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.


In the wake of Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA, I’m half-surprised no one in my social media feeds mentioned the L.A. riots. While today’s news certainly doesn’t carry the same import – and have the same effect on people’s lives – as the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, it still carries enough airtime (and my mindshare, as a long-time L.A.-based basketball fan) to have a symbolic and emotional impact.

Today’s verdict is hardly a salve on a long and bitter history in the sports and entertainment industries, but it’s at least heartening to hear the NBA commissioner speak about the league’s stance on bigotry in a way that a jury could not issue a verdict about police brutality 22 years ago today. As I watched the Q&A that followed the commissioner’s announcement of his verdict, I appreciated his directness and apparent sincerity. It was clear from his tone that this verdict was not merely about maintaining good PR, but that he was personally offended. And that matters for something.

However, while this verdict comes from the NBA, the L.A. Clippers are just one of many of Sterling’s business interests. There are people who pay Sterling for the roofs over their heads, and their present condition is probably that they are possessive of the ability to vote with their feet while bereft of an alternative. I wish that weren’t the case.

Given the serpentine configuration of Sterling’s business, it may take at least a million little cuts to deflate it, and each of those cuts (unfortunately) has to come from a different person who has to live with the consequences of holding a blade. Regardless of how much they agree in principle about not writing checks to a bigot, some people will not choose to cease paying their rent, and it’s more difficult to judge those people for that choice.

While Sterling’s tenants don’t (yet) have a broadsword-wielding champion, Adam Silver – in his position as NBA commissioner – wielded one and decisively cut off one of Sterling’s arms. Today’s verdict may only prevent Sterling from participating in one of his hobbies rather than causing real change in Southern California’s real estate market, but the opportunity to dismember a scourge of institutional racism rarely presents itself, so I find it satisfying when those empowered to deliver such strokes do so without equivocation.

So while it’s a relatively small victory, it’s a noteworthy one. (And it’s actually far from won.) While I long for more opportunities and broadswords and people to wield them, it gives me hope that – at least in the last 22 years – there are now visibly more of the latter.

(Also, apropos nothing: the situation that had to be resolved with this verdict is by far the ugliest storyline in the past two weeks that have otherwise been a great time to be a fan of NBA basketball – the entire Western Conference first round is just unreal this year.)

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.

Pathetic to absurd to disheartening in 97 queries.

While we had anecdotal evidence from our customers and the general public that the House search engine is below-standard, even the barest of data sets now indicates the degree of antipathy we apparently have for site visitors. After manually searching the most frequent queries on (see a table of the terms and top-ten results of each), I have arrived at the following initial conclusions:

  • Most of the 970 results are found returned from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s website from the 107th Congress (2001-2002). Their webmaster at the time ([my current supervisor]) said he did nothing to optimize the site’s pages for the House search engine. Generally speaking, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to how the algorithm determines relevance.
  • Queries are, in fact, case-sensitive. “Nancy Pelosi” and “nancy pelosi” produce different quantities of results, but the most “relevant” of each query are nearly identical. Commonly used search engines (Google, Yahoo!, etc.) are not case-sensitive.
  • Queries for singular and plural nouns are identical. “committee” and “committees” produce the exact same results.
  • The Pell Grant Underfunding PDF by the Oversight Committee that appears in the top-ten results of most state searches deserves further scrutiny. How this managed to be considered more relevant than any member-generated page in Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas is worth determining.
  • Pages and documents produced by Energy and Commerce, Foreign Affairs, and Ways and Means Committees form a clear plurality of all results. I can proffer no explanation.
  • There is no apparent weight given to the title of a document. Untitled documents are not subdued in the results.
  • The search engine’s inability to discern titles of non-HTML documents (PDFs, MS Office docs, etc.) is a glaring drawback. In a screen reader’s links mode, “No Title Provided for This Document” is a sadistic running joke, a more verbose take on the “click here” gag.
  • The decision to keep House leadership links off the home page of last year was made in insipience (not mine, thank you). Ten of the tested queries are for House leadership; six are variations on Nancy Pelosi or Speaker of the House, and two of those are among the top-ten most frequent queries. None of the top-ten results for any leadership queries is a page from any leadership site.
  • I haven’t determined the criteria and percentage yet, but my generous estimate is that 15% of the results are at least relevant in the way that someone who can only write their own name is literate. The number of first-results that are relevant is less than the number of successful Apollo moon landings.
  • I have not yet codified “valuable” as opposed to “relevant” search results, but we know them when we see them. Of the 97 queries, only two produced a valuable first-result.
  • An enterprise search engine should provide reporting of this nature automatically, regularly, and with much more robust data (like click-through rates for different results, detailed session data, etc.). The existing search engine does not provide this kind of reporting, and without this information, it diminishes our ability to make sound information architecture decisions. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: it is not only dull itself, it is the cause of dullness in others.

What I expected to encounter was a way to address customer complaints through improved metadata and other SEO techniques to compensate for a search engine that doesn’t dig deeply enough. What I discovered is that the current search engine doesn’t merely produce worthless results: it willfully and flagrantly leads site visitors astray. A piquant example of the insurmountable distance between visitors’ expectations and this engine’s results is that a search for ‘contact’ — the 14th most frequent query, and of the 97, the one with the most results (157,508) — yields not an overall House directory (which doesn’t exist) or any contact information of any kind for any House office in the first 25 results. Instead, the first 25 results feature testimony by staff of 1-800-CONTACTS from a 2002 Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, PDFs from the Foreign Affairs Committee (whoever ‘Dianne’ is should be determined and she should be consulted since she apparently also knows the secret to breaking into the top search results), and the 9/11 Commission report at #24.

I believe that this wisp of foul data not only crystallizes the argument to replace the existing search engine but that ceasing its use immediately — removing search from until a replacement is implemented — is an improvement and deserves serious consideration. Providing a search form is an affordance of goodwill and a best practice; attaching that form to this search engine is not merely indifferent but malicious. How this search engine was ever considered good enough for government work is an enigma, but that a half-decade of consideration has passed on how best to end its miserable existence is contemptible.

If my candor seems excessive, I recommend attempting the same 97 searches I performed; the mounting frustration from each scatalogically defective set of results all but led to a 98th search for a long drink and a short firearm. That site visitors give up on after one search is my hope. My recommendation is to spare them the experience.

This analysis is an early stage in a planned report of information architecture recommendations for and Member sites — I intend to parse this data further and research site traffic patterns to draw more conclusions and detailed recommendations. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your feedback. Thanks for reading.

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