Thursday, 31 March 2011

You don't have to be mad to work here, but you will be...



We've all done it. Imagined how we'd compose our resignation letter the day our six numbers come up on the Lotto. Of course, the papers love to feature those occasional stories of some down-trodden toilet cleaner who hangs on to her minimum wage job even after scooping £8 million on a Saturday night. But for most of us, that pink and white ticket definitely represents a one-way trip. 

So spare a thought for the guy in Albany, New York, who opted out of the office lottery pool because he wasn't feeling as though fortune was smiling at him. Maybe his IT background meant that he'd analysed the one-in-176-million odds of winning and figured it wasn't worth a punt. Sadly, he's going to be lunching at a table for one from now on, as seven of his colleagues at the Homes and Community Renewal Agency scooped a $319 million jackpot. Well, he was right about something.

No-one's come forward from the winning team yet to discuss their incredible windfall, or the worst office decision since "Bring Your Nunchuks To Work Day". Instead, news teams have had to settle for interviewing a couple who run the local deli and claim to know the 'geek squad' with the magic numbers.

Jill Cook told the New York Post, "The word is that when they were going around the office asking who wanted in on the pool, one guy said no, that he wasn't feeling lucky. They asked him twice. They said, 'Are you sure?' and he said yeah, he was going to pass this time. I feel horrible for him." Still, at least that's one pastrami sandwich sale that they get to make every day. 

No-one will be too surprised to learn that the winning workers didn't show up for work on Monday, although none of them have yet formally resigned their position. But I'm prepared to bet a Lucky Dip on Friday's Euromillions, that a cardboard box full of feces is being FedExed from the Cayman Islands as we speak. 

Word on the street suggests that, once the glitter has settled, the newly minted millionaires will only be returning to the office "to pass along unfinished business to colleagues". Maybe a muffin basket for their ex-workmates will help to sweeten the pill. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Would you da do Ron's ron?


Ron Jeremy is a legend. In his illustrious 33-year career he's appeared in over 2,000 porn films, earning the self-appointed title of 'The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz. And it's hard to argue, since the last three decades have seen him doing more ploughing than all the potato farmers in Norfolk.

That's some achievement, especially since he has what might charitably be described as less-than-conventional leading man looks. Some people's beauty lies below the surface, Ron's lies below the belt. He may have been at the back of the queue when God handed out beauty, but he pushed to the front like a German at Disneyland when it came to cock-size.

But Ron's no one-trick pony, even though that one trick involves similarly equine dimensions - he's also something of a Renaissance man. With two degrees and a host of non-porn media appearances to his name, Ron has the story-telling skills of Peter Ustinov, the bedroom prowess of Errol Flynn and the back-hair of Guy the Gorilla.

The key to Ron's success lies in his authenticity. Asked about his ordinary aesthetic, he once told a Salon interviewer "Guys relate to me. I'm Everyman, living out every man's fantasies." It's become something of a porn cliche - the sexually frustrated housewife spilling red wine on her clingy blouse, and forced to hand-wash it, just as a workman enters the kitchen all hot and bothered. At least Ron adds a touch of veracity to the concept, by looking like he might actually spend his nine-to-five installing aerials or unclogging U-bends.

He's also one of very few stars to successfully break out of the porn ghetto and take part in a bunch of mainstream projects. He's popped up in videos by everyone from Moby to Guns 'n' Roses, played characters in several video games, and even sang a duet with Mo Mowlam on the Frank Skinner show.

With everything else in his life already stretched to capacity, he's now looking to extend his brand, and has just launched an exclusive bottle of rum. Called 'Ron de Jeremy', it has "an inviting light amber color with very attractive copper hues... with a harmoniously balanced orchestra of oak, fruit and spices."

According to the extensive blurb on the website, Ron de Jeremy "opens up smoothly in the palate", much like its namesake, and promises a "long and elegant finish". But wait, there's more tortured copy, layered with double meanings - "Ron de Jeremy sips perfectly, naked or savored over the rocks, and mixes beautifully." Finbarr Saunders just had an aneurysm.

Still, if you're a fan of dark rum, and can handle the idea of swallowing a mouthful of Ron's finest, it's meant to be a pretty potent drop. Just remember to pace yourself - the last thing anyone wants to associate with Ron Jeremy is brewer's droop. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

But is it art?


I once attended a meeting for all the 'creatives' in my agency, where the moderator asked us to go around the table and talk about what inspired us. The responses from most of the group were somewhat predictable - Tate Modern, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S Thompson.

By the time it was my turn to answer, I felt a little intimidated by my esteemed colleagues. But I took a deep breath and said that I find inspiration in popular culture. I argued that it provides us with a universal lexicon of references; a shared framework of recognisable touchpoints. So that even those who missed out on the musical wonders of Geri Halliwell's difficult second album, know enough about the ex-Spice Wench to at least have an opinion.

Over the years I've managed to come to terms with my sense of shame, and embrace my love of the tacky, trashy and tawdry. I get a warm buzz from shitty movies, revel in reality TV and turn up my pop music even when the car roof is down and I'm sitting at the lights. If pedestrians don't like it, they can just walk a little faster.

This may be a controversial opinion, but I believe that art can be anything which generates an interpretive response. When it comes to creative expression, there's no such thing as good or bad. Just varying tastes. And it's those differences that I try to celebrate every day.

Last night, BBC Four broadcast a performance of the new Royal Opera House production of Anna Nicole - a fictionalised account of the troubled life of everyone's favourite drug-addled gold digger. The fusion of celebrity and art raised a number of immaculately sculpted eyebrows when it was first announced, even though ROH's music director Antonio Pappano argued that "librettists have long used female characters to challenge prejudices and attitudes."

But this intriguing blurring of the boundaries between high and low culture is nothing new. It simply demonstrates that the two schools of thought are not so diametrically opposed. This is something that Walt Ribeiro clearly feels strongly about. As the founder of For Orchestra, he's cleverly rearranged a wide range of pop songs for a full orchestra and turned his ambitious experiment into a fairly successful musical venture.

His latest opus is the now legendary Friday, by internet ingenue Rebecca Black. Since its discovery three weeks ago, this ridiculous piece of pop ephemera has been elevated to world-beating meme, turning its thirteen year-old singer into a household name. Despite its 'written on a Post-It' level of sophistication, the song has moved beyond being a target for lazy cyberbullies, and inspired a number of genuinely entertaining and witty pastiches, parodies and spoofs.

There's the Bob Dylan remake, which actually sounds like an authentic studio outtake by the folksy king of mumble music:



Friday's video has also been repurposed by the team at Bad Lip-Reading, giving the song an entirely new meaning (as well as lyrics and melody):



And then there's Ribeiro's 'classical' reinterpretation, which simply celebrates the song's unapologetic joy.



In his introduction to the performance, he says: "To me, it’s a successful piece of music because it got people talking, it got people emotional. The piece is incredibly happy in it’s emotion, and I wanted to capture that with the violins, so I had them play triumphantly in the beginning and in the ending. I love the honesty of this piece, and really wanted to transcend the feeling of 'fun fun fun fun'."

Although I originally criticised the team at Ark Music Factory for missing the point of pop music, I'm prepared to eat my lyrics sheet. And I hereby pledge never again to apologise for enjoying my guilty pleasures. Because, as these performances suggest, there's really nothing to feel guilty about.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Is this a wind-up?

It's the age-old question that's challenged gift buyers for decades. What do you buy the man who has everything? In a world where money means nothing, expense becomes a redundant concept - instead, people look for increasingly outlandish expressions of someone's 'master of the universe' status. Failing that, a ridiculously expensive wristwatch is usually a safe bet.

Last week saw Basel play host to its annual watch fair, where the great and the not-so-good gathered to see how they could blow the best part of two hundred grand on an outrageously fancy bangle that tells them they're running late for their annual tramp-shooting excursion. If you've ever gazed longingly through the jeweller's window at an Omega display, this stuff will make you feel like the wretched pauper you truly are.

Generating the most press interest was the new 'temps suspendu' model presented by Hermes. Starting at a meagre 18,000 Swiss francs, this 'suspended time-piece' does exactly what it says on the velvet lined tin - it stops time in its tracks. Hold on a second, before you click 'add to basket', you might also want to consider the Hublot alternative, which offers its omnipotent owner the chance to slow down or speed up time. A function likely to come in very handy next time you find yourself watching anything that stars Russell Crowe.

The only drawback? It's about 185, 000 Euros. Come on, admit it - you're already considering selling your flat, if only because you secretly thought that Hiro Nakamura was so much cooler than Nathan Petrelli.

So how exactly does a carbon fibre and magnesium fashion accessory manage to give you dominion over the laws of time and space? Don't worry if you're confused, you're not alone - I'll bet my fifteen year-old Pop Swatch that Stephen Hawking's carer is scratching his head for him.

The simple fact is that these watches, as beautifully crafted and desirable as they are, don't really grant you access to your own personal wormhole. To put it another way, they simply alternate between working and, well, not working. A bit like British Airways baggage handlers. If I wanted a watch that occasionally stopped telling the time, I could pick one up at my local Jet garage.

When he's not designing 800 thread count invisible garments for imperial heads of state, Jean-Claude Biver is also CEO of Hublot. He told Reuters: "The value of a watch is not to give you time. Any five dollar watch can do that. What we are offering is the ability for example to stop time or make it disappear... Time is a prison and people want to get out of it sometimes."

But maybe I'm missing a trick here. If you can afford one of these extraordinary indulgences, you probably have a bunch of minions who hang on your every command. In which case, they'll be quite happy to hold perfectly still until you reactivate the time function. That way, you get to feel all-powerful for a few minutes, and they get an impromptu game of musical statues. Sometimes, everybody wins.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The ex-factor


Celebrity talent contests are all much of a sameness. A motley assortment of low rent 'names' attempting to give their career an adrenaline shot to the heart by learning a new skill, a panel of judges who can barely contain their resentment for one another, and enough sparkly sequins to give a magpie an epileptic seizure.

The cubic zirconia in this televisual crown is undoubtedly ITV's Dancing On Ice, which manages to blend high camp with death-defying drama, like Dale Winton taking up base-jumping. And yet it's never achieved quite the same watercooler recognition as Strictly Come Dancing, despite being infinitely more compelling.

To be completely honest, I've never understood the appeal of Strictly, and not just because I take no enjoyment in watching Anne Widdecombe being dragged around a dancefloor like a giant yellow Swiffer. There's also that awful live covers band, that makes every performance sound as if they're warming-up for a regional insurance sales conference.

Dancing On Ice, on the other hand, has an inexplicable appeal that keeps me coming back for more, with its weird combination of chintz, tack and musicality, all wrapped up in a spectacular layer of mortal peril. Razor sharp blades, 'wrist-rippers' and 'head-bangers', this is Nil By Mouth set to music.

It's not as if we tune in for the big names either. This year's remaining three contestants have barely enough star-power to illuminate a low energy lightbulb. Early front-runner Sam Attwater used to be in EastEnders, although no-one seems to remember him, including much of the cast I suspect. Meanwhile, Laura Hamilton is a saucer-eyed children's TV presenter, and Chloe Madeley's biggest claim to fame is the fact that she once spent nine months in Judy Finnigan's uterus. But perhaps their borderline anonymity is the key to their fearlessness - they'd happily spiral their way around a downed helicopter to raise their profile.

So now it's the grand final, and our plucky contestants have given it their all to get their hands on a trophy that could have been half-inched from Superman's fortress of solitude. Over the last couple of hours, we've had scissor lifts, inverted waterfalls and even Riverdance on ice, which worked a lot better than it had any right to. We've also been treated to a few recaps of Denise Welch's gusset and seen exactly what lives under Jason Gardiner's hat. Some things just can't be unseen.

And let's not forget our gracious hosts, silver otter Philip Schofield and the epically pregnant Holly Willoughby, who seems to have the same gestation period as an African elephant. In her bright red gown, she looks like a London Routemaster with a fake pair of tits stuck to the bonnet.

The show opened with a booming voice telling us that "sixteen celebrities signed up, not knowing what lay ahead". I guess 'Dancing On Ice' isn't a telling enough title. And then we got to see Torville and Dean perform Bolero for the umpteenth time. They've been doing it for 27 years now, and by the end of tonight's show that's how long it felt I'd been listening to that fucking piece of music. Because the final part of the contest always sees the remaining two competitors having a crack at the duo's iconic performance.

In the end, there could be only one winner. And for me, that was commentator Tony Gubba, who noted with weary resignation that "It's hard to keep two ladies happy", when describing a tricky double lift in one of the opening performances. But since there's no prize for innuendo in a family show, the trophy ultimately went to Sam.

It's customary for participants on these programmes to talk about the journey they've been on; Sam's included a short-lived romance with his skating partner Brianne Delcourt. Although they managed to keep smiling through their performances, there was one tricky moment shortly after their split when Sam volunteered to be the first celebrity to tackle the headbanger. As Brianne's little blonde head spun perilously close to the ice, audiences wondered just how well Sam was handling the breakup.

Still, all's well that ends well, and they're now free to go their separate ways, at least until the regional tour comes calling. So she might want to hang onto that crash helmet, just in case.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

It's a man-on-man's world


For decades, games programmers have struggled to develop workable artificial intelligence for the characters that inhibit their virtual worlds. It's all part of making the in-game experience that much more believable. In racing games, that means more aggressive drivers. In first-person shooters it means more stealthy snipers and assassins. And in Grand Theft Auto, it means whores who run away when they see you driving towards them with an Uzi hanging out the driver's side window.

But the gaming universe is about much more than just shooting and speeding. RPGs in particular offer an entire world to explore, and relationships to pursue. So it's only right that they make those characters more intuitive and three-dimensional.

BioWare, the makers of bestselling RPG series Dragon Age, have taken this one step further and created a number of gay characters for the latest instalment of their fantasy adventure. As you set out on your mythical quest, many of your companions flirt with you, and it's up to you how far you want to take it. Not that there's any polygonography on offer - instead, when Anders comes to your bedchamber, the cut scene pans away to a flickering candle. Even in cyberspace, we're still stuck with laboured phallic symbolism.

As sex scenes go, it's about as racy as an episode of Take The High Road. And yet it's still managed to get some hardcore gamers hot under the space where their collar would be if their necks were thin enough to wear them. One gamer in particular has bashed out an angry rant on one of the forums, taking BioWare to task for their PC agenda.

Moaning that the company has "neglected their main demographic: The Straight Male Gamer", Bastal laments the fact that "It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you." I'd hazard a guess that this may not be his first experience of an 'awkward' social encounter, so he probably knows what he's talking about.

Even so, this must surely be the first documented case of gay panic in cyberspace. It's one thing to worry about guys hitting on you in a bar when your defences are down, but in a virtual medieval playspace? Really? Backs against the wireframe boys, this avatar's one of them. 

In fact, the game constantly offers player the chance to let their hirsute suitors down gently - after Anders tells the lead character "I never want to leave you", the three options are "I love you", "I'm hungry" and "Get out of here". It's not like players are forced to pick between "Face or chest?" and "This time you're the bottom".

The way Bastal sees it, all of this discomfort could have been easily avoided if BioWare had simply incorporated a 'No Homosexuality' option in the game's menu. Maybe he thinks it's that easy in real life too. The debate has raged for years about whether gayness is a lifestyle choice or genetically predisposed, with most people putting their money on the former. 

Since nobody gets to choose their orientation, the lack of a 'straights only' version of the Dragon Age world just gives it an extra layer of verisimilitude. Well, that and the fact that it's also full of protesting-too-much dickheads who spend far too much time imagining that every gay they encounter wants a piece of them. 

Friday, 25 March 2011

Paying the ultimate price


This week the world lost a true legend, the likes of which we’ll never see again. So as the world unites in grief over their untimely demise, let’s take a moment to consider the toll of living life in the spotlight.

Magazine covers, screaming hordes of loyal fans, and days spent locked in a gilt-edged cage. That’s the bittersweet price of fame for you. Now, all that’s left is an impromptu tribute of flowers, candles and stuffed toys.

Knut, you may be gone too soon, but your contribution to the world of celebrity will never be forgotten. In related news, Liz Taylor also kicked the champagne bucket, but who cares about that when “the world’s most famous polar bear is dead”?

The media loves a good tragedy, especially when it can put a borderline nonsensical spin on things. The death of a four year-old German polar bear being a prime example, as one writer in the Mail speculates that fame might have been responsible for his premature passing.

Waxing lyrical about the ursine urchin’s hunger for audience appreciation, the article describes how Knut suffered from the stresses of an “unreal celebrity-style life” and had a deep-seated “addiction to public adulation”. One of Knut’s keepers, Markus Röbke, has even stated that he often saw Knut cry when Berlin zoo closed for the evening. Early reports that Knut used to tip off photographers prior to leaving his grotto, remain unsubstantiated at this point.

But the life of a celebrity isn’t all lazing by the pool and making the occasional public appearance – there are also the nutjobs and obsessed fans to deal with. Berlin Zoo even received a faxed death threat that read “Knut ist tot! Donnerstag Mittag (Knut is dead! Thursday at noon)”. Thursday came and went without incident, and no-one seemed particularly surprised. Well, it's hard to take anyone seriously who still communicates via fax machine.

During his short life, Knut also had to deal with the public’s obsession with his sex life, as well as the pressures of maintaining a paparazzi-ready appearance at all times. His “weakness for croissants” meant that he was tipping the scales at 130 kilos when he was only two years old. Personally, I don’t think he ever got over seeing his hind flanks featured in Heat’s "Stars with Orange Peel Legs” article.

All the media attention must have weighed heavily on the young bear's off-white shoulders. There were concerns he was feeling the strain when ten live carp were introduced to his moat to eat the algae, only for Knut to bite off their heads and smothered himself in their blood. It was that or try to fashion their fillets into an eye-catching awards gown.

Although the papers were quite happy playing Quincy M.E., zoo authorities made sure that a real autopsy was also scheduled. You know, just in case Knut wasn't killed by the pressure of having to pen another volume of memoirs. Final results are yet to be released, but it's looking likely that he was killed by an "underlying neurological problem".

It's not all bad news though, at least for the papers that were so keen to point the finger at modern celebrity, since they're an integral part of the machinery. This way, they get to throw out their ridiculous accusations and, at the same time, abstain from any culpability in the matter. The disingenuous knuts.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Same shit, different era


I think we can all agree that remakes are a very bad thing. Surely, if a film has any kind of 'familiarity factor' with audiences, that's sufficient reason to leave well enough alone. OK, from a financial perspective it might make sense to resurrect a long-dormant property, but as an artistic statement it's on a par with Ronan Keating's new Bacharach covers album.

Justifying their take-the-money-and-run approach, film-makers often argue that Shakespeare's plays have been restaged hundreds of times, without bastardising the Bard's original intent. So why shouldn't the same rules apply to film?

It's a fair point, but most of the films that find themselves eligible for a fresh lick of celluloid don't have quite the same enduring quality as the output of Stratford's finest. Instead, the source of their popularity lies in the nostalgic feeling they inspire of the first time we watched them. This might involve a few key scenes or the tone of the entire piece. Unfortunately, these are usually the first elements to be jettisoned by an avaricious production company that thinks it knows better.

Occasionally, a film-maker tries too hard to honour the original. Which is how the world ended up with Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot Psycho remake - its only contributions to cinema being a fancy zoom that Hitchcock could only dream of, a flash of Anne Heche's tits and a shot of Vince Vaughn cranking one out. Forget about Mrs Bates' mummified corpse, that's true horror right there.

Most of the time though, some cack-handed novice decides to make an easy buck, 'reimagining' a well-established classic. They'll claim that they're honouring the original but giving it a contemporary twist, only to leave out all the good bits, and fuck up the rest.

So I'll be watching with interest to see what happens with the forthcoming remake of Ed Wood's seminal 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'. Widely regarded as the worst movie of all time, despite Martin Lawrence's repeated attempts to usurp the throne, it holds a special place in heart of anyone who's ever laughed at, rather than with, a film.

If you've never seen it, you really should reward yourself with the strangest 79 minutes ever captured on film. It takes a special kind of artistry to get everything wrong, and still end up with something infinitely more entertaining than anything Michael Bay ever turned his hand to.

Day turns to night and back again during a single scene, the actors put the emphasis on all the wrong words, and the cast's most famous face spends most of its screen-time behind a cape to cover up the fact that the actor in question died before filming began. It makes about as much sense as Mullholland Drive dubbed into Polish, but that's all part of its unique appeal.

It's hard to understand what director-producer John Johnson hopes to achieve by bringing this landmark title back from the dead. A great film might be difficult to improve upon, but perfection (even if it's perfectly awful) must be nigh on impossible.

In all honesty, my expectations aren't too high. Especially since he claims to have taken the basic idea of the film - aliens revive the dead to attack the living in a plot to take over the world - and written his own version. According to a report on roanoke.com, he's aiming for something pitched between Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Without wanting to sound like The Amazing Criswell, the hopeless psychic whose nonsensical predictions opened the original film, I can't see this ending well. But at least Johnson has got one thing in his favour; he's not looking to fill his cast with people with any previous acting experience. A similar approach to professionalism never did Ed Wood's opus any harm.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Undressed for success


When I was a child, I always used to enjoy the lessons where we imagined what we were going to be when we grew up. Given that I was raised in a fairly depressed area of South Yorkshire, it never came as much of a surprise when half the kids in my class proudly proclaimed they wanted to “Go on the dole, like me Dad.”

As for me, when I wasn’t busy watching my teacher surreptitiously rolling her eyes at the lack of ambition in my peer group, I had a number of career aspirations, most of which sadly went unfulfilled. Apparently, at one point I had two clear goals – to be an ambulance driver or a priest. In retrospect, I could have merged the two, tending to accident victims and administering last rites if their status was a little dicey.

The thing is, those fanciful imaginings about achieving one’s true potential don’t get put away with all the other trappings of childhood. Bogged down in the daily grind, we still harbour those coulda-woulda-shoulda feelings about what we should really be doing. And secretly, I reckon a lot of us would like to be strippers.

How else would you explain the sudden proliferation of pole-dancing and burlesque classes? Stripping used to be the reserve of women with too many stilettos and too few inhibitions. Not anymore. Now, great hordes of yummy mummies are throwing off the papoose and wrapping themselves around poles in an effort to shake off the baby-weight.

Hen nights are the same – instead of waiting for Sergeant Feelgood to show up and take down their particulars, it’s the brides-to-be who’re whipping off their kit and thrusting all over the glittered runway.

In the States, one dance studio has even managed to combine ‘exotic dancing’ with spiritual cleansing, in a class called Pole Fitness for Jesus. Because he’s a big fan of any woman who can pull off the Fireman Spin.

Although she claims that she doesn’t teach women to be strippers, instructor Crystal Deans (seriously) does incorporate some of her moves from her previous life as a dancer. But she also offers empowerment, exercise, and a chance for people to get several things done at once: “On Sundays, we do pole fitness for Jesus. We do the upbeat contemporary Christian music because people have to bring their church program to get into the class, so we basically are just continuing the whole worship thing here.” I’m guessing there’s no collection plate at the end of the class, but people can tuck a donation into Crystal’s G-string.

The good news is that men don’t need to feel too left out either. Fashion brand Bonobos has launched a range of Chinos that come with a line of hidden snaps, for that ‘easy tear-away action’. Despite their conservative grey appearance, they promise “a curved waist band for better fit and no bunching of fabric… with some magic in the seat to be comfortable but not frumpy.”

According to the review at uncrate.com, the Chinos simply facilitate a quicker change at the gym. But let’s be honest, the only place these are getting a workout is in the bedroom of a very forgiving partner. At least you’ll no longer have to shuffle across the room with your jeans bunched around your ankles, trying to unpeel a sock with the toe of your other foot. Just grab the groin, yank downwards and you’ll be naked quicker than Kelly Brook on a ‘tasteful’ photo shoot.

Admittedly, chinos with a plaid lining and matching pocket detail aren’t going to be appearing at Paris Fashion Week any time soon. Then again, if you’re seriously considering tear-away trousers, that horse has already bolted. And it’s still better dressed than you are.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Leave me at home


Back in 1910, Winston Churchill (Tim Vine's main competition for the title 'King of the one-liner') said that the civilisation of a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners. A century later, the rules have changed - I believe that civilisation can be judged by what it's prepared to tolerate in the name of Saturday evening entertainment. If my contention is true, I fear we may all be living in caves and grunting at the moon by November.

Dating shows have always been a Saturday evening staple. Presumably, that's because the people who stay home to watch ITV, have long since left the meat market behind and settled into a life of mindless broadcasting and elasticated waistbands. If they ever find themselves fondly recalling the days when they were young, free and single, a show like Take Me Out reminds them that they're far better off trying to put the kids to bed and eating chicken jalfrezi out of a foil container.

Even so, it's hard to understand how anyone can happily sit through an entire hour of such mindless flirtation. Surely, if you were on the receiving end of such a graceless barrage of innuendo, you'd just close your eyes and wait for the rohypnol to kick in?

And yet every week, there's another line-up of willing contestants, with the kind of names that suggest their parents just reached into the green Scrabble tile bag and hoped for the best. It must be the easiest casting gig in the world - send a couple of production assistants to stand outside a GUM clinic with a giant butterfly net.

Given the raw materials they're working with, it's hardly surprising that what passes for wit on this show wouldn't give Stephen Fry any sleepless nights. Unless he's secretly spent half his life trying to perfect the armpit fart.

In reality, none of them are really there to find love, they're looking for a free trip to the enigmatically named 'Island of Love', Which is weird, because I always thought that Tenerife was the 'Island of burnt shins'. Blind Date suffered from the same problem - it tried to be a matchmaker show, but ultimately, it was just an easier way of getting a holiday than trying to navigate the Thomas Cook website.

It's a while since I've been clubbing (i.e. Whigfield was still in heavy rotation), but I clearly remember the horror of the witching hour - that awful moment when the lights finally came on and you realised you'd been flirting with Eric Stoltz from Mask. With precious few minutes to close the deal, you scan the dregs in the harsh light of almost-day, and take your pick. Now imagine doing that with a bovine studio audience mooing you on.

As if that wasn't bad enough, now some of the most 'popular' girls from the latest series of Take Me Out have appeared in Heat magazine without their warpaint. On the show, it's a case of hair by L'Oreal, face by Cuprinol - the untreated version is a million times worse. If their TV appearance is what you go home with, then this is what you'll be waking up with. And it's enough to drive you to a life of monastic contemplation.

I know, I know, I'm taking it all far too seriously. It's just a bit of fun. But that's what the travellers on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding said about grabbing. Take Me Out? Take Me Out And Shoot Me, more like.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Show me the money (shot)

One of the most fascinating insights to come out of David Fincher's The Social Network, was the organic way that Facebook's functionality sprung directly from creator Mark Zuckerberg's own personal needs. Of course, Zuckerberg never intended to transform the way we use the internet, he just wanted to keep a beady on the relationship status of prospective girlfriends.

With over half a billion users around the world, Facebook is now the default social network for most of us, allowing us to catch-up with friends, manage imaginary livestock and explain potentially offensive internet memes to well-intentioned but naive parents. However, the area where Facebook has really come into its own, is in turning even the most well-balanced and stable people into potential stalkers.

Gone are the days when you needed a four-page spread in Vanity Fair to qualify for an army of obsessive fans - now all it takes is a regularly updated wall and an accessible photo library. Thanks to recent additions to the site's functionality, we can even keep our obsessive followers up-to-date on our exact whereabouts. Because this brave new world of stalkerdom depends on the implicit cooperation of the subject.

As nice as it may feel to have dedicated followers, we all have to draw the line somewhere. And besides, Facebook's restrictions on photo content means that we're only allowed to expose the minutiae of our lives, rather than that unfortunately positioned appendectomy scar. But all that's about to change, and we don't necessarily get a say in the matter.

Remember the good old days when a search for pictures of our favourite celebrities would return a goldmine of unconvincing nude fakes? We've all seen them - famous heads crudely photoshopped onto the bodies of anonymous porn stars. With little concern for scale or perspective, most of the images managed to make the world's sexiest people look like they were suffering from hydrocephalus.

Well, good news everybody. Now, you no longer need a functioning grasp of image manipulation software to picture that girl from accounts in flagrante. Just grab a profile pic from her Facebook profile and let FalseFlesh do the rest.

According to the official website, "In most cases only a few millimeters of fabric separates you from an amazing but previously unobtainable image. FalseFlesh can elegantly eliminate clothing from any photograph and provide you with natural looking nude flesh." Is it just me or is 'natural looking nude flesh' the least erotic proposition you've ever heard? Somewhere, Hannibal Lecter is rooting around in his pantry for the fava beans.

If you're wondering how it works, you probably need to talk through your issues with a counsellor. But just in case your interest is purely academic, "The software not only gives you the option to accurately fit included nude bodies on any head, but also allows you to really see under some types of clothing! This works on non cotton bathing suits by filtering out gamma/infrared rays of light and allows for the visual enhancement of breasts and nipples creating a see through effect. Imagine being able to copy/paste pictures from Facebook or MySpace of girls you actually know into FalseFlesh." Well, it'll have to do until Amazon restocks those night-vision binoculars.

Unfortunately, even fantasies have their shortcomings, so you'll be pleased to know that "FalseFlesh also allows you to modify other physical attributes of the subject such as clothing style and even body type." That means that guys with a breast fixation can reward their imaginary girlfriends with tits that would give Dwayne Johnson backache. And any Gok Wannabes can treat the women in their lives to a more flattering ensemble.

If you're not already thinking about deactivating your Facebook account, take a look at the stories submitted by satisfied customers: “The really cool thing that I liked about FalseFlesh was that you can either let the software instantly make some cute girl that you know naked or actually take time to customize it. For example I wanted to make this girl who works with me have bigger breasts than she actually did and also give her a lot more pubic hair than she actually probably really has.” Surely it's just a matter of time before some some canny programmer invents a 'restraining order' app for the iPhone.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Bully for you


Am I a bully? I'm asking rhetorically, so don't feel the need to write in and answer. But it's a question I've been asking myself in light of a number of related stories which have been dominating YouTube traffic in the last seven days.

One clip that quickly became an overnight sensation, saw an overweight Australian fifteen year-old called Casey Heynes getting all Howard Beale on his pint-sized tormentor. After three years of relentless bullying and harassment, Casey said to himself "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!". Pushed over the edge by a schoolmate, he gave the spiteful little shit the kind of smack-down that used to be a Saturday afternoon staple, back when Shirley Crabtree was still a household name. Although both boys were subsequently suspended from Chifley College in Sydney, four Facebook pages have already been set up in honour of the beleaguered battler, with 200,000 fans signing up in support.

Students in California also found themselves on the receiving end of verbal sticks and stones last week, when Alexandra Wallace took to YouTube to berate all the Asian students at UCLA for talking on their mobile phones in the college library. Every time the hard-working undergraduate was about to reach an "epiphany" in her preparations for finals week, she was disturbed by the sound of “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.” The phone users in question were, of course, waiting for news from Japan about their friends and family.

As Alexandra explained in her video, "So being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to be, I kinda just gave him what anybody else would do that kinda like, [puts finger up to lips in a "shh" motion]. 'You know it’s a library, like, we’re trying to study, thanks!' And then it’s the same thing five minutes later. But it’s somebody else, you know — I swear they’re going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing." The inconsiderate shits. Several hundred thousand views, and a bunch of angry videoed replies later, Wallace issued a formal mea culpa (which translates into Californian as "My bad") and announced that she was leaving the university.

But the biggest bullying story in the online world this week, concerned a wannabe popstar and a song that comes dangerously close to breaching the Geneva convention. In just seven days, Rebecca Black's 'Friday' scored an astonishing 25 million views on YouTube and rocketed the thirteen year-old into the top 20 in several territories. But they say fame comes at a price, and for Rebecca, that meant having the world's scorn heaped upon her. Like everyone else with access to a keyboard and an internet connection, I went off on one about the horrors of a song that made St Winifred's School Choir sound like Radiohead. The main focus of my ire was the awfulness of the record itself, but I couldn't stop myself from chucking a few underarm blows in Rebecca's direction.

A week after its debut, the conspiracy theories were finally put to rest, as the story behind the song was finally revealed. As many of us suspected, it was a vanity project bankrolled by an overindulgent parent, with little thought for the consequences. Apparently, $2,000 buys you an original song, studio and post-production, plus a video shoot, courtesy of the cut-price Svengalis at Ark Music Factory. Speaking exclusively to Good Morning America, Black seemed conflicted by the bittersweet nature of her success. In particular, she spoke about the fact that one commenter had advised her to start cutting herself and develop an eating disorder to make her prettier.

Now, just to play devil's advocate for a moment, Rebecca was happy enough for her Mum to spend $2,000 on something that must have seemed about as sound an investment as a Ponzi scheme. I'm guessing she figured it'd be, like, totally OMG, to have a video she could show to her friends. She never, for a moment, thought that her dreams of celebrity might actually come true. But as Pete and Dud discovered in Bedazzled, when you make a deal with Beelzebub, keep in mind that he has a better grasp of irony than Alanis Morissette.

She wasn't to know what would happen once the video was uploaded. Like all viral phenomena, there's little rhyme or reason (much like the song itself) to how these things take off. That zeitgeist is a slippery little fucker.

The internet has given us all a chance to weigh in on any topic and give a complete stranger a verbal wedgie. When my article on Rebecca Black first appeared on Sabotage Times, one commenter took me to task for my criticism of a 13 year-old girl, although even he couldn't resist taking a pop-shot at my profile picture. I learned two things from this experience - avoid ad hominem attacks, and stop shopping for T-shirts at BabyGap.

So what happened to us? When did we decide to hang out behind the internet bikesheds and start menacing other people for their iTunes money? Our online life might give us more opportunity than ever before to reach out and touch people, but sometimes it seems that we can't resist giving them a Chinese burn while we're doing it. Are we getting meaner, or is just human nature? Answers on a piece of hate-mail, please. 

Saturday, 19 March 2011

It's what's inside that counts


I don't care if it's a portent of our gradual slide into metrosexuality, I love my manbag. After all, what's the point of having a good jacket, or a slim-fitted pair of jeans, if you've got to stuff half your worldly belongings into the pockets every time you go out? You end up looking like Bob Hoskins trying to hide Roger Rabbit from the weasel police.

Women may spend half their time rummaging round their handbags like a spelunker with a broken torch, but at least they've got somewhere to keep their oddments. The only downside of course, is that with unlimited capacity comes a lack of selectivity. There's really no need to decide on the essentials when you can just throw everything in there and worry about finding it later.

Weirdly, for one woman in Scranton, New Jersey, the same rules apply, even when she leaves her purse at home. Karin Mackaliunas was picked up by the police, having crashed her car on Sunday evening after a suspected burglary. Having already found three bags of heroin in her jacket pocket, the officers' suspicions were raised when they noticed their quarry 'fidgeting in the backseat of the cruiser'.

Back at the police station, Mackaliunas originally resisted a closer inspection, before admitting that she had more items about her person. Fans of exploitative chained heat movies will be fully aware of the concept of 'crotching' contraband. However, Karin demonstrated an accommodating nature that would have most women reaching for the pelvic floor exercise book.

When doctors inspected her at the Community Medical Centre, they found "54 bags of heroin, 31 empty bags used to package heroin, 8.5 prescription pills and $51.22" in her vagina. The fifty dollars I can understand, but I'd probably have left the change behind. Using bodily cavities for transporting drugs is nothing new, but the term 'mule' seems somehow inadequate - Karin's more of a carthorse.

Once the bags of heroin had been counted, and the after hours party hastily arranged, Karin was charged with "possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and two counts of possession of a controlled substance." Although I don't know why they stopped there, surely they could have also prosecuted her for running a self-storage business with insufficient insurance.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Truth About Cats And Dogs


The year was 1993. Jurassic Park had recently reawakened my passion for splashy Hollywood blockbusters, and so there I was, sitting in a multiplex in Sheffield, enduring Sly Stallone's comeback epic Cliffhanger. OK, it's not such a bad movie. But I was suffering from a combination of the least convincing 'outside broadcast' since the moon landing, and the ear-bashing effects of a new Dolby system, that made me feel as though I was sat between Brian Blessed and Ian Paisley having a heated debate about Republicanism.

Once I'd acclimatised to the extraordinary volume levels, I began to enjoy the film, as John Lithgow's band of bad guys chopped, shot and slashed their way through the supporting cast. The audience chuckled along with the mindless brutality, becoming particularly enlivened when Stallone managed to lift one villain over his head and impale him on a low-hanging stalactite.

And then, suddenly, the mood in the cinema changed. Because one of the cold-blooded killers had shot at a cute little bunny which had carelessly picked up a tracking device. As bullets tore through the snow, the entire audience gasped. We're happy to watch ocular surgery performed with an icicle, but we draw the line at seeing someone shoot a wabbit.

Obviously wise to our animal-loving sensibilities, director Renny Harlin thoughtfully inserted a cut-away that showed Bugs had narrowly escaped evisceration. The relief was palpable. And I realised that, as a species, we're able to sit through untold violence against our fellow man, but can't bear to see animals suffer.

This thought was brought back to me this week, in light of the coverage of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The human cost of the disaster is still far from clear, so the media have had to settle for battering our senses with shot after shot of flooded towns, smashed homes, and grey limbs poking up out of the wreckage.

This morning I watched with a vague air of disgust as one BBC Breakfast presenter asked a correspondent in the field to estimate how many children might have been orphaned. In some ways, this may be a valid question, but it was the hungriness of her tone, that made her sound like Kirstie Alley watching a KFC employee fill a bargain bucket - "Yeah, that's right, you gonna throw another drumstick in there? Mama likes that..."

Maybe we've just got disaster fatigue. The scale of devastation is simply too great to comprehend, so we look for statistics to help us fathom its true meaning. And ultimately, with no tangible numbers to contextualise our outrage, we find resonance in a story about animals instead. It allows us the catharsis of emotional engagement, without the fear that we're exploiting real human misery.

One story that went viral in the last 48 hours was about a pair of dogs discovered in the aftermath of the tsunami - one seemingly healthy, and the other badly injured. The footage, taken from a Japanese broadcast, appears to show the healthy dog fiercely guarding his ailing friend, and refusing to allow rescue workers to come close. The news coverage was quick to anthropomorphise the dog's actions, spinning a yarn that this modern day Greyfriars Bobby was determined not to leave his comrade's side.

Oh, fuck it. It's no good. I wanted to be cynical, and say that the dog's gestures could just as easily be read as "Back off guys, this is lunch". But as the owner of two dogs, I know only too well how loving and protective they can be.

I've taken part in countless debates between cat people and dog people, and I've yet to hear a convincing argument in favour of felines. To put it simply, when disaster comes knocking, there's only one animal that's gonna stick around. Why else do you think you've never seen a homeless person with a cat?

Imagine the worst day of your life. You come home late, it's raining. There's been a tube strike, so you had to walk most of the way. Your company is downsizing, so today you found out you were put on four weeks' notice. As you let yourself inside the house, you see a note from your other half pinned to wall - "I'm sorry, it's not working. I'm leaving you. Don't try to call."

The dog comes bounding down the hall, just delighted that your home. Dogs can pick up on human emotion, so he wags his tail and licks you, as if to say "Don't worry, at least we've got each other." The cat, on the other hand, is looking at you as if you were responsible for Speed 2. And with a shrug of its bony shoulders, it tells you that one of the neighbours just got back from the fishmongers, so don't wait up.

So far, there have been no stories emerging from Japan about any heroic cats caught up in the disaster. Probably because they just had time to shit in their owners' shoe before leaping out the window to safety. If a dog's love is unconditional, then a cat's comes with a pre-nup.

After seeing this footage of these two devoted friends, I went home and gave Calvin and Hobbes some extra love. If you're a dog owner, I suggest you do the same. And if you're a cat owner, just watch your back.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

In black and white, now read all over


Whenever I talk to people about the blog, one of the first questions they ask (after “Where do you find the time?”) is “Why do you do it?” It’s a good question, and one to which I’m not entirely sure I know the answer.

There’s a strange paradox implicit in writing a blog – the narcissism of sharing your thoughts with the wider world, combined with the fear that it'll be met with indifference or, even worse, resistance. Sometimes, as I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch, feeling the dead-leg set in, I’m reminded of Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks.

Whenever something important occurred (and many times when it didn’t – it was a slow-moving show), we’d see Dale talking into his Dictaphone, sharing his thoughts with ‘Diane’. Of course, we never actually saw Diane, in fact there was always the nagging doubt that she didn’t really exist. Nonetheless, Kyle McLachlan’s character was able to process his thoughts by capturing them on cassette. And I guess that’s how the blog works for me.

Bloggers get a pretty tough rap from the journalism community, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s no code of ethics, no years of training, and no real discipline. Just a community of people willing to break open their diaries and invite the world in.

However, there are a number of pearls amongst the grit. And sometimes, their writing is as engaging, informative and thought-provoking as anything you’ll find in the more legitimate press. That’s the thinking behind The Printed Blog – an innovative publishing venture started by Joshua Karp a couple of years ago.

He recognized that there are countless undiscovered writers out there, offering up quality content and unrivaled levels of snark, since they’re unrestricted by the corporate interests that sometimes threaten to mute more established writers.

Despite the fact that our media consumption has transformed dramatically in recent years, Karp recognizes that people still enjoy the feel of flicking through pages of a physical magazine, rather than having their iPad simulate the experience for them. So the editorial team of TPB scours the Internet for engaging content, and aggregates it on a weekly basis - the results are then designed, set and printed, and available for subscription as themed editions. Coming soon – The Love Issue, featuring a recent post by yours truly.

But that’s not all folks. Today also marks my first appearance on SabotageTimes.com, another innovative news magazine concept – this one established and edited by James Brown who previously founded Loaded and Jack magazines.

James and his Deputy Editor Matt source content from a number of journalists and bloggers, and update the magazine several times a day. With the traditional printed magazine format looking like it's destined to be memorialized with a diorama in the Natural History Museum, this Huffington Post for blokes is a big step in the right direction. It’s just a shame that my first article on there is about Rebecca Black’s musical incantation to Beelzebub. Oh well, from tiny acorns…

Anyway, please click on the links here and have a look at the Printed Blog and SabotageTimes websites – there’s plenty of great content out there. And I’m proud to be a part of both.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Smile, what's the use in crying?

I have one of those faces that never looks happy. My mouth naturally turns down, so I always look as though I'm pouting or scowling. Those people who say it takes fewer muscles to smile have no idea what they're talking about.

As a result, I often find myself confronted by complete strangers who feel compelled to say "Smile, it might never happen." And I have to fight my own compulsion to tell them to fuck off. If they want my smile, they can try earning it, rather than just pointing out that I look miserable.

But according to a new study, maybe my dour expression is a self-preservation thing, since it might mean that I'll live longer than my more chipper contemporaries. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have conducted a 20-year study called the 'Longevity Project' which found that "participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking." So this frown won't be turning upside down anytime soon.

According to the team's findings, happy-go-lucky kids tend to take more risks; suggesting that their joie-de-vivre makes them dance into oncoming traffic, or reach into bear-traps thinking that they've happened upon a free steak dinner. Apparently, assuming that "everything will be just fine" is tantamount to having a death wish, since it makes you careless and irresponsible. So now we know the real reason why Pollyanna fell out of that tree.

This also explains why old people tend to be curmudgeonly - they know that deep down, it's their bitterness and irritation with the state of the world that's keeping them alive. Suddenly, David Cameron's plans for a Happiness Index don't seem quite so ridiculous. It might be the best way of estimating the extent to which the British population is going to continue aging, helping them to determine the likely impact on public healthcare costs.

So next time you open the paper and find yourself facing page after page of bad news, don't worry, it's all for the best. Feel free to relish the fact that disaster is just around the corner. Just try not to look too happy about it.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Killer instincts


After yesterday's post about the multiracial dating scene, it was interesting to see that a new controversy has emerged here in the UK on a similar theme. This time it's ITV coming under fire, after executive producer Brian True-May described the anti-diversity approach to casting on his long-running drama Midsomer Murders.

For the uninitiated, Midsomer Murders is one of those shows that seems to have been running since John Logie Baird decided that the corner of his living room looked a little empty. The formulaic detective drama depicts the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, as he attempts to solve the weekly murders in a sleepy English county. Despite representing the last bastion of 'English genteel eccentricity', over the last fourteen years the quiet rural community has been responsible for more untimely deaths than the Jigsaw killer.

When they're not polishing the silverware or taking tea on their immaculate lawns, the people of Midsomer are busy bludgeoning, drowning or poisoning their neighbours, spouses and elderly relatives. In fact, there have been so many inexplicable deaths that most of the villages in the county would struggle to get a quorum for a residents' association meeting. It's a far cry from the rural world I grew up in, where local life would be rocked to its core if someone double-parked outside the post office.

Like Murder, She Wrote before it, the success of the show is predicated on the audience's suspension of disbelief, primarily around the likelihood of a peaceful community having a per capita murder rate that would make Mogadishu seem like a desirable place to live. But one area where the show maintains a scrupulous adherence to authenticity, lies in the exclusively white faces of its cast.

Speaking to the Radio Times, True-May said "We are a cosmopolitan society in this country, but if you watch Midsomer you wouldn’t think so. I’ve never been picked up on that, but quite honestly I wouldn’t want to change it... Well, we just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work."

It didn't take long for campaigners and activists to condemn his comments, accusing him of "distorting the presence of black and Asian people in rural areas", and leaving production company All3Media with no choice but to suspend him. However, True-May's neighbours in the village of Great Missenden came out in defence of their aryan purity, with 63 year-old Ron Stock stating "The whole reason of the show is to depict the tiny little villages of England. There just aren’t any ethnic people around here. In everyday life in Great Missenden you wouldn’t see any at all."

Whatever you think about Brian's attitudes, maybe he has a point. Given his old-school, middle-Englander perspective, perhaps the format of the show wouldn't work with ethnic minorities. After all, it'd be almost impossible to write a compelling whodunnit if there was a black face in amongst the suspects. The team at Causton CID wouldn't even have time to whip off their overcoats before fingering the most likely culprit.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Save the date


Despite our better judgement, everyone has a 'type'. When it comes to dating, we all have our own preferences that determine the kind of people we go for. It's particularly complicated in the gay world, where there are so many subcategories that someone has even gone to the trouble of creating a matrix to help categorise the multiplicity of sub-groups.

But straight people are beset by just as many complexities, particularly when it comes to ethnicity. Some people choose to date exclusively within their own race, whilst others do the exact opposite. Hoping to explode some of the myths and stereotypes that exist within the dating world, a former stock-options analyst for Goldman Sachs has turned amateur anthropologist to help women negotiate the pitfalls of interracial romance.

Picking up the mantle from Katherine Chloe Cahoon, who became a one-woman meme last year with the publication of The Single Girl’s Guide to Meeting European Men, J.C. Davies has written a new book called I Got the Fever: Love, What's Race Gotta Do With It?, in which she recounts her own experiences of dating outside of her own race.

Aside from managing other people's money, J.C. counts interracial dating as "her other area of expertise", which is about the nicest synonym for 'slut' I've ever heard. And although she may claim to be kicking down the doors of prejudice in her four-inch heels, the fact that she describes her current Iranian Jewish boyfriends as displaying "terrorist face" in bed, suggests that her mind isn't quite as open as her legs.

If you're expecting a revelatory insight into contemporary human sexuality, you might want to hang onto those Barnes & Noble vouchers a little longer. Criticising the majority of books about sex and culture, J.C. claims: "You have to make it super-p.c. and be the professor of blah-de-blah and have charts and graphs. The expectation is that [black men] are great in the sack and have huge equipment -- don't people really wanna know? Is the equipment super-sized? Let's just go ask some people!" I believe that might also have been Einstein's preferred methodology for robust scientific investigation.

The Village Voice has provided a handy précis of the book, presenting some of J.C.'s revelatory findings: "...money is very important to Jewish guys. And Asian men have small penises. And Latino guys are macho and possessive." If that's the sum total of her insight, I'd hate to think what myths she thinks she's rewriting.

I'm also a little concerned by an interview she did with The Sydney Morning Herald, where she told the journalist, "Before you call me a racist, let me just premise this interview by saying that you can't have a real conversation about race and relationships by being politically incorrect. Because you have to be honest. And honesty and political correctness are completely at odds with one another!" Not only does she contradict herself when discussing the evils of political correctness, she uses "premise" when I think she means "preface". Good with words, she is.

Unfortunately, the people who proclaim their lack of racism the loudest, tend to be the ones who make the most inappropriate remarks. She may want us to believe that, in her mind, love sees no colour, but the evidence stacks up against her. Whether she's warning women of the threats posed by JAPs (that's Jewish American Princesses), referring to one black Republican as an 'Oreo', or simply treating multiculturalism as a novelty buffet counter, she's about as convincing as the fake smile she wears on the book's cover.

What's Race Got To Do With It? I think she just answered her own rhetorical question.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Black Friday


A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning his daughter's seventh birthday party. He asked everyone in the office if they had any music he could borrow that would keep ten sugar-infused preteens amused for a couple of hours. He didn't admit it at the time, but I know deep down that I was the only person in our team likely to have the kind of music he had in mind.

So I brought in a variety of CDs, carefully chosen to suit the limited, but oh-so-specific needs of his demanding audience. The party was a big hit, and in the months that followed, whenever I got some new music, I'd make a copy for my friend's daughter.

About a year later, I came back from one of my lunch-hour record store trips, excitedly clutching a brown paper bag full of wonderment. As I rattled through the various titles with my friend, I asked if I should burn some disks for him to take home. He looked at me with an expression that blended pity with embarrassment, and said "Thanks, but, er, Abby's kind of grown out of that stuff now." She was eight.

At that point, I had to make peace with the fact that much of my music collection was going to go unappreciated by my friends, peers and contemporaries. My shared playlists on iTunes and Spotify may be a constant source of mockery, but I wear my pop preferences with pride.

I know that good pop music is just as worthy of my time as anything that features a three-minute guitar solo. And just because someone writes their own songs, it doesn't automatically qualify them as worthy of my time. Artists like Pet Shop Boys, Madonna and Lady Gaga have proved that popularity and credibility aren't mutually exclusive concepts.

Unfortunately, because great artists make pop look so easy, everyone seems to think that it is. Find a pretty girl, cobble together a few lyrics about partying, crank the autotune up to 11 and laugh all the way to the bank.

Which is the only logical explanation for the existence of 'Friday' by Rebecca Black. The latest 'discovery' by the musically moribund Ark Music Factory, Rebecca's debut single manages to get everything wrong. And leaves you wishing you'd been born profoundly deaf.

Cynical, tuneless and inane to the point of surrealism, Rebecca's would-be party anthem promises "fun fun fun" but is about as carefree and enjoyable as watching a kitten drown. As she pumps her fists in the air from the backseat of her friend's convertible, the impending weekend she's singing about seems less appealing than a nuclear winter. And then there's that voice. Imagine the guys who 'Autotune The News' getting Stephen Hawking to read out the Tweets of a 13 year-old girl.

Universally recognised as one of the finest pop songs of all time, ABBA's 'The Day Before You Came' sees Agnetha sorrowfully recalling the tedium of her daily life prior to her lover's arrival in her life. Perhaps that's the sense of stultifying ennui that the writers at Ark were trying to convey when they wrote:
"Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)
Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?"
Hopefully the one without an airbag. 

If any good can possibly come of this aural travesty, it's the fact that weekends will now forever be tainted by memories of Rebecca Black. As I write this on a Sunday evening, the week ahead suddenly doesn't seem quite so bad. 

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye


As the ramifications of the massive earthquake in Japan start to sink in, I imagine most people are sparing a thought for the tens of thousands of people killed, injured or displaced by the tragedy. At times like this, the concerns of our own lives seem all too trivial and inconsequential. So I had a shitty drive to work yesterday, but at least I wasn't being chased down in two directions by a twenty foot wave full of flaming maritime debris like one vehicle I saw on the news coverage of the tsunami.

When faced with disaster on such an epic scale, it's easy to feel rather powerless. Most people are content with writing open posts on Facebook and Twitter, declaring a social media solidarity with the people of Japan. No doubt there'll be a number of fundraisers and charity events to follow, encouraging us to make whatever contribution we can to support the people affected.

Although Japan bore the brunt of the earthquake and its after-effects, the tsunami provided a timely reminder of just how international a major tectonic incident can be. Yesterday, as emergency services began the grim task of calculating the predicted death toll in and around Sendai, oceanic experts were estimating likely impact times for the waves in countries thousands of miles away.

The entire west coast of North America was on alert for most of the day, as freakishly large waves raced inexorably across the Pacific ocean. Hotels were evacuated, docks were cleared and beaches were closed. Although the waves lost much of their scale and destructive power during their journey, a considerable amount of damage was done, with harbours in California and Oregon receiving a major battering.

Further up the coast, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the cast of the final Twilight: Breaking Dawn were moved to a safe location as a precaution. Although it was clear that the actors were in no real danger, it probably made the film's insurers feel a little better to know that the talent was safe and sound.

It's just a shame no-one mentioned this to Tinsel Korey, who plays Makah Emily Young in the series. Thinking that she was in grave danger, she took to Twitter to tell her beloved fans that she was ready to meet her maker, despite the fact that even the film's most dedicated followers would have trouble picking her out of a line-up.

She tweeted "They're evacuating us 4 a tsumnani [sic] warning. If this … is my last my tweet. I love you. The end. Hugz." following it up later with "If this is the moment. Then I've lived a good life. And I'm thankful 4 everything I've been given. 1 love. :)" Because nothing says "I understand the gravity of the situation" like 'Hugz' and and smiley emoticon.

Unfortunately, some people are incapable of comprehending any kind of disaster until they've processed it into a personal tragedy. OK, so your life's falling apart, but what does that mean for me? 

Friday, 11 March 2011

Taking a bite out of Apple

Some people never learn. Already there's a queue outside New York's iconic Apple Store, as premature adopters line up to be the first to get their hands on the eagerly awaited iPad 2. So eagerly awaited, in fact, that people were already anticipating it before the original model even launched.

When iPad made its debut, Apple was dogged by rumours that it was already planning version 2.0 - especially since there was a suspicious space near the top of the unit seemingly set aside for a camera interface to be added at a later date. Last week, a sickly-looking Steve Jobs made a rare public appearance to showcase the new slimmer, lighter iPad, prompting cruel commentators to suggest that he was taking the concept of 'living the brand' a little too far.

Since the launch announcement, I've been taunted by colleagues keen to point out how obsolete my own iPad is, now that the new version is about to be released. Because Apple's true genius comes not from its product design, marketing or usability, but the extraordinary levels of brand loyalty that it's been able to cultivate.

In his original version of the script for Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino wrote an extended version of the date between Mia and Vincent, where Uma Thurman grills John Travolta on his personal preferences. Mia asks her evening escort whether he's a Beatles or an Elvis man, followed by "Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family?" It's safe to assume that, if Tarantino was making the film today, his heroin-hoovering heroine would be trying to determine whether her date was an Apple or a PC?

During the course of last year, I underwent the conversion process, gradually replacing all my clunky computer hardware with shiny, brushed metal gorgeousness, to the point that we are now an all-Mac household. And even though the technology itself may go out of date quicker than mayonnaise, at least everything looks lovely.

When it comes to Mac-ownership, there's little to regret. Or at least, so I thought, until I saw a study conducted by UC Berkeley computer science major Kyle Conroy. With Apple currently being predicted to take the title of the world's first trillion-dollar company, Kyle wondered how rich he'd be if he'd invested in the company, rather than its lovingly-designed products.

I may have a pathological inability to read anything even resembling a spreadsheet, but even I can see the stark lesson that his studies present. Starting back in 1997, when Apple launched the PowerBook G3, Kyle has taken the initial market price of each new product and worked out what the same amount would be worth if it had been spent on shares instead. It's pretty depressing stuff.

The $5,700 needed for that G3 laptop would now be worth a staggering $330,000 - not a bad return on a fourteen year investment. Even the equivalent of a G3 Power Macintosh Desktop ($2,400 in 1997) could have delivered a $139,185 dividend. But you wouldn't get a cool, white drawstring bag.

Of course, as one commenter on The Daily What points out, Apple stock has soared precisely because people spent their hard-earned money on their products. Even so, you might want to think twice before you join the queue outside your local store for the new iPad. It doesn't take an Apple Genius to work out that there may be better uses for your money.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Chuck you


The world of celebrity is often criticised for being left-of-centre when it comes to politics. It doesn't matter whether it's Sean Penn cosying up to Fidel Castro, Kathy Griffin taking a pop at Sarah Palin or Green Day calling out Bush Jr as the quintessential American Idiot - there's no shortage of liberals amongst the glitterati.

And yet, there are small pockets of conservatism, swimming desperately against the constant tide of liberalism. Those bold icons, willing to stand up for traditional values and stick a spike in the wheels of progress. Weirdly, there are two very specific genres where these curious creatures seem to thrive - country music and 80s action movies.

Planet Hollywood wasn't the only depressing endeavour that Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had in common - they're also staunch Republicans. But maybe that's because the films they made during their mullety heydays represented an approach to international diplomacy best described as 'guns and puns'. Why engage in heated debate when you can rip out someone's spine and beat them to death with soggy end?

But it's not just the A-list action heroes who found that carrying all that heavy artillery made them lean to the right. Chuck Norris, everyone's favourite ginger assassin, is also extremely vocal about his old-fashioned ways.

He's even uses a pen from time to time, and not just to jab into the eye of an unscrupulous Yakuza boss. He can often be found writing columns for World Net Daily, where he gives a roundhouse kick to the throats of pinkos, commies and bleeding hearts everywhere.

In his latest diatribe, the chop-socky champion of common sense implores his readers to fight progressivism in public schools, arguing that they're a hotbed of social tolerance and environmental awareness. Rather than a well-worn pair of nunchuks, his weapons of choice are a series of rhetorical questions, as he asks "What happens when the political and public educational pendulum swings from concern for the tyranny of sectarianism in Jefferson’s day to secularism in ours? What happens when U.S. public schools become progressive indoctrination camps?" I never realised that fingerpainting was an underhanded way of getting kids to embrace abortion and experiment with their sexuality.

It's clear that Chuck is concerned about the future of America, and wants to go back to simpler times. When problems could be solved by setting fire to a pick-up truck, or breaking someone's fibula with a barstool. He doesn't want to open children's minds, just a can of whup-ass on anyone who thinks progress means moving forward.