Scurv Your Enthusiasm

Good times abound: spring is right around the corner (last night, I heard a bird chirping in the evening twilight for the first time this year), baseball season is a scant three weeks away… and the Idlewords guy is finally posting again. Maciej Cegłowski is the best writer around, but for months his site was lying dormant with some inscrutably geeky (to me, anyway) post about ‘Using WordPress to generate flat files.’ Now he’s back with a resplendent discussion of scurvy.

The article was apparently sparked by his re-reading of a book called ‘The Worst Journey in the World‘ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole that I’ve had my eyes on for a while. As I mentioned in an early blog post, I went through a phase a few years ago where I read accounts of adventurous expeditions for a few months to the exclusion of everything else. There’s something addictive about the asymmetry of lying in the comfort of your living room while other people have to go freeze to death on antarctic voyages, or have their still-beating hearts torn out by Aztec priests, or get swallowed whole by whales and emerge bleached and peevish. I once thumbed through a few pages of ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ at a relative’s house and have been meaning to get back to it since. Among other promising indicators: while there may be better book titles than ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, and there might be better author names than Apsley Cherry-Garrard, I feel fairly confident stating that no book could possibly have a cooler title/author combo than this one.

Scurvy’s frustrating comeback is covered in entertaining detail by Cegłowski. The disease has basically been eradicated by the middle of the 18th century (when the British Navy began supplying sailors with a shot of lime juice in their daily grog), but then bounces back in time to harass Scott’s expedition in 1911 thanks to a variety of factors of which good old human ignorance is the most readily identifiable.

I know of a case of scurvy that happened as late as the early 1960s, and I only know about it because my ex-housemate told me about it, and he only knew about it because the victim was his father. The father was a classic hyper-driven, bachelor lawyer-type guy whose life apparently became so oriented around work that he didn’t get around to consuming the bare minimum of vitamin C necessary to thwart off scurvy. In my roommate’s telling, he then became a kind of cause celebre in the local medical community, as doctors crowded around to get a look at an actual case of scurvy, a disease they had believed to be long extinct.

I think this would make for a great reality show premise: which contestant can contract scurvy first? It’s apparently simple enough to pull off, once you put your mind to it.

Image dump: Alvin Lustig and assorted finds

I’m gearing up for another book cover project for Twisted Spoon Press– this one being a volume of short stories and essays by Jasienski, the same Futurist nutcase who wrote I Burn Paris. In the course of my research, I inevitably come back at some point to Alvin Lustig, a designer whose work you can experience a completely fresh appreciation for every time you take a long look:

A few other favorite recent finds and rediscoveries, while we’re here:

Attributions: 1– Paul Rand, 2– Swiss Werkbund, 3– AisleOne, 4,5– Erik Nietsche, 6– Bradbury Thompson, 7– S.L. Schwartz, 8– Tacoma Library postcard archives

The Basement Tapes

A month or so ago, I heard a strange version of “Nothing Was Delivered,” which I knew as a Byrds song, and was immediately transfixed by the simple boogie-woogie piano riff and the all-around lackadaisical style — not to mention the bizarre and earnest lyrics (“Nothing was delivered/And I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite nor anger/But simply because it’s true.”). When listening to the Byrd’s version I’d always assumed there was some religious angle, and never quite realized, as I did now, that it was really just a song about somebody who ripped a bunch of people off and how he had better come up with the money fast.

I did a little research and figured out that it was on “The Basement Tapes,” something I had always imagined to be a giant, many-disc compilation of bootleg Dylan stuff — I think my brother had one of the later, larger bootleg sets, and I had never realized that there was this separate double-album released in 1975.

There are a million theories about how these songs came to be recorded (and then not released for eight years while bootlegs proliferated, during which Rolling Stone published a demand that they be released). My favorite “origin story” for what is probably the most heavily-mythologized recording session in American musical history is the following: in the summer of 1967, Dylan owed Columbia Records fourteen more songs, and recorded these songs (and many more) with the Band (minus Levon Helm) on the cheap, in the basement of a house that became famous as “Big Pink,” to fulfill his contractual obligation (and while he recovered from a pretty serious motorcycle accident). Then, when he ended up signing an extension with Columbia, he no longer wanted to release these unpolished and off-the-cuff recordings, so instead he distributed them to various other artists, who recorded and released the songs. Hence the Byrds’ versions of “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Peter Paul & Mary’s “Too Much of Nothing,” multiple versions of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” (including one that became the theme song for “Absolutely Fabulous”!) etc.

Of course, these deliberately stripped-down and rustic tunes turned out to be some of Dylan’s (and The Band’s) best work. I am utterly blown away, and more than a little ashamed that it took me this long to catch on. Right now I can’t think of a more consistently great record, let alone a double album. The songs that first seemed like filler now, on the 30th listening or whatever I’m at, seem just as great as the more immediately-accessible ones. I was initially drawn in by the “going to seed” and general dissolution themes (on songs such as “Goin to Acapulco,” “Too Much of Nothing” or “Tears of Rage”). But I am now just as enthralled by some of the less weighty songs, such as the hilarious “Clothesline Saga” which is a shaggy-dog tale about a family hanging up some clothes to dry. I’ve always had a slight resistance to what I saw as Dylan’s santimonious tone, and these songs are completely free of it.

Without getting any deeper into a track-by-track “golly they’re great!” post (which has been done many times before), I’ll just note that the songs all have an amazing, hymn-like simplicity that stands in stark contrast to a lot of the music, good and bad, that was coming out in 1967.

I love the thought of Dylan and The Band holing up and playing cover after cover of American traditionals, until they got to the point where they were just writing their own versions of these songs. I’m now reading Greil Marcus’ book “The Old, Weird America” which is largely about this record, where he ties the songs to the America captured in Harry Smith’s Folkways anthology — the weird mythic world of misfits, con men and murderers. It makes a lot of music I’ve loved for years seem strangely brittle and two-dimensional.

Finally, there is great appeal to me in the idea (which may or may not actually be true) that it was exactly because Dylan thought he was just banging out some stuff to fulfill a contract that let him realize his full potential (and perhaps avoid the sanctimony). I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the 5-disc sets with little song fragments and covers of “People Get Ready” and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs!

How to apologize in public

During my month-long vacation in the U.S., one of my pleasure reads was Chuck Klosterman’s Eating The Dinosaur. This was the first Klosterman book I’ve read and I found it highly digestible and somewhat addictive, finishing it in three quick sittings over two days. After an excellent essay on Ralph Sampson, my other favorite bit was a short section that felt like an interstitial joke where he prints a series of public apologies from various high-profile celebrities for various inane misdeeds without any contextualization at all. For example, here’s Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants wide receiver who accidentally shot himself in the leg with an unlicensed gun he was carrying in a nightclub:

First of all, you people probably don’t know anyone who’s been shot. I, however, know lots of people who’ve been shot. I know lots of people who claim they want to shoot me, and some of those people are technically my friends. So that’s why I carry a gun. Second, you people probably trust the government, and you probably trust it because your personal experience with law enforcement has been positive. I’ve had the opposite experience all my life. I’m afraid of the government. I’m afraid of the world, and you can’t give me one valid reason why I shouldn’t be. So that’s why I did not apply for a gun license. Third, I shot myself in the leg, which is both painful and humiliating. What else do I need to go through in order to satiate your desire to see me chastised? The penalty for carrying an unlicensed weapon is insane. How can carrying an unlicensed firearm be worse than firing a licensed one? I broke the law, but the law I broke is a bad law. Would you be satisfied if the penalty for unlawful gun possession was getting shot in the leg? Because that already fucking happened!

This is awesomely looney and yet strangely persuasive at the same time, right? The section as a whole is kind of silly, but it also plugs into some larger, recurring themes. Like David Foster Wallace, Klosterman seems to worry a lot about the idea that it’s almost impossible nowadays to relate to other people in an honest and unselfconscious way. Fame and celebrity therefore naturally come up in his writing a lot as nothing involves more examples of people acting in a dishonest, calculating fashion towards one another. Klosterman seems to say that there’s something inherently really screwed up about any dynamic where one person is being observed by either an individual or public that doesn’t actually know the person in question. The asymmetric nature of the observation leads to all sorts of bizarre assumptions, expectations and distortions that eventually result in the convoluted spectacle of one person ‘apologizing’ to a group of people whom he or she doesn’t know from adam.

Eating The Dinosaur is a great read– given the choice, there’s only one thing I would change about the book if I could, and that would be to add the public apology of German artist Jörg Immendorff to this section, as I think it’s the greatest such ‘apology’ I’ve ever heard about.

Immendorff was one of the most successful post-War German painters, an artist who had practically become the patron artist of the city of Dusseldorf by the early 2000s (I only know about this story because I happened to be traveling in Dusseldorf in 2003 right after it happened and was told about it by friends who lived there). He even designed Dusseldorf’s Monkey Island, a kind of tiki beer garden island in the middle of the city that exemplifies the phony exoticism beloved by Germans (the music of Manu Chao being another such instance). Immendorff had also drawn some attention for marrying a model 30 years his younger who looks more or less like Kobe Bryant’s wife.

Then, in 2003, the 57 year old was caught in a hotel with a bunch of cocaine and seven prostitutes. Plus, four more prostitutes on the way. Scandalized, the citizenry of Dusseldorf demanded a public apology. Cantankerous and unrepentant, Immendorff released an awesomely defiant statement where he insisted that the matter was between him and his wife and nobody else’s business:

“My wife knows how much I love her. Sometimes I have to live out an Orientalism that has nothing to do with that.

As my friend likes to tell it, a tidal wave of ‘Orientalism’ naturally swept over the city of Dusseldorf on the heels of this kick-ass justification. It also provided a fine running joke for the rest of my stay there: ‘Who’s up for a little Orientalism?’ someone would ask when it was time to go hit the town in the evening. I only hope I have the presence of mind to invoke it as a cover for whatever debauched misdeed I might commit down the line.


I finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666 last night and felt the same disorienting feeling as after stumbling out of a David Lynch movie. This is the first Bolano I’ve read, but I get the distinct impression from reviews (for example, Jonathan Lethem’s, which also makes the Lynch comparison) that if Bolano books were Lynch movies, 2666 would be Lost Highway: expansive, shape-shifting, baffling and, at times, really scary. (Bolano’s last novel The Savage Detectives, meanwhile, sounds like Mullholand Drive– i.e., striking a more accessible balance between outre and grounded. But, I haven’t read it, so whatever…)

The book is made up of five separate novellas that are loosely intertwined and have blunt, descriptive names– ‘The Part About The Critics’, ‘The Part About the Crimes’, etc– that come across both as kind of joke and also as a huge relief, given how non-literal everything else in the book is. One of the most apt comments about I’ve read about 2666 is that it would actually make more sense if you read the five parts in reverse order, especially given that the last section actually happens first in chronological terms. So, yeah, it’s a bit… convoluted.

One weird thing about 2666 is that I can’t ever remember reading a long book that seems so short in immediate hindsight. And it’s not like this is a breezy page-turner or anything: the grueling ‘Part About The Crimes’ is a solid 200-page dossier-like account of dozens of rapes and murders plaguing the fictitious city of Santa Teresa, interspersed with occasional wacked-out digressions involving a Mexican television psychic, a turgid love affair between a cop and sanatorium manager and other curious narrative cul-de-sacs that lead nowhere at all. What makes the book seem so short is that it’s constructed like a paper accordion: viewed from a distance, you only see (or remember, as the case may be) one face, that being the events relating to the story line. Pick it up, though, and it expands into multiple faces, all connected together at the edges but facing off in their own directions. The events that drive the plot of 2666 can be summarized in maybe just 100 words, but are dispersed around countless accounts of characters and events and anecdotes-within-anecdotes that are totally extraneous and fascinating, and can be totally absorbing while you’re with them but then instantly forgettable as soon as you’re abruptly carried away to something else. In this way, the book feels frighteningly like real life, where people’s lives seem grotesquely over-stuffed with detail when viewed up close and then utterly inconsequential when looked at from some distance.

Meanwhile, the only things that seem real in Bolano’s vision are artistry and violence. Like Lynch, he makes a strong case for the essential primacy of horror– this is what is real; everything else people fill their lives with is just inane, civilized whistling-past-the-graveyard. In this sense, the use of anecdotes and digressions seems as clever and complex as the 18th century English literature I studied in college and can barely remember now (uh… Fielding, Sterne… those guys). The more vapid and diverting the digressions are, the more implicated we are as readers for clinging to them in the face of the brutal, toneless Part About The Crimes.

But, putting aside all the lit-crit stuff, the best thing about 2666 is that it’s so well written and has so many inventive, emotive or odd (and sometimes all three at the same time) passages that jerk you up in your seat. A few I dog-eared:

It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadranglar sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness.

Musicians often visited Grete, including an orchestra director who claimed that music was the fourth dimension and whom Halder respected greatly.

He craned his neck towards Reiter and leaned on one elbow and began to whisper and moan imagine scenes of splendor that together formed a chaotic assemblage of dark cubes stacked on top of the other.

That night, as he was working the door at he bar, he amused himself by thinking about a time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was lamost impercetible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archiimboldi’s only wish was never to inhabit either.

Lastly: most of 2666 takes place in the fictitious city of Santa Teresa that Bolano apparently based on Juarez (which did, in fact, experience a wave of rape-murder cases that were bunglingly misinvestigated). Between this and Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb Blues’, it’s hard to think of a city that’s been more damningly portrayed than Juarez. You even kind of get the same impression from both book and song (nameless dread, weird malaise, so on and so forth). Don’t think I’ll be taking any vacations there soon.

Image: painting by Guiseppe Acimboldo (1527 – 1593, amazingly) whom Bolano’s main character renames himself after.

Also: see Ivan’s post on 2666 at Moonraking.

More from 'The Book'

Another batch of spreads below from my just-finished mammoth book project. Previous installment yesterday.

Classic production crisis story: our writer walked away halfway through the project (justifiably, given that the book mushroomed from 120 originally-planned pages to three times that), leaving me and the managing editor, Tom, to cobble together the rest of the copy in a manner that resembled two guys running around a field with flaming beehives on their heads. Also, we were the only native English-speakers on hand to proof it. During the last frantic production push, I spotted a reference to the town ‘Cerhovice’ in western Bohemia on one of the dozen or so maps included in the book. Stupidly, I somehow convinced myself that it’s supposed to be Čerhovice, which sounds more correct to me in Czech (the accent changes the pronunciation to a ‘Ch’ sound). Normally, I would cautiously triple-check any foray into Czech diacritics, but in this case– no doubt due to overall project fatigue– I somehow convinced myself that the ‘Č’ spelling is right, barged ahead and changed it.

Fast-forward to two days later: we’ve sent the final files off the printer and I’m sitting in the car– a quivering mass of frayed nerves– heading towards Austrian Alps R&R with my family. Suddenly, on a highway sign, I spot ‘Cerhovice’. With no little hat accent over the C. Abject panic. I phone the office and reach our production lady who nonchalantly informs me ‘Oh, we caught that last night. Enjoy your vacation.’

(Click on any thumbnail for larger image. All images copyright 2009 Dept. of Design.)


The first copies of the CTP Yearbook (the project I’ve been ominously referring to as ‘The Book’ in this blog) came back from the printer on Friday night. This is the 360+ page book that I’ve been working on since April for an industrial developer and wound up designing every last millimeter of. For perspective’s sake, I’ve been working on the book since before my son was born and since before I started this blog. My two immediate reactions to seeing the printed version (above) is ‘Jesus, it looks like a phone book!’ and ‘Wow, the paper we chose really helps’– we used a heavy kind of rough paper which makes the colors look dark and saturated and helps fend off any unwanted cheesy corporate sheen.

I wanted to show photos of the actual physical book, but the intensely bright lamp we use here for product shots literally caught on fire a few minutes after I turned it on (at least, a horrifyingly noxious smoke started rising from it). Also, the book is so big that it’s almost impossible to pull open in a way where you can get a nice even shot, unless you have several minions helping you to tug it open. So, these are from the digital files we sent off to the printer instead….

(Click on any thumbnail for larger image. All images copyright 2009 Dept. of Design.)

I’ll post another batch of spreads tomorrow.

Mailbag: Muluqèn Mèllèssè and Paradise Lost

Reader JS – despite finding the Muluqèn Mèllèssè song I posted ‘nice but not memorable’ – pluckily set out for his local Ethiopian-manned newsstand to get some information on the mysterious singer. Here’s what transpired:

I wrote the name of the song and the singer on a sheet of paper and showed it to the Ethiopians at the newstand. As soon as they cast eyes upon it, the two Ethiopian guys behind the counter broke out in beatific smiles and launched into a duet rendition of the song in close harmony. It was like a real-life evocation of those moments in musical theater where people break into song without apparent premeditation, but unlike karaoke in that it was done by people with strong musical aptitudes who apparently had been preparing for this moment for a decade or so.  (Like the Beatles blackbird.) The singer is some kind of  legend in Ethiopian music, who produced this masterpiece more than 20 years ago, before he renounced “profane music” for sacred music. These days he lives in Washington D.C., pumping out spirituals. They offered me a CD of his profane music on the house, but they will have to root around in their house to find it. In any case, I am now a hit at the newstand just for knowing someone who likes the song, I suspect they will start singing it whenever I walk thru the door, and I may have to pressure them to take my money in exchange for newspapers. I like ethiopians. Now if I could just learn to like Ethiopian food.

So, there you have it: he’s now living in D.C. and singing church music. Thanks, JS!


Meanwhile, regarding yesterday’s post on quiet visualizations of evil, occasional guest-blogger and Milton scholar (no, really) Grandjoe provides some context for the image of Satan On His Throne:

Here are the lines that go with the wonderful illustration by John Martin of the infernal conclave in Paradise Lost. I’d never seen it –thanks.

High on a throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat . . .

Given that “sat’ must be the most undignified word in the language, Milton’s choice of it so close the gorgeous fanfare that starts with “High” plays a practical joke on Satan and on us as well, who started out impressed. There are many other places in the poem where Milton pulls the rug out. Why? Stanley Fish argues that Milton lures us into Satan’s point of view, so that he can then snap us out of it into a realization of our own sinful sympathies with evil. But that’s too moralistic for me. I think that Milton just takes pleasure in pulling off reversals and other kinds of surprises. It’s fun. Mozart enjoys springing surprises too. There must be artists also who trick us.

Steve Miller vs. Miles Davis

JohnnyO at Burrito Justice was kind enough include Mock Duck in a write-up about blogs he enjoysFinally…….. a shred of recognition! I nearly wept tears of joy onto my keyboard before I remembered that the salt would corrode what’s left of my decaying laptop.

He also turned me onto 40 Going on 28, which is a great blog in the time-honored tradition of Some Engaging Guy Ranting About Stuff. Ribald, highly ribald. I was particularly drawn to this lyric deconstruction of Steve Miller’s Take the Money and Run. So, I thought I’d also chime in on the subject of Steve Miller  and his unique brand of wistful, easy-rockin’, middle-of-the-road hamminess.

image001One of my favorite reads is Miles Davis autobiography. For one thing, it opens with the word ‘Motherfucker:’ and also ends with that same word. OK, I made that up, but it’s practically the case. The guy who co-wrote it, Quincy Troupe, commented that [paraphrase]: “Miles had a colorful use of swear words– at times, he would use them to add emphasis, and other times merely as punctuation.”

One great part is Miles’ account of the phase in his career when he would open up for rock bands at giant festivals. Interestingly, he has great things to say about the Grateful Dead, whom he respects both as musicians and personalities. However, he goes on to say [paraphrase]: ‘But another time, we had to open up for this no-playing motherfucker named Steve Miller.’ Hilarity abounds as he goes on to describe Steve’s prima donna behavior on tour and his general total disdain for Steve’s music. You can just picture SM doing his general jivvy pseudo-blues thing to a rapt audience and Miles looking on in complete disgust from somewhere in the crowd (decked out, no less, in his malevolent-space-alien look that he sported through the early 70s).

Politically incorrect design lectures

One thing I miss living in Prague is the design lectures I used to go to routinely in San Francisco. Two highlights:

1. Victor Moscoso


Moscoso was one of the main designers behind the Haight Ashbury psychedelic poster movement. He designed classic hippie-era band posters like this one:


He also revealed himself to be the designer of the Herbie Hancock Headhunters cover, which was a surprise to me, as this was one of my favorite album cover designs in college:


I saw him lecture to a packed auditorium in 2006. He is a fascinating lecturer, and also a pleasingly unrepentant, unreconstructed hippie. At one point, during his lecture he got sidetracked and went on a pro-legalization-of-marijuana tangent, which led to this spectacular exchange:

Moscoso: [ending with a rhetorical flourish] “I mean, when has marijuana ever really been shown to cause anybody harm?”

Audience: furious applause, cheering

Moscoso: [apparently emboldened by applause] “And LSD… when has LSD ever hurt someone?”

Audience: uncomfortable shifting in seats; nervous, scattered applause

I’d never before seen an audience exhibit a collective sense of being complicit in something uncomfortable and frankly hadn’t known it was possible.

2. Paula Scher


Paula Scher is arguably the most accomplished and well-known female designer alive at present. Her famous poster for a Broadway musical in the early 90s:


She also designed the Jon Stewart book America. When I saw her, it was a joint lecture between her and the producer of the Daily Show, and they talked about how the book got made, the collaborative process, etc etc. The producer even talked at length about Stewart’s infamous appearance on Crossfire when he savaged the hosts.

The best part, though, was when they discussed ideas and jokes that were ultimately deemed too offensive to leave in the book. One omitted joke included a plan to present a diagram of the political left and right sides of the brain with a small area on the far right occupied by Ann Coulter and named… The Cuntal Lobe. Genius.