Friday, 31 July 2015

31/07/15 - Peacocking

When I was a kid, being on television was a really big deal. I made a colourful calendar when I was about twelve and sent it in to Live & Kicking (who were running some kind of calendar competition, obviously – I’m not in the habit of mailing unsolicited hobbycrafts to kids’ TV shows on the off-chance that they might enjoy it) and, for a split-second, my name appeared on BBC1. On Christmas day, no less. It was hugely exciting, and my family treated me like a celebrity all day. Earlier that year, my mum had given a soundbite to the local news in protest against something or other that was happening to a nearby roundabout; she appeared on screen in her yellow cycling cagoule, momentarily militant in the face of, er, something, and everyone we knew crowded around their tellies to witness a familiar face on the box. That kind of thing was thrilling back in the blissful simplicity of the early nineties. Being on TV was very special indeed.

The modern concept of fame is something that irritates me enormously. In the olden days people were famous for doing, achieving or knowing things; Brunel was famed for his engineering ingenuity, Capability Brown revolutionised the British countryside with his madcap landscaping, Archimedes will forever be associated with hydrostatics. The obverse side was infamy; Burke & Hare, Typhoid Mary, Ned Kelly – they were widely known for deliberate misdeeds and acts that civilised society considered to be, at best, distasteful… but what’s interesting is that now the line between fame and infamy is blurred. It’s perceived as equally valid to be famous for doing something unsavoury in front of millions – singing badly, eating a witchetty grub, whatever – as it is doing something even remotely worthwhile or beneficial. So what’s the point of working at something when a wilful lack of effort can receive similar plaudits?

This is partially, but by no means entirely, X Factor’s fault. And I’m not knocking it as a show; I watch it every year, it’s cheery, mindless escapism that demonstrates a genuinely charming snapshot of the human desire for betterment and achievement. I really like it. But it also demonstrates the modern world’s nastiest, most unpleasant character trait: there isn’t a specific word for it, but it’s a combination of laziness, a misplaced sense of self-worth, the desire to be recognised for one’s talents whilst simultaneously showing a belligerent lack of acknowledgement of their shortcomings, and a sense that the world owes you something and that you deserve to receive accolades solely on the basis of wanting them. “I’ve wanted this my whole life, I want it so much.” Really? Why haven’t you done anything about it, then? Maybe practised a bit, done a few gigs?

Reality TV has a lot to answer for. I forced myself to watch a lot of it at university under the broad and loosely-defined umbrella of ‘dissertation research’. (Yeah, a large part of my [rather poorly received and extremely badly written] dissertation was an acerbic rant about the facile shitness of reality television. It didn’t really make a specific point. I’m still not entirely sure what I was getting at.) The genre's roots lie in game shows, as you might imagine, which were and are the portals to allow average Joes onto the small screen without having to really put any work into it. And game shows stretch way back to 1938’s Spelling Bee, so this desire to be on screen and grab a pocketful of fame’s glitter is nothing new. It’s more the dogged pursuit of fame at any cost that’s beginning to define an unpleasant new 21st century behaviour.
The rot began to set in with MTV’s The Real World back in 1992, which subsequently became the channel’s longest-running show and is credited with spawning the latter-day reality genre. It was structurally similar to ITV2’s more recent The Only Way Is Essex in that it showed real-life events to a degree, but these were shaped by the whims and direction of the production team to make stuff actually happen – largely because other people’s lives really aren’t that interesting; folk just go to work and go to the shops and watch telly and have a nice cup of tea. So a pseudo-narrative structure has to be shoehorned in. (For further back-up of this, see Big Brother: the first UK series in 2000 was genuinely interesting as an anthropological social experiment, but as soon as the second series came around the contestants weren’t a diverse crowd of different characters, they were just fame-hungry pricks peacocking for the cameras; they knew exactly how much real-time footage would be broadcast, you see, whereas the contestants in the first series had no idea and assumed it’d be a brief daily round-up. A group of people sitting around doing nothing makes for fucking boring television [until they get cabin fever and start to punch each other, that is], which is why they’re fed with pointless tasks. It stagnates quickly.)
Have you seen the movie EDtv, incidentally? Probably not, it bombed at the box office, but it’s actually not bad; think of The Truman Show but with the dystopian horror of awareness. The moral is that accidental fame is a bitter pill.

Now, there are plenty of people who are on TV on merit. That’s a truism; people wouldn’t watch television if it wasn’t worth watching – there are loads of credible presenters, journalists and what-have-you who can all be proud that they’re working hard at being good at what they do and became famous by consequence, rather than approaching it the other way around. That’s good. But there’s a worrying subset of celebrities that, frankly, should be bloody ashamed of themselves: they’re taking part in celebrity reality television. And that’s a sub-genre that doesn’t need to exist. It’s meta, celebrity-squared. Yvette Fielding, Lionel Blair, Melanie Sykes, Michael Buerk - what the hell are you thinking? You’re already on TV, you wallies, no-one gives a shit if you can dance on ice, make a stargazey pie or a decent Victoria sponge, or live in a sanitised jungle for a bit and eat perfectly safe but unpleasant-tasting parts of animals. It’s tremendously fucking tedious.
I am clearly in a minority with this opinion, given the popularity of such shows. I’m also a hypocrite, as I watch them. No-one’s forcing me to do that, I do it by choice. But it does irritate me that these celeb forays, once solely the preserve of Children in Need or Comic Relief, in which we’d see someone we recognised from the telly doing something other than what we knew them for, are now on the box all the bloody time performing random tasks. Chewing gum for the eyes.
Perhaps I’m just jealous because they’re doubly-famous – not just famous, but famous on a secondary level simply for being famous – whereas I’m just a nobody among a miasma of similarly unremarkable nobodies. But hey, it’s us nobodies keeping these people on television…

The basic problem today is that we’ll watch any old shit. And the saddest element of this behaviour is that if you manage to get on screen for whatever reason, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve killed television’s mystique, and now that we’re so far down this execrable road, there’s no turning back. Enjoy what intelligent programming remains while you can, because the TV of your children’s future will be 100% (or, in reality TV language ‘110%’, ‘one hundred million percent’, etc) dross. All filler, no thought, just a hell of a lot of exaggerated mutual backslapping. It’ll no longer even pretend to be a mirror of ‘reality’; we’ll just be watching each other doing nothing at all.

Friday, 24 July 2015

24/07/15 - Craig, Bond, Spectre, etc

Daniel Craig is the best James Bond.

OK, I’ll just let that statement sink in for a moment. A lot of you won’t agree. The issue of who the best Bond is starts all sorts of arguments – it’s like debating whether Dylan was better acoustic or electric, or that important issue Andrex raised with their ‘Scrunch or Fold?’ campaign. There’s no right answer, just groups of people who care more about one answer above all other options, reasonable or otherwise.
Many people would say that Sean Connery was the archetypal Bond – the original and best. He certainly had a great accent and a very expressive set of eyebrows. But such people receive withering looks from the Roger Moore fans when they say this, as the Moore-ites are pretty die-hard. You get a smattering of Timothy Dalton enthusiasts (who are wrong, obviously), as well as the sardonic smartarses who claim that George Lazenby played the role in the most superior way (c’mon though, he was wearing a bloody cardigan). I always used to assert that Pierce Brosnan was the best one – I love Bond films and, while I have a keen appreciation for the classics, the Brosnan-era movies came out when I was growing up so they had the most resonance for me; OK, his later ones weren’t that great, but that wasn’t Brosnan’s fault, and GoldenEye is one of the best films ever. Not just 007 films, but all films. Try and disagree, see what happens. Yeah? You’ll get a stolen EuroCopter Tiger all up in your grill.

Daniel Craig, however, is a game-changer. Whereas Bonds of old always had a slightly camp and tongue-in-cheek quality, the modern 007 is much darker, more brooding, more intense. There’s a massive build on his back-story, probably brought on by an increasing discomfort among the cinematic community with 007’s penchant for shagging anything that moves, killing without remorse, and generally coming across as a bit of a smiling bastard. Craig’s Bond justifies the bastard, explains him, lets you in on an emotional level, trades smirks for intensity.
Look at Casino Royale, his first outing in the role. That is just a brilliant movie – so much happens in it! – and it neatly undoes the strangeness of the original. (What original? Well, Casino Royale was a 2006 remake of the 1967 film of the same name; a quite-shit quasi-parodic comedy loosely based on Fleming’s first James Bond novel. David Niven plays 007. It is not good.)
Bond’s character develops immensely in this film; whereas he’d always basically been the same one-dimensional spy in the older films, occasionally falling in love or expressing remorse but generally just playing to type, this is the film where we see him as a complex person. He’s fallible, emotional, haunted by demons… and yet unstoppable, irrepressible, ineffably charming.

Quantum of Solace builds on the genius of Casino Royale by firstly being a direct sequel to it (doesn’t happen a lot in the 007 franchise, continuity has always been a malleable entity), and also by being very cleverly made. It sees Bond pursuing personal rather than professional vendettas, becoming increasingly disenchanted and less interested in self-preservation beyond the pursuit of vengeance itself, and it’s artfully constructed to be a modern-era Bond film stuffed with classic cinematic cues: the Douglas DC-3 plane you see in the flight sequence is a vintage icon, the set designs are clearly influenced by Goldfinger and Thunderball – and Bond is deliberately crafted to reveal his dark, grotesque, human side.

It’s Skyfall, however, that is Daniel Craig’s tour de force. It’s genuinely one of the greatest films ever made. And not in that flippant way that I said GoldenEye was earlier, but really, truly. It’s just so beautifully put together – it follows the classic Bond film format to a degree, but takes it to a far, far darker place. Consider all that happens in the film – here’s the plot in a nutshell [caution: spoilers]: James Bond and Eve Moneypenny are trying to recover a stolen hard drive containing the identities of a number of undercover MI6 agents. Eve accidentally shoots Bond, everyone assumes he’s dead, and he disappears.
After the incident, M comes under pressure from above and is encouraged to retire. Then her office blows up and several agents die. Bond learns of the attack and returns to London – he’s out of shape and fails the physical & mental aptitude tests, but M sweeps it under the rug and reinstates his 00 status.
He follows the hard drive thief to Shanghai and kills him, finding a gambling chip among his possessions that leads him to a casino in Macau. The trail then leads to an abandoned island where he’s captured by ex-MI6 agent Raoul Silva, who’s become a cyber-terrorist. Bond brings him in, but it turns out that this was Silva’s plan all along, and he escapes into the Underground tunnels beneath London, eager to carry out his plan to kill M.
Bond whisks M away to Skyfall, his childhood home in Scotland, telling Q to leave an electronic trail to lead Silva up there. Bond and M meet up with Kincade, Skyfall’s gamekeeper, and together they booby-trap the house and wait. Silva turns up with hordes of gun-toting bastards and a big fuck-off helicopter, all kinds of explosions happen, Silva corners M and implores her to kill them both by putting a bullet through their heads; Bond kills Silva and… a massive and horrifying twist closes the narrative. I won’t give it away here (despite, er, just giving away everything else that happens – some things are sacred).
The thread that runs through all of this is that the plot simply wouldn’t work without the darkness that Daniel Craig brings to the role. Brosnan would have smirked too much. Connery would have tried to throw in a bit of slapstick. Modern Bond films are brilliantly written and brilliantly produced, and it all centres around how brilliantly Daniel Craig has made 007 human.

What’s most important about the way Craig plays Bond is that he’s doing it the way Ian Fleming intended. For the sake of box-office sales, Connery’s Bond was inherently sanitised and diluted; charm and cheekiness were dialled in to make the protagonist seem lovable, endearing, aspirational. Every subsequent Bond built on this caricature. But Craig’s Bond strips it down to first principles and rebuilds it from scratch to highlight the one key facet of his character that should have been at the forefront the whole time: while he’s a professional killing machine and a cold-hearted patriot, it’s most important to remember that he’s a bit of a shit. A troubled and misunderstood shit, but a shit nonetheless. Craig does this masterfully. I can’t wait for Spectre.

Domino & Jones - 'Jump Around'

High Voltage Ejector Bed

Colin Furze is excellent at branded content.

Afternoon reading

Two fascinating and compelling (and quite long) articles for you to absorb here. Firstly, the tale of a man who wandered into the woods and decided to stay there:

...and secondly, the frightening story of Russia's professional trolls:

Friday, 10 July 2015

10/07/15 - Vanilla

I feel sorry for vanilla. It gets a really hard time from the media, from day-to-day chit-chat, in restaurants the world over, and in the ever-crackling twin guns of metaphor and simile. Vanilla? That’s a boring choice. The brainless default. The drab, beige option you only opt for if you can’t be arsed to think about it, or if there’s nothing else available. Out of rum ‘n’ raisin? Yeah, I guess I’ll have vanilla. You bought the new Coldplay album? Christ, that’s so vanilla. Every track on this radio station is just fucking vanilla. Vanilla vanilla vanilla.

It’s not fair, it really isn’t. Vanilla used to be such a revered and exciting little bean. It’s derived from orchids, no less, and there aren’t any more precious or delicate flowers than those. The word itself literally means ‘little pod’, and the cultivation of the fruits (or legumes, whatever) of these fancy orchids dates back to the Aztecs. It was the excitingly-named Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, who introduced vanilla to Europe in the 1520s – he also brought chocolate over, so perhaps that extravagant name is one worth remembering in case it comes up in a pub quiz – and he worked really hard to get it to take. Vanilla, as it turned out, just didn’t want to grow in Europe; it existed symbiotically in Mexico with its natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, and without those stripy little bastards the orchids were just shrugging like belligerent teenagers in a low-security newsagent. You want vanilla pods? Whatevs. Give me the Mexican bee cock and we’ll talk.

It wasn’t until 1837 that a Belgian botanist, Charles François Antoine Morren, figured out how to artificially pollinate the vanilla orchids, although his method was not financially viable on a mass scale; it took the ingenuity of a slave in the Réunion Island east of Madagascar to work out how to hand-pollinate them. We know his name – Edmond Albius – because history isn’t always a fucker to the impoverished; he was only 12 when he devised his vanilla pollination method, but it was so simple and effective (use a blade of grass to open the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and smear the sticky pollen from the former over the latter with your thumb) that it’s still used today. Note his name down for that pub quiz too.

The cultivation of vanilla is so labour-intensive that it remains the second most expensive spice after saffron, that spangly yellow whore that nobody will admit they don’t actually have a functional use for, and it’s been a hugely popular ingredient for generations in cookery, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.

OK, so it stands to reason that, given the cost alone, most of the vanilla-flavoured things you happen across don’t actually have real vanilla in them. In fact, around 95% of vanilla-flavoured foods actually contain synthetic vanillin. This is generally derived from lignin, which is essentially a wood polymer, or guaiacol, which is commonly found in creosote and (weirdly) woodsmoke. It’s complex and convoluted, but basically these things can easily be manipulated to synthesise the unique flavour of the vanilla pod to a reasonably accurate degree – good enough for Tesco Value vanilla ice cream, at the very least.
This is why restaurants boast about having real vanilla in their vanilla-flavoured dishes. It’s actually quite a big deal.

So next time you pass over vanilla on the menu for something more chocolatey or caramely or what-have-you, just pause for a moment and consider how interesting vanilla is. It’s a rare and romantic thing, with every plant being hand-pollinated by a fastidious human. Sure, most of the vanilla things you’d have access to will contain synthesised vanillin rather than the real deal, but it’s more about the principle. Be nice to vanilla. It really shouldn’t be here. It’s great that it is. Stop associating it with Coldplay, nothing deserves that.

Ladybaby - 「ニッポン饅頭」

There is a lot going on here. It's weirdly compelling.

Upstairs neighbours

Funnily enough, my neighbours are just like this. (I say 'funnily', I mean 'FUCKING annoyingly'...)

Gump beatbox

Hugely inappropriate, but... inspired.

Competitive firework sales

This is frankly quite incredible.

Gabba, Gabba, Gabba, Tetris, Gabba

Some impressive improv.

Friday, 3 July 2015

03/07/15 - Pacific Trash Vortex

Humans, as a species, aren’t great at cleaning up their mess. Not bad, could be worse, but really not that great either. I’m no fervent environmentalist, but it’s a truism to point out that if we cut down more trees than we replant, we’ll eventually choke on carbon dioxide; if we can’t think of alternative power sources that work reliably, we’ll hit a brick wall of energy when the dino-juice runs out; if we don’t deal with our waste smartly, we’ll eventually be swamped by our own leavings.

Still it’s not all bad news. We don’t have to put too much effort in. Our enthusiasm for throwing rubbish into the sea has created a whole new continent. That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? Go, humans!

The continent in question is the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is a real thing that exists, despite sounding like the name of a shit Hoxton electro duo. It exists within a gyre (which is basically a large system of rotating ocean currents, caused by the Coriolis Effect [which is what makes the water spiral the wrong way down the plughole in Australia], whereby a bunch of significant currents effectively swirl round in a colossal circle), and is formed from a whole miasma of forced-together ocean debris. It’s mostly made up of plastics and chemical sludge, which makes it hard to accurately estimate how big it is as the edges are all wibbly, and reported guesses range from ‘twice the size of France’ to ‘as big as the USA’ or even ‘8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean’. Whichever is true, the clear fact is that it’s a whopper. And it wasn’t there before people evolved, that’s for sure. We did that.

There are people who aren’t entirely convinced of its existence, or at least view these estimates as somewhat hysterical. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) posit that the idea of a massed floating garbage patch is misleading, suggesting that rather than it being countless miles of Evian bottles, it’s more akin to ‘flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup’; they also suggest that rather than being one vast patch, it’s likely that there’s an eastern trash vortex south-east of Japan, a western counterpart off the coast of California, and a sort of vast interlinking rainbow of rubbish across the ‘subtropical convergence zone’. Either way, there’s a shitload of crap floating around out there.

The tricky part is that it’s actually not all that easy to see. Most of the PTV’s contents is suspended below the surface of the water, so this fresh new litter continent that may or may not exist in solid form is definitely something you couldn’t walk on without at least getting your ankles wet. But whatever – there used to be seven continents, but now we’ve made another one. If that isn’t recycling at its finest, I don’t know what is.

…although, actually, fish are eating it. And then we’re eating the fish. The toxins in the plastics we’re throwing into the sea are ending up in our stomachs. Um… OK, everybody stop throwing rubbish in the sea! You’ve made a continent, that’s impressive, but maybe your recycling bin needs a workout now. Or just stop eating fish, whatever.