01 April 2014

April is the cruelest month

My Grandfather Cox scared me. He wasn't an angry man, and he never threatened corporal punishment the way my other grandfather sometimes did. But he was a large and serious man. He was a Methodist minister and thought having a pack of cards in the house was an invitation to a life of debauchery. He spoke low, calmly, and infrequently about important things like religion and how not to waste your money on comic books. He and Grandmother Cox lived in a spare one-story house in rural Indiana with a long treeless lawn stretching to the country road. There was a drainage ditch along this road and at the end of the driveway a culvert made from four-foot aluminum pipe, ubiquitous in the Midwest.

My older brother, Rob, and I were staying with my Grandparents for a week in early spring. One morning we were sitting on the concrete front step with nothing to do—the absence of cards was only part of a more general ban on fun; the only diversions in the house being a bible trivia game and a dish of Kraft caramels. Grandfather Cox had been down by the edge of the road inspecting the ditch for some time and he abruptly strode with purpose towards the two of us. I had a sense of unease. Grandfather caught my gaze and brought his finger to his lips. Rob and I waited until he made his way to us and bent down. "Boys," he whispered, "there's a groundhog in the drainpipe. If you each go to a different end and are absolutely quiet you will see him there."

I was confused. Rob and I both loved nature and watching animals (and sometimes catching them and bringing them home in pillowcases to the alarm of our mother), but groundhogs weren't so special. In addition to being distrustful of fun, Grandfather Cox had never expressed any opinion about animals or the wonders of nature. But his eyes were twinkling and he seemed to be having a moment with us, and those were rare. So Rob and I walked very slowly to the edge of the road, covering the twenty or so yards in about two minutes.

We split to opposite sides of the gravel driveway and slid on our cutoffs down the brown dead sloping grass. I cautiously inched my head around the side of the pipe, ready at any moment for the beast to scamper out in terror, but as my angle of vision made its way down the pipe, there was nothing but dirty sediment. Finally I saw light at the other side, and Rob crouching in silhouette.

We stayed like that, staring for what felt like a very long time. Eventually, we stood up and walked back to the house, faster than before but still in silence. Grandfather was standing by the step as he had been the entire time, smiling with a look of benevolence bordering on grace.

"Grandpa," I said, "there's nothing there."

"April Fool's," he said, without any particular inflection. And then he went inside.

25 February 2014

Not fooling anyone

While today "skeuomorphism" is used almost exclusively to describe user interfaces,  it's a 19th century word for an ancient concept: when a new object makes decorative use of elements from a previous version of the object. While this could refer to any mimicry of real and illusory materials, in its current use skeuomorphism carries the negative connotation of new media imitating the old—for example, a laminate table surface given a marbled appearance—in a way that's unnecessary, affected, or just tacky. When it comes to user interfaces, skeuomorphism most often refers to visual analogies to physical world counterparts: in iOS 6, the Notes application looked like a yellow legal pad, the Calendar looked like a leather-backed desk blotter, and so on.

In recent years it's become fashionable for designers and critics to view such interfaces with scorn; making fun of a wood-textured background or faux track machine sliders as pointless—or worse, kitsch. Blogs like Skeu it! cataloged the worst offenders. When Scott Forstall was deposed of his role as SVP of iOS at Apple back in 2012, critics of the iPhone's interface were delighted to declare skeuomorphism dead. The new iOS chief was to be none other than Jonathan Ive, previously in charge of Apple's industrial design—most famously for the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. Surely the man who developed the minimalist, sleek, plastic design of Apple's fantastically successful consumer hardware would produce software that was similarly elegant and functional.

iOS 7, introduced in September of last year, did dispense with the legal pads and desk blotters, along with volumetric icons and other textural elements, in favor of flat colors and transparency effects. The critical response has been, thus far, mixed. In the absence of mimicry, the new interface leaned heavily on the fine lines and crisp shapes made possible by the retina display. But the resultant look is generic; one critic compared its typography to a makeup counter display. Without any clear attitude or theming, the graphical elements are design for design's sake, as with the candy-colored abstractions of the new icons, whose meanings would be completely opaque without the applications' titles.

What interests me about the debate around visual metaphor as it pertains to user interfaces is how it mirrors a much earlier mid-20th century debate about abstraction and depiction in the visual arts. Modernist artists and designers—abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, international style  architects like Le Corbusier, minimalist sculptors like David Smith—advocated a radical stripping of decoration in favor of  "honest expression." In other words, paintings should look like they're made of oil and canvas, buildings should look like they're made of concrete and glass. The critic Clement Greenberg—who was the first to use the term kitsch in its (Marxist) sense of uncritical, industrial art for the masses—advocated "medium specificity." This trend reached its apotheosis in the Brutalist style of architecture: modular gray structures of flat concrete with no decoration, no attempt to mingle historically with their surroundings.

While the practitioners of Modernity saw themselves as utopians who would usher in a new world of functionality and formalism, their productions are some of the most dated (and in some cases, hated) works of the last century. Postmodernist artists of the 70's, 80's, and 90's questioned the idea of pure art for art's sake even as they re-introduced idioms and history, albeit with an ironic or playful spin.  The idea of kitsch has been criticized for classist assumptions. The Modernist ideal of an heroic, pure form that was free from artifice and false sentiment was—and continues to be—looked at with suspicion.  For a movement that tried to elevate design from the constraints of tradition and history, it produced a lot of paintings and buildings that looked awfully similar.

Personally, I think that there has been a basic misreading as to the point of skeuomorphism. A typical argument is that its intent is instructional. The desktop metaphor, which arrived in consumer form on computers in the 80s and 90s, sought to ease novice users into the operating system by way of analogy: instead of a file path, there were folders with dog-eared pages which could be placed on your desktop or put into tiny virtual trash cans. These early graphical interfaces were explicitly teaching their users, but these days, the argument goes, who needs to be taught? Even those "new" to computers have had decades of experience; they were born after 1985, a manilla folder is probably more exotic to them than a .doc file.

The problem with this argument is that designers don't use skeuomorphism as a learning tool any more than Disneyworld uses theming on its rides to tell you where to queue.

iOS 6's Game Center was much maligned for its felted look, drawn from card tables. But this stylistic choice was not trying to instruct anyone on how to use the Game Center's features: it was a playful way of delineating this virtual space from other, more business-like, spaces. Perhaps if you didn't have any personal associations with the trappings of casinos or basement rec rooms, you might find the theming inappropriate. But in that case, why not provide other theming options, such as graphics reminiscent of coin-op arcades or of athletic fields? Why is the correct attitude no attitude—if no attitude is even possible?

A well-designed interface is not primarily made for learning; it's made for ongoing use, which means not only being functional, but also being compelling, enjoyable, fun. An interface tells us what attitude we should have towards the task at hand. In other words, it's a game we play. That game may be mimetic or it may be abstract, but either way it will affect us. Ives's brittle world of thin type and flat white windows is just another room we find ourselves in, not a door to freedom.

19 April 2013

Nine miles away

Boston is a small town, much smaller than you probably think if you know it mostly from Cheers or eighth grade history. You can walk its length in a single afternoon, although you'll probably be sore the next day. There are 21 neighborhoods in Boston, but don't let that fool you. It's not so big.

As I'm typing this, Boston and several of its neighboring towns are under police lockdown while the search for Dzohkhar Tsarnaev continues. Perhaps the manhunt will end, one way or another, by the time I finish writing. The transit systems are not running; the schools are closed; citizens have been instructed to shelter in place—that is, stay home, stay off the streets. My wife and I have spent the morning bunkered in our basement watching the news and keeping watch over our respective laptops with our respective news sources. From time to time we point out some nugget of information to each other and hypothesize about its significance or lack thereof. Like everyone else, we have no particular insight into the brothers or what motivated their crimes. I personally doubt that they were affiliated with any larger group or had any agenda beyond their own sad ideology, but I have no basis for this beyond the feeling I get looking at the eyes of the photo of Tsarnaev that hangs on the left side of the news story. And now that photo is gone as the feed switched to men in fatigues—SWAT? Federal agents? I don't know—boarding armored personnel vehicles outside the Arsenal Mall, about nine miles away.

It's incredible to see the city so completely shut down and the thousands of police officers that have been mobilized. I've seen posts online questioning if the response is commensurate with the seriousness of the crimes committed. I can only speak for myself but it doesn't feel to me like the city is in the grip of hysteria or rage. The reaction feels somber, sad, and purposeful, just as the reaction to the Marathon bombing has been all week. There has been remarkable restraint and grace in the face of ugliness. People from around here often have a reputation for being scrappers, but they also have a reputation for being deliberate. That measured, careful quality that is one of the best traits of New Englanders has shone through. But probably it's the way anyone would react to events in their own back yard.

When the bombs went off on Monday, every Bostonian who heard the news knew that small stretch of Boylston street near the library, only too well. This morning when we first heard of the previous night's events we knew each and every one of the locations involved: MIT, Memorial Drive, Watertown, Cambridge. The Arsenal Mall is where we bought our daughter's dorm room supplies; now there's a Blackhawk helicopter in one of its parking lots. I may have mentioned—it's a small town.

21 March 2013

Dot coms and dongles

I worked at a dot com for a few years during the heady days of the Web bubble. While I never got a tribal tattoo, I did dutifully line my desk with action figures and engage in office hijinks such as making an enormous mobile out of AOL free trial CDs and ordering single rolls of lifesavers from kosmo.com. In other words, I was trying to live the New Economy dream of the office as a living space. After the 80s and 90s had seen the Baby Boomers cede more and more of their private lives to their companies in the form of pagers, cell phones, and weekend hours, we of Generation X were going to turn the tables and make our offices into crazy playrooms and reclaim those lost Saturdays in the form of slack.

I began my adventures in the Web trade in '99 just as streaming media was becoming a thing. An ongoing fascination for some of the women in my office was a series of video feeds that originated in a strip club in New Jersey: the club's website showed a grid of four different camera views of the private (or apparently, not-so-private) rooms in which patrons got solo performances. When she caught a glimpse of action in an open browser window, one of my co-workers would shout: "Lap dance in quad three!" and a collective giggle would pass through the office as everyone commented on the stripper's nails or the patron's polo shirt.

While I'm sure this sort of thing will strike many as harassment, or at least terribly inappropriate for the workplace, for us it made a weird sort of sense. These sorts of transgressions served as passwords into the clubhouse and this wasn't no girls allowed. If anything, the women in my office were more given to rude jokes and time-wasting. This was a young industry and they were establishing from the beginning that there would be no double standards of behavior. The utopian vision was that women and men would work side by side, united by a common love of fart jokes. Well, at least until the bubble burst and everyone got laid off in 2002.

I thought about my old job when I heard about the controversy surrounding an off-color remark at Pycon, a tech conference, yesterday. Two men were joking to each other about big dongles while seated behind a woman who took offense—and then took a snapshot which she tweeted. In the ensuing fallout, one of the men has lost his job and the woman has received death threats. It's a sad case and one that I can see from all sides—well, not from the side of the company that fired the guy, that was pretty awful. I'm sure the two men were not intending to harass; I'm also sure that the woman felt harassed. But what she would have made of my old office, I can't say.

Sadly, I see no clear moral to any of this. I don't want to support harassment, but I also like living in a world where consenting co-workers can make anatomical jokes to each other, regardless of gender. I want a standard of professionalism; I also want people to be comfortable being silly. Perhaps the takeaway here is to always be careful what you say. But in the immortal words of Frances, "Being careful is not as much fun as being friends."

Update: It appears that the woman who tweeted the image has also been fired. Let me go down on record on the side of no one getting fired on either side. C'mon, companies, stop being so awful.    

Dongle image by Alphathon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

19 February 2013

MOAH SPOILERS don't yew know

We herewith present earlier drafts of Mr. Fellowes's first-draft ending for the fantastically-popular-and-in-no-way-phoned-in-by-a-cast-who-were-already-out-the-door Downton Abbey Christmas on Ice Special.


MARY is in bed looking slightly disheveled but still in the bloom of English womanhood. (Ask Michelle to maybe tousle her hair? Something with the eyebrows. Oh, those eyebrows.)

Oh dearest Mary now that you have issued forth a tiny new Earl we need never have sex again! Once again Britannia is safe from the Hun! Cheers Huzzah.

Indeed Matthew it is the happiest of outcomes. Now we shall be happy forever and ever and ever to the end of our painless and exceedingly long lives! 

I find myself so overcome with emotion that I must now leave this happy, happy tableau! Farewell, gentle Mary, I will see you anon and for the rest of our aforementioned freakishly extended lifespans!


MATTHEW exits looking very much a young Earl-to-be in the prime of English manhood. He dons his rakish cap and smiles to the heavens. Immediately a piano falls upon him ha take that Dan Stevens you ungrateful bastard film career my arse oh God what do I do now all I had was this show

Alternatives: falling safe? quicksand? dingoes

16 January 2013

SPOILERS don't yew know

MARY I have heah a letter from Levina's deah dead Papa but I shawn't read it really I shawn't

but MATHYEW what if it is a message, don't you know, saying desh it all, Leviniah wanted you to take all her money and HAIRlooms and give them to my deah destitute fahthah to save us all

MARY as I hev said before, don't you know, that my DASTARDLY handling of pooah Leviniah is what done her in as I am such a ruggéd type that the females can't help themselves but up and die once I hev SCORNED them

oh Mathyew too trew too trew I myself hev so often born the chestnut-haired brunt of your ruggéd scorn but still think of DOWNtun think of the pooah servants all waiting in the cold with their trays to serve us but the bells they don't ring, they don't RING, Mathyew

MARY my mind has been made up in such a ruggédly handsome way and why don't I burn the deshéd thing already I swear I will really I will in the finest of cognacs I will

Next time: Matthew pulls out a match, Mary glares ever so earnestly

24 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part II

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Plot: We open to the melodious but stern voice of Miss Greer Garson whose schoolmarmish reading of scripture lets us know it's time to sit up straight, as there will be a quiz following. It's the time of Caesar Augustus and there's a "cruel tax"—although what does she think, those roads just grow on trees?—that requires everyone to shuffle through the desert in bleak, single-file lines. Everyone, that is, except the n'er-do-well entertainer, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer), and his cross-eyed companion, Ali (Paul Frees), who seem to be strolling through the sand dunes without a destination or provisions. Perhaps the story that follows is merely a hallucination brought about by extreme dehydration.

Here comes the titular drummer boy, Aaron (Teddy Eccles)—who is drumming, because what else would he be doing? He's accompanied by his "old friends:" the donkey, Samson; the lamb, Ben Baabaa, and the camel, Joshua, all of whom are swaying about on their spindly hind legs as though they've stepped out of a particularly apocalyptic Bosch painting. The catty Aaron is unimpressed with the animals' footwork and spurs them on like a stage mother: "be lighter! Happier!" Ali notes that "it is said" that Aaron hates all people—at eight years of age, Aaron already has a rich body of folklore surrounding him.

Ben Haramed and Ali take Aaron and his friends captive as the title song plays, unhelpfully. Ben Haramed reveals his nefarious intent of putting on a variety show for the taxpayers through the song "When the Goose is Hanging High." The connection between poultry and show business is left unmade as Garson leads us a flashback explaining why Ali hates people: this involves the onscreen knifing of his father and the offscreen murder of his mother, as well as the destruction by fire of Aaron's home. Happy Holidays, everyone!

The horror continues within the bleak gray walls of Jerusalem where Aaron is compelled to perform for a leering crowd while wearing a painted smile that would make Heath Ledger cringe. "Why can't the Animals Smile?" he sings, as his furry companions stage a bacchanal in which they pretend to be other creatures, and we recall the words of Lovecraft, that the most merciful thing in the world really is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. All this proves too much for Aaron, who finally snaps and turns on the crowd before a passing of the keffiyeh can garner a single shekel.

As luck would have it, outside the city the troupe runs into a trio of wise kings (all Paul Frees), who are uninterested in percussive music but are happy to purchase Joshua, having killed their own camel by loading it with an industrial pallet of Frankincense and Myrrh from Sam's Club. Aaron is none to happy about this and runs after the kings' caravan to be reunited with Joshua. There hasn't been quite enough tragedy in this children's story, so Baabaa is abruptly run over by an irate Centurion in a chariot, late on his way to a filming of Ben Hur.  Aaron takes his dying lamb to the stable where the kings are, and finally notices this huge star in the sky thing that's been looming overhead the entire time. Fortunately, the Messiah is hip to Aaron's crazy beats and Baabaa is miraculously healed.

Notes: This show is based on the listless, monotonous,and inexplicably popular Christmas song, written by Davis, Onorati and Simonein 1958. It never ceases to amaze me that it took three people to write thething. The gritty sets and misshapen china-doll character designs are straight from your nightmares—or perhaps a Cold War era animation studiosomewhere in Czechoslovakia. Reflecting the emerging crafts movement that would dominate the early '70s, everything is gritty and dirty and the palette runs the gamut of browns from dirt to mud. While the actual hills surrounding Jerusalem are quite lush with vegetation, this story takes place in what looks like the Gobi Desert, because it's the Middle East, am I right? 

For a children's special, The Little Drummer Boy is pretty brutal: violent death, enslavement, and the Vienna Boys' Choir all feature prominently. But it's also earnest and honest in a way that, say, The Christmas Shoes isn't, like a big sloppy dog that just wants you to love it and to forgive it for what it did to your socks. The basic message, that we should give what we can as we are able, is both theologically and ethically sound. But did they really have to make the bad guys Arabs?