The Best Day of the Year

It happened two weeks ago in San Francisco;  it’s happening next Sunday here in Prague. It’s the day the clocks move forward, unequivocally my favorite day of the year. If we ever getting around to casting off the shackles of the Gregorian calendar (a task the Czechs have gotten a small-but-significant head start at), I would propose that this become the new first day of the year. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the calendar roll over on this day, the unofficial start of spring and good times, rather than on some random dark-ass date in the middle of winter? Clocks Go Forward Day always feels like the beginning of something big– how many days can you say that about?

In my opinion, it’s a shame that Clocks Go Forward Day isn’t met with more ritualistic fanfare– a day off from work, a few pagan rites, etc. I feel like we’ve been conditioned to greet it with an air of shrugging indifference, an attitude that I suppose stems in part from the fact that Clocks Go Forward Day is a scheduled routine, a rational measure that doesn’t really feel magical. (Imagine, in contrast, if the change just happened out of the blue one evening with no warning– poof, an extra hour of light! People would be freaking out). But I can’t help but suspect that the constant bean-counting and whining of Daylight Savings Time detractors also impacts our attitude towards this day. You know them: the Oh-no-I’m-losing-one-hour-of-sleep crowd. Let’s just say this isn’t a set of priorities that I have a lot of respect for. In fact, I wish I could do business with it, in a colorful-beads-for-Manhattan-Island-type exchange: ‘Okay, I’ll give you this one shiny hour of sleep in exchange for months of light spring and summer evenings.”

Like everything, the idea of Daylight Savings Time was invented by Benjamin Franklin. During his sojourn in Paris as an American delegate, Franklin observed rows of houses with shutters as the Parisians struggled to sleep through the blasting morning sunshine (incidentally, the same sight that inspired Al Gore to propose the invention of  the internet 200 years later). Although Franklin only proposed the idea half-jokingly in a satirical essay, it was picked up by a London builder named William Willett who spent a fortune lobbying for it and managed to get it brought before the British Parliament, only to have it laughed off the floor. I can only imagine what a lonely existence it must have been to be the sole proponent of moving the clocks forward, the endless ridicule one would have been subjected to. Once Germany enacted Daylight Savings Time, Great Britain began to take it more seriously, but only finally started moving their clocks forward after much contentious political debate. The leader of the anti-DST side seems to have been Lord Balfour, the original I-want-my-one-hour-of-sleep bean-counter. At one point, he raised the following imaginative scenario: “Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock. … the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. … Such an alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that House.” Presumably, this was immediately followed by men with powered wigs rioting and tearing up chairs.

The only thing I’ll say in defense of Lord Balfour’s point of view is that the time change does create some really mind-bending and inconvenient scenarios when one is operating between countries that have different DST dates. My attempts to do freelance work for outfits based in the U.S. come to a screeching halt during the two week period between the American and European DST start dates, as we constantly screw up and miss each other’s  calls. More surreally, when I went to New Zealand a few years ago, the time change happened at different times and in different directions. For part of my trip, the difference was 21 hours, then 22 for a few days, then finally 23, which made the massive time change feel even more science fiction-y that it already would have.

Of course, you can’t have Daylight Savings Time without Standard Time, which itself only came about after considerable wrangling and arm-twisting. Before the railroads really took off, there wasn’t really this idea of people all observing one exact time- they pretty much just went by whatever the local sundial said. It was only in the late 19th century that there began to be a need to have everyone on the exact same time. When the measure was imposed on Detroit in 1900, the city resisted, leading to a bizarre situation where half the town was following Standard Time and half was following the ol’ town sun dial for a spell.

The entire notion of Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time, of time zones and of setting the clocks ahead and back to suit human activities and preserve energy– it’s really one of the more brazen acts of Enlightenment thinking (along with, say, carving up the Middle East into distinct nation states– that one didn’t work out so well). One can only imagine the thrill and nervousness experienced by the person tasked with drawing a line down the map and declaring that the two sides would obey practices regarding something as basic as man’s relationship to the sun.

(Photo: stolen from my friend Jess’ Facebook page, of our friends hanging out in Dolores Park in the summer twilight).

(See this excellent site for more info on history and practice of Daylight Savings Time)

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 printing press: pain in the ass, now as it was then

On Monday night, veteran newspaper and magazine man David Wadmore did a guest lecture at Prague College, the second of his highly entertaining talks that I’ve managed to catch. Wadmore has been designing for newsprint and periodicals for so long that some of his reveries about the old days remind me of those sepia-toned segments in the Simpsons where Monty Burns recalls his youth. Ah, the Lord Stanhope Press… she ran on steam!

For almost the first five and half centuries of its existence, the printing press barely changed at all, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it was probably the most significant invention of its millenium and landed Johannes Gutenberg at the #1 spot in A&E’s goofball ‘People of the Millennium‘ countdown. Personally, I was a little disappointed that the other Gutenberg– Steve– didn’t make the list as well somewhere– I mean, four Police Academy movies? Get out. Meanwhile, how about being Bill Gates (#41, the highest-rated alive person) and knowing that you sit a few spots above William the Conqueror and Machiavelli? That’s gotta feel good. On the other hand, imagine James Joyce watching from heaven as he’s dropped one spot behind Ronald Reagan.

Getting back to the point: in the 1880s, the cartel of New York newspapers were offering an open reward of a cool million dollars to anybody who could speed up type-setting production by 25-30%. Having done some type-setting by hand as a nerdy enterprise, I literally find it hard to even wrap my head around the idea of a daily newspaper being set by hand– it makes me slightly nauseated to think of the constant frantic whirl of human activity that this entailed. A German named Otto Merganthaler delivered humankind from this bondage with his invention of the linotype machine, a wild contraption of a thing that looks like this:

Person sits on stool, taps on typewriter; meanwhile, sinister spindly arms up top slide corresponding negative-impression letters, numbers and characters onto a tray to form a line onto which hot lead is poured, producing a line of type (‘line o’ type‘). Newspaper production is sped up, newspapers can afford to sell copies for slightly less, news-literate public grows widely, whole system flourishes until a combination of Roger Ailes and the internet conspire to squash it like a bug.

What’s easy to forget– unless you’re reminded by a handy guest lecture– is what a pain printing then remained for the next hundred years. Wadmore had a great account of how the simple process of reversing out a box of type (that is, printing white on a black box) required something like seven people, in part due to the insane union regulations that essentially forbade anyone from physically giving anything to anyone else and instead demanded that a messenger be used as a conduit. My old typography teacher used to create the impression that the phototype and early pseudo-computer processes that came along right before desktop publishing were almost more thankless than handsetting type, in the sense that they involved a lot of the same inconvenience but also took you away from the ameliorating rustic pleasures of handling type by hand and instead replaced it by peering into monitors that were attached to computers with no undo function:

(Photo credit: Flick user Alki1)

After his first Prague College lecture, Wadmore opened things up to Q&A– I immediately asked him something designed to get him to tell us about the most hair-raising screw-ups and blunders that he experienced in his many years on the job. He diverted the question slightly but came up with a great response: the night that Lady Di (someone who also inexplicably appears on the ‘Top People of the Milennium’ list, by the way) died, the entire press corps of London happened to be at a uproarious wedding of some high-ranking colleague. So, in the wee hours of the morning, they were woken up one by one by their respective papers and ordered to get to Paris on the first possible plane. So: the next time you see re-run news coverage of her death, stop for a moment to appreciate the collective hangover of the press covering the event, and their unsung heroism in soldiering forward with the story.

Reader mailbag: Anatomical drawings and how to hold your breath for 17 minutes

In the ‘Lifestyles of the undead’ post below, I know-it-all-ishly implied that nobody’s yet done a modern update/parody of the those anatomical drawings where the subject is obligingly peeling off his or her own flesh. It turns out that my friend SP has done exactly this: “I wanted to show you the homage I drew to those weird anatomical illustrations where the women are serenely peeling back the flaps of their muscle layers,” she writes. “Life size, done while at SFAI, actually 2 layers on vellum, when you lift it it’s the fetus /womb underneath.”



Meanwhile, reader JO brings to our attention this harrowing clip of magician David Blaine discussing the tricks of his trade:

The clip is primarily Blaine talking about his efforts to hold his breath for a world record 17 minutes while battling horrible convulsions and symptoms of cardiac arrest. But along the way, he also comments on a few other lively exploits including:

– Being buried alive in a coffin for a week

– Being frozen in a block of ice for 3 days

– Standing on a narrow 100 foot pillar for 36 hours

– Living in a glass box for 44 days while antagonistic members of the British press helicopter cheeseburgers around the box to tempt you

I think I nearly slid into shock just listening to this stuff. It’s amazing to think while listening to Blaine talk about hardcore training sessions in hypoxic tents that he nominally shares the title of ‘magician’ with guys like this:

It’s something like when you watch a tiny little dog sniff the butt of a great big dog 25 times its size– yeah, they’re both ‘dogs’, but they hardly seem to belong to the same species. Or, like comparing my friend who plays in the occasional badminton tournament compared to that nutcase Swedish guy who tried to ride his bicycle to Mt. Everest from Sweden and then climb the mountain– they’re both doing ‘sports’ in a loose definition of the term, but there’s a world of difference between the two. Blaine’s particular brand of magic is to removed from the traditional trappings of wands and top hats that it really does seem like something else altogether– a kind of endurance testing. But, he did come up worshipping Houdini and wriggling out of handcuffs and whatnot, so I guess that in his mind it all seems like an extension of the same thing.

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!

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.)

Sir Walter Drake

I’ve been cudgeling my brains to come up with gift ideas. These are gifts for my immediate  family, so I absolutely have to come up with something. Desperate, I turn to the Walter Drake mail order catalog.

I don’t know who Walter Drake is; have never seen a picture of him or even a fake, cursive signature. He sounds like the main character in a soap from the ’50s.

In outlook, the catalog is a certainly a vestige of the ’50s. You find there presents for people  who don’t  like things to touch each other, unless they are identical; then it’s ok. Like Rock Hudson and June Allyson in their matching pajamas and extended uniformly in widely-separate twin beds.

Eggs, which can be yucky, seem to pose a special threat to Walter Drake customers. There are advertised two devices for frying eggs decently. In both cases, you lay a hoop in the frying pan and then drop an egg into the containing hoop. As the catalog copy says, “Whites won’t run together, yolks stay plump”. “Keep whites under control, not spreading all over the pan.”  There are also two trays for carrying deviled eggs; the eggs rest in egg-shaped indentations so that they don’t slither around.

There are pads for putting between pots and pans  stacked up in a cupboard, so that they don’t scratch each other  (or even touch). But my favorite is a contraption for preserving half-eaten bananas. “Place clip on open end to slow oxidation and prevent browning.” The clip  is yellow, and resembles the upper and lower jaws of a half -bananana. You have to imagine someone first slicing a banana cleanly in halves, then eating one half, rather than starting to eat at one end, as I would, and stopping halfway through. The remaining half of the bisected banana has a clean, round end over which the clip fits. Of course, the clip won’t keep the banana from becoming mushy and brown. It’s typical of many Walter Drake gadgets that they won’t work.

There’s a shower curtain on the outside of which are stuck are 40 5″x7″ pockets for holding photos and memorabilia. “Add Personality to Your bathroom Displaying Your Favorite Photos!  KIds will have fun decorating the bathroom, and so will mom and dad!. . . easily change your display to match the seasons.” How do people come up with these ideas? And then–harder to imagine– following them through: mechanical drawings, patents, trips to a Chinese factory.

This year’s catalog dealt me a real surprise, sending me into a state of cognitive dissonance. Toward the back of the catalog, inconspicuously pictured at the bottom of the page are two dildos, each with the sprightly trade name “Don Wand” and labelled “non-returnable”. What prompted this leap from the demure ‘fifties to the explicit 21st century? How does this fit with vinyl lace tablecloths and a gadget for dividing pies into exactly equal pieces? I cannot understand how sex got into the Walter Drake catalog, but granting that it did, one can account for its particular form: there’s still no touching of different bodies; like egg whites, the  bodily fluids are kept to themselves.

Dutch update

The-Scene-appearsReader JW brings our attention to the Dutch Concert, which I hadn’t heard of before. The Dutch Concert, interestingly, gets two different definitions, both – of course – unflattering to the Dutch but different nevertheless. One vein of opinion classifies it as a general racket, cacophony, riot, row, ruckus, rumpus, uproar. The other defines it more specifically as a musical performance where the players are singing different songs to disastrous results. A slang dictionary from 1811 goes as far as to identify these noisemakers as “a party of Dutchmen in sundry stages of intoxication, some singing, others quarrelling, speechifying, wrangling, and so on.” Presumably this is then followed by many rounds of Dutch Oven.

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.

PK and ERNIE (Psychokinesis and Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment)


Ever find yourself in a conversation with, say, 10 or so people where somebody brings up astrology? This happened during my recent trip to Poland and I noted how the group reaction is always pretty much the same (so long as you’re among a reasonably average cross-section of people and not, say, hanging out at a Renaissance fair): there are always 1 or 2 kindred spirits who brighten up and immediately join in the astrologizing, and then 2 or 3 people who seem palpably disgusted and even seem to feel sort of personally implicated by the topic, like Oh no: I was enjoying this discussion and now they’re talking about THIS… does that make me an idiot too? The rest become completely neutral and blank and wait for the conversation to fade into another topic (which it must be said takes a long time when astrology is involved, something I guess you have to hold against it slightly).

I count myself in the blank group: on the one hand, I find the personality archetypes astrology describes – be they true or fictional – to be really interesting and persuasive as character descriptions, and have observed enough anecdotal evidence (mainly, an astrology-obsessed friend who can guess random celebrities’ birth months with eerie precision) to believe that there’s something going on. On the other hand, it’s all pretty tiresome, self-absorbed and annoyingly deterministic, such that I get depressed if I try to imagine someone who actually treats it as a predicative science and allows it to influence their feelings about who they’re dating or whatever. In short, I’m maddeningly agnostic, a personality trait that I’m also aware of whenever I talk with somebody who swears they saw a ghost or describes some other kind of supernatural experience first-hand: I often find myself simultaneously believing them and not believing in a way that seems like it should be impossible to experience at the same time.

Where this issue gets really maddening is when you read about the attempts of scientists to either prove or disprove paranormal things one way or the other and find that such paranormal things basically refuse to either (a) quietly go away and be proven non-existent or (b) manifest themselves in a way that’s strong enough to justify adjusting your world view taking them seriously. Consider, for example, one phenomenon that’s been observed over and over: if you take a random binary number generator that spits out 0s and 1s and place a subject in front of it and ask the subject to will it to produce a certain number, over time you will observe a tiny but statistically-significant effect. Think about this: person… concentrating on box… statistically-significant effect, over and over again.

The first tests done along these lines were conducted in the 1930s with dice throws and a subject who tried to will a certain roll to come up. The ‘father of Parapsychology’, J.B. Rhine, conducted an experiment over several years that involved 651,216 rolls and produced an effect that he calculated would have a 1 in 10,115 chance of occurring by coincidence. Still, there were many problems with the methodology, mostly associated with the vagaries of rolling dice– first, special rolling cups and, later, electronic dice-rollers had to be introduced to rule out the possibility of cheating. Later, ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) was brought in to spit out 1s and 0s. While this controls for the problem of cheating, I wonder if it didn’t introduce another possible methodological flaw: APATHY. How do you rest assured that subjects aren’t just zoning out and not trying, given that you’ve given them the task of staring at a box and willing it to produce more 1s than 0s (or vice versa). Another problem that is both more serious and extremely silly is the problem of differentiating between psychokinesis (controlling objects through your mind) versus precognition (predicting the future). If you allow that both skills could exist, then how do you know that the subject isn’t psychically anticipating the number that is going to come up more often rather than willing it to come up? You can get around this by having the experimenter indicate the number that the subject is supposed to will to come up… but then what if the experimenter is exhibiting precognition in his or her choice of number?

I guess I don’t have a concluding point except to say that all of this psychokinesis business seems too silly and obscure to merit serious study, and yet too striking and weirdly probable to ignore altogether. Have a nice day!