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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

People I hate: June Sarpong

Today's loathsome creature was once ubiquitous on our TV screens, but seems to have vanished from sight recently. And for that, a good many of us are probably quite glad.

June Sarpong is a television presenter who started off doing the dance music chart on MTV before moving to Channel 4 to present their T4 youth strand. For Channel 4, Sarpong ticked a lot of boxes and they soon started sticking her in front of more and more shows. The highlight of her career was her interview with Tony Blair.

Quite apart from her horrendously grating voice and appalling laugh, she annoys me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, she's been awarded an MBE for ahem, "services to broadcasting and charity" which seems jolly odd. At the time it was awarded (2007), she'd been presenting T4 for several years but pretty much every other TV production she was involved with (Your Face Or Mine?, Dirty LaundryPlaying It Straight, etc) were all dismal pieces of populist shit that vanished without a trace after poor ratings. It certainly seemed like her award was more due to her soft interview of Blair than anything else.

And that's the second thing I loathe about her. After gaining a surprising level of access (she got to shadow Blair for two days), she completely failed to ask anything interesting or even slightly critical. But having described Blair as "a charismatic, rock star-type politician" it perhaps isn't so surprising. And just how did she land this interview? "It sounds so name-droppy and I hate all that sort of stuff. It’s so not that, but I did know them. I just thought it would be really good to do something, because in real life, he has a sense of humour that people never got to see. I thought it would be really good to do a programme where you got to see that side of him."

After leaving T4, Sarpong created a website called Politics & the City because "So many of my girlfriends, who are smart, successful women, don't have a clue about politics - and it's not because they don't want to." So cue a round of private investment followed by media hype and lots of launch parties. And then less than two years later no mention of it dying on its arse.

Although Sarpong had clearly nailed her colours to the Blair mast, she tried to switch horses, saying about David Cameron "I'd love to interview him. I've met him. I think he's got that Blair factor, in terms of making you feel very important. I like what he's doing on family and in making the Conservative Party more fashionable. But you have to wait and see. You don't know what people are really like until they're in power." Uh huh. It didn't work and the Tories haven't invited her to all those parties she loves so much.

And so Sarpong left for America to try her luck on US TV. Here's her bio from Tru TV, who broadcast under the tagline "Not reality. Actuality."
As the female face of Channel 4's successful Sunday morning strand T4 for the last eight years, Sarpong became part of TV history when she scored access to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for her Channel 4 special When Tony Met June. A popular personality within the world of TV, she was voted as the #1 panelist young people wanted to see on the British political discussion show Question Time. She has also interviewed and introduced some of the world's biggest newsmakers, including Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as well as such personalities as Bono, George Clooney and 50 Cent.
Sarpong is an ambassador for the Prince's Trust and campaigns for the Make Poverty History movement. For services to broadcasting and charity, she was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) on Queen Elizabeth's 2007 New Years honors list, making her - along with Princess Anne's daughter, Zarah Phillips - one of the youngest people to receive an MBE that year.
But just what is she doing over there? Well, she's a minor presenter on a conspiracy theory show hosted by ex-wrestler, ex-governor Jesse Ventura. Nice.

Skip on to the six minute mark to see Sarpong happily go along with the idea that the US government are using an ionosphere research project for mind control and weather alteration whilst Ventura suggests that it caused the Indonesian tsunami. Oh dear. This from a woman who claims "When I was at college I did government politics and I was always interested in the issues." The issues these days being the kind of conspiracy theory crap that appeals to the tinfoil hat brigade.

Her show hit trouble when it alleged that the US government was implementing a police state. They claimed that various planned encampments were to be used for interning people deemed a threat to national security when martial law was declared. Unfortunately they turned out to be for housing people displaced by hurricanes or other natural disasters. The US Representative who signed the legislation covering these sites complained about this misrepresentation. The show also alleged that a site in Georgia was being used to stockpile plastic bins to be used for mass burials when martial law was declared. It turned out to be the storage facility of a company that makes grave liners. When questioned on this, the Tru TV network disclaimed responsibility saying the show was "an entertainment program that appears on an entertainment network." Yeah, that's "not reality" all right. Lest one think that Sarpong's responsibility is limited to that of a presenter, she's actually one of the producers too.

Another project in the States was "The Alpha Woman" - apparently a range of clothing. A quick look through the US trademark website shows the mark being abandoned a couple of years ago. Oh dear.

Various online sources mention "In March 2011 Lipgloss Productions [Sarpong's production company] registered, sparking speculation that she will helm the UK arm of the popular website." But that sounds like bullshit to me. That domain has been registered by the Huffington Post itself since 2008.
Domain name:
The, Inc.
Relevant dates:
Registered on: 06-Apr-2008
Renewal date: 06-Apr-2012
Last updated: 27-May-2011

Sarpong keeps on with the political angle, her teenage-level understanding of issues notwithstanding. She recently launched another website: Row6 "a new kind of social networking which resonates with the humanitarian ideals of the UN and seeks to literally join the hands of all people regardless of color or creed- just as Dr King dreamed of doing half a century ago." Blimey. So that'll vanish without a trace in short order too.

Still suckling at the Blair teat she seems to desperately want the respectability of a political statesman with the unreproachability of a charity campaigner, but y'know without actually having to put the work in.

So farewell then, June Sarpong. May our TV screens never again be troubled by your screechy voice and inane politics.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Muslim or Ninja?

Yay! It's a quiz. It's not a shameless attempt to court controversy. Not it isn't. So don't go saying that it is.

Can you tell the difference between Muslims and Ninjas? One of them is a black clad killing machine and the other is an adherent of a peaceful and loving religion [according to legal advice]. Take the simple test below and see how well you do. Some of the fifteen examples seem obvious, others less so.

The frigging quiz software makes noises, so be ready for that.

Muslim and Ninja

According to Iranian state television, Ninjutsu is surprisingly popular in Iran, with over 3,500 Iranian women taking part.

I particularly like that when they remove their ninja headscarves they've got hijabs on underneath

Monday, 27 February 2012

Japanese manhole cover art

Image by Shibuya246
Bureaucracy can be intractable in Japan; many tasks can be surprisingly complicated as layer upon layer of government officialdom has to be negotiated. Back in the 1980s, the Japanese central government decided to standardise their sewerage systems - seem reasonable, huh? Well, every municipality had different ideas about what the standard should be and this seemingly simple agreement got drawn out into long and complicated negotiations with every party wanting their design to prevail. The manhole covers proved to be a horrendous sticking point. Eventually one bright chap put forward the idea of standardising the shape of them, but allowing each municipality to have their own design on top.

So what was looking like years of bickering and grandstanding turned into an outpouring of local creativity. Each municipality has its own design and many of them are delightful and quite beautiful. Quite amazing for something that's basically covering a pipe of effluent.

Photographed in Osaka by Travis King
All the covers are made in Nagashima Foundry. The original designs are carved into wooden masters which are stored at the foundry. I wonder if they're open to the public. That'd make for an excellent museum trip.

Photographed by Joel Neville Anderson in Kamakura
It appears that originally the designs were all just patterns in the steel, but as time went on, the foundry figured out how to add coloured inlays and the regional designers took advantage of this, leading to some remarkably detailed and beautifully-coloured examples. Some of the old plain covers still exist in various parts of Japan, but they are becoming rarer these days.

Photographed by Chica de Ayer in Kurashiki
Many moons ago, I used to run a pub quiz. It was easily the best pub quiz ever until it began to turn into a chat show. I think it was supposed to last an hour but, at its longest, it ran to four. In an effort to avoid smartphone interference, I tried to ask questions that required thought rather than knowledge. One night I asked "Why are manhole covers round?" expecting answers along the lines of "It's to make it impossible for them to be dropped through the hole." But when it came to reading out the answers, one chap decided to dispute my reasoning. When I challenged him with "And I suppose you're a manhole cover designer" it turned out that he was. So I got him up on the microphone to explain the design process and show us schematics. From that point on, I had guests every week and themed question sections around their area of work or expertise. And that's how manhole covers turned a pub quiz into a chat show.

Another one from Kurashiki again photographed by Chica de Ayer

Photographed by rumpleteaser in Nara

Photographed in Hiroshima by M Louis
These are just a few examples of the huge variety of covers out there. There are books about them, whole websites and there's a Flickr group dedicated to photographs of them (which is where I got all these photos). Click the link to the group above to see thousands of pictures, including many fascinating ones that I'd have love to included here, but couldn't for copyright reasons.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Free game Friday: Unmanned and SCP-087

Two games today that come courtesy of PC Gamer. Am I paying more attention to their site and magazine since they gave me that free SSD? Hmm, maybe.

Unmanned is an unusual game (well, I'm pretty much only interested in unusual games) where you play a US soldier whose job it is to control an unmanned UAV drone. That's actually only a very small part of the game as it's more about a day in your life and that just happens to be your day job. The game is split into two screens: on one you take part in a simple arcade-type game whereas on the other you made choices. The game doesn't make clear what the 'right' choices are and you're free to go whatever way you like. There are medals on the completion of each section, but maybe you care about those and maybe you don't.

The game is deceptively simple, but I wouldn't call it easy. You've got a wife and a child and the game is as much about dealing with their welfare as your own. Just how do you keep these things balanced whilst dealing with all the tasks of your life?

The little games you get to play vary from shaving to playing Call of Duty with your son. Some are pretty difficult and it'll probably take you more than one try to get through successfully. Oh and, without wishing to spoil things, there's one game that's a lot easier if you happen to be a fan of Queen.

You can either play the game online in your browser or download it to your computer. There are versions for both PC and Mac.

SCP-087 isn't really a game. Well it might be, I'm not really sure.

There's a door and it's locked. And there are some stairs. A lot of stairs. Turn away from the door and head down the stairs. At first I can hear nothing but the sound of my footsteps, but soon I think I can maybe hear the sound of some machinery. A generator maybe? As I descend, it gets louder and I'm certain it sounds like some very heavy machinery. In fact, it's so loud I can barely hear my own footsteps. Wait, is that another sound? It's a sort of tapping. It that someone else coming down the stairs? Or is it something else? If I go back up the stairs a bit am I going to meet someone or something else coming down?

And that's how it goes. Play it alone at night with the lights off and the sound turned up and you'll probably get quite frightened. There are no instructions, not even a title page to get you started. Heck, the game isn't even on its own website. If it is a game, that is.

A Google search for SCP-087 turns up this wiki, of sorts. Is it a clue? Is SCP-087, just one part of many? Frigging hell.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ping pong Pan-kun

Pan-kun is a chimpanzee who regularly appears on a Japanese TV show called Shimura Zoo. He is set tasks by his keepers and they're often quite ambitious. Today saw Pan-kun attempting to play table tennis. When you consider that he doesn't have opposable thumbs (and lacks a rotator cuff in his wrist), it's remarkable that he can even hold the bat.

My old flat-mate (hello Ryan!) used to laugh at me because of one episode where Pan-kun makes and cooks noodles - Ryan reckoned that was two things more than I could do. Worse still, he's right.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is Pan-kun, here's another clip where he's sent to harvest rice. In case you're wondering, the bulldog is Pan-kun's friend/pet James who often accompanies him on his adventures. The dog ain't quite so talented though.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

WTF: Ian Botham in plasticine

I was done at the local auction house having a look at the lots for the upcoming sale of general household goods. On one of the walls lay lot 186, described as follows:
A colourful clay collage depicting Ian Botham surrounded by elements of his cricketing and broadcasting career, in a box frame.
Uh... yeah, okay. That's what it is alright. But let's just have a look at some of the details. It all gets a bit odd.

Okay, so there's a cricket ball (fair enough), a Visa card (I think he may have done adverts for them), Ariel washing powder (again, I think he did ads for them), a cheese (uh...), tins of Coke (maybe he drinks it?), Jif bathroom cleaner (now Cif, but did he do ads for them?) and uh... Tintin. I've scoured the internet and I can't find a single mention of Ian Botham together with Tintin. What the hell? The Coca-cola thing threw me a bit, but it may be an oblique reference to his drug-taking. Okay, so moving on...

Dog shit (?), fried egg (what?), tits (I do recall him being caught shagging on the crease at Lord's cricket ground one night) and Tintin. What the hell is it with Tintin?

Okay, so we've got a spliff and that's entirely understandable as Botham got into trouble for drug-taking and was suspended from the English team in 1986 for smoking cannabis. I've never understood the fuss about sportsmen smoking dope. Botham was the best all round cricketer in the world back in the 1980s. To be that good whilst stoned just suggests to me that he was even better than that. A performance-enhancing drug it is not.

What's more worrying in this particular detail shot is not the joint in his hand, but the uh... bulge in his crotch. That's a detail I could have lived without seeing.

Fried eggs make another appearance. I really don't get this. Okay, so he did a series of food adverts with Alan Lamb, but eggs didn't feature. Botham's nickname was Beefy, not Eggy. And oh look, there's Ariel again and again. Okay, so he maybe did an ad or two, but get over it. What is interesting is the effort put in to making the Ariel boxes (especially the one on his chest). For a picture that looks like it was made by someone who hugged all their pets to death, the detail on the Ariel boxes is quite incredible. The same goes for the BBC logo. That's a very accurate depiction of what the BBC2 logo looked like back in the 1980s but, when you look closely, you can make out a quite incredible level of geographical detail.

The ads were all a bit suggestive. I'm just sad I can't find the one where Alan
says "Qwal-i-dee lamb, Beefy" That one made me laugh (and cringe)

It's the same with the BBC 1 logos. The level of detail is really rather impressive. It must have taken a lot of effort to get such detail into the globes. I'm getting seriously scared of whoever made this.

In our final detailed shot, we can see yet another fried egg (I must be missing something) and a surprisingly good rendition of a cup of tea and a glass of wine. I suspect they may have copied it off something else, but even so. And then there's the bacon. The nickname was Beefy, not Porky or Bacony. Ah well.

So what do you think folks? Should I bid on it? You can bet it's not exactly going to set a record price. Maybe even Ian Botham (who definitely reads this blog) would like me to pick it up on his behalf. What do you say, Beefy?

For those of you too young to remember, or too foreign to comprehend, here's a clip of Botham scoring 22 in one Merv Hughes over. This is also probably the last time a sports commentator was able to say "smashes" without meaning rape or sexual harassment.

If you even get the chance, watch the film Fat Pizza - Merv Hughes plays a
serial killer and plays a blinder. Gotta love Big Merv

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Chinese Tuesday: The history of the kimono(hanfu)

Oh so that's what we're going with for the title of this section? Sigh... Mind you, I'll give you a biscuit if you can figure out what the banner graphic means.

The kimono is the iconic garment of Japan and everyone tends to assume that it's a strictly Japanese item. As I've mentioned before, the kimono is actually a development of the hanfu style of Chinese clothing. So how did the kimono come about?

Nara period (710-794) clothing
In the 5th century, Chinese clothing started to be adopted by some Japanese. Through Japanese embassies and delegations, many Chinese goods, including clothing began to become available in Japan. In the 8th century, Chinese clothing became quite fashionable among certain section of Japanese society and the overlapping collar especially so amongst women. Up until this time, Japanese people had worn separate upper and lower garments.

Heian period (794-1185) clothing

At the end of the 8th century, the Heian Period began and the kimono first appeared. Initially known as the gofuku (clothes of Wu - Wu being one of the Three Kingdoms in the period between the Han and Jin Chinese dynasties; if you've played Dynasty Warriors then you're on the right track), the kimono was a development of the hanfu style of Chinese clothing. Upper and lower garments were replaced by a single robe. This had a number of benefits, not least of which was that the wrap-around style meant that clothing didn't have to be made to fit an individual and thus allowed for a form of mass-production. Somewhat ironically, this generic production allowed certain artisans to craft elaborate robes without specific customers in mind. This was a period of great innovation and stylisation in Japanese clothing.

Kimono had several advantages over previous garments, not least of which was their adaptability for all seasons. In winter, kimono could be worn in layers to provide extra warmth, yet in summer kimono made of lightweight, breathable material kept the wearer cool and comfortable.

In the picture above, the woman is wearing an example of a formal outfit as worn by noblewomen. Those of lower social station tended to wear just the kazami (the orange/pink outer layer in the picture).

An outfit based on the kazami as worn by ordinary women
1 kazami
2 yudachi
3 kosode
4 kiri-bakama
5 kawahori-ogi fan

Note the kosode. That's the next development in the story of the kimono.

Kamakura period (1185-1333) clothing
The fundamental shape of Japanese clothes didn't change much during the Kamakura period, but colour and ornamentation became very important. Men and women both wore extremely colourful kimono. Warriors dressed in colours that represented their leaders and clans. Note the white kosode under-layers in both the male and female outfits.
Kosode (upper) and hakama (lower)
During the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573), the kosode (a single-layer kimono) which had previously been underwear, became outerwear. The kosode kimono had no fastenings as the hakama came up over the bottom of it and held it closed. So when the kosode became popular, a belt was needed and this was where the obi came in.

Muromachi period (1336-1573) clothing
Although in the Muromachi period, the ornate uchikake (long coat like the orange one in the picture) was very popular, the obi was an essential part of Muromachi clothing. The long white kimono that the woman is wearing is what the kosode became and you can see the prominent obi on both the male and female outfits.

Edo period (1603-1867) clothing
Once the Edo period came around, the obi grew wider and more decorative, becoming an essential part of Japanese clothing. In the picture, you can see that the kimono is the same as those worn today. The obi is still quite narrow and features the dangling ends that were only really popular in the Muromachi period. As the Edo period went on, the ends of the obi became shorted and concealed.

From hanfu to kimono in one thousand years
And that's the story of the kimono. It starts with the Chinese hanfu of the Three Kingdoms period and goes through a series of stylistic and practical changes through various historical periods ending up with the steady form which we see today.

Many thanks to my wife for her assistance in the preparation of this article. Whilst she enjoys laughing at Korean and Japanese soap operas, she actually watches them purely out of her interest in the clothes.

Miku Hatsune attempts murder. Puny human survives this time

At the Sapporo snow festival each year, teams compete to make the largest and most outlandish snow sculptures possible. This year, Crypton Future Media unveiled a 3 metre tall scuplture of everyone's favourite fictional singer, Miku Hatsune.

As some visitors to the show were passing by, Miku detached her head and flung it at the back of an elderly woman, hospitalising her. Authorities were quick to suggest that the sculpture's head was too heavy and had simply fallen off, striking the woman.This is obvious bullshit and shows the lengths to which the Japanese authorities are willing to go in order to collude with our new electronic overlords.

Crypton Future Media have announced they will be rebuilding the Miku Hatsune sculpture in the hopes that she'll get the kill next time, or something like that - I can't translate Japanese terribly well.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Mystery Monday: Shangri-la

In an attempt to make life more difficult for myself, I'm going to try for themed days on the blog. Yes, it's not enough to come up with five articles a week, I'm now going to constrain myself to set themes on certain days. Let's see how long it takes me to crack. Today is, ugh... Mystery Monday - I should offer a prize for a better name.
A mystical lost mountain kingdom yesterday
Back in 1933, James Hilton wrote a novel named Lost Horizon. British diplomat Hugh Conway survives a plane crash in the Himalayas. He wanders through a snowstorm and is guided to the monastery of Shangri-la hidden in the peaks. The monastery itself is quite odd, having central heating, modern bathtubs, a grand piano, a large library and all kinds of other luxury items. Conway is shown the surprisingly snow-free valley below from where their food comes. It all gets a bit weird after that when Conway is told that the monks barely age and the High Lama reveals that he is dying and would like Conway to take his place. Obviously, Conway does leave and the whole story is actually told in retrospect whilst Conway is recovering in a Chinese hospital. He then buggers off, presumably to return to Shangri-la.

Oddly, the book didn't become successful until Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips the following year, which was an instant hit. Odder still is just how many people took the idea of Shangri-la literally. Not long before the book was written, a number of accounts of travel in Tibet had been published in National Geographic magazine and many of the places featured bore a resemblance to the fictional Shangri-la of the book.

A lot of the other places mentioned in Lost Horizon are real enough. Muli, Kunlun and Chongqing all exist. Since the book became popular, Zhongdian in Yunan Province, China has now been renamed Xianggalila (Shangri-la) to attract tourists. It's funny that, in contrast to other mythical places, Shangri-la actually does exist.
It's all jolly pretty and a lot more accessible than Atlantis
Within Buddhist traditions there are mentions of the kingdom of Shambhala, a Pure Land (pretty much a Buddhist equivalent of Heaven). The concepts of Shambhala and Shangri-la are often thought to be one and the same. It's probably adapted from a Hindu myth (like so much of Buddhism) which  is part of the Kalachakra tradition. It's all a bit complicated, so feel free to look it up some time if you fancy a lot of tortuous reading.

The Shambhala/Shangri-la myth came to the West via Catholic missionaries in the 17th century, but it wasn't until the 19th century that interest really picked up. Hungarian scholar Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (yeah, every name in this article is unpronounceable) who travelled extensively in the region, wrote of Shambhala and even gave a geographical location: "a fabulous country in the north...situated between 45' and 50' north latitude." Following his description leads to the eastern region of Kazakhstan, which is characterized by green hills, low mountains and lakes in stark contrast to the barren mountainous terrain of Tibet and Yunan. Hmm.
Hard to believe that this waterfall could contain the essence of uber-nazis and
super-communists, but a surprisingly high number of people thought so
Theosophist Madam Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with Himalayan ascended masters (enlightened beings) and regularly mentioned Shambhala and Shangri-la, introducing them to a wider audience. Lost Horizon appeared at the time that the Theosophical Society's ideas had most currency with the public and at a time when Nazi Germany was rather interested in using German and Eastern mythology to promote the idea of a master race. In 1938, Heinrich Himmler sent an SS mission to Tibet (under Ernst Schäfer) to investigate Asian mysticism and try to find the truth of Shambhala and Shangri-la.

Whilst the German mission to Tibet is relatively well-known, few have heard of the similar Soviet mission. Senior intelligence officer and chief cryptographer Gleb Bokii (no, really) was fascinated by the teachings of the Theosophists and met with several Mongolian lamas. He gained a fascination with Shambhala and Shangri-la and organised an expedition to Inner Asia with his writer friend, Alexander Barchenko. They wanted to prove a link between Kalachakra-tantra and the tenets of Soviet Communism. Although their mission didn't go ahead, Bokii and Barchenko founded a laboratory (under the auspices of the secret police) to experiment with Buddhist techniques in order to try to create perfect communists. Crikey. They weren't the only Soviets interested in Shambhala and the the Soviet Foreign Commissariat did later send an expedition to Tibet. I don't know if they managed to make a super-Soviet-Buddhist-ubermensch, but I presume I'd have heard if they had.

Nicholas Roerich, Song of Shambhala: Thang-La (1943)
Today, you can visit Shangri-la for yourself on any number of package holidays. It's maybe not at its best right now though. Whilst making his 2005 film Wu Ji (The Promise), Chen Kaige and his crew built massive sets in Shangri-la and they got into trouble a bit afterwards for messing the place up. The Chinese government got a bit shirty after Chen and his boys cut down quite a few trees, destroying an entire local eco-system and then left behind massive sets, many of them made with concrete.

It was like that when we got here
A big boy did it and ran away
So there you go: Shangri-la is real and Shambhala might be. But if you want to find a mystical mountain kingdom, don't bother going to see Hitler or Stalin, just hire a Chinese film crew, but remember to tidy up after yourselves. What's especially annoyingly is that The Promise is a bit of a shit film. Ah well...

Friday, 17 February 2012

Free game Friday: Two unusual free games I've rather enjoyed

Oh good grief, did I really call it that? More like fucking-awful-alliteration-Friday. Oh well.

There aren't many multi-player PC games that don't need a network connection (LAN or otherwise) and even fewer which can be played on the same machine. I kind of miss games like that. My chum Matt and I used to play Tie Fighter together on the same machine. There was a single energy system for your craft and you had to juggle power allocation between weapons and the engine as well as balance how much power was allocated to the shields and you split that between front and back. So we'd play together with one of us dealing with the power systems and the other doing the flying. Good times.

The wonderfully-named Mindfuck isn't as complicated as that. It's not often that one can summarise a game in one screenshot, but with Mindfuck you can. That shot above is the entire game. Two players compete against each other on the same keyboard with just one key each. The aim of the game is the first to score 400 points (this can be altered). As the game begins, a counter ticks up steadily. At any point you can press the sift key and claim the points on the counter. That's all there is to it. It's all about psyching out your opponent: do you let the counter tick up higher in order to grab more points, or do you snatch them as soon as possible? And that's where the mind fuckery comes in. Intimidation, trickery, bluffing... can all come into play. And that's where the fun lies.

Symphorophilia is a very odd single player browser-based game. It's ostensibly a very simple car racing game in the style of Atari 2600 games or very early arcade games. You drive your car up the screen, avoiding other cars and pedestrians. Every now and then, you can grab a star which operates in a similar manner to a Pacman power pill, allowing you to plough through everything on the screen to gain points. When not under the influence of a star, crash your car or collide with an object and the little TV screen will play a (very graphic) video clip of a real racing accident.

As the designer explains on his site:
"Symphorophilia: (definition) a paraphilia in which sexual arousal hinges on staging and watching a disaster such as a fire or traffic accidents."

"Like many works of art I do not seek to entertain the player. This is another personal attempt to investigate and learn the use of video games as an art form."

You can play it here:

Read more about it here:

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Advanced racism

If you've been paying attention, you'll have probably noticed that my wife is Chinese. That's not her in the picture by the way. Anyway, my wife (whose name I'm not going to mention - you wouldn't be able to pronounce it; I know I can't) is Chinese from Taiwan. If that sounds a bit odd, then it's because you don't know anything about the political history of the region - and that makes you lucky.

The wife's sitting behind me right now watching Korean dramas (halfway between a soap opera and a period drama) and laughing her head off. We've sat and watched comedies in various languages and yet I've never heard her laugh quite as much as she is right now. The main actor is attempting some (Chinese) Tang Dynasty poetry and messing it up somewhat. Yes, that's right, she's laughing at a man having difficulty with thousand year old poetry in, what is for him, a foreign language. That's some pretty sophisticated racism right there. You might think a London cab driver is racist because he doesn't like people with dark skin, but hypothetical stereotyped taxi drivers ain't got nothing on the wife.

Taiwanese 'Darkie' toothpaste over the years - at least
they've changed the name and reduced the, uh...
impact of the image a bit. There's a tube of this in my
bathroom. Yeah...
Most Asian countries are mono-cultural, China especially. China has had several thousand years of a single continuous culture - they've been invaded many times, but due to sheer size, the invaders have ironically become assimilated; their cultures subsumed. A similar situation has occurred in most Asian countries, with the only successful invaders being the Chinese themselves. Accordingly, in most countries in the region, there is a single culture - foreigners are rare outside of tourist or business areas and they don't tend to stay. Foreigners are outsiders and different races are very different.

Across Asia there's a tendency for what we would regard as casual racism. It's often said that racism is caused by ignorance and this is certainly true in Asian countries. Foreign races are so rare that information about them and their cultures is rarely above the level of comic-book rumour and innuendo. But what surprised me is that many Asian cultures are so insular that they have little idea about other Asian cultures - my wife can barely find Indonesia on a map.

Not just racism, Chinese racism
So I made the mistake of asking just what it was that made Koreans so funny. And I made the further mistake of asking what she thought of the other Asian countries. She has a list, in rank order. This is undoubtedly offensive to some (well, quite a lot of) people, so caveat lector and all that.

1. China - The home of culture. There's good and bad, but 5,000 years of continuous history, invention and culture cannot be ignored.

2. Japan - They're alright. At least they don't live in the mud. They've got quite a good culture, even though they stole a lot of it from China. They're a bit too kind though [no idea, I just wrote it down]. Good manners.

3. Singapore - At least they have strict laws. Quite a good country... for a democracy [yeah, she's not a fan of democracies]

4. South Korea - A bunch of peasant farmers dressed up in suits.. ah, I should say Burberry. They're too low class and yet they try so hard to be proud.

5. Taiwan - In some ways better, but they still have the Chinese disease [she means societally]. Education has failed. Farmers go to school - school makes them smart, but they make themselves stupid.

6. Hong Kong - They take your culture but stay in Gung Ho brotherhood [gung ho means something rather different in Mandarin from how it tends to be used in English] Bit too interested in money, power and materialism.

7. Malaysia - Lot of Chinese people live there. All the rich or smart people in that country are Chinese.

8. North Korea - Independent and keep their own culture.

9. Indonesia - Never think about them. Lots of rich people go there for business. They accept all races and cultures, so there's no problem. The live in real multi-cultural society. Poor but happy. They are second race; not high class, but they don't think they are high class.

10. Vietnam - Pfft.

11. Philippines - Servants and prostitutes. Do they even have a culture?

12. Thailand - See Philippines

=13. Cambodia & Laos - Not even human. Not even like the pigs who live in the mud; just monkeys. And for us, monkeys are not even cute.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Trying Ubuntu Linux without installing anything

Linux is a fascinating and useful operating system and everyone should be using it. We're not of course, but why is that? Because it's more confusing and fiddly than a poorly-chosen analogy involving a schizophrenic violinist.

The first barrier to installing Linux is having to make a hard disk partition. For most people, this is a deal breaker. They don't know what partitions are, or they know just enough about them to be scared to go near them. Linux fans will happily point out that most installers these days will sort all that out for you, but they're far from friendly if you don't know what you're doing and a wrong answer will wipe your hard disk. Not great.

Even once you're up and running with Linux, even simple stuff like installing software is beyond most users. Luckily these days most popular version of Linux come with software managers - effectively app stores for free and open source software. Oh and software is another thing that puts people off Linux. None of the familiar applications are available - where Microsoft Word and Excel and all that stuff? People like those. Sure, they're not familiar with the alternatives and even the thought of trying them makes most users feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Linux doesn't have to be scary. Varieties of Linux like Ubuntu and Mint are simple to use, look pretty and have easy access to free software that can do everything their paid counterparts can do and in a surprisingly familiar manner too. There are even "live disks" - CDs containing working versions of Linux so you can boot up and try it without ever having to install anything. These are good, but you can't install any software or really do anything other than see what it looks like.

Can you fill in this box? Then you can install Linux. It's a hell of a lot less hassle than installing Windows
Sod all that. If you'd like to try Linux without any hassles at all, give Wubi a go. Wubi is a program that installs like any other Windows software (there's even an uninstall icon). It creates one big file on your hard disk and installs Ubuntu Linux into that. It also detects all your hardware and sets it up to work without any input from you. Whenever you turn on your computer a simple menu asks if you want to boot Linux or Windows.

I didn't make this particular screenshot. Don't accuse me of running Vista
Choose Linux and you'll be taken aback by how quickly it boots up; much quicker than Windows. Once you're at the desktop, you'll be surprised by how familiar everything is. You'll be able to find your way around without any assistance.

C'mon, how different does that desktop look? Give it a go
Here's a video with another of those annoying perky fake nerd girls that I'd like to kill with a hammer. It shows you the entire process. She kind of skims over the part where Wubi downloads the files it needs, but that happens entirely in the background without any interaction from you anyway.

Once you've got Ubuntu up and running, you can just open up the Software Centre and grab any other software you might like to try. It really is that easy.

So you've got no excuse. Go here and get Wubi now: