The danger of a single story

Chimamanda Adichie makes several important points in this talk, but here are a few excerpts that really struck me:

  • “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
  • “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state,and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
  • “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I think this is a conversation we need to have, as many times as it takes, until it becomes more than a thoughtful sentiment. As a journalist, I find it frustrating to know that people and places will always be more complex than my representations of them … but if I can someday become skilled enough to represent nuance itself, then at least I complicate the single story.

As for the speaker herself, it’s worth highlighting that Chimamanda is a well-spoken, humble and brilliant women who has the unique gift of capturing so much in so few words. In many ways, I consider her a kindred spirit (if I may be so bold) when it comes to her worldview. One of my favourite examples is her answer to the question, “how would you like to be remembered?”

She answered: “As a person who tried to be honest and who tried to be kind—and who often realized the difficulty of being both at the same time.”

Know Your Digital Rights, Photographers

You want your shots seen and used. But Creative Commons and copyright have you confused. Read on.

Lewis Kelly sat in front of his computer drumming his fingers on the desk. The university student wanted to change the copyright settings on his Flickr pictures, but the transition wasn’t as straightforward as he’d hoped.

“Why is this so confusing?” muttered Kelly, who goes by the username oncethiswas on Flickr. “The interface is so counter-intuitive.”

Kelly had started by clicking on the help button, but the drop menu didn’t mention copyright settings or how to change them. Next, he went to the FAQ page, where he was confronted by 33 different categories of questions. Eventually, he found something that looked promising: “How can I copyright my photos?”

He read that in most parts of the world, including Canada, creators are automatically granted copyrights to their photos, all rights reserved. But Kelly, who has a nascent interest in contributing to the intellectual commons, did not want all his rights. He wanted something other than the familiar circled C beneath his pictures, and Flickr — a powerhouse of photo sharing — seemed an appropriate place to waive some of his rights for the benefit of others.

In Canada, Flickr is the most popular website that is expressly dedicated to storing photos in image galleries (The Tyee has its own ‘Flickr pool’ of readers’ photos of B.C.). More generally, the site is just shy of the top 20 most visited websites in Canada, ranking 25th in terms of overall traffic. Unlike other photo repositories like Facebook, where many indiscriminately upload photos to share within closed networks of friends, Flickr has more of a reputation for attracting both professionals and talented amateurs with more artistic intentions.

Sharing on your own terms

Since 2004, Flickr has allowed users like Kelly to waive some of their rights through a non-profit organization called the Creative Commons, which aims to expand the collection of creative work available for the general public to build upon and share.

Currently, the Creative Commons offers six different licenses made up of four core elements (please see the side bar). All of the alternatives are more permissive than Flickr’s default setting of full copyright. The licenses compartmentalize ownership rights so creators can be specific in the ways they wish to share their rights—but knowing which license to select requires some deliberation.

“I’m not sure which license to pick. There’s six of them,” said Kelly as he read through the paragraph descriptions of each license. Ultimately, he settled on an Attribution (BY) license, which allows others to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt his photos for both commercial and non-commercial purposes so long as they attribute the work to him in a way to which he consents. It’s the most permissive option.

“I’ve used the Creative Commons and breached copyright so often, the least I could do is remove the threat of litigation for other people who want to use my work,” explained Kelly, who admits his dinosaur avatar on Flickr is probably copyrighted.

By making his Flickr pictures more accessible, Kelly has added to a growing resource. There tens of thousands of photos available under Attribution licenses like Kelly’s, and hundreds of thousands licensed under all six alternatives.

“We’re really happy to finally be able to provide Creative Commons licenses,” reads the Flickr blog dated June 29, 2004. “As individuals and as a company we wholeheartedly support and endorse the Creative Commons’ mission and hope to help contribute to the preservation and enhancement of creative freedom and personal expression.”

full story here

The science behind a climate headline

In 4 minutes, atmospheric chemist Rachel Pike provides a glimpse of the massive scientific effort behind the bold headlines on climate change, with her team — one of thousands who contributed — taking a risky flight over the rainforest in pursuit of data on a key molecule.

So, I’m starting a project for one of my courses–namely, Climate Change in the 21st century with Stewart Cohen–and I’m really interested in how media representations of climate change inform (or misinform) the public conversation. This is obviously an overly broad topic at this moment, however, my preliminary research is already turning up some fascinating stuff.

Pike’s brief talk has given me a glimpse at how much work can go into a very specific scientific pursuit. How do you fairly represent this kind of work  in a daily news story? How do you make it interesting and accessible in a feature?

Anyway, as a non-scientist, such a massive concerted effort was beyond the purview of my imagination. This clip helped me put things in perspective. It’s worth a watch.

The Pain of Attention in a “googleable” World

Two long-suffering students, Prateek and Adriana.

Thus people habituate themselves to let things pass through their minds, as one may speak, rather than to think of them. Thus by use they become satisfied merely
with seeing what is said, without going any further. Re-view and attention, and even forming a judgment, becomes fatigue; and to lay any thing before them that requires it, is putting them quite out of their way. —Joseph Butler

Ten minutes ago, I googled “the pain of attention” + “philosopher” because I wanted to craft an eloquent response to “The New School of Google,” an opinion piece published by The Tyee. (I’ll marinate in my own irony later.)

In the article, Nick Smith asks “Why make students memorize facts easily found on the Net?” and then argues that we must change how we teach children in the age of search engines and instantaneous answers. Critical thinking skills, he proposes, will be much more valuable to a generation that will ask questions for which we do not yet have corresponding answers and quick facts.

Reader, I hardly expect you to read the original article. So, instead, I’ll do the following:

Continue reading

Call off the Pap Rally?

After years of needlessly conducting countless Pap tests and subsequent follow-up exams on low-risk women, North American health organizations are finally moving to replace antiquated cervical cancer screening policies.

Wait a minute…what? Antiquated? You mean women don’t have to make annual appointments for those awkward and uncomfortable tests? Can we get a cheer going?

Don’t gimme a P! (P)
Don’t gimme an A! (A)
Don’t gimme a P! (P)

(Well, not as often anyway.)

According to an article in today’s Globe and Mail– “Cancer experts call for reduction in Pap tests” –Carly Weeks puts forth the notion that we may be booking more paps than we actually need.

North American women are often advised to get their first screening at the age of 18, and to do a test every year after that. But apparently, more screenings don’t necessarily result in lower disease rates.

Even though Weeks highlighted some guidelines for screening, her article made it apparent that there are still some inconsistencies that may confuse women. Check ‘um out:

Continue reading

Step aside, Alpha Male


Image by Flickr user Bob.Fornal

I want to try and draw some parallels, but before this is possible we need a common text.

This fascinating podcast is about a community of baboons that Robert Sapolsky, biologist and neurologist, studied in eastern Africa. (It’s not long, and well worth a listen.)

Here’s a very basic summary:
  • The podcast opens with the increased percentage of people who don’t believe human beings will ever stop waging war because “it’s in our nature.” Just one of those sad but inevitable things we can’t change.
  • We then meet Sapolsky’s study subjects, a community of “textbook” baboons. The group is highly-aggressive, hierarchical and dominated by alpha males.
  • A tourist lodge opens up nearby and a different group of baboons stops foraging and starts feasting on cakes, hamburgers, etc, everyday.
  • Sapolsky’s group discovers the dumping ground and wants in on the free-for-all. The tougher males fight their way into the food dump every day, for years.
  • One day, some of the baboons start getting really sick. Turns out they’ve consumed contaminated meat and contracted tuberculosis. The disease  kills off most of the aggressive alpha males.
  • Sapolsky is devastated by the deaths of his alphas. He also starts to observe changes in the clan. The beta males start doing things the alphas never did, like grooming the females and even other males. He figures the study group has been scientifically compromised by a freak event and moves on to a different clan.
  • Six years later, Sapolsky visits his old group. To his amazement, the less violent culture remains! This despite the fact that the community is full of new males that grew up under the “old world order.”
  • Surprisingly, the new males adapted to the relatively peaceful culture of the group instead of trying to become the new alphas.
  • Lots of theories are thrown around, but the idea of hard-wired and inevitable aggression is called into question, especially because this more peaceful baboon behaviour has now lasted 20 years.
  • Many behaviours thought to be hard-wired changed, and very quickly!
  • The podcast ends with a question: can this scenario teach us something about the human potential for change?
Now, my own anecdote comes in.