2013 – the year I got a new job.

In a rare moment of wakefulness past my usual bedtime, I saw in 2013 with some good friends in Woking. It was a lovely evening at home, made all the more festive for the bottle of Lanson Black Label champagne. I was fairly relaxed after my customary Christmas break stretching from Christmas Eve through to 2nd January (one of the perks of working in the Higher Education sector – Universities tend to shut down completely over the festive period.) But I also felt nervy about returning to work.

Since about September 2012 my colleagues and I had been trying to do our work, but substantial change was in the air and it’s hard to stay focussed when you don’t know what your job will consist of a few months down the line. We had been faithfully promised that we would know our fate by the time we broke up for Yuletide. Whether the news was good or bad, decisions concerning the new operation would have been made, and planning would start in earnest. To no-one’s tremendous surprise the deadline came and went and nothing actually happened. So we all sloped off for the break none the wiser.

Come the end of January Terry & I headed off on a proper holiday. Still we knew nothing, and by now we were getting pretty bored of being jerked around by the DfE. I returned to work in early February, established that we still had no idea what our jobs would be, if we would want to do them or even if they would actually exist. And that’s when I started thinking.

At this point I had worked at the Institute of Education for four and half years, administering a programme of Continuing Professional Development to teachers and technicians working in Science education. It had been a varied role, I had learned a lot, made some very good friends and generally enjoyed it. But returning to work that February for the first time I realised I really didn’t want to go back into that building. Not just the normal end of holidays blues, but a deeper malaise signifying that I was no longer happy in my job.

But there’s a recession on. I was bloody lucky to have a job at all, and it felt childish to indulge in existential angst about whether every waking moment spent within those solemn grey concrete walls was any fun. Plus whatever lay ahead it was likely to involve a lot of work, and I was riddled with guilt at the prospect of leaving friends and colleagues in the lurch. So I spent an unhappy 6 weeks miserable, bored, anxious but in a state of semi-denial that anything was wrong. My ever-patient, ever-supportive husband gently suggested that I polished up my CV and started seeing what jobs.ac.uk had available. In the meantime work was getting worse; everyone was tense and short-tempered and now in March we were still in the dark about what would happen in the Brave New World as we not-very-cheerfully had taken to calling it. Eventually I saw sense and agreed the time had come to Start Looking.

In a break with tradition, Terry was staying still, career wise, and getting on pretty damn well at O2 in Slough. So we figured out where I might be able to work which wouldn’t drag him away. Analytical types that we are, we overlaid the UCAS map showing all HE institutions in the UK with the Mapumental tool which draws circles according to commuting times via public transport and another which shows distance by driving time. With our parameters set, 3 areas seemed likely candidates: staying in London, moving to Reading or moving to Oxford.

I wasn’t crazy about sticking with London. South West Trains’ quality of service had been steadily declining, in direct opposition to the cost of the tickets, and I was aware that the daily grind of the commute was not helping my mood. I submitted my first job application to Reading on the 1st April 2013. I didn’t hear anything back, (correctly) assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, asked for feedback (was told I had been a decent candidate but it was a very strong field blah blah blah) and resolved to Carry On Looking.

A few scant weeks later I put myself forward for a job running one of the largest and most prestigious scholarships at the University of Oxford. I was stunned to be shortlisted, which consisted of a substantial pre-interview task, a pre-interview computer test, a presentation and then the interview itself. It was hands down the most gruelling job application process I had ever gone through, but it seemed to go well. Really well actually! I left feeling cautiously optimistic, and then, because it happened to be my birthday, I went to the pub and got drunk.

I received the rejection letter at 16.15 the following day and had a beautifully restrained little cry in the corridor at work (think Emma Thompson in Love Actually!) There was the normal gubbins about the panel having a really tough decision to make and would I please consider other posts. Blah blah blah.

Ever my guiding star – Terry had a different interpretation of this missive. Where I had assumed polite smoke-blowing, Terry was sure there was real intent behind the invitation to apply for another position which had been advertised at the same time. And so I re-jigged the stuff I had submitted before, hit the Send button, and waited.

Whatever they had liked about the previous application was clearly still there, as I got shortlisted again, and went through the whole pre-interview rigmarole once more. I was a little better prepared, a little less nervous and felt like I had given the best account of myself possible in the interview. I felt optimistic, but was determined not to get my hopes up too high. A friend was celebrating her birthday in Soho that evening, so I resolved to make my way back to London and get drunk.

Which is in fact what transpired, except that during the intervening 2 hours The University of Oxford rang up and offered me the job and my life changed.

I handed in my notice, hunted for, found and bought a house in the 3 months it took me to leave my job and moved to Oxford 11 days prior to starting in the Graduated Admissions and Funding team. I’ve barely stopped since, what with learning the ropes of my new role, settling into the house, and getting to know a brand new city. As such, many other things such as blogging and going to the gym have fallen entirely by the wayside, so I hope to start easing my way back into normality in 2014. It’s been a turbulent year, but I can honestly say that while I am exhausted, I am finishing 2013 much happier than when I started.

#Techmums

#Techmums was featured in the Guardian today, which is great news for Dr Sue Black who is its founder. I confess I tend to avoid anything overtly referring to Motherhood as I generally feel it’s not going to be of much interest to me. But having read a bit more into the kinds of issues Sue set out to address when #techmums was created I think I have a better grasp of what she’s trying to do and why it’s important. So I unreservedly applaud her efforts and wish her the best for her venture.

Having said that I was conscious of a prickling of discomfort as I read the Guardian article on the bus this morning. Not because of the content of the piece, but the because of the section of the paper (well, website) where it appeared. It was in Life and Style. Not technology. And for a moment I felt rather indignant on Sue’s behalf. How dare they relegate such an important issue to the ranks of recipes and sex tips?

Then it occurred to me that perhaps it was under Life and Style because those are the sections that its target audience read. I can be a little slow sometimes. And no sooner than this thought crossed my mind I wondered why I had it in my head that appearing in a different section to the one I expected was in any way a relegation. Why would I have it in my head that recipes and sex tips are somehow intrinsically less important than technology? In fact I actually think quite the opposite – I think that eating well and having fulfilling relationships is actually rather more important than the features on the latest version of the iPad.

I sincerely hope that #techmums is a success. I hope that it doesn’t suffer from the easy inclination to dismiss tech as ‘not counting’ because it appeals to Mums (or school kids, or old people, or any other demographic). In fact I really hope this ushers in a new age of inclusivity in the tech world. And I hope that at this amazing project helps other women on the road to finding an interesting and life changing new skill.

Was going to university worth it?

Around this time of year I feel pretty smug. I remember getting my A-Level results, 13 years ago, and the prospect of never having to go through that again is wonderful. (And the prospect of not having to through it again by proxy is even better. “Not having to deal with exam results” is one of my many, many reasons for not wanting to have kids.)

13 years ago I was already in possession of a rather dismal D grade AS level in Psychology (back when they were proper AS levels that were the same difficulty as an A Level, just half the syllabus.) I was properly nervous about getting my results, thanks to a combination of making some rather questionable decisions about which A-levels I would do, having a later-than-normal teenage rebellion phase, and realising far too late that maybe I wasn’t quite as clever as I thought I was. I was over the moon to get an A in English Literature, slightly disappointed to get a C in German and absolutely stunned to get an E in Maths – given that I had assumed I had failed that entirely. As per the standard instructions I immediately phoned the University of East Anglia to see if these were good enough to confirm my place on the Philosophy degree course I wanted to do. I think my offer was BBC, which by my calculation I had met in terms of UCAS points, but not in terms of the configurations of results so I was extremely relieved to find out that I had the place I wanted.

At the time, my relief was mostly to do with the fact that my then-boyfriend, a rather older gentleman (well, 27 to my 18) , was living in Norwich, and I was quite exited at the prospect of living in the same town as him. Unsurprisingly this relationship lasted just a few scant weeks into my university career and we mutually called it a day. Fortunately Norwich is large enough that we didn’t keep running in to one another! A mere couple of months after that, I started seeing the man who I would later marry. So much as I despise Boris Johnson for saying it, if I’m honest with myself, I kind of did go to University to find a husband.

There’s a lot of advice swirling about for prospective undergraduates, some of which seems sage, and some of which is utter gubbins. There’s usually some newspaper columnist waxing lyrical on how he/she didn’t go to University, and they did ok. According to some pre-emptive strikes on Twitter, this is usually written by reasonably privileged individuals whose experience of the ‘University of Life’ is probably, to put it kindly, atypical. At the other end of the spectrum there are the college cheerleaders who bang on about how nothing gives you a better start in life than spending 3 years drinking beer, occasionally turning up to class, joining footlights and then getting discovered by Granada television studios. Or how writing a 10,000 word thesis on the legacy of the Great American Novel whilst accumulating a debt which is larger than a small mortgage is a really good idea!

The truth is that most people love talking about their own experience, and most people like to think that this can be extrapolated out to a world view which will be valuable to everyone else.

So, I am speaking purely from my own experience, and don’t expect this to help anyone else out of a dilemma. Was going to University worth it?

I’m a bit embarrassed now to think that at 18 I was more excited about hooking up with my older boyfriend than I was about actually going to university. (In the short period between us breaking up and meeting Terry, I wised up a lot about how relationships, and how stupid it is to utterly define yourself and your future by another person.)

On the other hand, my (current) relationship is one of the best things to come out of my university years. So for that reason alone, yes it was worth it.

University meant getting to mix with a wide range of people. A diverse social circle might not sound like the most important aspect of higher education, but I really think that learning to get on with different kinds of people is one of the most important ‘life skills’ a person can develop. At the ripe old age of 31 I pride myself on being a pretty open-minded kind of women, and I credit that in no small quantity to the fact that I’ve met a wide variety of people. I find intolerance hard to deal with, whether that’s misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism or some other arbitrary dislike of a section of the population. But I often find that the ‘root’ of said intolerance comes from a person who has very little experience of people with whatever characteristic it is they despise, be that people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, attitude to drug taking or hair colour.

I learnt how to look after myself. I went to a boarding school, and I really couldn’t understand my fellow boarders heading off to catered halls of residence. In fact one of the very few absolute stipulations for me was going to a University which had self-catered halls. I already knew how to cook, and had been doing my own laundry for a good few years, so the notion of going somewhere that expected me to relinquish these trappings of independence felt like it would be a huge step back. I know lots of people describe the minutiae of adult life as boring, but I was overjoyed at the prospect that I was getting close to the point where I would pay bills, fill in forms, get a proper (non student) bank account etc. This, I felt, was Growing Up, and I loved it!

I got to spending 3 years learning for its own sake. Although Philosophy is pretty good for transferable skills, it’s not exactly a fast track to a career, like, for instance, computer science. I got to study something I loved, without feeling overly-burdened as to what I would ‘do’ with it when I finished. I feel immensely privileged to have had that opportunity. But having enjoyed this privilege I now feel slightly like I need to justify such wild academic extravagance. At the point that I was getting my A-levels, the concept of a Gap Year was starting to become an object of derision – rich kids bombing around Asia for a few months getting stoned whilst living off their trust funds. (I’m sure that wasn’t the reality for lots of people, but that was the caricature!) In my first proper part time job I had at University, I was surrounded by people who treated my indulgence of doing a non-vocational degree with exactly the same level of contempt as I would exhibit towards those who thought 6 weeks doing shrooms in Bangkok constituted ‘seeing the world.’
And afterwards, when I started searching for full time work I felt that my degree did give me a bit of an edge. I got temp work easily enough, and nailed my job interview at a bank. Having a degree demonstrated I had brains and commitment. Of course perhaps I would have been better off if I hadn’t got that job after all.

So what are the downsides? With more and more graduates entering the jobs market, having a degree is no way guarantees getting a job. I’m inclined to think it probably helps, but I have no evidence for that.

I was in one of the first cohorts to pay tuition fees, but 13 years ago they were a fraction of what they are now. Additionally the grants of yesteryear had gone, and we just had student loans. Which, as it turns out, I am still paying off. University felt like the right choice for me, although I was aware that it was a substantial investment. Of course, compared to now, it was an easy decision. Now, there is so much more to consider.

I can saw with confidence that university was definitely worth it for me, but 13 years later, the landscape has changed. At this time of year there’s no shortage of commentary suggesting that the University experience is not all it’s cracked up to be. That may or may not be the case. The point is that it’s different for everyone. You might go to University and spend 3 years following a course which doesn’t interest you, because you felt it was what was expected of you. You might skip higher education and get an apprenticeship which leads you to the career of your dreams. Or you might not. But part of growing up means making that decision for yourself.

Is the new Marmite advert really the most important thing happening right now?

I don’t want to be the kind of person who thinks that other people are stupid. That would be arrogant, elitist and wrong. But sometimes, it’s really hard not to! There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed a lot in the past few months, which I keep meaning to blog about but never got around to it.

At this moment in time, lots of really important things are going on in the world. The below is a selection of things I’m aware are happening now, based entirely on my own biased preferences as to what news items will grab my attention, and what the equally biased ‘meeja’ will have chosen to tell me about in the first place:

1) Edward Snowdon has been granted political asylum in Russia, prompting the cancellation of a planned meeting between Obama and Putin.

2) Nairobi airport was on fire, which could have a potentially catastrophic effect on trade and tourism for vast swathes of East Africa.

3) As conditions for the LGBT community in Russia worsen, the debate heats up about the best form of political protest against the upcoming sporting events to be hosted there.

4) A 3rd person has been arrested in connection with increasingly violent threats made on twitter, while there are reports that Jo Smith (the sister of the teenager Hannah Smith who tragically committed suicide, apparently as a result of online bullying) is now facing similar ‘trolling’.

5) Seven people, alleged to be members of al-Qaida, have been killed in Yemen by a US drone, following reports from US intelligence claiming ‘chatter’ had reached pre 9/11 levels.

6) The shady practice of ‘zero-hours’ contracts is facing further scrutiny as research indicates the true number of people employed under these contracts could be much higher than the official government figure.

7) Someone in UKIP said something racist.

However in spite of the availability of reasonably up to date coverage of each of the above stories, at 15.23 this afternoon, the ‘most read’ article on the BBC website was regarding the number of complaints about the latest Marmite advert.

Marmite

I cannot speak to the veracity of the data which indicates what is ‘most read’ at any given time, but if true this is both rather depressing, but somehow also not that surprising. Perhaps it’s because these daft little ‘human interest’ stories are easier to understand than news items which involve complex geo-politics. Perhaps it’s because ‘proper’ news is generally so depressing. Perhaps I have massively underestimated the cultural significance of Marmite. But when people talk about a lack of political engagement, I can’t help but feel that this is relevant.

So, if anyone has the time to conduct some proper research in this area, that would be swell!

Diversity and the Last of the Time Lords

I’m over the moon that Peter Capaldi is going to play the next Doctor. I think he’s a terrific actor, he is clearly as dedicated a Whovian as one could hope to meet, and I bet no one can possibly be putting him under more pressure to do a good job than himself right now.

The announcement last night, in a rather hastily put together live show, demonstrated how big of a deal the casting of this particular role has become. The hype surrounding the show has steadily increased since Russell T Davies breathed new life into the TARDIS back in 2005. And with such hype comes commentary. And with commentary comes meta-commentary, which is my area of expertise.

At the fore of the discussion on the identity of the actor who will next play this most iconic of TV characters is the plea that the part should go to a non-white male. I’ve heard this a lot recently. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, a host of different names were mooted as possibilities, among them Idris Elba, Chitowel Eijofer, David Harewood, Billie Piper, Olivia Coleman and Helen Mirren. This morning, a friend of mine tweeted that she heard someone say the following:

“I wish it had been a woman or a black guy.”

I have so many feelings swirling around my head about this it’s hard to pin them all down. But some things did immediately spring to mind. Of the actors listed above, some are women and some are black guys. None are both. Surely if ever there was a time to employ the term ‘and/or’ it would be now. If we also factor in the precedent for casting previous supporting players, how come there wasn’t a big call for Sophie Okonedo (Liz 10 in The Beast Below), Christine Adams (Cathica in The Long Game) or Yasmin Bannerman (Jabe in The End of the World) to play The Doctor? (Or was there a campaign which I missed?) And what about non-white, non-black actors? I’m not sure how much of this is a historic hangover, but those of African-Caribbean descent often seem to be the poster-children for issues of diversity at the expense of the Asian and Hispanic communities. I know she’s busy on The Good Wife right now but I reckon Archie Panjabi would do a stonking job as The Doctor. (With Omid Djalili as her companion. They would make a cracking ‘odd couple.’)

One the one hand, diversity is usually regarded as a Good Thing. It connotes inclusivity, a variety of perspectives, a sense that ‘normal’ is not defined by any one sex or ethnicity or religion or orientation. On the other hand tokenism is usually regarded as a Bad Thing. It connotes misrepresentation and a patronising attitude to a particular group. Treading the line between these two can be very difficult indeed, particularly when combined with issues of creativity and artistic license.

Compare and contrast: the lack of diversity in ‘Friends’ (set in New York City) with the lack of diversity in ‘Midsomer Murders’ (set in rural Oxfordshire.) New York City is a very diverse geographical area, and towards the end of its 10 year run, Friends was starting to come under fire for its overwhelmingly ‘Whitebread’ depiction of NYC. On the other hand, rural Oxfordshire is, as a matter of fact, predominantly Caucasian, and so would the inclusion of characters from ethnic minorities be a crass attempt to shoehorn in an unrealistic sense of diversity? (This is of course setting aside the boneheaded remarks made by the writer about the last bastion of Englishness.) It seems to me that the crucial difference between these two examples is representation. Artistically depicting somewhere real but omitting its ethnic variation seems, well, not to put too fine a point on it, like whitewashing.

As a matter of opinion, I think that Doctor Who creates ethnically diverse landscapes very well. Which makes sense, given that it’s a show about the past, present & future of this and many other planets. So it’s right that characters should be depicted who are white and black and brown. And green and blue and red. And it’s not as if this kaleidoscope is restricted to the extras either. Looking back over the 7 series of the main show (plus specials), 4 series of the spin off Torchwood, and 5 series of the spin off The Sarah Jane adventures, the supporting characters show a terrific range of sexes, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations in each show. In fact I’d be hard pressed to come up with another TV universe which has embraced the range of humanity experience so fully. Although I’m sure that there are groups that might feel differently. (Off the top of my head, I’m not sure of the extent to which non-able bodied people are depicted.)

So, for the 12th time in a row, a white male has been cast as the main protagonist. Is this a missed opportunity? Perhaps. Moffat made it clear that he is open to the idea of a non-white male doctor. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse from the point of view of those who think this is a missed opportunity. If the Doctor could have been female, does that mean that she should have been? Do the arts have a responsibility to push an inclusive agenda, or is that agenda served better by maintaining the ‘integrity’ (whatever that means) of casting whoever the producer’s feel will do the best job, irrespective of their sex, age or ethnicity?

I think my feeling is that while I can understand the disappointment of those who feel Capaldi’s casting is a missed opportunity, I can’t share in it. I think that given the show’s (in my opinion) generally good history of casting a range of actors, it’s more important for them to focus on what they do with those characters. For instance if Hispanic actors were only ever cast as villains I think I would see that as more offensive than simply not casting them in the first place.

In fact there was just one comment in the Guardian which actually made me feel quite upset on this subject:
“Given the rules of regeneration theoretically permit the Doctor to become anyone, many may regret there has been no change of race or gender – although, following recent concern over misogynist attacks online, female actors may be relieved to have avoided becoming a test case for the limits of Twitter tolerance by feminising a famously boy-centred franchise.”

The notion that marginalised female actors might feel relief that now at least they won’t have to put up with rape and bomb threats is offensive and abhorrent. Although for the avoidance of doubt I am absolutely not lambasting Mark Lawson for raising this as he is making a subtle point about a difficult subject, and kudos to him for that. For although I hate the idea, there is a possibility that he may be right, which I hate far more. As a feminist I find that idea far more damaging than Peter Capaldi getting the role of a lifetime.

What is an ‘ethical’ investment?

Poor Justin Welby eh? One day he’s railing against pay-day loan companies (as any sensible person intent on currying favour with the collective Guardian readership would do) and the next day he’s found out that the Church of England has been ‘indirectly’ funding Wonga the whole time. Whoops! Welby has professed himself to be ’embarrassed’ and ‘irritated’ by these revelations. Perhaps being the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibits him from expressing any stronger emotions, like how a Jedi shall not know anger, nor hatred, nor love. (Yes, I know that this interpretation of the Jedi code is hotly contested by everyone except those responsible for the Attack of the Clones poster. I’m not getting into that here ok?) Anyway, it’s clear that Welby is pretty pissed off by this turn of events.

I’ll admit to a certain degree of schadenfreude at the prospect of Welby feeling embarrassed about anything. If you are in the habit of going around moralising on any given topic you’d do well to make sure you aren’t guilty of the same thing yourself. Now Welby looks like just another clueless investor, pathetically clinging to a plea of ignorance to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. He is vowing to scrutinise where his money actually goes more carefully in future, in a bid to maintain some credibility. Actually this is mildly reminiscent of one Rupert Murdoch, claiming to be unaware of the practice of Voicemail hacking and trying to persuade us how humble he felt. Watching powerful men squirming when they get caught out is always pretty funny!

Or so I was feeling up until about an hour ago, when a pension update came through my letterbox advising that the investment options are changing. And I thought to myself, do I know where all of my money is invested? Absolutely not! Between us, Terry and I have several pension funds, plus bank accounts & savings accounts. I have no earthly idea where that money is invested. I might be funding pay day loans, munitions, tobacco, fossil fuels or any number of other industries I find morally repugnant.

So, I am going to stop pointing and laughing at Justin Welby, and focus instead on the fact that his current high-profile humiliation is raising some awareness about the shadowy world of the investment portfolio.

I’ve always taken pride in my fiscal prudence, and I regard myself as pretty savvy when it comes to personal finance. For nearly a decade I have been paying into a pension, which, supposedly, will furnish me with a retirement income that will keep the wolf from the door in my twilight years. I’m fortunate in having a defined-benefit-final-salary pension, so the amount I get in retirement should, theoretically at least, not be dependent on how well the fund performs over coming years. And as as result of this, I realise I am myself just another clueless investor, pleading ignorance as to where and how my money is invested.

For those with defined contribution schemes, which are now the preferred type of pension in the private sector, the investor is periodically asked if they want to change their investment options. Amongst the type of funds available, there is usually an ‘ethical fund’ option. These funds purport to avoid stashing money with companies and industries which do not meet a certain ethical standard.

In the 6 years I spent studying moral philosophy academically I developed a healthy scepticism for anything claiming to be ‘ethical’. Mostly because whether or not something is ethical is a) highly subjective, and b) utterly dependent on context. Earlier I listed a few industries I claimed to find morally repugnant. But if I’m honest with myself, are my moral judgements here really so cut and dried? Scummy advertising campaigns and 4 figure APRs aside, pay day loans can serve a purpose if used carefully. I find the notion of war and violence abhorent, but what if weapons are used to arm rebels trying to overthrow a corrupt and dangerous government? I might yearn for the day when all energy comes from renewable sources, but in the meantime I want big oil and gas to be able to keep their costs down so that people can afford to keep warm in winter. And tobacco companies might, er, well they might contribute to research to improve treatment for lung cancer…OK, that’s stretching it a bit. But the point stands, that I actually struggle to make an absolute moral determination on the ethics of a particular company or industry.

But even if I’m not convinced whether my money is invested ethically or not I think I’d still prefer to know. I’d rather face up to the truth of who and what I am funding, and then take responsibility for that investment, than refuse to peer under the rock for fear of what I might learn. Wilful ignorance is not bliss, it is a refusal to engage in the truth. And that is something that I know is immoral.

5 years

After 5 years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lay dead and buried, having made the ultimate sacrifice to save her sister, her friends and the world.
buffygrave

After 5 years, Harry Potter was devastated by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, and burdened with the knowledge of the prophecy concerning his and Voldermort’s fates.
hp

After 5 years, Sheridan and Delenn boarded the White Star to fly to the newly completed offices of the Interstellar Alliance, leaving Babylon 5 and its Next Generation crew behind.
b5

In each of the above cases, the fictional world would continue past this half-decade point, with varying levels of success. With great longevity comes great responsibility, especially in the world of cult fiction. Die-hard fans will cry bloody murder if a beloved character is slain, and yet without that sense that the stakes are getting higher and that all bets are off, your audience winds up crying tears of boredom instead of grief.

If you are finishing your series after 5 years/seasons, you need to convey a sense of absolute finality. Even if you are going to attempt a spinoff series. Or a couple of lame TV movies. Or after your ‘final’ episode you then air the end to the previous season because the network execs wouldn’t stop screwing around with your show. (Although Sleeping in Light packs more of an emotional wallop anyway – so that worked out ok!)

If you’re planning on carrying on Post-5, then you better have something pretty spectacular up your sleeve for your End of Year Arc. Which invariably means death. And not a red-shirt death either. You need a meaningful sacrifice, someone your audience loves, someone whose loss will dramatically alter the relationship dynamics between your other characters. You need to convey a sense that despite your show continuing, everything has changed. That it won’t just be more of the same.

You also need to be accept that however you plan things, there will always be those who will reckon you should have thrown in the towel then and there. Season 6 of BtVS is widely regarded as where it started to go off the rails. Harry Potter always had its detractors, and many of them honed in on the rather excruciating Ron/Lavender/Hermione love triangle in Half-blood Prince. Crusade only got a single series before being unceremoniously cancelled.

Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes things need to change. More often, things need to end.

All of which is a massively self-important analogy to the fact that after 5 years as an administrator at Science Learning Centre London I’m leaving to start a new job and a new life in Oxford.

At the tender age of 31, 5 years represents half my working life since graduating from UEA in September 2003. I’ve had some great experiences at SLCL, made some great friends, and learned a huge amount, but it’s time to move on.

A brief history of my life in computer games

As mentioned in a previous post, I decided to run a Barcamp Berkshire session on the computer games I had enjoyed throughout various times in my life. The below is a blog-version of my talk.

A short history of my life in computer games

As an only child I spent a fair amount of time at weekends and during school holidays playing on my Dad’s computer. The above game, Sleuth, was a text-based rip off of Cluedo, but with the addition of some incredibly basic graphics. As a detective you had to navigate your ‘avatar’ (if you can possibly call the small cluster of pixels an avatar) around the floorplan of a large mansion, interrogating murder suspects.

slightly later

As time went by, my Dad got a better computer with a better graphics card, which allowed me to play more sophisticated games like Commander Keen. (N.B. Dad – if you’re reading this and remember it differently, just go with it ok? No one ever expects accuracy to get in the way of the narrative.)

It was playing this game, frantically hammering on the keyboard to avoid the green, googly-eyed monsters, that I realised my motor skills left something to be desired. I needed a computer game that didn’t rely quite so heavily on precision key-strokes.

monkey

Enter my primary school friend Emma, her Dad’s rather better computer, and a wannabe pirate by the name of Guybrush Threepwood. The Secret of Monkey Island marked the start of a long and happy relationship with Scumm games. The point and click puzzle solving was fun, cerebrally challenging but required little in the way of hand eye coordination.

indy

A couple of years later I went to boarding school and took the prudent measure of befriending a chap named Alex who had the Scumm game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis installed on his machine.

Doom2

As I grew older I learned that the best way to make friends with teenage geeks was to talk to them about gaming. There are those who swear mid 90s FPS games hit their apex with Duke Nukem or Wolfenstein, but for me and my mates it was all about Doom 2. Killing a Cacodemon with a chainsaw in God Mode was one of life’s purest pleasures.

terry

Learning the art of conversing with geeks was a skill which would stand me in good stead for going to university, where I would meet the love of my life, Terry.

tiberian

Terry moved in with me and my student housemates in 2002, and one of our first decisions as a cohabiting couple was to set up 2 computers in our respective rooms, with an ethernet cable running between them, taped to the ceiling. It was here that I discovered the world of the PC-based strategy game series Command and Conquer. We spent hours playing together, sometimes against each other, but more commonly in collaboration against a computer generated enemy. We started off with Tiberian Sun.

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Graduated onto Red Alert 2

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And really hit our stride with Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds.

buffy

I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and was wildly excited when Terry got me the Xbox game. This was my first proper introduction to console gaming. Since my days of button-mashing on a PC my manual dexterity had improved a bit, but not vastly. Jumping puzzles and boss fights would sometimes get the better of me, and Terry would on occasion have to help me out with the trickier bits.

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The sequel Buffy game: Chaos Bleeds was more my speed, incorporating more puzzle solving than its predecessor. Additionally I loved that you got to play as different characters, in particular the welcome return of Sid the Dummy.

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In 2005 I decided to do a 3 year part-time MA in Philosophy through the Open University. Although it’s still one of the best things I ever did, it was incredibly hard going. One unexpected challenge I faced was what to do with my diminished leisure time. Reading no longer held any pleasure for me and watching TV & films felt too passive. To this day I am convinced that playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess kept me (just about) sane. The game looked gorgeous, the puzzles were challenging enough to keep me interested but not so tough I gave up. Best of all, the new, intuitive, style of gaming introduced by the Wii meant that rather than having to press lots of fiddly buttons, fighting with a sword entailed swinging a Wiimote. Suddenly I had a console game where I wasn’t unduly punished for having poor motor skills.

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So absorbing was this new world of Hyrule that I happily played a couple of older Zelda games from the Game Cube days, although button mashing on a Wavebird was definitely a step down from the Wiimote swinging. I was delighted by Windwaker, even though the bright primary colours and youth of its protagonist made it felt a little babyish compared to the sombre tones of Twilight Princess. When it came out, Skyward Sword became my favourite Zelda experience to date. Delving further in the Nintendo back catalogue, Ocarina of Time felt pretty blocky and clunky next to the later games, but I still enjoyed playing through it. Mostly…

jumping

That bloody jumping puzzle!

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This dude is trying to kill me with six swords. Six!

tears

Oh the tears! Oh the swearing!

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Last summer I mentioned I rage quit Ocarina of Time for 3 and a half years. This was due to my failure to execute the above jumping puzzle (or if not that exact one, a very similar one.) On occasions my frustration at my own ineptitude can get the better of me. It’s generally not pretty.

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Although I loved Zelda, I needed a new kind of game which punished user error less severely. The Lego franchise hits this nail on the head. Aimed squarely at the family market, the game brilliantly realises the Star Wars universe in Lego bricks. The other main draw was the drop-in, drop-out collaborative play which carried through to similar TT games.

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Such as Batman

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And Indiana Jones. The games weren’t flawless, but losing a few points each time you ‘died’ as opposed to getting the dreaded Game Over screen was a welcome change of pace.

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Several years ago Terry wrote a post about our quest for games which supported collaborative play. Friends suggested we tried the House of the Dead series. As one commented “Beating off a swarm of zombies together is a great experience!” How right he was! Additionally, House of the Dead: Overkill had (in 2009) the dubious honour of having the most swear words of any computer game to date.

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While I’m not adverse to adult content by any stretch, I do seem to have more affinity for the more child-friendly games. Although quite how the title ‘Boom Blox: Bash Party’ made it past the censors I don’t know.

fit

As the first decade of the 21st Century drew to a close I faced up to the fact that years of a rather sedentary lifestyle had left me significantly, if not severely, overweight. Having had less than successful encounters with gyms in the past I decided to see what gaming could do for my BMI. The Wii Fit pack proved a sound investment and over the course of about 6 months I lost a stone in weight, predominantly doing the cycling courses.

portal

At last year’s Barcamp several people mentioned how awesome Portal was, so much so that we bought the game and I duly blogged about it last year.

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The past few months have been a bit rubbish. Work hasn’t been going so well, and I’ve been feeling pretty strung out. I decided to replay Skyward Sword, and in so doing managed to finally win the Hylian Sheild on the Boss Fight Rush Challenge, a feat I failed to accomplish the last time I played. For every game I play there is usually a part where I eventually give up because it’s too hard. But then there are the occasions that I get over my rage quit, I try again and I succeed! And that feels pretty damn good!

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My original talk finished with this slide, designed to prompt a bit of discussion for the rest of the slot. However as I mentioned in my previous post, part way through my delivery I realised that I was using an old version of this presentation. I ended up not discussing these types of games I have never properly tried. Instead at the end of my talk I went back into drop box, found the right version and went over the parts I’d missed out. So I never got to hear from anyone as to whether I should try out a handheld console like the Nintendo 3DS.

Epilogue

As mentioned above work hasn’t been going too well recently, and so when I wasn’t replaying Skyward Sword I was spending my time looking for new employment. As of the weekend when I went to Barcamp I’d already had one unsuccessful job interview, and had another scheduled for the following Thursday. Knowing how I struggle to occupy myself when waiting to hear the result, Terry bought me a shiny new Nintendo 3DS, so I could distract myself from the waiting and the possibility of rejection. He presented me with this toy on the Thursday evening after the interview, which was an incredibly sweet gesture. Except that by Thursday evening, I’d already been rung up and offered the new job! So it seems I’m not going to have much opportunity to play my new game, as I now have to move house, which is likely to take up a fair amount of time. But that is a post for another day!

Barcamp Berkshire 2013

It’s Sunday morning, June 16th, and I’m sitting in the main atrium of O2’s Slough offices, having spent the night camping in a small meeting room (and through judicious application of ear plugs, an eye mask and a sleeping pill actually got some sleep!) This is my second ever barcamp, and so far it’s been even better than last year.

I’m surrounded by geeks of every colour and flavour, some happily tapping away on their laptops like me, others engrossed in conversation. As is the prerogative of the ‘social introvert’ as barcamp stalwart Melinda Seckington puts it, I’m enjoying a moment of introspection, and am currently reflecting on how much I have changed since I was here a year ago.

Terry has been a face on the tech scene for the best part of the last decade, and has been to more barcamps, hack days, conferences, tech events & general geek get-togethers than one could shake the proverbial stick at! Last year he convinced me that I should give barcamp a go, and I went along feeling intrigued and excited, but also with some seriously trepidation. Sometimes I feel like I am a pretender in this world of developers, designers & coders. I barely have any skills or experience in programming – I find myself smiling and nodding along to conversations about the pitfalls with Ruby or Python, and I would struggle to sit through a talk about GitHub or the merits of BitCoin. On the other hand I can happily discuss sci fi and computer games, I work in STEM in an admin capacity and I over the years I have learned how to speak at least some techy language.

Last year, my blog was still in infancy, so after much deliberation I ran a discussion session on how I had a blog, but was not writing much for fear of seeming ill-informed and immature: I discussed how I sometimes get the urge to write to a particular item in the news, but then end up not really having the energy or time to research the thing properly, and become paralysed by wondering why anyone would care what I thought about something anyway. The session boosted my confidence enormously, not least because of the number of people who came up to me to say they felt exactly the same way.
I also got to see the other kinds of sessions which get run. While I think it’s fair to say that the majority of sessions are still heavily tech-oriented, I realised that I really could talk about anything which was of interest to me.

I also learned that the attendees of barcamps are an incredibly supportive, friendly bunch of people, and that a talk really doesn’t have to be polished to a gleaming, professional standard. This year I flung together a bunch of screenshots of computer games I have played throughout my 31 years of existence, and talked a roomful of people through A Brief History of My Life in Computer Games. I’d been tinkering around with the presentation during the week, and ended up projecting an older version of the final draft on the screen. Last year such a basic cock up would have sent me spiralling into a depression of self-doubt and recrimination. This year, I just shrugged it off, got to the end and then chatted to the attendees while I found the correct version on dropbox, and then quickly tacked on the extra material. It was far from slick, and it would have been better if it hadn’t happened, but no one seemed to mind, and more to the point, neither did I.

Later that day I remembered I had a topic in mind for another post which I haven’t got around to writing yet. I found a slot which was populated entirely with techy talks, found a free room, rounded up a few people who were hanging out not attending anything and held an impromptu discussion about female superheroes. Last year such confident, off-the-cuff self promotion would have been unthinkable. (The actual blog post, replete with the contributions of the people whose opinion I solicited, will be coming soon.)

Loads of great things have happened this year. In no particular order, highlights of the weekend were:

Rolling around on a tennis ball to force the back muscles to relax.
Listening to an 8 year old girl describe her IT lessons.
Riding the Virtual Reality rollercoaster “Occulus Rift” and not screaming out loud like the 3 blokes ahead of me!
Playing my first ever game of powerpoint karaoke, and crushing it! See the video here:

Barcamps rely heavily on the goodwill of the volunteers, so generous with their time and energy. By dint of working for O2, who hosted the event, Terry was automatically a member of the Crew. By dint of being married to Terry, and being driven to the office at the same time, I found myself getting stuck into the last-minute helping out too. Not be all self-aggrandizing or anything but I like to feel my substantial experience in crowd control, registering conference attendees and dealing with temperamental computer systems afforded me the necessary skills to be of use during a rather chaotic hour at the start of the weekend, and at various times thereafter. So for me the cherry on the fabulous barcamp cake was getting officially upgraded to Crew. Making a contribution to the whole weekend gave me a much needed boost of confidence, and I hope to go to many more!

How legalising Same Sex Marriage Will Damage Families – a point by point rebuttal.

I was having a quick glance at Facebook earlier today, and came across this little gem of picture:
gay marriage

Disclaimer – if you are one of the 4 people who contributed to the discussion about this on Facebook, the below is basically a rehash of what was there. Feel free to stop reading now. Go and have a cup of tea or something. I won’t be offended, really! Similarly if I appear to have nicked a point off your Facebook comment and seem to be presenting it as my own idea then, er, take it as a compliment!

I haven’t written a pro equal marriage post in a while, and this seems like the perfect chance to write another.

So: this is a list of the perils which will befall the Good, Honest, Hardworking Families of Great Britain if The Gays are allowed to marry. As it is presented as such, as opposed to a list of Why Being Gay is Evil, I will presume that their objections are specifically against Equal Marriage. After all, homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967 by the Sexual Offences Act, and the age of consent for homosexual acts was bought in line with legislation covering heterosexual acts in an amendment to the same act in 2000. This list purports to show why Same Sex Marriage will damage families. Presumably therefore these potential dangers which the Exchange of Gay Vows will engender are dangers over and above those posed by just being gay and having gay sex.

Point 1: Children and Teenagers at school will quickly learn about “gay marriage” as teachers will have to teach them the new definition of marriage.

Well, yes, if Same Sex marriage is legalised in the UK, then axiomatically the definition of marriage will change. But I don’t remember anyone at school teaching me the definition of marriage. Even if they had I don’t think this is a particularly tricky concept to explain: that-thing-that-previously-only-a-man-and-woman-could-do-well-now-a-man-and-another-man-or-a-woman-and-another-woman-can-do-it-too. Easy.

Point 2: Gay relationships will be promoted to primary school children via storybooks.

I would sincerely hope that would be the case. Having decriminalised gay relationships, and taken further strides (or, in some cases, painfully slow baby steps) to equalise gay and straight relationships, the next stage is to normalise them. However on this point I am pessimistically of the belief that the authors of this list don’t have that much to worry about. Next time you find yourself looking at primary level story books, look how many inter-racial couples there are, or men and women in non standard-gender roles, or heaven forfend, someone transgendered. If lack of progress in other areas blighted by bigotry are anything to go by, legalising same sex marriage and comfortably showcasing the diversity of relationships in educational tools are likely be a long way apart.

Point 3: NHS-Endorsed Websites, which promote high-risk sexual practices, will be mainstreamed in secondary schools.

Now this may come as a shock, but attitudes to sexual relationships and the potential medical pitfalls which may occur (including conceiving a child) have come a long way since Marie Stopes wrote Married Love in 1918. Sex Education in the UK is predominantly focussed on teaching young people about the risks of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and the emotional upheaval which usually accompanies one’s first forays into Carnal Knowledge. As such, NHS-Endorsed websites which might be reasonably used as resources during Sex Ed classes, do not focus on the legal definition of marriage. They focus on the act of having sex. Because, and this may have escaped the authors’ notice, having sex out of wedlock isn’t illegal here. Consequently this point has sod-all to do with whether same-sex marriage is legal, and is solely concerned with gay sex, which has been legal for over 4 and a half decades.

Point 4: Being Male or Female will be meaningless if any combination can get married.

Having wrestled through early childhood, puberty and my later teenage years with the inescapable fact of Having a Vagina, I can testify that what being female means to me is…being legally allowed to marry a man. Yep, turns out that my entire gendered identity is solely related to the fact I can be legally joined in matrimony with one of the penis-bearing brigade. All those years of reading Judy Blume, Cosmopolitan & Simone de Beauvoir (full disclosure – I never actually made it all the way through The Second Sex) taught me that I am a Woman by dint of my relationships to men and nothing else.

Of course, there is another way to view this: If we legalise same sex marriage, they’ll be no more sexism! No more glass ceiling, no more gendered toys, no more casual harassment. We will all just be people. Sounds marvellous!

Point 5: Marriage won’t be about commitment to bearing and raising children.

My husband and I aren’t having children. We got married because we wanted to, but having kids was never on our agenda. We know lots of married couples who have similarly decided to remain child-free. Marriage isn’t about a commitment to bearing and raising children now. Legalising same sex marriage makes no difference to this.

Point 6: Marriage will be reduced to gratifying your own personal desires.

In a lot of cases, marriage is about gratifying your own desires: the desire to tick the Married box on forms, the desire to have a big white wedding, even, in my opinion, the above commitment to bearing and raising children is a personal desire to be gratified (although not necessarily in partnership with a spouse). Less cynically, the desire to make a public declaration of love for your soulmate is also a personal desire, and that was the one and only reason I got married. In fact the only times I can think of where marriage is not about gratifying one’s own personal desires, is when it is about gratifying someone else’s. For money, power, reputation, honour, prestige or protection. Out of fear, out of jealousy, out of laziness, out of spite. Or simply to keep someone else happy. Marriage, along with the rest of all conceivable human actions, is always about gratifying some desire on some level.

Point 7: Children will lose out, because society will no longer prioritise their main need, which is to be brought up by the people who conceive them.

As stated above, I have no intention to ever have children, which is just as well, as I’ve been labouring under the delusion that the main need of children is to be raised by a person or persons who love them, and make them feel safe, secure and happy. Clearly that is secondary to the fact of whether or not the parents are genetically linked to the child.

Gay couples can’t have children anyway without some kind of intervention, typically adoption, artificial insemination or surrogacy. The process for a gay couple proving themselves worthy of parenthood, particularly regarding adoption is rigorous (although really not my area of expertise so sincere apologies for any misconceptions here – no pun intended!!) On the other hand the most casual of heterosexual encounters can result in an unintended bun in the oven (perhaps as a result of neglecting those NHS-endorsed websites!) Yet ‘society’ tends not to intervene in these pregnancies except in very extreme situations.

Gay couples already can, and do, adopt or by other means start a family. So how would legalising gay marriage change this?

Point 8: Traditional family networks, which bind society together, will be fractured.

Er, what? Seriously, what does that actually mean? I mean I get that for most people their immediate family are among the most important people to them: partners, parents, siblings, children, possibly Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles and cousins etc. I understand that these ‘loved ones’ tend to be at the heart of our most precious relationships. But I’m not sure that I’d describe such as dynamic as ‘binding society together.’ I mean after all, isn’t that ‘blood is thicker than water’ crap basically about dividing society up into Us and Them. Family and Not Family. The societal expectation is that at times of difficulty one will prioritise one’s own kin ahead of strangers. I’m not saying that’s a necessarily a bad thing, but surely that’s not binding the whole of society together. Binding the whole of society together would be treating everyone equally, regardless of your personal connection. Let’s say there was an earthquake: a truly bound-together society would be populated with people who would rescue the first person they came across, trusting that another stranger would do the same for them or their family. Not clamber over the bodies of dead and dying human beings they didn’t know, looking for their wife, or child, or brother.

I’m not saying family isn’t important. As above I believe that raising children in loving, secure, happy homes is the paramount responsibility of parents, and family can play an important role in that endeavour. But our society teaches us to stratify our relationships, and so we learn to regard certain people, such as those related to us, as more precious than others.

So having entirely rejected the premise that family relationships bind society together I am unconcerned as to how same sex marriage might fracture these non-existent bonds.

Point 9: Motherless and Fatherless families will be institutionalised.

Given the tone of this whole piece, I am deeply concerned that this is actually a threat, as opposed to a warning of what may come to pass. But even as a threat it is entirely incoherent. Straight, ‘nuclear’ families can be rendered either Mother or Fatherless through tragedy, irreconcilable differences or something else. Yet again, legalising same sex marriage seems to have no discernible impact on this situation.

The whole point about gay marriage is that two people of the same sex who love each other can, if they wish, formalise that love the same way straight people do. Ultimately the objections all come to down to the entirely irrational fear that by redefining marriage to include same sex relationships, somehow existing straight relationships will be devalued. If your relationship is really that fragile, perhaps your time would be better put to use trying to strengthen it.