diamond geezer

 Monday, May 09, 2016

Notes from Boring 2016
A conference at Conway Hall, Holborn, 7th May 2016

10.55 James Ward @iamjamesward: Pedestrian Crossing Signals used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (1961-1990)
After introducing proceedings, conference organiser James earned a wry giggle from the capacity audience when the title of the opening talk was revealed. East Germany's iconic pedestrian light symbol, Ampelmann, was created in 1961 by leading traffic psychologist Karl Peglau. Had his ideas been introduced in their entirety, the country's traffic lights would also have been replaced en masse by a system using three very different shapes as well as the usual red, amber and green to enhance safety for the colour-blind. Although this aspect never materialised, the cheery stocky translucent man soon became a firm favourite. Perhaps the hats (proposed by Peglau's secretary) were the defining feature, that of the green man flat-topped and that of the red man curved. West Germany, by contrast, stuck with thinner less cartoonish symbols with no material difference between red and green, hinting at a capitalist metaphor whereby one man could do the job of two. After 1989 Ampelmann might have been lost as part of an unreasonable post-unification reconditioning mentality, but remains reassuringly popular as a brand (though tellingly now facing right rather than left).

11.07 Jason Ward @draw_nosaj: An Evening in Paris
Jason (no relation to James) is a writer and puzzle checker, and confessed that his relationship with puzzles is similar to that of Nicolas Cage to snuff films portrayed in the movie 8mm. He took to the stage with a boxed jigsaw - An Evening in Paris - the intention being to complete the puzzle before the end of the conference in six hours time. To add to the dramatic tension a smartphone was set up to livestream proceedings on Periscope, backed by £10 of pay as you go credit, which at one point gained as many as 13 viewers worldwide. Opening up the bag and pouring the pieces out onto the table, Jason recognised the Keynsian futility of his task, and revealed that his hero is Michael Barry, the Bath pensioner who tests jigsaws for charity shops. The conference would return to Jason's odyssey at irregular intervals throughout the day, learning in the process that a typical 1000 piece jigsaw in fact has 1026 pieces, the straight sides invariably measuring 38 by 27.

11.16 Edward Long @eddus: paper bags from independent bookshops
As a poet, Edward exists in a constant state of wistful nostalgia. He is a big fan of independent bookshops which, unlike say Waterstones, provide a greater variety of less well-known titles and allow for serendipitous discovery. They also tend to provide buyers with a paper rather than a plastic bag, such as the gold-striped example from Skansenbutiken, and the unusually narrow bag (with folded side gussets) from nearby Skoob. That provided by the Stoke Newington Bookshop is incredibly spacious, almost bakery standard, and features the name of the shop as an incomprehensible keyboard swoosh above a white-on-blue design. By contrast the LGBT bookshop Gay's The Word choose not to advertise themselves in packaging, forcing Edward to use a stunt bag from the Swedish Bakery to conceal some particularly filthy erotica. Recently purchased books tend to stay wrapped on Edward's desk for days, as befits a little present for himself, like bonbons from a sweetshop.

11.26 Tom Jackson @PastPostcard: Old postcards
Proving that you don't need a Powerpoint presentation to keep an audience spellbound, Tom took to the stage with a small handful of his extensive collection of old used postcards. He ventured that the messages on such holiday missives provide an illuminating window into fragments of a lost life, and proceeded to read out a selection, having briefly waved the holiday picture on the front in our direction. Marjorie wished Ida thanks for a happy holiday in Dawlish, Jen's trip to 70s London went on hiatus at the airport, and Edie wrote from Folkestone of her success in pulling up a lettuce. Tom proceeded to draw parallels with Félix Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes, a highly successful news-in-brief feature from 1906, awakening similar feelings and memories. Further postcard quotations exemplified deliberate and unwitting humour, cryptic and intriguing references, and poignant existential loneliness. Tom's talk reached a crescendo by addressing Britain's psychotic obsession with the weather, with a lengthy sequence of meteorologically-inspired quotations ("We have had nice weather for the ducks." "Dad's belly is burnt.") evoking a sustained empathetic response.

11.48 Ellie Herring: Lampposts: For or Against?
Could there be a more quintessentially 'Boring conference' title than this? As a design historian, Ellie has spent six years researching street furniture and so was an exemplary guide through a brief history of the antagonism induced by artificial illumination. In 1881 one critic described electric light as "an expensive daylight show", while Robert Louis Stevenson claimed it was fit only for the lunatic asylum. Post-war devastation provided a blank canvas for council-led redevelopment, bringing manufacturers such as Parkinson & Cowan, Adastra, and Concrete Utilities Ltd to our streets (the latter's output still very much in evidence around the edge of the company's car park on the outskirts of Ware). Sir John Betjeman was no fan of the weeping serpents' advance, describing them as gibbets erected by pettifogging Borough Surveyors. Whilst few went as far as Sir Albert Richardson in Ampthill, commissioning a plaque to decry "These incongruous lamp posts which detract from the beauty of this historic town", only in Norwich did councillors investigate the effect on women's make-up before selecting the type of lamppost to illuminate their city.

12.04 Nicholas Tufnell @nicholastufnell: Serial numbers inside toilet rolls
Nicholas's unspoken passion began as a small child when he first peered at the cardboard tube inside a toilet roll and noted the alphanumeric serial number (starting J29 and ending 7168). He spent years looking for a pattern in the numbers, before regrettably deducing there wasn't one, so sought to provide his own meaning using a simple numeric code. Hiding away in toilet cubicles across London, Nicholas proceeded to harvest a comprehensive series of digits which he translated and compiled into poems, borough by borough. He read us two, the Hackney stanza using a typical Tennyson metre ("gag gag gag"), and the Islington verse in the style of Hilaire Belloc ("Do you recall the fogged beef?"). I have no doubt that conference attendees of a literary bent rushed home to check their own tubes.

12.14 Catherine O’Flynn @catherineqanik: Unlimited Salad
Award winning author Catherine delivered a paean to Britain's chain restaurants, specifically the lower end, which are to be found on bypasses and high streets across the country. She rallied against the perverse situation whereby music and film critics review the commonplace, whereas food critics only ever review high-end atypical establishments and never write columns on, say, the latest update to the Harvester menu. Her favourite culinary style is traditional English, memorably shorted to Trad Eng, and characterised by gravy-coloured carpet and cheeky carvery decor. Trad Eng restaurants thrive by creating a dreamlike, almost mythical, environment, and serve up a broad range of dishes in portions designed to satisfy the greediest appetite. When visiting chain restaurants Catherine likes to play a game she calls 'Bottomless Jug', in which one diner reads out an item from the menu and the others have to try to predict the description underneath - normally won by any competitor picking words such as 'mouthwatering', 'tangy' or 'chocolatey' (as appropriate). Catherine confidently stated that "if you're someone who quite likes things, chain restaurants are for you", before concluding "go on, spoil yourself, great any day of the week". We could have listened to her speak for twice as long.

12.28 Greg Stekelman @themanwhofell: Ally Pally
Unable to attend in person, Boring stalwart Greg sent in a short film reflecting on a personal history of Alexandra Palace. This he narrated over footage of the landmark burning down in 1980, which he watched from his school playground at the time. The blaze kicked off during the Capital Radio Jazz Festival, and thankfully wasn't quite as bad as the original conflagration which took place in 1873, sixteen days after the building was opened.

We took almost an hour and a half for lunch, slightly longer than usual, but no hardship on so warm and sunny a day.

14.08 Peter Fletcher @joyfeed: "They proceeded at once to test the assertion" - Significance Testing and the Lady Tasting Tea Experiment
Milk or tea first? A key question, and (it turns out) at the very heart of modern statistical methodology. In the early 1920s, at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Ronald Fisher drew a cup of tea from the urn which was declined by its intended recipient because she preferred the milk to go in first. "Let's test her," said a colleague, and the pair devised a simple experiment with far-reaching consequences. Eight cups of tea were poured, half with the milk added first, and Miss Muriel Bristol was invited to distinguish them by taste alone. This classic test was reproduced live on stage, using a ropey Amazon-sourced kettle and somewhat irregular portion control, with Peter correctly identifying three out of four of the "tea first" cups. By considering the number of possible combinations he demonstrated that the probability of this occurring by chance was 16/70, or 22.9% - low, but not low enough to suggest a causal link. Fisher's Exact Test, as the methodology behind the Lady Tasting Tea Experiment became known, was the first formal use of the null hypothesis and is still the basis behind clinical and other scientific trials to this day.

14.24 Lynne Murphy @lynneguist: the
Linguist Lynne shone her verbal torch on the most common word in spoken English, namely 'the'. One of only two English articles, the definitive nature of 'the' equates to a presumed uniqueness, and is used in speech when the listener is expected to know which of a particular set is being referred to. Although we use the word habitually, in many parts of the world an affix is used instead, while 40% of languages have no such grammatical construction. The word 'the' is a particular stumbling block for the Chinese, when learning English, particularly in distinguishing between arthrous and anarthrous phrases (for example, "on the radio", but simply "on television"). Analysis of spoken language reveals that the word 'the' is being used less than before, with a noticeable decline since the turn of the 20th century as our speech has become less formal. In contrast our use of the indefinite article remains constant at around 2-3% of everything we say.

14.39 Alby Reid @alby: A more logical system of coinage
Continuing a consecutive run of very strong sessions, Alby launched into a carefully constructed argument proposing an update to the small change in our pockets. Our current system of denominations is sub-optimal, and would be better served by a series of coins valued 1p, 5p, 16p, 23p, 33p, £1 and £2 (although it is unlikely that the British public's arithmetical abilities would be sufficient to withstand such a modification). Alby used scattergraphs to demonstrate the illogical basis upon which our current coinage's diameter and thickness are constructed and proposed a new logarithmic scale whereby the size of a coin would be in true proportion to its value. Disregarding coppers, and retaining the existing 5p and £2 coins as endpoints, Alby generated a new set of dimensions for the intermediate coins from first principles. Tactile identification of these circular coins could be enhanced by the addition of milled and scalloped edges, and the system would also support the introduction of a doubloon-sized fiver.

14.51 Tracy King @tkingdoll: Algorithmic and Manual Pricing of Books
To celebrate Free Comic Book Day, Tracy recounted the perverse economic tale of a limited edition Tim Minchin graphic novel she had helped to illustrate. Although all 2000 hardback copies sold out in the first week, at £20 a copy, Amazon's automated systems failed to understand the concept of 'limited edition' and continued to list the book. The price rose swiftly to £50, and within eighteen months to £982, spurred on by a feedback loop with eBay as competitive algorithms applied an inflexible multiplier to each other's listed price. Eventually a human presence intervened, and the price has since fallen back to two digit values. Tracy explained she'd had a similar experience with issue #133 of Daredevil comic, published in 1973, which featured Uri Geller doing some suggestive pipe-bending. Told this execrable comic was valuable she attempted to buy up all the copies on eBay, only for this to invoke the laws of supply and demand and price her out of the market.

15.06 Rhodri Marsden @rhodri: Vexations
Speaking at his sixth Boring Conference, Rhodri used the sesquicentenary of Eric Satie's birth to recount the tale of reputedly 'the most boring piece of music ever written'. A man of habit (a velvet suit for every day, and lunch at 12.11 precisely), Satie became besotted with a model named Suzanne and entered into a romance which lasted five months before she dumped him. Against this disconsolate background he wrote a short composition entitled Vexations, renowned for its enharmonic notation, rhythmic suspension and perverse opening instruction which suggests that the piece might be played 840 times in succession. Never performed during his lifetime, its first public airing was in 1963 at a marathon event organised by John Cage. Twelve pianists played in relay, the audience were given money back the longer they stayed, and few lasted the full 18½ hours. To give us some idea of what they endured, Rhodri proceeded to perform Vexations on his electronic keyboard leading up to, and then throughout, the conference's afternoon tea break.

And what a strange piece Vexations is. Barely one minute in length, its melody exhibits all the features of a tune without actually having one, and never quite reaches hummability, no matter how many repetitions it receives. The Boring audience sat patiently through the first four plays, before given verbal permission to depart for drinks, and by play 10 only a quarter of us remained. A further ten plays reduced that fraction to a tenth, the hardier souls, their continued presence made rather more bearable by the distraction of being able to check the outside world on their phones. I used the repetition to study the underlying structure of Satie's composition, noting first that it consisted of 54 notes, then that these had been deliberately arranged into three successive groupings of 5, 6 and 7 notes. By the 30th play the audience were starting to return with their chosen beverage, by the 40th a restless muttering was evident, and by the 45th an expectant hope of imminent conclusion had arisen. Sure enough Rhodri ended with a off-piste flourish halfway through play 46, with much applause for his three quarters of an hour of intense concentration, even though barely 5% of the complete cycle had been completed. If you'd like to experience Vexations for yourself (at first objectionable, until a strange, euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begins to set in), this YouTube clip features a mere ten minute's worth, this clip goes over the hour, and several lengthy sequences are available on Spotify.

In the traditional 'board game' slot after tea, this year we got to play Mastermind. James had hoped to invite the woman on the box, having located her on LinkedIn (she now works in finance) but this proved impractical. Instead he invited a member of the audience to come up on stage to select a four colour code, which we collectively guessed in six steps.

16.20 Russell Arnott @russell_arnott: Boring
It had to happen eventually, a conference speaker twisting the title 'Boring' to deliver a ten minute spiel on the subject of drilling. Russell considered augers, pillar drills and even fusilli before focusing in on cartoon vehicles with great big spiral drillheads on the front, as seen for example in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Incredibles. The Japanese are apparently particularly fond of remote control drill tanks, which they call moguras. After passing reference to the names given to Chunnel and Crossrail drilling machines, Russell enthused about the 12.26km deep Kola Peninsula Superdeep Borehole and the Joint Oceanographic Institutions For Deep Earth Sampling project, before returning to his day job as a pirate with an inflatable whale.

16.32 Erica MacArthur @ericamacarthur: How to be a portrait model
One of the most boring professions must be that of the portrait model, forced to sit immobile for several sessions per day while artists of varying ages and abilities attempt to paint what they see. Erica has been 'inbetween opportunities' for seven years, and is a regular at the Royal Drawing School, during which time she has collected several examples of depictions of her face. These range from the outrageous to the egregious, but also from the delightful to the perceptive, with young painters especially susceptible to imposing their own age, sex and ethnicity on the end result. Erica confirmed that considerable stamina and patience are required to stare at the same spot on a wall for 45 minutes at a time, and that disassociating oneself from one's surroundings is particularly difficult when tired.

16.42 Dawn Foster @dawnhfoster: A brief history of bricks
Grasping another typically 'Boring' theme, Dawn skipped through a brief chronology of brick-making, which really took off in 5000BC when clay firing was first used, and crossed from North Italy to Germany during the 12th century. Bricks vary considerably in size from country to country, with those in the UK larger than those in America but smaller than those in Russia, though always of dimensions suitable to be held ergonomically in the hand. Winston Churchill used to relax by building brick walls, several incomplete examples of which can be found at his former residences. Dawn concluded by using graphs to illustrate how bricks can tell you everything wrong with economics and capitalism, specifically how a black market in hoarded bricks developed over the last ten years when the UK stopped building so many houses, curtailing production.

16.53 Iszi Lawrence @iszi_lawrence: The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits
After barely a misstep in the choice of presenters all day, podcaster Iszi approached her final slot more as comedienne than lecturer, and dripfed references to her podcast liberally throughout her performance. She related the amazing story of Mary Toft, a Godalming woman who in 1726 was reputedly sexually assaulted by rabbits. Once impregnated, Mary then proceeded to release individual rabbits from her womb in public, often on demand, her authenticity backed up by a series of doctors including two of the king's physicians. Georgian society was enthralled, and then scandalised when a more enlightened medic separated Mary from her backroom team and proved her to be an obstetrical hoax. So deeply engrained was this story in the national psyche that magicians still pull rabbits from hats, somewhat euphemistically. With this revelation the sixth Boring Conference drew to a close, easily the most consistently excellent of the series, once again expertly organised and drolly hosted by the opening speaker. And as for the jigsaw? Alas, still substantially incomplete.


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