Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Future of the Book

This weekend I took part in a discussion panel on “The Future of the Book” at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Except that I wasn’t in Virginia. Everyone else was – the other panelists, moderator Kathleen Fowler of ODU, and the audience.

Instead I was sat in front of a PC at the Old Dominion University campus in Bremerton, Washington, taking part in the discussion by Webcam. It’s amazing to think that a piece of equipment costing only a couple of hundred dollars can make possible videoconferencing which used to require tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

With the ubiquity of broadband, this kind of interaction is commonplace.

I’ve been a musician my whole life. One of the instruments I play is the Indian sitar. When I got my very first sitar, back in Scotland in the early 1970s, it was very hard to find an instrument in the UK. I could find only one instruction book. There were no teachers. I had to order my strings by telephone from a store in London.

I bought a new sitar a few months ago – on the Web. For anyone taking up this or any other “exotic” instrument, life’s very different today. You can shop for sitars online. Buy strings and accessories. You can find instructions how how to set up the instrument properly, how to tune and maintain it.

On sites like YouTube you can watch videos of sitar players – the masters, and others maybe less masterful. There are video instruction sessions. There’s even a professor of music at a university in Calcutta, India, who offers online 1:1 sitar lessons by webcam!

There’s a huge amount of information now available to anyone with access to a computer. The sitar is just one example. Pick any topic and you can use the Web to access information you’d never have been able to find before, which would have taken months to track down.

Want to find information on and photographs of the red-footed booby? (it’s a bird). Search the Web. Bought an electronic keyboard secondhand and need the instruction manual? Find it on the Web.

I honestly don’t know how we ever managed without it.

The audience at the conference were mostly writers wanting to find out how to be successful, especially in the digital age. There was a panelist who owned an independent bookstore, and a librarian.

During the panel discussion – to illustrate the change that’s happening – I went online wirelessly with my Amazon Kindle and bought a book. It cost me about $4.00, it was available almost instantly, and I searched the 100,000 or so titles available to find it.

Another illustration of the rapidly-changing world happened last week, when a young Japanese woman won Japan’s premier literary award, the Rashomon Award – their equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize – for her novel published serially in blog format, and read mostly on mobile telephones.

Any time of rapid change is also a time of chaos and confusion. Writers, publishers, editors, bookstores, librarians – everyone involved in the publishing business – we’re all going to have to move quickly, try new things, explore new roles and business models until the chaos settles down.

Maybe it’ll never settle down.

The main piece of advice I had for aspiring writers? Know your audience, then go out and find them. Publishing is now accessible to everyone, and there’s no excuse for not jumping in and seeing if you can make something happen.

In a nutshell: “Go Forth and Blog!”


Web Standards: Evolving A "Successful Esperanto" for the New Human Network…

What are we actually building as we’re building the Web? It may seem like we’re linking computers all over the world. But the computers, the cables, the protocols etc are just the tools and the glue.

What we’re really building here is a new Human Network which allows people all over the earth to create, distribute, share and consume information, which they can use to add value to their personal or business lives (That’s why I believe my Digital Declaration of Independence is important).

We’re not there yet, of course. There are hundreds of millions of people who don’t have access. It’ll take many decades – maybe even a couple of centuries – before that changes.

One of the things that separates people today is language. I speak English, and some French which seems to have survived since it was instilled in me at high school. Plonk me down in Germany, Tokyo or Timkbuktu and I’m pretty helpless. I’ll eventually find what I need, but it’ll be a long, tedious process punctuated with miscommunications which are either hilarious or frightening.

Well-meaning people have tried to solve the language problem in the past with new artificial languages which were meant to eventually replace the natural-but-different ones spoken by different peoples.

It hasn’t worked. The most successful effort to date is probably Esperanto, and even that’s a pretty dismal failure as far as adoption is concerned.

On the Web we’ve done much better, thank goodness.

Anyone who wants to establish a proprietary standard for the Web knows it’s hopeless. They missed the bus a long time ago. It pulled out of the station in the early 1990s, and it had “HTML” written across its front. By now it’s uncatchable.

The problem is: the standards are still pretty awful. HTML has evolved over the years, been augjmented with other standards like Cascading Stye Sheets and so on. But it started out as an information interchange format invented by geeks, for geeks. There was little or no attention paid to readability, the shorthand term I use for the vast array of typographic and design techniques developed in the 550 years since Gutenberg (or the 5500 years since humans first began to write) to make it easy for humans to absorb information from a page or screen.

When the first NCSA Mosaic browser appeared, for instance, you could have any typeface you wanted as long as it was Times (or Times New Roman). Lines of text spanned the whole width of the window and long passages of text were just about impossible to read.

I think it was 1993 when I first noticed “design coolness” attempting to break through. People started using all kinds of tricks to overcome the limitations of the HTML.

They’re still having to do that, because the Web Standard have not yet evolved to support everything that’s needed. So we still see text as bitmapped graphics, or Flash – just because the Web itself is so bad.

There’s a lot more that needs to go into standards like CSS before they’ll really be capable of doing the job we need. And the browsers will have to keep changing themselves, in order to support those new standards.

This is a real dilemma if you are a company with a browser. Changes to standards may break older pages – will certainly break many. If your customers have built hundreds of millions – or billions – of pages to work well on one version of your browser, and you change it, they face a lot of work fixing them.

On the other hand, if you “fossilize”

Proof-Reading in the 21st Century…

I love the flexibility of blogging.

Back when I was a 19-year-old trainee page editor on a newspaper in Glasgow, Scotland (in the days when men were men, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I used to be in charge of a busy news page which I had to re-do completely five times during the course of my 12-hour shift, since the different editions went to different localities and that page was aimed at giving it a local flavor.

We went to a lot of effort to try to get the text right. The raw copy was typed up in a few cases by a professional typist from a story phoned in by a correspondent, but most of it was typed up by reporters like me – terrible typists; copy full of erasures, corrections, typing mistakes which they hadn’t spotted, etc.

First job was to decide how much space in the page that story merited. Once you’d decided that, you knew how much you’d have to cut. Then it was down to editing to tighten it up, correcting mistakes as you went.

In those days, because it was a hot-metal printing operation, the copy was typed up on small pages (about half the size of regular US Letter paper, used in landscape mode). Each page was numbered and had the same tagline.

Reason for this was the typesetting operation. A Linotype or Monotype casting machine works pretty slowly. The operator typed out the letters. Each letter typed caused a brass mold to fall into the right place in the line-holder. Once he had input enough to almost fill a line of the newspaper column, it would be justified. Today a computer does this by inserting fractional spaces between the characters in its memory. But in those days it was mechanical – a set of wedges came down to force the letters apart. Then the typesetting operator hit the control which injected molten printers’ metal – from a vat at the back of the machine – and the line of type was ready. Linotype, Line-o-Type: that says it all.

The setting machines were marvels of Victorian mechanical ingenuity. Operating one was like playing a church organ…The process was so slow that even a 300-word story on, say, five small pages, might be parcelled out to three or four different operators. There might be 30 or 40 of these machines all running simultaneously in a busy caseroom. With 40 vats of molten metal, printer’s ink which got everywhere, and 40 guys cooped up in the same stifling atmosphere, it was a job for RightGard, Industrial Strength. To say nothing of the amount of lead dust flying around all the time…

The linotype machine, invented in 1885 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, was a hot-metal typesetting device that cast entire lines of type at one time. The typesetter used a keyboard to direct copper casts of letters and punctuation into place. A quickly-cooling molten alloy was poured into the casts and formed the line of type. The linotype machine became universally popular and was used by newspapers around the world for many years.
Hulton Deutsch (
Picture and caption courtesy MSN Encarta)

It was someone’s job to do the dividing up, and to recombine the lines from different operators back into a single story which would be stacked in a “galley”. They’d run a roller of ink over it, take an impression on paper, and send that back up to me to check. A Galley Proof.

As you can imagine, there were lots of opportunities for mistakes. Typos, transposed lines, sections in the wrong order, etc.

Once I’d signed off on the galley proofs, it was time to build the page. A compositor would try to assemble all the stories and pictures in a “forme” or holder. You could never be sure stuff would fit. The worst problem was to find out right at the last possible minute that you didn’t have enough copy set to fill the page, so you always kept some extra stuff around. Sometimes a story would have to be cut to fit. If the reporter and editor had done their jobs right, the news story would be written in “pyramidal” style – with the least-vital information at the end, so it could be cut from the bottom up.

Of course, lines sometimes got transposed (or even lost) during this complex process. So the compositor would take a page proof,which you again had to read and sign off before the page went to the mat press, then the stereo department to be cast into curved metal plates, then to the main newspaper printing press.

Despite all this care, mistakes happened all the time; typos got through the net, and papers shipped out containing errors. Not hard to understand, when you’re all working at high speed to meet the page deadline (and you all wanted the chance to get down to the pub before the next page deadline). But once the page had gone, there was no chance of fixing it.

And that’s why I love blogging. I write the posts, proof-read and correct them a few times, but still I often fail to catch the mistakes. It’s not so easy when you’re typing them in a fairly primitive edit window.

So I’ll Publish the post, and read it. And almost always spot something that slipped through. Go back, fix that, Publish again, read it again, maybe find something else (repeat until it’s right).

If you do spot a typo on this blog, please tell me about it. I’ll always go back and fix it. Sometimes you just get a subconscious block, and fail to see an error someone else spots immediately.

Isn’t blogging great?

Put Up Your Hands, And Step Away From The Keyboard!

The Design Police are watching you…

I really like this site, it’s so much fun. There’s a set of five template pages you can download and send to the offender whenever you see a typographic crime being committed.

Just pick the relevant judgement from the templates, then cut and paste it into a mail.

Ah, Flaming By Numbers…

Not that I agree with everything the Design Police say, of course – especially the “Comic Sans Is Illegal” viewpoint.

You may not know this, but there’s a battle being fought on the Web between those who love Comic Sans and those who absolutely hate it. There are even “Comic Sans Must Die!” T-shirts for sale.

I don’t use Comic Sans myself – and I never inhaled – but I have something of a soft spot for it, since it was designed by Vincent (Vinnie) Connare, who worked for me in the Typography group at Microsoft. Indeed, its full name is Comic Sans MS, which might give you a clue.

OK, we made it. But don’t blame Microsoft if people abuse it. Fonts don’t kill people, people kill people. (Apologies to the NRA. Or not.)

Comic Sans is what its name says: a light-hearted font which works great in cartoons and animation, can add a tinge of humor to an email, etc. But it’s over-used, and you certainly wouldn’t want to use it to send a message of sympathy to a bereaved friend (unless her husband the cartoonist just died in some Marx-Brothers-like farcical accident. Even then you’d want to be careful).

If the Design Police graphic (sticker? paster?) had said “Inappropiate Comic Sans” I could buy into that.

Doctor Iveslow Must Die!

We forget how much we take the process of reading for granted, and how type and typography has developed over the past 550 years to make it as easy as possible for us to recognize the shapes of letters and words.

Typographic techniques like equal word-spacing in a line of text, or avoiding the use of only capital letters, give our visual system the cue it needs to make sense of dirty marks on a piece of shredded tree, or dots turned different colors on a screen.

Remember, the human “reading system” is a high-speed scanning, analysis and parsing machine. When it’s moving rapidly across a line of text, it’s scanning about four consecutive targets per second.

It’s a 600ppi scanning machine, which normally deals with type between one-eighth and one-sixth of an inch high. And it doesn’t take much to throw it off. The difference between automatic scanning you don’t have to think about, and conscious parsing, is fractions of an inch (obviously proportionally more when you’re reading larger text at a distance).

I pass by this road sign most days at the moment. It’s on a tree just before a narrow bridge which is an obvious accident hazard. You don’t have much time to read the sign, which is hand-painted in red. You just glance to the side, your brain takes a snapshot. You’re past it before you realize your brain is trying to decode a puzzle as a result of data collected subconsciously by your peripheral vision.

Who is Dr. Iveslow, and can’t he afford a better sign than that? Doctors are quite well paid, after all. And he seems pretty paranoid…

Then the penny drops.


Spacing matters….

Typographic disasters

One problem about having such an abiding interest in type and editing is that even when you take the man out of proof-reading, you can never take the proof-reader out of the man.

You end up spotting typos and/or bad typography everywhere. Here’s one I spotted in Redmond, WA.

I’m going to leave kerning criticism out of this – it’s not pretty but it is readable. I’ll even give Frederick’s Appliance World a pass on the horrible “W”s and “M”s – they’re always a problem for any condensed typeface, which you want to use to get as much information on signage like this.

But surely Frederick could have sprung for just one more “F”? Then we’d have 30% OFF! If cash was short, it’s the work of a moment just to trim the bottom cross-bar off the “E”. Hey, Presto! An “F”!

Using a “$” in place of an “S” is tacky but expected.

The real typographic crime is the word “CALL”, with two inverted “T”s instead of “L”s.

Call me a type snob if you like, but I pass this sign a lot – and it’s like someone scratching their nails down a blackboard.

Guess where I won’t be shopping for an appliance?

Signing OFE for now,


P.S. The offending letters are two “T”s and an “”F”. TTF is of course the file extension for TrueType font files… Spooky, eh?

CSSZengarden: A Claim Too Far?

It takes a lot to make me speechless, but a website I have known and respected for some time almost managed it…

The site was CSS ZenGarden, which aims to educate website designers in the use of Cascading Style Sheetsto create more interesting layouts .

I have no problem with that. It’s a good and laudable aim. They have some very interesting samples. I really like the way in which the layout of the pages changes dramatically when you switch style sheets on the same content.

What I did have a problem with was their sweeping claim:

CSS allows complete and total control over the style of a hypertext document.

You’ll all be aware of the recent announcement that Internet Explorer 8 (on which I work) will fully support the CSS 2.1 spec when the final version ships. Hence my interest.

I’ve been interested in CSS since, oh, around 1996, and have especially been following the developments around CSS 2.1 and some proposals for CSS 3 functionality.

The capabilities of Cascading Style Sheets fall far short of “complete and total control”. Today, they offer some level of control. As the standard evolves, we’ll see more and more control possible.

But any designer who reads ZenGarden is well aware that CSS as it stands today falls a long way short of the kind of control over style and look that they can achieve in print. And until we get that kind of control we’re not done. And to claim that we already have it is to destroy your own credibility.

The Web can be as beautiful and readable as the finest printed magazine. And it can be a lot more powerful medium, too. But not yet. Not today.

Problem with the ZenGarden site, with its pseudo-zen message, is that they seem to think we have already arrived at Enlightenment (they even say so).

Haven’t they read their sutras? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

CSS and the evolution of Web standards is a journey. We’ve made some steps along the way. But we’re a long way yet from Nirvana…