Friday, December 30, 2022

Artist Kirsty Hall's tiny typewritten book about typing

British artist Kirsty Hall has created some wonderful, tiny books with typewritten text, including Gleaning, which is about typewriting itself. I'm reproducing it here from her Instagram account, with her permission. 

Hall describes her process:

I cut the slides from black paper and then embossed them with the Typewriter 3-D embossing folder. I then added Distress Foundry Wax in Sterling to bring out the texture of the embossed typewriter keys. 

My original plan for the centre of the slides was to use the reverse side of the typewritten text so it couldn’t be read. However, it just looked a bit blah. So instead I used the typed text the right way round but I blacked it out with Distress ink in Black Soot, so it still can’t really be read. The typewritten backgrounds are the lyrics to two songs by Michelle Shocked, one is Prodigal Daughter (Cotton-Eyed Joe) and the other is Anchorage. They are songs that strongly remind me of a particular time in my life. I typed both out by hand and then cut them to size using another die from the same set. 

The book is bound with a slot and tab binding with the tabs hidden inside the slides. I made the tabs with the leftover cut-out centres from the slides. This book really wants to splay open, so I made a black plait to hold it closed. Some of the bindings are just like that; it would be annoying in a book I was constantly working in but it’s fine for a one-off, sculptural artist’s book like this. I may experiment with a longer folded tab in the future to see whether that gives better results.

Here are some closeup views.

But what is the story behind the book?

These books start in different ways. They may be built around a colour, a texture, a vibe, a technique I want to try, an idea I’m chasing down or a phrase that pops into my head. Gleaning started with me wanting to use my Tim Holtz typewriter embossing folder but became deeply personal when I recalled my first typewriter.

I was a young single mother in the early 1990’s, ragged with exhaustion and post natal depression, when I bought an electric typewriter on tick. [That's "on credit" for Americans.]

I couldn’t get into deep art states when my son was tiny. I quickly found that I no longer had the time, energy or concentration for my previous artwork. I did try but I would get furiously resentful if the baby woke up when I was lost in a drawing. Obviously I had to prioritise him, so I reluctantly put my art things away. But I was still desperate for a creative outlet, so I switched to two things that I found I could more easily pick up and put down - photography and writing.

When my son was finally in bed of an evening, I would sit at the kitchen table with my typewriter and hammer out all my thoughts about the new emotions and experiences I was dealing with. It was such a raw, unsettled time. We had just gotten out of an unsafe living situation and were staying with friends in their small spare room; he was in his cot and I was on a mattress on the floor. We would never have ended up on the streets, in a pinch I could have gone home to my parents, but we did fit the definition of ‘hidden homelessness’. Everything felt so tenuous and temporary and like I had been fractured into a thousand pieces.

Thankfully I now have a safe home, a happy marriage, an established daily art practice and that wee bairn turns 30 this month! I also have two old manual typewriters that I use solely for art, which feels gloriously decadent. This book was made using one of them. But I’ve never forgotten that first typewriter; it’s no exaggeration to say that it was a real lifeline for me during that tumultuous time.

Gleaning vividly embodies the way a few words can have deep meaning when they are formed with care and stamped into matter. The book looks like such a satisfying tactile experience, even when it is presented to us indirectly, through pixels. It is a reminder of what writing and feeling can be. 

Thank you, Kirsty Hall!

Thursday, December 29, 2022

AI's Achilles' heel: typewriter technology?

OK, I know there are some enemies of AI among my readers. And I'd call myself ... a frenemy? I'm fascinated by its recent advances, but also very wary.

I tried asking ChatGPT some technical questions about typewriters. It produced some authoritative-sounding nonsense, which goes to show that you must be careful around these systems. 

First, some background. In case you didn't know, the name of Loose Dog Press is a little joke that alludes to a piece in a typewriter's escapement (the mechanism that allows the carriage to advance step by step). The loose dog waggles back and forth as it and the rigid dog alternate engaging the teeth of a starwheel or toothed rack underneath the carriage. There are many ways in which the mechanism can be designed more specifically. Here are some examples from the Underwood, Remington, and L.C. Smith escapements, as pictured in the invaluable Ames Mechanical Training Manual of 1945.

So, could ChatGPT simulate an intelligent conversation about this topic? First I asked:

Can you explain how a loose dog functions in a typewriter?

The system's initial answer was that there was no connection:

I'm sorry, but it is not possible for a loose dog to function in a typewriter. Typewriters are mechanical or electronic devices that are used to input text by typing on a keyboard, which in turn activates levers or electronic switches that cause a printing element (such as a hammer or a laser) to strike a ribbon or ink cartridge and print the corresponding character on a piece of paper.

A loose dog, on the other hand, is a domestic animal that is not confined or controlled in any way. It is not capable of operating a typewriter or any other type of mechanical or electronic device.

It is not clear where the idea of a loose dog functioning in a typewriter comes from, but it seems to be a nonsensical and unrealistic concept.

I explained:

It is not nonsensical, because a loose dog is also part of an escapement.


I apologize for misunderstanding your question. An escapement is a mechanical device that controls the movement of a clock or watch by releasing the stored energy in the mainspring at regular intervals. In a clock or watch, the escapement converts the rotational motion of the gear train into a back-and-forth oscillating motion, which drives the hands of the clock or watch and allows it to keep time.

A loose dog, as you mentioned, is not a part of an escapement. It is a domestic animal that is not related to mechanical devices or the functioning of a clock or watch. It is not possible for a loose dog to be a part of an escapement or to have any effect on its operation. 

I hope this clears up any misunderstanding. Please let me know if you have any further questions. 

Note that the system is limiting escapements to timepieces—an overly narrow definition—and responding as if I'd denied that loose dogs were part of escapements. I tried again:

"Loose dog" is a term for part of a typewriter escapement.

Now things get interesting:

I apologize for the confusion. You are correct that "loose dog" is a term used to refer to a part of a typewriter escapement.

In a typewriter, the escapement is a mechanical device that controls the movement of the typebars, which are the metal arms that hold the type elements (such as letters and symbols) and strike the ink ribbon to print the corresponding character on a piece of paper. The escapement in a typewriter consists of a series of levers and pivots that allow the typebars to move up and down and lock into place when they are not in use.

One of the parts of the escapement in a typewriter is the loose dog, also known as the typebar dog or the escapement dog. The loose dog is a small projection on the side of the typebar that engages with the escapement mechanism to control the movement of the typebar. When the typebar is not in use, the loose dog locks into place and prevents the typebar from moving. When a key on the keyboard is pressed, the typebar is released from the escapement and can move up and down to strike the ink ribbon and print the corresponding character.

I hope this information helps clarify the role of the loose dog in a typewriter escapement. Please let me know if you have any further questions. 

This sounds so confident that it almost makes me doubt my own knowledge of typewriter mechanisms. I'm not a professionally trained typewriter tech, after all. But to the best of my knowledge, this is nonsense! The machine has invented an account of the loose dog and the escapement that is simply wrong. (The term "typebar dog" appears nowhere on the Internet, per Google, and was just made up by ChatGPT.)

One more example: I asked whether all typewriters have keyboards. Response:

While the vast majority of typewriters do have keyboards, there are some exceptions.

One example of a typewriter that does not have a keyboard is the Velotype, a machine invented in the late 19th century that used a system of perforated paper tape to input text. The Velotype used a punch card system similar to that of the Jacquard loom, with a series of punched holes in the tape representing the characters to be typed. The tape was fed through the Velotype and read by a set of sensors, which activated the typebars and printed the corresponding characters on a piece of paper.

Another example of a typewriter that does not have a keyboard is the Stenotype, a machine used by court reporters and other professionals to take shorthand notes. The Stenotype uses a specialized keyboard with a smaller number of keys, each of which represents a combination of letters or syllables. The Stenotype records the keystrokes in a shorthand notation and can later be transcribed into standard text.

While these examples are relatively rare, they demonstrate that it is possible for a typewriter to function without a keyboard. However, most typewriters do have keyboards as a primary means of inputting text.

In fact, the Velotype is a chording keyboard invented in 1982 (not to be confused with the Velograph and Virotyp, which are index typewriters and have no keyboard). The much-better-known Stenotype also uses a chording keyboard. Note that this is a kind of keyboard, as the chatbot itself says—so these are not examples of keyboardless typewriters! Furthermore, the chatbot's description of the Velotype seems to confuse it with an automatic typewriter such as the Friden Flexowriter.

This all suggests that a way to foil a chatbot (make it fail the Turing test) is to ask it questions about a specialized field in which you have some firsthand knowledge. (This is also the best way to find errors in Wikipedia—forgive me for linking to it above.) 

I almost find myself getting mad at this stupid machine! I have to remind myself that it's neither stupid nor intelligent, because it is not a mind—it is only an algorithm invented by clever humans.

Moral: Don't let AI befriend you too easily—you just may be talking to a digital con artist.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

A ribbon hack for a 1929 Underwood portable

Tonight I worked on a four-bank Underwood portable from 1929. It's a fussy machine, with some awkward functions and tiny pieces that can easily get lost if you remove the platen and paper tray.

Right around 1929, the company introduced snap-on ribbon covers with attractive cut-out UT (Underwood Typewriter) logos. Here's a nice example from the collection of Geoff Flash.

The problem is that if the ribbon covers snap on, they can also snap off—and get lost. Then, when the loose spool spins, the ribbon tends to fly off and get tangled up.

A few years ago, someone in the typosphere generously designed and sold some 3D-printed replacement covers. But in my experience, they were too flimsy and did not fit reliably. 

Tonight I had a brainstorm. For years I've had little binder clips like this one lying around the workshop, and I keep thinking that there must be some typewriter-related use for them.
Well, there is.

This simple measure keeps the ribbon in place. The prong wobbles back and forth as you type, but I don't think it will be too distracting. If you have a similar problem, you might want to give the Binder Clip Solution a try.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Friday, December 16, 2022

Logan Lane and the Luddite Club

Meet a young leader of the insurgency.

A recent New York Times story introduces the Luddite Club, founded by teenager Logan Lane of Brooklyn. She decided to turn off her iPhone during the pandemic, lived for months without any phone at all, and now carries only a flip phone (a concession to her parents). Her friends have joined her in "making the flip," and the movement is spreading.

What substitutes for TikTok? Boethius, Du Bois, and Dostoevsky.

Listen to an interview with Logan here. She lucidly explains how going "Luddite" has helped her with school, sleep, friendship, reading, concentration, and "hanging out with yourself." This interview is especially recommended to parents of teens.

And yes: Logan incorporates a typewriter into her healthy life.

It doesn't have to end, Logan! Not if someone founds Analog College ...

Of course, my impulse to share this online immediately is a symptom of my own disease. I look forward to my next opportunity for a digital detox, which may last for the second half of 2023, once I'm done with my current administrative position and get a semester off.

(PS, 2024: Logan now attends Oberlin.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

A sonnet about typewriters — by a surprising author

In days of old, when pens were all the rage,
And scribes would labor o'er their written page, 
A new machine came forth to take their place, 
A marvel of the age, the typewriter's grace. 

With keys that clicked and clacked, it could convey 
The writer's thoughts with speed and clarity, 
No more the need for ink or messy quill, 
This wondrous tool could fill the page at will. 
But as the years went on and technology grew, 
The typewriter's reign began to fade, 
Replaced by screens and keyboards sleek and new, 
Its once-proud sound now but a distant shade. 

Yet still it stands, a relic of the past, 
A reminder of a time that couldn't last.

Not bad. There are some defects in the rhyme and meter, but it's pretty amusing. 

The author is ChatGPT, which took about five seconds to produce a "Shakespearean sonnet about typewriters" when I requested one. 

Nightcafe took about that long to generate this image of "Shakespeare and a typewriter." (I selected the best of the four options it gave me.)

Just in the last year, AI has made such leaps that I feel a sea change coming in the world's whole culture. A couple of days ago I jotted some clumsy thoughts about it in my journal—which I'll reproduce here in handwriting, just to annoy the text-recognition bots. Notes: That German word is Gesamtkunstwerke, and "privacing" is a concept I explain here.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

December 2022 typewriter safari

It's time for another typewriter safari! As usual, these machines were spotted in a local antique mall. (To get the holiday feeling, imagine Bing Crosby crooning overhead and holiday shoppers pushing carts around the huge warehouse.) I came home with one of them. Can you guess which? 

This time I'll offer a little more commentary than I usually do. 

1. Underwood Master, $97 (–20% discount).

This beefy 1930s version of the classic workhorse is an impressive typewriter. I suppose the best they could do to streamline a boxy machine was to add a thick sheet-metal frame on the sides and back. Little-known fact: the Master, to be complete, needs ribbon covers that sit on top of the spools. They are rarely found, but I did find a Master with the ribbon covers 4 years ago.

2. Smith-Corona Skyriter, $39.99.

A common, rugged little laptap from the '50s. This one has been repainted. It includes £ and Rs (Rupees). I wonder if it was used in India.

3. Marxwriter Supreme, $65.

I think the Marxwriter and the Tom Thumb are the most commonly found toy typewriters. This looks like a '60s creation. Decades earlier, Marx also made sheet-metal index typewriters. None of these devices are things you'd want to write a novel on.

4. Oliver no. 9, $99.

This is the most common model of Oliver, and the condition is typical. Something about the paint and nickel on Olivers doesn't hold up as well as on some other makes. Also typically, the ribbon covers are missing. Still, it's an Oliver, and Olivers are cool.

Now here are two very different Royals ...

5. Royal HH, $38.

Made for just a couple of years in the mid-'50s, but they sold like hotcakes. These are durable, well-engineered typewriters from the height of Royal's quality and popularity. The tabulator which you can operate with the heel of your hand is a distinctive feature.

6. Royal Quiet Deluxe, $38.

No, not that Royal Quiet Deluxe. The classic design from the 1930s-50s has no relation to this little typewriter made in Holland. It's descended from the Halberg and from other small Royal models such as the Royalite. This "QDL" from the late '60s has an attractively streamlined plastic body. Unfortunately, the plastic gets brittle. The ribbon cover is held on with springs that stretch between two plastic hooks that are almost always broken. This was no exception.

7. Smith-Corona Coronet, $39.95.

One of the many variants of the Smith-Corona electric portables produced from the '50s into the '70s. Some, like this one, have a manual carriage return. This one looks unusually clean.

8. Underwood Master, $95.

"RARE," says the tag. Uh, no (see #1).

* * * * *

We interrupt this typewriter parade for an object I've never seen before: a bakelite (?) rack for records (?) or books (?) embossed with military scenes. I imagine this on the desk of some officer during WWII, or maybe in the home of some military family just after the war. If I were into militaria, I would snap it up.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

* * * * * 

9. Royal Aristocrat, $129.

Speaking of WWII, there's a biography of "General Ike" which must date somewhere between the end of the war and his election as president in 1952—which may be about the right date for the typewriter, too. If I had to tell you the difference between the Aristocrat and the Quiet Deluxe of this era, I would be in trouble.

10. Underwood S, $119.

This model replaced the Master in 1940. Underwood decided to drop the beefy look and return to a more classic profile. They did keep the panel which covers up the typebars (it easily pops out).

11. Smith-Corona Skyriter, $64.95.

This is a commonly found color scheme, and this specimen hasn't been repainted.

12. Royal Quiet Deluxe, $64.95.

Here's a classic QDL from about 1950-1953, complete with user's manual. On the sheet, someone has typed: "Dear Mr. Wall, This is to advise you that your dammed old typewriter is ready for pick up"—followed by many repetitions of the old "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party." Supposedly this sentence dates back to the 1870s and has been used as a typing test ever since!

So: which typewriter(s) would you pick?

And which one do you think I brought home?