Archives for posts with tag: UK

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.

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

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.


The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?


Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.


The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

I attended my 4th QED Conference this year, making me a regular at this stage, I guess. The previous conferences have all been great, and this one met the the high standard we have become accustomed to. The folks in the Merseyside Skeptical Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics do a terrific job. They deserve all the praise they get for organising these events.

Skeptical Trousers

Skeptical Trousers

The difference for me this year was that I was speaking. At the very last minute (i.e. 4 days before) I decided to enter Skepticamp with a 10 minute talk. My presentation was about ways to communicate critical thinking to a general audience, while at the same time giving the audience an idea of the main skeptical issues in Ireland. Ireland is commonly thought to be a very religious country, but it’s not as devout as many people think. Even paying lip-service to the Catholic Church is on the wane. Instead the issues are more familiar: cancer quackery, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, secularism. I did recount the “Holy Stump of Rathkeale” story though, as my mind is still boggling over that one.

Wifi was not good in the main hall, so instead I took copious notes. I won’t burden you with all these, but there were some real high points over the weekend.


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Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology from Wagenigen University in the Netherlands, spoke about eating insects and their role in future food security. The statistics are worrying to say the least. With a projected population of 10 billion by 2050 and the availability of land on the decline, we may need many more options to keep everyone fed. And besides, mealworms taste GOOD. Roasted crickets taste GOOD. I know. I ate some samples…

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Acupuncture is one of those things. It’s a bit crazy, but because it’s not the worst type of crazy out there, it’s largely given an easy ride by the skeptical community. Dr. Harriet Hall was there to point out some real problems with acupuncture techniques – how it’s a lot more recent than people think, how you run a high risk of infection and how its role in anaesthesia is thoroughly undeserved.


Rosie Waterhouse gave a lecture on the satanic abuse scares of the 1990s. Heavy stuff. The story in brief is that vulnerable children under the influence of over-eager therapists began to accuse their parents of having abused them in horrific rituals. On the basis of these allegations, children were wrongly removed from their families by social workers. Rosie was one of a small, brave number of people who questioned the veracity of the claims. It brought False Memory Syndrome and Multiple Personality Disorder strongly into the spotlight. Worryingly, such allegations still persist today.

Classical Greece!

Natalie Haynes spoke to us about the Greek classics and how they still influence the storylines of soaps in the modern age. You could listen to Natalie forever – she has an engaging style with lots of laughs spread through her talk. And it is true – whom amongst us, it times of trouble, have not been consoled by sheep? Anyone? Anyone?

Our Stupid Brains!

QED - 1 (1)

Bruce Hood explained how our brains really weren’t cut out for rational thinking. We learned how magical thought is an innate part of how we view the world from early childhood and that things like “mind-body dualism” and “essentialism” give us an insight into how we come to believe stupid things. These deep seated notions can survive long into adulthood.

Dawkins Clones!

Matt Dillahunty talked about debating with theists and how there was no one sure way to change peoples minds. We don’t all have to be clones of Richard Dawkins. (I know, we can all breath a sigh of relief now).  He had a few words of advice for skeptics – “Have a good reason for engaging in the conversation in the first place. Not so that you can look superior or cool.” Well said.


QED - 1 (2)

Where Michael Marshall gets his energy, I do not know. What with his involvement in QED and his podcasts and debates with true believers, he’s off now trying to stop the UK government funding homeopathy – and he’s making good progress too. Marsh is a pleasure to listen to – he’s VERY funny, although the story content almost writes itself. Homeopathic Owl, anyone?

Nuclear Bloody Reactors!

Dame Sue Ion showed us that the UK seems to be getting somewhere with its energy strategy these days. In the next few years, traditional fossil fuels in our houses and cars will decline, to be replaced by electricity – and for that there will need to be a very diverse set of energy sources and management systems. Nuclear Power is part of that equation, which is more than can be said for Ireland, with it’s blanket opposition to nuclear from almost everyone.

Ancient Doubters!


The wonderfully eloquent Jennifer Hecht did a terrific job of explaining how atheism and doubt has always been with us. There have always been doubters and people who opted out of cosy religious consensuses, sometimes at great risk to their lives. They did this because they got frustrated with the bullshit and the lack of proper explanation for tragedy. With phrases like “the meat in our heads wrote the Ode to Joy and Hamlet” I could have listened to Jennifer forever. Poetry and language are powerful and underused tools to communicate our viewpoints.

Skeptical tribes!

AC Grayling spoke about the many different skeptical traditions, and how there was such a thing as “good scepticism” and “bad scepticism”. It was an academic lecture going way back to the time of ancient Greece and explaining how thinking has evolved over the centuries. This is an important story that everyone should learn about.

And then it was over…

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

I just missed two “big” talks – an evangelical preacher who lost his religion and the story of our sun. It’s a pity as they seemed to be well worth attending.  It was great once again to meet my friends from the different parts of the UK and Ireland and it barely needs to be said that I’m already looking forward to 2016.

QEDCon, the annual UK conference for science and skepticism, is over for another year. It was another terrific event. They must be doing something right, as people from all across the world have become regular attendees. The following is a personal recap of the conference.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel

Our venue was the Palace Hotel, close to the Manchester university district. Outside, it looks like an over-designed relic of a bygone era. Inside it’s a confusing warren of corridors, staircases and, eventually, rooms. Quite how all of the attendees managed to make their way out alive is anyone’s guess.

Day 1

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a hilarious video that managed to combine, in 5 minutes, as many woo beliefs as possible – including the drinking of a certain bodily fluid – an image I’ll find difficult to forget for a while. He then went onstage and acted the part of a false medium. Very, very funny.

Elizabeth Pisani then gave a talk on AIDS. People with HIV can now expect to have long, high quality lives; however this means that viral load continues over a much longer term, and along with it an increased risk of transmittance. The net effect is that more and more people getting are getting HIV. Higher rates of HIV lead to huge financial pressures within the medical system, as well as creating a risk of resistance in the longer term. Her conclusion is that, unless a cure is found, HIV must be reduced by addressing the riskiest of lifestyle behaviours. This is incredibly difficult to do.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Next up was Richard Wiseman, with an entertaining talk on his research career. He started the talk with a few photographic illusions, then moving on to ghost photos and pareidolia. He spoke about the attentional spotlight difference between lucky and unlucky people. He showed a video of a fire walking experiment proving – painfully for the participants – that physics trumps faith. He talked about an experiment where he and his team left wallets around the UK, and waited to see which ones got returned. He then talked about sleep, and what we can do to improve it. This is the subject of his latest book, Night School.

Beauty by the Geeks, Brigitte West and Rose Brown, then presented a talk on woo within the cosmetics industry. Both speakers had great material and great energy – evoking a bit of shock from the audience when they showed photos of people spreading sheep placentas all over their faces. I had a small problem with the talk in that it spent much too long on introductions. It would have been better to have devoted more time on the controversies and nonsense within the industry, and discussing what the science actually says. It’s clearly a hugely interesting area with a lot more to discover.

I then went to a panel discussion on The Internet – the best and worst. Angela Saini had some very coherent thoughts (“What is the worst? I think it’s people”). Unfortunately, the subject was far too wide and the discussion was all over the place. I didn’t learn much from it. It should have been more focused – internet trolling and harassment would have evoked a better discussion, I think.

I then attended a panel talk on Medical Myths and the Media. Again, this is such a huge area it was difficult to come to any conclusions or to have a particularly coherent discussion. Nevertheless, it was interesting listening to how doctors coped with the huge deluge of research papers in their area. It’s not easy to distinguish the good research from the bad stuff.

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

After the break we had Dr. Sheena Cruickshank talking about worms. No, not earthworms, instead the ones that live inside of people: hookworms, tapeworms, ringworms and their ilk. There is a negative relationship, geographically, between worm infections and allergies. In areas where worms are prevalent, there are few allergies, and vice versa in the more developed world. Worm treatment may make syndromes such as Crohn’s Disease a bit more manageable, but such treatments are not easy to implement as worms bring their own health issues. And, yes, there are people out there self-medicating on worms in the mistaken belief that it’s making them better. It was an absolutely fascinating talk.

Mark Crislip, the presenter of QuackCast, then gave a furiously detailed presentation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). “Integrated Medicine is where you mix cow pie with Apple pie, so that the Apple pie tastes worse”. His view is that the Placebo effect is overblown and is equal to non-treatment if there is an objective end-point. If it’s an open or subjective end point, it’s a small effect. People who say they get better, often don’t get better objectively. It just makes them feel better about themselves. Crislip is also concerned about the lack of quality standards in CAM and the many reports of direct harm.

The Evening activities kicked off with Richard Wiseman going through some of the worst scientific cover songs ever written. Geologists should never be allowed within an ass’s roar of rock anthems.

The Ockham Awards – the skeptical Oscars – were announced.

  • Kylie Sturgess won the best video award – a TEDx presentation where she talks about superstitious beliefs and practices, such as drinking urine. As she was not there (using the poor excuse that she has to make her living on a continent on the other side of the world), her acceptance speech was given by a cute kitten. She knows how we tick.
  • Leaving Fundamentalism” won the best blog. This was given to Jonny Scaramanga from Nate Phelps, of which more later.
  • The best podcast was Skepticality. This was received by Susan Gerbic on behalf of Derek and Swoopy.
  • The Editor’s Choice award was then given to the QED organisers themselves. It was well deserved for all the work these guys put into creating a brilliant experience for all the attendees. For the last 3 years, QED has been one of the big highlights of my year.
QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

The comedy sections were all very different, and all excellent. Gemma Arrowsmith won over the audience with an astounding Miss World acceptance speech where she talked about how she got where she is by starting at the Big Bang and moving on from there. There was a touch of genius to John Luke Roberts’s piece. He spoke in aphorisms “Jazz to me sounds like a German saying yes, then falling asleep”, “There is nothing sadder than a slinky taking a lift”. After a few gratuitous insults, he finished with a hilarious visual sketch involving a long beard and a set of false teeth on a stick. We were crying laughing. You had to be there. Andy Zaltzman combined skepticism with religion and politics, with hilarious results. “Sperm are basically Stalinists” and “John Logie Baird invented the television in order to give the aged a reason to keep on living”. It was great stuff.

Day 2


Paul Zenon started proceedings with a tale of mischevious hoaxing in Southampton – issuing public divorce proceedings using a pair of curtains. Local media picked it up, then world media, and finally came the psychological analyses. All the while, Zenon and his fellow hoaxers were sitting back, laughing, seeking new ways to stoke the story further.

Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde

The first talk of the day had Deborah Hyde talking about vampires. She traced the history of vampire stories, from Eastern Europe to the present day. Many legends are linked to disease epidemics and reports of corpses failing to rot properly. She talked about the multiple ways to (allegedly) stop a vampire, and how these legends originated. At the end she discussed a recent story where a guy died after swallowing a garlic clove out of a fear of vampirism. Deborah is an outstanding public speaker, interspersing her presentation with spot quizzes and guests being asked to come to the stage to drink blood and ashes.

Next up was Coralie Colmez, talking about the use of maths and stats in criminal trials. The probability of two events occurring equals the product of probabilities of them happening separately ONLY if both events are truly independent. A number of trials in recent history failed to establish independence sufficiently, ending up in gross miscarriages of justice. Coralie talked about the cot death story of Sally Clark and Roy Meadow, who as an expert witness, assessed the likelihood of two cot deaths to be almost impossible, without foul play taking place. Sally was jailed and was released only after a huge public outcry. Coralie also talked about the Birthday Problem and the Bayes Theorem. She got a lively discussion going in the questions afterwards.

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

As an organiser with Cork Skeptics, I went to the Skeptics In the Pub Forum in the breakout room. A few useful takeaways: 1) Never forget to treat your speaker as a VIP; 2) musicians are a very good resource for venue finding; 3) all venues should have disabled access if possible; 4) be wary of people wanting to do talks, as there are a few crackpots out there; 5) is becoming a popular online destination for meetings, at least in the UK; 6) It’s helpful to get the word out by doing a gig for other groups in the area; 7) Publicity is crucial – you still need to trawl through all the media routes. An intriguing thing for me was the use of “Interesting Talks” as a branding item.

Samantha Stein then gave a talk about Camp Quest UK. Camp Quest is a bit like the Scouts, but focused primarily on secular interests and values. There were some great activities mentioned, including talks by well known speakers, and Philosophy for Children (P4C), where kids are encouraged to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. If only there was something like that for me when I was a kid. She talked about the nasty press reception to Camp Quest, portraying atheists “grooming young children”. In the Q&A afterwards, she touched on the difficulty of government recognition as a charity because they were non-religious and they discussed “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is a travesty.

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps

The last talk of the day was probably the most shocking of all (remember we had already had speeches on internal worms, vampire exhumations and AIDS). Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, talked about life within the Westboro Baptist Church, a group so hateful, the Ku Klux Klan issued a disclaimer about them on their website. He began by listing from memory all the books of the bible, as it was something demanded by his father when he was still a young child. His father was incredibly abusive – using violent beatings and psychological bullying to counteract any sense of independent thinking in his children. “You learned to stop trusting that instinctive nature that we have to distinguish right from wrong”, said Nate. As soon as Nate was 18 years of age, he left home, never to return. This wasn’t the end of the story, as Nate spent decades fighting the hobgoblins that his father had implanted in his mind. He was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is now a vigorous campaigner against fundamentalism, calling blind faith one of the most dangerous things in society today, because it is unaccountable and not receptive to challenge. To paraphrase Nate, we live in a world of ideas, but ideas have no value unless they have been tested, vetted and subjected to the harsh light of reality. We must strive to love, and not to hate.

Throughout the talk, you couldn’t have heard a pin drop from the audience. We all got to our feet and loudly applauded when he finished. Nate’s story is at the core of why we do all this.

That concluded QED 2014. In my impression, it was as good as ever, both for the quality of the speakers, the interesting discussions, and the people I bumped into along the way. QED has a grassroots focus that makes you feel like you own a share in its success. Financial considerations aside, I’m hoping I can attend the 2015 event.


Further reading:

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014@Gwendes

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism@HayleyStevens

Here is a short video of our road trip to Germany this year, condensed into three minutes. Just because.

Back in 2007 I was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma. I had a small, painless, black mole on the side of my neck and like most Irish males, I tried to ignore it. It was only after a lot of prodding from close friends and family that I actually did something about it.

Two operations and biopsies later, I realised that I had dodged the bullet. The melanoma had not spread to my lymph nodes. After multiple trips to the consultants in the intervening years, I have had no re-occurrances, either primary or secondary.

Because of our skin type, Irish and British people are among the most susceptible to melanoma in the world. It is one of the leading killers of people under the age of 30. The incidence of melanoma is increasing worldwide and if it is not caught early, your survival chances are minimal.

This Canadian public announcement tells you all you need to know. Check your moles, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, don’t wait to seek help if you notice something abnormal.


When I was younger I used to get very confused about how, if you were travelling to San Francisco from Ireland that you need to travel over Greenland and the cold wastes of Northern Canada to get there. Hold on, isn’t San Francisco to the south of Ireland? So why the hell do planes need to fly north to get there? It didn’t make much sense to me.

What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that spherical geometry is very different to planar geometry, and the fastest way to get from one location on the planet to another is a great circle – a ring around the centre of the earth connecting both points. Great circles do not care about arbitrary definitions such as North and West, only the shortest distance between two points, and if that line crosses over the North Pole, so be it.

Anyway, a few years ago I came across a mapping program on the Web called the Online Map Creator. The program produces maps of many different shapes and sizes in multiple projections. The one that captured my imagination however was Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. If you imagine drawing ever increasing circles around a chosen location on the planet you will get the idea. Consider, for instance, where you are right now. The 10 km circle represents all locations 10 km away, the 1000 km circle represents all places 1000 km away, and so on until you can’t go any further, i.e. the other side of the planet, about 20,000 km away from you. Each point on each circle represents objects that you would come across if you were able to point a telescope at a particular compass angle and see everything on the surface of the globe in that direction. It’s the route an airplane would take, if it didn’t need to worry about atmospheric currents and headwinds etc. Areas tend to get more distorted the further away you go. The extreme is other side of the world from you. No matter which direction you go, you will end up at that point eventually, so every point on the edge of the circle is actually the exact same location on the far side of the planet.

Here are a few maps I made using the map generator.

1) London, England.

London Azi

Notice that if you start out due west from London, you will end up, not in Canada, but flying across Cuba and Mexico. To get to Japan, you need to travel across the Arctic Ocean and northern Siberia. Also note how huge Antarctica and Australia are compared to everywhere else, and if you look closely you will see an enormous narrow island taking up nearly 70 degrees from North to East – that land is New Zealand, on almost exactly the opposite side of the world to the UK.

2) Chicago Illinois

Chicago Azi

This map shows that if you wish to travel from Chicago to Thailand, you need to cross over the North Pole, even though Thailand is close to the equator. It also indicates a considerably northerly path for Japan and China. To travel to Mozambique in southern Africa, you need to set out due East. Australia and Antarctica are enormous, again because they are furthermost from Chicago.

3) Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Azi

Look at how West Africa is distorted! West Africa is now gigantic compared to the rest of that continent, again owing to the fact that it is nearly on the other side of the world. The Iberian peninsula is similarly disfigured. To reach Chile, you need to travel South East, and traveling to parts of eastern Brazil requires a southern journey over the Antarctic ice cap.

4) Beijing, China

Beijing Azi

This is an interesting map. Most of the globe is recognisable and relatively well proportioned (OK Africa is a bit oversized, but we will ignore this). But look at South America! If you look closely, there is a ring of yellow encircling this map. Clearly the furthest point away from Beijing is in Argentina and as a result the mapping severely distorts the continent, The black lines are a bug that I can’t quite explain. In addition Hawaii looks a lot bigger than it should look, given it’s distance from China. I have a feeling that more gremlins are at work here.

An eye on the Commons

I brought my daughter to London on Saturday. It was her first time on an aircraft and she had never been in the UK before either. My intent was to cram as many new experiences as possible into her growing brain over the few short hours we would be together in this endlessly fascinating city.

We saw Buckingham Palace, St James’ Park, 10 Downing St, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and we asscended the London Eye. After that we visited Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Covent Garden. We then visited Hamleys in Regent St and finally we took a Tube to Hammersmith where we saw “Sponge Bob Squarepants the Musical”.

Impressions from a 6 year old:

She was disappointed that the Queen didn’t live in a castle. To her, Buckingham Palace looked like a hotel.

After visting the Palace she wanted to know what language people spoke in London. All around her were people speaking in Japanese, Italian, French and a myriad of other languages.

Her favourite moment ever was watching the street entertainers beside the London Eye. Her even more favourite moment of all time was travelling in a double decker bus. Her favouristest moment ever in the whole world was the Musical. Not to mention getting a pink toy poodle from her dad, having an ice cream for lunch, looking at how tiny the people were from the London Eye, and traveling in a big green plane above the clouds. 

And my favourite moment? Being able to pamper my delightful little daughter all day..

The last ones, I promise. I’m sending them up because I had a camera at just the right time when I was passing by Lime Street Station yesterday evening.

That’s St. Georges Hall in the foreground, and if you look carefully, you will see a second arc just above the main rainbow. 

Cool, huh?

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