SKEPTICS conferences are always a bag of allsorts. Having piped up at last year’s AGM and suggested the next conference should be in Wellington, I was landed with organising it. Thankfully, I had the Wellington Cabal to help: Cynthia Shakespeare, Tony Vignaux, Richard Sadleir, Mike Clear, Bob Brockie and Wayne Hennessey.

We were lucky in the venue — a brand-new lecture theatre block behind the Old Government Buildings, the largest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere, or so the DoC signs said. We had a great turnout — over 140 people turned up from all over the country. And we garnered some great publicity — Brian Edwards had me on his show and encouraged shameless plugs.

A few moments stick in my mind:

  • John Welch opening the proceedings with do-it-yourself acupuncture. The sight of a hundred people twiddling needles into their hands was almost too much for me — I had an urge to run in and shout “April fool! We just wanted to see if you would”.
  • A booze session at the Backbencher afterwards where we all agreed that “skeptics” was too negative a name, and we should come up with something better — and couldn’t. The closest we got was “The Emperor-Strippers”. Must have been the whisky…
  • Maryanne Garry’s marvellous multimedia presentation on false memories, and the hair-raising last-minute contortions Maryanne and Tony had to go through to get the thing running. W.C. Fields warned never to work with children or animals; had he lived to the 90s, he would have added “…and laptops.”
  • Those nice folks from Victoria University Book Centre, who ran an undoubtedly profitable sales table in the breaks (skeptics sure like books). They just couldn’t contain their curiosity and kept sneaking into the talks.
  • David Russell from Consumer’s Institute receiving, albeit somewhat late, his 1992 Bent Spoon, lovingly hand-crafted for him by Richard Sadleir. He claims to be a reformed character, and pointed out that psychics and quacks who make a living out of the gullibility of others are probably in breach of the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Guarantees Act. Someone should tell them.
  • “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if we printed weird occult and alien symbols on people’s name badges to indicate whether they’d paid for lunch or dinner? I can set it up in my database — it’s easy.” Thus spake the overconfident computer nerd.
  • The Amazing Gold Bar of Feike de Bock. Despite this being a Skeptics Conference, half the audience still thought it was real.
  • Anton the Magician, collecting names of animals from audience members for a mentalism trick, bemoaned that they were all the traditional big mammals. “What about a sipunculid?” (Anton works on marine mammals at Te Papa.) I still can’t figure out how they did the automatic writing…
  • And Mike Hill’s amazing revelations about how satanic abuse arrived in New Zealand. Coming soon to a Truth Kit near you.

Well, life is back to normal now. No more answering dozens of conference e-mails a day, or ringing every gift shop in town trying to find a hundred Amazing Miracle Fortune-Telling Fish for the conference dinner.

Great fun, but roll on Auckland 1999 — I’ll be a spectator again.

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