The Amaz!ng Meeting 2003

Electric Monk - Journey to JREF and the Wednesday Discussion Group


I first heard about the Amaz!ing Meeting from Randi's weekly commentary in August 2002. A short time later, I received a flyer and registration form in the mail. By late November, with the early-registration deadline approaching, a mounting list of interesting speakers, and the realization that a break from work would be sorely needed by late January, I signed up, made my reservations, and started lurking in the forum to catch any news about the conference.

I had seen that there were plans for unofficial events before and during the meeting that sounded very interesting, and figured that attending them would be a great way to meet members of both JREF and the forum, and that they would give a richer experience than simply attending the conference sessions. So, I decided to arrive on Wednesday afternoon, in time to meet a few of the others who were showing up early, and to get a ride to the Wednesday night discussion.

I joined the forum as a member, and started asking about rides to these events and, happily, there were seats enough to go around. This meant that I did not need to rent a car, one of my least favorite activities. In the last few days before the meeting, though, it seemed as if I might not actually get a ride after all.

My flight left LAX at 7am, so I needed to wake up at 2:30am, leave the house by 3:30am, to get to the off-site parking lot by 4:30am to get to the terminal by 5am. All of this went fairly smoothly, even though I started late due to some last-minute forum activity in regards to meeting at the hotel.

The flight was uneventful, and with my window seat I was able to engage in my favorite airline pasttime: geology from 35000-feet. Well, geology might be an exaggeration. I just like watching the landscape go by. I do not fly very often, (in fact, this was my first flight since 9/11) and if I ever fly so often that I get tired of looking out the window, I think I'll cut back on my travel again until the feeling is renewed. I like the desert Southwest best for this; the land is bare, and the plateaus, mountains, and flood plains are all visible, looking remarkably like the scaled-down versions in sand boxes and mud puddles. With an early flight, the sun was low in the sky, and I was able to see the contours and features in sharp relief. So I sat, listening to the Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy radio episodes on my IPod, pondering the terrain, and considering the scale-invariant self-similarity of nature all the way to Florida.

At 2:30pm Florida time, the flight landed in Ft. Lauderdale. I got my checked bag, called for a shuttle from the hotel, and went to wait at the curbside. While I was waiting, a security official not too far away cleared everyone back from a bag that had been left unattended next to a trash can, and called in an explosive-detection team with a dog. "Welcome to post-9/11 airport security", I thought.


Hotel lobby
Renaissance Fort Lauderdale/Plantation Hotel Lobby

I made it to the hotel by about 4pm, and went upstairs to unpack quickly, and get back down to the lobby. Charlie in Dayton had sent me a message to look him up when I got in for a ride to the JREF, but I arrived later than I had anticipated, and he had already gone. So, I went back to plan A, which was to hang out in the lobby and look for people with JREF merchandise. I had purchased a new digital camera for the trip, Casio's new credit-card-sized Exilim S2. The camera worked beautifully for both taking pictures and starting conversations. In the lobby, I spent my time practicing with the camera, and took the image above.

After a short while, I saw a gentleman walking purposefully across the lobby, wearing a yellow JREF t-shirt. I caught up with him and introduced myself. It turned out to be SkepticScott, and we chatted for a while and ate a quick dinner in the Bin 595 hotel restaurant.


Me in front of JREF sign
SkepticScott and I Arrive at JREF

Scott had rented a full-sized car, and had then been upgraded to a Lincoln. He offered me a ride to the JREF, which I gratefully accepted. He had directions, and we quickly made our way to the foundation for the Wednesday meeting. Once there, we were greeted by several forum members outside (Lisa, Shadowman, and Charlie in Dayton among them), and then by Linda Shallenberger and her husband Karl inside, who gave us our meeting hand-outs. Moving further into the building, we met Andrew Harter, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack (in uniform), Jeff Kostick, Jack Latona, and Girl 6, amid a stream of other memorable people whose names escape me.

Looking into the library
Wednesday Discussion Group in the Asimov Library

After talking for a while, we were shooed into the library to start the monthly meeting. Andrew Harter started things off, and explained to us newbies the purpose and general guidlines for the meeting. It was essentially an unstructured, but polite free-for-all. We introduced ourselves and discovered that nearly half the attendees were involved in computer-related occupations. The topics of conversation covered several of the usual JREF and skeptic issues: Million-Dollar Prize claimants, politics, religion in society, how to encourage critical thinking. Involving as it did, a fully skeptical group, there were few sharp disagreements, and consisted largely of a number of anecdotes by Andrew Harter and Hal Bidlack, among others.

From the other end of the library
Andrew Harter Makes His Point

About halfway into the meeting, James "The Amazing" Randi showed up and joined in the discussion, and we all said hello. At one point, while I had my camera out, Randi expressed interest in it, so I showed him its features. He showed me his camera, which was much more professional-grade, and we spoke for a little while. (See, I told you the camera worked great for starting conversations!)

At about 9pm, the meeting broke up, and after some post-meeting conversations, Scott and I headed back to the hotel. We would meet again at 6:45am for the trip to KSC.



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