(Roughly) Daily

“Less, but better”*…

 

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Dieter Rams is a giant among modern industrial designers; his clean, “functionalist” work inspired legions of modern designers– perhaps most visibly his work for Braun, which clearly shaped the thinking of Steve Jobs, Jony Ive (and before him, the folks at Frog Design)– perhaps most noticeably in the design of the iPod…

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Rams’ 1958 portable radio for Braun, alongside the iPod

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But have we, in fact, learned the lessons that Rams worked so hard to teach?

Is it perfect timing or merely perverse to release a documentary promoting the design philosophy “Less, but better” during the holiday season? The opening moments of Gary Hustwit’s “Rams,” about Dieter Rams, is more likely to have you revising your gift list than tossing it out. As the camera pauses on the details of the eighty-six-year-old design legend’s single-story home, built in 1971 in Kronberg, Germany, you may find yourself wondering if you, too, need to buy a wall-mounted stereo (the Audio 2/3, designed by Rams for Braun, in 1962-1963) or a boxy leather swivel chair (the 620 armchair, designed by Rams for Vitsoe, in 1962), or to take up the art of bonsai, which Rams practices in his compact, Japanese-inspired garden.

After this montage, the sound of birds chirping is replaced by the sound of typing, and we see Rams seated in front of the rare object in his home that’s not of his own design: the red Valentine typewriter, designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King for Olivetti, in 1968. (Rams doesn’t own a computer.)

If you listen to Rams… rather than just look at the elements of his edited world, you will appreciate how his aesthetic and his ethic align. “Less, but better,” the title of his 1995 book, is, Rams says, “not a constraint, it is an advantage which allows us more space for our real life.”…

Ive has always acknowledged his debt to Rams (he contributed a foreword to Sophie Lovell’s book “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”) but, as the Philadelphia exhibition text suggests, Ive, embedded within Apple’s upgrade cycle, may have missed the point: “the rapid obsolescence and environmental impact of these devices sits uneasily against Rams’s advocacy of long-lasting, durable design.”

The minute design twitches of each year’s Apple launch are a far cry from the revolutionary change that the click wheel ushered in. Newfangled ports, rose-gold backs, the elimination of the home button—these don’t change our relationships to our phones, except to annoy…

The provocative story in full: “What we learned from Dieter Rams, and what we’ve ignored.”

Rams’ “Ten Principles of Design.”

* Dieter Rams

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As we savor simplicity, we might send well-designed birthday greetings to Walter Dorwin Teague; he was born on this date in 1883.  An  industrial designer, architect, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and entrepreneur, he is often called the “Dean of Industrial Design,” a field that he pioneered as a profession in the US, along with Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss.  He is widely known for his exhibition designs during the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (including the Ford Building), and for his iconic product and package designs, from Eastman Kodak’s Bantam Special to the steel-legged Steinway piano.

Walter_Dorwin_Teague source

 

 

Written by LW

December 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Movies started out as an extension of a magic trick, so making a spectacle is part of the game”*…

 

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Widescreen feels cinematic. When black bars come down and a show goes into widescreen, it feels more like a movie. More intense. More epic. The shape of a screen changes how we feel about it, and wide just feels different.

But that feeling is an invention. We had to be taught it. And really, we had to be sold it.

Quartz’s Adam Freelander does a deep dive into movie history from Thomas Edison to Cinerama and Pan-and-Scan to “TV Safe” Shooting (or Open Matte, Shooting Flat, etc) and back to the very device that you are watching this video on — the entire aspect ratio explained…

 

[image above: source]

* Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

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As we let them entertain us, we might recall that today is the first day of Saturnalia, a Roman holiday first celebrated on this date in 497 BC on the occasion of the dedication of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum.  The poet Catullus called it “the best of days” – Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!

Originally only a day long, it grew to three days, and persevered as a practice into the 4th century AD.  It opened with a sacrifice (usually a pig), followed by a public banquet, then lots of private merriment and the exchange of presents… indeed, it is believed by many to have been the model for Christmas festivities.

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The remains of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum

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Written by LW

December 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Clients often ask, jokingly, whether we learn our trade in prison”*…

 

safecracker

I spent more than six months shadowing [Charlie] Santore because I wanted to know what the city looks like through the eyes of a safecracker, a person for whom no vault is an actual barrier and no safe is truly secure. There are a lot of safecrackers, I learned, but the good ones, like Santore, live in a state of magical realism, suspended somewhere between technology and superstition. The safecracker sees what everyone else has been hiding—the stashed cash and jewels, the embarrassing photographs. He is a kind of human X-ray revealing the true, naked secrets of a city…

A fascinating profile of L.A.’s preeminent (lock) picker: “Meet the Safecracker of Last Resort.”

* Master safecracker Ken Doyle in a McSweeney’s interview well-worth a read

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As we twist the tumbler, we might recall that it was on this date in 1773 that a group of colonists known as the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three British tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea (worth 18,000– over half a million dollars in today’s currency) into Boston harbor.  The provocation was the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, which allowed the British East India company to sell tea from China in American colonies without paying taxes apart from those imposed by the Townshend Acts— which American Patriots strongly opposed as a violation of their rights. Colonists objected to the Tea Act because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to “no taxation without representation.”

The Boston Tea Party was a significant event in the gestation of the American Revolution. Parliament responded in 1774 with the Intolerable Acts, which, among other provisions, ended local self-government in Massachusetts and closed Boston’s commerce.  Colonists up and down the Thirteen Colonies in turn responded to the Intolerable Acts with additional acts of protest, and by convening the First Continental Congress, which petitioned the British monarch for repeal of the acts– and probably more impactfully, coordinated colonial resistance to them.  The crisis escalated, and the American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.

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The Boston Tea Party, as rendered by Nathaniel Currier

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Written by LW

December 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“He read “Principles of Accounting” all morning, but just to make it interesting, he put lots of dragons in it”*…

 

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“Portrait of Luca Pacioli [the father of double-entry accounting] with a student”

You’ve never heard of Yuji Ijiri. But back in 1989 he created something incredible.

It’s more revolutionary than the cotton gin, the steam engine, the PC and the smart phone combined.

When people look back hundreds of years from now, only the printing press and the Internet will have it beat for sheer mind-boggling impact on society. Both the net and the printing press enabled the democratization of information and single-handedly uplifted the collective knowledge of people all over the world.

So what am I talking about? What did Ijiri create that’s so amazing?

Triple-entry accounting.

Uh, what?

Yeah. I’m serious.

But don’t feel bad if you slept through the revolution. It wasn’t televised or posted on Reddit. When Professor Ijiri died in 2017, most people didn’t catch his obituary. His most famous book, Momentum Accounting & Triple-Entry Bookkeeping, has a grand total of zero reviews on Good Reads. So you’re not alone if you missed it…

Dan Jeffries at Hacker Noon does a wonderful, engaging job of telling this remarkable story– and of explaining why his claim of importance may not be hyperbolic at all: “Why Everyone Missed the Most Important Invention in the Last 500 Years.”

* Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

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As we don our green eye shades, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that the longest federal government shutdown in US history took place under former President Bill Clinton while Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, controlled both houses of Congress.  It lasted over three weeks, until January 6, 1996.

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Written by LW

December 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Humanize your talk, and speak to be understood”*…

 

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Personification is weird…yet entirely natural. It’s the odd practice of pretending things are people. When we personify, we apply human attributes to inanimate objects, to nature, to animals, or to abstract concepts, sometimes complete with dramatic stories about their social roles, emotions and intentions. We can observe this linguistically through features like unexpected pronoun use or certain animate verbs and adjectives that are usually only applied to people. A common example is how ships and other vessels traditionally have a feminine gender in English (even if the ship happens to be a “man-of-war“)… There’s a strange empathy in words like “she is alone” applied to an object that can’t possibly have a sense of loneliness. This isn’t the artifice of poetry, but everyday language. On the face of it, the concept of personification seems pretty crazy, the stuff of fantasy and magical thinking…

You might think, like many a respectable scientist, that it has no place in our earth logic, because not only is it not real, it is objectively false (and therefore unscientific), since inanimate objects do not have feelings or intentions (and if animals do, we can’t possibly know for sure). Yet personification is not only wildly popular in language use (even if we don’t always notice it), it’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon that reveals a lot about social cognition and how we might understand the world…

How the way we talk about the things around us both shapes and reflects our understanding of the world: “Personification Is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects.”

* Moliere

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As we muse on anthropomorphic metaphor and meaning, we might recall that today’s a relative-ly good day for it, as it was on this date in 1900 that German physicist Max Planck presented and published his study of the effect of radiation on a “black-body” substance (introducing what we’ve come to know as the Planck Postulate), and the quantum theory of modern physics– and for that matter, Twentieth Century modernity– were born.

Planck study demonstrated that in certain situations energy exhibits the characteristics of physical matter– something unthinkable at the time– and suggested that energy exists in discrete packets, which he called “quanta”… thus laying the foundation on which he, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Dirac, and others built our modern understanding.

220px-Max_Planck_1933Max Planck

 

Written by LW

December 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”*…

 

Books hopper

As the year draws to a close, some of us like to look forward, and some of us backward—and some way backward. Last month, while working on the not-at-all-controversial Books That Defined the Decades series, I was often surprised by the dissonance between the books that sold well in any given year and the books that we now consider relevant, important, or illustrative of the time. I repeatedly regaled my colleagues with fun and interesting facts like: “Did you know that in 1940 the best-selling book of the year was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn? That was also the year The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Native Son came out!” They made me stop eventually, and so I compiled all my comments into this very piece…

Some general takeaways:

1. The biggest bestsellers of any given year are not necessarily the books we remember 20, 30, 50, or 100 years later. (Something to remember when your own book goes on sale.)

2. Sometimes books take a little while to work themselves onto the bestseller list. Books suspiciously absent from the list of the year they were published sometimes show up in the next year, likely due to paperback releases and/or word of mouth (or they may have simply been published too late in the year to compete with the spring books).

3. People like to read the same authors year after year.

4. John Grisham owned the 90s.

5. There are so very many books, and we have forgotten almost all of them.

Here’s to remembering (the good ones, at least)…

A century of best-seller lists, compared with the books published in the same years that are well-remembered today: “Here are the biggest fiction best-sellers of the last 100 years (and what everyone read instead).”

* Haruki Murakami

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As we turn the page, we might spare a thought for Henry James III; he died on this date in 1947.  The son of philosopher and psychologist William James and the nephew of novelist Henry, he was an accomplished attorney, administrator (manager of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and Chair of TIAA), and diplomat (e.g., a member of the Versailles Peace Conference).

But like his famous elders, he also wrote– in his case, biographies, for one of which (a life of Charles W. Eliot) he won the Pulitzer Prize.

HJ III

Henry James III holding his sister, Mary Margaret, in his lap (source)

 

Written by LW

December 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…

 

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You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

* Bertrand Russell

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As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.

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Written by LW

December 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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