In one of James Joyce’s letters, he assigns each of the Seven Deadly Sins to a nation in Europe. Ireland is, of course, Envy. Germany, delightfully, gets Lust. Gluttony, he said, was English, Pride French, Wrath Spanish, Avarice Italy, and the Slavic countries, collectively, Sloth.

Along similar lines, it struck me that it would be fun to match up European countries with U.S. States when a friend of mine dismissively described Belgium as ‘the Kentucky of Europe’. Here are a few ideas along these lines:

  • Bavaria = Texas. Yes, I know Bavaria isn’t a country, but this works on too many fronts. Both are large, semi-autonomous, countrified southern entities with a similar kind of hospitable/jingoistic vibe. (Plus, this gives me a chance to poke fun at the Central European proclivity for Country Western:


  • Czech Republic = Ohio. Industrial, Midwestern, practical. Both have a tendency towards tiny bath towels– no, wait, that’s only Czech.
  • France = New York. Both have capital cities that were once the center of the world but are now of diminished global significance. Both tend to live in denial of this fact.
  • Netherlands = Massachusetts. Small, progressive, mercantile, weirdo. Similar strange mixture of ideological open-mindedness and conservative impulses.
  • Sweden & Norway = Minnesota & Wisconsin. Duh.
  • There’s probably a Balkans-Arkansas joke in here somewhere.

Bigger hot dog sales…

… through sexually-ambiguous vampire advertising.


Good to know that somebody is trying it. This is the side of the delivery truck for Kostelecke Parky, a Czech hot dog brand.

Update: Reader JM alerts us that she used to have undies with this unsavory character on them. See the Comments section for more disturbing revelations along these lines. Meanwhile, regarding the lost panties, I can only extend the hope that she someday finds them in the Warehouse of Lost Stuff.

Kentucky Fried Konservatism

colonel-sanders_KFCAnother interesting bit of Daniel Pearlstein’s Nixonland (previously mentioned in the Up With People post) is its account of George Wallace’s presidential third-party run in 1968. Wallace, the ultimate uber-racist, narrowed down his vice president list to three possible candidates, whom together must constitute the ultimate rogues gallery of American politicians:

Choice 1: Curtis LeMay, the inspiration for the mad general character in Dr. Strangelove. LeMay wound up being the eventual VEEP pick and instantly torpedoed the entire Wallace For President campaign by happily telling news corps that he would nuke Vietnam without hesitation.

Choice 2: J. Edgar Hoover. Yes, the same man who as FBI Director tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide.

Choice 3: Harlan Sanders, aka Colonel Sanders, the great purveyor of fried chicken!

It’s a bit surprising to find out that the iconic Colonel Sanders was a real person in the first place– it would be like discovering that Ronald McDonald had actually been a key harlequin entertainer in Queen Victoria’s court. Stranger still to imagine that the Colonel could have wound up a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. I imagine him wielding his influence to insure that the infamous Cluck would be served as part of public school lunch programs. Harlan Sanders also gets a interesting bio treatment in Fast Food Nation, where we learn that he was a two-bit huckster for most of his life before rising to prominence in his later years (indeed, he was 78 years of age when Wallace considered picking him as his running mate).

Most endearingly, he apparently struggled his entire life with a determination to stop swearing. I love this image, for some reason.

In praise of Van Halen


Van Halen was my favorite band when I was 9 years old, and they regularly become my favorite band again for about 10 seconds out of every month. It’s not always the same song or album that reels me back in, but there’s invariably a few bars of ‘Jamie’s Crying’ or ‘Mean Streets’ or some other song that convinces me just for a few fleeting seconds that I’m experiencing a high-point of pop music sensibility that nothing could possibly improve upon. Just as I’m often disturbingly unsure these days as to when I’m being earnest vs. sarcastic, so is there an underlying uncertainty about whether my enjoyment of VH is legitimate, kitsch, both, neither or whether (most likely) there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.

There’s nothing unique in a white male my age having a favorite crotch rock band from his youth that he secretly still enjoys the hell out of, but I think there are a few things that distinguish Van Halen and make them uniquely enjoyable to both a 9 year-old and 35 year-old sensibility. One is that fact that, more than any other really hard-rocking band I can think of, they didn’t seem to be against anything. Most loud, heavy bands seem to draw their energy out of righteous indignation, or political dissent, or social alienation, or offending middle class values, or some kind of dialectic. Although the Ramones were pretty much bubble gum rock-for-rock’s sake, they still drew on a dislike of blues rock and middle-class Queens banalities to define their identity. The first few Zeppelin albums were close to rock-for-rock’s sake, but they were still dripped in blues pretensions and (later) pseudo-mysticism. Even bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, who didn’t seem to stand for anything much, still cultivated a sense of gaunt, ragged menace. Van Halen, in contrast, seemed to come out of a place of sheer inane, boundless enthusiasm and nothing else. Indeed, the list of things they were for seems almost as short as the list of things they were against– booze, girls, and parachuting into their own concerts is about it. Their songs summon to mind kids driving around in the early 80s trying to get laid and just about nothing else– no sense of milieu or context. Most of the time when we like a band, part of what you like is the sense of conviction– the evidence that the Clash actually let poor kids sleep on their hotel floor, the fact that Iggy Pop really did crawl on broken glass. With Van Halen, on the other hand, there’s a kind of perverse levity to the whole thing. You get the feeling at times that they would have just as soon gotten perms and formed a (really great) disco band if that’s what would have brought in the money and girls, yet somehow this makes it all the more enjoyable.

Also, few bands had such an articulate and boffo advocate as singer David Lee Roth, who once commented that VH songs “should come with a kit including a bong, a thesaurus, and a driver’s side air-bag.” In 1977, a reporter asked Roth to explain why all the critics were raving about Elvis Costello’s new debut album and ignoring Van Halen’s, despite the fact that the kids were all listening to the latter. His response:”Maybe it’s because the critics look like Elvis Costello.” Hit ’em where it hurts, Diamond Dave!

Possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever heard is the vocal track from Runnin’ With The Devil direct from the booth, isolated from the rest of the track.


I like to imagine what would transpire if you wrote all the normal emails you write in a week – for most of us, a mix of personal, professional and bureaucratic – but steadfastly signed them all ‘Love, ___’ just to see what would happen. I think this would be a good wager for a small bet– loser has to do this and see what the ramifications are.

Futurism and the Musee Mecanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Moussellini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea many years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.

Front and back cover:



(Note how much the giant doll on the cover looks like Moussellini- a happy coincidence!)

Inside spreads:







Zombie Caterpillars and Voodoo Wasps

caterpillarIt’s time for another installment of creepy insect facts at Mock Duck (pun intended!).  Today’s installment is much weirder than any ant fact, real or imagined, previously disclosed.  

Apparently, wasps plant their larvae inside caterpillars, and the larvae then burst out of the caterpillars, Alien-style, where they spin cocoons and wait to turn into wasps.  But here’s the truly disturbing part: somehow, while they’re in there, the larvae turn the caterpillars into zombie bodyguards, which stand guard over the cocoons until they hatch, and thrash around whenever a beetle or other predator comes sniffing along.  And if you think that this is one of these cuddly animal kingdom symbiotic relationships, think again: the moment the wasps hatch, the zombie caterpillar bodyguards die! 

The best part about this is that the scientists who have figured it out have no clue at all how it works — somehow these larvae are programming the caterpillars to guard over them, and then to drop dead the moment they’re no longer needed, but it is a total mystery how (although this article, which also discusses the wasp-in-caterpillar thing but doesn’t address the zombie bodyguard aspect, talks about the wasps somehow manipulating the caterpillars’ DNA, so that may have something to do with it). 

This article, which explains the zombie bodyguard phenomenon, also makes reference to a similar ant fact, wherein parasites infect ants and then somehow convince them to render themselves vulnerable to snacking sheep, so the parasites can get inside the sheep’s bellies.   When it comes to really screwy devious manipulation, we humans may have nothing on our resourceful insect and parasite neighbors.

Fun with info graphics

I’m currently designing a 200+ page book for an industrial developer in the Czech Republic and have so far had to design about 8 different maps of Europe- including roadways, ancient trade routes, a Moravian Pass and something called ‘The Blue Banana’- for the project. All this diagramming is about as enlivening as putting on chain-mail and drinking from a bucket of sand, so it’s fun to recall favorite silly info graphics as a counterpoint:


This was drawn in 1967 by rabid Velvet Underground fan Jonathan Richman (yes, he of the Modern Lovers) and published in the Boston music magazine Vibrations. Note the ‘made-it line’ running across the diagram– only VU and (mysteriously) the Who join the ‘god’-like Beatles in making the grade, whereas Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the entire sub-genre of art rock fall well short and crater into obscurity.

Then, on a more blatantly farcical note, there’s this pie chart that I love:


Update: Reader JF submits this one for consideration…


Mailbag: ant facts

Reader JS chimes in on Krafty’s Ant Domination post:

I think that posts devoted to social insects should be a regular feature of your blog. Recently my mind has ranged widely on the possibility of practical jokes that could be played on these serious minded and humorless species. Dead ants exude a phermone alerts their fellows to the fact that they are dead, and upon receiving this chemical message the other ants grab the dead ant and hustle it out of the nest, where it is thrown onto a pile of misc. detritus. The top ant scientists have discovered that if they paint live ants with the phermone, they are perceived as “dead” and tossed out of the premises notwithstanding their vigorous  struggles to resist. The droll upshot of this situation – paint every member of the ant colony with the phermone and watch them whale on each other. Comic mistaken identity and broad physical comedy would be raised to a very high power in this “mirthquake” at the microscopic level.

Also, in a recent issue of the NYTimes tuesday science section, there was an article about a woman scientist who has developed a technique to identify and monitor individual ants. She discovered that at any given time, a significant fraction of ants are goofing off, and that most ants are not very good at their jobs. Most of the effective work is done by a small minority of ants.

Who knew? Finally, the ants-as-interchangeable-drones meme is debunked.

Hooray For Everything

Readers my age and older will probably remember the mercilessly schmaltzy clean-cut stylings of a musical outfit called Up With People from the Superbowl half-time shows of our youth. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a hair-raising visual reminder:


Video footage of their 1982 halftime performance is here. It’s basically totalitarian kitsch personified.

In time, Up With People was appropriately satirized by The Simpsons, who introduced a fictitious musical outfit of wholesome go-getters called ‘Hooray For Everything’. In retrospect, this seems to be of a piece with the show’s scorched-earth fight with then-president George H. W. Bush. Bush, who in fact had Up With People perform at his inauguration, announced his intention to make American families ‘more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. The Simpsons responded by basically lampooning him to high hell, first through several clever sneak-attacks and through then an entire episode after he was voted out of office in what was probably the most unwatchable Simpsons installment ever:


What I only learned recently, via Rick Pearlstein’s Nixonland, is that Up With People was not just some random schmaltzy irrelevancy but in fact a significant cultural artifact from the Vietnam era. Conservative youth groups, outraged at the media attention paid to war protesters, founded Up With People to provide a counterpoint. ‘If we’re going to debunk the myth of a soft, indulgent, arrogant American and show the world that we care about tomorrow, we’ve got to sing out our convictions, loud and strong,’ said a Republican organizer in 1966. In 1965, Up With People made their debut at a World’ Fair, emceeded by none other than Pat Boone (shown here in his later leather incarnation that earned him reprobation from his Christianist following:)


What’s amazing in retrospect is that, given their partisan origins, Up With People were granted the largest media platform in American culture- the Superbowl half-time show- well into the 1980s. Looking through their bio, it seems that the Bush Sr. inauguration moment was (thankfully) their last moment of cultural relevancy, after which they were doomed to a circuit of country fairs and dorky Cold War-era feelgood diplomacy missions.

Incidentally, Nixonland is also indispensable at bringing to life the 60s origins of another 80s icon, Ronald Reagan. “You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” he gaffed, delightfully, in 1965. Then again, one must give him credit for his better lines: “He would tell young people harassing him with sings reading MAKE LOVE NOT WAR that the problem was that they looked incapable of doing either.” Credit where credit is due.