The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Krug's central point is, essentially, the argument for scrupulous copy editing; by removing every distraction from the reader's path, by eliminating each scrap of incongruity and infelicity, we have done everything in our power to respect the reader's time and to facilitate understanding.

It is difficult (but necessary) to argue with the common sense of this proposition. It is true that saving unnecessary steps, avoiding unintentional ambiguity, and omitting needless words will tighten a web page, making it a little more clear and preventing some misunderstandings. The result, all things being equal, might be a few extra sales and a little extra good will.

But all things are not equal, and Krug's underlying premise -- that Web users prefer not to think about what they're seeing or doing, that they don't want to read or reflect -- is simply mistaken. People love to read Web pages. They do it every day. The growth of weblogs is driven completely by reading: most web logs are nearly pure text. Some of the most widely-read blogs use dreadful off-the-rack page designs.

In any case, the goal of a Web site must ultimately be, quite simply, to make people think. Even simple sales sites aspire not simply to gain an order, but rather to gain a customer -- and to change the customer so they'll become an even better customer.

The Bauhaus Manifesto claimed that

Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau!

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!

Gropius was an architect and the Bauhaus was working to reintegrate fine art, the building crafts, and engineering in an era of brick and glass. We no longer work exclusively in physical media; making stuff is no longer what artists do, and reintegrating art and science -- putting graphic design and code and software and writing and photography and management together -- is closer to the spirit of the age than designing better factories and kitchens.

The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the website, and the aspiration of a website is simply the aspiration of all art: to make us think.

December 12, 2005 (permalink)

When Linda was a little girl, she read the 30-odd volume series of Dana Girl mysteries, which were written and marketed for little girls. Some she read at the library, some she bought with her allowance. The library's moved and updated and now we live far from there, and while she was off at Swarthmore and Harvard, someone figured she was too big for children's books.

Last year, I surprised her with a complete run. (Check out the cover of volume one: teenage plumage has changed a bit since 1935)

This is something that would be expensive or arduous before the Internet, and now is comparatively straightforward. I couldn't find a dealer interested in selling me reading copies, but it wasn't difficult to piece together a set through Amazon and aLibris and Abebooks. I actually preferred to find solid copies with names or bookplates; it's fun to wonder who these girls turned out to be.

Linda's working on a project, and is anxious that I'll mess it up if I write about Jean and Louise and their study lamp here.

December 11, 2005 (permalink)

This brilliant portrait of a complex American family richly deserved its place on the Booker Prize short list. Howard Belsey is a British art historian who has spent his career in American universities and who is married to a black Floridian, Kiki. Their three kids range from sensitive, born-again Jerome to crusader Zora to the youngest, hip-hop wannabe homeboy Levi. Every character has a strong voice and a specific dialect, making this a distinctly American novel in the old sense while leaving the story fresh and new. Absolutely superb.

One exceptional accomplishment of On Beauty is that it presents a varied university community in which ideas are part of everyone's lives, and people live and talk about ideas. Howard Belsey is a pomo, post-colonial art historian; he married a black girl from Florida.That black girl once thought she might grow up to be Malcolm X's personal assistant and wound up as an Ivy League mother; in times of personal crisis she imagines herself keynoting a major conference of mothers. Belsey's rival, Sir Monty Kipps, is an academic conservative media star from Trinidad, and his family always dines together; the Belsey's rush in and out, the Belsey's argue, the Kipps clan have respectful intellectual breakfasts where nothing is given away.

I checked the Amazon reader reviews of On Beauty out of curiosity, and what a small-minded bunch they are. Setting aside the inevitable me-too's and "I got bored's", a surprising number of readers complain about Smith's handling of dialect. The whole point is that each member of the family speaks their own British-American-African creole. Howard's the son of a London butcher, did his doctoral work at Oxford, and has taught at a variety of American universities. His wife Kiki can do Ivy League irony when she wants, and when she's angry she gets all Floridian. Levi started speaking Brooklyn at 13, and wants to hang out with the Haitian peddlers who are, he thinks, authentically black. Everyone is inventing a dialect: that's the point.

December 8, 2005 (permalink)

Year's Best SF 10
David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer eds

Every year, Kathryn and David send us a bundle of the best science fiction short stories and novellas. It's a fixture of the calendar, like Aunt Hazel's noodle kugel and Grandma's chopped liver -- the recipe against which all future dishes of chopped liver are measured throughout the extended family. This year's collection has some pleasant bits. James Patrick Kelley's "The Dark Side Of Town" is a fresh look at drugs and games. Neal Asher's "Strood" has a ton of fun in store for readers who know what "To Serve Mankind" means, and of course that includes everyone all the way down to Dawn Summers. "Sergeant Chip" (Bradley Denton) is a nice Haldeman-seque war story about an augmented dog. And Steve Tomasula's "The Risk Taking Gene As expressed By Some Asian Subjects" takes the old genre of grad student stories (see H.G. Wells) in new and unexpectedly genetic directions.

December 7, 2005 (permalink)

Shaw and Wells knew each other well, debated each other in private and public and print for decades, and were merciless to each other in their correspondence. What is most striking about these letters -- recommended as essential reading in The Believer by Ray Bradbury -- is that the friendship survived the brutal pounding these letters represent. That they are nicely written, erudite, wise, and topical goes without saying: this is Shaw, and that is H.G. Wells, and what did you expect? That these two men could continue to speak to each other, dine together, and correspond during such bitter disagreements and in the face of such casually tactless spites (Shaw never missing an opportunity to pontificate, and one gathers that Wells seldom turned down a woman) says much for the liberal mind.

December 5, 2005 (permalink)

A delightful, hilarious, and moving book.

From the title, I'd expected a recitation of the wonderful things that people had killed off, torn down, thrown away, or otherwise neglected. Something like Douglas Adams' Last Chance To See. But Bywater's book is nothing like that.

This is a dictionary of lost things. The things are usually abstract: the phrase "old chap", the distinction between "poof" and "queer", the old Nottingham accent, the smell of Paris, Mister Golly. Others are more concrete, such as neighborhood shops (in which to leave one's belongings behind), handkerchiefs (to leave behind, or to fold inappropriately), gloves,and Finisterre. Lost Worlds is a marvelous little guide to the changes that Britain, the world, and all of us have undergone in the last generation.

Do not under any circumstances miss the story of Mickey With The Long Nose, filed here under Disney. Oh, and where did they put the last Auk, anyway? Surely they've found it by now?

Lost Worlds has a earnest, wise, and serious core, an extended meditation on what "loss" means, and therefore what really matters.

November 6, 2005 (permalink)

Iron Sunrise
Charles Stross

Perfect plane reading: craftsmanship and pacing make this thriller in space a delight. We've got all the classic elements -- the experienced (but terrified) agent, the fresh (but resourceful) teenage victim-turned-hero whose life has suddenly come unmoored (in this case because someone blew up her planet's sun), the Nazi conspirators. Around this plotting armature, Stross crafts an interesting speculative fiction world of ubiquitous nanotech where bandwidth is gold.

There's a wonderful moment when the investigator from the second U.N. -- a sort of interplanetary alliance reminiscent of the Federation (Asimov or Roddenberry, take your pick) -- whips out her ID badge with the traditional symbols of the universal human alliance -- a background of stars and the good old triple-W.

Long may it wave.

August 5, 2005 (permalink)

This book appeared at the office a few days after I'd ordered it online. By the time it arrived, I'd forgotten who told me to read it, and why. After a long, introspective search, I realized I'd seen a list of recent books about golems in The Believer.

My reading habits are not well disciplined.

This is, however, a nicely executed book, a novel of college love gone weird when the lovers move into her parents' house to spend the summer together. It's a close-knit and odd family -- what family isn't, when you've just finished your freshman year and you're sleeping with your first lover under the eaves of her weird parent's Pittsburgh house?

The story, obviously, is operatic in scale and conception, and handler presents it as an opera in four acts and twelve steps. Act IV gets out of control, I think, but even the excess is eventually paid off. It's worth reading in any case for the paragraph in which the narrator analyzes Grandma's seeming simile comparing revenge to a parfait.

November 3, 2005 (permalink)

Nicholas Royle

A moderately obscure British freelance writer meets in Brussels with a not-very-famous American film maker. The American, Johnny Vos, has just shot a scene that's a visual quotation from the work of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux; since Delvaux painted monumental landscapes and street scenes filled with nude women,  Vos is finding his extras in Antwerp's busy red-light district. Two -- associated with a internet webcam-filled house -- were found dead shortly after the Vos wrapped the first big shot.

A Spaniard I know once wrote that she'd be glad to find work anywhere in Europe but Belgium, which she found too dull to endure. It sometimes seems that Royle shares her opinion. Places and people alike are strangely flat here, and subplots set in Antwerp's diamond market and in the virtual twilight of an internet sex site are never really exploited. The effect is strange and evocative: Royle creates people and situations that are more interesting than he makes them, giving the book a deeper interior life than it seems to earns.

October 30, 2005 (permalink)

Why does current American business writing assume that the people who make crucial decisions, affecting the fate of thousands and spending millions of dollars, are stupid?

Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points undertakes a commendable and necessary mission. It demonstrates that PowerPoint presentations don't need to be dull lists of bullet points against blue gradient backgrounds, accompanied by chart junk. It makes an intriguing argument for structuring business arguments as 3-act narratives in which the audience is invited to see itself as the protagonist.

It's not really a 3-act narrative: in Atkinson, there's no third act. Atkinson's narrative scheme is closer to a one-act play: we set the scene and establish the conflict, we describe the steps to be taken to address the conflict, and then we conclude with a resolution. We have 'Once upon a time' and we have 'Then, one day', but there's no time for the third act, 'There was one thing they had forgotten.'

Beyond Bullet Points is written in short, simple sentences. Diagrams make each point clear. Short sidebars reinforce the rules. A scenario brings the message home: we have a new job and the Board Of Directors wants a presentation right away that doesn't have boring bullet points and does convince them that the new ten million dollar marketing plan is sound.

All this is sound, as far as it goes. Atkinson's view of narrative is reductive -- it's not nearly as sophisticated as Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater, which itself has been criticized for its training wheels. The approach is rigid, but after sitting through so many terrible presentations at conferences and trade shows, perhaps rigid guidelines are needed.

But need the sentences be so short? Must the instructions be so simple and plain? Must we reduce theory -- literary and scientific -- to simple declarative summaries without nuance or qualification? When did we declare war against the comma?

This isn't a particular fault of Atkinson -- and he deserves praise for possessing an argument instead of simply repeating the mechanics of the manual. It seems to be endemic in current American business writing. Assume a poorly educated reader. Hold their hand through the simplest program mechanics. Use short sentences. Omit raw data that might confuse or distract.

See the Board of Directors run. Run, Board! Run!

October 15, 2005 (permalink)

Mind Game
Steven Goldman, ed.

The very capable analysts at the estimable Baseball Prospectus attempt a sabermetric analysis of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Rejecting the cute but silly belief that the Red Sox had been cursed by fate, the authors examine some reasons the Red Sox had historically failed and explore the moves that made them champions in 2004.

This enjoyable and well-edited collection of articles breaks less new ground and reveals fewer new insights than I'd expected. Lots of questions remain unanswered.

We understand, I think, why the Yankees and the Red Sox differ, so elucidating this doesn't really add much to our appreciation of the game. But how do the current Red Sox differ in philosophy and execution from the A's? Are the Red Sox simply the Athletics with an adequate budgets? Where do the Indians fit in the picture?

My impression is that Theo was building the team toward a pennant in 2005, or perhaps toward a pennant in the 2004-2006 window. Is this true -- or consistent with the team's actions?

Back in the day, Bill James would find more interesting things to say about minor figures on bad teams than BP discovers in a rich and colorful championship. Nevertheless, a fine, intelligent, and serious look at the construction of a winning team.

March 29, 2013 (permalink)

In this adorable and intriguing graphic novel, a rabbi's pet cat in pre-war Algeria eats the family's annoying parrot, an obnoxious animal who has nothing to say and says it endlessly. The cat, now able to speak, decides he wants a bar mitzvah -- not because he loves G-d, but because he adores the rabbi's daughter. Cleverly, and often hilariously, Sfar touches on a host of interesting questions, beginning with that most pressing debate: should a Jew prefer cats to dogs?

The book is lovingly drawn, and though I found it visually unremarkable, the memories of a vanished Algeria help Sfar manage pacing and rhythm.

October 15, 2005 (permalink)

It's not so much the history, which has largely been superseded, nor the topic, which is spectacularly fashionable but politically facile, but rather the glorious and unforgettable language that makes Gibbon worth a long and comfortable visit. Gibbon is wonderful, by turns censorious and sympathetic but always showing a keen wit and a liberal interest in every facet of antiquity. He studies to be witty and seldom can resist a good story, and he carefully weighs facts and character alike.

If you enjoy history, and if the cadences of the periodic sentence do not fill your spirit with fear or your mind with confusion, do not make the mistake of waiting for your 49th birthday to make Gibbon's acquaintance.

Great fun.

October 6, 2005 (permalink)

A richly illustrated examination of a wide range of professional journals by skilled visual artists. Jennifer New divides these instruments by general intent in four categories: exploration, reflection, observation, and creation. The range of styles and purposes is broad, as indeed is the terrific disparity of creators, from the morning-subway portraits of a Manhattan psychiatrist to the lovingly-sketched maps by a retired Hitachi engineer of his beloved Musashino countryside.

There's a terrific range of technique, from watercolor to digital photography. And there's a wide range, too, of artistic style. What I miss, alas, is the ability to read extended passages within the journal; we can look, but we seldom know much about what the subject was trying to record. But Jennifer New believes that journals are incomprehensible to all save their creator anyway, so perhaps this absence is a mirage.

September 29, 2005 (permalink)

Astonishing. Eighty years of the New Yorker, on 8 DVDs. Good scans of the pages, including ads, and very adequate software for searching and browsing. For Mac and Windows.

October 1, 2005 (permalink)