The thirteenth Amaz!ng Meeting is this weekend.1 For several years it has been the largest and most exciting event of its kind, and this year it has completely sold out and the main event hotel is full. Excitement about the event is at an all-time high. Because skepticism and skeptical activism is increasingly done via the Internet, and because the folks who are not attending are going to want to hear what is going on as it happens, it behooves us all to be well prepared for our digital needs at the show.
The purpose of this post is to be a clearinghouse for all things digital related to the meeting. I’ll show you how to get information you need about the show, how to get connected and stay connected once you are in Las Vegas, and more. I’ll provide links to a variety of resources online that will help.
Please note: in most cases I did not create the resources listed. Most were created or published by the JREF itself, other TAM9 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 for the show has the most up-to-date official information about TAM9. Be sure to take advantage of it.
JREF Smartphone App
For the second year now, 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. You can also get alerts from the convention organizers and get a quick look at the current conversations on Twitter about the show.
As you browse the schedule of events, you can bookmark ones you are interested in. (Tap the star at the top on either version, or hit your Menu button and choose Bookmark on the Android version). Your bookmarked events will appear in your schedule.
If your phone is not an iPhone or Android, do not despair. There is also a mobile web version of the TAM9 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.
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:
- Roll Call Thread – contains a list of forum regulars who are attending
- Arrivals Thread – coordinating arrivals & rides from the airport
- Photo ID Thread – post a photo of yourself so folks will know you.
- Avatar Thread – request your forum avatar be printed out for your badge
- Poker Tournament Thread – a poker tournament just for TAM attendees
- Unofficial Events – a list of public events at TAM that are not sponsored by JREF
There’s more, those are just some highlights. Folks are coordinating side trips to see shows, skydiving outings, finding vegan food and all sorts of things. 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.
The JREF is maintaining an online version of the calendar in the mobile app. But perhaps you prefer to use a different calendar solution. Travis Roy has taken the time to key all the schedule information into a Google Calendar for you. If you use Google Calendar, make sure you are logged into your Google account, and click that link. 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’s a direct link to the iCalendar format of the TAM9 calendar.
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. As far as I know the hotel is completely booked. (If you still need a place to stay at this late date, some hints might be found in this JREF forum thread).
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 6 or 7 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.
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. There will be no live streaming video this year. 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, Communications Director Sadie Crabtree and Field Coordinator Brian Thompson are active there, among others. Many of the speakers and presenters at TAM 9 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. Of course, the JREF itself makes announcements as @JREF.
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.
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
- TAM9 Speakers – Speakers & presenters at TAM 9
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 #TAM9 as well as the @TAMinfo account. 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 recently are what are now called location based services. These are web sites or apps 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 observations 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.
There is also a Foursquare venue for TAM itself. JREF is going to be offering a Foursquare special in return for your first check-in here: 25% discount on any one book from the JREF Bookstore. Check in when you arrive in the convention area and show your phone to the person at the JREF sales table.
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 in past years 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, 2010).
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.
So clearly WiFi is not a super practical option for non-millionaires. 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. I’ve had good luck with 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. It works pretty well on my provider (Sprint) but your milage may vary. Some cellphone providers have been clamping down on unauthorized tethering.
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 & LTE) Coverage in Las Vegas
Just in the last two years other options have appeared. The new “4G” wide-area internet services such as WiMax and LTE have been deployed in a number of US cities, and Las Vegas has them. You can use 4G in Las Vegas on at least five different services including the following:
- Sprint – 4G
- Verizon LTE 4G
- Comcast – High-Speed 2go™ Wireless Internet
- Time Warner – Road Runner Mobile
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 last year that there is a service in Las Vegas called 4G4Rent that will rent you access to a 4G/WiMax device for short-term use. While more expensive than last year, their price is still better than the conference area WiFi. 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 all day. In past years this has been set up with tables along some rows so folks can have laptops out and so on. (I’m not sure if that will be true this year. Because of the sell-out of tickets, the room is going to be packed).
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 the USB port on 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. Warning: I had some bad luck using this device with my HTC Evo 4G phone, so beware.
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 9. Lets all make good use of them to maximize the value we get out of the weekend.
Thank you to Reed Esau, Mark Heil, Natalie Jaran, 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 9, there was also an event called “TAM 5.5”, so this is the tenth U.S. TAM. Add to that two in London and one in Australia. So this is the thirteenth Amazing Meeting.