2018 Creative Year in Review

Last year was hard to top. I had a designer in residence position at the School of Visual Concepts, printed a book by letterpress, traveled to New York for a Kickstarter event, Wisconsin for the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum Wayzgoose, and to London to research a book.

2018 started weakly. I got the flu on Christmas Eve, recovered briefly, and then was so knocked out with secondary illnesses that it took me about four months to recover fully. During that time, I was also writing a book, finding new publications to write for, and figuring out what I would do across the year.

It turned out pretty well in the end.

In the first part of the year, I finished researching and writing London Kerning, and then designed the book and had it printed—and then shipped it out to hundreds of people. I undersold myself on demand and ran out, and then banged a drum to sell enough copies to create a second printing. And then sent those out! (I wrote about the finances of the project in some depth for those interested.)

I had another book underway, too: the letterpress title I printed in 2017 wasn’t yet fully complete. I ran late in the printing, which cascaded into a large delay for Jules Faye, the bookbinder who created an incredible package for the work. I sent out part of the edition of 100 books in 2017, and the rest by April. I had a few unnumbered artist’s proofs remaining, and sold some of those, too. (There are a very few copies left, if you want one! You can also get a single chapter bound in a translucent vellum.)

This year I also updated some of my tech/how-to titles. Take Control of Wi-Fi Networking and Security hadn’t been updated in a few years when it was uncertain what Apple intended for its in-house Wi-Fi devices. This latest edition is more generally focused, especially for readers who haven’t set up Wi-Fi before or are replacing a whole house or small-office network. I also revised A Practical Guide to Networking and Security in iOS for iOS 12. And I wrote a new title, Take Control of Your Apple ID, which is full of tips and troubleshooting advice for Apple’s surprisingly fraught account-management system. I’m currently revising a Take Control title about using Slack for January 2019.

I continued writing for a slate of publications (not including Slate) that include the Economist, the AtlanticFast CompanyIncrementMacworld, and TidBITS. (You can find a searchable list of nearly everything I’ve ever written at my Authory profile, which also provides a feed of new articles.)

My first article appeared in Smithsonian magazine (about 1923 and the public domain) and at Fortune online, where since June I’ve been writing breaking news every afternoon alongside other reporters.

I apparently wrote over 500 articles this year! That comes in part from the stint at Fortune, where I might file two to four stories a day combined with the Macworld Mac 911 column I’ve now written for years, which usually results in me filing three items a week.

Some of the favorite or most meaningful stories that I wrote and which appeared this year include:

  • Why European-descended Americans seem to want to declare themselves Native Americans (for the Economist). This story’s hook was Elizabeth Warren’s exploration of her past in a way that didn’t involved consulting the native community. I was spoke to Rosanne Cash for the story, someone I’ve known for years due to Twitter, as I’d read her father had once claimed heritage—then discovered he was incorrect. She said he was very disappointed, but he persisted in fighting for native rights.

  • The paper that poisoned its printers (for the Economist). This bit of history arose from my London trip in late 2017. For Queen Victoria’s coronation, one newspaper printed a golden-hued portrait—which sickened many involved in its production. Breaking news from 1838!

  • Why the genome of wheat is so massive (for the Economist). I had a great time learning about this topic, and this “Economist Explains” column found its way into a collection of these explainers, called Seriously Curious that came out in late 2018.

  • The Racism Behind One of the World’s Largest Time Capsules” (for the Atlantic). I was slightly obsessed with this story for two years after discovering its detail. The Atlantic helped me birth it. The time capsule at a college in Georgia is like a dark mirror to the monuments aboveground, over which battles currently rage.

  • A First Look At The Spheres, Amazon’s Wild New Corporate Biodome” (for Co.Design). Amazon gave me early access to their new habitat in January, and I broke the news that the company planned to bring a “titan arum” in—a corpse flower—when one bloomed. They finally did so in October.

  • How Facebook Devalued The Birthday” (for Fast Company). My jeremiad on how when hundreds of people know your birthday, the social currency is wiped out.

  • The history of documentation (for Increment). From Noah (sort of) through Chaucer via sewing machines and farm machinery and to the modern era. Article opens with Squirrel Girl’s Ryan North and his dog, Noam Chompsky.

After finishing my residency, I had a lot of letterpress knowledge and research to hand, and decided to restart a Patreon campaign I had tried before. (The previous effort had led directly to the residency.) The new campaign, which looks for recurring pledges of $1 or more a month, provides funds that help me write more about typography, printing, language, and history as they connect. Funds this year gave me the flexibility to travel to TypeCon and give a talk, pay to scan a seminal 1887 book about typesetting races, and buy a high-quality book scanning device so I can turn more public-domain works into resources for the rest of the world.

Also this year, I restarted the podcast The New Disruptors. I produced almost 95 episodes between 2012 and 2014 about creating work independently in the new economy with new models and tools. A number of people asked me to bring the show back, and a Kickstarter in mid-2018 gave me the funds to do so. You can listen to old and new episodes via the Web site or by subcribing to the podcast feed.

I gave a few talks and presentations this year, and you can watch me speak about my year in review of my SVC residnecy, which covers lots of aspects of my work and the history of printing. I also edited up this talk I gave about London and type history at Ada’s Technical books mid-year.

Thank you to everyone who participated in and supported this great year!

It Takes a Hidden Village

I love Kevin Kelly's work and life, and had a great talk with him months ago for my podcast, The New Disruptors. But during his talk at the 2014 XOXO festival a week ago, I felt a distinct chill when, in describing his book Cool Tools, he said it was the work of two people over a few months, and then went on to note their use of Elance and other distributed work tools.

Tim Maly felt the same chill, and wrote a very interesting essay riffing on that and related issue: independent creators are dependent on the work of so many others, most of whom aren't afforded the same opportunities at advancement and independence. Tim followed the thread of labor down to the Chinese workers referenced in another talk by the creators of the NeoLucida; the two guys behind that project traveled to China and spent two weeks in the factory that was making their gear.

I know that Kevin didn't mean to disparage or denigrate the work of the hundreds of people who put in minutes or hours through various freelance/contract aggregation services. In fact, in our podcast, he spoke specifically about these folks (full transcript):

In the end, I probably redesigned at least 90 percent of the pages, but they were delivered at such a stage that it was possible for me to refine them. We were generating I forget how many pages a day from all the freelancers. They were first class. They were really great.

He also noted:

What it is doing is arbitrage. It’s matching the needs of one person with the abilities of the other in a very low friction way. I think that’s what really comes forward. Sometimes you don’t need necessarily the design power. You want something a bit more modest, and this is a way to kind of connect with that person very directly, very quickly within a matter of hours. I think that’s really the beauty of this system.

He can speak for himself, but from a similar position, I know what he meant: it only required a couple of dedicated people, not working exclusively on the project, to coordinate and bring it into being; something that not long ago would have required a team of several and a year and maybe an order of magnitude or factors above that in cost. He was the motive force; without his interest, energy, and money, the book would never have come to pass.

When I created The Magazine: The Book (Year One) earlier this year, it was my idea. I came up with it, coordinated it, raised the funds, hired people, and handled nearly all the details. But, of course, dozens of people were involved in it directly, tens of thousands at one remove, and millions at another.

The book required the expertise of a graphic design and production team of three and my contract editorial team of two (managing editor and proofreader); a few dozen writers, artists, and photographers; paper and ink, printing presses, postal and shipping services. You can crank the aperture wide or small about how many people were involved depending on what level of detail you want to discuss. Someone had to mine ore, smelt it, refine it, and stamp out machine parts for the equipment that embossed the covers of the hardback edition.

We are ourselves often cogs in someone else's machine. The lower level the task, the less likelihood we have to control our own destiny. I don't think Kevin has lost sight of that at all — he began his life's work by traveling the world to find disappearing societies and met people forgotten by everyone else. But our independence is always positional, relying on the constraints of others to make the raw stuff on which we depend.

XOXO to XOXO 2014

The XOXO conference and festival is back for its third outing this September 11–14 in Portland, Oregon, the center of all that is creative and right with the world at this moment. Portland is a special place and XOXO is a special event that could only occur there, I think. The organizers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan are amazing people in their own right, and they bring together so much good will and positivity about life in one place.

Here's what I wrote about it years past and a podcast with Andy and Andy:

The first XOXO in 2012 changed my life. I was in a slump and slightly at sea, and nearly everything I did after XOXO was different than before: I changed my job (from programming and writing to mostly editing and podcasting with some  writing) and oriented what I do much more about facilitating the creativity of other people, through which I get my own joy and participation.

The 2013 event felt like a consolidation: less change but more fervor. I met so many people who I only knew online, made new friendships and connections, and went out with new energy right into a Kickstarter that launched a few weeks later—and (figuratively) nearly killed me.

I made some friends that I hope I will keep for the rest of my life. Oddly, I've met people in the months since who attended XOXO 2013 who I didn't meet there, and we've since become friends! There's an affinity for attending that extends outside of the event. ("There's a little bit of XOXO in all of us," I might say, and then hate myself.)

This year, I'm sitting out the conference part. That's for a few reasons. I've gotten so much benefit from the event, I feel like I should make room for other people. They've switched to a different kind of selection process that I fully support, in which they will pick nearly randomly (and filter only those who are clearly trying to market to participants). However, they're going to also moderate the randomness by attempting to gain more participation from people who are traditionally underrepresented at most conferences:

More than 80% of the people who’ve wanted to attend XOXO in the past are white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied dudes, and we want everyone who’s not in that category to know XOXO is for you too.

I fit that 80% definition. I don't feel required to exclude myself, but I also think having gotten the benefit twice, I should step back.

I've gone through so much this year already, I don't think I'm prepared for another "tear your head off" iteration. The Kickstarter kicked my ass. It was great and powerful and I couldn't be happier with the book we made. But I spent November to March working nearly full-time on it in addition to my regular full-time-plus amount of work and then April finishing up, while also writing a three-page Economist story about nanosatellites that's among one of the favorite things I've even written. During May, I believe I was in a fetal position. (June has proven much better.)

I'm applying for a festival pass (access to events, not the conference track), so that if I get picked, I can come and hang and podcast and do fun stuff, but won't challenge myself as much as I did. I don't have it in me this year to re-invent myself again! Maybe in 2015.

XOXO has been described as so many things. It's like an encounter group for entrepreneurialism. It's a place in which speakers, both relatively to quite famous and those known in niche super-interesting circles, talk about their failures and how to overcome them.  It is a place that may encourage earnestness at the expense of criticism. It's a place to make new friends and colleagues.

They've added an option for people who travel together in response to some complaints last year. If two people who identify as spouses or significant others list each other's name in the conference application, if one doesn't get picked for a conference pass, that person will be given priority to sign up for a festival pass.

I encourage anyone who wants a jolt and an incredibly enjoyable few days in Portland to apply!


2013 in Review

Last year, inspired by Joe Kissell, I wrote a summary of the enormity of what 2012 had encompassed. It was freaking huge. Joe enumerated for years all the words, books, articles, and such like he worked on. This year, I'm inspired again by Joe: he decided to stop the extensive documentation of his year, having felt he'd proven his productivity. I'm somewhere in between: less documentation than last year, but still quite a bit to share.

In June, I bought The Magazine from Marco Arment. It's been one of the greatest things I've worked on in my life, and it's a constant joy of collaboration with contributors both before and after the purchase. We just put out Issue #33 — we produced 26 issues during 2013, and now have some subscribers who are paid up though the end of 2015. We'd better deliver.

I launched the weekly podcast The New Disruptors in December 2012. With the help first of Mule Radio, and then my brother in law, Michael, we put out 51 episodes in 2013. (We skipped a New Year's episode last year, but had one for 2014, so we'll probably hit 52.)

I've been writing for the Economist since 2005, but 2013 was probably one of my biggest years as a contributor:

  • I crossed 300 blog posts for Economist.com, most of them, but not all, for the Babbage blog.
  • I had my first cover story (cover of the American edition, and the inside Technology Quarterly section) about the sharing economy.
  • While I often have one or two TQ articles a year in the print edition, this year I not only had the three-page sharing economy article in first quarter, but a long piece on keeping probes and landers working throughout the solar system and beyond (co-written with my long-time editor and friend Tom Standage), and then a two-page look at Bitcoin's technological pressures in the fourth quarter.

I wrote fewer articles in 2013 for other publications between my devotion to The Magazine and my gig at the Economist's blogs, but I did write a few long items for Boing Boing, my home away from home:

As has been true for a few years, one of the most fun things I do during the year is be a panelist on The Incomparable, a geeky radio show developed by friend Jason Snell. This year, I wasn't able to be on as many episodes, but I did make sure to be part of two very special ones. Friend of the podcast (and now regular panelist) and playwright David Loehr wrote radio plays we performed—two of them—as The Incomparable Radio Theater of the Air! The first aired April 1 and the second over the December holidays. (Then we spent almost two hours talking about how we made the Christmas spectacular!)

David combined a true love and deep knowledge of old-timey radio theater and serials (shared by many of us in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, surprisingly, on the podcast!) with mild parody and great writing. Jason did most of the editing, with an assist from David in the latest production. Serenity Caldwell, who studied radio-play directing in college (!!), did a fabulous job directing us mostly amateur actors. I played Tesla in a sort of Doctor Who tribute/parody in both shows, and did a plummy New England stuffed shirt as a minor character in the first one. (What's that?)

After years of not traveling much, I was on the road quite a bit for both personal and professional reasons in 2013. I went to Los Angeles in January to visit Jet Propulsion Lab for the Economist story and several Babbage posts, and dropped in to watch a taping of Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions in which two contestants were people I had met during my stint on the show in 2012.

In February, I flew to D.C. to help a friend move to New York, and we wound up driving a moving truck into the biggest blizzard of the year. It was very entertaining, the roads were fine, and we had quite a story to tell. I met up with three of my oldest friends there, too, for a mini-reunion, our second. In March, I was back in New York for a quick visit with a dear friend and some meetings.

I stayed home a bit, then our family, my brother-in-law's family, and my father- and mother-in-law all went to Kauai for nearly a week! Which was great, except I was feeling a bit crummy during the trip. We came back, I saw my doctor, he ordered some tests, and I wound up getting a stent put into one of my main arteries. Turns out the radiation therapy I had had in 1998 to help cure me of Hodgkin's Disease caused some early onset of cloggage. The stent took, I feel terrific, and my heart is in great shape.

I went to the XOXO festival in September, which was another wonderful meeting of so many creative people: finding old friends and online acquaintances, and making piles of new friends. November, I flew back to New York again to record a podcast live at a conference, and then to San Francisco and Los Angeles in December for meetings, meetups, and renewals of friendship.

The year ended with a bang. I had long planned to stage a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite production of a book drawn from The Magazine's first full year in publication (October 2012 to October 2013), and we raised over $56,000 in 29 days, with over 1,000 hardcover books and even more electronic versions that we'll be shipping off in the next two months.

I finally got a Fitbit in 2013, and have been quantifying myself. I started using a treadmill that fits under my standing desk in earnest, and spend about 3 hours a day walking and the rest standing. Fitbit's stats tell me that from May to December 2013, I walked 1,025 miles (2.4 million steps), and climbed the equivalent of 2,424 stairs. I lost about 25 pounds after my heart stent was put in place, and while I've gained a few back over the holidays, I'll be pushing for 50 more off  in 2014 and into 2015 to reach a goal weight my doctors are happy with.

I made a lot of new friends in 2013. Because of the travel many "Twitter buddies" became real buddies. (I may have tweeted 50,000 times in 2013. Sorry.) I turned some people from acquaintances into some of my closest friends, and encountered and gave a lot of love, which is what it's all about. I'm hoping for a little bit less of a hectic pace in 2014, but more fulfilling work, collaboration, love, and happiness, which I wish for you all as well.

A Transformative Year

I have sometimes joked that I never know precisely what I will be doing from one year to the next. As a freelancer, I am dependent on both the goodwill of editors and the persistence of business models outside of my control. This means that my primary sets of income one year could have shifted somewhat the next and be entirely gone the year after that. It means I have to be fleet and agile.

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Brief Report on Macworld Expo

Gang at mosser

The name is different now, but the friendships are the same. I had a non-stop great time at Macworld | iWorld, the new name for the 27-year-old trade show. Late January is a quiet time of year in San Francisco, which can be a beautiful city, and felt like it this time around. For the first time in many years, I stayed for the full length of the show, and even then barely talked to so many friends at the show and missed getting together with a bunch of people who live in and around SF — there just wasn't time!

My favorite story from the show starts with when I landed at SFO. At baggage claim, I turned on Find My Friends, an iOS app that Apple released some months ago. I'd barely used it before except to test. I received a group temporary request that would let me see a bunch of fellow writers during the show. I accepted it, and shortly thereafter saw that my friend was in Brisbane, Calif. Now, the only reason to be in Brisbane is because you're driving somewhere. I texted her to see if she (a Macworld editor) was on her way to or from the airport. It turns out she and fellow editor Dan were coming to pick up yet another editor, and my buddy, Lex. I knew Lex was arriving on Wednesday, but hadn't thought to ask him when. He was landing a few minutes from when we texted and his baggage claim was feet away. I walked over, met Ren and Dan, and then we met Lex.

I had a lovely drive into the city to my hotel, where Jeff Carlson (my Seattle pal) was there with his mom and daughter. Jeff and daughter Ellie were visiting his mother in Dixon, and Jeff and I were rooming together. I texted him that we were en route, so he delayed his mom's departure so I could see her. (I love his mom.) We pull up and Jeff, Ellie, and his mom Susan come out, along with Adam and Tonya Engst, my friends and TidBITS/Take Control publishers from Ithaca, also staying at the hotel. Moments later, I meet Michael Cohen, a TidBITS editor who I hadn't yet met in the flesh. (Not everyone is in the picture.)

From there it was off to two different parties and then a staff dinner, which involved miles of walking in moderate weather. The next morning, I interviewed Susan Orlean on the Main Stage at the event, something that had been in the works for a while. We had lunch with a small group afterwards, and then I breezed through the day of meeting a million other people and roaming the show floor. Friday and Saturday were also full of people, meeting longtime Twitter and email correspondents, more checking out the show floor, a brief visit to a Twitter friend at Twitter itself (a block away from the convention center), and three Macworld Live events on the trade-show floor! Sunday morning, I rose not too early, walked to a BART station, went to SFO, and flew home.

It was a busy and marvelous time. The show is such a mix of social and professional. A chance for me to meet up with friends and colleagues, and a mix of the two, and an opportunity for me to chat with some of the folks who read my work who aren't in the writing field. More pictures here. Although I'm working in my basement at home, and that can sometimes be isolating, after four days of maximum contact, I'm happy to have a little respite! I wish we could this every three or four months.