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Two great jugglers: Koblikov and Hayashi

Wednesday 13 April 2016

I have two great juggling videos to share: two jugglers, each great in his own way.

First: Alexander Koblikov. He is a great professional juggler, currently with the Big Apple Circus. He has a smooth evocative style with a small number of balls, starting with simple contact moves, but growing to flawless five-ball work. Then he can show off raw power with nine-ball multiplexes. A very impressive combination of both ends of the professional spectrum:

Kota Hayashi is very different. He's an amateur juggler, performing at the International Juggler's Association convention. He isn't wearing any particular costume, his act has no story. He's not a poker-faced artiste, and he only juggles three balls. He's a good juggler, but more importantly, he just obviously loves juggling. His enthusiasm is infectious. As you watch his act, it gets a bit ridiculous. You start to think, this is silly. But really, isn't juggling silly to begin with? Why do we throw objects around in fancy patterns? There's no point to it, other than our own amusement. Kota's act is a visible embodiment of the pure pleasure of mastering an absurd skill for its own sake.

Skip ahead to 1:05 where Kota starts:

And because I can't stop watching juggling videos, here are two bonus jugglers showing two more completely different styles:

  • Olivia Porter has charming Chaplinesque way of working with three balls that put her at their mercy in a baffling world.
  • Tony Pezzo is insanely talented, with his own style of twisty multiplexed numbers street juggling.

Glossary:

  • multiplex: throwing more than one ball at once from a hand
  • numbers: juggling more than three balls
  • contact: using a ball without leaving contact with your body, usually by rolling it

Alex Nair Bhak, 1997–2016

Tuesday 12 April 2016

A little over a week ago, a nephew-of-sorts of mine died in a fall. He was almost 19, a freshman at Tufts. It was tragic, and senseless, and horrifying. The funeral was Sunday, and he's been on my mind a lot.

To be honest, I didn't know Alex that much. We saw each other at most once a year, and usually less frequently. I learned more about Alex at his funeral than I had over the years of rote greetings at family gatherings. He was a smart, generous, energetic guy (boy? man?)

When I think about Alex's death, of course I think about him, and his too-short life, and his final hours. I think about his parents, and what they must be going through, and I wonder if I could handle such a loss.

I think about my own children and I think about parenthood: the enormous commitment, energy, love, and work that goes into shaping and guiding these new people. The pain and fear of sending them off into the world, away from your protective watch. It's difficult in the best of times.

Alex's death was painful not only because we lost Alex, but because it was a brutal reminder that we can lose anyone, at any time, with no notice. It's easy to imagine a nearby parallel universe where it was one of my sons instead of him.

At the funeral, Alex's dad recounted an uncle's similar loss. The uncle's wisdom was that we will not find a reason for Alex's death, but that we will find meaning in life.

I come back again to Kurt Vonnegut's son Mark, answering, and neatly side-stepping, the question of meaning: "We're here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is."

Take care of each other.

Lato's unfortunate ligatures

Saturday 2 April 2016

If you use Slack, or read docs on Read The Docs, you've seen Lato. It's a free high-quality font. I like it a lot, but it has a feature that bugs me a lot: the f-i ligature:

A sample of Lato

If you've never looked into this before, a ligature is a combination of letters that are designed as a new distinct glyph. In this case, there's an "fi" shape that is used when you have an "f" and an "i" next to each other.

Ligatures have a long tradition in Latin fonts, for a reason: some pairings of letters can have a jarring look. The bulb of the f and the dot of the i can clash, and it looks better to design a combined shape that shares the space better.

But Lato doesn't suffer from this problem. Ligatures are a solution to a problem, and here they are being used when there is no problem to solve. The Lato fi ligature is more jarring than the f and the i, because it looks like there's no dot for the i.

Here's a comparison of the fi ligature in some fonts. The first column is a plain f and i presented naturally, but forced to be individual, naively. Then the fi combination as the browser text renderer draws them, and then the Unicode fi ligature, U+FB01 (LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FI):

Ligatures in various fonts

The naive Lato f and i look fine together without any intervention. The ligature looks silly without the dot. The f is trying to reach over to join the dot, but it's too far to reach, so it doesn't get there, and the f has no bulb in the first place. It doesn't make any sense.

Constantia and Georgia demonstrate a good use of ligatures: the naive pairing shows how the bulb and the dot crowd into each other, and the ligatures shift things a little to resolve the clash.

(Somehow, Lato doesn't map its fi ligature to the U+FB01 code point, so we get the default font there instead.) If you want to experiment, here's the HTML file I used to make the image.

By the way, it was an interesting challenge to get the browsers to display the unligatured f-i pairs. In Firefox, I used a zero-width space (U+200B) between the characters. But Chrome substituted the ligature anyway, so I tried putting the f and the i in adjacent spans. This worked in Chrome, but Firefox used the ligature. So I combined both methods:

<span>f&#x200b;</span><span>i</span>

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