Saturday, May 28, 2016

Of Interest

If you go to a conference, you hope to learn about some particular topic. It might be financial, maybe it's technology, or perhaps human resources. But whatever the focus, the speakers will try really hard to make it interesting. They might use funny stories or personal anecdotes or colorful graphics. But no matter the wrapping, it can be an uphill climb. After all, when the title of the talk is "Next-Generation Performance Management to Drive Performance" or "Successful HR Plus Medical Affairs Integration Equals A Sum Greater Than Its Parts" even the most determined listener while soon find their eyes rolling back into their head.

So what if you called it what it was, and had a conference that was, by definition, boring? That is, the topics were selected with an eye towards being sleep inducing. Well, in a world that is upside down in so many ways, there is such an animal. In fact, they just had the sixth annual one in London. It was sold out. And according to those who attended, it was captivating.

The Boring Conference, as it's appropriately called, was started by a guy named James Ward who has a blog called "I Like Boring Things." There you will find such posts as "Things I Held In My Left Hand In 2015" and an entry about the time he was offered free mash potatoes. Starting in 2007 there were a series of occasional gatherings called "A Conference of Interestingness." Sort of a low cost TED talk, they featured a variety of presentations on various things that the sponsor thought were, well, interesting. It ran for several years, but then folded. Ward thought it might be fun to stage it's ironic opposite. And for some reason, his effort caught on, and is still going strong.

What would you have seen if you were in the audience in Conway Hall in Holborn this year? To set the proper tone, Ward himself had the keynote. His presentation? "Pedestrian Crossing Signals used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (1961-1990)." He was followed by Jason Ward, whose topic was "An Evening in Paris." But wait: it that sounds like it might actually be interesting, thereby going against the theme of the day. Fear not. Jason actually unboxed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle by that name. Then he did it. Live. On stage. And streamed it as well, at one point topping out at 13 viewers worldwide. Need I say more.

And the boring didn't stop. Dr. Eleanor Herring, who has a PhD in Architecture and Cultural Studies from the University of Edinburgh, presented "Lamposts: For or Against?" Nicholas Tufnell talked about his lifelong fascination with the serial numbers found inside toilet paper rolls. And Peter Fletcher reproduced on stage the famous statistical experiment known as "Fisher's Exact Test," which was based on whether you can tell if your tea tastes better if you put the milk in first, than the tea, or the other way around.

Sandwiched between all that was Dawn Foster's "A Brief History of Bricks," Erica MacArthur's explanation of "How to be a Portrait Model" and Edward Long's presentation on "Paper Bags from Independent Bookshops." And for the first time, a presenter upped the ironic quotation by an order of magnitude, when Russell Arnott gave a talk on drilling, titled, of course, "Boring."

Attendees were wowed by all this. Tweets from the event included, "I'm at a conference. Speaker rates Abney Park as one of top 5 cemeteries. And loves bookshops and paper bags. This is my tribe." Another: "Watching a man do a puzzle on stage. It's actually very therapeutic." And this: "Had the most entertaining and informative day at #BoringVI! @NicholasTufnell's talk on serial numbers on toilet paper was the best thing." But perhaps this one said it best: "Preparing for a whole day of boredom. My childhood reborn."

As part of my work life, I attend a lot of conferences. I'm not there as a participant; rather, I'm one of those guys in back of the room or behind the screens making it all happen. And while I have to focus on my job, I do get to hear to a wide variety of speakers on a wide variety of topics. Some are interesting; many are not. But at least at the Boring Conference, they call them as they see them. And that's somehow very interesting.


Marc Wollin of Bedford like to learn new things, interesting or not. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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