Bad analogy theater


TK has a new post up on Andre Agassi’s newly-revealed crystal meth habit. Even by the standards of the ‘shocking, tell-all biography’, Agassi’s new book Open seems like a pretty dramatic public self-depantsing. Even the awful signature hair turns out to have been fake– a big bantam rooster-like wig that once nearly fell apart before a big tournament match. One relatively small bit from the book that made a big impression on me: Aggasi spent his childhood basically imprisoned in brick tennis court that his authoritarian father had built, endlessly returning balls shot out of a homemade ball machine that Agassi called ‘the dragon’.

Of course, the full entertainment value of a lurid sports story lies not just the story itself but in the ripple effect of hammy sports writers straining to hit the right emotional notes.’s Rick Reilly – winner of something called the Damon Runyon Award for Sportswriting – submitted a column about the Agassi book with this deeply-felt gem: “Your own life is hard enough. Living somebody else’s life for them weighs on a man like a stone backpack.” A stone backpack? A stone backpack with stone books inside, even? Or how about a more tennis-related analogy: hitting stone tennis balls served up by a homemade stone tennis machine, all while wearing a decomposing stone wig?


Speaking of ham-fisted analogies, I’ve recently been in a bit of a New Order revival phase, listening to the two ‘Substance’ albums quite a bit. Along with a renewed appreciation of the music, I’ve also had an uncomfortable growing awareness that Bernard Summer is not exactly the world’s greatest lyricist. Consider ‘Thieves Like Us’- the song mentions love literally about 380 times, which is a bad sign in itself, but then advances the idea that “Love is the air that supports the eagle.” Yikes. Not only that, but it also “cuts your life like a broken knife.” (Broken knife? Why broken?) You have to appreciate New Order’s story – as Tony Wilson’s character in 24 Hour Party People says, no band survives the death of its lead singer. But it does seem as though when Ian Curtis took his life, he also somehow managed to strangulate the band’s ability to come up with a decent simile.

Then there’s ‘1963’, the one that goes ‘Johhhhhnyyyy… don’t point that gun at me‘. I was always puzzled by the lyrics and vaguely assumed they described some gay crime of passion, but then found a wikipedia entry about the song which explains that the lyrics are actually about ‘the JFK assassination, which occurred in 1963. In the song, Sumner sings from the point of view of Jackie Kennedy, and theorises that John F. Kennedy (a devout Catholic for whom divorce was unthinkable) paid the mobster Jack Ruby to arrange for a hitman to take out his wife so that he could continue his relationship with actress Marilyn Monroe. It further theorises that Monroe committed suicide when she found out that the hired gun, Lee Harvey Oswald, had hit the wrong target. Oswald was, according to Sumner, then in turn assassinated by Ruby for causing his hitman business to go bust. Sumner’s theory is unlikely to be intended seriously, given that Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, over a year before the assassination took place. The producer Stephen Hague has referred to the song as ‘the only song about domestic violence you can dance to'”.

I emailed this entire inane paragraph to a friend who is an ardent New Order fan. His reply:

That new order story is the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard. The last quote makes we want to give away my record collection. I’ve actually been obsessing about it all day.

So-called Information Superhighway

A few nights ago, the wife and I got some take-away food from the corner restaurant, Neklid (‘Turmoil’). I got my favorite dish: a steak cooked in pepper sauce with green beans wrapped in bacon and roast potatoes also cooked with bits of bacon. It’s like bowling a strike every time. Unfortunately, it also has a clearly-documented history of causing me to wake up in the middle of the night if I have it too late in the evening. This creates a sort of ongoing metaphysical dialogue where my 3am self is continually reminding my hungry, 7pm self not to order it, but the latter often manages to persuade himself that somehow the usual insomnia scenario isn’t going to apply this time. Long story short, I was up in the middle of the night. To complete the woeful vignette, you have to picture that I had also tweaked my neck while working long hours on The Book, so I was lying in bed with one of those dorky foam neck cushion things people take on airplanes, sleeplessly pondering my own gluttony.

For whatever reason, my mind wandered to the joke phrase ‘the interwebs’ that everyone started using at some point. When did it start? Was it inspired by George W. Bush’s bizarre formulation during the 2004 Presidential Debate when he mentioned ‘the internets‘? Or is it just another case of parallel evolution where a joke phrase began to emerge in the public consciousness at the same time that the same phrase emerged as a serious concept in the addled mind of our former president?

I always feel that the phrase ‘Information Superhighway’ has never really gotten its deserved share of mockery, in part because it’s always overlooked in favor of ‘interwebs’. It’s definitely my preferred ironic internet moniker, though, not least because it was originally intended seriously and was thought to sound cool. Along with ‘cybercafe’ and ‘educational CD-ROM’, it’s the disused phrase that perfectly summarizes the wide-eyed, mid-1990s utopian expectations of the internet, which – as we now know- has for better or for worse thoroughly insinuated itself into our lives as a comparatively banal, functional convenience.

Do a google image search for ‘information superhighway’ and you get an entertaining visual moodboard of all these clichéd 90s internet concepts: streaking circuitry, shopping carts, network cables and, of course, highway metaphors:


As visual messages, these have about as much going for them as animated unicorn gifs. What’s puzzling and disappointing is why the 90s visualizations of an internet-ty future didn’t result in anywhere near the same imaginative yield that came out of, for example, the early machine age or the early days of space travel. One can make the case that modern art as a whole- starting with cubism in the late 1910s- began as a collective visual attempt to reckon with the new sense of space and time that machines imposed on people. Subsequent design movements such as Futurism and Vorticism created an entire abstract visual language out of their self-professed fascination with new technology. Meanwhile, 1950s visualizations of Jetsons-style space colonization may seem fairly kitschy and silly to us now, but at least they involved considerable flights of fancy. By comparison, the visual language adopted to describe the early days of the web is all so literal, po-faced and lame by comparison. I suppose part of this is the fact that there was money to be made from the beginning in couching something abstract (‘internet’) in tangible terms (‘highway’) and thereby getting people comfortable with the idea of buying goods on it. And that there was a kind of corporate incursion on the internet from the very beginning. But, still, it’s hard to figure out how we could have gone so wrong with this from the start.

Mailbag: Futurist camouflage and Ukiyo-E

I blogged a few months ago on Franco Grignani, distinctive zebra of the design kingdom:

Reader DS alerts me to the existence of so-called Dazzle Camouflage, the British navy’s unlikely attempt to appropriate the signature black-and-white op-art forms of Grignani and other Futurists for the purpose of military camouflage:


The technique was developed by English painter Norman Wilkinson, who clarified its seemingly-dubious application in a 1919 lecture:

The primary object of this scheme was not so much to cause the enemy to miss his shot when actually in firing position, but to mislead him, when the ship was first sighted, as to the correct position to take up. [Dazzle was a] method to produce an effect by paint in such a way that all accepted forms of a ship are broken up by masses of strongly contrasted colour, consequently making it a matter of difficulty for a submarine to decide on the exact course of the vessel to be attacked…. The colours mostly in use were black, white, blue and green…. When making a design for a vessel, vertical lines were largely avoided. Sloping lines, curves and stripes are by far the best and give greater distortion.

The painting of more than 2,000 ships was supervised by none other than Edward Wadsworth, who was the most well-known of Vorticist painters (Vorticism being essentially an English knock-off of Furturism with a different name, slightly different underpinning philosophy and no awkward fascist connotations). I’d seen Wadsworth’s boat paintings before, but had no idea that they were actually battle plans to be put into action:


Camouflage on the whole has been claimed by various avant-garde art movements from the very beginning. Picasso is supposed to have muttered  ‘We created this!’ to Gertrude Stein the first time he saw a camo vehicle roll out into the streets of Paris.


Meanwhile, in the comments section to the Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings post, JohnnyO points out some great Ukiyo-E resources. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’m particularly taken with the series called Gather Together Pictures:


Johnny adds a comment about Hokusai, the author of the famous wave image and all-around loon who gave himself over 30 different names during his lifetime:

Hokusai had some great political cartoons that were quite funny when you understood the context — this one shows an octopus dressed as a samurai, sitting on a pile of potatoes, battling a farmer.


You are certainly thinking “WTF?” (or at least “信じられない”) but there was a bad rice crop the year before and the government banned snacks, or something like that.

I could have sworn there was much cooler one where a rice snack was in a sword fight with a potato snack. That was pretty awesome. (That, or I imagined it, but it would *still* be awesome.)

Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings


Unless you count the Mr. T exercise book, my big cultural discovery in Berlin this past weekend was the work of Akira Yamaguchi. My friend has a book of his stuff, which mostly consists of nutcase juxtapositions between highly-detailed, contemporary technical drawings and traditional Japanese art. I like how much his drawings pick up on the inherent fun-ness of Ukiyo-e, the woodcut style that we now often think of as ‘classic’ Japanese art but was really more of a middle-brow, vernacular, quasi-comic book style of the time and translates compellingly to ‘pictures of the floating world’:


Yamaguchi’s recent show had the totally cool title “Japan/China and Japan/Russia Fantasy War Drawings” and gets the following synopsis: “Now, imagine a time machine which could outfit Genghis Khan with rocket launchers; or Napoleon with a division of Panzer tanks — that would change human history, wouldn’t it? Tokyo artist Akira Yamaguchi explores the idea from a Japanese perspective with the hallucinogenic history lesson…”


On a more subdued note, I really like this ship/street scene comparison:


Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

I am obsessed with the British teen music trio Kitty, Daisy and Lewis.  They’re three siblings, all under 20 apparently, whose parents are session musicians (also I think their mom was briefly a drummer in The Raincoats).

Here’s one of their videos:


From the first moment I heard them it seemed obvious that they were “retro,”  but I’m not very familiar with the particular brand of spirited hillbilly music at which they excel.

Take the song above, “Going Up the Country.”   I vaguely recognized it when I heard their cover, and figured that it was some bluesy standard.  But a little digging reminded me that the version I recognize is actually a Woodstock-era song with that grating, TV-commercial-like flute hook, by Canned Heat.  So even though these precocious teens probably consider themselves to be covering the blues original, for most ears it’s an overdue reinterpretation of that hippy debacle — and the line “We might even leave the USA” sounds distinctly late-60s.  

I’m not sure what to make of all this.  Would I be better off just listening to “era-appropriate” music?  Or is there something new about three British teenagers redoing these standards? I am definitely enchanted, even despite the fact that their parents are obviously exercising some degree of Svengali-like influence (they’re both in the backing band for example).

Here’s a clip from a documentary that has some further detail, including their festishistic obsession with using only analog equipment when they record. Note the slightly awkward explanation of “letting Dad into the band,” because he was always sort of hanging around anyway.


And here is the first minute of a great live performance of probably my favorite track of theirs, “Honolulu Rocka Rolla”:


Again, I have no idea where this song comes from. It appears to have been a hit for “Bella Di Waikiki,” and here is Eartha Kitt singing it.

The Lego Terrorist

My friend Patrick once stopped at a Lego store in Hamburg where they sell Lego parts in separate vats. He noticed that there was one vat filled with turbans, another full of mustachioed scowls and a third filled with dynamite-strapped torsos. Voila, the Lego Terrorist was born:


He’s small, but his heart is filled with murderous schemes.

I was first introduced to the Lego Terrorist on a flight Patrick and I took to Portugal (the same vacation, incidentally, that I referenced in the Chestbump post). Here’s the LT evading airport security, boarding our flight and triumphantly guffawing on a seat-back tray.



While on this trip, we happened to duck into an antique toy museum in Sintra just to get out of the rain. Realizing we had the LT along with us, we tried to engage the museum guide person in a discussion of his merits, hoping perhaps that the museum would seize the opportunity to enshrine him. Instead, the woman basically made it clear that she didn’t get it and would like it if we stopped talking to her. I thought this was somewhat prissy and oblique, given that the museum had totally strange installations involving, for example, figurines of Hitler and Moussilini:


At some point, Patrick thought he should tell the Lego people about his creation, so he mailed them a letter along with a sample Terrorist. In this telling, the letter had barely fallen into the post box when his phone rang with a highly concerned Lego representative on the other end. The representative felt impelled to apologize (?), announced that the component parts of the LT had been put out of service and asked a few nervous questions to gauge my friend’s level of interest in publicizing his discovery. Positively reassured, he hung up and mailed my friend complimentary tickets to Lego Land.

You have to figure that somehow nobody at Lego had stopped to rethink the political implications of the Lego selection for a decade or so until this incident happened.

Drawing a Blank

Today’s featured mixed-ethnicity jazzercise couple:


Disco producer Bob Blank and his wife, one-time James Brown foil Lola Blank.

I’m not sure what to make of Bob Blank. On the one hand, he worked with the great Arthur Russell. Generally, this would be enough in my mind to immunize him against criticism for anything (yes, even for posing in the above photo). On the other hand, he also had the nerve to say semi-mean things about Arthur Russell in the Arthur Russell bio-pic Wild Combination (where I got the image from). Judas! Purple Jazzercise Judas!

Moreover, he produced ‘I Got My Mind Made Up‘, the first minute of which is one of the great defining minutes of disco ever recorded. On the other hand, the rest of ‘Mind Made Up’ is pretty lame. So, yeah: mixed verdict.

More notes from the field


In last weekend’s Barf/Sick post, I mentioned our intrepid traveller friend Jim who stayed with us for a few days on the way back through various Eastern European and Asian countries. I neglected to write that he was joined by his girlfriend, the able Karen, who is also a veteran traveller in her own right and recently spent a solid block of time teaching English in Libya.

Karen described to us a flight on Libyan Airlines where passengers were treated to a Hollywood film in which an exposed chunk of female arm flesh was deemed unchaste and digitally blurred out by the local censors. Now, it seems to me that trying to digitally censor an arm is likely only to produce a similar, slightly larger skin-colored shape that’s even more comely, smooth, and unblemished in appearance. But, hey, who am I to judge. Whatever blows your holy beard back…

Karen’s accounts of Libya happily reminded me of my dictator-crush on Muammar Qaddafi, easily my favorite contemporary tyrant. Some Qaddafi fun facts:

1. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi has a personal phalanx of hot female gun-toting body guards.


2. Despite presiding over a strict Muslim society, Qaddafi is reportedly gayer than a french horn actually, this doesn’t seem to stand up— never mind.

3. A profile in the New Yorker from a few years back passes on this local parable:

Three contestants are in a race to run five hundred meters carrying a bag of rats. The first sets off at a good pace, but after a hundred meters the rats have chewed through the bag and spill onto the course. The second contestant gets to a hundred and fifty meters, and the same thing happens. The third contestant shakes the bag so vigorously as he runs that the rats are constantly tumbling and cannot chew on the anything and he takes the prize. That third contestant is Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

4. A New York Times Magazine article from 2003 describes Qaddafi’s social magnetism thusly:

In photographs taken of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, his aides appear pale and frozen-smiled, a collection of dead-men-walking awaiting the next purge. Among those around Qaddafi, by contrast, there was an excited air that veered toward the giddy, as if they were in the presence of some A-list celebrity and still couldn’t quite believe their good luck.

5. His recent and much-reported speech to the United Nations, that went on for so long that his translator reportedly shrieked, ‘I can’t take it any longer!’ and collapsed before being replaced by another emergency back-up. (Note: the speech lasted 90 minutes, which is well beyond the 15 minute time-limit that is politely agreed upon in UN circles. However, it was far from the longest speech in UN history, trailing Castro’s 4.5 hour rant in 1960 and some Indian MP’s 8 hour lecture on relations with Kashmir.)

To be fair, one has to mention Qaddafi not-so-fun facts, which include: (1) terrorism; (2) massive curtailment of civil liberties and corruption; (3) wrongful imprisonment of Bulgarian nurses.