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)

The Garage-Door Metric

I’m very much a closeted football fan: the sport appalls me on a number of levels, but invariably pulls me in as a fascinated spectator by the end of the season. The same dramatic arc replicates itself over each season: when training camps and exhibition games start up in August, it’s easy for me to scoff at the spectacle of 300-pound fatsos falling on top of each other in the blazing heat; in the deep cold of December and January, however, the game takes on a war-like gravity that neither baseball nor basketball– games that I generally have a higher regard for– can compete with. A game like last year’s NFC Championship takes you as close as any sport is going to take you to the seige of Stalingrad– there’s just nothing that compares to it. (OK, bad example in the sense that that game was played inside in a warm dome… but you get the idea.)

Given my already-conflicted status, I hate it when stories come to light like the retirement of a Redskins tackle who just revealed that he played his entire professional career with a spinal condition that put him at risk of paralysis with every blow to the head. Yuck. File this in the big, ugly, dented, misshapen bin of stories with every other guy who’s developed dementia, or heart problems, or a debilitating addiction to painkillers shortly after leaving the game. This is a sport where the average player drops dead at age 53. I feel conscience-bound to stop watching, but the siege-of-Stalingrad thing keeps pulling me back in.

The report about Chris Samuels and his spinal condition brought to mind a study I read many years ago about a medical researcher who had set out to study the physical abuse experienced by pro football players. The part that fascinated me was the weirdo metric he came up with for quantifying this abuse: the physical impact of playing pro football, he calculated, is equivalent to going to the back of your driveway and riding your bicycle full-tilt into the garage door 25 times a day from various angles. I love this. Especially the ‘from various angles’ specification. Did he actually ride his bike into his garage door to measure the impact and get his baseline unit of impact? If so, how long is his driveway? (It seems like this would potentially effect the calculation a lot.) I would like to see this garage-door metric applied to a wide range of activities and hopefully take on an obscure, puzzling non-metric name, like the bushel, peck, or knot.

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 Subtitled Hitler Video Meme

I am somewhat ashamed to use the term “meme,” which I have been resisting for years. I’ve tried to group it into the category of pointless, space-filler terms like “outside of the box” or “on a going forward basis,” but it has become increasingly clear to me that “meme” is, in fact, a concise and distinct term that captures a phenomenom that otherwise can be described only with a lot more words.

The Urban Dictionary offers these five definitions for “meme”:

1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable

3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture
– meme pool (n.) : all memes of a culture or individual
– memetic (adj.) : relating to memes
– memetics (n.) : the study of memes

4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog

5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information

My favorite sorts of memes are those that start from some basic “text,” such as a short video, event or comment that “catches fire” in popular culture, and then build on it, creating new and increasingly bizarre derivations. So for example there is the Kanye West/Taylor Swift meme, where new words are plugged, “Mad Libs”-style, into Kanye’s infamous rant at the MTV Music Awards, or the “Yo Dog!” meme where the same thing is done to the host of ‘Pimp My Ride’s” infamous trope, “Yo dawg, I heard you like ______, so I put an __________ in your car so you can ________ while you drive!” (See the excellent website “Know Your Meme” for hilarious mini-episodes on memes, done by Dharma-initiative-like people in labcoats).

But my favorite meme of all is the “Hitler Subtitle” meme, in which people take a famously over-the-top scene from the movie Downfall, where Hitler freaks out at his generals, and add subtitles suggesting that Hitler is instead getting mad about something else altogether. The first one I remember seeing cast Hitler as Hillary Clinton, with the generals attempting to break the news to her that Obama was on an unstoppable course to securing the Democratic nomination. But it’s been done over and over again, on countless different topics ranging from problems with Windows Vista to a planned trip to Burning Man, and every time somebody sends me a new one, I laugh even harder than the last time. I have no idea why — the mystery of a successful meme is why it doesn’t fizzle out, but instead gains momentum as it evolves. In this case, there is something about the scene with its buffoonish German ranting that lends itself to literally any conceivable expression of outrage. And, of course, the more insignificant the topic, the sillier it seems in the context of Hitler and his generals. But what I don’t understand is my sense that it is funnier each time in part because of the experience of having seeing all of the other versions.

Here is the latest iteration:


(“Know Your Meme’s” explanation here.)


I attended two events last weekend that left me with the sense that my generation is overly nostalglc. First, on Friday night, I went to see the Pixies on their “Doolittle 20th Anniversary Tour.” I was an indie rock groupie in Boston in the late 80s, and this record was something of a watershed event in that world; on top of that, I had blown all of my opportunities to see the Pixies in their heyday, so I was very excited at the chance to see them play the record, even 20 years later. As I soon learned when I arrived at the third consecutive sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium – a venue they never could have filled in 1989 even for one night – I wasn’t the only one: the club was jam packed with adoring Pixies fans in their 30s and 40s who went completely bananas when they took the stage. pixiesdoolittlecd As my friend who accompanied me pointed out, “Both the band and everybody in the audience want to pretend it’s 1989.” It was very redemptive to see them deliver a completely amazing performance of all of their old hits, and get the adoring crowd response they deserved, as they were relegated to opening for the Throwing Muses or U2 back when the material was new, despite the fact that it would be largely responsible for chart-toppers like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and many more. It was weird, though, to realize that it isn’t just the baby boomers who are aging rock fans anymore – there is now a whole new generation of aging indie scenesters to pay the $60 cover charge to a show like this to transport them back to the halcyon days of 1989.

Then, the next night, I saw “Where the Wild Things Are.” I suppose that the book is neutral as to which generation it’s about – it’s just a fantasy of childhood escapism. But I couldn’t help but see Spike Jonze’s treatment, with its indie score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as aimed, once again, at the 30- and 40-somethings from Jonze’s generation who now have kids themselves. wildthingsAlthough the film did eventually succumb to the criticism that I, and doubtless many others, thought of even before we saw it – “Is this 20-sentence book really going to lead to a satisfying feature-length film?” – it was nevertheless very powerful at times, especially in the opening scenes where we see how isolated Max is in his childhood world, and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, when we see how the petty jealousies and resentments from which he is fleeing exist even in his new wild kingdom, leading him to sail away back home to his still-warm supper.

As mentioned at the outset, the cumulative experience left me with the sense that I’m in a generation – or maybe a sub-group in a generation? – that is extremely, perhaps excessively, nostalgic. But I wonder if this is just what happens to everybody when they reach a certain age, or perhaps to everybody that age who doesn’t have kids yet …

When Natural Disasters Collide: Misc. Edition


A few quick follow-up thoughts on Krafty’s When Natural Disasters Collide: California Edition post:

1. I couldn’t be more excited about the (slim) prospect of Hurricane Jemina wiping out the forest fires ravaging SoCal right now. It’s clearly the best chance that the ‘When Natural Disasters Collide’ concept has of ever actually happening. But, it would be even better if forest fires were also given names, like hurricanes. Imagine how invested one could get in rooting for Forest Fire Gerald vs. Hurricane Jemina, say. You could probably even gamble on the outcome.

2. Another potential matchup that only just occurred to me would be Tsunami vs. Tidal Wave. This would have an instructive component, in that people often confuse the two or think that they’re the same thing. So, this would be for bragging rights, like those pro wrestling matches where one guy gets to tear the other’s mask off. Although, it would be hard to stage a fair fight, because tsunamis are much, much bigger than tidal waves (which actually hardly qualify as natural disasters at all, to be honest). It would have to be a very small tsunami against a very big tidal wave, such as the ones in the Bay of Fundy that supposedly reach 50 feet.

3. All this talk of natural disasters over the last two days, I’ve listened to ‘When The Levee Breaks‘ a good 3 or 4 times. Is there a better song about a natural disaster? Or is this as good as it gets?

Jewish Vengeance

Eli Roth BasterdI loved Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — I think it was the first movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction where I immediately wanted to go see it again.  Not surprisingly, it is proving somewhat controversial — one friend reported that he and his mother walked out when they “realized that we were in for two-something hours of Hogan’s Heroes II,” and a number of people have noted that there is something a little uncomfortable about watching a blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic story of rampaging American soldiers capturing, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, even if they’re Nazis.  During Hitler’s big scene, I couldn’t help but think of all the frivolous Youtube homages that we’d soon be seeing based on it.

I think that one way of viewing the movie is as a thought experiment, “Under what circumstances would you approve of such behavior?”  I am pretty absolutist in my views about following the Geneva Convention etc., but it was difficult not to get caught up in the Basterds’ mission (and tactics).  And, without “giving away” the end, I will say that whereas for most of the movie I was thinking, “OK, this is silly but enjoyable,” by the end, when the Jewish Vengeance is delivered in an extreme and over-the-top manner that only Tarantino could provide (complete with an awesome meta-narrative about film-watching itself), I had a very unexpected reaction — I became totally exhilerated and ecstatic, nearly bursting into tears of joy.  It was an explosion of vengeful emotion that I had no idea I was capable of, and I’ve been hearing similar reports from other Jews who saw the movie.

This unexpected reaction has made me think about how little a role vengeance plays in the standard narrative of the Holocaust.  I’ve since been hearing stories about prisoners who were released from the death camps and then went around the countryside, marauding and pillaging, with the attitude that any nearby villagers were complicit in the crimes; I also heard a story, allegedly reported by the son of an American who was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz, about how the prisoners barred the gates, and didn’t let the soldiers in until the prisoners had systematically murdered every single Nazi in the camp.  I have no idea if any of these vengeance narratives are true (and I’d like to find out), but if so, they are definitely not part of the well-established Holocaust victim narrative, and, like this movie, they raise some interesting questions about the limits of turning the other cheek.

Contra "The Gram Parsons Zone"


This post is the first in what I hope will become standard fare at Mock Duck – a polemic against a prior post by a different author.  My target is Dan’s “Gram Parsons Zone.” First, to be clear, I am entirely on board with the concept – it’s the use of Gram Parsons as a namesake that irks me.

I have actually had a very similar experience with Radiohead as Dan’s – I never really understood their appeal until, hilariously, I was asked to “jam” with some Radiohead fans who wanted to get together and play their songs.  I was given a list of 15 or 20 songs to learn on bass, which I did, and over the course of the next 2 years I got together with these guys five or six times to play them – often, their insane Radiohead groupie friends would show up.  (It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to being in a cover band.)  I thus became intimately familiar with Radiohead’s catalogue, and really enjoyed rocking out to it – but I was never able to escape that sensation that Dan describes of respecting them without every really wanting to listen to them.

What is it about Radiohead that is so “respect-worthy” but ultimately not quite as enjoyable as the constituent parts would suggest?  Part of it perhaps is captured in the refrain to one of their more popular early songs, “I wish it was the 60s/I wish that something would happen” – they seem to be peculiarly trapped in a sound whose time has come and gone.  The innovations they practice are no longer innovative.  Their dabbling in electronica seems forced.  And Thom Yorke, for all of his brilliance, just doesn’t seem totally convincing as a lead singer.  I don’t know – probably there is a counter-argument to each of these points.  But I think they are an appropriate namesake for this phenomenon because whether you like them or not, it’s hard to say how they really changed music – it’s more like they squeezed a few more drops of “innovative, Beatles-esque rock” out of a dangerously dry sponge.

Gram Parsons, on the other hand…along with Alex Chilton, Nick Drake and Lou Reed, he belongs, in my mind, in the Mount Rushmore of under-appreciated and wildly influential musicians of that era.  He invented an entire genre, practiced today by lots of horrible mainstream country musicians but also by some pretty good ones too like Wilco or Lucinda Williams.  And the first side of the Burrito Brothers’ “Gilded Palace of Sin” is one of the very greatest LP sides in existence, along with Side One of “Exile on Main Street,” Side One of “After the Goldrush,” and a few others (and, by the way, he was basically a member of the Stones when they were recording Exile, and a lot of its rootsy sound is thanks to him.)  (Indeed, a little known Parsons fact is that the Burrito Brothers released the first-ever version of “Wild Horses,” which Keith gave to them.)  “Christine’s Tune” and “Sin City” are one of the best one-two punches on any record, maybe second only to “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.”  Considering how little music he released before his death in his mid-20s (a few Byrds records, a few Burrito Brothers records, and the two solo albums), the ratio of influence-to-released tracks is basically unparalleled.

In short, Parsons is way too influential and significant to be an acceptable namesake for this phenomenon.  Dan would probably counter that it is exactly because Parsons is so revered that he fits the bill – the whole point of the “Zone” is that you have to respect the musician/band and accept his/her/its place in the canon, etc.  But with Parsons, not only is he just too towering a figure, but also, I think that his cross-pollenization of country and rock, and all of the controversy this has caused, adds too many layers of complexity for him to stand in for the relatively simpler phenomenon Dan describes.  I have a friend who is an obsessive country purist, and he hates Parsons, because he thinks that he bastardized country, just as the folk purists called Dylan a Judas.  Likewise, lots of rock fans can’t get into pedal steel guitar, etc.  (I still remember how I first discovered Parsons as a teen through Evan Dando’s cover of “Brass Buttons,” and how I scrunched up my nose at the country stylings of the original.)  Whatever Dan’s particular take on this aspect of Parsons’ sound and influence, I think that it makes him too complicated a figure for the Zone in question.  Or, to put it slightly differently, I think that the reasons why Parsons “just doesn’t take” for Dan or any listener are unique to Parsons and his particular place in American musical history, and can’t stand in for a similar reaction to Radiohead or anybody else.

So how about “The Radiohead Zone” instead?  Admittedly it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s just because Gram Parson’s name is so awesome.

The Gram Parsons Zone

2416_gramparsonsYesterday, I made my annual attempt to develop an interest in Radiohead. As usual, it lasted about 20 minutes. We’ll see what happens in 2010, but 20 minutes seems to be the standard. I have 7 Radiohead albums that people have given me and yet have probably played only about 10 songs on those albums. (Clarification: I’ve heard Radiohead songs zillions of times when someone else put them on or they’ve come on the radio, so it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to them; I’m just talking about how seldom I’ve personally chosen to listen to them). About once a year, I choose an album, put it on, and experience an immediate swell of respect and regard for the band, followed by an almost immediate lapse into disinterest. After a few songs, I realize I haven’t paid attention for the last 10-15 minutes and terminate the exercise.

The weird part is that I literally don’t have a single negative thing to say about Radiohead. I entirely respect them, find them utterly innovative and can immediately detect clear evidence of artistic integrity and creativity in their music. It’s just that I’m not interested in listening to them. Nick Hornby has a great comment on this difference between respecting music and liking it in 31 Songs – I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have the book on hand, but he’s basically talking about some dorky pop song he’s recently fallen for and says, “And, yes, I know it’s not as good as Astral Weeks. But when is the last time you’ve actually put on Astral Weeks? It’s something like falling in love: we don’t necessarily choose the best person, or the smartest, or the best looking. There’s something else going on.”

I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as The Gram Parsons Zone– when there’s an artist, or album, or song that you consciously recognize as good and feel you should like, but it just doesn’t take. Of course, the name I’ve given is dangerously subjective– if you love Gram Parsons, or have never heard of him, then it doesn’t make any sense. But, I’m sure everyone can come up with their own artist that fits this description for them. You really know you’re in the Gram Parsons Zone when you feel both guilty and secretly relieved about throwing in the towel. Incidentally, the Gram Parsons Zone can apply to things outside of music. I’ll never forget the liberation I felt when I finally admitted to myself that I don’t enjoy transcendental meditation, Thomas Pynchon or herbal tea.