Porphyria Awareness Week

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

S is for Soft Landings

Fictionland has some weird physics. Most notably, glass and water in Fictionland behave nothing like these substances do in the real world.

Fictional water has an amazing ability to break falls. Characters plunging headlong off bridges or being pushed out of helicopters are regularly saved by splashing into water and emerging sodden, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Similarly, fictional glass windows and sliding doors shatter on impact, allowing characters to burst through with only a couple of scratches at most.

Water is actually quite dense, and as anyone who's bellyflopped off a diving board can tell you, slamming into water at speed hurts. Multiply that by the height of the villain's airplane, and you've got a recipe for broken bones and ruptured organs. That said, trained divers and stuntpeople can move their bodies in order to enter the water in a way which minimises impact, and make spectacular leaps into water from a great height.

Window glass is similarly hardy. Movie glass is actually made of sugar so that actors can crash through large sheets of it with ease. It is not recommended to try jumping through glass to make a dramatic exit or escape. And for the sake of realism, maybe keep your characters from doing it as well.

Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Reefer Madness

If you believe the news, the general teenage population seems to have a death wish. Every few months, the youths discover some dangerous new hobby and it takes off like wildfire, placing the future of society in jeopardy.

Obviously, society has yet to implode, even though there are. It helps that a lot of the trends-- and a lot of the danger-- are at least partly fictional. Ironically, though, the Everyone Panic Now scare tactics often have a quantifiable effect on the real world, and it's exactly the opposite of the one they intended. 

The best-known example is the anti-drug scare campaign D.A.R.E., which has been found in several large studies to be either utterly ineffective at preventing drug use, or worse, actually increase the probability that someone will do drugs. But there are dozens of other instances of moral panics throughout human history, covering everything from worries over excessive tea consumption to Satanism.

While some of these panics have roots in real dangers, a great many of them are the stuff of pure fiction. Unfortunately, the consequences can run twofold. First, panic over the exaggerated or fictitious threat leads to bad policy decisions. One notable case is the many people falsely accused-- and sometimes imprisoned for--Satanic child abuse. Second, the imagined threat can actually make the jump from speculation to reality, as people rush to try the dangerous, thrilling thing that everyone else is allegedly doing.

We are emotional creatures, but we also need to remember that fiction and news media deliberately play on those emotions.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Happy Easter

Wishing a blessed Easter to all of you who celebrate it! To everyone else, enjoy the springtime!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Q is for Quicksand Traps

In Fictionland, it's highly advisable to watch your step on any surface that looks remotely sandy. About 3% of all films made during the 1960s-- the peak of the trope-- show someone sinking in quicksand. The trope has lost its popularity somewhat, but still appears regularly in adventure films and TV series, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Depending on where you live, quicksand is a rare but real danger. Furthermore, depictions of desert quicksand far from an obvious water source are not entirely implausible:  moving, aerated sand can have similar properties to liquid quicksand, as can large volumes of pouring grain. However, there are some key bits of misinformation that crop up in fiction which will do you no favours if you fall in. Here are the facts:
Now you can consider yourself one step closer to B-movie survival preparedness. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

P is for Prostitutes

Prostitution inhabits a strange space in the collective Anglo-Western psyche. There is the lure of sex on demand. At the same time, we express disgust at sex workers as 'soiled' women. Finally, a widely accepted upper-class feminist perspective is that sex workers are helpless, ignorant victims of the patriarchy who need to be rescued. These ideas get distilled in media representations to give us the Disposable Streetwalker. She's on drugs, has no education and no prospects, a sordid, tragic past. She usually ends up the victim of the Killer of the Week on detective stories, or is otherwise background to show how gross and seedy the setting is. This, fiction tells us, is what sex workers are. No exceptions.

Much has been written about how these ideas influence public policy, and also influence the behaviour of law enforcement and social workers who regularly interact with sex workers of various kinds; however, their perceptions are partially the result of direct experience. But the influence of fictional representations drives the perceptions of sex work among people who have never met anyone in the sex trade. The result is legions of internet feminists advocating policies to criminalise sex work and 'save' prostitutes and other sex workers, who are framed as desperate women with no prospects, about to be victims of crime.

Of course, some drug-addled streetwalkers exist, but they're not the only face of the world's oldest profession. Far more common are temporary strippers and escorts-- educated men and women who enter the industry to get through financial rough patches, and exit when their monetary needs have been met, no rescue required. There are also specialists who carve out lucrative fetish niches, people who find the work genuinely enjoyable, or people who simply find sex work to be the best of their job options and treat it with the indifference of the average office worker.

Obviously this isn't to say sex work isn't a physically and emotionally high-risk career. It's both. There are a good many people who are stuck doing this work due to a lack of options. But part of the problem is public perception fueled by fiction. If the public perception was expanded to humanise sex workers (instead of using them as stock 'Victim of the Week' or 'Kind Hooker') and show a diversity of experiences, this might guide a more nuanced discussion and better public policy for both people who desperately want to flee the sex trade and for those who actively choose to stay.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for OCD Neat Freaks

About 1-2% of the general population has OCD, or about one in every five hundred people. Although the disorder is fairly uncommon, it's gained a higher profile in recent years, due to mental health activists, increased medical understanding of the illness, and portrayals in popular culture.

Those pop-cultural representations, however, are a mixed blessing. While characters with the disorder are not portrayed as villainous (as people with other psychiatric conditions often are), the incorrect portrayal of symptoms can cause a great deal of confusion both for people with the disorder and those who are trying to understand it. 

Fictionland's OCD inhabitants are unvarying in their symptoms. Every single one is obsessed with neatness, order, routine and cleanliness. In reality, only about a third of people with OCD have obsessions related to germs or cleanliness, and only ten percent have obsessions about symmetry or tidiness. In fact, up to a third of people with OCD are compulsive hoarders.

And contrary to popular culture, outward compulsions are not a defining feature of the disorder. Typically, they are just a mechanism for keeping the primary anxiety and obsession at bay. In fact, it's estimated that between half and two thirds of people with OCD have the 'purely obsessive' subtype, in which people do not act out any rituals. 

If you're curious about the disorder, the Wikipedia page is a good starting point to gather information. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

N is for Nostalgia Bias

'We need better, less offensive history!'
--Leslie Knope

Much like privileged writers of the 19th century romanticised the early days of colonialism and the native cultures they encountered, there is a pattern in the 21st century of romanticising upper and middle-class English and Euro-American life 18th and 19th centuries. This era is portrayed as a gentler, more civilised time, when men behaved like real gentlemen and everything was prettier and quieter and less banal.

The truth, of course, is much messier. Viewing a small slice of the past by studying the lives of a relatively privileged subsection of the population will yield a distinctly rose-tinted picture. Furthermore, limiting your study to materials produced from that group will mean you see their own idealised self-portrait. Through that filter, we miss what struggles and fractures within that society-- and every society has them.

Painting an entire era as the 'good old days' does a deep disservice to the people on whose backs the 'good' was built. Your genteel 19th century southerners or Regency Londoners probably owe their relatively luxurious lives to hundreds of Caribbean and American slaves. Your noble samurai rely on an army of serfs to do their bidding. But as a writer, you're also missing out on the chance to tell a far more interesting story. We've seen the romantic, sanitised version of the past hundreds of times. Studying the flaws in those societies lets you go deeper, tell a greater variety of stories, and ask your readers to think. All of which are much more fun than another discount Darcy.