Archive for March, 2008

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.

March 26, 2008


What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.




The history of the world in five minutes

March 19, 2008

I love the Internet. If the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, the Internet is the planet’s attic, basement, garage and rented storage locker. I used to be amazed by what I could find online; now I’m annoyed when I can’t easily find something. Recently a friend showed me a YouTube video of a school project by bhilmer, remaking the credits of Star Wars mimicking the style of design pioneer Saul Bass [perfectly done, by the way—I’ll include it in this post].

That clip reminded me of an obscure but Academy award-winning short film by Saul Bass that I used to show the first day of class to every one of my art classes when I taught college. More specifically, it reminded me of the opening segment of the film, an animated short that covers the “history of the world man has built on ideas” in a little under five minutes. And it does it brilliantly, with economy, wit and charm. A quick search on Google [again, thank you, Internet] and there it was! Give it a quick watch—it may give you your biggest smile of the day.


The film in question is Why Man Creates, produced in 1970. Amazingly, it is still in print and available from educational film distributor Pyramid Media. Here’s how their site describes it: “A series of explorations, episodes and comments on creativity by Saul Bass, a master of conceptual design, this film is one of the most highly regarded short films ever produced.”

Saul Bass wasn’t just a designer—he invented the field. He described the situation in an interview in 1986. “There was no school as we understand it today that taught the notion of design… In those days, all people who did work that was paid for were called commercial artists—as differentiated from painters, who never got any money for anything.” Bass took only one night class at the Art Students League in New York, a painting class. So essentially, as he put it, he was self taught.

Bass moved to Los Angeles, where the film industry became a huge client. According to Design Museum London, he was “not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.” If you’ve seen any American films from the 50s, 60s and 70s, you’ve probably seen his design work in the opening credits. West Side Story, Psycho, Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, Ocean’s Eleven [the original, starring the Rat Pack], Exodus… And the 1959 Preminger classic, Anatomy of a Murder. I show you the opening credits of this film not because they are necessarily the best work Bass did, but because when you see the Star Wars take-off, you’ll understand where it came from.

And now, the take-off that launched this whole diatribe. If nothing else, this post may send some business Netflix’s way.

In praise of snail mail

March 12, 2008


Last week the New York Times reported on cable network HBO teaming up with the United States Postal Service to promote its new mini-series “John Adams.” In the process, they’re also promoting letter writing. Our nation’s second president and his wife Abigail were “prolific letter-writers,” as the article tells us. “They exchanged more than 1,100 letters from 1762 until 1801, dating from their courtship through his presidency.”

As part of the campaign, you can even send a free card, postage paid, to anyone you choose from a special Postal Service website. HBO is picking up the tab for the service.

john-adams.jpgThis brilliant marketing campaign got me thinking about the pleasures of snail mail. You know—real mail. I mean, I love the immediacy of email. It’s more than convenient—it also helps us feel connected. Often after exchanging a flurry of emails with a friend or family members, I feel as if we’ve been talking on the phone.

But there’s just something magical about real mail. If I drop a card or a note in the mail, even to these same friends with whom I routinely swap emails, invariably I hear back about how special it was to receive an actual piece of mail.

And who doesn’t have a stash of old letters and cards tucked away somewhere? My colleague Lisa recently told me about writing a letter to her grandmother, or perhaps a birthday card, just remembering some of the many wonderful things the two of them had done together when she was growing up and lived next door to her grandma. By then, her grandmother had retired to another state and walked with the aid of a walker. She kept Lisa’s letter in the basket on her walker and showed it to everyone.

Another reason I like letter writing is I like rituals. I love to make martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care to drink them. What I like about them is that they involve cool stuff and processes: Frosted martini glasses, cocktail shakers, twists or olives, shaking or stirring, depending on which Bond film you believe… Fortunately for me, Marion likes the occasional martini and I get to make it.

Mail has its own paraphernalia and processes. Cards, postcards, stationery [if you want to get fancy]… and the stamps! We always buy commemorative stamps. Always. And we always have the postal clerk haul out all the various kinds available to choose from. There’s also the whole chain of events that gets set into motion when you drop a card or a letter into the mailbox. Maybe I paid too much attention to those movies they showed us in grade school, but I think about the journey that piece of mail will make as I send it. Then again, with the way people obsessively check tracking numbers on packages when they ship something, maybe that’s normal.

The beauty of postcards. The range of postcards out there is nothing short of amazing. From the typical tourist cards to humor to absolute works of art. Of course, a favorite of mine are unintentionally funny promotional cards. I once got a postcard from a relative on vacation in Florida that had obviously been sent out of familial duty. It was a free card provided by the motel where she was staying and featured the self-serve washers and dryers that the motel considered a major selling point for making it your home away from home. Said relative didn’t have an ironic bone in her body, but plenty of practical ones—so for her, the card filled the request for one. For me, it was hysterical, better than any carefully chosen palm tree scene could have been.

The real beauty of postcards, though, is their finite writing space. Sometimes you want to just drop a quick line to someone, make contact, but an entire sheet of paper is daunting. With a postcard, you can dash off a few lines and you’re done. And the person on the other end still feels really good and really special when it arrives. Or you can do what we more often do, writing small, filling the entire writing space and even spilling over under the address.


For a while, anytime we hit flea markets, I would look for old postcards, mostly vintage cards of places I’d lived, St. Louis and Chicago. And I specifically sought out cards that hadn’t been written on. I would send these to friends who had also lived in these places. Typically, these cards run anywhere from a buck to a few dollars, cheaper than most greeting cards. And way more fun. Preparing to write this post, I flipped through my stack of old postcards. I think maybe it’s time to revive this practice.

You are what you eat, especially if you eat fish.

March 5, 2008


Let me start by saying we’re not a bunch of geeks. No pocket protectors or thick-rimmed eyeglasses repaired with tape here. But we do geek out about a lot of things. By that, I mean we get excited by a wide range of things—sometimes inordinately so—many arcane and esoteric. And we drill deep.

WTF? Random food for thought is a veritable catalog of many of my geek outs: Art, urban living, photography, the written word… pretty much anything that catches my magpie eye. Where else have you read about Samuel Pepys’ diary, for instance?

One of Marion’s geek out indulgences is buying the Tuesday New York Times every single Tuesday for the Science Times section. She always finds something interesting in it. On February 19, it was this: An article by Natalie Angier entitled “What People Owe Fish: A Lot.” Angier catalogs exactly what a lot means. And even better, she does it with witty writing, something we both geek out over. The first paragraph of this passage is a perfect example:

You like having a big, centralized brain encased in a protective bony skull, with all the sensory organs conveniently attached? Fish invented the head.

You like having pairs of those sense organs, two eyes for binocular vision, two ears to localize sounds and twinned nostrils so you can follow your nose to freshly baked bread or the nape of a lover’s irresistibly immunocompatible neck? Fish were the first to wear their senses in sets.

They premiered the pairing of appendages, too, through fins on either side of the body that would someday flesh out into biceps, triceps, rotating wrists and opposable thumbs.

Or how about that animated mouth of yours, with its hinged and muscular jaws; its enameled, innervated teeth; and a tongue that dares to taste a peach or, if it must, get up and give a speech? Fish founded the whole modern buss we now ride.

inner-fish.jpgAngier’s source for this startling information? A fascinating new book by Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum—Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

According to the Field Museum, in 2006, a discovery by Dr. Shubin and his colleagues made headlines around the world. It was a fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, a “missing link” between fish and land animals. On expedition in Arctic Canada, they unearthed the 375-million-year-old fossil fish “whose fins contained the same structure found today in the limbs of all walking animals! Tiktaalik represented one of the earliest ancestors of creatures that left the sea to live on land.”

Our inner fish extends beyond physicality too. Angier cites other researchers who point out that fish have some of the most complex social systems known; they help each other and exhibit cooperation and forms of reciprocity. In fact, as her article reports, “In laboratory experiments, the researchers have shown that when subordinate [fish] are temporarily prevented from performing their duties, the fish compensate at the first chance by ostentatiously redoubling displays of helpful behaviors.”

Okay, I geek out as much as the next guy—and perhaps more than some. But doesn’t it seem that the researchers who devised these experiments maybe crossed some sort of line? I hope they’re already married. Let’s say you meet someone in a bar and the conversation turns to what you do for a living. You start talking about experimenting with fish subs and you are so not going home with a phone number.