To the Best of Our Knowledge

Since you’ll be at home tomorrow anyway, hopped up on leftover miniature chocolate bars that you couldn’t pawn off on discerning neighborhood kids, tune in to Wisconsin Public Radio to hear To the Best of Our Knowledge: tomorrow’s program will be about fonts. Join me, Tobias Frere-Jones, and Matthew Carter for an hour of typography, either on the air or online. Other guests include Kitty Burns Florey discussing handwriting, Tracy Honn on the work of the Silver Buckle Press — and discussing the Amazon Kindle, one of my favorite people, Nicholson Baker. —JH

“Someone Found a Letter You Drew Me, On the Radio…”

Typeface: Gotham

This afternoon, typography joins the ranks of the wonderfully obscure on Please Explain, my favorite segment of the Leonard Lopate Show: Steven Heller and I will be on hand to discuss, if not actually explain, typography. If you’re in the New York area, join us around 1:20pm EST at WNYC-FM 93.9 or AM 820, or follow the podcast at wnyc.org. —JH

The H&FJ Institute for Unapplied Mathematics

Typefaces: Gotham Narrow Book, Archer Book, Indicia, Dividend, Gotham Extra Narrow Medium, Bayside

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, which holds the title for World’s Largest Known Prime Number. Mathematicians have known since at least the third century BC that for many values of n, the formula 2n-1 produces a prime number. When it does, the result Mn is called a Mersenne Prime, after the seventeenth century French mathematician who calculated the first 257 of them by hand — quite something when you realize that M257 has 78 digits. (And, so very cruelly, it’s not prime.) The search for prime numbers, an esoteric pursuit that rivals typeface design for its cultishness, has continued ever since; these days it’s assisted by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a project that organizes the downtime of almost 90,000 volunteers’ computers into a collective effort to find the next great prime.

Continues…

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

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