All posts by Liz

A night at the opera – buzzing about bees

On this week’s podcast, we interviewed Lucy Yeomans, Kelvin Thompson and Dr. Mark Brown about the Royal Holloway Science Festival and the Silence of the Bees – A science opera.  Yesterday afternoon, having piqued our curiosity, James and I headed out to Egham to watch the premier of this science opera.

Now I am pretty sure that I fit neatly in the venn diagram overlap of ‘interested in science’ and ‘opera fan’ and so I think it is safe to say that I quite liked the opera.  James having slightly less familiarity with opera found it a bit hard to follow when the acoustics worked against the singers.  The auditorium that the opera was performed in was a lecture theatre (one that Dr. Mark Brown had lectured in) and not an auditorium that would normally be used for music performances. At times the the acoustics could be challenging either because of sound disappearing or the musicians overpowering the singers. However, most of the time everything was perfectly audible – it just makes it slightly harder to comprehend when it’s science and not an histrionic love story being sung.

I don’t know how the work compares to ‘modern opera’ as my experience is still firmly rooted in 18th and 19th century works.  However, it makes me more interested in seeing modern opera which I haven’t really been interested in before.

So what was it about.  In our interview – Kelvin explained that it would be unfair to say it didn’t have a plot, but it does have a point.  I think that is a really good summation.  Four of the six singers are actually a composite of one person – different aspects of her/his/their personality.  Each in turn try to explain to the other two characters the importance of the bees to the world, with varying degrees of success.  The exact structure of time and place isn’t really as important as the evolving discussion. In the end, all four elements of that person manage to convince the other two characters of the importance of the bees and why they should care.

Regardless of plot or point – the performers were absolutely amazing, particularly Danae Eleni representing ‘the Scientist’.  The particular highlight for me was the prologue and epilogue.  The ‘Communicator’ was sort of chanting the name of bees that were endangered or threatened and there was a very infectious cadence every time he went ‘bombus’ and the taxonomic name of the bee.  I’m pretty sure there was some timpani or something in there but I can’t remember exactly.  It was amazing!  I’m just glad it happened twice as each time I was just enthralled by how you can take a list of endangered bees and make it into an urgent and compelling composition.

I think with any kind of experiment like this, combing some hard core science with a medium that many people may not be comfortable with, people can dwell on the thing that didn’t work.  To a certain extent that was what the Q&A was about – as Royal Holloway saw this as part of the science festival and science engagement.  However, while I could mention some of the things that to me didn’t quite work – I think that would be rather disingenuous.  For an 1 hour opera that was put together in less than 9 months, with less than 3 weeks of rehearsal for the performers it was an amazing feat.  I imagine with more performances, some finessing would smooth out the bits that didn’t work so well. I imagine with another hour (if you were going to go for a full length opera) some of the more complicated bits could be given more time to make their point.

In the end though, it was enjoyable and I learned more about the plight of bees in that hour than I had ever before. It did that and made me wish there was an album to buy so I could listen to the epilogue and prologue again. So in terms of engagement, I think it was a success, at least for me – I want to see a modern opera and save the bees.

We’ll see if other science operas come into existence. I think such collaborations should be sought by universities – whether in our current climate that is possible is another thing. Royal Holloway was very adventurous and probably took a great risk with something like this and I hope it reflects well upon them. In an era where everything has to be ‘innovative’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’ Royal Holloway has done so with great aplomb and in a way that had me singing “Bombus da-da-dat da” all the way to dinner and looking up on to join the Bumblebee Conservation Trust after that.

Thanks are not enough

Wow.

There are no words to express how absolutely thrilled we are that everyone had such a great time last night.  When the idea of putting on the Pod Delusion’s birthday party all on our own (without the safety net that is London Skeptics in the Pub where we’ve had our previous two birthday shenanigans) we were rather nervous.  It all came together within about three months!  Three months to get speakers, get volunteers, sort out running a big event (which neither of us had done before) plan, write scripts and PANIC!  The day we picked also was in the middle of family being over from Canada for two weeks.

But it worked!  I’m making this assumption based on the wonderful tweets before, during and after the show and the amount of people we had in the Enterprise post-gig.

We totally couldn’t have done it alone.  Just like the podcast itself – this only works when lots of people get involved. I hope I won’t forget thanking everyone!

First – all our wonderful speakers!  It still amazes us every week the reports we get sent in by people who have been with the Pod Delusion from the beginning and brand new people alike.  At the end of the night I just sat there in awe – it was a true to form Pod Delusion line up.  Topics so varied and different that on paper would make you wonder how it would all come together – but for some reason, for us, it works.

So a hearty thank you to Drew Rae (who! may I add, did not give James a bag of bad luck charms but an awesome book on cycling!) for giving us a risk assessment of the apocalypse.   It made it such a great night to have people on that stage that have been an integral part of the Pod Delusion an who have been contributing for so long.

Martin Robbins, who led the rousing chorus of ‘Fuck you, Daily Mail’ which, I think, was almost therapeutic for everyone in the room.  He’s an amazing blogger and it’s lovely that despite how busy people are, they seem to always have a bit of time for the podcast.

Peter Buckley Hill! Who led the audience to sing a re-invented ‘Why do birds suddenly appear?’ We feel rather honoured to have the man who runs the free fringe descend upon our show.

Claire Benson! Who brought fire!  May have slightly worried some people at the fine Conway Hall (including a highly sceptical care taker) but other than a few non-lighting matches, it went off without a hitch.  For those of you who like risk assessments:

The second half kicked off with the Skeptic Magazine’s Deborah Hyde talking about the malign supernatural.  Deborah has been a long time friend to the Pod Delusion and I don’t think the skeptic scene would be the same without her.

Kate Russell (as James would say – from the telly!)  We were so chuffed that Kate agreed to come and talk at our show after being flyered outside TAM 2010.  Aside from being super lovely, she has informed us now of the menace of INFOGRAPHICS!  It always amazes us the diversity and sheer amount of  people who listen to our show.  We’re glad that James’ flyering actually works!

The night was magical enough but after seen Alom Shaha at Winchester Science Festival (which we really hope will return again next year) doing magic and science – James didn’t want Alom to talk about his brilliant book – but instead do us some magic.  Possibly getting the most laughs of the night with his lovely assistant, Martin Robbins, it made the party a real party.

We had a final, last minute addition to the line up with Helen Arney from SO MANY THINGS – fame.  Her own brilliant shows Voice of an Angle and Festival of the Spoken Nerd are both touring to A TOWN NEAR YOU! So if you like geeky comedy, you should support one of the hardest working comedians in the business as they say.

And also VOLUNTEERS!

Man, none of this night would have been possible without all the lovely people who helped out at the gig.

Our excellent bar posse, Tessa Kendall, Carmen D’Cruz and Billy Abbott.  You guys had the busiest job of the night and we so appreciate you taking on the job.  Gosh.  You are just all so lovely, I don’t know what to say.  If you ever need someone to help you move house, I’m totally there.

Amy Crosthwaite and Blakeley Nixon who everyone would have met, checking your names at the door.  They didn’t have to do the mic wrangling in the end as we started running behind from the beginning (so no James’ Holiday Photo powerpoint).  They were brilliant as we weren’t even set up yet when people started coming to Conway Hall.

Jenny Bartle, former president of the AHS who was helping all the speakers out when arriving and generally being helpful and calm when James and I were getting increasingly manic.  Also, looking rather the part in her Pod Delusion t-shirt!  We’ve had many a conversation via Skype for AHS duties or at other humanist and secular events during her tenure as president.

We had an impromptu people-wranger in Mike Fielding – who helped guide people to the appropriate room as we were sharing Conway Hall with the Iraqi Association that night.  I think people going to either event were slightly confused at some point.  Mike is also one of the nicest people I know and so if you ever see him, you should totally give him a hug.  He’ll totally appreciate it.

And our Media Team (we had a media team?)

Dave Lee and Trent Burton who filmed the whole evening (so we’ll put it up at some point on YouTube) and Dave Hughes one of the people who bring you the excellent Winchester Skeptics.  All three of these guys are super busy, talented and wonderful and we’re just so chuffed that you wanted to help record our wee event!

Thanks to Sid RodgriguesJim Walsh and all the staff from Conway Hall who thought we could pull this off even before we thought we could.  Sid  helped us really bring the birthday party atmosphere.  Also Sid is also a contender for the nicest man in the UK/World Award.  Sid, Carmen and Tessa also of course keep us entertained on a monthly basis by organising London Skeptics in the Pub.  Andy our amazing soundman!  Who got us set up before (and during the show!) and gave me the best look ever when I asked for the fire extinguisher.

Newham books for tempting us all with shiny, shiny books.  The Skeptic Magazine for having their stall and for being a pillar in the skeptical community.  And of course the British Humanist Association our longstanding partners but also our very good friends.  Blakeley Nixon, Sara Passmore, Richy Thompson, Andrew West, Bob Churchill (though now part of the IHEU) and the force of nature that is Andrew Copson.

And of course, thanks to all those who bought tickets and came along!  Contributors, regular listeners, friends and people dragged along by friends.  It was such a brilliant night for us and we hoped you enjoyed it as much as we did.

We’ve worked with so many groups and met so many lovely people over the last three years, we could go on thanking people for several days.

I guess here’s to year four?

Podcast will be up next week, normal time.

Going Nuclear – The Bomb: a partial history

You may remember back in February I did an interview with the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, Nicholas Kent.  The interview was about the Tricycle’s new season of plays and the not so traditional content for theatre productions – the history of the bomb.  As it did sound incredibly interesting and right up the alley of myself and your intrepid Pod Delusion host, we took the oppotunity to see all 10 of the plays on Sunday afternoon/evening.   We started the day tired and rather regretting that we had not decided to take the day off instead but before the first interval we were hooked.

There are 10 plays in total which span from the very beginning of the bomb to contemporary issues involving Iran, Israel and even Trident.  In fact it was the play about Trident – “The Letter of Last Resort” that was a particular highlight for both of us.  The entire program is broken down into two parts, which last about 3 hours each – so if you start at 2:30 like we did, you finish around 9:30 with a break in the middle to go get some dinner.  It may seem like a long time to spend at the theatre but it was worth it.  You can split your watching as well, watching one half one week and the other half another week.  However, I felt so immersed in the plays that it didn’t seem to take that long at all.

So.  Part 1

These plays take place in World War Two and Cold War era politics, from creating the bomb, to keeping the nuclear club small, to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The highlight for us in this  half was “Seven Joys” which parodies the states limiting nuclear proliferation as a closed members clubs but with various individuals showing up by breaking in at various times.  The key figure is Wei, representing China who brings in a lot of the nuclear powers ‘through the kitchen’ as it were.  It was a fantastic parody because it really did get to the heart of the issue – keeping others without nuclear capability while those in the club get to keep theirs.  It was nuclear geo-politics in a nut shell but was also quite hilarious.  The tension about the Nuclear club and deterrence was a key theme in many of the plays, but treated with unique  perspectives in each iteration.

“Option” was my personal favourite of the first half, with a look at India’s nuclear program and the balancing of nuclear power with nuclear weapons.  It was told through the story of a professor, his former student and one of his current students.  It was just so heart wrenching to see the idea of nuclear power and power for his country, a country he identified with Gandhi and peace be corrupted to be used as a nuclear deterrent.  The complexities of deterrents was opened up to be brilliantly brought to a conclusion in the second half.  The look at other areas affected by debates about the bomb was refreshing in that it wasn’t just the US/UK/Russia (though they of course feature) but plays from the perspective of India, Iran, German/Austrian immigrants to the UK, Israel, South Africa and former Soviet satellites all wove the world politics surrounding nuclear weapons into a coherent narrative.

The first half ended with a very amusing take on the fall of the Soviet Union and what was being done with their nuclear assets.  In this case it was parodied by Ukranians with Irish accents and an old Russian with an English accent brokering a deal to sell the nuclear weapon.  I don’t know quite how to describe it other than hilarious and was a light hearted end (of sorts) to the first half.

Part 2 was rather more serious (though with inflections of humour throughout).  “There was a man.  There was no man” was a brilliant piece which shows both sides of Iranian/Israeli Nuclear tension through the interaction of two sets of brothers and sisters.  The complexity of family narratives interwoven with regional politics was brilliantly done.  It was tragic and heart wrenching and makes you wonder why there aren’t more plays like these.

Our personsal favourite though as mentioned earlier was “The Letter of Last Resort” which is a conversation between a newly elected PM and one of her staff from “arrangements” about the letter she needs to write to the captains of the Trident submarines about what to do if the UK is wiped out by a pre-emptive Nuclear attack.  It was enormously funny but really punched hard at the cost and use of Trident.  I think my favourite lines were what would be the most honest in that sort of situation:  “There has been a fuck up” she writes in one of the possible letters which received a roar of laughter.  It was just so well balanced and succinct in it’s encapsulation of the need/futility regarding nuclear deterrents.  It was definitely our highlight of the show.  I’m tempted to go again just to see that play.

I imagine anyone suggesting such a group of plays with this content could have been met with laughter or the assertion that it was impossible.  However, the playwrights and authors did such an astounding job of balancing artistic merit with geopolitics and the history of the bomb.  The are to be commended.  This isn’t a one sided look at the bomb, all the complexities regarding development and deterrent are examined in various guises.  It was truly an enjoyable and incredibly enlightening experience.  It has certainly set a new standard for the live performances that I expect to see from now on.

If you want to still go see the plays (and I really hope you do), check the Tricycle Theatre for tickets before the season ends on April 1.

Nerding about town: Review of Festival of the Spoken Nerd

I have already seen some of the positive reviews floating about Twitter today about Festival of the Spoken Nerd – the wonderful show performed by Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker but we’ll add our two pence as well.  We had a short interview with the three nerds a few weeks ago on the Pod Delusion to talk about the show if you are interested here.

Even though your intrepid editor and myself are still feeling quite under the weather, we gathered what strength we had and figured if we died laughing, it would be the best way to go.

We hadn’t seen any of the previous FOSTN shows down at the New Red Lion Theatre so we didn’ t know entirely what to expect – though having seen both Helen Arney and Matt Parker perform, we knew that we would be in for some clever and entertaining comedy.   We were not disappointed.

There is something genuinely lovely about being in an audience who know must be nerdy by the fact they are going to a comedy celebration of nerdiness.  The three on stage are also just such nice people that it does feel like a festive atmosphere.  As well, for us, the Bloomsbury Theatre is the home of Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols so it’s a comfortable and familiar venue.

There was a lot packed into the show and most of it was entirely new material for us  – which is rare as we generally see a lot of the science/comedy scene in London.   Even the bits that we had seen before like Andrea Sella (@SellaTheChemist) setting stuff on fire with bright blue lights and recognizable ‘barks’ will never get old.  Andrea was one of the special guests alongside Kent Valentine (@KentValentine) who had an excellent, just ridiculous story about his 15 year old self and a friend making napalm while his mother was out.   I don’t know if the routine is floating about  YouTube or not but I would encourage seeing him based on that bit alone.  Who knows, maybe he’ll show up at some of the other FOSTN big shows (more on that later) as well.

One of the most intriguing bits of the show, which I am fascinated by, were the solids of constant width.  3D objects that have the same width no matter which way they face/lie.  To prove this, Steve Mould had many of these wonderful shapes made and then proceeded to try and float across the stage on them.  It was an excellent demonstration of mathematical concepts and comedy (replete with dressing up as his tiny lego man counterpart for the previous section demonstrating shapes of constant width to the audience).   This sketch really sums up for me the true brilliance of the show: on one hand I was absolutely fascinated by this abstract concept and Steve’s obsession with the shapes of constant width but he then makes it hilarious. I am now going to remember that concept for a very long time (I just wish there was a nerdy enough pub quiz for it to be used in!)  In true nerdy fashion, Steve and Matt are going to have many of the shapes of constant width made where you will be able to purchase one – they’ll at least have one sale as I am going to get one when available.

The three seem to work effortlessly at banter and performing together on stage.  Helen Arney’s songs are always amusing (Keep your trousers on Archimedes was probably my favourite); Matt Parker can make any graph interesting; and Steve Mould’s experiments are brilliant.   The only thing that tended to break up the flow (for me) was that they asked the audience if they had any questions after the various sketches.  I imagine it would work in a smaller venue but for the larger one, it slowed down the pace of the show a bit.  Nonetheless, some of the questions and answers given were equally amusing as the sketches.

Overall, it was a wonderfully indulgent night of geekery.   If anyone has made a new  years resolution about getting out to see more shows, there are two more Festival of the Spoken Nerd MASSSIVE shows coming up in the next several months.  There is a second date at the Bloomsbury Theatre on the 22nd of May but sooner than that and also MORE MASSIVE is the Theatre Royal Haymarket gig  next month on February 2nd.  Support nerd comedy goodness so we can have more!  What can be better than filling the theatres and venues with smart, sophisticated, clever comedy that tickles every nerdy bone in your body?

Liz Lutgendorff, Deputy Editor

December Round Up

It hasn’t been an especially busy month for James and I but we did manage to catch a few interesting events around London.  Generally, if we don’t get interviews at an event we still feel like we need to tell you about it.

Holy Quarks at the Wellcome Trust

So first up was Holy Quarks, put on by the Wellcome Trust.  It was a Saturday conference with music on the Friday, however we only made the Saturday event.  It was an interesting attempt at bridging the growing divide between science and religion.  The arguments that some people advanced at the conference was that they two can work together.  It started with an interesting talk (with lovely pictures) Felicity Powell who  put together the exhibition on charms.  While saying she was a rather secular person herself, she nonethless enjoyed working with such interesting objects – some extraordinarily tiny.  The highlight for us though, was Alom Shaha‘s talk on Science vs Religion in the Classroom.  It seemed to be the most honest of the talks of the day, arguing against what many of the speakers were trying to convey.   He told about the conflict in his classroom and gave every day evidence that there is a a conflict, or at least a very stated tension between what he has to teach and what many of his students believe.

I got slightly annoyed with the talk titled Science, Faith and Doubt: Lessons from history byThomas Dixon as I didn’t agree with the examples he used.  It’s rather easy to say there isn’t a conflict between religion and science in the 17th century (even with Galileo) as *everyone* had to be religious.  Even in the 18th century this was largely true.  Where the interesting conflict arises in the 19th century with the professionalization of science.  As well, he quoted a later version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, rather than the first edition.  This could be pedantry but it was this quote:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

instead he quoted the sixth edition:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Which could be an entire lecture in itself.

I do enjoy these types of conferences and it is interesting to see what arguments are being used to bring the two – religion and science – together.  It is a worthy endeavour to see where there isn’t conflict to ensure that we aren’t succumbing to a fallacy but I think I’m going to need some more evidence before I believe there isn’t a problem.

Ghosts of Christmas Lectures Past

The second big event that we went to was the same day at the Royal Institution for The Ghosts of Christmas Lectures Past, MC’d by the seemingly omnipresent Robin Ince.  I’m beginning to think he’s actually The Doctor for his ability to fly around the country and put on so many shows.

We’ve been to quite a few events this year, covering them and recording them for you, our voracious listener and I can say that this was one of the best events of the year.  Robin and the RI had assembled a wonderful group of passionate science fans to present to us some of the best stuff from Christmas Lectures past.  Now, I am new to the whole Christmas Lecture thing and so I don’t have a favourite or even a deep knowledge of them.  However, I now have a new desire to trawl the RI archives and learn everything about them after this event.

So the format was pretty straight forward – Robin Ince hosted and introduced guests and they each gave a short talk on who was their favourite Lecturer or in the case of Helen Arney, their favourite technician!  Topped off by the fact that we were in the Faraday Lecture Theatre just made it a lovely night.  Matt Parker (who will also get a mention in the next section) probably got the most ooos and ahhs with the wave machine used in the first maths Christmas Lecture by Professor Sir Christopher Zeeman in 1978.  The dialogue between Professor Zeeman and the BBC about the use of formulae on screen was hysterical.

Adam Rutherford touched on a issue that is becoming more important to me: the brain and gaming.  As I’ve become increasingly interested in the Xbox and the gaming joy it provides, I have also been annoyed by the scaremongering of Dr. Susan Greenfield.  I even did a bit of a historical rant about it on our Questival Special. Adam’s use of Fruit Ninja to demonstrate how our brains change was excellent.  It will be interesting to see as the gamer population ages and takes over that of those non-gamers in editorial positions if this sort of thing will just go away.   It is nice to see someone standing up for it now though!

Another person who will make an appearance later on was Professor Andrea Sella from UCL who did marvellous things with bubbles and also was responsible for the ether left out for so long!

The brilliant thing about the lectures was the unabashed love song to science.  Everything was marked by a profound sense of joy and awe towards science.   The night seemed to capture the idea of wonder in science and how it is conveyed to a popular audience through these lectures.  It was an absolutely captivating event and one that I personally would love repeated.

Infinite Monkey Cage

I also managed to go to two Infinite Monkey Cage recordings, which were hilarious.  The first was with Nick Lane, the above mentioned Adam Rutherford and Tim Minchin.  The second was this week with Roger Highfield, Richard Dawkins and Mark Gatiss.   I think the BBC should never let go of the Infinite Monkey Cage; in fact it should have more science based programs.  Maybe a skeptical one too.  With a news-magazine format…

Anyway, you will be able to listen to both of these if they tickle your fancy.  A particular highlight was Richard Dawkins telling everyone to have a Merry Christmas – possibly because I know how much it must annoy the Daily Mail.

9 Lessons and Carols

The latest event was,  of course, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless people.   What is becoming an annual event, with its fourth sell out year, was excellent.   For me, it is only when 9 Lessons comes around that it really does feel like Christmas.  I hope Robin never stops organizing them, or at least when he tires of it, passes the mantle on to other such science enthused comedians so we can continue to have our own unabashedly science and holiday fuelled festive celebration.

The only possible problem for me at any of these kind of events is that we generally see a lot of them throughout the year and so could potentially get repetitive.  However, largely this was brand new material from most of the comedians but there were also a lot of new faces for me which was excellent.

The entire night was lovely, the right sort of tone and honest celebration of both the festive season but also what we all love, science and geekery.   It’s hard to say who the highlights were as it was all pretty much brilliant.  Helen Keen was on form as usual – I admire the amount of history of NASA she knows.  Basically, I appreciate any healthy interest in history (we might be recording something with Helen in the new year, so watch out for that, maybe!).  The other Helen of the night,  Helen Arney’s clever swap of Santa for Cerny in a rendition of Santa, Baby was inspired (if you are lucky, you might get it hear it on the Infinite Monkey Cage on the 26th but only if they manage to secure the rights for the tune).    Another wonderful musical number was Gavin Osborn singing about Carl Sagan and Voyager 1 and 2.  Perhaps, made more resonant with me after our interview with Ed Stone!

As I mentioned above, Matt Parker makes another appearance with his talk about the two mathematicians that predicted the future.  As I said on Twitter, the self-referential graph material was inspired.  There’s a phrase that probably doesn’t get used a lot, unless perhaps, you know Matt Parker.  Another RI Ghosts of Christmas Lectures past alumni Andrea Sella had a rather….illuminated talk?  Which involved lighting gases on fire, including in a 4-5 ft test tube that belched flame out the top!   The final act of the night was Mark Thomas, who is always pitch perfect.  I had not seen the People’s Manifesto tour which is what he mainly talked about so I was at least very entertained.

There are still some 9 Lessons and Carols gigs left, though they are all sold out.  However, just keep an eye on Twitter as usually there are a few people who can’t make it and you can snap up some of the tickets.  But if you can’t make (or really, even if you do) you can always see Festival of the Spoken Nerd in the new year!

So that was our December!  Some familiar faces, Helen Keen, Helen Arney, Matt Parker and of course, Robin Ince who we hope are not getting terribly sick of us.   But also some new people who look forward to seeing much more of like Andrea Sella and Alom Shaha.  It was a very science-y December but the celebration of wonder and curiosity is what I really remember.   I hope I can keep up with all this next year, even though I should be starting my PhD in the history of the secular movement.  Luckily, the who overlap quite a bit so just expect long diversions into 19th century science history 😉

Happy Christmas and have a fantastic New Year!

Boring Conference 2011

A few weeks ago, your intrepid editor and myself traipsed over to Hackney to take in the Boring Conference. We arrived slightly late, as we were interviewing Marcus Chown that morning but still managed to hear about Budgens, About a Boy, bar codes and the sound of vending machines. All this was topped off by Adam Curtis talking about the bits of video between videos on the BBC and wondering if we are experiencing cultural stagnation akin to the end of Soviet Russia.

The Boring conference wonderfully pokes fun about the attendees and speakers own geekiness and love of the obscure, pedantic and in any other hands, the boring. It was delightful and each talk was a surprise either through making the otherwise beige content interesting or often very funny, though some elements didn’t work for me: the possible post-modern jokes in between speakers (but maybe I’m missing something because of my innate foreignness); the venue’s acoustics from way in the back; and the venue was rather cold after the afternoon sun started to dip.

Those, though, are ephemeral notes compared to the content of the conference which was excellent. Matt Parker was on top form (as usual) giving an extended talk about bar codes. If you’ve seen him at the Uncaged Monkey tour or other events, you may have seen it part of the act before. However, he expanded on the original theme and ventured into the wonderful world of QR codes which was amazing for its capacity for redundancy. A highlight for me was the improbable yet prodigious amounts photographs from location research for Stanley Kubrick, the talk given by Jon Ronson. As James said at the time, it was like the equivalent of Google Streetview from when Eyes Wide Shut was filmed. It was absolutely ridiculous. I found myself oddly fascinated by the vending machine noise talk given by Felicity Ford, recent PhD graduate from Oxford-Brookes.

The finale with Adam Curtis turned the very idea of the Boring Conference on its head, wondering if the concept of the Boring Conference fit it with the idea of cultural stagnation. Perhaps not the best way to end the night, giving a overall critique of our inability to escape from our current predicament, but definitely food for thought.

Who knows if there will be a Boring Conference 2012, perhaps the cultural malaise and stagnation will have taken us through boring and into ennui. I’m not sure what kind of conference that would make. But congratulations to James Ward for making the Boring Conference 2011 thoroughly enjoyable.

Polygamy Update: British Columbia rules on test case.

At Pod Delusion live at the inaugural QED conference, I did a rather different report (for me, anyway) on the then current case in the Supreme Court of British Columbia about decriminalizing polygamy.

There are a few things you may need to know before I continue.  One, Canada has legalized gay marriage (indeed was the fourth country in the world to do so and the first in the Americas); and two Canada has a very large Mormon community in Bountiful, British Columbia who practice polygamy, though they haven’t been successfully charged with polygamy over their many years in British Columbia.   Indeed, the test case was launched because of failed prosecutions under the current law for those in the Bountiful community.

Why are the two related?  One of the criticisms of allowing gay marriage in Canada was that it would lead to the decriminalization, or more generally, acceptance of alternative forms of marriage – the slippery slope argument as it were.  However, this is not what has happened.  Instead the BC Supreme Court has ruled that it basically comes down to harm as BC Chief Justice Robert Bauman states in the ruling: “More specifically, Parliament’s reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy. This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage.”  There are also many other interesting aspects to the ruling, so I encourage you to have a read to at least the ruling (possibly not all 335 pages of it though!)

There is a polyamory association in Canada (not affiliated with the community at Bountiful) that was also giving evidenced at the trial – but I’d argue that the issue of not getting married is probably not as necessary for those in the polyamory community as it is with the Mormon community and so the former are not affected as much by the ruling.   Indeed, the spokersperson for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association stated “the formality of marriage is really not a big issue in the polyamorous community”.    Though, if there is a ceremony it still may criminalize these unions – an area which the CPAA would like clarified.   It would be nice to see the liberalization of laws that protect binaries in marriage – which the ruling more or less explicitly states – but at this point, I agree with the judge in that it would cause harm.  He specifically states that minors who find themselves in polygamous unions should not be charged.  This is telling in itself and a good reason why the current law should have been upheld – the issue of child brides in Mormon communities.  But it wasn’t just about marriage, there was a lot in Bountiful that also made polygamy a harmful practice; one being the expulsion of young men as there weren’t enough women to go around to furnish them all with multiple brides.  There is now the question of what happens to the excess brides of such illegal unions (many who might be illegal immigrants in part of a wife trade between Mormon communities in the US).

While the ruling obvious impedes some freedom of religion (in this case that of the Mormons) it is allowed to discriminate based on the first clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

“1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Reasonable limits has been used before to curtail the Freedom of Speech of people who use it to promote hate as well.  However, I don’t know if this was the first time it was specifically used to limit Freedom of Religion.  It was the reason I speculated that the freedom of the Mormon’s to this specific aspect of their religion might be overruled in my original report.

I realize that such a term may lead to a conservative interpretation of what may be considered reasonable but I think thus far it has been largely a good force in Canadian law.  I imagine there is someone who’d make the argument for the opposite.  Indeed, this case could be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada – so the saga may not end.  It would be helpful for the non-Mormon poly community to have some safety in that their non-solemnized unions are perfectly safe and free from criminal prosecution.  I would support polyamorous unions per se, but as the largest vocal representatives of the practice so far has a proven record for:  trafficking minors for the express purpose of marriage; lack of good education; a huge lack of women’s rights; problems with physical and sexual abuse of women and minors; and the tendency to ostracize their younger, male members – which tends to weigh heavily against the poly community in Canada.  It’s a hard balance, I grant you that:  the limiting of damaging religious practices with the liberal, egalitarian ones. There is also the danger of Canada becoming a haven for those extreme religious groups that still practice polygamy.

It will be interesting to see if this goes to the highest court in the land and if there can be some sort of nuance brought to the existing laws or a continuation of what has been in place for the last 100 years or so.  It was certainly an interesting year to watch law proceedings in Canada!

Blog post by Liz Lutgendorff

Original report from Pod Delusion Live at QED