5 favorite epigrams

  1. “The word ‘no‘ crops up a great deal around Lou Reed. […] Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore once called Metal Machine Music “the most positive negative record”, and I guess Lou Reed must be the most positive negative artist – because during our conversation the word ‘fun‘ comes up just as often as the word ‘no’.” — Alan Licht’s profile on Lou Reed, ‘Give Them Enough Nope’, in The Wire.
  2. “It was just embarrasing as well as exhibiting this awful, awful taste. His choice of movies, say, was invariably terrible. TV programmes… Everything. Plus he was starting to get pretty weird […] A genius musician but an amateur human being.” — Brian Wilson’s collaborator on Pet Sounds, Tony Asher. From Dark Stuff by Nick Kent.
  3. “My poems may hurt the dead, but the dead belong to me” — Anne Sexton
  4. “I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive. It might replace everything.” — Andrey Ternovki, the teenage founder of Chatroulette.com, as quoted in a piece in this week’s New Yorker.
  5. “‘I guess I’m not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.” — Edward Hopper

[Image: Stefan Sagmeister’s poster for Lou Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling.]

Them

Spending time in San Francisco always reminds me of the fact that there are people who sit to the left of me on the political spectrum. This might seem like an obvious point (I mean, there has to be someone to the left of you, no matter who you are), but it really only began to dawn on me about halfway through the 10 years I lived in SF. In high school, it always just seemed to me that anyone worth knowing had wildly left-wing opinions about everything (after all, this is the time to be unrelentingly idealistic, given that you never have to apply your ideas to anything remotely realistic). The social scene in my college, meanwhile, was just an unfettered left-facing stampede: if you could make a case that you were either oppressed or felt great sympathy for the oppressed, you were on the way to enjoying popularity and easy sex, no matter how vague and platitudinous your case was. Growing up in these environments, I never really felt any motivation to temper my instinctual leftism– even when I felt the occasional flicker of doubt, I basically just went along with the program.

Shortly after I moved to SF in ’96, I can remember meeting a sensitive, bearded soul who expressed a belief that OJ Simpson was innocent of the crimes charged against him and had been systematically framed by the LAPD. To this day, he remains the only white person I’ve ever heard voice this opinion. At that time, although I disagreed with his belief system, I struggled to find an explanation as to how we could see things so differently. In other words, I basically took his statements as a legitimate, authentic viewpoint, albeit one that diverged sharply from mine. Nowadays, I would simply write him off as a dogmatist, someone whose opinions– endearing as I may find them– are reverse-engineered to fit certain predetermined norms and conclusions. And while the fact that he was wearing Guatemalan hippie pants would seem to support my current perspective, the fact that I can’t muster my former open-mindedness is obviously something of a loss.

The real watershed, however, occured sometime in 2002, when a friend-of-a-friend became a transsexual and requested that we all start referring to him/her as them. As in, good news: they’re coming over for dinner. This was a fascinating test case, in that it basically pitted the very left-leaning people who made up this scene against the very, very left-leaning people. The normal lefties, while generally sympathetic, drew the line at subverting the basic structure of language to this point (and at giving in to a request that reeked so suspiciously of narcissism). Although we felt sympathetic to this person’s (these peoples’?) choices, we weren’t about to subject ourselves to this kind of mind-bending syntactic confusion. The über-lefties, meanwhile– who were surprisingly numerous, by the way– fell right into line, expressing a general attitude of Wherever your heads at, man. Their feeling was that the whole thing is totally elastic and subjective, and a basic token of friendship is the willingness to refer to your friend(s) by whatever pronoun he/she/they feel(s) best fit(s) he/she/them.

[Image: from the famous Great Ideas series, sponsored by Container Corporation of America. Designer might be Herbert Bayer– I’m not really sure.]

Green vs. blue: the same, or different?

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

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

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOQvsuJ5wIA&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

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

Highway to Hellichova

Two weeks ago, we drove down south and met up with the wife’s family in a town called Henry’s Castle (Jindrichuv Hradec). The castle was nice, although I never learned who Henry was or how he came into a castle. Here are some weirdly-named towns and areas we’ve passed near or through in our last two road-trips (this one and the Austrian Alps trip) and their English translations:

• Sobeslav = Celebrate Yourself

• Tabor = Camp

• Pisek = Sand

• Velka Dobra = The Big Good

• Česká sibiř = Czech Siberia. Czech Siberia is a little hilly area near Tabor that tends to get  colder weather and more snow than surrounding areas– something like that altitudinous stretch you hit about half an hour before hitting Los Angeles on Highway 5. To name it after a region that contains 8 time zones and 1/12th the world’s land mass is sort of an endearing stretch in my book. There’s also a ‘Czech Canada’, ‘Czech Switzerland’, ‘Czech Paradise’ and probably some others I’m forgetting.

Photo: short-lived Czech metal band Alarm. If there was really a song called “Highway to Hellichova”, I like to imagine that they would have made it.

—–

Unrelated rant:

This is all pretty subjective territory to wade into… but wasn’t 2009 the worst year for new music since, like, 1894? I was just looking at Pitchfork’s top 500 albums for 2009– off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of anything from this year that I was super excited about, but I figured there’d be a few gems I’d forgotten about. Nope. The Grizzly Bear album was probably the thing I like the most out of their top 50, and I don’t love that one. Like it a lot, but don’t love it. And it’s not like I’m a ‘Bah humbug, recent music isn’t as good as in my day‘ guy (or at least I hope not): 2008 was full of records I loved (Arthur Russell, David Byrne/Brian Eno, Fleet Foxes, pretty good Santogold all jump to mind, and that’s just off the top of my head).

Bad analogy theater

agassi1

TK has a new post up on Andre Agassi’s newly-revealed crystal meth habit. Even by the standards of the ‘shocking, tell-all biography’, Agassi’s new book Open seems like a pretty dramatic public self-depantsing. Even the awful signature hair turns out to have been fake– a big bantam rooster-like wig that once nearly fell apart before a big tournament match. One relatively small bit from the book that made a big impression on me: Aggasi spent his childhood basically imprisoned in brick tennis court that his authoritarian father had built, endlessly returning balls shot out of a homemade ball machine that Agassi called ‘the dragon’.

Of course, the full entertainment value of a lurid sports story lies not just the story itself but in the ripple effect of hammy sports writers straining to hit the right emotional notes. ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly – winner of something called the Damon Runyon Award for Sportswriting – submitted a column about the Agassi book with this deeply-felt gem: “Your own life is hard enough. Living somebody else’s life for them weighs on a man like a stone backpack.” A stone backpack? A stone backpack with stone books inside, even? Or how about a more tennis-related analogy: hitting stone tennis balls served up by a homemade stone tennis machine, all while wearing a decomposing stone wig?

New+Order++classic

Speaking of ham-fisted analogies, I’ve recently been in a bit of a New Order revival phase, listening to the two ‘Substance’ albums quite a bit. Along with a renewed appreciation of the music, I’ve also had an uncomfortable growing awareness that Bernard Summer is not exactly the world’s greatest lyricist. Consider ‘Thieves Like Us’- the song mentions love literally about 380 times, which is a bad sign in itself, but then advances the idea that “Love is the air that supports the eagle.” Yikes. Not only that, but it also “cuts your life like a broken knife.” (Broken knife? Why broken?) You have to appreciate New Order’s story – as Tony Wilson’s character in 24 Hour Party People says, no band survives the death of its lead singer. But it does seem as though when Ian Curtis took his life, he also somehow managed to strangulate the band’s ability to come up with a decent simile.

Then there’s ‘1963’, the one that goes ‘Johhhhhnyyyy… don’t point that gun at me‘. I was always puzzled by the lyrics and vaguely assumed they described some gay crime of passion, but then found a wikipedia entry about the song which explains that the lyrics are actually about ‘the JFK assassination, which occurred in 1963. In the song, Sumner sings from the point of view of Jackie Kennedy, and theorises that John F. Kennedy (a devout Catholic for whom divorce was unthinkable) paid the mobster Jack Ruby to arrange for a hitman to take out his wife so that he could continue his relationship with actress Marilyn Monroe. It further theorises that Monroe committed suicide when she found out that the hired gun, Lee Harvey Oswald, had hit the wrong target. Oswald was, according to Sumner, then in turn assassinated by Ruby for causing his hitman business to go bust. Sumner’s theory is unlikely to be intended seriously, given that Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, over a year before the assassination took place. The producer Stephen Hague has referred to the song as ‘the only song about domestic violence you can dance to'”.

I emailed this entire inane paragraph to a friend who is an ardent New Order fan. His reply:

That new order story is the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard. The last quote makes we want to give away my record collection. I’ve actually been obsessing about it all day.

So-called Information Superhighway

A few nights ago, the wife and I got some take-away food from the corner restaurant, Neklid (‘Turmoil’). I got my favorite dish: a steak cooked in pepper sauce with green beans wrapped in bacon and roast potatoes also cooked with bits of bacon. It’s like bowling a strike every time. Unfortunately, it also has a clearly-documented history of causing me to wake up in the middle of the night if I have it too late in the evening. This creates a sort of ongoing metaphysical dialogue where my 3am self is continually reminding my hungry, 7pm self not to order it, but the latter often manages to persuade himself that somehow the usual insomnia scenario isn’t going to apply this time. Long story short, I was up in the middle of the night. To complete the woeful vignette, you have to picture that I had also tweaked my neck while working long hours on The Book, so I was lying in bed with one of those dorky foam neck cushion things people take on airplanes, sleeplessly pondering my own gluttony.

For whatever reason, my mind wandered to the joke phrase ‘the interwebs’ that everyone started using at some point. When did it start? Was it inspired by George W. Bush’s bizarre formulation during the 2004 Presidential Debate when he mentioned ‘the internets‘? Or is it just another case of parallel evolution where a joke phrase began to emerge in the public consciousness at the same time that the same phrase emerged as a serious concept in the addled mind of our former president?

I always feel that the phrase ‘Information Superhighway’ has never really gotten its deserved share of mockery, in part because it’s always overlooked in favor of ‘interwebs’. It’s definitely my preferred ironic internet moniker, though, not least because it was originally intended seriously and was thought to sound cool. Along with ‘cybercafe’ and ‘educational CD-ROM’, it’s the disused phrase that perfectly summarizes the wide-eyed, mid-1990s utopian expectations of the internet, which – as we now know- has for better or for worse thoroughly insinuated itself into our lives as a comparatively banal, functional convenience.

Do a google image search for ‘information superhighway’ and you get an entertaining visual moodboard of all these clichéd 90s internet concepts: streaking circuitry, shopping carts, network cables and, of course, highway metaphors:

dco0059_-_information_superhighway_low-res-1024x682

As visual messages, these have about as much going for them as animated unicorn gifs. What’s puzzling and disappointing is why the 90s visualizations of an internet-ty future didn’t result in anywhere near the same imaginative yield that came out of, for example, the early machine age or the early days of space travel. One can make the case that modern art as a whole- starting with cubism in the late 1910s- began as a collective visual attempt to reckon with the new sense of space and time that machines imposed on people. Subsequent design movements such as Futurism and Vorticism created an entire abstract visual language out of their self-professed fascination with new technology. Meanwhile, 1950s visualizations of Jetsons-style space colonization may seem fairly kitschy and silly to us now, but at least they involved considerable flights of fancy. By comparison, the visual language adopted to describe the early days of the web is all so literal, po-faced and lame by comparison. I suppose part of this is the fact that there was money to be made from the beginning in couching something abstract (‘internet’) in tangible terms (‘highway’) and thereby getting people comfortable with the idea of buying goods on it. And that there was a kind of corporate incursion on the internet from the very beginning. But, still, it’s hard to figure out how we could have gone so wrong with this from the start.

Dutch fugue

fugue2

My apologies for not posting much lately. I’m trying to finish the design for a 350 page book that started out as a 120 page book at the beginning of the summer and catastrophically mushroomed from there. Meanwhile, Krafty is ensconced in a Las Vegas hotel called ‘The Golden Nugget’ (no, I’m not making that up), preparing 20 hours a day for an upcoming trial. Hence, tumbleweeds. I do, however, have the following to say:

If you google the term “Dutch Fugue”, the second result that comes back defines it as

A temporary psychotic state of mindless agression. Named for “Dirty” Dutch Coldrell who killed 19 men (including his friend “Cool Hand” McCabe) and wounded 79 others during a 27 hour berserk rage during the Great Outdoor Fight of 1877.

Now, anything involving someone called “‘Dirty’ Dutch” (i.e. as if Dutch isn’t nickname-y enough) and something called ‘The Great Outdoor Fight” sounds pretty made-up. But I do like the whole ring of this nonetheless. Given all the phrases we have involving the Dutch that stem from mindless 17th century British prejudice – ‘going Dutch’, ‘double Dutch’, ‘Dutch oven’ – it would be nice to have a refreshingly American entry that has nothing actually to do with those seafaring dam-builders of the lowlands.

Meanwhile, the only other three results for ‘Dutch fugue’ produce (at #1:) a Tourette’s-like spew of broken web code; (#3:) a confusing message board apparently populated with obsessive fans of a comic book called Achewood; (#4:) another spew of broken code. Actually, I’m starting to get the feeling that this whole ‘Dutch fugue’ thing is a fiction associated with result #3, but I like to pretend otherwise.

Mysteries of Czech language: Pirate talk

mcescher2(Part of an ongoing series. Previous installments begin here).

Last night, my wife and I passed a billboard ad for a local aquarium-type thing here called Mořsky Svět (Sea World). I joked that given the land-locked nature of the Czech Republic, they could probably just display a giant tank filled with salt water and people would rush in to gape at it and take photos nevertheless. As a wise man once told me, never shell out big bucks to go see an aquarium exhibit in a country that doesn’t have its own word for ‘ocean’ but instead borrows its word from French/English.

Given the non-seafaring nature of Czechs, it’s a goofy peculiarity that the informal Czech way of saying hello is ‘ahoy!’ (spelled ahoj), as though we were all hanging out on the deck of the SS Pinafore together. This seemed totally unfathomable (no sea pun intended) until someone explained to me that it started as a greeting among hobos a century or so ago as a shorthand acronym for the Latin phrase “Ad Honorem Jesu”. Mystery solved! I like the idea of an array of slang phrases all formed out of acronymized Latin.