January 21, 2009

The Rise of the Disposable Shoe.

There was a time when you couldn’t walk more than eight blocks in any borough of New York City and not pass a shoe repair place. Like the Army and Navy stores that used to populate Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, they are dying out, steadily replaced by those most dispensable of retailers, the 99 cent store or the occasional nail salon. There are fewer and fewer of them around because people are fixing shoes less and less.

I miss them more and more these days.

I always loved having a place to get a motorcycle jacket re-conditioned or repaired by someone who actually cared and took a specialist’s pride in what they did for a living. I like the way those places smell as much today as I did when I was a kid. It’s probably because I grew up across the street from an old cobbler from Austria who let me play with his guard dog, a bear-sized German Shepherd. I feel the shoe shop is a last connection in our city to the world of the 1930s and 40s when men wore hats and every woman’s bra was a traffic halting inspiration. The shoe repair shop is a last tie to a place and time where, as Raymond Chandler once observed… New Yorkers talked the way they used to talk.

Which is to say, there was a time when just about every man woman and child in this city had class, authenticity and grace regardless of their station in life and despite all the racism and poverty they faced. A newspaper boy in 1935 Harlem looks better dressed in his work tweeds, turtle neck sweater, hobnail boots and driver’s cap than anybody I saw on the subway this morning. Even bums dressed smart decades ago, -despite themselves, because what they wore wasn’t designed to be thrown away the next year, but to last.

The shoe repair shop is still the place where you will line up behind a bus driver, a doctor, a teacher, a brick layer and so on. I haven’t ever found a computer in a shoe repair shop and the cast iron lathes and anvils have probably been in a family’s business for a few generations. A cell phone ring seems horribly out of place and an almost rude incongruity that disrespects the quiet utilitarian dignity of the surroundings.

The extinction of the shoe repair shop is a sign of a decades-long corrosive shift in how Americans think about the things they use. I own several different kinds of Rockports, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to replace their soles. If I find a model of shoe I like, I basically try to strike a deal for two pairs because when I wear them out they’ll likely be discontinued and I haven’t met a cobbler who can fix or patch an injection-molded rubber sole. Ask them if they can patch Neoprene and they’ll they look at you like you’re crazy.

The fusion of the sneaker and the shoe is responsible for this.

The sneaker was the first intentionally disposable shoe in human civilization. Prior to the sneaker, footwear was worn, repaired and worn until the upper, the last or the welt broke down and could no longer hold a sole, in effect until the entire shoe broke down. The sneaker, marketed overwhelmingly to the parents of children, for their children in the 20th century, was made to wear down and be discarded. If you didn’t mind inviting serious ridicule, back in the 70s, you could even have the local shoe repairman retread your sneakers with material from old tires. I don’t personally know one human being who ever did this.

Construction boots like the classic Georgia 5300 series black boot, Carolina’s MC Boot, and at one time the entire Frye boot line, were all made to be “worn in” and repeatedly reconstructed. It was the Timberland boot [1/27/09 SEE PETE LANKFORD'S REPLY IN COMMENTS BELOW: He makes valid counterpoints about Timberland's intentions in regard to their product design] that signaled the death of the repairable work boot in the late 1970s. Built strong and virtually waterproof, the Timberland construction boot forsook a repairable product for sneaker-like comfort. That comfort came with design limits: a sole that was cast, rather than sewn and therefore a sole that wore out beyond practical use. While Timberland was responding to obvious commercial demands to manufacture a construction boot that would be more comfortable than its competitors’ products, these boots may have set a damaging precedent for the design of the shoe unrelated to comfort. Timberland willingly or unwittingly introduced the concept of "planned obsolescence" to that most functional and practical of shoes, the work boot. The shoe industry had long known it was more profitable to make a shoe that can’t be fixed, than one that can. Shoe makers after all, have to sell shoes. The mandate for comfort was the excuse, and a flimsy one at that, because soft-soled shoes and pliable welts and shanks don’t have to be disposable if the shoe is made of the appropriate materials or designed with eventual repair in mind.
With all the talk of sustainability and waste reduction, doesn’t it make sense to consider the amount of waste tonnage generated by Nikes and Reeboks? How long does it take an old shoe to break down into its constituent elements? It all depends on how much plastic there is inside.

Perhaps a return to responsible design and manufacture in our footwear as well as in our cars and food packaging is a step in the right direction.

Regardless, I doubt it will come in time for my local shoe repairman on 207th Street and Broadway.

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January 16, 2009

Mac versus PC.

My first experiences on computers date back to the fall of 1980 at the Calhoun School on the upper West side. I was a 7th grader and the "systems" back then were basically fancy calculators. There was no graphic user interface, (GUI) being that innovations like soft windows were years away from being an industry standard. In fact, up until the early 90s you had to know a little bit of programming to use any computer effectively. At the least, you had to know some basic DOS commands in order to run an application off of a CD ROM.

Anyone who had to install their own CD ROM drive before 1994 remembers the nightmare of aligning IRCs or physically configuring "jumpers" on a sound card in order to play music on their personal computer.
Yes, it was the stone age of the future age, but like all those pikers back in the middle ages, none of us knew just how early in the beginning we were living. My first IBM in 1993 had a hard drive memory totalling 256MB. It's enough to make you cry with laughter.
I think it was 1983 when I first heard the PC (then pretty much IBM) versus Mac arguments among my peers (9th graders) who were attached to their operating systems and branded computers with an almost cultish devotion.
I couldn't afford my own computer at the time. I used whatever systems where available in our lab, which wasn't easy because there was a program called "Dungeon" that every D&D fanatic was trying to either play or mod on any available computer. It was a pretty sad game, kind of like Exidy's "Venture" with only monochrome green graphics and "x"s for monsters while you were represented by a zero. It had no music or sound affects, just beeps.
I will tell you that in all the years, I'm talking 28 years now, of working on Apples and PCs, there is no substantial difference in processing speed, performance, etc. The interfaces are markedly different in their organization and interrelation (and even this has averaged out), but the truth is, and has always been: the fastest computer, the best computer... is the one that is coming out next fall. Period.

I once had an editor in the video department at a dot com company try to explain to me that Apple computers were faster because they "stacked information more neatly." He couldn't tell me how or why he knew this, but that I had to believe him because it was true. "Microsoft builds computers that run slower." He said smugly. When I pointed out to him that Microsoft didn't, and never had manufactured computers, he told me that was beside the point.
The performance fantasy surrounding Apple's computers is a myth that I have heard perpetuated time and time again. It has no technological basis. Computer power and processing speed is determined by the processing power of the chip sets, the hard drive's read and write speeds and the amount of RAM available. Those aforementioned hardware elements have historically varied from machine to machine and can be upgraded according to a user's budget. They are ultimately not a reflection of Apple's or the myriad of PC builders' product lines and design capability but of a user's disposable income.
This is not to say that Apple does not make great computers, and technological products, just that not buying Apple products doesn't make you work slower than everybody else no matter what someone who owns an Apple tells you.
These days consumers are bombarded by ads in TV and print in which a younger idiot says he's a Mac while an older idiot cowers and stutters because he's a PC. The Apple sponsored ads are clearly referencing a younger Steve Jobs and an older bloated Bill Gates to try and create anthropomorphic symbols of these rival product lines but also addressable totems for a culture of users. Neither characterization is accurate as Steve Jobs hasn't been a kid for decades and Bill Gates has never been overweight... what's more they are contemporaries who have crossed paths, collaborated and sparred in the world of business.
They are hardly a generation apart as the commercials suggest.

For my part, I have worked on Macs and I have worked on PCs and don't really see the difference in either except the fact that Apple computers have less software choices available which has more to do with their proprietary business posture than any flaw in design or manufacture. I use a PC in my home studio for the simple reason that my colleagues use PC computers. It's a file sharing, project work flow and compatibility issue, not one of perceived superiority over the "Macs".
One of my instructors once said of Apple computers,
"if the Mac were a car, it would be the fastest car, it would be the best looking, it would get the greatest mileage... but it would only drive on 5% of the roads."
that's cute, but entirely inaccurate. The Macs certainly boast some of the most objectively pleasing design of just about any product line, but to imply that they are so incompatible as to make them closed systems 95% of the time is just ridiculous and could only be believed by someone who doesn't work on one.

The bottom line is this:
if the computer you buy today does what you ask of it right now and for at least a couple of years, then you bought the right computer. Buying a product solely on its looks before looking at what it can do (Or because people say it looks cool) makes about as much sense as buying a car for the same reasons. The computer as status symbol is one of the more idiotic detours in our cultural evolution. Somehow we've managed to transfer the juvenile and emotional fixations exploited by automotive marketers that have kept people the world over buying low mileage, low quality, over priced pieces of impracticality on four wheels.

The computer you can afford, is the computer you should buy.

On a final note, I hope Steve Jobs recovers quickly and completely. I hope he lives to be 150. He's an enabler of creativity and ease of communication and deserves many more years in which to innovate for us all.

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