Sunday, January 10, 2010

The machine that lies in wait

I found myself surprisingly mesmerized by this short clip I encountered on YouTube, entitled The Type Writer. I suspect the aberrant spelling is intentional: it seems to be both about typewriters and what it means to be the writerly type.
Yikes! That writing machine is lying in wait, isn't it? Just waiting, patiently, to what it was so elegantly designed to do. That's one of the biggest appeals of typewriters, and the main reason they remain iconographic of the writing process. They exist for one purpose, and one purpose only: to convert thoughts in head to words on page.

A computer (such as the one I'm writing this one on) is so many things it's nothing in particular. More importantly, so many of those things involve consumption more than creation. That's one of the unsettling characteristics of our current generation of technology: how quickly it reverses purpose. A printing press produces books; it doesn't turn into a book itself. A tape recorder captures a voice; it doesn't start talking itself.

It's a unique challenge we're grappling with. I don't think previous generations had to deal with anything like this--the constant, all-pervasive temptation/distraction of instant inversion. When your grandmother learned to cook, she didn't have to deal with the empty pots on her stove suddenly filling up with food, or with the stove itself turning into a restaurant. If she didn't create the meal, it wasn't going to exist. There was a eloquence to the emptiness before her (and the emptiness in people's stomachs), a need to be filled.

Writing on a networked computer has a number of advantages, but it also has the disadvantage of the fact that it's already populated with an overwhelming number of voices--it's like trying to do your own cooking at a table in a busy restaurant, using tools that fill up at a moment's notice with someone else's cuisine. Yes, I can summon up a blank screen with a blinking cursor. But since that screen can be whisked away and/or retrieved with a single mouseclick, it's not exactly commanding my attention. Nor would filling that page fulfill the purpose of my machine. The computer is impassive to whether I'm creating or consuming.

The typewriter, in contrast, is a mechanism solely for creation. It awaits your words, and will instantly commit them to permanence, to a real, manifested physical thing. It plays for keeps.
Try as you might, you're not going to find the key that will turn that blank page into someone else's entertainment. If you don't fill it, it's going to stay blank. And it's going to stay front and center.

The above clip captures this, that sense of the typewriter as a machine lying in wait. If there's an ominous note to it, that's appropriate as well. A manual typewriter is ominous: heck, you can't even turn the damn thing on or off. It's already ready. Which implicitly poses the question: are you?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stay on top? Or get to the bottom?

[Portrait of Don Knuth by Alexandra Drofina.]

In his new book The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman has a memorable quote from Don Knuth:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.
An admirable insight. But what's truly remarkable is the degree to which Knuth has followed through on that insight: he doesn't use email.
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.
Before you go thinking that Don Knuth is some sort of reactionary, neo-nostalgist Luddite [I'll be ranting on that last term in a future post], you should know that I'm talking about Professor Don Knuth of Stanford University, one of the most esteemed computer scientists in the world. There's no Nobel Prize for his discipline, but if there were, Knuth would likely be a multiple laureate. Let's put it this way: American Scientist ranks his 1968 edition of The Art of Computer Programming as one of the twelve most important monographs of the twentieth century, putting him alongside Einstein, Feynman, Pauling and Mandelbrot.
Knuth's work is pretty much a foundation point for contemporary programmers. The software I'm using to write this--and the software you're using to read it--was almost certainly written by someone who sweated their way through his Fundamental Algorithms, or Sorting and Searching. Nor is he resting on his laurels: Combinational Algorithms, the next volume of his The Art of Computer Programming, is eagerly awaited (and massive enough that "volume" doesn't really describe it: it will probably comprise at least three separate "subvolumes").
So he's not exactly afraid of technology. But to get work done on that order of magnitude, he's taken necessary measures to reclaim a maximum of time and focus. "I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books," he acknowledges on his website. "I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode --- like, one day every three months." Which means you might as well communicate with him by mail or fax; he cheerfully provides both address and fax number.
Professor Knuth isn't anti-email. He's just chosen to live his life on terms that don't require the urgency (either real or imagined) of the medium. To be strictly honest, he does have an email address, or rather his office does; it's useful for file transfers and the like. And on the rare occasions where time is really of the essence, he doesn't mind sending email through an intermediary, but only "with respect to the project I'm currently working on, when I believe that the recipient won't be bothered by my request."
Not everyone can follow Knuth's example to a full degree, of course; some of us are required to use email more frequently, if only because our idiosyncrasies aren't indulged quite so much as those of a distinguished professor. But the Knuth approach to datastream management--not interrupting himself any more than necessary--is something anyone can adopt. What, exactly, is the necessary amount of time you need to spend online? Can you spend that time in "batch processing" mode, rather than making it a continuous folded-in distraction?
If you don't want to think about your online life in terms of "necessary" and "unnecessary", then be aware you're making a choice. And your best work--the kind of writing you really, really want to do--is probably on the other side of that choice. You can stay on top of things, or you can really get to the bottom of them.

[courtesy of]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Typewriter Price Delusion

Okay, this has been driving me crazy. And if you're a fellow member of the Typosphere, chances are it's been driving you crazy too.

When someone decides to sell that old typewriter they found gathering dust in a garage or closet, the first thing they do is go on the web to get a sense of how much it might be worth. This almost inevitably leads them to certain websites--businesses that charge, shall we say, optimistic prices for their models.
These businesses have a perfect right to do so, of course. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to charge anything they want for whatever they want. Even, oh, $695 for a Hermes 2000, or $395 for a Escort 33 (from Montgomery Ward, 19-freaking-71). Such prices may reflect mint condition, extensive reconditioning, a degree of rarity, and/or the addition of a warranty. They may also reflect some people's willingness to pay through the nose for instant nostalgia. Perhaps the proprietors are gambling on the fact that next to a $3,000 computer, such prices seem reasonable.
But we're talking about the person surfing these sites not looking to buy, but looking to sell. I don't intend to criticize such sites, only to note the lack of useful pricing information on the web for private sellers. It's like deciding to sell a car, and only finding prices for Concours d'Elegance vehicles.
Said person has now gone from knowing nothing about the value of their machine to...well, still not knowing. But now the ignorance is skewed impossibly on the side of avarice. Instead of a fair price that would have guided the typewriter into appreciative hands, the machine is now seen as a mini-goldmine. In their own price calculations, they'll factor in some discount from these stratospheric retails, but they're usually still off by an order of magnitude. I see this all the time on Craigslist: a Remington Rand billed as "selling online for $500," generously marked down to $200. A battered Olympia with "a collectible value of $400," knocked down to a fire-sale $175. On Etsy this morning I found this Royal Quiet Deluxe with "a few scratches and minor missing paint," listed for $375.

It's nice. At $20, I'd be tempted. At $40, I might make a counter-offer. At $100, I'd walk away--and at $375 I'd exit the store as quickly as possible, convinced that the seller hasn't a clue.
This sort of reality disconnect does no one any favors; both buyers and sellers are going away unhappy, and often with enmity. Here's a typical fallout from the Great Typewriter Price Delusion, from Lisa at RetroStyle. She wanted to sell a sweet little trove of a half-dozen vintage typewriters, but when a prospective customer admired her wares:
He looked at the price tag and scoffed..."good luck with that. A guy right over their has one for $10...and I saw another one over that way for the same. You ought a go buy 'em all and corner the market if you think they're worth that!{hahaha}".

{picture me standing there with a look of utter shock at how rude some people can be...slowly changing to a look of I'm gonna kick your ass butt right out of this booth if you don't shut up and move along}.

Well, as it turns out he was giving me some sage, albeit sarcastic, advice. To my detriment I was too affronted to take it.
I've been that guy too many times. It's exhausting to be that guy. To oh-so-politely point out that pricing may be unrealistically skewed, and get the go-to-hell treatment from a vendor armed with false information. What really braises me is that the information disconnect is probably sending perfectly good machines on the path to landfill. Unrealistic prices lead to no sale, and ultimately to the trashcan.
It's time to end this madness. In the hopes that some people will come to this page in their search for "Typewriter Prices", or "Typewriter Pricing Guide", here's an honest and heartfelt message.
Dear old typewriter seller:

Your machine is beautiful. However, unless it is a museum-quality antique belonging to the early days of typewriting, it is not particularly valuable in the monetary sense. We're probably talking two-digit numbers here, and usually low two-digit numbers.

Yes, there are some internet stores that charge more--a lot more. That's just their thing. Such prices aren't representative of the market as a whole, as you'll find if you attempt to emulate them. A far better (and less time-wasteful) approach is to set a price that will guide it into a good home. If you need some benchmarks, watch eBay and see how much models like yours (be honest about condition) are going for, then price accordingly.

Thank you.

It's a start. What the Typosphere really needs is a crowd-sourced list of general pricing parameters--not a full-fledged Blue Book, but a price guide that steers prospective sellers in the right direction, and away from those Concours d'Elegance sites. Ideas/contributions, anyone?

Money image

Friday, July 3, 2009

It Takes a Type O Ribbon...

Bloody Typewriter

I'm not the biggest fan of mysteries, but I'm already a huge fan of Bloody Typewriter, a new blog which promises to explore the relationship between the genre and all things scribeomechanical. Check out the central graphic, created by blogmisstress Hannah Born from a Flickr photo by typospherian Olivander
The thing is, Bloody Typewriter seems to be mostly conceptual at the moment. It's currently post-free. I'm unsure if that's because postings have been pulled into editorial dry-dock, or they've yet to be unveiled. At any rate, it's a great idea. Any one want to give Bloody Typewriter a nudge? Perhaps ideas would be welcome.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Robotron Story, or, What's YOUR Excuse?

I recently came across a reference to a "Robotron" manual typewriter, and at first I thought it was concocted term out of Steampunk fiction. Why else would a writing machine (not even an electric one, mind you) bear such a high-tech moniker? 
File:VEB Robotron.svg
Robotrons are real. The VEB Kombinat Robotron was a manufacturing combine formed in Communist East Germany in 1969, headquartered in Dresden. They made computers--mainframes, minicomputers and, toward the end of their existence (they were liquidated during German Reunification), some personal computers as well. But given that the market for cutting edge technology was somewhat limited behind the Iron Curtain, they diversified into other, more prosaic products: radios, televisions and typewriters.  Here's a sample of their latter wares, rolling off an assembly line in 1987:
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1987-0125-004, VEB Robotron Elektronik Dresden, Endmontage.jpg

Yeah, not too exciting a piece of engineering. It's described as "a typical Soviet Bloc tool: crude, heavy and indestructible." Seems to owe at least a few stylistic cues to Olivetti, although some models seem more physically reminiscent of Olympias. Take a look at this one and see if it doesn't remind you of an SM-9. 
My East German Robotron wonder.
This beat-up model has a particularly interesting story behind it. It belongs to Yordanka Caridad, a Cuban author and photojournalist. As she explains in a Havana Times reminiscence
"I borrowed it (when I was 20) from a relative who had stolen it from some office, where he said they didn’t use it. I still haven’t returned it to him. At the time it was part of my dream come true...Its keys, a bit obstinate, helped me to become stricken with numerous bouts of tendonitis, but also with more than 10 books. "
Yup, she's written (more than) ten books on this beast. As she points out, she has no alternative: "Until a year ago, it was generally not allowed to bring computers into the country. Now they’re sold in foreign currency stores, but with my impressive salary I can’t even think of buying such a device." 
My hat is already off to Ms. Caridad. But what's fascinating is that she wrote her latest novel on it in fifteen days. Without a typewriter ribbon.
In fifteen days. Without a typewriter ribbon.
Since ribbons--like almost everything--are hard to come by in embargo-era Cuba, she wrote it with a supply of carbon paper.
"It’s relatively easy to write without a ribbon, using a white sheet of paper with carbon paper on top. Though all you can see is the black sheet as you write, at least you have the security that the final copy won’t fade so easily.

From time to time you have to remember what was written at the top of the page; that’s easy, you remove the carbon paper, read it, and then slide the sheets back into place, trying to situate them where you left your last half-completed sentence."
Caridad pronounces this semi-blind typing "a good technique, especially since it permitted me to finish so soon." The novel, Lia el sexo oscuro (Leah: The Dark Sex) found a publisher and will hit the bookshelves in a few months. 
So...let's take stock. This is a published novel, written in half the time allotted for NaNoWriMo, on a battered, marginally-functional typewriter missing a ribbon cover and a ribbon. 
I don't know about you, but I'm speechless. And, I suppose, fresh out of excuses.

(a shoutout to Clickthing for his link to Caridad's essay.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Mystery of the Typewritten Stamps

You know Long Island? Not the one in New York, but the Long Island in the Gulf of Smyrna, off the coast of Greece?
Yeah, me neither. But it turns out that back in 1916, this little corner of the Mediterranean was occupied by the British Navy. For reasons that remain unclear, they promptly issued postage stamps written on typewriters. Here's a sample:

This one went on auction recently at the Colonial Stamp Company in Los Angeles (yes, an auction company specializing not in stamps, but in colonial stamps). It's described as "1d red typewritten on thin horizontally laid paper, initialed in red ink, while 881 were issued only 220 (11 sheets) were typed of the red top sheets, rare and undercatalogued as the issue is so seldom seen, imperf, four margins." The estimated bid price? $750. 
I was about to say something about how people were much more trusting in the past. I mean, a stamp anyone could duplicate on a typewriter? But then I thought about that price...once again, for something that anyone could duplicate on a typewriter. Maybe we're just as trusting now.
These stamps are definitely curiosities of history, but they're also something of a mystery. According to another stamp auction house, they were issued only from May 7 to May 26, 1916, but moreover "the status of these stamps is questionable, as the British force would have had free postage." 
In other words, it's quite possible that someone in the British Navy had a typewriter, some paper, and the desire to look busy. 

Typewriters: a 21st century technology?

Just noticed this one: John-Paul Flintoff writes for the (UK) Sunday Times on environmental topics and "green" technology. In an article entitled "Bring Back Low Tech and  Stop Climate Change" it occurs to him to combine profession and buying a manual typewriter. He even typecasts on it:
While noting that he's "fully aware of the irony of posting this on the internet, which will only be available to you so long as you, and some remote server, are burning up the fossil fuels," he makes two points about his new acquisition: 
  • a.) it uses no electricity, and 
  • b.)  putting it to use keeps a big ol' hunk of metal, plastic and rubber out of the dump.
"I hope it might inspire you to reclaim some specimen of beautifully made pre-digital low-tech before it's sent to the landfill," Flintoff writes.  

It's environmentally positive in a few other ways too, isn't it? This is off the top of my head:
  • Toner cartridges versus typewriter ribbons. One is an expensive, intricate, proprietary delivery mechanism for powdered chemicals. The other is a strip of cloth dipped in ink.
  • Less paper used. Yes, really. You might think that having to retype would lead to more wasted pages, but in my experience the opposite is true. On the computer, I find myself often printing out drafts, because it's just the touch of a button. On a typewriter, you think twice.
  • Extended lifespan of computers. If you're using your writing machine to write, you're using your computer less. That means reduced wear and tear, and longer product life.
What about you? Can you think of other ways typewriter usage contributes to the environment (and one's pocketbook)?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bad Blurbs, Good Books

The economist Brad DeLong puts forth an interesting "parlor game" on his blog: write the worst blurb you can imagine for the best book you can think of. It's an illuminating exercise, because it helps one realize a couple of things:

1.) that "literary" is really a perceptive filter, a sort of lighting effect that casts a work as somehow Important.

2.) that even works of high literature are propelled by plots. When you strip them down to that level, some etherial classics have rather down-to-earth dynamics at their core.

DeLong's bad blurb for Lord of the Rings is priceless: 
Plucky heros travel across a fantasy world, encountering strange creatures and languages (invented by the author!) to destroy a magic artifact, while being pursued by Minions of the Dark Lord.

(Note: I do have to point out one thing, though: These aren't really "blurbs", per se. A blurb is a dollop of praise, doled out by one author for another. These are imagined instances of jacket copy, which pursues an enticing precĂ­s of the story within the covers. There's a difference, but the exercise remains worthwhile.)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

[sound of platen racheting fresh sheet of paper]

Yes, it's another blog popping its head up into the world. 

I know: thrilling.

But I promise you something. This blog will have a purpose, even a philosophy. It will be a tool for YOU to use. It will not just be unmitigated blather.

(That doesn't eliminate the possibility it will be mitigated blather, of course).

Anyway, hello.

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