September 27, 2007

Tagline Tyranny

"Agencies waste countless hours concocting slogans of incredible fatuity. […] Notice that all these bromides are interchangeable — any company could use any of them." David Ogilvy, quoted in Michael Bierut's "Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design" (No. 36).

But isn't that the point? It's not an individual tagline that's significant, it's having any tagline at all that's significant. Taglines are anonymous floating signifiers; in most cases the tagline's not about a specifc product or company, and definitely not about product pragmatics or usage: taglines are about distraction and deflection, they're about identification with lifestyles that value taglines, they're about a 1984-esque kenosis of meaning. Not so much the society of the spectacle as the tribes of the taglines.

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September 23, 2007

El Cerrito Plaza

"Man", he says, looking at me unreadably from the other side of the checkstand, "you'll never know what it was like for this Oakland boy to walk Black through the Plaza the first time". He mimes the reactions: panicked phone calls to the police and other merchants, squinting shop-keepers following his stroll from behind the blinds and counters. "That's the best reason to go to Wal-Mart — they don't give a shit that I'm black, only that I spend money and I'm middle class. And they don't do none of that bullshit Berkeley 'hug a black man' crap".

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September 20, 2007

That Bin Laden Thing

"Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely 'illegitimate' and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against American or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate 'resistance'" — Thomas Friedman in a recent NYT Op-Ed piece.

Without taking anything away from Friedman's main point in the article as a whole, it's a little odd to claim that Bin Laden created this situation. Bin Laden didn't invade Iraq on transparently-false pretenses, and Bin Laden didn't then preside over a deeply-destructive occupation of lethal missteps and incompetent ad hoc decisions. And Bin Laden as he currently exists is at least partly a creation of ruthlessly-stupid and deeply hypocritical American foreign policy decisions, both recent and over the decades. And of media and administration attempts to portray him as much larger than life.

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September 16, 2007

American Genius

Stax pre-1969. More important than the moon shot.

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September 12, 2007

Four For The Price Of One

East Oakland

Four local East Oakland / Fruitvale / Estuary icons for the price of one: Nikko's 24 HR Cafe Shop; the friendly guy who stands guard over 880 and East 7th; the old Lucasey factory; and St Joseph's. Just the condensed glimpse I get from the walkway coming off the Park Street bridge on my way home each day, captured with a longer lens….

(Click on the image above for a much larger version).

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September 08, 2007

No One Reads Newspapers Anymore…

I got a short letter to the public editor published (under my real name) in last Sunday's New York Times and no one noticed. Humph.

But that doesn't surprise me at all — who really reads newspapers anymore? Who even skims them? For years now my main sources of news have been online (I mostly use Google's news aggregator), and my subscription to the paper version of the NYT is mostly for reading in the Milano over weekend breakfasts, or late at night, long after the front page became yesterday's news (I've been subscribing pretty much as long as it's possible to have been a subscriber in Northern California; I read the analysis and longer background articles only, and maybe try to keep up with the local news from New York). Long before the web (from the early 1980's up until about 2000), my main source of science and technology news and gossip (and, oddly, classical music theory and criticism) had been Usenet, now just a backwater of spam and endless flamewars (I keep thinking of those mythical rivers that caught fire due to the amount of toxic waste dumped into them). So I don't really read coherently (or otherwise) edited newspapers (in print or on the net) so much as I read a melange of articles from disparate sources; the little pictures don't always quite cohere as a Big Picture.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I'm just not nostalgic for newspapers as such, though — I don't think I'd mourn the passing of the print edition of the NYT at all, as long as I had something a little less irritating than my laptop to read the online version with while on BART or sitting at a cramped table in Berkeley, or lounging around in my studio. It'll happen; and sooner rather than later, I hope. And then I'll be able to complain crankily that no one reads at all, any more.

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September 06, 2007


Early Morning, Fruitvale Bridge from Park Street Bridge

For the last two days, copper-coloured skies, a weak reddish sun, and the smell of burning hanging over everything from the bushfires both north and south. Beautiful, in its own way.

(Yesterday, early morning, Fruitvale Bridge from Park Street Bridge, Oakland Estuary).

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September 05, 2007

Root Division

A friend of mine, Barbara Holmes, has a couple of pieces in Root Division's Introductions 2007 in the Mission (I'm also vaguely acquainted with one of the other artists in the show, but I don't actually know his work very well). If you're in San Francisco this Saturday and have nothing better to do, come to the opening (7pm — details on the website). I'll be there. I might even remember to answer to "Jimmy Little"…

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September 03, 2007

The Man Behind Starbucks

Alfred Peet, onetime Berkeley resident, founder of Berkeley's original Peet's Coffee and Tea, and the person who almost single-handedly made the Bay Area a source of high quality coffee from the 1960's on, died last Wednesday.

When I first came to Berkeley in the mid 1980's the really good coffee here made an immediate impression on me — you could get excellent cappuccinos, lattes, espressos of all sorts, coffee by the pound, etc. (along with good bagels or pastries) cheaply and easily in any number of small coffee shops and cafes throughout Berkeley or San Francisco; a lot of that coffee was supplied by Peet's or small local companies inspired by Peet's. After London's acidic instant powdered swill, the coffee here was a relief; what made it a surprise, though, was that everyone had told me over and over before coming here that American coffee was just terrible (often enough, they still say that, which is odd, but never mind). But American coffee as I experienced it was just great. What I didn't really know at the time, of course, was that (as with so many things in life) I was experiencing coffee as it was in the Bay Area, not in the US as a whole: coffee Out There beyond the Irony Zone was still swill — as it was in all of Britain and the vast majority of Australia, of course. Good coffee in the Bay Area (and, later, LA) historically went hand-in-hand with the whole California Cuisine thing that also made everyday Bay Area food something to dream of back in the food wasteland that was London in the 1980's; it's no accident that the original Peet's store is only a minute's stroll away from Chez Panisse in North Berkeley.

Peet's death was quite big news in the Bay Area, but it's unlikely to have meant much anywhere else, unless you also knew that he was the source of the raw coffee beans, expertise, and inspiration for the original Starbucks founders, in which case he looms rather large in both US gourmet coffee and cultural history. As someone who can remember when Peet's was still a small local affair (like Noah's Bagels, for that matter), who's watched Starbucks elbow its way into the Bay Area and compete head-to-head with Peet's (which has itself become a small national chain), it's hard not be ambivalent: Peet and Peet's succeeded in raising the level of coffee quality and availability throughout California and then the rest of the US, either directly or through Starbucks (go on, admit it…), but the whole annoying suburban hipster coffee culture that's grown up with it all also owes a lot to its roots in Peet's and Berkeley. And while Peet's still isn't quite Starbucks (Peet's really isn't a chain of sit-down coffee shops in the same sense that Starbucks is, it's more of a coffee retail and wholesale outfit that also happens to sell coffee and pastries over the counter, and its reputation is a lot more benign), the sight of Peet's trying to match Starbucks block by block through the downtowns and neighbourhoods around here can be a little depressing. Peet himself sold Peet's to one of Starbucks's original owners some time ago (there's a tangled history here), and it's been through a series of ownership and management changes over the years, but it's still based here, and I used to pass its main roastery in Emeryville every few days (which is now apparently in Alameda, just across the Estuary).

I think what makes the average aging Berkeley hipster really cringe about all this is just how much Starbucks seems to be the logical extension of the original Peet's experience and aims, with the added "taking coffee to the world" evangelism that's succeeded beyond those hipsters' dreams. Someone had to do it, I guess.

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September 01, 2007


Cafe Milano, Berkeley

Saturday morning, breakfast, Cafe Milano, Berkeley, looking south (for the Berkeley nostalgists out there who tend to look the other way)

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