17 December, 2009
Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 17
I wonder what sort of psychological profile one could draw from my favorite childhood possessions. I neither played nor followed football, but clung to my NFL lunchbox that showed all the team helmets with their different insignia. I had no special interest in English History, but was fascinated by the chart in our living room that traced the succession of British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. A kindergarten teacher gave me a chart of rocks and minerals found in the northeast; a kindly docent at the South Street Seaport Museum gave me a diagram showing how to communicate the alphabet using morse code, semaphore, and maritime signal flags. The list goes on and on, and only a graphic designer will understand the common thread: I had a thing for data visualization.
Whether these objects provoked my interest in design or simply resonated with it, they were marvelous things to have around as a kid. I’m therefore delighted to see that a company called HistoryShots is offering for sale a similar collection of visually engaging prints, not merely suitable for framing but actually framed. Clockwise from top left: The History of the Union Army and Confederate Army, The Conquest of Mount Everest, Visualizing The Bible, Death and Taxes, The History of Political Parties (Part II), and the Race to the Moon. —JH
9 April, 2009
The H&FJ Institute for Unapplied Mathematics
We've received our share of intriguing questions over the years, but this one takes the cake. On Monday, a correspondent called from National Public Radio to discuss the implications of typesetting a number with twelve million digits.
The number in question is 243112609-1...Continues...
21 October, 2008
Atoms & Aldus
Right: Ioannis Aurelius Augurellus, published by Aldus Manutius. Venice, 1505.
Last week I mentioned the atomic pen, which scientists used to construct some awfully tiny letters one atom at a time. These are small letters indeed: measuring two nanometers in height, they’re about 1/40000 the thickness of a human hair, which surely gives their inventor enough credibility to issue the casual throwdown that “it’s not possible to write any smaller than this.” But it is, of course, and the technique for doing so has been known to typefounders for more than five hundred years...Continues...
14 August, 2008
Obnoxious Character Recognition
Typeface: Mercury Display Bold Italic
At the heart of the game of cat-and-mouse played by bloggers and spammers is Captcha, purveyor of those staticky demands to enter the code exactly as shown above. Captcha is premised on the idea that brains are still better than machines at reading text, and that by forcing visitors to decipher a distorted piece of typography, the system can successfully distinguish between humans and robots. Of course, ongoing advancements in OCR technology have sparked a proportionate response in the impenetrability of Captcha, provoking an arms race whose chief casualty is the quality of life online. Next time you’re submitting to some real-world indignity — say, stripping down to your underwear at an airport security screening — try to look forward to the geniality of the virtual world, in which your own computer, from the comfort of your own home, will upbraid you for mistyping B89gqlIIl. And this after it went to all the trouble of obscuring the type using a three-dimensional distortion matrix, edge softening, gaussian interference, random occlusion, and your least favorite font. Puny human.
But happily — brilliantly! — Captcha’s inventor, Luis von Ahn, has inverted his own technology in the service of something grand. Von Ahn’s latest project, reCaptcha, replaces Captcha’s random gobbledygook with actual snippets of digitized books that computers have so far been unable to decipher. ReCaptcha uses each individual human intervention to improve the quality of digital literacy, a welcome relief for readers of this 1861 text that mentions modems (“modem art” is a common flub.) National Public Radio has the full story in this four-minute interview with the inventor himself. —JH