The Amazing Meeting 6 was my first conference of the "Amazing" series of skeptics' conferences, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. I've attended a variety of other skeptical conferences over the last fourteen years, from a CSICOP conference at Stanford University in November 1984 to the most recent Skeptics Society conference at Caltech in 2006, with numerous conferences in between. I've written summaries of a few of those for skeptical publications, such as a 1990 Tucson CSICOP UFO workshop and the 1992 Dallas CSICOP conference (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).
The attendees at skeptics' conferences are usually older white males--I was one of the youngest attendees, at 19, of the 1984 Stanford conference, by far. This conference, while still mostly older white males, was a much younger crowd with a lot more women than any other skeptical conference I've attended. At one point during the conference, a young man asked a question which began with a statement something like "At 19, I think I'm the youngest person here," at which point whoever had the microphone onstage asked for anyone present younger than 19 to raise their hands--and at least a dozen hands went up. Hal Bidlack, who was an excellent master of ceremonies for the conference, at one point made a point of publicly embarrassing a young man by observing that he was having his 15th birthday.
The conference began on the afternoon of Thursday, June 19 with a series of optional workshops, of which I paid for one, a memory workshop with Banachek. (I didn't attend the earlier workshop on skeptical investigation with Ben Radford.) Banachek's workshop was a two-hour session which gave a basic overview of a number of different kinds of memory systems, with audience participation so that we actually used the systems ourselves.
Banachek began his seminar with a demonstration where he looked at a deck of cards, then split it up into multiple pieces, had multiple people shuffle their respective parts, then reassemble it into two halves, each of which was given to a volunteer on stage. He proceeded to identify which person was holding each card of each suit in the deck, with 100% success. (He did admit that there was some trickery as well as memory to this demonstration.)
Then it was on to the memory systems. First was a loci system, where you associate the items to be memorized with different physical locations--in our case, we learned a list of object associated with different rooms of a house. By creating descriptions with some vivid features, such as a gun laying on a kitchen floor that had been fired, leaving black marks on the kitchen floor, we were all easily able to remember which objects were associated with which room. Next was a brief discussion of acronym-based mnemonics, such as "old elephants have much skin" as a way of remembering the names of the Great Lakes, from east to west.
Next was a linking system, which we spent the most amount of time on. We all learned a list of fourteen items on a grocery list by creating vivid associations between each item and the next in the series. We broke off into groups of about ten each, and each group came up with its own associations. One person from each group was then tested by asking what was the next item on the list, and describing the link they chose to use for the association. Several of us tested each other or were tested by others who were in the workshop on subsequent days of the conference with questions like "what came after tangerines?" I can still generate the full list of fourteen items from memory, as I'm sure most of the attendees of the workshop can, as well.
Finally, we spent a brief amount of time on peg systems and phonetic systems, which can be usefully combined into an extremely powerful memory system of the sort taught by Harry Lorayne. The basics of the system are to create associations between phonetic sounds (consonants only) and the numbers 0-9 (and then farther, as far as you want to go), so that words can be constructed associated with numbers and vice versa. He showed us a 74-digit number, and suggested that such a number could be learned with a phonetic system.
By creating associations between the "peg words" and items to be learned, you can remember lists of things, their relative positions to each other, as well as things like long lists of numbers or cards in a deck. Banachek then revealed that the grocery list we had learned, using the phonetic system he just described, encoded the 74-digit number--thus, by learning the phonetic system, we had already memorized it through our earlier exercise.
This was the first time Banachek had given this training, and so he was not as polished as, say, Harry Lorayne. But it was definitely a handy overview. My only criticism is that it would have been better to spend more time on the peg system if it's possible to do so in such a short time frame, as that's clearly where the most benefit is to be had.
After the workshop, I went out to dinner with some friends to a wonderful Thai restaurant--Lotus of Siam--and then returned for the conference reception. I ended up chatting briefly with Michael Shermer, P.Z. Myers, and some Denver and Ottawa Skeptics, and most significantly to me, finally meeting Reed Esau in person after an online acquaintance of about thirteen years, beginning when he created and I provided the hosting for the celebrity atheists list. Although Reed invited me to several parties, I only stayed out late one night during the conference, missing the fun, but waking up in plenty of time for morning discussions at breakfast before each day's conference events.
On to TAM6 summary, part two.