July, 2009

Jul 09

More on Printers, from Bigelow

A couple of days ago, I posted something about how I’m playing around with @font-face (and since then have also been experimenting with TypeKit, which I use for the headlines you see here). Generated a bit of discussion, but one of the things I mentioned at the end of my post was a class I took at Stanford 15 years ago called Concepts of Text, and taught by Charles Bigelow, a well-known font designer — his foundry did the font family Lucida, for example, and the System 7 city fonts, among many, many others.

One of the classes I remember fondly for being a little wacky (and interesting) was when he gave a talk about typographers who were persecuted for the material they were typesetting.

After I posted the other day, Professor Bigelow somehow found the post and gave us a little primer, which I include below because of the high awesomeness quotient. Really made my day – favorite comment ever. 🙂

Nice to hear, after all these years, that somebody remembers those classes. :-)

Just in case the names and dates have faded from memory, here’s a brief refresher.

Antoine Augereau, Parisian printer and type designer, reputedly the teacher of Garamond. hanged and burned on Christmas Eve, 1534, on (supposedly trumped up) charges of printing heretical placards.

Etienne Dolet, printer of Lyon and Paris, burned at the stake on August 3, 1546, in Paris, on charges of blasphemy, sedition, and selling prohibited books.

Martin l’Homme, hanged in 1560 for printing a pamphlet against a Cardinal.

That all happened a long time ago, but in the 20th century, Sophie Scholl, among others in the White Rose society, was guillotined on charges of treason, on February 22, 1943, for distributing pamphlets against Nazi genocide on the Eastern Front.

I’m sure that somewhere there is good news about printers, too. :-)

Jul 09

Remembering and Celebrating Teachers, For the Record

Just got back from a fantastic, if ridiculously hot, 20th high school reunion — I’ve got some reflections I’m planning to post later tonight.

But one of the problems with reunions generally is that they’re only really focused on the graduating class of a particular year — and, extremely importantly, not on the teachers who were so influential in influencing our thoughts and relationships. Reading Harvey’s post about his own influences, I decided I wanted to take a few minutes and write about the most influential school teachers in my own life — I wanted to get it into their permanent record, so to speak.

At least 2 of the 10 below have passed away, and several have retired — but at least 2 or three are still teaching. I’d wager that a few of them knew that they had a meaningful impact on my life — but I doubt any of them really know how much. A lot, it turns out — so much so that I remember their names & faces & interactions 20 — and in some cases 30 — years later.

So for the record, these are the most meaningful school teacher influences in my life so far — they went way beyond the classroom and still affect me today. In more or less chronological order.

Mrs. Kelly was my kindergarten teacher in Rome, NY, and we just really, really got along. She was as kind, challenging, and supportive as anyone could ask. And when we got ready to move to Omaha for first grade, she came to my house and gave me a camera so I could take pictures of my journey.

Mr. Fuke was my 5th grade teacher at OK Adcock in Las Vegas Nevada (I must’ve had good teachers in Omaha, but don’t really remember any). I remember Mr. Fuke for three primary reasons: (1) he was the first Hawaiian person I knew, (2) at the end of every day he made up a little more of a serial story — I remember vampires, but who knows — that had everyone in the class riveted, and (3) he was the first teacher who really was comfortable with letting me go at my own pace, and encouraging me to do it.

Anthony Vicari was our band director in 7th grade at Garside Junior High (Las Vegas), and also taught AT (academically talented). I remember loving those classes, just really loving them, and being challenged by them. I think he recently retired as a middle school principal, where he must have been fantastic.

Bill Brady was our band director freshman year at MacArthur in San Antonio. He died just a couple of months into the year, which was my first real experience with death. But the foundations that he had set up were strong, and the persistence of the organization was amazing. I’ll write more about it in my post about the reunion, as band in high school was a singularly rewarding experience.

Linda McDavitt became Mac’s band director the following year, coming into an impossible situation, following an institution, and she was amazing. I learned a lot about how to be a leader from her, as we went from sophomores to juniors to seniors and became the leaders of the band.

Laura Niland was my 10th grade Algebra 2 teacher at Mac, and has got to be the snarkiest teacher I ever had. She just really encouraged me to like math, and to have the fun that I did while doing it. She let us get away with a lot we probably shouldn’t have, too.

Drucie McRae was my 10th grade English teacher — she also probably let us get away with a lot we probably shouldn’t have. Honestly, I don’t remember a single book we read in that class or a single thing I wrote — I don’t even remember liking the content very much. But I remember Ms. McRae as being the first of our teachers who really treated us as adults, met us on our own terms, respected us. That counted for so much at that point in our lives. And the English stuff must have caught, too, as reading & writing are what I love now.

Janice Cooper (not totally sure I have her first name right) taught senior Government & Civics. She was super-challenging to me, and really encouraged me to work through what I thought. (Which, I have to say, must have been extremely trying on her patience, as I was an idiot. I still am, from time to time, but what she taught me about civic engagement & independent thinking persists and mostly means I’m not too big an idiot.)

Phil Campbell taught me Physics I & II, in 11th and 12th grade, at Mac, and of all the classes I’ve taken in my life, I think his was the subject matter that most engaged my full brain, that got me thinking the hardest and working the hardest to actually solve problems. I heard that he passed away a couple of years ago, and was sad to hear of it. I really, really liked those classes.

Randy Thomson was probably the single-most influential teacher of my school life. He taught Latin, which I took in 10th, 11th & 12th grades, and sponsored the Latin club, in which we competed in something called Certamen — I’d call it a sort of Jeopardy! for nerds, but that seems kinda redundant — so let me just say that it’s something we loved doing and practicing for and spending time on, and Mr. T, as we called him, was just always there for us, and always pushing, and encouraging, and teaching. I think he still teaches Latin now, at a different school in the same district, and it gives me great joy to think of all the people who have gotten to experience Latin and Rome with him.

So that’s it — my list of school teachers who had the biggest impact on my life, 20-30 years later. This post doesn’t do any of their work justice, but maybe it’s something at least.
Who were your most influential teachers?

Jul 09

Why I’m messing with fonts

If you come to the web-based version of my blog instead of reading it in a feed reader, and you use a modern browser — Firefox and Safari, at least, and maybe some versions of Chrome — you may have noticed I’ve been experimenting with using different fonts.

I’ve been doing this for a couple of reasons, neither of which is particularly related to the readability and aesthetics of the blog.

The first reason, and more important of the two, is that I wanted to experiment with the new @font-face support in Firefox 3.5. I have a strongly held point of view that you don’t really learn about something until you do it — and since I have a bit of an affinity to fonts, I thought I should try @font-face out on my own blog. I discovered a few different things in this process.

First, there are not a lot of really good fonts online that are licensed for use on web sites — either free & open fonts or purchased fonts. I think both categories (free and non-free) will see more & higher quality fonts available soon, since fonts are available now to so many more users than before. (@font-face was not new with Firefox, but obviously Firefox brings a lot of users along.)

Second, you learn a lot about your web server & how quick it can send data, since in addition to your web content now it’s gotta send font files that are 50-100 KB or more. My server, for the record, totally sucked. Now it’s better, but not as quick as I’d really like.

Third, the differences in implementations really become apparent. Safari opts to wait until a font file is loaded before showing any text rendered in that font; Firefox renders the text in already-resident fonts and then sort of “pops” the text into the new font when it downloads. That shows pretty clearly a difference in aesthetic between WebKit and Gecko (and probably the organizations behind them): WebKit (and Apple) prefers a solution to minimize visual divergence — so you never see text in the wrong font. Gecko (and Mozilla) prefers a solution to get people reading content as quickly as they can, even if it means a momentary rendering in sub-optimal font — because a lot of times people want to get to their content as quickly as possible. Anyhow, different decisions that will impact designers and consumers differently.

Finally, it helps us figure out where the bugs are. One of the initial fonts I used didn’t have some ligatures implemented — “ff” in particular — and Firefox handled that by just not showing anything. 🙂

[As an aside, I’ve been tracking TypeKit since before they launched, and am quite optimistic about their prospects. I’ll try them out as soon as they open up the beta.]

The second reason I wanted to experiment is that I’m a bit of a font nerd. Have been since my mom got her first Mac in 1985. I really like type and lettering and the way that it affects how people feel and think. One of my favorite classes at Stanford was called “Concepts of Text” and taught by a type designer named Charles Bigelow — among other things, we had a couple of classes about typesetters who were burned at the stake for typesetting heretical documents. Good times.

Anyhow, I like type, and am really excited by the prospect of more sophisticated typography coming to the web. And as much as I like Helvetica — and I do! and you should, too, not to mention you should go see the movie — I feel like on the web today there’s a bit of a Tyranny of Helvetica — it’s somehow viewed as the most appropriate type for, you know, everything.

So I’m experimenting, and will probably do it more. Right now, I’m over-using (not to mention sort of mis-using) 2 fonts on this blog. I’m using Graublau Sans for the headlines — it’s an free/open license font designed for larger display settings. And I’m using Spiekermann’s newer font Axel for the body type — it was really designed for very small type — especially in cells in Excel spreadsheets, for example — but I liked that it has many similarities with his Meta typeface, which happens to be the one we use for the “Mozilla” and “Firefox” and “Thunderbird” wordmarks — but also had a relatively inexpensive (under $100 US) @font-face compatible license available for purchase from FontShop.

If I have some time this week I’m going to try to make some of the more egregious readability problems I’ve caused…um, I guess I’ll strive to make them less egregious. But we’ll see.

I do know that it’s fun to experiment with type again.

Jul 09

How Rome Fell, by Adrian Goldsworthy

This is not a book for everyone. It was barely a book for me, and I’m a bit of a nerd about Rome. The book starts at Marcus Aurelius and goes through 500 AD or so — a time of massive Roman influence in the world, but also a time that saw that influence dissipate over time.

It was such a giant empire, and such a time of flux, that the book often reads like a list of emperors and conflicts than like a narrative of the period — made even more complex by the tendency to have at least 2 and often 4 “legitimate” emperors at any given time, not to mention challengers and usurpers.

But there were a couple of interesting things that made the book worth it for me. First was a complete & overwhelming rejection of the analogies between the fall of Rome and the fall of the United States. (I don’t particularly have an opinion on whether US influence is fading, although I tend to agree with Zakaria that it’s really more about the “rise of the rest” — but I have long thought that the Roman Empire had essentially nothing in common with the “American Empire.”)

The second thing that I really liked is that the book helped me understand the split of the empire into a Western Empire (with a capital at Rome, later Milan, then Ravenna) and an Eastern Empire (with its capital of Constantinople), and how the East persisted long after the West fell. (It isn’t a history of the Holy Roman Empire, fwiw — it ends around 500 AD, so not that much of note had happened.)

Anyway, glad I read it; not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t particularly interested in this stuff.

Jul 09

The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo

I’m pretty interested in people who are really trying to make sense of the modern world around us, and Josh Ramo adds to the conversation, in The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It.

Ramo has real credentials — he’s a Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, and before that was the World Editor at Time, Inc. He’s seen a lot, and had extremely good access to many of the people who are shaping the world, including VCs, scientists and leaders of Hezbollah.

It’s a book about the overwhelming complexity of today’s world situation, and a repudiation of the control & predictability orientation that has driven so much of our foreign affairs since (at least) post-World War II.

I don’t think that I agree with all of it, but the basic premise is sound: we cannot completely control our own destiny, and the world is too complex a place to attack every problem directly. We need to be smarter & more agile & more flexible, not to mention more willing to see that there are leaders who matter in every community, not just heads of state.

“It isn’t easy to accept that the world is being shaped by forces you don’t understand and can’t agree with. It requires a willingness to master some of that strangeness instead of simply labeling it as “mad” or trashing it as “evil.” It means getting comfortable with the attitude that Niels Bohr once described as an inevitable part of a quantum view, that tickling “are you kidding me?” feeling as you try something a bit nuts only to discover that it works wonderfully. Building a bureaucracy that can do that, populating it with minds capable of such leaps, is going to require a heroic act of reimagination on our part. But, as I think you’ll see by the end of this book, there’s no reason to think we’re not capable of it.”