Ligature (ab)use

March 25th, 2011  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Even people who don’t care about typography probably recognize ligatures, or special glyphs that can represent the combination of two or more letters. Most commonly, these are used to make unsightly glyph combinations like these:

Ligatures before

look less awkward:

Ligatures after

In the bad old days of computer typesetting, getting ligatures to print involved some degree of manual effort and suffering, depending on what applications and typefaces you were using. However, now we have OpenType fonts, which can specify that the rendering engine should automatically select particular glyphs for sequences of characters, thus bringing WYSIWYG typesetting in the 21st century roughly up to par with where TeX was in the early 1980s.1

Delightfully, digital font designers have taken full advantage of these capabilities, offering faces like Typodermic’s Owned, which uses a wide range of contextual-alternate glyphs to mimic felt-tip graffiti, or like Alphabet Soup’s Metroscript, in which ligatures can both provide natural-looking lettering and convert sequences of underscores to tails like you might see in sports-team logos:


Certainly, these take automatic ligature replacement far beyond simply replacing common sequences of glyphs with more attractive alternates. But one of the most amazing applications of OpenType’s ligature technology I’ve seen is Travis Kochel’s Chartwell, which converts a sequence of numbers separated by plus signs into bar charts, pie charts, and sparkline graphs. For example:

Pie chart

In the image above, the two sides of the equals sign have the same text — but on the right, ligature replacement is enabled, and on the left it is not! Because the raw numbers remain in either case, Chartwell essentially supplies simple, flexible charting capabilities to any application that can render OpenType fonts: you can turn ligature replacement off, edit, recolor, and rearrange your data and then turn ligature replacement back on. It’s an extremely clever hack, but one that is also likely to be useful in a lot of domains.

1 TeX and LaTeX have always had decent support for automatically applying common ligatures (e.g. “fl” and “fi”). But LaTeX hackers also developed more involved applications, like automatically generating Cyrillic text from a Latin transliteration (!)

Stooping and vocation

December 8th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Kottke links to this NYT article about a “stooper” named Jesus Leonardo who makes a living cashing in winning off-track betting slips that others have mistakenly discarded. It’s a charming story, and the genesis of Leonardo’s stooping — which began when he grew frantic when the result of a race changed after he had thrown away a wager ticket — is ripped from comedy cliché:

“[The manager] said there was nothing she could do about [my discarded ticket],” Mr. Leonardo said. “I was so upset, almost in tears. Finally, she said, ‘Look, if you want to take the garbage home with you and look for your ticket, go right ahead.'”

He did. Although he did not locate his $900 jackpot, he found two other winners in the trash, worth a combined $2,000.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Leonardo, who had been supporting his family and his dream of writing songs by working odd jobs, including painting homes and cleaning windows. “I started thinking, there’s probably winning tickets thrown in the garbage every day.”

But as delightful as it is that he has found an unconventional means of supporting his family, there’s a problem with Leonardo’s story. By his own account, he works more than ten hours a day and makes about $45,000 a year. If we figure, conservatively, that a conventional employer would be paying him approximately 2/3 of his total compensation in salary, then that corresponds to a job with about a $30,000 annual salary. (Let’s not consider whether or not he would be able to obtain equivalent benefits that a larger employer would for the same amount of money.) Furthermore, Leonardo claims that he reports his income to the I.R.S.; since he is self-employed, he is responsible for the entirety of his FICA contributions (were he employed by someone else, they would be paying half of his Social Security and Medicare taxes).

It is remarkable that Leonardo had the cleverness to discover his job and to streamline the process to improve his yields, and I don’t want to diminish that his is a great story of entrepreneurship. But given the parameters above — the long hours, the total compensation equivalent to a conventional job with a roughly $30,000 pre-tax annual salary, and the increased tax liability of being self-employed — one wonders if he wouldn’t have been better off working in retail for a few years (a $10/hour salesperson job translates to about $21,000 pre-tax annually) and then working his way up to a supervisory or management role, where the salaries are greater and the total compensation is likely worth more than 1/2 of the pre-tax salary.

It is certainly possible to work one’s way up from an unskilled salesperson position to a management role — I saw several motivated people do it when I worked retail in high school and college. Like Mr. Leonardo, retail managers work long hours. Unlike Mr. Leonardo, though, they also get paid vacation and sick time. In addition, I suspect that a rather small percentage of a retail manager’s typical day is spent rooting through trash and scanning crumpled sheets of paper.

Vintage cassette tape covers

September 28th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Good grief, this collection of vintage cassette tape covers at grainedit is totally awesome:


I especially dig some of the microcopy on these tapes (e.g. “Use to record (SAVE) computer programs or data”), and am delighted by the reminder of an era in which it seemed that there might be perceptible differences between the products of competing consumer brands in the mass-produced analog media arena. (Although the various claims of high fidelity for tape manufacturers were almost surely nonsensical, it is interesting to recall that — within living memory — the perception of fidelity was still a selling point; it certainly isn’t so today.)

The Wu-Note Project

July 9th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Wu-Note Project 01
Wu-Note Project 01, originally uploaded by advantagelogan.

The Wu-Note Project is Logan Walters’ extremely clever reworking of Wu-Tang Clan album covers in the style of vintage Blue Note artwork. My favorites include “Enter the Wu-Tang,” above, Tical, and Beneath the Surface, but there really aren’t any weak links in the set.

(Via Alan Jacobs.)

Product awesome

November 11th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  1 Comment



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