Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Note from Brussels 

Granite bust of Tintin at the Comic Book Centre

After a week of living at an airport hotel in Brussels, I finally made it into the city. This last week has been a endless loop of breakfasts in the hotel lobby, taxis to the office, lunch in the canteen, locked in a meeting room, and churning through half-baked design options. It felt great to just sleep in, take a light breakfast and grab the train into the city centre. I'm here with my manager, Martin and while I took in a visit to the slightly rundown Comic Book Centre he found the only English Pub in Brussels to watch an FA Cup match.
“The last time I was in Brussels was… twenty-two years ago.”
We had a funny moment when we discovered the Grand Place (by sort of ambling towards where we thought it was) but were distracted by some dog wearing glasses. The joke was we were so easily amused by a dog wearing glasses that we didn't really notice the fantastic architecture around us. Brussels isn't so big that you can't see a lot by foot so it was fairly easy to walk from the central station to the Grand Place, and from there to a MediaMarkt (like a Belgian FutureShop) to pick up a couple of things.

The last time I was in Brussels was for a weekend in the summer of 1990. Twenty-two years ago. The disappointment with the Comic Book Centre today was that it was pretty much the same then. This is like one of the world capitals for comic books and this place is in a nicely kept building but the exhibits were exactly as I remember them. Pretty corny and outdated. In that time there has been a new museum built outside of Brussels just to commemorate Tintin's creator Hergé. Unfortunately I doubt I'll get a chance to set aside the half day you'd need to get there so Sunday I'll probably just head into town in the afternoon and check out a gallery or two. I'm sure a cone of frites will feature in the my plans too.

I think a couple of days of taking in the city will make the rest of the week go a lot faster. It's nice to take a trip and all but you pretty quickly can get home sick (not to mention absolutely fat as I haven't exercised anything but my mouth eating junk pretty much since I've been here). It'll be nice to get back to a real winter city.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Urbanized in Toronto

Wim Wenders' ode to choreographer Pina Bausch, "Pina" Image via

I missed the documentary "Urbanized". Got there too late! It was sold out, so I went to Pina, a 3D dance movie, instead. 
"Pina" has all the pretension of modern dance and is fairly straight forward, fixed camera filming of dance pieces. An example of the odd (maybe just Germanic) obtuseness would be as follows: a dancer enters into view, yells, "Dieses ist Kalbfleisch!" - "This is veal!" then puts two pieces of raw veal in her dance slippers as she ties them up. Yet it is full of incredible physicality and beauty – said woman with the veal in her heels then proceeds to dance for several minutes entirely "on pointe". It also has some pretty great music which you can hear a sample of below:

PINA - Original Soundtrack - "Lillies Of The Valley" - Music by Jun Miyake by
Urbanized is playing again on Tuesday but I doubt I'll be able to see it, so I'll probably just have to rent it like everyone else. 
I will say this. It is fun to see a movie at the TIFF Lightbox. Most of the theatres are great, spacious with gorgeous red velvet curtains though there is one really small "multi-purpose room" with temporary bleachers. Very uncomfortable. You can linger in the gift shop, see an exhibit or just get a drink at the bar before going in. I think the Varsity at Bay-Bloor tried this grown-up approach to going to the movies but didn't quite succeed the way the Lightbox does. I don't really like the building which is just a typical glass box and the circulation and ticketing are a little messy but the quality of the theatres, café and bar are better than any movie house in town.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dead Mouse; Not the Cool Kind 

image via Designers Go To Heaven

He would've died with his boots on, if he wore boots, or if Clarks made very tiny boots. I didn't know him that well. Maybe he was more of a Croc guy or Converse high tops? He never wore shoes, I know because I could hear his little nails scurrying over the parquet floor. Maybe it was a she and not even a he at all? Well, they are nothing now. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes and all that. This was my annoying little visitor. Your common house mouse. Mus musculus Linnaeus (apparently). Now dead. 86'd from my juke joint via a one way ticket down the garbage chute. People die everyday. So do animals. I'm responsible for their deaths. I order them killed, slaughtered, divided and wrapped in cling film. Then I eat their corporeal flesh. Sometimes, if it suits me, I gnaw at their bones.

This rodent's death was different. I planned it and saw it through to the bitter end. A mob hit couldn't have been better executed. I said I didn't know him though I knew him well enough to know all his routes. So predictable. Being predictable will get you killed.
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Recipe: Beef Stew, Eight Ways

Having grown pretty tired of my own beef stew, but with fond memories of a carbonnade I had at Belgo in London (you like that, casual place-name drop, POW!) I'm determined to romance le boeuf once more. Thankfully Mark Bittman has offered guidance vis-a-vis his How to Cook Everything App on my phone. Chapeau to you, Sir. Chapeau.


Beef Stew, Eight Ways
By Mark Bittman
From the How to Cook Everything for iPhone® app

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Thought-Bomb of the Day 

CUPPOW! from Paper Fortress on Vimeo.

Every once in awhile a simple idea has been conceived, devised, designed, executed and delivered. You know it's a great because a) it is so very simple; b) you can't believe you didn't think of it; and c) you almost can't believe it doesn't already exist. The
Cuppow from Aaron Panone & Joshua Resnikoff is just such an idea. I've long been a fan of using mason jars for storing rice, grains, nuts, sugar, salt and so on in air tight container. When the reckoning of Peak Oil we'll be forced by cost to stop frivolously using petrochemicals for throw-away uses such as containers and energy and start using plastics more wisely and re-thinking truly recyclable and more abundant materials such as glass and steel (though you need energy, aka petrochemicals, to make them so). The humble mason jar and all of its inherent qualities, will be something we return to. I'm not sure if the designers have thought about it, but, if I were an investor I can see possible extensions of this product. A lid with a sealable top, a lid with a sealable top for pouring things like salt, sugar or cooking oil, or a lid, perhaps made of silicone that can act as a seal during pickling or perserving that can be opened and closed without opening the lid. I'm just thought-bombing (apparently "brainstorming" has fallen out of favour due to it's use to describe neurological events… or something).

Unlike many good ideas, you can actually order one of these today at Cuppow. Go ahead. See what it's like to hold a good idea in your hand.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Armisen and Brownstein

image of Armisen and Brownstein
The ardently platonic Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, photo by Gabriele Stabile for the New Yorker

I like thinking of Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen as the new Nichols & May of our time though this New Yorker piece on “Portlandia”, their largely improvised comedy program on IFC, never mentions it. Maybe there is no connection. The comedy is certainly different. Satire isn't new but this manner of maintaining a satirical edge with a balance of guile and affection is something rarer. Even stranger, these two comedian/musician/actor/writers are as hip as anyone they make fun of (probably hipper). Still, they manage to retain their own hipness. How? Anything goes in this topsy-turvy, insidey-outsidey world. It is more art than science, me thinks.
“...what Freud called the narcissism of small differences”
We can all recognize the unbearably hip, or as Elvis Costello sang, the tragically hip. It's more difficult to recognize your own excursion into hipster territory, accidental or affected. That's the geography Armisen & Brownstein negotiate so successfully. (See? Armisen & Brownstein. It's already catching on.) It's really well articulated by Talbot in this article as “...what Freud called the narcissism of small differences: the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist, with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings.”. That's what makes the comedy universal. While Portland may be HQ for Pacific Northwest hipsters, it's the same narcissism of 19th century's Vanity Fair or of pointy toed shod dandys of London, or of a tuque-in-the-summer and heavily tattooed (or "inked") doofus of Queen Street West in Toronto. The penultimate expression of the show is the sketch where a chin-bearded fixie riding dude claims everything "is so over".

I laugh, despite seeing myself in some of that satire. If you can laugh at yourself, that would mean you have at least one redeeming quality, right?

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Architecture Sucks

The New York Times blog post, Want a Job? Go to College, and Don't Major in Architecture suggests a) go to College, it's not a guarantee of employment but it improves your chances greatly; b) you should pay attention to current employment rates across sectors to choose your degree and; c) architects are in such surplus, don't bother studying that.

The only thing I can say about that is it proves what boneheads economists can be by seeing every problem as a statistic and every human as a rational, unemotional, robotic consumer device. This chart looks like it proves their point:

Yet what it doesn't tell are really the things you need to know. Having a post-secondary degree or trade is the best way to ensure long term employability. A similar statistic to one mentioned in the article is that white males, between the ages of 35-50, with a university degree or higher have a unemployment rate around 5% while non-white men without any post-secondary education or training have an unemployment rate above 20%. What that tells me is, it is good to be "The Man". It actually brings me solace and allays my fears to know that, statistically speaking, I'm more likely to be employed than unemployed. But it's got nothing to do with my specific area of work (where I'm guessing the unemployment rate in Toronto is less than 5%. Not many people have ten years experience doing something that didn't exist 15 years ago apparently.)

The other things you need to know? Don't choose a degree based on unemployment rates across sectors. If you choose a degree today but wouldn't actually enter the work force until five years later, do you think those stats will be the same or unchanged? Choose what you study based on what interests you. If nothing interests you, well, then you have bigger things to worry about. There are so many degrees, trades, skills to study, you'd have to be pretty boring not to find something. Most parents are probably worried that their teen-age kids haven't found their "passion". They shouldn't worry. I mean not even "Christ" found his "passion" until he was in his thirties. Before that he was just a carpenter/handyman. Which brings me to my other point. If you've studied something you like, that might eventually become or lead to your passion. You'll probably change course a few times over your life anyway. My general profession is "design" but there are dozens of fields within that description, and I've changed direction at least 4 or 5 times (countless jobs or contracts varying across industrial design, graphic design, animation, Web design and now user experience design). Through all of that, my education in the design process has been the common thread.

Lastly, there are plenty of reasons not to study architecture. It's just one of those things like "Library Science" that is difficult, takes a long time to study and become proficient, and the pay sucks. But if that's what gets you out of bed in the morning, you don't have a choice. Some people say I was lucky to know what I wanted to do in high school. I did look up the employment rates and incomes for designers but the numbers then, probably as they are today were so broad as to be useless (eg. potential earnings range fron $20k to $90k). I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was 17. I just wasn't any good at anything else. Even after graduating from industrial design I didn't think I'd be a product designer. Manufacturing had been devastated in the 90s and had been in decline for years. Still, I couldn't do anything else, so I slogged onward. I generally went where the work took me. It was only years later that I made a conscious decision to turn down some work in favour of something I wanted to do. I think that's a really common Canadian designer story. I did exhibits and graphics because the work was available, I did signage because I knew one end of a bolt from another, I did illustration because I could draw, I did Web stuff because I knew some software. At some point, it adds up to having done a bit of everything, which comes in handy.

In summation; go to school and study what interests you; don't fret about "passion"; be open to change; sometimes doing what you love doesn't pay that great, but you'll be happier and still be more likely to have a job than not have one.

It's like what the Dali Lama says, "Be happy and useful." Certainly that's better advice than choosing your life's work based on a set of actuarial tables.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Seen in December

Facing the inevitable in Melancholia image via

Set in 16th century Japan, this is the story of a thief who bears an uncanny resemblance to a powerful warlord. Yup. The old swicheroo.

The Hour
BBC drama set in the offices of a fictitious 1953 BBC news program. This six part series has it all. It's a serious drama with occasional light wit but it's also a romance and a thriller. The three leads form the love triangle and primary dynamic; the brilliant intrepid journalist and his longtime unrequited love, Bel as the innovative new program's director and the charming & dashing but slightly less intellectual show host. All three represent some faction of British classes and how these groups clashed or worked together at the time when The British Empire was becoming nothing more than a fancy dress supper club yet still trying to exert some imperial power in the world. It's worth watching the extras on the DVD as the context of world events and Britain's domestic disputes requires some explanation. Imagine a Brit watching a drama about the Canada vs Russia Summit series without knowing who Bobby Orr was and you see what mean.

Is the image of a giant planet named Melancholia smashing into the Earth a subtle analogy for the crushing defeat of depression? No but this is Lars Von Triers. The story is of two sisters, Justine, who is in the darkest depths of depression and Claire, a born worrier. Who is better prepared to meet their maker? Writer David Rakoff has said that we should appreciate the critical mind depression creates. He may then applaud Justine who remains calm when everything goes to hell. This film has all the painful intimacy and cruelty of a Von Triers movie but it has incredible beauty as well. It makes a striking bookend to Malick's Tree of Life.

The Artist
A contemporary silent film set in the era when they called movies Talkies retells the well known tale of A Star is Born yet the style of the film is as much the story as the plot that moves the narrative. This is also the story of a man in crisis whose best relationships are with his employee and his dog and is unable to talk until he has lost everything and allows a woman into his life — whew, talk about your therapist catnip.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Great high octane action flick but don't stop and wonder why the set pieces are so unnecessarily convoluted – the only reason you need is that it will lead to crazy stunts. I'm not even going to wonder why super-spy Ethan Hunt can't beat up an aging nuclear scientist / extremist.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Tis the season for the colon apparently. The punctuation mark not the anatomical part, I mean. I have no idea where the title comes from or even if this story line has anything to do with the books and I don't care. More fun than Tom Cruise and all the tall buildings in Dubai (or where ever) combined.

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