Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Janitor or the Dude Who Ran the Water Slide

"Throughout history, every mystery ever solved turned out to be...not magic" 
- Tim Minchin, Storm

About seven or eight years ago when I was fairly new to organised skepticism scene, a major TV channel invited me to participate in a show about ghosts. I was to spend the night in an allegedly haunted castle and debunk whatever claims the owners made. I was very excited to be a real life Daphne and too inexperienced to realise that no payment, including no travel expenses, was a huge red flag.

They wouldn't let me wear this :(
My then-husband Phil and I drove several hundred miles and met the crew. There were other people being filmed too, a young girl who "definitely" believed in ghosts, and a young guy who said he wasn't sure but had the air of a creduloid. They filmed us pretending to arrive together. We had to get out of a people carrier, stand in a line and walk purposefully across a vast lawn towards the castle. It was silly and less Scooby gang than it sounded.

As the resident skeptic couple, Phil and I needed to be split up. They sent him off with the young guy and a camera, and paired me with the girl. We had to walk around the grounds filming ourselves talking about whether ghosts are real. I told her about the research into industrial fans making eyeballs vibrate, causing hallucinations which are easily confused with ghosts. She looked skeptical which annoyed me. That was my job.

As it started to get dark we were introduced to the owner and promoter of the castle, a nice earnest fellow. We walked all walked through the grounds and graveyard chatting, as a warm-up. He told us the story of a couple in the 80s who were driving along one of the nearby roads and hit a white figure, probably the ghost of a woman who had drowned herself in the pond. When they stopped and got out, the figure had gone. "There's an owl sanctuary on the grounds", I said. "Wasn't it more likely a white owl that simply flew off?". "That's a possible explanation, yes", he said kindly. "That's a good point, can you say that when we're filming?" asked the production crew, so we did it all again. This time, when I asked "could it have been an owl?" he looked at me and firmly said "no".

I was cross now. Telly was a lie. We did a tour of the church and he told us gruesome spooky stories. I presented alternative explanations and got ignored, although the crew continued to film everything. There's always hope for a friendly edit. But then the tone changed. "Back to the castle!" said the crew. They gave the believer girl and I a torch between us. "We want you two to spend the rest of the night locked in the haunted bedroom with the lights off". "What for?" I said. "That's hardly the environment for serious skeptic study". I knew why. It would be good TV. Scare the skeptic. We were supposed to sit in the dark spooky room and read the guestbook by torchlight. It contained all the messages from previous guests about what Terrible Spooky Things they'd experienced while there. 

Meanwhile they'd got rid of Phil by sending him off round the castle on his own with a handheld camera. Phil wasn't good telly, too stoic and unshakable. I went to find him and told him about their ridiculous torch-and-locked-room plan. "I'm not doing it", I said. "It's stupid. It's not why I'm here. This is bogus and I feel used". Phil agreed. We went to the producer and said there was a family emergency. It wasn't a lie, I did have a close family member in hospital at the time and could have done with leaving early anyway, but it wasn't the main reason we left. It was about 1am. I should have been honest. I could have said my piece and suggested something different. I didn't have the confidence or experience to do that, and I was under the distinct impression that my 'role' had been decided already. It just all felt dirty.

On the five hour drive home we had to pull over so I could throw up from stress. Or ectoplasm, I don't know. 

When the show came out, it was actually quite skeptical in tone. I'm still sure they were trying to get footage of a skeptic being scared, but it didn't turn out to be entirely the anti-science puff piece I was afraid of.

Then a few years later I saw an article about the castle in a very reputable publication. It said that "a well-known skeptic" had been "frightened away in the middle of the night". The castle were using me to sell their ghosts! If I'd stayed, they wouldn't have been able to do that. Then again, the story might have been "skeptic scared to death from reading spooky stories by torchlight; new ghost sighted at castle".

Monday, 23 September 2013

Women Speakers At Events

Today is a sad day for scientists because someone claiming to be one of their number wrote this in the FAQs of a forthcoming science event:

I am a fanatical, misandristic 'feminist'. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters? No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for. We're actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.

Alrighty. Deep breaths all round and let's tackle this in a constructive, practical way.

Yes, it is often difficult to get female speakers, particularly from male-dominated sectors like science, tech and gaming. However, there are reasons why this is the case and if you take the time to understand those reasons, you will succeed in getting a balanced lineup. As the organisers of Consensus don't seem to be professionals, and I am one, having organised events for fifteen years including both TAM Londons, here is some free advice for them and anyone else who is struggling with getting female speakers.


  1. Offer to pay extra for childcare. One of the most common reasons for women not being available to speak, or cancelling, is because of childcare. Yes, it is 'unfair' that you may have to spend more money on speakers with kids, but it's also 'unfair' that women still, despite everything, are the primary caregivers. Even women with careers. I know, awful isn't it? There isn't any evidence to support the notion of women being innately better at childcare and yet there it is, our society, going along with it anyway. Single parent families usually have the mother as the main custodian. Not your problem? Guess again, look at all the crap you get if you don't get some female speakers. Offer the childcare allowance to men too, if you know they have kids and it could interfere with their ability to accept.
  2. Ask more women. If all the women you asked said no, ask some more. And some more. Keep going til you succeed. It isn't the easiest path, but it is the right one. If you invite a woman and she says no, ask her if she has recommendations for other female speakers in her area of expertise.
  3. If you are consistently getting declines to invites issued to women, maybe it's you. Given the attitude of the Consensus organisers, it's hardly surprising they could only get men. Hire someone else to do your speaker liaison - perhaps even a woman. That would certainly help to send the message that the event is women-friendly, which is very important in male-dominated sectors.
  4. Use registers of speakers to find experienced women, ask for recommendations on Twitter or from other event organisers, or take a chance on an unknown name. Chances are your big ticket names are male. This is a problem I've encountered many times. You need to sell tickets, and to do that you need the famous people who are on telly sometimes. Most of those are guys, more of that frustrating imbalanced society. You will just have to live with the fact that there are fewer big-draw women than men. If your event is good and well-marketed, every speaker doesn't have to be Brian Cox. You can afford to mix things up. Newsflash: audiences enjoy diversity! It makes for better events.
  5. Publicly commit to gender diversity. Just state up front, "this event is committed to gender diversity", before you even announce your lineup. Once you've said it, you have to stick to it. 50/50 in STEM industries is a big ask. Aim for one in four. If you can't manage that, see above.
  6. Avoid gendered language unless an event or panel (or blog post) is about gender. Saying "female gamers" makes "gamer" male by default. Female scientists? Nope, they're scientists, same as the men.
  7. Look very very hard at whether you can afford a creche at the event. You will attract more women speakers AND audience members. Hey, entire families could come! Imagine that.
  8. Offer to pay for female speakers to be accompanied. An event organiser I know once invited a 19-year-old girl to speak then refused an extra conference ticket for her mother. She did not want to travel alone to a huge city to a conference in a male-dominated sector, and so cancelled. I don't blame her. I'm 37 and used to travelling alone, and I still take my partner whenever I can because it can be intimidating or even outright unsafe sometimes. Again, that may seem unfair but again it is simply a rebalancing of something already unfair on women. If you want to fix the whole getting-hassle-while-alone problem society has, that would be great. Meanwhile some women don't want to travel alone, and it's in your interest to accommodate that.
Is all this positive discrimination? Ask yourself why your industry got to the point where these extra steps are necessary and if it's okay for you to simply maintain the status quo. If you still aren't sure, ask some women.

Edit: some more tips from @janl here.


Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On Massive Tellies

Perhaps the telly looked massive because the room it was in was tiny. I don't know. I wasn't there, so can't say what transpired to make Jamie Oliver so contemptuous of a family's choices. That they chose a different priority (entertainment) over his (nutrition) is not surprising in the least. You can't stare at the wall. Food is fleeting.

Poverty is a trap and a cycle. There is no future when you're dirt poor so who cares about avoiding cancer or heart disease? Fat tastes nicer than lean. White bread is delicious. Chips are too. See the Orwell quote doing the rounds and try to empathise. Buying a big TV on credit is a thrill and watching Sky is a distraction.

When I was growing up, under the adorable hell regime of Thatcher, you could get a free telly from the council because TV was on an 'essentials' list. Telephones weren't, because those were a luxury easily replaced by letters. If you were too poor to afford a TV, even Thatcher's government was sympathetic. They didn't specify how big was too big, and I'm wondering what size now qualifies as massive.

It's a simple mistake, assuming someone makes an economic choice by weighing up the benefits and disadvantages of each and educating themselves on the long-term effects. In reality, hardly anyone does this. When you're poor, you buy expensive stuff on a whim to cheer yourself the hell up because depression is common and life is hopeless and bleak. You don't buy it with cash, for you have none. You use credit, not understanding compound interest or its implications. You make yourself financially poorer by trying to become emotionally richer. Culturally relevant. Your kids will be bullied if they don't speak the same TV language as their peers. You will too, subtly. On council estates, no-one speaks in brown rice and organic carrots. On ours, we were bullied sometimes for being a bit different. Snooty, you know. Not about food though. Lunch was a white bread fishpaste sandwich, a snack was a chunk of black pudding. I'm middle-class now and still eat both, or sometimes oysters and caviar, in front of my massive telly that I proudly paid cash for. Food is cultural, not all cultures are the same. No amount of wealth is going to change my tastebuds or rewire neural pathways so a blue Slush Puppy is no longer a nostalgic thrill.

Jamie Oliver has done some great work in schools. One slip-up doesn't undo that. He advocates for nutrition because kids need it for brain development and being clever is how you break the poverty cycle. It is important, intangible, unquantifiable. A gamble, as all health choices are. A massive telly, though, that's something else. Solid, dependable, visible. I'm glad I no longer have to choose.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Gender Traditions - Stag and Hen

The dreaded words, I shudder at the invite. Hen night. I'm not a hen, and neither is any other woman, but if we were the idea of mating with a stag would be an odd one. I guess Cock Night is too close for comfort, in both intention and behaviour, so stags and hens it is.

You're damn right I just drew this in Paint.
Stags of course are majestic, proud, aggressively masculine, horny. Hens are loud, annoying, smothering, fussy serial breeders. Cluck cluck, peck peck. No-one's patronus is a hen.

You could rebrand your stag or hen night I suppose, but that would require more analysis of what it actually is than many people would be comfortable with. Freedom Night. "My last night of freedom, ha ha!" joke men and women alike, whilst hoping that stag and hen night infidelity is something that other, awful people do.

Some people call it a bachelorette party, that being a retrofitted female version of bachelor. Way to make male the default, word person. No thanks. Of course male is the default, such celebrations being a traditionally blokey affair until relatively recently. I understand why women have taken the chance to level the playing field. Now we have two awful traditions instead of one.

Don't Tell The Bride

Several years ago, an old friend on his stag night ended up in a strip club with his mates and male relatives. They bought the usually shy, sweet guy a lap dance. I wasn't there so can't say to what degree he protested, but it went ahead, as did a conspiracy of silence to "not tell his fiancé". Because his fiancé was at home with friends on her hen night taking it easy due to her difficult pregnancy.

Classy, yes? Shock and upset is bad enough for anyone, but for pregnant women it's dangerous. Obviously the correct thing to do is NOT GET A LAPDANCE, rather than go for it then expect a dozen men to keep quiet. The fact that I know about it tells you how well that tactic works. 

The reason the conspiracy of silence was necessary was because the bride-to-be would not have wanted her fiancé to get a lap dance. If they'd discussed it beforehand as a possibility and she was fine with it, then it's no-one's business but theirs. But that's not what happened.

I once went to a hen night where several stag nights were also in attendance. The groom-to-be of one of them spent the evening copping off with a bridesmaid from another party. Perhaps his future wife was in a club somewhere fooling around with a stranger too. Perhaps they had a don't ask, don't tell agreement. Perhaps not.

Another male friend-of-a-friend boasts of his stag weekend in Amsterdam where he was too drunk to get it inside the fattest hooker they could find. Awful people, awful sentiments, awfully common.

Gender Divides

As the sole woman at a male banker friend's stag night, I overheard his twattish friend protest "mate, why did you invite a bird? We'll have to watch ourselves now".

Don't invite a bird.

Gender divides are archaic. To be excluded from an event on account of your genitalia isn't really acceptable. If a friend doesn't want you around only because you have the wrong bits, or identify as a different gender to them, they're a lousy friend. If they don't want you around because your presence may make them temper behaviour their partners would find unacceptable, they're a lousy person.

Nearly everyone I know has a stag or hen party story about infidelity or other sexual behaviour such as lap dancing, whether by one of the happy couple, or an already-committed party member. There is in some circles a culture of pre-wedding drunken lairy, boorish behaviour (by both genders) that has no place in a modern Western definition of marriage. Men no longer demand wedding night virginity, women's sole function is no longer to be a walking womb. Many couples are same-sex. If marriage has evolved into an equal partnership then what is the benefit of the last night of freedom?

Don't be afraid to make new traditions

Of course I've been on wonderful, civilised, hen and stag nights. The only woman at a karaoke party where the groom ended up on the shoulders of his mates, declaring his undying love for his absent fiancé.  A hen afternoon of cocktail-making lessons, civilised and joyful, which ended with both stag and hen parties meeting for the evening. Lovely people, not desperate for some sort of last hurrah because, presumably, they realised their impending marriage would be a whole hurrah itself.

I also don't think I'm alone in enjoying most social occasions more with my partner in attendance. The reason for this is the same reason I'm with him. He's a right old laugh and was a friend long before he was my partner. Not that I can't have a good time without him, and often do, but I have a better time with him.

So fine, I’m a killjoy, a feminazi, rolled eyes will accompany an easy dismissal of my protests because tradition is the ultimate trump card and has been used to excuse and control (women in particular) forever. I go along with close friend or family hen night traditions because to refuse on the grounds of principle is like refusing to go to a funeral because I’m atheist. I wouldn’t be wrong, I’d just be an asshole. 

But if you have upcoming nuptials and, particularly if you’re the ‘hen’, you have any misgivings or even dare I say it feelings of anti-tradition rebellion, don’t stay silent. I’d love to see couples propose new, non-gender traditions, where qualifications for an invite are not based on what body you are in. And if, like me, you choose your friends based on mutual interests and personality, not gender, you’ll probably have a better time for it.


Friday, 7 June 2013

A Gaming Passion

Man I miss doing public events. TAM London remains one two of the best things I ever organised, and although I've done many events since then, they've mostly been private affairs. In other words, nothing I can tweet and blog about, nothing I can generate BUZZ around.

Buzz has to be a reflection of personal passion. Nothing is worse than a cynical attempt at "hey this is kool, look!!!" from someone with no genuine interest in the subject matter or the intended audience. I don't work on public events if they're not something I'm passionate about, because I'm not about to be phony. I hate phony. I love the word phony, but that's just a Catcher in the Rye fan thing.

So, in the spirit of passion and non-phonyness, I'd like to talk about games.

I HATE FUN
You might already know that I write a monthly column on gaming culture and media myths in Custom PC magazine (I've started reposting some articles from the archives on this very blog), and you almost certainly know I spend a lot of my free time horizontal, Maltesers to hand, playing games of all descriptions. What you probably don't know, though, is that the company I run with my partner DC Turner (you know, the Storm guy), makes games as well as animations. I don't talk about that side of business on Twitter much because most of our game dev work is for other studios, but we currently have two of our own games in development so give it a month or two, I'll be chewing your eyes off with buzz and passion about them.

Where does it come from, the passion? In my Gaming Myths and Monsters talk I reframe the oft-stated gendered opinion "you don't look like a gamer!" as "you don't look like you enjoy fun!". Once you understand it in those terms you realise how ridiculous gamer stereotypes are, and that's before we get to the actual data.

The truth is, I've played videogames since as far back as I can remember, which is roughly 1980 (the first game I remember playing was Little Brickout, Apple's version of Breakout). I owe my entire game passion to my parents, who were if not pioneers of home computing, then at least early settlers. My dad, a former RAF engineer, helped to bring Apple computers to Britain, travelling to Cupertino and coming back with some amazing stuff like this Apple pendant
Photo courtesy of my sister Rachael
alongside demo machines that lived in our Birmingham council house and could be used for Applesoft BASIC and games. The family threw itself into both with delight.

In the mid 1980s my dad went to work for British startup competitor, Apricot. I remember almost nothing about that period other than him bringing home an Apricot Portable and it blowing everyone's minds. It had a wireless keyboard. In 1984. I'm typing this on my iPad using a wireless keyboard. Apart from bluetooth rather than infrared, it's the same damn idea. Everything in its own time, I guess.

Then he worked for Tandy, the British retail arm of electronics giant Radio Shack. Up until then you could only really buy computers mail order, from catalogues, so it was pretty exciting to be able to visit an actual shop and rifle through game cassettes. I remember my dad bringing home several Tandy promotional torches and lots and lots of batteries. Tandy loved batteries. He also brought home computers, mostly to fix (he was the local store's engineer) but also a Tandy Colour that mysteriously stayed in our house even though we were poor as heck and not remotely able to afford one. Let's assume some favours were swapped somewhere. Most games were Dragon 32 ports, like Cuthbert Goes Walkabout and Keys of the Wizard.

My dad must also at some point have worked for Acorn, cause we definitely had a BBC Micro for a while, and various other machines (and probably some he built from random bits). All I learned was that Computers Are Awesome, and avoided any of the nonsensical brand loyalty that hampers other people's psyche and pockets.

FWOAR
And then...the big one. The gaming machine that would turn me from casual gamer to hardcore gamer. The Amstrad 464 (we also had a CPC 6128 on loan but history doesn't care about that). My dad was working for Amstrad in the late 80s and while other kids were recovering from the Great Console Market Crash, I was busy enjoying Harrier Attack (no, not that one), Bridge It, and of course Dizzy.

Shortly after his death in 1988, my dad's Amstrad machines had to go back to his employer, and I was gameless. Until a year or so later when my mom bought me a 464plus on credit, which in hindsight was a major financial sacrifice. But, I appreciated it. Still do, mom! *wave*

The 464plus had a 'groundbreaking' cartridge system and came bundled with a cart containing BASIC (yay!) and a racing game called Burning Rubber in which nothing whatsoever happened. I played it for hours at a time, somehow. I don't think any other cartridge games emerged, but fortunately it also had a tape deck so I could continue my enduring love affair with Dizzy.

Aww, an analogue game.
No early consoles for young King (my cousin Marcelle had those so I didn't go entirely inexperienced), PCs all the way until the Amiga CD32. Now of course I have all the consoles, a gaming rig, three Monopoly sets and some Star Trek playing cards, but there's one thing that I had that console kids didn't. I've mentioned it several times. I had BASIC. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting with my parents while we took it in turns to read code from the back of books or magazines, and type. Then the inevitable Syntax Errors and the manual hunt for the errant semi-colon. Understanding games from the inside out.

So that's the history of the passion. What has that to do with events? This:


Admit it, that's a nice logo.
I'm very excited to be involved with etooLondon, a grassroots alternative to gaming behemoth E3. I'm volunteering my time and mad skillz to what I think is a great event, and I was hoping if you have even a little bit of passion for games, you might donate some time too. We're looking for video submissions to play on the livestream or put on our YouTube channel, from gamers and developers alike, talking about your favourite games(s) or what you're excited about this year or your gaming rig or...well, anything you like that's gamesy, really. Ideally we need them by Sunday night so get the phone out, camera on, and tell me your own gaming passion. I'll be making one, I'll append it to this post when it's done. See you online!