Upsetter vs. Wall of Sound

After a few discouraging attempts to get into various tepid indie rock acts, I recently retreated to some guaranteed good times by listening to lots of Lee “Scratch” Perry productions. Finally, someone who isn’t trying spin a whole album and/or career out of one or two catchy ideas. Generally when you’re dealing with somebody who crossed out every vowel in his recording studio, then later burnt the studio to the ground in an acid-induced conviction that it had become inhabited by Satan, it stands to reason that there’s a fair amount of legitimate inspiration involved along the way.

It occurred to me at some point that there’s probably about 50 fascinating Perry-produced albums, another 50 utterly horrible ones, and I’ve only explored about 15 of them to date… so feeling out some of the remaining 85 might be more fruitful then listening to the latest highly-recommended release by the Purple Monkey Dishwashers or whoever.

This got me thinking about whether Perry is legitimately the weirdest person involved in the entire music industry, before eventually realizing that Phil Spector could probably give him a good run for his money:

Taking this a little further: it occurred to me that, in the great tradition of dub comic book battle covers …

…  I would have loved to see a dub clash album between Perry and Spector and the cover art that would result from this showdown. How would the Perry’s Kung Fu / Super Ape persona defend himself from Spector’s crushing Wall of Sound (and multiple handguns)? Best of all, how would the wall of sound be portrayed? Like a tidal wave, with various amps and men wielding tire chains in its wake? Or would it be portrayed more abstractly, like how Marvel comics artists used to show Banshee?:

Would Spector be drawn as the classic Diminutive Evil Mastermind? His hair and short stature would make this approach pretty irresistible… but for some reason, I imagine him getting the Dr. Octopus treatment, with multiple arms twiddling various knobs and whatnot.

The World’s Worst-Dressed Men

Some of the snow melted over this weekend, which got me looking forward to a little to spring and, of course, the start of baseball season. This evening I read a few tidbits about spring training on the Red Sox message board (which is admittedly one of the dorkiest sites on the entire Wide World of Web… you can find pages and pages of scatter graphs demonstrating some pitcher’s release point or pitch selection, for example) and learned that there’s a flap about a player wanting the same number that’s currently worn by a bench coach. This led to a hefty discussion of baseball’s unique convention of dressing managers and coaches in the same outfits worn by players, with comments like:

I think it is pretty stupid coaches still have numbers in baseball considering there isn’t a single other sport in the world that coaches wear numbers. Why does a coach care about his number?

… and this:

I don’t see how managers dressing similarly to, say, football coaches would be too detrimental.

Now, it’s true that baseball managers are the ugliest men in the world, and that the tradition of dressing them up like players only accentuates this:

And it’s clearly a dubious idea, making 70 year-old men dress up like uniforms that were (a) designed for men 50 years younger and (b) are antiquated to begin with, having been designed about 100 years ago and barely modified since then. But still, I’ve always thought it would be great to take this in the other direction and make coaches/managers in all sports dress up in players uniforms. Wouldn’t it have been great to see the famously overweight Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden in a basketball uni, standing on the sidelines with a clipboard and giant purple tanktop?

Or a middle-aged football coach clanking out onto the field with all the pads and helmet on and trying to communicate with everyone and run the show? Much more fun, I say.

I do periodically get an inferiority complex comparing baseball to other sports on an aesthetic level, especially if Europeans are involved. I can vividly remember switching between a Sox game and World Cup soccer when I was in grade school and realizing that my mother clearly had a crush on the Italians’ brooding coach and realizing that this affection would never, ever translate over to the Red Sox skipper.

(Top photo: Jim Leyland, who is the only manager to pull of the uniform look, largely because he already seems like a grizzled 19th century volunteer fireman, and so the garb only increases his already-considerable surreality. Leyland also smoked cigarettes in the dugouts during games long after it was acceptable/legal. Here, he’s shown in the endlessly-maligned stovepipe hats that the Pittsburgh Pirates wore during the 70s and 80s. Image courtesy of Ugly Baseball Card blog)

The Zen of crying

This past week, our kid has gotten full-blown sick for the first time in his young life– throwing up, feverish, the whole nine yards. This has introduced us to a routine that is familiar to a great many people but thankfully new to us, the Sleepless Night With Sick Baby. Much like getting married, taking a driving test or spending a night in jail, this is one of the familiar set pieces of human experience– you’ve either heard about it, read about it, or seen Ted Danson do it enough times in sitcoms that it feels like you’re acting out a script even as you’re perhaps having a very individualized experience. The Sleepless Night With Sick Baby scenario has an extra bewildering, gothic aspect compared to these others in the sense that it erupts at sporadic intervals in the middle of the night, but the basic familiarity lingers and makes you feel as though you’re trapped inside a trope while it’s happening.

An interesting part in this bleary drama is the moment when you simply decide to let the poor kid cry, because there’s nothing you can do to help him. This is sad, obviously… but once you make the switch, there’s also weird sense of release: its like the moment of being caught in a rain storm when you eventually get so wet that you stop hurrying to get out of the rain as fast as possible and instead just accept the situation. Listening to it in the darkness last night, the sound of crying began to loose its contours and become this weird formless thing, like when you repeat a word over and over again. As a thought experiment, I tried imagining that the crying was not in fact crying but rather some challenging musical performance that I had paid good money to attend, maybe involving one of those awful, discordant one string Chinese zither instruments. I could half-imagine myself sitting in an auditorium chair, trying to take to accept the music on its own terms but nonetheless getting impatient for the concert to end.

In general, we haven’t been hit too hard by the parenting exhaustion stick… but I’ve had enough spotty nights to notice something interesting about sleep deprivation that I couldn’t have noticed before, which is that there’s a strong moral component in terms of how I experience it. If I’m underslept because of my kid, there’s no way it could have been otherwise, so there’s a feeling of non-responsibility (so sue me’) as I’m perhaps stumbling through a bad presentation at work the next day, or delivering a garbled lecture to my students, or writing an incomprehensible blog post. Interestingly, the sense of not being responsible for one’s tiredness makes it much more negligible somehow. It’s the times when I stayed up too late the night before watching the episode of the Wire where Avon and Stringer get into their fight for the fourth time– or any of the other dumb reasons I used to have for not getting enough sleep– that the sensation of tiredness feels particularly impairing–that is, when it comes with the feeling of having engineered one’s own demise.

(Photo: gratuitous-cute-kid shot taken in normal, healthy times– right now, he looks considerably more dazed, sad to say)

"Lost": That's Not Okay

The creator’s of ABC’s “Lost” won’t do much better for potential fans than me. I was hooked from its opening scene, when the place crashes over the tropical island and everybody runs around the wreckage screaming, and “John Locke” (they are not subtle on this show; there is also a character named Rousseau who is very much “back to nature”) sat amidst the wreckage with a very Zen, “I have something to do with all of this” look on his face. I love the full orchestra (extremely rare for a TV show — I’m not aware of any others that use one) playing a Bernard Herrmann-inspired score; the other liberal borrowing from Hitchock; and, most of all, the constant recurrence of my very favorite literary trope, “the rabbit hole.” Basically every epsiode our band of sexy, remarkably well-made-up Swiss Family Robinson plane crash survivors discovers a new mysterious hatch that leads to another world, or something much like it. I love that they at least try (see below) to participate in genuine philosophical debates, and I even can’t resist the retro-70s stylings of their Dharma Initiative world (not to mention the awesome 1000-foot tall ancient Egyptian-seeming statue that has some secret temple hidden in its base). This is a very weird show for network TV, and I like that they were willing to take all of these risks.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot I like. But really all that has done is make me much, much more disappointed at what a crappy job the creators have done at following through on all of these great ideas. It’s no secret that people complain about all of the unanswered questions in the show — but my beef a little bit different. I’m OK with the mystery and ambiguity about the world they’re in (“Is it the afterlife? Is it an alternate reality?” etc.) What I’m NOT OK with is the way in which the characters react to the mysteries to which they are subjected. Over and over again, a character is solemnly informed that he “must” do something like “journey to the temple” to find some mysterious figure, and nobody ever says, “Why?” And if they do, they always accept an answer like, “Because it is your destiny.” “It’s my destiny? All right then — let’s go murder that guy!” It’s utterly unreal, and even if you are one of those watchers, like me, who is willing to suspend disbelief as to the stuff that’s actually happening, I can’t get past the completely phoney reactions of the characters.

I get that the show wants to explore questions of free will and fate, and, again, I’m OK with a certain degree of ambiguity and abstraction as the trade-off. But this goes way beyond that — the writers are just really lazy (or incompetent). They have some nifty set piece in mind, and they don’t give a damn how they get there. It’s not unlike a show like, say, “24,” where plot developments are simply not possibly consistent with previous ones — but the problem is, “Lost” has this weighty, pretentious vibe as if it’s actually an intelligently-wrought show.

What really kills me, though, is that I am such a sucker for so many of the set pieces/imagery that I willingly submit myself to the completely phoney characters and their reactions to what’s happening around them. I actually sort of dread watching it, because i know how enraged it will make me, but I do it anyway. And it pains me that the creators had such a cool idea, and executed aspects of it in such an interesting way…and then just punted on the tough part, not only of tying it all together, but of conceiving character reactions that make any sense at all.

Hey, “Lost” That’s Not Okay.

The printing press: pain in the ass, now as it was then

On Monday night, veteran newspaper and magazine man David Wadmore did a guest lecture at Prague College, the second of his highly entertaining talks that I’ve managed to catch. Wadmore has been designing for newsprint and periodicals for so long that some of his reveries about the old days remind me of those sepia-toned segments in the Simpsons where Monty Burns recalls his youth. Ah, the Lord Stanhope Press… she ran on steam!

For almost the first five and half centuries of its existence, the printing press barely changed at all, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it was probably the most significant invention of its millenium and landed Johannes Gutenberg at the #1 spot in A&E’s goofball ‘People of the Millennium‘ countdown. Personally, I was a little disappointed that the other Gutenberg– Steve– didn’t make the list as well somewhere– I mean, four Police Academy movies? Get out. Meanwhile, how about being Bill Gates (#41, the highest-rated alive person) and knowing that you sit a few spots above William the Conqueror and Machiavelli? That’s gotta feel good. On the other hand, imagine James Joyce watching from heaven as he’s dropped one spot behind Ronald Reagan.

Getting back to the point: in the 1880s, the cartel of New York newspapers were offering an open reward of a cool million dollars to anybody who could speed up type-setting production by 25-30%. Having done some type-setting by hand as a nerdy enterprise, I literally find it hard to even wrap my head around the idea of a daily newspaper being set by hand– it makes me slightly nauseated to think of the constant frantic whirl of human activity that this entailed. A German named Otto Merganthaler delivered humankind from this bondage with his invention of the linotype machine, a wild contraption of a thing that looks like this:

Person sits on stool, taps on typewriter; meanwhile, sinister spindly arms up top slide corresponding negative-impression letters, numbers and characters onto a tray to form a line onto which hot lead is poured, producing a line of type (‘line o’ type‘). Newspaper production is sped up, newspapers can afford to sell copies for slightly less, news-literate public grows widely, whole system flourishes until a combination of Roger Ailes and the internet conspire to squash it like a bug.

What’s easy to forget– unless you’re reminded by a handy guest lecture– is what a pain printing then remained for the next hundred years. Wadmore had a great account of how the simple process of reversing out a box of type (that is, printing white on a black box) required something like seven people, in part due to the insane union regulations that essentially forbade anyone from physically giving anything to anyone else and instead demanded that a messenger be used as a conduit. My old typography teacher used to create the impression that the phototype and early pseudo-computer processes that came along right before desktop publishing were almost more thankless than handsetting type, in the sense that they involved a lot of the same inconvenience but also took you away from the ameliorating rustic pleasures of handling type by hand and instead replaced it by peering into monitors that were attached to computers with no undo function:

(Photo credit: Flick user Alki1)

After his first Prague College lecture, Wadmore opened things up to Q&A– I immediately asked him something designed to get him to tell us about the most hair-raising screw-ups and blunders that he experienced in his many years on the job. He diverted the question slightly but came up with a great response: the night that Lady Di (someone who also inexplicably appears on the ‘Top People of the Milennium’ list, by the way) died, the entire press corps of London happened to be at a uproarious wedding of some high-ranking colleague. So, in the wee hours of the morning, they were woken up one by one by their respective papers and ordered to get to Paris on the first possible plane. So: the next time you see re-run news coverage of her death, stop for a moment to appreciate the collective hangover of the press covering the event, and their unsung heroism in soldiering forward with the story.

Something about Andy Warhol

These are two very well-written paragraphs, in my opinion:

“The essence of Warhol’s genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would, to conventional ways of thinking, cease to be itself, and then to see what happened. He made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing. He had his mother sign his work, and he sent an actor, Allen Midgette, to impersonate him on a lecture tour (and, for a while, Midgette got away with it). He had other people make his paintings.

And he demonstrated, almost every time he did this, that it didn’t make any difference. His Brillo boxes were received as art, and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building was received as a movie. The people who saw someone pretending to be Andy Warhol believed that they had seen Andy Warhol. (“Andy helped me see into fame and through it,” Midgette later said.) The works that his mother signed and that other people made were sold as Warhols. And what he made up in interviews was quoted by critics to explain his intentions. Warhol wasn’t hiding anything, and he wasn’t out to trick anyone. He was only changing one basic rule, the most basic rule, of the game. He found that people just kept on playing.”

This is from Louis Menand’s article in last month’s New Yorker (subscription required), which also does a nice job taking on the annoying conceit that Pop Art was an entirely American idea. As I drone on about at length in my history lectures, the U.S. was a pathetic nowhere in terms of creating abstract visual ideas until a herd of Bauhaus-era designers and artists came flooding over from Europe during World War II. Rothko? Russian. De Kooning? Dutch. Gorky? Armenian. DuChamp? Not a chance. Maholy-Nagy? No way. Mondrian? I won’t even dignify that with a response. And so on. If Pop Art needed American consumerism to supply its subject matter, it also apparently needed a foreign observer to make sense of it.

This brings us to the subject of Warhol’s ancestry, which confused the hell out of me for a long time. In the U.S., you generally hear him referred to as Polish. But once I started teaching at Prague College, however, my Slovak students were quick to inform me that he’s actually Slovak– and indeed he was born in an area that now belongs to Slovakia. But, it turns out that his family was in fact Ruthenian– the Ruthenians being a teeny distinct Slavic people whose homeland was absorbed by what are now Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So here’s to you, Ruthenia– today I salute you. I like to imagine that when you did still exist, you were a fine destination to hit for a bit of the old orientalism.

On a personal note: back in the 50s, my grandmother was an account manager with Ogilvy (something I think about a lot as I watch Mad Men, as it’s fair to presume that she probably faced a lot of the same institutionalized hurdles and general BS that Peggy faces in the show, and was probably kind of a cool, ahead-of-her-time lady). Anyway, she apparently knew Warhol back when he was a commercial artist and bought some of his sketches back then, which now must be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t know, because they were somehow stolen from her home in a manner that no one can exactly pinpoint (probably happened during a brief point when she was renting her house). So, that stinks.

Can you tell me how to get… ?

Back in 1979, as a five year-old, I appeared in a brief Sesame Street segment– one of those interstitial bits that doesn’t take place on ‘the Street’ or involve any of the signature characters, but instead is shot from real life and generally has a straightforwardly educational premise (‘real-life films’ is what these are called in Sesame Street fan parlance, I’ve learned). In my bit, a group of kids go to visit a printing press. I presume that many educational and edifying tidbits are also learned along the way, although I can hardly remember anything about it now (more on this below). I’ve never actually seen the segment, and had come to suspect over the years that perhaps I’d fabricated the whole thing in my mind (unlikely) or that it had never in fact aired (more likely). But then, over the holidays, I was talking to my uncle and he suddenly mentioned having seen it– I guess he was watching Sesame Street with my little cousin and the segment suddenly popped on. This spurred me on to track down some info about the segment – or better yet, footage – using the vast resources available along the Information SuperHighway.

My first stop was the Muppet Wiki, which includes user-submitted synopses of lots and lots of Sesame Street episodes. Unfortunately, the episode guide is very much incomplete and misses large chunks of the ’79 and ’80 seasons. When I couldn’t find my segment in the episodes covered from this season, I began to leaf through later seasons, hoping that I would find it as a re-run. This process soon became obsessive. An hour later, having paged through 12 full seasons, I tore myself away, by now immersed in the era when hip-hop culture began to infiltrate ‘the Street’ and kids started sporting high-top fades. By this point, my mind was whooshing from scanning hundreds of summaries of various skits, some of which started to sound like zen riddles and/or fortune cookies:

  • A man illustrates ‘between’ in various situations throughout his work day.
  • Why can’t we see the wind?
  • A man laughs out loud as an alligator uses the telephone to call his wife – then he eats the phone booth.
  • A man talks about going to the city, without noticing he’s walking right through it.
  • Everyone has the same feelings, “No Matter What.” Kids of all types play with a huge beach ball.

That’s a good question about the wind. Anyway, at this point I had to face the music that the Muppet Wiki wasn’t going to hold any answers for me, so I moved on to Muppet Central Forum. This has a certain section called ‘The Official “I’m looking for/trying to remember a sketch” thread’, where I posted a comment describing my episode. Several helpful people wrote back with recollections of episodes involving printing and/or newspapers, but none turned out to be mine. I continue to get email updates any time someone posts to this thread, even when it has nothing to do with me– for example:

Does anyone else recall an episode (from the early 1970s) in which one of the adults spots Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street? Snuffy was wearing striped pajamas at the time, which causes confusion when Big Bird asks where his friend has gone. (The adult character agrees that Snuffy is real, but mistakes the stripes for a natural body covering; when Big Bird tries to correct the description, he gets ignored as usual.)

If you remember this show…could you please tell me (1) which season it aired in, and (2) who the “Snuffy sighter” was. I’m thinking it’s Bob but I could be wrong!

Anyway, the upshot of this story is that I still haven’t found the episode I appeared in. But, the experience of scouring my mind for tell-tale details of the episode made me think again about some weird aspects of human memory: when I try to remember the filming, I get two distinct mental snapshots (walking down a rural Vermont road to the printer; a moment of running forward excitedly towards the camera with two other kids at the printer’s). Did these actual moments happen? If so, why do I remember them and not a snapshot from, say, 20 seconds later? Or, are they just amalgamations of dozens or hundreds of different moments that happened over the course of the afternoon?

Final comment: I happened to talk about this whole Sesame Street hunt with about four people, and two of them happened to be Canadians by sheer coincidence. Both Canadians reported hating Sesame Street as children, which I found shocking. One explained that the street itself looked too dingy and rundown to be what he would have considered a safe place in the context of 70s suburban Toronto.

Photo: Stevie Wonder’s unlikely cameo that yielded a version of ‘Superstition’.

The Band

This album — The Band’s self-titled second LP — was a fixture of my adolescence, but not because I ever listened to it. Rather, the LP itself was always lying around in a stack of records that belonged to my father and brother near my bedroom, and it became an emblem for me of a kind of “mainstream, bluesy, roots rock” style that I had rejected in favor of more esoteric punk rock and new wave. With just this image to go by, I probably thought that they were some coal mining banjo players from the 1930s, and I was not into it.

When I got to college, I lived with some Deadheads, and became familiar with The Last Waltz soundtrack, which was played over and over again at our parties — in particular, of course, “The Weight.” I can still see my crazed hippie roommate singing “Wait a minute Chester, I’m a peaceful man…” at the top of his lungs. But even as I developed a sort of acceptance and even appreciation for them, I never took enough of an interest to pursue them further on my own — and the version of The Band that I was getting familiar with was their late ’70s, already somewhat cheesy manifestation.

That changed with my recent discovery of The Basement Tapes, detailed in this prior post. Part of what appeals to me so much about the songs from these mythic 1967 sessions is how they fused traditional Americana folksyness with what is basically a soul-R&B sound, and a quick crash-course in The Band (and digesting of their most recent box set anthology) taught me why: prior to becoming Dylan’s first electric backing band (and therefore the cause of the “Judas!” chant and other renowned folkster heckling), they backed up Ronnie Hawkins, an Elvis-like crooner on the “Southern Chitlin circuit.” (I have a weird obsession with the Chitlin circuit, based on my belief in the possibly apocryphal story that Jimi Hendrix got so great by playing with “a different band on the Chitlin circuit” every night for years.)

So when Dylan found The Band, they were more or less a white soul backing band (indeed, when they first struck out on their own they considered calling themselves “The Honkies” and “The Crackers”), and it’s probably a safe bet that their blossoming into a rootsy, counter-counter-culture late 60s/70s touring behometh had something to do with the collision of those influences with everything Dylan brought to the table. There is an amazing scene in The Last Waltz (yes, the greatest living director made a documentary in 35mm of their final ever concert, featuring cameos from just about anybody you can imagine: Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ringo, Neil Young, etc. etc., and which is full of amazing interviews between Scorsese and members of The Band where all of them are obviously on a LOT of cocaine) where Levon Helm (the drummer and only true Southerner of the group — the rest of them were Canadian, amazingly) talks about the area around Memphis and the cross-pollination of different musical styles that went on there: “That’s kind of the middle of the country back there. So bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, blues music.” Robbie adds, “The melting pot.” Levon adds, “Show music.” Scorsese then asks, “And what’s it called?” And Levon, with wide eyes, replies, “Rock and roll!” This perspective might lend itself to the conclusion that The Band, who paid their dues playing the blues like Johnny Ryall, and then embraced the Appalachian side of traditional American music, were the only truly authentic rock and roll band of the late ’60s/early ’70s (or at least the most authentic).

Listening now to their recorded output, it’s hard not to forget that, as with Gram Parsons’ music, what sounds very familiar today was just utterly weird when they were first doing it. But what is even more amazing to me is how some of their best work (which stretches, in my and I think most critics’ view, from their inception to the 2d album pictured above),still sounds weird and hard to place. I’ve read like a dozen descriptions of how shocked everybody was by the opening track of their debut album Music From Big Pink, Tears of Rage, in part because it flew in the face of so many conventions of the time, ranging from “start your record with a rocker, not a ballad” to the fact that this song (co-written by Dylan and Richard Manuel, The Band’s amazing pianist who eventually committed suicide), released at the peak of the hippie counterculture revolution, was sung from the perspective of parents who have been betrayed by their daughter who has “cast them all aside” in favor of “false instruction that we never could believe.” I can’t even imagine what it must have sounded like at the time, but what is so incredible to me is that even for somebody discovering this version of this song in 2010, after a lifetime of listening to so many of both their influences and the bands they influenced, it still sounds so alien and impossible to place.

As much as people celebrate The Band for helping to invent “country rock,” what really stands out for me, then, is that nobody has really sounded like them before or since. Their technique of having three or four vocalists all singing at just about the same level and separated in the mix still sounds alien to me, although I’m sure somebody could point me to later music that’s imitated this approach. It is also fascinating to me how quickly their sound devolved, almost certainly because of the success and drug addiction it spawned, into a sort of parody of itself, so that by the time Robbie Robertson broke up the band (although they would continue to tour without him throughout the ’80s and ’90s), they really did sound more or less like a cheesy, if still awesome, ’70s country rock band — in just a few years they became their own imitators in effect.

Revisiting Koh-i-noor

Today, we walked past the same buildings in Vršovice that I’d photographed way back when for the Fluffy Spectrum post:

In the original post, I misidentified these as ministry buildings, but one of my students subsequently pointed out that they are in fact (and this is much more believable) the headquarters of the art supply company Koh-i-noor. (The ministry buildings are behind them and look predictably institutional). This is how they looked back in mid-June, when the world was young, the blog was but two weeks old, the sun was shining, and Felix had just come home from the hospital nine days earlier.

Here’s how they looked this afternoon:

Poor technicolor dream buildings… you never really had a chance against the all-enveloping gray gloom of Prague’s February.

The late winter months have been problematic in every ‘four season’ city I’ve lived in, but they seem particularly brutal here. Somehow, every year at this point, I become convinced that there are far-reaching reasons why I should leave this part of the world and return to San Francisco… reasons which, I’m convinced, go well beyond the weather and in fact have a deep structural underlying basis. But then, eventually, spring arrives and I forget about all these ideas instantly (and the instantly aspect really can’t be stressed enough). This year, I’m holding out against this feeling, but it’s still creeping up on me… and I definitely got a melancholic glimmer while passing the poor beset spectrum buildings.

While we were away in the U.S., Prague got its worst snow fall in 30 years, the last of which actually fell the day before we returned. Clambering through the gloom to get to work the next morning, I was puzzled to see large areas of sidewalk blocked off with police tape and homemade signs saying (here is how I understood the signs with my fluency in Czech): ‘Warning: AFFFIUADFFHH SKKKKERWED snow and ice WEEEERWWW WEFWEWEEEE’. It turns out that giant masses of snow and ice had been sliding off rooftops and literally killing passersby below. Good times! Apparently, it’s a combination of (a) super-heavy snowfall, (b) peaked roofs built at too steep an angle and (c) an unusual sequence of extreme precipitation followed by sudden warmth that’s responsible.

After the falling ice floes claimed their first victim (‘a man in Ostrava’ as he’s invariably referred to), it subsequently came to light that Prague by-laws apparently hold property owners liable for any such injuries experienced by pedestrians. This revelation has made things almost more dangerous, as you suddenly had random shmoes up on rooftops hurling the snow off their properties as fast as possible in order to rid themselves of legal liability.

Here’s to a mercifully short winter, and the return of little fluffy clouds over warm Koh-i-noor.

Reader mailbag: Anatomical drawings and how to hold your breath for 17 minutes

In the ‘Lifestyles of the undead’ post below, I know-it-all-ishly implied that nobody’s yet done a modern update/parody of the those anatomical drawings where the subject is obligingly peeling off his or her own flesh. It turns out that my friend SP has done exactly this: “I wanted to show you the homage I drew to those weird anatomical illustrations where the women are serenely peeling back the flaps of their muscle layers,” she writes. “Life size, done while at SFAI, actually 2 layers on vellum, when you lift it it’s the fetus /womb underneath.”



Meanwhile, reader JO brings to our attention this harrowing clip of magician David Blaine discussing the tricks of his trade:

The clip is primarily Blaine talking about his efforts to hold his breath for a world record 17 minutes while battling horrible convulsions and symptoms of cardiac arrest. But along the way, he also comments on a few other lively exploits including:

– Being buried alive in a coffin for a week

– Being frozen in a block of ice for 3 days

– Standing on a narrow 100 foot pillar for 36 hours

– Living in a glass box for 44 days while antagonistic members of the British press helicopter cheeseburgers around the box to tempt you

I think I nearly slid into shock just listening to this stuff. It’s amazing to think while listening to Blaine talk about hardcore training sessions in hypoxic tents that he nominally shares the title of ‘magician’ with guys like this:

It’s something like when you watch a tiny little dog sniff the butt of a great big dog 25 times its size– yeah, they’re both ‘dogs’, but they hardly seem to belong to the same species. Or, like comparing my friend who plays in the occasional badminton tournament compared to that nutcase Swedish guy who tried to ride his bicycle to Mt. Everest from Sweden and then climb the mountain– they’re both doing ‘sports’ in a loose definition of the term, but there’s a world of difference between the two. Blaine’s particular brand of magic is to removed from the traditional trappings of wands and top hats that it really does seem like something else altogether– a kind of endurance testing. But, he did come up worshipping Houdini and wriggling out of handcuffs and whatnot, so I guess that in his mind it all seems like an extension of the same thing.