It’s shortly after 4:00 p.m. Phil Plait is either speaking in the conference room or just finishing up, and I’m missing it to type this. I feel bad, but that’s the way it goes here—you can’t take a bathroom break without missing something.
TAM is a pretty remarkable thing. We were ready for record-breaking numbers — we were perfectly prepared accommodate 1,000 TAMmers this year — but we passed that once-unimaginable benchmark a long time ago. The registration desk ran out of badges yesterday and I got lost in Vegas trying to find more. (Random educational aside: it is possible to traverse the entire Las Vegas strip, south to north, without once finding an opportunity to take a legal U-turn.) Some notes:
— Things happened fast in the conference room this morning. Skeptics’ Guide to The Universe was taken over by the wedding ceremony of Rebecca Watson and Sid Rodrigues. It was a lovely and heartfelt ceremony, moving both because of the couple’s obvious love and because they’d chosen TAM, of all places, as their venue. That says something, I think — about the strength of the bonds that can be forged or reinforced here, and about the seriousness of this movement’s membership.
— Immediately after, the wedding party had to retire to the hallway to clear the area for Michael Shermer. Shermer’s smart, wry lecture included the use of the word “Dumbfuckistan” and set out to explain how critical thinking can do more than ruin the careers of “psychics.” It can teach us to deal compassionately and intelligently with those of differing political persuasions, or provide a strong foundation on which to build a moral code. It’s likely that most of those present knew this already, but it’s the kind of thing that can’t be said enough. If critical thinking doesn’t turn us into awesome human beings, what’s the point?
— Shermer was followed by Adam Savage, who gave a personal, funny, and deeply affecting talk on . . . Adam Savage. Good thing he’s an interesting guy.
— Savage was followed by a panel discussion led by DJ Grothe, and including Jamy Ian Swiss, Ray Hyman, Penn, Teller, and, later, Randi. Some things you may have learned at the panel: skeptical magicians do not love it when mentalists claim to achieve their effects through profound psychological insight without at least mentioning at some point that it’s all a schtick; Uri Geller is extremely unpopular; and lying is only almost always wrong. Randi told a story about assuring his dying, 90-something granddad that, yes, of course he’d meet his deceased wife in the hereafter. And why not?
— As you learned from Randi’s Welcoming Address, he’s recovering from some pretty nasty surgery. Crazily, this was apparent only last Thursday, when he arrived at the TAM gala reception in a wheelchair. Friday he spent most of his time on his feet, and today he’s barely touched the chair at all. He’s been bounding around, chatting everyone up, doing the Randi thing. It’s wild. He’s like a superhero, but hairier.
— A thought that keeps occurring to me every time I watch Penn address a crowd: This is a dude who devotes vast amounts of time to figuring out what, exactly, constitutes an ethical life. He picks carefully both his words and his targets — so carefully that I can’t imagine the process being anything other than anguishing. Penn is obviously a “good” person by most modern, post-Enlightenment standards. But he is not necessarily “nice.” In fact, it may be true that to be as “good” as Penn is, you can’t be very “nice” at all — the world contains too much, ahem, bullshit. This is a concept most of us grasp intuitively online, but in person — when we’re actually forced to call somebody on something, or be a nuisance, or to make a spectacle out of ourselves — most of us demure. Penn does not. Isn’t that cool? Do you think it has anything to do with his being, like, nine feet tall?