Sunday, 17 October 2010

TAM London 2010 - Squeee!

That was a geeky "squeee", of course. And, uh, a manly one, as well. Obviously...

So, I've just returned from the second Amaz!ng Meeting to be held in London, this time in the swanky environs of the London Hilton Metropole. This year the event was even bigger than last, with close to a thousand people attending, and an even more packed program. As a meeting of pro-science and pro-rationality types, I don't think it can be beaten; it really is quite remarkable.

The line-up for this year was pretty stellar, with some familiar from the world of science, some from entertainment, and a few who are, perhaps, a little less well known, at least outside skeptical circles.

The first talk was one of the best, with Susan Blackmore talking about her long journey on the road from firm believer in the paranormal to skeptic. I'd never actually seen her in person before, although I've read her autobiography (still on my bookshelf, indeed). That's largely because she hasn't been involved in skeptical work for the last decade or so, and its great to see such an engaging speaker back. The talk, like her autobiography, very much gave the impression that she was someone who really wanted to believe in psychic powers, and dedicated much of her life to trying to prove their existence, but was just too good an experimental scientist to find evidence that just wasn't there.

She was followed by the great Richard Dawkins, giving a speech about how the study of evolution should be as central to modern education as Classics was in days gone by. Perhaps over-egging the pudding a little bit, but the main point is a valid one: evolution is such an important concept that it impinges on almost every field of study in some way.

Cory Doctorow spoke on copyright and how the current systems of enforcing it are threatened by the internet. This is, he explained, much the same as the music industry back at the turn of the last century trying to shut down the production of phonographs on the grounds of copyright (since at the time, musicians made their money by collecting royalties from sheet music). Obviously, that one didn't work so well, and one can see something similar in Viacom's recent attempts (also so far unsuccessful) to effectively close down YouTube. Doctorow's solution seems to me a perfectly reasonable one, and it may well be that the music and video industries will eventually be forced to accept something much like it. It's as much a colossal waste of time and money for them to do otherwise as it is a pain to everyone else, and perhaps they'll eventually work that one out.

Adam Rutherford talked about the Alpha Course and its rather scary links to Christian fundamentalism, homophobia, and so on. In a similar vein, Paula King talked about the Christian Party, which is rather more openly zealous and, frankly, quite unpleasant. Now, it's true that the Christian Party has absolutely naff all chance of being elected to Parliament even under a PR system, let alone the one we've got - or the relatively minor voting reform that the Coalition is likely to propose, for that matter. But these are organised groups that can do lobbying, and that, in itself, is a worrying thought.

Also, on the first day we had a couple of awards being given out for great achievements in UK skepticism. This year they went, deservedly, to Ben Goldacre and Rhys Morgan.

In the evening, we had entertainment from the Amateur Transplants (check out, for example, this homage to Tom Lehrer's Elements Song), Simon Cox, and, of course, the superb Tim Minchin, who was premiering the animated version of his poem "Storm", which I may have mentioned before. To be honest, there was a bit too much waffle about the animation process at the end of the evening's entertainment, but all the songs Tim played were new to me, at least, and all very good in different ways. If I had to pick one of the three, though, I'd go for "Cont", for sheer cleverness.

And that was just the first day! The best talk on the second day was also the first one, and the one that focused most clearly on science, which seemed to have a slightly lower profile this year than last. This was given by Marcus Chown, on the subject of "ten reasons why the universe is bonkers" - you can find three of the reasons at the bottom of the list on this page. It was a great talk, with nice visuals on the power of space science.

Also on the second day, DJ Grothe gave a talk on the ideals of TAM's organisers, the JREF, a panel on use of new internet technology to spread the word, and an interview with the man for whom the very meeting is sort-of-named: James "the Amazing" Randi. He hadn't been able to attend the previous year, due to health issues, but he seemed remarkably spry and energetic this time round, and came across as a quite remarkable man.

And then there was PZ Myers, who has often been accused of taking an overly strident tone on his blog. I don't think I agreed with everything he said, but I certainly agree with his general sentiment that some things you just have to get angry about. On the other hand, I have to say that while I personally found Melinda Gebbie's talk on feminist pornography interesting, I appear to have been in something of a minority (among the men, anyway), and I actually do agree that it seemed rather out of place. All very well, yes, but what's it doing here? Stephen Fry also gave an interview, albeit by video link, which was quite wide-ranging. Alan Moore finished off the day, and seemed rather more popular - some interesting thoughts on how our geographic environment affects us, but I could have done without the poem on the psychogeography of Northampton. Maybe that's just me, though.

So, perhaps not perfect, but a very enjoyable weekend overall, with time for getting to know other people in between the talks. The food was better this time, too, which doubtless comes from using the Hilton as a venue. All credit to the organisers for pulling off what was really quite a large meeting.

I'll be going again next year!

Addendum: One thing that didn't help was the massive disruption on the Underground this weekend. So, in honour of London Transport, here's another song from the Amateur Transplants. (Warning: strong language).