Wednesday 27 August 2008

With God on Our Side - BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4's Archive Hour on Saturday evening was "With God on Our Side" - a documentary about how faith (or lack of faith) affects decisions taken on the battlefield.

From the Archive Hour website (
With God on Our Side
Saturday 23 August 2008 20:00-21:00 (Radio 4 FM)
Amid the horrors of war, what makes one man turn to God and another to atheism? Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway explores what happens to faith when one's life is on the line.
The audio can be streamed for about a week here:

When this link expires you can download an mp3 of the programme from RapidShare:

Monday 25 August 2008

Atheism is not a religion

Today by a fairly roundabout route I chanced upon this video excerpt, which is a good outline of my own position:

"Matt Dillahunty responds to the claim that people need as much faith to NOT believe in god, as to believe in god."
This is from The Atheist Experience, at, which I'm surprised not to have come across before now.

(via: 1 2 3 Religious Comics)

Skeptical Inquirer

I subscribe to a fair number of print magazines, but I've noticed recently that there are very few of them that I'll open immediately on arrival and go on to read most of the contents. One such is Skeptical Inquirer - The Magazine For Science And Reason.

The September/October 2008 issue is packed with interest. Much of it is necessarily US-centric, but I've yet to come across an equivalent UK periodical that offers comparably comprehensive examination of pseudoscience, quackery and fakery, as well as coverage of the relevant larger matters of social and political concern.

Issues are usually themed - this one, as the cover opposite shows, is concerned with questionable medical treatments. We have a history of the Vagus Nerve Stimulation device and its manufacturer's attempts to get it approved for use in cases of serious depression; the prescribing of inappropriate (but expensive) drugs for the treatment of bipolar disorder, as well as coverage of the widening of the disorder's definition; and the use of misleading or downright false advertising for a weight-loss product.

There are articles on the Nibiru conspiracy theory, ghostly apparitions at lighthouses, searching for will o' the wisps, and much other fascinating stuff, including book reviews and a generous section for letters to the editor.

It's all highly readable, from short pieces for consumption during a break, to longer articles requiring more concentrated immersion. The magazine is presented in a solid, professional manner that inspires confidence, but you don't have to rely on any kind of gut-feeling about its veracity - those articles dealing with verifiable facts always have notes and references to enable you to check up on them.

Yes, I like it. If only we had something equivalent in Britain.

Muriel Gray on Graphic Novels (repost from other blog)

In my previous post I casually mentioned my lack of knowledge of graphic novels. Serendipitously BBC Radio 4's Open Book, temporarily hosted by Muriel Gray, featured on Sunday a short discussion on that very subject. The programme will be repeated on Thursday at 4:00 pm, but you can stream the audio for seven days from the 'listen again' service* here:

From the Open Book website:
Graphic Novels

Do you know the fastest growing sector in publishing? Perhaps surprisingly, it is the sector of graphic novels. Danny Fingeroth, author of The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, and Naomi Alderman, author and graphic novel fan, talk about their favourites.
Details of The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels here.

*If the listen again service gives problems, an mp3 of the relevant excerpt can be downloaded from RapidShare:

Saturday 23 August 2008

"I narrate podcast fiction," he said (repost from other blog)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've contributed my voice to various fiction podcasts. My latest is a reading for Transmissions from Beyond, the podcast of TTA Press, who are posting stories from their three main publications, Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave. I narrated "Lady of the Crows", a story by Tim Casson from the first issue of Black Static. (It may have been Black Static's inaugural issue, but the magazine has been going a long time under its previous title of The Third Alternative.)

Regular readers might also know that I've narrated my own short fiction on my podcast The Rev Up Review, and my own first novel The Plitone Revisionist, available for free at

I've learned a few things over the past three years of narrating fiction. The main thing is that I never want to do it live. My raw audio is painful to listen to. For a 30-minute reading I typically record maybe 45 minutes, including pauses to turn pages,
cough up my gutsclear my throat, or for second, third and sixth retakes. Thankfully we have such applications as Audacity and GarageBand to allow meticulous editing of the raw source, which, with care, can turn something amateurishly halting into a smooth, professional-sounding production.

Audio fiction comes in several flavours. There's the straight reading, with no sound effects, minimal attempts at accents, and maybe some intro and outro music. This is the kind of production I favour, though I've experimented with special processing for telephone or computer/robot effects.

Next there's the enhanced reading, with more sound effects and perhaps some guest voices. This is a kind of half-way house, and requires careful judgement to get right, otherwise it can sound cheesy. Global decisions have to be made regarding sound effects, and stuck to:
"There was a knock at the door."

[FX: sound of door-knocking]
Should the sound-effect come before the words, or after, as above? Or should the words be omitted? Or the sound-effect? Tricky decisions, because getting it wrong can mean the listener is wrenched out of the fictional world, which is the last thing an author wants. Any enhancements to audio fiction should be aimed at increasing the listener's immersion in the story. Anything that draws the listener's attention to the production, the writing, the voice - in fact to anything that isn't the story itself - is to be avoided.

Enhanced audio fiction is also a great deal of work, requiring co-ordination of guest voices, unless your guests are all assembled together for recording (which would require considerable co-ordination in itself). If guests are recording separately and sending their audio files, there's the added complication of differing audio levels, background noise, pacing, etc. An excellent example of such a production is Tee Morris's podcast novel, Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword, though I have to admit I don't feel my own contribution to it was particularly effective.

Finally there's full-cast audio drama. This not only takes a lot of work, it also requires total dedication from everyone participating, whether they're all together in a 'studio' or recording separately. It can be done successfully, and has been: Second Shift, Children of the Gods, Decoder Ring Theater, to mention just a few.

But even the simplest audio fiction requires important decisions at the outset. Just how expressive should the narrator be? How important are accents? My next question should reveal where I stand on these questions. Have you ever read a book written entirely in dialect?

In school our English teachers often read to the class during lessons. I remember one teacher who was extremely expressive, virtually acting his way through the text. It was good narration, in its way. But we had another English teacher who read to us with a very flat voice - practically no expression at all. For me, such a flat reading was much closer to reading the book myself. Straightforward fiction in print rarely has stage directions separate from the text; the 'action' of the story is conveyed in words, and words alone.

One aspect of podcast fiction that may have a bearing on why enhanced audio fiction is popular in the podosphere, is that much podcast fiction is science fiction, and many podcasters are fans of graphic novels. My comments in the previous paragraph do not, obviously, apply to graphic novels (which is a type of fiction I know very little about).

Even if my own preference is for unembellished readings, I acknowledge that audio fiction is not, and never can be, the same as printed fiction. There are clues on the page that cannot be transferred unaltered to the audio version. There are also aspects of printed fiction that go virtually unnoticed on the page, but stand out glaringly when read aloud. One example is speech- or dialogue-tags. Often the layout on the page will indicate who is speaking. "He said" and "she said" will reliably indicate who said what. When narrating, a slight change in voice will do the same, but usually the tags will still be needed. I've noticed several podcasters, however, leaving a lengthy gap between the speech itself and the tag, enough, even, to take a breath. Personally I find this detracts from the narration. Why I should find this distracting was a puzzle, until I reflected on how I normally read printed dialogue (other than when narrating). I realised that the speech tag is taken in by the eye at the same time as the speech itself. The 'who' is apprehended simultaneously with the 'what', not separately. That's why, in my own narration, I tend to close up the gaps between the dialogue and its tags as much as possible.

I've long been a fan of BBC Radio Drama, and of the BBC's fiction readings, many of which are virtually permanently available (if you count the unending repeats) on BBC7, and I've therefore modelled my own narrations on the BBC's output (and that of Oneword Radio, before its unfortunate demise earlier this year). While Martin Jarvis has many fans of his man-of-a-thousand-voices style of narration, I prefer to follow narrators like Alex Jennings, Paul Rhys and Nigel Anthony.

Who would you follow? Want to try? Stay tuned!

Friday 22 August 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin - raise your consciousness here

Many of the reviews of the first episode of Richard Dawkins' Channel 4 series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, which finished last Monday, were critical of Britain's most prominent atheist for being unable to resist having a go at creationists and other religious believers. I watched the series, but reading these reviews I couldn't help wondering if the reviewers had seen the same programme. Dawkins was repeatedly praised for his eloquent exposition of Darwin and his theory, but simultaneously marked down for introducing his own atheistic point of view.

My advice to these reviewers is: watch again; you're critiquing what you think Dawkins said, based on your opinion of his views. As the man himself stressed again and again, go and look at the evidence. It's true that there was a certain slant to Dawkins' telling of Darwin's story, but at no point in that first episode did he proselytise atheism, least of all to the schoolchildren he took fossil-hunting on a beach.

Dawkins' insistence on evidence became more apparent in the second and third episodes, and we saw precisely why it was inevitable that he would slant the series the way he did: he believes that an understanding of Darwinian evolution will lead to atheism, and it would have been disingenuous not to have included that point of view.

As for highlighting the creationist nutjobs, they may indeed be few and far between at present, and it's obvious that anything he says to one of these hardcore creationists is not going to sway them one iota. But by challenging them on TV, as he did here, he's showing many more people (those watching the programme) how wrong the creationists are.

Consciousness raising - it's a strategy that stands a good chance of success. Get the moderates on the side of rationality, so that they will understand why so-called creation science has no place in school science lessons, and actively oppose it (rather than leave it be, like those wishy-washy science teachers Dawkins spoke to in the final episode).

Saturday 16 August 2008

Paul Sinha on The Now Show

The Now Show completed its current series in good form, though regrettably without Marcus Brigstocke.

Nevertheless we were treated to this welcome diatribe from Paul Sinha, whose four-and-a-half minute segment I heartily commend to you:

(The listen again feature for this edition of The Now Show has already expired.)

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Top Ten seminal science-fiction films... (repost from other blog) no particular order - a personal list.
Remember: not in order. Also remember: this is my list.

Monday 11 August 2008

Dark thoughts on The Dark Knight (repost from other blog)

Having watched Batman Begins a few days previously, and found all the tedious double-revelations of the Liam Neeson ninja character fairly underwhelming, I wasn't holding out much hope for the sequel.

The technology in The Dark Knight was impressive, up to a point. The explosions (and there were lots of them) were impressive, up to a point. The plot was okay, up to point.

That point, for all the above, was reached when the film could have been expected to conclude. It didn't conclude, but went on to portray technology way beyond the realm of credibility, with more and bigger explosions that resembled a random fireworks display, while the plot descended into mephistophelian obfuscation, forsaking any semblance of coherence.

And it was too long. Half an hour of plot-knotting could have been cut without adversely affecting the story - other than to make it marginally clearer.

The film's one redeeming feature was Heath Ledger's career-defining performance as the Joker: manic, psychotic, remorseless - a truly terrifying villain.

Sunday 10 August 2008

Numerology is not helpful

What does the BBC think it's playing at?

In this audio clip* from Friday's Today Programme we have two minutes of arrant nonsense about the significance of the number eight to the Chinese. Sonia Ducie, a numerologist, explains that letters too can be reduced to numbers, and that the word China reduces to the number eight. Is that the English word for the country, or is it the Chinese word? She didn't say. Nor did she say whether she herself actually believes this stuff is real, though she did mention superstition at least twice.

Does the fact that the Olympics were scheduled to start at the 8th minute past the 8th hour of the 8th month of the 8th year of the century actually mean that the Chinese take this stuff seriously? Or is it just a promotional gimmick? (China's record on this sort of thing isn't encouraging. They may have given us feng shui, but taking interior design advice from a country that insists on building houses on flood plains is not a good idea.)

Numerology can be a fun party game, but is it significant in the modern (or any) world?

No. And the BBC should have said so. There's enough woo-woo around as it is, without the BBC tacitly supporting nonsense like this.

*If the embedded player above doesn't work, an mp3 of the clip can be downloaded from RapidShare here: