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Do As I Say, Say As I Do

The word or the act—which came first? To do something and then speak of it later is to describe. To utter a statement and make it so is to create.

And God said, "Let there be light": and there was light.... And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
God created and Adam added the tags. Myths and parables, but highly descriptive of the human condition. Even that phrase, descriptive of the human condition, which is further evidence that the Bible was composed by human and not divine hand, presents a quandary: If god had to say it before it was so, didn't he already in effect name light as the prelude to its creation? It would follow that he did the same for the fowl and beasts he created but supposedly left for Adam to name, no?

It's in that dichotomy, between description and creation, that the fundamental basis of the notion I espouse—the fusion of librarianship and design practices—might be fatally flawed, because the act of design is the act of creation. It is the act of stretching the bounds of people's expectations to provide them things they never thought of before, but once given, could never again imagine living without. (Or, to paraphrase Henry Ford, if he'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse.)

The role of the librarian, on the other hand, is to describe. Much like the journalist, the lexicographer, or the historian, the librarian is an archivist, a recorder and guardian of some segment of our collective knowledge. The librarian is by definition a describer after the act.

However, this rabbit hole doesn't end there, because if we consider the nature of language and the fact that its structures—its grammar and punctuation, its diction and word order, even its alphabet—help to form, refine, and limit our behaviors and thought patterns, then it would follow that even in our descriptions, we're predefining the things that we have created and have yet to create.

So, do the principles of design still apply to librarianship?


The Derivative of Beauty Is...

Sunday's Boston Globe has an interesting article about a new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, "Splendor and Elegance," and the owner of the pieces exhibited, the applied economist Horace Brock. Brock is an avid collector of European decorative arts and, apparently, has fine taste. He also has tried to quantify his taste by applying mathematical principles to forms that are traditionally and commonly thought of as beautiful.

Brock contributed an essay to the exhibit catalog that outlines his argument, which Globe staffer Sebastian Smee describes:

Designed objects, Brock writes, can be broken down into "themes" and "transformations." A theme is a motif, such as an S-curve; a transformation might see that curve appear elsewhere in the design, but stretched, rotated 90 degrees, mirrored, or otherwise reworked.

Aesthetic satisfaction comes from an apprehension of how those themes and transformations relate to each other, or of what Brock calls their "relative complexity." Basically—and this is the nub of it—"if the theme is simple, then we are most satisfied when its echoes are complex . . . and vice versa."
There are two key points about design that Brock’s theory seems to completely miss. First, the overworn but still valid maxim: “Form follows function.” If a chair isn’t comfortable, people won’t use it no matter how empirically beautiful. If a breathtakingly stunning concert hall has awful acoustics, music lovers will grow to hate it.

Second, designed objects are, well, designed. They are intended to fulfill a purpose (see point #1 above). As such they exert a certain influence over us and how we work, play, and behave. In other words, designed objects condition us. The designed objects of today prepare us for the design breakthroughs of tomorrow. And I can’t help but think that this conditioning subverts any supposedly universal and mathematically proven sense of beauty, at least just a little.


Thinking Outside of the Blocks

One of the 2009 TED conference presentations that is making a splash was delivered by MIT grad student David Merrill, who demoed Siftables, a new form of interactive device developed by Taco Lab. They're a little difficult to describe, so you should watch the seven-minute presentation yourself. I dare you not to be amazed.

Of course, the first thing that struck me about this design was the level of play that is baked into it. They beg to be fondled, and their simplicity means never needing to read a user manual. After all, who hasn't played with blocks at some point in her life? Then again, my blocks never did the kinds of things Siftables are capable of.

The more I thought about it, though, the more of a sense of déjà vu I felt. It seemed both so new yet so familiar. Then I remembered something I'd posted here back in the blog's infancy. What's so wonderful about Taco Lab's design is how much simpler, elegant, and childlike it is. Yet like all thing so seemingly simple and obvious, it conceals great power.

Imagine what could happen if/once app developers get their hands on the kernel to program something like these blocks or whatever other devices spawn from their development. The future of digital devices is hidden somewhere in Siftables.


Sexy People

My friend Peter made me so happy this morning by pointing me to this site. Nothing else to say, because words would just ruin it.

Update: More pictures worth a thousand words—or a hundred thousand.


It's Like a Short Story Idea Generator

Anonymity is simultaneously one of the banes and blessings of the Internet. Some, such as political dissidents, use it to denounce tyranny while protecting themselves and their families from reprisals. Some cowards hide behind it to take pot shots at others that they are too weak to own up to. Whether you consider the anonymous cowards or dissidents depends on their context and your perspective.

One way Web anonymity is sometimes used is as an outlet for our demons and dirty laundry. SecretTweet enables anyone to anonymously post to Twitter. Reading through the posts, it's easy to understand why they already have around 12,000 followers on Twitter. The topic tag cloud is a catalog of raw human angst and emotion: politics, friendship, friend, debt, weight, work, church, parents, abuse, depression, affair, virgin, Love, job, pain, loss, wife, dating, loneliness, Friends, lonely, money, ex, life, health.

Posts are occasionally funny: "I think little richard is creepy as hell." Some are sexy: "We had sex on your sofa." Most rip the heart right out of you: "Your early dementia is killing me faster than it is killing you." Yet all of them are compelling because we, like the posters, are vulnerable and voyeuristic and exhibitionistic. In other words, all too human.

Hollywood Gets Better at Predicting Future

Less than a week after a Continental Airlines plane crashed into an Upstate New York home in a manner prefigured by the cult classic Donnie Darko, we learn from The Silicon Alley Insider that until recently IBM had a patent for a suit of armor that enabled the wearer to dodge bullets Neo-style.

I guess IBM pulled the patent once they realized that being thrashed around by a robotic suit trying to dodge bullets would break your neck and just as surely kill you as the bullets themselves.

Why Not Just Go to the Library?

The Andrew Vanacore of the AP reports that America's sour economy might provide an opportunity for otherwise dying dial-up Internet providers. Vanacore states:

Pew [Internet & American Life Project] estimates the average monthly bill for broadband users came to $34.50 in 2008. That means for the year, a NetZero subscriber [who pays $9.95 a month] would save nearly $300.
What Vanacore misses, though, is that we've gotten used to the higher connection speeds of broadband and all of the multimedia benefits they bring. Many people cannot imagine living without music or video downloads or the ability to send large attachments with email—all of which effectively cease as options with dial-up. More importantly, people have gotten use to such options being available to them at home whenever they want.

I grant that to some frugality—or even a more fundamental need to eat and pay rent—might trump the need for instant-entertainment access. But then why not just get rid of Internet access altogether, use your local library's computers and high-speed access, and save the additional $120 a year? With library attendances across the nation hitting record numbers and still on the rise, I suspect that's precisely what the public is doing.


Books Are the Reason I Am Poor

Alastair Harper gives the lie to the current popular consensus that somehow books are better for us and the children than newer media, such as video games.

Although he wrongly asserts in the Guardian's Books Blog that a "book is as neutral as any container"—all media contain inherent biases that force us to think and view the world in a certain manner—he rightly observes that no lifelong bookworm he's ever known spends "weekends rolling in little pits of money in penthouses."

And as for the supposed moral superiority of books:

[B]efore I started reading, I was a rather subservient, slow little boy who never really did anything wrong, but never did much right either. Books inspired me to be very naughty indeed; and, with the simple moral logic of youth, I perceived them to be on my side, not authority's, which was what made me want to read them.