It’s over me like a ton of water, the things I don’t know.
On the train the other day, I saw a man drinking a can of Coca-Cola. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone drinking soda from a can on the train.
He looked older than me, in his mid-forties. His scraggly beard was a mix of brown and gray hair, and his face had a few furrows. He stood with one hand holding onto the bar, and the other holding the can. He drank his coke slowly, pausing for a minute or two between sips, as though savoring a fine red wine. Maybe he had wine in the can. I couldn’t find any trace of satisfaction on his face.
He wore a brown jacket, a black sweater, charcoal pants, and dark brown shoes. There was a black messenger bag on the floor between his feet. The red can was the only bright color on him. I stared at the can and recalled the unnatural yet irresistible smell of Coca-Cola. When I was young, soda was an exotic luxury in Taiwan, or at least it was for my family. On the rare occasions I had coke, it was paired with a McDonald’s cheeseburger, which was the most exciting meal for the young me. I loved the sour and slightly bitter taste of coke, and I loved washing down burger grease with it.
I remember a science experiment in one of my elementary school classes. We put a rusty nail in a cup of Coca-Cola, then took it out after a day. The nail came out shiny like new. The lesson was: coke dissolves rust, and it can do the same to your teeth. I was so affected by that experiment that every time after I drink coke, I would unconsciously lick and suck my teeth. Later in the night, I would brush my teeth extra hard.
After a few stops on the train, I noticed that the man was without his can. I didn’t catch him taking the last sip, and I didn’t see the can anywhere. He couldn’t have discarded it on the crowded train because someone would’ve protested. Did he put it in his bag? Maybe he flattened the can and put it in his jacket pocket. Maybe he smashed the can against his forehead and made a neat metal origami. I wish I’d seen that.
I wondered why he drank a can of Coca-Cola. It was in the evening, around six p.m. and he looked like he was going home from work, like most of us on the train. None of us were loading up on caffeine. Why did he need the extra energy boost this late in the day? Later, a seat cleared and he sat down. He took a magazine out of his bag, reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a pair of reading glasses. There were pictures of nature and animals in his magazine, and he was reading an article with a large photograph of a pelican-like bird when I got off the train.
As I exited the station, I decided that the man is a professor, a vegetarian professor with a pet iguana at home, with a weakness for soda, and he needed all the caffeine he could get for a night of reading student papers. I hope he remembered to brush his teeth that night.
This is our temperamental automatic paper towel dispenser:
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it refuses to acknowledge me despite my frantic hand-waving (which I’ve come to accept as an opportunity to exercise). Sometimes it’s low on batteries and only gives me enough paper to dry two fingers. Sometimes it mocks me and won’t stop dispensing paper.
What’s wrong with the old-fashioned, manual dispenser where you pull down the paper towel? I wonder if the dispenser makers were too enamored with the idea of making it automatic that they ended up fixing something that ain’t broke. As designers, we often fall for new and clever ideas. We are sometimes too proud to accept the obvious and simple solutions, or too involved with our own ideas to come up with quiet and straightforward designs. Maybe my office dispenser is trying to tell me something.
There might be good reasons for using a motion sensor to dispense paper towels, but it must into account errors by both users and the machine itself. Whenever I review a new design, I always ask what could possibly go wrong?, and then figure out ways to either prevent the errors from happening or to let the users recover from the errors. As a software interface designer and frequent user of paper towel dispensers, I humbly suggest two ideas for future improvements:
If all else fails, design for emotion–that is, play cute. Slap on a picture of puppies on the dispenser: nobody gets mad at puppies.
There are many things about modern China that defy easy explanation: parents posing their children next to live tigers, the sight of grown women wearing furry cat-ear headbands while shopping, the performance-art-like spectacle of strangers napping together in Ikea display beds.
But no mystery is more confounding than that of China’s most enduring case of cultural diffusion: its love affair with “Going Home,” the 1989 smash-hit instrumental by the American saxophone superstar Kenny G.
I was walking my older son to school one day when the sidewalk was blocked by a lady and her giant poodle coming the other way. The sidewalk was narrow, and my son, seeing the dog, hid behind me. We paused to let them by, and as they walked past us, the lady chuckled and said, “she’s friendly”.
The hell she is, I thought. The poodle was larger than my son, and he was right to be afraid of the animal. Had the owner said, she’s lost all her teeth, I would have felt better. I didn’t care nor trust that woman’s assessment of her dog’s personality.
We have a lot of dogs in our neighborhood. I used to tolerate dogs–in fact, I used to like most dogs before I had children. These days I find them annoying. Dogs don’t make way for humans or children, and dog owners (worse yet: dog walkers) seem to think they’re entitled to take over the entire sidewalk. Dogs, unlike cats, use sidewalks as their public lavatory, and many irresponsible dog owners or walkers don’t clean up after the mess. I have often fantasized about throwing our soiled diapers onto the sidewalk as a protest against this, but I fear the police would come after me, and having to explain that to my children might be more trouble than cleaning dog shit off of our stroller wheels.
All these celebrities and media who are congratulating themselves for their righteousness in condemning an old billionaire racist is apparently front page news while 234 kidnapped girls in Nigeria doesn’t rate a mention. Talk about ACTUAL racism. I wonder if 200 white girls were kidnaped if it would be considered a worthwhile news story?
On the train this morning, I noticed a man standing next to me reading the book Artful, by Ali Smith. I’m reading that same book. In fact, while waiting for the train, I thought how nice it’d be to have someone to discuss the book with.
I glanced at the reader, who looked a few years older than me. He carried a black canvas bag with an architecture studio’s name printed on it. A class of children swarmed onto the train. They looked everywhere and examined everyone. Some of them sat, some chattered, some yelled. A teacher announced: “calm down, it’s just two stops.” No one calmed down.
The last time I had a literary exchange on the train was more than a decade ago. I was reading The Castle, by Franz Kafka. A young lady sitting across from me pointed to my book and said, “I love Kafka.” I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t enjoying The Castle–I found the story miserable. I thought it would be rude to confess that to this enthusiastic stranger, and there was enough distance between us that conversing would’ve required shouting. I don’t remember how I responded. I probably smiled, mumbled “that’s cool” and returned to my book.
These brief, awkward exchanges with strangers lodge in my memory like weird dreams. They occasionally surface to my consciousness, and I amuse myself by replaying the scene.
I wanted discuss Artful with the man but didn’t know how to start the conversation. How do you like the book? That seemed like a normal, if cliched, conversation starter. If he wasn’t enjoying the book, he likely wouldn’t say so. I could tell him, I’m reading that same book, and I’m in the “On Edge” section. I wondered if he noticed me glancing at him. If I tried to speak to him, would he think my remark was a come-on? I wouldn’t want to threaten or disappoint him. I wear ring on my finger, but that doesn’t say much these days, does it? Why should I expect him to suspect there’s an ulterior motive beyond conversing about the book? What if I speak to him and find him attractive and we end up having an affair? If I were to have an affair, would my wife find it less painful if I had it with a man instead a young woman?
I chuckled at my thoughts and noticed that the school children were long gone. The train arrived at Broadway Lafayette, where my old office used to be, and the reader exited. My eyes followed him. He took a few steps, paused and stood there reading the novel. The train doors closed, and we took off. So long, friend.
Hot air balloons, carriage rides, showers of rose petals–now you have to do everything short of swallowing the ring and shooting it out of your ass at the opportune time. It used to be that we only learned how to talk through imitation. Now we learn to feel through imitation too. By the time a man proposes he’s seen the gesture played out on television a thousand and one times. Likewise, the woman has seen the reaction a thousand-plus times. There’s nothing genuine about it. We’re following a template, performing the way we’ve been taught to perform. I wouldn’t know how to react to anything genuinely now. My response to every significant moment in my life is more or less predetermined.