Archive for December, 2010

JG Ballard on writing

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s a lot of it about. Quite why the end of the year should prompt a lot of people to find appropriate quotes I don’t know – maybe to sum up this year and look forward to the next? But I thought I’d follow the trend for once rather than try to buck it.

James Graham Ballard (1930–2009) was, as many of you no doubt know, an English novelist and short story writer whose work was often thought of as science fiction although this would be a very limited description of the range of work he published, much of it not fitting neatly into any genre pigeonholes. He will probably be best remembered for Crash (1973, which later became a controversial film by David Cronenberg), and Empire of the Sun (1984, an account of his childhood that was also made into a film by Steven Spielberg). However he wrote 18 novels and probably hundreds of short stories, and among many other things was a major influence on a whole lot of British musicians from the 1980s to date. And much of his work influenced my own younger self.

Enough of that. Things he said about writing:

  • Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.
  • Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer’s role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.
  • Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
  • Sooner or later, everything turns into television.

(I’ve never been sure if that was just an ironic comment or a warning!)

  • In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.

(I guess the implication is: write short things, not long ones…)

  • Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessels are the written mythologies of memory and desire.
  • Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.

A warning there about how what’s imagined and  written today becomes the reality of tomorrow?

And finally:

  • A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say ‘good luck’ – luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I dare say if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, ‘All you do is get on and start pedaling’.

Yes, I’m still pedaling…

I haven’t given detailed sources but if anyone’s desperately interested, the quotes are all google-able.

Looking to the future

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Just before Christmas I came across a piece on the BBC website, ‘Futurology: The tricky art of knowing what will happen next’. And I’ve spent Christmas in a pensive frame of mind, wondering what kinds of predictions we might be able to make about the next fifty or so years.

The BBC piece is based on a 1972 book by Geoffrey Hoyle that’s recently been reissued, and to some extent the predictions made in it are less to do with scientific advances and more to do with social developments.

For example the book depicted everyone wearing jumpsuits, a style that back then, with the film of 1984 still in the public consciousness, had connotations of centralised planning and loss of individual liberty. A great deal of science fiction – and I assume this well known – is less about science per se and more about social and political critique, which is often carried in such apparently trivial details. So if I were to try to make any predictions, they wouldn’t be sweeping and scientific ones, they’d be relatively modest, devil-is-in-the-detail type ones.

If you want big and sweeping ones, earlier this year the New York Daily News (23 June 2010) carried a piece called ‘A Global Status Report: January 1, 2050 – predictions of year 2050 world scenario’. Among other things this concluded on the basis of a poll that more than 71% of the US population thinks cancer will be ‘cured’, 74% that most of our energy will come from renewables, 53% that ‘ordinary people’ will travel in space, almost 90% that a woman will be president of the US by 2050, and 69% that the president will be Hispanic (there’s no separate figure for the proportion who think there will be a Hispanic woman president by that tine). Oh, and 72% see a looming energy crisis while 59% think there will be another world war and 53% a major nuclear terrorist attack on the US.

Finally, to keep matters in perspective, 41% say that by 2050 we’ll see the second coming of Jesus Christ: whether that will happen before or after the energy crisis and the world war isn’t reported.

Certain predictions are almost not worth making. For example I wrote a short story some time ago in which people had jackets and other fashion items with communications technologies – phone and video – woven into the fibres. But of course such things already exist as prototypes, as followers of will have seen.

So – my predictions? More socio-political than technological, I think.

1. Life will become more complex and interconnected, in an attempt to try to keep everything going. It will also become more random, as the resiliance of our systems against everything from the weather to volcanic ash and earthquakes to social protest and financial crises will be tested to the limit. The interconnectedness of systems will itself become problematic. That’s the thing about interconnectedness – when one system goes down, it affects everything it’s connected to.

2. Life will become more complex as rules and regulations increase. But mostly we’ll all end up ignoring the rules and regulations because they’ll become impossible to comply with, mutually contradictory, etc. We’ll find ways round them, multiple identities, whatever. Even today, a large proportion of crimes are seen on CCTV, but the proportion of crimes actually solved through CCTV is a bit over 1%. My prediction is just that phenomenon, writ large.

3. Small will be beautiful. Here’s a story. A music shop near me just closed. Trwenty years ago it was an independent store. It got bought up by a chain of stores, which was sold and re-sold a number of times to ever larger and more remote investment and venture capital companies. Eventually the local store was just a branch of a subsidiary of a company that was owned by some larger company that tried to micro-manage it and knew nothing about the music industry. So the company went bankrupt and the store closed quite suddenly. Now, round the corner from the empty shop unit, there’s a new small independent music company. That’s the microcosm; I can see a lot more of that kind of thing happening in the future.

4. Hats will become more popular. Especially ones with wide brims or veils that partly hide the face.

Any other thoughts, suggestions or predictions welcome!

Paper bags and drinking responsibly

December 26, 2010 Leave a comment
Bag from India

Bag from India

I got V a Christmas present. It came from the Amnesty International gift shop and was sourced from India. It came in an ingenious newspaper bag from a recycled Hindustan Times.

Bag from India

Bag from India

So far as the bag is concerned, it made me wonder why these aren’t used everywhere instead of plastic bags – eco-friendly with no real landfill implications.

The other thing that caught my attention was an ad in the paper that ended up on the outside of the bag.

In the UK, we have ads that urge people to ‘drink responsibly’, i.e. not go binge drinking in clubs, start fights after ten pints of lager and half a dozen vodka shots and then try to drive home.

In India, the newspaper carries an ad from a company that’s urging people to ‘drink responsibly’. The company sells water purification equipment.

Interesting cultural shift of perspective there. Interesting difference in priorities. Makes you stop and think…


Christmas lists

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

It gets me every year. Christmas isn’t a two-day public holiday but a three-week build-up, a festive campaign, a laying-in of supplies. It would, I suspect, be simpler to work out what’s needed to survive a zombie apocalypse than it is to work out what’s needed for Christmas. Or is that just me?

My way of organising myself is to write lists. Here are some I found in the pockets of my trousers and coat, on my desk, and on my computer. I’ve annotated the ones where I remember what they were about. It’s pretty random stuff but I’m bored, so I’ll share…

Trouser pocket

  • Dongle (in case the broadband goes down again. I can’t use it with my laptop because MacOS 10.3.9 is too ancient, apparently)
  • Acidopholos (sp?)
  • Pen – soft tip, high quality
  • Presents


  • Laptop story, other story (I’m writing two stories at the moment, but one is on my laptop. Which one I work on depends on whether I’m in the study or the living room)
  • Speaker (we’ve reorganised the living room, so the CD player needs extension wires for the speakers. Went to buy some but got rock salt for the path instead)
  • Tinsel (me buy tinsel for Christmas? Nope, I must have had something else in mind!)
  • Interview (me interviewing someone else in connection with another project – postponed till the New Year)
  • Suet (this was because V wants to make her own gluten-free Christmas pudding, which requires suet. As it turns out, the supermarkets only sell suet that has wheat added. Why?)
  • Pickle exploder


  • Blackboard (reminder to check the virtual learning environment for a university I work with?)
  • Tx (transfer something? But what, and to where?)
  • Soc Hsg (a reminder to get on with a project on social housing, I assume)
  • Blog (this one, I guess?)
  • Library vice (no idea! Any suggestions?)


  • HS2
  • EM detector
  • Snake keeping
  • Bad poetry
  • Harley Davidson codes (related to a previous post)
  • Macbeth
  • Gothic novel
  • Magistrates court design
  • Images of justice
  • Retort stand/clamp

Most, but not all, of the ‘computer’ ones are related to things I’m writing at the moment – I hope! At any rate I’m not buying anyone bad poetry or a magistrates court for Christmas…

Have a good Christmas, anyway!

Thoughts from a comfortable sofa

December 19, 2010 5 comments

I’ve spent part of the day looking at reports of snow and snowbound people on TV, and one thing that struck me is how often people said ‘we can’t get any information about what’s going on’. And a couple of thoughts occurred to me about the complexity of modern life.

First off, a lot of transport links are high-volume places and when the means of transport grinds to a halt, an awful lot of people find themselves in places where they don’t want to be and the number increases rapidly. Heathrow normally shifts in the order of 43 million people a year, almost 118,000 per day (I got the figure from Wikipedia). The current Wembley Stadium, by way of comparison, has a capacity of 90,000. So the scale of the problem ramps up pretty quickly.

Second, as we’ve been hearing, network problems tend to spread. Planes can’t land because there’s nowhere to put them; they can’t take off either because they can’t be moved off the stands, or because the places they’re supposed to be flying to are also closed. We haven’t been hearing much about problems elsewhere (except that other countries deal with it better, apparently – my experience has been some do and a lot don’t).

Third, there’s going to be more of this. Some level of disruption is actually normal and natural, and major transport hubs have to be closed for a day or two for all kinds of reasons, from weather, natural disasters, other kinds of disasters and terrorism through to the completely banal. I used to live somewhere where the central library was closed for months because the wrong kind of glue had been used to stick tilework on the front of the building and they had a distressing habit of falling off and injuring people; last year I had an 8-hour train journey to London, which is normally less than 2 hours, because rats had chewed through signalling cables. The more complex and high-volume the network, though, the more difficult it is to cope with problems – especially if they occur unpredictably, as of course they tend to.

And fourth, I have a shelf-full of books on the sociology of disasters that offer one awkward conclusion: when there is an unexpected problem, information networks are often the first casualty. In some cases it’s because information about the situation ‘on the ground’ can’t get through and/or there aren’t enough people or isn’t enough processing capacity to deal with it (several nuclear disasters bear this out). In other cases it’s because the disaster itself prevents key decision-making people from making decisions, or knocks out ways of communicating information to the public (phone lines overloaded, power outages etc.) or even to staff trying to deal with the situation.

It’s cold comfort, I know, to say ‘just take it easy’ if you’re a passenger in the middle of some major travel problem, or to say ‘never mind, at least it’s not as bad as it could get in the future’. And I’m saying that from the comfort of my own home, having abandoned plans to travel next week. But at least armed with those thoughts, people can start to make informed decisions about what they would do and how they would cope… Thermos of coffee, big leather coat and a good thick book in my case, I think.

Good luck, everyone. Take it easy and and just be grateful it’s not as bad as it will be next time!


How many writers…?

December 19, 2010 7 comments


How many writers does it take to change one?

How many writers does it take to change one?

…does it take to change a lightbulb?

In the course of writing another post (over on my criminology blog) I wanted a couple of lightbulb jokes.

Don’t ask… it makes sense, sort of, if you read the post about youth crime.

To get the two jokes I wanted I trawled about 300 lightbulb jokes of which several started ‘How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?’


None. Writer’s don’t change lightbulbs, they can’t afford the electricity bills.

Only one, but he/she has to give it a surprising twist at the end.

Only one, but three days later the writer will change it back again because it doesn’t fit the plot.

Two. One to change it, the other to offer a  critique as to how it could have been done better.

Two. The original author to change it and the TV scriptwriter to mangle the characterisation of the lightbulb and the ending.

Two. One to change it and the second to point out that someone else had already changed a light bulb, so changing another one is unoriginal.

Four. One to change it, the other three to say that they’d already had the idea for changing a light bulb, but didn’t want to show anyone what they were doing until they’d finished.

Ten. One to change it and nine to say, “I could have done that.”

Ten. One to change it, nine to write blogs criticising electric lighting because traditional candlelight-based writing won’t survive.

You’ll find more answers (and other twists on some of the same ones) at




How time flies…

December 17, 2010 3 comments

It occurs to me periodically that we’re all getting older, and people who were students at the time when being a student almost automatically meant being radical – May 1968 – would typically now be in their sixties, at or coming up to retirement age. And the same would be true of a lot of the people who were in the subcultures of that era – the mods and rockers, and so on.

I was reminded of this when I saw my local paper this week, with an advert for a local shop that sells mobility scooters – the electrically-powered sit-on scooters Old People use for getting to the shops. Recently one Old Person in my town was given an ASBO for driving hers through the market, at speed, waving a walking stick and shouting at people to get out of her way. And she’s not the only one: here’s another news item on the same theme (and it has a wonderful pic with it…).

But I digress, and anyway I have a half-done draft of a story with a similar scene in it, which I must dig out and finish sometime…

The shop’s most popular mobility scooter? It’s called the ‘Rascal’. A little further investigation tells me that Rascal is actually a manufacturer of scooters and they’ve recently had a ‘Pimp My Rascal’ contest.

Old People aren’t what they used to be…

V commented that sooner or later, surely Harley Davidson will notice this trend and start marketing mobility scooters for ageing rockers… It could be fun, though, if they ever go into the stairlift market… No, I’m not going to finish that thought…

Status update type post

December 16, 2010 2 comments

Awkward couple of days. ISP went down on me. In fact it still is down, because the fault is apparently in some hardware on their network, located in a telephone exchange somewhere. Successive estimates for getting it fixed were 5pm yesterday, 10am today, 6pm today, and ‘soon’.

So for the moment I’m using a newly-purchased mobile dongle. It’s a useful bit of kit for the moment, though it also means  in future I’ll be able to work and post from anywhere, which seems like an intrinsically Good Thing. Quite why it’s called a ‘dongle’ – which seems a quite random name – is beyond me, but never mind.

Having bought the dongle I bent down very slightly to put the key in the van door. Shooting sciatica type pain; me, not the van. The van gets moody sometimes but it’s not prone to sciatica as far as I know. I’m not particularly prone to back pain either – odd bouts of it when I worked in an office, I think due to their super-cheap office chairs – and this is the worst I’ve had for probably a decade.

It was interesting, yesterday, trying to write on a laptop balanced on my chest while lying flat on my back on the floor. I managed about 600 words though!

I’ve recovered to the point of being able to sit at my desk for about 10 minutes at a time. And my 10 minutes is about up, so that’s all folks… I’ve been trying to put together some more substantial posts but they’ll have to wait until both back and internet are restored to functionality, hopefully tomorrow.


Unseasonal thoughts!

December 12, 2010 2 comments

This is a very random post, and an idiosyncratic line of thought – so be warned!

Christmas isn’t nearly upon us, it’s a good two weeks away. We all know that for the last few decades, shops have started trying to drum up Christmas trade very early – and for the last couple of years I’ve noticed some ads for Christmas shopping starting around August! But in my childhood, which was admittedly quite a long time ago now, the ‘Christmas season’ started the week before the day itself. Indeed if you read Charles Dickens, you’ll see that many people didn’t really start celebrating or dealing with Christmas until the day before, or even the morning of Christmas Day (in those days you’d still find butchers, bakers and grocers open on Christmas morning, I think).

Well, times have changed. It’s not just turkey farmers who have to start production early to get the birds on people’s Christmas tables; pretty much all the stores have to order stuff well in advance for it to be shipped halfway round the world, etc., and that gives them several months to try to drum up interest in what they’re going to sell. These days, even I get interested in the event a month or so in advance – but that’s because I’m ordering a lot of presents online and want them to arrive by post and in time.

But in all this, spare a thought for the people whose birthdays fall around Christmas. For example V’s birthday is just the week before.  Does she want her birthday overshadowed by all the other festivities? No. So in our house, Christmas decorations only go up a few days before, once the birthday is out of the way.

Offhand, actually, I can’t think of any other culture where a regular annual event dominates the calendar the way Christmas does in Western societies. Chinese New Year? Nope – it falls around the beginning of February but when I lived somewhere that celebrated it big time, I never saw advertising for it until about two weeks before. Historically, the only events I can think of that took half a year’s preparation and involved an entire population were probably things like coronations, royal weddings, or wars!

This all looks to me like commodity reification; ‘the thingification of social relations to the extent that the nature of social relationships is expressed by the relationships between traded objects’.

Maybe there’s a case to start treating Christmas like a potlach? I quote: ‘At potlatch gatherings, a family or hereditary leader hosts guests in their family’s house and holds a feast for their guests. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth… Different events take place during a potlatch, like either singing and dances, sometimes with masks or regalia … the barter of wealth through gifts … and sometimes money. … Typically the potlatching is practiced more in the winter seasons as historically the warmer months were for procuring wealth for the family, clan, or village, then coming home and sharing that with neighbors and friends.’

Under modern-day circumstances, how could we replicate this? Short answer – banks and governments could give out large bonuses or  tax refunds, or declare tax holidays, for the whole of December and payable right around now. And retailers could start giving selected things away free.

I wonder if the idea of the Christmas potlach will take off soon!

(Note – yes, I did include ‘fantasy’ as a tag deliberately!)

Distance and blended learning – the way forward

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blended learning’ a great deal more of late. Distance learning is where you sit at home and study materials come to you in the post, or these days increasingly by email. Blended learning is the new big thing, and involves a mix of distance learning and some face-to-face contact.

My principal conclusion is this: the difference between on-site learning and distance learning is really a question of access to the library and to labs, and these are things that can be fixed in a blended learning model with a little ingenuity and institutional collaboration.

This is my reasoning:

In the dim, distant past I was a student. At the beginning of a ‘term’ (like a semester except there were three of them in a year) I’d turn up at the first lecture for each of my ‘courses’ (this was pre-modularisation). I’d get a reading list and details of tutorial and seminar groups. However, in the humanities and social sciences there weren’t a whole lot of lectures, seminars and tutorials – the amount of time I was supposed to attend some place at a given time typically averaged around six hours a week. The rest of the time I spent in the library, reading or investigating what else might be there that was more interesting. Or I was drinking coffee and debating stuff with other people on the course.

This is the thing about being a ‘full time’ student on a campus: what’s full time about it isn’t the number of contact hours but the fact that you have the opportunity to read a lot and debate a lot. The library is the critical part of the process.

If the lectures had been available as videos or podcasts I could have listened to them when I felt the need, and maybe gone back to them later on as well – it would have been a great asset. Tutorials and seminars were generally more interesting if I’d had a chance to read papers in advance and make notes for discussion, but if we’d had the internet in those days it would have been as good, or even better, to have used a discussion board. Some of my best learning experiences were actually casual one-on-one discussions with lecturers, and though I valued the face-time, emails and phone calls would have worked pretty much as effectively. If e-learning had been available when I was a student, apart from wanting to live independently from my parents (and find a way not to have a job!) I could happily have commuted between working via the internet at home and exploring the university library for stuff that piqued by curiosity and interest – mostly, though not exclusively, course related. That’s the beauty of libraries, I find – those opportunistic, haphazard stumbling across books you’d never have found through an internet search but somehow turn out to be crucial to your learning.

Moreover, in a strange reversal, in the institutions I’m working with, it seems full-time students are availing themselves of exactly the same VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) that are accessible to the distance learning students, and find them very convenient ways of learning. These days, your average VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) has downloadable course content, announcements, a calendar of events, some system for chat/discussion boards/email, lists of useful URLs, and stuff related to assessment (e.g. arrangements to submit coursework via Turnitin).

The only parts of the ‘student learning experience’ that a VLE can’t re-create, and I’d suggest the only part that distance learning misses out on, is the physicality of going to a library and investigating what’s on the shelves, skim-reading and checking a wide range of stuff to determine what’s going to be useful.

The nearest you’re likely to get to that is a library pass to your local university library, reading articles online via ATHENS or browsing books via Google Books, usually with critical bits missing.

Science subjects are different, I know, because of the commitment to hours working in labs etc. Some universities have developed fully-equipped experimental labs in Second Life primarily for distance learning students (though I’d wager full-time students use them as well) but again, I don’t imagine you get the same level of physicality you’d get in a real lab. I don’t, for example, imagine it would replicate a lot of the feelings, emotions and muscle-based sense of the tedious processes of creating an experiment, or building a device of some kind, in real time and with other people you converse with while you’re doing it.

The library and the lab experiences are, though, things that can be somewhat fixed in a blended learning model. University libraries have reciprocal reading (though not lending) facilities and lab sessions may need to be organised say at weekends to complement what can be done in Second Life. So my bottom line on this is: blended learning is going to be the big way forward.

For universities, I think, the major issue is going to be capturing teaching in forms that enable it to be available on the web, whether as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or short videos (think of the amount of stuff available now on, for example).

Finally, here are some useful reference materials:

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration – I was particularly struck by the article ‘Where’s Walter?’ by Maryann Lamer, about student retention. I’m writing this from memory but the key point seems to be that these days people have an expectation that any query they have will be answered really quickly, so in distance learning, regular communication and speedy replies to queries are a must.

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning

International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning – I was particularly taken by ‘Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education’ by Rui-Ting Huang (May 2007) – not because of the main argument but its attempt to describe different distance learning structures.

Electronic Journal of e-Learning – there’s a very useful article in Vol 6 issue 3, ‘Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context’ by Mandia Mentis. Also in Vol 6 issue 2, Apr 2008, there’s ‘Engaging the YouTube Google-Eyed Generation: Strategies for Using Web 2.0 in Teaching and Learning’ by Peter Duffy – when I first read this I thought it posed challenging ideas for future development of distance learning, but a lot of them have come to pass already.

That’s enough educative stuff for now. I’ll do a few more light-hearted posts before hitting you with any serious stuff again.


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