• The air we share

    These days there is a chronic lack of time and energy in our isolated household. Daycare is closed for the foreseeable future. Our days are composed entirely of work and childcare, a schedule so tight that air and sunlight rarely penetrate.

    My wife Jackie and I both work full-time, demanding jobs. We are very lucky: both of us are able to work from home, and both of us work in industries that, so far, have been able to cope. But the load is still hard to sustain.

    I am prone to anxiety and burnout and have learned over the years — slowly, sporadically, reluctantly — a few ways to cope. Meditation is helpful, but in the current midst of our crowded, noisy house the time and quiet it requires are hard to come by. Outdoor exercise — running and bicycling, in my case — is the next best thing: leaving the house brings some quiet, but the time to do so is short.

    One recent night, we were planning the dinner menu for the week ahead. I volunteered for taco night, but we were out of shredded cheese and refried beans. There were a few other basic things we needed, so I decided to make a run to the grocery store. On a whim, I also decided to ride my bike.

    Read more
  • Pretty much

    The other day I was sitting on our deck with my 4-year-old daughter, Evelyn. She saw a bee fly by.

    “What bee is that?” She asked.

    “I’m not sure,” I replied, “a carpenter bee, I think?”

    “I mean, did that bee have a name?” she asked. “I guess bugs don’t have names,” she continued after a moment, “they’re just ‘bee.’”

    “Well, maybe each bee buzzes in a slightly different way. Maybe bees can distinguish different kinds of buzzing, and that’s how they recognize one another.”

    Evie considered this. “Is that true?”

    “I don’t know,” I said, “I’m just speculating. Do you know what speculating means?”

    “It means… you’re just making stuff up?”

  • Coach Kessler

    I was deeply saddened to hear that Gary Kessler, my high school cross country coach, died this week. Coach Kessler was someone I looked up to at a time when, like most 17-year-olds, I was struggling to figure who I was and where I was supposed to be going. I miss him already.

    What I remember him for — as a cross country and track coach — was only one part of his very full life. He taught science at my high school, and he also coached the football and wrestling teams for awhile. He was a Marine, a veteran, a pilot, and a career reservist. Every now and then he’d be out for a weekend, at Quantico for training. A reserved, humble man, he spoke very little about himself or his (many) accomplishments, and in hindsight I feel a pang of regret for not asking him more questions.

    But for the tiny slice of his life in which I knew him, he left a deep impression on me. I will forever remember him standing there on top of the windy hill on our cross country course, in his dark shorts and New Balance running shoes, stopwatch in hand, laughing at some joke that my teammate Jim just told, while the rest of us gasp for air from the last interval we’d run. I associate his voice with the wind and sun there, and the vague, rush-of-blood, oxygen-debt euphoria I usually felt during practice.

    Although he coached several sports (and many track events) during his long career, I’m grateful he gave us distance runners a shot: skinny, gawky nerds in our muddy sneakers. He was utterly steady, a calm counterbalance to our maladjusted, adolescent uncertainty. He was always on time, always prepared. He was soft-spoken and seemed to have infinite reserves of patience. When he did speak, his words were considered. He had a knack for gently telling us what we needed to hear (or, in many cases, saying nothing and giving us the space we needed to work it out for ourselves). I hated to disappoint him. I would push myself far beyond what I thought I could do, just to see him click the stopwatch, smile, and congratulate me on a personal record. He knew everybody’s PRs.

    Coach Kessler took over as our head coach at the beginning of my senior year in 1999. We’d go on to win the district championship, and to place at regionals — our best year as a team in a long time.

    I was never a world-beating runner, even in my tiny school district, but running was, nonetheless, the first time I felt like I could make something of myself. Running is one of the few athletic things that came somewhat naturally to me. I loved falling into a rhythm after a few miles, so that my arms and legs seemed to move by themselves, my heartbeat and breathing the metronome driving them. There’d be nothing but the sound of the wind and birds and my feet lightly crunching on the path, and all my worries would slowly drain away. These days I still run, as often as I can, not only for exercise but also because it’s the best way to manage my anxiety.

    Coach Kessler helped me understand this mental side of running in a way I’d never managed before. He taught me discipline, it seemed, without me realizing it. He would ask questions about my goals, listen very carefully, and then he would simply be there every day, helping me with the next step. I bet you can shave a few seconds on this interval. It’ll be hot tomorrow, drink a few extra glasses of water tonight. Your rival ran his last mile split 10 seconds faster, so let’s try some speed drills next week to help your kick. Without ever actually saying it, he helped my teenage brain finally understand the connection between “today” and “next year” — to understand that bigger accomplishments are built from single days.

    This was a lesson that proved valuable in my adult life. Running, and the discipline Coach Kessler helped me build, is a gift that I’m deeply grateful for. It has, without exaggeration, saved me more than once. Coach Kessler himself has become a role model to me. When I direct other designers or teach my own students, I try to mimic his patience, his calm voice, his sincere belief in every single person he worked with.

    Thank you for everything, Coach. I’ll miss you terribly, but I’ll try to live up to your example and pass on what you’ve taught me. Wherever you find yourself next, I hope the running trails are great.

  • All about fountain pens

    I meant to post this a long time ago, but got distracted: a nice piece in the Times about fountain pens and the community around them.

    I work mostly with brushes and, uh, computers, but fountain pens are my favorite tool for making fine lines. When I’m inking a new drawing, I usually pick up a pen to finish it off. With the right nib, a fountain pen can be more expressive than a felt tip or ballpoint. Lines can be thinned or widened depending on pressure, or the angle of the pen. There’s a learning curve but in a practiced hand they offer a bit more control and subtlety.

    But aside from all that, there’s something about fountain pens themselves that feels compelling. It’s just a thing that makes marks on paper, a pretty innocuous job that a chewed-up No. 2 pencil accomplishes just as well. A lovely pen somehow makes that simple act feel a little more special. I dunno: my wife and I have certain attachments to anachronisms like pens and vinyl records and canning jars and film cameras that make no sense but make life feel a little more interesting nonetheless.

    It’s nice to see we’re not alone in that.

  • The return of Serotta, but not their lovely logo

    Thoughts on bicycles and branding and broken hearts

    A classic racing bicycle brand, Serotta, is returning! Known for their innovations in the use of titanium and their unique approach to bike fit, Serottas were a common sight at the front of major races around the world.

    One of my favorite things about them, however, was their beautiful logotype:

    Serotta logo

    Those angular letters look absolutely amazing on a down tube[1].

    Sadly, it looks like they’ve thrown this away. Their new logo is a bold, oblique, square sans-serif. Just like… every other sports company that exists today.

    I’m sad about this not only because the original was such a lovely treatment but also because the modern bike industry is full of truly awful typography. Mass-market and small-batch companies sin in equal measure. This mystifies me a little because a bicycle is such an inherently graceful, elegant machine. The armchair-designer side of me thinks branding one might be easy: it’s already a handsome product. Just put some graceful, elegant lettering on there to match. But so many companies go instead for shouty billboard logos sprayed all over the frame.

    I know, of course, that A) making a bike is a huge engineering challenge and there are so many factors that go into making one that rides well and B) I no doubt sound like an old person grousing about something so superficial. But the designer in me gets a little heartbroken every time I see an otherwise fantastic bicycle with terrible frame decals. The poor thing deserves better.

    A few notable exceptions I’d like to shout out are Mason, Ritchey, Allied, and All-City[2], which all have thoughtful, classic logos and frame graphics— a perfect finishing touch for the thoughtful, classic bikes they sell. Tip of the hat to Trek and Cérvelo, who both do the bold oblique thing but their lettering, at least, is nicely cut and applied.[3]

    1. Which, by the way, is the tube that runs diagonally from the ‘head tube’ (just above the front wheel) to the ‘bottom bracket’ (at the pedal axle). This is traditionally where bike manufacturer apply their logo decals. ↩︎

    2. I especially like that All-City give their bikes fantastic names like “Cosmic Stallion” and “Gorilla Monsoon.” ↩︎

    3. In Cérvelo’s case, their brand was recently facelifted by Canadian design agency Concrete. There’s a nice case study here ↩︎

  • Painting with data

    Tabletop Whale's gorgeous visualization work

    I love the work of Tabletop Whale, also known as Eleanor Lutz. A multi-talented Ph.D. student in biology and also a graphic designer, she uses publicly-available datasets to construct beautiful maps, diagrams, and visualizations.

    Her recent topographic maps of the Moon and Mars remind me of the kind of hand-drawn maps you might find printed on the endpapers of old science-fiction books, but they contain no speculation - no alien cities or dragons. They show, instead, accurate and meticulous snapshots of current human knowledge, assembled from thousands of data points and a lot of Python code[1].

    What especially strikes me about her work is that it depicts enormous complexity and appears to omit no detail, but it’s so visually coherent and carefully crafted that you can understand it at a glance: “that’s a map of the Moon”. But if you stop and look closer, you’ll find that you can stare for hours without exhausting its intricacies.

    Each piece has a clear and simple visual language: a set of rules that apply from the largest feature to the smallest detail. This repetition and consistency makes it easy to learn how to “read” each piece quickly. The design system extends to the lovely typography in her notes and legends at the bottom of many of her compositions. Despite their density, the consistent hierarchy, careful grid formatting, and lovely art-deco display type make them as enjoyable to read as the rest of the maps are to look at.

    Being married to an engineer has given me a lot of opportunities to appreciate the common ground between science, technology, and the visual arts. I suppose that common ground could best be described as a sense of wonder. Artists and scientists alike spend their time looking at things really closely, and I suppose we are each inspired by the realizations that follow: the vastness of the universe, its staggering complexity, its frequent strangeness, and our own smallness in the midst of it all.

    I feel the same sense of wonder when I pore over Tabletop Whale’s work, all the more because it’s equal parts art and science. Each piece is generated from data, but it amounts to quite a bit more than that: it adds up to something that gets the imagination going.

    1. Her code is open-source and, often, she even includes in-depth tutorials for reconstructing her visualizations. ↩︎

  • Brace yourselves for the next Y2K

    While trying to fix a bug on my website, I went digging on the Mozilla Developer Network to get my head around the Javascript Date object a bit better. This bit cracked me up:

    MDN's explanation of the Date object

    MDN is one of the most authoritive and comprehensive developer references on the web, but it is also so dry that I’m honestly not sure if they were kidding here or not.