Saturday 8 December 2018

[originally posted on FB]

I thought it was probably a send up when someone said a popular daily newspaper had castigated Dr Who along blatantly racist and sexist lines, but as I like to check out the source material for these claims I took a look. Guess what? It didn’t stop at race and gender, it took a pop at the disabled too.
The DN (as I will call it - the Daily Newspaper) tells us it is speaking up for the poor beleaguered ordinary citizen who, they infer but never say, has not the wit or the gumption to speak up for (or indeed think) for themselves.
What are Dr Who’s sins by DN standards?
After an intro that makes clear this article does not approve of anything about the new series, we are invited by implication  to mock these aspects:
A “stridently feminist” lead with “extraordinary engineering skills” (a woman good at engineering?! In this day and age?!) Add a “racially diverse cast” (shock horror?! In this day and age?!) but not just that, it gets worse. Alongside the “strident” feminist is a “black actor” playing a “dyspraxia sufferer” and another black actor playing an “Anglo-Asian police officer”.
And the bit that made me laugh. It was reference to the “token white middle-aged male”. I mean how can anyone – the subtext reads – even consider watching a programme that is not at least 99% middle-aged white male. Aren’t middle-aged white males the effective majority in much of life. Well yes, DN, they are, and just look what an f***ing mess they’ve made of it.
Oh and the DN doesn’t spare the “token white middle-aged male” because “even [he] is a cancer survivor”. (Oh no, not a portrayal of a cancer sufferer in a TV drama!? Hadn’t we plumbed the depths with trying to portray a dyspraxia sufferer as normal i.e. not totally and constantly defined by his condition?! Whatever next?)
The Doctor herself we are told is “too busy preaching to fight aliens”. It seems the DN at this point was frothing with too much rage to notice that this declaration was the header for a paragraph describing the Doctor’s encounter with “psychotic alien Tzim-Sha” in an earlier episode.
The thing is, they weren’t frothing about the programme pretending that the world isn’t entirely made up of white middle-aged males at that point, they were frothing along different lines, so didn’t spot the anomaly.
Apparently (I didn’t see the episode), the strident feminist had tried to stop the murderous alien by persuading him to reform. It doesn’t work and she was “forced to resort to more drastic action”.
“More drastic action”? Well well, suddenly mealy-mouthed about spelling it out? So I’m assuming that the “more drastic action” could not have been described as “forced to resort to murderous violence with comprehensive collateral damage such as would have been perpetrated far sooner by real men” i.e. the proper white male middle-aged role model seen in so many male-dominated films, programmes and computer games, and not the ‘strident’ woman making out that she’s good at engineering whilst surrounded by a cast of non-white no-hopers.
It doesn’t even stop there, the article froths ever more wildly as it goes on. Dr Who has wide appeal (the DN clearly hates that) and it’s peddling the idea that it’s not the winning that counts. It doesn’t quite say: how dare a programme watched by so many children peddle the idea that losing doesn’t make them worthless pieces of shit for the rest of their lives who should know their place and kowtow to their bigger, stronger, richer, whiter, non-disabled peers whilst being grateful for any crumbs that come their way, unless they have the luck to tip into that elite category at some point, in which case they’d better learn to despise the non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied pretty darned quick or they’ll be thrown out of the club.
But it does say, “To the delight of risk-adverse snowflakes everywhere, the Doctor is a firm believer in the maxim, ‘it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part’.” But give them a bit more leeway and they’ll be spelling it out.
The article ends on the racist seam where it began. The programme has “found room for ... ONE middle aged white bloke” [their emphasis]. They’ve done this “in a bid to prove” they are the “most inclusive show on television”.
Actually, they are one of the most popular shows on television. And what the DN apparently can’t stomach is to have a popular show peddling the message that non-white, non-male or non-able-bodied does not mean inferior being. Wow, all that vitriol! All that pathetic insecurity. All that longing for the good-ole 1950s. White middle-aged male power feeling under threat, is it? Who’s the snowflake now?
I have not linked to the article. They get enough exposure, but here's a book by an actor from previous series which is especially interesting in this context as his recollections really contradict the DN's frothy inadequate attempts to reminisce about days gone by.

My Dalek Has A Puncture

Thursday 29 November 2018

Impressed by the U3A

I confess to having known little about the U3A prior to the spring of 2017 when, following attendance at an event in Hornsea East Yorkshire, I was invited to speak to the Hornsea branch. The invitation was for a date almost 18 months ahead. The U3A is nothing if not organised.

My philosophy on “giving a talk” is basically that that is not what it’s about. I am not “giving a talk”. I am “giving a talk to a specific audience”. There’s a huge difference.

There are people who keep a bank of talks that they roll out in the various places where they are asked to speak. On the face of it, that’s a real time saver as it avoids the need to create a brand new talk every time, but in my experience, where that strategy works, it works because the person with the Talks Bank does not take them out and use them completely off the shelf. They customise them to suit the audience.

The truth is that a badly judged or ill-fitting talk shows. It becomes clear early on that the speaker knows nothing about their audience and that their talk is pitched slightly askew.

For me it is akin to an invitation to join someone in their home for something like a bridge evening. If I walk in, slump on the settee and refuse to join in other than to drink their coffee and eat their biscuits, I am an impolite boor. If I venture the excuse that I don’t know how to play bridge, I only play whist, then I’m also an idiot. Want to play whist not bridge? Then don’t accept an invitation to a bridge party.

Back to the U3A. I’ve given talks around the world to many different groups on many different topics, but this was my first to a U3A group. I had a vague notion of their origins and philosophy and looked them up to learn more.

The U3A is a thriving international movement that originated in Toulouse University in France in 1973. Third Age University groups in France sprang up, usually attached to a local university, working closely with them in terms of specialist teachers and opportunities for joint research.

As the U3A idea spread, divergent models developed. In the UK in the 1980s, the U3A model was developed as one of peer-learning and self-help, where local groups, such as the Hornsea U3A, are autonomous and self-funding but retain their links and pay a membership fee to an overarching coordinating body that provides access to a vast range of resources. There is now a global network of universities of the third age coordinated by an international organisation.

My talk landed at the point where the local committee had had a significant change of personnel. There were many plates spinning on many sticks as the new guard took over from the old; my long-arranged talk was but a tiny pinprick in amongst the many things that had to be organised. Yet the joins hardly showed. I doubt I’d have noticed at all if I hadn’t had it explained to me by someone concerned that some frayed edges might show.

It all went remarkably smoothly. I was welcomed in, the technology worked, the timing was impeccable, interesting questions came my way and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. My talk was entitled: Contemporary Crime: the problems of researching the present.

It was my first U3A experience but I hope it won’t be my last.

Learn more about Hornsea U3A here
Delve deeper into Buried Deep and come unstuck in Syrup Trap City, just two of the novels I used to illustrate my points.

Thursday 1 February 2018

I Used to Be: Believably real voices from the two very different women protagonists

I Used to BeI Used to Be by Mary Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but beware it will pull at the heartstrings. The depiction of grief is raw. It’s the story of two women, brought together by chance, very different from each other. All they seem to have in common is that each is as much an outcast as the other. Maude is in her 70s. Kayleigh is barely in her teens. Both voices are authentic. It comes as a surprise to learn that this is a first novel, though the author is clearly an experienced writer. It’s quite a short book, but it’s compelling; it follows an emotional rollercoaster of a journey but is ultimately uplifting.

View all my reviews

Thursday 25 January 2018

Everybody Shrugged: A timely tale of government overreach with Pythonesque overtones

Everybody ShruggedEverybody Shrugged by Walt Pilcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s advertised as a tale of government overreach on steroids. And it is! Pilcher's humour is Pythoesque, but the story unfolds with a terrible feel of inevitable internal logic that you can only stand back and watch. Obsessions, self-interest, naivety, corruption and plain malice play cat and mouse as the characters and factions jockey for position, each chasing their own absurd goal, and all rushing unaware towards an outcome that none of them could possibly have foreseen.

View all my reviews

Thursday 18 January 2018

A portent of parental problems

Today I’ve been incapable of writing the word ‘parents’ (even had to go back and correct that one). Every time, my fingers spell out p-a-r-t-e-n-t-s, autocorrect helpfully (not) makes it into portents.

Being away from home and with the wireless keyboard doesn’t help. I type happily then spot that nothing is happening on screen. Is it just being slow; will several lines of prose (matchless, natch) suddenly spill out, or has it lost concentration and attached its focus elsewhere?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my wireless keyboard, so does my back. I can sit properly and not have to hunch over the keyboard attached to the tablet, but it has its downsides. When I first turned it on and began to type, my phone sprang to life. The keyboard adores the phone and will connect to it in favour of any other device.

But despite some issues along the way, it has been a godsend. It must be at least a decade old. It’s an Apple one, but very sociable; it’ll speak to any device in range. Took me ages to figure it out when its love affair with my phone first began. ‘I can’t type anything,’ I cried in despair. ‘I can’t text. What’s the matter with this phone?’ It was the keyboard, inside its case, inside the laptop bag, in the cupboard at the other side of the room, murmuring sweet nothings and giving the phone full access to all it’s characters.

Some of those characters have themselves begun to show their age. They can stick. If I want to write the letter A three times in a row – aaagh! and the like – I must be gentle, or I’ll get a whole page and a far longer scream of anguish than I originally needed before I can persuade it to stop. The real devastation comes from the backspace delete key. Make the mistake of holding it down to get rid of a dozen or so words and it’ll fly through the entire manuscript like a demented reverse Pacman eating everything in its path. That’s not a mistake I’ll make twice.

And now on with the chapter containing all the p-a-r-e-n-t-s.

Thursday 11 January 2018

The art and craft of thinking

Part of my day job is to introduce large numbers of students to the world of higher education via a short series of workshops that runs across a single term. The ‘visible’ part of this is guiding new students around the physical and administrative complex that is a university, but by far the more important part; that part that will (I hope) stay with them forever is to challenge their views on how they think.
My end game here is for the students to develop habits of thinking critically and objectively, of putting aside their own prejudices and preconceptions and assessing evidence for what it really is, and not for what they might be expecting to find.
The following is adapted from a taster that I present to the students at the start of their course: a means to start them off on a critical journey. Take a look at the following cartoon:

·         Which one of them is right?
·         Are they both right?
·         What if one of them says to the other, "Just because you are right, that doesn't mean that I am wrong," - is that valid?
·         Are they both equally right and wrong?
In fact, one of them is probably wrong.
Someone might have painted that number on the ground from a particular orientation for a particular purpose. It might signify important information - a distance or a weight limit. It's possible that interpreting it the wrong way would lead to catastrophe.
At this point, neither us as readers nor the cartoon characters themselves have enough information to know who is right.
How would they find out? First they should stop their pointless argument, because they do not have the facts and will get nowhere. They could then back away; they could orientate themselves with surrounding buildings or a nearby wall, look for other numbers to line up with this one; or they could ask someone who knows more about this than they do.
This process of finding out more is research. It’s the process by which we progress; it’s the reason people no longer die from smallpox; the reason we can travel vast distances in hours; the reason we can communicate with people on the other side of the world in real time; the reason we know so much about our own history. 

Research is a skill that everyone should learn. And hand-in-hand with this is something else to learn: Research is something you do before you decide you know the answer.
Along with learning how to research, is learning how to avoid this "6 or 9" situation. You do it by questioning, by not taking things at face value, by stepping back and taking an objective view. Question what you hear and what you read. Is this true just because it 'seems obvious'? Is there another way to look at it? What is the aim of the person who is saying this? Do they have credible evidence to back it up? Are there other people who have investigated it and who have more in-depth information?
Look beyond the soundbite!
Why is this important? In declaring six or nine, the characters in the cartoon are each stating an uninformed opinion about something they have not investigated or thought about. They each proclaim that they are right and consider their opinion to be valid. But without evidence and facts to back it up, an uninformed opinion is not valid and can be very dangerous. 

Think about this the next time you watch a discussion programme. Are people stating opinions without backing them up? Are they providing evidence? Is the discussion's moderator doing a good job about highlighting evidence or the lack of it or is s/he giving equal weight to facts and uninformed opinion? 
Uninformed opinions can be dangerous.
Suppose an aircraft is grounded for a serious mechanical fault.
·         Engineers: This plane is not safe. It cannot take off.
·         Airline management: We can't afford to lose the money. It will be fine.
·         Engineers: Here are the results that show that this component is likely to fail with catastrophic effect.
·         Airline management: Here are the statistics to show that there has never been a plane crash on this route. Can you say with 100% certainty that there will be a problem?
·         Engineers: No, because these things are never predictable with 100% certainty, but we can say that the chances of the plane crashing are high.
-- the discussion continues -- Should the plane take off without repairs? And if it does, would you want to be on it?

In essence this was the argument that took place behind the scenes before the catastrophic failure of the Challenger space shuttle. The engineers expected it to leak fuel and blow up on the launch pad. In fact, the leak happened but the freezing conditions plugged it for just over a minute and the craft exploded soon after take-off with the loss of everyone on board.
As a result of the investigation and subsequent report, procedures were changed so that a management decision could never again overrule a safety issue. 
Thinking about your opinions is important. Why do you believe one thing over another? Are you basing your views on evidence or on something else, maybe your like or dislike of the person who is saying it? It is an interesting exercise to stop and think about the way you form your opinions.
It is often said that 'everyone is entitled to an opinion'? I say, not so! I say that you can hold the opinion that a certain breakfast cereal is the best because you enjoy it the most, but if you want to hold the opinion that your favourite breakfast cereal is a more healthy option than any other cereal, that is only valid if you can back it up with credible facts.
The journalist Jef Rouner has more to say about this in his article, No, it's not your opinion. You're just wrong.
Food for thought. What do you think?