Mitchell Lampert - A Interview with a Straw Vulcan
August 8, 2018
Susan Gerbic: Today I’m speaking to one of the old guard of attendees of skeptic conferences, Mitchell Lampert. He’s not “old” but someone that I’ve seen at most of the conferences I’ve attended, and an active member of the social world of our community.
Thanks, Mitch, for speaking with me today. I wanted to talk to you about the CSICon Halloween parties but decided that we should chat about what has been happening in the past few years. You are on the East Coast and I’m on the West Coast, and we probably see and hear different things. Please tell readers a bit about yourself.
Mitchell Lampert: I am a professional software developer, at least by day. I have been active in the skeptic community for about fifteen years. I am the lead organizer of SkeptiCamp NYC, an open conference on science and skepticism. And, I just enjoy exploring all of the various geeky facets of the world!
Gerbic: I always think of you as the name I first knew you as, Wowbagger. What’s the story behind that username?
Lampert: For internet discussion forums, such as ISF (formerly JREF Forums) my name is Wowbagger. He is a character from the novel Life, the Universe, and Everything. I am a huge Douglas Adams fan, and did not want to pick any of the obvious names, such as "Zaphod" or "Ford Prefect." This more obscure character tends to insult people a lot, which is the opposite of my own personality. I felt the irony might eventually be appreciated. And, he is also immortal, which somehow appeals to me as well.
Gerbic: What is your history in this community? I think you have been attending conferences as long as I have been. I think you first got involved from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) forum?
Lampert: Almost. My first skeptical conference was TAM3, and I was not even part of the JREF forums yet. I learned about it from Randi's site while researching some claims I was doubtful about. I became a member of the forums right after TAM4 though.
My urge to become an active skeptic stemmed from two things: The re-election of George W. Bush and the thrill of debunking junk in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which I assumed would be an awesome movie when I got the tickets. Then I actually watched it and felt ripped off.
Gerbic: Oh, Interesting. I think I joined the forum after TAM4 but felt like everyone knew each other already. So I didn't get into it big time.
How soon until you joined New York City Skeptics (NYCS)? And what are they up to these days? I know you had my GSoW editor Rob Palmer to speak recently and from that lecture Craig Sachs joined us and is now going through training.
Lampert: I joined NYCS as soon as it was founded, actually. They have lectures every month, which included Rob Palmer. And, they host various other social events throughout the year. Plus, of course, they co-organize NECSS.
Gerbic: I want to encourage more people to attend skeptic conferences; so many think that it's just lectures.
Lampert: Anyone can watch lectures on the internet. Being at a conference is about being with people. And, skeptical conferences, such as CSICon, have some of the brightest people concentrated all in one place. Have dinner with a bunch of them. We are all open to making new friends, and you learn all sorts of great things from those among the crowds! Not just merely from the speakers (who are also good, but that's beside the point). The best parts of CSICon are around the lectures.
Gerbic: I completely agree. There has been some criticism that speakers are talking down to the audience, trying to show that they are smarter than everyone else. I don't get that at all. That has rarely been my experience. I have known a few speakers to be pretty ego driven, but that is the same everywhere. I could probably count them on one hand. Why do you think people should spend the money to attend a skeptic conference? (If you agree with me that people should do so.)
Lampert: The quality of speakers can vary. A few of the bad ones might sound like they are talking down to people. Most, however, have been respectfully informative. I also think the quality of speakers is generally improving every year! I remember a time when I used to index who was "The One Terrible Speaker" at every TAM and NECSS. Now-a-days it is difficult to find one. I think this year's NECSS really didn't have any bad speakers at all.
Gerbic: So many people attend and make plans for the "off hours" going to shows and dinner and things, but not with the other attendees. They don't understand that the best part is what happens in the hallways and before and after the events. I've been in line or sitting at the buffet table and see someone alone in line or looking for a table and they have on a nametag. I've invited them to join us and they usually are the most interesting people. I love that we can do this and at a casino setting where we are all in one place we can do that.
Lampert: One of the things that made TAM a little better than CSICon was its forum community, which was responsible for creating TAM in the first place. It allowed everyone to "know" each other relatively well before ever meeting each other in person. It allowed all of the extra-curricular activities to be organized among the other attendees.
I tried to bring a flavor of that back, with my activities board you might have seen in the back of the hall, at CSICon. But it was barely successful. The forums still exist as the International Skeptics Forum. But it does not have quite the same number of active users. We are trying a few efforts to change that, I think.
Gerbic: Oh? You are still there? Why does it still exist when there is Facebook? I agree about the forum arranging the activities and allowing people to "meet" each other beforehand. But Facebook event pages do the same thing.
Lampert: I think the format of the internet discussion forum is better suited for long discussions and debates; especially if you want them all archived and easily searchable. It is not, yet, so easy to search Facebook for past comments you have made on stuff. Many of our conversations on the forums become also like reference volumes when discussing topics elsewhere. We can link to the related forum discussion thread to look things up.
Gerbic: Great! I never thought of that. GSoW tried to use a forum to keep organized and it badly failed. Yes, we were more organized, but people didn't care for it and they stopped checking messages. We switched to a secret group. Facebook still has work to do to keep organized, but it is improving things over time. And far more people are on Facebook.
Lampert: One of the problems, I think, with Facebook events for conference activities is the draw. How do you get lots of people at the conference to notice your specific event, unless you promote it outside Facebook a lot? Having everyone at the conference know that there is a central forum out there, with a whole easily browsable section devoted to such activities, really helps bring people into it. One of the many reasons TAM had a Forum Table was to introduce non-forum folks to that very concept.
Gerbic: What are some of your favorite memories from past conferences?
Lampert: I have a lot of such favorite memories, now, since I have been attending these things for so long! I suppose one of the earliest was the very first dinner I had with attendees at the very first TAM I went to (TAM3). Before that event I really liked the filmmaker Michael Moore. That dinner discussion was all about unraveling the deceitfulness of his tactics, and I could no longer stand him after that. Did I feel ashamed of that? No! I felt like my brain just suddenly got so enlightened, emerging from a realm of self-induced delusion. And I thought: "These are my people!"
Most of my favorite memories are from around the group activities which don't always have to do with skepticism: skydiving, ziplining, seeing shows, etc. But, it is who you do these things with that matter! Nerds make any mundane activity so darn nerdy!
Gerbic: And which lectures do you remember as your favorites?
Lampert: The problem I have with recounting specific lectures is that they have all sort of congealed and melded in my brain a bit, into a few different "wads" of lecture parts. I can remember the names of my favorite speakers but usually not which year they said what thing. Among my favorites are Richard Wiseman, who is always a jolly good psychological magician; Carol Tavris, who has amazing clarity and speaking skills, in general; Adam Savage; Phil Plait; and I am probably leaving out a lot of great people from that list. And James Randi himself, who always seems to have a new story to tell. And, of course, the magic performances.
Gerbic: One big difference between CSICon and TAM besides the timing of the year. (October in Vegas is 100 percent better than July) is the Halloween party. You really get into it. Tell me about your past involvement. You won best skeptic costume in 2016 with the Strawman Vulcan.
Lampert: My recent history of cosplay goes back to Dragon*Con in 2007 (which lost the asterisk in its name a few years ago). That convention had such an intense cosplay scene; I felt I needed to be part of it! And, I thought Spaceman Spiff was a nice, easy costume to do. I was correct on that point, by the way.
I never spend the exorbitant amounts of time on my costumes necessary to win any major awards at Dragon Con: The competition includes real pros who make costumes for a living! But I don't throw together anything that is too shabby to at least try to stand out, in some way, at the Con, either. I think that small level of motivation gives me an advantage at CSICon: It is small enough of a crowd that my "barely stands out by Dragon Con standards" effort can really stand out at CSICon! And, it is tight-knit enough that I can take advantage of the local memes. I think that is one of the reasons my Straw Vulcan costume (which I only wear to skeptical conferences) was so well praised.
Last year I got lazy and reused my T1000 costume from Dragon Con, which was one of my stronger costuming efforts in general. But this year, I am going for a localized meme, again! You will see what it is when we get there.
Gerbic: To you and I who have been involved for years, we have seen a lot of drama within our community. I think for new people they step their foot in and see people up in arms and upset with each other and they quickly scamper off. But there has always been drama; social media only enhances it, and it happens so much quicker. If the founders of America had social media, we might never have gotten that Constitution written! When you look at it over years and years, you see that we have weathered the storm, and there will be more. Any thoughts on that?
Lampert: Fissures among large groups are normal things that emerge from the complex interactions within them, and I think skeptics would be arrogant to assume they are somehow immune to such things by virtue of the fact that they think they know better. As painful and embarrassing as they are, the good news is that the spirit of these groups never goes out, and they can reform into more solid entities when the right leadership arises. As that happens, there will be less scampering off of curious newcomers. Those who can weather the storms can also rebuild the forest.
Gerbic: There has been some conversation that we have too many skeptic conferences, that people can't afford to attend more than one a year. I've seen suggestions that some conferences should just "stand down" and support others. Thoughts?
Lampert: No one needs to attend more than one skeptics conference every year. You could probably make enough new friends going to just one, I think. And these conferences often end up hosting a lot of the same speakers, or at least similarly leveled experts on much of the same topics, just in different locations. I only go to a bunch of them because I am insane that way. I think diminishing returns would set in quite quickly for most other people.If the skeptical movement grows, we will need more conferences to fit all of them into, anyway!
I sometimes almost feel there are too many sci-fi/fantasy conventions, but then I remember that most of them are pretty much all the same, anyway. Only a couple of them, such as Dragon Con, are genuine stand-outs that I think almost everyone should go to if they can!
Gerbic: I’m speaking at Dragon Con this year. Derek Colanduno runs the Skeptic Track there. This happens in Atlanta, Georgia, Labor Day weekend. It is insane.
So, what are the differences between CSICon and NECSS?
Lampert: CSICon takes place in a resort hotel, so it is easier for everyone to hang out and socialize all evening long. NECSS, which usually rents a university's stage, puts some effort into that with their official socials, but it is not quite the same. And, I also believe CSICon attracts more international attendees than NECSS does. I believe NECSS puts a bit more effort into production values for the whole conference, making it feel more like a fancier show than a lecture series.
The reputation of NECSS took a hit two years ago, with the Dawkins thing and the John Horgan thing. But, the management is capable of learning lessons, so I do not foresee anything like that happening again. This year's NECSS had not even one drop of controversy come out of it! Even the #MeToo panel was handled really well.
The CSICons I had attended seemed to skew toward an older audience, than other skeptical conventions I have been to. But, I think they are trying to change that, in part by bringing in some young, hip names such as Adam Conover. But, I think the best way to expand that reach is probably through embracing an internet forum. Perhaps they can better usurp and utilize the existing ISF one?
Gerbic: What are you looking forward to at CSICon 2018?
Lampert: Aside from the usual "hanging out with a skeptical crowd" (which, again, is the best part) and seeing some old friends in particular: There are actually a few speakers I am looking forward to this year at CSICon: Stephen Fry (who was almost at TAM London 2010, which I attended), Stephen Pinker (one of my favorite authors, though I have seen him before), Adam Conover (he "ruins" everything!!), and Susan Blackmore (I like books about consciousness). And, of course, the Halloween Party.
As for spending money on the Halloween party: Not only is the party a lot of fun, but you are supporting a major skeptical organization by doing so! Sure, you could just donate that money anyway. But this way you get to see a rather classy lot of costumed critical thinkers in person.
Gerbic: Thank you, Mitch. Great to catch up with you. Looking forward to your costume at the Halloween party this year. The theme is pajamas, and Barry keeps reminding me to tell everyone to keep the PJs family friendly. CSICon attendees should also remember to “like” the CSICon Facebook Event page to follow the discussions, the easiest place to keep abreast of what is going on CSICon wise.