.

Swoopy from Skepticality was a person I had been looking for most of the party. Thanks to another volunteer, I was able to meet her. She signed my book next to a monkey sticker and took a picture of me. She's a bit taller than me, and the way she put her arm around me had me sort of nuzzling her. She didn't seem to mind though. It was really great. She is beautiful!!!

Michael Shermer. By the time I met the editor of Skeptic magazine, contributing columist of Scientific American, and the author of How We Believe and Why People Believe Weird Things, I was a bit tipsy, giddy, and a little overwhelmed after meeting so many others. I totally geeked out. From what I remember, Dr. Shermer looked at me the entire interaction with a bemused expression on his face. The interaction reminded me of the old Coke commercial ("Wow- thanks Mean Joe!") Except Dr. Shermer was very pleasant throughout. Here's what I think happened:
"Wow you're so awesome Michael Shermer- Yay you!" Is what I thought my greeting was. That is, if I said anything. I think I just stared.
"Hey there, Kid! You want me to sign that?" He motions to my book.
"Yeah Dr. Shermer! Wowsy! Thanks!" He signs my book right next to where PZ Myers signed. Then, Michael Shermer puts his arm around me and I try to pull off being cool and pose for the picture John snapped.
"No problem, Kid."
Dr. Shermer, if you're reading this, please excuse my overall dorkiness. Also feel free to give your interpretation of the event. I am hoping it might be a bit more flattering on my behalf. If not, that's still okay.

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The Dr. Tyson. Cooler than Iron Mike. Smarter too. Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. The host of NOVA. By this time I am very starstruck, also having nursed a very nice full-flavored merlot- which was not my first of the night. But everyone was having fun and no one seemed to judge. Dr. Tyson from what I remember was very tall. Apparently he had just arrived to the conference. I was standing watching he, Hal, Shawn, Jeff, Mr. Randi and Linda discussed logistics of the keynote speech for the next day. In a second wing man experience, Hal noticed me standing off to the side and told Dr. Tyson that I was a very nice polite young lady who had been collecting autographs. Again, I'll reiterate that Dr. Tyson is very tall. He blinked at me, smiled and took out a very nice quill and proceeded to sign his name very carefully in a beautiful wedding-invitation like script. It was then he noticed that my scrapbook page had a science sticker on it that I had placed on there from Ben Franklin Gifts that was a parody of the Periodic Table of Elements.
"Miss, do you know...your elements?" He asked me in a dramatic voice. I was completely caught off guard.
"Well, um. I really didn't like chemistry in high school. But. Um. I do like science." I practically whispered.
Hal smiled, but jokingly groaned about my chemistry remark. "Oh come on! Chemistry rocks!" Dr Tyson turned back to me.
"Well, Miss, will you be in my lecture tomorrow?" Again, very dramatically.
"Oh, yes sir!" I answered. Dr. Tyson smiled and I thanked him very much for his signature. He smiled again and joked a bit with the others around him that were also waiting to meet and greet him. I thought to myself "I'M NOT WORTHY! I'M NOT WORTHY ala Waynes World. My next thought was "I gotta be front row center at his talk tomorrow!" My third thought was "Hal Bidlack was totally my wing man!"

At one point we ran into our volunteer friend Carl from England. He had 411 on a scotch and cigar party by one TAMmer at Caesar's Palace. I was giddy and ready to go. Luckily, John's critical thinking skills were still intact and he was able to debate why we should just go back to our room and sleep:
"Hon, okay. I know there is a Bring Your Own Scotch Party, but you know the SGU breakfast podcast is tommorrow, and I will wake your arse up at 7AM!"
His argument was very convincing. In fact, his science was so solid, it leads me to my current location- in my hotel bed watching a PBS documentary on Henry Ford.

Next update- Notes on lectures, The SGU dinner, and meeting new friends.

TAM 6: Jenn's Journal Part 2

Wednesday June 18th 2008.
One of the greatest days of my life (maybe, in the grand scheme of La Vie En Jenn, this would be #5. My wedding day, number 1 obviously. And the day I got Fee is tied with the day we got Bob for #2. #3 would be the day I got word I'd passed my nursing boards. #4 would be the day I graduated with my BSN. This, this is number 5. And what a number 5 it is).
This morning John and I were scheduled to help assemble information packets for the Amazing Meeting from 8:30AM to 12:30PM, and then we would be treated to lunch by the JREFers. Our first step was to meet in one of the conference rooms in the Executive Center of the Flamingo. Once we got there, we met up with Scott, the unflappable yet rather stressed JREF volunteer coordinator. There were a few folks sitting at one of the tables. Somehow, I got separated from John, who, due to his stature and overall exhuberance of Solomon-like strength and studliness, got tapped to the committee of "dudes who were gonna help Jeff [Wagg, JREF General Manager and Grand Poobah of the JREF forums] haul stuff from the van to the workroom." I sat down at the table with a few of the folks, who all in all were good natured but not overly intrusive. Many of them were JREF forum members.Most of the questions centered around small talk- was this my first TAM, what did I do for a living, etc. I met Jacob, a social worker with child protective services in New York, and Kitty, an artist and mother of a former JREF intern. Dorothea was a graphic designer from Chicago. Carl was from England. Ed was a retired New York City policeman. It was Ed who uttered the best description of Las Vegas I've ever heard:
"Las Vegas is what happened when Disney World and Manhattan had a drunken one night stand and procreated." It was the first time in a while I was thoroughly enjoying the company of complete strangers. We traded sci-fi references as we folded and stuffed papers.
All of the sudden, group of people wandered by the doorway- an older gentleman with a younger guy who appeared college age and a few ladies. The older gentleman had a medium length white beard and glasses. He seemed familiar. It took a few seconds before I realized it was James Randi. I was so caught off guard that I gasped and I remember putting my hand over my mouth, then taking it away, waving slighly and saying, "Hi Mr. Randi!" I was sort of taken aback by how, well, tiny he seemed. (In the pictures we've taken with him, he appears to be a bit shorter than I am.) Many references to Yoda came to mind. He strode on in, and I remember shaking his hand and introducing myself. The rest of the old timers seemed really familiar with him, and he with them, especially Kitty. The younger guy who was with him was his current JREF intern, and his name was Shawn. At that time, the Stud Committee Who Helped Jeff Wagg Carry Heavy Shite From The Van had returned, my husband among them. A few people had formed an intently listening circle around Mr. Randi, which, as I observed numerous times this conference, can obscure him from people outside the huddle. I attempted to scramble over excitedly to John and to point out discreetly that James Randi was in the room. Mr Randi came over to John and I and shook John's hand. He chatted with people for a bit and, once all the heavy shite was brought from the van to the workroom, he scurried off and attended to what appeared to be the other fourteen thousand things that had to be done.
The rest of the afternoon we continued to socialize with a lot of nice people and through all the paperwork suffered at least ten papercuts between the two of us. Jay and Steve Novella from The Skeptics Guide To The Universe Podcast as well as Hal Bidlack, the master of ceremonies, wandered in and talked with everyone. The JREF treated us to lunch at the Flamingo's buffet. We nicknamed it Food Town, as it had every imaginable edible treat known to man. The dessert tables were at least fifty feet long. No matter who you sat with, the conversation was great. After lunch the second shift of volunteers was scheduled to relieve the morning shift. There appeared to still be a ton of work left to do, but no one was pressured into staying over. In fact, John and I offered, and Scott reported that there was plenty of help and that we could go.
We had about 8 hours or so to kill before we had to be at The Rio for our 9PM show of Penn and Teller. We went for a short swim in the Flamingo's massive pool then decided to get ready and get over to the Rio a bit early so we could get in line, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Penn and Teller before the show.
The only way to get to the Rio was to catch a shuttle bus from our neighboring casino- Bally's Paris. This Paris has absolutely gorgeous women in really really cute uniforms serving me free wine as I play at their slots under the shadow of the faux Tour Eiffel. The buses come every 15 to 30 minutes and will take you directly to the Rio. We got to the Rio with about an hour and a half to spare. We dined at the American BBQ cafe and had a coffee at the Starbucks right near the Penn and Teller theatre. The girl working behind the counter told us we had just missed seeing Penn. He stops there often with his kids. Pretty soon the gates opened and we could go into the show. While waiting we met some TAMmers in line.
Penn and Teller put on an awesome show. They did the cups and balls trick, they sliced a woman in half, Penn did some psychic trcks involving a joke book, and Teller showcased his slight of hand mastery. After each show they do a meet and greet in the lobby. We had a lot of stuff for them to sign, like 3 or 4 books and the scrapbook I made. They signed all of our books and posed for pictures with each of us. The picture of Penn and I together makes me smile each time I look at it. It's one of my favorites from the trip. John and I couldn't believe how cool they were. John wore his TAM volunteer T-shirt and Penn asked us questions about TAM and Mr. Randi, if he was there or not. We skipped back to our hotel and I felt so happy.

Thursday June 19th 2008.
Today most of the famous TAMmers have arrived. This morning I wore my pink t-shirt with a flying pig on the front and a quote from Dr. Harriet Hall on the back. I had written to her a few months prior asking permission to use the quote, and she responded back almost immediately and gave me the green light. It was so fun to see her this morning and show it off. Dr. Hall has written a book on her experiences called Women Aren't Supposed to Fly. She signed both my scrapbook and autographed my copy of her book, in which she thanked me for putting her on my T-shirt. She showed me off to a couple of people, including Jeff Wagg and Hal Bidlack, who also liked my T. Jeff also told me to try to scan my scrapbook once it's done and put it up online because TAMmers would get a kick out of it. We happened to also run into PZ Myers who had just arrived and checked in. We told him how much we liked his blog Pharyngula. He was really nice too. To receive such validation from the people I really respect left me beaming the rest of the day.
Sometime around 2:30PM Vegas time
Workshop with Banachek- Mastering Mnemonic Memory.
Banachek is a mentalist and magician who helped James Randi with the Project Alpha experiments. Project Alpha was looking at remote viewing, aka ESP, back in the 70's and 80's. Mr. Randi asked the scientists if he could be of any service, as at that time he was actively debunking pseudoscience and could help eliminate any fraud that could skew the results of the experiment. The experimenters blew him off. Mr. Randi then arranged to have two young teens "audition" to be test subjects in the experiment, and would basically cheat. One of those kids was a guy by the name of Steve Shaw. Steve Shaw later changed his name to Banachek after a character on TV "Banacek" because it was a unique sounding name that folks would remember. Banachek got to be involved in the Project Alpha experiments and with help from Mr. Randi, would use magic tricks to "beat" the experiments. Although it sounds sorta sleazy, everyone involved, including Banachek, reports that at no time were the two kids pressured into staying on and broke the news to the experimenters before any results could be published. The only thing harmed were a few egos and a arseload of taxpayer money spent, but it's still a sensitive subject for all involved, as the boys became friends with the experimenters and were torn between science and deception. Banachek has since made a career of skeptically exposing mentalism through workshops and videos. He is also an expert spoonbender. He consulted with Criss Angel on the Uri Geller stinkfest Phenomenon and on Angel's own show Mindfreak. This workshop basically was Banachek explaining how one can use mnemonic devices in such a way as to improve memory.
Memory as a whole is a weak human trait. In my opinion, mine sucks arse. If I don't write it down, it won't get done. The good thing is that my documentation skills are pretty solid, but Banachek had some really great techniques. He basically explained that memory works best via associating words or unique situations to the thing you are trying to remember. There are a number of ways to do this:
The Loci System is the technique of associating words with a place that is meaningful in order to successfully remember a list of items.
Acronyms like ROY G.BIV to remember the colors of the spectrum.
The linking system links one item to another in a chain. We split up into small groups and were given a list of items to remember. We made up a story with the items listed. Most of us can remember now what we learned on June 19th. (QUICK TAMmers- what came after the soap? Inside joke. :D)
Peg systems use visual and rhyming images
Some other good advice Banachek gave us:
1) We forget things for a number of reasons. Our mind wanders, we think about what we are going to say or do next. Or perhaps we are disinterested in what the person in front of us has to say. Banachek explained that this is human nature. He gave us a couple of good advice on how to start remembering names- first, simply just LISTEN, PAY ATTENTION, REPEAT and USE the person's name when you converse with them. It may seem a bit weird at first (at least with me) but I agree with Banachek- it's not a bad thing to go out of your way to learn a person's name. Also he said to create an association with that person- big blonde John for example. Pick some characteristic about that person that most likely will not change.
2) Absentmindedness occurs when your mind zones out when you are focused on performing a certain task. Some ways to relieve forgetfulness involve stress relief, thinking and focusing on the task at hand while you are doing it, live in the moment and don't panic if you can't find something- it most likely will make your memory worse, stress you out more and decrease the chances you'll find what you are looking for.
Although it seems like simple good advice, I realize how refreshing it was to hear it, and of course, meeting Banachek was cool. He willingly signed my scrapbook. He is a really nice person and very engaging. After the workshop we shopped at the merch tables- JREF, Skeptics Society and SGU were all out representing. I noticed the guy in front of us in line was Art Benjamin (thankfully everyone had nametags) Dr. Benjamin is a "mathmagician." He can do insanely difficult math problems in his head. He was really really nice and did a math problem for me in line while we were waiting to check out (took him about 5 minutes what would take me an hour).
Tonight is the big cocktail party.

Next post- The cocktail par-tay!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

TAM 6 Jenn's Journal

June 16th 2008. Norfolk, Virginia
The Odessey begins. This evening, after we rejoiced over the arrival of our Economic Stimulus check (Merci, President Bush- it's about effing time you did SOMETHING right- just kidding, Commando N' Chief! We cool? Okay, good.) we headed to Norfolk in record time. We had a lovely seafood dinner at The Willowby Inn, where the shrimp melted in my mouth and the owner's wife gave me a hug. She also gave John a hug.

June 17th 2008. Norfolk, Virginia. Sometime around 4:00AM
Awake. But, no anxiety. The last Xanax I had was more than 12 hours ago. I haven't flown since before September 11, 2001. Even before all of that stuff happened I was terrified of flying. Somehow, this trip, I felt a bit more sane going into it. Maybe it was the fact that John would be with me. Maybe it was the countless hours I spent pouring over books with titles such as Flying Without Fear, All You Wanted To Know About Planes But Had No One To Ask, and America From The Air. Maybe it was just talking to lots of people, including flight instructors, who extolled the virtues and beauty of flying as well as the impecable safety records of the airlines. I keep in mind the fact that John and I were more likely to get killed on our way TO NORFOLK than we are in a plane crash.
Sometime around 7:00 PM Las Vegas time
One toke over the line, Sweet Jebus. There is a way to imbibe wine for free in this magic place (just sit down at a slot machine)! Which is what we did soon after we got here. We checked into the Flamingo this afternoon, had a lunch/dinner at one of the restaurants downstairs. We had General Tso's Chicken. Yummers. Then, we gambled. I won about $200 at the magic slot machines where beautiful women bring you free wine! This place is amazing! We can see two large mountains from our window here at the Flamingo. The bigger one I have named John. The smaller one is Jenn. Our flight was wonderful. We flew over beautiful mountains and the Grand Canyon. Flying into Vegas we could see the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and the Vegas Strip. I am cured of aviophobia. My only sad regret is that I have not realized the beauty of America from the air before. I love not being fearful of things I don't understand- of stupid shite. I am already having a passionate love affair with Vegas. Such an amazing city.

NEXT ENTRY: Volunteering, meeting James Randi, Penn and Teller, the SGU and meeting Banachek and other really cool people.