It’s just a number

Listen, it’s my birthday so surely I am allowed to do anything I like –– and I’m 55, by which time I should surely be expected to do anything I like. I have no problems with the concept of birthdays, I’ve nothing against being an adult and making my own choices. I just have the single most enormous difficulty knowing what it is I like to do.

I mean, hello. I’ve been looking forward to nattering with you so that’s a huge tick in the Like column. Other than that… I’m about to have croissants and pain au chocolat in a late breakfast with Angela. That’s rather good, each word of that is pretty excellent. But it does remind me that I haven’t done today’s French lesson in Duolingo.

What do you do to relax?

I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve managed to make everything I’ve ever been interested in become part of my job, at least partly, at least tangentially, at least sometimes. But when I finished working last night, I shut down my Mac and stared at the screen for a bit, wondering what to do next.

Speaking of the Mac, I should say, a thing I definitely like doing has reached a little milestone of its own. I have this YouTube series called 58keys, which is for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads – ah, you know how YouTube loves a niche – and it recently crossed 500 subscribers. There’s a competition in this week’s edition which has now seen it cross 570 subscribers, so that’s also pretty enjoyable.

The competition, by the way, is to win a year’s subscription to Setapp. That’s a kind of Mac app equivalent of Netflix: you pay one monthly fee and get full use of 200 or more apps. I’ve written about it a lot, recommended it often, and the company agreed to let me give away two of their subscriptions. That’s been fun.

I know we’re friends but you are still allowed to enter because the two winners will be chosen randomly through some software thing. If you read this before midnight on Friday 27 November, 2020, off you pop and have a look.

Oh, grief. I just went to search for that link and one of the results that came back was “William Gallagher obituary”. Well.

Anyway.

So, that’s a YouTube link that I Googled and it’s about Mac apps. Even stepping away from the keys, this appears to be something I like. And I do: I cannot explain why, but I do find it engrossing and satisfying to use great software tools to make something. I think it’s the making, I find if I’m required to learn some app then it’s an impossible slog until I actually need it to make something and then I’m off, I’m flying.

It has been pointed out to me, gently but firmly, that I can spend more time fiddling with writing software than I do actually writing. Can’t argue with that. But I offer that writers are the people who do anything they can to avoid writing.

Plus I mentioned that this was my birthday and that I’d crossed 500 subscribers to that 58keys series. What I didn’t say is that this week’s special is the 58th I’ve made. It’s not the 58th you can watch, there were a good seven at the start that no one will ever be shown ever again, plus I’ve some Christmas ones ready to go. But on my 55th birthday, the 58th edition of 58keys crossed 500 subscribers.

It’s like I planned it. What I didn’t plan was that, I promise you, my writing has improved. I find I can write my own dialogue, I can write my voice, and I learned it from filming myself and wincing a lot.

I’m going back to work, aren’t I?

That’s what I’m going to do with my birthday. I’m going to work. But I will enjoy it, so. Let’s you and me have a tea and a croissant together first though, okay?

Writing by numbers

I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.

This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.

I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.

At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.

There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”

If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.

This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.

I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.

I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.

Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.

Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.

So take a look.

Apple vs Samsung count image

That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.

It’s night and day.

Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.

The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.

In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.

I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.

Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.

I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.

No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.

But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.

I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.

No idea

Oh, go on, let me do this. I had a Serious Writing Topic that I wanted to discuss with you, but it is you, it’s just me and you, let me tell you something else that I think you’ll recognise. It’s the way that you get an idea you think is good but actually you have no idea how much work it is going to take you.

I have a YouTube series called 58keys, it’s about 30+ videos so far and all for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads. Fine: I like doing it very much, I’m getting gorgeous reactions, all is ace. Except a week or two ago, I had an episode ready to go and decided to pull it.

There was nothing wrong with the episode but I’d made it especially to be relevant to people who listen to a podcast called The Omni Show. That’s a surprisingly happy little show about the company that makes various particularly great software tools that I rely on daily. Hourly. They invited me on and after the recording, I made this 58keys episode about the especially particularly great To Do app OmniFocus.

Only, their interview with me didn’t air when I expected. It has now aired and you can hear it and it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t come out on the day I thought it might. So I decided to hold off on the relevant 58keys episode. You’d have done the same, I know you’d have done it and found that so obvious that you might even have bothered to complete the thought, you’d just do it.

But this meant I had no 58keys episode.

With 90 minutes –– honestly, I think it came in at 89 minutes –– I had thought of a new episode, written it, filmed it, edited it and uploaded it to YouTube ready to go. That was a nice feeling, that rush of creativity, and that episode did very well for me.

But no good idea goes unpunished. I ran that episode, then the next week when The Omni Show was out, I ran my OmniFocus episode –– and realised that I really, really had to have a second one about that software. It’s that useful, there is that much to say. And this is where I got the idea that I have since spent thirty hours on. That’s thirty hours. Twenty times longer than the previous one took.

I don’t think you do or should care how long I spend on anything, just as I don’t think either of us should especially care how long any piece of work too, how much effort it did or didn’t take. The end result is all that matters and actually I am now very pleased with it.

This 58keys about a software app that you may not be using, may never have heard of since the last time we had coffee and you foolishly asked me what I was up to, certainly had the potential to be dull. It also needed to be quite long in order to cover everything. Long and dull. For some reason I didn’t fancy long and dull.

So I did what any drama fan would. I turned it into a fight.

If you watch, you’ll see a four-way Zoom conversation with three of me visibly not liking each other, and a bear just staring at all of us. This might be something I should say to a therapist before I admit it to you, but I appear to really, really like arguing with myself like this, I deeply like disliking myself. Plus I got to do it in a form that was half Zoom, half more like a certain TV thriller.

There you go. Instead of long and dull, I made a thriller. Or at least I tried to: you’ll have to judge it.

I hope you enjoy it, I know you would’ve done it differently and that this could very well have meant you did it better, but you also recognise this part. Once I had the idea, I was committed. Ten hours in, twenty, I might dislike the idea and I might have gone off the jokes that I’d now heard six times, but I was committed. When I realised I’d made a small mistake and needed to entirely reshoot a whole segment, I could’ve held back a little tear, but I could not stop myself getting out the camera and the tripod again.

There are parts of this video that are literally four or five pixels big and you cannot, just cannot see why I needed to do them. But I needed to do them.

Because we do. I was working with 20 or so writers, musicians, journalists and actors earlier this week and we might have all wished for the regular salary of a regular job, but we all knew exactly like you do that it takes unreasonable, unjustifiable, uneconomic effort to pull off an idea.

And you also know how I’m feeling right now. I’m a bit conscious of some other pixels I would like to change now that I’ve seen it all on my living room TV set, but I’m also deeply glad that I did it. Deeply glad that I got a laugh from Angela at just the right place.

And somewhat less glad that I now have to think of something to film for next week’s episode.

Time is a commodity, watchtime doubly so

Oh, give me strength. I have been obsessed with time as a writer for my entire life – you can see that theme in just about every fiction I write. And I’ve been panicked about time for just as long – I may even be chronophobic, I’m so constantly anxious about not having achieved anything, not being ready, not being good enough yet in this frustratingly short lifespan we have.

And now I’ve only gone and found a new time to think about.

It’s called watchtime, perhaps you know it already.

My 58keys YouTube series has six episodes, totalling 58 minutes and 31 seconds, so far. A few hundred people have watched, which is great, and reportedly they have in total watched 22 hours of it. Actually, 21 hours and 58 minutes.

Compare that to the millions of hours of watchtime other shows get and it’s rubbish. Compare it to the zero watchtime hours I had before I made the show, and it’s amazing.

And if you do what I appear to be doing now, it’s dizzying. I think about that watchtime, I check it a lot, but I also think about the individual running times of each episode, I think about when I am or am not using that time well, I’m thinking about the watchtime compared to how long any one or all of the episodes have taken to make. I’m thinking about the next two episodes which I finished last weekend and will publish in one and two weeks. I’m thinking about the social media that I wrote when I finished each episode and is currently scheduled to automatically post when the show is published. I’m thinking about when the best time for all of this is.

Watchtime, calendar time, production time, durations, time of day, day of week, time as a commodity and a tool, time it takes to edit, best times to shoot because of the lighting, best days to shoot because I’m not committed to something else but I am also not so knackered that I’m incoherent, time as a barrier – I’d like to be further ahead with episodes but that takes time I haven’t quite got yet. Plus I really need to fit in a haircut.

All of this time has a shape. I’ve got an hour of 58keys now, but that’s split across six videos. When you’re doing an actual hour, one 60-minute something, you’re thinking about the top of the hour and the bottom, you’re thinking about what works at the start, how it must end, you’re shaping the minutes. I am doing the same with these 8- to 17-minute episodes. (I worried so much about the 17-minute one being too long, but it’s by far the most popular episode so far. By far.)

Nobody watching should ever think about this, but when making it I am deeply conscious of every second. I’m not saying I’m any good at each second, I’m telling you I lie awake at night deciding to reshoot whole episodes because I can convey the information better or at least faster.

And my favourite part of all this so far is video editing. Sitting in front of Final Cut Pro X at midnight, looking at one minute of me talking, comparing that to the episode’s duration so far, and realising that with a single cutaway mid-sentence to something else, I can ditch 45 seconds of me and make the world a better place.

So now there’s real time, there’s me sitting in the dark, and there’s the duration of the video as recorded, the duration of the video as edited, and all these minutes of trims taken away from it.

In the olden days, thousands and thousands of years ago, there was when the sun came up and when the sun went down. Now there’s all this.

Look at what we do. Look at how much we try to wedge in to our days, and how much we can treat time as this product we shape and sell. And yet there isn’t a single thing we can do to make even one extra second of time.

I could grow an ulcer from how much I worry about time and it isn’t funny that the obvious solution is to take some time off.

EU, Me and 58keys

Some days I’m glad we’ve got this self distract thing. Such as today, January 31, 2019, a day when I’m embarrassed and mortified and ill about the UK leaving the EU.

Oh, this week was going to be so easy. I like talking to you and I don’t ever seem to be quiet, but some times I just know what I want to say, I can’t wait to tell you something and I cannot wait to see your face. This would be one of those weeks as I’ve just two days ago launched a new YouTube series that I’m really pleased about.

But, Brexit.

So much so that even though it’s you, I did consider shutting up today. Just as I did back when the Brexit vote result was announced. That day I was too paralysed to write to you, today I’m bruising. That day I thought there was nothing I could do, and this day I know there’s nothing I can do but sod it, sod everything, I’m doing things anyway.

Such as making things. My new show is called “58keys” and it’s for writers – what else would I do? – but specifically for writers who use iPhones, iPads and Macs. YouTube loves a really, really specific niche and this suits me because I know bugger-all about Android, Windows and PCs.

If that’s of use to you, do please take a look and maybe do all that subscribing lark, but by design it isn’t for everyone. And yet maybe the name 58keys is.

Or maybe it isn’t.

I’ve decided to be mysterious.

I wasn’t going to be. There’s a whole new shiny website for the project and up until about half an hour before its launch on Wednesday, it featured a page that explained why it was called 58keys.

But I announced on Facebook and Twitter that it was coming and enough people told me they liked the title that I decided to remove that page. If they like it without knowing what it means, I figured, maybe I could build up some tension and suspense.

Or maybe I can’t.

I’m not sure that mysterious is working for me.

Listen, I like the name, I like the series, but even though you know that whenever you do something like this you’re supposed to shout about it from the ceiling and include links at everypossibleopportunity, I wouldn’t have gone on about it with you. I’d have told you, I have to tell you, it’s you, how could I not?

However, the reason I’ve kept thinking about it is not the topic and not the name. It’s just because I did it. I decided to make a YouTube series and it is out there now, it is real and it is live. Whether it’s good or not, that’s one thing. I’m too close to it to see either the good or bad. But that it’s real is true and undeniable.

Okay, I said I’d do it by the end of January 2020 and my teeth lost a layer of skin in the process, but it’s real.

And if you’re thinking that’s very nice for me, I think you’re right. I needed to do something. This is something, I needed to do it. The Brexit syllogism.

You know I love writing. But, always, my favourite thing is thinking of something and then doing it. Turning an idea into something physical or at least, given that most of my work is online, something concrete.

Making, creating, building, producing, it’s all better than pulling out of the EU.

On this last day in the European Union, I may be regretting that I don’t drink, but I will definitely be talking on the radio about the best television couples in comedy and drama, I will be working on a play, and even if it takes huge effort, what I will remember of this week is that I created 58keys.