Friday, December 27, 2013

The Curious Russian Afterlife of Steven Seagal

Long, long ago – for about 15 minutes – Steven Seagal was a big deal in Hollywood. His movie “Under Siege” made a lot of money. But that was pretty much it. Next came a string of big-budget flops followed by a lengthy and ongoing twilight spent in straight-to-video purgatory.
As for me, I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through a Seagal film. His stiff, tubby frame, extreme humorlessness and mystic posturing make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief. Here in the US he serves as a punch line, part of the flotsam and jetsam of trash culture. Steven Seagal – that’s the washed up ‘90s action movie guy who peddles an aftershave lotion named “Scent of Action,” right?

Indeed, Seagal has sunk so low that a few years ago he starred in an awful reality show named “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” which followed the bloated actor around Louisiana as he helped cops solve crimes. Seagal claimed to be some kind of reserve policeman. In one episode he drove a tank into the wall of a man’s home who was suspected of raising roosters for cockfighting. Soon afterward a member of Seagal’s SWAT team shot the fellow’s dog. A lawsuit ensued.
That wasn’t Seagal’s only bout of legal trouble in recent years. Shortly before the tank incident, he was accused of tricking female personal assistants into becoming his “sex slaves”,

Is it Time for a Ladder on Everest?

Once upon a time the world was full of wondrous mysteries and terrifying unknowns. Marco Polo could get away with claiming he had met dog-faced men on his travels because hardly anybody in Europe had ever been outside their home village. Now of course things are different; our planet is well mapped out, tourists are pretty much everywhere, and if you don’t have the money to visit exotic places you can always watch a travel show on TV.
Take Mt. Everest for instance. For millennia it was considered unconquerable, and then 60 years ago two chaps conquered it. Since then it’s been a free-for-all atop that formerly formidable peak. No, really – apparently so many people are scuttling up Everest that there are now traffic jams. According to The Guardian, 520 people have already been to the top this year, while on the 19th May 150 people reached the last 3,000 feet at more or less the same time, causing lengthy delays. Climbers were lining up for the summit as if they were waiting to buy stamps at the Post Office.
Since it’s now so congested at the top, the government of Nepal has come up with a brilliant idea: install a ladder at the trickiest bit to hurry the tourists along.
Naturally this is a controversial idea as some of the tourists think that this is cheating. But of course the tourists are already cheating. It’s not as if they run up the mountain in an anorak and a pair of ordinary shoes; on the contrary they bring masses of kit. The commercial exploitation of Everest has never been a case of man vs. nature but rather one of man + expensive technical gear vs. nature. Why not add a ladder?

Bad Cars and Porn Stars, or: A Few Words About Ladas

I first learned about the legendary Soviet Lada car in the mid-‘80s, when the cash-strapped USSR started exporting the notorious rust buckets to capitalist Europe in the hope of scraping together some hard currency. My friend Neil’s mum bought one, and since she worked as a teacher at my school, we all stared at this exotic vehicle in the car park. Cunningly, Neil told us it was a very special vehicle: a bit like a BMW, only better.

A few weeks later and Ladas had already become infamous for their rubbish quality, and were the butt of a thousand corny jokes from Saturday teatime TV comedians. But Neil escaped ridicule by being prepared well in advance with a gigantic lie. Clever boy; I wonder what he’s doing now… 

In fact, during this period lots of countries from the Eastern bloc were exporting bad cars to the UK. The Yugoslavian Yugo and Czechoslovakian Skoda had reputations similar to that of the Lada, whereas the Polish Polonez had such a low profile that you could buy it and not suffer instant ridicule. It was just as bad as the others, though: I knew a guy who bought one and it broke down all the time. The East German Trabant was a byword for the depths of Eastern European automobile awfulness; lots of lazy TV producers and travel writers still wheel them out for cheap laffs even to this day. I don’t think they were ever exported abroad, however – at least, not to Britain.
But with the demise of the Eastern bloc, bad Eastern European cars largely melted away from the popular consciousness. Some Germans bought Skoda and the Czech car became un-rubbish. Yugoslavia disintegrated, and that was it for the Yugo. The Polonez and Trabant went to the great scrap heap in the sky. As for the Lada…

A Cascade of Trouble: Life in Obama's Second Term

Here in the US it’s been an interesting week, as scandals have been sprouting like mushrooms after rain. Indeed, even the American news media is taking an interest, which is striking given the customarily friendly or even servile attitude many journalists have toward the ruling party (last week a cable news host asked for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s autograph on air, for instance). But with so many scandals erupting at once we are spoiled for choice, and not all of them will gain traction. Let’s break them down one by one and assess their chances of giving US President Barack Obama a nasty headache.

Disney World-gate
On Tuesday the New York Post reported that chic Manhattanites are paying handicapped people lots of money to pretend to be family members so that they can skip the lines at Disney World.

Printed Guns: Probably Not the Next Big Thing

I was vaguely aware that there were such things as 3D printers. I had skimmed a few tech blogs about the coming revolution in manufacturing etc., but I didn’t really care. I still felt burned from 20 years ago, when Virtual Reality headsets came out and the British science fiction author JG Ballard suggested that now anything was possible and one day we would all be able to shoot JFK in the head.

In fact, VR meant stumbling about in a badly rendered digital landscape with a bucket on your head.
It turns out that 3-D printing is different, that maybe it is something useful – even dangerous. This weekend, for instance, somebody downloaded and printed out a handgun, which he then successfully fired on a shooting range not far from where I live in Texas. On Monday, the blueprints for the gun – named The Liberator – were posted online for free and downloaded 50,000 times.
Naturally, I went to the Defense Distributed website to download it myself,

Why Dictators Should Be Wary of Certain Animals

The US comedian WC Fields famously said never to work with animals and children. I suspect President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan may have been thinking something similar earlier this week, when a horse sent him sailing through the air in a stadium packed full of his terrified subjects – I mean, loyal citizens.

Well, maybe.  According to a former US ambassador whose assessment was made public on Wikileaks, Berdymukhamedov is not the sharpest tool in the box. So perhaps he was just thinking – “Hey, where did that horse go?” And yet consider the danger: In a matter of seconds he could have been rendered a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman but ended his days in a wheelchair. As it is, Berdymukhamedov revealed to his people that he is not the all-wise munificent god man of propaganda, but rather a tubby 55-year-old geezer who’s not very good at riding a horse. Hell, those six other guys in the race were probably letting him win.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Robots and Presidents

There are 13 “presidential libraries” in the US. These are grandiose shrines that contain the papers and records of every president since Herbert Hoover. Tomorrow the library dedicated to George W. Bush will open in Dallas and all living presidents will be there to celebrate – rather like one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the current incarnation meets with his past selves to foil a Dalek invasion.

The Other Koresh

This Friday, April 19, will mark the 20th anniversary of the fire that brought an end to the Waco siege, after a 50-day-long standoff between David Koresh, his followers and the FBI. Seventy-six people died in the inferno, and the name “Koresh” is forever infamous as a result. What most people don’t know is that a century earlier, there was another Koresh – also American and just as messianic, if less randy.
Cyrus Teed was born in 1839 in New York State. This was a time of great religious ferment in America, and utopians, prophets and saviors roamed the land, founding sects and communes and awaiting the arrival of paradise on Earth. Teed, an army medic by training, was fascinated by these groups and in 1873 paid his first visit to the Harmonists, a communist sect awaiting the return of Christ. The Harmonists were interesting, but he joined another group – the Shakers.

The Shakers were a big deal in the 1870s, and during Teed’s time there were 58 settlements dotted across the United States. Founded by a female Christ, who went by the name of Mother Ann, the Shakers were not only communists, but also celibate, with a tendency to release sexual tension during sacred worship by trembling, shaking, writhing and jumping up and down. 

Explaining the Margaret Thatcher Death Parties

So, the other day Margaret Thatcher died and street parties broke out across the UK.
If there are any outsiders left who still think of the British as aloof and reserved, this might seem shocking, but I always knew it was going to happen. “Mrs. Thatcher,” as she was then known, was in power for most of my childhood and a chunk of my adolescence, and even as a wee lad I heard a great deal of vitriol aimed at “Maggie.”
Growing up in Scotland, it was impossible to avoid. She managed to alienate almost the entire country, not just because the mines and steelworks and shipyards shut down, or because she took away my free milk, but also because of the high-handed way she treated Scots. For instance, she tested the unpopular poll tax in Scotland a full year before applying it to the rest of the UK. I went to a comic convention in Glasgow in 1990 and still remember Judge Dredd’s Scottish scriptwriter angrily instructing us all to refuse to pay up.

That’s what

Are White Supremacists on the Rampage in Texas?

I had been in the US for five years before I encountered my first white supremacist. It happened outside a gas station on a rural back road in Texas, next to a used tire lot that I suspected was a front for skullduggery. We didn’t exchange any words; we just walked past each other, scowling. How did I know he was a white supremacist if we didn’t talk? The “White Power” tattoo on his gut was a dead giveaway.