Sunday, 20 January 2019

Korg ARP Odyssey: Master Will Control Both Slaves

It's Christmas! Don't forget the pancakes. Let's have a look at the Korg ARP Odyssey, an analogue synthesiser from the super-funky-fragilistic 2010s. Specifically 2015. What a year that was.

I've always wanted a proper pre-DCO analogue synthesiser, but even in the 1990s prices were very high. You had to buy a MIDI kit, and even the newest vintage synths are now forty years old and in need of attention from a dwindling pool of qualified engineers. The Korg ARP Odyssey is a modern analogue synthesiser that generates its sounds from circuits rather than digital emulation, and because it's new it works straight out of the box and doesn't smell of dust.

It's a recreation of the original ARP Odyssey, which came into the world back in 1972. The original Odyssey remained on sale until ARP Instruments went bust in 1981, and after that if you wanted one you had to pay a small fortune on the second-hand market.

What was the ARP Odyssey? It was a two-oscillator monophonic analogue synthesiser. Technically duophonic, but I'll get to that later. Made by ARP Instruments of Lexington, Massachusetts. The company was named after Alan R Pearlman, who founded it.

ARP's first product was the ARP 2500, a large semi-modular system that resembled the engineering panel in an old airliner. It was released in 1969 and cost a fortune. It was aimed at universities and other research institutions. One of them pops up at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

The humans use it to communicate with the aliens. Do you remember when airliners had a flight engineer? The flight engineer sat behind the pilots and monitored the engines, trimmed the fuel, deiced the wings etc. If something went wrong with the engines it was the flight engineer's job to climb onto the wing with an ice axe and a tether.

Fortunately advances in technology made the role superfluous in the 1970s and ever since then airliners have only had a pilot and co-pilot, and there are constant rumours that the co-pilot will eventually be eliminated as well. The last airliner with a flight engineer was Concorde, because things happened quickly on Concorde and the pilots needed a third pair of hands.

But enough of this banter. ARP followed the 2500 with the 2600, launched in 1971, which slimmed the 2500 down into a suitcase-sized panel that was complex enough to make weird sounds but simple enough that rock musicians could use it. It was expensive but looked the business. Nowadays it's a valuable classic. Jean-Michel Jarre used it throughout his career, and I know this because his albums list the kit he used:

At the top Equinoxe, at the bottom Equinoxe

The Odyssey was launched in 1972. It was essentially an ARP 2600 simplified even more, into a keyboard unit that could be taken on gigs. The Odyssey eliminated the 2600's patch cables, replaced the third oscillator with a dedicated LFO, and packed everything into a relatively compact but hideously ugly metal case.

During its life the Odyssey was the arch-rival of Moog Music's MiniMoog, which had one more oscillator and a simpler interface, against which the Odyssey's synthesiser engine was more flexible, with ring modulation, sample and hold, oscillator sync, pulse width modulation, independent frequency modulation for the two oscillators, I think that's it.

There were several different versions of the Odyssey; cosmetically the early ones had a white panel, mid-period Odysseys had a black panel, late-period Odysseys had a black panel with bold orange letters. The later ones look best. Early Odysseys had a pitch bend knob, later Odysseys had three pressure-sensitive pitch and modulation pads:

The pads aren't very good. You have to push them really hard. It's easier to twiddle the oscillator tuning sliders.

Baby milk pease pudding

The biggest internal change between different models was the filter. The original filter was terrific but infringed on Moog's patents, so ARP modified it. Unfortunately the second filter wasn't as good. It was duller and tended to lose all of the bottom end when it resonated. Later models had a third filter design which was better than the second but still not as good as the first.

In a neat touch the Korg ARP Odyssey has all three filters. I use the first one most often, the third occasionally because it sounds like acid house, the second one not at all.

The Odyssey is a class-compliant USB device, e.g. you don't have to install drivers to get it working. It accepts note on, note off, pitch bend (on the module only), but nothing else. If you want to store patches, you have to remember them in your head! The mode switch changes the MIDI channel. By default it's set to channel one.
I can't find enough images of Odyssey back panels to conclude anything from the serial number.

The main output is a balanced XLR mono jack. The audio input is unbalanced mono.

What does the Korg ARP Odyssey sound like? Here's a little demo in which I show off some of the synthesiser's features. The first thing is external audio - you can feed an external signal through the filters. If you send a signal to the Gate In port, or use the LFO to trigger the gate, you get a wub-wub-wub gated effect:

That's right. Wub-wub-wub. Mid-way through the video I demonstrate how duophony works. If you hold two keys the Odyssey assigns the lowest note to one key and the highest note to the other, and note that if you play duophonically with the ring modulator turned on the results are not pretty.

Throughout the video I've used a light reverb but no other effects. With chorus and delay the Odyssey sounds massive. The synthesiser engine is surprisingly flexible. Oscillator sync was a classic late-70s / early-80s sound that resembles FM at higher frequencies. The resonant filter will do acid house squelchy sequences, and with the right settings - especially sample and hold filter modulation - it's surprisingly easy to emulate a Roland SH-101.

Analogue synthesisers from the 1960s and 1970s tended to suffer from pitch drift, whereby the oscillators changed pitch as they warmed up. The original Odyssey was apparently more stable than the competition, and Korg's re-release is more stable again. Even so, it's difficult to get the two oscillators precisely in tune because the sliders have lots of travel. You have to carefully listen out for the beat frequencies, which is awkward if the oscillators are tuned an octave apart.

The Odyssey can be driven by USB, MIDI, or CV/Gate. In the following video I use an Arturia Beatstep to control the Odyssey via MIDI, generating an overdriven bassline, with percussion from a Korg Volca Beats and a Pocket Operator PO-12:

The audio is running through an ancient Mark of the Unicorn 2408 MkIII audio interface, which is plugged into a Power Macintosh G5. The G5 is generating sync tones for the drum machines, but otherwise isn't doing a whole lot. I have the G5's fans directed at my legs so that my feet don't get cold.

The package includes a reprint of the original instruction manual.

Some people might find the casual use of "master" and "slave" offensive, in which case I suggest you rip out page 38 of the manual and burn it.
I live in the UK, where this kind of thing is probably legally defined as hate speech, so I have destroyed my copy of the manual. I'm surprised that Korg hasn't been prosecuted yet.

Korg's decision to re-release the Odyssey is slightly strange. Korg and ARP have no historical connection. The Odyssey is a classic, but it's not nearly as hip as the 2600. Functionally it overlaps with Korg's own MS-20, which was released a few years after the Odyssey (and re-released in 2013).

On a historical level it was used by a wide range of prog rock, jazz-funk, and latterly new wave acts during the 1970s, but the big synth stars of the period mostly avoided it; Jean-Michel Jarre didn't need an Odyssey because he already had an ARP 2600, Vangelis had a polyphonic Yamaha CS-80, Tangerine Dream and so forth used one only in passing. On a purely emotional level I've always associated it with cold, harsh electronic sounds and screaming lead noises. When I close my eyes I picture black and white 7" singles with photocopied cover photographs of oil refineries. I can hear the relentless dunka-dunka basslines of DAF, although apparently they used a Korg MS-20.

Perhaps its a labour of love. There are several different versions of the Korg ARP Odyssey. The original had miniature keys. A re-issue had full-sized keys. It's also available as a keyboard-less desktop module. Both keyboard and desktop models are available with cream ("Rev 1") or black/orange ("Rev 3") colour schemes, although internally the re-releases are identical.

I bought a cream Rev 1 desktop module because it was cheap and I already have a keyboard. Physically the Odyssey is made of bent pieces of metal. It feels hollow, but very tough. The body is smaller than the original, about 4/5ths the size in all dimensions. The keyboard version has metal side plates that protect the sliders from damage - they act as a roll cage if the Odyssey falls face-down on the floor. The desktop version doesn't have these side plates so you have to be more careful with it. Have you ever tried Purple Drank? It's a mixture of cough syrup and sweets dissolved in Mountain Dew. I like to add gin because I have some left over from Christmas. Make sure you don't spill any! It'll fur up your keyboard and stain your shirt. Don't drink it at work.

Does it make rational sense? The Korg Odyssey. Does it make rational sense? No, but human beings aren't rational and we don't live in a rational world. Look at the world around you. It's not rational. We are animals. We live, see the sun, then we die.

If you're a professional musician who makes a living from music the Odyssey might make sense if you play in a prog rock tribute band but otherwise it's a waste of valuable space and money. For everybody else it's an impractical vanity toy, but I love it to bits. It makes no more sense than a kitten but like a kitten it's entertaining.

If you want the Odyssey sound, GForce's Oddity VST is apparently very close to the original, and it's also polyphonic, and it only costs £120 vs much more for the hardware. Former Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie apparently now uses Oddity instead of an actual ARP Odyssey because it's a lot easier to carry a laptop to gigs than a bunch of discrete hardware. On the other hand the Korg ARP Odyssey is a thing, a physical thing of metal and circuits, that will exist and continue to work no matter how you tinker with Windows.

Another performance, with simpler hardware. Recorded with a titanium PowerBook G4, which matches the general aesthetic. Perhaps Apple could reissue the tibook, with modern internals.
In this clip I'm driving the Odyssey with the Beatstep using CV/Gate. For some reason the Beatstep transposes CV outputs up two octaves - MIDI is fine - so it's not great for basslines.

There are other analogue or analogue-esque monosynths on the market. The Arturia Microbrute and Monobrute; the Korg Minilogue and Monologue; Behringer makes a surprisingly cheap clone of the MiniMoog; all cheaper than the Odyssey, and although none of them have the exact same feature set they make up for it by having arpeggiators, sequencers, patch memories, battery power, computer-based editors etc.

Compared to them the Odyssey is a vanity object, a dated specification executed well, intended to make people look at you - it stands out - but it's also a very flexible monosynth, and the fact of it having a panel covered in sliders that work immediately and don't have to be assigned with Logic or Cubase cannot be overlooked. It doesn't make sense, but I choose not to make sense.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

RealitySoSubtle 6x6 Pinhole Camera

I'm sure you remember Barbarella. "An angel does not make love", said the blind angel Pygar, rebuffing the advances of Jane Fonda, "an angel is love".

Pygar was played by John Phillip Law, a hunk of a man who couldn't act but it didn't matter because he was ripped. He was one of a number of actors from the United States and Britain who moved to Europe during the late 1960s. Specifically Italy, because the Italian film industry was going through a boom. Italian studios wanted to sell their films in English-speaking markets, which meant that there was demand for good-looking people who could speak English - people who looked like move stars, even if they weren't.

Speak English or at least move their mouths in a way that looked as if they were speaking English, because they were going to be dubbed anyway. It must have been fantastic. As long as you looked good and could open and close your mouth on cue, and pretend to punch a stuntman, and pretend to fan a six-shooter, and I mean even I can do that. There was money to be made and who would want to stay in Britain in the post-war years? America was better off, but what if you were gay or had a thing for drugs, or wanted to hang out with European women? All of those things were easier in Europe than post-war America, and furthermore your dollars were like gold dust.

The wages weren't huge but it didn't matter because the cost of living in Italy was low in the 1960s. The trailblazer was Steve Reeves, who was born in Montana. He starred in the popular swords-and-sandal film Hercules (1958) and numerous sequels. He was quickly followed by Reg Park, British-born Mr Universe, who also played Hercules, or Maciste, or whatever, and when the market for sword and sandal films dried up there came spaghetti westerns and the likes of Frank Wolff and Thomas Hunter, and of course Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and so forth. And also war films, because some European militaries still had M1 Garands and half-tracks and Sherman tanks etc, and lots of soldiers who could be loaned out to a film production company for some extra cash.

Even if the films didn't make much money they still turned a profit because wages were low, the studio facilities were going to be idle otherwise, the sets had already been built for more expensive films and the Italian scenery and sunshine was essentially free.

Furthermore Italy had a huge pool of attractive women who had grown up during the war years and were therefore thin and lovely, and again it didn't matter if they couldn't speak a word of English, they were going to be dubbed.

I imagine there must have been a band of Hollywood exiles in the 1960s, plying their trade in Europe - here in Britain we had Shane Rimmer and Ed Bishop as the stock Americans in Bond films and the like - soaking up the sun in San Tropez, living modest lives on the periphery of the film industry, and today we're going to look at the RealitySoSubtle 6x6 pinhole camera. It's a pinhole camera.

What is a pinhole camera? It's a camera that has a pinhole instead a lens. A camera is essentially a device that funnels photons onto a piece of film. Conventional cameras have glass lenses, which suck in light from all directions and carefully channel it through an aperture onto a piece of film; the bigger the glass and the wider the aperture the more light the camera gathers.

Pinhole cameras do things differently. They don't have lenses. Instead they have a teeny-tiny aperture, a pinhole, and photons just fall into it. If the hole was any larger the image would be a fuzzy mess, but because the hole is small only the best photons are allowed to enter. I'm not going to pretend to know the physics of pinhole photography. Here's a pinhole:

The pinhole acts like a nightclub bouncer at an exclusive nightclub. Imagine the Blitz Club in the early 1980s. Unless you dressed up like a human peacock you didn't get in. The Blitz Kids were insufferable, but they had spirit. Bravado. Derring-do. Or alternatively the pinhole in a pinhole camera acts a bit like your girlfriend's mother. It doesn't want any old photons spunking jizz all over its precious film, in fact it doesn't like the idea of anyone spunking anything over anything, so it turns away most photons except for an elite few.

The best spunk

In a way, pinhole photography is a bit like the process of human reproduction. The river has many fish, but only a few get to fertilise the mummy eggs, and only one of the ants is allowed to be queen. That's how pinhole photography works. The aperture is tiny, there's no viewfinder, you have to guess the composition, and because the aperture is tiny exposure times are measured in minutes, even in daylight. Moving objects turn into streaks and become invisible.

On the positive side pinhole cameras can be relatively small, and depending on the accuracy of the hole the central image quality isn't necessarily terrible, albeit that it's generally soft from diffraction. With sufficient light and a small tripod a pinhole camera can be used for general-purpose photography although if you want instant results a Holga is much more practical. You're supposed to make your own by sticking a needle into some tin foil, but I cheated and bought one from this chap here, nb we have no commercial relationship. He's French! Aren't we all.

The 6x6 model uses 120 film and generates a 6x6 image, although at least with my camera the negatives are slightly wider than they are tall. It has an aperture of f/137. The focal length is roughly 17mm in 35mm terms, e.g. very wide for medium format. RealitySoSubtle also sells 6x9, 6x12, and 6x17 wideangle and panoramic cameras, which are intriguing, but I can't scan larger than 6x9 so I gave them a miss. The company also has 4x5" and 8x10" models, which are handy if you're a bitter old retiree or you're married to a rich man and have nothing to do during the day.

I mentioned a paragraph or two ago that pinhole photography is awkward. For all the photos in this post I used 400-speed Kodak TMAX, but I still had to stand still for a minute shielding the camera from the breeze. I didn't bother with exposure calculations. It's difficult to blow out negative film, especially negative black and white film, and furthermore film becomes less sensitive as exposure times increase, so in practice if you just hold the shutter open for thirty seconds in bright sunshine, a minute or two overcast, you'll get usable results. Your enemy is underexposure, not overexposure.

From the back, looking forwards

RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a couple of user aids. The top plate has a pair of lines that approximate 17mm, although because of the position of the screws the lines face the wrong way. The top plate of the camera comes off to change film; the screws are knurled, so you don't necessarily have to use a screwdriver. There's a spirit level, which is indispensable because there's no viewfinder, or even an accessory shoe for a viewfinder. With every passing year my soul becomes more numb, my dreams less vivid.

Pinhole cameras have massive depth of field because they're stopped right down, which means that after a while all of your photos will either be wide landscapes or wide landscapes with something right up close to the camera. I hate wide landscapes because they're boring. RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a quarter-inch tripod mount and a flat base, which is incredibly useful given the lengthy exposure times. For the images in this post I didn't bother with a tripod mount, I just rested the camera on street furniture.

Have you ever read about London's pedways? During the 1950s and 1960s there were intermittent plans to separate pedestrians from traffic by building elevated walkways. The plans came to nothing and nowadays most of the walkways go nowhere, or are unusually large for what amounts to an elevated pedestrian crossing. If you've ever visited the Museum of London you may well have walked along a pedway, or seen out; it's just outside. That part of London, abutting the Barbican estate, is almost a monument to London's post-war recovery. The people back then had a vision of London that was slowly destroyed by poor execution and endless delays; their vision was overtaken by events but the spirit has a romantic aspect.

The idea that London could be planned by benevolent, chaste men of vision untainted by lust and greed appeals to some people. It's a fantasy. London is a wild animal, spears bounce off and it breaks free of its ropes. I mention pedways because I've always assumed that the area just outside London Bridge station is a pedway, but apparently not. It's just a bridge that connects London Bridge station to the pavement leading to London Bridge. London fools me again.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

MRE Menu 3: Chicken, Noodles and Vegetables, in Sauce

Apropos of nothing, let's have a look at an MRE. What are MREs? They're "Meals, Ready to Eat" developed for the US army. They were first fielded in the early 1980s but I didn't become aware of them until the Gulf War of 1991.

Do you remember the Gulf War? It was awesome. There was so much kit. Desert boots. Precision-guided weapons. Those new helmets that looked a bit like German helmets, but they were covered in desert camouflage. The Stealth Fighter. Humvees. 24-hour rolling news. Night vision. Tomahawks. Live reporting from the battle zone. MREs.

Chicken noodles. Neither rare nor infamous nor out-of-date. I picked something that I might enjoy eating.

The date code, 7305, indicates it was packaged in November 2017. They have a life of five years although people on the internet have eaten cold-stored MREs from the 1980s with no ill effects. I ate this packet in January 2019.

It came to pass that in August 1990 Saddam Hussein of Iraq sent his army into neighbouring Kuwait as part of a dispute about oil. This would not do, and after the necessary diplomatic formalities we bombed Iraq's army and military infrastructure into smithereens. But we didn't stop there. It wasn't like Yugoslavia or Syria where we just dropped bombs. We went all the way. When I say we I mean America, but Britain participated as well. We called it Operation Granby. It cost a few hundred million pounds and we got to show off some of our kit. At the time it seemed like the last chance we would have to participate in a proper war. And perhaps it was. The days when the other side wore a uniform and was at least aware of the Geneva conventions seem very far away.

Let's dump this out onto a table. Nice. You know Steve1989, he's fantastic. I have to discipline myself not to watch his videos late at night otherwise I get hungry.
This MRE(tm) has chicken noodles, applesauce with raspberry puree, peanut butter, apple jelly, some crackers, Skittles(r), a flameless ration heater, and an accessory packet. And a pretty good plastic spoon.
I can't help but say "accessory packet" in Steve's voice.

The ground assault was over in a couple of days. It was a walkover. Saddam's soldiers couldn't retreat fast enough to get away. Fortunately no-one was hurt, or at least I don't remember seeing reports of casualties at the time. The important thing is that Saddam Hussein was sent packing. There was something about the Kurds.

We let Saddam continue to rule Iraq because it would have been too awkward to remove him, besides which he might have mended his ways and offered to sell us oil cheaply. Perhaps we thought that it was better to have a maximum leader in charge of Iraq than nobody. A different world.

The accessory packet. Gum, hot sauce, sugar, salt, coffee, matches, a moist towelette, damp-proof matches, Lighthouse toilet paper. The meal is fairly salty as it is, but perhaps the salt makes sense if you're doing heavy work in hot sunshine, which is entirely plausible given that this is a military meal.
Sadly the Orwellian "coffee instant type I" and "coffee instant type II" have been replaced by a branded coffee, Genial coffee, whatever that is.
US military meals haven't had cigarettes since the early 1970s. Could you use the toilet paper as a tampon? I don't know.

About the MRE. They are sometimes called "meals rejected by everyone" or "mandatory rectal explosions", and a couple of menu items are infamously bad. The vegetable omelette and the frankfurter sausages in particular.

But the general consensus seems to be that MRES are, for the most part, perfectly okay in moderation; they are available in a wide range of flavours and there are even vegetarian options.

Moist towelette melts on your burning flesh - you can see your reflection in the luminescent dash

Newer MREs come with a beverage bag, which is essentially a substitute for a mug - US mess kits no longer include a canteen. The bag has a seal at the top and fits into the flameless ration heater. Unfortunately the bag doesn't have a gusset, so it doesn't stand upright. Soldiers seem to use it more often as a waterproof mobile phone bag.

General consensus also holds that Italian, French, and British rations are better than American, but that might be down to overfamiliarity. Most original content on the internet is made by Americans, and perhaps they're bored of their own meals. Compared to MREs, Italian rations have a little bottle of alcohol, British rations have more food, and French rations have gourmet options although sadly the tiny bottle of red wine is apparently mythical.

Let's try the coffee. It has a rich smell. Steve1989 often dumps his coffee into a big canteen, so I was worried that putting it in a small cup would result in overly strong, sweet coffee. As it turned out everything was fine.

Here in the UK I have easier access to European MREs - Latvian and Polish options are widely available - so perhaps in future I might try one. US MREs are not sold on the civilian market and so technically eBay sellers are breaking the law by offering them, although the US government doesn't seem to mind. I would be more than happy to shove £12 through the door of the US embassy.

The sachets of coffee, sugar, and creamer produce one pretty good cup of instant coffee. It has a hard, substantial, not smooth taste, but not a bad taste.

For the record my MRE cost £11.95. That's more than I have ever spent on a single meal in my life. Bear in mind that an MRE is a single meal, not a 24-hour ration. Soldiers in the field are expected to eat two or three a day, and only when they don't have access to a field kitchen; soldiers don't eat MREs all the time. The biggest criticism levelled at the meals is that after eighteen days of nothing but MREs they get monotonous.

Let's try out the flameless ration heater. The heating element is a kind of big teabag that contains particles of magnesium and iron. When exposed to water it heats up and gives off a distinctive metallic smell somewhat akin to fireworks. It's worth pointing out that MREs don't include water. You have to supply water yourself.

"or something"

As you get older your Christmas presents turn into socks and toiletries, because old people smell and their feet smell. I rested my MRE(tm) against a tin of Lynx shower gel and body spray.

I was taken aback by the nutrition facts box - it's exactly the same as the boxes on British food, the same font and layout and highlighting and everything.
Although the ingredients list is very long it's not particularly offensive. It could so easily have been stuffed with E-numbers but it's not.

It's tempting to turn this post into a mass of sarcasm, but my impression is that the people who design MREs really do know what they're doing, and care about making decent meals that stay edible in adverse conditions. A difficult task.

Before MREs existed US rations were mostly canned, although special forces soldiers in the 1970s had access to a prototype of the MRE called the Long Range Patrol Ration. MREs were introduced in 1981 and have been in continuous development since then. Last year they introduced a pizza MRE, with a slice of cold pizza that can be reheated in the flameless ration heater. In this video Steve1989 checks out MRE #16, introduced in 2017:

The spoon, hot sauce, moist towelette and gum are identical to my own.

While my main meal was cooking I decided to try out the crackers. You get two, scored in a way that suggests they're supposed to be broken into quarters, but when I tried it the first cracker just disintegrated.

The crackers are unsalted and not as dry as I expected. I think you're supposed to put peanut butter on one and apple jelly on the other but I'll save the butter and jelly for later.

Instead I spread some of the raspberry applesauce on the cracker. It was really good!

I think you're supposed to heat it in the FRH, but I didn't want to burn my mouth so I didn't. The pack is designed so that you can rip off the end and suck the puree straight out of the bag. The crackers are like a cross between floury biscuits and crackers with all of the flavour removed but the puree was excellent. It's slightly too watery to stick to the crackers so I ended up with my fingers covered in puree. Luckily I wasn't ambushed at that point, otherwise my rifle might have slipped through my hands.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm copying this chap, but for the first split-second after I tasted the puree I was expecting it to be a horrible sugary mess that would leave my mouth feeling furry. But it's not, it's much more subtle. It tastes like runny jam with half the sugar and lots of fruit; it was refreshing and overall I was pleasantly surprised. Imagine a kind of light fruit juice jam.

"I was also pleasantly surprised by the lemon-lime cordial" said Piglet.

"I vanted orange! It gave me lemon-lime!"

Fresh from the udder the cordial is pale yellow:

But once you add water it turns into a radioactive neon green:

Again, I was expecting this to be awful. I've read that it doesn't mix well, so I used slightly warm water. I expected it to be a chalky, gritty drink that would either be liquid sugar or alternatively far too weak. In practice after a couple of minutes it mixed thoroughly, and the taste was a bit like the raspberry applesauce - strong enough to leave an impression but subtle enough that it wasn't offensive. With cold water and/or some vodka it would have been really nice.

I was doubly surprised because I'm convinced that Americans have duff taste buds. I tried a Hershey bar once and it tasted like sick. It really did. It tasted like vomit. And root beer tastes like mouthwash. I'm not exaggerating for comic effect; both of those staples of American cuisine were awful, inedible. And yet pizza here in the UK presumably tastes the same as pizza from its original homeland of America, so perhaps only some of their tastebuds are defective.

At this point the meal was ready. The flameless heater warmed it up nicely although I wouldn't trust it to cook raw meat. You have to shake and knead it a bit, otherwise only the bottom part gets hot. I should have put the meal out onto a tray - nice! - but I don't have a tray. I used a plate instead.

Let's pretend that I've survived a plane crash in the Bolivian jungle, and I just happened to find an intact plate in the wreckage.

It looks okay. The noodles are chunky and short rather than long and stringy. The vegetables are mostly carrots and mushrooms.

The chicken was tender, not stringy, and overall it tasted no better or worse than a typical canned all-in-one brunch, less sugary-er. I didn't bother with the salt or hot sauce; without seasoning it was slightly saltier than I would like. It didn't leave an aftertaste and didn't feel greasy.

Perhaps the only problem is that it could have done with more noodles - or a small portion of rice, or some bulk. MREs contain 1,200 calories but they are mostly peanut butter calories rather than potato calories, e.g. they don't make you feel full. Only a couple of MREs include rice, apparently because it doesn't heat up well in the FRH.

After drinking the coffee, the cordial, eating two crackers plus the main meal I was ready to do fifty press-ups and climb up and down some obstacles, but just for today I decided to relax in front of the computer and play Cookie Clicker instead. What's the point of cookie chains? The rewards are paltry for the work you have to put in.

Of note the Skittles were Skittles; they should really have included a half-sized packet, because if you have two MREs a day you'll end up with more Skittles than you can eat. The salt is iodised, which means that it has a tiny amount of iodine; it's added to salt in the US, but here in the UK we get iodine from milk instead. If only I had bought the MRE before visiting Chernobyl! I could have dabbed the salt on my thyroid glands.

Closing thoughts? MREs make sense in a military context but aren't really practical otherwise. The one I tried was tasty, but £12 for a single meal is expensive. If you're just sitting at home an MRE is a novelty.

If you're hiking or camping an MRE makes a bit more sense, but the accessory packet would be a waste of space, as would the FRH if you're taking your own stove. My MRE was surprisingly large and heavy; dehydrated camping rations are much lighter albeit that you have to get hold of water. But if you're hiking, you probably do have lots of water.

Furthermore as a civilian you're free to pick whichever foods you want. You don't have to carry around things you won't eat. I reckon that with a bit of ingenuity you could make an MRE more to your taste from things you find in Lidl or Aldi. I have managed to scavenge enough food from Lidl or Aldi to survive sometimes for weeks on end, you might have better luck.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Chernobyl 3: The Trip

Pripyat, 2018

But what was it like? I've written about Kiev and the explosion, but what was the trip to Chernobyl actually like? You're not supposed to go inside the buildings - they're starting to collapse - but the tour operators generally ignore this rule. I imagine that the fines are tiny and no-one really wants the steady flow of tourist money to dry up. My hunch is that if someone was to die on a tour the authorities would make a show of cracking down, and at least temporarily the tour guides would be out of work.

As a consequence the tour operators aren't keen on people associating their names with interior shots of buildings, so I won't name the tour company I used.

Part of the Duga complex; one of the buildings had a little model of the location.

Step one involves getting to Kyiv. I've already talked about that. London Gatwick, Ukraine International Airlines, pack a flaregun in your luggage in case you need to distract Russian missiles - I learned that trick from Airport '80: The Concorde - then Kiev Boryspil airport, bus to Kyiv, navigate the Kiev Metro, get some food, prices are very low, weather good in October, not much to see in Kyiv but the same is true of Slough or Basingstoke and the entire country of Luxembourg so I have nothing against Kiev.

Step two involves finding the tour bus. A long line of them depart from a spot to the right of the main station, beyond a McDonalds. The tours provide basic food but there's a lot of walking about, although none of it is strenuous. When I went, the outside temperature was 21c. I felt a complete fool for bringing along a big coat, except that the interior of the buildings was freezing cold, because they're open to the elements and haven't been heated since 1986, so at least indoors I was cozy.

Also, I wore proper hiking boots. Because the floor is covered in broken masonry and glass. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is one of the few environments where dressing like an Airsoft enthusiast or a trenchcoat-wearing goth actually makes sense and can be pulled off successfully. You might even get away with a Chinese-style surgical facemask but you'll look like a wally if you wear a full-face gasmask.

For large chunks of the trip I lived inside a Mercedes van. Have you ever been in a van? Vans are awesome. Every trip in a van is an adventure. The exclusion zone is bordered by a series of checkpoints. The one I passed through had a souvenir stall, which was playing some tunes from Fallout 3 - "the roads are the dustiest, the winds are the gustiest" - and I was sorely tempted to point out that they had the wrong fictional universe because the Fallout games are set in a post-nuclear United States. but I kept my trap shut.

You're not supposed to photograph the soldiers at the checkpoint, so I didn't.

Chernobyl in fiction? Glad you asked. One of the strangest aspects of the Chernobyl disaster is that the definitive cinematic depiction of the event was released in 1979, seven years before it happened. In theory this violates causality, but if you think about the entire span of universal time from the Big Bang to the infinite darkness of its eventual heat death, seven years is smaller than a quantum fluctuation, so in that respect causality doesn't matter.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is one of dozens of films I have downloaded from torrent sites over the years and never got around to watching, although it is by all accounts terrific.

So the story goes, this river was so polluted from the chemical plant in the background that several of the cast and crew developed given life-threatening illnesses - lead actor Anatoly Solonitsyn and director Andrei Tarkovsky both died of cancer within a few years, Solonitsyn in 1982 and Tarkovsky in 1986.

In the book she's called Monkey. You can't get away with that nowadays.

Stalker was shot in Estonia. It's one of those arty European films where nothing happens but the interior decor is fantastic and all the women are thin and beautiful. It's very loosely based on Roadside Picnic, a Russian science fiction novella written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the early 1970s.

I've read Roadside Picnic. I actually bothered to read it. I finished reading it on the plane to Kyiv. It's a short book, and as with a lot of old-fashioned sci-fi it's more an exploration of a setting than a proper story, but I enjoyed it. The characters communicate by shouting at each other and smoking, so I mentally imagined the whole thing as an episode of The Sweeney but in Eastern Europe.

The writers had a hard time with Soviet-era censorship, which explains why the main character spends so long moaning about capitalism. All of the characters have nicknames; the businessman who funds the hero's lifestyle is called Vulture. At heart Roadside Picnic is a Western, one of those Westerns where the Wild West is being tamed by the railroad, although in this case the wild west is a set of mysterious zones filled with alien artefacts that people are prepared to risk life and limb to retrieve and the trains are automatic drones that can navigate the hazards.

Our hero is a man, a wily man on the edge of the law somewhat akin to Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat. In chapter one he is in the process of going straight, but something goes wrong; he finds himself unable to readjust to his former life of crime and eventually embarks on a desperate mission to give his life meaning.

Roadside Picnic doesn't take long to read. The plot could be condensed into one of those 1970s television plays. There's an odd stylistic device whereby the first chapter is first-person, the second is third-person, the next chapter is first-person but with a different lead character, etc, which I assumed was leading to something but apparently not. It's not quite a classic but it has stayed with me, and the fictional universe it depicts is fascinating.

In the mid-2000s the book was mined for inspiration by Kiev-based developers GSC Game World for their STALKER games, which is where I come in, because my interest in Chernobyl comes from those games.

I wore proper boots, shown here encrusted with two whole days of invisible death.

STALKER, the game, is set in a parallel world similar to our own; a second Chernobyl disaster, even worse than the first, has altered the laws of physics in a zone surrounding the reactor, and your job is to reach the power plant and find your destiny. There were three STALKER games, the horror shoot-em-up STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), the half-assed capture-the-flag asset-mining prequel STALKER: Clear Sky (2008), and the much-better-but-relatively-bland STALKER: Call of Pripyat (2009). The first has a terrific doom-laden atmosphere, the last is conventional action game with mild role playing and sandbox adventure elements but lacks the first game’s nightmarish qualities. If you can only afford two of them, buy the first and last.

The STALKER games were ambitious but full of bugs, with occasionally ropey dialogue and an unpolished feel, but the bits that worked were extremely effective. The day-night cycle, the artificially intelligent bands of roving mutants that made every location feel alive, the oppressive atmosphere, the rough but evocative graphics, etc. Development was protracted and in the end the team had to cut out a lot of content to get the game finished, but modders have added in some of the cut elements - sadly there isn't enough content to turn Shadow of Chernobyl into a true open-ended sandbox game, but with mods it becomes a fascinating free-form adventure RPG, simpler than Fallout but with more atmosphere. Unlike Fallout the STALKER games are deadly serious; Fallout is basically a spoof that tonally feels like a throwback to the 1990s, when for a brief time it was hip to laugh at the 1950s. I'm not going to write any more about Fallout.

The STALKER games sold well and, along with Half-Life 2 and Good-Bye Lenin, channelled a post-Soviet, Eastern European aesthetic that was very fashionable in the mid-2000s. If I had done a media studies degree in the mid-2000s I would have been sorely tempted to use STALKER as an example of post-Soviet angst. Life in a capitalist society is like a forced labour camp; inside the camp people are compelled to work until they die for unseen masters, but outside there is only a thousand miles of permafrost and wolves. Imagine escaping, and walking in a straight line, endlessly, only to finally encounter the same camp but from the other side, etc.

Taken from STALKER: Lost Alpha, a mod that gives the game a visual polish but turns the storyline into a meandering mess.

STALKER is loosely modelled on real-life locations in the exclusion zone. Being based in Kyiv meant that the developers could actually visit the zone, as detailed in one of their work-in-progress reports. Nonetheless they took artistic liberties with the geography. Although individual buildings are accurate, the scale is generally larger than real life (the real Chernobyl power plant is smaller than the version in STALKER) and the geography of the area is fictional.

In the game Pripyat is south of the Chernobyl power plant whereas in reality it's to the West, and the streets of Pripyat aren't connected in the same way. Furthermore the real-life town of Pripyat doesn't have Monolith snipers or electro anomalies, and not once was I attacked by a helicopter gunship. STALKER is an acronym by the way. It stands for Scavengers, Thieves, something beginning with A, Looters? Killers? Whatever. Technically it's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but I'm not typing that.

My group visited Pripyat in the morning. If you're willing to pay, and willing to visit in the dead of winter, or willing to visit under the radar, you could visit at night; this particular building is often photographed at night because it looks attractive when illuminated from within.

The tour operators have a mixture of one-day, two-day, and multi-day tours. One day isn't enough unless you're just ticking a box or the trip is free; more than two days is too much unless you're shooting a photo-book, which as mentioned in the first post in this series is a hard sell in 2018 because Chernobyl and Pripyat are mined-out. It has been filmed with drones, photographed at night, in infrared, timelapse, gigapans, HDR, you name it. I am possibly the first person to shoot Pripyat with an Olympus Pen F but who cares?

On day one my group visited the area around Chernobyl, the outside of the reactor, plus the Duga radar complex and its surroundings. The radar complex includes a complete small housing / agricultural complex which if anything is more atmospheric than Pripyat on account of the military detritus, and looking through my photographs I'm starting to forget which ones were shot in Pripyat and which were shot at the Duga complex. For lunch we popped off to the workers' cafe, where I sat down and photographed my meal:

At the end of day one we went to one of the few hotels in the area, although it's more of a hostel. Chernobyl town is dark at night because most of it is deserted and there's a curfew from 20:00 onwards. The buildings are mostly in good shape so it looks like a town that has been freshly-deserted. The stray dogs were happy to see us. None of them tried to bite off my face. None of them split open and fired tentacles at me a la The Thing.

The hotel has nothing. There's nothing to do except sit outside and read. The hotel doesn't have single rooms, so I had to share with a Ukranian man who was also on the tour. I know from the internet that European men kiss each other in a non-sexual way so I was prepared for that kind of thing but for whatever reason he never offered to kiss me. Am I really that unattractive? There were separate beds. And wifi.

Was the wifi strong enough for Pornhub? I didn't find out; what if the authorities were monitoring my activity? Given the fact that 90% of the population of Chernobyl are male security guards and plant operators, and that there's literally no nightlife, I imagine that the majority of Chernobyl's internet traffic is Pornhub. Oddly seemed to be blocked in Ukraine; given the current situation you'd think they would want more guns, not fewer guns.

Day two majored on Pripyat, followed by lunch, then Chernobyl's unfinished Reactor Five:

Photography tip: I took a pair of Olympus Pen F film cameras. They're half-frame so I didn't have to change rolls very often. They are manual-everything, so the only electricity I needed was for my lightmeter, which doesn't use much. I was curious to see if the latent radiation would have any effect on the film (as expected, it didn't; presumably it would have been a general fogging rather than dramatic lighting bolts).

However most of the interior photographs were taken with my mobile phone. There simply isn't enough light for available-light photography with film. It doesn't matter how hard you push the film, or how fast the lenses, or how steady your hands; film just isn't fast enough, and it's not practical to use a tripod, because you're not supposed to rest anything on the ground.

If you're dead set on using film my suggestion is that you bring a flash, and either practice flash metering beforehand, or cheat and use a 1990s film SLR with automatic flash metering. A Canon EOS 3 with a 550EX would be perfect. Alternatively buy a second-hand Nikon D3s and run the photos through a film simulation filter. I won't tell. No-one need ever know.

Day two ended with another trip to the Duga complex. There was a suggestion of meeting some of the people who live in the zone, but the thought of smiling awkwardly at a bunch of Ukranian pensioners who are probably thoroughly sick of people treating them like circus animals didn't appeal to anyone in the group so we skipped that. STALKER: Call of Pripyat has a section that takes place in an abandoned tape factory, which is to the north of the exclusion zone, but as before I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want anybody to think that I was a nerd so my once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore an abandoned Soviet-era tape factory evaporated.

Why once-in-a-lifetime? The exclusion zone is starting to succumb to the elements, but beyond that Ukraine is slowly being swallowed up by Russia. We aren't going to start a Third World War to defend Ukraine's independence. It'll be an awkward few years before people can visit Chernobyl again, and it won't feel right.

At the conclusion of day two we drove back to Kiev, through the same checkpoint. We all queued up for hot dogs from a roadside stand. Ukranian hot dogs are awesome. They aren't like British hot dogs, they're French-style. Instead of cutting a slice into the bun they drill a hole through the middle, then squirt mustard and ketchup into the hole, then in goes the sausage. If you grew up on a farm or spent time around horses it's not a million miles removed from the thing whereby daddy horse really loves mummy horse a lot.

After returning to my hotel in Kyiv I photographed my boots, took off my boots, had a shower, and wondered what to do next. Should I wash my boots, or leave them dirty so that they look cool?

As with Venice, Chernobyl is one of those ne plus ultra things that is at the top of its field. What next? Unlike most blogs that have survived for more than a handful of posts I am entirely self-funded; I'm not married to a wealthy executive at Google or a major bank etc, so I can't sponge off them; I don't have looks or age on my side. As I drifted to sleep I was once again struck by the melancholy of a battle won.