Thursday, December 31

Overtly Complete

Further proof that everything you can think of is already old news on the Internet: the Postage Stamp Calculator.

I'm in a postcard exchange network, Postcrossing, and so I'm sending postcards out to all nations of the world. Currently my sending limit is up to nine cards out there at once--everyone starts with a limit of five cards and you prove your devotion over time. Sometimes I have the appropriate postage and sometimes I've got a random assortment of stamps.

And sometimes I want to send a nice postcard that happens to be square. Square letters and postcards incur an additional 13¢ because they have to be hand-cancelled. Postal processing machines can't right the card/envelope into an appropriate position if it's not rectangular, so the post office has to tack on a little fee for the manual processing, yet the post office does not sell 13¢ stamps.

Enter the postage calculator. Type in all the denominations of postage stamps you have, type in your required postage, and it easily figures out how many of which stamps you need to meet the postage requirements. Sometimes you'll go over the amount, sure, but it's usually by only a few cents and it's still easier than driving to the nearest post office and buying the exact amount of stamps.

Or maybe it's not. If it's not, you should definitely patronize your local post office. If it's an inconvenience (like for me, between the holiday crowds and all the streets being coated in glare ice), go ahead and use up some of the extra stamps you have lying around.
Q: Is it easier to type in all the denominations of postage you have or to do the simple math and figure it out for yourself?

A: Go away.

Tuesday, December 22

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 5

This is a clothes-rack of printed holiday cards drying, waiting for use. We have big plans for these, and we purposely made too many because I suspect that will not even be enough. Having collaborated on a fairly intricate and involved project like this, we're going to want to share the results with as many people as possible.

Personally, I was exceedingly pleased with how clean this print came out, how precisely the black print went upon the colored background without skootching over to the side or anything. I aligned both templates to the lower right corner of the foam waffle-surfaced pad of the Print Gocco, and that proved (in this instance, at least) a sufficient guide to line up the two prints. You can see how it could've gone wrong, right? The colors slightly to the right, the black lines slightly to the left, and it looks like a factory over-run. Bracing ourselves for that kind of disaster, we simply insisted that it would add to the homespun appeal of an amateur, homemade project.

"Homespun!" was my rallying cry throughout, every time a blob of ink smeared on the back of a card, or when colors of ink found ways to transgress their borders or when ink ran dry in an area. "Homespun!" represented the quaint, one-of-a-kind quality that a mass-production factory would throw out and chalk up to losses. Not so with us: some lucky recipient will come into possession of a flawed, sloppy (read: homespun) printing.

But actually, the cards came out great. I was impressed with how well they lined up and how clear the illustration came out. Even the worst of the batch still looked great! And I'd like to point out my wife's experiments with non-white backgrounds. Green paper wasn't ideal, and black paper was of course completely useless, but the grey cardstock is an interesting relief from the monotony of white. My favorite was the off-beige paper, like cheap elementary school drawing paper, and if I'd known how affectionate I would be for this effect I might have done the entire run with that paper. It creates a humble yet precious atmosphere with the image.

Oh, but we're not done yet.

Monday, December 21

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 4

Here you can see what the first print looks like: large, amorphic shapes of color on a white background. You get the general suggestion of what the finished image is going to look like, which will really come to life once the black outlines are printed. Oh yes, I'm going to outline everything in black. That's something I haven't tried before.

The question there is, how thick should the outline be? Thick enough to cover the broad white gutters between the colored shapes? I opted not to do that but just to encapsulate the brown fur of the sock monkey ("fur" used in its loosest sense, of course) and draw eyes and mouth over the face, literally superimposing these over those features heretofore represented by large, vague colored areas.

Note this triptych: it is the progression of experience, application, and discovery.

When I printed the large colored shapes, ink ran over the entire stencil (between the protective layer and the mesh screen), going far beyond the areas I'd designated. That sprawl didn't print onto the paper, of course, but it represented a hell of a lot of wasted ink. "Gunk it up with lots of ink" is fine advice, but within reason: you're also throwing a lot of ink away unless you take pains to contain it.

And I did, as shown in the first photo. I readily availed myself of that adhesive grey foam and built narrow chambers for almost every single black line on the stencil. That ink was going to stay put and serve me only to goosh out through the mesh and onto the paper--no more of this broad spread of wasted resources!

The second picture shows you what I mean, and this is what it looked right before printing. Every tortuous alley is fully loaded with black ink. And it's not a lot of ink, either: a thin distribution proved sufficient for 20 prints before reloading!

The third photo reveals what I couldn't have foreseen. The broad spread of ink in the lower left is where the ink actually gooshed up over the foam wall and into terra incognito. That was doubtlessly the result of too much ink in one area, so a thinner strip would have served me. You can also see a couple joints bleeding with black ink where the seal wasn't secure. That's fine, it was still minimal spread and most of the ink stayed where I wanted it. Bonus: I only needed to refill the stencil once in the whole run, and when the cards were done I printed eight sheets of stationery with the black sock monkey outline as well as a stack of cards leftover from our wedding invitations. Now we have a supply of all-purpose sock monkey greeting cards waiting to be colored in.

Next: the finished product.

Sunday, December 20

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 3

With the foam barriers in place, it was time to start inking the stencil. The red lips and brown fur would be easy because the colors those inks came in were suitable entirely on their own, but the blue was way too dark for the sky, unless the image was to represent night. That was not how we planned it.

Having worked with this blue Gocco ink in the past, I was quite prepared to mix it up. Adding white to blue ink was a complete failure and resulted in a not-noticeably less-dark night sky, so this time I drew out ten lines of white ink and one line of blue ink. This turned out to be a very good ratio, and when I mixed up the ink it produced a nice light blue sky color. But this mixture had to be manually spread onto the stencil. Lacking a thin, flexible paint knife with a narrow edge, I had to improvise. I tried a chopstick, which was fine for blending the ink but terrible for precise placement. Rebecca got me a plastic spoon which worked much better, especially when it broke: the handle was thin enough to daub the ink in tight turns and narrow areas.

Spreading the brown and red ink were no problem whatsoever. The thing to remember with the Gocco is to use a lot of ink: gunk it up. Really. If you're going to print a lot, of course you know you'll need a lot of ink, but even the instructional video suggests being wasteful. This is because the ink will not distribute itself evenly, despite your best efforts, and one area will become thin and then barren while everywhere else is still going strong. You can certainly refill the template while you're printing, but that is such precarious business! You peel back the protective plastic layer that's holding the ink down and the ink has of course applied itself to the underside of that. So you've got two goopy, inky surfaces facing you like a book of malign intent, into which you must delve and reapply the ink. That's not so bad if you're refilling a solid color, but if you have to blend and reapply a custom color--such as I had to, three times--you're asking for trouble the longer you're meddling with it.

I was disappointed to see the waffle-print in the stencil. I've seen it before and forgotten about it, but it showed up prominently in this run of cards so I'm going to document how to preclude this (probably).

That waffle-print comes from the foam cushion inside the Print Gocco. When you're making a stencil, you have a foam platform with a thin coat of plastic and that waffle-print surface, and upon that you place the image (carbon-black lines on a white background) and the blank template. The flash bulbs quickly build heat in the black ink which burns an impression into the template, and it's through that impression the ink must flow. But the waffle-print comes into play if you don't put a thicker card behind the white sheet with the blank ink on it. Place a thicker card back there, or a few sheets of regular paper, to mitigate the channels formed in the waffly foam surface and the paper with the black image will be nice and flat for the template. I won't make that mistake again.

Loaded with ink, the template slides securely into the lid of the Print Gocco and locks into place. It really is a cunning device: having forgotten the instructions (and not being able to read Japanese), I was still able to figure out how to place the stencil because there truly is only one way it can go in. And once it was in the rest of the process came flooding back to active memory, and I knew how to load the ink and everything else.

You can see the loaded stencil in place, and the white sheet below it would be replaced by 50 folded pieces of cardstock in succession. This is the fun part of the whole thing, notable for a project that is fun all the way through. I want to save the Gocco for special occasions, but once I get going on it I don't want to stop. Using this device is simplicity itself: drawing the design in Photoshop is harder than transferring it to the stencil and loading it with ink. Printing is so easy, more thought is required in strategizing where the printed items will be arrange to allow them to dry. And once the cards were done, I literally glanced around the room to see if there were anything else that needed printing on...

Saturday, December 19

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards 2

Now that the printing of the holiday cards actually seemed real and within reach, we moved swiftly on the next steps: printing the color background.

Most of the cards we're working with are of white cardstock, which is an easy and generous canvas on which to paint. All colors will show true and with some clever negative-space design, you don't need to use any white ink at all. I used that concept for the snow-covered tree in my holiday cards of a few years ago. But as Rebecca showed me, it pays to experiment with different colors of paper... to be seen shortly.

Photoshop goes a long way towards covering the bulk of the work that's required to create a template. I freehanded a prototype card and kept every element of the illustration separate in its own layer. I knew that for printing the card I would want to do the black outline last, so ultimately the sky, monkey's fur, and monkey's lips would go on one stencil. Three different colors, but the ink couldn't be allowed to run, which it assuredly would if I didn't set up any barriers.

The Gocco comes with foam pads that you cut up into narrow strips. One side has an adhesive that mounts onto the stencil, so you can create little walls to hold areas of ink separate from each other. I'd never played with this before and was looking forward to trying it out. It was easier than I'd thought, as the foam was very forgiving, bending in all directions or trimming easily for sharp corners. The adhesive formed a strong bond but, upon pressing, you had a short grace period in which to reapply the barrier if it didn't go where you wanted. It was pretty much an ideal substance to work with.

As seen in the second photo, I walled off the sock monkey's head from the sky (the large dark blob surrounding him) and sealed off a little chamber for the red mouth. It was important to think of this image in two forms: the detailed black lines and the large geometric shapes behind it. Photoshop allowed me to reveal or hide any aspect of the image so, in the course of drawing, I could also plan how much room would be needed by the foam barriers--or, in other words, how close areas of color would be allowed to lie next to each other.

I could have narrowed the space between the colored shapes, of course, by giving each color its own stencil, but that would have been two extra stencils and four more flash bulbs (part of the stencil-making process) down the drain. I'm trying to conserve Gocco resources because it's a deadstock item and no one's making more/new supplies for it anymore. That forces me to get creative with how I'm going to print.

Friday, December 18

Crafty Advice

I'm still working on the holiday cards but they're not done yet, so I still can't publish the photo-documentation of making these things. Because there's so many of them, it's a lot of work to execute each stage. My wife and I alternate shifts of motivation: sometimes she's all, "We've got to get these out the door this weekend," and I'm stuck playing free MMOs for my other blog. Alternately, I'm all, "Please do your part of the writing on the backs of the cards," because the handwriting would turn out all uneven once the interior mechanism is in place, and she's fixated on World 6 of Super Mario Bros. Wii.

But we are getting it all done, slowly done. I'm also learning a lot throughout the process. A few days ago I was talking with her about what it is I really, really need in terms of stationery. I saw this intriguing Japanese postcard kit--it uses shaped foam brushes instead of hair-tipped brushes--and realized that I already own the most important elements of that kit. It wasn't worth $24 for materials that could be gotten cheaply as individual parts. So I decided what I really needed was stronger cardstock, since I tried using the post office's pre-stamped postcards for a watercolor project and they warped all to hell. I was frankly surprised they reached their destination.

Harder cardstock is easily had, but does that solve all my problems? I can print my own stationery, I can cut out my own envelopes... ah, there we go! I need to create a more attractive laser printing system for address labels! Because I can find some appealing but very busy design on paper, carve it into an envelope, and there's no way I could use any kind of writing implement to scribe an address any person or machine could read (though I wonder if there is a reactive ink that a postal scanner could read better than the naked eye can? And if it's invisible, my gosh, wouldn't that be cool!).

Eventually I realized the problem isn't in the labels, it's in the adhesive. Remember how that one address label fell off of the envelope I sent to a new pen pal? And I've had other envelopes fall apart because the glue stick I used to seal them was grossly inadequate. And now I'm at a point in the holiday card assembly where I need to fold the cards in half and seal them in such a way the internal mechanism can move freely. I would've tried glue stick but actually used it all up on the internal mechanism (sorry to be so cryptic, you'll see what I mean soon) and had to fall back on this cheap Elmer's transparent glue gel, which is entirely unsuitable for this task. This morning I found that much of my binding had come unbound, and with a distinct lump in the center of each card, it's impossible to place a weight upon the card and ensure an even press all over its topography. The solution to that might be a small sandbag or even a bag of sugar/flour, in terms of household items, but I'm not going to fill 50 freakin' sandbags and spread them all over cards on the floor just to get a secure seal!

And then it hit me: I lost my job last Tuesday and, with my new-found free time, kept myself busy by sealing up the windows with sheets of plastic. Annual Minnesotan tradition for anyone who likes to keep warm. It took me way too long to realize that the double-sided Scotch window insulation tape is the perfect item for my stationery jobs!

I bought a spool of so-called double-sided tape before and it was crap. The adhesive itself peeled away from the plastic strip that was supposed to be coated on both sides. It was also unwieldy to use, tended to get tangled and folded, and brought much more frustration than convenience to my project. But this simple roll of Scotch window insulator tape peels off easily, pastes down neatly, trims handily, and whipping off its paper backing is simplicity itself. And that seal will hold! This is excellent tape, and I think I'm going to stop by the local hardware store and stock up on a couple rolls for personal use. Why didn't this occur to me before?

UPDATE: I got the cards finished and am hand-writing address labels to get them sent out tomorrow! I can start releasing my tedious photo-documentary!

Thursday, December 10

Audiobook Debate

Well, in the search for "other things to talk about" until our handmade holiday cards are done, I can muse about audiobooks.

There's a debate about these, has been for a couple years, and it's surprising to see who's on which side of the debate.  It flared up within the periphery of my consciousness when Rebecca got me an Amazon Kindle for a birthday/graduation present last April. I was all excited about it because I figured it was a luxury technology far beyond my reach, so I did some research about what it does, what it requires, what it's capable of, &c.

In this research I discovered one of its features is a voice synthesis program which can "read" aloud the digitized text on the screen. You can choose between a male or female voice, both speaking in an American dialect. The feature is for people who need their hands free, I guess, and can't hold the Kindle to click the Next Page button, or maybe for sightless individuals who can still download books and blogs in this way.

But there's an encampment of audiobook proponents who say that this feature unfairly cuts into their industry. Amazon is not paying for audio rights to these books, just programming the device with an ability to pronounce writing aloud. I think that's a valid concern for the industry, and I confess I didn't even know such rights existed. I know Roy Blount, Jr. is upset at this feature and has spoken against it.

I think he has nothing to worry about, however. If he'd downloaded his own book, Feet on the Street, and listened to it with the Kindle's voice synthesis program, he'd know that in no way is this a viable commercial competition. The program lacks inflection and cannot interpret the rhythm of a piece at all. Sometimes it breaks words into its separate syllables or mispronounces a word entirely. Once--and I've never been able to replicate it--my Kindle started reciting the programming code itself.

I bring up Feet on the Street in particular because I listened to the audiobook version of it. I'm told the abridged version was read by Blount but the unabridged was not, and that's the version we had, and it was read by someone who sounded like the spiritual and cultural opposite of Blount in almost every way. Try to imagine a down-home, backwoods travelogue of New Orleans performed by a young, genteel man fresh out of finishing school, striving to clearly enunciate every word. His soulless rendition of spoken quotes is quite comical. The Kindle would have done a bad job of it, too, but it would have been a different bad job.

As well, the National Federation of the Blind argues in defense of this Kindle feature, such as it is, because it provides access to literature that isn't yet available in Braille or in audiobook format. It kind of sucks to tell someone that, because they're blind, they're not entitled to the newest bestsellers on the market. And of course no one's explicitly saying that (who would dare?), but you can see how an argument against a handy speech synthesis program like this could be construed that way.

On the other hand comes Neil Gaiman's argument, that the audiobook industry needn't feel threatened by the Kindle's voice synthesis program--indeed, it should rally and play up its own strengths. It should explore not just its advantages of a colorful, flavorful voice actor performing a written work, but also what distinguishes audiobooks from print literature. I agree with him on all points: I've enjoyed wonderful audiobooks and developed favorite readers based on their interpretation of the text, a dimensionality not available from simply reading.

This isn't to say I don't like reading: I love it, I love the free reign over visuals I can attribute to my own impression of a book, but I've also come to enjoy listening to a talented recitation of a book.

Thursday, December 3

Print Gocco and Holiday Cards

We're actually doing holiday cards this year! I've done them in years previous when I was single, and then my wife bought me a Print Gocco--which I'd never heard of before and was thrilled with... thrilled to the point of possession. I hold the Gocco very dear, especially as its supplies are increasingly scarce and not cheap to replenish, consequently.

I've used the Gocco for holiday cards one year and also for printing T-shirts for our wedding party. I'm reluctant to whip it out for any small project, preferring to wait for something elaborate requiring many, many prints.

One night, Rebecca entered a certain state of consciousness and delineated several creative ideas for holiday cards, some of which surprised her the next morning. We drew up some prototypes, argued about how to attack this project, and then nailed down a final iteration. When we were absolutely ready, we pulled out the Gocco and started making stencils. The photo here shows, essentially, the main face of the card without giving everything away. This will be my first print with four colors and I'm... insecure! I'm not sure I can pull this off but I'm behaving as though I absolutely can. The print will involve setting up boundaries for the ink, as well as mixing the ink prior to application.

I'm not doing a very good job of keeping these cards a secret. I had to reupload the photo with a crystalizing filter to distort and disguise the images we're working with. I'm very excited to get to work on this project and send it out, but I've been documenting the process and actually have four entries written and ready to go online... but I've been forbidden from posting them until the cards are actually in the mail.

I'll have to find something else to talk about in the meantime.