Short weekend read: Twitter ‘source of all evil’ says Saudi Arabia cleric

What’s the saying? Guns don’t kill people, bullets do?

according to Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim cleric, Twitter is “the source of all evil and devastation”.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, made the comments on his Fatwa television show earlier this week.

“If it were used correctly, it could be of real benefit, but unfortunately it’s exploited for trivial matters,” he said about the social networking site.

Twitter ‘source of all evil’ says Saudi Arabia cleric – Felicity Morse, BBC Newsbeat (22 October 2014)

Whenever someone wants twitter to say just what they want it to say, well, that doesn’t work and they end up calling it trivial.

Read the full piece but you’ve basically got the gist now.

Charge your audience by the laugh

A comedy club in Barcelona is experimenting with charging users per laugh, using facial-recognition technology to track how much they enjoyed the show.

The software is installed on tablets attached to the back of each seat at the Teatreneu club.

Each laugh is charged at 0.30 euros (23p) with a cap of 24 euros (£18). Takings are up so far.

Comedy club charges per laugh with facial recognition – Jane Wakefield, BBC News Online (9 October 2014)


Amazon Fire Phone

My considered opinion after Amazon finally unveiled its own smartphone is that I like the name.

Beyond that I do have a curiosity about exactly how easy this phone will make it for people to spend more money at Amazon. I am immune to this, I am above such trivialities as UNCONTROLLABLE BOOK BUYING ON IMPULSE, or at least I will be via this phone because I won’t get it.

I don’t know that I’ll buy the forthcoming iPhone 6 either – though as I’m now out of contract, I’ll certainly look at it – but there’s no way I’m chucking this for an Amazon Shopping Trollery. I mean, Amazon Fire.

But BBC News has done an interesting roundup of reactions across the web from people who know more than I do.

Where weather icons come from

As a design student at the Norwich School of Art in the early 1970s, Mark Allen watched the weather broadcast every afternoon on the BBC. Back then, TV presenters slid magnetic symbols around a metal map: dots for rain, asterisks for snow, lines to mark off areas of equal pressure. “They were just hieroglyphics as far as everybody was concerned,” Allen says. “Why was a triangle a rain shower?”

For his final project in 1974, Allen set out to make weather icons more intuitive. He looked to a set of pictograms by Otl Aicher, who devised spare, thick-lined figures for the 1972 Olympic Games. Allen used a similar style to trace a puffy cloud, adding simple icons to the bottom edge: rain droplets, lightning bolts, rays of sun. “The main vehicle was the cloud, and I hung everything off that,” he says. The BBC adopted Allen’s iconography in 1975, in exchange for 200 pounds and a small percentage of license fees. His drawings stayed on the air for 30 years.

Who Made That Weather Icon? – New York Times (23 May 2014)

Nice story about something I have never consciously noticed: how we went from faux Meteorological Office chart symbols to more recognisable ones. Read the full story.

Have a production meeting for one

In The Blank Screen book, I argue that there are two types of meeting. I think I was wrong: I think there is or at least there could be a third type and that it is useful. To be clear, the two types were:

  • Pitch meetings where it’s all about you and your work
  • Day job meetings where it’s all about the day job

The first type is the one you want as a writer or any creative person. They are important you work to get as many of those as you can and to make each of them count. The second type is ditchwater-dull sort you are forced to have in your day job and I spend a lot of time in the book covering how you can get out of them and, since you usually can’t, what exactly you can do to make them faster and make them work and keep yourself awake.

You have to meet. But you don’t always have to meet and when you have ten people in a room doing bugger-all and getting nowhere slow, that is a gigantic waste of ten people’s time. I reckon the poster-boy worst example of this kind of thing is what I would often see at the BBC: everybody would gather for a meeting whose sole and entire purpose was for whoever ran it to tell his or her bosses that they had run this meeting.

All of this stands, all of this is true, but I forgot another type of BBC gathering: the production meeting. Sometimes called an editorial meeting. Believe it or not, I still think of them as the budget meeting – there is not one single element of them that is to do with money but that’s what these were called in Lou Grant, the show that made me a writer. (Budget Meeting was the US newspaper term for an editorial meeting and I imagine it comes from how you have a certain amount of space in a newspaper and you are budgeting this much room for that story, that much for this. Certainly these Lou Grant meetings regularly included background detail such as questions about giving this much space on the front page and continuing a story inside.)

These meetings are not about your writing work but they can be. And they are so useful that I’m embarrassed I didn’t mention them. Especially as I think you can use them yourself, you can conjure up a kind of production meeting for yourself.

Production meetings have certain things that are always the same. They are regular, for one thing. Newsrooms and news programmes tend to have them at least daily, almost invariably first thing. They are always focused on the same thing: BBC’s The One Show doubtlessly has a production meeting focused on that day’s edition. Anything that doesn’t belong or can’t go in today’s edition, doesn’t get discussed. Or probably not, anyway.

Then you have specific resources: this many people who can do this much in that time. Anything they can’t do, you don’t do – or you look for outside help, you schedule it all in some way that it becomes manageable over time.

Next, every person in the meeting brings ideas. That sounds so wishy-washy but production meeting ideas are not one-line blue-sky wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-feature-daffodils-somehow things. They are one-line ideas that have every detail behind them that it would take to get that idea on the screen or on the page. You throw in your idea, if it isn’t liked or you can’t adapt it to one that is, it’s out. If it is or you can, you contribute exactly how it can be done. Or more likely, you just go off and do it.

Take a look at the BBC’s own requirements for ideas that get pitched at news production meetings. When ideas die, it’s a lot of wasted work. But when they fly, you’re ready to go. And the process works not just because the better ideas rise to the top in these meetings but because working at them this way gets you thinking of better ideas to pitch.

Last, production meetings almost always include some kind of diary discussion. Very broadly, there are two types of ideas discussed at a production meeting: diary items and non-diary items. There is always someone whose job it is to maintain the diary: not of where you and your colleagues are but of what is happening. I’ve worked in entertainment news so a diary I’d know would have things like press previews for this film today, that celebrity is in town Friday, this book is coming out next Thursday.

The BBC maintains the most exhaustive diary of everything that any news programme could want to know but your team knows what to take from that and your team also runs their own. Then non-diary items are everything else. If Coronation Street got cancelled, that would be news and it would never be a diary item: there’s no circumstance in which ITV would let journalists know that it will be cancelling Corrie in three weeks’ time. They could try, but you suspect the story would be written about instantaneously, don’t you?

It happens that this week I have a meeting about one event, I actually have an event, and there are some discussions about at least one other confirmed and one other possible gig for later in the year. My mind’s been going through what I need to bring to the meeting, what I need other people to agree to. And I’ve realised that my mind has been going through exactly what it used to with production meetings.

I miss them. I’ll be honest with you, I miss the rigour of having to come up with ideas, pitch them to a group and then either get them or be assigned some other idea to do my best with.

And it occurs to me that I could, perhaps I should, and probably I shall run some little production meetings of my own. Just for me. God, that sounds lonely and pathetic. But I think it might be useful.

I have diary and non-diary items to get done, for instance. This week should be devoted to the events but actually it can’t be, I have to do other things too so I have issues of resources and time.

I also have the shape of the week. When you work in radio or television you are conscious of time in a slightly different way: you think about the top of the hour, you think about your third-hour guest. You know you have to have a news bulletin at this point, you know you should start the show with a bang and that it would be good to finish with one too. I have the week where I know when my events are so I know what has to come before those, I know what I will have to postpone until afterwards.

And I know all this because my noggin’ just worked it all out while I was talking to you. So thank you for that – and I hope you find production meetings useful for your work too.

UPDATED WITH AUDIO: The Blank Screen on BBC Radio WM today

15:48 Listen to the show here: 25 minutes, MP3 And the book we talk about is my The Blank Screen (UK edition)

12:17 GMT UPDATE I had a blast on BBC Radio WM. If the listeners who phoned in had half as good a time, then they were robbed. Audio to follow later UPDATE ENDS

Just a quick note to tell you that I'm going to be on BBC Radio WM's Adrian Goldberg show some time between 11am and noon talking about The Blank Screen book and how we writers can get going, can get off our backsides and write.

BBC Radio WM is the Corporation's local station for Birmingham and the West Midlands. I actually started my career there doing work experience in the 1980s so it's always a particular treat to be on it.

If you read this before 11am GMT then you can catch it streaming live and I'll update this with a link afterwards.

Always assuming I don't make an eejit of myself in it.

The Blank Screen book:
UK paperback
USA paperback

Weekly self-distraction: It’s your fault

This is cross-posted from my personal Self Distract blog. Each week I cover what we write and what we write with, when we get around to writing. It's sometimes about productivity but it's also about drama and the issues of writing. You can read it every Friday here. This one is also specifically about Doctor Who and you can read a collection of Self Distract Doctor Who blogs plus new journalism including a detailed interview with the Restoration Team and the history of Who in Radio Times in my book, Self Distract.

Here be spoilers. Well, there be spoilers: down there, a lot of spoilers a bit of the way down the screen. If you haven't seen the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, please do. Go watch it. It's very good.

All I ever want from a story is to be caught up in it to the exclusion of anything else. That's all. Analysis and whathaveyou, that can come later if it must. Just scoop me up, please. And Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor did exactly that. Job done.

Only, I'm surprised that it did because at its core is something that goes against a thing. I was going to say it goes against a drama principle of mine, but nuts to drama principles: if it works, that's your principle right there. But we tend to have issues that colour our writing, things that we come back to because we're trying to find them in ourselves, beacuse we're trying to mine them for others or maybe just because we're good at them.

And I have one thing that is guaranteed to appeal to me, utterly certain to get me obsessed, and which you break at your peril. Yet Doctor Who broke it and worked. I don't know how. Let me tell you that right up front, if you can call this the front when I've already rambled on at you a ways. I want to explore this and see if I can figure it out because it matters to me.

Here's what it is. If you wanted to get all academic about it, drama is about obstacles. I seriously do not know why you would want to get academic if that means boiling down the richness of drama into a checklist with only one thing to check, but it's not unreasonable to say drama equals obstacles. Fine. Someone is faced with something, that is or at least that can be drama.

But for me, it's really only drama when the thing they face is their own fault. Having something done to you, that's awful. It's powerful. Having something done to you and it is entirely your own fault, though, that's wonderful. It's not that I'm especially in to my characters being punished for something and it's only a little bit that I am in to the genuine meaning of tragedy: a tale that ends badly because of something within the lead character. It's specifically the point that if this terrible thing is your own fault, you could have prevented it – and now there is absolutely not one single thing you can do to put it right. You can't undo the past. This is the real reason I am forever coming back to the issue of time in my writing: the regret, the permanent regret for things lost and things done badly. You can't rewrite history, not one line.

Except in Doctor Who. This is where the spoilers start.

The day in The Day of the Doctor is the one where the fella ended the Time War. This was a huge and so far never seen portion of Doctor Who history: immediately before we saw Christopher Eccleston's Doctor, there was this war, right. War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. And it was ended by the Doctor. We slowly came to learn that though he ended it – so far, so Doctor-heroic-like – there was something of a cost. The war was ended only by the complete and total destruction of both sides. Time Lords and Daleks, all killed. All killed by the Doctor.


The Day of the Doctor undoes this and if you'd told me that before I saw it, I'd have thought again about going to the cinema. I read an interview with Steven Moffat on DigitalSpy this week that ran in part:

It was about a year ago. I remember thinking, 'What occasion in the Doctor's life is the most important?' Well, it's the day he blew up Gallfirey. Then I tried to imagine what writing that scene would be like and I thought, 'There's kids on Gallifrey and he's going to push the button? He wouldn't!' I don't care what's at stake, he's not going to do it. So that was the story – of course he never did that, he couldn't. He's the Doctor – he's the man who doesn't do that. He's defined by the fact that he doesn't do that. Whatever the cost, he will find another way. So it had to be the story of what really happened, that he's forgotten.

I see his point and he wrote it superbly in the show, but I'm mithered. I detest beyond measure the way that a soap, for instance, will get a character into a dramatic situation and then pull back at the last moment to say it's all right, really. It wasn't him. It isn't her. They're dreaming, whatever. Go away. I'm never watching again. So having this thing in Doctor Who that we know was big and then showing us it being even bigger but then taking it away, it shouldn't have worked for me.

I think it's that bit about 'I don't care what's at stake'. For me, the drama was in how there were these stakes that required him to do this. Now, actually, I have to play this both sides because a huge amount of the drama – can you quantify drama like this? a good 43% was angst, 12% personal torture and so on – was to do with how he had no choice. But if the Doctor has no choice, that is big and huge and enormous but it isn't the same as him having a choice and making the decision anyway. If the Doctor presses the big red button, everyone dies on Gallifrey. If he doesn't press it, everyone dies on Gallifrey anyway because the Daleks are attacking very thoroughly.

There is the fact that they're attacking because presumably they're seriously hacked off at the Doctor so nearly efficiently destroying all their plans, ever, so the whole attack is his fault. I'll have that.

So with this storm of issues going on, it does all come down to the small moment, the huge yet tiny moment where he has to do this or not do it. The fact that he does speaks to me about the stakes of the story but it also completely engages me in this Doctor character. The fact that he doesn't do it, that takes most things away. It reduces the stakes, because somehow he's now got a choice, and that reduces the character for me.

Except, maybe it worked for me, worked in this one story, because Moffat could undo the destruction of Gallifrey, he could rewrite one very big line of history, yet do it in such a way that the Doctor was left with the same burden we thought he had.

Doctor Who often reunites various different Doctors and there is always the issue of why a later one doesn't remember all this from when he was the earlier guy. The Day of the Doctor makes many little nods to this and does explicitly state that the Doctors' time streams are out of sync and that neither David Tennant's Tenth Doctor nor John Hurt's Nth Doctor can possibly retain the memory of what has happened. It's plot convenience and it's what has always happened before, but this time the lack of memory means that John Hurt's Doctor and David Tennant's and up to a point Matt Smith's one all believe they destroyed Gallifrey. They carry that burden for four hundred years.

Four hundred years. That's enough carrying of blame and regret and fault even for me.

Good people doing bad things. That's what chimes with me. Making irrevocable choices. That's me. But I thought it was a rule, an inviolate rule of drama that you do not ever undo a character's bad choices, you do not give them a reprieve, you do not give them an escape. The drama is in living with the things you cannot live with. And The Day of the Doctor says bollocks, William.

Quite right too.