The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Two

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group. Previous installments start here.

Here, Andrej has flown from Moscow to Magadan (map), gateway to the Kolmya region and a former transit station for prisoners on their way to labor camps during Stalinist times.]


Subject: The Jaws of Hell

I’m here y’all.

I’ve just arrived in the Jaws of Hell. I’m writing to you from the Laboratory of Extreme Physiology at the Scientific Institute of the North. I was met at the airport by two lovely girls. Julia who works for the local Ministry of Sports and is working on her Master’s in powerlifting and Lena who is a PhD candidate doing her thesis on Arctic aging. Cool beans.

I’m staying the Hotel Ocean and it’s pretty sweet and only 27$ a night.

I’m  gonna feel out the weather and then break north.


Give to the AASG you maggots!!!!


Subject: Magadan Rocks

I visited the Magadan Geological Museum.  I saw some amazing things. Here’s a brief list:

  • a shiny iron and nickel meteorite, cut on the bias, the size on a huge sack of potatoes;
  • a large floor made entirely of green striped dalolite crystal tiles;
  • a photo-realistic crystal mosaic of the local sea coast, amazing;
  • a preserved baby mammoth and I got to handle real mammoth leather!

I saw a stuffed wolf that looked EXACTLY like the wolf in American Werewolf in London, the last scene when he’s tearing apart Piccadilly Circus.

Yesterday I bought six huge Kamchatcan King Crabs and me and my new friends glutted ourselves to excess on borsht and sweet crab meat and beer. They tell me that there is a species of HAIRY crab here. I’ve looking for it at the fish mongers but I can’t find it. Apparently they are immediately shipped to Japan where they command a high price.

More interesting local lore:

  • The most common Russian name for a domestic black cat is PINOCHET.
  • When a man touches a woman inappropriately, the women will scream at him “Keep your hands off Honduras!!!”

After I was on TV,  I was contacted by the local Society of Disabled People. Here they are called invalids. They are planning to ride tandem bikes along my route next year and they asked me if I would be their scout. They gave me classified ultra-detailed government maps and they would like me to describe the road conditions from Magadan to Moscow. Of course I agreed. They hope to raise awareness of their plight here in the Far East and petition the central government in Moscow for more assistance. Imagine a group of blind people biking across Siberia! Now I am their eyes, in sense. They gave me letters of introduction I can use to get help from invalid groups across Russia as well as veterans groups.

The local head of the ruling United Russia party also gave me letters of introduction I can use when cops hassle me. He also forced me to accept a shit load of campaign trinkets. I didn’t tell him that I hate his party.

Now I have the whole political spectrum covered. I am friends with the Limonovists and their enemies the United Russia Party. I think if the local party boss knew about my association with the Limonovist he would not have been so friendly.

At the Regional Museum I got a taste of the GULAG system. I got to see all kinds of fantastic documents and physical objects from the regional slave camps.

I topped all that off with a visit to the Mask of Sorrow, a huge monument to the men and women that perished here under the regime of DALSTROY, the state enterprise that ran the slave camps here from roughly 1931 to 1951. It’s on top of a mountain and the weather was appropriately eerie and foggy. At the rear of the monument there is a statue of a woman kneeling covering her face and crying. I offered libations to all the dead homies by sprinkling her with sunflower seeds and beer. I was very sad.

When I tell the people here about my work on behalf of the AASG they seem to have trouble believing me. The only way to get people to believe you, it seems to me, is to do something really grand and stupid, as a demonstration of personal conviction. The Russians understand this philosophy well.

Tommorrow morning I’m taking off.


Next: The Cravchenskaya Mafia

[Top photo: Mojva fishing in Nagajev Harbor, Magadan. Left to right: Andrej, Lena, Viktor Nikolievich. Mask of Sorrow photo: courtesy of Flick user kachwc]

Ancestral Homeland

Programming note: this week, I’ll be flying to back to San Francisco for 10 days. The ostensible purpose is to close down my money-sucking storage space, but I’ll also be enjoying some well-needed R & R in the Mission (and a perhaps a bit of the old orientalism.)

I’m not sure whether this will mean more blogging or less over the next 10 days (probably less)… but in any case, the experience should produce some rejuvenated posts down the road from your currently-tattered host.

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part One

[ed note: the following is an excerpt from the travel journal of my old high school friend Andrej Mucic. In 2005, Andrej bicycled over 7,000 miles through Siberia to raise money for the American Anti-Slavery Group, a nonprofit that fights international sex trafficking. Read more about Andrej’s mission, or watch this Russian TV news clip about it.

We pick up the story on the fifth day of the journal: Andrej is in Moscow, preparing for his journey and searching for the Limonists, a group of anti-government radcals named for dissident writer Eduard Limonov (shown above, second from left, with assorted comrades)]


Subject: Party in the Bunker

Yesterday in Red Square I found a guy selling Limonka, the newspaper of the Limonovists. On the back I found their address. It seems they moved the Bunker over to the University of Moscow area. Finding it was a bitch. The entrance is an unmaked massive steel door in the basement of an apartment building. That door leads to a short tunnel and another massive steel door with a viewing slot. They asked me “what do you want here?” I told them I was here to see Eddy. They let me in and checked my credentials and everything was cool. That’s cuz I had my Serbian passport with me. At the threshold of the Bunker there is a flag they use to wipe their feet. It’s a red flag with a white St. Andrew’s cross. “This is the flag of our enemies” Grigori says to me. The Limonovist are engaged in a street war with a group of government thugs known as the NASHI and that was their flag.

Three months ago I sent an email to a guy named Alexei. I found his email on the Nationalist Bolshevik Party website. The Limonovist’s offical name is the Nationalist Bolshevik Party. In the email, I told him what I was doing and he briefly replied “we are waiting for you in Russia you fag.” He was very suprised to see me, he thought I was fucking with him. To make a long story short, I met a bunch of these fine young patriots and we took a group photo, but my flash failed to go off so I’ll have to get another when I return. Alexei promised me a big party in The Bunker if I live through this journey. Alexei also warned me not drink home made Russian booze known as samagon. Later me Alexei and the beautiful Natasha went to the magestic local park in front of the Mega-University and had a beer and talked about our common hatred of policemen. It was a nice day.

Now I’m off to Sunny Magadan. I missed my last plane on account of the fucking traffic here. This time I’m going to leave for the airport seven hours early, so I can beat the dacha traffic.


Next: The Jaws of Hell

The Best Day of the Year

It happened two weeks ago in San Francisco;  it’s happening next Sunday here in Prague. It’s the day the clocks move forward, unequivocally my favorite day of the year. If we ever getting around to casting off the shackles of the Gregorian calendar (a task the Czechs have gotten a small-but-significant head start at), I would propose that this become the new first day of the year. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the calendar roll over on this day, the unofficial start of spring and good times, rather than on some random dark-ass date in the middle of winter? Clocks Go Forward Day always feels like the beginning of something big– how many days can you say that about?

In my opinion, it’s a shame that Clocks Go Forward Day isn’t met with more ritualistic fanfare– a day off from work, a few pagan rites, etc. I feel like we’ve been conditioned to greet it with an air of shrugging indifference, an attitude that I suppose stems in part from the fact that Clocks Go Forward Day is a scheduled routine, a rational measure that doesn’t really feel magical. (Imagine, in contrast, if the change just happened out of the blue one evening with no warning– poof, an extra hour of light! People would be freaking out). But I can’t help but suspect that the constant bean-counting and whining of Daylight Savings Time detractors also impacts our attitude towards this day. You know them: the Oh-no-I’m-losing-one-hour-of-sleep crowd. Let’s just say this isn’t a set of priorities that I have a lot of respect for. In fact, I wish I could do business with it, in a colorful-beads-for-Manhattan-Island-type exchange: ‘Okay, I’ll give you this one shiny hour of sleep in exchange for months of light spring and summer evenings.”

Like everything, the idea of Daylight Savings Time was invented by Benjamin Franklin. During his sojourn in Paris as an American delegate, Franklin observed rows of houses with shutters as the Parisians struggled to sleep through the blasting morning sunshine (incidentally, the same sight that inspired Al Gore to propose the invention of  the internet 200 years later). Although Franklin only proposed the idea half-jokingly in a satirical essay, it was picked up by a London builder named William Willett who spent a fortune lobbying for it and managed to get it brought before the British Parliament, only to have it laughed off the floor. I can only imagine what a lonely existence it must have been to be the sole proponent of moving the clocks forward, the endless ridicule one would have been subjected to. Once Germany enacted Daylight Savings Time, Great Britain began to take it more seriously, but only finally started moving their clocks forward after much contentious political debate. The leader of the anti-DST side seems to have been Lord Balfour, the original I-want-my-one-hour-of-sleep bean-counter. At one point, he raised the following imaginative scenario: “Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock. … the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. … Such an alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that House.” Presumably, this was immediately followed by men with powered wigs rioting and tearing up chairs.

The only thing I’ll say in defense of Lord Balfour’s point of view is that the time change does create some really mind-bending and inconvenient scenarios when one is operating between countries that have different DST dates. My attempts to do freelance work for outfits based in the U.S. come to a screeching halt during the two week period between the American and European DST start dates, as we constantly screw up and miss each other’s  calls. More surreally, when I went to New Zealand a few years ago, the time change happened at different times and in different directions. For part of my trip, the difference was 21 hours, then 22 for a few days, then finally 23, which made the massive time change feel even more science fiction-y that it already would have.

Of course, you can’t have Daylight Savings Time without Standard Time, which itself only came about after considerable wrangling and arm-twisting. Before the railroads really took off, there wasn’t really this idea of people all observing one exact time- they pretty much just went by whatever the local sundial said. It was only in the late 19th century that there began to be a need to have everyone on the exact same time. When the measure was imposed on Detroit in 1900, the city resisted, leading to a bizarre situation where half the town was following Standard Time and half was following the ol’ town sun dial for a spell.

The entire notion of Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time, of time zones and of setting the clocks ahead and back to suit human activities and preserve energy– it’s really one of the more brazen acts of Enlightenment thinking (along with, say, carving up the Middle East into distinct nation states– that one didn’t work out so well). One can only imagine the thrill and nervousness experienced by the person tasked with drawing a line down the map and declaring that the two sides would obey practices regarding something as basic as man’s relationship to the sun.

(Photo: stolen from my friend Jess’ Facebook page, of our friends hanging out in Dolores Park in the summer twilight).

(See this excellent site for more info on history and practice of Daylight Savings Time)

Victory Lap

A quick digest of my favorite comments so far on the Health Care Reform bill that passed into law on Sunday. These aren’t so much sweeping explanations of the ‘big picture’– more just short posts that argue a interesting and specific point well, or in a manner that I find engaging:

  • Josh Marshall discusses the weird importance of ‘standing on principle‘ in American politics, as opposed to merely being on the popular side of an issue.
  • David Frum’s much-discussed lamentation of the Republican conundrum.
  • Matt Yglesias sorts through the mixed Napoleon metaphors aimed against Obama here and here and here.
  • Yglesias, one more time, making a simple but long-overdue point about how to read the polls.

(Image: the current header graphic of the official GOP site, which for some hilarious reason shows the Speaker of the House engulfed in hellfire).

Glimpses of A Disco Story

Some screenshots from Discopriběh (A Disco Story), the seminal Czechoslovakian teenybopper movie that I watched over the weekend on a friend’s suggestion.

It’s essentially an 80s teen musical in the spirit of Pretty In Pink, anchored by the pop stylings of Michal David, who might really be the most incredibly cheesy person on the face of the planet. Filmed just two years before the Velvet Revolution, it gives an interesting glimpse into the last days of Communism… I suppose. And the points where it converges and diverges with American teeny-bopperism are instructive … I guess. But mostly, it’s just a good laugh. I would recommend it, but I imagine it’s impossible to find a copy with subtitles (I had to have my wife clue me as to what was happening whenever the plot strayed from the most rudimentary teen plot points).

Lots of this: exuberant, goofball out-of-the-blue musical numbers.

Many of the clubs they hang out in don’t really look fully renovated, and thus have a kind of civic-sponsored, junior-high-school-dance vibe. I would make more fun of this, but a lot of clubs in villages still look like this, and I’ve hung out in many such places…

Early on, there’s a Teenage Mischief Montage where the main character engages in a bunch of ruses to evade a tram inspector who’s caught him without a ticket. Suddenly, he plunges into a crowd of goose-stepping, robotic soldiers who are marching through the main town square. Marching soldiers: communist-era comic foil!

Also, a gratuitous topless scene involving these two girls that’s far more random, baffling, and inexplicable than anything you can imagine seeing in a U.S. movie from the same period (and that’s saying a lot). It’s all a bit… unreconstructed.

Aside from the dreamy male and female leads, the other sidekick characters are incredibly cretinous and look like they just fell off a dump truck. This is the lucky male character who gets prominently involved in the topless scene mentioned above. Let’s just move on…

Lots of bonding scenes between father and son, who share a typical (small) Communist-era box flat and therefore share a bed. You can really ratchet up the bonding vibe when the two characters are sharing a bed.

There’s a classic West Side Story angle, in that the boy hides his humble social status in order to try and impress the girl. Interestingly, the humble social role that he’s trying to conceal also involves training to become a chimney sweep (??), so we see lots and lots of scenes with guys dressed liked this.

Then, a fantastically cheesy date montage scene, which someone was kind enough to upload to youtube. I encourage you to watch it.

Finally, after a classic dramatic arc and some depressing moments, the movie ends with a triumphant denouement where thousands of kids suddenly burst out dancing on the main square of Plzen. By this point, my wife had stopped watching, so I was kind of confused as to what had happened that had suddenly made everyone so jubilant… but I enjoyed the happy ending nevertheless.

Subtle condescension techniques

Not that I’m job-hunting or anything at the moment (in fact I’ve managed to avoid anything resembling a formal job interview for about a decade now)… but I somehow came across this list of 50 common mistakes people make in job interviews during my morning procrastinatory internet warm-up routine. Most of them are pretty banal, but it was somewhat fun to imagine combining various ‘mistakes’ together into one grand train-wreck of an interview. Let’s say you went into an interview wearing sunglasses (violating rule #9), accompanied by your mother (#28), and indulged in all the forbidden behaviors outlined in #30 (‘Laughing, giggling, whistling, humming, lip-smacking’).

Still, even this amalgamated uber-faux pas can’t touch the example that reader JS once told me about reading in a Wall St. Journal article written by a veteran headhunter outlining the worst telephone interview mistakes she’d encountered in her professional experience. At the top of the list was some guy who was audibly listening to Roadrunner cartoons in the background during his interview. There’s something so sublimely apathetic about this behavior that it seems a great stunt to stage on purpose in order to subtly undermine colleagues and clients in a conference call, or in any telephonic situation that calls for a roundabout display of contempt. I’m adding it to my shortlist of ‘best ways to elaborately and subtly condescend to someone’, the other two dream scenarios being:

(1) trying to bribe someone in a petty position of authority with an unacceptably tiny amount of money (discussed here in greater detail)

(2) pretending to constantly mix up the name of someone with that of his or her pet. This idea occurred to me when we were subletting a house in Prague from a guy named Dennis who had a cat named Noe. Imagine that you constantly call him ‘Noe’ and then slap your forehead with feigned chagrin every time he points out the mistake– “Oh right– you’re Dennis… the cat is Noe. Sorry, sorry!”– but then repeat the ‘mistake’ a few moments later.

Scurv Your Enthusiasm

Good times abound: spring is right around the corner (last night, I heard a bird chirping in the evening twilight for the first time this year), baseball season is a scant three weeks away… and the Idlewords guy is finally posting again. Maciej Cegłowski is the best writer around, but for months his site was lying dormant with some inscrutably geeky (to me, anyway) post about ‘Using WordPress to generate flat files.’ Now he’s back with a resplendent discussion of scurvy.

The article was apparently sparked by his re-reading of a book called ‘The Worst Journey in the World‘ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole that I’ve had my eyes on for a while. As I mentioned in an early blog post, I went through a phase a few years ago where I read accounts of adventurous expeditions for a few months to the exclusion of everything else. There’s something addictive about the asymmetry of lying in the comfort of your living room while other people have to go freeze to death on antarctic voyages, or have their still-beating hearts torn out by Aztec priests, or get swallowed whole by whales and emerge bleached and peevish. I once thumbed through a few pages of ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ at a relative’s house and have been meaning to get back to it since. Among other promising indicators: while there may be better book titles than ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, and there might be better author names than Apsley Cherry-Garrard, I feel fairly confident stating that no book could possibly have a cooler title/author combo than this one.

Scurvy’s frustrating comeback is covered in entertaining detail by Cegłowski. The disease has basically been eradicated by the middle of the 18th century (when the British Navy began supplying sailors with a shot of lime juice in their daily grog), but then bounces back in time to harass Scott’s expedition in 1911 thanks to a variety of factors of which good old human ignorance is the most readily identifiable.

I know of a case of scurvy that happened as late as the early 1960s, and I only know about it because my ex-housemate told me about it, and he only knew about it because the victim was his father. The father was a classic hyper-driven, bachelor lawyer-type guy whose life apparently became so oriented around work that he didn’t get around to consuming the bare minimum of vitamin C necessary to thwart off scurvy. In my roommate’s telling, he then became a kind of cause celebre in the local medical community, as doctors crowded around to get a look at an actual case of scurvy, a disease they had believed to be long extinct.

I think this would make for a great reality show premise: which contestant can contract scurvy first? It’s apparently simple enough to pull off, once you put your mind to it.

Green vs. blue: the same, or different?

Via JohnnyO at Burrito Justice comes this puzzling Wikipedia article on green vs. blue and the revelation that many languages do not make a distinction between the two but rather use a single word to describe both. One such language is Vietnamese, whose speakers – when forced to distinguish between the two – apparently call one shade of this color  ‘leafy’ and the other ‘ocean’ to create a distinction.

I was absorbing this weird bit of information when it occurred to me that I’ve been inadvertantly field-testing this phenomenon for years now. Prague has a large Vietnamese contingent (a trend that dates back to the days of Communist brotherhood) who run a great many of the local convenience stores. I frequently buy gum at one such store near my flat. This purchase requires pointing at a wall-mounted rack of gum behind the counter and saying, “Blue Orbit, please…  no, blue… thanks” to the Vietnamese counter person. So far, I haven’t noticed anyone mistakenly clutching at the green gum instead, although I’ll be paying far more close attention from now on. In particular, I’ll be looking to see whether the green and blue Orbital varieties have been arranged at opposite ends of the rack, so as to minimize potential ambiguity.