On This Day In 2003

Looking Back

On this day in 2003 I wrote a short blog post about a very important event in the lives of two of my friends. This was the end of the week during which Fiona came down to visit us in Aberystwyth: the week where she first met Kit in person. And the week where they became a couple.

In my blog post at the time that it had been a long time since I’d seen Kit so happy. Normally a reasonably controlled and sedate young man, his mood this week could be better described as “bouncing off the walls”. He’d had a hard few months of unemployment, and the contrast in his mood was spectacular. I also noted at the time that I’d never seen Kit so loved-up: the closest I’ve ever seen him to that sickening lovey-dovey phase that many new couples go through was at about that time.

Kit wrote about the event, too, in his usual charming style; almost downplaying the significance of this awesome event by starting the post with a deadpan explanation, “Well its been an interesting few days. Somewhat busy too – which explains at least partially the lack of posts.”

Looking Forward

Kit & Fiona married in October 2004, and the same folks who’d been around when they first got together made a spectacular road trip all the way to the North of Scotland for the wedding. They still live in Scotland, and we see a lot less of them than we would like. They came down to Aberystwyth early this year, though, and introduced us all to geocaching, for which nobody has yet forgiven them.

This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.

BiCon: The Game

I shan’t be at BiCon this year, but I thought I’d share with you all something that tickled me today. Last year, at a Naked Lunch, I ended up chatting to several geeks about Interactive Fiction, and I through out a few ideas for a BiCon-themed piece of Interactive Fiction. Little did I know that this idea had sunk in, and cogs had begun to turn…

Rach has just released BiCon 2010: The Game, and it fully embodies everything that’s fabulous about BiCon. It’s also a really good bit of IF, for a first full adventure, and involves some fascinating hacking of the gender pronouns system for Inform. I tip my hat to the author.

(there’s some discussion going on about the game on the BiCon LiveJournal community)

Women in Movies

Spoiler alert: this blog post contains significant spoilers about WALL-E, and contains minor spoilers about Salt (although these shouldn’t be spoilers to anybody who’s ever seen an action film before).

The Bechdel Test

I’ve talked to some of you already about my thoughts on the Bechdel Test, which aims to illustrate the under-representation of women in contemporary film. I first became aware of the test when I saw this video by YouTube blogger “feministfrequency”, earlier this year. If you can’t be bothered to watch the video, here’s a summary:

Alison Bechdel is the author of a long-running comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For. In 1985, one of the characters in the strip states that she only watches a movie if it meets the following requirements:

  1. It has at least two women in it, (some later versions of the test require that the women be named characters)
  2. Who talk to teach other,
  3. About something besides a man.

feministfrequency goes on to show that the problem is endemic by flicking rapidly through a list of films that “fail” the test (she skips over the part of her argument where she demonstrates that this is a problem, presumably because she feels that this is obvious and, besides, YouTube’s consumers will often have too short an attention span to take in a proper argument anyway).

In the snapshot above, we can see her explaining how WALL-E fails the test.

Whoah, hang on a minute. WALL-E? Are we sure?

The Problem with The Bechdel Test

Let’s have a look at WALL-E. Here’s a summary of the plot, in case you’ve been in a coma for the last few years and the first thing you chose to do when you came around was to read my blog:

  • Runaway consumerism and lack of ecological foresight results in Earth being too polluted to live on.
  • The humans all evacuate to space, leaving behind an army of trash compactor robots, “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class”.
  • After centuries, only one of these survives, and has achieved sentience.
  • A robotic probe sent down by the humans, an “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator” (EVE) probe and the surviving WALL-E unit form an emotional bond.
  • The EVE is called back to the mothership with evidence that Earth is becoming livable again. The WALL-E comes aboard as a stowaway.
  • Meanwhile, on the spaceship, the human captain (male) is in conflict with the ship’s computer, which hides evidence of Earth’s livability in order to keep the lazy, dis-focused space-dwelling humans under its authority.
  • Through a series of scrapes and adventures, the WALL-E unit and the EVE manage to survive the ship’s computer’s attempt to kill them and present the evidence that Earth is becoming habitable to the humans, who land the ship.
  • Finally, in a heartbreaking moment, the WALL-E appears to have been reset to its factory configuration, losing its intelligence and self-awareness, until an electrical spark passed during a “kiss” from the EVE causes the WALL-E to jump-start back into being its usual, quirky, self.

So there’s WALL-E. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. Well, I guess I’m wrong, then.

But the problem is: I only feel that a failure to the Bechdel Test is in any way significant if the film would pass its male-centric analog. After all, we can all say that the world is unfair because we haven’t personally passed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” – winning millions of pounds – but if only a handful of people ever do pass that test, then it’s not fair to say that I personally am unlucky: I’m pretty much just as unlucky as everybody else.

I propose a male-centric analog to the Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a film must have at least two male characters (ideally named), who talk to one another about something other than a woman. It may seem like I’m being facetious – after all, virtually all movies will pass this test – but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to comment on the fact that a movie fails the Bechdel Test unless it also passes the male analog, for the same reason that I don’t feel it’s fair to use the fact that any given person has failed the “Lottery Jackpot Test” as evidence of anything in particular either.

So, here’s my Revised Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a movie must:

  1. It has at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to teach other,
  3. About something besides a man.
  4. AND it can not fail the test unless it has at least two men in it who talk to one another about something besides a woman.

So does WALL-E fail the Revised Bechdel Test (i.e. fails the Bechdel Test, but passes the male analog): I don’t think it does, but it depends, perhaps, on how you choose to define gender. Many audience members will choose to identify the protagonist WALL-E unit as male, for example, despite the fact that it is clearly a robot manufactured in a way that makes gender irrelevant. They choose to do this because of their conditioning:

  • Lead characters in films are frequently male, so – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – an audience will associate masculinity to a genderless character presented to them.
  • WALL-E units are dirty, engaged in manual labour, and with “rugged” square corners; these are characteristics that audiences will readily assume to be masculine traits because of the stereotypes within our society.
  • The WALL-E unit engages in a romantic relationship with a robot that – for similar stereotype-based reasons – the audience will often designate as being female. Our culture of heteronormativity means that when we discover that a character of a suspected gender forms a romantic relationship, that the subject of that relationship must be of the opposite gender.

Here are the options, then:

  • We assume that all robots in the film are genderless. If this is the case, the film fails the Bechdel Test, but passes my Revised Bechdel Test. Note that the same would be true of March Of The Penguins (this also fails the Bechdel Test, but I doubt that any feminist could rightly claim that women are under-represented in it).
  • We assume that all the robots in the film are of the same gender that their voice actor (please note that I don’t feel that this is a fair way to assign gender to characters: at least six of the recurring male characters in The Simpsons are voiced by voice actress Nancy Cartwright), with the exception of the ship’s computer, which – voiced by a synthetic algorithm called MacInTalk – remains genderless. In this case, the film still fails the Bechdel Test, and still passes my Revised Bechdel Test.
  • We assign arbitrary genders to the robots in order to make our argument fit. Only in this case can we pass the Bechdel Test or can we fail my Revised Bechdel Test.

The Revised Bechdel Test I propose solves the greatest fundamental problem with the Bechdel Test: that it discriminates unfairly against films where gender is not an issue. In most films involving nonhuman characters, the Bechdel test doesn’t provide sufficient granularity to tell the difference between “women being underrepresented” and “gender being irrelevant to the story”. Note that “nonhuman characters” is still an ambiguous term, for there exist characters with sufficient anthropomorphism that they can be treated as human analogies, like the stars of the original Toy Story, which fails both the Bechdel Test and my revised test, and rightly so.

The Problem with The Revised Bechdel Test

I’m not claiming to have fixed the Bechdel Test completely, though, as a measure of the representation of women in films. Last night, I watched Salt.

I first became aware of this new film when I saw a trailer for it at the cinema when watching Inception (doesn’t pass either the Bechdel Test nor my Revised Bechdel Test, although this isn’t a measure of how good a film is, and Inception is fantastic). Salt is a very typical modern action flick in many ways. Here are some of the common tropes of a modern action film, that Salt also has:

  • The lead character is a secret agent, spy, assassin, detective, mercenary, or similar “cool” profession that entitles them to carry a gun.
  • The lead character exhibits an almost-superhuman ability to withstand pain and torture, fight with a variety of weapons or barehand, learn multiple languages, pick locks, hack computers, and so on.
  • The organisation for which the lead character primarily works is of dubious trustworthiness.
  • The lead character is betrayed by somebody once trusted to them, and is on at least one occasion described as “rogue”.
  • A major motivation of the lead character is the liberation of their primary love interest.
  • The whole movie is full of badass fight scenes and explosions.

You get it? I could be describing almost any James Bond film, the Mission: Impossible series, Minority Report, Robocop, the Bourne film series; even The A-Team! But in this case, I’m describing Salt. And there’s one particular thing that Salt does that none of these other films did: the lead character is a woman.

From a point of gender equality, this film does a really, really good job. It would be perfectly possible to change the gender of any of the major characters and still have movie which remained perfectly intact. The lead character’s femininity is part of the plot, certainly, but not in a way that makes mockery of it or belittles her for her gender. Not once does the lead female require the lead male to come and “rescue” her, or she is disadvantaged by her gender. Even the scene in which she disguises herself as a man is done not because a man would have been required but because it was the most effective disguise that she could have used, at the time: one that completely changed her appearance.

But guess what: this fantastic (and undeniably-feminist) film… doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t even pass my Revised Test! Why? Because despite the fact that it represents women equally and counters the culture of male leads to action films (without making a point of doing so – gender is not a factor)… it doesn’t have a second named female character for the lead female to talk to (about something other than a man). Men talk together during the film about something other than a woman (although not much – a lot of their discussion is about the lead female, but they do on occasion talk about other things during the set-up), but it’s somehow a failure in the Bechdel Test simply because the film spends most of the time, without dialogue, watching the protagonist be a awesome gun-toting badass.

The Bechdel Test is too coarse. My Revised Bechdel Test improves its biggest failure, but still fails to detect films like Salt as being a good representation of women in movies. And if anybody’s got any suggestions about how we could refine the test any further, I’d love to hear them.


Amateur Lesbians

I’ve recently reformatted and reinstalled, and that means that – briefly – I ended up seeing advertisements on the Internet again, until I had my ad-blocker reinstalled. And so I came to see an advertisement that promised to let me see “amateur lesbians”.

Now you and I both know perfectly well what they mean, but I’ve always been amused by the term. It somehow carries the implication that there are “professional lesbians”, who aren’t just hobbyists or weekend-homosexuals. I get the image of a conversation along these lines:

A: “So, what do you do for a living?”

B: “Oh, I’m a lesbian.”

If there is such a thing as a professional lesbian, I wonder if it’s one of those careers that is protected from gender discrimination laws, so that it’s allowed to disallow men from applying. And I wonder if you can get a vocational qualification in the field: you know, a BTEC in Lesbianism or something. I also wonder if there are any perks to the job – I mean apart from the obvious: do you get a company car? Do you have to pay for your own uniform?

I wonder, sometimes, if I wonder about things a little too much.

Working From Home

The phone rings. It’s clear to me by the sound it makes and by the image on it’s display that this is a business call.

“Good morning, SmartData; Dan speaking,” I say.

The caller identifies themselves, and asks to speak to Alex, another SmartData employee. I look to my right to see if Alex is available (presumably if he was, he’d have answered the call before it had been forwarded to me). This is possible because of the two-way webcam feed on the monitor beside me.

“I’m afraid Alex isn’t in yet,” I begin, bringing up my co-worker’s schedule on the screen in front of me, to determine what he’s up to, “He’ll be in at about 10:30 this morning. Can I get him to call you back?”

Not for a second did it occur to the caller that I wasn’t sat right there in the office, looking over at Alex’s chair and a physical calendar. Of course, I’m actually hundreds of miles away, in my study in Oxford. Most of our clients – even those whom I deal with directly – don’t know that I’m no longer based out of SmartData’s marina-side offices. Why would they need to? Just about everything I can do from the office I can do from my own home. Aside from sorting the mail on a morning and taking part in the occasional fire drill, everything I’d regularly do from Aberystwyth I can do from here.

Back when I was young, I remember reading a book once which talked about advances in technology and had wonderful pictures of what life would be like in the future. This wasn’t a dreamland of silver jumpsuits and jetpacks; everything they talked about in this book was rooted in the trends that we were already beginning to see. Published in the early 80s, it predicted a microcomputer in every home and portable communicators that everybody would have that could be used to send messages or talk to anybody else, all before the 21st century. Give or take, that’s all come to pass. I forget what the title of the book was, but I remember enjoying it as a child because it seemed so believable, so real. I guess it inspired a hopeful futurism in me.

But it also made another prediction: that with this rise in telecommunications technologies and modern microcomputers (remember when we still routinely called them that?), we’d see a greap leap in the scope for teleworking: office workers no longer going to a place of work, but remotely “dialling in” to a server farm in a distant telecentre. Later, it predicted, with advances in robotics, specialist workers like surgeons would be able to operate remotely too: eventually, through mechanisation of factories, even manual labourers would begun to be replaced by work-at-home operators sat behind dumb terminals.

To play on a cliché: where’s my damn flying car?

By now, I thought that about a quarter of us would be working from home full-time or most of the time, with many more – especially in my field, where technology comes naturally – working from home occasionally. Instead, what have we got? Somewhere in the region of one in fifty, and that includes the idiots who’ve fallen for the “Make £££ working from home” scams that do the rounds every once in a while and haven’t yet realised that they’re not going to make any £, let alone £££.

At first, I thought that this was due to all of the traditionally-cited reasons: companies that don’t trust their employees, managers who can’t think about results-based assessment rather than presence-based assessment, old-school thinking, and not wanting to be accused of favouritism by allowing some parts of their work force to telework while others can’t. In some parts of the world, and some fields, we’ve actually seen a decrease in teleworking over recent years: what’s all that about?

I’m sure that the concerns listed above are still critical factors for many companies, but I’ve realised that there could be another, more-recent fear that’s now preventing the uptake of teleworking in many companies. That fear is one that affects everybody – both the teleworkers and their comrades in the offices, and it’s something that more and more managers are becoming aware of: the fear of outsourcing.

After all, if a company’s employees can do their work from home, then they can do it from anywhere. With a little extra work on technical infrastructure and a liberal attitude to meetings, the managers can work from anywhere, too. So why stop at working from home? Once you’ve demonstrated that your area of work can be done without coming in to the office, then you’re half-way to demonstrating that it can be done from Mumbai or Chennai, for a fraction of the price… and that’s something that’s a growing fear for many kinds of technical workers in the Western world.

Our offices are a security blanket: we’re clinging on to them because we like to pretend that they’ll protect us; that they’re something special and magical that we can offer our clients that the “New World” call centres and software houses in India and China can’t offer them. I’m not sure that a security blanket that allows us to say “we have a local presence” will mean as much in ten years time as it does today.

In the meantime, I’m still enjoying working from home. It’s a little lonely, sometimes – on days when JTA isn’t around, which are going to become more common when he starts his new job –  but the instant messenger and Internet telephony tools we use make it feel a little like I’m actually in the office, and that’s a pretty good trade-off in exchange for being able to turn up at work in my underwear, if I like.

The Game Disbalancer

Coming to an Arkham Horror game near you… never.

Click for large-o-vision. You know, I think that having this guy on the team might just make the game winnable. Maybe.



Just when I think that I’ve gotten the hang of humans, they do something even stranger than ever before.

There’s a new fragrance for men that’s about to be hitting perfume counters around Europe: Vulva Original [NSFW]. Just… click the link, and watch the video that appears. Your first thought will almost certainly be: “They’re selling a perfume… that smells like sweaty vagina?”

Continue to explore into  the site and you’ll see that this is exactly what this product is.

I agree with Alex Day: unlike every other fragrance ever marketed at men, this perfume isn’t about trying to attract women (well duh: I’m pretty sure that walking around smelling like a vagoo will only attract a particular kind of woman, and it’s not the kind that’ll be interested in you as a man)… this product can only be targeted at men who just want to be able to sniff the back of their hand in a crowded elevator and pretend that they’re nose-deep in pussy.

That’s probably a fetish in itself.


The Best Mouse In The World

This was one of my most-popular articles in 2010. It continues to be popular in Spain (¡Hola! Mucho gusto). If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

The Old

Back in 2006, I ordered a new mouse for my computer. Previously, I’d been using a series of mid-to-high-end five-button optical mice, like Microsoft’s IntelliMouse series: when you’re doing a lot of coding, websurfing, and video gaming, “extra” buttons make a big difference, and the IntelliMouse is fast and responsive and usable in either hand: a perfectly good all-rounder mouse. But when I destroyed my last mouse with a little too much overenthusiasm in an Unreal Tournament 2004 deathmatch, I thought it might be time to look for something a little… sturdier.

Relatively new to the European market at that time was Logitech’s new MX1000: the  world’s first generally-available laser mouse: instead of using a little red LED, these mice use an invisible laser to track movements, which apparently makes them far more sensitive and accurate on a wider range of surfaces. As an ultra high-end premium mouse, the MX1000 also came with a wheel that was not only clickable but “rockable” for sideways scrolling and five other buttons (aside from the wheel and the usual three), but it was wireless and used it’s own special “cradle” to recharge. I bought one, and for years I’ve described it as the best mouse I’ve ever owned.

This mouse was so good, in fact, that I’d always planned that when it finally kicked the bucket, I’d replace it with another one exactly the same. When I said that this was the best mouse I’d ever owned, I wasn’t kidding. It fit my palm in a way that I’d never experienced before (I have pretty big hands, and I find that those piddly little mice that are so popular to be  just useless for me, leaving me with my wrist dragging around on the desk like a beaver’s tail). I genuinely like the quirky bonus selling points of this mouse, like its unusual “thumb rest” and its wonderful little LED gauge that tells you when it needs recharging.

My MX1000 is still going strong, despite years of heavy (ab)use. I use my mouse for hours a day, every day, and it needs to not only feel great but be rugged and durable, too. But the time comes in the life of every mouse when it’s time to be retired to less-intensive duties. Here’s the underside of my MX1000 today:

See how scuffed and worn it is from the hundreds of miles it’s travelled back and forth across my desk? Even the non-slip teflon pads are beginning to wear down! And the two little copper contacts on the right, there, are tarnished – sometimes it takes a couple of attempts, these days, to get the pins to make a connection when dropping it into the charging cradle. It’s time that this little mouse was put out to pasture.

But my plan – my plan to replace it with another one just the same – can’t come to pass: Logitech no longer manufacture the fabulous MX1000! Oh noes! I know it’s still possible to buy old stock or unopened second-hand ones on eBay, but this feels to me more like the universe’s way of telling me that it’s time to look for something new.

The New

So I’ve gotten myself the successor to the MX1000: a Logitech Performance MX.

And here are my observations after using it for a few days:

Pros Cons
  • It’s just like an MX1000 – ludicrously accurate, sensitive, and fabulous to hold and use.
  • It’s slightly lighter than the MX1000.
  • Rather than charging in a cradle, it charges via a MicroUSB cable (either from a computer or a supplied power adapter), so you can continue to use it while it charges (I’m just using the cable I sometimes use to attach my phone to my PC).
  • Even more buttons! All configurable by application or usable for their default functions.
  • The wheel can now operate in “clicky” or “flywheel” modes, and the “flywheel” mode – in which the wheel just keeps on spinning freely – is very nice.
  • The “Unifying” USB receiver can apparently have up to six devices connected to it (although why you’d have six mice/keyboards, which are the only devices yet to use the technology, is beyond me).
  • The teflon pads and even the rechargable battery are now replacable, to keep the mouse running for longer.
  • The mouse now uses “Darkfield” technology, which allows the laser to work even on transparent or reflective surfaces. I have no idea how this black magic works, but it’s cool: I’ve tried the mouse on mirrors and on glass and it genuinely does seem to work, but I can’t work out how!
  • The new texture of the thumb rest is more pleasant than the plasticky feel of the MX1000 (which becomes apparent if you have sweaty hands).
  • It’s possible to change the mouse sensitivity “on the fly” using pre-configured button presses, which JTA tells me is useful (I’ve never had a mouse with such a feature before, so I’ll reserve judgment).
  • Charging using a cable isn’t quite so cool nor as convenient as just dropping the mouse into a charging cradle.
  • More of the MX1000s buttons “just worked” without the special driver software installed.
  • It’s still using a proprietary wireless pairing and communication system. Seriously, Logitech, would it have been so hard to use Bluetooth and save me from using up another USB port?
  • The battery gauge only turns on for a few seconds after you first start using the mouse in a long time, or when it’s getting low: I suppose this must be a measure to conserve battery life, but it does make it slightly harder to tell the battery level “at a glance”.
  • The “rocking” of the wheel to scroll left and right no longer produces an audible “click”, depriving you of feedback.
  • The driver package is 25MB. Seriously: why does it need to be this large?
  • Perhaps a little too big for some people’s hands? This isn’t a mouse for people with a small hand.

In short, the verdict is that the Performance MX is a worthwhile successor to the MX1000, and a great replacement when the time comes. And if you’re still using an LED or even a wired mouse (trust me, when you go wireless and lose the “tug” of the cable pulling your mouse back, you never want to go back), perhaps now is the time to upgrade.

Update – 8 March 2019: it took a while, but an even better mouse has now dethroned this one.

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