Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Laws of Simplicity: John Maeda

Early on in my ruminations, I had the simple observation that the letter “M,” “I,” and “T”—the letters by which my university is known—occur in natural sequence in the word SIMPLICITY. In fact, the same can be said of the word COMPLEXITY.

When I read this in the second page of the introduction of The Laws of Simplicity, I almost gave up.

The Laws of Simplicity (LoS) is about how John Maeda sees, believes, and practices simplicity. “As an artist, I would like to say that I wrote this book for myself…” writes John. Which is precisely the point. Read this book to understand John Maeda’s views on simplicity; don’t read it as a definitive tome on simplicity. Simplicity is too diverse a topic to be comprehensively dealt with by one person; it is too vast to be compressed in a 100-page book. And, to be fair to him, Maeda (who is the E. Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Media Arts & Sciences at MIT) does give you the feeling that he subscribes to this view.

The title (and the treatment, in terms of “laws”) is a bit misleading. It sounds a tad too definitive; it raises expectations; it takes on a huge canvas. Especially considering that LoS is based more on the author’s thoughts and beliefs than on researched output (a la The Tipping Point or The Undercover Economist or books of that ilk).

“I intentionally capped the total page count at 100 pages in accordance with the Time-saving third Law,” explains John. Perhaps 100 pages is too short – Maeda appears rushed at times, the page limit seemingly playing on his mind. Form versus function?

On to the content of the book itself. Here are the ten laws, as stated from the book.

1. REDUCE. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

2. ORGANIZE. Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

3. TIME. Savings in time feel like simplicity.

4. LEARN. Knowledge makes everything simpler.

5. DIFFERENCES. Simplicity and complexity need each other.

6. CONTEXT. What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

7. EMOTION. More emotions are better than less.

8. TRUST. In simplicity we trust.

9. FAILURE. Some things can never be made simple.

10. THE ONE. Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

As is evident in the list, the laws are a bit of a pot pourri, some alluding to design, some to organization; a dash of time management here, a touch of the emotional there; the odd philosophy, the inevitable apparent-exceptions-to-the-rule (laws 5 and 9). By themselves, you may not disagree with any of the individual laws, but do they represent a collective means to achieve simplicity?

Moreover, within the laws, there are didactic planning tools like SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody), SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize), and BRAIN (Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never). A bit arbitrary perhaps. Or is this book on its way to becoming a text book or a self-help book a la Stephen Covey’s masterpiece? Are SHE cards, SLIP folders, and BRAIN CDs on the offing?

As you would expect from someone who has had extensive exposure in the business world, Maeda has peppered LoS with examples, predominantly from consumer products – DVD players, the iPod, Google (is Google NOT an example for anything nowadays?), and Toyota, to name a few. A few examples from other disciplines like the arts, nature, and anthropology could perhaps have added dimension.

The language is a bit forced – serious, overly so, preachy even. And the odd attempt to see connections (where there are none) and building something out of them is quite exasperating. Consider this, right at the end of the book.

Ten laws (10: one, zero), remove none (0: zero), and you’re left with one (1: one). When in doubt, turn to the tenth Law: THE ONE.

The companion blog to the book could well become a more valuable reference tool on the subject than the book itself, as and when it moves beyond the book. Another useful window on the subject could be the MIT simplicity blog, also run by John.

To reiterate what I said earlier, read LoS for John’s sake. (Which is how I read it the second time over.) You may find it useful and insightful.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

XXXHolic Volume 3: CLAMP

Having heard a bit about manga (the Japanese word for comics), I decided to try one. Some say that manga, in the true spirit of it, is not a graphic novel – may be I’ll read a graphic novel to figure out the difference. (I suppose Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul don’t count as graphic novels, notwithstanding the former’s claim to be one.)

It was an interesting experience reading a manga. The format took some getting used to – the back-to-front reading, the speech bubbles in different sizes, differentiating between asides and explanations – I had to read the book more than once to understand it. A lot has been said about how good the graphics are in manga. And at least as far as this book is concerned, it’s completely true. Despite being (or may be because they are) in black and white, the graphics are very evocative and capture the mood of the characters extremely effectively.

The creators (they are referred to as creators, not authors) of the XXXHolic series is CLAMP – the name adopted by, as the blurb says, “a group of four women who have become the most popular manga artists in America—Ageha Ohkawa, Mokona, Satsuki Igarashi, and Tsubaki Nekoi.”

As far as the story is concerned, it is fairly simple (once you get the grasp of the format, that is) and the narrative, fairly linear. What makes it interesting is how it manages to blend in diverse elements like spirits, college life, and jealousy and produce a gripping tale. The touches of humor and the philosophizing are interesting – they make you concentrate on the dialogues more than you tend to in a normal comic book. References to Star Wars and the war in Japan add a touch of the real world to the book. The language is very modern and the dialogue, pithy. Considering the entire narrative is dialogue-based, that makes it a very racy read indeed.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Simple Art of Murder: Raymond Chandler

The Simple Art of Murder is prefaced by the seminal Atlantic Monthly essay of the same name (you can read the essay here) and is a collection of short stories.

The essay (first published in 1950) is deemed a classic piece of literary criticism and is as scathing an attack on the fiction of the amateur detective kind, as it is laudatory of the hard-boiled noir fiction, a form that Chandler (and originally, Dashiell Hammett) is seen as a vanguard of. The main thrust of Chandler’s argument can be summed in these two excerpts.

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and detection novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind.

If you know all you should know about ceramic and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 3000o F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of deep blue eyes if you put it near a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century. And if you know enough about the elegant flânerie of the pre-war French Riviera to lay your story in that locale, you don’t know that a couple of capsules of barbital small enough to be swallowed will not only not kill a man—they will not even put him to sleep if he fights against them.

For Chandler, a superman (or superwoman) detective is not real. And therefore, neither is the detective story in which he stars.

It’s interesting to contrast Chandler’s essay with Willard Huntington Wright’s (popularly known as SS Van Dine and incidentally, also an American) 1928 piece “Twenty rules for writing detective stories” . The first sentence of the two essays sums up the difference rather neatly.

The Simple Art of Murder: Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.

Twenty rules for writing detective stories: The detective story is a kind of intellectual game.

And that is the second significant argument of Chandler. Crime fiction is not a game; it is death in all its glory; the color of blood is always red, not blue; and while murder (“it has been going on too long for it to be news”) may be a simple art, detection is not.

Chandler doesn’t spare any of the names that adorn the portals of crime and detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes is “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” And similar judgments abound, on other bastions of the English detective story like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others. No, Chandler claims, he is not against the English style.

Personally, I like the English style better… The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

Now to the stories in The Simple Art of Murder.

The eight stories are Spanish Blood, I’ll Be Waiting, The King in Yellow, Pearls Are a Nuisance, Pickup on Noon Street, Smart-Aleck Kill, Guns at Cyrano’s, and Nevada Gas. The most unusual story in the collection is Pearls Are a Nuisance – a tongue-in-cheek stab at the amateur detective genre.

All the stories have the typical ingredients of the hard-boiled genre – a hard-drinking sleuth, brutal murder, a racy narrative, loosely defined motives… An interesting thread that comes across all the stories is the presence of a hotel – six of the stories start off at or just outside a hotel, and in all the stories, the hotel is the scene of quite-significant action.

The language is taut, the settings are stark, the characters are flesh-and-blood, the stories are realistic – typical noir stuff.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Once upon a number: John Allen Paulos

At his faint chuckle she turned and faced her once-beloved uncle. Unceremoniously she ripped the papers from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt as he nervously backed away toward the hotel room door, and with unmitigated disgust at both his blubber and his duplicity she hissed, “Twenty-two point eight percent of all bankruptcies filed between July 1995 and June 1997 were attributed to bad legal advice, up nine point two percent over the last biennial period.”

“I did the best I could,” the 273-pound man answered faintly. He was desperate to avoid further rousing his enraged niece, who despite her lithe figure, 113 pounds, and angelic face was capable of inflicting severe damage. Once safely in the hallway, however, he took heart and offered, “A meta-analysis of several studies suggests that fewer than forty percent of legal malpractice cases are due to malicious intent, the balance to simple incompetence.” At this she lunged at him, tearing into his thick neck with strong, sharp fingers and ripping the shirt from his bloodied back.

Thus begins Once upon a number. Suggesting that words and numbers don’t quite sit together well.

Once upon a number is a series of small pieces, loosely joined. On mathematical theorems, logical aphorisms, natural laws, and objective probabilities. And the odd comparison between stories and math. One comparison is revealing.

In listening to stories, we are inclined to suspend disbelief so as to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we are inclined to suspend belief so as not to be beguiled.

The explanations of concepts like Bayes’ Theorem and aphorisms like Murphy’s Law are interesting and easy to understand. And the examples that support these explanations substantiate things quite effectively. The misuse of statistics in the defense of O J Simpson is an interesting story. The almost-inevitable nod to Occam’s Razor and references to computer-generated branching stories (considering this book was written in 1998, that can almost be termed prescient) and the post-modern “death of the author” argument gives the book dimension. The piece on John J. McCarthy’s The Doctor’s Dilemma is compelling reading. And the digression into humor through an appendix (Humor in Computation) in chapter 3 ( I wonder why it needed to be called an appendix) is probably the best part of the book.

At an aggregate level, Once… does come across a bit like a curate’s egg. And that could be on account of two factors. The first is that John Allen Paulos is a mathematician, not a storyteller. Therefore, the language and the weaving in of the stories and the math are not as tight as you would like. The second factor is perhaps the way the book has been structured – there are five broad chapters, each ostensibly covering one key basis for comparison between stories and math. Considering that ultimately the book is full of vignettes, the structure could have been different – smaller chapters with defined parameters for each chapter perhaps.

And the last paragraph in the book.

How we can maintain a place for the individual, protected from the overweening claims of religion, society, and even science, is an increasingly important unsolved problem. It’s solution, I have no doubt, will require simply and pragmatically accepting the indispensability of both stories and statistics and of their nexus, the individual who uses and is shaped by both. The gap between stories and statistics must be filled somehow by us.

A bit of a tall claim?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Thirteen Problems: Agatha Christie

I wanted to start 2007 on a light note, so I went back to one of my childhood regulars, Agatha Christie.

The Thirteen Problems, in terms of structure, is not unlike Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and more recently, Arthur C Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart. One of Christie’s other books, The Labours of Hercules also followed a somewhat similar structure, if I am not mistaken.

A group of six people assemble at Miss Jane Marple’s house, and one of the guests suggests that they form a club “to meet every week, and each member in turn has to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.” As is Agatha Christie’s wont, most of the stories deal with murder, except for one speculative diversion, The Affair at the Bungalow.

There are three reasons The Thirteen Problems did not work for me.

The short story format does not give Christie enough space to define the characters and thus set a reasonable challenge for the reader. This is a pattern you may be able to discern in other short story collections of Christie as well. She is perhaps more suited to the longer version.

A second reason is possibly a personal thing with me – I am not particularly fond of Miss Marple. Sitting in a cosy house in the small village of St. Mary Mead and solving problems purely by listening to people and deriving logic out of it is not my style of crime fiction. Crime is as much about setting, atmosphere, and clues as it is about people.

The third, and perhaps the most significant reason is that there is no life in these stories. In other words, the stories are narratives of past events and the detection process is more like solving a puzzle than cracking a case. To that extent, there is no suspense, there is no excitement, there is no tension, there are no counter-moves… there is just no action.

Notwithstanding this, the book may be worth reading if you approach it from a perspective of solving puzzles rather than reading crime fiction. And there is a wry sense of humor in the odd philosophical statements about crime, about human nature, about village life, and about women – very Brit and typical Christie.