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Unicoding Font Styles

Last night, Kris Straub of webcomic fame, most recently the excellent Broodhollow, did something that I’d always suspected might be possible, but hadn’t figured out where to go to make it happen.  He showed me the way, and so I (once again) bow to him in reverence.  I’ll illustrate what he did with the following image of a two-item list (more on why I used in image in just a moment).  The first item in the list uses markup and CSS.  The second does not.

A rendering of the test case, to which this image is a link.

The first list item, as I said, uses elements and CSS: em and strong, plus all the styles that apply to them.  The second item uses Unicode symbols from the Mathematical Alphanumeric Symbols range of Unicode, U+1D400 through U+D7FF.  (See also a PDF from the Unicode Consortium, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

You can see the test file that was used to produce the image, and you definitely should see it if you’re thinking about using this technique.  It’s not as straightforward as might first appear.  For example, the reason I have an image with a link to a testcase is that some combination of WordPress, PHP, or MySQL refuses to allow me to put the raw Mathematical Alphanumeric Symbols into this post.  Every time I tried, everything from the first such symbol onward was just dropped completely when I saved a draft of the post.

The fun part is that any service that supports Unicode and doesn’t have those sort of glitches—say, Twitter or Facebook—can serve up those symbols in a tweet or a post, thus allowing you to add italics, boldfacing, fraktur, and other “faces” to your social networking.  At that point, it’s up to the user agent and OS to render the symbols, if they can.

And lots of them can, at least on the desktop.  My limited survey revealed that most Windows 7 and 8 browsers are fine, though not Chrome; Windows XP, on the other hand, saw broad failure.  OS X browsers, no problems; ditto various flavors of Linux.  On the other hand, iOS and Android mostly saw failures, but apparently some clients were okay, so the failures might be problems with individual clients and not the OS.  Nobody let me know how Opera Mini did.  If you’re inclined to report your results for the test file, feel free in the comments, though please check to see if your browser/OS combo has already been reported before you do (and if you got a different result that someone with the same combo, definitely report your result!).

The real problem likely comes in accessibility, as Chris Lilley pointed out: “Chance of screen reader understanding, near zero.”  Could someone test that theory and report the results in the comments?  I’d be very interested to know what happens.

I’m not recommending that people do this, to be clear.  The Unicode support issues alone are enough to discourage use, and if the accessibility problem holds, that’s an even stronger disincentive.  But who knows?  Maybe in a few years, both problems will have been resolved and social media clients will let us boldface, italicize, fraktur, and even double-stroke our little e-missions.

Team Becca

Some of our Cleveland friends have organized “Team Becca” as part of the 2013 Northeast Ohio CureSearch Walk for Children’s Cancer to be held in University Circle on the morning of Saturday, September 28.  If anyone would like to join and walk the 1.75 mile course, please do; if you can’t join as a walker, please consider making a small donation to the team as a show of support.  It would be much appreciated.

Kat and I hope to participate in the walk with Rebecca, but we won’t be able to commit until a week or so before the event.  Basically, until we know our exact schedule and how Rebecca reacts to the sedation-and-radiation-and-chemotherapy regimen, we can’t commit to much of anything.  But our friends will be there, and hopefully some of you will be there (either in person or in spirit), and if at all possible we’ll be there too.

Collective Editorial: the Plugin

As I was reading an article with a few scattered apostrophe errors, I wished that I could highlight each one, hit a report button, and know that the author had been notified of the errors so that they could fix them.  No requirement to leave a comment chastising them for bad grammar, replete with lots of textual context so they could find the errors—just a quick “hey, I spotted this error, now you know so you can fix it” notice, sent in private to them.

Then I realized that I wanted that for my own site, to let people tell me when I had gaffes in need of repair.  It’s an almost-wiki, where the crowd can flag errors that need to be corrected without having to edit the source themselves—or have the power to edit it themselves, for that matter, which is an open door for abuse.

I haven’t thought this through in tons of detail, but here’s how it feels in my head:

  • Visitors highlight a typo and click a button to report it.  Or else click a button to start reporting, highlight a word, and click again to submit.  This part is kind of fuzzy in my head, and yes, “click” is not the best term here, but it’s one we all understand.
  • Interesting extra feature: the ability to classify the type of error when reporting.  For example: apostrophe, misspelling, parallelism, pronoun trouble.
  • Other interesting extra feature: the ability to inform users of the ground rules before they report.  For example: “This site uses British punctuation rules, the Oxford comma, and American spelling.”  (Which I do.)
  • The author gets notice whenever an error is reported, or else can opt for a daily digest.
  • Each notice lets the author quickly accept or reject the reported error, much as can be done with edits in MS Word and similar programs, along with a link that will jump the author straight to the reported error so they can see it in context.  If rejected, future reports of that word are disabled.  If accepted, the change is made immediately, without requiring a dive into the CMS.
  • When an error is reported, future visitors to the site will see any already-reported errors in highlight.  This keeps them from reporting the same thing over and over, and also acts as incentive to the author to fix errors quickly.  (The highlight style could be customizable.)
  • Reports can only happen at the word level, not the individual letter level.  So reporting an “it’s” error highlights all of “it’s”, not just the offending apostrophe.  Perhaps also for multiple words, though only up to a certain number, like three.  And yes, I’m keenly aware of the challenges of defining a “word” in an internationally-aware manner, but perhaps in ideographic languages you switch to per-symbol.  (Not an expert here, so take that with a few grinders of salt.)
  • The author can optionally limit the number of reports permitted per hour/day/whatever.  This could be enforced globally or on a per-user basis, though globally is a tad more robust.

That’s how I see it working, after a few minutes’ thought.  It seems pretty achievable as a CMS plugin, actually, though I confess that I don’t have anywhere close to the time and coding chops needed to make it happen right now (or any time soon).  The biggest challenge to me seems like the “edit-on-accept-without-CMS-diving” part, since there are so many CMSes and particularly since static sites are staging a comeback.  Still, I think it would be a fun and worthwhile project for someone out there.  If somebody takes it on, I’d love to follow along and see where it ends up, particularly if they do it for WordPress (which is what the blog hereabouts runs on).

When Spambots Break, We Fisk It

A while back, a spambot stopped by my 2006 post “Unitless line-heights”, dumped what appears to be its complete response configuration file into my comment form, and submitted it.  Being something of a Dadaist at heart, I went ahead and published it—and yet, somehow, that wasn’t enough.  I believe the whole world should have the opportunity to savor its multifaceted and sometimes contradictory opinions, so I present it here in its entirety (and its character encoding errors) with a few bits of commentary by yours truly.

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In fact, line-height values have long been the topic that dare not speak its name.  I hope it is not too immodest of me to say that writing about these subjects took no small measure of personal courage.

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When I initially commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service? Kudos!

I assume there’s some perceived value in drawing even more attention to the email address and web site associated with this comment, but I can’t figure out what.

The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn’t fail me as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read, nonetheless I actually thought you would probably have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you weren’t too busy seeking attention.

OHHHH SICK BURN.  Actually, I’m very slightly impressed by the attempted use of reverse psychology, even though I suspect the vast majority of people would just delete a comment like that without ever realizing it was a spambot.

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I love looking through an article that can make men and women think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

Oh, no… thank you.

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I only wish that comment had somehow ended up on a post about the importance of spellchecking.

You made some good points there. I looked on the web for additional information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.

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Your previous roommate, eh?

Hi, I think your site might be having web browser compatibility issues. Whenever I look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine however, when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping issues. I just wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Besides that, wonderful site!

…Well played, spambot.  Well played.

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Apparently spambots think that “book-marking” is a thing that humans still do.  Ha ha, suckers!

I used to be able to find good information from your blog posts.

There you go again, trying to make me think that only a real live human could be that condescending.  Well, I remember Twiki and you, sir, are no Twiki.

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After spambot stupidity, the most reasonable explanation for someone coming to my site and praising it for the pleasant colors is, to quote John Gruber: “I am high as a kite.”

Everyone loves it when individuals come together and share ideas. Great site, continue the good work!

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This site was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that helped me. Cheers!

Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues. It was definitely informative. Your site is very useful. Many thanks for sharing!

I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this website. I am hoping to see the same high-grade content from you later on as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own website now ;)

If you want the original, un-fisked version for use in your own anti-spambot defenses, you can find it here.

Illusory Spectrum

I know, I know, this is undoubtedly a widely known optical illusion, but I had to create and share my own version after stumbling across it in the wild.  Watch the animation cycle through all four frames, 2.5 seconds per frame.  Notice anything different about the spectrum when it flips from green as opposed to when it flips from gray?

Wild!

The spectrum and greenish frames image are derived from Project Octant Part 13: Bug Hunt, which is where I saw this effect thanks to the Page Up key and the browser window being just the right height.  I hope Shamus won’t be too irked that I swiped copies to repurpose here.

Touchy About Faucets

As part of last year’s renovation, we redid our kitchen, which means a new sink and faucet.  We traded up from an overmount single-bowl sink to an undermount double-bowl sink, both aspects of which we’d long wanted.

There was one thing we had to fight a bit to get, though, which was a garbage disposal for each sink bowl.  The plumber didn’t want to do it on ground of it adding weight to the sink.  Our response was, in effect: “We’ll have the sink remounted in ten years if necessary, but put in two disposals.”  So he did, and we’re really glad.

The replacement faucet, however, does not make us nearly as glad.  We decided to get a touch-activated faucet, settling on a Delta Addison single-handle faucet.  The touch activation was because many are the times we want to wash off hands that have just handled raw meat, and being able to touch-on the faucet with a forearm seemed like a great idea—and it is!  The problem is that nearly the entire faucet body, including the temperature/flow adjustment handle, is touch-sensitive.  The exception is the pull-out head, which is inert.

Thus, if you reach past the faucet and brush it by mistake, the water starts flowing.  This is true even if you bump the base of the faucet, which is annoying when you’re trying to wipe down the countertop around the faucet.  Even worse, changing the temperature or flow rate means using the touch-sensitive handle.  There’s evidently logic built into the faucet that’s meant to prevent the water from cutting off if you adjust the handle, but it only works about half the time.  So sometimes you make an adjustment and the flow cuts off, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Frankly, the inconsistency is more maddening than the unwanted cutoffs.  For example, I’ve developed an expectation that the flow will cut off after I use the handle.  So I’ll adjust and then immediately tap the faucet again so it cuts off and then comes back on tap.  Except if it didn’t cut off, then my tap cuts it off before I can stop the impulse and then I have to tap again.

Of course, any touch-sensitive faucet is a total luxury, and fortunately it’s easy to disable the touch feature—all we have to do is pull the batteries from the battery pack and it becomes a regular faucet.  The drawback there is that there are definitely times when you want to be able to turn on the water flow without smearing whatever’s all over your hands on the faucet.  (And with three kids, one of which is an infant, there are some things you definitely want to avoid smearing.)

The really incredible part is that these problems would be completely solved if only the neck of the faucet were touch-sensitive.  If the base, which is a separate part from the neck, and the adjustment handle were inert, easily 90% of our frustration would just vanish.  We could start the water flow by touching the neck and not worry about weirdness with the adjustment handle or when brushing the base.

If you’re thinking of installing a touch-sensitive faucet, I can’t recommend this one, unless of course a future version of it fixes the problems plaguing this one.  And I have no idea if there’s a better touch faucet on the market; for all I know, they’re all like this.  Definitely do your homework, and if at all possible play with a functioning model before taking the plunge.  The touch feature doesn’t add a ton to the price of the base faucet, but it’s enough to be annoying when you’re seriously considering disabling it.

From Filaments to Semiconductors

Thanks to last summer’s home renovation project, the new kitchen is lit by six interior flood bulbs.  We were using the diffuse incandescent bulbs our contractors put in, which were nice and warm and soft.  And also, being essentially freebies, not long for this world.  We recently had three burn out within two weeks.

We decided to take the opportunity to switch from incandescents to something far more energy-efficient.  Having used a number of CFLs around the house, I knew I wanted no part of that scene.  The subtle flicker they generate isn’t subtle enough for me, and I hate the wan quality of the light.  I’m not really thrilled with the warm-up time, either.

So we went with LEDs.  This wasn’t as straightforward as I might have liked, but we’ve now switched and are really happy to have done so.  I’d like to share the most important thing we learned in hopes of helping others through the transition.

It’s this:  if you’re going from “warm” incandescents straight to LED, find bulbs that have a color temperature of 2700K.  The first test bulb we bought was 3000K, and the difference was enormous.  By comparison to the incandescents, it was a harsh white.  In a Modernist design setting, like say at the Guggenheim, 3000K is probably a good choice.  In our wood-and-grain center-hall Colonial home, it was all wrong.

So I ran up to Home Depot and picked up a couple of EcoSmart BR30 diffuse floodlight bulbs, which are 2700K.  I put in one as a test, and when we flipped on the lights, I couldn’t see a difference in the light given off by the LED and incandescent bulbs.  The LED gave off a little bit more light than the incandescents around it (more on that in a minute) but the quality of light was essentially the same.  I put in the other test bulb with the same results.  Now we have all six cans fitted with the EcoSmarts, and the kitchen is just as warm as it was before.

One slightly noticeable difference is that there are more lumens bouncing around the kitchen than before, because we had 65W incandescents and the LEDs are equivalent to 75W (they actually consume 14W).  There weren’t any 65W equivalents in the floods, at least when I went looking, so I picked the 75W equivalents.  The new bulbs put out 800 lumens each, whereas the old ones likely shed 650-700 lumens each.  I do notice the difference, but it’s not so extra-bright that it’s bothersome.  That said, if I track down some bright white 2700Ks in the 650-700 lumen range, I may swap out half the kitchen bulbs in a staggered pattern to see how it feels.  Whichever ones I don’t use in the kitchen, I can always reuse in the cans in our basement.

The really noticeable difference is that when you flip the wall switch, it takes half a second for the bulbs to actually light up.  It’s a bit unusual when you switch straight from incandescent, but it’s no worse than the “on time” for most CFLs, and there’s no slow warm-up time for LEDs like you get with CFLs.  Once they’re on, they’re on.  And they don’t hum or flicker they way CFLs are prone to doing.

In closing, I just want to reiterate that color temperature is absolutely crucial, and if you’re coming over from incandescents, you want to be at 2700K.  Beyond that, match up the wattage as best you can, grit your teeth through the purchase price, and bask in the knowledge that your electricity bills will be lower, plus you shouldn’t have to replace the bulb any time in the next decade or even two.  That last part alone nearly makes LEDs worth the up-front cost.

If you have experiences or tips to share with regards to LED bulbs, by all means leave a comment!

In Search of Q

In an effort to get a handle on my taskflow, I went looking for an organizer application.  So far as I can tell, what I want doesn’t exist, but maybe someone can point me to it.

What I really want is a push queue for documents and other data fragments.  I’ll call it “Q”, both for the obvious phonic match as well as to score a little ST:TNG joke plus make a Cleveland arena reference.  The latter two work because I sort of envision the application as being a very powerful being as well as a large gathering place for data.

The way I envision it, I drag a file onto the main Q window and it’s added to the general pool.  Every item in Q can be labeled, tagged, commented, and otherwise meta’d half to death.  The queue can be sorted or filtered on any number of things—file creation or modification date, Q addition date, file name, containing folder, tags, labels, and so forth.  Also, every item can be assigned a due date.

When I double-click on anything in Q, it opens the original file just as if I’d double-clicked its Finder icon.  (I’m an OS X user, but translate “Finder icon” to whatever the equivalent words are in your OS of choice.)  So really, Q is maintaining a pool of aliases to the original files, plus any associated metadata.  In that sense, it’s like iTunes set to not copy added music to the iTunes Music folder in your home directory.  Yes, some people run it that way.  And like iTunes, the ability to create smart lists based on tags and comments and such would be really awesome.

I’d find Q deeply useful because as new tasks come in/up, I could drag in whatever file(s) relate to those tasks so that I don’t lose track of what I have to do, quickly tag them and set a due date, and continue with whatever I was working on.  There’s room for tons of even more useful features like synchronization across multiple computers, the ability to accept any fragment of data at all as opposed to files, and more, but the core need is a task queue.

To illustrate this with some examples from my recent workflow, I would drag in a copy or two of the IRS W-9 form, a couple of e-mail messages, an invoice, and a Word document containing a set of interview questions.  The W-9s would get tagged by the clients’ names, the invoice would be tagged and flagged, and so on.  The real key here is that they’d be add-sorted by default, so I can work on them first-come-first-served.  Of course, other approaches would be possible with other sorts and filtering.

It seems like, with all the GTD mania floating around, someone would have come up with this solution already, but my searches have so far been fruitless.  I tried a couple of applications that seemed like they might be close to what I want, but they weren’t.  Am I just using the wrong search terms, or is this something that just doesn’t exist yet?

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