Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The World Tour Part 3 - TAM

Okay sorry for the long delay. I was talking about TAM. Let’s see, who were the speakers for Day 1 of the presentations . . .

Michael Shermer – President of the Skeptics Society and author of books such as “Why People Believe Weird Things” (good book BTW, go read it!). He’s been a speaker at all 3 TAMs that I’ve attended. This talk was mostly about a new book he’s researching that branches into economic philosophy. After hearing the talk I’m still not sure about it, he gave examples of psychology trading experiments where A gives B money and vice-versa as representative of trade and how manipulating some of the variables results in different outcomes (e.g. what would happen if B gets 3x the amount A gives him and vice-versa). By looking at the results of the examples he then discusses possibilities for trade between nations and how it can be conducted. At least I think so, I might be reading too much into it so I’ll have to wait for the book to come out. One thing that struck me is that real-world trade between rich and poor nations is more like A trades with B but A can also give B painful electrical shocks from which B can’t retaliate. Like to see what results that experiment would give! (Of course that would be unethical, don’t try that at home!)

Eugenie Scott of the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) . Geez for some reason I can’t remember what it was she talked about – probably evolution vs. creationism in America. I do remember that her talk was interesting (so why can’t I remember it? Beats me – sorry Eugenie)

Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey of Reason magazine . Reason is a Libertarian magazine and they gave a good talk about how conclusions from statistics get manipulated for spin purposes – going so far in some cases to conclude the opposite of what the stats actually say. They also highlighted media trends and biases such as the XYZDrug Plague Destroying America (y’know, in the 70s it was weed & LSD, 80s crack, 90s heroin, 00’s meth) which takes very basic statistics, without examining the issues further, and blows it up in a media frenzy of hysteria with front-page headlines to warn middle-class housewives that their children could be next!

As for Reason magazine we got a free copy with our registration pack and actually it’s pretty good; a source of alternative news about things with more analysis than a typical news mag and didn’t appear to be as loaded with political agenda as I expected. If you see a copy in your local newsstand I say it is worth taking a browse through it to see the kinds of things they analyze, or take a look at the website. It might be your cup of tea.

‘Libertarian’ was a term that got frequent mention by people at the conference, apparently some of the speakers and many of the conference attendees are Libertarians. As a Canadian I really didn’t know what Libertarianism was about – but I’ll discuss that in a later entry.

Now on to Neil Gershenfeld of MIT. His talk was mostly science and little to do with skepticism but it was neat. He talked about the development of Fab Labs and how the project was changing lives of people in various countries.

Go to right now and check it out (then come back).
Have you gone to Fab Lab yet?
Okay, good. I loved the concept, wish there was a Fab Lab near me when I was growing up. Nothing more I need to say, the website speaks for itself. It was a neat talk.

Next up JREF friend and professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss interviewed James Randi and discussed various video clippings of Randi’s work from a Korean debunking show (showing how psychics, faith healers and other con artists really do their tricks – hidden cameras were a great help). This talk was plagued with technical problems which made it really disjointed with constant rewinding and fast-forwarding to find clips etc. This really affected what should have been a nice presentation and instead made it a chore to watch.

Whew! Not even through Day 1 yet, more to come . . .

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The World Tour Part 2 - Las Vegas

As I mentioned in a previous entry every year the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) holds a conference for skeptics and critical thinkers called The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). This year it was at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, which was a great reason to go to Las Vegas after seeing the family in Calgary.

Now, I love Vegas. I think I’ve been there five or six times now and haven’t become bored with it. I realize that it is not for everybody, for many people it is just too crowded and over-the-top, but I think everyone should see the place at least once in their life. You just wouldn’t believe it until you see it and wandering around the hotels on the Strip just can’t be described. It also helps that I have no problem with gambling or drinking – having enough money to see a show or two also helps. You don’t have to gamble as there is plenty to do just wandering around, and if you’re crafty you can do it on a budget, but it’s better with a bit of bucks to carry you through.

That said I don’t think I could live there. Better that it just be a once-a-year fantasy getaway.

Going down for a convention makes it even better because you get to meet other people and do interesting things that you wouldn’t have even thought of on your own. I occasionally post on the JREF forum through that and got to know people who post there so we use TAM as an opportunity to meet face-to-face, or organize events ahead of time. This is my third TAM in Vegas and thanks to the forum folks there were tons of things that I saw/did that I didn’t even know about on my previous trips. Things like that are what make vacations a whole lot better.

For example someone in the JREF forum noticed that I was going to be in Calgary so invited me to a meet-up of JREF people that was taking place in Calgary right before TAM. So a couple of days before one of them picked me up where we had dinner and drinks at a house downtown (for privacy’s sake I won’t give anyone’s names but if you’re reading this I had a great time – thanks for organizing it!) Until that evening I had only met one of the people there before in person yet we had a great time chatting and so forth. Just like that I went from knowing only my family in Calgary to knowing a bunch of people there.

So I fly down to Vegas and check in to the Riviera two days before TAM so that I can get a bit of gambling and sightseeing in before the conference starts. I’m all for saving a bit of money on hotel rooms so I shared the room with another JREF forumite who arrived that night as well (he lives in southwest China, and I thought coming in from Qatar was exotic enough). He hadn’t been to Vegas before so we spent the next day wandering the Strip and seeing the sights before heading back to the Riviera to meet up with other conference attendees who would have arrived by now. I decided to hit the tables and won a bit of money – whoohoo!

Yeah, yeah, why would a critical thinker gamble when you know that the odds are in the House’s favour - I hear that often. It’s just entertainment people, I play $10 a hand, have fun, chat with people at the table, and get free drinks. It’s fun, I like doing it. (As an aside I don’t gamble online since that takes the meet-and-greet element out of it, it’s not as fun as being in a Vegas casino).

Man, I haven’t even discussed the actual convention yet! More to come later . . .

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The World Tour Part 1 – Canada

Flying all the way from Doha to Calgary was a real chore. A 9-hour red-eye to Heathrow followed by a 7-hour layover (which turned into 8 due to a delay) followed by another 9-hour flight to Calgary. That’s 26 bloody hours! The flight to Heathrow was okay and I managed to catch a few hours sleep but I was exhausted and ‘slept’ a few more hours on the floor of the Quiet Room at Heathrow. Maybe it was because I looked like a zombie when I got to the gate to board the flight to Calgary but when I got there the attendant taking tickets asked me to wait as they needed to reprint my seat assignment as the flight was full. I was like ?huh? but then she came back and said magic words I’ll remember forever:

“You’ve been upgraded to Club World.”

[cue heavenly music]

That’s business class for those of you unfamiliar with British Airways. And an amazing business class it is. Club World seats allow you to lie completely flat! Wow! They also do great food service: ordering off a menu, port/brandy with dessert and so forth. This amazing upgrade, the first upgrade in my life, allowed me to get some decent sleep. Good thing too as unbeknownst to me my family and I were heading to an Ukranian dinner (prepared by family friends) as soon as I landed.

It was nice to relax in Calgary with my family. The weather was generally decent, only one or two days were in the -20s. I seem to get lucky with that every year, every time I visit the weather is generally mild (+5 to -5) making it pleasant to walk around and do some shopping.

For those of you who don’t know my family ‘tradition’ we have our Christmas gift exchange in January. A number of years back, when I was in Bermuda, I was unable to get the Christmas holidays off so my Mother decided that the family would postpone Christmas until January when I could get to Canada. It turned out to work really well: flights were cheap, it was easy for everyone to get time off, airports and malls weren’t crowded, things were on sale, and my brother and his wife didn’t have to go through that whole “whose parents do we spend Christmas with this year” hassle. We liked it so much we’ve done it ever since. This year Christmas was on January 13.

By the way we do the whole ‘Christmas’ thing: the tree, presents, turkey dinner and so forth, just like we would have on Christmas day. If you’re family is not too religious you may want to consider a Christmas in January.

More blog to come in a few days, I’m off to Kuwait for the weekend so can’t post until Sunday.