Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

We Fear Change, Part 1: Facebook

We live in turbulent times. REM stopped making music, major college athletic programs change conferences almost daily, and Leonard and Penny split up after more than half a season together (I’m watching Big Bang Theory on Netflix Qwikster, so I’m a little behind the times). With all of this change, it’s a little unsettling when you reach for one of your comfort blankets at the end of a long day only to find that Mark Zuckerberg has knitted it into a completely unfamiliar pattern.

Welcome to what we’re calling Garth Algar “We Fear Change” Week here on IBD. I will discuss Facebook today, and Shea will address Netflix Thursday. Some day down the road, when we’re all emotionally prepared for it, we’ll write about the new logo for the Florida Miami Marlins baseball team.

In the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, the hateful Benjamin Kane (played by Rob Lowe) comes to Garth (Dana Carvey) with the insidious notion of giving arcade tycoon Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray) a regular interview segment on Wayne and Garth’s cable-access TV show. Garth responds with a simple “We fear change” and starts smashing the robotic hand he’s building with a hammer.

Those of you who use Facebook may have noticed that there have been some changes recently to the design and functionality of the popular social media site. Those of you who don’t use Facebook, this is why two-thirds of the people you know recently spent the better part of a week screaming as though someone (Mark Zuckerberg) had stabbed a fork through their hands.

To say that the reaction to Facebook’s redesign has been negative is a little like saying some people didn’t like the movie Cabin Boy. (Note: One of my favorites.) As with all of Facebook’s previous changes, this one was met with tears, confusion, and threats to cancel accounts (and that was just one guy).

The difference now is that there’s another option. Google+ is gaining momentum and is seen by many as an alternative to Facebook, if only they could get their friends to come along. The irony is that many of Facebook’s changes (increased interactivity, larger images, tweaks to the “list” feature) are in response to the emergence of Google+.

And this is the crux of the issue: Facebook is in the unenviable position of needing to stay current, respond to competitors, and adapt to emerging technology, all while keeping the Garth Algars of the world from freaking out.

The day the changes were unveiled, there was a collective uproar on the site. When I posted on my Facebook page that I didn’t mind the changes (I actually like the new scrolling, Twitter-esque news feed), it garnered a pile of comments, some of them unnecessarily personal. (I will say that I don’t support the changes wholesale; Facebook needs to address the fact that some of the new features have upended privacy settings by allowing friends of friends to see items only meant for a select few.)

The thing is, this all felt familiar to me. I was searching for reactions to the new look on Google and found articles going back years where irate Facebookers were screaming that they wanted the old site back. Every time the site has been updated, features have been added, users resisted, then got used to them and even came to enjoy and rely on them. (In 2006, Facebookers were unhappy with this gimmicky new thing called a “news feed”—now a staple of the Facebook experience.)

Facebook is an optional leisure activity, like watching baseball or visiting interpretive sites. People don’t want to feel confused and annoyed by something they choose to do in their spare time. Any change to a comfortable environment is going to be disruptive to some people.

Interpreters faced with the task of creating materials for visitors—especially repeat visitors—should be extra careful that changes to exhibits, publications, websites, and logos are not just for change’s sake, but for the improvement of a product. If you make drastic, unnecessary changes to a place where visitors come to learn and relax and enjoy some solitude, you may just find your self playing the role of that robotic hand in Wayne’s World.

If you make changes that are warranted and actually improve your product, people will get used to them, but you still may find yourself cursed out on a highway construction sign.

Tube Socks+

If someone hasn’t told you to stop wearing tall tube socks, do so now. A couple years ago a friend and co-worker, who we’ll call Mary Anne Parker (to protect her identity), told me it was time to ditch what she referred to as “the Ph.D.” socks. She often speaks without filters.

Ankle-high or lower socks are preferred these days. I didn’t realize that I looked like Kareem Abdul Jabbar (legs not to scale) in my socks, and that I had fallen behind in what was acceptable coverings for your feet while still providing support and protection of my shins and calves. It was time for a change. This change was going to be slow considering the lifetime supply of tube socks already existing in my dresser drawers. The transformation is now complete but for some reason (occasional interaction with cowboy boots or alternative footwear that is not conducive ankle socks that will be determined at a later date, I’m sure) I kept a couple pairs of my hip waders around.

In a world of change today it is tough to keep up with what is acceptable, current, or the next big thing. So how do you know when to make that jump? Just this week Google+ was released, and I can’t see myself taking it on right now (on top of multiple email accounts, Facebook, making fun of Paul, Twitter, talking to my wife, texting, a blog, making sure my children are breathing, Words With Friends, and a correspondence course on recognizing prison tats) without it being proven to last or the opportunity that it will improve my live or communication amongst my overloaded outlets.

Since we care about you and don’t want you to be the tube socks of social media, here are a few things that I hear about Google+ that may interest you. The hard part for now is that you have to be invited to become a member. This is a rough start for people like Paul, where this brings up memories of junior high school dances and being picked last at softball a few nights ago. It does sound like it has great potential and takes the best (along with all of the weaknesses) of other social media outlets and rolls it into one application. Here are those details promised above.

Google Circles: First can Google do anything without calling it Google _____? Okay, it’s out of my system. Do you have friends on Facebook who you aren’t sure who they are? The answer is yes. Circles, as I call it, allows you to organize your friends in groups like family, friends, high school, collage, band camp (Paul), and co-workers.

Sparks: Allows you to feature articles on your landing page based on your interests. Ever since my brother burned me with a sparkler in 1984, I stay away from sparks.

Hangouts: Allows you to video chat with friends—a feature that will not be popular with lurkers.

Huddles: Allows you to chat in groups. Imagine a place where all of the readers of this blog could meet in one place and discuss use of their, theirs, there, and there’s. I know this was an underlying purpose in the design phase. I’ll see you there Paul and Jeff.

I also hear that there is great interaction between + and Picasa (an excellent free image editing program offered by Google that will soon be called Google Photos, big surprise huh?). More details, a tour, and images can be seen on Google. From there you can see if + is going to become a part of your life.

This may not surprise you, but I haven’t been invited yet. Perhaps that has something to do with my Yahoo email address.

Going Viral (or “Why We Love Katie Couric”)

We have often talked about our goals for writing this blog: making the world a better place, taking over the world, and eradicating the use of Papyrus, Comic Sans, clip art, and centered type. One goal we’ve never mentioned to our readers—but we have definitely mentioned it to one another—is this: We want to crash the website.

We realize that many of you know most of this story already, but now that it’s in the rear-view mirror, writing about it may help us make some sense of the ordeal. For fear of awakening the beast, I will not mention the name or even the subject of the offending post.

It started innocently, with a silly Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named created solely for the purpose of tweaking Shea. It was posted late in the afternoon on a Friday, not exactly the prime moment to maximize hit counts. Nevertheless, early that evening, Shea texted me, “This could really take off.”

The thing is, to us, “really taking off” means that both Jeff and Pam Miller read a post, instead of just Jeff. For four days, the post accumulated modest stats as friends posted links on various social media outlets, but it hardly seemed like something that would extend beyond a few friends and their friends.

The following Wednesday morning, about 120 hours after it was posted, hits suddenly started pouring in. At first, nearly all of the hits were coming from a site called Reddit, which I had never heard of, though NAI Member Tom Davies told me that Reddit is “what the frog says after the chicken gives her the library book.”

Moments later, my father forwarded me a Google alert that he received with my name and a link to a site call SB Nation (above). He said, “You’re getting some hits.”

What happened next can be summarized with the following updates on the IBD Facebook page. First, mid-Wednesday morning:

No joke: NBC Sports just linked to IBD and said, “Here’s the absolute best [Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named] I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Then, about three hours later:

Our web host shut us down due to high usage! That’s a good thing, I guess. On the phone now trying to get the website back.

Then, moments later, a text from Shea:

Awesome! We [mildly off-color word deleted] crashed the website!

The site was up and down for the rest of the day. I started getting emails from friends who were seeing the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named on their friends’ Facebook pages or on Twitter. A friend in Cork, Ireland, received the link by email from his boss.

For the better part of 24 hours, I worked with our webhost to get us back online. I got to hear a lot of high-quality Muzak and I learned valuable lessons about the difference between a dedicated server and a shared server. On our third attempt to get back online, about 24 hours after the initial onslaught, we were shut down again in less than 30 minutes. I asked our webhost to post a “We’ll be back soon!” message and a link to a Flickr page with an image of the Information Design Example that Shall Not Be Named.

The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named made its rounds online, appearing on sites like Forbes Magazine (above), The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, and many of the surprisingly plentiful sites where depressed fans of the New York Mets go to self flagellate. It ended up translated into Chinese and it inspired this variation in Canada.

Katie Couric Tweeted about it.

Meanwhile, more than a week of silence followed on IBD, punctuated only by the occasional angry text from Shea. Several blogs made note of the fact that IBD had crashed, then helpfully posted a link to our site.

A lot of people took credit (or accepted blame), though the real culprit may have been Flickr user dellajane-alicecruz, who commented, “Sorry about that! My baseball-quilting swap group started it when I put the link on Facebook.” So it was either NBC Sports or Della Jane’s baseball-quilting swap group. I guess we’ll never know.

I’ll admit that it was a thrill to see something I created shared so extensively. Because the Internet mob tends to deal in extremes, the words “genius” and “hilarious” were thrown around next to my name on Twitter and on various blogs (trust me, I have screen captures of all of them). Though some of the nicest comments came from a site that uses both type on a curve and Comic Sans in its banner, so I’m a little conflicted.

For the record, I do not claim to be either a genius or hilarious, and I quickly learned that being called those things in the blogosphere does not get you out of helping out around the house. (“I’m high on Paul Caputo! I have Adonis DNA and tiger blood! I’m not doing dishes!”)

My theory is that the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named caught the imagination of a segment of the population because it made fun of everyone rather than just a select few. A post about viral marketing on the website NeboWeb says, “Viral memes…spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They’re shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear.” The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named still gets the occasional flurry of hits, but for the most part, it has indeed disappeared.

Before the post faded into obscurity in favor of arguing baby videos, Flickr user GreekGeek said this: “Congrats on the viral meme — don’t you wish you could predict and tap into such things ahead of time?” And that seems to be the take-home message. You never know what’s going to take off like this thing did, and when it does, how do you take advantage?

I’m not sure that I can fully explain the circumstances that led to our little Interpretation By Design getting such widespread attention, and I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin to intentionally recreate those circumstances. Ultimately, I’m glad to have the blog and our comfortable IBD community back. And I promise not to post something that might go viral again any time soon.

Though now that we have a dedicated server (courtesy of our friends at ServInt Managed Hosting Services) I have this idea for a football-based pie chart.

Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s Been a While

It has been more than a year since I’ve written about my grammar pet peeves. This is because every time I write about grammar, I make some horrendous mistake like using the wrong your or there, or spelling grammar as grammer. Nevertheless, I’m going to venture into a few points that I’ve been noticing lately.

Have vs. Have Got
If you watch a lot of Monty Python or, alternatively, are British, you frequently hear have got when it seems have would suffice. (Those of you not on government computers will see what I mean in the YouTube video above.) Certain grammar purists and other nerds insist that have got is redundant and annoying. But many people with friends and social lives feel that have got is one of those idiomatic phrases that has so permeated (or, as my horrible boss at my previous job used to say, impermanated) the language that it’s now acceptable. In fact, some, like the authors of the Grammar Girl blog, suggest that have got adds emphasis that have lacks.

Since you most often see have got used with a contracted form of have, (“I’ve got this mole I think I should get checked out”), I think that have got is acceptable in informal settings, like in a blog or at the dermatologist’s office. While I’d steer clear of have got in formal writing, it’s undeniable that without the phrase we wouldn’t have The Beatles’ “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” Monty Python’s French castle guard’s “He’s already got one” (above), or Shea’s landmark two-part blog series, “I’ve Got Problems.”

Awhile vs. A While
This recently came up on a friend’s Facebook page. She just put it out there: “use of ‘awhile’ versus ‘a while’. discuss.” And people did. This is what my friends are like.

Anyway, a while is a noun phrase that means “an amount of time”; awhile is an adverb that means “for an amount of time.” When you use the noun (It’s going to be a while before we regain the readers we lose because of this post), it’s two words. When you’re modifying a verb (I need to think awhile), it’s one word. So you’d be correct to say, “I need to think awhile” (modifies the verb to think) and, “I need to think for a while” (for an amount of time).

Hyphenated Adverbs
In a comment on the first Grammar Pet Peeves article, Friend of IBD Scott Rogers wrote this:

A pet peeve of mine … is the hyphenated adverb. The hyphen in “a series-deciding blown call” adds precision to a sequence of modifiers. The hyphen in “an obviously-fair line drive” adds no clarity, since the basic rules of English grammar make clear what is being modified by “obviously.” Now that people are getting better about plural apostrophes (“Fresh Egg’s”), I’m noticing many more hyphenated adverbs in signage (“Organically-Grown”).

I’d have rephrased this comment and claimed the thought as my own, but Scott used baseball-related examples and everything, so how could I improve upon it?

The Designated Hitter
Speaking of baseball, can we all agree that the designated hitter rule in American League baseball is an abomination? All it does is keep a bunch of fat, old has-beens in the league a few years longer to collect stats. (Thanks to The Baseball Stadium Connoisseur for the baseball card image of first-ever designated hitter Ron Blomberg).

Oftentimes
Oftentimes
is indeed a word. It’s in the dictionary, Shakespeare used it, and most importantly, it has its own entry on WikiAnswers. That said, I find it redundant and I hate it. Any time I see oftentimes in text that I’m editing, I change it to often or frequently. Then, just out of spite, I find the author’s iPhone and covertly set his alarm clock to go off at 3:00 in the morning.

April 4 vs. April 4th
This is more personal preference than grammar, but whenever I’m editing, I find myself deleting the suffixes people tack on the end of numerals in dates. What’s the difference between April 1st-4th and April 1-4? To me, the first is visually cluttered, the second clean and clear. When we’re speaking, we may say “April first through fourth,” but when you’re conveying information visually, clarity and simplicity should take precedence.

I use those -th, -rd, -st suffixes on numbers exclusively when I’m referencing that number in a sequence (for example, this is the 1,000th time you have rolled your eyes while reading this stupid blog).

Loose vs Lose
These are different words. They mean different things. I don’t know what else to say on this one.

Caps Lock
We all know that writing in all caps is bad form. When I stumble across anything other than an acronym in all caps, even a single word, I change it to lower-case italics, which achieves the same emphasis without looking disruptive. According to a story on ABC News, Google broke new ground when it released a netbook computer that made it difficult to activate caps lock.

While I applaud Google for trying to stop people from being jerks by writing in all caps, I don’t think there’s any feature in the netbook’s Chrome operating system that prevents people from writing blogs, so clearly there’s work to be done.

Also in this Series

.