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Oddities Archives

Wonder if this is worth a room upgrade?

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TripAdvisor offered to send us a free "Top Contributor" tote bag. I don't normally use tote bags, but it might be funny to see the reaction of hotel staff if we walked in carrying one.

Pallavi decided to sleep in upon our return from an early-morning trip to Kom Ombo temple, leading to a certain amount of consternation from the cleaning staff, who wanted to come in and fix the place up. We came back to the room after lunch to find this little fellow hanging in the entryway.

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I'll admit to the possibility that this was meant to be a jovial and welcoming figure, but with its vaguely threatening aspect it felt more like the janitorial equivalent of a horse's head left in the bed. We resolved to be up and out of their way the next morning, and sure enough, waiting for us was a much more cheering towel swan.

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Abercrombie & Kent, the Nile Cruise Boat

We found this in a hardware store in Marrakech while we were looking for a juicer. I don't know what you would cleave with this thing. It was all one piece of metal, and looked more like something out of a low-budget Tolkein ripoff than a kitchen implement.

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UPDATE [July 15]: According to one of my friends on Facebook, this implement is used to cleave meat with bones. Given the weight, I can see that.

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A camel-mounted policeman outside the Red Pyramid

I have no idea what he was protesting about, but he was very happy when someone decided to take a picture of him.

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It seems logical. El Corte Ingles needs to name its own-brand patio furniture range. It goes outdoors. Outside the house. Nonetheless...

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Insert crude joke about thrones here.

...maybe you should check your branding with a native speaker.

(Urban legend background behind the title for this post here.)

Faces that haunt our journey

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I recently received a request for a photograph of myself, and was left scratching my head. I actually do have an electronic album of my few decent photos, but that album is on a hard drive in storage somewhere in suburban New York. All I have with me are photos from this trip.

Instead of weeding through several thousand photographs looking for a presentable image, I decided to cheat by relying on Picasa's facial recognition technology. I left the program running overnight and returned the next morning, coffee in hand, to the somewhat tedious task of identifying four thousand or so faces that Picasa had picked out of our photos.

Most of these faces belonged to innocent bystanders, and could be set aside easily. There were a few photos of me, a few more of Pallavi, and several of friends and travel companions whom we've met along the road. In the end, I found a couple of pictures that didn't make me look like a deranged lunatic with a bad haircut. But Picasa also picked out the faces of two individuals who we'd photographed in several countries, and yet weren't friends or family.

It's not surprising that we have multiple pictures of President Obama, whether in a cafe in Ecuador;

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or on a campaign poster in Peru.

But while the President may get a bit of exposure, he's a virtual nonentity in comparison to the man who has followed our footsteps on every continent, in virtually every country: Che Guevara. 

Indian Television Ads

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Everywhere that we stayed in India had a television, which allowed us to watch the cricket and keep up with the news. And almost every television station, whether showing Indian dramas or American movies, had the occasional ad in English. I wish I could find some of the body spray advertisements online, because they give Axe  commercials a run for their money in the lack-of-taste department. [1]

On the other hand, I applaud the marketing department that attempted to make a low center of gravity moped sexy:

This Tata commercial seems symptomatic of a corporate inferiority complex: it's not like these "advanced" features are novel on Japanese cars. More to the point, we rode in a Tata Manza on the way from New Delhi to Agra. It's a competent little vehicle, but I don't think the feature set or build quality is keeping Japanese engineers anxiously awake at night.

Then again: there's a reason Tata isn't bragging that its cars outclass GM!

[1] Lynx, for my friends in the UK.

We arrived in Oomaru, part of our as-yet-mostly-unblogged ten day road trip through New Zealand's south island, in order to watch as the famous blue penguins made their way back to their nests. I wish we'd had more time to spend, because the city is as quirky, cute and fascinating as its flightless waterfowl.

Penguins' Progress

Let's get this out of the way: the blue penguin may be the cutest creature ever, or at least cutest thing created by God as opposed to Hayao Miyazaki.

Actually, there's more than a little influence of Miyazaki in the blue penguin, as well as traces of Disney and Charlie Chaplin. The smallest breed of penguin in the world, they stand about twelve inches high, and are apparently as graceful in the water as they are clumsy on land. Their short stature makes it difficult for them to climb the steep hillsides rising out of their oceans to their nests. Intensely communal, they twist and turn their heads while looking at each other in a manner that begs for a voice over from a British comedian. To top it all off, they can't see yellow light.

This last disability is what allows them to be a major tourist draw. Every year they return to their nesting area to raise their new chicks. Proud penguin parents journey out into the ocean by day to scoop up small fish, and return each night under what they think is the cover of darkness to feed their young. The locals of Oomaru have cunningly constructed a giant stone ampitheater right next to the nesting area, allowing spectators to observe the progress of these penguins back to their nests under intense yellow spotlights.

It's comedy gold.

I found these at a shoe shop in Hoi An, but they didn't have them in my size and they couldn't make me a custom pair in time. If they're replicas of some existing brand, I can't find them on Amazon, either.IMG 0377

When Tony and I were driving into the Lakes District, on our way to the Ambleside YHA we passed a school that had a large roadside sign advertising their upcoming production of the musical "Rent." I immediately wanted to see it, because I'd never seen an amateur production of "Rent" and was especially curious to see how it would be done by a secondary school. The idea reminded me of a Sue Sylvester line from Glee: "That was the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching -- and that includes an elementary school production of Hair." (Though "Rent" thankfully lacks the infamous nudity of "Hair").

I first saw "Rent" during its Washington DC run, when I was in my last year of high school and in town with my father to tour colleges. Having seen a stream of rave reviews from the New York press about this groundbreaking show, I'd reserved tickets far in advance and was full of anticipatory excitement to see it. I knew that the show had updated "La Boheme" by using AIDS in place of TB, and that several characters were gay. What the New York press hadn't mentioned, however, was that the dialogue and lyrics frequently make explicit references -- to S&M, masturbation, ED (remember this predates ubiquitous Viagra ads) -- culminating in the song "Contact." Watching the show with Dad, I'd winced at each sexual remark, but by the end of that song, which depicts the characters having sex complete with all the noises, I was ready to sink through the floor with teenage embarrassment.

Nonetheless, I loved the musical, bought and memorized the soundtrack, and even saw the traveling show in Houston a few years later with my parents, when I was older and less horrified to have them in the same room as a joke about an "inability to maintain an erection on the High Holy Days." Still, the minor trauma of that first viewing sticks with me and made me want to see The Lakes School's production. How would teenagers cope with not just watching such a show with their parents, but performing it in front of them?

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The captain just came on the intercom, gave us the normal welcoming speech, and then finished by providing us with the score of today's cricket game.

I suspect that more frequent updates will be given on tomorrow's flights during the big match between Pakistan and India.

I have no idea what Solid Masti is, but if the name doesn't enthrall you, you can always try Lay's Magic Masala.

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To build upon the great Benjamin Franklin, three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and the desire of insects to suck your blood out of your skin. In some countries, biting fiends actually constitute a mortal risk, through malaria or dengue fever. In all countries, they're an annoyance. [1] If you travel around the world, you'll get to observe the methods used by locals to prevent bug bites, be they hippie-approved all-organic tomato-based sprays, incense coils that smoke up a room, or the ubiquitous Off!

The most effective thing we've come across, however, is Detar, a mosquito-repelling lotion that we picked up on our first night in Ecuador. In the war against mosquitos, this stuff is the equivalent of nuclear weaponry: we've saved what's in the bottle, using it sparingly, and bringing it out only in locations with the worst of the worst bugs.

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This stuff is uncompromising. It doesn't smell good. It doesn't contain small amounts of sunscreen, like other repellents often do. Mosquitos, however, feel about this spray like Superman does about kryptonite, Jamie Oliver about fattening fast food, or Charles Rangel about IRS audits. I've actually seen little blood-sucking beasts fly near to Pallavi while she was wearing Detar, hover for a moment, and then dash away like they'd smelled the coming of the devil himself.

The bottle's a bit scary, though, especially if you look at the back of the one we're carrying. The concoction has actually stripped the paint off of the back label, leaving only a handful of partially-intelligible warning signs. Although it's hopefully safe to use on humans, I think these mean that you don't want to pour it in the water or use it on animals that might be used for food. This is probably just one more reason for Greenpeace to disapprove of me.

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 [1] Far in the future, I suppose an insect might evolve who not only bites the victim, but injects some substance that provides a pleasant, soothing effect. Anti-drug zealots will then ban being bitten by these insects, probably imposing strict liability.

Seen on the Skytrain

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You're likely to see a sign like this on any form of public transport in the world.

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This, on the other hand, I've only ever seen in Thailand.

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Here are a few pictures of strange and interesting signs that haven't really fit in any other entry.

An election poster, Lima, Peru (September 25, 2010):

Forgive my cynicism, but I somehow doubt that President Obama actually endorsed Dr. Davila.


Blueberry and Hazelnut Pringles

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It's always fun to see what happens to "American" brands that have gone global. I think we've seen Pringles all over the world, but we've found the widest and goofiest variety in Southeast Asia.

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Sure, there are your standards: Cheesy Cheese, Sour Cream and Onion. There's a few things you'd expect to see on any good Asian tour: Wild Spice, Bangkok Grilled Chicken Wing (part of the "street food" series), Seaweed, Grilled Shrimp, Softshell Crab. But then we leave the land of the savory altogether, and plunge into "fruit and nut" potato chips: Lemon and Sesame and the so-improbable-we-had-to-try-it Blueberry and Hazelnut.

Prediction: this will not become a hit in the U.S. anytime soon.

Critical Information

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If you are doing a lot of international travel, take the time to learn the words for "men" and "women" in the local tongue. There will come a time when you are faced with two doors, and they will not be as helpfuly illustrated as the ones below.

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Restrooms at the Wonder Restaurant in Da Nang, Vietnam

It did make me a bit homesick, though: this photo of Mr. Stewart often perches above his New York studio, which I would walk past every now and then on the way to a restaurant. (If memory serves, it reminds passersby that if they're looking for the Penthouse Club, it's on the next block.)

I am a bit surprised to see the Daily Show star chosen as a model of sartorial excellence. Then again, the female celeb on the opposite side of the doorway is Lindsay Lohan.

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Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all

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When you hear that the majority of U.S. currency in circulation is held outside the United States, you may be envisioning piles of dollars in a Beijing treasury or under a Russian billionaire's mattress. But I've been discovering during this trip how much the U.S. dollar has become either the actual or de facto currency of various developing countries.

For example, if you've ever puzzled over the rarity of the Sacagawea coins, wonder no more: they mostly seem to have ended up in Ecuador, which retired its sucre several years ago and now uses U.S. dollars as official currency. Ecuador still mints some centavo coins for amounts less than $1, and the $1 bill is far less common than $1 coins. This change aroused the contempt of other South American countries, which at various times may have pegged their currency to that of the U.S. to minimize inflation, but hung onto their power to print bills. When we excused our clumsiness in dealing with Peruvian money to a guide by explaining that we'd been spoiled by our home currency in Ecuador, he laughed and said that the Ecuadoreans were the joke of the continent for giving up their own money and having foreigners' faces on all their bills and most of their coins.

And indeed in Peru and Argentina, people generally expect travelers to use the local currency. The one time I saw something denominated solely in dollars in Argentina was the $140 visa fee charged only to Americans. (The small town of Colonia, Uruguay, which gets hordes of day-tripping tourists on the boat from Buenos Aires, is less picky and accepts Argentinean pesos.) The same is true in Indonesia -- even when you were given a price in dollars, you were expected to pay in rupiah -- and of course in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, the only country we'd visited that wasn't on the U.S. dollar but where vendors were willing to accept it in lieu of local currency was Canada.

Cambodia is the first instance we've encountered of a country that nominally retains its own currency (riels), but operates almost entirely on American money. When we arrived at Phnom Penh airport on December 29 with only Hong Kong dollars in hand, the airport taxi tout directed us to an exchange service that listed various currencies, including Hong Kong's, but seemed to have bizarre prices for them. The Hong Kong dollar was at almost 8 to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar was worth more than 4000 riel, so I expected to see Hong Kong at something like 500. Yet HKD was listed as 7 and change. It took me a moment to realize that the exchange was of various foreign currencies not to riels, but to U.S. dollars.

Travel advisories on making the trip to Cambodia by crossing overland from Thailand all emphasize that one should not be fooled into exchanging money for riels at the border, despite the scam artists insisting that you'll need riels once you enter Cambodia. Visa fees and everything else can be paid in dollars.

Maybe if you aren't a tourist, you can get someone to deal with you in riels, but everything we've done in Cambodia thus far -- riding tuk-tuks and buses, visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum, buying a book in a foreign-language bookstore, getting a massage, even ordering tickets to a New Year's celebration where 95% of those attending were Khmer -- has been denominated and transacted in dollars. Occasionally a vendor will give us riels in change, because they don't have U.S. coins in circulation, so anything less than $1 will involve Cambodian bills. However, I haven't seen Sacagawea here yet.

David Lat, Down Under

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A comment on my curious lawyer advertising post led me to FirmSpy. If for some reason you were ever looking for an Australian version of Above the Law, now you've found it.

I meet him on every continent, in every country. Hong Kong is no different.

Pallavi wanted to hit the 8th Annual Hong Kong Food Festival at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, but since that isn't really my cup of tea (or steamed dumpling, wine sample, fried won ton etc.), I ventured up a few escalators to Asia Game Show 2010. I'd never actually been to a games exhibition, and I don't think this was a great one. Sony dominated the event, taking up over half the floor space, mostly to advertise GT5 and the Playstation Move. [1] What wasn't taken up by Playstation had been taken over by cosplayers representing video game icons that I could not begin to identify.

Then he sauntered around the corner, and I almost didn't recognize him: MiniChe, leading the next generation into socialism through the free market purchase of branded consumer goods!

Behold MiniChe, stamped on just about every product from youth-oriented BSX. This cuddly little brand character, based on everybody's favorite executioner for the Castro regime, wandered the aisles waving at children, posing for cameras and stroking his cartoon stubble. His image could be purchased on hoodies, jeans, tote bags... just about anything. A plastic piggy bank was my favorite, as it allowed the hero of the revolution to be used to store up one's filthy lucre. I'll admit, I bought someone an impromptu late Christmas present.

Che: he's not just for pizza anymore!

MiniChe goods: JOIN US!

[1] Basically Sony's answer to the Wii's motion controls.

From the Department of Huh?

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I don't understand why the back end of this bus should make me conclude that I need legal advice. Any thoughts on how I'm missing the joke? (Taken in Cairns, Australia.)

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Airport Security

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The new changes to American airport safety procedures have been much in the news lately, with the news coverage even managing to pierce our internet- and TV-deprived cocoon. I had originally greeted the news that the TSA would be adopting backscatter x-rays with considerable enthusiasm, as I had participated in a trial run of one of the early devices before a Heathrow-New York flight a few years ago. As the security technician was testing the machine, he talked to me about the device, showing me my pale mannequin-like image (the machine makes you look much fatter than you are) and highlighting to me the advantages of the new technique. As I recall, the main benefit to passengers was supposed to be less time spent in security and the elimination of the need to remove jackets, belts and shoes. At the time I wondered how much of the test was about introducing passengers to the new technology, rather than actually making sure that it worked in the field.

Obviously, we've not been back to the United States nor had to endure the new procedures, but I gather from news reports that they have not been well-received, especially coupled with a pat-down alternative described as if it is just short of sexual assault. Nor have I seen proponents of the new system suggest that there is an upside for passengers in the sense of quicker or more convenient security screening. The whole arrangement differs considerably from my British experience, which was altogether pleasant.

We've taken half a dozen international flights on this trip, with almost as many domestic flights. The security arrangements have differed markedly by country, and sometimes within countries. At a few checkpoints, security made passengers take off their shoes, but this was uncommon. Buenos Aires' international terminal made us get rid of water and other liquids before going through to the gates, but this was not necessary on the domestic Puerto Madryn to Buenos Aires flight. Australia and New Zealand have been very strict about ensuring that any small liquids in your carry on are in a plastic bag, and if you don't have one, will helpfully provide one for you. [1] Meanwhile, every checkpoint has had a different procedure for what constitutes a "computer." Some screeners consider a Kindle to be a computer, and others are perfectly happy to keep it in the bag.

In my experience, security screeners respond to the differing customs of international travelers with a kind of bemused graciousness. While the occasional x-ray machine technician will let you get your boots all the way off before telling you that you can walk through a metal detector with shoes on, most will stop you before you hold up the line too badly. When faced with a passenger quietly wondering whether a water bottle needs to be binned or can be kept, they will usually swoop in with a kind explanation. I haven't encountered (knock on wood) anyone in security who has been anything less than polite, even if sometimes they were somewhat hurried.

[1] I really don't get this. If all I have is one bottle of handwash, and I show it to the inspector, what is the point of her handing me a plastic bag, me placing the handwash into the plastic bag, and her inspecting the bag-and-handwash comb? It reminds me of some old school Monkey Island -style adventure game where only the precisely correct combination of inventory items will allow you to get on to the next puzzle.

Welcome to New Zealand. Please don't die.

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As I've mentioned, New Zealand looks a bit like heaven's back lot: every twist around a mountain road reveals another magnificent valley, until the path goes far enough east and runs into Kaikoura and miles of azure coast. The question isn't why they shot The Lord of the Rings here. It's why one doesn't treat every movie, from A River Runs Through It to Leprechaun 6 - Back 2 Tha Hood, as an excuse to shoot New Zealand scenery.

Given the idyllic ambiance, New Zealand's highway safety signs come as a bit of a shock.

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There are quite a few traffic safety signs in this morbid vein. One dramatically proclaims:

DRINK DrIvE

(I imagine that they thought having the red letters drip with blood would be a bit too over the top.) Another shows a cross atop a grave, with the tag line "If it's a race, this is the finish line." [1] The overall effect is to give one the impression that New Zealand's roads are deadly wastelands, strewn with the wrecks of unwary, careless, or inebriated drivers.

A few other examples:

A careless man's careful daughter

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Bad news for people who don't like Taylor Swift. I think I've heard something by the Kanye-dissed songstress in every country we've traveled through thus far. Although not every country thinks she's a country-music musician.

On October 18, the same day that Pallavi's elder sister left Buenos Aires, we set out on an eighteen-hour bus ride into Patagonia. Visitors to Puerto Madryn typically come to see whales, penguins, guanacos and other wildlife. And we did see these, as I'm sure we'll detail in a later post, but I also had an entirely different kind of adventure.

Having returned from an eventful Wednesday afternoon's whale-watching, I left Pallavi at our hostel to wander around Puerto Madryn seeking out socks to replace those lost in the lavenderia. The city itself is not as touristy as one might expect. The roads near the coast are dotted with hotels, and the avenues slightly inland decked out with backpacker hostels, but Puerto Madryn's most important economic activity is industry. (If you travel an hour north to watch whales, you will pass aluminium smelters, agribusiness operations, and other manufacturing plants, as well as a gigantic open landfill supporting a population of thousands of scavenging seagulls.) Tourism's role in the local economy is secondary: travellers are scarce for the third of the year when the whales and penguins have migrated elsewhere.

Thus, Puerto Madryn is actually a surprisingly good place to shop for basic necessities. Businesses cater mostly for locals. When it comes to clothing, the selection is good, you can purchase both local and foreign brands, and stores generally don't have a gringo markup.

Near the shopping district, and about three blocks away from the hostel, I came across the creatively named Casino Puerto Madryn. The place itself looks small, and besides a tall neon sign (reminiscent of an old movie theatre) not particularly obstrusive. But outside the door, a friendly sign advised that their next poker tournament, with a AR$220 (~US$50) buy-in, would be held the next night. So I returned later that evening to sign up.

One Shirt to Rule the Byzantine Empire

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An important lesson about international travel: bring extra socks. The little b**%#@#s are Madame Bovaries of fidelity. Like carbon dating, I suspect you can tell how long someone has been on the road by the percentage of original socks that they retain at any given point. Socks will betray you, they will leave you, they will get lost, whether you do your own laundry or give them to a service.

Thus on a rainy September day in Cuzco we stepped into a Tipitop, a Gap-like chain of inexpensive clothing offering "MEGA-sales!" And while I didn't manage to find any socks in my size, a couple of interesting shirts caught my eye.

It wasn't that they were stylish: on the contrary, they were in garish colors that would not match any of my other clothes. But the designer indulged in an odd form of collage: he would take bits of old maps, combine them together, and stick them on a shirt as if they actually represented something. For instance, a shirt that declared itself to be a "Map of the Province of Nottingham" [1] turned out to be, on closer inspection, the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire from about 1890. And then there was this:
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The shirt, which bears the title EAST-WEST SCHISM, mostly consists of a map from The Atlas of Middle-Earth. It's all there: the Shire, Gondor, Mordor, each in glorious, copyright-violating purple-and-black. [2] The text below the map, on the other hand, reads:

The origins of the Crusades lie in developments in Western Europe (or earlier in the Middle East Ages, as well as the deteriorating situation of the Byzantine Empire in the east caused by a new wave of Turkish Muslim attacks. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in the late 9th century.

What does all this mean? Your guess is as good as mine. It was odd enough (and cheap enough), however, that I had to buy it. I figure it would make a great prize for a Devil May Care contest.

If you have thoughts on what the nature of the contest should be, please leave them in the comments.

[1] Is Nottingham even a province? Was it ever?

[2] For some reason it comes out as red when shot with an iPhone. I don't know why. Perhaps representations of the Eye of Sauron don't like Steven Jobs. Or perhaps Steve Jobs is Sauron, and iPhones are his version of the rings given to mortal man. The latter possibility is made much more likely if they ever launch an iCanHasInvizibility app.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like