Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dream on Helen ...

The lovely and talented Helen Smith mentioned on her blog that a chum of hers had created a site called Dreamlines where, using just a few keywords, your dreams are visualised. I couldn't resist that. So I dutifully typed in my keywords and this is what emerged:

Basically, the site shows an ever-morphing series of images - some quite startlingly beautiful - as it tries to make sense of your input.

It was always going to struggle with me. I don't dream very often (well, apparently everyone dreams every night but I rarely remember any - not even a hint) but when I do, they are odd dreams indeed. Like the time I was stepped on by a Transformer. Or the time that I discovered that the piece of string that tethers the Moon to the Earth had snapped and it was too slippery and fine for me to keep a firm grip on. Bye bye Moon.
So, my keywords for this website were: Monkey. Dress. Chimney. Cricket Bat. That's because the dream I had in mind was one I had around nine months ago when I was sat on the rim of a very tall factory chimney looking down inside. Clambering towards me at speed and gibbering insanely was a large and angry baboon-like monkey wearing a dress and waving a cricket bat in a threatening manner. And I had no way to get down.

Bizarrely, the website got the colour of the dress right. Red. Eek.

On failure

Failure can be embarrassing, irritating, soul-destroying and demotivating. It can even be quite depressing if you're a very success-driven person. But, at the same time, it can be liberating, rewarding and educational. It all depends on how you approach it.

Within the police service there is a 'culture of success'; in other words, new police officers quickly fall into a way of thinking in which there is no room for failure. This is partly because the service is funded by public money and has to be seen to be providing value - just look at the stink at the publicly-funded BBC recently. It's also partly because the public has huge expectations of the police and every failure knocks their confidence. Politically it's very difficult to set a realistic target like 'reduce robberies by 30%' because it implies that 70% of robberies will still take place. That doesn't reassure people. We are all they have. In any other walk of life, there are alternative suppliers; if you don't like the way a particular store does business, you shop elsewhere. There is no 'elsewhere' when it comes to policing and it places an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the way that law enforcement agencies perform. Lastly, of course, there is the issue of publicity. The gutter press is always nearby, waiting like vultures, for a mistake they can then pounce on and pick at. Let's face it, bad news is good news. One failure and it's headlining the front page. A thousand successes don't even register.

This is a sad state of affairs as there is such a thing as 'noble failure'. To have tried your best but maybe missed your target is not something to be jeered at. If you think back to all of the most important lessons you've ever learned in life, chances are that they grew from failure. We're human. We make mistakes. We've all said things we shouldn't have said, done things we shouldn't have done and, in many cases, we've walked away with the knowledge not to repeat the same mistakes again. Our work, our relationships, our parenting skills and other areas of life are all peppered with mistakes and we've mostly all got better at doing things because of those mistakes. Imagine what would happen if the medical profession 'covered up' their failures. All around the world, scientists and doctors would keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But publish the failure and no one makes the same mistakes. Well, you'd hope so anyway.

Public inquiries into tragic events take place solely to find out what went wrong. Crash investigators seek to find out what went wrong. Crime reconstruction is all about finding out what went wrong. Feedback following a training session or interview ... ditto. We should learn to embrace failure. We'd all be wiser for it. Failure breeds success. And, it's essential to innovation. You can't innovate without taking risks. And taking risks means accepting that sometimes, things won't work.

As recently reported in Business Week, many companies put time and effort into getting their staff to accept that risk-taking leads to innovation. 'After years of cost-cutting initiatives and growing job insecurity, most employees don't exactly feel like putting themselves on the line. Add to that the heightened expectations by management on individual performance, and it's easy to see why so many opt to play it safe. Indeed, embracing failure - gasp! -- is close to blasphemy. ' But as Stefan H. Thomke, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Experimentation Matters, says, 'Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is so important to the experimental process. Crucial, in fact. After all, that's why true, breakthrough innovation - an imperative in today's globally competitive world, in which product cycles are shorter than ever - is so extraordinarily hard. It requires well-honed organizations built for efficiency and speed to do what feels unnatural: Explore. Experiment. Foul up, sometimes. Then repeat.'

Teddy Rooseveldt knew what he was talking about when he made this famous comment: 'It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.'

So why all this talk about noble failure and defeat? Because today is the last day of November and my attempt to write a novel in a month for the NaNoWriMo project has hit the iceberg of reality and sunk to the bottom of the Failure Sea. I never got beyond 20,000 words despite the best efforts of Lara, Mary, Laura, John, Stu, Chris, Hannah and others egging me on. Life just got in the way. Even this final weekend is knackered as I have a house full of family staying here (I'm cooking for nine) and I can hardly ignore them all 'because I'm working on a novel'. I mean, there isn't even an advance on offer to placate them with.

So I am throwing in the towel, hanging up my dog tags and admitting defeat. And I have to rise above 29 years of conditioning as a police officer. I have to embrace this failure and look at what I've learned from the experience. Firstly, there's the obvious one - don't try to write an entire novel in a month! Secondly, it's made me examine my working practices; how I fit my writing around my family life and - for 12 months longer anyway - my day job. Best of all, of course, is that I've written something like one third of a novel that I can now work on at my leisure, improve, tweak, develop and then utterly fail to get published. But I can learn from that too. I spent 18 years watching rejection letters come through the letterbox. Those agents and publishers who took the time to offer me feedback did me a huge favour. I learned from them. I got better. And, eventually, I became an author. A real, paid one.

'To fail is a natural consequence of trying, To succeed takes time and prolonged effort in the face of unfriendly odds. To think it will be any other way, no matter what you do, is to invite yourself to be hurt and to limit your enthusiasm for trying' - David Viscott.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mooby stars

So, the Grandma's Dead book wasn't quite what you were looking for as a present for the man in your life this Christmas? Why not take a leaf out of the Japanese book of incredibly strange ideas and get him a man bra.

Yes, you read that right. A man bra.

“I like this tight feeling. It feels good,” says Masayuki Tsuchiya, a representative of the Wishroom company that makes the bras. He wears one under his business clothing. Meanwhile, Wishroom Executive Director Akiko Okunomiya says that she was surprised at the number of men who were looking for their inner woman. “I think more and more men are becoming interested in bras. Since we launched the men’s bra, we’ve been getting feedback from customers saying ‘wow, we’d been waiting for this for such a long time’.”

Amazingly, there are plenty of chaps out there who want to tame their moobs. The bra’s product page on internet shopping site Rakuten proudly boasts that it achieved 1st place in a men’s underwear sales ranking for two consecutive weeks. But due to the high volume in orders, those who purchase men’s bras through the site today won’t be receiving their product until December.

You'd better rush!

Found on Exene's fabulous site.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

We're hanging in the air ... la la la la la la

My work took me from Oxford Street through to Charing Cross today and I felt like a walk. It was a briskly cold but bright day so I took the long, scenic route through Carnaby Street and down through Soho and Chinatown. The Carnaby Street Christmas decorations are always great fun. This year, the theme is whopping great inflatable snowmen. Loads of them.

You'd think that the manufacturers would have found a more ... er ... sensitive place to site the inflation valve though, wouldn't you?

This particular snowman (below), just off Carnaby Street in Ganton Street, looked like he was playing leapfrog with the tiny pedestrians below. The blue building is my agent's office by the way.


Directly opposite the office is the Ganton Street plug. This is a massive piece of art that forms part of the Christmas lights display and the plug changes colour every year.

It was created by artist Paul Dart who also designed last year's giant paper chain decorations for Carnaby Street and who also made the giant coat hangers installation at nearby Kingly Court.

I'm pleased that I always have my camera with me to snap these things ... but never more so than when I see a wonderful visual gag like this (below): An opticians' right next door to an adult film shop.
Well, I was always told that it would make me go blind ...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Apologies

I do apologise for the shoddy lack of posts this past week or so. It's been a manic fortnight and it's likely to be an equally insane fortnight ahead. Without carping too much, there have been some changes at work which means that my workload has increased substantially. In fact, I will very soon be the primary point of contact for expert advice in my field for some 35,000 employees. Yeek. My phone hasn't stopped trilling and buzzing and my email inbox looks like a novel. Talking of which, I stand a sardine's chance in Seaworld of finishing my NaNoWriMo 'novel in a month', dammit. I will carry on with the novel but it ain't going to be finished in a week from now. No way.

On the positive side, the book seems to be selling quite well (4,669th on Amazon.co.uk!) and I'm working up pitches for at least four new books for 2009. My visitor map (at right) got so filled up with red blobs that the company who creates it (Clustrmaps) had to give me a whole new clean map ... and now that's filling up too. Thanks for visiting guys! Oh, and I won joint third prize in Bluestalking's 'Write a story in six words' competition. In fact, I'm delighted to report that I was only beaten by two visitors to this blog - Chip Smith and Persephone. Good for them.

And there's always good stuff arriving by email every day from my large, diverse and eccentric coterie of chums. I'll leave you today with this from lovely Liz in lovely Bourton-on-the-water. Enjoy!

Dear Friends

As we move closer to the end of another year I wanted to thank you for all the e-mails you have forwarded to me over the past year. I must send a big thank you to whoever sent me the one about rat shit in the glue on envelopes, because I now have to use a wet sponge with every envelope that needs sealing. Also, I now have to wipe the top of every can I open for the same reason. I no longer have any savings because I gave it all to charity, but that will change once I receive the $15,000 that Bill Gates and Microsoft are sending me for participating in their special email programs, or from the senior bank clerk in Nigeria who wants me to split seven million dollars with me for pretending to be a long lost relative of a customer who died intestate. And I need no longer worry about my soul because I have 363,214 angels looking out for me.

I have learned that my prayers only get answered if I forward emails to seven friends and make a wish within five minutes. I no longer drink Coca-Cola because it can remove toilet stains. I can no longer buy petrol without taking a friend along to watch the car so a serial killer won't crawl onto my back seat when I'm filling up. I no longer go to shopping centres because someone will drug me with a food sample and rob me. I no longer answer the phone because someone will ask me to dial a number and then I'll get a phone bill with calls to Jamaica , Uganda , Singapore and Uzbekistan . I can't use anyone's toilet but mine because a big brown African spider is lurking under the seat to cause me instant death when it bites my bum. I can't even pick up the five bucks I found dropped in the car park because it was probably put there by a crazed axe murderer waiting under my car to grab my leg.

If you don't send this email to at least 144,000 people in the next 10 minutes, a large pelican with an acute case of diarrhoea will sit on your head and the fleas from 12 camels will infest your shoulder blades, causing you to grow a most unsightly hairy hump. I know this because it actually happened to a friend of my next door neighbour's ex-mother-in-law's second husband's cousin's plumber - and it was on Breakfast TV.

By the way.... Did you know that a South American scientist has, after a lengthy study, discovered that ugly people with low IQs who don't have enough sex, always read their emails while holding the mouse.

Don't bother taking it off now, it's too late.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Grandma's Dead - the Perfect Christmas Gift

So what Christmas gift do you buy for that awkward relative who already has plenty of socks or toiletries? How about a handy set of postcards that convey important (and occasionally upsetting) messages softened by superimposed images of cute baby animals? Grandma's Dead - Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals is the brainchild of Amanda McCall and Ben Schwartz and has had me in stitches all week.

Visit the website here (where there are e-cards you can mail to your loved ones!) or buy the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Friday, November 21, 2008

But on a lighter (and sicker) note ...

After two fairly whingeing posts I thought I'd lighten the tone with a jolly cartoon. But then I thought, 'Ah, to Hell with it! Let's have a Happy Tree Friends cartoon instead.'

Here's one of my favourite episodes - Out on a Limb. Look away now if you're squeamish.

Want more? Then just search YouTube for Happy Tree Friends or visit their site here.

The Daily Stereotype

Whenever a stand-up comedian or sitcom needs a shortcut for describing a ranting, railing, angry and usually Right Wing person, they will frequently use Daily Mail Reader. Have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Stereotypes have always been used in joke-telling; 'Irish' or 'Polish' are used (not so much these days) to indicate stupidity, just as 'Scottish' or 'Jewish' depicts parsimonious skinflintery. However, we all know that Irish people are no dafter than any other ethnic group just as Scots are not particularly tight-fisted. These verbal shortcuts - rightly or wrongly - are simply handy comic stereotypes that allow the telling of a joke. Without them, gags simply don't work. For example:

A very stupid astronaut decided to try and land on the Sun. When asked if this wasn't ridiculously dangerous, they said, "It's okay. I'm going at night".

Did you hear about the miserly pervert who asked children, "Do you want to buy some sweeties?"


See? It's arguable that they were funny gags to begin with but now they're not funny at all. By not having the shortcuts, we may be culturally sensitive and politically correct, but we are also forced to describe the character traits of the person involved and, as the result, our punchline becomes weakened. It becomes more of a feeble slapline.

But lest you think that this is some pro-racist rant (no, I'm not on the leaked BNP members' list), please do bear in mind that as a Westcountry boy I've been subjected to more 'sheep shagger' or 'six toes' jokes than I care to remember. But do they offend me? Hell no. Do I think that the tellers believe that all Cornishman are inbred or habitually have sex with animals? Of course not. All of which noodling brings me back to the stereotype of Daily Mail readers. Are they really the rabid, slavering, letter-writing NIMBYs* that comedians would have us believe they are? Is the stereotype valid? I'd like to think not, but I'm starting to have my doubts ...

I saw the paper on the newsstands this morning and was struck by the lead story. Yes, they gave over the front page to the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand story yet again. The Mail is still shaking it like a pitbull with a dead squirrel. Here's how it began (lifted from the online edition):

BBC chiefs spark further outrage as Ross gets to keep £6m-a-year job despite 'deplorable' prank call.

'The BBC faced growing anger today after Jonathan Ross was cleared to return to his £6million-a-year job. The disgraced presenter, 48, will face no further action for his part in making obscene telephone calls to actor Andrew Sachs, despite the BBC Trust condemning his conduct as 'deplorable' and 'unjustifiably offensive'. '

I took some issue with this. Firstly, is there really 'further outrage'? And this 'growing anger' they mention ... where is it? I'm not seeing it on the streets, or in other newspapers, or hearing it from the lips of people I meet. I'm also interested in the use of the word 'obscene'. As I understand it - as someone with 29 years of police service under my belt - 'obscene' usually means the use of certain very strong swear words, or pornographic or graphically violent imagery. None of these were present in Ross and Brand's silly stunt. I can't argue with 'deplorable', 'unjustifiable' or 'offensive'. But 'obscene'? I'm afraid not.

The front page continued in much the same vein, decrying the amount that Ross earns per year. Never once was his wage compared to that of Premiership footballers or supermodels or pop stars or captains of industry. The feature then ended with a comment from BBC Trust Chair Sir Michael Lyons who said that Ross (who has 'a three-year £18million contract' - in case you'd forgotten), had been 'held to account' by being suspended for three months. It was pretty obvious from the overall tone of the piece that the Mail wholeheartedly believed that he should have been sacked.

Now, to my mind, Ross has been punished. Regardless of how much he earns, he's been publicly villified and suspended without pay for three months. That's pretty harsh for a prank phonecall. And you must take into account the fact that he is someone who thrives on public adoration and fame. Media stars are so hungry for the limelight that they will often present any old piece of TV garbage just to stay on air. I'm sure that he takes tremendous glee from his pay packet, but it's the fame and adulation that Wossy craves most. And he's had that all of that taken away from him ... and I'd suggest that he's also seriously damaged his future career prospects. That's enough surely?

Apparently not, according to Mail readers. Here's just a small sample of some of the comments added to the Daily Mail website today:

I will not renew my licence when it runs out. I will stop watching all TV.

What is most offensive is that this disgusting man gets £6 million a year. This puerile idiot in no way justified getting this kind of money even before the abusive messages he left to Andrew Sachs. I would like my licence fee back. I am sick of paying for BBC rubbish. LET'S HAVE A SERIOUS CAMPAIGN AND GET THE LICENCE FEE SCRAPPED.

Well......the BBC have just saved me £140 per year........! Cancelled my direct debit when Dross was suspended......will NOT be reinstating now he is 'staying'.

Mmmm...so the BBC still catagorise malicious and obscene telephone messages to an elderly man as a 'PRANK'

It is Sir Michael and Mark Thompson who need to learn a lesson. They clearly do not understand the breadth of the outrage that this transmission caused.

I am so angry that those yellow-bellies at the BBC have not had the guts to sack Ross. What sort of message is this "forgiveness" going to send out to youngsters who watch and listen to this dreadful person. It is my money that is wasted on Ross and I object very strongly. He must GO!

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, together with entire editorial crew on duty that night should have been sacked immediately. As it is, Ross remains an ignorant fool who is unlikely ever to recover. I for one will never watch him or listen to him again.

I do not intend to buy another TV licence all the while this obscene filth stays with the BBC. Still him and the BBC are made for one another.

I would like to know why the Police have not taken action for abusive telephone call. I have never had Ross on my wireless and as we don't have TV I do not look at him either. It is up to the you, the public, to vote with your on/off switch.

Having heard the CEO on the wireless this morning I expected this result, the management of the BBC are do not want to know, they know best its about time the airwaves were cleaned up.

So Mr Ross keeps his job and his highly overpaid salary. He will not change, he got away with it once, so he will keep on keeping on. Where do I sign up for the "Ground swell" of not paying my TV licence. WHY is it that we the public have to pay for foul mouthed overgrown schoolboys and the obvious Left Wing side of the BEEB?

I hope by now, that the BBC has finally run out of whitewash! I have never in my 76 years ever heard such an outrageous piece of blindness to morality. A lot of hot air has been unleashed over this issue but this "BBC Trust" must have lost its senses and its sense of shame!

How dare they fly in the face of public opinion this way? Is the BBC stupid as well as morally bankrupt?

This is the end of the BBC. And they have brought it upon themselves because they have stubbornly refused to take notice of the majority of viewers.


It's extraordinary isn't it? So much vitriol and hatred. And all directed at Ross and the BBC by people who undoubtedly never even heard the broadcast on their 'wireless' (many seemed to think it had been televised) and, in the case of one extremely offended person, from a man who doesn't own a TV. I was genuinely stunned by the arrogance of it all. Do these people really believe that this incident means 'the end of the BBC' or that they represent the majority of public opinion?

I'm sorry people, but you're wrong, so wrong. Even among your own ranks, there is dissent. Hidden among the acrimonious rhetoric and foaming disdain, there were Daily Mail readers who happily support Ross. They are a minority, I'll admit, with maybe one supporting comment for every 15 calls for Ross's sacking. But they are there all the same and here are some of their slightly more reasoned comments:

For gods sake give it a rest. Mr Sachs and family have moved on from it and its about time you lot did. Its old news taking up too much paper. Oh and personally i never found the incident funny but i find the fake uproar after it most amusing especially as 99% of you complainers didnt even listen to the broadcast

This is ridiculous now. There was no mention that Ross would lose his job completely and even Sachs himself said he didn't want anyone punished...just an apology! When all's said and done, why was it broadcast in the first place?! There are more 'obscene' things going on in the world at the moment!

Common sense prevails. Yes it was a nasty prank, but the BBC must not allow itself to be dictated to by a howling minority whipped up into a frenzied state by a newspaper with its own political agenda. Only TWO people complained when it was broadcast. The rest were reacting to a media story days later. There are far more people who heard the broadcast and who didn't complain. I pay my licence fee and I want to see and hear Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and all the other edgy comedians on my television. On the other hand, I object to funding 'EastEnders', Radio 4 and all the daytime television I don't watch.

Put it in perspective, these are just people, after all - in a normal workplace people don't usually get sacked for doing one thing wrong (unless it's a criminal act), they usually get a warning or disciplinary procedure. Back to normality please.

Good, I'm glad he gets to keep his job. I think there are probably more than 42,000 people who find Jonathan Ross funny.

And the deliciously sarcastic:

Oh my what a surprise. I wonder how many of those outraged people who complained will now refuse to pay their licence fee and refuse to watch the BBC Blah ...

There are more obscene things going on in the world. There were virtually no complaints at the time the broadcast went out. And 99% of those people who complained didn't even hear it.

So, sadly, I can't see the Daily Mail Reader stereotype disappearing in a hurry, can you? It's become self-perpetuating now. It's become such an embedded stereotype that there's even an online Daily Mail 'Headlineator' for you to create your own front page with (I created my own as seen above).

Needless to say, I haven't taken out a subscription. I prefer my news with just a little more objectivity and a lot less bile.

*NIMBY - 'Not in my back yard!' - a catchall nickname for people who protest about new roads, prisons, social housing, airport runways or, indeed, anything else that may be builot near to where they live.

When work and play are no longer distinguishable

This extraordinary piece of design is the Din-ink pen lid eating set created by Andrea Cingoli, Paolo Emilio Bellisario, Cristian Cellini and Francesca Fontana. It was one of the winners of Design Boom's Dining in 2015 competition. 'Very clever' I thought when I first came across it ... but then I remembered how often I've seen my friends and colleagues working through their lunch hour to keep on top of ridiculous deadlines all designed to make their bosses richer or more successful. And I realised that this design is a perfect metaphor for the skewed work/life balance that many of us accept as the norm.
I see this often with one of my daughters who works for a large supermarket chain as a department head. Sometimes she goes to work at 6.30am and gets home at 10pm. When I ask her why she works such long hours - many of them unpaid - she tells me that 'If I don't do the work, no one else will and I'll have twice as much tomorrow' or similar horror stories. Then I look at her wage compared to the billions of pounds her company makes in annual profit and I become very cross. I believe in working hard, doing your best and becoming good at your job. But I also believe in people being paid a fair wage for the work they do. Large companies (and retail is the worst) prey upon people's natural professionalism and desire for promotion in order to get far more work out of them than is fair. My daughter knows that if she doesn't keep up the pace she's working at the moment, she won't get a further promotion. But she is often working 10, 12, even 14 hour days to keep the quality and quantity of her work so high. The result is that she's permanently exhausted and her social life has become almost non-existent. And now she's so tired and fed up that she's looking for new jobs. So, who's the loser in the end?
Okay, rant over.
If you like good, innovative design then check out GadgetDNA - a great website. I am a regular visitor.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Literal Chili Peppers

Dusto McNeato has done it again. Following the success of his literal versions of Aha's Take on me and Tears for Fears' Head over Heels, he's now done the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Under the Bridge.

A couple of other literal videos have turned up on YouTube of Rick Astley and U2 but they're nowhere near as funny. At least Dusto can bloody sing. The Astley one made me feel queasy.

Jawa Graffiti


(Click to see a bigger version. With apologies to George Lucas ... as long as he apologises for Jar Jar Binks.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I'll have to write more stuff involving boobies ...

Well-known Oscar Wilde impersonator and Dandy-about-town John Soanes has notified me that I am, apparently, somewhat less masculine than I thought I was. And he's the one with the girly hair.

There's a website called Gender Analyzer (click here to have a look) that checks your site and reports back whether it thinks it was created by a man or a woman. This blog came back with a 63% likelihood that it was written by a woman. I'm obviously in touch with my feminine side.

I feel like a little cry now.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cracking news! And some sad news.

Good news for us in the UK - we're getting a brand new Wallace and Gromit TV special this Christmas called A Matter of Loaf and Death (ouch) in which our heroes attempt to open a mechanised bakery (read more here).

A new Doctor Who and a new Wallace and Gromit? Auntie is being good to me this year.

But, sadly, veteran comedian Reg Varney won't be there for the celebrations as he's died aged 92. For those of you who didn't grow up with his saucy bus driver character, Varney was originally a music hall artist who was once half of a comedy duo with Benny Hill (Hill was the straight man!). He then moved into TV, landed the role of Stan in On the Buses and never looked back. His cheeky Cockney character appeared in 72 episodes and two feature films. He was a bit of a British comedy icon was our Reg; never quite as famous as Benny Hill or other contemporaries like Norman Wisdom, but a star all the same.

Oooh, I hate you Reaper.

Heroes or Villains?

Well, I'm back from Sheffield and I've been considering a rather scary trend that came to my attention today. It's been reported (and The Guardian ran a feature on it in their media section today) that TV execs are trawling blogs, websites and forums immediately after a show has aired in order to get instant feedback. Not so bad you'd think ... after all, actors and directors have agonised over their reviews for decades. But what's changed is that blogs, websites and forums are stuffed full of people suggesting how they want the TV series to proceed ... and the execs are paying attention.

"There's a danger with the instant feedback you can get from the internet," admits Camilla Campbell, drama commissioning editor at Channel 4. "We have had Hollyoaks fans posting about how much they really love an actress, and you end up saying [to the writer], 'You'll have to write her more scenes'." However Campbell goes on to say that, "Ultimately you cannot have the writers being dictated to by the internet. And, actually, I don't think fans want to see a drama that slavishly follows their ideas."

Oh really? One man who may disagree is Heroes co-creator Tim Kring. When fans lambasted the show's second season, the third season was hastily re-written and long-time contributors Jesse Anderson and Jeph Loeb were sacked by NBC. "It was interesting that (Kring) was prepared to stand up and say what he got wrong", says Danny Cohen, controller of BBC3, "But for all that, do the people who watch Heroes want to see a show written by the fans or one written by Tim Kring?"

There is an upside to viewer power. Family Guy and Futurama were both cancelled because of viewing figures but were brought back by popular demand. And BBC3 commissioned the series Being Human (about a vampire and a werewolf flat-sharing in Brighton ... and finding that the flat is haunted!) after an online petition grew and grew following the airing of a one-off drama.

I like the idea that TV execs listen to their viewers ... but it would worry me if their decision-making was significantly coloured by the viewers. After all, if the figures are to be believed, all the British public want are soaps, reality shows and celebrities dancing, skating and eating kangaroo scrotums. And there are shows that take a while to 'bed in' as the writers are just a little bit ahead of public tastes. The Prisoner, Star Trek and Red Dwarf - to name just three - are all shows that made very little impact when they were first broadcast. They were slow burners. But aren't we glad that they were given the time to develop and grow?

Public opinion is important. But not at the expense of originality and innovation.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Burgerman and Me

I popped in to London today to catch Jon Burgerman who was doing a signing at Forbidden Planet. You may recall that I was raving about his doodly art earlier in the week (and it isn't the first time that I've mentioned his work. His Heroes of Burgertown vinyl figures are now on sale and I wanted to pick a couple of new ones up. But more importantly, I wanted a signed copy of his book Pens are my friends - a retrospective of his work to date.

I had a brief chat with him but didn't hog too much of his time. It says something about the state of the comics industry that the queue of people to see him was longer than it has been at most comic signings I've been to recently. I also couldn't help noticing that FP seems to cater far more to film, cult TV, model figure and art toy fans than it does to comic fans these days ... the comics have all been relegated to downstairs. Here's a tired-looking Colgan (it's been a busy week) displaying his signed and doodled-on copy.

£30 may seem a lot to pay for a book but it is stunning. It's a bargain as far as I'm concerned. It's rammed to the gunwales with his artwork, most of it in glorious full colour and it showcases everything from murals to poster art, skateboard decks to tee-shirts, vinyl figures to plushies. Plus, the book comes with a DVD of even more wallpapers, animations, icons and video interviews. Oh, and several of the book's pages can be pulled out into long gatefolds and the slip-cover, when removed and unfolded, becomes a large poster. A lot of time, thought and energy have gone into this book and I bloody love it. Some of the interior pages are available to download as wallpaper if you click here. Plus there's an overview here.

A lot of artists like Jon - people like James Jarvis, Gary Baseman, Frank Kozik, Tim Biskup, David Horvath etc. - started their careers very much on the fringes of society as graffiti artists or as part of the 'Lowbrow' pop surrealism movement. However, they are now very much part of modern culture - even to the extent of Mr Burgerman appearing on BBC icon children's magazine show Blue Peter recently (that's him on the right looking like he's admonishing us all for watching him). And he's a very nice chap indeed.
I also bought two more of his figures. Being 'blind-boxed' (i.e. sealed and unidentifiable), it's a bit like a lucky dip. You never know which figure you'll get. But with 16 in the set and the fact that I only own three so far, I reckoned my odds were good.
They weren't. I now have two Tittymons.
Sigh.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Virtual adultery

There's been a story circulating in the national UK papers these past few days that caught my eye and set me pondering. Here's the skinny:

'A couple are divorcing after a woman found her was husband cheating – with a virtual character in an online world. Amy Taylor caught estranged husband David Pollard having sex with an animated woman in Second Life. 'I went mad – I was so hurt. I just couldn't believe what he'd done,' said Ms Taylor, 28. 'I looked at the screen and saw his character having sex. It's cheating, as far as I'm concerned.'

The couple met online in 2003 and, within months, she had moved into 40-year-old Mr Pollard's flat in Newquay, Cornwall. They spent hours together on Second Life, where players create fantasy lives, with jobs and relationships. After two years, the pair married – in real life and in the game – but Ms Taylor said she knew something was wrong. 'I had my suspicions about what he was doing in Second Life,' she added. In February last year, she caught her husband's avatar, Dave Barmy, having sex with a call girl in the game. Her character, Laura Skye, hired a virtual private detective to investigate his online adultery. But Mr Pollard apologised and begged for forgiveness. But the final bombshell came this April, when she caught her husband with his new online flame, Modesty McDonnell.

Laura Skye, Dave Barmy and Modesty McDonell

'I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game. It looked really affectionate,' said Ms Taylor, who filed for ­divorce the next day. 'He confessed he'd been talking to this woman in America for weeks and said he didn't love me any more.'

Ms Taylor said she was down for a while – but now has a new man, who she met in the online game World Of Warcraft.

(Feature by Joel Taylor for Metro)

Now, the reason that this story fascinated me so much is the question of what constitutes adultery. Where does the boundary lie between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy? Amy Taylor obviously feels that she's been cheated on - enough to divorce Pollard anyway. But does that mean that I've been adulterous because I may occasionally have harboured a pathetic smouldering lust for Lara Croft?

When we play computer games, our avatars - the virtual characters that take part in the action on our behalf - take risks and perform tasks that we would (probably) never do in real life. We can steal cars and rob banks without repercussions. We can fly planes, drive tanks and play Premiership football like Beckham without having to learn those skills. We can vicariously shoot and slash and bomb and zap people without worrying about the police knocking on the door. We can slay dragons, defeat the alien hordes and conquer the known universe without being mugged by gangs of wizards or dissolved by death rays. Virtual reality - for want of a better phrase - allows us to indulge our fantasies - our reckless, ridiculous and occasionally naughty fantasies - by proxy. But sites like Second Life are different. In these kinds of VR worlds, the people we interact with are not computer sprites. They are digital extensions of other human beings sat at their computers elsewhere in the world. When a Second Life denizen decides to have sex with another, there are two real-life consenting adults agreeing to this taking place in Second Life. There is a degree of commitment there. And an emotional connection possibly. And that's why some people claim that it's adultery.

It's amazing how divided opinion can be. I've discussed this issue with quite a few people since the story broke. A number of them - men and women - maintained that it wasn't adultery as long as it 'stays in the computer'. One chap said that he could see no difference between what Pollard did and having a sexual fantasy. In his words: 'Everyone fantasises about sleeping with other people. If that constitutes adultery now, the courts are going to be swamped.' One lady claimed that it was just another kind of pornography. She saw it as a harmless release, stating things like, 'Better they do that than have a real affair.'

But a significant number of people claimed that it was a real affair because Pollard was out to have sex with another woman, albeit by way of his intermediary, the brilliantly named Dave Barmy. The question, therefore, is what constitutes a 'real' affair? Ex-US President Bill Clinton claimed that he wasn't adulterous because he hadn't indulged in penetrative sex and because he hadn't formed an emotional bond with the female parties involved in his Oval Office shenanigans. Does adultery have to involve actual sex? Or is the intent enough? I imagine that Hillary didn't see events in quite the same way that Bill did.

Let's image that I meet a lady online - it may be through Second Life or something less graphic like MSN or Facebook or in a chat room. At what point do I stray into adultery territory? Am I cheating if I flirt? What if I indulge in some saucy chat? What about if we start sending naughty photos to each other or plugging in our webcams and performing? Where does voyeurism end and cheating begin? Is this just harmless fun or are we having an affair? Or, to take another tack, forget all the sauciness and imagine that I form a growing emotional bond with her. What if I declare my love and she does the same for me, even though we know that we will never meet for real? Is that now adultery? If so, does an ardent fan (the word derives from the word fanatic remember) commit adultery by completely idolising their actor/pop star/whatever of choice?

It's confusing isn't it?

Earlier in the year BBC2 ran a tremendous TV series called Wonderland in which we visited a number of people involved in ordinary, everyday situations. What made the series wonderful was that each situation had a bizarre twist to it. For example, one episode was about a family's agonising decision about whether to put their ageing father into a care home. What made it unusual was that Dad was veteran comic and perennial naughty schoolboy Norman Wisdom. In another, we followed a group of pensioners on a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. But what mad ethis coach trip extraordinary was that these people were all members of an 'End of the World' cult. However, the episode* we're interested in focused upon the life of a housewife from Bensalem, Pennsylvania, called Carolyn and her addiction to Second Life. When her avatar became romantically involved with another avatar, Carolyn became convinced that she was also in love with the avatar's creator. She became so sure of this fact that her family life fell apart and she was spending 14 hours a day at the computer. Eventually she flew to England to meet Elliott, the man she believed was her soul mate ... and, as you might have predicted, was crashingly disappointed to find that they had nothing at all in common. Their Second Life avatars' personalities may have been extensions of their own, but they were fantasy personas. Carolyn and real husband Lee are now trying to put their marriage back together. Lee will tell you that cyber adultery is very, very real.

I'm afraid that you won't find any answers on this post. I just wanted to raise a fascinating topic for discussion. As we all spend more and more time in cyberspace, we may have to review and re-examine traditional, social and cultural taboos and boundaries. It could be that we will have to redefine exactly what adultery is for the purposes of law. As VR environments become ever more realistic, the lines of demarcation between reality and fantasy are starting to blur. Thanks to CGI, we now regularly witness things in movies that look utterly realistic despite the fact that they do not even come close to representing reality. It's also happening in the 2D world where the old adage of 'The camera never lies' is now completely redundant. Almost any magazine portrait is now tweaked, airbrushed or otherwise Photoshopped. It's already creating a generation of kids who look at these blemish-free, super-skinny images and feel inadequate. Is it any wonder they seek solace in the perfect avatars available in cyberspace?

It makes you think doesn't it?

*The episode was called Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love.

Hate to say I told you so ...

I really hate reality TV shows. It's cheap, vulgar, mindless and insulting programming and we deserve better (I wrote about this back in April). I don't mind if it has some validity; the very first Big Brother was fascinating viewing as a social experiment. You may recall there were even psychologists in the studio who described the various behaviours being exhibited. But it could only ever work once as Big Brother 2 contestants would know what to expect. And, sure enough, it's descended into a freak show and we are all encouraged to come and point at the socially inept, the fatuous, the ignorant and the pathetic. The psychologist pundits have now been replaced by mediocre celebrities, fashionistas and gossip monkeys.

I've always tolerated talent shows if their purpose is to provide opportunity. They're not something I watch but I appreciate what they're for. In the 1960s and 70s we had shows like Opportunity Knocks and New Faces that launched many stars including Lenny Henry, Les Dawson, Lena Zavaroni and Jim Davison. Later on came Stars in their Eyes, a rather odd show that allowed people to show off their mimicry of a singing celebrity. But it did create careers and it wasn't cynical, exploitative or designed to humiliate. You watched it to see how close the impersonation was. But then came Pop Idol and American Idol and the X Factor and we entered a whole new ballgame. And that game has just suffered its first tragic casualty.

Paula Goodspeed was found dead outside American Idol judge Paula Abdul's house on Tuesday. She was 30 years old. A couple of years ago, she was humiliated by the Idol panel, particularly by Simon Cowell who commented, 'I don't think any artist on earth could sing with that much metal in your mouth. You have so much metal in your mouth'. Her very public slating made her a laughing stock and she recorded on her MySpace page that 'It's very hard reading such awful things being written about yourself or hearing things being said ... not like a lot of people would understand what it's like having so many haters, just because I made the mistake of trying out for a singing competition before I was even ready vocally, emotionally and physically.'

Paula Goodspeed had a history of mental illness and had to be warned away from 'stalking' Paula Abdul whom she idolised, even creating life-sized drawings of the singer and dancer. Abdul has said that she is 'deeply shocked and saddened at what transpired. My heart and prayers go out to her family.' Goodspeed apparently took an overdose of prescription pills outside Abdul's home.

But what did Abdul, Cowell, Jackson and all of the other reality judges expect to happen when you put a vulnerable and (sadly) deluded young woman on national television and then proceed to destroy her? What possible entertainment value can there be in laughing and sneering at people who are talentless or even mentally ill? It's as if we've returned to the days of mocking those less fortunate than ourselves. It's just one step away from the carnivales and freak shows of old.

I for one am disgusted by it all. We are better than this.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Haiku to you

Don't you just hate it when you make a really silly and very public mistake?

Following Diane's lead, I decided I'd have a play at Kathy's Writer's Workshop over at Mama's Losin' It. Mama sets challenges for writers which is all a bit of a hoot. This week I took up her challenge to write a haiku about what I could see out of my window. Here was my effort:

Three legged cat on sidewalk
Watching cars go by with complete disdain
Guess why she's a tripod?

So I posted it on her site. And then I thought, 'Arse! A Haiku is five-seven-five syllables not five-seven-five words!' Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! I hate making stupid mistakes like that. So here's the re-write:

Cat with three legs sat
Treats cars with lack of respect
That's why tripod cat.

I've now re-posted it over at Mama's. Sigh.

Mondegreens, Mairzydoats and believing in Milko

Mondegreen (noun) - a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.

I bet you all know a mondegreen or two even if you had no idea that they were called mondegreens.

A mondegreen is a misheard word or phrase. One of the most famous examples is the line in Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze in which he sings 'Excuse me while I kiss the sky'. Urban legend has it that certain anti-gay protestors (deliberately?) misheard this as 'kiss this guy' and attempted to use this to undermine Hendrix's sexy credibility. Another famous one is the line 'There's a bad moon on the rise' from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is often misheard as 'bathroom on the right'. For years, Dawn couldn't figure out what Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate was singing in the song You Sexy Thing. It sounded to her like 'I believe in milko'. It turned out to be 'miracles'. It still sounds like 'milko' to me to this day.

The term mondegreen has its origin in an essay titled 'The death of the Lady Mondegreen' by US writer Sylvia Wright and published in Harper's Magazine in 1954. In the essay, Wright described how, for many years, she'd believed that a character called Lady Mondegreen had been killed in a 17th century Scottish ballad that she'd learned as a child. The final two lines of The Bonnie Earl O'Murray should read:

They hae slain the Earl O'Murray,
And laid him on the green.


But Wright had heard the last line as 'and Lady Mondegreen', assuming that there was a second victim. As there was no existing term to describe this phenomenon (as there is for spoonerisms, malapropisms etc.), she proposed that the word 'mondegreen' be adopted. And so it was.

Among my favourites are Dylan's 'The ants are my friends, they're blowing in the wind'; the line from Nirvana's Smells like Teen Spirit that claims 'Here we are now, in containers'; and the line in the Eagles' Hotel California that says, 'Such a nice surprise when your rabbit dies' (actually, 'bring your alibis').

There is a website (there's always a website), excellently named Kiss This Guy, where misheard song lyrics are posted. It's a good laugh to have a mooch around in their archives although some of the examples do seem to be a bit contrived at times.

But if a mondegreen is, by definition, something accidentally misheard, what should we call a word or phrase that is deliberately designed to make you hear something different? Surprisingly, there's a lot of it about.

Brit comedy duo The Two Ronnies' most famous sketch centres on a hardware store where deliberate mondegreens abound. The customer wants 'fork handles' and the vendor supplies 'four candles' and so on. Hilarity ensues. And many songs - mostly comic - have been written that play upon misheard lyrics. The late, great Benny Hill had a song called Rubber Balloons which was supposedly the cry of a balloon seller but when sung at the right moment in the narrative (and in the presence of a well-endowed young lady) became an instruction instead (I did find the first part of it on Youtube - sadly the part where it becomes a sketch with 'Val' singing over the top is unavailable as far as I can see).

And then there's the 1934 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston that goes:

'Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?'


It seems to be compete nonsense until you ... er ... reverse-mondegreen (?) it and hey presto! It suddenly becomes a song about the eating habits of hoofed mammals.

A reverse-mondegreen, eh? Sadly, Neergednom is just too clumsy. I propose that we call it a mairzydoat.

Your thoughts, as always, are hugely welcome.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sod Oprah! Do it yourself

Another meme I didn't mind taking part in as it gives me a chance to promote some of the good stuff. It goes like this:

Sod Richard and Judy. Sod Oprah. What would you advise people to read? Name your favourite:

(a) Fiction book
(b) Autobiography
(c) Non-fiction book
(d) A fourth book of your choice from any genre.

Explain why the books are essential reads in no more than 30 words per book.

How could I resist this? So:

(a) The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser. A rip-roaring pirate spoof funnier than any Johnny Depp film. Bosomy female buccaneers in Gucci boots, mad Scottish privateers, square-jawed Navy heroes. Packed with hundreds of gags. Brilliant.

(b) Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate. Not just about Bagpuss! Postgate evocatively describes life in 30s London, being a 'conchie' during WWII, his accidental slide into TV and his penchant for inventing machines for his home. Charming and thought-provoking.

(c) Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Adams' best book by far. His wit and ability with words is evident here as he and Mark travel the world in search of the most endangered species. Glorious. Sad.

(d) Pigsticking: A Joy for Life by William Rushton. Willie was the greatest of my personal heroes. Very funny writer, genius cartoonist, fine actor and raconteur. This is my favourite book by him and I treasure my signed copy.

There. I think that was 30 words per description. All of them fantastic books. So, time to pass it on. The rules say pass it on to four others. As I try to nominate different people each time, I'll pick Chris, Diane, Doctawho42 and Chip.

Of course, there's nothing stopping the rest of you from having a go too. People's reading lists fascinate me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fry's Wordsmithery

Just a quick post before I brave the London Underground* and head into work.

I've made my views pretty clear about the English language during the three year lifespan of this blog. English is a glorious, ever-evolving beastie and I delight in discovering new words, unearthing obscure old ones and giggling at outrageously naughty ones. I pretty much set out my stall on language in this post of October 2007, but it does no harm to reiterate my viewpoint now and again.

It comes down to a simple philosophy: For communication to occur, sender and reciever should be able to understand each other. That's what language is for. And as long as people can communicate clearly and unambiguously using spoken and written words, no other rules are needed. Daily Mail readers can pop a head vein over the distinction between 'less' and 'fewer' if they want to, but I won't be losing any sleep over the 'Six items or less' signs at Tesco. I understand the difference and that 'fewer' is the more correct. But do I give a damn? Hell no. The message is still clear. I've worked for many years with Plain English Campaign and their view mirrors mine - Clarity over traditionalism. I abhor the idea that some long dead, crusty old grammarian insists that I cannot split an infinitive. I will bloody well split one if I like! And I'll start sentences with 'and'. I'll even end sentences with prepositions if I want to. As Churchill once said (or something similar) this is something up with which I shall not put.

So, if you're like me, you'll probably enjoy this fabulous new essay by Stephen Fry - Don't mind your language. I know I did.

But if you're the sort of person who's gone all wobbly because I just started this sentence with 'but', go and have a lie down and drape a warm flannel over your cold sweaty forehead.

*Thankfully not the London Underground featured in my NaNoWriMo novel in the making - Orpheus on the Underground. Go and have a read here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Burger me! The Latest Must-Have Vinyl Figures of 2008

I've been a big fan of Brit artist Jon Burgerman's artwork for a very long time. In fact, I first raved about him on my blog way back here in September 2007. It's taken him around five years to get around to producing a 3D art toy series based upon his characteristic doodle-style artwork, but the wait has been well worth it.

Heroes of Burgertown is a set of 16 different 3" tall figures (two shown in my hand above) produced by Kidrobot. The move from two to three dimensions has been pulled off beautifully as you can see by these prototype pictures of the Coco figure.

I, for one, will be aiming at getting the whole set. Visit Jon's website here. Buy the figures from here. Oh, and Creative Review has a great interview here.

Finally, if you want to meet the man himself, he's at Forbidden Planet in London this Saturday (15th) between 1pm and 2pm. Details here.

I'll be there!

Prototype images courtesy of Vinyl Pulse.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Compare and Contrast

Dawn and I both spent some time in London yesterday ... but in completely different environments. Dawn and her friends ate at Giraffe on the South Bank and went for a spin on the London Eye before settling down with a drink or two to watch the fireworks for the Lord Mayor's Show. Dawn took these photos, which will give you sense of how relaxed, sedate and charming her evening was.


Meanwhile ... I'd been invited to a party at The Intrepid Fox pub in St Giles High Street. Sadly it isn't a patch on the old Intrepid Fox that once stood in Wardour Street, Soho but the music was just as loud, the decor equally as cod-Gothic and the clientele ... well ... punk burlesque rubs shoulders with death metal zombies and the whole place smells of black leather. The air is alive with the jangling of chains and body piercings and there are more tattoos than bare skin on show. It has a fantastic atmosphere - almost like being at a rock gig - and I met some great people including the tallest New Zealand Goth. Apparently.

So who had the most fun, me or Dawn? I have no idea. My ears are still too sore to understand what she's saying.