Just needed to make sure this observation was on the Internet somewhere.
Just needed to make sure this observation was on the Internet somewhere.
I have embarked on a new podcasting project! It’s called Retrospecticus, and it’s a heady mix of The Simpsons and modern history.
In each episode, myself and fellow host Garreth Hirons (from Atomic Sourpuss) discuss a Simpsons episode, then tell the story of an important historical event that occurred around of the episode’s first air date. So far we have a pilot episode that covers the Simpsons shorts and the end of the Cold War. In our first proper episode we go over “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and the Romanian Revolution. Our latest episode covers “Bart the Genius” and the storming of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin. That episode also features a guest appearance from Simon Singh!
Head on over to retrospecticus.org and give it a listen!
Growing up, I was a huge fan of the British game show The Crystal Maze. Originally shown between 1990 and 1995, the show invited teams of six strangers to take on the maze, completing challenges in order to win crystals that would buy them time in the Crystal Dome, where they are challenged to obtain enough gold tokens to win the “big prize”. The first host was the inimitable Richard O’Brien, who gave way to Ed Tudor-Pole for last two series. A one-off charity celebrity special hosted by Stephen Merchant was broadcast on Channel 4 last year. It inspired much shouting at the TV, “I could do that!” being a prime example. It’s since been repeated ad nauseum on the game show channel Challenge. At home I sometimes watch the show with my 2 year old daughter who has also become a bit of a fan (“Get the crystal!” she’ll say). It’s fair to say that I’m rather fond of the show, and my lifelong dream of appearing of it sort of came true when I got to go to the Crystal Maze Experience in Manchester. It was superb fun, I can highly recommend it!
So, imagine my excitement when it was announced that the show would be returning to Channel 4, hosted by comedian and star of The IT Crowd Richard Ayoade. Immediately I thought “That’s an odd choice of host”. As far as I’m concerned, a Crystal Maze master needs two qualities: eccentricity and authority. Ayoade is famed for having the persona of a socially awkward nerd, so eccentricity isn’t a problem, but authoritative he is not. Never mind I thought, let’s see how it plays out.
The show actually starts out really well. We get to see a montage of contestants playing the games while a reworked version of the famous “Force Field” theme tune is played. So far, the show is exactly what I’m after. I wasn’t expecting, nor was I wanting, a carbon copy of the original. I was hoping for a show that went off and did it’s own thing, but stuck to the core formulae that made the original such a hit. Unfortunately, the revamped show strays so far from those that the ways in which it does can be put together in a big list. Let’s do that shall we?
1. Five team members instead of six
This may seem like a minor point but it gives a big clue as to what’s to come. With six team members, you expect a certain amount of games to be played so that each team member is given a fair crack of the whip. With one less, you expect them to be able to get away with fewer games. As we will find out later, this sadly comes to pass. Also, in the original series the teams were balanced between men and women. Obviously this gets thrown out with an odd number of team members.
2. The team members know each other
In the original, you got to know the team member’s names, ages and jobs, and that that was all you needed to know. The team members were strangers, so they had little to talk about. In this new version the team members are all from the same family, so of course we have to hear excruciating dull “banter” about which one is the bossy one, which one is the messy one etc etc. At this point I’m screaming at the TV, but not in the fun “What are you doing you idiot?!? It’s over there!” way of the old series, but a frustrated “Play some games for f**ks sake!” way.
3. Ayoade constantly mocks his own show
Sure, the original never took itself too seriously often poked fun at the prizes, but Ayoade makes jokes at the expense of the show so often that you start believing them pretty quickly. It gets old and tired before too long, and it just becomes unpleasant to hear.
4. The contestants are told which games they are going to play
This is one of my more major gripes. In the original the contestants were always given a choice to play a mental, physical, skill or mystery game. Even if the team captain is told what to choose by the show’s director, it still gives the illusion of choice, and therefore size. While watching the original, you feel that each zone is large enough to house a significant variety of games, and therefore must be a sprawling mass of alleys, corridors and ultimately, rooms. In this new version, the contestants are told which game they are going to play, so this illusion is completely shattered. As beautiful as the sets are, having only two games makes you think that they must be tiny. Which brings me onto my next gripe…
5. Only two games per zone
I suppose for me this is the worst crime: the original was all about the games, and it managed to squeeze in three or four per zone. The chatting was kept to a minimum and the teams rushed around the maze, so you got the impression that the show was desperately trying to cram in as many games as possible. There was a real sense of urgency to it. This new series only allows for two games per zone, which is frankly pathetic, and makes you wish they dispensed with all the completely unnecessary banter that went beforehand.
6. Incidental music
One of the great things about the original Crystal Maze was how real it felt. It made you believe that entering the maze was something anyone could do. The contestants would scamper from game to game, there were no unnecessary cuts, and if they won a crystal you’d know because the team would get genuinely excited. It would only pump out the theme music when they were in the dome or they went to the adverts. For some reason the new version has seen it fit to add incidental music. So now, when they win a crystal you get a little revelationary “aahhhh” sting, as if you couldn’t work out for yourself that something significant has happened. I detest this sort of incidental music because it treats the viewer like an idiot and slightly detaches the show from reality.
7. The maze is not contiguous
One of the many factors that anchored the original series in reality was the fact that the contestants could run around the maze in a contiguous route. Each zone was connected, so if a contestant got locked in in the first zone and the team didn’t want to buy them out until they were in the fourth, a team member would have to race back through the previous zones, release their team mate with a crystal, then rush back again and hopefully get back before the team went to the dome. Of course they always did, but this race added to the show’s drama. In the revamped 2017 version, the future zone is cut off from the rest of the maze (they have to get into it via a “teleportation” special effect, which of course Ayoade has to make fun of). So, in Friday’s episode, the team was in the unfortunate situation of being in the future zone while their team mate was locked in, languishing in the industrial zone. They wanted to buy him out, but going back through the maze was out of the question, so he just appeared. Once again, pathetic!
8. “Don’t worry, that’s just editing”
For some games in the Crystal Maze the contestants are required to don protective gear, such as a helmet and some knee pads. In the original, O’Brien would tell the contestants about the game while they took all of fifteen seconds to get kitted up. In this new version, the contestants put the gear on off camera, and before they go into the game Ayoade without fail warns them “You will look different when you go through the door, but don’t worry, that’s just editing”. It’s a joke that isn’t funny the first time, and it once again serves to slightly disconnect the show from reality. They spend so much time on “banter”, is it really that much trouble that they put on a pair of knee pads on camera?
9. Games without a time limit
Now, I’m prepared to accept that any new version of a show might bend the rules a little, but the new version of the Crystal Maze has games without a time limit. A key dynamic of the show is that contestants can get locked in if they run out of time, so the viewer and the other contestants are always keeping one eye on the clock. To remove the time limit, and for no obvious reason, is a big no-no.
10. No extended universe
An aspect of the original series that gave it such a charm was a small array of characters ad-libbed by the first host Richard O’Brien. He stated that the medieval zone was his home, where he lived with his “Mumsy” (played by Sandra Caron), who would occasionally appear in a mental game to pose brain teasers to the contestants. Of course it wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but the brief interactions between the two gave the audience something to anchor themselves into the show’s narrative. For example, in one episode during a lull in a game O’Brien quickly complains to the camera that Mumsy has a new boyfriend called Dwayne that he disapproves of. After the mental game, O’Brien quickly goes into the room to voice his concerns about Dwayne to Mumsy who quickly rebuffs him. The whole interaction is over in about ten seconds, but it does the job and as a viewer you feel like you’ve had a brief glimpse into the workings of the characters.
What is such as shame about the new show is that all the ingredients are there for these interactions, but they are not utilised. Ayoade himself is an excellent character actor, and he’s joined by the great comic talents of Jessica Hynes and Adam Buxton (who I once nearly poisoned with a dodgy chill cake). However, while it’s nice to see these two fine people getting work, their talents go to waste. Hynes plays a knight who guards the medieval zone, and Buxton is a head in a jar who presents riddles to contestants in the future zone. In both cases these characters have little to no interaction with Ayoade, and they have no back story whatsoever. Why is there a head in a jar posing riddles in the future? No explanation, there just is. The cast and crew could have come up with a quick backstory and a connection to Ayoade to give the audience something to cling on to, but they didn’t bother. It’s such a shame. Oh well.
11. Erm, that’s it!
So, my rant about the new crystal maze reaches it’s end. I should finish by saying that while the new show has numerous fatal flaws that make it very difficult to watch, it isn’t a complete disaster. The sets are fantastic (especially future world), and they’ve done a great job on the dome. One of the things that bugged me about the original is that when the fans in the dome are turned on, the gold and silver tokens should blow all over the place, whereas they seemed mostly stuck to the ground. In the new version the tokens are spinning around everywhere, it’s quite satisfying to watch! Added to that, the games are good and it does go some way in recreating the frustration, small joy and tension of the original.
In boiling it down my two main gripes are the miscasting of Richard Ayoade, and the lack of urgency. The original was an exhilarating rush to get as many crystals as possible, whereas this new version feels like a gentle saunter through some very pretty sets with a few games along the way. The problems the show has could be addressed by getting in an authoritative host, removing the banter, cramming in more games and adding just a sliver of character development. I hope they act on these issues for the next series!
The show makes a return for the end of 2016! Join Tom, Paul Hopwood and Natalie Newell as we have a good old fashioned rant about this terrible year, find the show on iTunes or listen here.
So, the QED conference is all done and dusted for 2016, and I think it’s fair to say I had a blast! There are various other reviews and musings on QED 2016 out there already, but seeing as I spent most of my time outside of the main room (due to a combination of competing interests and general lethargy I only managed to sit through two of the main talks) I thought I’d add my voice to the satisfied cacophony.
Before I start I should say that I got to talk to plenty of friends old and new, but I managed to miss lots of people who I wanted to catch up with. So, if I don’t mention you in this blog or miss out on your talk/event, please don’t take it personally!
My personal highlights all came on the Friday. I managed to get the day off work so turned up promptly for the start of the Skepticamp (kudos to Chris Higgins for getting it all organised). I enjoyed all the morning talks, especially the one that concluded the session by addressing cannibalism. After that, we went for lunch. Unfortunately lunch took a bit longer than expected, so I missed the first couple of talks of the afternoon session. I really, really hate doing that so unreserved apologies to the speakers I missed.
I delivered the penultimate planned talk, regaling the audience with the story of wisdomofchopra.com, a Deepak Chopra quote generator I made in an evening that was later used in an academic study of bullshit receptivity. Before I started I asked for a cheer from everyone not from the UK, and I’m happy to say that I got a very enthusiastic response! I was worried that the whole Brexit ugliness would put people off travelling to the UK, but as it happens I was informed that the weak pound has some advantages. I’m pretty sure my talk was well received and it was definitely the right audience, it’s not everyday that I put up a slide containing a block of code and get a laugh without having to explain it! So, onto my first personal highlight. We got 5 minutes of Q and A, and the first questioner at the end of my talk was kind enough to inform me that the study that used quotes from wisdomofchopra.com won an IgNobel prize! I really wasn’t prepared for that, I’m not sure whether to feel pride or shame!
Once the Skepticamp was wrapped up I needed to check in to my hotel. Oh dear. I was only paying £30 a night so I wasn’t expecting much, but as soon as I got in I noticed the Christmas decorations. Not a good sign. Neither was the handwritten one on the wall explaining that the decorations were up because a film crew was filming a Christmas show there. I mean, I was hardly tripping up over rigging or anything. Apart from that, the carpets were worn, wallpaper was peeling off, but it worked as a place to crash so not all bad.
After that I headed to the much anticipated Friday night pub quiz, hosted by QI elf and former show guest (yes, I used to have a show!) Stevyn Colgan. I’m a bit of a quizzer and this one was top notch, but then again I would say that because my team, “Breakfast means breakfast”, managed to win the bloody thing! We paraded our trophies around the hotel in triumph, superb!
Following that I headed for the mixer, chatting with skeptical friends from all over the place, late into the night.
Probably a bit too late into the night. I got up at a reasonable time but spent too long picking over a full English breakfast so I managed to miss the first talk. Never mind I thought, I was guaranteed a front row seat for the “Dental woo” panel. Dentistry is a subject that doesn’t get that much press in the skeptisphere, and despite being in a zombie-like state I enjoyed hearing about fluoridation scares, the problems with dental research and a particularly disgusting demo of oil pulling. Don’t worry, despite it’s rather terrifying name, oil pulling just involves swilling cooking oil around your mouth for a bit. Revolting, but probably not that dangerous.
Following the panel we were all spoilt for choice, with no more that FIVE things to chose from! I plumped for a live “Skeptics with a K” recording. The room was packed so I slotted in at the back somewhere. I couldn’t see much but it’s audio init? I managed to embarrass myself by asking a nonsensical question and almost falling off my chair. Looking forward to hearing it when it comes out as a podcast. :/
After lunch I sat my arse down in the film room to “enjoy” a screening of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the creationist propaganda film by Ben Stein, the bloke from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Thing is, if I was watching it at home on Youtube, I’d switch it off after 10 minutes in a minor fit of rage. However, watching it with two dozen others felt like a form of group therapy, with everyone throwing their heads in their hands and screaming “noooooo” in unison. Don’t get me wrong, the film is absolute unrelenting shite, but I somehow feel richer for having experienced it.
From there I moved on to the “Skeptical Activism Under the Microscope” panel. There have been quite a few skeptic wins in recent times, and it was good to note these wins as well as consider how things can be done better in future. Following that was the keynote from Dr Karl, who offered the audience a whistle-stop tour of various moments in science, both serious and silly. I particularly enjoyed the dig at the bloody stupid “paleo” diet!
For the first time ever I didn’t go to the gala dinner as I dilly-dallied with my booking and of course the dinner sells out in 24 hours. However, instead I hooked up with a bunch of Norwich skeptics/Last Tuesday Project contributors for a very pleasant curry. Nice to make a joke about Little Melton that didn’t fall on deaf ears! I also got to meet Natalie Newell from A Science Enthusiast (amongst other things) and I got the chance to personally thank her for giving me the opportunity to design the flag for the Confederacy of Douchecanoes (long story).
We sauntered into the evening entertainment and managed to miss the Ockham awards, but took our seats in time to witness the annual worshipping of the cloth chicken, before taking part in a huge card trick which worked for nearly everyone. The first act, Grace Petrie can consider myself a new fan. I loved her songs, especially one called “Ivy” which really hit home with me. We were then entertained by a great set from magician Dave Alnwick, I can’t wait to see him do his thing in Liverpool next month! Comedian Tiernan Douieb brought the evening to an end, but I couldn’t hear that much of his set thanks to the dickheads at the back who decided to have a loud obnoxious conversation. Thanks for that guys. Anyway, I retreated to the bar to have some more quality conversations and before I could say “Wait, what time is it?” it was past two again. Whoops!
So once again I didn’t wake in the best states of mind. I checked out of my dank hovel, but the weather had reverted to the Manchester default of “heavy rain”. After a quick detour into a newsagents for a Mars Bar breakfast, I arrived at the hotel tired, hungover, hungry and soaked through. I stumbled into the middle of Cara Santa Maria’s talk and attempted to tune in, but after five minutes and a mention of the Bechdel test I gave up and went in search of coffee, which I somehow failed to find.
Following that I was originally planning to go to the magic workshop hosted by Dave Alnwick, but I figured that it would be packed following his triumphant Saturday night spot. Added to that, my hand eye coordination has always been sub par, so wanting to make the least amount of effort I plumped for the showing of the original Ghostbusters, a film which I realised I have never sat down and watched from beginning to end. And guess what? I was the only person who did! It was great, I took in the film, stuffed my face with free popcorn and just took the chance to relax. Good stuff! I was also keeping one eye on Twitter and saw all the reactions to Sally Le Page’s talk about duck reproduction. I was quite glad I wasn’t there as I didn’t feel up to that, it was too early for 15 foot high genitalia.
Feeling recharged, I set off for the final two panels of the conference. These were easily the most interesting ones for me. The first was entitled “The march of unreason” and it saw QED dabbling in politics for the first time. There was so much to discuss in regards to the Brexit referendum and politics in general that it barely scratched the surface, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing in the future. In the Q and A I asked why politics was a taboo subject in skepticism and I wasn’t exactly satisfied with my answer. I’m a strong believer that politics and politicians should definitely fall under the umbrella of skeptical enquiry. After all, if there is one subject that is full of bullshit, it’s politics!
Following that was a panel on “Legal Name Fraud”, a form of legal woo (you might have seen the anonymous billboards throughout the UK). This was the panel I learned the most from. People have tried to explain the “Freeman of the land” stuff to me before, but it always makes my brain explode. This panel explained everything patiently and concisely, and thanks to Geoff Whelan I have a whole new rabbit hole to get lost in!
The event was concluded with a talk from Meirion Jones about his investigation into fake bomb detectors, which for me was a familiar and utterly tragic story, a poignant note to end on. After all the congratulations had died down I quickly escaped and just about managed to make the train and hurried back to my family, so sorry if my departure seemed rather abrupt.
Overall this was a great QED. I’m looking forward to next year, but I think I’ll book a different hotel!
QEDcon, the biggest skeptical weekend of the year, is very nearly upon us and boy am I excited! The main event is sold out, which means over 600 skeptics from all over the world in one place. I can’t wait to see everyone, especial people who I have befriended on social media and finally get to meet in real life!
Before the main event is the Skepticamp, a series of short talks starting at 11am on the Friday. I’ll be there giving a talk about the slightly unusual story of wisdomofchopra.com so it would be great to see you there!
Sadly, due to the quagmire that is British politics, this could be one of the last QEDs where the UK is still in the European Union. I tried my best to get people to vote remain, I really did, so as a nod of apology to my European neighbours I’ve had a t shirt printed which features the word “sorry” translated into all 24 EU languages. I’ve used Google translate and I’ve already been told the Finnish is wrong, so I’m packing a couple of Sharpies so people can make corrections!
Really looking forward to seeing everyone, should be a barnstorming weekend!
UPDATE: David McNally has now officially resigned, according to the club’s official website
It’s not often that my worlds of skepticism and Norwich City fandom collide, so I’m not going to skip the opportunity to write about them when they do!
Right now, it isn’t the best of times to be a Norwich City fan. Although the victorious trip to Wembley for the Championship play off final was under a year ago, this season they have struggled in the Premier league. They are currently mired in a relegation battle, and barring a major change in fortune look set for a swift return to England’s second tier.
As you might expect, some fans are not at all happy about this situation, with a fair amount of ire being directed at David McNally, the current chief executive of Norwich City Football Club (for the record, I think he’s been great for Norwich and I want to see him stay). After yet another “played quite well but couldn’t score and let in one goal” type of performance in a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, a disgruntled fan decided to send an angry tweet to McNally and he replied with this (since deleted) tweet:
Cue social media meltdown. Facebook was full of discussion about the tweet and “McNally resigns” started trending in Norwich. The local press, including the Eastern Daily Press and sports paper The Pinkun ran the story, wondering whether the news was genuine. After several tense hours of fan speculation, McNally tweeted the following (also since deleted):
Now, this is a good example of why skepticism is so important. Broadly speaking, skepticism is about questioning and investigating claims rather than just taking them at face value. Traditionally these claims include “alternative medicine works”, “vaccines cause autism” or “ghosts exist”, but it’s a broad church (or at least it should be) so let’s apply some skepticism to McNally’s “resignation” tweet. First of all, let’s look at the possibilities as to why this tweet would appear:
When analysing the possibilities, you have to consider which are the most like and which are the least likely. For me, the possibility of David McNally resigning on Twitter is incredibly unlikely for so many reasons. First of all, the man is a professional, he wouldn’t make such a momentous announcement through his personal social media accounts and without first consulting the rest of the Norwich City board. It would be completely out of character. Also, it’s not unknown for David McNally to be a little tongue in cheek at times, which lends evidence to the idea that his tweet was a bad joke. His account being “hacked” is also a possibility, but again unlikely. Given how unlikely it was that his resignation was genuine, it came as no surprise to hear that he didn’t mean it.
In conclusion, I think McNally deserves a little slap on the wrist for this. It was a bad joke and an unprofessional thing to do. But for everyone else, the lesson is this: don’t take all tweets at face value, and don’t believe something just because it’s in the paper. On the ball city!
The other night I had the pleasure of giving yet another Ignite Liverpool talk, this time entitled “How did the First World War start?”.
I’ve always had an interest in modern history, and the excellent (although exceedingly long!) series by Dan Carlin called Blueprint For Armageddon was the inspiration for this talk. Ever since I first heard about it at school, I’ve never heard a good explanation as to how the First World War started until recently. In this talk I had just five minutes to tell the story and I think I got all the key facts in with one exception: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contains the most extraordinary coincidence, so allow me to give some background. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, set to take over from his elderly father Franz Josef. Imagine Prince Charles but popular and powerful. He goes to Sarajevo to observe military maneuvers. Now if you know your geography, you might be thinking that Sarajevo, capital of modern day Bosnia, is quite a long way from Austria. Well that’s true, and various people from neighboring Serbia weren’t too keen on a foreign power meddling in the Balkans. A group conspires (a genuine conspiracy, they do happen!) to kill the Archduke. One of the conspirators is the infamous Gavrilo Princip.
The Archduke and his wife Sophie get into an open-topped car and start on a procession through the city. The Archduke is in full military garb and sticks out like a sore thumb. The conspirators line the route, and one of them emerges from the crowd and throws a bomb at the car. The bomb misses, goes off and injures a bunch of people. Everyone panics and the royal couple get away. The conspirator who threw the bomb attempts to kill himself by biting on a cyanide pill and jumping in the river. Trouble is, the cyanide pill doesn’t work and the water is only a few inches deep, so he gets caught by the authorities pretty quickly. The rest of them drift away, with Princip ending up in a cafe.
Meanwhile, the Archduke and his wife Sophie consider what to do next. Now, you’d think that as they were nearly killed and people want them dead, so they’d get out of there and go back to Austria as soon as possible, right? Well, not quite. The Archduke wants to go and visit the wounded in hospital. So they get back in the open-topped car, the Archduke still in his military garb, and set off for the hospital. There’s just one problem: the driver doesn’t really know the way. They take a wrong turn, but instead of carrying on and finding a different route, the driver decides to stop and reverse the car. As he does this the engine stalls, leaving the royal couple totally exposed. It just so happens that car has stalled outside a cafe. The very cafe that Gavrilo Princip has gone to. He gets up, takes out his gun, and the rest is history.
I find this coincidence absolutely incredible, because of course it started a complex chain of events which resulted in the start of the First World War. Amazing how so much history was changed by a coincidence and the actions of one man.
I’d like to finish by recommending a couple of things: firstly, if you are in the Liverpool area, come along to the next Ignite! It’s penciled in for the next Star Wars day (May 4th naturally). Secondly, if you go along to Ignite Liverpool or catch up later with their YouTube channel, why not donate to them via Patreon?
If you’ve been following the Labour leadership contest, you might have noticed this parody of Tony Blair’s Comment Is Free piece doing the rounds:
You may think it’s photoshopped, but it’s very simple to make something like this, and I’m going to show you how to do it! Start by opening up Google Chrome (you can do this in other browsers but I find Chrome to be the easiest), then go to any site you choose. Find the text you want to change, then right click it and select “Inspect element”.
When you click “Inspect element”, you will see some code at the bottom of the screen. Don’t be scared, it’s just HTML, the language patented by Sir Tim Berners of Lee back in 1662. With any luck, the text you want to change will be right in front of you, so just change it and you’re done!
Once you know this simple trick, you can have all sorts of fun messing around with all kinds of sites! Have fun!
By the way, I didn’t do anything to that last one, it’s a real post on Natural News.
Now, I’ve had an interest in the work of one Deepak Chopra for some time now, having invented wisdomofchopra.com, a site that generates quotes in his own almost-inimitable style. So, imagine my sarcastic joy when my brother Ed presented me with a copy of Leela, Deepak’s very own Wii game! I had to try it out, so take a look at the video below:
The game is just a series of minigames, each one based on a “chakra”. As you can probably guess, it was filmed on my phone so the quality isn’t great and you can barely hear the game, but you get the gist of it. Also, we ran out of both recording time and battery life so we may never know what the final chakra minigame is like!
I wasn’t expecting much from it, but apart from being based on the evidence-free “chakra” explanation of how the body works, it’s surprisingly low on bullshit. I didn’t even hear an utterance of the word “quantum”! I can’t say I’d recommend going out of your way to get the game, but the navel chakra game is good fun. Cheers again to Ed for the game!