One would have thought instruments of torture were illegal in modern Britain

I spent quite a few hours today in the Sheldonian — an utterly beautiful building, a masterpiece of 17th century architecture designed by Christopher Wren, and clearly built in an age before anyone had ever heard of ergonomics.


This morning I got to hear Gululai Ismail, Asif Mohiuddin, and Agnes Ojera talk about how atheists are oppressed in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uganda. Then this afternoon I came back to listen to Philip Pullman talk about writing. And let me tell you, it was worth it, but all that time on hard flat benches with straight backs or no backs at all, less legroom than on the cheapest airline ever, and narrow little spaces that weren’t quite wide enough to accommodate modern feet (17th century students must have tottered about on tiny little pegs rather than real feet), mean I’m now feeling a bit wrenched and sore.

Most of the panel discussions were held in the Examination Schools with rather significantly more modern seating, and there I listened to Babu Gogineni, Leo Igwe, Valentin Abgottspon, and Bob Churchill talk some more about oppression and efforts to fight it, and then a spectacularly fiery conversation between Alom Shaha, Maryam Namazie, Maajid Nawaz, Kenan Malik and Jim Al-Khalili on the topic of Islam. Islam is very complicated, did you know that?

The rest of the evening was spent socializing, hanging out with Norwegians, I broke down and had a beer, and had a delicious dinner in which I was deeply offended as an American by being seated directly under a gigantic portrait of George III. Then more socializing. And a bit more.

By the way, Gululai Ismail was awarded Humanist of the Year. Well deserved!

Now sleep. I see on the schedule I’m expected to show up at the Sheldonian again first thing in the morning…I may just have to pass on that.


  1. Trebuchet says

    Ha! Proper medieval churches had no seats at all. You worshipped while standing. (And I’ve been to medieval faire just today!)

  2. Louis says

    Hard flat benches? No room proper man sized feet?


    Okay that’s quite enough of that nonsense. The real reason the seating is so uncomfortable is that it encourages Wakeful Discomforture, a proper English feeling that one is not there to enjoy the comfort of one’s buttocks. Therefore institutions such as Oxford put in the requisite degree and number of impediments. Take for example impenetrable tradition and bureaucracy, or the fact that pleasant food was frowned upon until the 1970s.

    As a matter of interest, PZ, changing topics wildly, what day do you (presumably from Heathrow) get fired back to America in a metal tube full of other people’s farts? Or “Fly home” as some people call it. This could works your benefit.


  3. robro says

    One would have thought instruments of torture were illegal in modern Britain

    What do you expect? It was built by religious fanatics after all.

    Islam is very complicated, did you know that?

    Maybe that’s what they mean by “ineffable.” It is complicated to find anything written objectively about the origin myth of Islam. I particularly enjoy the Year of the Elephant story about the birth of Mohammed. It gives one the same confidence in the historical Mohammed as the virgin birth does in the historical Jesus.

  4. says


    I like typos. They make me feel smart.

    Golly, you don’t need tpyos (which you misspelled, btw) to make you feel smart. All you need is that magnificent brain of yours, oh splendiferous one.

    (is my check in the mail?)

  5. says

    On Friday, 15 August, I get up bright and early in Edinburgh and catch a train to Heathrow, hopefully getting there in time for a 6pm flight home.

  6. redwood says

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Philip Pullman speech–his idea of letting ideas, poems, art, whatever float around young people to grasp or not was wonderful. We so often treasure “found” art better than prescribed art.
    My daughter visited me on Saturday. She’s an exchange student in Birmingham and trained over for the day. She likes Harry Potter so we took in the tour, which was led by an Oxford grad student. The tour was a bit of a bust, but the student stopped outside the Examination Schools and mentioned the WHC, at which point I showed her my badge. She then asked me, “What is a Humanist anyway?” and I got to explain to my fellow tour members. Thank goodness for the earlier slide show put together by the British Humanist Association! She then said, “Well, that makes sense.”
    I did enjoy standing next to you that evening (after seeing my daughter off on the train) while listening to delegates from the Philippines and Nigeria talk about their countries, PZ. Like here on Pharyngula, I tend to listen/lurk more than I comment.
    And I skipped the 8:00 Sunday Assembly too.

  7. graham says

    Heading states: Instruments of Torture. Photo shows BHA Choir. Hopefully that’s merely co-incidental?!

  8. Rumtopf says

    Oh gads Louis, you were channeling Tom Martin for a moment there.

    And hope you enjoy the rain today, PZ. Wish I could come hang out :c

  9. williamquinn says

    Aldous Huxley, who was of course very familiar with such seating arrangements, had one of his characters develop pants with inflatable seat cushions sewn in, just for such occasions. (In “Antic Hay,” was it?)

  10. says

    Today, I arrived at the Sheldonian extra early so I could get a seat on the main floor — on folding chairs, which are immensely more comfortable than the benches.

  11. Louis says

    In no particular order:

    Tony: the money has been transferred to the usual account. It was sent via one of my Columbian chums who runs some sort of pharmaceutical endeavour I understand, calls it a cartel, anyway, I’m sure the FBI will be massively uninterested in the few million merely waiting for another transfer out again.

    Rumtopf: I have no idea to whom you refer… {flutters eyelashes innocently}

    PZ: Ah. Unfortunate. Or fortunate I guess depending on your perspective! The timings won’t work in favour of a spot of lunch/dinner if you were amenable. I have a holiday with my wife and son this week which means I couldn’t even get to Hebden Bridge, something I’ve wanted to do for a while.


  12. David Chapman says

    Rumtopf @12

    Anne Bonney fan, Rumtopf? Me too. :)

    PZ Myers:

    Islam is very complicated, did you know that?

    It would be, wouldn’t it.

  13. Douglas Allenby says

    If you can’t get a cushy floor seat, the windows up top are very good. You still have a good view, and they’re spacious padded.

  14. Al Dente says

    Matt G @19

    Air horns?

    Looking at the picture in the OP, I see a whole group of air horns on the balcony.

  15. Daz365365 . says

    You should have been at the Sheldonian a couple of years ago for the Craig vs Dawkins debate, I believe there was a spare chair ;)