Restoration Hardware on trial

99% Invisible, one of my generation’s obligatory podcasts, released an episode about design, mass production, and authenticity– called 77 Steps. In it, the Emeco chair takes center stage as the industrial-product-turned-design-object par excellence, and Emeco’s legal fight to protect the intellectual property of their signature Naval Chair, using something called Trade Dress Protection.

Trade dress protection is designed to protect consumers from the lookalike imitations of name brand products.

Emeco’s dispute with Restoration Hardware (and IKEA and Target) has been documented by the New York Times. While it’s sensible for a company to protect its design from copying, the plot thickens when the show considers the impact of this protectionism on average consumers. Says lawyer Christopher Sprigman:

[When] consumers in the marketplace look at this chair, unless they’re real furniture aficionados, they don’t think ‘Oh, this is Emeco,’ they think ‘Oh, that’s a chair.’ I don’t think the shape of this chair is distinctive. To the extent that [Emeco using Trade Dress Protection] succeeds, these designs become the territory of the rich, and no one else can access them.

If the original idea of a chair like Emeco’s is mass-production and affordability, then tightening the market and putting a legal fence around the intellectual property of its design is completely counterproductive. This reveals the economic and philosophical push-and-pull inherent to a world of copy+paste:

[Knock-offs] bring the rest of us into the world of the artist … they allow us to participate in the fashion world, even if we can’t afford the stuff on the runway … they allow us to participate … [and] that’s democratizing.

What came to my mind first was The Why Factory’s publication of a book called Copy Paste, which researches and discusses our changing attitudes toward originality. Like most things Winy Maas makes, the book’s tone is decidedly optimistic: it doesn’t bemoan the end of originality, rather celebrates a new sense of freedom from it.

But then I remembered: back in 2011, I noticed the trend in design & fashion stores decorating their storefronts with fake books. In a way, Restoration Hardware’s style (rustic, old-school, throwback-y) is particularly prone to sneaky copying such as the kind they got in trouble in with Emeco. So shouldn’t we all have seen this coming?

A Recipe In Three Chapters

I: Data, Cities

When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?

Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.

A traffic flow counting device. Via Jamartech.
The Big Mac Index. Bar chart by Statista.

Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.

Geographies of Innovation. Mapping centers of innovative activity in Barcelona. Map by 300.000 Km/s. Image via urbannext.
Photo credit Luciana Teodozio. Via her Instagram page.

During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.

One of the few images of food that were included in the presentation.

II: Codes, Recipes

Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?

Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.

The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.

The Matrix code was inspired by sushi recipes? Read the story at foodandwine.

There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.

Our group’s proposal for turning Shanghai’s metro system into a food logistics infrastructure. ProMetro.

III: Low Heat, Long Time

I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.

He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.

For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”

I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”

“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”

So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.

I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.

In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.

ProproiSTEPtion follow-up: Barba

I was overcome with the quiet pride of a writer finishing her first novel when I packaged my thoughts on propriosteption. And then, in the kickoff session to our Robotic City seminar at IAAC, the concept reappeared before me, and I felt like the same writer learning that her novel got greenlit for a movie production.

The Why Factory have a project called Barba. There it was, the propriosteption bubble, wobbling and morphing in a black void. The thing I was trying so hard to carefully explain was captured and explained in a matter of seconds with The Why Factory’s crude but thorough animation.

Originality does not exist. Even the most prolific thinker in the world will only think  of a small fraction of truly “never-before-thoughts”– and of that small fraction, yet another small fraction will be realized. Add it to the list of ideas that I’ve had, which I thought were original, which ended up being authored and stamped-and-sealed by another. You can add THIS collection to my larger thesis (still in the womb) about how, epistemologically speaking, we have long ago reached a “creative singularity,” since which it is quantum-physically/mathematically impossible to invent something 100% original.

But more on that later. In the meantime, enjoy this awesome video.

Modes of Nature

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the Fab City Design Strategies Seminar, at the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Barcelona, in October 2017.

Thoughts on Atlas for the End of the World[1] & Fab City Whitepaper[2]

“Nature” and “artifice” are not as separate as we think.

This revelation has probably been in the margins of every major paradigm shift in human history since agriculture. The steam that powered humans’ locomotives had been propelling oceanic currents for eons. As aerodynamic design improves, it returns again and again to ornithological biomimicry. Farms, factories, endless work? Ants have been doing the same a thousand times longer. The polar bear may soon be extinct, yes, but we forget we have been wiping out large mammals since we invaded the Australian continent 45,000 years ago. It is no less relevant today.

All of these examples indicate that modern globalization (something we all consider “outward”) will force a paradigm shift that is more of an inward nature, especially in a time when the thing most urgently needed is a collective narrative about our identity as a species. Where are we going? What are our choices? Are we prepared to take full biological responsibility for these choices? I am fascinated by this new engagement humankind is going to have to have with its “insides.” We cannot afford to simply hide our inner workings (our own bodies, our infrastructure) and live inside clean, white, orthogonal spaces. We will have to get our hands dirty if we want to clean up after ourselves (dystopias like the “real world” of The Matrix or the harsh landscapes of Dune and Mad Max imagine the consequences of choosing not to). Additionally, how will this collective inwardness fit into the principles behind the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR),[3] which envisions the planet as a network of individual makers who are free from dependence on centralized governments or corporations?

I, as an educated city-dweller, can go on with examples and welcome the future with open arms. However, I am not in the majority. How do we, as the people at the TIR frontier, encourage or allow the rest of the world to participate? After all, the decentralized globe is at its most optimal when every human being is included. There is a mental barrier in the average person without a doubt, and it is related to this perceived separation between the nature and machine. Nature = irregular, machine = rational. Nature = dirty, manmade = clean. Nature = harmony, artifice = destruction. Nature = good, humankind = bad. How do we bring these two back out of the opposing ethical corners that we’ve spent centuries painting them into?

Nature is a lot more machine-like than it appears (sometimes even robotic), and our machines and cities behave more like organisms than we imagine. [4] If we have indeed become intrinsically tied to nature, the new paradigm will have to be one of adaptation with, rather than segregation from, nature. Why? Because the latter is an impossible task. Imagine asking everyone who has tasted clean drinking water to go back to semi-filtered, or forcing a Norwegian who has eaten a banana to never touch one again, or telling someone who has flown in an airplane across the Pacific Ocean in 10 hours to take a rowboat from then on. This is the curse of consumption and convenience: returning to less is psychologically a harder task than adapting our energy production systems.

In order to adapt, we have to readjust how we see nature. It is not a single, contained system outside of us. Instead, with our adaptation and integration, there will emerge different modes of nature depending on its relation to human activity. There will be a spectrum of modes, ranging from huge undisturbed regions all the way to tiny home gardens or samples in laboratories. Oostvarderplassen in The Netherlands, as mentioned in The Atlas for the End of the World, is one example of a mode of nature that we haven’t gotten used to yet. On the surface, it appears to be a common wildlife sanctuary, but upon closer inspection, there may be man-made elements like floodwater retention swales, anaerobic waste-to-energy plants, sensors monitoring threatened species, or hiking trails. The entire area may be serving as a corridor for the migration of certain animals. This is a much more nuanced and complex mode of existence between nature and humankind. Furthermore, the potential range of modes will continue to grow as we learn more about how we are affecting the planet (such as the mass decline in bee population[5]) and what we can do about it.

Similarly, there is no reason that cities won’t also start to adapt more complex modes. As The Fab City Network becomes more of a reality, cities will become much more fluid and mutable in their function. For instance, to meet the demands of a shortage of electricity caused by a flood 100km away, a city can temporarily coordinate the flow of electricity to that area, and the average citizen will only experience a miniscule change in the electricity available in their homes (perhaps all of the lights will dim by 5%). In that short time, the city will have transformed itself into a power plant. In this way, categorization will no longer be rigid, and a new activity of humans will be to monitor, model, and manage these transformations.

Cities can then start to evolve on their own in a Darwinian manner. Then it could be possible to classify cities with binomial nomenclature, building a taxonomy, and identifying important historical events where a new branch of city (or a new mode of city) came into existence. Arcticus Industrius? Mediterranea Turistica? Subterranea Ride-Sharea?

[1] Richard Weller, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com/.

[2] Tomas Diez, Fab City White Paper, http://fab.city/whitepaper.pdf.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2011.

[4] It is worth observing that nature is also incredibly violent and unforgiving to organisms unfit for survival, almost like neoliberal capitalism is to individuals in the market who are already disadvantaged. I think ecologists and conservationists do not see the whole picture in this regard.

[5] See Benjamin P. Oldroyd,What’s Killing American Honey Bees?, PLoS Biology. 5 (6): e168, 2007; and Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al, Colony Collapse Disorder Preliminary Report, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) – CCD Working Group. p. 22, 5 January 2006.

The Aspiration Index

Image source: https://newyorkyimby.com/2014/12/future-view-manhattan-skyline-2023.html

Skylines are a speculator’s dream. Strictly speaking, they are not real things. In the same way that edges are not really there, but merely the points at which an object leaves a beholder’s eye, a city’s skyline is an imagined contour. If I ask you to imagine New York City’s skyline, you will most likely picture a silhouette with the few telltale icons bristling among generic rectangles. Whenever Related Companies’ CEO Jeff Blau promotes Hudson Yards on the news, he is sure to mention is the development’s contribution to the skyline. The image can also change depending on where you live—whether you look east from Hoboken, north from Ellis Island, or west from the Long Island Expressway.

This imagined state is also what makes it a useful measuring tool. Since it is capable of accommodating many different viewpoints, and since it changes constantly in response to citymakers’ speculations, a skyline is what I like to call the Aspiration Index of a city. It is a summation of all of the city’s past and future ambitions, an agglomeration of jostling voices into a coherent whole.

So the question arises: who controls the fluxes of this Aspiration Index? Who are the big influencers in that market? In the case of New York City, the answer has been clear for over a century: wealthy players in real estate. Since the skyscraper boom at the end of the 19th century, it has always been up to the oil tycoons and media magnates to determine the shape and color of the city canopy. Ironically, those players rarely leave the city themselves, and the skyline they mold is viewed predominantly by the working classes who live on the outskirts. This contrast is especially striking at night, when the city’s tallest buildings illuminate the dark with an array of colors.

NYC skyline , 1904s. Image via http://www.oldstratforduponavon.com/nyc4.html

The Empire State Building, a mainstay of the New York City skyline for almost 90 years now, has been outfitted with colorful lights on its crown since the 1960s; and since a lighting upgrade in 1976 has started the tradition of being lit up in different colors every night in reference to holidays or other city-wide events. It has become a pastime for some to look up at the lights after dark and guess what the day’s reference is. Over the years, it has expanded into a reservation system, in which various non-profits can apply to choose a commemorative lighting display for a single night. The spire on One Bryant Park even has its own Twitter feed which advertises the commemorations. However, these commemorations only occur once every several days, meaning that for most days the city lights remain firmly in the hands of the property owners, The Durst Organization.

Perhaps it was this detail of the empty, uncommemorated days which gave Mark Domino, son-in-law of The Durst Organization’s Chairman, an idea. He developed an app called Spireworks which allows users to log in and, for a few minutes, control the lights of One Bryant Park in real time. The app was distributed to several thousand users as a test, and it quickly exploded in popularity as users jostled for their chance to send secret messages, impress friends, and seduce dates. For the first time, a landowner had to give up control, and the inhabitants of New York seized the chance to make the skyline theirs. Mark Domino told Metro News in 2017 about his own aspiration to “transform Spireworks into something that has a greater social benefit.”

Admirable as it is, however, it is difficult to imagine what Mark Domino means exactly by “greater social benefit,” beyond reverting One Bryant Park’s spire to an organized, regulated reservation system like the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, since new technology evolves at a pace all its own, Spireworks has taken on a reputation of white-collar exclusivity quite contrary to its original intent. This is partially determined by design: digital queues have maximum wait times so as not to eat up bandwidth, and in order to gain access to the app, you have to be invited by an existing user. Spireworks now gives access to the lights of Four Times Square (also a Durst Organization property) and Domino has stated plans to expand, but that front has quieted.

Less than two years ago I visited my friend in Brooklyn Heights. She took me out on her balcony which faces the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan, and said, “Watch this.” She pulled out her phone and began pressing buttons, and in the distance, I watched open-mouthed as the crystal spire changed color within seconds. She sent me the invitation the next morning, but I never touched it. Like the hijacked innocence of the app itself, I never thought of it as more than an exclusive toy. I remembered that day on the balcony when I began putting this piece together, and I called my friend to get a live image. I logged into Spireworks in Barcelona and we opened a Skype call. For five minutes we fidgeted with camera angles and headphones and session timeouts, never quite getting the results we wanted. Maybe there was a concurrent user showing off in Midtown. Maybe the app just doesn’t work from Europe. But there I sat anyway, 3,800 miles away from my hometown, fighting for my momentary lease on the New York City skyline.

Behind Every Person (There Is A Person)

Our Master in City & Technology class is as diverse as can be. We are different ages (23-32), we have different professional backgrounds (agriculture, interior design, fresh graduates to licensed professionals), a dozen languages between us (Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, and, you know… English), three-and-a-half religions…… Designing and debating with my new friends is exciting, because no two opinions are the same and no one is afraid to speak. Every class is an occasion to encounter another worldview, which means it is also an occasion to admit that my own was misplaced.

North Americans are obsessed with race. Rightly so, since its history is marred by an injustice about which we to this day are in denial. Every American’s adulthood involves reckoning with it at some point, and so have I too cultivated a position on racism which I tuck behind my cheek like chewing gum for whenever I should need it. It has sat there for years now, still smacking of tangy cynicism, minty socioeconomic un-self-awareness, a fruity impulse to label offenders and victims, and those gritty blue flakes of American exceptionalism which I don’t like but can’t avoid. Without noticing I came to believe that this was it: my relationship to racism had matured.

It was the first week of class, and every seminar was spent introducing ourselves and talking big concepts and aspirations with the professors. In our first Fab City class we got on the topic of the emergence of global networks. I asked whether anyone worried that these new technologies could further increase the gap between rich and poor, instead of being the great democratizing paradigm shift that many claim it to be. Global networks work the best when every human being is connected to them, so shouldn’t the focus be on bringing connectivity to the ones least likely to get it? How do we avoid leaving people behind?

“In principle, yes,” said Tomas, our professor. “But in reality these transitions are happening constantly. The work of the more privileged should always be to distribute wealth and opportunity to the less privileged, but once you finish connecting those people, the rest of the world will have moved on. This is is happening constantly. People are getting thrown from one radical shift to another.

“Like in Africa,” he continued, “most of the continent didn’t even go through a proper Second Industrial Revolution. And now in the past couple of decades they have jumped from agriculture to the internet. It is super radical.”

Maggie reacted immediately. “Yeah, that’s crazy how you’re all on the grid now…” she was looking at Venessa. We were all looking at Venessa. I saw her gaze sharpen. She smiled gently and said, with mild surprise, “Do I need to say something?”

Everyone chuckled and looked down, including Maggie whom I heard mutter something that from its intonation sounded like an apology. With my racism cap on, I knew exactly what she, a white American from California, was thinking.

I left class that day feeling uncomfortable, sad for both Venessa and Maggie. Nine times out of ten this would have been an isolated moment, eventually forgotten, not worthy of sealing in a Ziploc for future trials. I could have moved on with my life infinitesimally more at ease for not having said something like that myself. But learning to identify these moments sits lowest on the ladder of praiseworthy behavior. I had come to Barcelona with the intention of learning about the world, which I realized should include both big data storytelling and making new friends.

Then a few weeks later, we were in another class, in which we were building a catalog of the streets of our home cities. One page of this catalog was meant to show common parameters like street width, street use, traffic flow and speed. I was in charge of designing the graphics of these parameters. To get an idea of the range of speeds I had to account for, I asked Venessa what the highest number is on odometers in Nigeria.

Suddenly everyone around me spoke up in cacophonous tones saying, “Come on, Ivan, it depends on the car maker, not the country.”

After the five seconds of noise died down, I could only mutter, “Sorry, you’re right,” while thinking to myself, “Crap. Did I just do that thing that I smugly believed I would never do?” I pictured Maggie’s eyes on me, wondering the same, and infinitesimally relieved that it was me and not her. Were we the only ones who even saw the moment that way? Was the cacophonous rebuttal from the others simply in response to my ignorance of how cars work? I wasn’t sure.

The following weekend Venessa and I took a walk around the neighborhood for an assignment. We talked about many things, including religion and spirituality, where she opened up to me about her Christian faith, and I to her about my serious ambivalence on believing in God. We sat down at a cantina for a sandwich. She was confused by my ordering just a salad. Then I got around to asking her about two weeks before with Maggie.

“Do you remember that? I remember thinking, ‘Oooooh,'” I said, making a face like the ones I make when I watch drunk people trip on the street. I was baiting her for a bit of gossip.

But to my surprise, she took a breath and said, “I do remember. I just felt bad, because I’m only one person. I would never want to speak for someone I didn’t know. I wanted to have more of an opinion, but I just didn’t have anything to say.”

It wasn’t a defensive response, it was a humble one. She was speaking not just as a black person, she spoke as a Christian, as a Nigerian, as a woman…. There was nuance behind her words, an obvious humanity which I had tuned out over the years, like chewing gum behind my cheek. In the US, despite our hymns of freedom, we are in fact quite prude. We are so sensitive to things like race that we avoid touching the subject altogether. As a result, we forget that behind every person there is a person, complete with race, sex, faith, and everything else.

The semester went by and we all went home for the holidays. When we came back in January, we spent much of our dwindling free time sharing photos of one another’s vacations. Venessa showed us photos from her sister’s wedding. Irene and I stared at the screen.

“Eh, which one is you?” Irene asked.

“That one,” Venessa said calmly, pointing herself out.

“Eh? But your hair is so different!”

“I changed it. It’s OK, Irene. One day you’re going to learn to identify black people by something other than their hair.”

She said this without a hint of venom, with such gentleness that the only reaction our bodies found appropriate was hanging our heads and laughing.

A few minutes later, when we were done with our meeting, Venessa looked at me and asked, “Am I dismissed?”

“I… You are not in my custody,” I answered. I decided not to play along with her joke. She was allowed to tease me. Venessa put her coat on and as she walked out of the classroom she spread her arms, started skipping, and said, “It feels so good to be free!” I felt infinitesimally relieved for having decided to not play along, because that would mean saying “I don’t own you” aloud. Which, if the way it made me feel just thinking about it was any indication….

Venessa was gone and I sat there reveling in the fact that I had just been teased for my race. For a peacekeeper like me, it’s difficult as a default to part ways with an inkling of bad spirits. But I reminded myself that Venessa harbors no ill intentions, only grace. She was just making us aware that we were spouting harmless ignorance. Any fledgling friendship requires people to make themselves vulnerable to one another. So long as she knows that I respect her, I will solemnly accept being made fun of for my whiteness. Them’s the breaks.

When DBZ Jumped the Shark

Very rarely do two chapters of my life confront one another directly. Most of the time I pass my days evolving, hoping that things I have done in the past that became pieces of me will just fade into memory and not have to be repeated. But two of the great things about Charlotte is that she makes me want to open that wunderkammer of my past AND analyze it in the fresh light of my present self.

And so it happened that one evening after coming out of the Cinemex on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City. We had just seen Wonder Woman, about which there was much fanfare, specifically the debate about whether or not it was feminist. Our analysis of it boiled down to: the first half does indeed touch on numerous good topics for feminism, but the second half leaves them all undeveloped for the sake of tired superhero-movie cliches. Referring to the CGI’d and over-the-top final battle scene, Charlotte wondered aloud if it had jumped the shark.

“Jumping the shark” is one of many phrases of American English I learned from her since we started dating almost ten years ago. Every couple of months or so she will say something like “bull in a China shop” or “as the crow flies,” and I will have to ask her to explain. In this manner I learned what “jumping the shark” means, that it originated with the show Happy Days, where, in the fifth season, The Fonz (a character close to my heart for coincidental reasons) literally jumps over a shark on a pair of water skis– a scene which signaled that the show had exhausted all possibility of development and therefore had no other recourse but to do something truly over-the-top to maintain viewership.

I understood what Charlotte meant: like many superhero movies (both from DC and Marvel), Wonder Woman suffered from trying to cram too much plot into one feature. Attempting to fit an origin story, a love story, and three villains into 140 minutes, they dug themselves into a hole by the end, leaving no cinematic way out for Wonder Woman to defeat the bad guy other than with a kind of cataclysmic explosion. Using her mysterious powers (which we only hear a cursory explanation of) combined with the power of love (for a character which she had only known for a week), she absorbs the lighting-like energy from Ares into her wristbands, stores it, jumps (or flies) high into the air, then releases it back at him, causing a huge explosion. All that is left when the dust settles is a crater. The movie ends.

Wonder Woman absorbs Ares’ lightning bolt. Image still from FilmicBox’s YouTube video.

Seeing that scene, in conjunction with the phrase “jumping the shark” which was fresh in my mind, suddenly set off a whole train of thought which is the subject of this post.

As a teenager I was an enormous fan of the Akira Toriyama-created Japanese manga-turned-anime series Dragon Ball Z. This is the first time I am even publicly announcing this. Why it has never surfaced up to this point is most likely because of embarrassment in retrospect, since it is widely accepted that Western consumers of manga and anime are dorks to the maximum degree. Between about the ages of 12 and 17 it occupied much of my life, including that of my parents whom I regularly asked to leave work and come home to record new episodes on VHS while I was at music school. And like riding a bicycle, certain parts of the show have simply lodged themselves inside me, pegged to the pinboard of my brain like old postcards, subtly filtering many thoughts and experiences that have passed through since. Thus the story’s plot re-emerged as I thought of Wonder Woman.

In short, Dragon Ball Z is about a Superman-type humanoid alien protagonist with superhuman powers who lands on Earth as a child and spends his entire life defending the planet from various enemies. The whole series sees no less than twenty main villains, and totals 291 episodes across 7 sagas. Think about that for a moment. For perspective, Lost, the ABC TV show which everyone agrees went on for too long and got too complicated, had only 121 episodes in total, less than HALF of DBZ. Eventually, a television show with such an ambitious scope has to run into serious narrative challenges developing the characters, making them stronger, making the stakes higher, etc. At what point does a show like DBZ jump the shark?

Episode 5, in which Piccolo kills both Raditz and Goku.

DBZ begins with the arrival on Earth of the protagonist Son Goku’s malicious older brother Raditz, who has come to kill the former. After 4 episodes, Son Goku sacrifices himself to defeat Raditz. That’s right: in episode 5 of 291, the protagonist dies.

What next after death? Like many stories before and since, DBZ employs a method of multiverse-storytelling, where we progressively learn of higher and higher dimensions in an expansive multiverse of which Earth exists on only the lowest rung. To me, these dimensions have always been a cop-out, since the moment you learn that a hero goes to an afterlife and can be resurrected, the significance of fighting and dying in the Earth realm is irreversibly diminished.

But in most of the early stages of the story, we only know of one rung above the Earth realm, and that a person can only die and be brought back to life once. In other words, the story still imposes limitations on itself, and these limitations make the battles more exciting. Being impaled through the torso by an energy beam (in Raditz’s and Goku’s case, above) or being fatally dismembered by a sword (in Vegeta’s first case, below) are real, violent acts with real consequences.

Episode 35, Krillin threatens Vegeta with a sword. The characters acknowledge and resolve this moment in real-life terms that we the viewers can grasp.

However, as the story expands, the characters get stronger and stronger and quickly we lose our sense of reality. By episode 78 we have our first fighting power level (the universal measure of a character’s strength) of 1,000,000, a number which I think more than anything is usually employed to signal an amount beyond human understanding. This power level is reached by Freezer, one of the show’s most iconic arch-villains, who happens to be an alien who can not only destroy entire planets with a single attack, breathe in the vacuum of space, but also survive being dismembered by an energy disc in episode 104 (remember that in episode 35 Vegeta was about to be dismembered and killed by a regular metal sword, but was spared).

Freezer is sliced by his own attack…
…but does not die. This moment is outside of the realm of human experience.

Before Freezer, we had villains like Vegeta, who, though powerful, also had weaknesses and were characters with depth. With Freezer, the precedent was set for villains who had no depth, who all fit the “Evil Chaotic” mold in the Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Chart. The Joker in the world of Batman fits this mold as well: a villain with vague origins and motives, who simply IS evil beyond any analysis, and exists only to destroy life. Where to go from there? Sharky waters loom.

The Android and Cell Sagas that followed took the same mold of Chaotic Evil villain and erased any possible remaining weaknesses. The Androids had unlimited energy (they could shoot energy beams all day long), and most notably, Cell possessed all of the heroes’ moves, including the ability to regenerate entire portions of his body. So much for dismemberment. Now, the only way to destroy Cell (all understood) was to completely vaporize him with an energy wave. That, to me, is the ki equivalent of proclaiming a power level of one million: it signals that we are beyond the scale of human understanding.

A single cell survives Cell’s self-destruction, and undergoes mitosis to restore his body.

In episode 189, even after self-destructing (!), one of Cell’s cells survives and mitotically restores him to his fighting form. He returns to the battlefield and charges up one last energy wave to destroy Earth as we know it, but is miraculously defeated (for real this time) by Goku’s son Gohan, with an almost identical energy wave.

Two energy waves collide.
Cell is completely vaporized by an energy wave, and destroyed for good.

But there remained something deeply unsatisfying in that vaporization of Cell. It felt like DBZ had painted itself into a corner. By creating an all-powerful, multidimensional, self-regenerating, alien-android hybrid supervillain, the show had to resort to nothing short of a cataclysm to make the good guys win. It was dealing in things beyond real human experience. It had jumped the shark. For the remainder of the show, the villains repeated this basic mold, the battles became drawn out and famously cut+paste, the story had to introduce multiple dimensions to justify complex plot lines… the series generally plateaued.

The energy waves in DBZ even resemble the beam that Wonder Woman absorbs and fires back at Ares: a linear, bright blue, plasma-like beam which, presumably like gamma radiation, simply vaporizes whatever it passes through. Was it even necessary for Wonder Woman to have this epic CGI battle with Ares? How do you follow that up? Will Wonder Woman’s enemy in the next movie be just a glowing cloud or omniscient God which so many Marvel villains seem to take the form of (see: Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; X:Men Apocalypse; Dormammu in Dr. Strange)? Wasn’t it exciting enough when she ran out into no man’s land and headlong into machine gun fire? Couldn’t the movie have made that the only battle scene? There felt to be more at stake in that first battle scene, precisely because the consequences were still within the realm of real human history and experience.

Introduce CGI villains with no apparent weaknesses at your own risk, because then you leave yourself no choice but to jump the shark, and splash right into the tepid pool of chlorinated water you yourself have filled.

What your tennis court surface says about you

Though the ITF recognizes a bunch of different tennis court surfaces, for simplicity I’ve chosen to only discuss the three major surfaces represented by the four Grand Slam tournaments. Scores after every passage are on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

The “No Line” Court; World Team Tennis

GRASS COURTS: You are a purist. You enjoy tennis the way you enjoy a gin martini or a Japanese rock garden: traditional, tranquil, and as nature intended. Your most valued athletic qualities are agility, balance, and creativity– the quieter the atmosphere, the shorter the points, the more you feel like you’re witnessing something that’s been around since the dawn of time. However, you overlook that this is false nostalgia: grass courts and lawns in general are not pure nature, they are humankind’s aborted and artificially manicured image of nature. In fact, the great tradition of most British lawn sports (golf, cricket, croquet, bowling, even billiards) involves a disproportionately large area of land being occupied by a disproportionately small number of people for a disproportionately long period of time. You cling to the glory of past empires, when land ownership was the prime signifier of wealth. Nonetheless, this clinginess also means you value sportsmanship, civility, and the rule of law. You are a proud minority.

Predictability: ***

Maintenance: *****

Rain Resilience: *

Chance of Injury: ***

HARD COURTS: You are enterprising and resourceful. Eager to get the job done, you set out for modern, pragmatic solutions that make sense to you, the everyman, rather than the tried-and-true formulas of unknown origin. Your most valued athletic qualities are power and charisma. Instead of pretending to control nature, you wipe it out entirely, replacing it with something simpler. However, in prioritizing short-term gains, you willfully ignore the inevitable moment when nature reclaims its domain. At that moment you will be forced to replace your replacement of nature, since it is patently inflexible and impossible to maintain. But this is the New World Order, where there are clear boundaries between opposites, like hot and cold, black and white, mine and yours, fit and injured… Hell with your body. The road to heaven is paved with concrete… and topped with a fine acrylic membrane.

Predictability: ****

Maintenance (short term): *

Maintenance (long term): *****

Rain Resilience: **

Chance of Injury: ****

CLAY COURTS: You are unpretentious and open-minded. Taking inspiration from the Earth itself, you strive for a solution that is soft, carefully layered, undeceptive, and encourages the user to maintain it him or herself (as opposed to hired staff) using basic tools. Your most valued athletic qualities are grit and patience. You often refer to your work in nuanced terms, unable to single out a superlative weapon or a preferred pattern, rather utilizing the full range of terms: power, speed, stamina, intelligence…. Minor impositions of nature such as drizzle, unpredictable bounces, or laundry do not bother you. In fact, these assets make you quite adaptable and attractive to many climates and cultures around the world, especially poorer ones. Moreover, most of the world’s best grew up playing on clay. You are global. But this also means you suffer from a crisis of identity: are you red clay, crushed brick, metabasalt, or sand? Are you old school, or the future? Are you popular, or imposing yourself? Are you original, or living in compromise?

Predictability: **

Maintenance: ***

Rain Resilience: ****

Chance of Injury: **

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal; Battle of the Surfaces; May 2007

References, for fun:

http://grantland.com/features/the-physics-grass-clay-cement/

http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~kinshuk/tennis/

http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2017/02/16/bjsports-2016-097050

http://www.clayfricktennis.org/ClayWorld.html

Uncharted Territory dot com

In man’s early years, he had still to occupy the entirety of the globe, on top of which he didn’t even know how much of the world was still unoccupied. Imagine: knowing your territory, but facing a frontier at all sides. How much further does it go? How big would primitive man have imagined the uncharted territory to be? With respect to this unknown unknown, those early times were correspondingly quite violent. Wars and genocide were constantly going on as men coped with the conflicting notions of discovering the world and sharing it with others.

Over time, the discovery was made that the world was round, and humankind swiftly moved to occupy it all. Wholly overtaking the planet, closing the loop, is an act that justifies itself. It ties the knot of discovery within a perfect package. Our unconscious must have felt immense relief circa the Enlightenment. Though we still have wars and genocide, violent deaths connected to the control of territory are decreasing, now that that territory is no longer unknown. We comfortably analyze the violence of the past as primitive and barbaric.

However, humankind’s drive to seek new frontiers is insatiable. Sometimes, when the frontier is either unseen or unfeasibly remote (like the bottom of the ocean or deep space), we resort to creating new frontiers ourselves. The latest example of this is the internet. The world wide web is a brand new world, also full of uncharted territory. Notice, too, how our exploration of that world has reverted us back to our violent past. We are turning against each other because we have become unknown to each other once again.

Do we create worlds because we strive for the thrill of creation, or for the thrill of discovery? Do those impulses overshadow the artificiality of our surroundings? Does that thrill cheaply distract us from more difficult undertakings, like learning to get along with each other?

This Will Kill That

Once a year or so, which is as frequently as my pride will concede, an old lesson from a professor pops out of my memory and hits me with a that’s-what-they-were-talking-about! moment.
The most recent one came while walking around Paris, the professor was Anthony Vidler, and the lesson was a pantomime of Claude Frollo’s “THIS WILL KILL THAT” line, from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, on a dull evening in his Modern Architectural Concepts seminar.
Poster from 250List, illustrating Aaron Sorkin’s “What Victor Hugo really meant by this will kill that.”
hunchback-of-the-notre-dame-disneyscreencaps.com-2292-claude frollo
The gist of this moment in the book is the declaration that the printed word will usurp architecture as the prime conveyor of information to the masses. Up to that point, buildings were designed always with the illiterate inhabitant in mind. Through their placement in the city, their facilitation of public assembly, their material connection to the earth, and their ornamentation (gargoyles, friezes, mosaics, stained glass windows), they told a story about themselves and their world. These stories were told in pictures, sculpture, sound, and more. We believe that people were likewise more attuned to these messages when words and written language was not front and center. But then it did become front and center, and architecture lost its need to tell stories in pictures– why bother meticulously crafting a work of art through the collaboration of a stonemason and a painter when you can more easily etch words onto a blank wall? Even further– why bother carving words when you can print them and hand them out as pamphlets at the building entrance?
A time when architecture and pictorial storytelling were still intertwined. The life of Joseph, depicted in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Image via wikipedia.
How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in literature is set in Paris?

Paris is very well-decorated. It is ingrained in the spirit of the city. “How do I make it beautiful?” is a separate but equal question with “How do I build it?” They don’t call it the City of Lights for nothing. But there came a time, in the 20th century, when Paris became so saturated with historic architecture that it became like a huge museum. I imagine myself as a Paris city planner. For fear of destroying its history, I avoided new additions to the urban fabric. I forgot that the very history I was preserving was founded on baroque sensibilities– whimsy, emotion, sparkle, darkness– that prefer volatility over permanence. Worse, I no longer spoke the language of pictorial architecture, so I couldn’t see this plain fact literally carved into the city around me. When I looked up, I saw beautiful containers worth preserving when I should’ve seen living, breathing artworks that are unafraid of death.

If I look at it the way Victor Hugo did– that books have killed buildings by sapping them of their beauty– modernism was not a great revolution in architecture, but more like designers grasping for straws, realizing that austere aesthetics are inevitably becoming the status quo, and reactively finding justification for it. But it is harder that it seems to eliminate ornament entirely.

I took a morning to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou. The museum was described in the guidebook thus: “by exposing the plumbing, HVAC, and other systems that run the building, the architects put form before function and found the ultimate expression of modern architecture.”
I thought wait wait wait. No one required Piano & Rogers to paint the pipes different colors. Au contraire, the systems were exposed in order to become decorative!  The reason Pompidou is a great building is that it goes against the form-before-function tenet of modernism. It recognizes that each building contains thousands of opportunities to add a little humor, whimsy, or emotion to our environment. Like all multilingual buildings it speaks through light, sculpture, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, botany, weaving, plumbing, all the details of craftsmen, rather than just architectonics (the English of built languages). Richness of ornament is tied to richness of spirit. Pompidou helps revive the baroque qualities of Paris that once made it playful and alive.
This may be the best lesson of post-modernism.

How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in architecture is set in Paris?

View of Paris from Centre Pompidou.