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.

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.

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!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A Gentle Reminder - Porn and the Internet

We need to talk about porn. Awkward, I know, but think about it from my perspective: at least you can see my photo. I have no idea what you look like so this is less of an exchange and more of a window. And that, of course, is the point. Leaving aside webcam services, the majority of online pornographic material is for looking at rather than interacting with, which is why it's long been a feminist issue (theories of objectifying rather than empathising) and is now becoming a technology and government issue. One which has implications beyond naked bodies and the contents of our second hard drives.

Many governments worldwide have become convinced that online pornography is a corrupting influence for the viewer. A 'normal, healthy' relationship, argue politicians and pressure groups, is not reflected in the sorts of material one can easily find just by Googling, and this, so the claim goes, is leading to all sorts of unrealistic expectations in the bedroom.

Iceland is currently attempting to address this ill-defined problem by banning online porn. It's slightly farcical because pornography is already illegal in that country, but the law hasn't been enforced because no-one has defined what pornography actually is. Until now! For the purposes of ridding its citizens, particularly the delicate young, of feathered-gimp hell, Iceland is defining pornography as 'material with degrading or violent content'.

At the risk of suggesting they are repeating themselves, without also defining 'degrading' and 'violent', they're not going to get very far, and that of course is where the danger of the banhammer approach lies. Any tech solution to the porn problem will be a blunt instrument - either a site will be banned or it will not. The two methods suggested by Iceland's interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, are to make it illegal to pay for porn with an Icelandic credit card, or to blacklist specific URLs. The flaws in those ideas are so immediate and laughable it's hard to imagine Mr Jonasson has more than a passing understanding of the internet. 

The answer is 'a time machine'.

But on what evidence are pressure groups basing their theories of harm? A lot of the hysteria comes from reasonable fears that children are accessing extreme images, without applying appropriate blame on lack of parental supervision or education. Several studies (Malmuth et al) show that the correlation between viewing of sexual media and actual sexual behaviour is heavily influenced by home environment, parents, cultural background and emotional state.

In adults, the evidence so far doesn't seem to confirm the fears that are leading to legislation. A University of British Columbia study (Williams et al) shows that for most people, watching porn doesn't correlate with sexually deviant behaviour. However, having sexually deviant desires to begin is very likely to result in seeking porn that fulfils them. Exactly the same misunderstood correlation that gets violent games and films a bad rep, then.

The chances of newspapers, parent or religious pressure groups, and politicians ever discussing this issue from an evidence standpoint and not a moral judgement one are slim, but when the price is firewalls, censorship, and the slow erosion of choice, we have an obligation to look at the facts alongside the porn.

A version of this post was published in Custom PC Magazine, February 2013.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

21st Century Myths - Magnets and Black Screens

Last Christmas I bought a lot of those little neodymium magnet balls for my partner. Not the now-dead expensive Buckyballs but the generic cheap ones cause he'll be bored of them in a month. He put them on his desk, and I instinctively said "keep them away from your PC!", because everyone knows that magnets wipe hard drives, credit cards, and robot memories. Then it occurred to me that my previously-held belief in the data-destroying powers of magnets may be outdated, and quite possibly based on nothing more than an episode of Breaking Bad. Is there any reason for your data to fear the magnet? 

Dan's balls.

The key is coercivity, the degree to which you can demagnetise a magnetic substance. You can measure coercivity using a magnetometer, which has 'Magneto' in it and is therefore great. If you want to erase data, you need a magnet with a higher magnetic field than the coercivity of the drive. That's straightforward enough in theory, but in practice it's oddly hard to find out what the coercivity of a hard drive is, partly because the number is increasing all the time. At most it's 5000 Oe, but 2500 seems about average. Most credit or debit cards are around the 300 Oe mark, for comparison.

I spoke to magnet expert and engineer Michael Paul of who told me that yes, little spherical magnets can wipe or corrupt the data on the magnetic strip of a credit card, if you wipe them along the surface. "The good news", he said "is that the field strength drops really quickly as you get farther away from the magnet. A magnet an inch away from the card probably won't affect it at all". Phew! But what about bigger magnets and hard drives, as per Breaking Bad?

Michael has actually conducted some tests with some big neodymium magnets and failed to affect the data in a hard drive. He told me, 

"the coercivity of modern hard drives is much higher than old floppy discs or VHS tapes. You need an incredibly strong field to demagnetize it. If you rub a magnet right on the surface of the hard drive platter itself, that should produce enough field strength at the drive. Of course, if you have already disassembled it that far, you could just as easily scratch it up or drill a hole in it if your intention is to destroy data". 

In his opinion, it's not possible to effectively wipe or scramble the data on a hard drive with powerful magnets without disassembling it. So much for conventional wisdom.

Another bit of received wisdom that doesn't seem to go away, a long-believed truth in the energy-saving powers of the black screen. I first heard about this several years ago when a link to 'black Google' was doing the rounds. Based on the theory that white pixels use more energy to display than black ones, the origin seemed to be a Lawrence Berkeley paper which at best is now woefully outdated. 

"But is it Y2K compliant?"
Back in 2001 the researchers looked at mostly CRT monitors and a few LCD monitors, which already tells us something about the uselessness of this data. It's absolutely the case that for the CRT monitors, less energy was used displaying an entirely black screen, but for LCD monitors the effect disappeared. Even the researchers acknowledged that. So anyone using an LCD monitor with black screen settings, you might mean well but the resulting eye strain probably outweighs any potential environmental benefits.

A version of this article first appeared in Custom PC Magazine in January 2013.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Fandom, Sean Astin, and Harry, My Cat Died

In a large school playground in England circa 1990 my friend Zowie told me about a new Hollywood actor. She promised she'd show me a picture of him at lunchtime, and so she did. Handing me a torn out page of a teen magazine, Zowie asked if I agreed that he was a fine-looking fellow.

This is that page:

As best as I can remember, the second I saw that photo, my heart leaped into my stomach, my stomach parachuted to my pelvis and my pelvis, grabbing the message, shot all the way up to my brain and yelled "TRACY'S IN LOVE". I was thirteen.

During afternoon break I asked Zowie if I could swap something for the page. Sure, she said magnanimously, then declared that she actually preferred Johnny Depp or whoever. I gave her a fifty pence piece for it.

The photo is of Sean Astin. Yep, that guy. Sam 'po-tay-toes' Gamgee from Lord of the Rings. Before he was simply walking into Mordor he was a teenage hearthrob and I was struck with instant head over heels infatuation. His star was rising so there was no shortage of magazine articles from which to take clippings and posters. I covered my wall in them. The one I'd most try and magic to life (come on, like you never whispered secret mystical words) was this one. Oh my.

My mom bought me Memphis Belle on VHS. I watched it over and over, you know the drill. You're probably thinking of whatever film got you that way. (If it's Twilight, get out). My poster and clippings collection spread across the wall like ivy. If there was even a mention of Sean Astin, a few printed words about him or even just his name, I'd dutifully snip them out and smush them into the wall with blu-tak.

Nothing obsessive to see here...
Here it all is. Of course I still have the whole lot, I keep it in a folder in a box with old Valentines cards and diplomas for skills I don't use.

When the object of your desire is a celebrity, they literally are an object. Cut-out words and photos, an increasingly grainy VHS tape, nothing you can talk to and ask questions of. The clippings were a surrogate and the surrogate was not enough. Reflected glory started to kick in. It's a type of essentialism virus, I guess. Your friend's cousin is going out with a bloke who used to go out with a girl from Game of Thrones. Your dad once met Hulk Hogan in a waffle house. In my case, I read in an interview that Sean Astin was best friends with Wil Wheaton and they were starring in Toy Soldiers together, so I started cutting out his photos and name, too. I didn't even fancy him. Sorry Wil.

Wil Wheaton, Didn't Fancy
Now, if I was thirteen today, I could simply Tweet at Sean Astin or Wil Wheaton and the chances are, they'd see. The chances of either (or anyone of sufficient fame) replying to whatever the thirteen-year-old me was saying is slimmer. The chances of Sean Astin falling for my teenage avatar and us living happily ever after, not enough zeroes to describe. Thank goodness Twitter wasn't around during my awkward crush.

But it is around for the kids today who don't rely only on the surrogacy of magazine clippings, but can see their beloved's words in real time, a real person. So they do the most natural thing in the world, they confide in him and try to get his attention.

The most remarkable examples of this are shown to us by the Harry, My Cat Died Twitter account, which retweets fans of One Direction's Harry Styles and their desperate attempt to get attention. Run by comedian @FrizFrizzle (disclosure, he's a friend), most of the retweets are of fans (usually young girls) telling Harry that their cat, dog, hamster, friend or even close relative just died, and how sad that makes them. Some ask for a reply, others ask for nothing. The really bold ones ask to be followed back. The number and frequency sort of suggests that maaaybe some of these fans are stretching the truth to elicit sympathy (although as far as I know Harry doesn't respond...or maybe he did once and rumour persists that it works), but it's a certainty that some of them are real bereavements.

I know it's a certainty because I did it myself, the oldschool way. A little while before I bought Sean Astin for 50p, one of my parents died. That's some hard crapola for a kid to deal with and I didn't have an easy teenhood as a result. So, I wrote to Sean Astin, care of his agent in Los Angeles whose address was printed in a teen mag. I wrote pages and pages telling him about me and my life and grief and how his existence was a comfort and would he please please please write back. It was Sean, My Dad Died, and yes of course it was a silly awkward thing to do and no of course I didn't get a reply. My letter came back, return to sender. Utter heartbreak.


A year or so later I was excited to find a different address, and resent my TMI letter. One morning I saw I'd received a postcard from America, and read it with a sinking belly:
Send a what or a whatnow?

Turns out it wasn't possible to procure a "money order" for eleven dollars in early nineties England. I clearly remember the woman in my bank saying she'd never heard of such a thing. I left, defeated, resigned to my poster and clippings collection.

The letter probably didn't get past whoever's job it was to handle the fan mail and send those prefilled poscards. But Tweeting a celebrity, that's like being able to put the letter straight through Sean Astin's own front door. So when I see young kids being mocked for their Harry, My Cat Died Tweets, I feel a bit sad. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I want Harry to reply, saying "I know you're not crazy, and you will grow out of this crush and then you'll question why you thought I'd want to know your cat died and you'll realise why you got mocked. But I love you anyway".

So in solidarity with those kids, I'm telling you this tale of fandom, grateful I've grown out of it. I don't even follow Sean Astin on Twitter, lest he doesn't reply. I don't think my heart could take it ;)

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Apple and Sweatshop

Apple's at it again! Censorship! And the whole internet goes down in a blaze of fury over an awareness-raising sweatshop simulator that we didn't want until Apple decided we couldn't have it anymore. At least, not from them. It's still available in browser and whatever other platform the developers decide to try in future, but that's not relevant to the crux of the wrongteous indignation.

Apple is of course a business and the app store is a store and the former can stock what it wants in the latter, according to whatever policies it deems appropriate. The removal of a product from a shop isn't 'censorship' in anything but the most entitled of definitions.

What it is, though, is inconsistent. One of the biggest companies on earth manages to act like a flawed human being when it comes to interpreting and enforcing its polices, which leads to hilarious situations like today's.

Sweatshop is a 'serious' game, created to draw attention to the complexities of ethical clothing manufacture. In this Pocketgamer article the developer Littleloud is quoted as saying

"Littleloud amended the app to clarify that Sweatshop is a work of fiction and was created with the fact-checking input of charity Labor Behind the Label, and to emphasise that the game doesn't force players to play the game in one way or another. Rather, Sweatshop is a sympathetic examination of the pressures that all participants in the sweatshop system endure."

On the one hand that sounds like an interesting experiment into personal ethics, and on the other it sounds like players are rewarded for putting profit before people and that's probably as sophisticated as most self-analysis will get. It is after all only a simulation and bears no relationship to how we'd actually act if we suddenly found ourselves running a shoe factory in the developing world. PocketGamer said
"If you can stomach the paralysing guilt of mistreating your virtual workers, you'll bring in cash and ace the level." 
What guilt? It's a game. One of the first things I did when I got The Sims was build a one-square prison and brick a Sim into it to see them piss themselves and die. It was hilarious.

Of course, Apple has excellent reasons for removing the game, stating its themes of simulated child labour and flagrant flouting of virtual health and safety laws are not acceptable for its real-life customers. Guardians of morality, custodians of welfare. If enough people protest they'll bring it back, because offence is in the eye of the purse-holder.

I, meanwhile, can still use my iPad to shoot the face off soldiers, run over pedestrians, fire a machine gun at rare sealife creatures, steal cars, destroy porcine military with suicidal avian bombs, and graphically smash in my female neighbour's skull with a hammer just because she didn't stay dead. All Apple approved.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Crazy Cat Person

Years ago I was a pet cynic. I found them nice but irrelevant. We always had animals in the house when I was a kid, cats, dogs and even pet rats, but when I got my own place I began to find the responsibility off-putting. I recall telling my mom, who loved her cats, that they were nice enough but in a post-apocalyptic starvation scenario, I wouldn't hesitate to eat them. Heartless but sensible (and potentially tasty).

My Hollywood-esque kitty epiphany didn't come til a few years ago when I found myself working from home more frequently, and consequently a bit lonely. In a fit of social conscience, I decided that a good way of getting company would be to foster a homeless cat. Fostering is great because there's no commitment beyond the daily feeding, litter-cleaning and socialising. Everything is paid for by the shelter (in this case the amazing Celia Hammond Animal Trust, more about them later), and you look after the cat until a new permanent home is found. Perfect! I called, and someone came round to assess my home and make sure I'm a decent person. I didn't mention my nuclear fallout dinner plans, obviously.

A few weeks later, the day before Christmas eve 2009, the phone rang. It was the shelter, with an emergency foster cat. Could they bring her the same day? She was a sixteen-year-old who hated other cats and was desperately unhappy at the shelter. Her owners had bought a puppy and the cat (named Jasmine at the time) was upset, so the owners ditched her. They had also, somehow, cruelly had her declawed at some point in her life, despite it being rightly illegal in the UK. So, Jasmine was delivered to me, meowing her head off in her carry case. I set it down on the lounge floor, opened the door, and she shot out, did a sniff-circuit of the room, then jumped on my lap, looked up at me and started to purr expectantly.

Mrs Cat

That was the Hollywood movie moment. The Jim Carrey epiphany. The Ricky Gervais realisation. Boom, heart explodes. Jasmine was home, she trusted me, and all the responsibility of nurturing and protecting this stupid little poo-bag with a brain the size of a walnut was mine. Within a week the thought of some potential new owner taking her and not attending to her every need or whim stung like a jellyfish, so after a brief chat with my partner, I called the shelter and asked to keep her. We changed her name to Mrs Cat, and she took over our lives.

She was old, desperate for attention constantly, and happy. After almost two years of luxury retirement, aged eighteen, she developed cancer, kidney failure and anaemia, and was put to sleep by the vet in our home on her favourite blanket. Dan and I cried for days. There's no shame in that. She was a constant joy in our lives, every single day, and we were gutted to lose her. 

It was only two weeks until I said "Dan, there's a cat-sized hole in the house". There was. Here's the thing: when people die, you can't replace them. You cannot, because they're unique, indescribably complex. Cats are also unique, but also all the same. What you enjoy about one cat can be replaced by another. A cute little meowy furry beastie sniffing at your shoelaces. Mrs Cat had quirks that I haven't seen in other cats, but there's a pool of behaviours that all cats take from, and what you miss *can* be replaced, to a point. What I missed wasn't just Mrs Cat, it was the whole lifestyle of being a cat owner. I, we, missed having a cat. Any cat. And that's fixable. Plus we both had guilt about having space and resources spare. We decided to pop over to the Celia Hammond shelter to see what cats they had. We thought that we could take two, and that we wanted to base our choice on need. Older cats, black cats, disabled or long-term ill cats are the hardest to home, so we'd offer our resources to cats like that. We didn't want young pretty cats because they're easy to home.

On the shelter's website were two broken cats; one with a missing leg, the other with mobility issues. Ugly, adorable, heartbreaking. We had this pair in mind when we turned up to the shelter, but were told by Celia Hammond herself that they had just that morning been rehomed. She's a formidable figure, compelling, clearly obsessed, and very very lovely. We sat down together for a grilling. How often was someone home? What sort of windows did we have? Could we afford vet fees? I felt like we were being scrutinised by a social worker. "Yes", she seemed satisfied. "I have a pair of cats who have special requirements. Come and see some photos". Celia took us to her office to tell us the story of Saffron and Cardamom.

These two cats were probably mother and daughter, being about six months apart in age. Their owner had moved out and left them, and a neighbour called the shelter after about a week. The cats had spent their whole lives (the oldest being about 18 months) living in the attic, climbing up and down the ladder. I have no idea what sort of life it was, but they were poorly socialised and poorly fed.

The older cat, Saffron, was found hiding behind a fireplace by builders and was taken to the shelter. The neighbour was adamant that there was a second cat but the builders denied it, and needed to get on with their work. This included removing the ladder to the attic. The shelter had a look and found kitty poops amongst the fibreglass, so installed a cat trap and infrared camera. They also left food outside the trap, so at the least Cardamom would be able to eat if she was scared of the trap. And scared she was. It took a whole week before she ventured in, a week being apart from her mom. If you knew how bonded they are, the thought would break your heart. It makes me cry often, as does the knowledge that if Celia hadn't persevered and insisted on the camera, this tiny little fluffball would simply have starved to death.

Curious about the camera noise
Finally enters the trap!

Celia showed us the photos and told the story, and before we'd even seen the cats we were in tears and knew we'd take them. They weren't the disabled, older kitties we had in mind. In fact they're so beautiful I feel guilty. But they were traumatised and needed a very patient resourceful home and we were determined to give one to them.

Glued together in the shelter
Cardamom's nose was scratched to heck, presumably from digging around in fibreglass for food, and she was petrified. She clung to Saffron, a more bonded pair than I've ever seen, but they let us stroke them in their shelter cage. And so we brought them home in a taxi and waited.

Shelter kitties. Instant love.
It took them two hours to venture outside the carry case, clinging to each other. We built a little kitty village of boxes in the bedroom so they would have a small safe enclosed space to explore. Celia had given us strict instructions about how to deal with traumatised cats, so when they decided to creep into the wardrobe and set up home on a towel shelf, we let them. They stayed there for weeks, creeping out to eat or use the litter at night. They let me stroke them if they were together, but if they were alone they were scared and hissy.

First day at home, wardrobe hiding.
Patience, food and toys are great healers though. Their first foray into normal socialising was when I dangled a feather toy into the wardrobe and Saffron grabbed it. After a few days they were venturing out of the wardrobe like mini Aslans and happily playing with me. Their individual personalities began to show, so we named the little one Pig The Destroyer and her mom Jelly. Pig is a pig, massively so. Whether that's because of her hungry time in the attic or just general cat greed I don't know, but she sniffs everything for potential edibleness, and becomes bold as brass when there's a treat in hand. Jelly is jealous. I was fussing Pig and her mom was frankly livid. "U jelly?" I asked her, and it stuck.

Still glued together.
Pig and Jelly. It suits them. I don't like prissy fancy sensible names. Cats are ridiculous, foolish, ungainly, comedic. They don't come when you call. Pig is Pigglington Smythe, Piggoid, Piggy Wiggy. Jelly is Jellyvision, Jellybear, Jells.

It took less than a month before they were curious about the world outside the bedroom and I opened the door for them. Now, they own the house. It's been nine months and the entire lounge is a cat playground. Climbing frames, tunnels, their own special rugs cause they slip on the wooden floor when chasing each other.

They're still bonded like glue, sleeping together in one of many 'pigbeds' around the house, but increasingly independent when it suits. Pig, still the more nervous of the two, will run if you approach her too fast, but was also the first to climb on my lap (last month, and I'm still glowing from it). Jelly gets so excited about being stroked she frequently rolls off the sofa while writhing in bliss. She's also the vocal one. If Pig is asleep upstairs and Jelly wants to show her an exciting piece of fluff or requires a wrestle, she just sits and yells. MROW MROO EROO ROWW. A few moments later, trotting little Pigsteps down the stairs. They constantly communicate with mother-and-kitten 'brrps!' too, even though that's behaviour they should have grown out of.
Jelly in her gaudy play tunnel
Pig checking if T-Rex is edible

Listen. People are higher up the need tree than cats. I know that. But it's also people who create the responsibility for these domesticated animals. Another human abandoned them, and that's something I want to compensate for if I can.
Pig and Jelly today :)

I know that at some point in the next fifteen years or so we will lose one then the other, and my heart will break. But the best I can do in the meantime is keep them safe and warm and fed, and not eat them if the bomb falls. Our lives are focused on their wellbeing and I plain old do not give a single shit what people think about that. Other pet owners get it. The unspoken understanding that we're all nuts, that we've given over a huge part of our hearts to hairmobiles that wander round our house and contribute nothing except happiness and turds. That when we *do* lose them, we will fill the empty space with another cat, and another, for the rest of our lives because once you're in, you're in. A dog person. A cat person. A crazy cat person. It's a badge of honour.

Final word for the Celia Hammond shelter. If Pig and Jelly's rescue moved you, or you're interested in hearing how they rescued hundreds of cats from the Olympic site, check out their website, and if you can spare even a pound then please do send it their way. I know there are other charities, other causes, bigger priorities, but a pound is a world of difference to a hungry cat and it all really helps. I'm not affiliated with the charity, they don't know I'm asking, this isn't some cynical PR puff piece. It's just a postscript in case you want to give. Thanks from a crazy cat person ^_^