22 Dec

Random Musings After Stewart Lee’s Guardian Article About The British Comedy Awards

It was the British Comedy Awards this past week. Jack Whitehall again won the title: ‘King of Comedy’ and, the same evening, ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ received a special honour from the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain. This is the same ‘Mrs Brown’s Boy’s’ which is routinely described as the worst TV comedy ever, not just by critics here in the UK but critics in its home country of Ireland.

The contrast is a strange one but probably rooted in the spasm of the old class war we seem to be experiencing at the moment where there are (generally) only two types of comedian.

If you’re working class, you have to conform to a stereotype of the rough diamond, the ‘cheeky chappie’, or the uneducated buffoon. You live by your wits and your comedy is generally perceived as being that of the gifted savant. Wisdom in the mouth of fools. It’s the comedy (with varying degrees of emphasis) of Johnny Vegas, Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Jonathan Ross, Sean Locke, Ross Noble, Phil Jupitus, Joe Wilkinson, Rhoad Gilbert, Greg Davies, Sarah Millican and even the woeful Henning Wehn.

If you’re middle or upper class, you’re allowed to be eloquent and smart. It’s Noel Coward sipping a martini while issuing the clever bon mot. It’s the territory of David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Jack Whitehall, Jimmy Carr, Miranda, Marcus Brigstocke, Russell Howard, Michael McIntye, Alexander Armstrong, and even the woeful Miles Jupp.

Perhaps the class war never went away, though for a brief spell, alternative comedy did seem to offer a chance for everybody to be eloquent and witty or to simply play the fool. It began, I guess, with ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and the good times lasted, I’d argue, until the final series of ‘The Fast Show’. Since then, things have settled into fairly a predictable routine.

Stewart Lee is one of the few comedians who doesn’t seem to conform to one of the stereotypes. There are others: Dave Gorman, Richard Herring, Bill Bailey, Mark Thomas, Mark Steele, Frank Skinner, Jon Richardson, Eddie Izzard… I’m not entirely sure what class Lee is but perhaps that’s why he doesn’t quite fit into the predictable coterie over at the BBC. And that’s the problem. The BBC is the problem. Its comedy output feels like it’s being decided by managerial types, inculcated with safe southern metropolitan middle class values,  who this week run comedy and next week could be running sports or Tesco or the Post Office.

Having said all that: I’m not one of those bearded Marxist types who lines his cat’s litter tray with old copies of the New Statesman. I’ve never really believed in ‘class war’. Yet how else can you explain both Whitehall and Macintyre, both of establishment/BBC stock and both of whom are the blandest of comedians, manufactured rather than exhibiting any natural wit? Perhaps they symptomatic of a bigger problem with our country where there’s such a huge difference being born in the north and born in the south. I read this past week that Manchester has had its spending cut by £300 per head. In Surrey, they’ve had a £10 raise. I would normally try to tell myself that it’s a freak of statistics but when you see George Osbourne’s advisor having his pay raised by 18%, you have to question what kind of country we live in.

The answer, of course, is a deeply indifferent one. The government can do what they do because, so long as ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ is on TV, everybody is happy. It’s unthinking comedy for an unthinking audience. Comedy is soma for a politically neutered age.

Comedy should, of course, be dangerous. Yet when was the last time you watched TV and felt nervous energy building in your gut because you didn’t know how a routine was going to end? I remember getting clammy hands as a child whenever Spike Milligan or Peter Cook appeared on a show. They made me so nervous. I remember Tommy Cooper dying on stage. In retrospect, it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen on TV. Having just put on a silk kimono, he sank down into a cross-legged position but it seemed like it was all part of the act. I laughed like so many laughed that night as he fell asleep, his breathing becoming more shallow as he slowly slipped back into the curtains. Then his act came to an abrupt end. It was an age when a comedian was expected to do the outrageous and he seemed to have done just that. It was genius. He’d broken the rules! Or so we thought…

These days, very little is unscripted. Few tinker with the rules to produce something new. The exceptions are comedians like Stewart Lee, Jerry Sadowitz, and, even, Frankie Boyle. They walk on stage and I get that rare hit of adrenaline because I don’t know what they’ll do. That’s what I genuinely cherish about Lee: that he’s always risking failure. I actually admire his failures (for example, perhaps, his ‘Baconface’ routine) more than his successes because too few comedians take risks. It’s easy to make people laugh but hard to make them laugh well.

However, a lack of risk is not entirely the only reason we have so much bland comedy. There’s a big difference between the structure of standup and the structure of TV comedy. The BBC wrongly assume that a competent routine means that any standup can write a sitcom. The Edinburgh Fringe has become a pathway straight into the BBC. Yet anybody who had tried to write knows the difference between dialogue/quips (easy to do) and narrative structure (hard to master). The BBC simply aren’t interested in writers. There are very few Galton & Simpsons coming through the ranks. Both Armando Iannucci and Andy Hamilton, possibly the best of the current crop of writers, perform or have performed. And it’s performers that have the power. Writers struggle even to get inside the system. They are, at most, casual labour and gag writers for the celebs. The worst thing to be these days is a writer who doesn’t want to perform. It makes you a nobody or, rather, an ‘everybody’. Everybody believes they can write. Amazon expect everybody to publish their work for next to nothing. It’s the world of long tail economics and the web consumes the rest. Everybody writes comments for websites for nothing. Effort, skill, thought, time, energy, patience: take it all. Why should anybody be paid for writing words? Writing is no longer a craft. It’s a natural consequence of existing and everybody is a comedian on Twitter.

To give a final example: Johnny Vegas grew up not five miles from my doorstep. Our accents are probably the same. I like Vegas. He’s another with an anarchic growl. However, the BBC used to have a section of their Writersroom website which contained scripts that would-be comedy writers could read to learn their craft. One was a Johnny Vegas monologue. It’s not a terrible monologue but hardly Alan Bennett. Now, perhaps I obsess too much over apostrophes and commas but, if you write and have spent your life studying how great writers construct their prose, then these are the things that give you pleasure as a writer. The Vegas script has a raw energy but nothing more than that. As a model for writers, it was a joke. The only thing it proved was that performers need to reach a much lower level of competence than any writer. Their name carries them the rest of the way.

Yet we’re not supposed to point this out. People say we’re bitter. “Oh, he’s simply a failed writer,” they say and they’re right: I am. One book published (I like to think of it as a ‘cult classic’) but which disappeared off book shelves in under three months for reasons I still don’t understand. Yet if I am a failed comedy writer (I stopped trying a long time ago), I hope that doesn’t invalidate my point which is that too much of our comedy is dictated by standup comedians. Even a few years ago, situation comedies were acted by actors reading scripts written by writers. Strip the craft from comedy and comedy becomes a minor function of celebrity. Ant & Dec are not comedians. They are just famous. And if you only need to be famous to be funny, then that allows the sons of the rich and influential to take it for themselves. It’s easy. Make a few self-deprecating quips on a panel show and the nation love you. It’s a national disgrace and it’s not even remotely funny.

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21 Dec

A Comment on Modesta

Didn’t blog Saturday. First day I’ve missed in about two months. What can I say? Feeling pretty empty. Pretty down. Sighing a hell of a lot. Tonight just sat staring blankly at the TV. Felt like I wouldn’t blog again. Really fed up with putting in the effort for so little result. It’s bad when I can’t even feel any pleasure in drawing a cartoon. Every tweet I write loses me followers. Wondering about going back into hiding, back to my programming and teaching myself how to write for Windows. Vague ideas of things I’d like to do but can’t figure out why I should bother…

In the end, I was only motivated to write this because I wrote something in response to a dumb and deeply irritating article over at The Guardian. Channel 4 are promoting a young singer but on the basis that she’s the first amputee pop star. The article was similarly well meaning but in a completely patronising way. I always feel that it’s a crass approach to both music and to disability. Anyway, I wrote the following, which I guess will get zero votes and will probably be deleted by the morning. The Guardian seem to hate my comments. At least I can now say I blogged Sunday. Monday I’m going into LIverpool. Might cheer me up. Might not.

***

My comment in response to this.

The world would be a far more enlightened place if we could concentrate on the quality of an artist’s music rather than judging them on something we’re encouraged to overlook.

‘Forget what you know about disability’… [The first title in her video.]

Bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it? Forget the very thing you’re choosing to highlight repeatedly in that long, pretentiously over-produced video. Isn’t also somewhat presumptuous? What do you think I know about disability?

Should I forget that disability isn’t an issue? Do I listen to Ian Dury because he wrote and sang great lyrics or because of his physical condition? It’s the so-called ‘imperfect’ people in the world who often make the most beautiful music because there’s not one of us who isn’t broken in some way. Our imperfections are what we call ‘individuality’, ‘character’ and ‘soul’. It’s the very basis of great art. I suppose that’s why Channel 4 paid to air this video in the break to X-Factor. Art-without-soul is the very thing the X-Factor has, year upon year, tried to persuade us isn’t as important as marketing, celebrity and gimmick.

I’m not interested in vocal or physical perfection. Did Johnny Cash sing anything in his youth as great as the songs he produced when his voice was cracking and carried the scars of a lifetime? Give me Jim Morrison when he was overweight and his voice broken over the one who posed for iconic photos. Are Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder great singer/songwriters or great blind singer/songwriters?

What this article (and video) seem to forget is that in a modern truly liberal society, disability isn’t a label we apply to people. We should each be judged on who we’ve been, who we are and the person we wish to become. When Ms. Modesta’s music begins to reflect her character in a non-facile way, then she might become a good musician with something significant to say. All I can see and hear, here, are over-produced autotuned vocals occasionally punctuating a tediously long video filled with heavy-handed symbolism. It’s as indistinct from the videos of a thousand other singers equally devoid of character.

And if you think that sounds harsh, then doesn’t it demean Ms. Modesta (and demean other far better artists) not to apply the same critical judgement to this song as we would to any other performance?

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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. [Edit: This was that banner, which I’ve not seen sense and removed].

Kim3

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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