Friday, March 29, 2013

Memory catalog

ometimes, months or years later, things come back to me that I once read in some book, some article, somewhere in the wide world. If I'm very lucky, I can track the fragmented memory to the source. Maybe I remember hearing the ocean wind whistling in my ears alongside the words that have pushed to the surface of my thoughts, or perhaps the context of surrounding material has remained, a preceding essay in a collection or the experience of an online newspaper. If I'm so lucky, I can usually find the original piece and catalog it more thoroughly for the next time (thereby guaranteeing that there will be no next time).
books, pile, stack, mess, bookstore, window, light, backlit, cozy

In this case, I had a thought bubble up about explaining the size of one's library to guests when they ask "So, you've read all of these?" What a silly question. It's usually posed by someone who has no library of their own, no understanding of the value of such a collection as insurance against dullness and the possibility of suddenly finding oneself with nothing to read. Sure, I have read a large number of the books on my shelves, and I keep them around as reminders of good times, comforting me with the knowledge that I absorbed something from each of them, and can easily open them up again as I please.

It's this last point that is relevant here. The book in question turned out to be A Passion for Books, appropriately enough. I brought this somewhat large paperback along on a solo bike trip last summer under the assumption that I would have time and energy left for reading after biking 60 miles a day. I did not. Nonetheless, I got through a couple of the essays and whatnot while in various B&Bs and the memory link stuck. The book, my friend, had traveled with me and formed that particular synaptical [sic!] connection while in the middle of strange lands (Western Maryland, you know) and unfamiliar furnishings.

Here now are the three passages by assorted authors from the Passion for Books collection which each mention (independently!) the arduous task of explaining one's library to unsuspecting visitors:

In the gradual growth of every student's library, he may – or may not – continue to admit literary friends and advisers; but he will be sure, sooner or later, to send for a man with a tool-chest. Sooner or later, every nook and corner will be filled with books, every window will be more or less darkened, and added shelves must be devised. He may find it hard to achieve just the arrangement he wants, but he will find it hardest of all to meet squarely that inevitable inquiry of the puzzled carpenter as he looks about him. "Have you really read all these books?" The expected answer is, "To be sure, how can you doubt it?" Yet if you asked him in turn, "Have you actually used every tool in your tool-chest?" you would very likely be told, "Not one half as yet, at least this season; I have the others by me, to use as I need them." Now if this reply can be fairly made in a simple, well-defined, distinctly limited occupation like that of a joiner, how much more inevitable it is in a pursuit which covers the whole range of thought and all the facts in the universe. The library is the author's tool-chest. He must at least learn, as he grows older, to take what he wants and to leave the rest. 
Books Unread by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (what a name)

In the two years I had been coming there, maybe two or three hundred days spent in that apartment from morning till night, I never saw anyone else there – no visitor, no delivery person, no handyman – no one. I asked Chaim about this on one of our walks (I later understood that great Yiddish writers simply do not have or permit visitors; then again, maybe it was the threat of coffee that kept everyone away), and he said something about not wanting people to think him strange for having too many books. I thought he was talking about the annoying line all book collectors endure: Have you read all of these books? I told him about Dr. Johnson's stock response: Yes, and some of them twice! Chaim stopped walking and looked at me disdainfully. "If anyone asks you if you've read all those books," he said, "it means you don't have enough books."
They Don't Call It a Mania for Nothing by Harold Rabinowitz (also the editor of Passion)

About the time of the discovery of America a book came out called The Ship of Fools, by one Sebastian Brant. In it was an attack on the book fool: a satire on the passion of collecting, in which the author said that the possession of books was but a poor substitute for learning. That phrase which the layman reader asks the book collector so often with a smirk of condescension, "So you really read them?" undoubtedly originated then. The real book collector, with suppressed murder in his heart, smiles acquiescence, assuming an apologetic air for his peculiar little hobby. His invisible armor is his knowledge, and he has been called a fool so often he glories in it. He can afford to have his little joke. So much for this threadbare gibe.
Talking of Old Books by A.S.W. Rosenbach (perhaps the most successful modern book collector of them all)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Encouraging growth (aka, pruning)

istinctly not my most exciting post ever: Last week, mid-March, I went about the process of pruning some of the more unruly shrubs around the yard. Today, it's snowing and there's an inch of frozen precipitation covering the buds and new shoots. Oh well? I've put together a second sheet in my spreadsheet of garden info using my favorite pruning book, the American Horticultural Society's Pruning and Training.

For the most part, pruning is about removing dead or diseased parts of the plant and encouraging growth. It's important to understand how a plant reacts to pruning in order to stimulate the growth you want. When a cut is made, the plant will react by putting energy into growing side buds on that same branch, or if you've cut back hard, by sprouting a bunch of new shoots from around the base of that cut. So, you'll want to cut back to just above a bud, so that the branch can then create a couple new branches and nice bushy growth. The book really explains this better.

The result of my tidying was a large trash bin of very prickly rose branches, yet to picked up by our wonderful local rubbish collection service. My rose bushes are tidier without dead branches cluttering up their undersides and centers (preventing light from reaching the lower branches and providing a home for mildew, bugs and other troubles), and a few of the other shrubs around the yard are less leggy and ready to fluff out with spring growth. Anyway, here's the new pruning sheet:

Next up on my list is fixing the boxwood disaster in front. I've debated between just trimming it back up into formal hedge shape and trying out some cloud pruning, but I think the former will win out. It's just so dull looking in front of the house with nothing but green hedge. If I trim up the underside enough I may be able to get some wandering jew under there, or at least a couple pots of trailing vines.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book review: Feynman's Rainbow

hen I started reading Feynman's Rainbow, all I knew about it was that it was on my to-read stack as a result of being a recent gift, and of course the title. I mean, heck, it includes "Feynman," what could go wrong? I had forgotten the other reference point that came with it: Leonard Mlodinow was also a writer for Star Trek. This finally occurred to me somewhere later in the book when he mentions his writing hobby and desire to become a screenwriter.

Most of the memoir/biography is about Mlodinow's time at Caltech in the 1980s, when he was unsure as to his worth as a physicist (and human being, since these things tend to devolve quickly into total failure of confidence). Supposedly, Rainbow is more about Feynman than Mlodinow, hence "biography," but I found it to be more focused on the author's soul-searching and interactions with many other characters at Caltech. Sure, there are big block quotes from his conversations with Feynman, but they're more anecdotal than anything else. That makes me think that the book rides on the famous physicist's name, but survives on the actual content.

Double rainbow over Marlboro College, 2006
And it was rather compelling content, too. Perhaps that's just because I feel like I'm in a similar, confusing, in-between place where I'm not terribly confident in my abilities. Still, Mlodinow's writing was engaging and he explained the related physics in straight-forward terms, just to fill the reader in on context.

While the book's title comes from a particular section on finding what is beautiful and amazing to you and then following that sense to your life's work, I particularly appreciated this quotation from Feynman:
I have to think I have a little bit better chance than the other guys, for some reason. I know in my heart that it is likely false, and likely the particular attitude I'm taking with it was thought of by others. I don't care; I fool myself into thinking I have an extra chance. That I have something to contribute. Otherwise I may as well wait for him to do it, whoever it is. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Resumes and RWD: Content, content, content

Who knew I was doing it all wrong? Throughout my working life, my resume has been horrendously unattractive, difficult to scan, uninteresting, bland, and generally makes me wonder how I've gotten as many interviews as I have. Well, no more! I recently stumbled across a couple of graphic designers' resumes and realized that a resume doesn't have to be a dry, formulaic monstrosity (mine was also much too long, a sure indicator of my lack of experience). In my own defense, I had put that resume together while working and looking at jobs in the federal government, which is really not known for being terribly stylish. But that's just an excuse.

In reading back over some previous versions of my resume (pre-Git infestation in my life, so piles of old files), I noticed that not only had I dropped some minor positions from the tail-end, but I had also lost interesting tidbits like the list of gallery shows my artwork had been displayed in. I'm not currently looking for work as a photographer, but those shows were something I was proud of and had worked hard on. Could they be considered work experience, or just an example of well-roundedness? Is character an asset better addressed in a cover-letter and/or interview?

Somewhere not too long ago I made a mental note that it was possible to write a resume in HTML, rather than the old word processor approach. Then my brain did its thing and a dim little bulb lit up; an HTML resume is a great way to show off the fact that I can create a bit of content and do some basic styling. Plus, it would get me away from the headache of nudging paragraphs and headings around in Google Drive. Complete control! mwaha– ...I've been saying that too much in these posts lately. oops.

Here's where I went slightly astray: doing a bit of background research on HTML resumes. I only meant to find a couple examples (see my collection here), but somewhere along the way ran into A List Apart (ALA)'s article on responsive resumes. Which is when I realized I had seen a retweet of this article on responsive web design (RWD) earlier in the day. Which took me back to another article from ALA on fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries (RWD in a nutshell), further explained with handy percentage-based grid templates and some guidance on element sizing for those of us who just don't grok maths.

Somewhere in there, the best explanation for the whole business of RWD was from Mark Boulton. Instead of designing for a computer screen, an iphone, or even a printed page, designers should think in the opposite direction: from the content outwards. Start with the content, lay it out in relative terms (ems and %s), think of the whole as a fluid form originating from a single element. Design outwards from the logo, from a critical ad for your store, from a dynamically generated element like a blog post. Like all logical things, this makes perfect sense once you've heard it.

"Start designing from the content out" also makes sense in the context of "content first, then style." You can't style something that doesn't exist, and it's much more difficult to stuff your content into arbitrarily created elements. So step one is to create or define your content, step two is to style it in relative terms. A resume is also a prime place to avoid contentless content and to make sure that you are getting the right information to the user (your future employer). So to review, the most important things in design are content, content, content.

Whew, well that was sort of step one in the process. Coming up next should be editing the old resume into a more manageable sound bite, then designing a new layout before looking too closely at inspiration. That way I can get raw me onto the page before introducing outside forces.