v28 #2 Pelikan’s Antidisambiguation — “Horses for Courses”

by | Jun 28, 2016 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Michael P. Pelikan  (Penn State)

“How many of those do you have?”

She was asking about the various tablet and pad-like devices stacked around the arms of my leather recliner.  I did my best to appear to welcome the question.  “Well, it depends,” I said, “on what I need to do at any given time.”

“This one’s my main at-home reading device,” I explained, holding up the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9.  I held up the Kindle Voyage. “And this one’s for reading when I’m away from home.”

“What about that one?” she asked.  “That’s my Android tablet,” I said, showing the Nexus 7, “It’s on cellular as well as wi-fi.  And this one,” holding up the Samsung, “is my phone.”

“So four,” she said.

“Well, unless you include the Microsoft Surface, which is mine, or the Latitude work-laptop with the touch screen, which is the university’s,” I pointed out.

“So six?” she asked.  “Sure,” I confessed, “but that’s not that many, really.  I mean, how many brushes do you use for your paintings?”

“It’s not the same thing,” she said, “I need those!”

So this is why she’s called an artist and I’m called a geek.

No one would really argue that an artist ought to be restricted to carrying a single brush, or that a photographer ought to be restricted to carrying a single lens — unless, that is, by choice.  I might think it odd if the folks next to me at the opera hoisted up a pair of Oberwerk 25x100s, and it would certainly invite comment if, at the star party, you confined your observations to those you could make with your opera glasses.  And yet to carry multiple digital devices seems to give those around you a license to comment on, of all things, your perceived eccentricity.

Our eldest son is a Design major.  He’s recently been talking to us about his Typography class.  They’ve been exploring historical typography, typographic analysis, and typographic design.  He’s loving it, and, with only the slightest prompting, is happy to demonstrate the gulf between what most people, even fairly literate people, know about type, and those who study it formally, with an eye toward becoming practitioners of type.

So recently I forwarded a couple of URLs to him.  The first was toward an article (there are many) about Bookerly, Amazon’s new purpose-built typeface for e-readers.  My own exposure to, and reaction to, Amazon’s previous attempts at typeface selection was confined to mild annoyance, not really caring for any of the fonts available on the Kindle.  When they offered the new typeface, Bookerly, I took one glance at it, and thought, “Hmm!  Much better!”  Even though I couldn’t articulate why it looked better, I switched over, and haven’t gone back, except to prove to myself that my selection decision rested upon something more substantial than simple newness.

Not surprisingly, the release of Bookerly generated quite a bit of buzz in the typeface-aware corners of the Blogosphere (where they have corners for everything).  Overall, the comments have been largely positive, although this may speak, simply, to how miserable the previous typeface offerings really were.

One of the commentaries included a reference to a post on fastcodesign.com.  The object of the mention was a study conducted by Errol Morris on the effect typography has upon the reader’s perception of truth.  Here’s the link:  http://www.fastcodesign.com/3046365/errol-morris-how-typography-shapes-our-perception-of-truth.

If it seems surprising that the choice of typeface might influence the perceived credibility of a body of text, it’s worth remembering that we’ve long known the counterpoint to be true:  you can make the most lucid, sober statement appear ridiculous by dressing it up in a clownish font.  This recalls the early days of laser printers and soft fonts, when serious columnists solemnly advised folks to take it easy, please, with the fonts already, saying, “You don’t want it to look like a ransom note!”  And they were right.

What all manners of human expression might have in common is the effort and care that can go into the design of capture and preparation for conveyance of ideas.  Packing something important for a trip merits some care and thoughtfulness.  I’ve voiced suspicions about this here before.  To a blindfolded observer sitting in the studio, a small music ensemble recording session of today would sound very much like one that may have occurred a century earlier.  Most telling would be those moments immediately before and following the musical piece itself:  the moment of silence and concentration preceding the first measure, the moment of suspended relief and reaction immediately following the close.  Then someone says, “Let’s listen to it!”  This is entirely independent of the technology, and, I think, perhaps, approaches universality, and perhaps is unchanging.

This impression is bolstered by work presented at http://firstsounds.org.  These are people who’ve applied 21st-century technology to surviving examples of 19th-century attempts to capture sound, such as those in 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in Paris.  In work pre-dating Bell, he devised a mechanism to produce a visual representation of sound waves.  The wizards associated with firstsounds.org, David Giovannoni, Patrick Feaster, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessy, figured out a way to take surviving artifacts produced in those early experiments, recover the waveforms stored in them, and render them as sound, making it possible to hear what may very well be the earliest existing examples of recordings of the human voice.  Included at the end of one of the clips is what appears to be a spoken epithet, produced in disgust at the end of what might be history’s first botched take, captured for all eternity.  Universal, indeed.

There are similar examples in other areas, durable practices that have survived the evolution of their host technology’s evolution over time.  The act of sitting for a portrait, is unchanged in many respects, from paint to still photography, except, perhaps, for the welcome departure of the head clamps that were employed in early photographic portraiture owing to the slow emulsions and long exposure times of that era.  Another universal quality is that of directionality:  most things have a front end or front side, they “point” in a particular direction and orient themselves in that direction as they move.  Most conveyance requires at least one party to be “watching where they’re going,” indeed, we pay the driver to do that — it’s a selling point, “Leave the driving to us!”

Consider the editing process connected with the published word.  Somebody, usually one who demonstrates an aptitude, if not an eagerness, reads the text for errors.  This protects the end-reader from having to be the first one ever to have read the thing (although I’ve spoken with many professors who feel they’ve frequently been the first even to glance at the “finished” works they receive).

And here we arrive at one of the promises of e-text, long potential, and now made actual.  If you have a Kindle, have you ever noticed the appearance in your “library” of a work you know to have been part of the library for some time, yet here, displayed as recent, even bearing the label, “New”?  What’s that about?

Well, in looking into the Bookerly release, one of the things you find is that along with the typeface, Amazon has also introduced a new page layout engine to render it.  The new page layout engine comes as a software update.  Among other things, it has done away with the old engine’s obsession with achieving full line justification by inserting spaces between words to pad out the length of a line.  The result often just looked weird, and was a matter of annoyance and complaint among those who notice and comment on such things.  Ah, but to take full advantage of the new page rendering algorithms, it has been necessary to re-encode the e-texts, presumably adding tags needed to direct the enhanced rendering process.  This means that works in your “library” that have required it, if high enough on some list, have been updated, have received the new encoding, and have been re-downloaded, and hence the “New” label.  The notion of updates and soft editions like this has been lauded in the past as a quality with potential, made possible in an e-text environment.  It’s nice to see examples of such improvements appearing not just in somebody’s imagination, but in the wild.

So, “Horses for courses!”  It’s alright to have different devices for different applications.  It’s just like different pens, or lenses, or brushes, for different settings.  And hooray for settings, enabling us to go ahead and set the typeface we’d like to render a particular work in.  And three cheers for the drive to improve, to refine a product, to bring it closer to the ideal that inspired its first expression, to be focused upon making the next take the best take, the keeper.



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