An unforgettable weekend at club QED

OK, it’s time for the annual QED write up! QED this year was on the weekend of the 13th of October, and in case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a big ol’ skeptic conference that sees skeptics from all over the world congregate for a weekend of fun, revelry, activism and informative entertainment.

I turned up on the Friday morning, checked into my Airbnb and headed for lunch at my favourite Japanese restaurant in Manchester. After a hearty sushi lunch, it was time for the Skepticamp, a QED fringe event put on every year by Chris Higgins. It gives a diverse range of speakers the chance to give a talk in an “Ignite” format, that is ten minutes with another five for Q and A. Like all ignites, your slides advance after a set time, always fun! Naturally, the subject of my talk was flags, but I went with something a little different this time. Usually I talk about the history of national flags, or maybe flag design, but in my Skepticamp talk I conducted a whistle-stop tour of the multitude of LGBT+ pride flags, my favourite of which I have to say is the flag of the Bear Brotherhood.

1200px-Bear_Brotherhood_flag.svg

I was intending to spend the whole of the Friday in the bar at the mixer, catching up with old friends and making new ones who were previously just avatars on Twitter. However, I was informed that the crew from Liverpool-based virtual reality company VR Here had set up, so I went upstairs to have a go. I absolutely loved it. I’d heard of a game called “the plank”, where in the virtual world you go up twenty floors, and then walk along a plank to get some doughnuts. They make the experience a little bit more real by getting you to walk along an actual plank that they place in the middle of the room. I fell off, and in the virtual world I would have made quite the impression on the pavement, but I didn’t find it nearly as disorientating as others, maybe because I’d already seen others do it, I don’t know. Anyway, I liked it so much that I signed up for another session the next morning. I spent the rest of the evening chatting to folks in the bar, including someone who had heard and enjoyed our Simpsons and history podcast Retrospecticus, which was nice.

I was relatively well behaved on the Friday night, and unlike other years, I managed to get there bright and early for the Saturday morning opening session. I am so glad that I did. Every year they have an opening video, and this year’s was absolutely the best yet. It featured David Attenborough (not really) tell the story of skeptics migrating to QED. It’s brilliant, check it out below:

After a disappointingly deflating opening talk from George Hrab, I went upstairs for my second VR session. I shared it with my friend Kat Ford, who hadn’t experienced “the plank” before. So far, I can’t decide which is more fun: doing “the plank” yourself or watching other people try it. After Kat finished her go, possibly my favourite little moment of the weekend happened. The guy who went after us was wondering what all the fuss was about. He very confidently marched half way across the plank, panicked, then inexplicably threw himself against the wall! Talk about pride before a fall!

After that I was intending to go the video game panel, but after seeing the queue going round the corner I went to what was marginally my second choice, which was Hannah Fry talking about algorithms. I loved the talk, especially the bit about pigeons being trained to diagnose cancer.

After lunch I went to the workshop on critical thinking, hosted by Marianne Talbot. That was a real eye-opener, as I’ve identified as a skeptic for some years but I’ve never done any formal studying of critical thinking (for shame!). It was really interesting to examine what makes an argument, and I learned a new word: enthymeme.

Later that afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing podcaster Thomas Smith interview solicitor and former QED opener Emma McClure. It was an informative discussion on the prison systems of the US and UK, I’m looking forward to hearing it again when the podcast is released.

After that everyone went to the main hall to see a talk from neurologist Steve Novella. I really dislike what I call “consciousness woo”, which is a series of wishy-washy silly hypotheses and statements that try and demonstrate that there is something to consciousness that is beyond the physical. Dr Novella took apart all the supernatural bunk really well, it was a pleasure to see.

After dinner it was time for the Ockham awards. Only two this year (thankfully, sorry but I find award ceremonies interminable). The award for skeptical activist of the year went to Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society, a hugely worthy winner. Marsh does great skeptical activism there, chuck them a few quid if you can. The rusty razor went to Not-a-doctor Andrew Wakefield, presumably for his twenty-year-long effort to stop parents from vaccinating their children against measles. Bastard.

After some solid comedy from Alun Cochrane, I retired to the bar for an evening of friendly and stimulating chat. I was all set to retire at 2am, when Kat said “Karaoke?” and I got a second wind. In my stupor I subjected the Saturday night revellers to my rendition of “You’re the voice” by John Farnham. Video evidence of this exists for some reason, but please, leave it buried! I hopped in a cab at 4am and somehow managed to do what I do best: make an Alan Partridge meme:

patridge memejpg

So yeah, 9:30am on the Sunday morning wasn’t going to happen for me. I did however manage to to haul myself to the “Truth Hertz” panel, and I’m very glad I did. It was a great discussion on all things musical, with the most interesting stuff coming from Milton Mermikides (I really must read more about 432 hertz truthers).

After that I enjoyed another podcast recording, this time courtesy of the European Skeptics. It was great fun, Brian Eggo is hilarious, and all the free sweets and booze were delicious, with the exception of the Swedish salty liquorice, which according to Skeptic magazine editor Deborah Hyde, tasted worse than a badger. Keep an eye on the European Skeptics website for the show.

Following that there was a schedule change in the main hall. One of the main stage speakers pulled out at the last minute, so Paul Duncan McGarrity’s “A Practical Guide to Attacking Castles” was moved from the workshop track to the main stage. He belonged there. It was a tour de force of medieval history, comedy, and sword-inflicted injuries. If he’s anywhere near you, go and see it, it’s great!

The all too fleeting weekend was brought to a close with an excellent talk on the science of laughter by Professor Sophie Scott, a great way to round everything off. Following this, Mike Hall gave his traditional closing remarks before the organisers got their very much deserved standing ovation. Sadly yet understandably, QED is taking a break next year, so they will be back in 2020. See you then!

Also, I should say I’m not great with words. Someone who is much better with them is Jonathan Jarry, who has written a great piece on what makes QED so special. It echoes my thoughts exactly, go and read it!

 

Listen to the Retrospecticus Podcast!

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!

QEDcon 2016 Reminiscipackage

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!

Talking about wisdomofchopra.com at the Skepticamp

Talking about wisdomofchopra.com at the Skepticamp

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!

Quiz winners!

Quiz winners!

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).

Flag of the Confederacy of Douchecanoes

Flag of the Confederacy of Douchecanoes

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.

Enjoying a private screening of Ghostbusters

Enjoying a private screening of Ghostbusters

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!

See you at Skepticamp and QED 2016!

qedlogoQEDcon, 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!

Norwich City fans get a taste of skepticism after Chief Executive David McNally “resigns” on Twitter

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:

McNally resigns

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):

McNally does not resign

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:

  1. It’s genuine. David McNally has bypassed all official forms of club communication and announced his resignation on Twitter
  2. He’s joking
  3. His Twitter account has been “hacked”

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!

Talking about World War I at Ignite Liverpool

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?

 

Editing websites for fun and profit

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:

Blair Hague

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”.

Step 1

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!

Step 2

Once you know this simple trick, you can have all sorts of fun messing around with all kinds of sites! Have fun!

blair

homeopathy

Sally Morgan

Health Ranger

By the way, I didn’t do anything to that last one, it’s a real post on Natural News.