Wednesday, 31 December 2014
Except I started the year watching BBC1, presented by the deeply irritating Gemma Cairney, all inverted snorts and open mouthed excitement, who told me to 'grab somebody to snog' and to 'carry on drinking'. How much do the BBC pay this witless oaf to come out with this stuff? Is this what we've become as a nation? It sometimes feels like we've handed New Year over to be produced by the brassy and brash, presented by the loud and guffawing. Village idiots are in charge at the BBC and they're earning a bloody fortune.
It's a shame because the fireworks in London were spectacular but they always are. Yet every year my first thought is: does actually find this hyperactive looped XFactor shite bearable? Why is our national celebration run by the US Army's psychological operations group, clearly trying to get some South American dictator out of a church? Wasn't there a report recently saying they shouldn't be allowed to torture innocents? So why do I end up having to watch the fireworks with the TV muted just to stop the looped abattoir sounds from inflaming my auditory nerves? Why must we endure such a deeply depressing example of our national mediocrity at the start of the New Year? Has the entire country been taken over by the zombified acolytes of bad ITV talent shows? Are we all spray tanned orange or wearing muscle vests? Or in the case of the slack jawed Cairney, a jacket made from the blue plumage plucked from the arse end of Rod Hull's emu.
Speaking of the crass and unnecessary: I never much liked Queen when Freddie Mercury was alive but this reanimated version feels like something dreamed up in hell by Jimmy sodding Savile comiting his last crime against humanity. Why does every national event have to involve Brian May doing his splay-legged whining 24th fret bollock fiddling?
The point is: tastes are diverse so why not aim for something relatively neutral? I'd never subject people to the music I enjoy. Nick Cave belting out a murder ballad might not be for everybody enjoying New Year. PJ Harvey might not be very festive. Yet why can't other people be as considerate? I'm not a huge fan of classical music. I own, maybe, five or six albums which I rarely listen to. Yet classical music is widely accepted as being neutral. A few pieces were even written specifically for firework displays, and, here's a crazy left of center idea: perhaps, they might distinguish London's celebrations from every other city so paranoid about their history that they're all desperate to be seen as young and vigorous. The only vigorous thing I felt this evening was the need to shake the TV whenever the gormless Carney opened her mouth wider than it already was.
Sadly, I remember when New Year TV was witty and topical and just a little bit intelligent. What's happened at the BBC? Why must these witless bastards subject me to this hell every year? Why do they have to assume that everybody is already paralytic and in the mood to grope? Why do the BBC act as though the whole nation is involved in an extended Caledonian remake of Caligula? Why do the BBC have to put me in such a crap mood only minutes into a New Year?
And yes: bang goes resolution Number 1.
Happy New Year.
Tuesday, 30 December 2014
Not a great cartoon but significant in its way. Yesterday, I changed the way the algorithms work in my 'Gag Machine'. I added some flexibility about the way I can produce the results. I also added a different kind of data and took out a few fields which weren't contributing to the finished product. I also took a slightly different approach to my data. Before the changes, the majority of the results were pretty unusable. I already knew that two word combinations worked the best but only when I input certain data. After the changes, I was getting more joke material from the longer gag suggestions. A page of 30 results gave me about eight or ten good ideas for cartoons. That doesn't sound much but, previously, I might get one good joke ever one or two pages. The trick, I think, is to find a good balance between detail and the generality. A suggestion such as: 'two zombies greedily devouring peanuts in a red circus tent' is not going to be as helpful as 'two zombies eating'.
Anyway, late last night, I finished programming and I took the first page of 'long gag results' and printed them out. One caught my eye and sparked an idea and I wrote down 'Hitler dealing with the Health and Safety Nazis'. The point of using the 'long gag' outputs is that they don't tend to produce the kind of crazy, unpublishable cartoons I've been drawing in the past week. I didn't want to draw a cartoon that was too surreal. The result was the above cartoon. I was a bit tired when drawing it but it's okay. It feels more mainstream but, personally, I think it feels less exciting. Today I intend to spend entering more data. The beauty of permutations is that the more data you can add, the number of possible outputs rises very quickly. When I have enough data to produce tens of millions of jokes, I might not feel quite so bad sharing my app with the world. Then there might even be enough jokes for everybody.
Monday, 29 December 2014
Three sweaters on and I'm still feeling the cold. It's well below zero outside and a freezing fog has descended. Can't get my body going today. Even typing this feels hesitant and awkward.
Today's cartoon was another drawn using 'The Gag Machine' late last night. I'm trying to use it every day, to see if it genuinely produces good cartoon ideas. I usually have my best cartoon ideas in the early parts of the day. However, if I'm distracted or busy, I might not get around to sitting down and thinking of what I'll draw that night. If I leave it too late, I struggle to think of a gag, so having a software backup is helpful. Whether this cartoon works or not, I'm not sure. I quite like it. I wanted to draw a beggar as a skeleton because I thought it might say something about our relationship with beggars. You can read it in a number of ways. Foremost, it's saying that the most successful beggars are those that look the most pitiful. So, reductio ad absurdum: a dead beggar skeleton would probably reap in the money. The other way to read the cartoon is that people rarely look a beggar in the eye and, by throwing money in, they somehow nullify any kind of liberal anguish they might otherwise have. This guy has clearly been dead months but nobody notices.
I draw these while I'm relaxing watching TV, which is why I put in too much time and effort. Once I have the idea and the basic cartoon worked out, I enjoy the process of slowly refining the lines and then adding the shading. I could have worked on this for a couple of hours more and been as happy as the proverbial Larry. The irony is that the more I work on a cartoon, the less use it probably is.
Today I want to see if I can refine my application and improve its ability to produce cartoon ideas. I suspect there might be a better way of structuring my data which will produce better results. I need to test it on a small sample of data to see what happens.
Sunday, 28 December 2014
Another cartoon drawn with the aid of my new 'Gag Machine'. It probably accounts for the reason that any rational person would find it odd/unfunny and without a jot of sense. Yet these are the cartoons that make me laugh, give me the most pleasure to draw, despite there being no market for them. If I had more time or a purpose for drawing it, I'd have finished it more than I have: better drooping fag, bit of smoke, halo around his head, more shadows on the ground, a few 'geeza' rings on his hands...
Being a fan of cartoons and cartoonists, I probably look at too many of them every year. In my downtime, I often page through one of the big collections I have (Private Eye or Punch) or I look at cartoons from The New Yorker via the DVD Rom I have saved to my tablet. They produced it a few years ago and it contain their entire back catalogue, which my memory tells me might be as many as 70,000 cartoons. I look at so many cartoons that I probably immunise myself to the general strain. A few will still produce a mild fever. Fewer still will make me splutter and cough. Yet there's a broach tranche of cartoons that are professional and eminently publishable yet just a little bit bland. I enjoy cartoons that make me gasp because of the unexpected. 'Sid the Jesus' makes me laugh but I have no idea why. I know it wouldn't be funny if it was 'Sid the Christ' or even 'Jesus Smith' (though that one isn't too bad).
I would never send this to a magazine. I wouldn't embarrass myself. Not because I'm ashamed of the cartoon (quite reverse) but because I know it doesn't fit with the cartoons the market so obviously wants. Perhaps the fact I like 'Sid the Jesus' explains why I can't even get one of my more mainstream cartoons published. Perhaps people can sense that those cartoons aren't authentic. They're my attempt to be being something I'm not. Yet cartoons like 'Sid' are clearly not for mass consumption. It leaves me in a difficult situation at the end of 2014. Can I handle another year of constant rejection? I have days before I have to think about such things. Resolutions are nearly a week away.
Regarding the 'The Gag Machine': quite a few new features yesterday. Using Windows forms, it's so easy to program the little (usually tricky) features. I did a quick search of the reference library, found a few methods I needed, and half an hour later, I'd added a settings screen, with a customisable save directory (also saved in the settings) for all the outputs along with a button which allows you to browse to the folder on your PC. On Android, I'd have had to write my own File dialog and then create a new Activity with various Resource files for the new screen. By contrast, Microsoft have everything ready for you. It's so easy that I've now run out of things to implement and that's the first time that's ever happened to me. I now need to have a long think about what to do next.
Friday, 26 December 2014
Well, I hope you all enjoyed your Christmases. I spent quite a bit of Christmas Day teaching myself how to program for Windows. Sounds boring but it was something I've been wanting to do for some time. Occasionally I'll want a simple program to do something that should be easy to write. However, I've never really understood the differences between Net 4.5 vs ASP vs whatever hell the next acronym coming along will be. Late last night, I had a small breakthrough and I managed to figure a bit of it out. I managed to create a little program with read a text file into a sql database and then plays around with the results. It's a tiny success but it took me weeks to figure out how to get that working on Android. I'm hoping to recreate my original Android app for Windows because, though I say this myself, that little app has been hugely helpful.
Other than that, I've managed to destroy my CD ROM in my PC. It's the problem of having a tower PC which hangs beneath your desk. The drive was out, I moved my chair back, caught the tray which then turned 45%. Tried to fix it but once you twist those bays, they're ruined. This wouldn't be a problem but I'm now the proud owner of a set of Bilko DVDs which really demand to be watched... Even a Christmas skeptic such as myself was moved by such a great gift only I now have nothing to watch it on.
Interesting to see the PSN and Xbox networks have been down over Christmas. None of that ever surprises me. The internet is a very wild place, though I never realised how wild until I watched this for a few moments. It's a real-time map of global cyber attacks. The amount of traffic coming out of Taiwan and China is frightening. It's amazing that anything even works. Something tells me that 2015 will be the year when cyber warfare becomes a big issue. The way America took down North Korea's internet the other day was a demonstration of things to come.
Hmm... That's not a great way to finish a blog post on Boxing Day so I'll note that Metacritic has 'The Interview' listed with a score of 51 out of 100. I gave it a 5/10 so, for once, I feel like I was speaking with the voice of the people.
Wednesday, 24 December 2014
Watching it tonight, I was reminded that Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator in 1940. Rogen and Franco made The Interview this year. In the space of those seventy four years, we've gone from one of our great screen comedians dancing with a globe in order to satirise the megalomania of Adolph Hitler to James Franco mimicking the climax of a hardcore porn movie to ridicule Kim Jong-Un. Yet possibly the most twisted part of this very modern satire is that it actually left me feeling sorry for the North Korean dictator and that's not how any of this narrative should have played out.
That's the central problem with the film. The main performance by Franco is so irritating that I found it hard not to find myself siding with the more understated performance by Randall Park. Park's version of Kim Jong-Un is the reason the film works as well as it does. He plays Kim as the sensitive son to the dictator father. His moments on screen are played low key. He speaks softly with a calm good nature. This is a man who is still a boy seeking friendship because he can't live up to the standards expected of him as a living god. When he tries to play basketball, he fails in the way you see the fat kid at school fail. If you were the kind of bully who'd have laughed at that, then you might laugh at this. I just felt sorry for the poor bugger.
The attempt to humanise Kim is clearly by design. We're meant to follow Franco as he goes from would-be assassin to Kim's confused friend before he then becomes the enlightened revolutionary. However, the reason for his eventual move back into the sunlight isn't strong. There's no view of life inside North Korea. To show the gulags and famine would obviously have tainted the broad comedy. So, instead, we have poverty by proxy in the form of concrete fruit. Kim's moments of madness aren't revealed until the end of the film and, by then, there's a sense that he's been provoked by the two Americans.
Park's performance is in stark contrast to the utter boorishness of the American leads. Seth Rogen is just Seth Rogen. He's likable or dislikeable, depending on how you find Seth Rogen. Personally, I find it hard to dislike Rogen. He gets away with so much because of his character which is slightly out-of-place in a Hollywood movie. Yet because he's big and hairy and slightly out-of-place in a Hollywood movie, you warm to him. If I were to watch this film again, it would be because of Rogen who understands the beats of comedy.
It didn't feel like a particularly long film but the second hour is the better half, simply because of Park who always holds the attention. The first hour of the film is the very worst kind of modern stoner humour. Every joke involves either drugs or sex (and usually porn sex). It's the kind of film where you're mean to laugh loudly when James Franco talks about the smell coming from his genitals. It's the kind of film where the maker's don't believe a quip can be funny unless it's accompanied by a graphically mimed sex act.
Ultimately, where the film fails is in the performance by James Franco. It is just horrible and would be worth analysing scene by scene to show young actors how not to play comedy. It's almost satisfying to see Franco, the very worst kind of pseudo intellectual haunting the halls of academia, here revealing himself to be a lousy comic actor. It's all about ego, speaking loud, rolling his eyeballs and slack jawed gawping. I can't think of a performance as bad/irritating as this one by a major Hollywood star, if, indeed, you consider Franco to be a major Hollywood star.
One final word should be said about the violence. This really is a gory movie and the gore seems very out of place in a comedy. The gore didn't offend me. I suppose it might be said to be in the style of Monty Python. Yet it was of a kind I haven't seen in a movie since, perhaps the last Rambo movie. There it fit with Rambo's nihilistic tone. Here it seems wrong. If the film is meant to be a condemnation of North Korea, it actually becomes a horrible indictment of American culture: arrogant, pompous, vulgar, swivel eyed, bombastic, violent, and pretty immoral. In the end, 'The Interview' seems to say more about the problems of America than it addresses any of the real problems of North Korea. Not only is that a terrible shame but it's a film that America would do well to quickly forget. It's a travesty to a sometimes great nation.
[As I type this, The Interview has a 9.8 rating the IMDB. 'The Great Dictator' has an 8.5. It will be interesting to see how long 'The Interview's lead lasts and how far it will fall. If I had to rate it, I'd probably give it a 6 out of 10 mainly for Park and the second hour, but I'd then downrate it to a 5 because I really disliked James Franco's performance.]
'I'm not feeling much fun,' I replied with a grimace as I packed away two large bottles of Apple Tango. All around me, people were bulk buying crates of booze. As a non-drinking, non-consumerist atheist, I felt very out of place...
'Oh, you don't enjoy Christmas?' asked the elf. She sounded surprised.
'I'm a practising atheist,' I replied. I hoped she'd ask what I meant. She didn't.
'I'm Christian,' she said, almost like a slow moving challenge. 'I like Christmas.'
I felt like a heel.
I didn't begrudge the elf her Christmas but the majority of people, I think, are atheist in spirit. Yet, as soon as I write that, I realise that's not entirely what I mean. A small percentage of people (only 12% in the UK in 2012) regularly attend church. I'm not sure what percentage of people would identify themselves as being 'atheists' or, as The Daily Mail would probably like to call us, 'aggressive atheists'. However, I'd be surprised if it was a figure larger than 12%.
It's why I prefer the phrase 'practising atheist'. It's not just a denial of something. It implies a conscious choice and an interest in the subject of atheism. Many of the people who claim to be atheists are, I would suggest, something other than true atheists. Their belief has yet to be properly defined in the same way that a child who hasn't been taught anything about The Holocaust cannot be termed a 'Holocaust denier'. The majority of 'atheists' are probably 'consumerists' and 'consumerism' is their Church. It's a church where the laity can (and do) distract themselves from the bigger questions of existence by playing Candy Crush or getting paralytically drunk every weekend.
Not believing in God is different to actively thinking about God's non-existence. I've never been much inclined to the former. I've always been fascinated by religion. I've probably studied more religious texts than most Christians and even if my non-belief wasn't particularly hard won, I hope it is a little more profound than casual acceptance.
Although I was baptised in the Church of England, I was never bought up to be a church goer. My family were on the periphery of such things; going only when duties to the broader family (aunts, uncles) required us to go. That said, I quite liked the church at Christmas but for pretty secular reasons. What child wouldn't get a thrill from playing with fire in the form of candles stuck in an orange? I also got to attend church with my uncle (not an uncle but better than any uncle I really had) who was a genuinely good, funny, and utterly wonderful man.
The only atheist I knew was my father but that was probably the reason I was never really an atheist in my early years. I probably rebelled a little, which was made easier because I found nearly everything about the church intriguing. I remember being a very young child and fascinated by biblical paintings. I would wonder what all that darkness and suffering meant. I enjoyed bible stories and Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur. Despite my mild Protestant upbringing, Catholicism was particularly interesting because my favourite writers, artists, and film makers were all catholic. I understood the sensibility as though it were my own. Questions of sin and damnation were so complex and appealing.
Yet, I never once believed and I've never enjoyed a single supernatural experience. I've always loved science and science has been the only thing that has ever made any sense. The more I've read, the firmer I've become in my atheism to the point that I now find myself actively preaching it as my gospel. I read atheist books and listen to atheist, humanist, and rationalist lectures. Like many atheists, I find the benefits of religion (of which there are obviously many) vastly outweighed by the problems of religion. It's easy to think that religion is generally benign when it's your local Church of England bring-and-buy sale, raising money for a hospice. It's also hard to be critical of well meaning people trying to do what they believe is good. When believers knock do on the front door, I find myself being overly kind with them. Yet I also know that you can't accept one religion without accepting all religions. Stupidity is indivisible. For every nice little lady who lives down the street and believes in God there is a right wing fundamentalist hate preacher or misguided zealot about to blow him or herself up to please their god.
It's for this reason that Christmas always troubles me. I get in a particularly ratty mood during December and it's not unusual for me to break down sobbing sometime around the end of the month because I'm so relieved that the bloody thing is over. I despise Christmas with every atom of my being. I spend the entire month having to grit my teeth and trying to keep quiet. It's the one time of the year I'm not allowed to practice my religion of choice. It's the time of the year when I become a victim of religious intolerance because, no matter how many times I tell relatives that I'm happy without a present or a card, they will still expect a present and a card. No matter how many times I ask people to save their money and buy themselves something nice, they feel obliged to buy me something. It's a battle of wills and usually my will breaks, as it did again today on Christmas Eve, and I find myself standing at a checkout, buying wrapping paper and Christmas cards and hoping the Christian on the tills will prod me hard enough for me to give her the full-on atheist treatment.
I want to tell her that I see Christmas as either the glitzy marketing for state-sponsored genocide or a psychological trick played on us by the multinational purveyors of plastic bric-a-brac. If you believe in the Christian Christmas, then you have no right to condemn people who believe in equally far-fetched beliefs that ultimately end with somebody sticking an RPG through the side of a school. If you believe in the consumerist Christmas, then subscribing to an artificial period of price inflation in order to celebrate something that you tacitly accept is a complete sham.
Of course, the common defence of Christmas is that it really has nothing to do with Christianity or religion or even consumerism. That's the excuse I hear too often. 'Oh, you have to put the effort in for the children' is something I regularly hear. Those close to me have alternative ways of saying it. 'Nobody likes Christmas but you just have to go through the motions to please people'. In other words: David, shut the hell up and stop being so bloody miserable.
Yet I'm not miserable. I don't dislike every part of Christmas. There are parts of Christmas I actually enjoy and some parts which even make a little sense.
For example, I might be a committed atheist but I quite enjoy watching the late night church service on Christmas Eve. I like listening to intelligent sermons, though I know they're founded upon utter nonsense. It's like enjoying the tales of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, whilst knowing that Middle Earth never existed. Christmas is also about enjoying being close to my loved ones, though I don't need Christmas in order to tell them how important they are to me. I don't hate buying people gifts but I do dislike advertisers telling me to do it when demand is high and prices even higher. I also don't like waiting for Christmas in order to buy a gift for somebody. I don't dislike the decorations. In fact, when people start to take down their decorations in January, I encourage people to keep them up. It seems an utterly rational thing to do when we're in the dark cold months of winter. A little festive lighting cheers everywhere up. Would any god be really so vengeful to begrudge you a little decoration when the weather's so cold? So, when everybody is back to being a miserable sod in February, I'm keeping the Christmas spirit going with a little bit of tinsel around my monitor.
So much about Christmas makes sense and improves our lives but the rest of it is so abhorrent that it makes it hard defend even the good bits. It's the irrational Christmas zeitgeist summed up in commandments that begin 'You have to...' and 'You must...' and end with 'because it's Christmas'.
If there's any lesson to be learned at Christmas, it's that you shouldn't leave it until Christmas before you're kind to people. That deeply Christian relative you don't see all the year is not much of a Christian if they only choose to ring or visit you on Christmas Eve. Forced bonhomie is no bonhomie at all. The company who allow you to finish at lunchtime on Christmas Eve is not much of a company if they also expect you to travel in to work on Christmas Eve just for three hours of desk tidying. Their generosity is nothing more than a reminder that your life is a gift they can grant back to you.
Christmas shouldn't even a time to wish people well. It should be a reminder to wish people well every day of the year. Ultimately, that's the best argument I have about being a practising atheist. I don't need gods or advertisers to remind me to be a better person. If you're a thinking, feeling rational human being, you should know that already.
Tuesday, 23 December 2014
Not all of them are still active. A few are to domains I no longer own. However, there are plenty that still get regular emails. It means, for example, that if Google or Yahoo send a newsletter to their users, I'll get that newsletter about 10 or 15 times in the course of a day. This morning I've been sent a dozen free copies of an Olly Murs mini album. Only, I have no idea who Olly Murs is.
I keep seeing Olly Murs's name in various places and I keep thinking to myself: must look him up. I should probably know more about Olly Murs yet I'm also convinced that I shouldn't look him up. I like not knowing anything about Olly Murs. I like being out of that loop.
I like not knowing about Olly Murs because Olly Murs has not come to my attention as a natural by-product of his talent. I didn't suddenly hear a song and think: I really need to know who sang that. I only know of Olly Murs because of marketing campaigns or seeing his Brad Pitt chinned jowliness plastered across newspapers above articles I never read. I suppose he's a species of ultra modernity where fame is a thing created by press releases and the drip drip drip of the media machine. It's like the name 'Tara Palmer-Tomkinson'. Many people could describe what Tara Palmer-Tomkinson looks like and sounds like. I bet nobody could actually tell you what she does.
Somebody recently pointed out to me that The Daily Mail report every tweet by Harry Styles (spelling?). Whenever he tweets his thoughts about any world event, The Daily Mail run a headline that includes his name. There's no real story, of course. His name is the story and it feels the same about Olly Murs. He has a name that stands out. It's a thing unto itself. There doesn't need to be anything beyond it. I won't download his new mini album but their job is already done. I'm now even more aware of Olly Murs and I've now stupidly written about him, which only (minutely) increases his fame. I should end with the pun about it all being a case of Harry Styles over substance. I guess it would attract a certain crowd.
This afternoon I intend to create email account 51 for a dumb idea I've had. It might become a new project but it will probably go nowhere. Yet if it works, perhaps I'll issue a press release and let the name go global. It might even become the new 'Olly Murs'. A gateway to a larger ambiguity.
Monday, 22 December 2014
Liverpool was busy and not much fun. Disappointing. I didn't go to shop. I went to walk, to browse and to generally play with gadgets I can't afford. I had a quick go of a Samsung 12 inch tablet. Heavier than I expected but didn't feel much different to the 10 inch. Can't say I felt much love for it. In PC World, they had a Surface Pro 3, which was something else. Felt big and familiar but much lighter than I'd expected. True dream machine. Can't believe it's a full Window PC. This was my time touching one, though it didn't have a single thing I could use with the pen. I was stood there clicking the pen's top button, expecting OneNote to appear, as per the ads. Nothing. In John Lewis, they did have OneNote installed but I couldn't get it to load with the pen button because... well, there was no pen. Waste of time.
Never my favourite shop, Dawson's Music had moved into bigger premises. Very flash. Hugely expensive guitars, which I look at and melt slightly. Not so much at the thought of being unable to afford one but from the thought of owning something that expensive. They're not made for causal finger pickers like me. Music has moved on since the day I bought my now battered Gibson acoustic. Moved on to Curly's Music and things were much more friendly and sensibly priced. Nicer staff too. Brief mooch around. Bought nothing.
Waterstones was just depressing. I sat with a coffee but wanting to scream at people: if you took this much interest in books the rest of the year, then authors wouldn't be struggling. However, it was pointed out to me that if people didn't take such an interest in bookshops at Christmas, there wouldn't even be a Waterstones the rest of the year. Fair point. I fell silent and ate some kind of flan.
Amused to watch the queues on both ground and first floors snake around the building. This is now my second or third year of not giving a thought about Christmas and I still find it's much more tolerable. I can look on with an amused sense of detachment. Despite being an increasingly self-confident atheist, I don't begrudge Christians their Christmas. I love so much about the church. I love the architecture, the art, the music, and even, strangely, the theology. Christmas for Christians seems sensible and generally good. I just don't know why every other bugger makes a big thing out of it, except it's some kind of psychological conditioning. People turn a little bit rabid. I buy presents for those that matter (i.e. the people who still expect me to buy them presents) but I otherwise don't care a damn about Christmas. I don't ask for anything and, to be honest, there's nothing I really want. I rarely find myself wanting much, until, of course, I catch sight of high end drawing equipment well beyond my finances. In January, I have to do something about this. It's can't go on.
I quit Waterstones. Turned left at the front door and followed the road to Bluecoat Books. It says everything about Christmas book buying that Bluecoat Books was empty. Another mooch around. Not enough cartooning books for my liking. £12.50 for a nice book about comic narrative art but it had stuff by David Shrigley in there and I refuse to encourage him. I am utterly baffled by his popularity. Shrigley is one of my blind spots. Drawing: terrible. Jokes: non-existent. Depth: zero. Anyway, left having bought nothing and feeling as pissed off as I always feel after seeing Shrigley's stuff.
Across the road to Evans Cycles. Another shop that has insane prices. £650 for a bike is crazy but £2000... It's a different type of cycling. Nothing like the cycling I know. Lost two spokes in my back wheel. Need to get it fixed in the New Year. The guy warned me about not using it in the meantime. Fat chance of that.
The only purchase of my long jaunt was a £2 book of cartoons in The Works. I don't know why they have such a great track record for cartoon books but I'd not seen books by Norman Thelwell anywhere else. Some great cartoons, much in the style of Searle's St. Trinian's books. Different age of cartoonists. Better age too.
Train home. No seal waiting for me. News from Glasgow horrible. People making jokes about it on the internet about it shameful. Hell is other people, said Sartre. I think he meant to say: hell is other people on Twitter.
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.
Sunday, 21 December 2014
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, Miles Jupp, Marcus Brigstocke, Russell Howard, Michael McIntye, Alexander Armstrong.
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 end of 'The Fast Show'. Since then, things have settled into 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, the great but banned Jerry Sadowitz (I guess he wouldn't play their game), Richard Herring, Frankie Boyle (though the BBC tried to tame him and make him one of the cheeky ones), Bill Bailey, Mark Thomas, Mark Steele, Frank Skinner, Jon Richardson... I'm not entirely sure what class Lee is but perhaps that's why he doesn't quite fit into the predictable circle of friends 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 metropolitan middle class values, who this week run comedy and next week could be running sports or Tesco or the Post Office.
I never, myself, thought of things in terms of 'class war' yet experience has taught me a few hard lessons. At university, I never gave much mind to Marxist reading of texts. I saw myself as a closer reader, a disciple of William Empson. I now see that the country is deeply divided by class and that there is a big 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. Maybe Marx had a few things right. The government can do what they do. So long as 'Mrs Brown's Boys' is on TV, everybody is happy. Unthinking comedy for an unthinking audience. Comedy is soma for an politically neutered age.
Saturday, 20 December 2014
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?
Friday, 19 December 2014
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].
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.
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...
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...
After this morning's sobering email, I've realised that I need to raise my game. Being told that your work isn't of a high enough quality is but but I figure it either breaks you or it makes you. I'm taking the criticism on the chin and trying to be better.
From where I'm sitting, it's getting really difficult coming up with excuses why I don't just give up...
Thursday, 18 December 2014
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.
Wednesday, 17 December 2014
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.
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Monday, 15 December 2014
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.
Sunday, 14 December 2014
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.
Saturday, 13 December 2014
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.
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).
Friday, 12 December 2014
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.
Thursday, 11 December 2014
Wednesday, 10 December 2014
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...
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.