Notes from Boring2017 A conference at Conway Hall, Holborn, 6th May 2017
Organiser James Ward welcomed us to the seventh Boring Conference, a celebration of the mundane and the overlooked, with his two traditional housekeeping jokes. He then kicked off proceedings with 7 facts about the number 7, each of which was neatly summarised by means of a subjective isomorphism to the group S Club 7.
10.45James Ward@iamjamesward: So much brighter at non-science subjects
The title of the opening talk gave few clues to its content, but a broad hint was offered when James observed it had recently been World Stationery Day, part of National Stationery Week. He offered us a tantalising glimpse of his stationery-related bookshelf, featuring Henry Petrovski's seminal The Pencil, but chose instead to focus on Derek Hall's 1984 volume Basildon Bond - Letters for every occasion. This handy compendium offered useful exemplars for written communication in a pre-email age, advising readers how to respond when unable to accept a christening invitation, when requesting an increased salary or when booking a guest house by post. The talk's title was a quote from a letter to a school regarding a "child's problem with teacher", in which poor Anne was being treated less than optimally by Mrs Woollacott. Even though Derek advised against proposing marriage by letter, a template was still provided, along with various excruciating scenarios for making up after a quarrel or breaking off an engagement.
11.02Tiahowler Biltawülf@Biltawulf: Ironing - live
After the success of last year's on-stage jigsaw puzzle action, 2017's mundane Live Task involved the pressing of damp clothing. Tiahowler brought an ironing board and hangers onto the stage, along with a big pile of washing which he hoped would decrease during the day. He proceeded to smooth while others spoke, pausing for carrot cake just before noon and unscrewing a bottle of red wine mid-afternoon. During his ironathon Tiahowler pressed 15 shirts, 9 pillowcases, a king size duvet cover and a king size fitted sheet, the last of which created somewhat of a debacle when it became unclear when to stop. At least two of the newly-ironed shirts were donned as costume changes during the day.
11.06Zoe Laughlin@zoelaughlin: Transparent Concrete
Zoe Laughlin is Director of the Institute of Making at UCL, with a particular penchant for innovative materials, which she views as a talisman of human achievement. Zoe was the only contributor not to launch into a set of slides, hence we all had to visualise her Venn diagram in which she postulated architects as the sexy overlap between artists and engineers. From her bag of props she withdrew a block of concrete that floats, then a block of self-healing concrete whose microscopic cracks are sealed by intrinsic bacteria. Her key story involved the stubborn unwillingness of a French innovator to share a sample of transparent concrete, so she ended up commissioning some of her own. Although technically opaque, glass fibres pass through the material allowing light shone on one side to be visible in speckles on the other. Zoe was excited by the potential of her transmissive medium, for example in allowing traces of sunlight to pass through walls, but as yet no producer is biting.
11.19Alan Connor@alanconnor: Fact-checking a geography quiz question
As well as being an author and writing for the Guardian, Alan is also the question editor for the BBC2 quiz Only Connect. All questions for the show are checked by an independent panel of verifiers, led by a clergyman's wife from Cornwall, although occasionally ambiguities do slip through. Alan recalled one awkward incident when a 2nd round sequence question was supposed to conclude with the shortest verse in the King James Bible, Jesus wept, but an alternative interpretation had to be accepted. Even geography questions are not immune to destructive verification, so great efforts are made to avoid reference to disputed territories or the coastline paradox. The board game Trivial Pursuit was singled out for giving credence to a false definition of a "bluemoon", lifted from a children's almanac, so that society now accepts this to be the second full moon in a month rather than the third of four full moons in a season. A far more expensive faux pas in the original Genus 1 pack was the claim that Columbo's first name was Frank, based on a false fact planted in The Trivia Encyclopedia for copyright reasons, and a $300m lawsuit followed. Always use a second source, Alan advised.
11.39Liam Shaw: Pallets
Liam is a mathematical biologist at UCL, and former University Challenge contestant, who recounted his own quizzing controversy when a flag-identification furore erupted on the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Liam led us through a history of the humble pallet, the wooden structure defined as "the structural foundation of a unit load", and once described as "the single most important object in the global economy." Pallets came to prominence in the 1940s as a key enabler of military logistics, but really took off after Norman Cahners added two perpendicular notches to create 4-way access. The creation of the European Pallet Pool in the 1960s improved trade by facilitating substitution, although North America insisted on a separate standardisation based on inches rather than millimetres. Every Euro Pallet contains 78 nails, 11 boards and 9 blocks, can support 60 times its own weight, and is personally approved by Global Brand Ambassador Reinhold Messner. However counterfeit pallets from Ukraine have become a significant problem, triggering the recent (and somewhatbitchy) collapse of the EPP, and hinting at a bleak scenario for the future of pallet exchange.
11.54Claire Thomson: Danish Public Information Films (1935-1965)
Continuing the UCL vibe, Claire is a lecturer in Scandinavian Studies with a penchant for an underrated movie genre - "not a topic that brings the boys to the yard", she confessed. Denmark introduced its own public information films at cinemas in the 1930s to fill screentime which might otherwise have been taken by German propaganda. Claire has rifled through the cellar at the Danish Film Institute and digitised such early gems as How A Brick Comes Into Being (1936), somewhat inexplicably the most-hired film in mid 20th century Denmark. Jaunty brass accompanied an action-packed clip urging recycling for the war effort, while the filming of They Guide You Across (1949) accidentally led to the destruction of a Norton Sinclair camera clipped by the wheel of a Douglas DC4. Internationally the peak of production came with an Oscar nomination for A City called Copenhagen (1960), but Claire's personal favourite is The Potato (1944) whose information is imparted entirely in song.
12.12Louise Ashcroft@LouiseAshcroft1: The Argos catalogue
First introduced in 1973, and often worth a fortune on eBay, Louise contested that the Argos catalogue has become a touchstone in the evolution of the UK's cultural life. As a child poring over double-page spreads of calculators, lawnmowers and stretchy gym equipment, she considered the catalogue an empowering window into an alternative reality. Today she sees strong parallels with the Whole Earth Catalog, launched by Californian counterculture in 1968, and read out a Ginsberg-esque beat poem created from Argos catalogue product descriptions to help prove her point. So many of Argos's original products were orange, she noted, from chairs to crockery to vibrant rugs, while the shower pages also acted as mainstream soft porn with carefully positioned suds. These days Baby's 1st Tablet has ousted the caravan playtent, and the women modelling engagement jewellery no longer gaze with expressions of despondent sadness.
12.36Benjamin Partridge@benpartridge: What is beef?
Ben produces the award-winning Beef and Dairy network podcast, the inevitable successor to the Attlee government's first agricultural newsletter, The Livestock & Meat Situation. Having shocked us all with the revelation that the plural of beef is beeves, Ben went on to investigate the classification of farmed meat by asking "What is beef?" This question became important in 1978 when The Livestock & Meat Situation was split into separate newsletters, and specialist herds such as ox or venison needed to be allocated to one or the other. Four categories were supposedly established based on molecular analysis - Beef, Lamb, Pork and Chicken - which Ben illustrated by means of a 2-way chart. Venison is here classified as 'forest beef', goat as "mountain lamb", rabbit as "hedgerow porkmeat" and turkey as "robust chicken". Such all-encompassing taxonomy ensures that there will never be a fifth meat, Ben conjectured.
2.11Steve Cross@steve_x: When did the world end?
That's "when did the world end?" according to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, as aficionado Steve pulled apart the opening chapters of Douglas Adams' masterwork for clues. Decimal currency was in use behind the bar in The Horse and Groom, giving a lower bound for the year as 1971, while the purchase of six pints of bitter for under £5 suggested the Vogons arriving no later than 1987. It was also a Thursday, because Arthur Dent "never could get the hang of Thursdays", and Arsenal were playing that afternoon, "without a chance" according to the barman. Steve checked diligently through the fixture lists to confirm only four Arsenal matches on Thursdays during the period 1971-1987, two of which he discounted for being on Boxing Day or at New Year when sunrise in the West Country occurs too late for Arthur to have woken in daylight. Torn to choose between Arsenal v Tottenham on 11/5/72 or Arsenal v Liverpool on 1/5/80, Steve's faultless logic plumped for the latter, based on a rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone by Eddie the shipboard computer, confirming planetary destruction for 1st May 1980.
2.23Jay Owens@hautepop: On the Residue of the World
Recovering geographer Jay became obsessed with dust in her student years, initially as a dissertation avoidance tactic, but then devoted her thesis to it, and now publishes a monthly dust-themed newsletter. She made contact with dust experts at the National Trust, who must walk the fine line between over-cleaning and surface erosion, so vary their dusting schedules according to furniture type, height and location. John Ruskin wrote in detail about The Ethics of the Dust, observing that who cleans in a society is more important than who governs, while a recent art installation at Westminster Hall celebrated centuries of ingrained grime. The modern iPhone is dust-blasted to achieve optimal smoothness, Jay noted, but paradoxically the perfection of its surface exposes every grain of dust thereon. Dust also kills, with silicosis affecting millions globally, especially in ill-regulated factories in southeast Asia. We must take responsibility for the dust we create, Jay concluded, because dust is inexorable.
2.38Laurence Jordan@lagwd: Sounding gestalts
Whereas Iannis Xenakakis generated sounds from the motion of an airborne kite, UAL graduate Laurence creates mechanical music from micro-biological observations. Specifically he takes contact prints from petri dishes scattered around his student flat, transcribes the resultant cultures using a concentric grid system, then reproduces the patterns onto chromatic punchcards. These are then fed through a music box mechanism by the turning of a handle, which allowed the Boring audience to enjoy a stirring performance by a lichen colony. The full suite includes yeast and e-coli, and can be investigated in detail on Soundcloud. Laurence has also experimented with rings of timber (end grain works better than long grain), as well as knitting patterns, which create a more regular approximation of melody, and he ended his talk with a bravura rendition of an argyle sock.
2.51Abigail Brady@abigailb: Stop the world, I want to tune up
As a member of North London' leading Kenickie tribute band, Abigail was captivated by the recent discovery of habitable planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Specifically she noted that their orbital ratios were in resonance, reminiscent of Bode's Law, and suggesting a connection to musical harmonies. Transposing the resultant frequencies by approximately 26 octaves to bring each into audible range, Abigail ended up with the notes C E G C F C which, as you can hear, make for a recognisable chord. Emboldened, she adopted the same approach for our own solar system, generating a Bm (B, D, F#) chord but with an additional C#, somewhat reminiscent of Pulp and Suede's penchant for a quarter step below normal tuning. Britpop aside, she asked, are we out of harmony with the universe? [full reasoning]
It's traditional that the after-tea session begins with a tabletop game, last year Mastermind, this year Snakes and Ladders. Conference stalwart Greg Stekelman emerged from the green room to take on a challenger from the audience, playing on a large board visible only to those on stage or watching from the balcony. Nelson started strongly with a leap up the first ladder from 4 to 14, while Greg toyed too often with the snake on 16 and soon fell far behind. The gap was soon 67 plays 8, until the serpent on 87 cruelly whisked Nelson all the way back to 24. Greg's increasingly angry hurls of the dice brought the scores briefly to parity, before his opponent took advantage of strategically located ladders to end with a strong 73/74/75/80/100 finish. His prize after this unexpectedly lengthy grudge match was a bottle of lager and a bottle of cider, later combined to form a celebratory snakebite.
3.55Elise Bramich: Repetition in the work of Stephen King and Dean Koontz
At the start of her talk, subtitled "Or, Repetition in the work of Stephen King and Dean Koontz", comedy producer Elise confessed that recycling her opinions on Lolita had seen her through three separate modules of her English degree. Horror writers King and Koontz were similarly guilty in their respective oeuvres, she argued, admonishing Stephen King's sheer laziness in using an author as chief protagonist in 12 out of his 70 novels ("write only what you know, then add vampires"). Koontz's work is less subtle, much schlockier and more prolific, numbering well over 250 novels to date, and he too has a recurring character. "Fair enough," said Elise, "but should that character be a psychic labrador?" Intelligent dogs play too great a role in Koontz's canon, solving murders or collectively thwarting alien invasion... a preponderance explained by Dean's love for his own retired assistance dog, Trixie, herself a successfully published author. "Once you've found your good story, there's nothing wrong with repeating it again," Elise concluded.
4.09Keith Kahn-Harris@KeithKahnHarris: The Linguistic Politics of Kinder Surprise Eggs
On opening a Kinder Surprise Egg not only do you find a small toy but also a small piece of paper warning "Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled." in 35 different languages. Keith is deeply intrigued by the linguistic selection, for example why 22 official EU languages are included but not Irish or Maltese, and has approached various native speakers (most notably the Prince of Luxembourg) to translate the warning message into omitted tongues. One foreign correspondent confirmed that Korea has a separate leaflet (with an additional warning), while an alternative Chinese version unnecessarily includes both traditional and simplified canonical forms. Hebrew is never written alongside Arabic for political reasons, while the very similar Czech and Slovak are always included together to keep both nations happy. Obviously Keith wondered what the warning might have looked like 2000 years ago, and was only partly thwarted by there being no word for toy in the Bible. He ended his talk, and a consistently absorbing conference, by asking us to stand and solemnly pledge never to buy a Kinder Surprise Egg until the warning message is translated into Cornish. [Keith's slideshow]