What is so Frightening About Women?

This week history has been made – for the very first time, in Saudi Arabia women have been allowed to vote and to even stand as candidates. For an ultra-conservative nation it is a huge political landmark, particularly now that the Kingdom can boast its first female councillor, Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi.

The elections however have not escaped criticism. Some have called the elections ‘window dressing’, others have noted the gender divide that has continued throughout the election campaign, in line with Saudi Arabia’s strict rules – female candidates are not permitted to directly address the male electorate, nor are female voters permitted to use the same polling booths as their male counterparts. Similarly, commentary to the elections has focussed on the fact that women cannot even drive themselves to the polling stations, perhaps preventing some would-be voters.

Whilst the above appears discouraging, particularly in consideration of the many obstacles that women still face in the country, it is nevertheless progress – the sense of achievement felt by many women voting and/or standing in the election should not be underestimated.

It does however beg the question what is so frightening about women, not just in Saudi Arabia, that we are still campaigning for female rights?

In a lot of poorer or developing countries, females face gender discrimination – in China, the one child policy is linked to sex-selective abortion, in India female literacy rates are much lower than male literacy rates, in Latin America the murder rate of females is so high that it has its own name, femicide.

The developed world also has its problems – Britain is still in its infancy when it comes to female emancipation, it was only in 1928 that suffrage was granted to all women over the age of 21. There are also disputes in Hollywood over the gender pay gap, highlighted by Jennifer Lawrence. At a UN talk, Emma Watson also advocated the HeforShe campaign which fights for gender equality, and for the support of men in achieving this globally.

For campaigns to be successful you have to have support, but you also have to understand why things are as they are, and why certain groups want to keep things that way. Which brings us back to the question, what is it that people/groups/organisations/cultures find so disturbing or indeed difficult about gender equality?

The answer is varied: for some it is plain sexism and misogyny, for others it comes down to a lack of resources (ie. money) to fund education and equal opportunities, it might also come down to shifting deeply ingrained mass cultural attitudes towards gender roles, to comfort and safety, or even to plain and simple fear that women might start asking questions and challenging boundaries.

Whatever the answer, we would do well to remember that it’s no good sitting on the sideline. There are some amazing women doing amazing things, but for gender equality to happen we all have to work together, and education is key to this.

~One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world ~ Malala Yousafzai


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The Surprising Legacy of the Soviet Union #Kazakhstan

The legacy of the Soviet Union. For many this will conjure images of communism, bleak architecture juxtaposed by imposing statues of Lenin, and economic stagnation. The legacy of the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan however, paints a very different picture.

For those of you unaware of Kazakhstan, it is the world’s largest landlocked country, neighbouring Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Photo credit: elsevier.com


As early as the 18th century, Kazakhstan was of interest to the Russians, and by “by the mid-19th century, they [Russia] nominally ruled all of Kazakhstan as part of the Russian Empire“. It was also “the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991″.

Despite the Soviet Union’s heavy hand in culture of every kind, usually in a repressive manner, it also at times promoted film for the illiterate, socialist realism (expression of some kind), and during the late 50s and 60s censorship was diminished. In the shadow of post-soviet life however, nowadays Kazakhstan is largely associated with human rights abuses and it’s autocratic political system.

But there is another side to the Republic that may surprise you – perhaps in a somewhat warped continuation of the Soviet Union’s fascination with culture and art, Kazakhstan promotes the wide availability and easy access to the arts, everything from ballet to opera to classical music. Not only this, but theatre productions, classical recitals and dance performances are incredibly affordable, not to mention of a high quality, and free of the social class connotations found in a lot of western cultures.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union a mere 24 years ago, Kazakhstan occupies an astounding position – many contemporary artists, theatre people and those involved in the arts have noted the culture that is growing in Kazakhstan, singling it out as an exciting place to be.

For anyone who’s curious, here is an interview with Ersain Tapenov, and a quick guide to Almaty’s 10 Best Contemporary Galleries and Museums.

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The Dual Face of Medicine?

The history of medicine is undoubtedly fascinating, from prehistoric trephination, to the discovery of antibiotics, and the synthetic pharmaceutical revolution of the 20th century.

Nowadays medical advances are no less interesting, though more highly specialised. Recently there have been a number of cases that have received  a lot of media attention, namely the world’s most extensive face transplant. The surgery took 26 hours and over a hundred members of staff to complete – the end result is astonishing. Photo credit: New York University Langone Medical Center.

Another high profile case involved a paralysed man – after “nerve-supporting cells” were injected into his severed spinal cord, Darek Fidyka was able to walk again, promising hope for others suffering from paralysis. Even new research into the treatment of cancer using antibiotics is indicative of how far medicine has come even within the space of a decade.

Naturally however, ‘medicine’ is vulnerable to exploitation, and it is perhaps more subversive that previously imagined.

Consider for example the normalisation of non-essential cosmetic surgery, pseudo-scientific/medical jargon that has become a marketing tactic, and the increase in self-medicated drug use*.

In the US, UK and the EU, cosmetic surgery and advertising is regulated to varying degrees, but regulated nonetheless. With self-medication, the rules are different, particularly when it comes to ‘medical’ products bought over the internet. More often than not, these products are not regulated and contain dangerous substances. In other words they carry huge risks, with none of the medical expertise that properly prescribed treatment offers.

One particular ‘medical’ product that has garnered much attention recently is unregulated diet pills, which promise to drastically help with weight-loss. Despite the dangers, namely harmful industrial chemical ingredients such as DNP, there have been numerous cases of these drugs being taken, and the end result being death. What is perhaps more frightening however, is that this knowledge and information is available, yet people still choose to take the risk as highlighted by the Eloise Parry inquest.

This issue is not limited merely to the availability of dangerous ‘medical’ substances, but extends to shifting attitudes about health more broadly. We live in society where, as the saying goes, there is “a pill for every ill” -or at least in theory. Contributing to this is a culture of medicalisation, or pathologising. By this it is meant that certain ‘complaints’ have been presented as legitimate medical issues, that in actuality would not have previously received medical attention – see the phenomena of pathologising normal.

Is there anything we can do about? Perhaps not, it will remain difficult to regulate over-the-internet pills for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the dangers of pseudo-medicine and to raise awareness of them. Equally, human nature dictates that we like having labels as it makes things seem more manageable, thus it seems unlikely that we will stop creating ‘labels’.

* This is not necessarily a bad thing, it “has many potential benefits” but “collaboration between doctors and pharmacists will be critical”.


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Why do Languages Sound the Same?

Across the world there are thousands of languages, some of them living, some of them dead. Each is incredibly complex with its own grammar structure, vocabulary, phonetics, semantics and idiosyncrasies.

Arabic is unlike French, which is unlike German, which is unlike Russian, which is unlike Mandarin and so on. But just how unlike one another are they?

That might initially seem a strange question, but the more languages you hear and learn, the more similarities (rather than differences) you notice*. Perhaps most obviously you will find cognates. For example…

English and German – Learn & Lerne, Bed & Bett, Beer & Bier, False & Falsch

Russian and English – гитара & Guitar, Европа & Europe, субъект & subject

French and Spanish – respectable & respetable,  aquatique & acuático, préparation & preparación

German & Russian – вода́ & wasser, сестра́ & schwester

But some similarities run deeper than mere sound. Not only can certain languages be incredibly similar grammatically speaking, but inevitably there are groups of languages that share the same linguistic origins (also known as ‘language families’).

As different as they might sound, Russian and other Slavic languages have the same Indo-European background as English, French, German. The Sino-Tibetan language family also links Chinese, with Burmese and some Thai dialects. Whilst  Austroasiatic languages stretch across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and beyond.

Will this make learning a new language any easier? No, but for a nation that has a reputation for poor language learning, it can make it seem a lot less daunting, and hopefully a little more interesting!

Heck, you probably know more Russian/Spanish/French/German than you thought you did, without even trying!

*Polygots often comment on this, claiming that learning a new language is easier the more languages they have under their belt.

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Speak Up or Stay Quiet

Complete and all encompassing censorship. It’s what every culture should fear, and if they don’t then they should.

It’s also a particularly apt point of discussion given that the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill in the UK has attracted a lot of attention recently. If accepted, details of one’s internet history could be stored for up to a year, unlike now warrants will not have to be obtained for security services to access this information either. Whilst this bill is proposed as a security measure to make Britain safer, and in some cases assist in missing person reports and other crimes, it has the potential to be misused, data to be hacked (take the latest talktalk scandal for example), and personal privacy to come under threat.

The future envisioned by Orwell in 1984 seems to grow ever closer – surveillance has become the norm. But should it be? – Certainly the participants of Hunted think not!

Now, that is not to say that surveillance doesn’t have its uses. However, as extreme as it may sound, the ever-increasing involvement of the State in our personal affairs is unsettling, and nudging us closer to a police state. It is sometimes easy to forget that we are in an incredibly privileged position unlike those in China, or North Korea – it is because of this that we have to ask ourselves what our privacy means to us, and whether we are willing to sacrifice it?…

We have already laid the foundations for self-censorship – labels can sometimes be thrown around at the drop of a hat, prohibiting some people from speaking out about certain issues. Similarly, comedy which has always been on the front-line of breaking down political taboos, as well as socio-economic issues, has faced intense scrutiny over the last few years as the media and the public grapple with “how far is too far?”

We are in danger of feeling unable to speak up, and serious important conversations being stifled. Roger Scruton, in an article entitled why people shouldn’t feel the need to censor themselves, argues that this self-enforced censorship can be as restrictive and damaging as Government enforced censorship. After all isn’t it a lack of communication and informed knowledge that leads to ignorance?

The choice is clear: we can either speak up and fight for our privacy and freedoms, or we can while away our privileged position until it no longer exists…

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Climate Change: Fallen by the Wayside

Climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it, is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. In and amongst the news of terror threats, poverty, economic concerns and crime, it is also usually the first to fall by the wayside. Coupled with mounting evidence of climate change’s devastating effects, it seems almost absurd that this is the case – even the slightest change in temperature can have a huge impact on agriculture, wildlife, and the food chain itself.

The explanation as to why it appears to fall by the wayside in the first place seems simple enough – global warming is for many not as an immediate a threat as organisations such as ISIS, nor does it have the emotional impact of heartbreaking images and stories of those living in poverty, or the outrage factor that serious crimes carry with them.

Think about it for just a moment: the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference is currently taking place in Le Bourget, but how much do you actually know about it? Who is attending? What are the goals that have been set out?

As a brief summary, here are two of the main goals of the meeting:

  • To limit global temperature increase to 2°C above ‘pre-industrial’ levels, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • To stand by commitments made in 2009 and 2010 for developed countries to jointly raise “$100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change”.*

As a step towards this, “each State was to publish its own INDC, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”” – according to the UN, 170 countries have done so, “representing 93% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.*

But is this enough? In all honesty, probably not. It is however a massive step in the right direction, particularly now that China and the US have stepped up their efforts – China aims to “reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% by 2030, from 2005 levels“.

It is also worth noting that to tackle climate change, there also has to be a change in attitude. Many of us recycle our cardboard and plastics, many of us also think twice about picking up a bag now there’s a 5p charge, but how many of us take an active interest in global warming, and how it will directly affect us? I imagine far fewer, myself included.

The thing is, climate change has already started to affect us however indirectly – Storm Desmond is just the latest incident of flash flooding and extreme weather to have the UK this year. And so perhaps it is time we paid closer attention to UNFCCC, to how we can better manage our own energy usage, and in turn encourage others in the UK and beyond to do the same before it is too late.

*United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change here.

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NaNoWriMo, Time & The Arts

Every November thousands of people from across the world participate in NaNoWriMo. The challenge, to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. At first it sounds nigh on impossible – after all it’s a tall order for anyone, especially if you’re balancing work and family life at the same time. Despite being run since 1999, there’s still a surprising number of people who have never even heard of NaNoWriMo and this is a real shame.

Why? Because a lot of us don’t make time for creative outlets, be it writing, music, filming, dance or anything else for that matter. It is also why challenges such as NaNoWriMo or the 48hr Film Challenge gain such momentum – it gives people a time scale, a goal and perhaps most importantly a community to support them with their creative project.

This support is crucial as choosing to pursue something in the arts can often be met with criticism or a lack of encouragement – perhaps it’s time to change that attitude. More and more research points towards creative outlets being good for the mind, The DANA Foundation found that arts training improves attention and cognition, whilst a study from Germany suggested that “‘the production of visual art improves effective interaction’ between parts of the brain”.

Even if you ignored this research, the value of arts and culture to society still seems blindingly obvious. Not everyone will be the next Picasso, Mozart or Stephen King but if at the end of the day they have something to offer the world, how can it be anything but worthwhile. In essence, challenges such as NaNoWriMo highlight the need for more opportunities to get involved with a creative project, and a push for time spent on such projects to be valued.

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Have We Forgotten How to Enjoy Ourselves

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s not surprising that many of us forget to let our hair down once in a while. In fact, an extraordinarily high percentage of us report that we are more stressed than ever before. So you would think that the weekend couldn’t come for fast enough for many of us, or that any time spent away from work would be spent relaxing, right? Well, perhaps things aren’t so simple anymore.

Temporarily disregarding financial and family pressures, more and more of our free time is spent using social media – everything from Facebook, to twitter and Instagram. But what has that got to do with stress, and more to the point what has that got to do with forgetting how to enjoy ourselves?

Recent studies have shown a high correlation between feelings of insecurity and high social media usage. This is perhaps due largely to the comparisons we draw between our own lives and those of others – we are constantly bombarded with pictures of people out and about, enjoying social events and updates about what people are up to. In many ways platforms such as twitter, Facebook and Instagram are merely ‘highlight’ reels of an edited reality, but all the same these updates are constant and convincing. And so in turn, understandably many of us like to post regular updates about our own lives, share where we’re going and with whom. This in itself isn’t wholly problematic, but the cycle of constantly comparing, constantly competing, is – humans are in essence social creatures, we crave interaction with one another and as human nature dictates, we are also prone to envy. Cue pictures, posts and updates as we try to prove that we are also having just as much fun as everyone else.

Remember the last time you were out socially…chances are, at some point you were stopped by someone to take a picture, which shortly afterwards was posted on social media. Or most likely you were tagged in a Facebook post, alongside all the other people you were out with, detailing how great everything is. It’s almost like making sure there is evidence for all the fun you’re having, whilst simultaneously interrupting the fun. It makes no sense. Remember the last concert you went to…how many people were stood there watching it through a screen pointed towards the stage? The answer, too many. It’s as though we’ve forgotten how to simply enjoy ourselves and to enjoy the moment exactly as it is.

Obviously there is some dispute as to whether increased use of social media does in fact cause stress – one such study by the Pew Research Center argues exactly that. But irrespective of whether you believe that social media can cause additional strain and stresses, the fact remains that more and more of our lives are uploaded to social media. Maybe we ought to remember to put down the phone, disconnect from the internet and slow down to enjoy the moment at least once in a while. Who knows, you might find you like it?…

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AI, The Uncanny Valley & The World’s First Cyborg

Over the past few months the news has been awash with stories concerning the rapid development of AI. Just recently, in a study conducted by Professor Selmer Bringsjord, a robot passed a self-awareness test that should have only been possible for humans – this alone stands as a landmark within the field of robotics and AI.

Naturally, these developments have raised concerns over the future of AI and what this fundamentally could mean for humans, not only socially, but economically and politically. With the creation of artificial intelligence comes unclear, and ever-shifting ethical boundaries – when does AI cease to be machinery and instead become recognisably human? This is an interesting, but also scary question that in many is impossible to answer. Some will argue that AI will always remain AI, that even the most developed piece of technology will always have something missing that is fundamental to the human spirit. As AI learns to be self-aware and develops feelings, others strongly disagree and argue that this is the point at which we must treat AI differently – it has a mind, and thus it has rights. In other words, AI looks set to be an ethical and legal minefield in the future.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, what about those that are already using technology as an extension of themselves – chimeras, or rather in this instance, cyborgs. How do we recognise these people? And why is our opinion different towards cyborgs, than it is towards AI?

Below is a video of Neil Harbisson, a self-declared cyborg who has a surgically implanted visual scanner that allows him to hear colour. Harbisson describes the antenna as a body part, and actively encourages others to extend their senses and knowledge by becoming cyborgs.

The way that Harbisson explains colour and sound is incredibly fascinating. He can create sound portraits, feel colours and detect the infra-red spectrum which is impossible for a human.

So why is it that, although more than a tad strange, Harbisson does not feel threatening. Perhaps it is because we feel as though we can appeal to his human nature, that the ‘machinery’ is merely a part of him but at his core is a human that can be reasoned with, a person with whom we may have shared experience. Now compare this to AI – like cyborgs they are (or will be, in the future) both machine and human, similar to cyborgs. Suddenly they feel threatening, dangerous and something to be treated with caution. Why? This comes down to substance – by this it’s meant that cyborgs are genetically human but have adopted AI elements, but for AI in the future, they are fundamentally bits of machinery that have adopted human elements. The worry will always be that this machinery is dominant part of AI, that it could override the human element at any point.

These concerns are also exacerbated by AI aesthetic design. A leading professor in the robotics field, Professor Masahiro Mori, first identified the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ in AI, though it was not termed specifically as such until Jasia Reichardt published Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction in 1978. The ‘uncanny valley’ refers to the supposition that as a robot is made to look more human, the observers’ response to the robot will become increasingly positive until a point at which the observer begins to feel unnerved or repulsed by the robot’s human appearance. As it becomes increasingly distinguishable from a human, the observers’ response is increasingly positive once more.

Uncanny Valley Graph

A graph depicting the ‘Uncanny Valley’

This hypothesis is entirely plausible. Think about it, there is something unsettling about the Terminator and I, Robot, not to mention the ‘synths’ of Channel 4’s Humans.

Whilst these characters are at this point fictional, they may well be the future in some form or another. So, should we be worried that one day AI might supersede humankind? It is a valid concern, and one that should not be taken lightly. As AI is developed, it’s not hard to see why some believe we are playing God with the creation of life. With this comes a lot of responsibility, and we might one day find ourselves accountable for developing something that cannot be so easily contained, if at all.

This is for the moment entirely hypothetical, and for the most part a largely negative view of how AI could benefit us. Used appropriately, AI has the potential to take on jobs that would otherwise be dangerous to humans, for example working with nuclear material or radioactive substances. One day they might even be of benefit to those with care needs, allowing people to remain independent with the help of AI around the house.

Ultimately, AI will be here to stay – but humankind has always been drawn to industry, development and experimentation, the only difference being now we might one day create something in our likeness…

In other words, yes AI will change the boundaries of what it means to be human, how the legal system works and society in general, but let’s not write it off completely – instead it seems only fair that we approach AI’s development with appropriate caution, but also with ambition and enthusiasm. This is the future we’re talking about after all!

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#MAWRT, the 2015 Rugby World Cup & Disability Sport

Today sees the last of the Rugby World Cup 2015 pool matches, and the tournament is in full swing. Thousands have travelled to the UK to be a part of the 48 match contest, and it’s not hard to see why – the atmosphere is great, the quality of sport high and the stakes even higher.

In a small town in West Yorkshire, the stakes were equally high throughout August as the first ever Mixed Ability World Rugby Tournament took place.

Although the hosts Bumbles RUFC didn’t win, the tournament was an overwhelming success with over 400 participants, and teams competing from 10 different countries.

A few years ago, events like this were rare. Not only because of a lack of awareness amongst the majority of people about disability sports, but also in some cases due to lack of funding, or limited knowledge of disability sports that took place in local areas. With the 2012 London Paralympics having raised the profile, popularity and support for disabled sports (2012 was the first Paralympics to have sold out), disabled sports have enjoyed a renewed sense of enthusiasm within the UK.

At times, the inclusion of disabled sports has been hard fought – take the model for #MAWRT, unlike the Paralympics the tournament the “Mixed Ability Sport is not about classifying levels of ability and separating disabled players into different tiers” but instead sets out to encourage “social inclusion by mixing “able-bodied” volunteers, coaches or tutors who act as facilitators or helpers to guide players on the pitch”.

Hopefully events such as this have set a precedent for disabled sports more widely, and support for them will only grow. For those that are interested, you can watch a documentary charting the origins of the Bumbles,  England’s first mixed ability Rugby Union team, here – Flight of the Bumblebees. Or you can check out Sport England’s website for further details concerning disability sport.

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