California Typewriter

February 19th, 2018 8:18 PM
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Filed under Musings;
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This weekend, I watched California Typewriter, a 2016 documentary about the professional and hobbyist communities surrounding typewriters. A narrative thread weaves through the titular California Typewriter, a family-owned shop in Berkeley, California — but the film's scope encompasses many other typewriter enthusiasts, including Tom Hanks, who's collected over 250 typewriters and who has lent his name to the typewriter-inspired iOS app Hanx Writer.

Typewriters were an essential step in the evolutionary history of personal computers, establishing such standards as the QWERTY keyboard. As a retrocomputing enthusiast, I appreciated the veneration these collectors feel for these classic machines. Offering a dedicated environment in which to focus on one's writing, free from distraction, notifications, or multitasking, is something typewriters and the Apple II have in common.

But I must disagree with a few qualities of the typewriter that were touted as strengths compared to personal computers. I didn't take notes during my viewing, so I'll paraphrase Tom Hanks who said that a personal, typed letter is more likely to survive the ravages of time. He cited an example of a thank-you note that playwright Noel Coward sent in the 1940s and which is now framed and preserved. Hanks pointed out that it's easy to delete an email, and if Coward had been able to send something via that medium, it would've been unlikely to have survived to present day.

But the best way to preserve something isn't to put it in one medium over another — it's to put it in as many hands as possible. Coward's letter is unique and singular; should anything happen to it, there are no copies or means by which to reproduce it. By contrast, something that is digital in origin or which is scanned into a digital format will almost always exist somewhere. Observe the history of Hewlett-Packard, meticulously recorded in hardcopy only and then lost in a fire this past October. Those documents were as irreplaceable as Coward's letter; had they been digitized, they likely would've lasted as long as that letter, too.

The movie also featured musician John Mayer's multiple complaints against electronic documents. First, that they showed no record of how something was created; apparently he's never heard of version control and incremental backups. Second, while he acknowledged that digital files will last forever, he likened it to a trash pile: yes, the files exist, but no one ever goes through them or sees them again.

His statement is likely based on personal experience and is likely true for most individuals: I still have every email I sent in college but haven't looked at them in twenty years. But when it comes to famous individuals or archaelogical artifacts — as both are the case with Ted Nelson — such "trash piles" hold at least as much historical value as a playwright's thank-you note.

I appreciate typewriters and those who admire them, and the California Typewriter documentary drove home their kinship with retrocomputing enthusiasts. Both typewriters and personal computers such as the Apple II have unique strengths that needn't come at each other's weaknesses.

As a bonus, I learned that, just as floppy drives and ImageWriters can be played as musical instruments, so too can typewriters! Witness the Boston Typewriter Orchestra:

Courier's reign

January 17th, 2011 12:04 PM
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Filed under Musings;
1 comment.

Farhad Manjoo is pretty worked up over a trivial matter. For Slate Magazine, he ranted why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. This 1,486-word typographical diatribe is rampant with the same form of sure-mindedness its author finds so belligerent in his opposition: "What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right."

The difference is that Mr. Manjoo claims to have history on his side:

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

With this evolution to support him, Manjoo insists that anyone still using two spaces is a prehistoric troglodyte still reliant on ancient technology to string words into sentences.

But wait! Manjoo does provide some allowance: the Courier font. Although rarely seen on modern computing platforms, Courier was the default (and, in fact, only) font offered by AppleWorks Classic on the Apple II. In such an environment, it makes sense to distinguish a non-sentence-ending period from another.

Those who have migrated to other platforms may have since adapted their style to the variety of fonts the Macintosh made standard a quarter-century ago. Obstinate authors weaned on the Apple II who insist on computers adapting to their users and not vice versa have instead customized their environments to maintain a continuity that began with the Apple II.

For me, this means changing Apple Mail's default font to Courier — and I don't think it took any editing for my blogging tool, MarsEdit, to default to Menlo, also a non-proportional font. Once published, my blog posts appear in a proportional font, but WordPress, which powers this site, automatically displays those double spaces as a single. I can therefore preserve my workflow while presenting content that's appropriate to its context.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.


MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

Every writer has his or her own quirks, from spaces after a period, to "built-in" or "inbuilt", to whether or not punctuation goes within or without quotation marks. It's the writer's responsibility to offer writing that is consistent with the style of the intended publication, if one is to be both employable and likable as a writer.

But to go on a moralistic rampage about the sins of extraneous whitespace is unnecessary … though perhaps good for page views: over one thousand responses have furthered this controversy thus far.

Do you think the Apple II has played a role in perpetuating this archaic typeset pattern?