[Music] Xemplify — A Revolution

This is no simple reform,
It really is a revolution.

Sex and race,
Because they are easy, visable, differences,
Have been the primary ways of
Organising human beings
Into superior and inferior groups.
And into the cheap labour,
On which the system still depends.

We are talking about a society,
In which there will be no roles
Other than those chosen or those earned.
We’re really talking about Humanism.

Titanic Tourism

Claiming to be disinterested in the hype and surrounding the Titanic does a good job of both alienating people from those who feel creating such business models of a disaster are a good way to remember those whose lives were lost, and an history industry, and bringing together those who are fed up seeing it on the news, TV, newspapers, internet and splashed all over the city every day for the last 6 months. There are two very distinct sides to the story of making it a part of the Belfast’s current appeal for tourism: simply cashing in on disaster-tourism or aptly and respectfully remembering something great the city once did?

titanic belfast 2012

A commemoration of a huge feat of engineering and a time when ship-building was one of the largest industries in Belfast: this fine city built the biggest ship in the world, donned “practically unsinkable”, later changed to simply “unsinkable” by local press. Taking 3 years to complete by 3,000 workers and costing $7.5 million (1912) the ship was a beast at 882.9 feet long and 92 feet wide, 59 feet high from water level, and weighed over 46,328 tons.

The scale of accomplishment is worth celebration, yes. To be a first class passenger would have been a great experience; and if you pay enough you won’t have to look hard enough to find a restaurant serving up a menu given to those first-class passengers. However, beyond being a huge ship — the biggest of its time — I find it difficult to get over the fact that it did indeed sink, killing 1,513 of its 2,224 passengers. There were not enough lifeboats, as White Star Line didn’t want to cut into the passenger’s space on the promenade deck, let alone the fact that the living conditions were pretty dire for those in steerage; closer to the engines it was noisy and cramped, with locked gates between them and first and second class decks where the lifeboats where.

We have a whole area of the city rebranded in its name: The Titanic Quarter. Complete with shops, a college, apartments, bars, and corporate business; “maritime disaster to urban status symbol“. Frames Complex has changed its name to Titanic, you can eat ‘salt and vinegar’ flavoured Titanic crisps, there’s The Dock café (a front for a Christian meeting place, but that’s a different topic), ‘Titanic’ burgers are being sold in St Georges Market, complete with “iceberg lettuce”. Why not wash it down with a mug of Titanic Tea, or drown your sorrows with a pint Titanic Beer. It’s beyond ridiculous and completely insensitive.

The recent wave of marketing towards the Titanic, by local councils and tourist groups for the region, backed by far too much money and the ability of some very clever marketing people, while lauded as a celebration of “glory and disaster” has led to a wave of “disaster tourism” and a number of people simply cashing in on the gullibility of those who feel that a tea towel or ice cube holder is a sufficient way of remembering this tragedy. While sectarianism may have been a part of life in Belfast at the time, the fact that “Catholic workers were often excluded from the workforce because of their religion”, as William Crawley discussed, hails of glorifying the very issue.

Belfast man William Neill, now a Professor of Urban Planning at Aberdeen University in Scotland, was quoted as saying that he acknowledges Belfast’s shipbuilding history and it’s “unique” place in the Titanic story, but is concerned that the city is trying to cash in with Titanic “infotainment” with its new Titanic centre.

Constructed as a near-replica of the original Grand Staircase on board the ship the staircase which has caused much controversy in recent weeks is situated in the 750-capacity Titanic Suite conference and banqueting hall, yet mere members of the public are not given permission to see it, beyond admiring photographs elsewhere in the visitors’ centre. Unless of course you have celebrity status. A modern tale of class-based discrimination?

While the experience of the Titanic Belfast visitor centre may be one to enjoy and remember: it is a beautiful building from the outside, and, from first-hand reports, what has been done on the inside to celebrate Belfast and its ship-building industry of a day gone by is done tastefully and with much hands-on interactivity. However, this is £97m which could have gone into working on what is left of the industry in Belfast: the dry dock and pump house, Clendon Dock, the Drawing Rooms and other artifacts, which have left to all but rot under the watchful eye of residents, and this new wave of tourists. Hopefully it won’t become the white elephant that some predict it will.

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012

titanic belfast 2012
All photographs copyright © Phil O’Kane

I am anti-Titanic. Why? Because it is continuing the idea of Belfast being known for all the wrong reasons: a ship which sank and killed hundreds of people, George Best; a wife-beating, alcoholic footballer, The Troubles, home to the most bombed hotel in the world (The Europa), Snow Patrol (I jest). No, we mustn’t forget the Titanic, though if only it was done more respectfully. We don’t need it to be our Disneyland.

The pneumatic tyre and the tractor were invented in Belfast? Belfast’s Sirocco Works invented air conditioning and the Royal Victoria Hospital became the first building in the world to be fitted with air conditioning. Shorts Aircraft Factory pioneered Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircrafts in the 50’s when Sir James Martin invented the aircraft ejector seat. Professor Sir Frank Pantridge, born in Hillsborough and educated at Queens University invented the portable defibrillator, which saves thousands of lives each year. (info).

A grand ship yes, but with an unforeseen outcome, one which Belfast shouldn’t be particularly proud. The History Press used available research in order to provide historically accurate tweets from the first person perspective of the crew, passengers, captain and engineers, following the ship as it left on its journey to its demise in the North Atlantic on 15th April 100 years ago. Personally, I find it a hugely morbid affair.

A similar attempt was performed by RMS Titanic, Inc.

As Mark Simpson recently said: “There is a thin line between embracing the Titanic legacy in Belfast and exploiting it.”

This was originally posted on my personal blog: icedcoffee.ie.

World in shock as psychic turns out to be wrong

So last week I was watching Psychoville at one or two in the morning on BBC iPlayer. This happens a lot. I have the sleeping patterns of a bat and the TV consumption habits of a student. Personally, I blame rap music.

Anyway, when it ended I went to the Guardian’s website and saw, at the top, in the Breaking News ticker, a harrowing developing story on a mass grave in Texas containing the bodies of up to 40 women and children.

“What in the name of Christ is this about?” I thought. “Was this some cult or a lone mental?” As it turned out, it was just the sick ramblings of a psychic the police had to look into. There was no mass grave.

Now, I was going to write a real skeptics blog post on this, but I really don’t need to since the Discovery channel’s news website have completely nailed it already.

If you want to hear the psychic’s ‘side’ of this, the Houston Chronicle managed to track her down.

Now, this story made it to the Guardian, Reuters and the New York times. The FBI was involved in the search. This psychic should face a penalty. Wasting police resources and, as such, tax payer money on the fanciful imaginings of a disturbed person while also including a national body is wholly unacceptable.

I haven’t heard if this psychic is going to face any consequences for this, but I sincerely hope they are. I can’t imagine I’m the only person that would want penalties in place so these people have to think again.

Denial is not just a river

A Minister for the Environment who denied climate change.

A Minister for Culture who wanted creationism promoted in the Ulster Museum.

Now? Well, now we have a Minister for Health who denies evolution. Well, that’s just super. As we said on Twitter:

Good thing evolution has nothing to do with medicine, viruses, genetic disease, science or anything else. No sireee no. Nothing to see here.


Some of our fellow Tweeters are very, very funny. Here’s Colm Ryan‘s illustration:

The Complete Theory of Evolution
Thanks to Colm Ryan


He also said:

His first duty will be to legislate against penicillin for evolving. #edwinthecreationist


Then there was Alun:

Could be a clever move. If he makes evolution illegal in NI, that’s MRSA wiped out, yes? 😉


And of course Chris, in a wonderful nod to the Life of Brian:

Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, health, roads and freshwater what has science done for us?


Big props to Robin Ince for retweeting us 🙂

Just to see what his reaction might be and how the idea of denying evolution while being minister for a department that has a serious science backing might be reconciled, we sent him the following email:

Dear Minister Poots,

First of all may we congratulate you on your recent appointment as the Minister of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. After the news broke today it came to our attention that, according to your website, you are a “young earth creationist and an opponent of the theory of evolution”. Could you please elaborate on this point? We would not wish to misrepresent your position on this matter. We are also concerned about how it might be possible to reconcile responsibility for public health and public safety with the denial of a well-established, well-supported and widely-accepted scientific theory and the possible repercussions that this might have.

We look forward to hearing back from you to respond to our concerns.

Kind regards,

Conor, Alana and Phil

If you want to do the same, you can email him directly on either private.office@dhsspsni.gov.uk or edwin@edwinpoots.co.uk. They’re both publicly-available email addresses.

A Letter to QED

This letter was originally featured on ‘Just Skeptics‘, the podcast by the Greater Manchester Skeptics. Conor was a guest on episode 17, which you can find here. I’d recommend listening to it on the podcast as opposed to reading the letter, as then you get the dulcet tones of my voice.

Dear QED,

It’s hard to believe it’s over. It seems just yesterday that I was giddily dreaming of this romantic weekend away in Manchester. Just you, me and a few hundred sceptics. I’d heard about you first on a podcast, then other people chimed in with how great you were going to be. I booked my tickets early and got the hotel and flights sorted – the thrill of the chase sped my credit card transactions. I only told my parents about you a few weeks ago; I admit I was a little nervous about how they would react. They know all about my “activities” in Belfast, but this, this would be different. This was a weekend away, just for you QED. They reacted well, as they always do; “We only want the best for you, Conor”, “As long as you’re happy, we’ll love you no matter what”.

In the build-up to the fated weekend, my excitement grew. There were going to be so many good times! Such ideas that I couldn’t imagine, such fun! I arose early on the Friday, expectation over-whelming my tiredness. We took a taxi to the bus, a bus to the plane and a train to the hotel. The Ramada hotel; the red letters beckoned to us as we turned the corner onto Portland St. Eventually I plucked up the courage and sought out the crowd, diving into the bosom of QED – the bar. It was thrilling, refreshing and welcoming. So many critical thinkers in one room, surely this was just a dream, surely I would soon wake up! I admit, I didn’t behave like a perfect gentleman. I drank, swore and misused the hash-tag on Twitter, all of which I paid for on the Saturday morning with a guilty conscience. QED, you could easily have rejected me, ignored me or politely blocked me from the free wifi. But no, you were kind and gentle. You gave me the time to recover, then embraced me into the queezy warmth of the main hall for Bruce Hood. I’ll admit it wasn’t easy hearing about blowing up teddy bears – but sacrifices must be made. I struggled on. Saturday continued in a blur of the Reaching Out Reasonably panel, the paranormal panel, the Inkredulous podcast recording, Chris Atkins and Chris French. Scarily enough, I’m pretty sure Chris French was trying to brainwash us; he played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards during his talk. He later spoke to me about false memories… or maybe he didn’t. Anyway, QED, you gave us breaks and time for mingling. I appreciated that. Then, it was the chance to hear from the king of skeptics, the big kahuna, the brain behind the person behind the voice: Steve Novella. Ah, what a guy. Don’t worry though, my dear QED, I wouldn’t stray from you. Having said that, you didn’t make it easy, you certainly gave me some tough choices. Time travel or podcasts? Skeptics in the pub workshop or juggling? The choices are in the past and I know I can’t change them, mostly because I didn’t go to the time travel talk. Saturday finished with the comedy loveliness of Helen Keane and Matt Parker, as well as the one and only George Hrab, who was once disqualified from an egg-and-spoon race for bending the spoon.

Sunday kicked-off with a delicious sugar and homeopathy overdose, with Wendy Grossman benefiting from the sugar-high and placebo effect. Therein followed the choice between Simon Singh and Chris Atkins. You wicked, wicked demon QED. I shall forgive you though, for then you provided us with Jon Ronson. After his talk, I’m pretty worried about being a psychopath. Or living with a psychopath. Or upsetting a psychopath. Nearing the end of the weekend, I went to the skeptics in the pub workshop, apparently missing the fantastic Colin Wright juggling and doing maths. Never mind. The ceremony closed with Eugenie Scott, whose words of summation of evolution brought a tear to quite a few eyes.

I know that, for me, you were just a holiday romance. For others, you were a labour of love, months of dedication. Not having you in my life will be a brief sense of mourning, but it will pass. For others, the end of this relationship may take a greater toll.

You’ve changed my outlook on life. I’ve learned so many lessons from you: Don’t pretend to be crazy to avoid a prison sentence; don’t believe anything your brain tells you and if you run really, really fast you’ll go forward in time.

So here’s to you QED. So long and thanks for all the belladonna.

February Update

Just a brief update to share some news for everyone. A few of us are away to QEDCon this weekend in Manchester – read about it here. Tickets aren’t on sale any more, but check back next week for more info. Or follow us on Twitter – @belfastskeptics. We’ll try and post updates from the convention. Our next event is Colin Johnston from the Armagh Planetarium talking about UFOs and IFOs in Belfast and Northern Ireland. That’ll be great – check here for more details (Facebook event page here). Also, we’ll have a newsletter going out next week – sign up here if you aren’t on our list yet. Finally, we’ll have a new series of posts by guest authors coming in the next week or two. They’ll cover a variety of topics, with the aim of acting as a springboard for debate.

Hope to see you at our next event,

Conor, Phil and Alana

The End Is Nigh!

“The Bible guarantees it”. I was in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, visiting a few friends. I noticed a guy on the plane who had a jacket on which had the words “Judgement Day, May 21, 2011. The Bible guarantees it. FamilyRadio.com”. I remembered that there had been a group in Dublin claiming that date as the end of days. I happend to pass them by on Prince’s St. in Edinburgh two days later and, after a litte nervousness, my friend and I ran back and chatted to two of them. They were very polite, as was I. Given that I knew very little about their predictions, I played the amicable questioner and just asked them about who they were, how they had come to their prediction and what it meant. You can see their website here and read the text of the leaflet they have here.

In its simplest form, the group say: The Bible (“without question a very ancient book” link) and “each and every word in the original languages is from the mouth of God” (link). From their reading, the date of judgement is May 21st, 2011. After that is a 5-month administrative period, where all human souls (but not animals, because they don’t have the “breath of god” as one of the people we spoke to stated) are audited. Then, on 21st October 2011 (According to the people we spoke to) the world will be destroyed.

There’s not much to discuss really, because the argument fallsThe End Is Nigh from the outset because of lack of proof: There isn’t enough evidence to support the Bible as an infallible and credible source of “correct and accurate information” (link). If you can show that, then we can move on to the actual interpretation of the source. After that, we would use other sources to corroborate the idea. Never mind though.

We’ll be having a party on May 20th and a countdown to midnight. That should be fun. Theoretically, of course, it might be true. The odds are that it’s not true, in the same way that the world might end on any randomly chosen day. Honestly, arguing from the Bible or any one book baffles me. The problem is, any world events can be tied to any prediction of chaos and destruction. The upheaval in Tunisia; climate change; the global economic recession – they’re all, apparently, signs of the apocalypse.

On the question of whether this is dangerous behaviour on their part, I think I’d suggest that it is. While for most people, the idea that the world will end soon is a ridiculous one, other people may be indoctrinated into it and may give up their possessions, or take excessive financial risks on the basis that the world won’t exist for them to pay back any debt! Perhaps I’m being overly-cautious, surely no one will actually believe this stuff. Will they?

QEDCon in Manchester – February 5th & 6th

This year’s first big sceptical conference is nearly upon us – QEDCon in Manchester. The convention is taking place on  the 5th and 6th February. Those of you who have not bought tickets yet should do so as soon as possible! There are both one- and two-day tickets available, from £59 for one day, £99 for two days and £75 for two days for students. The Question Explore Discover conference boasts great speakers such as Steven Novella and Eugenie Scott. Check out all the speakers here. There are diverse topics which should cater to all tastes from ghost hunters to the big bang. There will be a small group going over from Belfast Skeptics so if you would like to get in contact please do so hello@belfastskeptics.com or on Twitter.

You can find the website here and the timetable for the event here. As well as the event, there’s a mixer on Friday night in the hotel bar and a Gala dinner on Saturday night. Those without Gala dinner tickets can also come along to alternative dinner – check the Facebook event page here. Also, click ‘like’ on the QEDCon Facebook page and follow them on Twitter. Also, sign up here if you’re on Twitter, so we can see who’s going!