Sunday, 28 March 2010

My 100th Post!

I've finally reached my 100th blog post! I thought I'd have to at least mark the occasion with a special this is my 100th post blog.

It's come up almost a year after I started blogging. My blogging birthday was a couple of weeks ago and it would have been great to have completed a full year of blogging with 100 posts, but the 100 has had to wait a couple of weeks!

I've become quite addicted to my blog over the last year, constantly thinking about what I can write about next. Thankfully I'm not usually lost for inspiration. Not only have I enjoyed blogging, but it's been really useful as I've ended up learning skills and developing interests I never thought I'd have.

The reason for starting this blog, was that I was told I needed to have one.

I started studying for my Post graduate certificate in journalism a couple of years ago, as part of my plan to try and develop a sideline career as a freelance writer and journalist.

I was told that in order to develop you career you need to promote yourself. It's not just about being a writer you have to see yourself as a 'brand'.

By not having your own blog or website to promote and market your work, you're simply not in the 'game' and might as well not bother trying to be a writer!

To begin with, this idea of self promotion was a little difficult to embrace. It feels a bit arrogant to see yourself as a brand, even the idea of blogging can feel a bit egotistical at times

You're basically saying to the world, 'I have something to say, I want you and the world to hear it'. Occasionally I feel a bit full of myself in mentioning to people I have a blog, and that perhaps they should have a look at reading it. But I've learnt you need to get over these feelings of modesty and remember that if you don't 'big up yourself' nobody else will.

The other reason for starting the blog and the most obvious, was that I wanted to start writing on a regular basis. I always thought I was quite good at writing, but as with most things in life, the more you practice something the better you become. I certainly feel as if my writing has improved.

Blogging is different to other forms of writing. I think you have to be very succinct and straight to the point. On the web people don't have time to read pages and pages of content.

You need to get to the point and grab the reader straight away. I think less is definitely more when it comes to blogging, and I try not to write more than 1000 words if I can help it.

I've always seen this blog as being a sort of news blog, and although it's important to make sure that you get the facts right in any story you're writing about, I've found its good to try and bring your own personality into the topics I'm discussing.

If I can, I try to include any personal experiences I have which relate to what I'm writing about. I find it helps to make your posts sound more original, which isn't always easy.

Over the last year I've read countless other blogs and websites about blogging, probably my favourite is a site called Problogger, which has loads of great tips and advice on all aspects of blogging and writing for the web.

The one interesting development that I've discovered from starting this blog is that I've developed a huge interest in areas like digital marketing. Learning all about the techniques and strategies for promoting blogs and websites and getting more people or 'traffic' to visit your site.

I've also developed a big interest in Social media. A year a go I had my Facebook profile and used it like everyone else for keeping up to date with family and friends. But writing my blog I soon realised that social networking sites like Facebook were an ideal way of promoting my blog and my writing.

This idea then lead to me signing up to Twitter, and more recently Linkedin. They all offer useful marketing opportunities if you know what you're doing.

So far my enthusiasm for writing hasn't waned so I'm going to keep on blogging, and keep putting my opinions out there. Hopefully it can lead onto bigger and better things.

Without wishing to sound like I'm giving a speech at the Oscars, I just wanted to say thanks to all you who have stopped by to check out my blog and leave comments. Family, friends, work colleagues and anyone else out there surfing the web, it's all appreciated.

Hope you're around for my 200th post!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Few answers from this week's budget

It was another big week in politics, with the last budget before the election. Having considered everything that I've read and heard, I'm not sure that this budget was really necessary. It hasn't even tried to set out the answers to the big questions facing the British economy.

Last year when I first started this blog, I wrote a post on the 2009 budget. My argument was that it was possibly the most depressing budget I'd ever witnessed. It suddenly hit home what a complete and utter mess the country was in financially. Almost 12 months later my feelings are exactly the same!

What I find with the current economic climate and this week's budget, is that no matter how strong your interest is in politics, some of the issues can be quite difficult to understand and get your head around.

Reports in the papers can sometimes be overly simplistic or so complex you have to read a report 4 or 5 times before any of it begins to make sense.

This week I tried to avoid reading reports on the budget from the national newspapers. Their reporting can be too partisan as many have their own political agenda.

Discounting the Guardian and the Mirror, all the papers were hugely critical of Alastair Darling's budget, but then they all want to see Labour out of Office. There's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I want a slightly more balanced view. I want to know, what it all means? Who's telling the truth? Who can be trusted?

Reports that I found really useful and informative include Channel 4 news Faisel Islam' blog which you can read here on the budget. He sets out quite well the figures of government borrowing for this financial year and how the government hopes to reduce it over the next 5 years.

Last year Labour claimed at the pre budget report that they would need to borrow 178 billion over the next financial year, this figure has now been revised to 167 billion! That's still some serious borrowing! They're looking to reduce borrowing figures to 74 billion over the next five years.

Leading on from this you have the following questions that haven't really been answered:

How will the government's spending deficit be reduced in terms of the amount of spending that's required by the government and the amount of money received by the treasury in the form taxes?

How drastic will cuts in government spending have to be?

Should spending be cut sooner or later? The Tories seem to argue that spending cuts should be more immediate, with Labour claiming that cuts now will hamper the country's economic recovery.

For me the most informative reporting that I've read has come from Robert Chote, the director of the independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)

Much of what he's had to say is very clear, straight to the point and without any obvious political bias. He went on to say about the deficit reduction that there was a lack of clarity from both Labour and the Tories

"There are an awful lot of judgments still be made, or revealed, notably with regards to public spending over the next parliament. This greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary, too."

Neither Labour or the Tories seem to be telling anyone how or where spending cuts are really going to come from. This is why in some respects there was no need for this budget. What really needed to be said, won't be said until after the election.

Once the election result is known and we have a new parliament whoever is in power will have to have another budget, which will clearly set out in more detail where savings and cuts are going to be made.

What neither party is really saying is the likely affects that such cuts are going to have on the country. The government is arguing that front line services like Health and Education won't be affected, and the Tories seem to be saying the same thing.

But clearly with spending cuts, we are going to see some major changes in public services. There's the argument that seems to give the impression that it can all come from efficiency savings, but efficiency savings can only go so far.

Regardless of who wins the General Election, I think we're entering a period of the unknown. It doesn't matter what any of the main parties say, you can't be 100% convinced that they know what's going to happen in the next five years and it's increasingly difficult to make any concrete predictions on anything. The only thing you can say is that times are going to be hard for everyone in one way or another.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Kingdom of Ife - Sculptures from West Africa

Last Wednesday I took myself down to the British Museum to have a look at a brilliant exhibition on West African Art from the Medieval kingdom of Ife.

The collection presents examples of life size sculptures from Ife in copper, brass, terracotta and stone. But more than that, the exhibition presents African history and African art in a completely different light, that gives you a glimpse into a highly cultured and sophisticated society that flourished 750 years ago.

I'd never heard of Ife before I read about the exhibition a few weeks ago. Ife was a city state which would now be found in modern Nigeria. It first emerged around AD800 and flourished between the 12th and 15th Centuries.

The art from the city was only discovered by the West in 1910, when a German archaeologist Leo Fronbenius spent three weeks in the region collecting objects. Not unsurprisingly, when many of these artefacts were taken back to Europe, nobody could possibly believe that Africans were responsible for creating such sophisticated and beautiful works of art.

Archaeologists first claimed the sculptures must have been the result of some lost tribe of Greeks! A pretty far fetched assumption when you look at the distance between Greece and West Africa. You only have to look at the features on the figures to see that they are quite clearly African and not European.

What I loved about the exhibition is that Africa is so often portrayed in a negative light in the West, but here you have an exhibition of art from the continent, that's on a par with anything produced by the Greeks and Romans.

The exhibition also reminded me how much of World history I know absolutely nothing about. I'm a bit of a history geek, and have a history degree, so I like to think I know a bit about most major historical periods. But I was reminded of how Euro centric my knowledge is. This is hardly surprising as I have grown up in the West.

Most the artifacts on display at the British Museum are dated between the 12th and 15th centuries

Now if you asked me about major periods in British Medieval history during this same period, I would immediately think about dates like 1066, the Norman Conquest, and William the Conqueror. The Crusades, figures like Richard the Lionheart, the signing of the Magna Carta etc.

Ask me what was happening in Africa during the same period and it's a complete blank to me? This exhibition on Ife tells you that loads of stuff was going on in Africa. Great cultures and civilisations existed, with their own histories, religions, politics and arts. Much of which was way in advance of anything that was taking place in Europe at the same time.

We get a distorted view of African history in the West. Sometimes it's as if Africa doesn't have a history, or the one that does exist begins with Europeans discovering Africa in the 14th and 15th Centuries and exporting slaves to the New World; then later on in the 19th Century, colonising different regions as part of European Imperialism.

Ife was just one small city state, so it makes me wonder how many other 'Ifes' have existed in Africa over the centuries that we in the West know nothing about?

I remember at university, we looked at the philosophical side of history. What is history? What's its purpose?

Much of what we call history is in fact a selection process. Historians and societies make choices on what facts and events should be recorded and passed down to future generations. If you think of history as a selection process it means that there are plenty of events and facts that aren't selected and aren't considered 'history' that we no nothing about.

Much of Africa's history is unknown to those of us in the West, but it doesn't mean to say that no history exists, or nothing happened until Europeans arrived. This exhibition on the Kingdom of Ife clearly shows and reminds you of this.

The exhibition started at the beginning of March and runs until 6 June 2010. I'd definitely recommend checking it out if you get the chance.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Continuing on the musical theme, I bought the new Gorillaz album this week, Plastic Beach. You can hear a selection of tracks from the album mix below.

As expected with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project, there's a wide range of guest stars who make an appearance on the album. I can't think of where I'd find such a varied group of artists such as Snoop Dog, Mark E Smith, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, and Mos Def all on the same record. But this is what I like about the Gorillaz, it's all about the guest artists as well as Damon Albarn.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading in the Culture section of the Sunday Times a review of the album by Mark Edwards. He was talking about the trend of using a variety of guest vocalists on albums, something which bands like Gorillaz and Massive Attack are famed for.

I think I've always been used to listening to artists who invite other singers and musicians to guest appear on records. Its a great idea when its done well, and done for artistic purposes and not purely based on cynical marketing, as a way of boosting record sales for one or both parties.

With the Gorillaz, I like the idea that the use of guest artists is very much part of their band identity. The single Stylo features Mos Def and Bobby Womack, two artists that I really love and I would never have expected to have found someone like Snoop Dog working with Damon Albarn, but it's a great track and it works. Plus, you get a chance to hear artists in a completely different context.

Following on from this, the collaboration can allow the guest artist to be introduced to a new audience, particularly if fans of the main artist don't know or aren't familiar with the guest artist.

Massive Attack are a perfect example of this. I've always been a big fan, and on their albums they always work with the reggae artist Horace Andy. After years of listening to him with Massive Attack I decided to buy one of his albums. If it wasn't for Massive Attack I'm not sure that I would ever of heard of him.

Edwards makes the point in his review that Gorillaz don't really need guest artists. Damon Albarn is a big enough name in his own right, and many of those featured have lower commercial profiles than Albarn. So what's the attraction for him?

I think Albarn and Massive Attack use guest artists as a way of saying to their fans, here are people that we really admire and respect. Not only do we want to work with them but we'd also like to introduce them to our fans and perhaps a wider audience.

Of course musical collaborations aren't new things. Hip Hop and RnB have been doing it for years, but in general they tend to collaborate amongst themselves. Current examples include Jay Z and Alica Keys' Empire State of Mind. And then you've got the Beyonce/Lady Gaga track Video Phone that's out. Now there's a collaboration I didn't see happening at all. I wonder who got those two together?

Sometimes it can be more interesting and challenging to work with artists from completely different musical backgrounds, I think Albarn and Massive Attack show they're prepared to be musically open minded and adventurous in their approach to making music, turning what appear to be random guest appearances into true collaborations.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Introducing Jonathan Jeremiah

Every so often you hear a record by someone, and you think to yourself, 'who is this person, I need to go out buy this record straight away'. This is what I thought when I first heard this track called Happiness by Jonathan Jeremiah.

Back in the day, I'd traipse endlessly around record shops trying to track a record like this down. Nowadays it's all about finding that elusive record or artist on YouTube or iTunes. For me it will never quite be the same!

I first came across Jonathan Jeremiah on Giles Peterson's Radio 1 show. Listening to a session of some of his songs, they sounded like a mix of soul, jazz,and folk all rolled into one.

I immediately imagined he'd be American, probably from New York, or one of the Southern states of America. It turns out I was completely wrong, and he's infact he's from the slightly less soulful surroundings of Dollis Hill, West London!

Neither does he look like a soul/jazz/folk kind of guy (whatever they look like) It doesn't matter, I love this track, and hope an album will be coming out soon, later this year.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

BBC wrong to axe 6 Music!

I was disappointed to hear this week that the BBC would be closing its digital radio station 6 Music. I've become a big fan since I started listening to it a few years ago.

Radio stations like 6 Music represent everything that the BBC should be doing, and highlights what the BBC is best at. It feels like the BBC is being bullied into making cutbacks in areas where it's not necessary. I wish sometimes the BBC would take are more belligerent stance against its critics!

Mark Thompson, the BBC's Director General announced its new strategy proposals which will result in the closure of 6 Music and a second digital station the Asian Network.

The BBC will make cutbacks to its website operations, and reduce its spending on TV sports rights, foreign television, and sell off some of its magazines. The savings made will lead to more investment into producing high quality British programmes.

There's nothing wrong with that at all, but the BBC seems to constantly have its back against the wall trying to defend itself against its growing army of critics in the commercial media and the world of politics.

I discovered 6 Music about 18 months ago and after listening to a selection of shows, I thought to myself:

'this is exactly the type of station I've been looking for'

There's a good selection of musical styles, with shows presented by DJs who you know are passionate about their music. It's an extension of what you can also find on Radio 2 and late night Radio 1, but has the freedom to cover some musical areas in more depth.

Only this week I was listening to a documentary series on the classic reggae record label Trojan Records. I can't imagine where I'd be able to listen to a similar show on commercial radio.

Reading the BBC Trust's website, it states six key points in its commitment to its audiences. The main point which caught my attention was this one:

Content: to be a leader not a follower, offering content of the highest quality and of a kind that no-one else is doing.

Well this is 6 Music, and this is why it should stay. At times I get tired of the constant BBC bashing. No matter what it does as a corporation it never seems to satisfy its critics.

I except that the BBC has to be careful in managing how much it takes on as a public broadcaster and doesn’t stifle competition, but it shouldn't be caving in to the demands of the likes of Rupert Murdoch and other critics.

Last year Rupert Murdoch's son James Murdoch gave a speech at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival attacking the BBC for its dominance.

The language he uses in his speech you'd think the BBC was an insatiable media monster terrorising the commercial media sector. Speaking out in terms of the BBC's news and journalism content, James Murdoch said:

"Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet," ...."We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate."

The argument for 'clipping the wings' of the BBC is that it has an unfair advantage over commercial media. It has the guaranteed revenue of the TV licence which has helped it expand its media operations, increasingly worrying its commercial rivals. In particular, newspaper and magazine groups.

The biggest problem faced by commercial media is that they're all struggling with declining revenues made worse by the global recession. This is particularly true of news production and journalism. The problem isn't just in the UK but in Europe and America.

There's no doubt that the BBC is in a stronger position to combat the effects of this recession due to its licence fee. What critics don't point out is that Europe and America don't have the equivalent of the BBC, so it's misleading to argue that the BBC is totally responsible for all the difficulties faced by commercial media.

The likes of Rupert Murdoch are looking at charging people for accessing the online content of papers within the News International group such as the Times and the Sun. Murdoch argues that the BBC makes it difficult for commercial media organisations to convince people that they should pay for online content.

Now here's a thought, may be people go to the BBC's website for news or listen to its radio content because the quality and standard is actually quite high. Just because something is free doesn't make it any good. Perhaps it's up to commercial media to improve the quality of its own content and output rather than constantly complaining about the BBC.

Many of the BBC's loudest critics have complained that the cut backs don't go far enough, but their demands are unrealistic, and smacks of trying to reduce the BBC's competitiveness against commercial rivals.

The BBC has the difficult role of having to appeal to mainstream audiences making programmes that the public wants, to justify its public funding. It can't be totally insulated from commercial concerns in the way some people argue.

On the other hand, one of the BBC's greatest strengths is that it can produce programmes where ratings are not the be all and end all and produce stations like 6 Music which appeal to a small but loyal audience.

I think the BBC is an amazing institution, and I actually believe the licence fee is well worth the money. Of course it's not perfect, but its coverage of news, sport, music and TV dramas has been excellent for many years, and I hope it continues.

As for 6 Music, the amount of support that the station has received from fans and other famous music artists suggests that there's still hope out there that the station can be saved.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Can London learn anything from Vancouver's Winter Olympics?

After initially thinking I wouldn't be interested, I've really enjoyed the last week or so of watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I managed to catch quite a bit of the Ski Cross which was brilliant, and last night I watched the Ice Hockey final between Canada and the USA.

Today I've been reading a few reports that have spoken highly of the Games and the positive impact it's had on Canada and its people. As London is up next on the Olympic stop, the inevitable questions about our own Games are being raised. What can we learn from Vancouver? What type of Games do we want? And how do we want our Games to be remembered and experienced?

From all the reports I've been reading, it seems Vancouver has been a great success especially in terms of the enjoyment that spectators have experienced from the Games.

What's also been quite noticeable is the amount of national pride and patriotism that's been shown from the Canadians. Canadians don’t have a reputation of flag waving like their American neighbours, but I'm wondering if this could possibly inspire us Brits in 2012?

I currently live Stratford, and everyday I see the Olympic stadium and the area around it developing. For me it's amazing that this is going on right on my door step, but with two years to go there doesn't seem to be a great wave of enthusiasm from the public in general.

If there was an Olympic event for cynicism, then this country would win Gold, Silver and Bronze without any problems! We'd be world beaters. I'm just wondering whether this cynicism can be put aside and whether we can really embrace the Games and make them truly memorable.

By the time 2012 comes along we need to have a good idea of the type of Games we want to produce, there're lessons we can learn from the recent Games in Vancouver and in Beijing.

Here's some points which I think we should be considering and looking at to make 2012 a real success.

1. Make the Olympics a celebration, a two week carnival for British people and the rest of the world to enjoy. There needs to be certain focal points around the Olympic site and the rest of London in which people can come together to enjoy the Games, experience the atmosphere of the Olympics.

The Chinese didn't do this in 2008. Yes they had great sporting facilities for the athletes and visitors, but from all the reports there was no celebration on the streets of Beijing that the Olympics were taking place!

2. The Olympics is about showcasing a country to the world. Again we need to put aside our natural pessimism and highlight the best of this country, and that doesn't just mean London. Lets look at ways to make sure the whole country feels it's involved.

3. In partnership with the last point, lets not forget what a great city London is. London is at the centre of the World. Perhaps the only true world city along with New York. There's so much to work with here but we seem to underestimate how much London has to offer as a host city.

4. Make the Olympics spectator friendly - this is important for London as 2012 will be the first time for many people that they will be able to experience an Olympics rather than viewing it on tv.

5. Make sure that tickets are sold for all the events and that the venues are full. Some of the more unfashionable minority sports will need special focus on. I'm thinking things like, Handball and Fencing. We'll need to think of ways of making them more attractive to spectators. Jazzing them up a bit! Secondly highlight sports like BMXing which have natural appeal for more frills and spills!

6. Lets have the Press really getting behind the Games. The Press seem to take great delight in focusing on the problems of organising major sporting events. They've moaned about things in Vancouver, and we never seem to stop hearing scare stories about South Africa and the forthcoming World Cup.

7. Rather then look at the Games as being imposed upon us, we need to look at the Games as being something which belongs to us. Our own enthusiasm and support will directly impact on how successful the Games will be.

That's just a few of my random thoughts. If you have any ideas or opinions you want to add then do leave a comment. It would be good to hear thoughts on how to make the Games a success rather then the problems and challenges the Games pose. There's too much emphasis sometimes on how or why the Games will fail.

Anyway, any thoughts, let us know.