Monday, 18 October 2010

TAM London 2010: A Critical Review

There were some absolutely fabulous talks at TAM London this year.

I’m not going to write a detailed run through of all the speakers as I did last year, but I did especially enjoy Susan Blackmore, Paula Kirby and Marcus Chown. Tim Minchin’s new material was obviously brilliant. The “Amateur Transplants” were an unexpected delight and of course I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews with Graham Linehan, Andy Nyman and Alan Moore (even though I was rather knackered by the time we got around to Alan).

However, if you will forgive me, I thought I’d focus on the far fewer number of less positive aspects.

The premiere of the animated movie of Tim Minchin Skeptical masterpiece “Storm” was wonderful. Having seen the trailer, I knew it would be. DC Turner has done an absolutely brilliant job. However, as much as I enjoyed the film and as happy as I was to applaud Dan and Tracy for their great work, there was only so much self congratulatory back-slapping and audience Q&A’s about a short film I could sit through. Incidentally I love Pulp Fiction too, but I could be arsed with the director’s commentary and all the other extras on the DVD.

I got the feeling I may not have been alone. As the Q&A’s dragged on there was a noticeable murmur amongst the polite audience that was clearly picked up on on stage, resulting in the audience being asked if they would like to continue the session or get Tim to sing a few more songs instead. A suggestion that despite being preferable by the majority was wholly unfair on an artist who had clearly not been forewarned of the possible need to prepare any additional material. This seemed like a good time to make sure I wouldn’t have to take the late train home.

On day two I completely failed to grasp the connection between Melinda Gebbie’s lovely ladies jazz comics and a Skeptic conference. She was a fine speaker and a great talent, but the only relevance I could see was that perhaps the subject might have just happened to have been a topic of interest to one of the organisers. Still, if I organised a Skeptical conference and was able to get Robert Plant to come along and talk about the recording of the 4th Zeppelin album, I’d probably indulge myself too.

Next in the firing line is Joise Long. Josie is a fine comedian who I always enjoy at Robin Ince’s "9 lessons and Carols for Godless People", so I was a little bemused as to why she didn’t do one of her great comedy turns on the Saturday night rather than throwing her out of her depth into an Alan Moore interview that the perfectly researched and amiable Neil Denny would have handled better without the interruptions.

So I came away wondering if it was the above picky and admittedly trivial points that made a great conference not quite as great as last years, or was it something else.

As much as I am delighted that a sceptical conference can now herd a thousand sceptical minds into one hotel, I just felt there was something missing.

Perhaps I am becoming more blasé, or perhaps the TAM London Mega Church by its very definition cannot recreate the intimacy of your local SitP Chapel.

Perhaps I just wasn’t making enough effort. I accept that I am somewhat socially inept and after a busy week and a long conference I may well have just been too tired and grumpy to make the effort to talk to enough new people. So despite a much appreciated shout-out from David Allen Green and the wonderful and genuine surprise of my very own Skeptic Trump card, I failed to leave on quite the high I had anticipated.

I’m Sorry I didn’t get the chance to chat with as many people as I would have liked to. I’m not sure if I just missed you in the large crowd, or if you just failed to venture too far from the green room, or if you were priced out of the conference entirely.


Postscript.

Oops I almost forgot. Delighted Rhys Morgan won the award for his brilliant work highlightening MMS. I voted for him, and I'm thrilled so many others did too.

46 comments:

Samantha said...

I was among those priced out of the conference. After a couple of years of skeptic/atheist conferences, I am starting to get a little weary anyway... but I too can't quite put my finger on why.

Le Canard Noir said...

Yes.

Last year's Saturday night was great fun - but the panel session on Storm was out of place. End of a long day, we were expecting songs and dancing and people making fools.

And comic books too leave me cold - enjoyable stuff from Moore, but I did wonder if I had wandered into a nerd conference next door rather than the nerd conference I paid for.

Nonetheless, good times. Good to meet so many friends. Wish there was more time to chat.

Jumile said...

Not an unreasonable review of this year's event; I felt similarly about the same points you mentioned. Perhaps part of this was due to the lack of information on the speakers and the contents of their talks?

Accompanying me this year was a fellow skeptic and atheist friend who doesn't go for the whole 'organisation' thing. He's suspicious of motives and leery of getting involved in any group whose views he's not 100% sure of their views and in agreement with, Unsurprisingly, he's a lone wolf, skeptically speaking. His view was more critical than mine, and I eventually gave up offering explanations for his perceived problems: lack of information, skeptical content, organisation, timing, lights and audio, uncomfortable seating, etc. He was just disappointed that it didn't meet his expectations and felt unable to provide feedback on his concerns. On balance he enjoyed the weekend, particularly the camaraderie and sense of community with like minds.

Personally, I enjoyed catching up with friends made at last year's event, and of course it was great to make a bunch of new friends. Neither of us consider it a failure -- particularly after so many people volunteered so much effort to pull off a complex conference like this -- simply that it had a few non-trivial problems that could be avoided next time.

Anonymous said...

This will sound simplistic, but for me it was about content- and the varying amounts of it. I'm not one for celebrity worship- I like Father Ted and IT crowd, but listening to GL chat with little preparation, was not - for me- interesting. I can watch baby videos at home, and I don't.
The quality of Minchin's material is uncommonly high - but for £20 I think people deserved just one more slice.
PZ I have to say was a slight disappointment- it was good- but not great-but there is something absolutely draining about sitting and listening all day in a hotel. And since I don't really know josie long or Gebbie or - shoot me - Moore, I'm only really interested in the quality of what they delivered (be it entertainment -thumbs up for Ronson/Minchin) or thought-provocation (Blackmore) I'm not keen on a hero-centric event where there is a sense that people can just rock up without appreciating that people have given up time, money and alternative options to be there. I'm probably sensitive to this as any good teacher is, preparing intensely for any session.
Now the good side, I actually want to be in a place where I can share an appreciation of the efforts of Rhys Morgan, or share an admiration of science and an importance in combatting pseudoscience.
The aftershow party was quite fun too.
TAM serves a purpose and any big event, just like any small one, has elements of compromise. My main complaint (when there was one) is about content and preparation- and I don't want it to slip into a skeptic superstar convention. I give it 3/5, and would probably go again.

Neil Davies said...

Not having attended a convention like this (the nearest I've got was a James Randi and Friends evening in London a couple of years ago), I was disappointed to have been priced out of TAM London.

I would have been more disappointed to have missed out on seeing all the speakers and skeptical people I've become familiar with for the sake of, say, £100-£150. But I'm not disappointed to have missed all that for £200+, plus travel and hotel costs.

Ben Warsop said...

I felt much the same about the highs and the lows though I was sorry to miss Moore (just too tired and oxygen-deprived to stick it out).

I found Gebbie's interview a refreshing counterpoint to the rest of the conference and she cast an interesting light on relevant subjects such as censorship, coherence within a movement, activism and personal freedom, and so on.

Was the Gebbie interview on topic? Harder to say ...

Led Zep - I thought they were the guys who said "it really makes you wonder" about a stairway to heaven? Bang on for a skeptical gig, surely? ;-P

I do have to comment on the slacksidaisicalness about food. I hate to think how much those little portions of deliciousness cost per head, but at that price and in that venue I'd have expected the veggie stuff to be more than just pizza topping in bagels (Saturday). Even that was impossible to find (not labelled, the serving staff thought fish are vegetables, puh-lease... this is not 1978). Sunday was marginally better, but while I'm bitching about the catering the "hot" water was cool enough to put your hand in and leave it there. Tea? How hard can it be?

The only thing I actually felt ripped off by was the evening event - An evening with Tim Minchin was a treat I was looking forward to for months. What I got was 3 songs, an exhausted and rather dull conversation, and over an hour of Variety Show warm-up acts. This was NOT £25 worth of entertainment on a Saturday night.

And - a minor quibble - but the t-shirts are really only gym-wear. What a crying waste of a chance to plaster something clever, funny and visually interesting across 1000 skeptical chests.

However, these are minor gripes.

Huge kudos to Tracy King and everyone behind the event. If my only complaints are a vaguely off-topic talk, a lack of food choices in the centre of London, and grey marl t-shirts instead of black ones... then I'm over myself already.

Ben

Mintz said...

I pretty much agree with your points. I was totally bemused by the inclusion of an interview with Gebbie about a 20-yr old porno comic book. As I indicated in a tweet at the time the bloke in the seat next to me took the opportunity to have 40 winks.

I felt that the focus of Paula Kirby's talk was all wrong. Highlighting the policies of an unelectable Christian party that get less votes than the Monster Raving Loony party just seemed like going for low hanging fruit. It was only towards the end of her talk that it focused in on the lobbying groups that we need to be much more concerned about.

Despite the problems (ohh and hey caterers, any chance of a bit of salad next time?) I had an enjoyable two days. It was much more hit than miss. The highlights for me were Sue Blackmore's talk and most of all (because I've been following the whole story from the very beginning on twitter) seeing Rhys Morgan getting his award.

Rabbitpirate said...

You seem to have had all of the same issues with it that I did. I really enjoyed TAM but mainly because I got a chance to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, as well as rubbing shoulders with the likes of PZ and Randi. Though there were many great speakers I simply couldn't get as excited about it this year as last. I also missed the science. Where was this years Brian Cox who kept us entertained while both educating and challenging us at the same time. And only having 30 seconds of Ben Goldacre only reminded me of what we were missing without him there.

All in all it was a great event and I will be heading back next year if all goes to plan. But I will completely agree that I felt there was something missing and a little empty about this years event that I can't quite put my finger on.

Sion said...

Much as I enjoy TAM London, I feel that the presence of a Green Room is a big fail. In the TAMs in Vegas the celebs and dignitaries mix with everyone else and it feels way more inclusive and the punters get to say hi and chat with the speakers. At the London events they run off and hide in the Green Room.

Anonymous said...

What annoyed me most about Melinda Gebbes was the lack of critical questioning. Whilst all the emphasis was on sweetness and light, floaty ladies in transparent dresses - the book contains some content that depicts incest and abuse to both adults and children. A true skeptical discussion would have tackled the implications of this...

Generally great conference - for a first-timer like me anyway, athough seats became excruciating by the afternoon.

I also heard discussions by those with limited mobility about how they could have been treated more courteously - perhaps by setting aside seating and eating areas and allowing them into the lecture theatre a few minutes ahead of the more able-bodied folk, so they did not have to cope with the crush

Suzanne said...

Well said, Crispian. I still don't undestand why we didn't get more info on what each talk was about. Even a title would have helped and then I could have made a rational, evidence-based decision of when to take time out particularly during the heavy, non-comfort-breaked morning sessions.

Some of the talks were superlative and well-prepared and others were simply not. Like everyone else I wanted more Minchin songs (even repeating the same ones over again at the end would have worked for me). And I was exposed to more than I ever wanted to know about erotic graphic novels.

Like the previous commenter I'd give it 3/5 but doubt very much I'd go again next year.

Anonymous said...

"Incidentally I love Pulp Fiction too, but I could be arsed with the director’s commentary and all the other extra’s on the DVD."

"couldn't be arsed" surely or am I misreading your intent? Oh, and "extras's"?

parkylondon said...

I couldn't get a ticket last year (when I could afford it) as there was a cock up with the mailing list. This year I could afford it but couldn't justify it. Seems like I didn't miss much this year but missed loads last year. Ho hum. MFL.

Luiyo said...

Seemed just the same to me.

Sean Ellis said...

I come from a background of attending SF conventions (yeah, the only people nerdier than TAM-goers), and TAM was an enjoyable but very different experience to them.

The larger UK SF conventions (and by this I mean 300-400 attendees) tend to be multi-stream, fan-run and work on an all-volunteer basis. The rooms are smaller, and as a result the panels get interactive faster. The guests and attendees mingle in the bar, and there's a lot of mingling in the bar. In short, to attend is to participate.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed TAM London immensely, and to be able to see Randi, Dawkins, Myers, Blackmore, Minchin, and more in two days was wonderful. Tracy King pulled off a marvellous organizational feat. Again.

I am looking forward to comparing and contrasting TAM to QED which sounds a lot more like the convention experience I am used to from the SF world, but in a skeptical setting.

scepticool said...

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed TAM 2010 (it was my first) and left on a high after a really rewarding and warm hearted weekend, I have to agree with some of the commenters above.

Melinda Gebbie's interview would have been fully appropriate at a comic-book convention but a discussion or debate about scepticism and what it has to say about, for example, pornography or censorship would have been perfectly valid. Why it had to be overly centric on a work that is relatively unheralded outside of the comic-sphere.

I disagree with the criticism of Myers in the most part. While I would have liked a little more on biology, it was welcome to see him counteract Phil Plait's notorious "Don't be a dick" speech and empower sceptical exposees of religion.

But I really felt Alan Moore was a bit of a tedious end to what had been a great weekend - comic officianados may have been excited but a rambling, albeit evocative, poem about his Northampton birthplace and an interview where he clearly showed his lack of sceptical expertise (his praising of Islam for its lack of literalism for example) was a missed opportunity to send the crowd away with a spring in their step.

Nonetheless, it was a inspiring couple of days for me and I wouldn't have missed it for the world 4/5

Anonymous said...

"Storm" has sadly become completely over-exposed, IMHO.
It's been quite some time since it was online and I don't even see the younger Tim Minchin fans buzzing about it. Since I suspect those younger, non-skeptic fans amount in total much more than the "skeptic" fanbase out there, I'm thinking that it's starting to lose its point about being viral and making an impact with its message (which could be interpreted, as one friend has, as 'women can believe dumb things, let's laugh at them).
I'd suggest that moving on from this with other kinds of projects would be a better use of stage-time and effort for skeptical groups.

Indulging Melinda Gebbes with fangirl questions by the least intellectual and least informed interviewer from the Little Atoms podcast - what did anyone expect? Lost Girls is a disturbing, dark book, written by a master of the 'dark and disturbing' and clearly the point was missed. I guess 'they're kind of skeptics too' was the message you're meant to come away with? But good to hear that awards to Rhys and Goldacre were presented, good choices.

Marsh said...

I think pretty much all of the criticisms I had are covered by Crispian, really.

Many of the talks were brilliant - Adam Rutherford stood out, Amateur Transplants were the highlight of the Saturday night gig (followed by Jon Ronson). I love Tim Minchin, and 'Context' was a work of genuine talent, but would have loved to have seen more of his music, as a headline act. Alan Moore's poetry was (for me, an English grad) a fantastic change of pace, and Cory Doctorow's energetic delivery was fantastic. Even Graham Linehan's relaxed chat about the beauty and artistry of the internet, I really enjoyed.

In terms of Melinda, I wasn't interested in the subject matter of her talk, but it seems a lot of others were (had the bar near, I'd have headed there quietly and happily). What I objected to was many of her misinformed comments (comparing mainstream porn to 'a slow form of rape' drew ire, and belittling those involved as 'only wanting money to feed their kids and buy wallpaper' was infuriatingly moralistic. I dread to think what 'Belle Du Jour' or Dr Petra would have made of it).

For me, the overall feel wasn't a conference, but a 2-day show - 9 Lessons and Carols, writ large. Sessions start, speakers come out, then there's the show interval where the speakers refresh in the green room and we all herd out for a pee. I understand that for Dawkins the green room's a must or he'd be mobbed. But the balance was out, in favour of the speakers and at the expense of the audience. I love the idea of TAM, and I love the JREF and their work, but had I known that was the format I possibly wouldn't have come.

As last year, the best part of the weekend were the rare moments of sociability - sharing ideas, experiences, jokes, beers and generally experiencing the community.

It's kind of Sean to mention QED (www.qedcon.org) - I really want to stress QED isn't competing with TAM. Sean's nailed up what we want to do, I think it's a different category of event - more a festival than anything else.

As for TAM - 3/5, and I'd probably go back again, if not for the format, then for the TAM-goers, who made the weekend hugely enjoyable.

Colm Ryan said...

I'm broadly in agreement here. TAML 2010 was great, don't get me wrong, but I'd love to have experienced the same buzz as the meeting last year.

A few days after the event and I'm wondering where all this soul-searching is coming from? I'm getting a distinct feeling that we are spending lots of time asking ourselves what we are about and not getting very far. Maybe its a good thing, but I wonder if centre-stage in a big expensive conference like TAM is the best place to start scratching our scabs.

Also, and this is just a rather unscientific observation, but I noticed a distinct absence, or near absence of any ethnic minority groups. I'd love to know why this is.

Sara said...

I too agree with many of t he points already mentioned, my main complain being the logistics: uncomfortable chairs, lack of time to interact with people, too many lectures crammed in the morning.

I also think that although the speakers were in general good, there was a bit of repetition in their talks and too many of them concentrated their criticism in Christian religion. While this is a valid point there seemed to be a lack of balance with other pressure groups such as Islam, Jewish lobbies, even Scientology!

While I did mostly enjoy Gebbies' talk (and agree she made a couple of odd statements) I think that her appearance is comparable to Doctorow's, Glinner's and Moore's in the sense that they were both the least related to the focus of TAMLondon, or at least what we seem to expect!

I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday evening, Amateur Transplants, Chris Cox were great fun, but do agree that the value for money was a bit below expectations.

All in all, it was a great event, but I think it is missing being a bit less formal and more social, and I only think that's achievable with a smaller scale or a different format.

James said...

I too am broadly in agreement with all of the comments here. Speaking as an exhibitor, I think the organisation and communication from the top could have been improved (blah blah blah, moaning about positioning of our stand, etc). But I would stress that all of the volunteers were uniformly brilliant and lovely to us - especially Kate Denny and Carmen.

I'd agree with Marsh that the best bit was getting to hang out with other skeptics, and people I only usually know on Twitter.

I'm glad too I wasn't the only person to notice how stunningly white the attendees were. Pretty sure we could have given the red, white and blue festival a run for it's money... But I guess this can't be helped due to the depressing demographic realities of skepticism. Someone could probably write a dissertation on this.

Despite the criticisms I did on balance have a really awesome weekend.

PadainFain said...

Have to agree with pretty much everything that's been said.

There were talks I could have done without - Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore - and there were talks with no actual content - Dawkins and PZ (despite the latter being amusing).

The seating was really cramped and the food was badly organised and of fairly limited scope and imagination.

I enjoyed most of it though and I took what I felt was out of place and tried to at least get something from it. But next year I really want to hear more facts and less rallying cries. By all means tell us about events and activities we will be interested in but to preach 'action' at us is pretty much going to fail. We're skeptics and free thinkers remember? We don't want to be preached at!

Jacco said...

More agreement from me. Another thing I noticed was the general UK-centricity of it all. Maybe it was my mistake to think of TAM London as TAM Europe, but I felt it would have been better to cast a wider net as to the subjects of the talks. It was nice to poke fun at the UK Christian Party, but it's not really relevant to me. It's not even very relevant to the British, as it turned out.

Other thsn that, more science and less comics would have suited me fine. I'm sure Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore are fine and dandy people, but I'm not entirely sure why they were at a s(c/k)eptics convention. Maybe it was just me, but I spent half of Alan Moore's poetry recital waiting for the word "cock", so I'd know we were at least halfway.

Matt Volatile said...

For me, Gebbie and Moore were the highlights (though I knew there would be griping)...

I loved their provocative and novel content, as there's a limit to how much "preaching to the converted" even I can take over the course of the weekend. I thought Tracy did a superb job of balancing the programme with that anticipated criticism in mind, and is to be applauded for bringing fascinating and complex thinkers like Moore and Gebbie to a fascinating and complex conference.

Sean Ellis said...

Can we really say that it's unexpected that, in an audience of 1000 people, some preferred particular talks and some preferred others? I think Tracy and the crew took a bit of a chance with mixing in some stuff that's not hard-core skeptical, but that's not a bad thing.

If there is one change I would humbly suggest, it is to go for a dual- or multi-stream programme, so that people can gravitate to the kinds of talks they want to see.

The problem then is with space (you need extra rooms, but they will be smaller than the main hall), and predicting demand, but that's not insurmountable.

It sounds like a lot of people would have liked a "Science" stream to go alongside the main "Activism/Guest of Honour" stream. Perhaps something like "Skepticism and the Arts" might be a good stream topic too.

Steve Page said...

My biggest disappointment, which I tweeted at the time, was that Stephen Fry blew us off so he could go to watch Norwich play QPR just down the road. Tweeting about it beforehand, then about going to his friend's birthday party later in the evening, just added insult to injury; he was prominently featured on the official site and, yes - I know there was a caveat that he might not be able to make it - but to know that he could've been there in person but chose not to was a slap in the face to many of us, myself included, who wanted to see him. Even a Skype call like we had with Randi last year would've been better than a pre-recorded video.

Most of my other concerns have been covered by previous comments, but I will echo the overall opinion that TAM London 2010 didn't live up to TL 2009. I got to meet some lovely people, though, and, contrary to many on here, I thought that the Saturday entertainment was excellent. I'd happily pay to see each of the acts independently, and Jon Ronson rapping? Worth the entrance fee on its own! :)

I'll probably go to TL 2011, but I hope that the numerous wrinkles mentioned by myself and others have been ironed out by then. Also, was there any need to have it in such an expensive location? Central London is a nightmare to drive into, parking was £61 for the weekend, drinks were prohibitively and extortionately priced, and the total cost of the weekend for us two was in excess of £1000. Any higher and we'll almost certainly be priced out of next year's event, and I'll wager that we won't be the only ones.

William Satire (Jr.) said...

@Jacco - that made me chuckle, as I did the same thing. I missed him saying "cock", so was pleasantly relieved at the end.

I thought similar about Moore/Gebbie, but my wife really liked them. She's not a 'skeptic" though. But I was glad because I've press-gang-ed her into both TAMs.

Tim Minchin - great but not value for money. We got fed last year before the evening show.

I felt sorry for the guy asking about foreign translations, because the panel completely missed the point that he can't do them himself, or he'd get arrested in his country. He wanted them available on-line.

Sue Blackmore was a delight. And I enjoyed her subsequent questions to other speakers.

The Beagle project lady made me think - why do they need a replica boat?! Surely they could save themselves an arm and a leg with a modern boat.

I thought the Christian Party speech was totally pointless. Make it about the lobbyists if they are the problem.

I was pleased with PZ and Richard Dawkins. And that comes from a non-militant atheist. Their talks were mostly positive, not negative.

There was not the same buzz as last year, but then nothing's as good the second time.

My highlight was actually on Friday when I got to speak to Randi himself - and had him all to myself. I'm so glad I went to register then!

I'd agree - no more green room, or it's not a conference.

Steve Page said...

WS(J), last year's evening entertainment was £25 including meal or £15 excluding meal. This year was £16 excluding meal, which is not a huge increase. In fact, I'd argue that the £10 for sausage and mash last year was far more worthy of a grumble.

Amira said...

This was my first time in London and my first TAM event. I have to say that the seats were impossible to sit in after about 5 hours but I felt it was worth it for the most part. Some content was so-so and some was excellent. I suppose you can't please all of the people all of the time but I'm hoping to make it there again next year.

Darren Hall said...

I am in agreement with much of what was said here. This was my first TAM after following James Randi for years (to be honest I would have paid £200 just to see him!). I couldn't see the relevance of Alan Moore (apart from his childhood story which illustrated how easy it is to gain a belief) and got nothing from Melinda Gebbie. I thought that some of the talks could have been shortened to thirty minutes without losing anything and also felt that the panels didn't have the impact I was hoping for.

HOWEVER, overall I really enjoyed it and being in the presence of so many like minded people was brilliant. I will try to go again next year and hope that the conference, like life, evolves.

3.5 / 5

PZ Myers said...

I disagree with much that was said here (sorry, is the theme of the essay assignment to build from a sentence of that form?) except for what Sean Ellis said.

I thought bringing in Gebbie and Moore was brilliant, and I hope TAM does more of that -- if we want skepticism to grow, bringing in more popular culture is essential. And really, making skepticism appealing to comic book geeks is easy.

I do also think, though, that if TAM wants to expand the topics, they have to get away from single giant auditorium mode and break out into multiple tracks, with smaller audiences in each. If these were clearly labeled (this talk is in the Skepticism track, that one is in the Science track, and that other is in the Culture track), it would also diminish some of the grousing about what that particular talk was doing at TAM.

edd said...

" And really, making skepticism appealing to comic book geeks is easy."
Well... shouldn't that be done at a comic book con then? I mean, that seems kind of backwards if you're talking to people who have already signed up to a skeptic conference.

I think this year's TAM London overdid the 'offtopic' talks a bit, one or two more carefully chosen ones would be better (Moore was great, I'd count Cory as another offtopic talk that was good), and I agree that breakouts would only be a good thing. The latter especially as it would allow us to push harder on the educational front which others (*cough*Alom*cough*) have been directing us towards..

There's always a few talks that raise my eyebrows, but honestly, as I think PZ said himself(? or someone did), I haven't read the God Delusion because I'd only agree with it.

I'd like to be challenged by speakers on-topic though, not ones I see little relation to the subject of the conference.

PZ - your talk was great, and definitely controversial enough to make it a sound bet ;-)

Oli Collett said...

Good points PZ, I actually thought the schedule would be a multi-room kind of format actually, With 'big name' speakers in a larger room and panel discussions in a more intimate environment. Such an approach would also mean the chance for more discussions on a wider variety of topics - more science specialists, discussion around media/law related scepticism and so on. Obviously there are logistical problems with this with the possibility of some talks being more/less popular than thought but I think it's worth a look for next year.

Overall I had a good time at my first TAM, most of my gripes have already been mentioned around chairs and so on but it's not fair for me to complain too much because I have little experience of such conferences. I'd certainly go again anyway, if only to see Jon Ronson rap again.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Interesting read and great comments. The main thing for me was that it felt a bit like we were 'Champagne Sceptics'. Grassroots sceptics can't afford a £200+ price tag. and, much as I love Moore and Gebbie,I can pay to see them talk at other events more appropriate to their content and style. I wish Richard Wiseman had done a proper talk rather than just MCing for example. and yes, smaller break out rooms with fewer celebs, more activists, lower prices and better food (!) would be good for next year. My write-up of the event is here: http://stevyncolgan.blogspot.com

Crispian Jago said...

Just when I thought I was done with this post, a comment from PZ Myers has cajoled me into chirping up again.

My original remarks on content despite comprising 95% of the post perhaps shrouded my main point that I alluded to at the end of the article. Once again I will leave this point to the end of this comment.

The fact that comic books don’t actually fluff my pigeon was not my point. I support the idea of spreading the scope of scepticism, it would have soon got pretty dull if we just spent the entire weekend pointing and laughing at people who think they've been mechanically bummed by an alien.

But we should be targeting our scepticism on areas outside of the fortean and paranormal where we can affect the most powerful change. Perhaps we should be looking to the lead that Westminster Skeptics in the Pub is taking by focusing on how critical thinking can influence policy, media and law, a relevant path explored by Cory Doctorow’s talk.

So to return to my main gripe. As I shuffled out of the main auditorium into the meandering lunch queue, to reach the front just in time to down a few poncey snacks and shuffle back to my uncomfortable seat whilst acknowledging a few familiar faces trudging past in the opposite direction, I failed to experience Gimpy’s “Champagne Skepticism”.

Perhaps by repealing the skeptical apartheid of the green room and giving the delegates and speakers the room to mix more freely and attend more intimate and personally selected sessions enabled by multiple streams, we can make this the great conference that it so very nearly is.

BTW, if Richard Dawkins' attendence is only secured by the presence of a mob free area (as alluded to by one commenter), much as I love the old bugger, I’d prefer to do without him.

Oh, and sticking Jon Ronson in a cloning machine might be a good move too. If you’ll permit me the use of a “woo” word, he added a certain essence to everything he was involved with, including the great fringe events.

Martin Robbins said...

Sean Ellis said: "The larger UK SF conventions (and by this I mean 300-400 attendees) tend to be multi-stream, fan-run and work on an all-volunteer basis. The rooms are smaller, and as a result the panels get interactive faster. The guests and attendees mingle in the bar, and there's a lot of mingling in the bar. In short, to attend is to participate."

And I agree with this completely. I think there's a need for a conference - either TAM or something else - that helps to encourage more grassroots interaction and collaboration, and I felt that - while I enjoyed most of the talks - the most rewarding things came from chatting to people in the bar in the evening. I'd like to see space for smaller talks by less known people, and ad hoc workshops, running alongside the main sessions.

As a sort of extension of that point, I felt that TAM missed an opportunity on the main stage to tell the many Europeans and Americans in attendance more about the sheer amount of activism coming out of Britain. 10:23 deserved a proper spot - I'm massively biased obviously, but it was the biggest grassroots skeptical event on the UK calendar this year - and also I'd have liked to have seen a proper session looking at the epic work done by Simon Perry, Alan Henness, et al, who have waged one of the most effective skeptic campaigns ever seen with very little credit or exposure. In fact I was disappointed to see the main award go to Ben Goldacre, as much as I admire him, rather than to someone like Simon or Alan.

And the venue. This is obviously a tricky one, but I felt it didn't provide proper break-out areas. And I'd agree with others that the food was poor.

Kristin C. said...

"The main thing for me was that it felt a bit like we were 'Champagne Sceptics'. Grassroots sceptics can't afford a £200+ price tag."

Hey I'm very much a grassroots person, and it's called "saving up". ;) Today I am a broke yet happy person.

Evan Harris said...

People wont be surprised to know that I agree with Martin Robbins where he says it would be good of more time was available for discussion of skeptical activism like that of Alan and Simon. Credit to Simon Singh who used most of his 6 minutes to discuss that example, when he has much else to say. I found it very difficult to fit my focus on policy change into 6 mins (even though I took 8!) but was grateful for the chance to try!

I thought the interviews were a very good way of doing the sessions and were engaging even/especially if you didn't know the subject.

PZ Myers said...

Yeah, the price was up there. There are some solutions that could be managed, though.

One thing would be to have a public lecture or two -- pick some big name to give a general talk on skepticism in a large off-site auditorium where the non-paying public is also welcome. This is often done at science conferences, no reason TAM couldn't do it.

Another is to expand and formalize the fringe events a bit. Get speakers to commit to attending an affiliated skeptics in the pub night, for instance -- not only does it give people who can't cough up that much money for the whole shebang a chance to meet a celebrity or two, but it also helps promote and build grassroots events that will go on long after TAM leaves town.

Donna said...

This year after TAM London I felt slightly empty.
I work in a job where I have to keep my skepticism held in tight, so for me last year, TAM was a breath of fresh air. There were elements this year I loved, Jon Ronson was fantastic and I would have loved to heard more from him. I enjoyed the Saturday night entertainment immensely but like others could have done without the Q & A. Tim Minchin was a star and patiently signed autographs and stood for photos afterwards.
I missed actually learning new things, last year Brain Cox, Ben Goldacre, Phil Plait and Simon Singh were fantastic and there didn't seem to be that 'pzaz' this year.
Last year, all the speakers mingled with the attendees, which was great. Phil Plait was a big presence and it surprised me the only time I saw DJ Grothe was on the stage.

I felt like there seemed to be a lot of 'selling' on stage and really, we are all there because we are skeptics, we didn't need to be told how to do it!
I was very excited to hear PZ Myers, Biology is my passion, yet sadly, he did not talk about his field of expertise.
I felt a lot of the conference and speakers were disjointed and by day 2, lots of attendees were napping through some of the speakers.
Adam Rutherford was my highlight, he was passionate, lively and very interesting, only spoilt by Richard Dawkin's out of place question.

I enjoyed my weekend and met some wonderful people. I will though, think very carefully before purchasing next years ticket.

Patrick said...

I know this is not nearly as big, but the German skeptic's organization GWUP had their annual meeting this year also with several different tracks so that people could choose which talks they liked, and the "highlight" talks were even given twice (possible also due to a lack of overall talks).

There's also been the idea of organizing the meeting as an Un-Conference, and I think this would ideally be the way to go. If PZ wants to come and talk, great! And maybe have one or two keynote speakers – but why not open the thing to the public?

Richard W said...

I've been to both TAMs and I agree with Crispian and almost all of the comments here (sorry PZ!). And most of the people I spoke to also felt the same as I do.

I'm not sure the 'panels' worked terribly effectively. When the people sitting close together on stage start talking to each other, it got maybe little self-indulgent, and all-too-often punchlines were missed or points lost by those not near the very front of the auditorium.

The seats were rather uncomfortable, though skeptics seem to be slimmer than the general population. The scale of the conference inevitably led to queues at every break, though Sunday's chicken wraps were delicious.

Somehow I felt more engaged at TAM2009. It was a smaller venue and there was a genuine buzz about some of the topics being discussed: Simon Singh was being sued, Prof Cox's LHC had just exploded, Ariane Sherine's buses were still warm, Jon Ronson's "Goats" were about to go public, and Ben Goldacre was, well, Ben Goldacre. Twice. (He did a stint on the Saturday evening too.)

Last year Tim Minchin did a longer gig on Sunday afternoon. This year, it was cut short for the overly-long Q&A.

But there were many terrific highlights this year: By good fortune I ended up sat at in front of the lectern for Prof Dawkin's speech, and sat behind my left shoulder was... James Randi!!

Many of the talks were informative and entertaining, Jon Ronson was superb, the Amateur Transplants were brilliant, Richard Wiseman is the Mother-of-all-MCs, James Randi presented Rhys Morgan with a skeptic award, and Tracy King, Alex et al. did a fantastic job of organising the event.

But for me, the best was getting to shake PZ's hand!

Nigel Havers said...

PZ says :"give people who can't cough up that much money for the whole shebang a chance to meet a celebrity or two"

Yeah, why not give a handful of lucky proles a chance to touch the hem!
You're approaching the shark jump. There comes a time when the amount of celeb-ego, fan-banality, and self-congratulatory circle-jerking outweighs the actual "good deeds" that you're patting yourselves on the back about. Poncing around in Green Rooms with Jonathan Ross and his comic book pals while outside, well-off whitey regurgitates types of fallacy at each other for 200 notes is approaching that point.
"I'm a geek, I'm a nerd!" - yeah yeah, and I'm a rocker and a roller... just another hipster special interest group. You don't get to be the default this way, you just become another brand in the market, another choice for the affluently apathetic, desperately seeking an identity. We're 'Skeptics'.
And all the while PZ thinks he's Dustin Hoffman.

PZ Myers said...

Dustin Hoffman??!?

I was aspiring to be Bruce Vilanch!

Nigel Havers said...

I was going to go with Robert Wagner, but was thinking of a childhood Young Ones memory:
[at 9.56]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnjyhI22QZU&p=7B985E9CDC337056&index=41&feature=BF

Tom Williamson (Skeptic Canary) said...

I'm in general agreement with all the comments here, the main problem was the cost. If it was half the price it was, I could have forgiven some of the rather ramshackle organization and the irrelevant guests, but for £200+ I expected a much better operation, especially when you consider that Glastonbury this year was £175.

I had a real problem with the Gebbie interview, I absolutely hated the way she stated her (often insulting) opinions as fact. It was the antithesis of skepticism.

That said there were plenty of highlights, including Rhys Morgan winning his award.

Also, if you are going to do a video interview of the great Stephen Fry, why not get someone who knows how to do interviews?

I'm gradually writing up all the talks:
http://www.skepticcanary.com/2010/10/23/tam-london-review-part-1/

I know others have mentioned it, but I'm really looking forward to www.qedcon.org in February. Not a comic book in sight!