Panel paper presented at TextOneZero Symposium, Brooklyn, May 2001, in a hand-printed and hand-bound volume. Also published as my column on GemStar’s eBookWeb, July 15, 2001. At that time I was collaborating with a number of companies and patent-holders in developing the first on-demand book printing platforms. This essay makes a prediction of what technical life might be like in 2008. (Image forthcoming.)

We find Liu Wenping in a far corner of western Beijing one summer evening, in the Ba Bao Shan cemetery. She is sitting propped against the headstone of former Communist diplomat Bao Yongfa. It is evening, 2008, and Liu is reading the ancient writings of Mo Ti on the Microsoft-Warner Rocket 88ict. It is a fresh one she picked up this afternoon at the store, since her last one finally died last night. The cause was natural battery failure – the only normal and predictable cause of death, except of course for obsolescence – and it went out with the trash early this morning.

Simultaneously, we see a little hut in a village not far from Mogadishu, on the east coast of Africa. A young boy, Yeshaq, is studying his English homework on the same model of machine, except that it is solar powered. His family owns only one of these devices, so Yeshaq is careful not to damage it. Even though they cost less than one day’s salary and are reasonably sturdy, his mother does not want to take any chances. Since the satellite hookup is at school, Yeshaq must carry the Rocket back and forth with him in his backpack, so his father sewed him a special leather case for it, generously padded on the inside with wool. His ingenuity is contagious: several other parents have made their own imitations.

An estimated one billion Rocket 88ict’s are now in circulation. Their average life span is 117 days. As a worldwide average, they cost about six hours’ salary. Eighteen percent of the world’s population owns or uses one of the two major brands of e-book every day in businesses, schools, or in the home.

How to make a book out of trees

Today’s print books are referred to by pundits pejoratively as tree-books or simply as dead trees, and these same people regularly appeal to the environmental waste apparent in paper-based printing. It is an interesting technological phenomenon that a sturdy pine tree is a self-contained reservoir filled with every necessary ingredient for book publishing, not just the paper. Equally interesting is that the ability to publish using nothing but a tree has existed for about as long as humans could hew stones and build fires.

Paper is normally the only thing people think about when considering the tree’s part in bookmaking. But one can, theoretically, publish a volume from one tree without using any tool other than a sharpened blade of metal or stone. After curing the grain end of a smooth block of wood, it can be used to engrave type and illustrations in reverse. The leftover wood chips can be burned to carbon and pulverized, then mixed with the tree’s resins to produce an excellent black ink. Paper made from the tree is then used as the printing substrate. When the ink is dry, the sheets are bound together using string made from the tree’s fibers, and the cover is made from fine slices of veneer or from bark. A single pine tree may make several dozen books.

Our mythical publisher has not had to leave the 20-foot area surrounding the tree, but he has made a number of copies of his story. There is even enough wood left over to read the books at night by firelight.

Aside from the use of metal for tools and type, the self-contained workshops of Gutenberg, Manuzio, Caxton, Baskerville, and many others all were not so unbelievably far from this notion, nor did these printers need to travel very far or engage in very much commerce to secure the remaining materials and tools needed to publish their beautiful volumes.

How to make a book out of high-tech stuff

Silicon is second only to oxygen in abundance on Earth. In fact, silicon makes up about one-fourth of the Earth’s chemistry. It is the all-important product in semiconductor manufacture, and it is most easily mined from the powdery shores of distant beaches. But silicon is only one of a thousand ingredients that make up an e-book or any computer. The silicon must be doped with other elements, mined elsewhere in the world, to make integrated circuits.

The petroleum for your e-book’s case may have been pumped into ships from deep beneath Kuwait, then brought to cracking towers in Pakistan where it was distilled. It may have been Thailand where the distilled material was polymerized. The raw, uncolored plastic was finally shipped to Singapore, where designs for the plastic casts had been sent from California. After numerous casting tests and revisions shipped back and forth between Asia and America, the final production run was done. It took approximately 10 quarts of oil to make your e-book’s housing.

Gold and copper may be taken from the Andes Cordillera, to be used for wiring and connectors. Lead for solder may have come from Australia. Bauxite for the aluminum could have come from West Africa. Nickel from Canada may be sent with cadmium (made as a byproduct of zinc manufacturing in New Jersey) to South Carolina to be made into batteries.

The original book, which may have come from a dusty shelf somewhere in the Library of Congress, was scanned on site. The bitmaps traveled on CD-ROM to the Philippines, where they were analyzed by optical character recognition software and then proofread and marked up. The finished markup traveled back to a document processing facility in Wisconsin, where it was paginated in Quark for PDF, and separately styled for OEB and other formats. Quark was developed in Colorado, and the PDF format in Silicon Valley. The book is moved from Wisconsin to a Web server somewhere in Austin, Texas, which was developed by a New York advertising agency with help from a Florida application company and a host of Web development tools.

To engineer an electronic book reader requires hundreds of specialties in engineering and manufacturing. There was a specialist who designed that clever plastic tab which holds the battery compartment door in place, and he may never find himself in the same city nor so much as speak the same language as the person who cast the plastic, let alone the specialist who engineered the battery construction, let alone the one who ran the machine which printed the circuit boards, let alone the hundreds or thousands of others who had some tiny part in developing the hardware and software of the thing you hold in your hands.

There is the hardware to manufacture, with all of its materials and engineering specialization. There is the embedded software, encompassing several dozen modules, linked by a score of protocols and interlocks, teetering atop a set of abstractions easily ten layers deep. Finally, there is the publishing network, whose complexity makes the hardware and embedded software problems seem like baby’s blocks in comparison. The tiniest flaw in a data line a few atoms thick or a misplaced character in software, deep within the machine or somewhere on the other side of the world, may affect only one or a small number of readers, but it could leave all of them out of luck and without the ability to read.

If we are looking at the full life cycle of an e-book, we must not ignore the environmental impact of the product at the end of its lifetime. Electronic devices are an environmental nightmare because they are almost impossible to recycle. This does not justify the paper waste in printing today; still, at the very least, paper is eminently recyclable. E-books, big and small, are simply not recyclable, at least in the sense we normally assume.

Even today’s most primitive e-book readers contain more technology and processing power than was housed in all of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 40 years ago. If all of the circuitry in an e-book were made of regular household wiring, the book would probably be around the size of a football field.

* * *

Thus, a reading experience which can theoretically be provided by a single person from within a small grassy space in a forest is, from now on, to be driven by so many people in so many places as to boggle the mind, and these reading devices, and the support behind them, must be made available in the far corners of the earth via electronic networks and highly elaborate physical distribution channels. Jason Epstein reminds us that in colonial times early publishers would hawk their wares in the town square. He suggests that we are returning to that paradigm as publishers, and we shouldn’t doubt him; but, whereas in the former case of the town square, technical support was a non-issue, in the latter case it is not known whether the publisher will be able to answer questions or even know if he honestly is responsible for a particular bug which may crop up in Liu Wenping’s e-book. The Chinese woman may need immediate help from her lonely spot in Ba Bao Shan cemetery, but it is unlikely she will ever find the person who knows the answer. Yeshaq, in his hut in Africa, will have even greater difficulty if he is to finish his homework tonight.

Even today, as we sit comfortably in the major cities of the world with much simpler appliances, it is difficult to get help with the most basic problems after hours on the telephone or days waiting for e-mail. Many observers enjoy comparing the dissemination of e-reading technology to that of cheap disposable calculators, but there is so much more to contend with as to make the analogy totally unworkable. One may rightly argue that the two devices look similar, with their buttons and displays, and are of a comparable size and shape, and that we have made major advances in our ability to integrate such a product, advances similar to what we have seen in the calculator industry since the 1960s. But that is a smokescreen which ignores differences and probably insurmountable odds against the efficacy of world adoption of e-book technology. This smokescreen, if not based on technological naïveté, is simply a lie.

A more fitting analogy is the cellular telephone, even though technologically it is in some ways more advanced and in some ways less advanced than what is required for a basic e-reading environment. E-books will not require cell switching and cell handoff, nor probably any airwave connection whatsoever. An e-book requires only a tiny serial connection, the equivalent of a cheap modem. But e-book displays already are much more complex, and signal security is more robust, than cell phone technology.

The chief weakness of the cellular phone analogy is one which concerns economics as much as it does technology. Cellular technology is, after more than 20 years, still far more expensive to support than the single twisted-pair telephone line. The quality of the new digital signal is still greatly inferior to and less reliable than that of a wire connection. The networks are still located almost exclusively in urban centers and along patches of interstates. Because of these things, the cellular phone should be regarded as a luxury item for pioneers, despite the fact that we see it adopted by some lower-income people in large cities. If we are to get anywhere with the analogy between cellular phones and e-books, we must regard the e-book as a luxury item as well, at least for the foreseeable future, and resist the temptation to dream it into a position which it may never enjoy. After all, most people in the world do get the books they need through conventional print. The e-book is not a revolution, but just another technology which can solve certain specific problems, problems which are suffered only in the most civilized corners of the world, admittedly by a constituency which spends a lot of money on reading. If the e-book is a luxury, then there is no point in going further with the notion that the printed book will be dead by 2010.

If a more moderate stance is taken in favor of e-books than that of Microsoft’s Dick Brass – if the e-book is to be considered a parallel technology to print in the long run (and this is a much more justifiable position to take) – then we still only see it useful for a relatively small cross-section of worldwide reading needs. The key justifications for both e-books and print-on-demand – the only ones which venture capitalists have ever taken the least bit seriously – have been to help with the problems of bookstore and library glut, the textbook cycle, and pre- and post-peak marketing for titles by the mainstream press, the small press, and self publishers. Every other endeavor is not responding to an identifiable market need, but rather to wishful thinking. Oddly, some of these projects have even been funded.

But, again, the set of problems listed above impacts a relatively small segment of the world’s population, though they are the civilized world’s biggest readers and, not coincidentally, its most impatient spenders. This population taken alone, probably numbering well under a hundred million worldwide, is not the world, but only a very small portion of it. Appeals to a Benetton-like multicultural soup of youthful choice and publishing opportunity are pure mythology; they have nothing to do with our Chinese and African friends. They and most of the rest of the world are already served quite well by the boring businesses of offset printing, small bookstores, public libraries. Of the estimated worldwide book market of US$70 billion, the fraction which may capture all of the problems listed above amount to a lot of money, but it is only one niche of the book market. To assume that the new technologies will catch on like wildfire is fantasy; to attempt to force them through marketing could cause damage to access channels which already work and always have.

Liu Wenping sees her screen flash. Was it lightning from overhead, or did something start to go wrong inside?

The security question

Technology is and always will be a double-edged sword: the same tools which can be used for good intentions can be used for equally malevolent ones. As the Internet provides each of us with the same power to access legitimate content quickly and effortlessly, it offers every unskilled user the potential to disseminate, receive, and employ tools which can crack a file open with the same technical skill required to heat a cup of soup in a microwave oven – and potentially the same impulsive motivation.

This is not an opinion, but a time-tested law of the nature of technology. Throughout our metallurgical age, one steel has struggled in vain against the attacks of a new chisel or drill bit made of a slightly tougher alloy. Failing that, you could always try getting in through the side window.

In 1976, computer crackers worldwide numbered in the dozens or hundreds. We sat at Teletypes, ignored by the world around us, and chipped away at college mainframes. Not long after, more came along and could access and exploit telephone switches and credit card accounts over the growing number of automated systems attached to modems. Today, computer criminals number in the millions, because they include our young nieces and nephews with their Napster and headphones. Tomorrow they may number in the billions.

We are fast becoming a generation of digital kleptomaniacs: the rising curve which marks our ability to protect content is never far enough ahead of the curve of the methods, motives, and opportunities to circumvent security. The only hope may be that, with the new empowerment, the third related curve – that which makes us all into publishers – will render the audience for virtually any product insignificant enough in size that any collective or personal motivation to steal it is effectively neutralized.

The proper technology for the job

So far, there have been few truly compelling arguments which help e-books make sense as a megabusiness opportunity. However, both the newspaper and magazine industries are in a much deeper soup, in many ways, yet they are paying less attention to the portable electronic reader. Newspapers and magazines are almost perfectly suited for electronic reading and for portable devices: relatively short texts; a bulky format coupled with distribution problems; a need for increasing immediacy; a great need for portability; an immense paper waste stream; a colossal market; and a terribly short life span for the majority of the material. It would seem that these two media could not be more ideal candidates to fit into those little machines. Still, most people seem to want to take a square peg and push it into a round hole. The fact is, of the three reading media of our day, the first one that comes to people’s minds happens to be the one with the least need and the least potential.

Print on demand is an incremental step which helps to solve several of the problems we are encountering with the book industry. But most e-book entrants, in their zeal to purvey electrons instead of atoms, have considered print on demand as a halfhearted afterthought, something which they might get to at some point as a sort of legacy support option for those who don’t care for their wonderful e-books. But our plans, which certainly may include e-reading, have focused more on print on demand as a reasonable, realistic, and economical use of today’s technology.

Print on demand’s aim has been to bring electronic publishing technology only as far as it needs to go in order to deliver books safely and economically to the public. It is not a hammer looking for a nail, as are many e-book concepts. Print on demand serves a practical immediate need and is low-tech enough that the smallest communities can support it today with a very modest investment in technology. In many parts of the world, home flashlights and batteries are a rarity, let alone electrical outlets in the home to recharge them. But if a community can pool its resources and support a single laser printer, or merely a post office, then it can benefit from print on demand. The difference between content prepared for e-books and that prepared for print on demand is almost none at all, but there is a significant difference in the extent to which the data will need to travel and be supported. This is somewhat analogous to the “fiber to the curb” broadband question of several years back, and we see today that the task of deploying simpler copper broadband is causing some of these businesses to go bankrupt. Books as electrons need not travel all the way into the customer’s living room to be useful, especially since so many customers may today lack the means to view such books. But the wiring for reading a humble tree-book is right between the ears of anyone who can read. I have written much about how technology can unwittingly suck innocent bystanders into unhappy situations. This happens when it is taken too far, too recklessly. At best, it becomes a kind of attractive nuisance and users find that the hottest toys are costing them more time and money than if they had used conventional means. At worst, people who had no need or intention to adopt a technology somehow get upgraded into it. This could happen with the new publishing media if publishers decide to phase out paper, or simpler formats and protocols, for reasons which are, so far, less than persuasive.

There is an ancient adage from the Russian peasantry:

Across the sea,
A calf costs half a kopeck,
But it’s a ruble to ship here!

The lesson seems to be that one should content oneself with what one has, and that something far away which looks attractive and appears to be an improvement over our current condition may have a catch, some hidden cost. The potential hidden costs of e-book technologies are not known, and they are largely unexplored by practitioners. The billions of readers across those seas, whether they be in Africa, China, or anywhere else, wait and watch for us to take responsible steps with technology so that its impact on their lives reaches only far enough to solve their real problems.

[1] “За морем, телуша–полуша, да руб’ перевоз!” (Grateful to the late Boris Rozenoyer, brilliant engineer and my dear-departed uncle.)

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Hyde Park’s 60 Years: From Emmett Till to Jabari Dean


“Nation Time” by mural artist Mitchell Caton, 1971. This is the side of the former A.A. Rayner Funeral Home, 4141 S. Cottage Grove, the building in which Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, defied the state of Mississippi and insisted that his mutilated body be displayed (“Let the world see what I see”).

“…If the lid is taken off suddenly there will be hell to pay, and a just debt it will be, too. …I hope I can prepare the children for it, so they won’t be bitter, whatever happens; and whichever ones survive can help rebuild a better world after the air clears…” –Martha Raper, 1977 [1]

I’m receiving texts and calls from people I haven’t heard from in some time. “Are you all right?” they ask. “I just wanted to see how you were: I heard what was happening in Hyde Park.” I tell them we’re fine; I don’t mention that I don’t expect to hear from them for another few years, after this story blows over, which it already has.

Just half an hour before the original warning was sent out, before anyone knew anything, I’d received a call from another University of Chicago Laboratory School parent, asking if I’d heard from our sons. She said that they had gone out for a run and that her son had deliberately left his phone on the porch against her wishes. We discussed GPS, and cell-phone belts for runners, and I admitted I would be more comfortable if they carried their phones, especially while running in Hyde Park in the dark. The other youth is from a very influential family indeed, and so when I get calls like this I take questions about care and negligence quite seriously. Fortunately, the boys returned just minutes later.

Just moments after closing out that matter, we began receiving mass e-mails and robocalls from the University, filled with instructions: “…10 a.m. tomorrow…threat…specifically mentioning ‘the campus quad’…stay indoors…police personnel with visible weapons…in close contact with the FBI… .” Later, after the suspect was arrested, we all relaxed and, perhaps over a nice cup of espresso, read our support e-mails from the ever-scrupulous Lab School administration: “As teachers of the youngest members of the University of Chicago community, we know that parents have a very special role in helping children understand the complexities of the world around them.” Sip coffee or other beverage. Lean back on comfortable sofa. Read attentively.

All this is taking place because I happen to be living in Hyde Park, after a UIC student named Jabari Dean warns that he will shoot up the University of Chicago quad.

* * *

Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat in on my first school parent conference about diversity. With the major expansion of the schoolHyde Park Labeled buildings, they have hired a new cadre of administrators ready to tackle this and other questions. The school has hired Ken Garcia-Gonzales to be the new coordinator for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and has assembled a parent advisory group to lead several meetings over the next few months.

Most parents at the meeting expressed concerns about how our children can learn to be more sensitive to those with differences. One mother of a multiethnic child told me that her daughter was recently told by someone in the school that she couldn’t possibly be Asian, because she had blue eyes. That comment, perhaps among others, perhaps not, apparently was enough to prompt the mother to become one of the leaders on this committee. This, I thought to myself, is the face of diversity in this school.

For once I really didn’t have the stomach to say anything. I certainly had no intention of speaking my mind, but one of the facilitators walked up and actually pushed the microphone into my hand. I stood up reflexively. “Uh, I think that there’s an elephant in the room,” I said, uneasily. “It’s about what each of us respectively means when we say ‘diversity.’” (Several people nodded approval.) “I mean, we have always waved around plenty of anti-bias curriculum, we seem to be doing the pro formas on that. We’ve got the nice Harriet Tubman posters up in the library every February. But there is another side to the question, and that is, dare I say it, the question of the fact that we are an elite and mostly white school in the middle of a sea of deprivation and want. Does the concept of ‘racial quotas’ scare anyone?”

I was encouraged to elaborate, but I thought it best to demur. After sitting down, I wasn’t even sure whether people thought I was for or against whatever it was we were discussing. At the end of the meeting, I introduced myself to Garcia-Gonzales and expressed my concerns privately. My question was, how can we ever overcome the hypocrisy of calling our school diverse and inclusive if at the very most one or two kids in each class are black? I was also vaguely connecting the $52 million recently invested in the school’s expansion with proportionally somewhat more seats for disadvantaged African-American children. That’s what I thought all of this diversity business was about. Am I misguided in making this connection?

“This isn’t going to be that kind of school,” Garcia-Gonzales replied, in perhaps a sympathetic tone. Naturally, if he wanted to be at that kind of school, working on that kind of problem, there are plenty of opportunities. Yet he has made this career choice, the market rose to his need, and so this was all he could afford to give me. When I say “diverse” I do not so much mean Korean, Palestinian, Indian diverse. I generally mean black diverse, and in Chicago that means that I mean generally black and poor. I believe that this is not at all what the University of Chicago means when it says “diverse.”

Actually, I may be the first parent in the history of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools who did not want his child to attend. We’d spent over a year obsessing over selective-enrollment public schools and having our son take admissions tests. I’d already done enough nail-biting on that, writing several newspaper columns on the Chicago Public Schools, how the selective systems were unfair and how we privileged parents were to blame for drinking the kool-aid. However, since my wife was invited to return to teach at Lab, suddenly it was on the table. The highly impressed judge ordered it in our divorce decree — over my objection, if you can believe it.

When we met with the principal, she asked us if we had any questions about the upcoming school year. I very specifically emphasized my concerns about diversity, saying that I wanted Abraham’s class to have as many African-American students as possible. Accordingly, for the first two years, there were zero. I believe there may have been one in second grade. At one point around that time, I was told that a diversity committee was forming, and I sent several e-mails expressing interest. I never received a reply.

At the recent diversity event, as instructed, I wrote my contact information on sticky-notes and stuck them to several of the charrette boards under such interesting headings as “expanding the meaning of diversity” and “class ethnicity makeup.” We were told that we would soon be asked to sit in on more organizing and listening sessions dealing with these topics. I haven’t heard from anyone. I actually don’t expect to be invited back.

What makes this even more bizarre is the practical climate at the school. In fact, my son was recently called to account for an incident. He had made some casual comment about slavery among some friends. This apparently was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion by a new African-American student recently entering the high school. Immediately the overzealous administration put more than 12 adults onto high alert, with numerous meetings and  conversations among four boys. They issued a “no-contact” order for the new boy. Wishing to exercise a bit of parental input over this, I contacted the parents and met with the boy’s mother. All appeared to be in agreement both that the comment had been badly misinterpreted, and that staff were generating far too much red tape from it. In this school, founded by John Dewey, we felt the boys should learn how to resolve such matters mostly on their own, with a little scaffolding from us. Soon after, I received a strange “cease and desist” e-mail from the other boy’s mother, presumably because the staff had invited her not to communicate with me.

Earlier the same day as the parent diversity conference, we were treated to an entirely separate event on campus, a talk by Angela Duckworth about — predictably — grit. Yes, another great catchword, breathlessly brought to life by a refreshing young Asian professor mom, and taken up by adoring parents with equal zeal. Mandel Hall was fairly packed. Our own Dr. Charles Payne was one of the respondents, and he lightly upbraided Duckworth, suggesting she was churning old and tired milk. On the one hand, he pointed out, grit is only a new term for ideas far older than Duckworth, and it is a disservice to filter and focus on such a narrow band of the broad spectrum we know of as multiple intelligences. For that matter, Payne hinted that it is dangerous to be serving more of the same fare to privileged audiences, since our private and public schools will respectively misinterpret grit as pedagogy, and set yet another predominantly white generation forward and a brown one backward.

One afternoon some months ago, the high school’s Black Student Association gave a viewing of the video “I’m Not Racist, Am I?” Aside from a few BSA members and their parents, and one or two faculty, I was the only person there. There are over 1,000 parents and hundreds of faculty at the school, not to mention the students. The notice went out on the appropriate channels. Where was everybody?

Last year, the University had a visit from Ta-Nehisi Coates about reparations. We do love our catchwords, and the “R” word has almost as much currency as grit, at least for the moment. I have little doubt that it will submerge once again before long. Coates is already in danger of losing America’s attention, probably because he is trying to sound more and more like an intellectual, adapting his tune to the tastes of an appreciative audience.

As Paul Robeson once said, “singing pretty songs” is not enough. The furious calls for a single trauma center on the South Side have finally been answered by the university, and the school is doing something about public schools in the area, but this is nothing compared to what is needed here. As of this writing, a person is murdered every 17 hours in Chicago, and most of them are young African-American males, many too young to drive. And it seems that every step the university takes in race relations, it takes as many steps backwards.

There is so much oblique discussion about race here. To claim that Hyde Park and the University of Chicago are racist would be a fool’s errand. But to say that we here are deeply and irrevocably bound to historical racial discrimination, and that there are pounding questions better answered comprehensively today than pushing off for tomorrow, are probably tragic understatements.

* * *

“Why do they hate us so?” Dan Rather tearfully asked after 9/11. He was referring to radical Islam, but when we unravel the threads, we find that we are working with very much the same materials here, from related historical bases. We deem these cultures antisocial, what with their extraordinary differences to ours, and the attendant resentment is helped along by our own culture’s passive aggression. Here we have created a homogeneous world that greatly privileges one form over another, and so we all strive to follow white culture. It bends over backward to argue that the system is fair, and yet the equivocations are so thick and greasy as to call into question the very purpose of the exercise.

When my son is getting a little complacent, I’m sometimes inclined to point out to him that he is one of the most privileged people — on the entire planet, in all of history. This is no exaggeration. Like his friends, he has grown up in the shade of the most exclusive enclaves on Earth, is attending one of the most elite schools anywhere, and is likely to enjoy a future as full and bright as the upper-middle nobility ever did in bygone days.

In my view for our youth and for ourselves, this privilege carries with it immense social responsibilities. Specifically, and paradoxically, as our own hereditary faith would have it, we are commanded to repair the world so as to clear away the disparities. And yet this is not what is happening.

Why do people hate us? Of course, there is no excuse for raging violence as an answer to the world’s social problems. Nevertheless, I would ask Dan Rather and others this: In a world constructed in this way, what would you ever expect to be different? These angry reactions to our protected lives are precisely what one would predict under the circumstances.

We may wall Hyde Park and other neighborhoods off from African America, but the spectres of Jabari Dean, Laquan McDonald, Ronald Johnson, and many others will always float through. Today marks exactly 60 years since Rosa Parks sat on a bus, igniting the Civil Rights Movement. Like Jabari Dean, Parks was protesting the senseless, racially charged murder of a black youth, that of Emmett Till. One must not forget that the Black Belt was just across the street from the University of Chicago. Sixty years ago, Till’s mutilated body was displayed for thousands to view, in a funeral home a few blocks north of campus. The home that inspired Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun still stands only a few hundred feet west of campus. Till’s family lived just two blocks south of the Hansberry home, on St. Lawrence. Furthermore, Hyde Park was the setting for James Baldwin’s Native Son. Amazingly, after all these years, black children are still routinely shot just outside of Hyde Park. All of this is a short walk from where I sit in comfort and write. Hyde Park is our local emblem for the everlasting symptoms of social domination. Although there are many Hyde Parks in the world, this one is a living time capsule of all that can go wrong in America’s race relations.

I’m not worried for my son and his friends. You see, as any University of Chicago economist could tell you but won’t, statistically speaking our children are blessed, while Jabari Dean was predestined for a very different life. My child, one might say, was always likely to come home in one piece every night. Not so for Jabari Dean. None of this is accidental, and to me it is little wonder if things seem to be getting worse.

I’m wondering what is happening to Jabari Dean and hoping that he hasn’t thrown his life away. He felt a very justifiable obligation to speak out, though he did it in the wrong way. His family says he made a mistake. He lacked the means to do anything like what he threatened. But he will live with his empty threat in two important ways: it will very likely greatly affect an otherwise promising career, and it will probably squelch any desire to speak out in the future on behalf of black lives.

Is your child in jail today, or in school? Where is Jabari Dean right at this moment, and where is he going?

1. Epigraph from Raper, Arthur, and Martha J. Raper. “Two Years to Remember and Other Writings.” Unpublished manuscript, August 1977, p. 119. Raper, the wife of American sociologist and civil rights reformer Arthur Raper, was referring to the hate crimes against blacks in the South. Quoted in Mary Summers, “New Deal Farm Programs,” in Jane Adams, ed. Fighting for the Farm: Rural America Transformed. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2003, pp. 149-50.

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One of most prolific advice sites on the Internet,, relates in its very popular “Old Wives’ Tales” that storing batteries in the refrigerator, contrary to popular belief, is a bad idea. Arguing with popular media is not easy, but publishing facts is a rather weighty responsibility, and I’d like to set the record straight. This is not some minor issue, because misinformation here is causing a great deal of pointless environmental fallout.

To rely on battery companies for unbiased advice about how to maximize battery shelf life is naive. I have now read five “expert articles” on this subject and all have used company claims as their major evidence. In fact, all of chemical science tells us that shelf life will be greatly extended by refrigeration — when done properly. I estimate that keeping batteries in the refrigerator should wildly extend shelf life. For companies to argue that “self discharge” of alkaline batteries at 1% per month is slow enough not to need refrigeration, is to forget that we need 0.6 volts to saturate a transistor. This means that even under ideal conditions, and relying on the battery companies’ own claims, alkaline batteries may be unable to drive most electronic devices after five years. More practically speaking, we see that when 1.5-volt batteries go down to about 1.1 volts they must be replaced. That’s only two years, by this measure.

How much money would the battery companies lose if consumers new they could make them last 70 years instead of only 5? Theoretically, lowering the temperature of a battery 40 degrees F could increase their shelf life 16 times. But if we can make costly, environmentally problematic batteries last even twice as long, we should do it.

Here are some tips I follow:

  1. Freezing can definitely disrupt batteries both physically and chemically, one valid concern stated in the articles. This is because liquids expand when frozen, and the chemical contents of batteries are gelatinous. Keep batteries in the door, farthest from areas of the refrigerator prone to freezing.
  2. Although refrigerators are natural dehydrators, the temperature changes can cause condensation. Keep all batteries well-wrapped in plastic.
  3. Don’t expect batteries to operate at full steam right out of the fridge. Cooling slows the chemical reaction that creates electricity. If they don’t seem to work, let them sit for half an hour to come to room temperature. “Reduced performance when cold” was the only viable claim of the several that the battery companies make, easily overcome with this simple solution.
  4. Cold objects accumulate condensed moisture from the air as they warm up, the other valid concern stated in these otherwise dubious articles. But if you install immediately, assuming your device has a battery cover, ambient moisture should have difficulty entering and accumulating on the contacts where it counts. If you leave them out on the counter to warm up, wipe carefully before installing. Better might be to let them warm up in a plastic bag. But I would just put them in and use them, as I have for decades.

Because, How-to Geek, and other presumably impartial sites have become amplifiers for corporate misinformation, the entire world is now afraid to refrigerate their batteries. That’s unfortunate. I’ve posted corrections, but maybe you can help me get this out. Until impartial labs test these ideas, don’t believe everything you read!

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Media case study: Food Network and the production of taste

There has been plenty of discussion about theFood Network logo change in cooking shows in the last 40 years. In just two generations, cable TV transformed the genre from calm visits into Julia Child’s stately, well-appointed kitchen, to a cult of ultra-in-your-face personality featuring cutthroat competitions, intimate glimpses into unattainable celebrity life, or a combination of the two, not to mention culinary pornography that never lets up. Although Julia Roberts portrayed her as encouraging, in many ways even Julia Child ultimately served to deter viewers from the presumed mission of cooking nirvana. Indeed, one could say that she provided the prototype for all three of the above branches of cable food fetishism. Most watchers could never start as fortunately as Julia, spending all of their youth in adventure, giving way to a midlife in leisure pursuits, all the time surrounded by society. And Julia made French recipes look easy though in reality they never were easy, and never will be. I cooked under Louis Szathmary, one of America’s great continental chefs, and I have no illusion that French technique was ever easy. Today, with the everyday-gourmet movement, where we must throw a lavish international party every evening for our family, the stakes are even higher. The truth is that the so-called everyday cooking as it is promoted today requires leisure and skill development that most strapped families simply never will enjoy.

However, I would like to set this particular gripe aside, and glimpse how the producers of these modern shows operate. Two shows that put this into good relief are Food Network Star and Chopped. Here is where the somebodies and the nobodies meet. It is an aspirational exercise, close enough to our own reality that we who fancy ourselves fair cooks and entertainers can almost imagine we might one day be there ourselves. I watched the Season 10 contestants of Food Network Star. One judge said that “Everyone coming on this show knows how to cook. What we’re looking for are people who can convince the audience that they are something a cut above.” Clearly, this meant not only cooking creativity, but also screen appeal. The first contestant eliminated was Donna Sonkin Shaw. Donna’s story is that she started out overweight and is now trim and gorgeous. Her focus is on holistic health.

Donna’s stage presence was the chief thing that killed her. Donna had many other traits that might excite the audience. For one thing, her fetching good looks and bright smile made Giada de Laurentiis look like a gorgon. But Donna had a forced theatrical ebullience that gave an appearance, if not the actuality, of insincerity. She just was not yet comfortable facing a crowd. The producers deliberately created this high-pressure atmosphere, though none of the real celebrities necessarily had to go through with such an ordeal in their careers. These were allowed to acclimatize to fame. Or, like Giada and many others, they were born in the limelight. There was frequent directorial interplay between cuts to Donna’s several faux pas and Giada’s contempt. There was another contestant — a blonde, self-described pageant maven from Texas named Sarah Penrod — who was quickly eliminated due to similar problems. Giada might have honored these women for their beauty if they were not so awkward. But while they had beauty, they lacked the poise that Giada knew was so necessary for stardom. They also lacked the proper grandparents, but this may never occur to Giada de Laurentiis any more than it would to Ivanka Trump. Alongside Giada’s individual prejudices, what the directors exaggerated were the glitches in these individuals’ presentations, and the sophisticated and contemptuous reaction shots from all the other tastemakers who should know what is good and bad.

Food Network’s direction in their competition-format shows borrows heavily from reality TV and sitcom formulae. The most important cinematographic feature of these is the reaction shot, reinforced by musical effects, like short “stingers” to accent a moment, and visual effects like shakycam. These effects take only a fraction of a second and we are so accustomed to them that we are rarely aware of their presence. But they define our attitude toward each person on screen. The director will take the most uncharismatic moment in a contestant’s footage, and follow it with a beat, a tension stinger, and an annoyed reaction shot from someone we admire, to accentuate the level of dissonance and to leverage our buy-in to the developing prejudices. There are also cuts to brief bites from candid interviews with the embattled contestant, other contestants, or the judges, giving subtle background commentary to set the contestant up for the fall. Furthermore, the high tension is created from a mad cutting and pasting of disparate grins, smiles, grimaces, grunts, looks askance, and other sights and sounds so irrespective of actual events that it can be argued to step over the cliff of ethicality. All is timed with deliberate discomfort in mind, the victim being the contestant who will soon be ostracized.

Naturally, the editing comes after filming, and the judges may be presumably innocent. However, everything from casting to wrap is more or less calculated for its potential to keep the audience glued to the set. Furthermore, they have been doing this for years. So casting probably already knows something about the approximate outcome, even from the first interview.

This kind of casting, direction, and editing both deflates the contestant into an “out crowd” position, and aggrandizes the judges and reinforces their “in crowd” status. Those contestants not eliminated want to stay in the “in crowd” and are threatened with being “out” if they do not shape up.

Ariane Resnick.

I also watched Episode 241 (Season 19, Episode 11) of Chopped, which aired May 27, 2014. This show eliminated Ariane Resnick, a private chef in Los Angeles. Resnick was not the most likely candidate for Food Network success. This is not an indictment of her per se; in fact, given what we already know about the limited range of acceptable types, it could be taken as a compliment. Resnick once developed a popular brand of kale chip and she also has several celebrity private catering clients. In her interview, she stated she “caters to food restrictions, from gluten-free to raw vegan to paleo.” I do not even know what paleo is. Resnick’s entire appearance seems out of place. She has a somewhat nervous appearance. Her plain long hair, white and black, gives her natural beauty a bit of an edgy Addams Family punk cover which could be to her advantage or could go against her, depending on whether she is able to join the “in crowd” or “out crowd.” On a Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands background, she might immediately be accepted and even praised. Today’s chefs, in fact, are often quirky artists. The pantheon of cooking stars abounds with quirky personalities, from Jeff Smith and Keith Floyd to Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, and Jamie Oliver. There are even a couple of women, such as Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark, who are on the quirky side. But their appeal is that they come as a pair; their mutual gawkiness is synergistic. Still, on a mass-market reality cooking show, we are looking for a good deal of charisma that may be difficult for Resnick to summon forth in a pleasing way for the producers.

Of course, the show’s producers are well aware of Resnick’s failure in advance, or at least of the great likelihood of it. True, on Chopped there is the possibility of a sleeper case in which the ugliest, most socially awkward, and least outwardly talented contestant will astound the world, somewhat like singer Susan Boyle’s 2009 setup on Britain’s Got Talent. The producers may hope for such a pleasant shock. But in fact, as is likely with the Susan Boyle story, even accepting an element of chance in the game, they usually have a pretty good idea beforehand of how things will turn out.

Ariane Resnick performed unpredictably, but only in that she probably provided more entertainment value than the producers originally bargained for. She played the expected role of her “type” extraordinarily well. Show staff increased the likelihood of difficulty: the all-important entree course involved salami and chicken breast, something that will usually shake a vegetarian. Concern over this, or perhaps the fact that the roving camera was up very close to the cutting board, may have helped cause Resnick suddenly to cut her finger just when the camera was zoomed in. Such a classic Food Network competition pratfall will rarely fail to entertain. But in this case, directors pulled out all of the stops. In their planning and editing, producers “permitted” Resnick to rise to the occasion. They made her look as incompetent as possible. “Wow. Ariane has cut herself,” cooed host Ted Allen with furrowed brow. “It sounds like she’s — she’s pretty upset about it.” After the grips removed the contaminated cutting board and food, they presented Resnick’s explanation in a side interview: “I had to get different ingredients because I decided those were not lucky ingredients.” Naturally, the directors could not resist airing those precious words. I do not know what recorded gems they have cut from Giada de Laurentiis reels, but they certainly made hay by creating a perception of Ariane Resnick being a nut.

To make matters worse, the piezo igniter on Resnick’s stove soon began unaccountably firing and she could not turn it off. Resnick was shaken, she explained, “because of what I have been through, involving stoves trying to kill me.” Judge Scott Conant concluded, “What we’re looking for are people who perform well under pressure, not people who need therapy.” Such an assessment is presumptuous and unkind. I imagine if he were a gentleman, he might have preferred that those words be dropped. Even better, he might have restrained himself from making such an arrogant remark. But his contempt is programmed in. Truly, what producers want is to create a burlesque, to expose the most unappetizing personalities imaginable. They could not resist. Conant himself, too, would seem to be safe: After all, his august reputation will have most of us buy into the fact that his assessment is valid and not unkind at all. In a single sentence, the production is vindicated and all insiders remain “inside”; Ariane Resnick is sent “outside”; and the stereotype is reinforced that a thin, somewhat overcautious vegetarian has no business breaking into our consciousness. In fact, by extension this means that Resnick is hardly alone outside: she is socioculturally ostracized with all others of that type. This type, declares Food Network, is not to be tolerated on television.

Later, using her YouTube account, Resnick shows what a good sport she is by laughing it all off, even laughing at the things she herself said. But there are cruelties afoot.

In effect, Food Network directors manipulated the entire show, including Resnick and the audience, throughout this editing.

The producers do, however, accommodate the many flaws of their stable of stars. Giada de Laurentiis had little to recommend her to any lowbrow audience except her fabulous ancestry and wealth. She is not even so strikingly attractive in the face; though she has lovely eyes, elsewhere she has masculine notes; furthermore, she looks practically anorexic. She is also no particularly talented cook. It can be argued that her name primarily gave her a career.

In fact, de Laurentiis herself cut her finger on live air during a special last Thanksgiving. Alton Brown came to her rescue, diverting attention on Twitter with his brand of deflective humor, while she herself showed photos and jested about it on Instagram. The tone of the overall message to us is, “Ha ha, even international cooking superstars can have a bad day.” Such a superstar could never have bad knife skills, and her supporters are required to laugh it off and pretend it was just a fluke. But any properly trained cook, and particularly one so seasoned in technique as Alton Brown, must have seen that de Laurentiis is not especially competent with that most important tool of the trade, the chef’s knife. Food Network chooses carefully how it frames something like this. And if it had not been a live show, they would never have aired the mishap and we no doubt never would have heard of it. On the Today Show the following day, de Laurentiis said, “We don’t normally do live TV, so these things usually get hidden. This didn’t get hidden.” My guess is that this is not the first time she has cut herself on camera. Only a relative unknown will be harshly judged for cutting a finger on camera, and that judgment will be nothing less than that they must be poor cooks.

Despite her lack of qualifications, Giada de Laurentiis has the audacity to teach knife skills to new cooks. As she hawks her own name-brand knives in a YouTube Food Network video, in almost every shot one can see significant flaws in Giada de Laurentiis’ knife technique, flaws that probably caused her own on-camera knife mishap. It is not difficult to see from this video and elsewhere that Giada de Laurentiis, viewed the world over as a master chef, is not very comfortable or competent with a chef’s knife. As a matter of fact, she is downright bad at it. She should never be teaching it. Nevertheless, millions of aspiring cooks all over the globe assume that Giada knows how to teach us to use a chef’s knife. Food Network, if it even took notice, would never intervene and correct this serious problem.

My own advice to Giada de Laurentiis, Ariane Resnick, and other reputed cooks is to practice keeping some of the second knuckles in physical contact with the broad side of the chef’s knife, and the tips of the fingers curled back underneath them, whenever possible while slicing or chopping. This should practically eliminate the possibility of ever getting nicked or cut. I am not famous for anything, but I have cooked in several restaurants in my life. In fact, I learned this technique at my first restaurant gig, at the tender age of 11. (This was before child labor laws were seriously enforced, and children were on a longer leash.) I learned it from a wonderfully cheerful old line cook named Harvey, who had three joints missing from his dark brown, weathered left hand.

De Laurentiis’ co-judge Alton Brown has a wonderful demonstration as he himself hawks the Shun brand of chef’s knife. Between 7:00 and 10:30 in this video, Brown shows not only excellent guide-hand knuckle position in both chopping and slicing with a chef’s knife, he also deliberately demonstrates the bad technique that Giada incorrectly teaches in her own video. He says this technique is so wrong that “it gives me the heebies just to think about it.” Only, apparently, when Giada does it, it’s charming. It must be noted that Alton Brown did not tweet, “Giada, darling, you’re an established, internationally recognized food guru and you graduated from Cordon Bleu; why the hell don’t you know how to use a chef’s knife?”

For his part, Bobby Flay has a snotty, ever-supercilious look about him, exhibits what looks like hypocrisy in his grace, and to this day lacks much stage presence. Often he comes off as downright antisocial. It’s very hard to like this guy from looks alone, assuming we are shallow and prejudiced about such aspects. (And I say most of us are, even if we do not admit or recognize it.) But over the years Flay has become a talented and resourceful cook beyond the grill. Iron Chef work, for example, is no mean feat. Producers, through their choice of show formulae and editing, have translated Flay’s apparent image flaws into a boyish competitive appeal. There are many others in the Food Network stable worth comment, but de Laurentiis and Flay are two of the three current judge-mentors on Food Network Star presuming to pass sentence on others. When these two began their on-air careers, even under contract they were no less gawky and wet behind the ears than those whom they criticize. It seems a much higher standard now exists, and these contestants are being held to it. If these two celebrities were put at the receiving end of such a critical spotlight even today, they would fall far short. But Food Network directors, in the editing, have built respect and trust of them among their audience of millions. It is not so much a cooperative effort between producer and consumer — there is a great deal of manipulative power in the hands of the producer.

Let’s keep in mind that screen media are an intensification of the theatrical mode, which itself is a sensory condensation and enhancement of reality. In our real experience, our eyes and ears see first what is happening mostly right in front of us, surrounded by the atmosphere. What is happening across the room or the garden is usually secondary, since under our noses is what is closest and loudest. Direction is a sleight of hand, a magic trick, a highly manipulative venture. Several cameras and microphones are in the studio, covering several views and aspects, zooming in and out, running over and getting detail, with grips following everywhere with the boom microphone. At any given moment there may be half a dozen of these busy video-audio duos zooming in and out of different areas of interest in the studio. Later, the directors sit in front of the several screens and discard about 95% of the recorded material — which itself is only a tiny fraction of the hours of dozens of life experiences threading in and out of the event. They carefully select what will make for the best theater, and in so doing they do not permit us to wander around the set but effectively take our heads and put them where they want us to be. They do further manipulation in how they stitch the entire work together, and in the audio and other effects. We are served this highly elaborated product, and cannot see a single detail that the directors do not allow us to see. They seize our heads and push our faces wherever they choose. They press our eyes and hold our ears up to this or that activity, whenever and however they choose. They play on our emotions with music and lighting effects. For this they not only never apologize, they attack us with commercials at numerous opportune interruptions.

The genre of “reality TV” is therefore not true to its name. It may begin with some realistic ground rules. If these rules are truly adhered to and not doctored themselves, then the culprit is primarily in the direction and above all in the editing. That presumably honest judges and others in power have not spoken out on this is troubling, but one should expect this: after all, there are plenty of people who would be glad to replace them and turn a blind eye to the problem.

I write this not to point up the specific hypocrisies, since — well, to put it bluntly,who really cares? Will knowing this cure AIDS or cancer? Will it feed and clothe the starving millions? After all, among thousands of possible daily diversions we can switch to, we believe there are only one or two cooking channels that seem to cheat us, and cheat their more or less complicit, mostly upper-middle class clamberers who honor the Giada de Laurentiises and Bobby Flays of this world. And we already know all about this problem, don’t we? We can always change the channel, we argue, or go to the store, or read a novel. The point is that I believe that the prejudices that spawn such distasteful and perhaps even immoral ideas and techniques, and the many related signs of cultural poverty, are on all channels at all times, in all stores and most public places, and even in many characters in many novels, everywhere on Earth. This engine of prejudice is built into nearly every momentary decision criterion that nearly every entertainment professional, copywriter, or marketing person brings to bear against our embattled retinas and eardrums. Perhaps it is what, even long ago, Hermann Hesse, in Steppenwolf, could see,

when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic… .

Hesse wrote in 1927, decades before mass media came into its own as the media industrial complex we are familiar with today. How much better and more subtle is the creative profession at this? Why do we still indulge them so readily? What can we as individuals really do to resist this, to counter it, to speak out against it? Can our little activities do anything, or do we need much more radical and aggressive means? Or is there really no danger at all?

There is danger, I feel, because this goes far beyond entertainment. Our entire social world operates in this fashion. People are constantly turned down for jobs or services, fired, arrested, ostracized, ignored, disciplined, beaten, laughed at, and otherwise mistreated by this engine. Others, equally undeserving, are thought to be deserving merely because they are attractive, or wealthy, or powerful, or happen to be someone’s grandchild. Popular media both reflects and reinforces these real-world prejudices. All of us make presumptuous mistakes every day through our prejudicial misappraisals. Do not think I am overreaching: I am probably not reaching nearly far enough. Lives are at stake here. As with the media, unless everyday people are clear and honest in their own personal “editorial work” in the world, they will be taken in by this and will run the risk of continuing to participate in it. Editorial clarity means to be constantly mindful and skeptical of our own beliefs about others, sensitive to and corrective of our own misactions, and outspoken about the errors of others.

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The true story behind the Hobo font

A grizzled typographer puts to rest the celebrated century-old mystery of the origin of the Benton classic

[Thanks to Boston’s Bill Ricker and Dick Miller for coaxing me to cough this story up finally. I originally mentioned it in comp.fonts about 20 years ago, but the “O” situation, recently reviewed, offers incontrovertible proof of the theory that this explains the source of Hobo.]

As a master trade typographer in Chicago in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was the last of the breed here before desktop publishing finally made our race extinct. I imagine there were only two or three of us in that generation. Among the very few others in Chicago were Adam Kallish and Jason Pickleman, who both were working for the irascible Harvey Hunt, a Berthold guy, when he closed down his Typographic Resource and moved to Mac. (Harvey and his wife inherited ownership of the Berthold font collection. For decades Berthold was a top-quality typesetting platform.) I was working upstairs from them during the storied heyday of InfoComm, a pioneering PostScript service bureau, at 213 W. Institute Pl., site of the early Schwinn bicycle factory. You can still see thousands of bicycle screws embedded in the wood floors of that building.

We were young and, with proficiency in computers, were able to bridge old and new technologies easily. We were also font whores. Most kids in those days used to save their money up for model airplanes or blow it all on Twinkies. When we were children, my brother Greg and I used to haunt Chicago art stores, scraping up money for Zipatone dry-transfer, or “rub-down,” lettering. Our favorites were things like Calypso, Mistral, and others by Roger Excoffon, Herb Lubalin, Ed Benguiat, Rosemarie Tissi, and the many other designers of that prolific period. I also did a lot of calligraphy. I still do work with flat and pointed pen as well as flat and pointed brush (a devotee of Father Catich to the end). In later life I was briefly president of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective.

Despite my skills and interest, I was never admitted into the higher church:

East Coast: Ephram “Ed” Benguiat had me out for a tongue-lashing. The famous Jewish cigar-chomping dean of New York letters walked me around the labyrinth of Photo-Lettering, Inc., his huge Manhattan shop. Stopping at various stations to introduce me to his team, he would pointedly ask each guy how long they’d been working for him. “I’ve been on this very Staromat in this very darkroom for 25 years,” I remember one of them saying. (I was a VGC Typositor guy myself, thanks in part to the support of my beloved mentor, Al Blitz of Photofont.)

Then he introduced me to the sub-basement, where I met Marco, an art student almost ten years younger than I. “You still wanna to work here?” Ed challenged me. “Marco’s my new right-hand.” And he stubbed out his cigar in one of the shop’s numerous overflowing ashtrays.

Apparently this trip was just for him to show me that if I wanted to move to Manhattan to be his apprentice, I’d have to work in the basement for years, getting behind even young Marco, who after three years was still making $6 an hour touching up the edges of Ed’s drawings.

West Coast: David Lemon of Adobe flew me out for a lavish two-day interview session with the type staff. I remember getting to know Linnea Lindquist, Bob Slimbach, Carol Twombly, and this really nice guy who had worked for the inimitable Dan X. Solo. I knew he and I would be best friends when I moved out there, but I never got the call. I think I was too crude for them, not an “artist” from college like most of them, just some schmuck without much flair, trained in the many nameless shops.

Back home: The market was getting too tight. Chicago lettering master Charlie Hughes (designer of Indy and, coincidentally, of the Benton variant Century Nova) chose calligrapher Eliza Schulte over me as his apprentice. Holly Dickens, for her part, though I know she loves me dearly, was never the type to take on help. George Lee before he died told me that I already had too much experience to be anyone’s apprentice, but I knew I was also far too unsophisticated and too inept at business to forge out without first getting a leg up.

It didn’t help that I was stranded in the Windy City (a bygone typographic center, former home of much that we can be proud of), circumstantially unable “to move to one of the coasts, where the action really was. The best we had here by then was Castcraft, widely felt by respectable industry to be the worst font plagiarists in history. Anyone who is friendly with the Kreiter family would still never consider their shady world a place for a skilled young designer to hang one’s hat for a career. It would have been even more pathetic for me to take Boomie Kreiter up on his frequent offers than to wait for young Marco to free up his naugahyde seat in Benguiat’s dusty office. I would never get a job at Adobe or Font Bureau with that on my resume.

Despite heading toward that dead end, I did become the guy in Chicago who knew fonts. I probably can’t tell Helvetica from Helios these days; it’s been 30 years since I’ve had to compare them. But wherever I worked, my reputation followed me. Every few days, at one or another type shop, someone would yell out: “Pete. Someone just called, wants you to identify a font.” Soon I’d see coming in on the fax machine a request from some designer, or from another mope at another harried River North type shop, asking me to identify some obscure font sample. For about 10 years, everyone in town apparently knew that if anyone could figure out which foundry and font they were trying to match, I could. There were times when I would do no more than glance at the sample, and then call them back:

“It’s Stempel Garamond; you can tell by the cipher.”

“Gosh, Pete. We really appreciate it. What do you want for this?”

“Just send me a check with lots of Stempel Garamond zeroes. Better yet, buy me a drink at the Redhead Friday night. We’ve got a massive annual report to finish, but we may get off before midnight.”

Other times I’d pore over a stack of thick books from VGC, Photo-Lettering Inc., and Castcraft before I finally found the match. But I could not easily be stumped. I could quickly tell a Benguiat brush script from knock-offs, and I knew when I’d have to pull out VGC’s or Castcraft’s massive tomes and start flipping pages for 15 or 20 minutes. And then there was the ponderous TypEncyclopedia, whose sheer weight could kill a grown man.

This was the heyday of the proliferation of advertising design and numerous competing typographic platforms, each with a knock-off and variants of a popular font. This was the high-water mark in American typographic activity. There were dozens of foundries and tens of thousands of fonts. And it all came crashing down as quickly, and today I have no memory, and everything is all washed away, and I wonder how I could have wasted so much of my life on so profitless a pursuit. Nobody remembers me, and no one cares. Even in Chicago I was just a fax number to most famous designers, just someone somewhere who could help them make a quicker profit a few minutes sooner. And I always did it gratis. But in that day font substitution was done only as a last resort, so I had to do it.

* * *

In those days, to pass the time lovers of letters would walk up and down the streets of their cities and simply name fonts they saw in windows, sometimes self-righteously adding the designer’s name and perhaps the approximate year of the design. “You’re wrong, that’s not Helvetica Bold, it’s Vladimir Andrich’s Claro Bold.” In those days as ever, Hobo was everywhere. It is one of the two or three best-known and most-used display fonts in history,  and it has long enjoyed a kind of cult following. But while one of the easiest of fonts to identify, no typophile will dispute that the mystery of its name is easily one of the most rampantly speculated typographic questions over the last century. A few years ago, my pal Kibo and I came up with the answer to this century-old mystery, as well as an insight into the design of this odd Art Deco font.

Morris Fuller Benton was the contented son of Linn Boyd Benton, the latter one of the most influential figures of all time in the graphic arts, arguably ranking somewhere near the pantheon among Gutenberg and Bi Sheng. Through the 19th century, the Wyeths did painting, the Brontës did writing — and the Bentons did type. Every industry in every age has its salon powerhouses, those titans whose magic could rub off on you if you could only get near enough. But of course unless you actually were family, often nothing was bound to happen. Grandpa Benton, as it happens, owned the Milwaukee Daily News and also became a congressman, and his father in turn was a prominent East Coast physician. In fact, Grandpa was under consideration as a presidential candidate but lost out to Stephen Douglas. Patricia Cost wrote a wonderful history about the Benton family that tells even more. But, nepotism aside, Morris Fuller became quite a prolific and celebrated type designer in his own right, surpassed by only a few others in the number of iconic font designs to his name.

Hobo font sample, from Wikipedia

The two main stories behind the naming of Hobo are both probably apocryphal. The first is that the bow-legged shape of the letters suggested the legs of a hobo. The second is more creative, but it too lacks much support. According to one writer, Emil Klumpp of ATF gave a talk at the APA Wayzgoose conference in 1977 and mentioned the origin of the name. In his 1993 book American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century, historian Mac McGrew apparently summarizes Klumpp’s report:

“One story is that it was drawn in the early 1900s [when Art Nouveau was still in fashion] and sent to the foundry without a name…but further work on it was continually pushed aside, until it became known as ‘that old hobo’ because it hung around so long without results.”

* * *

McGrew died a few years ago, as did Emil Klumpp, but I wish they were still alive so that we could debate these facts. Both were born long after the font. There is absolutely no evidence that the font’s design was begun earlier than 1910; that speculation may well owe itself only to its convenience to the story itself. Something just doesn’t seem to add up. We have, however, harder facts.

The quintessential nerd, James “Kibo” Parry worked on the Atari 2600 design team. He became a household name on the early Internet by haunting Usenet newsgroups and contriving numerous online larks to amuse the digital populace, which at the time did not yet number 50,000 or so worldwide. Kibo once had a two-page feature all to himself in Wired magazine. He had a religion called Kibology named after himself, with a bizarrely popular online discussion group of thousands of subscribers.

Kibo was even immortalized in the Geek Code, an early Internet fad that one would put in the signature of one’s e-mails and online posts to indicate level of geekiness and hence high-tech social status. There were several indicators, such as how well you knew the C language, or whether you were Unix (good) or MS-DOS (bad). The number of pluses after a letter code indicates the level of accomplishment. C is, predictably, C, and the Unix/Windows letter codes are U and w.

In the ever-tongue-in-cheek Geek Code, the letter K is reserved to indicate how close one is to Kibo. At the top end, it included:

K++++ I've met Kibo
K+++++ I've had sex with Kibo, and
K++++++ I am Kibo.

At the bottom are several negative indicators, such as “K– I dislike Kibo.” I have the dubious distinction of being somewhere around the K+++++ category, because technically I’ve, uh, slept with Kibo — well, at least I’ve shared his bedroom. Here is Kibo’s own e-mail signature which, although over 1,000 lines long, does not include a Geek Code. But it does give you an idea of the strange humor that is Kibo.

Apart from all of this, Kibo is also a lover of type, and very knowledgeable about it. He and I were wandering around downtown Boston sometime around 1992, the morning after a rather snooty ATypI wine-tasting event hosted by David Berlow’s Font Bureau, celebrating Matthew Carter. Seeing the well-dressed and well-paid scions chatting and sipping red wine, it was impossible to picture us really fitting in there. And, of course, nobody paid the least attention to us.

Kibo and I were not alone in feeling out of place. Luc DeVroye, today a professor at McGill in Montreal, reminisces from 20 years ago: “I drove to Boston from Montreal, and slept in my car near the conference site in the (dangerous) south side of Boston. The police woke me up a few times, so I walked around at that meeting like a zombie with red eyes, looking at all the type superstars — some even had groupies.”

Another time, in 1994 in San Francisco, ATypI met, and the pushy, competitive nature of the nascent PostScript font industry took a more direct form. The Dutch youth, Erik van Blokland, Luc de Groot, and brothers Just and Guido van Rossum, had crossed the pond. There was a kind of technical mosh pit established as a playground for us 15 or so “youngsters” in which to create the show daily.

This playground was billed as a social collaborative activity. But I recall the four Dutchmen muscling over this and other activities with equal, shall we say, zeal. A couple of less pushy participants raised a stink to the elders and yet the rebellion was discreetly put down. As is the case in such societies, most of us budding young craftsmen were hoping for some attention, but we were not nearly as forward about it as these tough Europeans. To be sure, they had talent. But we, at least, were aware that our eyes and minds and skills were as ready as theirs. I recall Luc de Groot simply drawing the nameplate for the publication, without any discussion from anyone else. An arguably enviable post that he had simply arrogated to himself. My recollection is that his skills were not much up to the task that day and I was pretty certain that I could have done better. Again, that year, nobody paid any attention to us.

The shot of Kibo used for the Wired article – he’s not quite as exciting as all this, no red aura in real life

Kibo and I were bored out of our skulls that morning after the Font Bureau affair in Boston, and probably a bit hung over and cynical. Presumably, we were already heading toward failure in the type world. Kibo lived right across from the Commons, in a cockroach-infested flat dotted with empty carry-out containers. I had slept on the floor. Walking somberly through the streets of old Boston, Kibo showed me how to pick locks with the metal bristle from a street-cleaning truck’s brushes, which bristles, to my amazement, can be found near the curb of almost any street in the world. We shared work horror stories. We sneered at the cult of personality that was the typographic design world in those high-flying days. Frankly, we were probably a bit jealous. And of course we showed off by pointing at signs and identifying many fonts. We also stopped in at several bookshops.

At one particularly cozy little shop, I was flipping through a Russian poster art book, surveying a nice Art Nouveau poster for Duchess Tobacco. Kibo, looking over my shoulder, asked me what the poster said. I said it was for the “new and wonderful” Duchess Tobacco, 1/4 pound for 40 kopecks, from tobacconists Kolobov & Bobrov of St. Petersburg.

I think Kibo said something like, “Huh. Why does it say ‘Hobo’ at the top? Those guys don’t look like hobos.” Indeed, the two characters pictured helping themselves to a box of the Eastern-style cigarettes known as papirosi were young Russian gentlemen. But I explained to Kibo that HOBO was the Cyrillic spelling of the word novo (“New!”). It was then that we both noticed that the poster was drawn in something very like the font Hobo. Of course, this was hand-lettered, but it was certainly in that Art Nouveau splayed style. That led to speculation that Benton could have seen this poster or one like it in a Russian neighborhood. Certainly the four-by-five–foot poster in a window of a Russian tobacco shop or grocer would have been amusing to non-Russians seeing the word “HOBO!” at the top, and it could very well have inspired any talented type designer to throw together a font in its honor.

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Hobo’s iconic O.

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The Russian word “Chudno” (above) means “wondrous.” What’s really wondrous is the unique similarity of Benton’s majuscule O and the one drawn at the poster’s extreme right. The shape of the letters in the word “HOBO!” don’t hurt the argument, and of course the name buttresses it. To me, the striking coincidence of this single “O” letterform crowns the argument and should lay to rest the mystery of Hobo. This evidence shows that Morris Fuller Benton must have seen this poster somewhere. Perhaps he was somehow reluctant to admit that the source of his inspiration came from outside his famously insecure mind?

In fact, the “O” in the word “Чудно!” at the far right side of the poster looks as if it could have been traced by Benton as the model for his Hobo majuscule O. In fact, it is so close that it would arguably be more of a coincidence if this were not the case.

The characters “HOBO” at the top of the poster, their general design formula, and the identical shape of that O, I feel, lay to rest the hundred-year mystery of the source of both the font’s name and design formula. There was also motive, method, and opportunity. This is far better substantiation than what we have from the two chief theories that have circulated all these decades.

Moreover, what this suggests is that the original inspiration for Hobo probably was not Benton’s own mind, but the pen of an unknown graphic artist at the world-renowned Wefers lithographic press in St. Petersburg. It is not some great scandal that Benton failed to mention this, but it is true that Benton was famously insecure. Admitting that the source of the design of this font was something so pedestrian was not, and is still not, a common part of the ethical standard of the creative industry. It’s one thing for Carol Twombly (who once admitted to me that she didn’t know one end of a flat brush from the other) to acknowledge, even revere, the origins of Trajan. This is another thing entirely. In this case, you would think with such a cute origin, Benton would have been sharing the anecdotal pun with his pals at ATF. Perhaps he did and that history has been lost. Finally, if we believe the connection of the Hobo font to this Russian poster, then Benton’s naming of the font was very deliberately tied to Benton’s use of the poster as his exemplar.

I bought the book and gave it to my uncle Boris and aunt Tanya in Boston, and they probably still have it. The poster included details on the date, but I recall it was around 1903 or 1905, and that agrees with the design style.

As David Berlow has remarked, Morris Benton and his father often lived together and over the years would commute between home and the various locations of the ATF foundry in New York, later in Jersey City, and still later in Elizabeth. In fact, the northeastern New Jersey area where the Bentons lived, worked, and presumably played at the time had over 300,000 Russian Jews. We also know that at that time corner stores literally were at almost every street corner.

Duchess Tobacco

I don’t know for certain whether the Bentons’ travels went through any of the Russian neighborhoods. It seems that for the period in question they were probably living in Plainfield and commuting more than 20 miles, probably by car, to Jersey City. They may well have seen this poster at some point. Possibly they saw it in another place. Or perhaps Morris Fuller might have taken a trip to Russia around that time. That part is speculation. Perhaps Benton historian Patricia Cost could illuminate a bit.

In any event, while the type snobs were sipping fine wine, slapping one another on the back, and tooling around Boston in their nice cars, all paid for by typography, a couple of bums momentarily came from out of nowhere, and went nowhere in particular. While there, they quietly and unceremoniously found an iron-clad solution to a celebrated typographic mystery, that of the origin of the Hobo font.

* * *

I know it’s speculated that Morris Fuller Benton was controlled by his father. No one can actually say if he was truly contented or not, and it seems he may have been one poor sap. But clearly his family had a good deal to do with his success. My own father would have been 100 today, March 21, 2014. I recently turned half that. It would have been nice to have gotten a leg up. My father could do nothing for me; in general, he could do little for himself. Actually, when I was a boy, he and I worked side-by-side in a small print shop, one of the many odd jobs he had. He was rather skilled on the offset press. But he couldn’t even manage to get me through high school. My brother and I had to take care of both of our parents in our father’s last few years, and that put a big dent in our own midlife plans; we fought so bitterly over how to do it that we spent over a year in court on it.

I am past my prime and am doing other things, having no further time for typography. I don’t even care that much about letterforms anymore. That work is chiefly for the quality children of quality people; over the years I have long been elbowed aside by such creatures. Employing some combination of ambition, birthright, and occasionally genuine talent, the competition has been fiercer than one would expect for what was once a rather humble craft.

I suppose I may be one of Fred Warde’s typographically shipwrecked mariners. I have to hustle in the meantime on other business. Right now, I’m working 60 hours a week designing a 3D printer for mass production, for two young and impetuous entrepreneurs of some wealth. I really didn’t have time for this story. I do not know if I got much of it right, but in any event each of us should hope to make little contributions to our little worlds, and this is one of mine.

[Collection of Hobo sightings from Hobo fans around the world, from the font’s 100th anniversary in 2010. And here is another fan.]

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