Twitter Joke Trial Comedy Gig

The first thing to note about the Twitter Joke Trial comedy gig was that it was almost the background music to the mother of all "tweet-ups", which had occurred beforehand at the Northumberland Arms pub. This is exactly as it should've been. Up and down the country, people organise these on a regular basis and meet up in pubs and restaurants, to literally find likeminded new friends that they never knew were around the corner if it hadn't been for Twitter. This "tweet-up" was probably bigger than the usual "tweet-up", for two reasons. Firstly, the focus was on the service itself, that many use as a form of free expression which helps them find similar souls in similar tweets. Secondly, Paul Chambers and his girlfriend, Sarah (am I allowed to say her name, it feels like I should keep calling her @crazycolours?) were both to be present. They could drink with their virtual friends and supporters in real life. Paul Chambers, of course, is the man that paid the price of free expression on Twitter, when the police arrested him for his humorous tweet about Robin Hood airport. It was for him, in the first instance, that the comedy gig had been organised. After this pub foray, the crowd moved to the Bloomsbury Theatre, for the comedy gig itself.

Stephen Fry began proceedings in a reflective manner. It set the rest of the night up, because he was keen to point out that it was in everyone's interest to support this campaign for allowing freedom of speech in the digital medium. He got several cheers, particularly when he made his (now widely reported) statement about going to jail for it. This bitterly humourous, languid and sombre start threw Al Murray's entrance into even sharper relief, as he was not just the next act, but the compere for the entire night. It's difficult not to hand Al Murray the entire night on a plate, but as well as his Barman being the blustering engine underneath the entire night and being the connecting force between each act, his own comedy routine was rousing and got a real feeling of audience participation going. This was perhaps the most important thing. Being as Twitter's main appeal is all about everyone being in the mix and anyone getting a chance to shine in the light, Al Murray ended up being an important anchor to the whole show. Al Murray introduced Susan Calman, who kicked off the event in context by mentioning her own legal training. Her icily Glaswegian demeanour foreshadowed David Allen Green’s speech; namely, that lawyers and the legal profession just don’t know what they’re talking about sometimes and get it dreadfully wrong.

For the rest of the night, we then got punched several times in the laughter bones, with no letting up. I make no secret of the fact I was retching with laughter at times. My own personal King of the night was easily Gary Delaney. He went about delivering a series of one-liner puns, laced with cyanide, like a dark Tim Vine or a hyperactive Steve Wright. Jack Whitehall came across at his best in this environment too. By that, I mean he came across as the sullen posh kid who discovered he’s funny and decided to leave the public school dormitory and entertain a wider audience with ascerbic and uncensored observations. Stephen Grant, like his colourful shirt and bright white suit, projected his sunny demeanour into the Bloomsbury Theatre and elevated life into a hazily amusing and warm memory. In sharp contrast, Katy Brand practically assaulted the stage, as she emerged from the audience in army camouflage fatigues and with bomb sirens whirring around her. She then played the role of a genuinely unsettling army soldier who harangued the audience and unwittingly showed what would’ve happened if Lynndie England had branched out into comedy (and had been funny).

With more playful japes to go, Rufus Hound provided one of the first genuine highlights of the night. A slightly bogged-down routine about men liking their cocks sucked was kick-started into hyperdrive as he played his radio show rant at Edwina Currie. Hound's audio clip boiled down the arguments of cynical Twitter Joke Trial campaign commentators, by pointing out the inaccuracies, ignorances and misperceptions of observers like Currie. It was also howlingly hilarious to hear Rufus Hound repeatedly (and correctly) telling her that she was wrong. Most people who are aware of Currie's contributions to discussion shows knows she talks frequently in a misinformed and rude manner anyway.

Robert Popper popped up (sorry, he's probably had that before) and his gentle comic musings were another way of reminding us that free expression involves funny stuff beyond the stage and traditional media outlets. He played a video clip of a phone-in show, where his alter ego Robin Cooper called up and bizarrely complimented a man's singing, before attempting to sing his own self-written ridiculous melody and lyrics. I wasn't certain how the audience were going to react to Popper's routine, as I knew it'd be 'oddball' compared to the more traditional stand-up that had occurred. However, the laughter was loud, particularly at the reactions of the hosts of the radio show (i.e. totally baffled and non-plussed). David Schneider's performance disgraced all of us who have hit a certain age by being disgustingly full of energy and left us with two highlights of the evening. Firstly, he gave his demonstration of premature ejaculation with an audience member (@krunchie_frog, who also very nearly upstaged him). Secondly, he followed this up with his multiple-dance-routines-morphed-into-one. It really needed to be seen to be believed, but it astounded and amused the crowd in equal measures.

The night closed with Graham Linehan, the man who can be credited with organising a fair chunk of the evening. He guides us through a pile of rubbish. By that, I mean his routine is literally about rubbish. It's about the delightful detritus, debris and random odds-and-sods that litter the web. It's the comedy and stream-of-consciousness funniness that can't fit into a television sitcom, sketch show or stand-up comedy and it's no poorer for being the oddball in the room. The D.I.Y. approach of these little internet demigods also underlines what Graham was excited about, namely that the comedy is generated from people sitting at home and they are not necessarily from the pens of professional comedy writers like him (one of my favourites was the "ugly furniture" advert, that someone threw together by gleefully re-editing a real commercial). It was a fitting end and tribute to what the gig was all about, which is the creative freedom to mix, match and marvel within the magnificent digital revolution that social networking is all about.

Graham's act perfectly bookended the night with Stephen Fry's at the beginning. It also acted as a balancing act with the core of seriousness provided by Paul Chambers' lawyer, David Allen Green. David is best known for his "Jack Of Kent" blog, where he disseminates British law in a rigorous and skeptical fashion. The blog has attracted a big following and it's easy to see why, as David spoke to the Twitter Joke Trial audience. His softly-spoken delivery had the crowd entranced, as he gave the reasons for Paul Chambers predicament and why he disagreed with them vehemently. His quote that the Twitter Joke Trial "does not make me proud to be an officer of the court" spoke volumes. If David Allen Green hadn't left the stage so quickly, the standing ovation that had started rippling out throughout the audience (that had eluded all the other talented comedians) would've been allowed to have hit a deserving crescendo. It is to him and Paul Chambers that this gig was ultimately for. The gig, and its attending "tweet up", was a glorious occasion.

Photographs by @gingernuts at his Flicker stream. Please visit it here.


One small incident occurred today. It confirmed a suspicion that I've had about the glorious world of television advertising. In the grand scheme of things, it's not likely to impact on anyone's life that seriously. To me, it's just another sign that it'll be crassness and stupidity that will cause the end of the world, rather than a natural disaster. It's one of the reasons I wrote my last blog post about giving up on anyone over the age of about 40 and now look to the smart thinkers in their teens and twenties for inspiration. You can almost bet it was someone above the age of 40 that came up with my current upset.

Anyway, back to the small incident that I'm talking about. It's this bloke.

It was really easy to find a picture of him on Google. All I needed to write was "wonga bloke". In fact, I didn't even have to write that. I started typing "wonga" and "wonga bloke" was one of the first autocomplete suggestions. Why did I need a picture of him to illustrate this? Well, about eight months ago, I made the following observation on social networking. "Is it possible to hate someone on the basis of him saying 'WONGA' on a television advert?". It was one of those throwaway status updates or tweets that I didn't think much about. I was then greeted with a chorus of approval/disapproval/amusement from a lot of my friends. This was clearly something that a lot of other people had thought about. This unfortunately led me to my next thought.

If such a one-second clip can cause so much reflection (mostly of annoyance), what's the betting that this "wonga bloke" isn't made centrepiece of the advertising campaign in future? After all, a one-second clip of a man with a really irritating cockney accent had successfully upstaged the rest of the advertisement cast members. Sure enough, I found out today that "wonga bloke" has been made the mascot of the company, with "WONGA!" being the catchphrase.

We live in a world where much of advertising has given up trying to be creative and attractive. The days of British Telecom's technological sophistication and irreverant humour from last century or the marvellous Boddingtons ads of the late 1990s are no longer with us. Instead, we have the GoCompare, webuyanycar and the Halifax Radio ads. That last one has attracted the most derision, perhaps because it's symbolic of the way that finance company men are so utterly disconnected from the general populous, they don't even understand how humour works. However, after the hatred aimed at the original commercial launches, something interesting has occurred. Rather than just ditch the theme, companies like GoCompare, webuyanycar and Halifax Radio have realised they're reprehensible and have decided to pursue the irritating aspects of the original marketing campaign. If they can't make them attractively memorable, they figure, they can make them irritatingly memorable. It sometimes works. For example, the recent ads from webuyanycar are wilfully shite now, so they're now quite amusing. But Halifax Radio is still an abomination to me.

I tend to channel surf away from commercial breaks anyway, or just mute the sound, so I'm guessing that these adverts aren't supposed to appeal to me anyway. I'm assuming they're aimed at people who are too drunk or too lazy to run away from them, even though it's just a light touch to their remote control that will save them. Plus, I guess the irritating adverts aren't as bad as ones that are plain offensive (e.g. take a look at Tracy King's take on the Pepsi Max "rapey" adverts on the Skepchick website). I guess I also have more respect for the irritating adverts over the bland palatial commercials, such as every single car commercial you can think of. In fact, the only car adverts that stick in my head are the Renault Clio "Papa, Nicole" ones and that's only because they fall into the firm irritant camp again.

Modern day advertising is copying the very worst excesses of cheap throwaway pop music. I remember walking around an HMV on Edinburgh's Princes Street in the mid-1990s. One of the staff had a preview copy of something called "Barbie Girl" by a little-known group called Aqua and they proceeded to put it on the store stereo player. What came out of the loudspeakers was simultaneously the most annoying thing I'd ever heard, as well as the largest earworm in existence. It immediately squirmed itself inside my cerebellum. Maybe it was the helium hamster vocals, or the deep-throated sexual predator speech, but "Barbie Girl" savagely knocked aside the rather pleasant Travis song that had been resident in my brain at that point. It didn't stop me from leaving the store, but "Barbie Girl" never left me after that day. I made a bet that once it was officially released, "Barbie Girl" would race straight to the top of the charts, like an angry screaming baby booting the other toddlers out of the way. I was not wrong.

That's exactly what the "wonga bloke" is. It's marketing companies giving up on accessing the sophisticated frontal lobes, because that would involve proper research and work. Never mind trying to use surveys and careful methodical research to access peoples' multifacetted personalities. We're reaching the primeval aspects of someone's brain, the "fight or flight" parts of infantile development. "Wonga bloke" is the angry screaming baby we tried to run away from when we were in the cot. We were severely annoyed by the irritant, but we never forgot them.

Update 01/09/2011: Staggeringly, the advertisers are doing it again. This time, they've actually gone further and stopped me from buying a product that I used to buy on a fairly semi-regular basis. The Haribo commercial has succeeded in out-arseholing the Wonga advert and putting the GoCompare, webuyanycar and Halifax Radio adverts in the shade. Here's the Drum's take on the Haribo commercial.

The Generation Game

This is a Christmas post. It's all about hope and faith for the future, then. It's about all that soppy stuff, in other words. But, as per usual, there's a bit of polemic chucked in by me, because it's me.

I've been close to abandoning the conservative and liberal values of the baby boomer generation. They go around in circles and ultimately end up just talking about the importance of their house prices anyway and how best to maintain their property. It's reached a point where anyone over the age of 45 has all the rights and privileges unfairly top-ended in their direction. So, I've abandoned looking up to them and am quite happy to throw my weight in with the next generation, rather than constantly demonising them as the 'yoof of today' or "the X Factor generation' or "Lady Gaga louts" or whatever shite the dead-tree press have cooked up this week.

Besides, this lovely lot have influenced me.

Sophie Burge, a 17-year-old student, condemning the Coalition government in betraying a generation with tuition fee rises on Channel 4 News, where she totally wrongfoots Norman Baker MP.

An unnamed 15-year-old school pupil gives an impassioned speech at the Coalition Of Resistance National Conference this year.

Courageous teen Graeme Taylor defending Jay McDowell's teaching career at Howell Public school's board meeting on the 11th August 2010. If you support Graeme Taylor, please join the "We support Graeme Taylor" Facebook page. If you support Jay McDowell, please join the "Support Jay McDowell" Facebook page.

Last, but not least, there's Rhys Morgan. I was completely humbled to see him accept the grassrooms skepticism award at TAM London in October this year. This was due to his rigourous investigation of the bogus Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), as well as his wider campaign against assorted quackery. Please read about Rhys Morgan's achievements, as they are awesome.

Anyway, after a year where the older generation in government and mass media are seeking to bring us back to the Dark Ages, I guess it's far more fitting to look to a potentially sparkly future of serious thinkers in the young. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Decade.

Being A Geek And Being A Paid Liar Is Often Incompatible

Friends say US Army hacker Bradley Manning, allegedly behind the Wikileaks data leak, set up a Facebook-style social networking site while at school in Wales

This is Bradley Manning. He worked for the army and, specifically, military intelligence in the US. His background and biography are described in beautiful detail by the Channel 4 News website. Suffice to say, he ticks most of the boxes for being a prototypical geek. He was bullied at school, he felt like an outsider, he was awkwardly emotional, he worked in software development and he even produced an earlier prototype for social networking websites. As you can see from these logs, in his chats with former hacker Adrian Lamo, here was a man painfully aware of how the world worked and how information was suppressed to make it work for an elite minority. It was Lamo, incidentally, that tipped the FBI off to get Manning arrested. This was after Manning admitted to releasing the US embassy cables to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It is said that the US military authorities want to lock him up for fifty-two years, even though they have him detained in appalling conditions with no formal conviction yet.

Adrian Lamo.png

This is Adrian Lamo. Unlike Manning, he was probably more of a joyful joker, although as usual, personalities as complex as his deserve more than a two word synopsis. His background, however, is of a loner geek and of a wandering nomad and couch-surfer. There's two things that these chaps have in common. The first is that the US authorities wanted them punished severely, to the point of it being seriously disproportional to the original crime. The second is that they're both geeks, albeit of differing personalities. Lamo is now in danger of being seen as the devil in this, with Bradley Manning seen as his victim. Perhaps that's the point. Lamo had always seen himself as curiously dispensable. When Lamo himself was asked if he was afraid of going to jail over hacking the New York Times in 2004, Lamo said simply, "I'm sure it would be educational. The beautiful thing about the universe is that nothing goes to waste". Maybe that's just as well. If it hadn't been for Lamo, Manning could've been forgotten about. Maybe Lamo remembered the plea bargain over his own hack and hoped Manning would've been treated similarly. Or maybe, since we now know he's been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, he viewed the world as a simple game of trade-offs, rather like a Prisoner's Dilemma conundrum.

Someone who definitely wasn't forgotten about by the US authorities is this man. This is Gary McKinnon. I don't have to carry on the recurring theme here, but, hey, here we go again. He's a computer programmer. He has also been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which is a condition that makes him a geek par excellence, rather like Lamo. He was a security hacker that found unprotected information on military machines, several years before Bradley Manning did the same thing. Since 2001, the US government have done everything but forget about him, while the Bin Laden "issue" has been shunted away into the background. But they've pursued McKinnon relentlessly and, similar to Lamo, they scrabbled around for ages for a law that they could prosecute him for until they retrospectively used the UK 2003 Extradition Act to do it. Gary found a bit of information hidden behind an opened safe door that some meathead had forgotten to lock and that was just the worst embarrassment.

The American authorities have form for this sort of thing, as you can see. It's all about the stunted adolescence they've been stuck in since the American teenage dream. Bin Laden can best be described as the hypothetical Hell's Angel friend that the American football jock drank with at the same college bar. It suited them both to be seen drinking together. Once they'd both knocked others' heads together a few times, the Hell's Angel friend got inebriated one night and ended up beating up some of the jock's friends. For a while, the jock made a pretence at going after the Hells Angel biker, but slowly decided he wasn't worth it. He'd got enough out of the friendship and was quite happy to see the back of him and to forget about him. The hypothetical nerd character is a more difficult thing for this hypothetical football jock to get his head around. This was the kid that the jock picked on at school. It's more world-shattering to be humiliated by the nerd, than to be occasionally pummelled by the Hell's Angel. This geek did something more taxing to the US jock than the Hell's Angel; this geek found the jock's diary carelessly unguarded in his desk. Worse than that, the diary contained all the details about the jock cheating at exams, bullying other children, stealing pocket money off other kids and so on. What's an information-obsessed geek to do?

I'm a software developer. I'm currently building a couple of web projects around something called RESTful architecture. From a purely technological view, it's an architecture that suits the social web (as it currently stands). Such an architecture makes every web address a proper repository of data that can be shared by humans, browsers, devices and mobile phones. Every web address is an information resource and this is the original way I was taught about how the embryo World Wide Web worked as a student. Such an architecture has no sense of ideology behind it. It is there to share information openly and that's it. It's the most efficient solution and my next major (non-political) web projects will be built like this. The only difference between now, and when I was a student, is how easy I can make that information flow, with the sheer amount of reusable open source components available. For many web developers, this is an extremely exciting time, as we like to build and make things that share information.

There were constructive reasons why computer science metamorphosed into software engineering. There were networking reasons why software engineering turned into information technology. There were sociological and economic reasons why information technology became communications technology. In most places on this planet, information and communication are available at the touch of a button on a neutral net that doesn't have a political agenda. Instead of bullying and intimidating geeks, the bar-hogging American ex-jock is going to have to get used to the fact that this isn't his world anymore.

The Right To Complain

Earlier yesterday, Conservative councillor Gareth Compton made a rather unfortunate and bad taste joke about the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. All of us recognised it as an unfortunate and bad taste joke. In fact, superficially, it's rather similar to a joke cracked by Paul Chambers. This is eerily prescient, since Mr Chambers is due to stand in court today for all the problems that his Twitter joke has caused. I've been following the Paul Chambers trial carefully and really think the man shouldn't be being put through this. But I was accused of hypocrisy about this, seeing as I'd given Gareth Compton a bit of a grilling on Twitter for his earlier tweet on Ms Alibhai-Brown, while giving Chambers my support.

Let's get this straight. Whether I'm a liberal, a lefty or occasionally display right-wing opinions on things like welfare dependency, I'm foremost a rationalist, as well as a believer in free speech. If I'd been around when he'd originally wrote it, then Paul Chambers would've got the same querying from me as Mr Compton did with his ill-advised joke ("Um, are you sure you want to tweet that, in these sensitive times?"). However, there are a few clear differences between these cases.

The first difference is that Gareth Compton isn't on trial and hasn't lost two jobs, while Paul has suffered both of those fates. The over-reaction and subsequent mishandling by the CPS is better described by Paul Chambers' lawyer, David Allen Green, in his blog. In future, I certainly don't expect Gareth Compton to be hauled into court for daring to blurt out something on an online social networking tool, as stupid as it was. I'm happy for other people to seriously complain about him though. The reason?

Well, the other difference is that Gareth Compton is a councillor in Birmingham City Council, while Paul Chambers was a lovesick student (and can be validated as such by his Twitter followers). Paul's hyperbole can be compared to a heartaching declaration, while Mr Compton statements in public life can wield considerable power, as he supposedly represents many people in his city, including Muslims. If he'd tweeted, "I hope someone gaffer-tapes Yasmin's mouth shut on Radio 5 live and locks her away, don't call Amnesty", I wouldn't have pulled him up for it (even though the joke and sentiment is still poor). However, his singling out of a Muslim name said on radio and his quick connection with a contentious practice of torture utilised by extremist Muslim regimes calls his judgement into question. Such an association has a murky undercurrent. It has a direct impact on any Birmingham citizen who is seeking his judgement on the treatment of minority groups in his council.

If you still think I'm a liberal in sheeps' clothing, let me bring the rationalist and free speech arguments to bear on something else. There was another councillor called John Dixon, who made a similar joke tweet that offended a minority in his neighbourhood, namely the Church of Scientology. As anyone who knows me, I hold Scientologists with a degree of dislike in the same league as out-of-date lasagne; such a pity and such a waste of creativity. However, in the same case, I support the right of Dixon to crack a stupid joke, but hold him to the same caveat that someone somewhere might find that offensive, particularly considering his position as a city councillor. I support the right of Scientologists to make a complaint about Dixon, as ludicrous as I find Scientology's beliefs, and the Church duly did. As it stood, John Dixon went through the normal channels of having his superiors question him in disciplinary procedures which he happily won. But my initial worry about the case was the anxiety about Scientology's varied use of archaic libel laws to either financially bankrupt someone or silence them with their wealth powerhouse. In all cases, free speech and silly jokes should be allowed and not be bludgeoned by the vast fortunes of vested interests.

I stand by the right to free speech, the right to complain about that free speech, but not the right to silence either.

UPDATE: As of 14.36 today, it turns out that Gareth Compton has been arrested for his (now deleted) tweet. I am not remotely happy about this. Again, this is an over-reaction as to exactly what Twitter is used for. The guy made a (pretty unfunny) joke. He didn't mean it as a threat. Any complaints to the council should lead to an internal investigation about his views of minorities, not a money-wasting exercise in police procedure.

UPDATE: As of 16.04 today, Paul Chambers has had his appeal rejected. In other words, he's been charged with a terrorist threat for the real-world equivalent of a fit of hyperbole in the pub with his mates. A shocking indictment of how illiberal British society has become.