Wednesday 30 January 2019

Turn every goddam page (2019)

What is the humanities equivalent of the dedicated type of nit-picking, meticulous measurement and data analysis that is at the heart of every really profound scientific discovery? 

In a superb piece by the American journalist Robert Caro in the New Yorker, we find out that the equivalent for archive based investigative work is the rule that you must turn every goddam page.

This is what one of Caro's first editors told him at an early stage in his career:
He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”
I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”
 Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

Early sketches of PMN Caecilia (1983)

A short but interesting piece HERE on the early development of the beautiful and very readable slab-serif text face PMN Caecilia, which was designed by Peter Matthias Noordzij, and published by Linotype in 1991 .

Saturday 26 January 2019

A Story of Ink & Steel (2015)

A Story of Ink & Steel is a beautiful short film by Fritz Schumann about a small collotype printing studio in Kyoto, which is the last in the world to specialise in this fine art printing technique. 

Friday 25 January 2019

Mathematical Typography (1979)

From a lecture by Donald E. Knuth dedicated to George PĆ³lya on his 90th birthday. This is one of the first explanations by Knuth of the TEX and METAFONT software tools which have over the last 40 years completely transformed how scientific papers with heavy mathematical content are composed and typeset. 

In his paper he explains how he hoped that TEX would one day be used:
Perhaps some day a typesetting language will become standardized to the point where papers can be submitted to the American Mathematical Society from computer to computer via telephone lines. Galley proofs will not be necessary, but referees and/or copy editors could send suggested changes to the author, and he could insert these into the manuscript, again via telephone.


Thursday 24 January 2019

Knowledge which is stored in our libraries rather than in our heads (1971)

Putting your ideas into words, or better, writing them down makes an important difference. For in this way they become criticisable, Before this, they were part of ourselves. We may have had doubts. But we could not criticize them in the way in which we criticize a linguistically formulated proposition or, better still, a written report. Thus there is at least one important sense of "knowledge"—the sense of "linguistically formulated theories submitted to criticism." It is what I call "knowledge in the objective sense". Scientific knowledge belongs to it. It is knowledge which is stored in our libraries rather than in our heads.

From Bryan Magee (1971). Modern British Philosophy. Dialogues with A.J. Ayers, Stuart Hampshire, Alisdair MacIntyre, Alan Montefiore, David Pears, Karl Popper, Anthony Quinton, Gilbert Ryle, Ninian Smart, Peter Strawson, Geoffrey Warnock, Bernard Williams, Richard Wollheim.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Rose Reading Room New York Public Library (2016)

A still from a great time-lapse video of the re-shelving of the books in the Rose reading room of the New York Public library following a two-year renovation (HERE).

Saturday 19 January 2019

On Patience (2000)

When you proceed too rapidly with something mistakes cascade, whereas when you proceed slowly the mistakes instruct. Gradual, incremental projects engage the full power of learning and discovery, and they are able to back out of problems. Gradually emergent processes get steadily better over time, while quickly imposed processes often get worse over time. 

An excerpt from Stewart Brand's book Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility - The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

Tuesday 15 January 2019

John Dos Passos (1896 - 1970)

I was introduced to the work of John Dos Passos by my Dad. He told me, when I was a teenager, that the USA Trilogy by Dos Passos was his favourite book. It remains one of my favourites.

I have no idea when he had read it, though it was probably when he, my Uncle Terry, and their mate Pat Carmody lived together in London in the early 1950s (it was when he worked in a tyre factory near London that he first tasted ice-cold Coca-Cola from the classic bottle).

HERE is a great piece in the Paris Review on Dos Passos, that made me remember how good Dos Passos' work is.  

Friday 4 January 2019

Brian Eno's definition of Scenius (1996).

Below is an extract from a letter sent by Brian Eno to Dave Stewart, included as one of the appendices of his diary: A Year with swollen Appendices (1996). 
A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius - the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this ‘scenius’ - it means ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene’. It is the communal form of the concept of genius. This word is now starting to gain some currency - the philosopher James Ogilvy uses it in his most recent book.
Now I would love to be involved in making something to explore this idea - to support my thesis that new ideas come into being through a whole host of complicated circumstances, accidents, small incremental contributions made in isolation (as well as gifted individuals, of course) that in total add up to something qualitatively different: something nobody has ever seen before and which could not have been predicted from the elements that went to make it up.
One of the reasons I am attached to this idea is that it is capable of dignifying many more forms of human innovation under its umbrella than the old idea of ‘genius’, which exemplifies what I call the ‘Big Man’ theory of history - where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation. I would prefer to believe thaf the world is constantly being remade by all its inhabitants: that it is a cooperative enterprise. Folk arts and popular arts have always been criticized because they tend to exhibit evolutionary, incremental change - because they lack sufficient ‘Big Men’ making shockingly radical and unpopular steps into the future. Instead the pop scene carries much of its audience with it - something the fine arts people are inclined to distrust: the secret question is, ‘How can it possibly be good if so many people like it?’
Of course it would be stupid to pretend that everyone’s contribution is therefore equal to every other’s, and I would never claim that. But I want to say that the reality of how culture and ideas evolve is much closer to the one we as pop musicians are liable to accept - of a continuous toing and froing of ideas and imitations and misconstruals, of things becoming thinkable because they are suddenly technically possible, of action and reaction, than the traditional fine-art model which posits an inspired individual sorting it all out for himself and then delivering it unto a largely uncomprehending and ungrateful world.
There are a few recent cultural moments where the scenius process is particularly clear: 1905-1915 in Russia; Dadaism in France; the experimental music scene in America through the late fifties and early sixties; the Anglo-American psychedelic scene of the sixties; punk in 1975-8 (the eclectic and cooperative nature of which is documented in Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming); and then perhaps something as specific as the evolution of ‘adobe style' in South Western American architecture, or even the mid to late eighties at Goldsmiths’! It could also be interesting to include some scenes that were less specifically artistic - for Instance, the history of the evolution of the Internet. In all of these sequences, there are sufficient gifted and eccentric individuals to satisfy anyone’s hero appetite, but the interesting thing is how they were fed and supported by a vigorous and diffuse cultural scene. That’s the process I would like to explore.

Available in its entirety HERE.

The (surprisingly long) history of the cut-up technique (2018)

From Austin Kleon's blog, a patchy but entertaining history of cut-up techniques applied in writing and music. It includes some examples of Caleb Whitefoord's cross-reading pieces.  


Art is everything that you don’t have to do (2015).

Art is everything that you don’t have to do.

From  the BBC Music John Peel Lecture by Brian Eno, which took place at the British Library as a part of the Radio Festival 2015.

The full transcript is HERE

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Home Life in Tokyo By Jukichi Inouye (1910)

The author of this volume set out to communicate to western readers some of the day-to-day realities of Japanese culture;
I am aware that there are already many excellent works on Japan which may be read with great profit; but as their authors are most of them Europeans or Americans, and naturally look at Japanese life and civilisation from an occidental point of view, it occurred to me that notwithstanding the super-abundance of books on Japan, a description of Japanese life by a native of the country might not be without interest.
The image shows a set of Hanafuda (literally flower-cards) which are used for games of chance that had originally became popular in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867). The full set of cards are composed of twelve suits, each of four cards, with each suit matching a month of the year. The imagery for each suit is based on a flower, tree or grass that typically blooms in that month.

Matsu (Pine - January)
Ume (Plum blossom - February)
Sakura (Cherry blossom - March)
Fuji (Wisteria - April)
Ayame (Iris - May)
Botan (Peony - June)
Hagi (Bush clover - July)
Susuki (Silver grass - August)
Kiku (Chrysanthemum - September)
Momiji (Maple - October)
Yanagi (Willow - November)
Kiri (Paulownia - December)

The Hanafuda are descended from European playing cards that were introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries and sailors. 

These cards are smaller than a typical western playing card, but they are much thicker and more visually sophisticated. Each suit incorporates cards of different ranks, indicated with coloured ribbons or cultural allusions. Reading across left to right the top-most cards are called: Crane; Nightingale; Curtain; Cuckoo; Bridge; Butterflies; Boar; Moon; Sake Cup; Deer; Rain; Phonenix. Other cards have distinctive, but almost abstract, patterns. For example, the gaji card on the bottom row for November depicts the strong storms and hurricanes of this time of the year - the black and red shapes being the stylised outline of a tornado or waterspout. This card is often used in games as a wild-card.

Although Hanafuda cards were designed in the Edo period, many of the motifs that are used make allusion to the much earlier Heian period (794 - 1185) of Japanese culture. In his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, Haruo Shirane notes that;     
With the exception of the peony, which entered the poetic canon in the Edo period, all the images are from classical poetry of the Heian period and reflect urban commoners' knowledge of the poetic and cultural associations of the months.
Some of the pairings of symbols shown on the cards are considered to be particularly harmonious; pine & crane, plum blossom & warbler, cuckoo & wisteria, and butterfly & peony.  

The Hanafuda are a concentrated visual summary of many aspects of Japanese culture. The top card of the Willow suit refers to a well known story about perseverance that features a willow, a leaping frog and the famous Heian era calligrapher Ono no Michikaze (894 - 966), one of the founders of Japanese style calligraphy. 

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: A complete set of Hanafuda cards arranged left to right in month order (January - December). The top row shows the highest value cards in each suit.


Baird, M.C. (2001). Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. Rizzoli, New York.

Shirane, H. (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. Columbia University Press. New York.

What are Computers For?

Peninsula living (2015)

Peninsula means almost-island; a tongue or languet of land that is not-quite-surrounded by water. Peninsulas are otherworldly places that are neither mainland nor island. Concatenated together, their names form a lyrical prose-poem;

Monterey, Pilio, Mols,
Anaga, Dingle, Yamal.
Baja, Pinellas,
Natkusiak, Scania, Grenen.

The Wirral peninsula is roughly rectangular, about fifteen miles long and seven wide. At high tide, three sides of the rectangle are bounded by an unbroken stretch of water incorporating the River Dee, the Irish Sea and the River Mersey. The tide dominates the weather on the peninsula to such an extent that locals talk with pride of its beneficial micro climate. Pride is a common failing of peninsula dwellers the world over.

The psycho-geography of peninsula living is in its infancy. No doubt a sensitive enough observer would discern a gradient in the psychological effect that a peninsula has on its inhabitants. Those who live at the base of the peninsula are almost main landers. Those living at its head are effectively islanders. Much further from the towns and cities of the mainland, their lives and daily rituals are dominated by the tidal rhythms of the sea. It is only in recent history that it has become easier for those at the head of a peninsula to make a journey by land than by sea.

Life at the head of a peninsula is a life in the transition zone between sea and land. Ambiguous. Disorienting. Tempting though it is to always look out, away from the mainland, a living here needs to be made from what is available on the land behind and the sea in front.

Image of Caldy Hill from HERE.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Happy New Year (2019)