TAM London review

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.
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.
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!”
“Me too.”

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…

12 comments to this article

  1. doctoratlantis

    on 2009/10/05 at 17:13 -

    Hi! Good constructive comments. Sounds like you’d love the idea of “Skepticamp.” These are 100% interactive events based on the idea of bar-camp. Reed Esau of Colorado is the progenitor of them, and they’re remarkably easy to put together. We had one here in Atlanta (in Feb?) and it was very successful. The rule is that everyone must participate. Everybody who attends gives a talk or does something to help the conference.

    For more information do a search for “Skepticamp” on the Internet. Reed is on Twitter at @reedes and can help you. You don’t need to be the person “setting it up” but if you get 15 – 20 people you can put this together and it is remarkable how informative, socially rewarding and fun they can be.

  2. Paul Bailey

    on 2009/10/05 at 17:26 -

    Spot on. There was a very odd vibe to the inbetweeny bitswith a lot of people being there on their own (me included), although I was fortunate enough to meet some people in person that I’d conversed with online.

    What didn’t help was the way you were herded into different rooms for coffee/food, such that it was hard to find people that you did know.

    Some of it’s dependent on the venue of course, but that’s something to factor in to choosing it next time. The fringe events could probably do with being pushed a bit more, since I spoke to more random people at the Thursday night talk than I did for the entire weekend proper.

  3. Reed Esau

    on 2009/10/05 at 19:12 -

    I had a similar reaction after attending my first skeptic conference – TAM5 in January of 2007.

    My reaction was not to change TAM, but rather to experiment with conferences at the regional level, specifically to attempt to adapt BarCamp to the domain of contemporary skepticism. BarCamps are open conferences in the tech world that are community-organized, draw upon their attendees for content and emphasize interaction and discussion.

    Unlike TAM/L they’re usually local or regional in scope and will typically be in the size range of 20-200 people.

    Though it’s still early in the experiment (we’re still working the bugs out) there have been nine events so far (with one in the UK.) Next year we expect further growth with repeat events and other groups hosting their first event.

  4. Tracy King

    on 2009/10/06 at 00:26 -

    Hi Luke,

    I wasn’t going to comment as I generally am not commenting on blog reviews about the event (as there are so many!) but as JR has tweeted a link to this I really want to make sure that some of the points are addressed for those who didn’t attend and might think that your experience is representative of everyone’s.

    Firstly, I couldn’t agree more about the limitations of the venue. I had made it clear to them that we needed plenty of seats etc for lunches, but the layout and size of the venue (as is the case with other central London venues) meant it was impossible for them to provide a single room for lunching with seating for all. I would have liked more tables and chairs and was frustrated at the failure to provide them. However, given that we had outgrown the venue before we’d even started, I think it’s fair to say that any future event won’t be at the Mermaid, so the point is moot (other than the necessity of apologising for the inconvenience, which I wholeheartedly do).

    Regarding the socialising aspects, whilst I’ve heard some isolated feedback to that effect, I must say that the vast majority of feedback to me has been the exact opposite of your experience. People have said how overwhelmed they are by the number of new friends they’ve made, the like-minded people they got to talk to, and the joy of being in a community such as that. You just need to look at the #tamlondon posts on Twitter to see how overwhelmingly positive feedback is, from both a social and a speaker point of view, or read reviews like http://londonist.com/2009/10/the_amazing_meeting_london_skeptics.php or http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2009/10/amazing-meeting-london-2009.html which seems to reflect the majority of the comments I’ve had to me (I can’t post private emails here but I’ve had a lot, and they’re all positive regarding the social side).

    I’m surprised you think that all two “skepticism nerds” would have to say to each other is…nothing. That’s not my experience at all (in fact I just came back from the pub with a lot of other skepticism nerds, many of whom I hadn’t met before, and we managed to have conversations just fine. We talked about movies, books, sex, whether Brian Cox is better looking than George Hrab, and how cool my mom is, amongst other things). I don’t really know what to say about the suggestion that it’s not easy to find common ground outside of our common non-belief in skepticism because I’ve been to many TAMs and they’re inherently social events. If skeptics weren’t sociable it would be rather hard to get hundreds of them to go to a large conference.

    I must also address your guesstimates about the numbers of people there solo. I cannot, of course, give specifics about booking data, but your estimation of 90% attending alone is not accurate.

    I agree about using technology. We couldn’t do anything this year because of budget limitations, but something like a Twitter wall would be great. I don’t have an issue with the text messaging myself, because I use SMS as much as I use email or Twitter, but I don’t claim to be representative of everyone. However, I do believe Richard Wiseman is on Twitter, so he probably had good reasons for using SMS instead.

    We are unlikely to have conflicting events. When concurrent paper sessions were run at previous TAMs, delegates were frustrated with having to choose between two sessions when they wanted to attend both. Far better to have everyone be able to attend everything. I do agree that there should be more events that delegates can participate in, but that wasn’t possible in the two-day format. It needs a three day format really, which was, this year, outside the scope of the event. However, I must point out that we also funded many free fringe events including a panel at Conway Hall tonight with some incredible bloggers and podcasters, which was led by audience questions, backstage tours of Wellcome, Darwin Centre, etc, and there’s a forthcoming quiz this Wednesday. The fringe events were free and anyone (not just delegates) could attend, so we did attempt to ensure extra stuff was available.

    It is neither possible nor desirable for the TAM format to have academic speakers for ten minute slots, although it’s a great format for a comedy event. It’s certainly unfair to have lots of ten minute talks then Tim Minchin for an hour and a half! Just from a practical point of view, if you have two, three or four times as many speakers, you have two, three, four times the expense and logistics. You also have to persuade speakers to travel to London for a ten minute talk, which to be honest is a long shot. But I am very glad you enjoyed Robin’s event.

    We’d all love more Tim Minchin! But please appreciate that he’s in the middle of a national tour. He was in Bristol on Saturday night and went straight to Reading for his gig after TAM London. I for one am incredibly grateful that we got an hour, which is of course the same amount of time the other speakers got. Not even taking the food costs into account, £175 for 12 speakers is £14.58 a speaker. That’s pretty good value. What’s a ticket to a Tim gig? £25 for an hour and a half? So I think we got the good deal!

    The book signing thing is something I thought about a lot. TAMs have never had scheduled book signings because the speakers mingle with the delegates, as they did at TAM London. However, the layout of the Mermaid was perhaps not ideal for that. The trouble with book signings is that they make a distinct line between the author and the ‘fan’, which is not what TAMs are about, and I really didn’t want to create a ‘them and us’ atmosphere. I think that’s one we can chalk up to ‘venue limitations’.

    There were pens in every delegate pack and at the merchandise table, but I’m sorry if anyone didn’t get an autograph when they wanted one.

    I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to address. I’m really grateful for your feedback, and some of your comments are spot on. The panel from tonight will be uploaded on the official TAM London youtube channel at some point, and of course the DVD will be available in time for Christmas, so if anyone didn’t attend and want to see what the fuss is about, they can do!


  5. admin

    on 2009/10/06 at 00:51 -

    Hi Tracy,

    The points I posted weren’t really my experiences, as I was there with my brother and had quite a number of great conversations with others. However, even during the looong lunch break on Sunday, about HALF the people were still standing around, not talking to each other. You’ll get loads of feedback from people talking about making new friends, etc, but the points are raised because of and on behalf of those who had a different experience.

    For example, one time we sat in the corridor, and the guy next to us was playing a game on his phone. The next person was listening to his iPod, looking straight forward. The next person was reading a book. The next person was eating alone.

    My brother and I noticed this, repeated over and over and over. Which is why I wanted to bring it up. I agree that 80% of this probably due to the venue and general scheduling, but I do believe it was an issue.

    Specifically, my point about conflicting events could be as simple as “Listen to a lecture from Person X, or hang out in the foyer to chat about Topic Z.” The venue didn’t even allow for this though, as there were no seats anywhere!

    Free fringe events are fine, but I fly over from Berlin specially for the weekend, and can’t really justify longer stays for single panels.

    And the ten minute talks, you shouldn’t have to pay for those. I’m sure you can find 5 people willing to volunteer a talk about all kinds of subjects! My point was opening a forum for more people to get involved. Also, someone like Tim Minchin SHOULD be given more time, and some speakers SHOULD be given less time. It comes down to how much they have to say, and how well they can say it. There’s no reason why people should be given equal time. People aren’t equal!

    “If skeptics weren’t sociable it would be rather hard to get hundreds of them to go to a large conference.”

    Personally I wanted to go to see the invited speakers and to laugh at the comedy and listen to the music. The social aspect wasn’t very high on my agenda, and maybe it wasn’t high on others. I have plenty of friends already…

    Either way, I really enjoyed the event, and hope to make it again next year.

    Luke B.

  6. Critique

    on 2009/10/06 at 04:31 -

    “I’m surprised you think that all two “skepticism nerds” would have to say to each other is…nothing. That’s not my experience at all (in fact I just came back from the pub with a lot of other skepticism nerds, many of whom I hadn’t met before, and we managed to have conversations just fine. We talked about movies, books, sex, whether Brian Cox is better looking than George Hrab, and how cool my mom is, amongst other things).”

    That’s because Tracey King WORKS for the convention, mind, and has developed ‘relationships’ with people at skeptic conventions in the past and planned that gathering at the pub. So she had no worries networking. Doesn’t address the issue adequately at all with that point.

  7. Jack of Kent

    on 2009/10/06 at 05:50 -

    I came to the first day of TAM.

    Contrary to the review, I was impressed by the amount of social interaction: I met and chatted with dozens of conference attendees, in queues and at fringe events, and made lots of new contacts. And this was with people sometimes not aware of my real name and who also approached me, rather than me them.

    There were some people just standing and not talking, but there are at loads of professional and business conferences too.

    But even if there were people happy in their own space and not wanting to chat, why is it assumed that this is actually a bad thing. Not everyone enjoys having conversations with complete strangers.

    I think we should be careful not to over-analyse and generalise about this, especially when it plays on nerd stereotypes.

    (Note, I was not one of the convention organisers and indeed only got a ticket at the last moment.)

    My only gripe was a 9am start on a Saturday going through to lunch without a coffee break. This was a strange and unprecedented experience…

  8. Tracy King

    on 2009/10/06 at 09:32 -

    Critique, I have attended many TAMs as a delegate, and never had a problem socialising, so I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s down to the individual. I certainly am not going to tell people how to behave at a conference. If someone wants to stand and read a book instead of talking, that’s their business. I’d love it if everyone made lots of new friends but if they want a different conference experience, that’s their call. People should interact by choice, not force! I don’t think we should patronise anyone because “well, it’s nerds and they don’t socialise” because I don’t believe that’s true or fair. However, if someone is not mingling because they’re socially anxious or shy or whatever, then perhaps we do need to look at other ways (such as workshops) to get those people comfortable. TAMs in Vegas have many such things, and a hotel venue to boot, but TAM London is a different beast logistically, and unless we held it out at Heathrow or in Birmingham, we were always going to be limited by space. Central London venues are not roomy. It’s a difficult thing to balance. We could have doubled the ticket price and had a different venue, but that’s less desirable I think.

    But I really do appreciate the feedback, and will make sure that JREF has a full report of all the reported experiences, positive and less positive.

  9. Zyaama

    on 2009/10/06 at 11:48 -

    Well, Luke brought up a lot of the points I myself saw as problematic during the event, and I was happy to see Tracy’s replies. I guess both sides have valid points here, and while I agree with Luke, I also think that many of the problems he saw were brought on by the location. There were points where it looked like the organisation really could have been better and I would have liked to know the reasons behind that (Like: If half of the people did not receive their badges in time, why was there only one table to hand out badges on day 1?) but I appreciate that there probably were reasons and I just don’t know them.

    My remaining question, based on what has been discussed here: If we agree that the location was not ideal, and there are no better locations in central London – Does it really have to be central London?

  10. Cubik's Rube

    on 2009/10/07 at 11:03 -

    I agree with some of the issues raised here, but I think the criticism of the way it was organised goes a bit too far in places. There were some instances where things could have been arranged in a manner more conducive to easy conversation and social mingling – somewhere to sit properly for dinner on Saturday, for instance. But I think the hosts can only be expected to do so much in getting people socialising. I’m a very shy person, I never really feeling comfortable in crowds or trying to strike up a conversation with people I don’t know, and absolutely no amount of genius orchestration or well-managed infrastructure of this event was going to instantly turn me into a social butterfly. And that’s okay; I managed to get the ice broken with a couple of people and chat a bit, which was a success for me.

    I didn’t feel like my experience was representative, though. Whenever we were all milling around in the rest of the building between the talks, there was never an awkward silence, but always a loud background chatter. Some people (like Jack of Kent, above, I imagine) were always likely to enjoy a good chin-wag with scores of unfamiliar faces, whatever the circumstances, and some (like me) would always end up mostly keeping to ourselves. The environment we’re provided with is only a factor up to a point.

  11. admin

    on 2009/10/07 at 13:36 -

    To be clear, I’m not citicizing the way the conference was organised. That 50% of a group of nerds aren’t very good at socialising isn’t the fault of anyone but themselves. The venue and the way attendants were herded about didn’t help, but that isn’t my point.

    The suggestions at the end were just that: suggestions on how to improve the event next year, and foster a greater sense of inclusion and community at the event.

    Luke B.

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