Monday, August 4, 2014

My piece on the "Tomason" (or rather, "Thomason") at

I would love to say that this ignited a firestorm of interest in the blog, but it didn't. Oh well.

Here's the full text:

A few years ago, I came across the concept of the “Tomason” in Bruce Sterling’s introduction to Glenn Grant’s short story collection Burning Days. In my review of Burning Days, I paraphrased Sterling thus: “those solid parts of our urban environment which once had a definitive, eminently practical purpose but are now shorn of this, yet are still adrift and rooted in our everyday world.”

A short time later, I was walking along Frederick Street in Dublin, a short street perpendicular to Nassau Street and just opposite the railings of Trinity College. I noticed a formation of alarm boxes (or at least that’s what I call them, I’m sure there is a more precise technical term for the box bearing the alarm company logo which adorns the property thus protected) arranged in a sort of demicircle to the left of a Georgian door mantel.

One of the alarm boxes bore the confident logo “Modern Alarms” ( ), another a unicorn which apparently represented “Electronology Limited” and which I liked for its unclear visual relationship with any aspect of the security industry. I began to notice alarm boxes more; shiny, evidently active boxes; boxes with rusting fronts and faded if not invisible logos; boxes with phone numbers that predated later digit expansion. It struck me that the alarm box was potentially one of the more productive sources of Tomasons. Presumably many of even the most faded-seeming boxes are still active, but surely many weren’t.

It probably ages me considerably that I used Blogger rather than Tumblr to create a photo blog devoted the alarm boxes of Dublin (or wherever else I might find myself) but there you go. was created to approximately zero traffic, as far as I can see. The blog nevertheless became a place I could upload photos of alarm boxes, whether unused or simply interesting-looking. There as a pesky problem. I wished to contextualise the blog by writing about Tomasons. But, Sterling’s intro aside, there was very little I could find online. So much so that I began to suspect that it might not only be a neologism of Bruce Sterling, but possibly an elaborate private joke.

It turns out that the “Tomason” was first promulgated by the Japanese conceptual artist Genpei Akasegawa, and was named for the gaijin Yomiuri Giants baseballer Gary Thomasson. Thomasson, formerly of the San Francisco Giants, was noted in Japan for securing an extremely lucrative contract and proceeding to play poorly and retire early. It seems loaning his name to a de-functional urban object is now his lasting legacy.

There is, at the time of writing, a Simple English Wikipedia page for “Tomason” but not in the “ordinary” English Wikipedia. Genpei Akasegawa comes fourth in Wikipedia’s Tomason search results; the first three results refer to Audrey Tomason, the counterterrorism expert featured in the famous photo of President Obama and various other luminaries watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Simple English Wikipedia article elucidates subcategories of Tomason as followings (syntax as per the article on October 30th 2013): “Tomason can be grouped by features they have in common. These include: ‘useless stairways’, ‘pointless doorways’, ‘overhangs’, ‘blocked windows’, ‘sealed up walls’, ‘A-bomb type’, High places (高所 kōsho?) (doors opening from a high place into open air), ‘outies’, ‘poundcakes’, ‘atago’ (strange bumps or things sticking up out of the road for no reason), ‘premature burial’ (when a wall is built partly covering an existing feature), and more.” The article also lead me to a Japanese Tomason Flickr page and a blog post from 2008 which had somehow escaped me and which summarised the Tomason more gracefully than I had managed: “If dame architecture is the awkward result of relentless functionality, Tomason are the useless, abandoned leftovers. Stairs to nowhere are a favorite. Bricked up windows are a close second. Tomason are the flashings and detritus of the incessant churn of building, destruction, and redevelopment that characterizes the Japanese city. No clean slates here, no way.”

The alarm logo Tomason is not one of the more spectacular ones – not as evocative as the staircase to nowhere, or the blocked windows, and unlikely to be described as one of the “A-Bomb type.” Nevertheless, it is one of the more accessible Tomasons, one which unobtrusively testifies to the faded dreams of security of days past.