Wednesday, 3 July 2013

I love BBC Radio 4, but...

The other day I was listening to a podcast from BBC Radio's Archive on 4, entitled Writers and Radio. The idea of the programme was to interview a number of British writers who were born in that pre-1950s period before television became ever-present in the British sitting room, and radio was at the heart of home entertainment. The programme explored what influence on their writing early listening to the radio might have had. Fascinating in prospect - I certainly recall and cherish its influence on me.

The more I listened, though, the more I felt that the title was a misnomer: it should have read Upper Middle Class Southern Writers and Radio. So BBC Radio 4. The only guests on the hour-long programme were:

Andrew Motion educated Radley College, University College Oxford
Alan Hollinghurst, Cranford School, Magdalen College Oxford
Richard Holmes, Downside School, Churchill College Cambridge
Posy Simmonds Queen Anne's School, Sorbonne Paris, Central School of Art & Design
Tessa Hadley, school unknown but another Cambridge graduate.

Each of these a welcome contributor in their own right, but what a narrow spectrum to represent 'Writers and Radio'. I was interested enough to hear one story about cosy listening to the radio at prep school but by the time it got to the third it became a little wearisome. The succession of RP voices began to meld into another so I quickly lost sense of who was whom.

Where were the Northern voices and writers of this vintage? There's a rich choice from literature and broadcasting - off the top of my head: Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood, Barry Hines, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This is not to mention a range of possible contributors from Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

And, considering this is an 'archive' programme why was it restricted to present-day interviews? A little research could surely have provided a rich vein of comment from writers no longer with us: Alan Plater, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Shelagh Delaney, Keith Waterhouse, Dylan Thomas - just to provide some more top-of-the-head examples.

Perhaps the clue lies in the choice of presenter/interviewer: Susannah Clapp, co-founder of the London Review of Books.

Archive on 4 is a luxurious sixty minutes - plenty of time to introduce a wide range of experiences from across the geographical and class divide. I'm not asking for quota representation, but in diversity we find riches.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeing trains was like meeting my characters

Shildon in County Durham may be the the only place I've been to where there seem to be more car parking spaces in the town than people. I was there to visit Shildon Locomotion, the North East outpost of the National Railway Museum, where I'll be doing some talks and readings on Sunday 11 August. I specifically wanted to go this weekend because the museum is literally rolling out some working replicas of the the engines that competed in the Rainhill trials, along with one or two important originals - locomotives featured in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

My book on the Stephensons aside, I am no railway buff. Nevertheless I almost cried when I stepped into the railway yard alongside the museum to find an exact life-size replica of The Rocket being stoked up and ready to go. The engine (made for the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway opening) looked exactly as it does on the front cover of my book, and I felt as if I was meeting one of the central characters of my novel in the flesh.

Replica of The Rocket

The Rocket moved off down the track, giving me my first full view of Locomotion No.1 parked behind it, and not the replica this time but the original engine, standing in almost the same spot from which it started its historic journey on the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington line.

The original Locomotion No. 1

When I am doing talks I almost always read from the pages that cover the Stockton-Darlington opening. I looked upon the fine black engine today, in company with less than a dozen other visitors to the museum, and thought of the 40,000 and more who turned up on 27 September 1825 to witness the iron lady's maiden trip. Appropriately enough, as I stood watching and thinking, one of the modern trains of the Tees Valley Line came tearing by in the background, carrying passengers on the same historic route. A couple of minutes later a replica of The Planet (the first Stephenson engine to cover the Liverpool-Manchester route in less than an hour) brought a carriage-load of visitors into the museum yard the exciting way, by rail under steam power.

Replica of The Planet

More excitement for me inside the museum main building when I came across Betty Stephenson's recipe book on display, written in her own hand. Betty is possibly my favourite character in the novel and she features prominently in a talk I often do for Women's Institutes on the Stephenson women. Robert loved his stepmother, whom he called his mama. She did so much to introduce him to the finer things in life - music, poetry - which were missing from the more prosaic upbringing Robert had from his father before Betty came into the family.

Also inside the museum (a respectable little offspring of the York parent) among impressive trains of varied vintage, my wife and I discovered another replica of the Rainhill Trials, Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil.

Replica of Sans Pareil

Fine as it was in its Rainhill colours, this replica seemed to pale in comparison to the stark original which we found on display in a converted workshop next to Timothy Hackworth's cottage on the other side of town. The cottage is open to the public but it is the engine that inspires. It was a failure at Rainhill, partly because it was over the weight limit (it certainly looks much heavier than The Rocket) and partly because of a cracked cylinder (which Hackworth unfairly blamed on the Stephensons as it was made in their Forth Street workshop), but it was later improved and went into operation for a short while on the Liverpool-Manchester line.

The original Sans Pareil

I felt a little guilty as I wandered around the Hackworth end of the Shildon experience because I don't treat him particularly well as a character in my novel. Hackworth (who was born, like George Stephenson, in Wylam) became locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In one section of the novel Robert Stephenson blames him for his failure to overcome some of the early teething problems there. A more unpleasant argument occurs at Rainhill when Hackworth accuses the Stephensons of sabotage over the cracked cylinder. The historical fact is that Hackworth had twenty cylinders cast at Forth Street and personally chose the two best to use for his engine at Rainhill, so he only had himself to blame. I should acknowledge though (as I don't in my novel simply because it is not relevant to the narrative) that Timothy Hackworth played a significant part in ensuring that Locomotion No. 1 was in fit shape to pull the wagons on that dramatic opening day. There. I hope I can now perform my talks and readings at Shildon in good conscience.

Hope to see some of you there on Sunday 11 August. The whole Shildon Locomotion experience is free and well worth a visit.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cupertino effect - the dangers of spellcheckers and autocorrect

Six months ago I learned that misheard lyrics are known as mondegreens and wrote a blog posting on the subject. This week, listening to an archived podcast of the wonderful RadioLab, I learned that there is a term for the tendency of a spellchecker or autocorrect facility to come up with inappropriate words to replace words that are mis-spelled, or at least are not in its dictionary. This is the Cupertino effect.

The effect was named by writers and translators for the European Union who found that early spellcheckers could not recognize the word cooperation unless it was hyphenated. Instead they would routinely replace the word with Cupertino, the name of a Californian city which happens to be where Apple Inc is headquartered. A problem arose when an author would run an automated spellcheck on a document then fail to proof-read what the spellchecker may have 'corrected'. Even now you can come across archived official documents that contain strange phrases such as:

The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful.

South Asian Association for Regional Cupertino

...stimulating cross-border Cupertino.

Mistakes can also occur as a result of the spellchecker failing to correct a word because they recognize it from a different context. That's the premise of a lovely little spellchecker poem written a good few years ago now by Janet Minor, who describes herself as an 'internet poet'.

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC;
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I've run this poem threw it,
I'm sure your pleased too no,
Its letter perfect in it's weigh,
My checker tolled me sew.

Though spellcheckers tend to be a little more sophisticated these days it is still dangerously easy to get into difficulties if you are not careful about how your spellchecker corrects common words that you may have slightly mis-spelled. Examples I have seen quoted include:

definitely mis-spelled as definately corrected to defiantly

acquainted mis-spelled as aquainted corrected to aquatinted.

Foreign expressions and names can cause a problem for English language spellcheckers. A lawyer using the Latin phrase sua sponte ('of one's own accord') found the phrase corrected to sea sponge. A Reuters report referring to Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement was changed by a spellchecker to read Muttonhead Quail Movement.

One of the best examples of automated name changes I've seen comes from a student yearbook published by a high school in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The student register should have included these real names:

Max Zupanovic
Kathy Carbaugh
Alessandra Ippolito
William and Elizabeth Givler
Cameron Bendgen
Courtney and Kayla Hrobak

But those students would have looked in vain for their names. The spellchecker had 'corrected' them to:

Max Supernova
Kathy Airbag
Alexandria Impolite
William and Elizabeth Giver
Cameron Bandage
Courtney and Kayla Throwback

Sometimes individuals and organizations create their own correction problems by customising their spellcheck software. To introduce the first example, let me ask you to make the connection between these two images:

Reuters of London's stylebook instructs its journalists reporting on the monarch of England always to use her full name 'Queen Elizabeth' rather than 'the Queen'. As a reminder or reinforcement Reuter's spellcheck software is customised to autocorrect to the default convention. A problem occurred with a news release in October 2006 about the genetic code of the honey bee. No-one spotted before publication that the article included the following odd phrases:

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behaviour.

Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.

Even more amusing, in my view, is the 2008 headline that read:

Homosexual eases into 100m final at Olympic trials

This was a delicious error perpetrated by the far right fundamentalist Christian group, the American Family Association (AFA).  Their website re-posts news of interest, but heavily censored for content. This group's autocorrect facility is set to alter the word 'gay' to 'homosexual', apparently because 'gay' is not a word they wish to see associated with a practice they regard as abhorrent.

The article in question, however, was about the American sprinter Tyson Gay, who easily won his semi-final at the Olympic trials. According to The AFA version of the article:

Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has... "It means a lot to me," the 25-year-old Homosexual said: "I'm glad my body could do it, because now I know I have it in me."

The news director later told a reporter: "We took the filter out for that word" after Tyson Homosexual surfaced on the site. "We don't object to the word gay except when it refers to people who practise a homosexual lifestyle."

That's all right, then.

I began by saying that the Cupertino effect as named was a problem for early spellcheckers, but the general danger still exists not only for PC users but perhaps especially for modern texters whose fingers sometimes work faster than their brains. Predictive text and Smartphones with dictionary supported keyboards that can automatically replace 'mistakes' may be a help or a hindrance. I'll leave you with a link to Damn You Autocorrect and its list of 25 Funniest Autocorrects. They are a caution.

Now I'd better proof-read this carefully before posting - you just can't trust those damn spellcheckers.

Monday, 13 May 2013

New ways to make writing and journalism pay

Let me say immediately that the examples I've quoted below are not drawn from my own research. I'm merely providing a synopsis of a very good booklet Help Yourself by Tim Dawson and Alex Klaushofer which was commissioned by and available from an organisation of which I am a member, The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). Also, as this is a UK body, the examples are mostly from the UK, though I would very much like to hear about other examples from around the world.

The authors note how the move to digital content is transforming the worlds of publishing and journalism but rather than simply bemoan the loss of traditional markets they show by these examples how some have seen the revolution as an opportunity to find new ways of making their writing pay, or at least move into a position where there could be a paying proposition in the near future.

The Blizzard  A pay-what-you-like football quarterly available in print or electronically. Launched in May 2011 by editor and co-owner Jonathan Wilson, this is a publication for the 'thinking fan', running articles of up to 13,000 words on the state of football (soccer) throughout the world. The USP is that readers can opt to pay a quarterly subscription of as little as a penny, plus post and packing for the print edition, though the recommended price is £12. The digital edition is available at £3 per quarter. Contributors, some of whom are well-known sports journalists, are paid (admittedly below the traditional market rate) and the magazine has already built enough of a committed readership prepared to pay enough to make the venture profitable. Almost all of the marketing is done through social media.

Bike To Work An ebook funded by advertising. Carlton Reid, a former editor and publisher of trade cycling magazine BikeBiz, persuaded enough advertisers to invest in his new idea to create a full colour 112-page magazine for those who bike to work or want to, and to offer it for free. By 2012 Reid's book had ben downloaded 350,000 times and generated more than £25,000 in advertising revenue. In the same vein, Reid is now completing Roads Are Not Built For Cars, which will be available in the summer of 2013. 

Disability News Service John Pring is the founder editor of this small subscription news agency which serves the disability sector. Subscribers pay up to £350 each month for a batch of news stories Pring researches, writes and delivers every Friday. Clients have a non-exclusive right to use their stories on their websites and in their printed publications. Started in April 2009, the business was slow to get off the ground but now has twenty regular subscribers, generating revenues of £18,000-£20,000 a year.

The Ambler A grant-funded community newspaper and daily updated website. The paper is produced by the Amble Development Trust with the aim of revitalising this Northumberland village as its traditional coal mining and fishing industries have declined or disappeared. It also provides a community forum and volunteering opportunities - indeed most of the stories are written by volunteers. Every house and business in Amble and beyond receive a copy of The Ambler free. The print costs of £1,200 per issue are met by advertising while the business is underpinned by funding agencies such as the Sir James Knott Trust and the local council. A similar venture in South Wales, the Port Talbot MagNet is currently sustained by a research grant from the Media Standards Trust. Another is Filton Voice, described as a sustainable hyperlocal magazine for a well-defined area of Bristol - the key to succes here is in offering affordable advertising for the opportunity to get right into one particular neighbourhood, supported by good editorial content relevant to the target audience.

Guido Fawkes At the other end of the scale to community newspapers is the Guido Fawkes website, a mix of insider gossip and invective about the political class which has been published by Paul Staines since 2004. His site attracts more than two million visitors a month and generates average monthly advertising revenue in excess of £4,000. He makes roughly the same again selling stories to the print media and from his regular column in the Daily Star. Staines says himself, "I don't know anyone else who is making proper money from blogs - by which I mean six figures or more."

Kindle Singles Amazon's Kindle Singles format is intended to bridge the gap between magazine articles, which are rarely over 5,000 words long, and books, which are generally upward of 60,000 words. 'Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length' is the tagline Amazon uses, and there is clearly a market as over two million Singles have been sold since their launch in January 2011. This could be the model for long-form journalism in the future, though in the UK currently the most successful Singles authors have been writers of fiction, including Kerry Wilson, a debut novelist from Lancashire whose novel Locked In has notched up sales of several hundreds of thousands since its publication as a Kindle Single in 2011. 

How To Play Bass Making use of YouTube, Paul Wolfe's online subscription bass guitar tutorial is making more than £70,000 a year, and growing. Wolfe is systematic about choosing which video clips to record and upload by first checking with people in his target profile what their 'pain points' are (specific needs they are struggling to fulfil), secondly searching on YouTube himself to see if those needs are met by others and, if not, devising videos to address those specific points. He also sells clients additional bass guitar-related courses and materials from his website. "YouTube is a fantastically powerful way to drive an audience to your site," Wolfe says.

Skulls Published first as an enhanced ebook and only later followed by a lavish print edition, Simon Winchester's Skulls, published by Touchpress, proves that digital and physical book can be  mutually complementary, each cross-fertilising the sales of the other. The enhanced edition features over 300 animal and human skulls which are rotatable at the touch of an iPad. The images are accompanied by essays read by Winchester, an interview with the skull collector Adam Dudley and other features such as the option to view the skulls in 3D. The print edition, published nearly a year later than the ebook in October 2012, builds on the back of the success of the many-times downloaded app.

Sail Racing Magazine Launched in January 2011, Sail Racing may be the first back-bderoom iPad magazine. Within eighteen months Justin Chisholm's app had been downloaded 85,000 times and hundreds of new readers are being added every week. Chisholm, a freelance writer for a decade before he started this new project, began with £10,000 capital and relied mainly on word of mouth to build his readership, although he did undertake some advertising on Facebook and is a keen user of social media to get his marketing message across. Beating many of the established sailing titles into the app store, he was able to attract some big brand advertising - now those titles are trying desperately to catch up.

Beststory This Canadian-based news site offers premium journalism with no advertising. Feature-length stories, which range from 1,500 to 12,000-plus words, cover a broad range of social, political and cultural affairs, all exclusive to the site, and offered to readers on a pay-as-you-go basis. The driving idea of founder Warren Perley is to educate readers about the need to pay for good writing. Subscription costs are modest - following a free teaser, readers pay a fee of 40 cents to access the full story. There are three packages available: the lowest a bundle of three stories at $1.20 and the highest $10 worth of articles. Contributors earn a royalty of around 25%, with copyright protected by digital locks on the full-length stories.

Do you know of any more good examples of new ways to make writing and journalism pay? If so, leave a comment and point us in the right direction.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Confused comics

Here's a little anagram quiz for you. My son Joe wrote the first five as part of a Comic Relief quiz he set at work, and I added five for him to have a go at. The answer to each anagram is the name of a stand-up comedian. Answers are in the first Comment. Good luck.