Monday

Zen 1016: The Royal Family - a fly-on-the-wall documentary nobody is allowed to show EVER AGAIN EVER

In 1969, documentary maker Richard Cawston was invited to film a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the Royal Family at work and play. At the time, it caused a sensation and was watched by three-quarters of the British population. It was the subject of endless repeats on both the BBC and ITV, but before the end of the year it had been hoiked from public view and locked in a dingy cupboard, never to be seen again.

BBC controller David Attenborough (the same) said it was "killing the monarchy" by revealing them to be on the one hand stratospherically posh and therefore a bit weird, while on the other hand terribly prosaic and quite a lot like normal human beings. That wouldn't do at all.

Buck House quickly decided it had all been a hideous, hideous mistake, and withdrew permission to ever show it again to anyone. Such is the disdain for the doc that the National Gallery only squeaked out 90 seconds worth of footage for a major retrospective of the Queen's portraits earlier this year. Pretty much the entire 90 seconds is artfully cut into this film looking back at the experiment.

The Queen comes across as funny and charming; Prince Philip looks quite suave and relaxed; Anne is confident, yet highly conscious of the camera; but Charles looks like a Toby jug beamed in from another planet. He spends so much of the time blushing you fear he might induce a stroke. He's like a one-man study in social discomfort, to the extent you almost feel sorry for the massive, wonky-gobbed, over-privileged, expensive-biscuit-flogging bastard.

I never knew this existed and couldn't really give a fig for the Royals, but this  - I simply have to see this. Somehow. Some way. Watch this space.

Zen 1015: But for the stroppy daughter of the chairman of Vickers, the Spitfire would have been called the Shrew

Annie Penrose has just died, aged 100. She was the daughter of Sir Robert McLean, who was the chairman of Vickers and a key player in the creation of the Spitfire.

Annie with her husband in the 1950s
The Spitfire's designer, RJ Mitchell, was a design genius but rubbish at names. He wanted to call one of the most beautiful and fearsome fighters ever to take to the air the 'Shrew'. Silly bugger. Thankfully, McLean stepped in and suggested the nickname he had for his 'spirited' (read stroppy) daughter, Annie - Spitfire.

The Air Ministry didn't like it at first, but it was McLean's plane and he was brooking no argument. Air Ministry's hash duly settled, the iconic plane had an iconic name. And such are the small margins between greatness and crapness, my friends.

Zen 1014: If this doesn't make you laugh you have no soul

Come on. It made you laugh, didn't it? It didn't? Jesus, what do you do for light relief? Beat children with a stick?





Friday

Zen 1013: Is it bad to think that fewer people going to university might be a good thing?

University applications are declining following the raising of the cap on tuition fees. This has been decried by many as a universally bad thing. I'm a great believer in education. It's a terrible curse to go through life batshit ignorant. Just watch X Factor if you don't believe me. People should learn. It's what differentiates us from the beasts of the field.

I think the problem might be with our definition of education. Apparently, in order to get a proper one you must study for a degree, even if that degree is a 2:2 in Tennis and Media Studies from Neasden Polytechnic (formerly World of Leather).

The fact that your degree will leave you with crippling debt, incipient liver disease and just as ignorant as the day you started appears to be neither here nor there. I see an awful lot of graduate applications in my line of work, and a significant minority of them feature expensive qualifications that suggest the money would have been better spent taking three years off to travel the world, stopping on the way back to pick up a fake certificate in Thailand with the same garbage written on it, but only costing a fiver.

Perhaps the rise in tuition fees to nine grand a year might have a positive effect. Maybe - just maybe - people might start demanding a quality product, or seeking out a better standard of degree to study in the first place. Certainly the lack of a decline in applications for medicine, law and engineering would suggest as much.

At the risk of sounding like the Daily Telegraph, could it be that the thought of £27K minimum debt at the end of it all might see the death of David Beckham Studies (OK, it was a module, not a degree, but real all the same) and a swing back to 'serious' subjects like science?

And maybe - just maybe - it might give people pause to think twice and critically examine whether a degree is really what they want, or were they just drawn by the idea of three years of lash and shagging?

Perhaps one of the jobs of a proper education system is to make sure people understand that there's no shame in not getting a degree, and to give them quality alternatives. You can get the lash and shagging anywhere if you know where to look.



Zen 1102: Omnitouch turns any part of your body into an iPhone, but you have to wear a Kinect sensor on your shoulder

At this stage, it's just a prototype. What they're actually developing is a cyborg eye that replaces your real eye and will eventually allow you to acquire a target and shoot it with the laser you've had installed in your hand.

Wednesday

Zen 1101: Shark Pool - this film looks friggin' AMAZING!

Oh, the humanity.

Zen 1100: 'Hyperland' - an absolutely inspired Douglas Adams doc on the internet, made before it was even there

It really is quite astonishing how prescient this was. Everything from touch screen to suggestion engines; hyperlinking to rich media; data driven applications to platforms. (At least I think that's what the DNA tangent was getting at.) It even has Tom Baker as a prototype Clippy, and a nod to concepts like Second Life and Kinect. And of course it's Douglas Adams, so it's well written and thought-provoking to boot.

It's not spot on about everything of course ("Are these children playing a computer game?" "Oh no, they're far too old for that.") - how could it be - but it's pretty damn good all the same. A quality geek watch.









Tuesday

Zen 1099: 'There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world' - mighty mighty quotes from Douglas Adams

I particularly like the last one. And the second one. And the one at the beginning too.

"There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions."

"If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; it is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; 'life', something that had a mysterious essence about it, was God given, and that's the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it's yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we're not made by anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn't read well."

"The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened, it's just wonderful. And … the opportunity to spend 70 or 80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned."

Douglas Adams on Wikiquotes [LINK]

Monday

Zen 1098: Man up and stick your goddam tongue in it, you sissy

Very cool device. Very irritating narration.

Zen 1097: The amazing people of Japan show that nothing is impossible when you get off your arse and crack on with stuff

Earthquake? Check. Tsunami? Check. Massive uncontrolled radioactive leak? Check. But never mind all that. The good burghers of Japan's devastated northern prefectures don't have time to sit around mewling and feeling sorry for themselves. They have the serious work of getting on with their goddam lives to be getting on with. And don't you forget it.

Here's a great gallery of before-during-and-after shots that chart the extraordinary pace of change in a once-apocalyptic landscape. When these start on the business of recovery, they're not dicking around:

The Frame: Japans marks six months since earthquake, tsunami [LINK]



Saturday

Zen 1096: Nom nom nom - oh, it's so good - nom nom - this is like the greatest thing that ever happened - nom nom nom

Of course the great thing about this is that when the little fekker's done being cute, you can screw the lid on and toss him in a lake. Just kidding. Maybe.

Check out the old guy at the end. I bet he says "you smell like peanut butter" exactly the same way he says "you got a perty little mouth".






Friday

Zen 1095: Absolutely genius Masterchef dancefloor edit mash-up thing

This stuff is fiendishly difficult to do well, so when you see something like this (by a cove calling himself Swede Mason) which is done utterly superbly, you have to applaud, and maybe even whoop and cheer a bit. Splendid stuff*. (Via Dirty Kate, who according to small children round our way says 'fuck' a lot.)



* Caution advised. You'll now be humming the bastard all day. Still, nowhere near as bad as Nyan Cat.

Wednesday

Zen 1094: Aussie presenter interviews Sacha Baron Cohen's latest character, Lord Monckton

I thought his comic star was on the wane with Bruno, but you've got to give him full credit for this one. Just the right side of believable.

Zen 1093: Nobody likes Bill Gates, but I reckon his malaria vaccine trumps Steve Jobs' pretty consumer electronics anyday

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so far spent $1.75 billion - I'll say that again - $1.75 BILLION on the eradication of malaria, a goal they announced to an agog world press four short years ago.

The programme is already reaping benefits, with what will almost certainly be the world's first effective malaria vaccine - RTS,S a.k.a. Mosquirix - just completing final trials. It halved the number of African children who caught the disease, which means it's not a 'magic bullet' cure but still the most effective preventative yet developed.

And this against a backdrop of already declining death rates from the disease due to better public health programmes, again heavily funded by Bill, with mortality dropping from nearly a million people in 2000 to 780,000 in 2009. Bearing in mind the fact that many African nations find it hard to get beyond go in part due the damage caused to their human capital by this single disease, and you can see how this act of philanthropy is probably out of all proportion in terms of public good than nearly any other in history.

So sure, Bill didn't invent a pretty smart phone, or set up Pixar, or make a schmaltzy speech full of other people's quotes that seems to have been received in many quarters as the word of God, but he does qualify as a fucking good bloke deserving of some serious kudos.

And props to GlaxoSmithKline* for not profiting from the vaccine. Here's CEO Andrew Witty explaining why this is a very important development.



* Yeah! Corporations are bad!

Monday

Zen 1090: Dear All Blacks, we've made it as easy as we possibly can, so please don't stuff it up now

Dear All Blacks,

Yes, we know it's been a while. Twenty four years to be precise. Twenty four long years since you got your hands on the trophy that every New Zealander sees as their birthright. You never shut up about it. And now you're within 80 minutes of reclaiming the greatest prize.

But don't for one minute think you've done it all by yourselves.

At first, the other rugby playing nations thought it was funny how you guys turned up to each tournament at the absolute peak of your powers, having laid waste to every Test side in the world, only to collapse to yet another 'shock' defeat. You were so damn full of yourselves it was impossible not to revel in it, especially when you tanked out in the 1999 semis against possibly the worst side ever to grace the last four and basically handed the World Cup to Australia. That's got to hurt.

But then you kept on doing it. Oh boy, and how. Last time out you actually managed to bail in the quarters. The All Blacks. Barely making it out of the group stage. And suddenly you were the Jean van de Velde of international rugby. World class chokers for sure, but chokers nonetheless.

"Not again!" became the anguished motto of New Zealand rugby, almost as synonymous with the All Blacks as the Haka. The whining was indescribable. Something had to be done.

So at the end of the last World Cup, a cabal of Test sides put together a plan to head off yet another four years of mewling and soul-searching Down Under.

First, we arranged for you to meet your bogey team, the French, in the group stage. If you were going to beat those pricks in the knockout stages, you'd obviously need a warm up to get your eye in.

We also knew you'd never make it past two Tri-Nations opponents, so we tapped up the Irish to do a number on the Aussies for you. That gave you a tough semi, but given that the Wallabies haven't beaten you at Eden Park since Jesus was a boy, we reckoned the odds were on for you to get that choke reflex under control, just this once.

It wasn't difficult to drum up support. There's nothing worse in world sport than a winning Australian. It's like scrum pox without the redeeming features. Nobody wants to see the Green and Golds claiming a third title, so we arranged for them to field a Kiwi fly-half under a Kiwi manager, just to make you angry.

Now for the other half of the draw. The ultimate aim was to get France to the final. They'd undergone their usual meticulous World Cup preparation by pulling together a team of bitchy, underperforming prima donnas 'led' by a manager that everyone hates. Classic conditions for putting 60 points on a harmonious and well-drilled team of All Blacks, no doubt, but guaranteed to be just bloody awful against everyone else.

That's when Tonga went badly off message and nearly put them out of the tournament. A sniper with a tranquilliser dart gun was deployed to the stands to take out Tonga's cover defence in the dying seconds of the match, just to get France over the qualifying bar for the quarters.

England had carefully prepared the ground in the last eight by leaving their talented, in-form players on the bench while their mediocre manager indulged a sentimental attachment to a fly-half who couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo. It was pitched to perfection, although Johnson nearly blew it by bringing on Flood and nearly causing the French to capitulate faster than if they'd smelled cordite wafting over the Alsace border.

Job done, France were in the semis, where Wales, who were in on the original plan, had suddenly got ideas above their station. I suppose it was the giddy anticipation born of having beaten not one, but two teams of South Sea islanders, followed by putting to the sword a group of Irishmen whose next stop is the knacker's yard.

Roll out the Manchurian candidate. We had to activate our French sleeper agent who dished out the necessary red card, killed the match and put the French through to the final. It was a high risk manoeuvre - come on, an Irish ref with a French name? - but incredibly no one clocked it. Even then, Les Bleues did their level best to cough it up. It's not easy rigging this stuff you know.

And so to the final. New Zealand - turkeys don't come plumper or more ripe for the slaughter than this one. This is France's third trip to the final, and they become increasingly more appalling with every incarnation. This time it's like Dr Who regenerated as the love child of Homer Simpson and Paris Hilton. You cannot - in fact, you must not lose, for the good of the sport and the future happiness of mankind.

It is a little known fact that the Webb Ellis Trophy in Paris is one of the harbingers of the Apocalypse. You don't want to be responsible for the Apocalypse do you? If you don't win this Sunday, you may as well just pull the plug on the North and South islands and let the ocean swallow you up. As much as I hate to say it, All Blacks, we need you now. Don't let us down.

Yours sincerely,

Otter Zen





Thursday

Zen 1089: 'It's not vandalism, it's real good artwork' - See No Evil project prettifies skanky backalleys of Bristol

Nelson Street in Bristol was a grey, brutalist thoroughfare that nobody but nobody could love. Soulless, blank and crushingly utilitarian, it's the sort of place that makes you want to find a 1960s architect and beat them to death with one of those heavy Gaudi coffee table books people pick up on citybreaks to Barcelona.

That was until Bristol City Council had an inspired moment of civic brilliance and allowed 72 graffiti artists from around the world to pitch up and do their thing. Twenty six scaffold towers, 325 litres of emulsion and 13,400 cans of spray paint later and you have a riot of incredible creativity to gladden the heart and make you wish you'd bunked off school and spent your early teens tagging trains as well.

The Turner Prize can go fuck itself. This is art.

Wednesday

Zen 1088: No No No Cat gets No Limits remix

The minute footage of this stupid cat made its way onto YouChoob, it was destined for Meme Greatness. It was apparently shot back in 2004 (the video, not the cat) and 'Marchioness' here was reacting to the invasion of its personal space by a small girl. It's taken a while, but has now blown up (the video, not the cat) to the extent that I just had to spoil your day with it. Props to R2 for Facebooking the No Limits remix.



No limits!



Amy Winehouse!



Autotune!



OK, sorry. I'll stop now. And you thought Nyan Cat was annoying.

Zen 1087: Alan Grayson's Occupy Wall Street smackdown on PJ O'Rourke, but it's still so badly thought through

Alan Grayson is a former US congressman known for being outspoken, but this had all the makings of a fit-up. He was the only 'left-leaning' (for an American politician) member of a heavily right-wing panel discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests. He'd barely said a word until PJ O'Rourke started to take the piss out of him. Once Grayson had finished, O'Rourke was left gasping and reeling like a playground bully who'd just been kicked shitless by the weedy kid in glasses. And to think I used to like PJ. These days he just looks more and more like a ... dick. If this is the quality of political debate on US TV, no wonder people are getting antsy.

Grayson neatly articulates in less than a minute exactly why people are so angry. He cites the main political parties being in the pockets of Wall Street, the lack of universal health care, unemployment, the destruction of America's wealth reserves by reckless bankers and the rising number of people stuck in negative equity. Sadly, what he didn't do was articulate what people want done about it, so his bravura performance did little to advance the OWS cause beyond its current 'passionate but pointless' phase.

He also inadvertently put his finger on why I find some aspects of the OWS protests so irritating. It's the 'they got us into this mess' angle. No they didn't. We got us into this mess. They just facilitated. We were the ones glutting ourselves on cheap credit and taking out mortgages we knew we couldn't afford. We had our snouts in the trough up to and beyond the moment where the entire house of cards came down. And it was our elected representatives, not least Bill Clinton and chums, who deregulated mortgage lending to the extent that the subprime crisis was not only likely, but historically inevitable.

Sure there was fraud - lots if it - and as Grayson says, it's a crime in itself that no-one has been prosecuted. But to single out a nebulous 1% as 'the guilty' while exonerating ourselves is basically dishonest.

And I hate the 1% idea too. It's an invidious mix of scapegoating and the politics of envy. It allows the unthinking vilification of a group of people, which is never a good idea, especially when that group is so poorly defined. "Those Jews are a bad bunch" doesn't have quite the same harmless ring to it, does it?

Consider that the 1% in many cases represents the brightest and the best we have to offer. It includes some of the greatest charitable benefactors in history. It includes the people who build and run the nasty corporations who make the cameras, clothes, social media, phones, luggage, transportation and food that make something like OWS possible. It even, until recently, included Steve Jobs.

So while we're taking about nuance and inclusiveness as the reasons for a lack of an agenda on the protest side, why are the same protesters indulging a total lack of nuance and inclusiveness when it comes to the people they're protesting against?

Confused? Not as much as they are.

Zen 1086: Nice little video explaining why the placebo effect is so weird and frankly inexplicable

Homeopathy? Faith healing? Reiki? Virtually any alternative therapy or remedy you can think of?

For purported efficacy, see Placebo Effect. It's very interesting. But it's also all in your mind.

Tuesday

Zen 1085: My bad - apparently Occupy Wall Street protesters are completely disorganised on purpose

It's their USP. They are deliberately resisting the temptation to simplify, or '"dumb down" their message so that all the disparate voices of the protest can be heard. Apparently they are "modifying their structure" to "maintain a level of horizontalism and inclusion" on purpose. They are resisting the temptation to make things easy "for the man" by refusing to set any clear objectives for "the man" to set himself against.

A cynic would say that they are post-rationalising a shambles. He would also say that if you want to spread a message, you make that message easy to spread, otherwise you'll never make that all-important jump from wafty hipster to mainstream. He might finally venture that otherwise the whole damn thing might fall down about your ears the minute this unseasonably warm October weather ends and it starts raining on your charmingly decentralised parade.

Here's Al Jazeera's take on things.




But whatever you think of the protests, you have to love it when a Fox News anchor gets run out of Dodge.

Zen 1084: What we really need is a gameshow featuring men in ladies clothes trying to climb an oiled staircase

Dammit. Those wily Japanese always seem to get there first.

"Look! He fell down awkwardly and may have broken some ribs. Laugh! Laugh, damn you! A ha ha ha ha haaaaa!"

Monday

Zen 1083: Why Occupy Wall Street protesters look like a collection of self-indulgent wankers

I'm all in favour of protest. The right to protest is one of the fundamental freedoms the good people in liberal democracies enjoy, and they should fully exercise that right whenever it's necessary to kick their elected representatives into line or get them to pay attention to something important that's being neglected.

A man announcing to the world what a colossal fucking
idiot he really is.
But the power of protest is nowhere more evident in places where people do not enjoy that fundamental freedom. Take, for example, the bloody-minded heroism of the Arab Spring and nowhere more so than Syria. There, protest could well mean getting shot in the face, or being apprehended by the security police and beaten to death in some grotty basement in Damascus.

Which is why the focus-free Occupy Wall Street protests in the US are basically a bit rubbish. Fine, occupy Wall Street, but be clear about why. Trouble is, they genuinely don't know. They have a mishmash of inconsistent aims, from free health care to bigger taxes on the super rich, which are, for sure, all valid and highly protestable issues. But if even the protesters don't know why they are there, how the hell are they supposed to articulate why anyone else should give a damn?

Occupy Wall Street comes off like a jamboree for over-indulged hipster twatbags who want to feel the frisson of excitement associated with 'being a protester' without putting any thought into what they want out of it. It's protest for protest's sake, which amounts to a childish abuse of a valuable democratic tool. There are genuinely huge things at stake here, not least a way of life that is built on an economic system facing its worst ever crisis. I fail to see how some prick in a fright wig carrying an 'ironic' but meaningless placard is helping.

Arab Spring? Yes. Occupy Wall Street? Piss of and come back when you've figured out what the hell it is you're protesting for.

Thursday

Zen 1081: Forget Halloween - it's JesusWeen!

I don't know what they think a 'ween' is, but it might be worth pointing out that Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Evening, not Hallo Weiner.

Only they actually seem like a nice bunch of people, gently evangelising in a slightly cheesy and try-hard way, rather than attacking the idea of Halloween per se. As a marketing idea, it's almost Church of England naff. Ah, bless.

As one commenter put it: "If they leave Halloween alone, I’ll consider no longer referring to Easter as Zombie Jesus Day."

Zombie Jesus Day sounds amazing!







Zen 1080: Body-popping dude is so good he looks fake but isn't - he's real

Not fake.

No, really, he isn't. That sounded insincere, but he's genuinely real. Honestly.

Oh, watch the damn thing and decide for yourself. But he's real, I tell you. Amazing.

Zen 1079: Otter Zen: Newsnight meets Pete and Dud as Boris and Paxo go head-to-head

Interviews between Paxo and Boris are rarely dull. It's like a sort of highbrow Pete and Dud, with both constantly in danger of corpsing. Whatever you think of Boris, there's little doubt that Paxo seems him as a worthy opponent, with neither averse to descending into "playground stuff" to get one over on the other.

Paxo: "What's the difference between you and David Cameron?"

Boris: "I'm older than him. I'm considerably heavier. I beat him at tennis the other day."

Jeremy Paxman interview with Boris Johnson in full [LINK]


Apologies, but couldn't find an embeddable version. The fun stuff is about eight minutes in.

Monday

Zen 1077: Ren and Stimpy creator does weird and scary opening credits guest slot on The Simpsons

I'm sure I recall John Kricfalusi saying he despised The Simpsons. If he doesn't, then this is a very weird kind of love. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Homer pours beer onto his own exposed brain.



By way of an apology, here's a lovely opening credits gag compilation, made all the more brilliant by the fact they're all speaking Italian.