Tag Archives: lifestyle

The Evolution of Useful Things

by Henry Petroski

What really stands out for me in this book is Petroski’s assertion that form does not follow function. In the author’s words, “Here I have focused not on the physical failings of any single thing but, rather, on the implications of failure–whether physical, functional, cultural, or psychological–for form generally. This extended essay, which may be read as a refutation of the design dictum that ‘form follows function,’ has led to considerations that go beyond things themselves to the roots of the often ineffable creative processes of invention and design.”


“We can find fault with any common object if we look hard enough at it. But that is not Pye’s goal, nor is it this book’s intention. Rather, the objective here is to celebrate the clever and everyday things of an imperfect world as triumphs in the face of design adversity. We will come to understand why we can speak of ‘perfected’ designs in such an environment, and why one thing follows from another through successive changes, all intended to be for the better.”

How to define design? “The distinctly human activities of invention, design, and development are themselves not so distinct as the separate words for them imply, and in their use of failure these endeavors do in fact form a continuum of activity that determines the shapes and forms of every made object.”

An example of something which will not, for the present discussion, qualify as design:

“To design or ‘redesign’ a chess set may involve some minor considerations of weight and balance in the pieces, but more often than not it is taken as a problem in aesthetics. And in the name of aesthetics many a chess set has been made more modern- or abstract-looking, if not merely different-looking, at the expense of chess players’ ability to tell the queen from the king or the knight from the bishop. Such design games are of little concern in this book.”

Fair enough. And he shares with me a love of a beautiful bookshelf:

“The typical book is now ‘perfect-bound,’ which means that its sheets are folded in signatures as before but not sewn. Rather, the signatures are gathered and stacked, and trimmed all around to a boxlike shape. Containing no thread in its folds, the stack of paper does not bulge at the spine, and so does not have to be rounded. Instead, it is ground to a rough finish, the better to receive an adhesive similar to the stuff that holds pads of paper together. This procedure was first used in binding cheap paperbacks and has now been almost universally adapted to even the most expensive hardcovers, to the dismay of many an author, reader and bibliophile. In spite of its name, perfect binding has great failings, not the least of which is that a book so bound is often badly misshapen after a single reading. The modern bookshelf is thus characterized not by a neat ripple of round-ended volumes but by a jagged surface of creased spines. When seen on end, once-read perfect-bound books are sadly skewed reminders of how form follows fortune. Even if this may be to the myopic delight of manufacturers, it can certainly be to the dismay of those who have a sense of form.”

There was some really fascinating discussion of eating utensils, and how we in the west came to eat with a fork and knife… rather than with just a knife and our fingers. But then how many tines are necessary on a fork? And does one eat ice cream with a fork? And what is a fish knife? Why won’t a regular dinner knife do when eating a fish? How much of this is fashion versus truly functional design? Petroski will sort it out for you. But again, one of the points he means to make is that the knife and fork are not the only solution to moving food to our mouths that humans have evolved. In the east, there are chopsticks, a very different solution indeed. Both forms provide the functionality needed for eating.

However, our opinions might diverge when it comes to the intersection of designed objects (technologies) and evolution:

“From a certain point of view, prehistoric life was all well and good enough for prehistoric man and woman. Indeed, the artifacts and technology then in existence played a large part in defining the nature of the era. By definition, prehistoric tools and ways were (perfectly?) adequate for getting along in the prehistoric world. The argument that technological advances were necessary to advance civilization is at best a tautology and at worst akin to the myth that necessity is the mother of invention.”

Really? Where is the horse and where is the cart, here? I can state with a certain degree of assurance that the horse came first. Then some human designer had a bright idea…

Category: design | Tags: , ,

Teaching a Stone to Talk

by Annie Dillard

Dillard is an author I’ve been aware of but never before read. This was a fine introduction. She reminds me of a cross between Diane Ackerman and John Berger. Or maybe Jeanette Winterson mixed with John Armstrong. Carefully observed nature and equally carefully chosen words result in little lessons in how a life might be productively led.

“The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived, for the Amazon basin, which covers half a continent, and for the life that–there, like anywhere else–is always and necessarily lived in detail: on the tributaries, in the riverside villages, sucking this particular white-fleshed guava in this particular pattern of shade.”

Descriptions of the Galapagos Islands lead to musings on the world closer at hand, retaining a whiff of Darwin – or is it Diamond?:

“Geography is life’s limiting factor…The rocks shape life like hands around swelling dough. In Virginia, the salamanders vary from mountain ridge to mountain ridge; so do the fiddle tunes the old men play. All this is because it is hard to move from mountain to mountain. These are not merely anomalous details. This is what life is all about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars. No mountains and one salamander, one fiddle tune, would be a lesser world. No continents, no fiddlers. No possum, no sop, no taters. The earth, without form, is void.”

Category: essays | Tags: , , ,

Designers are Wankers

by Lee McCormack

I don’t know about that. But the author of this book is certainly a wanker. He’s aiming pretty low with this stuff, although to be fair, the sleeve clearly states that this is a book for those entering the profession… basically just-graduated newbies. McCormack wants to teach them the practical aspects of the design profession, the business side of things, or at least, how to deal with those on the business side.

But first of all, maybe he could define the design profession. Because he never explicitly states it, but gradually we become aware that he is talking about industrial/product design. Sure, there are aspects that any designer – graphic, web, magazine, etc. – can benefit from. But only if they don’t know much at all! Here’s McCormack’s view of his target audience:

“Being a designer, or being creative in any way, seems to make this transition [from education to the workforce] even harder than usual. You are at a disadvantage when it comes to relating to the needs of industry because studying creativity actively takes you away from it. You are emotional, insider, idealistic, ambitious, intelligent and thoughtful, but have little grasp of what makes industry tick. You are pumped up with ideas that can change the world, holding the view that no-one else seems to understand where it’s all going or how good it could be. Creative personalities like designers tend to be almost child-like…when making the leap into the professional design business, the designer can find it a struggle to relate to more mundane, financial or business aspects.”

McCormack’s first advice is to adapt the business mindset:

“It is important to apply the business mindset to design. The business mind then becomes a yardstick for measuring the design. That is not to say that it is the only yardstick by which a design can be measured–there are, of course, others, such as its purpose, its relevance, its relationship with other design, its commercial success, the ability to manufacture and distribute the product, and whether people are receptive to it.”

Er, okay…

“It’s important to be able to understand the business mind. The business mind is always looking at the broader picture. The business mind has to account for all the factors surrounding an idea. The business mind has a measure of detachment from its work. It gives a project a sense of purpose and realism and often applies a logic that well-read people who aren’t designers don’t always consider.”

Am I really reading this? The assumed reader is a college graduate, right?!

One of his key pieces of advice for budding designers is to develop their own style:

“Try to find out what your own style is. Look through your work and notice the common threads that run through it. This may just be he starting point of something you can develop. When you find your vibe, look at it, explore it, play with it; it will become your asset. It will become the unique offering that separates you from everybody lee, and it will be something you can rely on in the future. You shouldn’t feel stuck to it, however; let it evolve and develop naturally using your experiences of life and how you relate to the world around you. Ask yourself these questions:

What are you interested in?
What do you believe in?
What are you searching for?
What are you trying to create?
What is the point?”

Maybe it’s just my jaded and bitter mature self that finds all of this very obvious and trite. Perhaps if I’d read the book when I was just starting out, it would’ve made me a better designer, or a better freelancer at the very least. But I’ve learned the hard way? And if I recognize all of this as true and obvious, then, well, so it is. And the younger designers may benefit. And I’m a wanker.

Category: design, training | Tags: , ,

Dog Man

by Martha Sherrill

This book was recommended to me by more than one person I met at the dog park. As an Akita owner, it seemed like a must-read. Dog Man chronicles the life of Morie Sawataishi, who more or less single-handedly saved the breed from extinction in WWII-era Japan. Under the duress of wartime, the dogs were eaten for meat, and their fur used to line soldiers’ coats. It was illegal to own them, and all most all of Japan’s Akitas had been rounded up. The Akita had already been mixed with a few foreign breeds, such as Mastiffs and German Shepherds, to introduce greater size and strength when dog-fighting became popular in the years earlier. Then, when WWII broke out, some Akita owners deliberately mixed their dogs with German Shepherds, which were spared from the war effort because they were valued as service dogs.

I learned quite a bit more about the Akita breed, including how the split between Japanese and American Akitas came to be: Two particular dogs were born in postwar Japan who embodied the characteristics of two different bloodlines. One was from the city of Akita and the other from the city of Odate. There was something of a rivalry between the two areas to produce the best dogs. Kongo, from Odate, was a large, barrel-chested dog who had some traits that were associated with foreign dogs with which the Akita had been earlier bred. Goromaru, from Akita, was longer-legged, and not as stocky as Kongo. His face was rounder, as opposed to the longer, slightly more Shepherd-like face of Kongo. And where Kongo had loose skin, Goromaru’s was tight. It happened that Goromaru’s owner was a glamorous former actress, and as a result this dog was widely seen and admired across Japan. He came to the attention of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after WWII, and they too liked what they saw. As a result, the Dewa line of Akitas which he represented were acquired and taken back to the United States. It also happened that the two Akitas that Helen Keller acquired were both from Kongo lines, which made these dogs all the more desirable to the Americans in Japan. This was the origin of the difference between the modern American and Japanese Akitas.

In Japan, these two champion dogs, so different in appearance, became the rallying cry for the standardization of the breed. It was the Ichinoseki line exemplified by Goromaru which was chosen to exemplify the original and true characteristics of the Japanese Akita. Morie was involved at this fundamental level, as an owner and breeder who showed his dogs in many competitions, winning more often than not. Dog Man is structured by the succession of dogs that Morie owned, each defining a portion of his life, while at the same time re-establishing the breed that he loved more than anything. In tandem with a few other men who owned Akita dogs, with whom he crossed his own, Morie sought to return the breed to its old snow-country origins. He saw that in the wake of the sudden, incredible demand for Akita dogs driven by American servicemen, puppy mills were springing up all over the country, and many of the people involved were only interested in making money, not in producing sound, healthy dogs with true characteristics of the breed.

Morie had ample opportunity to do the same, but amazingly, never accepted money for one of his dogs:

“Kitako [Morie’s wife] encouraged him to sell a few puppies now and again, even to simply offset the costs of his dog habit, but Morie resisted. Every time he tried to put a price on one of his dogs, he felt uneasy. He had only one litter a year, sometimes two, and he liked to see the puppies go off to people he knew and respected. He might repay a favor or a vague social debt by giving away a puppy, and he didn’t mind making an instant friend, either, but when he thought about selling a dog to a total stranger–or taking cash for a puppy–something inside him was revolted.”

Breeding was not easy, either, because at this point there was so much other blood in the Akita line:

“Every dog had an atmosphere of its own, and a look, and a balance of qualities as well as vulnerabilities and mannerisms that Morie found fascinating. Sometimes when he admired a dog’s strengths, he tried to imagine what would happen if it were bred with one of his own. People who’ve never done it tend to imagine dog breeding is simple. But Morie spent untold hours contemplating the possibilities–always hopeful and excited. Life was full of mystery and magic, and risks. Genetics most of all. If you put two dogs from the same established breed together, they would reproduce themselves almost perfectly. But if you put two Akitas together, the force of the unknown took over. Beneath the obvious traits of each Akita, there were dozens of hidden ones waiting to come to the surface.”

What was he looking for?

“‘I always wanted to breed confident dogs,’ he says. He looked for energy and endurance, a ruggedness and competitive spirit… a dog with a strong will, a vigorous dog with kisho.”

After winning many, many prizes in the show ring with various dogs, Morie decided to train one of his dogs, Samurai Tiger, to hunt. They began with duck hunting, and then rabbits and pheasants. Eventually, together with his mountain man friend Uesugi, Morie took Tiger bear hunting.

“Uesugi always said that when you stood face-to-face with a bear, it brought out the true nature of a dog and the true nature of a man.”

“Even though some of the old legends about Akitas describe them hunting in pairs, Morie never hunted with more than one dog. He found that his dogs tended to compete for game and fights started. There were other displays of dominance, too, which were distracting and simply a waste of time.”

On that first hunt, they got a bear. “After they’d hauled the bear out of the hole, Uesugi gave Samurai Tiger some of its blood to lap up. ‘That did something powerful to him,’ Morie says of the dog. ‘ After that, it was as if he’d follow that scent to the ends of the earth to taste it again.’”

Eventually, Morie and Samurai Tiger would kill 11 bears together. By 1975, Morie had been breeding Akitas for 45 years, but would still get anxious when a new litter was ready to be born. “There was always the chance that another Samurai Tiger might appear. ‘They say you get only one dog like him in your lifetime,’ Morie says, ‘but I thought if I lived long enough, I might get two, and prove that saying wrong.’”

And by this time, the Akita breed characteristics had become firmly established:

“Since the 1980s, the dog world of the north had begun to favor an Akita with a slightly different look–longer and thinner legs, a more foxlike snout and triangular eyes–but by the early 1990s, this style of dog prevailed as the new standard in Japan. It had been a long, slow struggle since the end of World War II, when the dog men of the snow country had simply hoped to produce litters of puppies with erect ears and curling tails. Now the days of the hodgepodge dogs were over. The stout bodies, bear-shaped heads, and shepherd faces were gone, too. The traces of cross-breeding with Western dogs in the early part of the century had been erased. And when two of these Japanese Akitas were bred, there weren’t surprises–but perfectly uniform litters of dogs so similar it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The result was a smaller, more finely featured Akita than those in America and elsewhere. That didn’t bother the snow country breeders. Since the Akita was their native dog, they felt they were allowed to set trends, rather than follow them. But it was this, along with a desire to resist being influenced by the international market, that led the Japan Kennel Club in 1996 to begin refusing to recognize Akitas from other countries, creating a split that has still not been reconciled. To many breeders and Akita clubs worldwide there are two distinct breeds, and ‘American’ Akita and a Japanese one, something the American Kennel Club has not yet recognized.”

But, despite the fact that Morie had contributed greatly to the preservation of the Akita dog, he felt that something in them had changed:

“Slowly over the years as Japan became tamer and richer, he says, the Akitas changed too. Their faces are delicate and sweet. Their eyes are sensuous. Their mouths seem to curl up in a perpetual smile. They are cute dogs, happy dogs, pets… He’d helped to preserve the Akita breed–the flesh and bones of the traditional snow country dog. But what about its heart and soul, its nature? The essence of the Akita–its unique spirit and ruggedness–now seemed unsuitable for the modern world…‘I worry that the dogs are losing their core aggressiveness and sharpness, their shrewdness,’ Morie says. ‘Having kisho means a fighting spirit. And I think it’s a fighting spirit that has allowed the Akita to survive for centuries. But people want dogs to be useful to them, and so their traits are always desirable in relation to man, and what man wants from a dog.’ … When you rescued an animal from extinction, what was the most important thing to save, the body or the spirit?”

Soldiers of God

by Kelly Clancy

The first graphic novel I’ve read in years… picked it up free at an art exhibition, after being favorably impressed by several of the chapter title panels, blown up and on display.

It was good! The story is one you’ve seen or read before, a comparison of lives in two seemingly disparate cultures, divided by seemingly everything: geography, history, economics, language, and most recently war. And yet, don’t you see how their problems are ours, how similar we all are in our human hopes and despairs? Oh sorry, I started to get carried away… The strength of the book lies in its ability to transcend these cliches, with intelligent writing and a nuanced and engaging drawing style.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

I’ve not read any Proust at all…this book makes me want to. Proust certainly seems to agree with many of my sensibilities, chief among them the dictum ‘eat, drink, and be merry’:

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Art, not unexpectedly, plays a leading role:

“Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?

One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.”


“Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”

And de Botton’s take on what Proust felt was the reason we read:

“…he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what [the author] felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master must have felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.”

And so, de Botton explains after a description of the many who make a pilgrimage to Proust’s hometown, “it should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not to look at his world through our eyes.”

Category: biography | Tags: , ,