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Design to the Rescue (Again)

I get why New York City recently boarded up its storefronts. It’s a sad state of affairs. But I wholeheartedly agree with Steven Heller’s suggestion to let artists and designers use the opportunity to express life and vitality. We need that right now – even if only temporarily.

“Empty plywood cries out for posters,” writes Heller, “and posters add life to the cityscape. Why not let New York artists and designers have the freedom to fill them? Provide temporary permits if that’ll help. Eventually the plywood will be removed, right?”

Heller likens it to his parents allowing him to use crayons to draw on the apartment walls before they were painted. “It was temporary,” he recalls, “but, man, was it fun.”

I had a similar experience as a four-year-old – but with a much different outcome. Upon seeing my brilliant aesthetic on display on our living room wall, my mom instituted the then-common practice of corporal punishment. It’s okay, though. I survived to draw another day.

“An Overdue Tribute”

Unless you live in—or were planning to visit—the UK, you probably won’t have an opportunity to catch Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work at London’s Design Museum. Plus, well…there’s that whole COVID thing that keeps shutting things down.

It’s too bad, really, because hers is a story worth checking out. In fact, I recommend you get to know Margaret Calvert a little better if you’ve got the time.

It’s Not My Fault!

One of the few Gen-X characteristic that actually applies to me is slacker.* I’m about as lazy and unambitious as it gets. So it was with some interest that I read the following tweet this morning:

I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s funny. And if it is true, it sure does explain a lot. I mean, I got the whole treatment, starting with the “gifted” program in an already experimental elementary school, which inevitably led to disappointment when my grades didn’t reflect my special status. Same thing in high school, when the two highest scorers on the Knowledge Bowl team (one of whom was me, though I was way behind the other guy) had the lowest GPAs.

I had always assumed it was my laziness that did me in. But it turns out it was all the well-meaning adults who praised my intellect, sending me into an “existential spiral” and ultimately dooming me to a life of mediocrity. I feel better already.

*Yeah yeah, also cynical.

The Magical, Mystical Camelopardalis

“The world is a wild and unlikely place,” writes Katherine Rundell in a short but delightful essay in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. For proof, look no further than the giraffe. Even its birth, she writes, is cause for wonder: “They gestate for 15 months, then drop into existence a distance of five feet from the womb to the earth. It looks as brisk and simple as emptying out a handbag.”

It gets weirder. Giraffes use their 20-inch tongues to clean out deep inside their own nostrils. They drink water only every few days—because “each time a giraffe dips down to drink, legs splayed, the blood rushes to its brain; as it bends, the jugular vein closes off blood to the head, to stop it fainting when it straightens up again.” In one study, ninety-four percent of observed sexual behavior was male-on-male.

A wild and unlikely place, indeed. How did we ever lose our sense of wonder at the strangeness of it all?

The More Things Change…

The November 16, 1920 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle reports on a disturbing trend: University of Idaho undergraduates “intent on murdering their mother tongue.” I suppose the difference between then and and now is that, according to the statistics compiled at the time, freshmen accounted for four times the number of “derelictions” recorded, leading one to conclude that an education might actually make a difference.

A hundred years later, though, adults who ought to know better use reference and impact and transition as verbs while insisting that FBI is an acronym and ask is a noun. And, of course, who think that listing their favorite IPAs on Instagram is “curating.”

So, yeah, the mother tongue is dead. It’s bleeding demised. It’s passed on. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

Cheer Up!

Think things are bad now? They’re going to get a lot worse, according to data nerd/pine beetle expert Peter Turchin.

“Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs,” writes Graeme Wood. “To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working.”

Those models are apparently pointing to “civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced.” In fact, Turchin predicted a decade ago that things would start getting real in…2020. Yeah.

As for me, I choose to believe that we humans are far too complex for such predictions to be taken all that seriously. And even if they do come true, well…what are you gonna do? As the great philosopher Eric Idle says:

You know, you come from nothing
You’re going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing

 

Shelf Awareness

Over at The Millions, Ed Simon writes about an anxiety that is all too real to me: a fear concerning “the manner in which the enormity of a library’s collection forces me to confront the sheer magnitude of all that I don’t know, all that I will never know, all that I can never know.”

Preach, brother.

“Intrinsic to my fear,” Simon continues, “are those intimations of mortality whereby even a comparatively small collection must make me confront the fact that in a limited and hopefully not-too-short life I will never be able to read even a substantial fraction of that which has been written. All those novels, poems, and plays; all those sentiments, thoughts, emotions, dreams, wishes, aspirations, desires, and connections—completely inaccessible because of the sheer fact of finitude.”

Like I said, it’s real. How do I not throw up my hands in despair, you ask? By regularly reminding myself that reading is a pleasure, not a duty—which means you can happily ignore the scolds who think otherwise. It also means that (knock on wood) there’s quite literally an endless supply of good times ahead. Sure, it’s probably better if you spend that time with Moby-Dick rather than, say, dinosaur erotica, but hey, we’re not here to judge.

Music and Neuroscience

When I’m listening to Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine and I get goosebumps on my arms and feel prickly sensations on the back of my neck and experience the tinglies, well…all over, it’s on accounta “greater cortical connectivity,” apparently. Good to know.

Go ahead. Check your orbitofrontal cortex:

 

If that was good for you, try the fourth movement of Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing (“Scene III: Minuet of the Songs of Job and Their Wives,” right around the 2:30 mark), or “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets, or Hiram Bullock’s guitar solo on Sting’s version of “Little Wing.”

For Type Nerds Only

After an “intensive typographical adventure” comprising “hundreds of hours of in-depth research, meticulous drawing, discussion, testing, and refining,” a team of experts from the Plantin Institute for Typography has released “the largest and most comprehensive collection of revivals based on the work of a single punchcutter to date.”

The team? Walda Verbaenen, Michel Paré, and Lukas Schneider. The punchcutter? Jacques-François Rosart, born in Namur, Belgium in 1714.

The Rosart Project has all the deets, as the kids say. It’s a pretty cool story. And if you’re so inclined, you can even purchase licenses for revisions and reinterpretations of Rosart’s fonts, ornaments, and flourished capitals.

“And I think to myself / What a wonderful world”

A heart-shaped cattle brand, first recorded on February 10, 1873 and registered to O. C. Whitney of Ennis, Montana—and owned by the same family ever since—is going on the auction block two weeks from tomorrow.

Meanwhile, researchers recently discovered that, when you put an atom of gadolinium inside a carbon buckyball, the structure acts as if it has two stable polarization states. In other words, they’ve created a single-molecule switch.

Isn’t it odd that we live at a time in which the technological spectrum remains so…broad? I mean, here we are on the cusp of molecular computing, and someone’s about to purchase the right to use a 147-year-old livestock brand. Seems crazy to me, that’s all.

Miscellany

“That the dead do not always stay dead continues to rankle the scientifically minded.”

An interview with Brian Eno, whose new album Brian Eno (Film Music, 1976–2020) drops next week.

The future we’ve been promised for so long is—finally!—here:

In related news, “for the second time in six weeks, an unidentified person was seen flying using a jetpack near Los Angeles International Airport.”

And finally, an inspirational quote from an unlikely source: “You ought to spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.”

Take a Moment

“Quiet moments are when we put time aside to be quiet,” writes Robert Fripp about his ambient music series on YouTube. “Sometimes quiet moments find us. Quiet may be experienced with sound, and also through sound; in a place we hold to be sacred, or maybe on a crowded subway train hurtling towards Piccadilly or Times Square. Quiet Moments of my musical life, expressed in Soundscapes, are deeply personal; yet utterly impersonal: they address the concerns we share within our common humanity.”

Here’s the latest entry in the series:

Ode to the Humble Ballpoint Pen

From the November 12, 1945 issue of Time magazine:

In Manhattan’s Gimbel Bros., Inc., thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen. The pen was made by Chicago’s Reynolds International Pen Co. In full-page ads, Gimbel’s modestly hailed it as the “fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen.” It had a tiny ball bearing instead of a point, was guaranteed to need refilling only once every two years, would write under water (handy for mermaids), on paper, cloth, plastic or blotters.

Why in the world would people line up to spend more than $180 (in 2020 dollars) for a pen? Stephen Dowling explains how a “stroke of design genius” paired with fast-drying ink “changed writing forever.”

The One and Only

We recently lost another industry giant: Celebrated graphic designer, typographer, and teacher Ed Benguiat passed away October 15 at age 92.

Ed was one of a kind. He’s responsible for designing the New York Times masthead, logotypes for both Ford and Esquire, and the Planet of the Apes typeface, not to mention countless other fonts and logotypes.

If you want to better understand the essence of Ed Benguiat—and graphic design in general—this video is well worth nine minutes of your day:

Do’s and Don’ts

DO read: While spending a few days camping on Long Beach back in July, the missus and I found ourselves in a charming used book store. We left with a stack of titles—one of which, a first U.S. edition of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I finished over the weekend. Highly recommended (the campground, the shop, and the book).

DON’T watch: Just because the great Rutger Hauer is in Hobo with a Shotgun doesn’t make it worth your time. The “Canadian-American black comedy action exploitation film” is neither funny nor particularly good as a mindless beat-em-up flick. In fact, it’s pretty damn awful.

DO listen: On the recent news of Keith Jarrett’s retirement, I can’t stress enough the need for more of y’all to become familiar with his music. Doug Martin does an amazing job of helping newbies navigate the uncertain terrain. If I had to suggest only one, however, it might be The Köln Concert—easily one of my Desert Island Discs.

DON’T get involved: Ever think that maybe—just maybe—one of the reasons we’re in such a sorry state of affairs is that neither of America’s two dominant political parties takes leadership and governing as seriously as they ought to? Let’s not reward them with something they’ve long taken for granted: our votes.

DO cuddle up with a good movie this weekend: Halloween is Saturday, so maybe it’s time to revisit some old horror favorites, like An American Werewolf in London or The Wicker Man (the 1973 original, not the 2006 Nicolas Cage version). Or maybe get to know some of the newer fare, like The Visit, Hereditary, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Midsommar, or The Witch.

“DON’T hate nobody”: Words of wisdom from Eubie Blake.

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