Thursday of #TAM2014

(This is part of an unknown numbered series of blog posts about The Amazing Meeting 2014)

The Thursday before TAM is always workshop day. The number of workshops I attend varies from year to year, depending on the topic and timing. This year I only attended two workshops, but I’m sure they were all excellent.

The first one I attended was “Advancing Skepticism in the Media” with Sharon Hill, James Underdown, Richard Saunders, and Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki. Anyone who follows me know I’m a big fan of Sharon Hill’s Doubtful News (and Sharon Hill herself). I’ve praised Saunders’ “Skeptic Zone” podcast many times. I’ve seen James Underdown do a workshop before on UFO’s and I thought it was excellent. This workshop was the first time I’d ever heard of Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki. As expected, it was an excellent workshop. Each speaker brought a different facet and angle to advancing skepticism in the media. I thought each segment flowed nicely to the next. There was not a dull moment.

The second workshop was “Rhetoric and Argumentation for the Skeptic” run by Miranda Celeste Hale, Robert Blaskiewicz, and Eve Siebert. Last year, I had to miss a similar workshop they did and I made a point to make it this year. They’re a different kind of skeptic, and I wanted to learn more about the non-sciencey side of skepticism and how to make better arguments. The night before Bob had told me that they were going to do something a little different. What I saw was three people who worked well together, and had a conversation with us the audience about rhetoric and argument. The room was packed, and the time passed quickly. I really enjoyed it.

I decided that after the workshops I would go to the High Roller ferris-wheel like thing with some friends despite my normal apprehension about heights. My plan was to get a couple drinks in me fast, get a little buzz, and then try the ride. I met up people and we went in two groups up to the High Roller. Richard (who’d I’d only met in person for the first time this TAM) drove one car with his family, and Travis, Andrew (another new person I met!), and I took a cab. Well, somehow it took a while for Richard to make it there, and by the time we approached one of the pods, I was completely sober.

The pods, which are 120 sq feet or so, are constantly moving. As I came up to the pod, I was mumbling to myself, “This isn’t a good idea. I’ve made a terrible mistake”. But, it was too late, and I was going. I shuffled into the pod, and immediately took a seat to kind of get my bearings. As it turns out, there isn’t nearly as much feeling of motion and movement as I expected. As we got higher and higher, I started to feel more comfortable. I won’t say that I became completely at ease, but I was not panicking, and I never really had any real fear of the height.

I eventually stood up and that was even better. For some reason, when sitting down, you can feel little bits of mechanical thunking, but when you stand up, you don’t feel any of that. From then on, I really enjoyed it. I still had a minor level of nervousness, and I still had a psychological block to standing right on the edge, but I was able to take lots of pictures, have a conversation, and honestly enjoy the great view we had as we got to 550 feet. I was actually a little disappointed when it was over.

We got back to the South Point Hotel just in time to hear DJ, George Hrab, and Randi say a few words at the TAM reception, and then it was on to socializing for a little bit. I talked with a few people at the reception and then down at the Del Mar, but it was an early night as I had precious cargo to pick up the next morning: vegan donuts.

How to Lose a Friendship With One Link Share

I’ve debated whether or not to make this public, but since the original incident happened in public, I’m going with making this post public.

Within my various online communities, it’s not uncommon for one single post by a person to cause a loss of a social network friendship. It’s very common to hear something along the lines of “I had to unfriend that person because of such and such…”. I think we’ve all heard it, and I think many of us have done it. Well, for me, I actually lost a real world friendship over a single share of a link. Why am I writing about this? It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and writing it down will make me feel better. Making it public will perhaps allow some people to give me some advice on how I could have better handled it.

Like many people, I sometimes share links on my social network profiles without commentary. This leaves the reason for sharing up to the imagination of the people who follow me, but I only one time before, did anyone ever question me. That person was my wife, who was surprised by something I shared, but once I explained why, that was the end of that conversation. A short sixty-second conversation.

I have to admit, I don’t often think about what other people might think of why I share stuff. I thought it was generally accepted by most people that sharing does not equal endorsement. I’ve seen miscommunications online all the time, but usually by complete strangers or online-only friendships. I personally have never seen it happen to real or close friends. Well, it happened to me.

A few months back I shared a link to an article on 5 Annoying Things Parents Say to People Who Don’t Have Kids. is a humor site, and I never thought that a friend of mine would take it serious. The author of the article is a father of three, and as someone who doesn’t want kids, I thought it humorous and interesting, and I shared it, and didn’t pay it much attention. Again, it’s a article.

Well, a few hours later, a friend of mine (who happens to be a parent) left a comment on it, a very long comment. This is a friend from the real world of at least the last seven years. I wish I’d saved the comment, but frankly, I was a little embarrassed at the content. It accused me of being a bigot, of being a bad skeptic, and how he was tired of my attitude about children. It went on for a couple paragraphs with more of this kind of commentary. It ended with a threat: either renounce the story, or we’re no longer friends.

Now I’ve been to enough TAM’s to know what my natural reaction was going to be, but even so, I wasn’t able to avoid a totally human reaction. I simply commented “Well, if you don’t like the links I post, don’t follow”. Perhaps that was more antagonistic than I intended, but I was really feeling insulted and attacked. Soon after I left that comment in response, he responded “Good idea, I’m done with you.” And that was it. All social connections killed within minutes.

The next morning, after thinking it over, I sent him an email with a fuller explanation. I did not apologize for sharing the link, but explained why I shared it. I had gone back and looked and didn’t find much in the way of anti-kids links that I had shared, so I figured it must have been something I said in person, but even that would have had to been over a year before. The email was not a suck-up, let’s be friends again type email. I was just honest about everything. I never heard a response, and it’s been four months.

A couple days later I talked about it with another friend of mine, who also is a parent. About a year before, I had said something off the cuff about children, and this friend took exception to it, and told me so. With this friend, however, we were able to have a conversation about it, no demands were made, and we were past it in a few minutes. It was just a slight misunderstanding, and probably made us slightly better friends for being able to talk about it. I’ve been more careful about my language, and he understands better where I was coming from.

This friend couldn’t understand what my now ex-friend was doing, or why he did it. It didn’t make much sense to him. I felt a little better after talking about it, because I wasn’t imagining the feeling of being attacked. I was attacked.

I haven’t tried much the last four months to reconnect. I sent him a short email congratulating him on something. I think I liked a post or two of his. There has not been a single response. I honestly don’t know what happened, or how anyone could kill a friendship like that over one link share. It’s not something I would ever do. I can’t even imagine it.

He might read this, and may have a completely different take on it. Maybe I was more strident than I can remember or find. I concede that’s a possibility. However, I do know that cutting things off will never solve that. After my last email was ignored, I’m pretty much done with it. Peter Bogossian once tweeted “True friendship is only achieved if parties don’t pretend to know things they don’t know. Pretenders have relationships based on illusion.” I’ve tried to live by that recently, and I think it’s helped. I, wonder though, if my friend and I were ever really good friends to begin with. Seems like there must have been some level of dishonesty between us.

And that is how you lose a friendship with one link share.

Wednesday of #TAM2014

I wasn’t checked into my hotel for more than five minutes when I started running into friends from TAM. I met Torkel as he was coming out of the elevator and a couple minutes later Jamie walked by after returning to the hotel from a previous donut run to Ronald’s (more on that in a later post).

This was the earliest I’d ever gotten to TAM. I’ve made some Wednesday nights, but never Wednesday morning. I almost has a whole new day to do something. Mainly, though, I wanted to meet up with old friends.

I ended up in the Del Mar, of course. My sense of timing was off, and I ordered a drink at two-thirty in the afternoon. Jamie made a run to the sub shop across the street and we chowed down for an hour or so in the bar. I feel like we must have been there for hours, because TAM’ers started to show up and I had a lot of good talks with people I hadn’t met before in real life. The overwhelming feeling I had was one of comfort and ease.

I do not have any sort of clinical level of social awkwardness, but I’m usually very shy, and always feel like my words fumble out of my mouth. It’s rare that I ever feel at ease in any social setting, even amongst friends, but this was one of those times.

Skeptic Bowling was a bust it turned out because of (I thought) a weird set of rules and the inability to reserve lanes. Back to the bar. I spent the rest of the night having a couple drinks with old and new friends. Completely at ease.

I turned in early because I was still running on central time and wanted to keep a decent sleep cycle early on. I went through a few pics each of my wife and our animals, before drifting off to sleep to the sounds of the Mysterious Universe podcast.

Leading Up to #TAM2014

(This is part of an unknown numbered series of blog posts about The Amazing Meeting 2014)

Every year I look forward to The Amazing Meeting. It’s an event that seems tailor made for my interests. However, life happens the other three hundred and sixty days a year and it’s never a sure thing that I will be able to get to TAM. So far I have been lucky. Back in March, we learned that Peedee had cancer. As with human cancer, there is no single prognosis and it would be a few weeks before we would know what we could expect. For that period of time TAM was in the background, something I had planned to do, but wasn’t thinking about.

Peedee was treated with surgery three months before TAM and was expected to do well. It was at that point, that I assumed I would be going to TAM. I did not want to assume the worst, that Peedee wouldn’t recover. As it happened, he recovered quicker than expected, and hasn’t otherwise missed a beat.

In the past, I would always be anxious during the packing process. I would think about packing weeks in advance and be nervous. This time was different. I didn’t stress out about anything other than having to get up at three am to make my flight. That turned out to be a non-issue. The drive to the airport was not filled with excitement. It felt as routine as a trip to the grocery store. The airport itself felt a normal errand. The flight was as uneventful as can be. I was in my own zone of videos and noise canceling headphones.

Once in Vegas, I still lacked excitement. Some of it felt second nature, like the trip to the rental car center, and the drive down South Las Vegas Blvd to the South Point Casino. It wasn’t until I opened the door to the casino, until I felt the air conditioned air on my face, until I could hear the ringing of slot machines in my ears, that I felt it.

I was at TAM. My friends were coming. I was excited.

Happy B-Day to Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, One of the Best Ideas Ever

Happy birthday to Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia!

So many people in skepticism have talked about who the audience is over the years. It’s the public, the consumers we’re trying to protect, maybe a family member who is buying homeopathic sleep meds, or perhaps your child who could use a course in critical thinking. The audience is not just your fellow skeptics on Twitter and Facebook.

GSoW is a brilliant idea because we know that Wikipedia is the encyclopedia of the modern age where people often go to first to learn about any topic. Of course, skeptics should be there, all over articles. Susan Grbic was the first to put this in motion, though, and has probably touched more people outside of skepticism than just about anything else skeptics do for outreach. Really brilliant stuff!

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.

Is The Gap Really Raising Minimum Wage For Their Workers?

The Gap actually announced this back in February, but it’s taking effect now, along with the Gap’s PR blitz. If The Gap thinks it’s good for their business, by all means, they should raise their rates. However, I think there is another way to look at what they are really doing.

Where I work, no one makes minimum wage. You can’t attract the talent we need by paying the minimum wage. Should we be applauded? Nah, that’s just how it is. I think the Gap is transitioning the skillset of their workforce, a raising of the bar. They’ve said things like “It’s actually increased the applicant pool for us” and “a reserve-in-store” program instituted about 18 months ago required a skilled, motivated and loyal sales force to help customers who visited the stores to pick up items reserved online and perhaps persuade them to buy matching apparel or shoes”, and “We’re going to need to assure that we have the best talent in our store.”

This all sounds like they need more skilled workers and they need to pay more than minimum skill set wages. Lots of businesses pay better for skilled labor. They don’t hire the unskilled.

One question for me is if you were a teenager and needed a job, could you get a GAP job under the previous wage regime, and what are your chances now with the new wage regime. By the Gap’s own words, the unskilled are going to have more competition and barrier to entry. That is the stated consequence of this change.

I will not place a good or bad value on this, because I assume the Gap knows what it’s doing here, but the media narrative seems to be missing a major aspect of their change. In fact,

With Congress Stalling, Gap & IKEA Move Ahead To Raise Minimum Wage « CBS Pittsburgh.


Looking at #TAM 3.0

As a software engineer I can’t help but use version numbers. Just my natural way of looking at things. As #TAM2014 moves closer and closer, I’m getting more excited about attending but I’m also looking back at the old TAM’s to observe and appreciate the change. My arbitrary break points for the different versions are my opinions only, but I do think they align roughly correct. Of course, I would love to hear from other people!

TAM 1.0: TAM 1

The first one! Obviously, this one holds a special place because it was the first one, oh, and I was there! I had a great time, socialized just a tiny bit, and suffered a freak injury. I sat in a position for so long without moving, I pinched off the blood supply to a nerve in my leg, and ended up minor nerve damage. For years it was a struggle to curl my toes, but that seems to be a non-issue these days. This minor affliction is a weird, constant reminder of that first conference. The Columbia Disaster happened while I was there (it was held in Florida), I got to meet James Randi, and I came home completely energized, a feeling that continues to happen even today.

TAM 2.0: TAM 4

I was unable to attend TAM 2 and TAM 3, so this demarcation of 2.0 of when I could attend seems self serving. However, I looked a lot at the different TAMs for this. Looking at attendance numbers, speaker lists, and venue TAM 4 seems to be the conference that signified TAM was here to stay. Over 800 people attended, and it was the second year in a row that TAM was at the now demolished Stardust Hotel & Casino. This feels and looks like a conference that had taken root for good. Since this is the most arbitrary of my three versions, this is one I would love to hear more opinions on.

TAM 3.0 TAM 2012

While some might say 2011 was the “break” from the past, I think it’s 2012 and I view this “break” to be the best thing that ever happened to TAM. The audience seems to have expanded, and the goals appear to be clearer and more focused. There was a push, that so far has been resisted, to align the JREF/skepticism with American progressive political values, but that seems to be on the wane in terms of effectiveness. Later in 2012, “Atheism+” attempted to fill that space (I know skepticism != atheism, but not everyone knows that), but it has completely failed to gain any traction. Meanwhile, JREF and TAM remain strong.

There have been some losses along the way, of which I’m not sure how to evaluate yet. As has been pointed out by many, Phil Plait has pretty much stopped talking about skepticism and seems to focus on astronomy on his blog, and name checking on Twitter. Hal Bidlack, who I will never forget handling the Columbia Disaster at TAM 1, has dropped out after being the emcee for so many years at TAM. There are faces, whose names I don’t know, that I haven’t seen in TAM in a few years.

This is probably the way it always happens in any endeavor like TAM. This year, I’ve heard, that registration was up for TAM over last year. The audience has expanded. Having constant leadership at the JREF for the last few years hasn’t always seemed like a blessing, but I think we’re seeing the results of constant leadership that stays true to a core set of values, as opposed to taking a poll. There are already enough organizations willing and ready to take on various political and social justice issues, but not nearly enough skeptic organizations. Keeping the JREF on mission has been a huge boon, and we should all thank DJ Grothe for that.

Who knows what TAM 4.0 will look like, but I do expect to be around!