Electric Monk



It was a dark and stormy night...
So we said "forget that!" and left in the morning.


Yes, campers, it was time again for The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Loon, exarch and Stimpy decided to brave the weather and head for Las Vegas anyway. It turned out that they were not eaten by wolves, stranded in the snow, or shortchanged by the casino ATMs, but how were we to know that?

So it was just myself and a mysterious Russian agent - I mean "adjuster" - who met up at the IHOP at 5 am at the intersection of our two paths.

The Russian, code-named "Renata", was late, as usual, but she did pay for breakfast. We talked about TAM and ate, then got on the road to Vegas in nice, clear weather.

While driving, I had the distinct impression that I was being followed. This odd little red car was directly behind me. Yes, it was Renata, all right. I could tell by the erratic driving. Or maybe those were due to my attempts to shake her off my trail.

After one stop for fuel and a pretty uneventful journey through wonderful scenery we made it to Las Vegas and the Stardust at about 10am. No, not the Stardust on the left, the one on the right! (For you "Aurora" fans, note the remains of a doughnuts-on-a-rope contrail above the hotel.)

Once we had checked in, and hauled most of our stuff upstairs, we started running into skeptics right and left. Soon we were in the JREF hospitality suites, moving boxes, and generally making ourselves useful.

When that settled down a bit, a bunch of us went to the Island Paradise restaurant, inside the hotel, for lunch. Then Stimpy, Loon, Kiless, her husband, and I wandered down Las Vegas Blvd to see the Mac King show. I had missed seeing that at the previous TAM, and it was so highly recommended by MoeFaux and others, that I had to take the opportunity.

Along the way we spotted the van on the left, having an exterior that was clearly the product of an -ahem- determined mind. Obviously Sin City would be an obvious target for someone with a message like this. Skeptics as we were, we just laughed and took pictures.

Further along on the way to the show, as I watched the escalators carry people up and into the fancy casinos, I was struck with an insight into the ecological niche that the casinos filled in this environment. They are filter-feeders, siphoning a steady stream of people through their digestive organs, absorbing nutritive coinage from them, before dumping them out again on the street. Pushing the analogy, I noted that they use the same optimizations of creating turbulent flow inside the casinos, not permitting a straight or easy path from entrance to exit, seeming to maximize the surface area contacted by the individuals as they pass.

The Mac King show was gently funny, and featured some nice tricks, but wasn't as entertaining and engaging as I had hoped for.

Back safely at the Stardust, it was time to do a little celebrating. It was Kitten's birthday and the JREF provided a cake.

Other JREFers started showing up, and we had an appearance from the sage of JREF himself, James "The Amazing" Randi.

Pictured at the right is a still photo of the ever-frenetic MoeFaux, holding one of the more intriguing sights at TAM3, a save/shave-the-wombat t-shirt. The skepchicks were lining up in favor of shaving wombats or against.

Tim, the Combat Wombat was looking nervous as to the outcome.

Next on the social agenda was a trip to the Thai restaurant declared by Renata to be the best in the Western Hemisphere, the Lotus of Siam. There was just one problem, or maybe thirty or forty. Everyone wanted to go, and we only had reservations for fifteen. After begging those who could return on Friday night to go then, we split up into the available cars and made the journey of a few blocks.

As a surprise, we were joined by MoeFaux, making us sixteen, and proving once again that there's always room for one Moe.

The dinner was as delicious as advertized. The entertainment was provided by Dr. Ray Hall, who brought some of his physics toys along. To the left is a picture of his levitation device, which magnetically suspends a tiny golden cube, which can be seen at the right.

Also, Ray brought a set of magnets which can levitate small flat plates. At the right, you see he proof that pigs can fly.

Now it was time for some serious birthday celebrating! The skeptics gathered at the Peppermill restaurant, across Las Vegas Blvd from the Stardust to celebrate the birthdays of Luciana, Kitten, Walter Wayne, and Paul C. Anagnostopoulos.

Among the things that I had dragged across the desert were about 10,000 calories of homemade cookies, and other chocolate-covered goodies for the birthday boys and girls.

While we ate our ice cream treats, Ray Hall brought out another of his toys. This one would start soft, but would warm and stiffen when activated.

Pending its patent approval, I can't divulge the nature of the use to which MoeFaux wanted to put this unusual material, but let's just wish her well in this new venture.

The news of the day from the outside world included Madonna donating Kabala Water to the victims of the Dec. 26th tsunami.


Well, Thursday morning I was still feeling pretty refreshed, and I got downstairs in time to meet everyone for breakfast at the hotel buffet. I sat with Luciana, Darat and Brown, but just about everyone was there.

Jeff Wagg brought many syrups to taste, and Luciana brought some of her own coffee.

After breakfast it was time to get on with the volunteer effort. I helped drag boxes around and set up some of the book tables. After standing behind one of those tables with Claus for a while, it was time for the workshop.

The pre-TAM workshop this year was on the subject of "Communicating Skepticism to the Public", and was taught by Randi, Jack Latona, Phil Plait, and Michael Shermer, and hosted by Andrew Harter.

Randi spoke at length, and shared some of the tricks of the trade when dealing with the media, including being very careful to phrase things in such a way that it would be difficult to be taken out of context.

As to why skepticism needs to be communicated, a skeptical society is a better society, since more resources are devited to productive endeavors.

We were also encouraged to communicate in ways directed at the mainstream and undecided individuals, not the fringe groups. Randi advised against confronting psychics, because "they do this for a living, and you don't."

Shermer noted that in his experience those to whom he has given an opportunity to respond in the pages of Skeptic magazine are usually mollified. He also said that you are more likely to be sued if they think that you have money, which makes sense, generally.

After the main panel session, we broke into two groups for questions with two of the panelists at a time. Our group got Randi and Latona first. Among the comments: that science can come up with answers that turn out later to be wrong, and so an emphasis needs to be put on describing the process, and not the content when teaching science in school.

Randi noted that no two dowsers can find the same spot and no dowser can find the same spot twice.

Latona advised that when on live TV you should stick to your message, and not feel it necessary to answer the direct question being put to you, but that when you are being taped, you will be entirely at the mercy of the editors.

Then Shermer and Plait's turn with us came. The Bad Astronomer discussed how those who mislead the credulous take advantage of the fact that people are easily convinced by saying things with certainty. This takes much longer to debunk, partly because an honest evaluation will leave room for uncertainty. His advice was to teach children to question what they see around them.

Shermer described the work that the Society does by producing the Jr. Skeptic magazine as an insert in Skeptic, commenting on how it was inspired by an episode of the Simpsons.

Following the workshop I stood behind one of the book tables answering questions. Soon, Julia Sweeney, one of my favorite persons, came by and said hello, before she went in to get ready for her evening performance.

Instead of mingling at dinner, I got to stay in conference room and watch her get set up, and walk through the sound and lighting cues. She was there at TAM both to attend the lectures, and to perform her new play, Letting Go of God, of which she had done a rough, and abbreviated version at TAM 2, to rave reviews.

I had actually spent some time working with her on the play, and she thanked me as one of her "extra special creative consultants" in her program.

Joining me in hanging around before the show were Hal Bidlack, Jamy Ian Swiss, Penn Jillette, and Mr. Randi.

I've seen Julia perform this material around twenty times, now, and have taken my friends, parents, and and aunt and uncle to see the finished version.

Tonight, of course, she performed wonderfully, and drew another standing ovation.

Well, if you've readmy TAM2 report, then you know about the original Skepchick Pajama Party. The Bad Astronomer and I crashed it, and it was all so very much fun. Well, the skepchicks decided to have a party again, and this time they decided to organize the gatecrashing. Skepdudes could sign up to be security and for a $100 donation to the Send-A-Skepchick-to-TAM scholarship fund, would be permitted to spend a short time at the party, to have a Security shirt signed by the skepchicks, and pose for a picture with them. I had a camera, and was drafted (kicking and screaming, to be sure) as the official photographer at the event. Well, I had a camera and a tripod, so why not?

The event started out with the guys in another room, amusing themselves with small, shiny objects.

I took my tripod down to set things up, and to deliver my skepchick bribe of much chocolate, and a pretty jar.

Once permitted in with the skepchicks, it was mostly a civilized process. The Bad Astronomer attempted to crash, uninvited, and was escorted out by Renata. (What, she didn't ask all the SkepchickSecurity to handle this?)

So, we all munched on snacks, ogled the skepchicks, had our pictures taken, and made a lot of noise. Enough noise, in fact, to cause the guy in the room across the hall to have hotel security come and ask us to tone it down.

This pretty much broke things up for the guys being there, and we retreated to the other room, to be entertained by occasional skepchicks wandering in, looking for further donations. Moe earned a dollar.

All in all, I thought that the Pajama Party had become too commercialized, and yearned for the simpler, more innocent days of TAM2.

In the news that night was the court overturning the anti-evolution stickers placed in Cobb county GA textbooks.


All was well when I went to sleep, but in the clear light of dawn, a tragedy became evident. Tim, the Combat Wombat had been shaved! Shaved during the secret rituals of a skepchick initiation. Or maybe it was just for fun.

In any case, order was soon restored by Renata, as she and I reserved space for the forum crowd at the front of the lecture hall. Then we settled in for a nice breakfast from the trays of food in the conference center.

It was the Bad Astrononer's turn to MC the day's events, and he did a good job. His puns aren't as sharp as Hal Bidlack's, but that's probably a good thing, too. The audience shouldn't be groaning in pain during the entire conference.

Phil Plait is a very entertaining and enthusiastic speaker on astronomy of both the good and bad varieties, and I hope that I can hear him give a lecture at the next TAM. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

First up in the morning was Michael Shermer, on the themes in his new book, Science Friction.

First, I'd like to say, "nice shoes!". They were widely admired and wondered about at TAM3. It turns out that he got these from his daughter.

Most of Shermer's talk this time centered on perceptual and cognative illusions; things by which we are deceived, and by which we deceive ourselves. Examples he gave were the Face on Mars, confirmation bias, the "Bible Code", the self-serving bias (where everyone thinks that s/he is above average), and the misperception of the odds on rare events.

Shermer also discussed how our mental model of the universe can prevent us from seeing the true nature of things, giving Gallileo's description of Saturn's rings as "ears" simply because his model of the universe did not include rings around planets.

Rick Maue's lecture was on giving theatrical seances. As those who attended his after-hours lecture at TAM2 know, he became interested in seances as a young man, setting up seances for his friends in his parents' basement. He had started in magic with card tricks, but found that he could get a much more profound and real emotional response from his audience with seances.

Maue described different situations for seances: where both the performer and audience know it's fake ("great!"), where the performer knows it, but not the audience ("fraud"), or where neither know ("sad").

Margaret Downey gave a fun and tongue-in-cheek talk about how to run a Superstition Bash, a party which is usually held on a Friday the 13th, to educate and entertain and challenge people with superstitions.

This lecture got the most mixed of responses from the audience, due to an abundance of silliness in a promotional video, and a campy nurse's outfit.

Andrew Harter presented "Five Steps to Communicating Critical Thinking". These were: Defining your goal as a critical thinker; Going with what you know; The five rules for better communication (wonder, honesty, integrity, simplicity, and relevancy); Understanding your audience; and Reaching your audience.

I think that he used these principles to good effect in creating his talk, ending up with a clear and entertaining result.

The big event at lunch was the arrival of the holy cheese sandwich, recently sold to the GoldenPalace.com online casino for $28,000.

If you have not encountered this marvel, then it is a grilled-cheese sandwich, with one bite taken out of it, which is supposed by the faithful to have an image of the Virgin Mary on it. Click on the picture to get a closer look and see for yourself.

The word is that the sandwich will be featured in the new season (#3) of Penn & Teller's Bulls**t show.

After lunch, we had Jamy Ian Swiss take the stage. Jamy was a good choice for the slot after lunch, because he is a polished entertainer. He can hold an audience's attention with both mentalist stunts, and purely awe-inspiring close-up slight-of-hand card tricks.

But, it's not just the illusion work, but his lecture material and joking patter that make his time on stage a pleasure to watch. As an example, he makes a point by describing how Astronomy and Astrology have seven things in common. One, they both deal with celestial bodies, and two through seven were "A,S,T,R,O, and Y".

Jamy Ian Swiss points out how after the debunking done by Houdini, the physical phenomena of the paranormal went away, since fraud was so easy to detect, and how in the 1970's it was brought back by the spoon bending of Uri Geller, and was countered by James Randi.

For him, being a magician means being an honest liar.




Monday was a pretty quiet day for me. I had breakfast at the hotel buffet again, with Loon, Rebecca, and Walter Wayne, later joined by Doubt, Renata, and Stimpy. We discussed what future TAM's should look like and said a lot of goodbyes.

I spent most of my day wandering down the Strip, looking at the hotels that I hadn't had a chance to examine before in daylight. I walked all the way down to the Mandalay Bay and back.

By then it was time for dinner, and I was getting pretty hungry. I found a bunch of the hold-out JREFers in the lobby area by the elevators, and joined in on the circular discussion of where to eat. Where was Renata when we needed her?

Ah, well, eventually we decided to retire to the hotel's Tony Roma's for some ribs, and a last (TAM3) supper.

Everyone there was tired. This can't be much of a surprise after five straight late nights of talking and exploring Las Vegas, and three days of serious lectures. The party was over, and we had had our fill of TAM.

Even so, we know that next year could not come soon enough. The goodnights and goodbyes came together, and we broke up into smaller and smaller groups, knowing that we would not see each other until next year, at the earliest. Finally, I headed upstairs to pack. I wanted to have a good rest before driving back.


In the morning I packed up my car and checked out, taking one last lung-full of smoke-filled air and one last look at the decidedly un-skeptical slots tournament players. None of them looked happy, just resigned, or obsessed. I was already wanting to see the faces of my friends again among all these weary strangers around me.

I got in my car, punched the "Home" button on my navigation system, and started driving.

See you all next year, I hope!