April 2020 gwern.net newsletter

This is the April 2020 edition of the gwern.net newsletter; previous, March 2020 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.

1 Writings

2 Media

2.1 Links











2.2 Film/TV

2.2.1 Rams

1 Rams (website): 2018 Hustwit documentary on ex-Braun German industrial designer Dieter Rams; not generally available but recently streamed free. The documentary is similar in approach to Hustwit’s famous Helvetica (on the universally-used font) in taking a slow-paced visually-oriented approach to its equally esthetic topic at the expense of technical depth.

2 Rams’s designs, even if you have never heard of him, are iconic to the point of stereotype: his famous T3 pocket transistor radio (aside from being a nice rubrication example) anticipates the iPod by half a century, and his black leather chairs would appear stylish anytime in the 20th century. Rams himself is a walking stereotype, with his glasses and his home office where he types on a hip red Valentine Olivetti typewriter surrounded by white walls and furniture and his old record players (which are still fully functional as we can see when he puts on old jazz to dance to)—and of course his own house, where he has lived for that entire time, which has a Japanese-style garden and wouldn’t look out of place at Sea Ranch or tucked away in an IKEA or Muji catalogue. The documentary follows him through panels on him, the opening of a permanent museum exhibit, a temporary museum retrospective, a visit to his Vitsœ furniture company in England to look at designs & tour their in-construction HQ, interleaving his history with Braun (he joined as an architect only to be seduced by the challenge of designing small but beautiful & functional objects) and his 10 design principles. The documentary moves freely through time because, as one person notes, Rams has never fundamentally changed his approach, and merely perfected it.

3 How should one evaluate Rams? While Rams’s approach may strike one as finicky and bland, when compared to the alternative horrors one encounters daily, it’s clear that the world has never overindulged in Rams-like design: we hardly struggle through bleakly-monochromatic dystopian landscapes populated solely with stark white cubes and tastefully-arranged Japanese gardens, cursing the perfectly-intuitive design of every object in reach while furtively purchasing glitter glue & videos of popup-ads on the black market. Perhaps the best criticism is that Rams doesn’t go far enough: the most striking impression the film gives is the extent to which Rams is indeed a museum piece, a fossil well-preserved from the 1960s; saying he has perfected his approach over time may be only a polite way of saying he has learned nothing. This stasis leads to the most glaring omission: Rams’s shirking of possibly the greatest intellectual & design challenges in the history of humanity—computers, software, the Internet, & AI.

4 Rams himself does not stint on criticism in his evaluations, curmudgeonly complaining (in a Miyazaki-esque way) about all the people in London staring into their smartphones and looking faintly disgusted as he browses an Apple store, or, in his talk, about weak shoddy goods (the documentary shows great wit in having the cameraman focus on a student in the audience on her Apple iPhone, who apparently cannot afford a replacement inasmuch as her iPhone’s screen is shattered in the lower right corner and taped-up on the upper left corner, recalling the infamous iPhone “death grip”). Rams is happy to design & use transistor radios and record players and electric razors, but (“technology is anything that was invented after you were born”) Rams appears to have nothing to say other than to disdainfully reject computers, smartphones, and software in toto—even doing his word processing on a typewriter half a century old! Despite Apple being the pre-eminent practitioner of Rams-like design, influencing hundreds of millions of peoples’ lives on a scale & to a depth that Rams could never hope to, he has nothing to say about them other than veiled complaints about the physical objects (increasingly the least important part). It is not as if there is nothing to be said, either. Apple’s design approach emulates the surface of Rams, but eschews the heart.5

6 Nor do his principles ‘just apply’. Rams (also like Apple) seeks to remove choice and power at every opportunity. (Principle #4: “Good design makes a product understandable.”) Rams design prizes “seeing through” objects: meditating on them until they are reduced to transparent abstractions which can be embodied to do exactly one thing—neither more nor less. His transistor radio is self-explanatory, and the record player uses a then-cutting-edge Plexiglas cover to make clear how to use it; his calculator offers just a few functions, all clearly labeled, and it is certainly not programmable. Such single-purpose objects can be given single-minded (indeed, simple-minded) interfaces. Yet the entire point of the computer is that it is not single-purpose but omni-purpose: “The computer reminds one of Lon Chaney—it is the machine of a thousand faces.” The default behavior of a designer like Apple is to default & declare intellectual bankruptcy by pinning the protean in place to show only one face—a 🙂 face.

The challenge remains.

2.3 Music





  1. Elegant but self-limited.↩︎

  2. Asian/minimalist museum pieces.↩︎

  3. A start—but only a start.↩︎

  4. How would Rams design an OS?↩︎

  5. Apple’s priorities are

    1. its pocketbook

    2. beautiful demos & photographs;

    3. users;

    4. developers;

    5. humanity

    And as the saying goes, if you have n priorities, you actually have 2 priorities. (Apple routinely chooses to harm its users, as I discovered most recently when I learned Apple users could not listen to my GPT-2 music samples because Apple refuses to support Ogg files—and why should they, it’s merely a royalty-free, patent-free, technically-superior open-source format which is 20 years old & one of the most common file formats in the world…)↩︎

  6. Form over function.↩︎