Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Longest Day of the Year

I’m about eleven hours late (allergies, or something like them, knocked me for six), but “happy longest day of the year” to everyone. According to my calculations, the June solstice occurred today at 6:28:16 AM CDT.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dear Apple: Typography Still Matters

As others have pointed-out (thanks to Jay Lake for that link), Apple’s ebooks have abandoned good typographic practices, and instead embraced problematic practices like full justification for all text. Apple has now carried these failings over to the generally wonderful “Reader” mode of version 5 of their Safari browser. I’ll confine myself to the issue of full-justification here, and leave the other issues for people who’ve kept their typographic skills more current than my own.

Why is full justification bad? Because the increased space it introduces in text can result in distractingly large gaps between words, and, if some or all of the gaps in one line happen to align with some or all of the gaps in the preceding or following lines, a phenomenon known to typographers as “rivers” is the result – winding vertical columns of white space running through the text. The rivers are not only ugly and distracting, but they ruin the “color” of the text (its consistent grayness when seen from a distance, or with your eyes slightlty defocused.) Typographers don’t let these problems appear in their text, and neither should Apple, inventor of the desktop publishing revolution.

(I was there, by the way, at the beginning of the revolution, replete with my copy of Aldus Page Maker version 1.0, so I remember when typography still mattered to Apple. Even if every other old-timer has gone, Steve Jobs remains, and it is amazing that his justly famous attention to detail allowed these crimes against typography to find their way into released products.)

Steve, Apple, someone – remember when typography mattered at Apple and please make it matter again.

Three “rivers” in less than a paragraph of “Reader” text.
Source: Ars Technica.

No major rivers here, just appalling word spacing (“tracking”).
Source: Wikipedia.

One might attempt to resolve these problems, while clinging to the troublesome practice of fully-justifying text, by increasing the kerning (the space placed between letters) to minimize the tracking. One could even stretch the glyphs of the text a little to reduce the demands on kerning and tacking. However, even in combination, the color of short lines of text will still suffer.

Again, as others have pointed-out, the solution couldn’t be simpler: use left justification (at least by default), and stick to it. (If you must, let users then choose alternate justification schemes – if the lines of text are long enough that full justification can be achieved cleanly, great; if not, let the people who can’t see them have their gaps and rivers.)

C’mon Apple folks, it’s in Apple’s DNA to handle text with the respect that it deserves. Has there been a recent transcription error, or (shudder) was the relevant gene recessive all along? In any case, you can choose to do better now. Honest, you can.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Guncotton and the Utility of Failure

From Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space by Willey Ley, 1968 edition, pp. 80-81:

Guncotton [...] had been discovered [in 1845] by German chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein, who had tried to dissolve cotton in a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. Of course, the cotton had refused to dissolve and Schönbein, writing off the experiment as a failure, had gone home for supper, after putting the still wet strands on top of the hot stove to dry. Schönbein lost his laboratory, but discovered guncotton in the process.