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…

All of your favourite songs from the 1990s...

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'Fueled by the Future'

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Republican Debate - Bad Lip Reading

Rik & Ade on Going Live

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Friday, 16 October 2015

16/10/15 - No Publicity

Lottery winners are, on the whole, idiots. I say this largely because I’m not one and I’m jealous, but also because, well, it’s just true. At least, it is for the ones we hear about.

You see, if you win the lottery jackpot you’re presented with a very clear choice: publicity or no publicity. If you tick the publicity box, your face will be plastered all over the papers, accompanied by popping Champagne corks and novelty oversized cheques. (Incidentally, isn’t it lovely that we’re still impressed by the idea of a big cheque in 2015? I can’t remember the last time I gave or received an actual cheque, but if someone does send me one, I want the thing to be four feet wide and presented by the local mayor.)
This will inevitably lead to a raft of unnecessary details emerging about the private lives of said winners. We’ll find out what they do for a living, where they live, which of their friends or family members they’ve wronged in the past, and so on. Paparazzi will follow them around, snapping them shopping on Bond Street in their tracksuits, finding out in which predictable tourist hotspots they’ve decided to buy luxury apartments, and generally shitting on about these wealthy strangers far more than is necessary. This lays bare the annoying truth that being a lottery winner is just an extension of the I-want-something-for-nothing culture that characterises modern living; they want the free cash but are rubbish at spending it. They haven’t thought it through – in essence, they’re far happier complaining about being downtrodden than they are with the cosmos suddenly saying ‘Fine, alright, have whatever you want, stop going on about it’.
It also points out a glaringly obvious fact: if you tick the publicity box, you’re really stupid. The only reason you’d do it is to show off. It’s just a very public way of saying ‘look at me, look how much money I’ve got now’. You know that Harry Enfield character that’s ‘considerably richer than you’? Yeah, that.

Why stupid? Because you’re going to be hounded by scroungers, that’s why. Whenever someone goes public about winning the lottery, I always make a point of finding out where they live (which is generally laughably easy) and writing a letter to them asking for money - ‘come on, a few hundred quid is nothing to you’ – not because I think it’s an acceptable thing to do or that they’ll actually give me anything, but because they fucking deserve to be flooded with begging letters. Arrogant cretins. (I don’t really do this. I’m not mental. But I could.)
Also, it’s surely very obvious to even the stupidest of folk that if you brag about winning £100,000,000 or whatever, you will be hunted down by the sort of groups and organisations that require such funding and are in a position to take it from you, violently and lethally if necessary: the IRA, terrorist cells, the Mafia... they’ll come to your door with guns and take your millions from you. Why wouldn’t they? It’s not as if you’re hard to find.

The thing that really irritates me is the fact that they always – always – say ‘I won’t let it change me’. Oh, do piss off. It’s supposed to change you, that’s the point. If you’re just going to continue with your life the same as before, why did you bother buying a ticket in the first place? Let someone else have a pop at the riches, you selfish arse; someone who’ll actually have the imagination to spend it. I know exactly what I’m going to be buying when my numbers come up (and I say ‘when’, not ‘if’ – I’ve been loyally playing for years and years, it’s bound to be my turn sooner or later). And it’s going to change me enormously. Because I’ll be wealthy as fuck.

A big house is first on the list. A bonkers Grand Designs affair in south-west London, all modern and futurey and that, with Kevin McCloud’s full approval – and what the hell, a country abode too; a lovely old manor house in the Cotswolds with an extravagantly large entrance hall and lots of super period features. And things carved from wood. And a big fucking hedge maze. It’ll be like a less scary version of The Shining.
I’ll buy a couple of dozen cars, and pay off all my friends’ credit card bills. I’ll build up a really good record collection, and a vast library of books. I’ll take my family around the world, creating a lifetime of happy holiday memories. Half the money can go to charity, because £100m is a stupid amount and no-one needs that much.

See, it’s not hard is it? I’m totally ready to be stinking rich, not like those lottoberks we see bumbling along Oxford Street, smoking Sovereigns like chimneys in their velour leisurewear, buying sale items in River Island, clearly totally unable to grasp the fact that they could buy the fucking shop and it’d barely make a dent in their wealth.
There should be some kind of aptitude test for buying lottery tickets. And there should be a tickbox at the bottom that says ‘I promise that I will let a jackpot win change me’. Because that is the point.

Hallowe’en costumes: tricky

The Nostalgia Machine

Type in a year. Get your childhood jam on. Clicky.

Driving the Hoffmann

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The manifold arseholery of Kanye

Useful to have a reminder every now and then. He really is an awful human being.

Comic Con Cosplay

It's always impressive to see how much effort these comic fans put into their outfits.

Friday, 9 October 2015

09/10/15 - 5p Carrier Bags

English folk can be hilariously unreceptive to change. Downright angry about it, even. The recent government-mandated 5p charge for supermarket carrier bags is a case in point: it doesn’t really change anything for the worse – in fact, everything about it makes life better – and yet people are effervescently eager to get annoyed about it. Oh, it’s another tax, they’re trampling on our civil liberties like they always do, it’ll make every household worse off, it’s not proportionally weighted so it penalises poor families more. Oh, shut your noise. They’re not doing it to be malicious or pernicious. They’re doing it because humans use a shitload of carrier bags, and they should be using less. These sort of measures work. How hard is it to remember to take a few bags with you when you go shopping? Every other country seems to manage it OK – and at least you’ll still have the option to buy a few if you forget.

The fuckwads at the Daily Mail saw fit to plaster ‘CARRIER BAG CHAOS LOOMS’ over the front page on the day the legislation came in. (It’s also worth noting that the Mail actively campaigned for years for the carrier bag charge to be brought in – although hypocrisy at the Daily Fail is hardly news, I guess.)
I mean, really. What’s the chaotic scenario they’re foreseeing here? The supermarket checkout person says “Would you like a bag?” You say “Yes please.” “They cost 5p,” they say. “OK,” you reply, “here’s 5p.” Um… that’s sort of it. Anyone who feels that an interchange of this nature is sufficiently annoying to become enraged about is surely the sort of knobhead whose opinions can be fairly readily discounted.

OK, that particular sample interchange isn’t exactly what happened to me when I visited Tesco on the morning that the charge came in. I was paying for a few items at the self-checkout, and realised that there were no bags. Makes sense, of course – people would just take them without paying. So I summoned the assistant and asked for one. “You know that they’re 5p?” she said, as if I’d asked her something a bit dirty and seditious. I indicated that this was fine, so she very deliberately peeled one bag from the bunch she was clasping in a vice-like grip, scanned her ‘charge this customer an extra 5p’ barcode, then closely and carefully watched me pack my shopping up, as if I may be about to do something even more unhinged than requesting a bag. But I suspect that this militaristic suspicion was more to do with the staff member’s own lust for power than any kind of official Tesco guideline.
I’ve used that bag every day this week too. Still got plenty of life in it. The system works!
(Although from my observations [peering nosily over strangers’ shoulders], it’s disheartening to note that the vast majority of shoppers lie about how many bags they’ve used when the machine prompts them, as if they’re beating the system by hanging on to their five or ten pence. Yeah, stick it to the man, cheapskates.)

The bottom line is that we use too many carrier bags, and we shouldn’t. They aren’t single-use things, you can use them again and again. And the shops in question have to pay to have them manufactured and distributed, they’re well within their rights to charge for them, even if you discount the over-arching eco drive behind the idea. It’s only the fact that the government are now making the shops charge that’s got stupid people all riled up. Ooh, they’re telling us what to do. Let’s find a reason to be annoyed about it. I bet they get free carrier bags in the Bullingdon Club, they’re probably made of calfskin and orphan tears. Oh, stop. The supermarkets are encouraged to use the takings from all of these 5p add-ons to fund charitable works, it’s not the stealth tax that the Daily Express would have you foaming at the mouth over.

It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that a number of online retailers will refund you 5p per bag for each one that you return to the delivery driver. I spotted this when I got an email from Ocado recently, saying ‘you returned seven bags on your last delivery so we’ve refunded you 35p’. Unexpected. I tested this theory in the most logical way, by enquiring of them whether it’d be possible to offset the entire cost of my shopping if I were to amass enough bags to give the delivery driver. But, alas, they informed me that they’d capped returns at 99 bags per delivery, or £4.95, the spoilsports. Still, it’s worth picking those dead plastic bags out of hedges and trees on your way home every day, it all adds up… 

The other day, my wife observed a customer in the local Co-op abandoning all of their shopping at the checkout on principle, as they were too enraged to pay 5p for a bag to carry it in. That’s just insane, the only person they’re punishing is themselves – unless they consider their own rage to be sufficient nourishment to take the place of the tinned soup they were so ready to shun. Sitting at home, posting illiterate diatribes on Facebook about how the government’s fucking us over again and it’s probably all caused by forrins and immigunts.
Joke’s on them really, they’re missing out on a nice little carrier bag there. The Co-operative’s bags are printed with cheerful little suggestions as to what you could successfully repurpose them as when you’re done with carrying the groceries – a shoe cover in wet weather, a bathroom binliner, a dog poo receptacle. All very sound suggestions. But the fact that people need to be spoonfed such ideas is a bit of a worry, isn’t it? Here’s a simpler idea – reuse your carrier bags as carrier bags. Then you can stop bitching about your five pence pieces.