Notable design feature of the “black box”:

It is not black.

The man “credited with creating the prototype of the flight data recorder, or ‘black box,’” David Warren, has died. According to his obituary, his prototype was red. “Today’s black boxes … remain red or orange, to make them easier to find in wreckage,” after a plane crash. Why are they called “black boxes”? The obituary says:

How Mr. Warren’s red box came to be called a black box is not altogether clear. At the time, black box was a slang term in the Royal Air Force for a navigational instrument in an airplane. One story has it that a person who witnessed a demonstration said something like, “What a wonderful black box!”

Uh, good “story.”

Tell the future, about yourself.

Click for more information.

Here is RosettaStone, a product of Objecs LLC. I read about it in Obit Magazine. As I understand it, it’s a piece of granite inlaid with symbols of your choosing, and it contains digitally accessible information about you. It’s meant to be embedded in your tombstone. But you can buy it now, and start crafting the message you want to leave behind, about you, which will be available to people with the right cellphones, or whatever, for upwards of 3,000 years. You can “be discovered” by citizens of the future, as the company’s site says. It also says: “Be more than a name and date for future generations.”

Some choices. Click for more information.

Obit Mag interviewed a man who bought one:

Hill has been updating and frequently rewriting the text he wants to accompany his RosettaStone entries frequently.

“If a truck hits me tomorrow, I’ve got some words that will last forever and that’s real,” he said. “It’s hard to write at first. You’re thinking, ‘Wow. These are my last words.’”

Wow, indeed. Also, “for a limited time,” you can get a “tablet case,” so you can carry this around with you, I suppose, until you die.

"Limited time" offer. Click for more.

Obit Mag says “fewer than 100″ have been sold.

Where Were You? 2009: Now available — for free!

FEATURING: Life, Death, More of the Same.

As some of you know, Where Were You? is a side project of mine that dates back many years: I note “where I was” when I learned of various notable deaths, and record any related thoughts. For the last few years, I have collected these entries into annual zines. For 2009, instead of printing and mailing physical zines, I’m making a year of entries available as a sort of e-zine.

Also, instead of charging a buck or two, I’m making it available for free.

I have had great help and encouragement on this enterprise from Mr. Harold Check. In fact, I can safely say that without his efforts, technical and otherwise, there is no way I would have collected this year’s entries in any public form.

We’ve used two fine ebook services to present WWY2009. The Scribd version includes some illustrations. The Feedbooks  version does not.

You don’t have to have a special e-reader device to make use of these services and get to this material — in fact, it’s easy to print it out if you like.

Early adopters are welcome.

Here is how to get Where Were You? 2009 — whether you use an ebook reader or not:

1. If you use a Kindle or an iPad (or probably any ebook reader, so far as I know): Download from Feedbooks, or Scribd.

2. If you use a reader app on your iPhone (such as the Kindle app or Stanza, a good free reader app that you can obtain here): Download from Feedbooks or Scribd. I assume most readers on most smartphones work easily with Feedbooks or Scribd documents, but let me know if you have trouble.

3. If (like me!) you don’t use any of that stuff, and you are happy to read it in the form of a PDF on your computer, or as a regular printout, Scribd is probably for you. Check out the “full-screen” book view for the complete retro zine experience. (And if you download it as a PDF, it seems this site will reorder the pages for booklet printing, should you wish to go that way: http://bookletcreator.com/.)

Thoughtful people have enjoyed past editions of WWY.

Also of course if you have questions or comments or run into problems with the above, your feedback is more than welcome.

I hope you’ll check out the 2009 edition — and help spread the word.

Thanks. Read more

Kit

I noted earlier in the sidebar the obituary of Abbott Combes. He was known to colleagues as Kit, and he was in fact my colleague: an editor at the Times Magazine who worked on the copy desk while I was on staff as a story editor, and in the building, back in the late 1990s. Every so often we’d have lunch in Bryant Park. I liked him quite a bit, and had tremendous professional respect for him. A very smart guy, and, truly, an original. I suppose he could be a little sharp with people sometimes, but that’s because he had standards, and an agile mind. So when Kit said he liked something I wrote, it meant a lot — because he didn’t say it often, and he certinaly never said it without meaning it.

He also didn’t write often, but when he did, his stuff was very good: His writer’s voice was smooth and unpredictable at the same time, and that’s not easy.

Here is a short essay he wrote about his necktie habit, written back in 1999. What you’ll find in reading it, I believe, is a skill at suggesting a lot of life and wisdom between the lines. This can only be done subtly — without overpowering the easygoing and very accessible subject at hand. A hard thing to do is draw attention to the writing, and not to the writer. Here, it gets done.

Here is another essay, from a few years earlier, about another sartorial habit. This time I’ll quote: “I am the 50-something guy you may have seen in summertime Manhattan going about his business clad in coat and tie, dressy loafers (no socks) and what used to be called Bermuda shorts. I didn’t set out to become an ensign of men’s style, but one I seem to have become, recognized uptown and down by my . . . knees.” This is no joke. When I picture Kit, I picture him in his Memorial Day-to-Labor Day iteration: The shorts and the loafers and the jacket, and looking like a million bucks. I have known a lot of people who supposedly have style. I will say nothing negative about them, but I will say: Friends, this guy had style.

One more, and I’ll stop: A short essay called “Family Portrait,” from 2006. I won’t attempt to sum it up, but I remember when I read it the first time being mightily impressed at the economy of the piece, at (again) his skill in communicating by omission, always keeping an easy and readable tone. I will also say — and I think he would almost expect me to — that having been on the writer/editor side of Kit’s strict copy desk persona, I have a feeling I’d have had to argue pretty hard to get away with something like that “Sobeit” he slips in at one point.

Then again, I’ve always believed that when it comes to writing, to the use of language, you earn your way to breaking rules. And he earned it. So be it.

More of his writing is here.

I don’t get to the Times much these days, and so it’s been a while since I chatted with Kit face to face, or even by phone. But I feel a loss at the idea of him not there … in the shorts and the loafers … calling me out on some bit of linguistic bullshit or other. Wherever you may be, sir, you are missed.

In Consumed: Sales Leader

Edward Boyd: He knew advertising was all about fantasy — but it was a fantasy that black consumers might want to be part of.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a certain unease could be detected about the American drift toward a culture of selling, marketing and consumerism. Even Fortune magazine opined in 1947 that “the American citizen lives in a state of siege from dawn till bedtime,” seeming to echo the sentiments raised in the best-selling novel “The Hucksters” and the celebrated play “Death of a Salesman.” One sales executive at the time, a man named Edward Boyd, later recalled leaving a performance of Arthur Miller’s famous play in tears. “I related to it,” he said. Even so, Boyd stuck with his job, possibly because his own role in the machinery of American selling was a bit more complex: He was a black man building an African-American sales force within the Pepsi-Cola Company when corporate America was anything but integrated….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

Note: This column is a little unusual in being a person, but that’s because it’s part of the Magazine’s annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. Boyd died earlier this year. As the column notes, his story is a significant part of Stephanie Capparell’s recent book, The Real Pepsi Challenge.

“Authority imprinted on emptiness is money”

Marking the recent passing of Norman Mailer, the Complex blog reminds readers of Mailer’s famous essay, “The Faith of Graffiti.” I read that a year or two ago in the course of researching a story that dealt indirectly and in part with the evolution of graffiti from what it was when Mailer wrote about it (expression of the disenfranchised), to what it means in the marketplace now (cool, hip, edgy: insert your profitable adjective here).

In the end, I did not cite the essay in that particular piece — mostly because that evolution was more of a single background point, not the subject of the article — but this morning I dug up my early draft of it, and here are two paragraphs that I later eliminated:

In 1974, Norman Mailer published “The Faith of Graffiti,” and mused on the attraction of scrawling one’s tag name on subway cars: “Maybe something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle …. Your presence is on their presence, your alias hangs of their scene.”

That one line — “your presence is on their presence” — is the one that really struck me. I was interested in how that idea applied to tags — but also to logos. I had a little on some of the pioneers of translating the graf idea onto apparel, who basically failed, and more recent examples that have succeeded, and brought graf-style expression both into exclusive downtown boutiques, and eventually into shopping malls. I’m not saying that there’s no difference between street artists and branders. What I’m saying is that whether you’re Polo or the hippest little underground brand, the goal can be fairly described as: your presence on their presence.

What, Norman Mailer asked graffiti writers back in the 1970s, explained the power of the tag, the name? “The name is the faith of graffiti,” one of them told him. Mailer seemed bowled over by this observation. But it’s another of his musings, elsewhere in his essay, that jumps out thirty years later: “Authority imprinted upon emptiness is money.”

So there’s that. As these bits strongly suggest (at least to me, re-rereading them now), one reason this stuff didn’t make it out of the first draft is that I hadn’t really worked out a way to draw Mailer’s thinking into what I was writing in a manner that was, you know, coherent. That authority-printed-on-emptiness line comes in a passage in Mailer’s essay that’s sort of about how the art market works, and I was trying to repurpose it to make it about how brands work. In my defense, I’ll say that “The Faith of Graffiti” as a whole still strikes me as being more notable for a handful of very vibrant phrases and passages, and for a very determined romanticism, than it is for having a clear point of view. I can only assume it would have felt very different to read it back when it was written, and graffiti’s cultural role was so removed from what it is today.

On a somewhat related note, Ryan McGinness once did an amazing design series that visually translated/transformed logos into tags, and tags into logs. It was pretty incredible, but I’m not sure if it was ever published. I think there were some trademark issues. I bring this up to acknowledge that I claim no originality in musing on the tag/logo connection.

“Inverted arches of triumph, sinister Taj Majals”

I am startled to learn, via Unbeige, that Herbert Muschamp has died. Here is the obituary. Unbeige’s post suggests a trip to the Times archive to “curate your own Muschamp tribute,” a suggestion I would normally ignore. But I have admired his writing many times (I never met him; by the time I was around the NYT, I’d decided that it’s sometimes better for me to never meet my writing heroes), and there’s one piece in particular that has stuck with me for, wow, 14 years now.

It’s this one, from 1993, the year of the bomb attack on the World Trade Center that failed to bring it down but that was, trust me, pretty unnerving just the same. I was young and newish to New York at the time, but I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way.

We all know that a society’s tallest buildings — the ones that are most easily seen by the most people — reveal what’s that society revolves around: In one era it’s churches, in another palaces, in another, corporate HQs. This essay was headlined “Things Generally Wrong In The Universe,” and in a way it made a case that the tallest building had become the the one that is exploding. That’s the one we all see.

Of course I’m not able to say what he did as well as he did and my clumsy interpretation is probably a disservice, so here’s a passage:

Exploding buildings are this community’s landmarks — its inverted arches of triumph, its sinister Taj Mahals. They provide images of a collective experience that is otherwise elusive. Traditionally, we look to buildings to provide symbols of social cohesion. Exploding buildings now perform an equivalent symbolic role. People may build in different styles, but explosions are universal. Though each may have a different cause, they become linked in our perceptions to some fearful grand design. They focus public attention. They fill up TV screens. The World Trade Center bombing spawned a new style of disaster T-shirt.

Maybe it’s better to just link.

3 billion cars, 12,000 models

I know I had an opinion, when I was a child, about whether Matchbox cars were better than Hot Wheels, or vice versa. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what that opinion was. Certainly I also don’t remember the kind of impressive details that apparently marked the original Matchbox models, as described today in the obituary of Jack Odell, who started making those tiny cars in the 1950s:

They were finely wrought things. Mr. Odell designed one machine to spray-paint tiny silver headlights on the models and another to mold interiors. All the dashboard dials were in precisely the right place. Some cars had more than 100 die-cast parts, including windshield wipers and ceiling hooks.

Sounds impressive. By the time I was flinging tiny cars across the kitchen floor, they were not nearly so fine. I assume those older, complicated models must be changing hands on eBay these days.

What is it about miniature replicas of cars, anyway? I don’t know what’s up with Matchbox and Hot Wheels these days, but I do know that interest in this general category of toy/collectible remains, and that it’s possible to buy miniature donks. Whether these items would live up to Odell’s standards is hard to say.

Liz Claiborne

I was surprised to see the obituary for Liz Claiborne this morning. The piece says that the company that bears her name (which she basically hasn’t been involved in for more than 15 years) is not doing particularly well right now. Nevertheless, one way of measuring cultural significance is whether or not a given figure becomes the basis of notorious (false) rumor, and Claiborne is central to a particularly famous one.

Anyway, the obit doesn’t mention that, but does have the more practical facts about her actual impact:

Ms. Claiborne correctly anticipated a market for affordable business-like clothes that women could wear to compete with men in professional workplaces. In her no-nonsense way, she became a role model — and her label an inspiration — to those who were looking to break through glass ceilings, as she had done.

As a designer, Ms. Claiborne did not care to be considered a trendsetter. She placed practical concerns over the glamour of the catwalks and the prestige of designer prices. Her arrival as a fashion brand was well timed, catching the beginning of a great change in American society as women headed to the workplace in large numbers.

She created a new foundation for a modern working woman’s wardrobe, which had begun, she once acknowledged irritably, as the bland reinterpretation for women of a man’s navy blue suit and tie. Blouses that closed with frilly bows did not appeal to Ms. Claiborne. Her creative expressions were made of colorful tailored separates that could be mixed with other pieces to create many outfits.

As women made headway in corporate America, Ms. Claiborne expanded with office-friendly sportswear that conveyed a potent blend of intelligence, strength and femininity. It eventually transcended the workplace, becoming a lifestyle brand. One of her first designs was a velour peasant blouse; she sold 15,000 pieces in one season.

Not cheese. Cheez.

The NYT obit page brings news of the passing of Edwin Traisman, who “helped invent iconic foods.” Should food be “invented”? Today, we might say no, but he worked in a different era, and I’m not here to judge. Anyway, the obit mostly focuses on Traisman’s contributions to McDonald’s fry uniformity, but this is what I’d like to know more about:

While he was at Kraft, from 1949 to 1957, Mr. Traisman led the team that combined cheese, emulsifiers and other ingredients into the bright yellow sauce called Cheez Whiz.

Imagine the excitement of being in on the Cheez Whiz team. It must have been the Manhattan Project of bright yellow sauce invention.

An Ink, Inc. pioneer

In the recent Consumed that dealt with Scott Campbell, the Sailor Jerry brand, and the persistence of the old-school tattoo aesthetic, I made passing metnion that Normal “Sailor Jerry” Collins left his estate to two of his proteges, who get a cut of Sailor Jerry brand sales. One of those proteges was Michael Malone, who has just passed away. From the Times obit:

Steeping himself in California’s 1960s counterculture, Mr. Malone worked in San Francisco on rock shows that had psychedelic lighting while studying ceramics and carpentry. He moved to Manhattan in the late ’60s and, under the tutelage of a local tattooist, began decorating clients at his downtown apartment. In 1971 he helped organize an exhibition called “Tattoo!” at the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan.

A year later Mr. Malone moved to Hawaii and became a protégé of the artist known as Sailor Jerry Collins, who was famous in the industry for introducing a sophisticated style and vivid new colors to the skulls, roses, hearts, tigers and sailing ships of classic tattooing. When Mr. Collins died in 1973, Mr. Malone bought Mr. Collins’s company, China Sea Tattoo, in the Chinatown district of Honolulu, and with it his mentor’s designs.

More on MySpace mourning

The other day, after noting that Facebook and MySpace mourning after the Virginia Tech killings wasn’t as surprising as it might seem, given the MySpace mourning for soldiers killed Iraq, I wondered about the long-term status of the MySpace pages of the deceased. The Savannah Morning News has a story today about military MySpace mourning. Regarding Kelly Youngblood, a 3rd ID soldier killed in Iraq in February, the story notes:

MySpace officials have said they do not delete inactive accounts, nor do they let others take control of a deceased user’s accounts, because of privacy concerns.Youngblood’s “last login” date will remain Feb. 5, 2007, in perpetuity, along with everything else on his page.

“I love that it will always be there,” said Youngblood’s girlfriend, Cecelia Jones, 19, of Westville, Ind. “I look at pictures and things he wrote … and if the page wasn’t there I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Like a widow in a grief support group, Jones continues to post messages on Youngblood’s site. She talks about how she’s doing on any given day or recalls a memory they shared together as a way of coping with her loss.

Her latest post was simply: “I wish you were here.”

Death and MySpace

This article in the Houston Chronicle looks at a particular aspect of the online reaction to the Virginia Tech killings:

On Facebook.com, many of the Tech students are using a black ribbon over the school logo as their icon. A quick search on Technorati yields thousands of blog posts on the subject. Beth 0319 writes: “I didn’t know anyone there but I just feel this tremendous sadness that has no where to go. It’s just all so senseless.”

Is the grieving process different for Generation Y, a group that has come of age at a time of world turmoil and a time when social networking has reached critical mass?

Monday’s tragedy, [the author of a book about teenagers and technology] said, is the first massive incident to occur after the revolution in social-networking technology. Now the dead’s MySpace pages become tribute pages, where friends and family continue to have a conversation as if they were still alive.

I’ve mentioned earlier, probably more than once, that we’ve gotten much more aware of Army culture since moving to Savannah, because there’s a base nearby that houses the 3rd Infantry Division, now in the process of embarking on what is for many soldiers a third deployment to Iraq. When someone from the 3rd ID is killed — there have been five such deaths so far in 2007 — it’s covered in the local paper, and we’ve noticed that such stories often mention the tributes that have appeared on the soldier’s MySpace page.

I suppose that a year ago it wouldn’t have occurred to me that soldiers would have MySpace pages, but many of them do.

And this practice that the Chronicle describes above is routine — people post messages to soldiers who have died (in what, if I may say so in passing, would seem to count as a “massive incident”), as if they’ll be checking MySpace in the afterlife.

This seems odd, at first, but I don’t think the urge to do this is so different from leaving flowers on a grave, or from “speaking to” the deceased in remarks at a funeral.

The Chronicle story also mentions a site called MyDeathSpace.com, which I’d never heard of. Among other things, the site publishes news of MySpace users who have died, and provides a link to each person’s MySpace page, so you can click straight through to read the tributes, or leave one yourself.

I am somewhat curious about whether MySpace itself has any kind of policy about what happens to a given page when a MySpace user dies.

‘Where Were You?’

Now available, my first zine since the “Letters From New Orleans” ones (which of course later became an actual book).

SFN Products: 008: Where Were You? (2006)

“Where Were You?” has nothing whatsoever to do with marketing, consumer culture, advertising, design, or anything else I write about on this site. But this is, after all, my site.

In a giveaway promotion for Journal of Murketing email subscribers a few moments ago, the three available “promo” copies were snapped up in less than 30 seconds! Doesn’t that make you want one? Even if one of the recipients admitted that he assumed any givewaway at all would go fast and replied before he even know what he was getting a free copy of? Well, doesn’t it?

It’s only a dollar, plus another dollar shipping, so that’s practically free anyway.

“Where Were You?” is a 44-page booklet, priced at $1, plus $1 shipping.* It’s an “edition” of 30 copies only. And what is it?

No longer available!

Or at least, not here. The last couple of copies will be sold only through www.robwalker.net. Click on “Spring 07″ if you go there.

“The Misery Market” and other obit news

Today’s obituary page is teeming with action. Paul Secon, co-founder of the Pottery Barn, has died. Ernest Gallo, co-founder of the famous winery, has died. And Jean Baudrillard has died. I’ll leave comments about Baudrillard to others.

In the Pottery Barn guy obit, I was surprised to learn that the first store was opened in Manhattan all the way back in 1949, selling “discontinued and slightly damaged” items. “In 1952, an article in The New Yorker mentioned that people could buy good-quality, if slightly flawed, ceramics at the Pottery Barn; it started a rush,” the obit says. There were only seven Pottery Barns when the mini-chain was sold in the 1960s — and I was also surprised that there are only 197 today. Doesn’t it seem more ubiquitous than that?

One of the interesting things in the Gallo obit is this:

The brothers were successful from the start, but in those days were no match for industry giants like Petri, Cribari and Italian Swiss Colony.

But the company’s introduction of Thunderbird wine would change that. In 1957, the Gallos developed the brand, a concoction of inexpensive fortified white wine with added citrus flavors.

It was named after the Ford sports car and was aimed directly at “the misery market,” according to “Blood and Wine,” Ellen Hawkes’s unauthorized biography of the family. By the end of 1957, Ms. Hawkes reported, Gallo was making 32 million gallons of Thunderbird.