Friday, 26 July 2013

26/07/13 - Lost in the Supermarket

Supermarkets evolve, just like most other things. When I think back to my youthful Sainsbury’s days, tramping about the store in an oversized navy blue jacket with faded orange piping, I see them being set in something that’s basically very similar to the Sainsbury’s of today. But that’s just a quirk of human memory; everything we ever do exists at the zenith of what’s possible for mankind to conceive at that particular time, so you think of situations in the past being ‘modern’ because they were modern at the time. If that makes sense. Does it? Maybe. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a lot has changed in the world of supermarkets over the last dozen or so years. For example:

Reward Cards
…and Reward Vouchers. Back in the late-nineties, before the heady excitement of the Nectar card came to brighten our days with its pan-retail versatility, Sainsbury’s had their own proprietary reward card system, imaginatively named ‘Reward Card’. Much like today when the cashier at the till asks you for your Nectar card, back then we always had to ask people whether they had a Reward Card. And loyalty cards weren’t really a big deal then, so you’d end up having to explain what it was for over and over again. (This was marginally less annoying than when I had a summer job at Matalan, whereby it was necessary to irritate people at the counter by telling them that they weren’t allowed to buy anything unless they’d pointlessly signed up for a Matalan membership card; it was hard to argue that it was a necessary part of the retail experience, because I agreed with the customers. It was a bloody stupid system. The store lost so much business through people just dumping their towels/whatever on the counter and saying ‘fine, I’m going to a real shop’.)
The fun part was that once a customer had saved up 250 points, they were entitled to a £2.50 Reward Voucher. These lived in the cash till - in the £50 note section, which was never used because nobody pays for their groceries with fifties – and came in a sort of cheque-book form. There was no automation to the system, no way of saying ‘I can knock the points off your bill if you like’ – you’d hand over one of these cheque-style vouchers, which they’d then hand straight back to you for you to scan in and throw away.
All of this sounds a bit pointless, but the system did have one shining merit over the current Nectar setup – at least you could work out what the numbers meant. A £2.50 voucher is worth £2.50. What’s a thousand Nectar points worth? No-one bloody knows. And no-one at Nectar will tell you. ‘Ooh, it’s worth five percent off a week at Butlins, or you can combine it with a Nectar multiplier to reduce your Christmas grocery bill, or…’ oh, do piss off.

Jamming the doughnuts
I’d like to assume that things have moved on in the doughnut-jamming game, but who can say? Perhaps there’s a baker reading this who can clarify.
Weirdly, I associate jam doughnuts with al-Qaeda, because in the September of 2001 I was working in the bakery at Sainsbury’s in Whitstable – jamming doughnuts was one of the first things I did after the news of the 9/11 attack broke. It wasn’t the first thing I did, obviously. That would be a strange reaction to a terrorist act. I was wiring a stereo into a Peugeot 309 at the time; I switched on the radio to test it was working, and heard the breaking news. Then I sat down in front of the telly and watched the live news footage for about seven hours, just like everyone else did. But then I had to go to work.
Now, you may have noticed that every filled doughnut has an anus. This is a necessity of their construct. It would be impossible to suspend an amorphous blob of jam in the middle of an oven while an ovoid sphere of dough baked around it. No, you have to bake all of the doughnuts (seriously, Microsoft Word, if you keep autocorrecting ‘doughnut’ to ‘donut’ I’m going round to Bill Gates’ house to punch him in his fucking face) separately as blanks, then inject the jam in afterwards. At Sainsbury’s back in 2001, this was a manual process using a jamming machine, and you could only do two at a time. This is because, as a human, you have but two hands.
The machine was basically a huge hopper of jam, underneath which were two pointy horizontal nozzles; to the right, fixed to wall, was a button that you’d press with your elbow. Also, totally unnecessarily, there was a digital control panel to regulate the amount of jam you were squirting. In this instance, ‘2’ was the correct quantity. So, you’d take a doughnut in each hand, push them onto the nozzles, bash the button with your elbow, and a splodge of jam would ejaculate into the doughnuts’ anuses.
An important lesson to learn is that if you’re in the bakery doing this at 4am, tired and hungover, then Chris Baston (who also works in the bakery; you think he’s your friend, but he’s keen to prove otherwise) will change the settings on the machine. It won’t be set to ‘2’. It’ll be set to ‘99’. So you’ll end up standing there, both hands occupied with doughnut-holding, while the bloody machine spunks four or five litres of sticky, gloopy jam down your immobile arms and onto your shoes.
Being tired and hungover, having cleaned the sorry mess up, you’ll forget to press ‘2’ and then it’ll happen again, while Baston creases up with laughter, the fucker.
So yes, I’d hope that jamming technology at Sainsbury’s has moved on over these dozen years, largely because THERE’S NO FUCKING REASON FOR THE MACHINE TO GO AS HIGH AS 99. No doughnut in the world is that big.

Pick ‘n’ Mix
Pick ‘n’ mix is an inherently rank concept. No matter how keenly you enforce the ‘you must use a scoop’ rule, there will always be kids grabbing sweets with their bare hands, throwing them back in, and generally acting with a devil-may-care disregard for basic hygiene. They didn’t have to go through the tedious food safety training we did, the lucky little bastards. They knew nothing of Microban. Having witnessed this gross act countless times, my pick ‘n’ mix advice would be: stick to the wrapped sweets. Who knows how much toddler piss is sloshing around the fizzy cola bottle tray?
But that’s not what really bothers me about pick ‘n’ mix. I’m a massive hypocrite, I don’t take my own advice, and I’ll always gravitate toward the delicious cherry sweets and the gummi bears when I’m picking and mixing – everybody does, that’s the fun of it. No, the thing that bothers me is that there’s no order to it whatsoever.
You know how annoying it is when newsagents can’t order their magazines properly? For example, if there’s something you buy regularly, and it’s always in a different place on the racks, or there’s a current issue in one place and last month’s in another? That’s how I feel about pick ‘n’ mix. There’s no standardisation. The rule seems to be ‘if you can find a space, put sweets in it’. There are so many ways that the shop could choose to order them – by colour, texture, genre, weight, flavour, and so on – but this never happens. It used to infuriate me. I hated refilling the pick ‘n’ mix.
Also, I once stole a foil-wrapped chocolate with a gooey caramel centre. It was the last one in the tray, and I had a vital consignment of jelly beans to deploy, it was a necessary sacrifice. But I was incredibly nervous when I left the shop that night, fearful that someone had observed my despicable theft on the CCTV cameras, biding their time until I thought I was safe before pouncing and exposing me as the outrageous thief that I was. It still haunts me. Sainsbury’s, if you want that three pence or whatever it was back, you have only to ask. I won’t put up a fight. (Although if you’re in the mood for settling old scores, make sure you charge Baston for all that wasted jam too.)

The magazines
See above. Whoever used to do the magazines at Whitstable Sainsbury’s was not a logical thinker. Judging by the annoyingly haphazard magazine racks today at West Kensington Tesco (which seems like a random example, but is the one I always pop into on the way to the office, and something that now irritates me on a daily basis), this is just one of those universal constants. Supermarkets and magazines act as a papery retail-based metaphor for the broader absurdity of the cosmos.

Packing bags
The answer to the question ‘would you like any help packing your bags?’ should always be ‘no’. If you lack the skills required to put some shopping into a bag, you really shouldn’t be out in public by yourself. If you’re able to pack your shopping effectively but instead choose to stand there DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING while somebody you clearly consider to be several rungs below you on the social ladder does it for you, you are an arsehole.
If you say ‘yes’, one of two things will happen. Either the checkout operator will pack your groceries into bags as they scan them – a process that, logically, makes everything take much, much longer – or a separate person will be called over to pack your bags for you while you dick about with your phone, or (much worse) just lazily watch them.
Whitstable Sainsbury’s actually played a blinder with this one: the bag-packer was quite an elderly woman. Anyone who said ‘yes, pack my bags for me, you fucking peasant’ (OK, never in those words, but that’s always the tone – you know the type, they’ve got an Audi keyring and a Jack Wills shirt or a fucking diamond quilted jacket, they think deck shoes are acceptable even though they’re very much not on a boat, they’re wearing their Wayfarers indoors, fucking twats) would then be greeted by an affable old dear who hallooed them with a ‘hello deary’ and set about bagging the goods. It’s a tricky situation for the lazy shopper – do they just let an old woman pack their bags while they watch, or do they backtrack on their decision, effectively then a) giving the old lady a wasted journey and b) implying that it’d be OK for you, the waster on the checkout, to do it, as you’re even more worthless than an old biddy who might croak at any moment.
I used to judge those ‘yes, pack my bags’ people so harshly. Bloody Daily Mail-reading, over-privileged, xenophobic, Tory, homophobic, elitist, golfing, sailing, rah-rah wankers. ‘I shouldn’t have to pack my own shopping, my grandparents had a servant, we don’t do menial tasks in my family.’ Oh, fuck off and die in a ditch somewhere, you plummy cretins. I hope your house burns down and you lose all of your photographs.

Actually, things haven’t really changed that much, have they? As with so many facets of everyday life, some things evolve, but more stay the same; supermarkets are still baffling and annoying places. And if you feel that way as a consumer, you should try working there.

Convos With My 2 Year-Old - 'The Pants'

Actual conversations between this man and his 2 year-old daughter, as re-enacted by him and another full-grown man. In this episode: pants.

What's Your Ex Doing Now?

Don't worry - they miss you. Clicky.

How to Become the British Monarch

'The Most Dangerous Sport'

Wise words from Glove & Boots.


This is a lovely little gizmo - it allows you to paint with words. As you can see, I've been smearing around the lyrics to 'Stairway to Heaven'. Click here and have a go!


This is pretty much the perfect advert. All ads should be like this.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

11/07/13 - Volvos, etc

On the bus the other day I overheard two schoolkids discussing their parents’ cars. One was giving the other a severe mocking for having to be driven around in a Volvo by his mum. ‘You look like a prick in that,’ he said, in an Inbetweeners-esque slamdunk of matter-of-factness. The poor kid had no response.

It’s easy to deride Volvos for being square. Well, in some cases they actually are square. But they’re a lot more interesting than you think. Allow me to explain…

First off, they have a reputation for being sensible, dependable and beige. But what’s wrong with that? This rep comes from being a safe pair of hands – here are some some of the pioneering safety features that Volvo have introduced (either developing these things themselves, or being early-adopters of other people’s tech) on their mainstream models over the years:

1944 – laminated windscreens
Glass that holds together when it shatters rather than firing jagged shards of glass into your face? That’s a good idea, isn’t it? Thanks, polyvinyl butyral. You’re a helpful little resin.

1957/8/9 – seatbelts
They’re second-nature now, of course – as they should be – but before seatbelts were mandatory and mainstream, people were suspicious of them. ‘Why would I want to be strapped into the wreckage of the car rather than safely thrown clear?’ folk would ask. But they’re good, aren’t they? We see that now.
Volvo introduced two-point front belts as long ago as 1957, with two-point rears coming in the following year, and 1959 seeing full three-point belts. Countless lives saved there. Can’t argue with that.

1966 – crumple zones
It took manufacturers a while to cotton on to the notion of designing either end of a car specifically to absorb energy during an impact. Mercedes-Benz began toying with the idea in the fifties, but it was Volvo that truly challenged the ingrained perception that a safe car was a rigid car in ’66, at which point all of their cars were based around a solid passenger cell in the middle with deformable, energy-absorbing bits fore and aft. So that way, if you get rear-ended, you’re not getting the full force of the ramming up your spine. Oo-er, etc.

1982 – anti-submarining seats
This is the kind of development that you could only come up with by crashing loads and loads of dummy-occupied cars to see what happens. Anti-submarining seats have specially designed panels in the leading edge of the base that stop you sliding under the seatbelt in a frontal collision and going knees-first into the dash. It’s not the sort of idea you’d really stumble upon without testing, is it? It could well be the case that Volvo just like smashing up cars, but at least they’re analysing the data afterwards.

Various acronyms
SIPS - ‘Side Impact Protection System’ - works by bolting the seats to transverse rails rather than straight to the floor, so side impact energy is absorbed throughout the structure rather than just by the bit by your face (which would inevitably otherwise become part of your face). WHIPS is a whiplash protection system – the seatback apparently ‘moves in a way similar to catching a ball gently’ while the headrest stays put. CWAB – ‘Collison Warning with Auto Brake’ keeps an eye out for situations in which you might crash, and brakes for you if peril seems imminent. LKA – ‘Lane Keeping Aid’ – detects when you might be wandering out of your lane due to having nodded off, and pesters you to wake up.
Volvo bloody love acronyms. And while some of these systems may seem spurious, they just can’t help themselves from developing weird safety ideas.

Oh, there are loads of others, look here:

…but safety doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with boringness. Indeed, the enthusiastic following of turbo-bricks reinforces the fact that these sturdy Swedish boxes are fun as well as rock-solid. I used to have an 850 T-5, it was brilliant; sure, it was as big as my kitchen, but its turbo was as big as my face and it pounced for the horizon like its arse was on fire.

If the bigger Volvos still don’t do it for you, consider this: the 300-series is dirt cheap right now – it’s a smallish hatchback (or saloon), it’s rear-wheel drive, it has great weight distribution thanks to the gearbox sitting over the rear axle, and it’s got all kinds of potential: spicy Renault engines – the 16-valver from the Clio/19, for example – pretty much bolt straight in, or you could just wang in something Japanese (an SR20DET or whatever) and go skidding. Fun. Cheap fun. And it probably won’t blow up.

Of course, you may have no interest in cars whatsoever, in which case well done for getting to the end of this. The key take-home point is ‘Volvos aren’t as dull as you think they are’. Well, I mean, some are. But not all of them. Some of them are bags of fun.

That said, those two kids got on the bus at Wandsworth Bridge. And if they live anywhere near there, the poor lambasted wretch’s mum almost certainly drives an XC90 (as 99% of Wandsworth mums do), in which case his mate was right to take the mickey. XC90s are shit.


Watch_Dogs is a new game developed by Ubisoft that explores the impact of technology in modern society. You play a hacker with a thuggish past, taking control of an operating system that manages all of Chicago - with this system, you have all sorts of info on every resident of the city, as well as remotely controlling the entire infrastructure.
...and if you think that sounds far-fetched, allow Ubisoft to prove you wrong. They've created a live, real-time map of London (as well as maps for Paris and Berlin) that acts as a digital helicopter-view of our city as it goes about its daily business. It's all interactively clickable - clicking on a traffic light will show a web of all of the other lights it's linked to in that microsystem; clicking a tweet will show the Twitter user and what they said; clicking an Instagram icon will show the photo in question and who posted it; clicking a Boris bike station will show how many bicycles are available; clicking a Tube train gives a countdown in seconds until it arrives at the next station... it goes on and on. Genuinely fascinating stuff.
Click here -

And here's the game trailer:


Well, this is odd. Click here.

Titanic, Translated

The classic tale, translated into Japanese with a crappy online tool, then translated back again.

Gorgeous Abandoned Movie Theatres

Simultaneously beautiful and depressing. Click here.


You may be familiar with the Grand Theft Auto franchise - it's been around since 1997, and since 2001 in the first-person guise that's best known. Stealing cars, shooting at police helicopters, killing hookers, you know the drill - it's a dystopian criminal extravaganza which, if you're into that kind of thing, is thoroughly addictive.
...and if you're not into that, you soon will be. Why? Because the forthcoming GTA V is set to be so mind-bogglingly massive that you could pretty much actually live in it. As the first-person player, you toggle between three disparate protagonists, each going about their naughty business, but the game also offers 'a touch of voyeurism' - there's a whole city of people getting up to their own particular hijinks, and you can just spy on them, if you want. Or go quad-bike riding, or speedboating, flying planes, playing golf, shopping for clothes, investing in real estate... or, y'know, stealing cars, shooting at police helicopters and killing hookers. They've 'reimagined the open-world game' - it's hard to vocalise just how vast the thing is. Here, watch this:

Magnificent Grumpiness

Friday, 5 July 2013

05/07/13 - Modern Composites

Modern man is a composite character. We aren’t like cavemen, adapting and developing according to the immediate reference points of surroundings, family, peers, climate and prey. We’re bombarded by a constant onslaught of cultural references which inform our behaviour and opinions, and ultimately alter who we are, how we act, what we believe, how we think… as countless creations of other people’s brains pour forth from our TVs, computers and smartphones, we absorb elements of all of these cultural snapshots, for better or worse, and become caricatures of ourselves. What is ‘ourselves’ anyway? We’re all unique entities, but not in the way we think we are: your friend Bill is not ‘Bill’ in pure form, as he believes. He is ‘base Bill’, mixed with myriad influences from all corners of the media spectrum. Every actor, every character, every musician, every writer that he admires adds something to his own character. Bill is a composite – a ball of modernity with a Bill-flavoured core.

There’s nothing wrong with this of course, that’s just how the world works. Rather than being influenced by rocks and gazelles, we align our development with game show hosts and billboards.
So, who are the key influencers that make up the modern thirty-something man? Let’s take a look at them one by one. It’ll all make sense.

Alan Partridge
Partridge is the key influencer of this generation. Eminently quotable, he represents a personality that, in part, exists within as all. As hapless and occasionally reprehensible as he may be, he does sometimes say things that you can’t help but agree with. He’s also frequently horribly wrong, of course, but it’s the unabashed fusion of neuroses and belligerent self-unawareness that creates something we can all relate to. He ploughs through life steamrollering his opinions, seeking fame and recognition that he feels the world owes him due to his perception of himself as an interesting guy, and the world’s (or more specifically, the BBC’s) rejection of this leads him to total meltdown.
Alanisms are so ingrained in our day-to-day speech, we barely notice them. We’re all a bit Partridge, whether we like it or not.

Edmund Blackadder
A lovable bastard. Don’t we all want to be a lovable bastard sometimes? Supremely confident in his own abilities and opinions – and yet, like Alan Partridge, frequently wrong or misguided, and set on a path to ruin by his own errors – he’s a genuine git with a black heart, and enormously likable with it.
It’s his ability to pithily cut a foe in two with a single searing witticism that we all want to live out. Few people are that witty off the cuff. But what we lack in wit, we can try to make up for with a damning, disgusted disdain for the world at large, and a horrible sense of superiority. Everyone else is stupider than you, and you’re the only one who can see it – surely there’s a way to exploit this position for your own material gain?
We all feel this way sometimes, right?

Gary Strang
…aka ‘Gary from Men Behaving Badly’. He’s just an ordinary bloke – likes a beer, doesn’t like his job all that much, happiest when in the pub or eating pizza in front the TV. He’s also a horrendous misogynist, a terrible slob, hideously selfish and insensitive, and generally the sort of person that, should we all live his way, would surely usher in the chaotic downfall of society as we know it. But to his credit, he’s a fundamentally decent guy. He gives us all hope that, despite our occasional propensity to get horribly drunk, not do the washing-up, ogle boobs or make jokes that go way beyond the acceptable side of xenophobic, we are fundamentally decent people. He also gives us a good excuse to say ‘WAHEY!’ without a hint of irony.

Mark Corrigan
…aka ‘Mark from Peep Show’. I worry sometimes that my inner monologue is so closely aligned with Mark’s, we’re largely the same person. Recently, in a nightclub in Brighton, I couldn’t stop his voice in my head as I looked around, saying to me ‘these are literally the worst people in the world’.
Mark is a man who just gets on with things because he has to. Who accepts outlandish, unexpected, unlikely or just plain unfair situations, simply because the world is a shitty place and he’s just one insignificant person within it. Using Mark’s world-weary cynicism as a mask for our own is a helpful get-out. It allows us to despair of the idiocy of humanity, but say it in his voice as if to distance ourselves from it somehow.
Basically, Mark Corrigan isn’t cool. And neither are we.

Jeremy Usbourne
That’s ‘Jez from Peep Show’ to you. He’s the cool, trendy foil to Mark’s old-before-his-time ball of neuroses… except that he isn’t, at all. He wants to be a famous musician, he wants to see out his days in a fug of ganj an’ ting. But he also just wants to have a nice biscuit and watch Morse.
Jez is the part of us that accepts that there’s a cool layer within the social strata, and to a degree aspires to it. But can’t actually be bothered, and isn’t really that cool.

Peter Griffin
We all want to do stupid shit, say what we think regardless of how awful it may be, and generally live in the moment. We can’t do these things, obviously, the world doesn’t work that way. As Mark Corrigan would say ‘there are systems in place for a reason’. But Peter Griffin is the acceptable face of shitty behaviour. Why can’t we build a massive blimp with our own face on the front and fly it into some power lines? Why can’t we get drunk and take all our clothes off in the supermarket? Why can’t we make fun of people with amusing accents?
Because we just can’t, alright? But there’s a little of that mindless why-can’t-we in all of us.

Arnold Rimmer
None of us wants to be like Rimmer. We just are. He’s a petty, vindictive mess, and would step over his own grandmother if it meant the slightest flash of personal advancement. That’s a lurking evil within you, admit it.

Father Ted
Reassuring proof that even the supposedly untouchably good can be greedy, mendacious, dishonest and self-serving. Ted’s utter disbelief at the increasingly irritating circumstances that befall him make him a latter-day Victor Meldrew, with each endeavour turning into a hard-fought battle to at least return to the point at which he started rather than actually losing anything and finding himself worse off. I think we can all relate to that. The modern world is a cavalcade of despair. You usually lose.

Nathan Barley

This is more true of some people than others. But there’s a lot of Barleys out there. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re totally right about everything, and that everyone else is a twat for not realising? Do you often find that this approach leads to your own public exposure as the one in the wrong? Yeah, it’s unfortunate, that, isn’t it?

Chandler Bing
We all want to be funny. We all want to be liked. Sometimes we allow this to envelope everything we do, regardless of how much we’re irritating people. It’s just because we’re neurotic.

Homer Simpson
We opened with Alan Partridge, we’re closing with Homer Simpson – the two biggest influences on the character of the modern thirty-something man. Homer is a dichotomy; an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum. He’s sweet, loving, stupid, annoying, selfish, perceptive, ignorant, cheerful, angry, vivacious, disinterested, lazy, determined… no combination of him should work. But that’s pretty much all of us in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Most of our heroes – and anti-heroes – are cynics. That’s why we all dislike each other these days.

Robin of Essex

A slice of profane perfection from Modern Toss.

The '90s Button

Click here to unleash a random stream of nineties music. Ace.

Honda - 'Hands'

Another brilliant, brilliant ad from Honda. (Pedants prepare to scoff at the incongruous rear-wheel drive BTCC Civic...)

Andy Murray Squeezes Toothpaste

This is brilliant. Look!

Coffee Level Indicator


One Letter Missing

The Twitter hashtag #bookswithalettermissing has been artfully illustrated by @darth. Click here to see.

B&W Tights Dance

This will break your mind.