No Degas: life drawing with strippers

Despite getting an E in my A/S Level mock, I still like to draw as a hobby. Not seriously enough to watch YouTube videos on using charcoal (a smudgy mystery), but enough to take part in the occasional drawing class.

One excellent, if expensive, class is Wild Life Drawing, which is exactly what you think it is. A few weeks ago I was drawing salamanders in a cafe by Regents Canal.

Here are some of my doodles, though these are in fact all copied from internet pictures:

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Why I pay for myself on first dates

A strange, and slightly one-sided article in the Guardian caught my attention recently. It asked ‘young straight men’ to explain why they paid for first dates.

The piece is pitched at a US audience, which is important to know from the off I think. Judging by my conversations with American friends, they approach dating much more casually and comfortably than the Brits do.

Tech entrepreneur Obinna Emenike is quoted, and his thoughts really jarred me. I am what he refers to as the 5%, one of a tiny proportion of women who absolutely insist on splitting the bill on a first date. This is what he has to say about us, emphasis mine:

“I am worried. If I think the date is going well, and you over-insist on splitting it then it will make me question myself. I might come to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to feel like she owes me anything.”

Emenike’s quote resonates with me more than any other in the Guardian piece because it is at the crux of why I don’t allow strange men to pay for me.

Why – on any date – would you want to imbue a woman with a sense she owes you anything? And what kind of a victory, if victory is how you view it, is obligation sex?

What I also find strange is that none of the regular churn on first date etiquette addresses how peculiar it is to have a stranger make a monetary-based judgement of you.

I mean, a guy on a first date probably doesn’t know me. At the end of the first date, he still doesn’t really know me, though he might know I like gin better than whisky, and that I’m a monster at pub quizzes. So it’s no compliment to my personality that he’s offering to pay….it’s something else. A compliment to my looks, maybe, which shouldn’t be expressed in money. Or else a forcing of my hand, before I’ve worked out whether I’ve been dealt a flush.

The end of the first date shouldn’t be a battleground, but the outcome sets the tone. For me, it’s less to do with financial equality – because women aren’t financially equal yet – and more with exercising my agency. My choices, and the way I make them, are more subtle than your £20 note, so put your wallet away.

So, who really nicked my Virgin Atlantic story?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a bile-filled post after spotting that Mail Online had taken a Marketing story of mine about Virgin Atlantic extending its trial of Google Glass and other technologies.

Not only had the Mail taken the story without attribution, it had lifted entire paragraphs wholesale, a practice which legitimately should get a reporter fired.

I called out the journalist, John Hutchinson, and kicked up a stink on Twitter where, luckily, quite a lot of journalists hang out who don’t like to see this kind of thing happening. It’s been hugely reassuring to have the backing of my fellow tech journalists.

Through these efforts, and some real behind-the-scenes digging by a good friend of mine at the Mail, I discovered that the Mail hadn’t directly plagiarised my piece.

Instead, it was sold to them by a newswire service I had never heard of previously, Specialist News Services. This is how the company describes itself:

We are one of the country’s leading press agencies, providing stories to the national press, consultancy services to the PR industry and media training, help and advice to a range of companies and organisations.

I contacted SNS directly and had a quick response from co-owner Mark Solomons, a man who proudly lists Jimmy Tarbuck telling him to fuck off as a highlight on his LinkedIn profile.

Solomons apologised and explained the plagiarism “wasn’t deliberate” which…well frankly I find hard to believe. I have seen the original copy of SNS’ story and the entire story is lifted. Not just fragments or quotes, but every paragraph is a direct copy of mine. Here’s their version:

Passengers on Virgin Atlantic airline could see check-in times cut as staff use hi-tech Google Glass headsets to scan flyers’ passports.
They will also use mini-printers to print off boarding passes.
The airline is set to extend its wearable tech trial, whereby Virgin Atlantic staff wore the smartglasses and Sony smartwatches to greet passengers and supply tailored information ahead of their flight.
The trial was used for its first class passengers, but will now be expanded to general check-in areas.
David Bulman, chief information officer, said: “We are going to start with Google Glass, but we are trialling a number of different glasses.
“We’re trialling apps that allow staff to take a picture of your passport, which then works with our systems to find your booking and other information.
“We have done trials with printers that sit on people’s belts, so that we can print off boarding passes.”
Virgin Atlantic is still firming up the details and has yet to decide where the trial will take place and how long it will run.
Virgin Atlantic is also testing wearable tech within its own operations, Mr Bulman said, such as smartwatches for ground staff and facial recognition technology.
Virtual reality could be a cheaper, more convenient way to train up cabin crew, for example.
Virgin Atlantic pioneered flat beds and on-demand entertainment on flights.

I pointed out the similarities to my story for Marketing in my previous post, but you can compare for yourself (registration required).

What angered me most was how SNS offered me an eloquent apology, but no solution. I replied that plagiarism is a firing offence, and that I wanted not simply an apology, but some kind of attempt to make good. SNS eventually agreed to credit me or pull the story – I chose the credit.

Through the efforts of my friend, the Mail Online’s assistant editor had given me a call separately to discuss giving Marketing a link and credit on John Hutchinson’s piece.

This is probably about the best outcome I could have hoped for at this stage, but the whole episode was more stress than I needed. I know others have been plagiarised that don’t have the same connections, and so don’t even have the small consolation of a credit after the fact.

If I’m honest, my journalistic ego was the driving force behind my anger and my actions. But I do think episodes like this do raise questions. Should newspapers acknowledge agency copy? I went after the Mail’s John Hutchinson, believing him to be the primary plagiarist. But because the Mail don’t credit agencies (it’s not the only publication), there is no way I could have tracked it to SNS without extra help.

I’ve also namechecked SNS because from a commercial perspective, they’ve done a pretty shitty thing. The Mail will be paying SNS for access to wire copy, so rightly has an expectation that that copy isn’t stolen from elsewhere. This also damages Haymarket, Marketing’s owner. Like many publishers, Haymarket offers a syndication service – meaning if you want our copy you damn well have to pay for it.

An open letter to John Hutchinson, the Mail Online journalist who plagiarised me (updated)

UPDATE – 14.53pm

A friend at the Mail has done some digging, and it turns out a news agency has taken our copy without permission or attribution. We have no relationship with this agency, and I have asked our editor to investigate. I have seen the agency’s original copy, and it’s almost a word-for-word reproduction of our story.

I have heard from John himself, and in terms of the Mail Online’s involvement, it was a case of taking the agency’s copy and building on it. That means passages lifted by the agency from Marketing’s story do appear in the Mail Online’s story, if unintentionally.

Again, I leave my letter below as is. Newsrooms approach the issue of taking wire copy differently and there is certainly a question over whether it’s good practice to indicate what comes from agencies, and what doesn’t.

UPDATE – 13.30pm

I’ve been told the plagiarism issue may be down to an agency taking our copy, but we’ll have to wait until Monday to find out. I stand by the original letter below, since agency copy or no, it appears under a single reporter’s byline.

Dear John Hutchinson –

I’m writing an open letter to you about your plagiarism of my work.

You don’t know me, but you’ve certainly seen my byline. I’m Shona, I’m a senior reporter for Marketing. Unlike you, apparently, I go to an awful lot of effort to secure original journalism you won’t find anywhere else. One of your colleagues, Taylor Lorenz, likes to claim something similar about the Mail Online, but you and I both know that isn’t true, don’t we?

You say in your Twitter bio that you’re a sport and travel journalist for the Mail Online. I’d certainly argue with one of those claims after reading your “story“: “Could check-in times be cut thanks to Google Glass? Virgin Atlantic extends trial of technology to scan passports and provide flight information”.

That story stems from Marketing’s interview with Virgin Atlantic’s CIO, David Bulman, who told us that the airline was planning to extend its Google Glass and smartwatches trial. He threw in some extra detail about Oculus Rift that you won’t find elsewhere too. (Here’s Brand Republic for the non-paywalled version).

Every piece of actual news in your Mail Online article is taken from Marketing’s interview without credit. You also lift quotes directly from our interview without a mention of our publication or hyperlink.

Oh, you’ve also plagiarised whole paragraphs of our story. I captured those on screenshot, so let me go through those one by one, though I’m sure it’ll all look familiar.


Marketing’s copy:

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 02.11.04

Mail Online’s copy (in red)



Marketing’s copy:

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 02.24.16 Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 02.24.31

Mail Online’s copy



Marketing’s copy:

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 02.39.55

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 02.39.01

Mail Online’s copy:


I don’t know if you understand the definition of plagiarism, John, but I suggest you look it up. It’s got your employers into legal hot water in the past, and it’s also got several journalists fired.

This is an open letter for several reasons – the Mail Online has a history of plagiarism, and so I’d rather make as much noise about this as possible. I flagged this up on Twitter to you directly yesterday. Your email address isn’t listed on the Mail Online website, and neither is Martin Clarke’s, the site’s publisher. I can’t find a relevant email address for “contact us if you think your copyrighted work has been copied without attribution”. And when I try and leave a comment under your article pointing out your plagiarism, this is what happens:

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 12.35.52

I look forward to your, or your editor’s, response.

Yours sincerely,


PS You’re very welcome to repost this letter. Just link back to my site.

Sci-fi teaches you what it means to be human, not to fear technology

The most effective science fiction makes us reflect on the ills of society, not where future inventions will go wrong

Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.
– The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

A strange article popped up in Wired this week, where Michael Solana calls for an end to dystopian sci-fi on the grounds that it’s making us all scared of technology. Meandering through examples like Battlestar Galactica and the Hunger Games trilogy, he calls on budding sci-fi authors to invent technology heroes, rather than villains.

It’s true that we look to sci-fi in literature, TV and films to examine how we can remain human if the machines ever come for us. We examine what it is to be human under the most extreme circumstances — the destruction of the planet in Battlestar Galactica, humanity’s end days in The Time Machine, and the replacement of human emotions with synthetic alternatives in Brave New World.

According to Solana:

While innovation has improved our lives in almost every way imaginable, people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been. And after Battlestar Galactica, can you really blame them?

As a long-time reader of science fiction and sort-of-long-time reporter of tech, I say BS.

Solana leads on the claim that “…in the 21st Century, the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence”, citing the website Think Artificial.

The source of this claim is an informal online poll with three possible answers to the question: “Do you, for some reason, fear the current and/or future increase of artificial intelligence?”. The results were as follows:

  • 16.7% Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening (1002 votes)
  • 27.1% No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening (1632 votes)
  • 56.3% I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology (3366 votes)

Just 16.7% of the poll’s participants actually came out and said they found the technology itself frightening — hardly “overwhelming” or indeed representative of your average American. What was overwhelming was their fear of how humans might misuse technology, and there lies the main issue with Solana’s argument.

Salona picks on Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series I’ve recently had the pleasure of rediscovering through Netflix. Battlestar isn’t really about how the human race would survive if the robots took over, though that is the ostensible setting. Intelligent machines are simply a strong dramatic backdrop to explore current-day issues such as the freedom of the press, military ethics, religious conflict and democracy. I can’t believe anyone watching the series would be blind to the parallels in our own society. None of those issues have anything to do with robots.

Another is the Hunger Games trilogy, which I don’t deny is difficult to read with any optimism. But the books are light on technological innovation and its negative impact on humanity, which is what Solana seemingly takes issue with. The main causes and catalysts of human misery in the Hunger Games are war and politics — tech’s just a sideline.

To argue that tech is generally the enemy in dystopian sci-fi is, I think, to misunderstand the finest works in the genre. These tend to explore contemporary issues, in whatever guise, alongside imaginative leaps into what technology can do to help or hinder those problems. To write a story about an innovation itself isn’t very interesting. To consider the moral, human dilemmas that spring from that innovation is. In short, dystopia makes for good sellable fiction because — as this journalist well knows — bad news sells.

Solana doesn’t see it that way:

Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.

This comes dangerously close to calling for a clean-up of fiction. And maybe it’s just my dystopia-washed brain at play here but there’s another word for what Solana’s calling for: it’s called “propaganda”.

This post first appeared on Medium.

The Secret Door: Google Maps and instant teleportation (sort of)

I’ve recently been using Google Maps street view for the mundane purpose of scouting out property locations. Thankfully, there are people out there with far more imagination than me who have built The Secret Door, a lovely little project that makes use of street view to transport you anywhere, instantly. Virtually, anyway. Click below to try.

The Secret Door

The Secret Door is presented by Safestyle UK

(Hawk-eyed observers will note that this is a clever piece of marketing for…a doors and windows company.)