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01 Feb

Various Unrelated Thoughts

I wish I didn’t have to program, though I know it’s entirely my choice. How paradoxical does that sound? It’s my choice to do something I wouldn’t choose to do. My life has always been like this. No matter what I’ve accomplished, it’s always my computer skills that people want or demand that I use. I wish I could just spend my days writing but there’s no money to be had in writing. Not here. Not outside London. Possibly not inside London unless your mother was a columnist and is happy to land you a gig on the nationals. I can’t cartoon well enough to earn money that way. So, I’m stuck trying to brush up on the only thing I’ve ever been slightly good at and for which there might just be a demand, even though deep down I don’t actually enjoy doing it.

Or perhaps isn’t the right phrase. I do enjoy it but I enjoy it too much. My interest in programming is something I shouldn’t feed. It makes me too distance, uncommunicative. It feeds the very part of me I’m sure is completely Asperger’s. Sometimes, it’s like giving a junkie a needle. Computers are my needle.

Today I spent pulling my hair out in frustration. I’d wanted to write and draw but I forced myself to learn to program in ‘Windows Presentation Framework’. To the non-geek, programming is usually done in one of a few languages. The most popular is probably Java but the use of C# (pronounced C sharp) is rising and that’s what I use. However, the language is only half of the business of being a programmer. The language you use to code is actually communicating with something bigger and more powerful. I suppose it’s a bit like knowing French and being able to order an army around the field. The ‘army’ I’ve recently been ‘commanding’ was called Windows Forms and it was an easy thing to do. I’d say ‘Create a window’ and it would create a window. I’d say ‘When somebody clicks on this button, count the number of beans in this pile’ and that’s what it would do. It was easy. In its way, it was fun.

I’m still ‘speaking’ in C# but I’m no longer using Windows Forms which is considered old fashioned. Microsoft want people to use this WCF system and, frankly, it’s a royal pain in the arse. Somebody said it doesn’t so much have a ‘learning curve’ as a ‘learning cliff’. It’s monstrously complicated to do even the simplest things. I finally have a basic program working but took me all day to do something that in Windows Forms (the old technology) would have taken me an hour.

Wish I could just write for a living but doesn’t everybody? Everybody believes they can sling verbs and nouns together and produce readable prose. The truth is that so much of the prose I read is written by people with a cloth ear to the nuances, flows, and beauty of the English language. Thank god fewer people can code but, then, even that’s not as rare a thing as it once was. I figure there’s some guy in India who does everything I do but at a lower price. I’m plagued by that guy in India. The bargain bucket me.

***

I was bought a gift today. I’d been wanting to play Assassin’s Creed Unity for a while but I’d dismissed it because I’d read so many bad reviews. No game has received such bad press and has been perceived so poorly. However, it was on sale and I’m lucky enough to have somebody who cares enough about me that she keeps my spirits raised with the occasional game.

Tonight I spent three hours playing the unpatched version and about half an hour on the patched version. I have to say: either patched or unpatched, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a stunningly good game. Of course, there are the occasional glitches but, based on my experience of the game, they are so mild as to be completely forgivable. It’s not even a matter of praising the glass half full rather than the glass half empty. The game is brimming with moments where I’m sitting there just spellbound. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always loved that period of the late eighteenth century. Revolutionary France fascinates me because it was an expression of those forces I’ll be been waffling on about in subsequent paragraphs. I also love Paris, Gothic architecture, the novels of Dumas and anything that involves a sword fight. For me it’s the best game I’ve played in a long time and it just feels like it’s opening up into something very special. I have no idea where the criticism has come from. Perhaps people were playing a different game. Makes no sense to me. Ubisoft have just become my favourite developers again.

***

As I settle down for the evening and try to figure out what the hell I’ll draw tonight, I notice that ISIS have killed another hostage. Another journalist killed for doing what journalists do. This is an obvious thing to say but I’ll say it anyway: ISIS is very different to anything we’ve seen before. There might have been equally bad pockets of nihilistic ideologies in recent history. My mind goes back to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. In Africa, we’ve seen genocide in places like Rwanda. Yet for over half a century, it’s the Nazis who have been our measure of the worst forms of human barbarism. That said: the current situation around Syria and Iraq feels so very different. There was always something deeply rational about the Nazi blood cult. It’s why it’s so often associated with Nietzsche who wrote about the irrationality of compassion. They mechanised killing in a way which, had it been any other discipline, they might have been considered Modernists. ISIS are not Nazis. There is no reason to ISIS. There’s a feral cruelty about everything they do, as though some collective adrenal gland has gone bad. In that sense, I tend to think that Boris Johnson was right in what he said today. This isn’t just a bad ethos or bad ‘thinking’. It’s pathology. It’s self-abuse. It has the stink of postmodern. It’s death for death’s sake.

I’m beyond thinking I’ll ever understand the Middle East. This last week there’s been so much criticism about our government lowering our flag to honour the dead Saudi king. We’re rightly appalled at Saudi regime and the brutal punishments they inflict when people try to express their right to free expression. Yet the reality is that none of us would want the lid to come off that tinderbox of tribal rivalries. Was it naive of anybody to believe that by taking down Saddam that democracy would flourish in the region? Freedom in anything is frightening but it takes the truly enlightened to enjoy it. With the freedom to do anything comes the potential of chaos. It’s the great paradox, I suppose, that to enjoy freedom you also have to accept a self-imposed restraint. Again (I always make this point), it is the thing Conrad expressed so profoundly in ‘Heart of Darkness’. Civilization is founded upon a lie but that lie is crucial is we’re to keep our civilization. What ISIS prove is that some societies are not mature enough to deal with freedom. In the place of one brutal dictator, they would put a thousand brutal despots, each interpreting a desert fable as though it were an eternal truth. I don’t hold the UK or America apart from that truth. I’m generally a Republican but there’s a small part of me that realises that a Monarchy might at least impose a sense of order upon the country. For everything the monarch represents, there’s the truth that there’s all the things they don’t represent which would come to the fore in a Republic. There’s also the fact that when you destabilise any system, you should be prepared for the long process of it finding a new balance. Revolutions are not things you’d really wish upon any people.

I always think of it in terms of my gut. I sometimes have a tricky gut. Since I was a child, I’ve always had problems with some foods. It makes me cautious about what I eat. Friends and family mock me because I always eat the same things but I view my stomach as a system. Disturb its equilibrium and it’s a sod to get it balanced again. So much of the world works the same way and the sad reality is that equilibrium is often maintained through hellish forces. ISIS might itself be a hellish force which will produce a new equilibrium. I’m not sure. I just don’t know what hellish force can come along and silence them. I’m not even sure we want to know what hellish force could silence them.

31 Jan

A Bit of Andy Kaufman History And One Damn Funny Story

I have to recommend this to you if you’re not too easily offended. It’s the latest podcast by the great Gilbert Gottfried and is an hour and a half with Bob Zmuda. I guess that neither is a household name here in the UK and this whole thing probably needs a little preface in the form of a brief history of American standup comedy.

Gottfried is one of my favourite comedians, though I’ve not had the chance to see much of his work beyond Youtube. He’s just not a big star in the UK. I have no idea how big he is in the US but he’s one of those comics that I just can’t resist watching. I love his voice, his facial expressions, his laughter, his jokes… Most of all I love his daring. He’s just out there in places where most comedians can only dream about going. I think I’ve posted this before but it’s one of my favourite things on the internet and is itself definitely not safe for work. It’s Gottfried’s audiobook version of ’50 Shades of Grey’. What I love about this is that it cuts through all the precious bullshit that’s spoken about that damn book and he reads it exactly how it reads on the page.

So, like I was saying, his latest podcast is devoted to Bob Zmuda who was Andy Kaufman’s writer and friend.

Andy Kaufman, for those too young to know their comedy history, is simply one of the great oddballs of American comedy. He’s most famous for his role in Taxi but his live comedy is as far left field as left field goes. Example:

Kaufman died tragically young though stories continue to persist that he faked his own death. HIs life was the subject of the excellent 1999 Milos Forman film, Man on the Moon, with Jim Carrey as Kaufman. He was also the Andy Kaufman of the REM song the same name.


So, Zmuda was his friend and writer and he continues to add to the Kaufman legend by appearing as one of Kaufman’s more famous characters called Tony Clifton. Tony Clifton is a bit hard to describe but he’s a bit like Dean Martin crossed with Sir Les Patterson and then with the debauchery cranked up to 11. Example.

Clifton is deeply repulsive, which makes the story that Zmuda tell all the funnier. It begins about the 14.50 mark and is about time Jim Carrey was invited to the Playboy mansion by the star struck Hugh Heffner. Like I say, it’s not for the easily offended. Definitely NSFW. The details get pretty pornographic but it’s hilarious and like the best comedy, revealing about human nature, in this case, the worst kind of human nature involving celebrity .

 

30 Jan

The New Banner

As you can see, I’ve started to doodle a new banner for the blog. I’ve always wanted a completely hand drawn banner but I’ve never thought my skills were at the point where I could pull it off. I’m still not sure my skills are the at the point where I can pull this off. I intend to work on it slowly, perhaps adding things that have relevance to the blog. Perhaps things that have no relevance to this blog. The tortoise was a mistake and will be removed tonight and something else put in its place. I have no idea why I added the tortoise. It was very late and I have a lot of space to fill.

I did think of adding virtual likenesses of anybody who leaves a comment but I had second thoughts. Firstly, I don’t know what anybody looks like and, secondly, I don’t want to put off anybody who might be thinking of leaving a comment. Besides, what would a ‘Radical Rodent’ look like? With the exception of the guy on the right who looks (very vaguely) like me and the woman prodding ‘me’, who is a bit like my nemesis from Tesco, none of the other characters are meant to resemble anybody other than the generic stereotypes I constantly seem to come across. Well, okay. Perhaps the guy flying the drone might be my perception of what Barman looks like but that’s a vague ill formed thought and not worthy of pursuing.

Today: I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m making very little headway programming with WPF. I should get into it but my spirits are lacking. Yesterday was an odd day. It reminded me how much fun I used to have working on my spoof letter project. Today I need to be more productive. Deep breath. I should work on figuring this WPF out. I can’t let it beat me.

29 Jan

The Tim Marshall Letter

Well, I found a stamp. My ‘Tim Marshall’ letter has gone. It’s now on the long two hundred and six mile journey to London and BBC headquarters where I hope (but doubt) it will cross the desk of James Harding, aka ‘Harding the Hack’, aka BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs. I felt quite nostalgic writing the letter. Perhaps there are lots of crazy people out there who write letters. I’ve never considered myself one of the ‘crazies’, though no doubt some people have questioned (and will question) my sanity. The ‘comedy’ is merely the justification for writing otherwise serious letters which, in truth, it really would be mad to send to people in authority since, in reality, what are our opinions really worth to them?

At one time, I was writing three letters a day and I did that like a religion for about 18 months. It cost me a small fortune in stamps but I think I learned quite a bit about letter writing. I find writing them a wonderful outlet. In them, I become the person I wish I could be. Gone is the indecisive man who cares too much about his work yet questions himself to the point of impotent indecision. Instead, I adopt this strangely confident voice which isn’t my own. I love calling people by their Christian names and being chatty and informal and terribly direct. My letters have a cocky swagger which isn’t me but probably is me at some deep level where the id rages. I suppose in a way they’re the expression of my rebelliousness. I refuse to address anybody other than as a fellow human being. In that respect, letters are wonderfully egalitarian and an expression of our simple shared humanity.

Perhaps I’ll get an answer. Perhaps I won’t. My success with the BBC has always been around 50/50. Some of them clearly enjoyed my letters. Others, by their silence, either didn’t or never received them. I suspect quite a few of them suffer that terrible dullness of ‘professionalism’ which means they take what they do far too seriously to understand the serious edge to my apparently trivial letters.

Printing the letter has itself been quite the struggle. I haven’t used my printer in a long time and I was disappointed to discover that I didn’t have any yellow ink left. I use an old Canon printer for which I used to buy cheap cartridges without security chips. I had some reprogrammable security chips I could stick in them using a chip reprogrammer. It saved me a fortune over the years but now I find I have a draw full of yellow ink cartridges but no chips. Even if I had the chips, I think my reprogrammer has bust. Stan’s head came out looking purple. It means I couldn’t print my letter with the usual handsome face at the bottom right corner.

NorthernerStrange looking at this face. I got such mileage from such a simple combination of a comb-over and Richard Madeley’s face. I had such great hopes for those books. I still maintain my second book is even better than the first and the first was the best thing I’ve ever done. Poor Stan. Staring into those big bright optimistic eyes, it’s hard to believe that so few people got the joke. Perhaps Jim Harding (or his PA) will. Perhaps he’ll be on the phone to Tim Marshall over the weekend and he’ll stop the world travelling even further down the road towards the banal and bland. Probably not. The point is: I tried my best and I can do no more.

Wish I could go back to letter writing. Of all the things I’ve done, it was the only one where I actually felt quite at home.

29 Jan

My @Itwitius Letter Campaign

TimMarshallTypical of the lull I experience between projects, I had trouble getting my mind working yesterday. I have a vague idea about writing some web-related software so I took my first steps in WPF programming. However, late last night, I eventually succumbed to the lure of Sergeant Bilko. There’s something about American sitcoms of the 1950s that’s unlike anything we’ve had since. My network hard drive has the entire Bilko, Car 54 Where Are You and, if I can handle the shouting (sometimes I can’t) the ‘classic 39′ episodes of The Honeymooners. It’s perfect stuff for doodling.

Not in the mood to draw gag cartoons, last night I attempted a couple of Sky News caricatures. Sky News was at the forefront of my thoughts. My sister had excitedly told me that she’d found this blog when she was herself looking for news about Tim Marshall. ‘You’re at the top of Google’ she exclaimed. I shrugged. I’m at the top of Google for quite a few things but it means next to nothing. Type ‘Ed Milliband cartoon’ into Google and mine comes at the top of the page. What was stranger, however, was the same thing happened to me later in the evening. I wanted to start drawing a caricature of Anna Jones so I went to Google Images, my preferred source of reference material, and I typed ‘Anna Jones Sky News’. I was shocked to see a very old cartoon I’d drawn appear near the top of the page. It means nothing, of course, except I’m probably the only unsuccessful cartoonist with a particular crush on Anna Jones.

Thinking about Anna Jones makes me realise that I was probably a bit too harsh in what I wrote about Sky News last night, though it has definitely slipped to second in my list of most watched channels. I suppose the writing on the wall was to be seen back when I was writing Book 2 of my Stan Madeley letters. I had two successes from Sky News. I had what I assume was a mass-produced letter of apology from Adam Boulton, explaining why he shouldn’t have got angry with Alistair Campbell. It was a strange letter because I’d written to compliment him for his passion and I’d demanded more outbursts.

I know you’re not looking to open negotiations with a simple viewer and I suppose you’ll receive quite a bit of grief about your bust up with that toxic toad, Alistair Campbell. However, I wanted to write to say that not a word of criticism will you hear from me! In fact, I might send a note to my old mucker, Quentin Letts, at The Daily Mail. He’s the salt of the earth and knows it. I’m sure I could get him to say a few words in your defence.

My second ‘success’ was a signed photo of Jeremy Thompson, though I’d never asked for one. What I’d actually written was:

Dare I say that Sky News really misses Bob Friend? Now all the best talent is wasted. There’s not a better foreign affairs editor than Tim Marshall and Adam Boulton is top of the political tree. So why the obsession with showbiz? And who is that gormless gnome poncing around film premieres? He talks to actors as though he shared a Jacuzzi with them only last night whilst supping champagne from their publicist’s keister. I want news, Jeremy, not promotional guff about a 19 year old airhead struggling with the duel ownership of plastic nipples and a pink Ferrari. I’m surprised you don’t choke every time you squeeze the words ‘Paris’, ‘Hilton’, ‘Osbourne’, ‘Jordan’ or ‘Andre’ past your epiglottis. And it’s all well and good, slapping all of Sky News‘ resources on one big story each year to win some ruddy BAFTA so your lot can vulgarly push it into our faces at every commercial break. How about giving us more meat throughout the day? The only note of sanity in the whole operation is that you’ve not started to wear those ridiculous pins they have on Sky Sports News. It makes them look like members of a cult, which I’m not entirely sure they’re not. Have you noticed that their female presenters look like Stepford Wives? And, what’s worse, so do the men.

My biggest Sky News disappointment was never getting a reply from Anna Jones, though looking through the thousand plus letters I sent in the course of my Stan Madeley career, I can’t seem to find the two Anna Jones originals. I’m beginning to wonder if I even sent them, though I’m sure I did. I seem to remember the premise of my letters being my sadness upon hear she was leaving Sky News for a newsreading job in Bolivia.

But I digress.

I can’t really write anything better than last night’s response to the news that Tim Marshall is leaving Sky News. These things happen. There is a news cycle which cycles not just the news but also the presenters. Yet something about this just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know the reason for Marshall’s departure but in a world where genuine talent stands out, the loss of Marshall is a big one.

Reading around his twitter account this morning, there was little hint about his future. He’s talking about a new website but every fool has a website and where does that gets us? He jokingly asks one follower to ‘Write to the newspapers, demand that I appear as an analyst.  Pitchforks, burning torches etc.’ That suggests that the BBC aren’t hammering at his door offering him a place in the foreign affairs department. That in itself is madness. Like I said last night: no journalist so obviously follows in the footsteps of John Simpson.

So, I’m now tempted to write to newspapers (and the BBC) and demand that he appears as an analyst. I’d do it too but I can no longer afford the stamps. If I could sell a few Gag Machines, then Stan Madeley might return for a proper letter campaign. For the moment, he might have to satisfy himself with one or two. I reckon I should begin with James Harding (Harding the Hack), aka the Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC. It will probably come to nothing but watch this space. It will at least get my brain going on this cold day when a brutal snow is falling outside the window and I can’t bring myself to face the thought of two more months of computer programming for zero reward.

28 Jan

Goodbye Tim Marshall, The Last Good Reason To Watch Sky News

It’s 6.50pm. I’ve only just finished wailing at what I’ve just read on Twitter.

Tim Marshall has left Sky News.

I only have ten minutes to write this before I go out so forgive the typing… This is top of the head stuff.

This might sound hyperbolic (or just utter bollocks) but Tim Marshall was the last good reason to watch Sky News. He was one of the older crew who were around in the days when Sky News was a serious news operation. He never looked at home in the new rolling reality of their current 15 minute repeat and rinse coverage that never penetrates into the thicker fabric of the news. I regretted the day that Sky News started to boast about ‘the headlines every fifteen minutes’. I never understood why they thought it was somehow commendable that they believed we might forget the news agenda every quarter of an hour. In reality, it meant that they never had time to get their fingernails dirty. They cheapened their output by repeating the same script every 900 seconds. It largely became unwatchable.

Marshall always stood apart from that reductive approach to the news. He would always explain things in interesting ways. He’d educate me like I’ve not been educated since I stopped sitting on my PhD supervisor’s sofa at university and drinking his horrendous Turkish coffee. Tim Marshall explained why things weren’t black or white. He understood the world’s grey zones; where politics merged with tribal customs and the ‘truth’ wasn’t easily summed up in a neat headline. Sky News can still hold its own but only during specially selected events when some chief in the News International hierarchy gives the go-ahead to pump resources into coverage. When bad things happen, Sky News are great. Between those times, the coverage is thin, vapid, lacking substance. In other words: lacking everything that Tim Marshall brought to their glassy table.

I’d noticed he’d gone missing months ago. I think I’d secretly hoped the BBC has hired him. He is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to John Simpson and, in my book, there’s no greater praise. He always was Simpson’s heir. I’m not sure what had happened. Marshall’s role had been taken by lesser journalists who lack his key quality. That quality was hesitation and pause. It was the way he’d suck on his teeth and would reply ‘well, not really’ when asked what sounded like a simple question. Lesser journalists tend to say ‘Yes, that’s absolutely right, Kay’ and repeat some easy to memorise formula. Tim Marshall would often wince when asked something straightforward. ‘They’re not of that tribe,’ he’d reply or proffer a ‘that’s not strictly true’ before launching into an enlightening run down of regional allegiances.

I watch very little Sky News these days. My loyalty has shifted to the BBC who have commendably discovered the more relaxed style that Sky News had made their own in the days of the great Bob Friend. It’s now Sky News who have become the ‘professional’ news channel, with everything cut to fit seamlessly between the ads.  There’s no hair out of place, no autocue missed. Yet it’s precisely that spontaneous quality which the true news obsessive tends to cherish. It’s what I miss the most.

I hold onto a distant hope that Tim Marshall will reappear on our screens. I know he’d find a natural home at the BBC and I hope (probably without much hope) that he’ll eventually turn up on News 24. The fact that the BBC has become a natural home to Andrew Neil is proof that they cherish character, intelligence, and (a broad phrase but I’ll use it) a kind of humanism that is so much better that the so-called professionalism you see everywhere else on TV as well as in life.

And that, I guess, is what I want from TV news. I’d like a channel that’s the living embodiment of myself. It would be like this blog: random, full of humour (I hope), occasional (forgivable) rants, and a general willingness to understand a confusing and complicated world without falling into the trap of dogma or ideology.

To put it another way: my favourite night of the week is the night when I watch ‘This Week with Andrew Neil’ and follow it up with Bill Maher’s ‘Real Time’ which I’ll have found online. There’s no show on British TV remotely like ‘Real Time’, though ‘This Week’ comes the closest. It’s edgy, sometimes shocking, abrasive, argumentative, enlightening, unstructured, and compelling viewing. It’s filled with intelligent people disagreeing and arguing and it’s everything that intelligent TV should be. In an ideal world, that would be the stuff of my ideal news channel. It would the window onto a real newsroom, filled with non-photogenic journalists eating fast food whilst hammering out stories. It wouldn’t break for ads to sell us TV channels we don’t want. News wouldn’t be an ‘add on’ to the sports and movie channels. It would be the pride of its network. It would take pride in being the best. It would stay with an interview for as long as the expert would be willing to keep talking. It would simplify but only in order to build on that explanation to further our knowledge. It wouldn’t patronise us by repeating the same thing every fifteen minutes. It would assume we can wait for the top of the hour when it would present the updated headlines before continuing its debate with the audience. It would be pretty much like BBC News 24 is now but with some added Andrew Neil, plenty of Lyse Doucet, and a good deal of Tim Marshall.

I can’t believe Tim Marshall has left Sky News and there’s still only seven hits on my new website. I’m going to as poor as a computer programmer as I’m penniless as a writer and cartoonist. What an utterly crap day.

28 Jan

I’m Pregnant

Surreal start to the day. One hell of a gale is blowing and in the space of the last hour we’ve had bright sunshine, rain, snow, hail, and then more sunshine. I also received five emails titled ‘How to get pregnant just by reading this email’. I read all five emails. Nine months from now, I’ll expect to hear the patter of five pairs of tiny feet.

Wow! A gust has just rattled the tiles on the roof! Nervous times. Not good for a man in my condition. I’m sure I just felt a contraction, though it could be yesterday’s sprouts elbowing their way around a kink in my lower gut.

I’ve been reading about the new Ghostbusters film and I can’t say that I’m excited, despite the presence of Kristen Wiig in the cast. I first saw her in Flight of the Conchords (my favourite comedy of the moment, one of my favourite comedies of all time) but then I began to notice her in various cameos such as in  Anchorman 2, where I thought she was the best thing in the film. She’ll probably be great in Ghostbusters but I hate reboots. They rarely work and I really can’t abide Melissa McCarthy. I hear people say she’s funny but I just see a foul mouthed woman playing on her weight to portray the kind of snide and brutal women I try my best to avoid. Perhaps she just reminds me of women I’ve known and disliked. They’re the kind you usually meet if you spend any time in further education. They take courses and discover feminism and then use what little they know to try to demean every man they meet.

I guess she’s meant to replace the Bill Murray character. I can’t see it working. Murray is wonderful when he’s being misanthropic. He’s no misogynist whereas I expect McCarthy to play it heavy on the man hate. Perhaps I’m wrong.

I tried to watch Larry Wilmore’s show last night. He’s Stephen Colbert’s replacement. Not sure it’s being broadcast in the UK but I found it online. I lasted five minutes. The studio have made much about Larry Wilmore being the first black late night TV host. I can’t see what the big deal is but, then, I’m not American. The politics of race don’t interest me in exactly the same way that I find feminism a cold largely unsatisfying meal. The arguments are already won and we should have moved on. However, we instead have reheated debates and ridiculous discussions about percentages. Colbert’s show was wide ranging. Even the American politics I didn’t understand were covered in such little depth that he always quickly moved on to something I could understand. From the start, Wilmore was taking about race and I sensed it was going to be the theme of the show. That’s not to dismiss the concern but I can’t help but feel that America won’t be a truly enlightened nation until they stop making a big deal about casting the first female Ghostbuster or the first black late night talk show host.

Today: not sure what the hell to do. Feeling deflated and pretty lost. Four hits on the new website today. Four hits. Beginning to realise how foolish I was to ever think anything I ever do might find an audience.

27 Jan

The First Click Conundrum

It’s probably to our credit as a species that we are programmed to be so deeply conservative. I don’t mean, of course, that we’re all conservative in the sense of ‘bugger the poor, we hate tax, we all want to live in Hampshire and look like horses’. I mean a small ‘c’ conservative that’s even smaller ‘c’ than this kind of conservative usually suggests. What I’m saying is that we’re generally cautious about new things and we tend to be firmly established in our habits.

For example, getting people to click for the first time on a link to a new website is harder work than you’d probably imagine. One of my old blogs has been visible in Google’s search engines for years but it can often go months without a single hit. Now that I’m trying to get people to visit The Digital Nib to try The Gag Machine, I’m facing the cold hard truth that I live on the fringes of the internet where people rarely travel. This project is probably doomed before it’s even begun.

As depressing as it is, one of the golden rules I’ve discovered after years of working on different web-based projects is that people rarely change their browsing habits. Once a person shops at Amazon, they’ll probably do all of their shopping at Amazon and it takes a great deal to make them shop elsewhere. Once they are using one internet browser, it’s hard to make them switch to something else. It takes a monumental cock-up on the service provider’s behalf to make people break their faith with them. I used Explorer for years until it became bloated, so I moved to Netscape, which itself started to crash too much so I moved to Mozilla Firefox until that too started to install dozens of plugins I neither wanted or needed. That’s when I moved to Chrome.

There is a kind of inertia built into everything. I’ve spoken before about how Sky TV rely on you never questioning the value of their service. People just keep you throwing money their way simply because it’s easier than cancelling. Yet many businesses are run that way. They can take your loyalty for granted so long as they provide a minimum service. For example, consider your local window cleaner. If he’s anything like my local window cleaner, he doesn’t actually clean windows. Yet people pay him a couple of quid every week to vaguely wave a brush on the end of a long pole over their double glazing. Their windows are no cleaner than those of us who clean our own windows twice a year yet they are funding the window cleaner’s annual holiday to Lake Como.

In a way, this natural resistance to change suggests that people are more likely to keep reading a piece of prose than they are likely to click away in the middle of it. That is a good thing since it suggests that we are not naturally programmed to flit around. People stay with what they are already familiar. This might well be something locked into our genes. At a higher level, it’s why we have family and relationships and cherish that thing we call ‘home’. Yet I’m not entirely sure if part of this isn’t a more recent addition to our collective firmware.

I caught an episode of Top Gear last night in which Ed Sheeran drove their reasonably prices car. I know nothing about Ed Sheeran except he is popular, has some astonishingly ugly tattoos, and he sang quite a good song over the closing credits of The Hobbit. On Top Gear, he proved himself a decent sort, which is itself a rare thing these days. However, what it also highlighted was how his current popularity (girls screaming as soon as he  walks into a room) contrasts with their previous indifference to him. Just a few years ago he was sleeping on Tube trains in London and performing gigs to empty halls. I find it astonishing how a man can be beating women off with a stick when previously they wouldn’t have given him money to buy himself a hot drink.

Yet why is that? Is it just that mysterious thing called ‘celebrity’? Is it another example of our natural conservatism or have we become programmed with consumerism to such a degree that we are either consumers or non-consumers? Is it either all or nothing? Do we treat everything (and everybody) like we treat out butter or our soup? Did people switch their allegiance to Ed Sheeran by moving their loyalty from James Blunt? These questions fascinate me now that I’m actually trying to get people to click on a link for the very first time.

The simple fact is: day 1 of my new life as a reluctant ‘web marketer’ and I have no bloody idea what I’m doing. Programming this was much much easier.

27 Jan

On The Evil Uses of Drones and Mobility Scooters

Whenever new technology is demonstrated, its uses are often presented in their loftiest form. This or that technology will allow vets to save more tree frogs or help the infirm lift their own body weight whilst keeping up to date with the latest Stephen Fry news. When people were still getting excited about Google Glass, I held to my conviction that it would prove a failure because it overlooked some essential truths about human nature. The majority of people are not the stuff of glossily-filmed ads by technology giants. Most people don’t live in the perfect multiracial family gathered around the TV in the perfect home of the future where everybody is only too happy to watch Uncle Ron’s holiday footage filmed on his Google Glasses. For every reasonable use of Google Glass, there were a thousand other uses which would eventually see the technology shunned and those that wore it demonised. And so it proved, with Google this last week closing the Glass project in its current form. I always thought Google Glass would fail but I was surprised that it did so before it even made it to the retail stage.

Yet looking at some newer technology than Google Glass makes me long for the days when things were as simple as privacy concerns.

Despite my loathing of Marvel’s super hero films and the fact that I don’t read comics, I am a geek. I love technology. Drone technology, for example, really excites me and I’ve enjoyed watching some of the HD footage that’s already emerged. However, when one popped up over the top of the houses across the street, I realised that the rise of drones is an ominous change. It feels like one of those technologies which we’ll look back on and say it was there that our world changed forever.

It’s not simply the privacy issue that worries me, though that it definitely a cause for some concern given that my bedroom window faces the fields where the drones are being flown. Noticing on the news last night that somebody had piloted a drone into the White House gardens, I wondered to myself how long it will be before a drone is put to truly sinister use. When Amazon demonstrate how a simple drone can be used to deliver a package to a remote destination, I sat here thinking how idiots, fools and the psychopaths might use that very same technology to deliver something nefarious onto the public stage. A drone has already nearly sparked war between Serbia and Albania. How will the police combat the appearance of a drone at the Cenotaph or during a Cup Final? As these fun little gizmos develop and achieve greater range and power, their frightening uses will become more obvious to people who wish to commit evil. I find it hard to believe that the first use of drone by a terrorist is really that far in our future.

It’s why I’m amazed that these drones have become popular so quickly and with so little government interest. A drone can bypass all security at an outdoor event and when fitted with remote cameras their controller doesn’t even need a line of sight in order to guide it. Even without a payload, the damn things are causing injury, reportedly cutting off the tip of one woman’s nose during a Christmas stunt at a popular pub chain.

Perhaps I overreact because a drone has suddenly popped up over the houses. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Hollywood thrillers. However, in my experience, there are very few technologies that aren’t eventually warped by human stupidity.

Take, for example, the simple mobility scooter. They are a great invention and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for people forced to use them. However, I’ve noticed over the last few years how they’ve gone from being used by the old and the infirm to being used by the overweight and lazy. They’re now being abused by people who are simply too bone idle to walk, to the point the other day I was standing in my local Tesco when a young woman beeped me to get out of the way. Ten minutes earlier I’d seen her walking around town. Later in the afternoon I saw her loading her car. She had no obvious reason to be in a mobility scooter except she was in every respect the model of a lazy, uneducated, boorish yob.

It’s an example of how a good idea has been corrupted by human nature. There seems to be something inherently wrong when mobility scooters can move quicker than people who still have their mobility. It’s not that these people have an advantage that bothers me but that they start to get frustrated when relatively able-bodied people don’t move quickly enough for them. It’s road rage on the pavement. I’ve been walking through local shopping centres, supermarkets, and streets countless times when a mobility scooter has come up behind me and forced me to get out of the way. I even recently watched two mobility scooters having an impromptu drag race down a Manchester street. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to negotiate my way around some fool driving their mobility scooter down the road. If a mobility scooter is meant to restore mobility, it should do exactly that. It shouldn’t give them a top speed well in excess of what I can do on my heels or even (in one case) on my bike.

The danger, of course, is when somebody finally combines drone technology with the mobility scooter. What nefarious schemes might terrorists hatch, launching a strike of grumbling senior citizens on some national event? No a shin or ankle in the country will be safe. But these are thoughts about the future. Here and today, I’m going back to thumbing through this morning’s Maplin catalogue. I want to see if they sell anything that can bring down a drone.

26 Jan

The Gag Machine 1.01R

NewSS2Too exhausted to talk much about this tonight but I’m (hopefully) finished preparing the new website and software project. From now on, it’s dealing with anything that crops up and, in the coming weeks, improving it as I hopefully get feedback from users.

What is ‘The Gag Machine’? It’s the Windows-based development/improvement of the app I wrote for Android last year. I never shared it with the world but I’ve found enormously helpful. I wrote it to help with my cartooning and it genuinely helps me come up with new gag ideas. However, I’ve now made it flexible enough that anybody can import sets of data (it reads simple .txt files, one item per line) which it then randomly displays. You can control which fields change as well as the ordering and a whole bunch of other things. You can export files containing many thousands of variations… I’m really not doing a great job of marketing this but I’m absolutely exhausted. I’m asking what I hope is a fair price, especially for the packs which contain the data I use myself and which are the key ingredient. If you’re a cartoonist/creative and you can’t afford it, then I’m also willing to give it away for free if you genuinely can’t afford it. How do people convince me that they can’t afford it? I haven’t yet decided. I guess it’s not my job to do the persuading.

So, please, if you’re interested in, head over there and downloads the trial. And please be gentle if there are any small problems I’ve not yet spotted. Even thought it’s a simple project, working on my own means that this has been both a labour of love but sometimes a bit overwhelming. One other point: It does require the .NET 4.5 framework, so depending on which version of Windows you’re running, there might be an additional download from Microsoft.

I guess this is what’s called a ‘soft launch’ if, by ‘soft launch’, we mean I’m now going to hide in a dark corner for about a week…

Before I do that: here’s a video I did about two weeks ago when I previously thought I was finished. The performance/looks/functionality of the software has improved but (as you can see) I put too much effort into drawing the cartoon ideas that emerged from this session not to use this video.

24 Jan

Tweaks

Saturday has been about my exhaustion. I’m just knackered. A long week has finally caught up with me.

I’ve also given up attempting to say when I’m going to launch my software. I want to say ‘next week, definitely’ but I fear putting a jinx on it. The past week has been a hectic one but I’m now at the point where I could launch it right now. Everything is done. Everything seems to work. However, showing it to a couple of people has resulted in my adding a few new tweakable options. I’m trying to make more features available to registered users, albeit they’re largely cosmetic features such as custom colour schemes and (late last night) an option to have your own skinned background.

It’s probably/definitely gilding the lily, if what I have here is in any sense a lily. It does what it does and people will either want it or reject based on how well it fulfills that. The rest is simply my indulgence.

One unexpected result of this tweaking has been my discovering a weakness of using Windows Forms, which I now realise take an age to update. A little research has explained why and now I discover that whilst Forms are relatively easy to program, the future of Windows development is something called ‘WPF’ or ‘Windows Presentation Foundation’. Luckily, the 8 in 1 book on C# I bought for £1 yesterday has an entire book devoted to WPF, which I tried to read this afternoon but my brain shut down and I fell asleep.

But this is vague rambling. I still need to find one cartoonist who’d be willing to try this software for me and to see if they find it useful. A little input would boost my confidence and might actually make me commit to this little bugger.

23 Jan

My Bargain Books

This never normally happens to me so you have to excuse my excitement. I was walking along the street this afternoon when something caught my eye. I was outside a charity shop and I’d spotted the name ‘Joseph Campbell’ sticking out of a box of cheap secondhand books. Now, that’s not the sort of thing you’d expect in our town. I mean, this is a *very* poor northern working class town. We don’t have bookshops and the books you normally see in secondhand bookshops are the kinds of books you expect to see in secondhand books shops in working class towns: they’re either books by Peter Kay or books about Peter Andre. Books on comparative mythology just don’t turn up around here and I was immediately shocked to think there’s another Campbell fan within a few miles of me and I don’t even know who they are.

So, I pick it up and rummage through the box only to find a rather excellent collection of essays (and a few cartoons) from Punch. So, into the shop I go. I hand them the woman at the desk. She doesn’t know what to ask. She explained (though not in these exact words) that the books were from the box where they put the general crap and not the quality Cheryl Cole books which they keep inside… Sigh…

So, she proceeds to charge me 20p for the two of them. ‘Myths To Live By’, incidentally, currently selling on eBay for about a tenner second hand. Mine cost 10p.

I was walking out the shop not believing my luck when I thought to myself: why quit now? I might as well look in the back and see if there’s any more of this ‘crap’ for which they clearly don’t know the value. So, off I go, looking over the bookcase, which consists mainly of cookery books, books by Terry Wogan, and (like I’ve said), countless books ‘by’ Cheryl Cole. And there, sitting at the bottom, among old telephone directories and colouring books in which children had already done their colouring: a clean unused copy of C# for Dummies, the 2010 edition containing 8 books in 1. A post it stuck inside suggested that the previous owner had only reached page 92 before quitting. It’s currently selling on eBay, second hand, for £24. I tried to act casual as I handed it over.

‘Oh,’ they usually have a price on. She waved it at another woman. ‘How much Doreen?

Doreen sucked her teeth. ‘Oh that old thing. See if he’ll give a pound.’

The woman held it up. ‘A pound? Is that okay?’

‘Sigh…’ I said. delaying my answer in case they wanted to reduce it further. ‘Oh, I suppose so…’ I said handing over my pound.

Talk about luck! Only last night I was looking on Amazon at C# books and lamenting about how ridiculously expensive they are. It might be a little our of date (covering C#4.0 instead of the current 5.0) but, as far as I can see, there’s no a great deal of difference.

BargainBooks

22 Jan

Practical Pragmatism and the Pirates

I’ve been trying to think my way around the problem of software piracy and I’ve finally decided not to bother. I really can’t outwit people who are infinitely more intelligent than me.

My program works with simple registration keys but it wouldn’t take a half-decent hacker five minutes to work out how they work and how to generate their own. That annoys me but not so much. I have a fairly clear attitude towards piracy. I hope people will pay me for my work if they can afford to and if they find the software useful. If they can’t afford to but still find the software useful, then I’m tempted to give them an option of writing to me to ask for a free key. If somebody is really that hard up but wants my program, then perhaps I’ll give it to them for nothing. They need only say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and promise to pay me when they can afford to. That seems reasonable and how I’d like all software companies to work.

The remainder will be people who can afford to pay me but simply don’t want to pay me or don’t think the program it worth the money I’m asking. These are people who would *never* pay me so if they want to use some hackers version of my code or a serial number that will eventually end up floating around the web, then there’s nothing I can do about it.

Beyond that, what else I can do?

It is, of course, highly unlikely that people will want the bloody thing anyway. It’s such a simple bit of software that I’m even ashamed of asking for money…

Hmm. Too much negativity but it’s been a long day. I’d hoped to have a launch at some point but the simple problem I had turned out to be a major problem. I’d used a database in my code. Probably not the ideal solution but, when I began these two projects, I never expected to have workable products at the end. Learning to program what’s called an SQL database was wise since it taught me how to do it. However, when it came to distributing my code to other machines, those machines weren’t running software that could handle the database. Either I’d have to force my users to download some free third party software or I’d have to rewrite some large parts of my code. For my first project, I’ve decided to rewrite the code. It now uses arrays and is greatly improved because of that. It now goes like greased lightning. Stupid of me not to have done it this way in the first place but there’s something so romantic about SQL databases or, at least, romantic to me since I used to program them years ago.

The result of today’s effort is that my software now installs fine on other machines. The only remaining ‘problem’ is that users will have to download Microsoft’s latest version of the .NET framework, which is a fancy way of saying that my code is made from pieces of other code that Microsoft have written and in order for my code to work, the computer has to have the Microsoft code installed. It’s not a huge problem but a little irksome. Software made using Microsoft’s .NET framework is also notoriously easy to reverse engineer. It’s why I’m not putting too much effort into encrypting my registration codes.

I really need to finish this tomorrow and get on with other things.

22 Jan

Monster Doodles

I don’t have time to write all the things I could write about today. I could write about my renewed disgust with The Guardian for deleting my comment last night. I could write a long and passionate response to the Guardian reader who accused me of spouting ‘unthinking dogma’ when I take pride in thinking things through and, as I hope I’ve repeatedly shown on this blog, expressing my own opinion even when it isn’t the popular one. What constantly amazes about people who claim to be liberal in their politics is how many of them hate free speech or opinions which aren’t their own. They rarely enter into debate without resorting to petty insults and then throwing up the barricades to prevent further argument. If I had more time, I’d know out a 2000 word replay. ‘Unthinking dogma,’ indeed…

My new software is nearly ready to launch. I thought I was ready last night but I’ve got to fix a problem with the installer running on older versions of Windows. Once I have that done (hopefully the next ten minutes but perhaps the rest of this afternoon), the website will launch and I’ll be here all the time trying to drum up enthusiasm for it. If I could manage one or two sales in the next month, I think I’d feel mildly optimistic. I personally love the program and use it constantly.

In the meantime: two minor cartoons drawn in my mammoth cartoon drawing session on Sunday. The gags aren’t great but, for reasons which will become apparent, I’m quite pleased with the results.

Dracula Frankenstein

21 Jan

So Long Page 3, I’ll Miss You

I’ve never read The Sun so I’ve never been a regular admirer of Page 3. At the same time, I’ve never deliberately not read The Sun. Nor have I ever thought long and hard about what Page 3 represents. Was it really everything that the anti-Page 3 protesters claimed it to be? Did it really embody systemic violence towards women? Did it objectify women? The first I doubt but the second I’m certain about. It objectified women in the same way that any human objectifies another when they look at them in an admiring way. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just human (and possibly mammalian) nature. We’re programmed to reproduce and part of that involves seeking out mates we find physically attractive. It’s simply not in our programming to think ‘I won’t find her body attractive until I know that she has a personality to match’. It simply doesn’t work that way.

What’s more telling is that the end of Page 3 isn’t really a victory for feminists. It’s a hard-nosed business decision taken in a climate in which Page 3 was become a tame parody of what’s really happening in the world. Personally, I can’t understand why anybody could get angry about Page 3 when the likes of David Beckham and Kim Kardashian can barely keep their clothes on. The whole of our culture has become sexualised and one mitigation in favour of Page 3 was that at least there was an aesthetic motivation behind it. It might have objectified women but it also idealised them in the very same way that Greek sculptors idealised the human form millennia ago and painters through the ages have idealised the female figure in oils and watercolours. A Page 3 photographer might lack their skill but there was something more to Page 3 than a pair of tits and a cheeky smile.

Yet I really fear that Page 3 is disappearing because it no longer plays at the edge of a taboo. The victory isn’t one for feminists but for the pornographers who simply aren’t satisfied with a slightly oblique view of the side of a breast. Campaigners might argue that the end of Page 3 shows what we’re a more enlightened civilization but, dare I suggest, it shows quite the opposite. Page 3 was remarkable not for what it showed but what it didn’t show. Page 3 was as much about restraint as it was about being explicit. It now becomes a thing of the past because the future will be about things that are much worse.

 

[Addendum: I just wrote a comment over at The Guardian and I thought it nicely fitted into what I was saying here. I’ll repost it here because I want to remember how confused I’m feeling on this whole issue. The comment is in response to a video they’ve posted about a women who had naked pictures of her stolen and posted on a porn site. She responded by publishing naked photographs of her which The Guardian has now published. I’m not quite sure how there’s a difference between that and Page 3, given that the subjects of both sets of pictures are giving their permission for them to be made public. Anyway: my comment…]

The Sun ditches Page 3 and The Guardian post a semi-naked woman on the front page to make a point about not objectifying her body, whilst very clearly objectifying her body.

Sorry. I know there’s so much to admire about what Emma has done but I’m not clever enough to know what I can or can’t look at. Should I have even clicked on this article? What does that say about me? Why aren’t I commenting on the adjacent article about hobbits? Am I allowed to objectify a hobbit body? Sorry. That was glib but I’m just confused about what my brain is supposed to tell my body to feel in these situations.

The simple fact is: people rightly celebrate the end of Page 3 but we live in a deeply sexualised culture where we’re never more than one or two clicks away from something not simply explicit but disturbingly explicit.

Though I know, typing this, that nobody will agree with me. Porn culture seems to be the only culture it’s fashionable to follow these days…

[Postscript: The above comment was deleted by the Guardian moderators, for reasons I can’t see nor understand. The only thing it seems right to say is that the woman did a great thing. Anything beyond that is apparently banned.]

20 Jan

Three Strange Ones For Tuesday

In the words of the immortal Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko: I’m busy, busy, busy!

Yesterday I made the final push for the summit. The app is nearly ready to launch. It will go live today or (if hit any problems) tomorrow at the latest. The website is built but not yet proofread. I’ve recorded a video to show the software in action and the software is itself now coded, debugged, and packaged. Yesterday I added a system for registration numbers. Today I need to buy a plugin for the website which should hopefully automate the system so that anybody purchasing my app will get a registration number emailed to them so they can unlock the full functionality of the software.

Today’s cartoons are strange trio. I drew them last night for reasons that will become apparent once I’ve launched the new website. If my Clay Elephant Shooting cartoon of yesterday was odd, then I think these three are odder. My favourite is the hairy handguns for reasons too long and complication to go into here.

HandgunsspGiraffeSofa buttockssp