Category Archives: Zilch

Things that don’t really belong anywhere else

What happens when you write sketch comedy

Lovesy3I am being tracked by robots.  This is mildly disconcerting.  The way it works is like this: I put out a tweet announcing another new comedy sketch by David Lovesy – this one, for example.  The tweet is picked-up and retweeted by two or three Twitter Bots – software automatons that scour social media for postings relevant to a particular subject and retweet them.  This seems fair enough.  The things that we publish in this field would seem to be directly relevant to Comedy Bot.  The presence of SitCom Bot amongst the retweeters suggests that these things are not particularly fine-tuned, and indeed they seem to be triggered purely by the words “Sketch” or “Comedy” appearing in a tweet.  To illustrate the consequences of this, consider Writing Bot which seems to retweet messages containing the word “write” or “writing”.  I found, for example, that it had retweeted someone’s complaint that “I will need to write a big cheque”.  This is a direct application of relativism, the standpoint that, when taking a broad perspective, all writing is of equal value.

These bots are primitive.  Someone putting the resource into it might be able to programme a learning algorithm to examine someone’s online presence and deduce the relevance of their output as a whole to a particular subject and therefore choose whether to retweet them on the basis of context, rather than just simple trigger words.  That’s possible with today’s technology (though not necessarily with technology easily available to Twitter users).

I find this disconcerting when I think about the mechanics of Twitter.  Twitter posts are public utterances, but they are received only by followers of the writer or by people (or robots) who go looking for them.  So a robot retweeting content only matters to people who follow the robot.  So who follows a robot?  I can think of two easy answers to that question: journalists and obsessives.  These are people who would be looking for content relevant to a specific area of interest and might legitimately want to cast the net as widely as possible.  What these people will receive is a few nuggets relevant to their research amidst a raging torrent of noise.  Robots are, of course, also followed by other robots.  This happens when a twitter account is automatically set to follow accounts that have retweeted its postings.  The result is that, over time, Twitter will become a robotic mutual appreciation society with minimal human involvement.

Cameron’s Fig Leaf

FigFlag2As I write this, there is a referendum campaign in progress about whether or not Britain should leave the European Union.  I have to say, I don’t like it.  Not, the European Union, the referendum.  I have never liked the idea of a referendum and now I have realised why.

The point of a referendum is to allow the whole voting population to make an informed decision.  The problem with that is in the word “informed”.  Most of us aren’t.  Some of us hoped to be informed by the referendum campaign, but again, we have a problem of semantics: this time, it’s “campaign”.  Once the starting gun has been fired, we find ourselves being addressed by politicians whose aim is not to inform, but to persuade.  At that stage, they have made up their minds and their objective is to promote their opinion, not to share the truth.  Thus if there are facts to be had, and those facts do not support the views of a particular side, then that side will do its best to muddy the waters, so that the electorate are no longer clear on what is a fact and what isn’t.

It can be argued that we should have informed ourselves before the start of the campaign.  That is a hopelessly naive position.  One cannot be an expert in every field, and in any case, to whom should we turn for this information?  Not the press.  Reporting of the EU in the British press is not even adequate; at best, summits are covered superficially, at worst we get lies (the straight banana stories) that support the proprietors’ agenda.  (In addition to any political part of the newspapers’ agenda, there is the basic commercial imperative to sell newspapers.  We buy gossip and we buy artificial outrage.  We don’t buy factual reportage.)

The referendum is a political fig leaf.  It’s purpose is to hide embarrassing divisions in a political party.  (The current referendum is a way of avoiding divisions in the Conservative party; the 1975 referendum – on the original EU accession treaty – was held to avoid divisions in Labour.)  It overcomes the need for politicians to do their job: their job – the job for which we elected them – is to inform themselves and make decisions.  As it is, they are playing solely for their personal advantage; they have made up their minds and they are misinforming us.

So, after all that, will I be voting in the referendum?  Certainly.

I look at it from a business viewpoint and a personal one.  For business, I want the largest possible market with the fewest rules.  Those rules need to apply to everyone competing in the market.  (That’s the famous level playing field.)
I find myself dealing with a lot of rules imposed on business – taxation, employment law, employee pensions, copyright law – all of which come from the British government and all of which are necessary to ensure that I behave fairly towards my staff, towards my suppliers and towards the country as a whole.  The one bureaucratic constraint I face from the EU as an on-line trader is VAT.  For on-line sales, I need to apply the VAT rate of the receiving country.  The UK applies a zero rate of VAT for physical books, but the standard (20%) rate for electronic copies of the same books.  France applies a reduced rate (5.5%) for books and for electronic copies.  Germany applies the standard rate (19% ) for books and electronic copies.  This is the result of nation states behaving as nation states and trying to gain advantage over one another (or do favours to particular local lobbies).  As a business, we have to keep track of this; I would distinctly prefer a regime of one set of VAT rules and one set of VAT rates throughout Europe. From that viewpoint, I want more European integration, not less.
From a personal point of view, I want to travel with the minimum of hassle from border controls (from which viewpoint, a vote to leave is a vote for more bureaucracy).

I shall be voting to remain.

How Long is a Piece of Theatre?

How long is...So you’ve written your play, now you want to know if it’s the right length.  At one level, that doesn’t matter: the ideal length for your play is the time it takes for you to say what you want to say.  The perfect play might last three minutes or three hours.  To someone selecting a play, however, the run time matters.  Does it fill an evening’s entertainment?  Does the length justify the effort of constructing the set?  Will it fit within the time limits allowed by a competition?  From that viewpoint, some way of estimating the length will be useful.

At this point, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can make an estimate.  The bad news is that it won’t be perfect.  Firstly, some aspects of timing are outside the writer’s control: stage business, scene changes and slickness of production.  Secondly, style make a lot of difference to run time; for example, compare Samuel Beckett’s lengthy pauses to the manic pace of a Ray Cooney farce.  Estimates of stage time will be approximate. So what’s the best approximation?

Page Count

The most common way of estimating is Page Count, with the usual approximation being one minute per page.  The basic flaw in this is that it assumes that everyone uses a standard page layout.  They don’t (and, in my opinion, they should not – a play should be written in whatever format works best for the writer.  See, for example ‘Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?‘).
The run time of a page of a play depends on:-

  1. The size of the paper (US Letter paper, used in North America is a different size from A4, used in most of the rest of the world).
  2. Page margins.
  3. Line spacing (single spacing? double spacing? single spacing within a speech and double spacing between speeches?).
  4. The point size of the font.
  5. The packing of the type face (monospaced fonts like Courier will occupy much more space than a highly-packed proportional font like Times New Roman).
  6. Average speech length.
  7. Style (a one-minute Beckett pause should consume a full page).
  8. All the performance issues over which the writer has no control.

Average speech length can cause major variations in estimated run time.  Compare the terse David Mamet to the long-winded George Bernard Shaw.  By my estimation, the first nine speeches of Mamet’s Duck Variations consume 23 words, whereas the first nine speeches of Shaw’s Arms and the Man weigh in at 296 words.  (In 11 point Courier1, those nine speeches of Mamet’s will occupy nine lines, but Shaw’s will occupy 31.)  Typically a page of Shaw, with ten words per line, will take much longer to read than a page of Mamet with three.

Word Count

Word Count does away with the first five factors affecting page count and most of the sixth. Just take the text from the opening scene-setting direction through to the final curtain and count all the words2.   All you need to know is that 10,000 words of script will occupy around an hour of stage time and pro rata from there – so 1000 words take six minutes3.  This is the same sort of estimate as the estimate behind Page Count, but Word Count does away with most of the variability in Page Count and will therefore, typically be more accurate with the additional advantage that it needs fewer rules.

Spurious accuracy

Just because Word Count is more accurate than Page Count, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect.  In addition to the issues of style and performance, some aspects of the writing may lead to an inaccurate estimation of duration.  Consider the following stage direction:

Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, cleans it carefully then loads five bullets.

Word Count would say that takes five seconds, but that careful cleaning might last a minute. Then consider

Whilst Fran is talking, Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, examines and cleans it slowly and carefully then loads five bullets, leaving one chamber empty.

Word Count allows nine seconds for this (the same action4), but actually it takes no time at all, because the time is occupied by Fran’s speech.  Directions can throw the estimate out in either direction.  (Note that this also applies to Page Count.)

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we give an estimated length of each play based on Word Count.  We use the same measure throughout for consistency, and we base our category boundaries and the web site searches on that estimate.  Typically, this will mean rigid boundaries where reality is more fluid.  This is at its most problematical for one-act play competitions, where (typically) the rules require plays to run for between 20 minutes and 50 minutes, with penalties for breaking the rules.  Something that we estimate at 55 minutes may come in below the 50 minute boundary in a pacey production; a bit of creative stage business may make an 18 minute short play into a one-act festival piece.
For festival performers, the moral here is not to be too rigid with the published timings; find a piece you like, then test the length based on the way you intend to perform it.  For authors writing for festivals with time constraints, aim to give a cushion around the boundaries – but bear in mind my opening remarks about the perfect length.

  1. The speeches that took up 31 lines in 11 point Courier used 23 lines in Times New Roman.  Courier is a waste of space.
  2. Your word-processor will usually do the counting for you.
  3. I had been using 10,000 words per hour as a rule of thumb for several years when I came across a statistic that the typical speed of spoken English is 170 words per minute.
  4. Long-winded stage directions will distort run-time estimates.


10 Reasons Why I Hate Lists

Daily Habits Mask Pain performed at CTC 2013
‘Daily Habits Mask Pain’ at CTC 2013. Photo: Rah Petherbridge.

Sky Blue Theatre runs the Cambridge Theatre Challenge, a writing competition for new short plays.  Shortlisted plays are performed and the audience gets to select the winning play.
The 2014 productions were staged at the Lost Theatre in London, with ten plays spread over two evenings.  I was one of the guest speakers on the Saturday night.  (In this case a guest speaker is someone whose job is to talk while the festival organisers count the audience votes.)

After the event, I was interviewed by Rah Petherbridge for their next round of publicity.  Her first question was to ask me for a list:
–        “Can you give me three tips for new writers?
Being me, I got as far as the first tip and that was that.  A five minute interview duly consumed.

This is by way of a gentle riposte…

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Lists

1.  Lists trivialise complex issues

The world cannot be reduced to ten simple points.  (It needs at least twelve.)

2.  Lists give a false sense of order

Some things can be quantified: the world’s tallest buildings.
Some things can be quantified but need careful qualification: I once reached number seven in the Southern Echo’s top ten album sales.  This was because the statistic was based on sales from the one music shop in Southampton (in the entire country, in the entire world) that was selling the album.
Some things should not be quantified.  I’ve just found a newspaper article about England’s top ten trees.  (Does anyone else hear a voice saying “Number one, the larch”?)

3. They’re subjective

Lists reflect the views and priorities of the person compiling the list.  I demand the right to set my own priorities.  This may well mean writing my own list.  (See 10.)

4. They belittle everything else

The world is full of wonderful things that don’t appear on any top ten list.

5. They’re a substitute for thinking

We read lists instead of forming our own opinions.

6. There’s usually at least one point wrong

See 9.

7. They’re used as space fillers

Lazy journalists and bloggers use the list format when they can’t think of anything else to write.

8. They’re used as click-bait

Because we like lists so much, we can’t resist clicking on a link to a list.

9. They’re not good for irony

See 1.

10. They’re addictive

We all like reading lists.
That’s why there will be more along soon…

Thrift Shoppe

This is a reblog with annotations.  The reason it’s a reblog rather than just directing you to Reading Thoughts, the source, is that (for people like me who are only conversant with parts of the picture) it needs some background in order to appreciate the richness of the parody.

First you have to know about the original Thrift Shop.  This is by a rapper called Macklemore (and his collaborator Ryan Lewis).  If you are not familiar therewith, then you can find it on Ryan Lewis’s YouTube channel.  (Caution: contains rap.)

So the source is a rap about buying second-hand clothes. This was parodied very briefly by the Shakespeare Lyrics account on Twitter (@ShakespeareSong):-

I shalt pop some tags, only possess 20 shillings within my pocket.

Hank Green (of the Vlog Brothers), picked this up on his Tumblr page (  He could have criticised the use of the second person “shalt” with the first person “I”, but he contented himself with:-

Not Iambic….Do Not Accept…

Which was what set Jonny off to create this longer parody:-

These tags I’ll pop, and boast in rhyming verse
that what I wear puts swagger in my gait;
though twenty shillings have I in my purse,
my self-esteem and manhood both inflate
when lofty furs I purchase for a cent.
Thy grandpa’s clothes are worthy salvage, though
they smell a trifle musty. Still, I spent
much less to dress myself from head to toe.

 To save or not to save? The question’s moot.
I’ll never give my coin to high-street crooks.
These dusty shelves will yield their hidden loot
to those, like me, more frugal in their looks.
Like ancient coins washed up on distant shores,
I’ll find my treasures in these thrifty stores.
– Macklemore, “Thrift Shoppe

ASDA vs the English Language

Life as a Literalist – Part 1 (since this will probably become a series)

An article in The Guardian about the Bad Grammar Award degenerated, as usual, into a below-the-line slanging match between descriptivists and prescriptivists.  Prescriptivists typically want grammar to have immutable rules, whilst for descriptivists, grammar is the way people use the language.  I would like to be in the descriptivist camp but because I have a very literal frame of mind, I also want clarity.  Language should be used to make distinctions.  This is illustrated by Dorothy L Sayers through her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise:

If you say “Our perry is made from fresh-plucked pears only,” then it’s got to be made from pears only, or the statement is actionable; if you just say it is made “from pears,” without the “only,” the betting is that it is probably made chiefly of pears; but if you say, “made with pears,” you generally mean that you use a peck of pears to a ton of turnips, and the law cannot touch you. Such are the niceties of our English tongue.”

Take, for example, the following simple piece of labelling from ASDA:La vie c'est une chose de la fois

There’s no comma after the “Farmhouse”, so the clear interpretation is that the mushrooms were harvested from the dark, dank cellars of rural settlements, and furthermore the pâté is made from (and by the Sayers definition, chiefly from), mushrooms and peppercorns.  That, however, is not what the labellers of ASDA mean. They intend that missing comma.  But then it becomes a categorisation error: “farmhouse” is intended to describe the style, implying a coarse pâté, rather than a smooth Brussels pâté.  It is not meant to say anything about the source or components of the product; the only time that pâté will see a farmhouse is when a customer takes it there.  By contrast the fungi and spices are ingredients.  What they are actually selling is farmhouse pâté with mushrooms and peppercorns.

Is this important?  Well, yes.  A pâté made from mushrooms and peppercorns could be expected, for example, to be suitable for vegetarians, whereas in this case the majority of ingredients are of porcine origin.

The peppercorns have, however, added some welcome ambiguity; ASDA’s “Farmhouse & Mushroom Pâté” is definitely made principally from finely chopped and ground farmhouses.

The Three Glendas

A Business Process Rant

Back in the days when I had a corporate job, there was a mania for process documentation.  The rule was ‘document what you do and do what you document’.  This made greatest sense in the financial departments, where it was vital to have a process with minimal risk of fraud and a financial audit trail.  Thus, for example, the process for receiving incoming cheques said that post received by the finance department was opened by the Finance Manager’s secretary.  Cheques received in that post were passed to the finance clerk who recorded them in the ledger and passed them to the chief cashier for banking.  A secure process with an audit trail for a cheque passed through three pairs of hands.

Financial Audit OKThis was brought to mind by my dealings with Local Education Authorities.  They have processes for dealing with new suppliers to ensure that they do not leave themselves open to fraud.  They need to guard against both internal and external fraud.  External is more straightforward: the fraudster sends in a bill for a service the authority has not received (on the assumption that the authority is so busy that it never checks its invoices).

Internal fraud has various more complex forms.  Say, for example, that members of the LEA staff create a scam where they say that they have received a service, they then set up a fictitious company who send an invoice for the service, which is then authorised and paid.  It is essential that LEAs protect themselves against this sort of activity.  They do it by having a business process that checks the bona fides of any new supplier.   I have no quibble with the need for a process, and some of the LEAs make checks in an entirely rational way.  On the other hand, I get very annoyed by those that don’t do it rationally.  There are some organisations who, on receiving an invoice from a new supplier, use the information on the invoice to ask the new supplier to send a standard set of information, most of which is already on the invoice.  The process here would seem to involve asking the same person for the same information twice in the hope of spotting a different answer.

I get even more annoyed when part of that standard set of information is the bank account details for BACS payment (see the invoice!) together with the signature of a responsible manager.  Now, the receiving organisation does not have any way of verifying that signature; the most they can do is examine it in a post hoc investigation of fraud and say “now I come to look at it, that really does look like the writing of Bob the Janitor”.  For a large supplier, that doesn’t really matter.  For a small supplier, the responsible manager is quite likely to be the person who signs the cheques.  Consequently the LEA keeps on file a set of signatures matched to bank account details just waiting for a disgruntled employee to indulge in a spot of forgery.  So rather than protecting the LEA from fraud, the process involves a (small) increase in the risk of fraud against their suppliers.

I would feel more confident in the LEA’s processes if, rather than asking the supplier to complete a form, it asked the LEA’s financial officer what checks they had undertaken to verify that the supplier was genuine, supplied the goods invoiced and that the details of the invoice were genuine.  The ways of doing that could be different for each supplier (in our case, the Internet would be a good place to start), but would require the purchasing officer to apply some thought.  Without that thought, it’s just a box-ticking exercise; to my mind, there is no point in having a process unless it is capable of achieving its objective.

Which brings me back to the process in which Glenda, the Finance Manager’s secretary passed incoming checks to Glenda, the accounts clerk who booked them in the ledger before passing them to Glenda, the chief cashier for banking.

I should probably add that the company had only one employee named Glenda.