How We Use Words: Blog Action Day 2013

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Language evolves. It’s a fact of communication; words twist, change and merge, they take on new meanings and become adopted by different groups. Gay, surf, wicked, computer, all words used by our forebears in very different ways. Heck, thirty years ago, who’d’ve thought that ‘Google’ could mean ‘search’?

How we use words is important. They often shape our actions, shape how we see others and yes, how we see their rights.

An example: go online, find a post or a video in which a woman says something even vaguely feminist, or even simply reasonable. Now look below the line and wait for the first rape threat. When the hell did such a heinous crime develop its own culture of jokes and attitudes and badly written ebooks? And what impact does that have on reporting rape, on the lives of rape survivors, on a medium where threats of violence and sexual assault are commonplace?

Maybe we should have seen this coming, at least since not being racist ended up being described as “political correctness gone mad” and the idea that employers shouldn’t accidentally kill their workforce is sneeringly described as “health and safety” (cue eye roll).

All this has an effect on human rights. Okay, maybe in the civilised west we’re not herding people into concentration camps at the moment, but the language we use eats away at the lives of those around us: female journalists and activists leaving Twitter because of no effective way to report people threatening to blow up their houses? Immigrants seeing themselves described in newspapers as a flood, a tide eroding the very foundations of the country? “That’s gay” has become a synonym for “that’s stupid”, so how does that impact the phrase “they’re gay”?

In the UK, even ‘human rights’ is subject to this. Linked by politicians and media to frivolous law suits, the government is talking about repealing the Human Rights Act. The message given is that human rights legislation protects terrorists, not, for instance, hard working families. Now don’t get me wrong, we should always be considering if human rights legislation is fit for purpose, but watch the language used. Human rights aren’t trivial. Human rights aren’t frivolous. And we should rage against language that turns rape into entertainment and individuals as somehow less human than ourselves. Because language can inspire action, and sometimes we deny the humanity of others through the very words we use.

Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Gayla Benefield

Not many girls studied Mechanical Drawing in Libby, Montana. Gayla Benefield was the first. She was also one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right about the town; people seemed to have trouble breathing, too many middle-aged men seemed to be using oxygen cylinders. Life expectancy turned out to be way below the national average; both of Benefield’s parents died young.

Turns out that Libby had been contaminated by asbestos dust from the local mine that formed the bedrock of its economy. Nearly half the town has been affected by asbestos related cancers. This is an obscene statistic; mesothelioma took my father, a tiny asbestos fibre entering his lungs as a young man, then, thirty years later… Put a human face on Libby’s situation and it’s truly horrific.

Yet, as Margaret Hefferman points out in her TED Talk on the subject, it’s an example of wilful blindness; until Benefield starting asking questions and raising the alarm, the idea that Libby’s air and trees and playgrounds were toxic was… Ignored? Unknown? Suppressed?

Ironically, it’s Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate those women in science who were – are – ignored, unknown or suppressed. We might argue that we’re enlightened now, but look at how men dominate media punditry in science (to the extent that an organisation like HerSay is necessary). Look at how even a noted, successful scientist like Richard Dawkins is more than capable of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sexism.

I’m not sure if , in the strictest sense, Gayla Benefield counts as a woman in science and technology – she was working as a meter reader when she started to get suspicious about Libby – but there’s something scientific about spotting hidden patterns and connections, in asking questions and following a lead to its conclusion. And, sadly, there’s something of the history of science in vested interests turning a blind eye to evidence presented, even when the consequences of this are fatal.

Gayla Benefield saw those patterns and dared to speak out; despite the everyday sexism afflicting the media and society as a whole, there are thousands of women working in science and technology, trying to unravel the connections between our observations and yes, save lives. Thank you, ADW, for helping us start to look beyond our wilful blindness.

Getting Our History and Future Back: Some Thoughts on THAT Doctor Who news

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It was TV’s razing of Alexandria – the BBC, in order to save money, decided that it would be a smart idea to wipe the masters of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army and Z-Cars. Logistically it makes a sort of sense – this was an age before VCRs and DVDs and MP4s, and TV was ephemeral, made to be viewed once and once only. Culturally, however, it was a crime.

It’sDoctor Who – analysed, examined, collated Doctor Who – where this loss is most keenly felt. We don’t have landmarks like William Hartnell’s last story, or the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, or most of Patrick Troughton’s run. There’s a 106 episode hole where the sixties should be.

That changed at midnight, officially at least: nine of those missing episodes have been found in Nigeria. It’s the great birthday surprise of the 50th anniversary, and it will be celebrated as a restoration of the show’s history, but it’s not that simple.

Among fandom the show’s core texts are known as the canon, but it’s a pre-Council of Trent canon where no-one’s entirely sure what counts. And, because so much is missing, received wisdom takes hold. Stories that haven’t been seen since older fans were watching grainy black and white broadcasts at the age of seven are known as classics because of a single memorable image, or because the novelisation made it into a lot of libraries, or because an actor cites it as a favourite.

This means that fan wisdom is mutable – stories are downgraded from classic status as various fans mature or lose their influence, or, in rare instances, when a lost story is found again. Everyone held up ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ as the awesomest thing ever until it showed up in Hong Kong and everyone got to watch it. Now the perception is very different.

So the discovery of ‘Web of Fear’ and ‘The Enemy of the World’ doesn’t just restore the show’s past, it helps secure its future. Doctor Who has a fantastic tradition of fan involvement and so the community, both the people making the show and those watching it, are going to be all over this; I already suspect the production team knew what was happening, based on a least one recent story decision. This discovery doesn’t lock history down or preserve it in amber; instead it’s going to inspire debate and discussion and arguments, blog posts and cosplay. We’re going to see nine new episodes, effectively; we thought we had them pegged but now we get to see them with new eyes.

It also gives hope that there are more discoveries still to be made. After all, yesterday there were 106 missing episodes; now we’re down to double digits. It may be overly optimistic to expect more, but Doctor Who has a weird habit of defying the odds.

So happy anniversary, everyone; now let’s get ready to enjoy Yeti in the Underground again.

(Shameless plug: I’ve got more posts on Doctor Who here

Vote for the Padley Centre

I don’t normally do this but a local charity, the Padley Group, is potentially in line to receive a £3,000 grant from Lloyd’s Bank. They support local people through both accommodation and specialist support, tackling a variety of complex needs such as homelessness, substance abuse, long term unemployment and mental health issues. If this is something you’d like to support, you can vote for them at this link. Voting closes on November 1st.

And I promise to update this blog in the near future!

The Memories of 9-11

9-11 now seems to inhabit a historical hinterland; far enough away for us to be able to place it into some sense of context, but still recent enough for tears and loss. In a talk given for TED earlier this year, designer Jake Barton spoke about the challenge of designing exhibits for the 9-11 Memorial Museum, realising that visitors wouldn’t just be spectators of history but participants – the survivors, the bereaved, the first responders. It’s a haunting, moving talk that’s well worth checking out, showing ways in which a community can preserve its stories, and how museums can react when the first draft of history is still a thousand painful memories.