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.

Ubiquitous yellow band.


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.

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.

Through materials to find those for which we have the closest affinity.

Michael Bierut’s remembrance for Massimo Vignelli begins:

I learned how to design at design school. But I learned how to be a designer from Massimo Vignelli.

How to be a designer: what a massive assignation.

As Vignelli tributes (and links to his New York City subway map) clustered in my inbox this week, I’ve thought a lot about how I learned how to be a designer. I sometimes think I know how to be a designer because, like Bierut, I developed a taste for raw meat.

And as I reflect, I’m pretty sure I arrived at my present professional modus operandi through a non-repeatable formula of haphazardly undertaken coursework, a scarce bit of mentorship, and quite a lot of luck in choosing the things I’ve done repeatedly. Among the activities I’d consider directly responsible for my success, I’d include coding, Photoshop, and a lot of time articulating my (often un)solicited opinions about design and typography. Indirectly, I’m pretty sure my hobbies of cooking, looking at urban spaces, and finding dress shirts that fit led me to some of the same conclusions as Bierut about taste and the recognition of my own blind spots.

However much I consciously did not count Vignelli as a design influence (or a personal mentor), I have to acknowledge his stature in the field and credit him for forcing me as a young designer to respond and re-respond to his six-typeface standard. While I still disagree with such an arbitrary limit, my response has evolved over the last 10 years: whereas I was once appalled by its restrictiveness, I am now more appreciative of what it represents as a manifestation of a set of principles.

My hobbies are not unique among professionals in my field. I’d like to think they’ve helped me thrive in my field because of my approach to them, one informed by the six-typeface standard: I’ve learned to prioritize competence over novelty.

Vignelli's six typefaces.

As for Vignelli’s principles: I’d recommend The Vignelli Canon to young designers, outsiders, and humans at-large. It’s written and designed with lots of heart (it’s also a quick read, available as a free PDF).

Its conclusion is also a fitting piece of text to quote this week. Printed on the last page of the book and set in Century Expanded, it feels like a poem:

Throughout our creative lives we have sifted
through everything to select what we thought best.
We sifted through materials to find those for which
we have the closest affinity. We sifted through
colors, textures, typefaces, images, and gradually
we built a vocabulary of materials and experiences
that enable us to express our solutions to given
problems – our interpretations of reality.
It is imperative to develop your own vocabulary of
your own language – a language that attempts to
be as objective as possible, knowing very well that
even objectivity is subjective.
I love systems and despise happenstance.
I love ambiguity because, for me, ambiguity means
plurality of meanings. I love contradiction
because it keeps things moving, preventing them
from assuming a frozen meaning, or becoming a
monument to immobility.
As much as I love things in flux, I love them
within a frame of reference – a consistent
reassurance that at least and at last I am the one
responsible for every detail.

And that is why I love Design.

To let our city die by degrees.

After visiting the Rizzoli Bookstore on its last day of operation to end a week where I’ve read Dustin Curtis on Facebook’s design and Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem, I’m seeing a thread through these three stories about how people in a laissez-faire market make decisions that prioritize profit over aestheics and thinking about what that means in the context of an urban or technological ecosystem.

Though it is the retail presence of an Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli in Midtown arguably qualifies as a neighborhood gem (I suppose its closest analog would be Taschen’s Beverly Hills outpost), but it is a representative of a business that is dying in New York – bookstores – in favor of something that I perceive to be a blight – weak-modernist condominium towers for the ultra-rich.

Facebook’s new News Feed design is certainly something that can’t count me as an admirer. Between the current view and the screenshot Curtis used to illustrate his essay, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. In the same thread of people exercising their will and aesthetics, I found myself seeing the play between Curtis’ essay and Julie Zhou’s “user-focused” response analogous to Jon Wiley’s exegesis on the Google redesign of 2011 and Doug Bowman’s 2009 farewell to the same company.

And Wild Ones is a fantastic read: Mooallem (so far) hasn’t presented a particular opinion as far as which kind of conservation strategy is best (or even declared explicitly that conservation of endangered species is right), but he has – with a gracious wit – provided a platform for arguments about conservation and human intervention in ecosystems that I find somewhat salient as I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google design websites and how real estate developers like Vornado and LeFrak choose to exercise their will in urban environments.

Is it right that Rizzoli in midtown is closing – not because it’s an insolvent business but because Vornado and LeFrak wish to destroy the older (and, to my eyes, lovelier) edifice and replace it with crash pads for ultra-rich jetsetters? I personally find glass towers in the ilk of One57 gauche, and while I’m not its target audience by any stretch, I am a stakeholder in its success or failure insofar as I am a resident of the same ecosystem.

A theme that runs through Wild Ones is that conservation of one species is never really just about that species but the balance between where it lives, what it eats and what eats it and how people just get mixed up in all of that. In much the same way, my feelings about Rizzoli aren’t really about the bookstore or even about bookstores in general. They’re about the aesthetics of economic predators and shifting baselines for future generations, who I fear we will raise in a cornice-free future without bookstores and the people who care about them.

And that’s a future that will come into being because I believe that when a person prioritizes profit over aesthetics, they subtly shift the baseline of aesthetics for future generations. What degree of visual noise do we accept now in the things we use everyday, whether they’re websites or city streets? How about the generations that follow? Will our grandchildren aspire to design arched-tile ceilings like Guastavino or endow everyday brick with ornaments of brass and terra cotta like Sullivan if they never knew that these places, these features, these possibilities existed?

(Above: one of my favorite short films/presentations on the subject, Lost Buildings – this time in Chicago, with Ira Glass narrating and Chris Ware illustrating.)

I don’t want to know the answers to those questions, nor do I actually want to define the specific boundaries of my aesthetic pluralism or articulate my thoughts on revenue-driven real estate development and A/B-tested software design. But I do want to expand a bit on what Rizzoli’s closure in Midtown actually means to me.

Rizzoli is not a living organism or an altruistic organization, and it’s not even closing up for good (a cashier told me they’re considering reopening near the Flatiron later this year). But it exists in the urban ecosystem of Midtown, and that ecosystem is one that feels more and more hostile to species of people who value literature and art and being in buildings with nice Beaux-Arts architectural features (in short, people like me). It’s one less neighborhood where these species can thrive, in a city that has been getting more obviously inhospitable toward that industry – and by extension, that kind of person – in the past few years.

And just as disappearing plant species and food resources and the introduction of highways and airports can be cataclysmic events for animals in the wild, I believe that prioritizing one land use over another (ahem, parking) can be detrimental to the overall value of an urban setting. For instance, while I’m not a hardcore library user or bookstore patron, I value those people as my colleagues and weak ties. And seeing Rizzoli close – and more pointedly, for the reason it closed – means that the pain of losing that species is not just edging closer into being but that it’s being willfully accelerated for selfish reasons.

Obviously, software, architecture, real estate, booksellers, and animals are very different beasts. But the ways people treat them and interpret their own relationship to them have a clear parallel to me. They are all such pervasive aspects of a person’s experience of life that when one aspect of it is altered, it arguably alters the whole experience.

And I’d advise: if you can help it, don’t prey on what you can’t resurrect. There are greater consequences to this than you’ve anticipated.

The cronut at room temperature.

Three articles I read this week closely represent each an end of the tripole of my preferred brand of food writing: literary in tone, obsessive about material details, concerned with packaging and its relationship to social experience and individual perception, and occasionally referencing dead Brits in a way that portends doom for humanity.

The Art of Our Necessities: A Cronut Story in The Paris Review glimpses the phenomenon of the cronut through a kind of literary anthropology, using a framework of observations from an early morning in SoHo to write about food fads and what compels people to participate in them, replete with sensual details like the noise of “cardboard hitting the ground,” with references to King Lear, Sex and the City, and contemporary art.

How 500 Years Of Weird Condiment History Designed The Heinz Ketchup Bottle in Fast Company is (despite its awful linkbait-y headline) a thoughtful if digressive digest on the history of tomato ketchup and how contemporary (and western) expectations of this condiment evolved, particularly through the intervention of the Heinz company. Ketchup’s background as a kind of Chinese fish sauce makes the banana ketchup that so many non-Filipinos have found exotic (and so many people with functional retinal cones have found unnaturally red) seem somewhat apropos in a longer chronological context. Also: it’s a non-Newtonian fluid! Ketchup parties!

Take this quote on the cronut (emphasis mine):

There’s a thrill to such a futile enterprise, especially something so famously futile and so crassly specific to this day, age, and city. Other food fads will emerge—as the summer wanes, the ramen burger and doughnut ice cream sandwiches already sport long queues. And then, the moment passes. Other food hybrids, like bagel bites and pigs in a blanket, were probably once wondrous, too. Cronuts may too find their place in the freezer aisle in a few years, but for now, those who wait for hours or pay a laughable amount of money to eat them do it in a state of utter giddiness.

And compare it with this quote on ketchup:

A bottle of Heinz isn’t just a container of ketchup. It’s a design classic because of everything besides the ketchup it manages to bottle up: not just the history of a condiment or an object lesson in non-Newtonian physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent.

I re-read Arcadia a couple weeks ago (for perhaps the dozenth time) and these two articles brought this quote to mind rather quickly:

Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we’re all going to end up at room temperature.

And while Nikkitha Bakshani’s text on cronuts spells out a fate for them not dissimilar from pigs in a blanket* – packaged beveled-text and cartoon characters suburban shoppers can recognize from TV commercials – this outcome is hardly certain.

In the Washington Post’s profile of Goya foods, a Goya executive told a “cautionary tale” about General Mills’ Progresso soup brand that seems salient in the context of the fate of cronuts and other spectacular limited-edition things on the verge of either going supernova or earning a GIF in a Buzzfeed memorial on the other side of the shark:

Progresso in its day, the 1950s and 1960s, was the Goya of Italian food. And now what is Progresso? It’s a soup company. … They were lulled into believing “yes, go through the major chains, don’t have a single focus, we’ll take these items only.” For two or three years, sales were booming, and after that, they started to decline. Then it became a question of the chain saying, “We don’t need all these items, let’s get rid of them.” You lose your authenticity. It becomes, “Well, we don’t really need you anymore, there’s all these other lines. You’re not that special. You’ve lost your reason for being.”

While the cronut may yet ascend to commonplace novelty or be a footnote to the cupcake swell of the mid-to-late ’00s, the story of Progresso/Goya offers a third way: growth through a market niche, especially those niches in new multitudes of hybrid spaces. Goya (and Huy Fong, for another) exploits burgeoning pockets of American hybridity expertly (even if in the latter case, inadvertently), and while its niche springs from ethnic hybridity, the appeal of Ansel’s cronut is arguably rooted in the economic hybridity inherent in high-low aesthetics, dosed with a borderline-fetishistic scarcity (200 per day, 2 per person, 1 flavor per month) relative to demand.

Further, while Bakshani posits “the pulsing question behind Dominique Ansel’s invention is not How did he think of that? It’s Why didn’t anybody else?,” I’d argue that there was probably an economic or technological barrier that Ansel recently felled, perhaps a way of treating the viennoiserie or tweaking known techniques of frying doughnuts.

And the fate for these kinds of rare ideas is almost always diffusion, but there is a difference between the diffusion of an idea – you take croissant dough! but you fry it like a doughnut! – or the diffusion of an actual product: The Cronut™ (it is actually trademarked) with all its inherent supply-chain economy/environment-upending side effects, clean factories, and beautiful packaging, stacked in palettes in Costco freezers, an aisle over from the Heinz tomato ketchup and Goya black beans, somehow no longer special. Perhaps someone decades from now will pass along a story to their colleagues about the ritual that defined the genesis of the cronut in our present day and its long and winding path to ubiquity, perhaps after they have polished off two at an office birthday party, where a lukewarm half-dozen remain on a tray dotted with sticky crumbs on a countertop in an unloved office-park kitchenette.

And with regards to Arcadia: it’s all trivial – cronuts, ketchup, canned goods, 20th-century British drama. It’s what we line up at daybreak for that makes us matter.

*Pandas in a blanket

A variation (dare I say innovation?) on a freezer-section classic developed by Christina and me; this has become our go-to for potlucks. We use the pre-made crescent roll pastry that’s available near the dairy section of most supermarkets but swap out American-style cocktail wieners or hot dogs with Chinese sausage. Dot the inside of the pastry with a sauce we like to call “Communist Grandma” (the art direction explains this). Serve with sriracha ketchup – a sauce of equal parts Huy Fong Sriracha and tomato ketchup – Heinz original or whatever you have on hand.

Before and after.

We watched a matinee of Before Midnight yesterday, and after dinner (at Maysville: Christina ordered the trout, which was superior to my duck breast entree; we shared the grits and scallops and I had a hound dog – bourbon, grapefruit, honey, mint, and lime – which is really a fantastic and (to my palette) innovative concoction), while Christina packed for a trip to California, we re-watched Before Sunset and Before Sunrise (in that order, and finishing at precisely 11:59 pm yesterday). It really is the most unlikely and satisfying trilogy of movies, and I must confess that I found myself most engrossed in and entertained by the newest installment.

Perhaps it has to do with the present stage of my life – whereas Sunrise and Sunset were about meeting and re-meeting, Midnight is set firmly mid-course in a relationship that is top-heavy in origin story. Whereas Sunrise finds Jesse and Celine short on money with time to kill (pay attention to how they talk of hotels and red wine between the first and third installments), Midnight, set 18 years hence, finds them in material comfort but straining to find time for themselves – also more akin to my present situation.

Over the course of the series, each film has made less of its placeSunrise was as much about the relationship between these two characters as it was about them being in Vienna, a place they only understood through a guide book. There are chance meetings with a gypsy, a begging poet, and the sound of a harpsichord (oh, that harpsichord) that haunts a street deserted at dawn.

Sunset, set in Celine’s hometown of Paris, replaces the tension that comes with a language barrier and a barely superficial understanding of a place with that of a couple unsure of what their relationship actually is and what each of them wants it to be. Midnight, set ostensibly in the southern Peloponnese, is also structured around the same long takes of walks and car rides overstuffed with extemporaneous bullshit – punctuated with moments of ‘what is our relationship?’ – that made the first two installments feel alive, but with a kind of this-could-take-place-anywhere that would be to its detriment were the central relationship not so compelling after watching it unfold on celluloid for five or six hours.

The quote that clawed its way into my brain to crystallize how I’ve felt about the difference between Midnight and Sunrise/Sunset is from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, of all things: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

Richard Linklater (and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), by following only one pair of characters in all three movies (instead of making a trilogy connected only thematically by being about stages of romantic relationships in general) into parenthood and intermittent intimacy – however intentionally or inadvertently – remind their now 18-years-older audience that despite the occasional spat between their long-time lovers, they too may have once been romantic enough to take a fling in a city they didn’t know.

(Or, for the uninitiated youth introduced to the series: all romances, however starry-eyed their origin, are earth-bound by these arguments and evaluations if they persist long enough.)

What struck me most after watching all three in the span of twelve hours is how little I actually remembered of the factual events and their order in the first two films. (If you too watch all three movies in one day, in addition to the aforementioned meaning of red wine, pay attention to how Jesse and Celine speak of monks and monasteries, of time machines, and how pretentious and kinda-meta Jesse’s ideas are for TV shows and books.)

But perhaps that is no small reason this trilogy resonates with me more now than when I first saw Sunrise and Sunset in succession eight years ago: in them, as in my own experience, a few relatively small moments tend to stand in my memory for the entire experience of a relationship. And as those moments collapse into smaller and smaller percentages of that relationship, it can become more challenging to remember how exciting, inspiring, awful, boring, or inane the origins are of that relationship. And as I’ve become older, distant, affluent, and hurried, I’ve found this challenge among the most difficult to meet in my life.

And so. As far as the movies are concerned, I want to believe this series can continue for a few more decades, and not just because I want to believe that this fictional couple can see each other through the uncertainties that attend their early 40s: the movies’ craft (particularly of Sunset) is so honed and illuminating. The principal actors are so subsumed in their roles that a seemingly plausible retcon is that Jesse and Celine have really been actors/filmmakers the whole time and their work includes Training Day and 2 Days in Paris, respectively. The movies, taken as a whole serialized work, are so good that they inspire – and merit – this level of introspection. I’d like to believe that if a movie-going public can support 20-odd Bond movies and a Fast and Furious franchise, there’s room for After Breakfast and beyond.

But I can also see, within these movies’ universe, Midnight as its endpoint. Not all relationships end like fairy tales, though fairy tales as I’ve known them usually define the start – and Sunrise and Sunset were essentially two halves of a modern fairy tale.

And at this point in my life, living every day at maximum hair and minimum weight, fairy tales are far less inspiring than stories of two people who know each other too well and meet an even greater challenge than stopping at the ruins to re-imagine what once stood there: to see each other not as aged externalizations of fond memories but to address each other as people who fear there will be no fond memories beyond those that defined them too long ago.

The Chesapeake at sunrise.

The Chesapeake at sunrise, from Northeast Regional 180.

This seems at once the wrong time and the best time in my life to start reading The Architecture of Happiness (or any other de Botton for that matter). Its central concern with the effects of architecture on emotional well-being is one I align with completely, and with my usual sentimental nature, it should surprise none of my friends that I feel a sense of loss and even a twinge of regret as the contents of my apartment are boxed and neatly stacked in the corners, awaiting limbo in a New York warehouse.

And as my Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings have been spent on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (reminiscent of my 2005 eastern seaboard sandwich odyssey – does anyone else remember those days?), it seems the wrong time and the best time to watch a movie like Up in the Air, with its fetishization of packing a carry-on suitcase but equivocating vindication of its protagonist’s nomadic (and unbound) lifestyle. I admire the former as I’ve optimized my own laundry routine to the point that the largest items in my backpack (my only bag on this New York-bound train) are my computer and my water bottle.

The latter, however, is getting a little long in the tooth (to say nothing of my Amex statement). While I have aspired in the past to a kind of rootlessness – maybe even that kind of mileage-accruing white-collar rootlessness – I am now reaping my lack of commitment to it. It’s not simply that I’m burdened with stuff, but I feel like I got the wrong stuff. Gym shoes should fold and flatten, portable hard drives should be bus-powered, soap carriers should aerate and collapse, fabrics should resist odors, towels should dry as quickly as they absorb – I didn’t pay attention to these details before. These things were in my life to furnish an apartment, not facilitate a multi-city existence where I’ll never be sure what odors await me at the next room I’ll lay my head.

(My pillow-top queen mattress, on the other hand – I don’t regret that purchase at all.)

The balance, it seems, is in the argument for “less, but better” stuff (there’s this salient point too) – and better in the sense that it speaks to the life you want. That said, I still need to reconcile my ambitions to the rucksack and library (and my Kindle, though I love it, is not the solution).

This week: after a few weeks in uncertain guest rooms, I booked a hotel in Park Slope for a couple nights and ordered a quick-dry towel. I also got a parking permit for the moving truck yesterday – they’ll be emptying my apartment Sunday morning.

Apropos nothing, anybody out there need size 31 pants? A TV cabinet? Twenty back issues of Communication Arts?

And perhaps out of a lack of contentment with my current existential/architectural crisis, perhaps I’ll read another de Botton book next.

Wash and fold.

Four weeks in, and I’ve figured out a useful trick to packing light for weekdays in New York: a wash-and-fold near the office where I can drop off my laundry before the weekend and pick it up at the start of the week.

It really isn’t so much a trick as an extravagance, but with any new milieu are born new justifications for life’s luxuries. Things that seemed frivolities in a previous routine become imminently desirable: wash-and-fold laundry service, a same-day train ticket, passport wallet, a 4G iPad, a pair of black pebbled leather shoes with storm-welted Dainite soles.

They may be tricks, or maybe just material possessions that address severed connections in my personal infrastructure. The pre-sleep path between water pitcher and toothbrush I knew as a linoleum-parquet-tile-rug textural odyssey in a dozen unlit steps shifts every week. Every morning shower in a shared bathroom is bracketed with moments of being on – and there’re more than those two moments if I forget my shampoo in my toiletry bag or my towel on the back of the door.

Maybe this should’ve occurred to me sooner, but I’d never realized (or admitted?) that these paths and even the smell of my own towel as I dried off my face were ballasts of a kind. Still, I don’t suppose that justifies the sheer quantity of dress shirts I own.

While this lifestyle of packing light and keeping no fixed address requires an unusually heavy amount of thinking, the price of having lots of stuff is becoming apparent. Christina spent the weekend clearing bookshelves; I spent an hour today in conversation with a pair of moving companies to discern the price of leveraging their infrastructure for my northward leap. In sum, I’ll likely spend more than a month’s rent (not just my share but the entire check) to store the contents of my E Street apartment and have them unloaded them at a time and location to-be-determined.

But that’s the price I’ll pay at the end of the month. In the meantime, it’s a $10 wash-and-fold bill that allows me to lighten my everyday carry to a duffel and a backpack, three days at a time in New York. This week, as last week, I’ll be sleeping in a guestroom on Grand and Lafayette in Clinton Hill; next week, I’ll be in Park Slope.

I’ve grappled with the definition of ‘home’ for most of my life. For now, I’m content to call it the place where I know exactly what my towel smells like and where it’ll be hanging.

Stanton & Ludlow.

Stanton & Ludlow, olives & wine.

My host left a bottle of wine on the dining room table with a note to help myself to a glass. I did, and with the tub of olives I claimed from the leftovers of the LAMP party, I sat straight-backed on the foot of the bed facing the window and pulled out my computer. Olives and wine and StreetEasy and NYBits and the noise of the apocalypse and glass bottles filled the air.

Week one in New York is behind me (week two at the new job), and I’m on the Northeast Regional back down to DC. There’ll be perhaps a dozen trips like this by the time I’m done, scores of nights and early mornings spent intuiting apartment floor plans from lousy realtors’ websites by the time I sleep in my own bed in New York City.

Still, I’m heartened. It’s taken only a week of supportive colleagues and a sane client to get most of my confidence back. Wednesday was unintentionally eat-shellfish-and-drink-beer-at-bars-of-establishments-with-punched-tin-ceilings day – mussels at Resto in Murray Hill for lunch, oysters and beer at Upstate in the East Village for dinner. Resto had quenched my craving for Belgian food one weekend a few years ago and I was happy to return to find it still serving a lovely approximation of the bistro fare I’d found so delightful in Brussels.

Upstate, however, particularly impressed me – the proprietor’s care and love of the food (and the pleasure diners take from it) is evident. I swapped names (and cards) with regulars and the barkeep, shared samples and observed the regulars’ ritual of rating the different oysters. I ordered a few Saranac white IPAs, had the last slice of the complimentary whiskey cake in the house. The barkeep endeavored to keep my tiny water glass filled throughout the night (and alternately kept a second tiny glass filled with varying samples from their taps).

At Behavior, as I arrived into a meeting with the creative director early, I caught the end of a discussion about a project the firm is pursuing for a center for Philippine art and scholarship. Naturally intrigued, I followed up about it during lunch today – it’s still in a nebulous place, but the pedigree seems sufficiently prestigious to make it coalesce into a real, bright and shining star.

Apropos nothing, as I pass Trenton, I love love love all weird cocksure urban sloganeering, especially done up in fantastic neon and steel on a goddamn bridge – I hold that it engenders civic pride by binding the town’s diaspora to a memorable epigram. I do imagine across the world, Trenton(-ian?-ite?) strangers meeting for the first time utter what Trenton makes, the world takes as a kind of shibboleth before then arguing jovially about who’ll get the first round of Bud Lights and comparing who they knew from when they were in high school.

So where was I, about strangers in bars? Information architect is one poncy job title. I seem to be getting a lot of mileage about my cooking by recipe vs. technique metaphor. And about the state of Filipino food in America – made for our parents’ generation, chafing dishes of old hits. The long-asked question about how to plate dinuguan I now realize is deprecated by a decade of haute peasant culture/high-low mashups/jeans and high heels, replaced by the question of wine pairing and course order. The creative director is partial to Purple Yam in Sunset Park. Kuma Inn is the most cleverly named but seems to have the least enthusiastic supporters. At Upstate, they raved about Maharlika down the street. I’m going to try the hell out of all of them.

In time – and there’ll be lots of time. I ate well last week – hardly news. For whatever reason, I feel in my element eating at bars. One of the regulars at Upstate was discussing with the proprietor her plan to prepare the cakes for Saturday service – a chamomile panna cotta and a flourless chocolate – as another implored me to return.

I’m going to be in DC for dinner on Saturday – after a day of cherry blossoms and Moomin and The City Dark – but I’m looking forward to returning.

Moving to New York.

Washington, DC is the first place I’ve ever chosen to live. New York will be the second.

I have accepted a job with Behavior, and it starts almost immediately.

It’s sinking in that after seven years of calling DC home, my days here are numbered and few. I resigned yesterday, left a message with my landlord about terminating my lease.

DC: I still love you very much, hate to go, and hope we can still be friends. It’s a place with flaws, to be sure, and New York is by no means utopia. But it’s far and away the most exciting American city today, among the finest cities ever in the world, and I have an opportunity to, frankly, make it there.

So now: to find a new apartment. To find a place to lay my head for a few weeks while I search for a new apartment. To pack up my Capitol Hill jewelbox of an apartment into a pair of storage containers, and to host one last brunch – this will probably happen on an early April weekend, after the intensive scope phase of my new project is done but before the serious packing starts. Come for the pepper bacon, leave with a throw pillow.

While Christina’s here, I imagine I’ll be arriving on the Northeast Regional at Union Station something like every other Friday night. I’ll hardly be a stranger, but on the Sunday nights that follow, I’ll be leaving for my new home – I’m angling for one with a second bedroom or a den.

What I wrote when I left LA that first day of summer bears repeating: So many people I know have earned their thanks, and so many people I know deserve apologies. To the former, stay dear and true and wonderful and at my home when you come to visit. To the latter, take my diligent angels—leave my better demons be.

And I mean it about that last brunch. Stay tuned.

Every letter counts.

The spellcheck on my BlackBerry recognizes none of these words.
2011 June 2, 8:46 pm

As my live-tweeting of last week’s National Spelling Bee finals attests, my misspellings outnumbered my correct guesses by a factor of five, which led me to the realization that I am not a good speller. I am merely adept at avoiding typos.

I don’t doubt now that my childhood prowess as a speller contributed to my present investment in design, typography in particular. Christina observed that modern spelling prowess is a byproduct of a sophisticated pattern-recognition regime: the definition, language of origin, and part of speech hint at each word’s constituent roots, prefixes, suffixes, and conjugations. More precisely, having believed from a young age that every letter counts gave me a strong foundation for a career in careful consideration of the glyphs themselves (and spaces between them).

Among the 13 words I spelled correctly were six of the nine food words: cioppino, andouille, profiterole, teppanyaki, ingberlach, and orgeat. My proficiency here, I realized, is due less to patterns I recognize than actual omnivorousness: I have encountered five of these six spelled out on menus, on my grocery receipts, on plates placed before me, and in dishes I’ve served others. Cioppino, like Italian sinigang. Andouille sausage with brunch at the L.A. farmer’s market. Profiteroles, like deep-fried sugar-powdered zeppelins. Teppanyaki, when I first tried kobe beef. Orgeat, an almond flavoring, was one my coworkers at Third Street Coffee didn’t know how to pronounce, one that no one ever ordered, but it was there whenever I emptied, cleaned, and refilled the syrup cabinet. It was happenstance – not methodical curiosity – that helped me spell 13 of the most befuddling English words that challenged spellers that night.

Which leads me back to the (foregone?) conclusion that the greatest preparation for something like the National Spelling Bee, a design career, and lots of other challenges and ambitions is a kind of applied omnivorousness: the ability to synthesize all the info-plankton we’re sucking through the baleen of our formal educations, Google Reader, and just living in the world into exacting compositions of ambergris, one letter at a time.

My personal challenge has not been finding plankton; it’s been strengthening my baleen filter. Preparing for spelling bees by organizing chunks of letters into languages of origin and parts of speech, to be summoned at a moment’s notice, is good exercise.

Next is getting over my fear of the bell.

Related: NPR’s preview of the 2011 Associated Press food guidelines (via Christina).

A Jeopardy drinking game.

(via Christina)

1. Pick a player (last night, it was Sara, since we were at her home).
2. Drink once every time they get a question right.
3. Drink twice every time they get a question wrong.
4. Waterfall when she gets a Daily Double. Start at the Daily Double sound effect, end when Alex deems the answer correct or incorrect.

Optional rules:
5. Having Dan’s knowledge of the categories, we also established a rule that we should drink once every time anyone said the word “Oprah.” Substitute with any word chosen before the show.
6. There is no number 6.
7. I wish I’d thought of this last night: drink every time someone answers with a person’s full name instead of last name only.

I never realized how long Daily Doubles were until I had to drink the entire length of two of them in a half-hour span.

I fell in love once and it was completely.

via This Isn’t Happiness

I watched the White Stripes in concert at the El Rey in 2002. It was game 6 or 7 of the Lakers-Kings series. Mikey, Eric, and I waited outside the venue before doors, listening to passers-by comment on the game.

Brendan Benson and The Well-Fed Boys opened for them, as did Whirlwind Heat, though I wish I’d forgotten that fact. “Fell In Love With A Girl” was getting regular airplay, and the music video was pre-meme viral. Whether the El Rey was at capacity was not question. Mikey, less than a week off an appendectomy, opted to break from the section in the pit where Eric and I had a clear line of sight to Jack White’s pale, veiny arms. Mikey spent the set at the side of the stage, and by his account, a short distance from Heather Graham. Jack spent the set incoherent but radiant, the encore with a burning cigarette tucked into the bridge of his guitar.

I don’t remember the set list, not that I could discern it half the time. I remember he played “Jolene.” I wouldn’t feel this expression of woozy energy again until I discovered scotch. It was perhaps the fourth concert I’d watched as a young music fan. It remains, hundreds later, among the best live musical performances I have witnessed. Every rock show I’ve attended – and perhaps every shot of brown liquor I’ve taken – since has been held up against the light of that night.

I sit down at rock shows, take a digital camera. I sip my scotch now, now I can afford sippable stuff. I take my bourbon with ice. It doesn’t burn so much now. I prefer it that way, most of the time.

Ten thoughts for December.

Having been too busy last month to extend the ‘Nine thoughts for November’ franchise into 2010, I now return, with interest on late delivery, absent alliteration but with assonance. Happy new year.

1. On the last day of 2010, at the close of a decade, the delay seems to render this an appropriate forum for reminiscing on the ’00s behind and forecasting the ’10s ahead.

2. In 2011, I will be finishing two substantial projects that have defined the latter half of the current year: the U.S. State department’s visas site and my thesis. While satisfying to complete, projects that arch over calendars have a potential for individual days fraught with existential crises. Engaging two such projects at once in similar stages rather than parallel tracks of conception and execution – one at school, one at the office – has magnified that potential in a seemingly logarithmic way.

Worse, the potential for parallel deadlines looms.

3. I will be defending my thesis in late April 2011. Unlike the pomp and circumstance of graduation, the defense is tension and release, rigor and adrenaline and the most delicious pitcher of cheap beer. It matters to me. I will literally be standing for my research.

Your presence is requested. I’ll try to make it a Monday or Friday. It’s a presentation followed by a Q&A, and it lasts about an hour. We’ll get drinks after.

4. I don’t know what will happen to my research after I write my master’s thesis. I have been considering the social process of making the web browser as the first part that I will complete at Georgetown. Broader research about the social effects of the browser will comprise a second part; discussion of design and causality will be the third. It is not about the browser wars, but the browser wars are the setting for a significant amount of the research.

I have months to figure this out. In the meantime, two very rough chapters are ready. For now, I am flying.

5. There is nothing quite like watching the sun rise while ascending from zero to 20,000 feet above sea level. While the sun rises everyday, it is too rarely experienced quickly enough to feel like a hit.

6. There is no number 6.

7. I have often documented my complicated relationship with the suburbs of Los Angeles and each trip there raises its scepter. Something I hadn’t admitted to myself until this trip is that I am so compelled to return because I relish the challenge of doing something people in this place might care to notice.

When asked my thoughts on the city, I often refer to this BLDGBLOG post:

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

In my case, to do what I wanted, I had to leave.

8. I exceeded the expectations I had for my life in California in 2001. I have flown thousands more miles, sent and received hundreds of postcards. Finished college, started graduate school. Composed a book of 10,000 words and 103 pictures from 30 miles of walking and 20,000 miles of flying. Saw several dozen concerts, made almost thirty mix CDs, made friends. Started a business, designed higher-traffic sites, moved east. Lost 40 pounds. Invested. Saw my screencaps featured in books, my words in lectures, my picture in a magazine.

I took a road trip to Fallingwater and discovered Storm King.

On Tuesday, over dinner with Rishi, I had wagyu beef, scallop sushi topped with a sliver of black truffle, and a glass of Balvenie 15. I played a street fighting video game on a Microsoft console by controlling my avatar with only my hands and feet. I am writing this now on an Apple laptop powered by an Intel processor, connected to the internet on an airplane. (If you had to choose between turbulence or disconnectedness, which would you choose?)

It’s unlikely I’ll exceed expectations for my life in 2020 to quite the same degree.

9. A part of me believes that my ideas about what I will do in 2011 will at once inform and be completely distinct from the things I will reminisce over in 2020. I had no idea when I was nine that web design was a profession, let alone one I would practice with a degree of success to the point of being a decade-long career before the age of 30. Technology created new opportunities that my expectations did not take into account, and I imagine the next ten years will by defined similarly by a combination of diligence and freakishly rapid innovation.

10. A part of me believes that the row of Jumbotrons mounted on griffins advertising factory outlet sales and staring down 5 Freeway traffic in Commerce will be included in an establishing shot of Los Angeles in November 2019.

It’s less than ten years away.

While I am writing.

As I start thesis writing in earnest, my priorities are shifting to the production of documents necessary to the academic ritual: the proposal, annotated bibliographies, review of related literature, and chapters of primary research. I am writing on the form of the web browser and its social effects, investigating how browsers were shaped through distributed processes of software architecture and improvised linguistics into an infrastructure upon which we google people to find their Facebook profile and Twitter feed. The part of me that’s been doing this shit for years is a singular candidate for the task, the academic come-lately (part-time, at that) within approaches with some apprehension, and the friend known to you dreads that as we are a postcard’s reach apart, it’s more likely that postcards are all that will pass between us.

It’s become obvious practices that once defined me have suffered as I’ve travelled different social and professional avenues and consequently developed new practices. And it’s difficult for me to admit that my creative output has not dropped as much as I sometimes feel; there are analogues. Where I was once defined by semi-annual meticulously crafted mix CDs, I now with similar frequency and attention assemble brunch for 20 in my one-bedroom apartment. Books with starred reviews are Goodyear-welted shoes, late-night drives are late-night walks, weekly benders are personal training appointments. I am led to believe this is normal for my age.

Similarly, I’m learning not to mistake change in the form of my output for a drop in my ability to “leave my mark.” Blog posts, mix CDs, portfolio/gallery websites, cityscapes, sketchbooks, AIM statuses, long-winded and vain email newsletters – each has come and go as my preferred medium, and who knows when if ever I’ll resume any of these with the same zeal, let alone skill. For the foreseeable future, my blog’s purposes as an outpost for commentary on current events, meme participation, telling of my new favorite earworms, and nudging and winking (and hyperlinking) in the direction of funny shit have been distributed to the lower-maintenance domains of my Facebook profile, Twitter feed, Flickr photostream, Hype Machine loves, and Pinterest boards. I’ll probably write occasionally to float wacky ideas that likely wouldn’t float with my thesis committee, and 140 characters isn’t enough for all the wonderful things and weird shit I want to share.

(Like, I mean, have you seen Marwencol? My esteem for it grows every time I think of it, and I now doubt I’ll see a better movie released this year. It’s a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, who survives a beating but loses motor skills and memories, and a discussion of the role of photography and memory, the role of sincerity in art, and the role of art in therapy. It goes into Charlie Kaufman territory (recursion, specifically, and not as a storytelling technique employed by the filmmakers so much as a consequence of the documentary process (and the subject being documented)) and is so terrifically distinct from anything I consider my experience of the world it’s easy to forget its foundation in real events. Oh, and Hogancamp – who is still getting by on disability checks – takes a cut of sales of related merchandise (maybe some box-office receipts?), so patronage includes a nugget of charity.)

(So there’s that.)

Part of me now chafes at a not-much-younger version of me that exercised writing not because writing is not something to be exercised but because I/he believed that it was through a systematic exploration and exploitation of syntax and diction that one improved as a writer. Improved and writer now seem insubstantial, even laughable, just as there was once a me that thought a feeble configuration of magnets and arrows and dials the ideal of compass. At 25, I probably couldn’t make a better mix CD or write a better blog post than when I was 22, but that realization took almost three more years to reconcile comfortably. I still believe that getting prolific is a step towards getting good, but that better bears a troublesome resemblance to analysis paralysis and all that. As I’m steady working and ringing up debts in pages and accounting in chapters for at least the next eight months, that reconciliation arrives at a fruitful moment.

To those who know (and the present tense feels so tenuous here) me as a blogger, mix maker, enfant terrible (increasingly sans enfant), I leave you with this: While I am writing – the usual 79 minutes and change in one 95 MB file – to remember me as a friend. I worry I only have so many words, and they are needed elsewhere. Till the next postcard, know you’re invited to – and missed at – brunch.

Raised by wolves.

1. Rome is a city that stirs the blood, maddens and inspires. There are a few lasting achievements of art and architecture that seemingly happen but once a century (or two) in the course of human history, and Rome hosts an alarming concentration of them (for one, Pantheon).

Among the ephemera, that a bang-on shot of espresso is available at every level of food service from slouchy snack bar to white-tablecloth restaurant is as much a factor of training and equipment as cultural reinforcement; that even for those who can only spare 80 cents the quality of their coffee is not spared. Restaurant menus indicate when a dish includes an ingredient that has been frozen, implying that the remainder of the spread is fresh.

There are perhaps more marble statues, frescoed ceilings, and gelato shops per capita in Rome than anywhere else in the world, and while there’s more to the place than art and food, they’re a fine way through which to experience the city.

2. A worthwhile thing to do in Rome that no guidebook or blog told us was taking in the sunset from Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges). It is, true to its name, an orange grove on Aventine Hill (about a kilometer uphill from Piramide station) with a stone (marble?) balcony tacked on at the end. That balcony faces west.

When in Florence, order a steak.

3. Travelling in the 21st century continues to amaze me. Though supersonic air travel has been relegated to 20th-century antiquity, the Schengen Agreement, Euro currency, and global networks of cash machines, credit cards, and mobile telephony have all but eliminated logistical hassles for Americans touring much of Europe. I am not taking this stuff for granted.

4. My undergraduate Italian held up surprisingly well, and I still consider it a minor miracle that I was able to correct my error when booking our return trip to Rome from Florence at the S.M.N. ticket office without the use of English or incurring an additional charge. While at the post office, a clerk seemingly eager to speak some English bridged the language gap to scrounge up 25 stamps for international postcards. Occasionally, a combination of ambient English guided tours and Wikipedia on my BlackBerry enhanced our experience of a place.

5. As a meta note, this trip was my first vacation in a new place in over two years. The degree to which my creative output has fallen in that time has surprised and saddens me. I think it’s mostly a byproduct of being enrolled in school and in a relationship where someone else’s time is to be considered in equal measure as my own, but part of me also thinks that it’s because I haven’t been anywhere new to me in too long.

6. There is no number 6.

7. My failure to sell or even give away my tickets to The National concert on Sunday prompted me to attend the show on limited sleep immediately upon arrival in Washington. It turned out to be a wise play, as the show was spectacular and my sleep schedule was tuned perfectly the morning after. The first time I saw them, I was standing for the whole show and aside from the band and their instruments and equipment I remember the stage was bare. This time I was seated and there were lights and horns.

If there is a band for whom the placement of a grand oak tree on stage is aesthetically consistent with their music, it would be The National.

8. The use of clean as an aesthetic judgment bothers me. Cleanliness is distinct from organization, and that mere organization often presents itself as cleanliness is a given and the judgment provides little in the way of compliment or critique. Some alternatives are minimal, which reflects a position within art history, and simple, which indicates a composition with few moving parts or even one that has been inadequately considered.

9. I’m also growing increasingly wary of interesting as an adjective, mostly because it is subjective and also because it tends to describe things that really ought not be beyond the threshold of known vocabulary. I want to know how that interesting thing actually held interest, whether it engaged, stupefied, inspired, saddened. If all you can muster is interesting, either learn some new words or experience some new things.

10. Christina and I are planning our trip to Cuernavaca for Carlos and Ana’s wedding in July, so I can safely say that two years will not pass before my next vacation in a new place. However, my high-school Spanish is dustier than my college Italian, so negotiating the language gap could get, well, frustrating, with a high chance of gesticulation.

In the meantime, we will watch The New Pornographers, Passion Pit, and Tokyo Police Club in concert. And I will be starting at NavigationArts on 21 June, which is also the date of my 5th anniversary in Washington. And given I’m sentimental and wish to commemorate that event, I hope to publish another piece of writing – perhaps a list – on that date.

11. And therein lies an exotic destination, experiences of live music, and a pair of personal milestones to commemorate – creative inputs and motivation. I think I can keep this up.

Originally published 11 June 2010.

How to move a bookcase in a snowstorm.

Christina and I spent part of Saturday moving a bookcase from Alexandria to Arlington in a snowstorm. It was not our plan to move a 6′-×-6′-and-heavy piece of furniture in such weather, but due to some misinterpreted communication with the bookcase’s previous owner, we found ourselves with a truck reservation and a free afternoon. While we spent that afternoon actually moving a bookcase, I’ve been responding to the question of what I did during the snowstorm as learning to move a bookcase in a snowstorm.

The sight of cars spinning their wheels on moderate but icy hills was not uncommon – both Christina’s car and the rented truck were subject to acceleration without movement. Once moving, the pedal that would usually stop a moving car sometimes did not – in these moments, I reached for the parking brake. On the 395, passing maneuvers were rare, the use of hazard lights was frequent, and the flow of traffic on a four-lane freeway stayed consistently below 35 mph with all possible civility.

That civility was hardly limited to paved surfaces. While moving the bookcase into the truck, a neighbor of the seller offered a shovel to clear the bed of snow. The seller himself hoisted the piece into place for the road. We considered taping cut-up garbage bags over it and then decided not to – the air was sufficiently cold that the snow would not turn to water (and the bookcase wouldn’t soak it up) while we were driving.

And so, we made our way to Arlington and (with the better traction attendant to carrying a heavy piece of furniture on the back of a rear-wheel-drive truck) up the hill on Daniel Street to the front of Christina’s building. As we haltingly shoved the bookcase from truck bed to snowbank, one of her neighbors (en route to a party) offered a hand and very quickly the unwieldy piece of furniture was in her bedroom and closely matching the woodgrain of her folding bench seats. He took a beer in thanks and welcomed her to the neighborhood.

On that day when snow covered the lane markers and signposts and other artifacts of traffic law, we were treated to a climatized manifestation of the illustration of a street intersection in England from Jonathan Zittrain’s TED talk on random acts of kindness on the internet. His illustration was to support a point that in the absence of directives and laws, civility prevails (and therefore, Wikipedia maintains a reasonable standard of information quality).

Philosophy and human nature aside, civility indeed prevailed on that afternoon. And however you may disdain precipitation and bitterly cold weather, that civility may not have revealed itself – and we may not have had need of it and therefore a venue to appreciate it – otherwise. It’s part of the reason I love living in a place with a bit of a winter.

And in this weather, I learned how to use a parking brake and hazard lights as part of a driving routine, that wood furniture is better transported in snow than rain, and that strangers can be immeasurably helpful and civil and a default position of ‘scared shitless’ towards unknown persons is sometimes untenable.

And on Sunday, I learned to never never walk barefoot in the snow.