A tale of two Chinatowns.

Listening to this 99% Invisible episode on San Francisco’s Chinatown last weekend led me to revisit this piece on how New York’s Chinatown has maintained its identity.

The podcast is a fascinating entrée into the peculiar “ethnic pastiche” genre of architecture. Though the New York article says “the Chinatowns of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. … have been reduced to ethnic theme parks,” the interesting flipside is that in San Francisco, being an ethnic theme park was kind of the point.

On yet another flipside/potential ouroboros tip: This book (which has been on my wishlist for years) covers the phenomenon of Chinese mimicry of Western architecture. And, much like fortune cookies, the distinct architectural styles of American Chinatowns are Western.

The web we have to save.

I’ve read a lot of defenses and descriptions of hyperlinks, but this may be the most poetic:

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: they are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage – and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

Part prescient critique, part nostalgic complaint; a little glib and a lot biased – but Hossein Derakhshan’s essay is in the ballpark of righteousness. He benefits from the unique position of having held a measure of power through the ’00s and having no access to the internet at all during Facebook’s empire-building of the last seven years: it allows him to see the present social network platform oligarchy as a whole and strange thing.

Also, though his essay skids off the rails after this section, this bit is totally real – emphasis mine:

Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex and secretive algorithms.

Welcome to 2016 everyone.

Start with a haiku.

As I am now really teaching people how to (learn how to) design, I thought to go back to a conversation I had with Carlos last year when he shared a link to the The Manifesto Project on my Facebook timeline. What follows, I realize, has held as my own design manifesto of sorts for at least the last 18 months:

I’m finding more often that design is less a matter of visual style and more about paying attention. Most of the time, the more details that show the decision of a designer to focus the user of an object on the purpose(s) of that object, the better the object serves its user, and therefore, the better the design. Therefore, I’ve been less likely to recommend reading the writings of other designers, lest novices confuse that designer’s aesthetics with their processes.

Where I would start, with a literate audience, is poetry. Start with a haiku. This is the smallest possible object to ‘design,’ and everybody has the tools. Then ask: Why this word and not that word? Why this inflection and not that one?

Get a young designer to think this way, then have them use their phone, their car, their shoes. Successfully honing a design sensibility, in my judgment, is getting that person to look at an object and think, Why this material and not that one? Why this color and not that one? Why this position 35 cm away and not that position 40 cm away? And so on, throughout every syllable of their experience.

Tender is the chicken.

This may not be the critical/nostalgic text on chicken tenders we need, but it’s the one we deserve.

Like a diatribe on the Happy Meal extracted from True Detective, it’s not hard to imagine some of Helen Rosner’s passages drawled by a latter-day Matthew McConaughey:

Perfection is a precarious state. It occupies a narrow peak, the very pinnacle of the mountain. By its very nature, perfection leaves no room for wildness or risk. Perfection is passive, it’s static, it verges on bland. It’s a circle. A cloudless sky. An unmarked page. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s glorious, and it usually comes with fries.

It’s true that ribeyes and oysters and even pizza and tacos share a soothing simplicity, but nothing is more nothing than a chicken tender.

Food means more than it used to—what we do with it means more. Picking this restaurant or that bunch of carrots isn’t just a decision of interest or appetite; it’s telling a story, it’s choosing a tribe.

I am not ashamed to say that I indulge in chicken tenders, though I disagree with Rosner’s dismissal of panko as a breading ingredient and her disdain for dipping sauces. At home, I dredge my chicken in a mix of flour and panko, and I serve them topped with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and a dipping sauce of equal parts Huy Fong sriracha sauce and Heinz ketchup. I’ll often eat them with white rice but find their ideal complement in a scoop of Hawaiian mac salad or a homemade Cæsar salad. It’s all very fancy, to be sure.

My recipe aside, the essay itself is sublime. Much like a plate of chicken tenders, I personally find it pretty satisfying (fully aware that others don’t), but I’m never quite sure if it’s meant to be taken totally seriously. The tone of its prose and its publication in Guernica lend the dish a heretofore unknown gravity, though it’s not unearned: perhaps the most confounding assertion in the piece is that chicken tenders only reached ubiquity in the 1990s. The very idea of breaded-and-fried chicken tenderloins seems so elemental to my palette that it astounds me to think that Auguste Escoffier’s codification of mother sauces predates it by at least three generations.

At a wedding Christina and I attended last year, as we dined on what we now recognize as the standard “wedding meal” – a mixed green salad, a pretty-if-unsatisfying course of protein, and a buckshot-patterned buffet of desserts (ordered by stationery several months in advance) – one of the children at the next table was served a plate of chicken tenders with a pile of fries. Rosner knows exactly how we felt in that moment:

Their ubiquity on kids’ menus isn’t a mark against their perfection, but rather proof of it: the kids’ menu is where all perfect foods live. Pizza, hot dogs, spaghetti. But king of all perfect foods is the chicken tender.

Ubiquitous yellow band.

ESUOH ELFFAW

Had I never lived in the Mid-Atlantic, I would’ve never developed a proper appreciation for Waffle House.

While I’ve eaten there several times – the last time between Christina’s shift and mine behind the wheel of a rented cargo truck on the morning we moved her stuff from Virginia to New York – I certainly don’t carry a torch for their food.

Instead, I find myself pretty consistently in awe of other parts of their business model. Their plate marking system is a remarkably economic form of workflow management. The Waffle House index is a real FEMA scale for evaluating the severity of damage from a natural disaster.

And today, I picked up this piece in the Atlantic CityLab on their iconic architecture, interior design, and typography – and how a new location on Canal Street in New Orleans is slated to diverge from it by replacing the “ubiquitous yellow band” with “a ‘bistro courtyard’ encircled by a wrought-iron fence,” “stucco and brownish brick on the outside, and a gate next to the parking lot.”

Michael Bierut’s riffs on the design of public transit logos (also a great read) also apply to my qualms about Waffle House’s new visual direction:

I would say that consistency is more important than cleverness. Consistency is actually really hard to achieve. Cleverness is a cheap commodity.

And he continues:

You get distinctiveness by doing anything. Then if you wanted to make it memorable and appropriate, making that point of distinction plausibly mean something is the next step.

That distinction, in the case of Waffle House, probably has a lot to do with this (from this Journal article):

The Waffle House, which spends almost nothing on advertising, has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate.

Though I have not been affected by natural disasters these last ten years, those eleven yellow tiles hovering in the air at the turnpike’s edge have come to mean a lot to me – and it would seem to other people too. It meant (among other things) that on a Saturday morning as I’d had a two-hour nap and Christina’s alertness was fading, we knew where we could stop for a cheap, hot breakfast – two more hours till we arrived in the future.

Photo credit: “ESOUH ELFFAW” by Christina.

Through being cool.

So I came across the Spotify “Coolness Spiral of Death” dataviz last week and thought that it was clever and well-conceived, but I didn’t pay much attention otherwise. Then I queued up Rdio, half-heartedly thumbed through their recommendations, and settled into the new Blur album. While I’m really enjoying it – “Ong Ong” is a fun single with a kind of Vampire Weekend ragged playfulness about it – I’m also basically admitting that Spotify’s hypothesis is true.

From the blog post:

Two factors drive this transition away from popular music.

First, listeners discover less-familiar music genres that they didn’t hear on FM radio as early teens, from artists with a lower popularity rank. Second, listeners are returning to the music that was popular when they were coming of age — but which has since phased out of popularity.

I agree with both of these points, especially vis-a-vis my undying fondness for Britpop.

Also in there somewhere: the words taste freeze to describe the phenomenon, which sounds delicious.

I have to wonder: would 21-year-old me have been into The Magic Whip as much as I was 13 or even Think Tank? Would their newest album have have appealed to me in college, or have Blur aged as much as I have – do musicians and artists also calcify as they get older and have children, therefore always predisposed to producing new material in lockstep with the tastes of their original fans?

Who knows. Anyway, I’ve also been coming back to Oasis recently, specifically the mournful “I’m Outta Time” – it came on the house Sonos while Josh was in town and when he started mouthing the chorus, I was surprised that he knew the song too. We agreed it was by far the best song on a mixed bag of an album – and easily their best song of the 21st century.

Given my tastes, who’s to say I ever was in the center of the so-called coolness death spiral, even in my youth. (At that time, I also admired people whose musical tastes went farther afield than mine.) It’s entirely possible I’m closer to the center now – pop and rap are now parts of my musical diet in a way they weren’t in my early twenties. But it’s true I’ve gotten more sure in my knowledge of what I’ll enjoy.

Another way to look at it: I know what I like, and I know my safe harbors more than I ever did before. And those aren’t bad things, per se. Besides, at my minimum weight and maximum hairline, being cool is quite thoroughly through with me.

Dennis the Menace.

I had a dream where I was talking to someone about my theory that Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace is really Dennis from the future who lives next door and endures the young boy’s hijinx because he must ultimately serve as his/their protector.

Elevator pitch: It’s Terminator meets Family Circus, but slapstick.

Car alarm.

If you wish to protect your car from theft, I suggest you could do better than to equip it with an alarm that inspires in your neighbors a desire for your car and its infernal refrain to be vanquished forever.

Plaid-collar caste.

Two articles I read today have me thinking about my social status and the cost of my daily conveniences:

“I was an undercover Uber driver” in the Philadelphia CityPaper is one of the more humane descriptions of the true cost of a $5 livery ride. Emily Guendelsberger’s prose is accessible and the charts are legible. Particularly good though is her use of the word caste here: it affects both self-awareness and reinforces her findings regarding UberX’s broad societal effects.

And then there’s this article, also anecdotal but even more scathing. It’s more nakedly concerned with race as a factor in gentrification and income inequality. The money quote, screencapped and highlighted all over Twitter, is worth dropping in its entirety here:

We just did a place on Nostrand Avenue. People are not even there yet. We put in $600,000 and everyone was laughing at us. “It’s crazy, you’re over there. A building for yuppies, white people? It’s not going to work.” The building was full of tenants — $1,300, $1,400 tenants. We paid every tenant the average of twelve, thirteen thousand dollars to leave. I actually went to meet them — lawyers are not going to help you. And we got them out of the building and now we have tenants paying $2,700, $2,800, and they’re all white. So this is what we do.

Emphasis mine: it’s worth teasing out who, to this speaker – the young Hasidic hustler – are people?

One of the many tweets linking to this article contained my first observed instance of the phrase plaid-collar migration, which is a fine, fine description of young, rich millennials earning a mint in the slab-desked open offices of “digital product development” in this city.

As I’ve grown more affluent and ascended into the plaid-collar caste, I’m finding myself more often on the bad side of these things, taking Uber rides to my apartment in a gentrifying slice of uptown Manhattan. I’m not the one doing harm per se but am clearly benefiting from harm visited upon others. It is an uncomfortable position, and I don’t know how just yet to move from it.