Jul 182013

I had the good fortune, OK, the good foresight to send myself to The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas this year. For the uninitiated TAM is the largest gathering of skeptics anywhere, put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). What’s a skeptic? Who is James Randi? Some context may be necessary. That’s why this is Part 1.

A skeptic in this context is someone who tries to make decisions about reality based on evidence and reason. So, for example, if someone makes a claim about the efficacy of an herb for curing colds, a skeptic would look for scientific evidence to support this claim and not accept it on “faith”. Typically, skeptics cast a cold eye on what they call “woo”: Ghosts, cold readings, tarot, telekinesis, etc. This is not to say they wouldn’t “believe” in these things. A skeptic would gladly accept these as real if some hard scientific facts were to be presented. A skeptic keeps an open mind and is willing to change that mind given convincing new evidence. For a more comprehensive description in this context see the Media Guide to Skepticism.


James Randi and Me Schmoozing.
Photo by Kevin Hoover.

James “the Amazing” Randi, as he was known in his performing days, is a magician and skeptical investigator who has spent decades promoting the cause of critical thinking and, as this year’s TAM slogan says: “Fighting the Fakers”. He has famously shed light on the “faith healer” Peter Popoff and the spoon bending of Uri Geller among many other adventures.

I got introduced to the concept of skepticism as a movement as so many others have, by listening to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I’ve been listening to this podcast for several years, usually while I worked out at the gym on Sunday mornings, but how I came across it originally is lost in the foggy mists of my memory.

So with all that out of the way, how was TAM? Well, for one, I did not leave the hotel once I checked in until I checked out 5 days later. It was too hot outside (I checked the weather on my phone) and there was way too much to do indoors from 8 AM to 11 PM or later each day.

You can get an idea of the scope of the program by perusing the schedule. I attended half of the workshops on Thursday and would have attended them all, but there were always 2 running simultaneously (unfortunately I did not have a spirit-self that would allow me to be in two places at once). And I managed to attend almost every session over the following 3 days, which meant sitting in a large conference hall for sometimes 4 hours at a time. I also, had tickets to nearly every extra event held in the evening, one of which had bacon, donuts, loud music and strippers! No need to see the rest of Las Vegas after all.

Clearly I had a great time. I felt immersed in a really long, stimulating intellectual conversation with a large list of very impressive people with diverse disciplines from magicians to philosophers and journalists. And that was just the official program. Meeting others from all over the world over lunch, dinner, extra events and in the hallway was as much fun as listening to speakers. I came away truly inspired, energized and full of ideas of ways to improve my own critical thinking skills and ways to help promote the concepts and programs of the skeptical community. I am still assimilating all I experienced, and will be for quite a long while. But the best way to do that, I think will be to take action where I can.

More later.



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Jul 172013

In my last post I mentioned a conversation I got in to with the cab driver who helped me Escape from Hell!, also known as the South Point Hotel. The cabbie was genial and talkative. So I asked him how long he’d been driving cab. His story juxtaposed against the Las Vegas world of gamblers, glitz and high priced entertainment put a poignant spin on my visit.

aerial_view_las_vegas__nevada__united_statesHe’d been driving cab for about six months. He’d been laid off from the hotel he’d been working at for several years. He had 15 years experience in hotel service but had only moved to Las Vegas a few years ago so others, also laid off, had seniority over him as far as getting called back to work.

So, rather than sit idle at home, he learned to drive a cab. It took months of training. He had to pass a rigorous test. And now, he has to compete with 7,000 other cabbies to earn enough each day to take home some profit. He showed me his ride sheet. He’d only had 9 fares so far and he’d been working 6 hours already. He works 12 hours/day 6 days/week. He’d been in the cab line waiting his turn to pick up a fare for over 2 hours. He said the competition for fares was brutal, especially along the strip where cabs circled like vultures looking for riders. He preferredaerial view of tract homes in Las Vegas
the orderly wait outside the hotels.

Now maybe he was giving me a line in order to get earn a sympathy tip. After all, I was in the land of hucksters and hustlers. But his story had the ring of truth from the evidence I saw. And as I flew out over the vast tracts that surround the city, filled with identical houses all with the same brown roofs sprawling across the desert, I imagined them filled with workers struggling to pay the rent or mortgage, in the service of the people throwing money at rigged games of chance, hookers, booze and all you can eat buffets.

I gave him a 20% tip. After all, I’m also part of the 99%.

 Posted by at 11:04 pm
Jul 152013

If hell existed it might look a little like South Point Hotel in Las Vegas.20130715-093627.jpg

It’s only 9:30 am. Already hordes of people are waisting health, money and time on rigged games of chance, unhealthy food and drink and cigaret smoke.

Outside, it’s 94 degrees and a guy with a jackhammer is drowning out all other sounds.

What have I done to land here? Simply attend a skeptics convention. Maybe a god does reserve a special place for non-believers. Or maybe the shuttle will arrive soon and I can leave.

Update: Screw it. I took a cab. $30. But it was my ticket out of hell and into the limbo of airline travel. Plus I got an interesting story about life as a cabby in Las Vegas. Well worth the price.

 Posted by at 9:37 am
Jul 112013

I am six months from being 62 years old! How did this happen?moves

Trying to stay somewhat fit and looking forward to when ingestable or under skin monitoring implants I downloaded a free iOS tracking app called Moves.

It simply tracks your movement using geolocation it knows if your walking, running, I think biking. It counts your steps, calculates your speed and distance. Basically a souped up pedometer (have at it NSA).

But this simple tool of the quantified self works! It motivates me to run further, take more steps.

It move me. Fit bit next?

What gets you moving?







 Posted by at 8:12 am