How Long is the Coastline of Britain?

I’m reading a charming “slow travel” memoir by Dan Kieran, and came across this passage (reflections during a period that he and two friends took a milk float across southern England) about the paradox of measuring the coast of the island, and pointing the way (although Kieran doesn’t mention it) to fractals.


At the time I was going slightly mad, but when I got home a friend pointed me towards the paper called ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’, published in 1967 by a mathematician named Benoît Mandelbrot. It suggests that the depth of your journey–in terms of how closely you perceive it–really does increase its length in mathematical terms. The answer to the question posed by the paper is that there is no answer. It’s a paradox because the length of a coastline depends entirely on the way you measure it. It comes down to context, and the context in which you perceive something is a function of the brain.

To explain the coastline paradox you first have to accept that there is a definitive geological coastline of Britain, which would depend on high or low tide and all manner of other variables. Assuming you’re prepared to accept this, you then have to imagine measuring this coastline with a three-foot ruler. You would, eventually, come up with the coastline’s length. But what if you then repeated the experiment with a one-foot ruler? The smaller ruler would give you a greater distance because you would be able to get into lots of nooks and crannies that the three-foot one would have to stretch across.

Now you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, fine, but if you went down to a one-inch ruler you get an even greater distance. At least that would be accurate though, because you can’t get smaller than a one-inch ruler.’ The problem is, of course, that you can. You can shorten the ruler over and over again, going deeper and deeper, getting smaller and smaller, and the length of the coastline will increase each time. So there really is no definitive answer to the question. It’s a rather disconcerting thought, isn’t it? We all work on the assumption that the real world is defined according to measurable things, but once you begin to focus on it, the act of measurement itself becomes fraught with uncertainty.

Teaching as a Craft: Bansho-Keikaku

On and off in my life, I’ve been engaged in what might be called ‘comparative pedagogy’ –that is, looking at different ways of teaching and learning topics, most typically math, which, in addition to being a favorite subject of mine, has been the subject of intense educational reform battles my entire life.

I’m not going to wade into those fights, but am sharing one fascinating thing in comparative math teaching that I learned about doing a project a few years back on problem solving (an explicit part of the much debated Common Core standards).

Teaching problem solving in a typical U.S. classroom, indeed even what we think of as a problem for math class, can differ from what is presented in other countries. In Japan, problems, even at early grades have more conceptual richness, requiring a ‘puzzling out’ period, not just an application of a procedure. And when a teacher works with a class to teach a problem, he or she plans out how the entire problem will be written out progressively on the board (using chalk, not an overhead) and taking a substantial portion of the class time.

By the time this interactive work is complete, the group’s thinking about the problem will be visible on the board it its entirety.  Part of the planning for this, is the teacher’s planning how to present it, Bansho-Keikaku, and it is part of the lesson study that Japanese education is so well-known for.

A guest post on Larry Cuban’s great blog explains more about this board writing and what it accomplishes.

It isn’t just math class that relies on this practice, but the humble chalk and chalkboard when used with skill intention brought coherence to other disciplines too. A representative quote.

“Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.”

I have seen (although never had) teachers in the U.S. who had this kind of skill and approach, but it does seem like a rarity here, and a missed opportunity.

Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith (of theThe No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series among many other books) has penned a gentle tribute to W. H. Auden. He’s an enthusiast rather than a scholar in my view, and these “How writer x can change your life” usually leave me cold (is there nothing that can’t be instrumentalized into self-help, even reading for pleasure?)  But this effort charmed me. Here he is recalling a trip to a speaking engagement in Perthshire, Scotland, a beautiful landscape that sets up his claim for the central role books play in the Scottish character.

The library lay at the end of the Roman Road, surrounded by fields in which wheat and barley were yet to ripen—lush green paddocks half-hidden by unruly hedgerows. Rioting nettles, clumps of blackthorn and rowan, wide-leafed docken grew along the side of the road until suddenly we reached an old schoolhouse and an ancient graveyard of weathered gray stones. The organizers appeared and introduced themselves, and I was taken to see the library before the guests arrived.

Belief in the word can assume the qualities of a religious faith. At the time when Lord Drummond built this place to house his precious collection of books, Scotland was prone to outbreaks of lawlessness and fierce local enmities. The lives of many were lived under the heel of powerful local clan chiefs who administered rough justice. Life was hard in every respect: this was not the rich landscape of settled England—Highland Scotland was a place in which people scraped a living and more often than not went to bed hungry.

It was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to the setting up of a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude toward books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.

Bad Reviews: John Simon

I’m long, and gratefully, out of the arts reviewing game. (Despite an occasional lapse).

When I was doing it regularly,  an editor once told me my positive reviews were, atypically, better than my negative ones. Don’t know why, certainly for me the really bad review is a guilty pleasure, probably for others too. (Seems like it keeps Anthony Lane employed at the NYker. I’m not sure he honestly knows that much about movies, but the man knows how to pan a film.)

One of the great ‘left it for dead’ masters was John Simon of New York Magazine, who really let you know when he hadn’t liked something.

Here he is from 1987 on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express (the one with the roller skates). This is a piece, like Tom Shales interview of Phyllis George, that newspaper folk handed around to one another. Lodestones that point towards a not particularly admirable compass point, but point they do.

It would be best if children remained small,’ concludes Erich Kästner’s charming poem ‘A Mother Takes Stock.” This is even truer of model trains, which should not exceed the size of a small puppy and definitely should not be anthropomorphized as they are in the ghastly juggernaut of a musical from Britain, “Starlight Express.’

The conceit (in both senses of the word) is to put seeming adults on roller skates and make them pretend they are trains competing in a trans-America race imagined by a child, whose taped voice narrates the event. The repetitious preliminary heats and self-contradictory main races cannot be followed; the story is ludicrous and confused. Just when the trains veer into humanity, they become derailed into nonsense; just when the humanoids achieve some trainlikeness, they become choo choo cute.

Also immense and monstrous. The set—really an environment—is a huge, three-tiered track that winds across lowering and revolving bridges, around platforms that rise from a central declivity where most of the action takes place, and along winding paths that encircle two pockets of spectators but do not have the decency to envelop the entire audience (as they did in London) and thus at least occasionally be visible only on small TV monitors. Here the entire vertical three-ring circus is always in full, fulsome view, bespangled with garishly colored lights to put the brashest discotheque to shame, with characteristic bits of American cities from coast to blinking coast flaring up fitfully. And the often deafening sound is the most denatured, unnatural, dehumanized clangor ever to hit Broadway. Starting with that child, a mere computerized voice (the real boy, Braden Danner, has the good sense to be the live Gavroche up the street in ‘Les Misérables’), everything sounds canned. Hordes of performers whizzing about on skates have to be lip-synching, but even on the occasions when someone stands still long enough for a viva voce song, elephantine electronics make it all clank and clatter like a can tied to the Great Bear’s tail. [ARS: what would Simon make of today’s Broadway amplification?]

Witnessing ‘Starlight Express’ is to feel trapped inside a gargantuan tape deck while watching a Brobdingnagian Erector Set go through the most elaborate mechanical gyrations. The human performers railroaded into the show have to be actors, singers, dancers, roller skaters, and, considering the danger to life and limb, Evel Knievels, which is too much to expect of anybody, and so no one quite manages to huff and puff up to snuff.

The plot is simplemindedness itself. The insomniac child envisages a race through America for a shining silver dollar. There are trains from various countries, e.g., a Japanese bullet train, an Italian espresso (that’s the humor of it), etc., but the musical and dramatic possibilities of multinationality are promptly dropped as we concentrate on Rusty, a nice American steam engine that competes against a nasty American diesel called Greaseball and a campy, outer-space electric train, Electra, both of whom steal his pretty but fickle female tender, Pearl, as they try to trip and elbow him out of the race, sometimes using the services of the treacherous and androgynous Red Caboose, a cross between the Joker of ‘Jeu de cartes’ and Anybody’s from ‘West Side Story’—but, then, everything here is really from somewhere else.

Since the concept and music are by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, as we know from ‘Cats,’ likes to go metaphysical on us, there is also God. Assuming the disembodied gospel-singing voice of Poppa, Rusty’s earthly father, this is the eponymous Starlight Express, appearing as a light show in the starry sky, who might as well be called I Am That I Amtrak. The mentality of the piece, as written by Lloyd Webber and his doggerelist Richard Stilgoe, is resolutely reactionary. Steam wins out over diesel and electricity (a curious position for a show that depends wholly on computers and state-of-the-nonart electronics), and women are neurotic or simpering tenders, sleepers, dining or smoking cars, the male locomotives’ subservient playthings or prostitutes (“I’m a sleeper with a heart of gold”) who, in a typical dance sequence, get kicked in the rear by Greaseball, for whom they bend over backward.

Lloyd Webber’s tunes are scavenged from all over, not least from Lloyd Webber, though here and there a patch of melody fleetingly pleases. Stilgoe’s lyrics tend toward things like “Was I corroded/Or overloaded?” “The coach I thought was going with me,/She up and joined electricity,” not to mention grating repetitions of “Freight/ Is great.” John Napier’s scenery and costumes here lean toward excess, as in “Cats,” but Meccano lovers should exult in them; David Hersey’s lighting just about twists itself inside out to come up with fancier effects (some compelling, some merely frantic), and the skating and break dancing by Arlene Phillips, though not up to what one sees in the streets outside the theater, has its moments. Trevor Nunn’s direction is pretty obvious here, and among the performers, only Reva Rice, Jane Krakowski, Greg Mowry, Steve Fowler, and Andrea McArdle come off passably [A few names that have continued in lights since then]—but, then, no one has much of a chance with an orchestra piped in from a “specially designed ‘orchestra room’ off stage” and very possibly on Mars.

“Starlight Express” is a tale told by an idiot with son and lumière. It is a light show, an industrial show, a circus show, a freak show—everything but a show show. It belongs in a sports arena, exhibition hall, or oversize discotheque; all it can do in a theater is cheapen it. But the audience palpitating around me was entirely apposite: They looked and behaved like people who had never been to a theater, and “Starlight Express” is guaranteed to do nothing to change that. Perhaps the most characteristic thing about it is a sign reading RALIEGH [sic], for this is postliterate or, at any rate, illiterate theater.

Poetic Words: Mary Oliver

A favorite from a Provincetown, MA poet.

Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

Ian Britton Field of Poppies

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

Bookstore Quotes and Memories

Loving bookstores and libraries is a trait I inherited from my parents (and theirs) and probably share with many readers of this blog.

Sad to say they are a dwindling breed in D.C. (although far from extinct).  Years ago we had the Trover Shops (three, including a wonderfully quirky one on Capitol Hill), Chapters, on 15th, and Borders (various places including the one where a clothing store is now).  There were lots of others too…Crown Books (a  chain, but would suffice in a pinch. Walden Books similarly.)

There was a drama bookshop in Dupont Circle, as well as Lambda Rising (LGTB bookstores becoming a thing of the past provides a bittersweet touch to progress).  Olsson’s was all over, downtown, Georgetown, and a particularly charming one in Old Town Alexandria. Two stories and lots of wood.

We still have a good set. In fact, Politics and Prose has opened another branch in the Navy Yard, which is encouraging. But I do miss that downstairs at Trover Shop, where Congressional biographies, and tomes on tax law would jostle Chekhov and Shirley Jackson. You never knew what you would find.

And to wrap up, a bit from Calvino on the actual sections of a bookstore:

– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”
— Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”  — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Three Tenore di Grazia

Inspired by the quiz during last Saturday’s Met b’cast, here is a quick explanation of “Tenore di Grazia,” that is, graceful tenors, not the heroic breed required for Wagner or heavy Verdi, but rather the elegant, perfectly controlled sound that makes bel canto music shine.  (Tenors of any kind are a rare breed, and a true tenor di grazia is a particular treasure.) Javier Camerana, one of the current ideals of this type, named three of his favorites during his quiz appearance. Here’s a sampling of all three:

The German tenor Fritz Wunderich, golden sound, perfect production with evenness of tone across the whole range, and attentive to the words.  Here in a deceptive simple Handel aria. If you don’t have a feel for cantilena, the long singing line, this number falls flat.

Talk about a long line, and not one moment of vocal pressure!

Next, the great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, spectacular range, sensitivity to text and ability to inflect it to a ‘part per million’ and the fearlessness required to sing softly when the piece calls for it. (Harder than singing loud for most opera singers, and why “can belt-o” is so applicable in the opera house, or for that matter in Broadway musicals.) Here he is in Roméo’s aria from Gounod’s Roméo & Juliette, a role he owned during his very long career.

Finally, a tenor from an earlier generation also beloved by Javier and many others, Cesare Valletti. Here he is in an aria from Massenet’s Werther, exhibiting an almost superhuman poise, while singing in the highest range of voice. You hear the heartsick obsession of the young man, it seems to pour out of him in a single breath. And this was live on the radio!

Finally, for good measure, here is Javier himself, who set me off on this enjoyable visit to tenore di grazia of yesteryear. An excerpt from  his performances in Rossini’s Semiramide currently at the Met (live March 10 on the radio).

Wonderful line, agile, warm sound, with a smile in his voice. Love that in the great tenor tradition, he has to stand on a box so as not to be shorter than his love interest. (Tenors, dear reader, on the whole are shorter than those they woo. It’s just how it goes. I know whereof I speak.)

Happy Wednesday!

Web Production Tips, Redux

A while back, I got asked for tips on Web production, a little random but offered what it’s worth. Slightly updated from an earlier post, 2/20/2018. Feel free to share with those in the web game.

Random Website Production Tips courtesy of Arthur Smith

  • Sign your work: I’ve found it useful to make sure people put their names (or at least initials) on all concept stage and later docs (specs, treatments, mission statements, wireframes, page designs, whatever). I used to only ask for dates, but “signing your work” may actually improve quality and it is also a godsend later when you are trying to track something down from an archive.
  • Number wireframes: Decimal numbering navigation trees on wireframes/screen comps has been helpful. (That is, assigning a number to each path (Home page =1, a sub-page like “about us” = 1.1 etc.) although as complicated hierarchies become less prevalent on sites, may not be as important.
  • Responsive from the get go: Checking responsive view compatibility really early and being psychologically prepared to clip the wings of a really nice design solution and content strategy if it’s not feasible.
  • Workflow realism: Be prepared for clients’ (or partners) non-use of proposed workflow tools for content, delivery and review etc. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can lead a client to BaseCamp, Google Drive, DropBox, SharePoint or whatever, but you can’t make them click. Most people are reluctant to add another tool to their work ecosystem, and a vendor seldom has the leverage to persuade them to do so. I ask how clients already work with copy, visual assets, and do review for existing projects, and then work out an approach based on that that’s bearable for the web team. It is often email attachments, the bane of any web producer, but then I put them in the tool I need and name them using the production convention. I work on small sites, and I realize something this ad hoc may not scale.
  • Milestones: Rally around a fixed external event to shape client schedules and expectations (even if it’s a sort of made up event). It’s best if there is a plausible date to tie production milestones to, but even if not, designate one based on something on the calendar. For instance, end of a semester for an academic client, annual meeting for a non-profit, etc. Some public version of a deliverable should be tied to this., “e.g., we will focus group the alpha at the next regional meeting.” What’s key is that be such a date be front of mind for client and feasible for you. End of contract dates don’t necessarily work this way. For one thing, they can be amended, but dates of public meetings cannot. If you have to keep looking up a date to see when something major is due, it’s a bad sign.
  • Presentation tools for sketches: Consider Keynote, (or if you must, PowerPoint ) for concept and design stage work. If your designers are comfortable with it and particularly if you are working from a family of templates, have designers create plausible Keynote “page shells” that then can be updated by producers and writers to iterate content strategy. This is sort of a hack, and it’s not what Keynote is for, per se, but it is much more convenient (and less costly) that working on content revisions in a designer/Photoshop workflow. For one thing, text in Keynote is much easier to move around and chunk, and the graphics tools are sufficient at least to wireframe, or even do simple page design. Photoshop (or other image tools, are not text friendly). Don’t leave the designer and developer out of this phase, though. It’s possible to create something in Keynote that is insane to execute. Periodic check ins on feasibility and implications are good, as is working from a shell that both the designer and developer have seen and ok’d, or better participated in.
  • Start early on copy and other content: Also, if you are careful, you can get a jump on cleaning up the copy, and sort out images, rights etc., in this Keynote stage, not just resolve the content strategy problems. Interestingly enough, now that I work mostly in WordPress, I still find that this Keynote workflow helps. WordPress sort of tempts you to think you can do iterative content development if you have chosen the right theme etc. This hasn’t worked for me: it’s a publishing content management approach (presentation and content wrangling) it’s not a content creation tool, at least for anything editorially intensive. Google docs or DropBox Paper/Hackpad can be your friend here, but most of all choose a tool that your team is likely to use.
  • Map editorial workflows: figure out in advance how copy (and other assets) are getting from the client or the writer to the site, and how revisions, proofreading/copyediting and publishing will be done. Note who’s job it is, and do a ‘pre-flight’ to make sure this approach will work. Particularly important for big sites or conversion jobs.
  • Restrain your theme addiction: If you are in a WordPress world, or other theme-based platform, don’t move to the theme choice stage until content strategy is established. (This is really hard for me, and others I’m betting. There are so many themes, and it’s fun to think in a preliminary way about your project and then go “theme shopping”.) The danger is you start thinking about the project in terms of what the theme will do, rather than what the project goals are. (It’s a version of having all those typefaces available in a design program: sort of irresistible to try them out early on.) It’s also a waste of time learning a theme and its quirks, only to find out you won’t use it later. (Although this only happens once in my experience!) If you are building a theme from scratch, or redoing most or all of the CSS, then this would not necessarily apply. Still good to have a clear idea of what success looks like for your content first.
  • Stay in touch: Do a weekly report email to clients, include milestones from your project spreadsheet or PM tool, and color code tasks: on time (green), behind, (red) ahead (blue), not started (black), so it can be glanced at (but not edited).
  • Keep track: Document as you go. (Like flossing easy to say, hard to do).
  • If timelines change, be realistic: If some stage takes a lot more time than it was scheduled and budgeted for, the natural tendency is to believe the “Just So story” that you will “catch up” later. If the first stage took twice as long, it’s likely that the other stages will take twice as long. Make an alternate Plan-B version of the schedule that uses this delay as a factor for all remaining stages. For example, if it took the client 10 weeks instead of 5 to provide copy and signoff on concept spec, multiply all remaining stages (page designs, alpha, testing, whatever) by 2 and see where that gets you. Figure out how you could manage such a schedule, and find a professional and respectful way to address this with your client. This isn’t very comfortable, but even if you are just thinking through it yourself is useful. As difficult as it may be to bring up a delay like this with a client, it is easier than trying miraculously do work in half the time. Even if you end up eating the time, your client and team may well respect you for being realistic about it.
Web site don'ts: Labeling everything in dingbats!
Web production don’ts: Labeling everything in dingbats on your sitemap!

• Love your content: Finally, it’s my experience that if you like the content and do right by it, many workflow problems either don’t occur or are easier to solve. Even neutral professional content that isn’t your particular specialty can be rewarding to work on, and if everybody believes it is valuable to get it out to the people who need it, that gives you some basis for working together and solving problems when they come up.  On the other hand, content that hasn’t been worked out pushes back, and chokes workflows.

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