Man walks into a column, no.4: Type

This is a post by Phil

What kind of week have I had? I’m allowed to ask this rhetorical question because, as Dave Briggs points out in this excellent post, it would be ludicrous for me to pretend that I am not a real person talking to other real people. And ‘what kind of week have you had?’ is a perfectly normal way to begin a real conversation.

Social media and networking is above all about human beings and human relationships. […] So don’t be afraid to post what might seem at first to be trivial, or of limited interest. Much of the power of social media lies in serendipity – which probably drives people who like measuring stuff mad – and so by describing your dog walking route in one tweet might forge a link with a fellow dog walker who ends up being a vital business connection.

So: what kind of week have you had, Phil? How very kind of you to ask (although I should say that I’m willing to talk to you whether or not you are likely to become a vital business connection). 

This week I’ve been luxuriating in the prose of John Banville. This is one of those instances, I’m sure, of discovering a secret that’s not really a secret at all because virtually everyone else is in the loop already. Banville won the Booker in 2005, but I smugly chose not to begin with the novel that won (The Sea), instead opting for one of his first books, Doctor Copernicus. It’s chock full of astonishingly direct, undadorned yet luminously evocative passages, and reminded me a little of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in its striking depiction of an aloof, otherworldy genius immersed in the muck and the mire of a filthier time. I’ll do a proper review at some point.

January has been a month of mixed blessings, reading matter aside. Like many, I began 2011 by deciding a spell off the booze would be a good idea, but then quickly discovered that things were grim enough without losing out on the chance to have a glass of wine or a cold beer at the end of a long, dark day. Problem is that, as our Antipodean cousins are known to expound, every beer’s a sandwich (mate), and so it’s little surprise that my parallel quest to shed festive poundage is going nowhere. I have no choice, it seems, but to endure a dry spell; wish me luck.

On the plus side, this has been the month when I discovered that, contrary to past experience, I actually can work productively from home. Oddly, the key seems to be Twitter. With my work laptop to one side and my Mac to the other, I find I have sufficient distraction to keep me on the straight and narrow. Because, certainly from university on, I’ve always found it impossible to concentrate when I have only one thing to concentrate on, if you know what I mean. I don’t suppose I am alone in this?

It was whilst working from home on Friday, proofing a document, that I discovered the answer to a question that has long puzzled me: why do so many intelligent, otherwise fastidious people insist on placing two spaces after full stops, irrespective of the manifest evidence – from books, newspapers etc. – that this is madness? A brief exchange on Twitter, initiated out of idle frustration, came up trumps: it’s all the fault of the typewriter.

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks ‘loose’ and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here’s the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. […] Because we’ve all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.

Next week: I may or may not be writing about the delights on offer in a new publication from the Royal Society, in which leading scientists give their thoughts on the key questions for policy and society arising from latest developments in neuroscience. Until then, find me on Twitter @philblogs.

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