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 9 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…


%d bloggers like this: