On Day-Light Saving Time

As the clocks go-forward this weekend, I was thinking about the role of the time-piece in our lives.

In a lecture to IBM Engineers in 1969 the philosopher Alan Watts was discussing the difference in thought between the Judeo-Christian West and the Ancient Chinese. One of these differences was the basic nature of man. The Judeo-Christian view, Watts claimed, is that man is essentially sinful and evil, whilst the ancient Chinese saw man as essentially good. Thus, if we see ourselves as being essentially selfish and untrustworthy we develop systems of authority and control to impose on ourselves.

[…] Therefore we need law and order. We need a control system to put us in order. We thereby project these control systems into the Church or into the police or into somebody, who are really ourselves disguised.

You see it’s like day-light saving time.

Everybody could simply get up an hour earlier, but instead of doing that we alter the clock, because a clock has a kind of authority and I would say “the Clock says its time for you to get up”. The Amer-Indians laugh at the pale-faces because they say “Paleface, he doesn’t know he’s hungry until he looks at his watch”

And so in this way we become clock-dominated, and the abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation.

I remember Tommy Tiernan expressing a similar sentiment in a show once, that we have become slaves to our clocks, whereas in our agricultural past there was simply daylight and things to be done. Now, we have imposed this system of timekeeping on ourselves, which whilst obviously helpful in the day to day running of things, exposes its own arbitrariness via its ability to be manipulated.

British Museum
Photo owned by LaurenKates (cc)

The Clock has allowed us to commoditize even the Sun itself. Therein, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez can order that all the clocks are turned back 30 minutes, so, ever the Socialist, they can allow “a more fair distribution of the sunrise”. Venezuela plans more such measures, according to the Science and Technology Minister, to “make more effective use of time”.

Thus, it is as Watts had said, instead of simply changing our habits to meet with the reality of the situation, we bow to the authority of the Clock and change it instead. It’s kind of odd when you think about it.

More on distraction-free tools

In reaction to my post on distraction-free text editors, a friend pointed me towards Readability, a service I’ve been using for a while now. In a nutshell, Readability is a tool that lets you isolate the actual content of a webpage and present it in a more accessible and easy to read manner (without all the clutter that you have to contend with on most sites). Here’s the official video explaining how it works:

Readability – Installation Video for Firefox, Safari & Chrome from Arc90 on Vimeo.

I first discovered Readability when I was looking for a simple way to change the line-height of text on webpages, to make it a bit more readable. For a medium that is still predominately text-based there is a whole load of bad typography online. Readability, in addition to helping you tune out the noise surrounding the feature content, goes someway to helping you with these problems. However, as Catbird points out , it is a bit nuts that we even need applications like this.

Speaking of which, it also occurred to me today just how bad Wikipedia is. For a hugely popular site, which is all about text, it’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired. It’s main problem is that it uses a 100% wide fluid page-layout, thus making lines of text really long, something which is one of the leading causes for poor legibility/readability.

Alan Watts on Universities

Mr. Watts on the age old battle between the faculty and administration.

[…] Everybody is busy keeping records of everything. It’s much more important to record what happens, then what happens. This is already eating us up. It’s much more important you have your books right, then that you conduct your business in a good way.

In Universities it’s much more important that the registrar’s records be in order then that the library be well stocked. After all do you know that your grades are all locked up in safes and they’re protected from thievery and pilfering? And they’re the most valuable property that the University has? The library can go hang.

Then further more the main function of the University is, a sensible person would imagine, to teach students and to do research. So the faculty should be the most important thing in the University. On the contrary, the administration is the most important thing. The people who keep the records, who make the game rules up. And so the faculty are always being obstructed by the administration and being forced to attend irrelevant meetings and to do everything but scholarship.

From the lecture “Man in Nature”

Zen and the art of distraction-free writing

In my quest to get back to regular writing I’ve been checking out some of the ‘distraction-free’ or ‘minimalist’ word processors/text-editors. As we connect to more and more things, and our screens become filled with more and more windows, its definitely harder to stay focused on the job at hand. Any time I open up a text-editor to begin writing there’s always something blinking away at me, a web-page asking to be refreshed or an IM friend waiting to be replied to….or to be bugged by myself. These distraction-free text editors mainly help by offering you a sparse, full-screen writing mode, blocking out everything else leaving you alone with the text.

[Note: I was writing this using WriteRoom, one of the better known distraction-free writing apps currently out there. It fills your screen with black and presents you with the blinking cursor and green text of a 1980s computer screen. As I was typing, lo-and-behold a chat window invaded my dark void of creativity….]

Despite the ability for other apps to intrude on my fortress of solitude, I have found that these applications really do help. (Although it probably helps to log out of IM first…). It definitely helps focus you on the task at hand, leaving you with very little to distract you. It almost guilt’s you into sticking to it, without remorse forcing you to confront the lack of words before you, all the while poking you with its little blinky green cursor. It makes the text the only thing you need to deal with, and you have to consciously shut it down and return the chaos behind.

Zen Garden
Photo owned by callion (cc)

Whilst WriteRoom strips you down to the bare-basics of a WarGames-style interface, another app OmmWriter takes the whole thing a step further. Not only does OmmWriter try to help you focus on your writing by removing the clutter of the modern desktop, it even tries to help foster your creativity by providing you with a serene and calming environment; supplying ghostly scenery that sits subtly in the background, haunting, ambient soundscapes, and accompanying your every key press with plinky little sounds. At first it sounds a bit much, in fact one could argue that if anything it adds distractions not present in other word processors. But it seems to work, although I did turn off the keyboard sounds, OmmWriter lets you silence it, and replace the snowy scenery with simple white also. The main background music can help I find, especially if you also need to drown out the ambient drone of the modern office. Alternatively, Boards of Canada does the trick…The result is a rather Zen-like experience, that goes some way to help you relax and concentrate on the job at hand.

I’ve found myself switching between WriteRoom’s techy minimalism and Ommwriter’s sparse serenity, both offering different variations of the same experience. Be warned though; these really are stripped down apps, there is little-to-no presentational options. At first this bugged me, but then I realized that its all part of the plan, to concentrate on the words. With anything you type with these apps you are always going to take them elsewhere; be it publishing online or offline, wherein you can tinker to your heart’s content.

They’ve definitely helped me get through bouts of writers-block, you should check them out. The above mentioned apps are Mac-only, but there are PC equivalents to WriteRoom, namely JDarkRoom. (Note: WriteRoom comes with a 30-day free trial but therein costs $24.95; JDarkRoom however is written in Java so is cross-platform). There is also the online Writer.

Cube Light

A few months ago I was walking down the Quays with some members of my family heading to see Bill Bailey in the Point Theatre. On our way we passed this odd building by the river, a big glass box which seemed to be filled with a weird, mysterious glow. As we tried to work out just what it was, we joked that it may contain the last essence of Ireland’s spirit, post-Credit-Crunch-Economic-Crisis-Celtic-Tiger-Death. We imagined a scenario where they had decided to capture and contain our final ounces of goodwill and hope for use in an emergency situation sometime in the future.

I never have been able to find out what that box is/was, but today I was reading in the Guardian about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and came across this image of one of his works, which is surprisingly similar:

Cube Light by Ai Weiei

I wonder if Ai Weiwei has managed to capture China’s spirit and hope also? I expect however they would have a much bigger box than ours at the moment.

Interestingly the article mentions that Weiwei has been commissioned to fill the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern this Autumn. I might have to check that out; I very much wanted to see Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is but fate conspired for me to miss it.

9 Hours Capsule Hotel

I’m going to Japan this summer, fulfilling a lifelong dream. As such, I’m currently working out all the things I want to see and do there. One thing that hasn’t interested me much is those capsule/pod hotels, where your room is basically a small, coffin like hole in the wall. I’m vaguely claustrophobic in a way I think alot of people are, just kind of freaked out by being in small spaces for too long.

Capsule Hotel
Photo owned by Kojach (cc)

Today however I came across this link showcasing a brand new capsule hotel in Kyoto called ‘9 Hours’. Its emphasis is on minimalist, simple design. In addition to a stripped down clean aesthetic, it uses simple, easy to understand signage to help make the experience as natural and intuitive as possible. In the video the owner/creator of the hotel says that his inspiration for designing such a radically new type of experience came from thinking whether capsule hotels, which have been common in Japan for 30 years, would appeal to people in places such as London or New York. I find this very interesting as, as a Westerner, capsule hotels didn’t hold much interest for me until I saw this piece. 9 Hours definitely has captured my imagination.

More info, including some photos and details of the graphic design can be found on Design Boom.

Now, if I can just summon up the courage to actually sleep in one….

Link: News Report: Capsule Hotel – 9 Hours [on Monacle.com]
Link found via Erik Spiekermann’s Twitter account.

Arial is bullshit

Having a pop at Arial is like shooting ducks in a barrel, but this is a pretty funny clip. Non-designy friends seem amazed that someone else talks like I do about this subject (I guess they are amazed people talk about this at all). I guess its standard fare for design-fanatics, but this guy really nails the stuff that bugs me so much about Arial (namely those slanty terminals, and yes, the capital R).

What’s funny I guess is that Arial is attempting to mimic Helvetica but the changes it makes are precisely the things that make Helvetica so nice (flat terminals!!)


Shunryu Suzuki on Alan Watts

As a huge fan of both Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki I was fascinated by this passage from Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick’s great biography of Suzuki. A student had just remarked of Watts that “we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing”.

“You completely miss the point about Alan Watts!” Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity. “You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva”