Friday, March 29, 2013

Taken to task

You don't see this but I get eleventy-billion spam messages per minute on this blog. I don't see them either: the blog gods let you through and shove the rest into a penalty box until I have chance to review them. I never review them.

Except, I did.

And I've had two genuine, non-spam comments from people saddled with the unfortunate name of Anonymous. It's the parents I blame. One of them wanted to know about a Lark Rise to Candleford film I shot untold years ago. We've nattered now and I've told her all I can.

The other Anonymous – apparently no relation, though you're suspicious, aren't you? – wanted to take me to task about a blog I wrote in January 2012. That feels like the eleventh century, but datestamping doesn't lie: Done To-Do, What's Next? was January last year. And I tells you, I thought it was the definitive rave about OmniFocus, a to-do tasky manager thing that runs on Mac, iPhone and iPad. (No PC version.)

But Anonymous wasn't happy. He or she uses another app I mentioned, Appigo's ToDo, and is looking at me.
What is it about Omni Focus, $$ that it is, that makes it work for you?
It wasn't clear from the column! You mentioned one view, Forecast that shows today, but I'm not sure why that's anything better than ToDo. 
Perhaps you can write another column to help those of us who are using ToDo , but frustrated with it (and Appigo's repeated upgrades that duplicate, destroy, or otherwise create headaches for the user).
If I could find a way to contact Anonymous the way I did Anonymous, I'd contact Anonymous. But I can't so I haven't so I shall tell you too. But by marvellous coincidence – have you got a cup of tea yet? sit yourself down – OmniFocus this week released something that makes me happy. Lots of things make me happy. You do, actually, though I also worry about you. Are you still getting those pains?

It's the concept of OmniFocus that's the tricky part. It's not the same.

Previously on To Do apps

With all To Do apps, you make a note of what's on your plate and then a man's gotta do what a man's got on his To Do list. You do it and then tick, it's gone.

Only, you don't do it. It's the end of the day, you're outta time, it ain't getting done. So you go through your list and think about it all, deciding what you have to do first thing tomorrow, what can wait a bit, what you can delete forever because nobody's looking.

All To Do apps have tools to help you. You can set this task to be Priority Level: Shrug while this next one is Priority: Eeek. You can use tags – I'm going to have to guess a bit here as I never got around to tags – where, I don't know, this task has something to do with when you're wearing your Rudolph the Whisky-Drinking Reindeer jumper on.

It is immensely satisfying to open your To Do app and tick done. Cor.

Except, you find you keep coming back to the app: do something, tick it off. And then there's the next thought where you go, er, right, what's next? Pick something at the top of your list: is it Priority: Eeek? Can you actually do it now or do you need something first? Do you need someone else first? Has Bert finished his bit so you can do yours? Do you need a spanner and if so, why didn't you look at this when you were at the bleedin' hardware store picking up replacement light bulbs for your Christmas tree?

Is the task something like "Write a book" where that's all very nice but, seriously, are you going to get around to it and will you really be able to tick done by 6pm tonight?


Anonymous mentions the Forecast view in OmniFocus for iPhone and iPad. It is very good. Anon's point is that it sounds like every other To Do app's daily list of things.

It isn't.

It's what has to get done today. Plus what you have to start doing today. That's all. But in doing that, in nudging you to use it like that, you slowly transform how you even see To Do lists. When you start using OmniFocus, it is like every other To Do app with its badge of many tasks whose number never goes down. After a little while, you stop having a thousand tasks today, you have maybe four. And you can do four. You will do four.

Instead of chipping away at the ice, you're knocking blocks off your To Do list and you're coming out at the end of the week with a substantial amount done. And it's at least a big way down to how OmniFocus doesn't show you the thousand tasks you've got left on your list, it shows you the ones you can do now.

Follow. I have to deliver a series of radio interviews to a client tomorrow. I've known that for a month so in the old way of things, I'd have put that on the list and it would've sat there for a month. Every time I opened the list, there it would be, lost in a sea of tasks but still there and part of me would see it and actually think for a beat, is it the end of the month yet? That task is not on my OmniFocus list.

But it will be tomorrow.

OmniFocus will automatically put it there for me tomorrow.

Now, I can do that because I also put in tasks for each of the interviews and I've ticked those off as I went, but right at the start I said no. As I popped in the task Deliver Audio, I set the due date for tomorrow – and that's where it stayed. In tomorrow. I could look ahead in the forecast and see it, and I did do that each time something came up and I wanted to judge how busy I was going to be on Saturday, but it wasn't on my list each day.

Every task manager does something of this sort but then there's also this little companion feature: as well as due dates, OmniFocus gives you start dates. So, strictly speaking, I didn't get this radio job a month ago, I got it about five weeks ago with the knowledge that I couldn't start it for a few days. So I put the due date in for Saturday 30 March and I put the start date in for Friday 1 March.

So all that week at the end of February, I didn't give these interviews a thought. I didn't have to, and my To Do list didn't make me. It gets it out of your head and you know that you won't miss anything because there it will be when you need it.

Now, I don't always do that. You don't have to do start dates. I've come to do a lot of start dates and actually very few due dates: unless it really is due on a day, I don't go making up deadlines anymore.

If that's all you do in OmniFocus, that's cool. But you can add more and more and more. It's really handy to say that a task is to do with, say, the book I'm writing. So then when I'm working on the book, I don't have to see all the Doctor Who tasks I've got, I can just check off book bits. And you can bother to say that the task is, I don't know, a phone call or an email. I've spent a lot of time waiting on platforms for trains this month and I've been able to say go on then, just show me what phone calls I've got to make. And there they are. Phone. Speak. Tick.

But speaking of phones and speaking of speaking... I spend most of my time with the iPhone version of OmniFocus and it is fantastic to be stepping onto a train and saying to it – I mean actually saying, talking, speaking – things like "Remind me to phone Angela when I get back home". And sure enough, as I walk up our drive, ping, there's my reminder.

Similarly, if I'm walking through a new area, I can look at the map in OmniFocus and it'll show me which of my tasks I can do wherever I am. I've used that for when I needed to get to a cashpoint and when I've known I'll be passing a supermarket.

You can do more and many people do, but I think this is already sounding a mountain to you. It really isn't as you work away and it's specifically designed to stop ever being a mountain because it just shows you what you can do now, not this giant thousand-long list.

It's not a To Do list, it's a Can Be Done Now list.

I'm not even as wedded to OmniFocus as I sound: with previous task managers I'd open them up, pick a task, go do it, come back, tick that off, pick the next. With OmniFocus, I see my list for the day and I just go do them. Might check back, will almost certainly add more, but when I go to tick things off as done, it tends to be in huge batches. And, wow, that is satisfying.

It's also supremely satisfying to review everything you've got to do. Once a week or so, get OmniFocus to show you its review of all your tasks. Do this in the iPad version: it's gorgeous. And you just skip through everything. I'm always surprised how many things I've already done and can tick off, but then you look at this job and work out why you haven't moved it forward, you look at that job and think actually, I'm not that fussed. And by the end of the review, you've still got everything in OmniFocus and out of your head but you feel so utterly in control of what you're done.

I never got a fraction of that with other To Do apps.

And I need it now. Since that January 2012 blog, there's been a storm in my work and writing and life. Yet Angela tells me I seem lighter. It's because I finally know what I'm doing and I can shove all the things into OmniFocus that I have previously struggled to balance and get on with the work that I am good at, knowing that OmniFocus won't let me forget things. It's got my back, that really is how it feels.

So the short fact is that – to answer Anonymous's key question – OmniFocus fits me. It won't fit everybody and I tell you now as I told you before, the Mac version of it is hard to use and the concept of it is surprisingly difficult to quickly grasp. And yes, it does cost $$.

The iPhone one is good, the iPad one is tremendous, the Mac one is hard but extraordinarily powerful.

And this is what the makers, the Omni Group, have done this week to make me happy: I've now got an alpha copy of the next version of OmniFocus for Mac.

You know what beta software is, this is worse. Alpha software is where all the bits have come together, kinda, and probably do most of what they eventually will, but definitely won't play nice together. So it's got functions that don't do anything yet and it is crashing exactly as often as the Omni Group said. You would be mad to use any company's alpha software and you actually have to convince Omni Group that you get it before you get it: that you understand what's really happening. If you're an alpha tester, you are insane.

I'm an alpha tester. And I can tell you after two days and maybe twenty minutes active use of this new version that it is really good. It's going to be really good.

Next week, I evangelise 2B pencils.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doughnuts to dollars: the end of BBC Television Centre

I'm on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire local radio today, talking about the closure of TVC. [UPDATE: Listen to the audio here.] And when they rang me about it yesterday, I was ecstatic because it means I get to pour out my grief and who else in the world would listen to me?



I'm kinda hoping you will. Because there's this building, right, and it is massively important to me. Or it was. Shortly it'll be three condos and a deli that aren't all that likely to be important to anyone.

Important is a funny word, though. I don't think anyone would've died without TVC in the world but there's surely no one in the UK who hasn't been touched by something made there. Surely there is no one in the UK who wouldn't recognise TVC. You've already pictured it. Describe to me what the equivalent ITV building is. It's called Network Centre and it's on the South Bank in London. I defy you to picture the place. You might do better with Channel 4'a offices in Horseferry Road, London but I've been there and all I can picture is a slice of the front glass entrance. It's very nice. It's not TVC.

We don't need to know where television is made - I'm secretly convinced that Sky TV is based in a Brigadoon kind of mystical place no one enters and no one leaves and anyway it is only visible once a century, unless it's raining - and it's not even true that all BBC television came from TVC. But you can't make a place be memorable, you can't design an intangible excitement into a blueprint, there is no process to get you affection in the bricks. So when you have this, when you have a building that matters, you can't throw it away.

The BBC has thrown TVC away.

Usually you think there are two sides to everything, at least two, and that there are always good reasons for decisions even if you don't happen to know what they are. Even if you disagree with them, you expect that there are good reasons that have convinced someone.

Not this time.


There's money, naturally. And that's a good reason for somebody in the deal but not the BBC and not us. There is something strange in the BBC property department these days. It used to just be that they'd lost their rulers and calculators. So every few years there'd be an announcement that all of BBC news, for instance, will move into TVC, White City or Broadcasting House, one of those. And fairly soon afterwards the staff would spot that these places are nowhere near big enough so only some go. I picture people walking in carrying packing crates, seeing the offices are smaller than expected, and doing a Scooby Doo doubletake.

But these days we have TVC being sold off for a Mars bar and we have the Mailbox in Birmingham which the BBC has on a long lease but it's left there anyway. There's a Campaign for Regional Broadcasting which has noticed that Birmingham and the Midlands contribute most to the licence fee and get the least back - by far - but foolishly they're expecting the BBC to make television and radio. They're not counting how much the Corporation must be spending on those empty Mailbox offices.

I love the network radio studio at the Mailbox. But I've not done much work there so perhaps I could never have the attachment I do to TVC.

I remember my first day in BBC Television Centre. Having lunch in the canteen and trying to look like I fitted in. Nodding sagely at my new colleagues and secretly going weeeeee because just below the window was the Blue Peter garden. Passing Clare Grogan in the corridor and going weak. Then going red because she's so small she was much closer than I realised and had seen me whimper.

Watching studio recordings. The amazing sight of the scenery staff painting the studio floor so that it looked like wood for a set they'd put up later. Passing the TARDIS on my way to get preview VHS tapes. Eating the most gorgeous bacon sandwiches from a truck round the back of TC1. Seeing the doors of that huge studio open as you went by. Sleeping in a quiet office overnight. Watching the London fireworks with Angela on the roof of the TVC carpark as 1999 became 2000

Passing a drunk drama producer who yelled down the corridor that it wasn't possible, that I just could not be as nice as I seem. I cherish that moment but do note I never got any work out of him. I'm going to try being nasty. Grr. How did I do?

I worked all over TVC and that work so often meant darting about everywhere else. I came around a corner once and found three editors talking about me: they were from very different parts of the BBC and while unexpectedly ending up on the same joint project had that moment unexpectedly learnt that I happened to work for each of them.

My first job of them all was at BBC Ceefax which, when I began in the 1990s sometime, was sharing an office with Newsround on the seventh floor. It was right at the top of the doughnut, the round area you can remember right now and may even have a memory of Roy Castle and a presumably record-breaking number of dancers in this circle.

For my first five or maybe even six months I would take the lift to the top floor, turn right and run the ridiculously long way to the Ceefax office. Then one day I went up there with a colleage and she turned left instead. Ceefax was just two doors down.


It was a warren. And if TVC seemed alive to me, I know it was barely an echo of what it once was. By the time I worked there it was being run down and studios were empty more often than not. So I can only imagine the heartbeat of the place in its heyday. Even in my day though, it still had a strong pulse.

The last time I was in BBC Television Centre was around August 2011. I interviewed James Bolam for my book about The Beiderbecke Affair there. Just the two of us having a cup of tea. It was in the audience reception, a big space that you were shown into if you came to see a recording. During the day it was also one of the many places there to eat. I watched BBC internal presentations about forthcoming drama in that space. A different drama producer completely forgot to meet me there. A friend whispered to me that she'd had an affair. And it was where the BBC shop was. You're more interested in the affair now, I know, but I can only tell you about the books I bought in that shop.

Sitting there with James Bolam, I was pretty sure it was the last time I'd be in TVC. You don't usually know these things but I did then and actually so did he. Maybe not so specifically, but he knew TVC was under threat and we talked about what a loss it would be.

It is a loss. It wasn't perfect.

But it was perfect.

Friday, March 15, 2013

I wish I'd written Veronica Mars

There. I've said it. I truly wish I'd written Veronica Mars. This glossy, sort-of teen drama, sort-of Nancy Drew and completely sort-of hardly known in the UK is a pinnacle of writing for me. I put writer/creator Rob Thomas right up there with the Aaron Sorkins of this world even though I've not seen anything else he's done.

Is that a bit hyped, do you think? Little bit? Save yourself some time, skip me and just watch the show. It's on Amazon UK here and I am ecstatic to see it's finally on iTunes UK. I've just bought it again now on iTunes, partly to get the HD version, mostly because I can't remember who I've loaned the DVD to. (It's also on US iTunes and Amazon US.) Thank you for that: I only looked on iTunes for you and there it was. Wonderful.

So, anyway. I like this show. And you'll have heard, not least because I will have bellowed it to you, that this week Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to get funding for a Veronica Mars movie. I can't imagine how scared he felt launching that: the campaign needed $2m. And I can't imagine how he feels now that it has exceeded its target and done so faster than any other Kickstarter campaign ever. I spent Wednesday watching the total tick up: you have to suspect he was glued to it too. We could've held hands. I certainly crossed my fingers.

The first thing I did on Thursday morning was check the total. I've nothing to do with this show, I believe dramas get cancelled for a reason and I believe that it's a mistake going back to old ideas, but still I checked that total sitting on the side of my bed at 5am. 

Shows go through a certain cycle, I think. When they start, when you first tune in, you're actively giving it a go, you are choosing it and you're hoping it will be good. You give it a few minutes, maybe a whole episode in order to win you over but it's like when you go see a standup comic: at the start, everyone in the audience is willing them to be good. 

I do know someone who watched the entire run of The Wire hoping to get to like it. But usually, a show gets a few minutes, an episode, maybe an episode or two if there is enough in the first ones to at least get you to come back.

But if you do like the show, if it is good, something happens. If it's good enough, if you like it enough, it stops having to convince you, it stops having to win you over. And it becomes your show. Doesn't matter that you have zero to do with it. Your family starts saying things like "we can meet up after your programme". 

It's nonsense, of course. It's not your programme. It's mine.

I'm not sure why I tried the first episode back in 2004: the sort-of teen drama idea didn't appeal, the sort-of Nancy Drew didn't grab me. But I tried the pilot and it was fun in an oddly bleak way. A couple of weeks later, I caught episode two and yeah, enjoyed that.

I then watched episodes 3 to 21 in less than a week. 

There are actually 22 in the first run but that 21st was the very best penultimate episode I can remember seeing. And you know this: as the last episode of something has to do a lot of work resolving things, it's common for the penultimate one to be the absolute screaming best. And for the actual last one to be a bit of a letdown.

It took me more than a month to get around to watching episode 22.

And it was better than 21.

Don't listen to me, listen to Stephen King:
"Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can't take my eyes off the damn thing."
Listen to Joss Whedon too:
"Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I've never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn't making, and maybe even more than those. These guys know what they're doing on a level that intimidates me. It's the Harry Potter of shows."
I was late to the show and all these quotes and all my watching happened after the first season had finished airing. So on the one hand I was able to watch the whole run in near-enough one go but on the other I was also immediately aware that the ratings had been wobbly and the show was in doubt.

I was on holiday at CentreParcs in Sherwood Forest that summer. Cycling around the place, having a great time, and twice a day stopping by the information centre to check the web for any news. (This was pre-iPhone. I know. Crazy.)  I can see where I was, exactly where I was, when I read online that it had been renewed for a second season. This is a show I have nothing to do with and yet its renewal made my holiday.

Something similar the next year: ratings, holiday, checking, phew. Veronica Mars got a third run.

Unfortunately something not quite similar enough the next year: ratings, holiday, check, damn. 

Veronica Mars was cancelled and that truly upset me.

I write Doctor Who, I am a Doctor Who fan – actually, there's a Veronica in one of my Who stories and she is named after Mars – and when that show got cancelled in 1989, I shrugged. That's not a popular reaction amongst fans who see the cancellation as the BBC's greatest mistake but I was – well, I won't say I was glad because they might hear me, but the show had lost its way a long time before the axe. It was still the fans' show but it was only the fans show: you had to be one to get anything from it. That's a case where a show becoming your programme didn't help it.

A similar thing happened with Star Trek: Enterprise: Google it now and you will discover that its last season was when it finally got good, when they finally got that show right. Bollocks. Only fans were tuning in so Enterprise gave up on the rest of us and we gave up on it. No one counters the fans because no one watched any more and besides, it's just amazingly irritating hearing fans going on about their favourite shows. It reaches a point where you will never watch the series because they go on about it so much and they urge you so much to watch it, you'll love it, give it a few episodes, a season or two…

Anyway, about Veronica Mars, my favourite show, you must watch it. Give it a few episodes. A season or three.

Veronica Mars was cancelled and people learnt to avoid me that day. People who'd never heard of this show learnt to leave me alone while I got over it. I wonder now if they thought Veronica was someone I knew.

Actually, that might explain some things.

Such as the card.


Anyway, you won't be surprised that I do urge you to give it a go. You won't be surprised that I backed the Kickstarter campaign the instant I heard of it. It was on under $300,000 when I chipped in my $40 and I ignored all the various rewards for backing it: all I want is the film.

What might surprise you is that I'm not going to say what Veronica Mars is about. Well, it is a detective show and I do think that its setting is extraordinarily rich and compelling, but it becomes richer and it becomes ever more compelling as you get into it. And I want you to get into it.

You can't come to the show cold any more. I've hyped it, Kickstarter fans are hyping it, the show is so praised now that I can't imagine you being easily won over. Instead of coming to it like it's a standup comic and you want it to be good, you're inescapably going to come to Veronica Mars with a prove-it chip on your shoulder. 

I worry about that. I worry that I'm going to take you off my Christmas card list if you don't like it. But I also envy you. For years now, I've envied anyone coming to the show new: imagine having Veronica Mars ahead of you. You're going to have such a good time.

And finally, I can imagine something like that too, I have some Veronica Mars ahead of me. Next year, I'll be in that cinema watching a new story. Isn't it simply joyous that a drama can get you like this? That the promise of a drama can be the best news I've had all week? I am ridiculously happy and excited and for 'ridiculous', just read 'very' or 'tremendously' or 'damn right'.

You shouldn't ever come back to old ideas, you shouldn't revive something if it's died. Unless it's Veronica Mars. You never know, but I'll lay odds that next year I'll be wishing I'd written this movie.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The most successful thing I've ever written

You probably know about this but you definitely shouldn't have to: there are these things called smart quotes and dumb quotes. If you think a smart quote is -
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
and that a dumb quote is -
I can haz cheeseburger
then that's the way it should be.

But because Microsoft wants you know how very, very clever it is, there is unfortunately more to it and back in 2000, it irritated me the way it irritated a lot of people. When you handwrite out a line, you automatically begin and end a quote with quotation marks that look like 66 and 99. You do this because you're normal. When you write on a Mac, you tap the one quotation mark key but it knows when you mean 66 and it knows when you mean 99, because it would, because that's what it should do.

Windows does it as well but, god, it makes such a fuss. If it could've done, 66 would've been patented as the Microsoft 66 Quotation Mark Extended Pro for Windows and the 99 would've been in a Windows Value Pack, sold separately.

As you typed away in Microsoft Word for Windows, it would scamper along chucking red underlines for spelling, green for grammar and letting you see two straight quote lines for just long enough that you notice Word changing them to 66 and 99. They're just quote marks, the whole smart thing was only in the whizzy changing them and you could let Microsoft have its fun, except that I used to write text in Word that would eventually go onto a website that wouldn't recognise these smart quotes.

It could, it could display the 66 and 99, but it had no clue what Word was on about. Same with the 6 and 9 of single quote marks. And apostrophes. For similar reasons, it was a right bugger writing a pound sign and to this day you will see "pounds Sterling" written out in full in online archives rather than "£". Just because Word fiddles.

You could switch off a lot of this junk but then every letter you wrote would have straight quotes instead of 66 and 99 and somehow you didn't feel like using a thousand quids' worth of PC hardware and several hundred pounds of Microsoft Word in order to produce documents that looked worse than your old typewriter.

So instead you'd write what you were writing and when you were done, you'd schlep through doing a search and replace changing 6 and 66 to straight quote marks. Then with 9 and 99. Because Word called the curly quotes smart, the straight ones became known as dumb.

And I got so tired of doing this at the end of every article.

Consequently, one of the most useful things I've managed and easily the most successful piece of writing I've ever done is not a book or a drama or an article but a macro. I wrote a Word macro that just did all of these searches-and-replaces for you. It's no different to doing them yourself, except when you'd written them down once, Word would do them all, in sequence. Finish writing an article, run the macro, watch it make the changes for you.

Since I was changing smart quotes into dumb ones that the website could handle, I thought it was making the smart ones a bit thick. So I called it Thickify. 

I added Thickify to a button in Word and probably used it a thousand times.

But the success came because someone saw it and wanted to borrow it. Then they used it a thousand times. And so did others. And others. And others.

Thickify spread throughout patches of BBC Worldwide. I never knew how widespread it got but friends would tell me with amusement that they'd be in meetings in other offices where someone would say "make sure you Thickify that text" and nobody else there had ever heard my name. I also heard from friends who'd moved to other companies and taken it with them. 

And then I met someone in BBC Worldwide who demanded it be installed for her and was livid that it wasn't already on her copy of Word. She complained to IT: didn't we know she had a website to run? How could she be expected to handle copy for freelancers if she couldn't Thickify it?

Today I do see that it was flattering: she believed my macro was a function of Microsoft Word and that its absence was not that she needed a favour having it installed, but that Word had gone wrong without it. 

But that day I wanted to walk away and leave her to it: Thickify was something I wrote to help and it helped a lot, but she somehow managed to berate and to blank me. 

That was years ago and it's some years since any form of Thickify was needed but I still think of it every time I see someone bitching on the App Store that an app they'll use every day costs a whole 69p. There are people who pirate 69p apps. Professional reviewers now list a price of, say, £1.19, as being a reason not to buy. And if you have paid your 69p, there are then people who think app developers are somehow raking it in and should make gigantic updates for free. 

I think people forget that people write these things.

I spend my life now in other people's apps. My most-used is OmniFocus – I must've spent £80 on that in its various versions and I would pay that again today – but now close behind that is Evernote. That's a note-taking app which is hugely more useful than that sounds and it is free. But you can pay an annual subscription to get more features and I'm going to do that partly to get those and partly because I appreciate the work that's gone into it.

We don't value software as much as we did, as much as we should.

Good thing that isn't the case with all writing today.