Friday, 27 February 2015

Done and Done

A brief update since I'm exhausted. After about 36 hours of frantic work and not enough sleep, I've got all my websites up and running. The Digital Nib is also back, which is a small relief. Hopefully, I'm now at the stage where I only have small housekeeping tasks to finish before I can consider that I've fully recovered from my own stupidity.

I took a break last night to draw a cartoon which I've donated to The What and the Why. I have to say that I think it's one of my favourite cartoons and written with the aid of my invaluable Gag Machine. It's a bit tiny in the sidebar and I might have posted a copy here to congratulate me for the quality crosshatching. However, my upload still isn't working. It's next on my list of problems to fix.


Thursday, 26 February 2015

Taking a break from Linux hell

First of all: if you've written to me in the past few months and I've not replied, then I'm really sorry. I discovered yesterday that my email server was plain not working. It was a lottery if emails were getting through.

Things should now be better or they will be better if I can conquer Linux (again).

It's not that I hate Linux. If I had the time, I'd probably love learning its intricacies. However, I don't have the time and my method of working is often to search the internet for solutions and then try them out. I guess it's my approach to most things. I think it's the best way of learning. Work in small steps. Things sink in but in a way that's organic and natural. It's not like reading a 1000 page manual and thinking you understand it. Figure things out from the inside. Best way to learn.

Anyway, so far I have this blog back, but with a few things 'under the hood' to fix. The archive will be next (i.e. the old Spine website) and then I'll work on the other websites I've hosted here in the past. The FTP server is proving a pain to configure but, hopefully, once that's done, then the rest should be less 'brain work' and simple typing, clicking and dragging.

This new server is a bit different to the last. Firstly, I've upgraded it, doubling the memory since it's now doing more. I realised yesterday that things hadn't been working right for weeks. I was using a simple email service which forwarded all emails to various addresses to a single account. However, this meant that Yahoo and Google thought it was a server spamming their email servers. They have a *very* low tolerance, it seems, for small servers running email. I needed a proper email server installed on the machine, so that's what I've done along with a few other things including, for the first time, a proper control panel. I've also enabled backups just in case all of this goes horribly wrong again in the future.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

My Mistake

You might have noticed that the site disappeared for a few hours. I did something really really stupid. It meant that my Linux server was completely messed up and I've had to start again. If you're reading this, I've made a start. Please bear with me.

Lessons learnt:

1. Never take the cheap option when buying server space. Don't opt out of regular backups just to save a pound a month. I'm an idiot.

2. Don't play around with Linux commands that you don't really understand.


A Brief Descent Into Semi-Colon Hell

A visit from news royalty this morning: a comment from the sorely missed Tim Marshall. My sister (a real news junkie) gasped when I told her, however, his visit also puts a slight shot across my bow given what I'd already written for today.

I was going to point you in the direction of a couple of interesting reads over at his new website, The What and The Why, but I was also going to drop a warning about the second piece by a guest writer talking about Saudi Arabia. I was going to warn you to push on past the opening paragraph. It's a fascinating article but begins in semi-colon hell:
While pressure was building around the situation with Putin and Ukraine; the possibility of Grexit was on the cards – creating a possible pincer on Turkey between IS and Russian influence; world leaders and country representatives headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the new King Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

The reason I noted this was last night I was asked to proof-read a letter a friend had written for a job promotion. They'd used a semi-colon where they should have used a colon. I pointed this out and they questioned if I was right. I was naturally a bit affronted. A published writer, blogging for ten years, millions of words under my belt and with a PhD in English Literature and I was being asked if I knew how to use a colon! What was worse: I immediately started to panic. Did I really know how to use a colon? I had to go on the internet to check.

As it happened, I did know how to use a colon but the whole drama reaffirmed my own writing paranoia, which was brought into focus when I started to read the Saudi Arabia article last night. I just couldn't get past that opening.

Now, despite how this sounds, I'm not a pedant about the rules of writing. I don't really know the rules that well. I've always been more of a gut instinct writer. I've always encourage people to write from their gut and to ignore the rules they were taught at school. Our schooldays make bad writers of us all. They introduce things we never need such as the semi-colon. My mantra is: write how you speak but then edit how you read.

I have a love-hate relationship with the semi-colon and realise that admitting this is an odd thing to confess. Whatever next? A slight entanglement with an asterisk? A romantic weekend with flirty ampersand? The fact is: I adore a well-placed semi-colon but I tend not to use them myself. They're the harbinger of worse things. They're a form of gateway punctuation. You begin by occasionally dropping a semi-colon at a middle-class dinner party but then you find yourself using them every weekend just to cheer yourself up. Before you know it, you're a punctuation junkie scoring apostrophes and em dashes from dealers in some rat infested hovel in the backstreets of Manchester.

Semi-colons are the most pretentious form of punctuation. They're the most elegant when used correctly but abject expressions of self-importance when flaunted where they don't belong. You'd rarely (if ever) find a writer such as Hemingway use a semi-colon. They are not the stuff of his brusque prose. In fact, I'd offer a my hunch that 'better' writers rarely use them at all or those that do have a style which is distinguished by its sheer refinement. Whenever I've taught English to students, my first advice was always to learn to use the comma correctly. Commas can rarely be overused (though, of course, there are, exceptions). It can take years to learn to correctly use the comma and, even then, there's rarely a need to go further and adopt the semi-colon. Writers with a real ear for the flow of language can sense where pauses naturally occur in a line. The comma is really all they need and even then used sparingly. A master of writing, Kurt Vonnegut, once gave this wise piece of advice:
'Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.'

Not using the semi-colon is really the best advice since it is often misused simply because people don't quite know how to use it. There are pedants who will give you the strict definition of when and how to use one, though I don't take the pedant's line. The way I think about semi-colons is that they simply introduce a pause to your flow; a break in the narrative slightly longer than a comma but not as absolute as a full stop. Perhaps I've just misused one there and this too would reveal something significant about my character. I don't consciously use semi-colons myself and when I do I always get into a knot of self-loathing.

But back to the offending paragraph. It wasn't written by Tim Marshall but by a reader who also happens to be a solicitor. I began to wonder if that's significant. Solicitors live in a world of language yet they're not trained in language. Solicitors are often the abusers of language. They treat words like station masters racking up train carriages in a yard; locking clauses together with the iron link of the semi-colon. The offending prose is overwritten, destroyed by the misuse of the semi-colon. It's not a trivial misuse. What the writer only really needed was the simple comma. So why didn't he do that? Because semi-colons convey a message. It's like wearing an old school tie or a pin stripe suit. The semi-colon is saying much more than simply 'take a breath'. You can read a lot about a person's character by their use of the semi-colon. It's telling us that the writer is educated and believes in their education. They believes in their status. It is all posture. Horrible. Brutal. Plain bad writing. It's also a real shame. The article is an interesting insight into something you rarely read about. Just skip the opening paragraph and bite you lip whenever you see a semi-colon.

An Extremely Erotic Cartoon

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Why I'll Miss Malcolm Rifkind

Most political careers end, in the words of the poet, 'not with a bang but a whimper'. Malcolm Rifkind's has ended with a deafening thud and, like so many deafening thuds before it, this has been followed by a moment of stunned silence before our senses clear and we begin to see what kind of new world we're emerging into.

I suspect it is a world unchanged except for the loss of one respected voice inside the Commons and the anticipated gain of another cuff-heavy champagne-snorting Cameron-lite, in the form of Olympic celebrity rower, James Cracknell. At the moment, I fail to see how parliament has emerged victorious.

Having said that: Rifkind was probably right to go. I watched Despatches last night and he struck me as a man bored with politics; his spirit possibly having drifted out of the game a long time ago but his body not really quite ready to let go of the reigns. He was charming, funny, and personable but, according to the people who count these things, the votes he's attended recently is well below average despite his constituency being one of the closest to Westminster. Watching the programme, I felt a pang of disappointment because Rifkind had always struck me as one of the better Tories and probably even my favourite on the government benches. When Rifkind spoke, I'd always listen, not always in agreement but with serious intent to catch his nuanced words. He seemed like a man at home inside his own brain, which is a rare quality in politicos these days, too many of whom seem divorced from the practicalities of thinking and over-practised in the practicalities of repeating party mantra or dogmatic nonsense.

The speed of Rifkind's departure is perhaps indicative of his heart being no longer in the fight. He claims to have wanted one more term but people who want just one more term are probably already too far gone to be part of the game. It's a shame. Despatches didn't, even to my jaded eyes, present a case that shamed him any more than many other politicians should be shamed. That's not to say that Rifkind's behaviour wasn't turdish but, in the context of the Westminster sewer, even he might have emerged smelling relatively sweet. Jack Straw (another politician for whom I've always had a great deal of time) seemed more immersed in the grime because he was more boastful of the influence he'd had. Yet none of that seemed surprising. It was just the greasy things politicians do when they've played around the greasy pole long enough.

Michel Cockerell's excellent series 'Inside the Commons' concludes tonight so perhaps I'm still suffering from a mild dose of having some renewed faith in the political system when I say that not all politicians are in it for money. However, I know politics can be one of the few get rich quick schemes that actually work. The Independent this morning charts the MPs earning the most from second jobs. Gordon Brown tops the poll which is unsurprisingly given he's the only ex-Prime Minister who is still a sitting MP. Rifkind doesn't even make the top 10, whilst the most surprising and telling entry is that man of the people, George Galloway, who allegedly earned an additional £303,350 in 2014.

Not that other people's excesses should excuse Rifkind. The evidence is still pretty damning if profit is the crime. I see from his Wikipedia page that although Rifkind is/was a sitting MP, he also earned £85,992 from Unilever as a Non-executive Director. He took another £35,000 as Non-executive Director of Adam Smith International and a mere £25,000 from L.E.K. Consulting where he was a member of the Advisory Board. So, on top of earning more money than most as an MP, each of his additional jobs was also earning him more than most. For the record, I'd happily join the Advisory Board of L.E.K. Consulting and I'd do his job for half the salary and twice the hours.

Not as if that is likely to happen. They would rightly argue that I couldn't do his job, whatever that job was. I lack his experience inside Westminster and government. He'd bring to the table the shrewd brain that made him a QC and Foreign Minister whilst I'd bring the shrewd brain that makes me a second rate blogger and third rate cartoonist. So, I'm not going to deny that sometimes businesses are right to pay huge money to people with very specific and unique skills. Nor am I deny the right of those people to make money. Yet what does gall me is how this way of running business goes against everything the current government seems to represent.

A failure of the Thatcherite model of conservatism is that it introduces competition into every avenue of our lives. As soon as you introduce competition, the whole thing quickly untangles and you're in a race to undercut your rival. In business, that often means undercutting your rival simply to stop them getting business and (eventually) forcing them out of business, even if undercutting your rival damages your own business. It's a ethos that insists that the cheapest option is always the best option. Companies move departments to India or China to exploit cheap labour markets, often resulting in a drop in quality. The government wants teachers, doctors, and consultants to qualify more quickly. They want roles usually given to 'professionals' taken up by cheaper assistants or even volunteers.

Yet the only people who seem immune to these competitive pressures are the very people who champion those pressures the most. The Tories champion zero hour contracts and talk about a 'booming economy' despite it booming because our government care nothing about worker's rights. The coming election is being defined by which party is 'business friendly' and not which party cares for the poor sod on minimum wage or worse. At the same time, the Tories are also playing dog whistle politics, using that deeply odorous phrase 'For Hardworking People' to stir the passions of their traditional voters who persist in the misguided notion that the nation is full of workshy layabouts. All this in a climate in which a politician with three extra 'jobs' can claim to have a surprising amount of free time.

Has Britain ever been more divided?

There is no competition at the top where 'safe seats' are exchanged as pawns in a political game and favours turn into name-on-the-letterhead directorships. How much real competition in their in that world where Rifkind is the father of The Times columnist Hugo and, according to Wikipedia, related to Leon Brittan as well as being second cousin once removed of DJ Mark Ronson. What are the chances of that? Nobody I know (or I'm guessing you know) is once, twice, or even thrice removed from DJ Mark Ronson or, for that matter, MP Malcolm Rifkind.

And that is the sad reality that belies the talk of cleaning out the Commons and making politics honest. If there's a stink, it's not the stink of Rifkind's perceived greed. It's not even the stink of a system in which men like George Galloway claim to be there for the people but the evidence suggests he's really in it for himself. Frankly, I don't blame him. The stink is of a system in which an establishment treats the rest of the nation as minimum wage fodder. It's a nation where the highest office in the land is occupied by  the 5th cousin, twice removed of the monarch. It's where life has so much potential but only to a potential few. Malcolm Rifkind was the very least of our problems.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Cartoon: The Porn Tories

I'm both ashamed and pleased with today's cartoon. I don't really care if people like it or find it disgusting. Last night, I think I finally accepted that blogging is a game for celebrities. Unless you're one of the very lucky people to strike gold, hard work amounts to nothing. I might as well give up. Today I feel more dejected than ever. If four blog posts from a TV news editor (albeit the best one there is) can get 3,500 page views after two days of blogging, then what chance do I have? Even if I work another 10 years, blogging every single day, I'll never hit those figures. So, sod it. Perhaps this is my swan song and it's a fitting one if that's what it is.

For what it's worth: the genesis of the idea was an interview given by the 'Honourable' Jacob Rees Mogg to Conservativehome. In his words:
“We talk about being progressive. We’re not progressive. We’re conservative. We don’t believe in changing things that don’t need to be changed. And so I think language is very, very important, and that we have thought the language of the Left is cuddly, and that therefore people will like it. Actually what’s happened is it’s made it very difficult to explain why we’ve done the good things we’ve done. Which are actually much more cuddly than what the Left does, because they actually improve people’s lives.

The first part is true. Conservatives are reactionary and, in that sense, I guess I'm a conservative at heart. I don't like change. I don't like radical governments. However, that's precisely why I dislike the current government. They're radical and delight in being radical. They take such a masochistic delight in austerity that it sounds almost pornographic. It is, of course, that same old 'New Toryism' which has never been called 'New Toryism' and is usually called Thatcherism. Had her governments been called the 'New Tories', the newness might have died by now. As it is, it was called Thatcherism  and Thatcherism was as ideological and radical as anything that's has come from the political left in the past half a century. Mogg's words could have easily been spat out by the High Priest of Thatcherism, Lord Tebbit. It's constantly about 'improving people's lives' and yet the society it has created (and would like to further create) is one in which we pay through the nose for everything or we do without. Competition in everything means a rush for cheapness with the greatest profit at the end. I think it's been to the ruination of our country. We've exchanged a nation of great libraries for a nation of Premiership footballers.

It got me thinking about the Tories and the personalities involved. A criticism that can be levelled at Tony Blair and (for that matter) David Cameron is that they are both bandwagon politicians. They respond to headlines and seek to be liked. In that sense, I don't see Cameron as a traditional Tory or even a Thatcherite. I don't believe he's really much of conviction politician. It's why he's not in this cartoon. Few in the Tory Party share his need to be liked. He is the personable figurehead of a party that seems to take a perverse delight in being perceived as the 'bastards in blue'. Some ham it up for the cameras or for their electorate who seem to take pride in electing hardliners who'll personally spend their mornings hammering matchsticks up prisoner's toenails. Other appear to believe in their self-created monster. It's a strange kind of machismo; a warped version of Margaret Thatcher's already twisted personality. She tried to out-man the men and now, I think, politicians that have been inspired by her, share a strange compulsion to a hyper-masculinity. Drawing this cartoon, I was inspired by a particularly grotesque image of Thatcher by Gerald Scarfe. He gave her a raging erection. I think most modern Tories are desperate to have the same. It's up to you to decide how they measure up.

Saturday, 21 February 2015


Well, that's it! The scale of my incompetence is astonishing. Tim Marshall has been blogging for three days and he is already boasting of 3,500 page views for just five blog posts. I've been blogging 10 years, with 1414 posts here alone (countless thousands more on my other blogs) and my page views are a depressingly small fraction of that.

Is that the simple power of celebrity, I wonder? Beginner's luck? Or simply that he's writing about things that interest people whilst I write about things that interest almost only me?

All I know is that it is another reminder to find pleasure in something other than the numbers and a small degree of relief in knowing that no matter how disgusting I make my next cartoon, no bugger will be looking at it. Ha! The very depths of cartoon depravity here I come!

Meanwhile, do check out Tim Marshall's website. It is good and deserves the visitors. Just wish he wouldn't bloody boast about it, though...

A Brief Aside About Gerald Scarfe

In his books, Gerald Scarfe draws grotesquely turgid masterpieces of scatological detail. It's something you tend to forget if you take in his work via the pages of The Sunday Times or (as is my preferred option) via his weekly email. I'm not saying that they've become 'safe' but the last cartoon of his to really cause a real stink was, I believe, his picture of Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall in which Palestinians were trapped in blood-coloured cement. There's an excellent article about the cartoon here but I think it's correct to argue that the affront taken by many had nothing to do with the content of the cartoon. People were simply offended because he hadn't taken the side of Israel's Prime Minister. They were more offended by his politics than they really were by the content of the cartoon. Before that, Scarfe's previous 'outrage' might have been his draw of Prince Charles as Camilla's tampon, which is more in his usual line of sending his subjects to the arse end of humiliation.

The irony not lost to Scarfe fans is that neither are examples of his 'brutal' best. Thumb through any of his collections and you'll quickly find drawings that are more savage. Nixon, Heath, Thatcher, Blair: he attacked those four targets with particular relish and you can usually tell when Scarfe has a particular axe to grind. He learns to draw a face in shorthand form. The most obvious example is Nixon. Scarfe's Nixon drawings quickly move away from simple representation. He deconstructs (a bit of a plodding word but useful here) the faces, reducing features to their most code-like form. Nixon became drooping jowls. Heath was a long nose tapering out to nothing. Thatcher was an arcing nose and rat-like teeth. Blair was soon just the teeth and mad eyes. In comparison, he treats Netanyahu to a fairly standard caricature.

I can't help but find the difference between caricature and some kind of formal shorthand one of the most interesting areas of the subject of caricature. Not all caricaturists do it or are probably capable of doing it. If caricature is the subject of a degree course then what Scarfe does is really a doctoral study in advanced facial reductionism.

Reducing political figures to shapes is one act of brilliance but what I admire the most is his ability to reduce them to down to their sheer animalism. One of my favourite Scarfe drawings is his picture of Margaret Thatcher shitting out the remains of Ted Heath who sits on the floor, his pinched face reduced to a newly squeezed lump.


I wonder if Scarfe ever drew a character more in love with shitting than he did Thatcher, who can also be seen shitting out a brown mess that's the shape of modern Britain.


That one picture alone is the best summation of the last half century of British history since nearly all Tories are essentially Thatcherite Tories. They aren't Tories of the pre-Thatcher era. They aren't even conservatives in the traditional sense of being conservative. True conservatives hate ideology whereas the modern Conservative Party is obsessed by ideology and by the Thatcherite ideology in particular, that reduces the rest of us to barely thinking animals born to service a few with the balls to risk all, gamble high, and become supremely powerful.

As far as I know, there's no single volume collecting all of Scarfe's Thatcher-era cartoons, though I'd be the first in the queue to buy one if there was. In the meantime, I have a few examples to study and pour over. If I could get a fraction of Scarfe's anger into my own cartoons, I can't help but think they'd be better for it.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Listening to other people's conversations

Thanks to a signal failure outside Manchester Victoria, it took two hours to get home after an already tiring day. My ankles are killing me. I'm too exhausted to write anything long except to relate the highlight of the trip: sitting on the station around 11am this morning after doing a hike to the hospital and back. I was there fifteen minutes early so I sat in the shelter with my Samsung Note and continued to draw an increasingly pornographic caricature of J.C. Mogg. A man and a woman were also in the shelter and provided ample entertainment. I swear that the following is an accurate transcription of part of their conversation because I stopped drawing to take notes as the discussion developed. As you read this, imagine me sitting to one side and wanting to shout 'Stop! Everything you're saying is wrong!' However, I didn't. I just took notes.


Man: See that Joanna Lumley on telly last night? She seems to have aged suddenly...

Woman: Oh, didn't she sing that James Bond song? You know the one from the 1970s?

Man: Oh aye. Man With the Golden Gun. Rodger Moore wasn't it?

Woman: Yes.

Man: Not the best James Bond.

Woman: No, that was Pierce Brosnan.

Man: They say Daniel Craig is the new Sean Connery but I think Sean Connery was the best Bond along with that Australian. George Lazenby.

Woman: Oh wasn't he in that spoof James Bond film? I didn't like that one.

Man: Did you know that was the longest James Bond film they've made so far?

Woman: When's the new film out?

Man: Next month.

Woman: Next month? That soon?

Man: Oh aye. They finished filming it a while back. Of course, we've got to wait until next year to see the new Dad's Army film.

Woman: Oh I saw they were making that.

Man: Doing a good job too. They've got everything right. They've got the costumes right.

Woman: Really?

Man: And you know what they've also got right?

Woman: What?

Man: Walker's moustache.


I think that's worthy of a caption on the posters when the new Dad's Army film is released. 'Now with authentic Walker's moustache'. Personally speaking, I wasn't intending to see the new Dad's Army film until I'd had it confirmed about the state of Walker's moustache. Now I know Walker's moustache is in the film and looks just like Walker's moustache, I'm marking it down in my 2016 diary. 'Must see the new Dad's Army film. Must also pay extra special attention to Walker's moustache'.

Yes. I'm tired.

Odd Thoughts

I'm writing this late Thursday to appear early Friday in order to say that I'm not here. I have the same errand as yesterday to run (bike ride, train journey, hike to the hospital) but then I'm heading into Manchester to escape my troubles, perhaps by hiding in Waterstone's on Deansgate where I'll buy nothing and my favourite cafe up on the third floor where I might have a coffee. I might also go and stand in PC World and spend ten minutes sighing amid all the techno glossiness beyond my means to buy but not beyond my dreams to look on with great longing. [Incidentally, why does useful technology never get cheaper but useless technology is always affordable?]

I've been working on another Jacob Rees Mogg cartoon, proving that I am indeed engaged in an academic exercise. What do painters call those? A study, perhaps. A study to see how twisted I can take the theme. If I've had chance to finish it, it might appear today. If I get it looking anything like it appears in my depraved mind, it's quite disgusting. I hope nobody approves.

Still on the subject of J.R. Mogg, I've been reading some of his articles thinking it might give me a clue about the man and I was struck and, indeed, surprised by his leaden prose. It has the same clipped cadence as his spoken language; his clauses so measured and clean that they might be presented as a model of good English. That does not mean it's great writing or even on the path to great writing. Rather, it's the English of somebody who had the finest education that money could buy but no natural ear for phrase building. The effect is arid and nullifies the generation of thought. It's articulate but humourless and utterly without joy. No wonder he loves to quote poetry. Long experience has taught me that people who quote poetry the most are usually those with the least poetry in their souls.

Good to see Ballotelli score again. I like Ballotelli, even though I've lost interest in football. Ballotelli has poetry in his soul, though I doubt if he could quote a line from Shelley. I'd be sad if he left in the summer. He's never been given a proper chance but sacrificed, like a few others, before the alter of Brendan so the media might not blame the new God of Anfield.

Why are some people so rude? I offered to help somebody yesterday and I didn't even get a thank you. Saying 'thank you' is apparently falling out of fashion.

I suspect that Putin isn't mad as much as European leaders were naive to assume they could extend NATO to the Russian border without the Bear eventually showing its teeth. I'm no apologist for Putin but it's interesting to note that the Cuban Missile Crisis has always been blamed on Soviet aggression when they moved missiles into America's 'back yard'. Now we've done the same to Russia, the result is hardly surprising. Sad, despicable, but certainly not a surprise.

After an initial blip of success, attempts to monetise this blog have come to naught. I'm not going to rattle the tin but, please, if you're going to buy anything from Amazon UK, could you do so by using the box in the top right corner of the blog. It costs you nothing but I do get a little commission which will help a lot when the Russians turn off the gas.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Connoisseur of Ordure

Not having a great day. Just spend two hours travelling to the 'local' hospital. It was bike ride, a train journey and then a good walk simply to help my sister out in an emergency. Coming back, I couldn't face the walk so I hopped on the bus to take me the couple of miles back to the station. Cost £2.10 to go just one stop, which should be criminal if it weren't merely symptomatic of our wonderful nation. I read yesterday that Tories in Wandsworth tried as recently as 2011 to charge children £2.50 to use a playground. You'd weep if it didn't make you so bloody furious.

To make matters worse, the headphone jack of my Samsung Note tablet has bust. I was trying to break the monotony of the journey by listening to the audiobook of Christopher Hitchen's Portable Atheist. I could barely make out what was going on. I had cracking in one ear and silence in the other. Feeling pretty heartbroken. My Note is my right hand. I listen to music on it as I draw on it when I'm not reading books on it, web browsing on it, or playing Boom Beach. Now I'll have to do everything in silence.

Today's cartoon: it's probably nasty, distasteful, cheap but it's really not as nasty, distasteful or cheap as I feel about its subject. I actually sat long and hard last night trying to image the most vulgar drawing I could attempt. Nothing quite worked and I was sadly left with this which is far too gentle. I might try again. There's a whole well of anger from which I've barely supped. I'm treating it as an intellectual exercise in how to draw the morally bankrupt.

The problem of working digitally on the Note is that there's no facility to really throw ink around. At my desk, I'd probably try to emulate the wonderful chaos of a Steadman drawing by throwing ink at the page from a distance of six feet. Sitting on a railway station, drawing on a small 10 inch screen: everything is too controlled. Too clean. I really wanted to convey how angry I felt after watching the Michael Cockerell documentary and seeing Mogg, a truly ugly stretch of sanctimonious malevolence, strolling around Westminster and getting in the way of real politicians who are there to help people.

Who is Kate Emms?

Yesterday I wrote about my love of the new Michael Cockerell series, 'Inside the Commons', and doing so, I mentioned that the stars of the series are the people who do all the heavy lifting at Parliament. One of those people is Kate Emms, Clerk in charge of Private Members’ Bills. Well! No sooner had I posted her name than the hits started to come in. Across the nation, people were searching for Kate Emms. Nobody was searching for the politicos. Nobody was even searching for George Clooney, despite my cartoon of yesterday. No. The zeitgeist mob were clamoring for news about Kate Emms which now leads me to wonder: who is Kate Emms? Is this the same Kate Emms who is the Clerk in charge of Private Members’ Bills? Or is there a Kate Emms who perhaps sings backing vocals for One Direction? Is there a Kate Emms who is in Towie (I have no idea what that word means, if it's spelt right, or used correctly and, frankly, I don't want to know). Anyway, if there's a different Kate Emms I don't know about but perhaps invented stretch nostrils or haptic cheese, please put me out of my misery in the comments. I'd really like to know.

Incidentally, this isn't my proper blog of the day. My routine has been broken because I have to dash out in a few minutes. I have a Jacob Rees Mogg cartoon nearly finished which I'm both proud to have drawn and greatly appalled by. I might post it later if I get work finished. Then I'll try to write something significant.

In the meantime, if you're looking for some interesting reading, check out Tim Marshall's new post over at 'The What and the Why' about the politics of the Baltics. Good stuff from a very promising new website.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Hello Tim Marshall, Thank You Michael Cockerell, Goodbye Jacob Rees Mogg

Before I get to the meat of today's blog, I should point you in the direction of a new website, TheWhatandTheWhy, which is the site of Tim Marshall's re-emergence into the world. You might have read my original piece about why I thought Marshall was the last good reason to watch Sky News, my vow to start a letter campaign, or the forlorn attempt  that Stan Madeley made to persuade 'Harding the Hack' to hire Marshall over at the BBC. Well, none of that went well but there is a new website and it contains enough words and video to get the heart racing. I don't understand what the hell is happening in the Ukraine but I feel a lot better knowing that Tim Marshall is around to explain the parts that make a little sense.

Speaking of chaos, I drew today's cartoon really late last night after watching Michael Cockerell's documentary about the House of Commons. I couldn't sleep. My mind was restless. I didn't want to draw cartoons that other people like. If I'm honest, I don't really like that type of cartoon I know I should be drawing if Private Eye are ever to buy one. It was late, I was angry, confused, thoughtful, so I resorted to type. I drew something for which there was be an audience of one. I don't know why George Clooney with a peg-leg amuses me but does there always have to be a reason?

I sometimes wonder how many people share my sensibilities. I cannot, for example, understand why there weren't riots when Tim Marshall left Sky News. Nor do I understand why Cockerell's series isn't a cause of national celebration. The series just gets better with each episode and convinces me that I'm utterly addicted to politics.

It's been such a sublime experience. The series has never once felt like it's pushing an agenda. The narrative feels supremely balanced, despite every step in the process of documentary production being in some sense editorial. Yet it's to Cockerell's credit that none of this feels directed to an end. There are no tricks on show. No sly camera movements or clever editorial juxtapositions by which a cut implies a whole new level of meaning. It's a programme that genuinely feels like it's watching but not intruding. Anything else is left to the reader to intuit. Was David Cameron being genuinely kind when he stopped to congratulate a politician who was being interviewed for the cameras or was Cameron being typically calculating knowing the cameras were on? In this household, that's a debate that raged for a week and countless replays. (The consensus is that it was the latter.)

Perhaps it's the way age gathers memories into ripe bundles but the BBC always seemed to make TV this good back when it wasn't racing with 200 other channels to find the lowest common denominator. Next week is, sadly, the last episode. It will be missed. It will, however, have a legacy and I can sense what that legacy will be after only three episodes. I already have a renewed faith in some politicians and, especially, the people behind the scenes. The series has been best when it followed the clerks as they laughed at the incongruities of the system. Conversely, the series had done nothing to lessen my hatred of party politics and, in fact, has in many respects confirmed it. The greatest threat to the parliamentary system are the big party machines which erode the significance of the individuals working to benefit their constituents. The greatest hope to the parliamentary system are the individuals who refuse to submit to the party machine and continue to work for their electorate.

In that sense, my suspicion of party politics is balanced by a new admiration I've found for the people who work in the system. The real stars of the series are people whose names you might not remember for long after the series ends. It's people like Kate Emms, Clerk in charge of Private Members' Bills at House of Commons, and Sir Robert Rodgers, the Clerk of the House, who announced his retirement in the first episode. If there is a message from the series, it seems to be one that affirms the believe that the system is safe in these people's hands.

Beyond the unexpected stars, the biggest winners are individual politicians. Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham, suffered an inauspicious introduction in episode one ('I need a wee' she said, ushering the camera crew out of her bathroom) but revealed herself to be the kind of MP I'd want fighting on my side. I never expected that. I was expecting to dislike her but found myself very quickly warming to her. It perhaps says something about our distrust of politicians but, over the first three episodes, I never expected to see so many MPs spending so much time working on the behalf of others. That was an almost spiritual revelation.

At the same time, the series has also show me how much a few MPs seem to work on behalf of nobody but themselves. I've spoken to a couple of people about this and they've both backed up an observation I made which sounds party political but it really isn't. I don't particularly dislike Tories any more than I dislike Labour supporters or Lib Dems. My mind doesn't run down such well worn ideological grooves.  Yet saying that, Tories have not come out well from the series. With the single exception of Peter Bone who was featured in last night's episode, many of the Tories came across as either self-promoters or wide-eyed ideologues. And as much as I find myself reassured that we have a system that's outdated and retains many anachronisms, there is one anachronism I don't feel in any way reassured by. It is the anachronism who calls himself Jacob Rees Mogg.

This morning I was talking to my sister about last night's episode and she made a remark which I thought was telling. She's more interested in the day to day workings of politics than me yet she is nowhere near as cynical or hard-bitten. Yet even she found Mogg too much to bear. 'It's like he's never had to struggle for anything in his life!' she despaired. 'Everything seems to have been handed to him on a bloody plate.'

Last week's episode was a perfect example. Mogg was filmed filibustering a Lib Dem's private member's bill that would have protected the poorest in our society (particularly the disabled) from cuts to their housing benefits if they were deemed to have 'surplus rooms'. He first filibustered on the floor of the House of Commons and then again when the bill reached the Committee Stage. Some might admire or find it slightly amusing that he attempts to derail the bill by wasting time, languorously quoting the hymn, 'Our God, Our Help in Ages Past' by Isaac Watts . 'I want to talk about time,' Mogg begins, 'time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away...' MPs looked on in frustration.

It just made me furious beyond measure that the system rewards a man like that. It astonishes me that a man who has lived his entire life in the lap of the establishment, cosseted at Eton and Oxford, earning a second income (allegedly £500,000  since 2010) should play games with people's lives. In what sense can he even understand the plight of somebody living in council accommodation, on a low wage, perhaps with a serious illness? What gives him the right to judge and to block laws which would improve their lives?

My first novel (the one that was going to be published until the publisher was bought up by Harper Collins) was a thinly veiled lampoon of Mogg. Yet even I was left astonished by the depth of his twisted morality. The more you pick apart the Mogg biography, the  more your fingers bleed. The Honorable Mogg is an ex investment banker, the son of the noted editor of The Times and married into one of the wealthiest families in the country. So, naturally, he believes in zero-hour contracts and, according to, any policy that denudes the few protections that give the rest of us a chance to live a moderately tolerable life. For example, the Member for North East Somerset:
Voted very strongly against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability

Voted very strongly for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (which Labour describe as the "bedroom tax")

Voted very strongly for university tuition fees

Voted very strongly for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits

Voted very strongly against equal gay rights

Voted very strongly against smoking bans

Voted very strongly against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices

Voted strongly against slowing the rise in rail fares

Voted very strongly against increasing the tax rate applied to income over £150,000

Voted very strongly against greater regulation of gambling

Voted strongly for restricting the scope of legal aid

For a man who clearly cares so much about correct parliamentary process, Mogg is a walking hypocrisy. This entry in his Wikipedia page says so much: "In December 2014 Rees-Mogg was reported to the Parliament's standards watchdog for speaking in debates on tobacco, mining and oil and gas without first declaring he is founding partner and director of Somerset Capital which has £multimillion investments in the sectors."

I could descend to some found language here but I don't want to demean my argument. My opinion of Mogg has never been lower and, for that, I am so glad that Cockerell was there to educate me.

Ralph Steadman once declared that he was stopping drawing politicians. His website describes it like this:
Finally so disgusted by the antics of those who should be running the country, Ralph decided in 1997 to stop drawing caricatures of politicians. He felt it fed their over-weaning egos and they liked the attention too much. It distracted them from the jobs they had been voted in to do by a long suffering public.

I don't think Steadman is wrong but Cockerell has reminded me why it's important to keep drawing the worst of them. Just a few weeks ago I'd have never thought of this reason. We owe it to the rest of them.

A George Clooney cartoon which I'm not entirely sure I can explain...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

In Other Sphincter News...

There's was story over at The Independent yesterday about a guy who took part in the Carnaval del Toro in Spain over the weekend. The Carnaval del Toro, should you not know or guess, is when they run bulls through the streets and everybody gets to act like Billy Crystal in 'City Slickers'.

Except this year there was one guy who didn't get to act like Billy Crystal. This year a guy was caught by the bull and severely gored. Now, this isn't particularly interesting. It's predictable and I'd even argue that it's not particularly newsworthy. What is interesting is the way The Independent chose to report the story. The sub-headline read:
Mr Miller underwent a three-hour long surgery after being gored multiple times and receiving wounds to his thigh, sphincter and back.

Now, you might want to read that again just in case you missed the key word hidden in the middle. Yes. That's right. He was gored through his sphincter or, to use a less medical term, he caught a horn up his arsehole.

That is a terrible thing to imagine and obviously would be more terrible to experience but I can't help but think that the whole article turns around the word 'sphincter'. It's like the journalists really want to shout 'he caught a horn up the chuff!' but really can't lest they sound callous or lowbrow. Not that it makes a jot of difference. Not one of the comments below the article gave the poor guy even an ounce of sympathy, which I suppose is to be expected. Bull fighting is a brutal business. However, getting a bull's horn up your arse is even more brutal. You have to feel for the guy. I mean: can they even reconstruct a sphincter?

That, when you think about it, is going to be one odd line of business. Does some kid in medical school consciously think they'd like to get into sphincter reconstruction surgery? I guess it's a branch of proctology, which is another thing that often baffles me. When I make a list of things that interest me, the human arse (with a few obvious exceptions) is not high on my list. What motivates a proctologist to get up in the morning? I sometimes can't face a day starting at my computer screen. I can't imagine what life is life for somebody facing a day spent staring at a thing I recently heard described as the 'rusty sheriff's badge'.

But I digress. I hope the guy and his sphincter make a full recovery and finally get to act like Billy Crystal, perhaps with a film to follow. 'Running Scared', perhaps. 'Monster Pink'. 'Anal-yze That'? Maybe even '61*' which isn't so much a pun as a visual joke if you think about it long enough.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Three Obscene Letters For Monday

Funny how three letters make this cartoon pretty obscene but would it be as obscene without the three letters? Perhaps too much to dwell on so early in the week.

It's been a strange morning. I woke up to see the headline on The Guardian that Tony Hart had died. Not a good way to start the day but I was relieved to later notice that the report was an error. He'd actually died over half a decade ago, so that's a relief. We can all cheer up.

Even though he didn't die today but over half a decade ago, I don't see why I can't mention how much I used to love Tony Hart's programmes when I was a kid. My favourite part of the show was the gallery. We'd all sit around and cynically proclaim the better drawings done by parents and give big cheers to the really bad drawings obviously done by university students as a prank. I never sent any drawings in to Tony Hart. Had I been old enough, I'd have probably fallen into the latter category of pranksters. It would never have occurred to me to send an actual drawing. Teachers at school had told me that I couldn't draw so I never tried. Of course, I still can't draw as today's cartoon demonstrates.

I drew today's cartoon because the idea made me smile as soon as it popped out of [blatant plug] The Gag Machine, late last night. However, when it was finished, I realised that it had absolutely no value. Nobody would buy a cartoon like this. It's overdrawn and bestiality is never a popular subject. It was a complete waste of my time drawing it.

Because I've been adding new features to The Gag Machine, I've been drawing lots of cartoons the past week. The beauty of the machine is that I now have more ideas than I can use. However, for once, I'm trying to work in a professional manner. I'm building up a stock of cartoons which I can send to magazines in a last desperate attempt to sell at least one. This 'never sold a single cartoon' tag is beginning to kill me.

Speaking of new features: I've now got the program emailing joke ideas to me. At the moment, I use it as an easy way of transferring ideas between devices but I'm now wondering if I can use it more creatively. Perhaps even automate a twitter feed... Hmm... So many ideas and I have more data to compile. Must get cracking.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

I Don't Care What @Lisagade Says: I'll Never Buy Another Dell

If I were to judge a person's value by how much time I spend watching them on Youtube, Lisa Gade at should rightly be a billionaire. Without fear of contracting myself later, I'd say she's pretty much my favourite internet personality. Over the last few years, she's the only person I listen to when it comes to buying new hardware or, much more likely the truth, lusting over new hardware.

I noticed the other day that she's just reviewed the new Dell XPS 13. She liked it, said good things about it, and did all the things you'd expect in a quality review. It made me sigh a little as I watched the review and realised that I've been going far too long without a working laptop. However, there's no way I can afford a new laptop and, in truth, even if I did have the money, I'd much rather improve my cartooning by upgrading my Samsung Note to a Surface Pro 3. Yet, I do miss writing when I'm away from home and that's how my eyes came to fall on the dark lump of plastic sitting on the shelf.

I'm currently away from home and typing this on a previous generation Dell XPS 13 after spending most of today reviving it.

csm_dell_studio_xps13I'd previously abandoned this laptop for reasons I couldn't recall until I'd reinstalled Windows and started to use it again. I'm about an hour into this renewed relationship and I can say that at this point I'd happily take a divorce. I'd throw it in the bin except it cost me more than I could afford at the time and now I can't afford to replace it with anything better. It also reminds me why I'd be an idiot to ever again trust Dell. Much as I trust Lisa Gade, nothing on this green earth would put the Dell badge back in my lap. Let me explain why.

The Dell XPS 13 1340 is a cankerous boil of a laptop. Worse than that. It's the kind of machine that could leave you with cankerous boils where your wrists have come into contact with its blisteringly hot body. It's a machine that's legendary in the ranks of horrible machines. Reviews on the internet will still say it's a great machine yet you only discover how astonishingly bad it is after a month or so of use, by which time it's too late to get your money back. I should know. I tried to get my money back. Some people argue it had a design flaw in the way the lid opens and blocks the vents at the back of the machine. Other people will tell you that the vents have nothing to do with it and the problem stems from a design flaw inside the machine that restricts airflow. Others simply point out that the graphics chip was one of Nvidia's worse and was notorious for overheating.

I don't really care about the cause. All I know is that I've never owned a PC, Mac or toaster that gets quite so hot quite so quickly. I'm working on the laptop now and my wrists are already hot and sore where they've been resting on the front of the machine. At the back of the machine, it's already so hot that it's not comfortable to touch for more than a few seconds. I bought a thermal cooler to rest it on but the thermal cooler does nothing to improve matters. It just makes more noise. And all this heat and noise is being produced when the machine is in power saving mode and all I'm doing is editing this document in Open Office.

This particular machine has already burnt out one graphics card which I had replaced under warranty after the machine started to issue a smell indicative of melted plastic. I don't know how much longer this current card will last but when it goes, this monstrous heap of junk will be dead and I won't pay to recover it. The whole thing has been an absolute waste of the 800+ of the extremely hard earned pounds I paid for it.

That wouldn't be so bad but the XPS range has always been Dell's top of the range laptops. They're supposed to be the best they can produce and give the best experience. My experience has been one of abject misery. Consider the four laptops I've owned and how useful they've been.

My first was a monster back in the day when laptops were the size of suitcases. It was a brand whose name I can't even recall and the laptop probably weighed more than all my subsequent laptops put together. I wrote all my degree essays on it but it was a nightmare to lug around.

When I finished my degree and moved on to do an MA, I bought the one laptop I've only ever loved. It was an absolutely beautiful tiny Sony VAIO. It was simply the best laptop I've ever owned and, in all likelihood, will ever own. It had a magnesium body and weighed next to nothing. I wrote so much on that small 10 inch screen. I edited at least three academic books on it. I edited countless volumes of a literary journal. I wrote both my MA and my Ph.D. on that machine. I loved it. And then an anthology of romantic poetry (edited by Duncan Wu) fell on it from a high shelf and it was never the same. I was devastated. Utterly heartbroken.

I couldn't afford another quality VAIO so I bought a cheap plastic-bodied Sony. It did its job. I wrote about three books on that laptop including many of the 600+ Stan Madeley letters that become 'Second-Class Male'. I blogged on it for a few years. It was a good machine but when I started to work in Manchester and needed to travel, carrying it started to hurt my back so I sold it and bought this Dell.

On this Dell I've done absolutely nothing of note. I've owned it as long as my original VAIO but it's so unusable to be practically useless. I could have written a couple of books in my downtime had it been usable. But I've not. I can't take it into quiet study rooms in libraries because the fan start spinning and annoyed people begin to look my way. The battery life is so poor that it's pointless taking it to a coffee shop to do a little writing or light web surfing. It's only useful if you're in a noisy environment and near a power supply and you can endure the misery of hot wrists. Just writing this has convinced me that it's going back on the shelf. I notice one is currently selling for £50 on eBay but I'm not sure I could bring myself to wish it on anybody. I should in all honesty just dump it or give it to a charity shop because it's so bad. However, I just can't bring myself to do that. After all: it's my laptop.

All of which brings me to my point. Why are companies are so happy about pissing off their consumers by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge bad products? Dell knew about this problem years ago yet they did nothing to rectify it when I complained. I just got passed between a succession of Indian telesales operators. What would it have cost them to replace it? Since then, I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked to recommend laptops to family members and friends. I've always been the 'go to' guy when people need PC help so I now only recommend Asus and Lenovo, usually based on Lisa Gade's reviews.

Like I say, there's nobody I trust more than Lisa Gade when it comes to hardware reviews but even she can't persuade me to look again at Dell. My wrists are hot. I'm publishing this and shutting this machine down. Not sure I'll ever find a reason to turn it back on.

EasyAcc Hub and Docking Station Review

[I never get asked to review hardware, which has always been something of a disappointment given the years I've been writing this blog and professing my love for technology. However, my zero offers in ten years record was broken last week, though not via this blog. An offer came through via Amazon. Somebody must have realised that I own and love my EasyAcc USB Hub, which I've written about before. If it's possible to love a lump of plastic and USB ports, then how I feel about my hub is love and erotic love at that. It's been depressing the number of USB hubs I've owned that broke after a couple of months. So, last October, I finally invested a birthday voucher into a quality hub and I haven't regretted it. It sits on my table like the obelisk in 2001. It's a thing of beauty to behold, pumps out plenty of power, and controls everything without any trouble. Unlike previous hubs, I never have to unplug my Wacom tablet to wake it up. It just works. 

Anyway, EasyAcc sent me one of their new hub/docking stations and this is my review with an unpacking video. I won't be posting the video to Amazon because, as always, I hate the sound of my voice and I also make a few mistakes in it. The unit has 3 standard USB 2.0 ports, not four like I initially guess. Also, I didn't know that TF means MicroSD. You learn something new every day.

The only part of this I'm not sure about is giving it a score. It seems self evident that I'd want to give it 5 out of 5, which makes it really difficult to give it 5 out of 5, despite my genuinely liking this hub. This reviewing business is not as easy as it looks...]


I currently own an EasyAcc C72 Smart USB hub and I can happily say that it's been the best USB hub I've ever owned. So when EasyAcc gave me a chance to review one of their new Hub / Docking Station, I was cleaning a space on my desk before the email had left my outbox.

It arrived in EasyAcc's usual green non-nonsense packaging. The unit feels particularly nice to touch, with a slight rubberised texture, and is a sniff wider that 13cm, meaning it's wide enough to hold my 10.1 inch Samsung Note without danger of it sliding off. It's 7cm deep which, again, provides a fairly stable base but more about that later.

It came with one short standard USB cable and another short ribbon cable with a micro USB plug on the end. There were no cables to connect to an iPad. The power supply was reassuringly sizable and not the usual plug adaptor. A short two pin power cable runs to the brick, which means it doesn't take up too much space on my crowded extension block.

The unit itself comes with a single USB port to connect to your PC and three standard USB 2.0 ports. There are two additional ports colour coded to indicate they are higher powered. One is a 'fast charging' port and provides 5V at 2.4A and the other a 'charging port' which delivers 5V at 1A. It also comes with two slots (one SD and another TF meaning it takes cards with the MicroSD form factor) but since I have no use for them (and no cards to try in them), I haven't reviewed them. The unit is switched on via a simple in/out button on the back. When powered the unit has a single pinpoint of blue light on the front. Personally, I'd have preferred the light further away from the screen but that's probably a personal preference and you soon forget to notice it.

The design of the unit means that you're meant to feed the short USB cable through the small gap at the base of the unit and then plug it into your tablet or phone which can rest on the unit as it charges. That's a nice idea though in practise I found it a bit fiddly. It might be a flaw with my Note, which connects snugly to some USB cables and too loosely to others. I couldn't get a good connection and it was fiddly to lower the tablet onto the stand whilst retaining a connection. Again, this might just be a problem with my tablet and my clumsy fingers.

However, this 'problem' reveals what I think is the unit's best feature. It doesn't demand that you use it in a particular configuration. I quickly realised that it was much more useful to me to use the station without trailing the cable through the gap. I tend to use my Note upside down due to the placement of the home button, which I prefer at the top. So, thus far, I've been standing my tablet on the unit upside down. This is ideal but brings me to my only criticism. Unlike the Smart Hub which is heavily weighted to ensure it is very stable, this docking station isn't provided with any additional weight. With my tablet inverted, as I like to use it, pressing the home button can rock the station back. I have to support the tablet whilst pressing the button. This is really a very minor quibble but seems strange given that a benefit of their weighted USB hub is that it is rock solid. When holding an expensive tablet, it would have been a great bonus to have a stand equally firm on its footings. That, however, is a case of looking for problems rather than identifying a real issue. Similarly, like every docking station I've ever owned, the groove in the EasyAcc's base doesn't accommodate my tablet in its current case. Again: not really a problem but something that might be worth considering before you buy.

Regarding the other features. I've used this as a USB hub with no problem. It connected to my Windows 7 PC with no fuss and I even daisy-chained it to my EasyAcc Smart Hub which, for me, is ideal.

I've tried quite a few docking hubs over the years but this is a vast improvement over any I've owned. I've made room for it on my hugely overcrowded desk and that, really, is the highest compliment I can give it. I'd recommended it if you want a flexible docking station that adapts to your needs and doesn't force you to jam your tablet onto a fixed fitting which usually end up breaking after continued use. I could quibble about the weight but is it enough to make me give it only four stars out of five? I think that would be too harsh for a hub that suits my needs just about perfectly.

5 / 5.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Modern Love

Not much time to blog today but a quick slice of life in the form of something I heard about half an hour ago. Builder parked in our town talking to a friend in a van parked next to him. Youngish type. He shouts, boastfully.

'Couldn't be arsed buying her a card so I threw three hundred pound at her and said treat yourself.'

In other news: Happy Valentines Day.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Lulu Conundrum

So, I'm sitting here looking at my website visitor statistics when this pops up.



Somebody out there is asking the most interesting questions. I never knew that Richard Madeley didn't like Lulu. I tried to ignore it but then I began to wonder myself why Richard Madeley doesn't like Lulu. What possibly reason could he have for disliking her? I didn't want to search for it but I found that I must. And that's when I found this:



There, indeed, it states that Richard Madeley doesn't like 60s pop sensation Lulu. I never knew...

Unfortunately, I wrote that myself and I've become victim of my own hoax, which proves, yet again, that the Internet really is a small place and it's very easy to find yourself looping back to pick up the scent of your own weird obsessions.


Friday has come around so quickly. I've spent the majority of the past week trying not to succumb to the heavy cold that started last Friday. Thankfully, yesterday seemed to the point at which it turned and I began to feel in the mood for chewing stones. It probably accounts for yesterday's long rattling post which has been read/viewed/glanced over, so far, by about three people. Time and time again I wonder: why do I bother?

I know why I bother. I enjoy writing, which is why I'm so saddened by the terrible new that David Carr, the New York Times journalist, has died. Like many people, I became a fan of Carr after watching the sublime documentary, 'Page One: Inside the New York Times'. What attracted me to Carr was that he was genuinely acerbic, a quality that I think is disappearing from our media. His wasn't the kind of facile nastiness that passes for character these days. He wasn't of the 'shock jock' style of reporter. His was a bile drawn from life's experiences and conveyed the same authenticity and anger which was so evident in his writing. Seeing the headline announcing his death over at The Guardian, I groaned audibly. So rare that I do that. It's a really sad day for journalism.

It's strange how I find myself become more invested and interested in proper journalism. My week has slowly become more informed by the better type of journalist, many of whom I actively seek out to read or watch. Perhaps it's simply because we're approaching a general election that my political antenna are twitching. Last night I drew cartoons whilst watching Question Time, The Week in Politics, and The Daily Show. It's my favourite night's viewing but it saddens me that is comes around only once a week.

It's strange how little original TV I watch. The last week's 'new' TV amounted to:

Real Time With Bill Maher
The Daily Show
Michael Cockerell's 'Inside the Commons' (so so good)
Question Time
The Week in Politics

Beyond those shows, I watch repeats of things I've seen before. I need to find myself a source of documentaries or start to read more good books. I draw too much. Write too much. Absorb too little.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

A Defence of Peter Molyneux

petermolyneux1The world is a pretty uncompromising place. Yesterday Eurogamer published a story which has caused quite the stir in the gaming community. It's also the kind of general interest story you can expect to see hit the national newspapers in a couple of days. It's a story about greed and ambition, money and fame, as well as that perennial British favourite: the satisfaction of seeing a man beaten by his dreams. I won't say too much about the content of the story which is worth reading in its entirety. However, in prĂ©cis: in 2013, a Scottish student won a competition run by the company 22 Cans. The prize was to play 'god' in an upcoming game in development at the company. The game is called Godus and it is the brainchild of gaming 'legend' Peter Molyneux.

What happened subsequently is a case study of how business and nerds rarely make for happy bedfellows. The winner was taken to the studios where he was treated pretty indifferently, largely ignored during a subsequent pub session and, when he returned home, the company did little to communicate their plans for him. He has yet to become 'god' in their game or get the 1% of profits that he was promised would change his life. That, however, is just one element of the story. Of more concern is the story of the game itself which raised £526,563 through Kickstarter and which has yet to realise some of the ambitions its developers had promised. The whole thing has now descended into a sustained campaign against Molyneux himself but that, in itself, is hardly surprising.

There are not many big names in UK games development but, I guess, Peter Molyneux OBE is the biggest. He made some extremely popular games in the early days of home computing. His company, Bullfrog, made Populus, Syndicate, Black and White, Magic Carpet and, best of all, Dungeon Keeper. He then became part of the Microsoft empire and was behind the Fable franchise before he grew tired of being part of that corporate world and decided to open his own independent studio, which is how 22 Cans came into being.

Yet the key thing to know about Molyneux is that he's not a programmer. He's not a true geek like John Carmack or even Bill Gates. Molyneux is a game designer and he has a fertile imagination that is only matched by his gift for self publicity. He doesn't make the things happen through code. He decides what things should happen and inspires artists and programmers to make that real. He is also a good speaker and can talk at length about the ideas he has for a game. It often means that when he speaks, he's talking about his vision rather than finished product. I recollect getting excited by his early vision for Fable when he talked about planting acorns anywhere in the world and how that acorn would grow to become a tree. It was meant to be a symbol of gaming freedom in a emerging world. He excitedly told us that the game world would be organic and respond dynamically to our choices. He was probably the first person talking about 'emergent gameplay' before emergent gameplay became the 'next big thing'.

The finished game was, of course, nothing like that but a pattern had been established. From thereon, anybody who knew of Molyneux's reputation, expected to be as excited by his vision as we'd be underwhelmed by the finished result. At launch, we would shrug our collective shoulders and try to appreciate what he had achieved. Fable and its successors weren't bad games. They were possibly even great games. However, they were never quite as groundbreaking as Molyneux had hoped or had hyped.

Molyneux's habit of over promising and talking too much has become a running joke among gamers. In the past, he's largely got away with it. Possibly the most famous example was 'Project Milo', a game in development for the XBox 360 in which the user could talk and interact with a child on the screen. It was hailed as a step forward in the way that users would interact with artificial intelligence. I remember watching videos of Molyneux talking in that slightly hushed way he has about the brilliance of the Kinnect system, Microsoft's new method of controlling the console through gestures and voice control. I also remember feeling enormously underwhelmed. I wrote at the time that I expected Kinnect to fail and I knew enough about AI to know that the world that Molyneux promised was at least a decade away.

And so it proved. The game was never published and is now described as a 'technical demo'. Microsoft foolishly gambled on Kinnect, making it central to the XBox One but only to dump it at the side of their XBox roadmap. If Windows 8 wasn't the biggest mistake in Microsoft history, that honour would definitely belong to Kinnect of which Molyneux was one of the early and most vocal advocates.

In a sense, then, the current shit storm has been a long time coming. This morning the gaming sites were filled with articles attacking Molyneux. The reader comments below the articles aren't as gentle. He's the subject of criticism ranging from the valid to the typically buffoonish ad hominem attacks by internet trolls who have never achieved anything in their lives but are quite happy to dismiss a man's career as though it were at best, a folly, and at worst, a well orchestrated fraud.

Yet beyond the typical internet nastiness, there are interesting questions about modern culture and, in particular, the recent culture of the Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is a way for creative people to raise money to make their projects real. Want to launch a new design of household plug? Kickstarter will probably raise the money if you can sell your design and make enough people believe in your dream. Plenty of people have used Kickstarter in the past. More will use it in the future. Many will succeed and (unfortunately) quite a few will fail spectacularly. But that's the nature of the Kickstarter business. That's the nature of business. That's the nature of Nature. We call it evolution, which works because there are more failures than there are successes.

However, there is an inherent problem with the Kickstarter model. It treats creativity as if it were highly predictable. Backers treat it as though they are engaging in a simple Amazon transaction. They pay the money so they expect their product to be delivered exactly as advertised, albeit delayed by a few months as the creator goes away and actually makes the product. In most cases, that's exactly what happens. The most successful Kickstarters usually involve doodads perfected in garden sheds. The money is simply raised so the producers can have that doodad made in large quantities in some Chinese sweatshop. That, however, isn't funding creativity. It's funding production.

Funding creativity is a perilous business. It's why the artist/patron model has never been truly successful since, probably, the Renaissance. Creativity is a very tricky business. It's why so few people attempt to do it. Creativity is about staring failure in the face at every step. It's why blogs usually begin and end with a post that reads 'Hello World' and why novels rarely progress beyond that superbly overwritten first chapter. It's why model kits usually end up as a half completely hull thrown in the bin and stuck to a tube of glue that's already gone hard. Software engineering is no different. For every success there are a hundred, possibly even tens of thousands of failures. Many are small. Some the size of government departments that have swallowed billions of pounds over a decade of mismanagement.

In that context, Godus is already something of a success and a damn sight more successful than 'Yogventures', the sandbox game based around the Minecraft Youtubers, which raised $567,665 on Kickstarter and was never made. Godus is already a game that people can play and some people might enjoy. It might not be the game they were promised by that's the nature of creativity. The people who backed Godus were backing a game made by a man who an established reputation for dreaming big and delivering something that can never be described as 'small', but is certainly smaller than the dream.

The worst offence (beyond the old fashioned rudeness shown to the competition winner) might be simply that of a man blinded by his own enthusiasms. I make no apology for choosing that side of the argument. My sympathy is always with the artist who produces interesting failures rather than the creative eunuchs that sit and throw abuse. Unfortunately, it now seems that Molyneux was singularly unsuited to the Kickstarter system. Previously his critics were third parties with an axe to grind. Now they are investors who demand value for their money.

The Godus problem shows us an important difference between private and public creativity. Great films are rarely written by committees. Most novels are the product of one mind. Show people your half-finished work and the process quickly devolves into rewrites and second-guessing. Bring critics into the development process and they will explain which parts are wrong and demand that you fix them before moving on. In the end, the process of communicating with your critics takes more effort than producing the product.

I hope the latest round of 'told you so-ing' doesn't break either Molyneux or 22 Cans. I liked Godus on both PC and Android. I loved the design and I liked the ambition. I still like the ambition and the only reason I don't play it now is because I want to play it when it's finished. And that is the only question that really means anything in this whole shooting match. Do we trust Molyneux enough to finish Godus?

There I have to say that I believe that we should. He might be eager to move on to dreaming new dreams but he has made enough great games that he should be allowed the chance to prove his critics wrong. This is the first time, I believe, he's been so open about the development of a game. Other companies delay launches or launch late and with obvious bugs. Godus is different. We've seen it grow from build to build and that means we do have a sense that things are messy. Molyneux admits to making mistakes but Kickstarting this project means that those mistakes so very public.

And what if he ultimate does fail? What if Godus never turns into the greatest God game ever made? Then like today, the critics, trolls, and spiteful naysayers will have a chance to have their fun. I, however, think that gaming is better because of men like Molyneux. In a way, his visions are more exciting than the games he produces but that is to his credit. We need people with big ideas, even if it means they're too busy to remember the important things like the competition winners, spoof letter writers* and, yes, even the people who invested money in... Well, I was about to write 'invested in the game' but that's not quite right. People didn't just invest in a game. They invested in the process and they are learning that the creative process is long, rough, at times tedious, filled with argument and passion, and that the results are often flawed. If they don't appreciate that, then they should think more carefully about investing in potential. Their complaints ring as hollow as investors buying penny shares. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. You don't really have a right to complain where you end up. Personally speaking, I love every bump of this rocky road.

* Molyneux was one of the people who never replied to my Stan Madeley letters. His PA was very nice, though.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Goodbye Jon Stewart, America's Next Big Star

Well, that's it then. The world is officially coming to an end. Jon Stewart is leaving 'The Daily Show'.

I'm not sure what to write. I'm a huge fan of 'The Daily Show' and this loss is going to hit me hard, especially in the lead up to the next American elections. I've been watching 'The Daily Show' for the best part of a decade, despite its sporadic appearance on UK schedules forcing me to watch it via (ahem!) 'less conventional means'. Yet if you love satire, then you'd know it's worth the struggle of finding it. For a generation or so, America has been making the best satirical news shows and 'The Daily Show' was the womb from whence the rest sprang. People usually cite 'Saturday Night Live' as the place where American (and Canadian) talent is first spotted but, for me, that accolade should go to 'The Daily Show'. Steve Carell spent five years there. John Oliver found his voice there before hosting his own show on HBO which is a beautiful thing to behold and the current pick of the satirical shows. Stephen Colbert began as a Daily Show regular before spinning off in his own show and is now about to transcend to the biggest nightly show on American TV, when he takes over from David Letterman.

In this context, Jon Stewart announcing his departure is not surprising. If I'm honest, 'The Daily Show' has lost its edge in recent times. Sometimes the writing is weak, the jokes the worst kind of vulgar material not really suited to intelligent satire. Too often it's been an example of the pornogrification of culture I keep writing about. Perhaps Stewart recognises this himself but I wonder what has motivated him to quit. He recently directed his first feature film which has been highly rated. Maybe he thinks it time for him to move to greater things. Yet I'd also understand if he feels a little jaded at seeing the people discovered on his show moving on to greater fame. Colbert now has the honour of following Letterman. Carrell is one of America's best film comedians. Oliver's HBO show is everything 'The Daily Show' should have been. 'This Week With John Oliver' takes aim at a target and does what only the best satire can do: reduce it to a steaming rubble of hypocrisy and filth.

With all that success, it has been too easy to overlook Stewart who, in my opinion, was the best of them yet whose career has not really moved on. Bill Maher you could understand existing in the periphery, enjoyed by a minority who enjoyed the darker horrors that the satirical mind could imagine. Stewart, by contrast, was a bastion of intelligence and wit capable of projecting that solidity into the mainstream. I always believed he was destined to be the next Letterman. That role was never one I imagined for Colbert.

Colbert's show, though fun, was often deeply irritating and I could go weeks not watching it. Playing a mock right-wing host rarely got stale but it was the things that Colbert did around it which I most disliked. He seemed genuinely star struck. I've never quite knew how to think about his use of the deeply controversial Henry Kissinger, who could always be guaranteed to turn up and do a comic turn. Colbert would also promote his own goods in (at first) an ironic way, which became a non-ironic way once the sales started to increase. Getting his audience to push his book to the top of the Amazon charts might be what a real right wing firebrand might do but it sat uncomfortably with the show's underlying liberal agenda. Too often it celebrated the power of the dollar over the power of quality, wit, and independence. Ice cream, children's books, books for adults: there was nothing that Colbert wouldn't sell with his name attached. I often wondered what would have happened if his faux bids to become President had somehow turned real. I could never tell if he genuinely had the ego that would have led him to attempt to carry it off. I just hope a more humble and natural Colbert emerges in the Letterman slot. The worst excesses of the old Colbert won't be an easy to stomach if he attempts to do them as himself.

Meanwhile, I hope 'The Daily Show' gets the host it deserves and some new writing blood can raise its standards. As much as I thought 'The Colbert Show' slot would be in safe hands, I can't find myself warming to Larry Wilmore. It's probably a personal thing but I find his voice deeply grating and too much for late night TV. 'The Daily Show' certainly has a stable of regulars, all of whom could do the job. However, my choice would be Samantha Bee, who has for a long time been the standout performer on the show. This, of course, pretty much guarantees that she won't get the job. I definitely walk where the zeitgeist lies thinnest.

Meanwhile, I'm eager to know what Stewart intends to do next. I'm probably more a fan of the man than the show, so I imagine my viewing habits will change and I'll follow him to wherever he ends up, assuming his future is still in TV and providing it is broadcast here in the UK.  If not, then it's in the lap of the internet gods and I might not get to watch Jon Stewart again. Which makes me again lament that these are sad times. The end of a real golden age of American satire. I wait to see if it's followed by another.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Mojo and Black Eyes

I absolutely hate missing a day's blogging but yesterday my mojo was low. I was also having a pretty bad day. My cold has passed from the sore throat/aching/shivering stage to the stage where I can't hear a thing and my head feels like it's been pumped full of cavity wall insulation. I've also managed to give myself a black eye. I was lifting a box down from a shelf in the shed when a plank of wood slipped and smashed into my right cheek bone. Painful. Really painful.

On top of all that, I guess I was feeling a bit jaded. It's hard not to get jaded by the world and the internet in particular. You put effort into things and hope that you'll hit a pocket of enthusiasm and people will reward you for your efforts. Instead, you tend to hit a pocket of abject indifference or casual hatred. The story that had triggered my 'sod it, I'm not bothering today' mood was over on Eurogamer. If you're not a gamer, please bear with me. It's an interesting story about a guy who runs an online channel devoted to his gaming. He's one of the thousands of people who record themselves gaming and interact with an audience as he does so. Sadly, some people can't appreciate what he's doing or feel a need to harm him for simply indulging in a passion. Some people have taken to playing a sick practical 'joke' on them, though joke is a word completely inappropriate for what they do. Having discovered the broadcaster's home address, they make a call to US authorities and make some huge claim such as it being the home to terrorists. Given that America is currently suffering a terrible militarisation of their police force, the police response usually involves heavily armed men breaking down doors and throwing smoke canisters. This kind of hoax is called 'swatting' and there are quite a few videos online where you can see gamers getting 'swatted'. The video yesterday wasn't of the actual raid but the guy's response to it. I found it heartbreaking.

I found it heartbreaking not simply because of the tears or the drama of his young brother opening a door on men pointing machine guns at his head. It was heartbreaking to think we live in a world when people go out of their way to hurt people who do nothing except try to bring a little pleasure into other people's lives. It reminded me of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. It reminded me of a program I watched recently about the theft of some Van Gogh paintings. It reminded me of that arsehole rapper (I know his name but I refuse to add to his fame by writing it) who tried to steal the limelight from Beck's Grammy award by invading the stage and demanding that the award should go to Beyonce. I suppose in some small way, it reminded me of the trouble I've been having with the Chinese hitting my blog with SPAM.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I intend to get back to things properly. I've no conquered the Chinese spammers by blocking the entire nation from accessing my server. I might even post a cartoon. I've been drawing quite a few recently, simply as a result of my doing a lot of work on The Gag Machine. Every day recently I've been adding new features which have emerged as obvious developments from my own use or as suggestions from the few people who use it and see to like how it helps them. Today I want to publish an update which contains all the new features. After that: I don't know. Prey for traffic and pray for cartoonists wanting to buy my software but, knowing my luck, I'll probably get swatted.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

And speaking of world leaders I'm in the mood to insult...

The Chinese Menace Revisited

I woke up this morning and, as I usually do, made it my first job of the day to check the web traffic. The numbers were quite high or, at least, higher than they've been recently, so I smiled and felt better about the world. A wash, a shave, a spot of breakfast later, I checked again and this time cast my eyes down the list of visitors. I began to wish I hadn't bothered to shave. My visitors were from the UK, then Germany, then China, then the US, then China, then China, then China, the US, China, China, Malta, China, China, the UK, the US, China, China, China... About half of the morning's visitors were from China. They've clearly not blocked me, despite my constant support for a free Tibet and taking every opportunity to mock their leadership. How many times must I mention that Xi Jinping likes to wear pink knitted sweaters and ballet pumps?

I don't have a problem with Chinese visitors reading my blog but I know these hits aren't from real Chinese visitors. Actually, now I come to think about it, I *never* get real Chinese visitors. These are Chinese computers hitting my server for reasons unknown and which makes me suspect that these machines up to no good. I've said it before and no doubt I'll say it again: China is already at war with the rest of the world. It's just that the rest of the world haven't been told by their respective governments.

Even as recently as a few years ago, Chinese SPAM was relatively rare. Russia was the main culprit. The last twelve months, though, China seem to have become the most maleficent force on the internet. I'm beginning to wonder if governments shouldn't actively get together and sever China's connection to the rest of the internet. In the meantime, I'm stuck adding blocks of IP addresses to my website's firewall to block further traffic. I know my statistics will plunge and will make me consider, yet again, quite why I bother writing a blog read by so few people, but this can't go on. The Chinese are playing a terribly cruel trick: they're making me think this blog is almost popular. Those evil devils!

No cartoons today. I've drawn three but now I have The Gag Machine working, I've been churning out good ideas and I intend to send a few off this week to see if I can get any of them published. Until they get rejected, they won't appear on the blog.