I’m (Reportedly) Shocked

Five fun things I’ve learned recently, ranked on a scale of how surprised I was to learn them (0.0 being totally unsurprised, 10.00 being very surprised):

1.0: Before entering the Church of Scientology, Kirstie Alley had a major cocaine problem that she credits the ‘Church’ with helping her kick. Kirstie Alley just seems like a reformed cokehead, doesn’t she?

3.5: Asked if he was on drugs in a recent interview, Charlie Sheen replied, “I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.” Duh.

5.0: The Iranian government has threatened a boycott of the 2012 London Olympics because they claim that the controversial logo spells out ‘Zion’. This is surprisingly loony– but, then again, it does kind of look like it says that. The poor, beleaguered 2012 London Olympics logo, which has already been compared from everything to a swastika to an unspecified sexual act, was defended by one of my Prague College students who wrote his dissertation on it. Looks like its time for an appendix!

The best part is the fact that the Iranians say that certain “internet documents” prove the resemblance, but don’t specify what documents these are.

8.0: My mother-in-law, who works as a regional district attorney here in Czech, slipped on ice over the holidays and broke her leg in three places. She was saved by the kindness of a stranger who stopped his car, took her to the hospital and waited with her until it was clear she would be OK. A few weeks later, my mother-in-law found out that the good samaritan was a guy she had just recently tried to put behind bars. Ah, small town ironies.

9.5: Prince wrote ‘Manic Monday.’ What???!! How did I not know this?

Jane Mayer Day

Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11, or Jane Mayer Day as I imagine it will be known to future generations. (Note: yes, I am proud to share my last name with a crack New Yorker staff writer with impeccable moral instincts. Much more noteworthy than John Mayer, or the Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)

Resident truther Grandjoe walks us through some lesser-studied photos of the event:

Most people have seen images of a jet-liner striking one of twin towers and bursting into a fireball of flame.  Much less familiar, but no less arresting, are images of the towers exploding into clouds of pulverized concrete.  This happened 102 minutes (North Tower) and 56 minutes (South Tower) after the planes hit.

These photos show the pulverization of South Tower. In the first picture, we see the thick, dark smoke of fires caused by burning jet fuel. Then comes an explosion that turns the top of the South Tower into a kind of roman candle.  Pulverized concrete rains down, and pieces of debris are flung outward (bits of the steel infrastructure?)  As the explosion travels downward, the cloud of concrete elongates and looks like a cascade of waterfalls. It takes about 15 seconds for the explosion to reach ground level.  At that point, the tower is no more solid than an involved column of smoke.  The descent of the North Tower presents much the same spectacle.

See also: Art Spiegelman’s 9/11 cover.

Eliminate Morning Hangovers

Friends in the U.S. often ask me if I follow Czech politics. My usual answer is that there’s not a lot to follow.

Lack of drama can be a good thing. After 45 years of communism, Czechs have basically decided they’ve had enough of run-amok ideology. As a result, there seems to be an implicit handshake agreement in place between every person in the country to keep hot-button cultural issues out of the political conversation. You’re not even allowed fly a Czech flag out of your window–– I’m telling you, the Czechs have had it with nationalism, fascism, socialism, whatever ‘-ism’ you like. I can’t even imagine a political debate in this country about, say, something like abortion rights– it’s simply impossible to picture.

Of course, lack of drama can also be a bad thing. It can indicate ‘everything sucks here politically and we’re so disillusioned that we can’t even drum up the necessary passion to get involved in a big heated political debate.’ Unfortunately, this is just as much the case as the pragmatism described above. I’ve literally never heard a single Czech person say a single positive thing about any active Czech politician. A bunch of assholes come together to make money– as my friend put it– seems to be the common consensus. In the U.S., we engage in a pet pessimism that our politicians are the all same, but deep down we know this not to be the case: you can say that George W. Bush and Al Gore are both assholes, but they’re clearly assholes in very different ways and have different belief systems and represent opposite ends of the Baby Boomer asshole axis. Maybe the ways in which they’re different don’t really matter as much as we’d like, but one can at least clearly differentiate between the two on a surface level. In the Czech case, the politicians really are all the same, and they’re not even assholes in a dynamic sense. For lack of a better analogy, they’re the guy driving the expensive car who nearly runs you over on a crosswalk and then angrily gestures at you to get out of his way. Assholes in a completely unoriginal, commonplace, banal sense. Assholes without affect.

A sign of how bad things are: Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, is probably the world’s foremost global warming denier (now that Bush and that Australian jerk are no longer in office). Most Czechs I know despise his politics. And yet, they respect him to a degree compared to other Czech politicians simply because he comes across as reasonably ‘statesmanlike’– he’s intelligent, he knows how to handle himself and doesn’t overtly embarrass himself or the country. Compare these qualities to the rank amateurism of Mirek Topolanek, recently-ousted Prime Minister, who once flipped a rival politician the bird during a parliamentary debate and locked a respected journalist in an airport bathroom. Topolanek was the aspiring nobody who got up on stage and referred to Obama’s economic policy as ‘the road to hell’ in last year’s big summit and earned round rebuke from a rainbow coalition of world leaders. The ranks of decent politicians are so thin here that it’s a plus if you can simply carry yourself with a modicum of competence, never mind how bad your ideas might be.

Absent any inspiring ideological battles, and with all of its practitioners thoroughly dislikable (and corrupt, although that’s a subject for another post), politics in this country mostly revolves around allocation of social benefits and deciding how to pay for them. In the upcoming June election, one of the big issues is a medical co-pay scheme implemented by the ruling center-right party that requires you to pay 30 Czech crowns out-of-pocket to see a doctor. 30 crowns equals about $1.50. This is the raging fire of policy debate that is supposed to drive people to the polls: whether or not you should have to pay a buck fifty in addition to the (from a U.S. perspective) shockingly reasonable monthly fee that everyone pays to receive full health care. Hardly Lincoln vs. McClellan 1864. In fairness, there are larger and more systemic issues, to be sure (the aforementioned corruption, and a big deficit), but none of these seem to rile people like the 30 crown co-pay.

The pettiness that punctuates Czech politics is particularly evident in the massive billboard campaigns that you can’t escape for more than a minute if you’re driving on the highway here right now. The one at the top of this post is an attack ad aimed at Jiri Paroubek, leader of the left center Social Democrats (who, incidentally, is even more despised than other politicians among Czechs I know, in spite of the fact that most of these friends have left-leaning tendencies). The ad is meant to satirize Paroubek’s alleged practice of promising all things to all people without articulating a clear sense of how he’s going to pay for it (think ‘tax-and-spend liberal’). So, he’s shown in front of a row of empty bottles with the line ‘I will eliminate morning hangovers’. Here’s a detail from another baffling one that says (roughly), ‘I fight against clams, slugs and mollusks’:

I guess the idea is to paint him as power-mad, vowing to defeat each and every commonplace thing that stands in his way. To me, it seems very much like a campaign that might have been composed by a media team of canny 12 year-olds. Politics in this part of the world have come a long way from iron curtain days…. but there’s still a long way to go, baby.

Victory Lap

A quick digest of my favorite comments so far on the Health Care Reform bill that passed into law on Sunday. These aren’t so much sweeping explanations of the ‘big picture’– more just short posts that argue a interesting and specific point well, or in a manner that I find engaging:

  • Josh Marshall discusses the weird importance of ‘standing on principle‘ in American politics, as opposed to merely being on the popular side of an issue.
  • David Frum’s much-discussed lamentation of the Republican conundrum.
  • Matt Yglesias sorts through the mixed Napoleon metaphors aimed against Obama here and here and here.
  • Yglesias, one more time, making a simple but long-overdue point about how to read the polls.

(Image: the current header graphic of the official GOP site, which for some hilarious reason shows the Speaker of the House engulfed in hellfire).

The longhairs of Weimar

Before there was the band Bauhaus, there was the Bauhaus Band:

In the documentary Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century, former student Kurt Kranz talks about the school band and student life there:

“The Bauhaus Band was a sort of cross between Dixieland and… let’s say, something partly inspired by Hindemith and his electric piano. When we dared to go out onto the streets– especially the girl weavers who wore trousers– there was always uproar. “Impossible!” people would say. When we came along with ponytails, mothers warned daughters ‘Don’t look! They’re from the Bauhaus!’ We were the punks of Dessau!”

The thing that really interested me about this documentary– which I just showed to my design history students– is the revelation that, along with all the endlessly-touted contributions that the school made to our architecture and interior design ( ‘Our cities it turned into rather mechanical machines, and turned our interiors into rather nice, simplifed kitchen-like instruments’ as one talking head nicely summarizes), it also created a fixture in our social landscape: the ragtag student radical. The basic elements of Kranz vignette– ponytails, androgyny, spontaneous happenings and pranks, horrified middle-class on-lookers– all sound like staples of the early 60s, but the microcosm Kranz describes happened 30 years earlier.

In a culturally chauvinistic way, I tend to assume that there was something genteel and restrained about college life the world over until the early 60s when – poof! – the student radical suddenly emerges on the American college campus on the strength of demographic factors, post-war prosperity, the social protest movements of the 60s and everything else. But, in a ‘winners write the history books’-type way, I tend to forget that the atmosphere in Germany between the wars was more politically galvanizing than anything the U.S. has ever experienced– I mean, you had a short-lived communist coup AND a fascist takeover within 14 years, and all centered around the city of Weimar where the first incarnation of the school was headquartered. Plus, the Bauhaus preached all the the free-thinking ideas– question everything, knock down gender roles, etc– that we associate with the liberal campus environment.

There’s also a nice bit about Johannes Itten, the mysterious instructor who taught a foundation course that hugely shaped the spirit of the school for its entire lifespan. You always read about Itten being a bit of a weirdo, but I hadn’t realized that he was a full-blown mystic who opened classes with chanting and dabbled in Zoroastrianism:

World’s oldest religion, baby!

Also, there’s an interesting discussion of the Nazis’ contradictory attitudes to avant-garde design– onthe one hand, they persecuted the Bauhaus teachers and students and promoted a pretentiously rusticated style of furniture design. But this opposition was mainly for show– the director briefly summons an entertaining photo of Hitler lounging in a tubular steel chair as evidence of their basic hypocrisy:

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.)

Little Mouth Cat, Where Have You Been Hiding?

OK, I’m really excited to post this, although– WARNING– it’s incredibly crude and full of South Park-type sexual humor. If you’re not into that kind of thing, please move along to the more thinky, family-oriented content elsewhere in this blog…

Back in May of 2008, I was forwarded a hilariously offensive story written by a woman who decides to pass the time during the writers’ strike by sleeping with all three then-candidates for president. The origins of the story are something of a mystery to me: apparently, it was written by a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who writes for TV or screen… a comic genius, in any case, albeit of a highly puerile nature.

Just a few days ago, I discovered this site xtranormal.com that lets you easily make an animation from any text you choose to copy-and-paste. This text seemed like the perfect thing to turn into an raunchy animated monologue (although the 2008 campaign storyline is obviously pretty dated at this point). Anyway, without further ado, here’s ‘Little Mouth Cat, Where Have You Been Hiding?

Assorted thoughts on Buy Nothing Day

  • Yesterday was a nice occasion to stop and reflect on all the things we’re grateful for in life. Unfortunately, it was also the nine year anniversary of Katherine Harris certifying George W. Bush as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes. Well, isn’t that a kick in the teeth. Happy ‘Angst-giving’.
  • Having a spiral staircase in your apartment seems like a really cool perk until you sprain your ankle playing basketball and are hobbling around on crutches. Then: not so perky. I know I mentioned this feature of our flat as a hazard to our kiddo already in the Obecni Dum post, but hurting my ankle really brings the point home. Every time I need to go upstairs to get something, I feel like I should have a team of sherpas with me.
  • I had plans for a classic food-laden, rowdy Thanksgiving with fellow expats, but wound up getting snowed in the entire day by a combination of bum ankle and rush project for work. Not the most festive of holidays. Sitting marooned in my arm chair, I got so hungry at one point that my infant son started to metamorphosize into a plump turkey before my eyes…
  • Finally, if you’re a designer and reading this, you must read this glorious email flame war between designer and client. There’s nothing quite like mocking a would-be client through libelous pie charts (hat tip: reader KF).

The Appeaser

chamberlainDefinitely my favorite description of the Czech lands is Neville Chamberlain’s classic “a faraway country of which we know nothing.”* It occurred to me last night that Neville would make a good high-concept Halloween costume in these parts, although to get the point across you’d need at least two smaller people to represent an annexed Czechoslovakia and perhaps somebody else to play Hitler too, which would turn the whole thing into a cumbersome troupe-sized endeavor.

I think the quote really belongs in the Prague airport, on the wall in huge letters as you’re going through customs: “Welcome to a faraway land of which you know nothing.” Although it would have been more prescient if Chamberlain had gone to say, ‘a faraway country of which we know nothing, but where bands of British goons will someday find it cheaper to fly to and drunkenly carouse than to pay for a comparable weekend in London, until the Czech Crown finally strengthens against the Pound and forces them further east.”

Incidentally, the Onion did the best imaginable send-up of the airport here with their genius ‘Franz Kafka Airport‘ bit.

* Actually, this is a paraphrase, although it’s the way his statement is generally repeated. What he really said was, “…a conflict between peoples in a faraway country of whom we know nothing” but the paraphrase version gets the point across more readily.