Friday, 4 December 2015

04/12/15 - Muy Caliente!

Spicy food is confusing, I don’t really understand it. Well, no, not all spicy food – just overly spicy food. Food that’s hard to eat. I just don’t see the point.

There’s an amazing curry house in Wandsworth that we used to order from, The Chutney on Alma Road. Quite often we’d get a Friday night takeaway from there, getting them to deliver it even though it was only a five minute walk because, sod it, Friday night, save the effort. I’m set in my ways and would generally order the same thing, either a chicken tikka masala or a moghlai gosht (shut up, I know I’m unadventurous, but that’s what I like), and every single time they’d respond to my order in the same way: ‘Are you sure, sir? You know that these curries are very mild?’
They knew it was me. Every time I called, my details must have popped up on the system because they read my address out to me before I even started ordering. And yet they always made the point that I was clearly ordering a dish that was specially formulated for little girls, kittens, and other creatures with sensitive mouths and temperaments. Surely a grown man wouldn’t want to order a curry that wasn’t crammed with eyewatering chilis and sphincter-loosening spices?

This isn’t The Chutney’s fault, of course. The surprise they register is the result of cultural conditioning by the stupid, overly-macho British public. There’s a clear and baffling mindset of the average bloke that if you’re going for a curry, it’s got to knock your socks off. Perusing the menu with other blokey blokes, it becomes a sort of spice arms race as the posturing one-upmanship gets increasingly out of control. ‘I’m going to order a vindaloo.’ ‘Yeah, well I’m having a tindaloo.’ ‘You guys are pussies, I’m going to get them to make me a squindaloo.’ ‘That’s shit, I’m going to make them remove all of the meat and replace it with some brimstone and razor blades.’ Oh, do fuck off. Who are you trying to impress? This sort of behaviour is ridiculous – you’ve gone out for a nice meal, why not just enjoy it? What’s the point of spending your money on food that you can’t physically eat? Your tongue will burn, your lips will tingle, your bumhole won’t thank you in the morning, and your bullish bravado will force you into putting out the fire with pint after pint of lager (because you’re a laaad, oi oi, tits, football, banter) whose bubbles will actually agitate your burning tongue, rather than doing what you’d certainly do if you were in that kind of oral discomfort at home, which is to drink lots of soothing milk.

You see this happen in Mexican restaurants too. A couple of families will be sitting together at a table; the children will be excitedly jabbering away as all kids do when they get to eat out in public, the mothers will be gossiping over a glass of wine, and the dads… they’ll be acting like a pair of utter pricks, noisily challenging each other to eat more and more jalapeños in the hope of impressing their ever-more embarrassed kids. There’s just no need for it. I guess the family man likes to feel that he’s off the reins a little because he’s not in the pub with the lads firing back Jagers or, yes, in the curry house ordering a bazindaloo, and this pepper contest is some kind of small victory.

Lads, blokes, oiks and berks of Britain: it’s OK to enjoy spicy food in moderation, no-one of any significance will be judging you. I don’t know where you’ve got this silly idea from, but it’s not the end of the world if you order something you’ll actually enjoy rather than trying to prove how much gastric distress you can cause yourself whilst wearing a false smile and trying to work out where the toilet is. Just order what you want. Get the korma, make yourself happy. Cream and coconuts are nothing to be ashamed of.

EODM on the Bataclan

If you haven’t yet seen this, it’s worth half an hour of your time. Eagles of Death Metal discuss the Bataclan attack. Devastating, gut-wrenching stuff.

Beatbox brilliance

An excellent TEDx talk from a couple of years ago.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

It's great that they've put a decent budget behind this. It actually looks pretty good!

The Hateful Eight in 70mm Ultra Panavision

An interesting little featurette for retro film nerds.

Cheer up, grandpa

A touching festive gesture.

Friday, 27 November 2015

27/11/15 - Grumbling old Luddite

There was no internet when I was a student.

Actually, no, that’s a pointless lie. But back in the year 2000, in the wake of the Millennium Bug, when Tony Blair and the Queen Mother stalked the earth, internets were hard to come by. At home we had a desktop PC in the spare room upon which you could find an internet by running a dial-up cable in from the phone socket in the hall, but this did mean that nobody could use the phone while you were checking your email. Using your home phone was important back then, people actually used their landlines as a form of communication. And dial-up took FOREVER – kids these days don’t know how lucky they are to have immediate connectivity in the palms of their hands. I remember the days when it took twenty minutes to open Internet Explorer, your only browser option, and there was no such thing as Facebook. (And when this was all fields. And so on.)

So anyway, I was an analogue student. I never once used a computer in a university building, I never used Google to research my coursework, I submitted my essays on brittle papyrus with ink from crushed baby octopi and shellac beetles, or something. I didn’t and couldn’t go online recreationally. ‘Social networking’ meant going out into the real world and talking to people. Jesus, I sound old. Sorry.

In my first year, we did actually have the luxury of internet in our student house for a short time. Much like at home, the information superhighway (as people still referred to it then, bless them) was accessible via a BT socket and a really long cable that could be unfurled to reach any room in the house. In practise, this meant that if anyone was using the internet upstairs, any other housemate going up or down stairs was likely to trip over the serpentine wire and fall thudding into the hallway. See, your modern wifi router isn’t just convenient, it’s a potential lifesaver…
Again, much like at home, the glacial pace of BT dial-up meant that using the internet for anything at all in 2000 was an arduous and fundamentally irritating affair. Once the sleepy computer had been coaxed into life, it’d take quite a while for the Explorer icon to react to having been clicked on. Then the digital penny would drop, the PC would have a little chat with the phone line, and you’d be treated to a good few minutes of ssshhhhhKRRREEEEEE-shabong-bong-SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEE noises which, at the time, appeared to be a necessary evil, but seem ridiculous now. Interestingly, it was pretty much the same set of noises you used to get when loading a game from a cassette on a Sinclair Spectrum. Roughly the same speed and likelihood of crashing too, come to think of it.
Once you’d got the World Wide Web fired up, you could then enjoy the sort of watching-paint-dry connection speeds that meant it’d take an annoyingly long time to, say, log in to your Hotmail and, once you’d spotted that you had three new emails (for there was no spam back then, really), it’d take you a good half hour to open and read them all, with the screen loading pixel by agonising pixel from the top of the page downward. Clicking the ‘back’ button when you got bored was no help either, as it’d then try to load the entire previous page from its creaking and forgetful memory. At this point, the internet connection would drop for no obvious reason and you’d have to start all over again; either that or one of your housemates would trip over the cable, ripping it from the socket as they fell down the stairs.
Invariably, halfway through your journey to discover that you had no worthwhile new info to glean from your inbox, your slightly less emotionally balanced housemate would insist that he needed to use the phone to call his girlfriend back home, and would then spend the entire day crying down the telephone to her and thus robbing everybody else of the opportunity to stare frustratedly at a loading screen. (I’m sure this quite specific set of circumstances can’t have been unique to our house.)
In the second and third years, we just didn’t have any internet at all. Every now and then we’d pop to a mate’s house – say, once a month, maybe – to check our emails, but it was such a faff and hassle that we generally didn’t bother. We knew that there was internet access in the university buildings, but that involved trekking all the way across town. Sod that. You might accidentally find yourself doing some work or something. Far better just to go to the pub.

In 2001 I bought a laptop to type my essays on – it was a second-hand beige Toshiba with an 8” screen that I procured from a1cheaplaptops4u or some similar quality emporium, for the sum of twenty pounds. Ah, those were the days. It could run Word, Minesweeper… er, I think that was it, actually. I’d type up my work in Word For Windows (as Word was called back in the halcyon days of Windows 95), save it onto a floppy disk, drive across town to the English department building, print it out and hand it in. Retro.
But there was no way that little old box could have handled the whizz-bang excitement of internet. To be honest, Word For Windows was rather more than it could generally cope with, and that used to make it fizz in an unsettling manner sometimes.

Nowadays, universities have to develop increasingly cunning and complex systems to circumvent the problem of plagiarism, given how enormously easy it is to find answers, pre-written essays and what have you online; a simple global cheating resource in which an equally cunning student body may plunder and borrow in seconds merely by copying-and-pasting. It’d be quite embarrassing to fail a unit because you were guilty of digital plagiarism – but is that more or less embarrassing than failing on the grounds that you were crap, like in the good old days…?

It must seem ploddingly archaic to the students of today, the notion that people went through their entire university careers without handy internet access. Cables, phone lines, desktop PCs… how quaint. Today – and again, I’m aware that I sound like a ridiculous old man – students (and everybody else) have access to the entirety of mankind’s knowledge, everything that has ever been thought, pondered, postulated, argued, disproved, reworked, developed, patented, shared and enjoyed, on a quick and easy little device that fits right into the pocket. It’s changed the way we absorb and retain knowledge, forcing minds into specialisms and encouraging people to only learn about the things that they’re really interested in; why do you need rhymes to remember the planets or Henry VIII’s wives, why would you retain the difference between mitosis and meiosis, why learn how to wire a plug, why remember anything at all, when it can be Googled in seconds?

We never had this kind of luxury when I was a student – you had to learn things, because things had to be learned; it’d be a bugger to go and find out for yourself, so it was far easier to remember stuff.
Not that I did remember much, of course, I was in the pub most of the time. But, y’know, in theory…

Slow-motion fire tornado

The Slow-Mo guys are great - this fire tornado they've shot is somewhere beyond hypnotic.

Shawshank 2.0

Coming out of prison after 44 years is, as you might imagine, a bit confusing.

Smooth Criminal on a barrel organ

Well, why not eh?

Friday, 20 November 2015

20/11/15 - The best sound in the world

Once upon a time, back in 2002, my friend Chris and I were drunk. Not plastered, not vomiting or insensible, just comfortably rosy. The sort of cheerful, harmless inebriation that comes from knocking back a few cold beers in the sunshine. 2002 was a particularly agreeable summer, I seem to recall, with the hot sunny days outweighing the cooler ones, and we’d been sitting on his lawn with a big plastic box full of ice, a dozen or so glistening bottles bobbing amongst the cubes. We were warm, happy, and well refreshed. We were also talking a whole lot of nonsense.

By a circuitous route, the conversation turned to a sound effect we’d heard in a film recently. I forget what it was now, but it had left a sufficiently strong impression on us at the time that we started discussing other interesting sound effects. As a kid I’d been a huge fan of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and was interested in their innovative methods of noise-making. Chris was an accomplished guitarist, and had much to bring to the discussion on the subject of effects pedals, detuning and distortion, and we threw a few ideas back and forth about the brilliantly weird sounds that Radiohead, Rage Against The Machine, Vex Red, The Cooper Temple Clause and Ikara Colt were kicking out at that time. The more enthused we became by our drunken discussion, the more eager we were to find a sound: the sound, the perfect sound, the best sound in the world.
We didn’t have a plan or method laid out for experimenting, we just roamed around his house, garden and garage trying to find interesting noises. Doors and windows were opened and closed, books dropped, buttons pressed, slippers banged together, foodstuffs squelched, bric-a-brac microwaved, plastics snapped, wood scraped – anything that could make a noise was toyed with. Some noises were interesting, others less so, but after a few more beers it started to get more and more out of control. I won’t bore you with the details of the madcap setups we devised (suffice it to say that some of it took a bit of explaining when his parents came home), but the crux of the matter is this: the greatest sound in the world is that which is made by bouncing a ping-pong ball off the rim of a whisky tumbler that’s floating in a half-filled paddling pool. Try this for yourself, you’ll see.

This is a sound that I still remember clearly, despite having not attempted to replicate it in the last thirteen years. I want to keep it pure in my mind, lest further experiments prove it to be a disappointment. It’s a constant, an immutable truth – whatever instability there may be in my life or in the world in general, that’s one thing I’ve got locked down for keeps. I know what the best noise is. It’s an achievement, of sorts.
It’s also a noise that I have to play over and over in my head when I’m on public transport these days. Why? Well, think of it as a sort of aural comfort blanket. For while Chris and I were working hard to discover the best sound in the world, the intense humming of evil over at Samsung had put their product developers onto the task of achieving precisely the opposite. Their mission was to find the worst sound in the world. The most annoying, the most infuriating, the sound most likely to make you want to tear off your own ears and cast them into the sea to save you from hearing the wretched thing again.
It took them rather longer to perfect their sound, but dammit, they got there. And here it is:

That’s right. Samsung’s whistle tone. Worse than the sound of exploding planes, distressed and crying children, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s voice, or that particularly poignant click of the front door closing behind you just as you realise your keys are inside. It’s almost worthy of congratulation – Samsung have managed to take all of the world’s evil, all of mankind’s fear, mistrust, desolation and joylessness, and distil it into one brief whistling sound. Well done, team. You’ve opened Pandora’s Box. You’re a Chernobyl meltdown, a Centralia mine fire, an extramarital affair. What you’ve done cannot be undone, and now we all have to live with the fucking thing.

It’s a constant battle, but each time I’ve heard this sound on the train or the bus (which is a lot of times – a few dozen on every journey) I’ve thus far managed to restrain myself from wrenching the offending phone from its owner’s hand and ramming it so far up their backside that the recharging port gets entangled with their nose hair, but it’s only a matter of time before enough becomes enough. That perfect sound that we found in 2002 can only fight the force of this modern whistling nightmare for so long. And then I’ll be wearing an unwitting commuter on my arm like a cross between a vet’s glove and a sophisticated marionette.

A couple more Christmas ads...

...after all, we're deep into November now. (?!)

First up, Sainsbury's three-and-a-half-minuter, which neatly knocks John Lewis into a cocked hat.

And secondly, this flawlessly splendid effort from Leo Burnett Spain for the Christmas lottery.

Bicycle mischief

Follow the Frog

A truly excellent Rainforest Alliance advert from back in 2012.

Human-powered phone charger

I love this guy's tech videos, they're ace. And those eyebrows...

Friday, 6 November 2015

06/11/15 - Nasubi

The cult of reality TV appears to have reached some kind of zenith in 2015. While the notion of watching ‘real’ people on television doing everyday things (or things that they’ve never tried before but might be good at) can’t really be considered a new phenomenon, the concept of ‘scripted reality’ - i.e. TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, etc - is seeping inexorably into the everyday, and we’re not far off the tipping point whereby there are more reality shows on TV than anything else. Alan Partridge’s nonsense show pitches – Monkey Tennis, Cooking in Prison, Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank, and so on – are actually coming true, one by one.

But for the really bonkers, out-there reality stuff, us Brits are nowhere near the true greatness and potential of the medium. Sure, our plucky contestants can sing or train dogs to dance or bake muffins or eat grubs, but if you want true reality drama, you need to look to Japan for inspiration. Why not take Nasubi as a starting point?

For those of you whose Japanese is a bit rusty, ‘Nasubi’ means ‘aubergine’. The significance of this will become clear. The name of the reality show in question is Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, and this aired from 1998-2002. It gained huge ratings from its extreme and sadistic treatment of its contestants, particularly if they were deemed to be doing too well at whatever challenge they were given. Participants were generally little-known comedians who wanted to use the show to springboard their careers into the big leagues, and they were made to do some really horrible things. One challenge, for example, saw two contestants being dropped on a desert island with no supplies or information about where they were, being told that their only way out was to build a raft and float to Tokyo; it took them four months to escape, whereupon they were told that they then had to ride a pedalo to Indonesia. It’s madness.

But Nasubi really tops the lot. It concerned a rising comedian named Tomoaki Hamatsu, whose challenge was to stay alone in a flat, naked, for an indeterminate amount of time. While he was in there, he had to relentlessly enter lotteries and sweepstakes by mail until he’d won a million yen (which sounds like an astonishing figure, but is actually about £5,500). At the start of the show he had nothing at all – not just an absence of clothes, but no food, no stimulus, nothing at all beyond the means to enter sweepstakes. He had no contact with the outside world, no way of speaking to anybody. He was alone, hermetically sealed in a featureless room. For the whole time he was there, Hamatsu believed that he was being filmed in order for the footage to be broadcast on Susunu! Denpa Shōnen after the task was completed, but in fact he was being live-broadcast 24/7. A little cartoon aubergine was superimposed over his genitals to preserve what dignity remained, hence his earned nickname of Nasubi. He existed solely on the products he won in the various competitions he entered, scraping an existence as best he could with no human interaction and no idea what was going on outside of his surreal little bubble. The jaunty aubergine was augmented by mocking sound effects, making fun of his misery and presenting his suffering as slapstick farce. He survived at first solely on water, losing weight at an alarming rate, before he managed to win some sugary drinks in a competition, and then a large haul of dog food which sustained him for a few weeks. It was not a dignified existence.
He managed to reach his target of a million yen within a year – 335 days, to be exact – instantly earning himself the Guinness World Record for ‘Longest time survived on competition winnings’.
But the ordeal didn’t end there. Oh, no.

Having met his target, Nasubi was extracted from the apartment, blindfolded, clothed, and taken to a place where he believed he’d be rewarded for his year of solitude. In fact, the production team dumped him in South Korea where he was installed in another apartment, made to strip naked again, and instructed to keep entering sweepstakes so that he could win enough money to get himself home to Japan – an unbelievably cruel development.
Eventually, after much further suffering, he won the requisite sum and was again blindfolded, clothed, and flown away on a mystery jet. Upon having the blindfold removed, Nasubi found himself in yet another apartment. By this point he was a broken man, barely able to contain his frustration and devastation. Resigned to further torment, he stripped off his clothes once more.
As soon as his little nasubi was again swinging free, the apartment walls fell away to reveal that he was actually in the Susunu! Denpa Shōnen studio, with a huge audience cheering and whooping. Naturally he was baffled by this, as he had no idea that he’d been on the air. Imagine going from fifteen months of solitary confinement to having a brightly-lit studio full of people shouting at you. What a total headfuck.

And did this extended period of inexplicable torture help him to break into the professional comedy circuit? Er, no, not really. The producers did OK out of it, with the weekly Sunday night show regularly topping 17m viewers and the transcripts of Nasubi’s diaries of solitude becoming a bestselling book, but the poor bastard at the centre of it all found himself unable to properly converse with people and uncomfortable wearing clothes. He eventually went on to become a moderately successful stage actor, although it’s hard to say whether or not the whole thing was worth it; he claims to be ‘grateful’ for the experience, but this could well just be denial.

It’s a bit more hardcore than Strictly Come Dancing, isn’t it?

Chatroulette shooter: volume 2

The brilliant minds behind the Chatroulette first person shooter have returned with a second instalment. It is ace.

Four new ads

A selection of interesting ads here, just because.

Firstly, the annual John Lewis emotional freight train has arrived, neatly sidestepping quite a few laws of physics as it goes.

Secondly, a Duracell Christmas ad, included simply because I find it hilarious that they've had to put a 'fantasy sequence' disclaimer on it. Y'know, in case you might think it's real.

Thirdly, Nike's Snow Day, which is just bonkers.

And finally, this Emirates thing, which everyone's talking about. (Not so much that it's amazingly free of CGI, more that Dubai is quite polluted.)

Something you might not have known about Las Vegas

Friday, 23 October 2015

23/10/15 - Centralia

Where are you going on holiday this year? Somewhere warm and peaceful? How about the leafy splendour of eastern Pennsylvania?

In the early 1960s, the bustling mining town of Centralia, PA was preparing to celebrate its centenary. Such events are always big news in a country with as little long-range history as the USA, where anything over fifty years old is considered a venerable antique – “surely no-one was alive then?!” – and there was much excitement: parades, sideshows, parties, it was to be a big day for the residents. But this is not what people remember about Centralia – what they remember is that, one day, everybody decided to up sticks and abandon the town. A busy community of thousands rapidly diminished, leaving just a handful of residents scattered here and there in the remnants of, by local standards, a fair amount of history. As people left, their homes were demolished, leaving the town as little more than a huge, flat, empty space, surreally punctuated by road signs and fire hydrants, with just the odd house here and there occupied by the very few that decided to stay. So why did this happen?

The answer, bizarrely, is that Centralia was on fire. And not in an obvious run-and-fetch-a-hose sort of way, but underground, in a manner that was unnervingly impossible to extinguish.
Centralia’s blessing, and also its curse, is that it sits on a colossal seam of anthracite. This is a particularly sought-after variety of coal given that it has a much higher carbon content and fewer impurities than, say, lignite or bituminous coal. Being so hard and dense, it’s a bit of a bugger to get it lit, although once it is ignited it’s pretty tricky to put out – and therein lies Centralia’s problem. You may be able to see where this is going.

A thriving industrial community, Centralia had been happily mining anthracite and doing rather well for itself for generations until one unfortunate day, May 27th 1962, when a refuse fire on the edge of town managed to ignite the anthracite seam beneath the ground. The problem was identified pretty quickly and the fire department pumped gallon upon gallon of water down there, but the glowing core of the seam just kept reigniting – and as the fire spread, so the whole town became incrementally and unstoppably consumed by eerie wisps of smoke that were licking up from the earth. The US Bureau of Mines was brought in to assess the problem and formulate a solution, although everything they came up with was either unworkable or unaffordable. (Rerouting the fire with explosives was one particularly madcap idea that was seriously considered, as was digging a vast trench through the centre of town to divide it up into the safe zone and the dangerously hot bit.) But no-one was able to agree on a solution, so nothing happened, and the fire just kept burning on. People got on with their lives, aware of the subterranean inferno but largely unconcerned by it. It became a curio, an interesting story to tell. “Yeah, I’m from Centralia, the town that’s on fire.”

Seventeen years later, in 1979, a petrol station owner spotted that the temperature in his underground fuel tanks was worryingly high. A little investigation revealed that the earth around a dozen feet or so below the tanks was registering over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. People’s homes were becoming nauseatingly rich in carbon monoxide, and their increasingly hot cellars were causing concern. The roads grew warm to the touch. And then, in 1981, a boy playing in his grandma’s garden was almost swallowed up by a sudden, terrifying sinkhole opening up in front of him; he saved himself by clinging onto tree roots and calling for help, and he was lucky to have had such quick reflexes – the hole turned out to be a hundred and fifty feet deep.
Further sinkholes started appearing all over town. And at this point, the authorities suggested that perhaps it was time for the townspeople to start taking the fire seriously. A mass evacuation was ordered, the bulldozers clearing homes as the people fled. Deep, smoking gashes appeared in the roads as the inhabitants ran from the hidden blaze like some sort of weird and unbelievable action movie. In seemingly no time at all, a town with a rich tradition of industry was reduced to a featureless plain shrouded in a creepy, noxious haze.
The 2000 census registered just 21 inhabitants. By the 2010 census, this figure was down to ten, the median age being 62.5 years. Today there are even fewer, stubbornly clinging to life on top of a bonfire.

There’s enough anthracite underneath Centralia to keep burning for another two hundred and fifty years – or possibly even a thousand, no-one’s quite sure. So that’s another place that we humans can file alongside Chernobyl as ‘places we broke and probably shouldn’t ever go back to’. That said, the residents buried a time capsule in 1966, and there are plans afoot for a number of former Centralians to return to the town in 2016 to dig it up – although it’ll be a brave fellow who consciously decides to plunge a spade into what could well be an inch-thick crust of earth over an unimaginably large bowl of fire…