Archives for category: Opinion

I am a strong proponent of minimalism. Particularly when it comes to web design. If you asked me, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with compelling aesthetic arguments as to why I prefer minimalist design. I just do. I like the absence of clutter. Minimalism done right gives me just the information that I want and nothing more. And that’s very different from giving me just the information I asked for and nothing more. Computer systems are quite adept at that second request. But as with many things, when making requests of computer systems often I ask the wrong questions. The computer is glad to give me what I asked for but not necessarily what I wanted. I believe good design should employ the art of intuitive anticipation along with the removal of distractions: potential, actual or hypothetical.

So it was with these ideas in my head that I set about looking for a new theme for our blog. Yes, this very blog you are currently reading. (Thank you for that, by the way.) When I decided upon the Wu Wei theme by Jeff Ngan and began showing it to my friends, I got several comments about how I was in love with minimalism. And while I don’t believe I am a particularly vocal evangelist of minimalism, I do recognize my own predisposition toward its use. And in those moments that I work on my own ideas of design, it comes out. I like the Helvetica font. My computers all have plain black backgrounds, without images or ornamentation. I try to think about minimizing clutter, and a consistency of look and feel. As I said, I hadn’t vocalized this in any particularly concrete way. It was just a set of preferences I had arrived at over time. So when the responses came to me, reminding me externally of a conversation I had only sporadically had with myself internally, I rejoined.

Yes! More minimalism!

And then I was immediately struck by the humor of such a statement. Minimalism, this movement in visual design where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. And I wanted more of it. Smokes suggested that it would make a great slogan for a t-shirt: make the word “more” really small, and the word “minimalism” really big. You can never get too much irony, right?

I sat on the idea for a few days, and then decided to give it a try. This morning I got out a piece of paper and a pencil, sketched a few ideas and then fired up Photoshop. Pretty soon, Smokes and I were exchanging ideas and I kept making new iterations on the design. Again, this was more of a learning exercise in trying to get my mind around Photoshop CS5 than an attempt at a career change. So without further ado, I present my iterations of “More Minimalism”.

Opinions welcome in the comments.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dragonfly Macro I celebrated my fortieth birthday with my family in Door County today. I am resisting the temptation to scribe something particularly moving or insightful about this event. I might attempt to develop a full rhetoric in defense of eudaimonia. However, Aristotle has already expertly articulated the ethics of a life in pursuit of happiness. I won’t expand upon his treatment except to comment on the soundness of his guidance and remark on my renewed agreement with the path. Aristotle argues for a definition of happiness as active virtue in concert with reason: living and doing well. Happiness is not a passive state; it is an active pursuit. A goal to strive for, rather than a reward to passively receive. This approach is the correct one. And this approach results in a life of choice continually made.

In a related but perhaps more culturally relevant reference to this choice — or at least a reference to a piece of work from this decade and not two millennium ago — I’ve had the song “Times Like These” by the Foo Fighters in my mind over the last several days. This stanza, a reference to the Hüsker Dü album New Day Rising, particularly resonates with me on this day.

I am a new day rising.
I’m a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight.

Hello, Adoring Fans! It’s Steph here once again for another evening of live blogging. It’s Oscar night, and a tradition at the Warehouse to watch the pageant of contemporary popular culture and eat round candy. Last year we added a blogging element to the festivities. A few weeks ago I was joined by several friends in live blogging the Golden Globe awards. Our cast of commentators has returned this evening and expanded to include one more. Joining me tonight we have Bingo, Smokes, niqui, Bitsy, and Princess.

The six of us will be adding our thoughts, comments, retractions and unfounded speculations to the spectacle that is the 82nd annual Academy Awards ceremony presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Kodak Theater. Red carpet coverage begins at 6:00 pm CST. Hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin open the show at 7:30. Join us.

The Barbara Walters Special preceding the Oscars includes interviews with Sandra Bullock and Mo’Nique. Walters has announced that this year’s special will be the last one. She’s done the interview for 29 years.

Read the rest of this entry »

(Mark J.Terrill/AP Photo)

Hi All! It’s Steph here for the evening. After the rousing success of the live-blogging of the 2009 Oscar Awards I’m back to share thoughts about the first Golden Globe awards of the new decade. I’m joined this evening by four other contributors. Bingo is a would-be photojournalist with a particular penchant for inappropriate remarks and unfounded skepticism. If you were to imagine a time and place where everything were pure, and the laughter of children would fill the air like the music of angels, Smokes would be the boy clawing at the walls until his fingers bleed — then he would start biting. Only occasionally susceptible to fixation, niqui is a connoisseuse of the finer things in life, like cult TV, Scotch whiskey, and various things to be done with string. Bitsy is queen of all she surveys.

The five of us will be adding our insights into the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat wrought by those hard-hearted journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Red carpet coverage begins at 6:00 pm CST. Ricky Gervais opens the awards at 7:00. Join us.

Read the rest of this entry »

My friend L Cubed challenged me to put together a list of films for 2009. I took him up on the challenge. I don’t mean this to be my list of the best films of 2009. Rather it is a list of the films I quite enjoyed. I find myself talking about them and referring to them in subsequent conversation. They’re not necessarily even films that premiered in 2009. A number of these films were released last year, and one was released in 2004. These are films I saw this year. That’s my criteria for consideration: I saw the film in 2009, I enjoyed the film, I’ve talked about it with someone since viewing it.

The list is heavily skewed toward the fantastical: science fiction, fantasy, horror. While I enjoy those genres a great deal, I was somewhat surprised at the dominance in the list. Self-reflection may be good for something after all, I suppose. Perhaps this is telling me I enjoy the feeling of escape those genres can produce. But enough pop-psychoanalysis. Here is my list, presented in the order of viewing.

30 Days of Night : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
The first of several vampire stories I enjoyed this year: a comic-book adaptation set in Barrow, Alaska. Thirty days without sunlight is an awfully long time for the undead to cause havoc.

Shine A Light : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Film icon shoots rock legends: Martin Scorsese captures the Rolling Stones at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Everything about this works: the music, the historical footage, the documentary work, the lights, the cameras, the egos.

Primer : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Completed on a $7000 budget over three years. Primer is a triumph. It combines a simplicity in effects, an acknowledgment of the audience as rational beings, and a fundamental device of science fiction: time travel. The result is brilliant.

Cloverfield : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
J.J. Abrams’ skillful update of the classic Godzilla story is at once straightforward and shot at an angle. This is a study in taking a classic story and adapting it to be your own.

Teeth : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Smart, original and frighteningly funny. This is great black-comedy horror. Again, very low on special effects. The story drives the story.

Watchmen : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Zack Snyder completes what Terry Gilliam said was “unfilmable”. With last year’s The Dark Knight, Watchmen decisively settled the question as to whether comic-book movies can successfully transcended a cult sub-genre. Watchmen proves that films adapted from comic-books can be serious, successful, powerful works in their own right. Despite anything Alan Moore has to say about it.

Let the Right One In : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his novel by the same name to the screenplay for this breathtaking and intelligent interpretation of the vampire myth.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
The beautiful film adaptation of the deeply personal book by the same name written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Since my brain injury I have looked for voices and means of expression of what I went through and continue to carry with me. This is one such voice.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
With the death of Dumbledore, this chapter is the tipping point of the Harry Potter story.

District 9 : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Science-fiction has long been used as a vehicle to talk about real issues. District 9 effectively combines story, character, setting, effects and narrative into something quite compelling.

In Bruges : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
Carefully crafted and well executed, this black comedy follows two hitmen in hiding in the extremely photogenic town of Bruges, Belgium. This is another film where story and characters trump action and special effects. And I’ve always been a fan of Brendan Gleeson.

Avatar : Netflix | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes
I know, I know. The plot is pedestrian. The villains are one-dimensional. — The film is brilliant. With Avatar, James Cameron marks a watershed moment in film production.

Read the rest of this entry »

I first came across the term “option paralysis” in the spring of 1992 while reading Douglas Coupland‘s first novel, Generation X. I thought it was brilliant insight at the time. The intervening eighteen years have only reconfirmed my opinion. Coupland included dozens of neologisms in the book’s page margins. Most of the remain thought-provoking and relevant to me today. And I continue to find humor in the irony embedded in many of them. Some of my favorites include:

  • Option Paralysis : The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.
  • Musical Hairsplitting : The act of classifying music and musicians into pathologically picayune categories: “The Vienna Franks are a good example of urban white acid folk revivalism crossed with ska.”
  • Knee-Jerk Irony : The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation.
  • Obscurism : The practice of peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular books, defunct countries, etc.) as a means of showcasing one’s education and one’s wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture.
  • Status Substitution : Using an object with intellectual or fashionable cachet to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: “Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother’s BMW.”
  • Ultra Short Term Nostalgia : Homesickness for the extremely recent past: “God, things seemd so much better in the world last week.”

In 2005, Barry Schwartz gave a TED Talk titled “The Paradox of Choice.” While I doubt he is referred to Douglas Coupland directly, it appears to me as if Schwartz expanded the idea of option paralysis from Coupland’s nine curt words into a nineteen minute talk. Schwartz explored the sociological ramifications of the central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. I found it fascinating. When scanning the reactions and comments I think Schwartz is unfairly criticized for the talk being entirely negative with regards to options. The fulcrum lies almost eight minutes into the talk after Schwartz has introduced the topic and is about to head into the meat of the criticism. He says:

So everywhere we look, big things and small things, material things and lifestyle things, life is a matter of choice. And the world we used to live in looked like this. That is to say, there were some choices, but not everything was a matter of choice. And the world we now live in looks like this. And the question is, is this good news, or bad news? And the answer is yes.

During this section he produces two slides: cartoons from the New Yorker. The first — the summary of world we used to live in — is a cartoon of Moses holding the tablets, addressing the multitude: “Well, actually, they are written in stone.” The second — the summary of the world we live in now — is cartoon of blank tablets, hammer and chisel by its side: “The Ten Commandments Do-It-Yourself Kit.” The cartoons both illustrate his point and provide some levity. Watch the talk yourself to get the full effect.

The counterpoint I want to make to those who criticize the talk as entirely negative with respect to choice. I want to emphasize the last two sentences of that transitional paragraph: is freedom of choice good or bad? The answer is yes. Schwartz’ premise is that freedom of choice is both a positive and a negative force in our lives. He starts into his critique with the statement, “We all know what’s good about it, so I’m going to talk about what’s bad about it.” There’s room to criticize him somewhat for the reluctance to underline the benefits, but he is on a pretty short leash in terms of time for the talk and I think his premise of freedom of choice as a basic beneficial tenet of modern industrialized Western society is correct. We don’t need to hear that part. We know it to be true. And that’s where Schwartz wants to challenge us.

Schwartz goes on for the next ten minutes giving succinct, compelling arguments about how choice has contributed to a form of social paralysis. He draws anecdotes from a number of sources: his experience buying a new pair of jeans, the adoption rate of employer matching monies in mutual fund, a psychology of value based on comparison.

The entire talk is filled with humor. Schwartz is an effective speaker. And like so many good TED talks, his speech transcends that platform of humorous rhetoric to provide voice to a critical big idea. As a society we may take freedom of choice as an unquestioned good. I think it is important to occasionally ask ourselves the question: is it? is it really?

Marina City, IBM Tower, Trump TowerIt is very difficult to live in Chicago and not recognize the name Daniel Burnham. We have Burnham Harbor, Hotel Burnham, Burnham Park. There is a yacht club and an elementary school named after him. His name is associated with a number of signature Chicago buildings: the Rookery, the Monadnock, and the Fischer Building are but a few that I particularly respect. Burnham led the team of architects and landscapers that put together the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. His efforts spearheaded the construction and successful operation of the White City — an event that brought Chicago back from the ashes of the devistating fire just over twenty years earlier.

And in 1909 Burnham and his co-author Edward H. Bennett published “The Plan of Chicago.” The plan was the first of its kind: a broad view of the city to organize its design, its look and its structure. The 1909 Plan of Chicago marked the birth of the field of city planning. If you live in the city, it is impossible not to be aware of the plan’s impact: the open lakefront, the grid progression of streets and arterial boulevards, the outer park structure, civic and cultural centers.

2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Burnham Plan. As such a number of exhibits and events have been developed to celebrate the Burnham Plan Centennial. One of these exhibits is the Chicago Model City, presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation in the Atrium Gallery of the Santa Fe Building, 224 South Michigan Avenue. The exhibit tells the stories behind the planning of Chicago and presents those whose decisions transformed Chicago.

LaSalle Street CanyonThe centerpiece of Chicago Model City is a 320 square-foot model of the Loop, Near North Side and Near South Side. It includes more than 1000 buildings. But the exhibit is more than just the breathtaking model. There are five sections to the exhibition: Global City, Connected City, Green City, Beautiful City and New City. For each of these themes the Foundation attempts to answer these four questions:

What did the planners see?
What did the planners imagine?
What was the plan?
What happened to the plan?

What is fascinating to me about this exhibition is how the presentation provides a much needed element of reflection upon the full meaning of Burnham’s often repeated quote: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Plans are good; plans are often necessary. Plans provide a framework of accessibility, understanding. Plans provide structure. The challenge that I find myself facing over and over again is to balance the benefits of planning against the vagaries of change. Flexibility, adaptability. Contention with the unforeseen. The survivability of plans once conceived and implemented in the world.

Soldier Field West ColonnadeAs tempted as I am to trot out a series of cliched statements about the benefits and detriments of plans or the lack thereof, I’m going to forego that tact. Instead I’m going to encourage you to visit Chicago Model City for yourself and allow the perspective of a hundred years of modern culture on a large scale to shape your own thoughts on the subject. I initially visited the exhibition to photograph it. I have collected several architectural photographs of Chicago over the years, and I was intrigued by the chance to try and capture these buildings in miniature. But as I reflect on the larger missions of both the Burnham Plan and the centennial I find more interesting, more personal perspectives than those gleaned solely through the camera lens.

I’ve written some about my college education. I attended Wabash College from the fall of 1988 until I graduated in the spring of 1992 with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in philosophy and German. Wabash College is a liberal arts college for men. Wabash’s curriculum is designed to impart general knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. More importantly, the curriculum is designed to foster independent inquiry, critical thought, and clear expression both oral and written. To read purposefully, think critically, and write effectively.

I have relied on this educational foundation in everything I have accomplished since college. More than any particular formula, anecdote or algorithm these principles have served me well. I believe in the liberal arts and I defend them as a true and valued principle of higher education: increasingly necessary in a more complicated, connected world.

I came across Liz Coleman‘s recent TED Talk, “Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education” in the past week. Coleman presents a powerful dissection of the state of higher education and revival of the power and necessity of the liberal arts. I was overjoyed. Liz Coleman is the president of Bennington College. In the mid-1990s she deployed a radical plan to reinvent the college and the liberal arts the college entrusts.

The complaint: “Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the sole model of intellectual accomplishment.”

A solution: Develop a framework of higher education as an active pursuit — a performing art for public good. Include rhetoric, design, meditation, improvisation, and quantitative reasoning alongside the canon of traditional topics. On technology she reminds us that we must acknowledge that the more powerful our reach of our voices the more important the question “About what?”

Specialization obfuscates problems. Specialization constructs a world of silos: people working alongside one another never fully realizing the interconnectedness of what each other does. Specialization creates a world of blinders, or worse yet a world of the blind leading the uninterested. To this end I found this statement one of Coleman’s most powerful:

“The most important discovery we made in our focus on public action was to appreciate that the hard choices are not between good and evil but between competing goods. This discovery is transforming. It undercuts self-righteousness, radically alters the tone and character of controversy, and enriches dramatically the possibility for finding common ground. Idolatry, zealotry, unsubstantiated opinions simply won’t do. This is a political education to be sure. But it is a politics of principle not of partisanship. [….] We the people have become inured to our own irrelevance when it comes to doing anything significant about anything that matters concerning governance, beyond waiting another four years. [….] The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

I am encouraged to hear such a powerful appreciation for the generalist, for the soundness of the liberal arts, updated with a call to public action. For too long our culture has turned introverted to the point of selfishness and conceded the spheres of philanthropy, charity and welfare to religion. And perhaps more importantly than concern for our fellow man, but the concession of even thinking about the larger interconnectedness of systems. Particularly as they impact concepts such as justice, equity and truth.

I came across Coleman’s talk just a day after reading the following line from F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and maybe a week before my own birthday. Birthday’s and New Years Day are two moments that bring out a particularly strong tendency toward introspection and self-evaluation: “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

Grr! Argh!I had an engaging conversation today about the rapid adoption of social media phenoms: Facebook and Twitter. This was more than just a discussion of the fantastic rates of adoption these two sites have enjoyed. We talked at length about their ubiquity and utility. As more and more people I know have begun using these services, I have come under increasing pressure to join them. I haven’t. That may sound egotistical or misanthropic — a tried and true (and tired) way to reassert my “dark and mysterious” demeanor in an increasingly over-exposed world.

I don’t mean it that way.

I have a long history of adopting technology ahead of the curve. And again this may sound like bragging or elitism. My way of saying that I was country before country was cool. Fine. What I’m trying to explain is my methodology for adoption of new technology. I’m not a technological explorer — tinkering with new technologies just for the sake of discovery. I want to have a purpose in mind. I separate art from craft, poiesis from techne. My primary criteria for this separation is utility. Technology serves a purpose. It has a function. It does something. When a given technology proves that its utility exceeds its cost, I adopt it.

I see Twitter as another communication model, the latest of many that have followed since the model for a computer has shifted from a computing device to a communication device. Mobile computing has accelerated this transition dramatically. But absent a compelling reason to use this tool to communicate over any of the other well-established ones I already enjoy, Twitter is an empty vessel, lacking real utilitarian value.

I find Facebook an empty activity in its own right — sociological navel-gazing at best. A pass-time on par with a Saturday afternoon filled with John Woo movies or an MTV marathon of “The Real World.” At worst it is an unfortunate reconnection with a past that by all rights I buried in the past.

Facebook is the Sims but with real people.

So far I have not seen the compelling use-case argument for either of these media. Spreadsheets, email, wikis, digital photography: these passed my arbitrary utility test with ease. Blogs, instant messaging, and cellular phones had a more arduous time of convincing me. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter remind me that I am rapidly becoming a middle-aged member of Generation X. I was born into the Space Age, not the Internet Age. In terms of the Internet culture, I am Issei, rather than Nisei.

And I am in awe at how radically the society changes with such generational influence.

Steph here. John K. suggested we live blog the Oscars this year and since I’ve never live blogged, I thought it seemed like an interesting thing to do. So, here goes. The Oscars 2009.

All times listed below are Central Standard Time (CST), because that’s our territory.

6:59pm: The sound just went out on our television, so this has potential to be the quietest Oscar eve… oh, there, it’s back. Disaster averted.

7:00pm: Robin Roberts informs us that “the excitement is starting on the red carpet,” so I prepare appropriately by fluffing my pillow. She and Tim Gunn are hosting this embarrassment.

First up, Kate Winslet. Her hair looks pretty cool – nice and sleek. The dress is gray and I’m reminded of elephants, which I like. So, I guess that means I like her dress. She’s thankful she’s not tripping. Sadly, I wish I was.

Read the rest of this entry »