Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Apple and the cult of thinness

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The iPhone 6

Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)

Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”

The MacBook Air

Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

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John Forbes Nash, Jr.

Though I had success in my research both when I was mad and when I was not, eventually I felt that my work would be better respected if I thought and acted like a “normal” person.

John Forbes Nash, Jr.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The disintegrating cube

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The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Last week, a video made the rounds of a disastrous attempt to construct a 22×22 Rubik’s Cube. Its creator, who remains thankfully anonymous, states that he spent seven months designing the mechanism, printing out the pieces, and assembling it, and the last ninety minutes of the process were streamed live online. And when he finally finishes and tries to turn it for the first time—well, you can skip to the end. (I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he mutters “We are experiencing massive piece separation,” followed by a shocked silence and finally: “Nope. Nope.” And if you listen carefully, after he exits the frame, you can hear what sounds a lot like something being kicked offscreen.) After the video went viral, one commenter wrote: “This makes me feel better about the last seven months I’ve spent doing absolutely nothing.” Yet it’s hard not to see the fate of the cube as a metaphor for something more. Its creator says at one point that he was inspired to build it by a dream, and it’s actually the second of two attempts, the first of which ended in much the same way. And while I don’t feel any less sorry for him, there’s something to be said for a project that absorbs seven months of your life in challenging, methodical work, regardless of how it turned out. Entropy always wins out in the end, if not always so dramatically. The pleasure that a finished cube affords is minimal compared to the effort it took to make it, and there’s something about its sudden disintegration that strikes me as weirdly ennobling, like a sand painting swept away immediately after its completion.

I happened to watch the video at a time when I was particularly prone to such reflections, because I quietly passed a milestone this weekend: five years ago, I launched this blog, and I’ve posted something every day ever since. If you had told me this back when I began, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, and if anything, it might have dissuaded me from starting. By the most conservative estimate, I’ve posted over a million words, which doesn’t even count close to two thousand quotes of the day. The time I’ve invested here—well over an hour every morning, including weekends—probably could have been spent on something more productive, but I have a hard time imagining what that might have been. It’s not like I haven’t been busy: the five years that coincided with the lifespan of this blog saw me produce a lot of other writing, published and otherwise, as well as my first daughter, and I don’t feel that I neglected any of it. (There does, in fact, seem to be a limit to how much time you can spend writing each day without burning out, and once you’ve hit those four to six hours, you don’t gain much by adding more.) Rather than taking up valuable time that would have been occupied by something else, this blog created an hour of productivity that wasn’t there before. It was carved out of each day from the minutes that I just would have frittered away, just as a few dollars squeezed out of a paycheck and properly invested can lead to a comfortable retirement.

The 22x22 Rubik's Cube

Of course, the trouble with that analogy is that the work has to be its own justification. I’m very happy with this blog and its reception, but if I were giving one piece of advice to someone starting out for the first time, it would be to caution against seeing a blog as being good for anything except for itself. It isn’t something you can reasonably expect to monetize or to drive attention to your other projects. And if I had to explain my reasons for devoting so much time to it on such a regular basis, I’d have trouble coming up with a response. There’s no question that it prompted me to think harder and read more deeply about certain subjects, to cast about broadly for quotes and topics, and to refine the bag of tricks I had for generating ideas on demand. Like any daily ritual, it became a form of discipline. If writing, as John Gardner says, is ultimately a yoga, or a way of life in the world, this blog became the equivalent of my morning devotions. My energies were primarily directed to other kinds of work, often frustratingly undefined, and some of which may never see the light of day. The blog became a kind of consolation on mornings when I struggled elsewhere: a clean, discrete unit of prose that I could publish on my own schedule and on my own terms. I could build it, piece by piece, like a cathedral of toothpicks—or a massive Rubik’s Cube. And even if it fell apart in the end, as all blogs inevitably must, the time I spent on it would have been a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake.

I realize that this sounds a little like a valedictory post, so I should make it clear that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Still, the odds are that this blog is closer to its end than to its beginning. When I started out, my resolve to post every day was a kind of preemptive resistance against the fate of so many other blogs, which cling to life for a few months or years before being abandoned. I didn’t want it to succumb to half measures, so, as with most things in life, I overdid it. Whether or not the result will be of lasting interest seems beside the point: you could say much the same of any writing at all, whether or not it appears between book covers. (And in fact, my quick post on George R.R. Martin and WordStar seems likely to be the single most widely read thing I’ll ever write in my life.) The only real measure of any project’s value—and I include my novels and short stories in this category—is whether it brought me pleasure in the moment, or, to put it another way, whether it allowed me to spend my time in the manner I thought best. For this blog, the answer is emphatically yes, as long as I keep that Rubik’s Cube in mind, looking forward with equanimity to the day that it all seems to disintegrate. It’s no different from anything else; it’s just more obvious. And its value comes from the act of construction. As the scientist Wayne Batteau once said of the three laws of thermodynamics: “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.” Or, as the critic David Thomson puts it in the final line of Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles: “One has to do something.”

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2015 at 10:02 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

The art of stubbornness

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Lennart Carleson

If you want to solve problems, as in my case, the most important property is to be very, very stubborn. And also to select problems which are within reach. That needs some kind of intuition…You must somehow have a feeling for mathematics: what is right, what is wrong, and what is feasible…

Stubbornness is important; you don’t want to give up. But as I said before, you have to know when to give up also. If you want to succeed you have to be very persistent. And I think it’s a drive not to be beaten by stupid problems.

Lennart Carleson, in an interview with the American Mathematical Society

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

From head to hand to head

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Edmund de Waal

Gradually you learn “the election of simples,” the identification of plants, seeds, berries, and leaves, how milkwort differs from soapwort and all the varieties of English plants from adder’s tongue to yarrow. How it looks, how it smells, the ghost of its aroma as it crumbles to dust where you prepare plants for decoctions. You learn preparations.

You learn how to think.

Thinking is through the hands as well as the head. After a couple of years you can tip a phial of X or Y and tell by the speed it moves whether it has the correct viscosity. When you levigate, “make into a smooth, fine powder or paste, as by grinding when moist: a method of separating fine from coarse particles,” you change the direction of the pestle in the heavy mortar. This is apprenticeship: the moving of learning from head to hand to head.

Edmund de Waal, The White Road

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November 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

The hotel bathroom puzzle

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The bathroom at the Hotel Louis XIV

In his wonderful book The Evolution of Useful Things, the author and civil engineer Henry Petroski shares one of the most famous case studies in the history of design:

Before it was destroyed by fire, L’Hotel Louis XIV, which was located on the waterfront in Quebec, advertised private baths. However, their privacy was of a limited and precarious kind, for each bath was located between a pair of guest rooms, both of which opened into it. This arrangement is not uncommon in private homes, where bathrooms share a bathroom or where a bathroom opening onto a bedroom also opens into a hallway. In all such situations, the basic design objective is to achieve privacy for whoever might be using the bathroom. This can be achieved in many ways, of course, and the most obvious and common way is to have locks on each of the doors, so that the bathroom user may bar others from entering. The failure of this solution is frequent and frustrating: the person who has finished with the bathroom forgets to unlock the second door, causing at least a little inconvenience for the next user who tries to enter it. In bathrooms shared by siblings, screaming through the locked door may or may not get results, but generally there is little more than the temporary inconvenience of having to go around to the other door or to another bathroom in the house. Families that find bathroom doors too frequently locked can remove all locks from the doors and trust everyone to knock before entering.

“In the case of bathrooms shared by unrelated guests,” Petroski continues, “the problem is less easily solved.” Consider, for example, the hotel bathroom shown above. There are two doors, each opening into a separate room occupied by a guest who is presumably a stranger to the other. You need locks on both doors to assure privacy for each occupant, which means that you’ll invariably wind up with situations in which one guest leaves and forgets to unlock the second door, leading to considerable inconvenience. What do you do? You could, of course, tear down and rebuild the entire hotel, at great expense, so that each room has its own bathroom—a solution that might sound ridiculous, but isn’t so far removed from how similar design problems are addressed every day. More plausibly, you could somehow label the doors. Petroski notes that this was the approach employed by a similar house in which he once stayed in St. Louis: “The measures taken to avoid this situation consisted of a nicely printed sign placed prominently on the dresser beside the bathroom door, reminding each guest to unlock the other guest’s door before leaving the bathroom. I am sure I was not the only guest who suffered from the inadequacy of that solution.” Alternatively, if you were of a mechanical disposition, you could rig up an alarm system that would sound a buzzer if one door was unlocked without the other. This would have obvious shortcomings in practice, and it would also annoy guests who just wanted to use the bathroom in peace.

The bathroom at the Hotel Louis XIV

In the end, the proprietors of the Hotel Louis XIV came up with an ingenious answer, as outlined in the book By Design by Ralph Caplan, which was Petroski’s source for the original case study:

Well, there were no locks on the bathroom doors of the Louis XIV, but tied to each doorknob was a three-and-a-half foot length of leather thong to which a hook was attached. When you were in the bathroom you simply linked the two hooks together, holding both doors shut. There was no way to get back into your own room without it at the same time unlocking the door for the other guest. It was memorable as the total integration of object and circumstance.

It’s a lovely solution—so much so, in fact, that Caplan’s book puts it into its own subtitle: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV. And at the heart of the answer lies a subtle change in the way the problem is understood. Other measures, like putting up a sign, focused on the idea that both doors had to have locks, when the lock is really just an interim solution to the underlying problem, rather than the problem itself. As Petroski puts it: “The basic design objective is to achieve privacy for whoever might be using the bathroom.” And once the problem is phrased in such a way as to leave locks out of the equation entirely, you’re that much closer to figuring out how to address it.

And it’s a lesson that writers or other creative artists should take to heart. In On Directing Film, David Mamet devotes what seems like an inordinate amount of time to teaching his students how to properly describe the objective of a scene, and reminding them how easy it is to confuse the means with the end. One of the pitfalls of figuring out a plot is that once we’ve come up with a “solution” to a problem, like putting locks on the doors, we spend all our energy trying to get out of all the new complications that the solution presents, rather than focusing on the issue that it was meant to satisfy. In many cases, like the proprietors of the rooming house in St. Louis, we end up affixing a label to explain what we mean, which is as close as you can get to unambiguous evidence that the solution you have in mind isn’t working. Donald Norman, in his classic book The Design of Everyday Things, provides examples of the labels we see on everything from doors to to hot and cold water faucets, and concludes: “When simple things need instructions, it is a certain sign of poor design.” And that’s as true of stories as of sinks. Whenever a movie gives us an introductory scroll of text, a lingering shot of a sign, or a chyron to explain where we are or how much time has passed, it signals that the underlying problem hasn’t really been solved. If you want to find the right answer, you have to start by asking the right question. And then you can soak in the tub until you’ve figured it out—as long as you remember to lock the door first.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2015 at 9:40 am


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