Sunday, September 13, 2009

This blog is brought to you by...

A recent re-run of CSI New York, where Danny Messer (rough and ready Italian New Yorker / science geek) and Sheldon Hawkes (African-American child prodigy medical examiner) are engaged in a deep and well-scripted dialogue about the current investigation, when Danny's 'cell phone' rings. The ring tone is Coldplay song, 'Talk', with the next 5-10 seconds of action plummeting into blatant, full-frontal product placement. After the show the ring tone was offered to viewers (in the USA) as a download.

What's wrong with this scene? For many viewers, perhaps not a lot; fans of Coldplay, for example, will have no doubt been delighted. The legislators who outlawed subliminal messaging would also be satisfied that absolutely nothing about this type of product placement can be construed as an attempt at unconscious and unethical influence. The producers get paid, providing vital, extra revenue to secure the employment of stars and staff alike, and the CSI junkies are safe in the knowledge that the series will continue to run, not just because it can make money for itself, but because CBS thinks it's worthy of a partnership first with Capitol Records.

I'm not a big fan of Coldplay; indeed, I'd go as far as to say that I don't like them at all. Even so, had Danny's ringtone been the Foo Fighters' latest single I wouldn't feel any different about this hard sell in the middle of a fairly decent crime drama series. I choose to watch it to escape from the mundane realities of work, bill-paying, shopping and so forth - a choice that already carries a hefty price tag. A quick check of my bank balance reveals that the current, full subscription for Sky TV is £47 a month; add to this the UK TV Licence at £142.50 per annum, the cost of maintenance and electricity to run receiver equipment and I estimate that watching this one episode of CSI New York has cost me about 40p.

On top of this, the one hour of broadcast time given over to the episode contains anywhere between 9 and 20 minutes of advertising. Then there's the 'message from our sponsors' - publishers of trashy crime fiction who lead me to question whether I want to be a member of the CSI demograph. Surely we're paying handsomely enough to enjoy our increasingly miniscule segments of entertainment in ad-free innocence? Instead, it's more akin to watching an illusionist's show, always on the look-out for the trick in case we unwittingly succumb to the powers of suggestion.

The BBC reporting a review of product placement on British TV so soon after Derren Brown's National Lottery prediction is ironic perfection. Accordingly, "There are currently strict rules against product placement and this ban would remain in place on BBC shows." (BBC News). Evidently, the strict rules still allow for Channel 4 to place the National Lottery product in the middle of one of its shows - a BBC production that is, lest we forget, advertising a commercial product. As if Derren isn't capable enough of using "suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship" to coerce his guests and viewers into doing whatever he wants them to do; product placement is pure serendipity for the man allegedly banned from all casinos, not that I imagine he needs the cash.

All of this would be marginally improved by a revisit to the past, where Virgin won the contract for the National Lottery. Richard Branson promised a not-for-profit venture with jackpot capping - that's Virgin for you - palatable and benevolent as always. However, philanthropic as he might be, Sir Richard's capacity to purchase an entire island is a stark reminder that he is one of the most successful capitalists the UK has ever honoured. Aye, there's the rub.

Still, there's a significant difference between covering labels in soap operas to avoid accidentally endorsing a product and deliberate centre-stage shooting, with or without accompanying lack-lustre dialogue ("you're a great screen-writer, but what we need here is a couple of seconds about Fairy Liquid, you know, something like 'Know that I will always remember you, your hands as soft as your face...'"). The former is excusable to a certain extent. If it's 'real life' drama then of course we can expect the characters to be eating Cadbury's Dairy Milk, wiping with Andrex etc. But where does that fit in with the ineptly titled 'Britain's Got Talent'?

Product placement, according to an 'ITV spokesperson', "means better-funded content - which can only be good news for viewers". In other words, in a world where free online content and file sharing are essentially stealing revenue from the networks (providing viewers with more choice and control), blatant placement of products will shore up the jobs and salaries of all those terrified directors and CEOs. The extra marketing outlet will subsequently increase sales for manufacturers, the books will balance, so long recession. And they all lived happily ever after.

As a social scientist I've learned to 'switch off' in the ad breaks and then switch on again afterwards. I envisage a future where I won't just be mentally switching off, or indeed switching back on again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eddie Iz Running

Eddie running through Burscough for Comic Relief

[View Photos]

I had the privilege of shaking hands with the awesome Eddie Izzard today - a truly humbling experience, considering that not only is this one of the funniest comedians in the world, but also, more importantly, he was about 22 miles into his fifteenth marathon for Comic Relief / Sport Relief. Because it's important, the link for donating is here:

Comic Relief

You can also follow his amazing and crazy antics on Twitter.

And so, on to the other reasons to love (and support) Eddie Izzard.

It's fairly safe to assume everyone knows Eddie is a transvestite. He wears make-up extraordinarily well; some of his outfits are beyond stunning and one can only marvel at the fact that the man doesn't fall over himself, charging about the stage in 3+ inch high heels. He simultaneously manages to shove his transvestism in your face and just 'be it'. Whilst others in the limelight would be mortified by the prospect of their cross-dressing being declared of public interest, Eddie proudly displays his identity for all to see.

Unlike most British people, he's taken the time to learn a language other than English. The rest of us are too idle or too arrogant to bother, but Eddie is fluent in French and even though I don't understand some bits of his sketch about being bilingual, it remains one of my favourites, because he has this knack of taking the mundane and making it sublimely funny. It is his lack of ignorance in general and Britishness in particular that makes him one of the best ambassadors the UK has ever had.

From Star Wars (Death Star Canteen for example) to Bee-keeping (Covered in Bees), Eddie's eclecticism shows off his intellect and quick wit. Now, there are other comedians who do this kind of 'off-the-wall' observation comedy fairly well, but they don't quite have that sense of being one of us. There's always a quick snipe at someone, a negative undercurrent. Eddie's comedy is always optimistic.

"We could be the biggest melting pot in the world. 500 million people. All we've got to do is melt a bit, just move it around."

It's easy for me to say 'I love Eddie Izzard' because I have always agreed with what he says. I simply do not understand racism, or indeed prejudice of any sort. Oh, I know the academic explanations like the back of my hand, and it is the one and only set of theories that make me think 'what a load of bollocks'. "Men and Women are fundamentally different" stated an article I read a couple of days ago in 'Psychology Today' and yet they have so much more in common than any other species on this planet as to be essentially identical. And, yes, I do mean essentially.

Whilst there are undeniable differences between us, they are the makings of a richer experience in this world. I love being able to talk to other people about their religious beliefs or culture, going into these interchanges as I do, with a naivete that is possibly bordering on tactless, but genuine, innocent, curiosity and interest. My RE class were a long way from complaining when we sat for five minutes after school finished just to listen to the wonder that is the call to prayer in Istanbul. We just have to take the time and effort to appreciate each other and share what we have.

It might all sound naive and idealistic, but I don't care because Eddie Izzard is on my side. On his blog about his run for Comic Relief he explains the thinking for 'his mission':


I'm not going to propose 'Eddie Izzard for Prime Minister' because it would be a dreadful waste, but I hope he's about when the Vulcans make first contact.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Another $

Two weeks of summer holidays, many hours of website building, a few less planning for September and another day of too much caffeine. The urge to write swelled as a scream of frustration in my throat, causing me to quit all running applications and come here. These words are an author's asylum, at the break of the tide that refuses to turn and let me write, godamnit.

It's this thing I have, somewhere between Obsessive Compulsive and Autistic Spectrum Disorder, that keeps me from leisure, ergo from writing, because that is what I perceive my engagement in writing to be, a belief essentially sustained by the responses of those around me. There is always so much more to be done that I can attain and to misappropriate tasks to others for the pursuance of artistic endeavour is just plain absurd. It is this thing that I have.

Thus, in order to engage in recreation of any sort, it is first necessary to clear the decks of all clutter, however laborious or arduous that might be. I've even tried writing whilst surrounded with work and other garbage, but it just gets in the way of a solid train of thought, obscuring the path between beginnings and endings.

For now this is a beginning and an ending, or perhaps a pause. One can but hope.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

It's a terrible thing to get spammed by people who are actually in your address book, worse still when it looks a lot like they didn't read what they forwarded on beforehand, or at least didn't consider the content and whether it had any credibility. I like to think that this is because they know I, on their behalf, will cast a critical eye and comment on the matters at hand. I'm going to anyway.

So, you know the drill... these lil arrows >> indicate that the text is the forwarded message, commentary in italics.

>> > This is a true story

This is a RED FLAG everyone! Any body of narrative that starts with the words 'This is a true story' generally is about as far from the truth as unicorns sitting in wait on crocks of gold at the end of the rainbow, waiting for unsuspecting leprechauns to meander their way.

Anyway, on we go into the abyss of fantasy.

> >
> >
> >
> > Last month I attended my annual training session that's
> > required for maintaining my prison security clearance.

Note: the presentation described below focuses on cultural diversity and presumably tolerance of said diversity. True, training days can include sessions on an array of useful topics, but I'm intrigued by the choice given that this is a prison security clearance training session.

This could be a particularly forward thinking prison, who provides training to the prisoners I suppose.

> >
> > During the training session there was a presentation by
> > three speakers representing the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim
> > faiths, who explained each of their beliefs. I was particularly
> > interested in what the Islamic Imam had to say.

Here is the start of the problem - "Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim" - seemingly all Muslim faiths are the same, whilst all Christian faiths are not.

One hopes that the particular interest in the Imam's presentation was to do with embracing cultures different to our own and trying to understand a little more about others.

Alas how quickly one's hopes can be dashed.

> >
> > The Imam gave a great presentation of the basics of
> > Islam, complete with a video.
> >
> > After the presentations, time was provided for
> > questions and answers.
> >
> > When it was my turn, I directed my question to the Imam
> > and asked: "Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but I understand that most
> > Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a holy jihad [Holy war] against
> > the infidels of the world and, that by killing an infidel, (which is a
> > command to all Muslims) & in turn they are assured of a place in heaven.
> > If that's the case, can you give me the definition of an infidel?" There
> > was no disagreement with my statements and, without hesitation,
> >

Hesitating on the Imam's behalf here, is it just me, or does this seem like an arrogant, scathing attack on someone who was kind enough to speak at a training event for prison staff, who are mostly white and could, based on this evidence, very much do with a good education on these matters?

> > He replied, "Non-believers!'"

(And no doubt thought "Especially idiots like you.")
> >
> > I responded, "So, let me make sure I have this
> > straight. All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who
> > is not of your faith so they can have a place in heaven.... Is that
> > correct?'"

Your Honour, he is leading the witness. Ah now, there's another group who generally get a raw deal - in fact Jehovah's Witnesses used to be public enemy number one around here, until a few incidents involving specific individuals of Islamic faith and of course that means they're all terrorists.

Incidentally, Jehovah's Witnesses believe in Jesus, the son of God. For most 'Christians' that loosely approximates to same thing, like Muslim = Osama Bin Laden.

> >
> > The expression on his face changed from one of
> > authority and command to that of 'a little boy who had just been caught
> > with his hand in the cookie jar.' He sheepishly replied,....'Y e s.'

Or perhaps someone who was trying really hard not to punch the living daylights out of their interrogator.

> >
> > I then stated, 'Well, I have a real problem trying to
> > imagine Pope Benedict commanding all Catholics to kill those of your faith
> > or Dr. Stanley ordering all Protestants to do the same in order to
> > guarantee them a place in heaven!'

OK, so my knowledge on ecumenical matters doesn't quite extend as far as to document the thousands of years of bathing in blood that Catholics and Protestants have to back them up, and that's just what they do to each other, never mind the Crusades, the rape of Turkey, Henry VIII changing his religion only slightly less often than his spouse and definitely more often than his underwear.

> >
> > The Imam was speechless!

Hoping that the plank in the uniform would stop if he didn't provoke him.
> >
> > I continued,
Darn, that failed then.
'I also have a problem with being your
> > 'friend' when you and your brother clerics are telling your followers to
> > kill me!
> >
> > Let me please ask you a question. Would you rather have
> > your Allah, who tells you to kill me in order for you to go to
> > heaven,..... or my Jesus who tells me to love you because I am going to
> > heaven and He wants you to be there with me?'

My Jesus. MY Jesus?

And you think you're going to heaven?

> >
> > You could have heard a pin drop as the Imam remained
> > speechless.
> >
> > Needless to say, the organizers and promoters of the
> > 'Diversification' training seminar were not happy with this way of dealing
> > with the Islamic Imam and exposing the truth about the Muslims' beliefs.

Alternatively, the organisers were devastated that their session on Diversification had been hijacked by a faith terrorist and apparently failed to teach anything useful about diversity at all.
> >
> > Within twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters
> > in the U.K. (assuming that the patterns of immigration continue to follow the same trend and that all children of Muslim immigrants continue to follow their parents' faith) to elect a government of their choice (and again assuming they all choose to vote), complete with sharia
> > law (AND they vote for Muslim candidates, overthrow the House of Lords and sidestep the Queen who is sovereign) - there's also no full stop at the end of this sentence. I think everyone in the U.K. should be required to read this, but with
> > the Liberal justice system, liberal media and political correctness
> > madness, there is no way this will be widely publicised.

I agree - everyone should read this - along with Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel...
> >
> > Please pass this on to all" your e-mail contacts."

I didn't.

> >
> > xxx xxx MBE. MIDSc Impressive - letters after the name, but I've removed that just in case. But an MBE? I think I got one of those in a Christmas cracker or a Kinder egg once.

> > This incident happened in
> > London

But it could have been anywhere really, and does it matter? Just because it originated in our 'great' capital city, does that make it more credible, urgent or otherwise justification for ignorant racism?

I'd emphasise the word 'ignorant' but I'm already in italics.

Monday, January 19, 2009

All The Small Things

I've just been reading David Dean Bottrell's blog Parts and Labor, as well as watching his short film Available Men. Now here is a very talented writer, who presents some bizarre observations of life in L.A. - nothing out of the ordinary and yet extraordinary at the same time. It's all in the way it's written of course.

So, it got me motivated to write something too, not really knowing what I would write about. That's the difficulty with being a teacher - so many absurdly funny things happen in the course of a day in a high school, yet to write about them without crossing the boundaries of professionalism is a virtually impossible task.

Students remember teachers. They are usually one of our top five when asked to identify people who were most influential in our lives, not always for the right reasons. Nonetheless teachers have a remarkable impact on students. Conversely some students do not leave a lasting impression on teachers and for the most part when they do it is for absolutely the wrong reasons.

This is a passing observation of overheard conversations and reminiscences of others, because teaching for me has been about the students and there is so much of a sense of achievement to be had from their achievements that it is easy to forget the rare occasions when things don't go according to plan.

For example: a couple of years ago (indeed twice that) I was teaching a year 9 history class. Now, one could speculate, based on my request to not teach year 9 history the following year, resulting in me teaching two classes of it instead, that I am reasonably good at this. However, history was one of my worse subjects at school, added to which more than a decade of studying social science has turned me into an evidence snob who demands empiricism and shuns anecdotes from the trenches. Notwithstanding all of the above I did my best.

We were studying Native American culture and I came up with the idea of making tepees on the school field - a great plan which inspired the students, who got together right away and set to work on the designs for their teepee. It all looked great on paper. Alas, the following week, when they were all to bring sheets to make their tepees only one student actually arrived with an interesting circa 1974 floral nylon sheet. Now, we could all have crowded around our one beige and brown tent and even taken turns to sit inside, but for one other slight problem. I forgot to bring the sticks. Fortunately for me the rain saved me from confessing, but for the record I'm really sorry!

A year later I was clearing out the boot of my car and still I could not bring myself to dispose of the paper and skewer substitutions created in that lesson. I had enough miniature tepees to set up an entire Sioux model village, all adorned with various buffalo designs and whatnot. Later still, after I finally plucked up the courage to throw away their hard work, I found their World War I projects in a cupboard and once more, wracked with guilt, dutifully extracted the paper from each and placed it into the recycling bin. It was like taking the clothes of a deceased loved one to the charity shop.

I wonder if those students remember their tepees? Will they in years to come tell friends and children about them? Will I one day get an Friend Request on Facebook that asks "Have you still got my tepee Miss?".

It's fascinating to think that one can become immortalised simply by being a teacher. Mr. Wright was the one for me - he had a missing tooth and a dog called Brandy (I recall). He played the piano (Mr. Wright, not Brandy) and called me McGillyGoody. I showed promise in Maths and Music, both his specialisms, and may even have been his favourite student.

He was eccentric, a little erratic, ultimately one of those teachers who was either loved or hated. I loved him. He made me want to learn and he taught me many things. With Mr. Wright long multiplication was a breeze and I didn't even mind when he wrote my name in massive scrawl across the board as a means of drawing attention to my achievements.

Back then pupil work wasn't evidence, so I doubt he saved any of mine, or anyone else's for that matter. I wouldn't be hurt to find out that he didn't and, now as a teacher, I'd understand. But it would still be nice to think that I too had an impact on him, however small that might be.

Even as small as a miniature tepee.