Bit Part

There’s nothing quite like the ringing sense of disorientation and excitement experienced the first time you’re boarding a flight with your own child in tow and you hear the ‘Now boarding families with small children announcement’ and realize that this entitlement now applies to you.

Yesterday, we returned home from our third transatlantic trip in Felix’s short life, arriving back in Berlin in a twisted heap. Our son managed to wait until a few moments after getting off the final plane to start vomiting copiously; then we arrived home to find that our car had been towed due to street work while we’d been gone. These all seem such stereotypical ‘thwarted Dad’ moments that I can hardly recognize myself as an actor in them. I feel like I ought to be practicing saying God damn it! in my best authoritarian-1950s-Dad voice, just to fit in.

It turns out that, when your car is towed in Berlin, they simply take it to the nearest parking space they can find and leave it there. Only, they won’t tell you where it is until you pay them some money. Ostensibly, if you were desperate, you could ride your bike around the neighborhood to locate it. In any case: no Gulag-like apparatus of the impound lot, etc. Très gentil!

The Fake-Friendly Thing

I’m going to keep this short, because surely it’s boring to read anything where some expat guy is complaining about US culture… but I really have to comment on how mind-bending the standards of customer service are in this country if you’re not accustomed to a steady diet of fake friendliness.

Did it used to seem normal to me when a store clerk would thank me simply for entering his or her store without actually buying anything? More pressingly, what did I say when someone would chirp “How’s everything working out for you?” whenever I emerged from a dressing room with rejected pair of pants in hand? This seems like an unresolvable double-bind now: if you say, “Good,” then it seems to create a false expectation that you’re going buy the pants (which I almost never do). But if you say, “Well… badly,” then that seems weird. And surely the clerk doesn’t want a blow-by-blow of your expectations heading into the dressing room versus the shattering reality of how the pants didn’t fit well or weren’t what you wanted or whatever.

In the case in question, I wound up saying, “Oh, well, they didn’t really fit”.

Thanks for trying!”

I give up.

Matthew Wilder Running Diary

Speaking of Congolese mambo… here’s Matthew Wilder!

A few comments on this:

00:01-00:17: Mystifying disparity between the number of people on stage doing things versus the overall quietness of sound. There seem to be 95 people dancing, playing various keytars and instruments and pumping out Matthew Wilder’s unique blend of white reggae… and yet I can only hear only a wafer-thin synth upbeat, some drums, vocals, and one or two other things.

00:18-00:22: great pink/purple discotard shirt combo from Matthew Wilder. Reminiscent of our old enigmatic friend Bob Blank.

00:22-00:33: Shocking slur regarding Chinese and laundry. WOW. Pretty culturally insensitive, Matthew Wilder. Even for 1982.

01:01: Wilder’s enunciation of cocky is just totally awesome. I can’t watch it without laughing.

01:33: Whoa, bitch just cut in from outta nowhere. I know I accused Matthew Wilder of cultural insensitivity above…. but is it bad that I automatically assumed that this was Phylicia Rashad until I did some research and discovered it’s actually Marilyn McCoo?

01:49-01:52 After cocky, the way McCoo walks off the stage here is the second funniest thing in this video. Again, I laugh every time.

02:20-02:50 I’m amazed that, at some point in this stretch, they don’t do the thing where they suddenly go up one half-step to breath temporary new life into the chorus. You know what I mean by this, right? Instead, Wilder just emerges from behind his synthesizer to do some dancing, including a weirdly fetal move at about 2:47 that involves shaking the mic back and forth with both hands.

Unicorns And The People Who Love Them

I’m currently working on a follow-up article for Smashing Magazine on another design-related topic, one that comes out of a lecture I give to my Prague College students. In the lecture, I use the following image in a joking manner to make a point about images that have no ‘concept’ or ‘message’ behind them:

This image is awesome, and I badly want to use it in the Smashing Mag version of the lecture… but the digital rights usage issues are tricky in this case. It’s not Creative Commons territory, and its not something I found off a cheap stock image site where you can buy the rights for a song. Initially, I couldn’t remember where I had gotten it from, and presumed (accurately, as it turns out) that it was just something I’d grabbed from a google images search while harriedly throwing together a school lecture as fast as was humanly possible.

Thus began a tortuous journey down the obscure cul-de-sacs of the information superhighway, in search of the individual who owns the rights to a certain image, in the hopes of successfully begging this individual for permission to use the image without any cash switching hands. Ready to begin my journey, I mounted Cassiopeia, holding firmly on to her snow-white mane while her slender, spiraled horn flashed against the sky. With the cautious grace of a deer, she set off through the Elysian Fields of the internet, as we began our magical digital rights quest.

A little googling around brought me to, where the image is handsomely available in this gilded frame…

… and with this description:

Matching Unicorn and Princess

This intimate scene set in a forest shows a young, blonde woman tenderly embracing a white unicorn. The unicorn’s blonde mane is sprinkled with glitter and reflects in the rays of light breaking through between the trees.

This loving description led me to think that perhaps I’d found the rights-owner of this image. The site has no contact information, but it seems to belong to something called (brace yourself) the Cornify Network (which also incldues UnicornPedia, FYI). The flagship of the network is, which makes no bones about their desire to ‘wish you sparkly happiness forever!!‘ straight away on the homepage in Comic Sans font.

A little more digging into their About page revealed this charter statement:

What is Cornify?

Cornify is the #1 unicorn and rainbow service on the internet, and quite possibly in the world.[*]

We help spread happiness by providing sophisticated unicorn and rainbow tools and services to website publishers, bloggers and the general internet audience. The philosophy behind Cornify can be summed up by this simple equation “unicorns + rainbows = happiness”. This very simple insight drives the team behind Cornify to push the latest web technology into realms previously unthinkable to optimize the happiness-per-user ratio online.

(* This claim confused me, only because it would never have occurred to me that the #1 unicorn and rainbow service would live anywhere but on the internet.)

I’m not exactly sure how to tell you this, but my next discovery was that Cornify won the People’s Choice Award at South by Southwest Web Awards in 2010, beating out interactive giants such as Hulu and Flickr. Wow.

Anyway, I found a contact email  and sent the following request:

Dear Cornify,

I am writing an educational article for about graphic design. I would like to use the enchanting* ‘Princess and Unicorn’ image (link) from UnicornPictures to illustrate a point that I am making about graphic design. I do not see a contact address for UnicornPictures or UnicornPedia, so I’m wondering if you own the rights to this image and whether you would kindly grant me permission to use it for this purpose?

Keep up the smiles!*


(* I admit to a certain amount of shameless pandering here in my quest for rights permission.)

Promptly, this cheerful (and surprisingly pragmatic, I might add) response came back:

Aloha Dan,

I don’t own any rights to that image. Considering the site has been up for a year and nobody has said anything, you should be fine just using it as you see fit.

Good luck with the article.


Attached as a footer was this little animated gif of a prancing unicorn:

So, at this date of writing, my quest is still ongoing (I’ve since generated new leads by tracking the artist’s name, which appears in bottom left corner of image). But I know a lot more about internet unicorn sub-culture, rainbows and smiles than I did before. And, I know who won SXSW 2010.

New Year’s Resolution Scorecard

People generally express surprise whenever I mention that I’m a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I guess the thinking is that, being a coastal elite / leering smartass, I’m supposed to express contempt towards this type of conventional, pokey idealism. Au contraire! (as we coastal elites say)– self-improvement is a fucking bitch, so it makes sense to approach it in a structured manner that provides a framework of manageable expectations: tackle one or two big things per year… otherwise just stay the course and don’t change a thing. Seems like sound advice to me. Also, the fact that you get a year to accomplish your goals seems like a reasonable timeframe– you get a few months of procrastination, then a productive sense of urgency kicks in around October to finish the job.

Not that I have anything like an unblemished record with my resolutions, but there have been a few winners over the years. Here are my resolutions for this year, plus a few notable hits and misses from the recent past:

1. Chew food more before swallowing (2008)
Status: closed

OK, this one was partly tongue-in-cheek. I admit that I came up with it the day before New Year’s, and that the idea came from watching a Suzanne Somers (shown above with Thighmaster) infomercial. But it’s a good one that I legitimately recommend. You truly enjoy your food more, plus its a zen easy-to-do-but-hard-to-remember type thing that poses an interesting challenge of behavior modification.

2. Learn to drive stick (2010, 2011)
Status: open

I failed on this one last year and am officially rolling it over to this year. Yes, I actually presently own a car that I’m not able to drive. I feel that this fact is literally more humiliating and inconveniencing to me than every single other embarrassing aspect of my life combined.

3. Get involved in book cover design (2006, 2007, 2008)
Status: sort of closed, but still kind of waiting

This one was notable in that it took me three tries and a move to Europe to accomplish (I remain convinced that this goal would have unattainable in San Francisco– worming my way into the doings of a cool small press would be like trying to become a veterinarian in terms of the level of competition one would face in that city. Meanwhile, in Prague, if you have a creative idea, you’re quite likely the only person who’s thought of it…) Finally, I made good on this (see here, here and here), although I’m still waiting for the projects to be published. So, maybe there’s hope yet for me to learn stick.

4. Wreak revenge on Mission Mission for dropping me from their blog roll (2011)
Status: open

At some point over the summer, Mission Mission unaccountably dropped me from their blog roll. I say ‘unaccountably’ because, if they were generally pruning down their blog roll and only leaving blogs of the highest quality, I would understand… but, in fact, they’ve kept all kinds of lame things up there that haven’t been updated in months, or are super self-indulgent and crappy, etc. Granted, this resolution is only half-serious, as I do still love Mission Mission. But I’m also a small and petty man in many ways. So, watch out, Mission Mission: If I ever learn how to drive stick, there’ll be no stopping me and my vindictive score-settling.


Update: OK, blog roll link has since been reinstated. Apparently, it was deleted by accident.

Discotheque Esperanto

Spotted this ad for Music Club Zlatý Strom (Golden Tree) on the metro recently while heading to the train station and, subsequently, to Berlin:

In this case, I have to say that the blurriness of the photo is only partly attributable to rush (it was a packed metro car, so I only had a moment of unmolested empty space between stops in which to snap it) and largely due to a spasm of self-conscious embarrassment I experienced while snapping it that some onlooker might think I was legitimately wowed by the looks of the place. What actually attracted me was the peculiar gigantism of the sales pitch (’60 different types of vodka! 70 different types of tequila! 40 different types of rum!), and the weird half-baked visual language of ‘cool, sexy times being had’: hazy, indistinct purple field, generic sexy woman silhouettes*, disco balls. Only the incongruity of the golden tree seal sets this apart from any number of other cheesy clubs, I would guess.

Indeed, as soon as I arrived in Berlin, I passed Club Matrix, which exhibits the same, lame purple-clad associations:

What is it with purple, anyway? I guess the thinking is that sheer black would be too dull, and red would look too hellish and infernal. There’s a sort of international visual esperanto of cheeseball Euro-disco-trashiness emerging here.

* Although it should be noted that this ad is incredibly chaste compared to the web site and online advertising for the Zlaty Strom, which I looked up as soon as I got back to Prague. All vague, atmospheric promises are tossed aside in favor of a much more graphic and concrete approach suggesting an outright brothel.

Let the (Fake) Games Begin!

Although I have never really gotten into a lot of the “traditional male” crap like cars and guns, I have been a committed sports fan for as long as I can remember.  And although I abandoned my home city of Boston a decade and a half ago, and in most respects hold very little (if any) allegiance to its provincial, bean-eating ways, I have continued to support its professional sports teams even as I’ve walked in the shadow of the valley of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers in my more recent homes of NYC and LA.  So I tend to view the beginning of the various sports’ seasons with excitement — it’s my opportunity to plunge, once again, into an oversimplified world of Right and Wrong, where many of the complexities and moral ambiguities of the real world melt away once my chosen gladiators step inside the lines of their field/court, and where acts of individual and team heroism and glory can be reasonably expected on a somewhat regular basis.  There’s a wonderful Seamus Heaney poem called “Markings” that describes, far more articulately, what I’m getting at: how the protagonist children marked out the field with four jackets, picked the teams, “and crossed the line the called names drew between us.”

Today marks the beginning of the National Football League season, so I sat down with my morning coffee and “aimed my browser” straight for some of the standard sports sites like to revel in the collective excitement over the start of the season.  But I ran into a disturbing problem, one that has been haunting me more and more of late: all anybody wants to write or talk about is their “fantasy leagues” — that is, an entirely distinct “game” in which people “draft” their own professional players from a mix of different teams, and then compete against other such fake “teams” based on the individual statistics compiled by the players they’ve drafted.  The appeal, I suppose, is that the person gets to be his own (and lets not even bother to pretend that more than 1% of these people are women) “general manager” by “drafting” these players, and then trading them with his “fellow general managers.”  But the whole thing has always really bummed me out.  Partly I think it’s the way that, by reducing the games to the individual statistics of individual players, it ignores the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” aspect that often means the difference between victory and defeat, and which makes sports so particularly interesting to me.  But beyond that, it seems like the craziest folly to take these overblown spectacles that are themselves utterly divorced from the real world and its problems, and then derive from that something called “fantasy.”  The games themselves are already fantasy!  Isn’t it enough to be a fan of your team, and watch people who have actually made careers of this (whether as players, coaches, or team-builders) try to overcome your collective rivals?  Is it really necessary to create an extra layer of fakeness out of that in order to feel “in control”?

Farewell, Blind Eye

I forgot to write anything about what I did on my birthday last Saturday. First, we got a babysitter, which was great… and unchartered territory for us. We’ve had family members look after the little guy from time to time, but this was our first hired mercenary. I’ll tell you, you haven’t truly felt like a grown-up until the first time you pull out your wallet to ‘pay the babysitter’.

Then, after dinner, we went to the closing party for the Blind Eye, the one and only real Mission-style dive bar in Prague. Just about every other bar in this city either involves sullen Czechs sitting at tables being served beer in formulaic fashion… or rampant tourist buffoonery… plus there are a few weird meat-market places for professional types in their 30s that I’ve only gotten a fleeting glimpse of. The Blind Eye was about the only place where people would drunkenly mill around and mix; the bathroom door’s broken; there’s no light in there so you have to leave the door ajar a bit to do your business; but you’re afraid to see what’s on the floor so you don’t want to open it too much, etc– you know the drill. My friend was so enamored of the place that when he wrote a manuscript loosely based on his own debauched experiences in this Zizkov neighborhood, the action partly centered around a  thinly-veiled bar called ‘The Other Cheek.’

The Blind Eye officially closed two weeks earlier with a farewell party that I missed because I was in Berlin. In the annals of ‘Wow, that didn’t take long’, though, they predictably re-opened for  ‘one final night’ to raise funds for some future incarnation of the bar at a new location. You could tell things were really on their last legs when they ran out of beer at 2am. It seems that my Berlin buddy and I got the last two ever served beer in that fine establishment, which is a nice closing note.

(Photo: Kristýna Holubová, stolen from her Facebook album)

Attacking and Defending

In the past few months I’ve delved into three new hobbies/fascinations: boxing (as a participant), chess (same), and soccer (as a spectator). Boxing is just totally new for me – I never really paid any attention to it, and I didn’t watch even the biggest and most famous matches (probably because you had to pay money to see them even on TV). But in recent months I’ve actually started to learn how to box, taking 2-3 lessons a week. I am probably about 1% of the way to being a capable boxer, but even the little I’ve learned has started to seep into my perception of the rest of my life/the world – I am constantly analogizing various circumstances with the “attack/defend” dynamic of boxing – a dynamic that exists in many other sports, but not with the directness of boxing, where you are either punching somebody, or trying to fend off punches, or both.

That's Dan keeping his cool on the left.

Then, a few months later, my father, who is a chess enthusiast, convinced me to play online with him, and now I’ve returned to chess after a literally 25-year break (indeed, the last time I played with any consistency was with Dan himself, during recess in third grade – I have very happy memories of these sessions, which probably says all that needs to be said about our social functionality in those days). And although I obviously knew the rules of chess as a child, it’s become very clear that I never knew, and still don’t know, the first thing about actual strategy (beyond the most basic tactical considerations). There is something really delightful about that steep learning curve phase of learning about something when everything seems new and confusing, and only slowly do the, ahem, pieces start to fit together. (Pawn structure? Control the center of the board? Material?! Tempo?!?!) And, of course, that same “attack/defend” dynamic momentum is present here, too, although in a far subtler and less obvious guise than in boxing – my problem so far is that whereas I can make reasonable decisions about how to defend against attack, and occasionally can turn the tables on my (thus far, always superior) opponents, I never know what to do with the “tempo” once I’ve regained it, and I quickly squander it.

Finally, there is the spectacle of the World Cup, which was just finishing when I started writing this post, which says about all that needs to be said about my blog posting lately. I also played soccer as a child, but I was always one of the worst players on the very worst teams in my youth soccer league, and it has tended to remind me of the sorts of experiences Dan and I were trying to avoid when we huddled around the chess board at recess. And, as with boxing, I’ve never paid the slightest attention to it as a spectator sport. This time around, I got drawn in enough to get up at ungodly hours to catch some of the games from the West Coast of the U.S. And although I really enjoyed the athleticism, teamwork, etc. of the play itself, I particularly loved being confronted with the intense level of mythology and history that accompanied each game, as the announcers spoke of matches in the 1950s as if they happened last week, and associated certain styles of play with certain teams/regions. And again, I’ve had a steep learning curve of picking up on the strategic and tactical considerations that affect the momentum of each game.

It is starting to seem like all of life is just a series of circumstances where the question is whether to press the advantage, or retreat and defend.

Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld

I haven’t been to many places as gloriously stereotype-affirming as the Austrian Alps, where we just spent a week’s vacation. Whether you’re standing on the side of a mountain and picking wild blueberries and reaching behind your head to feed them to your infant son on your back (did this), or being hailed by every single person you pass in the village with a diminutive ‘kruste!’, or watching a lederhosen-clad band pump out polka in a giant tent (more on this in a second), everything feels predictably ‘in character’ a fun, reaffirming way. I like this photo that I took above, as — not unlike Herbert Matter’s famous tourist poster for the Swiss Alps— it seems to capture the essence of the place on three distinct spatial depths, background (Alps), mid-ground (kitschily tricked-out house), and foreground (guy with green hat, feather).

One of the most fun things we did was crash a music festival at a neighboring village– when we heard ‘Bezirksmusikfest Längenfeld’, our ears perked up and we had to go. Pulling into the village of Längenfeld, the first thing I spotted was a car parked next to us with a couple of traditional costume elements (perhaps a backup supply?) tossed carelessly in the back:

For some reason, this amused me to no end. We’ve all heard of Soccer Moms… could this signal the presence of a new demographic, the Lederhosen Mom? Sorry for the crummy, glare-riddled photo, but I was worried that the owners of the car might notice me peering in and take offense, possibly leading to me being viciously feather-whipped by a gang of Lederhosers in the mean streets of Längenfeld.

Anyway, we followed the honking sounds of revelry to a giant circus tent that was filled all the things you might expect: beer, bodices, ruddy-faced people having a great time:

The main attraction was the smooth polka stylings of local village ensemble. Here they are in poster format…

… and in the flesh:

Various brave/drunk souls offered their talents as vocalists. At one point, this guy jumped on the table in front of us and began singing into a wireless mic, to my one year-old son’s great delectation:

Back when I was about 12 years old and used to watch pro wrestling on TV sometimes, there was a villainous bald East German character who (if I remember correctly) had ‘Baron’ and ‘Von’ in his name and would goose-step around the stage and put opponents in some sort of three-fingered claw grip. I can’t remember his name, but I swear he’s the spitting image of this guy.

A few minutes later, my wife caught this surreptitious exchange between obliging fellow and thirsty lass:

I think those kegs are only intended to be worn by rescue dogs, but never mind. As you can see, a good time was being had by all, and love was in the air:

I’m off to Berlin this weekend, so perhaps I can report on a more jaded, urban, sophisticated, cynical, hipsterish aspect of the German/Austrian character when I get back.