On the Sunday Assembly

On January 19th I got up earlier than I would have liked for a Sunday, downed a mug of tea and headed to Holborn to check out the Sunday Assembly at Conway Hall.

I’ll say it at the start and I’ll probably have to say it at the end – this isn’t just criticism. It’s my experience, it’s what I thought and felt. I’m sure it’s valuable to people – the hall wouldn’t fill up otherwise. I’ve seen people express interest so I’ll share my thoughts – people are most welcome to their own.

Not because I thought that would be a fun thing to do, but because I had a visitor who wanted to check it out. Equally, not for fun, but as a journalist. I thought it might at least be interesting, given the theme for the day was “brains” – brains are cool, and certainly fascinating. Why not?

Well, the reason I don’t go to these things is because I don’t feel like I need to; what benefit would I derive from what is essentially a church service that just happens to not be in a church and lacks mention of a god? I was never forced to church as a child (thanks, mum ‘n’ dad) and the collective acts of worship I was required to attend at school only ever made me quite uncomfortable.

People preaching to me (even if I actually agree with them) isn’t something I enjoy, so why voluntarily go in for it? Makes more sense to stay at home, have a bit of a lie in, watch The Big Questions with a big mug of tea and in a mild rage, then get on with some housework.

I livetweeted my experience, which was met with a mixture of “oh that sounds as awful as I expected!” and “that’s what I thought” across to “what’s your problem, people are having fun, leave it”. Which is all fair. Some of my posts were quite snarky but, honestly, I was terrified – beforehand, and very much during. I just found it really intimidating – for the above reasons, it’s just not my scene.

Particularly when it started properly. After finding a seat high up with a direct view to the stage, where there was a screen showing the London Assembly’s logo/slogan and a band off to one side, the music began. Sanderson Jones – the… convenor? – then began clapping and pretty much everyone joined in straight away. They stood up. Karaoke I’m So Excited. I was excited in a scared sort of way. We remained seated, although wary of being odd-ones-out.

Then people were jumping. To a karaoke song! On a Sunday morning! How confusing. The song finished, but straight into the next one: Daft Punk – Get Lucky. They altered the chorus slightly to make it “a bit less creepy” – replacing the original “he’s/she’s/I’m” pronouns with “we’re”.

We’re up all night ’til the sun
We’re up all night to get some
We’re up all night for good fun
We’re up all night to get lucky…

Repeat almost literally ad nauseam. Not that I’m uncomfortable with songs about sex – sex is great! And being a fuzzy godless liberal, one is perfectly allowed to express such sentiments (slut-shaming problems aside), although the precise implications of the Daft Punk lyrics aren’t without issues. It’s catchy for the tune and nothing else, for me. But this was the kind of awkward that occurs when you’re watching a film with your parents then some characters are suddenly naked and squirming and making grunty noises. Why is this mishmash room full of people of all ages singing a song about shagging..?

Something else that bothered me the whole way through was the fact that we were being filmed from a variety of angles. Not even on mobile phones or little handheld camcorders, but giant balance-on-your-shoulder Proper Cameras. I hope we don’t stick out like a sore thumb, sitting among the revelers, with my pale apprehensive face.

Speaking of pale faces, the room was overwhelmingly white. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that – central London, other things I haven’t considered. Plenty other groups suffer the same lack of diversity – it would be good to address it positively, but I don’t have the answers myself.

We had a little skit from a couple of guys that imagined aliens speaking about animal life on Earth, and particularly humans, surprised that “meat” could do all we do, especially talk. It was quite well-done, I like sci-fi and I enjoyed it.

Sam Nightingale, a neurologist, gave a talk about the relative infancy of neuroscience, the general brilliance of the human brain, and closed with an inspiring speech praising our squishy thought generators (my phrase).

The next karaoke special was something by Elvis. This was followed by a moving and fascinating talk from a woman called Lotje, who had a brain haemorrhage at age 32 but survived – only she lost her memories and verbal abilities. Having re-learned a lot of what we take for granted, she still cannot read, but has a healthy appreciation for her brain regardless. What it’s been through, how much she has recovered, and how beautiful the world seems to her every day. Very humbling.

We were all invited to take part in some “silent reflection” which felt very much like the “let us pray” moment at school. I found that strange – it wasn’t for anything in particular, just to be generally “thankful”. I’ve no issue with silences performed out of respect, but again it was the context that made it uncomfortable for me.

At the end several collection vessels were passed around and a surprising amount of people were clutching £5 notes. There’s no required contribution, I’m not sure exactly what they’re collecting for – some explanation would have been nice. I’m told the group tries to be very open about their finances but we agreed with each other that this seemed strange. If your aim is to be as helpful in a community as church groups often are, why not elaborate? There was a short talk from a guy who, separately, takes part in Casserole Club, but no indication we were funding it, more of a recruitment drive.

So, as I said at the start, most of this isn’t even criticism really, it’s just that I felt immensely uncomfortable being there. On their own, each of the things wouldn’t bother me, or I’d actively enjoy them.

Of course I like celebrating science and humanity – that’s why I consider myself a humanist, I go to science talks/lectures of an evening for fun, I go to Skeptics in the Pub and things like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People (I was even in it!!). I go to Conway Hall often for various events, but never feel as out of place there as I did that Sunday.

The difference at those other events, I feel, is that there’s no expectation of overt and uniform enjoyment and agreement. Everyone who attends does so as an individual, no one tells you what to do or think (indeed discussion is generally the most fun bit) and invitations to be full of wonder aren’t accompanied by an applause prompt or followed by a sing-song.

If you like that sort of thing…

I love music and singing. I love gigs, and jumping around to songs can be good fun. Just not so much when standing in a hall full of clapping folks singing along to a rendition of a pop song, led by a slightly awkward (although very talented)  karaoke aficionado on-stage with a man doing big encouraging over-head claps at the crowd. I guess you have to be there.

It’s great to encourage people to make an effort, to better themselves, to help out where they can. I’m just not sure a branded get together helps with that in any real way besides making attendees feel like they’re part of a community – which again in itself is no bad thing, I like the communities I’ve joined. I don’t feel like they expect me to act a certain way at events, though, and none of those things I like feel like church – but this did.

To quote the 9 Lessons creator himself:

[NB: typos top/to, between/be]

Therein lies my problem. As a pretty-much-always godless person, I feel no need to bring church into my life. All the cringeworthy groupthink and [Edit: WP has deleted the rest of this sentence for me; I'm not sure what else I said. Something more about communities probably]. Some might feel a form of it is missing, or enjoy finding it – no problem. I just find it strange, too, that the model is the same.

If you do feel like you need a church, but not the God stuff, I guess the Sunday Assembly might be for you. They might not call it an atheist church but that’s really what it is. Will it suffer the same fate as those that have gone before? We’ll see.

Links

  • My Storify from the day – scared tweets!
  • Andrew Watts went to this same service and has shared his experience via the Spectator; he has his own faith and was surprised someone asked him about it at SA.
  • Alom Shaha‘s original piece on his experience, though he says “My thoughts have moved on since then” – good to read the comments, too.
  • @MrRegars seems to have had a similar experience to me but also enjoyed finding out why some others were there.
  • Simon Clare writes “In Defence of Sunday Assembly” (not that my aim was to make this an attack…) from his Brighton perspective.

What next? Gendered Science Toys.

fizzpopscienceToday’s Twitter rage* is brought to you by some people who think it’s necessary to market science toys at girls and boys separately. Sigh.

Here’s Fizz Pop Science – apparently it is:

a Community Interest Company that is run by David Reed (aka Rocket), an experienced and friendly individual with many years of experience in organising science parties and scientific shows.

Fair enough. While the 0845 contact number, lack of a twitter account and other personable elements makes me raise an eyebrow, the rest of the site seems to be OK (although comic sans critics might disagree with that).

sciencetoysforgirlsandboys

What’s this?

Until, that is, you have a look at the Science Toys section. Overall quite a good idea, to collate some Amazon links to sciencey toys that children might find appealing, inspiring, fun and so on. I’m all for parents who want to encourage kids to explore science from an early age – it can lead to them sticking with STEM topics at school, going on to university, choosing a science career – all of those positive things, if you (and, more importantly, they) like that.

However, On the right are menu items I like a lot less.

Why does this list of toys have to be repackaged for girls, and for boys? And how are they deciding this? Pretty arbitrarily, it turns out. A click on the for Girls link takes us to a pink-background list, titled “Girls Science ideas for gifts or sleepover suprises” – because that’s what girls all do, apparently. The boys, on the other hand, get “Boys Science Toys and Gadgets“. Slumber parties for girls and gadgets for boys! Not the best way to encourage more girls and women into tech.

girlstoysMost of the toys from the original list are not gendered at all – things like microscopes, chemistry sets, some of the boxes even have pictures featuring both boys and girls. The boys‘ section has all sorts, including dinosaurs, sports-themed things, rockets, robots – all the cool stuff, basically. And there’s more than 10 pages of items. The girls’, on the other hand, has only TWO PAGES, which are dominated by make-up and toiletries-based kits. Pathetic.

So I’ve written them a short complaint to go with the tweets they are unlikely even to see:

Dear Fizz Pop Science,

You might find yourselves the object of some Twitter rage today (try searching “gendered #science toys”). I hope you can see through the volume of ire and take on board some measured complaints.

The part of the site in question is on the toys page, under the “…for girls” and “…for boys” menus on the right.

That the girls’ page has been pinkwashed and the boys’ page is generic, the girls’ toys fills 2 pages where as the boys’ has over 10 – what is going on here?

I know you have tried to be diplomatic with “Although I do not particularly like the idea of Girls Science as a stereotyped style of toy” – but then, why have this section at all?

Why feed into these stereotypes? This kind of site has the power to influence parents and children alike, and with gender inequality still visibly affecting academia and science as a broader field, there is no need.

You could feed both links into a page that says “anyone can do science!” and similar – showing no field within science is restricted or biased towards any gender (or at least, should not be).

I hope you will consider redesigning this small area of your otherwise appealing sciencey website, to fit more in line with your About Us page’s commendable goal of making “…fun and inspiring science affordable and accessible to everyone”.

Thank you.

Dr Baker

Do join me if you would like to encourage them to fix this poorly thought out section of their website, and do a little bit for gender equality in science, and indeed generally. They’re not the first, and probably won’t be the last, sadly.

* Thanks to James O’Malley for the tip-off. And to Dean Burnett who has also written most eloquently about gender and science. I’ve also written about the wider problem.

Edit: David, the owner of the site, has picked up on this (see below) and will be redesigning the pages – watch this space!

LiftGate: QEDcon2013

qedconHello everyone.

So you know before we get going, some of this is meant to be tongue-in-cheeck, mainly because I wanted to make use of a pun. It’s also got little serious bits in it and partly it’s because I just got home from QED and I need a bit more of it in my life before I let it go for another year…

Also I haven’t been blogging much lately, I don’t know why. Haven’t been inspired, also busy with new job(s) and imminent moving house! I didn’t write a post about QEDcon 2012 because I was mega-stressed with thesis-writing at the time (nearly couldn’t attend because of it) but this year I shall follow from the 2011 posts:

I love QED

As does everyone I speak to who’s been. This was its third year and it certainly lived up to expectations based on the last two. I’d looked forward to it since I left in 2012; extremely tired on the Sunday evening, I slept through the whole train journey back to Euston. Cleverly, this year I booked the room for Sunday night too – to anyone who can afford a bit of Monday off and the extra expense, I highly recommend this!

Some of the organisers are good friends of mine (do listen to Skeptics with a K if you haven’t before; one of my favourite podcasts! Also check out the infrequent but giggle-inducing InKredulous) but even if they weren’t I’d still have to give them many hugs/hi-5s/no-contact congratulations (delete as preferred) because, together with all the volunteers, they do a truly amazing job. I think I’ll be joining their ranks next year!

Highlights

Rocking up on Friday evening for the mixer in the bar, coming back to a now familiar place and seeing lots of familiar faces (as well as plenty of new ones!) is brilliant. Some drinks, some chat, some hugs and a lot of excitement.

On Sunday we made a bit of a snap decision to listen to Natalie Haynes talk about similarities between Greek tragedies and soap operas, and the relevance of other classical authors such as Pliny, Juvenal and Virgil in modern life. Her explanation of why people saying quis custodiet ipsos custodes is quite hilarious was just perfect. Despite clearly being high on caffeine and sleep-deprived (which she acknowledged with comedic excellence), I hugely enjoyed her talk. With a Latin A level from school, I have missed classical literature and ancient history ever since and it was a lovely reminder.

Just before this, Carrie Poppy, all the way from the US of A, gave her talk on the value of anecdotes. I very much appreciated this. As an intactivist, a lot of the research I do in this area involves listening to people’s stories of how circumcision has had a negative impact on their lives. This is not valueless, quite the opposite. When an argument in defence of something often contains “but I’ve never heard anyone complain about it/I’m fine!”, exposing the truth that in fact a great deal of people have been harmed is very important indeed. I think a lot of skeptics could learn from this, and rein in the (often appropriate, admittedly) data or gtfo kind of attitude.

An excellent set from Chris Coltrane included a perfect bit on being bisexual and biphobia, which definitely resonated with a selection of us in the room! We shook his hand for that.

There were so many other things. I collected a promised hug from Colin, due to my having Tweeted a semi-regular plea for cheery thoughts when I was feeling sad one time… and having walked past him on the way to the station one day but not managing to stop and say hi in time!

ElevatorGate

For the unaware, here’s a quick bit of background on an incident you’ll need to know something about for the rest of this section to make sense.

There are other skeptical conferences. At one such event, a female speaker gave a talk that included some advice on being respectful to women, and after some time at the bar got into a lift (or an elevator, if you’re from the other side of the pond) to go to bed.

In said lift, a male delegate at the conference decided to ask her to his room for coffee. Possibly innocently, possibly with hopes of some kind of friendlier-than-that situation, who knows. After the event, said female skeptic (who is well-known to most skeptics) made a video for her website that was about an hour long, which included a short statement on this incident.

She asked him, and guys like him, not to do that kind of thing. If it’s late and you’re in a confined space alone with a woman, don’t proposition her (or say something that’s likely to be interpreted as such). It’s just a bad idea.

Fair point. Unfortunately this exploded into ridiculous discourse and all kinds of people jumped in with their views; why is she implying he might be a rapist and why doesn’t she shut up and die – together with deeper and deeper analyses of male privilege, misogyny and all sorts. Including a very misjudged and sexist comment from Richard Dawkins. The fall-out is still happening, somewhat absurdly.

Given this, just about every time a few of us got in the lift, someone would make a joke about “ElevatorGate”, as it’s now known. It was very funny.

gilestweet

We giggled. It was also nice when loads of us packed into the lift at one point and, to save space, partner and I took the opportunity to have a cuddle. After laughing about the close quarters, one girl did ask: “You do know each other, right?” – I think it’s great that people are coming out and asking that, rather than making assumptions or keeping quiet when they witness what might be an uncomfortable situation. Progress.

LiftGate

What wasn’t so funny was when I was chatting, wine in hand, with some other drunk folks after the Saturday night entertainment, trying to work out what strange game they were playing (it involved placing a wine bottle upright on the floor, using teamwork to avoid touching the floor with anything other than that bottle past a certain point).

When my flatmate said something like “Maz, be on our team, you’re light!” and picked me up briefly, a little way off the floor, to demonstrate this fact, we were amused.

However, when a random guy I had never met, who did not introduce himself or ask before going ahead with his copycat behaviour, proceeded to wrap his arms around the tops of my thighs and pick me quite high up off the ground with a grin on his face, which was pressed against my front – we did not laugh.

In fact, my partner told me afterwards that he’d felt like punching him at that point (not usually a violent person). In different circumstances, I might have let him.

Now, I’m not insinuating that this person was anything other than an inebriated reveler who saw something mildly amusing (he was not to know the previous lifter was well-known to me) and decided to join in the fun – I hope that’s the long and short of it.

However, at the risk of kicking off #liftgate, here is my advice – don’t do that. Don’t approach strangers and touch them somewhat inappropriately, even in a partying environment. My displeasure at this may have been enhanced by the fact I was wearing a loosely hanging dress I hadn’t worn before – and I don’t wear dresses often anyway.

But there it is. In the grand scheme, a small thing – I am not traumatised or accusing this person of deliberately treating me a bit like a bit of sports equipment free to be tried out in the shop, I expect he just wasn’t thinking.

That’s the point though; a lot of us are socially awkward, and it’s worth taking a second to think before you act (or speak). All of that is overridden by meeting loads of brilliant people this weekend, catching up with friends, learning some cool stuff and having a generally awesome holiday. Plus I got to use my pun-thing.

Edit: Following some commenting and Twittering, all is well – let this be an example of How Not To Be A Dick. We all make mistakes. Pointing things out, accepting our errors, apologising for them and being forgiven – it’s easy and it doesn’t have to turn into a giant flame war. Live and learn.

Links

I will try to update this over the coming week or two with links I find to other posts, picture albums and so on relating to this year’s event. Feel free to tweet them at me, that would be helpful!

The amazing intro video can be watched over and over again here!! The 2011 and 2012 videos are also available. Everyone gets Milton Mermikides‘ theme tune stuck in their head for a while!

Here’s Stevyn (with whom we had a lovely lunch discussing Qi curiosities and other things on Saturday) with his favourite bits. He mentions our protesters, and I’ll try to find more mention of them. You can also read more about his Skeptical Bobby talk!

You can even listen to Saturday’s Pod Delusion Live recording!

Robin Ince mused on his panel conflict, which I unfortunately missed, but I liked reading this anyway. Here’s a summary of that session by Violetta Crisis. Daphna Shezaf has also written about the conference, and the aforementioned panel.

Some of Robin’s rage was expertly captured by @gwendes – have a look here.

Pixie359 thinks about what more can be done in skepticism.

Alex Gabriel defends Atheism+ for The Heresy Club (I missed this session too).

Hayley has put her thoughts into words.

Eventifier keeps track of twitter traffic generated by events, pretty cool stuff. Over nine thousand tweets… >480 photos, 26 videos – from more than 1200 accounts, apparently!

See Liveskeptic for some storify (collections of tweets on a particular subject/talk).

Here’s a Flickr album from Richard Cooper and here’s an open Flickr group by Kevin Friery that anyone can upload their images to. Friday (including afternoon tweet-up), Saturday and Sunday photos by Rob McDermott, plus a lovely pan of the RDF hall. The Hampshire Skeptics page also has some great images.

My photos are here but I’ll try to put them on Picasa at some point.

Life of Pi

I’ve moved this book/film review over from my Posterous space because, well, Twitter bought them and it’s closing down. Boo!

Towards the end of 2012 I picked up, read and passed on my copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

I wanted to read it before I went to see the film, because generally I prefer to compare film adaptations to books than the other way around. Once you see a film, you have your visuals and you carry them over to the book. I quite like to let my imagination (and the author’s words) do the work first time around.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book; it’s bite-sized compared to most of the 1000-odd page fantasy tomes I tend to wade through. It is at times amusing, upsetting, magical – there were some poignant lines I noticed and should have made a note of as I went along.

Before seeing the film, my impression of the story was that it was one of interpretation. The reader is left with questions and decisions to make by the end and I suppose the conclusions you come to are probably guided by the kind of person you are and the values you hold.

It can be about God if you want it to be – I don’t think it is, but I’m biased. I don’t find it pro-religion, and I don’t find the film to be pushing that agenda either. But you could probably interpret it that way if you really wanted to. Some have decided to take issue with the “I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God” line but I find that unnecessary.  I think it’s more about considering how we view and deal with things that happen in life and the power of storytelling.

The book, compared to the film, does make more of a point of there being logical explanations for animal behaviour. Pi’s father is knowledgable on the matter and tries to impart this wisdom to his sons, which ultimately benefits Pi himself. The film seems to cut down on this aspect, which is perhaps why those who have seen the film (but haven’t read the book) might think the emphasis is more on the religious stuff than I felt it was?

Overall I think the film represented the story very well indeed, with only a couple of additions that didn’t spoil anything, but they didn’t necessarily add much for me. There was one omission but I understand why it wasn’t included as it would have required the filmmakers to make a decision when that’s better left to the reader in the story. It’d be *spoilers* to expand on that but I did have a quick facebook chat about it and someone agreed it would have been tricky.

Visually, it’s fantastic. Colourful, joyful, sometimes surprising (greatly enjoyed the people next to me jumping half out of their chairs at one point!), emotional. It is definitely worth seeing in 3D, the technology is used well (but do sit quite far back!).

I recommend going to see it, and do let me know what you think.

funny-fat-man-boat-cat-life-of-pie-pics

2012 review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for my blog; that’s nice!

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 31,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 7 Film Festivals

In particular, I like the views map. I had visitors from 141 different countries!

Click here to see the complete report.

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