Bioluminescence in a Bottle

If you’ve ever wanted to bottle the magic of the ocean and dance around with it as though it were a glowstick, you’re in luck.

A company called BioPop is designing a line of products—lamps, some sort of wet “carpet”—that contain bioluminescent phytoplankton, or dinoflagellates, the tiny marine organisms that glow when disturbed. BioPop’s flagship creation is the Dino Pet ($60), a bulbous, dinosaur-shaped hunk of plastic that apparently lights up when you shake it. There is also Dino Food ($15), a children’s book ($10), and a “swanky T-Shirt”  ($20).

The Dino Pet is described as “a living, interactive ‘pet.’” (Yes, “pet” is in quotation marks.) In an advertisement, you can see somebody using it as a phosphorescent paper weight. Which seems to be an odd, if not altogether cruel, thing to do to miniature creatures who would otherwise live in the open ocean.

There’s certainly precedent for this kind of thing. Sea Monkeys are just tiny shrimp, after all. In the larger universe of animal cruelty, phytoplankton doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of concerns. It’s not as though designers are making shoes and pocketbooks out of these things. “As a single cell, dinoflagellates do not have a nervous system so they do not feel pain, although that doesn’t justify killing organisms for any reason,” said Michael Latz, who studies dinoflagellates in his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

There’s still something a bit bizarre, culturally, about removing a living thing, however small, from the ocean so that it might entertain people. Besides that, taking the glow out of the ocean saps a big part of what makes bioluminescent creatures awe-inspiring—kind of like plucking a shooting star out of the sky and turning it into a boring nightlight.

“I suppose, from the viewpoint of a dinoflagellate, it might be cruel to be sealed up in a lamp—they are living things,” said Margaret Anne McManus, who studies plankton at the University of Hawaii. “But then I suppose, we might want to question whether eating a salad is cruel. Lettuce is a living thing too.”

Women on OKCupid Don’t Seem to Think Their Jobs Are Much of a Selling Point

In recent years, online dating sites like OKCupid have provided a deluge of data about people’s preferences when it comes to finding a partner. It’s now possible to track the proportion of individuals searching for a kindred cat person, the number of omnivores who are open to dating a vegetarian, and the prevalence of racial biases, among other leanings.

A recent study takes a look at the boatloads of information on OKCupid from the opposing perspective—examining not what men and women are looking for, but how they describe themselves in their profiles. Darin Hawley, the founder of, parsed through 97,000 profiles of straight men and women from the 100 most populous cities in the United States and identified the most common descriptors.

His findings, which he shared with Quartz, offer an interesting look at what each gender, respectively, views as their most marketable traits on the platform. When Hawley analyzed the words appearing more on male profiles than female ones, he discovered an overwhelming use of terms describing professional occupations, including “engineer,” “software,” “musician,” and “construction.” (“Ladies” does, however, take the top spot.)

Conversely, the words that appeared more on female profiles than male ones emphasized appearance and personality traits, with far fewer professional terms cracking the list. Instead, words like “girly,” “sassy,” and “curves,” dominated. “Nurse” was the sole exception.

Words Appearing More on Male Profiles Than Female Profiles

Amy X. Wang / Quartz

Words Appearing More on Female Profiles Than Male Profiles

Amy X. Wang / Quartz

Men, by placing a profession at the forefront of their appeals, are seemingly responding to the expectation that they can contribute financially to a relationship, while women elect to highlight their looks and femininity. The pattern in this data suggests that people, at a macro level, advertise themselves in a way that still plays into long-held societal norms—that women look for rich men with stable jobs and men for beautiful women. (Another potential explanation is that there are fewer industries, like nursing, in which women outnumber men to a significant degree, and as a result the ratio of words mentioned regarding professions, on female profiles, is not quite as skewed. This interpretation speaks to the existing gender gaps in certain fields.)

The data also hints at the endurance of another norm—the belief that men’s work is integral to their identities and women’s work is more of an ancillary characteristic.

The Dark Heart of Stonewall

The media has torn down Stonewall, with good reason. To make a movie about a pivotal event in LGBT history that was, by most accounts, largely driven by people of color, transgender folks, and drag queens, Roland Emmerich invented a white male protagonist who literally takes a brick out of a black man’s hand to start the uprising now celebrated in annual parades worldwide. It’s a classic “white-messiah yarn” that supposedly endorses tolerance but just ends up confirming one of the most persistent biases against (and often, among) LGBT people—the idea that the best queers are the ones who look and act “normal.”

In the face of outcry against the film’s trailer, the creators of the movie assured the public that the finished product would be more inclusive and truer to life than the marketing made it seem. Now that the full cut has screened, though, it has received some of savagest reviews of the year, and not just for its politics; the film is treacly, tedious, long, and surprisingly confusing.

But the most interesting thing about it might be that Emmerich, the screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz, and the star Jeremy Irvine weren’t exactly lying when they told people that the movie’s more self-aware and diverse than initially expected. There are lots of non-white people on screen. This is not, as it has been called, a case of erasure. It’s worse.

* * *

The protagonist is Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), a small-town Midwestern hunk whose family disowns him when he’s caught canoodling with another guy on the football team. In June of 1969, he arrives in New York City; he’s been accepted to attend Columbia in the fall, but for the time being has no plan, no friends, no job, and no lodging. After some time sleeping in the streets, he falls in with Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a long-haired, sometimes-in-drag Latino who leads a crew of homeless queer prostitutes. Though Danny is, as Emmerich has said, “straight acting,” he adjusts to the gay ruffian lifestyle. He starts making sassy jokes about fashion. His white t-shirt goes grey. He even turns a trick for $25, allowing the movie to contribute to the 2015 collection of sad blow-job faces.

Empire’s Ambiguous Take on the Social-Justice Movement

But through it all, he still stands apart on the gay hub of Christopher Street because of where he’s come from and how he looks. On his first visit to Stonewall Tavern, the menacing bar manager Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) tells Ray that he’d like to see more guys like Danny coming through—“All-American, clean-cut kids. Not gutter trash like you.” The attitude is shared, apparently, by Danny. He shyly refuses to dance with his new friends in wigs and ratty dresses, but when approached by the white, crisply dressed political activist Trevor (who’s queued up “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the jukebox—maybe in a flash of cinematic self-awareness?), he gladly hits the dance floor. Cops raid Stonewall under the pretense that it’s illegal to cross dress or sell alcohol to homosexuals; Danny and Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) walk out unmolested, but the others get locked up.

The narrative from there, such as it is, has Danny pushed and pulled between the two different queer communities—the poor and marginalized just struggling to survive, and the well-off white people attempting revolution through respectability. The movie often seems to want to sympathize with the streets. At one point, Danny finds Ray curled up, blood caked on his face from being attacked by a john. Beatings are just a fact of life for people like him, he says. When Danny suggests he leave that life, Ray’s offended: “The difference between us is that I don’t have a choice.”

He’s right. Ray has been turning tricks in New York since he was 12 and his only living family members are in jail or other countries. There’s no one for him to go to for help, no built-in support system. Danny, meanwhile, has been accepted to the Ivy League and is able to get hired at a grocery store. Even the disapproval of his family back in Indiana eventually softens enough for his mom to send his scholarship papers to Columbia. To boot, the good (white, masculine) looks that caught Trevor’s eye at the bar end up paying off with a stable place to live.

Ray is violently hostile to Danny’s relationship with Trevor, whom he calls, disdainfully, “very political.” This hostility is never fully explained, and Danny seems to assume it stems from romantic jealousy. But what really seems to make Ray mad are Trevor’s attempts to organize the community, to hold meetings and pass out fliers. The street hustlers simply aren’t interested in political change. The charitable assumption would be that this is because they’re too preoccupied with survival; the uncharitable but not unsupported assumption would be that they’re just too simple. Ray repeatedly calls himself “not smart,” and if the film disagrees with him about that characterization, it never really indicates it. He’s savvy enough to navigate violence and poverty, but apparently not enough to think about fighting the conditions that lead to his violence and poverty.

But the film doesn’t take Trevor’s side, either. He takes Danny to a poorly attended meeting with the Mattachine Society leader Frank Kameny, who advocates using suits, ties, and gentle words to persuade the dominant society that “gay is good.” Coming after the affectionate portrait of the scruffy Christopher Street crew, this viewpoint is meant to seem out-of-touch or cruel. Danny only weakly objects, instead asking for advice on how to become an astronomer—a career path, Kameny says, that is not available to gay people under current law. Irvine does his best to appear enraged by this revelation.

The riot finally erupts after the police raid Stonewall again and (due to conflicts of interests very shoddily communicated in the script) arrest then free the villainous, mob-connected owner, Murphy. The neighborhood mills about watching this injustice take place, murmuring and yelling. But Danny has had a particularly rough night: Trevor cheated on him, and then Murphy kidnapped him to pimp him out. When he grabs a brick from a friend, Trevor objects that violence isn’t the way to fight. “It’s the only way,” Danny screams, breaking a window in the first act of vandalism of the night. “Gay power!”

This is no doubt meant to represent a kind of synthesis. Danny has had a brush with the worst effects of gay oppression on cold sidewalks and dingy flophouses; he has also become politically activated by the squares in suits. By bridging both worlds, he offers a way for the community to transcend. Very Hegelian, very Hollywood.

And very … queasy? Troubling? Potentially racist? Remember: Danny escapes the condition of homeless desperation he finds himself in early in the film explicitly because he’s a “straight-acting,” good-looking, middle-class white man. He gains political awareness because of those same things. He’s even victimized by Murphy because of them. So the movie not only replaces what could have been a more historically accurate instigator with a classic Hollywood pinup guy; it imagines that he’s the instigator because he looks like a classic Hollywood pinup guy. And it imagines that the brown, cross-dressing, poor people who reportedly made up the majority of Stonewall patrons could not have been.

* * *

What’s weird is that all along, Jon Robin Baitz’s script is very vocal about the idea that race and privilege have real-world effects. At one point, Ray even accuses Danny of having gone “slumming” for “fun.” The world of this movie is not colorblind. It’s playing with identity and power, but to what end?

Emmerich has used the “Trojan Horse” defense to talk about the creation of Danny’s character; to get straight people to connect to the movie, it needs a “conventional” star. He has also defended it on personal grounds: “As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”

Those are not great reasons to contrive a script that places Marsha P. Johnson, the drag queen who many people say began the uprising, in another part of town when the first brick is thrown. But they’re at least understandable as concessions to a risk-adverse film industry. It would be one thing for the movie to take what other critics have called the Forrest Gump approach, and just have Danny be an omnipresent witness to history. Or perhaps he could have been the inexplicably Chosen One who just happened to be Ken Doll-esque, like so many Chosen Ones in movies previously.

What I can’t quite figure out is why the movie would make the white gay hero the leader of the uprising, and to make his leadership the direct result of his race, class, and masculine affect. That’s so button-pushing, so open to accusations of flat-out white supremacy, that one starts to spin conspiracy theories. Stonewall never feels real; it was shot in Montreal, and bathes the entire hokey-looking city in lovely, golden-hour light for many of the scenes. Maybe, just maybe, this is all meant to be a parody of how Hollywood has time and again rewritten white-male saviors into history.

Or maybe it’s meant to show that privilege is so powerful that the world is more easily changed by those that possess it. The problem with that, though, is that the world, on this point, does not back the idea up. There was no real-life Danny Winters. It’s obvious who benefits by pretending otherwise.

Or maybe it’s just as bad as it looks.

The morning after the riot (while there were multiple nights of it in fact, there appears to be only one in the movie), Ray tells Danny that “everything’s changed” and they can make a life together. Throughout the film, Danny has subtly rebuffed his romantic advances, a fact that many critics have pointed out plays into the worst tendencies of mainstream gay culture today to see “femmes” and people of color as undesirable. Now, he makes his disgust explicit. “I can’t love you,” Danny says, before adding an explanation so weak the people in my theater broke into laughter: “I’m too mad to love anyone right now.”

A year later, the first gay pride parade is held uptown. Danny has finished his freshman courses at Columbia and visited home, wearing a swanky city-boy jacket and bonding lovingly with his sister and mother. They come to watch the parade, where Danny reunites with the Christopher Street kids. Ray’s there, but we don’t learn what he’s been up to. The default assumption would be that he’s still broke, prostituting, and getting regularly beaten up. The film doesn’t seem to care whether he gets a happy ending.

The American Dream House Only Worked in Dreams and Commercials

In the northern California neighborhood where I live, on the border between Oakland and Berkeley, many of the homes were built in the first decade of the 20th century. They are predominantly craftsman style, with wide living rooms, formal dining rooms, and wood-paneled walls. The area is a real-estate hotspot right now, and while I’m a renter with no immediate plans to buy, I’m also a design-curious voyeur, so I often tour the open houses. And there’s something going on in the homes that are being prepped for the current buyer: While the exteriors look like craftsman homes, the interiors often look like what I think of as suburban generic. The walls separating the living, dining, and kitchen spaces have been eliminated, creating the “open plan” layout that has been the aspiration of millions of American homebuyers since shortly after World War II.

The decompartmentalization of domestic space was a core tenet of the American Dream House—the idealized residence that was replicated and marketed so vigorously in the years following World War II, and that, in spite of massive changes in our cultural attitudes, social structures, and demographic makeup, remains the prototypical model of a “home.” In the housing boom that followed the war, the campaign to turn young adults into homeowners wasn’t just about promoting a residence itself, it was about defining a norm for family and domesticity, and glorifying the pursuit of that norm.

The brand-new modern homes of the mid-century were built for the standard nuclear family: one bread-winning father, one stay-at-home mother, and two children (one of each sex, of course). In their dream house, they would enjoy the boundaryless open plan, where mom could prepare dinner with a clear view to her children in the family room. Everyone would then share their meal in the eat-in kitchen—a feature that purported to be the answer to the modern mother’s challenges. The whole kitchen, in fact, was designed to be as labor-saving as a factory, with the housewife positioned as the professional forewoman. High-tech machinery was built in—dishwashers and, later, microwaves sped up operations, and imbued the kitchens with a semi-industrial gleam. It was all part of the new aesthetic. Surveys of home buyers from that time, including one published in 1954 under the title What People Want When They Buy a House, reflected people’s reverence for efficiency:

The busy mother who has to serve, administer, and police three meals a day for a family of children needs to be able to prepare and serve with least lost motion and to be able…to clean up with minimum effort, hence she wants a practical informal eating place in or off the kitchen.

It all sounded very good—her work could be completed more quickly, she’d gain leisure time—but it was complicated. While there were benefits to having domestic work perceived more like a professional occupation, with its attendant needs for tools of efficiency and worker satisfaction, the housewife was not exactly a corner-suite executive. “There were some serious problems with trying to uphold the analogy between the housewife and the factory worker,” says Victoria Rosner, an English professor at Columbia University and the author of the book Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life.

The Brutality of a Country

Visions of a successful life in the U.S. and abroad
Read More

“First, factory work is productive (you make widgets) while domestic work is repetitive and periodic (you clean the floor and there is no work product…and the floor has to be cleaned again tomorrow). So what is efficiency in the home? Not baking more cakes in the same period of time if the family can only eat one. Another problem was the continual raising of standards. If labor-saving devices like the mechanical washer made it possible to do some jobs more quickly, the standards for what it meant to be ‘clean’ were continually raised so that working smarter did not mean working less.” And of course, the biggest problem with this new frame: “The professionalized housewife is stuck living in her workplace.”

And while the mother may have been the chief officer in the kitchen, she was not, ultimately, head of household, and her work was often critiqued by her husband, her children, and especially consumer culture. The solution to keeping up with the work and keeping family members satisfied, said every advertisement, was to buy more stuff. In Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life, urban historian Dolores Hayden notes, “The classic ‘ring around the collar’ commercials of the 1960s dramatized the issue. A husband and his five-year-old son jeered at a woman for using a detergent that could not remove the stains on their shirt collars. Her response—to buy a new product—exemplified the ways that conflict within a family was exploited.”

Take, for example, the mid-’50s marketing campaign “Live Better Electrically,” from General Electric and a few other utilities, which promised that a fully electrified Dream House would lead to an even dreamier life. (The campaign featured a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan as its chief spokesperson.) Most of the ads were directed at women, making the case that once she owned all 24 of the appliances they prescribed for her kitchen, she’d spend her day lounging and/or enjoying more intimacy with her husband. A series of quizzes enabled women to see how they ranked on the electric scale. At the top, to the woman with all two dozen appliances, they proclaimed, “You’ve arrived! Your kitchen works instead of you!”

But, somehow, this leisure time never seemed to materialize. It became an ongoing condition of domesticity to pursue mass-manufactured newness (and of course this condition persists today), and the time spent on that pursuit pushed out time that might have been spent, some decades earlier, making domestic wares that reflected more individual and meaningful aesthetics. “American women and men have to assemble their interior home décor from a range of machine-made products,” Hayden writes, “What is most disconcerting is that these are all advertised as luxury goods but designed for rapid obsolescence. In earlier times American women made handsome quilts and painted stencil decorations on their walls and floors, but today’s American housewife faces synthetic materials, all simulating something more expensive: wallpaper resembling bamboo, linoleum resembling ceramic tile…”

What was the appeal in this? Certainly, there was the instant gratification of ready-made interior fixtures. And simultaneously, there was an increasing sense that homogeneity within one’s social class was desirable (everyone had their Joneses next door). As Hayden puts it, “More than ever, the way to assure public virtue through the family was to consider the setting where the family would live….Homogeneity of dwellings, representing a shared set of values, would be the evidence of…America’s ‘pleasing uniformity of decent competence.’”

Of course, with styles changing constantly, nothing was built to last very long, and there are environmental consequences of so much consumption and disposability. With few warnings about the potential harms of overconsumption, some architects actually encouraged it as a sign of class status. In his 1953 book The House and the Art of Its Design, architect Robert Wood Kennedy dubbed the practice “honorific waste.”

The homes themselves became consumers of manufactured amenities, too. Central heat and air conditioning made site orientation much less vital to the comfort of the house, so a building didn’t need to take advantage of the sun’s trajectory; it could be rotated to prioritize instead how the family interacted with their house and its lot, positioning windows onto the backyard no matter its relationship to the cardinal directions, and trusting energy-intensive systems to compensate.

By today’s standards, these glorified mid-century energy hogs now seem modest in both size and consumption levels compared to the truly massive suburban homes that went up in later decades, still in the mold of the American Dream, with their nuclear-family focus and car-centric promise of independence. Even as their contributions to environmental collapse became obvious, and even as family compositions diversified, it was as if America couldn’t shake the 1950s version of “what people want when they buy a house.”

But, at the same time, it turns out that the perfect homogeneity that developers once imposed is no match for the range of families there are today and their particular needs. My own street in North Oakland is an archetypical example of the shifting format of residential blocks, from rows of single-family houses to multi-unit clusters and mini compounds on single lots. While many interiors are being revised to match an age-old ideal of the “family layout,” the buildings themselves typify today’s wide range of domestic and economic circumstances. My home, once a single-family residence of over 3,000 square feet, is now a duplex with a third accessory unit out back. Across the street, two twin houses are now an eight-plex. Up and down the block there are young and elderly residents living alone, single-parent families, childless boomers, multi-generational households, married gay couples with kids. Almost every evening we find ourselves sitting on a stoop or front lawn with some assortment of these people and our own toddler, and each time I marvel at what he’s growing up knowing as “normal.” Because this, to me, is a far dreamier iteration of American residential life than the separated, ultra-private, homogenous 1950s version. The people are not all the same, but there’s a sense of unity anchored by the mutual commitment to knowing one’s neighbors and paying attention to life on the street.

There have been detractors in recent decades who claim the redistribution and densification of residential space represents a dismantling of the American dream. They lament that occupants of newly divided multi-family buildings lack the commitment to community and place that the archetypical ’50s family upheld. But as Stewart Brand suggested in his book How Buildings Learn, published in the mid-1990s, architecture must adapt to changing conditions—not only to remain sturdy with age, but to remain appropriate to its users as they themselves evolve. To reconfigure homes to suit more types of living situations is to give that many more people the chance to take part in knitting together a local community. As Hayden puts it in her book, “One could observe, more optimistically, that renovations create commitment to house and neighborhood, to staying with the American dream and updating it.”

How Patriarchy Shaped Corporate Culture

When the real-estate startup WeWork recently terminated a contracting agreement to bring its cleaning staff in-house, the company claimed that “every employee is part of the WeWork family.” By using the word “family,” it invoked a longstanding management tradition whose problematic provenance it may not have been aware of. Family metaphors are assumed to have positive connotations, but, as revisionists have long pointed out, family dynamics do not map evenly onto labor justice. Indeed, many people to go work to escape their families.

Consider the hierarchy of labor that exists in a typical family. For the longer part of the last century, women performed the majority of chores and childrearing, and men left the home to earn a living. The work of maintenance and care was designated “reproduction,” as opposed to something more economically crucial—“production.” The divide between work and leisure relied not on a social contract, but a sexual one: The breadwinner’s needs were expected to be met by an implied partner. Today, when men and women have professional opportunities that are closer to equal, time-use data still shows women have less leisure time than men.

So when a company contracts out service work, from catering to cleaning, it reinforces a line separating housework from “real” work, maintaining outdated assumptions about who should do what. Creative jobs are deemed valuable and thus worthy of analysis by budgeting and recruitment teams, while maintenance work is more or less disposable (and, often, invisible to those who benefit from it).

Old notions of domesticity and family have influenced work culture in subtler ways. The original idea of the company as a family can be discerned between the lines of the work of Elton Mayo, a charismatic Australian who taught at Harvard Business School during the interwar years. Mayo was a pioneer in the field of “Human Relations,” a management trend that sought to provide a more caring and empathetic bond between employers and employees.

In the 1920s, he conducted a nine-year study of worker behavior at the Chicago plant of Western Electric, AT&T’s manufacturing arm. Inspired by Sigmund Freud, Mayo regarded the observed “reveries” of unproductive workers in repetitive assembly jobs as evidence of psychological “disequilibrium.” To remedy this, he and his fellow researchers analyzed tens of thousands of employee interviews in order to devise guidelines for supervisors to learn how to listen to workers’ troubles. Alleviating employees’ anxieties was seen as a solution to productivity problems and retention. The whole arrangement—a consoling ear, a desire to impress superiors—resembled a parent-child dynamic.

Mayo’s belief in the talking cure for the neurotic worker was derived from the psychologist Jean Piaget, who is famous for outlining the stages of child development. Applied to the workplace, Piaget’s ideas of cognitive maturity held that the individual was obliged to submit to “the laws of cooperation” and abandon selfish behavior to demonstrate appropriate social integration. Those deemed “uncooperative” by observers could be expelled from studies—which is what happened to two women studied in the Hawthorne Plant’s Relay Room—and ultimately the workplace itself.

Mayo’s theories allowed managers to behave in an authoritative manner “in the guise of a paternalistic interest,” wrote Andrzej Huczynski in his book Management Gurus. The manager as father figure embodied a caring benevolence that rewarded submissive workers. The family metaphor has additional benefits for the firm, as it promotes corporate harmony by making internal competition taboo. (Today, in high-pressure workplaces, this taboo appears to be dissolving. Amazon’s anonymous peer-review system brings to mind children ratting on siblings who misbehave.) Perhaps, in spite of his theories, Elton Mayo saw the limitations of the domestic unit. After all, he lived a continent away from his wife and family for much of his professional career.

Today, the modern workplace ideals of equal opportunity and diversity leave little room for the paternalistic metaphor of the corporate family. Or do they? Unhappy workplaces feature all of the worst aspects of intimate relationships: They are needy (long hours), they punish by withholding love (promotions), they require obligatory felicities (email at any hour) and compulsory socializing (networking drinks). In this context, I can think of two ways the word “family” makes sense in explaining contemporary work: There is no choice but to belong, and the best means of escape is to learn to fend for ourselves.