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Lesson: Fun With Fonts Part 1

As you’ve probably figured out, I like words. Not just for the way they allow us to communicate and learn, but even how they look. So Simon Garfield’s Just My Type was exactly my kind of book. Here’s some fun things I learned from it.


~Claude Garamond was a type designer in the first half of 16th century Paris. He made a highly legible font that was better (easier to read, easier to look at) than those that came before which were very much influenced by the involved German letters. Later, William Caslon in England adapted it for the printing of the Declaration of Independence. More ways we are an international people. Both Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter books use Garamond for their covers.


~ The font used for President Obama’s campaign is called ‘Gotham.’ I’m not making that up and you think it’s awesome, don’t lie.


~ Two of the most famous fonts, Verdana and Georgia were both made by a man named Mathew Carter, one of the demigods of typography. He also created Snell Roundhand, Bell Centennial, TC Galliard and Tahoma (a gateway font if ever there was one).


~Of course, you can’t talk about fonts without talking about Comic Sans. In 1994, a Microsoft employee named Vincent Connare thought Times New Roman was a bad choice for user friendly Microsoft Bob. That’s the program that was supposed to help old people not feel overwhelmed with these newfangled computer things. Times New Roman is the definition of professional, but it is also cold and brusque, and he felt something warmer and friendlier, maybe more laid back would be less threatening. Times New Roman had already been around for a long time, having been designed in the early 1930’s by Stanley Morison (‘long time’ here is relative. After all, Clarendon dates back to 1845). Connare was very much a man after my own heart. He had a copy of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns on his desk and he had read and reread Alan Moore’s Watchmen. With comic books as an inspiration, he made Comic Sans. Microsoft didn’t use it for the Bob program, which failed anyway (maybe because of Times New Roman? Maybe it was just dumb), but they did use it for Windows Movie Maker and after Windows 95 came out, it was everywhere. Thus began its descent into corporate mainstream and eventual evolution to the most hated font. Truthfully, people are fine with it on candy wrappers and toys, but not so much on say, tombstones. Connare handles his infamy quite well. It helps that he has other accomplishments and it is worth pointing out that both Comic Sans and Trebuchet (Another one of his works) are extremely helpful for teaching dyslexic children to read.


~The font Electra was meant to represent The Machine of the industrial revolution, with the spits of the furnace and the clanking of metal. It was made in 1935 by William Addison Dwigging who coined the phrase ‘graphic design.’


~The reason we refer to them as ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ cases is because they were physically kept in cases above or below the press.


~Most Jane Austen book covers use Didot, which was quite popular when she was around.


~The most popular font for book texts is called Bembo and has been around since the 1490’s.


~The oldest sans serif type is Calson Egyptian, from 1816.


~The blank space below a raised letter is called a beard.


~Eric Gill, another typographical demigod, created the shockingly named Gill Sans, a fine type and probably the most used sans serif. He had a passion for lettering. He also had a passion for sexual escapades, which wouldn’t raise much of a fuss except they usually involved his daughters, his sister and/or his dog. And that’s not a smear campaign by jealous competitors either, that all came from his own diary.

Gill Sans first appeared in 1928 as a sign for a store. Eric also created Perpetua, Joanna, Felicity, Solus, Golden Cockerel, Aries, Jubilee and Bunyan. The first PEnguin book used Gill Sans. Also, he looked like a young John Hurt.

Told you.

~The font used for London’s street signs is called Albertus and was totally created by an American.


~Type is the form of letters, typography is concerned with how it looks on page, sign, screen, etc.


~Aldus Manutius created the semi-colon in the mid 1400’s. Along with Francesco Griffo and Niccolo Niccoli (a good friend of my old buddy Poggio Bracciolini), Marutius all contributed towards the creation and use of italics.


~Thomas Cobden-Sanderson didn’t want his beautiful Doves typeface to be used for ‘unworthy subject matter’ so he threw all the matrices, block letters…everything needed to make it, into the River Thames.


~An ampersand is an E and T put together and is a conflation of et, per se and.


~The Nazis insisted everyone use German fonts instead of ‘Roman’ ones, which is what pretty much the rest of the world was doing. They developed Fraktur as the ‘jackboot gothic’ type. One designer was arrested for pointing out how stupid this was. Then in 1941, they did a total about face, calling Gothic script ‘Schwabacher-Jewish,’ because everyone knows renaming totally changes the history of everything. They alleged the script was associated with Jewish bankers and printing presses, but the reality was far more mundane. 1) The occupied territories (of which they now had a few) couldn’t read their stupid font and 2) there was a shortage of type materials and Gothic is quite elaborate. Finally, 3) now they had an excuse to use Trajan style inscriptions on their already Roman inspired buildings and columns.  Nazis, amirite?


~You know that plaque that’s on the Moon? It’s written in Futura.


I have more, so stay tuned. 😀


Lesson: Quick Fire Science Round

Another recent read was Science Secrets by Alberto Martinez. I had somewhat mixed feelings for this book. The scholarship is top notch, but while a fine academic, I don’t think Mr. Martinez is a great historiographer. I think he is one of these ‘there is only one history, everything else is conjecture,’ types that kind of went out with post-modernism. His tone and overall argument in the introduction has two main issues (for me). First of all, while of course there is one history, there is not one interpretation. Different people interpret the same data differently. Historians do not conjecture or speculate, they make arguments, they have to provide evidence and show reasonable causality. The second problem is evidence itself. I didn’t see a lot of analysis of sources, at least not consistently. Sometimes he showed weaknesses, sometimes not, and he failed to account for what we should do with gaps of evidence. If you don’t have all the picture, SOME level of approximation is necessary. It should be a last resort, and your other evidence should back it up, but there is simply no way to try to tell the story with the amount of evidence we usually have. As for tone, take how pretentious I am having a blog like this and make it a ‘I work at a university and am a published author’ level. Still, it was well-written, if a bit dry, and as I said, his scholarship is pretty awesome. Here’s some quickies I thought you might find interesting.


1) There’s no evidence Galileo actually dropped things off the Tower of Pisa in order to disprove Aristotle. He HAD experiments like that, but they were done in his house. He did give a thought experiment of dropping things offatower, and he was in Pisa, but he never claimed to do himself. Actually, it had been done before he even got there, and later historians just conflated a variety of events.

2) No one in Ptolemaic astronomy used more than one epicycle per planet, and they CERTAINLY didn’t need 40 to 60. You usually hear this when people are explaining Copernicus. ‘Oh, he could tell there was something wrong with a geocentric system, because the Ptolemaic system needed to add more and more epicycles, and it had gotten so unweildy as to be unworkable.’ No, actually the Ptolemaic system(which I remind the class, accurately described the movement of the heavens (to the extent they could be seen without, you know, proper telescopes) for thousands of years) was not clumsier than Copernicus’ system (which was also inaccurate, though obviously got us closer to reality). The reason this particular myth (seen in every science textbook I’ve ever come across) is so frustrating is I have no idea where it comes from. We actually have dozens and dozens of astronomical treatises from all the centuries using Ptolemy’s astronomy and none of them do this ‘just throw more epicycles at it’ thing, yet everyone seems to think that was the case. I think the reason we hold on to it is we like Eureka moments. For centuries, backwards ancients used a flawed system that they needed to constantly update in order to conform to reality, but THEN! Here comes the hero scientist, shining the like of reason into the darkness and lo, we were saved. This, of course, is nonsense. There had been heliocentric philososcientists for centuries, the reason it hadn’t gained the same traction is, dundunDUN, their arguments didn’t match up with reality! Or at least, observed reality. TL; DR version: Don’t look down on those that came before, even if they were wrong. Someday, people will laugh at the nonsense we are absolutely positive about now.

3) It is highly unlikely Pythagoras, Aristotle or Copernicus thought the planets were held in crystal orbs. While this is a beautiful mental image (at least to me), the only reason anyone thinks this is Tycho Brahe was a terrible historian. He didn’t translate things well and he constantly mixed up his sources.

4) J.J Thomson never formulated a plum-pudding model for the atom. It was there way before him, even before Lord Kelvin. Never heard of Thomson before? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either.

5) Darwin time!

a) Darwin didn’t discover evolution by looking at the beaks of finches. Before he even got to the Galapagos, he’d been pondering overpopulation (he had recently read Thomas Malthus) and how resources would be allocated. When he got to the islands, he realized that all the animals there were colonists, that is, their ancestors had come from somewhere else. This debunked the popular ‘scientific’ notion at the time that God found empty spaces in the world and spontaneously spawned life there. Considering that he thought the islands were ‘hellish,’ he wondered how the animals (who remember, came from elsewhere originally) managed to survive and concluded they adapted to their environment. Because resources were so scarce, not all the young would make it, therefore certain traits would be more advantageous than others.

The whole ‘finches’ thing came from a thought experiment he added to the second edition of the book, EIGHT YEARS after he had already formulated his theory (which he never called evolution). Incidentally, he also never based anything on the analysis of giant tortoises. He didn’t measure or analyze their shells. They just at them and then threw the shells overboard, which is pretty tragic considering they are now extinct (not kidding, they basically ate them to death).

b) Captain Fitzroy asked Darwin along because he was afraid he would go bonkers and, like an uncle of his, commit suicide. He deeply regretted that Darwin’s theory had been a byproduct of the Beagle’s journey (he was very religious). Later, and due to other factors as well, he became disturbed and cut his own throat. So…yeah, that happened.

c) And finally! Marx never offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. It just didn’t happen.

Quotables: Yay for Math

I can’t believe I have not have put any Galileo up, shame on me, because he has so many great passages.


“Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze, but the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which, it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.”

Lesson: Toxicon

I have a slew of lessons for you today, though I’m afraid they will be mostly surface level trivia. Still, that can be fun as well, and what better way to kick it off than with excruciating death?

“In times of peace, individuals and states follow higher standards…But war is a stern teacher.”–Thucydides

A few months ago, I read a book by Adrienne Mayor called Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs. It was a fun read, didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but for the everyday person interested in chemobiological weaponry of the ancient times, I would certainly recommend it.

First some etymological knowledge. The Greek word ‘toxicon’ or ‘poison’ comes from toxon, which means arrow. The Latin toxica comes from taxus, which means ‘yew,’ the tree used to make bows and arrows. Yew was frequently planted in graveyards, though whether because it was associated with death because of that or because of the poisoned arrows, I’m not sure. It makes sense that poison would be associated with archery in the ancient world. The first tale of its use comes from the ever entertaining (whether animated or Kevin Sorbo) Herakles.  Remember that after slaying (as much as possible) the Hydra and crushing its head with a boulder, he dipped his arrows in the hydra’s blood. After this, his magic quiver was never without the double deadly shafts.

While at a centaur party (you know those had to be wild), Hercules had to repel a group of uninvited violent (as if there are many other kinds) centaurs. He chased them back to his good friend Chiron’s cave. Without thinking (his modus operandi), Hercules let loose a barrage of arrows, one of which, surprising no one, struck Chiron in the knee. The pain was so agonizing, Chiron begged the gods to let him die. In sympathy, they took his immortality and gave it to Prometheus (I’m sure that will end well for him).

These two tales actually indicate a lot about the understanding of the ancients regarding weaponry of this kind.

1) A hydra is a snake. Most poison arrows were dipped in the venom of poisonous snakes. Not only was Herakles kind of the father of chemobiological warfare, he was also the father of one of the most feared tribe of users. Herodotus said the Scythians had quivers made of human arms with the hands still attached. According to his understanding of their mythology (and enough salt should be taken with this to kill a family of slugs, but it makes a nice story), Herakles once encountered a monstrous viper woman and fathered 3 sons with her. When he departed, he left his bow, arrows and belt with the youngest son, named Scythes, who founded the Scythians.

2) Depending on the source, the description of the kind of pain Chiron was in (and later, in a twist of karma, the kind of pain Hercules was in after putting on a poisoned cloak) is consistent with many kinds of snake bites and poison tipped arrows. It’s likely the original tellers, or later embellishers had actually witnessed wounds of this sort and relayed the actual effects, especially if…

3) The ‘friendly fire’ motif was very important. Potentially cutting yourself on your own arrows, or accidentally hitting a comrade was a very real danger. Poison is not a cat you can get back in the bag, so on some level, this could have served as lesson in caution.

4) In our cynical, modern times, we like to look to the ancients and claim they were more honorable than us. And it’s true, on paper, in rhetoric, poisoned arrows, damaging a water supply and so on, was said to be dishonorable or cowardly. But then, we say such things now. It doesn’t stop us and it didn’t stop them. When I read the story of Hercules and the centaurs, it seemed to me there was more judgement of him hunting them down after they had fled (which meant, shooting them in the back and well beyond just defending himself and his friends, which would have been far more justifiable) than the use of poison. However, the point remains that the issue of questionable morality in regards to ‘invisible weaponry,’ existed as much then as it does now. This comes up again with Herodotus and Thucydides. What you do defending yourself, your family, your city has more moral flexibility than what you do to others when YOU are the aggressor. Unless they’re barbarians, because screw those guys.

Speaking of legendary heroes coating their arrows, the ever cunning Odysseus was said to coat his with a plant that came from Epirus, in a place that served as one of the door to the underworld located between the rivers Styx and Acheron. The flower, called monkshood, aconite, or (my favorite) wolfsbane, had, according to legend, once been generic grass, but the drool of Cerberus had turned it poisonous. Likewise, hellebore and nightshade (or belladonna) were said to only grow near the noxious vapors of the Underworld.  In reality, it was true that many of these plants only grew specific places and if you didn’t have a wide grasp of climatology, geology, herbalism and a dozen other things, and if you knew no good came of these flora, a hellish explanation was as good as any.

Well, not quite no good. Belladona was called strychnose by the Romans (hence, our strychnine) or doryenion, which meant ‘spear drug.’ It was given to berserkers as the ‘herb of courage.’

Not quite related to poison itself, but remember when Odysseus used Ephyra at Epirus to go into the Underworld? Archeologists have actually found an underground labyrinth there at accurately matches Homer’s Hall of Hades. HOLY HELL!


These are the things I didn’t know before reading this book. There were many other great stories, such as Hannibal hurling jars of snakes onto ships, making them crash into each other, or how flaming pigs were used to repel his elephants and who can say no to tossing plague corpses over walls? So go check it out and let me know what sticks out to you.

Quotables: Faraday Was Prescient

To the Prime Minister of England, asking what purpose his new technology would serve (spoiler alert: The entire Electronic Revolution is based on it):

“Sir, I know not what these machines will be used for, but I am sure that one day, you will tax them.”

Occupy the Stax: Terribad Covers

This week I was asked to do something very much against my morals. As we prepare for the end of the school year, I was tasked with finding the Lexile of all the books in our classroom. (Lexile is a reading level indicator going from Below Level Reader to 1700. We use it to help kids find books that challenge them without being frustratingly impossible and Scholastic uses it for their Reading Counts Program, which we also utilize. Find out more here.) That was not what bothered me, in fact, it was rathe pleasant to do nothing but sit and punch in book titles, looking to see what books are considered harder than others. What bothered me was writing said information on stickers and placing them on the books.

I do not like stickers on books.

And as if to punish my sin, the stickers really hating…well, sticking. But that’s another story.

My boss, the head of the Special Education Department, has been teachign for 36 years, which is a decade longer than I’ve been alive. She’s been in this specific room for 16 years. This has many fantastic side effects, but the one I discovered most recently is she has some very old books, or old editions of books. And many of them have terrible, terrible covers.


I present to you some of my favorites.


I’m not sure why this kid is running as clearly NO ONE LIVES IN THIS CITY.

I honestly have no idea where to begin. The insane stare? The crooked eyes? THE CAT HEAD?!

I really wanted a bigger version of this picture but alas, it just wasn’t coming up on Google and I’m too lazy to take a picture. The young lady (Emily) is so deprived of mental stimulation due to the lack of a library, she has apparently taken to seducing cows. At least, that’s what you would get from this cover.

Don’t panic, anyone! If this squirrel is anything like the skaters I see, he’ll be too high most of the time to finish the revolution.

Of all the book covers I saw, this one probably demanded the most attention. Look at that. There is no way anything legit is going on here. The sketchy looking principal smirking at the camera, the promise of candy or the TERRIFIED expression on these children’s faces gurantee a windowless van is parked around the corner.

There seemed to be this common theme in old books of kids with their mouth open. In this case, I think the girl is screaming over the back she’s clearly about to fall over.

The kid on his bed with his cats, in the pink shirt, what may in fact be lip gloss, in that pose with that smile, with a list of what foods are okay?

…I’m just saying.

Maybe this book is actually about a non-English speaker having trouble in class who doesn’t understand why she doesn’t ‘get’ it as quick as the only other minority in this class (I suppose that kid in the back could be not-white, and of course, all the ginges coudl count, but still), but still…weird.

Cover of: Sisters by McPhail, David

First of all, no one in this picture is having a good time. Second of all…the author’s name is McPhail?! That sounds like someone wants to be fabulous about his suckiness.

I’m so glad that in our progressive society, sailors and dragons can express their love without fear of persecution, bonding over their mutual love of stripes.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but that rabbit’s feet seem to be the only bit that’s chocolate and none of it bodes well.

The only thing I’m going to say is look at that kid’s left arm. Now look how far his right arm has stretched to go around that snowman. PROPORTIONS!

The story of the Trojan Horse is many things. The ‘World’s Greatest Adventure’ is not one of them.

Obviously whoever is performing these experiments has no supervision. Raw food right on the microscope lens? Some strange urine-colored liquid oozing all over the wooden table? That’s not science, that’s a prank you pull on a hated chem teacher.

And finally, to prove I’m not a total ogre:

I actually find this one quite lovely. I don’t know what it is about the princess there in front, but her eyes are very green and I was quite drawn to the book.

Believe it or not, I actually have far more I could put in, but I will save them for another day. Thanks, and I hope this provided some giggle to your day.


~Shard Out~

Occupy the Stax: Because I Needed Yet Another Section

As I know you’ve picked up by now, I like books. I like finding them, buying them and cataloging them. I would love to have my own library someday, which I’m fairly certain is legal, though it’ be even more awesome if the government gave me money to run it. At any one time, I’m reading two to seven books (not simultaneously, though that would also be nifty, if confusing.) So the other day, when I found the ‘At the Libraries’ section of MentalFloss, several hours suspiciously disappeared. There are countless blogs and sites about books, authors, libraries, book awards,  librarians and all sorts of craziness. There’s ideas for indoor books and outdoor books and book-related food, cool art and products I could never hope to afford. There was also several collections of bookspine poetry. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I have over a thousand books on a wide range of topics. I bet I could do that.” I pulled down every title that sounded like it could work in a sentence and I got to work. Here are some of the ones I’ve done so far and some lessons I learned from the process.

Are You Sure?

So this would read:

“Do you really think what you think you think?

The good, the bad and the mad (?)

Tricks of the mind,

Nightmares and dreamscapes…


Protip #1: Being level with the books really help, otherwise, the angles are nightmares. I specifically used a downward angle on this because I was trying to hide the author of Tricks of the Mind (the fabulous Derren Brown, by the way), but then of course, I left Mr. King’s name in there boldly, which leads us too…

The Historian

Ignore that Casanova book back there…oh wait…

“The Historian always in our hearts,

The book of lost tales on war,

The books of the wars,

The Battle for History.”

Protip #2: Unless you’ve got a lot of Chuck Palanuik books, most will not be verb-tastic. So it goes.

And Never Let Her Go

“When night falls

I hate myself and want to die.

Anyone you want me to be changes

First and only: Thinner.

Soulless lamentation.

Go to hell.”

Protip #3: Since this one was stacked pretty high, I used a different book to prop it up. I couldn’t work it into the poem itself (pronouns are another tricky thing to work around) but I thought it worked fine this way.

I’ll probably be doing more of these later, so stay tuned for that. As something of a PS, while I was working on this, I found another Magic the Gathering card in ‘When Night Falls.’ Dear whoever who donated all those DnD books to the library: I don’t know who you are, but I bet we’d have been friends.

No, I did not purposely put it down on Diablo III and The Killing Joke for geek cred…which means you should give me extra.

So expect to see more of these. I will also be commenting on some truly terrible book covers in our classroom library. Stay thirsty for words, friends!