Nonsense, Visual Design

Do Not Donut


I feel like I see a lot of pro-donut signs (America Runs On Dunkin’, etc.) so an ostensibly anti-donut sign is a bit of fresh air. I have a taste for nonsensical and ludicrous signage, from Engrish to Legalese, and here, opportunity called.

I’m interested in graphic leitmotifs like the red circle with a slash through it.  Red circles with slashes mean business. Usually there’s a more complicated icon inside the circle that represents the thing to be avoided or “not done.” But in this case, the inner icon is as simple as possible: a donut that matches the red circle’s contour.  Perhaps the red circle was built to fit (glaze?) that donut in an act of accommodation? In this sign the “thing” and the “thing that negates it” are pals, in perfect formal agreement.

Lastly, the phrase “Do not donut” has caused me to develop a huge number of tongue-twisters that I really should stop saying, so “Do not donut!” means to me “Stop saying tongue-twisters about donuts!” Unfortunately, the sign doesn’t help!

The donut and enclosing circle in this sign were constructed from various sizes of the “O” from the font used in the lettering.



Punctuation & Self-Reference

I’ve been thinking about how punctuation marks exhibit self-reference. A mark might indicate something about a sentence, and also embody that same thing: it might be what it describes.

The simplest example is the period. The period tells us the sentence is ending, and in fact it is the end–it’s the very last character that we consider to be part of the sentence.

This constant conjunction of indicating “the end” and being “the end” is so familiar to us that the distinction can be hard to see. Imagine, then, that we were taught to write like this:

Punctuation Rule #1: Place the period after the penultimate word of the. sentence

Of course, that’s a dumb rule, but it shows how, with a different usage convention, the period would not be self-referential. In this altered system, the period tells us where the sentence ends (always after the word that follows it) but it isn’t the end (there’s one more word to go).

Now consider the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark is self-referential because it indicates emphasis, and yet by being less common than the period, it commands our attention and thereby creates emphasis when it occurs. Of course, if we overuse the exclamation mark, it ceases to stand out, and becomes less effective in creating what it indicates.

Punctuation Rule #2: Use it! The exclamation mark! Wherever possible!

In followup posts, I would like to argue that two nonstandard punctuation marks: the interrobang and the irony mark, are a field-day of self-reference. In particular:

The interrobang is baffling

The irony mark is the most ironic thing ever conceived⸮




The “nonsense” above means something to me personally. It’s a pun which, depending on your perspective, might seem obscure. The very topic of obscure puns is interesting to me because it leads to some questions about communication that I’ve always struggled with. An obscure pun, just like an uncommon word, can make someone who doesn’t “get it” feel left out: puns can be annoying and sometimes intimidating. Although I love wordplay and engage in it daily at Quadrivial Quandary, I don’t have the kind of encyclopedic, Jeapordy-player sort of mind that would make it easy for me to “get” many common puns when I first hear them, and so I’m quite familiar with being on the “Please, not another pun!” side of a conversation. On the other hand, I find that if a speaker takes the time to explain the context of an obscure pun, this can be a very powerful way to connect with that person. It’s interesting to see meaning emerge as I come to understand more and more of what someone “actually meant” by something. The challenge in writing, of course, is that too much explanation can be equally irritating, and one never knows quite how much to offer.

I’ve become intrigued by the idea of putting some obscure puns “in the spotlight” by rendering them as images with engaging typography. This brings a visual dimension into the experience of considering a pun, and for me at least, makes the whole thing more interesting.

The example above is a play on the editor’s notation “sic” which is short for the Latin “Sic erat scriptum,” which means “Thus it had been written.” Sic is used to indicate that a mistake in quoted text was present in the original (i.e. it’s not a typo by the author who’s using the quote). In my example, there’s something “funny” about how sic is written. Since I spend a lot of time writing software, I’m extremely conscious of mismatched parentheses, and I view them as something to be corrected immediately–the urge to “fix” them is practically primal. So, when I view the image above I want to correct it, but then I realize that it has a kind of self-referential accuracy to it. The word sic is calling out an error, and indeed there is an error in that extra paren on the left. If we were to remove that paren, what then would the error be? Sic would just be dangling on its own, or referring to something not shown. I suppose it could be seen as an error to write “(sic)” where there is no error, so “(sic)” could be referring to itself, but that interpretation is too obscure for me. I need to have a visible error to “anchor” the pun.

I also enjoy the multiplicity of possible interpretations. Yes, “((sic)” could be saying “I’ve been written wrong–I’ve got an extra paren on me left.” But here’s another way of seeing it: What if that paren was there in the first place, just dangling on its own, in a state of mismatchedness? Then someone wrote “(sic)” right beside the open left paren to helpfully point out that “(” had been written in error?

So, what’s fun for me about this example is that it challenges my own inclination to label something as wrong. I see the unbalanced parens and I think “Wrong!” but then I become aware of a different explanations which make me think “Wait, it’s OK. It works!” I don’t have “space” to address this fully here, but the same kind of play between “wrong” and “right” is what I find provocative in art, and what I seek in my own photographic and musical work: something about the image or sound startles you, makes you think it might be “wrong” and then you come to see the logic in it.

The example below fuses a “sic joke” with “italics mine.” It appears that “Italics mine” had been misspelled as “Ital mine” and [sic] was put in there to point out the error.  (In so doing, it gives us the same letters we’d need to correct the error, just in a scrambled order.)  But notice how the text of “(Italics mine)” surrounds, even engulfs the italicized “sic.” What is “italics mine” actually trying to say here? It could be saying “I’ve just italicized the letters of sic.” Or it could be saying “Look, I surround sic, I own the italicized sic, I own the error!”


I got the idea for (ital[sic] mine) when my friend Robin suggested that I do a followup to my post on italics mine with something about sic. When she sent me this suggestion, she wrote “sic erat scriptum” as follows:

sic (erat scriptum)

If you like sic, you’ll love this Corrected Dictionary.


púnjà vu

For me, the impulse to pun is often accompanied by serious púnjà vu:  I feel quite “certain” that any pun I think of comes from the past — either I’ve heard it before or said it before myself.  Right now I have púnjà vu for “púnjà vu.” I’m sure I’m inadvertently “stealing” this pun from somewhere else, but I can’t find it in Google.  How can that be‽  I thought everything was Googlable⸮  If you come across this post at some later date, because you’ve just reinvented “púnjà vu,” and like me you have púnjà vu for it, please comment.

“púnjà vu” is a portmanteau or fusion of the words “pun” and “déjà vu.” It is supposed to mean “the feeling of déjà vu for a pun.”  It’s really a kind of déjà entendu (the feeling that one has already heard something), and so a better expression might be púnjà entendu.

I wonder whether púnjà vu, the phrase, should be considered a proper pun. Sometimes I think of a “pun” in a general sense, as any form of wordplay involving multiple meanings (and in this sense, púnjà vu, and all other portmanteaus qualify). Other times, I think “pun” should be reserved for a more specific form a wordplay where two meanings of an existing word are exploited, and in this case púnjà vu fails because it doesn’t exist (i.e. outside my own corrupted vocabulary). Since the very act of punning is mischievous, I won’t be too concerned if púnjà vu parades as a pun when it really isn’t. And while we’re speaking of parades, notice how púnjà vu parades around with the same diacritics of déjà vu without any serious intent to use them.  So feel free to write “punja vu” or “punja entendu.”

What is the source of the word “púnjà vu”–or what might it be if in fact I’m not the first to think of it? Since I grew up reading Douglas Hofstadter I often suspect the puns in my mind as originating from somewhere in his stuff, or else in the other wordplay books I carried around in high school (Richard Lederer and the like), but without the tedious effort of tracking them down, I can never be sure…

What is the source of the phenomenon of “púnjà vu”? I wonder if púnjà vu arises because the same puns really do keep occurring to people over and over again, so if you think of a pun, chances are you have heard it before.  Or is it because the mental processes involved in punning “feel” the same every time, giving us the sense that the result (the pun) already existed, when it is really only the mechanism that is familiar to us?

Diversions, Language

Irony Test

Would you like to know whether you have the capacity to perceive and express irony?

Look at the symbol below:

If it appears like a reversed question mark:


…then congratulations, you’re all set for irony.

If it looks like anything else–a blank space, a normal question mark (?), or anything in a box:


…then I’m sorry, no irony for you!

[Confused?  Scroll down for an explanation.]

What this test actually indicates is whether your browser is properly rendering the irony mark, also known as the reversed question mark, Unicode character U+2E2E.

The first example is the actual character for your browser to render, the second example is a screenshot of how it should look, and the third example is a screenshot of how it might look if your browser can’t render it.

Of course, the challenge of communicating ironic sentiments is that not everyone perceives them the same way.  You might not “see” the irony that I see in something, just as I might not see the irony you see.  The irony mark attempts to solve that, by signaling to a reader to look out, “there’s irony here.”

Isn’t it fitting that the irony mark itself–the symbol that aims to disambiguate ironic communication–is invisible to some readers?  Try to use the irony mark in an online forum, and you have no way of knowing whether the people “on the other end” will see the backwards question mark that you see, or a rectangle, or a blank.  I leave it to you to contemplate the irony of that…

So far, my experience has been that Mac users are more likely to perceive irony than Windows users.  If you’ve taken this test, please leave a comment with your platform details (operating system and browser versions) letting me know whether or not you perceive irony.  Thank you very much!

Diversions, Language

Italics Mine


Many readers know that the expression “italics mine” is used in formal writing when the author has added italics to quoted text.  It’s a courteous way to say that the italics weren’t there in the original– courteous to the reader (who might otherwise be confused) and courteous to the original author (who would otherwise be… misquoted).  Some time ago, this phrase began sounding decidedly uncourteous in my mind. I had always heard something like this: “I would like to fulfill my responsibility to inform you that I’ve added these italics.” But suddenly I heard, “I OWN these italics — they’re mine!” And once “italics mine” had revealed this surly potential, I could not go back to thinking of it as its polite and dutiful self.  So now when I’m in a quiet library, I imagine a cacophony of all the instances of “italics mine,” shouting out from within their respective books, competing for ownership of all italics: Mine! Mine! Mine!  Above, you have a self-referential example where the italic text asserts possession of itself.


Spirit of Compromise

Compromise between people of opposing views: in general I think this is a good thing.  Yes, if only our politicians could learn to compromise instead of bickering endlessly, life in America would be pleasant.  And yet when a friend used the phrase “spirit of compromise” during a dinner conversation tonight (topic: fiscal cliff), I immediately thought that “Spirit Of Compromise” sounded like the name of a boat… a boat I wouldn’t want to go on.  I imagined the schooner Spirit of Compromise sailing rather reluctantly and generally being a dud.  So, is there a conflict in my views on compromise?

It’s an interesting little thought experiment: take any quality you consider as a virtue and then ask yourself if you’d go for a sail on “Spirit of [that virtue].”  Looking over the Seven Heavenly Virtues, I find that some would make decent boat names while others forebode a harrowing trip.  Spirit of Kindness?  Sure.  But Spirit of Patience?  Not so much.

A search of coast guard records indicates 152 vessels with names beginning in “Spirit of…”  There is no Spirit of Temperance, but there is one Spirit of Bacchus; no Spirit of Humility, but one Spirit of Power; no Spirit of Chastity, but two Spirit of Loves, two Spirit of Freedoms and five Spirit of Ecstasys.

Other popular names are Spirit of ’76 (14 entries), Spirit of Adventure (6 entries), Spirit of Aloha (5 entries), Spirit of America (7 entries), Spirit of the Wind (3 entries), and even Spirit of Truth (2 entries).

There is no Spirit of Compromise.


Fresh Content

The phrase “fresh content” brings me fresh discontent.

It conjures an image of a gray world where there are no people, only zombies who lust after a paradoxical substance that is ever plentiful, yet always in shortage. Theirs is a joyless lust, where instead of tasting, feeling, and touching, they merely consume. They do not move from fullness to hunger, and by eating, back to fullness, but remain in a constant need that can be appeased but never satisfied. There is no day, when content can be seen, or night, with its obscuring dark — instead, an unending fluorescence that renders content ever visible, never in focus.

The new hunger is felt not in the stomach, and cannot be heard in a groan or a gurgle, but only in the clicking of buttons, the tapping of keys; the accelerated hum of a computer fan, the faster spinning of a disk as content is being loaded. Loaded from where? Don’t ask, just eat, for content isn’t crafted, it it is only produced — its source hidden behind the impersonal cloak of a “personal” brand. Anyone, at any time, may produce content, for we are all created equal, and anyone may distribute it, for we are all created equal, and anyone may consume it, for we are all created equal (but if I have more likes than you I am more equal), and everyone must do these things, for we are all equally starved in our excess, and dependent on each other to sustain this networked feeding frenzy. Our content hunger is experienced only in negatives, in not having enough. It is an inevitable and indefinite hunger, because “having enough” has been impossible since sometime in 1984.

Content to me sounds like a meal that might have been satisfying if it had been prepared in an entirely different way. Content is pink slime. It is imagined ambrosia with real helpings of high fructose corn syrup, and we’ll take it if we can have it now.

I see myself in the future of this world: I’ve been admitted to the hospital starving, I suffered a content shortage. They hooked me up to an intravenous content delivery network and sent a bill to my content provider. But they overcharged me, the content they served wasn’t fresh.

Everywhere, we expect fresh content — in truth, fresh content looks and feels no different from stale content, other than the timestamp it bears — yet we cannot bring ourselves to like the stale kind, to bless it with our smiley faces and thumbs up.  Without fresh content, attention fades, eyes tire — we lose whatever bit of wakefulness our drug supplied.  We are what we eat; we are only as fresh as the content we consume.

Freshness brings the illusion of connectedness, for the fact that something is fresh makes us feel close to all the other people who share our fetish for that freshness, who are seeking or consuming this newest installment of the new, as we are right now — even if their existence is known to us only through a counter. We don’t need to know more about them, as in this world we are all aroused by the same kind of stimulus, even if it masquerades as personally tailored.

They say content is king, but they don’t mean substance is king; rather, that the flow of something appearing like substance — that is king.

“Fresh content” brings to mind that moment of letdown one might experience after a period of creative work — writing, painting — during which there was no “content”, only words in motion, colors bleeding on canvas; for a musician, sound pulsing through space. At some point later there’s a manuscript, a piece of cloth with drying paint — was all that sweat really for that little bit of stuff?  The writer or painter knows that through this bit of material, another person might step into a magical world, and because of that transporting potential, we revere the physical artifact, meager as it seems — but when it is digitized and labeled as content, its future is predestined: fresh, to stale. The greatest height it might reach in this arc is to become for a brief moment popular content, liked content, shared content; if improbably fortunate, viral for a time.

When before in history have creative people aspired for their work to be viral? One thinks of Beethoven proud that his Ode to Joy had been pronounced tubercular, Proust delighted that his memories went malarial, Rembrandt tickled to know that his self-portraits had gone cancerous.

If content becomes stale after being viral, it still never decomposes, is never broken back into its elements; it may be archived, it may be indexed and re-indexed, it may be forever crawled and scraped.  It will be forgotten by all but spiders, yet it cannot die, for it is what we aspire to be: immortal.

Content may be marketed, managed, monetized, strategized, farmed, tagged, pipelined, curated, mashed up, and placed in front of traffic.  Imagining for a moment that I were content, I would live in fear, because all of these things sound terribly painful.

And I am afraid, because in this world the self is identified as the content it produces.  “I = C” is the equation of our age. I am content, and yes, my dream is to be trafficked. I’ll say no more, because even before I have distributed these words, even before you consume them, I can feel them going stale; God, refresh me.