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09 JULY, 2012

The New Swiss Army Knife: Bill Gates Predicts the iPhone in 1995


What Siri and the appification of faxing have to do with the difference between envisioning and enacting.

In 1995, exactly 20 years after starting Microsoft as a 19-year-old, Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead (public library), in which he envisioned the future of computers, information, and the internet. Now, another almost 20 years later, the book stands as a lucid presentiment of much of the technology we not only use but take for granted today. Particularly fascinating is this excerpt from a chapter titled “Appliances and Applications,” in which Gates envisions what’s essentially the iPhone:

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.


Wallet PCs with the right equipment will be able to tell you exactly where you are anyplace on the face of the earth. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that orbit Earth right now broadcast signals that enable jetliners, oceangoing boats, cruise missiles, some cars — and even hikers with handheld GPS receivers — to know their exact locations. Such devices are currently available for a few hundred dollars, and eventually they’ll be built into many wallet PCs.


Off the roads, on a hike in the woods, the wallet PC will be your compass and as useful as your Swiss Army Knife.

In fact, I think of the wallet PC as the new Swiss Army knife.

Gates goes on to even presage Siri:

The wallet PC will connect you to the interactive network while you travel and tell you where you are. A voice from its built-in speaker will let you know that a freeway exit is coming up or that the next intersection has frequent accidents. It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for the airport early, or it will suggest an alternative route. The wallet PC’s color maps will overlay your location with whatever kinds of information you want — road and weather conditions, campgrounds, scenic spots, even fast-food places. You might ask, ‘Where’s the closest Chinese restaurant that’s still open?’ and the answer will be transmitted to your wallet by wireless network.


Eventually we’ll also be able to speak to televisions, personal computers, or other information appliances. At first we’ll have to stick to a limited vocabulary, but eventually our exchanges with our appliances will become quite conversational.

So how come Gates predicted but failed to invent — or, more importantly, create a culture around — this “Swiss Army knife” of the future? “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously proclaimed, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Steve Jobs, it seems, had it right all along: “Real artists ship.”

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06 JULY, 2012

Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic


“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.”

A reader recently wrote me to lightly criticize the fact that I called George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four “cult-classics,” suggesting that they instead merit the inferior term “required reading.” So what, exactly, is a classic, and why should we care? Richard J. Smith, in discussing the iconic ancient Chinese Book of Changes, offered a four-point checklist definition and Simon Crtichley showed us how to read them. But perhaps the most essential question is why the classics should be read. That’s exactly what beloved Italian writer Italo Calvino addresses in his 1991 book Why Read the Classics? (public library) — a sort of “classic” in its own right. In this collection of essays on classical literature, Calvino also produces these 14 definitions of a “classic”:

  1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading…', never 'I'm reading….'

  2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

  3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconscious.

  4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

  5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

  6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

  7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

  8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.

  9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

  10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

  11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

  12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

  13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.

  14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

Perhaps most poetic is Calvino’s 11th definition, bespeaking the idea that there is room for subjectivity even in a term as deterministically universal as a “classic,” and offering a witty answer to the nitpicky reader: “‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”


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06 JULY, 2012

The First Poem Published in a Scientific Journal


An ode to the ocean’s bioluminescent marvels.

We’ve already seen science as a muse of painting, music, sculpture, and design. In 2001, the poetic muse struck Smith College life sciences professor and clock researcher Mary E. Harrington who, smitten by the circadian rhythms of the bioluminescent algae Gonyaulax polyedra, penned a poem about these whimsical organisms. It appeared on the pages of the June 2001 issue of the Journal of Biological Rhythms and is considered the first poem to be published in a strictly scientific journal. (I discovered it through a passing mention in the excellent Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.)


If the lazy dinoflagellate
should lay abed
refuse to photosynthesize,
the clock will not slow

but it will grow fait

barely whispering at the end

to little effect.
The recalcitrant Gonyaulax
arms crossed
“No longer will
they call my life
(my life!)
‘just hands’.
I am sticking to the sea bed!”

Image courtesy of the J. Woodland Hastings Lab, Harvard University

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06 JULY, 2012

100 Ideas That Changed Architecture


How the art and science of building evolved along the parallel axes of the philosophical and the pragmatic.

“Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously observed. Indeed, this convergence of practicality and beauty is perhaps the central defining characteristic of architecture itself, and of every meaningful development that has pushed the discipline forward over the millennia. In 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture (public library), Cardiff University architecture professor Richard Weston and British publisher Laurence King — who brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and the epic Saul Bass monograph — trace the most influential cornerstones of architectural ideology and practice, arranged chronologically, from the fireplace (idea #1) to the term “the everyday” (idea #100), by way of the arch (idea #10), symmetry (idea #25), utopia (idea #32), the elevator (idea #49), empathy (idea #55), “less is more” (idea #74), and sustainability (idea #95).

Weston writes in the introduction:

Surprisingly few of the ideas are philosophical or theoretical in character; indeed, some readers may wonder whether some of them — like Fireplace with which the book begins, and Wall and Brick which quickly follow — are ideas at all….

‘Ideas’ that really change the practical art of architecture are not just the relatively few grand philosophical bodies of thought that shape civilizations, but frequently altogether more humble ideas like a brick or reinforcing concrete with rods of steel. Everything that humans make begins, ultimately, with an idea: not, perhaps, those we think of as patentable — the kind cartoonists like to represent as a bulb flashing in a scientist’s head — but as a guiding concept that, for example, tells a stonemason how to shape and place stone on stone to create an arch which, as if by magic, makes it possible to defy gravity and make an opening in a wall. Many such ideas must have occurred independently to different people in different places and the moment when the metaphorical bulb first flashed will never be known — but this does not diminish their importance.


Steel frames, consisting of vast networks of columns and beams, have been the preferred structure for tall buildings in the U.S. since the late nineteenth century.

Idea # 5: DOOR

'Places made for an occasion,' from Gaudi’s Casa Milà in Barcelona and Michel de Klerk’s housing in Amsterdam to medieval doors in San Gimignano, the design of openings and doors offers rich, expressive possibilities.

‘A door,’ observed the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, ‘is a place made for an occasion.’ The language is personal, but the thought universal: although necessary for security, privacy, and climatic protection, doors transcend the demands of function by mediating the moment of entering and leaving a building or room.

Idea # 11: VAULT

Right: Lincoln Cathedral is celebrated for its experimental vaults, such as that seen here in St. Hugh’s Choir –known as the “Crazy Vault” on account of its eccentric, asymmetrical version of the classic six-part tierceron vault developed in France.

Idea # 15: ATRIUM

Right: Glass-covered atria—seen here on the grand scale at Rafael Viñoly’s Tokyo International Forum—offer numerous environmental and energy-saving advantages and have become common in offices, hotels, and many other buildings since the 1980s.


Top left: Le Corbusier’s lifelong fascination with proportion as a key to architectural beauty culminated in the development of a proportioning system based on the so-called Golden Raio, published in his book Le Modulor in 1948.

‘Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members as in the case of those of a well shaped man.’ Thus wrote Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture, restating a belief that descends from the Pythagorean tradition of mathematics and number mysticism in Greek philosophy, but began in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where dimensions were derived from the symmetry and proportions of the body.

Idea # 22: IDEAL

In plan and section, Classical designs such as Sir Christopher Wren’s for St. Paul’s Cathedral, were controlled by 'ideal' geometric forms such as circles and squares that were thought to bring visual harmony to the composition.

One of the most pervasive ideas in the West is that the ultimate reality is based in the mind or ideas. In Western thought, and indeed in architecture, this has led to an attempt to represent things in an ideal form, as they ought to be rather than as they are.

Idea # 25: SYMMETRY

Left: As well as sharing the use of axial symmetry in their spatial organization, the decoration of Islamic buildings abounds in complex forms of symmetry rarely encountered in Western architecture.

Idea # 27: PARTICULARITY In philosophy, the word ‘particulars’ is used to describe concrete things existing in space and time, which stand in opposition to abstractions. The word ‘particular’ may not come to mind as readily as ideas infused with the Platonic world view — form, ideal, symmetry, proportion — but it describes recurring attitudes in architecture, from responding to the genius loci and a concern for place rather than space, to designing in the nature of materials.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s determination to design houses in response to the particular qualities of a site is seen at its most spectacular in Fallingwater (1935) where everything, from the overall ‘geological’ stratification to a concrete trellis wrapped around a tree trunk reflects this aspiration.

Idea # 28: ARCHITECT

Left: More than any of his contemporaries, Le Corbusier—seen here with his ever-present black-rimmed glasses—helped to define the modern image of the architect as an inspired artist-designer.

As its derivation from the Greek words for ‘chief’ and ‘carpenter’ suggests, the term ‘architect’ is ancient. The current idea of the architect as an independent professional knowledgeable in all aspects of design and construction, however, has more recent roots in the Renaissance and was consolidated only in the eighteenth century.


Right: This beautiful watercolor rendering of the project for Otto Wagner’s own house in Vienna was published in 1890 in the first of a four-part edition of his work. As can be seen from the construction lines on the plan, the center of projection for the perspective lies just off the street.

Nodding to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the notion that to create is to copy, transform, and combine, Weston observes:

It takes only a few moments’ reflection to realize that many of the most potent ideas that have changed architecture are of this seemingly prosaic character. One of the most celebrated in Modern architecture, the free plan, for example, would have been impossible without the development of the central heating systems that liberated architects from the discipline of accommodating fireplaces and chimneys and, in time, teenagers from the constraints of continual parental supervision — just as the chimney had previously enabled the development of grand houses with many private rooms or apartments.

Idea # 35: CORRIDOR

Ubiquitous in complex institutional buildings such as many offices, schools, and hospitals, the corridor is a surprisingly recent invention, dating back only to the eighteenth century.


Top right: The 1930s offered no more compelling illustration of the intensity of development made possible by the elevator than the New York skyline; the 102-story Empire State Building, seen in the distance, remained the world’s tallest until the 1970s.

Architectural histories emphasize the structural frames that made possible the tall buildings that have transformed cities worldwide. Equally important, however, was the passenger elevator, without which frequent circulation beyond a few stories becomes impracticable.


Right: The Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava frequently claims inspiration from nature, as seen here in the Quadracci Pavilion, a major addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum completed in 2001. The fully glazed reception hall is surmounted by an adjustable, winglike sunscreen (above) while the galleria (right) is said to have been inspired by a wave, and to resemble the bleached bones of a shark.


Right: Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the Dutch De Stijl movement, employed abstract colored planes and axonometric projection to evoke his vision of an ideal spiritual world, floating free of gravity.

Axonometric projection is one of several means of representing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface; unlike the more familiar technique of perspective projection it does not suggest how the object might appear to the eye. Lines to not converge to one or more vanishing points but remain parallel, enabling all dimensions to be preserved true to chosen scale.


Right: During the 1950s the Finnish architect Reima Pietilä (1923-93) undertook an imaginative series of morphological studies of natural phenomena: supremely elegant, the resulting drawings and models exerted a decisive influence on his later architectural work.

Idea # 97: BIGNESS

In 1994, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, founder and principal of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), wrote that 'In a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility.'

At once an essential primer and a useful timeline, 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture is quite possibly the best thing since Matthew Frederick’s modern classic, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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