Hard News by Russell Brown

Sportronic in Beige

So Adam, who's a dustie, had had the intuition to cut open a bag he'd lifted and save the Sportronic 4 from oblivion. The rotten old batteries were replaced, Simon knocked up an RF lead and - yes! - we had a working model of New Zealand's own games console.

I can vaguely remember the Sportronic from when I was at school in the 1970s - I think some rich kid must have had one. Michael Davidson, keeper of the very cool Obscure Pixels site, has an original poster, and another one here, although it's not clear whether he actually has a working example.

Adam's Sportronic is a different model from those in the posters - it's beige all over, and offers four different Pong-style games: Solo, Squash, Tennis and Soccer. You can toggle bat size and the speed and angle of the bounce of the ball. In actual gameplay, there is but one control: a knob for each player. There are no handsets, so you're up close and personal when you play head-to-head.

We found that the Soccer game was easily the best. The rear and forward "players" have different roles. Your back man needs to cover the angles, while your forward needs to get up and in your opponent's face. Achieving both with a single knob is fairly challenging, especially after a couple of beers, and we had some excellent matches.

The Sportronic was built by Osborne Professional Electronics, for Sportronic TV Ltd, a division of The Spectrum Group, 82 Symonds Street, Auckland. I couldn't find any record of Osborne Professional, but both the Spectrum Group (founded 1966, wound up 1992) and Sportronic TV Ltd have been struck off the New Zealand Companies register. Intriguingly, Sportronic TV, founded in 1976, wasn't removed until last September.

Does anybody have any more of the story? New Zealand's own games console is a fairly significant item of Kiwiana - especially with the beige thing - and I'd love to know more.

Firing up the Sportronic was an excellent way to follow up watching the Warriors' nail-biting 17-16 finals win over the Canberra Raiders, and we stayed up rather late in the house on the hill over Wellington.

I was in the capital on account of an invitation to address the New Zealand Skeptics' conference; no small commitment given that the night before I'd been at the bNet New Zealand Music Awards, which, with the exception of a somewhat iffy PA system (there was plenty of it, it just didn't seem to project much), was yet another riotous and robust celebration of local culture and the bNet ethic. Scribe and the D4, as you might expect, really rocked the house. I'm seriously looking forward to their new albums.

So, after wisely passing up on the awards after-party, I got myself to Wellington the next morning (it wasn't easy), and did my speech, which I'll post once I've updated it with my last-minute jottings and maybe added some links.

The Skeptics themselves were lovely: a mostly older crowd, often from scientific backgrounds, many of them attending as couples. They have a little bit of an image problem - which might in part be put down to their past media spokespeople - but they struck me as very decent people who like to ask questions rather than taking things on trust.

There's the odd light shade of autism present (and, with autism in the family, I can say that in a loving way) and I was pinned against the wall in earnest discussion for the entire 30-minute coffee break that followed my speech, but that was okay.

I stayed around for the address by Lynley Hood, author of the book on the civic crèche case, A City Possessed. Hood is someone with a headful of facts, and not a natural public speaker, but the day's concluding presentations, from Victoria University's Maryanne Garry and her graduate students, were absolutely riveting.

It can be difficult to grasp the idea that anyone, child or adult, can "remember", in detail, something that never happened, but the series of presentations on various experiments with memory, involving both children and adults, showed quite how easily that can happen. Factors that can produce such memories include repeated interviews on the same topic, interviewer bias and the sidelining of or failure to accept "incorrect" answers. All of these factors appear to have been at play in the conviction of Peter Ellis.

The great problem is that false memory is forensically indistinguishable from real memory: it can't be reverse-engineered in pursuit of the truth. There was discussion of the fact that real abuse does occur, and it's neither ethical or viable to go back to the old practice of regarding children as intrinsically unreliable witnesses. The only thing you can do is strenuously avoid practices and conditions that tend to produce false memories.

I can't say Peter Ellis is innocent - I simply don't know enough about the case. But I do feel confident in saying that the "no new evidence" objection to a sweeping review of what went on in Christchurch is a red herring. I do believe that the crèche case, from the original complaints, to the interviews, police conduct and the use and selection of expert witnesses, needs to be examined from top to bottom. It's important, and I don't believe that anyone who sat through the presentations I saw on Saturday would believe otherwise.