Up next was James Randi and his special guest, astronaut Ed Lu:
James "The Amazing" Randi has an international reputation as a magician and escape artist, but today he is best known as the world's most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
James Randi presented some anecdotes from his years of testing supernatural claims, and did a brief Q&A with astronaut Ed Lu.
Dr. Krippner has conducted workshops and seminars on personal mythology, dreams, hypnosis, and/or anomalous phenomena in over a dozen different countries. He is a Fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and has published cross-cultural studies on spiritual content in dreams.
His topic was:
“RAPE, WAR, and AIDS: Rational and Irrational Beliefs about the AIDS Pandemic”
This presentation will document the way that the three dozen ongoing wars around the world are responsible for spreading AIDS, and how the combatants are given little or no preventive education. It will also document the irrational and erroneous data about AIDS provided by folk healers in Africa, the Roman Catholic Church, and the U.S. government, especially in its subsidy of "abstinence" programs in public schools. This will be a hard-hitting presentation that names Names and provides solid data. There will be something in it to offend virtually everyone!
Sadly one of my favorite speakers won't be represented here. I'm not sure what happened with the recording, but aside from the first minute of his intro, the rest of the hour is mysteriously silent. If anyone has audio of Prof. Gell-Mann's talk, I would love to have a copy.
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Director of the Skeptics Society, founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, columnist for Scientific American, and producer of the TV series, Exploring the Unknown. His many books include: The Borderlands of Science, How We Believe, and Why People Believe Weird Things.
Here's the talk info:
"THE SOUL OF SCIENCE – Bootstrapping Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality"
How can we find spiritual meaning and purpose in a scientific worldview? Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond our selves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades. Dr. Shermer shows how.
The first speaker at TAM4 was Christopher Hitchens; here's his bio from the TAM4 site:
Christopher Hitchens' trademark savage wit flattens hypocrisy inside the DC Beltway and around the world, laying bare the "permanent government" of entrenched powers and interests. He's the author of many bestsellers. From Mother Theresa to Michael Moore, no one is above scrutiny.
A quick summary of his talk (also from the TAM4 site):
"MR. JEFFERSON, SHORE UP THIS WALL!"
TAM4 begins with a BIG BANG as controversial journalist Christopher Hithchens celebrates Thomas Jefferson's Enlightenment views, whilst pillorying those who fabricate "design" and want to tear down the wall of separation."
So the topic of the very next speaker after my complaint yesterday was addressing the very issue I was complaining about: the fact that this convention seemed to be overrun with Atheism, and how it is really irrelevant to skepticism. I was pretty impressed that nearly 20% of the self-proclaimed skeptics at this meeting felt exactly the same way that I do regarding the disparity between making fun of Deist beliefs and proclaiming that an Atheist belief system is required in order to be a skeptic, giving the speaker a standing ovation. After the talk was over, there was a panel entitled "Can A Skeptic Believe in God?" This panel was just as much a waste of time as Paul Provenza's stand up comedy; the panel was made up of 8 Atheists and one Deist and consisted of all the Atheists espousing the importance of all Atheists "coming out" to their family and friends, so as to create more power in this country in the name of Atheism. Nearly every speaker here at TAM4 was speaking about how bad and annoying it is that religious people have made so much headway in this country, have so much power, and how they're constantly sharing their beliefs with others, trying to prostheletise to those of us that don't believe. Once again, the irony of this was lost on all of them.
James Randi closed the panel by saying that it isn't possible to be both a Deist and a skeptic, which is not only wrong, it's elitist and inflammatory. I'm hoping he gets negative comments about this from more than just me so that next year TAM can once again stand for The Amazing Meeting, rather than The Atheist Meeting -- which is what it stood for this year.
Adam Savage is auctioning off something used in an upcoming episode of Mythbusters: an FCD or Flatus Containment Device. The most asked question on the Mythbusters site is "can you light your own farts", so they shot an episode to determine it. There are two of them, and they still contain Adam's farts. As of this post, the first one is up to $1500. Crazy fuckers.
Today at lunch, the loser table we picked suddenly became the table to be at when James Randi came by and sat down with his lunch. He asked me if I was trying to be a Mythbuster (in reference to the hat I always wear) and then had a short discussion on facial hair styles. I was already kicking myself for shaving off my big moustache before I had an opportunity to meet Jamie Hynemann, but now more so.
I briefly talked to Adam Savage at the buffet table, where I asked him what was served at last nights $500-$1000 a plate fundraiser dinner (where him and Jamie were the most sought after guests to sit with), to which he replied "endangered gorilla" before apologizing for being as inappropriate as possible at all times. I was in line directly behind Kari Byron as she talked to the woman she was trying hard to seem interested in, but then one of the organizers came and informed her that she didn't have to wait in line with us paying guests.
Oh damn, they're currently auctioning off the awesome flag shirt Penn wore yesterday and I really want it. Gaah, $1000. That's too rich for my blood.
Richard Wiseman made what was so far the most entertaining presentation (discounting Penn of course), outlining all sorts of ways your brain can mislead you, and ways you can let assumptions throw off your findings. I really wish I was recording video in addition to audio, because many of his demonstrations involved photos and video.
He played a clip from Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" in reverse, where of course we just heard gibberish. Then he played it again with "bouncing ball" style lyrics projected on the screen where you could clearly hear "I'm not too young / for you to sleep with". Then he did the same thing with a much longer clip from "Stairway To Heaven", which despite a few "Satans" here and there was utter gibberish. Listening with the suggested lyrics displayed resulted in several very clear sentences about worshipping satan and whatnot. It was really neat to see just how much your predisposed idea of what you expect can influence your perceptions.
Yesterday my favorite presenter was Murray Gell-Mann, who served as Presidential Science advisor to Nixon and several other presidents. He had some really great stories about stupid things presidents have done, which I won't spoil here, since I'll be posting audio on monday or tuesday next week of all the presentations.
Here at the Stardust we've been plagued by audio problems, and last night during a panel the audio system died completely, save for the inexplicable porn music that suddenly faded in. After bopping a bit to the music, Penn declared that he could serve as amplifier for everyone, and truly, all 800+ people here could hear him clearly. Suddenly someone yelled out "Tell a joke!" at which point Penn leaped out of his seat and said (in a voice about 30 times louder than he had just used to address everyone) "This guy walks into a talent agency, and says 'Boy do I have an act for you..' " The crowd went nuts. He then started to go into his version of the joke, but then sat down suddenly as soon as the mics came on. The crowd went nuts again. I can't believe just how loud that man can be.
Penn Jillette is fucking awesome. He's been one of my heroes for a very long time, but today is the first time being in the same room as him. The man can really work a room, I can't believe just how captivating a presence he has. I hope my recording comes out ok so you all can hear him too. He did an audience Q&A where, in addition to learning about upcoming topics for Bullshit, we also got to learn the genesis of his daughter's peculular name (Moxy Crimefighter Jillette) and the name of his yet-to-be-born 2nd child (Zoltan Penn Jillette). If the recording doesn't turn out, I'll share the daughter story.
There is currently a throng of people crowded around him having him sign things, having meaningless conversations with him, and posing with him for contrived looking photos and I must say that I'm extremely jealous to not be over there. The thing is tho, like with The Turtle Lady, there's really nothing one could actually say to a man like Penn in a situation like that.