My glass is half full. But can I drink the water?


So much contemporary fiction these days, especially the stuff for kids and YAs, is dystopian — people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world in which electricity and information technology have disappeared. I think that’s because we all know deep down that we are relying on this stuff too much.

That’s been brought home to me over the past couple of weeks here in China.  A hundred times  away I reach for my phone or pull up Google on my laptop … and am stymied in some way (FYI, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and lots of innocuous websites are all blocked here. You need a VPN to get access to them and that is far from reliable. And the powers-that-be are supposedly just randomly choking the life out of people’s bandwidth too).

Under certain circumstances that can be a relief, a way of getting off the maddening treadmill of emails and texts, and I am all for it — when it is self-imposed.  But it can be a real drag when you are lost in a hou-tong (a labyrinthine Beijing neighborhood of twisting lanes and dead ends), Google maps is blocked, and have no way to ask anyone for directions because you can barely say ‘hi’ in Chinese.

And it actually becomes a little scary when you spend two hours sitting on a United plane on a Beijing runway only to be told that your flight has been cancelled and you need to get off the plane, get your bags and find yourself a new flight. Which is what happened to me last night. The flight attendant muttered a phone number over the PA which I scrambled to write down — but my phone (not really working here to make calls, get texts or get data — thanks, Verizon) only reached some incomprehensible Chinese message. 

Eventually another passenger helped me connect but the only flight I could get on would be in forty eight hours, i.e. tomorrow. I made my way to a hotel, tried to make some calls to get an earlier flight, reached lots of dead ends and people who don’t speak any English, and then finally resolved to just chill out here, a dozen thousand miles from home and twenty miles from anything but the airport. 

I left my phone charger in my other hotel, the wifi is spotty (in fact, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to upload this post), a volcano blew up in Japan, there are demonstrations in Hong Kong, a madman apparently burnt down the control tower in Chicago, and my throat is raw from two weeks of Beijing smog.

However, I have a bagful of pens, ten blank pages left in my journal, a really good breakfast buffet, the Discovery Channel, a decent charge on this laptop and there are no zombies or vampires or nuclear plumes out my hotel window. 

It’s all good.

Oh, and I’ll also be polishing my best-ever klass for Sketchbook Skool. It’s all about how to make art when you travel, even just on a trip to the grocery store.  Join me and enroll at Sketchbook

How I podcast


DOG by France Belleville

A friend asked me to describe my podcasting setup so she could emulate it. Here’s a recap for anyone else interested in getting on the virtual airwaves.

A) I have an account at liberated syndication:  I decided not to host on my site as I want sure what the traffic would be like. LibSyn is cheap and they specialize in hosting podcasts and the experience has been fine. They set you up with a special podcast blog where you can add art work and write commentary. Plus it;s easy to link it to iTunes and for people to subscribe. I set up the podcast of my mum’s radio show on her iMac account and that works pretty well for her.

B) I use a Snowball microphone. My mum got one too and we are both big fans of it. It has a USB cable so it plugs directly into my MacBook Pro.

C) I use my computer’s hard drive to record. Sound files aren’t too enormous.

D) I generally do my editing via GarageBand. It has a lot of podcast-specific capabilities. It’s very intuitive and easy, I find. Plus I think it came with my mac or was less than $80 with iLife. It also has a lot of filters and things for reducing background noise. You can set it up to send it directly to iTunes. And it’s easy to add tracks of music, SFX, etc.

E) To interview people remotely, I use Skype. It’s cheap and easy, the quality is almost always terrific (I have  a broadband cable connection at home, nothing fancy)., and I use my mic to talk through and a pair of ordinary earphones to listen to the other person with (Obviously you need to shut your computer’s speaker off so you don’t get feedback.

F) I also use a utility called Call Recorder which is just $14.95 and it does several extremely useful things. One is to record the calls to my hard drive. The second is to split Skype calls into two tracks,. one for each conversant. These tracks van then be imported into Garageband and you have control over each track separately. If one person starts monologuing and  a fire truck goes by on the other end, it’s a cinch to cut out the offending noises.

Macs are generally easy to do multimedia stuff . I tend to play around with this stuff a fair amount and via trial and error get it right. My mum , at 70, figured it out on her own, so I imagine anyone can. If you use  a PC, most of my suggestions apply, except perhaps for GarageBand. I assume there is a PC equivalent. I sometimes use Audacity for quick edits, not sure if that’s multi platform.

This looks like a pretty good tutorial:

Hope this is helpful. Can’t wait to hear your first episode!!

John Hancock

jacks-noteWhen you’re designing a book that will be entirely handwritten, you have two choices. You can be as patient as Frederick Franck and get a bunch of pens and set to work, writer’s cramp be damned. If you are as inconsistent and sloppy as I am, better to follow SARK’s example and have a font created based on your handwriting. So when I made Everyday Matters, I worked with Alexander Walter to turn my vaguely cursive upper/lower case writing into a font.
The font worked well for the book but I was troubled by the fact that the point size is set by the height of the tallest letter, including descenders and ascenders. That meant I was also ways having to scale up the letters and that if I cranked down my leading, I would have letters from different lines bumping heads and tails.
Recently I decided to try a new one, based on my other style of handwriting, a printed uppercase face with slightly larger letters for caps. I wrote out the alphabet and all the punctuation and numbers, then copied out many surreal sentences like “You hope havoc and chaos will ebb when you tattoo a kiwi at the zoo” and “A yoga guru will hew the yucca with a hacksaw.” I made a high res scan of all this palaver and emailed it to Alexander and a couple of weeks later, he sent me a link so I could download the font. Alexander also gave me a macro that runs in Microsoft Word to randomize my text. This useful feature takes all of the variations on a given letter that I have printed and randomly substitutes them in to my text. Instead of the same exact Y, for instance, it will insert one with a longer tail, an angled shaft, uneven tines, etc. This helps to give the font the little bit of chaos that makes for verisimilitude.
Jack immediately asked if I would load it onto his computer. I wonder why.
PS: About 50% of Everyday Matters, captions, some of the nuttier pages, is handlettered.

This morning someone interviewed me and asked me how long I’ve been on the Internet. I wasn’t sure. My first online experience was in 1983 or so with a thing called The Source, a sort of online community not that different from out Yahoo Group. As for the Web itself, I had several different kinds of sites pretty early on. To track them down, I visited an amazing site called the Wayback Machine which has archived the entire internet (there are some broken links and stuff but you get a good snapshot).
At the beginning of 1998, I built a quite cute website for disabled people called (the wheelchair accessible entrance to the internet) whose mission I described this way. was pretty huge back in the day when the Internet was a lot smaller. I got millions of hits and the bulletin board was very active. This was the first time that a lot of disabled people could freely chat with each other and share information and stories. Eventually, the site was harassed by hackers and then other similar communities cropped up so I shut it down after a year or so.
Then I set up the first of several personal sites It’s interesting to see oneself in the rearview this way. Even though it was just seven years ago, I wasn’t the me I am today, really (don’t they say that every seven years you completely replace all the cells in your body? So in a way I am a completely new person, cellwise). I obviously thought of myself as a frustrated writer in those days and had posed several short stories. I also had some terrible reproductions of some dreadful paintings. I have no idea who if anyone ever looked at this site. Nor why I am bothering to tell you about this today.