Ten Years Ago (2007)

After years of lax lending and easy credit, BNP Paribas blocks withdrawals from three hedge funds; this is the beginning of the global financial crisis. The following month, there is a bank run on Northern Rock in the UK. Apple announces the first iPhone. Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union. 32 people are shot dead by a single gunman at Virginia Tech. Disappearance of Madeleine McCann from her apartment in Portugal. Al Gore and the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Dublin Port Tunnel is opened to all traffic. Wembley Stadium re-opens in London. Smoking is no longer permitted in enclosed public spaces in the UK.

Twenty Years Ago (1997)

Scientists announce the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. The first divorce takes place in Ireland after its legalisation the previous year. Comet Hale Bopp makes its closest approach to Earth. 39 members of the Heavens Gate cult commit mass suicide in California. IBM’s Deep Blue defeats Gary Kasparov in a man vs. machine chess match. Hong Kong ceases to be a British Dependency. Gianni Versace gunned down in Miami. Steve Jobs re-joins Apple. Princess Diana is killed in a car accident in Paris. The Provisional IRA announce a second and final ceasefire. Publication of JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel. Scotland and Wales vote for devolution and the creation of a separate national parliaments within the UK. “Saving Private Ryan” invasion scenes shot in Curracloe Beach in Ireland. Election of Mary McAleese as President of Ireland.

Thirty Years Ago (1987)

193 people die in the Zeebrugge ferry disaster. West German pilot Matthias Rust evades Soviet security and lands a small plane in Moscow’s Red Square.The Single European Act is ratified. A massive storm hits the UK and France, causing widespread damage and killing 22 people. A Provisional IRA bomb in Enniskillen kills 12 people. A fire in Kings Cross tube station kills 31 people. Construction of the channel tunnel between the England and France is given the green light by UK and French Governments. Irishman Steven Roche wins the Tour De France.

Forty Years Ago (1977)

The “first” Star Wars movie (A New Hope) opens in cinemas. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox is discovered in Somalia. The last execution by guillotine in France takes place while the US recommences judicial executions. Atari debuts its video game system. Two 747 jumbo jets collide in Tenerife airport, killing 583 people. Spain holds its first democratic elections after 41 years of dictatorship. Elvis Presley dies at the age of 42. Reformer Deng Xiaoping becomes leader of the Chinese Communist Party. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts are launched – they will eventually fly past the outer planers of the solar system and onwards into deep space. “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” is released sparking a major controversy in the UK.

Fifty Years Ago (1967)

The Summer of Love: thousands of hippies converge on San Francisco and other cities around the world. Race riots take place in Detroit and Newark. The first heart transplant is performed by Christiaan Barnard. The United Kingdom applies to join the European Economic Community. The city of Milton Keynes in the UK is founded. The Apollo 1 astronauts are killed in a fire on the Cape Canaveral launch pad. The Six Day War takes place, with Israel dealing a heavy blow to Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Boeing 737 jet enters service. A massive fire in Brussels leaves 323 dead. The Beatles release “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The Venera 4 probe enters the atmosphere of Venus, sending back valuable data about this hostile planet. The UK decriminalises homosexuality. A new astronomical object – a pulsar – is discovered by Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish. A major foot-and-mouth disease outbreak occurs in Britain. Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara is executed in Bolivia. Abortion in limited circumstances passes parliament in the UK.

Sixty Years Ago (1957)

Sputnik 1 is launched: it is the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The Treaty of Rome is signed, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). The first episode of astronomy programme “The Sky at Night” is shown on the BBC. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is published. A fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor in Cumbria spreads radioactive material into the local environment. The Lovell Radio Telescope is installed in Jodrell Bank Observatory. The “Spaghetti Tree” hoax is aired on the BBC. Ghana and Malaysia acquire independence.

Seventy Years Ago (1947)

The Cold War begins between the Soviet Union and western powers. The Marshall Plan is announced, with the US sending unprecedented amounts of aid and support to war-torn Western Europe. Gangster Al Capone dies. The UFO craze begins after a number of anomalous sightings in America. The German state of Prussia is officially abolished. The International Monetary Fund commences operations. The Diary of Anne Frank is published. India and Pakistan acquire independence. New Zealand acquires de-facto independence. Chuck Yeager becomes the first man to break the sound barrier. Princess Elisabeth marries Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey. Tom Blower becomes the first man to swim the North Channel between Britain and Ireland. Shannon Airport becomes the world’s first duty-free airport.

Eighty Years Ago (1937)

Fred Whittle builds the first workable jet engine. The town of Guernica in Spain is bombed. Later that year, Pablo Picasso completes his famous painting depicting the bombing. The Hindenburg airship is engulfed in flame upon arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Golden Gate bridge is opened to traffic. The Volkswagen motor company is founded. Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” is premiered in Germany. The Irish Constitution comes into force. Amelia Earhart disappears during her attempt to circumnavigate the world. The “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” leads to the Japanese invasion of China. The Nanking Massacre takes place later that year. Stalin orders mass executions of kulaks (land-owners) in the Soviet Union. JRR Tolkein’s book “The Hobbit” is published. The animated movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is released.

Ninety Years Ago (1927)

The first transatlantic telephone call takes place between New York and London. Werner Heisenberg formulates his Uncertainty Principle. The first Volvo car rolls off the production lines in Sweden. Charles Lindbergh flies from New York City to Paris. Teams begin carving the presidential sculptures of Mount Rushmore. After the expulsion of Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin takes sole leadership of the Soviet Union. The Fianna Fáil party takes their seats in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), establishing themselves as the official opposition party.

One Hundred Years Ago (1917)

Tsar Nicolas II of Russia abdicates, heralding an end to Romanov rule of Russia. Responding to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the President of the United States declares war on Germany. During the World War I Battle of Messines, a single allied bomb kills over 10,000 German soldiers. Two young women take the  Cottingley Fairies photographs, an ingenious hoax only admitted in the 1980s. Crowds in Fatima, Portugal, claim to see the sun dance in the sky; it’s claimed to be a miracle associated with Virgin Mary. The Battle of Passchendaele takes place in Belgium. Mata Hari is executed for spying for Germany. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin take control of Russia in the October Revolution. The Balfour Declaration announces British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Russia exits World War I.

Two Hundred Years Ago (1817)

The states of Alabama and Mississippi are created. The “dandy horse“, an early form of bicycle is invented. Start of a great cholera pandemic in Bombay. Europe is hit by famine. Jane Austin’s novel “Persuasion” is published following her death. The Elgin Marbles are put on display in the British Museum in London; their location has remained a controversy ever since.

Three Hundred Years Ago (1717)

Edward Teach, also known as the pirate Blackbeard, sets out on a rampage through the Caribbean. The Old Pretender James Francis Edward Stewart begins his exile in Avignon after giving up his fight to reclaim the British crown. François-Marie Arouet (soon to be known as Voltaire) is imprisoned in the Bastille in Paris for writing a satirical poem about the Regent of France.

Four Hundred Years Ago (1617)

King of France Louis XIII wrests power from his mother and executes her accomplices to become sole ruler. The Finspång witch trial in Sweden; the seven convicted women are thrown on a bonfire for sorcery. Ferdinand II is elected King of Bohemia; his unpopular rule is soon to end in disaster for all of central Europe. King James VI and I travelled to Scotland in an attempt to unite the Scottish and English churches. The troubled Mustafa I becomes Ottoman Emperor. Sir Walter Raleigh leaves Cork for his last journey to the Americas.

Five Hundred Years Ago (1517)

Martin Luther starts the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Castle Church. The Fifth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church is concluded in Rome. The first European diplomatic trade mission to China takes place. The Mamluk Sultanate ends when Egypt is absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Evil May Day, a violent protest against foreigners, takes place in London. A severe bout of sweating sickness hits England. Aztec ruler Moctezuma II hears of Europeans reaching the eastern borders of his empire. The foundation of the port of Le Havre in France.

Six Hundred Years Ago (1417)

The Avignon Papacy, a rival to the Roman Papacy, comes to an end with the deposition of Pope Benedict XIII. English king Henry V invades Normandy, consolidating his gains from the Battle of Agincourt. English is restored as the official language of England by King Henry V; for centuries the official languages had been French and Latin.

Seven Hundred Years Ago (1317)

The Great Famine, caused by intensely bad weather over Europe, reaches its height and starts to abate. Edward Bruce’s devastating campaign continues in Ireland, reaching as far south as Cashel. Philip V becomes King of France after successfully outmanoeuvring his niece for the crown.

Eight Hundred Years Ago (1217)

The Fifth Crusade arrives in the Holy Land. The forces of French King Louis I are defeated by the forces of William Marshal in the First Baron’s War; Louis relinquishes his title to the English crown later that year. The Mongols under Mukhali invade central China. The Great Charter is issued by Henry III, securing rights for the Anglo-Norman lords in Ireland.

Nine Hundred Years Ago (1117)

Iceland abolishes slavery. Baldwin I, Crusader king of Jerusalem, expands his kingdom into Egypt.

One Thousand Years Ago (1017)

Foundation of the Druze religion. King Cnut divides England into four earldoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. Aziz al Dawla becomes Fatimid Emir of Aleppo.

One Thousand Three Hundred Years Ago (AD 717)

The Siege of Constantinople: Emperor Leo III defeats the huge army of Muslim general Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, using Greek Fire to repel the besiegers. Charles Martel consolidates his power to become ruler of Francia.

One Thousand Four Hundred Years Ago (AD 617)

The Banu Hashim clan is pressurised to withdraw its protection of Muhammad, founder of Islam.

One Thousand Five Hundred Years Ago (AD 517)

Indian mathematician Aryabhata completes a major treatise on algebra, trigonometry and astronomy – many of his theorems continue to be used in classrooms today. India’s first satellite was named in his honour.

One Thousand Six Hundred Years Ago (AD 417)

The Visigoths are granted the territories of Aquitaine and become allies of the Western Roman Empire.

One Thousand Nine Hundred Years Ago (AD 117)

Hadrian becomes Roman Emperor.

Two Thousand Years Ago (AD 17)

After defeating the German tribes, Roman general Germanicus returns in triumph to Rome; he is appointed governor of the eastern empire. Herod Antipas founds the city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Two Thousand One Hundred Years Ago (BC 83)

The Dictator Sulla arrives back in Italy and defeats his rival Gaius Norbanus. Birth of Mark Antony.

Two Thousand Two Hundred Years Ago (BC 183)

Death of Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal’s armies.

Another week, another atrocity against defenceless people, whose only fault was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I can understand the reaction. You want blood. You want someone to blame. You want the keys thrown away and the perpetrators to rot. I understand this. You want a party or grouping to stand up and say “no more”.

Inevitably, the loudest voices come from the far-right. “We’ll solve your problems”, they’ll say. “We’ll sort them out”. Damn right, you’ll say. I’ll vote for you.

But there’s this small problem. Because, underlying these promises are technicalities those far-right groups also need to solve. Technicalities such as the Constitution. Technicalities such as the rule of law. Technicalities such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Technicalities such as restrictions against torture, illegal detention, the right to protest and assemble peacefully. The right to freedom of speech. The right to a fair hearing. Innocence until proven guilty. Lots of technicalities that get in the way. Get rid of them and you can really sort out the bad boys.

But all these inconvenient technicalities are not just there to protect the bad boys. Strangely enough, they are there to protect you too. And, once they are dismissed and diminished, the protections go down for everyone.

So, go ahead, vote for the politicians with the easy promises, the salve to your outrage. 

After all, that’s what you want. You want a wolf. 

But what you’ll get, if you’re not careful, is a wolf you were not quite expecting. 

A wolf that might just come for you.

Right now, Mowgli is like Schrödinger’s Cat. In my mind, he is alive and dead at the same time. I have to face both realities simultaneously, both of which are not encouraging.

He disappeared yesterday morning; possibly one of the most engaging and delightful little creatures you could imagine. He could literally walk on walls. I called him “a dog of a cat”, such was/is his playfulness. It’s unlike him to be away for so long. 

I don’t know whether I should use the past or present tense. Alive and dead at the same time. 

Here’s a photo I took yesterday.

Here’s a playlist (Apple Music) that I’ve fallen in love with:

DD Dumbo / Hot Chip / Daughter / Warpaint / Dam Mantle / Beck / Austra / Cash + David / Pale Honey / Glass Animals / Banks / OMD / Django Django / Sweat / Franz Ferdinand 

https://itunes.apple.com/ie/playlist/2016-11-november/idpl.7623ad79491e4f3992be48bd5cabb778

Here’s a great book that I’m reading:

The Silk Roads (Peter Francopan)


And, I got a good proportion of my Christmas shopping done yesterday.

So there’s that.

No army. No coherent foreign policy. Breaking apart at the seams. A population in thrall to anti-immigration right wing nationalists. A war on our border that we can do nothing to influence. Likely to be spat out by an isolationist America. Getting older and angrier.

Europe is the new Austro-Hungary.

I put so much investment of thought and emotion into what was going on in the US. Over the last few months, the upcoming election – and to a smaller extent, Brexit – simply dominated my waking thoughts. There was an satisfaction in such thinking, believing that I had it all worked out, that the arguments were sound and that, come the day, our side would win out.

We all know now what happened. 

I now feel gutted. Hollow inside. As if, as if there’s been a death. And metaphorically there has been one. A feeling of loss, dressed with a topping of mortal worry for what lies ahead. 

I think I now have a better understanding of how many in the middle classes of Russia felt when the Winter Palace was stormed. At the time, I’m sure plenty of people reassured themselves that it would all be alright, that these Bolsheviks would be just a flash in the pan. I’m sure they joked about their incompetence too.

Clearly, with Brexit and Trump both following the same script, there’s been a societal shift taking place that’s quite fundamental. The approaches that served politicians so well in the past don’t appear to be working anymore. Revolutions happen when the populations bifurcate into haves and have-nots, but somehow this feels different. Sure, there are enough Wall Street bankers and overpaid CEOs to cause real concerns, but I don’t think this is enough to explain it. Trump, after all, is technically one of them. Maybe the “haves” this time around, are the internet savvy, the educated, the socially mobile, the progressives. Without understanding it, they became the new elite; those for whom the world was their oyster. The “have-nots” are everyone else. As old norms declined, as their jobs and values rapidly became less relevant, they stewed; jokes and offhand insults only intensifying their anger. 

If the Internet was a revolution, we are now experiencing a kind of counter-revolution. Because we were all living in our own social media bubbles, we didn’t realise what a danger those on the other side of the digital divide might pose.

Had there been a chance, or had we been listening, perhaps there could have been a conversation to be had: how to keep society together in the light of the greatest technological change in history. The question is, with Trump and what comes after, will there be a chance? Racism, homophobia, sectarianism and sexism have been given a new voice. Democracy itself is under threat. Four years of Republican rule in the US could be shockingly brutal for us all.

But, something to remember, 

Is it because liberalism is feminine?
 
Is that what it is?
 
Not enough red meat? Not enough guns and bar room brawls? Not enough “telling people like it is”? Not enough Page 3, dog whistles and giving them one?
 
Too much namby pamby “talking”? Too much pussy talk about looking out for other people? Too much acceptance of difference? Of sharing feelings? Of giving people a chance in life? Of praising facts and expert views? Of a fucking education?
 
Is that what it’s all about?
 
Is it?

Clearly, I was wrong.

I underestimated the strength of Trump and his supporters.

We’re into new territory now. Heavens help us all.

This election has been the most amazing one in my lifetime. From day one, the Trump campaign has been extraordinary, with regular candidates tossed aside like bowling pegs, one after the other. I do not yet know the outcome of today’s election, but I’m hoping fervently that Hillary makes it across the finish line today – finally stopping this runaway dumpster truck from seizing the highest office in America.

Normally, the dissection of a political battle involves picking through what the winning candidate did right and what the losing candidate did wrong. Should Clinton win, the story should be about how she fought an effective media battle, how she decisively won the debates, how she courted celebrities and rock stars, fought a well-financed ground war and made effective use of analytics. It should be about the long succession of Trump scandals, fiascos and unforced errors, from the Khans to Pussygate, to his atrocious debate performances; his alienation of Latinos, African Americans, women and Muslims; his unedifying spats with his fellow Republican politicians. In ordinary times, you could write a story of these last few months in terms of what was done right by Hillary and wrong by Trump. But these are not ordinary times. The real story of this campaign is how, despite all the errors and disasters, Trump remained in contention and how seemingly smaller setbacks and mistakes sent Clinton’s campaign into a nosedive. Trump survived a video laying his misogyny bare for all to see. He survived a leak which suggested that he paid no tax for decades.  He survived, despite being called out on lie, after lie, after lie. Any one of these should have been enough to put paid to his political aspirations. And yet, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, or called his supporters ‘deplorable’, or had the FBI resurrect the email investigation, she quickly found herself on the back foot, fighting a desperate battle to maintain her lead.

The story of this election was how, among a large number of supporters, Trump was treated like a demigod, while Clinton was treated with extreme scepticism, bordering on disgust. Trump effectively used hatred, anger and his charisma to marshall powerful forces in his favour, sending out a clear signal that America is extremely vulnerable to demagoguery. How the country recovers from this frightening state of affairs will be a whole other story.

This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

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