Monday 27 August 2012

My QED 2012 experience — part 2

(Click here for part 1.)

I bought lunch in the hotel bar (I wasn't going to repeat last year's mistake, when a bunch of us decided to eat out — unfortunately on that occasion service was so slow we had to bring our food back with us, twenty minutes late for Jim Al-Khalili's talk on time travel). So this time it was coffee and a sandwich — basic, cheap and quick — and I'd had a good breakfast, plus I was booked in for the Gala Dinner in the evening.

I was looking forward to Ophelia Benson's talk, titled "Silencing for God", as I read her blog Butterflies and Wheels (at least I try to; she's so prolific it's hard to keep up — a point I made to her in a brief conversation the previous evening during the Mixer). Her first example of free speech suppression was from University College London, where there had been some fuss over the use of a Jesus and Mo cartoon appearing on the Facebook page for the university's Atheist Secularist & Humanist Society. The Students' Union claimed this was offensive and demanded it be taken down. The controversy spread to the London School of Economics with similar results, and even further: award-winning young skeptic Rhys Morgan used the cartoon (actually it was the cover of a Jesus and Mo book) as his profile picture as a mark of solidarity with the ASHS, and his school demanded he take it down — on pain of expulsion. These are classic claims of the right not to be offended — which as it happens is not actually a right. Interesting to note that Rhys Morgan and "Author" (pen-name of the author of Jesus and Mo) were both at QED.
Ophelia had plenty of other examples from all around the world, many using intimidation to stifle free speech. The problem is that religions (of many different stripes) believe they have the right to censor the words of people who don't subscribe to the particular religion that's objecting. It's only by standing firm, en masse, that this kind of thing will be defeated — which is difficult when you're faced with what appear to be genuine threats.

Sarah Angliss delivered a talk-cum-demonstration entitled "Voices of the Dead", which included some highly surreal music and a live demonstration (recording as well as playback) of an Edison Phonograph. Weird instruments were in evidence, including what must be the ultimate weird instrument, a theremin, played by waving one's hands at and around it. The instrument on stage appeared to be commercially produced (it had the "Moog" logo on it). Sarah was another speaker I was keen to hear on account of her reference to a temporary exhibition (which I saw at the Science Museum) of the work of Daphne Oram, including the original "Oramics Machine" used for creating electronic music.

Previously I'd only come across Massimo Polidoro in Skeptical Inquirer, for which magazine he writes a regular column. He's been involved in the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, overseeing many attempts to prove paranormal phenomena, both as part of the MDC and elsewhere, none of which has so far succeeded. His talk, "The Search for Superman", documented some of the more unusual and hilarious of these attempts.

The afternoon concluded with Richard Saunders, well-known to listeners of the podcast The Skeptic Zone, otherwise well-known to viewers of Australian TV. His talk, "The Delights & Dangers of being a TV Skeptic", gave us the inside story on some of the programmes and series on which he's appeared. He also demonstrated the infamous "Power Balance" bracelet, using a not entirely unknown volunteer:
The Power Balance story is one of success for the balanced powers of organised skepticism. After several publicised tests and prolonged media exposure the product — shown to be fake — was withdrawn, and the company sold. Unfortunately other bogus woo has promptly jumped in to fill the gap in a credulous market. Eternal vigilance required!

The Gala Dinner on Saturday evening was a success. I didn't hesitate to book for this optional extra, as last year's was definitely worth it, but how successful it is for any individual depends on whose table you're assigned to, and what mix of dining companions you find yourself amongst. After the dinner, Robin Ince introduced the Skeptic Awards, which were followed by a musical performance from Sarah Angliss, including yet another weird instrument — a sonorous saw coaxed into audibility using a violin bow. Then we had laid-back stand-up from Alun Cochrane (superb), and stand-up plus conjuring from Paul Zenon, whose performance with a full beer glass swinging from a string, while walking among the audience, was as surprising as it was scary (I still wonder if he's ever had a serious accident — and concomitant injury claims — as a result of this reckless stunt). It was, needless to say, the cause of much nervous hilarity.

The night apparently continued with dancing late into the early morning, but I needed some sleep.