I was in San Francisco in early June, and the Grabhorn Institute invited me to give a short talk in their gallery about type history and the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule. The institute preserves the practical history of type casting and fine-art printing by perpetuating it, fulfilling orders from letterpress printers and producing new books, while running an apprenticeship program, regular tours, and inviting speakers (like me!).
I have an article in the January 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine about the potential cultural impact of the expiration of copyright on nearly everything published in the U.S. in 1923. With few exceptions, everything that had proper initial notice and filed for copyright renewal from that year in 1951 (renewal was once required) will enter the public domain on January 1. It’s exciting, as it starts a 54-year cycle of annual releases of each year from 95 years prior into the public domain.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a prominent bit of literature from 1923. Robert Frost’s poems have had zealous copyright enforcement. It even featured in a landmark Supreme Court case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which the Supreme Court decided that the “limited terms” of exclusive ownership defined in the Constitution meant any duration that Congress picked.
In honor of “Stopping by Woods” upcoming entry into the public domain, I wrote this bit of doggerel. (A fancy typeset version appears below.)
STOPPING BY WORDS ON A NEW YEAR’S EVENING
Whose words these are it’s clear to see,
He wrote them back in ’twenty-three.
His reps have never stopped the fight
To limit use by copyright.
James Madison would think it queer
That rights this long could stay so dear,
But courts have let extensions be
Despite the case of Eldred v.
The house of publication shakes
Off questions that renewal breaks
In ’fifty-one, a form not sent—
No one tried to show dissent.*
The words are lovely, free and clear,
With oceans more that will appear.
And years to go before release,
And years to go before release.
*In an example of the kind of complexities that surround copyright, the poem first appeared in The New Republic, and may have not had proper renewal in 1951. It’s possible it’s been properly in the public domain for 67 years.
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 Atlantic, Fast Company, Increment, Macworld, 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!
Summer came rushing in, and while we swelter, I have a few updates:
- The New Disruptors podcast crowdfunding campaign met its goal! I'll be producing new episodes starting in August. When the first new episode launches, there will be more ways to help keep it going beyond the 12 episode/1 year schedule I used Kickstarter to fund. It was a nail biter: a very generous supporter came in during the last five minutes to bring the campaign home!
- My London Kerning book is available in London itself from Magma Books. If you visit London, you can pick up a copy in person, but the company also offers inexpensive shipping across the UK, Ireland, and the rest of Europe.
- Speaking of London, I visited my books and other sites with the family earlier this month. You can read briefly about that trip and some thoughts about stone lettercarving I saw throughout London at this Patreon post. (Did you know you could pledge a recurring amount as low as $1 a month to help support my typographic and related writing?)
- Next week, I'll be at TypeCon, a typographic event, held this year in Portland, OR. I'm giving a talk on, what else, typographic archives in London! Do you sense a theme?
- A few copies remain of my letterpress-printed book, Not To Put Too Fine a Point on It. These are artists' proofs identical to the original numbered edition, except not numbered. They are signed and can be inscribed.
- In September, I'll be giving a talk at Ada's Books on Johnston Sans, the typeface that's been used for London transportation since 1916. More details to follow. (Ticket will be $5; 21+ venue with soft and hard drinks, plus food, for sale; London Kerning books available.)
- Since mid-June, I've been writing news every afternoon for Fortune magazine's Briefings section. These are short items about breaking news written to provide quick analysis into what's happening at the moment. It's different than other writing I've done, and invigorating!
I’ve published a number of interesting articles recently and had a spate of podcast appearances. Here’s a short summary. (You can also use my Authory page to see recent articles and search on the full text, and sign up to be notified about new articles.)
- “A Landslide of Classic Art Is About to Enter the Public Domain” (the Atlantic): An amazing day is coming. January 1, 2019, for the first time since 1998, a huge number of books, films, and other works will escape U.S. copyright law. Due to a number of quirks and changes in U.S. copyright law, every year for decades, a swath of history gets brushed into the public domain at last.
- “How Facebook Devalued The Birthday” (Fast Company): What was once a private celebration has become public currency. What have we lost in the process? After this ran, a lot of resonance from people who told me they felt the same way.
- “John Henry was a type-setting man: When newspaper compositors were sporting heroes” (the Economist): In the 19th century, crowds cheered and bet on competitions to see who could set metal type fastest.
- The Visual History of Type review (my Patreon): This remarkable book is big in every way—not just in weight and dimensions, but in scope and quality. While this article is available to everyone, I write exclusive and exclusive-for-patrons-first articles, along with other benefits, for people who contribute $1 a month or more. Read more here.
- “NASA’s On-Again, Off-Again Satellite” (Air & Space): Amateur astronomers never know what signals they might pick up. You could call this a SADellite story: the IMAGE orbiter mentioned stopped broadcasting in a way NASA could pick up, for the most part. So far, no luck in making contact again after early March.
- Why is the American sheriff such a polarising figure? (the Economist): A historical look at why sovereign citizens, white supremacists, and militia members, as well as more mainstream right-wing figures, all think the county sheriff has more power than the federal government.
- Why was this season’s flu so deadly? (the Economist): Many factors, but primarily, a more virulent strain, and one that the vaccine didn't target as well as usual.
- It’s COBOL all the way down (Increment): The COBOL programming language is often described as something from the distant past, but it still powers most of the world’s financial transactions. Billions of lines of COBOL code aren't being replaced, need maintenance, and programmers keep retiring—or passing away.
- I talk Frankenstein with John McCoy on Sophomore Lit. I relied on the great book, The New Annotated Frankenstein, which encompasses aspects of the two major editions of the Mary Shelley book (1818 and 1831), parts of the original draft that survive, and a significant marked-up copy of the 1818 edition she gave to a friend that reflected some changes in direction realized in the 1831 release.
- Quinn Rose had me on her podcast about musicals, Corner of the Sky, to let me talk, rage, blather, and sing (sometimes in German) about The Threepenny Opera, one of my favorite pieces of theatre of any kind.
- I appear on Download, a tech podcast, in an episode called, “Put the Toothpaste Back in the Cat,” which maybe you don’t want to know what that means.
- Holy cats, we’ve made 400 episodes of the Incomparable, and I’m about the #10 all-time guest by appearances (but #1 in your hearts). Here’s “Snellology,” our 400th episode.
- I acted as scorekeeper (and put in some bon mots or mal mots) for the Emerald City Comic-Con live taping of Inconceivable!, a game show by Dan Moren.
I’ve got a new book out! It’s a collection of 10 researched and reported articles I’ve written over the last two years about the history of punctuation, the future of letterpress, and much more.
The first six chapters are part of the letterpress book I printed this year, and the book was one of the items I committed to make as part of that project. You can download an excerpt that contains a full chapter.
It’s 116 pages long and comes as a bundle of PDF, EPUB, and MOBI. Get your copy here!
Here’s what’s in the book:
- Nothing Is Lacking: The earliest uses of marking a page as intentionally leaving something out.
- CAPITAL CRIMES: Why we SHOUT with UPPERCASE. (Included in excerpt.)
- The Ten-Millennium Safe: A web site plans for the far future.
- The Quibble with Online Quotes: Will the Internet kill off curly quotes?
- Look Askew: Slanting type is like stealing sheep.
- Noto Bene: Google builds a massive typeface to represent all the languages of the world.
- You Can’t Quote Me on It! Email and forums ape an ancient textual device in marking quotations.
- A Font of Type: Walt Whitman was a printer, and this poem has deep roots in his background.
- What a Relief: While letterpress seemed destined for the junk heap, it's making a surprising comeback.
- A Crank Turns a Letterpress: Your author spent hundreds of hours walking a carriage on a press back and forth and thinking about what it meant.
Because of a great intersection of timing, I’m traveling to London in late November to view a rare exhibition and meet with a number of type designers and folks involved in letterpress, as well as visit public and private collections, and roam the streets, which are rampant with classic and modern type usages. I’m turning this experience into a small book I want to share with you.
I’ve launched a campaign on Kickstarter to help cover my expenses in travel and research, and to design and create digitally printed and ebook editions. As a freelancer, it’s difficult to fund travel and research, which is why I’m turning to you. I’ll be making a short but terrific book that anyone who has an interest in design history and its preservation will enjoy, but you’ll also get a snapshot of the contemporary scene.
London is a remarkably rich town for type design, and has deep letterpress roots, some of which remain, while others have worked to revive it. The book will have a strong focus on Berthold Wolpe, a German type designer who emigrated for his own safety to England in 1935, and spent his long career there designing type and book covers. I’ll also be meeting with contemporary type designers, letterpress printers, and others.
The campaign has more details about the scope, which is both modest and (you know me) expansive.
Thanks, as always, for your interest and support.
Another large passel of articles I’ve written are out!
- “A T-Shirt Company Tries On A Radical Idea: Tees That Fit Actual Women," about Cotton Bureau’s efforts to make a better T (Fast Company, Sept. 10)
- “Meet The Font Detectives Who Ferret Out Fakery" (Wired, Sept. 13) on the expert typographers who testify in trials about print and type history, sizes, and legibility largely in pursuit of forgery.
- “Where are the flaws in two-factor authentication?” (the Economist, Sept. 13)
- “This 10-Year-Old’s $2 Million Amazon Business Is Leaving Competitors In The Dust" (Fast Company, Sept. 12)
- “Face ID on the iPhone X: Everything you need to know about Apple’s facial recognition” (Macworld, Sept. 15)
- “How Amazon’s Nonstop Growth Is Creating A Brand-New Seattle" (Fast Company, Aug. 24), explaining how Amazon has had a huge impact on Seattle’s downtown, housing, and culture, but is also bringing its dollars and volunteers to local nonprofits that aid those left behind. Pair this with “Amazon’s Quest For An HQ2 Underscores Seattle Growing Pains," which looks at the announcement shortly after my story ran about Amazon wanting to use the clone tool on its Seattle headquarters.
- The first three parts of a six-part series on type and printing revolution for Medium Premium:
For those interested in finding my recent articles, I like to publish an occasional summary. Here’s a selection from the last few weeks:
- The rebirth of letterpress at Wired's Backchannel. Letterpress printing nearly died as a practical craft. Digitally driven analog technology brought it back from the brink, and the future will be even more interesting as 2D cutting and engraving and 3D printing becomes affordable and widespread. (A lot of research for this story didn’t fit, so expect even more detail in the future.)
- Three separate stories for Fast Company dealt with privacy and intrusion: “Here’s How To Track The Smartphone Apps That Are Tracking You,” “The Feds And Tech Firms Who Let Ransomware Spread Must Help Stop It,” and “Have These Researchers Created An Unbeatable Ad-Blocking Technology?”
- I love QR Codes, despite the fact that they’ve been ridiculed—in America! not elsewhere—for years. Apple’s addition of automatic bar code (1D) and 2D codes (including QR Code) in iOS 11, coming later this year, means I had to write about what QR Codes were, anyway, and why you might learn to love them for Macworld.
- You can turn your Mac into a DVR! With a little networked hardware and new DVR software, it’s a cinch. I recommend Plex, which I covered in this story at Macworld, and which is now out of beta. It’s the best current option.
In my “spare” time, I’m letterpress printing a book. You can read more about it in my book progress blog.
Several articles that were percolating over various periods of time all ran in the last week, which is all in the life of a busy freelancer:
- In the Economist, you can read "The Internet of Stings" about how the billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices can be hijacked, and how they were used to launch one of the biggest Internet attacks ever against a lone journalist, Brian Krebs. (This appears in the print issue as well as online; I'm rarely in print publications these days.)
- In my first appearance in The Ringer, Bill Simmons' new journalism venture, I dive into gender-based technology rejection, driven against sites and products that men think are only for women.
- At Fast Company, I dig into what appears to be a normal copyright dispute over photographs by the renowned Carol Highsmith, which could result in a court decision that gives scammers carte blanche to demand licensing fees for public-domain work.
- For TidBITS, I explain and test several person-to-person (and person-to-business) payment systems that have iMessage apps: Circle, Square Cash, and Venmo.
- Additionally, I had my usual flood of pieces in Macworld, where I write multiple Mac 911 question-and-answer columns a week, and wrote recently about the remarkable properties of the new two-camera iPhone 7 Plus.