Friday, December 30, 2011

Deft Rerun: Perfectionism


Photos courtesy Flickr
But first, a word about imperfectionism.

Rikkyu, the Japanese tea master who pretty much defined the forms of the ceremony, was out walking one morning with one of his rivals. The two men passed a shop window that displayed a bronze incense burner. Both eyed it, and that afternoon the rival returned to find the burner gone. The next day, Rikkyu invited him to tea, and sure enough, the burner was there. Rikkyu, however, had knocked a corner off the piece to make it more perfect.

Traditional Navaho weavers made deliberate errors in their rugs to forestall the jealousy of the gods.

Home management guru Don Aslett, the mother of all organizers, says a place should look as if the people who live there are having a good time.

On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to ride well, shoot straight, and tell the truth.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Deft Rerun: Deliberate

Photo courtesy Flickr

Multi-tasking and the instant pace of contemporary reaction have obscured a quality that is the foundation of craft skill: the deliberate, considered exercise of a knowing hand. Speed has nothing to do with this quality, although it can operate faster than the eye can see.

Recently, I read the liner notes on Taj Mahal’s “Kulanjan”, and they mention the traditional hunting music of Mali, a rare reservoir of ancient culture. The notes also mention that the music is played much faster these days than it was originally.

As a pre-schooler, I used to hang out in my grandfather’s basement shop. He worked standing, at one with whatever project was at hand, moving from task to task with the conscious footwork of a veteran outdoorsman and a man who could walk to work. His musicianship turned the exercise into a grounded, silent dance like those found in Dalmatia. In the early years of the twentieth century, he lived off the land for months at a time in the area that became Olympic National Park, carrying nothing more than a rifle, ammunition, salt, flour, and matches.

As a young adult, another shop of hand tools claimed my attention: the one at the rear of a beach cabin set in hundreds of acres of a tree farm in second growth. There was no electricity on the property. The shop had been designed by a physician, and it was as orderly and convenient as one would wish a surgery to be. The bench was placed under a generous north window. The designer’s daughter told me that her father always carried a pocket knife. It was something, she said, that gentlemen always did.

My granddad pulled out his knife, always sharp, when it was time to build a fire. He shaved curls of tinder off a piece of cedar to get the blaze going, never polluting the smoke with newsprint and never wavering in his concentration. Watching him start a fire was the beginning of my art education.

It grieves me that homeland security considerations have turned the pocket knife into a problem rather than a solution. Should you need a cutting tool on the road, pack a length of adhesive tape in your kit, break a glass bottle, and tape all but the business end for safety. Glass breaks into a monomolecular edge. It’s brittle, but nothing is sharper.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Deft Rerun: Boooks

Nuremberg Chronicle courtesy Flickr

That’s the conservative way to pronounce the word. The following comments were first posted in December, 2009, before Pomme's second digipad blew the doors off Gutenberg.

A book is a low-tech recording medium that is structured to permit easy reference to the contents.

That’s all a book is.

The alphabet is phonetic. Each letter, originally an attenuated picture, conveys sound to the ear of the reader. The alphabet was a sea trader’s accounting technology. Our version comes from Tyre in Phoenicia. Interestingly, English gardeners maintain that giant mullein is a sign that Phoenicians had been in an area.

In the Western tradition, letters were originally written on scrolls, like the torah. Looking for prophecies about Jesus, Christian scribes wearied of twirling Old Testament scrolls, folded the text back and forth on itself, and formed what is known as a codex. The little mulberry paper notebooks found in Japanese stores are codices.

A codex is fragile, as anyone who has handled a Japanese notebook impatiently learns. The next development was to sew the folds of the codex together to keep the pages from tearing themselves apart. That’s a book.

A book is an amazing, simple piece of engineering. Even a sheet of the cheapest 8.5 x 11 paper folded several times onto itself, the folds opened with a dull blade like a table knife, will survive as a pocket notebook for years if the spine is sewn by hand through an odd number of holes. Three holes plus a figure-eight stitch square-knotted at the center will secure the pages through many uses. A tapestry or dulled needle is easiest to work with. Fold a slightly heavier piece of paper stock, paste up the outer pages of the pamphlet, secure and trim the cover, let it dry under a weight, and the piece will last twice as long.

All the rest is detail. Edward Johnston and Sidney Cockerell rediscovered the fundamentals of book engineering in England in the early twentieth century. William Morris, Johnston, and Edward Catich, a Chicago jazz musician of the Twenties, worked out the technology of formal alphabetic writing. St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, maintains Fr. Catich’s archive on its web site.

Imprint on Catich if you want to study letter models. An anatomist, kinesiologist, and trained in Sho-Card as a youth, Catich presented writing that is as close to pose-proof as any I have found. There’s a trade paperback collection of his work.

If you fiddle around with higher tech, the possibilities for a book are infinite. Recordists are the scribes of our time. Audio tape is the exact equivalent of a scroll. In the West, reading used to be taught as one aspect of the art of pronunciation. St. Jerome was notorious in his time for reading silently to himself. If you understand reading to be the art of actively recreating the voice of the author, the drones are silenced.

Someone asked me the other week what I thought the future of the book might be. Don’t have a clue. It’s wide open, and it’s wonderful. The digital possibilities are endless, but we sure need our editors. A small book of archival quality is a gift to the future.

The history of Roman letters is a history of diverging local forms leading to cacaphony, followed by a return to the benchmark images of the Trajan column in Rome, Edward Catich’s patch. Letters are meant to communicate, although the scribe can consciously manipulate reading speed. Our tradition of written forms is the longest unbroken one, so our recorded history is relatively easy to decipher.

Though I'm no expert, it seems to me that Robert Bringhurst’s “Elements of Typographic Style” is the “Joy of Cooking” of digital typography. He recommends using a type face that was designed for the medium you’re working in, looks at the relationship of music and book proportions, and sets out the Western book in a nutshell: Gutenberg used one size of one face. Bringhurst recommends basing letter practice on scribal traditions. Catich said all one needs are capital letters.

Chuck Bigelow, Chris Holmes, and Sumner Stone all trained in formal handwriting, and they were pioneers of digital type design. Steve Jobs studied in the same school as they and brought the living tradition of the best of Western letters to the screen. A script is the voice of the designer, a song that can sing any word. More after the jump.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Deft Rerun: Setting Up


Photo courtesy Flickr

Of the millions of words that have been written about organizing a household, none of them is worth anything if it doesn’t center on a computer.

So, with laptop in hand, messenger bag at your feet, and the new key inside the door, how do you deal with the rest of your stuff?

Perhaps not at all. Or perhaps not right away.


Start by having someone detail the new quarters. It will be easy to do in empty rooms. If you play your cards right, it may not be necessary to do heavy cleaning for years.

Find someone to advise you about managing the garden. Get the garden right, so the work you do inside will put the finishing touches on the property. Think about gardening to eat and to save water.

Unlike children, possessions hold still, so it’s not necessary to hover over them. This will give you time to think.

Decide how many people you want to entertain at a conventional table, store that many places in the cupboard, and use paper plates or a party rental for big occasions. Once you decide on an entertainment maximum, it’s easy to decide how many chairs to have.

Traditionally, the western house is a museum. The Japanese house is theater. Their spare interiors are supported by a fireproof storage building on the back of the property. Fine Japanese artifacts come in well-designed boxes, so they can be stacked compactly in storage. "Metropolitan" epoxy-coated or chromed wire storage racks from the specialty container vendor fitted with flap-lid plastic bins all of a size are a utilitarian equivalent. Buy heavy-duty castors for the racks-you'll be surprised how versatile they become.

Innkeepers divide “the house” into front and back areas. The front is for reception, entertaining, and guest rooms. The back is for production. The more back areas you define, the easier it is to get the work of life accomplished. Add a Goodwill container to your recycling and garbage array. It’s fun to keep an art junk box, too, and strangely gratifying if all the containers look the same.

Until the twentieth century, a home was a center of production rather than a center of consumption.

Choose one room to hold media, books, all the small precious objects you might worry about, some comfortable seating, and a table to eat at. The first European-Americans called this arrangement a “keeping room”. By setting up a warm keeping room for sedentary activities and leaving sleeping quarters and standing production areas on the cool side, I have cut my heating oil consumption by seventy-five percent in two years.

When you pack, separate things you use every day from inventory that gets pulled out for special occasions. It may not be necessary ever to unpack some things again. Label the kits after you make a photo record of the contents. If something doesn’t seem worth packing in a flap-lid bin, it may not be worth keeping. Use obsolete closet space to squirrel away bulky items.

Keep each room as empty as it can be. Soften the atmosphere by keeping the windows and light bulbs clean and by using Great Big Northern European Home Furnishing paper-shaded lamps.

Control clutter by establishing a “toy bank” for each child. Have her decide what favorites will be front and center for a couple of months. Going to the toy bank for a fresh supply will be exciting. Promise in writing never to discard a toy without permission, even if the child is too young to comprehend. She’ll understand the tone.

Place discards in transparent plastic bags. Ask each person to approve the discards. Do it in writing. A child too young to write can understand that making a mark means keeping a promise.

Inventory problems are a sign of abundance.

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More after the jump.