An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

A Play in One Act

I posted this at Lousy Canuck, in response to the most recent entry in the harassment tragicomedy of errors, which only gets worse the more you learn. But because I’m easily impressed with my own cleverness, I decided to make it a blog post here, too. For posterity.

I like the logic of “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Imagine, if you will, the JREFstaurant.

MAITRE D’J: Welcome, sir, to the JREFstaurant.

PATRON: Thanks, I read some reviews and–

MAITRE D’J: Anything bad you’ve heard about our food is clearly the fault of some well-meaning food critics who are engaged in some distasteful cafeteria banter after they willingly ate their food and thought the price was too “steep.”

PATRON: What I read was actually pretty positive, except–

MAITRE D’J: Controversialist food bloggers, looking for better circulation! There has never been a report of food poisoning at the JREFstaurant!

PATRON 2: Wait a minute, I got food poisoning here last week! You helped me to the bathroom!

MAITRE D’J: I thought you just had the stomach flu. You didn’t think it was important at the time to say it was food poisoning.

PATRON: Didn’t I hear about a food poisoning case here a couple of months ago? They even made documented reports.

MAITRE D’J: Your table’s over there. I’m going into the back now, and you won’t see me for the rest of your meal.

[PATRON sits and reads the menu. WAITER enters to serve them]

WAITER: What would you like to order, sir?

PATRON: Actually, your menu doesn’t seem to have any food information on it. Just this long welcome note.

WAITER: I assure you, we have nineteen specially-prepared chefs in back to take care of your order.

PATRON: Yes, but if there’s no food on the menu, how do I know what to order?

WAITER: Putting food options on the menu might be a serious waste of time! Do you have any evidence that putting food options on the menu makes people more likely to order something?

PATRON: But all other restaurants do it.

WAITER: See, that’s just an argument from popularity. Surely you expect the JREFstaurant to have higher standards. Besides, what if we put these food options on the menu, and someone wants an item that’s slightly different? Or worse, what if they ordered the wrong thing?

PATRON: That doesn’t seem like it’s much of a problem.

WAITER: You’re just some kind of foodinazi! I mean, I’m not saying you’re a Nazi, but you know who puts food options on menus? Nazis.

PATRON: Okay…can I get a sandwich?

WAITER: Fine, I guess.

[WAITER leaves, and returns a few minutes later with a sandwich on a platter.]

WAITER: Your sandwich. Happy?

PATRON: Wait, what is this? Why does it smell so bad? [Picks up one of the bread slices] Is this what I think it is?

WAITER: It’s a sandwich, just like you ordered.

PATRON: It’s shit!

WAITER: What foul language!

PATRON: No, this is a shit sandwich. It’s dung on toast!

WAITER: Look, you ordered a sandwich. I gave you a sandwich. It’s got stuff between two slices of bread, therefore, a sandwich.

PATRON: But it’s a shit sandwich.

WAITER: Jeez, there’s just no pleasing you people!


Gen Con 2010 Wrap-Up

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know I’ve been involved with the Skeptical Gamers at Gen Con Indy from the start. That start was two years ago, when I attended an Indiana Ghost Hunters panel alongside the Action Skeptics and Wikinite. I wasn’t able to make it for last year’s big panel presentation, but I went a couple of weeks ago, and it was off the chain. I’m going to run through some of the highlights as I remember them. Expect this post to be long, rambling, and awesome:

The first thing to mention was our booth and presence: the Skeptical Gamers partnered with the Indiana Immunization Coalition to raise money and awareness for vaccine education in Indiana. Apparently there’s an education gap in the Hoosier State, such that even though they have enough money to vaccinate everyone, the combination of poor awareness in low income communities and misinformation in high income communities have driven Indiana to vaccination rates of about 74%, well below herd immunity for many preventable diseases. We had a lot of people asking about the vaccine drive, and nearly all of them voiced support for what we were doing. I only met one real vaccine ‘skeptic’ while we were there, and at least he was willing to have a conversation about the facts. Also, he had an awesome afro, so there’s that. Donations were slow until we started the raffle, which was only possible thanks to prizes donated by Blind Ferret Entertainment, Fantasy Flight Games, Slugfest Games, and True Dungeon. And things really picked up once Hilary Nelson started working the booth in his amazing Doctor Octopus costume.

Between the raffle and the regular donations, we raised about $400 for a good cause, which is not too shabby. More on that later, though.

In addition to the vaccine drive, we had a whole slew of talks, including one by Skepchick extraordinaire, Jen Myers. Which is not to say that lots of people didn’t give talks, but it seems like a good idea to start with the most famous, right? Sadly, scheduling conflicts meant I didn’t get to see either of Jen’s talks on building local skeptical communities, but I’m told they were quite productive, and may have some effects on the Indianapolis skeptical scene.

Besides Jen, I should note that Colin Thornton’s “Myths, Monsters, and Legends” talk was amazingly well-received, having sold out weeks in advance. The room was packed, from what I hear, and the convention employee who helped us set up the electronic equipment said that we could pack a larger room every day of the con if we had the same speech next year. So that’s pretty cool.

I unfortunately missed out on most of the talks, which is kind of a shame. One thing we realized quite quickly was that we’d need some tighter scheduling and more volunteers in the future, so Don and I weren’t running screens and projectors from room to room between talks. So while I’d love to give some details on William Brinkmann’s memoir on fictional tabloid writing or Sara Head’s talk on Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology, I can’t do so without lying or making things up.

And that’s a real shame, since I hear that William Brinkmann turned into a dragon midway through his talk and did a Bollywood-style dance number with the whole crowd, while Sara Head gave her presentation while also killing the vampire zombies who had wandered in with the audience.

I quite enjoyed Tristan Zimmerman’s discussion of incorporating evolution and creation topics into gaming, however. He had some damn good ideas.

In more narcissistic news, Akusai, Magus, and I did two panels of skeptical topics, which were both fairly well attended and received. Learning from last year’s overloaded presentation, we put together a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style PowerPoint and limited ourselves to ~15 minutes on each topic. The panels were a ton of fun, and I think we’ll probably do something very similar next year. Except perhaps smoother, and giving Magus more time to talk. Our bad on that one.

Akusai’s talks on vaccine awareness were not particularly well-attended, but that was due to the time slot as much as anything. Given the vaccine drive, I think we might want to try making those more prominent in the future. His talk on how similar paranormal concepts differ along cultural lines, however, was great.

Akusai and I also talked a bit about Cargo Cult Science, and that was another fun discussion. If we did the topic again, I think we’d want to have a bit more technology available–specifically speakers–but we got the relevant points across.

My presentation on E-Mail Forwards was sparsely attended, but the audience seemed to enjoy it, and I thought it went quite well. If nothing else, it gave me a chance to show off my mad PowerPoint skillz and to make obscure references. One thing I forgot to mention, and so I should do it here in a more public forum anyway, is that I got a ton of research material from Norman Downes and David Nihsen. Thanks a lot, guys, I really appreciated the help.

That’s about the bulk of the skeptical stuff. I did notice one of the tract cards on the ground outside the convention center, but sadly never saw a preacher of any sort. Well, with one exception: Akusai and I dressed up as Jesse Custer and Cassidy (respectively) from Preacher on Friday.

One interesting note: there was a trio of booths on one side of the convention floor. On the left, the Bible Battles Card Game. In the middle, Blessed Be Games, a Wiccan organization. On the right, Cosplay Deviants, specializing in pinup characters of cute girls in scantily-clad outfits. I was waiting for fireworks to break out, but sadly, nothing.

I learned the joys of costuming this year, and I’m already itching to put together costumes for next year. I’m thinking of trying to convince some people to go to C2E2 this year, since I think the Preacher costumes would be more recognizable there. And yeah, I guess I’d probably dye my hair or something for it this time.

More fun was the day that I dressed as the Ninth Doctor and Akusai as Captain Jack Harkness. Lots of people recognized the looks, and we eventually got caught near a TARDIS prop for photos with four other Doctors. That was pretty entertaining, and I’d like to repeat it.

GenCon proved two adages for me as well. First, conventions are always easier when you have a booth. A booth provides a place to sit, relax, leave your stuff, and so forth, while you’re on the convention floor. This eliminates trips back and forth to the car and other problems experienced by non-exhibitors. Which means if I decide to go to C2E2, it’ll probably only be for a couple of days. Unless I can put together an exhibit somehow.

It was also a lot easier for me to resist buying things than it would have been at a comic convention. Which is good, because I had very little money. I made one real purchase, which I had planned to make ahead of time (the Eleventh Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, if you must know), and that was really the only booth that I was seriously tempted by. Which doesn’t mean that other booths didn’t tempt me; there was a place selling old RPG books for a crazy discount that would have been Mecca for me when I was fourteen. West End Games Star Wars books? Yes, please!

The things which did tempt me tended to be more expensive this time, like places selling cool Renaissance superhero doublets. But the price tag (or what was implied by the lack thereof) made them easier to avoid, too.

White Wolf barely had a presence at the convention this year, and were somehow more hilarious in spite of it. Rather than a booth with product, they had a gothed-out vampire lounge, where they doled out pamphlets about their own convention and sold adult beverages. Boy, did I feel sorry for their booth babes. At least this year they weren’t coy about the White Wolf Party.

The party was pretty awesome. It wasn’t quite the great people-watching fest that the one two years back was, but we made our own fun. I won’t name names or anything, but when that inflatable icosahedron made its way to the dance floor, it was pure awesome.

Lots of guys were doing the Christopher Walken dance from Weapon of Choice, though, and that was…weird. Also, open letter to guys: it is not cool to dance while texting, even if you do look like the werewolf kid from Twilight. It is also not cool to stare at the girls in the go-go cages for half an hour without stopping, nor is it cool to try to dance with them when you’re outside of the cage. Seriously, just creepy.

The winner of the whole night, though, was the guy dressed as Frylock. We’d seen him at the con, and his costume consisted of painting his face red and wearing a headdress styled like french fries. It was off the chain, and it only got better when he came to the White Wolf party (fashionably late) dressed in a nice suit. Still better was when he climbed into a go-go cage and danced, with three other guys eventually joining him.

Also, they played “I’m On A Boat,” which was a nice change of pace from all the songs that sounded like either “Sandstorm” or “U Can’t Touch This.”

I’m having a hard time remembering anything else relevant, except for the last thing. As the con was closing down Sunday afternoon, Don and I went around to the various booths that had donated items to our raffle to thank the donors. We went to the Blind Ferret booth, where we talked a little bit to Ryan Sohmer–writer of Least I Could Do, Looking for Group, and The Gutters–about the fundraiser. He was very supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. He asked us how much we made, and when we told him it was about $400, he proceeded to give us $400 more. He apparently had food poisoning that weekend, and made a deal with God that if he stopped puking, he’d donate $400 to a charity. I’m going to quote his story as best as I can recall:

Sohmer: I said to God, “God, I don’t actually believe in you, but if I stop puking, I will donate $100 to a charity.” He eventually negotiated me up to $400.

Someone else at the booth: So you tried to Jew God out of money?

Sohmer: Yeah, you can’t Jew God. God Jews you. I’m Jewish, I know.

So, yeah, Ryan Sohmer: pure class. Seriously, fantastic guy. Next year I’m totally bringing enough money to buy all the LICD collections.

So, overall, the con was great. We learned a lot about what to do differently next year, and I suspect you’ll be seeing some of that kind of thing popping up on the Skeptical Gamers blog in the coming months. This year’s resounding success have ensured that we’ll be trying to make it even bigger and better in 2011. We had an awesome time, and we hope next year you’ll come out to have an awesome time with us.

Putting the call out

I’ve decided that I’ll be doing a talk at GenCon about e-mail forwards and chain letters, and how they make a great introduction to skeptical thinking.

But years of responding to forwarded e-mails have left my inbox relatively bereft of them. So I put the call to you, dear readers: forward me your favorite (or least favorite) glurges, bad luck chain letters, hoaxes, 419 scams, ads for unlikely products, missing children notices, prayer requests, and so forth. Send them to this address:
It's Captchalicious!

Spread this around; I’d like as many bad e-mails as I can get without trawling Snopes! And thanks!

Skeptical Current Events

Despite my absence from blogging lately, big happenings are…happening in the skeptical world. Here’s a brief run-down of some of them:

First, my good friend Akusai of the Action Skeptics will be appearing on Skeptically Speaking this Friday next Friday, March 5th, at 8 PM EST to talk about the Skeptic Symposium we’re doing at Gen Con this year. Give it a listen; I certainly will!

Did I mention the Skeptic Symposium at Gen Con? Because it finna be off the chain, yo! Akusai, Magus, myself, Jon Maxson, and various other skeptical folks will be gathering together for a variety of presentations, talks, and events, including an awesome vaccine fundraiser. Akusai has done all the heavy lifting to get this whole shebang together, while I’ve slacked off so much that I can’t even return e-mails to important organizations in a timely fashion, so make sure to give him oodles of kudos for his efforts while I ride his coattails to skeptical stardom.

Speaking of me riding coattails, Akusai has also been working on Skepchicamp, a Chicago-based event featuring presentations by some of the biggest names in the Skeptosphere, including Akusai, Bug Girl, various Skepchicks and Hemant Mehta! Also, I’ll be there to talk about something or other, but you can skip that bit if you want. Heck, I might even skip it, depending on how long the book-signing line around Hemant is, so I can’t blame you. In any case, you know you want to come, so get your ticket and show up at the Brehon Pub in Chicago on March 6th (next Saturday) from Noon to 10 PM CST.

In other news, the forums over at have shut down amidst a great deal of drama. I first learned of this from Peter Harrison, a former moderator on the blog who provided an in-depth look into the ugly politics and dirty dealings surrounding the whole event. He presents a level-headed account backed up with direct quotes from people involved, and it doesn’t look good for the administration team at the Dawkins site.

Which is why I was so puzzled when PZ wrote a post about it, saying he didn’t want to get involved, and making a series of irrelevant points that displayed either an ignorance of the complaints (despite linking to the Peter Harrison post) or an amazing strawman of the complainants. The situation was exacerbated when Dawkins himself did much the same thing, painting all the disgruntled commenters with the violently colorful and abusive language of a few, and citing those over-the-top comments as justification for the forum’s closing when, in fact, the comments came from a different forum after the forums had been closed and mangled.

I didn’t have a horse in this race, really. I haven’t ever been a regular visitor to those forums. If I’d heard about the situation from PZ first, I likely would have just rolled my eyes regarding another overreaction by peoples on the Internet to trivial wrongs. But reading the Harrison account gave me a different perspective, and (as I mentioned in the Pharyngula comments) made me want to find out both sides of the story.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. See, apparently in shutting down posting on the forums, the admins deleted several users, thousands of posts, and at least one thread critical of the coming changes. So, as much as I would have liked to have seen if the critical threads on the forums were as abusive as they supposedly were, I couldn’t. The evidence had been destroyed, which further confirmed at least part of the Harrison account.

This made me realize something important: nothing will cause me to distrust a person or organization faster than seeing them hide or destroy relevant evidence. The moderators and posters who have since flocked to boards like Rationalia may have all been overreacting potty-mouthed nutcases, whose abusive behavior led to the premature locking of the board, but without the offending thread, no one but the admins has any way of knowing that. Given the dearth of evidence to support what little explanation or argument has been put forth by the admin side, and actions like destroying evidence that at least seem quite dishonest and do nothing to promote trust or the appearance of trustworthiness, it seems to me that the only justified position would be to accept the moderators’ account of the events. Which, again, reflects rather poorly on the administration.

Ultimately, yes, this is a trivial thing, but it’s a microcosm for similar behaviors and situations outside of the Internet. If we’re being good skeptics, then our natural drive should be to doubt any story regarding events, examine the evidence, and draw our own conclusions about whom to believe. Consequently, destroying evidence–even (or perhaps especially) if that evidence is of hateful comments and angry dissent–should be anathema to the skeptic. If anything should be sacrosanct to skeptics, it should be evidence.

So when a major voice in the skeptical movement engages in apparent quote-mining and at least apparently suborns the destruction of evidence, it really casts them in a negative light, more than most things they could do (kind of like when they fail to quickly or adequately respond to a pseudoscientific buffoon being given a science award in their name).

This should be an object lesson in skeptical advocacy, especially in the Internet age. Skeptical blogs shouldn’t be afraid to allow negative and dissenting comments, and skeptics should be aware that allowing idiots and assholes to speak for themselves ultimately shows them to be idiots and assholes to any reasonable person. We often talk about how debates aren’t for the people involved so much as they are for the audience, and this is true even when it’s not actually a debate. Silencing critics, banning dissidents, and throwing evidence down the memory hole is what they do on Age of Autism and Uncommon Descent and Natural News. It should not be standard practice on any site that values reason, evidence, science, and skepticism.

Finally, for tonight, I stumbled on a post at an apparently recent addition to the ScienceBlogs community, Universe. I’ll admit that the blogs I follow on Sb are relatively limited; I rarely venture outside of Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Sure, I hit up ERV occasionally, and I’ve recently become a fan of Tomorrow’s Table, but I don’t usually tool around the Seed Media conglomerate looking for new hangouts.

But I followed a sidebar link to a post called “No Skepticism Policy” that was about the last thing I would expect to find on the media group which plays home to so many skeptical and scientific voices. It’s ignorant in the purest sense, in that I don’t think there’s a lot of malice involved, just a general unawareness of what the skeptical movement is about (and a lack of desire to find out) and what the harm is, coupled with a willingness to smear an entire intellectual movement with the same Doggerel we hear from every quack with a blog and a degree in pomposity. I posted a comment in response to the post, but it hasn’t made its way out of moderation yet. I’m reproducing the comment below because I’m kind of proud of it, and I think it underscores something that even budding skeptics often forget: that debunking is the first step, not the last. Enjoy!

I can’t recall which skeptical luminary said it (I’ve heard it repeated several times, however), but the point of good skepticism shouldn’t be just “debunking,” and good skeptics understand this. Debunking is a necessary step, however; it clears out the garbage so that something better can be built. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t people in the movement who forget this essential second step, but to broadly paint all skeptics with the “just debunking,” “you just want to tear things down” canard is ludicrous and ignorant. Go to any of the major skeptical sites, shows, or podcasts, and what you’ll find is exactly what the advice I started out suggests: debunking presented alongside or as an introduction to quality education and enthusiasm about reality and good science. For instance, the UFO video you present was also “debunked” by Captain Disillusion, who discussed the same point as the video above while also demonstrating just how impressive the CGI artistry was, providing an object lesson in how knee-jerk skepticism can be just as wrong as blind belief, and being damned entertaining.

And you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the same thing on any skeptical site, forum, or outlet, whether it’s Brian Dunning’s concise explanations of real science or the Novella brothers’ infectious enthusiasm about birds and nanotechnology and solar power or PZ Myers’s pictures of beautiful aquatic fauna or Orac’s Tales of the Hitler Zombie, I propose you’d have to do a pretty thorough search of the skeptical movement before you found any major voices who were just “debunkers.” Those who are, I suspect, are much like the author of the video you cited: uninteresting. There wouldn’t be a skeptical movement if it were just about “debunking.” I have a hard time imagining anyone buying a book or attending a convention or booking a cruise to hear nothing but people lambasting pseudoscience.

It’s all well and good to “believe in good science,” but the layperson cares as much about that as she does about UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system. The goal of good skepticism–and the practice of each and every popular skeptic–is to correct that latter problem, by being unashamed promoters of reality and hoping that their enthusiasm will infect others.

I am a dumbass

By my count, I have about 87 days of summer this year. This includes thirteen distinct and individual Saturdays. I have made precisely two specific commitments this summer. What are the chances they’d fall on the same day?

At this point, the chances are 1/1. You may have heard that the Action Skeptics, Wikinite, and I would be doing a skeptics’ panel at GenCon this year. As it turns out, while that’s going on in Indiana, I’m scheduled to be a Groomsman in Minnesota. Face, meet palm; head, meet desk.

So, I’m not going to be able to be on the panel, and while I really want to go to my friend’s wedding, I’m also really going to miss GenCon this year. This means that you all ought to be going to the Action Skeptics’ awesome skeptical presentation, and then telling me all about it.

Feel free to make this into an open thread about how much I suck.

They found our lack of faith disturbing

Continuing my convention report, I figured I’d briefly mention our encounters with fundies over the course of the weekend. Akusai wrote about it here (and here’s his first convention post), but I’m writing this before I read that, so my perspective isn’t tainted by anything except standard two-weeks-later memory loss.

According to the con-veterans, fundies at GenCon is a new phenonmenon this year. In any case, they were out in Force (pun intended, as you’ll see shortly). Sadly, the first one we encountered was probably the most entertaining, although the second set could have been fun if we’d been able to stick around.

So, I may be a little off on the whole timeline of the situation, but I think the first fundie was on Friday. We were walking out of the convention center toward either the parking garage or Video Games Live, and there was a guy on the corner in a Hard Rock Cafe: Sydney t-shirt handing out what looked like business cards. I took one and glanced at it:Holy Sith!And naturally I assumed it was for some store or new gaming system or something. I mean, it’s a convention, and it was a Star Wars business card; such things are a dime a dozen.

At some point, though, I turned it over. The giant wall of text was the first tip-off that something was wonky. Two sentences in, I made some sacred and profane exclamation, and showed it to the rest of the group. To those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, “every painting needs a painter” is like a foghorn screaming “Ray Comfort”! The unconnected, back-and-forth non sequitur nature of the text, the list of rapid-fire asinine apologetics, and the way it violated copyrights to make its point all confirmed it in my mind. We had just been evangelized by one of Ray Comfort’s cronies. The website confirms (at the very least) that “Redeemed Scoundrels” takes inspiration from Comfort’s Living Waters Ministries.

So, as luck would have it, we had made a wrong turn and had to pass by our evangelist pal (heretofore referred to as “Smiley,” due to his perpetual, implacable, totally blank ear-to-ear grin) again. He tried to hand me a second card, and I just brandished the first and said “Ray Comfort? Really? Really? Is that the best you’ve got?” I shook my head and we walked to the corner.

Smiley followed us after a few moments and asked me “How do you know Ray Comfort?” I replied “Vapidity and insipidity of that magnitude can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the planet.” Note that the phrase I was looking for at the beginning was “arrogant ignorance”–not that what I said and many things besides aren’t equally true. Smiley was silent, his shit-eating grin totally unfazed. I just kind of looked at him, waiting for a response. Eventually Akusai said (something along the lines of) “We’re saying he’s kind of a shithead.”

At about that point, the traffic light changed and we began to cross the street. Akusai shouted back (again, something including but not limited to) “God doesn’t exist, and you can take that to the bank!” About another third of the way through the crosswalk, Smiley shouted a lame “Every painting needs a painter!” And we just laughed.

Somewhere in all that, or it may have even been later that day, Jason (one of our group) was somehow singled out to receive a pamphlet and a Book of Mark from a Jew for Jesus. The pamphlet was pretty funny–it had clearly been made in the very early ’90s, and referenced the Star Wars films, Burton’s Batman movies, Home Alone, and the Alien series, all as sequels that would pale in comparison to the second coming. It’s interesting how pure serendipity masked its total irrelevance, since there have been recent Star Wars, Batman, and Alien sequels. Sadly for our Messianic Semite pal, Home Alone still dates the piece. We didn’t have much contact with the Jew for Jesus, and the pamphlet wasn’t extreme enough to warrant extended blog attention; still, I’m not sure I understand what exactly the Jew for Jesus thing is. Are they just Christians who keep kosher, or what? What makes them not Christians?

We came out of Video Games Live later that night, and we noticed that a bunch of apocalyptic preachers had set up shop on the street corner, complete with a giant cross with a purple loincloth draped over it. I didn’t hear much beyond the usual end times clichés–something about this being the 40th generation or whatever the prophecy is. It would have been nice to stick around and mess with them, but we were all pretty tired by that point.

The remainder of the weekend provided us with only two more examples. First, on the same street corner as Smiley, there was a kid dressed in goth-punk garb, silently handing out the Star Wars cards. I took a second one in passing, just in case, and told him “that’s some real half-assed evangelism there. Congratulations.” He didn’t react much, and we didn’t see him again.

Finally, after the gothtastic White Wolf party, we were all riding home in Akusai’s car. We passed by a theater where signs proclaimed that Bill Maher was performing. And outside the theater? A candlelight vigil. Oh, how I wish we could have participated in that.

Coming in the next day or two, I’ll finish stuff off with a brief recap of the White Wolf party (we saw the Prime Minister!) and a sentence-by-sentence evisceration of the Sith card. Hokey religions and ancient apologetics are no substitute for a good argument at your side.

The Big GenCon Report

I’ve had the better part of a week to recover from the GenCon weekend, so I’d better start writing things down before I forget it all. In a word, it rocked. There were some serious moments of fail, and convention fatigue settled in pretty heavily by the end, but overall it was a blast. The cast of characters includes Akusai, Magus, and the Girlfriend, Wikinite, Jon, the Action Skeptics’ friend Jason, and a few assorted others. What follows is a catalog of my impressions, in no particular order.

  • GenCon was a very different experience for me, compared to my last three trips to Wizard World. Since I was there as an attendee rather than an employee, I wasn’t tied to any one spot for any length of time. While that allows for some freedom, it also meant that I didn’t have any place where I could go, leave my stuff behind, sit down for awhile, and just chill while still on the convention floor.
  • Besides that, it’s been years since I picked up dice in an RPG setting, and I’ve never been much of a board game geek or a MMORPG player. The convention, consequently, was directed at an audience slightly to the left of me. So, while at Wizard World I’m scrambling to do all the things I want to do, buying everything in sight, and getting autographs from everyone I recognize at various booths, I was a lot more laid back at GenCon. I kind of went with the crowd, stopping occasionally to admire or purchase things. While I was easily the most purchase-happy person in the group, I really only bought a few things–the five printed collections of Order of the Stick and a bunch of Doctor Who toys. I exercised restraint in the latter instance, deciding against buying the TARDIS interior playset. Gotta leave something for next year’s convention season, after all.
  • And yet, despite not really having any kind of plan or driving intent, I did an awful lot of things. In fact, about the only thing I didn’t get to do enough of was hanging out with Diamondrock. Our schedules (and my cell phone reception) didn’t allow more than a bit of smalltalk over the course of the weekend, and that’s regrettable. I think I’m going to have to make the trip out to his neck of the woods one of these coming weekends.
  • One other thing that differed between this convention and Wizard World: the prices. At WW, booths are falling over themselves to see who can offer the best deals and cheapest books. Cover price is usually reserved for the newest releases and the graphic novels at Graham Crackers; comics and books go for ridiculously low prices, which is why I buy so many. At GenCon, not so much. There were places with boxes of RPG books or out-of-print stuff at discounted rates, but most folks were selling at or over retail on most things. It wasn’t the bargain-crazy atmosphere I expect from conventions these days.
  • Indianapolis was gorgeous. It was my first time in the city (as far as I can remember), despite the fact that I spent a good portion of my formative years in Fort Wayne, and I really liked the atmosphere. It felt a bit like a smaller, more manageable Chicago, or a slightly less walkable Denver, albeit with more panhandlers-per-capita than I’ve noticed in either place before.
  • And the food! Oh, the food was magnificent. I had fish and chips at the Claddagh; I had a burger the size of my plate at a Scottish place, where I also tried a bite of Wikinite’s haggis (a bit like sticky meatloaf–not bad, because I like meatloaf, but not something I’d order for myself) and ate some scotch eggs (hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, breaded, and deep fried–the egg didn’t really do anything for the snack, but it was good); I went to P.F. Chang’s for the first time, where I learned of the wonders of lettuce wraps and tried tofu (not a fan) and lamb (for the first time in a non-gyros context). Even the place we went for breakfast on Sunday was pretty good, despite the fact that they actually served “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” Also, the usual standbys like Steak ‘N’ Shake and the Olive Garden.
    About the only place I wasn’t happy with was RAM, a bar and grill near the convention center which was plastered with D&D and other game-related posters and such, and which had renamed many of their dishes after fantasy characters. Magus and Wikinite were unhappy that their Guinnesses were served in keg cups like we were at some frat party (the waiter brought an extra one to make up for it, to his credit); I was slightly more unhappy that I had to scrape cheese and mustard off my burger, even after the waiter repeated my special request back to me. But, you know, one bad eating experience out of the whole weekend still averages out to damn good.
  • It was wonderful to pick up dice and character sheets again, for the first time since High School. Wikinite started an Amber diceless game (which, I guess, had neither dice nor character sheets–the point stands, nonetheless) on Thursday or Friday, based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. The first book is good so far (though I haven’t made any progress in it since…well, Friday), and the game was a blast. We made our characters in something of a vacuum, which meant that my steampunk alchemist/scientist was a bit out of his league when compared to Magus’s aging Arabian assassin, Akusai’s soul-stealing mad god, and Jason’s otherworldly shadow-manipulator. On the other hand, I got to be snarky, indignant, frequently exasperated, and compared to Xander. So, you know, it evens out. I hope we can get together to finish the game at some point; heck, I wouldn’t mind doing it over Skype or something–in fact, that’d be pretty cool.
  • Akusai and Magus ran a game of Mage: The Ascension on Saturday, which was made of win and full of awesome. Wikinite played a stoner whose powers centered around marijuana; Jon was a bum who believed himself to be Jesus and had the powers to back it up; an ailing Jason played Madame Charlatanne, a psychic of the Sylvia Browne persuasion; and I took up the mantle of Zariel the Blacksun, depressing super-goth extraordinaire. The plot of the game took us up against Jack Thompson and his army of video game-destroying Furries, a gaggle of geeky fantasy authors including “S.A. Ralvatore” and “Ted Greenhood,” Charlton Heston, Robo-Hobo and his mighty bumsaber, and finally Rev. Harry Ballwell and his army of cloned Jesuses Jesii.
    For those who don’t know much about Mage, most mages have some kind of focus–a ritual they perform in order to cast their magic spells. Jon’s Bum-Jesus had to recite a Bible passage, Wikinite had to toke up, and Zariel the Blacksun had to recite terrible Goth poetry. Akusai and Magus had the foresight to print some out along with the character sheets, but I decided early on that it would be fun to do some ad-libbing. Judging from the reactions of the group, that decision was probably for the best, if only because it led to masterpieces like this (from memory–this isn’t exactly it, and I kind of wish we’d been writing these down):

    Spirits, we invoke thee, using the power of three
    Three, a number of great power
    Three, the number of cuts in the perfect suicide
    One across, the classic
    One down, for practicality
    One diagonal:

    And so forth, reciting in the most pretentious, self-absorbed, overly-serious voice I could muster. I reached down into the deepest depths of my teenage angst and poured forth some hilarious poetic dreck, and it was good. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play the character again, and I hope I get the chance.

  • The costumes worked out pretty well (pictures forthcoming). On Saturday, Magus and Akusai went as Dante Hicks and Randall Graves from Clerks II (respectively), and I went as Silent Bob, with a costume that was a bit of a hodgepodge of the various View Askew films. It’s a shame Jon couldn’t get a Jay costume together, but things worked out pretty well. We had several people hit us up for pictures, which is pretty exciting since I spent a grand total of, like, $45 on that costume. Akusai, the Girlfriend, and I went to Lafayette’s finest costume shops in search of a wig on Wednesday, and the Girlfriend was probably right in the one she pointed out, but the one I ended up buying actually worked pretty well…after Akusai and I took a knife to it Saturday morning.
  • I bought my first pack of cigarettes for the costume–I just bite it; it’s for the look, I don’t light it. On one hand, I totally get why people would carry them around. It was very handy to have something to gesture with, to fiddle with absentmindedly in my hands, and so forth. It felt very natural. On the other hand, it started making my lips numb whenever I held it in my mouth for more than a few seconds, and the sweet tobacco smell became sickening after a little while–especially with the way it lingered all over my hands and stuck in my mouth. I inhaled once with the thing unlit, and I about choked on the awful taste–I can’t imagine how or why people can stand it on a regular basis.
    To split the difference, I’m seriously thinking about taking up bubblegum cigarettes. Failing that, I may finally invest in a bubble pipe.
  • I’m going to leave it there for now. The various fundies and the EVP presentation will probably be the next post, and at some point I’ll talk a bit about the White Wolf party. Stick around!