Wall Street Journal
December 28, 2010
LONDON—"Brace yourself for five piping-hot minutes of inertia," said William Barrett. Then he began reciting the names of every single one of 415 colors listed in a paint catalog: damson dream, dauphin, dayroom yellow, dead salmon…and on and on and on.
Mr. Barrett's talk was titled, "Like Listening to Paint Dry," and to judge from the droopy faces in the audience, it was a hit. He was speaking, after all, at a conference of boredom enthusiasts called Boring 2010, held here Dec. 11.
For seven hours on that Saturday, 20 speakers held forth on a range of seemingly dreary diversions, from "The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs" and "Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast," to "The Draw in Test Match Cricket" and "My Relationship With Bus Routes."
Meanwhile, some of the 200 audience members—each of whom had paid £15 (about $24) for a ticket—tried not to nod off.
Not many did, surprisingly. "It is quintessentially English to look at something dull as ditchwater and find it interesting," said Hamish Thompson, who runs a public-relations firm and was in the audience.
Boring 2010 is the handiwork of James Ward, 29 years old, who works for a DVD distribution and production company. In his other life, as the envoy of ennui, Mr. Ward edits a blog called "I Like Boring Things." He is also co-founder of the Stationery Club, whose 45 members meet occasionally to discuss pens, paper clips and Post-it Notes.
For another of his projects, Mr. Ward over the past 18 months has visited 160 London convenience stores and made careful notes about a popular chocolate bar called Twirl, including the product's availability, price and storage conditions. He publishes the details online.
Boredom has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry. For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published earlier this year found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about "high levels" of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.
The "Boring Institute," in South Orange, N.J., started as a spoof. Its website says it now plays a more serious role describing "the dangers that are associated with too much boredom and offers advice on how to avoid it."
Tell that to the Marines. It's a well-known fact that soldiers who experience war trauma in the field are at higher risk of displaying antisocial behavior, such as getting into fights or neglecting their families, once they return home.
But a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. Marines, published in September in the journal Aggressive Behavior, suggests that being bored may be a bigger risk factor for such behavior than war trauma is.
Boring 2010 sprang to life when Mr. Ward heard that an event called the Interesting Conference had been canceled, and he sent out a joke tweet about the need to have a Boring Conference instead. He was taken aback when dozens of people responded enthusiastically.
Soon, he was hatching plans for the first-ever meet-up of the like-mindedly mundane. The first 50 tickets for Boring 2010 sold in seven minutes.
"I guess the joke is on me," said the laid-back Mr. Ward. "I've created this trap and there's no way out."
Proceedings at the sell-out event were kicked off by Mr. Ward himself, who discussed his tie collection at great length, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.
He noted that as of June 2010, he owned 55 ties, and 45.5% of them were of a single color. By December, his tie collection had jumped by 36%, although the share of single-color ties fell by 1.5%.
"Ties are getting slightly more colorful," he noted. Also, apparently, his taste was improving. By December, only 64% of his ties were polyester, down from 73% in June.
Even less stirring was a milk tasting. Ed Ross, an actor, swirled, sniffed and sipped five different milks in wine glasses, commenting on each one's flavor, finish and ideal "food pairing." (Cereals got mentioned a lot.)
One eagerly awaited talk was about writer Peter Fletcher's meticulous three-year—and still running—sneeze count. With the help of graphs and charts, Mr. Fletcher disclosed that he had sneezed 2,267 times in the past 1,249 days, thus gaining "a profound understanding of the passing of time."
"I've even sneezed when recording a sneeze," he said.
Karen Christopher of Chicago, who now lives in London, found at least one presentation so wearisome that she stopped paying attention. "I started thinking about Swedish police procedurals instead," she said.
The organizers did their best to keep the audience alert. Many viewers brought coffee, and each received a goodie bag containing an energy bar.
After a much-needed break, a drawing was held. Some of the winners got a DVD called "Helvetica," a 2007 documentary about typography.
To mix things up, Mr. Ward and his colleagues set up a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle depicting British cereal boxes from the 1970s. Each attendee got a few pieces of the puzzle and was asked to help complete it.
For all its archness, the conference occasionally veered from the ridiculous to the philosophical.
Journalist and author Naomi Alderman spoke about the difficulty of having to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a child. Her talk, "What It's Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 25 Hours a Week," ended on an unexpected, touching note. "When we learn to tolerate boredom," she said, "we find out who we really are."
To get to the conference, Jo Lee took an hour's train ride from the seaside town of Brighton. She said it was worth it because her own idea of fun is to take photographs of random marks left on walls and of chewing gum stuck under desks.
"We're all overstimulated," said Ms. Lee. "I think it's important to stop all that for a while and see what several hours of being bored really feels like."
She will have her chance again next year, when Mr. Ward plans to play host to Boring 2011. He hopes to include a talk that didn't make it on the roster this year entitled "The Ease of Extracting Electricity From Municipal Buildings and Beyond: A Comparison."
It's about electric sockets.