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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Marketwatch Video

Video of Bambi Francisco interviewing me about Yahoo's Social Search efforts

Well, here's my haircut. I wish I had a chance to redo this. I threw my upper back out yesterday and was in a lot of pain. Part of why I was sitting so stiffly in the chair. Sigh.

Tomorrow I'm on a panel at Berkeley SIMS with Brewster Kahle and Mimi Ito. I'm fans of both, but never met them - so that'll be exciting.

Douglas Hofstaedter, ambigrams and gridfonts

I was reminded of Douglas when I saw the BoingBoing ambigram. Douglas introduced us to the practice of ambigrams (credit to Scott Kim) when I took courses with him as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. (Here’s something really quite mindblowing – we’re talking 18 years ago!) Anyway, these were very interesting courses offered through Michigan’s great cognitive science department. Douglas was at the peak of his fame, having just published his magnum opus, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I think he was on sabbatical from Indiana University at the time.

gridfont grid

One of the exercises in that class made an incredible impact on me. We were asked to design fonts… but with the constraint that the fonts had to be executed on a 2x3 grid, connecting only adjacent dots. And no cheating – you couldn’t use any embellishments (for instance the thickness of a line, or color of a line, go for a “long diagonal”, or anything of that sort..) A few other rules were imposed – we were to design just the lower case version (no capitals or punctuation marks, etc.) The lower case letter “a” was to be the typeface version not the handwritten version, (i.e. like this “a”, not like this “a”.) There were probably a few other rules that have been lost in the passage of time.

The first time you try to design a font, you run straight up against the absurd constraint of the grid. It’s an absurdly small footprint that leaves very little room for “creativity.” Just executing the alphabet against this backdrop is an accomplishment.

Later, as you execute your fifth and tenth and twentieth font from start to finish, you begin to attain some level of craftsmanship. You begin to discover the relationship between letters, i.e. doing the “b” this way is going to have obvious implications for the “d”. You begin to describe the fonts in various ways, and creativity and style begins to rear its head.

Font 1
Font 1

For example, Font 1 (and I’ve just executed a-c and s-u as examples) is a highly stylized serifed font with lots “diagonalness.” The “diagonal” theme is evident throughout. A subtheme might be the disconnectedness of the “s”. Perhaps I could have resonated that theme against the “a”, omitting the segment that connects dot 6 to dot 9. As “font designer” (he said puffing himself up,) I chose not to, but concede it would have been a reasonable option.

Font 2
Font 2

Font 3
Font 3

Fonts 2 and 3 also has an obvious themes, and interestingly the “t” and “u” designs overlap between them. I’m dubious about the “u”’s and perhaps if I followed through and designed the “v”’s it would have led to significant changes.

In Douglas’s class, we’d sit there and review each other’s gridfonts for hours. We’d question design choices, labor over the tiniest of lines and the “grave” implications it would have for other letters in the alphabet.

The gridfont exercise bears many gifts. Working in a world of absurd reductionism, the essence of design, style, and creativity emerge in zen-like moments of insight. It’s as if other approaches toward design philosophy were “Newtonian,” and gridfonts was an electron microscope that revealed the quantum building blocks of creativity. This post probably won’t make a lot of sense unless you get out the graph paper and invest the energy to actually follow through on the exercise. Recommended!

Ambigrams are another lovely way of introducing these kinds of constraints. There are many flavors of ambigram, that exhibit any variety of symmetry. Check out Scott Kim’s page for more. Again, ambigrams are kinda fun and novel to look at but any real benefit is derived from trying to construct them. It’s another great way to exercise muscles you’ve forgotten you have…

They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Now that I’m deliberately contemplating that old saw, I’m reminded that it’s a multi-faceted statement. I’ve always taken the primary sense to be solutions follow need… As Y Combinator’s motto says, “Make something people want!” (That’s the greatest motto an incubator could have IMHO.) But there’s another sense… Fat and happy doesn’t breed creativity. Constraints breed creativity. Nobody builds a catapult out of bubble-gum and baling wire if they don’t have to… Now go listen to the “Mothers of Invention” and find out what creativity really is...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Ye Ol’ School Barber Shop… a Classique!

I was in Boston today, presenting at an internal IDG conference.

After the conference, I tried to jam in a haircut at the Great Cuts right around corner from the Charles Hotel where I was staying… I noticed over the weekend that I’m due to be videotaped tomorrow morning and wanted to prune what had become a “full-on raging ‘fro” as Bobby would say. (This reminds of the time that I let the ‘fro grow really big and then parted it on the side. Coupled with major black “Buddy Holly” glasses I was going for hyper-nerd, but was assured by both friends and strangers that this was not working at any level. Bob titled a Spahn Ranch song after the episode – “Part (with Laughter)”, which (apart from the title) was not about my coiff.)

I am not sure what this video thing is but it’s with Bambi Francisco (whom I’ve never met) and I think ends up on’s website but probably gets most its distribution through Yahoo! Finance links. Anyway, I’ll post a link once I figure that out.

Without even walking into Great Cuts I could see that there was a lineup that amounted to a long wait. That wouldn’t work for me because I needed to catch a flight out of Logan. Oh well. On the way to the airport, I started wondering if I’d seen a barber at the airport there before. Yeah, I thought I had...

There in Terminal C, I found it. Until I was actually sitting in the chair, I didn’t really notice what I’d stumbled upon… This was an authentic “Ol’ School Barber Shop”… the “Classique Hair Salon.” Classique is classic. It was right out of a Scorcese movie set. There was a neck brush perhaps made of horsehair, and I kid you not – a leather strop on the barber chair. A shelf full of tonics and oinments, most from vendors that probably no longer exist. He removed his trusty scissors from a little black leather case that was chock full of implements. (Occurred to me that it was odd having all this weaponry so close to the security checkpoint.) The barber (alternately Vincent or Vincenze as the mood hit him apparently) had a slew of certificates on the wall. One, dated 1979, congratulated Vincent on ten years of service and was from “Roffler”. I wondered what “Roffler” was, and later noticed on the shelf a nasty squirt bottle of “Roffler Super Thick and Rich” shampoo on the shelf. Also check out the trophy, with the upside down “’76”. Reminds me of the most excellent ween song “Freedom of ‘76” which would be the perfect background music for this experience… “A bacon steak, a perfect match…”

I did the math and realized he’d been cutting hair for at least 37 years, which I figured made him at least 57. He looked fantastic for that age, awesome in fact. He had his hair in a modified pompadour… He actually needed a haircut, which I thought was ironic. “Physician – heal thyself.” Carmine sat there at her manicure station and devoured an orange.

While in the chair a TSA guy ambled in and mumbled “Howya doin’?” to Vincent and Carmine, who mumbled something back. He sat down, grabbed the paper, kicked his feet onto the coffee table and started reading. I wondered for a moment was waiting for a cut when I noticed that although probably 30 years old, he was bald on top and already closely shaven on the sides. I understood then that this was his daily practice, to make the rounds during his coffee break and just kick back and read the paper.

He didn’t say another word for 15 minutes, then got up with a “Seeya” and sprang off.

My haircut proceeded in silence, without any chitchat whatsoever. It was a good haircut, thoughtful and precise. It cost $17 and I gave him $21. I then asked him if I could take a few photographs. He asked why, and I said, “Because you’re a relic! A real ol’ fashioned barber shop!” He said, “You got that right! Sure, take some pictures… but not of me!”

It was fun. I made the flight on time. You can see the fruits of Vincent’s crafts when the Bambi thing goes live.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Remix this!

The YRB posse has released yet another great product:  the San Francisco International Film Festival Remixer.


A non-linear editor in a browser, the SFIFF remixer rocks.  Kudos to Ellen, Marc, Jeannie, Brian, Peter, Ryan, Patrick, etc.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My free video is loading…


As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Disney is making not only good content - but their best and most valuable content, i.e. Lost - available online... for free.

My first reaction was disbelief.  My second reaction was delight.  My third reaction was - "Damn.  I just paid $34.99 for the season pass of Lost on iTunes."

This really does change things.  As the WSJ reported, this is just the first domino to fall...  others will follow suit.  Congratulations Disney, and here's hoping that the model exceeds all your expectations.  If this actually works (for users, advertisers and Disney), many good things ensue.
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