Friday, 30 September 2016

30/09/16 - MKUltra

The fun thing about conspiracy theories is that they’re mostly spouted with spittle-flecked enthusiasm by unwashed nutters with straggly beards, and have absolutely no grounding in reality. Everyone dreams up insane what-ifs when they’re smashed out of their brains on drugs (don’t they?), but it takes a special kind of fruitloop to go around telling people about them as if they were true; exponentially more so if they believe it themselves, put a lot of time and effort into convincing others of its validity, and put no effort at all into actually trying to prove that what they’re saying makes sense. (Or, if they do look into it and find that they can’t back it up, just say that the lack of evidence is all part of the scam/cover-up/conspiracy/etc.)

Some notable conspiracy theories that you may have registered amusement at include: that the 1969 moon landing was actually staged on a Hollywood film set, that the US authorities knew about 9/11 in advance but did nothing about it in order to win public support for the Iraq war, that various people who have been assassinated (JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, countless others) were actually body doubles, that Paul McCartney has been dead since 1966, that clean and workable electric cars have been around for decades but have been suppressed by oil companies, that the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was deliberately caused by a nuclear device, that subliminal advertising is rife on mainstream TV, that cures for cancer and AIDS are easily achievable but are being held back by pharma companies who’d lose billions in drug sales, that FDA guidelines in the US deliberately make people fat and unhealthy in order to prop up the drug industry, that the CIA added HIV to hepatitis vaccines in Nigeria, and so on and so forth. Load of old cobblers, of course – the sort of thing that might sound really deep and make you say ‘duuuuuuude!’ when you’re stoned, but seem absurd and juvenile in the cold light of day. The key forensic question to remember with much of this is ‘cui bono?’ – who benefits? There has to be a point to all of this, it’s a lot of effort for nothing otherwise. Does the massive effort of the cover-up balance out the gains of the subterfuge?

A particularly interesting one is the ‘theory of electronic conspiracy’. This follows six distinct stages, at the culmination of which a secret group would achieve world domination after putting in centuries of work to get there. The first stage is the substitution of precious metal coin-based currency for paper money, as began to happen during the Renaissance. The second stage is the appearance of virtual money – credit cards, for example – so that currency becomes intangible. Stage three is the proliferation of internet commerce, so that the credit cards etc are no longer physically required. Next comes the concentration of worldwide banking into fewer hands via international bank fusions. Stage five is the worldwide implementation of electronic identity cards linked to personal financial data. The sixth stage is ‘the great worldwide blackout’. Imagine the fiscal ramifications of 9/11 but on a much bigger scale, wiping out the world’s financial records in one fell swoop, sending everyone on the planet back to square one (aside from those holding the actual money/power, of course, the puppetmasters in the whole plan), leading to chaos, poverty, and the necessity of a slavery culture to survive. All hogwash, of course – what would be in it for the people who started it all off in the fifteenth century…? And how could they have predicted the technology that would make the plan possible?

Every now and then, however, a conspiracy theory surfaces that turns out to be completely true. One such revelation is MKUltra.
Project MKUltra was a covert research operation run by the CIA between the 1950s and the early ’70s, and fulfils all of the classic conspiracy theory criteria: mind control, absolute secrecy, manipulation of the public without their knowledge, copious violations of basic human rights… it could have been the plot of a far-fetched B-movie, but it actually happened.
Via the Office of Scientific Intelligence, the CIA sought to gain insight into the workings and malleability of the human psyche by conducting research in behavioural engineering. To achieve this, they had very specific programmes of administering drugs (in particular LSD), sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, hypnosis, isolation, and many forms of physical and mental torture.
MKUltra was officially sanctioned in 1953, receiving 6% of the CIA’s total budget, and was carried out for two decades before being wound up, involving many unwitting citizens of the USA and Canada in its work.

The remit of the project was to develop mind-controlling substances to be used against the Soviets, in response to such substances that had allegedly been developed by the Chinese, Soviet and North Korean governments and used on US prisoners of war. It was a kind of tit-for-tat torture thing. The CIA also (and this bit is particularly far-fetched) wanted to use such substances to control the minds of various world leaders, and cooked up a variety of schemes to gain access to Fidel Castro’s brain.
Another aim was to develop a perfect truth drug, again for interrogating Soviets, and also to develop ‘perfect concussion’ whereby sub-aural blasts could be used to erase memories. Further treats outlined for development in MKUltra documentation included: substances to promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness that would lead to public discreditation, to increase the ageing process, to simulate the symptoms of recognised diseases in a reversible manner, to induce temporary brain damage, to increase the ability to withstand physical torture, to induce amnesia, to temporarily induce physical disabilities, to blister the skin on demand, to lower ambition, and to temporarily weaken eyesight and hearing.
All of these aims, with their varying degrees of plausibility and achievability, necessitated arduous and relentless testing, and this is where the real controversy came in. Obviously with some of their techniques it would be difficult to hide from the recipient – forced isolation, sexual torture, etc – but much of it was easily tested on unsuspecting members of the public who were then followed, observed and monitored; hypnotism, the administering of mind-altering drugs and what-have-you could be innocently disguised as experiments, therapies or medical trials by companies used as fronts by the CIA.

The mind-bending properties of LSD came under particular scrutiny. The bulk of their testing in this field was on ‘people who could not fight back’ – mental patients, drug addicts, prisoners and prostitutes, mainly. In one case, a mental patient in Kentucky was administered LSD for 174 consecutive days, just to see what would happen. Operation Midnight Climax set up a variety of brothels in San Francisco in order to test on men who would be too embarrassed to talk about it afterwards; rooms were equipped with two-way mirrors, and the men were dosed with LSD and interrogated under bright lights, with subjects told that the trips would last indefinitely if they didn’t give up all their secrets. In other cases, heroin addicts were bribed to take LSD with more heroin. Even the CIA operatives themselves found that surprise LSD trips were an occupational hazard, with seemingly everyone testing on everyone else to observe the results.

As much as MKUltra was a covert thing, it was remarkably widespread in its operation, taking place in eighty separate locations including universities, colleges, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and prisons. However, it didn’t reach the public consciousness on any believable scale until 1975; the Church Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, was set up post-Watergate to investigate illegal operations in intelligence by the US government and its subsidiaries, and sought to unpick the covert actions of Project MKUltra. Unfortunately for them, it was quite tricky to do as CIA director Richard Helms had ordered that all the records be destroyed when the op was closed down in ’73, meaning that much of it was hearsay. Handily, though, a Freedom of Information request in 1977 revealed some 20,000 documents that had survived the cull, while the remainder of what was left on file was declassified in 2001, so we can at least establish some of the facts with a degree of certainty.

Of course, this spirals us towards a conspiracy theory within a conspiracy theory. Some insiders maintain that certain records and chemicals vital to the research were separated from that which was destroyed, and were passed into the hands of private contractors to continue the research; the closure of the project in 1973 and investigation in ’75 were all just a smokescreen for a larger and more sophisticated project that continues to this day. But who can really say…?

'Bike Engine'

A quite odd music video, featuring stereotypes being smashed by aesthetically self-conscious 4th-wall breaking, and other weird shit.

Audi - 'Duel'

Something peculiar that Audi ran during the Presidential debate.

Chienging Flavours

Another brilliant episode of The Katering Show...

Friday, 19 August 2016

19/08/16 - YBF!

Fans of shit telly will no doubt be aware of You’ve Been Framed! - the clip show that gleefully showcases mankind’s haplessness and the acute embarrassment caused by inadvertently cocking things up. This feeds into a primal behaviour that’s as old as the human species itself, going some way beyond schadenfreude; there’s no shame in pointing at someone and laughing when they fall off a chair or squirt ketchup in their eye. Sure, it’s not very nice, but it’s just what we do. Embrace it.

Unfortunately, You’ve Been Framed! is pretty terrible these days. It’s basically just Harry Hill narrating a YouTube fail compilation video, accompanied by oodles of agonisingly overblown canned laughter. It’s a show that doesn’t need to exist in 2016. But back in the early 1990s? Ah, that was when it was properly entertaining…
In the nineties, you see, we didn’t have the ubiquity of online fail videos. We just had ordinary people with camcorders, recording onto actual tape. (OK, I say it was ‘properly entertaining’, I was a child at the time. Make allowances.) As expertly observed in a 1995 episode of Bottom (in which Richie and Eddie try to stage a mishap to send in to Jeremy Beadle's Viciously Hilarious Domestic Violent Incidents), the premise of the show was for ITV to effectively steal the concept of America’s Funniest Home Videos and broker a deal in which the two could swap footage, on the basis that not all that many people could afford camcorders back then; viewers also submitted footage, but the real hook was that, well, most of it was made up. Sure, there was a decent amount of real footage – no-one would deliberately plunge their entire wedding party into a lake or crash an airplane through a barn – but quite a lot of the clips were very clearly staged. Much of it involved accidents happening during activities that there would be no reason for anybody to film, unless they knew that there was going to be an ‘accident’ – people sitting at desks or paying for things at supermarket checkouts or reversing into their garages, and then something painful or destructive happened and Jeremy Beadle appeared, sniggering like a priapically enthused rodent.
The lucre was a strong lure – each clip that got broadcast netted the person who submitted it a tidy £250, so it was well worth smashing something up as long as you made a cinematically entertaining job of it. Indeed, it’s become a uniquely British and highly commonplace response to anything that may go painfully wrong in day-to-day life: “Ooh, you could get £250 for that!”

OK, full disclosure: when I started writing this, I was aiming to make the point that You’ve Been Framed! was very much of its time; that it was perfect for the 1990s, but couldn’t possibly exist today because the format is entirely redundant - why stretch out a bunch of clips over a painful half-hour when you can see them all (and much more besides) neatly stitched together on YouTube? Simply search for ‘fail compilation’ and behold the idiocy of mankind in all its stupefying glory.
…but then I Googled it and realised that the show is, in fact, still on the telly. What’s more, it’s never really been off the telly – Beadle presented it from 1990-97, the reprehensible and fundamentally terrible Lisa Riley took over from 1998-2002, then Jonathan Wilkes (a man commonly described as “Robbie Williams’ friend”, having achieved little of note himself) did a year of it in 2004, and Harry Hill’s been doing it ever since. Who’s watching it? The elderly, probably. And people with shitty broadband speeds.
It’s not alone in the marketplace either. Rude Tube exists to unashamedly scrape YouTube for content, efficiently rounding up all the clips that everyone who knows how to use the internet has already seen several years ago, as well as providing the needless Alex Zane with the sort of platform that his level of talent deserves.

Not only does You’ve Been Framed! inexplicably still exist, but it’s still on ITV too. I know, I expected it to be languishing in the badlands of the high-hundreds Sky channels too. And they’re still paying £250 a pop for user-submitted videos (inflation? What’s that?), thereby ensuring a healthy flow of staged incidents. The level of real footage is presumably far higher these days, given advances in tech and the fact that everyone’s filming each other all the time with their phones these days, but there’s still the presence of Harry Hill and the canned laughter to deal with. Why not try following the You’ve Been Framed! Twitter feed instead, if you must? At least there’s no commentary.

Here’s some classic Beadle-era You’ve Been Framed! from 1994: 

It’s not actually as staged as I remember. Oh, cruel cynicism. But if you feel compelled to watch modern-era YBF!, let me just warn you that it looks like this:

Christ. The canned laughter is actually physically painful.
See, this doesn’t need to exist any more. You’ve Been Framed! is just moron-fodder for people who’ve never heard of YouTube. Find yourself a well-crafted fail compilation and save yourself the irritation. The ’90s are long-gone, it’s time to move on.

Red Ramen

This show is one of the funniest things on YouTube. I think all cooking programmes would be improved immeasurably by the addition of straight gin, constant panic, and the phrase "We... are trying... our FUCKING BEST"


Squeaky shoes

Thursday, 19 May 2016

19/05/16 - Taman Shud

It’s troublingly easy to make people disappear. If you live somewhere sufficiently remote – the Mojave Desert, say, or the Australian Outback – you can just stick a body in the ground and there’s a good chance it’ll remain unfound. What’s rather more difficult, however, is to make someone disappear while keeping them in plain sight. And it’s this that makes the Taman Shud Case so compelling.

At 6:30am on December 1st 1948, the body of a man was found on Somerton Beach, a few miles southwest of Adelaide, South Australia. He appeared to have died in his sleep – he was lying with his head resting against the sea wall, legs extended and feet crossed, an unlit cigarette in his coat collar. He looked supremely relaxed. Well, a little too relaxed, obviously, but far from suspicious.
When the police searched his pockets, they found a bus ticket, an unused train ticket to Henley Beach, cigarettes, chewing gum, and a comb. So far, so unremarkable. However, there were a few details that started to raise suspicion: all of the labels of his clothes had been carefully removed, he had no hat (which sounds insignificant, but this was unusual in Australia in 1948), he carried no wallet or identification, and his dental records didn’t match any known person. The coroner remarked that “if the body had been carried to its final resting place, all these difficulties would disappear,” which tallied with eyewitness reports of a man being carried along the beach by three other men on the evening before the body was found.

The autopsy threw up some confusing results. While the man’s heart was ‘normal in every way’, the small and usually undiscernible channels of the brain were visibly engorged by congestion, the kidneys and stomach were also congested, the stomach and liver were full of blood, and the spleen was three times its normal size. The conclusion was that there was no way the death could have resulted from natural causes, and he’d almost certainly been poisoned… but there was no trace of any foreign substance in the body. Mysterious.

The following day, Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser ran a story identifying the man as an E.C. Johnson. But the day after that, E.C. Johnson presented himself at the police station, which rather clearly eliminated him from the list of possible identities. By February 1949, there had been eight separate ‘positive’ identities of the body, a number which rose to 251 by November 1953 – but there just seemed to be no way to actually identify the man. Everyone who thought they knew who he was turned out to be mistaken.

On January 14th 1949, a suitcase was discovered at Adelaide railway station which, much like the dead man’s clothes, had had its label and those of its contents carefully removed. It contained various items of clothing, a table knife that had been cut down into a short, sharp instrument, a pair of scissors with sharpened tips, and a stencil brush of the type used on merchant ships for stencilling cargo. There was also a reel of waxed orange Barbour thread of a type not available in Australia – the same type that had been used to repair the inside pocket of the trousers the body was wearing. The only labels that remained in the case bore the name ‘T. Keane’, although after an extensive international missing persons search, police concluded that this name had been left in deliberately to send them on a wild goose chase.

The coroner’s inquest began a few days after the body was discovered, and it was highlighted that there were no signs of convulsing or vomiting at the scene – two things you’d expect to find in a death-by-poisoning case – which firmed up the suspicion that he’d died elsewhere and been brought to the beach. Possible poisons were suggested, but the official conclusion was that while he seemed to have died from poison that wasn’t accidentally administered, it was impossible to say what was administered, or where, or when, or by whom. The authorities called it ‘an unparalleled mystery’.

…and the mysteries kept coming. At the time of the inquest, a tiny piece of rolled-up paper was discovered in a small fob pocket that had been stitched inside the man’s trousers – it was printed with the words ‘Tamam Shud’. (You’ll note that the spelling is slightly different to the aforementioned ‘Taman Shud’ – early reports of the case misspelled it ‘Taman’, and that’s the name that’s stuck.) Library officials were called in, who identified it as a Persian phrase meaning ‘ended’ or ‘finished’, found on the last page of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a 12th century philosopher and poet. The police made a public appeal to find the copy of the book from which the phrase had been torn, and a member of the public – who has never been formally identified – presented the book to the authorities. There’s some uncertainty about how the book was found, although most reports claim that it was found in an unlocked car not far from the body. (The timings present difficulties, however – some claim it was discovered shortly after the body, some say two weeks before, which change the possibilities exponentially.)
On the inside back cover of the book, police found indentations from handwriting, including a telephone number and some text that appeared to be an encrypted message. Codebreakers worked with cryptographers to try to wrap their heads around the cipher, but their efforts proved fruitless. No-one could crack the code.
The phone number belonged to a nurse, Jessica Ellen Thomson, who lived about 400m from where the body was found, although when interviewed she said she had no idea who the man was, why he would have her number, or why he should be in her neighbourhood. The fact that she recoiled in horror and almost fainted when shown a plaster bust of the corpse’s head and shoulders, and that she admitted to having owned a copy of the Rubáiyát, was suspicious, but inconclusive. The further fact that she requested to remain anonymous in official records, and that the police happily acquiesced, went on to cause later complications.

And so the mystery rumbled on. The death occurred not long after the start of the Cold War, a time of heightened international tensions, and the idea of murder by unidentifiable poisons and the inability to identify the man led to widespread speculation that he was a spy. But who for? And which country’s agents (or miscreants) killed him? And why in such secretive but public circumstances? Why leave clues that led nowhere – the ‘Tamam Shud’ paper, the suitcase, the Keane labels, the phone number, the cipher? How could it be that a man could die so publically, and yet be recognised by nobody?

The body was buried in Adelaide’s West Terrace Cemetery, beneath a stone that read ‘Here lies the unknown man who was found at Somerton Beach’. Years after the burial, flowers started appearing on the grave; police questioned a woman seen leaving the cemetery at a time when fresh flowers appeared, but she denied all knowledge of the man. And from there, the trail goes cold. The embalming fluid will have broken down the body’s DNA, the suitcase was destroyed for some reason in the 1980s, witness statements have disappeared from police files over the years… one of Australia’s great mysteries is a seemingly insoluble case.

The closest answer available was unearthed by the investigation of Professor Derek Abbott of the University of Adelaide in 2009. On investigating photos of ‘the Somerton Man’, he found something interesting in his ears: the cymba (the upper ear hollow) was bigger than the cavum (the lower ear hollow), something found in only 1-2% of the Caucasian population. On checking the dental records, the man was found to have hypodontia, a rare genetic disorder of the lateral incisors, again only present in 2% of the general population. Why were these findings of interest? Because the aforementioned Nurse Thomson’s son also had larger cymba and hypodontia. The chance of these two men just coincidentally sharing these features is around 1 in 20,000,000 – so it’s highly likely that the dead man was father to Thomson’s son instead, as she maintained, of her husband being so. But the son died in 2009 and the authorities won’t allow him to be exhumed, so there’s no conclusive proof. And even if there was, it wouldn’t answer all that many questions about the man’s death. (Interestingly, Abbott went on to marry Jessica Thomson’s granddaughter in 2010. Make of that what you will.)

In 2013, Jessica’s daughter, Kate Thomson, revealed to TV show 60 Minutes that her mother had told her she’d lied to the police when questioned, that she did indeed know the dead man, and that he was “known to a higher level than the police force”. Kate also pointed out that her mother could speak Russian (although would never say where she’d learnt it, or why), had an interest in communism, and taught English to migrants. The implication was that Jessica Thomson and the mystery man were both spies. But again, everyone involved is dead, so there’s no way of finding out.

Annoying, isn’t it? There are some things in the world that you can just never know. Such is the intrigue of international espionage – it’s not all gunfights and vodka martinis.

Tank Spang

Modern video games are bonkers. I love that someone's bothered to make this.

Homemade Hoverbike

There is just no stopping this man. He won't rest until he's invented all the mad things from your childhood dreams.

David O'Doherty's Text Song

Friday, 29 April 2016

29/04/16 - Domery

Eating is a polarising and divisive concept. Some do it for fuel, others do it for pleasure, and each camp is equally scornful of the other; sure, the former group tend to live longer, but what kind of a life is it? Give me a juicy steak instead of a bowl of quinoa and knock a few years off my life, I think that’s a pretty attractive deal.

Of course, some people have got the hang of volume-eating more than most. It’s interesting to note that the victors in competitive eating situations (which exist in abundance, worryingly) are often svelte and slender Japanese dudes who are able to wolf down several dozen hot dogs with laser-focused rapidity, rather than being the podgy butterballs from Doncaster that you might expect. The trick here is to eat a lot, but not often; allow the stomach to stretch, but don’t always keep it that way.
For other masters of the gastronomic arts, however, gargantuan food intake is not a competitive sport but a way of life, and there’s no greater poster boy for this menu-crushing peculiarity than Charles Domery.

“Who?” you may enquire. Well, I’m glad you asked, thanks for joining in. Domery is a chap from the late-1700s who was born in Poland as Charles Domerz. He served in the Prussian and French armies, and was known above all else for his really quite extraordinary appetite. It was sufficiently hearty that during the War of the First Coalition (the first attempt by European monarchies to topple Revolutionary France), he deserted the Prussian army and joined the French side because their rations were better.
His time thereafter in the French service was chronicled with some degree of astonishment by Dr. J. Johnston in the 1799 Medical and Physical Journal, detailing how in Domery’s time stationed near Paris he ate 174 cats in the space of a year, leaving just the skin and bones. He was basically always hungry, and would eat anything nearby, preferring his meat raw. He had a deep suspicion and dislike of vegetables, and yet if there wasn’t anything else available he was known to eat a few pounds of grass every day just to keep his relentlessly demanding stomach topped up to the brim.

In naval service on the ship Hoche, he tried to eat the severed leg of a fellow crew member which had been blown off by cannon fire, before his shipmates managed to wrestle it from his meaty grasp and suggest that perhaps he was being a bit insensitive. Shortly afterwards, in February 1799, the Hoche was captured by the British and Domery and the crew were interned at Liverpool, where he struck his captors agog with his absurdly bottomless appetite. Despite having been put on ten times the rations of his fellow captives, he was still always hungry; he ate the prison cat, and any rat that was unfortunate enough to scurry into his cell, and could often be found chomping on the prison-issue candles. He also ate all the medication from the infirmary, suffering no apparent adverse effects.

This enthusiasm for gourmandery piqued the interest of the expansively-named Commissioners for Taking Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen and for the Care and Treatment of Prisoners of War (later renamed ‘Sick and Hurt Board’, so as not to waste everybody’s time), who decided to do a little experiment on him – presumably just to glare wide-eyed at his abilities rather than for any sort of scientific merit. Over the course of a single day he was fed sixteen pounds of raw beef and raw cows’ udders, twenty-four tallow candles, and several bottles of porter. He scoffed it all with casual aplomb, and didn’t wee, poo or puke at any point. At the end of the experiment he was apparently perfectly happy, and keen to have a dance and smoke his pipe, then drink some more porter before bed.

You’d expect a man of such vast ingestion capacity to be a bit of a porker, wouldn’t you? But no, contemporary medical accounts have him listed as a man of normal build, shape and muscle tone, with no signs of mania or mental instability. He was just a really hungry chap who somehow managed to digest food extremely efficiently. The only real abnormality was that he’d sweat profusely while he slept and ate – but you can’t sweat out sixteen pounds of udders in a day, can you?

Unfortunately, the fate of Domery is unknown. Nothing is recorded of his life after his time at Liverpool, or indeed how he died. I like to think he ate himself.

Cassetteboy vs Jeremy Hunt

Click. Make. Play.

A lovely little melodious timewaster. Clicky.