17 September 2009

Closing Up Shop with . . . Helvetica?

I've decided to stop posting to TLP until 2010. I'm trying to complete my PhD dissertation and simply need the time and energy (and words) for that project. 15 minutes here and there does not seem like a problem, but as all bloggers know, the time really starts adding up. I need fewer distractions. I enjoy this too much. And I'm in really deep water. This was not a hard call.

I'll probably start blogging again in 2010. Maybe here, maybe on Tumblr, maybe not at all. Maybe I'll get serious about my Flickr stream instead. I'll be sure to let all of my readers know. Yes, both of you. Thanks.

So, on to Helvetica. Yes, the font Helvetica, which was made into Helvetica the movie. When fonts can be optioned as movies, you know that we really are living in an age of wonders.

When I first started working in academic publishing a number of years ago, I really became interested in typography. I've even reviewed a book on the history of Syriac typography (very interesting . . . no, really). Typography can mean the art of printing or the art of typeface design. Both are interesting, but as much as a nonartist can be, I'm especially interested in type (fonts) as an aesthetic object, as functional art.

Fonts present a fascinating paradox. We use them and look at them all day long, but they are, unless we stop and think about them, completely invisible to us. They are the ultimate signifiers. No symbol provides a more transparent container for its meaning than the strokes that form a letter.

But a letterform is surprisingly plastic and allows a subtle but broad latitude for expression. Letterforms are evocative artistic objects that shape our response to the messages they are used to convey. They have a cultural power and provoke an aesthetic response that most of us, most (or all) of the time, are completely unaware of. Simple printed letters are the most ubiquitous artforms in our lives.

Today there are tens of thousands of fonts, but a bare handful dominate most typewritten communication. At the top of the heap may be Times New Roman, the default serifed font for Windows. It's ugly and I hate it and Microsoft has flooded the world with it. Blast Microsoft.

Apple, on the other hand, commissioned a stunningly beautiful font, Hoefler Text, with which to begin the era of computer typography. Obama has made it the default font for whitehouse.gov. Only Mac users can see it, though. Blast Microsoft.

Apple adopted Helvetica as their default sans serif font. It was a logical choice. Helvetica has dominated sans serif type usage since it was introduced in 1957. You see it every single day and almost certainly have no idea. As a font, I think it is beautiful, at least in light and medium weights, and very functional for a broad range of titling and short-form uses. Unlike Times, designers use it constantly, even after 50 years. All considered, it is perhaps the single greatest font ever drafted. But Microsoft did not want to pay a licensing fee for it when they introduced Windows, so they produced an ugly knockoff called Arial. No designer uses Arial. Yet again, blast Microsoft.

I recently watched Helvetica the movie and highly recommend it. It is indeed about the font, but much more about typography, its recent history and practice, and its invisible influence on us. It does a great job of communicating the mystery of the art. As an enthusiast, I got small thrill from the interviews with some leading typographers, especially Hermann Zapf.

Zapf's designed a number of fonts, including one in particular that everyone has seen and most people have used, Palatino Linotype.* Palatino is based on Zapf's own calligraphic handwriting. It is one of only five common fonts approved for use in my PhD dissertation, and is the one I am using. So Zapf's letterforms are my constant companions. They're unique and beautiful. I never get tired of them. To meet their creator, after a fashion, was a buzz.

Helvetica the movie may be purchased from iTunes or wherever fine documentaries on typography are sold. Some clips are available here. These include an outtake of the Zapf interview and a priceless few minutes with Erik Spiekermann ("[Fonts] are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine, or whatever, or girls bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It's a little worrying, I must admit . . .").

* Microsoft originally distributed only a knockoff of Palatino Linotype with Windows, which is called Book Antiqua. Starting with Windows 2000 they have also included the authentic, Zapf-produced version of Palatino. You'll still find Book Antiqua under your font menu, but accept no imitations.

16 September 2009

iPod Thoughts

As every geek knows, Apple refreshed their iPod line last week. Is there anything to get excited about? Not a lot.

The iPod touch got a price cut for the 8gb model ($199), with 32gb ($299) and 64gb ($399) models following. All evidence points to the probability that Apple had planned to include a video camera in the new models, but had to pull it just weeks before launch, due to technical problems. That camera will likely reappear in at least the 32/64gb models in the near future, with little fanfare. Apple is not calling the new models just introduced the third generation (3G), but rather the "iPod touch (Late 2009)" models. That almost screams, "Don't buy me!"

The 32/64gb models also have new processors that make them up to 50% faster than the previous models and the current 8gb model. They also support a new graphics API which, again, the 8gb model does not. So the 8gb model may be relatively cheap now, but it is also relatively slow and will not be able to run some next-gen software. Stay away.

The new iPod nano (5G) differs very little from the previous model. It includes a VGA video camera, but that camera cannot take still photos and does not have autofocus. It's probably a $2 part and does nothing for me. But the new nano does have a slightly larger screen (.2" larger) that is also brighter (TFT), and now gets an FM radio. All that does not add up to much, and most critics see this revision as just a glomming on of gimmicks to extend its lifespan. But it remains a good basic player and I will be getting one this next year.

I won't even comment on the iPod shuffle. It's still lame.

For competition, there are some great new PMPs just out. In the shuffle class, the new Sansa Clip+ now has a microSD slot, making this tiny, brilliant-sounding player almost perfect. Starting at $40 retail, and with an 8gb microSD card being just $15, you can have a great high-capacity player the size of a matchbook for very cheap. I use my Clip constantly.

In the nano class, two new Sony S series Walkmans starting at $110 (NWZ-S544) and $150 (NW-S644) are looking to be much better players. And starting at $80 (NWZ-E443), the entry-level E series remains a real price-performance bargain. Sonys have always had better sound than iPods and support drag-and-drop music transfer, which is my preference. These models are just arriving in the US.

A Sony NWZ-S544 ($110), with some serious external stereo speakers built in and a nifty kickstand. No reviews out yet on how good they sound, but I think they are a great idea. Why didn't someone do this sooner?

Finally, just announced, the new Zune HD is Microsoft's best player yet (and they have all been good). The tough reviewers at Gizmodo even say it is simply "the best touchscreen PMP on the market." 'Nuff said.

But really, while everyone is beating Apple at hardware and value, iTunes overrides every price and performance advantage that the competition can field. I will be getting a nano, not because I especially like the nano itself, but because I need a small player with a screen that works with iTunes. I listen to podcasts on my way to work, and iPods+iTunes are by a huge margin the best solution for podcasts. In fact, for many podcasts, the only solution. They're called podcasts for a reason.

So, for better or worse, I'm still wedded to Apple.

15 September 2009

The $3.75 Million Dollar Man (and Friends)

Democratic legislators are receiving millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the Medical Industrial Complex. Baucus and friends, the "moderate" Blue Dogs who are killing the public option and defending insurance monopolies, are raking it in. Baucus alone has received $3.75 million over six years from the medical industry, one quarter of his total campaign contributions. Tell me again, why are we trusting these employees of Big Medicine to represent our national health care interests? As BusinessWeek observed over a month ago, the health insurers have already won.

Rogues' gallery here.

Max Baucus (Bozo-MT)

Addendum: The Baucus bill is out of committee and proves, as everyone knew, that he is a spineless shill for the insurance industry. The comment of one of his constituents:

    As a resident of Montana, I would like to thank Senator Baucus for all his hard work looking out for insurance companies.
    With its requirement to carry health insurance, it’s estimated that this bill will bring approximately $700 billion in new business to the health care industry.
    And since he fought hard to ensure there is no public option or, worse, a single payer option, we have the Senator to thank for making it harder for the rest of us to get affordable insurance.
    All in a day's work in Washington I guess.
    — avrds, Montana

14 September 2009

$150 Spaceshot

A group of MIT students set themselves the task of taking remote photographs from space on the cheap and, even more challenging, using off-the-shelf items with no custom hardware hacks or exotic software. The ended up buying a used Canon compact camera off of Amazon and taping it to the inside of a beer cooler. They used chemical handwarmers to keep the electronics from freezing. They also put in a pre-paid cell with GPS and auto-texting so they could track it. They hooked it all to a latex weather balloon and launched it 18 miles into the stratosphere. The total package was less than four pounds, so no FCC license was required.

Total cost was $150 and the results, on the first and only try so far, were spectacular. And anyone with basic technical ability could do the same thing from their own backyard. Project website here and iReport here.

10 September 2009


I've been in love with Japanese bento boxes from the very first time I saw them. I've looked all over town for a place that might serve them. There were a few false claimants, but no luck so far. Which makes sense. I mean, these are homemade school lunches for Japanese school children, after all. But they are also fantastic food art.

The Times just published a fun article on bentos. Don't miss the slideshow.

09 September 2009

Flickrpic: Tomatína 2009

Now, THAT's a party.

04 September 2009

Heath Care Reform?

So much is being said about the current health care legislation, but the most important thing I've personally read so far is this new article in the Atlantic by David Goldhill. It details the fundamental problems with our system, which no current reform proposal will fix. In summary, current proposals want to extend health insurance, but health "insurance" itself is the fundamental problem. That's because it is not insurance at all, but a double-blind comprehensive payment system that hides both costs and benefits from consumers, a system of "Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results." He details the problems and it's agonizing to read, because he's right and of course, once pointed out, it's so obvious.

Congress will not reform health care and is, in fact, constitutionally incapable of it. And I think Obama will accept any bill that extends health care benefits to the uninsured. In a way, I agree with his pragmatism. A runaway system is pricing the uninsured right out of health care. If you cannot reform the system, at least you can try to bring more people into it.

But let's not call such a thing reform. This is just an extension of benefits that you and I will pay for. Our health care costs are about to go up. No wonder the industrial heath care complex is running ads day and night in favor of it.

03 September 2009

A New Model for Journalism: VII

PDN just published a very interesting interview with Stephen Mayes of VII Photo Agency about the future of photojournalism, but many of his comments relate to the future of journalism generally. While some journalists are still squeaking that the big papers need to reassert some imagined monopoly and rebuild pay-walls around the business, more rational people recognize that model is dead. As Mayes says, "I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion."

But Mayes says VII is finding a new model already. A biiig pull:

    SM: [The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.
    When you boil it down, what VII does is integrity. That issue of believability is exactly what VII does. We express it photographically, so it’s all revealed through photographs, but actually what is valuable to VII is integrity. When I look at an environment where there’s absolutely too much information, information becomes valueless. What everyone is suffering from is that a photograph is just more information. It becomes very hard to put a price on it because there are too many pictures out there, but if you suddenly start rethinking it and saying, “We’re not selling photographs, what we’re selling is believability,” then actually we have more value than we had before. VII offers a benchmark, which now has increased value because of all the information that’s out there.
    PDN: That being the case, do you envision that consumers will pay for it somehow online?
    SM: No, and I think that’s where the confusion is. I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion. What I’m seeing now, increasingly, is that other people will pay for consumers to have that relation, so long as it’s a shared interest. Again, that whole notion of, “Will the press re-inflate if users are charged for content?” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s also missing the point on some level.
    We’re coming from a model where we’re all selling units of intellectual property, and we’re all struggling with that, the prices are going down, and it’s getting harder to sell that stuff. But you step back a little bit and you see the exact same problems being encountered in the music industry. They used to sell albums, that was their unit, that doesn’t happen anymore. You see it in the movies, the model is changing, you see it in literature— culture-wide there’s a shift away from that notion of a vendor selling that unit of intellectual property, and it’s moving away from the model of a buyer buying intellectual property. Because all of this stuff is available for free, so why should they start paying for it? But there is still value there, and the exercise that I’ve been engaged with for the last two years is identifying that value, and having found it, coming up with a way to monetize it.
    And hence you end up with these expanded partnerships where VII works with Human Rights Watch, VII works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, VII works with Time magazine and at the same time there’s a different value that we’re applying to each of them. We each share a common interest. I’m not selling something. There’s an ethical question at VII, and it may be different for a different agency or a different photographer. But with VII it has to be about believability, it has to be about partnering with the right people and not selling photographers down the line just to make money, but actually partnering them with people they believe they can work with to fulfill the things that those photographers believe in—and finding a commercial angle to them.
    As long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble. Everyone’s complaining that it’s difficult to make a decent living selling photographs. But what I see are much bigger revenue and distribution opportunities, working in a slightly different model.

01 September 2009

Canon Day (x2)

Photography news websites around the world were taxed to the breaking point last night as Canon announced their new, highly-anticipated DSRL, the Canon EOS 7D. I'll just hit a couple of highlights (see early reviews here and here).

This camera employs a small x1.6-crop sensor (APS-C) like the Digital Rebel and xxD series, but is a brand new 18mp design. This fact means that the individual pixels are smaller than those found in any other DSLR, which is a recipe for poor performance, but Canon has pulled every conceivable trick out of their hats to ensure it performs well. In this case, "well" seems to mean as good as the 15mp 50D, which is about where it's at. Not bad, but not good enough to keep you from wanting a (more expensive) full-frame camera. Or perhaps the more sane 12mp Nikon D300s, it's main competitor.

In every other respect, it seems to equal or even surpass the Nikon D300s. It has a new metering system, extensive weather sealing, dual processors for 8fps performance, a D300s-sized 100% viewfinder, and much more. It is a major new design that rolls out many technologies which now find their way into models up and down the line. Most impressively, it has video features that probably surpass those of any other DSLR.

The Canon 7D is not a successor model, it seems, to the 5D or 50D which sit on either side. It creates a new DSLR segment for Canon corresponding to the Nikon D300s and similar models from other makers. Let's call it "premium semi-pro." I'm not so excited about the superb video features, and very unenthusiastic about the massively dense sensor. The other features are great, but mostly because they will improve models up and down the line.

But Canon's persistence in waging a megapixel war disappoints me. More than a few Canon enthusiasts were so disappointed in Canon's last megapixel semi-pro model, the EOS 50D, that they traded up from their beloved 40Ds to the Nikon D300. Canon is making the same mistake all over gain, by jacking up megapixels primarily for a marketing advantage. Serious photogs want good pixels, not many pixels, and this camera sits in a segment aimed at them. It will be interesting to watch the response.

Now for Canon Day, Part 2: I just received my Canon 40D yesterday. It was a refurb and came to me with 1366 actuations on the shutter, a fair bit of use. But other than a few light scratches on the top LCD and a few wearmarks on the hotshoe, it looks brand new.

I've only shot a few test images, but it all looks fine. I did have one heartstopper. I clicked off one frame and I think the mirror stuck, blacking out most of the image. I really (!) hope that was just an anomalous hiccup. But it has me nervous.

Otherwise, it has a much bigger viewfinder than the XT, is physically larger, and handles great. The 3" screen is actually large enough to review images on (the XT's is just too small) and the scroll wheel/joystick combo on the back is a vast improvement for navigation.

My only dislike is that it does not have enough eye relief for us eyeglass wearers, but that's the case for all camera's under about $8000. They do make an eyepiece extender to help remedy this, but it also shrinks the viewfinder. I may end up getting it anyway.

Final verdict: I love it. It feels and handles like a real camera should. I could never move back down the model line.