Friday, February 29, 2008

Dances with vandals

Nicholoson Baker, it turns out, had an affair with Wikipedia - loving it, as you'd expect, for its dangers and eccentricities at least as much as for its merits:

This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.

He became a passionate inclusionist, as you'd also expect, but with a profusion of detail that I, at least, couldn't make up:

I found press citations and argued for keeping the Jitterbug telephone, a large-keyed cell phone with a soft earpiece for elder callers; and Vladimir Narbut, a minor Russian Acmeist poet whose second book, Halleluia, was confiscated by the police; and Sara Mednick, a San Diego neuroscientist and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life; and Pyro Boy, a minor celebrity who turns himself into a human firecracker on stage. I took up the cause of the Arifs, a Cyprio-Turkish crime family based in London (on LexisNexis I found that the Irish Daily Mirror called them "Britain's No. 1 Crime Family"); and Card Football, a pokerlike football simulation game; and Paul Karason, a suspender-wearing guy whose face turned blue from drinking colloidal silver; and Jim Cara, a guitar restorer and modem-using music collaborationist who badly injured his head in a ski-flying competition; and writer Owen King, son of Stephen King; and Whitley Neill Gin, flavored with South African botanicals; and Whirled News Tonight, a Chicago improv troupe; and Michelle Leonard, a European songwriter, co-writer of a recent glam hit called "Love Songs (They Kill Me)."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

News item

Luc Sante not only has a blog, he also has a collection of beautiful late-1960s rejection slips.

Two urban notes

1. Ken Livingstone is fortunate in having enemies who can't understand how ANYBODY could POSSIBLY like him. Such people find it difficult to make converts.

2. Postcodes of the bookshops consulted by the Evening Standard for its weekly list of "London's Bestsellers": W1, W1, SW3, NW6, WC1, SW10, N1, W8. Nothing south of the river, nothing east of the City. This may be useful in determining what the Standard generally means by "London".

The typographical totalitarianism of Barack Obama

The thing that sort of flabbergasts me as a professional graphic designer is that, somewhere along the way, they decided that all their graphics would basically be done in the same typeface, which is this typeface called Gotham. If you look at one of his rallies, every single non-handmade sign is in that font. Every single one of them. And they're all perfectly spaced and perfectly arranged. Trust me. I've done graphics for events --and I know what it takes to have rally after rally without someone saying, "Oh, we ran out of signs, let's do a batch in Arial." It just doesn't seem to happen. There's an absolute level of control that I have trouble achieving with my corporate clients.

-- Michael Bierut interviewed on the graphic design of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, at Newsweek's "Stumper" blog.

Do you think anyone's told Jonah Goldberg?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I cycled out to the Museum in Docklands today, and was surprised to find myself in the future. Here's what it looks like:

That, reader, is a wide, continuous cycle lane for segregated two-way traffic, with dedicated junctions (and, you'll notice, dedicated lights that let bikes set off before cars); in other words, a Ken Livingstone-style cycle corridor, as conceived of by the journalists who have written them up as bike motorways, superhighways, &c &c. It runs from Tower Bridge to the Isle of Dogs (Isle of Dogs to Tower Bridge in the picture above, which was taken on my way home) and it offers a fair preview of both the attractions and the disadvantages of this kind of scheme.

Plus points

1) It feels incredibly swift and non-scary. This would be a wonderfully soft introduction to cycling in London.

2) There's usually a kerb separating you from the pavement, which stops pedestrians wandering across and eliminates the live-Frogger aspect of your standard London off-road cycle path, which is either officially shared use or effectively shared-used because the only segregation is fading paint, making it slow and tricky for cyclists and scary for pedestrians.

3) It's pretty much impossible to get lost once you've found the path. None of your usual chipped-paint-splodge-to-indicate-sharp-right-down-otherwise-unmarked-side-road nonsense. This is a cycle route you can get right first time without going at walking pace or developing psychic powers.

Minus points

1) It still does the classic cycle-lane thing of forcing you to ride dangerously close to junctions, so that you can't see any traffic approaching from the side and the approaching traffic can't see you. The markings give the cycle track priority, but cars were coming through without stopping anyway; that enthusiastic novice cyclist I was imagining at point 1) above might well end up as a kebab.

2) You can definitely still get lost on your way to the main route: rejoining the track from Limehouse meant navigating a complete mess of "CYCLIST DISMOUNT" signs and apparent instructions to ride on unmarked pavement; I ended up walking my bike back up the one-way street that comes off the track to Limehouse. Ken's superhighways will only be as good as the connections to them; which, on past evidence, means not very good at all.

3) It's no use making something a cycle highway if you're going to let highway engineers treat it like a pavement. On the way back, a hefty chunk of super-cycle-route was simply closed, with no diversion marked; with no obvious place to turn off, even. The solution taken by all the cyclists I saw was simply to use the part of the road dedicated to cars, which meant cycling the wrong way up a one-way street. That was what I did, too, because there were so many people doing it that I thought at first I must have misread the markings, and I got too far to turn back. (Cycle routes in general go from being moderately helpful to catastrophically unhelpful when they have roadworks and no suggestion for a quiet way around them - and a hell of a lot of routes seem to be in that state at the moment.)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Insufficiently Scandinavian

Cheap furniture vs Donald Judd artworks, a quiz. I scored a mere 58%. My excuse: I found the link at Design Observer, which told me that the quiz was Ikea vs Donald Judd, and so I voted on the basis that anything that didn't look fully functional and maximally economical as furniture was art. In fact it's Wal-Mart vs Donald Judd. Wal-Mart, on this evidence, sells some pretty silly furniture. (Very Short List, where Design Observer found the link, got the sources right.)

Clever Perec sell

This "staff pick" card, found in an Islington bookshop, pimps A Void, Adair's virtuoso translation of La Disparition, in words that honour its famous lipogrammatical constraint. OK, so that's not a wholly original trick - a critic or two had a go at it on first publication - but it's still not a thing that many of us would think to try in such tight conditions. Bravo Adam, I say.

Why show-offs prefer hardbacks

Allow me to introduce Doomed Second-Hand Bookshop Purchase No 371, a complete paperback set of the old and now very unfashionable translation of In Search of Lost Time (£10):

What's heartening for me is that its previous owner ("Sarah Thesiger, 1970", according to the inside cover of Swann's Way I) was a spine-breaker, so that to glance along the set is to follow an enthusiasm through its gradual decline, with surrender coming somewhere towards the end of Vol II of The Captive. The careful paperback-owning pseud is advised either never to break the spine of a book, or to buy second-hand examples more thoroughly broken than this.