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May 2006

Spring in My Step

Random compliment of the day, given by random old dude I passed outside the post office this morning: "Yo, you got the coolest walk I know for a white guy!"

Sing, Sing, Sing

In case you recall my mention of the hyoooooooge architectural proposal book I co-designed with my friend Matt during an absurd marathon of 18-hour days back in March, this was it:


(Image: Las Vegas Sands Corp. via European Pressphoto Agency)

Not the most striking image of the design, but what do I know? I’ve only seen all of them, over and over and over again. But since all the proposals have now been given in Singapore, at least I can safely admit to what I was actually working on. The Times article doesn't get into the architecture of the Singapore plans at all, but the proposal we worked on was for the Sands casino, designed by (the really awesome) Moshe Safdie. (Safdie's site is too Flash-y for me to link directly to the project, so just go and look up "Marina Bay Sands in his project archives. There are much prettier pictures there.)

At the moment there's only one copy of the whole proposal box set in the U.S., which I was lucky enough to see and touch for a few minutes last week, but I’m hoping I eventually get a copy of my own one of these days. Once I do, I'll show you the insanity of how much went into the 4 copies of the full set that were needed for the Singapore government to review.

What About Prom, Blaine?

Pretty in PinkIt's exactly 24 hours to the start of WYSIWYG's Prom Trauma show at the Bowery Poetry Club. Can you throw together an oufit faster than Molly Ringwald?

"This is a really volcanic ensemble you're wearing, it's really marvelous!"

Lovin' Rockets

For a while now I’ve been tracking down digital versions of the songs that used to be in my collection of mix tapes. I haven't had a working tape deck in years, so when I moved out of the Swanktuary a few years ago I decided to finally get rid of all the cassettes that had been taking up space. That collection included plenty of records that I’d already replaced on CD (and plenty I was happy to forget about altogether), but it also included an incredible collection of about 120 mix tapes that I had made between 1983 and 1999 or so. Most of those were 120-minute tapes, and they charted the development of my musical tastes during an era when my interests kept expanding in new directions. I taped from the radio, from my own albums, from other tapes, from friends' collections — anywhere I could grab stuff that tickled my fancy. Some of those tapes were carefully cultivated mixes with segues that oozed with meaning, some were just randomly ordered. Most were fucking awesome.

I knew that a lot of incredible music would be lost to me forever when I ditched the tapes, but I keep kicking myself for not at least hanging on to all the labels I’d made, just so I’d have a record of what the collection contained. Not only would I be able to have some lists of what to hunt down now, but I’d also have some very tangible reminders of different parts of my life.

As I try to rebuild that library now, I find patterns emerging that I never would have guessed if I hadn't been pulling all those old mix-tape tracks together in one place. For instance, tonight it just dawned on me that for a brief period (I’d guess around 1987 or so) I was really into Love and Rockets. Who knew? I certainly wouldn't think to mention them in a list of my favorite bands, but as I go through their catalogue now, I find that I know most of the songs, and had a fair amount of them scattered throughout my mix tapes. Other bands who I really loved — Devo, New Order, the B-52's — rarely made it onto the mix tapes because I would just listen to entire albums of theirs instead, and there was little need to introduce friends to their music via carefully chosen tracks on a mix.

It's also amazing to think of how much mental energy (and cash) I once put into music fandom. that’s waned as other obsessions have consumed me over the years, and various periods of spending freeze derailed my ability to acquire new albums. My collection now is incredibly random, spanning many genres, many time periods, and the waxing and waning of many interests. My digital library has something to delight and horrify almost anyone, including myself.

Writer's Block

I thought I really dodged a bullet when I found out that I didn't need to write essay for my application to grad school this year. They pretty much found out what they needed to know from e-mail exchanges, talking to me in person, and looking at my work. Now, though, I have to bang out a letter by the end of this week that may or may not net me a pretty generous scholarship, which I badly need. I’m up against two other people, one of whom is my future roommate.

No pressure, right?

Prom Trauma!

WYSIWYG: Prom Trauma

We've been kinda pokey about getting out all the details (let's just say your favorite all-blogger reading series is run by people whose lives are generally busy and stressful), but next Tuesday night is the long-anticipated Prom Trauma edition of the WYSIWYG Talent Show. Shame! Nostalgia! Hilarity! Fashion! All this can be yours for 7 lousy bucks, this upcoming Tuesday, May 23, at the Bowery Poetry Club (doors at 7:30, show at 8:00).

With performances by:

Come! Wear a corsage! Find out if any of us put out after the dance!

(P.S.: that’s me in the picture up there, obviously. I'll share my one prom story next week.)

The Teacher's Lament

So what kind of students don't bother to show up for their final exam — without even sending in an excuse? Students who get their asses failed, that’s what kind.

Update: Also, if students show up an hour late — as usual — I’m not very sympathetic.

Typologia, Part II

I finished up Goudy's Typologia a few days ago, and my overall impression is that it's an excellent source of information about why Goudy's types look the way they do. That might sound a little snarkier than I mean it to, since I’m not a huge fan of Goudy's work, but fan or no I think it's true.

Although he mentions earlier types, he doesn't make very useful analyses of them, What he does, however, is shed a great deal of light on the elements of historical types and scripts that he valued most and strove to maintain in his own type. He's quite clear about having no desire to recreate history, but instead adapt historical elements for modern use. Although his conservative approach to new forms is admirable on the one hand, the degree to which he dismisses any attempt at radical departure in type design makes him sound like a bit of a fuddy-duddy. If you look at hist types they tend to be a little soft, a little quirky, a little old-fashioned, somewhat irregular in form but even enough in color. In this book he pretty much explains where all this comes from: a way of working that always uses history as the starting point, with a huge emphasis on the need for typeforms to maintain the individuality the comes from the human hand more than the mechanical precision of the machine:

"For myself, I believe that type character is the outcome of a sincere attempt by the designer to fashion his letters upon a sound tradition and then to add such subtleties in the handling of his lines and curves as are within his ability and power, qualities which are unconsciously produced in his drawing and controlled by his innate good taste and feeling and imagination.

It can be a bit maddening that Goudy often talks about the importance of "good taste" and "charm" without making much of an effort to articulate such vague terms, or even much of an effort to allow for conflicting views of them, but in many ways this is more of a self-written monograph, so it's easy to cut him some slack.

Chapters 9–11 are the most illuminating of the book. In these, Goudy sets the philosophical perspective aside and turns to extremely precise details of his working method when it comes to designing a face, making patterns, and creating matrices. After all his rhapsodizing about the charms of various historical models, it's refreshing to encounter this real blow-by-blow of metal type production in the early 20th century, complete with all the technical pitfalls and opportunities that really would prevent someone slavishly recreating past works resulting from entirely different processes. Goudy acknowledges some of the eccentricities of his method, largely due to the solitary nature of his work, and his preference of working on the matrices directly instead of handing drawings over to someone else for translation.

It's funny that when Goudy comes up in both Bringhurt's Elements of Typographic Style and Kinross's Modern Typography, both authors acknowledge Goudy as an important figure but they can't seem to find much good to say about his work. I’ve always had a similar problem, and reading his own perspective just reinforces it. I don't necessarily love much of what he's done, but it's rather dazzling to learn how much craftsmanship and understanding went into the work.

Goudy, Frederic W, Typologia: Studies in Type Design and Type Making. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977

Teen Dentist 2

My adored Teen Dentist has abandoned me. It's nothing I take personally. After all, we both knew he'd be graduating in early May and passing me on to another student. Now he's off to work in some hospital somewhere, and I never even got to see the animated music video he produced for the dental school talent show! Oh, the hearbreak...

Even in his absence he's taking good care of me, though. He told me he was going to find me the best student he could because — as I learned last night from my replacement teen dentist (henceforth known as Teen Dentist 2) — I was the "best patient he'd ever had." Even though TD2 is already way overbooked, Teen Dentist strongly urged him to make room for me in his schedule instead of passing me onto one of the sophomores, apparently the sad fate of most people whose student dentists graduate. (Sophomores! My god, I’m glad I dodged that bullet. I'll take every year of experience I can get out of my student dentist, thanks.) I can only imagine what the parade of freaks must be like at that clinic, because at the end of last night's visit Teen Dentist 2 seemed amazed and delighted by me, and swore that Teen Dentist was right about me being a fantastic patient. Maybe it's just because I’m chipper and don't complain, or maybe the student dentists like you to have enough curiosity to get them talking about what they're doing. Whatever it is, I’ve got it. Apparently, I also got some fantastic work out of Teen Dentist: TD2 was awfully impressed by what he saw.

I don't know much about TD2 yet, other than he's Asian, from Alaska, plans on settling in Seattle after graduation, gets teased for having really girly handwriting (frankly, I like a medical professional with legible handwritign like that), and he knows a little about comic books. He's not all dorky and dreamy like Teen Dentist, but he's a good kid, and I’m glad I that I’ve been left in good hands.

Tin Anniversary

Moving Day, 1996

While sorting yet another batch of old photos this weekend, I realized that I’ve been back in New York for about ten years. Ten years! No wonder I’m dying for a change of pace. Ten years in a place like this is time enough for plenty of ups and downs, but I’m ready to take a break from such a wide spectrum of experience. Although I can say New York itself is more responsible for the ups than the downs, I’ve had enough massive downs during these last ten years that I just want to go someplace more low-key and bury my head in the sand (or rather, in a pile of nerdy typography books) for a while.

Yes, I'll miss good pizza and Coney Island and WYSIWYG and corner delis and this city's particular blend of people, and all the possibilities for enlightenment and adventure that brought me back here in the first place. However, I won't miss subway rush-hour hostility or the crowds along 34th Street or endless commuting or throngs of wannabe "Sex and the City" girls screeching around the East Village or another generic "luxury" apartment building replacing something I loved. I'll miss a lot of specific people, but I’ve become so isolated through depression-fueled negligence that I miss those people already.

When I left Boston after living there for almost eight years, I felt like I had pretty much finished it. Here, I still don't feel like I’ve even scratched the surface, which is exactly the kind of endless promise that brought me back in the first place. Living here is damn hard, though, and frankly I need a rest.

When my pal Mark and I snagged that massive loft in Bushwick ten years ago, we were young and full of enthusiasm. The ridiculous misadventures we had living there were only the first of many absurdities that make for good stories but a wearisome way of life. (I keep forgetting that those were the pre-blog years — most of you don't even know the full wackiness of Junky Alfredo or Texas Trevor or the Crackhouse Stake-Out or the weekly thrift store binges!) Just as Mark has been pulled back to New York over and over again through the years, I’m sure I'll never escape the event horizon of this place. I don't think I want to. But it'll be interesting to try.


Atlantic Avenue Montage

I live on a pretty drab stretch of Atlantic Avenue, a bit of industrial wreckage slowly picking itself up despite the very unfriendly way the Long Island Railroad slices through the middle of the block. My side of the street is even more desolate than the side shown above, since this side is just the monotonous sides of old factories, broken up by the Car Spa downstairs. I’m happy to see that the one once-beautiful building on the block, directly across the street from me, seems to be in the early stages of an overhaul:

Building Renovation

They've been pulling out huge piles of debris like that for the last few days, so I can only image how much crap was boarded up in there all these years. I worry about the building, though, since my favorite feature is that decaying cornice at the top, which might be the first thing to go if this turns out to be a cheap-o total overhaul. If it's just an interior conversion to new apartments with minor sprucing up to the facade, this could be really swank. If it turns out to be a really serious restoration, than I suppose it just means I'll soon be priced out of the neighborhood as the tide of prosperity barrels right through it.

I’m definitely going to have to get those curtains up now, though.

The Colbert Retort

Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it's my privilege to celebrate this president. We're not so different, he and I. We get it. We're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? that’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say "I did look it up, and that’s not true." that’s 'cause you looked it up in a book.

Stephen Colbert has bigger balls than you. I don't know what routine he submitted for review before his appearance at the White House Correspondents' dinner, but I doubt it was the text of the blistering 12-minute satirical rant that ripped the president, seated about 10 feet away from him, to shreds, with plenty of ammunition left for the press themselves. It was funny, then awkward, then almost painful to watch as Colbert pressed forward, determined to get to the end despite an audience that was either too offended or scared to laugh most of the time. The pacing and the delivery of the whole bit is off, and you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. This was the kind of performance comics dread — Colbert was stuck up there trying to salvage an act that was bombing in front of everyone in the room and watching on C-Span. But you know what? I think that’s exactly what he anticipated.

As a comic performance he may have missed the mark, but the jokes were definitely not meant to amuse the audience. They were for the rest of us. The audience was nothing but a roomful of sitting ducks, and Colbert brought a big gun, and a smile. The audience was meant to grow steadily more uncomfortable, as Colbert dared everyone in the room to remain polite as he delivered what was probably the most scathing critique the president has probably ever heard. Right to his face. While smiling, and pretending to love the man.

Watch the clips (parts one, two, three) and/or read the transcript to witness freedom of speech in action.

The Way Back Machine

Check out the way I’m rocking the twin SE/30s in BU's graphic design computer lab, circa 1992:

Dueling SE/30s

Those hard drives? 80 megabytes! Those screens? Grayscale. That scanner? Bitmap only. That printer? Well, it would probably still run today if you could connect it to anything. Those PostScript laser printers are unbelievable workhorses.

I’m not actually doing anything there, though. I’m just posing for a goofy self-portrait I almost used for a self-promo project we had to do in Graphic Design senior year. I was too punk rock to wear a shirt to class. (But way too New Wave to wear my hair any other way than that.) I’ve been digging out old black-and-white stuff like this and putting them up on Flickr. Check out the rest...

Reading Is Fundamental

I’m trying to teach myself to read all over again. I can already handle all the big words, thank you, but I’m trying to improve my ability to retain facts instead of just overall tone and general concepts. Although I read far more history and essay-type stuff than fiction, I tend to let the details wash over me as I put together the bigger picture, or extrapolate other ideas. that’s fine for some one who reads for recreation, but the degree I’m going to be working on has a pretty huge research component to it, and I don't think my typical habits will help me much.

The problem is that although I’m an excellent worker, I’m actually a very poor student. Give me a chance to tinker and investigate and solve problems and ruminate and I'll do great, but I actually have no rigorous study skills whatsoever. In elementary and high school, I got good grades without much effort at all. I was diligent about finishing all my assignments, but I was rarely challenged enough to put much effort into them. Studying for me meant an occasional extra glance at the textbook or perhaps memorizing a few dates before a test. I drew incessantly in my notebooks, rarely taking notes of any substance. Every book report or paper I ever turned in was the first draft, and until college that was always hand-written. I know for a fact that I didn't finish half of the books assigned for my junior-year English class.

My grades were very good, though, so it was never a big deal that I had no idea how to buckle down. The only times I ever had a real challenge — Algebra II, a trimester or two of Spanish in high school, and a world history class in college that I rarely attended — I lost interest in class and then had no idea how to pick up the slack in an effective way. College might have been harder if I had more than just studio and art history classes, but that stuff was all either great fun or perfectly sensible to me. I put a ridiculous amount of hours into the studio work, but otherwise I was still able to get by with my wits instead actual study skills.

Next year I'll be geeking out with stuff that interests me a lot, but I'll also need to absorb more information in a more systematic way than I have before. Designing type and learning new software and scripting languages will be the easy part. Hitting the books to work on a dissertation is a little more daunting.

Luckily, years of blogging and memo-writing have improved my writing skills and habits considerably. I actually go back and revise things now, fine-tuning what I need to say and trimming the fat. Still, anything I write for the blog or at work is either stuff I’m making up as I go along, or stuff I already know better than whoever is reading it. Academic writing intimidates me.

Now, as I work my way through the preliminary reading list for next Fall, I’m trying to go slower, take lucid notes, and properly digest the material as I go along. I’m discovering, among other things, that I can't do that very well just by plowing through a book on the subway, where I do most of my reading. It turns out it's very hard to write notes during rush hour. Who knew? It may be a blessing in disguise, though: I can make a first pass on the train, and go back for a review later on, when I can concentrate on facts once the general ideas are already digested. Maybe writing as I go along is actually the key, the verbal version of sketching or comping or tinkering with code.

What's worked best for you brainiacs out there?

Help for Small Talk

It's not much more than a puff piece, but this little article from The Indiana Star does a decent job of explaining what most typeface designers do these days. In effect, it's the sort of concise answer I always reach for when people ask me what it is I’m likely to do after graduate school. Basically, the same stuff I do now, but with more typefaces that I make myself.

Typologia, Part I

I’ve just started reading Goudy's Typologia and before he even begins discussing type design itself, I’m enamored of how he develops his points. (Hopefully, of course, he'll write this well throughout the book.)

After a brief introduction in chapter I, he gets cooking in chapter II, "Books Before Printing." Instead of tracing the leap from scripts to movable type in stylistic terms, he describes the inevitability of movable type in economic and social terms — first came the monasteries with their scriptoria, then the nobility that cultivated their own libraries (along with an interest in keeping the lower classes in check by keeping them away form literacy and learning), then the need for more and more books to be used by the clergy, then the introduction of woodcut illustrations, then the development of cheap wood-cut pages of text, and finally the great leap to movable type, and with it the hope that it mass production could eventually be not only feasible, but cheaper than copying books by hand.

He does, though, assume the reader has a certain familiarity with the big names of type history. Although he briefly introduces a few keyhistoric figures — Richard du Bury, Alcuin of York, Aelius DonatusJohann Gutenberg is just "Gutenberg." I didn't notice the assumption at work until he tosses off a key reference to Closter, with whom I wasn't familiar, right at the end, prompting me to go back and see if I’d missed something. (It also didn't help that the name is spelled "Koster" right in the next sentence.)

The book is set in the face now available from Lanston (now an arm of P22) as Californian, and it has an amazingly pleasant, warm feeling to it. The italic used for the whole of the preface is especially striking. I hope it's not something that was lost in the transition to a digital version, but there's a slight unevenness to the texture that enhances the cursive shapes of the type, and makes it all seem very calligraphic.

The setting has cured me of any fascination with the use of an "st" ligature in text, though. He uses one throughout (and a "ct" ligature, as well), and even though it looks very lovely and swashy as a freestanding letterform, it really distracts from the overall flow of the text. The swash of the ligature jumps right out of the bouma, and disrupts the reading of the words in which it appears, every time.

Still, it's pretty.

Goudy, Frederic W, Typologia: Studies in Type Design and Type Making. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977

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