Archive for January, 2011

The World Service – a short and true story

January 27, 2011 5 comments

The BBC announced yesterday that the BBC World Service is to lose a quarter of its workforce and cease broadcasting in seven languages. Hard times, budget cuts, the same story that’s affecting all kinds of services these days. I feel emotional about this, and not just because I’m probably one of the few people actually living in the UK who listen to it from time to time.

I feel emotional about it because an old friend of mine was saved by the World Service, about 20 years ago. ‘Saved’ is an emotive word. His life was probably not in danger, but he was a political activist in an authoritarian regime that didn’t tolerate people with ‘liberal’ views, like democracy being a generally good thing. He was arrested, held without charge, and would certainly faced a long time in prison in the absence of any protests.

His arrest was reported on the BBC World Service and sparked a campaign to have him released. At one point, he told me, the prison governor took him to his office and showed him nine sacks of mail delivered there and lined up against one wall, all from people who’d heard the broadcast and were asking for his release. He was told the Ministry (I can’t remember whether it was the Justice Ministry – maybe not, for political prisoners) had had to set up a complete office devoted specifically to him because it had been overwhelmed by the volume of mail about his case. And this played a major part in the decision to release him, a few weeks later.

This story must be played out repeatedly around the world and the BBC World Service is a big part of getting happy endings, at least in some cases.

So too, of course, is Amnesty International. I actually don’t know how much involvement Amnesty had in my friend’s case but the truth is that letters from any source can and do save lives, can and do get people released from prison, can and do help preserve human rights.

There are commentators at the moment talking about how cutting the World Service, which in media terms is one of the BBC’s ‘Crown Jewels’ even if it’s rarely listened to in the UK itself, will impact the UK’s international visibility and cultural influence, and that’s probably right. But I’d also want to underline the human dramas that often remain hidden or are quickly forgotten, and where World Service broadcasts are key factors in prompting action.

That authoritarian regime, incidentally, is long since gone and my friend is still around – thanks in no small measure to the World Service. There are some funny stories to be told, like the time I took him to visit a prison (I was a researcher at the time) and he looked around and pointed out that when he’d been in prison the conditions for political prisoners were actually not as bad as the ones for the offenders in the prison we visited… which earned some strange looks from the prison staff. But maybe that’s a story for another time and another blog. I just want to say that cutting the World Service is an incredibly bad idea because ultimately it will impact on efforts to support human rights around the globe.

A word to the unwary – 0042 0239011111

January 26, 2011 2 comments

I had this number call my mobile (or cellphone, if you’re reading this in the US). As it happened I wasn’t near my phone and didn’t hear it. I did google it, though. Turns out 0042 is the country code for the Czech Republic and the buzz on websites I’ve been reading is that it’s a scam. It only rings a couple of times but if you return the call, people seem to think, you’re connected to a premium rate phone line.

Apparently there are some other similar numbers involved in the same scam. So consider yourself warned.

More info:,, among many other places. The last-named has a report from someone who’s registered a complaint at Ofcom (if you’re in the UK) and further complaints to them should cite reference 1-164365657, which is the original number the complaint was logged under. It also has links to the Czech telecom complaints office.

Categories: Advice Tags: , , , ,

What are the odds?

January 24, 2011 10 comments

I was going to blog about something else today but this happened.

A long while back I finished a story, a paranormal horror, and sent to to a magazine. I heard nothing for a while (which is normal) and then got an apologetic email saying the mag has ceased publication.

We live in hard times. I didn’t think much of it. I just sent it to the next magazine on my list. I am at least organised enough to have  a ‘hit list’ for each story, of potential markets for it.

A few months have gone by, and now the same thing’s just happened again – apologetic email, ‘we have officially ceased publication’.

Anyone apart from me see any parallels here with the horror film ‘Ring‘? Have I got a story on my hands that is so spooky it can cause magazines to fail?

Should I accept some moral responsibility about where I send it next? Or just create a hit list of people and agencies that have pissed me off in the past, send it to them and see what happens?

I think I need to try at least one more place just to prove it’s no coincidence.

Suggestions, anyone…?

Ionesco and me: the quest for meaning

January 22, 2011 1 comment

Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu, 1909-1994), was a Romanian/French playwright, known particularly for his 1948 play ‘The Bald Soprano’ (La Cantatrice Chauve).

Wikipedia describes the background to his writing of the play, which came about from his experience of learning English:

At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true.

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words.

I came across this Wikipedia entry for essentially random reasons while researching something else. But it triggered a memory. A little over 20 years ago I started to learn German, using a series of workbooks with audio tapes. I ended up speaking a reasonable amount of German though these days I probably couldn’t do more than order a coffee or buy a train ticket.

The relevant thing is, though, that the workbook and tapes started with a German family – father, mother, son and daughter – who were returning to Germany after many years in Argentina. They rented an apartment, went to the shops, bought stuff and went to tourist locations. I don’t remember them having any visible means of income. There wasn’t any reason given as to why they’d returned to Germany, or what their plans were. Similarly, when their ‘uncle’ who was an ‘engineer’ arrived to visit them, it looked quite suspicious. Whose uncle was he, exactly? Since he was an engineer, that gave him licence to look at architecture, railways, and other facilities, but there was no indication of why he might have been interested in those things. Also, he had a number of packages in his luggage that weren’t easily explained.

So what was going on?

My imagination started to fill in the gaps. The parents might have been war criminals who’d emigrated to Argentina and lived a double life. Or they might have been part of some organised crime crime group, or terrorists. I was, after all, listening to the tapes only a few years after the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group, while there were also stories circulating at that time about attempts to recover lost artworks looted by the Nazis.

So, I thought, they were returning to Germany with some nefarious scheme in mind. The fact they were a ‘family’ was just a cover, and they had to keep reminding each other of everyday details in order to keep their story consistent. The uncle was probably a minder, or handler, or courier, there to deliver items or have some part in whatever secret plot they were involved in.

And so it went on. My fantasy became far more elaborate than this and filled in many of the gaps in the language course ‘narrative’, to the point that it seemed the material in the audio tapes and workbooks were clearly there to mislead the reader about the real intentions of these characters.

This meant I learned a lot of German vocabulary that wasn’t in the language course, but ended up not paying a great deal of attention to the course itself… To this day I’m not sure whether an active imagination was a help or a hindrance. Possibly both, in equal measure but in different ways.

Unlike Ionesco I didn’t write a play about my experiences. Or even a short story. But since the Wikipedia entry triggered the memory, I might still write something about it, someday…

Anyone else have similar experiences?

Beware, the future has just arrived!

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was about 14 or 15 I read a science fiction story, probably in Analog, in which the protagonist has a problem with his domestic appliances. They’re all coin-operated and won’t co-operate because he’s run out of change. In fact, he finds he can’t even leave his apartment because the rent is paid via a coin mechanism on the door every time he wants to open it.

This last point is just an extension of how doors in some public toilets used to work, but as to the domestic appliances – it’s intriguing how SF seems to be able to predict the future, or alternatively how anything SF writers imagine turns up as part of reality a decade or two later.

The reason this occurs to me is because something just came through the letterbox. No, not the stuff ordered from Amazon two weeks ago that was dispatched the same day and supposed to arrive last week (thanks, Royal Mail – and I’ve just been reading news articles about how once something isn’t delivered within the target time it gets added to the massive stockpile of delayed stuff, and there’s no target for clearing that so it can wait for weeks to get to you).

Okay, end of rant. What came through the letterbox was a leaflet: ‘Need a new TV, washer or fridge freezer? Pay in easy instalments via coin meter!’

The meter is apparently ‘discrete’ (I imagine they mean ‘discreet’) and emptied by a company representative once a month. I’m left wondering whether you have to pay every time you open the fridge freezer, or once a week, or whatever, and what happens if you don’t pay. Is the door locked, or does it turn off the power?

Frankly, I’m just hoping none of my stories end up presaging the future… If they do we’ll have 20% of the population turning into serial murderers or drug dealers, and everyone they don’t kill being attacked by vampires, zombies, aliens, or the ghosts of people who died in industrial accidents.


Pitching for TV – a call for advice!

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

For once I have a question, not an observation or argument.

I have a treatment for a possible TV documentary and want to pitch it to production companies (I’m based in the UK). Apart from the treatment itself I see my role as possibly comprising being involved in the pre-production planning (I have relevant knowledge and contacts), maybe some script writing, but that’s about it.

I have no prior history of or knowledge about working for TV.

I’m reasonably adept at networking and have contacts with possible independent producers. The one thing I can’t ask them, since I’ll be on the other side of the table from thiem, is this: were a company to take up the idea and get it commissioned by a TV channel, what sort of range of payment might I be likely to expect? Is this something they pay a flat fee for, or a percentage royalty?

Comments below, please, or if you want to stay private, mail me via the ‘contact’ link on the blog!


Edit: one answer I had (I’ve asked this question in several places) was 5% of production costs plus a royalty on broadcast and any other exploitation but on mainstream TV production costs that sounds huge, as in tens of thousands of pounds. Another answer was a flat fee of a few hundred pounds, though that was for radio for a one-off documentary. That’s a pretty wide margin…

Study guides and ‘entertainment’

January 18, 2011 2 comments

I had a conversation over the weekend with a singer, and we were talking about parallels between the entertainment business and teaching.

Her job is to get out on a stage and make people look at her and listen to her. In the days when I was doing actual lecturing, I’d walk into a lecture hall and there might be 300 students – criminology is a popular subject – waiting to be intormed, but also expecting in some measure to be entertained. Otherwise their attention would wander, they’d whisper to each other or fall asleep, or whatever. And yes, I was once a student and I did that too… The most important theoretical revelations and research findings will bypass students unless they’re presented in a way that grabs their attention.

Face-to-face with students as a lecturer, you develop tricks to keep people’s attention.  The usual strategies, or my usual strategies anyway, included the classic formula of ‘say what you’re going to say; say it; then summarise it’ which simultaneously allowed me to keep a fast pace because my audience knew where the lecture was going; liberal use of overhead projection, including humorous material such as cartoons as well as charts, graphs and ‘academic’ stuff; involving students with opinion polls based on a show of hands, etc., and using topical real-world illustrations (for example, in lectures on white collar crime I had actual examples of letter fraud emails I’d received).

The purpose of the ‘performance’ was to make what I’d taught memorable, because students would tag the content to a phrase, a joke, an image, an illustration – something, at any rate, that would stick in their memory and trigger that academic content when they thought about it. It’s almost parallel, when I think about it, to the way any professional entertainer (a standup comedian?) operates, and with some elements of the kinds of techniques you might expect in hypnotherapy, or in some forms of counselling. A strange mix, but there you go.

However, in distance learning things are a little different.

Distance learning can be delivered in a variety of ways: printed or downloadable study guides, email support, audio and video, phone conversations, Skype tutorials and seminars. But whatever the methods, there isn’t the same level of immediacy, the same sense of ‘teaching as performance’, the ability to engage with a student ‘audience’ in quite the same way.

The result is that students need to be ‘entertained’ in a rather different way. This is, frankly, hard. Writing a study guide is simply not the same as writing an academic text. Arguably it’s a little like writing a textbook, though a study guide will typically discuss and direct students to textbook readings, perhaps ask them to compare accounts in different textbooks, and it will be more focussed on the specific demands of a particular course or module. It’s also somewhat like writing popular journalism, in that it needs to have the readability that good journalists accomplish, though it may also try to tell a more complex story than a lot of journalism does.

I don’t have any world-shattering revelations about the art or science of writing study guides. They have to follow what we think are established patterns of learning (PQ4R, for example). They need to be structured in terms of the classic overview/body content/summary format that allows readers to navigate easily through written work. But that said, it’s often useful to try to engage students with:

  • The use of ‘lighter’ moments with some wit and humour.
  • The use of relevant examples and illustrations – often with links to stable URLs that will allow students to go off and explore in useful directions. Preferably some of these are to video or audio content.
  • Content that puts the reader ‘into the situation’, understanding more of the emotions and motives that might be present in the situation or context they’re studying.
  • The use of some more light-hearted examples – again, plenty of content available on the web (though check for permissions and rights to include them, or just cite URLs!)
  • Challenges – not necessarily formal ‘exercises’ or ‘activities’ but for example posing questions in different ways and looking at what assumptions and values might be behind different ways of asking questions.

The key things, though, will be:

  • clarity of writing;
  • the ability to give readers mental images that should stay with them over time and be attached to particular pieces of knowledge, argument or critical ability; and
  • the ability to make students interested enough in what they’re reading that they want to find out more, to go beyond the confines of the study guide and explore independently.

The more I get involved in distance learning, the more I consider it a technical speciality in its own right, and an arcane art!

This is, I guess, a fairly general post and I might add some more thoughts when I’ve cogitated more…


Dubplate culture?

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I was scooting around the internet earlier today and came across something I hadn’t known about before – dubplates. In the headlong move towards digital technology, there’s a retro thing going on – in fact it’s probably been going on, quietly and in the background, for a long while.

While most of us are capturing our old film, video and vinyl records onto fully digital media, there are people busy recording music digitally and then transferring it onto vinyl.  This is something you see in the DJ world, and most often in reggae and drum&bass, because they tend to prefer the acoustic response of vinyl (or so I gather, I’ve been having a conversation with HOCSoundSystem about it). There’s apparently a division of opinion in the DJ world about the respective merits of vinyl vs digital media.

Investigating further, I see from Wikipedia that dubplates – one-off vinyl records – have a long and distinguished history in reggae because it’s easy to press a single disk with an existing music track and custom-made lyrics, for example for a particular sound system. But they’re increasingly common in other music genres as well now.

The equipment isn’t exactly cheap but the price of has decreased substantially over time to the point that some people literally have the kit in their living room.there are apparently increasing sales of dubplate cutters – the gadget you need to do this work – and booming business for the specialist dubplate ‘cottage industry’.

When intrigued me was the very retro-ness of this industry, the fact that the ‘old way of doing things’ is still valued, and has a large and increasing following.

It made me wonder how a similar retro-style might look in other industries. For example, if you look on Ebay these days you’ll find quite a few suppliers of handmade paper and notebooks, etc. Some while ago I came across someone who hand-prints books on handmade paper, binds them himself and offers them as limited editions – though in that case, what he’s offering in this form is, if I remember tightly, copies of mediaeval magical grimoires and treatises that are very probably available on the internet – but there appears to me a market for what would be in effect freely available text in this specialist form.

Even the ‘Hearing Voices’ poetry people I blogged about a few days ago have put work out, not as a web page or e-publication, but an actual magazine – it’s not limited circulation per se, but I can’t image there were huge numbers printed and those who have copies will possess a physical thing that connects them to a particular place, time, event and vision of what’s possible in poetry.

And in the art world, of course, numbered limited-issue prints are a known and accepted part of the market and have been for decades.

This is, really, about exclusivity – having a one-off, customised vinyl record to play to a club audience, one of a number of specially-made ‘luxury edition’ books, or an item that has some personal significance of ‘I was there’. Different takes on the idea of exclusivity, but all quite understandable.

Meanwhile, going back to my trusty 1907 Army and Navy Catalogue, which dates from a time when the Army and Navy Stores in London sold everything the gentleman officer would need for his posting abroad, I see that many popular books of that time were available, not just as ‘paperback’ and ‘hardback’, but in half a dozen different bindings and paper qualities from six shillings and fivepence up to forty shillings.

So this all makes me wonder whether there might still be a market for, say, limited edition fiction, handprinted, sold almost as an artisan craft piece. And I’m not talking about reprints of top ten novels, but new original fiction. A deliberate turning back of the clock to older methods, styles and values. Under what conditions might such a thing be viable as a product?

I don’t know the answer but I’m interested to hear anyone’s comments!


Hearing Voices this evening

January 10, 2011 3 comments

No, I’m not mad. No, it wasn’t really my thing. But neither of these opinions is important.

What is important is that on a rainy Monday evening in January, without very much in the way of publicity, it was possible to get 70-80 people to a pub in Leicester to attend a poetry event. I only found out about it a couple of hours before it happened – the event was Hearing Voices and here’s the Facebook notification I got. There’s almost nothing about it on the web yet (pages still being developed) but the overall one-year project is for three issues of a magazine, of which the first is now out (at least I think it was the first, in which case their stated timetable appears to have slipped?). Hence the event which was a kind of launch party.

The event included scheduled poetry readings, some open-mic poetry and a few short stories though poetry dominated the event.

Two quick thoughts.

First, massive congratulations to the organisers, the not-for-profit group Crystal Clear Creators, on a really successful event.

Second, given the evident popularity of poetry and the fact I’m struggling away writing horror and SF and ‘urban’ and ‘alternative’ stories, I’m obviously in the wrong game. I shall have to study this poetry thing more carefully!

In with the new (but let’s conserve the old as well!)

January 7, 2011 2 comments

Have been to doctor. Now on the mend. Normal service resumed!

While I was ill, I spent a certain amount of time looking at random stuff on the net but here’s some old news that struck me as interesting.

Not a lot of people seem to know this, but 2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity. The key issue is that the level of biodiversity is declining, and we actually don’t know what the impact of this is likely to be on humans. There’s a piece by Hilary Benn on the BBC website about it – ‘Biodiversity nears point of no return‘, that came out almost a year ago (17 Jan 2010). However, even though species are becoming extinct or critically endangered, there are still new species being discovered: evidently we don’t know the Earth as well as we think we do.


I take a Gaia-centric view on biodiversity: we humans don’t have a complete picture of life on Earth, and what we don’t know will probably bite us – metaphorically speaking, at least. So we should try to walk softly on the Earth, respect all its life forms and not cause massive disruption to the environment and climate. If we do, the Earth will still be around – it just won’t be an earth that has many humans left on it, because despite current appearances we’ll end up becoming a critically endangered species. And when we’re gone, some other species will come along in a few million years to fill the evolutionary niche we occupied. That might, for example, be the cockroach (see below!).


Where was I? Oh yeah, new species being discovered. An article from the Guardian, posted online on Christmas Day: ‘New species discovered in 2010‘. The story is a run-through of 16 new species discovered in 2010, picked on the basis of cuteness (e.g. the long-nosed tree frog) or a ‘wow factor’ of some kind (a fish with teeth on its tongue, for example).

Meanwhile the Arizona State University International Institute for Species Exploration has its ‘Top 10 New Species’ list – okay, so the 2010 list is for species discovered in 2009, but it’s still an interesting list. Who would have imagined new species are still being discovered in the US as well as in remote rainforests and deep oceans?

Some of these, like Omars’ banded knifefish – Gymnotus omarorum – are redesignations of previously known but misidentified species. Others are cute, weird or wonderful, like the green bombers, Swima bombiviridis, which are deep-sea critters with a defence mechanism that involves modified gills that can be cast off and are luminescent – presumably to confuse predators.

So how many new species have been discovered recently?

The Institute publishes The State of Observed Species (SOS) annual reports, with data published each year for two years previously – well, it takes time to compile this stuff. So the 2010 SOS Report, which deals with species discovered in 2008, lists an incredible 18,225 living species and 2,140 animal fossil species described as new in calendar year 2008.

The cockroach thing I mentioned earlier – I don’t know if it will make it into the 2012 SOS report, but new species don’t only exist in weird and far-flung places. Among the new species discovered in 2010 was a new cockroach, amazingly found by two high school students and collected from their professor’s apartment in New York. Technically it may yet turn out to be a subspecies, but it’s still impressive. The full story is ‘Big Apple Bugs‘ on GrrlScientist’s blog. Actually she has several blogs and there’s a lot of cool stuff on them – this story was from the beginning of the year, 4 Jan 2010. The other intriguing thing about it is that high school students are adept enough these days to do DNA barcoding… things have evidently moved on since I was at school.

Also, an update on some news that came out in early December. The ‘arsenic based life form’ that was apparently found by NASA’s Astrobiology Unit in Mono Lake, California, isn’t quite as advertised. It’s true the microbe can utilise arsenic as an alternative to phosphorus, but it’s not ‘arsenic based’ in any real sense – it’s still a CHROPS life form. Details are explained in Pharyngula’s (aka PZ Myers) blog, in the article ‘It’s not an arsenic-based life form‘. The interesting thing, which still hasn’t been addressed, he argues, is how the microbe is adapted to live in an arsenic-rich environment and able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus if that’s all that’s available.

CHROPS, incidentally, is a shorthand for the six key elements involved in living organisms: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur (or sulfur, if you’re from the US). That puts paid to the traditional greeting used by aliens, then – ‘Greetings, carbon-based life form!’ Oh well, we have to move with the times.

The bit I liked was this:

It [the NASA research] doesn’t say a lot about evolutionary history, I’m afraid. These are derived forms of bacteria that are adapting to artificially stringent environmental conditions, and they were found in a geologically young lake — so no, this is not the bacterium primeval. This lake also happens to be on Earth, not Saturn, although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points, so I don’t know that it can even say much about extraterrestrial life. It does say that life can survive in a surprisingly broad range of conditions, but we already knew that.

Finally, it turns out some species thought to be extinct aren’t: they had become rare and gone into hiding. Details are in the Mother Nature Network article ‘Lazarus species: 13 “extinct” animals found alive‘.

The term ‘Lazarus species’ is a Biblical reference to Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, though there’s nothing religious about the article.

Don’t, incidentally, bother reading the comments on the Lazarus post unless you want to trawl through about 30 pages of unintelligent flaming from people who are into intelligent design and creationism, and even more general insult-trading based on nothing in particular. Quite why this blog in particular would have attracted those kinds of comments is beyond me.

Not being much of a scientist, I’m not going to make any more detailed comments on the biology, chemistry, botany, or environmental issues, etc. etc. But there’s a lot to think about in all this stuff and indeed things to develop for the purposes of writing stories. I guess, as a final comment, it’s just interesting that being ill and unable to concentrate much, just doing the odd bit of web-surfing, has had an unexpected side-effect in terms of me finding out things I didn’t know about before.


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