Friday, 31 October 2014

Ready For The Play Store

Today might be the day. I've now played my game through from the beginning to the end so I know all the achievements are winnable. The major bugs are (hopefully) fixed, though I don't delude myself into believing that it's now completely bug free. Bug-free computer code is theoretically impossible. In fact, I'm pretty sure serious research goes into that very subject and nobody has yet established a way of ensuring that the almost infinite number of inputs going into a system will produce a finite set of predictable results. So, although the game plays okay, there's probably going to be some person who comes along and jams a thumb in a place where I never expected somebody to jam a thumb, producing some crazy results. If a company like Bungee can produce a million dollar game like Destiny, release it to the public, and then face the problems they've faced recently with people exploiting cheats to boost their statistics or, as one particularly clever soul did, discover a way of jumping up a cliff face in order to explore an area of the game that Bungee had yet to unlock, then I'm pretty sure I'm going to face a few headaches over the coming weeks as people tell me that my game throws a fit whenever they do X,Y, or Z.

The moment I stick it on the Play store, I'll be on here talking about it and no doubt boring you with videos about how I made it and things I've learned about Unity in the approximately two months (and two days) it's taken me to build it since I started coding on the 28th August.

My final jobs today are to do with the marketing. I've recorded some gameplay footage which I now have to edit into a short video to include with my Play Store listing and on the website I've built to advertise the game and provide contact details for all the complaints I expect to receive. Then I need to double check all my text for typos.

One final coding job might remain but that's based on a last minute decision I've yet to make. How much I want to annoy players to encourage them to buy the ad-free version? At the moment, I have ads at the top of the screen but I'm wondering if I should add some interstitials ads, which are the full screen ads that occasionally pop up during gameplay. I don't like them, I don't want to add them, but the game as it currently stands is perfectly playable with banner ads. In fact, it might be too playable with banner ads and banner ads are going to earn me so little that they might as well not be there. Interstitials would earn me more but, more importantly, would give people a reason for upgrading.

The alternative is to carry on coding once the free version is built. Once that's launched, I could branch off a paid-for version of the game and start adding features to it. Other game modes might make it more attractive. I don't know. Any thoughts or advice are, as always, very welcome.


Thursday, 30 October 2014

More Stars With Old Heads On Their Younger Bodies

[caption id="attachment_4260" align="alignright" width="271" class=" "]TomJones Tom Jones[/caption]

There's an inherent cruelty to this stunt. I'm aware of that and it does make me occasionally tut and hiss when one of these mashups come out and it doesn't look particularly flattering to the subject. I know this little game is meant to be (somewhat) funny but I'm not a naturally cruel guy and, I admit, I've made a couple of these that I just didn't think it worth showing because they were simply too cruel.

The difficulty is particularly acute on photographs of actresses and the fact that I feel bad about the results for actresses I've attempted this with (but haven't published) perhaps says something about my own perceptions of beauty. The gentlemen in most of these photographs don't look too bad. In fact, I think the last few blog posts back up something I've always said about generic Hollywood actors: that they generally look better as they get older. Of course, 'better' is subjective and perhaps what I mean to say is 'more interesting'. I preferred Clint Eastwood's movies when he got older. My favourite actor, Gene Hackman, got better the more he aged. Not that he was classic film star material to begin with but that is one of the reasons I'd always watch him. The same is true of Piece Brosnan, who made better films once he was too old to play James Bond. This also happened to Sean Connery, who made some truly great films once he turned grey. Liam Neeson is an example of a star who found real fame once he got older. Walter Matthau, another of my absolute favourite actors, was old the moment he was born but that was his appeal. If you're not watching a movie to admire the looks of the actor, then there's little or no point making you lead actor good looking. Dare I say even Brad Pitt will find more interesting roles now he's hit 50? Every day I wish Connery or Hackman would come out of retirement because I'm damn sure they'd still be more compelling to watch than half the actors I've had to endure in recent films.

What I think these experiments show is that Hollywood is stupidly obsessed with bland, tediously fresh-faced youth. I know Mel Gibson has done some dumb things in his life and I know there are many people out there that still won't accept his apologies. Yet the films he's made recently are, in my humble opinion, the best of his career. He is in that perfect zone that Clint Eastwood made his own as he got older. Give me Payback (1999), We Were Soldiers (2002), Edge of Darkness (2010), or the brilliant Get the Gringo (2012) over any of the Lethal Weapon movies or even, for that matter, Mad Max 1, 2, or 3.


The deeper truth, I think, is more troublesome. It's probably a trite thing to say and now doubt it has been said countless times before, but there's such a disparity between how we think of actors when they get older and actresses. I don't know who first pointed out that as some men get older they become more distinguished yet there isn't an equivalent for women. That, I think, is where feminism has been completely powerless in facing down that deep bias in our collectively psychology. It doesn't suggest that we are wrong in the way he think about aging actresses . It suggests, instead, we have the wrong attitude to actresses in their youth. Great acting ability means little compared to their looks. If we stopped trivialising young actresses, then we might have more respect for them as get older. Only then might we stop making them feel like they need the face lifts that turn nearly all of them into rictus mannequins of our celebrity sick times.

[caption id="attachment_4256" align="aligncenter" width="432"]Caine Michael Caine[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4253" align="aligncenter" width="428"]Rooney Mickey Rooney[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_4262" align="aligncenter" width="421"]Felicity Kendall Felicity Kendall[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4248" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Gibson Mel Gibson again...[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4254" align="aligncenter" width="684" class=" "]TomCruise And Tom Cruise looks exactly the same...[/caption]

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Film Stars With Old Heads On Young Bodies

Further to this morning's post, I thought I'd try out some other examples of old faces on young bodies.

[caption id="attachment_4233" align="alignnone" width="608"]Taxidriver De Niro[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4258" align="aligncenter" width="702" class=" "]William Shatner William Shatner[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4234" align="aligncenter" width="390"]Stallone Stallone[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4235" align="aligncenter" width="425"]Arnie Arnold Schwatzenhuffenmizer[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4232" align="aligncenter" width="410"]Bardot Bardot[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4237" align="aligncenter" width="411"]HomeAlone Macaulay Culkin[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_4244" align="aligncenter" width="534" class=" "]Happy Days Happy Days[/caption]

A Note About Spitting

I wish I could spit, filthy habit though it is. I saw somebody spit today and I thought to myself: that is so manly.

I never spit, although as soon as those words fall from my fingertips, I realise that I've just typed a lie. I do spit but on those very rare occasions most cyclists experience when you're flying along, enjoying the sensation of air against the face, and then suddenly you're enjoy the sensation of a fly hitting the back of your larynx. It happens enough times in a year for me to have figured out my usual operating procedure. First I gag, cough, and then I reluctantly swallow and say 'urgh!' There then follows a series of splutters which are my equivalent of the manly spit. You see, because I'm not a regular spitter, I don't have the technique right. What I really do is 'spittling', that slightly plosive thing you do with your lips and also involving your voicebox when you try to make manly spitting noises by saying 'spppphhhit'.  I sound utterly ridiculous.

A true spitter would find that it begins somewhere down in their guts. It then becomes a rising force, a roar in the back of the throat, and when it emerges, it's a thing of -- well, perhaps not beauty or if it is a thing of beauty then it's that strange ugly beauty like H.R. Giger's Alien or the goalkeeper in a women's netball team. Unlike my spitting, which ends up a fine spray landing back on my face, the true spitter can send it flying feet ahead of them. The true greats have the accuracy too and can hit a spaniel in the eye at about ten paces causing significant tissue damage.

So, there you have it: I wish I could spit like a man. I wish I could spit like the person I saw spitting outside my local Tesco about half an hour ago. It was so manly I just had to give them an admiring look, even as I thought it such a shame because, otherwise, she was quite an attractive woman.

My Friend Stu's Dream Woman

I occasionally take on commissions but rarely have I ever accepted one so strange. My friend Stu is generally a good sort but with a peculiar side to his character. He's about 90% unreformed punk but the rest of him adores Barbara Windsor and particularly the Barbara Windsor circa 1964.

The other day he said to me: 'David, do you ever wonder what it would be like?'

'You're being a bit vague there,' I replied. 'Would you like to offer me a clue as to what this "it" might actually be?'

'Babs,' he said and gave a whistle.

It was one of those indicative whistles, which are loaded with meaning in the same way some people load shotguns with ball bearings. I knew something odd was on the cards but I was too slow to leap for the first exit leading out of the conversation. Instead I went and foolishly offered encouragement.

'Speak on, you devil in technical drawing department,' I said. 'What devilish imaginings have you conjured up in that curry fuels brain of yours?'

'Well,' he began, 'you'd have to be a strange man not to find Barbara Windsor circa 1964 appealing but as you get older, you do begin to notice that she was lacking a bit of substance. To be honest, she only ever seemed play blonde airheads.'

'But I thought you liked blonde airheads,' I replied. 'Isn't that why you run that website:'

He shrugged. 'Oh, that was a mere whim. Once you get a little older, you begin to appreciate that the Barbara Windsor circa 2014 is something else entirely. She's lived a life, you see... She is a mature woman, full of the wisdom that mature women have after leading very full lives. Imagine what a woman like that could teach you?'

'How to soak her dentures?' I offered before I stepped back a little. I didn't like the look that had suddenly appeared in Stu's eyes. It was part David Starkey admiring Tudor woodwork; part Fern Britton eyeing up a fruit loaf.

'Now picture me this,' continued Stu, his voice a low whisper. 'Picture me the body of the youthful Babs but with the head of the worldly Barbara Windsor.'

'I rather not,' I said.

'No, no,' he replied, grabbing my arm. 'I want you to picture it for me. You know: do your magic on the old Photoshop? I'd like it in colour and preferably printed on glossy paper so I can easily rinse it under the tap.'

I went cold. This was bad voodoo my friend was asking me dabble in. Yet had I any choice?

So, dear reader, I wish I could apologise enough for what I'm about to show you but this was not my idea. This is all his fault (points at my deeply disturbed friend, Stu). 'Enjoy' is too strong a word so, instead, I suggest 'run away'. Once you've seen this, you will never ever unsee it.

And may God have mercy on all our souls...

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Bloody Big Bug

Well, I think (fingers cross, prayers to heaven) I've found the last big bug in the game but I've just discovered across this big bug in the real world. Actually, it's sitting on my wall over the computer as I type this (I swear it's preparing to pounce) and I have no idea what it is or how I should defend myself if it does decide to strike. I've never seen one of these in my life before the last couple of weeks when I've noticed them in various places around town. It looks like the kind of bug I should either eat as part of a bushtucker trial or shoot as part of a Starship Troopers re-enactment.


The Last Day?

Today I intend to make the last day I work on this game before launching it. Whether that comes to pass, I don't know. Other business crowds my schedule and I'm finding it difficult to squeeze in enough quiet hours to stare at code, trace logic, and track down the last remaining bugs. I've finally decided that I'll publish two versions, having discovered that advertising inside apps/game tends to earn so very little that I might as well maximise my chances by offering an ad-free version of the game. Not that any of this game is meant to make me a fortune but even a few quid from all my efforts would be rewarding.

Income for work. It's a strangely old fashioned notion in this world where everybody works for nothing or works for very little. Somebody once told me (I think through a comment on this blog) that I should charge £60 an hour for building websites. I laughed. That's so far from my reality that it's depressing. The smaller the world becomes, the smaller wages become. There's always some genius in China or India willing to do the same work for a twentieth of the price. I was thinking the other day how the best jobs might be those that demand a local presence, like window cleaning or sweeping the streets. There's no chance of that work moving to Bangalor, which is a good thing since I reckon it's probably the job I'll end up doing.

We live in a single dollar economy with countless websites offering a place where workers can offer their skills for the price of a book of stamps. Amazon, one of the richest companies on the planet, encourage authors to publish their books for pennies or for nothing, as part of their loan scheme, where they promise you a share in a million dollar pot. They also run Amazon Turk, which is a depressing example of modern labour economics. App and game development is the same. The market is overcrowded, with small independent publishers struggling to overcome the advertising might of companies like EA, Zinga and Supercell. Hard work is being rewarded with poverty and only the love of the business (or, perhaps more realistically, the dream of making a fortune) keep people making the apps.

It was always thus, you might say and quality will always rise to the top. I'm not so sure, though my app, I hasten to add, won't fall into either bracket of poor or bad. I'm too small, tired, and busy to make it anything more than my 'best effort'. I hope to publish in the next couple of days and then I'll talk more about it. For now, I have bugs to hunt and pennies to earn.

Monday, 27 October 2014

New Cartoon

As cartoons go, it's not much to boast about but this is the first gag cartoon I've drawn in... Well, I hate to think when I last scribbled something.

In fact, now that I go back and look, I see what happened. In February, I drew my 'Great Figures of State' cartoons, including my George Osborne picture which I remember thinking (egotistically I know) the best thing I'd ever drawn. Except no other bugger seemed to like it and clearly I began to lose confidence. By March, I was struggling to draw 'Arse Fangs'  and then on 19th March I drew 'Chubby Hammers' . I remember feeling really blocked and it's unsurprising that they were my last two cartoons.

One of my biggest faults is that I can be too damn precious about what I do. Somebody sniffs the wrong way in the direction of something I've done and I'll happily destroy it. I've written off novels for precisely that reason. When my confidence ebbs, it can take months to build it up again. People often scoff and I find it hard to explain why I feel this way. For a time, back in primary school, I suffered terrible bullying, which I've never been able to explain. Perhaps others thought I was odd or perhaps it was just my turn to be the victim. Perhaps I still live with the scars of that time or perhaps I'm just the hyper-sensitive man that strangely gentle child became. I know I'm hard to figure out, though recently, I began to suspect that I might not be as odd as I'd always feared.

When I was at school, there was a name for people like me. It was a word that scared me as a teenager. It's a word I haven't heard in a long time. That word is 'loner'. There was a time when the newspapers were always filled with tales of 'loners' going on rampages or 'loners' keeping a meat locker filled with body parts. Only in recent years 'loner' has been replaced by 'Asperger's', a word I discovered to my enormous relief. I only discovered it when somebody close to me (and knows me as well as anybody) said she thought I displayed most of the key characteristics associated with people with Asperger's Syndrome. Since then, I've learned that it's a phrase that's fallen out of favour with psychologists who prefer to refer to the 'autism spectrum', with Asperger's existing at the mild end. It's a shame. Asperger's pretty well described me to the last hair and it came as a great relief to realise that there wasn't 'something wrong' with me, a phrase I've heard throughout my life, usually when I've not conformed to patterns of behaviour that other people follow.

Looking back, I realise I do have some very peculiar characteristics which have never made much sense, such as my thing with carpets. Ever since I was a child, I go loopy if I hear the sound (or feel the sensation) of something rubbing against carpets. I feel physically ill if I hear somebody actually brushing a carpet. In fact, I'm getting goosebumps just typing this. I'm told that when I was baby, I'd cry hysterically if my mother brushed a carpet. I can still let out a yell if I hear that godawful noise. I'll often rush from the room, fingers in my ears. It's much more than a phobia. It's like a physical pain and I have to grit my teeth until my brain moves on to thinking about something else. Walking in socks on carpet does the same thing. Brushing a hand against certain materials too. It's bloody weird and I've never understood it but acute noise sensitivity is apparently quite common among people with Asperger's. I don't have any particular smells that irritate me, but bright lights can make me feel distant and hyper aware of my body to the point where I can begin to panic. I hate rooms that are evenly lit, with ceiling lights, for example. I live entirely in rooms which have one strong single light source and plenty of darkness.

Of course, all this is self-diagnosis and there's supposed to be nothing worse than self-diagnosis. Is it helpful to think my personality might not be my fault? Is anybody even to blame for personality? It's not as though having a term for my character gives me any sense of grand meaning. Yet I know it's been helpful to realise this about myself. I'm far from the worst example but maybe there is a reason why I'm as clumsy as hell, something I've often attributed to my height but, on reflection, is down to my being as clumsy as hell. Perhaps that's why my handwriting is the worst of anybody I've ever met, to the point at university I was told I needed remedial help to fix it; why I find it difficult to look people in the eyes, and often feel uncomfortable with people touching me. Maybe this is why I get fidgety and agitated if my routines are broken (certain things in my day are ordered to the minute) and why I totally misjudge situations such as when people ask 'how you doing' and I foolishly tell them. It only occurred to me in recent years that I'm supposed to mumble 'okay, fine' even if I'm feeling like hell. Most of all, I hate being around people. Not that I hate people but it takes me a long time to get comfortable being around people. Consequently, I hate social situations to the point that I've destroyed many career opportunities that lay before me simply because I was useless in social situations.

I know I have these things relatively mild, which makes me lucky. Sometimes -- most of the time -- I just hate being me but I think I've finally begun to understand my peculiarities. It also helps me understand the better side of me and why I have ridiculous levels of patience. I often won't quit until I've done what I set out to do, to the point that my nearest and dearest think I'm crazy when I spend four or five hours trying to unknot some cheap necklace they've got tangled. When I can get absorbed in something, I can forget to eat or sleep, and that's especially true when computers take hold over me. It's why I stopped programming for years and only recently have I returned to it only to discover that I can pretty much do it for entire days and nights. Programming this game in Unity has been great fun but I know it's also been feeding a part of me that sometimes shouldn't be fed.

Cartooning, I suppose, is a way I find to escape it and I'm really happy to be drawing cartoons again. Comedy has always been my escape. I'm not completely anti-social -- I genuinely like many people and having contact with people but always on my terms -- and I will sometimes (but not always) stop being me and become the clown. That other me can be so funny and charming. It's the version of me who wrote all those letters that went into my book. That other me sometimes shocks the real me. I could never flirt with Jacqueline Bisset but that other me is charming and will ask or do anything. The real me stupidly didn't do the publicity to sell the book. I never understood why, until now, and I regret it terribly. Perhaps that's the version of me who writes this blog, though I suspect it's really the deeper me who is always crying to get out and then rudely offends people when they ask to meet me.

This is what a feminist looks like...

EdI hold no love for David Cameron except for this morning when I did feel like giving our old moon faced leader a big kiss on one of his sizable cheeks. Apparently, our PM has refused to don a t-shirt proclaiming 'this is what a feminist looks like'. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do, even if it doesn't seem politically shrewd. For a start, if he wore the shirt, it would still not be what a 'feminist looks like' because 'feminist', being an abstract noun, doesn't look like anything. Feminists don't look like Ed Miliband or Ed Balls. They don't even look like Benedict Cumberbatch, though that's something of a rarity these days given that everybody and everything looks like Benedict Cumberbatch who doesn't seem to capable of saying 'no' to a role. The snowman in this year's John Lewis Christmas ad? Benedict Cumberbatch. The model for next year's new Mini hatchback? Benedict Cumberbatch...

'This is what a feminist looks like' just makes as much as sense as saying 'this is what sexy looks like' when you don't have an idea what I think sexy looks like. Unless you're going to get Sigourney Weaver posing in an LFC top and thumbing Martin Rowson's newest collection of cartoons, then I really doubt if you know what sexy does look like. And that's a problem with using such a heavily loaded phrase. 'Feminism', to me, is a whole range of positive and negative meanings, experiences bound up in persons I variously liked, loved, admired, or despised. It also assumes that I have exactly the same thoughts about gender equality as you or Ed Milliband or the editor of Elle Magazine when there's a chance they're not.

I would hate to label myself a 'feminist' because it's too narrow a definition, in the same way that I shrug my shoulders when people tell me they're against homophobia or female genital mutilation. I find myself thinking: good for you but wouldn't any right-minded person be against those things? It's not as though we're talking about grey areas such as genetic engineering in Brighton or fracking laboratory beagles. You wouldn't think of wearing a shirt saying 'this is what anti-murderist looks like' because people should already assume that you'd be against murder. It would be more appropriate to wear a shirt saying 'this is what somebody looks like when they like to state the bloody obvious in a pithy but fashionable way'.

Besides, to wear a shirt proclaiming any message marks you as a person who believes in the power of t-shirts emblazoned with messages and those are some of the scariest people out there. They're the people seen red faced on the front row of any mob; people who can't see past the rhetoric to the difficult reality. And that's always been the power of rhetoric in that it makes you admire the rhetoric rather than the reality. Plato banned certain types of poetry from his Republic because he recognised that people can be too easily motivated by fine words.  Plato, I think, would have also banned memes from his ideal city. There would be no ice-bucket challenge in Ancient Greece, unlike today when nearly every celebrity seems to have taken it, though a much smaller fraction than 100% of them could tell you who Lou Gehrig was and why ice has now become synonymous with his name.

Has any medium overwhelmed the simple message as much as the ice bucket challenge drowned out the message about the disease? The whole thing began to resemble the old schoolyard dare in which the gang give themselves over to the power of simple but powerful message. The message might be something as dumb as poking a lump of dog shit with your finger yet any reasonable person might say poking dog shit with your finger leaves you venerable to god knows what diseases.

'Do you want to make me blind?' you'd protest.

'Ah, you're frightened of dog shit!' would come the answer.

'No,' you reply, 'I just think the whole dog-shit poking scenario is more complicated than you're allowing.'

There aren't many issues which are morally more absolute than the stupidity of poking dog shit. 'I'm pro-breathing' would perhaps be one, alongside 'human rights not snow rights'. At the same time, whilst feminism is self-evidently wishes to say something positive, it is also more complicated than a man simply wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that he's a feminist. A t-shirt doesn't change the reality of the cabinet dominated by men. It doesn't make a convincing argument for positive discrimination (there really isn't one). Nor would it recognise that the problem no longer lies in our notions of gender but in the very definition of the word 'equality'. True equality is impossible since our differences are bound up in the very fabric of our DNA. Monty Python were perhaps the most profound when Stan told the People's Front of Judea that he wanted to have a baby.
Reg: You want to have babies?!?!

Stan: It's every man's right to have babies if he wants them.

Reg: But ... you can't HAVE babies!

Stan: Don't you oppress me!

Reg: I'm not oppressing you, Stan. You haven't got a womb! Where's the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?

Perhaps we need a more enlightened view of our entire society, our notions of success and failure, intelligence, power, careers, ambition...  Many feminist writers have acknowledged that woman think differently to men and are as powerful but in sometimes different ways. Perhaps it's men who are wrongly obsessed with working their way up the greasy poles of industry or politics. Wearing a t-shirt that says 'this is what a feminist looks like' also says, 'this is what a man looks like who is so uncomfortable with the issue of gender equality that I have to wear this patronising t-shirt'. As far as I can see, it's fighting a battle which was won decades ago. Equality today is as much about gender as it is about race, class, education and the green economy.

So, please go and wear your slogans and read Russell Brand's books, filled with pith and fruity vinegar but not much else. It marks you out as a limited free thinker, a person who reduces the wonderfully complicated structure of the universe into abstract concepts that will ultimately fail. Today, and just for today, I'm on the side of the Prime Minister. Just don't ask me to express my support in the form of a t-shirt.


Sunday, 26 October 2014


Testing... Testing... If this publishes, I guess the website has moved to the new server. I've had to log on via a Dutch VPN in order to see this site. The nameservers seem to have propagated throughout the entire world except for the odd little corner of the UK where I live. I just can't get the new blog to load, so I can't even get my email set up correctly or work on this new site.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Move Is On... Possibly

I've decided to move this blog. Whether I'll do it is another matter. After yesterday's suggestion by Barman, I began to look around for the best alternative to my current webhost. When I started with them many moons ago, they had relatively uncrowded servers but recently it's reached a point where it doesn't make sense paying what I pay for such a slow website response. The last time I looked, there were over 100 websites on this server, which just seems crazy and probably accounts for the frequent downtime and very slow page loads. I still thought a VPS was beyond me but yesterday I discovered

I'm still undecided whether I'll use them instead of the company Barman suggested. For a ridiculously good price of 5$ a month, I get to create a 'droplet' on their cloud. A droplet is just 1 core processor, 512mb of memory, 20gb of disc space, 1tb of transfer, but it looks like it's already going to be *much* faster than what I currently have. The downside is that it's pretty much me on my own learning to manage my own server. I don't even have a control panel, unless I want to install one myself and that's not so easy and not generally recommended by the Linux gurus. Yes, it's running on Linux and as I discovered yesterday, doing even the simplest thing demands a steep learning curve. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Even if I don't eventually make the move, the 5$ is actually a really good price just to have access to a Linux install I can play around with and learn to manage a web server. It's something I've never done but always wanted to try.

So now I've installed Ubuntu Linux on my 'droplet', which is effectively a remote computer which I access through shell or console. If I want to do anything, I have to do it with a command typed into the Linux shell. After a long day, I finally had this website up and running over there about 4am yesterday morning (fast to load, new theme makes it look like a new start) but today I face the not so easy job of moving everything else associated with it. Only if I'm 100% certain it will be easy to manage will I redirect my domain name over there.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Blog Post In Which I Try To Piss Off 1.357 Billion People

Every month there are moments I dread. I don't mean dread as in 'there's yet another picture of Caitlin Moran's mug gurning on the cover The Times' type horror, though those are pretty pant soiling when they take you unawares with 'cargo on the ramp', so to speak. No, I mean moments I know are coming but still depress me when they occur.

One such moment of lurking dread is when I start to run low on bandwidth. Some months, my server emails me the warning message around the 20th and I feel pretty grim in the knowledge that my websites will go dark within days. This might seem odd, even mildly hypocritical, given that I sometimes go weeks without updating this blog, but even in my lapses, I still like to think that The Spine is here disagreeing with 90% of what the rest of world thinks. I also know my blog doesn't load as fast as I'd like (damn you, the other 100+ websites on this shared host) and I've explored options of moving to a cloud server, even a low level VPS, which is a virtual private server providing processor capacity available to load the site quickly for anybody visiting. However, until the prices of those services drop a little more, I'm stuck here sharing web resources with countless cheese appreciation websites, military re-enactment societies, and whatever other freaks of British culture think they need a web presence.

This month's bandwidth message arriving late last night and in the early hours, I found myself examining my monthly stats, which I haven't done in very long time. That's how I came to make the shocking discovery that China is eating up my bandwidth. I don't want to understate the significance of this so let me put it in the following way: I'm under attack from the RED CHINESE!

Damn those hardline communist capitalist types who have already eaten 12.40 GB of my allowance this month and make my site slow to load. But that got me to thinking: why are the Chinese reading my blog?

The only answer that reasonably makes sense is that they're not reading my blog. They're finding my blog, they're loading my blog, and they're doing something with my blog but I'm not sure what or if it's entirely legal. My best theory is that they're to blame for all the spam I receive and I do get spam like it's arriving by freight container straight from Asia. Countless fake comments arrive in my inbox every hour and I get hundreds of spam emails from Chinese companies daily trying to sell me plastic crates. That's right: plastic crates.

For no apparent reason, one particular post, which I titled 'The Great Slag Heap', gets hammered hard by Chinese spammers. There are probably a few hundred comments on that one article alone that I've yet to clear out of my Spam filter and every one will be trying to send you to this garish website which my rudimentary Mandarin tells me either promotes the godfather of plastic crates or the Chinese Graham Norton.


Clearly I need to act but at the moment, I just can't afford to fund a military blockade of China's ports, a ban on their exports, or even a covert hacking program on their IT networks.  So how do I block China?

I've done my research and I've discovered there are low level changes I can make to the htaccess file on my server which would block Chinese IP addresses but, frankly, that seems too much effort and not enough fun. Plus I think my solution is much simpler.


You know Tibet? Snow. Yeti. Strange wooden rollers you spin whilst chanting 'The Krankies are evil' under your breath...

You might also know that China has a terrible human rights record, especially towards the peace loving people of Tibet.  The Dali Llama is always bending Prince Charles's ears about it (hard work, they're big ears) and then Charles begins to do that thing he does with his mouth and name drops Richard Gere before jetting across the world to tell Bono that everybody should stop jetting across the world and start riding Yaks to work.

'Freedom for Tibet' is what I often hear myself chanting around the 20th of the month and I'd like to take a page out of the book of Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, and dance Gungham style in opposition to Chinese authorities in Beijing who clearly support their plastic crate industry's spamming operation.

Tibet. Tibet. Tibet.

Free speech. Liberty. Hong Kong protests. Jackie Chan's films aren't as good as they used to be.

SootySaysFreeTibetCheap Chinese radios. Poor working conditions inside Chinese factories. I don't like iPads. Pot Noodles are horrible. I particularly hate the curry flavoured Pot Noodles. Not sure curry is Chinese. I think it's Indian, or something we British brought over from India and then made our own. Not that I have a problem with Indians visiting my blog. They don't nick 12Gb of bandwidth in order to sell me plastic crates.

Bad Chinese stereotypes. You can't beat 'em! The Li Kee Shipyard in that Pink Panther movie? I can't remember the title but it was the one where he dresses up as a gangster and somebody breaks wind in a lift. Hong Kong Phooey wasn't Chinese but at least he didn't make Buddhist monks set themselves on fire.

China. Human Rights. China. Human Rights. Hey guys! Let's riot in Hong Kong!

Taiwan is an independent nation. It's not part of China even if we do tend to say 'cheap Chinese rubbish' whenever we spot 'Made in Taiwan' on the handle of the frying pan that just melted when we put it on the stove. Is that racist? Can you be racist towards a plastic frying pan? I don't know but eating dogs it pretty horrible but nowhere near as bad as eating spitting cobra soup or the penis hacked from the corpse of a frozen Norwegian you mistakenly thought was a polar bear.

Oh, they can try to stifle free speech with their so called Great Internet Wall of China, which prevents the good and honourable people of China from accessing foreign websites that promote FREEDOM FOR TIBET but we won't be silenced, even if that means my website being added to the blacklist that would make it impossible to access from within China. Oh, I won't be silenced even if that means I'll regain 12Gb of bandwidth I'm paying for each and every month and the Chinese are STEALING FROM ME. Not when something as important as freedom for the Chinese people is concerned.

Did I mention Tiananmen Square? I think I should.

There. That should do it. At the time of my writing this, my website is accessible from within China. Here's the proof (or you can check yourself, here).


I'll be monitoring the Chinese situation over the coming days. Hopefully, the automatic Chinese censor will step in and ban my domain.  If the hits from mainland China stop, this website might make it through to the end of the month without my feeling guilty that I've not coughed up more money to keep it live so the Chinese can spam me some more.

Meanwhile, if for any reason, you suddenly can't read this blog in the coming days, it means that my bandwidth has run out until it resets on the 1st November. Either that or you're in China, in which case, you and 1.357 billion other people are entirely on your own. Xhù ni hao yùn!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

On The Wisdom of a Crowd

Alongside being clean shaven, untattooed, and not owning a car the size and weight of a militarised state, it's also unfashionable to be elitist. As a rule, it's not something that characterises my interactions with the world. I like many lowbrow things and I don't necessarily find the distinctions between high and low culture to be that useful. There are many highbrow things that are risible. Conversely, many apparently lowbrow things are intelligent, articulate, and, for want of a better word, artful. For example, I've recently beegormann watching as much of Dave Gorman's work as I could find. His 'Googlewhack Adventure' is unbelievably good: being thought provoking, serious, and uplifting at the same time as it's simply very funny. Yet I've also been trying to find an angle to understand the work of David Shrigley which has left me feeling plain confused about my own notions of 'good' and 'bad'.

So, even if I don't really like the thought of my being 'elitist', sometimes I just can't help it. It also means I recognise that the following might make you mutter to yourself, 'oh, everybody has a right to an opinion' or 'opinions are like arseholes in that everybody has one'. I also know that there is a form of Kryptonite to my argument in that over-used phrase that hits me in a sensitive place because I don't have a well-reasoned response. That phrase is: 'well, who is to say what's right?' I utterly despise that phrase. You often hear it used by people about to lose an argument and instead throw this form of relativism into the mix simply in order to muddy the intellectual waters as they make their swift exit. It's like the phrase, 'we'll have to agree to disagree' to which I instinctively want to scream, 'no, I don't bloody well agree'.

So, yes, 'who is to say what's right' might be the answer to what follows but that's not going to stop me declaring in a totally unabashed way, prodding myself proudly in the chest as I go: 'Bugger that! This time, I'm more right than them!'

Let me start off by saying that the website Goodreads is symptomatic of everything that's wrong with the modern world. If it represents the wisdom of the crowd, then it proves that that the crowd simply has no wisdom about it. The crowd is a mob of generally inarticulate morons who talk such banal verbal effluent that nobody with any sense would listen to what they have to say. Yet this shouldn't come as a surprise. The philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, explains the phenomenon well in his book, Intuition Pumps (3.85 rating on Goodreads).
Ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics -- and so forth -- is crap.

I think 90 is a good working number. The real figure might be more, it might be less, but it's not by a significant margin wrong. It means that 90% of opinions are crap (including, with a 90% probability, my own) and, I contend, that 90% of reviews and scores on the website Goodreads are crap.

Let me demonstrate why I know this...

HODWithout sounding too precious about such things, I consider Joseph Conrad's book, Heart of Darkness, to be a sublime work of literature. Conrad, despite English being his third language, was probably the greatest writer of English narrative prose the world has ever seen, with, notably another non-native speaker, Vladimir Nabokov, possibly the second best (see Pale File, 4.19 or Lolita, rated 3.85). Even if I'm wrong and somebody could offer me the names of two finer prose writers (Fitzgerald, perhaps, or Hemmingway -- The Old Man and The Sea, rated 3.63 on Goodreads, part of why he won the Nobel Prize but about which 'Matt' writes "Worst book ever. Just throw the fucking fish back in. Fuck"), Conrad must surely be in the upper fringes of greatness. George Orwell ranked him "as one of the best writers of this century" and his influence is almost singular in its range and scope. Why is that? I suppose it's because his work has moral depth but even if you're not alive to the themes of his books, his style is unmistakable. He used words in a way that it's simply hard to describe. Here, for example, is the second paragraph from the first chapter of Heart of Darkness.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

I still feel a shiver when I read these lines. They're so measured, with a level tone that switches from a geographic languor into a verbal ease. It sets a quiet, subdued scene that will slowly give way the spiritual violence of the book that peers into the darkest places of the human soul. The book is also a wonderful expression of what it means to be human. Its message is one step away from pure nihilism -- the rational notion that we are mere flesh and that there is no morality -- yet, it ultimately pulls away from that abyss and expresses something spiritual. Civilisation is a lie we tell ourselves but Conrad believes in the significance of that lie. The irrational lie is what defines us. The ability to hold the paradox of a lie also being the truth is possibly the greatest power we possess.

I could talk about Heart of Darkness for hours but I hope that's enough to make my point that I believe it to be one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century. I also believe it's one of the greatest achievements of world literature and a pinnacle of our world history. If wars mark our species as flawed, corrupt, perhaps even evil, then I would offer into evidence that short book called Heart of Darkness as proof that we're better than that, that we recognise our evil and can choose a better path.

This, of course, is the same Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which on Goodreads scores 3.38 out of 5 and, at the time of my writing this, has 203,743 votes cast.

Let me put that into context.

'Heart of Darkness' by Felicity Heaton (a Goodreads author) has a score of 4.21. It is a better book and she a better writer by a mathematical value of 0.83, or, I suggest, the entire literary output of Russell Brand. I've not read 'Heart of Darkness' by Felicity Heaton but the synopsis goes like this:
A vampire prince on a four hundred year old mission to avenge his murdered sister... Aleksandr Nemov won't stop until the last of the vampire hunter's progeny is wiped from the Earth. Each kill has stolen a piece of his humanity, pushing him towards the black abyss all vampires hold within their hearts. Now he is teetering on the edge, close to devolving into a beast, and time is running out as he tracks the last hunter to Prague. There he finds a beautiful woman who could be his one chance for salvation, but is it already too late for him?

Perhaps you don't fancy this masterpiece so why not try 'Heart of Darkness (Lords of the Underworld #4.5)' by Gena Showalter (Goodreads Author), Maggie Shayne (Goodreads Author), Susan Krinard? This 'Heart of Darkness' has a score of 4.15 with 7,204 ratings, a whole  0.77 better than Conrad's now obviously risible attempt at writing a book. The synopsis begins:
From the masters of paranormal romance, three brand-new tales of seduction…

The Darkest Angel by Gena Showalter

A Lords of the Underworld tale

An iron-willed demon assassin, the angel Lysander has never known lust—until he meets Bianka. Spawned from the bloodline of Lucifer, the beautiful but deadly Harpy is determined to lead the pure-hearted Lysander into temptation….

If neither demons nor vampires are your thing, there's also 'Heart of Darkness' by Ferida Durakovi?, which sounds a good deal more serious. It only has 6 reviews but it scores 4.00.
Ferida Durakovic refused to leave Sarajevo when the bombs began to fall. Having seen her home and library bombed, she invokes in her poems the icons and myths of a troubled people caught between the two dominant religions of Europe. The first English-language collection by one of Bosnia's most promising young poets shows us how when the world is narrowed by guns, one's field of reference widens so much that "everything hurts."

Thankfully, it turns out that not everything written and called 'Heart of Darkness' is a better book than Joseph Conrad's story of Marlow and Kurtz battling for our souls. I feel almost thankful for 'Heart of Darkness' by Jaide Fox. It has 2.0 of 5 stars, which doesn't seem quite fair given the synopsis...
He took her in the night…the Night Rider, Wolfe Sinclair. Powerful, wealthy, devastating, and cursed by darkness, nothing would stop him from possessing Isabeau Hart. For untold years he’d sought her, the other half of his soul, and he would allow nothing to stand in his way. Only with her willing surrender could he hope to be brought back into the light.

It's also a good deal longer than Conrad's meditation on human evil but does require a warning that it contains 'graphic adult language and sexual situations with mild violence. Includes oral sex and anal play. Paranormal Romance set in Regency period with elements of fantasy and magick.' Forget Kurtz's words, 'the horror! the horror!' or 'exterminate the brutes!'. Nothing shocks and disgusts me more than those paranormal romances set in the Regency period.

If I expand my remit a little, we also find titles like 'In The Heart Of Darkness (In Darkness #01)' by C.M. Torrens (Goodreads Author). It's highly rated with 4.27 of 5 stars.
Devonn has lived his entire life in Darkness and chained to the will of another for centuries. When the chance to become free arrives in the form of an ancient soul, Devonn grabs it and runs. But taking the soul and keeping it are two different things. Hunted by demons and a stubborn soul that tests his sanity, Devonn seeks sanctuary with a group of survivors, but he doesn’t expect to find himself drawn to the surly ironsmith thwarting his charms.

There's also 'A Light in the Heart of Darkness: The Guardian Heart Crystal Series (Guardian Heart Crystal #4)' by Amy Blankenship (Goodreads Author), scoring the highest of all these books with 4.7 out of 5 stars.
To Kyoko, mythical creatures are something you rent and watch on a Saturday night with your friends. When a mysterious stalker turns the shadows around her into dark corners with sharp deadly edges, will she be able to hide from the past? Darkness has fallen upon the world again and the guardians have been awaiting the resurrection. Though they are thought to be creatures of myth, in this reality they are far more real than people think. Only when the moon is high will these creatures, these guardians, battle the evil that seeks to overtake the world and the girl who holds ultimate power. the light in the heart of darkness.

I could carry on but I don't want to labour my point...

But what is my point?

My point, I suppose, is about 'wisdom of the crowd', an ancient concept yet one that might be said to define our age. Everywhere we look, we're asked to rate our experiences of books, music,  films, restaurants, hotels, shops, products, teachers, doctors, and even prostitutes. You might laugh and point out that criticising this is meaningless. This is the age old problem of highbrow meeting lowbrow. Yet, I'm not so sure it really is the same. This goes beyond mere opinion in the same way we are increasingly influenced by other people's scores on Amazon, for example.

You can try this on nearly any product you like, so long as it has a good sample of reviews. For my purposes, I'm looking at the reviews for the 'M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad' simply because I was looking at them earlier in a moment of idle dreaming. At the time of writing, it has 75 reviews that give it 5 stars, 23 give it 4 stars, 8 give it 3 stars, 2 give it 2 stars, and 9 give it the lowest rating possible, one star. The one star reviews are always the most fun to read. The review that I want to highlight is by 'Stutheowl' who begins:
Just to set the record straight before we get started. The product was fine and did exactly what it said on the tin

Which immediately makes you wonder why Stutheowl has given it one star which also 'does what it says on the tin' and informs us that Stutheowl thinks the 'M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable Keyboard Controller for PC/Mac/iPad' is crap.
but unfortunatley [sic] it was too small, so we had to send it back.

Of course, you then begin to wonder if perhaps the keyboard was perfectly fine but Stutheowl's hands were too big. One star for Stutheowl's fingers, perhaps?
That is when the fun started. The company selling the product is called Juno and i had to contact them for a return number. I made 3 phone calls and sent four emails and eventually had to threaten to inform Amazon and put in a customer complaint before i had any contact from the company. Eventually we got a returns slip on the 19th January and posted the product the following day. We are now on the 11th February and the money has still not been refunded back into my account. My intentions were to buy the bigger version from Juno, when they had refunded my money, however i have chosen to shop elsewhere, and have spent three times the amount on a keyboard, which is their loss. So to close this review i would just like to say, "JUNO, WHERE'S MY MONEY"!!!!

This begins to show why, even on a very fundamental level, the wisdom of crowds is problematic. Stutheowl down rates an otherwise excellent product for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the product in question. It's not uncommon. Most popular products suffer bad ratings because of sellers, packaging, and non-delivery.

However,  I began to wonder: might the same true of Heart of Darkness? Unfortunately not. I began to read some of the 17975 reviews that give is a single star and this is a random selection from the first couple of pages.

Samantha says:
" I'm not even kidding when I say I was assigned this godforsaken piece of shit THREE TIMES in my school career. Everysinglefuckingtime I rage quit, just skimmed the cliff-notes version, and took my C+ with grace and thankfulness, thinking, HOPING, this time would be the last."

terri (not written as presented because I can't embed flowers into her name) says:
"If I could give this book no stars, I would. Basically, this book is racist and also badly written."

FooOOOOf writes:
"Oh my god this book sucks. it's 100 pages, but it feels more like 1000. How Conrad manages to do that, I have no clue. Nothing even happens. This book is a fine example of how you should not write a book."

Rusalka says "It felt like reading an Old Spice ad."

Hannah says " Finishing it was the best bit."

Erick says (so politely, I almost feel bad quoting him):
"Sorry, Mr. Conrad - I find your work to be a miserable wreck. Not to offend anyone who liked it, but this is a sprawling mess - pretentious at best; racist dreck at worst. Stylistically it made me want to punch puppies. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul."

'Rachel' glowingly compares it to Avatar but somehow that's meant to be an insult. "What the ACTUAL FUCK was this? 1890’s answer to Avatar?" she writes before going on to present a simply wonderful synopsis of the book that reveals ABSOLUTELY NO CRITICAL ACUMEN WHATSOEVER:
FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON I COULD SEE, this is narrated by a dude named Marlow. About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING. He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.

ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around. He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page. These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.

The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them. (Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.

Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.

I thought about leaving this here but that would be a measly thing to do. Instead, I realised I had to attempt to explain the book, or at least, comment on Rachel's comment:

>> Well, it's obvious that if you can't see a reason, there mustn't be one, and since you've capitalised your objection, it must even more valid.

this is narrated by a dude named Marlow.

>> Dude? Well, whatever...

About three pages are wasted describing his boat on the Thames, which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY. NOTHING.

>> Again, if you think there's no reason why Conrad devotes these pages to the description of the Nellie and the Thames, then it must have nothing to do with the story. Alternatively, we might make a point about the opening highlighting calm, civilisation and, in essence, the person of the Director of Companies: " On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom."

>> It leads us to the most important line in the entire book and the essence of Conrad's theme:

>> "And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."

He starts telling his fellow sailors about the time he joined a French company in KILLING ELEPHANTS – that is, exporting ivory from Africa. There were multiple teeth-gritting descriptions the like of which you would never actually SAY to anyone, which furthered my annoyance with the mode of narrative chosen.

>> Neither Brad Pitt nor George Clooney were alive in 1899 so people didn't then know that the killing of elephants was wrong. Of course, people did many bad things in 1899 which we wouldn't dream of doing now but we do many bad things that the people of 1899 wouldn't think of doing. And this is also the theme of the novel: morality isn't absolute.

ANYWAY, he travels to the ‘heart of darkness’ on a steamboat. His role is never fully explained, but he ends up going to the inner station to pick up a sick guy by the name of Kurtz, who is by way of being the best extractor of DEAD ELEPHANT around.

>> Pretty accurate. Marlow is the captain of the steamboat which the company's manager was to take to travel into the interior to meet Kurtz who was rumoured to be ill.

He is also involved with the local tribes who seem to worship him as a god? Idk? He dies on the way back and entrusts his papers to Marlow, even though Marlow hates him, but also worships him – it changes from page to page.

>> Marlow hates the 'truth' that Kurtz expresses. It's almost a Freudian battle between the id and superego, or rather between Nietzschean philosophy versus the Christian teachings upon which most of European civilisation was founded and, you could possibly even argue, was instrumental in the intellectual climate that led to World War 2. Kurtz is pure reason, expressing things which are stripped of compassion but he also expresses a profoundly bleak outlook. Marlow faces a choice which he ultimately makes at the end of the book when he lies to Kurtz's 'intended', saying that Kurtz died speaking her name. His chooses to live life based on a lie than the truth which would have spiraled into madness.

These papers suggest a way of taming the savages by benevolence or something. It’s not the main focus of the story. I don’t know WHAT the main focus of the story is. Aside from STUPID.

>> No, the papers suggest the they should 'exterminate the brutes' but this isn't meant to simply refer to the tribes of Africa but all humanity. Conrad actually is sympathetic to the indigenous people, in the words of the manager who repeated states throughout the book that 'they are simple people'

The library copy is a Norton Critical Edition, which I understand is for university students, but they sure make some dumb university students in Brown if they have to have ‘gingery’ explained to them.

>> The word 'gingery' is used once in the book: "He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little gingery beggar." Perhaps it needs explaining. Not everybody has your way with words, especially those dumb university students at Brown...

(Also, if you didn’t know what a mine was, how would the explanation ‘subterranean explosive charge’ help?) There are loads of textual appendages for a book 75 pages long, but I am too annoyed to read them, so if anyone wants to explain WTAF this book is, please feel free.

>> I don't know what WTAF means [Update: I'll save you the trouble of looking. It means 'what the actual fuck']. I could do with some textural appendages. Regarding 'mine', the meaning is now more commonly used to mean an explosive triggered by standing on it. I assume the note was to indicate an older meaning.

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.

Amazingly, I thought this book was ANTI-racist. Boy, was I wrong.

>> There have been countless accusations of racism leveled towards Conrad and possibly as many defences written. Historical context is important and the moral high ground that people now take is simply afforded to them by the fact that the book was written over 100 years ago, when society was very different and words such as 'racism' didn't exist. In fact, the OED cites the first use of the word as occurring in 1902, coined by a man called Richard Henry Pratt. You could argue: accusing Conrad of racism is as foolish as accusing you of crimes towards capital letters should we discover in 100 years that capital letters have a soul which is tortured when they're used in close proximity to one another. To accuse Conrad of racism is to overlook that Conrad was also addressing the immoral actions of Western companies (specifically the Belgians) in the Congo, brutalities that he himself had witnessed and eventually led to a mental breakdown on his return to London. Many hold the justifiable view that his book is a critique of imperialist attitudes towards the indigenous people. Moreover, the argument can be made that Conrad isn't specifically talking about race or colour but the nature of our species. The fact that he talks a great deal about black and white simply (and unfortunately) ties in with a modern (and extremely simplistic) preoccupation with race that is more telling about our own insecurities than Conrad's supposed racism. In a broader sense, western culture has for centuries used black and white to describe morality, a morality which is inverted in the book since whiteness is often associated with crimes. The book is more than simply anti-racist. It is the ultimate expression of a humanitarian doctrine that places the dignity and happiness of individuals  over the needs (and wants) of companies, societies, nations, or, indeed philosophies.

But now I've written too much and, at the very least, I've come across as lecturing and, at worst, elitist. Yet that's always going to be a problem of addressing this kind of rubbish. When Daniel C. Dennett warned us that 90% of things are crap, he also warned that if you're going to criticize them, "make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find". However, he also adds: "unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature'.Well, I guess that gives me a window of opportunity.

Even if I didn't try to make the ludicrous buffoonery as funny as I might have wanted, I felt an urge to highlight the absurdity simply because there's a sense that we have to accept this nonsense because it's written in a sense of generous sharing of experiences and that 'every voice is equal'. What worries me is that if enough people say enough dumb things loudly enough, those dumb things begin to look like the truth. That, in essence, seems to be a good description of the internet: dumb things said enough times by dumb people so it has a simulacrum of truth.

Next year, I expect Heart of Darkness to have a lower rating on Goodreads and lower again the year after that. There's nothing I can do to stop it except write this, post it, and move on. We live in a global hyper-connected community and there are now very few places that aren't also one of the dark places of the earth. All I can hope is that after reading this, perhaps you'll also whisper after me: the horror! the horror!

On My Way Out

I'd intended on writing a blog post today about something. I had observations to make and I thought I perform a kind of free-form grouch but I find myself rushing for the train. I'm going into Liverpool to buy a connecting link for my bike chain. I was miles from home yesterday when the chain broke. It's the latest in a series of ongoing disasters with my bike and indicative that it either needs a serious service (I checked online and I'm talking £100+ of things wrong with it) or I need a new bike. It means I'm trying to fix things myself, which I know I can do with a certain reluctance, even if it means not doing them particularly well. Perhaps I'll take photos of my day out. No doubt Liverpool city centre is dominated by a bonfire where fools are burning likenesses of Mario Balotelli. I like Mario and I think he could be a success at Liverpool if only the manager played him in the correct role and stopped ignoring the fact that our defence is hopeless. But that would lead me into one of those free-form grouches about Brendan Rodgers and his teeth. Teeth, I think, say a lot about a person and Brendan Rodger's teeth suggest to me that he's a bit of flash harry, who loves the glamour of fluid football but doesn't like the humble job of coaching defenders...

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Badly Signed Books

Signed books fascinate me. I can't stop myself from taking a peek whenever I see an example on the shelf and I snapped these three recently because two of them demonstrate something that particularly galls me.

Unfortunately, I don't own any of the three books (though I really covet the one of the right). On the left is the 'signature' of children's author Derek Landy. The middle is, obviously, Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books. On the right is a copy of the book for which Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize. Needless to say, I only consider one of these to be a 'signed' edition. The other two are merely 'scrawl'.

Derek Landy and Lee Child aren't the only examples of this and it would be extremely unfair to single them out. However, looking at my own shelves here, I can't find anything as bad as these.

Will Self's signature might be a bit cryptic but at least he lifted his pen off the page more than twice.

Steve Martin's looks like Stan Martin but it's an authentic bit of penmanship...

And I really can't complain about my copy of Howard Jacobson's Finkler's Question. Real pen mileage went into this signature.

This made me wonder. Why do too many writers resort to the initial and line technique? The Landy and Child are merely the best/worst  I have at hand (I tend not to buy signed copies, even of authors I like, when their' signatures look like they sneezed whilst signing them) but what passes through the mind of the author when scrawling something like this? I assume it's boredom, an indifference to the task at hand. It's as perfunctory as a dog pissing to mark its territory. Is there something deeply psychological in the way you write your name? Is the most telling detail found not in the first letters but what comes after? Writers who scrawl a line with the merely hint towards their initials seem to say to me: I really don't care about my readers. I have neither the time nor the energy to invest any effort into this signature, even if I know you'll cherish it. Of course, they might (and probably would) argue that they're signing thousands, perhaps (if they're lucky) tens of thousands, but isn't this also true of Julian Barnes who is (arguably) the more successful writer? What about Alan Bennett? I own two of his signed books and they're signed exactly the same way as he signs his letters (the inset example is from the letter I published in my Stan Madeley book).

If Alan Bennett doesn't have a 'signing scrawl', why should other authors be so sloppy? I know you can't read the character of a person simply by examining their handwriting but I can't help but wonder if the way the sign their books is significant. I cherish a well-signed book. The rest, for me, are not worth the paper they're scribbled on.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Testing... Testing...

A week last Sunday, I was sitting in the Accident & Emergency room at Whiston Hospital. It was my first visit to an A&E but my sister was really unwell and we'd thought it important to have her checked out. Though that's not the reason I write this, I would like to say how amazed I was at the whole experience. We walked in to learn that waiting times were up to 5 hours. I was shocked but we sat down, feeling that we had no choice. My sister was feeling really unwell but in the waiting room, they were showing Formula One. We moved away and sat in a small room to the side. Soon after, some fool put X Factor on and the horrendous music was blaring out, making my sister feel worse. To be honest, I was feeling pretty shabby because there are few things I hate more than the X Factor. However, after about three and a half hours, we did see a young Scottish doctor who, without exaggerating, was simply amazing. My faith is the NHS was (partially) restored that day and my sympathy for A&E staff went up enormously after seeing people arrive with a wide variety of conditions. Most, I'd harbour to guess, could have been sorted by their local GP. There seems to be far too many people holding a thumb (no visible damage) or limping on mildly twisted ankles. However, I'm the wrong kind of doctor to diagnose such things but it didn't surprise me that A&E is struggling when there's such a disparity between those who looked really ill (and I notice most of those were admitted) and those that were given a painkiller and politely shown the door.

The reason I mention this: we'd been sat down for about half an hour when a young boy came and sat in the seat opposite. He was with his father and was busy playing on his iPad. I glanced casually at he game he was playing and felt my stomach sink as I realised he was playing a version of my game. A *much* better version of my game. Well, I say much better but only because it looked glitzy. It didn't seem to have good gameplay or much skill but it was definitely the product of a team of programmers/sound engineers/graphic artists. It put into context the mediocrity of my own achievement.

Yet when I look back on the past few months of constant distractions, I'm amazed that I've managed to finish a project. I'm now in the process of getting every small wrinkle worked out ahead of my publishing 'the game' on the Google Play store. It's miserable work. The beginning is always the enjoyable part of any project, whether it's writing a blog, a book, drawing a cartoon or comic, or writing an app or computer game. Writing new code is wonderfully exhilarating as you shape the hardware to do what you want. You face problems along the way but nothing beats that moment that all the problems fall away and you have a result that's pleasing to you.

At the other end of the project, life becomes a bit of a toil. You simply think that nothing you've done is worthwhile. You get hung up on small things which are often beyond your power to fix. For example, my game occasionally displays a glitch caused by the physics engine. I've done everything in my power to fix it but I know that there will be rare cases when the glitch will happen. I hate settling for 'the best I can do' but, really, I know this is the best I can do without actually writing a new physics engine to suit my purposes. Even if that were within my powers, it wouldn't be worth the months of work.

So, instead, I'm constantly playing my game. A friend asked me the other day what I was doing. I said I was debugging. Then they saw I was playing a game. 'Oh, is that what programmers mean whey they say they're mean by debugging? Are they actually playing games all day?'

In a way, I suppose they're right but it's not really 'play'. There's no fun in sitting here trying to break a game or making it glitch because I'm deliberately playing it the wrong way. And the more I do sit here testing it, the more I despise so many little things about it. They might be things I come back and fix if I release an update. I suppose it will depend on the number of people who play it and if anybody actually gives me any positive feedback. This is my second proper game I've finished but the first I'll actually publish. As I sit here writing this, I find myself wishing it out of the door and gone. I want to do something new and interesting. It's been two long hard months and I want to do something that will stretch me again.



Apropos of nothing: I recently launched a new blog. Not that I'm advertising it here. It was one of my stupid ideas to which I wouldn't want to attach my name. It was something to do whilst I was coding and since it took very little time to create it, I had fun. It amused me. Until, that is, I thought I should try to attract readers. The blog has been live three weeks and so far it has had zero visitors. The Googlebot has dropped by a few times and my pages are indexed on Google. But real visitors: none. I suppose I should be disappointed but I'm just resigned to the fact that Google is no longer really relevant. Unless my blog gets picked up and passed around via Facebook or Twitter (and I really cannot be arsed getting 'social'), it might as well not exist. Such is the way of the world which moves on towards the next big thing quickly and without compassion. Like Facebook was usurped by Twitter, and Youtube was suddenly the old folk's version of Vine, blogging is already a thing of the distant past. As relevant today as poetry, novels, and film in cameras.


Monday, 20 October 2014

So Who Destroyed The Works?

The-Works-imageI'm now convinced that something has changed. Somebody has deliberately destroyed The Works.

I'm talking about the chain of bookshops that sell remaindered or discounted books and I know 'destroyed' sounds provocative but I'm basing it on the evidence of my visiting three different stores in the past month and noticing exactly the same thing.

Before I say what's changed, I think I should be open and admit that I rarely find my good reasons to go shopping. I'm into neither clothes nor mobile phones so 95% of the shops on the average high street hold no interest. I love bookshops and although Manchester's Waterstones on Deansgate is pretty much my favourite place outside of the almost mythical (to me) bookshops of London, the only other shops I would regularly visit are the various outlets of The Works found in Liverpool, Manchester, Wigan, St Helens, Chester, Warrington... In fact, they're in every reasonably sized town. There I always knew I could find something unique. No two shops were ever the same and you could always pick up something you simply couldn't find anywhere else.

It was the left-of-centre inventory that meant that I've always been a regular customer and why quite a few people I know were also regulars. For example, the last time I visited the Chester Works, I found a copy of Ronald Searle's last book. The time before that, I came back with a nice mint condition collection of Gerald Scarfe's cartoons. Not that my purchases were limited to books of cartoons, though The Works had a good track record when it comes to selling the works of cartoonists. I'd never seen Tony Husband's books until I bought two from the Works.

However, all that has now come to an end. I don't think I'll bother walking across another town or city to mooch around The Works. In the past couple of months, The Works has changed. In all three stores I visited, they'd had a change in design (gone the perfectly acceptable blue signage, in comes a horrible yellow colour scheme and nasty rustic wood interior) and they rearranged their shelves. Suddenly, where they previously had large sections devoted to history, geography, the media, and often had interesting collections of biographies (plenty of decent political biographies between the usual Cillas and Brucies), suddenly those sections have disappeared. Now the entire non-fiction section is one small shelf tucked to the side of the shop and limited to books about supercars. Otherwise, The Works has become overwhelmed by products that I can only reduce to the word 'tat'. I'm not interested in cake decoration, books of tattoo designs, One Direction calendars, or notebooks with the words 'What Ever' written across the front. I don't want embroidery kits, plastic lunch boxes, plastic posters of pop stars. I don't want masks or cheap art materials for people who like to 'dabble'. I buy my art material at Fred Aldous', where their ink doesn't turn a funny colour and the paper doesn't turn into a soggy mess. Nor do I want any of the thousands of kits for people who think they want to start making organic origami paint-it-by-numbers crystal earrings with the lump of some starter schist or whatever the hell it is they pack in those things. In fact, I don't want anything that the The Works is now selling. It's become a horrible parody of what it once was.

So, goodbye The Works. You were a truly great shop, so unique on the High Street and now so easily forgettable. And whatever dim-witted uber-professional marketing whiz decided to change things, I hope you're really proud of what you've done. It's getting to the point that except for Evan's Cycles and Waterstones, I find very little reason to step out the front door.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Mob Win Again...

I notice with a very weary sense of its utter predictability that John Grisham has now apologised for his comments about child pornography. It was always bound to happen once his words went viral. To be a public figure in the modern world means holding firm to a moral hegemony, where there can be no nuance to an argument nor any attempt to make an intelligent but difficult point. We in the West might scoff at or feel morally repulsed by the fundamentalist ethos of ISIS but is there really that much of a difference when it comes to holding attitudes that aren't codified by unelected rule makers? As the example of Grisham shows, it is simply naive to assume that we enjoy Free Speech and that there are very few ideas or thoughts that are prohibited by law. There is a more pernicious law out there and it is rarely informed by anything as simple as reason or argument. It is directed by media-savvy pressure groups, screaming firebrands of both the left and the right, as well as ever popular 'wisdom of crowds' expressed through social media.

Judy Finnigan ran against the same problem earlier in the week when she made some comments about a rape case. She had been foolish enough to express an intelligent point of view when it was apparent that she should have expressed that tabloid sensibility whereby every example of rape is described as ABSOLUTELY THE WORST CRIME OF ITS KIND. Every rapist is the worst human being, unless, of course, the crime involved anybody even a millisecond under the age of sixteen, in which case the rapist immediately becomes the worst kind of paedophile and, as we all know, death by slow moving steam roller would be too good for them. At times, it feels like we're living through an extended edition of Brass Eye's Paedogeddon except this version isn't really that funny...

This shift into sensationalism is driven entirely by the media and, occasionally, the politicians who follow after them like cawing seagulls in the wake of the fishing boat spreading rotten chub. The sad story of Brenda Leyland fell quickly from the headlines and I suppose there can be no surprise why no national newspaper has ever made much of those tragic events. Perhaps there's no mileage to be had defending the rights of person who spread vile messages via Twitter. And make no mistake, the messages Brenda Leyland were an example of the ugliness that social media brings out in people and which I've been writing about for a very long time. Yet as a symptom of what was wrong with the individual and what is wrong with our society, both needed to be dealt with by people trained to deal with difficult psychological and social problems. The fact is that Sky News decided to act as the police in naming her as an internet troll and then effectively acted as the judge in her subsequent trial by media. What they did was the lowest form of journalism we've seen on these shores in a long time but nobody seems willing to make that point. Do the newspapers fear it might lead to a new Leveson Inquiry?

The voice of the braying mob is everywhere to be seen around the case of Brenda Leyland. On the afternoon of Brenda Leyland's death, I watch in incredulity as BBC News 24 covered the story by asking how celebrities might be protected from attacks on Twitter. Establishment figures, such as Carole Malone writing in the Mirror, were quite happy to turn the story from one about the media going too far into a story about an individual abusing their freedom of speech.
And as tragic as Brenda Leyland’s death is police and journalists cannot be expected NOT to confront those who have threatened murder or been vicious for fear they might kill themselves.

In response to that, perhaps one need only quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose article 11 states: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence". Even Iran has a clause that protects the individual in the face of criminal allegations: "Innocence is to be presumed, and no one is to be held guilty of a charge unless his or her guilt has been established by a competent court". Of course, many would question the competence of Iranian courts but are they really less fair than trial by a television channel or newspaper desperate to sell advertising space by rousing the emotions of the popular mob? When does Brenda Leyland get her day in court? When does a judge get to rule in the case and comment on the actions of Sky News and others who placed a clearly vulnerable individual in an impossible position?

Talking to friends and family over the past year or two, I've often found myself in a difficult position arguing the case for people who I instinctively want to condemn. I hope I'm not the only one who tries to look beyond the individual and look at the system that is testing their guilt. You have to ask yourself: would you trust that system if you were convicted of something for which you were entirely innocent? It's easy to overlook flaws in the system when the system is meting out justice on an internet troll, celebrity groper, rapist, or paedophile. Yet the very same system could equally be used to try a libertarian, a whistle blower,  a person who simply believes in something different to the majority. When Russell Brand is brought up on charges of sedition, perhaps the attitude of the media might change...

True legal argument tends to be extremely dry because it is very much about the nuance. Critics may scoff and point to lawyer's obsession with minutia as a reason why the law too often fails. However, isn't it preferable to the rule of the mob we see played out on our screens? All I would ever hope for is a climate where intelligent people can hold reasoned debates, where people like John Grisham and Judy Finnigan can express their views and that people will listen and think. Forced 'apologies' mean nothing other than they've been cowed by the mob and the mob already holds too much power in our society. ISIS may be a frightening, violent and hateful present but it's a different mob in our looming future that we should perhaps fear the most.

Friday, 10 October 2014

So, I've Finished Building My Second Game

It began weeks ago with a moment of idle distraction.

If you read this blog, you might remember that I'd been playing around with Unity, building my procedural city and generally trying to be too ambitious. I had an idea that wasn't working or, if it was working, it was simply too big. These months of self-educating myself in the world of Unity had led me to realise that the difference between good and bad game design isn't a matter of coming up with 'content'. There are terrible games which have almost unlimited content (think any failed RPG) and then there are great games that have almost no content at all (think Minecraft). Of course, there are games which combine the two. I recently finished playing 'The Last of Us', which has a really strong game mechanic tied to the best world-building I think I've seen in a video game. The new 'Alien Isolation', by comparison, brilliantly realises the world of the first Alien movie, though the game mechanic is somewhat mundane. I guess it's why I'm so interested in Indie games, where the limitations of small teams mean that more effort is placed in game design. I guess it's something of Peter Molyneux's forte and why I always have enjoy listening to listen to him get enthusiastic about his next project, even when he sometimes over promises and under delivers, which as the tree he promised we'd be able to plant and watch grow in the original Fable...

In computer games, content is not always king and the fact was made more obvious when I recently spent a weekend watching all the presentations at the EGX in London. It wasn't 'Dragon Age', 'The Witcher' or even 'Alien Isolation' that excited me. It was seeing an early version of a small independent game called 'Heat Signature'. I think what excited me the most was that this was a  game entirely built around a quite novel mechanic. It reinforced something I'd already realised about big game companies who equate next-generation gaming with their making their vast object database available in different guises. These mega budget game titles appear to be little more than a chance to wander through a huge repository of virtual mugs, cars, dustbins, street lights, barricades, walls, fraying sofas, industrial pipe work... Change a flag and recompile the code and Assassin's Creed becomes Watchdogs becomes the next Call of Duty.

But I digress...

So, I was tired of my ambition, the hours I was putting into something I hadn't probably thought through. I'd launched into creating something without actually thinking about the game design. I was doing something that I recognised in so many people who inhabit the Unity forums. They usually introduce themselves with a post that follows the same format:
Hi guys. I'm just starting out on creating my own game in Unity and I wonder how I'd go about creating a massive MMORPG.

An MMORPG, should you not be entirely immersed in this world, is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. It's something I constantly notice as I read the Unity forums. So many people with very little programming experience wants to build the next Warcraft, which was built by a team of hundreds, each one an expert in their field.

What annoyed me was that I realised that I'd been making the same mistake. My procedural city looked okay but there was no real gameplay and, even if there was, there was no way I could fill that city myself. I was also generally tired and wanted to do something different. So I decided I'd spend an afternoon playing around with something new. I wanted to do something that wasn't ambitious and I'd be able to finish in a day, maybe two. I wasn't going to create anything that hadn't been seem before but I just wanted to create something small and playable.

So, I started making a really simple game; so simple, in fact, that anybody could play it. So simple, in fact, that I'd already played it a hundred times in different guises. However, none of the games I'd played were quite right so I thought I'd make my own version...

After a day, I had a prototype working and I thought it was finished. However, the next day, I stupidly carried on working on few hundred lines of code and my labours continued for a third and then a fourth day. Soon I'd been working on it for a week and I was thinking of new ways to tweak it. A week became two weeks but the game had become a bit of a prop. Life has been complicated because there had been countless visits with my sister to see a range of consultants or have various tests and scans... My small game project was perfect, since I could just code a little in between all the trips and distractions.

I started working on this game on the 28th August and today it's the 11th October. It's 1.31AM and, except for some writing and some final testing, the game is finished. It has okay graphics, mostly culled from drawings I did sitting in hospital waiting rooms. I even wrote a little title music, which doesn't sound too bad on the ear, mainly thanks to some amp effects I used on my old batter Fender.  It looks quite good, played quite well, and has a few things that make it unique in the marketplace. I'm quietly pleased with it because it's really nothing different. It feels right in the middle of the mainstream, not at all like my books (all of which were clearly too left of centre to find a mass audience).

I'm now going to spend a couple of days trying to beat the game's levels and each one of its 50+ challenges. If I can do that and find it reasonably challenging, I'll publish it to the Google Store. If it gets downloaded 100 time (my ambitions are very humble), I'll begin to work on a version for Apple iOS, not least because I want to know how to do that.

Of course, there's a lot of work still to do. I've registered a domain for the game, hoping to give the operation a slightly more professional look than the reality of me sitting here, night after night, working to iron out bugs from the mere 7500 lines of code. I still need to build a website. I have to think about a price for the game or if I'm even going to charge. I've integrated Google ads into the game but I probably need to think of ways to make people want to upgrade from the free version, which isn't in my nature since I want to give everything away for free. I always want to go back and fix a local multiplayer element which I thought I had working until I discovered the frightening fact that computers are often non-deterministic and code does not always execute exactly the same way across a network of machines.

However, at this stage, I feel like I've accomplished something and I've only accomplished it because I inadvertently started out small and I've kept my ambitions limited. I think I've learned a valuable lesson. My next game, should there be another, will have a simple game mechanic and I won't write a single line of code until I've figure out what that mechanic will be.

In the meantime, I'm off to play my game which is satisfyingly easy to play but annoyingly hard to master.