Last weekend I went to a field near Milton Keynes with 499 other nerds, and participated in a festival called Electromagnetic Field. I say participated in, rather than attended, because one of the coolest things about it was the way everyone pulled together and got involved. A bunch of geeks, in a field, with excellent comms links (wifi to every tent!) and a whole heap of toys.
Rule 0 is the important one
I gave a talk on women in computing, at 4pm on the Saturday, which was a version of the talk I gave to Birmingham BCS a few months back; you can find the EMF version of the slides here: http://www.hannahdee.eu/emf.pdf. The talk got quite considerably re-worked for EMF – the crowd was not the standard BCS crowd. Indeed it was much bigger; I was on stage Beta, which was a tent with 100 seats, and there were people spilling out the back and standing at the open side of the tent listening in. The title of my talk was the same – “Where have all the women gone? Women in computing: what’s the problem, why should you be bothered, and what can we do about it?” – but I deleted a whole load of words from the slides, added more information about the psychological data on gender differences, and added quite a few jokes to the actual speaky part of the talk.
The crowd was hugely friendly but I was rather nervous all the same, having never spoken at a festival before. So I think I swore a lot more than I usually do when talking (usually I try not to swear at all when I’m giving a talk, but this time that kinda went out of the window). I don’t think anyone got offended though. At the end of my talk I invited some women from BCSWomen and MzTek up on stage to participate in a panel debate on the questions – one of the key things, in my mind, about this area is that there are loads of different ways to be a woman in computing. My ideas aren’t the only ones and my perceptions aren’t necessarily right; I’ve read a lot of books and been to a lot of conferences, but I’m just one voice in this. I think that aspect of the session worked really well, and there were other people in the audience (notably Anthony Finkelstein AKA professor serious, dean of engineering at UCL, Paula Graham of FLOSSIE, the women in open source group, and a couple of women from edinburgh hackspace and from the drupal women’s group but I didn’t catch their names, sorry) who piped up and contributed to what turned out to be a very lively debate.
Me, mid-talk, thanks to mrsully on flickr
We had to close my session on time as the big name was speaking on the other stage at 5; I got the impression the debate could have ran and ran but I really wanted to hear Ben Goldacre, and I’m fairly sure most of the rest of the audience did too. He spoke on Big Pharma, to a packed tent, and I got the impression that he really liked the nerd audience too. It’s really hard to get people angry about the lack of an appropriate regulatory framework, but if that’s your aim we were a good audience to try with!
Somewhere behind the sea of backs is Ben Goldacre
One of the really cool things about the weekend was the way in which everyone just chipped in and helped out. They called for volunteers before the festival so I signed up for a 3h bar shift on the Friday night. I figured it’d be a nice way to help out and also to get a feel for who was there, and I wasn’t wrong. The bar was well stocked with real ale, caffeinated drinks, and a couple of bottles of wine and lager. When I arrived for the start of my shift, they were recompiling the till code. Yes it was that kind of nerd-fest:-)
A load of beer under the M1
One question you might be asking is: how did they get network and power to a festival site? Well the comms team were awesome and there was a massive mast carrying bits to and from the tent. Around site networking and power? Well not everything that looks like a portaloo is a portaloo…
As well as a series of talks, there were workshops where you could learn all sorts of stuff. I missed out on the signup for the blacksmithing workshops (that filled up super quick) but I got to the learn to lockpick workshops and the learn to solder ones. I hadn’t realise soldering was so easy!
Me learning to solder. Also the dorkiest photo of me ever taken, thanks to Ben
Another really cool thing about the festival was the way there was so much interesting stuff going on. On the Sunday, I caught up with my friend Lucy at the “Knitting for non-knitters” session, then decided to stroll over to the M1 for a beer; a walk of about 500 metres. It took me two hours. First I got stopped by someone who’d been in my talk and we chatted about women in computing for twenty minutes. Then I got distracted by a guy with a home-made theremin so I played with that for a bit. Then, in the queue for the loos (actual loos, not dataloos), I got chatting again about the women-in-tech stuff. Then I bumped into a guy with a quadrocoptor, which you can see in the short video below. Then I watched the blacksmithing for 10 minutes. And only then did I finally get to the bar:-)
A guy with a quadrocoptor
Other cool stuff included a glow in the dark dinosaur, a retro-gaming tent complete with 10 foot tall pacman and ghosts, a hypnotism show, music hackspace people making electronic noises, talks on beer, music recommender systems, the semantic web, bees… In all, an amazing weekend. I will be back in 2014 and I’ll be doing more cool stuff; now I have the time to plan.
Driving away from the site on Monday morning I fell to wondering if we’d all still be doing this in 20 years time. I can imagine conversations like “Are you going to EMF 2032?” “Nah, it’s not been the same since Microsoft started sponsoring it“. And I’ll be able to say “I’m going. I spoke at the first one, don’t you know.“