My flag talk at Ignite Liverpool 7

Last week, I gave a talk on flags at Ignite Liverpool 7. It’s an exciting format, with each speaker given 5 minutes and 20 slides to talk about whatever they want. The slides progress automatically every fifteen seconds, so you don’t have control and it’s very easy to lose your place. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in public speaking, and I’m already planning for Ignite Liverpool 8 in December. But anyway, here’s my talk which opened Thursday evening. Enjoy!

A fascinating evening from Ignite Liverpool and the Merseyside Skeptics

Ignite LiverpoolLast night saw a fantastic double header of speaking events in Liverpool, kicking off with Ignite 7 and ending with Stuart Ritchie giving a critical analysis of pornography at the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

The Ignite format was new to me, each speaker gets 5 minutes to give a 20-slide slide show on any subject that they think will interest the crowd. I volunteered to give a talk, and I thought I’d step outside of my comfort zone of science and talk about flags, another one of my interests. I was trying to show what the flags of the UK tell us about our own country, and I believe that if you apply a bit of skepticism to the topic you can unearth some very interesting stories. To my surprise I was put on first! It’s an odd experience as the slides advance automatically after 15 seconds, so it’s easy to lose your place. Not only was the event streamed live, but the talks were recorded and should be up on youtube soon. So, if you want to see me frantically talking about the flags of the UK, watch this space!

The Ignite talks were very diverse and I enjoyed them all, but my highlights were Lydia Bates talking about etymology, Alistair Haughton with a whistle-stop tour of the world’s cathedrals and Phil Moneypenny sharing his experiences of studying in Antarctica. My favourite talk was Barry Kushner, who in 5 minutes managed to very clearly and elegantly explain the state of our economy, and why we are going in the wrong direction with it. I even gave a little whoop of approval at the end! The next Ignite Liverpool is scheduled for December 1st, and I can highly recommend it for anyone who is passionate about public speaking. I’m already planning my next talk, I’m thinking about doing it on the flags of revolutions, or I could go back to my comfort zone and talk about ATP, arguably one of the most important molecules in nature.

Stuart Ritchie

Stuart Ritchie

Once Ignite had finished, I hurried on down to the Head of Steam to catch the monthly talk from the Merseyside Skeptics Society. I turned up about half way through the talk from Stuart Ritchie, who was taking us through the evidence for whether pornography was harmful or not. Obviously it’s a pretty taboo subject for a lot of people, but I thought Stuart spoke with great aplomb and it was a very credible academic presentation. What made the talk extra interesting however, was the presence of a handful of people who I gathered were anti-pornography campaigners. They seemed angry that Stuart hadn’t properly considered some anecdotal evidence against pornography at the start of his talk, and it made for some nice, stimulating discussion afterwards. I always enjoy a good debate, and it was a welcome and somewhat unexpected change of pace compared to most other skeptic nights. Good stuff!


Catch me at Ignite Liverpool!

Ignite LiverpoolThis Thursday (September 15th 2011) I’ll be giving a 5 minute talk on flags (yes, flags) at Ignite Liverpool. The event is upstairs at Leaf on Bold Street, starting at 6pm. I’ve not been to one of these events before, but it sounds like great fun. Lots of speakers have 5 minutes and 20 slides each to talk about whatever they want. So, if you’d like to know a bit more about the origins and meanings of the flags of the UK, make sure you turn up for my talk!

Catch me on the Pod Delusion talking about Four Lions

Pod DelusionFollowing Channel 4’s screening of Four Lions at the weekend, I thought I’d contribute a report to the Pod Delusion on the film and it’s surrounding controversy. You can listen to it here. As well as myself, the show features reports on the 50p tax rate, abortion counselling, racism and synchotrons, and there is an interview with Robin Ince. Good stuff, go and have a listen!

Four Lions on Channel 4 tonight

Four lionsThis evening (Sunday September 4th) Four Lions, the début film from director Chris Morris, gets it first UK screening on Channel 4. The film, which tells the story of four bumbling Jihadists from Sheffield, caused controversy when it was first released in cinemas, and the Daily Mail thinks the screening will cause outrage because it’s so close to the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11th 2001.

So, what’s the film like? In my considered opinion, it’s excellent. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the film presents us with five would-be terrorists who span a very wide character spectrum. The leader is Omar, a sharp, quick-witted yet flawed man who speaks fluent Urdu, who sees terrorism as an answer to the evils of Western capitalism. He persuades his brother Waj, who rivals Father Dougal for child-like stupidity, to join his cause, as well as the naive and shy Faisal, who specialises in training explosive crows to fly into buildings. They are backed up by the white convert Assam al-Britani (who everyone calls Barry), an angry hot-head and founder of the Islamic Republic of Tinsley. Later they are joined by the enthusiastic student Hassan, who’s more concerned with getting back on his media studies teacher than righting the wrongs of the world.

The first half of the film is a straight up comedy, with some great one-liners and comedy situations. However, the whole tone of the piece changes at the half way point. From then on, it is challenging for the viewer, who is fed comedy and thought-provoking tragedy in equal measure. No element of terrorism and counter-terrorism is left untouched by Morris, including the police, politicians and the intelligence services.

Sadly for the Daily Mail, the film isn’t nearly as controversial as they would like it to be. It does not make light of terrorism, it puts it in a very human context. The film has nothing specifically to do with 9/11, anyone who goes on the Mail website and complains about this clearly hasn’t seen it.

I think that the perspective on terrorism that Four Lions offers parallels with the huge amount of good that Morris’ Brass Eye paedophile special acheived. Back in 2001, the right wing tabloid press was awash with scare stories about paedophiles, whipping certain members of the population into a mad hysteria. Even innocent doctors weren’t immune from the baying mob, there was even a case of a paediatrician having “PAEDO” daubed on her house. Then the “Paedogeddon” Brass Eye special thundered onto our TV screens and changed all that. It made everyone take a step back, and the paedophile hysteria disappeared pretty much overnight.

One thing Four Lions does not do is glorify terrorism. Who knows, perhaps a would-be terrorist will see this film and be convinced that they are on the wrong path? Anyway, you can judge for yourselves at 9pm, Channel 4 tonight.

EU funding homeopathy for cows

Euro cowThe #ten23 hashtag on Twitter is currently full of homeopathy skeptics currently up in arms over a Daily Mail article claiming that the EU are to spend 2 million euro on researching the use of homeopathy in livestock farming. However, rather than being another piece of Mail right-wing euro-bashing, it is in fact true.

Fernando Frias kindly furnished me with a copy of the AGRI commission’s latest budget ammendments, and it’s right there on page 35:

Pilot project — Coordinate resesarch (sic) on the use of homeopathy and phytotherapy in livestock farming

Calls upon the Commission to set up a pilot project to coordinate research on the use of homeopathy and
phytotherapy in livestock farming, in line with the motion for a resolution on antibiotic resistance in
which Parliament called for the use of antibiotics in livestock farming to be reduced and for alternative
methods to be used; such methods include the use of homeopathy and phytotherapy; the pilot project
should involve the collection of data as to what research projects in the field of homeopathy and
phytotherapy have already been set up by the various Member States’ universities and higher education
institutions, and what findings they have made; the pilot project should also investigate whether, and in
what framework, the universities involved cooperate.

Pilot project within the meaning of Article 49(6) of Council Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002 of
25 June 2002 on the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities
(OJ L 248, 16.9.2002, p. 1).

The amendment is justified:

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem in the EU and worldwide. One problem is the use of antibiotics in
livestock farming. That is why research on alternative methods has to be moved forward, for example
homeopathy and phytotherapy.

A quick glance at the accompanying table confirms that the amendment will cost a cool 2 million euro. It has been tabled by the MEPs Ulrike Rodust and Luis Manuel Capoulas Santos, who are both members of the left wing group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

It may seem to be a noble idea, to investigate the possibility of reducing the amount of antibiotics given to livestock. So what are the problems here? First off, as myself and the 10:23 campaign have tried to make clear, homeopathy simply doesn’t work beyond placebo. It’s been around for over 200 years, and really doesn’t require any more research into it’s efficacy as far as I’m concerned. Secondly, there is the issue of ethics. If you treat livestock with homeopathy/placebo instead of antibiotics you are denying the livestock a proven treatment, which can lead to the animals suffering for no good reason. Finally of course, there is the issue of cost. 2 million euro is a lot of money to waste, regardless of the state of the global economy.

I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand here, but I really have to address one other point that cropped up in the Mail article:

Animals cannot benefit from the placebo effect because they won’t realise they have been given the treatment, say critics.

The idea that animals cannot experience the placebo effect is total nonsense, for two reasons. Animals can respond to attention, the placebo effect isn’t just about taking pills. Also, it isn’t the farm animal that judges whether they are benefiting from a treatment, it’s the farmer. The farmer is very much open to a kind of ‘secondary’ placebo effect, where he or she believes that their animals are getting better because they have seen them treated. Hopefully that’s that silly notion put to bed!