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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in Nostalgia, Travel | 2 Comments

Portable cathedrals.

Perhaps the only mobile phone review I’d consider essential reading includes “Roland Barthes” among its tags and this choice paragraph:

Each mobile phone handset is not a mere product, perhaps like the other products that have traditionally adorned the pages of this magazine—as a chair is, or a lighting fixture is. Instead, each handset is a play in a wider global contest, a node in logistics networks of immense scale and complexity, a platform for an ecosystem of applications, an exemplar of the internet of things, a window onto the daily interactions of billions of users, of their ever-changing personalities and cultures, a product that consumers traditionally consider the most important in their possession, after the keys to their home.
“Portable Cathedrals” by Dan Hill for Domus

So much of it is quotable that it’s difficult to tease out one singular paragraph around which to blog. Its focus on the nature of mobile-phone-ness is unabating. Hill also admirably keeps the phones aesthetic and technical qualities within scope while forgoing descriptions of the device as technoassemblage (the prevailing editorial voice of Cnet, Gizmodo, Engadget, and even The Verge).

I, for one, am taking notes.

(via Small Surfaces)

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A cheeseburger today.

Not-possible-before-the-20th-century writing usually opens my eyes – especially when the product in question is widely available for around $1 – and this is no exception:

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.
Waldo Jaquith

The parallel to “I, Pencil,” The Toaster Project, etc. is unmistakable.

In the case of food, I’ve often called molecular gastronomy the practice of post-ethnic cuisine. Perhaps I should begin carving a niche in my taxonomy for post-industrial dishes, where the modern lettuce-and-tomato-topped interpretation of the ground beef sandwich would take residence with other ethnically-bound but supply-chain-dependent dishes (e.g. the McRib). Maybe Next could take it up as a theme.

Also: I realize this means that Wimpy of Popeye (while looking and sounding quite one-percent) manages to blend two distinctly 20th-century tastes – burgers and credit – in his signature epigram.

Somewhat related: I have dinner plans at Shake Shack tonight.

(via Kottke)

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A unified theory of why we hate traffic and why rent in the city is so high.

Let’s get this out of the way: nobody loves traffic, right? We take for granted that when someone talks about traffic, they do so with some disdain.

This morning, I came to think about how that disdain is caused, at its root, by the clash of mobility and immobility. In the case of automobile traffic, this clash is hastened by the car’s promise of self-directed and accelerated mobility – rendered totally worthless with exceeding regularity around 4 every afternoon.

Underlying this presumption is the premise that the value of self-directed accelerated mobility is proportional to the intended travel distance. In short: we care more about how fast we go when we have to travel farther. Where travel distance is thirty miles of flat highway, the value of accelerated mobility is high. Where travel distance is three city blocks or even a mile, other forms of mobility are probably suitable. Shorter travel distances give us more options for mobility.

Which gets me to the rent part: travel distances in cities can be very short. The density of pre-modern urban planning creates short distances between places where people live and where people conduct commerce. Residents of these areas can therefore enjoy a range of mobility options that need not necessarily be self-directed or accelerated – when it takes 5 minutes to bike, 10 minutes to walk, or 10 minutes to take public transit to your destination, the relative advantage of making the trip in 5 minutes by one’s own car evaporates hastily. And we pay more for access to that spectrum.

There is an easy leap to be made next about the equation of time and money (and space). My attachment to cities is grounded in my care of time: my time matters therefore my time in transit matters therefore I choose to live in a place where my time in transit is minimal. And I pay a lot of money for that choice.

However, while distance and mobility don’t mean as much if we have loads of time, this equation doesn’t take into account the issue of physical space.

In cities, one’s choice of residence is a function of time, money, and space. How close can one get to the place where they want to be, how much will it cost, and how much space will they have for themselves? When space needs exceed available funds, distance must seemingly necessarily increase – which increases the value of mobility and makes traffic (as a social phenomenon and personal, emotional reality) suck that much more.

And therein lies the problem: people who need more space create (and experience) traffic in order to afford that space.

I thought one of the better solutions proposed was by Facebook, who (if I recall correctly) offered their employees a $500 monthly credit if they lived within a mile (or two? or what?) of their campus. While its increased employee satisfaction and productivity and ability to recruit based on reduced traffic generates value, I wonder whether this program persists as the company has grown, created artificial demand in the radius around its headquarters, and whether the expenditure now exceeds the benefits. Is $500 still enough to cover the increased demand in that neighborhood? Is it still worth $500 per month per employee to Facebook to make this bubble?

Facebook’s predilection towards walled gardens aside, the other reason this program could make sense is that (if they own the land on which they operate) by creating an urban area around their headquarters they raise the property value of their headquarters past its suburban ceiling. Executed properly, they could grow the area to the point where it could be an urban center that could survive independently. With commuting distances lower and high property values sustained by company stipends, the area could flourish in a way that provides residents with a high range of mobility options and more space. Improperly executed, they risk creating a company town.

Space is also an aggregated measurement, and in order to consider increase one’s personal space without losing mobility, you have to consider not just area – lot size and square footage – but volume. Considering volume when planning cities is a tricky thing because people tend to neither plan for nor consume housing in three dimensions. As I’ve learned, not all 600-square-foot apartments are created equal.

So another solution without a financial imperative is simply a better use of volume in cities. As much as it is an “urban planning” challenge, we should challenge ourselves to better use our personal space. When building homes and offices, this means better designed appliances, hinges, ducts, and other kinds of interior infrastructure. In actual use, this means keeping a couple winter coats instead of a closetful, working in an open-floor office rather than one partitioned with modular furniture.

Does living this way actually reduce traffic? I think it will. It goes up the food chain, in a manner of speaking. The extra inches we take for granted around our homes can add up to miles around cities and neighborhoods. And when that happens, mobility becomes increasingly valuable because it’s a matter of time.

And it doesn’t hurt to try.

Related: I spent Halloween evening watching the DC premiere of Urbanized. It seems that with each succeeding movie in Gary Hustwit’s “design trilogy,” the coherence decreases as scope increases. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t an eminently watchable film: its world-spanning breadth is compelling.

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…with an ice cream maker and Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi stood ahead of me a couple places in line. I didn’t recognize him from behind, but once he came to a bend in the line, I could not mistake the translucent blue eyes that hung over his smirk for anyone else’s. He wore skinny black jeans and a faded black cap embroidered with what I think was a Jamba Juice logo in cardinal red monochrome. He travelled with a woman with reddish brown hair who wore thick-rimmed glasses.

I made eye contact with him and moved to nod as if an acquaintance, but he didn’t recognize me. He may not have recognized that I recognized him. Or maybe he did: he is, after all, recognizable.

I thought to take a picture of him with my phone, to tell him I was a fan and in particular I remember his voice work at Eastern State Penitentiary. I did not take that leap. I read the lips of the TSA agent who asked to see his boarding pass and identification: I’m a fan of your work.

I yanked my over-stuffed suitcase onto the steel tables leading to the conveyor belt, emptied my pockets into a side pocket of my suitcase, took off my shoes. As my bag passed through the perfunctory X-ray, I faced to the side, elbows above my head, as shown in the diagram. I stood perfectly still. Another agent allowed me to pass. I lined up at the end of the conveyor belt and waited for my bag. My shoes came out. The agent at the conveyor belt called for a bag check. The agent responsible for bag checks chided him for calling for bag checks so often. She asked whose it was and I said it was mine. She told me to follow her. I put on my shoes and followed her.

She opened the main compartment of the bag, removed the clean shirts at the top of its contents, and observed two drums wrapped in plastic. She looked at me wearily, wordlessly asking what these two drums were meant to be.

“My parents gave me an ice cream maker for my birthday,” I said. She started swabbing the edge of the compartment.
“Are you going to use it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, then clarified: “Not on this flight.”

She continued swabbing other pockets and placed each of these swabs into a scanner the size of a jukebox. I watched, having expected this interaction as a consequence of packing a disassembled kitchen appliance into my suitcase.

“Homemade ice cream is good,” she said without prompting.
“I agree.”
“I asked because I have an ice cream maker but I never use it.”
“Well…”
“It’s good with fresh fruit.”

I started to comment about how I thought frozen fruit would suffice for mixing into ice cream. She started to advise me about strawberries.

“What’s good is when you take strawberries, cut them in half and hull them. Sprinkle some sugar over that, leave it overnight, pour out the juice the next morning. Puree that,” she said.

I stopped paying attention to my suitcase. I assume the swab turned up clean.

“That sounds good,” I said. “I’ll have to try that.”

She replaced my clean shirts atop the drums of the ice cream maker and zipped the suitcase closed. I fished out my phone, wallet, etc. from the side pocket of the suitcase and replaced them in the pockets of my jeans. Another agent interrupted us to bring me my messenger bag. I left it at the end of the conveyor belt in my haste to follow the agent who did bag checks and advised me about strawberries. I took my suitcase and messenger bag and headed towards Gate 30 where Christina was waiting and other passengers for Alaska 6 were already lined up.

As I offered her to get us a bottle of water, Steve Buscemi and the woman with reddish brown hair sauntered past.

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Whalegaze.

So I accidentally synchronized this video of a kayaker encountering a blue whale with this song and it turns out to match up quite nicely. Open two browser tabs, play video full screen, and have a snack.

(Video via The Awl.)

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Return to form.

Using the phrase return to form to describe the state of one’s artistic production seems a tacit admission of irrelevance, like R.E.M. or The Simpsons in the 21st century. And I am demanding exactly that of myself this morning, with you as my witness: my own return to form.

I’ve long maintained that you have to be prolific before you can be good. A corollary, I’ve learned, is that you have to stay prolific in order to stay good. A shabby score on a (brilliantly made) kerning test set it off last night, but it’s been percolating for years. It’s been a while since I’ve expended the effort to write well about wrinkles of the world I’ve inhabited.

Writing and designing were not previously practices meant to imbue me with cultural relevance so much as they were personal relevance: they were means to accrue self-confidence. Somehow, as the former became a byproduct, it was that I pursued. And it felt good – to have references queued up, flexibility and mobility in my career, disposable income, a role as a mentor – to have all those things afforded by a body of substantial work to one’s name.

And I forgot to make work that was relevant to myself. And when it stopped being relevant to me, I stopped making work as often. And when I stopped making work, I forgot how to make good work.

And I won’t be making good work for a while – I hope it’s a little while and not a long while. But I’ll be making work, and I hope that I produce something I judge favorably before too long.

I’d like to believe it’s not so much that I’ve forgotten how to write as I’ve just forgotten to write. Please bear with me as I test this hypothesis.

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Almost retarded.

Internet Explorer users are stupid and have an average IQ of just 80.
Screencap via The Awl.

While I wanted to believe the study, it was clearly a hoax. Still, I begrudge its believers – that Internet Explorer is such an awful brand name these days is what gives the ApTiquant (née Sokal) Affair the taint of reality.

And it’s deserved criticism. I feel dumber every time I use that browser, that by troubleshooting for its rendering engine, enduring its comparatively slow performance, and attempting to comprehend its persistent lack of a sensible Ctrl+L behavior, I am rendered slightly less alive. Or maybe it’s the thought of Internet Explorer’s resilient hegemony, throbbing along on the fetid fumes of versions 6 and 7, polluting this series of tubes, that drives me to activities that kill my brain cells.

So no research has borne out that Internet Explorer users, as a bloc, are (not) almost retarded. But in the age of WebKit and Firefox and iPhones and Androids, Internet Explorer’s users seem less and less apathetic and more and more adamantly unsavvy. Using Internet Explorer by rational choice at this point is equal to claiming that Barack Obama was born outside the United States. The browser is so loathsome I can’t even think of hipsters who use it ironically.

And as a designer – and with no intention to sully fine prose – “borne back ceaselessly into the past” and what have you.

(In case you were actually interested in answering the question of why people still use Internet Explorer, see Mozilla’s series on why people don’t upgrade their browsers.)

Posted in Humor, Web Browsers | Leave a comment

The deathly hallows, part 2.

Hewlett Packard and the Toner of Secrets, illustration by Will Posner

(Much like the movie described herein, this post will make a lot more sense if you read the first part.)

So I live-tweeted my viewing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. I was hesitant to even watch it when I was offered a ticket, having reveled to some degree in the cultural anti-cachet of having remained quite ignorant about one of the defining fictional universes of the last decade.

Though I still don’t really understand the canon of Harry Potter, I find that since watching this movie and (having had much of the jargon explained to me) that I understand the Twitterverse/blogosphere a little better – it makes a kind of sense to me now when someone calls Rebekah Brooks one of Rupert Murdoch’s horcruxes.

What follows below are the complete tweets of that night. Please forgive any typos; much of this was written in a crowded movie theater on a BlackBerry with the aid/obstacle of Christina’s summer cardigan laying over the screen. (Seriously, RIM, make a BlackBerry ad that involves tweeting snarkily in a dark movie theater filled with emotionally attached fans – with pretty minimal typos – and the halo of touchscreens will dim.)
Continue reading

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