Typography: Best Practices

type catalogReadability is—or certainly should be—a major consideration for web designers, and readability is predicated on good typography. Even though content editors aren’t designers per se, they are often called upon to collaborate closely with designers and/or to critique websites for overall usability. In smaller operations, they may assume some or all of the layout tasks. So it’s a good idea for web editors to develop a working knowledge of basic web design and the role of typography in great design and readability/usability.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Smashing magazine conducted its first survey of web typography back in 2009. Advances in responsive design, evolving browsing habits, and the explosion of mobile devices with a plethora of form factors led the editors to revisit the project.

The updated survey was recently published as “Typographic Design Patterns and Current Practices (2013).” It’s detailed content is worthy of your consideration, but I’ll share some of the highlights to give you an idea of what they found:

  • Serif fonts have eclipsed sans serif families in popularity for headlines as well as body copy (though it’s apparently still considered acceptable to combine the two for emphasis or contrast between titles, subheads, body copy, sidebars, etc.).
  • The most commonly employed headline fonts are Georgia, Arial, and Chapparal Pro (but the majority of websites surveyed still incorporate lesser-known fonts to some extent).
  • The most common body copy fonts—no surprises here—are Georgia, Arial, and Helvetica (poor old Times Roman has been put out to pasture).
  • Headline font sizes typically range from 29 to 32 pixels.
  • Body copy font sizes flucuate between 14 and 16 pixels.
  • Characters per line average from 75 to 90 (though 55 to 75 is actually more optimal).
  • Body text is pretty universally set on a left alignment, hyphenation is verboten, and links are predictably underscored and/or highlighted with bold face or a bright or contrasting color (occasionally only on hover).

Content marketing editor Tom Mangan registers his frustration with the “roll yer own” approach to digital typography that yields control to the end-user: “What drives me crazy is that font usage is more of a suggestion than a command. Every browser displays it differently and [an] individual user can override my type choices.”

There was also a lacuna in the article: it doesn’t even mention the concept of negative space in relation to type. Mangan opines, “I would bet the true keys to legibility lie in character and line spacing—if you get that right, it should stay that way (pretty much) no matter which font the user is actually using.”

The judicious application of white space is near and dear to the hearts of all graphic designers, since text and negative space are really just opposite sides of the same coin—and both are graphic elements. I was taught to view white space as the yin to text’s yang; the two engage in a sort of graphic dance, each bringing out the best in the other. Marcella Drula-Johnston, head honcho of the Spectrum Creative design atelier in Fairfax, Virginia, wistfully intones, “White space seems almost neglected these days. Andi [her associate] and I have both noticed the lack of thought or intent regarding kerning or tracking in most contemporary design as well.”

But the lack of respect for good typography and the appropriate use of “text-free zones” predates the Internet. As a young in-house editor for Petersen Publishing (Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo, and many other newsstand titans), I was sworn to embrace Pete Petersen’s dictum, “If God had wanted there to be white space, He wouldn’t have created type!”

Oh, dear…

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Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 6/4/13

Mary Rose cutaway

Mary Rose Museum“Britain’s Pompeii”: Looking like the love child of an old sailing ship and a flying saucer, the Mary Rose Museum made its debut in Portsmouth last Friday. The unique facility houses an equally unique historical artifact: the hull of the ill-fated Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet. The ship sunk under mysterious circumstances during an engagement with an invading French armada in The Solent in 1545.

maryrosedogA veritable Tudor time capsule, the Mary Rose offered up a wealth of amazingly well-preserved artifacts. The treasure trove comprises clothing, personal items, longbows and arrows, musical instruments (including the only extant example of a still shawm, a medieval ancestor of the oboe—you can listen to a sound clip here), the master carpenter’s and barber-surgeon’s sea chests (with a full complement of the tools of their trades)—even the skeleton of the ship’s dog (a whippet-terrier cross) and one of the rats he no doubt terrorized.

Remains of nearly half of the 400-man crew (all but 35 went down with the ship) were recovered, 97 of which were near-complete skeletons. Of these, seven were selected to serve as models for facial reconstruction, utilizing techniques employed by criminal forensic artists (view a fascinating video of the process here). Tentative occupational identifications were determined by location of the remains (see diagram above) and forensic analysis of the bones.

Wikipedia has a very thorough entry covering the ship itself as well as the recovery operations. Finally, you should take the time to watch this 45-minute documentary, “Ghosts of the Mary Rose”; it offers a new and highly plausible hypothesis for the ship’s untimely demise:

Rockin’ the cosmos: I recently profiled a fella who made music in outer space; this week I’ll introduce you to some folks who make music from space itself. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a grad student performing an internship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She’s working on a project that uses a process called sonification to translate data drawn from X-rays emitted by the EX Hydrae star system into sound patterns. The researcher can manipulate pitch, volume, and rhythm to produce something akin to music.

One day a colleague, Gerhard Sonnert—who also happens to be a bass player—noticed that the sound patterns Diaz-Merced was generating were reminiscent of a common Afro-Cuban rhythm called a clave. Enlisting the aid of his cousin, Volkmar Studtrucker (a professional composer), the pair wrangled the cosmic waves into musical compositions in a variety of genres. They’ve even released an album: “X-Ray Hydra.” Now that’s what I call avant-garde!

Network mad as hell“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoot & Leaves fame) advocates a subversive “no tolerance” approach to punctuation errors in signage—she’s even depicted in her author’s portrait poised before an offending sign with marker in hand and a mischievous grin plastered across her mug. But balaclavas notwithstanding, one would hope Truss didn’t intend to encourage “grammar terrorists” like Leonard Burdek.

Borrowing a dash of indignation from Howard Beale in the movie Network, Burdek waltzed into the reception area of the State of Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and declared that he had intended to blow up the sign outside because it was missing the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘and.’ To reinforce his point, he then sat a pressure cooker with wires hanging out of it on the counter.

Burdek claimed his home-brewed bomb misfired because there were so many grammatical errors in the online instructions he had trouble deciphering them. This decline in literacy should concern the organization responsible for certifying teachers, the mad bomber allegedly informed the shocked receptionist and her boss. He beat a hasty retreat when they dialed 911, but was soon arrested without incident (hey, he’s a grammar geek, not the Boston Marathon wingnuts). The “explosive device” was found to be fake and the whole affair a stunt to get attention and make a point. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Technology + words = art! I’d like to wrap up by calling your attention to a wonderful photographic study of the evolution of the typewriter by Vincze Mi Klós. Beginning with the first patent for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” in 1714, the portfolio continues on through the electronic Brother WP-1 in the mid-1980s. Would you believe that the first electric typewriter made its appearance in 1870? Steampunk aficionados, prepare to drool!

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Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/25/13

things come apartTechnology and culture embodied in art: Since we’ve still got a few days of Bike Month left, I thought I’d share some velo-centric goodness with y’all. To kick things off, get a load of photographer Todd McLellan’s wild photo of a dissected vintage road bike. This image, taken from the artist’s “Disassembly Series,” is just one of many quotidian items rendered as objets d’art that McLellan says, “have, are, or will be in our everyday lives.” The complete study is now available as a coffee table book called Things Come Apart.

Bike helmets work! Well, there’s a shock. I’ve addressed this issue before, and I’m gobsmacked that it takes a well-funded scientific study to conclude that you’ll protect your eggshell-like brain bucket by wearing a helmet. I’m equally appalled when I see a cyclist riding sans helmet—a transgression occasionally compounded by a helmet dangling from the handlebars. D’oh!

Some folks believe that commuting by bike is dangerous and are petrified of experiencing a Close Encounter of the Automobile Kind, but that seemingly rational fear has been proven fallacious. Still, when New York City announced its plan to launch a bike-share program, skeptics insisted that it would be unsafe, due to the automotive congestion (and the notorious recklessness of the cabbies of Gotham).

Mayor Bloomberg caved, so while it is apparently perfectly sensible to legislate the volume of sugary drinks New Yorkers can consume to protect them from diabetes, protecting his constituents’ heads from brain damage would be compromising their personal freedom. Go figure.

A recent piece on NPR reinforced the conclusion that cycle vs. automobile collisions are rare, but cycling crashes (with other bikes, pedestrians, or potholes) are in fact quite common. In any case, a helmet will protect your noggin. It’s just—sorry—a no-brainer. And counterintuitively, the report concludes, “the more people bike, the safer it may become.” Just wear yer dang helmet, people…

Silent spring of (18)62: You might think we’ve pretty much squeezed all the life out of the Civil War, but as Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln revealed, there are always new perspectives to be illuminated. As a Civil War historian myself, I was fascinated to learn that two academics have discovered another way to put old wine in new bottles. Timothy Silver and Judkin Browning, professors at Appalachian State University, received a $100,000 research fellowship to co-author an environmental history of the Late Unpleasantness.

The peripatetic migration of men and animals during the war years was largely contingent upon weather patterns, and the environmental impact of those movements on the local populace and the nation-at-large has yet to be the subject of academic scrutiny. For example, Silver believes that weather, rather than strategy or tactics, resulted in the termination of McClellan’s “On to Richmond” campaign. The environmental historian speculates, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation,” and therefore, no fodder for another Spielberg epic. Interesting theory, but there are a couple of pretty big “ifs” in there.

HhHH cvrMetonymic magic: “me·ton·y·my (noun) : a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.” So says Merriam-Webster. While the media is all atwitter with the announcement of the billion-dollar deal involving the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo! (who concocts these silly names?), I was, perversely perhaps, more entertained by James Fallows’s treatise on this obscure linguistic construct.

Fallows shares his readers’ comments regarding the subtleties that escaped elucidation in the dictionary definition. There are some colorful examples given to illustrate the point, my favorite being, “Calling [Karl] Rove ‘Turd Blossom’ is metaphor – he’s not actually a flower. Calling him ‘the Brain’ or ‘Bush’s Brain’ is metonymy – he is famous for his use of his brain.” To put a finer point on it, I suspect this particular metonym was a play on the German epithet, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (abbreviated as “HHhH”), which translates to: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful novel by the same name—check it out).

This may seem like so much pedantry to the average reader, but you’re not “average,” are you? Language matters. The proper use of our rather rich language is what separates the men from the boys in the world of intelligent, clear messaging (it’s just a figure of speech, so please don’t label me a “sexist pig”—that would be a metaphor, not a metonym).

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Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/12/13

This woman is wearing a bike helmet. Yes she is.

This woman is wearing a bike helmet.
Yes she is.

Bike commuters know they should wear a helmet, but hey, the dang things give you “helmet hair” for the rest of the day! That problem led two Swedish design grad students to put on their thinking caps. The result was the Invisible Bicycle Helmet. Unlike the king’s new clothes, the helmet’s really there — trust me. Think of it as an airbag for your head; it deploys when you need it. Do yourself a favor and watch this short documentary video. After graduation, the co-designers went into business to produce their innovative design commercially. They proudly proclaim: “We may be a small company, but we think big and we aim high. Delusions of grandeur are exactly what it takes!” Far be it from me to gainsay them. Diana Eng, watch out!

Growing pains… When a Canadian professor encouraged the 1,900 students in his psychology survey course to edit relevant Wikipedia articles as a voluntary assignment, they did — and all hell broke loose. The unexpected volume of edits made the open-source encyclopedia’s volunteer editors think they were the target of some sort of rogue troll. How could they possibly vet this tsunami of new data? Perhaps social media doesn’t always lend itself to educational applications. If this episode caused so much consternation, what will happen when the MOOCs attack?

PavegenWalkin’ on sunshine: After a successful initial trial during the London Olympics, the power-generating Pavegen tiles are now being installed in walkways all over the globe. Every time a foot depresses a tile, kinetic energy is harvested and converted into electrical power. Pavegen may not be the ultimate answer to our insatiable demand for more electricity, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Crowd-sourced proofreading: As you undoubtedly know, Project Gutenberg is an open-access initiative dedicated to the digitization of books for free distribution. The original tomes are scanned and converted into e-books for enhanced legibility, but OCR isn’t perfect, and all those pages need to be proofed by human eyes. As of two days ago, 100,000 volunteers from around the world have contributed to this noble effort. Project Gutenberg calls this herculean task “distributed proofreading,” and if you’d like to get involved, you can read more about it and sign up here.

Photographic archives are also making their way to the interwebs. The George Eastman House, “the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography,” is teaming up with the Google Art Project to make hi-res sccans of its collections available online. The initial offering comprises 50 photographs from the 1840s to the late 1900s; just a taste of the digital goodness to come.

The Tribeca Film Festival opens on April 17. An evangelist of new media (check out the TFF Spotify Playlist), the festival is showcasing a six-second streaming video category this year that’s open to all comers. Yes, I said six-second. Aspiring filmmakers use the Vine app and their smart phones to plant cinematic seeds. It’s kind of like video tweets. Indeed, twitter noted the similarity as well, and snapped up the start-up posthaste. Robert De Niro, co-founder of TFF, sees the six-second film competition as an artistically challenging exercise rather than a stunt: “Six seconds of beginning, middle and end. … you can tell a whole story in six seconds.” In fact, in order to be considered for the competition, you have to tell a complete story. It took you longer to read this blurb…

Google announced that it will be doing its part to help keep Austin weird by making the progressive Texas city the second testbed for its uber-fast Google Fiber Internet service. The project debuted in Kansas City, but Austin — home to the celebrated South by Southwest technology and culture festival — seems a more obvious choice for such a high-tech venture. So just how fast is Google Fiber? The company claims the new service will be about 100 times faster than conventional broadband. Do we really need the speed? “Need” is such a subjective word, don’t you think? Yes and yes.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/5/13

Image from the Book of KellsTrinity College Dublin recently posted individual hi-def images of every page (all 667 of ’em) of the justly famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of KellsWhat a wondrous orgy of color, calligraphy and ornamental design! The circa eighth-century masterpiece recently served as the inspiration for the highly acclaimed animated film, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2010. This is an outstanding example of what can be accomplished when technology influences culture in a good way.

Like the country itself, our language is seasoned with the polyglot contributions of an array of cultures. And that doesn’t even include the home-grown slang that is uniquely American. So how do you find the perfect word when you’re nowhere near your reference shelf or computer? Thesaurus Rex for the iOS to the rescue! More than a static e-book, T-Rex is an iPhone app that engages the power of digital technology to help you refine your searches. According to its developers’ marketing hyperbole, “Thesaurus Rex has revolutionized that ‘list of synonyms’ into a dynamic experience that sorts and filters words by their senses, relevance, complexity, and length.” I plan to give it a test drive; I welcome every tool that helps me write better.

As the academy struggles with the changing definitions of scholarly publishing in a digital world, Nature magazine offers a special issue devoted exclusively to the subject. Not surprisingly, the Open Access movement is an overarching theme: from OA’s influence on publishing costs and copyright issues to the explosion of shady operators usuing bogus journals to fleece unwitting scholars. There’s also a piece about the awesome Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative — about which more below.

The DPLA is envisioned to be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Think of it as the great Library of Alexandria rising Phoenix-like from its own ashes. You can read an excellent backgrounder on the project here.

And I’ll take this opportunity to note that my friend and colleague Dan Cohen has been tapped to take the helm as the inaugural executive director of the DPLA, so the program’s in very good hands. Dan was instrumental in the development of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, which serves as a polestar of the digital humanities movement. There’s already lots of interesting stuff at the DPLA website (so go have a look!), but the official launch is scheduled for April 18. This is history in the making, kidz — the DPLA will be the virtual house that we built.

Hands-free books? Publishing pundit Nathan Bransford philosophizes about how Google’s “Project Glass” might affect our reading habits. However, the cutting-edge specs are already being cloned in China, and an American firm (Vergence Labs) is offering its own iteration of the technology under the moniker of “Epiphany Eyewear.” Vergence claims its geeky-looking frames are a match for Google’s “smart glasses.” And the beat goes on…

book spine poetryIn celebration of National Poetry Month — you knew it was National Poetry Month, right? — we’d like to draw your attention to a couple of unique genres of that literary medium. The first involves creating poetry by stacking up books (the physical, dead-tree kind) and reading the titles as verse. It’s all the rage on Pinterest and Tumblr. Go ahead, give it a try! In a somewhat higher-tech (though equally arbitrary) approach, techno-geeksters Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo harness the autocomplete feature in Google search to generate “Google Poetics.” You can see the results posted on their Tumblr page. Yes, you can join in the fun, and fear naught, the Mighty Google won’t pull the plug on this project.

The embarrassment of riches offered by the mass of information easily accessed on teh webz offers the temptation to indulge in sloppy scholarship and cut ‘n paste research methods. But beware: failure to attribute sources can ruin your weekend. Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs prof (truth!) at Towson University, was busted for serial plagiarism and felt obliged to resign his position as head of the local school system’s ethics panel as a result. Wise move, Ben. A master of understatement, Neil defended his cadged scholarship saying, “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes.” D’oh! Consider this a cautionary tale, boys and girls. Purloin, publish and perish.

And while we’re on the subject: Mark Liberman (contributor at Language Log) commented on a blog post by John McIntyre, who was riffing on Roy Peter Clark’s blog post, who in turn cites Richard Posner’s Little Book of Plagiarism about a particularly abstruse aspect of literary replication Posner calls “self-plagiarism.” Whew! Now you can add the Digital Warrior-Poet to that list of breadcrumbs. And if you’re not seeing tracers yet (gotta love those psychedelics), note that there is a “National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication” going on at the American Copy Editor’s Society conference in St. Louis as I upload this post. Is it just me, or does the blog format tend to produce things that resemble the cover of Pink Floyd’s classicUmmagumma album, “Ummagumma”?

Finally, I’d like to note that the humanities lost a staunch evangelist this week with the passing of Roger Ebert. His fearlessness and accessible style brought film criticism out of the realm of literary snootiness and into our everyday lives. He taught us how to appreciate the intricacies of the cinematic medium and he did it with grace, humor and goodwill. In a time when we could really use a few more heroes, we are all the more conscious of our profound loss. Roger has taken a “leave of presence,” as he put it, and we will miss his wit and humanity. His passing stands as a gentle reminder to us all to embrace this day, this moment.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.