Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

Alternative music – in Kabul

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Just a quick thing to throw up here, following my previous post on music: this, from the BBC. A rock and alternative music festival in Kabul, which given the range of problems and the level of conflict to be found in Afghanistan is about the least likely place you might expect to find one. But then, maybe such a festival is kind of important for precisely those reasons? Most of the bands playing are from the Kabul area, and it’s equally impressive that in that context there are people who have the resources – instruments, rehearsal space, time – to even pull bands together and play their music. Marvellous.

And it’s the second festival of alternative music that’s been held there.


Bringing the music back

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

If you don’t live in the UK, you probably won’t appreciate what a major step this is: the BBC have just reported that the red tape around the licensing of live music has been lifted from small venues (capacity up to 200). This means some 13,000 pubs and clubs no longer need to go through difficult bureaucratic hurdles and pay substantial licence fees in order to have live music.

It’s a big deal for small bands, people trying to get known in the music business and so forth, because when the current regime was introduced it resulted in many thousands of smaller venues closing their doors to live music. It also, of course, made it more difficult for more ‘experimental’ artists to get going – because who was ever going to take a chance on putting them on stage in a large venue that needed to recoup substantial licence costs? And by ‘experimental’ in this context I don’t just mean weird electronic and suchlike, but a range of styles and a range of performers who are trying to do something a little bit unusual and distinctive with their music, and trying to see if there’s an audience out there for them.

So now  a lot of musicians, aspiring bands and so on can return to the traditional route of building up a loyal following in their home town, and then around the country, going on the road to build their ‘tribe’ of followers a little at a time. And there will be, I hope, a lot more live music in a lot more styles and genres somewhere near you.

So, for once, I can report some good news and a sensible government policy!

Are writers ‘credible sources’?

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Here’s a slightly weird story.

Philip Roth – who’s pretty well-known as an author – wrote a novel, The Human Stain, published in 2000. No, I haven’t read it, but that’s not important.

Wikipedia has a page about the novel – not surprising, because it has pages on many novels. The page was generated in 2002 by a contributor and has been revised and added to on many occasions since. The page mentioned speculation by various critics that the principal character was based on the life of a literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Roth approached Wikipedia to offer a correction: despite the critics’ speculations, he’d drawn the events surrounding the principal character, and character elements, from the experiences of his friend Melvin Tumin.

The Wikipedia administrators refused to amend the entry on the basis that there was no second source to support this claim and he ‘was not a credible source’.

The entry has now been amended to reflect this exchange, but it raises interesting questions.

To what extent is any author a ‘credible source’ when discussing their own work? I’m not talking here about slips of memory or deliberately misleading statements – though those can happen – but the extent to which any literary work draws on material from a writer’s unconscious and perhaps touches on matters of which the writer was not consciously aware. I can give an old example from a piece I wrote and performed as a student: I was pleased with it, but the feedback I got after the event was that it was an interesting retelling of a Biblical story. One that wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it, and that I’d never consciously paid attention to since religious education classes in primary school. (I might add that I never kept a copy of the piece and couldn’t now tell you which Biblical story.)

What (or who) constitutes a ‘credible source’ anyway for a work of imagination? And with the passage of time, is it really possible for anyone – even with access to an author’s personal manuscripts and notes, etc. – to tell what was really in their mind when they wrote something? Does it even matter?  Because meaning is context-bound and if the book survives and is read years later, does the meaning even remain intelligible within the context of the time it was written?

As you may have seen in previous blog posts, I recently self-published a short collection of horror stories. And I’d hate to think what kinds of stuff people would find in there that I wasn’t aware I was writing, because a lot of my stories start from a single mental image, a fragment of life, or as much of a dream as I can remember when I wake up, and I try to re-imagine their contexts and consequences.

If you want to read the whole BBC story, here’s a link.

Art and tyranny?

August 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Are tyrants good for art? It’s an interesting if counter-intuitive question and one that’s recently been discussed on the BBC.

The essential argument is that culture – art and literature and music, for example – thrive in conditions where there is social conflict, though also require some level of freedom for artists. In the past that’s come about because authoritarian regimes haven’t necessarily tried that hard to control art, and when they did, the fact that art or books or music were labelled ‘subversive’ in itself created an underground demand for them.

It’s a complicated argument because the extent and type of control wielded by tyrants doesn’t just come from punitive measures. They often control resources that make them major patrons of at least some arts, with the ability to direct the works they commission. And it’s further shaded by distinctions between regimes that are merely authoritarian, those that are totalitarian, and those where some of the impetus for control comes from neoliberal politics and commercial interests.

So there’s a lot to take into account in trying to make any general arguments, including the treatment of deliberately provocative and protest-based art (yes, I’m thinking about Pussy Riot here). I guess the main point is that a lot of interesting and worthwhile cultural products are subversive in some way, and gain their significance because of the friction they create.

Bank bailout vs. science

July 6, 2012 1 comment

Another quasi-political post. Brian Cox, in an interview with the BBC, described the cost of the bank bailout in the UK as more than the entire since budget ‘since Jesus’.

You may have come across Brian Cox as a very telegenic presenter of science TV shows, and he’s also professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester (and one-time keyboard player in the band D:Ream in the 1980s). Given his scientific credentials I wondered how he’d come up with Jesus as a reference point.

But look, here are the (rather sketchy and broad brush) ‘facts’ of the case. In 2009 Reuters reported the UK Treasury had spent £850 billion on the bank bailout and this figure was also reported in The Independent newspaper. The Guardian news blog tried up update the figure and offered a range of calculations in September 2011. By then the £850 billion had risen to around £955 billion and fallen back to £512 billion, and by some estimates on the blog the total level of commitments to support had at one point gone some way over the £1 trillion mark. The range of figures varies because some of the headline costs were guarantees and indemnities that weren’t called on, interest on loans was being paid back to the government, some of the cost relates to the purchase of shares in banks whose value fluctuated, and so on.

However the total cost isn’t just the cost to the Treasury, because the crisis accounts for a loss of (probably) somewhere between 11 and 13% of GDP for an unquantified number of years.

But let’s take the headline figure of £850 billion for illustrative purposes. How does that compare to government spending on science?

First off, we have a bunch of definitional problems: does ‘science’ mean only ‘hard’ sciences like physics and chemistry or are social sciences included? Does it include money spent on developing research findings into usable applications and products? Which bits of government spending qualify as being part of an overall ‘science budget’? And so on.

However the headline figure, again, is around £4.6 billion annually in recent years. And obviously this has fluctuated over time, especially if you want to project figures back into history. The idea of ‘science’ as we know it, crucially, only began to exist in the late 1600s – a little over 300 years ago. Indeed ‘England’ as we now know it hasn’t been around all the back to Jesus, but only emerged after the time of Aethelstan in the 900s AD.

But consider the relationship between the two headine figures. The government has spent (or committed) enough money to address the banking crisis to fund around 185 years of scientific research at current expenditure levels. And it’s a reasonable assumption that in proportional terms the government wasn’t spending anything like that between, say, the late 1600s and the mid-1900s – a potted history of science funding in the UK is on Wikipedia.

And that makes it a reasonable point to make that more has been spent on the banking crisis that has been spent, in total, on science right to way back to, say, 1675 when the Royal Observatory was established in Greenwich, broadly speaking the first point at which the government of the day decided to fund ‘science’ in any form we’d recognise today.

And the same would hold true, obviously, of any date prior to that because the ‘science budget’ would have been effectively zero before then. So it might have been more accurate to use 1675 as the reference point. To say more has been spent on the crisis than the total spend on science ‘since the time of Jesus’ remains accurate and clearly makes a hard political point. To go further back and say ‘since the time Stonehenge was founded’ – well, that was between 3000 and 2000 BC,  it cost a huge amount of time and effort in terms of the population of that time, and it might be regarded as a scientific project of its time.

But the point is, by any standards the disparity in spending is huge. And the disparity between fiscal and scientific results on virtually any value-for-money terms, even allowing for the fact that science requires a manufacturing and industrial base and some kind of financial regime in order to progress, has to be even larger.

Tony Robinson speaks for us all…

July 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Oh yes. On BBC’s Question Time programme, speaking about the bank crisis, he said this about the senior management of banks: ‘It’s almost like they’re not human, isn’t it? You look at them and you think these people don’t live in the same world as us.’

He says rather more (it’s a two-minute clip) about how the top managers have destroyed public trust in the banking system. And he seemed to strike a chord with everyone on the audience in the studio, and I suspect with many of us at home.

He said it on 29 June, just as the LIBOR scandal was breaking and Barclays had been fined by the FSA for its role (Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays, resigned yesterday and Bob Diamond resigned as chief executive of Barclay’s today; but it’s not just them, RBS sacked some of its traders over the emerging scandal a little while back and it looks like several other banks are in the firing line).

A bit of background on this. LIBOR, the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, is the rate charged by banks for loans between each other. It’s set by the British Bankers Association daily. If you look at historical data on the rate (which is actually not one figure but a bunch of different rates for different loan lengths), you’ll see it dropped sharply in the back end of 2008, fell through 2009, and has stayed pretty low since. There’s a timeline on the BBC website of news about the rates. The allegations made are that banks have tried both to push the rate down (essentially borrowing below a true market rate) with a number of intended consequences including hiding the levels of financial stress they were experiencing and possibly paying below true market rates to some investors, and more recently tried to push the rate up because some loans to customers were geared to LIBOR. There are more detailed statements on all this, for example on Yahoo Finance, pulled through from the Daily Telegraph. The rate is important in a whole bunch of areas, including derivatives. The extent to which any rate-fixing actually worked is currently being debated, and the financial impact on bank customers may not be known for some time.[I’ve edited this since first writing it, to reflect info from additional sources.]

All this hasn’t happened in isolation, of course, nor has it happened suddenly. We just reached a ‘tipping point’ in a story that’s been running for a couple of decades at least. Banks have lost people’s trust, but I doubt many people now think politicians, senior managers of large businesses or anyone else in authority deals fairly with the public. The automatic reaction would be: what’s the spin, what are they hiding, whose behind-the-scenes interests are being served?

And there’s one scenario, buried in the history of anthropology, that might yet emerge as a result. But I’ve got to zip out for a while and do some practical stuff, so I’ll post about that later!

Vampire update, plus trash fashion

June 26, 2012 4 comments

A couple of quick things.

Remember the ‘vampire kit’ I mentioned in the previous post, that was up for auction? Sold for £7,500 – a bit over 9,000 euros, a bit under $12,000. The upside is that the purchaser was the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (UK) and it will be on display there.

Also, today my eye caught another BBC report on a subject that interests me – trash fashion. No, not trashy fashion (well ok that can be entertaining sometimes) but the repurposing of found objects into fashion designs.

It’s a bit like something I played with for my own amusement a couple of years back, taking discarded car hubcaps and using a combination of paint and found items to turn them into masks. They were a little like tribal masks, except I don’t belong to a tribe (maybe I’m ‘untribeable’?) and don’t know any ‘tribe’ that uses such materials.

No, wait, you can see stuff like that around the place – music festivals, for example, where people like the Mutoid Waste Company show off their designs, and locations such as the Abode of Chaos in France.

And no, I don’t have the masks since we moved house though I might possibly make another one sometime if I get to a point where I have that much time on my hands.

It’s also a bit like the dada movement in art, using found objects and re-purposing, tweaking or juxtaposing them to create new effects. But in this case we’re talking about  fashion designers using old plastic bottles, bits of toys and other ‘trash’ and incorporating them into one-off designs. I like the whole re-use/re-cycle ethic and this kind of ‘up-cycling’ of trash into high-value objects via the application of imagination and design certainly appeals. Maybe because it parallels what fiction writers like me try to do – up-cycle words into attractive, interesting, attention-grabbing narratives?

The story, anyway, is on the BBC website as ‘The fashion for turning junk into art‘ (26 June 2012).

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