Associations: ePubs, William Mitchell, and Tattoos

I was reading the news this morning on my iPad – a typical Sunday morning event these days. As I was reading I remembered I needed to check to see if there were any ‘news’ in the landscape of eBook converters. My wife had asked about converting something to her Kindle so I thought I’d better look before spouting off something that was wildly dated, you know, like superseded the evening before.

It turned out I wasn’t that far out of touch and Calibre remains one of the best ePub converters out there. I checked to make sure my copy was up-to-date and then noticed a few other interesting links in the Google search I had done by way of background on the question.

One led to a link that listed books for under a $1 USD. Interesting. I started scrolling through the screens. I noticed at that point the Amazon recommender list of things they thought I’d be most interested in adding to my collection of Kindle books. Their accuracy at this varies depending on whether a purchase I’ve made was really for my pleasure or just something I needed for other, extrinsic reasons. This time, however, I noticed a recommendation for a book from a colleague and mentor who recently passed away, William Mitchell. The book, “Placing Word: Symbols, Space an the City” from MIT Press (2005) caught my attention.

I miss Bill. We weren’t close friends, mind you – I’m not trying to claim an intimate relationship with a well known public figure. But Bill was one of those people who despite his well earned stature and the demands on his time that resulted, was accessible. Perhaps I was just lucky, but not too far into my stay at MIT I looked around for mentors who would challenge me, give me a different perspective, and be willing to respond to ideas I tentatively offered up in hopes of seeing them freshly in their eyes. Bill was, for me, an obvious choice, but whether he’d take the time to meet a relative nobody on a semi-regular basis given his commitments seemed unlikely. I was wrong, deeply and movingly wrong.

I called his office on the phone, got through to his amazingly efficient and professional admin assistant, and was talking shortly thereafter, tentatively inquiring if he’d mind having a cup of coffee to talk about a project. I don’t at this point recall what that project was, but to my surprise and trepidation he said “yes”. We had coffee somewhere around the MIT campus and in the course of conversation I asked if he’d consider the idea of meeting every month or so, to have coffee, chat about things I was working on or thinking about, and spend 20-30 min exploring some idea. I expected a nice smile, an explanation of the pressures of running the D-Lab, the projects underway through the Media Lab, and the myriad other responsibilities, including being the president’s architectural advisor, all leading to a polite but firm “no son, but maybe we can have coffee again soon.”

He looked at me, thought a moment, and said, “that would be nice.”

I nearly fell out of my chair. I had no position to ask or expect such generosity. What I saw, then, and again many times in the succeeding years, was a deep level of true interest, passion and openness to other people. This was generosity and mentorship in a pure form. Somehow, whether the topics were interesting, or he just wanted a break from the rest of his activities, we ended up having those coffees periodically. Not nearly frequently enough as I look back on it, but now and again, every couple of months, coffee, a conversation, an idea, an opportunity.

I came to think of this as I was reading the reference to Placing Words. Scrolling down the page I came across the editorial reviews (all quite laudatory) when I chanced upon “Customers Viewing This Page May Be Interested in These Sponsored Links” . The first link in the list was “Tattoo Pictures and Design“, described as “Loads of tattoo pictures and designs in our tattoo galleries.”

I burst out laughing. This, I realised was a wonderful cosmic joke. Bill was a master at making lateral connections most of us fail to notice. He compared Baudelaire, the Parisian flaneur to Spiderman, whom he referred to as the Manhattan traceur. He considered the galleries in the NY MOMA as analogous to the design of iPods as architecture. The breadth of his associative insight can be take you well out of your frame of reference and comfort zone in a fraction of a second. And here, in a bit of delicious lateral thinking, the design of tattoos was juxtaposed against the design of cities, and the structure of urban environments acting as generative stimuli to human narrative expressions dangling next to barbed wire wrapped rose.

It was delicious. The irony of the digital and physical worlds mashed together in such an unexpected remix brought smile and rush of warmth to my remembrance. It’s an association only possible by what the reader brought to it, I’m sure, but I’m grateful nonetheless. Somewhere Bill’s laughing his approval.

— pdl —

About longpd

I'm a senior scholar at Georgetown University, in CNDLS, a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
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2 Responses to Associations: ePubs, William Mitchell, and Tattoos

  1. Gardner says:

    This is one beautiful post, Phil. I read it with sheer delight from start to finish. Thank you.

    You know that feeling you had (and still have) with Bill? Well, please know you’re passing it on in fine fashion, as it’s the feeling I have with you, my friend. I just wish we had more of that high-bandwidth in-person time–but I try to share. 🙂

  2. longpd says:

    Thanks Gardner. Trying to find the frame of mind that opens up flights of association. It’s easier to do when you have such precious memories. —

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