Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shelf Life, live in Tokyo in 2010

Flyer by D1 Designs

I'm thrilled to announce that after two years since our last live show together, Shelf Life will finally be playing live again in less than 10 days. Back in the old haunt, we'll be playing Rubber Soul again during my forthcoming trip to Japan, on Sunday September 5th.

As usual, entry is free and we'll be on stage from about 7PM. We'll be playing a familiar set (to regular attenders) of material from the 'Best Before End' album and a splendid time should be guaranteed for all. Click the above link for a map of getting to the venue.

We'll look forward to seeing you down the front, and in the meantime, here's 'Louie Louie' to get you in the mood:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Internet in numbers (WN0032)

A nicely produced little video here that gives some idea of the scale of the Internet, at least in terms of social network users last year. Attractive use of colours, fonts and images too, I thought.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not for the faint hearted

In order that I don't spend my entire life in the classrooms at work or in front of a screen at home and as a way to network occasionally with the likes of local writers, I joined the Brighton-based Write Club last year. It's an informal network of local writers that meet up from time to time to chat about writerly stuff and perhaps share the odd idea or two. The informality of it is one of the attractions, I think.

Every now and again, members of the network organise events and I went along to one last night. A workshop that might fit into a category of 'live flash fiction', 'fiction slam' or 'fiction jam' (pick your label of choice), the event consisted of a series of images and short deadlines within which attendees were tasked with writing a piece of short fiction/prose/poetry based on whatever thoughts the images triggered off, which would then be read out to the assembled crowd. It was subtitled 'Not for the faint hearted' and I must admit that I was slightly nervy about the prospect, to the point where I'd rehearsed a range of possible character sketches and rough plotlines that I could dip into should the need arise. In the end, it turned out that coming with a blank mind was a better bet and none of my characters ended up making it into any of the pieces that I wrote.

It was actually a fascinating exercise in writing under pressure and I ended up writing something for each picture. It seems that images out of context can make great triggers for writing from. Although they may not work at all now without the context of the original photographs, I thought I'd reproduce here the brief works that I came up with. They are all untitled, as I was trying to make the best use of the time available and I find that titles can come better later.

The first picture was of a series of paintings leaning up against a wall down on Brighton beach as the sun was setting. We were given 15 minutes to write, the longest stretch of the night. I came up with the following refugee tale:

'art studio, brighton' by raysto, issued under CC-BY-NC-SA license
It was a surprise, yes, but not in a bad way. We'd been through so many others that had been such negative experiences that it felt good to have the kind that creeps up behind you and throws its arms around you in a welcoming embrace rather than the kind that hits you forcefully between the eyes.

Getting out of Freetown alive had been a surprise. Although it had got us here, the journey by boat, somehow sneaking in to Spain, the shocks of life on the road in France had all been sucker punches in their own ways. The stories we'd heard about how people like us get treated once we arrived in England were little electrical shocks, each tale tripping off a tremor of fear.

When my sister and I finally ended up in this coastal city, away from the madness of London but with its own, slightly softer sense of crazy, Amelia lost her bag on the beach. All the photos we'd carried with us, the two of us together at a birthday party, Mum and Dad in happier times, disappeared.

It was a surprise then when a week later, we were walking along the beach letting the setting evening sun tickle our skin, and two faces jumped out at me from a canvas leaning up against a brick wall. The two faces, both wearing a sense of African sadness, were ours. Somebody must have found her bag.

The second picture was of a sign that boldly misspelled 'No Technology'. This time, we were given only three minutes. For some reason, it reminded me of the Korean border, even though the signs I saw there were probably erected by the Americans and mainly read things like 'Danger: Landmines':

'No Technology in Brighton' by Sammy0716, issued under CC-BY-SA license
'Didn't you do anything while you were in Seoul', he asked with a grin on his face. 'I thought you were supposed to be teaching them English'.

'I did', I replied with a smirk to return his. 'But the Korean Luddite League wouldn't listen to anything I did with a computer. Should have used a pen and paper'.

After the break, we were shown a picture of three people standing against the force of a huge wave that crashed over one of the stone jetties near Brighton Pier. I pulled out a memory of a hotel I once stayed in near the sea and imagined one of the people coming in at breakfast time. We were given 10 minutes this time:

'Splash' by AndyWilson, issued under CC-BY-NC-ND license
The bell at the top of the door tinkled merrily as it ushered another guest into the hotel. This time there was no tapping of heels on the hardwood floor or the soft pad of Hush Puppies with which to build a picture of who I might be avoiding the stare of over breakfast. Instead was a 'swish, swish', like two pairs of sodden jeans hitting each other on a clothes line in the wind. The footsteps stopped and were followed by a persistent dripping - a tap with a worn out washer behind a closed door.

With a sharp inhalation of breath, a man walked into the breakfast lounge looking as if he'd just been dragged from a birthday party in the open ocean.

The hotelier nervously shuffled up to him with her papers and a clipboard.

'Can I help you?' she cautiously enquired.

'Yes. Four white towels please' was his booming response.

Another three minutes image came on the form of a pair of ladies shoes cast aside on the pavement. I remembered the exhilaration of my first visit to Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo and of discovering one of the city's green lungs - the overwhelming need I had to get a little city out of my hair:

'Abandoned Shoes, Brunswick Square, Brighton' by DG Jones, issued under CC-BY-NC license
She was desperate to feel the grass between her toes. So desperate that as soon as she left the skyscrapers, the metro, the gliding traffic behind her, she kicked off her shoes and ran towards the lush green carpet. The paving stones that preceded it merely served as her launch pad.

Two minutes this time and a picture that I might have taken myself when the seafront was covered in snow last winter - the only time I've ever seen snow on Brighton beach. The picture was of a snow-covered fishing boat:

'Brighton' by Howzey, issued under CC-BY-NC-ND license
Vessel like whale jaw
With dandruff coating
Beach as dusted
But no-one's boating

The final image, and I think another two minuter, was of a couple of kids sat at the Dolphin Derby game on Brighton Pier, with an array of stuffed toys over their heads:

'Brighton Pier - England' by geoftheref, issued under CC-BY-ND license
'If you throw one hard enough', he said ' you can bring the whole lot down'.

'All I want is an octopus', I replied. 'It's all I've ever wanted'.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, I got to meet some new people that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise and came to understand that one doesn't have to spend ages faffing around worrying about what to write. Sometimes it's better to just put pen straight to paper, give yourself a tight deadline and see what flows.

Comments welcomed if you like or dislike any of the tales that ended up flowing out last night.

**UPDATE** The original post did not contain any of the pictures used in the event. I've since found them and included them in the post. I think it helps to connect image with words. Thanks to James Burt for the links to the photos (and for organising/hosting the event).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On The Bomb (or should that be 'The Bombs'?)

As most museums do, one room contains a series of artefacts from the era (or their replicas) under glass cases. On the opposite wall from the one you enter, there is a black suppository-shaped object with a square tail - a model of 'Little Boy', the wreaker of all the original destruction. Given that the original one exploded about 580 metres above the city, this one could only be a replica. On the wall immediately to the right as you enter the room, is a case containing a mock-up of children that survived the blast wandering amongst the devastation of the city. The waxwork nature of the dummies probably adds to the effect brought on by the ragged clothes they are wearing and the straggled hair falling from their scalps, but it nevertheless brings a possible moment from that day vividly back again for modern-day observers.

Between these two cases lies another, containing a slab of stone marked only by a dark smear. At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the piece of stone until further inspection reveals the stain to be shadow of a man seared into the stone face - a man who had been climbing the steps of the city bank at 8.15AM, August 6th 1945. We don't usually think of shadows as being physical things that are able to have an afterlife, much less be captured for posterity. But to imagine watching a man being instantly vaporised, to the point where his shadow is all that remains of him, is quite a remarkable thought.

August 9th marked a gruesome anniversary, and one that came three days after another. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both bombed 65 years ago, causing the deaths of over 200,000 people and ushering in the nuclear age. Debate still rages on today about the ethics of US President Truman's fateful decision to order the dropping of the bombs. One side talks of Imperial Japan's war crimes of the time, the country's subsequent government's failure in the eyes of some to adequately atone for such actions and the idea that this decision hastened the end of the war and subsequently saved a further hundreds of thousands of lives by avoiding the need for a land invasion. Other sides consider it to have been a barbarous act that human beings did to each other, side-stepping a position of nationalist self-interest and looking at the inhumanity of dropping such a weapon. This is the position taken by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which factors Japan's imperial aggression into its exhibitions and purposefully avoids a position of anti-Americanism.

At 65 years old, it is high time that the nuclear age was retired.

The pessimist's view

This year, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to 6 minutes to midnight. The Clock, an initiative from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has become universally recognised as an indicator of the proximity of the planet to catastrophe, particularly from nuclear weapons. It was brought back from 5 minutes to midnight, its last position in 2007, due to initiatives between Washington and Moscow for a renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and Barack Obama becoming the first American President to publicly call for a nuclear-weapon-free world. As the above graph shows, this still places the clock perilously close to the midnight hour and still the fifth highest point the Clock has ever been.

After a long and uncharacteristic spell out of the limelight, Fidel Castro has been making his presence felt again in recent months. One of the few figures on the international stage still remaining from the 1950s (aside from Elizabeth II), he was a major player in the period generally recognised as one of the closest times the world has come to nuclear war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As an aside, even though this period in world history may well have been briefly terrifying for those that lived through it, in 1963 the Doomsday Clock was set at 12 minutes to midnight, one of its lowest points in its history. Two decades later, as America and the USSR faced off against each other in a Cold War peak, it reached its second highest point at 3 minutes to midnight.

Anyway, Castro seems to have come out of retirement to make a series of predictions of nuclear war in the Middle East. His analysis of the complex interplay of relationships between Israel, Iran and the US, with the added potential of India and Pakistan letting something off while a window of opportunity opens could be seen as the paranoid fears of an old man looking for a final word while he still can. On the other hand, they could be taken as a warning from a man that has the experience and knowledge of the international stage to know when something's going on.

Growing up in the 1980s, I learned of the terrifying prospect of a 'nuclear winter' - the climatic effects of a nuclear war that would produce consequences so severe that social collapse would be inevitable and billions of people far from the conflict zone would face immediate famine. With more states now possessing nuclear weapons than the original five who had them during the 80s, it would seem that the threat has not gone away. The science that went into the original nuclear winter research has now been updated, reporting the following findings with subsequent implications:

New Science:
  • A minor nuclear war (such as between India and Pakistan or in the Middle East), with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is only 0.03% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.
  • This same scenario would produce global ozone depletion, because the heating of the stratosphere would enhance the chemical reactions that destroy ozone.
  • A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet.
  • The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than we previously thought. New climate model simulations, that have the capability of including the entire atmosphere and oceans, show that the smoke would be lofted by solar heating to the upper stratosphere, where it would remain for years.

New Policy Implications:
  • The only way to eliminate the possibility of this climatic catastrophe is to eliminate the nuclear weapons. If they exist, they can be used.
  • The spread of nuclear weapons to new emerging states threatens not only the people of those countries, but the entire planet.
  • Rapid reduction of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals will set an example for the rest of the world that nuclear weapons cannot be used and are not needed.
(source: Alan Robock; text issued under Creative Commons license)

The optimist's view

Happily, there has indeed been quite significant progress towards large reductions in American and Russian weaponry stockpiles, as shown above. Obama has made laudable moves in this direction, particularly after the posturing of his predecessor (who nevertheless also reduced America's nuclear weapons). He naturally faces significant obstacles in attempts to do this and there are many who say that his new treaty with Moscow does not go far enough, but when facing absolute darkness, one must hold on to whatever glimmers of light come along.

With last year's ratification of the Treaty of Pelindaba, Africa has joined Latin America, the Caribbean, Australasia and other parts of the planet as Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones (where the use, development or deployment of nuclear weapons is banned), and pushing the percentage of the Earth's land surfaces now declared a Nuclear-Weapons-Free up to 56% (from a previous year's figure of 34%. The full map of non-nuclear zones can be seen below.

In a rare sign of relative success for international conferences organised by the likes of the UN, this year's review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was deemed a success, with the 189 signatory member states reaching agreement on further steps towards disarmament. This included a commitment to a 2012 conference on making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Perhaps we have teetered once too close to the brink of the abyss again and are finally starting to realise that there is no going down that route is we are to survive as a species. That said, the US has still recently admitted that it does have plans to attack Iran if they deem it necessary.

There are those today that don't quite see the same urgency as their forebears did in the need to rid the world of the horrors of nuclear weapons and attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. It could be that fear of terrorism has become the order of the day, or that they simply don't fear the bomb in quite the same way. There are equally those that see a perceived desire of other states to acquire the bomb as justifying the need to hold on to these foul weapons and that all attempts to prevent such states from acquiring them, including the use of military force, should be considered. Surely, as long as the most powerful states continue to harbour these potential species destroyers, the more that other countries that feel threatened by them will aim to get hold of them too, as with North Korea.

When I was a boy, my father told me that to his great surprise he had seen the end of racial segregation in the US, and that I may therefore also see the end of South African apartheid in my lifetime. He was right. While these may have been situations within national borders and the nuclear issue is surely a far wider one that that, in my lifetime I have also seen concerted global efforts at tackling other scourges of our planet - from landmines and (soon) cluster bombs to polio and the hole in the ozone layer.

Our grandchildren could either grow up in a world where the nuclear age is but a shadow seared into our conscience, or there could not be a world for them to grow up in. The longer the issue goes unsolved, the more states (or others) are likely to want to acquire the bomb themselves. The more that get hold of it, the greater the chances of one going off somewhere again, and therefore the possibility of others joining in the fray.

Let's wish Little Boy and his descendants a long overdue retirement. But please, don't give him a clock as a parting gift...