"First of all I should say that I agree with davy" - Norman Tebbit. |
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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 20 most recent ones recorded in
Fifty shades of Dave's LiveJournal:
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|Thursday, March 12th, 2015|
|Friday, March 6th, 2015|
|Note to self
The tube of Savlon by the sink is not toothpaste.
|Thursday, February 26th, 2015|
|Monday, February 16th, 2015|
Back when World of Warcraft was new - about 2004-5 - I spent an afternoon playing it on someone else's account to find out what all the fuss was about. I ran about waving a sword, killing goblins and nicking their stuff, and running errands for random bystanders. After a few hours of this I came to the conclusion that WoW was specifically designed to be addictive and I wasn't going anywhere near it again.
The human brain is an exquisitely well-designed reward-seeking machine, and as psychology as a discipline improves we're getting ever-better as ticking those reward boxes in the name of entertainment. Take Pringles, for example. There's a specific set of proportions of sugar, fat and salt in a food which if present makes the brain light up like a christmas tree in a scanner, and Pringles have that combination to perfection. "Holy Crap!", your subconscious says when you eat one. "These things are effin' boss! More!"
And that's why before you know it the entire tube is gone.
WoW, I reckoned, was designed the same way. If you play it in a goal-directed way, you got a little tick or a pat every twenty minutes or so. You go and find the ring of Zognar for the villagers, get some treasure and get a message saying "Well done, Kragnor the mighty! You have saved the village!" and the brain, reward-seeking little machine that it is, goes ping! and gives you some success chemicals which make you happy. Just that little kick, every twenty minutes, but it's enough to get people spending hours, days, even years of their lives pursuing just one more step before logging off and doing something else.
Like I say - knowing myself like I do I went nowhere near it ever again.
It's also this reason I've always reckoned the internet isn't a particularly psychologically healthy place to be - it's a mechanism whereby you can receive instant rewards for pretty much any behaviour you choose. Feeling down? Get hugs. Feeling funny? Get likes. Want to troll? There's bound to be someone who will rise to the bait. And the thing is psychological study after study demonstrates that getting rewards for little or no effort isn't really all that good for you. Despite that, however, it's still great fun.
I've written a few things over the years on here which have gone viral. Possibly the best known is the "British terror alert levels" chain email which still goes round every so often, which I've seen attributed to John Cleese and which I had to have an argument with Snopes.com before they gave me credit
for it. It's an odd expereince, seeing others passing on your own work, often without credit, but I've got to admit it is nice. Addictive, possibly.
Anyway, I have in the past written a few pieces for the satirical news site Newsthump
. North Korea Internet blackout blamed on TalkTalk account
and England world cop pitch treated by the same people who did Rooney's hair
, for example. It was an occasional thing. I'd think of a halfway decent joke, submit it to them and they'd run it if they liked it. A few hundred or a thousand or two people would like it, I'd get that little reward kick, and then I'd get on with my day. That was until a few weeks ago when I submitted Warning that scrapping Page 3 could leave footballers unable to find girlfriends
. They accepted it, posted it, and I thought little enough more of it. Briefly. As what followed was one of the strangest afternoons I've had in a while. Like I say; I'd had stuff go round the internet, but I've never seen it happen in real time.
Within an hour, thousands of people had liked and shared the piece. At one point I was clicking refresh and finding I was getting an average of one 'like' every 2-3 seconds. Then Myleene Klass and Lauren Laverne stuck it out on twitter and it really went a bit nuts. I sat and watched as it racked up over 50,000 likes and shares over the course of a day and the reward centre in my brain went Awoogah Awoogah. It was an insight into the power of mass communication in a social media age and the attention and reaction was, clearly, addictive. I say clearly because I've submitted more to them since then - considerably more in than in the past, trying to catch the buzz again. I've had a few successes - my piece Russia's credit rating is just fine, says last surviving Standard & poor's analyst
didn't set the world on fire in terms of reach, but it made it into the political and economic sphere and was retweeted by Toomas Ilves, the President of Estonia*.
I've written a lot for them over the last few weeks. By my calculations I've been responsible for more than 50% of their site traffic in the last month, which is good as I get paid by traffic, but on the other hand I'm clearly chasing the dragon of internet approval.
The only question is, it's harmless so should I stop? Writing jokes is fun and I'd be doing it anyway. And what should I write instead?
*I can only assume relations between Estonia and Russia are at a bit of a low ebb at the moment.
|Monday, February 9th, 2015|
Way back when I was at school I used to run a Dungeons & Dragons group for some of my friends, one of whom was a known cheat. It's odd the succession of emotions you go through when you realise that one of your group is fudging their dice; first mild disbelief, then annoyance, then nagging irritation finally fading into naked contempt.
As I was about 15 and didn't have the courage to openly confront them or throw them out, I began to arrange adventures so their character never fought anything important. Every time there was a fight, I'd flood him with a horde of peasants so he never got anywhere near the real action; instead he'd carve his way through a succession of worthless adversaries in an appalling conga-line of death, never achieving anything meaningful. By the time I was done there was no point to him turning up any more, and what's more I don't believe he ever even realised the low esteem in which I held him.
I was reminded of this contempt for the people whom I was supposed to be entertaining whilst watching Kingsman: The Secret Service the other day. It starts well enough; a sort of mash-up of Harry Potter and The Avengers or James Bond, in which a street kid from a poor and abusive background is recruited by a secret service of dapper, slightly camp, super-spies and put through a training montage to turn him into a world-saving agent. All the predictable tropes are there: the posh fellow students who try to undermine him - like Draco Malfoy - the helpful father-figure who shows him his potential, the cute posh girl who fancies him as a bit of rough, the overcoming of unexpected adversity and so on. It all passes unobjectionably if unmemorably enough until about halfway through when we're introduced to some baddies.
There are certain rules you need to follow in creating a villain, I reckon. They need to have an objective, so there's a reason the goodies need to go out and stop them. They need to have a motivation for that plan which bears at least cursory examination to allow for suspension of disbelief. They need to be either charismatic so the audience sympathises with their motivations, or loathsome and vile so the audience cheers when they're defeated. And, most important, they need to be a challenge. Otherwise, what's the point? It'd be like Star Trek: Nemesis
where the heroes didn't even need to leave home - the villain would have failed in his plan if they'd all just stayed in bed that day.
And so, about halfway through, we're introduced to a redneck bible-bashin' church full of generally vile racists and inbreds who are promptly slaughtered by the heroes in an appalling conga-line of death. There's no particular reason for this scene to be in the film. It doesn't advance plot, or show character, or anything like that. Instead, as I watched I realise the only purpose this scene - and it's about ten minutes long, I'm not kidding - serves is to pander to what the writers think their audience will like.
I have, in my time, pandered to my audience when I've written stuff. I'm happy to pander for hard cash. But I've never done it in a way which put me so in mind of contempt for the audience which I recognised here.
Don't get me wrong; I like witless carnage as much as the next man, who in this instance was flywingedmonkey
and he likes witless carnage a lot. I genuinely enjoyed Gi Joe: The Rise of Cobra
, which displayed a callous disregard for human life to an astonishing degree because the people making it were obviously having tremendous fun and wanted the audience to enjoy it as much as they did.
But what I don't like is realising that what an author is thinking is "We'll stick in a scene where a bunch of hateful rednecks get butchered by a superspy. No reason, it's just that those morons lap that shit up", and realising that they're thinking it about me.
Twigging this ruined the film for me. It tries to be metatextual and postmodern by throwing in stuff like a conversation between the superspy and the villain about 1960s Bond Films, but in reality it's just lazy, and I reckon it's lazy because the writers don't think they have to try. Stick in some fight scenes, plenty of 2012-era grade CGI effects, lots of stuff culled from other, better fiilms, and a few pop-culture references to paper over the cracks and hey presto you've got a product that the morons will lap up.
There's a book called Writing movies for fun and profit
by the guys who wrote, amongst others, Night at the Museum
, in which they cheerfully admit to have sold out their creative integrity for stone cold cash (a move I fully respect and wish I could get the opportunity to do so myself). Even with this they're pretty clear you have to respect your audience, because they can tell if you don't.
I can't help but think the writers of Kingsman would have done well to take this advice to heart. I've sat through some right old pony in the cinema in my time. Highlander 2. Ultraviolet. Lucy. The Conan Reboot. But Kingsman
is the closest I've ever come to getting up and walking out before a film is over, and that is one hell
of an achievement.
It's not the worst film I've ever seen in the cinema. I doubt anything will ever topple Ultraviolet
from that pedestal. What it is is the most cynical, disinterested and uncaring, and that's worse than just being downright bad. I'd rather watch something awful which someone cared about than something with decent production values that they clearly couldn't give the first toss for. And that's Kingsman
|Friday, January 23rd, 2015|
|I'd buy that for a dollar.
Highlights of the Spring season from the BBC. The Days of Future Pasta
: In an increasingly desperate attempt to come up with a new format in the tired cookery show genre, Mary Berry and special guest star Hugh Jackman are sent back in time to compare cooking in the 1970s to now. Breaking Bagpuss
: When Professor Yaffle is diagnosed with terminal woodwoom, he goes into business with the mice to improve their recipe for Crystal Methodone by adding breadcrumbs and butterbeans. Julia and Ghoulia
: When Julia Childs returns from the grave hungry for human flesh, blogger Julia Powell creates a whimsical bestseller based on her experience of cooking her friends in a desperate attempt to save herself from a ravening zombie.
|Thursday, January 22nd, 2015|
|[Gaming] A coda
My Call of Cthulhu group has finally finished a game we began nine - count 'em, nine - years ago. It was never intended to go on that long, but the tale grew in the telling, as it were.
Anyway, I wrote a coda to the game as a newspaper report over eighty years later, just to show how the survivors ended up. I know some of you lot enjoy reading this sort of thing, so here you go: From The Daily Mail, May 13, 2015. TV Star dead in “horrific” accident.
Television star David Dickinson was pronounced dead at the scene yesterday after an “horrific” accident during the filming of Antiques Roadshow at Chealingham Hall, Cheshire. Dickinson, who was guest starring on the show, died after what was believed to be a piece of avant-garde art was mishandled.
“It was hideous”, said a member of the television crew. “This thing looked like a collection of glass bottles or bubbles all stuck together, so everyone thought it was a sculpture of some kind. Fiona Bruce had picked it up to examine it when it gave off some sort of high-pitched whine and a purple beam came out of the end, hitting David.
“I’m just glad it was all over quickly for him.”
Witnesses described Dickinson as being “reduced to charred and sizzling bones in an instant” before being ushered off by waiting police for counselling.
The object, which was labelled as being a piece by an unknown artist called only “Mi-go”, was part of a collection acquired by the former owner of the Hall, George Chealingham, who died in 1972. His nephew, Arthur, said “When we were small Uncle George used to tell us wild stories about how he’d acquired his collection by wrestling monsters on lonely hilltops and in abandoned tombs. He did have the most wonderful selection of Egyptian and African artefacts, plus old exploring clothes and even an elephant gun which we handed that in to the police after he died. As he got older his stories got wilder, like how he claimed he got the metal plate in his skull after being headbutted by an old woman on a beach in Norfolk rather than on the western front.”
“It never occurred to us that anything apart from the gun he owned might be dangerous.”
Chealingham hall, which is now managed by the National Trust, has been closed to the public until further notice on the instruction of government Technology and Industry Tsar Professor Sir Roderick Glossop, KG. “It’s possible that several old inventions by somebody like Nikolai Tesla might be in the collection which might be dangerous. We need to be sure they’re safe and properly catalogued so they can be studied and possibly displayed in a museum at a later date.
“There’s a library as well?”, added Sir Roderick. “Oh, we’d best take that too. Just to be sure.” About George Chealingham
Although little-remembered, Chealingham was a member of a “Fast Set” during the 1920s before retiring to obscurity. After serving during the Great War he was linked to several wealthy playboys of the Jazz Age including city trader and cricketer Richard Little, who made and lost several fortunes but is best known for prematurely ending the career of Donald Bradman with aggressive fast-bowling during the ‘Bodyline’ tour of 1931, and Arab prince and revolutionary Sheikh Raschid ibn humayd al-Nuaimi, who after a debauched youth was assassinated in Aden in the 1950s. The group had several notorious escapades, including being deported and banned from France after being linked to a gambling and prostitution ring on the Cote d’Azur, being implicated in the "Unhappy Valley" murders in Kenya in 1930, and a case of false imprisonment in a Glasgow lunatic asylum.
|Wednesday, January 21st, 2015|
|The election manifestos in full.
You might not have noticed, but there's an election coming up. As everyone knows, election time is a tremendous time to be on social media - everyone is really friendly and reasonable and puts forth well-argued and polite points of view to support their case. But it's not what polite and reasonable complete strangers on the internet say which will decide things - it's what the political parties will say.
So, using the miracle of time travel, I've popped into the future and looked at what the various election manifestos will say and can now share a precis of the content with you. Conservative
: We've been a tremendously good government, and would have been even better were it not for the bunch of buffoons we were forced into coalition with. Liberal Democrats
: We've been a tremendously good government, and would have been even better were it not for the bunch of buffoons we were forced into coalition with. Labour
: There has never been a Labour government in the past, and so we cannot have ever done anything wrong. No, you're wrong, there hasn't. Don't ask any difficult questions. Er...Tories?UKIP
: We support nationalisation, protectionism, high unemployment benefits, loose monetary policy, a sovereign wealth fund and not liking puffs. God knows how, but we've somehow become the 1970s Trades Union movement. Green
The introduction of our policies would immediately result in a huge recession and a spike in aggressive nationalism. We'd not only deny responsibility for this, but wouldn't even understand it. SNP
: We'd like you to vote for the thing you just voted against. Please don't look at the oil price.
So where will you place your cross?
|Friday, January 16th, 2015|
|Economic thought for the day.
Given that calls for energy price controls six months ago rather neatly presaged the top in energy prices, I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and suggest that as exactly the same people who wanted energy price controls are now demanding rent controls that means the top is in for the london property boom.
|Wednesday, January 14th, 2015|
|Empty Chair declines election debate offer.
In response to suggestions by Labour, the LibDems and UKIP that they would engage with an "Empty Chair" if David Cameron didn't attend pre-election leaders debates, the empty chair has confirmed that it will be too busy to take part.
"I've got better things to do", said that chair in a statement. "Whilst I understand that Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Nigel Farage have plenty of time on their hands, I am very busy supporting the hard-working bums of Britain."
"The chair is frit", said Nigel Farage, tellingly using a turn of phrase which has been archaic for decades. "Frit, I say", he continued, compounding his error. Labour leader Ed Milliband attacked the chair for "not having a leg to stand on", and then was rendered speechless and unhappy when a spokesman for the chair got a loud laugh by responding that it actually had four.
Of the three, LibDem leader Nick Clegg was the most stinging in his rebukes of the chair. "What the voters of Britain need to realise is that we don't need the chair. I have spent five years in government just standing round. I haven't needed a chair in all the years I've spent hanging round outside David Cameron's office hoping for a quick chat about electoral reform, and we don't need one now. So there."
At time of writing the empty chair was reported to be propping a door open, which observers remarked made it more useful and a better candidate for Prime Minister than any of the other three challengers.
|Tuesday, January 13th, 2015|
|Just end. Just. End.
There was a point, about a day and a half into watching Interstellar
, when my arse had gone to sleep and I’d slowly slumped lower and lower into my cinema seat whilst Matthew McConaughey was giving yet another long, meaningful and probably teary-eyed gaze into infinity when I realised that under my breath I was muttering “End. Just End” to myself. It was about then that I decided that Christopher Nolan had lost me as an audience.
Interstellar, I thought, was a perfectly good 100-120 minute film stretched far beyond its natural life, but as well as that it had another, more serious problem. It just didn’t know when to stop. From time to time Matthew McConaughey would give a subtext-laden stare into the distance, and I’d sit up briskly thinking the titles were about to roll and I could go and get treated for Deep Vein Thrombosis when another scene crammed with reflections about life and love and family would start and I’d slide slowly back into the semi-coma from which I’d awoken. The point where I found myself muttering to myself was about 20-30 minutes before it finally ground to a halt and there were still two or three false endings left to go.
The first great example of a film which should have ended and then just carried right on was A.I. about 15 years ago, but for some reason it seems have been a common style in films released over the last year; I went to see into the Woods
the other night, which is okay and in parts quite fun (Chris Pine as Prince Charming is very enjoyable), but it ends and then for some reason carries on for another half hour or so. Similarly Birdman
excellently tells its story, wraps the whole thing up in a neat bow (and it is a good film), and then for no apparent reason carries on for another fifteen or twenty minutes when if they’d had any halfway decent human being directing it they’d have knocked it on the head and given us all an extra twenty minutes in the pub. When Peter Jackson asked Jack Nicholson what he thought of The Return of the King
, Nicholson brusquely replied "Too many endings" and walked off. The Wolf of Wall Street
spends two hours depicting a life of hedonistic 80s debauchery and financial crime and then, as it’s Oliver Stone, he has to make it clear that this is bad and there’s a price to be paid. Unfortunately he feels he has to tell us again and again and again. After a while it’s like being hit in the face by a pillow with “Unfettered greed is bad, Mm’kay?” written on it. Okay once, but after the fifth or sixth time and another 45 minutes of my life it wears a bit thin.
I can’t help but think this is because it’s easier to think of beginnings than endings. A good setup is one of the delights of writing but it’s extremely difficult to give a payoff which justifies a setup which gets your audience thinking “Oh, that’s interesting, I wonder what’s going on here”. I’ve recently been reading some Jack Reacher and Dean Koontz books, and the same problem arises here – great set up, which then just slowly falls into the usual trap of samey denouement with serial killers or terrorists or whatnot.
Most narratives follow a three-act structure – the plot, the chase and the fight (or mix them up, like The Empire Strikes Back
which is ordered the Fight, the plot and the chase), and the conflict/resolution at the end of the structure can feel pat as there’s far fewer ways to do it then begin a plot. You can have a big battle, the baddy arrested, everyone having the argument which makes them realise what they wanted all along is right in front of them, the lead characters winning or losing the battle of the bands/ dance-off, sporting event, and so on, and I wonder if the multiple-ending theme is a result of authors not wanting to use the tried and tested so instead mix them up.
A standard narrative trope might be the hero saving humanity and redeeming himself to his daughter at the same time, whilst at the end of the fight the love interest in clinging adoringly to his leg whilst gazing up seductively. Cue titles. Interstellar
has the humanity saving then
the redemption then
the getting the girl interspersed with lengthy meaningful shots of Matthew McConaughey staring at stuff and it dragged because I’m so used to seeing all of those things wrapped in in one go.
So I understand why filmmakers think they have to mix up endings - there are fewer of them than beginnings - but it's annoying that they feel they have to waste large chunks of my life through their experimentation. My advice would be - when you start to write something, you really need to have a damn good idea of how you're going to
|Monday, January 12th, 2015|
|Things to do in Battersea when you're bored.
Ten years or more ago, as an exercise I kept a note of all the books I read in a year. I came across it a while back and was astounded to discover that I'd churned through over a hundred. Thinking about it, I was very confident that thanks to easy access to the internet and a telly had significantly reduced my reading-time so the year before last I kept a list again, and yes, I was right I hadn't read a hundred this time round. In fact, I'd read fewer than half that and I thought this was probably not great so one of my resolutions for 2014 was a minimum of one book a week, just to keep my hand in.
I failed. In my defense, although I didn't read enough books I did write one* but even so I feel a bit disappointed in myself so my new New Year's resolution is the same as last year. A book a week. What's yours?
If you're interested, here's last year's list:
Alistair Reynolds - Revelation Space
Greg bear - Darwin's Children
Penguin classics - The penguin book of gaslight crime
Alan Dean Foster - Aliens
Julius Caesar - The Civil War
Dean Koontz - Odd Hours
Joyce Tyldesley - Egypt
Anthony Sattin - Lifting the veil
Vita Sackville-West - Passenger to Teheran
Anthony Sattin - The Pharaohs Shadow
Geraldine Pinch - Egyptian Mythology
Ae van Vogt - Destination Universe
Connie Willis - The Doomsday Book
EM Forster - Alexandria
Paul Brunton - A search in secret Egypt
Colin Greenland - Take back plenty
Jerome K Jerome - Idle thoughts of an idle fellow
Gaie Sebold - Shanghai Sparrow
Connie Willis - To say nothing of the dog
Terry Pratchett - Monstrous regiment
Rose Tremain - The Colour
Bill Bryson - One summer, 1927
Nicolo Machiavelli - On conspiracies
Rick riordan - The red pyramid
Geoff Dyer - Zona
Nikolai Gogol - Viy
Tom Bingham - The rule of law
Jerry Brotton - A history of the world in twelve maps
Michael bishop - No enemy but time
Scott Lynch - The republic of thieves
Simon Winchester - The surgeon of Crowthorne
Gyles brandreth - Oscar Wilde and the candlelight murders
Bradley Garrett - Explore everything
Peter F Hamilton - The evolutionary void
Zakhar Prilepin - Sankya
Peter Watts - Blindsight
Antal Szerb - The pendragon legend
Hp Lovecraft - The dreams in the witch house and other stories.
Harry Harrison - Winter in Eden.
Harry Harrison - Return to Eden
Ernest Cline - Ready player one.
Marjorie Bowen - The bishop of hell
*More on that later, hopefully.
|Monday, December 15th, 2014|
|Oh, that's interesting.
After the London Olympics a few years ago I wrote this post
about the use of prosthetics in the Paralympics, and how it's pretty clear they can now outperform natural human limbs in certain circumstances. In the wake of that I got chatting to Someone Who Knows These Things who told me that the thing which has really driven the improvement of prosthetic technology has been wider medical advances, specifically in battlefield medicine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers who twenty or thirty years ago would have been killed by injuries are now being saved but with lost limbs, and this has created pressure in the development of artificial limbs. That got me onto the idea that as artificial limb technology improves at some point in the future they will become electives and that the world is going to be a dashed peculiar place for those of us who'll be old when that happens.
Anyway, over the weekend I saw this:
It's interesting in a way that Channel Four often isn't; their Gay Mountain skit was funny but not especially groundbreaking. I've seen prosthetics used in a fashion accessory sense before now but never so overtly or as the forefront of of the media campaign (I also can't help but think that the design of that spike leg owes something to the artwork of Dr. Geof
) but as soon as this sort of thing happens you can't help but look at it and think "Yeah, that was inevitable, now I come to think of it".
I find these sorts of things an interesting glimpse into the future of some parts of society.
|Friday, December 12th, 2014|
|Monday, December 8th, 2014|
|It's the most wonderful time of the year.
It's coming up to that time when a stout, jolly man in a loud suit does his one day of work for the entire year.
That's right, I hear ukmonty
is going into the office.*
In other news, I'd like to send you a Christmas card. Yes, you! If you'd like me to send you one, pm me your address.
*This joke is funny every single year.
|Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014|
|Things I have learned today
In 1944, Adolf Hitler's nephew, Patrick Hitler, joined the US Navy. To do so he had to fill in a form which asked if he had any relatives fighting for the enemy.
I bet that was an interesting conversation and no mistake.
|Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014|
|Peace on earth, goodwill to men
So those films from last Friday of people spilling through the doors of ASDA and Tesco like Zombies in the closing reel of Dawn of the Dead
and fighting over half price packets of Pringles.
That's the Christmas advert for Waitrose, right?
|Wednesday, November 12th, 2014|
|Wednesday, October 8th, 2014|
|Cutting out the middleman
Seeing as how it's perfectly normal and expected for people to say they'll vote for the party which taxes them less or pays them more or whatever, why is it illegal for me to cut out the middleman entirely and stick my vote on ebay to the highest bidder?
|Friday, September 26th, 2014|
|Conversations in our house
"David, tell me a bedtime story."
"Aren't you a little old for that?"
"No, tell me one."
'As they slept, the graveyard thing slipped through the open window. Rank it was, with a pale flabbiness which spoke of putrescence. It brought with it a chill air, and an odour of damp mold.
'It moved on all fours with a jittering speed before pausing by the bed and sniffing deeply once, twice. Some vestigial instinct told it to be pleased. The bodies would make it warm again, for a little while.'
*mwa* goodnight! Sweet dreams!"
"I HATE YOU."