February 17, 2004

The Poets of Popular Science

In today’s wild, wild world of new age magazine design, it is always difficult to tell whether or not a known and trusted magazine is trying to become cutting edge, or is merely sinking into functional illiteracy. So it is this month with the venerable Popular Science.

A two page “Buy Things from Our Advertisers” plea called “The Goods” endeavors to bring a little learning to a terrible feature. It attempts to blend what is cunningly called a “service feature” with the ancient Japanese art of Haiku. This is like trying to mate a sea lion with a butterfly. You know the outcome, but you still need to watch the instant replay in slo-mo.

As I know from brutal experience, the “service feature” is one most editors with a shred of integrity loathe. The essence of the feature is to hide the scurvy little deals of the advertising department under the white bridal gown of the editorial department. It is, in the fullest sense of the term, a “servicing of the reader” since it hides those items the ad salesmen promised their clients inside of a host of other items the editor probably feels are worthy of some note or comment.

In magazines that still pretend to have editorial integrity this is done with a nod and a wink. In the other 99.9% of magazine this is done up close and personal with no foreplay whatsoever. An editor’s only recourse, other than quitting, is to find some way to salvage their self-esteem.

Hence, in this case, haiku to the rescue.

Within “The Goods” ( A motley collection that might be wisely subtitled -- ‘More crap you really don’t need’) the editor’s need for creativity is gratified by a need to inflict the dreaded haiku on the reader. How many of PopSci’s readers know haiku from seppuku is probably in the low triple digits, but that never stopped an editor with a high concept for a low job.

Some of the gems from this effort include:

First, the inevitable way new version of the computer --
“A full computer
In your hand. Pen-based, hidden
Keyboard, Windows. Wow”

Second, the pitch for a Wurlitzer jukebox that only idiots can love--
“A classic reborn
For the digital age. Malt
Shop not included.”

Third, working in the word “cool” without which no service feature would be complete --
“Unlock your front door
Secret-agent-style with just
One fingertip. Cool.”

Fourth, the obligatory nod to ‘stuff that really matters’ with the sardonic zinger --

“Our best and brightest
Design folding shoes. World peace
Will just have to wait.”

There are sixteen more examples, but I will spare you, as will the Popular Science website since it has not put this bit of poetry up for perusal.

As to the merit of these as haiku, we shall leave that for the ages. For now, it is nice to know that at Popular Science, when they send an editor out to do a service feature, they supply him with literary kneepads.

Posted by Vanderleun at February 17, 2004 11:35 AM | TrackBack
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