Jeff Wagg


I Went to TAM. I Hope You Did Too.

Jen, myself an Patricio! photo by Susan Gerbic

Jen, myself an Patricio! photo by Susan Gerbic

It's all over now.

Thanks to the "amazing" generosity of some College of Curiosity supporters, my wife Jen and I manned a table of curiosities at The Amaz!ng Meeting 13.

Some of the table.

Some of the table.

The table seemed to be a success, with as many as 30 people at once clambering to figure out what those "salt and pepper shakers" were or to marvel at the impossible objects, including a ball that rolled downhill very, very slowly.

Austin and Irena stumped over an object. photo by Kitty Mervine

Austin and Irena stumped over an object. photo by Kitty Mervine

But what about TAM? How was it?

I was very nervous about going. It had been five years since I ran a TAM, and at TAM 9 in 2011, I was made to feel very unwelcome by the people running it at the time. Drama seemed to be everywhere, as numerous people pulled me into corners to sort out problems or tell me about new atrocities. I went home disappointed and never considered going to TAM again. Each year when TAM rolled around, I pined for the old days, but knew that I couldn't experience them again.

At the same time, I encouraged people to go to TAM. I even held a meeting for first-time TAMmers in Chicago, giving tips for how to have a fun time there. TAM was still there, I just couldn't be a part of it.

And then management changed, and TAM became a possibility again. Some incredibly generous folks donated funds necessary ($1000!) to have a table at TAM for the College of Curiosity. After much hemming and hawing, I accepted. And then I almost cancelled as drama threatened to rear its cameloid head. But after some, shall we say, "firm encouragement" from my sponsors, I decided to go. As we walked into the hotel, my anxiety reached its peak as I knew I'd soon start seeing familiar faces. This could have been a big mistake.

And about 10 minutes later, I knew it wasn't. TAM is still TAM. And what TAM is and has always been is the community that attends. That community welcomed me back with open arms.

Linda, creator of TAM.

Linda, creator of TAM.

Old friends, some of whom I'd forgotten, came over to our table and welcomed us back as though we were long lost family. In a way we were.

What TAM has always had that other conference haven't quite achieved is this feeling of community. That has changed over the past years—often quite painfully—but the TAM spirit is still there, and I found myself buoyed up by it.

The Randi Retrospective party was excellent. All attendees (didn't have to go to TAM) were given a signed card attached to a bent spoon. The bar was open and there was a lot of food. It was clear to me that the people running TAM this year wanted this to be a special event, and it was. Knowing what open bars and the food costs, I suspect they didn't make money on the event, but rather poured the $75 admission fee into making the event the most it could be. Outtakes from the excellent film An Honest Liar were shown, and they demonstrated the extraordinary impact this man has had on many lives, mine included.

Randi and Linda at his gala.

Randi and Linda at his gala.

Randi, the showman that he is, was ever present. He attended talks and pressed the flesh constantly before, after and during the entire weekend. He was in fine fettle, and seemed to be in excellent health. I've never known the man to die (he has battled several forms of cancer, strokes, tuberculosis, major car accidents, and accidents while performing) and I have no reason to think he ever will.

The hotel wasn't perfect for TAM. Prices were high, and there was no place for us to hang out. The Tropicana simply doesn't have a large bar with seating and no live music. People tried to find an alternate, but that portion of the strip doesn't have anything suitable, and as such, the group fragmented into smaller groups. These groups managed to have a good time, but it must have been very difficult for new people (about 50% of the crowd of 6-700) to find their way into the "family."

As for the conference itself, the company that administered registration and managed the space at the hotel, The Cox-Petersen Group, did an excellent job. I KNOW how hard it is to run TAM, especially the first time and at a new hotel. I saw them handle crises with aplomb, and to my delight, they took the initiative to create a Del Mar Lounge 2.0, complete with big screen representations of the now defunct Del Mar at South Point. Yes, that's right... even if TAM had been at SouthPoint this year, the Del Mar is no more. Cox-Petersen saw there was a problem with finding space for people to get together, and they came up with a solution, and one that likely cost TAM money. I have a lot of respect for that.

Some of the forum folk coming together at Del Mar 2.0 to support a Combat Wombat of note.

Some of the forum folk coming together at Del Mar 2.0 to support a Combat Wombat of note.

Were there women at TAM? There were. I didn't count, but I think a 60/40 split wouldn't be far off. Lots of young people, and speakers were evenly divided too. Of course, diversity is still a problem at all skeptic conferences, and the hall was a sea of white skin. There were some people of color, but they stood out in a way that women did not.

On social justice issues, there was a non-gendered bathroom, and a clear and comprehensive harassment policy. All attendees were given cards with instructions on what to do in case of a problem. I heard a rumor of (but did not see) an incident of one person being  too forward with someone. He was immediately approached and removed.

I couldn't see much of the program because the table was very busy, but there were some excellent talks this year, as always. The highlight for me was the final talk on Saturday, the Gapminder group. Click the link if you'd like a reality-based message of hope. There really is one.

On a personal note, my relationship with Randi has been tenuous over the past few years. I never really knew where I stood. In many ways—some quite literal—we were forced apart by the powers that be. I'm happy to report that this TAM changed all that. Randi stopped by my table, and I was invited to breakfast with Deyvi and Randi along with my kids and Linda Shallenberger, creator of TAM, who was treated to an ovation when she was introduced by Randi from the stage. After TAM, Randi called me to thank me for attending, assuring me that all barriers have been removed between us.

So yes, it was great to be back, and I'm thoroughly glad I attended. I feel recharged and refocused. TAM is still TAM, but for me it's bittersweet.

A few people commented that the College of Curiosity table was filling the void left by Jerry Andrus' departure. This is praise of the highest order, and if CofC is filling that void, it's doing so the way a bandage covers the wound left by the removal of a vital organ. Jerry was a phenomenon of Randi-esque caliber.

And of course it's hard to imagine TAM without Hal Bidlack on stage steering TAM towards the good will the event engenders at its finest moments. For me, Hal embodied the positive, big-tent message of TAM. Disagreements are a natural part of skepticism, but Hal had the ability to make them more academic than personal, and this allowed everyone to be friends at the end of the day. Sadly, some of our community took a different approach and they were not found at TAM this year. Some of the attendees have celebrated the idea that "We won! We drove the bullies out!" but I can't see that as anything other than a failure. They were family once, and I'd like to see them become family again.

Taking nothing away from Hal, I can report that George Hrab remains the consummate professional entertainer I know him to be, and he is now enshrined in TAM lore with Jerry, Hal and Linda.

There were some decisions made this TAM that I wasn't happy about. One speaker in particular shouldn't have been there, in my opinion, and the lack of Q&A seemed odd. Speaker/attendee interaction used to be a big part of attending TAM, and something is missing without it.

The million dollar challenge of "magic cables" had a fatal flaw in blinding that I fear could damage its reputation. In short, any of the test subjects could create a "miss" at will. It was technically possible to hear a difference between cables, and still report "no difference," which was recorded as a miss. Given that all the test subjects were attendees of TAM, it would be very easy to make a claim of bias.

It was heartening to see the audience confront the folks running the challenge, though I don't think their opinions were respected as much as they should have been. It was an error, but it could be easily corrected if the people pushing these cables had the courage to actually prove the outlandish claims they're making.

So there you have it. I have many folks to thank, and I'm going to do so here. Please keep reading though, as you might find this interesting.


Stirling and Frank check out some curiosities. photo by Susan Gerbic

Thanks most of all to my wife, Jennifer Newport, who I would never have met if not for the JREF and the Amaz!ng Adventure program, which owes its (former?) existence to TAM.


To the folks who donated the fee for the table, your generosity continues to astound me. They've not asked to be anonymous, but I do so to illustrate how their donations are NEVER about them, and always about the cause of personal skepticism, wherein you learn more about how you can be fooled and less about how awful those "other" people are.

To Kitty Mervine, I thank you for your constant support, dozens of mystery object submissions, and providing the "salt and pepper sex toys" that were so popular at the table. I'm so glad you could make it this year!

To Ray Hall, thanks for helping to organize this year's TAM, and thanks for revealing your secret identity to be the Instagram account @physicsfun. If you're on Instagram, follow that account right away! It's my favorite. Ray also donated some stellar objects to our table.

To the Maths Gear crew, thank you so much for the donations. I was thrilled to meet you, and your stuff is amazing. Check it out here.

To Joe Wagg, Jay Feldman, Irena Rowe, and Melanie, thanks for driving on our two Death Valley desert tours. It was 350 miles, and I hope you got as much out of it as you put in. I certainly enjoyed having you along.

To Richard Saunders thanks for having me on your podcast and being an all-around excellent person.

To the folks who donated directly at the table, thank you for contributing to curiosity. Every cent of that money will go towards programming.

To Susie Lee, thank you for making all those pins. Yes folks, the Hook Waka Bang pins are HAND MADE by a woman from Denver! They were ubiquitous at TAM.

And to everyone who still maintains a spirit of hope from the TAM experience. I don't know what the future holds, but so long as our memories holds, the spirit of TAM will live on.












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Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Sunset in the Bermuda Triangle

Quote by Dr. Seuss.

On August 31st, I worked my last day as a JREF employee. It was a bittersweet event, filled with nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. If you'll indulge me, I'll explain a bit.

I started working at the JREF in May 2005. Well, I wasn't actually an employee then... I was a full-time volunteer, helping the JREF with mostly technical and website matters. One thing led to another, and I became an integral part of things. It became my life, so much that friends and family would complain that all I did was work. And they were right.

But it was a labor of love, and before long, "JREF Jeff" and "Jeff" became one and the same. Now, five years later, it's time for me to move on. I accomplished a great deal at the JREF, and I'm proud of things that were done while I was there. Randi got to meet Lonesome George in the Galapagos. Attendance at The Amaz!ng Meeting grew from a few hundred to well over a thousand. Hundreds of people travelled with skeptical friends for the very first time, and a few college students got help with their tuition. Challenges were completed, the $1,000,000 was NOT won, and countless articles were written on subjects ranging from homeopathy to anomalous apes. In short, good things happened, and I'm very proud to have been part of that.

But that's not what I want to write about. What I want to write about is three specific people. Well... four. Two of them are attached.

Karl and Linda

The first I need to mention is Linda Shallenberger. I first met Linda at TAM 2, at the Tuscany in Las Vegas. It makes me laugh now to think that TAM actually fit there. I knew right away that she was the one making things happen. Every organization has one of those... the "get it done" person, and Linda was the JREF's. Always on the verge of retiring, it took her until TAM 8 to finally do so. Being largely out of the spotlight, she hasn't received the credit she deserved, but those of us in the trenches know: there would be no JREF today without Linda. Linda, I feel so very fortunate to have worked with you, and thank you for your wisdom, ingenuity and dedication.

And Linda brought along her husband, Karl. Karl would come to TAM and work his ass off doing any menial task that was required. At the same time, his experience with management and people helped us make some crucial decisions in how things went. He wasn't always happy with how things went and disagreed with me a few times, but he was always supportive. He has my enduring thanks and respect.

Hal adjusts Randi's Mic (from Phil Plait)

The second is Hal Bidlack. Hal was a volunteer at the JREF for  nearly a decade. During his time there, he served on the board, ran and shaped the forum, and was the perennial MC at TAM. He even joined us on a couple of cruises. Hal is the guy in the spotlight who grabs it and points it at someone else. I've known few people who could match not only his credentials but also his humility. If you were ever looking for a moral center to skepticism, Hal wouldn't be far from it. He'd probably bristle at that idea, but this is my blog, so he doesn't get a say.

The three of us, Linda, Hal and I did most of the planning and running of TAMs 3 through 8. I wasn't on staff at TAM 3, and Hal wasn't at TAM 5.5, and Linda wasn't at TAM 8, but I think we were a hell of a team. TAM became THE conference for skeptics and critical thinkers, and it remains so. How cool is that?

However, as the success of TAM London 2010 shows, TAM isn't just about the people running it. None of us were involved at all with TAM London 2010, and yet the reports I've heard proclaim it a huge success. Kudos to  Tracy King for a job well done. But more important, kudos to the attendees or "delegates." It's the community that's made TAM and the JREF a special place, and as they grow in numbers and expand internationally, I hope good things continue.

And the final person, is, of course James "The Amazing" Randi. Many friends and family actually call him "Amazing" as though it's his first name, but I still default to "Mr. Randi." Randi is no longer my employer, but he remains my friend. I can't tell you how much this means to me. I've been quoted as saying something along the lines of "Don't become friends with your heroes. In the end, they'll be neither." And I think that's largely true – but Randi is the exception. I've seen him at the best of time and worst of times. He called me despondent that his home was destroyed by hurricane Wilma,  and jubilant that Johnny Carson donated a large check to "teach Montel a lesson." I've seen him dancing in the halls and flat on his back fighting, oh let's see... cancer, heart attacks, the effects of chemo – I swear he's immortal.

Randi in Alaska (by the fabulous Kitty Mervine)

Randi calls himself a "curmudgeon," and I think he likes this image. He can be quite grumpy about some things, and you certainly do NOT want to be his adversary. But what motivates this man is quite removed from his public persona: it's compassion. The Faith Healers is a very angry book. Randi calls down hellfire and brimstone on these charlatans who proclaim special powers. He does this because he's morally outraged at the lies they tell and is devastated by the lives they've ruined.

Don't believe me? Read the prologue to that book, or better yet, find tape of Randi's appearance at the Skeptic Society conference in May, 2005 where Randi broke down in tears describing a disabled boy looking for relief from these "men of god." I've met taller men, but I don't know that I'll ever meet one as clever, generous, and downright charming as Randi.

So a chapter closes, and a new one begins. I'm told that the JREF has big things planned, and I look forward to seeing them. I've been appointed a "JREF Fellow" where I'll be working on what I think is an interesting project. Randi has been more active than ever travelling the world and meeting people. This is where he's at his best, and what he enjoys the most. I'm very happy for him.

Of course, I'm neglecting a few dozen folks who also should be mentioned. I know who you are, and I won't forget.

For me, I've started a whole new life. I've moved to Chicago to continue a relationship with someone who's way too good for me. I continue as a co-host of Rational Alchemy, and I've started a couple of new projects.

Jeff and Jen in Chicago (Ingrid Laas)

First, is IndieSkeptics. Yes, it's another blog, but the difference is that it's not for me – it's for you. If you have no time to blog but want to occasionally, we can be your home. Want to write but aren't really sure how? Talk to me. I can get your thoughts down and onto the server.

Second, is SkepTours. Continuing in the tradition of the JREF's Amaz!ng Adventures, we'll be gathering skeptics and travelling around the world. We're currently taking bookings on a March 2011 cruise to Jamaica and an October 2011 journey to Egypt and Istanbul. Future trips include an "end of the world" cruise to the Yucatan peninsula in December 2012 and we're looking into a land tour of Loch Ness.

Thanks for reading this, thanks for being a skeptic, and keeping it positive. This is just the beginning.

Filed under: Commentary, JREF 63 Comments