Every letter counts.

The spellcheck on my BlackBerry recognizes none of these words.
2011 June 2, 8:46 pm

As my live-tweeting of last week’s National Spelling Bee finals attests, my misspellings outnumbered my correct guesses by a factor of five, which led me to the realization that I am not a good speller. I am merely adept at avoiding typos.

I don’t doubt now that my childhood prowess as a speller contributed to my present investment in design, typography in particular. Christina observed that modern spelling prowess is a byproduct of a sophisticated pattern-recognition regime: the definition, language of origin, and part of speech hint at each word’s constituent roots, prefixes, suffixes, and conjugations. More precisely, having believed from a young age that every letter counts gave me a strong foundation for a career in careful consideration of the glyphs themselves (and spaces between them).

Among the 13 words I spelled correctly were six of the nine food words: cioppino, andouille, profiterole, teppanyaki, ingberlach, and orgeat. My proficiency here, I realized, is due less to patterns I recognize than actual omnivorousness: I have encountered five of these six spelled out on menus, on my grocery receipts, on plates placed before me, and in dishes I’ve served others. Cioppino, like Italian sinigang. Andouille sausage with brunch at the L.A. farmer’s market. Profiteroles, like deep-fried sugar-powdered zeppelins. Teppanyaki, when I first tried kobe beef. Orgeat, an almond flavoring, was one my coworkers at Third Street Coffee didn’t know how to pronounce, one that no one ever ordered, but it was there whenever I emptied, cleaned, and refilled the syrup cabinet. It was happenstance – not methodical curiosity – that helped me spell 13 of the most befuddling English words that challenged spellers that night.

Which leads me back to the (foregone?) conclusion that the greatest preparation for something like the National Spelling Bee, a design career, and lots of other challenges and ambitions is a kind of applied omnivorousness: the ability to synthesize all the info-plankton we’re sucking through the baleen of our formal educations, Google Reader, and just living in the world into exacting compositions of ambergris, one letter at a time.

My personal challenge has not been finding plankton; it’s been strengthening my baleen filter. Preparing for spelling bees by organizing chunks of letters into languages of origin and parts of speech, to be summoned at a moment’s notice, is good exercise.

Next is getting over my fear of the bell.

Related: NPR’s preview of the 2011 Associated Press food guidelines (via Christina).

Ten thoughts for December.

Having been too busy last month to extend the ‘Nine thoughts for November’ franchise into 2010, I now return, with interest on late delivery, absent alliteration but with assonance. Happy new year.

1. On the last day of 2010, at the close of a decade, the delay seems to render this an appropriate forum for reminiscing on the ’00s behind and forecasting the ’10s ahead.

2. In 2011, I will be finishing two substantial projects that have defined the latter half of the current year: the U.S. State department’s visas site and my thesis. While satisfying to complete, projects that arch over calendars have a potential for individual days fraught with existential crises. Engaging two such projects at once in similar stages rather than parallel tracks of conception and execution – one at school, one at the office – has magnified that potential in a seemingly logarithmic way.

Worse, the potential for parallel deadlines looms.

3. I will be defending my thesis in late April 2011. Unlike the pomp and circumstance of graduation, the defense is tension and release, rigor and adrenaline and the most delicious pitcher of cheap beer. It matters to me. I will literally be standing for my research.

Your presence is requested. I’ll try to make it a Monday or Friday. It’s a presentation followed by a Q&A, and it lasts about an hour. We’ll get drinks after.

4. I don’t know what will happen to my research after I write my master’s thesis. I have been considering the social process of making the web browser as the first part that I will complete at Georgetown. Broader research about the social effects of the browser will comprise a second part; discussion of design and causality will be the third. It is not about the browser wars, but the browser wars are the setting for a significant amount of the research.

I have months to figure this out. In the meantime, two very rough chapters are ready. For now, I am flying.

5. There is nothing quite like watching the sun rise while ascending from zero to 20,000 feet above sea level. While the sun rises everyday, it is too rarely experienced quickly enough to feel like a hit.

6. There is no number 6.

7. I have often documented my complicated relationship with the suburbs of Los Angeles and each trip there raises its scepter. Something I hadn’t admitted to myself until this trip is that I am so compelled to return because I relish the challenge of doing something people in this place might care to notice.

When asked my thoughts on the city, I often refer to this BLDGBLOG post:

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

In my case, to do what I wanted, I had to leave.

8. I exceeded the expectations I had for my life in California in 2001. I have flown thousands more miles, sent and received hundreds of postcards. Finished college, started graduate school. Composed a book of 10,000 words and 103 pictures from 30 miles of walking and 20,000 miles of flying. Saw several dozen concerts, made almost thirty mix CDs, made friends. Started a business, designed higher-traffic sites, moved east. Lost 40 pounds. Invested. Saw my screencaps featured in books, my words in lectures, my picture in a magazine.

I took a road trip to Fallingwater and discovered Storm King.

On Tuesday, over dinner with Rishi, I had wagyu beef, scallop sushi topped with a sliver of black truffle, and a glass of Balvenie 15. I played a street fighting video game on a Microsoft console by controlling my avatar with only my hands and feet. I am writing this now on an Apple laptop powered by an Intel processor, connected to the internet on an airplane. (If you had to choose between turbulence or disconnectedness, which would you choose?)

It’s unlikely I’ll exceed expectations for my life in 2020 to quite the same degree.

9. A part of me believes that my ideas about what I will do in 2011 will at once inform and be completely distinct from the things I will reminisce over in 2020. I had no idea when I was nine that web design was a profession, let alone one I would practice with a degree of success to the point of being a decade-long career before the age of 30. Technology created new opportunities that my expectations did not take into account, and I imagine the next ten years will by defined similarly by a combination of diligence and freakishly rapid innovation.

10. A part of me believes that the row of Jumbotrons mounted on griffins advertising factory outlet sales and staring down 5 Freeway traffic in Commerce will be included in an establishing shot of Los Angeles in November 2019.

It’s less than ten years away.

While I am writing.

As I start thesis writing in earnest, my priorities are shifting to the production of documents necessary to the academic ritual: the proposal, annotated bibliographies, review of related literature, and chapters of primary research. I am writing on the form of the web browser and its social effects, investigating how browsers were shaped through distributed processes of software architecture and improvised linguistics into an infrastructure upon which we google people to find their Facebook profile and Twitter feed. The part of me that’s been doing this shit for years is a singular candidate for the task, the academic come-lately (part-time, at that) within approaches with some apprehension, and the friend known to you dreads that as we are a postcard’s reach apart, it’s more likely that postcards are all that will pass between us.

It’s become obvious practices that once defined me have suffered as I’ve travelled different social and professional avenues and consequently developed new practices. And it’s difficult for me to admit that my creative output has not dropped as much as I sometimes feel; there are analogues. Where I was once defined by semi-annual meticulously crafted mix CDs, I now with similar frequency and attention assemble brunch for 20 in my one-bedroom apartment. Books with starred reviews are Goodyear-welted shoes, late-night drives are late-night walks, weekly benders are personal training appointments. I am led to believe this is normal for my age.

Similarly, I’m learning not to mistake change in the form of my output for a drop in my ability to “leave my mark.” Blog posts, mix CDs, portfolio/gallery websites, cityscapes, sketchbooks, AIM statuses, long-winded and vain email newsletters – each has come and go as my preferred medium, and who knows when if ever I’ll resume any of these with the same zeal, let alone skill. For the foreseeable future, my blog’s purposes as an outpost for commentary on current events, meme participation, telling of my new favorite earworms, and nudging and winking (and hyperlinking) in the direction of funny shit have been distributed to the lower-maintenance domains of my Facebook profile, Twitter feed, Flickr photostream, Hype Machine loves, and Pinterest boards. I’ll probably write occasionally to float wacky ideas that likely wouldn’t float with my thesis committee, and 140 characters isn’t enough for all the wonderful things and weird shit I want to share.

(Like, I mean, have you seen Marwencol? My esteem for it grows every time I think of it, and I now doubt I’ll see a better movie released this year. It’s a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, who survives a beating but loses motor skills and memories, and a discussion of the role of photography and memory, the role of sincerity in art, and the role of art in therapy. It goes into Charlie Kaufman territory (recursion, specifically, and not as a storytelling technique employed by the filmmakers so much as a consequence of the documentary process (and the subject being documented)) and is so terrifically distinct from anything I consider my experience of the world it’s easy to forget its foundation in real events. Oh, and Hogancamp – who is still getting by on disability checks – takes a cut of sales of related merchandise (maybe some box-office receipts?), so patronage includes a nugget of charity.)

(So there’s that.)

Part of me now chafes at a not-much-younger version of me that exercised writing not because writing is not something to be exercised but because I/he believed that it was through a systematic exploration and exploitation of syntax and diction that one improved as a writer. Improved and writer now seem insubstantial, even laughable, just as there was once a me that thought a feeble configuration of magnets and arrows and dials the ideal of compass. At 25, I probably couldn’t make a better mix CD or write a better blog post than when I was 22, but that realization took almost three more years to reconcile comfortably. I still believe that getting prolific is a step towards getting good, but that better bears a troublesome resemblance to analysis paralysis and all that. As I’m steady working and ringing up debts in pages and accounting in chapters for at least the next eight months, that reconciliation arrives at a fruitful moment.

To those who know (and the present tense feels so tenuous here) me as a blogger, mix maker, enfant terrible (increasingly sans enfant), I leave you with this: While I am writing – the usual 79 minutes and change in one 95 MB file – to remember me as a friend. I worry I only have so many words, and they are needed elsewhere. Till the next postcard, know you’re invited to – and missed at – brunch.