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.

Three iPhones

Appy days are here again

Okay, I’m not sure where I’m going with this but bear with me for a sec.

So far this morning I’ve pitched for some work and got rejected. I read a Modern Family script. Experimented again with microwaving poached eggs. Checked all my appointments for the day, got train tickets, got bus tickets. Advised my sister-in-law about her smartphone. Read the news. Checked the weather for London where I’m going now.

On the train I’ll re-read all the documents for a meeting, I’ll write some notes. I need to do some banking bits so I’ll fit that in somewhere. I really need to write at least some of a theatre programme. I want to write part of a play.

And on my way home tonight I want to outline a non-fiction book but I’ll be knackered and I expect I’ll watch an episode or two of Frasier instead.

Here’s the thing, though. I expect I’ll take meeting notes on my iPad but everything else, I got from my phone.

That’s including the poached egg recipe which I’ve saved in an iPhone cookery app called Paprika. It doesn’t just include buying the train and bus tickets, it includes waving the phone at barriers and inspectors. I forgot to say that I figured out which bus to take by using Citymapper.

I like that I forgot. I am startled by how much our phones can do and how they are tightly knitted into our lives.

But what I like most is that I forgot I’d used my phone for that route planning and that I didn’t really notice I was using my phone for any of this until I stopped to think about you. Yes, I’m writing to you on my phone.

That we can have one teeny device that will do all these things is stunning. But the fact that we can do it, that I can think of you and immediately be talking with you, that I can need a ticket and get one, that’s wonderful.

Usually it’s nature that people tell me I am failing to appreciate. Just today, I’m choosing to appreciate our phones.

Except it’s 09:30 and my bloody battery is dying.

Three iPhones

Seven hundred and four thousand

I learned a lesson from last week when I called our chat “58 Keys” and bemoaned, even belaboured, how much I loathe starting a sentence with a digit. Writer Garrie Fletcher pointed out that I could’ve written it as “Fifty-Eight Keys” instead.

I considered his point and concluded: “Bugger.”

So here we are with seven hundred and four thousand. I didn’t intend to use digits in any form this time: if I were planning to use digits again, I really think I should be talking your phone number and dialling it. Why in the world we don’t just talk over the phone or better yet over a tea, I have no idea.

But it’s funny I should say the word phone. It’s almost as if I planned this. For yesterday, 29 June, was the tenth anniversary of the iPhone going on sale. Or rather, going on sale in America: it didn’t come to the UK until 10 November 2007. Which makes today not the tenth anniversary but the 9 years, 7 months and 20 days anniversary. It’s the 502 weeks and 6 days anniversary. It’s the 9.64 years anniversary. It’s the 3,520th day’s anniversary and yes, I used Wolfram Alpha to work that out.

I’m a bit more vague on two other numbers. Some number of years ago, I was doing a thing where either I was paid to see how often I used my iPhone on an average day or possibly it was a really average day and I was just very bored. Not sure. I’m also not sure what the number was. But I think it was about 200. That includes just picking the thing up to see the time and it probably doesn’t including making phone calls because – look at you and me – we never ring anyone anymore.

I’ve got a feeling that there’s some academic study that says iPhone users average somewhere around 200 uses a day. The Daily Mail says it’s 85 times but look at that source again, we can rule that out. Last year Apple said iPhones are typically unlocked around 80 times per day but the number of times I unlock it to do one thing and put it down again are few. A research firm I’ve never heard of before, dscout, says Android users touch their phone 2,617 times per day.

So I think my estimate that I use my iPhone 200 times daily is reasonable, maybe conservative. But that means that since they came out, I’ve used mine 704,000 times.

This is a device that didn’t exist a decade ago and now you never intentionally leave home without it. For about eight of those ten-ish years, I did not once leave it behind anywhere. Since I’ve had an Apple Watch, I’ve left my phone at home or in the car maybe a dozen times. Never deliberately, but still its demon lock on me is loosening.

Still, look at this thing. I’ve never written a book on one but I have written articles – I do a weekly Writers’ Guild opinion column and the latest one was written, edited and sent entirely from my phone – and I doubt there’s a book I’ve worked on that I didn’t write something for on it. Maybe a draft chapter. Absolutely without question some notes of some kind as I’ve been doing research.

I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on my phone. So that means I can’t have come to Austen until this last decade. She’s a bit life-changing all by herself: I’ve read her other novels since and I’ve re-read P&P and I’ve aspired to write as well as she did. Because of my phone.

Very early on, I remember stepping onto a train to Edinburgh while making corrections to a Radio Times article. I’ve sat on the London Underground making really fiddly corrections to PDF invoices that I then emailed as soon as I got up to street level. And got paid an hour later.

I’ve tutted at it when Apple Maps couldn’t find a place I needed. Then shortly afterwards I have sworn like a docker when Google Maps was able to find the place yet I then couldn’t find how to make the damn thing start the directions to there.

Oh! Sitting in a carpark near Birmingham City University, doing photo editing. I cannot recall what in the world I could’ve been editing, but it was for a job, it was for publication and it was for right now, please. I could do quite remarkable Photoshop-style work in my car using Pixelmator instead of driving home to my office to use actual Photoshop on my Mac.

Three weeks ago, driving in to Hull and telling my phone to play Misterioso by Thelonious Monk and it doing so. My car filled with the sound of this music that was appropriate to my job that day but which I don’t have, I’ve never owned.

Over these ten years, writing has changed and the job of a writer has expanded to cover so many other things. All of them needing, using, stretching the same writing muscles and so very many of them needing, using, stretching my iPhone.

Mind you, I’ve had an iPhone for 3,520 days so that would be just about 3,520 times that the bloody battery’s run out before the end of the day.

RIP iPhone 5: 2012-2015

The last thing I expected Self Distract to become is a diary. But I just looked up a piece from September 2012 and you could argue that it’s not a Dear Diary entry, but it is. J’queues Apple was about buying an iPhone 5 and it was a proper enough, standalone enough, non-diary-enough entry that a magazine bought it. I remember their buying it paid a bit toward the cost of the iPhone 5.

But there’s the thing: I read the piece and I remember that. I can remember the face of someone I describe in it, I can feel the coldness of the day. I didn’t actually buy the phone that same day, I came back the next I think, chiefly because of the queue. I can see that queue: 1,600 people in a line. Do take a read some time: I think I make some good points about how yes, it is silly to queue for a phone but it’s the good kind of silly and no, it’s not the result of marketing hype. The summary is that maybe, maybe you can get 1,600 people though a marketing effort but you can’t get them twice. They won’t come back if the thing isn’t worth their queuing. This was the fifth time people queued for an iPhone, we’re not that stupid.

Only, the reason I looked this entry up is because yesterday, that iPhone 5 of mine died. If you have even passed me in the street during these last three years, you’ve seen me using that phone. Given the figures from once when I wrote about how often people use their phone and researched my own usage one day, it looks like I probably used my iPhone 5 in some way 233,220 times from its purchase to its death.

That’s 9.6 times per hour. It’s once every 6.25 minutes.

And I’m sure that’s wrong. I’m sure that is far, far too low a figure. My business ran through that iPhone, my life ran through it.

And I think what makes me sad about the iPhone dying is that it represented a particularly key slice of my business and life. Also a little growing up for me: I can see in that old entry that I was no longer automatically updating each time an iPhone came out, I was judging it, assessing the money, I was thinking about it. I was buying, but I was thinking about it more first.

Which all grew to the point where I did not buy an iPhone 6 when they came out even though my two-year phone contract was up. I couldn’t afford it, the price next to what difference it made just wasn’t worth it. Plus for the first time there were serious options in the iPhone: there were two models, each much bigger in your hand than my iPhone 5 and lots of reasons to go either way. I looked into it and I realised I simply wasn’t enjoying looking into it.

So for the first time since I think 1997, certainly the first time since 2007 when the original iPhone came out, I finished my two-year contract and did not go on to another one. It was the most financially astute thing I’ve ever done because I was paying about £42/month for the phone plus (sort of) unlimited 4G. Once the two years were up and because I specifically went in to say oi, why do you think I’m going to carry on paying you for the phone that I’ve now completely paid off, I got a new (sort of) unlimited 4G plan for £18/month.

I felt like a hard-hearted, cold negotiating businessman and it felt rather good. That plan is the least I have ever paid for a phone and there it was, all the data I could use, more talking minutes in the monthly plan than there are actually minutes in the month. Plus it was using my now beloved iPhone 5.

For beloved, do read beloved but also read used. Heavily used. Say excessively: I don’t mind and I wouldn’t disagree.

But heavily used does come with a price. The very day I bought it and the Apple sales man or woman put it in my hand, I dropped it. I dropped it because was so unexpectedly light that you had to adjust to holding it.

I don’t know how many times I’ve dropped it since: I didn’t and I don’t think it was very many, but it did happen. It just didn’t happen recently and yet for the past two months, I’ve been seeing big problems. The front glass presses in where it shouldn’t. The whole phone has taken to randomly restarting – and when it did that, I felt lucky because in a few minutes it would be back. Other times it would just lock up entirely. That was a giant problem when I was driving somewhere I didn’t know. Better that the phone crashed than the car did, but still.

Yesterday morning my iPhone 5 randomly restarted – and never stopped. It stayed on the restarting screen for an hour. It would be more but I had a gig to go to so I drove off to that and got lost without Siri. Checked the yes-still-dead-dammit phone a couple of times during the day, set up a thing for a friend on his iPhone 6 – and held it rather lustily, a working iPhone, imagine that – and worked out how many calls, emails, texts, Facebook messages and tweets I was missing. “I just tweeted you,” said another friend at this event. “MY IPHONE ISN’T WORKING” I replied, calmly.

I drove to the Apple Store after the gig and I bought an iPhone 6.

Reluctantly. There are still reasons to choose one model over the other but for the first time buying the phone wasn’t pleasure, it was entirely business. A business necessity rather than something fun. Striding in to the Apple Store and saying hello to the first person working there. (Her name is Davinia, she was smart and clever and funny and I enjoyed the 40 minutes or so I spent talking with her.)

But for the first time there was no savouring the purchase, there was no pondering which model and which size to get. I need that one in this size and I don’t like white, I’m not keen on gold, I’ll take the Space Grey one, please.

If you think it odd to write one Self Distract about excitedly buying an iPhone 5 and another about reluctantly buying the iPhone 6, I’d pretty much have to agree. Given that this is a eulogy to the 5, you have more of a point. Given that I’m also sounding right miserable about doing it, your point knows no bounds.

But the eulogy is fair, I think. I’m not the man I was in 2012 but I am a man who has been having the creative time of his life since then. That’s not because I bought an iPhone 5, this isn’t a commercial, but work and career and life have become radically more fulfilling over the time I had that phone. Not always paying enough, I am freelance, but creative and fulfilling in spades. Since September 2012 I’ve done 186 public speaking events of various kinds and my iPhone has been at the lot of them.

That 2012 Self Distract entry got bought by Macworld magazine – or iPhone World, I’m blank now, sorry – and in 2015 I am writing for MacNN.com. I just delivered my 293rd piece for them since December last year and it was the first that I’d done using an iPhone 6.

I’ve changed and so have iPhones. This 6 is even lighter than the 5 – I did exactly and precisely the same thing when Davinia handed the box to me and I got the phone out, I dropped it because it was so much lighter than my hands expected. It’s also faster than I expected. The screen is rather gorgeous. I had a fun time last night remembering what apps I had on the front screen and getting them back there again plus adding another row.

And when we’re done talking, I’ll be using this iPhone to direct me to my first meeting of the day. I’ll make notes on the way, I may make notes during the meeting. There’s a strong chance I’ll listen to Apple Music en route – that’s another change since the 5, I haven’t put any music on the phone at all this time yet I’ve got 30,000,000 tracks on it.

And there is unfortunately the very greatest of chances that I will set up the damn health and exercise stuff on this bloody machine. It will count how many steps I take, it will count the number of times I go up and down the stairs. It will not notice how much tea I drink or chocolate I eat, though, so there’s that.

I didn’t want to buy the phone now, I at least wanted to wait until I could enjoy choosing one and I particularly didn’t want to buy when we’re at most two months away from the next model, the iPhone 6s. That will be better in some way or other but I will never know because I won’t look. So there.

Yet it is a startlingly fast and fun phone to use. I feel bad about being reluctant to buy it. I feel rather good that this is what will be with me about 10 times an hour from now on. And I’ll tell you that the pleasure of being back with a working phone is tremendous. So tremendous that it isn’t even dented by the sheer bleedin’ volume of emails I’ve got to answer.

Keep me from them, just for a little longer. Can I buy you a coffee?

Scotland Decides: iPhone 6 or 6 Plus?

Yes, yes, Scotland’s vote over whether to stay in the UK is overwhelming me, it’s occupied me a lot lately and quite a bit for 18 months or so. But a schism in the UK and the potential loss to the union of one of the finest nations in the in the world, that happens every day.

Plus I’m not Scottish nor am I in Scotland so I can’t actually do anything.

Whereas having two iPhone models to pick from, that’s new. Plus if I think very hard about it, I can make a decision and do something about that.

Look, I have nothing to add to the Scotland debate yet I can’t let this moment pass without acknowledging how important is. How important it is in every way but also how important it is to me.

Wait, I do think this one thing that I’ve not heard in the debates. The UK’s sudden promises of new powers and extra autonomy for Scotland sounds to me exactly like a bloke saying “I’ll be better, things will be different now”. You know that’s never true and I’m afraid neither is what’s being said about new powers: if Scotland decides to stay in the UK, that’s a done deal, we’ll get back to you about those new powers. Right. Sure.

Already you think I’m pro Scotland leaving.

And I don’t know.

My automatic, natural, default position is that we are all better off together. It kills me, though, that “better together” is the line for the No side that wants Scotland to stay in the union. It kills me because while I don’t generally think about being English, there are things in that campaign that make me wish I weren’t.

Being in England, it’s only very recently that I’ve got to see much detail about the debate. (I think that’s very bad, I think that’s made it sound like we’ve had a week talking about it instead of all these months. But at least it’s a big thing on the news now.)

I hope I’m wrong, then, but of the bits I’ve managed to hear over the whole campaign, everything from the No side has seemed to be patronising, fearmongering and – I’m struggling to remember a specific thing here so let me throw in the word allegedly – allegedly just an out and out lie.

That’s not something to make you proud.

That is something to make you want to run away.

But wanting to run away is an emotional response: if I were able to vote in this and I did so based on how furious the No campaign makes me feel, would that be right? We can’t know what will happen if Scotland leaves – or if we can, neither side has been very convincingly informative – so it’s hard to be coldly logical or analytical. I’m not sure that I would entirely want to be coldly logical or analytical: this isn’t a maths problem.

It’s not like, for instance, a 4.7in iPhone screen versus a 5.5in one. That’s a toughie.

Appy anniversary

This week is the sixth anniversary of the original App Store: the iPhone app store that is now responsible for how I spend a significant portion of every working day. Before then, apps were known as applications and not really that well known at all, not per se. Your mother didn’t ask you what an application was. Mine has asked me what an app is.

Mind you, before then, phones were known for being phones. And for being hard to use. I remember trying to read the manual in a theatre: I had a small production on and guests were coming, I needed to have the phone on but muted. Never worked it out.

Now it’s preposterously easy to do with an iPhone but actually calls must be the least thing I use it for. Because I run my life through the apps on it. The iPhone came with apps – the Phone is an app, but there was also an email one, music, calendar – and there are ones from that set that I have used every day since 2007 when I got my first iPhone. Right this minute my phone’s front screen has 20 very, very well-worn apps of which 10 are Apple’s.

That’s more than I expected. Look at the other 10, though:

OmniFocus – my beloved To Do manager
Fantastical 2 – my newly beloved calendar
Pocket – for reading saved articles from the web
Drafts – for jotting down text and then deciding what to do with it, whether to send a text or save to Evernote
Evernote – speak of the devil
Reeder 2 – for reading a lot, I mean a lot, of news every day
Wordpress – for doing some twiddles with this site
HulloMail – a replacement for iPhone voicemail since I’m on 3 that doesn’t support this naturally
LocalScope – for finding restaurants, companies, ATMs, bookshops, anything nearby
1Password – all my passwords and logins at a tap
AwesomeClock – my bedside clock
Concise Oxford English Dictionary (with audio) – what the words mean and how to pronounce them

There probably hasn’t been an hour of daylight in six years that I haven’t used one or more of those.


Six years.

It’s a long time.

I wanted to know what the first was.

The first app I ever bought.

If you want to do this, the quickest way is to open iTunes on your Mac or PC, go to the App Store and check Purchased. You can’t tell a date from that, unfortunately, but the apps are stored in order. If you have more patience and a steady hand, you can get approximately the right date by going through your Accounts section and slogging, slogging, slogging back through the listings there. Very slow, very long. And the date is the invoice date, not the download one. So it can be the same day, it can be the day after. But as near as you will ever be able to determine, that’s when you got each app. Including your first.

My first ever app was… actually, it was two, I bought two at the same time and can’t tell which was first. But the two were NYTimes – Breaking National & World News and Yulan Mahjong Solitaire. I bough them on 11 July 2008, so that’s six years ago today, and together they cost me £2.99. I’ve just checked and the New York Times one is free, Yulan Mahjong is now £1.19.

They’re both fine but neither lasted on my home screen and I know this for certain because of this. This is what my iPhone home screen has looked like for the last six years.

The music there is “Last Week” from Green Wing’s soundtrack by Trellis.

There is one advantage to slogging, slogging, slogging through your iTunes Store account: you get to find out when you bought everything.

So I can tell you that the first book I ever bought through Apple’s iBooks Store was a free copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The first one I paid for appears to be some psychology thing called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. I bought those both on 28 May 2010 and have only read the Austen. The first paid-for iBook I bought and read – and loved, incidentally – is Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant, bought on 29 May 2010.

The first TV episode was the free pilot to Damages: never watched it. The first paid one was The Mighty Boosh’s The Nightmare of Milky Joe, which I’d stumbled across on TV and it silenced the room, we all got so engrossed. I bought that on 2 March 2008 and I must go watch it again.

Films came to the iTunes Store before TV but my first wasn’t until 7 June 2008 and The Paper Chase. It cost me £6.99 and I’ve not watched it. I’m feeling bad about all this now. But the second film, the first paid for and also watched, was Searching for Bobby Fischer, aka Innocent Moves aka the subject of this blog by Ken Armstrong.

And all this buying from the iTunes stores started with music. On 15 June 2004, I spent £3.16 buying In Between Days by The Cure, Always the Last to Know and Be My Downfall by Del Amitri, and Jokerman by Bob Dylan. The first album, two days later, was Greatest Radio Hits by Bruce Hornsby.

None of which has had the impact that the apps I’ve bought this way did, but all part of this peculiar sea change that saw me move away from CDs, move to phones that work, move to actually the life and the career that I have right now. I like telling you that my working life would not be recognisable to me if all this hadn’t happened but I don’t like wondering what I’d have ended up doing.