Typewriters to the rescue

I’m not sure it’s a scalable or long-term solution, but it’s good to see these machines being useful again.

Town dusts off typewriters after cyber-attack
Government workers in a borough of Alaska have turned to typewriters to do their jobs, after ransomware infected their computer systems. A spokeswoman for Matanuska-Susitna said the malware had encrypted its email server, internal systems and disaster recovery servers. She said staff had “resourcefully” dusted off typewriters and were writing receipts by hand.

It’s such a horrible problem though, isn’t it? According to the IT Director’s report, the most likely method of delivery was via an e-mail with a link to an infected website. I would hate to be that person right now.

Years ago and years away

I’m getting impatient for the future, it’s not coming quick enough.

Microsoft has been dreaming of a pocketable dual-screen Surface device for years
The Verge revealed last week that Microsoft wants to create a “new and disruptive” dual-screen device category to influence the overall Surface roadmap and blur the lines between what’s considered PC and mobile. Codenamed Andromeda, Microsoft’s project has been in development for at least two years and is designed to be a pocketable Surface device. Last week, Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, appeared to tease just such a machine, built in collaboration with LG Display. We’re on the cusp of seeing the release of a folding, tablet-like device that Microsoft has actually been dreaming of for almost a decade.

That was earlier this month, but here’s something from 2015 — concepts from years ago and still years away.

Microsoft obsesses over giant displays and super thin tablets in future vision video
While everyone is busy flicking and swiping content from one device to another to get work done in the future, it’s nice to see there’s still a few keyboards laying around. Microsoft also shows off a concept tablet that’s shaped like a book, complete with a stylus. The tablet features a bendable display that folds out into a bigger device. If such a tablet will exist within the next 10 years then I want to pre-order one right now.

But consider this:

Imagining Windows 95 running on a smartphone
Microsoft released their Windows 95 operating system to the world in 1995. 4096 created an amusing video that imagines a mobile edition of Windows 95 running on a Microsoft-branded smartphone. Move over Cortana, Clippy is making a come back.

It’s all very amusing to think of such old technology in this new setting, but we’ll be laughing at how old-fashioned the iPhone X is soon enough, I’m sure.

Iconic icons

Via kottke.org, here’s a great write-up of the contribution Susan Kare made to the success of the Macintosh. She started as a typeface designer but is best remembered for much more iconic work.

The sketchbook of Susan Kare, the artist who gave computing a human face
Inspired by the collaborative intelligence of her fellow software designers, Kare stayed on at Apple to craft the navigational elements for Mac’s GUI. Because an application for designing icons on screen hadn’t been coded yet, she went to the University Art supply store in Palo Alto and picked up a $2.50 sketchbook so she could begin playing around with forms and ideas. In the pages of this sketchbook, which hardly anyone but Kare has seen before now, she created the casual prototypes of a new, radically user-friendly face of computing — each square of graph paper representing a pixel on the screen.

[…]

There was an ineffably disarming and safe quality about her designs. Like their self-effacing creator — who still makes a point of surfing in the ocean several mornings a week — they radiated good vibes. To creative innovators in the ’80s who didn’t see themselves as computer geeks, Kare’s icons said: Stop stressing out about technology. Go ahead, dive in!

All these years later and her designs are still seen as culturally significant.

London’s Design Museum announces 2017 exhibition programme
“‘Designed in California’ is the new ‘Made in Italy’. … This ambitious survey brings together political posters, personal computers and self-driving cars but also looks beyond hardware to explore how user interface designers in the Bay Area are shaping some of our most common daily experiences. The exhibition reveals how this culture of design and technology has made us all Californians.”

Buyer (and seller) beware

Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!

Make of that what you will, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shopping is not what it was. It feels far riskier — and creepier —both for customers as well as vendors.

Who makes those insanely specific t-shirts on the internet?
One site, Sunfrog, implores a user to enter a range of my data (name, city, birth month/year, hobbies, job), and then generates hundreds of customized t-shirts — “just for you!” — in seconds. Another company boasts more than 10k variations of a single t-shirt phrase, with personalized names ranging from Aylin to Zara. Its catalog includes classics like “Never Underestimate A Woman Who Loves Stephen King And Was Born In April,” and “I’m a Tattooed Hippie Girl Born With a Mouth I Can’t Control.”

But as it turns out, the key to these operations (huge volume) can also be its curse — and oftentimes, these “algorithmically-generated” products can go terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s an understatement…

As it turns out, Fowler’s algorithm had served as a sort of demented Mad Libs, generating phrases like “Keep Calm and Rape Them,” and “Keep Calm and Grope On.”

If only that was the only one.

Last year, an Amazon retailer by the name of “my-handy-design” made an unwelcome splash on the internet over its questionable iPhone accessories. A series of cases featured a seemingly random (and, consequently, NSFW) variance of images, including old men suffering from diarrhea, heroin spoons, toenail fungus, and “a three year old biracial boy in a medical stroller.”

As well as being potentially upsetting for the shoppers that might stumble across them, these not-quite-real-but-existing-nonetheless products and the algorithms behind them can have disastrous effects on the businesses involved.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops
“It almost felt like somebody broke into your house or your personal life and started to take things away from you,” says Richard Burri, whose office stationery store was affected by the error. He and his wife estimate that the various computer algorithms working together would have cost the business between $100,000 and $150,000. Fortunately, the majority of the firm’s human customers who had bought one penny items agreed to return them when contacted.

Others found that buyers weren’t always so obliging. Shamir Patel sold pharmaceutical products via Amazon. He also asked customers to return one penny products, but he says about half of them refused to do so. The cost to his business, he calculates, was around £60,000. “You were a bit powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls. “You were literally just watching your money flush down the drain.”

But, of course, it’s not entirely the fault of the machines. Sometimes this is all deliberate.

The strange brands in your Instagram feed
What Ganon does is pick suppliers he’ll never know to ship products he’ll never touch. All his effort goes into creating ads to capture prospective customers, and then optimizing a digital environment that encourages them to buy whatever piece of crap he’s put in front of them. And he is not alone.

What a time to be alive.

Jenny Odell’s special investigative report for the Museum of Capitalism: “There’s no such thing as a free watch”
One interesting detail about this mystery company (in its many iterations) is where it draws the line in terms of deception. While the entire business model is obviously misleading, their FAQ sections sometimes include reassurances following the question “Is this a scam?” and always take care to mention that credit card details are handled by Shopify. The sites often include icons for Norton Secure and McAfee Secure, as if to provide even greater assurance. On a Reddit thread in r/Scams, in which people complain about the watches and discuss finding $1-2 versions on Amazon and Alibaba, Soficostal butts in only once, in response to a poster speculating whether it might be a credit card scam. Soficoastal writes, “We don’t have our customers Credit Card numbers. They are safely processed through Stripe or PayPal.” The negative posts then continue – “it’s just some lookalike from China worth peanuts … they gib you on shipping,” says one user – with Soficoastal remaining silent.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The problem with buying cheap stuff online
Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote.

Happy shopping!

Will you still love me when I’m physiologically 64?

Is the end nigh? New blood tests can reveal your life expectancy
“We showed that even among people who have no diseases, who are presumably healthy, we can still pick up differences in life expectancy. It’s capturing something preclinical, before any diseases present themselves,” she said.

“It’s picking up how old you look physiologically. Maybe you’re 65 years old but physiologically you look more like a 70 year old, so your mortality risk is more like that of a 70 year old.”

This is either going to end up as the next must-have app which we’ll all happily throw our medical data at, or a compulsory part of arranging life insurance that we won’t have any choice over.

Long live typewriters

I think Richard Polt’s Classic Typewriter Page was the first proper website I read, way back when. I had an Underwood No. 5 and was keen to learn more about it.

The Classic Typewriter Page : all about typewriters
I’m Richard Polt, the creator and webmaster for The Classic Typewriter Page. I grew up loving typewriters and have been collecting them in earnest since 1994. I’m the editor of ETCetera, the magazine of the Early Typewriter Collectors’ Association. I’ve been blogging with and about typewriters since 2010. And I’m the author of a book, The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.

classic-typewriter-page

I love the fact that the look of that website hasn’t changed at all over the years. It doesn’t need to. Here are some typewriter-related links, starting with some very odd-looking examples.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter – a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball
The Hansen writing ball was an outstanding invention. It was simple to use and, unlike the Remington typewriter, worked almost silently. Both the Remington and the Hansen writing ball were exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878, and the writing ball received a gold medal, but the Remington typewriter, according to a letter Malling-Hansen wrote that year, received only a silver medal. So, in the jury’s eyes, the writing ball was judged to be of better construction.

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This 1950s Keaton Music Typewriter is the most vintage and wonderfully impractical thing ever
It is estimated that between six and 24 of these machines are left in existence – and we hear that one was recently up for sale on Etsy for $6,000 (£4,290). Thanks to the fine folk at Musical Toronto for bringing this wonderful thing of oh-my-god-I-want-this-now beauty to our attention.

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The Waverley Standard Typewriter, England 1896
The distinguishing aspect of its design is the position of the type bars, which stand vertically behind the platen and swing down towards the typist to strike the top of the platen when typing. This was all about giving visible tying, where one could see what one had just typed. However, with the escape for the paper blocked by the type bars, the carriage design became quite complicated. To get a sheet of paper ready for typing, the bottom edge is pushed back a few inches on the three prongs that are seen under the three hoops of the paper bail in front of the carriage. As one types the paper goes up and around the platen and curls up into a cylinder in the paper bail. The paper is then pulled out sideways.

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Wanting to start your own collection?

Man selling $100,000 collection of 600 vintage Smith-Corona typewriters
My collection consists of over 600 typewriter items including the company’s first typewriter in the 1880’s to one of the company’s last typewriters in 2000’s and all models in between, along with all types of items that correspond to the typewriters, including ads, accessories, displays, documents, manuals, photos, shipping crates, etc. Smith Corona’s products are beautiful, interesting, unique, colorful, and when displayed, fun to look at.

They’re not all what they seem, though.

WWII Enigma machine found at flea market sells for $51,000
While the flea-market vendor thought the machine was a unique typewriter, the mathematician knew exactly what he was buying, and felt “compelled to purchase it.”

I didn’t realise the extent to which they’re still used today…

A prisoner’s only writing machine
I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”

… with people doing all sorts of things with them.

Sincerity Machine: the Comic Sans typewriter
“The Comic Sans typewriter was made after viewing a document with a typewriter font present in it; I realized there was nothing stopping me from altering a typewriter to write in a different font.”

A visual history of typewriter art from 1893 to today
Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

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Wanting something a little more modern?

Penna: a vintage typewriter-inspired bluetooth keyboard
Three years in the making, PENNA offers the feeling of a mechanical keyboard with keycaps that let you know if you actually typed that letter or not, helping to reduce mistakes. The keyboard will be available with either Diamond Shape Keycaps (rounded corners give a smooth feeling and aim for more accurate typing) or Retro Chrome Keycaps (more like an old typewriter), depending on your preference.

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It’s strange to see a ‘typewriter’ with a row of Function keys.

Hanx Writer, an iPad app by Tom Hanks that simulates the experience of a typewriter
Hanx Writer is an iPad app by actor Tom Hanks and developer Hitcents that simulates the experience of a typewriter. Hanks wrote in the New York Times in 2013 about his love of typewriters. The app recreates the sounds and general appearance of a typewriter with three models to choose from: the free Hanx Prime Select, the Hanx 707, and the Hanx Golden Touch.

So, in summary, they’re still going strong.

Documentary on the past, present and future of typewriters
There are 3 main stories: one is about a collector of pre-qwerty and rare old typewriters (Martin Howard), another about a struggling typewriter repair shop in Berkeley (California Typewriter), then there’s me and my typewriter vivisection.

Let’s end how we started, with Richard Polt.

The Typewriter Revolution
The Typewriter Revolution documents the movement and provides practical advice on how to choose a typewriter, use it, and care for it—from National Novel Writing Month to letter-writing socials, from type-ins to customized typewriters.

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This book was a great birthday present this week. I especially liked the ribbon bookmark.

Screen time questions

It’s long been understood that all these screens are changing how we’re interacting with each other. But are parents over-reacting a little?

The touch-screen generation
By their pinched reactions, these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. … On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Are we just biased, wanting to go back to the good old pre-screen days?

“The war is over. The natives won.” So says Marc Prensky, the education and technology writer, who has the most extreme parenting philosophy of anyone I encountered in my reporting. Prensky’s 7-year-old son has access to books, TV, Legos, Wii—and Prensky treats them all the same. … “We live in a screen age, and to say to a kid, ‘I’d love for you to look at a book but I hate it when you look at the screen’ is just bizarre. It reflects our own prejudices and comfort zone. It’s nothing but fear of change, of being left out.”

Or are we, in fact, the problem?

Parents’ screen time is hurting kids
Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning.

But if our children enjoy playing video games, that’s not a problem, right?

WHO classifies ‘gaming disorder’ as mental health condition
“I’m not creating a precedent,” said Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which proposed the new diagnosis to WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. Instead, he said, WHO has followed “the trends, the developments, which have taken place in populations and in the professional field.”

So it is a problem, then?

Screen time harm to children is unproven, say experts
Researchers say World Health Organisation’s warnings over ‘gaming disorder’ are premature and say other factors affect child wellbeing.

I’m glad that’s cleared up. It’s not like this is a formative time in our children’s lives or anything.

How our teenage years shape our personalities
The mood swings and stress you experience as you go through puberty can shape your brain to determine the person you will become.

Where did this all start, I wonder. What was it that first tricked us into staring at screens all day?

tamagotchi

My Tamagotchi is everything that went wrong with our future
My smartphone, I’ve realized, is also a Tamagotchi. My laptop is a Tamagotchi. My tablet is a Tamagotchi. These new Tamagotchis have nicer screens and more than three buttons, but more importantly, they’re hooked into much more elaborate guilt trips. Now it‘s not just a virtual pet at stake; it’s my friends, my family, and my work being held hostage in order to keep me pressing these stupid buttons.

Problematic face furniture

Ian Bogost from the Atlantic gets to grips with Apple’s wireless ear air bud head phone pod buds. Yes, they’re technically quite remarkable, but if they are as successful and therefore as ubiquitous as expected, they may change how we relate to each other.

Apple’s Airpods are an omen
There are some consequences to this scenario, if it plays out. For one, earbuds will cease to perform any social signaling whatsoever. Today, having one’s earbuds in while talking suggests that you are on a phone call, for example. Having them in while silent is a sign of inner focus—a request for privacy. That’s why bothering someone with earbuds in is such a social faux-pas: They act as a do-not-disturb sign for the body. But if AirPods or similar devices become widespread, those cues will vanish. Everyone will exist in an ambiguous state between public engagement with a room or space and private retreat into devices or media.

In the way that we didn’t realise old style traffic lights melt the snow that falls on them until we moved to LED traffic lights that don’t, I think we’re overlooking a benefit of using your hand to speak into your phone. As well as the visual clues it provides other people, as the article above points out, having your hand to your ear helps to keep your focus inwards, as well as slightly muffling your voice to keep your conversation to yourself. We’re already losing that with people talking into the mic on their earphones, and that’s only going to get worse.

I know I sound like one of those old farts that complain about the kids oversharing on social media, but perhaps this is just an extension of that — loudly oversharing conversations.

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Running low on memory?

Speaking of the perils of social media, here’s something else we might be able to blame it for.

How social media is hurting your memory
Each day, hundreds of millions of people document and share their experiences on social media, from packed parties to the most intimate family moments. Social platforms let us stay in touch with friends and forge new relationships like never before, but those increases in communication and social connection may come at a cost. In a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers showed that those who documented and shared their experiences on social media formed less precise memories of those events.

I’m very suspicious of that, though. This xkcd post puts the reasons why better than I can.

The piece concludes by almost contradicting itself.

The researchers concluded that the likely culprit of the memory deficit was not purely social media, because even taking photos or writing experiential notes without publishing them showed the same effects. Just interrupting the experience didn’t seem to hurt, because those who were instructed to reflect on a TED talk internally without writing retained as much information as those who watched it normally. Instead, it was the act of externalizing their experience — that is, reproducing it in any form — that seemed to make them lose something of the original experience.

I suppose leading with that conclusion might have made for a less attention-grabbing headline?

But perhaps our devices more generally might be good for our memory.

Old memories, accidentally trapped in amber by our digital devices
Designer and typographer Marcin Wichary started a thread on Twitter yesterday about “UIs that accidentally amass memories” with the initial example of the “Preferred Networks” listing of all the wifi networks his computer had ever joined, “unexpected reminders of business trips, vacations, accidental detours, once frequented and now closed cafés”.

Several other people chimed in with their own examples…the Bluetooth pairings list, the Reminders app, the list of alarms, saved places in mapping apps, AIM/iChat status message log, chat apps not used for years, the Gmail drafts folder, etc.

Reading about those examples makes me (almost) regret being such a tidy person who regularly deletes, wipes and reinstalls everything…

All as bad as each other?

Rhett Jones from Gizmodo strikes a cautionary note about Apple’s positioning following Facebook’s recent data sharing controversies.

Apple isn’t your friend
In its own deliberate fashion, Apple appears to see a market opportunity in the privacy debate that goes beyond polishing its own image. As headlines blared about Facebook’s latest data-sharing turmoil, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple has been quietly planning to launch a new advertising network for the past year. It’s said to be a re-imagining of its failed iAd network that was shuttered in 2016.

[…]

Generally, more competition is welcome. If Apple is giving Facebook and Google headaches, we say that’s great. But it’s a thorny issue when we’re talking about a few billion-dollar companies exchanging places on the ladder as they strive to be trillion-dollar companies. It’s just not enough for the least bad megacorp to keep the evil ones in check.