Fashion for idiots

There will always be fashion trends, and to be candid I enjoy many of them. I don’t always participate, but I like seeing people catch a cultural wave and make it their own.

There have been a few trends though that completely elude me, and one that disappoints me.

For years now, I’ve seen motorcycle helmets shaped like WWII Nazi helmets driving around the US. At first it was a few tough bikers, sometimes even wearing their colors. Then various companies actually began manufacturing DOT-approved versions, and soon a lot of Harley-boomers starting sporting them – the usual lawyers, construction managers and podiatrists.

This used to piss me off – no other way to put it. I wanted to run these dumb MFs off the road, then pull over and plaster their helmets with Chabad “Moshiach Now!” stickers.

…but after a while I learned to accept seeing these helmets, and ultimately decided that it was o.k. – it was a great way of getting “back” at the N.S.D.A.P. – I figured if they could see all these people enjoying their freedom of choice, their pursuit of happiness, and the way they lived their distinctly non-Arian lifestyle, the Nazis would spin in their graves.

Great, victory is ours!

But what really cleared it for me was being in Vietnam last March. The Vietnamese had just passed a law mandating helmets, which of course makes a lot of sense in a country that has no real health care, few hospitals, and motorcycles as the major mode of transportation. Everyone rides mopeds there – and everyone was wearing brand-new helmets. They sell great helmets in Vietnam, but I got a particular kick out of seeing the “cute girls” – the ones that drive white Golf convertibles in LA – racing around town on pink Vespas, with pink Nazi helmets to match. That made me smile.

There is no way that a 20 year old Vietnamese girl is going to have the proper historical context – they’re just wearing it because they like the look, and possibly because the front opening makes room for their large Paris Hilton-style sunglasses. There is nothing mean or disrespectful about it.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the Keffiyeh, especially the black-and-white one. The scarf has been worn as a symbol by Palestinians, especially those who see the destruction of Israel as a reasonable and worthwhile goal. It’s always been worn by Yassir Arafat, and is associated particularly closely with the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. Of course, Hamas has made it part of their iconography as well.

I see people in Europe and the US with Keffiyehs wrapped around their throats, and I can’t help but think they’re wearing a quasi terrorist “lapel flag.”

The number of people wearing it publicly has gone up, from the innocuous, to the stupid, to the malicious. Kirsten Dunst, Howard Dean, and Hugo Chavez come to mind – respectively. And a quick Google search of Celebrity Keffiyeh reveals a huge number of celebrities – all of whom look even more pompous as soon as you place them in a geopolitical context.

…but just as I want to go up to every college student wearing one (how is it that the educated are usually the dumbest in the crowd??) and confront them on their choice, it turns out that the Keffiyeh is entering the fashion mainstream. Suddenly every chain store fashion operator is featuring a variation of the black-and-white shawl.

Call it Hate Couture.

Some of the bigger stores such as Urban Outfitters are marketing them as “Anti-War Woven Scarves.”

Don’t forget to accessorize with the highly fashionable “Anti-War Bomb Belt” – le dernier cri!, and now available in kids sizes, too!

After God knows how many years of giving the Palestinians all stick and no carrot, the Israelis have successfully repositioned themselves in the media landscape as “the Bad Guys”. This has ultimately resulted in 24-year old marketing executives perceiving the checkered scarf as the new funky version of the Red Star or a stencilled image of Chè Guevara… funny little symbols that used to mean so much… but of course they don’t realize that there’s much greater complexity here, and that the Keffiyeh is still a vibrant symbol of hate and death.

…but maybe blissed-out Western Consumer Ingnorance can successfully sap any gravitas from the symbol, the same way it did with Nazi helmets, and turn it into just another meaningless artefact. Hopefully soon, I will be walking down Dong Khoi in Saigon and see a pretty girl on a Vespa driving by in her funny little helmet, and a pink Keffiyeh around her shoulders.

Muxtape down

Those of you of a certain age probably remember the mixtape. If you’re younger than me you probably only had CDs, and if you’re older chances are you didn’t have the MC – the micro-cassette. It’s what we now call tape, but of course it’s a small version of those cool reel-to-reel systems that were such a difficult mess to use.

Like a lot of boys back in the late 70s and early 80s, I slaved away over my cassette deck (hooked up via my amplifier to my turntable) and cranked out carefully composed mixtapes. They served as every conceivable soundtrack – cool tracks to listen to while getting dressed for a “night” out on the town, angry or sad music for general teenage angst, and of course a series of loving tracks supposed to convince various girls that I’m tough, sensitive, cool, clever, and good-looking all at the same time. Sometimes these particular mixtapes were handed to the adored girl in question, but just as often they simply stayed in my Walkman… Either because I liked the tape too much, or the girl was no longer interesting to me, or because I expected rejection anyway, so why bother give up a tape that took me hours to compile.

Of course, in the internet age, everything is different.

You could dump a bunch of MP3 files on to a CD-ROM, but that is sooo… nineties.

No, nowadays you can go to any number of Mixtape sites, upload your songs, and send the result as a link to the girl in question. Then she can listen to it anywhere, including streaming it off her iPhone. Now that’s good technology! I think I would have handed over a lot more mixes would it have been as easy as clicking Send to get the mix into her hands.

These sites, like Muxtape for instance, are pretty much illegal of course – you’re using someone else’s Intellectual Property to create content without compensating the various parties that own and control it – the musicians, the record label, and the publisher.

And of course, the RIAA shut it down fast.

Who is the RIAA? The record labels and music publishers are represented in the US by the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. They’re a lobbying group that is the de facto representative of the world’s music industry. These people – and more importantly, the companies they represent – have been unable to come up with a single new way of earning money in the internet age. Instead, they have focused all their energy on shutting down anything that doesn’t lead to CD sales. Apple was too big for them, or they’d try to shut down iTunes as well.

Believe me, I am the great defender of Intellectual Property rights. I’ve owned a record label, I own film rights, and I’ve built a software company. I know all the arguments surrounding content distribution. But shutting down Muxtape? The RIAA already has the reputation of a thick-skulled mob enforcer.

Of course, a mixtape was always “illegal”, even 30 years ago the average Joe was not allowed to redistribute music without consent. We all did it anyway, because the law was unenforcable. No one was making any money off these tapes.

The music industry needs to figure out a new definition for “fair usage”. There has always been a disconnect between the rights of the creator and the owner. Theoretically, I’m not even allowed to play a song at a party without prior consent from the publisher.

As Navneet at Scrawled in Wax writes:

This question – of how copyright either enables or restricts cultural expression – is both ubiquitous and tricky. After all, in some sense ‘copyright versus culture’ is a false dichotomy: the ideas that underpin copyright law – ownership, private property, accreditation and individualism – are cultural linchpins as much as they are legal ones. But Muxtape’s intuitiveness, the simple fact that it ‘just works’ in both a technical and a cultural sense, renders the question in a somewhat different light. Though the disjunct between content providers and users is clear to anyone who has ever heard of DRM, to what extent does Muxtape highlight the contradictory, even antagonistic relationship between intellectual property laws and what people actually want to do with media and art?

The music industry would be better served by letting sites like Muxtape flourish, and to study how their customers use music. Then it will be easier for them to weave a revenue model into these new technologies, rather than trying to emulate a pre-existing ways of doing business.

Ice Cubes

A few days ago I had a really bad stomach incident, and was forced to forgo food for a couple of days. In the course of the day I ate a bagel, and drank some Gatorade to ensure I kept up with my electrolytes. It was warm when I bought it at the store, so I got some ice cubes out of the freezer in the house we’re renting in Los Angeles.

Well, the drink was foul-tasting, because the ice was yucky. There’s no other way of explaining it. Even though it came from the freezer, it was obvious that it had acquired whatever smells had been in the fridge over God knows how long, and the tap water it was using as a source was running through 50 year old pipes as well.

That afternoon, while suffering on the couch like a Civil War amputee, I opened the New York Times to find an article about a phenomenon I had already noticed previously: there’s an ice age going on.

What do I mean? Go down to Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, or any number of premium supermarkets or liquor shops, and you will find a whole range of high-end ice makers selling bags of super-clear, differently shaped ice in the freezer section.

Bottled water is finally on the decline. It has become unfashionable to drink bottled water in a time when people realize that the carbon footprint of mineral water is unacceptable – shipping it, cooling it, the petroleum and energy necessary to manufacture plastic bottles, and the fact that they’re non-biodegradable. My friends and family already know that bottled water is my little personal pet peeve – though I’m sure they’d be quick to point out places where I’m not that environmentally sensitive.

…but I guess the same people that used to sell bottled water have now moved on to pre-bagged ice. It’s a whole science, and of course there are plenty of internet sites dedicated to the methodology of “farming” ice. A big hit seems to be boiling distilled water, in order to release any remaining air. When you freeze that, it comes out crystal clear, not like that white ice coming out of the Sub-Zero freezer in the kitchen. The Japanese, as often, are leading this particular food science.

Shape matters too. You can get hollow tubes of ice, perfect cubes, bigger orbs (think small rugby balls) that have a minimum amount of surface area and thus melt slower while keeping your drink cool. There are also ices available specifically “dimpled” for those who enjoy chewing ice… to me those were always the nervous kids, or those too lazy (or tapped out) to go back to the bar for a fresh one.

I am glad I’m no longer at the age where I hang around bars. That post-teen early-career phase in life where you go to a cocktail lounge was never really my thing, though in retrospect I remember doing an awful lot of it, and actually having a good time. I guess I’ve always complained preemptively. Anyway, I was frequently annoyed by the slicker in a suit jacket who would order a highly specific drink in order to seem sophisticated – not in terms of its preparation, I do that, too. I mean the people who swear they can taste the difference between one version of a brand vodka and the other, specifying the mixer, and the garnish. “I’ll have a Grey Goose Limited martini with Noilly Prat vermouth, and a twist of organic lemon.”… Yeah, you’re a pratt alright… Well guess what: now you can hear them add the ice brand… “… with some Hoshizaki chips” or maybe some old-school Kool-Draft cubes.

One thought though… since reading the article last week, I have noticed the clarity and shape of ice with every drink that’s been served to me, and I can’t help but notice when they’re clear and cubed. I really like that.

Taking care of Baby

Now that we have a third baby, I’m realizing that I’m a little out of practice. Like a lot of modern parents I go online to seek the best possible advice, and I found a book that simplifies a lot of the day-to-day stuff for a “new” father.

Here are some excerpts from Safe Baby Handling Tips by David and Kelly Sopp, the same parent team that brought us the Wheel of Responsibility. It’s a great gift, buy this book for all new or recurrent parents in your circle of friends!

Really, I think all of life should come with a User Manual as simple as an aircraft evacuation pamphlet.

Design and the Dieline

We live in an age that bombards us with marketing and messages constantly. Nothing new there, of course. But once we have gotten past the price decision (which product holds the proper value in our mind) we are left with a design choice, and the question becomes “Which product feels right to me?” Many of us purchase products based on how they make us feel, how they reflect on us, and whether they’re aesthetically pleasing to us. Simply put, some of these things will be standing around our house for weeks and months, and we will have to look at them.

So lots of effort is poured into creating compelling design. I will not bore you with bad examples, but we all know several of them- just look around the house. Detergent bottles in hyper-saturated colors, wine etiquettes probably designed by the wine-maker’s wife, and shampoo containers that make you want to close your eyes long after you’ve finished rinsing and repeating.

The Dieline.com is a site that calls attention to outstanding design, and I encourage you to check it out. It’s a pleasure for the eyes, and I will add some samples below. It showcases smaller brands as well as major products that we’re all familiar with. Particularly interesting are the conversations that happen about the various designs – I like hearing professionals articulate the things I find myself responding to, but couldn’t describe as succinctly. Click on the images to be taken to the Dieline posts and comments.

Armani Privee Line:

A favorite, because I bought these as a Mother’s Day gift for The List Maker a few years ago. They are handcrafted perfumes that are mild and natural, and the wood-and-stone bottles are Objet D’Arts in their own right.

Olio & Spices

I have always had a love for sauce bottles – those who knew my company Rotor Communications remember that our first broadcast studio had my personal collection of Hot Sauce Bottles (all 350+ of them) decoratively mounted on the wall along the entrance. Olio & Spices is an Israeli company, who used Israeli designers to create the packaging.

Logan Wines

A great design of wine labels. The foot alludes to how grapes used to be stomped in order to press them. The label is fun but elegant. And the footprint has a touch of CSI to it, if you ask me.

Oh, just go to the Dieline and surf the site. It’s fun. The only disappointment is that they clutter their site design with Google Ads… how much money can that possibly generate?

Trust Me!

My favorite Sushi restaurant in Los Angeles has always been Sasabune. Like most people, I preferred it when they were in that little weird abandoned gas station on Sawtelle, but the new place is fine. It’s big and sort of antiseptic, but the food remains great.

There is no menu. However, there’s a sign on the wall, and it says: “No California Roll, No Tuna Roll, Trust Me.” They just bring you food, and at some point the food stops arriving. You’re welcome to give some guidance of course. Karen isn’t big on shelfish, so she foregoes the scallop in favor of some albacore.

I will not attempt food writing, it’s a discipline that eludes me. But I can tell you they use the freshest and best fish available, and they make the sushi with warm rice. This brings out the flavor of the fish even more, and ensures that the food is made just before you eat it – nothing pre-made that morning for the lunch rush.

But one thing that’s always baffled me is the poem on the disposable chop stick wrapper. It’s unchanged in the eight years that I’ve been going there. I will share it with you here, because every Friday ought to end with a poem:

Sushi – Delicate Snowflakes rest on warm, sweet rice beds flavors interwined. Transclucent jewel -(sliced) natural perfection – slide into my mouth. Trust Me!

Spelling, boldness, and punctuation left intact for your pleasure.

Shabbat Shalom, have a good weekend.

The Loading Dock

I’ve started working with Doug Hill in Los Angeles on a photography project. I shot some images south of Downtown LA on Tuesday night, and am finally getting a chance to look at them. On my little laptop they’re not really getting the proper treatment, and most of the interesting detail just gets washed out and compressed on such a little internet image. I look forward to getting home to print these, where I believe they will really shine.

Click on the image to open up a slightly larger version…

Peculiar Beauty

Through Bowlerized (another Berlin-based blog) I found the most wonderful compendium of classic beauty tips throughout history. The site is called Peculiar Beauty. Bonnie Downing, the editor of the site, also released a book with the same title.

My favorite entry (so far) has to be reading tips from Beverly and Vidal Sassoon, a couple my father took me out to dinner with at Big Window back in the 1970s. Just check Ivan’s book of celebrities, I got to sign it several times as a child, my first being at dinner with the Sassoons.

But enough gratuitous name-dropping… here’s the quote:

“I would like to add a small, totally chauvinist view here:  Smoking is anti-sex.  To kiss a beautiful woman, even if she is wearing the most feminine of scents and has the softest skin and moistest lips, is– if she smokes– like kissing a little old man.  I associate smoker’s breath with whiskey old codger’s and with my army buddies– neither group do I kiss.  The smoking woman may have come a long way, baby, but it’s down the wrong street.
Because Beverly hates the smell of onions, I got her to stop smoking during the day.  I kept an onion with me, and whenever she started to smoke a cigarette, I took a big bite of raw onion.  She now smokes occasionally in the the evening, but she always uses mouthwash before we kiss goodnight.”

Hmmm… wonder what trick I can use to get my wife to learn German… I think I will promise an hour at the gym for every hour she studies Deutsch!

Slow Food

One of the best movements to have come about in the last ten years has got to be the Slow Food Movement. As the name implies, it is an antidote to the Fast Food approach, but it goes beyond that. It was founded by Italians, but quickly achieved global reach.

Originally the intent was pretty straight forward: use local products as much as possible, use them seasonally, and take pride in what is around you. When my wife and I went on our Honeymoon in 2002, we drove through Italy with a Slow Food guide as the core component of our route planning. Francino had given it to us, and it was the best suggestion we had gotten in a long time.

Slow Food is now evolving, in ways that makes a lot of sense. The emphasis on local food is a positive contribution to reducing transportation costs – why use up so much energy to eat beef from across the country if a local farmer has something fresher near by. We live in a world in which people have lost contact with their food source. Even sophisticated, educated consumers don’t really spend much time thinking about where food comes from. At the supermarket, the lamb in the freezer is from New Zealand, the pork from Germany and the beef from Florida (or Argentina, if you’re lucky.)

So the next time you go out to eat, keep an eye on what’s local. Chances are its fresher, and not always available.