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Archive for the ‘Bruce Byfield’ Category

Until recently, I was mostly indifferent to computer chairs. I stopped using a computer stool over a decade ago because kneeling all day put too much pressure on my cartilage-deprived knees, but otherwise, my main concern was to have fabric rather than a leather or imitation-leather cushions because they are easier to clean. I was skeptical about the advantages of ergonomic chairs, but in the past month or so, I’ve changed my mind.

Two things happened to change my mind. First, I recently replaced two aging futons, and found the new futons vastly more comfortable to lie upon. Second, a colleague recently bought a Herman Miller Mirra 2, and I started wondering if I could improve upon my computer chair in the same way I had improved on the futons.

Having done graphical design, I was intrigued by pictures of my colleague’s new chair. Although Herman Miller products have been popular in the tech world for a couple of decades, they had never registered on mind, even though Herman Miller chairs were a common perq in startups. However, I soon found out that the company had over eighty years of experience in modernist design, and was widely considered an expert in ergonomics and in the reduction of the material needed to build a chair.

Hard facts about the ergonomics simply don’t exist, so, in the end, I had to see for myself. I spent an afternoon playing Goldilocks, sitting on a couple of dozen chairs, both from Herman Miller and rival companies like Steelcase. I quickly found that, although the rival products had the same price, and some of the same features, none were as comfortable as the Herman Miller chairs.

Herman Miller established itself as a manufacturer of ergonomic chairs with the Aeron model. However, neither the original Aeron nor the retooled version seemed especially comfortable to me (other people might find differently). Neither did the top of the line Embody chairs, possibly because its back cushions muffled the effect of the spine-like mesh on the back – which, considering my budget, is just as well.

I finally settled on two models, the Mirra 2 and the Sayl, which were more or less equally comfortable for me. However, I then had to make decisions about a half dozen various options – something that I had never really considered. Some of the changes were cosmetic, such as the color of the frame or the seat, but others were more practical, such as whether the arms were fixed or were adjustable, or whether lumbar support was added to the back. Patiently, the store clerk made up quotes for both, listing the cost of the options I was most interested in, and I took them home to ponder.

The Mira 2, I decided, had a better mechanism for adjusting the arms, but offered a limited selection of colors. The ergonomics being approximately equal, I settled on the Sayl chair, whose cosmetic options would allow me my preferences. For a day or so, I debated adding an upholstered back, but, remembering my reaction to the Embody chair, I thought the upholstered back would reduce the ergonomics. That would be especially true if I added lumbar support, which would be difficult – if not impossible – to adjust when covered by upholstery.

Besides, why buy a modernist chair then cover it up? The mesh on the back of the Sayl chair gives it a bold, clean look of which I am unlikely to tire.

Unfortunately, my purchase has to wait upon some unexpected expenses, but, as soon as I can afford it, I am going to indulge myself. A Herman Miller chair is not cheap – although the Sayl is the least expensive — but with a twelve year warranty, I am satisfied that I will not simply be paying for the name. My back, I suspect, will be glad of the purchase in the coming years.

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In the renaissance of Northwest Coast art, the story of how Raven stole the light is the equivalent of the Madonna and Child in classic European art: sooner or later, most artists produce at least one version of it. Several years ago, I bought Bill Hudson’s version of the story, which shows Raven opening a box labeled Sun Crispies as he sits down at a kitchen table. Now, in James Crawford’s “Raven Steals the Lightbulb – Unscrewed,” I have found another modern updating of the story.

If anyone knows one story from the local First Nations, it is the story of how Raven stole the light from the chieftain who held in locked in his chest. Raven turns himself into a pine-needle and has himself swallowed by the chieftain’s daughter so he can be born as her son. The chieftain dotes on his grandchild, and one day gives him the light as a toy – and Raven promptly flees with it, burning himself black as he escapes through the smokehouse of the longhouse, and scattering the sun, moon, and stars, accidentally creating the world as we know it. With variations, the story is told in many different cultures. Usually, the depiction has Raven holding a sphere of light in his beak as he flees.

Crawford gives a modern rendering of this familiar scene. It is evidently a supernatural light bulb, since it appears to be still radiating light after being unscrewed, and in the upper left is what might be the rising sun. Raven looks mischievously pleased with his theft, or perhaps with the updating of the well-known scene.

However, the print is more than a one-punch piece. Instead, it is one of Crawford’s experiments with lino block prints: images that are carved, then inked and used as a stamp. It is a seldom used technique, although Stan Bevan, one of Crawford’s instructors at the Freda Diesing School, released at least one block print of his own. The effect is totally unlike any other medium, with irregular lines, and an often blocky appearance. It reminds me of the woodcuts in books from the 16th and 17th Centuries, which used a similar technique. The result gives Crawford’s print the eerie impression of being an artifact from some alternate universe in which the local First Nations had European-style printed books.

Needless to say, block prints require tremendous care when they are printed, especially when more than one color is used. Consequently, the print is small, roughly 12 by 25 centimeters. However, the effect is so appealing to my eye that I plan to buy some of Crawford’s other block prints – and to keep an eye on his work in other media as well.

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I missed the 2016 Freda Diesing School’s graduate exhibit, so attending this one meant all the more for me. The moment I walked into the campus longhouse, with its carvings, natural light and high ceilings, I immediately felt at ease. Within moments, I was circling around the exhibit, trying to get pictures while staying one step ahead of the crowd.

This year’s show included a skillful piece by instructor Dean Heron, an alumnae of the first graduating class. I was glad to see it; focusing on his teaching, Dean does far less carving that I would prefer.

However, the emphasis was on the students’ work. The classes of 2017 were some of the stronger ones of recent years, with several outstanding graduates of the program and a promising collection of first year students. I found myself dividing the pieces displayed into those whose main appeal was their painting, and those whose appeal combined both painting and carving.

It takes a steady hand to paint convincingly – a steadier one than I have ever had – and the exhibit included several examples. Joseph Campbell, Lorraine Wolf, and Roger Smith all hung portrait masks with a steady hand and palettes of primary colors. In her moon mask, Kari Morgan took another direction with a minimalist white that put the emphasis on the finish of the wood and her carving.

More exotic were Sage Novak’s “Ghost Mask” and Violet Gatensbury’s “Fire Mask,” which blended paint skillfully into the wood and also featured rows of beads on the mask.

Among those with both strong painting and carving were Raven LeBlanc’s Dogfish mask, which rapidly went on my shortlist of possible purchases.

Similarly, Amanda Hugon showed her skill and versatility with her Tsimshian-like “Great Canadian Beaver” mask and Salish Moon Mask.”

However, the standouts in the show were Reuben Mack and Jaimie Katerina Nole. Mack submitted two Nuxalk-style masks,and only his absence from the crowd kept me from asking if they were for sale:

 

By contrast, Nole submitted three masks in three very different styles: the “Don’t Froget Me” frontlet, the “Trickster Flow” portrait mask, and the “Princess Luna” moon mask.

With an unlimited budget, I could have willingly bought most of these masks, assuming they had been for sale. However, since my parents refused to let me be born rich, I could only buy Nole’s “Princess Luna” – to my eye the pick of the show In fact, it caught my attention from across the floor as I stepped into the exhibit, and within twenty minutes, I was begging to buy it.

All these masks, and possibly more, are scheduled to be in the 2017 Northern Exposure show opening on May 27 at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. If you have an interest in First Nations art, take the time to have a look at them in person. Even if you don’t buy, the pleasure of seeing what has become one of the biggest yearly exhibits in British Columbia is too great to miss. Believe me, I won’t make the mistake of missing it again – and neither should you.

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Ask most people what makes quality music, and inevitably they reply that it’s the speakers. I’m not sure whether that was ever true, or if the speakers were simply one of the few pieces of hardware that users could choose, but it’s definitely not the case in this age of digital music.

Speakers do matter, of course. However, thanks to printed circuits, selecting them is no longer a matter of the larger the better. Today, you can get the same sound from a eight centimeter high wireless speaker that you once needed a seventy-five centimeter wired speaker for. And, although you still can’t go astray with traditional quality brands such as Bose, other brands like Logitech’s UE (Ultimate Ears) are also worth considering.

If you use headphones or ear buds, the headphone amplifier on your music player takes the place of speakers. For example, Fiio, an up and coming Chinese maker of audio equipment makes several different amplifiers for different listening preferences to accompany its top of the line music player. The cables used to connect headphones or ear buds can also make a difference, with those made from metals like titanium being at the high end.

Then there is the digital file. A 32 bit file is going to capture more nuances than an 8 bit one, and a 192K sample rate more than a 42K one, regardless of what hardware you play them back on. Format also matters, with FLAC being preferred by many audiophiles because of its advanced capabilities.

Still another consideration is the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), which turns the digital file into sound. Unlike with speakers, with DACs, size still matters – a music player the length of your thumb does not have room for a first-rate DAC, which currently requires a device about the size of a cell phone. Even so, modern DACs deliver quality that was once only available with several bulky boxes many times their weight.

All these considerations are often bundled for you. Download sites, for example, often offer low quality files in MP3 formats, with occasional special offers of files with a higher sampling format. Similarly, headphone amplifiers and DACs are usually not compatible with other brands, or even other formats, although headphones, ear buds, and cables generally are.

If you are ripping your own digital music or selecting a music player and its accessories, take into account where you will play music. An apartment dweller will have little use for Fiio’s A5 headphone amplifier, because they are unlikely to be playing music loud enough to appreciate its ability to keep the bass from distorting at high volumes. Instead, the less specialized A3 headphone amplifier is probably a more reasonable choice. Similarly, if you want music for riding the bus, even with noise-canceling headphone, you will probably have enough external noise that you can’t appreciate a 32bit FLAC file, and it will simply take up extra storage space.

Sorting through all these considerations can be complex. All the same, don’t just stop with the speakers or headphones when you are considering how to play your music. Today,  focusing on the speakers is only part of what you need to consider.

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At the start of February, my parrot Beaudin died. It was unexpected, because to all appearances he was healthy and active until his last few hours. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, I was sharing the townhouse with a single parrot, and the silence was unsettling.

A few people suggested that I was becoming too old to get another parrot. Besides, some said, pets would only tie me down. However, chances are that I have several decades left, and, really, what worthwhile choices don’t tie you down?

Moreover, the number of abused and neglected parrots made me determined to do what I can to help without becoming a Crazy Old Parrot Man. After mourning Beau, I contacted Greyhaven, the adoption agency from which he had come, and asked whether it had any conures who needed home.

Greyhaven is still reeling from the collapse of the World Parrot Refuge, a well-intentioned effort to provide for domestic parrots that ended with neglect and larger parrots preying on smaller ones, and at first I was told that no smaller birds were currently available. However, then the staff remembered Morrison, a brown-throated conure who had been with the agency for almost two years.

Morrison had been abandoned by his person. His person had not seen fit to take the little bird when he separated, and the wife had no interest in keeping birds. Greyhaven’s volunteers had seen to his basic needs, but his noisy and curious personality was too demanding for most of them to give him more than minimal attention. But that same personality is what has always attracted me to conures, so I agreed to consider him.

Greyhaven’s adoption policy can be rigorous – and rightly so, since the point is counter the cruelty and neglect that domestic parrots often face. I was prepared for questions about my lifestyle and knowledge of parrots, but the adoption coordinator remembered me from Beaudin’s adoption, and the interview was largely a formality. One look at Morrison was enough to delight me, and to let me know that he should have no trouble settling in. Smaller than a nanday, he almost seems delicate, except that is active, almost hyper personality dominates the space around him automatically, with the slightest need for aggression. I had expected some objection from Ram, my remaining parrot and the victor of many dominance competitions, but he is largely indifferent to having a stranger around — perhaps because Morrison is a different species.

I was prepared to spend hours feeding Morrison to help him accept me, teaching him to step up and coaxing him to eat fruits and vegetables. But none of that proved necessary. He was under-socialized, but not abused. Within a few hours, he was sitting on me, and in less than a day eagerly exploring the living room.

He was eager, too, to start what is apparently a ritual with him: exchanging whistles and his limited vocabulary of “Hello” and “Pretty bird” with a person over and over. Probably, he has little understanding of the words, but just as obviously he knows the important of verbalization in human socialization. Pleased with the attention, he will keep the ritual going for as long as ten minutes at a time if I continue to participate.

If anything, he is almost too eager to settle in. He has the habit of flying to Ram’s cage, an invasion of privacy that Ram does not appreciate. Several times, I have had to lunge across the living room before Ram could make his objections known on Morrison’s person.

Still, perhaps I worry too much. After less than a week, Ran and Morrison were sitting on me as I lay watching a video. And as I type now, Ram has claimed my right shoulder and Morrison my left. Sometimes, they studiously ignore each other, each preening his back and making happy chirps while watching intently, and I have to be watch that Morrison keeps to his own side – but mostly all is right with the world, at least when the two birds are on neutral ground.

In years of working with parrots, I have never met one who adjusted so easily as Morrison has. If the first ten days are any indication, I look forward to years of his company. Morrison is nothing like Beaudin, and certainly not a substitute for him, but he is very much his own person, and someone I am overjoyed to know.

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I discovered typography just as I was starting my second career as a technical writer. Just as I had when learning poetic meter, I became obsessed. My newly trained eye criticized every sign I saw on the street and the design of every book I read. As I added graphic design to my list of employable skills, I realized that I wanted to develop a personal typographic brand for business cards, portfolios, and web sites.

After looking at hundreds of fonts and pairing them, I settled on Eric Gill’s Joanna for body text, and his Gill Sans for headings. The combo was classic, but not seen often enough to be a cliché, a balance that made it ideal for my personal brand. Gill thought of himself primarily as a stone cutter, and, like many classical Ancient Roman fonts, you can easily imagine both Joanna and Gill Sans being cut in stone. The result is a simplicity and boldness that makes for versatility.

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Gill Sans and Joanna

I went through a period of hunting down every typeface by Gill that I could find, and I might have kept using the combination, except for two considerations. First, a biography of Gill revealed that in his diaries he was a self-confessed child molester. That revelation did not detract from his skill as a typographer or sculpture, but it did make reluctant to tie my professional identity to him in any way, even though few people would have heard it.

Second, several years after beginning my study of typography, I became a free software advocate. The fact that fonts can be used more or less freely in documents makes them something of a gray area in terms of free software, but not enough for my comfort. I began looking for alternatives – ideally ones that I could use with older documents set in Joanna and Gill Sans without any re-formatting.

I found a Gill Sans clone of reasonably in the Arkandis Digital Foundry’s Gillius ADF. It is not a perfect substitute, because it requires more leading than Gill Sans, which makes it less suitable as a body text. Also, its Regular weight is somewhere midway between Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Light. However, although I briefly considered using Gillius ADF for the body text in my book Designing with LibreOffice, in the end I was not especially interested in using it for anything except titles and headings.

Joanna was harder to find a substitute. However, one day, I came across Fanwood, a font designed by Barry Schwartz, who is best known for his modern versions of fonts by the American typographer Frederick Goudy. The League of Movable Type site describes Fanwood as based on the designs of an unnamed American-Czech typographer, but as I started experimenting with it, I could have sworn that it reminded me of another font.

Eventually, I realized that three-quarters of Fanwood’s letter shapes were similar to Joanna. Even more importantly, characters displayed in Fanwood occupied only a little less space as Fanwood – not an ideal situation, but far less complicated than occupying more. Since Fanwood included small capitals, old style figures, and other advanced typographical features, I left Joanna behind and have been happily using Fanwood ever since.

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Gillius ADF and Fanwood

I mention this switch because it is one that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. But free-licensed fonts have become common place in that decade, offering hundreds of choices where before only a few for online display were available before. By contrast, proprietary fonts number in their tens of thousands (at the very least), but one thing that free font typographers have been very conscientious about is offering alternatives for many popular proprietary fonts. As a result, I have been able to switch entirely to free-licensed fonts for my personal branding, as well as the occasional bits of graphic design that I still do – a luxury that makes me glad to live in the times that I do.

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Beaudin Goodfellow, aka Beaudin de la Bec Noir, died today shortly after 4am. I was holding him cupped in my hands on my chest, knowing he was fading. He had been unconscious for twenty minutes, and I was sure he would not wake again, but he suddenly lunged forward, spreading his wings, and collapsed. For a moment I hoped he had rallied, but then I saw the light leave his eyes, and knew that he was gone.

Beau came into our lives in 2006. Trish and I made a practice of not having more than four birds at a time, reasoning that two apiece were the most to which we could pay adequate attention, and the death of Jabberwock the year before had reduced the birds to three, leaving Ram outnumbered by the mated pair of Ning and Sophie.

We wanted a rescue bird, so we adopted him through Greyhaven, the local bird rescue charity. It might have been easier to adopt a human child, considering how we were vetted and interviewed, but since the whole point was to compensate for neglect, Trish and I entirely approved of the process. We were told he had had a mate and lost her, and that he had spent several years locked in his cage in a dimly lit laundry room, and was about seventeen, but all this information was tentative. He might have spent time with cockatiels, since he sounded like a deeper pitched one, but nobody really knew.

What was obvious, though, was that he was high-strung. He could be quiet enough while he was on a shoulder, but getting him to step up left my right index finger a bloody mess of scars for over a year before he became calm enough to step up without drawing blood.

Still, we managed to enjoy him from afar, watching him bathe in his water dish while chortling happily, and watching him open the latch on his cage until we had to thwart him by tying the cage shut – a parrot who gets loose when you are not around is a danger to themselves. We even had to tie the barred floor of his cage to the frame, because he soon learned to bounce it loose and slip out the bottom of the bars.

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After several years, though, he became a glutton for affection. He would slip under my finger on the keyboard, chuckling and demanding that I scratch his neck, and grooming my fingernails gently. At other times, he would roll over on his back on the sideboard beside my work station,squeaking and nipping playfully at my fingers. Increasingly, he would fly to me wherever I was, leaving me terrified that he might land just as I opened the oven and tumble into it. He even learned to tolerate sitting twenty centimeters from Ram on the futon by the window, just so he could nestle in the crook of my elbow.

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Perhaps Beau tolerated Ram because Ram is a cripple who never learned to make an adult squawk and seemed no threat (although, as often as not, Ram would win their dominance games). Or perhaps Ram was the enemy of his enemy Ning. Beau never did take to Ning, the mated cock on the other side of the living room. They fought territorial skirmishes until I felt like a UN observer, and Ning would torment Beau by crawling under the table to beneath Beau’s cage, where the angle was too steep to dive bomb him. Beau would always be furious – and totally clueless about how to respond. I could almost see him thinking that he was young and tall and should be dominant, yet somehow he never managed to give Ning a bad moment.

In recent years, with the flock down to Beau and Ram, Beau blossomed. It always touched me to see him showing affection, considering how violent he had been when we first brought him home.

I had spent the last couple of days trying to decide if Beau was ill. But like many parrots, Beau was good at hiding his illness. Besides, he remained a hearty eater up to his final few hours, raiding my dinner plate then retreating with a bit of corn or potato as he had always done, and emptying his seed dish.

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Still, I detected some unsteadiness, and decided to take him to the vet this morning, just to have him checked. I prepared a travel cage, and placed it in him for the night so I could wake and leave as soon as it was late enough. Just to be sure, I placed the travel cage on a chest by my bed, and slept with the lights on so I could check him easily. Once, I woke to see him sleeping in the corner of the cage nearest me.

The next time I woke, his posture seemed unnatural, so I took him from the cage, scratching his ears and stroking his wings, talking and singing to him. I knew by then he would never survive to arrive at the vet’s, and that the most I could do was soothe him in his final moments – and perhaps not even that much.

I was out the door before 8am today to take his body for cremation. When I returned, it would be hard to say if Ram or I were more aware of the Beau-shaped hole in our daily routines. So Ram and I are sitting together, neither of us wanting to go far from the other.

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