Imagining A San Francisco Wall

At the end of December, our initial six-month sublet here in Berlin ran out, so we packed up our stuff and went back to Czech for the holidays. Then, a few days into 2012, we drove back from Prague and — boing— straight into our new flat, located in a section of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood known as ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island).

Die Rote Insel is called an island because it’s a triangular region surrounded by train tracks on all three sides, so one must cross a bridge to gain access. The ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was historically a leftist stronghold and was allegedly the last part of Berlin to hold out against Hitler’s local political machine in the 30s.

One local attraction is this weirdo gasworks structure that looms over the neighborhood:

Another noteworthy thing is that we’re about half a mile from where David Bowie and Iggy Pop did their famous mid-70s sojourn:

Here’s the oh-so-bland-and-unassuming building where they lived:

What this all is getting to is a meditation on the weird east-versus-west dynamics that persist in Berlin as a result of the Wall. As part of the former West Berlin, Schöneberg is now considered to be a bit of a snooze— friends of ours who live in hipper areas would assume slightly restrained expressions when we would mention that we were moving there (sort of like if you were to mention that you are moving to the Inner Richmond). And, yet, back when Bowie lived here, it was pretty much as swinging as West Berlin got. You had Kreuzberg to one side, which was slummy and punk and Turkish, and then Schöneberg, which was the gay district. I had originally guessed that the neighborhood’s gay identity stemmed from its relatively close proximity to the Wall— as such, I imagined that it was a kind of untamed borderlands where anything went. But, I’ve since learned that gay affiliation stretches all the way back to the Weimar Republic-era… so, never mind about that.

So, that’s the weird contradiction of Schöneberg: a relatively risqué, eastern area of a larger, boring western area. Seemed edgy at the time… but is looked down upon by all the hipsters in the former East. On the one hand, this all seems unique to Berlin and its particular dynamics. And yet… it also reminds you of Noe Valley if you squint your eyes. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine a similar partition in San Francisco, given the exaggerated east-west divide and the cultural disdain with which people in the neighborhoods to the North and East view the western part of the city.

As a reminder, here’s how it worked in Berlin:

In my imaginary history, here’s how San Francisco was partitioned in 2005, dividing the MGDR (Matt Gonzalez Democratic Republic) from the secessionist RGN (Republic of Gavin Newsom) and tearing apart countless families and community institutions in the process:

As a virtual island in hostile territory, the RGN is naturally cut off from bridge access and can only be accessed by plane, helicopter or hydrofoil. The West gets the Golden Gate Park, just as West Berlin got the Tierpark… but the East gets the heavily-armed Presidio (i.e., Mauerpark).

And, in the analogy, Schöneberg is roughly outer Noe Valley, which sounds… about right!

Has The Uncanny Valley Jumped The Shark?

Longtime readers may recall a post that the since-deceased Krafty wrote on the topic of the Uncanny Valley:

Perhaps, at the time, you marveled at the splendid oddness of this shiny new meme. Maybe you studied the graph carefully enough to realize the ‘prosthetic hand’ is cleverly mapped to TWO data points, one on the ‘moving’ path and one on the ‘still’ path. Or perhaps you just moved on to the next post, which was probably something about robots.

Nowadays, you can’t swing a dead cat without it slipping from your grip and landing in the Uncanny Valley— what was once a private conceit has grown into an inescapable meme. Last week, a friend forwarded me two links to read… and it turned out that BOTH articles included off-hand references to the Uncanny Valley:

First, it cropped up in an investigative article by Willy Staley entitled, ‘A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage‘. Staley invokes it to describe the disturbing physical form of the McDonalds McRib sandwich, in this compelling rant about the cloaked and sinister market forces that account for the otherwise-unexplainable appearances and disappearances of this perennial big ribby thing: “Each time it rolls out nationwide, people must again consider this strange and elusive product, whose unique form sets it deep in the Uncanny Valley—and exactly why its existence is so fleeting.”

I enjoyed Staley’s short history of the product, and shared in his puzzlement about why the thing looks so grotesque when McDonalds has clearly harnessed the ability to mold food into whatever kind of non-offensive spheres they want (see McNuggets). Also, a weird ancestral memory stirred in me while reading this. A memory of a book called Encyclopedia Brown’s Book Of Weird And Wonderful Facts that an aunt gave me for one of the birthdays in my nerdsome younger years. The book was only loosely affiliated with the crime-solving boy sleuth and basically just contained a long list of odd-ball factoids.

One such factoid that stuck in my memory was a tidbit about a local Burger King franchise somewhere in Massachusetts who got in trouble for putting a promotional display outside his restaurant that showed Ronald McDonald in a coffin with a tagline: They got me in the McRibs. The point was that children were distressed by the dead clown. Just as seems to happen to the local Republican Committee every time around Halloween leading up to an election year, a co-mingled spirit of partisanship and gore got the better of the Burger King franchisee’s common sense.

The second link my friend sent me is called The Social Graph Is Neither, and the author’s voice seemed oddly familiar from the outset… sure enough, by the end, I realized that it’s written by the irritatingly talented Idlewords guy, Maciej Ceglowski. Ceglowski evokes our friend, The Uncanny Valley, in a somewhat more trenchant way to describe creepiness of social networks and their efforts to map and mimic social convention. “Asking computer nerds to design social software,” he writes a little later, “is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender.” Then, he actually manages to work the Mormon bartender joke back into the article a bit later— that was good.

Anyway, I suppose you could tabulate all the Uncanny Valley references made since this blog started and plot them according to an X and Y criteria in order to make a Meta/Uber Valley of Uncanny Valleys, and the result would probably be something nerdy that would allow you to make the Mormon bartender joke yet one more time.

In-The-Way Man

Last night, I had the chance to catch up with a friend who’s recently found work after a long bout of unemployment. Here’s his account of his new gig:

“Yeah, I got a job as In-The-Way Man at this new bar that opened on the Kollwitzplatz. You know how every bar has one guy who’s constantly in the way any time the bar is semi-crowded? This new place needed an In-The-Way Man, so I work there a few nights a week when business is good. Right now, I’m just getting in the way a few nights a week, but I hope to work my way up to working the door after a few months of this. It’s not bad: easy work… just not very challenging, and you have to be on your feet most of the night. Only when things are really crowded can you grab a seat and still get in the way.”

In-The-Way Man seems to be a burgeoning new career choice in today’s urban environment of increasingly-crowded bars. While In-The-Way Men often lack prior experience, academic institutions have begun offering two year programs in Getting In the Way.

In-The-Way Man should not be confused with Halfway Man, who is defined by a propensity to eat half a sandwich at a time and wrap the rest up in his pocket for later, or Line-Bifurcation Man, who specializes in walking into situations where people are queueing in a single line for two bank machines and creating a new line in which he conveniently happens to be the first person.

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.

I Am Looking For Freedom

I’m so up on being in Berlin right now that it’s annoying even to have to hear myself thinking about it. Yesterday when I started biking home from my workspace, the trip began with me standing on a sidewalk waiting to hop into an adjacent bike lane that was so packed with bicycling Berliners that it took me a full minute to actually get a chance to merge the flow of traffic. What heaven.

The one thing that’s really bugging me is being behind the Great German Internet Wall. If you don’t know about this: youtube blocks just about any video content that any large corporate entity has a copyright claim to, due to an ongoing dispute over royalties with something called GEMA (details here). As a result, the youtube experience here contains an awful lot of this:

Wanna watch the most enjoyable clip on all of youtube, Sts’ Rolling Stones parody? Not in Germany you won’t. Or, say, the Matthew Wilder Solid Gold clip I did the short running blog to a few weeks back? Same story. You have to wonder if Germans as a group are going to turn into the national equivalent of that kid you went to grade school with whose progressive parents didn’t allow him or her to watch TV and so didn’t understand basic pop-culture tropes and was forced to try to fake it in order to get by.

Grim as all this is, it’s given me an idea for an alternate revenue stream in case this whole graphic design thing falls apart. My plan is to use my connections to get to Prague– that land of freedom and civil liberties to the east– where these youtube clips are still legal. Then I will set up a video camera in front of a computer monitor, record various videos with shaky camera work, and finally transfer them to VHS tapes that I will smuggle back into Germany and sell from under a bridge someplace in Kruezberg. Banned videos from the internet! I will surely be able sell each one for literally dozens of Deutsche Marks.

Which Continent Sang What?

The Guardian and several other news outlets have – predictably, yet brilliantly – had ‘Who’s line is it?’ contests where you have to guess whether a given quote was uttered by Charlie Sheen or Muammar Gaddafi. I tried this one and got only 6 of 10 right.

Shortly, however, my mind began to wander and consider other less obvious topics that one could apply this same game to. A natural fit seemed to be matching pretentious lyrics with the three major rock bands that have had the gall to name themselves after continents.

Let’s meet the Candidates:

1. America

2. Europe

3. Asia

Now, their espoused philosophies:


I’m gonna miss you, yes, I will
No matter who you are I’ll love you still
For my life is my conscience, the seeds I sow
And I just wanted to let you know


And from the wreckage I will arise
Cast the ashes back in their eyes
See the fire I will defend
Just keep on burning right to the end


You know it ain’t easy
Running out of thrills
You know it ain’t easy
When you don’t know what you want.

Answers in next post!


Edit: Looks like the diminutive island of Japan just trumped these bloated continent-bands for epic lyrical source material.

[ … ]

This space is where my delighted comments on seeing Konono no. 1 last night would have gone… if I hadn’t instead gotten so sick that I had to go home and sleep for 13 hours. I had a ticket and everything. Curses.

While missing the show last night, the only interesting thing I managed to think about was this: What if ‘being sick’ and ‘being well’ as states of being were exactly reversed, so that people spent most of their time feeling sick but then mysteriously ‘got well’ for a few days at a time? How would ‘being well’ then be perceived– would people eagerly capitalize on it, or instead treat it as some malign state to be avoided and waited out as harmlessly as possible?

The Dissonant Triangle

The discourse highlight of my Twitter dabbling so far (and may I never write ‘Twitter dabbling’ ever again) happened in the wake of the Superbowl halftime show, when somebody wrote:

Next year, Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Nickelback and Maroon 5 to perform at Halftime of Super Bowl. Only way it could be worse.

This reminded me of an occasion when a bored co-worker and I were thumbing through the SF Weekly and noticed that Lionel Richie and Iron Maiden were playing reunion tour dates on the same night. That led us to briefly consider the following scenarios: (a) what if they were playing together on the same bill, and (b) what would be a potential third act that would be equidistant from the other two. “Phish!” my co-worker ingeniously offered. “Right!” I fantasized. “And as an encore, they could all jam on ‘Hello‘ together”:

Lo, the concept of the Dissonant Triangle was born: three bands that are all equally dissimilar from one another. When I offered this idea up on Twitter as a possible Superbowl halftime act for 2012, somebody fired back another proposal:

Joni Mitchell, Menudo, and KISS sing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”

Having just posted my Hooters deconstruction, I had to add one more:

The Hooters, GWAR & Kenny G doing extended ‘And We Danced’

Unfortunately, this is as far as it got. Any one care to extend the concept?

(Top image: unrelated venn diagram of my own conception)

New Year’s Resolutions Revisited

A few readers have gotten on my case for setting the bar too low for this year’s round of New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps rightly so, since my campaigns for 2011 consisted merely of learning to drive stick (which, as reader JD points out, ‘can be learned in one night in a parking lot by a 15 year-old’) and settling a petty score with Mission Mission (which in fact already ironed itself out. I was kidding, anyway… I love Mission Mission).

Lest this year become a flabby, ambitionless couch potato of a year, I’ve conceded that I should add something more challenging to the mix. So here it is:

Launch, win frivolous lawsuit against Facebook (2011)
Status: open

Inspired by a recent movie you may also have seen, I will patch together a baseless claim that I came up with idea of a social networking site litigiously similar to Facebook back in 1999. The suit will be filed by two identical twin plaintiffs, both of whom will be played by me– a masterstroke allowing me to double my profits from the damages that will surely be awarded to me. The case will conclude with a crisply-written scene in which I fly to California and deliver withering one-liner putdowns to Sean Parker and/or Justin Timberlake. If recent cinema has taught us anything, it’s that suing Facebook is a near guarantee of quick money, so I imagine that I should be able to wrap this up by sometime in October or November.

By the way: now that I’m no longer bearing a grudge against Mission Mission, I can draw your attention to a recent post over there that I enjoyed a lot, as it involves some good old fashioned dextrous punning:

I don’t think I like this: the space previously occupied by Papa Potrero’s Pizzaon 24th and Potrero will soon be “Wok and Go”.

It’s not that I have a problem with Chinese food or puns. In fact, if I ever open a Vietnamese restaurant I plan on calling it “Phở- geddabout it!” or “Banh Mi? Banh YOU!” (Just to be clear, it will also have a mob theme. Servers will wear track suits and slicked-back hair.)

It’s just that most puns are based on an existing phrase or premise. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “Walk and Go”. A simple Google search confirms this. May I suggest, “Go for a Wok”? “All Wok and No Play”? Can’t go “Wong” with those.

Woah. So that’s what it sounds like when an entire neighborhood groans simultaneously.

[via annagaz]