Monday, October 4, 2010

Providing Real Guidance, Or The most useless sign oin the world

I'm just back from a 19 day road trip with my wife (Rockville, Maryland; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois). We had a ball.
     In Rockville, we got back to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (wonderful place) and ate crabs on the waterfront.
    We were in New York for 9 days so I finally saw Billy Elliott (Jan had seen it a couple of years back and kept saying I had to see it) and we also went to Lincoln Center (for the first time) to see a Persian musical group. I spent lots of money at the Stand bookstore and Barnes & Noble.
      We  also got to see the group Pharoah's Daughter at a Klezmer brunch at a restaurant called City Winery. We'd seen the group once before in Toronto about two years ago and they are still wonderful--food was good, too.
    We hit two of our favourite restaurants (Daisy Mae's BBQ and Fatty Crab in their new location) but, being in an apartment, Jan was also able to cook some meals.
    We managed to explore some more of the Metropolitan museum: I hadn't seen their early 20th century stuff (Jan loves the Impressionists while I prefer Degas and Matisse). On a mezzanine floor they had some of the "modern masters" that I've never seen in the flesh: Chuck Close, George Segal, and Jackson Pollock (since I'd just finished reading a book about him, it was neat to stand in front of a couple of his pieces).

The 12 hour drive to Chicago was a bit of stretch for us but Jan had gotten us a great deal downtown at the Palmer House Inn for the one day we had in downtown Chicago. Amazing lobby, good rooms.
    Chicago turns out to be a great walking town. We walked to Xoco where we had extremely tasty sandwiches and unbelievable hot chocolate and churros.
    On our way to the Museum of Contemporary Art we passed a great new-and-second-hand bookstore right beside a CD store specializing in jazz/blues/20th century "serious" music. Well, actually, didn't pass.
        The Museum of Contemporary Art had a room full of Calder mobiles and stabiles that was..well..beautiful. Jan said it was "snowing Calders." There was another room of works by people riffing off of Calder which had some neat stuff also. The rest of the museum was mostly empty except for some works on paper. At least one artist, we agreed, would have benefited by being institutionalized...and kept away from little girls. And admission was free on Tuesday when we were there and there was a market in front of the man doors that, among other things, smelled wonderful.
     We also got to the Institute of Art which had unbelievable holdings of early 20th century artists. Lots of great American art, too: Winslow Homer, Whistler, and Sargent, for instance (a Sargent nude of a model with one of the great bums in art). The mid-20th century artists weren't as interesting (a couple of Demuth and a bunch of Georgia O'Keefes) but I ran across a guy who I'd never heard of before who I liked very much (Sheeler). That's one of the reasons you go to museums, after all. The late 20th century rooms had very cool stuff and I finally got to see some Gerhard Richter paintings "in the flesh."

None of which has anything to do with technical writing...except for a sign we saw on the way. Before we left Canada we were barreling down highway 6 and passed a sign that said:

         "Drive according to weather and traffic conditions"

How exactly do I do that? Drive faster? Drive slower? My personal complaint is that, in heavy weather, most drivers slow down too much rather than not enough. I suspect that the person who created this sign may not agree with me. I mean: If you're going to give me advice it's because you don't trust my judgment on the matter (or, if you do trust my judgment, why are you wasting my time?). Obviously those drivers I feel are driving too slowly think they are driving according to weather and traffic conditions and I do not. In fact, can you find anyone who, when asked, would say that they aren't driving according to weather and traffic conditions?
    This sign is the functional equivalent of, when you're standing on a ladder, someone calling up to you and saying "Don't Fall!" There's a good idea--but what do I do about it? Once I start toppling, I don't have much control over the whole "falling" process.
    The advice "Be Careful!" is marginally more useful. I have some idea of what "Be Careful" means and what I can do: take my time, pay attention to safety issues rather than just getting the job done, always have a grip on something, etc. I can do that! Doing those things will probably  prevent starting the toppling part where I can't do anything. More specific advice, of course, would be more valuable here (e.g. "Here, put on this safety belt").
    Getting back to the stupid sign: Putting the sign up may have seemed like a "no harm, no foul" kind of decision: Even though the sign is useless, it does no harm. But, of course, it does.
     First, the sign cost money that can no longer be spent on something that is actually useful to the reader (costs: deciding on the text, deciding on doing it, deciding on where to put it, buying the raw materials, getting it built, sending people out to put it in). And, of course, I spent time looking at the sign (obviously). So, for that period of time, I wasn't driving according to traffic and weather conditions. It was just visual clutter that distracted me from what I should have been doing: driving according to weather and traffic conditions.

And the best part? Ten miles later, there was another one!

Reading or read

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