Halloween Inferno

Fireworks at Helmholtzplatz two nights ago.

Somehow, in all my days, I’d never before been close enough to the actual detonation site of a fireworks display to see how the magic works. You can imagine my surprise at seeing these occult-looking lamps set at even intervals along the ground. I’d always been misled to believe that it somehow involved exploding pumpkins and turkeys stuffed with gunpowder.

For the audio background, you have to imagine not only the deafening explosion of the fireworks themselves, but also a unanimous WAIL of children brought to the ground zero launch spot by their parents who were instantly traumatized by all the brimstone and din.

By the way, I’ve never mentioned this before, but: not only am I an only child… I also have zero first cousins who are actually related to my blood. By weird coincidence, all five of my first cousins were adopted (by three different sets of parents, for varying reasons). I think four of the five have eventually sought out their birth parents, while one abstained. Anyway, the point is that one of my cousins got in touch with her birth family, who turned out to be…. a large Italian clan in NYC who used to produce the big 4th of July fireworks show for years and years. Wow, didn’t see that one coming. It’s hard to explain, really, but I can barely think of anything more perpendicular to my own extended family than a huge family of Italian firework moguls. It’s not clear to me exactly how she wound up not with this festive group and instead with my family and its tight-assed celebrations of Independence Day.

Das Moveable Feast

Two recent sightings from opposite poles of Berlin’s cultural zeitgeist:

1. Not-So-Little Cleveland Indian

Last week, I was biking home from a basketball game in early evening and ran into this, looming over Alexanderplatz:

What? Aha, it turns out that this is art— an installation by French media artist Cyprien Gaillard, exploring the legacy and exploitation of arcane, tribal imagery in contemporary advertising culture. As icing on the cake, the installation sits on a soon-to-be-demolished former Stasi building, das Haus der Statistik. Not that Gaillard is blaming the Stasi for the exploitation of Native Americans. At least, I don’t think he is.

2. Homespun Family Circus

A few days later, we took our son to a circus in a remote place called Falkensee, which lies just outside the super-uncool, westernmost part of Berlin, Spandau. Once you get outside of Berlin’s hipness sphere-of-influence, things instantly revert to the basic hapless, redneck-y mundanity that links together all of Central Europe. Indeed, this circus experience wound up being much more of a sobering tale of family values and heartland tenacity than I had been expecting.

First, consider the poster:

It turns out that, if you run a circus and you make a poster featuring elephants and giraffes, you are not implicitly promising that there are elephants and giraffes at your circus— you are simply invoking the pleasures of the circus atmosphere in a general, non-specfic sense. In this case, there were no such exotic animals on site, and it was apparent at first glance that the whole event was going to be somewhat more small-scale than advertised:

We quickly learned that the Circus Piccolino is a family circus whose patriarch used to perform in the major, large circuses that travel around Europe but then decided to stop once he had kids. Instead, to spare his family the rigors of constant travel, he started his own weeny circus with only the members of his family, a few road-hands and one vulgarian clown whom I took to be a hired mercenary (but might possibly be a cousin). The Circus Piccolino performs only in Germany, thus allowing his daughters to keep up with school and live fairly normal lives when they are not manipulating hula-hoops for the benefit of a tent full of strangers:

The backstory of the Circus Piccolino was legitimately interesting and inspirational as a tale of adaptation to the realities of family life. Yet it also seemed to be invoked a little too often throughout the show, as an excuse for every dropped hula hoop, every repetitious act involving a lesser family member, every tawdry cut corner (‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen goats performing at a circus before,’ my wife whispered as we watched various barnyard animals jump from table to table). In the end, it started to feel like an over-share that diminished the normal suspension-of-reality that one hopes to achieve while at a circus.

The ultimate buzz-kill moment happened once the performance ended: as we filed out of the big top, you could immediately see the Family Piccolino heading towards their trailer home that was parked right next to the tent, everyone curiously out of character and already half-disrobed from their outfits. While the whole afternoon provided an education glimpse into the realities of the family circus scene, I still would have appreciated if, at the end, the principals could have humored us by dematerializing into a cloud of smoke, or exiting in some comparably romantic manner.

One Nose Horn

One of those semi-incriminating cached searches that come up on your iPhone when you don’t have a good alibi ready:

Along similar lines, I wonder if the mysteries of Czech language point towards a secret unholy marriage between rhinoceroses and unicorns:

Rhinoceros = nosorožec, meaning ‘Nose horn’

Rhinoceros visual aid:

Unicorn: jednorožec, meaning ‘One horn’

Is the rhinoceros the husband? And what would a jednonosorožec look like?

The Faery Of Electricity

With the end of the world seemingly at hand, I’m taking a small amount of comfort in the fact that the best day of the year is right around the corner. Granted, that isn’t much to hang one’s hat on– the rate of natural disasters and toppled dictators has been so alarmingly accelerated as of late that I’m half expecting this laptop to blow up in my face as I type. Also– strangely– I’ve been so overwhelmed with work this year and preoccupied with a prospective move to a new city that my usual seasonal affective disorder hasn’t fully had a chance to kick in, if that makes sense. Paradoxically, I’ve more or less breezed through the winter  in a cocoon of my own little micro-anxieties and fixations. So, in a sense, I’m anticipating clocks-go-forward-day with a little less eagerness than in years past. But still…

As an homage to clocks-go-forward day, here are a few other fun facts I’ve learned about man’s attempts to conquer darkness:

1. The Herring Angle

Lately, I’ve been trying to read The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, on the RABID recommendation of a few friends. So far, it’s kind of falling into the Gram Parsons Zone for me– I appreciate it, but it’s not really taking.

One detail that I loved, though, is the mention of attempts in 1870 by two British scientists named (this is the best part:) Herrington and Lightbrown to use the glowing oil excreted by dead herrings to light the world. Their idea was that, since herrings mysteriously light up as they die, maybe a self-regenerating source of luminescence could be produced from tiny thirst-inducing fish. I love the idea of herrings becoming a key commodity in the modern world. This would be convenient because, as Sebald mentions, every herring lays enough eggs to produce a volume of herrings 70 times the size of the earth.

Also, imagine having a business card that states your name as ‘Herrington’ and underneath in smaller letters says ‘Herring Expert’. Outstanding.

2. The Two Sleeps Angle

If you wake up in the middle of the night after a couple hours of sleep (something that’s been happening to me a lot lately– see above micro-anxieties), it turns out this is what people routinely did for thousands of years, up until the industrial revolution. People would sleep a few hours, then get up, smoke a pipe, hangout, whatever, for a bit before going back to bed for a ‘second sleep’. Makes sense when there was no way for most people to afford artificial light, and so nighttime was about a billion hours long in winter. I guess this is when all the brooding got done in plays like Hamlet– he was up pacing around between sleeps.

3. Chicken-Or-Egg Electricity Thing

The whole two-sleeps thing had been buried for good by the time that Edison invented the electric lightbulb and (as an art history documentary I show my designs students puts it) ‘the faery of electricity was loosed on the world’. It’s sort of weird to imagine society suddenly ‘launching’ the lightbulb as a product and–  for that matter– electricity in general. I mean, I assume that lightbulbs were first introduced at a municipal level in the form of street lamps– you didn’t just go out and buy a lightbulb in the early days. But how, then, did the whole thing eventually spread to rural American homes? You need an electricity-powered lamp if you’re going to buy a lightbulb… but you also need a proliferation of lamps before the local store is going to start carrying lightbulbs. So how did it start?

The same conundrum sort of applies to electricity in general: how did they convince a ignoramousy public to allow electricity to be installed into their homes if there was nothing to use this mysterious force for?

I do vaguely remember learning that in the early days, a pointless little rubber mat was sold to a fearful Americans that you were supposed to place on your floor underneath the electrical socket, to ‘soak up’ any stray electricity that might happen to leak out of the wall socket and dribble down the wall. Such was their understanding of the whole phenomenon. Unfortunately, the internet is letting me down in terms of turning up a photo to confirm this, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

(Top image: Peter Behrens’ fantastic AEG ad from 1907, promoting a new lightbulb. Pretty early instance of the basic visual vocabulary of abstraction finding its way into mass commercial media).

Unicorns And The People Who Love Them

I’m currently working on a follow-up article for Smashing Magazine on another design-related topic, one that comes out of a lecture I give to my Prague College students. In the lecture, I use the following image in a joking manner to make a point about images that have no ‘concept’ or ‘message’ behind them:

This image is awesome, and I badly want to use it in the Smashing Mag version of the lecture… but the digital rights usage issues are tricky in this case. It’s not Creative Commons territory, and its not something I found off a cheap stock image site where you can buy the rights for a song. Initially, I couldn’t remember where I had gotten it from, and presumed (accurately, as it turns out) that it was just something I’d grabbed from a google images search while harriedly throwing together a school lecture as fast as was humanly possible.

Thus began a tortuous journey down the obscure cul-de-sacs of the information superhighway, in search of the individual who owns the rights to a certain image, in the hopes of successfully begging this individual for permission to use the image without any cash switching hands. Ready to begin my journey, I mounted Cassiopeia, holding firmly on to her snow-white mane while her slender, spiraled horn flashed against the sky. With the cautious grace of a deer, she set off through the Elysian Fields of the internet, as we began our magical digital rights quest.

A little googling around brought me to Unicorn-Pictures.com, where the image is handsomely available in this gilded frame…

… and with this description:

Matching Unicorn and Princess

This intimate scene set in a forest shows a young, blonde woman tenderly embracing a white unicorn. The unicorn’s blonde mane is sprinkled with glitter and reflects in the rays of light breaking through between the trees.

This loving description led me to think that perhaps I’d found the rights-owner of this image. The Unicorn-pictures.com site has no contact information, but it seems to belong to something called (brace yourself) the Cornify Network (which also incldues UnicornPedia, FYI). The flagship of the network is Cornify.com, which makes no bones about their desire to ‘wish you sparkly happiness forever!!‘ straight away on the homepage in Comic Sans font.

A little more digging into their About page revealed this charter statement:

What is Cornify?

Cornify is the #1 unicorn and rainbow service on the internet, and quite possibly in the world.[*]

We help spread happiness by providing sophisticated unicorn and rainbow tools and services to website publishers, bloggers and the general internet audience. The philosophy behind Cornify can be summed up by this simple equation “unicorns + rainbows = happiness”. This very simple insight drives the team behind Cornify to push the latest web technology into realms previously unthinkable to optimize the happiness-per-user ratio online.

(* This claim confused me, only because it would never have occurred to me that the #1 unicorn and rainbow service would live anywhere but on the internet.)

I’m not exactly sure how to tell you this, but my next discovery was that Cornify won the People’s Choice Award at South by Southwest Web Awards in 2010, beating out interactive giants such as Hulu and Flickr. Wow.

Anyway, I found a contact email  and sent the following request:

Dear Cornify,

I am writing an educational article for SmashingMagazine.com about graphic design. I would like to use the enchanting* ‘Princess and Unicorn’ image (link) from UnicornPictures to illustrate a point that I am making about graphic design. I do not see a contact address for UnicornPictures or UnicornPedia, so I’m wondering if you own the rights to this image and whether you would kindly grant me permission to use it for this purpose?

Keep up the smiles!*


(* I admit to a certain amount of shameless pandering here in my quest for rights permission.)

Promptly, this cheerful (and surprisingly pragmatic, I might add) response came back:

Aloha Dan,

I don’t own any rights to that image. Considering the site has been up for a year and nobody has said anything, you should be fine just using it as you see fit.

Good luck with the article.


Attached as a footer was this little animated gif of a prancing unicorn:

So, at this date of writing, my quest is still ongoing (I’ve since generated new leads by tracking the artist’s name, which appears in bottom left corner of image). But I know a lot more about internet unicorn sub-culture, rainbows and smiles than I did before. And, I know who won SXSW 2010.

Brno Bienale and Polish film posters revisited

Yesterday, I went to Brno to take part in the opening of the Brno Bienale, a design exhibition in which the CTP book I spent all last summer and fall working on is being displayed. (Note: there are literally hundreds of works being displayed there, so it’s not like this is any great distinction.)

Here’s my trip in handy ascii map format:

|||||||| >>>>>>>>>>(me on train)>>>>>>>>>>>||||||

Assorted highlights along the way:

1. Prague main train station, 10:05am. You gotta love the cafés associated with train stations in Central Europe. It’s just past 10am and I’m drinking a small beer, yet I’m allowed to feel that this is a somewhat upright behavior given that the two guys next to me are pounding shots and smell like they’ve been cleaning out that barn that Hercules had to irrigate for one of his 12 tasks.

2. Brno main train station, 1:15am. Pleasant surprise of the day: getting to Brno and kinda remembering my way around from two previous brief day trips here.

This is a memorable contrast to my first ever trip to Czech Republic, back in 2001 when I was just blowing through on the way to Vienna and had no notion that I’d ever be living here. After staying up most of the night running around Prague, I got on the train to Vienna and instantly fell into a deep, catatonic sleep. After two and a half hours, I suddenly lurched awake when the train stopped, blearily peered out the window into the darkness and was met only with a large, inscrutable sign reading ‘BRNO’. Having never heard of Brno before at that point, I momentarily panicked, imagining perhaps that I had been asleep for twelve hours and had now been carried into some regional outpost on the edge of Siberia. “Oh no! Brrr!” I cried out involuntarily, and then saw the reality mirrored back at me again by the horrifying sign: BRRRR-NO.

3. An exhibit called ‘Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design’, 6:45pm. After the opening ceremony, speeches and awards, and after looking at the main exhibits (all of which turned out to be pretty un-fun for various reasons which I won’t bother getting into… but suffice to say that the part I’m about to describe was the only fun part of the Bienale for me:) I wound up looking through a great exhibit curated by Rick Polynor about the tradition of surrealism in graphic design. Remember those Polish movie posters I blogged about? Czech movie posters from this era were done pretty much in the same style, and this exhibit had fascinating ones from both countries. Check out these various interpretations of Hitchcock’s The Birds:

As my Czech student put it while we looking at these, “See… there were some good things about Communism.”

(Note: the top one borrows directly from Max Ernst’s The Robing of The Bride, which I blogged about in the Quiet Visualizations of Evil post.)

Continuing on the weirdo bird theme, here’s a bird in high heels executed by a 60s Croatian artist that I know nothing about:

For our last bird-related item, check out this incredible 1972 kraut rock cover for Amon Dull’s Carnival In Babylon:

Have you ever seen anything that straddles the line between so-bad-it’s-good versus SO-bad-that-it-swings-all-the-way-back-around-into-bad like this?

Columbian Magic and other secrets of the stone house

This weekend, the wife and I drove to a village in the the north of Czech for a confab of friends with small children. Here are some of the highlights from Saturday:

Approx. 1:00pm: Wife driving, me sitting in passenger seat. Wife mentions that our hosts for the weekend (whom we’ve never met before) are a family named Vitek, Lubmila and baby Josefina. Sometimes Czechs have weird names.

Approx 1:15pm: Wife and I discuss a friend of hers who apparently cannot wrap her head around the fact that I do not know how to drive stick and never owned a car prior to 2009. Friend has repeatedly asked if I have some sort of condition or chemical balance that prevents me from getting behind the wheel. We resolve that I will act in a highly erratic manner next time we spend time with her.

Approx 1:30pm: Start to drift off to sleep in passenger seat and enter that phase between sleep and wakefulness where you start to have strange, disconnected thoughts. In this state, I realize that as you pass through the membrane into sleep, your thoughts suddenly extrude into three dimensional shapes, like soap bubbles being blown. The shapes are filled with ideas that look like sparkly glitter, which were actually shapes back in the awake world. So: when you fall asleep, ideas become shapes and shapes become ideas. Got that? Good.

Approx. 2:15: We arrive at our destination, which is an awesomely dilapidated stone house owned by the family with the weird names. The outside looks like this…

The inside, meanwhile, is full of the kind of grandeur-fading-and-crumbing-into-ruin that never fails to excite visiting rootless American bloggers. Check out the photo at the top of the post, for example: that was the ceiling of a room where I helped Vitek set up an ornate Romanian bed that lacked any matching parts and apparently turned out to be murderously uncomfortable for the people who slept in it.

Also included on this floor were Mamby-pamby Baroque Piano, No Face Jesus and Mary, and Giant Picture Frame With Nothing In It:

Right after arriving, we get the grand tour of the place, which took a solid half hour and also included…

Approx: 2:50pm: … on the third floor, a working toilet, finally! Except its not really a toilet, it’s more like an outhouse that’s indoors. And painted an inviting shade of pink:

If you open the hatch and look down, there’s what appears to be a bottomless pit. Sort of like an oubliette. Let’s move on…

Approx 2:52pm: our tour takes us to a quasi-secret room, which contains a super ornante wood burning stove. Inscribed in curiously Haight-Ashbury-type lettering (and in English, no less) is ‘Columbian Magic’:

If I had to guess at gun point what ‘Columbian Magic’ is and had a hundred guesses, I would still never guess ‘wood burning stove’.

In conclusion: when you factor in the crazy surroundings and the fact that our hosts were more than a little Ren Fair-ish, the weekend probably more closely resembled a Scooby Doo episode than anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Open pouch, receive duck

Looking over the search engine terms that people have used to find this blog, it’s come to my attention that there’s something called Mock Duck Hot Springs. Before you get too excited, I should clarify this exotic refuge exists only within the virtual reality of something called Rohan: Blood Feud, one of these massively popular, unfathomable multiplayer online role-playing games. Huge in the Philippines, it seems.

The premise behind Rohan: Blood Feud sounds like something straight out of the back pages of Scientology:

The Lesser Gods, in a desperate move decided to sacrifice the other races since killing the dragons didn’t bring back Ohn. The Lesser Gods create monsters to eliminate the races but their plan backfires. The advent of monsters bring the races closer together. It brings the Elves and Humans especially close, so close that the two start producing offspring, the world’s first Half Elves. Rejected by both Humans and Elves, the Half Elves created their own settlement in the middle of the forest of Morrisen.

All that’s missing is third-level Thetans being transformed into intergalactic walruses after falling out of spaceships.

Anyway, it’s confusing what the mythical Mock Duck Hot Springs have to do with all this (especially as half the info posted about the game on message boards is written in some Filipino language). Luckily, I found this handy FAQ:

Q: Where is the Mock Duck Hot Springs?

A: The Hot Springs are located geographically north of Varvylon

Q: How do you enter the Hot Springs?

A: You can enter by presenting a Hot Springs Ticket to Mr. Duck at the entrance of the Hot Springs. Tickets are available at the Rohan Item Mall (http://shop.rohan.ph)

Q: What can I do inside?

A: Monster galore plus a chain of quest to get a mock duck bag with random treasure inside.

Q: What are the new quests that you speak of?

A: There are 4 quests inside the Hot Springs.
Duck Feathers (lvl 30)
Duck Eggs (lvl 50)
Empty Bottles (lvl 70)
Mock Duck Pouch (lvl ?)

Once you finish the final quest, you are awarded with a special Mock Duck Pouch which gives you unique items when you open it including a chance to get an exclusive mock duck pet.

As someone concisely explains on another forum message board, “open pouch, receive duck.”

Here are screenshots someone posted of ‘Mr. Duck’ and the Mock Duck Hot Springs experience (click for larger, nerdier views):

Runnin' With The Dio

Yesterday, we lost one of the great voices of 80s metal– and popularizer of the “Il Cornuto” devil sign– Ronnie James Dio. I thought it would appropriate to lay him to rest with a passage from that Christian screed The Devil’s Disciples that I blogged on a few weeks ago. In this section, the perpetually horrified author cites Dio in a passage about the tendency of “Devil-worshiping groups” to “add and drop members left and right, changing and transforming the bands they leave, and enter into even greater strongholds of satanic strength”. As he recounts the monstrous shapeshifting of Rainbow and Black Sabbath, he offers up this defacto obituary :

A pompous little leather-lunged singer named Ronnie James Dio joined Blackmore’s new outfit, using his strong songwriting ability to pen songs about the mystic power of pyramids, witches, warlocks and werewolves. After quitting Rainbow with four albums under his belt, Dio replaced the disgusting Ozzy Osbourne as Black Sabbath’s lead vocalist. The name of the album he debuted on: “Heaven and Hell.”

[note: in the writing of Jeffrey Godwin, this is supposed to be a big ‘aha! moment, where the artist’s obvious satanism is shown to be right in front of our noses]

Here are some quotes directly from Dio:

“At least I understand something about the occult, which is more than I can say about certain bands use pentagrams and upside down crosses as their emblems…”

“In order to write logically and sensible about a subject, you have to learn about it. I’m INFORMED about the darker side of our lives…”

Who’s doing the informing? Dio is not Ronnie James’ name…


His last name is actually Padovana. Dio means “god” in Italian. This guy calls himself and his band God!

Note that despite Godwin’s obvious revulsion towards Dio on the last point, it is conspicuous that he acknowledges Dio’s “strong songwriting ability”. Compare this to his more characteristic tone of contempt for the rest of Black Sabbath: “It seems impossible that such a ragtag bunch of misfits and weirdos could sell ten records to their relatives, much less millions of albums over a 15 year span.” Well, then.