Emphasis & beauty: More … or less?

Today, two questions for you to ponder:

  1. To emphasize something (an idea, a word, an image, a sensation, anything), should you add or remove?
  2. To make something more beautiful, do you need to add or remove?

So this is a post about adding and removing.

I come at this, naturally, from the perspective of a writer. And as you might remember from my post about “color in writing,” I like to use art as an analogy for writing. Of course, I could also use sound, or smell, or touch or taste — but that is harder to do on a blog. So let’s think about words as visual stimuli.

I. Zen writing or Thai writing

Look at those two temple scenes above (both from Wikipedia). I’ve been to both temples. Both are Buddhist. One is in Kyoto, Japan, the other in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both cities are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

All of that is beside the point. If you’re like me, you will immediately focus your glance on one object: the pile of sand (or was it pebbles?) in front of the Kyoto temple. You will then scan the Thai temple for something to focus on … and give up, returning to the pile of sand.

Which style, the Zen or the Thai, is better at emphasis?

The Zen, of course. And it does that by removing details, the better to show one stunning detail.

The Thai style, by contrast, is not interested in emphasis. It is interested in sensual barrage.

So, although both are nominally Buddhist, you realize that the two styles present two separate conceptions not only of aesthetics but also of religious experience. If you are like me:

  • the Zen experience leaves you serene,
  • the Thai experience leaves you stimulated.

(Incidentally, you will generally find the same contrast between Japanese and Thai food.)

Is one “better” than the other? That’s not a fair question. But life isn’t fair, so I will answer it. The Zen aesthetic is superior.

Now, let’s say you are a designer of temples (= writer). You better know at the outset which experience you’re trying to create. If you’re trying to make people serene, you better not incorporate any “advice” from the Thai guys; if you’re trying to stimulate, don’t listen to the Japanese.

Put differently: author, know thyself.

II. “Baroque” writing or “Baroque” writing

Let’s take another example. The caricature of Baroque and Rococo art is that they are overly ornate — Thai, rather than Zen, if you will.

This abbey in Ottobeuren, Bavaria, near where I grew up, is an example:

Do you see the wound of Jesus on the ceiling?

Didn’t think so.

Now let’s try this famous painting by Caravaggio, also nominally “Baroque”:

Do you see the wound of Jesus? Of course you do. You see nothing else.

Which is “better”? Again, it is not a fair question, and let me answer it anyway. The Caravaggio is better. It is superb, in fact, one of the best paintings in art history. Ottobeuren is kitsch (which doesn’t prevent hordes of American tourists from visiting it).

But in the interests of fairness, I must qualify that the intent of the two artists was different:

  • The purpose of Ottobeuren is to overwhelm you when you come in.
  • Caravaggio’s purpose is to focus your attention on one action — with light, detail and gaze (ie, that of the disciples) all subservient to that purpose — so that you contemplate a story around that action.

What would Caravaggio have done if his patron had asked him to put, oh, a little angel or curlicue in the upper right hand corner, to “make better use of that space”? Caravaggio would have ignored him.

III. Microsoft or Apple

Let me sign off on this little meditation with the famous spoof of Microsoft “improving” Apple’s iPod packaging. As you watch and smirk, think of your Powerpoint presentation, your corporate memo, your essay, your book or whatever: Are you going to commit, with courage, to the point you want to make? Well, then cut the crap. Get Zen. Put the finger in it.

Bookmark and Share

The 4th (and final?) coming of Steve Jobs

As you regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know, I am fascinated by Steve Jobs. He is a main character in one chapter of my forthcoming book.

He is a man who is hard to like, impossible to hate and easy to admire. Complex, in a word.

And he is a man who has both lived and reflected on Kipling’s two impostors — ie, triumph and disaster. Oh, what ups and downs Jobs has known.

Now he has unveiled what may be the fourth device in his career (the first being the 1984 Mac, the second the iPod, and the third the iPhone) that fundamentally changes the way we live. It’s called the iPad.

This is not a review

Every tech and media blogger and journalist is right now weighing in on the iPad as a device, so I will not. We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, and my colleague Tom Standage adds context on his blog.

So let me just add some disparate and quirky observations.

1. Nobody imagines (and thus inspires) as Steve Jobs does

My Chinese mother-in-law, who only gave up dial-up internet when it ceased being offered as an option, wrote my wife the following email:

Subject: iPad

Is this the one I’ve been waiting for?

Now this is the Confucian equivalent of a gyrating pole dance. Steve Jobs has hereby cleared the highest hurdle in the excitement-generation industry.

How does he do this?

Jobs has always known how to imagine on our behalf. The truth is that people don’t know what they want (hence Henry Ford’s famous quip that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse’.) Jobs has the arrogance to understand that and to believe that he knows, and he tends to be right.

2. Nobody feints as Steve Jobs does

Two years ago, when Amazon brought out its Kindle eBook reader, Steve Jobs dropped all sorts of disparaging comments in such a way that he could be sure journalists would repeat the narrative on his behalf. For example, he said that

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

It was catchy because it rang true and caused many of us literati to hyperventilate about this dreadful trend (ie, people no longer reading).

But some of us guessed even then that Jobs in fact believed the exact opposite. And now we know. At the time he said it, he was 80% of the way into developing … his own eBook reader! For that’s what the iPad is, in part. It is Steve Jobs’ stab at reinventing buying and reading books as he once reinvented buying and listening to music.

Let us all pay extra attention to whatever he disparages next.

3. Even Steve Jobs feels his mortality

The man has been facing death for years now. He had pancreatic cancer. He had a liver transplant. He looks gaunt.

Could it be that this notorious perfectionist broke his own rules and accelerated the release of the iPad, launching it before it is really ready so that he could still be there for its birth, not only as father but also as midwife?

At the moment, the iPad is really a large iPod Touch — you can use only one app at a time, for example. Its trajectory, of course, points toward a time when it will indeed become a new “interface” for day-to-day computing. But I feel there is something half-baked about the release as it stands, by Jobs’ previous standards.

I also could not help but notice that Apple’s promotional video for the iPad does something uncharacteristic: It does not feature Steve Jobs, but instead highlights his lieutenants. They have, of course, been there all along, as ingredients of Apple’s secret sauce. But Jobs has never really displayed them, lest anybody might get the idea that he were grooming successors. The corporate message used to be that Jobs was Apple, and Jobs was forever.

Put differently, this may have been the beginning of a Good Bye. Viewed thus, it is especially moving.

Bookmark and Share

How crisis leads to progress (aka the Cloud)

[picapp src=”a/0/e/0/d5.jpg?adImageId=7132613&imageId=2039813″ width=”500″ height=”351″ /]

Here is an admittedly tiny and prosaic example of a big and poetic idea–the idea in Kipling’s If and in my book that disaster can be an impostor (as can triumph). The disaster in this case is more of a nuisance, but you will get the point.

1) The nuisance

My (youngish) Mac Book Pro has had a boo-boo. The screen started going black (why do “screens of death” have to be blue anyway?).

I happen to be in the Apple elite, equipped with all sorts of plastic cards (Apple Care, Pro Care….) that allegedly bestow privilege upon me. So I went to the Apple Store, itself famous for allegedly being at the cutting edge of retail savoir-faire, to get the laptop fixed. I brandished my cards and, after a stressful wait, succeeded in persuading a helpful staff member to …. schedule an appointment, two days hence, for me to come back and get my laptop fixed.

Two days later, I dutifully returned (traffic, parking garages….) to the famous store. Another stressful wait. Somebody took my laptop. The next day, they called to say that they needed another part (the RAM). They called again two days later to say that they needed yet another part (the logic board). Then they left a voice mail (Apple’s iPhone, which I also own, had not rung as it ought to when a call comes in) to say that it would be faster (sic) to send the laptop to a distant part of the country where logic boards are more plentiful, but that they needed my approval. I called back, but they had left for the day.

I called again the next day–at 10AM, when they start work–and gave my approval. The laptop, I was told, would now be en route “from 5 to 7 days”. This was 5 days after my original visit to the famous store with my fancy cards. My lap has been, and remains, untopped.

2) Why I expected this to be a big deal

I am a nomadic worker, and my laptop in effect is my yurt, or office, and thus one of the two West Coast Bureaus of The Economist (the other bureau being the laptop of Martin Giles in San Francisco, who replaced me in my previous beat). So I assumed that no laptop meant no bureau, no articles, no work. I assumed this because this was my experience in 2005, when another laptop of mine died.


3) Why it’s not

But things have changed since 2005. Something called “cloud computing” has come along, diagrammed above. It’s an old idea newly implemented: that information and intelligence reside in the network, to be accessed by “appliances” or “terminals” which we nowadays call web browsers. If you use web mail, Facebook, WordPress, Flickr, YouTube etc etc then you are computing in the cloud. You are not longer storing and crunching data in the machine on your lap. Instead, you are doing it on the internet.

After my previous laptop disaster in 2005, I began to train myself (I am a technophobe by nature) to start using the internet instead of perishable machines. Gmail, Google Calendar (which I share with my wife and a few other people), Google Reader, Facebook, and so forth.

Slowly, I started migrating more and more activities into the cloud. This was slow because of inertia. But I kept at it. My phones (Skype and Google Voice) are now online, as are many of my photos.

So it occurred to me, before going back to the Apple Store, to complete this process. I put all of my current or important documents on Google Docs. This was surprisingly quick and easy. I had never understood why I was using Microsoft Office in the first place, since it was bursting with features that I never use and that confuse me.

Now, instead of emailing my editor a Word doc, I “share” a Google Doc with him.

So now my digital life is entirely in the cloud. As some of you have noticed, even though I have not had my laptop, I have been “on”. Nothing has changed. I use my wife’s laptop, or somebody else’s, or my iPhone, which is almost as good. I no longer really care about my laptop.

4) Progress = Bye bye, Steve, bye bye Bill

At some point, I may yet get my snazzy Mac Book Pro back from this famous Apple Store. Will I care? Enough to go to the store one more time to pick it up. Barely.

The truth is that this slight nuisance, this mini-crisis, nudged me to do what I should have done long ago. It forced me to liberate myself from Microsoft’s software and Apple’s hardware, neither of which I need any longer. Yes, there are some new vulnerabilities (there always are). But I am, if not free, a lot freer.

Bookmark and Share

Storytelling in ads

Story-telling: So far in this thread about stories and their telling, we’ve had highbrow and lowbrow, ancient and modern, written and spoken. How far can we stretch it? I think that every form of human communication involves story-telling. So ads, if they’re good, are stories too.

Consider the following, which is arguably the most famous single ad:

Ira Glass would commend it for immediately making us fell that:

  • “something is about to occur”
  • we are “heading in a direction” and “can’t get out” of the story now
  • there is “a bigger, universal something” (Orwellian oppression vs individual expression)
  • there is “action, action, action … and then thought”. (IBM = Big Brother; Apple = freedom)

It’s good storytelling.

Bookmark and Share

Revolution: Satire ends tyrannical reign of Steve Jobs

The other day I opined on the difference between irony, sarcasm, wit, humor and satire.

I defined satire as “the art of ridiculing somebody in power (possibly using irony, sarcasm, wit or humor as weapons).”

Well, a great cultural moment–dare I say a backlash, an insurrection, a turning point (insert your own metaphor)?–has just arrived. It is the fall from cool of Apple and of Steve Jobs. How? By satire, naturally. Watch:


Bookmark and Share