Long before Boring there was Interesting. One conference inspired the other, then went into hiatus for a good few years before re-emerging afresh in 2016. Ably curated by Russell Davies, digital strategist extraordinaire, more than a dozen speakers tuned up at Conway Hall last night for Interesting 2016, to deliver whistlestop talks on topics of genuine interest. Here's a quick summary of what the audience of 300 enjoyed.
Abbey Kos - Wine tasting, with actual wine: Abbey had been down to Waitrose before the conference began, and returned with a suspiciously large number of bottles of a fruity white. Everyone in the audience was provided with a decent portion in a plastic cup and, on a given signal, asked to sip and to mull over appropriate adjectives describing its taste. When this proved tricky we were implored to disregard the coded language used by wine snobs and embrace our own feelings, as these are just as valid. I thought the wine was sharp and grape-y, which wouldn't gain me entrance to the Court of Master Sommeliers, but what do they know anyway?
Rachel Coldicutt - 'A close reading of Julianna Margulies' hair and make-up in The Good Wife': Whether we'd watched the TV series or not, Rachel enthused about the big hair and the smokey eye-shadow of the leading character, and how this varied from scene to scene to reflect the elevated state of the drama. She also provided each of us with a page from 'The Good Wife Coloring Book' and invited us to shade our own depiction of Alicia's fierce gaze, a competition which attracted over 100 entries from the assembled audience, with the winner acquiring a pack of ocular cosmetics as his worthy prize.
Lucy Blackwell - 'The story of my life through calendars': Lucy's closest friends, approximately 50 in total, receive a special calendar each Christmas on an artistic theme decided by the year's events. In 2004 Lucy presented a giant 'infinity loop' poster with 366 phrase-filled blobs, in 2013 a series of pictorial musings on her daily commute, and in 2014 a series of twelve custom fabrics based on experiences from her life. This year it's fantasy boats. Lucy explained she feels creatively empty if she ever misses a year, and made me feel slightly guilty for abandoning my own annual creative project a few years back.
Mags Blackwell - 'Do you listen?': Next up was Lucy's mother, formerly a college tutor, her talk pre-recorded on video while she watched from a chair in the front row. She explained why it can be good to fail, and listed four specific beneficial outcomes which can ensue. One such example related to screwed-up paper balls and Parkinson's, a disease she now endures, and another pointed out that pretending you have a parrot on your shoulder can be truly beneficial when learning how to walk again.
Rujuta Teredesai - 'Agile for Social Development': Rujuta chose to speak without slides, relating tales from India of applying modern project management techniques to a grassroots gender equality programme. Her pioneering agile approach to an embedded behavioural problem, encouraging boys to think better of the opposite sex, could have far-reaching positive consequences. She was also the first speaker to significantly overrun her timeslot, even after nods from the wings, and should perhaps have concentrated less on scrummage and more on the sprint.
Ella Fitzsimmons - Swedish Rules for Sex and the Supernatural: They do like rules in Sweden, so it came as no surprise to hear that sex with supernatural entities was a criminal offence until 1864. Even today's Swedes are hardwired to provide porridge for their house trolls, and nobody would ever follow a skogsrå into the woods. The country's laws on fornication (or 'Otukt') were relaxed further in 1944, initiating a permissive society several decades ahead of most, although bestiality slipped through and wasn't recriminalised until 2014.
Nat Buckley - 'Why flyknit is the most revolutionary thing since sliced bread': In 2012 Nike invented the knitted training shoe, and in the process revolutionised footwear. The outer fabric had previously been sewn, adding points of weakness where individual parts are stitched together, whereas flyknit can be created as a single piece and then wrapped round without undue wastage. Nat reminded us that sewing is essentially a two-dimensional mesh whereas knitting breaks out into the third dimension, and we should embrace this traditional handiwork as something even cooler than 3D printing. [you can read Nat's talk here]
Ade Adewunmi - 'The importance of watching TV': Ade loves TV, and watches a great deal of it with her ethnically diverse group of friends. Not only does television provide a shared conversational framework in many social situations, but it also allows the nation to explore difficult ideas and issues in a low-risk situation. In this era of social media it's all too easy to live in a filter bubble and embrace only opinions from the echo chamber, whereas we also need to hear from people who aren't like us, be they Ross or Nadiya or female police detectives or whoever. Ade's presentation could never have fitted into the allotted five minutes, and she made no attempt to try, but did lead us thoughtfully into the break.
[End Of Part One]
Kim Plowright - 'What it feels like to preserve memories and talk about dementia and death on social media, whilst still occasionally making people laugh': Wow, Kim's presentation hit hard. As photos from her parents' later life scrolled past, she recounted scenes from her father's gradual slide into dementia, and the debilitating effect on her mother's health. Kim recalled various incidents via her tweets at the time, chronicling shopping trips with bladder control problems and the pain of realising that key facts are no longer being remembered. You do your very best, said Kim, but "caring is really lonely". She could be any of us, and if we one day face a similar long-term challenge, will it be with strength of character, or blissful ignorance?
Tom Whitwell - 'Hippies, synthesisers, giant squid and the military industrial complex': How could you follow that? Our first male speaker of the evening followed that by building a very basic synthesiser live on stage and attempting to tell the instrument's history as he attached the wires. We learned the provenance of the Hex Schmitt Trigger, how a racist genius at a Californian defence company kickstarted Silicon Valley, and of the wired box which provided the experimental sound on the Grateful Dead's tour bus. Even better, Tom's basic circuit-board with plug-ins eventually delivered a convincing 'tune' of psychedelic bleeps and tones. [Tom's slides can be viewed here]
Tim Dunn - The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum: Tim levelled-up from ordinary rail-related geekery to Extreme Trainspotting by enthusing about a favourite project in a far-off land. When Sierra Leone gained independence in the Sixties one of the first things the government did was trash the railway in favour of a road network which was never built. Five locomotives survived hidden inside a welded-up shed, released with joy a few years back, and these now form the basis of a fledgling museum whose programme and outreach projects are bringing enormous benefits to the wider community. Perhaps the SLNRM's story will bring a smile, and a sense of perspective, to your daily commute.
Lisa Rajan - The story behind Tara Binns "But Mummy, ladies can't be mechanics!" is the unfortunate attitude Lisa's young son expressed after reading several much-loved construction-related picture books. So when a daughter followed, and the supply of gender-specific books proved nauseatingly pink and shallow, Lisa set about writing her own. Her lead character is Tara Binns, a girl who dresses up to join the world of work and solve problems, and everyone in the audience was gifted with a free book of her adventures to take away. Lisa visits schools to share and discuss her series, and the positive reaction in one all-boys establishment has reassured her that prejudice is not always engrained.
Diego Maranan - 'Why I'm Making Vibrating Underwear': As a professional dancer and scientist, but with more talent in the latter, Diego's studies have led him into the world of embedded cognition. If our perception can change the way we think and feel, then simple changes in posture through muscle control can make us all feel better about ourselves. Diego wanted to reproduce his discoveries for the benefit of his parents in Manila, so constructed a dress with pressure pads which allowed him to touch their spines with rhythm at a distance, and which can even be played as a kind of musical instrument.
Alby Reid - Polonium Poisoning: As soon as the 1g of polonium entered Alexander Litvinenko's body, administered via a pot of green tea in a Mayfair hotel, he was a dead man. Polonium is one of the most dangerous toxins known to man, with a radioactive power calculated at 141 watts per gram - the equivalent of two pre-EU lightbulbs. A tiny speck the size of a grain of salt could kill 6000 people, and the hitmen targeting Litvinenko delivered 500 times the lethal dose. One of the chief suspects is now a Russian MP, so has immunity from extradition and prosecution, but has suffered long-lasting physical effects himself providing a smidgeon of justice. [you can view physics teacher Alby's slide deck here]
Helen Castor - Digging up Kings: Following Richard III's discovery under a council car park in Leicester, pressure to exhume the old and famous has been gathering pace. Henry I might well be under a car park in Reading, and Charles I almost certainly is in the same Windsor vault as Henry VIII. The job of the medical historian is to deduce what they can from scans and bones, but Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon flatly refuses to allow anyone to open William Shakespeare's unusually small tomb, so we may never discover whether or not the Bard was buried with his head missing.
Alice Bartlett - Tampons and Tampon Club: And finally, somewhat later than originally scheduled, Alice led us into the office ladies' toilet and questioned why tampons aren't as freely available as toilet paper. At her GDS workplace she initiated a simple receptacle packed with tampons and towels by the sinks, providing enormous reassurance for any woman forced to take the walk of shame from her locker in a hotdesked office, or living in fear of an unexpected all-morning meeting. The concept has since spread to at least 200 other offices nationwide, and if your workplace would also benefit from a Tampon Club, why not get on board? [you can hear Alice's talk here]