Myself

A design consideration

The renowned American designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames were once asked by the premier politician of a friendly country to evaluate the effect of Western technology, specifically design, on their culture. There was also the question of how the fledgling state could benefit from the Eames’s input.

The Eameses, true to their mode of working, went all in. In their report, submitted one year later, they went to great lengths to explain how true design is intuitive and yet evolutionary. As an example, Charles talked about the thinking that might go into designing a simple vessel that one might use to carry water.

  •  The optimum amount of liquid to be fetched, carried, poured and stored in a prescribed set of circumstances.
  • The size and strength and gender of the hands (if hands) that would manipulate it.
  • The way it is to be transported—head, hip, hand, basket or cart.
  • The balance, the center of gravity, when empty, when full; its balance when rotated for pouring.
  • The fluid dynamics of the problem, not only when pouring but when filling and cleaning, and under the complicated motions of  head carrying—slow and fast.
  • Its sculpture as it fits the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip.
  • Its sculpture as complement to the rhythmic motion of walking or a static post at the well.
  • The relation of opening to volume in terms of storage uses—and objects other than liquid.
  • The size of the opening and inner contour in terms of cleaning.
  • The texture inside and out in terms of cleaning and feeling.
  • Heat transfer—can it be grasped if the liquid is hot?
  • How pleasant does it feel, eyes closed, eyes open?
  • How pleasant does it sound, when it strikes another vessel, is set down on ground or stone, empty or full—or being poured  into?
  • What is the possible material?
  • What is its cost in terms of working?
  • What is its cost in terms of ultimate service?
  • What kind of an investment does the material provide as product, as salvage?
  • How will the material affect the contents, etc., etc.?
  • How will it look as the sun reflects off its surface?
  • How does it feel to possess it, to sell it, to give it?

The country in question is India, of course, and this object under consideration is a lota, that traditional metal water vessel used across the subcontinent. In their report, they wrote:

Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.

The Eames Report was submitted to Pt Nehru and his cabinet in 1958, and in 1961, the National Institute of Design was founded in Ahmedabad, as an autonomous institute devoted to research, service and training in industrial design and visual communication. It now has five campuses across India, and is still going strong.

An interest in mid-century design had me reading about the Eames’ lives, specifically via the book The Eames Primer, written by Eames Demetrios, one of Ray and Charles’ grandchildren. The India episode came up as I flipped through the pages at a bookstore, and made me realize I had no idea that the couple were that closely entwined with the history of modern Indian design, specifically with NID, even though I have known and even worked with friends who were graduates from the institute.

While I did think of getting a classic Eames recliner when it showed up in Costco, of all places, the Herman Miller price-tag is a little too daunting for me at the moment. Seriously, if it is a toss-up between a chair and an entry-level Sandman page, you know I would pick the page.

But I could not resist picking up a knock-off Eames recliner from a local vintage furniture shop earlier this year. Turns out there were a lot of customers gnashing their teeth between the time I paid and the chair got delivered home.

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Myself

The Second Marie Kondo post

This is a followup to my first Marie Kondo post, and is meant to serve as a thought-dump of what I took from the book, and how it has affected my life. I am well aware of the risks of sounding vaguely faddish — like people that can’t stop talking about their cross-fit classes or that new vegan diet that has changed everything and why you should take them up too, because life is meaningless otherwise, darling.

Uh-huh. The context here is that I have, for a while, been wondering about specific things regarding my lifestyle. The only thing that moved with me to LA from India, were my collection of books. These are books that have (mostly) been bought from 2002 onwards, ever since I graduated from college, and have moved with me from apartment to apartment, city to city. The ones bought before 2002? Most were transferred to my parents’ place in Assam. A lot of those have ended up in the library in my mother’s school, or have gone to her students who seemed interested in reading.

Over the last few years, I have been curating the books that stay on my shelves, which is to say that the ones on display in the living room are the ones that I *love* to own. Now a bulk of these books are comics and manga, and while I have quirks related to those (case in point: at one point, Watchmen was present in my shelves as the original 12 issues, a trade paperback, a 10th anniversary trade paperback, and an Absolute Edition. Right now, I just have the Absolute Edition and the original 12 issues), the comics get read and reread frequently. I cleared out a couple of shelves before moving to LA, and last year, a chunk of comics that I never read went to the local comic-book store. But despite my occasional cleanup, I still had way too many books. And the sad thing is — it’s not like I reread any of them. They were all just there, as a function of my taste and what was available in bookstores in the last decade. You have to remember, that was a time when e-readers did not exist, and neither did Flipkart or Amazon. If I saw a book at a used bookstore and did not pounce on it, I had no idea if I would ever see it again. So yeah, I bought everything, because I was earning enough and I could. My buying habits changed over the years, and it’s no longer about going nuts during a discount sale or bidding on random deals on eBay,

The best thing of Marie Kondo, in my opinion, is that she does not talk of minimalism — which right now is an -ism that encourages a competitive zeal in lowering the number of possessions you own. Ms Kondo’s techniques help enable a certain kind of mental freedom in evaluating your possessions. You do not need to disown everything, she says. All you have to do is to find the things that bring you joy. Which meant that the question she asked was not “what do you want to throw away?”, it was “what do you want to keep?”

One fine day last week, I did what the KonMari method prescribed. Which is to tackle one kind of item at a time — in this case, books — and piling them all in one place; and without being distracted, to sort them one by one into two categories: the ones that spark joy and the ones that don’t. At first, I was too lenient. Of course, I loved my Terry Pratchett paperbacks, and the Tom Sharpes, and the Robert Heinleins and the Andrew Vachsses. They were not getting out of my sight. Why on earth would I want to get rid of my Harry Potter first edition hardcovers? Or the Kamala Subramanium Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana that I bought so many years ago? Those books were memories for me, and it seemed criminal to get rid of them.

Except, if I took away my projected feelings for them, they were just semi-yellowed, well-thumbed blocks of paper, most of which hadn’t been opened in years. My Stephen King Dark Tower books were still waiting to be read since 2005 or thereabouts. The Richard Burton Arabian Nights volume, pretty as it was, had never been opened in the United States. I reread some Vachss and some Pratchetts every now and then. But not the books I owned; I would just download them on my Kindle when I wanted. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the books weren’t really bringing much of value to my life, they were more fetish objects than the ideas they represented. Once that switch flipped in my head, it became easier and easier to understand what I should keep, and what should go.

I ended up with 9 boxes of books that I no longer wanted, after 2 nights of sorting. I took them all to the local charity shop. The books that still remain fit one shelf; there is another shelf that I will refer to as a ‘probation area’; I have left the books that I may put up on eBay, or give away as gifts, or are novel enough to merit their presence. I could not get rid of the first edition of Gods, Demons and Others, as much as I thought I would; nor could I let the Diana Wynne-Joneses go. But I have given myself 3 months – if the books on the probation area still remain untouched and unread, they all go.

One might think that there is an addendum where I reminiscence about the emptiness the missing books have left in my life, but on the contrary, I feel happy. And free, in a way. Is that a two-thumbs-up vote for the KonMari method? I guess. I still feel like I cheated because I did not do anything about my comics, but you know, I am okay with that. My comics have always sparked joy in my life.

In addition to what I did above (and I did that with my clothes a few weeks ago, which was easier), I have been doing specific things that Ms Kondo recommends in her book.

  • The most important thing is that of mentally assigning things in their right place, at home. She advocates figuring out where every item you own belongs, so that the amount of clutter is minimized, and also you think more about where something new should go, when you think of buying it.
  • Clearing the space around the kitchen sink, the bathroom shower and wash basin. It helps a lot, both in terms of aesthetics and mental calm.
  • Folding my clothes the right way and stacking them horizontally, not vertically; that’s one of the smartest moves ever. I did that with everything, including socks, underwear, hand towels, pocket squares and t-shirts, and it really serves its purpose well.
  • In general, using the ‘spark joy’ method is a great way to figure out if you want to do something, anything at all. An invite to a dinner party? A choice between reading this book or that book or not reading either of them? If it’s not making me happy, why should I be doing it all?
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Mixtapes, Music, Myself

The Second 2016 Playlist

Just in time for April, another selection of songs that makes my head bop, my toes curl and my fingers fly on the keyboard.

I have had Grimes’ new album, Art Angels on heavy rotation the last few weeks. My love for this album has been bolstered by a long interview with the artiste that I read recently, and a book called Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. It’s a stunning collection of tracks — accessible and complex at the same time, and self-aware, in a strange way. Grimes has appeared on my older playlists, obviously, but I have never been as completely blown away by the totality of her earlier albums. ‘Kill v Maim’ is here because it’s one of the weirdest songs on Art Angels: the video is all glitter and J-pop, and her voice takes on textures that . What makes the song really special is the concept ­— it is sung from the point of view of Al Pacino in Godfather II, except ‘except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space’. Um, yeah. Fuck.

Klimeks is a British producer that falls squarely into the ambient/synthpop genre, much like Burial and even Mura Masa, both of whom are artistes I love. In fact, if ‘Tokyo Train’, a track from 2013, had pitch-shifted vocals, I would probably think it was Mura Masa. Though that’s kind of doing Klimeks injustice, he has a very distinctive sound that makes for great listening both at home and at work. Calm yet filled with nervous tension.

Moderat’s new album Moderat III is out already, and this was one of the first singles that I heard from it. The video features a sci-fi story with teenagers harvesting crystals in a dystopian world, and it feels like an avant garde video game someone else is playing when you get high. The song is so distinctively Moderat – the sharp synth wail, the repeating 5-beat snare pattern at 16 bar intervals, the layered vocals.

Julietta’s ‘Conquest’ is a catchy pop song about heartbreak. It has this unsettling tremolo synth loop going on at first, which is kind of distracting, but the song ultimately wins it with her voice and the main hook.

Early Winters is one of my favorite bands, and their second album ‘Vanishing Act’ is my album of choice on silent, meditative nights. Their third album has been forthcoming, but what we got was a 2:13 minute song that proves that they have not lost a little bit of the wonderful sound and the unique mood of their collaborative act. Justin, Carina, Dan and Zach, please finish your album.

 

Shadow and Light are a Delhi-based band that caught my attention through a random link that someone shared. Pavithra Chari and Anindo Bose make for a wonderful collaboration; she is the vocalist and lyricist, while he works on the music production and provides harmonies. Oh, the harmonies. ‘Dua’ makes me very happy indeed, with its nimble mix of the jazz piano and a mellifluous ghazal.

Synthwave is a genre inspired by 80s film, video and TV soundtracks, mostly driven by non-American bands. You can hear the sound in the OST of Drive, or in the music of Com Truise. This Carpenter Brut track needs no endorsement. The video is batshit insane, and the propulsive synth-driven beat puts you square in the center of B-movie action.

What is it with young British electronic musicians? Feint is 22, and his Drum and Bass songs burrow their way into my brain like nothing else. Veela’s vocals work beautifully on this song.

Thomas Vent is electro-funk with a dollop of dubstep. You better have your dancing shoes on.

I had included Sir Sly’s ‘You Haunt Me’ in an earlier playlist, but my preference was for the remix of the song, rather than the original. This song drove me crazy, with its hypnotic beat and Landon Jacobs’ whisky-smooth voice and the throbbing, glitchy arpeggiator that comes in somewhere in the middle. The video’s wonderful too, makes you want to not blink at all.

It’s funny how artistes take on new meaning with a bit of context. I heard Mr Oizo one fine day, thanks to a random online recommendation. Two days later, while in conversation about weird cinema with a bunch o’ fellow-nerds at a signing, the name Quentin Depeaux came up, who is a French film-maker that has made some surreal films. Turns out Mr Oizo is Depeaux’s side-project as a DJ/musician. And his music is as sufficiently weird as his filmography, according to people in the know.

A New Zealand-based band that has settled in LA, BRÅVES has had its share of crazy videos ­— including one with full frontal male nudity. This video is tamer, but the song is a crisp crowdpleaser.

I stumbled across the work of the pianist/multi-instrumentalist Lambert while looking for more artistes like Deaf Center and Nils Frohm. German artiste who has recently performed at the Hotel Cafe, and I wish I had known of him before his act. Must have been fun to see him live.

Ibeyi means ‘twins’ in Yoruba (a language spoken in Nigeria), and true to their name, the band is made up on twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz, whose music combines Cuban, French and Nigerian influences. I paid attention to their music from a remix of ‘River’, which removed their vocals altogether, focusing on the thumping percussive beat of the track. A waste, if you ask me, because their voices give you goose-bumps, and the video leaves you holding your breath, literally. I love how the song ends with Yoruban lyrics. These sisters are incredible.

Nombe is Noah McBeth, a musician from Germany who now lives in Los Angeles. The lead guitar riff in the song ‘California Girls’ reminds me of ‘Finally Moving’ by Pretty Lights ­— the song that Avicii and Flo Rida made huge hits of. But that resemblance is just enough for you to pay attention to it, the song stands up well on its own.

The first thing that gets me about Tom Misch’s ‘Memory’ is its use of steel drums. The song weaves its layers around this single bar loop, which changes only when the vocals come in, almost 2 minutes into the song. It takes off with a crunchy guitar solo, and a drum-and-clap beat that glides in and out. Beautiful, beautiful track.

OH SHIT! This Four Tet remix of Jon Hopkins gut-punched me when I heard it the first time. The piano, if I may, is like moonlight peeping in through the trees as you drive through a dark forest late at night. Not your normal moonlight, more like moonlight in high contrast and embroidered with gold and fairydust. And then there’s stars going supernova as you suddenly begin flying into the sky, and there are colors everywhere and you can barely feel your own body. The closest you may get to this experience is if you are sitting on a window seat and your plane is about to land in LA late in the night. Or something like that. The video is insane on its own, but with the song, whoof!

Umm, yeah, Hans Zimmer’s theme for Batman v Superman featured heavily in my listening all of last month. “Day of the Dead’ particularly, because it goes from tenderness to dread to melancholy to bombast in the space of a few minutes, weaving layers over the four note Kal El theme from Man of Steel. Especially with the pizzicato strings ticking along like a time bomb.

That would have been the last song on the playlist, but for the fact that I noticed that Hana had released the video for her exquisite ‘Clay’. There’s also the added connection of her opening for Grimes in her last tour. My favorite moment on the song, the point when I knew it was going to be on constant rotation, is when the beat comes in at 0:56. Love the use of echo in her voice, and the warbly violin-sound that creeps into the track.

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Myself

Things in the pipeline

  • 3000 words on why I liked Batman v Superman.
  • The Second Marie Kondo post, about tips from the book that I picked up and use in my daily life.
  • A post on why Superman is such a misunderstood character.
  • 1500 words on how Daredevil s2 was good and infuriating.
  • Things that I will never taste again. Not as ominous as it sounds.
  • About a visit to the Broad Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, a place I intend to go back to, again and again.
  • Some thoughts on how my approach to travel is a tad different from the norm.
  • A long report about a bunch of books on men’s fashion.
  • Another long report on two essential books about two opposite ends of the fashion industry.
  • 1500 words about three recent books on time-travel.
  • On rage-reading, which is a legit thing. This does not refer to rage as in anger, just you know.

I am putting these up here as a reminder to myself, and maybe also as a means to encourage myself to finish these straggling drafts. Life, as we all know, has this nasty way of making one lose momentum when it comes to producing things. I mean, I would rather just come back home and watch something, or finish one of the books I am reading, or just waste my time on random internet stuff, the last of which makes me feel so angry at myself. But if I write something and it turns out well (by definition, something that does not make me cringe when I read it 2 days later), it’s best to continue riding that happy, giddy wave, and write some more.

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Books, Myself

The Marie Kondo post

Live Talks Los Angeles is one of the few organizations whose mails I am subscribed to, and with good reason. They conduct talks and interviews with interesting people — their site has a huge archive of older events that are well-worth checking out. While I have not attended too many of their events, the one with Neil Gaiman being the only one from recent times, I love watching their videos — Moby interviewing Shepard Fairey was a recent highlight. Their emails tell me about new books that I should be looking out for, like Terry Gilliam’s autobiography from last year, and both Nigella and Madhur Jaffrey’s recent cook-books (yes, I keep track of cookbooks, sue me). Padma Lakshmi is in town on Tuesday talking about her memoir, and I am very tempted to go.

In one of these emails, I found mention of Marie Kondo, a lady who has made a career of the art of tidying. Her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has literally changed lives, and she is promoting her new book Spark Joy. She was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Influential People from 2015, her surname has nearly become a verb (to do a ‘Kondo’), and the strength of her clean-up strategy apparently led to record number of donations and consignments in the US last year, with people giving away piles and piles of belongings that do not meet the KonMari cleaning criteria. In a consumerist culture, she says, we should only own things that ‘spark joy’.

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The eyebrow-raised, skeptical version of myself backed away slowly from what walked, talked and sounded like another brainless minimalism fad that sweeps through the country — actually, the world, considering that Ms. Kondo has been translated into 13 languages. But I flipped through her first book at a Barnes and Noble. Surprisingly, what I read made a lot of sense. I ended up finishing all of it the next day, and my skepticism, I will admit, has been replaced by respect. While there are moments when the book’s instructions border on the ridiculous (“thank your dress and bag at the end of the day” or “hug your clothes to show your appreciation”), the majority of what she says is sane, practical and helpful. Her tone is gentle, and her approach to cleaning an iterative process that she has honed over the years; she takes readers through what did not work, arriving at her conclusions with clear-headed logic and a self-deprecating demeanor that is endearing.

The reason the KonMari method makes sense to me is a function of my personality. You, familiar reader, should be aware of my propensity to indulge in ridiculous consumerism in the name of bibliophilia — in plain words, I buy too many books. Over the years, that has led to a proliferation of bookshelves and a read-queue that is pure Sparta. In the Frank Miller sense of the term, not the ancient Greek sense, thanks.

This is not to say that I am unaware of my failings: my book-buying is no longer as undisciplined as it once was, and I am not shy when it comes to getting rid of books that do not fit my tastes anymore. But there is something deeper at play — this excuse that I, and others, give ourselves; that buying and hoarding books is somewhat nobler than buying clothes, or shoes, or any other form of consumerist activity that results in clogged closets and empty wallets. Really, bibliomania — which makes more sense than the gentler ‘philia’ — is an equally irksome addiction that is somehow bolstered by the reactions of well-meaning people around me. My favorite part of Kondo’s book was her mince-no-words approach to talking about books in one’s possession.

The most common reason for not discarding a book is “I might read it again.” Take a moment to count the number of favorite books that you have actually read more than once. How many are there? For some it may be as few as five while for some exceptional readers it may be as many as one hundred. People who reread that many, however, are usually people in specific professions, such as scholars and authors. Very rarely will you find ordinary people like me who read so many books. Let’s face it. In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again. As with clothing, we need to stop and think about what purpose these books serve. Books are essentially paper—sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves. You read books for the experience of reading. Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember. So when deciding which books to keep, forget about whether you think you’ll read it again or whether you’ve mastered what’s inside. Instead, take each book in your hand and decide whether it moves you or not. Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones that you really love. That includes this book, too. If you don’t feel any joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you discard it. What about books that you have started but not yet finished reading? Or books you bought but have not yet started? What should be done with books like these that you intend to read sometime? The Internet has made it easy to purchase books, but as a consequence, it seems to me that people have far more unread books than they once did, ranging from three to more than forty. It is not uncommon for people to purchase a book and then buy another one not long after, before they have read the first one. Unread books accumulate. The problem with books that we intend to read sometime is that they are far harder to part with than ones we have already read.

If you missed your chance to read a particular book, even if it was recommended to you or is one you have been intending to read for ages, this is your chance to let it go. You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it. There’s no need to finish reading books that you only got halfway through. Their purpose was to be read halfway. So get rid of all those unread books. It will be far better for you to read the book that really grabs you right now than one that you left to gather dust for years.

I am not saying that Marie Kondo changed something fundamental in me. Hey, I finished reading Life Changing last week, and have since bought 3 books — to clarify, lest you think I am a complete idiot, they were used and 50% off, they were parts of series that I am in the middle of, and over the weekend, to make up for it, I donated a crate of books and few bags of non-book stuff. The point though is that the KonMari method looks to me a viable way of approaching my priorities when it comes to buying and owning things – not just books. There are small tactics to tidying up that I began using almost immediately, and I will talk about them in a separate post. Ultimately, what Kondo recommends is no half measures, and for that I need time – maybe a full weekend, maybe more. The struggle is real, people! Watch this space.

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