Posts tagged “garbage”

What we eat and what we trash

There’s no end of photography projects documenting an ordinary aspect of life, across diverse individuals, with the hope of throwing some light on who we are and how we live now. Or how others live. It’s art with the frisson of anthropology. Here’s another two in the same vein, each looking at different elements of our consumption.

Dinner in NY by Miho Aikawa looks at people having dinner, in New York (hence the clever title).

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Also see Dinner in Tokyo and read more at Slate.

With no nod to naturalism, Gregg Sega shoots portraits of people surrounded by 7 Days of Garbage.

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Also see the fascinating project frogdesign did back in 2007, where staff blogged about the trash they found themselves accumulating throughout a regular week, and read more about Gregg Saga’s project at Slate.

How not to solicit customer feedback

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Seen at a busy lunchtime eatery in San Mateo. The comment card box is placed right above the full garbage bin. No comment cards or pencils on hand, so perhaps this is just a vestige that they haven’t bothered to remove. But abandonware always makes you look like you just don’t care and in this case the visual association between “we value your opinion” and “food waste” is not appealing. Greatly appreciated? I doubt it.

Carla’s War Story: A dirty diaper sitting in the mud

Consumer insights professional Carla Borsoi encounters the outlier that illustrates a greater truth.

There is nothing like home research to challenge your notions of whether or not everyone lives like you. Earlier this year, we were doing research on how people use multiple devices (phones, tablets ad computers) – what they are doing with each, what they feel about each device and how these are shared (or not). We were particularly focused on three audiences: Moms, Entertainment Junkies, and Earlier Adopters. Yes, in my world, we use Title Case to label our different audiences. At any rate, we picked three areas with high density for devices and plenty of each of these audiences in spades: NY, Seattle and Austin.

I headed to Seattle in late March to meet with people and to talk to them about what they do. The first interviews went swimmingly: one Dad told us how he used his tablet to collect coupons, his computer to develop his Saturday shopping plan with coupons, and his phone to go through with his plan. He also told us about watching movies during lunch at work on his tablet. An Earlier Adopter told us how he obsessively followed tech news as he rode the bus. Good, I thought, these interviews are going really well. The Seattle weather was appropriately grey and rainy, but these folks lived in warm and welcoming homes. Normal, to me, at least, with the typical toys in the home with kids, the nice entertainment system, clean kitchens, and so on.

It was our last day of interviewing. The rain had been pouring down the night before and I hoped it would hold off until I got to the airport at the end of the day. We were interviewing a young Mom who lived past Sea-Tac. I drove down pseudo-country roads and pulled up to the property for the interview. The driveway was full of mud. Thankfully, I was wearing wet weather boots. As I walked up with my colleagues to the front door I passed a dirty diaper sitting in the mud. Huh, I thought. Their garbage probably got torn apart in the storm last night. The house was old, but that’s how these things go. We were greeted by the young Mom and entered the house. Immediately the stale smell of cigarettes and mildew hit my nose.

Uh-oh.

The mom proved to be a bright young woman, who tended bar a couple nights a week, while going to school and parenting the rest of the time. I looked down at the dirty table in front of me while we continued talking. She had some great insights about how she used her tablet (often on loan to her parents who would watch the kids), how critical her phone was to keeping in touch, and how her computer was there as she worked on projects for school. However, the smell assaulted my senses. I could feel my two colleagues shifting in their seats, covering coughs. Our interview was scheduled for two and half to three hours, but after about 45 minutes, I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it much longer. Someone asked if anyone had more questions. I quickly spoke up “Nope, think we’re good.” No one disagreed.

We walked out the door and I noticed more garbage outside – but breathed in the sweet clean air. I realized that as researchers we occupy a place of privilege. People allow us into their homes, without embarrassment or shame. This is their life. They allow us to see a window into it. People often participate in research for the chance to earn a little cash. This woman had spoken of how much they had saved to be able to rent this small, mildewed space. It reminded me that I have a lot of advantages that other people don’t. It’s a reminder that when we’re creating products, we’re doing it not just for some sexy early adopter, but real for people who are just trying to make ends meet and get started with their life. It also reminded me to go home and wash down the walls of our stairwell, covered in grime.

Curating Consumption #4

We’re back with another round of some curious, provocative, amusing, and frightening observations that come from our daily experiences as researchers and as consumers. Thanks to Tamara Christensen for her contribution!


Ideally parental love is unconditional love. And when you love something or someone you want to tell everyone how great they are. It’s not that disease or disability should be hidden away in shame, but what aspects of our lives do we choose to announce and celebrate? It’s not uncommon to hear that people with Down’s Syndrome do have a number of uniquely endearing qualities that are particular to the syndrome, but is that what’s behind this parent’s vanity license and license frame? /SP


Of course this is a kind of service; I’m not surprised to learn that it exists but I’m still surprised to see it in my daily travels. I was certainly struck by the 2012 touches, using aspirational words like “grooming” and “beautification” (over the more common “maintenance”). And why not put the (delightfully alliterative) name of your business on your hearse-black vehicle? You never know where you’ll find customers! Perhaps even when parked in front of your local coffee shop. /SP


I came across this during a recent hike by the ocean, painted on one of the few large concrete blocks spattered about the landscape. I was taken aback by this image/text combination and immediately created a narrative with two dueling characters. First comes the antagonist, whose symbol of choice is a weapon, and later comes the protagonist who uses language to diffuse and reframe this act of aggression. Of course it’s possible that a single artist is responsible, but why would the hero deliver a message – intended to disarm – with such heavy artillery? /TC


Here’s Steve figuring out where to dispose of the trash from lunch. In the Bay Area, composting bins are getting pretty common in public places and along local trash pick-up routes. “Trash” is no longer a catch-all term or container. Composting is the new recycling. Green is the new blue. There are more bins plus posters and pamphlets that explain what goes where. For example, in some places the chicken leftovers go in the trash, in other places it goes in the compost bin. Disposable paper plates or plastic utensils are tricky because they might be compost, or recycling, or the trash. Ironically, the quest for more environment and consumer-friendly waste management involves the creation of more trash (i.e. bins, bags, and signs) and more confusion. /TC

ChittahChattah Quickies

Patton Oswalt’s Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012 [The Comic’s Comic] – We’re regularly exposed to wicked-problem discussions about complete upheaval in many industries: manufacturing, newspapers, music, books. Patton Oswalt addresses the upheaval in comedy, how he struggles with it, and how he thinks performers and producers can address it. Inspiring stuff.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival…Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone…Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less…I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country.

For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump [NYT] – Another example of the old slowly, gradually, and then finally being replaced by the new.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood…It is strange to think of them as disposable as tissues. Yet economic and cultural forces have made many used pianos, with the exception of Steinways and a few other high-end brands, prone to being jettisoned. With thousands of moving parts, pianos are expensive to repair, requiring long hours of labor by skilled technicians whose numbers are diminishing. Excellent digital pianos and portable keyboards can cost as little as several hundred dollars. Low-end imported pianos have improved remarkably in quality and can be had for under $3,000. “Instead of spending hundreds or thousands to repair an old piano, you can buy a new one made in China that’s just as good, or you can buy a digital one that doesn’t need tuning and has all kinds of bells and whistles,” said Larry Fine, the editor and publisher of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, the industry bible.

Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare as Corporate Focus Groups [NYT] – A misleading headline; social media allows high quantities of shallow consumer input. In focus groups, the numbers are much smaller but there is the chance for a discussion.

Frito-Lay is developing a new potato chip flavor, which, in the old days, would have involved a series of focus groups, research and trend analysis. Now, it uses Facebook. Visitors to the new Lay’s Facebook app are asked to suggest new flavors and click an “I’d Eat That” button to register their preferences. So far, the results show that a beer-battered onion-ring flavor is popular in California and Ohio, while a churros flavor is a hit in New York. “It’s a new way of getting consumer research,” said Ann Mukherjee, chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America. “We’re going to get a ton of new ideas.” When Wal-Mart wanted to know whether to stock lollipop-shaped cake makers in its stores, it studied Twitter chatter. Estée Lauder’s MAC Cosmetics brand asked social media users to vote on which discontinued shades to bring back. The stuffed-animal brand Squishable solicited Facebook feedback before settling on the final version of a new toy. And Samuel Adams asked users to vote on yeast, hops, color and other qualities to create a crowdsourced beer, an American red ale called B’Austin Ale that got rave reviews. “It tells us exactly what customers are interested in,” said Elizabeth Francis, chief marketing officer of the Gilt Groupe. Gilt asks customers to vote on which products to include in a sale, and sets up Facebook chats between engineers and customers to help refine products. “It’s amazing that we can get that kind of real feedback, as opposed to speculating,” Ms. Francis said.

Women Outdoors [Metropolis] – A review of an interesting new book Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets.

Mumbai’s public spaces belong to all of its 13 million inhabitants, but at any time of day or night the ratio of men to women is glaringly disproportionate. Men have no qualms about hanging around on street corners or at tea stalls, but women make a point of looking busy, striding with purpose, or talking on their cell phones. Thousands of women travel by trains or buses, but it’s not easy for them to find a toilet, a park bench, or any public place in which to linger. “If Mumbai is the best city for women in India,” says the sociologist Shilpa Phadke, “then the bar is set very low indeed.” Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, coauthored by Phadke, the architect Shilpa Ranade, and the journalist Sameera Khan, takes a close look at the public spaces of a city where women are said to live more independently than anywhere else in India. But over three years of “extensive, not intensive” research through ethnographies, mapping, interviews, and workshops, the authors found that the city doesn’t quite live up to its egalitarian reputation. And while the book is specific to Mumbai, the ideas in it apply to any metropolis – are public spaces anywhere truly gender neutral?

Can Geoengineering Solve Global Warming? [The New Yorker] – A discussion of innovation in the context of a wicked problem provides some delicious quotes.

“What is fascinating for me is the way the innovation process has changed,” Eisenberger said. “In the past, somebody would make a discovery in a laboratory and say, ‘What can I do with this?’ And now we ask, ‘What do we want to design?,’ because we believe there is powerful enough knowledge to do it. That is what my partner and I did”…”There is a strong history of the system refusing to accept something new,” Eisenberger said. “People say I am nuts. But it would be surprising if people didn’t call me crazy. Look at the history of innovation! If people don’t call you nuts, then you are doing something wrong.”

Airport Pickup

At the Munich airport I saw something I hadn’t seen before at any airport: gleaners or freegans or binners – people who moved through the pre-security part of the airport, rifling through trash cans to see if there was anything in there worth saving. In just a few minutes in one spot we saw three people come by and investigate our nearby can. The gentleman pictured above made his second pass a minute or two later. In addition to this atypical-at-an-airport behavior, these folks were all dressed – and conducted themselves – like travelers. They walked purposefully from zone to zone. Their clothes were clean and presentable while their bags for carrying whatever they scrounged were not unlike bags that we might carry on a trip. I wouldn’t have given them a second look if it hadn’t been for the act of putting a hand into a garbage can.

To what extent are they tolerated for not upsetting the real travelers by appearing “homeless?” What are the economics of factoring to- and from-the-airport travel into a day’s worth of garbage picking? On a continuum between substance-abuse/mental-illness driven homelessness and self-selected outsiders/off-the-grid types, where do these folks reside?

Pile it up, pile it high on the platter

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Temporary cardboard depot, Montara, CA, July 2009

I’ve started noticing this curious artifact around town on garbage days. At first I thought these piles of cardboard were mistakes (especially when one appeared at the foot of our driveway). But, for reasons that aren’t obvious, these are simply steps in the process: move the cardboard from individual households to multi-street piles, then gather and remove the piles.

It’s interesting to consider how many processes may present as error-ridden or incomplete depending on when (and with what context) they are viewed. Does the county get phone calls every week complaining about the pile of trash sitting on the street? How could they communicate more context in this pile to better suggest that they’ll indeed be right back to pick it up, don’t you worry?

Garbage and Municipal Branding

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The Fashion Center garbage bags, Fashion District, New York City, 2004

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Stadhuis garbage bags, Leuven, Belgium, 2009

While there is likely a practical driver to these branded garbage bags (controlling the distribution of the special bags ensures that only authorized parties can make use of garbage pickup services), it’s surprising to see them labeled with symbols of pride. Sure, every surface is a branding opportunity and every communication is a change to stay on message, but is this a good thing or a bad thing here? And does it differ between residents and visitors?

Core77 Show+Tell video: Steve investigates the bathroom

Yes, more bathroom blogging! Core77 has just posted a quick video I made

In this video for Core77, Steve Portigal takes us into his company bathroom, uncovering examples of bad design and its consequences.

From signage to artifact and back, people are forever mistaking their cues for how to behave, how to use products and systems, and how different, often-conflicting indicators cause our expectations and realities to collide. This 2-minute video is a priceless example. What’s in your bathroom?

Japan pictures – part 3 of 3

I’ve uploaded nearly 1300 of my Japan pictures to Flickr. For reasons I’m sure you’ll understand, I haven’t added titles or tags or descriptions proactively, but please add comments or questions on flickr and I’ll gladly offer a story or explanation.

Meanwhile, I’m including some of my faves here, as well as part 1 and part 2.

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Compare and contrast (Paris and London, September 07)

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Trash receptacles such as this are very common in Paris. The words on the bag translate as Vigilance and Cleanliness. The bag is transparent so anything discarded is still visible. London, presumably because they have more recently experienced terrorist bombings, has no (or almost no) rubbish containers.

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Paris uses painted metal barricades…

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…while London uses these open-structured plastic segments to block off areas for construction. Other than path dependence (that’s just how they’ve always done it), why?

Unconsumption – Pecha Kucha

Last night was San Francisco’s Pecha Kucha night. I showed 20 slides, at 20 seconds per slide, on Unconsumption.

The slides are below.

And this widget will play the audio.

There were some problems with the projection at the beginning so it’s not immediately obvious where we go from slide 1 to slide 2, but hopefully by slide 3 you’ll have figured it and can follow along.

And for better visual quality, I’ve put the slides up on flickr..

Update: the slides are also on the Pecha Kucha site

Risks of smartass system messages

I got a 500 Internal Server Error on YouTube yesterday.

It began with the usual Web 2.0 PoMo post-ironic stuff.

Sorry, something went wrong.

A team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.

And then what seemed to be a more serious request, complete with link

In any case, please report this incident to customer service.
Also, please include the following information in your error report:

Hmm. What do information do they want me to include?

M566Wv3PR4EcMR9a9eLGms9NQ5r30bYV6nz4j1rH-tDhYTLe_9h9DFPn-vhd
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OWx_zjYun946H69BO9s1pYnIqkwLwHyE1OgDFkP8OKIN85pw6w==

Now, are they being smartass or serious? Yeah, cut and paste is cut and paste whether it’s two lines or two paragraphs, but that mass of computer gibberish is something they want me to use to communicate to a human? Strange and off-putting. Let’s put some of that Google money to work on that, folks…

Food Rescue Me






Here’s what I’ve seen outside an Au Bon Pain store in Manhattan on two separate nights – a huge amount of food being discarded. Easily noticeable is dozens of bagels; no doubt other stuff as well.

Does Manhattan no longer have a hunger or homeless problem? Where is the food rescue organizations to pick this up and deliver it to someone who can use it? I’m not picking on Au Bon Pain specifically, it’s just what I’ve seen casually walking about. No doubt the problem/opportunity is more widespread than simply one store that I observed personally.

I ate dinner in Chinatown last night (despite picking a Chowhound etc. fave, I wasn’t that impressed, I’ve had better in SF and environs easily), and had quite a bit left over. I took it to go, even though being in a hotel there was no way to eat it. But the homeless dude I saw on the way in had packed up, and I couldn’t find anyone in Midtown either. But there are these buildings with atrium (atria? I dunno – they each only have one) that are designated public space (is this a tax thing or what?) and open til 10pm. I walked by one and there were many people playing chess. It wasn’t clear to me if these people had homes or money or were just chess enthusiasts, or if it was a mixture. I saw a lot of backpacks that seemed fairly full. I walked in nonchalantly past the security guard, and just left my food on an empty table. It’ll probably get thrown out, but if those people are in need, maybe someone will take it.

And just for some extra context – I don’t give money to people on the street. Ever. I rarely look or acknowledge, etc. I’m not boasting about what I did yesterday, or defending what I do normally, it’s just who I am and how I’ve chosen for now to handle these things.

What does motivate me more than any sense of “charity” or “giving” as an abhorrence of waste. My leftovers and the Au Bon Pain bounty are waste that could be leveraged. That appeals to something in me. One thing I’ve done is start a local freecycle group that allows people to exchange unwanted goods instead of tossing ’em out.

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