Change We Somehow Can’t Quite Believe In, Though We Just Can’t Put Our Finger On It

Every four years, the month of November tenders an exciting opportunity for financial speculation, this year offering an almost practical alternative to your lending institution of choice (still solvent as of presstime) or your flameproof mattress. Behold the high-stakes world of political memorabilia, now doing brisk business on the internet.

To my surprise and delight, this year’s “process pieces” about the election included dozens of articles about the Obama campaign’s exceptional graphic design standards, none of which failed to mention Gotham, the campaign’s official typeface. Obviously not every piece of Obama paraphernalia featured the font — organizations unaffiliated with the campaign certainly produced their share of ad hoc design, and this was a candidate who attracted a tremendous number of independent enthusiasts — but the typography employed by the campaign itself was remarkably consistent, which is what made it newsworthy.

A search for “Obama” on eBay yields more than twenty thousand items, including these three pieces of questionable Obama memorabilia (Fauxbamarabilia?), none of which features the campaign’s signature typeface. First and last are rally signs set in Gill Sans, which is close to Gotham, but no cigar. At the top it’s paired with Lucida, at the bottom with Times Roman; let me suggest to anyone interested in counterfeiting printed ephemera that you look a little further than the fonts that came with your computer. The middle one has a certain primitivist charm that suggests the work of a cheerful amateur, but the legend “Paid for by Obama for America” marks it as a likely fraud: if it’s not, it’s the only piece of American political printing I’ve ever seen that doesn’t also include a union bug.

Anyway, if you’re hunting for genuine souvenirs, try the campaigns themselves. Both the Obama and McCain organizations are still unloading their extras. —JH

H&Co Crime-Fighting Division

It was not a dark, stormy night at the H&Co offices, and she was not a dame in a red dress who spelled trouble with a capital T. It was last Friday afternoon, and the caller was Bill Bastone, founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, with a question about forensic typography.

The story begins with last week’s report by the Los Angeles Times that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated by associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs. The Times appears to have relied heavily on a set of FBI reports — 302s, in the argot — which cannot be found in the FBI’s own files. This morning, The Smoking Gun suggests that these may be the work of an accomplished document forger named James Sabatino, who conducted his hoax from within the walls of the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania.

We’re not experts in forensic typography or document authentication, but were able to point TSG’s specialists toward one subtle typographic clue. To untrained eyes including ours, the three 302s look like genuine bureaucratic dross: form elements are typeset in a proportionally-spaced font that appears to be Times Roman, and the body of each document is filled in with a typewriter. (The occasional overstruck letter, as well as some very erratic line endings, suggest a typewriter rather than a word processor; never mind that the Bureau stopped using typewriters “about 30 years ago,” according to an FBI supervisor.)

But a telltale gaffe appears at the top of one document, in which the date is rendered in the proportionally-spaced font. The “advance width” of the periods are demonstrably narrower than that of the numbers around them (typewriter periods are famously aloof from their neighbors), suggesting that at least this part of the document was prepared digitally — but only this part of the document, and only this one document from the set of three. The Smoking Gun has all three documents online: compare them here, here, and here. You owe me, Diddy. —JH

The Voynich Manuscript

Only if Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien and Will Shortz clubbed together in a moment of wickedness could humanity produce a more vexing object: behold the Voynich Manuscript, a puzzling artifact from the late fifteenth century written by an unknown author, in an unidentified script, in an unknown language. Since 1912, cryptographers, palaeographers, and others with time on their hands have failed to decipher this mysterious document; naturally one theory is that it’s a monstrous hoax, though its text seems to bear the hallmarks of a genuine language (note the cross-references on Zipf’s Law, information entropy, and the Cardan grille). Any theories? —JH

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