Roundup No. 5

Easy A

I can’t think of better way to start than to whole-heartedly recommend the movie Easy A, currently out in theatres. Emma Stone is a pleasure, and the entire supporting cast is fantastic. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are particularly great as two parents clearly in love with their children. The movie plays homage to its roots (Ferris Bueller, Say Anything, etc., but also Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter) without getting too heavy about it, or too meta. Interestingly, the movie is framed with a YouTube confessional, which combined with the new electronic ways that gossip flits about the high school does a great job of showing us that times have changed but teenagers have not. A lot of fun, and required viewing for anyone who needs a bit of escape from the realities of Christian extremism.

Write a Letter

I used to write letters to friends in high school, and I have recently taken up doing so again. This subject matter probably deserves some more extensive consideration, but I wanted to plant the seed with anyone who may be reading. Writing a personal letter for an audience of one gives me a great feeling that is impossible to justify, but clearly exists. My writing feels sharper and more focused in letters because I know exactly who I’m writing for, and the pressure to write well is gone because a genuinely caring friend will be the only one with an opportunity to criticize.

There’s also something really soothing about a bit of written communication going out to a friend that isn’t leaving digital traces all over a bunch of servers in God knows how many places in the world. Letters can be intercepted, but they give me a feeling of privacy. I’m not one to crave privacy in the sense that I don’t want others to know what is going on with me. But I do relish that privacy of shared intimate moments, and as odd as it may sound, a letter is one of those moments.

So I encourage you to write someone a letter. If you feel so inclined, you can even write me a letter. I just might write back.

The Fork Test

My friend Rebecca has started a new food blog called The Fork Test. In her first post, she writes:

Cooking, for me, isn’t just a necessity anymore. It isn’t something I have to do because I don’t make enough money to do otherwise. It is now an active choice, something I want to do, time to myself I truly and utterly enjoy.

I have personally never developed any passion whatsoever for cooking, and am capable of making only two dishes: chili and pasta. I will be reading.

David Foster Wallace, Continued

In November 2003, The Believer published an interview with David Foster Wallace which is a really great read on the whole, mostly about his book Everything and More. This one part in particular is probably one of my favorite points I’ve come across yet in Wallace’s writing:1

…The big difference is that things are vastly more compartmentalized now than they were up through, say, the Renaissance. And more specialized, and more freighted with all kinds of special context. There’s no way we’d expect a world-class, cutting-edge mathematician now also to be doing world-class, cutting-edge philosophy, theology, etc. Not so for the Greeks–if only because math, philosophy, and theology weren’t coherently distinguishable for them. Same for the Neoplatonists and Scholastics, and etc. etc. (This is a very, very simple answer, of course, maybe right on the edge of simplistic.) By the time Cantor weighed in on ∞ in the 1870s, it was part of an extremely specialized technical discipline that took decades to master and be able to do advanced work in. For Cantor and R. Dedekind (and now this is all just condensed way down from the book (sort of the same way the question is)), the math of ∞ is derived as a way to solve certain thorny problems in post-calc analysis (viz., the expansions of trig functions and the rigorous definition of irrational numbers, respectively), which problems themselves derive from K. Weierstrass’s solutions to certain earlier problems, and so on. It’s all so abstract and specialized that large parts of E&M end up getting devoted to unpacking the problems clearly enough so that a general reader can get a halfway realistic idea of where set theory and the topology of the Real Line even come from, mathematically speaking. The real point, I think, has to do with something else that ends up mentioned only quickly in the book’s final draft. We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication. It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius–which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise…. Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

I think Wallace was tapping into something we all feel a need for. Listen to this stuff: “clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication.” I certainly could use more of that myself.

Annals of Type

I finally picked up an English translation of The New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s attempt in 1928 to descibe recent movements in typographic and design practice to illustrate the need and way forward for a new approach to typography, taking into account technological changes in typesetting and printing. The translation seems to pick up what I imagine must even in the German be Tschichold’s intense and engaging style. In some ways, his mode of describing the past, present, and future in The New Typography remind me of some of Nietzsche’s writing on what he called the “new philosophers” and “philosophers of the future” in Beyond Good and Evil. For example:

Critical discipline, and every habit that conduces to purity and rigour in intellectual matters, will not only be demanded from themselves by these philosophers of the future, they may even make a display thereof as their special adornment– nevertheless they will not want to be called critics on that account. It will seem to them no small indignity to philosophy to have it decreed, as is so welcome nowadays, that “philosophy itself is criticism and critical science–and nothing else whatever!” Though this estimate of philosophy may enjoy the approval of all the Positivists of France and Germany (and possibly it even flattered the heart and taste of Kant: let us call to mind the titles of his principal works), our new philosophers will say, notwithstanding, that critics are instruments of the philosopher, and just on that account, as instruments, they are far from being philosophers themselves! Even the great Chinaman of Konigsberg was only a great critic.

Tschichold himself was a cultural critic:

At the same time, new kinds of publications made possible by the new inventions, such as magazines and newspapers, emphasized the confusion in typographic design. When finally the process line-block was invented, and reproductive wood engraving, then at the highest point of its development, had to give way to it, confusion was complete. This state of affairs in printing was however only parallel with a general cultural collapse.

Germany especially, emerging victorious from the Franco-Prussian war, was flooded with machine-made substitutes for craftsmanship, that suited its megalomania which the victorious end of a war brought with it, and were enthusiastically taken up - indeed, people were actually proud of this tinniness. Like the profiteers of our own postwar period,2 people of that time had lost all sense of what was genuine; like us, they were blinded by the phoney glitter of those horrors.

The whole era is characterized on the one hand by a slavishly and entirely superficial copying of every conceivable old style, and on the other by a capriciousness in design without precedent. A town hall, for example, might be built to look like a pseudo-Gothic palace (Munich) or a “Romanesque” villa.

Sometimes it is nice to realize that technology, design, and culture have gone hand in hand (in hand) since well before computers or the web were really even imagined. How many pieces of modern software or websites can you think of that could be “characterized on the one hand by a slavishly and entirely superficial copying of every conceivable old style, and on the other by a capriciousness in design without precedent”? This text is still very much alive. See Khoi Vinh talking about bringing magazines to the iPad only days ago:

The Adobe promise, as I understand it, is that publications can design for one medium and, with minimal effort, have their work product viably running on tablets and other media. It says: what works in print, with some slight modifications and some new software purchases, will work in new media. It’s a promise that we’ve heard again and again from many different software vendors with the rise of every new publishing platform, but it has never come to pass. And it never will.

  1. From Dave Eggers’ intro: “Below is an email exchange with Wallace, though it wasn’t quite that. Questions were emailed to Wallace, who then took them home, answered them on his home computer–which is not connected to the Internet–printed those answers, and put them in the mail.” ↩︎

  2. Beyond Good and Evil was published in 1886, seventeen years before Tschichold was born. The Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871. The contemporary postwar period Tschichold refers to is following the First World War, during which time the German economy was in an enormous state of collapse. Explosive inflation ensued. ↩︎