Right Reading

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Month: November 2009

Famous Belgians

According to Graham at Linguism, some people think Belgium is an adjective. Well, whatever. What struck me about his post was his claim that “most people find it difficult to name ten famous Belgians without falling back on Tintin and Hercule Poirot.” Which I expect is true.

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Mailbag: A book of idioms

Right Reading  received the following e-mail (slightly edited) from Jag Bhalla.

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Better brains through foreign-language learning

A study by a research team appointed by the European Commission finds that multililngualism may benefit brains in a variety of ways:

  • learning in general
  • complex thinking and creativity
  • mental flexibility
  • interpersonal and communication skills
  • delay of age-related mental diminishment

“It is obvious that enhanced memory can have a profound impact on cognitive function,” says David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University, who coordinated the international research team behind the study. ” This may be one reason why the multilingual shows superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks when compared to monolinguals. They seem to be able to have an advantage in handling certain thinking processes.”

Apparently learning a language as a discreet subject does not work as effectively as embedding second-language learning into other subjects. The methodology of the study is unclear to me, but I haven’t read the whole report.

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Image from Nature magazine

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Sarah Palin

Never mind.

An interesting WordPress theme

Khoi Vinh and Allan Cole recently released an interesting WordPress theme called Basic Maths. Like Vinh’s own blog, Subtraction (which the new theme somewhat resembles), Basic Maths aggressively foregrounds the underlying design grid. In fact, you can even hit a shortcut key combination to superimpose the grid over the blog as you’re working on it.

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How to improve your writing (and your love life)

According to a study by diabolical psychologist Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales, unhappy people make the best writers.

He did a series of experiments where he bummed one group out and cheered another up. “Trained essay raters” determined that the unhappy subjects wrote superior essays.

According to Forgas “mildly negative mood may actually promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” (Had he been a little more disappointed in the results he would have crafted a better sentence.)

Along the same lines, it has also been found that people do better work on cloudy days than on sunny ones.

Being in a foul temper may also be good for your love life. According to Forgas, “mild negative affect may actually promote a more concrete and more situationally attentive communication style in intimate relationships.”

So wipe that smile off your face.

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Via the Web of Language

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Vatican type


Yesterday I showed some ancient inscribed letterforms from Ostia Antica. Today we flash forward some seventeen hundred years to this inscription over a gate in the Vatican complex, which is dated 1831.

I don’t like this one so much. Whoever inscribed these letters was clearly working from typeset models. But the thin lines, right angles, and sharp serifs of the Romantic period are the result of developments in typesetting equipment and papermaking that have nothing to do with letterforms inscribed in stone.

These kinds of incongruities often result when work in one medium is transferred to another without consideration for the essential character of the medium.

Classical letterforms from Ostia

Here is some handsome lettering from ruins at the ancient port city of Ostia, west of Rome. I don’t know what period this fragment dates to, although the age of Hadrian always seems to be a good guess.

For comparison, here’s a sample of the typeface Trajan (the movie font!), designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe based on inscriptions on Trajan’s column in Rome. They might just be the effect of the centuries, but I prefer the softer serifs of the inscribed letters in the photo. I also like their less regular vertical axes.


Photography’s rule of thirds

There’s nothing new about the rule of thirds — it’s almost a photographic cliche. Still, as a, well, rule of thumb there’s a good deal of sense in it. Let’s have a look.

One of the worst instincts of amateur photographers is to aim the camera directly at the main subject, as if it were game to be bagged. You can see this in society pages, like one in the back of a magazine I’m responsible for (I try to keep the section’s space to a minimum). The photographer’s strategy in these situations is just about always to line the subjects up in a grinning row facing the camera. You can see what I mean in the above image (I’ve replaced the people’s faces with smilies so as not to embarrass anyone, and to highlight the composition).

The rule of thirds says that you’re better off arranging your composition with a main element a third of the way from one of the edges. In effect you imagine your image as composed of nine equal rectangles. Consider this image from the Sentiero degli Dei in the Lattari Mountains above Amalfi.

You can see that the cliff at the left is a third of the way in from the left edge of the photo. (You can also think of each of the nine squares as a section to be balanced in its own right.)

Or look at this photo from the Sentiero della Republica in the same region.

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