Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Amsterdam vacation I: Milking the experience

My gustatory impression of Amsterdam, in a word, is grass.

No, actually there was not much grass of the lawn variety to be seen, except growing atop houseboats as a living roof. That’s not the sort of grass I had in mind. I am referring to three specific types of grass, all ingested in one way or another by humans.

The first type is cereal grass—the grains from which beer and bread are made.

Netherlands cuisine seems to be the geographic average of the cuisines of other countries in the region. It’s somewhere between French and English, somewhere between German and Scandinavian. It is as if all those other countries’ styles rolled downhill into the Low Countries and blended smoothly together. I find it hard to point to any one dish I tasted that I couldn’t connect to an antecedent elsewhere.

Amsterdam, of course, has been a trading center for centuries. So the cuisines of the country’s former colonies and current trading partners are everywhere to be seen. But those are distinctly not Dutch.

In any case, getting back to the cereal grasses: Beer good! Bread, um, not so much. I tried several varieties of each, and the beer was better in every case. The bread, when I could choke it down, detracted from the appeal of whatever it touched.

The second type is forage grass
—the raw materials from which ruminants make milk.

The same Dutch soils and climate that produce poor grains for bread produce magnificent dairy products. The Dutch cheeses we can buy in the US are pale shadows of the cheeses I tasted in Amsterdam. Regardless of type—aged, soft-ripened, semisoft, fresh, chevre—they were remarkably sweet, rich, and buttery. I do not mean they all taste the same—far from it. I mean only that each was distinctive in its class and executed to perfection.

But set aside the cheeses. The butter was unlike any I’ve ever tasted, including European-style butters made in the US, imported Danish butter, or Australian butter eaten in Australia. Given the several miles a day we walked, I didn’t even feel guilty eating it; the only hard part was pretending I was eating it with bread.

The third type of grass is in an unrelated botanical family and is illegal in the US.

The coffee shops where it is sold and consumed often have their doors open to the sidewalk. These shops are scattered throughout the old city, and we inhaled enough just walking by that we didn’t feel the need to enter.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Going Dutch

Blogging will resume when I return from Amsterdam.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A way of thinking about typography

I’m working through the design of a book in which the author combines prose and poetry. She requested that most of the poems be set with all lines centered. I advised her that this is rather an old-fashioned approach and that she might consider a more up-to-date design. We went back and forth a bit; then she tested three design options with a focus group. The answer came back loud and clear: The panel much preferred the author’s original choice of all lines centered.

In the course of reporting these results to me, she made this point about the book: “Another thing I am trying to accomplish is balancing right brain communication (poetry) with left brain communication (analysis, rules). The structure helps distinguish the form of communication.”

Here is how I responded to that. I think it might be of interest to others, as well:

You probably realize you are not the first person to consider the relationship between the way words are arranged on the page and the way the mind processes those words. A lot of consideration has gone into the topic at least since the early Medieval period—some of it science-based but mostly introspection-based, followed by market testing.

In recent decades, people have tried to construct a theoretical framework in which to consider such questions. One of the concepts that has emerged is that of “marking.” This refers to any device that creates a visual distinction between elements. For example, a paragraph indent marks the beginning of a new thought. A space between paragraphs does the same thing. Most practitioners have come to believe that double marking is both unnecessary and intrusive. So a well designed page will generally employ either an indent to mark a paragraph or a break to mark a paragraph, but not both. (The two marks can be mixed on the page and be used in slightly different contexts; I’m not saying a book can only employ one or the other; just that we don’t indent a paragraph following a break.)

, broadening this notion, has suggested that a criterion for good graphic communication is employing what he calls the “least perceptible difference,” for example between line weights in a diagram, to indicate semantic distinctions.

With that theoretical framework superimposed on the traditional craft of book design, it is easy to understand the right-brain choices typographers use to evoke a subliminal response in the reader without beating people over the head. Typography has always been a connotative art, in other words. And subtle choices are the hallmark of fine typography. The reader is not supposed to notice (by which I mean that the reader’s analytical left brain is not supposed to be aware of) the connotation that the designer is trying to evoke. The reader is simply supposed to be suffused with the desired feelings.

So, yes, the structure helps distinguish the form of communication, as you say; but the goal is to make this distinction below the level of the reader’s conscious thought and to do it as subtly as possible without losing the effect altogether.

For more on this, see an earlier post on this blog, The architect of the page.

Friday, October 13, 2006

One of the joys of editing ...

… is finding a real howler in a venue where excellent editing is the rule.

By that I mean that it’s just tedious to slog through badly written, badly edited prose that you are nonetheless required to read for some bureaucratic or civic reason but that you have no control over.

And there is surely a sense of pride in turning a sow’s ear of a manuscript into a silk purse of a finished book.

But there is real glee, for me at least, in finally, after a long and busy week, stealing a few minutes with The New Yorker—certainly one of the best edited weeklies around—and coming to this sentence in a piece by Malcom Gladwell: “A woman has fled an abusive relationship with her infant son and is now living in a port town.” (He’s describing a film plot; these are not real people. Relax.)

Well, I’m easily amused, I guess. Correcting the above sentence is left as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, October 06, 2006

And now a word from . . .

… whoever coins a good one.

Periodically—okay, almost every day—I come across a discussion in one online forum or another in which a participant fulminates about the latest abomination some miscreant is trying to add to the English language and how they can’t do that because that just “isn’t a word.”

Invariably, someone with a cooler head (not necessarily me) points out that if English couldn’t accommodate new words, Beowulf would be a lot easier for us to read. So new words are a way of life for English-speakers. Nonetheless, not all neologisms survive. Editors, as a group, have a certain amount of influence; if a strong consensus develops among editors that a word is not a useful or entertaining addition to the language, the word tends not to appear in print very much; and without the reinforcement of print citations, it may quietly fade from use. If the consensus among editors tends to favor a new word, it is likely to persist. There is, in other words, at least some coupling between the language (what we speak) and the writing system (what we publish). And that loose coupling is, to some extent, mediated by editors.

Enough thumbsucking. What prompts this post is a discussion thread yesterday on the tech writers’ mailing list I belong to, basically a bitch session about words people hear at work but hate. I didn’t hate all the ones people offered. In fact, I rather liked a few.
  • updation—Yvette Denoga reported this one from the world of geekdom. She hates it. I think it has legs.
  • destinated—Keri Morgret reports this one from amateur radio (“ham radio”) jargon, and I see shows the term. “I’ve destinated” means I reached my destination. In the right context, it works.
  • encashinator—Sarah Bouchier claims coinage of this synonym for ATM. No hits on Google or Urban Dictionary yet; so props to Sarah.
  • incent—This comes to us from business jargon and has been around for a while. The American Heritage Usage Panel strongly discourages its use. I think it’s with us to stay, though; and I think it serves a purpose. You may disagree, of course.

Sunday, October 01, 2006