Some thoughts on going to Japan

I’m sick of talking about Europe. I’m sick of talking about Vote Leave and the fact they can’t seem to exhale without telling at least one barefaced lie, or the fact their leading lights seem physically unable to write their own names without using some sort of logical fallacy (“fallacy” being a word derived from a corruption of the Latin “phallus” that means “the act of being a fucking dick”). So instead I’m going to post something about the fact I was in Japan recently to visit my partner, who is over there studying at the moment. I was going to write it in some travelogue-style format but I am about as suited to writing travelogues as I am to childbirth, so here instead are a series of bullet points. You can, if you wish, imagine some sort of connecting paragraphs between them.

  • I am excessively paranoid about travel connections and trust National Express’ punctuality record about as much as I trust sandpaper condoms, so booked a coach from Norwich that arrived at Heathrow seven hours before my flight was due to leave and four hours before I would even be allowed through the gate. In hindsight, this was a mistake.
  • My flight cost me £400 return to go halfway around the world. It was better than it had any right to be, although given that all I’d been told about the airline (China Eastern) that may just be because I was half-expecting a British Leyland bus with a single jet engine and wings made of feathers.
  • Airside at Heathrow Terminal 4 was busy, annoying and depressing until I paid £25 to get into the SkyTeam lounge and drank:

  • Arriving into a country where the main written language looks like strange inscrutable runes to you after around thirty hours without any decent sleep clutching a Midland Bank Griffin Savers bag from the mid-1980s (don’t ask) and a paper bag containing a stuffed panda (ditto) is not a good look and is actually rather like having a severe head injury.
  • Japan has no litter. Discarded wrappers and fag butts were as noteworthy as it is in the UK seeing a minor celebrity.
  • Approximately 60% of Japan’s economy appears to be made up of convenience stores, of which there are twelve per person and which despite being of various brands (the chief ones being 7-Eleven, FamilyMart and Lawson, none of which are present in the UK in any way and the latter of which charmed me a bit with its bizarre branding style that looks like and actually more or less is something from 1950s America) are all more or less equivalent in terms of range and price. I was a bit worried that some of the only ATMs that take foreign debit cards were in 7-Elevens until I found out you couldn’t fall over without banging your head off of one.
  • I genuinely, sincerely miss being able to walk past a vending machine (which there are fucking loads of, even more than there are convenience stores), put in about 130 yen and receive a can of decent cold coffee from a reasonably extensive range, which beats the piss out of maybe paying nearly £3 for a plastic cup of cold Starbucks shit from a Tesco Express. I ended up quite fond of the Boss brand, partially because its logo resembles Clement Attlee, my personal favourite being the Gay Pride Clement Attlee variant:

    I do love a taste of Clem's delicious creamy drink
    I do love a taste of Clem’s delicious creamy drink
  • Yo! Sushi can fuck right off. £3 to £8 per plate for what I have on good authority is about as close to good, authentic sushi as Big Macs are is a joke when you can literally get great, freshly made sushi for ¥100 a plate in Japan. They’ve taken what is essentially the cheapest fast food imaginable and turned it into something ridiculously expensive and shit, and then had the temerity to call it “Japanese”. I have never been into Yo! Sushi as I haven’t ever felt the need, but I felt I should put this point of view across on behalf of my sort-of-Japanese-ex-pat partner, who despite being very calm and mild-mannered can’t walk past the place without wanting to firebomb it after once paying upwards of £30 for an amount of shit sushi she would have got for around £4. It takes effort to not even have your price be authentic.
  • In fact, everything is cheap beyond words. While I was there I was mentally converting everything into sterling, so the above sushi became 70p a plate, the coffee about 90p, some meals out at the rough Japanese equivalent of Little Chef about £4 a head. The issue then came that when I got back and had to pay £4 for a shit “meal deal” in the Heathrow branch of Smiths I mentally converted that back to ¥640. The whole place has ruined buying things in the UK for me. You have no idea what an imposition £3 for a Tesco ready meal is until you’ve been overseas to a country just as advanced (more so even) than this one and you can get a full freshly cooked sit down meal for about same amount. For added fun, try going into Marks and Spencer and see how many £5/¥800 ready meals you can see before you think about assaulting someone.
  • Why don’t we have Calpis here?
  • Nicotine energy drinks are abundant and are a concept that should be imported into the UK without delay.
  • A country where you can buy a small bottle of tolerable whisky (note: actual bottle, not a miniature) for £2 is one I’d be quite happy to live in. A country where you can buy a 4 litre bottle of that same whisky for £21 is one where I’d probably die of liver failure.

  • The whole attitude to everything in Japan is markedly different to the UK. As mentioned, there’s no litter, everything is clean and maintained, there’s no graffiti, and people generally seem to respect each other and their surroundings. It’s a very different ethos; whereas the attitude of the average Brit appears to be something along the lines of “this country is my pot as much as it is anyone else’s and I’ll piss in it if I want to”, the Japanese attitude appears to be “why would I want to piss in my own pot?” There’s a general sense that the country actually invests in making its infrastructure good and public spaces pleasant to be in, which makes a pleasant contrast to the UK’s general tenor that everyone living happily in a well-maintained, clean, efficient country comes second to the desire to spend no money whatsoever on anything.
  • Deer are vicious fuckers. We went to Nara, where deer roam freely and can be fed with special deer biscuits, which is advertised as a magical and exciting experience; this is true, in the same sense that using Domestos to mix drinks gives your mouth an amazing new sensation. Oh sure, the deer look cute, right up until you buy the biscuits, at which point they swarm you. Originally, the plan (stupid though my partner told me it would be) was to lure a deer in with some of the biscuits and then stroke it and be friends with it and be one with nature. This plan lasted about twelve seconds before I panicked and just threw away the biscuits as I was swarmed by about six deer who could sense that there was food available, that I was holding the food and that I could give them the food but I just wasn’t doing so; my partner actually did the same but still got bitten. If I wasn’t so utterly paranoid about having my face visible on a site where I call numerous authority figures horrible things you’d currently be looking at a video of me being accosted by some of the cutest bastards you’ll ever see.
  • We also went to a private nude hot spring. Similar to the above, you’re not going to be seeing a picture of me sitting in idyllic surroundings with my bollocks out, albeit for different reasons (i.e. such pictures being banned under the Geneva conventions as a crime against humanity).

In conclusion, if you want to eat amazing food extremely cheaply, see what a society that actually gives a shit about making things nice looks like and realise just how off base the whole “wacky Japan” stereotype really is, then visit Japan. If anyone would like to fund me going over there again until this bullshit referendum is over and done with, or better yet for several decades afterwards, I’d be quite grateful.

Some bullshit about dogs that played the piano in order to fight the USSR during the Cold War

Backstory: My partner was writing an essay, and I wanted to prove that 2000 words was a relatively small goal and that I could in fact write an essay about a concept that didn’t exist, which is doubtless harder than writing about something that verifiably exists in the real world. So I wrote this in about an hour. It is the biggest load of fucking nonsense I’ve ever laid eyes on, and I’m the idiot who wrote it.

Dogs that can play the piano: a historical study

Introduction

In this essay, I will attempt to describe the historical background and mechanics behind human efforts to make dogs play the piano, and the often shadowy reasons for this endeavour — nothing to do with entertainment or mere merriment, but espionage, intrigue and psychological warfare at the most dangerous time in human history.

Beginnings

For centuries, human civilization has attempted to make various animals play musical instruments. In ancient Rome, poets attempted to make horses blow across open bottles in order to produce a crude facsimile of the sound of panpipes; Shakespeare once forcibly inserted a hammer into a cat’s anus in order to make a violin-like screeching noise by twisting it. However, as part of secret Cold War research, there are now a secret race of dogs, canis pianis, that can play the Piano.

Obviously, with these experiments taking place behind the Iron Curtain in the secretive Soviet Union, records of piano playing dogs have been hard to come by. However, since the fall of the USSR, we have been able to gain access to a vast archive of data on these extraordinary creatures. Declassified documents from the US, meanwhile, show that the United States Army was also conducting its own research into piano-playing dogs for use in psychological warfare. To quote an unnamed colonel at the time, speaking frankly to a congressional investigation into the practise in 1996, after the Soviet studies came to light:

The idea was that Communist subverters or spies would walk into a building and see a Dachshund playing “The Entertainer”, shit and piss themselves in fear and run away screaming that they do not wish to be in the Soviet Union any more as the United States deserves to win because they have dogs that play the piano. Problem was, they’d just go back to their hotel and get an update via a numbers station about how there was a spaniel in Minsk that was playing Chopsticks better than the human that taught it. We didn’t know that at the time. If we did we’d probably have not bothered.

This was yet another example of the red queen’s race of offensive technology between the two great Cold War adversaries, coming firstly after the famous contest between Nikita Kruschchev and Richard Nixon to see who could swear the most in a single sentence and secondly after the secret experiments in underground bunkers to weaponise Cilla Black against a theorised Soviet invasion of extremely irritating KGB Saturday night entertainers infiltrating ITV quiz shows (of which Keith Chegwin was a theorised participant.) But the call for piano playing dogs was strong from the upper echelons of both the US and USSR governments. Leonid Brezhnev was reportedly the inspiration for the entire idea in the first place as he was drunk and thought it was funny; he relayed this idea to the KGB, who immediately started work on the idea, but was unable to retract the order the next morning once he was sober. CIA spies then got wind of the project and decided that, not wishing to have a musical dog gap, they must start work on a matching project — Jimmy Carter was reportedly so terrified of the prospect of dogs on flatcars being towed through the streets of smalltown America playing songs of Communism on pianos that, after hearing of the Soviet project, he refused to leave his bedroom for two days and screamed the entire time. An observer reported:

He just screamed and screamed and screamed. It was constant, and deafening. Sometimes you could make out words, like “dogs” or “Communism” or “Pedigree Chum” but other than that it was just incoherent noise. We did consult to see if we could sedate the President with a tranquiliser dart, to try and get him to calm down, but we were told that it would just make him more upset. The First Lady was damn near inconsolable. It was worse when he spotted some guy just innocently walking his dog on the sidewalk outside the White House — I don’t think he appreciated what the Secret Service did to that poor thing when Carter got his way.

How it worked

The mechanics of the dog playing the piano differed according to the country that was pursuing it. The Soviet Union preferred a system in which metal braces were fitted into the dog’s mouth which controlled a series of pulleys, lifting up and pushing down a set of metal fingers attached to the dog simulating it playing the piano with real human hands. Meanwhile, the US independently pursued bionic implants into the dog’s paws, allowing it to play the piano directly using its own appendages. The Soviet system appears to have worked earlier, albeit being unwieldy and difficult to set up, while the development of the US system was fraught with delays but, eventually, produced a more reliable system. The Soviet system had an unfortunate and fatal flaw, that was considered tolerable in service; if the dog reached a particularly energetic passage of a piece of music and became too enthused by it, it would rip its own head off using the force of the braces, often sending it flying directly at a nearby bystander observing the process. Seven people lost their sight from this, receiving high-ranking medals from the Soviet government for their sacrifice.

The US effort was not without tragedy either. While the dogs in their programme were able to play the piano with greater precision and poise, and with much less removal and disposal of their own heads into the faces of people nearby, the bionic implants were large and ugly, often frightening and traumatising those who saw the dog wearing them, as it resembled a spider with four fully metal legs, the body of a dog, the head of a dog and four legs of a dog with metal versions of human hands on the end of them. The same observer who saw Carter’s reaction to news of the Soviet project also recorded his reaction when he saw an initial US prototype, codenamed “Rick Wakedog” after the Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman:

The meltdown Carter went into when he saw Rick for the first time was just tremendous. He went white and then red and then he just let rip. He was a very devout man, and he was just very insistent that we had created something unholy and against God’s will, but that because it existed it meant that Satan had won and that we must all swear allegiance to him. He wanted to kill it, to “sacrifice it to Baphomet and his eternal glory” and “to appease the many-headed goat being that now rules us all forever” (sic). We tried to tell him, no, this isn’t proof of Satan’s dominion of Earth and the coming of the end of days, it’s a dog that plays piano and we’ve called it Rick Wakedog, and that just made it worse for him because he hated Yes ever since someone bought him one of their albums for Christmas in 1971 and he spent four years listening to a boring guitar solo with awful lyrics over the top. He had to be physically restrained by the Secret Service from going and getting his shotgun and, in his words, “grabbing the hellish hound by the face, throwing it in the air and blasting it into a million f**king pieces with my glorious weapon of Christ.” It was very unnerving.

Ronald Reagan was also privy to the project after becoming President in 1980, although his visit to the project to see another prototype, “Anne Doglead”, went rather better:

He just walked in and saw the dog and immediately he took on an entirely new attitude. “I want to have sex with it,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything quite so arousing in all my life. I am engorged in every part of me that can be engorged. Let me in it.” I think the Secret Service had to defuse that one somehow. They wouldn’t tell me how and I don’t really want to know.

Mikhail Gorbachev also reminisced about his experiences with the Soviet piano-playing dogs, although the differences between the two nations’ methods and their end results are clear:

I walked into the room and there was a smell of blood. There was a dog’s head on a stick for some reason. There was a dog at a piano and it was making attempts to play. It played the right note and a KGB officer gave it a treat. It played the wrong note and the officer put 20,000 volts through it. I watched this process for about 15 minutes. I grew nauseous. But — if the dog could put this fear into me, what would it do to the capitalist enemy?

This also sheds some light on, having first solved the problem of how to allow a dog to hit piano keys, the two countries actually got the dogs to play a tune. As above, the Soviet effort focused on a simple punishment/reward conditioning system, which led again to an earlier result but a less flexible one in which the dog can only play one song — this was a specific composition for the project that, to modern ears, sounds atonal and dismal, or for a more direct comparison akin to “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. This song was composed with the specific intention of, combined with the shock of seeing a dog playing piano, grinding down the observer’s will to live so that they will either convert to communism or simply kill themselves. The US project meanwhile involved a number of high profile piano players and tutors being drafted in to teach the dogs how to both read sheet music and play piano using patient teaching and special dog enhancement drugs.

This produced a situation where the more “rough and ready” Soviet dogs could effectively demoralise, disable and collectivise an entire medium sized city extremely quickly and with brute force, after which point its head would most likely come off, while the American dogs could pursue a subtler approach of being manoeuvred into position disguised as a contemporary lounge musician, playing commensurate music, and then suddenly playing songs of freedom and liberty causing a violent anarcho-capitalist overthrow of the Soviet establishment. The dog could then be undressed by its handlers and set loose to blend into society, or possibly have the bionic spider leg implants retained and a minigun added in order to effectively fight any remaining Communists.

What happened to the projects?

Neither the US or Soviet piano playing dogs were ever used in military or espionage service. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced with the Russian Federation — incoming president Boris Yeltsin was reportedly, in one of his more lucid moments, overheard describing the project as “a load of old boiled-away piss leaving behind only remnants of urea and shattered kidney stone”, cancelling it immediately. The dogs were put into civilian usage and entered into Eurovision in 1995 under the name “Soyuz Ner-woof-shimi”, placing second with the song “Bonio Rodeo” and with dancers mimicking the dogs in everything they did, including the grand finale of their heads flying off.

The American dogs meanwhile were, in view of their classified implants, intended to be humanely euthanised in a peaceful manner. This was, however, not to be; as former US presidents are able to receive security briefings, President Carter got word of the decommissioning of the dogs, infiltrated the facility in which they were hiding and reportedly was found the next morning covered in dog blood and entrails, feasting on the brains of one of the dogs and repeatedly saying “his dark majesty is satisfied by my offering of penance for the sin of humankind”. The US government forbids any media disclosure of this event on grounds of national security.

Since this point, there have been fears that the so-called Islamic State will similarly independently develop piano-playing dogs, however many security experts downplay this on the basis that it is and always has been a fucking stupid idea.

Originally published on Medium. Someone did respond that they didn’t agree with the idea that making things up is harder than researching and properly citing real sources on real things, which I concede is the only factual inaccuracy in this piece.

Christmas Advert Autopsy 2015

Every year, there are new Christmas adverts, and they get crasser and crasser and crasser by the year. This appears to be the year in which hashtags hit in earnest, and it’s truly intolerable, since putting a hashtag on something automatically cheapens it and dates it. Do you remember around the height of the dot com bubble, when companies stuck “@” symbols everywhere and put references to texting and the Internet in unrelated places, so as to appear hip and trendy? That’s what hashtags remind me of; something you don’t do because you think it adds any merit, but something you do because you want to appear “in” and everyone else is doing it. That I can see this, and people whose entire jobs are to make branding and adverts don’t, worries me a bit.

Asda’s people have seen the shit trend and gone balls deep into hashtag wankery with “#becauseitschristmas”, which due to the lack of an apostrophe just looks wrong, in addition to being so generic that it has no real association with Asda at all which makes the entire endeavour completely pointless. They are also continuing their new trend of having the same completely irrelevant song in every advert, this time an upbeat number about playing a sax which started off a bit crap and is now, after hearing it about fifty times, the worst collection of sounds I’ve ever heard. Seeing that the song was somewhere near the top of the iTunes charts recently almost made me commit genocide.

It’s still better than House of Fraser’s effort, which stars a group of obnoxious looking people doing strange dances like they’re tearing their hair out in the midst of a painful-looking and quite possibly terminal neurological event. The main lyric of the equally obnoxious song is “you don’t own me”, which is a rather odd sentiment for a Christmas advert to begin with (even more so than “play that sax”) but downright strange for a business whose entire reason for existence is for you to buy things that you can then own. What relevance any of it has to the festive season at all is beyond me, aside from the fact that it makes me want everyone in it to get a house fire for Christmas. The hashtag for this one is “#yourrules”, which actually is vaguely relevant, because I’ve had to institute a house rule that the channel be changed whenever this advert is on, lest I throw the entire fucking TV right out the window.

Should my girlfriend be unable to restrain me after the remote gets lost somewhere, I could always go to Littlewoods and get a new TV through them; helpfully, they tell me, I can spread the cost, which is an innovative idea which in no way is superfluous to the existence of credit cards that can be used anywhere, including places which are cheaper than Littlewoods to begin with. Given that Littlewoods are essentially a massive firm of bastard debt collectors with an overpriced Argos attached, it’s no surprise that they avoid mentioning this aspect; in fact, they avoid mentioning much of anything. All that happens is that that a woman silently plays piano outside in the snow for some reason, she smiles beatifically into the camera, and then you’re shown some electronic tat that you can buy. The entire message of the advert confused me at first, since the woman playing piano in the snow doesn’t seem to have any relation to anything at all (a running theme in all of these adverts), but then I realised that she looks an awful lot like the fire-worshipping religious fanatic Melisandre from Game of Thrones, and it all fell into place – it’s a threat. Buy an Xbox from Littlewoods or be roasted alive in a sacrifice to the fire god. Already a more compelling sell than the Asda thing, and no pointless hashtag or irritating song to boot – although they still have a way to go to make up for the horrid thing they unleashed upon the world in 2011, that more or less ruined Christmas for anyone who saw it and may as well have ended with Santa being drowned in TCP.

The best so far, indisputably, is that of M&S (cretinous pound sign: #TheArtOfChristmas), who in complete opposition to Littlewoods’ quiet pointlessness have gone for a more “shock and awe” tactic of simply playing a good song extremely loud and then shoving their wares in your face as quickly as they can, so you don’t quite get a good look at anything shown but you still want it anyway. As adverts go it’s as simple as you can get, the basic message being “look at all the cool shit we sell, buy it you bastards”, but it’s the presentation that it gets very right – less a statement of purpose than a declaration of war. It looks like what you would see if you recorded an entire Christmas Day using a head mounted camera, sped up the footage to fit the whole thing into 60 seconds and then sat down to watch it after drinking an entire bottle of Night Nurse – a riotous and slightly trippy series of bizarre scenes of multiple children jumping on multiple beds, a family sitting on a house-sized sofa, Morecambe and Wise and, for some reason, a reference to the 80s avant-garde synthpop band Art of Noise. As the barrage of flashing images of nice looking food and frolicking people and loud, brash music ends, and the advert with it, there’s almost a quiet air of “there. Take that, John Lewis, and stick it right up your arses.”

Still got a fucking hashtag on it though.

Ah, John Lewis. Talking about John Lewis’ advert (useless hashtag: “#ManOnTheMoon”) is mandatory, since it’s a yearly event now on par with Christmas itself. This year’s is (surprise) another attempt to make people cry and, in their moment of weakness, buy expensive homewares – I give it three years until they simply edit their logo into The Pianist and go with that. Unfortunately for JL, this year’s offering isn’t very good at the whole mawkishness thing – in these post-Yewtree years, perhaps an advert revolving around an old man being shipped a device with which he can observe little girls through the windows of their houses from a distance is a bit inadvisable. In fairness, the advert is supposed to be a collaboration with Age UK to raise awareness of the plight of lonely elderly people, which would be alright if all the television showings hadn’t completely excised the bit at the end where it says this and therefore just makes it a rather stupid and tedious story, and a nakedly manipulative one at that. “Diminishing returns” springs to mind. So does “fucking hashtags”.

Easily the worst and most odious, however, is Tesco’s cringeworthy, unbearable shitblips with Ben Miller. Do you remember corporate-agent-of-Satan BT’s attempt at creating a lovable family in all of their adverts, which you could follow along and grow to love? Do you remember how it took approximately two looks at them to want to kill all of them? Tesco have managed to outdo this, somehow, by making a family so hateful they could have made them more likeable by showing them being enthusiastic participants at the Nuremberg rally. Every single one is a supposedly-amusing but actually horrifying look into the world of three people who are about as relatable and filled with charm as Mr Blobby and are approximately twelve thousand times as annoying, especially the “kooky” teenager who appears to have some sort of mental disorder that makes him the most obnoxious pisswipe in the room at any given time. He’s shown sexually harassing a random customer and being confused as to whether lightbulbs are gluten free, which at least gives me the cheering thought of him being forced to eat one. On the plus side, Tesco have deigned not to include a hashtag, possibly aware that the only cogent comment anyone could make on this bollocks is “I’m going to Sainsbury’s”.

In fact the ones I’ve appreciated most of all have been those from Waitrose, Morrisons and Iceland, because they’re simple, low budget affairs. They’re not trying to make me laugh, cry or (in the case of M&S) feel like I’ve just sat through a nuclear war. They just show me a nice looking Christmas pudding, tell me what it is, show their logos and fuck off and leave me in peace. Iceland have even had the good sense to fuck off Peter Andre for a bit; because of this my entire Christmas food supply is now coming from there, with the added bonus that it will cost me about £2 in total and I’ll get at least 50 grams of free added salt. Get in.