19 Dec

My Facial Tattoo

Today I tattooed my face simply in order to spite somebody.

I know. I know… Getting a facial tattoo is one of those things I never thought I’d do, like brazenly lying to my readership about getting a facial tattoo.

It obviously wasn’t a tattoo and it wasn’t my face. What I actually did was deface my blog with a bloody stupid banner which I’m now beginning to regret. I also implied that I was going to turn my blog into a ditch of moronic ultra hip Americana.

I feel a bit dumb for losing my rag at the people at the Yahoo! Bing Network. What kind of man flies of the handle just because somebody says the blog they’ve been writing for nine years isn’t of ‘high enough quality’ and doesn’t contain enough ‘original content’. I’m not sure how much original content they want. Nearly everything on this blog (minus the previous post) was created by these two hands, two grey eyes, one largish Roman nose, and sundry genitalia with tinkling bell attached. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the bell ring every time I create something new.

Tinkle. Tinkle.

I’ve had a strange 24 hours and it all started when I returned to Twitter about this time yesterday. I hadn’t been on Twitter in a long time and I discovered that my followers had dropped to a depressing 99. I thought that a bit low given my personal record was about 8000 when I was tweeting as Richard Madeley. However, I thought I’d give Twitter another chance so I began with a single tweet.

Sony should never have made a film about a raging ego with delusions of absolute power. But enough about James Franco… #TheInterview

I then did a couple of retweets. I replied to a Martin Rowson tweet and Rowson replied which just fed the beast. I felt ‘in the zone’. I was ready to publish tweet number 2…

I wish Twitter had more celebrities spouting trite condemnations of brutal dictatorships. #thingsyouneverhear #thebleedingobvious

And then tweet number 3:

Why couldn’t North Korea hack ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’? Wouldn’t Grumpy Cat be considered a delicacy between a couple of buns?

‘Ha ha!’ I exclaimed, rubbing my hands together. Off to make a coffee… Milk. Coffee. Sugar. Back at the desk. Let’s see how the world has responded…

My followers had dropped to 96. My three tweets had put off three people!

Not sure what I’d done wrong, I left the PC and took my coffee for a walk. When I got back, I was relieved to see that I had a new follower. Even better: she is a go go dancer.

At first I thought it was fake. If you don’t use Twitter, I should explain that there are automated systems out there that create fake users and you’ll usually get a couple of semi-naked women (or Christians (or semi-naked Christians)) following you if you post on certain subjects. However, I did some research and soon confirmed that my follower was indeed a real go go dancer, even if I couldn’t yet understand what I’d written that would attract an American go go dancer.

Then I noticed that the email confirmation wasn’t to my usual account. She hadn’t followed me. She’d followed a Twitter account I’d created a long time ago when I was pretending to be one of Steve Martin’s go go dancers. It went with a blog I created all about life on the road with Steve and his bluegrass banjo. I thought it was amusing but, naturally, no other bugger thought it remotely funny. Most people thought Steve Martin does indeed have go go dancers. I honestly don’t know if he does. I never researched it. Perhaps he has a full chorus line of go go dancers. Perhaps that’s why my blog never succeeded.

Anyway, the go go dancer hadn’t followed me but had followed the version of me who is a go go dancer. Naturally, I followed her back but as myself. See. Here I am among her followers. Bet you can’t spot the odd one out…

Screenshot_21

Now, I know I’m sarcastic about so much stuff but not this. I mean: I’m being followed by a go go dancer and she’s everything I’m not. She even posted some pictures of herself in some thigh high red leather boots. I vow now that you’ll never see me in thigh high red leather boots. Well, not until I’ve worked out a little. She also sings, which is pretty damn impressive. When I sing, people flee thinking it’s the Archangel Gabriel loosening his lips on his celestial tuba. Here’s my new follower’s newest song. 160 views already on Youtube and six likes. That’s more than everything I’ve ever done in my life. No wonder the Yahoo! Bing Network were so hard on me…

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19 Dec

Sigh…

Think I need to get some fresh air. I’d applied to the Yahoo! Bing Network to put a few small ads on my blog. I had this crazy idea of actually earning a little something for all the efforts I put in. They apparently rejected me because the quality my blog isn’t high enough or it doesn’t have enough original content. This afternoon I’ll start stealing all my content from other news sources, reposting cartoons, jokes, and Photoshopped images from other sites, and I’ll be introducing my new regular feature: ‘fat chicks falling over’. I won’t tell you what it’s about but it will be both high quality and totally original.

From where I’m sitting, it’s getting really difficult coming up with excuses why I don’t just give up…

 

 

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18 Dec

On Being The Internet’s Darkest Matter

There was an interesting article over at one of the broadsheets in the past few days. I forget where I read it (I’ve searched my history and can’t find it) but, in short, it explained how the internet has become dominated by the biggest sites. The article reflected the sense I’ve been getting since I returned to regular blogging a few months ago. Not only is it very difficult to get people to move beyond their comfort zones, it’s hard to do so yourself, even when you’re actively searching to find something new that has real depth.

When I began to blog, there were hundreds of high quality competing blogs, all of which you could visit and read something new and interesting. These days, there’s next to nothing of those left. The Devil’s Kitchen has almost gone. So has Dizzythinks. Guido Fawkes has morphed into something big and more unpleasant than it was when it began. Even Iain Dale closed his (in my opinion) rather bland blog and has risen to become an equally bland radio and TV pundit. Many of the blogs I follow don’t update regularly. Others are in mothballs. The world has really moved onto Facebook and Twitter. The world has become thin.

The problem is that blogging is difficult and Twitter is easy. My favourite blog of all was Bryan Appleyard’s Thought Experiments and even that is now updated so sporadically it’s probably dead. No doubt it was a beast of an undertaking to write even a few days a week. It had depth and difficulty and both take more than 140 characters to develop. It might only my perception of things but the intellectual life isn’t quite there or, if it is, then I can’t find it. Instead I find myself watching academic conference and debates via Youtube  or I search Nasa’s unhelpfully messy website for updates from scientists.

Meanwhile, myself, I get a few hits each day but that’s mainly because I have so much posted on the blog. Somebody in the world usually wants a ‘vet cartoon’ and so they might drop by. I get plenty of people searching for ‘3D porn for the Nintendo 3DS’, though, of course, there’s none to be had. Each day, I can get hundreds of visitors of this type. They’ll arrive, either like or (usually) dislike what they find and they’ll leave, never to return. One hit and they’re gone. You can’t class these people are readers.

The web feels like interstellar space and ‘space’, said Douglas Adams, ‘is big’. Like space, so much of the internet is just space. It’s no wonder that people gravitate towards the biggest and brightest points. There’s so much darkness in between that it’s becoming impossible to see or be seen.

For example: I recently had to buy a domain name for a project so I went to my favourite domain registrar and started to type in potential domain names ending in ‘.com’. It was shocking to see the results. It wasn’t shocking that every domain was taken and being used. It was shocking because nearly every domain was taken and was now on sale. So much of the internet is empty real estate where gold greedy prospectors have pitched their signs in the ground.

A ‘.com’ domain name should cost about £6 to register for a year. However, it’s rarely that easy. I defy you to find a decent name for a blog about, for example, ‘cheese’, that’s available for £6. In fact, I’ll do that as I type and I promise I won’t alter the results as they come up. Each domain is based on things that pop into my head around the word ‘cheese’ that might make a good website name.

Happycheese.com — Sold. Now parked but unused by GoDaddy who say I can buy it from them for an unspecified price. I bet it’s not £6, though.

Cheesemaker.com — Sold. Used by a cheese maker.

cheeseproducts.com — Sold. Currently parked but available to buy through a third party.

worldcheese.com — Premium domain. On sale for £2903!

happycheeseman.com — Available.

Justcheese.com — Sold but parked. Available to buy through a third party.

Cheesemaster.com — Sold. Premium domain for £9592!!!

Cheeselove.com — Sold. Parked. Available to buy through a third party

eatcheese.com — Sold. Website of The Melt.

laughingcheese.com — Sold. Blog about ecommerce. Last updated February 2012.

cheeseburp.com — Available

welovecheese.com — Sold. Parked. Available to buy through a third party.

The only two domains available to buy for £6 are ‘Happycheeseman’ and ‘cheeseburp’, both random combinations of words and not doubt too forgettable to be included in the miserable business plans of domain scalpers.

What we have, then are 10 web pages, only three of which belong to real websites. Seven out of the ten are just empty space, noise, the vacuum of web filler. Is it any wonder that people stick with the website domains that they can remember how to spell?

What makes me saddest of all is that www.thespine.com is still not available after nine years of waiting. It still shows a picture of a woman’s behind with links to osteopathy websites. Meanwhile, I have nearly ten years of genuine content on this blog, hardly any decent traffic, and I still have to use that lousy bloody hyphen… No wonder wiser people than me quit blogging a long time ago.

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17 Dec

I Hate Colour Cartoons

Another doodle last night and this morning I quickly coloured it in using a new paint app I’d found for Android. Can’t say I like the result. I rarely like putting colour onto my cartoons but I often feel compelled, simply because I think it’s becoming the norm. Perhaps I don’t like the result because I haven’t any skill with colour. I think, however, it’s that I simply prefer black and white cartoons.

Everywhere I look, cartoons are being done with colour. I love Scarfe’s work but I always maintain that his best stuff is (and was) done in black and white. I own pretty much all of Scarfe’s books but you’d find that they naturally fall open on the work from the 1960s and 1970s. The same is true for nearly every cartoonist who comes to mind. Even Kliban’s ‘Luminous Animals’, postumously published and now worth a small fortune, contains colour cartoons which just don’t have the same appeal. I’ll even admit (very quietly because this isn’t a criticism, merely a preference) that I’m not even a big fan of Steadman’s recent book of birds. My favourite books of his are his Freud and Alice, books that are predominately black and white, or use colour as a way of enhancing the black and white lines. Too many cartoonists are being forced to become painters (obviously at the insistence of newspaper editors) and I think that demeans the art form. Cartoons should be about bold shapes and giving clarity to the inanity of the world. Colour pushes them closer to that reality. As soon as cartoons move towards realism, their message is lost. It’s like reading an instruction chart drawn in colour. They’re never quite as clear as those drawn simply with black lines on white paper.

BalloonGrey BalloonCol

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15 Dec

Two Spectacularly Funny Cartoons

Before I receive any nasty comments, I should point out that the title of this blog post is meant to be ironic. This weekend I spent drawing cartoons purely for myself which is a very different process than trying to draw cartoons for other people. Drawing cartoons for other people means that I discard about 90% of my cartoon ideas. For example, there’s no way that Private Eye would accept the cartoons I aim to be posting on the blog this week. Not only would they find them spectacularly unfunny but they might pass them on to the men in the white suits. For that reason, I wouldn’t normally spend time drawing them.

This weekend I realised that I have far less fun when I’m trying to be a ‘proper’ gag cartoonist than when I’m simply doing what I started out doing all those moons ago. Back when I started, I drew things that made me laugh and which I found fun to draw. It sometimes feels like I’ve lost a lot of the fun from my process. This week, I want to have some fun.

So, here are the first two cartoons. Well, actually, they’re cartoons two and three because the first I drew with this mindset was my crucifix cartoon of yesterday. If you don’t find them funny, so be it. Go read the Modern Toss instead. This is the stuff I draw entirely to cheer myself up and that’s entirely what they do.

Beansoup Sleephopping

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14 Dec

Are You There, John W. Henry?

I wonder if Americans understand football as much as they seem to understand the fine words of a manager who has proved himself one of the slickest prevaricators in the league. Every bad performance is case of ‘bad luck’ and every crazy managerial decision has a back story to match anything written by another High Princess of Unbelievable Fairytale Bullsoup, Dame Barbara Cartland.

There has to be some reason why Brendan Rodgers is still holding onto his job. Perhaps John W. Henry’s attention is elsewhere. Maybe Rodgers has Henry’s box set of ‘Breaking Bad’ and Henry just can’t sack him until Rodgers returns it. Up to this year, football usually made sense. Everything about Liverpool at the moment makes absolutely no sense. Won’t somebody please educate me and explain the deep underlying structure in this disorganised chaos?

I’m not too sure how much longer this can go on. For Liverpool to lose 3-0 to Manchester United would always be a low point of the season. However, to lose 3-0 to this United team demonstrates the depth of the crisis at Liverpool. I genuinely don’t believe it’s the players who should take the blame for what’s happened. Individually there are some solid players. They work hard but too often seem to lack a system beyond an ineffective tap-it-tap-it-lose-it-to-a-proper-challenge. Even the summer buys don’t look as bad as the media portray them, though what Emre Can has to do to get a game must involve dark arts because scoring one goal against Chelsea seemed to mark the end of Brendan’s patience with the poor lad. Even the much scorned Mario Balotelli was Liverpool’s best player (again) when he came on. He can be petulant, do crazy things and believe in his own hype, but you can also see why managers have persisted with him in the past. He genuinely looks a world class player. If he could just get rid of the petulant little tugs, his game would almost without criticism given he’s playing in a system that doesn’t suit his game.

What seemed to make a difference were the tactics. One team underplayed but the team selection and tactics made sense. The other team worked hard and made chances but they were continually undermined by odd decisions coming from the sideline. Taking off Moreno, one of Liverpool’s best players, to put Lazar Marković in a position where he couldn’t attack the back four with the penetration of last week’s cameo… Did that seem like a rational thing to do? Perhaps somebody with a better understanding of football can educate me as to why we’d start the game without a proper striker. Why would you refuse to sub Joe Allen whose game is simply not what it was when he looked undroppable for a period a year or so ago? Even more baffling was replacing Adam Lallana, who despite carrying an injury, was head, shoulders and cracked ribs above every other Liverpool player in that first half.

However, Rodgers makes decisions which, even to my limited football knowledge, make about much sense as firing Rafa Benitez during the Hicks / Gillett period, when he was the one man trying to defend the club from those unscrupulous b******s and paid a price for telling the fans too much about what was going on inside the club.

Is this what football has become? A sport where good men are made to suffer for one bad season whilst coping with devious owners yet a preening peacocks with great new teeth can never seem to do wrong? When is somebody finally going to call the Emperor on his new clothes? Please, John W. Henry. Sack Rodgers. If you need a new boxset of ‘Breaking Bad’, I’ll buy one for you myself in the New Year sales.

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13 Dec

The St Vincent Tattoo and Other Erotic Thoughts

I suppose it’s as seasonal as the migratory herring but I continue to find myself drifting away from The Guardian as my paper of choice. I still visit it every day for the cartoons, especially those by the incomparable Martin Rowson, but I’m increasingly clicking off it without any regard for of the articles. More often than I’ve realised until today, I find my mouse pointer moving towards the new link on my browser which takes me straight to The Independent.

One of the problems I continue to have with The Guardian is the amount of content written about (or often written by) sex workers. Not that there’s anything wrong with sex workers who, I’m sure, are a friendly bunch of wayward souls, even when you get to know them on a non-profit basis. But unfortunately I’m one of those prickly snobs who prefers his prose written by trained (and preferably gifted) journalists. That’s not to say that a high class call girl can’t write a good paragraph about the global situation but they probably have ideas about the ‘Russian position’ that aren’t for my breakfast table. It’s like asking an economist to write a review of the latest sex toy and being surprised when they don’t tell you about the size, shape and horsepower, but instead explain the market fluctuations in the global price of pink rubber.

My reticence about talking about these things might be simply my excessive English reserve. It might also be a generational thing, though I suspect it’s more about my northern working class upbringing and the world of my youth. Sex was, in the words of Larkin, ‘[a] shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything’. Somebody brought up in a middle class bohemian household might find the business neither quite so sordid nor quite so silly. And they might not find The Guardian‘s obsession with the sex trade so ultimately boring.

Take the headlines from today (I write this at the well-spanked end of Friday). The Guardianistas are getting heated about the ‘face sitting protest at parliament’. Now, I’ll admit here and now that I’ve never really fancied sitting on a person’s face and can honestly say, with my hand on my naked heart, that being smothered by a woman’s ample buttocks doesn’t really appeal to me. I just can’t imagine a scenario that might change my mind. In fact, let me indulge in a male vice for a moment, just for the sake of this blog… Let me remove the shackles from my usual English reserve and imagine a scenario by which The Guardian actually responds favourably to one of the cartoons I occasionally send them. Let’s imagine the cartoon becomes an instant hit and it’s spotted by my favourite blue-haired alternative diva of the moment, St Vincent, aka Annie Clark.

Sigh…

Fantasising on: Ms. Clark sees my cartoon and decides that it’s perfect for her impressive right shank. She also thinks there’s only one man who can ink it for her and that man’s initials are Yours Truly.

‘Dear Waywell,’ she writes in an email. ‘Sending you plane fare and costs to travel over here to Brooklyn to ink a tattoo on my upper leg. Very busy writing new album (Japanese spoons & brass bands) so haven’t time to lie down. Can you work on your back as I write poems at my desk whilst sitting on my favourite comically wobbly stool as made for me by David Byrne? Yours. Annie.’

Now, obviously, I’d reply with an emphatic ‘no’ and explain why she shouldn’t deface her perfect thigh with a tattoo. However, this is also the illogical stuff of an erotic dream so off to New York I go and I’m soon hard at work tattooing my cartoon onto one shapely upper right leg. However, mid cartoon, the tattoo gun leaps from my trembling hand, bounces off her Albanian banjo and hits the aforementioned comically wobbly stool made for her by David Byrne. Typical of Byrne, he’s used cheap recycled wood and the stool breaks apart. With a pitch perfect scream (a la ‘Digital Witness’), St Vincent begins to fall, her perfect posterior crashing down onto my face. What am I to do? How would I feel as I begin to struggle for air? Would I feel blessed by my current state or desperate to live so I might warn people about the dangers of tattooing cartoons on the underside of a favourite singer/songwriter/shredder?

Now this is far from scientific but, as I’m writing this, I am trying to detect any carnal stirrings from down below and I can honestly say that I can’t feel a thing. It’s as dead down there as a yard of Russell Brand’s prose. Of course, it might be because the room is cold and my feet and legs are numb. Perhaps I simply damaged myself down there by blowing my school recorder too hard many moons ago. Yet the fact remains that the thought of my favourite screech rocker landing on my face does absolutely nothing for me and I still struggle to see what pleasure anybody could derive from such a strange practice.

Yet it’s not just their current obsession with face sitting that turns me off The Guardian. Nor is it the articles with deliberately provocative headlines written by their odd looking dominatrix. Again, I’m sure there’s a world for that sort of thing but the idea of being whipped into a frenzy by a plump woman in gimp mask doesn’t sound like fun. I have better things to do with my evenings.

No, the reason I’m drifting away from The Guardian is because they seem to think they we should all be open about every aspect of our lives and, as we say here in the North, sod that for a game of soldiers (also ‘a thing’ down in sophisticated parts of London). Not only is a person’s private life none of anybody’s business but they should have the good sense not to bore me with the details. Since when do we all have to be open about our tastes, our private lives, our urges and desires? I sometimes realise I’m being vulgar when I express my lust for a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (the i7 model with a heap load of memory) but what would people think if I started to write out every lustful thought I have towards, for example, the blue-haired member of Pussy Riot. Have you heard the way she says ‘blue chicken’ at 1:07 in this video? Now tell me it doesn’t drive you crazy despite your ice cold feet!

The Guardian still has some sharp writing talent yet I drift further away with every shock headline, deliberately provocative statement, and sexually explicit detail they publish. Their business still makes an annual loss despite their immensely popular website but the people who’ll eventually make the paper a success aren’t people like me. To become popular you need to embrace the mainstream and, apparently, the mainstream is comprised of face sitters. That wouldn’t be so bad but alongside the real journalists with fire in their pens, The Guardian employ slow lane grifters who are good for nothing more than click bait. Bring the two together — the sitters and the grifters — and you have a newspaper that’s left me far behind. Very far behind with my fantasies as private as they’re also very very dull (stockings, Norwegians, frogsuits).

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12 Dec

A Few Thoughts on Brand, Farage & Question Time

About the only thing I managed to do yesterday was catch Question Time on the BBC iPlayer. It wasn’t bad, though fairly predictable. Brand clearly hadn’t read my open letter to him and, as a consequence, he dropped back down in my estimation simply because he couldn’t stop using ‘mate’ and ‘love’ when addressing people. He should ditch the celebrity persona of the Cockney charmer if he wants to be taken seriously. That much said, he climbed back up in my estimation once a fellow panellist patronisingly told him off for talking over a female MP. She said, and I have to paraphrase, ‘this is what people hate about politics in this country: when a male voice shouts down a woman’. Hmm… Wasn’t quite the same half an hour later when Douglas Murray couldn’t make his point heard on This Week With Andrew Neil without being shouted down by Diane Abbott. Whatever Douglas Murray’s point was, I think it was possibly intelligent, articulate and interesting. I’d looked up to listen to what he was saying because it seemed nuanced. However, he barely had chance to speak. Abbott was sitting on the edge of her seat, full of slack jawed liberal indignation, gasping and spluttering her objections whenever he even opened his mouth.

It’s the problem I find myself having more often with liberals, though I’d say that I’d also consider myself to be pretty liberal. Places like The Guardian have very little true debate, with almost no cut and thrust. It’s all thrust, thrust, thrust as far as I can see. They tend to be platforms where people shout the same thing, over and over again until the masses cheer. Nobody ever questions the prevailing ethos, whether that’s about legalizing drugs (for which they all shout ‘yay!’) or going to war (for which they’ll always shout ‘never!’). Yet I suppose it’s a perennial problem with any form of balance. They say that all systems tend towards a point of equilibrium but it’s also true that any deviation from the centre is bound to result in a subsequent swing the other way. Men have had too much power so the women’s movement fought for equality until we reach the current situation in the media when it’s pretty difficult to express the male point of view without being called a sexist pig.

Speaking of sexist pigs: Nigel Farage was simply Nigel Farage and if you like the man, his performance would have made you like him more. If you hate the man, you’d still hate him this morning. All I can say is that both he and Brand have mastered (to varying degrees) the very thing that politics needs right now and that’s the ability to speak fairly plainly about the issues. The machine-age of steam-driven politics has hopefully passed. That was synonymous with Tony Blair’s time in government when people like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell controlled the media machine with such authority that MPs learned not to stray from the party line. Hopefully the success of men like Brand and Farage will help loosen things up a little and make politicians realise that we vote for people, not ciphers representing some abstract party ideal. The Tories will survive in this new age, probably by voting for Boris Johnson who has a similar loose style. Labour, I expect, will find their own relaxed leader. Possibly not Alan Johnson, though he has a little of that style but doesn’t seem to want the job. As for the Lib Dems, I really don’t think it matters who they vote for. They’ve ten years of rebuilding ahead of them.

For all their faults, Brand and Farage made last night’s debate interesting because they brought passion to the table. I suppose, despite what I said, the same is true of Diane Abbot. I’d rather have a few people shouting over each other than a calm mannered debate that simply sends the constituents to sleep.

 ***

On the subject of sleep: I’ve not had much sleep because I’ve spent the past 48 hours trying to make a three minute video on this hopeless computer of mine which was never built for video editing. It’s been driving me crazy but it’s a job I have to do that’s part of my other life where I have to do things when people tell me and I end up just wanting to take a long walk off a short pier. I like to get on with jobs, not to sit here waiting 10, 20, sometimes over 60 minutes waiting for a task to complete. It baffles me why I’m have such trouble and I’m not entirely sure where I’m experiencing a bottleneck, except the PC is now a few years old and things have probably moved on. I don’t think it’s a memory issue since I have 16gb but the machine is running an AMD Phenom II X6 1055T, which has slowly been falling down the CPUBenchmark list of performance CPUs. It gets a score of 5.061 which used to be impressive but now the chart is topped by insanely expensive Xeon CPUs with scores over 20. For the first mainstream CPU that you’d have in a desktop, the score is a slightly less staggering 12.9 for an Intel Core i7. That’s still twice as fast (plus a little more) than this CPU but whether that would translate into faster rendering speeds, I’m not entirely sure.

This work also means that I’ve not had time to draw or time to write. I’ve hardly had time to think how miserable it leaves me. Despite being something of a techhead, computers can utterly annoy me when they’re too slow. Momentum is important to my workflow. Getting things working spur me on to get other things working. When I have to keep stopping like this, I get surly and feel like sticking my boot through everything electrical.

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11 Dec

Forget AI: We Should Really Worry About Dumb People Talking To Even Dumber Machines

There was a significant moment this past week when Professor Stephen Hawking warned the world that our species faces real dangers from the advances in artificial intelligence. He wrote:

There are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved: there is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.

The comments were significant in a number of ways, not least of which was that they managed to slip some soft science into the news agenda. When Hawking speaks, people tend to listen. Why they listen is a moot point. In a way, Hawking is our version of Albert Einstein: a non-scientist’s idea of a scientist. Even if people don’t understand why he’s brilliant, they can recognise something about him which is obviously a mark of genius. Hawking also shares with Einstein a talent for using the media. It makes it hard to separate the tragedy of his illness, the heroic struggle to overcome those enormous difficulties, with the hard science he’s actually achieved in his lifetime. I have no doubt that his reputation is well earned as a theoretical astrophysicist but I can’t help but feel that there’s an element of the TV scientist about some of his public comments. ‘Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!’ is always going to be far more exciting to hear than ‘All is well, Will Robinson…’ and Hawking is bright enough to know that.

Hawking’s contribution to the debate about artificial intelligence is an interesting one but not, as far as I can tell, based on any particularly great insight into the field of thinking machines. He quotes “[r]ecent landmarks such as self-driving cars, a computer winning at Jeopardy! and the digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana’ as examples of the rapid rise of AI. However, all these developments are (also as far as I can tell) extensions of relatively simple advances in pattern recognition which has come about through the miniaturisation of chips. Moore’s Law famously states that computer circuits double in density every two years. That roughly means that every two years the chips that drive our computers become twice as powerful. Moore’s Law held for over half a century before, in recent years, it has started to slow, with the doubling now occurring every three years instead of two. Yet even if machines continue to increase in power at the rate predicted by Gordon E. Moore there’s still some way to go before anything could be built approaching genuine artificial intelligence. The problems aren’t simply problems that can be solved simply by throwing more memory and processing cores at it. As one of my old computing professors used to phrase it: a cow doesn’t gestate its young more quickly because it’s standing in a field with a dozen other cows. In other words, some problems can’t simply be solved by cranking up the dial. Indeed, it might even be argued that if should a thing could happen, artificial intelligence won’t be achieved using the relatively crude chip technology we use today.

The scale of the AI challenge is enormous and popularist pieces, such as the one by Hawking, merely serve the public’s appetite for salacious science. There was a story a few months ago about a computer that had apparently defeated the Turing Test. The media ran the story with bold headlines and when I saw one such headline, I actually raised an eyebrow. Had a computer really tricked a person into thinking they were having a conversation with another human? I should have known, however, and once I’d read the article, I was left wondering why anybody with half an idea about the Turing Test couldn’t tell that the claims were simply far too bold. The computer hadn’t come anywhere close to passing the test and the result was barely more impressive than those produced by the old Eliza script of the 1960s which used to play the psychologist to the user’s inputs.

True artificial intelligence is still the stuff of science fiction and, I suspect, will remain so unless there’s one of those genuine leaps of technology that come along so rarely; the last one probably being the invention of the silicon chip, with everything that has come since being merely an evolution of that.

However, the debate around AI systems came to mind this evening as I was contemplating the data gathered by my blog over the course of the last week. I’m fascinated to the point of distraction by visitors. Not so much the numbers, though catch me at a weak moment and I’ll say that, yes, I am addicted to page views. What interests me is to establish who or what is visiting the site. I know at times this sounds like my desperate need for affirmation but I sometimes wonder how this blog is received, perceived, and even if it’s perceived at all. And I think I have good reason to be sceptical about the latter. One of the rarely expressed truths about the current internet (or, at least, I don’t think I’ve ever read this written elsewhere but it’s so obvious that it undoubtedly has) is the extent to which so much of what passes for social media is simply people talking to computers.

For example, tonight I posted a tweet. I hadn’t done one in a while but I keep getting these urges to be social. So, onto Twitter I went and wrote the following:

Hmm… Who’ll succeed Alan Rusbridger at The Guardian? My guess is a multigender Eco warrior privacy smurf into S&M and Coldplay.

It might not be the greatest Tweet penned by man but I was quite proud of the result of about ten seconds of thought and fingers. And within about another ten seconds, I had a message come back to me. Some Chris Martin fan account had favourited my tweet. For a moment I smiled. That was really nice of them. It was nice to know that my wit is appreciated and… and…

Hmm…

Then I realised that there was very little chance that the Chris Martin fan account was actually being manned by a Chris Martin fan. A human being — even a Chris Martin fan — would surely have spotted that my reference to Coldplay was actually scathing and not worth marking as a favourite. It was obvious that a computer had merely picked out the word ‘Coldplay’ and automatically given it the virtual thumbs up.

Now, this, in a small sense, was a victory for the computers which had fooled me into thinking that I was dealing with a human. Yet the sad truth of all this is that so many of my daily interactions are probably with computers. It’s one of the reasons I don’t use social media. Look beyond the likes, the up votes, the Google + scores, the follower counts and you see just one enormous machine whirring away. A human puts input in and automated systems produce the required response. They like you, they follow you, they vote you up and some even send you messages asking you to like them back. Yet none of it is real. None of it means as much as even the simplest smile.

I do occasional work for a company who believe strongly in all of this social media. They love their follower counts and work hard to get more. I merely look at their numbers and wonder what it all means. Do those thousands of votes actually mean that people like the company? The answer, of course, is no. Those numbers really represent how long they’ve been present on the web. The follower counts really mark their own need for affirmation and the urgency with which they play the social media game. The real people are lost in all of this. You, the person out there, reading this… You are the person I’m writing this for. I’m not asking for anything other than a connection of our minds. A shared humanity contained within these words written as I sit here at my desk at 11.53 at night and scratching three days growth of beard. And that’s all that ultimately matters. How my blog feed might be digested by the machines, the media crawlers, the influence registers… They really don’t interest me. Yet I also fear that mine is a lone voice in a day and age when people prefer to speak to and be read by a million computers than understood by a single human brain.

The galling part of it is knowing that these words will be read by thousands of machines and, if I’m lucky, perhaps by only three or four humans. Or perhaps it will be read by thousands of people and only a few machines. The problem is that I simply cannot tell. And in this limited sense, I think Hawking is more right than his media friendly comments probably warrant. There might come a time when AI becomes self-aware and capable of taking away our freedoms. In the meantime, however, it’s the dumb systems we already have that are doing that to us, right this very moment.

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10 Dec

10 Incredible Terrifying Sexy Nude Celebrity Selfies Involving Rice Pudding

Okay. Stop everything. Put your mouse/finger down. The internet is broken and I’m not writing another damn thing until somebody fixes it.

For years I’ve been blogging and the routine has been pretty much the same. I spend some considerable time (usually hours) preparing something which I’d then post. Seconds later, the site would be visited by web crawlers that grab the new content and deliver it to the various places on the internet where people find original web content. If that content has some popular appeal (i.e. has a dumb enough title to attract the casual surfer), I might get ten or twenty visitors hitting on that one article in the next half hour. Sometimes there can be hundreds and on rare occasions the number can run into the multiple thousands.

However, things have been different this week. The web crawlers have stayed away. The blog statistics are hardly moving and the blog has become a one-sided conversation with silence. I feel zero motivation for writing or drawing and psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, that is not a good thing. Yesterday I noticed zero traffic for an hour and then I had one hit. One hit! And even then it was the kind of visitor with poor spelling that I don’t want to encourage since they make me feel generally miserable about the world.

 

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‘Vuiable porn’? That’s too wonderfully bad to be a typo. That’s just a terrible indictment of our educational system.

So, whoever controls the web: please release the crawlers. Send them back to me otherwise I might as well abandon this blog and allow the web to further descend towards a single continuum of articles with titles such as ‘8 Celebrities With Great Skin Rashes’ and ’21 Film Stars Who Look Great Naked In Sump Oil’. And, sadly, that’s what so much of the web is slowly becoming. It’s the web’s version of heat death but instead of heat the end will be an entropy of utter banality.

I have no doubt that the morons will ultimately win. Even the better websites out there are using the same companies to provide those ‘Sponsored Links’ at the end of every article (see the end of this article for examples). You probably know the sort of thing I mean. They’re provided by companies like Outbrain and Taboola who should really sponsor a circle of Dante’s Hell. They have pictures which just bait you into clicking on them with titles like ‘You Won’t Believe These People Exist’ or ‘See The Woman Who Is Half Hippopotamus’. Often they take you to a website where they promise to show you a list of things, one thing to a page, and you have to click through them (and their adjacent advertising) just to see the one thing on that list that originally baited your interest. Only when you get to the last item do you realise that the picture they’d showed you wasn’t even in the list of things they did show you. They promise that you will ‘See 20 Historic Photographs That Will Amaze You’ but it’s followed by 20 photos of pretty banal things such as the day Muhammad Ali met Robin Williams or a picture of Bill Gates when he was young. Bill Gates was once young! Well, who would have known?

Another classic of the genre is a picture of an old rusted pipe sticking out of some grass. The link title reads: ‘Someone Stumbled Across This In The Woods… Beneath It Was A Terrifyingly Awesome Secret.’.

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What could this ‘terrifyingly awesome secret’ be? For me, a terrifyingly awesome secret would have to involve the American military, blue skinned space lizards, and/or a fifteen foot avatar that looks just like Sigourney Weaver. A ‘terrifyingly awesome secret’ does not equate to photographs of an old WW2 bunker yet that’s exactly where the link takes you with captions as exciting as these highlights:

‘The entrance was originally covered with a wooden lid, but it was removed with a crowbar.’

‘Acoustics inside of the bunker made everything much more horrifying’.

‘There were junctions everywhere. It’d be tempting to turn down just one and end up lost…’

The whole thing is an utter sham and they do nothing but waste your time so some internet huckster can earn a fraction of a penny from the advertising. And if you’re like me, you generally feel like such a heel for ever following a link that had tickled your particular peccadillo. I admit, I’m just like the rest of mankind. I have fairly pedestrian tastes when it comes to flesh. I find it hard not to click on cleavage. A link titled ’10 Actresses Who Look Great When Leaning Forward In Low Cut Dresses’ is not something I can look at and not click.

Sites such as those will ultimately win the internet. Mass produced websites with zero real content, generally written by low paid hacks via sites like Amazon Turk, and heavily loaded with advertising will kill it for the rest of us. We are simply too small to get good advertising deals and spend too long trying to create something meaningful to make any of this worth it. The next step towards their total dominance is when the web crawlers stop crawling our sites.

And did I mention that this week the crawlers stopped crawling?

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09 Dec

Gross Stupidity Inside Your Chocolate Box

After the sugar overload I suffered two days ago whilst filming my Love Heart unboxing video (and, if you’re the One Direction fan who actually sat through that, I’m sorry for not taking it very seriously), I wasn’t in the mood for any more sweetness in my life. However, about eight o’clock last night, I found myself face to nostril with a box of Terry’s All Gold. I’m not a huge chocolate eater unless that chocolate is pretty dark but this time I was being offered a chocolate and I had to accept because… Well, when somebody says you can take a dip into their box of All Gold, it would be impolite to refuse.

Now, if you’re one of the enlightened souls who read my blog regularly, you will know that I’m not a man who likes to take risks. Some fools might dip blindly into a box of chocolates and eat whatever it is that their fingers find but I’m not that kind of man. I’m one of those poor pedantic souls who need the instruction chart which they then study with life sapping patience as they weigh up the options. Nut or cream? Swirly style or blocky substance? On a box of All Gold, the chart is printed on the underside lid in a very thin font so I peered at it a good few minutes and I confess that I struggled.2014-12-07 15.57.30

I like to think that I understand English. Furthermore, I like to think that I understand English which has been hammered into odd shapes by tricky wordsmiths. I spent quite a few years studying English poetry, so I think I know my way around a florid phrase or two. Yet even I couldn’t fathom the turns of phrase these chocolate people use to describe their product. The makers of Terry’s All Gold have ouija-ed up the spirit of Emily Dickinson to write their descriptions.

Because you can’t stop for caramel, / It kindly stops for you;
This mouthful holds but just one nut, / And a gram of creamy chew.

Well, it should have said that… The entire business of marketing chocolates comes down to the single miserable job of selling caramel to the masses. There’s not a taste in a box of chocolates that’s as measly and nasty as caramel yet it’s the single thing they won’t stop forcing down our throats. When Mars recently announced their decision to axe a chocolate from their bags of Revels, they claimed it would be decided by a public vote. “Save the one you love, evict the one you hate” they promised. This, apparently, was the result:

Chocolate 4%
Caramel 12%
Coffee 41%
Orange 13%
Raisin 25%
Maltesers 6%

Does this even make sense? The caramel is the third favourite in that list and the chocolates I suspect are the most expensive to produce are first, second, and third most hated? Yet the only reason I ever bought Revels were to eat, in order of my favourites: the orange, the nut (previously dumped due to allergy fears), and the coconut (also dumped for no obvious reason other than anti-Polynesian propaganda). I hate raisins and despise caramel and I’m not that keen on Maltesers. The British public would need to be more brain dead than I’d previous assumed to choose to drop the coffee and keep the caramel, clearly the most repulsive chocolate in the bag. Because what is caramel other than burnt sugar? It’s a vile substance, very often an oozing syrup of charmless yuck. It’s cheap and it’s foul. I’m not even sure it’s entirely edible.

However, they can’t market it in such honest terms. So how do the people at Terry’s (or Kraft Foods who now own them) describe this vile concoction on their boxes of All Gold? Here is their description of the ‘Inca Gold’.

Soft caramel elegantly enrobes a whole hazelnut.

‘Elegantly enrobes’? Even Shakespeare would blush and think that one a bit too ripe for his audience. In fact, the English canon doesn’t often use the word ‘enrobes’ and I had to search a while to find this verse in Swinburne:

The toothed thorns that bit thy brows
Lighten the weight of gold on theirs;
Thy nakedness enrobes thy spouse
With the soft sanguine stuff she wears
Whose old limbs use for ointment yet
Thine agony and bloody sweat.

The last line just about sums up my experience with the ‘Inca Gold’. Terry’s dump a lifeless hazelnut in a puddle of gooey caramel and we’re supposed to find it appetising because they say it’s ‘enrobed’? And how can a hazelnut be described as elegant? It’s a sodding hazelnut! There’s not a single nut on the planet that deserves to be called elegant. Not even the pair that swing between George Clooneys’ thighs when he’s wear a tux in a late night coffee bar and listening to cool jazz whilst planning an audacious jewellery heist from a vault owned by an icy Jodie Foster.

The entire farce reminds me of the old Monty Python routine about the crunchy frog surprise.

We use only the finest baby frogs, dew picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose.

Frankly, despite my phobia of all things frog, these baby frogs sound scrumptious, not least because, unlike the Inca Gold, they’re not ‘enrobed’ in bleeding caramel.

You might also notice how all chocolate manufacturers use the word ‘gold’ to describe caramel. ‘Quality Street’ even has the toffee penny, which is a solidified lump of the abhorrent matter but implying it has some monetary value. Caramel isn’t even gold. It’s a lifeless shade of brown. See the word ‘gold’ on a chocolate box and you can say goodbye to your fillings.

Another fine example of language mangled to describe something nasty is found in their Terry’s description of the chocolate they call the ‘Molten Gold’.

‘Silky golden caramel wrapped in delicious milk chocolate’.

I’m not sure that caramel should ever be described as silky. Silky for me best describes silk, perhaps enrobing the reclined body of Scarlett Johanssen. That stuff that gums up your mouth and then leaks down your throat in a gloopy mess is not, in my book, silky.

Chocolate companies have other tricks to describe their ever cheapening wares. There was a time when you’d gravitate towards the creams (or, if you’re posh, the crèmes) in a box of chocolates but you might have noticed how they’ve been generally replaced by the term ‘truffle’. The new millennia was marked by many change in society but none quite as pervasive as the rise of the truffle in our chocolate boxes. Truffle is the new caramel. It is caramel by a different name and with a slightly different texture. It’s horrible sugary stuff which doesn’t really taste of anything other the vast disappointment you feel when bite into the stuff and realise they’ve replaced your favourite cream with this solid mass of bland. When Rowntree re-launched their ‘Black Magic’ in 2007, my favourite box of chocolates became an unappealing succession of variously flavoured ‘truffles’ which were so bloody disgusting that the company had to re-re-launch the ‘classic’ selection in 2009 to make up for the damn stupid mistake.

These product re-launches and chocolate ‘evictions’ are clearly done in the name of cheapening a product whilst disguising it as an improvement. Language is merely being used to tame that change, just as it’s being used to make something uninspired sound interesting.

Here, for example, are Terry’s marketing whizzes this time talking about the ‘Cappuccino Radiance’

A smooth coffee flavoured truffle, just waiting to be discovered.

This probably takes us into the depths of phenomenology; that esoteric branch of pure philosophy to do with intentionality and the ‘aboutness’ of our conscious mind. How do we think of our body and of sensations as they arrive to us? Well, on biting into the Cappuccino Radiance, I wasn’t suddenly aware that it wasn’t radiant and not particularly cappuccino.

Perhaps I’m just naive in assuming that the description might actually describe the experience of eating the chocolate. Wouldn’t it be better to say, ‘your teeth sink through the chocolate and hit a strange stuff which you smack between your lips and then squash against your roof of your mouth before thinking: this tastes a bit like weak coffee. I won’t try that one again…’

Then we have the ‘Rich Orange’ chocolate, which the makers describe:

Terry’s milk chocolate protects this precious orange centre.

Precious? How precious, I wonder? How precious can something be when it comes in a box of chocolates reduced to a couple of quid down at the Co-op?

I could go on but that’s to the labour an already laboured point. We live in the age of marketing when style doesn’t simply replace substance. It stamps it into the ground until substance has completely vanished.

This Christmas, I aim to go chocolate free. Perhaps it’s yet another thing about getting older but chocolate seems to be getting worse, smaller, less satisfying, less appealing. Apparently there’s going to be a world chocolate shortage and I look forward to that day. Perhaps it will make people look again at the hazelnut and start to give it the respect it deserves instead of ‘enrobing’ it in that bloody horrible caramel gloop.

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09 Dec

The Eleven Second Sprint: The Insane Mathematics of Trying to Open The Door To Delivery Men

It’s happened four times this past week. I’ve been sitting working at my desk when the doorbell has rang. Ever alert to the buzz, I immediately stopped what I was doing, leapt up, ran out of my office and down the one flight of stairs (about fifteen steps) to the front door. Each time it took me perhaps no more than eleven seconds to move from my desk to that blast of cold fresh air and delivery man odour (aka Denim for Men). Yet every single time, I found the delivery man already standing at the front gate on his way back to his van.

Of course, they all turned back and a couple said ‘oh, I was nearly gone’ to which I replied (slightly breathless) ‘you don’t exactly give me much time!’ They usually smirk and say ‘I can’t wait around all day.’ Apparently delivery men equate anything over eleven seconds to the full 24 hour day.

Despite my size, I am  a fairly quick mover. Somebody smaller or younger or a bit more ‘Usain Bolt’ might shave a bit of time off my eleven second record. I have a trolley filled with dip pens and ink near the door and I have to squeeze past it to get through. But eleven seconds, I think, is a fairly good time from a sitting start.

What’s shocking to think is that had I taken fifteen or twenty seconds, then the delivery guy would have been back in his van and giving his throttle some ankle. I recently had to run from a different room and took perhaps twenty seconds to get to the door only to find the delivery guy climbing back into his van. He was sneering when I literally had to run out into the road to wave him down and he was in a severely unhappy mood when he finally pulled my computer hardware from the back of his van. He didn’t even say a word to me.

Now, I know that delivery men have miserable jobs, dominated by hemorrhoids and road rage. I know they’re asked to deliver too much during a busy season and that ruptures are an occupational hazard. I know they can’t go home, back to their UKIP flags and tattooed children,* until they’ve emptied their vans. I know that people selfishly order things knowing that they’ll never be in to receive them. I have neighbours on three sides who do just that.

However, how quickly do delivery guys think those of us who are home should move and how close to the front door do they think we should live our lives?

My theory is that they must spend their entire day calling at homes where there’s nobody in. They have therefore calculated that it’s more efficient to ring a doorbell and immediately walk away because in over 50% of cases, nobody will ever answer the door. It’s therefore more efficient, in their minds, to have to walk back in the less than 50% of houses where there’s somebody in because in over 50% of visits, they save themselves the time of waiting on the doorstep.

This, of course, is a logical fallacy. If they immediately walk away after ringing the bell, they won’t ever see people answering the door should those people take more than eleven seconds. And, I further speculate, most people (especially the old and/or infirm) will take more than eleven seconds to get to their front door. It therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Delivery men think there are fewer people at home because they only give us eleven sodding seconds to answer the door.

None of which helps me. I still only have eleven seconds to answer the door before the delivery guy disappears up the street. What I ideally need is some kind of mantrap linked to the doorbell. Only, given these days of dumb political correctness, if I did dig myself a pit and had all delivery men fall into a sealed chamber where they’d have to wait until I arrived to deal with them, some people would say that I’d be in the wrong.

It’s a mad world.

* A terrible stereotype** used only for comic effect and for which I can only apologise.
** However, a generally accurate stereotype.

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