Archive for August, 2009

Rio

Monday, August 31st, 2009

The other day I spent about six hours in Rio de Janeiro, just enough time to pay a long overdue visit on some wonderful old friends, to catch up over lunch and cafezinho. I was surprised at how much joy I felt simply to once again walk along those streets. I didn’t even go to the beach, although a friend’s apartment balcony offered a lovely sight of the Lagoa with its little boats framed by the mountains beyond.

Rio, like New York, is a walking city. Its life is found on foot, in linked neighborhoods that flow easily one into the other. It is not merely the immense natural beauty that calls out to you, there is also the ruined grandeur of the architecture – so many heartbreakingly lovely old buildings, many in disrepair, proud beauties from another time.

I realize that much of the romance of any city is inside our own heads, entwined with our personal histories, the people we’ve met on its avenues and in its restaurants, the way those encounters have changed our lives and made us who we are. For me Rio de Janeiro is such a place. When I walk its streets, and take in the lilting rhythm of its daily life, I cannot help but hear, somewhere within my soul, the immortal music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Wisdom of the Yogi

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

While visiting Sao Paulo this past week, I was talking with a friend there about the fact that there are very few all-night places to eat in that city. Sao Paulo has some of the finest restaurants in the world, but like most cities, at some point in the evening the food options pretty much shut down.

My hometown of New York, New York is of course famous for being “the city that never sleeps”, in the immortal words of Fred Ebb. Not that restaurants in Manhattan generally stay open all night, by any means. Most restaurants close their doors by 10:30 or 11pm, with a few staying open an hour or two more. But all-night places indeed abound. If you know your way around town, you need never lack for a meal at three in the morning. And of course there is an all-night deli within a few blocks of pretty much anywhere, if you just want to pick up something to go.

While we were on the subject, I told my friend about an all-night restaurant in Manhattan I used to frequent years ago. My pals and I always seemed to end up there after long nights out on the town. Just thinking about the place filled me with wistful nostalgia, and I told my Brazilian friend it was great because “it was always open, 24 hours a day. But it closed”.

To my surprise, my friend started laughing. It took me a moment to understand what he was laughing at, until I played back in my mind what I had just told him. Then I started laughing too, quite pleased that I had just had a genuine Yogi Berra moment.

Our Dada, who art in heaven

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

As strange as it may seem, I take it as a given that religious rituals are as bizarre and inexplicable as they are because this is the most effective way to transmit culture from one generation to another. And I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, considering their purpose. I’ll explain.

If you have a sensible religious ritual – one that is based on common sense, reason, some connection to our higher brain function – then your religion will quickly die out. When your children grow up they will find it easy to ignore the rites and rituals of your particular spiritual group.

But if you have strange rituals – dietary restrictions, days of the week when you’re not allowed to work, eating fish on Fridays, snacking on little wafers that transform in your mouth into the flesh of a human god who died two thousand years ago (you might think I’m making that last one up, but it turns out there’s a major religion that actually works this way), then your children will become transfixed.

Your kids’ little brains will go on overload from the stimulus of ostensibly insane rituals that their parents seem to take seriously. By the time they are, say, five years old, their ability to reason logically about this stuff will be completely gone, and they may well be ready to Jihad at a moment’s notice.

In a sense, religious rituals are like the Dada art movement. The entire idea is to surprise people, to wake them up at an early age by engaging in something that appears so insane that they will have no choice, as their brains develop, but to embrace it.

In a world with religion, perhaps Dada is redundant. What is a mere ironic urinal by “R. Mutt”, compared with the Holy Ghost? Admit it, Marcel Duchamp was way behind the curve on this one.

Tea ceremony 31

Friday, August 28th, 2009

He appears to hesitate before knocking, but only for a moment. The door opens soon, perhaps too soon, and for a few seconds he looks startled, almost disoriented. She gestures, silently, for him to enter. They go into the living room and sit side by side on the couch, not touching, just looking at each other. Neither looks at the teapot on the coffee table before them. After a few moments she stares at the pot, as though seeing it for the first time, picks it up by its white porcelain handle and pours, first his cup, then her own.

After this she does not make any move to drink her tea, but simply stares into his eyes, her gaze unwavering. He looks down at the two teacups, a thoughtful expression on his face. After a moment he takes a sip from the cup before him, then another, holding it delicately with the fingers of one large hand, holding the saucer carefully in his other hand. When he has finished his tea he puts down both cup and saucer and rests both his hands, face down, side by side on the coffee table.

She continues to look at him, shrugs, shakes her head slightly. Slowly she reaches out with one hand, placing it lightly upon his knee. He looks down at her hand, so small and delicate. He removes her hand from his knee and holds it to his face, touching her slender fingers lightly to his cheek.

Then he plants a single kiss upon her palm and rests her hand gently down upon the table, palm up. She stares intently at the place upon her palm where it has just been kissed. He abruptly stands up, carries his teacup to the kitchen, places it carefully on the counter, and walks to the door.

Her gaze never wavers from her upturned hand, still lying open on the table where he had placed it. Only after she hears the door close does she lift her own cup, and slowly begin to sip her tea.

Bank

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

I was having a conversation today with a friend about the mystery of banks. We were both curious about the strange and dysfunctional dynamic between banks and bank customers.

Walking into a bank is often a bit like walking into a sacred place – a church perhaps. There are stern guards in uniforms to make sure you behave properly, and officious people behind little windows that you need to wait in line to see. The ceilings are often tall, as though you are in some sort of cathedral, and a sombre atmosphere pervades.

The whole feeling of waiting for a teller is a lot like going into a government office to ask for a visa or passport. There is the same sense of supplication, of being in the presence of something important, of needing to seek permission from those in authority.

The curious thing about this situation is that the transactions involved generally involve your own money. You’ve put your savings into the hands of these people, and they are supposed to be looking out for it on your behalf. On a fundamental level they are not all that different from your doorman or housekeeper – people who are performing some useful service for your benefit. People who are in your employ.

So why the power reversal? One theory is that there is a strange aura attached to having lots of money – even other people’s money. In a sense a banker is someone who stares all day at a big pile of money on his living room table – lots and lots and lots of money. Millions of dollars of money.

Yes, he knows that it’s not his money – it’s actually an amalgam of bits and pieces of the wealth of others – but nonetheless, he’s got it, ownership be damned. After all he can see it – it’s in his vault, in his computer, in crisp hundred dollar bills at the fingertips of people who work for him. Who cares who actually owns it?

You, on the other hand, only possess title to this money, perhaps a measly tens of thousands of it, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands. Whatever. You are merely the puny and insignificant figure in this vast fiducial drama who happens to legally own the money.

The banker is a giant striding upon the earth, a god descended from Olympus to trample across the vast stage of history upon a cushion of millions of dollars of borrowed wealth. But you? Poor poor little you. You are a simply contributor to this magnificent drama, a bit player, a working stiff with a paycheck. How dare you presume to breath the same air as a banker?

One day we might all realize how much of a scam this is. And then the sense of entitlement of people who watch our money for us will melt away, and we will gain our rightful place at the table as owners of our own hard-earned wealth.

You never know, it could happen. But I wouldn’t bank on it. 😉

Born to be wild

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Today somebody explained to me the marketing strategy behind Harley Davidson custom motorcycles, or “Choppers” as they are affectionately called. This was information relayed to my friend from someone who works in Harley’s marketing department. It seems that these aggressive looking vehicles, most often associated with the Hells Angels and Peter Fonda driving down the highway in the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, are marketed very specifically.

According to the marketing guy from Harley, the target customer is a somewhat older guy, often bearded and almost always somewhat overweight, who has a good high paying job. These guys like to dress up aggressively in leather outfits on weekends, get on their choppers and roar through the countryside, making lots of noise, looking agressive and generally disturbing the peace of one neighborhood after another.

Which is not illegal. And that is precisely the point. Apparently the police know the score, and leave these guys alone. The cops see the Harleys and realize that it’s all fake. Even if the procession looks, to the untrained eye, like a gang of marauding criminals, it’s actually just a kind of acting out by respectable guys with good jobs who pay taxes.

To me, there are two remarkable things going on here. One is that Harley Davidson builds an entire brand around this interesting variety of collective theatre. The is that their marketing people would be perfectly happy to lift the veil off the fantasy. Clearly they are confident that their target customer will keep buying.

I guess this makes sense. Makers of sports shoes don’t really expect their customers to believe themselves to be the equal of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan – however much those icons of acheivement are used in product marketing. Knowing that you will never sink an eagle like Tiger or dunk like Jordan clearly doesn’t stop you from buying the shoe.

Similarly, it might not be so bad to know that you are buying that Harley merely to play out a ritual of pretending to be “Captain America” cruising to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras on a chopper loaded with drug money, while “Born to be Wild” plays on the soundtrack. Honestly, getting to play-act the part of countercultural outlaw is a lot better than actually being “Captain America” in “Easy Rider” – things didn’t really work out too well for him.

Train of thought

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Train stations have really tall ceilings. But why? Trains themselves are just not that high. And people certainly aren’t. Bus stations don’t have tall ceilings, so why trains?

A little research reveals that it’s because of the steam. If a steam powered train were to pull into a station with low ceilings, all of that scalding hot vapor could have very serious consequences for any unfortunate humans in the immediate vicinity. Very bad for business – to say nothing of the insurance costs.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Steam engines?? There are no steam engines!”

Exactly. Steam engines were replaced, largely by diesel engines, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. By around fifty years ago, the steam locomotive had essentially disappeared from the scene, except as a novelty.

And yet, many train stations are still built with extremely tall ceilings. Not because there’s any real reason for it, but because they are supposed to have tall ceilings. People like the tall ceilings, the majesty of them, the “train station-ness” of them. So much nicer than crawling into a dingy little low-ceilinged bus terminal, like an ant into an anthill.

And I think it’s great. As the world around gets progressively more cyber, it’s lovely that we hold on to these little Victorian flourishes, from the computer-driven electric motor in your car’s steering wheel that simulates the feel of force from the road, to the ringing sound you hear when you pick up a telephone – decades after the last electromechanical clapper fell into disuse in this country.

Perhaps it is a sign of the immaturity of today’s computer interfaces that they do not yet have more of the subtle quality of pencil and paper, that they lack the texture and sensuous response we derive so easily from more ancient information technologies.

We are, after all, physical creatures, with brains that evolved over a vast span of time to connect in a particular way to our muscles and our senses. It is possible that the Steam Punk movement, with its strange fetishes, is responding – however incoherently – to a real need. Perhaps our computer interfaces will only truly reach maturity when they permit a sense of majesty and freedom akin to a stroll beneath those tall ceilings of our lovely train stations.

Perhaps the computer interface will have achieved maturity only when it manages to melt away seamlessly into the physical world around us, its immense added power transposed back into desk and book and paper.

Smell the coffee

Monday, August 24th, 2009

My friend Davi and I were discussing the power of branding. Davi pointed out that the real genius of Starbucks is that they burn their coffee. If you do that, then it doesn’t matter exactly what coffee beans you use – it all pretty much tastes the same. In this way, Starbucks is able to achieve quality control at affordable prices. Customers expect the coffee to be burnt. In fact, thanks to the power of advertising, they actually come to believe that this is how coffee is supposed to taste. Meanwhile, Starbucks can use relatively inexpensive beans, and still produce a reliably reproducible taste.

Imagine the plight of a coffee shop that tried to compete with this formula through proper brewing of very high quality coffee beans. Not only would their raw material costs be higher, but their customers would actually be able to taste any deviations from quality – whether due to beans that were a little off, or due to some misstep in the brewing process. Starbucks doesn’t have this problem. Not only do their beans cost less, but as long as their beans are adequate, and the result has that burnt taste, customers will be satisfied – getting exactly the taste they’ve been conditioned to accept.

I pointed out that something similar is going on with the Apple iPhone. As an input device, its capacitive touch screen is really inaccurate. Because of the inherent noisiness of the signal, Apple “blurs” the data to smooth it out, which results in a mushy and inexact quality of touch.

Ingeniously, Apple has designed their entire interface around the limited capabilities of their touch screen. Objects that you touch on your screen glide and float and do cute little animations. All of this hides the fact that the computer isn’t really registering exactly where and when you touched. But Apple has trained its customers to expect this fuzzy kind of input, and so the users are happy, remaining blissfully unaware of the greater power they would have if only they had access to a truly responsive input device.

I guess this kind of thing goes on all the time. Some new player in a field, by virtue of excellent marketing skills, retrains an audience to crave mediocrity rather than excellence. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the way many people actually now prefer the boring metronomic sound of a drum machine, rather than the far more organic and expressive quality of a live drummer.

I have no idea whether this is a permanent trend – an inevitable consequence of the power of branding in our modern age. Maybe we are seeing a glimpse into a world ruled by a brand-friendly mediocracy. Or maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Punctuation

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The day before a prolonged trip to another country is always filled with lists. The bills I haven’t gotten around to paying, phone calls I have not yet returned, all the little things that I’ve put off because I could, after all, do them tomorrow.

But when I’m about to get on a plane to another continent, I realize that “tomorrow” is going to take awhile, and that I’d better get some of those things done now, today, before leaving. I think that on some level I use these trips as a way to organize my life – to do the things that I’d never quite get around to, if time were simply measured from one day to the next.

In a sense, a long trip is like a punctuation mark in one’s perception of time, a set of tall markers that stand out in one’s personal history like a row of ragged fence posts. They come between the long interludes back on the home front when one day blends seamlessly into the next, these trips to distance places – these disruptive and eventful markers of time.

Some of these trips can be recalled even from a distance of decades later. I suppose that, without quite thinking about it, I’ve been collecting these trips for years, adding each one in turn to my memory’s attic, like a rare coin.

Say it soft and it’s almost like praying

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

After the thoroughly satisfying experience of seeing “District 9” (a very thoughtful and entertaining movie, assuming you’re not the sort of person who gets all squeamish at the sight of alien weaponry causing people to pop open like grapes and spatter into vivid little red globules of blood and viscera), my friend Cynthia and I had a drink afterward to discuss the film.

Our bartender was a very sweet and friendly young woman who was – from both appearance and accent – clearly of Eastern European origin. After we’d talked with her for a while, she asked us our names. We introduced ourselves, and returned the favor by asking her what her name was.

“Maria”, she replied. Then we asked her where she was from, and she said “Russia”, which made sense, given her appearance and accent. But the name Maria wasn’t the first one we would have guessed – I think we’d both been expecting something like Olga or Anya or Tatyana.

It turns out that Maria is a fairly common name in Russia, although neither Cynthia nor I were aware of this. I think we’d both been associating this name with Natalie Wood’s character in “West Side Story”. Which is ironic, because it turns out that Natalie Wood’s mother, a Russian immigrant, was named Maria Stepanova.

So we asked our friendly bartender how she came to have the name “Maria”. “It’s a Jewish name” was her answer. This threw us for a loop. In New York “Maria” is not known as a Jewish name. Yes, there are many Jews in New York whose families came from Russia, but neither of us had ever met one named Maria. In any case, it didn’t seem likely we were talking to one. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge people from appearance, but the combination of facial features and blonde hair did not cry out “Russian Jewish immigrant” to either of us.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked. “No,” she replied, in her charming accent. “But I have researched it. Maria, this is a Jewish name.”

“Really?” we both asked, intrigued.

“Yes,” she explained. “Maria. It is the name of mother of the God.”

“Ah,” we both replied, nodding our heads cheerfully, before quickly steering the conversation to other topics.