Courier’s reign

January 17th, 2011 12:04 PM
Filed under Musings;
1 comment.

Farhad Manjoo is pretty worked up over a trivial matter. For Slate Magazine, he ranted why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. This 1,486-word typographical diatribe is rampant with the same form of sure-mindedness its author finds so belligerent in his opposition: “What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.”

The difference is that Mr. Manjoo claims to have history on his side:

Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

With this evolution to support him, Manjoo insists that anyone still using two spaces is a prehistoric troglodyte still reliant on ancient technology to string words into sentences.

But wait! Manjoo does provide some allowance: the Courier font. Although rarely seen on modern computing platforms, Courier was the default (and, in fact, only) font offered by AppleWorks Classic on the Apple II. In such an environment, it makes sense to distinguish a non-sentence-ending period from another.

Those who have migrated to other platforms may have since adapted their style to the variety of fonts the Macintosh made standard a quarter-century ago. Obstinate authors weaned on the Apple II who insist on computers adapting to their users and not vice versa have instead customized their environments to maintain a continuity that began with the Apple II.

For me, this means changing Apple Mail‘s default font to Courier — and I don’t think it took any editing for my blogging tool, MarsEdit, to default to Menlo, also a non-proportional font. Once published, my blog posts appear in a proportional font, but WordPress, which powers this site, automatically displays those double spaces as a single. I can therefore preserve my workflow while presenting content that’s appropriate to its context.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

MarsEdit supports my monospace fixation.

Every writer has his or her own quirks, from spaces after a period, to “built-in” or “inbuilt”, to whether or not punctuation goes within or without quotation marks. It’s the writer’s responsibility to offer writing that is consistent with the style of the intended publication, if one is to be both employable and likable as a writer.

But to go on a moralistic rampage about the sins of extraneous whitespace is unnecessary … though perhaps good for page views: over one thousand responses have furthered this controversy thus far.

Do you think the Apple II has played a role in perpetuating this archaic typeset pattern?

The devolution of user engagement

November 1st, 2010 10:12 AM
Filed under Musings;
1 comment.

A colleague and I recently had a friendly debate over whether to use one space or two after periods. We agreed that, whatever our personal preference, we should settle on the standard of the publication for which we’re writing. In her work as a Web editor, she occasionally has to remove those extra spaces, a chore that was recently made easier when a co-worker showed her how to use the find and replace function to do so.

“Did you not know you could find and replace punctuation,” I asked, “or did you not know how to find and replace at all?”

“I didn’t know about it at all,” she clarified. “I’ve been living under a software rock.”

I was astonished at her lack of familiarity with this basic word processing function. This oversight is not representative of inability: she had finished high school and college and been accepted into an esteemed graduate program in publishing, demonstrating a felicity for learning. She’s also not alone in finding software foreign, as I’ve met many people who on a daily basis are happy to use these machines in a most inefficient way. Most consumers think that programs are something to be mastered instead of tamed: they design their workflows around what the software expects, which is the antithesis of ergonomics.

For someone who grew up with the open architecture of the Apple II, I find this pattern unnerving at best, and one I want to understand better. To what can we attribute this regression?

The improved accessibility of computers is certainly a factor, as there is now a lower barrier for entry. Computers of three decades ago required a basic understanding just to boot the machine and then run the software. Yesterday’s lack of intuitive graphic user interfaces (GUIs), online help systems, and large installed user bases meant each person was alone in deciphering the programs — or writing their own. Such arcane knowledge is merely optional today.

A consequence of this approach is diminished engagement with users. Since they no longer need to hunt for features and commands, they no longer do so at all. They take everything at face value, not realizing the program’s potential that goes untapped. There isn’t even printed documentation that they can peruse to discover all the functions they’re not using.

You may think that, with the increasing prevalence of closed operating systems such as iOS, this accommodating mindset of computer users will become a necessary one. But a user needn’t have access to a computer’s command line to be able to use software efficiently. The first thing I do in any application I install, be it for a desktop computer or a cell phone, is investigate the preferences, so I better understand the options and behaviors available to me. When I installed Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac last week, I immediately set Word to save its files in .DOC format by default, eschewing the more modern .DOCX. This single customization thus prevented numerous headaches caused by friends with older software not being able to open my files. Most users wouldn’t think to explore that possibility.

That’s because making computers friendlier has, ironically, also made them less engaging, and thus less educational. Growing up with computers that made few efforts to be understood taught me how to understand today’s computers. For example, I recently purchased the new iLife suite from Apple. The multimedia editing software iMovie is immense in its capabilities, but because I’m curious and playful — qualities that are learned as much as they are innate — it wasn’t long before I was mixing clips, ducking audio, and exporting to YouTube.

Granted, programs like iMovie have overwhelming potential: today’s software is capable of so much more than could have ever fit onto a 140K floppy. Maybe today’s users are learning just as much about today’s computers as we did about the Apple II; it’s only the proportions that have changed, as the comprehensive simplicity of yesterday’s programs made it easier to grasp its commands in their entirety.

Appleworks command set

Behold, the Appleworks word processor command set in its entirety:
just enough to master. (Click for the full list.)

As more and more people use computers, will they become less and less efficient at doing so? Will our programs continue to bloat until only artisans and the hardcore can do more than scratch their surface? Or is that potential rightly buried, rewarding those dedicated few who know there has to be something better lurking beneath the surface?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’ve seen high school students marvel at being taught new computer skills, from as basic as Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” function to as esoteric as the Scheme programming language. The earlier we introduce users to such concepts, the sooner we’ll ignite that creative spark that will drive them to learn what else these fascinating devices can do. Then we’ll have a next generation not just of programmers, but of power users — and anyone who wants to compete with them in the workforce had best start cracking the books.

AppleWorks in the Hot Tub Time Machine

July 15th, 2010 2:00 PM
Filed under Mainstream coverage;

Some movies make strong first impressions that don’t always prove accurate. Hot Tub Time Machine‘s name and trailer led me to believe it was an immature, over-the-top guy flick. Imagine my surprise when it actually received good reviews. Its quick release on DVD gave me the opportunity to try it at no cost, courtesy the local library, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found: an immature, over-the-top guy flick that was actually fun, funny, and clever. But that’s not all I found.

When the four main characters first time-travel from present day back to 1986, they’re unaware of their situation. It’s only when they step into a ski lodge and are assaulted with the memorabilia and styles of the era that they begin to grasp what has happened. It’s a very quick montage in which they are presented with leg warmers, tape decks, Ronald Reagan, and…

Wait, what’s that?!

Faster than someone reaching for the mute button during a vuvuzela concert, I rewound and paused the film and engaged in a slow-motion crawl through the scene. Sure enough, I spotted the object of my desire:

Hot Tub Time Machine

What says the Eighties like an Apple II?

Behold: this ski lodge is powered by an Apple IIc with a missing key and a copy of AppleWorks. What version of the software is in use and what the files and timestamps are, I can’t tell without a higher resolution look at the scene. But we can see that word processor, database, and spreadsheet files are all in evidence.

I wonder what production crew member dug into his archives and volunteered this hardware to appear on the silver screen? What a fun interview that would be!