The Curious Case of J. Jitters

In case you’ve been reading along and worrying about whether I’ve found a workspace here… fear not, it’s been taken care of. I’m currently based out of the Berlin game studio Kunst-Stoff, where I sit at a makeshift desk set up in the office kitchen, pumping out my mellow blend of adult-contemporary design. Kunst-stoff (the name is a pun on the German word for ‘plastic’… also means ‘art-stuff’ the way they’ve spelled it) is an independent game development company started by my friend Patrick. I’m permitted to squat in their kitchen in exchange for about five minutes per week spent proofreading the English translations of their press releases.

If you ever get a chance to swing something like this, I can highly recommend any situation where you’re surrounded by people who are busily working on something, but where you have no professional connection whatsoever to whatever it is they are working on. In this case, whatever it is they are working on is an iPhone/iPad game called Pudding Panic that was released to the iTunes store a few weeks ago. The game’s premise–- described on game’s web site as ‘An anxious little pudding is trapped in a scary ghost train!”-– has earned the company highly positive reviews with titles like “Pudding Panic redefines weird“. If you like iPhone/iPad games, you should definitely check it out. I do not like such games (my feelings about gaming are discussed in this post about the Sims)– I bought a copy of the game to be a good sport, but have yet to install or play it.

I am quite smitten, however, with the game’s main character, a perpetually-shivering plate of jello named J. Jitters. Jitters seems ready-made for franchising and stars in a series of clever trailers for the game.

Also, I was interested to learn that Pudding Panic has climbed near the top of sales in the respective iTunes stores of a number of countries, including… Jamaica! This got me wondering about what the other best-sellers might be in Jamaica that Pudding Panic would have to knock off to take the top spot there:

  1. Mount Zion Picnic: scale the lofty heights before Babylon gets there and opens its picnic basket of roast mutton and other unclean foods.
  2. Super Haile Selassie Brothers 3: the year is 1973 and there’s a palace coup to put down! Throw barrels on the heads of your would-be usurpers as they attempt to climb up ladders to the top and wrest away your crown!
  3. Michal Rose vs. Zombies: Michal Rose’s coffee farm is under attack from Matthew Wilder and other pretend-reggae-musician zombies. Defeat the zombies or else your rhythms will appear on Solid Gold next to Marilyn McCoo.

Misadventures In Self Publishing

My friend, it turns out, has three or four manuscripts of his own unpublished fiction kicking around. Now, I know this sounds boring… but before you head over to What I Had For Breakfast, consider the following:

  1. One of the manuscripts is titled Vomiting Across America and is based on personal experience
  2. A second is about his misadventures in Prague. Half the action is set in legendary local dive bar The Blind Eye. But the author had the literary wherewithal to create a fictionalized version of this bar called ‘The Other Cheek’. Now, that’s good– you’ve gotta admit.
  3. A third includes accounts of the sexual exploits of a grandmother deranged from senility.

On balance, the only tiresome aspect of my friend’s writing persona is the fact that he maintains the whole predictable reluctanct-to-talk-about-or-share-his-work posture that all my friends who aspire to write fiction invariably pull. When clearly the only goal of this stunt is to entice interest in their writing and general persona while allowing them to appear aloof and above the fray. Yawn. That’s why it was nice to finally meet one guy on my vacation in Poland who would freely talk about the manuscript he had just finished with anyone who was willing to listen. What a relief.

Anyway, my friend sent me the second manuscript discussed above– the one about Prague– which I read and found totally enthralling in trashy, Bukowski-esque way. One thing is that he has a great ear for accents and the way that people speak, which allows you to express more about, say, Czech people and how Czech people really are than I can manage in blog post after post of tedious sociological generalizations. Another thing is that it’s just riotously funny. I mean, c’mon: ‘The Other Cheek’.

This manuscript has also added an enjoyable and enduring physical presence to our household. I received the digital files from my friend and printed out the whole 400 or so pages on my office printer… then, once I was done with it, I discarded the whole spent husk into a pile of scrap paper that we use at home for grocery lists and the like. This has the unintended effect of really livening up mundane household tasks. The other day, I was getting a list of groceries that my wife had written down and turned the sheet over to find the following passage:

Lift it up, full and steaming and… what the fuck?! Jesus! JESUS FUCKING FUCK! The Head! The fucking head. The dead eyes open, the mouth too, in an eternal, silent, scream and there’s soup inside the mouth, there’s a pea and a bit of carrot swimming around in there

(In fact, what’s funny is that when I searched my hard drive right now to find this passage again, I did a search for ‘Jesus fucking fuck’ and the only results that appeared were all four parts of his manuscript).

I honestly think these writings could achieve a certain dubious mass popularity if they were published, and find myself at times struggling to think of a way to facilitate this (the publisher for whom I design the book covers is, I think, a bit too self-respecting).

My friend once sent one of his short stories off to a literary blog that was sponsoring some kind of young writers contest. The story was posted on the blog– it’s about braining somebody to death with a soda can and contains 13 instances of the word ‘fuck’ in a 600 word story. Anyway, my friend recounts that he once went for the second round of a job interview process and was confronted with the actual story– his would-be employer had googled him, found the story, printed out a copy and asked him to explain what it was all about. Safe to say that the Obama administration won’t be tapping him for a position anytime soon.

John Meat-John

• Sorry for the extended writing outages lately. On top of general busyness and assorted crapulence, I’m also trying to write a short article for Smashing Magazine these days, so my spare ions of free time and writing inclination have been mostly sucked up in that task. The article concerns typography and is the very epitome of font-nerdishness. I’ll let you know if and when it goes live.

One of the great campaigns of disinformation that I’ve ever personally mounted has been trying to convince friends that the society of typography is actually a seething cesspool of loose morals and sexual adventuring, a la the stereotypes about Renaissance fair enthusiasts. Back in 2003, when I went to a three day typography conference, I had fun lying and persuading people that every conference was a veritable orgy waiting to erupt.

Little could be farther from the truth. With the notable exception of Eric Gill (devout Catholic and brilliant artist who, to everyone’s shock, was discovered decades after his death to have had sexual relations with everyone in his family including the family dog), type designers seem like the restrained bunch that you would expect. The one binding trait between them seems to be a tendency to wear bowties:

• Lately, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad with my wife. A few nights ago, we were watching an episode from season one where the teenage Walter Jr. is briefly shown in the liquor store parking with friends trying to get strangers to buy booze for them. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to pause the video to explain to my wife what was going on here– being Czech, she had no context by which to understand the American teenage rite of passage that is standing around asking random people to buy liquor for you. I even wound up getting into the time in high school that my buddy and I asked two winos to do the deed for us and they tried to run off with the money but weren’t very fast (being beat-up old winos), which set up an awkward confrontation once we ran them down in about two seconds, especially when one of the guys complainingly revealed that he’d somehow peed his pants during the run down (again, surely owing to general unhealthiness, not out of any sense of fear of the two high school kids bearing down on him).

• By a great coincidence, two of the more strangely named friends I’ve ever had have both recently made belated entrances to the Facebook community. First, there’s my colleague Jan Fleischhans, which means – in a munge of German and Czech – ‘John Meat-John’. Then, there are the two Hamburger brothers, Joel and Manny. Joel once told me  that there was even an Abraham Hamburger at some point in the family lineage. Two bad he lived before the era of trendy name-shortenings, or he could be, concisely, AbraHamburger.

Crimson Tide

Few topics can numb my buns like a discussion of how some social networking platform is or isn’t changing the cultural and/or political landscape around us. I can’t explain my disdain in rational terms– it’s more like there’s just this big, bored, empty thought bubble that appears over my head whenever the subject is raised. I guess this ennui is best expressed by an article in the Onion brilliantly titled, ‘New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It‘.

So, I was surprised to recently encounter two new pieces of commentary on this subject that actually engaged my interest and/or taught me something new. The first was Malcolm Gladwell’s denigrating comparison of the so-called Twitter Revolution to a real bona-fide revolution, the civil-rights movement (this I found mainly revelatory for its explanation of how heirarchically and militantly structured the civil rights organizers actually were). The second was ‘The Social Network’, which I got to see last weekend in a rare case of a U.S. movie being screened in Prague almost synchronously with its stateside release. (In this case, some weird film club got a hold of a copy with Czech titles and screened it as part of their tenth anniversary party. I didn’t understand all of the festive ramifications, but I was glad to get to see it…. plus, there were lots of whisky shots distributed during the film).

I hadn’t been terribly interested in seeing a highly-fictionalized account of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg until I read the David Denby’s review that comes as close as a Denby review possibly can to enthused RANTING and RAVING about a movie. And, indeed, it is as good as advertised– the pacing and writing are both excellent, such that I was totally riveted the entire time. Most impressively, its a rare example of a Hollywood movie that handles an overtly moral subject with sufficient complexity – no hamfisted good-versus-evil dramaturgy– without wussing out and denying it sufficient gravitas and force.

As Denby notes, the movie also does a great job illustrating the pressuring and potentially-alienating atmosphere of Harvard University. Now, as the only one out of the three people who write for this blog who didn’t attend Harvard, maybe I’m the wrong person to comment on this. But, the film is set in the exact same years when friends of mine were there and I was occasionally loitering around on campus hanging out with them. Mainly, the malice and pent-up rage evident in some of characters in “The Social Network” reminded me… not of people I personally met, thank god… but of a string of scandalous and disturbingly violent incidents that unfolded during those years.

Principally, there was the case of Sinedu Tadesse, an Ethopian biology student who became increasingly unhinged and in 1995 murdered her roommate and hanged herself in the dorm room they shared in Dunster House– the same house that most of my friends there inhabited. At the time, I remember that part of the lore around this was the fact that the culprit was so socially alienated that she gave herself ‘assignments’ in how to socialize and graded herself accordingly– a strange and tragic attempt to impose an academic structure on mastering human relationships. Articles written on the case at the time (principally, a New Yorker article by a woman who went on to write a full length book on the subject) confirm this to be the case, and also paint the sad episode of Tadesse sending a strange beseeching letter to individuals that she picked out of the phone book in search of friendship. At the time, I also remember thinking that perhaps the muder of her roommate was inspired by a competitive desire not to let the roommate benefit from a semester of automatic straight A’s that you’re always rumored to receive if your roommate commits suicide. (Has anyone ever confirmed this, by the way, or is it just an academic urban myth?). But, it turns out that her roommate was the last person to serve as a friend to the culprit, and when she eventually announced her desire to live with some other girls, that served as the final social betrayal that pushed Tadesse over the edge.

Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, the aforementioned book by Melanie Thernstrom, generated mixed reviews to put it kindly (apparently, she gets carried away in a kind of blunt good-versus-evil moralizing that her reviewers object to, which I guess brings this blog post around full circle somewhat)… but one thing that every reviewer seems to find illuminating is the emphasis placed on Harvard’s apathy and insensitivity to the whole matter, particularly to the increasingly evident signs of instability in the culprit in particular and its lack of psychiatric support for students as a whole.

Incredibly, this jarring murder/suicide transpired in the same year that Harvard accepted a young woman named Gina Grant and then generated enormous negative publicity by rescinding the acceptance after it came to light that Grant had apparently murdered her mother several years earlier.

Macalester College– the humdrum, plain-Jane school I attended– was completely lacking in this kind of drama. In fact, the school had singularly failed to do anything noteworthy at all until it recently made its way into Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel Freedom as the alma matter of the fictitious main characters. I suppose I should have taken this relative lack of sociopathology as a positive indicator at the time, but I think I wanted to be part of some more unhinged and psychotic atmosphere back then, and the morbid news streaming out my friends’ college only succeeded in arousing my envy.

Tajikistan Calling…

Today’s add-your-own-caption contest comes from far-flung Tajikistan:

My friend recently ventured there with this girlfriend (who is studying Central Asian languages) and snapped these photos for me from a book he found somewhere along the way. It’s impossible to imagine what’s supposed to be happening here, but as you look through more of the images, a vague plot-line begins to emerge that combines elements of Columbo, National Geographic, Iron Chef and a James Bond movie:

But then — as if just to throw you off the scent — there are also generic shots of harmless frolicking locals:


Hey, remember Barf laundry detergent? My friend also brought me back a sample box of this. The packaging is most excellent, as it depicts a model family smiling up in appreciative wonderment at the technicolor Barf masthead:

So many boxes of this stuff must be carried off to the West as souvenirs that they could include some little caption on the side, like ‘My friend went to Tajikistan and all I got was this vomitous packaging concept.’

See also: previous add-your own caption contests, San Francisco and Berlin versions

The Finder’s Fee Controversy

This week’s befuddling Facebook exchange… with annotations!


  1. Former colleague of mine, name withheld
  2. I thought he was kidding about the referral fee
  3. He’s not kidding about the referral fee
  4. Again, name withheld
  5. This is always the best part of snarky exchanges on social networking sites– when some innocent third party stumbles into the fray
  6. Was that passive-aggressive of me? OK, I guess it was…
  7. Former colleague has since un-friended me

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Eleven

[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.

In this– the final installment– Andrej comments on the political kertuffles taking place just as he’s leaving Moscow.]


Subject:  The Warriors
Date:  8/31/05

Remember the cult film classic “The Warriors?” That’s what the Moscow political scene has turned into. And your humble narrator was right in the middle of it, but I missed the oppurtunity to rumble alongside my friends in the National Bolshevick Party, by just one day.

Sunday I participated in a demonstration in front of KGB headquarters calling for the release of 39 NBP political prisoners. Here’s them in the can:

What suprised me most about this rally was the large number of young people present. In the West, there is a media assumption that all neo-Soviet forces in Russia are angry old people demanding free sausage. This could not be further from the truth. The appalling economic and political situation in the Motherland has radicalized people that were not even adults at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The demonstration went well. Afterwards, me and three party activists went for a walk. They included:




They took me on a fascinating tour of the city. We eventually arrived at the site of their First Bunker, and there we sat down in a beautiful little park and drank beers, ate pickles and talked. I am very impressed with these people. In a land of almost universal apathy and political inaction, the NBP is an island of patriotism and optimism.

That night as I was saying goodbye to the lovely Natasha on the subway, she invited me to a meeting they were having the next day. I told her that I was leaving tommorrow and that I could not make it. I’m lying. What I really said was, “I’m a friend of the Party, I am not a Member.” I really regret not going, because that meeting was stormed by soccer hooligan street-thugs, known as the Gladiators, loyal to President Putin. Oh how I wish I’d been there to break a few heads. The weapons on choice are baseball bats and flag poles, both of which I feel very comfortable with. Here’s an article that describes the event and the way in which Putin deals with political opponents.



The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Ten

[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.

Nearing the end of his adventures, Andrej returns to Moscow and explores the city.]


Subject: The Underpass

The time had come for me to pick up my ticket for Montenegro. The JAT (Serbian Airline) office is near Arbatskaya, in the belly of the Moscow beast.

The weather alternates between rain and sun. I am in my traditional attire and I am lost. The streets here aren’t marked, and a compass is very helpful.

I’m practically naked and walking in an underpass. At the end of the underpass is a stately old woman wearing a Soviet army uniform, sitting on a box and begging for change. As I approach her I’m already fishing around in my pocket for change. Then she suddenly comes to life and shouts, “Hey sportsman…nice pecs! You look like you’re new in town.” Yes dear readers, she was hitting on me.

She tells me that she’s 80 years old and that if she was a few years younger, she’d just love to jump my bones. I tell her that she too is a hot little ticket. She is flattered, and she tells me that back in the day she was a champion sharpshooter and that she personally killed 27 Germans in the Great Patriotic War. She says that she begs as a hobby; something to do to get her out of the house. She is saving her begging money to buy a new set of teeth so she can be beautiful again. I can tell that she must have been incredibly sexy back when she was one women slaughterhouse.

I give her one hundred roubles, because she is the first Russian girl that hit on me. Finally!!!! As I’m half-naked and chatting with one-shot-one-kill Natasha, two wicked hot young blonde hotties approach me from behind. “Spechenzee Duetch!?” they ask “Nyet.” I say I could not believe my luck. It was like a tag team hit-on-Andrej Ho-Down in the underpass. Russian gils are usually very shy and they seem to be afraid of me. God bless German girls (and Irish girls). They’re truly are the salt of the earth.

I tell the two little hotties that I’m an American and that I also speak Serbian. Their giggles fill the underpass. I’m giggling too. They also speak a little English. Turns out they are Russian, not German, and they study languages at the university, and they are eager to practice their English. So I insist on buying them some beers. I say good bye to Natasha and go above ground with my new little friends.

And so there I am, in my underwear, in an outdoor cafe in the Arbatskaya, sippin a cold one and giggling with the ersatz-Olsen twins. From there I drift in to Sector Southwest. As I leave  Sector Center, it begins to rain, hard. But what do I care? I’m practically naked. I think that walking through Sector Southwest, in the rain, ranks as the top ten of the greatest days in my life. As I walked, I meditated on Rutger Haurer’s improvised and haunting last lines in Bladerunner.

If you haven’t walked naked through the rainy streets of Moscow, you haven’t lived. I’ve done the Paris in spring time thing, and it doesn’t even come close.

[Yuri Gagarin statue photo courtesy of Flickr user Spaak]

Then, suddenly, I enter a huge square; it isn’t really a square, it’s more like a gigantic intersection of five eight lane roads. And in the middle is fucking super cool titanium monument to my nigger Yuri Gagarin. This is definitely my favorite monument in Moscow. And across the square is the extremely interesting looking Soviet Academy of Sciences. I don’t know how to describe this building. Imagine Viennese art nouveau meets David Lynch’s Dune. I explored its court yard.

[Academy of Science photo courtesy of Flickr user Dash Morgenstern]

From there I entered a mighty wood and walked for two hours until I reached Moscow State University. There I sat, on the dry fountain in front of this awesome building in the middle of a forest, and meditated on my own academic future.


Next: Warriors

The Siberian Basketball Diaries, Part Nine

[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.

Back in Magadan, Andrej nears the end of his visit and prepares to head back to Moscow]


Subject: Atom Tan

When I say I’m going to Metallic Beach, you all have to remember that I’m wearing a fur coat to the beach. The city is on a steep hill and the beach is just a little stretch of sand at the base of a 90 degree cliff. There I go to collect my thoughts. And meet the ell-gathering underbelly of Magadan society.

I recently learned that this beach is very radioactive, particularly in the exact location I like to sit and enjoy the view. You’re probably asking yourselves, How radioactive is it, Andrej? I’ll tell you. On a Geiger counter, a virgin forest reads 12. Downtown Manhattan reads 30. My metallic beach reads a whopping 420! Nice. As I’m catching rays from above, the ground is seething with Cesium ash below me. No biggie though. The locals don’t seem to mind.

So what do I do here when I’m not street fighting, preaching abolition or absorbing radiation? I’ve started translating a 9 year old issue of Russian Cosmopolitan. It’s fun! So far I’ve translated an Estee Lauder ad, and now I’m working on an article about legs.

I have six more days in Magadan. Then I’m off to mighty Moscow.


Next: The Diaries conclude as Andrej returns to Moscow for The Underpass.