This morning I got home from a trip to London. This trip was one part spending time with my brother, one part business (no, really, Mr. Taxman) and one part TAM London, “The Amazing Meeting – London” (TAM) being the biggest part by far.
I’ve been reading a few reviews of the event on various blogs, and agree with most of what’s out there. But a large element of the conference seems to have gone ignored; an element I think is very important for addressing in the future.
But first, for those who don’t know, TAM is a science and scepticism conference, held annually in Las Vegas. It was set up by James Randi, whom I wrote about meeting back in April. The London event was an offshoot of the Las Vegas event, not a replacement.
Photo: The audience before the first scheduled event.
TAM London featured a really strong lineup of scientists, journalists, comedians, activists, musicians, illusionists and writers. For example:
– Brian Cox, particle physicist and LHC/CERN type guy, who gave a great talk about exactly what is going on down there in Switzerland/France.
– Ben Goldacre, writer of Bad Science (blog and book), was REALLY funny (actually a lot funnier than some of the comedians in the evening entertainment event, in which he also took part), and he mainly talked about the lack of good science writing.
– Jon Ronson, also very funny, talking about the story of and the stories behind the upcoming film The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is based on his book of the same name.
– Phil Plait, ripping apart the movie Armageddon and praising the film Deep Impact as examples of science portrayed in film. I must admit I dropped off to sleep for a second, but my tiredness, and him being the last speaker, was the real cause, not his speaking skills.
As for entertainers, Robin Ince was in charge there. He hosted the evening show, and also did some readings from various books. These were often accompanied by interpretive dance, violin or opera singing. My favorite was Sheila and the Swarm of Killer Grasshoppers (or similar). The acts that stood out for me were A. Chris Cox, the mindreader who can’t read minds, was very energetic and had a very engaging stage presence, and B. Baba Brinkman and his Rap Guide to Evolution, who had some mad lyrical skilz.
The highlight of the entire event for me was the awesome Tim Minchin. Compared to the other musicians and comedians, he blew them all out the water. He we funnier than all the comedians put together, and a better musician than the rest of the musicians put together, had a better stage presence too. He was about two levels above anyone else when it came to constructing comedic creations… as in, he didn’t just talk funny or say funny or sing funny words, he managed to make comedy out of his music, not just comedy attached to his music, and comedy out of his pacing and actions and facial expressions. It’s a good job I’m better at juggling than him or I’d feel like just giving up my career as an entertainer…
I can sum up everything so far by saying this: Everything that happened on stage was entertaining and professionally presented, and a joy to watch. I only learnt one or two things at the entire event, but I didn’t go to be educated.
In fact, in an audience of 500 or 600 people who are interested enough in these speakers/entertainers to spend 200 quid plus travel and hotel to attend, I think the material presented was a bit old. For example, Richard Wiseman asked “Did anyone hear my interview on the SGU podcast the other week?” and 90% of the audience raise their hands. But he went on to tell the exact same story again, word for word, that he’d shared in that previous interview.
I don’t mind, because I’d also heard and seen Tim Minchin’s songs too, yet I was there to see him and all these other perform live. It was worth it too.
On to the part of the conference that was, in the words of the internet, epic fail: everything that didn’t happen on stage, and all the people who didn’t do something on stage.
Image the scene: 600 science and scepticism nerds in one place at the same time. 90% of these were 20something and 30something white males, all with patchy beard growths, and with long hair that is more the result of simply not cutting it than any style decision. I’m not kidding when I say I was probably the fittest person there (after George Hrab). So far I’m just making an observation, not a complaint, as big groups of geeky science types aren’t inherently FAIL.
The complaint comes from the fact that most of these people probably got into the subjects in question through inherently soloist internet activities, like reading blogs and listening to podcasts, and reading books. Which means that 90% of the delegates booked a single ticket to the event, traveled there alone, and stayed in a hotel room by themselves.
Photo: A long line of lone nerds waiting to pick up their delegate badges.
And then, during the pauses of the official events, a huge number of people didn’t bother speaking to each other! Sure, there was some interaction visible, and I struck up plenty of conversations myself, but about half the people stood around in the foyer, not talking to anyone!
Maybe I’m too used to juggling conventions and festivals, where the subject matter is intrinsically participatory: you are there because you like doing and learning, and the way to do either is usually a social activity, and that is besides all the other social activities and shows and events.
But the atmosphere at TAM was the opposite. For a start, there was nowhere to sit down and chill. Between the auditorium events, everyone had to clear out and stand about drinking tea or eating.
I thought “Well, I guess at the dinner tonight we’ll be sitting around tables and we can get chatting properly for an hour or so…” but no, we were expected to each bangers and mash while standing up! Sure, an edge-of-plate drinks holder is handy, but trying to cut sausages with one hand, on a plate hovering in mid air, with a glass of wine hanging off the edge of the plate? Not handy.
This entire setup is probably great for a business conference, as everyone would be looking to network. At TAM, nobody was there to network, as what are you going to be trying to get out of the event? And if you struck up a conversation with someone, what are the chances your area of interest are going to overlap?
And here’s another big point: what the hell are two scepticism nerds going to say to each other?
“I think homeopathy is false!”
End of conversation. Which is really weird, right? A conference centered around a method of enquiry that deals just in facts… it’s hard to get discussions based on massive differences of opinions going when the reason you’re at the same event is that you agree with the same message.
Other conventions don’t have the same problem, as they are either about specific topics, like tech products, or about a kind of media, say something like science fiction. The second is ripe for discussion about favorite books and worse episodes and even, at the real geek events, costumes. The first are probably industry events, where those attending want to make money in some way, or spend money wisely.
Business happens. Or socializing happens. At TAM there seemed to be a distinct lack of either. Unlike a political party conference, where the vast majority of the delegates really ARE activists, at TAM the people actually DOING stuff could have been, and for the most part were, confined to the two front rows of the auditorium’s seating.
Everyone else just watched, and reported on was happening using twitter.
I had a great time at TAM, and would like to go back next year. However, I think the event could be a lot more interesting and enjoyable by:
– give the audience more to do! Not just watch, but to do.
– have some non-auditorium events where the delegates can do things in smaller groups.
– rope in technology, and have live feedback and planning via twitter. Richard almost got this right by text messages… but seriously? Text messaging? Is it still 2002?
– have conflicting events. Do something smaller scale in the auditorium at the same time as another talk in the foyer/bar. Give people choice of two or three really specific, in-depth topics, rather than one generic, good for everyone talk.
– get some more new faces on stage. I’d rather see (like in the evening show) 4 people give a ten minute talk each than hearing the same material and stories for an hour than we’ve all just listened to on a podcast two months ago.
– schedule some people who disagree with each other about something to have a panel discussion on stage. That’ll give people something to talk about!
– nerds aren’t that good at working out social stuff; TELL them which pub to go to after the event, as they won’t work it out themselves!
– get Tim Minchin back to do his full show, not just an hour. And Baba Brinkman too.
– maybe try to work out if the conference is going to be about science and scepticism, or atheism and religion, or both, and program accordingly. Ariana Sherine’s presentation was entertaining and moving, but was it out of place? Glenn Hill was certainly interesting, but his expressed views on religion were VERY shallow, and if you’re going to be quoting the bible, please do so from the point of view of critical scholarship.
– have an autograph session where people can queue up once and get their books signed by four authors, instead of the stupid mad rush that happened at the end of every session. Ariana Sherine did it right by standing at the bookshop signing copies as people bought them, but usually those doing the signing didn’t even have a table to rest on, or a pen handy…
That’s it! I’m sure looking forward to the Turkish Juggling Convention, and I leave tomorrow morning. Think of me, as you’re sitting in your cubicle this week… I’ll be spending time on the beach, eating good food, hanging out with good friends, watching and performing good shows, learning and teaching new skills…. ahhhhh…