Archive for March, 2011

Arts, (lack of) money and the need for inventiveness

March 30, 2011 5 comments

The unsurprising news emerged yesterday that many UK arts organisations will have their public funding reduced or cut entirely. The arts generally is always a bit of a soft target, open to a range of criticisms from less eligibility (‘how can you spend money on the arts when there are no many funding shortfalls in health/welfare/education?’) to profligacy to poor taste (‘you mean my taxes paid for that crap to be displayed in the gallery?’).

I have, I confess, very mixed views about this. On the one hand, my own ‘involvement in state funded art’ amounts to reading my stories at a couple of events that received Arts Council and local authority subsidies. That’s probably about as much as any writer does. On the whole we work in a sector of the arts that gets probably less public funding than any other. On the other hand, I’m aware I go to events, exhibitions and the like that cost vastly more to put on than can be paid for through ticket sales, so I’m benefiting from arts funding in that sense.

State funding isn’t always the best kind of funding to have, and a lot of the most innovative work often happens in obscure holes and corners of the art world (I mean ‘art’ in its broadest sense to include the whole spectrum of artistic endeavour), funded in ways that range from impromptu to implausible, and in some cases the artwork itself is carried out in secretive and illegal ways – yes, I’m thinking here mainly of graffiti. But that said, we also need to recognise that what’s obscure and innovative at one point in time is the orthodoxy twenty years later, and that the UK as a whole is a major global producer in the economy of signs and images. It relies heavily on the flow of artistic and cultural talent in all kinds of areas from music to art to scriptwriting, screenwriting, niche areas of film and even niche areas within film such as special effects. And, of course, development of computer games… it would wind up being a long list.

Anyway. Rant over. What intrigued me today was a BBC article, ‘Arts world gets creative in funding crisis‘. Ideas being tried out now are crowdfunding through multiple small donations via the Wedidthis, Sponsume and Wefund websites; sponsoring individual members of an orchestra, with side benefits including dinners with them; venues being opened up to events such as weddings and receptions; and increasing numbers of in-person and online courses in creative areas run by people who have public reputations in those areas.

The arts are being squeezed in all sorts of directions; not just public funding, but the role of the internet in providing free access to many arts products, whether because the artists have to put it out free for promotional reasons, or internet piracy (which in music and now increasingly in writing means that artists get paid nothing for their work and need to build other income streams – live performance or whatever).

It probably won’t all work out alright in the end. There will be casualties along the way, including, probably, the collapse of some well-known and well-respected organisations. The people who are most recession-proofed, however, will be those who’ve struggled without funding already, trying to get their artistic vision across in unconventional ways. I’d hope that those people, who are often the real cutting edge of new art talent, will be able to struggle for a bit longer, become even more inventive about how they operate, and not just survive but prosper. I’m hoping at least some people will find that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And I’m hoping that’s not a vain hope.


Why tha kidz canrt spel

March 27, 2011 6 comments

Every1 sezkidz can’t spel cos of txt spk. May be that’s tru. But I blame da maufactras wot put krazy logos on stuf. Imagin u are browt up all thru yr child hood goin to a stor an wotchin advurts on TV. Stuf wots on the shelvs and on TV haz all kinds a ritin on it wot’s not spelt rite.

They do it to make a speshul brand name but u see it evry day an end up thinkin that’s how it shud be spelt. Plus wurdz get spelt diffrent ways on diffrent pakits. U mite think sumthin is crunchy but then u see it mite be crunchie or krunchy or krunchie. U can buy toffees or toffis (or tofu but that’s probly sumthin else). At skool u have to spell stuf right but go to the store, it’s always rite. They have exclusive offers but on the pakit it sez x-clusiv. No e’s. Stuf can be crazy or krazy or krayzee. At skool we hav high-powered computers but in the stor they sell hi-powered ones.

Plus companeys MiX uP BiG aN sMaLL LettErS 4 brand names. Like u cn buy iPod, iPhone, cars hav ritin like 16CDi on tham an loadsa compny names hav capital letters in the middul of them.

No wunda we carnt spel or rite properly. I blame kapitalism.


Examples of poor spelling in education –

There’s an article at Ehow about how to teach children to spell through using brand names. That must add to the confusion unless the brands are picked carefully!


Not trusting technology

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I had a conversation with my brother yesterday. He told me he’d recently received a speeding ticket in the post, which claimed his car had been caught by a speed camera. The location was one he drives through on an almost daily basis, but the time of day would have been when he was at work. After a quick check with security at work he was able to contest the ticket based on the fact that at the time stated on the ticket, his car was not only in the car park at his work, but was captured there on CCTV with a timestamp. Did they want to see the video footage?

The police backed down and sent him a letter withdrawing the charges, stating the ticket had been issued in error. Human error, or the new-fangled automatic number plate recognition? He doesn’t know.

What he’s thinking is this. If the letter went to someone else who couldn’t prove their car was somewhere else at the time, how would it have played out? If it went to someone who drove a lot and couldn’t remember whether or not they’d been around that particular camera at that time, would they just accept that they’d probably been speeding there? Consequence, a decent-sized fine and points on your license. Even if it went to someone who’d just been at home at the time, how could they demonstrate where they were? The obvious stuff – phone records, internet surfing histories etc. – don’t necessarily tie a particular individual to the phone or PC. What if they’d just been reading a book or sitting in the garden?

The police did sent him the pic from the camera. If I got a ticket for something that looked like a regular car I’d contest it on the basis that I actually drive a campervan. In my brother’s case, though, the pic did show a car of the same make and colour as his.

So there are two observations here. First, don’t trust anything like speed camera technology without verifying what it actually shows, and scoff at officials who say (as I’ve sometimes had in the past) ‘the computer says so, it must be true’. But second, even though it’s technically down to the police to prove their case, offering evidence that undermines it isn’t easy if you’re just getting on with life, not keeping diaries, receipts and other stuff that proves who you are and where you were at any given time.

Apparently there are issues with cloned number plates on cars at the moment – people getting plates made up that are for a different vehicle, so avoiding being caught in speed traps etc. The next time it happens, it could be you trying to prove you weren’t driving past a particular speed camera at a particular time.

My view – it’s just as well the number of cameras is declining, with a lot of them being turned off due to budget cuts and concerns about their being ineffective. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there who’ve paid fines simply because it was easier than trying to prove the technology isn’t 100% reliable and/or it wasn’t them and their car, but someone else driving on false plates.

States of Independence

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.

I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.

Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.

The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.

The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?

Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.

How writing a story is similar to building a garden summer house

March 16, 2011 8 comments

I’ve been away for a few days, visiting friends. This is something I don’t do often enough, really. Even though I took work and my laptop and internet dongle, I never got round to doing much more than checking email and reading a bit of a novel because other stuff was going on, so while I’m notionally behind on where I wanted to be with my writing, I feel recharged and I’ll catch up.

The ‘other stuff’ that was going on largely involved erecting a summer house in my friends’ garden. It went up without much trouble and with people more expert than me doing most of the detailed work.

I helped out, though I’m far better at making joints between ideas than I am at getting bits of wood to butt up together neatly. If the summer house had been made out of concepts laid over a philosophical framework I would have done a really neat job. But that thought stayed with me, and of course making anything – from a garden summer house to a story and indeed almost anything else – will have many similarities.

On this view, writing a story involves:

  • taking delivery of a bunch of pre-made bits and pieces. With a summer house, these are largely factory-made sections and should be all you need (though we added some refinements). With a story, these will be things you’ve gathered from the grab-bag of your own imagination and research. They will include plot elements, character qualities, odd facts (real or invented), situations and locations (real or imaginary), and so on.
  • checking the plans and diagrams to see what you’re supposed to be doing. You do have plans and diagrams for your story, don’t you? Actually I often don’t; or at least, my plans may not bear too much of a relationship to the pieces I have to play with, or describe them with the same level of incoherence that I used to find in the manuals for electronic appliances in the 1970s.
  • making sure you have all the right tools. Drills, bits and screwdrivers for stories. The right character ‘voices’ for dialogue when building a summer house. Or is it the other way round? A lot of the summer house building was carried out with character voices anyway. I often do drill down, conceptually anyway, into locations and plot details to focus on small details. A good supply of coffee and tobacco in either case (I know, they’re bad habits… treat these as optional).
  • actually erecting the structure. Colourful vocabulary, occasional use of swearwords essential for both stories and summer houses. Holding odd bits of wood at awkward angles while your fingers freeze is not mandatory for stories, unless that’s your particular thing.
  • making ‘improvements’ as you go along and then finding these cause more problems you need to solve. Done that. Fortunately in the case of the summer house, there were some extra blocks of wood to ensure the thing was packed correctly, and we could use those. That may not be the case with a story.
  • sitting back, enjoying the result and deciding on decoration and finishing. Stories may not need a coat of paint on them but there are always bits you want to tinker with at a later date. This process can go on until someone wants to publish, and then you have to let go. That won’t be the case with a summer house, which will always be a work in progress.

See? Similar processes. Next time: how writing a story is similar to drug dealing (or something).


Blogging and not blogging

March 11, 2011 6 comments

When I first got into the blogging thing, I found some places that gave advice on the whole business of ‘successful’ blogging. The tips included:

  • write several pillar articles – tutorials that offer useful advice or reference material.
  • write a blog post every day (and keyword/tag them well).
  • comment on other people’s posts.
  • link/trackback to other posts/websites when you refer to them.
  • encourage comments.

There was more, about getting onto blog carnivals, getting listed on blog listings, sending posts out to be used as ezine articles and such, but that was the top and bottom of it.

And, of course, I follow all this advice fitfully – there are probably four of five ‘pillar’ articles on here, mostly concerned with e-learning, written over a period of close to a year. And I certainly don’t post every day.

Mostly I post when: I have something to brag about; one of my friends has done something I want to publicise (which reminds me, Psy-tek has just composed and recorded two tracks if anyone wants to license their use); something interesting or humorous happened; or something has caught my eye, often an obscure or offbeat thing on a news report.

Mostly, though, I don’t post when nothing much has happened, or when I’m busy. I have a life. It may not be much of a life, but at any one point I probably have some distance learning material to write or update, some student work to assess, half a dozen stories in various states of completion that I may or may not want to submit anywhere straightaway because I have some longer-range plans, and ‘just normal everyday stuff’ that always seems to take a lot longer to accomplish than I think it’s going to. Plus, of course, there are occasional points when I’m actually away for a few days.

So basically, if there’s nothing new on my blog it probably means (a) I have a deadline to finish distance learning materials or mark student work, or (b) I’m on a roll with the writing and managing 1500+ words a day. That may not be a lot by some people’s lights – quite a few of the writers I know on here easily do double that, but it seems to be about my limit. All I can say is spending a couple of hours hung up on how to phrase a particular sentence does seem to mean I don’t need to spend ages rewriting and editing at a later stage!

For the last week or so the answer has been (b). In addition to the stuff I’ve been writing, late last night I came across a wonderfully surreal passage in a Thomas Pynchon novel that set me on a line of thought and by this morning it had become the solution to a plot problem in a piece I started writing in late 2009 but that hung fire for about a year because I didn’t have a way to develop the story. And now I do.

However, it will have to wait because right now the answer is (a): after a long lull, my email has suddenly filled up with student papers for assessment. So I’ll stop now…

Apparently you’re supposed to end with a question to encourage comments. Here’s two for the price of one. What, if anything, stops you from blogging? What do you see as a mark of ‘success’ in a blog?

From FLK to coffin dodger!

March 7, 2011 1 comment

I just came across a piece on the BBC that claims ‘Doctor Slang is a Dying Art‘. Apparently a doctor has been charting the use of informal abbreviations and slang, and come to the conclusion that they’re falling out of use – especially the terms that ‘spell out the unsayable truth about their patients’. The presumption is that the increasing level of litigation in relation to medical issues means doctors’ notes are being scrutinised in the courts, and doctors don’t want to explain terms that are, shall we say, uncomplimentary to the patient.

Some of these terms are fairly widely known anyway. Descriptions of patients include:

  • NFN (Normal for Norfolk – i.e. inbred)
  • FLK (Funny looking kid – I’m fairly sure I had that on my medical notes, but I’ll spare you the childhood pictures)
  • GROLIES (Guardian Reader Of Low Intelligence in Ethnic Skirt)
  • CTD – Circling the Drain (expected to die soon)
  • GPO – Good for Parts Only (wouldn’t apply to me, I don’t think I have many good parts left!)
  • LOBNH (Lights On But Nobody Home)
  • Pumpkin positive (inside of head as empty as a halloween pumpkin)
  • Coffin dodger (someone who by rights should be dead, but isn’t – which could well apply to me as well. Usually it’s an elderly person, though…)

So far as illnesses are concerned, there’s UBI (Unexplained Beer Injury)… Also PFO (Patient Fell Over) and PGT (Patient Got Thumped), which also tend to be alcohol-related. Ironically the one time I would have qualified as PGT it was because a complete stranger had been taking alcohol and crack, but that’s another story. Locations in the hospital: a geriatric ward might be called the ‘Departure Lounge’.

And in terms of treatment we have  TTFO (as the BBC puts it, ‘an expletive expression roughly translated as “Told To Go Away”‘) and TEETH (Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy – I seem to remember that on my notes at some stage! What worked, though, was shiatsu).

Nor are slang terms used only for patients. A surgeon might be described as a ‘slasher’, a psychiatrist as a member of the ‘Freud Squad’.

The original author of the report doesn’t advocate using these terms, and suggests that their decreasing use may signal a more respectful attitude to patients as well as a desire to CYA in relation to legal cases. And that may well be true.

However, the use of pithy descriptive terms and acronyms is common across many professions. There’s no reason why doctors would be exempt – and medical ‘backroom slang’ has always been robust, to say the least, possibly as a reaction to the nature of the work and the stress levels involved.

There are clearly instances here that suggest a less-than-respectful attitude to patients though having had more than my fair share of late-night visits to casualty departments (fortunately, usually, not as the patient!) I can see why that would happen. Working a night shift and patching up drunks is probably not what people went into medicine for.

There are lighter and more humorous aspects to medicine. Someone once dropped a heavy object on my foot by accident, breaking a bone in it (the foot, not the object). I limped into casualty. The triage nurse said ‘Well, I could see what wrong as soon as you came in the door. Just hop over to the those seats and I’ll get someone to look at it…’ I laughed. And hopped.

Any offers of acronyms/slang from other fields of work?

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