Behind his calm, methodical approach to every hot chilli eating and super spicy food challenge, Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson is enduring a kind of physical pain and mental anguish beyond what most will ever experience in a lifetime.
In one of his most-watched YouTube livestreams, the 31-year-old Las Vegas resident downs 122 super-spicy Carolina Reapers, the Guinness World Record holder for hottest pepper, while fans watch and cheer him on. While there are clues that he’s struggling – his face turns a deep red color and shines with perspiration, and in the latter half in particular, he takes breaks – his low-key demeanor has made the growing chillihead community question whether he’s built like an average human, or if he’s human at all.
“I would say anywhere after 60, every few peppers I would say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep going,’” Johnson recounts via Zoom from the same black-lit, poster-adorned spot he shoots his videos in. “And people were like, ‘Nah, just keep going. You look like you’re fine.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not … but I’ll keep trying.’”
Two hours later, he finished the bowl.
Johnson concedes that he’s always had a higher-than-average tolerance to capsaicin, the organic compound in pepper seeds that interacts with receptors in the body to create the hot, burning sensation of spicy foods. He’s built that tolerance up with practice, especially when it comes to the mouth, the sensitive starting point of every competition. Some chilli eaters experience face spasms, thunderclap headaches, excessive sweating, tears and a gushing, runny nose, but just about everyone’s struggle peaks when the peppers proceed from the mouth to the digestive tract.
“You can effectively map your GI tract by feeling how it moves,” Johnson explains. It begins with a warm sensation at the base of the sternum, which quickly turns tight, like a sustained, never-ending ab crunch. As it continues down to the right side, Johnson says that’s where it stings the most. The pods have to wind through the intestines, and with every twist and turn comes a sharp, stabbing sensation.
Eventually, the stomach revolts, tightening even more into a stubborn cramp, seemingly begging for it all to stop.
“Luckily, what happens with me is I can stave that off long enough to get through a challenge or to get through a pepper contest,” says Johnson, who used to coolly solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle in competitions until fans complained it could give him an unfair advantage. “It’ll be later that night or even as late as the next morning – that’s when it hurts me the most.”
Some competitors are out of commission for days, unable to eat and tending to upset stomachs (and yes, that also sometimes means painful sessions on the toilet).
With first-place prizes in the most prestigious challenges hovering around the $1,000 mark, it’s a wonder why he or any of the thousands of YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers and Facebookers regularly upload challenge videos to the internet for fellow pepperheads and friends.
While competitive chilli eating has existed for years in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia among predominantly white men between the ages of 20 and 45, it’s become more mainstream and organized through social media and events like New York’s massive Hot Sauce Expo, Albuquerque’s Fiery Foods Show and Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper Eating Challenge in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The pandemic has driven everyone online, where people like Roger Trier, host of the Hot Dang Show, and Johnny Scoville (who is named after the Scoville heat unit, the way spice levels are measured in peppers and products) have built impressive followings for their hot sauce reviews and daring feats of strength.
There are innumerable types of challenges and products involved, sometimes with increasingly spicy raw pods, others with super-hot gourmet chocolate or gummy bears or tortilla chips, or a combination of all of the above. The most difficult has to be the extract challenges, where competitors eat tubes or chug bottles of extra-high concentrations of already overly hot peppers.
It’s largely driven by ego, showing off and a fondness for thrill-seeking, says Troy Primeaux, owner of Primo’s Peppers and the developer of the 7 Pot Primo, another one of the world’s hottest peppers at 1,473,480 Scoville heat units (SHU).
“I think there’s this innate morbid curiosity and fascination with peppers, just like there is with rock’n’roll,” he says on the phone from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. “They want to be cool. It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride, you know. They might be getting a little bit more than they think they’re going to get, but they want to show off to their girlfriend or wife.”
Much to the delight of audiences (and said girlfriends and wives), the toughest-looking or loudest-talking guy in the room isn’t always the winner. Some of the strongest competitors don’t have neck tattoos or bulging muscles, and not every winner is a man. Take London’s Shahina Waseem, a petite, stylish and so far undefeated woman who notoriously beat Johnson in the final speed-eating round in a fierce competition in Sacramento in 2019.
Waseem, who goes by the name UK Chilli Queen, remembers it well.
“That was probably the scariest contest of my life,” she confesses. “I was just in my head thinking, ‘How do I prove myself? I cannot lose now.’ And it was just ridiculous, because this guy – he’s a good friend of mine and he is brilliant at what he does – but he doesn’t feel the pain like anyone else, you know? He has this great big tolerance. He could sit there for hours and just look like a machine with no reactions, no tears, no nothing. And I am the opposite.”
When Waseem competes, she appears to enter a trancelike state. Between regular nose-blowing and the occasional “I don’t think I can do this”, she rocks back and forth as she chews through each challenge, eyes tearing through firmly closed eyes.
Waseem’s partner, Paul Ouro, and fellow UK competitor Matt Tangent are the founders of the League of Fire, an elaborate global ranking system where points are allocated to competitors when they successfully complete challenges. Until the League of Fire was established, the community was disparate and disjointed, and there was no official ranking of competitors.
While it’s not always peaceful and there can be plenty of trash-talking and pettiness, Ouro says the League has created a camaraderie among pepperheads that he didn’t anticipate.
“This isn’t professional, no one’s getting paid, everyone’s just stepping up to get bragging rights,” he says. After that first challenge against Johnson, Waseem and the rest of the competitors drank beers at a local bar and became fast friends. They visit each other when possible and watch each other’s livestreams, cheering each other on and sending each other super-hot and hard-to-get products available in their respective hometowns.
Some chilliheads have large enough audiences on YouTube that they can produce content full-time. Others become “hot sauce influencers”, which can help with funding travel to festivals. There’s a huge and growing market for extra-hot sauce: retail sales are up, probably in part because restaurants have closed in the pandemic. Trend forecasters are predicting that spicy foods are going to reach a whole new level of popularity in coming years: “Ultra-spicy is the new umami,” says a recent Guardian article.
One contributing factor is probably Hot Ones, a wildly successful web series by First We Feast where celebrities eat progressively spicy wings while answering well-researched questions from host Sean Evans. Their YouTube channel has gained 1.3 million new subscribers since March of last year, and the show’s been able to continue production by conducting interviews remotely with stars such as Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner as they taste-test hot wings.
It’s also a compelling way to sell hot sauce. The show produces its own line that clock in at various Scoville levels – an innovative approach to funding pop culture journalism. A company’s inclusion in the 10-sauce lineup can be game-changing for entrepreneurs in the space, especially when it comes to the spicier selections like Kansas City’s Da Bomb Beyond Insanity, a highly concentrated extract-based sauce that consistently sends A-list celebrities into total meltdowns.
Despite the fact that it sent actor Idris Elba into a coughing fit, made the chef Gordon Ramsay cry tears of agony and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron said it tastes like “battery acid”, I too was drawn to trying Da Bomb, one of the worst-reviewed sauces on the planet. When I was notified that my local hot sauce e-store had finally received new inventory (it consistently sells out), I pulled the trigger.
Under Johnson’s advice, I had dinner before my tasting. He says it’s good to protect the digestive tract with alkaline foods like yogurt or a banana. I ate two moderately spicy cauliflower “wings” first to warm up. Then, after reassuring myself that if Paul Rudd and Halle Berry could do it, so could I, I popped it in.
First, the flavor: It’s terrible. I don’t know what battery acid tastes like, but if the makers of Da Bomb (who say it was invented to spice enormous quantities of soups and stews with just a few drops) said it was inspired by it, I’d believe them.
But it’s nothing compared to the shocking burn that followed. I ran to the bathroom for cold water, sticking my tongue out in the mirror, surprised it wasn’t bleeding. There was also an endorphin rush – not enough to block out the pain, but the high felt transformative, like I may never be the same.
I was careful to not touch my eyes, where capsicum residue on your fingers can wreak all kinds of havoc. Tears streamed down my sweaty face, and my stomach clenched up in anticipation. At a mere 135,600 SHU, I was experiencing a fraction of what Waseem and Johnson do when they eat peppers like Carolina Reaper, which come in around 2,200,000 SHU.
I turned to milk, often on the table in front of competitor at chilli-eating competitions, but it’s an immediate disqualification if they take even a tiny sip. I gulped it down, imagining myself in the ER explaining my state to frontline workers in a pandemic.
But true to Johnson’s word, the worst was yet to come.
I could feel the heat traveling through my digestive tract, but it didn’t get too far. Like severe menstrual cramps, waves of nausea sent me to lay on the bathroom floor.
Eventually, I couldn’t hold it down. Regretting the pre-tasting meal, Da Bomb departed my system along with everything else in a steady sea of vomit. Since throwing up is a post-challenge trick chilli-eating competitors recommend, I maybe evaded the worst.
I wondered how Da Bomb’s makers, Spicin Foods, were building on its popularity. I should have guessed: Jeff Hinds, president of Spicin, says the company cranked the heat, developing even hotter versions of the wretched stuff.
Da Bomb Ground Zero measures at 321,003 SHU, and Da Bomb the Final Answer comes in at 1.5m SHU. At Spicin’s tasting bar in Kansas (which is open through the pandemic), chilli-eaters have to be 18 or over and sign a waiver to try “the Source” – which is recommended to be used one drop at a time and not “around children or pets” – at an astonishing 7.1m SHU.
Johnson admits that even he is intimidated by the extracts. And yet YouTube is filled with videos by amateurs and experienced chilli eaters all willing to feed an audience’s sado-masochistic taste for pain.
But reducing the allure to ego, thrill-seeking and sado-masochism isn’t the whole story. For Waseem and Johnson, chilli eating has been confidence-building for the formerly shy introverts. For fans, it can definitely be funny. But it can also be deeply inspiring.
“I’m Johnny Scoville, and as you know I have issues,” says the triple-braid bearded host of Chase the Heat at the beginning of his Mad Dog 357 Plutonium extract challenge video, where he’s about to chug the 9m SHU concentrate. He’s nervous, he says – not because of the challenge, which he’s already completed twice, but because of a confession he’s about to make.
He continues, explaining that the party side of chilli-eating competitions had taken a toll. He’d been drinking too much, and it had become unhealthy. He was livestreaming the challenge not just to entertain the audience, but also to mark one year of sobriety.
“I’m a better version of me today. You guys don’t know how my life has changed for the better in the last year,” he says, explaining that his family life has improved, he’s fallen in love and has a thriving YouTube channel.
“So you guys can do this,” he says. “If you guys have something that you’re trying to conquer, you can do it. If I can, you can.” A few minutes later, he puts on a protective glove and unscrews the cap of the extract, wincing at the aroma before holding it up to the camera.
“First time I did it, it smelled like pain and regret,” he says. “The second time I did it, it smelled like misery and trauma.
“It smells like victory and accomplishment today,” he finishes. “Now get ready to watch my head change color.”
In early January, Brooks Nader, a 26-year-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, was walking home alone from a night out in New York when she received a disturbing iPhone notification telling her she was carrying an “unknown accessory”.
“This item has been moving with you for a while,” the alert read. “The owner can see its location.”
That’s when she knew “something wasn’t right”, Nader told the NBC news program Today. Nader discovered that somebody had slipped an Apple AirTag into her coat pocket while she was sitting in a restaurant earlier. Unbeknown to her, the device tracked her location for four hours before Apple’s abuse prevention system triggered the notification to her phone.
AirTags are wireless, quarter-sized Bluetooth devices that retail for $29 each. Apple launched the product in April 2021 as tracking tools that users can pair with the company’s Find My app to help locate lost belongings, like backpacks or car keys.
Yet AirTags have proven easy to abuse – police in New York, Maryland, Idaho, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Texas and elsewhere both within the US and internationally, have reported instances of AirTags being used to stalk individuals, as well as to target cars for theft.
Last week, the New Jersey Regional Operations & Intelligence Center issued a warning to police that AirTags posed an “inherent threat to law enforcement, as criminals could use them to identify officers’ sensitive locations” and personal routines.
AirTags have abuse-mitigation features, including pop-ups like the one Nader received, and an alarm that beeps at 60 decibels (a conversational volume) after the AirTag has been away from its owner anywhere between eight to 24 hours.
Near the end of 2021, the company released a new Android app called Tracker Detect, which was designed to help people who own Androids discover suspicious AirTags near them – yet the app must be proactively downloaded and kept active to be effective, and is only compatible with Android 9 or higher.
The outcome of more anti-stalking mechanisms is that more people are realizing they are being stalked. On 14 January, police in Montgomery county, Maryland, responded to a call from a person who was stalked home from a movie theater after an AirTag was planted on their car. Around the same time, two California women called 911 after receiving a notification that their whereabouts were being tracked while out shopping. A 30 December report from the New York Times cites seven women who believe AirTags were used to surveil them. On social media, posts from mainly women sharing their own experiences of being tracked by AirTags have drawn attention to the issue, with one TikTok video from November 2021 receiving more than 31m views.
If you suspect you’re being tracked, the conventional wisdom is not to head home, but rather call – or go to – the police. However, law enforcement responses to incidences of AirTag stalking have thus far been inconsistent, and help is not always guaranteed.
When Arizona’s Kimberly Scroop went to local police after receiving an iPhone notification that she was being tracked in September last year, “they were not interested in taking a report, they didn’t take my name or phone number,” she says. “They said if I noticed someone following me, to call the police then.”
Scroop went home and made a TikTok video about her experience being tracked, thinking she should “make as much noise as possible, so there was some public record of it” online in case anything bad happened to her. “I was having a mini panic attack, just really scared,” she says in the post that has now been viewed more than 5.5m times.
In New York, Jackie’s Law – passed in 2014 to allow police to charge people using GPS tracking devices to stalk victims even if the victims have not pressed charges – contributed to police in West Seneca’s decision to subpoena Apple for information about a case involving an AirTag attached to a victim’s car bumper. Nonetheless, Nader claims she was unable to file a report after being tracked in Tribeca, New York City, as police told her no crime had been committed.
In an official statement, Apple says it will cooperate with police “to provide any available information” about unknown AirTags people discover on their person or property. “We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTags’ privacy and security,” says a spokesperson.
Ultimately, their built-in anti-stalking mechanisms and the fact that they can be easily disabled when discovered render AirTags less dangerous than other forms of stalkerware. “If you really are nefarious and evil and you really want to find someone, there are things that are much better than an AirTag,” in the $100 to $300 range, says Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Indeed, stalking affects an estimated 7.5 million people in the United States each year, and one in four victims report being stalked through some form of technology, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness & Resource Center. And it’s on the rise: a 2021 international study by the security company Norton found the number of devices reporting stalkerware daily “increased markedly by 63% between September 2020 and May 2021” with the 30-day average increasing from 48,000 to 78,000 detections. There are thousands of different stalkerware variants, such as Cerberus, GPS tracking devices and Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled AirTag competitor that announced a partnership with Amazon last spring.
To Callas, the conversation around AirTags is drawing much-needed attention to the potential for technology to be misused; he hopes more people will consider the safety risks of tracking devices, regardless of how innocent they seem. “If you make a generalized technology that helps you find your lost keys, it can help you find anything,” he says, “and that includes people”.
Small and medium-sized managed service providers (MSPs) could find themselves subject to the Network and Information Systems Regulations under government plans to tighten cybersecurity laws – and have got three months to object to the tax hikes that will follow.
NIS is the main law controlling security practices in the UK today. Currently a straight copy of the EU NIS Directive, one of the benefits of Brexit leapt upon by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the new ability to amend NIS’s reporting thresholds.
Bringing MSPs under NIS “would provide a baseline for expected cybersecurity provision and better protect the UK economy and critical national infrastructure from cyber security threats,” as UK.gov said in a consultation document issued on Wednesday. Its plans are for MSPs, currently not subject to NIS, to be brought into the fold. This includes defining what an MSP does, legally, and possibly ending NIS’ existing exemption on SMEs.
“The government recognises the strong need to minimise regulatory burden on small and micro-businesses particularly in a rapidly evolving industry such as this. However, recent incidents have highlighted the scale of risk that can be associated with managed service providers – regardless of their size,” said the consultation document.
In essence, if an “operator of essential services” or a critical national infrastructure business outsources something to your MSP, prepare for NIS compliance.
And the flip side: money
Enforcement of NIS is carried out by the ICO, which is getting a funding bonus if Parliament nods through the NIS amendments. Initially coming from general taxation, in time DCMS wants to “extend the existing cost recovery provisions to allow regulators (for example, Ofcom, Ofgem, and the ICO) to recover the entirety of reasonable implementation costs from the companies that they regulate.”
SMEs across the whole British economy are already familiar with this kind of “cost recovery” activity through stealth taxes such as the ICO’s data protection registration fee.
Andy Kays, chief exec of a managed detection and response firm in London called Socura, agreed that “further market intervention is required to help raise the bar to protect the UK economy.”
“However,” he added, “I do believe that interventions like Cyber Essentials, GDPR and NIS have raised the profile of cyber and data security in the UK, and have improved understanding and investment where they are applicable among businesses.”
Jake Moore, global cybersecurity advisor with Slovakian infosec firm ESET, also agreed, saying in a statement: “Essential services are desperately in need of better protection so these new laws will help direct businesses into a more secure offering with the help and direction required. Laws often may seem like they do not go far enough but digital crime is fast paced and the goal posts constantly move making such plans difficult to project or even become out of date by the time they land.”
The consultation closes on 22 April. As well as questions about money, DCMS is also asking about whether the regs should be extended to SMEs and how detailed they ought to be. Have your say via theses 66 pre-formatted questions. ®
The first cohort of the NDRC accelerator by Dogpatch Labs has four female co-founded start-ups and two international ones.
After taking over the NDRC accelerator from the Government in 2020, Dogpatch Labs gave it a makeover and launched its first cohort of 11 early-stage start-ups last year.
This year, they are running two accelerators with two separate cohorts and increasing the total number of participating start-ups from 11 to 14. The first cohort, H1, has a total of seven start-ups – four of which have female co-founders.
Announced yesterday (19 January), the first cohort also has two regional start-ups and two international start-ups co-founded by Irish CEOs who graduated from top international talent accelerators Antler and Entrepreneur First.
Here we list NDRC’s first cohort of seven early-stage start-ups in 2022 representing the next generation of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem who are gearing up for Demo Day on 7 April.
Image: Dogpatch Labs
This start-up helps patients with breathing difficulties such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to monitor their health. A device called Filter can be used by patients in conjunction with an AI-powered digital health coach called Kos to track their respiratory health and get alerts when something’s wrong.
Filter was founded in 2020 by Andrew Gallagher and Stephen Keenan, both University College Dublin alums. Gallagher, who is the chief technology officer, is an engineer by profession, while Keenan has a background in both law and computer science.
GreyScout offers a business tool for companies that want to protect their brand against intellectual property (IP) infringements and counterfeits. The start-up’s product scans across online domains including marketplaces, search engines, websites, social media channels and web forums to identify and remove policy violations and unauthorised content, alerting clients in real time.
On a mission to ‘democratise IP protection’, GreyScout was founded in 2019 by chief executive John Killian and chief technology officer Chris McCauley.
This start-up has built a novel social platform for sports fans to discuss live matches with friends and make predictions on the outcome. In a game-like interface, users have to compete against each other in guessing next moves of sports payers and the winning side – enriching the virtual live entertainment experience.
Herd was co-founded by Jack Cantillon, who is the chief executive, and Robert Minford, who is the chief technology officer. A qualified lawyer in New York, Ireland and the UK, Cantillon was featured in Sports for Business 30 Under 30 in 2020.
Jama is a start-up that uses natural language processing to help B2B sales reps with communication intelligence and analytics. The platform is a one-stop-shop for all the messaging channels used by sales reps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Line, to make customer relationship management simpler and win more deals.
It was co-founded by Kerry-based Aisling Hayes, who is the chief executive of Jama with prior experience in founding and running start-ups in Ireland. Jama graduated from the global accelerator by Antler, an early-stage VC firm based in Singapore.
This Dublin-founded start-up connects people who need childcare with those who are looking to provide it. Childcare providers called Minders who can be booked to offer a wide range of services including online tutoring, baby-sitting and maternity nursing.
With changes in the nature of work for many parents because of remote and hybrid work, Öogo hopes to act as a Tinder for childcare, making it simple. It was founded in 2019 by Kate Clark, who worked in sales in New York for five years before starting the business.
Squid aims to promote customer loyalty towards businesses by incentivising buy from them through loyalty cards. By partnering with Squid, brands can ask their customers to download the Squid app and get rewards for purchases. And additional business portal helps brands get customer insights and track customer loyalty.
The start-up also helps businesses get discovered on their app through a marketplace where they can advertise special offer and sell vouchers to their community. Squid was co-founded by Katie Farrell and Matthew Coffey
This online platform helps the HR and learning & development teams of businesses to connect with soft skills trainers and professional coaches. It aims to make the process of finding trainers simpler through its online portal that has all details, including pricing, listed upfront. Trainers with Upskill go through a selection process before listing, and user reviews help businesses determine who to book.
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