Still online 13 years later

MIT recently launched a tech investment initiative called The Engine. I’m really digging this site, from the concept itself, to the URL, to the Swiss typography, to the subtle background animations, to the background graphics/illustrations when you hover over an investment area. Someone in a Designer News thread pointed out that the illustrator is Vasjen Katro whose Instagram account is wonderful.

In that same thread Mike Wilson replied to someone’s suggestion that The Engine website is part of the Brutalist trend:

The 'Brutalism' thing in a nutshell:

  1. Designers coming out of art schools like ECAL, Gerrit Reitveld, etc. in the mid-2000s start bringing some of their experimental work into the small print magazine movement (mostly in Europe at this point) after print starts getting less scrutinised in favor of digital. See:
  2. Hits NYC from Europe (to be fair people in scenes like RISD were always woke) when guys in publishing like Richard Turley bring the aesthetic into the mainstream on publications on Bloomberg Businessweek
  3. More traditional (not product focused) design agencies/studios bring the aesthetic to the web after the fall of skeumorphism and the rise of web type
  4. SF Tech bros who hang out on Dribbble finally take notice when these sites get posted on SiteInspire, steal the term "brutalism" to describe it since it doesn't look like a stripe landing page.
  5. ‘Brutalism' becomes a catch-all term for any website that contains an aesthetic nod to a design movement that didn't happen on Dribbble
  6. Myself and others find this amusing and post snarky/snob-ish finger-wagging comments on DN

While, yes, snarky, I do appreciate the brief history. The first I saw this style was in 2004 from David Reinfurt (whose work I mentioned in an earlier post.) of O-R-G and later Dexter Sinister. He designed the book for an exhibition within the Eero Saarinen-designed Terminal 5 at JFK. I designed and built the exhibition’s website, which is still online 13 years later, though it does require Flash. So it goes… screenshot

In 2004, I thought nothing of adding auto-playing audio to a website and so sprinkled sound snippets of airplanes idling and taking off, and a short tribute to Brian Eno at the end of the loop.

Just Slightly Off

On September 3, 2017, John Ashbery and Walter Becker both passed away.

Sasha Frere-Jones tweeted on September 3:

hard to imagine Ashbery or Becker in any other century or how different that century would have been

we think abt line breaks differently because of Ashbery and we think of rhythm and lyric differently because of Becker also idk everything

The NY Times recalled Ashbery’s relationship with his audience:

Mr. Ashbery rejected the idea of deliberately “shocking” the reader, a tactic he compared to wearing deliberately outlandish clothing and which he dismissed as “merely aggressive.”

“At the same time,” he said, “I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”

And NPR suggested Becker’s guitar playing was always in service of the larger piece of music:

Becker approached his guitar and bass playing (and, really, the entire production) as part of the songwriting process, an extension of it. He and Fagen were both obsessed with tone; there are countless stories of the duo chasing a particular snare drum sound for days on end in the studio. As a guitarist, Becker understood the ways distortion and other textural effects could change the atmospheric pressure of a track, and he used these devices to more musical ends than most guitarists. Becker's rhythm-guitar accompaniments had a spiky, almost confrontational air. His bass playing was devastatingly simple, a smack to the gut. His leads could be brainy or spooky or confounding or obtuse — whatever would best enhance the vibe of the song.

Where most guitar heroes of his era charged into the center ring with fistfuls of notes and blazing chords, Becker preferred to sneak in through the back door, and in just a few measures and fewer notes, rearrange all the furniture. The result was something instantly riveting that you'd want to hear again and again — even if (especially if) you were not even paying attention to what the guitar was doing. Forget about the moment of solo glory; Becker wanted — and attained, with astounding consistency — the thick and undeniable vibe that made a piece of music magnetic.

Brainy or spooky or confounding or obtuse.


From a New Yorker article on The Lost Art of Stealing Fruit:

In the school fiction of yesteryear, “scrumping” was what schoolboys, primarily, did in orchards. Nowadays, with fried-chicken shops on every corner, the art of fruitnapping is lost. Not, however, by me.

There’s no English word for the frenzied state into which I’m thrown when I see a tree thick with crab apples, or greengages, or pears. Are you seriously expecting me, a greedy person, to ignore the deliciously bitter Morello cherries near the station, or the neglected grape vine by that garage, or the vast banks of blackberries that litter Britain’s parks and heaths, largely overlooked except by the occasional elderly Pole or Czech, similarly purple-stained, with whom I exchange a brief, competitive glance?

Many an evening this Summer, the blocks surrounding our NE Portland house have been the scene of strolls with the boys as we explore our new neighborhood. I'm now delighted to have expanded my vocabularly to be able to relate the apples, pears, plums, figs, blackberries and huckleberries on offer for a bit of scrumping.

Hana, mana, mona, mike

From a Paris Review article on the ambiguous history of counting-out rhymes:

What we do know is that once Eeny Meeny appeared on the scene, it was everywhere. In the fifties and sixties, the formidable husband-and-wife folklorists Iona and Peter Opie recorded hundreds of varieties in England and America, including, to name just a few:

Hana, mana, mona, mike,
Barcelona, bona, strike,
Hare, ware, frown, venac
Harrico, warrico, we, wo, wac

Eena, meena, mina, mo,
Cracka, feena, fina, fo,
Uppa, nootcha, poppa, tootcha,
Ring, ding, dang, doe

Eeny, meeny, mony, my,
Barcelona, stony, sty,
Eggs, butter, cheese, bread,
Stick, stack, stone dead

Jeema, jeema, jima, jo,
Jickamy, jackamy, jory,
Hika, sika, pika, wo,
Jeema, jeema, jima, jo

On constant rotation at bed time in our house is Iona Opie's edition of Mother Goose, with delightful illustrations by Rosemary Wells. What a pleasure to end the day reciting these sing-songy rhymes.

A minority taste

From an MIT Technology Review article on spending less time on Facebook:

Because noncommercial alternatives would be free of the imperative to capture as much information about your interests as possible, they’d be likelier to experiment with new ways of stimulating interactions between people. Maybe they would do away with the News Feed model that rewards virality more than importance. Perhaps some would be more reliant on algorithms to serve up stories and ideas, while others would rely on human curators to elevate discussion and eliminate abuse by booting trolls or deleting hoaxes.

Competitors to Facebook that harnessed the powers of social media only in an effort to make us wiser would probably be niche services, like National Public Radio and PBS. “Most people aren’t that fussy,” says Jack Mitchell, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio. “PBS’s market share is not that high. Public radio is a little higher. It’s a minority taste.”

One month ago today I logged off Facebook and haven't looked back.

Talks from Cassettes from the Radio

Prompted by a suggestion to examine what “talks” I rate as favorites, I can think of a few that stand out. 2015 offers an overflowing river of talks and podcasts; for the most part I’ve not dipped a toe. At home, I’d rather read a physical copy of Harper’s Magazine, read through a never-ending Instapaper queue, read fiction or watch films.

In the Summer of 2001, my then-roommate Yong introduced me to a talk by anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldecott. We lived in Brooklyn, and Yong would drive us in his beat down Buick to far-off Queens destinations for Afghani sweets or fried vegan Caribbean foodstuffs. On these trip we listened to the radio, usually WFMU or WKCR, but occasionally Yong would reach into his glove compartment for a well-played cassette tape onto which he had, many years before, recorded a talk off WBAI. Over the next two years I listened to portions of this talk many times, often zoned, half-reading the street signs or watching the street lights blink by as Caldicott outlined the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. We subjected other passengers, friends & lovers, to this talk, but they often complained of the depressing nature of Caldicott’s message: she spoke of impending nuclear doom, of the mad men in control of humanity’s fate, of the chilling decisions society has made up to this point, and what we may have ahead of us if we continue down the path of “nuclear madness.” So it was most often just Yong & me, riding the streets, listening.

I never made a dub of this cassette and haven’t thought about it in a long time. Cursory searches turn up some potential sources on the Pacifica Radio Archives, but many of these carry the warning:

This recording is currently on a 1/4” reel tape and has not been digitally preserved.

I reached out to Yong to see if he still has the cassette, but haven’t heard back. He lives in Seoul, running an art gallery & bar called Satellite / 새틀라이트. He may eventually respond, and perhaps with a digitized version of his copy from the radio. I wonder if the exact provenance of Caldicott’s talk is less important than the memory of the actual cassette tape. And the memory of the cassette itself is subsumed by the memories of our decade-plus-old experiences of driving around the boroughs, listening, and convincing others to listen.

There's A Place For Us

I recall the easy way we slipped into shows in earlier days. Pre-purchasing tickets was something we almost never did: there was always room for one or two more. Though a part of me knew that the Grouper show at Swedish American Hall would “sell out” I also did not want to commit to leaving the house after 8pm on a Friday: the days start early in our house, and that Friday began before 5AM. So when I arrived and the gatekeepers sheepishly turned me away, suggesting I come back in an hour to see if there was room, I wasn’t totally surprised. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just grab a beer and come back.” But strolling down Market and passing Lucky 13 and Blackbird, the smell of stale beer kept me moving. Across the way stood Aardvark Books and it had been awhile since I browsed there. 9PM and they’re still open, fantastic. The guy behind the counter barely looked up as I entered, and I was immediately attracted to the Staff Picks box with a paperback copy of Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. I’d never read Whitehead before, and I was drawn in to the first few pages. But the music playing in Aardvark continued to give me pause, a cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, especially “Somewhere” and the lead up to The Rumble.

Earlier in the week I read a few pieces on Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math blog that mention West Side Story in the context of Buddy Rich’s show-off drum virtuosity vs. the devotional music of free jazz players:

A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, “Play me a snare roll.” The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do. Mel took his sticks back and said, “See, right there is your problem. You shouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer.” That’s a fun story, but truthfully drummers do need to learn how to roll. Mel himself surely learned to roll at some early point. However the point is clear. At least for Mel Lewis, devotion has precedence over chops. Another way to say it is: After you are good enough to learn your military rudiments, are you good enough to let them take a back seat to feel?

While browsing the stacks, among many posters for various anarchist book fairs, Aardvark proudly displays a poster version of Chris Ware’s Penguin Classics cover of Voltaire’s Candide: Or Optimism. A thoroughly engaging and depressing piece.

Back to Swedish American, and the sleepy gate keepers were surprised and happy to guide me in to hear some music. I entered during Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s performance. Enchanting, haunting, bubbling.

And then Grouper. I’d prefer to leave Haunting as a descriptor for her set. She played sitting cross-legged on the floor, Paul Clipson films projected on the wall behind. I recall seeing her in Portland at Holocene in 2008 with a very similar vibe to her set. That rush of hiss and crackle, the sound of her guitar so “live” or “hot” you can hear the jangling of her bracelets through the pickups, the strings so open, so much room between them, but everything reverberating. A dream, surely.

The Rise of the Novel

As ruminated on by Jonathan Franzen while reading Robinson Crusoe on a “deserted” island that may be the one that Defoe modeled his novel after:

The most persuasive account remains the political-economic one that Ian Watt advanced fifty years ago. The birthplace of the novel, in its modern form, happens also to have been Europe’s most economically dominant and sophisticated nation, and Watt’s analysis of this coincidence is blunt but powerful, tying together the glorification of the enterprising individual, the expansion of a literate bourgeoisie eager to read about itself, the rise in social mobility (inviting writers to exploit its anxieties), the specialization of labor (creating a society of interesting differences), the disintegration of the old social order into a collection of individual isolates, and, of course, among the newly comfortable middle class, the dramatic increase in leisure for reading. At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular. Protestant theology had laid the foundations of the new economy by reimagining the social order as a collection of self-reliant individuals with a direct relationship with God, but by 1700, as the British economy thrived, it was becoming less clear that individuals needed God at all. It’s true that, as any impatient child reader can tell you, many pages of “Robinson Crusoe” are devoted to its hero’s spiritual journey. Robinson finds God on the island, and he turns to Him repeatedly in moments of crisis, praying for deliverance and ecstatically thanking Him for providing the means of it. And yet, as soon as each crisis has passed, he reverts to his practical self and forgets about God; by the end of the book, he seems to have been saved more by his own industry and ingenuity than by Providence. To read the story of Robinson’s vacillations and forgetfulness is to see the genre of spiritual autobiography unravelling into realist fiction.

From Farther Away - The New Yorker

Like crippled Hephaestus, hammering together his warped and magnificent books

Infinite Jest is, on its face, the most daunting of novels; 1,079 pages, 96 of them endnotes; text in small type pointing you constantly to text in smaller type, necessitating multiple bookmarks; an immersion in two subcultures, junior tennis and addiction recovery; a time commitment to be measured in weeks, not days — two months for serious readers, Wallace thought.


There was something in him that could absorb American language in all its registers and compound it into a voice that in its every deployment said more about the country than whatever Wallace himself happened to be saying. One of the most frequently aired complaints about Wallace was that he was a show-off, that his own voice drowned out those of his characters, that there was something self-indulgent about his massive forays into antic cultural comedy. But I think he knew, having the self he had, the only thing to do with it was to put it to work, like crippled Hephaestus, hammering together his warped and magnificent books.”

From The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace

No history, no metatext, no terroir

Even the other kids’ menu stalwarts have more history to them than the chicken tender, a relatively new addition to the gastronomic landscape that only reached deep-fryer ubiquity in the 1990s. (This itself is a fascinatingly rare phenomenon: when was the last time something truly novel hit the culinary zeitgeist that didn’t have a trademark appended to it?) It takes more than one generation to develop the intricate root system of nostalgia that anchors the ballpark pastoral of hot dogs or nachos, the picket-fence vignette of fried bologna sandwiches, or the dusty-road Americana of a burger and an ice-cold Coke. Chicken tenders have no history, they have no metatext, they have no terroir.

From On Chicken Tenders by Helen Rosner