Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Bachmann

I've mentioned John Bachmann before, but I should note my new article, in the current issue of Imprint. It's been a pet project of mine since 1999 (here's an older version of the paper I did for the New England American Studies Association, from 2001), and it's gratifying to see it looking so nice. Here's a summary:

John Bachmann was born in Switzerland around 1814 and died in Jersey City, New Jersey around 1894. John Reps writes "No finer artist of city views worked in America," and indeed Bachmann's bird's eye views are unique in the history of American views for their combination of artistic technique inherited from European landscape drawing, in which he was trained and worked in Paris, and the experimental sensibility he had in constructing his views from viewpoints he had never seen. His career saw the transition from one-color stone lithography through multiple-tint-stone techniques into zinc chromolithography, and from printed views as decoration and commemration to views as promotional and speculative documents. His views reflect not only the changing landscape of New York City and the other cities he drew, but the changing landscape of the American print world.
If you want to see more of his work, a good start is the Library of Congress collection, which is split between the Geography and Maps Division (bird's eye city views and Civil War panoramic maps) and the Prints and Photographs Division. Other significant collections on-line include the New York Public Library. Non-online collections with significant holdings include the New-York Historical Society, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Museum of the City of New York.

Anyway, it's nice to finally see this bit of work done...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

True Love

Warning: this post assumes you have read Diane Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock. If you haven't, it will make very little sense, I suspect. Fair warning.

Here's a really weird thing I realized recently about Fire and Hemlock: It's a love story (in large part) in which no-one says "I love you."


I used the Google Books version of the text, and searched for the word "love." The word appears 24 times in about 420-some pages of the paperback. Mostly it's people saying "Here, love" to Polly. Seb Leroy is rumored to be "in love with" Polly, and later offers to go with her in the "Tunnel of Love" at the carnival. The Dumas quartet signs a letter "with love from the Dumas Quartet." And When Polly plays Pierrot in the school play, Harlequin and Pierrot are discussed falling in love. Apart from that, the instances of the word are all "I'd love to!" and "He'll love this!"

But it's not that Jones doesn't have people trying to talk about love. They just always use different words: Ivy goes on about "happiness," at the end Tom talks about "seeing you" and Nina is boy-mad: "The rest of the time Nina pursued boys."

Laurel does not talk about love. Laurel is, in fact, incapable of real human love. One of the aspects of being of the Fair Folk. She takes, she enjoys, she uses—but she does not love. And her point of view infects the whole story from beginning to end.


I'm reaching the conclusion that the reason the ending of the book is so unsatisfying is that the real ending, the place it should have gone, is so depressing that Jones couldn't bear to go there. In order to save Tom, Polly really does have to let go of him. In doing so, she is in essence giving up her love. And in doing that, she is becoming not a little like Laurel. No technicalities, no "Nowhere is somewhere" word games.

The book, in avoiding actually talking about love—real love—swirls around a vortex. It's the pool at the bottom of the garden, which as Polly enters drains her of human emotion and connection, drains her of love.


Maybe afterwards, when Tom says "I want to see you anyway," they will be able to write stories together, to meet in that make-believe world where they explored being heroes together. But in the flesh-and-blood world, Tom used her, or tried to anyway. It may have been justifiable, but that's not the point. Polly's heartbreak, her teenaged jealousy of Mary Fields, which was so neatly erased by Laurel in making her "forget about Tom," has been unerased and revealed for the flawed and not-necessarily-based-on-the-real-Tom thing it was. Whatever relationship Polly and Tom go forward with, it will be tinged with the fact that they can never really trust each other the same way again.

It's not good to ask too many questions of love, to ask it to justify itself. Basing our decisions in love and life on the patterns we see can leave us blinded to patterns we don't see. That's the part of dancing that's impossible to explicitly teach, that rules can't touch, that explicit labels hide.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Revisiting Tufte, Pt 2: In Defense of the Ridiculous

First off, please don't get me wrong. The man's a genius. Ed Tufte's books really are glorious explications of unspoken rules and structures in a world (information graphics) that's supposed to be all about clarity but is surprisingly opaque even to its experienced practitioners.

They're also a treasure trove of examples of information graphics and how to make them clearer.

I've been realizing as I revisit Tufte that his foundational structure is pretty well laid out in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, the first of his "picture books". The other three books are essentially collections of add-on essays. There may be themes running through the books, but really each chapter stands alone quite well, referring to the original book and to other essays from all four volumes.

I was struck by a few other things:

1. data and texture
In Beautiful Evidence, in the chapter on "sparklines", he evokes the intensity of linework in older western artists, using a sample from a Dürer engraving. He evokes it, but I think he mis-describes it. In Tufte's vision, all marks are information—all ink is data. Tufte evokes the Renaissance artist and then moves on to Swiss mountain cartgoraphy, with its similarly intense linework, implying that the Swiss are in the same business.

It's revealing that Tufte chose Dürer to evoke instead of, for example, Rembrandt. Dürer, to our eyes, is fussy; the intensely engraved lines at once read as texture and as information: every mark has a feeling of intent, and the sum is a rich picture, full of recognizeable detail but still forming a coherent statement as a whole.

Rembrandt's etchings are no less detailed, and form no less of a statement, but each mark does not imply data in the same way Dürer can seem to. Rembrandt's marks, especially as he matured, are about texture. In the map world, we know that's a lot of what pulls a map together: texture. We want it to be meaningful, for that texture to itself carry meaning, but we need to remember that the holding-together of the map is what it's really there for, and that at a certain level it no longer carries specific data-meaning: at one scale the wobbles of a river-line are traced precisely, but at a certain point they only mean "the river isn't straight." They are texture, not data.

2. ridicule
I was struck at how Tufte uses ridicule as a weapon against the "enemy": Clarity is good, confusion is bad. If you're going to intentionally create a muddle, make it a clear muddle. And he picks good targets: the ineffective decision-making that led to the Challenger explosion, Powerpoint's limitations...

Here's the problem:

If we become afraid of ridicule, we will not push ourselves. Sometimes, like when launching a hugely expensive piece of equipment into outer space with seven humans aboard, careful is a really really good idea. But not all charts and statistics should carry this sort of load. That no-fun attitude is, maybe, why cartography ends up feeling so stilted sometimes.

I'm a believer in Sturgeon's Law, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer. From Wikipedia:
The meaning of Sturgeon’s Law was explicitly detailed by Sturgeon himself. He made his original remarks in direct response to attacks against science fiction that used “the worst examples of the field for ammunition”. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crud is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms do.
From my point of view, Tufte in using ridicule to fight against what he calls "chartjunk" is also throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

What baby? What bathwater?

3. In defense of texture and the Baroque
Tufte points to a graphic like this first in Envisioning Information as an example of an interesting use of simplification and distortion to allow comparison. Later, in Beautiful Evidence, he ridicules it for having all that extra texture, the knobby lakes and so forth. To me, this is a really beautiful and interesting graphic, something to strive for, not an eccentric maiden aunt. That texture and those extra squiggles don't communicate Really Useful Data, but they do present part of a sense of identity and character.

Tufte attacks information graphics with unnecessary framing, or with editorial illustration, and he uses egregious examples to do it with. But like Sturgeon says, there's lots of crap to go around. I want to look at some baroque graphics that work. Like the river-comparison chart, or historic illustrated maps. Tufte repeatedly quotes Jonathan Swift: "So, geographers in Afric maps,/With savage pictures fill their gaps/And o'er unhabitable downs/Place elephants for want of towns.").

You know, I like the elephants. I like illustrated maps when they are done well. There are lots of badly done "plain" maps, and Tufte is at his best when he's giving us a theoretical framework to work within in building that sort of graphic, but I think he falls down when he turns around and says that that sort of graphic is superior to baroque graphics.

Over and out for now.