What’s the deal with Mr Mime?

This frickin’ guy.

What on earth’s going on here then?

Mr Mime is the 122nd Pokémon character in Generation I of the Pokedex (the Pokémon encyclopedia). It’s a Psychic type Pokémon, and it’s Pokedex entries reads as follows:

If interrupted while it is miming, it will slap around the offender with its broad hands.

It specialises in producing psychic barriers, in a mime-like fashion by creating invisible walls.

So, it’s pretty clear then: Mr Mime is a Pokémon, not a human. Even though he looks exactly like a human. It’s a Pokémon that is just called “Mr Mime” as if it was a human. Because… reasons?

See, that’s why it’s confusing to me. Why does a Pokémon get a honorific as if it was a person. And why is that name so descriptive of their behaviour? It’s like if Charizard was called “Mrs Fire-Breather”, or Pikachu was called “Dr Lightning”.

And that’s another thing! “Mr Mime” is the name of the species. And yet obviously the species contains both male and female specimens. What kind of cryptopatriachial nonsense is going on here where all members of the species are assumed male by default?

OH AND IT GETS EVEN MORE CONFUSING

Like all Pokémon, Mr Mime can only say one thing: its own name. SO MR MIME WALKS AROUND MIMING AND SAYING MR MIME.

POKEMON I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOU

Also Mr Mime supposedly evolves from this hideous thing.

Image result for mime jr

I hate it.

An appreciation of Andy Kaufman’s SNL Screen Test

The subject of Andy Kaufman is one which it’s pretty trendy to be into these days. As Neutral Milk Hotel are to music, or Infinite Jest is to literature, Kaufman is the go-to mainstream obscurity of comedy.

But, as with those other two things, I can’t help but be fascinated by him. So I voraciously devour any and all content to do with him. Just this year I’ve watched Man on the Moon twice (and adored the Jim Carey doc about its production – “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”), watched countless interviews with him, that legendary Carnegie Hall show, and read Bill Zehme’s comprehensive biography: Lost in the Funhouse.

But this post isn’t about Andy Kaufman’s life, or why he’s so amazing. ((Of course, it is really)). Instead, I want to focus on one short piece of video that to me is the pinnacle of what he was about, and just an incredible performance in itself. Not necessarily of performance comedy per se, but of a performer doing something and getting a reaction from the audience. It’s that relationship between the two that is fascinating to me, and something I think Andy had complete mastery of.

BUT IMMA SHUT UP AND LET YOU WATCH THIS

The title of the video claims that it’s Andy Kaufman’s SNL audition tape, but I don’t think that’s 100% accurate. From what I can gather it’s more of a screen test – just checking how you look and come across on camera. In any case, it’s a chance to perform something on camera like a monologue, which is what Andy does here.

Well, I say ‘monologue’. But technically he’s reciting a song. Specifically, MacArthur Park – a song by Jimmy Webb, and most famously performed by Richard Harris (aka FIRST DUMBLEDORE). And what you’ll probably notice is how incredible mad the lyrics are.

Like, it’s a song about leaving a cake out in the rain? Listening to the Richard Harris version you can easily gloss over the lyrics, and come away with the impression that it’s a pretty standard love song or something. But really focussing on the lyrics – as Andy forces us to do in this clip – reveals how asburd they are.

According to Wikipedia: ‘The Jimmy Webb-penned “MacArthur Park” is popularly held as the worst song ever written‘ [source]. The lyrics are patently nonsense, even by the standards of the 1960s. So is Andy just picking a deliberately awful song and doing a dramatic reading of it? Is that the joke here?

Sure, dramatic readings of songs are a staple of comedy. It’s pretty much standard fare for American Late Night Talk Show content. And it’s usually pretty fun.

But there’s something extra about Kaufman deliberately picking an unpopular song. A song that’s widely ridiculed and disregarded. Taking that and treating it with the upmost seriousness. So the joke isn’t just “ha ha these lyrics are dumb lol” but “what if this song was actually amazing?”. It’s the classic Kaufman manoeuvre, to not only subvert your expectations, but to make you question them in the first place. As I’ve seen other writers say: Kaufman knew how to make you wonder.

And it’s that sense of wonder that shines through in this piece. It literally radiates out from his eyes – those bright beacons of child-like excitement. Look at him at the start, hands-on-the-table looking around the room like a toddler sitting in front of a birthday cake. How he never breaks character throughout, flashes a ‘dumb’ grin to the people around him, seems to have an alien-like fascination with what everyone is finding so funny. It’s so far removed from “I am comedian and here is a joke”, it’s a fully realised and expertly-delivered performance. And the performance itself is a performance, if that makes sense.

Diving a bit deeper into the details, watch the actual delivery of the monologue – which he goes through twice. Watching the first pass, it appears awkward and unprepared. He fumbles the very first word (“s… spring was..”), and mispronounces “striped”. But then they ask him to do it again.

And the second time is exactly the same as the first. The ‘s’ is fumbled again, ‘striped’ is tackled in the same way. We have to conclude that these are deliberate parts of the performance, expertly rehearsed and included. Why fumble the first word? Maybe to start the whole thing off badly, or to create awkward tension for the rest of the rendition to inhabit. Only Andy knows for sure. And it’s the idea of him knowing these secrets that I find compelling. Again, he make you wonder.

And then there’s the weird Superman bit at the end. It kinda comes out of nowhere, which I like. We go from two tenderly performed monologues, to a completely random piece with the weirdest southern accent. It shows Andy’s range, and his ability to make comedy out of just about anything. And again, afterwards he smiles and looks around at the reaction, seemingly oblivious to what we’re all finding so incredible – like a dog happily looking up as strangers fawn over it.

Is it comedy? Sure. If we take something, hang it up in an art gallery, and critics respond to it, that seems to be enough to call it “art”. Likewise, a performance for SNL that makes its audience laugh, seems to fulfil the sufficient conditions to be considered “comedy”. Call it anti-comedy or surrealist humour if you want. But there’s more to it than just the absence of traditional comedic elements like punchlines or even jokes.

Kaufman himself often rejected the title of comedian and would sometimes refer to himself as a “song and dance man” (or was that, too, just part of the bit?). A lot of his stuff was just him singing songs, or doing other traditional performances – like his bongo drumming. But at a fundamental level, it’s the same: establishing a relationship between performer and audience.

Andy didn’t care what the nature of that relationship was. If they liked him, fine. If they hated him, fine too. His Tony Clifton persona was deliberately obnoxious. His wrestling career (where he did things like fight women live on TV) was an exercise in garnering hatred. SNL audiences eventually voted him off the show, such was the level of vitriol he ended up generating. In a sense these were all successes: the audience were feeling something.

And that’s what we get from this tape. We feel confused, amused, entertained, full of wonder. We want to see more, but we also don’t really know what we’re seeing. Even taking a step back and viewing it ‘as a performance’ doesn’t help, as for Andy the lines between performance and reality were so blurred.

His whole life a performance, and we’re still his audience. And we’re still wondering.

The best kids sweets that I can remember

Happy bank holiday weekend. Let’s do this.

1. Zappers

Image result for zappers sweets

These ultra-sour bubblegums were like my favourite thing ever. Seriously, these things could turn your face inside out. They were sweet, and lost their flavour after like five seconds. But they were delicious and I loved them.

2. Campino

Image result for zappers sweets

These were just great. Individually wrapped hard candies about the size of a 50p coin – which had a kind of vague ‘strawberries and cream’ flavour. And they lasted a while too. One of these suckers could keep you busy for half an hour. Yum!

3. Bubbaloo

Image result for zappers sweets

Bubblegum with delicious juicy sugar juice inside. Errr….. YES.

4. Melody Pops

Image result for melody pop

These were great! Lollipops that also worked as a functional whistle! They even came with a little musical score in the wrapper that you could follow along to play a little tune. After a while, the tube would become clogged up with what I can only describe as ‘your own spit’, but until then it was a lot of fun. Tasty too.

5. Rainbow Dust

Image result for rainbow dust

Absolute crack. A super long tube of sherbert, which changed flavour as you went down the tube. One of these and you’d be running around the garden all afternoon long. Again, the tube could get spit-clogged pretty quickly – but a handy pair of scissors would fix that right up.

6. Roll-up bubblegum

Image result for rollup bubblegum

Do they still make these? Well, in any case, it’s a long strip of bubblegum that rolls up into a little case. So you could unspool the amount you wanted to eat, and save the rest for later! Or be like me, an absolute madman, and just take a full bite out of it anyway.

7. Frosties

Image result for 90s sweets

These were great. “Kola flavour” candies, that were hard on the outside – but chewy inside. Probably the quickest and cost efficient way to destroy your teeth.

8. Toffo

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Toffo! What ever happened to Toffo? It was literally just a bar of individually wrapped toffees, and they were delicious. Sure, the wrappers would stick to the toffees like 95% of the time, but it was worth it!

9. Candy Sticks

Image result for 90s sweets

Just the king of sweets. Specifically these soft candy sticks from Barratt though – none of those hard ones.


Thanks for reading, I guess. (I only wrote this to stop my brain my atrophying over the BHW but hopefully you enjoyed reading it too).

What’s the deal with microwave settings?

Ok first up, I don’t own a microwave. I know that makes me sound like one of those “oh I don’t own modern day appliances because I am free from the trappings of modern day consumerism” unbearable hipsters, but know this: I own a massive HD TV that I bought just so I could play video games at 4K resolution at 60 frames per second. So I’m like objectively the worst kind of consumer.

The reason I don’t own a microwave is mostly one of space. Counter-top real estate is precious, but it’s not always something you think about when picking where to live. Location, price, bedroom size, distance from the nearest hipster coffee shop – these demands all come first. So you can forget about your kitchen with a hand-wavey ‘ah, I’m sure that looks like enough.’

But it’s never enough. Several kitchen essentials instantly occupy some of the space the second you move in – specifically the toaster and kettle. These get used frequently enough to warrant their permanent tenancy on the worktop. Some other appliances can be relegated to a cupboard, or shelf, (or the rarer still ‘on-top-of-the-cupboard’) – things like blenders.

After this point you’ve got to start making compromises. Do we use the coffee machine enough for it to always be out? But packing it up and away is a massive faff; does that count extra to its justification as an ever-present fixture?

And it’s not just appliances. If you’re like me, you’ll probably end up with what’s best described as a ‘booze corner’. The spirits you like, bottles of wine people give you, little miniatures you’ve stolen from weddings. It seems like they should always be in grabbing distance, so out they come.

Don’t forget to leave a space to actually, erm, PREPARE FOOD. You’ll need at least a square foot of prep space. Plus room for the accoutrements of food prep – the tools, plates, utensils. Like, you might as well always have your electronic scales out, and chopping boards, and a timer. Kitchen roll obviously. And then the things that you’re going to use in every meal – oils, salt, etc.

If you still have any space left, then congratulations: your kitchen is bigger than my kitchen.

I’ve tried to figure out where I could put a microwave in my kitchen and the options are basically: a) the floor, or b) its own dedicated table. And as much as I find the idea of a floor microwave – or a microwave pedestal – funny,  I’m not going to do that. I’ll just go without.

Because what’s a microwave actually for? Other than the preparation of ready meals, it seems kind of… useless?

“oh, but it’s so good for defrosting!”

Mate, just put it in the fridge all day. Or use the DEFROST SETTING ON YOUR OVEN (if it has one). Or you know what else is great for defrosting? Literally everything that isn’t a freezer. You ever hear of THE SUN, mate? That giant ball of gas that produce constant heat and is extremely efficient at exciting molecules? Try it sometime, moron.

It doesn’t help that microwaves are like the most confusing things to use in the world themselves. Here’s what the average UI for a microwave looks like:

Ok yes, I’ve deliberately used a picture of a Brazilian microwave to make it look more confusing. But all microwaves might as well be in Portuguese as far as I care. For something that has one feature (“HEAT”), that’s sure a lot of buttons.

Like, who’s cooking BREAD in the microwave often enough for that to warrant it’s own button? Or for it to need a CHILDREN’S MENU on it.

No, let’s do this. What’s the MVP for a microwave? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a product to exist as a microwave? Here’s my account:

  1. Provides heat.
  2. Lets you specify for how long you want the heat to last.
  3. Has a door.
  4. Has a ‘start’ button. Maybe a stop button, but that can be the same button. Or you can just open the door.

Here’s my first draft of a design:

I’ve got away with three buttons: more time, less time, and a GO/STOP button. Job done.

What I haven’t included is an extra button specifically for soup. Funny that.

Sometimes you get lucky and find a microwave that has a DIAL. With these you can control the temperature quite smoothly. If you were able to also press down on the dial as a stop/start button, you could simplify my design even further:

One button! The epitome of UX design! I don’t know why this isn’t the industry standard.

Looking around, you sometimes do find microwaves that are marketed as ‘simple microwaves’. But they suck too!

Two dials! My dudes, no! That second dial is supposedly so you can control the power rating. As if I wouldn’t want my microwave to be as powerful as possible at all times. Why is this even up for debate? Artificially limiting my microwave’s own power level seems at best self-defeating to me, and at worst: some kind of moral crime against technology itself. (shut up with your cooking vegetables or whatever in the microwave).

And as a side note: how come microwave power settings never match up with cooking instructions? At least in my experience, the instructions are always like “800W: 1/2 minutes / 900W: 1 minute” – meanwhile I’m stuck with an 850W microwave suddenly faced with a problem of differential calculus I’m not quite in the best position to tackle. I just want to eat my microwave lasagne.

BUT ANYWAY, why the complexity? Meh, it’s probably a marketing thing. Manufacturers always need to find the new big thing to sell, which is hard when the product is just a box that makes heat. So adding more and more features gives marketers more ways to pitch things (“New” is the second most powerful word in marketing, after “Free”). Which is how we end up with things like CHAOS DEFROST.

In short: everything sucks and life is pain.

Join me next week where I’ll be ranting about the number of buttons on my television remote control and trying to solve the riddle of my washing machine settings.

Please enjoy my self care tips.

I just had a fantastic bath. A fantastic evening bath. Here’s how it went down:

  • Whacked those taps on circa nine thirty pm.
  • Full blast taps. Temperature range in the very-hot-to-too-hot.
  • TEN drops exactly of tea tree oil.
  • While the bath is running, I’m brewing a cup of tea. Twinings St Clements.
  • Slam down the bathroom blind. Screw shut the bathroom window.
  • Strip, obviously.
  • Phone by the bath. Got a podcast on. A comedy one.
  • I’m dunking down into the bath once it’s around half full.
  • My body…. screams? This is very hot, way too hot. I should probably get out.
  • A few seconds later that passes. No, this is the ideal temperature. My skin is a light pink already.
  • The water is almost at the taps. This is no time for cowards. I ramp the taps up to the hottest they’ll go.
  • Finally I kick the tap off as I begin to sous-vide.
  • I’m sipping on that tea. It’s also scalding.
  • There’s sweat running down my face. Steam from the bath is trying to escape the room, but it’s no good – it’s locked in here with me now.
  • Considering the tea sufficiently brewed I remove the tea bag. It plops down into the bath with me. The water is now a extremely weak broth of oranges, lemons, and like all my dirty skin and hair.
  • Laying here for a few minutes perfectly still is key. Sipping the tea just a bit. Taking in the podcast. Feeling the sweat.
  • Eventually the tea runs out. Out comes the plug and I get out the bath. If you don’t feel dizzy at this point, you’ve done it wrong.
  • Congratulations on the best bath of your entire life.

And that’s just one way I do so-called  ‘self care’. We spend a lot of our days rushing around to fix things or do things for other people, so it’s important to take time to do things that make you feel happy, or relaxed.

Self care is commonly prescribed in mental health treatment and coping strategies. My CBT therapist has even recommended it to me recently, and my reaction was basically “isn’t that just candles and hot chocolate and youtube vloggers with strings of fairy lights?”

Why do I think that? Well, because those are the things you hear most about it. It’s a term somewhat hijacked by both pseudo-scientific spiritualism and vacuous lifestyle vloggers. To quote this Buzzfeed article:

It might be overly cynical to suggest that vloggers have simply found in the mental health advocacy phenomenon another avenue through which to peddle products….But regardless of intent, the lines have become blurred over what, exactly, the audience is to assume they are watching”

And if you google “self care” you get a lot of stuff like this. Pictures of flowers, hearts, and words in the shape of a meditating alien. None of which is appealing to me at all.

Which is a shame, because I think self-care is really good and important. The main things it covers seem to be:

  • Healthy eating and meal planning
  • Seeing people
  • Taking care of your body (exercise)
  • Doing activities that are beneficial to your mental well-being.

Or to sum it up: be good to yourself. But what does that even mean?

Is it a treat yo’ self situation? Or a do what you feel one? Is it meant to be outright hedonism? Or is it more about self-discipline?

The most important thing IMO is that self care is about looking after your self (duh!), down to your basic needs of food and hygiene. Depression in particular can make things like just showering or changing into proper clothes a chore. So it’s vital to engage in these things.

Last year I read A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind by Emily Reynolds, which is a good book absolutely jam-packed with practical tips. Tips like:

Before you get depressed, or before you realise you’re overwhelmed and can’t cope, put small and manageable systems into place. Make tidying a habit, and be strict with yourself. Make your bed every day. Put bleach down the toilet every other day. Get a laundry basket and put dirty clothes in it at the end of every day, instead of on the floor.

And that’s what I think self-care is about. Not so much bath bombs and face masks, but remembering that you’re living your life, and taking care of that. Having that sympathetic, caring approach we find it easily to dole out to others, but almost never ourselves.

That all said, I think there’s still room for the ‘do things that make you feel good’ interpretation of self care. And I’d like to share some of the things I do:

1. Meditation and other exercises.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Headspace before. But I’m back on the “Headspace is good” train. If you don’t want to use it, there’s other perfectly good and free resources out there that do exactly the same things.

And if mindfulness / meditation isn’t your bag, there’s just plain breathing exercises that are really helpful. My CBT person recommended the Soothing Rhythm Breathing Practices here, and I do too! Real handy to calm you down in a stressful situation if nothing else.

2. Junk food.

Ok, this is probably a bit controversial. The official Mind guidance on self care specifically notes that you should watch your diet. And of course bad food has a negative influence on your mood. But sometimes eating rubbish just makes me feel better. And I’m ok with that.

3. Video games

Video games are very fun. There’s no denying that. I like to play them, often more than anything else, and especially more than having to deal with people in real life. Which is why I struggle with multiplayer games – if I’m trying to escape from other people, why would I actively go and seek them out?

But yeah, video games are fun. And I’ve learnt not to feel guilty about spending time on them if they cheer me up.

4. Ironing.

Ironing belongs in a special category of things including colouring and knitting. I call this it ‘secret mindfulness’. It’s a category of activities where you have one task to focus on that requires some amount of technique but not any particular amount of difficulty. It’s brain-on-autopilot territory.

Man, I love ironing. There’s something just really satisfying about pressing the creases out of clothes with hot steam. Turning a pile of laundry into a neatly-folded stack of shirts ready for the drawer is molto, molto bene.

Plus it’s also proper self care in that it means you have clothes to wear that aren’t all creased looking. Top self care, ironing.

5. Memes

Memes are very self care. I’ve fallen lately into the pit of Vine compilations – 10 or so minute youtube videos of collections of funny 6-second videos. As my housemates point out, these compilations invariably contain all of the same Vines each time, but that’s the point. Seeing the same things again and again, and laughing at them again and again, they soon become like close friends to you.

6. Getting real organised. Probably too organised.

I’ve written before about my stupidly overly-organised online life. But I stand by it. There’s something liberating about letting a complicated system of rows and columns rule my life. I don’t really have much control any more about what TV series I watch next, or the next book I read, and that’s fine. I’m sort of glad that these decisions are being made ‘for me’.

Is getting up at the same time every day to follow the same routine every day good or bad? I’d say it’s good. It lets me actually get things done, like regular exercise every day, which is what self-care is all about.

7. Loud music.

Today I had a stressful walk. I was walking between offices and had a lot to do, but knew the walk itself would take up about ten minutes of valuable time. So I put on my intensity playlist and power-walked the hell out of it. On the way, I listened to ‘Ize of the World‘ by The Strokes and ‘Big Unit‘ by Abedisi Shank – two of my favourite songs – super super loud. It felt amazing.

Music really does have that power to exorcise our emotions. And its use in self-care is enormous. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be light, fluffy Katie Melua stuff; heavy metal, electronica, rap – it’s all good if it makes you feel better.

(‘What Went Down‘ by Foals is another very good song for banishing stress. For me at least. And you have to play it really bloody loud).


And that’s probably enough self-care tips for now. I hope you found them useful.

I’m still not 100% clear on what SC is. But I think we’ve at least been feeling around the right kind of area. The main takeaway is that we should love ourselves, which I hope you do. Because I love you. You know that, right? x

checking in on my own mental health

So, 14-20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme this year is ‘Stress’ but it’s good to think and talk about MH in general, yeah? For us men especially, since suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years in the UK and it is considerably higher in men.

A year ago, I wasn’t in the best place. Literally. I was living alone in a big house that I couldn’t afford. I was coming out of a two year relationship. And I was spending most of my time commuting for a job I wasn’t really into. Outside of work, I wasn’t doing much fun, and basically I was just not very happy.

A year on, how am I doing? Not a whole deal better, to be honest, but there’s been improvements in a few areas. So let’s break it down, in excruciating detail!

Health

Health-wise, I guess I’m ok. I always worry about my weight, which I know is stupid since folks frequently comment on me being thin/skinny. But I know I’ve definitely put weight on over the last few years, and I’d love to lose it. I know my diet of beer and sweets probably isn’t helping much, but I haven’t had much luck cutting them out.

In particular I know my diet worsens when I’m stressed/depressed. I eat a lot of sugar (hence my like 30 fillings) and I’ll use it to get through the day when I’ve got a low mood. I wouldn’t call it an addiction, but I’m literally eating a bag of Haribo Fangtastics right now if that gives you any indication.

Living situation

I’m not living alone anymore! And I’m not commuting 90 minutes each way for work!

I moved from Cambridge to London about six months ago, and it’s had a mixed effect on my mental well-being. Yes, the commute is better, but London is a busy, crowded place. It’s harder to get away from the hustle and bustle, people seem just a little bit meaner, and the buildings aren’t as pretty.

Having housemates again is great. And it’s especially good that it’s friends I’ve actively chosen to live with – not absolute randomers. Living with randoms is awful for your mental health since they can act unpredictably and it’s harder to have difficult conversations with them about things.

Living with friends is much better, but it still makes me anxious sometimes. Do my housemates hate me? Do they think I’m uncool? Why don’t they ask me to join in with things sometimes? How do I get them to take part in the things I want to do? These kind of dumb questions are still a cause of stress for me.

Work

I started a new job at the beginning of the year. And it’s great.

I wasn’t enjoying my job at the end of last year. It was stressful, made me feel inadequate, and frankly I’d probably been doing it too long. Leaving a company after six and a half years was really stressful to do, but I reckon it was the right move in the long-term. So I’m glad to be out of that environment.

My new role has come with its own stresses. I’ve got a lot more responsibility, which is satisfying, but also challenging. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming, but everyone is super supportive. I’ve had some rough weeks, but some great times too. Hopefully I’ll grow more secure and confident with time.

Love

A bit like a year ago, I’ve just gone through another breakup. This time it had just been a little under six months, so a bit less serious, but it still sucks. And it seems partly down to my inability to integrate in social situations properly with a partner’s friends and family.

This has come up a few times, which tells me that it’s something I need to change or improve about myself. Or I just die alone, I guess.

Family

I recently went on holiday to Iceland with my Mother and sister, which was great. I don’t hang out much with my family otherwise. So that was nice.

But this month I also met my half-brother and half-sisters for the first (proper) time. This was a bit of a surreal experience, and I’m still “processing” it. It’s really weird to have all this family you don’t know, and I don’t know how to feel about it. So that’s just something going on in the background, I guess. Does it make me sad? Sometimes, yeah.

Social Life

Being social is difficult for me. Parties, gatherings, meeting new people – these can all make me pretty anxious. It’s something I’m focussing on with CBT, but it’s one of the main blockers in my life right now.

I just find it difficult to talk to people sometimes. Especially if there’s lots of new people, or if we’re in a loud environment. I’ve never understood how people can chat in clubs, or even loud clubs. Often I’ll just sit there and nod along to other conversations, even though I can’t actually make out a word of what’s going on.

And as I mentioned above, this is particularly difficult when meeting the friends/family of a new partner. Which causes all kinds of problems down the line and isn’t much fun.

I also really value my free time, like weekends and stuff. Sometimes you just don’t want to see anyone at all, right? And I can feel like I’m sacrificing the precious time I have to myself to see people I don’t really want to see. But then other times I get desperately lonely. So either way it sucks.

Creativity

I like to be creative. I write things like this blog, and make videos and things. Being creative is a great coping mechanism for me when I’m feeling down. But I often feel like I’m at the bottom of the well of my creativity.

Or I’ll have a short burst of creativity where I want to do lots of things, and then suddenly lose all drive and momentum. It doesn’t help that I always hate the things I actually produce, and usually the things I’ve worked hardest on get the luke-warmest reception.

Without wanting to be petty or anything, but here’s a thing that annoyed me recently:

Last July I did this and it was great – I was a viral sensation and felt really good about myself. Earlier this year I tried to do it again in what I thought was actually a more technically impressive way, but it got a much smaller reaction. Meanwhile, someone else did something similar in the same week and not only got lots of Twitter praise, but actually did better numbers-wise than my original tweet.

Yes, I know it’s kind of pathetic to base your self worth on social media vanity metrics. And yet that’s exactly what I do. If I work hard on something and it doesn’t ‘do well’, what’s the point in me even trying? What’s the point in me even bothering to create anything? Sometimes it seems like I shouldn’t even start on a new creative project, when I know it won’t be appreciated anyway.

And yeah, that makes me feel bad.

Mental Health

Way back in like October, my GP referred me to a local NHS mental health unit for some anxiety I was having. A few phone calls later and they were like “yeah you need CBT”. So a mere five months later I started some CBT, which I’m doing weekly at the moment.

CBT is a weird one for me. It’s very curriculum-driven, in the sense that there’s a list of things you just have to learn and understand. But once you’ve read and understood the list of common cognitive errors and been through the behavioural strategies for dealing with them, what next? There’s only so much mindfulness I can practice before I just have to admit it’s not helping.

I’ve been on medication before, but I’ll always try to avoid it as much as possible because of the side effects. So I’d like to avoid that as much as possible.

Exercise is sometimes heralded as the ultimate cure for low mood / depression. But as we all know, when all you want to do is lie in bed and cry, going for a light jog is at the absolute bottom of your list of things you’d feel comfortable doing.

Mental health-wise I seem to be getting worse. My anxiety and depression scores are going up, despite the CBT, and I’m noticing warning signs in things like my diet and alcohol intake. Physically, I’m a bit drained. Some days I wake up with my chest pumping with cortisol, which isn’t a fun sensation.

I’m a bit more anxious than usual at the moment. And I’m living with constant moderate depression.

But it’s ok.

It’s good to talk about this stuff. I have a few friends I can confide in, and that’s good. And writing blogs like this, out in the public and shared with the internet, is super cathartic.

The worst thing you can do is bottle your feelings up. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned over the years. But sharing them is also the hardest.

So: talk! Talk to me, talk to a friend, talk to anonymous strangers on Twitter. It’ll help, and you’ll feel better. I know it helps me, at least.

Thanks for reading. Getting this all down makes me feel better, and if it at all helps you come to terms with anything you’re feeling too, that’d make me very happy.

<3


Further reading:

If you’d like to know what living with anxiety can be like, here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about an attack I had during a comedy gig. I’m glad to say things are better now with this, and I frequently go to shows on my own now (only partially out of choice). But the negative thoughts patterns and things in that blog post still affect me day-to-day.

And the other week, as an exercise for myself, I wrote down a list of as many of my anxiety triggers as I could think of. Writing them out and seeing them in a list is kind of therapeutic. But reading over it, it makes me feel a bit silly. 28 year old men aren’t supposed to freak out when someone knocks on their door.

All of which makes me anxious, at times unbearably so.

I don’t like meeting new people.
I don’t like large groups.
I don’t like loud places.
I don’t like crowds.
I don’t like joining a conversation that’s already started.
I don’t like getting a seat before i’ve ordered my coffee.
I don’t like taking up space.
I don’t like sitting in front of people at the cinema.
I don’t like eating loudly at the cinema.
I don’t like being late.
I don’t like breaking any rules.
I don’t like going into shops where i’m not going to buy anything.
I don’t like confrontation.
I don’t like introducing people that are only going to be meeting for a few seconds.
I don’t like being misunderstood.
I don’t like walking with groups of people but being too many people to walk in a line, so having to fall back and walk alone.
I don’t like being near policemen.
I don’t like answering the phone.
I don’t like making phone calls.
I don’t like being a tourist.
I don’t like waiting at a road crossing for the sign when everyone else is crossing anyway.
I don’t like swimming in a pool with a lifeguard.
I don’t like waiting on my own at a pub for people to turn up.
I don’t like bothering people.
I don’t like sitting in priority seats on buses/trains.
I don’t like people knocking on my door.
I don’t like stag dos.
I don’t like queuing at busy bars.
I don’t like being in a car in a situation where other drivers are angry at us (like we’re holding them up).
I don’t like trying to navigate complicated systems in a country where i don’t speak the language.
I don’t like setting off shop alarms by accident.
I don’t like walking behind people walking slowly.


This list is non-exhaustive. But it is exhausting.

Last Saturday’s Saturday Night Takeaway End of the Show Show was the craziest thing I have ever seen and now you are going to see it and think so too

See title. Please come into this without any context. Don’t scroll down. All you need to know are these key facts:

  • There exists a television show called Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway
  • Ant is currently not involved with the show due to drink-driving misdemeanours.
  • At the end of each show, they perform an elaborate dance number called the End of the Show Show.

So here we go.

OH YOU THOUGHT THIS WAS A BRITISH TV SHOW SET IN LONDON OR SOMEWHERE IN THE UK, HUH. NOPE, THIS SHOW IS COMING TO YOU LIVE FROM FLORIDA BABY.

FLORIDA, BABY!

IN LIKE THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY I GUESS? BECAUSE IT’S A LIVE SHOW AND THEY’RE IN FLORIDA BUT IT GOES OUT AT LIKE 7PM IN THE UK. SO THE DYNAMIC FOR THE WHOLE THING IS SUPER WEIRD BECAUSE ITS AN EVENING SHOW FILMED IN FULL DAYLIGHT. FLORIDA, BABY!

BOOM, OUT COMES JASON DERULO. DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING DID YA? NOBODY EVER EXPECTS JASON DERULO. HE HAS A WHOLE BUNCH OF DANCERS AND THE WHOLE ROUTINE IS VERY SLICK. JUST IGNORE THE ENORMOUS HARD ROCK CAFE IN THE BACKGROUND I GUESS.

JASON DERULO IS PLAYING TO A CROWD OF EXCLUSIVELY BRITISH MIDDLE CLASS FAMILIES (WHO WON A COMPETITION TO BE HERE), ALL OF WHOM ARE SEATED AND CLAPPING IN UNISON – SOMETHING I AM RELIABLY INFORMED NO AMERICANS EVER DO. IT’S APPARENTLY JUST A WEIRD BRITISH THING?

FOR A SHORT BIT THEY ALSO DO A WEIRD THING WHERE THEY ALL POINT AT HIM INSTEAD AND YES IT DOES LOOK LIKE SOME KIND OF AWFUL RALLY.

THERE IS A VERY AWKWARD TRANSITION (FEATURING THE SOUND EFFECT OF BREAKING GLASS?) AND DERULO LEAVES THE STAGE, TO BE INEXPLICABLY REPLACED BY THIS VISAGE. THEY APPEAR TO BE BRAZILIAN CARNIVAL DANCERS, EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE IN ORLANDO, FLORIDA.

CONGA BY GLORIA ESTEFAN BEGINS TO PLAY.

DEC IS DRESSED IN A RUFFLE SHIRT THING THAT APPEARS TO BE A DELIBERATE REFERENCE TO THE CONGA SCENE IN THE MASK WHERE JIM CARREY JIVES AROUND TO THE SONG ‘CUBAN PETE’ IN ORDER TO ELUDE THE DETECTIVES.

THE PAIN OF HAVING TO CARRY THIS BURDEN ALONE IS PLAIN FOR ALL TO SEE.

DERULO IS BACK. HE IS NOT HIMSELF DRESSED ACCORDING TO THE BIZARRE CARNIVAL/CONGA THEME, AND IS ACCOMPANIED BY WHAT SEEM TO BE TANGO DANCERS, YET CONTINUES TO SING THE LYRICS TO ESTEFAN’S CONGA SONG.

TWO MINUTES IN AND HOMER SIMPSON TAKES THE STAGE.

AS DO THE PENGUINS FROM MADAGASCAR, ACCOMPANIED BY STEPHEN MULHERN AND SCARLETT MOFFATT FROM GOGGLEBOX, BOTH DRESSED AS CARMEN MIRANDA WHICH IS PROBLEMATIC FOR AT LEAST TWO REASONS AT THIS POINT.

A REMINDER THAT THIS IS PRIMETIME ITV SATURDAY NIGHT TELEVISION. SIX POINT SEVEN MILLION PEOPLE TUNED IN TO WATCH THIS.

AS MORE DREAMWORKS PROPERTIES CONTINUE TO FLOOD THE STAGE, DEC BEGINS TO PLAY THE HEAD OF A MINION AS A BONGO DRUM.

DEC PLAYS THE HEADS OF TWO MINIONS AS BONGO DRUMS.

DEC PLAYS THE HEADS OF THREE MINIONS AS BONGO DRUMS.

IN A MOMENT OF ACTUALLY QUITE IMPRESSIVE CHOREOGRAPHY, DEC ROLLS DOWN A LINE OF DANCERS…..

…INTO THE ARMS OF SHREK, WHO IS ALSO HERE NOW BY THE WAY.

THE SHREK IS ODDLY LOW QUALITY AND OFF-BRAND CONSIDERING THE SHOW IS BEING FILMED AT UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, WHERE THEY SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET THE HIGHEST SHREK REPLICA COSTUMES ON THE ENTIRE PLANET.

I WILL NEVER GET OVER HOW GOOD THIS IS.

THE CAMERA CAN NO LONGER CONTAIN HOW MUCH IS GOING ON. MARGE SIMPSON DANCING WITH THE CAST OF TROLLS IS SIMPLY BACKGROUND NOISE AT THIS POINT.

THERE ARE APPROXIMATELY SIX HUNDRED PEOPLE ON THE STAGE AT A CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATE.

THERE IS A TINY OPTIMUS PRIME.

HE IS ACCOMPANIED BY ‘THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX’ STAR MARK WRIGHT, WHO HAS TAKEN OVER SINGING DUTIES FROM JASON DERULO, BECAUSE THOSE TWO PEOPLE ARE DEFINITELY EQUIVALENT IN TERMS OF SINGING TALENT.

FOR A BIT THE SHOW IS LITERALLY STRICTLY COME DANCING.

THEN FOLLOWS A MONTAGE OF VIEWER-SUBMITTED CONGAS, ALL OF WHICH ARE MORE AWFUL THAN DEATH.

WE THEN CUT BACK TO THIS WHICH I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE WAS NEVER REHEARSED AND SIMPLY JUST HAPPENED.

AN UNNECESSARY AMOUNT OF CONFETTI FLOODS THE STAGE, WHICH THE CAMERA SIMPLY CANNOT COPE WITH SO THE RESULTING STREAM IS JUST SUPER LOW QUALITY.

FINALLY IT IS OVER.

ALSO CRAIG DAVID, DENISE RICHARDS, AND THE REMBRANDTS WERE THERE THE WHOLE TIME BUT DIDN’T FEATURE IN THE FINALE AT ALL FOR SOME REASON. SORRY GUYS I GUESS.


If you still feel the need to watch the whole thing, here it is:

Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

I hope you now agree that Last Saturday’s Saturday Night Takeaway End of the Show Show was the craziest thing you have ever seen.

Which video games have the best lore?

Some people play games for the gameplay. Some play them for the multiplayer experience. Some play them because they’re addicted to them, even though the game is a pretty transparent money trap disguised as a mobile phone app. And some people play them for the story.

And these days, video game stories can be very, very good.

It’s always boggled my mind that video games are written off as a waste of time, when we live in the age of the TV box set and Netflix binge. If a video game can have a story at least as good as a television series, isn’t it necessarily a better form of entertainment given that you can also interact with it?

And recently there’s been a renaissance in so-called ‘narrative games’. These are games that are literally all story! From the neo-text-based-adventures of Inkle Studios to the choose-your-own-adventure games from Telltale there’s a lot to get stuck into. With Telltale especially, the parallel to TV is super obvious; they’ve made games about Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, and (most notably) The Walking Dead.

But today I’m not thinking about the difference between TV and video games. I’m interested in video game lore, which I’m defining as the story and mythology a game offers. The ‘lore’ of the Batman comic book series, for instance, is the tale of Bruce Wayne and his efforts to protect the citizens of Gotham City. Batman’s lore covers all of his villains, their origins, places and locations, big events in the storyline, and so on. It’s an extensive lore, worked on by lots of writers over the years, and can be studied in depth.

Likewise, lots of video games have very deep and interesting lore. The Warcraft series for instance, has a whole Tolkien-esque world to explore. Beyond the video games, there are whole books, board games, comics, and even a movie to get stuck into. It’s a rich lore that rewards deep exploration.

Some games, of course, aren’t fussed with lore. The Super Mario Bros series, for example, has never been too bothered with it. There’s established characters, sure, but no real over-arching storyline. The setting seems to change from game to game, and the events of previous games don’t seem to tie into the others. We don’t even know who Waluigi is, he just seems to have turned up to play tennis once, and stuck around since. They’re still great games, but it’s hard to be fanatic about Mario lore.

I’ll now talk about a few of my other favourite examples of games with great lore.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne is just a fantastic game anyway, but it really hooked me in with its lore. In BB, you play as a ‘hunter’ in the town of Yarnham, which is seemingly overrun by werewolf-like beasts. As the game goes on, you learn more about the town and its inhabitants, but without any direct exposition. The story is told through whispers (literally through doors), by scraps of paper you find, and in item descriptions. The picture bigger of what’s going on turns out to be weirder and more fantastic than you expected at the start, with some super amazing Lovecraftian stuff going on I don’t want to spoil.

The fact you have to piece the story together yourself is part of the fun. It’s why you can watch hour-long videos on Youtube trying to piece it together. And you should check out this great Kotaku article where someone is trying to argue for their interpretation.

The Metal Gear Solid Series

Metal Gear? Yes, Metal Gear. A series of ‘tactical espionage action’ games that are so much more than sneaking and shooting.

Metal Gear tells the story of, um, well… it’s more like a bunch of different stuff going on at once. The games take place over a span of about 50 years, and cover themes such as genetics, war, peace, technology, politics, conspiracies, and a man made out of bees who shoots a gun made of bees that shoots bees at you. It’s a super rich lore, and open to lots of interpretation. There are even scenes in later games where other characters attempt to offer their own version of events which are later contradicted by others.

Like, just read the MGS Wiki entry for Ocelot and see if you can give me a straight answer as to who he was working for all along. It’s just not possible. And I love that.

Final Fantasy X

The Final Fantasy games almost always have a great story. And the best thing about them is that they are pretty much entirely self-contained. You don’t need to have played FF1-FF9 to understand FFX. Which is great for me, because X is where I started. And it’s my absolute favourite.

Final Fantasy X tells the story of a Blitzball (a fantasy version of football) player who is transported across time and space to another world and tries to find his way home. There’s a whole bunch of wonderful twists and turns on the way, and the world itself (‘Spira’) is very fleshed out and interesting. FFX is one of the few Final Fantasy games to have a direct sequel, the polarising FFX-2, and I think that’s just because people couldn’t get enough of the world.

The story of Spira, and the cycle of death and destruction it’s stuck in, caused by the eternal return of a massive monster, is really interesting. Every time I play through it, I notice something new or make another connection. Like, did you know that the aeon Anima is meant to be Seymour’s mother? I didn’t!

The Half Life Series

Half Life is strange. There’s only been four ‘main’ games: Half Life 1&2, and then Half Life 2: Episodes One and Two. There’s been spin-offs like Opposing Force, Blue Shift, and Decay, but they’re not crucial to the main narrative. And yet, with just a couple of games under its belt, Half Life is regarded as one the best examples of storytelling in games.

That’s because the story is great. It’s about a scientist, Gordon Freeman, who unwittingly takes part in a science experiment that opens a rift to another universe, bringing through alien creatures and, eventually, an entire army that take over the planet. The series is the story of his battle against those aliens and the occupying army, but it has mysterious elements, such as the enigmatic G-Man who gives Gordon orders from time-to-time.

To this day, fans debate the meaning of things that happen in the Half Life games, which makes it all the more painful that it’s looking increasingly likely that the much anticipated finale – Half Life 3 – will never be released.

Honourable mentions:

  • The Fallout Series is a great series, set in a post-apocalyptic America where people have survived nuclear war by living in deep underground ‘Vaults’. Each game focuses on a new location and the problems that crop up after people start coming out of the vaults to occupy the nuclear wasteland. Fallout: New Vegas is my personal favourite.
  • The Mass Effect Series is a good bunch of games, telling a pretty epic story about a space commander’s efforts to save the galaxy. The story is a bit deeper than just ‘bald space man fights aliens’, and lots of people love the story.
  • The Elder Scrolls Series also has great lore, although a lot of it is written down in huge epic in-game books. It’s never been my absolute favourite though, as I find it a bit dry in places. Still, it’s worth mentioning for at least making the effort.

And that’s all I’ve got for today. Which other games have great lore? Let me know in the comments! (Sorry for comment-baiting).

Beware the guest blog post invitation

So, this is basically just a heads-up about something that happened a while back. I could only find one or two other posts about this online, so I thought I’d write it up in case it helped anyone else. If you don’t manage a blog or website, this might not be very relevant for you – but you might find it interesting anyway.

Last September I got an email from someone asking if they could do a “guest post” on my blog. Naturally, I was very excited! The idea of someone thinking my blog was interesting enough that they’d want to contribute themselves was really cool. It was the first time someone had been in touch, and it felt like a thrilling opportunity to get some good exposure. But something was amiss.

For starters, they hadn’t used my name in the email. Oh well, that’s understandable. People are pretty busy, and maybe we’ve got past the point of needing to use, like, introductions in emails and things. Straight to business, that’s fine with me.

But then, thinking about this, I also noticed they hadn’t referenced anything to do with me or my blog. Not even like “I saw your post about x“. Also the content they were suggesting didn’t seem a natural fit for my site. I write essays about Shrek and the Simpsons, under the general umbrella of what I call “cultural artifacts”. A blog about identity theft didn’t seem super relevant to my audience.

The author was from a site called culturecoverage.com. Checking out the site, the content there seems harmless enough. Nothing very different or exciting, but it was a real website that had real writers. What was going on?

Suspicious, I checked out the example blog posts in the email. They all seemed above board. Pretty generic filler content you’d get on any entry-level blog about technology. If this was some kind of scam, I couldn’t see the end game.

So instead, I Googled to see where this blogger had already written reviews as a guest on other people’s sites. It turned out quite a few people had taken the blogger up on their invitation, enthusiastically introducing them, seemingly as thrilled as I was to have someone offering to come and provide some content on their site.

And, again, the blogs seemed pretty innocuous. They were things like:

  • Top 6 Anime Cons to Visit Around the World
  • 5 Low-Cost Apps to Make Any Artist’s Life Easier
  • Top 5 Under the Radar Animes to Binge On

So maybe I was wrong to be suspicious? But then I noticed something even weirder. Take a look at these screenshots from the above guest blogs:

They have one thing in common: they all make references to VPN technology. Yes, every single one found some way to tie VPNs into the topic. Very strange!

So I looked up another guest post by the same author: Great Ways to Find Free E-books. And yep, there was yet another reference to VPNs there too.

Not only that, they all shared the same link to the same review site. I’m not going to put the link here (you’ll see why), but it seemed very strange to me. The author was a writer for culturecoverage.com but the linked site was a technology blog, and specifically a page on that site that reviewed VPNs.

Thus the chain looked a bit like this:

VPN Review site > Linked to in a guest post > By a writer for Culture Coverage > On other people’s blogs as a guest

It seems obvious then that the CC writer was trying to put the VPN review link into as many blogs as possible, but camouflaging them within longer content pieces on other topics. Hence the pretty random appearances of VPN mentions in otherwise unrelated guest blog posts.

Obviously this seems pretty ethically dubious. Nothing in the original guest blog post invitation mentioned including links to the VPN review page. It’s essentially an online content trojan horse. Which I think is bad.

Adding links to blog posts is a whole thing too. Last July I got this email:

Adding a link to an article for a “reasonable fee”? That seemed insane. I didn’t take them up on the offer for two reasons: 1) I have a lot of integrity, 2) They linked to a category, rather than an actual article, which indicates to me they just automatically detected the link and somehow sent this email (although they punctuated cookywook wrong, which seems like it could only be a human error to me).

Anyway, back to the links. From what I can gather, the idea behind this… marketing approach (I’m not calling it a scam, although I consider it pretty scammy), is that Google ranks your site based on lots of things, including how many other places link to it. The idea being that if your site is referenced on lots of other sites, it’s likely to be a reasonable authority.

So, if you can stuff your link into as many unrelated sites as possible, it could in theory be possible to ‘trick’ Google into ranking your site more highly than it deserves. That’s why you’ll get people offering to pay you to include a link, or writing these ‘guest’ blog posts. Pretty clever! But also pretty evil.

Clearly then in this case the site wanted to be amongst the top results for a search term like “VPN review” which I would imagine is a very competitive space. They made a deal with this blogger to trojan horse in 3rd-party links via guest content on blogs. The blogger presumably gets some kind of commission, and the poor blog owner gets a pretty low-quality blog post with zero financial recompense. Cheeky!

I emailed the blogger back.

I was impressed to get an actual reply, I wasn’t even 100% the blogger was a real human. I don’t buy their reply though. But at least I didn’t get burned.

In any case, this kind of approach towards gaming SEO is pretty strongly against Google Guidelines. The algorithms aren’t perfect, but they mostly aim to make sure the best content wins, and that’s what blog owners should focus on.

Good site owners don’t lie about the content on their site or others, which is why I only recommend TunnelBear for all your VPN needs. It’s fast, easy to setup, and works every time. Try TunnelBear today!