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28 Jan

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

It’s 6.50pm. I’m 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 felt right in the new rolling reality of their current 15 minute repeat and rinse coverage that never gets under 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 chair 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 where non-photogenic journalists eat fast food whilst hammering out stories. It wouldn’t break for ads to sell us TV channels we don’t want. It would instead 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 headlines before continuing the 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