Friday, July 04, 2003

Be careful what you wish for, via BBC:

Lightning hits preacher after call to God
A congregation in the United States was left stunned when lightning struck a church moments after a visiting preacher asked God for a sign....

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Thanks to Doug Arellanes for this German-language review of Tulip. I don't quite understand the whole thing, but it sure sounds funny if you read it aloud. I still can't believe 82 million people speak that language.

Das Tulip Cafe in der Opatovicka 3 im Zentrum von Prag ist genau der richtige Ort, um entspannt abzuhaengen und zu quatschen. Die kleine Bar hat einen Garten und im Keller eine Lounge. Tagsüber kann man hier sehr gut und lange brunchen, abends trinkt man hier "Bernards", ein ausgezeichnetes Bier aus Prag, das dafür berühmt ist, nicht pasteurisiert zu sein. Im Tulip ist man immer in Gefahr, die Zeit zu vergessen. Es kommt vor, dass man eigentlich nur kurz im Tulip vorbeischauen moechte, um sich für eine ausgedehnte Club-Nacht in Form zu bringen, und nach Stunden ist man immer noch da, trinkt zwei, drei "Bernards" und diskutiert mit Freunden.

By the way, follow the instructions posted here. You will laugh, just not immediately.
On Tuesday, just before hopping on the 'tard cart (the short bus) to Karlovy Vary, I went to a Contactel presentation on behalf of Rob McLean’s Czech and Slovak Construction Journal, which I'm writing for. Contactel is a Czech ISP that at some point envisaged some sort of synergy between providing Internet services and providing call center (or “contact center”) to corporate customers. In other words, Toyato runs a big advertising campaign and ends every ad with a toll-free number to call for more information about their cars. Rather than go through the lengthy process of hiring a bunch of youngsters to staff the phones during this campaign, supervising the calls, setting up the communications hardware, etc., Toyota contracts all that out to a company like Contactel.

The presentation was not only boring, it was also in Czech, so that wasn’t much fun although they did give us free koblihy (Czech jelly-filled donuts). Afterwards, though, they took us to the call center itself, which is basically this big room filled with rows and rows of computers and people talking into headsets. These are quite common in the United States, but I’d never seen one in person. Somewhat surprisingly for the Czech Republic, the operation is remarkably efficient. At the end of every row of terminals, there’s a supervisor, who can see on her screen who’s available, who’s on hold, how long they’ve been on hold, who’s talking, how long they’ve been talking, which account the call is for, whether it was outgoing or incoming (they also do telemarketing), etc., and at the end of this room is a big sign like a scoreboard, announcing the basic stats: number of callers waiting, number of operators available, etc. When the number of operators available gets down to 1 or 0, the numbers turn red.

It all brought to mind a rather amazing story, related to me by my friend Kristen, who worked at a call center in Nebraska -- presumably a much larger one -- on that fateful day when life in American ground to a halt, when every concerned citizen across the land stopped in his or her tracks and sat glued to the television, a entire nation brought together by a single pivotal event. Yes, that's right, I’m talking about the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced.

To understand the mass psychology at work in a call center, you have to know a bit about how they work: At any one time, hundreds of advertising campaigns are running, each of them urging viewers and readers to call a 1-800 number to order a certain product, be it hair pomade or car wax or a Thighmaster. To operate most efficiently, a huge number of these calls for different products are channeled to a single call center, with each operator usually handling calls for at least six different products, with all the necessary information on their computer screen. Thing is, lots of people call but aren't really sure why they've called -- maybe they assume the operator simply knows what they want, or maybe they just saw the number on the screen and picked it up and dialed for no apparent reason. Or maybe they wrote the number down earlier and forgot what the product was. (In that case the caller has to try to figure out which product they’re interested in, but there are rules about what you can and can’t say, because you’re not supposed to lead the customer. You have to ask things like, “Are you buying this as a gift or is it for yourself? Is it for use in the home?”) And plenty of people don't want anything except somebody to chat with, and you have to politely tell them to take a hike. The supervisor is surfing the lines, monitoring calls at random, so you can't mess around. This is what you're dealing with if you work at a call center.

During the last few minutes before the hour of the O.J. verdict, incoming calls gradually petered off into nothing. (I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get durations exactly right, but this is how I remember the story as told to me, and it’s roughly correct.) On the hour, when the jury foreman read the verdict, the phones fell completely silent, which almost never happens. Somebody had wheeled a little TV set into the room and turned the volume up, so everybody turned and watched.

Then the verdict came. “Not guilty.” A murmur swept across the huge room for the next 10-15 seconds. Then, at roughly the 20 second mark, the phones suddenly started ringing off the hook. For about the next 40 minutes, the calls kept coming, and coming, and coming.... And not a single person was actually interested in a product. Not a single person. They all just wanted to rant about the O.J. verdict. Maybe after the verdict was announced, an advertisement came on with the 1-800 number and they thought it was somehow connected; or maybe they just called it in a fit of outrage; or maybe they were all just completely nuts.

So that's my call center story. I have to say, I'm pretty disappointed with myself because I slept right through the O.J. verdict. Would anybody care to share their own where-were-you stories?
One of the world's foremost poets has praised Eminem. I think this story is so great, I'm quoting the whole thing:

Seamus Heaney, 64, says Eminem has "sent a voltage around a generation".

Mr Heaney was speaking prior to the start of the Prince of Wales' Educational Summer School in Norwich, where he was a guest.

He was asked by journalists whether there was a figure in popular culture who aroused interest in poetry and lyrics in the way that Bob Dylan and John Lennon did during the 1960s and 70s.

Mr Heaney, former Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, said: "There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible.

"He has sent a voltage around a generation.

"He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy."
It's good to see genius getting the recognition it deserves. Also, see these funny picks of my man Marshall dressing up like Michael Jackson and dangling a baby out a hotel window in Glasgow.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

It looks like a lot of people liked the David Cerny post below, especially all those old Prognosites who like nothing more than a good buttering up. And Nic Moc asks if I can "keep up the (blogging) pace." We'll see about that. Right now I'm camped out in a windowless closet at the Karlovy Vary's Hotel Thermal -- truly a marvel of communist-era design -- preparing for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where I'm working on the Festival Daily and also covering the fest for Screen Intenational. So if you come to this site, you'll be reading lots of stories about minor film biz stars and director, unseemly intra-festival politics, and drunken run-ins with wanna-be glitterati. For future reference, dramatic personae are myself, Vladan, Will and Klara. Vladan says "hi."

Monday, June 30, 2003

One weekend closer to death.… I stuck my head inside a bum on Friday. Not an actual anus, mind you, but this one:

... the most recent work of genius from Czech sculptor David Cerny.

Nic Moc has some good commentary on this but doesn't quite get the description right: The statues don't really depict Assholes-in-Chief Klaus and Knizak, since they're faceless, although they could perhaps be said to represent them. (In fact, at the opening of Futura gallery on Friday, my friend Jeff made the wise statement that Cerny obviously hasn't figured out how to sculpt faces, since almost all his statues -- minus the upside-down St. Wenceslas, which is a copy of the one on Wenceslas Square -- fudge the face. Witness the black babies now permanently crawling up and down the Zizkov TV tower, which all have big air vents where the faces should be.)

Anyway, when you climb up the ladder and stick your head inside the bum, there's a little TV inside showing Klaus (the Czech president) and Knizak (the equally arrogant head of the National Gallery) feeding each other pudding or porridge or some disgusting slop, like two invalids, with the stuff running down their faces, in slow motion to a soundtrack of (get this) "Bohemian Rhapsody."* It's playing very faintly, which means you have to really get your head up inside that sphincter to get the full effect. Inside one bum, Klaus is feeding Knizak, while inside the other they're reversed.

Actually, to really appreciate this sculpture at its finest, you have to do it when Cerny himself is around, as he was Friday, stumbling around like a sot, looking up people's skirts as they ascend the ladder.

I happen to think Cerny is the best contemporary Czech artist -- indeed, perhaps one of my favorite living artists, period. To complain that he's a shameless media whore is completely missing the point. His work is provocative, hilarious, pleasing to the eye, meaningful, and radically egalitarian.

Then we ended up at a gay bar in Smichov and I drank too much on an empty stomach.

To cure that hangover, on Saturday we drank beer at Letna with my soon-to-be colleagues from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival's Festival Daily, where myself and three others are writing the English pages for the next two weeks. Among the anecdotes we (Alex and I) related that night was walking past a buxom blonde on a side street in Old Town last weekend wearing a T-shirt that said "I wish these were brains." I mention this so long after the fact only because Steve from PragueBlog evidently ran into the same chick. Talk about a small town. (Somebody suggested that maybe the girl didn't know what the words meant, which would of course be a cruel trick on the part of whoever gave her the T-shirt.)

Speaking of small towns, here's another funny thing. While I was in the middle of writing this post, I had to trot off to GTS travel service with a big wad of cash. Never mind why. While there I picked up what seems to be the final issue of the Prague Pill. Yes, you heard it hear first! The Pill is going bust, consigned to the same oblivion shared by numerous failed English-language publications in Prague. Unless of course, this turns out not be true, in which you didn’t hear it here at all. (That reminds me of the funny time the old throwaway Think announced the closure of Akropolis, even declaring that its next issue would be dedicated entirely to the legendary Zizkov pub/club. By the time the next issue came out, Akropolis had reopened, exactly the same but with a polished floor and new management.)

Here’s something I have to get off my chest. Standing directly under one of David Cerny’s statues (Klaus or Knizak, I can’t be sure), the following exchange with my friend Jeff took place:
Jeff: “Hot news! The Pill’s going under!” (Or something like that. I know Jeff would never say "hot news.")
Scott: “Thank god!”

Just then we both noticed Pill editor Travis Jeppesen sitting right next to us. There’s no way he didn’t hear the exchange. We both felt really, really bad. Of course I’d wished I’d replied with something a bit more meaningful and less catty, like, “Well you know, they just didn’t have enough respect for writers! Tsk tsk tsk!” But the truth is, I’m not glad at all. The Pill was as close as any of those defunct freebies came to a) being a proper newspaper, b) giving the moribund Prague Post a run for its money and c) and living up to the standard set by the old Prognosis. Marek Tomin in particular was solid, as was the occasional guest writer. (To be sure, they’ve made some editorial judgments that are just plain unforgivable, and that’s coming from somebody’s who’s pretty forgiving -- having tried and failed myself to launch a new magazine here in Prague. Also, ex-Prognosite Vladan Sir came back from his parents’ place in Ceska Lipa a while back with a big old stack of Prognosises, and I was frankly shocked at the quality of the material those kids put out back in the day. So it’s really not even a fair comparison.) Any, I just want to say for the record that I think it’s a damn shame that they couldn’t make it work -- if it’s actually true -- because the Pill almost had something almost good going, for a little while, almost, give or take a few mega-doses of puerilty and unconscionably bad writing.

There was a point to this Hitchensian digression. In the looks-to-be-final issue of the Pill there was a brilliant interview with David Cerny by Marek Tomin. Unfortunately, it‘s not posted online yet, but it's killer. The sub-headline said, “Another interview with David Cerny” even though the only other English-language interview with Cerny I can recall was the one that ran -- accompanied by very similar close-ups of Cerny's goofy million-dollar smile -- in the second issue of last year’s ill-fated glossy Prague Insider, the magazine of which I was the editor for a few moments, an article written by the aforementioned Jeff, the guy who told me about the Pill closing beneath the David Cerny statue next to that guy Travis, an editor of the Pill.

See? Everything comes around.

* CORRECTION: The song playing inside the butt is "We Are the Champions," as Ohrada News reports and Cerny's web site confirms, not "Bohemian Rhapsody." I suppose either would be fitting. (Also, I myself only looked inside one of them.)
Hey, Petr from Daily Czech, first of all thanks for the plug, and hope you can make it to Tulip in the near future. Since Petr doesn't have a comments function on his blog and sort of responds to my comment on the recent anti-sodomy Supreme Court ruling with some questions of his own, I'll post my response here.

Petr asks:

[W]as it the U.S. Supreme Court or the Supreme Court of Texas? Does it mean that all similar laws in the entire country were appealed, or even declared unconstitutional?
Yep, it was the SCOTUS itself (Supreme Court of the Unites States) and yep, that means all anti-sodomy statues across the land are instantly struck down. It's easy to be dismissive of this -- indeed, these laws are rarely enforced, and the decision was rather expected -- but it's important to note the momentousness of this particular decision, and the way it was worded, if only on purely legal grounds. For instance, the Court doesn't generally like to overturn its own decisions; it's a legal doctrine called stare decisis (and no, I don't know enough Latin or Czech etymology if that's stare like the Czech word for "old") that basically says the Court should proceed gradually with changes in interpretation of the law (case law, I think it's called), respecting the precedents set by previous Court decisions and altering them only slightly, if at all. They did no such thing in Lawrence v. Texas (last week's decision), completely trashing the 1986 decision in Bowers v. Georgia, a similar case of cops busting in on two gays guys getting it on. SCOTUS upheld the Georgia law at the time. Last week, they could have struck down the Texas law and still left the basic legal principles set forth in Bowers alone, which is sort of what Justice Sandra Day O'Conner tried to do in her written opinion, but the majority said:

Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.
Ka-boom! Sexual chaos unleashed across the land, instantaneously. My word, what shall we do now that it's legal to commit sodomy? I must say I'm thoroughly confused now that there are no legal guidelines telling me where to hide the sausage.

But seriously, the 1986 Bowers case was one of those cases that was a mainstay of Legal Studies 101 when I was in school, and it's pretty fascinating to see it dealt with so harshly today. This is not, to be fair, a simply question of whether the law makes sense or not. Justice Clarence "Long Dong Silver" Thomas, who voted to uphold the law, calls the law itself "uncommonly silly":

If I were a member of the Texas Legislature, I would vote to repeal it. Punishing someone for expressing his sexual preference through noncommercial consensual conduct with another adult does not appear to be a worthy way to expend valuable law enforcement resources.

Notwithstanding this, I recognize that as a member of this Court I am not empowered to help petitioners [that is, the two guys caught with their pants down] and others similarly situated.
In other words, it might a stupid law, but it should be up to the voters (via the Texas state legislature), not the Court, to strike it down. (Funny how Thomas didn't apply that same logic in Bush v. Gore.)

I don't agree with Thomas, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day to properly explain why. The entire decision and the dissenting views are posted here, and if you have a semester to kill, they're worth studying. If you only have an afternoon, you might start with this interesting exchange going on over at Slate, starting here.

What's perhaps worth noting briefly, however, is that in the majority decision, the Court manages, first, to explain (correctly) that contrary to Bowers and popular belief, prohibitions against homosexuality are by no means "ancient" -- in fact they're relatively recent, as is the very category of "homosexual" itself, which was basically invented in the 19th century. (That's not to say people didn't commit homosexual acts before that; they did, but they weren't labeled and categorized as "homosexuals," just as people who eat broccoli aren't generally grouped together and categorized as "broccoli people.") Second, the Court then goes on to implicitly establish homosexuals as a category of persons worthy of constitutional protection (as opposed to, say, nudists or drug addicts), thus enshrining the category of "homosexual" (permanently?) in U.S. case law. I don't disagree with the Court's decision, but I think there's a good deal of unintended irony in it.

Finally, Petr, I do have some reservations about taking your assertion that "in Louisiana a woman can't drive a car unless her husband walks in front of it, waving a flag" at face value. According to this web site, it's Memphis, Tennessee (same difference, I know) and moreover I'm always cautious about stuff like this, trying to nose out urban myth. I couldn't find any other reference to this particular law on the web, although while searching for it on Snopes.com (the ultimate and indispensible debunker of urban myths) I did come across this rather horrifying link to the affidavit of the boy molested by Michael Jackson, which finally emerged 10 years after it was orginally given.