graphicpush

Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

2016 Reading Recap

Fiction

The Expanse Series, S.A. Corey, 2014

  • Leviathan Wakes
  • Caliban’s War
  • Abbodon’s Gate

If Dan Brown wrote off-planet science fiction, this would be it. At the core of each book is a dark mystery perpetrated by shadowy organizations, and the only hope for mankind is a ragtag but unusually clever group of folks. The narrative bounces between characters, and cliffhangers loom at the end of each chapter, literally forcing you to turn the page because can’t put it down. Not sprawling enough to qualify as “space opera”, but totally immersive in its own right.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series, Douglas Adams

No editorial necessary. Third time through, and it just gets better.

The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons, 2015

At first, this is a straight-forward mystery story with an unlikely hero pair: an actual historical figure (Henry James) and a fictional historical character (Sherlock Holmes). But the mystery on the surface gives way to velvet-rich character studies of late 19th Century politicians and writers (Theodore Roosevelt, Clarence King and Samuel Clemens appear). A subtle, disquieting thread is Holmes’ struggle to understand whether he is an actual person or a fictional character, which unwinds into some seriously existential dialogue. While tame for a Simmons novel, the time spent unfolding the psychology of the characters, and describing the technology and culture of the turn of the century, is a true pleasure. If you liked the gentle pacing and crafted scene-setting of The Crook Factory, this is for you.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2006

A long, plodding novel about two magicians quest to return magic to England, which sounds exactly like my kind of story. I tried hard as hell to find the appeal of this book, but it took me a year to finish because it’s just. that. boring.

The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud 2015

An absolutely brilliant complement to Albert Camus’ The Stranger, where an investigation, carried out decades after the crime, leads us to the brother of the murdered Arab. The brother, mad from grief and the suffocating presence of his mother, unravels a winding tale of suffering, war, murder, mystery, love, and so much more. The translation from French is exquisite, a true gem of literature where the subtlest turns of phrase trap you in wonderment. If you love language, unconventional storytelling, and mystery served with the delicacy of a croissant, do not pass this by.

Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons, 1998

Final installment to the Hyperion series. Excellent space opera and a gripping conclusion. If you’ve read the other books in the series, this ties it all together.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson, 2015

Quite the hyped science fiction book of last year, it lives up to 90% of the good reviews. The first two-thirds describes mankind’s quest to escape an Earth doomed to boil under the rain of fragments from a shattered moon, and is absolute classic near-future fiction along the lines of The Martian. The personalities, hard science, and portrait of a global society on the precipice of annihilation is gripping. The last third, picking up the story 5,000 years into the future, sacrifices a punchy storyline for extended passages of scene-setting that describe just how humans were able to survive without Mother Earth. Without question, in my top 10 sci-fi books of all time.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, 2015

A novel that weaves a delicious story of people surviving the near extinction of the human race and then learning to come back together as a new kind of civilization. Stringing character stories back and forth between “Before” and “After” the end enables Emily St. John Mandel to explore vivid passages of everything we have to lose, from the little things like turning on a light to the inability to communicate with anyone beyond a few hundred feet. While set in the near-future (like the tomorrow near future), its introspection is beyond science fiction.

Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

In retrospect, not a particularly good book. You know the story. The original narrative is underscored by shocking racism; the idea that a white man could ever not be the king of the jungle, over “apes” and native tribes, is not even on the radar. Combined with the plotless violence and stilted writing, it all just kind of sucks.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough, 1977

Not much to be said about this that hasn’t already been written. A winding tale following a complex Australian family through three generations of love and loss, birth and death. While cloyingly melodramatic and shockingly cruel, it was hard to put down.

The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois, 1948

A tale of one ex-schoolteacher who builds a balloon with the intention of sailing around the world without landing for one year. Rather abruptly, he’s wrecked on the island of Krakatoa days before its explosion where he discovers a fantastic community of twenty families rich from diamond mines on the island. Of course the island does explode, forcing them to evacuate by, you guessed it, balloons. Written for kids, but fun for adults.

Nonfiction

A Sense of Style, Steven Pinker, 2014

Billed as “the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century”, this is Mr Pinker’s argument for writing with classic style. Without hesitation, he lays contemporary writing on the table and picks it apart with defenses against confusing syntax, zombie nouns, ambiguous phrasing and more. He demonstrates how to “tree” sentences for clarity, a useful trick, and openly challenges conventions from The Elements of Style (and other style books) that inhibit clarity. While his writing is clear, some passages are as dense as clay and require several read-throughs. If linguistics and the mechanics of writing excite you, this is worth every penny.

A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson, 2006

Mr Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail is a humble, deadpan, genuinely funny narrative of the trail itself, the personalities that populate it, the scenery and history it touches across its 13 states, and the social and political pressures it faces on a yearly basis. While a literal walk in the woods seems scarcely interesting on the surface, his punitive detail and sardonic, journalistic objectivity make this book hard to put down.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester, 2005

An unbelievably thorough narrative describing not just the 1883 explosion of the island itself, but the historical science of plate tectonics, the geo-political trade climate at the time, and of course the long, unfortunate fall-out of the cataclysm. Equal parts history, science, and personal narrative, Krakatoa is a treat in understanding how single moments of unimaginable change from over a century ago shape today’s religion and politics.

My favorite albums of 2016

Covers of favorite albums of 2016

Bill Evans, Some Other Time

Weird to be writing about a new Bill Evans record, but 2016 saw the first release of this fantastic session. The recording, pressing and packaging are immaculate, and the liner notes delve into the discovery and production of this instant classic. Released on Record Store Day but a level above most of the swill that turns up in that event.

Christian Löffler, Mare

Meditative techno that keeps one foot on the dancefloor and another in the living room. The earthy synths, breathless vocals and sublime beats play beautifully across crystalline production. Fans of Jon Hopkins, take note.

The Boxer Rebellion, Ocean by Ocean

A quality follow-up to 2013’s Promises, this finds the band further shedding the angsty guitars and manic pace of early albums into something quite beautiful. The songwriting continues to adhere to stringent pop structures but the melancholy harmonies transcend beyond radio trash.

Covenant, The Blinding Dark

After a series of totally forgettable albums, Covenant recapture their 90s EBM glam with a release that demonstrates both the band and the genre still have something to say. Their best album since 2002’s Northern Light.

GoGo Penguin, Man Made Object

This contemporary jazz trio redefines “jazz” in ways that haven’t been done since Ninja Tune birthed acid jazz in the 90s. Blending impeccable playing across songs that are almost organic drum’n‘bass, the shifting rhythms propel gorgeous piano into something almost beyond genre pigeonholing. So. Frigging. Good.

Coil, The New Backwards and The Ape of Naples

Originally recorded over a decade ago in Trent Reznor’s studio, these gorgeous re-issues and remasters breathe new life into Coil’s last proper recordings before the core band members passed away. While other segments of Coil’s discography receive most of the critics’ breathless hyperbole, these are crucial recordings that capture a musical flame on the brink of its last light.

Savages, Adore Life

On one hand, it’s easy to forget that this January-released LP arrived in 2016; on the other hand, it’s impossible to forget this LP, period. This singular post-punk statement crashes and sways across ten tracks of feminist empowerment, subversive tenderness, and aggressive compassion, throttling ears and hearts with a grip as fierce as barbed wire.

Warhaus, We Fucked a Flame into Being

Smashing together National-like vocals, half-drunk horns, bombastic drums and Euro-hip swagger, Warhaus capture a sound, a moment, a feeling, that is instantly familiar but totally fresh. Nihilistic but affectionate, maybe?

Leisure, Leisure

This shit blew up my playlists in 2016. A volatile, addictive cocktail of funk, pop and glam, every song is a hit of butt-shaking sing-along audio crack.

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I Am Done With Twitter

Over the past year, my time invested in Twitter has become increasingly devalued. The once-inspiring exchange of ideas has been displaced by numbed scrolling, overreactive retweets, political echo chambers, and vomit-inducing abuse.

An utter vacuum of critical thought or thoughtful criticism. So I’m done. For a long time.

Specifically:

  • For reasons I have yet to articulate, but probably has roots in apathy toward a follower base I suspect is mostly bots, I fail to share links and insights relevant to my professional life: branding, design, content strategy, copywriting, marketing. Because of this lack of contribution into my social ecosystem, my colleagues and professional birds of a feather get nothing from me. That sucks, because the premise of social media is the democratization of exchanging ideas. I am clearly part of the problem, yet I no longer give a shit, and that is a bigger problem.
  • The political environment is Fukushima-grade poison, and Twitter acerbates all that’s wrong with modern “debate”. Over and over, I found myself amplifying knee-jerk reactions without thinking, fueling dumpster fires of unhelpful, unconvincing, divisive rhetoric. Again: I was part of the problem.
  • More often than not, I use Twitter as an excuse to avoid thinking critically, an activity in scarce supply these days. By glazing over a feed for 30 minutes, I tap into productivity dopamine, but come down from the bender with zero insights or inspiration and a big blob of empty in my brain. Civilization requires critical thought. Twitter, almost by any definition, impedes it.
  • And, crucially, the level of unchecked abuse toward women, minorities, religions, and the LGBTQ community is literally insane. I can’t support a platform that refuses to fix a system that destroys people who deserve nothing less than total rights equality and love from the community.

Bottom line: my time is better spent elsewhere. Call it boycott, call it abandonment, call it a giant middle finger. I’m out.

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Resonance and Harmonics in Writing

Last week I was challenged to describe how my college education has influenced my current job and I totally failed to say anything interesting. Given my role as a brand strategist and writer, the irony was not lost on me. (Or anyone else in the room.)

In my defense, it was a stretch: in college, I studied audio engineering. Today, I plan global brand strategy. That’s a yawning mental chasm to leap. But someone, at some point, figured out you could put peanut butter on celery, so who’s to say what’s impossible?

After a hard think, I think I’ve arrived at a plausible answer.

Music creation, audio recording and sound engineering require nuanced resonance. The end product is reliant on a hundred layered details meshing as a harmonic whole. It starts with the melody and lyrics and theme, but it’s also the fuzz and blur and microscopic corruption at the edges of audible perception, the accidental compounding reactions of volume, EQ, compression, reverb and a hundred other levers. How just a tiny turn of the knob or the addition of a fragment of a sound placed in the gulf between beats can change the tonal presentation of an entire body of work. How noise can be musical, how music can be noise, how just redefinitions of conventions can stop people in their tracks.

The song is nothing without its production. Brilliant songwriters matched with pedestrian producers are poets without pens.

This is no different than other expressions of creativity.

In my designer days, I can’t tell you how many creative reviews contained the phrase “this is good, but it just needs a little something”. Good designers blend typography and color and whitespace into communication that works inside grids and expectations. Great designers tweak the knobs and introduce a fragment of dissonance, an unexpected overtone, a playful echo inside the stereo field. Impression leaps from “it works” to “it’s perfect”.

This extends to writing. Words are symbols, sentences are meaning, but communication is about the holistic production of ideas.

So I use my background in audio engineering to explore the resonance in writing. The way words rhythmically interlock, or audibly flow from one to the next. Is there a staccato beat, a more ambient tone? Is punctuation providing the mental white space, like the subtlest intake of breath in a trumpet solo? Is there deliberate dissonance to force the reader to dead stop wait reread?

Resonance is not an audible quality, but a mental aesthetic. All of the details of feel inside audio recordings that snag our attention can be triggered with rhythms of writing, creative language application, and straight up rule breaking. And when done well, impression leaps from “I read it” to “I remember it”.

Originally published on Medium.

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Evoking Brand

Sometimes, one blog ain’t enough.

To complement what I typically publish on graphicpush — commentary on music, design, branding, and random life stuff — I’ve started Evoking Brand, a publication on Medium. It’s description:

Crossing the streams of brand strategy, messaging and voice, and content strategy to create meaningful brand storytelling.

In other words, how words make the difference in branding. Some early posts:

Since my world is now very much about branding, storytelling, and word-hacking, this serves as a channel to expel some of thinking and theories. It’s not for everyone. But for those who dig the impact of language and stories on brand-building, please subscribe.

C’mon, I even made a silly logo:

Evoking Brand logo