Digital Guide to The Amazing Meeting 8

The tenth Amaz!ng Meeting is this week.1 For several years it has been the largest and most exciting event of its kind. TAM 8 - July 8 to 11, 2010This year, because of the tremendous growth of the skeptic movement on the internet, it will no doubt also be the most digitally connected skeptic event to date. The purpose of this blog post is to be a clearinghouse for all things digital related to the meeting.

Please note: I only personally created one or two of these resources listed below. Most were created or published by other TAM8 attendees or JREF Forum users. Where possible I’ve also provided links where you can get in touch directly with the content creators.

On-Line Sources of Conference Info

There are a wide variety of sources of information about the show online, both official and unofficial. Since the conference is being put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation, their website has the most up-to-date official information. On-line registration ended June 30, but watch the blog on the main page for news updates, and you can review the list of guests and so on.

JREF Smartphone App

A big change this year is JREF is offering their own free smartphone app (a customized version of Follow Me by Core Apps) to help attendees access the latest information about the conference. If you have an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or an Android phone, you can download the app to your phone for free. It has a number of useful features.

The application has the complete guest list including photos, as well as a full schedule of events. As you browse the schedule of events, you can bookmark ones you are interested in. (Tap the star on the iPhone version, hit your Menu button and choose Bookmark on the Android version). Your bookmarked apps will appear in your schedule. You can also get alerts from the convention organizers and get a quick look at the current conversations on Twitter about the show.

If your phone is not an iPhone or Android, do not despair. There is also a mobile web version of the TAM8 application you can access from any browser such as a Blackberry or even a PC or Mac. It has much the same features, but you will need to log in to use the personalization features such as creating your own schedule.

JREF Forum

The JREF also operates a public discussion forum which naturally has a great many current conversations regarding TAM. In fact, there’s a whole section of the forum devoted to it.

This is an excellent place to meet some of the other attendees online prior to your trip to Las Vegas. You can also coordinate on ride sharing, room sharing, side trips and so on. Some of the thread highlights include:

There’s more, those are just some highlights. Be sure to scroll to the last page of each thread for the most up to date information.

If you are accessing the JREF Forum from your mobile device, note that it does have a “skin” that is friendly to mobile browsers. If you are seeing the default display, scroll all the way to the bottom of any page and look at the bottom left. You should see a drop-down named “Quick Style Chooser” that says “– JREF” in it. Click on that and choose “Mobile”. It should remember your choice on your next login.

Online Calendars

The JREF is maintaining an online version of the calendar in the mobile app. But perhaps you prefer to use a different calendar solution. Some volunteers have taken the time to key all the schedule information into Google Calendar for you. There’s one calendar with the official JREF events schedule and another one with the unofficial or “fringe” events sponsored by other groups. If you use Google Calendar, make sure you are logged into your Google account, and click each of those links. When the calendar is displayed, click the button in lower right to add it to your personal calendar. That’s it.

If you don’t use Google Calendar, you can still bring this data into any desktop calendar application that can accept iCalendar format data, a standard way to share calendar data over the internet. The exact sequence will vary depending on which calendar application you use. For instance here are the instructions for Microsoft Outlook 2007. In Macintosh iCal you choose Calendar | Subscribe… from the menu. But typically you tell your desktop application to “subscribe” to the online calendar, then any updates to the online calendar will automatically be fetched to your desktop.

Here are iCalendar versions of the two Google calendars: Official Events and Unofficial Events.

There are threads at the JREF Forum associated with the official events and unofficial events Google calendars, see there for updates or issues.

South Point Hotel

TAM is being held at the South Point Hotel & Casino which of course has a website that is very useful. The hotel also has a presence on Twitter and on Facebook which can be handy for special announcements and so on.

One particular note about your hotel room reservation. South Point has a best rate guarantee policy. This means that if you find a better rate than the one you already reserved your room under, they will honor it. This includes their own web site. There is a 72-hour sale on rooms that is slated to begin on Tuesday, July 6th (just hours after I am posting this). Especially if you did not get the JREF special room rate, it might be worth checking that sale when it opens – you may be able to call the hotel and get the sale price matched. Last year many attendees got their room rates lowered when we pointed this out on Twitter.

If you are flying to Las Vegas to attend, note that the hotel has a free airport shuttle, but you will need to reserve a spot 24 hours in advance by calling the hotel. If you do so, you might want to check the JREF Forum arrivals thread mentioned earlier to see which other attendees you might meet on your shuttle.

The hotel shuttle is not 24 hours, unfortunately, so you may choose to take a taxicab. South Point is about 8 miles from the airport, thus based on the posted taxi rates it should be about $25. Not all cabs take credit cards, so if you need to pay with one be sure to mention that at the curb and the attendant can hail one that does for you.

If you have only intermittent online needs while at TAM, note that the hotel has a business center with publicly accessible computers. Access costs $4.99 for 15 minutes or $10.99 per hour. You can print here for $1 per page.

Live Updates via Social Media

As the conference gets underway, the attendees will be talking about it online. This can give you a real-time glimpse into what is going on, even if you are not attending. Skeptics (like anyone else) use a variety of social media sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr and so on. But I am going to focus on Twitter here.

The reason for this focus is twofold. First, there seems to be a critical mass of skeptics that use Twitter regularly. Several key JREF people including President D.J. Grothe and Communication and Outreach Coordinator Jeff Wagg are active there. More than 50 of the speakers and presenters at TAM 8 have Twitter accounts (though admittedly not all of them are actively updated).

The second reason is posts on Twitter are, by default, public to all. Unlike services like Facebook where you usually have to previously become “friends” with someone to see what they are writing about, on Twitter anyone can see anyone’s posts. This allows aggregation techniques to be used to see a unified stream of activity quite easily. In other words, simply by executing an appropriate Twitter search and hitting refresh periodically, you can get a robust feed of events without even having a Twitter account yourself. Read on for tips.

If you do have a Twitter account, there a few key accounts you should follow for important updates. The account @TAMlive is operated by Jeff Wagg, and is a live stream of official announcements about the show.

There is another account called @TAMinfo that is an unofficial announcement stream. This is for attendee-related announcements, and if you need to you can use it too. Once you follow it, it will follow you back. Be sure to do this before TAM begins. Then, if you have an announcement to make at the show, simply send a Twitter Direct Message to @TAMinfo and it will be relayed to everyone who follows it. Please don’t abuse this functionality, it is intended for announcements that are not practical in any other way. There is a JREF Forum thread for the TAMinfo account if you have questions or problems.

Twitter Lists

I could go on listing other accounts you should follow, but this blog post would become very tedious. Fortunately Twitter has a feature where you can create lists of accounts for others to use. There are several public Twitter lists that you may find useful:

  • JREF Accounts – Twitter feeds (both official & unofficial) associated with JREF
  • TAM8 Speakers – Speakers & presenters at TAM 8
  • TAM8 Attendees – List of other Twitter users who are attending TAM 8

Depending on how you use Twitter, you can either subscribe directly to these lists, or use them as a way to find key Twitter users to follow yourself (by clicking “Following” in upper right). In any case, they are gold mine of people who will be talking about the show.

Even If You Don’t Use Twitter

Whether or not you are a Twitter user, you can still take advantage of all the content simply as a reader. You can do this by using Twitter’s public search function. I recommend this search which picks up all posts tagged #TAM8 as well as the @TAMlive and @TAMinfo accounts. If you use an RSS reader to keep up with blogs and other websites, you can get a feed from a link on that page to put in your reader. Or simply keep that page open and pick refresh every so often. This is a great way to keep up with what is going on, especially since there will be no live video feed this year.

Location Services (for those at TAM)

Another aspect of social media that has become prominent just in the last year are what are now called location based services. These are services that make publishing your current location a key part of the experience of communicating with your friends. These include Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt and others.

These services could be very useful, especially after hours at TAM. South Point, like many Las Vegas hotels, is quite large. Even within the hotel it can take many minutes to rendezvous with someone at a common location. And of course, people will be venturing beyond the hotel as well. By using a location based service to see where others at TAM are, attendees could save lots of time and find out where the action is.

Based on my completely unscientific surveys of these services over the past weeks, Foursquare has far more skeptics already signed up. It also has better support for more types of phones than some of the other services, and can be used via a mobile web site on phones that do not have app support.

Several of the locations within South Point Hotel and Casino have already been set up on Foursquare including the restaurants, bars, bowling alley and so on. Lets see if we can get a Swarm Badge while we are there!

Wireless Connectivity On-Site

Now none of this social media stuff is going to be useful without wireless connectivity. Las Vegas is a major American city so of course it has coverage under all of the nationwide cellular services including AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon. Reed Esau reports that in his experience, the Edge services on AT&T sometimes worked better than their 3G services during TAM last year, but things may be different this year.

WiFi is a bit more problematical in the hotel. Remember this is a convention hotel, and they are in business to make money selling services to convention goers. So the wireless internet is definitely not free.

The hotel-room WiFi at South Point is $12.99 per 24 hour period per device. Access covers the hotel rooms and the pool area. It is not supposed to be available in the conference areas, but there is a weak signal in the hallway and near the back of the room. Some folks were able to use it last year. However, you may not want to rely on it.

There’s a separate WiFi deal for the conference area itself, which is crazily expensive: $24.95 for 2 hours and $89.95 for 4 hours, payable by credit card. That is not a typo, yes the 4 hour price is almost twice the rate of the 2 hour price. I have no idea why.

(If you research online you may find information that indicates the national service Boingo covers South Point, but it turns out that coverage ended on July 1st).

Consider Tethering

So clearly WiFi is not a super practical option. If you want to use your laptop without WiFi, you might look into ways to take advantage of your data-capable cellphone. This is commonly called tethering and can be very convenient if your provider supports it. Some require an extra monthly fee, consult your provider’s web site. Note that some don’t use the term “tethering”, for instance Sprint calls this practice “Phone as a Modem” in their billing scheme.

But what if your cell phone data provider doesn’t support tethering, or their solution isn’t compatible with your laptop OS or phone? There still may be a way. Lately I’ve been using a program called PDANet by June Fabrics and am quite happy with it. It supports most of the popular smartphone types and can turn the data connection you are already paying for into a laptop internet connection via USB or Bluetooth. You might give it a look.

If you don’t have a data capable phone or you can’t make tethering work, are you still out of luck? Perhaps not. Read on.

4G (WiMax) Coverage in Las Vegas

Just in the last year another option has appeared. A new wide-area broadband service called WiMax has been deployed in a number of US cities, and Las Vegas was added to the list just over a year ago. These towers are shared by a number of internet providers, which means you can use 4G WiMax in Las Vegas on at least four different services including the following:

If you happen to have service from one or more of these providers at home, I recommend you consider bringing your device with you to Las Vegas. If you do not already have service, you might consider picking it up before you head to the show. Some of the providers even offer a “Day Pass” option that does not require you to have an ongoing contract, you just pay for the days on which you use it.

Rent your 4G!

Understandably, you may be dubious of signing up for a new wireless service just for this show. Or even if you are willing, these services are not nationwide and may not be available in your home town. There is another option! Jeff Wagg discovered there is a service in Las Vegas called 4G4Rent that will rent you access to a 4G/WiMax device for short-term use. Their pricing is much more reasonable than that of the hotel WiFi. Jeff reports that once you order it, they can deliver to your hotel in a matter of hours. There are drivers for both PC and Macintosh computers.

I happen to live in a WiMax city and already have a 4G device that I use at home, but if I didn’t I would strongly consider using this service if I needed to live blog from TAM.

Don’t Forget Power!

If you’re planning to live blog, live tweet and so on at the show, be mindful of your power requirements! Most of the day at TAM is spent sitting in the large conference hall watching the main track of programming. In past years this has been set up with tables along many rows so folks can have laptops out and so on.

But there are no freely accessible power outlets in the room! (The ones that are there are a billable item from the hotel and are locked behind panels when not in use. If you try to rent one from the hotel you will find they are not cheap.)

The lectures and presentations run from about 8 to 6 or so, so that’s potentially ten hours in which you will have to be on battery power, with only the lunch break to recharge. Even if you are using a mobile such as an iPhone for these purposes, constant tweeting and communication will eat up your battery much faster than normal phone use.

The bottom line is: plan ahead. If your devices have removable batteries, buy extras and bring them with you! Be very diligent about recharging all your batteries each night so you start each day ahead of the game.

Bring extra charger cables for all your devices if you have them. If your devices can charge via a USB connection or from wall power, bring both kinds of cable. You never know when you might be short of power and sitting next to someone who is willing to let you charge from their laptop or notebook computer.

For portable devices that can charge from a USB port, there are a number of options in the form of an external battery packs. I found a couple of options on Amazon.com in my research. Splash makes this one that can charge two USB devices at once and includes a battery. It recharges from a USB cable, and comes with a set of adapters to allow it to power a number of different brands of cell phone and so on.

Personally, I picked up the Tekkeon TekCharge MP-1550 which is similar, but only has one output. The difference with this product is it uses replaceable AA batteries, which means its capacity is limited only by the number of rechargeable batteries you can keep handy.

Your solution will depend on the devices you are using and what batteries they use.

Conclusion & Notes

There are plenty of digital resources for the connected skeptic attending The Amazing Meeting 8. Lets all make good use of them to maximize the value we get out of the weekend.

Thank you to Reed Esau, David Green, Natalie Jaran, Barbara Mervine, Amanda Murray, Patrick Orlob, Rich Orman, David Peterman, Travis Roy, Jeff Wagg and others for creating the various resources I linked to here, or otherwise making suggestions that went into this post.

You can follow me on Twitter here.

1Although it is numbered 8, there was also an event called “TAM 5.5” and of course TAM London last October. So this is the tenth Amazing Meeting.

Post Updated July 7, 2010: Linked everyone’s names in thank yous, added link to my Twitter.

Post Updated July 8, 2010: Added material about tethering and PDANet.

3 thoughts on “Digital Guide to The Amazing Meeting 8

  1. vpescado

    WARNING – The google calendar for unofficial events seems to be based on Mountain time. But Las Vegas is on Pacific. So you could very well find yourself an hour early to everything if you rely on it.

  2. Tim Farley Post author

    Oh good point, thanks! I’ve mentioned the time-zone problem to the creators of the calendars, hopefully we can get that fixed before things get going.

  3. Pingback: Digital Guide to Dragon*Con 2010 & Skeptrack « Skeptical Software Tools

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