Archive for the 'This & That' Category

Hello, Brooklyn

Exactly one year ago Makeshift Society launched in San Francisco. It was an experiment at the time, intended by Rena Tom to free herself and others from the overwhelming stillness of working from home, alone. I’m proud of what Rena, Victoria, Suzanne, and the team have accomplished in the intervening year, and happy to share that soon we will be opening a second location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yup: we. I’ve joined the business to help shape its future. If what you read below sounds worthy of your support, you can help too, by contributing to our Kickstarter.

We'll be in Williamsburg, close to the L and G trains

Our ground floor.

On paper Makeshift Society seems quite distant from the work I’ve done over the past five years, most of which was helping the Finnish government learn how to utilize. Makeshift is a move from a national remit to a very focused one; it’s a shift from working within the public sector, to the private; Sitra has a billion dollars in the bank, Makeshift… doesn’t. Yet the reason I’m stepping up my involvement in this project is because I think we have the freedom to explore the most important design challenge of the 21st century: redesigning and reimagining the institutions of our everyday life.

Makeshift is a trojan horse, in that sense. It is a coworking space and a community, but it’s about providing people in the creative fields with new pathways to independence by giving them the resources, agency, and accountability they need to excel.

We want to be the best place for people to start and sustain a creative business. In the US “entrepreneurship” is so often treated as though it’s short for “high-growth technology entrepreneurship” that other pursuits get marginalized. As important as tech is, as much money as tech generates, a healthy society (and market, for that matter) is not predicated on one field. At Makeshift we are tackling the challenge of supporting low and medium growth businesses, including freelancers, because we believe in independence and insist that we can do better than a Task Rabbit economy.

Introducing Makeshift in this way reveals my own opinion that straight up coworking is actually pretty boring as a business; it’s tiny, desk-sized real estate. We’re not in it for the desks, per se, but it turns out that tables are a uniquely useful alibi for our larger goals.



Monterey Country, California

Washington, DC

Bran, Romania

I am a fan of tables. They naturally incline people to linger, and that means to share. A table is always the center, even when it’s on the edge.

When I moved from Helsinki to New York at the beginning of the year I left a small community of friends involved in just about every aspect of creative production (even tables). What I learned is that the luxury of Finland is not in consumption but in creation, in being surrounded by acts of design and manufacture such that many of the objects, environments, and pieces of media comprising my daily life were in some way touched by a friend’s effort. It was a bubble in the best sense.

As a newcomer to Finland, however, I was alone in a quiet place. After months searching for the cafe or corner joint where a density of my people could be found, I realized that Helsinki is not built on that logic. Districts are defined by character more than trade, and commercial real estate is parceled into tiny portions that atomizes the many thriving design studios all over the city. The raw spatial equality that this brings is eminently Finnish in its own way, but also means there’s no easy ‘in’ for newcomers like myself. So I seeded my own densely creative corner of the city once per month, around a shared table and heaping mounds of Szechwan peppers.

At those meals the table* did its thing. New links started forming as illustrators and baristas, architects and authors, chefs and strategists, photographers and furniture makers joined for a bite to eat. It was a casual ritual, but a meaningful one, and is now sustained by friends who’ve remained there in Helsinki, regularly sharing a meal with a rotating group of faces, familiar and fresh.

Landing in a city that is nearly twice as large as the entire country of Finland I was reminded of the specialization that rules here in the creative fields. In New York it’s not the individuals that feel distant from each other, but the disciplines. NYC has so many bubbles of activity all packed in among each other, and all rather insular. They’re alone together, and this seems like something that Makeshift could nudge in a different direction.

As we prepare to launch Makeshift in Brooklyn our primary focus is making a top notch place for creatives to work, learn, and hang out. There are many details that must be attended to that might seem unnecessary, but we are obsessing about all of them. We do this because deep collaboration begins with being in the same place at the same time, long enough time to get to know each other. Fostering a community of people who are stronger together than they are alone is a lofty goal, and it starts with a good table in a good room.

If this piques your interest, keep track of our progress on the blog, Twitter, or Facebook, and Kickstarter or drop by early next year when we have the doors open in Williamsburg.


* Through empirical study conducted over the course of 13 months I’ve concluded that the perfect table for a social gathering of 8-16 people is 2 meters in diameter. At this size a group will be able to maintain a single conversation without any one individual being so distant from their complement on the opposite side that it is not possible for them to discuss. Likewise, the round shape allows all to share a single conversation if they choose, without preventing people from breaking into smaller subgroups. Also important: the broccoli is never further away than the arm-span of two people.

Cultures of Decision Making

Note: Much of the text below is assembled from conversations with my colleagues Marco, Justin, and Dan in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra. For more on these topics, check the HDL blog or see Dan’s excellent recent eBook: Trojan Horses & Dark Matter: A Strategic Design Vocabulary.  


In the past year 542 humans scaled to the highest point on earth, one visited the planet’s lowest, and a team at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. Right now someone in California is controlling a remote vehicle at least 54.6 million kilometers away on the surface of Mars while a separate vehicle is poised to exit our solar system, still sending back signals. The accomplishments of the past twelve months alone are, taken in and of themselves, staggering. As the human race, it would seem that we’re able to do what we want. An uninitiated traveler who visits from another time, less jaded, and with different baggage, would be sent reeling by these accomplishments, and some of them, like summiting Everest, can now even be considered rather mundane.

As a human race we’re able to launch almost 37 million commercial flights into the air in a single year with a very small fraction of them suffering catastrophic problems, and yet we’re still unable to care for every person on the planet in the most basic of ways. Twenty two percent of the human population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Planet Earth is suffering too, as we know, and have known for some time, yet we’re still trying to agree to do something about it on a global scale. Some places, like the US, are still amassing the will to even confront climate change as a fact, giving us a strong piece of evidence to support Bruno Latour’s assertion that we’ve moved from a world of fixed facts to one of mutable concerns.

From climate change to panda bears, AIDS to homelessness, causes abound and each has someone lobbying for our support. This is life in a world without facts: levels of importance, funding, and attention given to every thing, every idea, every person are choices made by a balance of individuals and collectives. That balance fluctuates, and the decisions fluctuate over time as well. But I think the Goonies may have put it more succinctly:

Down here, in the messy world, it’s our time. We cannot rely on anyone or anything else to tell us what to do, and there are no Adults or Gods up above to help us settle our disputes. Immutable rules do not come from the heavens anymore, nor from nature, nor from institutions. The social contract is a conversation and the choices are ours to make, but how will we make them?

Invoking Latour again, we might compose a “common world… built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.” The litany of accomplishments and failures that I opened this post with seem to imply that we do not have a common world at our disposal. We have a surplus of ability, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily applied or distributed in the ways we might like it to be. Why?

Narratives of political inaction are littered with villains and their conspiracies. While it makes for good movies, this approach amounts to mythologizing the status quo. Putting the emphasis on blockages and bottlenecks is debilitating because it reduces progress to the conquering of a monolithic enemy. This in turn demands singular heros and lets everyone else off the hook. It’s too simple, too easy.

Single points of corruption, evil, or difficulty that stifle the good and the just certainly exist, but are they the sole explanation for the fractured state of human decision-making today? As a thought experiment, let’s abstain from considering evil and incompetence for a moment. If we remove the easy outs, what is keeping us from agreeing to agree?

I suspect that we suffer from an unacknowledged profusion of cultures of decision-making, and that the fine-grain differences between these various cultures makes agreement across silos of knowledge increasingly difficult. Due to its defining internal coherence, agreement within one culture is easier than agreement between two cultures, which is itself easier than agreement among three, and so on. My hypothesis is that accepting, understanding, and confronting the gaps between our different cultures of decision-making will allow us to work together more effectively.

Geographic and linguistic distinctions are taken for granted, but humans participate in multiple overlapping cultures. Professional cultures are particularly tricky because they are both global and localized at the same time. Content unifies on one layer while geography can divide on another. For example, until recently it was illegal to build large buildings out of wood in Finland, yet legal 1 hour away in Sweden where the same wood construction technology exists, as does a kindred culture. Weathering the climate crisis and the restructuring of society that networked communication continues to unfurl will require that we get comfortable with taking larger risks, and to do that we need to have better knowledge of where we’re safe and where we’re going out on a limb.

The way we make decisions is affected by our professional role(s), including the spaces(s), jargon(s), and relationships that come with that professional community. A dentist will decide what is risky, innovative, good, or bad differently from a lawyer, not just because the content of their decisions is different but because the stew of expectations and incentives that the cultures of dentistry and law have created are distinct from each other, as they are from all other professional communities. And of course individuals are part of families, clubs, parties, and geographies or linguistic communities that each have a unique culture which affects decision-making as well.

Unique cultures have different currencies for personal reputation; they have different standards about sharing credit (or not); they may weight accuracy over precision or vice versa, or not even have a notion of accuracy; they value formal institutions differently; think about scale and time in different ways; construct arguments using different accepted building blocks; use different fonts; go to different bars and live in different cities; dress differently; work under lamps of different power and different temperature; and speak in different tongues. By suggesting that we need to pay attention to cultures of decision-making if we want to learn to act together more effectively, I’m suggesting that we re-internalize these factors which have been assumed to be outside and irrelevant to moments of choice.

The individual is important, but it’s also the part we understand best right now. Thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman we are beginning to have a sketch of the psychology of decision-making. There’s an emerging picture of the sorts of competing forces that are at play inside an individual’s mind when considering options, but how are these individual considerations layered over by the pressures of various groups that one is part of? Cultures of decision-making is about understanding the micro-sociology of conclusions.

Cultures of decision-making in a context of silo’d knowledge is especially tricky, and therefore important. With more specialized knowledge come more silos, and every extra silo exponentially increases the number of silo-to-silo connections. More silos with their own unique ways of making decisions means more of a translation cost—more friction—when those silos have to work together. In our world they increasingly do.

A common response to silo-ification is to create horizontal bridges that link up multiple silos. The Strategic Design Unit I’m part of at Sitra is one example. We have an explicit mandate to work with all parts of the organization to help conceptualize and deliver collaborative projects. By definition these horizontal units will always be the minority, so they might help but they’re not the answer. If we want to deal with the difficulty of working between multiple silos, we’ll have to develop a more robust understanding of their cultures so that individuals can more easily construct their own empathic connections.


A travel guide to Finland, circa 1938

We build scaffolds that enable empathy across national cultures. A tourist heading to Europe will learn that in Switzerland they kiss on the cheeks three times, while across the border in France they do it only twice. It’s a cultural choice with no right or wrong answer but a good bit of potential for awkwardness if bungled. Because we know that, there is some effort taken to discuss and publicize these local choices so that visitors and locals alike can negotiate a common existence. In the future, will there be booklets telling us that neuroendocrinologists prefer short sentences with words of latin root, that plumbers require at least 10 minutes of smalltalk before opening their toolbox, and that Swedish Engineers require 5 decimal places of accuracy to be comfortable? Surely somewhere in an advertising office this knowledge is already codified, so we need to play catch up.

The easy answer is that we rise above what could be considered minor differences, but if it were easy to rise above cultural differences we would have done it already, right? People are trying. Coming to grips with different cultures of decision-making is one of the things that ethnography helps us do, which leads me to read the recent interest in service design, design ethnography, and similar modes of need-finding within business (and increasingly the public sector) as a tacit recognition that we have to understand our customers and our citizen-peers’ own decision making much better if we want to create useful and meaningful experiences, products, services, and interactions for them. That is, if we want people to choose us over the others, we need to understand how they’re doing the choosing. This work is often being led by designers, or at least design studios, which is a bit of a quandary: if needs-finding is the work to be done, and ethnography is the tool, why not go straight to the social sciences?

Without the comfort of easy to find Right Answers, we need new sources of stability to sit between multiple parties who bringing multiple cultures to the table. In this situation matter becomes important, and the design disciplines are the ones who shape matter. Material things are important because they offer us a single source from which divergent interpretations may result. We can go back to things again and again, reformulating the language we use to understand them until there’s a common consensus in ways that are simply more difficult when you’re starting point are words and your ending point also words. One may be able to politicize the implications of a website, a building, a door handle, but it’s hard to argue with atoms. They’re stubbon and far more patient that most humans. I suspect design (like “evidence” in very large quotation marks) is often implicated in strategic circles out of a desire to have something inarguable. As we apply it in the Strategic Design Unit, design is a tool to navigate between the material world and the meta, the abstract, intangible, tacit or unknown aspects of the world. Yes, the dark matter. We often design probes for the explicit purpose of exciting the dark matter so that it becomes visible to us. In our conception of design nothing is fixed, per se, but it’s a way to find your fix, your navigation points.

Latour argued for the importance of things, now it’s our job to build to tools that change the status quo. Our work at Sitra has often gravitated around interfaces between different cultures. Brickstarter is concerned with the interface between municipal government and active citizens. Helsinki Street Eats is attempting to build an interface between enthusiastic hobbyists and pan-searing entrepreneurship. Interfaces imply systems, and in the contemporary world that means platforms: systems which expose their seams and enable participants to do something that was impossible or cost-prohibitive before. But here’s the trick: the interfaces that we need to build are often between ourselves. Democracy needs new interfaces so that we can use it more effectively, more equitably, to resolve our conflicts and make shared decisions.

So in things we find the gaps between our cultures of decision-making illuminated. Below are a few of the stories I’ve collected over the last 18 months, each a vignette showing how mis-matched cultures are making our daily life more frustrating and, ultimately, inhibiting our ability to make progress on Big Issues.

Here are some of my favorites.


Open Office Mouse

Chuffed with the success of developing the Open Office project, an open source clone of Microsoft Office, a group of people decided to create a piece of open source hardware: a mouse to be used with the program.

There probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the get go. After all, spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, and most people manage with two or three buttons. The material reality of the Open Office mouse is shocking because it demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions in a zero-sum situation—in a matter battle.

When designing a piece of software, you can have it all. Prefer to use a menu option to make words bold? Ok. How about a keyboard command? Yes! And an icon on the toolbar just to be sure? No problem. Those choices are not made in connection to one another because they are not competing for the same resources. The decision-making process can be less rigorous without becoming a glaring monument to indecision. But apply the same logic to material and your indecision is mirrored back to you in the form of an 18 button mega mouse that no one wanted and no one will use.

As an example of clashing cultures of decision-making, I suspect that diligent ethnography would reveal this to be the product of office software aficionados and more than a couple gamers, the latter have more need for things like thumb joysticks than the average Excel jockey. The tools this group had at hand to resolve disputes in a software project are effective in that arena, but did not work as well for resolving conflicts in the material world. They need new tools and they’re not alone. As cultures of decision-making grind into deadlock we will have to create new tools to help us create our compositions of just-so-ness. It’s poetic that after some disputes about whether the project is making legitimate use of the Open Office branding they have rebranded it as the War Mouse. Zero-sum indeed.


Not in my backyard (NIMBY)

This wind turbine is part of a small wind farm in Hamina, Finland and it owes its existence to the fact that it was moved 500 meters from where it was originally proposed. In this particular case the dispute was over the noise of the turbine which a nearby part-time resident was concerned about. In Finland the maximum acceptable noise levels in an area zoned for summer cottage use are actually lower than they are in permanent residential areas. In other words, cottages that are used at most 3 months out of the year are institutionally more protected than homes which are in use 12 months out of the year.

In the specific example of this turbine there’s a conflict between the engineering of the turbine’s existence and its perception in eyes of some nearby individuals. The former has to do with things like soil stability, wind patterns, land ownership, grid infrastructure, and low carbon energy production. The latter involves aspects such as personal preference, individual physiology, life patterns, and national narratives about ‘the good life.’

In Hamina all of these factors were composed in such a way that the turbine could be built, just in a slightly different location. There are reams of counter examples where no amount of flexibility on behalf of either side would lead to a constructive agreement, and this is what makes NIMBY an excellent example of the friction between different cultures of decision-making. “I like your idea, I just don’t want it in my backyard” is a monolithic villain that can only be conquered by a persistent hero. If we want to reduce NIMBYism and make it easier to execute sustainable infrastructure projects—to pick an example out of a hat—then we need to decompose the monolithic. We will have, as Hamina has begun, to engage the specifics of the cultures in question and negotiate a tentative, wending path to decision.


Parliament Fights

Why are these Ukranian MPs fighting in their chambers? And it’s not only them, it’s also in Korea, Canadians, Indians, Kenya, Taiwan, and probably just about every national chamber of deliberation at some point in history. Although we like to take potshots at our Congresses and our Parliaments, if we take ourselves seriously they should be the places in which the most deliberative, rational, and focused decision-making occurs. I’m curious why they’re not.

Part of the problem is that representative democracy as we’ve inherited it from the 19th century needs facts to argue about. Inherent in the representative model is that facts are constant, so they merely need to be loaded into the deliberative chamber and then representatives can hash out how limited resources are applied across a diverse land. Remove objective facts from this equation and you have an organism that’s all muscle and no bone. Without some form of resistance it’s hard to build up stable conclusions. Decisions and the principles used to make them must be constantly revisited, and every time it’s a task of translating not only between the customs of one corner of the realm and another, but also trying to find some way to compose the relative incongruities of, say, energy production, health, and national security. Add to this the fact that we’re experiencing rapid technological change and it’s a frothy mix where it’s hard to be right, let alone know with confidence that you are right. No wonder it comes to blows.


An apple is not an apple

This example is borrowed from my colleague Marco Steinberg who uses it to illustrate the difficulty of the contemporary design task. How do you compete in a market where differences are materially imperceptible?

On the flip side, how do you make decisions when those differences are invisible, abstract, and in conflict with one another? Of the two above, which apple is the better apple?

Comparing them on a single axis is not too difficult, but making decisions when you, a consumer who just wants a healthy snack, has to figure out how to make sense of competing factors is not insignificant. Is it better to be organic but shipped in from 1000 miles away, or to go with conventionally farmed apples that have a lower carbon footprint? Is your palette prepared to skip the apple altogether if your wallet cannot afford the kind of apple that your values lead you to appreciate? How do you balance hard factors like cost, against hard-but-difficult to quantify factors such as impact on soil biodiversity and carbon foot print, against soft factors such as flavor and appearance?

Multiply this by an entire grocery list and it’s a small feat that shoppers are not reduced to a blubbering mess when walking into the super market. We simplify because we have to, and that’s OK, but this is also a place where it would be useful to know more about how communities pick their allegiances—and how they might be convinced to change.

I usually buy my food with carbon as the primary concern, preferring local products over those from distant shores. Others are more concerned with ensuring that their food is organic for personal health reasons. Still others prefer organic because they are concerned that conventional farming is destroying the ecosystem.

That’s why we need to devote more time to understanding the world’s myriad cultures of decision-making: none of these beliefs are mutually exclusive in the shopping cart, but they often become so at the till.

Makeshift Society backstory

Today Rena Tom and her team are opening the doors of the Makeshift Society in San Francisco. It’s a 1000 square foot private clubhouse where members can make, learn, teach, and think.

A big congratulations is due to the team, who’ve done a great job realizing their vision. And I should mention up front that I’ve made a small investment in the project, so I’m not completely objective in what I write below.

Makeshift Society is about building creative ideas more than it is building businesses. This is what sets it outside the usual grouping of coworking spaces like the Hub or General Assembly. Business may happen at Makeshift Society, but it’s not the driver. What it does borrow from co-working spaces, however, is a recognition that density of activity is important. Being around other people pursuing similar goals increases the interconnectivity of partially formed thoughts, and that’s where good ideas come from. It’s the primary ingredient in what Brian Eno calls “scenius,” the genius of a scene.

Shared studios are common in the creative communities of many cities, so what I find interesting about Makeshift Society beyond colocation is that it introduces within the tech-focused microcosm of San Francisco a place to be serious about matter; a place to remember that atoms exist and although software may eat the world, it won’t necessarily digest it. I hope that Makeshift Society is a place where we can start to make sense of what that implies.

That Rena would end up creating something like this is almost a forgone conclusion if you know her, because she’s both a hyper-connector and an effortless host. The most convincing evidence I have for this is a visit to her home. At Rena’s place an afternoon tea with friends is simple but never plain.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch at close range as Rena traced out the concept for what has become Makeshift Society and then dragged it from the pristine peaks of Good Idea, through the bogs of Reality, and up distant slopes to dry out on the far side, pointing us to new ways of being creative together.

While writing this post I took the opportunity to dig up old emails, some of which are pasted below because I have a soft spot for backstories.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 1:39:22 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom


About space: because you want flexibility for different uses by different groups concurrently, the circulation is almost as important as the square footage. Where are the entrances? How many? How do you move from one room to the next? These are critical. It depends on the specifics.


Clubs have records. Guilds have important but opaque books, and tools of the trade. So, yes, I am drawn to this and I think it plays into a larger movement that is going on. Have you been to the Hub there? It’s pretty cool here in Europe. Not the same as what you’re talking about, but worth you having a look:

I think you might be creating a guild for people who think with their hands, make with their heads, and vice versa.

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 5:47:02 AM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer


haven’t checked out the Hub but i guess i will do some visits this year.

what i’m thinking now is: front desk/small selling area, book area, lockers and kitchenette, and then one seating area that is comfy, with coffee/side tables. i don’t even know if i want full-size tables because i don’t want it to be laptop central. i could bring out a nice large table/chairs if people want to rent the space for powwows but i don’t think i want it out all the time.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 9:06:48 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom


Laptops: just have a rule. We don’t do that here. This is a place for another ritual. You could even ‘offer’ to check peoples’ phones at the door (inside a Danish teak desk, I think). Cubby holes! Adam jokes about opening a cafe called Faraday’s—not far off!

A large table with room to spread out books and things is so so nice. I love large tables with few chairs.

Your space is for time travelers: it’s one for people who appreciate the best parts of the past, who enjoy living today, and are building tomorrow. Seems to me there’s something deeply non-linear about it.


I think you probably need some sort of short but not too short (and very clever and passionate) explanation of what the space is for in simple terms. Like: it’s for not working when you’re not at home. Or: it’s for thinking with other people. Or: it’s for conversation. If libraries were massively supported by Rockefeller as a way to spread knowledge, Contrariwise is started by rena to…..?

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 7:49:35 PM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer

customer service is expensive and very awesome. though in the bay area, people are so used to doing things for themselves (proudly whipping out their iphone etc) that i have to make sure things are efficient, yet luxurious, right? like getting a fancy cocktail made.


i don’t know if i can enforce laptop check. would love to though. i could have charging station concierge for phones like banana republic used to do though, that would help a little. if there are no tables for laptops, it will cut it down tremendously.

so ok, we leave the large table in – but no laptops and no outlets. just nice reading lamps.

i like “think with your hands, make with your heads” very much. might steal that. i guess i should start writing all of this down, huh?

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 19, 2011 8:46:43 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

This is so good!

There’s still room, so go have a peek and then sign up if you need a thirdspace in San Francisco.

DIY Summer Reading: The Prince

Next week I head to Venice for a seminar at the European Center for Living Technology and will spend a week or so on holiday afterwards with Laura. Faced with the eternal question of What To Read, and specifically What To Read In Bright Sunlight, I settled upon re-reading The Prince. On paper. It’s a book that has been bubbling up here and there in conversation lately and it has been a while since I read it. Plus, it’s in the public domain, being some 497 years old, so it’s cheap.

Just as I was about to hit Apple-P and send the text to the printer in a flurry of Courier, I decided to take a different path. Why not spend an hour or two laying it out and printing it up as a proper booklet? Why not! Europe doesn’t seem to have a decent Print On Demand service (not like the US options are much good either), so that was out. Making the booklet myself gave me an excuse to break out the X-Acto. Hello,blade!

I’ve tried this experiment before, namely with the Federalist Papers. The Prince worked out a bit better, mostly because I knew how to use InDesign’s quirky “Print Booklet” options now. This go-around also benefitted from an ample supply of rubber bands on hand from Clues To Open Helsinki and Helsinki Street Eats, two recent projects that used them. The Prince looks like this:

The cover features a collage of various images returned by a google Image search for “The prince” and the title is set in TpDuro, by pal Martin Lorenz and Juanra “Wete” Pastor.

The interiors were printed as 2-leaf signatures. I glued them together quickly on the edge in a very basic sort of perfect binding. But what’s really holding it together is a quick notch on the top and bottom to hold a rubber band in place. Let’s see how this weathers by the pool…

The PDF is available here in case you also want to print a copy.

Notes from Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation

In an effort to keep a record of useful readings, below are my notes from Richard Sennett’s latest book, Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation. As ever, these notes are a hedge against the risk of such accidents as losing my copy of the book with notes in it already or wanting a reference while being away from my bookshelf.

My copy has a different cover than the one on Amazon:

Which is a bit of a bummer, because it looks like the US copy bears a really great photography by Frances Johnston. For a text that makes reference to images and material things on a regular basis, I wish Together were illustrated. The fact that it’s not would have been a big inconvenience before the internet. Today it’s just a quirk.

Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Source:

All in all, Together is a fantastic and quick read. If I have one quibble it’s with Sennett’s attempt at deconstructing Google Wave. He introduces the erstwhile collaboration platform as a way of highlighting the value of dialogue and dialogical thinking which, he argues, is easier in person-to-person interactions than via online platforms. But Sennett doesn’t seem to acknowledge that no one liked Google Wave and it shuttered shortly after launch. Because of this, he comes off as a conservative a pre-internet intellectual struggling to stretch his argument to be relevant to lolcat’ing internet natives. In my opinion, the book suffers because of his constant return to Google Wave as an (irrelevant) whipping post. Instead I have a wish: someone graft Richard Sennett’s brain onto Clay Shirky’s and magic will happen. Just saying. They teach at the same school, so how hard should it be?


8: “Superficial relations and short term institutional bonds together reinforce the silo effect: people keep to themselves, so not get involved in problems which are none of their immediate business, particularly with those in the institution who do something different.”

9: “People are losing the skills to deal with intractable differences as material inequality isolates them, short-term labour makes their social contacts more superficial and activates anxiety about the Other.”

13: “Experiment involves doing new things, and more, structuring these changes over time.”

14: “Usually when we speak of communication skills, we focus on how to make a clear presentation, to present what we think or feel. Skills are indeed required to do so, but these are declarative in character. Listening well requires a different set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations.”

17: “Ritual makes expressive cooperation work.” Or put differently, ritual is an expressive form of cooperation.

39: “Sociality is not an active reaching out to others; it is mutual awareness instead of action together. Sociality thus contrasts to solidarity.”

49: “Irrational it may be, but conspiracy is one way of making sense on the ground of everyday impotence. Reforms in the name of people done through back-room deals translate into conspiracies that deprive ordinary people both of their rights and of their respect.”

56: Booker T Washington’s workshops taught skills such as horticulture, carpentry, metal-working, and animal husbandry. But to graduate they had to now only show mastery of the skills, but also learn how to teach. The workshop became a self-replicating dispensary of knowledge.

69: “Social insects, for instance, possess enough genetic code to take over, when sickness or misadventure requires, some of the specialized tasks performed by other members of the nest or hive.”

89: The three building blocks of ritual: “Rituals depend on repetition for their intensity.” “Rituals transform objects [and] bodily movements or bland words into symbols… The point of a handshake is more than feeling another person’s skin.” Rituals are an act of dramatic expression. “Walking down the aisle if you get married is nothing like walking down a street, even if your gait is similar.”

114: When the printed word emerged, “ways of making” could be written down in how-to books and spread further and faster than word of mouth would ever allow know-how to travel.

116: “Chivalry focused in large part on taming violent sexual behavior” by invoking shared rituals of behavior to restrain personal desires and behaviors, particularly with regards to sexual urges and matters of reputation. Courtesy expanded this into other “realms of of experience” with niceties enabling smoother communication and cooperation between individuals who do not necessarily come from the same culture. This included such things as “how to speak clearly without referring to persons or places a stranger may not know” [thus bringing them into the conversation]. Castiglione’s introduced sprezzatura in his Book of the Courtier, providing a practicable way for people to act in public with “less self, more [social]“. “Sprezzatura oiled the show of informal, open talk” in a way that was casual but still restrained, deliberate.

151: In a passage describing how authority differs from power (authority = power + legitimacy), Sennett describes Peter Zumthor in his studio. Zumthor describes his process like this:

“At the beginning I come with a sketch, and we talk. We walk about the idea, we talk about how to start… As I walk through the office, I pass all the work … I am good at giving structure to our talks … where we have several opinions, I cut off all academic, theoretical arguments … I get other people in, even the secretary, and ask ‘would you like a hotel bedroom like this or like this?’”

Sennett continues, “Zumthor is obviously no pussycat in the studio, a mere mediator; he’s in charge. But he engages others seriously, and by all accounts he elicits deep dedication from his staff.”

178: “Short-term time is the solvent of civility.” !!!!!!

186: “There’s a difference between feeling secure and feeling complacent. When we feel inwardly secure, we can become willing to experiment, to unleash curiosity… Complacency is not outward-looking… rather, it is a cousin to narcissism in expecting experience to conform to a pattern already familiar to oneself; experience seems to repeat routinely rather than evolve.”

199: Making and repair. Making has a more creative reputation, but repair is also a highly creative act.

201: “The quiver is an important image in skill development. Sometimes it’s imagined that becoming skilled means finding the one right way to execute a task, that there is a one-to-one match between means and ends. A fuller path of development involves learning to address the same problem in different ways. The full quiver of techniques enables mastery of complex problems; only rarely does one single right way serve all purposes.”

208: “Informal is not the same as shapeless.” Informal speech, gestures, interactions are infused with accumulated experience.

210: “In practicing music, when confronted by a sour note or a hand-shift gone wrong, the performer gets nowhere by forcing. The mistake has to be treated as an interesting fact; then the problem will eventually be unlocked.”

212: Three kinds of repair: restoration, remediation, and reconfiguration. Restoration is a humble act which aspires to return the broken object or situation to a previous state. Remediation allows for old components to be replaced by new ones. It’s a skill that is practiced by “fixers”. In Sennett’s words “inventory skills are the fixer’s stock in trade; he or she knows of all the alternatives.” Reconfiguration often involves “an analytical, theoretical rethink” that is spurred by detailed issues. Reconfiguration, in other words, uses specific needs to prompt a general rethinking of the original problem that was solved, and then follows that rethinking through to new repairs executed as well-resolved details.

229: “The repair of conflict, like a workshop repair, re-formats an issue so that it becomes changeable.”

236: “We often imagine compromisers as the people skilled at meetings and the act of striking a compromise to be enabled by formality. Not so. The compromiser assumes that beliefs and interests are just bargaining chips, which supposes that the people holding these views aren’t firmly committed… Meetings which chip away at these beliefs in the name of compromise often leave engaged participants with the sour sense that they’ve been sold out by the meeting, or, worse, that they’ve sold themselves out… The real virtue of the formal meeting is that it can avoid this vice of appeasement. If a written record of talk is kept, people can put their views as strongly as they like, knowing that these will be preserved. The record makes of official transparency, and more, if the meeting does wind up with a compromise, the participants can still feel that they have not been personally compromised.”

Feng Shui Panopticon

In the summer of 2008 I shared a brief residency at PROGRAM initiative for art + architecture in Berlin with the LA-based artists Katie Herzog. Katie is a painter but works in multiple media, including public librarianship. Also, she’s my cousin; but I don’t think that’s part of her art practice.

Projective Imprisonment

Our project in Berlin was a meditation on two unlikely concepts: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design and the art of Feng Shui. Although they may seem to be wildly divergent ideas, they are connected by a thread of geomancy. By combining the practice of Feng Shui with the spatial logic of the Panopticon we found unlikely allies. These opposites share a deep commitment to the corrective, rehabilitative, or restorative capacity of geometry itself.

But could they be rectified into a single thing? Could one single object satisfy Feng Shui’s rules for avoiding evil and Bentham’s attempt to eliminate it?

Pure Qi

As you might suspect, the answer was elusive. We consulted a coterie of Feng Shui specialists from Berlin to New Zealand but each conversation ended in inspired gridlock. Not to be deterred, the outcome of this collaboration was a mirrored prototype panopticon. Using Bentham’s original drawings and sheets of adhesive mirror, we built a small scale structure that gobbles up the geometry of the world around it and reflects back a carefully shattered view. It’s the rhetorical product of 18th century and ancient wisdoms combined, but the physical progeny of a disco ball. The Feng Shui Panopticon is incapable of dispensing with evil, but equally unable to prevent joy.

Katie has since been working on a book of art and essays around this theme which is due out later this year. But in the meantime, if you’re in LA you can stop by the Cirrus Gallery to see the model that we produced while in Berlin. It’s on display as part of the Once Emerging, Now Emerging group show that is up till May 5, 2012.

Sloterdijk’s Bubbles

Since reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Foam City in Log when it was first published in translation and I was doing research for this old thing I’ve been hungry for more Sloterdijk. His massive three volume series Spharen (Spheres) has not been available in English until the first volume Bubbles was published this year by Semiotext(e). Finally!

It’s a book that probably requires a phd to make sense of, but why let that stop you? If you’re OK with letting your eyes temporarily glaze over when you wade through passages like this…

It makes an initial reference to its own appearance as a coherent body among coherent bodies in the real visual space, but this integral being-an-image-body means almost nothing alongside the pre-imaginary, non-eidetic certainties of sensual-emotional dual integrity

… then it can be a rewarding book. Sloterdijk is that special kind of European philosopher who seems to have intimate knowledge of every single text, painting, or other work of art that you’ve never heard of. But he is polite enough to wrap his rather challenging philosophical language around these tangible references. For me this yields a productive resonance. Your mileage may vary.

One of the things that I appreciate about Sloterdijk is that his language dips into refreshingly approachable moments. If one could have a favorite passage from a 600 page book, this would be mine:

72: In the foam, discrete and polyvalent games of reason must develop that learn to live with a shimmering diversity of perspectives, and dispense with the illusion of the one lordly point of view. Most roads do not lead to Rome—that is the situation, European: recognize it.

Below are some other passages I found useful.

20: Copernicus’ heliocentric theory initiated a series of research eruptions into the deserted outer reaches, extending to the inhumanely remote galaxies and the most ghostly components of matter. The cold new breath from outside was sensed early on, and a number of the pioneers of the revolutionary changed knowledge about the position of the earth in space did not conceal their unease in the infinity now imposed on them: thus even Kepler objected to Bruno’s doctrine of the endless universe with the words that “this very cogitation carries with it I don’t know what secret, hidden horror; indeed, one finds oneself wandering in this immensity, to which are denied limits and center and therefore all determinate places.”

23: Citizens of the Modern Age inevitably found themselves in a new situation that not only shattered the illusion of their home’s central position in space, but also deprived them of the comforting notion that the earth is enclosed by spherical forms like warming heavenly mantles. Since then, modern people have had to learn how one goes about existing as a core without a shell; Pascal’s pious and observant statement “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread” formulates the intimate confession of an epoch.

25: What makes the Modern Age special is that after the turn to the Copernican world, the sky as an immune system was suddenly useless. Modernity is characterized by the technical production of its immunities and the increasing removal of its safety structures from the traditional theological and cosmological narratives.

28: The sphere is the interior, disclosed, shared realm inhabited by humans—in so far as they succeed in becoming humans. Because living always means building spheres, both on a small and a large scale, humans are the beings that establish globes and look out to horizons.

On where ideas come from.

31: Whatever enters the imagination is not supposed to come from anywhere except somewhere over there, from without, from an open field that is not necessarily a yonder realm. People no longer want to receive their inspired ideas from some embarrassing heavens; they are supposed to come from a no man’s land of ownerless, precise thoughts.

Reconsidering the basis of Platonic forms.

42: Isolated points are only possible in the homogenized space of geometry and intercourse; true spirit, however, is by definition spirit in and in relation to spirit, and true soul is by definition soul in and in relation to soul.  … if one thinks in substances, the attributes arrive later, just as blackness is added to the horse and redness to the rose. In the intimate sharing of subjectivity by a pair inhabiting a spiritual space open for both, second and first only appear together.

Introducing the notion of ‘air conditioning’.

46: As spheres are the original product of human coexistence, however… these atmospheric-symbolic places for humans are dependent on constant renewal. Spheres are air conditioning systems in whose construction and calibration, for those living in real coexistence, it is out of the question not to participate.

71: Global markets and media have ignited an acute world war of ways of life and informational commodities. When everything has become the center, there is no longer any valid center; when everything is transmitting, the allegedly central transmitter is lost in the tangle of messages… The guiding morphological principle of the polyspheric world we inhabit is no longer the orb, bur rather foam.

84: The revolution of modern psychology does not stop at explaining that all humans live constructivistically, and that every one of them practices the profession of the wild interior designer, continually working on their accommodation in imaginary, sonorous, semiotic, ritual and technical shells.

Quoting Ficino on love.

213: Ficino remarks that humans normally do well what they do often—except in amorous matters, for “we all love constantly in some way, but almost all of us love only badly; and the more we love, the worse we love.”

220: The early Modern Age used magical terminology to communicate about the human being who will make it his business to perform acts hitherto believed impossible. What the sixteenth century… called the magus was the encyclopedically sensitive, polyvalently cosmopolitan human who learned how to cooperate attentively and artfully with the discrete interdependencies between the things populating a highly communicative universe.

Much of the book is devoted to carefully and intricately stepping through the logical consequences of imagery and stories from the earlier eras.

308: When the legendary Saint Christopher carries the baby Jesus across the water while the infant holds the entire globe in the palm of his hand, an equally paradoxical question is raised: where is Saint Christopher to place his feet while carrying the boy, when the river he is wading through is undoubtedly part of the world held by the child riding on his shoulders?

386: If individuals do not succeed in augmenting and stabilizing themselves in successfully practiced loneliness techniques—artistic exercises and written soliloquies, for example—they are predestined to be absorbed by totalitarian collectives.

415: The successful revolution is the transition to the total other that still manages to follow on from the good old days.

Describing the role of rituals, spirits, and other invisibles in human domesticity.

422: Living in house-like containers always has a dual character: it means both the coexistence of humans with humans and the community of humans with their invisible companions. It has, in a sense, always been the household spirits that have given an inhabited building dignity and meaning.

Not Sloterdijk, but Warhol in extended quotation.

462: The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem anymore. An interesting problem was an interesting tale. Everybody knew that…

473: The idiot is an angel without a message

480: Since written culture successfully asserted its law, being a subject has primarily meant this: being able, initially and usually, to resist the images, texts, speeches and musics one encounters…

Offering a possible explanation for the toppling of art by reality television and other cultural forms.

488: Siren music rests on the possibility of being one step ahead of the subject in the expression of its desire. Perhaps such an ability to be ahead is the anthropological reason for the interest of non-artists in artists, which reached its zenith in modern societies and passed it in postmodern ones.

490: Did Homer already know that bonds can only be broken by more bonds? Was it already clear to him that culture in general, and music in particular, is essentially nothing other than a division of labor in bewitching?

Taking oral fixation to a new level.

523: In order to be adequately complete human beings, we must learn at which tables we are the eaters and at which we become the eaten. The tables at which we eat are called dining tables; those at which we are eaten are called altars.

On why he thinks the Love Parades of the 1990s were cool.

527: Pop music has overtaken religious communions—Christian ones—on the archaic wing by outdoing the chances of absorption found at altars with the offer to join psychoacoustic abdominal cavities and follow passing audio gods.

And proving that he is not above humor.

90: An intellect that spends its energy on worthy objects usually prefers the sharp to the sweet; one does not offer candy to heroes.

216: As shown by the example of the husband-drinking

447: For his entire life, the navel owner looks past the memorial at the center of his body, like someone who walks past an equestrian monument every day without ever wondering whom it represents.

The Opposite of a Sandwich

27/8/2012 Update! We’ve consulted a real-deal scientist. Scroll down for details.

One of my pastimes is to consider impossible inventions. Mentally walking through the design, construction, and use of these inventions is a way to unpick a stuck brain.

I’ve annoyed many a coworker with the cliché question of whether they would choose to have a time machine or a cloning machine. Personally I’d take the time machine. Unless it’s one of the Primer units. Now that China has banned time travel and scientists in Hong Kong have cemented this ban with scientific proof that time travel is impossible, a new folly is required.

Of late the subject has been magnetism. Let’s purposefully misunderstand science and imagine that you can reach into a magnet and take out the power to attract one class of object to another. Take that power and inject it into something—anything—and see how that works out for you. It’s like using the force, except less convenient. Glass of water out of reach and you want to grab it? Find another cup and magnetically attract the water glass over to you.

The problem is, in the world of magnetism opposites attract. If you separate the concept of magnetism from the pesky science that makes it work you have the burden of finding the negative with which to attract the positive.

So the question is, what’s the opposite of a sandwich?

Answers have included miso soup, empanadas, salad, hair gell, eye glasses, dancing, and “a sandwich painted in antimatter”. What I like about this question is that to produce an answer you must first choose an angle. If soup is the opposite of a sandwich, this implies that essential sandwichness is being solid. Hot chocolate might imply that a sandwich is solid and savory, therefore the opposite should be liquid and sweet. Answering “eye glasses”, on the other hand, implies that essential sandwichness is more basic and primarily about being edible, whereas glasses scarcely are. A sandwich painted in anti matter is another thing altogether: how would you make it? What would it look like? What would happen if the sandwich and the anti-sandwich collided?

Updated August 27, 2012

When I browsed the Nomiku Kickstarter project page and saw that for $5 a plasma physicist would answer a question of my choice, I knew this was a good opportunity to find an answer to the questions above. Behold:

Bryan: What is the opposite of a sandwich, physics-wise?

Dr. Abe Fetterman:To me, a sandwich is a convenient way to deliver messy food to my mouth using bread and my hands. It would be very inconvenient if my attempt to push a sandwich into my mouth instead pushed the food away from me.

However, this is just the behavior of matter with negative mass. Any force acting on such an object causes acceleration in the direction opposite to which the force is applied. If you push a negative-mass sandwich to the left, it will move to the right. If you squeeze it together, it will fall apart.

I think this would be incredibly frustrating and would cause me to give up eating. Therefore, I think the opposite of a sandwich is a negative-mass sandwich.

Thanks, Dr. Abe!

Music (without words) for writing to?

On a writing deadline and completely worn out on my current concentration playlist, I sent a tweet in desperation asking for new music recs.

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.08.06 PM.png

What followed was an @valanche of #musicforwriting from pals such as Judith, Michael, Meg, Jason Jason, and Matt. Michael Sippey had the good idea to do something charitable and post the collected results as if it were the olden times. One generally does what Sippey asks, so here are the results which contain many gems:

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.07.21 PM.png

Update! Katie, who is undoubtedly your new favorite because it says so right there in the URL, chimes in too:

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.20.16 PM.png

Back to the Filesystem

After a decade (!) of experimenting with various kinds of web content management systems to run my personal website, I’ve reverted back to the best CMS around: the file system.

Inspired by the work of Mr. Adam Mathes and wishing for a system that would handle the image-based content of my portfolio, I decided to ditch Indexhibit and write something quick from scratch. The result is this:


Which is the rendered version of this:


What I like about this system is that I can adjust the flow of the content by adjusting the alphabetical order of the files. To add new content to the page all I have to do is drag an image into the folder or create a new text file. A bit of hacked-up PHP watches the folders and re-flows the pages when anything changes. It’s like magic, where magic is defined as a weekend spent hacking in a pair of code languages that I only sort of remember.

So basically there are three points to this post:

  1. Props to Mr. Mathes
  2. There is still a lack of good CMSes for primarily visual material
  3. Oh yeah, my website has been redone

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