Saturday, January 29, 2011

Napoleon in Egypt

Napoleon at the Battle of Aboukir
As I begin the actual writing of The Chasseurs, it's important to develop some of the secondary characters.

The Chasseurs will be centered around four dogs who are caught up in the chaotic days before and after the Battle of Waterloo. All of the dogs survive; all of them go home in the end. The story is about what happens to them and why it happens. It's not so much about them as it is about what war does to an individual. In order to tell the same old story a different way, I'm going to have four very different and, I hope, interesting and compelling, dogs step into some very different roles than we are used to.

They are tended and cared for by a battlefield surgeon who maybe suspects they have a very rich and interesting life away from his wagons, but doesn't let on. He is responsible for training dozens of dogs throughout the Napoleonic Wars; these four are all that are left.

I want to do one flashback scene where he is in Egypt, with Napoleon's Army. Here is a bit of that backdrop:

From: An Account of the French Expedition in Egypt; Written by Bonaparte and Berthier; with Sir William Sidney Smith’s Letters. With an English translation (London, Edward Baines, 1800.), pp. 39-42.

Battle of Aboukir.

Head Quarters, Alexandria, 11th Thermidor, (July 29.)
The army began to move at daybreak on the 7th thermidor. The advanced guard was commanded by General Murat, who had under his order 400 cavalry, and the brigadier general Destaing, with three battalions, and two pieces of cannon. Brigadier General Davoust, with two squadrons, and 100 dromedaries, was ordered to take a position between Alexandria and the army, in order to oppose the Arabs and Murad Bey, who were every moment expected to arrive, with the design of joining the Turkish army, and in order to preserve the communication with Alexandria.
The General of division, Menou, who had proceeded to Rosetta, was ordered to take post by the day-break at the extremity of the bar of Rosetta, at Aboukir, and near the entrance of the Lake Madie, in order to cannonade such of the enemy’s vessels as he might find on the Lake, and to harass his left. 
The enemy’s first line was posted about half a league in front of the fort of Aboukir. About 1000 men occupied a mount of sand, defended on its right towards the sea by entrenchments, and supported by a village to the distance of about 300 toises, which was occupied by 1200 men, and four pieces of cannon. The left was upon a detached sand hill, to the left of the peninsula, and about 600 toises in front of the first line. This position was very badly fortified, and was besides of no real importance; but the enemy occupied it in order to cover the most plentiful wells of Aboukir. Some gun-boats appeared to be stationed so as to protect the space between this position and the second line, which was also occupied by 2000 men, provided with six pieces of cannon. The enemy’s second position was about 300 toises in the rear of the first village; his centre at the redoubt which he had taken form us; his right behind and entrenchment which he had extended from his redboubt to the sea, a space of about 150 toises; his left was posted between the redoubt and the sea, on some low land hills and the shore, commanded by the fire form the redoubt and the gun-boats. In this position there was about 7000 men, and twelve pieces of cannon. About 100 toises behind the redoubt lay the village and fort of Aboukir, occupied by nearly 1500 men. The train of the pacha, who had the chief command, consisted of 80 horsemen. 
Bonaparte ordered the columns to halt, and made his dispositions for the attack.
Brigadier-General Destaing, with his three battalions, was to carry the height of the enemy’s right, which was occupied by 1000 men, while a piquet of cavalry was at the same time to cut off the retreat of this corps upon the village.
The division of Lannes was ordered to advance upon the sand hill, to the left of the first line of the enemy, where he had 2000 men, and six pieces of cannon. A squadron of cavalry was ordered to observe the motions of this corps, and to cut off its retreat.
General Destaing adanved upon the enemy at the charge of bayonet. He abandoned his entrenchments, and retreated towards the village. The fugitives were cut in pieces by the cavalry.
The corps against which the division of Lannes marched, seeing the first line give way, and the cavalry about to turn its position, fired only a few shot, and immediately quitted it. Two squadrons of cavalry, and a platoon of guides on horseback cut off their retreat, and killed or drive into the sea this body of 2000 men, of which not an individual escaped.
The village was then carried, and the enemy pursued as far as the redoubt, in the centre of the second position.
This second position was very strong, the redoubt being flanked by a ditch of communication, which secured the peninsula on the right as far as the sea. Another ditch of the like kind stretched along on the left, at a small distance from the redoubt.
The remaining space was occupied by the enemy stationed on the sand hills and in the batteries. In this position the enemy had from 8 to 9000 men. 
Whilst the troops took breath, some pieces of artillery were planted in the village, and long the shore on our left. A fire was opened on the redoubt, and on the enemy’s right.
The cavalry on our right attacked the enemy’s left, which it repeatedly charged with the greatest impetuosity, cutting down or driving into the sea, every one that came in their way. But they could not penetrate beyond the redoubt without being put between its fire and that of the gun boats. Hurried by their bravery into this terrible defile, they fell back at each charge, and the enemy made a stand with fresh forces on the dead bodies of their companions.
The chief of brigade Duvivier was killed, but the Adjutant General Rouize continued to direct their movement with distinguished ability and coolness. The Adjutant-General Leturc, the chief of brigade Bessieres, and the cavalry guides, were at the head of the charging column. Leturc thought that it was necessary to have a reinforcement of infantry: on communicating his desire, the General in chief sent him a battalion of the 75th. He again joined the cavalry; his horse was shot; he then put himself at the head of the infantry, and flew from the centre to the left, in order to join the van of the 18th, which he saw on their march to attack the enemy’s right. 
The 18th marched towards the entrenchments; the enemy at the same instant sallied upon the right: the heads of the columns sought body to body; the Turks endeavoured to wrest from our men the bayonets, which proved fatal to them. They flung their muskets behind them, and fought with their sabers and pistols, for every Turk carries a musket, two pistols in his girdle, and a sabre. The 18th at length reached the entrenchments; but the fire from the redoubt, which every where flanked the entrenchments, where the enemy again rallied, checked the column at the moment when every thing yielded to its impulse, General Fuguieres and Adjutant-General Leturc performed prodigies of valour. The former received a wound in the head, but he still continued to fight; a ball then shot off his left arm, and he was obliged to follow the 18th, which retreated to the village, keeping up however, a hot fire during the movement. The adjutant General Leturc, having in vain exhorted the column to throw itself into the enemy’s entrenchments, rushed into them himself, he was unsupported, and met a glorious death. The chief of brigade Monrangie was wounded. 
The General in Chief direct a battalion of the 23d light infantry, and one of the 69th, to advance upon the left of the enemy. General Lannes, who was at the head of these troops, seized the moment when the enemy had imprudently left his entrenchments. He attacked the redoubt vigorously upon its left and on the breast work. The 22d and 69th leaped into the ditch, and were soon upon the parapet, and within the redoubt. Meanwhile the 18th pushed forward at the charging step of the enemy. 
General Murat, who followed every movement, who commanded the advanced guard, who was constantly with the sharp shooters, and who on this day displayed as much coolness as talent, seized the moment when General Lannes attacked the redoubt to order a corps of infantry to charge and traverse all the enemy’s positions as far as the ditch of the fort of Aboukir. This movement was executed with so much impetuosity, and so opportunely, that at the moment the redoubt was forced, this corps had already reached its destination, and entirely cut off the enemy’s retreat to the fort. The route was complete. Confused and terrified, the enemy found every where the bayonet and death. The cavalry cut them down with their sabers. They believed they had no resource left but to fly to the sea, into which 6 or 7,000 threw themselves. There they were assailed by muskets and grape-shot. Never was so terrible a spectacle exhibited before. Not a man escaped—the ships were two leagues distant in the road of Aboukir.
Mustapha Pacha, Commander in Chief of the Turkish army, was taken, with about 200 Turks; two thousand men lay on the field of battle. All the tents, the baggage, and 20 pieces of cannon (two of which were English, being given by the court of London to the Grand Seignior) fell into our hands. Two English boats fled from our grape shot. Ten thousand Turks were drowned.

And it can then be asked, "how is it you were able to get out of Egypt?"

"The same way I got out of Russia. I walked."

"That's a very long way."

"These are very good wagons. No one pays much attention to a crazy old man with dogs and a tray full of saws."
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Someone Needs a Technical Writer and an Editor With Geography Skills

I am not humble about my own geography skills. In elementary school, I complained about a map of Europe that did not have Luxembourg on it. Of course, I got in trouble. Being smart doesn't always pay off, but I wasn't smart. I wasn't exceptional. I was pretty ordinary.

Anyone can catch a mistake. That's why two sets of eyes are always preferable to one set of eyes.


You haven't caught it yet?

hint: Egypt is identified on the map as being where Iraq should be.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Tea Party Plan to Abandon Our Veterans

How is it that the Tea Party can get away with abandoning America's veterans?

If you look at these proposals, you will see a number of things that I agree with. Spending must be cut. But spending on Veterans needs to be increased, not capped or decreased:
[Representative Michele] Bachmann's budget proposal, released on Tuesday, lists more than $400 billion in potential cuts.
Bachmann would replace farm subsidies with farmer savings accounts, eliminate or dramatically scale back the Department of Education (save $29 billion or $31 billion) and slash programs at the Department of Justice ($7.8 billion).
She would also cap Veterans Affairs health care spending, privatize the Transportation Safety Administration, Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to leasing.
Who is going to sign on for those cuts? Who is going to say, "yes, let's cap Veterans Affairs health care spending" and escape derision for that terrible proposal?

The last time I checked, we were still creating more Veterans, not fewer. We have thousands and thousands of Veterans being discharged from the military every month and they have specific needs that, more often than not, center around health care and rehabilitation as well as counseling and other forms of medical assistance. I would think that cutting the fluff to pay for MORE Veterans spending would be the way to entice support.

In my not too humble opinion, these Tea Party activists are anything but Republicans. I know who and what a Republican is. I've been one all of my life. Nothing makes me angrier than to see the name of Ronald Reagan taken in vain by someone who has no idea what the man was about. Right now in America, we are NOT taking care of hundreds of thousands of men and women who DID NOT go to war against some other nation in the 1980s; that's because Ronald Reagan kept us out of as many shooting wars as possible, thus, he did NOT create a massive population of Veterans that would still be consuming vast amounts of our nation's resources.

Think about that--we are benefiting from a kind of peace dividend because Ronald Reagan kept us out of a major shooting war. That's what we need to pursue, and we need to pursue it right now. Every single day, we are creating Veterans that will require care ten, twenty, thirty, and forty or more years from now. If we cap spending on today's Veterans, their health needs will worsen and we'll need to spend MORE on their needs years from now.

Republicans take care of Veterans. I think these Tea Party people are just troublemakers who are out to make themselves a buck. It's one thing to disagree with your opponents in the political arena; it's entirely another to do so without any conviction whatsoever in order to raise money. The Tea Party is about raising money for personal capital and personal wealth. There is no "party" there, in terms of a shared, common goal of advancing a political agenda. There is, however, a fantastic means of raising money.

And therein lies my problem. This woman, Bachmann, has no compunction about capping what we spend to take care of Veterans as she raises money to run for the Presidency. More power to her. Unfortunately, she is too easy to see through.
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Perry the Platypus Cubee

I don't know what a Cubee is, but this is wonderful.

Double-click on the image, print it out, and create your own Cubee. Or don't.

Perry the Platypus Cubee

I don't know what a Cubee is, but this is wonderful.

Double-click on the image, print it out, and create your own Cubee. Or don't.

Staatsgalerie Anfahrt (State Gallery Directions)

Staatsgalerie Anfahrt (State Gallery Directions)

This brochure, from an art gallery in Stuttgart, Germany, has a number of wonderful design features.

The map is very effective, and I prefer maps like this. The simplicity is very attractive. It quickly orients the person looking at this brochure. It gives the map, the transportation options, and it only provides what is absolutely necessary. There is no marketing hype because this is for an art gallery. If you want to use this brochure to get around Stuttgart, then welcome to the world of dual use and utility. Germany is very conscious about recycling; a handy brochure like this would serve someone who just needed to know how to get to downtown Stuttgart very well.

What I like about this is the off-center divide of the brochure. The map takes up about two thirds of the page, and then the image sits immediately to the right of the map; this is a kind of demarcation line for the page. The eye is treated to organization and space.

The text below the map is very simple and understated. It's minimalistic. There is a buffer between the two columns, and the text is aligned right and left. This is very well done. Germany has a lot of this minimalistic design, and it's not uncommon for something as simple and well done as this to be overlooked.

The Schlieffen Plan

My research paper on the Schlieffen Plan. The technical writing is very bland, but I think the paper works. I actually got a pretty good grade on it, so I must have done something right.

If it feels too brief and choppy, then that's more of a reflection on the assignment that I was given. I would have been happy to do a ten or twelve page paper and use more sources. Some tables and figures would have helped enormously, along with the proper maps.

Here are some of the images I would have inserted into the paper if it wasn't for the length requirement that I operated within.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

American Insurgents, American Patriots Review

I was impressed by what I learned from this book. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn a little more about how the American Revolution actually happened.

Mr. T. H. Breen gives us a well-researched book about the "nuts and bolts" of the American Revolution. He picks up the thread in the years before 1775 and demonstrates pretty clearly that this was not something that was created by the lofty speeches and writings of our Founders. It was certainly informed by pamphlets and by a popular reaction to what was being said in newspapers (early Americans didn't care for their popular media any more than we do today). But it was birthed in small towns wherever there were enough men willing to pick up whatever weapon they owned and come together to thwart the colonial governors and their emissaries.

Revolutions have several components. There are the over-arching ideas of a revolution, which can be expressed by high-minded, lofty rhetoric and then there are the angry, frothing masses who are willing to die to get their point across.

Mr. Breen demonstrates time and again that the vehemence of rural colonists was responsible for pushing the Founding Fathers towards more radical positions. Were it not for the ability of the locals to run off a tax collector or intimidate loyalists into silence, the muscle of the American Revolution would not have revealed itself to the men who came to lead it. As early as 1774, extralegal committees were taking control of local governments in small towns throughout the Northeast. The people were in revolution before it became fact.

The people drove the events with which we are familiar. The terrible defeat and retreat of British regulars from Lexington and Concord was carried out by whoever happened to appear along the route of march and take aim. That outpouring of support informed just how radical men like John Adams could afford to be. Benjamin Franklin's talk of moderation and negotiation ended abruptly when he saw just how much the people were willing to sacrifice.

Please pay close attention to Chapter Six in the book, because that is where Mr. Breen really establishes his thesis, which is to elevate the importance of the American Revolution as a people-driven event that captured the energies of a significant number of Americans and was not wholly concocted by a handful of wealthy merchants and lawyers. It was carried out by the people who convinced men like Ebenezer Punderson, hardly a well-known figure in American history, to get in a boat and row out to an anchored British warship where he requested a kind of asylum and protection from his own neighbors. And while they never actually harmed him, they hated him for saying that they had no right to resist the authority of the British Crown.

I thought the presentation of the book was good. I didn't notice anything about how it was structured; some of the reviewers on thought it was repetitive. I didn't think it was repetitive; what Mr. Breen knew that he had to do with his work was support his argument with details and facts, and he was able to do that. I did not track down every one of his notes or citations; I think his arguments were validated by the material he presented to back them up. It's not an easy read, like a David McCullough book; it's a little more difficult than that because Mr. Breen wrote it with criticism and challenges in mind, I suspect.

Missing from many books about the American Revolution are details about associations, committees, and other dreary details that don't quite reach the poetic status of General Washington arriving to take command of the rabble. In point of fact, Washington commanded with the consent of the rabble, and it was never the other way around. The men who took up arms and wandered in and out of the colonial army were incapable of being fooled by great speeches. They were too busy worrying about shoes, sickness, their families and their future.

The cover was a near miss with me. Without the comma after "American Insurgents," I was put off. That's my problem. I understand why the comma was not necessary and was supported by the alteration in size of the print. White words? That was probably what was decided would work best against the rather well-chosen painting on the front. The painting, itself, is a wonderfully primitive kind of folk art, and I don't think a better one could have been chosen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Frances Perkins Would Know How Frances Fox Piven Feels

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins

There's an interesting collision of history going on right now, linked by the wonderful name Frances.

Frances Fox Piven has been relentlessly attacked for months over her work as an academic researcher:

The racket Frances Fox Piven heard in the middle of the night last weekend sounded like someone pounding on the front door of the small, isolated house she calls home in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City.  Startled and awaken from her sleep, Piven, who had plenty of reason to feel on edge, pondered her next move. 
A City University of New York professor and scholar of grassroots activism, the 78-year-old Piven has been the target of relentless Glenn Beck attacks. For an entire year now the Fox News talker has been pushing a tangled conspiracy theory that puts Piven, and her late husband, fellow academic Richard Cloward, at the center of an all-powerful left-wing movement to “collapse” the United States economy and government -- a devious collapse designed to allow President Obama to radically transform the country, according to Beck.
The talker’s basis for the dark attacks date back to a Nation essay Piven and Cloward wrote 45 years ago. And as part of his misinformation campaign, Beck has repeatedly demonized Piven, denouncing her as an “enemy of the Constitution” and someone who wants to “destroy America.” Piven has become a star player in Beck’s rogue gallery of treacherous, all-powerful (often Jewish) liberals, seeking to eliminate the American way of life.
That racket? It was an icicle. I know, I don't enjoy having that "false suspense" embedded in an article, either. 

Reading about these attacks on Piven, I was reminded of a book I read last year about the inner circle of President Franklin Roosevelt and his first hundred days in office, titled, "Nothing to Fear," by Adam Cohen.

Cohen's book deals with FDR's cabinet secretaries, and Frances Perkins was completely unknown to me before I read the book. It was quite a radical choice to make her the Secretary of Labor, and she fought, endlessly, it seems, for acceptance and for her agenda. Without her efforts, the adoption of things that we take for granted, like Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and ending abusive child labor practices wouldn't have happened until much later (if at all).

Much of what Perkins accomplished in FDR's cabinet likely informed and influenced what Piven wrote. How radical could Piven be if people knew of the efforts of Perkins to use the power of the Federal government to help the unemployed? It would seem that Piven was taking up a gauntlet that people now take for granted, and one that is not nearly as radical as some would have us believe.

Perkins had to sit across from business leaders and union bosses and faced a great deal of intimidation. Cohen notes that if she had failed, she would have set the cause of women back decades, if not more. She had to be tough and turn a blind eye to a lot of the nasty things being said about her.

How is it that we're still debating child labor laws? I don't understand that at all.
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Thomas Lowry and the Ethics of Historical Preservation

Union Regimental Drum Corps from the American ...Image via WikipediaWe should begin by putting this into perspective. Thomas P. Lowry is a historian who was recently caught by the National Archives doing something that he shouldn't have done. It's a little more than a piece of technical writing gone awry. It's a clumsy forgery, albeit, one that took a little too long to uncover.

In 1998, Mr. Lowry took an ink pen and changed the date on a document that pardoned a Union Army soldier for the crime of desertion. Well, he did a little more than that. In order to come up with a hook for a Civil War book that he now realized he could write, he changed the document to make it look like it was signed on the day of Lincoln's assassination, fundamentally altering the context of that day in American history.

Not only that, but Mr. Lowry went to the media with his discovery. My question is, how did this glaringly obvious forgery slip past the archivists?

As an example of forgery, it's clumsy. Holding up the document reveals that.

There are also heat-imaging techniques that can spot forgeries. I don't even know if you'd have to do that with this document, although the National Archives probably did so in order to ensure that it wasn't going after Mr. Lowry for no good reason. Again, what took them so long? Why didn't anyone bother to investigate further when Mr. Lowry's book came out? Lincoln's last day on Earth has probably been investigated and documented as much as any other significant day in American history. Why didn't someone cast a bit of doubt on this from the beginning? If there was some skeptical reaction, I cannot located an example of it.

In fact, there was this glowing (and rather less-than-skeptical) review from the Smithsonian Associates:

I have captured the review as a full screen shot. These things tend to disappear.

Look at how the review elevates Lowry and his wife (gee, was it her idea? Will he be a cad and roll over on his wife and blame her? I hope not) to the status of "professional" historians. The review implies that these amateurs went out and found something wonderful. Well, so much for that. No amateur historian will be able to escape some measure of skepticism now. They "found" 543 original Lincoln notations or they "created" them? How would you like to be the archivist who now has to look at everything they did and scan for alterations?

If you want to play devil's advocate, what's the harm? Was this, in fact, a correction? Could someone plausibly say that this document did, indeed, come out in 1865? No, of course not. The National Archives was smart enough to track down Mr. Lowry and he, to his credit, confessed his crime. Was it ethical? It crossed over several ethical boundaries and has landed Mr. Lowry in a heap of trouble. It wasn't even a "harmless white lie" or "gentle fib" because Mr. Lowry profited from altering a historical document. You can follow this link to C-SPAN's video archives and (unless they take the video down) watch him talk about the book after the book has been touted for sale.

How many scholarly articles, research papers, and books feature this error? They will now have to be corrected, where possible. How many citations of his work are in circulation? They are not citing a disreputable source.

If you follow the link to the page for Thomas P. Lowry, you begin to see another, perhaps even larger, problem. His obsession with detailing the sexual mores of the Civil War era becomes evident. Which is fine, except that virtually everything else the man has ever done is now academically suspect. Did he lie when he researched his books about other subjects as well? Mr. Lowry appears to have never really had a problem getting published or finding other writers to work with. He has written numerous books and collaborated with others. Their work has been compromised now as well. How can their books be trusted?

The work that featured the tell-tale alteration wasn't even the only book he ever wrote about the subject of court-martials and pardons. How much of those works are based on documents altered by Mr. Lowry? And, for that matter, what did he do to top himself when he realized how profitable it could be to walk into the National Archives and start slinging ink around?

Mr. Lowry has now earned the enmity of virtually every Civil War historian in the world (yes, they do have American Civil War historians all over the world). He has betrayed colleagues and he has committed historical fraud. He has profited from altering a historical document, one of the worst ethical breaches a serious historian and researcher can commit.

It goes beyond what he did; it even goes beyond why he did it (the likeliest reasons are greed and the desire for power and authority in the community of Civil War historians). It now becomes the responsibility of the people who published and sold his books to own up to the deception.

I would expect to see much of his work disappear. It isn't worth the paper it is printed on.

How sad (an Update). The Mr. Lowry wants to hold on to his few accomplishments:
The Archives on Monday accused Lowry of altering the pardon in plain view in the agency's main research room to amplify its historical significance. Lincoln had indeed issued a pardon to Pvt. Patrick Murphy, but the 16th president did it exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Archives officials, after a year-long investigation, say Lowry signed a written confession Jan. 12 that he brought a fountain pen into the research room sometime in 1998 and wrote a 5 over the 4 in 1864, using a fade-proof ink.

Lowry, a retired psychiatrist who discovered the pardon in an unsorted file box, has denied any wrongdoing. He said he was pressured by federal agents to confess.

"I consider these records sacred," he said in an interview Monday at his Woodbridge home. "It is entirely out of character for me. I'm a man of honor."

His wife, Beverly, said the change was made by a former Archives staffer, a charge the agency denies.

There were no security cameras at the time to record what happened in the room. Lowry cannot be charged with a crime because the statute of limitations on tampering with government property is five years.
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Monday, January 24, 2011

Fonts Do Not Matter

Or do they?

They certainly matter in the world of typography and design. They certainly matter when the font being used is part of a marketing campaign.

For technical writing? Well, that depends on the document. I have done extensive work on documents that used 12 point Times New Roman. Lots of text, lots of tables, lots of paragraphs with endnote notation. Not great to read, but it was exactly what the client wanted. I have done broader technical writing with blue headings (that's pretty much a standard when you're in Word these days on the Mac) and I've done some projects that didn't hinge upon the font that I selected.

Fonts are wonderful. I refuse to bash them. The more the merrier. The people who design successful fonts are really good at what they do.

Fonts are problematic in that you can really screw things up with the wrong font. And I'm not talking about the humorous (or deadly) backlash against Comic Sans. I'm talking about using an arcane, inflexible, difficult-to-read font on a dark background when people are trying to get at your website or at your document.

This is not the final say on the subject, but it does have that academic feel to it:

Print fonts and web fonts are distinguished by why they were created. While print fonts are designed for easy reading on paper, web fonts are designed to be easily read via a computer screen. Considering this, it would make sense that web fonts should be easier to read online than print fonts. However, the research suggests that this is not entirely true. While people might prefer the aesthetic value of web fonts, there does not appear to be a major difference in readability between the two types of fonts.
Boyarski, Neuwirth, Forlizzi, and Regli found that there was no perceptible difference in their study of the difference in readability of two fonts, Georgia and Times New Roman. While both are serif fonts, Georgia was designed for the web and Times New Roman is a print font. Both Georgia and Times New Roman have large x-heights. The x-height is the height of a lowercase x in a line of text. In a study of 48 participants, the researches measured the reading comprehension and speed using a reading task and the Nelson-Denny Test. The mean score out of 12 points for Georgia was 9.6 and 10.2 for Times New Roman. Although participants scored slightly higher for Times New Roman, they noted a preference for Georgia over Times New Roman. This suggests that serif web fonts like Georgia may be preferable over serif print fonts.
Although there might be a slight preferences for serif web fonts over serif print fonts, the bulk of research where both sans-serif and serif web and print fonts were compared has shown little difference in the readability of web and print fonts. Bernard, Liao, and Mills concluded that there was no perceptible difference in the readability of computer and print fonts. Bernard, Liao, and Mills used two print fonts (Times New Roman and Arial) and two web fonts (Georgia and Verdana) in their study. Below are examples of the fonts used in the study.
SerifTimes New RomanGeorgia
Sans SerifArialVerdana
To test readability, the researchers had participants read eight different passages from a fixed distance as quickly and accurately as possible. They concluded that there was no difference between print and web fonts in terms of legibility and reading speed.

I'm sure there are font purists who would shudder at the idea that fonts don't matter. And I would tend to agree with them. Fonts matter, insofar as picking the wrong font, and the wrong colors, can kill your readership.

Think of this mishmash:

This is a testing of fonts and all that on this page for example purposes only.

And you'll see what I'm getting at. Grey on white, or colors on white, don't work as well as black lettering on a white background. The above example is too extreme, of course, but I wanted to show how a line can disappear and how selectively changing a font or a color can lead to an unintended move by a reader.

If you look at the reddish "fo" in fonts, your eye is almost trained to tell you that that could be--could be--a hyperlink. Did you hover over it? Anything reddish tells me that there might be an embedded hyperlink there.

For the web, I use Georgia. For print, I use Arial. This article, except where noted, is pretty much done in Georgia.

I almost never deviate from that formula. I know there are plenty of reasons to move to Times New Roman or to Verdana, but I keep things simple. I use Georgia and Arial, and I might--might--be persuaded to use something else for a title or something that is meant to look older or specifically designed.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Costs of Doing Without Proper Documentation and Technical Writers

I haven't given it as much thought as I need to, but I really need to go through my experiences with my last employer and try to find ways to learn from what happened there.

There are so many "liability" reasons not to write about a previous employer. I don't wish to trip any ethical wires, I don't want to hurt my former employer in any way, and I certainly don't want to be sued. I will change the names of the guilty and the innocent, several times, if necessary. I will do my utmost to make this instructive.

Some background. The company I was with, previously, was in the midst of a transformation from older systems to newer systems. The way that it did business was, increasingly, through the web and through sharing files with clients. This is nothing new, or exclusive, but the company had a hard time walking away from those legacy systems. The older employees weren't a problem; they were simply trying to get through each week and keep the information flowing. The need to get information to the customer was paramount with this company. It was sacrosanct.

As the newer system, which was Oracle-based, and I probably don't have to say PeopleSoft, but I will, came online, there were issues. It wasn't flexible enough. It didn't do what the clients wanted. And it was heavily customized.

The end result of the heavy customization? It didn't work and no one knew what had been done.

Now, let's be fair to the company--it was focused on delivering products to customers. It was focused on the here and now. It was delivering information to clients as per the contracts it had signed and it was giving them great service and a great product. The drag on all of this was the inability of the people trying to transform the business to get past the defects in the software package it was trying to roll out and to stand up these new systems.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist. You have a legacy system. It has to go. You replace it, then you test and re-test the replacement, and then you give that replacement a real-world, small-sample test with the clients. Then you preview it for all. Once you have everyone on board, THEN and only then do you retire your legacy system.

What held up this process at my old company was not the people--the people were great. The software wasn't the problem because the software was fine. It could, when set up, deliver what it promised.

No, the problem was centered around documentation. Not enough people knew what had been done previously by contractors and temps that had been brought in to fix key issues. Without a single document that brought together all of the components under one cover, no one knew what the entirety of the system was. No one knew, for example, what was in a certain kind of table in the PeopleSoft configuration. And, in layman's terms, when you don't know what's in a table, you don't know how it modifies or affects other tables when key processes are run.

Technical Writing, in other words, was there, but not at the holistic, comprehensive, or top level of the project. There was documentation, yes. But it wasn't comprehensive. There were plenty of orphaned Word files floating around on shared drives, but no one really owned them. And, there were directories of documents in Microsoft Project, but spread across different releases, different pages, and different project pages.

I believe that every project needs a technical writer who owns the documentation, updates it, and works closely with the developers, managers, planners, coders, and users. Without that, you have a mess.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blogger FAIL

I clicked on a headline at WeSmirch and ended up looking at this:

Now, if you're going to roll over like a whiny little bitch boy and take images down just because a movie studio tells you to, admit that you're a whiny little bitch boy, and pardon my French, leave the blogging to the professionals.

Clearly, the new X-Men movie has issues. I think it could bomb, big time, and take down seven or eight different careers. James McAvoy is the only actor in this bunch who could survive a turkey.

As to making the poor little bloggers take down images, so what? If they ask me, I'll take the January Jones image down--but only after my lawyers have exhausted every avenue of approach. I might even end up getting paid--who knows? You would think that the studio would want people to see how the stars of their new movie look. If they look like the real characters, and if they look great, how can that not serve to drum up interest? That's why they put out trailers--to show people that the visuals are right and that what they are going to see is going to be special.

From what I've seen so far, the "Captain America" costume looks ridiculous and padded, like something a Chinese soldier would wear while crossing the Yalu River before being shot to pieces by a handful of Marines, circa 1950.

January Jones has admitted that she isn't in shape for her role. I'll bet she looks fabulous. But, she is not going to have the sculpted abs that her character has in the comic books. That would take months of preparation that she hasn't had. Her previous role, on Mad Men, required her to be a little "doughy" as the times would require. So there's an issue here--she's going to look wonderful, no matter what. She is a movie star, after all. But she's not going to be "fan boy exact" and that's also leading to some issues, I would imagine. (Note that they have her in a Julie Christie outfit, above, and ready for a nice stroll on the tundra. Where are the abs? Her character is supposed to have starved porn star abs.)

Anyway, don't entice people with something you're not supposed to have, and then roll over and run away when someone tells you to take it down. Push those limits. Make them work for it. Make them get lawyers. This is the Internet. Nothing is ethical or legal, as it should be.
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