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TAM London, 16-17th October

What follows is a summary of how the blogosphere reacted to TAM London this week. It’s quite a mix of views and opinions: some quite serious and critical, some hilarious. I encourage you to take a look at some of the blog entries themselves as you will get a real flavour of what worked and what didn’t work at the event.

We start with Iszi Lawrence (@iszi_lawrence). In her blog entry, she loved Jon Ronson, Alan Moore and Marcus Chown, didn’t quite get the point of Richard Dawkins’ speech (sex with chimps or something) and did NOT like the early start. Photo to prove it as well.

Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) gives the blow by blow account of activities in The TAM London 2010 Live Blog, including some videos, quotes, twitter comments and links to relevant podcasts.

Crispian Jago (@Crispian_Jago) loved the conference but he had a few nitpicks. He was not a fan of the panel discussion accompanying the Storm video and he was slightly bemused about the point of Melinda Gebbie’s appearance. He also felt that Josie Long was slightly out of her depth. The commenters on Crispian’s blog were largely in agreement on this (except PZ Myers – ppfft).

Dave Gamble (@david_gamble) posted some of the most memorable quotes on his blog and also had something to say about the audience being perceived as great “Champagne Skeptics“. More anon.

Scepticool (@scepticool) in his blog post, The Brilliance and the Problems of Diversity, had a few quibbles about Alan Moore’s and Melinda Gebbie’s role in the proceedings. He loved PZ Myer’s speech and Rhys Morgan’s award.

English Atheist (@EnglishAtheistloved the whole event and wants you to sign his Tiger petition now.

Gimpy (he didn’t actually go to the event itself), found the whole idea of TAM London “expensive, insular and divisive” and accused us attendees of being “Champagne Skeptics”. He wrote that greater JREF involvement would suppress grassroots activism and suspects that the JREF have somewhat malign motives towards the UK Skeptic community. Needless to say, this blog entry received a whole pile of critical feedback, most notably from Martin Robbins who accused him of paranoia and having a distorted and fearful view of what is a very positive and noteworthy movement.

Paul S Jenkins (@PaulSJenkins), writing as An Evil Burnee, wrote 2 blog entries. Paul was very positive about the event, his only grumble being the frugality of the conference pack (I hear ya). Paul noted that perhaps there has been more a move this year towards atheism and informality.

Ben Warsop (@BENWARSOP) weighs in on the good vs dickishness debate between DJ Grothe and PZ Myers and finds little fertile territory in shrillness and combat.

Simon Dunn (@sighdone) came up with ten mind-blowingly provoking things about the event. Since I could not find any eclairs there, I must conclude that he’s the one who ate them all. I have no evidence whatsoever to justify this accusation but since he discovered that magic actually exists he must, therefore, agree with me totally. No takebacks or crossies.

Stevyn Colgan (@Stevyncolgan) loved the meeting and wrote two very comprehensive blog entries about the whole thing. His gripes concerned the expense of the event and the technical problems that frequently bugged the presentations.

Jim Christian (@jimchristian) wrote two great entries about the event. He enjoyed the speeches and captured the best moments very well. His only quibble was with the food, which had him nipping over to the local M&S on the second day.  (Day 01 / Day 02)

Trunkman (@TrunkmanUK) starts his review with an enjoyable review of Ghost Stories. I am now intrigued what THAT MOMENT was all about. His review of TAM London is divided into 3 postings where he covers each speaker in turn: how he was pleasantly surprised by Sue Blackmore and Cory Doctorow and awed by Richard Dawkin’s presentation; how he felt the second part of the first day was a bit flat (I agree completely). He also describes the evening show with Jon Ronson and Tim Minchin, and like many he felt it was far too self-congratulatory for his liking. It’s one of the best reviews (warts and all) of the event and I would love to read his thoughts on Day 2.

PadainFain (@PadainFain) doesn’t mince his words in his review. I think a lot of the criticisms are on target. The Green Room, where the speakers were separated from the audience, was brought up as a particular niggle about the event.

Stefano Borini (@forthescience) wrote extensively about the event. He said that the conference this year was perhaps more serious than last year, focusing on the emotional level of skepticism. He captured some of the best quotes from the event and was not a fan of the panel interviews. He also did a great job in capturing the essence of the Grothe / Myers debate.

Dr. Dean Burnett (@garwboy) describes how he tried to pass himself off as Tim Minchin, suspected Richard Dawkins of secretly harbouring an AK47 in his tweeds, uses the “g” word to describe Randi, discovered that the Alpha Course was, well, kind of what he expected it to be and captured defecatively the essence of Ghost Stories.

Snipe also does a review where they describe Alan Moore’s voice as “congealed thunder”. I also note they got the spelling of Crohn’s Disease wrong which makes me feel better – I tweeted it as “Chrome’s Disease” during the meeting myself.

In conclusion, yes, there were tons of niggles and some very pointed criticism, but the general impression is of a very enjoyable, meaningful conference. Roll on TAM London 2011.

TAM London, 16-17th OctoberI spent the weekend in Edgware Road at the TAM London 2010 event.  What a blast! This blog can only give the most cursory summary of the meeting, but I’ll try to pick out some of my highlights.

One of the real highlights for me was the very first speaker, Sue Blackmore. She had an out of body experience in college, leading her to dedicate 20 years of her life to finding conclusive evidence for ESP and paranormal phenomena. Unfortunately, though her work covered everything from Smarties to IRA bombings to Tarot readings, things didn’t turn out quite the way she expected. Her story is one of the most interesting and varied tales I have ever heard. It is a true tale of science, where repeated experimentation lead her to change cherished world views, forcing her to admit that her initial convictions were wrong. If only more people would adopt such an approach in everyday life.

Another highlight was Richard Dawkins. His speech was a tour de force, where he showed that Evolution is capable of providing key insights into such varied disciplines as human anthropology, geology, philosophy, geography, cosmology, politics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, cosmology, linguistics and the history of ideas, to mention a few. Dawkins’ presentation was expansive and poetic, presenting quite a different dimension to Dawkins’ often negative public perception. A pity some of his more strident critics were not there to see his lecture.

Adam Rutherford’s talk on the Alpha Course was delightfully irreverent and funny. He lampooned the methods used by the Alpha Course leaders and questioned their over-reliance on tales such as The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (“it’s boring and slightly racist. It’s a tale about walking’). Rutherford finished his talk flatly stating his revulsion to the Alpha Course’s homophobic views.

Another memorable moment was the talk with James Randi, as he recalled his origins as a skeptic and his battles with Peter Popoff and Yuri Geller. The room went silent as he recounted how Popoff and his wife operated – taking money from the vulnerable while laughing at them in the most vicious way. Randi, the figurehead of the modern skeptical movement, is 82 years old, yet he is still well capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

Just after Randi’s talk two prizes were announced for outstanding achievement in skepticism. Ben Goldacre won one of the prizes, but it was the second winner who brought down the house. The prize was given to Rhys Morgan, 15 years old, who had the temerity to confront and publicly expose the makers of an industrial bleach being flogged off as a “cure” for Crohn’s Disease. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I enjoyed Marcus Chown’s lecture on 10 bonkers things about the Universe. There was a great “pictorial interlude” beforehand and afterwards (I’m a sucker for astronomical images) and Marcus proceeded to bring us on a tour of the cosmos and the arcane world of atoms, black holes and multiverses. Arguably nothing that many in the audience had not heard before, but entertainingly delivered nonetheless and a lecture that should be essential on the outreach circuit.

The second day was also a day where the skeptical movement itself was put under the microscope: what we are about, what we are not about, and the level of “dickishness” appropriate within the movement. The two most powerful contributions were from DJ Grothe and PZ Myers. While their styles might differ, both saw skepticism as a force for good in the world – at the heart of the skeptical movements are shared principles and moral values, a way of looking at the world using science as a tool to winnow the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Grothe warned about zealotry within skepticism, saying that being right is not enough, you have to be good about being right too. PZ phrased this sentiment somewhat differently – “Be the best dick you can be”.

There was far more to this discussion than I could describe here, and similar views were brought up by Stephen Fry in his videotaped interview with Tim Minchin. Fry, with his natural humor, depth and sensitivity, is one of the greatest assets the Skeptical movement has. His response upon being doorstepped by an evangelist preacher got a great laugh: “Tell God to send better people”.

Media matters were also a large part of TAM London, with contributions from Graham Linehan, Cory Doctorow and a panel of commentators including Martin Robbins, Kate Russell and Gia Milinovich. Doctorow talked about copyright reform, comparing the digital media wars to the situation in the fashion industry and the database industry and pointing out that many within “old media” come from industries that once bordered on illegality themselves. “Yesterday’s pirates are always today’s admirals”, as he put it. Linehan talked about the amazing impact of Twitter and took us on a quick tour of some of the web’s nooks and crannies, unwittingly creating a dangerous movement where it looked as if we would suspend the rest of the conference schedule to watch YouTube baby videos on the big screen.

There were wildcards too. Andy Nyman talked about his show Ghost Stories; Karen James talked about the HMS Beagle project; Melinda Gebbie talked about female comic book porn (or is it art? or both?) and Alan Moore brought us on a poetic tour through the town of Northampton. He also gave us his theory of the Big Bang happening in 1927. Moore has broadly left comic book writing behind him in order to focus on underground magazines and new projects.

If I had one criticism, it is the UK-centricity of the event. The event attracted a considerable number of skeptics from all across Europe, yet the discussion at times felt exclusive. Proceeds for the event also were given to promote skepticism in the UK, which is an opportunity lost in my view, at least until TAM events become commonplace across the rest of the continent.

Organisation has greatly improved since the first TAM London event but the venue was still not quite perfect. I felt the auditorium format worked better last year as it made the conference much more intimate. People at the back of the room this year were at a disadvantage. The stage seemed light years away and the video displays were inadequate.

In summary I have to say that TAM London 2010 lived up to expectations. It was a barrage to the senses, a magical mystery tour (in the skeptical sense of that word) and an electrically charged coming together of some of the brightest people I could ever have the fortune to meet. Roll on 2011.

A few years ago, the Irish National Archives digitised  the census documents of 1911 and put them all on the Internet for us to see. Long-forgotten grandparents and great-grandparents were suddenly transformed into young fathers and mothers, small children and teenagers. New names were introduced to us. We were given a feeling for their occupations, their family circumstances and their positions in society. Limited though the census documents were, these people who lived a hundred years ago came to life in front of our eyes. This was the Internet at its best, providing us with a window into history.

I’m reminded of this because Google Inc. recently opened Street View to the country of Ireland. Almost every road and boreen has been mapped and it all now comes to us in full 360 degree panoramas, each image no more than 10 metres apart, covering 80,000 kilometres of roadway; terabytes upon terabytes of information freezing the Ireland of 2009 and 2010 in perpetuity.

What a treasure trove of information for the future historian. It is now possible for our children’s children to see Ireland exactly as it was during this time. They will see our dress, our cars, our gardens, our farms and our workplaces. They will witness history in the making as the Irish boom economy shuddered to a dramatic halt: the newly constructed motorways and bridges alongside the empty buildings and ghost estates; the Polish and Lithuanian shops that signified a new era of multiculturalism and the wind turbines making their appearance over the landscape as we began the painful process of weaning ourselves off the seductions of fossil fuel.

Presumably these Street View images will be updated regularly, so not only will it be possible to see Ireland as it once was, but also how our country changes gradually throughout the century. I’m assuming, of course, that all these records will not be erased; a reasonable assumption should Moore’s Law continue to hold sway over the coming years.

If there is a snag, it is that all this data is the property of a successful private company whose primary interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the citizens of a sovereign state. Although there is no sign that Google are carrying out this mapping effort with anything other than the best of motives, whether they will continue to act benevolently and responsibility with such information is a difficult question to answer. A hundred years is a long time – long enough for industries to grow and disappear and for companies to change utterly from what they once were, if they exist at all. Public information – photos of many the roadways throughout the world – has been privatised. Governments should now be thinking about how that information should be placed, eventually, back into public hands.

With Street View, Google have created a resource of unimaginable value for future historians. Here’s hoping it’s there for all to see in the years to come.

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