Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Close enough for gummint work

Someone raised the issue the other day, over on the comp.fonts news group, of optical size of type, and another poster asked for an explanation. If the finer points of typography are something you’re interested in, here’s an edited version of the explanation I posted:

If you’ve looked into how digital fonts are constructed, you may think of a font in terms of a single set of outlines for some number of glyphs. If you want to set 1 pt type, you render the outlines at size 1. If you want to set 72 pt type, you scale up the same outlines to size 72. Ta da. You’re done.

However, this really doesn’t work, in terms of the way we perceive letter shapes.

If we go back in history to when artisans cut each punch by hand, we can see immediately that a character of, say, around 6 pt (this was before the invention of the point system) and a character cut by the same punchcutter of, say, around 36 pt are quite different. And the difference is not because of human error or imprecision in wielding the gravers and counterpunches. No, the difference is systematic across the font. The punchcutter’s intimate knowledge of the way type impresses ink into the surface of paper taught him to make the counters (the open spaces such as the middle of a letter o) proportionally larger in smaller sizes and to make stems proportionally thinner, etc. Visually, the range of sizes represented an integrated design, within the limits of human ability to cut consistently. However, optically magnifying the 6 pt type to the size of the 36 pt type would make them look like entirely different typefaces to the naive observer.

Jump ahead to the nineteenth century. Now we have a point system, but we’ve graduated from hand cutting each punch to mechanical punchcutting, using a pantograph. The typeface designer works with pencil on paper at a large scale (varying by designer, but often ten times the target size), then inks the drawings. A craftsman transfers the the pen sketch to a brass template, which is then screwed to a block. A pantograph traces the brass template and cuts a punch at the desired small size. Now this is an industrial process, with expensive labor and machinery. So the designer cheats the system a bit and draws perhaps three versions of the font, an A size, a B size, and a C size. The A templates are converted by the pantograph to punches in the 6 pt to 8 pt range. The B size template becomes the 9 to 12 pt punches. The C size is used for 14 to 24, perhaps. That sort of thing. The visual principle is the same as before, but there are fewer gradations. Still, if the mechanical craftspeople are particularly skilled and attuned to the problem, they can make vernier adjustments to the pantograph and other adjustments to the casting moulds so that there is a somewhat smoother gradation among sizes than you would at first suspect from having just three models.

Now we jump ahead to the mechanical typecasting machines (Monotype, Linotype, Intertype, Ludlow). These have severe limitations in terms of permissible character widths. The best that can be said is that the cost of typesetting was greatly reduced. The spirit was willing in the matrix manufacturing companies, but the technology was weak. The quality was just barely close enough for government work. We enter a dark period in design when a very few excellent craftspeople push the limits of what the machines permit, but there’s a lot of just awful type produced that mostly drowns out the good stuff. However, even in this environment, the concept of A, B, and C master designs persists, as it does into the era of phototype masters (Linofilm, for example). Meanwhile, we’ve moved from metal pressing into the surface of paper to offset technology, where a clean shape is laid on top of the paper surface. This completely changes the relationship of glyph shape (as cut) with its visual rendition (as printed). The old type designs were cut slighter than the desired impression, to allow for the three-dimensional impression and the spread of ink under pressure. The same designs, used for offset, produce a wan, weak character on the paper.

One last jump. Digital type, as outlines (there were other technologies, but nowadays we deal with outlines). What has been lost?

That’s what the thoughtful criticism of specific fonts and specific font companies is about; and, in particular, that’s what the discussion of scaling is about.

Early versions of digital fonts were an amazing improvement over what a secretary could accomplish with a Selectric typewriter. But they were a poor imitation of real commercial typography. Today, though, after the same font names have been attached to several revisions of those first outlines, and after the technical standards for font outlines have been revised a few times, and after rendering engines have gone through several generations of improvement, the basic font outlines are, in some cases, quite good.

We still have the scaling problem, though. The fonts that take this problem into account are expensive. Adobe has lately issued a few; and other font companies—I hesitate to call them foundries, as there is no metal being cast—have also addressed this issue. When you pay a professional typographer to design and produce your book, you have every right to expect that the highest quality fonts be used. These are not the fonts that came with your computer or with your version of Microsoft Office. They’re professional tools for professional use.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ya' learn something old every day

For dinner tonight I decided to make something I haven’t made in, oh, fifteen or twenty years, a Welsh rabbit. In that I haven’t made one in a long time, I looked up a recipe. Did I reach for any of the dozens of cookbooks in the house? Of course not, I googled for it, and the first hit I got looked good enough. (Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster have, to Google’s dismay, pronounced google to be a perfectly good verb, lowercased; who am I to argue?) Dinner was delicious.

Cleaning up the kitchen I noticed that the recipe I printed out was titled Welsh Rarebit. I thought I had googled for Welsh rabbit, and I remarked at how clever Google was to know that the two terms are synonymous. (It turns out I had typed rarebit after all, and Google merely returned what I had asked for. Oh well.) My wife said she was sure she had never heard anyone call the dish rabbit and had only heard rarebit. A trip to Google Fight showed that both terms are in current use. Dictionaries treat rarebit as a variant of rabbit. (The history of the term is interesting; it’s a precursor of our modern battles over politically correct speech.)

Anyway, I continued to explore and happened upon this page, where I learned a couple of interesting old facts. The first is that the modern American version of the dish is rather sissified, a cheese-flavored cream sauce with a few other ingredients tossed in for flavor. The rightpondian original was pretty much melted cheese softened with a bit of ale and some seasoning. I’ll have to try it that way next time.

The second old thing I learned was that in the days before stoves, when cooking was done on the hearth, the implement used for broiling the top of something like a Welsh rabbit was a salamander, so called because it rather looks like one (as you can see on the page linked above).

Why is this interesting? It’s interesting because the commercial broiler used in restaurant kitchens is also called a salamander, a name that never made any sense at all to me until I went googling down the rabbit hole this evening.

Ya’ learn something old every day.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

My Very Emaciated Mother Just Served Us Nothing

You heard it here first, unless you also heard on NPR a few minutes ago. Pluto is going to be voted off the Island of the Planets.

Monday, August 21, 2006

High-traffic site

The normally quiet residential street where I live is, beginning today and for most of the next week and a half, the detour of choice for city buses, delivery trucks, and commuters. The thoroughfare a couple of blocks from here is closed so that a production company can film scenes for a feature film starring and directed by .

We are advised that there will be actors dressed as policemen who will have fake guns on the set and we should not be alarmed. Okay. Color me not alarmed. I do not expect to encounter them.

I learned as a child that people whose names you see in the paper are, for the most part, hard-working, capable human beings who put their pants on one leg at a time just as you and I do. If you happen to meet one of them, you look them in the eye and shake hands as you would anyone else. They appreciate being respected for their work more than being gushed over. At least most of them do. I enjoy watching Thurman act on screen. I don’t need an autograph. I’ve seen movies being made before, and I prefer the finished product.

I’ll be at my desk, ignoring the traffic outside.

Friday, August 18, 2006

e's are on sale this month

Whither -or? First it was adviser. Then it was protester. Then it was imposter. Then it was vender (a few weeks ago in The New Yorker). Now, in this post on Critical Mass we have translater. Al Gore is right: The werld is ending.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I dunno about these doctors who think they can write

Maybe some day I’ll find out, but so far I can’t tell.

Don’t get me wrong. There are doctors who write beautifully. What has me puzzled at the moment are the last two doctors who contacted me about editing their novels.

The first of them, a podiatrist, sent me a few pages to look at. When I asked to see the rest of the manuscript so that I could provide a price quote for editing it, he expressed concern that I might steal it from him. I explained about copyright and then I offered to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He was going to email one to me and I would sign it and fax it back. A few days went by and I asked what was up. He said he’d selected another editor—based on price. This was a bit of a surprise as I had not quoted a price yet; he’d never sent me the manuscript.

The second doctor, a vascular surgeon, sent me a one-line email last night saying that his publicist (a woman I’ve never heard of), recommended me to edit his book and could I please call him? As it was dinnertime on Sunday in his area code, I wrote back asking when would be a good time to call. I had gotten no response by this morning, so I phoned. Oh, never mind, he found an editor already. Huh?

Now as it turns out, my plate is fairly full at the moment. While it might have been fun to edit a medical thriller, I don’t exactly need the work right now. But if you’ll pardon my ranting a bit, what kind of decision-making process do these doctors go through in their professional lives? The first guy wanted a price from me without showing me the manuscript. I wonder if he diagnoses his patients without examining them. The second guy sent out some unknown number of emails to a list of editors and picked the first one who was rude enough to call him Sunday night, without considering any alternatives. Is that how he evaluates treatment options for his surgery patients—first salesman in the operating room wins?

Weird. Gives me a whole new perspective on guys in white coats.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jazz in Ecuador, Butch's BBQ, and books

This post is about selling it.

My excuse for being in Asheville was that my niece and her family, who live in Ecuador, were visiting my sister. My niece gave a benefit jazz recital to a sold-out crowd at my sister’s house on the same night that Tony Bennett was performing at a somewhat larger venue in Asheville. She’s coming along as a performer and the crowd was receptive to her familiar American Song Book repertoire. The pickup band who accompanied her are familiar with the music, too. In Quito, however, there are challenges. My niece sings in English, for the most part, and introduces each song with a lengthy explanation in Spanish. Still, this is unfamiliar foreign music to her audiences there. She has to put in long hours of rehearsal with the few musicians she has found who have any notion of American jazz at all. And even though some of them are students in an extension program of Berklee School of Music, the notion that some jazz can include vocals is totally unfamiliar to them. They have heard of but not heard Luis, er, Louis Armstrong and Eja, er, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s it.

Now put yourself in the position of an Ecuadoran listening to my niece. This is foreign music with lyrics in a foreign language (difficult to comprehend even if you speak the foreign language fluently) that tell the stories of a foreign culture. It is an experience similar to attending a concert in the US of a touring group from, say, South Africa. The music is lively and catchy and entertaining, but its foreignness is at the core of your experience. You do not relate to it the same way you relate to the familiar music of your own culture. Once the group has gone back to South Africa and the tour publicity has ceased, what do you retain from the experience? There is no empathic relationship built up between that touring group and you. My niece has that problem selling herself to the public in Ecuador, and for the same reason.

Pulled pork

On the way to Asheville, and again on the way back, my wife and I stopped along the road for lunch. Both times we chose a local barbecue place in North Carolina. (On both trips we also carefully avoided eating anywhere in Pennsylvania; experience is a great teacher.)

On the southbound trip, stopping for gas, we spotted a place at the top of the hill. One store promised “scenic souvenirs,” which we somehow managed to avoid, but the barbecue place next door looked clean and reasonable. It had the expected kitschy gewgaws on the wall, along with a number of posters of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts for some reason we did not inquire about. The menu was unexceptional; the service was prompt and friendly, if somewhat impersonal; the food was far better than we had any right to expect. And yet the place was sufficiently unmemorable that I cannot tell you its name or its location along I-77. I’d be hard pressed to find it again unless I happened to need gas at the same point on the next trip down.

On the trip home, though, our experience was different. We knew we wanted to eat somewhere west of Statesville, where I-40 and I-77 cross, because that area is saturated with franchise restaurants. Even if there is some local gem hidden there, we would not have been able to find it. On the tourism informational panel listing restaurants at Exit 103, we saw a promising-looking sign for Butch’s BBQ. Okay, let’s try it. From the outside, the building was nothing special. With different signage it could have been a Dairy Queen or a KFC or a dry cleaner. But in the parking lot we noticed three or four catering trucks. Clearly, the place had a local reputation sufficient to keep those trucks busy on weekends. That was a good sign.

Inside, the place was clean and neat, not laden with quaint decorations. We ordered at the counter, where a middle-aged man in a Butch’s BBQ tee shirt took our order, talking us through the choices of sides. He volunteered, “Now if you try something and don’t like it, just bring it back and we’ll give you something else. You can taste anything you like right now.”

He seemed a little too enthusiastic to be someone who took the job after getting laid off from a software company. So my wife asked, “Are you Butch, by any chance?”

“Yes, I am,” he said. And he continued with his spiel as he rang us up.

A couple of minutes later, after we’d picked up our order and were beginning to eat, Butch was working the room. After a minute or so he was at our table, talking about the food. I had ordered a smoked chicken salad sandwich. Before I got to my second bite, Butch informed me that it was made with chicken breasts he smokes himself. He gave us the recipes for both his white slaw and his red slaw (same as the white slaw but with cayenne pepper added). He offered that the hush puppies on my wife’s barbecue plate were all-you-can-eat. “Just come back and ask for more. We’ll give ‘em to you.” Yes, he makes all five barbecue sauces himself and bottles them. “Taste that bun. It’s homemade. I refresh the sourdough starter every three days, the old-fashioned way. Well, actually, my wife does.”

He gave us a card and continued around the room, pausing to take a call on his cell phone (when we noticed that the back of his shirt listed three locations), chatting up other customers, and then returning to the counter to wait on some more new customers.

Butch and his wife, we learned, started the business thirty-two years ago. And yet here he was, as enthusiastic to talk about food, smile at customers, and act as a role model for his employees as any newly promoted store manager trying to prove his worth to the boss.

I should mention that the food really wasn’t as good as that first place we’d stopped on Saturday. But it’s Butch’s we remember, because the retail transaction is about more than the actual goods exchanged. That’s true when you shop, too, isn’t it?

It’s true for the book-buying public, too.

Whether you self-publish or get a deal with Random House, selling books doesn’t end with creating a marketing plan. The actual selling—making the empathic connection with the purchaser—is your responsibility as an author. Whether you like selling or not, whether you are a natural salesperson or not, no matter how introverted you may be in real life, you have to stand up and smile and shake hands with people and pretend you enjoy signing autographs and expressing your heartfelt best wishes for cousin Jimmy’s wedding and say howyadoin’ like you really mean it. Moreover, no matter if it is all an act, you have to be convincing at it. Shirley has to go home from your reading and tell her friends the story of how you and she really connected, if only for a moment. She has to tell that story for years. So don’t give her a perfunctory brush-off when she dawdles at the signing table to ask about your dog, okay? Because she’ll tell the story of your rude brush-off for years, too.

You can’t sell books sitting on your ass, even if you have to write them that way. That’s what Butch understands. You have to understand it, too.

Consider the crime writer

Consider the cop, too.

This last sunny Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were strolling, window shopping, actually, in the yuppified part of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. A street musician sat with his back to the sole of a giant black flatiron, a public sculpture across the way from an old flatiron building. The street scene included a number of pedestrians and, within a couple of blocks, numerous charming boutiques and cafés.

As we were walking away from the corner where the guitarist sat, I heard a bottle break, then some shouting, then some thuds. I turned to see a man on the ground being kicked in the side. Within a few seconds, several participants in the melee had scattered, some around the corner, some past where we stood. The victim of the beating, with the assistance of a friend, hobbled past us, holding a shirt to the back of his head, which was bleeding from where an assailant had broken the bottle over it.

When we reached the corner where the musician still sat, we and other tourists conferred and concluded that we could not piece the event together well enough to make a credible police report. Hence, we were all non-witnesses to an unreported crime. To be sure, I tried to ask the participants I encountered what had happened, particularly when some of them returned from around the corner to see where the beatee had gone. But the more I learned, the less I knew. Had any of us called 911 and waited for a cop to take our statements, we would have contributed nothing to the pursuit of justice.

There was one person I think I might be able to pick out of a lineup, although I don’t know the person’s role in the events. Yet I would swear this was a slight young man of the sort one might call pretty and my wife insists it was a rather unfeminine young woman. Some lineup that would be!

I’ve watched my share of police dramas and read my share of crime descriptions in novels and stories. And I’ve also read reports of experiments designed to assess the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. I’ve thought about how I might do as an eyewitness to a crime, and I’ve had the sort of practice that most of us get with the occasional traffic accident. I fancy myself a fairly observant person, too. But in the real event, with non-actors attacking a flesh-and-blood person on the street, I batted zero. We all batted zero. So my hat is off to the real cops and prosecutors who piece together the events of crimes, to the witnesses who stay collected enough to remember what they see, and the writers who can imagine violent crimes and write about them in a way that evokes reality. Fictional crime is certainly better organized than real crime.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Getting a self-published book reviewed where it counts

Join this discussion on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. The question on the table is how to bring independently published books to the attention of major book critics. I’ve thrown in my tuppence-worth. It would be good to see other points of view, and Critical Mass seems like the right venue to raise the issue.