UC logo

Having shared some very snarky jibes on a UC listserv about the new UC ‘logo’  that Mark deplores, I’m now feeling some remorse.  As a piece of graphic design, I think it’s not a success on its own or for its purpose. But it’s not a replacement for the seal, in fact the designer says “our goals were two-fold: first, to reinstate the systemwide seal’s authority and gravitas after years of casual, indiscriminate use; and second, to create a coherent identity that would help us tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way” and these are not silly or trivial objectives.  And as an erstwhile architect and current designer of non-physical environments, I am sensitive to the long, sad history of people who should know better lambasting new stuff–from the Eiffel Tower, that was universally despised for its first forty years, to Wagner’s music and Bird’s (maybe Byrd’s, too, back in the day), to the Nude Descending a Staircase–by making fun of it because it’s easier than making a fair effort to engage, and because dissing something gives you a quick hit of feeling superior and sophisticated.

As a mea culpa, here are some serious comments about the project and the design. Continue reading “UC logo”

American Elites: Distant from some problems, but not others

First thoughts on Christopher Hayes’ new book,

I am reading Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites—well worth the $26 I paid for it. Hayes’ book strikes several chords with me. One simple point concerns the pernicious consequences of elites’ great and growing social distance from ordinary people in American society. When less than two-percent of fighting-age adults serve in the volunteer military, most policymakers are personally insulated from the consequences of the ill-fated venture in Iraq. This matters, too, for our policies regarding the continually grinding low-level engagement in Afghanistan.

Something similar might be said regarding the millions of Americans affected by the foreclosure crisis. Members of our nation’s various elites are genuinely saddened by the accompanying human costs. Yeah, white papers are written. Hearings are held. Yet our society’s lack of urgency is abetted by the great social and economic distance between the families losing their lifesavings and the key public and private actors who will decide their fates. Too many of our national leaders behave rather as I’ve done, passing several empty houses on my street. I feel terrible for the affected families. I still scurry home, hit the web, and take solace in the ballooning value of my 401(k) supported by my tenured professorship. Pretty soon, I’m pondering other things. Continue reading “American Elites: Distant from some problems, but not others”

Annals of commerce – coffee and pens

A little more than a year ago, I had some snarky reflections about Nestlé pod coffeemakers. Since then, I noticed that the Keurig system’s pods are more reasonably priced, though still a very expensive way to get a cup of coffee compared to starting with bulk coffee and good technology.  The Motley Fool has stepped into a conversation about this started by Oliver Brand at the NYT, and we learn that one reason K-cups are so much cheaper may be that their patent is about to run out.  Hmmm.

In contrast to this overall approach, consider Livescribe.  They make a really marvelous device that records sound while you are writing on special paper printed with a pattern of tiny blue dots; you can then point the pen at what you wrote and hear what was being said at that time.  I can’t say enough nice things about the system, which works exactly the way it’s supposed to and has some other fun tricks, like playing a piano keyboard that you draw on the paper; just go to their website.  Recording interviews, for example, has always been a misery, because you can’t browse the recording,  but the Livescribe fixes that, and generates linked sound and image files you store on your computer or send to colleagues.

When I first learned about it, I immediately said, “razor blades! obviously they really nail you for that paper.”  But I was wrong; they sell the paper at reasonable prices, in a variety of formats, and they  will also give [sic] you the software with which to print your own on a color Postscript laser printer.  A company with a commercial conscience and a wowza product: is it possible you can even make more money doing the right thing than by string-betting your customers?

Looks like a nice day; I won’t need my L.L. Bean Goretex raincoat, my favorite among the many I’ve had, that came from a company whose operating rule is that “a sale is not complete until the customer has worn out the merchandise and is still satisfied.” But it’s in my thoughts.

When there were giants in the earth…

among them was Walt Kelly.  I grew up on Pogo, as my kids did on Calvin and Hobbes.  Finally, here is volume I of something that should have been done a long time ago (all the Amazon reviews seem to say, correctly, “Finally!”) .  My daughter gave it to me for Christmas and after all those decades away, I wasn’t sure it would hold up, but it does, even though I haven’t got to the Simple J. Malarkey episodes with which Kelly protected our national sanity while (for example) Al Capp pusillanimously sat out the bad times safely drawing shmoon.

Young readers, you can now fill in an important gap in your cultural capital.

Getting it right: annals of design

This is my favorite tech gadget in at least a year.  Just buy one, whether you’re taking notes in class or doing interview research.  The basic idea is that the pen contains audio recording hardware and software, and a camera that looks where it is writing.  The paper is covered with an almost invisible light-blue dot pattern, distinctive over every page of four different notebooks in each of three different sizes, and it has controls (record, stop, etc.) printed at the bottom that the pen responds to when you touch them.

The pen accumulates page images while you’re writing notes, and a very serviceable audio recording of what it heard while you were writing each word or diagram.  You can dump the images and sound into your computer and point at different places on the pages with your mouse, or you can just touch the pen to notes on the paper page, and hear the audio from that point.  What this means is that you can record an interview or lecture taking intermittent brief notes, and not have to listen through the whole thing later, or scrub lamely back and forth, to hear a part of interest (faster or slower, of course).  For example, I was in meetings in Brazil this summer in Portuguese, and my Portuguese is still sketchy, especially for technical stuff.  But I can play back any part instantly, as slowly as I want, keyed by my paper notes.

Obviously, this is an inkjet printer or safety razor, right; you buy the pen and a couple of notebooks cheap, and then you pay through the nose for paper for life.  Nope; Livescribe will give you software to print your own paper, and their notebooks are reasonably priced so you don’t want to.

All in all, one of the most completely developed and integrated devices of my experience. Oh yeah, it doesn’t have a pocket clip or a practical cap.  Otherwise, nice job.

Annals of commerce

Printer cartridges and safety razor blades, move over: this year’s Ramsey pricing award winner is the Nespresso coffee system…and these guys don’t even have the good grace to give you a break on the initial purchase that puts the tapeworm’s head in your wallet.

Making espresso-family drinks at home has always been something of a nuisance.  If you want a really nice cup of Giuseppe in this mode, you need to grind beans, fill a little cup with a porous bottom and attach it to a machine, wait while hot water is squooshed through it, and steam some milk  (with a nozzle on the same machine) if you aren’t taking it neat.  For the next cup, you knock the grounds out of the cup and start again…pretty much the same sequence you see at your neighborhood bar, but you don’t have the automatic grinder/tamper they have that makes the process quick and repeatable, nor the grounds bin with a rubber bar for knocking out the basket.  We had one of these machines for several years and didn’t use it much after a while, because it was just too much bother for one or two cups, and the jouer-avec entertainment faded quickly.

Now you can get a more automated espresso machine that represents real progress.  It holds a largish tank of water and a hopper of beans.  Push one button, and it grinds the beans, brews a cup, and empties the brewing basket.  To steam your milk, you still have to stick a nozzle into it and open a steam valve (but as my dad used to say, “what do you expect with a bowl of soup, a ham?”).  We have a Saeco that originally cost $300 as an impulse-purchased open-box item at Fry’s that has been trouble-free for four years, making about a thousand cups a year; this model costs $1200 now, but Amazon offers a DeLonghi with similar functionality for about $600.  Peet’s $13/lb Italian roast comes out to about 10c per serving for this system, plus 16c for a latte’s worth of milk.  As the cycle takes about 30-60 seconds and the machine is 1200w, maybe half a cent for electricity, less without the milk.

What I’m working up to is truly a wonder of modern enterprise. The corresponding Nespresso machine costs about $550 (these are all on-line prices) and you don’t pour beans into a hopper every twenty cups.   Instead, you drop a little aluminum “pod” into it for every one cup, close a lid, push a button, and voila! a cup of espresso.  The aluminum cup – I just dumped one out and weighed the contents -  contains 4g  of coffee that was ground heaven knows when and sealed in its little cup to age in a warehouse (g means grams, gentle reader; a gram is about 1/30 of an ounce).  These pods cost about $1 each on-line, though the sales clerk at Sur la Table, where I came upon this system today, told me that while they don’t sell them, they are available for $.55.   Even at the lower price, which I can’t find on the web, this coffee costs $66/lb, and no, you cannot use the machine with anything else; not someone else’s pods, and certainly not ground coffee.  Nestlé pods, pal; it’s a lifetime relationship.  That $500 machine is a down payment on a 400-900% tax on every cup of coffee you make with it: three cups a day and you pay for the machine again, or more, every year you own it. Next, a frying pan customized to work only with a single brand of eggs, yup.

What I can’t understand is how these geniuses were so dumb as to market a machine that uses tap water.  How hard could it be to design a sealed aluminum non-refillable $15 water pod, filled with one of several different gourmet waters matched to the coffee blends (the coffee pods come in about twenty different color-coded blends), like, say, Milano da rubinetto,  Pioggia pura romana da mattina, Nestlé’s own Poland Spring (in 3 elastic modulus grades) already in pods, Amazona prima colheita do verão, Flaque Boulevard St. Germain, Fiji-Dasani custom coffee blend (also approved for Mercedes engine cooling systems), Gelbschnee fondé puro (Nestlé’s local house brand), and so on.  People who will pay five to ten times extra for stale coffee grounds will certainly pay through the nose for water with a name on it.

Forget the flu-impregnated monogrammed hankies, the baby python, and the exploding cigars; imperfect as the Nespresso realization is so far, it’s still this year’s best gift idea for your worst enemy.  And you can do something nice for the folks who have had so much trouble understanding why every baby in the world shouldn’t drink formula, almost as good as breast milk for the child and so much nicer for the suits in Vevey – not to mention their determination to cover the world in empty plastic water bottles.

Jon Carroll is a genius

Our Mother’s Day expedition was to the newly reinstalled Oakland Museum.  We loved it, and I spent some time composing a post about it in my head, planning to write it up about now.  Imagine my surprise at finding that Jon Carroll somehow entered my personal brain and extracted the entire post, and I don’t just mean he liked it too, I mean one detail after another from the sidewalk in front to the improvised café to his reactions to the exhibits.  So my post is as follows: what he said.

Joe Arpaio is a wuss

Want law enforcement that’s really tough on Mexicans?  Try Mexico’s. Only seven years until accused there are presumed innocent, and meanwhile the cops aren’t afraid to do what’s needed to get the job done. Like lie under oath.

Roberto and Layda are students in my shop (Roberto is my PhD advisee), and I am over-the-top proud of them. They’re not afraid to do what’s needed either, they shoot cameras and handcuff criminal officials to the facts, and before we’ve even licensed them to be in the social change business, they’re getting their hands dirty making justice and speaking truth to some very comfortable sleazy power.  The Mexican criminal justice system is just figuring out what it’s up against, because their film is winning prizes and getting reviews, including the first prize at the Morelia festival. It’s out of control, and the courts will never be the same in Mexico.

It’s well known in academic circles that when one of your students does something really smashing, and you’re the only one of his profs present, you’re allowed to say “yup, taught him everything he knows!” I am dying to say that now, but the fact is, they’re teaching us.  Besides basking in this reflected glory, I especially like their enterprise because it extends a link between the arts and policy that goes back at least to Goya, maybe Cervantes, who impaled the toxic nonsense of chivalry with a quill pen.  Rivera’s murals were bigger than a movie screen, but Hernandez and Negrete are also painting on a million monitors and television sets.  And their outrage has the power of analysis and the hard thinking my colleagues and I are helping them learn.

This is another day I have no trouble cashing my paycheck.

Annals of design

I came upon a whiteboard marker with a foam eraser on its cap in one of our seminar rooms yesterday and entered a fugue state whose themes were “Wow, this is a big improvement!” and “What took them so long?”.   Unfortunately, it’s too late for the most important design choice for these common items, which would have been to standardize on a hexagonal barrel.  In a world full of cylindrical permanent markers, users (who, usually speaking to a group to make a point, are not focusing on the tools) need to know by an instant tactile signal whether they have grabbed an erasable one or something that will (i) vandalize the whiteboard until someone comes along with a can of lacquer thinner and (ii) upstage their talk as soon as they try to erase something.  This convention would have precisely zero cost in terms of the thing’s usability (and as a freebie, prevent it from rolling off a sloping lectern).

Until these markers came along, whiteboards had a speckled history, literally in the case I observed when Harvard opened its then-new architecture building.  The classrooms had push-pin walls painted flat white with smooth white panels for writing inserted flush with the surrounding wall.  The idea was to use water-washable markers on these panels, and to erase them, each room had a bucket of water with a sponge in it.  Until anyone actually used it, this seemed like a pretty good idea, and visually elegant.  However, the bucket water after a single use became pigmented brown with washed-off ink squoze out of the sponge, and architecture profs turned out to be failures at coloring inside the lines. Indeed, they erased quite sloppily across the whiteboard/pinup wall boundary, carrying colored smears that did not easily come off onto the surrounding absorbent wall, so the typical condition of the room was a nice clean white rectangle surrounded by multicolored sunburst rays.   Not too long afterwards, another feature revealed itself: it turned out to be irresistible for someone finished with a damp sponge, and offered a bucket on the floor against a wall, to throw the sponge, perhaps just for fun from three-pointer range.  Depending on the vigor of the toss and the angle of approach, this terminal gesture threw up a fountain of colored water on the wall (or put a drooling spongeprint directly on it).

It was a matter of months before the architecture school, um, threw in the sponge, and put up a bunch of chalkboards.

Standardization is an underappreciated role of government.  As Schelling pointed out, it’s a lot more important that everyone drive on the same side of the road than that we settle on the correct side (which most of the world hasn’t: because the defensive reflex of a right-handed person is to put one’s right hand up and to the left and left hand down and to the right, there’s a small advantage to a system where imminent risk makes most people steer toward the shoulder instead of into oncoming traffic).  I don’t suppose there should be a Bureau of Writing Device Form Control in the Commerce Department, but was it really good for society that every low-voltage electronic doodad had a unique voltage, polarity, and connector, so no-one’s wallwart would work with anyone else’s cellphone?  Interestingly, the market has drifted into some agreement about using a mini-usb connection and made its peace with the 5v delivered by a USB (though some phones seem to demand something on the signal pair , so chargers that only deliver the power voltage don’t work).   Machine screws are well standardized now within the respective metric, UNC/UNF, and (fading fast) Whitworth regimes without any real regulatory authority by nonprofits (in this case, ASME; I have no idea who oversees keeping writing paper at a constant 8-1/2×11″), as are lots of building materials (4×8 foot panels of almost anything, and electrical parts that fit together no matter who made them).

The problem remains, however, that proprietary parts, like a distinctive battery size, constantly tempt manufacturers hoping to get some rents by controlling the supply of spares even if there’s no real functional advantage.   Has American creativity and self-expression been importantly hobbled by the stupefying sameness of all our toilet paper roll dimensions? Have our worst instincts been suppressed (or our haul of game much increased) by the exuberant variety of firearms cartridges?

We occasionally regulate for standardization where safety is at stake; in the 30s, automobile headlights that had replaceable lamps in a demountable assembly of lens and reflector, all of different designs, were so poorly maintained and corroded that the government ordained so-called sealed-beam units in which the reflector, lens, and filament were one piece that had to be replaced all together, and standardized for all vehicles.  This was a big step forward, but as headlight designs improved over the years, it anchored vehicle lighting to outdated performance until the rules were revised in the 80s to allow, again, proprietary designs.  There are always tradeoffs, and the one between efficiency now and in the near future, and technological advance further out, is especially poignant.