Friday, August 31, 2012

Norbert Wiener Warning System

Above A portrait photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of Norbert Wiener in his MIT classroom, first published in Life magazine in 1956.


Recently I have been reading about the tortured life of the founder of cybernetics, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), in Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age (New York: Basic Books, 2005). A famous child prodigy referred to in news reports as "the most remarkable boy in the world" (he knew the alphabet at eighteen months, began reading at three, and could recite in Greek and Latin at age five), he made momentous discoveries in his later life (the authors describe him as "the father of the information age") but he paid an agonizing price in social maladjustment and neurosis. In this biography, the authors recount the reactions of some of his colleagues to the adult Professor Wiener—

Wiener walked tirelessly around Tech [MIT] during those eventful years, and his unannounced drop-ins evoked a mixed response from his colleagues. [One of them] Jerome Wiesner…remembered Wiener's "daily visits around the Institute from office to office and his conversation that always began with 'How's it going?' He never waited for the answer before sailing into his latest idea."…

[Some people dreaded his visits.] One group of engineers resented Wiener's intrusions and devised an extreme countermeasure they called their "Wiener Early Warning System." [Steve J.] Heims reported that "they would contrive to place a man where he could see Wiener coming. He would alert the others, who would then scatter in all directions, even hiding in the men's room." Fagi Levinson knew of one colleague who hid under his desk when he saw Wiener coming.…"

I suspect that Wiener as a child prodigy was the inspiration for the encounter with the "boy genius" and his parents in Woody Allen's film Radio Days.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Les Coleman Meets Jessica Helfand

© Les Coleman, Imperfect Sense vovelle

Above A few years ago (2005 to be precise), British artist and aphorist Les Coleman sent me this adaptation of an "information wheel" or "wheel chart" (produced by Colin Sackett for In House Publishing), in which each turn of the wheel produces a Coleman aphorism. I was reminded of one of my favorite books, published a few years earlier, by Winterhouse graphic designer Jessica Helfand, titled Reinventing the Wheel (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) (see cover below). It is an immensely rich collection of the widest variety of vintage information wheels (more formally known as volvelles), pertaining to all sorts of subjects, among them Enemy Airplane and Yank Spotters, Color Blindness Chart, and Handy Nail Calculator. There must be at least several hundred, reproduced in color and in fine detail. As it turns out, Les Coleman's "dial an aphorism" is a take-off on a British Translation Wheel that came out c1960 (see p. 136). When I saw the Helfand book, I immediately challenged my graphic design students to design and build their own vovelles, using unexpected subject matter. One student built a pizza wheel, in which the wheel was part of a circular pizza cutter.

Cover, Jessica Helfand, Reinventing the Wheel (2003)


That said, here is more from Les Coleman—

Model wears clothes at nudist camp life drawing class.

A wig so convincing it had its own dandruff.

The life of a mouse is a rat race.

 Terror struck at the very heart of his epiglottis.

The vacation was certainly no holiday.

The temerity to be audacious.

Please refrain from prohibiting.

The cowboy put on his dark glasses and rode off into the sunset.

The sundial had stopped.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a whoopee cushion.

Propaganda helps us make up our minds.

To make guinea pigs of guinea pigs.

If I could be a fly on the wall I would not be sitting in this chair.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Apache Child

Design copyright © Roy R. Behrens, from Edward Curtis photograph.

Shane Connaughton
Jesus must have been an Irishman. After all, he was unmarried, thirty-two years old, lived at home, and his mother thought he was God.

Randall Jarrell
She was so thin you could have recognized her skeleton.

Woody Allen
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Jack Handey
I hope if dogs ever take over the world, and they choose a king, they don’t just go by size, because I bet there are some chihuahuas with some good ideas.

John Berger
Every city has a sex and age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine…London is a teenager and urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.

A.J. Ayer
[William] James was being teased by a theological colleague who said to him: “A philosopher is like a blind man in a dark cellar, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” “Yes,” said William James, “and the difference between philosophy and theology is that theology finds the cat.”

St Ambrose Exhibition

Fred Allen
A fool and his money are soon parted, but nobody can part a two-dollar toupée.

James Thurber
Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

Carol Leifer
He tricked me into marrying him. He told me I was pregnant.

Joe E. Lewis
Show me a man with both feet on the ground, and I'll show you a man who can't put his pants on.

Tommy Sledge
I was in a convenience store. Somebody has blown a hole through every one of the Cheerios. They think it was a cereal killer.

Herb Sargent
A fool has no business inside a balloon.

John Kenneth Gailbraith
Trickle down theory: the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

Keith Waterhouse
I wonder what it’s like to be a tortoise. You can’t be frivolous or facetious if you’re a tortoise, can you?… But you do have a home to go to.

Leonard Cohen
If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Wright or Wrong But Always Frank

© Roy R. Behrens

The following story, told by Bauhaus painter Josef Albers, is quoted in Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 109—

I remember when the Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened [in 1938]: very late, 11 or 12 when all were gone except a few from the Bauhaus. [Walter] Gropius, [Herbert] Bayer, [Albers' wife] Anni, me. Appeared Frank Lloyd Wright. In a Havelock [a cloth covering the back of the neck] and Wagnerian velvet cap (with a challenging older lady) telling us very loud, "You are all wrong." And who was it later saying: "Frank Lloyd Wright?—he is always frank, and not always right."


From Edgar Tafel, About Wright: An Album of Recollections by Those Who Knew Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: John Wiley, 1993, p. 89—

[In the late 1940s] When he arrived at the foot of a hill, which was the proposed site [for a home about 30 miles from New York City, in Usonia], Wright emerged briskly from the car and led us up the steep hillside—the client, the Usonian development member, an ex-apprentice, and myself [a young builder named Robert Chuckrow] following. Wright pronounced the site fine for the house. He then proceeded some 50 feet farther, relieved his bladder, and came back to the group. There was a silence, nobody knowing just what to say. Then Wright pointed his cane at the spot where he had been and said, "Something meaningful will grow there."


Also from the Tafel book is this story about a similar incident a few years later, on p. 68—

In the 1950s [American playwright] Arthur Miller and his then wife, Marilyn Monroe invited Wright to Connecticut to look at land they'd bought for a house. As the playwright recalls, "It was Marilyn's idea to bring Wright up, and one day the three of us drove up. Wright went to sleep in the back seat. I got a speeding ticket for going 48 in a 45 mph zone. It was a gray afternoon by the time we got up there. We had smoked salmon and a few cold things. Wright warned me against pepper but I had a little anyway. He and I walked up to the high ground where there was an old orchard above a pasture, which faces north but has an endless view over the hills. He took one look and then peed and said, 'Good spot,' and we walked down."

See also: Roy R. Behrens, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT and Mason City: Architectural Heart of the Prairie (2016).