09 March 2016

Man Magazine’s 25 Man-Tasks Every Man Must Do Before He Dies

  1. Butcher one’s own Hartebeest using only a penknife and pocket-comb
  2. Hand-roll the perfect cigar; place in a Lucite case to be smoked upon one’s deathbed
  3. Master the art of single-tear cry
  4. Master the art of removing a front-clasp bra with one's toes
  5. Learn to make the deadliest cocktail, the Dank and Steamy
  6. Serve a Dank and Steamy to Norman Mailer's ghost
  7. Defend a lady friend’s honor by employing a rear naked choke
  8. Learn the difference between a fedora and a trilby
  9. And also a homburg, why not
  10. Spend at least one year’s salary on a bottle of Scotch
  11. Put one's faithful dog of twenty-three years down, but only after staring long into its eyes and reaching an understanding
  12. Write an essay on euthanizing the dog and sell it to the Paris Review
  13. Learn how to say “humidor” in twelve languages
  14. Climb every mountain, ford every stream; but you know, in a manly way, not the way that a nun would
  15. Locate and purchase the car in which you were conceived
  16. Rebuild transmission of said car and present it to your dying father as a gift upon the anniversary of your mother’s death
  17. Sit a while in absolute silence in the passenger seat as your father runs his trembling, spotted hands over the walnut burl dashboard before switching on the radio
  18. Listen to “Reeling in the Years”
  19. Wait, that might be a little too on the nose, let’s make that “My Old School”
  20. Upon the death of your father, drink the bottle of Scotch in a single sitting and crash the car into the first tree you successfully climbed as a child
  21. Fix car and sell on EBay for a profit
  22. Learn to express one’s feelings by not saying or doing anything
  23. Also, no writing anything down, that's cheating
  24. Seriously
  25. One more? Um, read Moby-Dick?

08 March 2016

Final Spoilers, Don't You Know

Mary: Deah Mathyew, I hev so enjoyed our supernatural meetings these strange nights, but somehow I feel we must draw the curtain on these séances, as it were. It’s only that yew hev shuffled off this mortal coil some four yeahs ago, and in the meantime I went and married a motorist—I believe his name is Henry or Heathcliff or something of the sort—in any case I hev also had my dalliances with Gilly and Tony—what I’m sayin’, Mathyew, is I hev had a fair amount of tail in your absence, and perhaps the time has come for us both to move on.

Matt: Oh Mary, yew old thing, I know all about it; For hev I not watched over yew these many nights, creepin’ in through the wainscoting and such, peepin’ in as yew—

Mary: Steady on, Mathyew, can’t a widow hev a bit of privacy?

Matt: Mary, old bean, we on this side of the spiritual veil are not full of your hang-ups, man. As for me, I hev been dallyin' with your dear sister Sybbie on the reg—

Mary: Good Golly! [blushes becomingly]

Matt: —and yet there is something to what yew say, for I too feel we hev arrived at an ending, don’t yew know, and after so many Sunday evenings together we shall need to find something else to do.

Mary: I suppose I felt it when Edith [spits] announced her engagement. Suddenly it seems everyone was getting married: our cranky butler and that Scotswoman, the mousey cook and the strapping young footman [pauses to imagine Andrew in his undershirt] and even your unlovable old mater has found connubial bliss, as it were. Why I do believe our little George has proposed an engagement to Sybbie junior, and he cannot yet pronounce his R’s. It seems as though good times hev come to us all, and all is well as ends well, wot? I suppose I shall switch to watching Poldark [pauses to imagine a shirtless Aiden Turner].

Matt: Well then Mary, I must bid yew and your eyebrows adieu! Only one thing left to say, and, well, I hate to mention it—

Mary: What, my phantasmal lover?

Matt: Only now that Edith is a marchioness, she can, in fact, hev yew beheaded.

Mary: Feets don’t fail me now!

17 February 2016

DPI ain't nothing but a number

In the glamorous world of Web Design, 95% of time with clients is spent discussing the same two or three basic points about image size, so I've attempted to write up a short set of answers to which I could point them. I have tried to be brief and funny, but also useful. I've also tried to keep my tone free from the exasperation I often feel when going over these points for the third time in a day. Graphic designers out there, tell me what points I've missed and where I could be clearer. If you want to use this as a reference in your own correspondence please do.

How big should my image be?

Short answer: 1000 pixels on its longer side. PNG or possibly JPG and less than 1 MB file size. Long answer: see below.

Why is this image "too small?" It's 300 dpi!

In print, the magic standard is 300 dpi, meaning that an image has three hundred pixels per inch at the size it will be reproduced. If your image is 300 dpi but only one inch wide, and you want to fill a double-page spread with the image, it will have to be blown up to seventeen inches and all those tiny pixels will be seventeen times as large so now your image is effectively seventeen and a half dpi.

On the web, dpi is meaningless, because you might be looking at an image on your grandma's '95 Gateway or on next year's Apple Watch: you have no idea what size those pixels are. It's more important to think about how many pixels wide and high an image is so that the designer can think of the amount of space in a window it will occupy.
A nominally high-resolution image becomes low-resolution when presented at a different size

Zoom to enhance?

You can't reveal detail that isn't there. An image that is out of focus or noisy will be more out of focus or noisy when blown up. If the image has sharp lines, like the edges of letters, those will degrade. If you have an image of an old newspaper, you will need to capture all the detail you want at the photography/digitization stage. Words are a special case. People notice blurry letters much more than they notice blurry photos. So if you are digitizing anything you want your viewers to read, crank up the resolution on your scanner.

I compressed it! Aren't you proud of me?

There are lots of ways image encoding systems save disk space. Some take advantage of redundancy in the data and don't affect the way an image looks. Some take advantage of the way the human eye works and these can mess with the quality of an image. The biggest offender here is JPEG compression. This system uses a complex mix of math and psychology to trick the eye into seeing more detail than the file contains. But if you compress things too much the image will degrade, becoming jagged or spotty. This is particularly true of images with sharp lines (like text) or flat colors (like cartoons). For these images, PNG is a better format.
While JPEG compression can save disk space, its flaws are particularly evident with hard-edges and flat colors.

What about bit depth?

Bit depth is a measure of how many different hues an image can have. In theory, the more bits, the more discreet colors are available. In practice, people really can't perceive the subtleties after a while. There are those who claim there's a huge difference between 8 bits and 16 bits per channel. Those people are lying and they have too many figurines on their desks.

Is there anything else I should know?

There's a ton of other stuff to know about digital images, from alpha channels to color spaces. Do you need to know these things? Are you a graphic designer? Then the answer is no. Ultimately the most important stuff is not technical. Is it a good photo? Is it in focus? Does it have white whites and black blacks? Is it not too grainy? Is it grainy enough? Do you like it?

27 February 2015

Paranormal, Don't You Know

BOO, I say, what.

How now? Whatever is this ghestly apparition, don't yew know, at my window, all a-peekin'-in?

AHA Mary, darling, 'tis I, your own Matthew, breechin' the space between worlds. I hev become a Heathcliff, wandrin' the moors and tappin' at panes.

Oh Mathyew, yew nevah did read much, did yew? But it's not your brains that my loins miss so. Come in and revish me, my sweet zombie cousin!

ALAS Mary deah I am unable to engage in such congress. I am only heah to do this one cameo for the Christmas special and then I must dress properly before poppin' back to the afterlife for drinks.

But Cuz, tell me—what is it like, yew know, in heaven? Dost one hev all the staff one can no longer afford here on Earth in these trying days of post-industrialization?

It's a bit of all right—evah so many people there—that footman fellah who died in the war, for one, what's his name—and oh, Sybil is there—and—take this kindly—only she's very dull—pretty to look at but—well, you may hev dodged a bullet with her dyin' and all—OH and the funniest thing, your cousin is there, the one thet died on the Titanic, only he says he suspects sabotage, somethin' about bein' cheated out of an inheritance—

Oh Mathyew, let's not talk of characters no one remembers anyway. How long hev yew left with me, my toe-headed spectre?

Not long, my pet—I may gaze on your eyebrows but a moment longer—and Mary, there is one thing—

OH tell me! Tell me anything.

Mary... Edith's quite the bitch, what?


21 July 2014

Spilt tea

I have a client who, instead of sending out an Christmas card to her friends and associates, used to send out an annual card celebrating the Boston Tea Party. It was her way to be distinctive and to avoid offending people who didn't celebrate the religious holiday. She had me design and illustrate several years' worth. Sadly, in 2009 she had to abandon the tradition, as both the name and iconography had been co-opted by the emerging right-wing political movement.

A few years ago I found a Tea Party website that was using many of my illustrations unpaid and uncredited. The unpaid part didn't bug me as much as the fact that I am about as politically far from the Tea Party as one can get. Even still, my reaction has been to shrug it off. You make things and they go out into the world and then other people do things with them. I wouldn't want it differently.

Perhaps I can afford to take this position because I have a day job and am no longer reliant upon my work-for-hire or because I will probably never produce anything popular enough that it would be to my advantage to actively enforce my Copyright. But also: My work is often derivative or transformative, and I have a great love for remix culture: mash-ups, parodies, works that are in conversation with existing works, and I don't think the fantasy of intellectual property ultimately serves artists or art very well. We hold fast to the Romantic ideal of the Artist's Vision, a vision that is profound and powerful but also in peril of being destroyed through the misuse or abuse of the artist's work. But that's only one way of viewing the creative process, and it's a way founded ultimately on ownership of ideas. An alternative is to see cultural production as an ongoing conversation or game spanning media, genres, and themes. We join in as we are able and make use of what's at hand.

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.