2010 in links

Apparently I got bored, because I put together the 2010-in-bookmarks post after all.

Turns out I bookmarked 734 things this year. Once I weeded out all the vim tips and Firefox plugins, I was surprised to discover that the single largest category of link was posts which I loosely group as being about thinking-about-thinking. Apparently cognitive biases and where they come from were a lot on my mind this year, for some reason. The next biggest category, less surprisingly, was links about writing and media (the Internet loves nothing more than talking about itself). I also present several reviews I consulted in preparing my review of The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which book was apparently a bit of a thorn in my psyche. After that we're well into the weeds, category-wise, but that's frankly where a lot of the interesting stuff is, so here you go.


Thinking about Thinking


Cloud computing

Writing, media, publishing

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Read this

not another year-end wrapup post

I really can't stand the best-of-year posts blogs and magazines tend to do around now, where they list the 17 best whatevers of the year which is coming to a close in lieu of producing new content, in the unlikely event you weren't paying attention the first time they talked about whatever it was. (Video game review magazines, I'm looking at you.)

This is not one of those posts.

I have, with this post, made forty-six blog posts this year, hardly enough for a best-of when ten at least are Asimov's reviews, so you can peruse them uncurated at your leisure if you are in dire need of a review. (I was shooting for one a week as part of Iron Blogger, which event appears to be winding down in the manner of a toy whose spring tension is about exhausted. It nevertheless appears to have had the intended effect of getting some of us into the blogging habit! So don't worry, I'm not going to stop posting here, and I will probably continue my erratic mostly-once-a-week schedule.)

If you find yourself in dire need of a year-end summary post of some kind, you might read my friend Richard Tibbetts's 2010 The Year In Bookmarks, which is a collection of interesting links from the past year. I considered doing a similar post, but my bookmarks aren't really intended for public consumption — the bulk of my links from the past year seem to be vim tips and Firefox plugins, for some reason — and I got bored separating the wheat from the chaff before I had anything resembling a coherent post. Perhaps if I get really bored this upcoming week, but only perhaps. (Edit: Apparently I got bored.)

If you find yourself in dire need of my predictions for the upcoming year, well, I have only one prediction, about science fiction writing, but that is forthcoming in another post because it was threatening to overtake this one, so you will have to wait. Rest assured that it is not an obvious prediction like "the flood of paranormal romance, urban fantasy, Classic Literature WITH ZOMBIES, and steampunk books will continue unabated". Because that one is obvious. And there's nothing particular to my prediction which necessitates it being made at this time of year, this is just when I happened to get around to writing it up.

If you find yourself in dire need of resolutions for the year, I think it's stupid to promise things to yourself and to the world at the nadir of the year, in its darkest days, when you feel crappiest about yourself and your place in the world. You should wait until April or May and then figure out what you don't like about your life and want to change. (Helpful hint: If your resolution doesn't include a process change, you will fail. Attempting to solve a longstanding problem by "trying harder" is bullshit and has never worked for any real person in the history of the world. It's only a recipe for heartbreak and self-loathing. Try differently instead. Not that I speak from personal experience here or anything.)

In short, 2010 is almost over and 2011 is coming. Look out!

january 2011 asimov’s

In magazine publishing, the new year begins… well, whenever the January issue hits the stands, which is usually a month or two in advance of the actual calendar date. So we're into a new year for Asimov's even if we've still got a couple weeks to go before January 1st. There weren't any real standouts in this issue, but there were a solid three or four compelling stories, so it was a pretty good issue all told.

  • "The Backward Banana", by Martin Gardner — The first thing in the issue of note is a puzzle, as you might have guessed if you recognize the author's name, told as a single-page science fiction short-short story. Apparently these ran regularly in Asimov's for a bit under the first decade of its run, and it's a cute little thing. It's neither as tight, nor as opaque, nor as hard as the puzzles I'm used to, written for the MIT Mystery Hunt, but the skills I've developed there came in handy to solve it, and I had fun doing so.
  • "Two Thieves", by Chris Beckett (novelette) — A bit of a swashbuckler, I guess ("novela de capa y espaza," literally "story of cape and sword," as I have just learned it would be called in Spanish). It's cute enough, but the characters are stock, and it's not subtle with its images and tropes. Fun, but nothing more than that.
  • "Dolly", by Elizabeth Bear (short story) — Fans of Bear's Shadow Unit will recognize her facility with police procedural detail at work here. As always, she builds layered and believable characters with an economy of strokes, and, though there's nothing new about the big idea at work here, she draws it to a real-world, logical conclusion in a way I found deeply satisfying.
  • "Visitors", by Steve Rasnic Tem (short story) — A middle-aged couple go to visit their son in a cryogenic facility which, we gradually discover, is also his prison. That's an application of cryogenic tech I confess I hadn't considered before, and it's interesting in its implications. Unfortunately they're not drawn out especially well, I didn't really connect with the story otherwise, and it doesn't really go anywhere. It did do better than average at letting me figure out what was going on rather than telling me up-front.
  • "Interloper", by Ian McHugh (short story) — The setting here is interesting — a potentially post-apocalyptic Australia where a Torchwood or Primeval-style interdimensional rift has appeared, spewing dinosaurs and odd powers and things that go bump in the night, the titular Interlopers. The main characters are a circus of people touched by the rift, who are also not coincidentally on the lookout for anyone like them, which of course goes wrong. The ending is sort of predictable, but there are worse things to say about a story. Lots of good detail, lots of good showing-not-telling, and it did keep me guessing for a bit. A fun story.
  • "Ashes on the Water", by Gwendolyn Clare (short story) — This is a bit of a travelogue or maybe quest story, as a young woman in India looks for the river on which to spread her sister's ashes. (It feels a bit like it could be set in Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl universe, a few decades before Bacigalupi's work takes place, the strongest similarities being its non-Western setting and its preoccupation with water.) I felt for the protagonist, and she seemed well-drawn. The story did feel a bit preachy, and it has the usual potential for problems that all fiction about non-Westerners written by Westerners does, of which I'm not a good judge because I'm a Westerner too.
  • "Killer Advice", by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (novella) — Despite being set on a space station, this is a traditional locked-room mystery, and (except for its murder weapon) could be set in any of the traditional settings for such. The characters are mostly stock characters one recognizes from other such work — the officious hotelier, the alcoholic doctor, the moneyed widow, the captain's daughter, etc. It's a fun read, as evidenced by the fact that I actually finished it (I don't usually read the novellas). It's been a while since I've read a mystery story, and it was fun to revisit the genre. The stock characters are stock for a reason — they work. That said, this is not, unfortunately, anything like a tightly-plotted story. The information necessary to solve the mystery isn't given to the reader until the characters themselves discover it, so no figuring it out on your own for the perceptive mystery readers in the audience, and there's a careless red herring early on — one of the characters uses the past tense to refer to the first victim before the character knows the victim is dead — which perceptive mystery readers will pick up on and be distracted by for the next twenty pages. Thankfully it is just twenty or so pages, so one can ride with the plot along the well-worn ruts of the genre in easy enjoyment and reach the destination before the journey becomes tedious.

Every year Asimov's runs a Readers' Award poll, which seems a remarkably straightforward way to encourage it to print more of the interesting things I like. At some point in the next few weeks I'll go through the posts I've made here and extract some semblance of a top three in each length category, which is what the poll calls for, also conveniently good Hugo nomination fodder, and I'll probably post them here as well. Best is always a dicey proposition — best on what axis? — but I'll pick an axis, and it'll do for this purpose.

a press run, or, new business cards!

As promised on Sunday, this is the post about what I did this weekend.

The press shop got an e-mail last Wednesday from a grad student at MIT. He was flying out to a conference on Monday and needed business cards, and one of the administrators in his lab suggested he talk to us. Could we help him?

The short answer was, we could. (Because it was such short notice, we charged him our rush fee—$3. We’re cheap. 🙂 It’s not always the case that the printshop can do jobs that quickly, because many of our press operators are undergrads and often hosed [0], especially at this time of year (finals!), but it so happened that my housemate Matt, who’s just finishing up his master’s, and I, who am no longer a student, had a free day this past weekend and felt like doing a press run.

Since the grad student only wanted 200 cards made, and it’s a lot of work to set up and clean up the press, I decided to print business cards for myself as well, a project I’ve been sitting on for over a year now. (This is the third job I’ve done on the press—in MIT APO it takes two jobs to become a press operator, a training and a qualifying run—and this was my first without one of the journeymen—the alums who train press operators—present to help me if I got stuck, so I’m still learning a lot, and I wasn’t really confident I could do a job all on my own.)

meet the press

This is a press. A letterpress, to be specific. APO’s letterpress, in point of fact. (APO is Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed non-residential service fraternity, and while an undergrad I became a brother of Alpha Chi, the MIT chapter. Alpha Chi runs a printshop which provides printing services to the MIT community at-cost, and while an undergrad I was trained in its use and became a press operator, as was Matt. So—APO’s letterpress. And APO’s press-ops.)

APO's letterpress

What is a letterpress? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s Wikipedia on the subject, but they’re tedious, so here’s the executive summary—a letterpress’s main distinguishing features are that it’s sheet-fed, rather than using paper in continuous rolls like a modern newspaper press; it uses a mechanical process to apply ink to paper, rather than an electrostatic process like your laser printer or copy machine; and ink is applied to the type (a positive) and then the type is applied to the paper, instead of applying ink to the paper through the image (a negative), as in screen printing.

Basic letterpress anatomy: The big silvery plate you see at the top of the press in the above photo is where the ink goes; it should spread out and evenly coat the plate. The white horizontal bit not bordered in duct tape is the bed, where the paper you’re printing on goes. It will rotate to be nearly vertical when it touches the type block, which gets mounted on the vertical metal bit you can sort of see under the ink plate. You can’t see the roller, because it’s hiding at the bottom of the press. The basic mechanism of the press works like this—the roller picks up the ink from the plate at the top of their swing, spreads it across the type as it moves down, the type is pressed against the paper with the roller out of the way at the bottom, and the cycle repeats. Perceptive readers will note that this means the plate is inked twice, once on the upswing and once on the downswing.

APO’s letterpress is a circa 1922 Chandler & Price hand-fed full-size platen job press.

Chandler & Price, Cleveland, Ohio

It’s made of steel, powered by an electric motor, and weighs a few tons. Presses aren’t the kind of thing you move frequently.

What follows is a layman’s description of the process of printing—I’ve glossed over some very important steps because they’re not that interesting, and you shouldn’t actually use it as a set of instructions for how to operate a letterpress! Want to learn how to print for real? If you’re a current MIT student (undergrad or grad), you should join APO!


The process of printing anything starts with a design, scratched out on a piece of paper or, these days, prototyped on a computer, sometimes even in a real desktop publishing program. It can be challenging to fit all of the information you need to provide onto the tiny amount of paper you’re trying to print, to say nothing of making it look good. Thankfully type comes in standard heights, measured in points. (A point in metal type is approximately 1/72nd of an inch. There are twelve points to the pica and six picas to the inch. Points are still how font heights are measured in eg. your word processor, though they’ve been standardized to exactly 1/72nd of an inch in modern computer typesetting—both 12-point Garamond in Word and on APO’s press should come out to be about a third of an inch high on the printed page.)

Horizontal spacing is a little harder, because letters in most typefaces have different widths (an ‘i’ is much narrower than an ‘m’, for example), but printers standardized on using the width of the character ‘m’ to measure horizontal space, so if I know how many of my typeface’s ‘m’s wide my sheet of paper is, I can gauge how many letters I can fit on it. (In practice I tend to just eyeball these things, and do horizontal layout as I set the type.) This is what someone means when they talk about an “em-dash”, for example, or an “en-dash”—a dash as wide as the character ‘m’ or the character ‘n’, respectively. (There, I just used one (an em-dash)! And not even intentionally!)

There’s another word I’ve been using which you may not know—typeface. Where I say ‘typeface’, think ‘font’. A font is not quite a typeface in physical typesetting (here’s Wikipedia on the history and the difference), but we do tend to use them interchangeably these days, even in the press shop.


Once we have done our design, figured out roughly where we want things to go on the page and what sizes and faces of type to use, we pick the type, one letter at a time, out of type drawers like this.

a type drawer

The type is made of lead, which is a soft metal, and easy to work and cast, so it takes the fine shapes of the type beautifully. It is also very poisonous if ingested, so we wash our hands after working with it, and we don’t take food into the press shop. (Food in the press shop is just a bad idea, period. Who wants hamburger on their wedding invitations?)

After we assemble a line of type, we surround it with leading (long sheets of lead used to provide space between lines of text). Eventually we end up with a block of type. Here’s the block for my new business cards:

a block of type

The block of type is locked into a cast iron frame called a chase, secured with wooden furniture and spring-loaded quoins, and the chase is what goes into the press. Getting your block of type to lock up properly, so pressure is distributed evenly and pieces of type aren’t falling out, is one of the several parts of the printing process which is error-prone, more art than science, and can get frustrating, especially for novice printers, when you have to unlock your block for the tenth time and add more tiny metal shims to get the lines of type to line up just right.

press setup

Next the press is inked, and you run a test impression on a scrap piece of paper to make sure that your type is okay. Because lead type is so soft, if you accidentally drop a piece, or misassemble your block, or have the press mis-set, or seemingly look at the type funny, it will deform and you will no longer have a proper looking letter. Sometimes it’s minor, for example one of the serifs is missing. (Serifs are the little extra lines perpendicular to the ends of big long strokes that letters in some typefaces have.) Sometimes it’s a bigger deal—your ‘m’ looks like an ‘n’, or your ‘e’ is printing more heavily than the rest of your letters (think a single bold letter in the middle of a word), or your ‘i’ simply isn’t printing at all. When these things happen, you have to take the chase out, unlock it, and use a tweezers to replace the bad pieces of type with better ones, before locking it up again and putting it back in the press to try again. Sometimes you have to iterate several times before you get a block of type that is free from errors the average person would notice.[1]

Now you need to set the pins (seen here holding one of my business cards).

hot off the press!

The pins hold the paper you’re printing on (in this case, a blank business card) at the proper location and at the proper orientation on the bed of the press so that the text prints where you want on the page and, as always, the text is straight. The bed of the press is covered with thick scrap paper. (We like the glossy textbook covers some organization was handing out on campus some years ago, and have a big stack.) The underside of each pin slips under the piece of paper on the bed and anchors it, and then the end nearest the paper is hammered (gently!) into the bed and taped down for good measure. Solidly anchored pins are vital to not losing too many pieces to misalignment and being able to feed the press quickly. You don’t have much time to take the printed piece of paper out and put a blank piece of paper in when you’re feeding the press, and if your pins shift on you, you will often print misaligned pieces or need to disengage the bed and reset the piece in the press. Setting the pins is another of the finicky attention-to-detail moments in printing, and on Sunday Matt and I spent a good half hour or more getting the alignment right.


Once you are printing test pieces you’re happy with, you’re ready to actually feed your job. This is the part of printing you’re most likely to think of as printing, and I enjoy it a lot. Put a piece of paper in. Take a piece of paper out. Repeat. It can be frustrating while you’re still learning, as you’ll flub pieces or get ink on the bed or otherwise screw up with some frequency, but once you get decent at it you can get into a rhythm as you feed and it becomes sort of meditative. The press has a rhythm, and it will speed up as it warms up, so you learn to listen to it and give it what it needs, when it needs it, so the whole process can proceed smoothly. With business cards I care that they absolutely not get smudged, and the ink we use dries exceptionally slowly (which is a good thing, believe me!), so I put my business cards in our metal output trays and let them sit out in the shop to dry overnight.

finished cards in output trays

After I had printed everything, all that was left was to clean up the press (I make it sound so easy! it’s not), fill out the paperwork to pay APO for the business card stock I had used, and deliver the grad student’s business cards to him at his dorm (around midnight) so he had them when he left for the conference the next day. (At no extra charge!)


Here’s what my finished business cards look like!

the finished card!

My name is set in 18-point Garamond, the tagline is 10-point Garamond Italic, and the web site and e-mail address are 12-point Garamond.

I set the type last fall, before I dropped the Electrical Engineering half of my major, so the tagline, “hacker, hardware and software,” is a bit more aspirational than I’d like, but I didn’t feel like resetting it and couldn’t come up with something better on the spot. To explain: at some point late last year I looked around and realized that my friends who had jobs in computer science seemed generally happier than my friends who had jobs in electrical engineering, and realized that if my electrical engineering classes were making me unhappy and seemed unlikely to lead to happiness in the future, maybe I should drop the EE half of my major and focus on CS. Yes, it took me six years to realize this. Some dreams die harder than others, and I can be stubborn to a fault, a trait I’m sure my relatives will recognize. The family resemblance is strong, and it’s a trait that has often served us in good stead. I can’t say it hurt me—it got me through MIT, after all! I’m still fascinated by hardware, know enough to be dangerous, and want to learn more, I just don’t really ever have cause to need to know the details of silicon doping. 🙂

I’m very happy with my business cards, and I’m happy to be able to say that I set and printed them myself on a nearly-century-old piece of technology. I’ve got a few other projects I’d like to try with the press, linoleum block printing being the next big one. And, of course, if you need business cards, or wedding invites, or something else it’s within our capabilities to do (full-color photographs are Right Out); you’re okay with an often-long and always high-variance turnaround time; and you would like whatever it is made on a letterpress—you should talk to us!

[0]^ hosed. MIT slang. “adj. (1) Bogged down with work, when referring to a person. (2) Bogged down with packets, when referring to the network.” —How to Get Around MIT 2006-2007, p.363. Compare general hacker usage, “Getting an Education from MIT is like taking a drink from a Fire Hose.”
[1]^ As with cue dots and movie projectionists, once you have started printing you will likely start to notice printing issues everywhere.

a coupout blog post

This is a copout post for this week's Iron Blogger. It's a copout post because I just spent twelve hours in the print shop, and I should really go to bed. Rest assured that I will shortly have a post up telling you all about it — just, not tonight, and not in time for the 6 AM Iron Blogger deadline.

Now I'm going to go try to get some of the ink out from under my fingernails. Argh.