Saturday 16 October 2010

TAM London — day one summary

I shall be covering the individual speakers in a later post, so for now here's a summary of proceedings at day one of TAM London (links and other refinements to follow).

Even though I collected my badge yesterday afternoon I still found myself in a long queue for the goodie bag, so any thoughts of coffee were abandoned. Bag contained schedule (at last we find out who's on when), TAM London Commemorative Brochure, TAM London Pen, Sense About Science button-badge and flyers on the Libel Reform Campaign, British Humanist Association, Alpha Project, Richard Dawkins Foundation and a business card for Little Atoms. Notwithstanding T-shirts were to be collected later, that's rather less "good" than  last year's goodie bag.

Amateur Transplants, a musical duo, sang some very short, punny (and funny) songs, then Master of Ceremonies Richard Wiseman introduced the man himself, James Randi, for his welcome. Nice that Randi was able to come in person this year — and he received a standing ovation.

Main speakers in order:

Sue Blackmore gave us her account of becoming a skeptic, detailing much of the research she conducted into the paranormal. For her it was a worldview-shattering experience.

Richard Dawkins delivered a measured lecture about why the teaching of evolution should serve the purpose that once was considered the preserve of the classics. Good to hear a brand new Richard Dawkins talk—  and live too!

Cory Doctorow talked about copyright, and how big media doesn't understand what it's dealing with in the modern digital world, then answered questions in his typical rapid-fire manner.

Adam Rutherford gave us his assessment of the Alpha Course and its head, Nicky Gumbel, but admitted that he's not the type of person the course is aimed at. Adam Rutherford is a scientist, but also a vocal atheist and humanist. He believes the Alpha Course is a homophobic cult.

Then it was time for lunch, but not actually enough time. The buffet was very good, once I got within sight of it. Getting my hands and teeth on it, however,  took somewhat longer. Maybe I shouldn't have detoured to collect my T-shirt.

Back in the room we had another short gig from Amateur Transplants, followed by a discussion between Andy (Ghost Stories) Nyman and Richard Wiseman, who are apparently longtime buddies (with photos to prove it). Andy Nyman talked about what makes for a good show, whether on stage or TV, and how he came to work with Derren Brown.

Karen James told us about the Beagle Project, which aims to build a replica of HMS Beagle and sail it along the same route as the original. At first I thought this was an expensive publicity stunt, but hearing Karen James' impassioned plea for  science education and how the teaching of evolution is sabotaged or at least enervated by an undercurrent of virulent creationism, and as I recalled the 80's TV series "The Voyage of Charles Darwin", I realised that this is the kind of project that I generally support, as it provides experiential tangibility to bring a possibly dry subject alive.

Paula Kirby offered us an engaging analysis of the Christian Party's political manifesto, in a repeat of the talk she gave at Copenhagen, and discussed the dire need for secularism in Britain.

Skeptical Activism was the subject under discussion between Tracey Brown, Evan Harris, Simon Singh and David Allen Green, all of whom gave their own short initial talks. Lively discussion continued as a result of questions from the floor.

Coffee came next, and this was better organised than lunch — possibly because there was less for people to choose from. Then back in the room we had a conversation between James Randi and Robin Ince. Hearing Randi talk about his skeptical origins and some of his later encounters with "psychics", "mediums" and "faith healers" — and hearing it live — was inspiring. It's clear that Randi is dedicated to what he does — he cares.

After his discussion with Robin Ince, Randi announced the TAM London 2010 Award and the Grassroots Skepticism Award. The first of these went to Ben Goldacre — richly deserved — and though he wasn't present we watched a pre-recorded video of him. Whether deliberate or the result of initially stalled playback, we were treated to a typical freeze-frame zany Ben Goldacre, who then delivered his "acceptance speech" in front of the geekiest bookshelf I've ever seen.

The Grassroots Award went to Rhys Morgan, again richly deserved, for his single-handed headline-grabbing stance against quack remedy "Miracle Mineral Solution", which has been touted as effective against Crohn's Disease from which Rhys Morgan suffers. Skeptical activism of such calibre ought to be recognised in any event, but this award is especially satisfying as he's only 15 years old.

The optional evening event this year was Tim Minchin and an exclusive preview of the new Storm animation, but these were preceded by Amateur Transplants again, regaling us with even worse puns than before, plus a vehement and obviously heartfelt diatribe against Tube strikers (amongst others). Chris Cox read some minds without actually reading them, and then after a short break Tim Minchin sat down at the piano to give us an utterly brilliant and typically subversive new song. Then he did the Pope Song, and it was great to hear it live.

More utter brilliance followed, with the eagerly awaited premier of the new Storm animation. I want this — I want to show it to everyone I know. The subsequent discussion between Tim Minchin, producer Tracy King and director Dan Turner was interesting, as were some of the questions from the floor, but a little over-extended. But yeah, the movie is fantastic.

More tomorrow.