What a bender

Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?

Jonathan Margolis <em>Orion Books, 296pp, £16.99</em>

A funny thing didn't happen to me on the way to this review. Three funny things, to be precise. I left a coin overnight on my bedside table to see if it would change position or flip from tails to heads - it didn't. I placed a teaspoon over the dustjacket photo of Uri Geller in the hope that it would bend - it didn't. And I followed the DIY guide to spoon bending on page 261 - without success. Now that's weird. Weird because the journalist and celebrity writer Jonathan Margolis was plagued by bizarre incidents while writing this appraisal of the Geller phenomenon. Crashed computers, broken clocks, telepathic wake-up calls, camera malfunctions, the destruction of two tape recorders . . . and by the end he was bending spoons himself as though they were made of Plasticine. A nice party piece, but scant consolation for the loss of so much expensive gadgetry.

So what does it prove, all this anecdotal paranormality? A lot, or a little, depending on our receptivity to second-hand evidence, this being one of Margolis's themes: the extent to which belief or disbelief in apparently irrational events relies on hard, scientific, rational proof. In Uri Geller he has the perfect subject. After three decades of international fame, close scrutiny in front of the world's television cameras, countless claims affirming or refuting his psychic capability, and despite tests under laboratory conditions, lay people and experts alike remain divided on whether or not the man is a fake. Geller is a bit like God, you either believe in him or you don't.

Margolis began this book as a sceptic. Indeed, this is as much a work of investigative journalism as it is of biography, although he is adept at mapping out Geller's fascinating path from childhood in Israel and Cyprus to a superstar lifestyle in the US and Britain, as well as undercover work for the CIA and Mossad.

It was an encounter with a mysterious bright light in a garden in Tel Aviv which, Geller believes, gave him his paranormal powers. He started with feats for friends and family - altering watches without touching them and, of course, the stuff with the cutlery - before developing more sophisticated powers such as telepathy, hypnotism, teleportation, dowsing and prescience. By his early twenties he had himself an act. Private parties at first, then professional shows. All the amazing wizardry of a stage magician, but with one crucial difference: he claims his "tricks" aren't tricks at all; they are the real thing.

This claim irritates magicians. To them, illusionism is an honest deceit, the creation of a semblance of the supernatural through sleight of hand, audience misdirection and cunningly designed props. Uri Geller, they allege, is a charlatan. Several conjurors base their acts on replicating his demonstrations and one prominent Canadian magician, the Amazing Randi, has obsessively attempted to expose him. Margolis gives space to this chorus of disapproval.

That this is such an even-handed and assiduously researched work is due, in part, to Geller himself. Having agreed to co- operate with what is in effect an authorised biography, he gave its author free rein to cull opinions and evidence across the spectrum. The result is something close to a definitive assessment. And Margolis's verdict? Well, he is clearly impressed by the logically inexplicable Gellerisms he witnessed for himself, as well as those he unearthed during scores of interviews. Reading them, it is hard not to be won over. It may be that this man is the greatest illusionist of all time. Or that science is simply not yet able to account, rationally, for what he does. Or perhaps he is genuinely blessed with supernatural powers. Whichever of these is true, Margolis argues with some justification that Uri Geller is an exceptionally gifted and charismatic phenomenon. What a pity, then, that in terms of popular perception he is destined to go down in history as that bloke who bent spoons.

Martyn Bedford's third novel, "The Houdini Girl", is about a magician. It is published by Viking in February

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.