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Innovations in Autocorrect

Idea of the day: a virus that infects the iPhone iOS, detects whether someone is speaking on the phone in a public place (geolocate+ambient sound) an has Siri interrupt the conversation, “excuse me, but you’re being an asshole”. Forget spelling, we need auto correct for manners and social graces”.

Tiffany Blue and Shoes with Red Soles (Paternalistic Pampering & Infringement Litigation)

I’ve spotted many recent instances of what looks like “Tiffany Blue” in fashion/luxury/refinement contexts. The most egregious of which is its use by Jessica Simpson branded products: handbags, shoes and very noticeably, the shoe boxes. This is surprising given how frequently you see mention of the fact that “Tiffany Blue” is a trademarked color, especially formulated by Pantone but unavailable in their library. I’m not aware of Tiffany ever suing anyone for infringing on this trademark but recently the company did weigh in on Christian Louboutin’s lawsuit against YSL for copying the way they color the bottom of their shoe’s soles red. (Tiffany’s filed a legal brief in support of Louboutin’s position.)

(Link: Tiffany & Co. Takes Christian Louboutin’s Side in Red Sole Lawsuit)

Whether or not these are instances of infringement is debatable. It was the sighting of a “robins egg blue” Jessica Simpson shoebox that first caught my attention and sensitivity to subsequent sightings of the color. Certainly, any designer working in fashion or luxury would be aware of the strong association of this hue and the Tiffany brand. Any “box” in that hue is treading firmly in Tiffany territory.

Part of what makes the color so distinctive is that it is a surprising, unlikely choice for a luxury brand. I wouldn’t describe it as a romantic tone but there is a strong “nuptial” association that extends toward the romantic. (Tiffany’s began as a stationary store).

If it isn’t obviously about luxury, what does “Tiffany Blue” mean?

My theory is that the color says “pampering”, the kind of delicate care connoted by baby blues and pinks without evoking nursery (at least in a direct, obvious way). In particular, it conveys a paternalistic pampering that says, “daddy’s gonna take care of you”.

 

Shoes and the color red have a fascinating history that go back way before Christian Louboutin. The following is an excerpt from a fascinating post on The Fashion Historian Blog: Red Heels:

A perfect example of this system of monitoring the aristocracy is red heels on shoes. Louis XIV declared that only those in the royal favor were allowed the privilege of having red heels on their shoes, allowing everyone to show off when they were in favor. Red heels was like sitting at the popular kids table in school, only the very coolest kids could wear them.

Suddenly, if you fell out of the royal favor, everyone would know. It’s bad enough to be out of the royal favor, it’s even worse when you have to advertise it to the world. It was the perfect method for controlling a once unruly upper class. Aristocrats behaved themselves and they didn’t have to face the shame of not having red heels on their shoes.

Participation = Destruction
(1 Billion Internet Users, The Tyranny of the Masses and the Death of Digital Culture)

This week the internet surpassed 1 billion users worldwide. The passing of that milestone is a good place to mark something that has been on my mind. We can no longer think about digital culture as being something outside and apart from the mainstream. It has ceased to be an alternate to mainstream modes. Worse, it’s culture is no longer defined by the quirky personalities of entrepreneurs, early adopters, geeks and tech enthusiasts. Even a year ago, it was still somewhat useful to think of people that lived a digital lifestyle. People that, through technology absorbed content differently and connected with others in different ways. The content and the conversations there were also very different. With smart mobile devices, laptops and connectivity becoming widespread and commonplace parts of our daily live those differences have dissolved.

Traditional media channels, mainstream brands and popular culture are now eagerly embracing digital technology and social media. Some, like the NYTimes have done a great job of integrating it with their traditional offering (although they continue to bleed cash) while CNN’s obnoxious and clumsy use and references to iReporters, Twitter and blogging add to the combative opinion sharing that has come to replace reporting and journalism.

With the masses come many things. Foremost is a shift in tone, character and content from that of a niche subculture to one dominated and defined by the personalities, tastes interests of the collective mainstream. For people who have not yet participated in social media their point of introduction is very likely to be a traditional channel or brand like CNN, Ashton Kushner or Oprah. An emergent property of mass participation is the gravitational shift towards populist interests, values and preoccupations. Social media is turning out to be a channel ideally suited for the further ubiquitous spread of celebrity and tabloid culture. The ultimate direction and social function of these technologies is now out of the hands of a small community and is being driven by the unconscious motives and behavior of the masses.

The greatest impact will continue to be the failure of old models of media and communication that become increasingly less profitable and viable. The ones that do not fail outright are forced to become more sensationalistic to maintain audiences and stray from what it is that they are supposed to be doing in the first place. Television programming is a good example of this. Particularly news. Unfortunately the new technology and interaction modes aren’t offering up very many viable new models, they’re just destroying the old ones with more and more efficacy.

Historically, technology has come with utopian promises of change that it has failed to deliver in the hoped for or predicted way. Industrialization and automation were supposed to create abundance and leisure but today some of our greatest social challenges involve scarcity. Our personal lives are marked by over-work, “time famine” and sleep deprivation. In America, many people working full-time or multiple jobs are unable to provide for their family’s basic needs.

The common championed belief is that digital tools and technology will democratize creativity, give voice and presence to individuals and enable the formation of communities around niche interests and points of view. The only indisputable observation one can make is how powerfully destructive these new technologies have been to traditional industries and social structures. Any claim to their ability to construct new and better alternatives would be premature. I am being to question, particularly as populist participation grows, whether modes of digital and virtual interaction tend toward a spirit of sharing and cooperation or are better suiting to pursuing self-interest and a tendency to devolve into squabble and antagonism. The biggest problems with comment threads is that they quickly stray off topic and devolve in precisely this manner.

Social media is stuck in a mode who’s primary function is trying to manage the communications chaos that these news technologies have created and as a way to stage protest for disgruntled consumers who are now empowered to shoot back.

When it comes to the creation of new business models that support and sustain physical society we are failing. The ubiquity of communications and information technologies only seems to make this worse. The more powerful technology becomes, the less and fewer people are needed. The world’s growing population is increasing the need for new roles of participation. Participation via communication doesn’t count.

The interest in and embracing of digital and social media continues to be strong, which makes sense, who doesn’t want to be on the side of inevitable change as we barrel towards and uncertain future. Whether or not change is on anyone’s side can’t be assured. What the preoccupation with popularity, status and influence — mass media and mainstream values — demonstrates to me is that there is a naive belief that it may be possible to attain the kind of glory that was once bestowed by traditional media and culture using the tools that are bringing about the destruction of the machinery that made that kind of glory possible in the first place.

I can’t help but think of the sacking of Rome by barbarians. As violent as Rome’s rule was, it provided structure and order. It organized the agricultural production and shipping lanes that feed much of the world. When Rome fell that order was destroyed and much of civilization fell into chaos, starvation and disease.

The invention of the printing press created disruptions that lasted well into the 1600s. Don’t expect the chaos created from the changes happening in communications technology to stabilize anytime soon.

The deafening roar of the masses coming online might as well be the horns of Jericho bring down the walls. Right here, right now: Participation = Destruction.

Tears of a Crocodile Clown.
Early Ambitions: Science vs Art

My father’s parents had a very powerful impact on the shaping of my personality. My grandfather, an aeronautical engineer instilled in me a scientific, intellectual curiosity. My grandmother gave me a love for the arts and taught me to paint.

My earliest recollected ambition was to become an inventor, like Thomas Edison. His Menlo Park laboratory is on display at the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village in Michigan. I visited it many times as a child on school field trips. I remember talks with my grandfather in the car during the long drives to our cottage in Northern Michigan about Edison and his many inventions. Sitting in the back seat I would focus my mind on trying to come up with an invention, waiting for something to come to me in one of those fabled “eureka!” moments. And they would, but they were things like “tape recorder”… “camera”… “flashlight”. All things that had already been invented. This was a very frustrating process for a six year old but I did zero in on what what was the fundamental challenge. From the backseat I asked my grandfather as he drove “how do you think of things no one has ever thought of before?”

The unique character of my mind is really the result of a lack receptivity to the process by which other people are socialized and develop their understanding of “they way things are”. I was a very daft child. I remember being very very confused about basic, fundamental things that other people seemed to know or didn’t seem to be bothered by. I had to ask very basic questions in order to figure things out for myself and as a result have developed very personal viewpoints and at times, odd perspectives.

There was a dirty little corner store a few miles from our cottage in Northern Michigan. As a six year old boy this was a magical, magical place. It had all of my favorite things; smoke bombs, BBs for my BB gun, candy, flashlights and Lucky Charms. I was enchanted by that little store in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to own that store. And this is where I stumbled upon a confusing question that nagged at me for years. I knew that when I wanted Lucky Charms we went to the store to get them, but if I owned the store where would I get them. Where did the Lucky Charms really come from? I’m not exaggerating, this question plagued and confused me for years. I would ask employees when I was in the store “where do the Lucky Charms come from?” I remember getting the “who’s retard is this that’s bothering me?” look from people, often.

Unable to answer the questions “how do you think of things that no one has ever thought of?” and “where do the Lucky Charms come from?” I refocused my scientific ambitions on the goal of becoming a doctor. At about 8 or 9 I began doing anatomy drawings from pictures in my mothers old nursing textbooks and our family’s World Book encyclopedias. I would fill notebook after notebook with carefully labeled drawings and facts about the humany body. I memorized the names of all the bones in the human body, which to this day, I still remember.

My scientific ambitions were interrupted only once during my childhood, by the “sweet science” of boxing. Someone had given me a pair of “Muhammad Ali” boxing gloves. Red, inexpensive, toy gloves with the champ’s signature printed on the back of the hand. I remember, at 9, staying up late to watch Muhammad Ali suffer a disappointing loss Leon Spinks. A few day after the fight my father gave me a large-format, limited edition magazine that featured a history of the Heavy Weight championship. I was flipping through the magazine looking at the pictures of the men that had held the title when I came upon something that confused me. At one point (the 50s or 60s) all the portraits went from being pictures of white guys to pictures of black guys. All white to all black, I just didn’t get it. One evening, after dinner, my father was at the sink washing dishes when I walked up to him and gave him a poke. “Dad” I said, “when was the last time there was a white heavy weight champion?” He smirked a bit and told me the answer. I nodded my head thoughtfully then said “OK. I’m going out to do some roadwork”. (My father enjoyed retelling that story for many years.)

I returned to my scientific ambitions when I discovered the television show “Quincy” staring Jack Klugman. Quincy was about a nosy medical examiner who was always butting in and solving the mystery. (I now realize that “Quincy” and “Murder She Wrote” are the same show except Quincy was a playboy, M.E. that lived on a houseboat and the “Murder She Wrote” lady is a menopausal, pulp novelist with a library card.) From that point on I began to tell people that I wanted to become a forensic pathologist when I grew up. I set up my geology and chemistry sets in a corner of the basement on a folding card table. I referred to this as “my laboratory”.

One day I was hunting frogs and crayfish in the creek behind a friends house and we caught a MASSIVE bullfrog, by far the largest I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed by how big, how alive it was. My friend cried out “that thing is a monster”. I instantly thought of Dr Frankenstein and decided to do the only logical thing, kill it and try to bring it back to life again.

I took the monster back to my basement laboratory and using one of my mothers canning jars and my fathers Listerine mouthwash, I “gassed” the giant frog.

I needed to find something that could be used to deliver a jolt of electricity to the inanimate beast in order to bring him back to life. I pillaged the storage boxes in the basement until I found what I was looking for, the electric transformer unit that powered my old Lionel train set. I was in luck, the 2 wires that connected to transformer heads to the tracks were still attached. I pulled the transformer from the box below the basement stairs and went to work on the frog. I tried in vain for an hour to electrocute the thing back to life, but it was useless and my little Frankenfrog lay lifeless and dead.

I refused to let the day go down as a failure. Drawing upon what I had learned watching Quincy I proceeded to perform an autopsy. I went to work dissecting the dead amphibian and swiftly determined the cause of death. It was, of course, asphyxiation.

Years later, although still marvelling at the memory of myself as a quirky, young scientist I knew in my heart that that day was a turning point. Deep down I knew that my mind was not ideally suited for a life of science, a life of applying the scientific method. On some level, I had come full circle and embraced my original ambition, to be an inventor, but the path would not be science. The path would be born from a boundless, wild sense of imagination, a lust for making things up. That day I turned from a life of science to the life of the mind and a life of art.

Other excerpts from Tears of a Crocodile Clown: Sick Days (early bouts with megalomania)

Tears of a Crocodile Clown: Sick Days (Early Bouts with Megalomania)

When I was about 7 years old my grandfather gave me what I believed was a burgundy smoking jacket. In retrospect I have no idea what it really was. It could have been a maroon bathrobe… or maybe even a dog blanket. My imagination at the time had no bounds.

During those elementary school years, when I was home sick from school, I had a very specific routine. On the small black and white television set in the bedroom that I shared with my younger brother I would tune into “Bill Kennedy at the Movies”. Bill Kennedy was a former actor that in his later years would host an afternoon show that featured vintage movies. At commercial breaks, Bill would take calls from fans and throw out bits of trivia about the actors and film.

I would sit, perched on the top bunk of our bunk bed, wearing my burgundy smoking jacket at watching Bill Kennedy at the movies. I would have my mother prepare and bring up to me tea, with milk and sugar and toast, buttered and cut into 4 aristocratic triangles.

Spread out before me on the bunk would be National Geographic magazines. While I sipped my tea and watched “Bill Kennedy” I would peruse through the magazines imagining they were “reports” from all corners of the world about the people that I’d conquered.

My ambitions have been growing ever since.

The Outsider’s Advantage: Why Blacks and Gays are Funnier and Brits Make Great Rock ‘N Roll

When I first moved to New York (millions of years ago) I worked out at a neighborhood gym and got to know a lot of the guys that worked out there. Two of the guys I got to know quite well were very gay and very funny. They had a way of phrasing things that always cracked me up. One day they were talking about another guy, a very beefy, very straight guy, that used to work out there but switched to another gym in the neighborhood. The gym he switched to was called AMERICAN FITNESS. However, what came out of one of the guys’s mouths was “oh, she switched to Miss America Fitness”. I laughed for all the obvious reasons but something else went through my head at that moment.

I’ve had many gay friends through the years so I’m accustomed to the “creative” use of pronouns, coded language and the funny shit that comes out of their mouths (Jose’s superpower: “I know what people are going to wear next”), but it was that moment that I realized a larger process that was happening with their use of language. They were actively re-describing the world in terms and language that fit their experience and cultural perspective.

Cultural outsiders, of any type, are constantly exposed to stereotypes and frames of reference that are alien to them. Television, even today, is largely composed of programming that revolves around the lives of straight, white, family-oriented people. It’s not as homogeneous as it used to be but it’s still whitey-white. (Even when it’s not “whitey-white” it is still an incredibly theatricized version of reality. Compared to say, HBO’s use of language, or reality.) For the outsider there is, at the very least on the low end of the spectrum a level of translation necessary to allow for empathetic participation or viewing. At the strongest level, like the “Miss America Fitness” example, it is a recasting into a form that is “owned”. In either case it requires a more active participation than that of someone who is experiencing something that reflects their cultural fluency.

What is important about the outsiders process is that they are more aware of the mechanics of a genre and the nuances of style and codified cultural signals. The articulated re-descriptions of an outsider defamiliarize the culture at large. Hearing “Miss America Fitness” defamiliarized the name “American Fitness” and made me realize how cheap and hokey it was (by playing off of references to patriotic masculinity).

They aren’t stereotypes when they belong to someone else, they are over communicating lumps of caricature. They are the stylistic features we grab on to ape when, say imitating an accent or dialect.

We see things more clearly when they aren’t us, when they break our patterns of experience.

An important framework for understanding human need fulfillment and personality is the spectrum of certainty/variety. Some people need and value stability and regularity over variety. Others need change, sometimes constantly to the point of chaos. Artists tend to be people that are positioned more heavily in the on the side of variety. They tend to seek out experience beyond themselves. Picasso is famous for saying that as a child could paint like Raphael and spent the rest of his life trying to learn to draw like a child. He spent his life trying to get outside his training and himself.

The Beatles were poor kids from Liverpool that presented themselves as rich, clean-cut kids in suits. The Rolling Stones were affluent Brits that for all intensive purposes became poor, black kids from the American south.

This is the first verse of Brown Sugar.
Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in new orleans.
Scarred old slaver know hes doin alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.
Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good
(a-ha) brown sugar, just like a young girl should
A-huh.

Jagger, channeling the African-American spirit and who know what else worldly or otherwise but nothing about this is British.

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones made great Rock ‘N Roll because Rock ‘N Roll isn’t British, it’s American, it’s not even America, its African. (Even today the inflection of Rock is American.) They had the advantages of it not really being a part of their cultural DNA and thus being able to see and feel it so much more powerfully, from the outside.

There is also a “rub” that comes when one has to assimilate from the outside that reactivates the core and a magic that happens when an outsider brings in their outsider “junk”. (There is also a charm and an allure of the outsider/underdog. Think: Tiger Woods and Eminem.)

Culture, Cruelty & Contradiction

A story on NPR today covered a controversial, proposed ban on the slaughter of horses for food.

As a creative, I embrace the idea that humans are emotional and irrational decision makers. Many people would like to believe that humans are rational and logical, but this simply isn’t true. It’s just another example of our constantly playing “pretend”. This is true, of course, to varying degrees from individual to individual.

I’ve always believed that the most interesting part of being human is all the things we can’t control, the things that control us, the dark recesses, the emotional underbelly. Hunger, pain, the things we desire, lust after, fear and humiliate us, put us on a trajectory in life that we ride atop, pretending all the while that we’re steering. These are the truths I hold to be self-evident.

To hear our legislative leaders say things like horses “are cherished companions, they are sporting animals, they are not food”, is wacky entertainment. Despite the support of veterinarians and The American Quarter Horse Association in the method and humaneness of slaughtering, one congressman referred to it as “a brutal, shadowy, shameful, predatory practice that borders on the perverse”. (That old-fashioned brand of oratory bullshit is alive and well). Aren’t there larger legislative issues that need to be tended to?

The drivers of valuation, when it comes to animal life – among them cuteness (fur) and size (insects) – are completely irrational. This lack of reason continues when it comes to the way we appraise human life. Celebrity life seems to be more valuable than not. A child’s life seems to be more valuable than that of an adult. Proximity seems to diminish value. Hunger in Africa gets more attention than malnutrition and prenatal birthrates in Detroit, and we always hurt the ones we love. (Homicides are usually committed by someone who knew the victim.)

life and death may be the only irrefutable facts of human existence, the only issue with black and white resolve, yet our ability to assess its value is filled will confused, emotionally-driven thinking riddled with qualifiers and exceptions.

Recently, the city of Chicago outlawed foie gras. (You would think a city with such a violent past would have acquired the taste for blood and goose liver.) What this and the ban on the slaughter of horses for food (a delicacy in Europe and Asia) fail to recognize is that all culture is rooted in cruelty.

Culture is a luxury. In many instances it is the embellishment of all those icky issues we find at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. The embellishment of food is cuisine, the embellishment of shelter is architecture and the embellishment of safety “defense”. All of these things are possible only after the thorny matters of survival are solved and we can start to “get ahead”. Getting ahead usually means extra at the expense of others. Roman and Greek culture were both possible because of slavery. So were the Great Pyramids. America’s amazing standard of living and overzealous consumption of resources is not sustainable worldwide. For a long time everyone else has gotten less so that we can have more. The price of gas is a good case in point. Profit is, in a sense, fractional exploitation.

I’m not making condemnations, just trying on a few uncomfortable potential truth. Nobody wants to know how the sausage of culture is made and no one wants to have the blood on their hands. Framing the war in Iraq as being about oil as opposed to standard of living washes ones hands of any personal implication. Boiled down, It may really come to a question of “how bad do we really want all that stuff? Bad enough to kill? The answer, historically, has always been… yes.

Why don’t we just get a table, sit down and try some horse meat? We can always pretend it’s something else.