log (1999/10/22 to 1999/10/28)

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Thursday, October 28, 1999

Almost Hallowe'en!

Finished the third of the design books that I bought the other day. It was crummy. Here's my Amazon.com review:

Less than useful (two stars)

A frustrating book. My initial impression is that I could have written virtually all of it myself.

The book consists of a large number of 1/2 or 3/4 page essays, superficially describing some aspect of design (color, line, type, shape-with-type, etc), and urging the reader (basically) to try lots of things and see what looks the best. In between the essays are small illustrations of design drafts or finished products, with short and generally unenlightening captions. I expected more!

There are a few bits of concrete advice in the book, but many are so vague as to be unhelpful ("consider the use of color in your design"), and some are simply wrong. For instance, it's hard to credit the statement "it is unlikely that a light, classic serif type will mix with a heavy, sans serif face", when it's printed in a light oldstyle serif face, under a heading that's in (you guessed it!) a heavy sans. On another page, some advice about the cost of color choices seems to show a misunderstanding of how the four-color printing process works. On at least two occasions, the text refers to an illustration "on this page", when no illustration matching the text description actually appears anywhere in the book.

The diction is odd and stilted, as though it were imprefectly translated from the Korean, or perhaps the Icelandic. Can You Parse This: "The emphasis in describing this product range is the link between acceptable branding style described by choice of type and the various options in positioning the visual content." Huh?

Another oddity: the book mentions computers exactly once, in a confused sentence about phototypesetting. Given that the majority of design projects these days use the computer in at least one stage of design (and often many more), this seems unaccountable.

Perhaps there are things in this book that would be helpful to someone with a cognitive style very different from mine, but I found it disappointing, and the few possibly-valid pieces of advice and interesting illustrations not worth the price or the time.

There were three reviews of the book on Amazon before mine, and all gave it five stars with vague but gushing praise. Maybe I'm missing something key about the book, or it really is somehow useful to people with some other cognitive style, or there are people who post gushing reviews of lousy books to Amazon for complex psychological reasons, or they were paid by the publisher. Guesses, anyone?

Also finished Paul Di Filippo's Ribofunk, which was much more satisfying. The inevitable Amazon review:

Not bad at all (four stars)

Definitely bio-punk; the world that Gibson and Williams and Sterling built, with computers de-emphasized and messy smelly squishy sexy biological stuff pumped way up.

At least in this book, Di Filippo is more willing than the classic cyberpunk writers to go over the top, to be a little silly. When he writes "Coney dropped like a smartbomb from a scramjet", he may be accurately forecasting the way technological words seep into common speech, but I suspect he's just having fun. If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, and you don't mind figuring out a heavy dose of new vocabulary on the fly (I like it, myself; I figured out most things, including "whychromes", but although I got the meaning of "reedpair" quickly enough I'm still in the dark on the etymology of it), you'll probably enjoy this book.

I did.

Should I be posting my incredibly literate and thoughtful reviews on epinions? If I did, I might even get paid! Maybe even a whole quarter! *8)

Random stuff: What Web servers are hot this year? Netcraft knows. Completely different subject: not all psychologists have sold out to advertisers.

"Have style. Please have style. I asked you twice already."

Proud-of-the-little-daughter story for today: she was reading a "Time Magazine for Kids" piece for her homework, and there was one page that didn't make any sense to her. She asked me what it was, and after scratching my head for a minute, I told her it was an ad from Ford Motor Company, bragging about how much they recycle. She was appalled. "That's bad!" she said, wide-eyed. Advertising-resistance is wonderful; how do we help her keep it sharp?

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Here's a good way to get started in the morning: shortly after you arrive at work, while you're still blinking at your mail and trying to remember what it is you actually do for a living, have the receptionist call from the lobby to tell you that your visitor from Germany is here. That'll teach me to look at my calendar earlier in the day!

It was a good visit, though; it's always nice to be reminded that actual physical people, some of them on completely different continents, are also doing interesting stuff.

The Law of Heads: I loved this thought when I first encountered it as a youth. I admit it's a bit naive and gee-whiz; feel free to skip ahead if you've heard it before, or if you feel especially jaded and grown-up today. (Also if you can't stand to see "them" used as a neuter singular pronoun.)

Take around 1,000 people, without their knowing about each other. Give them each a fair coin, and have them flip it. In the 500 or so cases where it comes up tails, thank the volunteer and tell them they can go. Ask the remainder to flip it again, and again tell the tails cases that they can go.

Do this for about eight coin flips, and you've probably got three or four people who've seen their coin come up heads eight times. Ask them to estimate the odds that it'll come up heads next time, and what do you think they'll say? What ought they to say? And what are the actual odds?

Law of Gravity? Law of Conservation of Mass? Law of Heads? Verbum Sap, ya know what I mean?

Wasn't that fun? *8)

Nostalgia city: 10,000+ Doonesbury Strips, with search engine! Also, every issue of Mad Magazine, in a 7-CDROM set. Must be That Time of Decade again.

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Stranger than fiction (heard on NPR): "Britney Spears" is an anagram of "Presbyterians". Bet you were wondering why it was spelled that way!

Next book: Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works. A fun but somewhat frustrating book; lots and lots of little page-or-less essays on the general subject of type and how to use it, accompanied by clever illustrations. But the basic messages are sort of hard to find among the rather vague metaphors and the extremely specific facts (when the Berliner Grotesk fonts were created and how they're related to the Block fonts, why Minon Multiple Master is cool, how many different fonts there are in this book).

I got considerably more directly useful stuff from "The Non-Designer's Design Book" that I mentioned the other day; but maybe I just need to read this one a few more times. Unfortunately that will be a bit risky; this book (at least my copy of it) demonstrates that no matter how clever you are with fonts and how hard you work on layout issues, if the book is badly bound you're still in trouble. There are serious binding-splits inward of both endpapers. Ouch!

And they never do explain what the heck Goudy meant by his remark that anyone who would letterspace black letter (or was it lower case?) would steal sheep!   *8) Isn't there like a Federal Law that you have to at least explain your title?

It's always startling when your kids have higher ethical standards than you do yourself. The little daughter's homework last night included writing three "response" paragraphs, based on a story the class read. Each paragraph was supposed to start with a starter phrase like "I was surprised when..." or "It didn't seem right when...".

Now that's fine, except that the story in question was only about two pages long, and I doubt that very many kids actually experienced three different significant emotions while reading it! The little daughter was agonizing about this, and was scandalized when I suggested just faking it.

"Find something that you could have been surprised by, and write about that. Sort of like writing a story!"

"But Daddy, it's not a story!"

"Well, um, yeah, you're right."

She eventually found three things that her conscience would let her write down. I wonder if I was that way in elementary school also, and only developed the basic self-defensive "give the teachers what they're expecting and don't worry too much about the details" attitude later in life? Who's supposed to be teaching whom, here? Kids...

Hacking PC Week: full of techie-words, but interesting if you can either understand or fake them, this description of how PC Week's "break into this system" challenge was accomplished, written by the accomplisher.

Quote of the day (not directly related to the above): "A hack is a program to which you've seen the source code" (me, at lunch).

Monday, October 25, 1999

Last night's pumpkin pie; pretty much the standard formula, but with "spices to taste" filled in with actual spices. Store-bought pumpkin pies are boring.

Two lightly beaten eggs
16 oz. or so pumpkin
3/4 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2 c. evaporated skim milk
9 inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 425°F. Bruise the spices between your fingers, mix everything together, pour into crust. Cook at 425°F for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350°F for 50-70 minutes more, until firm.

The filling is excellent. On the other hand, the crust is always somewhat soggy; this is probably just my own ineptitude with crusts, rather than anything inherent in the recipe.

Stuck in my head this weekend: "They're Gonna be Mad at Us" (from some number on Ani DiFranco's Dilate), "Brimful of Asha" (from Cornershop's When I Was Born For The 7TH Time), "Banana Chips" (from Shonen Knife's Happy Hour). Yeah, I've been listening to some funny stuff lately. *8)

Why are fonts a problem, as I mentioned awhile back? Because, basically, I don't know what fonts you have installed. If I write the HTML for this page so that it suggests using Garamond for the main text, how likely is it that you have that font installed? On machines that don't have Garamond installed, what other Garamond-like face is likely to be there? I can of course say "garamond,serif", but maybe I want more control. And if I want to use a loopy display font for some passage, and say "Comic Sans MS" for instance, is it true (as I suspect) that many non-MS systems won't have a font by that name? Is there some other common comic font that I can list as an alternative?

The design books I've been reading assume, of course, that the designer has full control over fonts and layout, and that the main problem is deciding what font to use (rather than worrying that the font might not exist in the eventual reading environment). The HTML books that I've been reading stress the "worry about content, not presentation" party line. But (maybe only because I've been reading design books) I'd like to mess with the presentation some also, party line notwithstanding. W3C must look at least somewhat kindly on this desire of mine, or it wouldn't have provided stylesheets in HTML 4.

So: anyone know of a good listing anywhere of common font-sets for various types of machines and systems and operating systems and browsers? Does everyone have Garamond? Palatino? Verdana? If I want to suggest a nice robust non-Helv sans-serif font say, how many, and which ones, should I list in order to get something decent for as many readers as possible?

(Yeah, I know there are readers out there using browsers and/or environments that Don't Do Fonts. I want my words to be readable to them, too. But for those readers that do have a fonty environment, I'd like to be able to suggest fonts in a way that more closely mirrors my intent for the page. The medium is, after all, some discernable fraction of the message.)

Aesthetically appealing link of the day: Nerve Magazine's daily nude (on the toolbar at Robot Wisdom). Warm skin, no sleaze.

One other reader (at least!) agrees with the little daughter that the old design was easier to read. I can definitely see how the big thick black bar over on the left there could be distracting, could tend to draw the eye down into it.

Maybe if it was a lighter grey? Or if it was only there when there was something in that column for it to be the background for? For the time being, I've made the bar lighter; that help?

Scientists being funny: A Simple Model of the Evolution of Simple Models of Evolution. The arXiv system that's hosting it is a pretty c00l thing in itself; take a look around.

Sunday, October 24, 1999

Given bagels and lox, sitting on the big bed with the family watching cartoons, what else could anyone ask for?

The little daughter likes the old page design better; oh, dear! It would help if I had an opinion myself, but I'm not very good at having opinions on stuff like that. I'm too close to the work, or too easily satisfied, or something. If anyone else has a preference between the designs, let me know!

You may have noticed that weekend log entries tend to be chattier, and have far few pointers, than weekday entries. This is because the weekend ones are generally composed offline, sitting around somewhere, not connected directly to the Great Conversation.

(I've just done some log analysis, and terrifyingly it turns out that when I say "You may have noticed..." there are actually people besides me out there being addressed. People actually reading this. What a concept! Of course, you already knew that; but I didn't.)

Anyway, now I'm off to make sure we have all the ingredients for pumpkin and pecan pie. Did I mention I love the Fall?

Saturday, October 23, 1999

Is it a sin to write the entry for a given date on the next day?

Went out to Barnes and Noble and bought three books on graphic design and typography, came home and read half of one of them ("The Non-Designer's Design Book", by Robin Williams), and redesigned the log pages based on the wisdom thus acquired. Preliminary user testing (i.e. asking my lovely wife which layout she liked better) indicated a strong preference for the new design, so here we are. Anyone prefer (or remember) the old one?

I'm slightly afraid that the new design makes the log pages look more like all the other journal-like pages out there. On the other hand, that may be because it's genuinely a good sort of design in some objective sense.

No, I don't know why I gave the Mona Lisa as an example of a sign that doesn't signify yesterday. Pure representational art does have an obvious reading most of the time: a picture of a person is a picture of a person, a picture of an apple is a picture of an apple. On the other hand, a rough sketch of a rose with ambiguous words scrawled next to it, or a photograph of a meat-cooker with the logo of a site that has nothing to do with meat-cooking, block the obvious readings. So I should have listed the Mona Lisa in a list of easy cases, unless my subconscious was whispering something in my ear there.

Friday, October 22, 1999

Factoid: the servers that host the apparently-boring georgewbush.com are co-located with those that host the apparently-jocular Illuminati Online. Coincidence, or ominous presentiment?

Books I've finished lately

I promised to talk about Roland Barthes's "Empire of Signs", and now that I've finally finished it here I am. I said this about it on Amazon.com:

Mind-tickling. Not About Japan (Four stars)
An interesting, thought-provoking, pre-PostModern piece about sign and symbol, meaning, surface and interior, and all that sort of thing. An exploration of how else a culture might be, riffing off of the West's image of Japan, but not really about Japan at all.

Worth a read. Short and almost mythical. Reminds me somehow of Hesse's "Journey to the East", but probably not for any very good reason.

One large idea that Barthes circles around in the book is that you can have a sign without any representation; a sign that is not a sign of anything. Or at least that you can approach that (or at least that you can write a book about a semi-fictional place where things sometimes approach that).

Now this seems silly on the face of it. A sign is a sign only if it does signify, surely? If the inkmarks on a piece of paper aren't a sign of something else, then they are just atoms, just inkmarks on paper, and they aren't a "sign" in any useful sense.

On the other hand, our notion of "sign" isn't really that simple. If you take a toilet from the bathroom (where it isn't a sign, just a toilet), and put it in a glass case in a museum, it's not just a toilet anymore. Is it a sign? Things behind glass cases in museums are always signs, so of course it is. But is it a sign of anything?

Less bizarrely, non-representational art in general (most music, some sculpture, some painting, even some literature) isn't a sign of anything, but somehow it seems to partake of the universe of signs nonetheless. A string quartet isn't a sign of anything (in particular?), but somehow it's also not just a bunch of vibrations in the air.

The Mona Lisa, or this, or even simple things like this, seem to fall similarly into this odd area. When there are words in them, those words of course signify sounds, and may superficially signify some meaning, but the work as a whole has no obvious reading, nothing to which one can point and say "it means this". And yet there is (or isn't there?) some difference between these things and a single leaf, unphotographed, in a forest, or the support post of a building, or my wallet.

Or maybe what these artists are trying to tell us is that there isn't any such difference. Anyway, read Barthes, as he thinks about this better than I do. He involves things like Zen, and boxes, and eyes, as well as art and silence.

A much worse book: Legal Briefs: Stories by Today's Best Legal Thriller Writers. My diatribe submitted to Amazon just about sums it up:

Don't bother (one star)
Appalling! Abyssmal! The first few stories were so bad that I found myself writing derisive comments in the margins (something I don't generally do). Some of the later stories managed to achieve mediocrity, unremarkableness. But there are no interesting insights into the legal system here, no engrossing courtroom drama, no judicial puzzlers, no treatments of the important legal issues of our time.

The most blameworthy of the stories is a ham-handed political tract, interspersed with awful *poetry* for heaven's sake. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to be caught dead with a book that contains this:

The President had gotten to Jersey Joe.
Harvey'd been betrayed; a very low blow.
He had many years to think about ethics.
The age-old question: was it social or genetics?


I don't know why I bother finishing things like this; is it that I'm hoping against hope that there'll be a good story somewhere near the end, or am I just too compulsive to abandon a book unfinished?

A very good book: A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson. The existing reviews on Amazon seem about right, so I didn't feel obliged to stand up. It's a very good book, short, pithy, and at the same time mind-stretching. (The huge-breasted female vampire on the cover is something of an insult to the character that I imagine it's supposed to represent, but what can you do?)

It reminds me of Titus Groan in having the same sort of relentless dream-logic, things that make no sense on the surface but somehow hang together in a strange but natural alien shape, like a long dream or an old folk-tale. Gad, that's relevant to this "signs that don't signify" idea again, isn't it? Paint me orange and call me a pumpkin.

(On the other hand, it's the opposite of the Groan books in many ways, being modern rather than classical in tone, short and sharp rather than long and sprawling, and so on.) Read it; it's good.


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