Saturday, 25 October 2014

C & H

Calvin and Hobbes

Xmas Shopping Already

Shopping can be fun, can't it? Wandering around high- street stores gazing at the bright things on offer can be a delightful way to while away an hour or two. You may be tempted, but you can walk out without buying a thing.

Or can you? Not if the retailers have their way. If you leave a shop without buying, they'll have failed. Sainsbury'swas recently caught out when a hapless worker wrongly hung a sign in the window exhorting staff to persuade customers to spend more.

The poster said: "Let's encourage every customer to spend an additional 50p during each shopping trip between now and the year end." But the tricks they use are usually more sophisticated than that.

And as Christmas, the biggest shopping spree of the year, approaches, retailers will be ramping up efforts to make you part with your hard-earned. If you know what to expect, you'll be able to spot the tricks and concentrate on buying only what you want, rather than walking out with what they hope to flog you.

Michael Sheridan is the founder of the global retail design agency Sheridan & Co, which has offices in London, New York and Shanghai. He has worked with some of the high street's biggest names, such as Selfridges, Harrods and House of Fraser.

"I've worked with brands all over the world and regardless of target audience or product, upping sales during the season of goodwill is the holy grail of retail," he says. "Through our work, we spend a lot of time putting ourselves in the place of the consumer. When you basically go shopping for a living, you learn a thing or two about the psychology of retail and the techniques used to seduce us into spending."

It's a highly developed science which gets its reward in boosting footfall – the number of people who go into shops – and spend, especially at Christmas. Last year, the average UK household spent an estimated £822 on Christmas, according to a YouGov survey, a £54 increase on 2012.

This year a further increase is anticipated with the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank predicting that "strong employment, improving job security and resilient consumer confidence will drive demand through to Christmas".

With shoppers prepared to dig a little deeper during the festive season as the economy continues to improve, it's no wonder retailers will be looking to encourage us to increase the amount we spend with them in the run up to the big day.

"There's no Christmas miracle involved, it's more about subtle little touches that the average shopper fails to notice," Mr Sheridan reveals. "However, when you take a step back and consider how these elements work, it's clear that we're all a little bit susceptible to 'Magpie Syndrome' and being drawn in by anything we perceive to be shiny and new."

Here he lets us in on retail secrets to help make us savvier shoppers this festive season.

Gift sets
Gift sets are a staple for many retailers at this time of year, particularly in the beauty and fragrance sector; they prompt many shoppers to snap one up for a loved one.

But are they simply a convenient way to buy two or more gifts, or a subtle retail trick?

"Every element of a gift set is designed to create a higher perceived value, in keeping with the often-inflated price point," Mr Sheridan says. "You only have to look at the packaging to see this, with designers going to town with techniques such as embossing, foil effects and varnishes all helping to create a premium feel."

It all adds up to giving shoppers the idea that they're getting a great deal more for their money. In the average fragrance gift set, for example, you could find eau de parfum and perhaps a body lotion to enhance that feeling, but some elements are often no bigger than a sample size.

"We're also seeing a new trend for 'fill your own' gift sets across all sectors, including beauty products, food and drink hampers and even crackers, which are all designed to make us 'trade up' and ultimately spend more," he adds.

"My advice with any gift set? Take the time to price up the individual elements first, to make sure you're getting the bargain you think you are…"

Michael Sheridan: 'We're susceptible to 'Magpie Syndrome', drawn in by the shiny and new
Retail theatre
A trend that came to the fore last year, and that will be back with a bang for 2014 is themed in-store events, he says.

"Last Christmas, this was particularly prevalent in department stores, from John Lewis and its much hyped 'Hare and Bear' tour, to my personal favourite, the acclaimed Giffords Circus performing twice hourly shows in a specially created big top inSelfridges, in London's Oxford Street, throughout December."

While the spectacles help create a festive feeling and keep the family entertained, remember there's an ulterior motive, Mr Sheridan warns.

"With happy shoppers proven to spend longer in store, these special events are designed to increase our dwell time and up our average spend.

If you look at the child-friendly events in particular, with the kids busy creating Christmas crafts, we have more time to browse and are likely to spend a little longer doing so, as we don't have impatient little ones snapping at our heels."
Time-saving gift sets
Stores are capitalising on the fact that most of us have very little free time at Christmas.

In-store gift-wrapping services were once just reserved for premium stores, but it's now being offered throughout the high street. However, the convenience factor comes at a cost and can add an extra £5 or more to each gift.

Mr Sheridan advises: "Break down the cost of the individual elements and ask yourself if spending 10 minutes battling with the Sellotape and sticky bows is really that bad."
The personal touch

These days retailers – whether in-store, online or through catalogues – like to segment their products into "gifts for him" and "gifts for her". It's all part of their subtle way of pushing shoppers towards certain items.

"This year they seem to be taking it a stage further and guiding shoppers even more when it comes to deciding what to buy for whom," says Mr Sheridan.

"Look at, for instance. We can now browse recommendations for boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, grandma and grandpa.

"Capitalising on the fact that Christmas is all about family, we're prompted to think about other relatives and buying gifts for them. In short, by offering us convenience and personal/sentimental family triggers, we are prompted to buy more."
Giving us more

At Christmas, shoppers like to feel like they are getting a gift too, Mr Sheridan points out. "Everyone wants a prize, which is why offers such as 'Three For Two' are big business at this time of year."

But interestingly, we hardly ever see Bogof – buy-one-get-one-free – in the run-up to the festive period. "This is because retailers want you to work a bit harder and spend a bit more to get the freebie.

"They want us to go in to buy one gift and be seduced into buying a second in order to receive something free. The trick is to ensure you attribute every gift you buy to someone so that buying that little bit extra is actually worth it."

The psychology of "giving you more" extends to supermarkets, with Christmas consumables being presented in larger pack sizes, offering "a third extra free" to draw in the thrifty. But are we really getting something for nothing?

"Take a step back and look at the offer logically," advises Mr Sheridan. "Let's say a supermarket offers a third off a turkey. You'd be happy to get a bigger bird for the same price that you planned to spend.

"Then you continue shopping, knowing that you've got more bang for your buck. However, to go alongside the bigger turkey, you're going to need extra veg, extra stuffing and extra cranberry sauce.

"Suddenly, the saving isn't as great as you thought, and the supermarket actually ends up making back more than the initial discount through your increased spend."


Quality champagne tastes better out of a wine glass than a flute.

Hard Lives

MPs have been given free tickets to sports events, balls and the opera, worth more than £100,000, alongside £800,000 worth of foreign trips, an analysis of the current register of members’ interests reveals.
Perks received by parliamentarians, often from large corporations, include free VIP tickets to Wimbledon, trips to the Glyndebourne opera festival, and tours of the Chelsea flower show.
Tobacco companies were among the most prolific providers of corporate hospitality to MPs, with JTI, the maker of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut cigarettes, offering hospitality to nine MPs. Imperial Tobacco provided three MPs with VIP tickets to, and hospitality at the Wimbledon tennis finals, worth around £1,600 each.
One of the keenest recipients of free tennis tickets was the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who accepted a week’s free pass to the ATP World Tour finals from professional player Aisam Qureshi. He also accepted seats in the royal box at Wimbledon on several occasions, courtesy of the Lawn Tennis Association.
Michael Gove, the chief whip and former education secretary, also received hospitality on several occasions, including ball tickets from Capital FM; tickets and hospitality for the opera at Glyndebourne from Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Daily Mail; and private box tickets from Chelsea Football Club.
The Guardian contacted the offices of both Gove and Bercow several times to ask about the possible benefits to their constituents of accepting such hospitality, but neither had responded at the time of publication.
Under parliamentary rules, MPs are free to accept hospitality and overseas visits at their own discretion, provided all are declared on the appropriate parliamentary registers. All the visits covered by the Guardian were properly declared, and there is no suggestion any MP breached parliamentary rules.
The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, accepted a Bloomberg computer terminal and subscription, which provides sophisticated and rapid financial information; a benefit he said was worth £14,800.
Numerous MPs accepted overseas trips, often funded by cross-party groups with interests in particular countries. Israel and the Palestinian territories were the most common destination, with a total of 47 trips, the vast majority of which were funded by the Friends of Israel groups associated with the MPs’ respective political parties.
Hong Kong and China were also the destination of several group trips for MPs, primarily through the all-party parliamentary group for China, which is funded by HSBC, GSK, Arup and others.
Richard Graham, the MP for Gloucester and chair of the China group, said the visits provided substantial benefit to the UK.
“As the only Chinese speaker in the House of Commons, a former diplomat, British trade commissioner [for] China and the former founder chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, I see part of my role in parliament to offer an informed perspective on that very important country,” he said.
Graham said several businesses in his constituency exported goods to China, and noted: “Constituents raise issues of human and animal rights in China, which it is easier to answer when you have first-hand experience”.
The £800,000 worth of overseas trips and hospitality included in the Guardian analysis does not include visits undertaken as part of ministerial duties, or travel costs associated with MPs’ outside earnings, such as the cost of flights for giving a paid speech, which are typically declared elsewhere on the registers.
Other trips included multi-day visits to Antigua, one funded by a trade union and another by a regional forum; visits to Rio de Janeiro for conferences; trips to Dubai sponsored by conference organisers; visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE covered by the respective governments of each country; and a visit to Florida to speak on biomass power generation.

It's Not Even Halloween Yet

People have started to complain about Christmas starting much earlier than normal far earlier than normal, according the researchers.
“I noticed it the other day,” said office worker Simon Williams.
“I was in Marks and Spencer and these two old ladies were talking about how it was far too early to have a Christmas display up.”
“I can’t remember ever hearing someone complain about Christmas starting much earlier than normal as early as this before.”
“It’s usually around November,” added Serena Greene from account.
“The bit after Halloween is the traditional period for complaining that Christmas has started much earlier than normal.”
“But this year we have been hearing complaints that Christmas is starting much earlier than normal from mid-October, even late September.”

Christmas starting earlier

For some people, complaining about Christmas starting much earlier than normal can’t come early enough.
“Oh no, I love complaining about Christmas starting much earlier than normal!” said Christopher Paul of East Sussex.
“I don’t think it’s ever too early to complain about Christmas starting much earlier than normal.”
“In fact, I had a bit of a moan-up this week when the wife asked if I fancied Turkey this year.”
This year has seen a significant trend towards complaints about Christmas starting much earlier than normal starting much earlier than normal.
The earliest recorded complaint about Christmas starting much earlier than normal was in 2006 when Julian Brown mentioned to his wife Teri that ‘it was far too early to think about whose parents to go to.’


Overfed mice that are exposed to UV light stop putting on weight.


The cost of getting a driving licence is being cut following a recent public consultation, the government says.

The fee for drivers applying for a provisional driving licence online will fall from £50 to £34 and online renewals after 10 years will fall from £20 to £14.

The new fees, representing price cuts of up to 32%, begin on 31st October.

More at the BBC
A Russian political activist has called on the government to ban public celebrations of Halloween, as part of a campaign against American influence.
Georgy Federov, a member of the Civic Chamber parliamentary scrutiny body, says people across the country have complained to him about "drunk youngsters dressed as corpses and monsters scaring decent members of the public on the streets". Celebrations in night clubs often "degenerate into orgies", he adds in a letter to Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, according to Izvestia newspaper. Referring to current "strained relations with the US", he says Halloween has been imposed on Russians and is foreign to their cultural traditions. "Some extremists use these 'holidays' for propaganda purposes... You need to launch counter-propaganda. We have our own traditional festivals, which at least do not run contrary to religious ethics and human morality," he says. Mr Federov suggests authorities could offer venues financial incentives "to stop decking themselves out with pumpkins and sham corpses".
A ministry spokesman says they have not yet received Mr Federov's letter, and notes that Halloween is usually marked in cafes and restaurants, which lie beyond the ministerial remit. "We have no plans to celebrate Halloween in theatres, concert halls or libraries," he tells Izvestia. Social media comment ranges as usual from support to mockery of the proposal, with one Izvestia reader suggesting a compromise called "Hangovereen - our own holiday when your pumpkinheads ache."

Beating the Poor Gap

Wearing a black and white furry suit and adopting a diet consisting solely of bamboo is the average British child’s best hope of survival, a new report suggests.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by former Labour minister Alan Milburn, claimed the current government were far more concerned at the levels of algae in their moats, than the amount of food in the stomachs of the young.
Speaking to reporters outside the Houses of Parliament, Milburn said, “The prospects for a child born into a working class family are about as grim as those for a Lib Dem election candidate.”
“Parents struggling to find work in the era of zero hour contracts and food banks expecting any form of assistance from the state would be better served developing their own novel ways of ensuring the survival of their children.”
“I would suggest dressing them up as a panda, people seem to fall over themselves to give money to them.”

Panda plan for poor

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, was less concerned at the perilous situation being experienced by vast swathes of the population.
He told reporters, “Dressing as a panda and eating bamboo? What utter nonsense.”
“There are many other ways to increase your families chances of survival under Tory-rule.”
“My preference would be for poor people to consider cannibalism.”
“It’s a diet that’s high in protein, and also helps with the nation’s spiralling benefits bill – so win-win.”

Tomorrow's Big Game


  • Tottenham have won on four of the last five occasions they have hosted Newcastle.
  • However, they were beaten 1-0 in last season's corresponding fixture.
  • The two sides have not drawn a Premier League match at White Hart Lane in 17 meetings since 29 October 1995.
Tottenham Hotspur
  • Tottenham have lost two of their previous three league games at home. Prior to this they had won five in a row.
  • After scoring four goals in their opening home match of the season, they have only found the net once in their subsequent three games.
  • They have only won one of their last six league matches (W1, D2, L3).
  • Mauricio Pochettino's side have five fewer points after eight games than they did last season. Their tally of 11 is their worst at this stage for six years.
  • Spurs have conceded nine penalties in 2014 - the most in the Premier League.
  • Newcastle are without a win in nine league matches away from home since they won 4-1 at Hull on 1 March.
  • They have only won twice on their travels in the league in 2014 (W2, D3, L9).
  • This season the Magpies have scored in just one of their four away matches in the Premier League - when Papiss Cisse scored twice in the 2-2 draw with Swansea.
  • Those are the only goals scored by a Newcastle player away from home in nine matches. Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel's own goal was the only other time they've found the net.
  • Cisse has been involved in five goals in his last four Premier League appearances for the Magpies (four goals, one assist).

Happy Pasta Day

On October 25, carb lovers from around the world will unite to do some Lady and the Tramp-style pasta slurping on World Pasta Day. You can celebrate this delicious holiday by chowing down on the classics—spaghetti, fettuccine, elbow macaroni, and lasagna (which is both the name of the pasta shape and the moniker for the delicious layered dish)—but why not use such a special day to expand your pasta-loving range with some fun new shapes?


At first glance, twisted pieces of strozzapreti—which means "priests choker" or "priests strangler" in Italian, and is allegedly named for a gluttonous priest who ate them too quickly—might look like half-made bits of penne or other tube-shaped pasta that just couldn’t hold their shape. But it's meant to look non-uniform. First rolled out into wide sheets (think lasagna), the pasta is cut into big strips, which are then hand-rolled to get their unique appearance.


The ever-versatile “bow tie” pasta comes in three sizes to suit every appetite and meal, from the traditionally sized farfalle to a bigger version (farfalloni) and even a little type that works wonderfully in soups (farfalline). A thicker pasta, farfalle can hold up to chunkier sauces and bigger baked dishes while still retaining its bite.


A perfect new pasta shape for fans of elbow macaroni, both pipe rigate and its tinier version, pipette rigate, offer the kind of curved shape that’s so appealing to bite into. With one slightly closed end, both of the rigates are aces at holding on to thicker sauces.


Shaped like little ruffled radiators (hence that adorable name), radiatori are another good bet for thick sauces and hefty casseroles. Kids also love their fun shape, which legend has it was created by an industrial designer in the 1960s (though some trace the shape's creation to the time between the two World Wars).


Star-shaped pasta is another surefire hit with kids, and stelle comes in two sizes: the larger stelle are fine on their own (and especially good with just a little butter and salt), while the teensy stelline are perpetual favorites in broth-based soups.


fugzu, Flickr 
Shaped to look like little hats—in fact, they’re occasionally even called “alpine hats”—cappelletti are folded and then twisted to form their unique shape. Some versions are folded up entirely to contain meat filling, resembling small, triangle-shaped ravioli.


Another great pick for soups, ring-shaped anelli (and its smaller version, anellini) cook up quickly and hold their thin shape in broth.


The bell-shaped pasta is quite a looker, what with its rolled shape and ruffled edges. Big enough to stand up to meaty and chunky sauces, it’s also a popular pick for cold pasta salads that include big bits of veggies and cheese that could crush a less sturdy shape. The name means "bellflower" in Italian.


Consider cavatappi a kind of next level elbow macaroni. Like its cousin, cavatappi is tightly twisted into a pleasing shape, but unlike elbows, it’s got more than one kink in it. Imagine a piece of elbow macaroni that’s made up of two stuck-together pieces—that’s cavatappi.


“Orecchiette” translates to “little ears,” and it’s not hard to see where this shape gets its moniker. Shaped like tiny bowls or teensy ears, this pasta is often used for thick sauces, which stick tightly to their gently concave middle.


Another kid-pleaser, this wheel-shaped pasta is both fun to look at (they are wheels made out of pasta, what's better than that?) and a solid pick for pairing with just about anything. Its large gaps and ridged surface provide lots of places for sauce to stick, and all those nooks and crannies are wonderful for meat and veggies to wedge into.


A close cousin of strozapretti, cavatelli is similarly cut from big sheets and then rolled into smaller pieces. Cavatelli pieces are shorter than strozapretti bits, though, and thicker dough makes them resemble tiny hot dog buns.


Jennifer, Flickr
A shorter and smaller version of more familiar tube shapes like penne and rigatoni, ditalini is another good pick for soups. The shape is perpetually popular in Sicily, where the pasta is used in all kinds of dishes, including baked casseroles and pasta salads.


The shell-shaped pasta has already proven to be a popular alternative for macaroni and cheese, and larger shapes are perfect for stuffing, but they are also a good bet for baked dishes. Their ridged surface holds on to sauce, and their deep middle easily holds on to thicker ingredients.


You might be more familiar with the twisted shape of fusilli or rotini, but the tightly twisted gemelli offer more body and density, perfect for biting into. Although gemelli might look like two strands of pasta twisted into one piece, they’re actually made by rolling a single strand together. The hefty shape is a good pick for pasta salads and cream-based sauces.
Mental Floss




Zuckerberg China speech
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has received polite applause from a Chinese university audience, despite accidentally telling them in Mandarin that he would like to do rude things to their grandmothers.
The Facebook boss was talking to students at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, and was keen to show how much Mandarin Chinese he had learnt since his pledge to learn the language in 2010.
As one Chinese audience member explained, “Mandarin is not easy, and mistakes from Westerners are common – but how he referred to his time in Beijing as an ‘endless miserable sweaty bum chain’ I’ll never know.”
“And I don’t even know what ‘sex dump grandma’ actually means, but I hope he plans to buy her dinner first.”
“There were a few other funny ones, like how the way he tried to describe China ‘a land of culture and history’, and instead his accent made it sound like he called China ‘an absolute f*cking goldmine’ – that was hilarious.”

Zuckerberg speaks Chinese

Another student in the audience said the despite his errors, they were all pleased to see him make the effort to court China.
They told us, “At one point he was asked about plans for Facebook in China, and he said ‘You are all sheep to me, sheep with dollar signs on their back that I have every intention of chasing like a dog’.”
“I’ve no idea what he was actually trying to say, probably some strange Western idiom, but it was clearly a hilarious mis-translation.”
“These things can happen, and we appreciate the effort – he is a funny man!”

Taking a Punt

South Africa's gambling board has been suspended for seemingly overspending on foreign travel, including a trip to Las Vegas, it's reported.
The board spent 4.1 million rand ($374,000; £233,000) on trips abroad in three years, including visits to Turkey, Singapore and France, the Times Live website reports.The biggest chunk of cash was spent on flying seven of its members to a Las Vegas gaming conference in 2011, at a cost of more than 936,000 rand ($85,000; £53,000), according to South Africa's trade and industry minister, Rob Davies.
The board members' spending habits came to light after a parliamentary question on the details surrounding their suspension, which happened in September. They have allegedly contravened the Public Finance Management Act by "failing to prevent irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure," the website reports. Aside from regulating the gambling industry, South Africa's National Gambling Board exists to "to preserve the integrity of South Africa as a responsible global citizen," according to its website.


The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

Creep Zones

Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird—for those who dream about traveling the world, welcome to your nightmare. These places will blast chills down your spine.


Robin Esrock
In the 13th century, an abbot brought sand from Jerusalem back to Bohemia and sprinkled it over the monastery's graveyard. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be buried there, and it wasn't long before space ran out. For centuries, monks collected and stored human remains, until a local woodcarver was hired to get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit the church, marvel at the morbid creativity of its contents, and the extensive uses of the human body.


Robin Esrock
The hipbone may indeed be connected to the thighbone, but underneath the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima, it is connected to other bones too. Beneath the impressive monastery lie a series of narrow catacombs, where you’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built to withstand earthquakes, the air inside the catacomb is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you’ll want to watch your head too.


Old Graveyards and cemeteries are creepy at the best of times. Père Lachaise gets bonus points for its long history, the deathly clutter of mausoleums, the gothic architecture, and occasional weirdness—like spooky graffiti, burnt offerings, or awful angsty poetry visitors leave to honour Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.
Creepier still are the Paris Catacombs, a limestone labyrinth snaking beneath the city containing the remains of six million Parisians. The dark abandoned quarry, filled with the bodies from long-closed Parisian cemeteries, will make you long for the tranquility of the graveyard.


Robin Esrock
Robin Esrock
There is creepy, there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse, and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, places like Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Auschwitz, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture murdered skulls piled 30 feet high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of this story. And yet sites like The Killing Fields, Auschwitz and Kigali continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.


Robin Esrock
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror—at least in books and movies. Some say (though some disagree) that fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves? Nobody has seen one of them in ages—in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the historical capital of Cluj Napoca, full of cool bars frequented by students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. And yet, knowing this still, I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.


Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice. It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. Walk up the blackened, cracked stairs, soak up the mystery, and wallow in silence so spooky it could break your fall.


Robin Esrock
Though this was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough, the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than normal. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Pripyat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets.
Robin Esrock
A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.


Robin Esrock
The Kataragama Festival is a colorful, peaceful and inspiring celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Nevertheless, I stumbled across a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of my TV show, the reaction of our sound guy (look right) speaks volumes.


By day, Stone Town feels wonderfully exotic. A maze of narrow alleys, mosques, beautifully carved large wooden doors—there’s a glorious sense of Persian, African, Indian, and European history, a city scrubbed in the fortunes of the wealthy Sultan of Oman. Wait until nightfall. Now you can really feel Stone Town’s dark, seedy past, when the city functioned as a sordid centre of slaving, piracy and smuggling. Blackened buildings, cracked cobblestone, darting shadows in the maze of alleys—it’s enough to spook even the most sceptical imagination. Vampires don’t exist, but if they did, they’d holiday in Stone Town.


Robin Esrock
Built around the 12th and 13th century, the churches of Lalibela have been painstakingly carved top down into red volcanic rock as freestanding structures. The columns, carvings and masonry make nonsense of the idea that ancient Africa lacked a civilization as advanced as any in Europe.
Robin Esrock
The 11 rock churches are dark, musty, and not the kind of place you’d want to be locked up for the night. Mummified corpses of ancient holy men stuffed into holes in the surrounding rocks don’t help. Adding to the creep factor: the fleas infesting the original rugs and carpets, known to climb up visitors’ legs.
Mental Floss