Eats shoots and leaves

Lynn Truss’s guide to punctuation is unappetising fare, even for pandas.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves purports to be a witty guide to the correct use of English punctuation which also strikes a blow for ‘sticklers’ against the prevailing culture of ignorance and indifference. Sadly, what could have been a pithy and amusing Strunk & White of punctuation is swollen by its author’s dotty schoolmarm act into a 200-page rant that exemplifies the vices it affects to make light of, and displays woeful ignorance and stupidity in every field but that of punctuation, not to mention much unpleasant prejudice.

Suffused with the pedant’s impression in every age that standards are in decline, fond memories of her “manual typewriter in the 1970s” (page 135) contrasting with today’s “bloody electronic signal” (page 190, followed a few pages later by an evisceration of (text) emoticons); she yet admits that things have never been perfect: on page 39, she quotes the Oxford Companion to English Literature: “There never was a golden age in which the rules…were…known, understood and followed by most educated people”. This have-and-eat approach to cake pervades the book.

Even where she sticks strictly to her subject, she is often unauthoritative: her seventh use of the apostrophe (page 45) is to indicate the plural of letters, but she fails to mention that this practice is not universal, as I was taught at school, and rediscovered when translating a book for Cambridge University Press. She is also inconsistent, on page 50 listing the mail-order firm Lands’ End as an offender in their punctuation of their name (under “Plural possessive instead of singular possessive”), but on page 57 excusing St Thomas’ Hospital on the reasonable grounds that “institutions, towns, colleges, families, companies and brands have authority over their own spelling and punctuation”.

Her bad taste ranges from the lazily stereotypical (“greengrocers are self-evidently horny-thumbed people who do not live by words”) through the casually bigoted (page 16, “Around this time, when other girls of my age were attending the Isle of Wight Festival and having abortions…”; describing dialect on page 44 as “strange, non-standard English” and on page 39 referring to “the regrettable result of making people sound…a bit from the West Country”), to the offensive: on page 186 she quotes Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times in 1945 complaining about the waste caused by not spelling ‘bomb’ without the final ‘b’ and says “GBS can be a pretty stark reminder of how far one may lose one’s sense of proportion when obsessed by matters of language.” She has obviously forgotten that on pages 4–5 she wrote “[sticklers] got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin-Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’”—a distinction without a difference, in any case; ‘enormity’ can mean ‘magnitude’.

Using Kingsley Amis’s taxonomy (page 30), she’s an intellectual berk and a syntactic wanker.

One more thing: in Truss’s version (back cover), the panda “fires two shots in the air”. That smacks of bowdlerization, and it’s not funny. In the version I heard, he massacred everyone in the restaurant; it seems that Truss had a lucky escape.

18th August 2017


What is special about children? Why are we encouraged to be like children or stay in touch with our inner child? Often, it’s the ability to retain a sense of wonder at the mundane, and this is important. Sometimes, children’s playfulness is mentioned. But what is crucial about playfulness is the ability to take things seriously, things that are not on the list of socially-approved Serious Things (God, mores, money).

6th November 2014 / 17th May 2017

An unreadable book on usability

Sadly, Ben Shneiderman’s book Leonardo’s Laptop, rather than taking its inspiration from da Vinci and using his ideas to inform an intelligent foray into usability, conscripts the great man as the author’s mouthpiece, and contrives to spew almost uninterrupted marketese, in the process getting under the skin of the thoughtful reader by mis-quoting Star Trek, glibly asserting that computers will never be creative, and presenting as the ideal future a vision that could have come straight from a Silicon Valley press release.

Fortunately, Schneiderman does have one significant point of difference with the techno-utopian mainstream, and that is his insistence that technology must support human goals and be adapted to them rather than the other way around. He cleverly attacks the idea that technology should aim to replace humans by turning it on its head: ”The goal of making computers do what humans do, the replacement theory, also seems rather modest. Imagine proposing to make a bulldozer that lifts as much as the strongest human, or a printer that writes as fast as the best human scribe.” (p. 238), and while many readers will groan at the inane rhetoric of ”Why can’t every student earn an A?” (p. 112), he succeeds in making those who would replace humans look misguided and unimaginative. He does not, however, address the issue of technologies that modify, rather than merely amplify, human capabilities, and his soft-focus futurism (”Imagine that after a sunrise climb you reach the summit. You open up your phonecam and send a panoramic view to your grandparents, parents and friends. They hear the sound of birds, smell of mountain air, feel the coolness of wind, and experience your feeling of success.” (p. 2)) suggests that it’s something he’d rather not think about.

Schneiderman is an HCI specialist, and Leonardo’s Laptop takes the obvious approach for such a practitioner: after an introduction that uses Leonardo to emphasise the importance of technology that supports human values, he shows us a glimpse of how the future could and should be, diagnoses what is wrong with current computer interfaces, connects this to our low expectations and misguidedly technocratic approach to technology development, sketches the HCI approach to designing computer systems, and develops a systematic framework for it, applies the ideas to the individual consumer’s view of education, retailing, medicine and government, and ends with a discussion of creativity and a final chapter that returns to the theme of “promoting human values” (About this book, p. 14).

In the course of the book, Schneiderman develops some useful tools for thinking about how people use computers. His Activities and Relationships Table (ART, pp. 87ff.) is a simple two-dimensional matrix associating four stages of creative activity (Collect, Relate, Create, Donate) and four levels of relationship (Self, Family and friends, Colleagues and neighbors, Citizens and markets), allowing technologies to be placed on a map by the activities they support. His last chapter, “Mega-Creativity”, offers a simple and usable list of types of creative task (p. 219). These tools are unsophisticated and obvious, but Schneiderman’s willingness to dive into the tricky area of creativity and offer a straightforward discussion is refreshing. His discussion of situational creativity (dealing with the importance of one’s environment and relationships) was particularly interesting, as it’s frequently neglected in other discussions. This attempt at a comprehensive framework may underpin the admirable breadth of Schneiderman’s application areas, from the personal to the political, including health, education and commerce.

Unfortunately, some of his examples are ill-chosen. The idea that the excellent Sim City “teaches deep lessons about urban planning” (p. 222) is news even to this high-school student of human geography, as is the description of Dramatica Pro, a tool for writing film scripts based on a theory of story-telling, is “compelling” (pp. 222–3). (I would have been much more impressed by a discussion of Inform, or other interactive fiction authoring systems.) At the end of the book, when discussing what use a modern-day Leonardo (“Leonardo II”) might make of technology, he gives the example of using email and instant messaging for collaboration. This is not stirring stuff for a book published in 2002.

These examples are also typical of the software Schneiderman both describes and, more tellingly, envisages: large closed-system proprietary solutions such as LEON (a collaborative online learning tool, p. 116) and, more nebulously, the World Wide Med (information for medical professionals, p. 175). He has a standard capitalist attitude to copyright, yet cheerfully uses public domain prints of works by Leonardo. His two-page discussion of freedom in a political context (pp. 184–5) does not mention free software. Again, curious given when the book was written.

I should confess that Schneiderman lost my sympathy early on with his p. 52 attack on “obscure” text-based interfaces, rightly criticizing the élitist culture of some devotees, but ignoring their advantages, particularly in the internet age: text is easy to store, search and transmit (between computers and humans). Graphical user interfaces also suffer from obscurity, and are often less amenable to user modification. It’s all the odder given that he later lauds text-based chat (p. 199), and that text-based interfaces can much more easily be adapted to level-structured learning (p. 47).

However, Schneiderman’s biggest weakness (and, one is tempted to think, his closest point of contact with Leonardo), alluded to at the start of this review, is his unwillingness to address the political and social context. Despite castigating an opponent for arguing that an issue ”was outside his concern and something for policymakers to decide” he rarely does more than state the political and social obstacles between him and his goals, and say that research or public debate will be necessary. In his summary chapter on ”Mega-Creativity”, he blandly ends ”Participatory design methods and comprehensible, widely disseminated social impact statements may be effective because they promote discussion and expand the range of options for decision makers.” (p. 231) This is barely more than a restatement of the problem; and a tendency to hedge (”support for innovation could lead to positive changes to our world” (p. 230)) gives what should be his boldest passages the flavour of a corporate press release that had to be approved by the company lawyers. At a smaller scale, he has little idea what to do with misbehaving individuals: his discussion of education does not mention discipline, or, in the context of collaboration, ethical behaviour by students, whether in the sense of contributing fairly, or, that bug-bear of educators in the internet age, plagiarism.

His human-centred focus also leads to an unfortunate dismissal of AI. “Even serious scientists are prone to considering artificial consciousness as a good, useful and attainable research goal.” (p. 236) There is indeed a debate about whether artificial consciousness is “good, useful and attainable”, but it is odd that Schneiderman sees no human-centred applications for it, given for instance Japanese efforts to make artificial companions.

On the other hand, Schneiderman also repeatedly skates over potential down-sides, as with his ”World-Wide Med” system for globally shared medial records, or ”LEON” framework to support collaborative learning: his enthusiastic description of imaginary future successes is not balanced by his brief ”Skeptic’s Corner” sections, which do little more than acknowledge that there are problems and say that they are worthy of solution.

The book ends: “Those who believe that they can shape the future will shape the future.” Unfortunately, the author does not seem to be a believer.

15th May 2017

Bookshore: a library is a liminal thing

In French, “librarie” means bookshop, a usage that seems prophetic now that so many small (and not-so-small) Amazon booksellers’ stock consists of what would once have been their owners’ libraries. The books are become interchangeable, still fulfilling their function as extra insulation, but with their old secondary function of entertainment and enlightenment replaced by that of enrichment. (I imagine that some particularly cleverly-balanced people combine reading with commerce, but not many; the Amazon stock at Thomas Towers is pre-packed for the post and stored in the attic, as much to protect the rest of the collection from abduction as to grease the wheels of commerce.)

I’ve spent the last couple of days overhauling my browser bookmarks, of which I have some 1,300 (coincidentally, when I catalogued the family book collection as a teenager, it amounted to roughly that number of volumes). I filed a hundred or so amassed over the past four or five years, and combed through 300 identified as broken links, updating them where possible, in some cases pointing them at the astonishing Wayback Machine (at least an important a public service as Wikipedia), and in a few cases lamenting their utter disappearance.

But the sort of link I’m interested in right now are the sort I simply deleted: links I no longer needed. Later, I realised that I’ve started treating my browser bookmarks the way I treat my book collection: as a boundary, a shoreline.

The hinterland is the contents of my brain: what I’ve learned, can recall, can rely on. A few mines of information are represented on my shelves, and in my bookmarks, by reference works: dictionaries (actually, I mostly have these on my phone now, as vadite mecum and for speed of use) and other essential works; online equivalents are mostly esoteric, as the ones I use all the time need no bookmark (Google, Wikipedia &c.).

The ocean is everything I do not know, will never know, have no wish to know.

And the shoreline: that is where the books and bookmarks are littered. Everything I am interested in, the pebbles of knowledge, the seaweed of YouTube & thrillers, the curious creatures of mine and others’ unknown selves. Here, my physical library is rather skewed, as thanks to the unconscionable length of modern copyright combined with the irresistible collection left by my maternal grandparents, it consists mostly of books I have or would like to read once, but must keep in case, as the former would be too expensive to replace, and the latter to acquire. At least the classics are safely removed to the still-expanding Project Gutenberg, which should surely replace the Bible-and-a-Shakespeare as standard issue on Desert Island Discs.

But the rest is largely a matter of memory: if I might forget it, I bookmark it. If I don’t know it, I have the book. If I’m simply not interested, why give it window or wall space? Disk space is another thing altogether: my computers are full of data I will probably never need, but, unlike with books, the probability can be effectively zero, as that is the chance I’ll ever fill my disk with text. That’s not the same as bookmarking everything, as bookmarks take effort to navigate, and hence occupy brain space.

So I suggest that, where of old a library might have been merely indicative of its owner’s interests and knowledge, much still gained from other sources, or simply on subjects not treated by the published word; or, more recently, a solid image of its owner, books representing reading, actual or aspirational; now, it’s more likely to constitute an shoreline, knowledge behind and ignorance ahead, and hopefully the tide is going out!

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 00:10:03


I am in a restaurant. The owner and chef has gone out for dinner. I am sitting at a camping table, on a comfortable steel-framed chair such as you might find in a modern conference hall, in the corner room of a down-at-heel château dating from 1892. I am alone in the house. The window in front of me is open to a cool cricket-filled August evening, a strip of lighter sky still visible on the tree-lined horizon below ominous clouds promising rain but failing to deliver. Above the chirping I can hear the whine of a nearby water treatment plant. It is nearly half-past ten. The only light in the room comes from a shaving lamp which hangs askew over the basin that serves for washing both oneself and up. The one other working light in the house is next door in a disused bathroom. To my left hums a fridge, and on a table next to it are a kettle, a toaster, an electric toothbrush, an improvised draining board covered with plates, cutlery and a saucepan, and a five-way adaptor that comprises the sole usable source of electricity. The walls behind and to the right of me are stacked with boxes, most unopened, some half-unpacked, almost hiding two more tables.

Beside my laptop, which in the dim room has the signal virtue of supplying its own light, is a copy of the Ordo Solesmensis 2012/13. The abbey of Solesmes is just down the road onto which the property gives at three points, only one of which is passable; another is blocked by a gate marked “PROPRIETE PRIVEE / DEFENSE D’ENTRER” a few yards short of the road, and the last by a hoarding on which is visible a sign whose most prominent lettering says, on the side facing the house, “A VENDRE”, and on the side facing the road, “VENDU”. The first leads to the walk-in dialysis centre which occupies the lower ground floor; the new owner directs visitors and employees to park in its reserved spaces at the back of the house with plastic hoarding that blocks the drive in front. Inside the corner door which is at present the château’s only functional entrance is another sign, “PECHE INTERDITE”, soon to be erected on the path to the pond below the house, and intended to deter fishers rather than fructophiles or such perversely licentious persons as may haunt the environs of monasteries.

Earlier today, the fire brigade visited, not, thank goodness, owing to any incendiary threat, but because a large wasps’ nest was discovered on the second floor; a hazard which, I know from previous visits to the area, sometimes afflicts stately homes of the Sarthe. In France, such infestations are of public concern. The main hall, currently shuttered, was littered with the corpses of vanquished wasps when I arrived earlier this evening, and still faintly buzzing with their more tenacious brethren.

The château, disused for several years, was most recently an old people’s home. Surgical bed frames are still to be found, and communal toilet and bathing facilities lend an institutional air. Alterations made to accommodate this generation of residents obscure the original logic of the space: one may pass a fireplace in a narrow hall, or open double doors to discover a wall. Some such walls have rude holes poked in them by the new owner’s irritation at these architectural insults; one he has already demolished.

Cables festooning the hallways in a curious range of sizes and colours prefigure a brighter future as I find my way to my bedroom by torchlight. It has two sinks (“use the right-hand one”) and a mattress neatly made up in the middle of the newly-exposed wooden floor, with a small bedside chest of drawers next to it. Many of the rooms are still covered in plywood vandalically nailed directly into the underlying planks and faux-cosily carpeted. On the low-ceilinged second floor, bedrooms of oddly different size cluster under the eaves, some still with Dymoed names on the doors. A small tower room up a couple of steps looks like it would make a promising nook. One of the towers is occupied by a lift, needless to say out of order. The one still-operational feature of the ancien régime is the series of illuminated exit signs, each dim “SORTIE” glowing somewhat weaker than the beams of the compact but powerful torch with which I’ve been issued.

Usually I would feel uneasy left alone in a large secluded building, but for some reason I don’t here, perhaps because I’ve not yet seen it tenanted. It is solid and quiet too, with none of the discomfiting creaks one would expect in a smaller timber-framed house.

All in all, the château seems an almost ideal place for my purposes: to spend a few relaxing summer days, including, I hope, some hours finishing off a bit of poetry I have in hand, and perhaps starting some more. The only obvious defect is the lack of hot running water, but my friend the owner assures me that his rented flat with a shower is only a few minutes away by car.

But what is he doing here? A professional musician, whose occasional talk in the past few years of opening a restaurant I never took seriously until he gave me the videophone tour of the château he was about to buy, the property having at the last minute edged out of his affections a local restaurant which had come up for sale and attracted his attention in the first place, his enthusiasm and talent for cooking had never suggested a future career to my cautious and rule-bound way of thinking. While I have happily sat up until 3am waiting for his tarte au citron (the best I have yet tasted), and there are few phrases that make my mouth water so readily as his self-deprecating announcement, when I visit, that he will feed me “just something simple”, there are a number of roads still to travel from the cottage of such companionable fare to the market-town of a sustaining business. A few minutes down the road from the abbey where he was once organist for a year, the room in which he intends to open his restaurant currently houses his organ. Picking me up from the nearby TGV station in a smart suit and clapped-out borrowed car, he explained that he was to dine with a group of local supporters of the catering trade, with a bias towards the local organic produce which he first delightedly described when he informed me a few months ago that he was selling up to move to this little-known region of west central France. (It later turned out this was a discreet cover for “I have a first date”.) From my place in the ultimate coach, number 20, I walked all the way back down the platform to the station exit, somewhere around coach 5, almost as far as I had walked up the platform at the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, the obvious implication that the gradus ad Parnassum only go half-way to the real destination. Having stationed his banger akimbo in a spot reserved for taxis, my dear friend was just entering the modest station’s hall from one side as I came in at the other, beaming and gesticulating as he chatted on the phone to a friend back in Paris, extolling the rapidly-developing delights of his new establishment, and inviting him down for a barbecue, which in the absence of a cooker is as much necessity as luxury.

After a whistle-stop tour of the house, I presented Pimms, lemonade and the compliments of some mutual Parisian friends, we drank a glass of wine together, and he headed off for dinner, first to find an acquaintance and restaurateur from the northern part of the département who was supposed to pick him up, but had lost her way. After nibbling some sustaining bread and cheese, I idled my way around the grounds in the interval before sunset, choosing not to try the semi-decayed bridge over the lily-strewn pond, which, although its iron frame looked insufficiently rusted to break under me, I preferred to avoid without at least someone else present. In the roadside bay where the “VENDU” sign informed passers-by that the place was recently sold, two cars were parked, of which one was my friend’s shabby loan with its wheelbarrow in the boot; sure enough back at the house, as I crested the main stairs to catch the view, my friend and his acquaintance had just come around the opposite corner. As it was already after nine, I surmised that his typical insouciance towards arrangements must have triumphed over a normal dinner hour (for the Spanish may dine after ten, but we are still a long way north of Spain).

I waved them off and returned to the makeshift kitchen; found gazpacho, melon, more bread, and finally settled down with coffee, dark chocolate both “MILD” and “KRÄFTIG” which, whether because the top-most squares had been exposed for some time, or because of my wonted impatience, I could not tell apart, and the half-dried apricots that seem for some years now to have driven out the dried sort: delicious but messy to eat, and irritatingly sticky in muesli.

One of the defects of an apparently orderly mind, I realised a while ago, is that it likes to impose itself on other people; indeed, I say “apparently” precisely because in laziness it tends to fasten on others’ ocular motes in preference to its own harder-to-shift beams. But this is not my script to write; I have not even the editorial responsibility that a parent or teacher may feel, and so I am free to marvel at the scale of the challenges to be overcome, and to imagine the most pleasing future I can.

And thus I dream that I am writing this in the nook at the top of the tower. Up the stairs wafts the clatter of the last of the dessert plates being cleared and the chatter of the staff as they tidy up and of the final guests as they leave. A few, staying in the hotel which the top floors became a couple of years after the restaurant had extended its sway over the entire upper ground floor, trudge upstairs. From outside, I can just catch singing accompanied by a guitar; though the gastronomic guests have displaced the groups of musicians and hackers who for several summers occasionally used the top floor as a hostel for holiday courses or coding retreats, a few out of mutual fondness still come and camp in the grounds. The last car rumbles down the drive into the night, and, as it fades, a Bach partita starts to emanate from the back dining room. By the time he has finished playing, closing up will be well advanced and the patron will have unwound enough to pitch in and chivvy everyone along so that by a shade after midnight the staff are on their way home. I have slipped downstairs and put the kettle on in the room that used to be a kitchen and is now an office–cum–common-room, the award certificates just starting to outnumber the portraits of composers on the walls, so that I can take a mug of tea out to the back stairs just as my tired-but-happy friend lights up his going-to-bed cigarette. We lean against the stairs and drink our tea in silence, as nothing more needs to be said.

Wed, 07 Aug 2013 22:15:00 +0200

title: "One step forward and two back: Alexander’s early and Pallasmaa’s late work"

A comparison of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” by Christopher Alexander and “The Thinking Hand” by Juhani Pallasmaa

“Notes on the Synthesis of Form” was the first monograph, published in 1964, by Christopher Alexander, the Vienna-born British architect who first studied mathematics at Cambridge University and then spent most of his career at the University of California at Berkeley. “The Thinking Hand” was written in 2009 by Juhani Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect and long-time professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. They were born within a few weeks of each other in 1936. Both have undertaken major projects, but while Pallasmaa’s look familiar to student’s of modern architecture, Alexander’s are idiosyncratic and widely dismissed by his peers, though as a theorist he has been influential. (My copy of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” comes from Upper Iowa University Library, and the return card shows its having been taken out only once, in 1968.) Alexander has had considerable influence in computer science: both “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” and his later “A Pattern Language” have shaped developments in programming languages and techniques.

Art vs craft

What particularly fascinates me about these books and their authors is that a summary of their arguments gives completely the opposite impression to the character of their authors’ works. Pallasmaa calls for a reconnection with embodied thinking in an era that has become too visual and virtual, while Alexander demands a formal approach to design in a world that has become too complex for intuitive approaches; but it is Pallasmaa’s architecture that is modern and Alexander’s that is traditional.

The key to this apparent paradox is in the authors’ characters: Pallasmaa is unabashedly modern in his insistence on the architect’s central importance as a visionary artist–engineer, while Alexander is much more cautious: he argues that architects, and designers in general, largely fail to cope with the problems with which they are faced: their “intuitive ability to organize physical form is…reduced to nothing by the size of the tasks”, and that instead they “hide [their] incompetence in a frenzy of artistic individuality”.

The respective orientations pervade and structure the books. Pallasmaa draws largely on other artists for his inspiration, and takes a thematic approach, with chapters including “The Mysterious Hand”, “The Working Hand”, and “Embodied Thinking”. He illuminates his argument with copious illustrations and fulsome references, with a full page of endnotes at the end of several of the short chapters (eight in 140 pages, with generous margins and the afore-mentioned frequent illustrations). Alexander by contrast offers a programme, and divides his 200-page volume into three main parts: first, an analysis of the problem, with chapters that define the design problem and the traditional “unselfconscious” and modern “selfconscious” design processes; secondly, an exposition of his formal analytic–synthetic process based on the extraction of a “program” or decomposition of the problem from formal–functional “constructive diagrams”; and thirdly two appendices which respectively give an extended example of the approach and the mathematical justification of the formal process. He draws on a similarly wide range of sources, overwhelmingly scientific, from disciplines as diverse as biology, mathematics and anthropology.

In summary, Alexander’s approach emphasizes science and craft, while largely taking artistry for granted (when it’s not part of the problem), while Pallasmaa insists on the need for an embodied artistic vision.

Conscious vs unconscious: a step forward

Both authors observe the limitations of abstract intellectual effort, but for different reasons and in different ways. Alexander defines the problem of design as one of dividing an “ensemble” into “form” and “context”, and then designing the form to as to ensure “good fit” between the two parts. He then observes that in traditional societies design is an “unselfconscious process”, that is, neither codified nor formally taught, but rather encoded in the patterns of the society and its objects. Crucially, he says, the learned skills consist simply of attempting to correct “bad fit”. A maker who has come across the problem before may use a learned solution; otherwise, a random change may be made, and effective solutions may become part of the tradition. Alexander does not mention natural selection, but in fact this is what he is describing. As in nature, it is tremendously powerful, and matches the structure of the design problem itself. It is impossible to give an exhaustive list of what constitutes “good fit”, but only a partial list of “misfits” that have arisen in past experience: the tradition consists of a series of adaptations to past problems.

For the unselfconscious process to work, two conditions must be met: the design problem must be decomposable into problems that can be solved separately, and neither the culture nor the physical environment must change too quickly to allow the tradition to reach an equilibrium of good fit. The need for selfconscious design in the modern world has arisen, Alexander says, because both conditions have been broken: society has become too complex and changes too fast for unselfconscious processes to work (though there are also counter-forces which exacerbate the problem, for example, “buildings are more permanent”). (It might be interesting to reflect on cause and effect here, in particular, whether unselfconscious processes actually broke down, or whether they were abandoned for other reasons as modern society developed, but Alexander doesn’t; however, his later work such as “A Pattern Language” strongly suggests that he reconsidered the applicability of unselfconscious processes to the modern world, which given the successes of free-market capitalism seems only sensible.)

Alexander claims that selfconscious design doesn’t work at present because of a combination of sheer complexity (the classic “five plus or minus two” phenomenon) and the human tendency to analyse in linguistic terms which don’t fit reality. His solution is to boost human cognitive abilities with formal methods. He describes this as a loss of innocence, but says that “whether we decide to stand for or against pure intuition as a method, we must do so for reasons which can be discussed”. He contrasts this attitude with designers who “insist that design must be a purely intuitive process: that it is hopeless to try and understand it”.

The defence of silence: a step back

Pallasmaa implicitly contradicts this view by insisting on the primacy of embodied wisdom over intellect: “I cannot perhaps intellectually analyse…what is wrong with my work during the design…process”. Yet later he says: “In my view, the discipline of architecture has to be grounded on a trinity of conceptual analysis, the making of architecture, and experiencing…it”. He asserts that “creativity is always linked with the happy moment when conscious control can be forgotten”, yet later that “great artists…emphasize the role of restrictions and constraints”. These positions can be reconciled: the restrictions and constraints must be internalized so that they are no longer conscious. It is then possible to imagine using Alexander’s formal techniques as a framework within which to design, while the actual design work is carried on in Pallasmaa’s embodied, intuitive mode.

Pallasmaa, however, concentrates on the embodied mode of thought, which he sees as neglected, and does little to show its place in the larger picture. This is a pity, because this emphasis unbalances the picture he paints: rather like the hand itself, which contains no muscles, divorced from the body, his argument, by paying insufficient attention to its context, fails to persuade. It suffers itself from a frequent lack of connection: despite an approving quotation from Berger describing van Gogh at work, in which “the gestures come from his hand, his wrist, his arm”, at no point does Pallasmaa explicitly acknowledge the hand’s dependence as a mechanical component; and similarly, though he quotes Heidegger saying “only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands”, he repeatedly gives the impression that he believes the hand can literally think, separately from the brain. Again, he fails to acknowledge the irony, having quoted Henry Moore on the danger of analysing creative work, of his reliance on artists who have no such qualms.

This lack of selfconsciousness is precisely what Alexander warns against. Pallasmaa asserts that “an established and successful professional would hardly stop to ponder questions such as, what is the floor, the window, or the door”, exactly what Alexander has spent his career doing. Pallasmaa says “the true artist…collaborates with the silent tradition of the craft”, but fails to acknowledge the problems with this position, or indeed, his lack of balance in concentrating on the artistic side of architecture.

In his penultimate paragraph, Pallasmaa says, beautifully, “architecture has to slow down experience, halt time, and…maintain and defend silence”. This is true, though it is no less the task of every designer, and each person who would live aright. It seems, though, that Pallasmaa has confused means and ends: his defence of silence has become a silent defence.

Now and then: another step back

The 1960s was in many ways a more optimistic time than now: the world was a larger place, technology was less powerful and our knowledge relatively undeveloped, but there was a greater sense of progress in the face of more tractable problems. The limits to growth were yet to appear. Alexander’s notes are very much in the spirit of the times, using the latest research to propose a way to address the problems of the day. Pallasmaa’s work is also arguably very much in the spirit of the times in its more personal, inward focus, and its more partial gaze; but in the fifty years that separate the books not only our problems but our ability to solve them are vastly greater, which makes Pallasmaa’s work look at best pessimistic or unambitious, and at worst out of touch navel-gazing. “The Thinking Hand” is elegiac and beautiful in places, but its call to mysticism, often shrouded in academic turns of phrase, does the profession no favours, while the occasional overconfidence of the young author of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” is excused by his directness, vitality and enthusiasm.

Where I live, in London, the problems are only getting worse: the prestige projects are now overwhelmingly for private clients, the public purse is stretched as never before (regulations for schools were recently relaxed to make it possible to build them smaller), as the state continues to abdicate its traditional client roles. The result is a generation of architects whose interests lie in exclusive engagement with the rich and powerful, to design investment fortresses that are privately-owned, privately inhabited (or, in many cases, uninhabited) investment vehicles which continue to swallow up previously public land. Public use increasingly means shopping, which excludes those without the means to over-consume, and so the vast majority of citizens are left as powerless spectators of the urban landscape, unable to affect or afford anything, at best gawp at the attractions and buy something in the gift shops of this enormous private gallery.

Under these conditions, Pallasmaa’s response is an entirely understandable one from an evidently humane person, but it is Alexander that speaks to our need.

Thanks to Thomas Impiglia and Donna Mairi Macfayden respectively for recommending the books to me.

Wed, 26 Jun 2013 22:52:57

“Speaking Code” by Geoff Cox and Alex McLean

Subtitled “Coding as aesthetic and political expression”, I found this book in Blackwell’s in Oxford, and it instantly appealed as one who has made his living primarily from voice and code. The colourful cover also appeals, and pleasingly it too is a program, in the colour-notated language Piet.

The book’s subtitle is “Coding as aesthetic and political expression”, and the book sets out to connect coding to voice, and to analyse how the advent of ubiquitous computing affects notions of action, work, voice and speech.

For someone with little background in the relevant political, philosophical and literary background, which as far as I can tell rests primarily on Marx and Arendt, and more recently Virno, with a liberal sprinkling of French post-modern philosophers and the ever-present Žižek, Cox’s language, references and style are all hard work, and from a left-wing humanities culture I’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of. But the functional code (mostly McLean’s; there is also code poetry, which is fun but, I think, less interesting) is clear, playful and technically thought-provoking. One example patches the Linux kernel to make the machine slow down when it is busy; another tries to say “hello” to every server on the internet (since it’s IPv4, this could be read as a “Last Chance to See” style of greeting!), a sort of polite and manic code-cousin of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. In the first case, it’s interesting to think of the implications of making a machine behave more like a human; in the second, to wonder how likely one would be to fall under suspicion, or even arrest, for running an apparently harmless script. Other hacks attempt to follow all your followers’ followers on Twitter, or to defriend all your friends while inviting them to meet each other in the flesh.

We are treated to a deep dive into the Hofstadterian strange loop that code sets up between speech and action, described in the introductory chapter 0 as “double coding”, the difference between what humans and machines make of a program, not forgetting its comments.

There are some interesting analyses: Mechanical Turk is obviously ripe for political analysis even to this naïf, while there’s a powerful critique of proprietary cloud-based services which is all the more striking by the fact that it emerges from principled argument rather than the more pragmatic starting point of projects like Freedom Box. Yet my final impression is one of mild disappointment: there are plenty of sources I can now go and read, yet not only does the book not set out a programme (reasonably enough, as it’s an academic, not a polemic, work), but I didn’t reach the end feeling I’d read a compelling analysis or synthesis. Many apparently important sentences are either too vague to be sure of their meaning, or appear to include important misunderstandings without justification: describing JavaScript as “proprietary, indeed owned by Google”, or the operations of conjunction and disjunction as “complex” are just two glaring examples. Other passages which were unclear to me seemed to rely on a background I lack, which is a pity given that one might hope politically-ignorant “codeworkers” such as myself might form a significant portion of the book’s audience.

As a result, the final impression that the book is both too long for the limited message it does convey, and too short for readers lacking background in one of its two sides (there are plenty of unexplained technical references that will baffle those without a considerable grasp of computing). This is a pity, as the authors clearly have both the knowledge of and sympathy towards both sides of the subject required to write a compelling book, and education in this area is sorely needed, both by the mass of codeworkers who are by and large politically inert despite being highly educated; and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by political activists who despite being technically savvy have perhaps failed to grasp quite how fundamentally computing has changed the nature of the game.

Ridiculously for a book in MIT Press’s “Software Studies” series, and doubly for a book that contains source code, there is no electronic version or accompanying web site. Many of the sites referred to in the book seem to suffer from the same insouciance towards preservation, which seems oddly prevalent among digital artists given the lengths to which more traditional workers go to preserve their œuvre. A smaller gripe (which is by no means unique to this book) is that the endnotes comprise both references and expansions on the main text, resulting in a lot of pointless flipping back and forth to the former in order to catch the latter. Rarely have form and content been so out of whack.

Mon, 10 Jun 2013 00:49:28

GNOME 3 extensions: the madness must end

GNOME 3.6 has been released, and as usual that means updating a raft of extensions that I use to restore sanity to my desktop (mostly, switching off all the guff I don’t use, and putting old apps’ system tray icons back up at the top of the screen where they’re actually useful, rather than hidden away in the message tray).

Most of the extensions should just work, but they don’t, because GNOME Shell extensions are broken by design. Let me count the ways:

  1. Extensions are declared to work with a version of GNOME, not a version of the API. Typically, the version in the metadata.json file includes a revision number. At the very worst (since in practice the GNOME team seems to change the API with every release, of which more below) it should include a minor version number (e.g. “3.6”). There should be absolutely no need, barring bugs in GNOME Shell, to update extensions across minor releases.

  2. Minor API changes, like removing an underscore from an identifier, break extensions. Seriously dudes, stop it. We never had this pain with GNOME 2: Compiz extensions, on the whole, worked from one release to the next. GNOME 3 should be GNOME 3. By all means tweak the API as it goes along, but make it backwards compatible.

  3. No API documentation. The fact that the Javascript bindings are generated automatically is great, but there’s no documentation for any language, and the few handy HOWTOs don’t make up for it.

  4. The built-in tools (Looking Glass) are cute, but useless for development (Looking Glass stops the desktop, so you have to keep switching between it and your editor). It shouldn’t be harder to patch a GNOME Shell extension than a GTK app written in C, it should be much easier.

On the plus side, extensions.gnome.org works faster and is better now: for example, it allows you to install extensions that have not yet been checked on the latest version. For several extensions that was all I needed; for others I needed to change the version number manually; a couple needed trivial patches, and some others I had to switch to alternatives. This stupid dance was more than half the work in upgrading from Ubuntu 12.04 to 12.10, a fact which reflects only a little credit on Canonical, as I would class the amount of upgrade-induced work there as “acceptable” rather than “minimal”.

Tue, 23 Oct 2012 00:01:05

A tale of two Ebens

Recently I’ve been following the spectacular progress of Raspberry Pi with awe and delight. Eben Upton’s brainchild of a computer that empowers and inspires children to learn to program has garnered a lot of attention in the adult world; it remains to be seen whether its plucky British inventor and retro computing appeal can translate into real success where it matters—with children.

Meanwhile, I’ve been led to some startling talks given recently by Eben Moglen, the founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, and general counsel for the Free Software Foundation. They both deal with the importance of free software and free hardware, and the second in particular recasts the arguments into the current political climate as a strategy for getting the attention of politicians. It’s in the second talk too that Moglen insists on the importance of children, describing children’s curiosity as the greatest force for social change that we possess.

Moglen’s urgent and inspiring call to action (“technologists must engage politically to save civilisation”) rather overshadows Upton’s (“get kids excited about programming with cool toys”), but they share at least two foci: not just children, but also small inexpensive computers; for Moglen spends some time talking about the Freedom Box project, to create small inexpensive low-power servers that everyone can use to regain control over their own data.

And indeed, people are already making the Freedom Box software stack run on Raspberry Pis.

Is there some hope that we may as well as claiming the children also be able to reclaim their parents? I find it rather sad that so much emphasis is placed on children, as it overlooks the childlike potential of adults: for that potential is all of ours while we yet live.

Mon, 11 Jun 2012 22:25:11

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