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October 23, 2008

More on Constraints

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In a recent post about design constraints I contended that engineering and other technical fields had do deal with constraints continually, whereas word and idea based fields didn't very much.

It was a long post and I didn't have room to deal with wordy or arty areas that do happen to be subject to constraints. For the most part, such constraints aren't as rigorous as those a battleship designer or civil engineer regularly confront, but they bear mentioning.

So, in case you didn't link to Comments in the post I cited, I thought I'd drop in the following exchange. First up is ricpic, a longtime reader.

An exercise for you, Donald. Try writing a two stanza poem, each stanza consisting of four lines, lines one and three and two and four rhyming, lines one and three eight beats, lines two and four six beats. The poem can be about any subject that genuinely interests you (in your case that might be politics or American history or Seattle or architecture or classic cars). Lastly, the poem has to make sense and the rhyming has to be unforced. Then come back and tell me that only those on the technical side of the equation deal with constraints.

To which I replied:

I wasn't categorical. And if every poem had to have the structure you propose or else had to be a haiku or a sonnet -- and nothing else was allowed -- then indeed poets would have to ply their trade severely constrained.

But that's not the way it is: Poets can do whatever they please these days (they aren't forced to write sonnets), while technical workers will forever remain shackled in many respects.

But here's an example of constraints in the arts: stage set designer. He's only got so much real estate to deal with. There are sightlines to consider. Ease of set changing. Stage features -- any turntables, trap doors, etc. The play or opera itself and its minimal staging requirements. There is a budget to consider. And deadlines. Not to mention the whims of the director who demands that Die Fledermaus be staged in a Nazi concentration camp setting.

In a later comment, frequent-commenter Tatyana suggested that what I said about set designers was a fair description of what architects and interior designers have to deal with.



posted by Donald at October 23, 2008


I'll take Ricpic up on it - subject, modern architecture:

The lot that held the five and dime
Was transformed just today.
Or so they say, that it was time
Design should have its say.

Materials and finish: good
But impact? At best, fair.
Or awful, if you know what stood
Before that vision there.

Could be better, but hey, I'm just an organic chemist on his lunch hour.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 23, 2008 1:51 PM

In Int. Designer case I'll give an example from my yesterday workload.
Public Counter Area in a NY Courthouse:
- needs to comply with ADA: prescribed number of wheelchair-accessible windows, correct dimensioning of same, access from the lobby/elevators to the reception route
-needs to incorporate heavy-duty materials for high traffic area, but to be aesthetically pleasing (no "cagey" appearance) and within very restrictive budget
-needs to be high security: incorporate cameras, alarms, vertical laminated glass or Lexan partition, speakers, money drawers, paper trays, safes and files (on Clerks' side), security hardware on the doors/doorframes leading to it from Clerks' side
-partition between public side and Clerks' side needs to be fire-rated for 2hr for smoke separation: research and supply specifications for fire shutters. Apporopriate fire screens for 19'10 x 8'0" vertical shutter area, housing of shutter box and the motor in soffit above, reinforcement of the soffit for the task. Coordinate with Mechanical Engineer for duct interruptor locations.

Done in 18 chargeable hours. Moving on to the lockers..

Posted by: Tatyana on October 23, 2008 2:12 PM

Bravo Derek!

Second stanza especially.

Posted by: ricpic on October 23, 2008 5:31 PM

What stood before that vision there, wasn't build under the same set of constraints. I suspect, the budget was different, too - as was the human resources/mandatory unionized labor, either.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 23, 2008 5:41 PM

He who builds castles in the air, has no need for beam theory or soil mechanics.

Posted by: Slumlord on October 23, 2008 9:52 PM

Did you really intend for these two posts to sandwich Michael's about shifting brassiere sizes? Design constraints, indeed.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on October 24, 2008 12:03 AM

Nobody has stated the obvious: poetry has no innate value, nor does it produce a concrete product that anybody needs. It is essentially useless.

Why design something that is absolutely useless and unneeded?

This seems to me an unexamined political issue, although it has been mentioned by a few people.

The arts are struggling through a revolutionary era. Thousands of people now make their livings as commercial artists in an entirely new field, multimedia. Design is something of a mania in this field.

The artist as the solitary rebel, giving society the middle finger... well, that role seems to me to be near death. It's certainly boring as hell.

I particularly liked the medical animations that Michael linked to in one of his compilations of blog postings. (He didn't seem to care for them.) Maybe I enjoyed these because I've worked on similar medical animations.

Wealth, and the consequent explosive growth of the Stuff White People Like class, has produced a society full of designers designing useless things. That uselessness is perhaps best illustrated in the collapse of our automobile manufacturing business. We Americans are great at designing useless vanity objects, but we can't compete at designing a decent car.

I see us entering extremely turbulent times, a time in which the vanity and uselessness finally catch up with us. Something basic in the social contract has collapsed. The "clean hands" obsession of the SWPL class is about to implode America. Design that.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 24, 2008 10:07 AM

ST: poetry has no innate value, nor does it produce a concrete product that anybody needs.

Aside from the fact that "innate value" is meaningless, poetry has declined as an art in sync with the decline in our ability to make useful things. Even people living on the margins of existence seem to feel some "need" for poetry (and music, another useless thing, S Thomas?).

Maybe our very decadence is causing us not to make poetry precisely because we've stopped "needing" it. And we've stopped needing it because our lives have become so easy, so cossetted.

I guess I'm saying that we're just not tough enough to make poetry.

Poets: the real Real Men.

P.S. That was great, Derek. I want more. I think you and Mike Snyder should have a slam night. Might actually hear something good at a slam with you two up there winging it.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 24, 2008 1:24 PM

Maybe our very decadence is causing us not to make poetry precisely because we've stopped "needing" it. And we've stopped needing it because our lives have become so easy, so cossetted.

I have a different explanation: song lyrics have replaced the rhythm/song elements of poetry, and TV/movies have replaced the narrative element. So there's really no call for poetry as popular art, so it's declined to a hyper-intellectual niche. Look at the traditional role of poetry and you can see many similarities to the role played by pop music and epic storytelling today.

Posted by: MQ on October 24, 2008 4:27 PM

No ST: I disagree.

poetry has no innate value

True, it has no commercial value, but it may have spiritual value. It's an art that makes us more human. The sausage feeds the stomach, poetry feeds the soul.

My taste is plebian; so the following probably wont impress the highbrows, but I like this from Beckett Knottingham:

I got an MBA while windsurfing,
Wealth's secrets the West wind whispered to me,
Out there I saw a renaissance rising,
I knew where to invest my poetry.
In truth and beauty, in God's greater light,
In quotes never seen on the broker's screens,
In principles beyond the pedant's sight,
That higher calling, to set down what it means.
So stay ashore, money's not much out here,
The better business is philosophy,
For art is only bought by blood and tears,
And the return on Words is eternity.

You might like these guys. Follow their links, I think you'll see their "innate value".

Posted by: slumlord on October 24, 2008 4:54 PM

Nobody has stated the obvious: poetry has no innate value, nor does it produce a concrete product that anybody needs. It is essentially useless.

I agree with you ST. So did the poet, Robinson Jeffers. And he said as much in the following poem. The mystery to me is...what makes this poem so moving, to me at least, when I take it out and read it once every three or four years?

Boats In A Fog

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voice of music,
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.

A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean;
A throbbing of engines moved in it,
At length, a stone's throw out, between the rock and the vapor,
One by one moved shadows;
Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other,
Following the cliff for guidance,
Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog
And the foam on the shore granite.
One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me,
Out of the vapor and into it,
The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and cautious,
Coasting all round the peninsula
Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.

Posted by: ricpic on October 24, 2008 6:14 PM

Slumlord, that is a very interesting looking site. I've heard of it vaguely, but I've never seen it. I'm checking it out. Thanks for the link, even if you didn't intend it for me.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 24, 2008 6:26 PM

I think that the history of the modernist novel consists of adding constraints to make it harder. Flaubert started off by limiting himself to just describing detail without editorializing and generalizing (much). Joyce did that, and then he wrote Ulysses which was supposed to be historically and geogrphically accurate about a single day in Dublin, where everything had something vaguely to do with either the Odyssey or Catholic doctrine.

Joyce is more fun to read if you think that in may respects he was goofing around and being playful rather than trying to be profound.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 24, 2008 7:18 PM

He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump. On each plump melonous hemisphere. In their mellow yellow furrow. With obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.

Yeah, Joyce was in a funny mood when he wrote those lines, part of my favourite section of Ulysses, the Telemachus. There are parts of that section in particular that I still howl over reading years later for the dozenth time. Analingus as humour! The rimjob as rimshot! It's a tragedy that such a funny book should be obscured by so much high-brow academic profundity.

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan". Say that in an Irish accent and if it doesn't put a smile on your lips, you're dead.

"Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls...that gave to his tongue the tang of freshly scented urine."

"Mkgnao." [the sound a Joycean cat makes]

A bottle of porter "stodged to its waist in the cakey sand dough."

Man, I still remember this shit years after reading it. Loves me some Jimbo!

And "mellow yellow". Until I read the big U I thought Donovan came up with that phrase...

Posted by: PatrickH on October 24, 2008 10:25 PM

What a mess in that Beckett guy's head: free market and academic socialists are equally repulsive to him. Wall Street - because he's learned in academia to fear and despise it, academics - because he slaved for them in his graduate days.

And the verbosity! The self-admiration! a perfect loser.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 25, 2008 11:04 AM

"And the verbosity! The self-admiration! a perfect loser"

This is EXACTLY how I would respond to someone who would post a tedious example of their 'workload' in a comment thread.

Can I tell you about my hand-washing and my other domestic duties? Well, first I get the Woolite...oh, never mind.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on October 27, 2008 2:01 AM

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