Boring 2011

The Boring Conference is a one-day event dedicated to the boring, the mundane, the obvious and the over-looked. Nothing interesting, worthwhile or important will be discussed at Boring.

(If you’d prefer not to read nearly 1,500 words of my drivel, but would like to know about Boring 2011, have a look at these.)

Yesterday I went up to London Village (Bethnal Green, in fact) for Boring 2011. I didn’t know there was a Boring 2010 until the day after it had been held, so I wasn’t going to miss out this time. Oh no.

I started off the day in the correct manner by inadvertently sitting near the most boring man on the train, who talked at his wife for the duration of the journey IN THE QUIET ZONE NO LESS about some business deal with “the Israelis” that had apparently come very close to falling through but in the end after a lot of blah and blah it was eventually finalised and that’s why he had to stay late at work on Friday. Sure. That’s why.

Why is it the more dull the conversation, the more compelling it is to eavesdrop? Is it because I can’t believe someone could be so vacuous and so I’m waiting expectantly for the exciting M Night Shyamamananamamalananan twist at the end? No. It’s because I’m nosy.

Another thing I should mention: wearing New Rocks and a dressage hat is a sure-fire way to get 4 seats to yourself when on public transport, but it’s also a successful strategy for having both insults and projectiles thrown at you on the walk to the train station at 8am on a Saturday. But I’m used to it now, and my skull was appropriately protected.

So I got to London and made my way to York Hall, a leisure centre which has been around since 1929 and with the exception of Boring 2011, is now a place where people can pay money to watch men hit each other until one of them gives up or loses consciousness.

The queue at 10.20am was impressive, so I joined it.

At 10.49 I finally gained access to the inside of the building and also the running order for the day.

Yeah, that’s right, I bought a ticket for an event called “Boring 2011″ with no prior knowledge of who would actually be there. I had heard rumours of Ince and Goldacre so was disappointed to see them missing, but I got over it pretty quick. Especially when I opened my free swag envelope and found Haribo and badges.

The host, James Ward, opened the event with a rather self-conscious intro, followed by his talk on the early years of Which? magazine. The first ever Which? magazine covered the subject of electric kettles, reviewing three models by GEC, Russell Hobbs and Swan. Adjusting the price to match today’s inflated costs, the most expensive one (the Swan) ends up 30 quid more expensive than the fanciest water-boiler on offer at Argos, leaving enough cash to buy 14 boxes of Yorkshire Teabags. One of the highlights of this talk was the description by Which? magazine of the frequent toppling of cereal boxes as “maddening” . That and the cameras on sandcastles (you had to be there).

Tim Steiner was next with a talk on hand dryers which was not only not boring but also quite funny. He discussed the evolution of hand dryer technology over the years, with photographs, as well as the single biggest issue surrounding hand dryer development: noise. He spent a few hours in an acoustic laboratory with his own personal Dyson Airblade (jealous? I know I am) and was upset by the noises produced. To me, this talk epitomised the entire event. Perfect.

Chris TT travels a lot and therefore experiences a lot of different toilets. He catalogues his favourites and any notable ones that he encounters, including the disturbing urinals at a Dundee metal club which are shaped like a lipstick-wearing mouth.

Matthew Crosby originally wanted to present a talk on hand dryers, but as the other guy actually owns an Airblade he lost out to him. So instead he told us all about his Nando’s live-tweeting and how it has affected his life. He said he felt like he was trapped in a chicken-based Bourne Identity as strangers would send him tweets about Nando’s, usually saying that they themselves were dining in one of the restaurants and were surprised not to see him there. On one such occasion, he was actually on his way to the Nando’s in question but upon receiving the tweet he changed his direction.

Galit Ferguson chronicled the reorganisation of Budgens in Crouch End. Perfect.

Jon Ronson (buy his books, he is excellent) was invited to look at Stanley Kubrick’s photograph collection after the director died. What he found was over 1,000 archive boxes, which were full of photographs, mostly taken by his nephew, Manuel Harlan. Photographs of everything from doorways to room interiors, with a 6m panorama of an entire road; an early form of street view created using a ladder, a camera, and a lot of time and patience. I bloody love Jon Ronson.

Ever considered cataloguing everything you eat and drink over the course of a year? Peter Burnett did. In fact, he did it twice because the first go didn’t take place over the course of a calendar year. He didn’t read the whole book to us, just some selected portions.

After lunch, it was maths time with Toby Dignum‘s lovingly presented talk on the square root of two. And occasionally his cat. Did you know that there was such controversy over \sqrt{2} that when Hippasus of Metapontum discovered that it couldn’t be expressed as a fraction, he was murdered? Awesome.

I’ve never seen the Hugh Grant film, About a Boy, but thanks to Leila Johnston I don’t need to. She has identified the key filming locations used, mapped them, and visited and photographed them. She explained that instead of being a romantic comedy, it is a French-style film about ennui. Very apt.

Future Portsmouth SitP speaker, Matt Parker spoke passionately and in great depth about barcodes, including the more fancy and modern QR codes. He demonstrated his party trick of being able to predict the last digit of a barcode when given the preceding digits, as well as explaining ASCII for those who were previously unaware.

Greg Stekelman (The Man Who Fell Asleep) proved his love for the London Underground, or more precisely, the Victoria Line. He detailed each line, with key facts, celebrity endorsements and personal anecdotes, and I was enthralled.

Helen Keen explained the connection between NASA, Nazis and Satanists (clue #1: the name) and told us that there were no boring shuttle flights. I believe her.

Will Barratt talked about the Loebner Prize  which is awarded to the most convincing computer generated conversation. He noted that the most convincing tends to also be the most defensive, paranoid, or boring.

Rhodri Marsden hates small talk. He’s rubbish at it. He tends to ask questions like “what’s Wigan like then?” or when asked about his recent adventures, he talks about having an anal blood blister lanced.

There was another break, after which Josie Long talked at length about her Alternative Reality Tour. I love Josie, but she did go on a bit, and it didn’t seem particularly relevant or well targeted and I noticed people nearby getting a bit tetchy.

Not quite as tetchy as during Mark Stevenson‘s talk though. He was absolutely fantastic at Portsmouth SitP recently, and is a lovely bloke, but yesterday’s effort didn’t really work, in my opinion. It was an incredibly aggressive and sweary piece about “why cynicism is boring” but it didn’t fit with the theme of the event, and apparently a few people even walked out. It’s a shame really.

Richard DeDominici made me laugh a lot. His talk was in the Pecha Kucha format and was about health and / or safety. Including the sharp edges at the holocaust memorial (very dangerous during icy weather) and the application of those bobbly strap-hangers they used to have on tube trains, to be used in Tokyo during earthquakes.

Felicity Ford treated us all to the sound of the coffee machine near her office. A machine whose noises are more pleasant than its coffee. She went on an audio odyssey, recording the vending machines of the British Isles, and she shared a small part of it with us.

Finally Adam Curtis delighted the audience with a story about his colleague, Andrew, who was cataloguing “the bits in between BBC TV programmes” going back 60 years. There was an amusing interlude featuring Michael Parkinson and Robert Redford, where Parky incorrectly states that the name “Lena” backwards spells “anal”.

Overall it was a brilliant day, but disappointingly, not at all boring.

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