Report from TAM 8 (part 2)

Some more highlights from TAM 8:

Jennifer Michael Hecht.  I was looking forward to this speach and I wasn’t disappointed.  Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of several books, the notable ones being Doubt: A History, The Happiness Myth, and her latest book of poetry titled Funny.  Her background in humanities was a breath of fresh air in the room and her passion and interest in the subject of the history of science and faith was infectious.  Just a wonderful speaker and obviously bursting with interest in the world.  One notable turn of phrase: “A wave isn’t a wave, it’s the ocean waving.  An apple is the universe appling.  You are the universe youing”.  I have read Doubt but will be re-reading it soon, and I bought Funny and I look forward to reading it too.  Here’s a link to Jennifer’s site:

David Javerbaum.  This was one of the funniest and most entertaining talks which I guess would be expected considering that Javerbaum has been head writer and producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  He had a dry, sarcastic wit (big surprise) and spent most of the time deftly answering questions from the audience.  While he said the agenda of the Daily Show is only to be funny, he pulled no punches when he was talking about the general news media which he said, “sucks ass”, and it was clear that there was some pride in the way the show puts the spotlight on hypocrisy in the media and politics while still being funny.  He has resigned from the show, regretfully it seemed, and he is going on to other things (scripting a musical, I think he said).

Paul Provenza.  This comedian and director has written a book, Satiristas (, in which he has conversations with famous comics and satirisists.  I’ve heard interviews with him and I am really interested in reading the book – the comics are presented as brave spokesmen and women of the human condition with all its failings and controversies.  He read from his book and was refreshingly irreverant.  He does have interest in the skeptic movement and contends that most of the comics are skeptics – just funny ones.   This was apparent when he opened saying, “I don’t care, but I’m going to say that I opened for Richard Fucking Dawkins.”  This was a bit of a departure from the rest of the talks, but very welcome and very, very entertaining.

Richard Dawkins.  I would like to say that this was the highlight of TAM, but it certainly wasn’t for me.  I think one issue was the interview format (by DJ Grothe, president of JREF).  The questions harped on the influence of fantasy fiction on critical thinking later in life and Grothe couldn’t seem to let this go (mentioning his comic book habit several times too many).  I would venture to say that if you have the pre-eminent evolutionary biologist on stage, the audience wants to hear about evolution and his work in the field.  Dawkins was also asked about atheism and skepticism but as eloquent as his answers were, they were not greatly edifying.  The interview was okay, but I thought most of the time was wasted on trivial issues.

Jen McCreight.  Jennifer was the instigator of Boobquake which was a lighthearted response to the ridiculous charges of an Iranian cleric who blamed earthquakes on women who were immodest in their clothing choice.  Jen was startled by the response to her amusing experiment – over 100000 fans on facebook and interviews by all the major news organizations.  She even got mentioned on the Colbert Report.  Her presentation was well done and it was refreshing to see a young, smart person doing something fun while still making a point.  Here is a link to her blog:

Global Climate Panel.  This panel discussion was important for one thing: it showed that skeptics do, indeed, have topics for which they aren’t skeptical.  The one dissenter (McGaha) on the panel was tossing out logical falacies and demonstrated remarkably fuzzy thinking about the subject and about the process of science itself.  His opinions were handily countered by Dr. Donald Prothero who appears both knowledgeable and articulate.  I have heard good things about his book, Evolution, What the Fossils Say, and intend to put that on my pile of books to read (I bought it at TAM).  Michael Shermer was also pretty good up there considering that he used to be an AGW skeptic.  Daniel Loxton perhaps put it best at the end – if you have another theory, write it up and enter the scientific arena.

I’ve just given you some hightlights of the meeting (IMHO, of course), but the rest of the presentations were quite good, if a little uneven, and it was nice to see quite a bit of diversity in the subjects.  I do think, and it seems like a lot of twitterers agreed, that the paper presentations shouldn’t be relegated to Sunday morning but rather interspersed throughout the meeting.  Attendence tends to be less on Sunday due mostly to late Saturday night socializing.  Or at least that is my hypothesis.

I didn’t take very much opportunity to socialize, except with a classmate of mine who we ran into on the first day.  It was great to catch up with him and his lovely new bride, and to realize we have skepticism in common.  BTW, here’s a link to his iPhone app: I wonder if he caught the sexuality workshop Sunday afternoon?

The one thing that I thought was lacking at TAM was the report of progress of the movement from the previous year and stated goals for the next year.  I don’t mean the attendence figures from TAM, but rather some metrics from skeptic activisim from the past year and specific actions on which we should be focussing in the coming year.  The closest came from Dr. Novella’s panel discussion where he proposed a concentrated effort against homeopathy this year.  Though it is a bit outside my expertise, I intend to help in that as much as I can.  It is something I think we can beat if we focus on it.

All in all, a great time was had by us, and if you haven’t been before, I suggest you try next year (or TAM London or Australia this year).  As always, comments are welcome.


Report from TAM 8 (part 1)

The Amazing Meeting 8 is being held right now in Las Vegas and I am here with 1300 other skeptics and luminaries from the skeptic world.  Notable presentations from yesterday include:

Sean Faircloth.  Sean is the director of the Secular Coalition for America and he gave a passionate and convincing speech on the importance of moving back to a secular nation as was intended in our constitution.  He was a past assemblyman in Maine and his political background was clearly apparent in his professional rhetoric.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I’m sure many of the skeptics in the audience were not swayed by the rhetoric (but probably still agree with the message).  I think we, as skeptics, need to understand that having the right data or being right isn’t enough to change minds in many of the populous.  People, as people, react to stories not to data, and sometimes we have to couch our arguments into stories that touch more than the left side of brains.  The secular coalition is a great, necessary organization and I urge you to at least take a look at the website ( and see what they’re up to.

Pamela Gay.  As a part of the Astronomy Cast podcast (, Dr. Pamela Gay is a distinctive voice for the advancement of science and. in particular, astronomy.  But her live speech was inspiring, to say the least.  She described the opportunities for ordinary people to do real science and to contribute to man’s knowledge.  Her examples were the websites Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Storm Watch ( where data is put out there for people to analyze.  She talked about discoveries of new phenomena by these non-scientists and encouraged everybody to participate.  She ended with stories about cuts in science education budgets that were alarming and touching.  Dr. Gay is a passionate and articulate ambassador of science and I hope she never stops spreading the word in her wonderful style.

Phil Plait.  Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait is a well respected voice in the skeptical movement but he was understandably nervous about the topic of his presentation: tone.  This has been the bone of contention in the movement for a while now and seems to be the main polarizing force in skepticism with the strident on one side and the courteous on the other.  Phil contended that nobody has ever been swayed to the skeptical side by being told that they are morons for believing what they believe.  I think he is right, but I think their probably is a role for the rude passion of the other end of the spectrum.  True, I don’t think those people do anything for the movement with the great moderate majority of the populous, but I think those people should be used to attack the extremes of the world of woo.  In other words, let PZ Meyers attack the Ken Hams of the world, but don’t sic him on moderates who will only be pushed into the other camp if they are told they are idiots.  No, better to have people like Phil courteously discuss the issues with the moderates.  Phil’s message is to do skepticism but “don’t be a dick” which is Wil Wheaton’s succinct and wise aphorism.  I would change that a little: don’t be a dick, unless you’re talking to a dick.  Even so, I’m not sure if any good comes of that except to maybe quash the fundy voices for a bit.  But, yes, tone matters.  Let the data speak, and don’t be a dick about your skepticism.  I know Phil will get a lot of flack from his presentation but I, for one, think he is on the right path.  (

Adam Savage.  This mythbuster is a great popularizer of science and engineering and he openly supports the skeptic movement and the TAM events.  He read his acceptance speech for a humanism award which was poignant.  But where he really shined was in the Q&A.  He related funny stories from the show and his passion for the work, and the science, came through clearly.  He was accosted by a moon landing denier in the audience and he disarmed the man in a respectful but amusing manner.  This is a guy that you would love to sit down and have a few beers with.

more to come…


This blog is called badengineering and people no doubt have been wondering when I would tackle the issue of the BP oil rig explosion and the subsequent oil spill that is wreaking havoc in the Gulf.  I have not looked into great detail of the cause of the initial explosion (I haven’t seen this fully addressed in the press) and I am not sure that the current solution can really be labeled as bad engineering except in the likely miscalculation of risk.  Nevertheless, I do have some comments.

First of all, I don’t find it surprising that BP is unable to cap the well now.  I know a little about trying to make stuff work in ocean depths and the difficulties are immense even at a quarter of the depth they are working in right now.  The similar situation in Mexico in 1979 took about nine months to stop (by drilling bypass wells) and there they were in a couple hundred feet.  Here they are trying to do the same thing in 5000 feet.  The task is enormous and it shows just how far the engineering has come that anything at all can be attempted.  I doubt anything will work until the other wells are drilled, but it is amazing that they are able to try at all.

Which, of course, brings us to the question of whether they should be drilling in these areas if they don’t have ways to mitigate the risks.  Any time you have these massive engineering efforts the risk analysis and management become all that more important.  And any time you have consequences that include the possibility of lives lost and huge environmental impacts, risk management and mitigation must become a major and constant effort.  This gets more complicated when great costs and profits are involved and when risk mitigation itself can be cost prohibitive.

What is disturbing in this situation is BP’s poor disaster management process (as reported by the press; I have no first hand knowledge of it).  It seems that it is and was completely insufficient for the risks involved.  This can be understood when consequences are not well understood.  But this happened in 1979 and that data should have been used in all oil companies’ risk management and mitigation plans.  I would love to see if any of them actually changed their plans in light of that and other accidents.  Risk management is an iterative process but rarely is that recognized in real life.

And what of the regulators?  Did they alter regulations based on prior accidents?  Do they have regulations that address the extreme engineering that is being done in this industry?  Do they have the enforcement capability to make sure companies are following the regulations?  And are the regulators separated enough from the industry to do the right thing?  I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I hope somebody is asking them and demanding answers.

As to the future?  Well, accidents will happen.  Any time you explore the limits of engineering accidents will happen.  Because of the general engineering process we all follow, accidents are and will be few, but we must learn from them and we must improve the engineering and the management to ensure the accidents aren’t repeated.  And if risk mitigation is not affordable then the need must be extraordinary for the project to go through.  And I don’t think profit is ever an extraordinary need.

I hope to have more on this as better information is forthcoming.  If you have something to add to the subject, post a comment below.

Do you want to play a game?

Unfortunately this isn’t the movie War Games. The video link below (WordPress won’t let me embed it) is an amazing animations of all the nuclear explosions that took place up to 1998.  It is a bit slow until the 50’s, then it really does look like the scenarios that WOPR simulated in the movie.  I had no idea that that many warheads were set off and I find it a bit amazing that all those had to be detonated.  Was this research or were we just showing off?