This isn't just any children's sticker book…this is a sexist M&S sticker book

My daughter, aged 15 months, likes stickers. She likes to unpeel them from a sheet with tiny curious fingers, then lift them off and find a new place for them – on a sheet of paper, her tummy, my face, wherever – patting them into place with a purposeful “stick-stick!” (actually, she mostly says “dick-dick!” at the moment. A bit awkward in public. But I digress.)

We discovered that she liked stickers when changing her nappy one day in her bedroom. She caught sight of a tiny lifted edge of a wall sticker, next to the change mat, and proceeded to methodically remove it, with a triumphant beam on her face.

She then progressed to price labels or special offer stickers in the supermarket, before eventually we decided to overrule the “3 years plus” advice on the front of most sticker books and packets and got her a sheet of smiley faces, with which she has played (under supervision) quite happily for a couple of months.

When she went into hospital a couple of months ago for an operation, we got a copy of Cbeebies magazine because it came with a sheet of stickers from her favourite cartoon, Sarah & Duck, and she enjoyed peeling them off the sheet and sticking them methodically onto her spica cast, the doctors, her observation chart and so on.

So yesterday, while in good old Marks and Spencers, I noticed they had a special offer on children’s activity books and thought I’d see if there were any stickers to be had.

Disappointingly, M&S have decided that something as innocent and simple as stickers need to be rammed into gender-stereotyped pigeonholes.

The “stickers for girls” selection included:

  • Princesses
  • Fairies
  • Disney princesses
  • Rainbows
  • Kittens
  • Butterflies
  • Clothing

You can see one of the books (and peek inside its contents) here. NB, I’m only referring here to activity books specifically with the words “for girls” on them.

Meanwhile, in the 2000 stickers for boys book, here is a selection of sticky images depicting things which my daughter is apparently not supposed to like or play with:

Oh M&S - you can do better than this

  • Stars, explorers, musicians, robbers and astronauts
  • Spiders, snails, slugs, beetles, bees (no butterflies to be seen, of course)
  • Funny facial parts including eyes, noses, mouths
  • Lions, tigers, birds
  • Circus tents, trees, people
  • People swimming, sailing, kayaking, diving, camp fires, tents
  • Pirate imagery including cats, desert islands, treasure, skulls, crossbones
  • Dinosaurs, rocks, shrubbery
  • Robots, flying cars, spaceships, stars, planets
  • Fish, flying saucers, pumpkins
  • Trees, umbrellas, water
  • Heaven forbid.

    Well, bugger that. I bought it anyway.

    And if it’s still in the house when Erin learns to read, and she asks why all those brilliant, imaginative, exciting stickers are for boys, I shall tell her that Marks and Spencers were short-sighted, small-minded and silly because they thought girls should only like fashion and princesses and flowers while boys were allowed to create worlds and play with dinosaurs, astronauts and lions. How very silly of them!

    [Related: Let Toys Be Toys is asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Join their campaign and sign the petition if you think that girls should be allowed encouraged to play with robots, too.]

Weight-loss, gamification and common sense: a delicate balance

Reading this article on the Guardian website over lunch, and related tweets, I felt moved to respond myself.

The author of this article is right to scoff at the marketing around Weightwatchers’ traditional seasonal membership drive. After all, the messages are designed to appeal to the kind of people who make generalised new year’s resolutions – “MUST LOSE WEIGHT!” – but aren’t bright/motivated/organised enough to figure out how to do it.

Gamification, a neologism that has risen to prominence in the past two years, describes the act of taking an activity that is not a game and turning it into a game to increase audience engagement.

Proponents argue that gamification can be used to positively influence human behaviour by incentivising constructive activities that humans otherwise can’t really be bothered with.

It’s a bit like offering a child a biscuit if she cleans her bedroom, or awarding a New Year’s honour to a Conservative if he gives some money to the government.

Gamification is a concept at the heart of the Weight Watchers’ new campaign, driven this week by the launch of the website – although here, the idea is to find a participant and remove their money and biscuits.

“Weight Watchers is a game we play to lose weight,” states the first line of the site’s copy in a crisp attempt to move the gruelling work of dieting away from the imagery of self-flagellating, fasting monks to the rotund bounce of Super Mario.

Dig deeper on the site to uncover the rules of the Weight Watchers game and details are disappointingly thin on the ground. “Playing” appears to be little more than an obfuscated version of calorie counting.

So the rather frivolous marketing message is annoying, yes.

But at the risk of defending weightwatchers, there is something effective about the points/goals/scoring system they operate which appeals to those motivated by targets and personal challenge, if not fully “gamers”.

Personal disclaimer/experience which allows me to comment on this in more than just a mediasnarky way: I lost 4.5 stone in 12 months a few years ago. I did this via a variety of methods (eating better & moving more being the main and most effective contributory factors – ’twas ever thus!) but I did sign up to Weightwatchers online and used the system to log (food diary), count (via their points system, which isn’t the current ProPoints, but whatever came before) and chart (via weight tracking graph) my progress. It was useful for that.

I didn’t attend a single meeting (can’t think of anything worse) and I ignored all the shuddersomely ignorant messageboards (sample question: “Which has more points? A BigMac or a Quarterpounder with Cheese?”)

The discipline of keeping track of food in and energy out and weight up/down was absolutely key for me, and has been cited by all sorts of people and organisations as a common factor in helping weight loss and healthy lifestyle be a life-change not just a crash-diet. Even the most intelligent among us can benefit from seeing a direct relationship between fuel consumed, fuel burnt and load carried. Because it is that simple.

Part of this was setting small, achievable goals – weightwatchers recommend 7lb increments, and at the time awarded you badges for hitting these targets. I took a different approach, because I’m not motivated by badges (apart from that Blue Peter one I got for painting a stegasaurus in 1983), and instead made a giant spreadsheet containing lots of weight equivalents which I could visualise better than numbers*. Because I’m a geek.

For example, 1st 7lb is the average weight of a female badger. Why on earth would you carry a badger around all the time? What a ridiculous thing to do. You’d feel far better if you put that bloody badger down and let it go snuffling off into the hedgerows or whatever (etc).

Other people may be more motivated by hitting round numbers, or dropping a BMI unit or whatever. YMMV.

Nevertheless, tracking was key for me. And WW – however full of mouth-breathers eating ready meals and fast food it may appear – was helpful in doing that. Other apps and schemes and software is available – including paper and pen, though you would have to do some jiggery-pokery to convert calories etc into something consistent to take into account that calories from saturated fat or carbs are different from those derived from protein.

Weightwatchers online database does that, for a lot of common foods (banana, 1 slice of wholemeal bread, glass of orange juice) as well as branded things (1 slice dominos pepperoni pizza, 1 muller light strawberry flavour, waitrose macaroni cheese ready meal). But on the whole I found it easier to set up and save a bunch of meals on there myself by inputting the recipes from fresh ingredients, because I cook from fresh most of the time and don’t eat ready meals e.g. “Meg’s Veg Soup = 1 onion, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tin tomatoes, 2 carrots, 1 bunch spinach, 1 pt stock, 1 slice bread, 10g lurpak light = 2 servings @ 2pts/serving” (in that example, the points came from the bread, butter and olive oil, the other things being “free”)

Since I knew that I was supposed to be aiming for a certain number of points a day, doing this sort of tracking allowed me to “budget” points throughout the day – so many for lunch, so many for a snack, and so on. If I’d already used up more points than expected on breakfast and lunch, then mid afternoon I could have an apple (free) instead of a biscuit (2pts). Sounds obvious, but if you lack discipline and willpower, then structures help, even ones that should be obvious.

And yes, “earning” points through physical activity is part of it, too. Cardio, swimming, running (I did couch to 5k) and even walking an extra tube stop or two earn you points to deposit in the bank, which you can offset against the fuel you consume. Walking an hour a day meant I could continue to share a bottle of wine with my husband as a friday night winding-down ritual. When you set activity against reward like that, it’s easy to put your trainers on.

But while it’s easy to say “walk around the block and you can have another biscuit” the key is probably to think of it the other way round: “Had a biscuit too many? Get off your arse and go for a walk”

* Here’s the spreadsheet. These values were collected from a variety of sources. As you can see, there are some values I haven’t been able to find direct equivalents for. Suggestions welcome!

[table id=5 /]

Look, but don't touch

News today that visitors to the new Ai WeiWei Turbine Hall installation at the Tate Modern are being prevented from walking on the ceramic seeds, as the artist intended:

“Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall. Tate has been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture.”

The work is intended to be interactive and to have people walking through it, although some visitors, mainly children, had more fun in the seeds than curators might have liked.

I’m interested in the idea of artworks that you can’t predict: although Ai Weiwei conceived the artwork as interactive, it’s not until 100 million ceramic seeds are being shuffled through by gallery visitors that the true size of the dust-cloud is revealed. That’s art in itself.

Also, health and safety has played a role in visitor interactions with installations at the Tate Modern before….

Don't fall in

While the world watches…and waits

The world – and the media – is transfixed today by the ongoing rescue of the 33 miners who have been trapped underground for two months in a collapsed mine in northern Chile. As they emerge blinking behind sunglasses, into the desert daylight, we heave another sigh of relief. The unfolding story of their survival and planned rescue has brought hope to a world weary of bad news, and its successful executionn throughout last night and today is a testament to the power of planning, engineering, organisation, politics, money, hope, character, luck, faith…in fact, whatever people want to hang on this moment, they are doing so.

Throughout the morning, as news of the emerging miners breaks, I’ve had an earworm playing at the back of my head, which I’ve been trying not to give focus to, but here we go:

The song is the Ballad of Springhill, originally by Peggy Seeger (the version I know is by Martin Carthy) which was written about a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in October 1958. An underground seismic “bump” caused the coal faces deep underground to collapse, killing many men instantly and trapping others. Over the days which followed, survivors slowly made their way to the surface and contact was made with a group:

“After five and a half days (placing it around the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1958) contact was established with a group of 12 survivors on the other side of a 160 foot rockfall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25am AST on Thursday, October 30, 1958…. Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 74 were killed and 100 trapped but eventually rescued.” [source]

Thankfully, it looks like all the miners in the Chilean situation will be rescued safely throughout the course of the next couple of days.

Tangent: I think going by their onscreen graphic Sky News will refer to this as “Miners rescued: 33/33 – Achievement Unlocked!” Though people seem to find the count variously tacky and/or helpful, I think there are many who echo the sentiment of this twitter user:

“Anyone else reminded of lemmings whilst watching sky news’s coverage of the miner rescue? They have a counter, so far 0/33 rescued”

Anyone doubting this similarity is urged to study any Lemmings screenshot, and compare that with Sky’s on-screen graphic.

The 1958 “Springhill bump” was notable for another reason, too: it was the first major international story in Canada to be covered by live television broadcasts — a new service being developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) [more info]. Then, as now, the media circus camped at the minehead, watching and waiting.

While you watch the rolling news today, and follow the liveblogs and twitter updates, take a moment to watch this archive footage from CBC with interviews and coverage from the pithead. The events change, but the live media coverage is eerily similar, together with questions from the studio to our man at the pithead: “What’s going on right now? What can you see?”

Some things change, some stay the same. Meanwhile, in a Chilean desert, the miners rise one by one, blinking from what could have easily been a tomb. The world welcomes them back.


Inception + here + there

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the similarities between the promo poster for Inception and the “horizonless projection of Manhattan” map made by BERG (here’s a post by Jack Schulze about the design influences for the project):

inception-poster here-and-there

I’ve got the Here And There (HAT) map prints, and they absolutely deserve further scrutiny because they’re so detailed, plus it’s a really interesting, mind-bending (sorry) way to think about space, and the world.

Let's play Eurovision Bingo!

Are you going to be watching the Eurovision Song Contest (final) tonight? Are you going to be watching it in the company of family or friends? Improve the experience by playing Eurobong-a-bingo!

This Eurobingo PDF file contains ten player sheets filled with random Eurovision cliches and phenomena which may be observed during the show broadcast. Simply check off each as they appear – award spot prizes for completing a line, and the first person to complete a whole sheet wins the kitty (or another prize of your choice).

There are also three additional ways to win: before the show begins, add your best guess for each of the quant questions at the bottom of the sheet. Closest wins!

This game has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. Feel free to adapt, remix and share it, but please leave attribution intact.

Thanks and happy bing-a-bang-a-bingo!

Ten things that I wouldn't have much call to say if blogs didn't exist

Part of my tenth blogiversary series.

  1. Reverse-chronological (unless I was Benjamin Button)
  2. Permalink (I think Prolific invented or at least named these, didn’t she?)
  3. Archives (unless I was a librarian)
  4. Publish (unless I was Rupert Murdoch)
  5. Blogroll (I don’t have one, though)
  6. Blogring (remember them?)
  7. Post (unless I worked for Royal Mail)
  8. After the jump (unless I worked for the Samaritans)
  9. Pingbacks (unless I was Brian Eno)
  10. Plugins (unless I was an automaton sexbot)

Addendum: Things I do not say, even though I have a blog

  1. Blogosphere, because it’s stupid
  2. Blog when I mean blogpost because it’s just WRONG

The power of ten

I missed the actual tenth birthday of this blog/me blogging but I can’t let a milestone like that go unmarked, can I?


Originally started as a place to store and share links, this blog gradually became a place to playfully interact with the world, and over time that turned from introspection to exploration of the world, media, experiences and ideas. I don’t think I’m alone in that kind of journey with blogs.

I am immensely (unreasonably, perhaps even pathetically) proud of having been blogging for so long. I can say confidently that I was in at the beginning, when all this were fields. I was here before many of you young whippersnappers who have gone on to eclipse me, and blogging, and the web entirely in their success and influence. I don’t put my early involvement down to canny prescience about the way the web was turning so much as an inevitability given my proclivity for tinkering with web things, my early academic and personal interest in communicating online and my inability to shut up. Blogging and me; it was only a matter of time and technology before we found each other.

I was there. I remember the start, and the hype, popularisation, commercialisation and ubiquitisation which followed. I couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, but my blogging was to introduce me to dozens of interesting people, influence others to start doing it too, cause interesting opportunities (and worrying situations) to develop. Blogging has become part of what I am, what I do. I blog now for the same reasons I did in early 2000: because I can’t not tinker with and publish to the web.

Ten years ago, I was embarrassed to mention having a blog in polite company, because it was so difficult to understand – not just what but why. These days, even both my parents have blogs. It’s not a weird niche oddball geek thing anymore. It’s so normal it’s almost passé. Good.