Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Zen of Grape Ivy

When my wife Margaret & I moved to our current country home on 22 acres after living in the city for all of our  lives, we knew that things would be different. As city homeowners we always subcontracted the care of our property to either willing neighborhood kids or a landscaping service, so caring for property is not something that comes naturally to me.

My expectations were simple enough, I figured that I’d just mow the 5-6 acres that have a “grass-like” growth on it, and leave the rest of it to nature—as is. 

But, as I walked through the woods, I noticed a pernicious plant called “grape ivy”—“wild grape vine” (vitis aestivalis I think.) strangling many of the trees. Now these are no small vines by the way, we are talking about vines with diameters ranging from 2 to 5 inches, and reaching 60–70 feet up into the trees—one plant often engulfing 2 or 3 neighboring trees as well. I knew that the vines were choking the life out of the native white ash, shag-bark hickory, maple and oak trees on our property and decided that I had to do something about it. 

At first I thought I could just pull it out of the trees with my hands—fat chance of that happening. So, I started carrying a small folding saw with me to cut the vines at the base hoping to at least stop the spread of this pesky plant. Then in later walks I started bringing a bow saw, and finally a chain saw to deal with the larger ones. But I still had these dangling masses of vines strung between trees making it impossible to walk through, and still choking the trees. 

So, the only way to get this stuff out of the trees was to pull it out using a tractor. I’m sure it’s hard to imagine how the process of attaching a 50-foot chain to a 40 horsepower 4-wheel drive tractor and yanking grape ivy out of trees could be “Zen-like”—but trust me, it is. Knowing that this small act can rescue the trees makes me feel like I’m doing what’s right—and good. 

And the final result is that over the past seven years I’ve managed to rescue well over 100 trees on our property, giving them a chance to prosper and grow without the stranglehold of grape ivy. The funny thing is though, that because there are so many trees still encumbered, it’s hard to see that I’m even making any progress. 

Maybe our (soon-to be-born) grandchild will get to enjoy our property more, and that alone could make it all worthwhile.


A small pile of grape ivy recently removed—ready to be burned.

Here's the next challenge, that 3 inch wide vine you see above is poison ivy! Now what the heck do I do about that?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Letter A

Who doesn’t love the letter A? 

And why wouldn’t you? It’s not only the first letter in the “English” alphabet (actually Latin or Roman), it symbolizes accomplishment and excellence in almost every context.

In my family the power of the “A” became apparent in grade school. My grandmother paid my brothers and I for A’s on our Report Card—for B’s you got zilch—in her mind there was no second place. You were either “A” material worth rewarding, or you weren’t. Period.

And we know that being “A-1” is the best; the "A-Train" has to be good; and "Triple A", well that’s just over the top—OK, other than in the military context. Those with last names beginning with “A” love being first on the list, first to be called and have an overwhelming superiority complex—trust me, I know, I was in business with a guy whose named started with A.

Graphic designers, calligraphers, artists and typographers all love the letter A. In corporate and brand identity, it’s a letter which is often customized to form a unique but still recognizable letterform—like the 2- sided triangular form used in the (old) NASA logo.

Other than Hester Prynne’s unfortunate “A”, all other symbolism and associations to the letterform “A” are positive, or at least neutral. In math, the first corner of a triangle is “a”; and in a hexadecimal numbering system, A is equal to the digit 10—and 10 is a nice number too, right?

"A" is the third most common letter in the English language—it’s the second most common in French & Spanish. The “A-Team” brings their “A-Game” and finds success. (although the TV show “The A-Team” left something to be desired)

In Morse code, the letter A is “dot, dash” one of only four Morse code letters formed by less than three dots or dashes ( “E” being the shortest, represented by “dot”) In the Military Phonetic Alphabet,  A is represented by “alpha”—also the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and part of the historical basis for our letter “A”. It’s also a descendant of “aleph” in the Phoenician alphabet, and before that, an ox head in Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

The letter is also a word—an indefinite article used before singular nouns—“A goofball with a computer ambled through town today with his Blog…”—well you get the idea.

The letterform "A" is an important one. Everyone likes it, everyone wants to be part of the “A Group”: the best, the highest, the first, the winners. Ever use “B-1” steak sauce? Ever call “B-1” Plumbers, or have your cleaning done at a “B-1 Dry Cleaner”? Where would we be without the “A”?

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was rated “AAA” until just recently. The current financial rating system used by Moody’s and other rating agencies is plagued by a desire to try to keep assigning “A”s in their rating system, even if it may not be deserved. Their system includes: Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, and even then only drops to Baa1, Baa2…maddeningly complex but motivated by the power of “A”—we all want to be one.

OK, so maybe there are a few “A-holes” out there who want to try to diminish the importance of “A” but forget about them and concentrate on the “A-Plus” people.



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rare Book Room

For all those designers, calligraphers, artists and book lovers out there.  Visit the Rare Book Room. A company called “Octavo” has digitally photographed some of the world ’s great books from some of the greatest libraries. Shown here is a spread from The Book of Hours, Horae Beatae Mariae ad usum Romanum, 1524. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Leaky Pipe People & Dancing Bladders?

Some time in the last couple of years, the drug companies decided to bring their show directly to us, rather than simply talking to physicians.

You know, I’d almost give them the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe, just maybe, their intentions were good, and that this is about giving us more information so that we can make good choices.

But when Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” was adapted as the theme song for Viagra, I knew we were in for it—big time. And they now use the tagline "Viva Viagra"—Elvis would surely leave the building if he knew this.

They’ve managed to promote Viagra as a “lifestyle” choice for the older set—at one point in their advertising they even put nasty little devil’s horns on the guy in the ad…so we know this is not about trying to help us make good choices.

OK, now if you do have an incontinence problem, would you feel better when you see “leaky pipe people” carousing around the TV screen? Oh, and what about those dancing water balloon bladders? So, what’s at work here?

The Drug Companies are trying to “build their brands” so we’ll recommend their drug to our doctor. They're trying to create impressions that will stick with us—they hope.

The Ad folks are having a tough time dealing with the subject—it’s hard enough to come up with good ideas—but for icky products like these? (Imagine telling your kids: I created really cool leaky pipe people today!)

The naming Gurus are hard at work coming up with great names like “Boniva” for a bone related drug…duh.

All we can do is complain...and make fun of them of course. So let's all tell them what we think about their goofball advertising and the next time we need a prescription, order the generic kind instead!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Is that a cast-iron tub...or are you just happy to see me?

Advertising can be really annoying, and sometimes stupid, too. It's not bad enough that we have to be constantly reminded of unfortunate medical disorders of a personal kind (not that there's anything wrong with that) but the use of symbolism in advertising sometimes just falls off a cliff. 

Case in point: Cialis advertising. Now why are there two middle-aged people, one of whom has a misfunctioning part, sitting in cast-iron bathtubs, overlooking the Pacific? What should we be seeing here? What should we be remembering that might spark our desire to purchase Cialis at some point in the future when things aren't working as they should?

Are they in separate tubs because of the malfunction, or the cure? Is the sturdy symbolism of cast-iron meant to inspire some virile connection in our minds? Is this some ritualistic act practiced only in California? 

To make matters worse, the folks who brought you Cialis, have now decided that this is such an enduring image that it should be used as the symbolic representation of their product. They have turned it into their product identity. Two old people in tubs. (Hopefully for less than four hours because we know that can be dangerous.) Or are these two very short people with very wide bottoms?

What would you tell your grandchildren if they asked why you and grandma spend so much time in the tubs outside? Are these folks who couldn't afford the requisite California redwood hot tub? Is this a lesson that we should be saving more and investing more conservatively?

Now we know that advertising icons can become corporate symbols—the AFLAC duck being the most recent example that comes to mind. But in that case at least there is SOME logic to "quack" and the acronym AFLAC, that might have triggered some weary creative type to say "lets use a duck". But what level of creative desperation led some poor advertising type to exclaim "I know, lets have them sitting in old cast iron bath tubs!" If there is some logic I've missed, or some deep psychological symbolism that makes sense, please let me know. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Forensic Graphic Design

Being a junk collector has no boundaries, I've also built a sizeable collection of "Ephemera"—those fleeting items created for daily use and rarely saved—except by people like me. I was admiring a few examples from my collection recently— two forms related to a 1912 business transaction between the John Kirch & Co. of Pittsburg (no H)  and The Toledo Grain and Milling Company-Armada Mills in Toledo, Ohio. I started trying to understand the dynamics of this particular business transaction from what I could derive by looking at the forms themselves—a type of "Forensic Graphic Design" if you will. A number of things stood out: this was a large business transaction that was completed professionally and expeditiously in a few days between two companies who valued their relationship. Quick shipment of a big order, credit for freight, payment in five days, use of recycled bags. No moral hazards at work here—this was a smooth and honest business transaction.

You can also see that The Toledo Grain & Milling Company placed a high value on their Brand Identity. The Company's expertly crafted and engraved identity is prominently displayed on both forms. They have several configurations of their elaborately detailed logotype & corporate symbol. This one below is apparently the "primary" configuration for their corporate signature complete with corn symbol and packaging example. 

And they have secondary graphics to accompany the corporate signature. This is the Armada Mills Plant itself depicted with its rail siding and material handling systems.

The corporate signature has a secondary configuration—this version without either the building, wheat shafts, corn plant or packaging. Both versions include their production capacity: 500 barrels of Flour—winter & spring; and 100 tons of corn and chop feed daily.

Now this was no small transaction. The total cost of $638.02 in 1912 dollars is roughly equivalent to an $18,500. transaction today. But for that size of order freight is free!

And the Invoice was paid in 5 days! This John Kirch & Co. was obviously a prosperous and reputable business.

Notice that a draft for payment was written by a representative of the Toledo Grain & Milling Company at their depot in Pittsburg, "at sight on arrival of car" Now these are payment terms that we could all live with today...none of these 30/60/90 day terms.

Mr. Hurlbut, the representative for Toledo Grain, has quite a nice calligraphic hand I'd say. In fact, it looks like fine handwriting was pretty prevalent back in 1912.

And I guess The John Kirch Company believed in recycling as well—here we can see that they provided 405 bags to be filled and reused.

Amazing what we can learn from this old junk: how to conduct your business honestly, how to be an environmentally concerned citizen, the need to write clearly and beautifully, and respect for brand & corporate identity. Not bad lessons from a couple of pieces of paper from 1912.