John McVey (no longer) professes design in beverly, and lives in cambridge, mass


presentations, etc.

  1. photo by Justy Phillips; background shows (in addition to my cluttered desktop) code books and clerks, Private Telegram Department, 1923, from Donald Read, The Power of News : The History of Reuters (1999)

    presentation/conversation on and around telegraphic codes (and some putterings, too) with the Tender group — link — at MassMoCA, 19 November 2022.

    a Published Event

  2. Hardware and Fiction : Genre Intersections
    The Prosaic Imaginary : Novels and the Everyday, 1740-2000
    1-4 July 2014, Sydney

    This paper will reflect on the intersection of two genres, each from a different world : hardware stores, a subset of retailing; and the novel, and genres within the novel form.

    Over several years, I’ve sought, identified and read fiction in which hardware and hardware stores are taken up in (1) significant and (2) reflective, metaphorical, imaginative or otherwise interesting ways. Certain patterns surface within the fiction (and beyond it to poetry, film and other realms). My paper will provide a kind of distant reading account of those patterns and intersections. These include: (1) The valence of the hardware store in common understanding, and its meaning in a particular novel (or story), as a benign (or not) place, and a marker for a character’s ambition, virtue, humanity, etc; (2) The mutable nature of this retail genre itself (stores evolve, or fail); (3) Gender and maturity issues; (4) The relationship of language with things; in a business selling thousands of items, words, labels and definitions matter.

    My corpus exceeds 100 titles and includes literary and genre works, e.g., romance (including evangelical romance), mysteries, science fiction, erotica, humor, and conduct-of-life fiction. I will omit from my discussion novels published after 2000.

    reference —
    An unevenly annotated and partial list of fiction in which hardware and/or hardware stores are significantly employed, here
    Part of a larger project described here

  3. Language engineering and lexicography, 1870-1930 : a case for telegraphic codes
    Dictionary Society of North America, 18th Biennial Conference, McGill University, Montreal, 8-11 June 2011
    photo of the gang, on the steps of the Redpath Museum
    I’m top row, third from right (directly beneath red-and-white decal in window)

    proposal —
    Telegraphic codes were lists and tables of phrases and other message components, whose respective codewords or figures were to be assembed for safe transmission by landline or submarine cable. Thousands of codes were compiled: practical and impractical, published and private, as thin as a single panoptic sheet or as thick as Webster’s Unabridged. Their purposes included economy (at a time that messages were charged by word) and secrecy. They were an integral part of telegraphic practice.

    The codes were designed to serve the needs of message senders and receivers, and thereby offered two look-up systems. Phrases and message components were arranged thematically and/or alphabetically, usually a combination of both, but sometimes in pragmatic sequences whose coding more closely resembles faceted classification formulae than it does words.

    The compilation of specialized codes — e.g., for cotton, mining, missionary work, cargo and passenger transport — required deep practical knowledge in their respective domains, including an understanding of what might need (and not need) to be expressed. Their design also took into account the background knowledge of expert users.

    I will discuss the codes as a special branch of lexicography, giving particular attention to typical arrangements of phrase and other message molecules, and to one or two compilers’ theories about classification and even language. The codes are arguably a distant precursor to NLP and LE work.

    This proposed paper/presentation is one that I would like to have given to Werner Hüllen (1927-2008), whose work on early and onomasiological dictionaries is highly pertinent.

  4. Indexing as autobiographical practice in the 19th century : an examination of copies of John Todd’s Index Rerum
    Material Cultures 2010, Edinburgh, July 2010

    proposal —
    John Todd’s Index Rerum (1833, and much reprinted) was a personal database system designed to facilitate indexing of all the reading done by the student and the professional man. The system was borrowed from John Locke’s own. Key (index) words would be entered on the page whose two letters at the top — the first for a word’s initial, the second for the first vowel following that initial — matched that word. As a one-volume index to many volumes, Todd’s Index Rerum was obviously suited to the needs of ministers, lawyers, and physicians, among others. It was widely used. And yet only two of the eight copies that I have closely examined used the book exclusively for its designated indexing purpose. Instead, we find short and lengthy extracts; personal resolutions; diaries; pressed flowers; autographs; ready reckoner data and computations for mill and other engineering work; drafts of (unsent?) letters; a personal memoir. We find multiple users, in cases where a daughter or widow takes over the unused or lightly-used book of father or late husband. We find experiments in writing one’s signature. We find receipts, drafts of poetry, and other matter loosely inserted.

    How are these various practices — all captured in these Index Rerum — to be understood? This small sampling represents only a tiny reading experience database, but the reading is woven in with other practices. Taken together, I argue, these activities were instrumental in developing and maintaining a personal identity, one that indexing helped assure was connected to a larger intellectual milieu.

    My reading takes into account critical contemporary views of Todd’s Index Rerum (there were competing systems, of course), and is informed in part by recent scholarship on what may be its closest analogue, zibaldoni (copybooks) of Renaissance Italy.

  5. Codex/Code : Book and Procedure at the Center of Telegraphic Reading and Writing
    CBAA Biennial Conference, University of Iowa Center for the Book —
    Art, Fact, and Artifact: The Book in Time and Place January 8-10, 2009
  6. Telegraphic Codes and Message Practice, a Selection from Harvard Library Holdings
    curated exhibit
    Cabot Science Library, 9 February – 26 May 2006
  7. Ekphrastic Telegraphy
    lecture at Montserrat College of Art, 5 April 2006
  8. Thesauruses, codes and mundane telegraphy 1870-1930
    paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Society for the History of Technology (Minneapolis, 3-6 November 2005)
  9. Elementary Types : Not-so dead-end ideas in telegraphic printing of letters and pictures, 1900-1925
    paper presented at Temporary Type Conference, St Bride Library (London, 10-12 October 2005)
    on elemental types for facsimile telegraphy and for letterform generation in printing telegraphy
    see elementary signs
  10. Kalkzeep / There is a perfect understanding : Telegraphic clarity and Gertrude Stein’s writing clear as mud.
    paper presented at Northeast Modern Language Association annual conference (Boston, March 2003)

    abstract —
    Codes were commonly used by businesses and individuals in the age of telegraphy to compress messages and reduce their communication costs, particularly for long cables. In their phrase lists and in their communicative ambitions, these telegraphic code books have some bearing on Gertude Stein’s reflections on meaning, clarity and understanding, and on her eliptical and reiterative writing that is clear as mud. The codes embody a mechanistic attitude about language that was not her own (and that occupied Wittgenstein and others), yet also prefigure and echo her own and other modernists’ styles.

    Kalkzeep from Western Union Telegraphic Code (Universal Edition, 1900)
    Clear as mud from Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937, 1993: 126)


15 years ago.
like typewriters; keep my Remington busy and maintained.

rusty Indonesian (that was never that good)

sarariman in Tokyo ca 1982-88, and some spells before and since

like the engineering part of typography
ditto the digging (and engineering) part of gardening

married, Kuniko Yamada
two sons, Euan Ryuta (b.1990) and Chisaku Pramoedya (b.1997)

swim, walk

wayback machine capture (3 May 2001)

cv (vestigial, abandoned)

28 November 2023