The Font Of All Typefaces


In magazines, you have a freedom of design almost on a par with illuminated manuscript. You can set your headlines in any font imaginable, even one where all the letters are little nude couples demonstrating the Kama Sutra, and run them vertically, horizontally, or at any angle between.

On the Web, you’re more constrained. Snazzy design was not a significant priority when it was conceived as a way to publish academic papers. On the contrary, the choice of font was originally left entirely to the reader. That makes a hell of a lot of sense when the priority is conveying information rather than amusing the eye (and in fact any decent browser still lets you override the creator’s intent and choose the font you find most readable), but of course designers soon wanted more control.

One way to insert fancy lettering is to do it as images. But these take longer to download, and directly conflict with important principles of flexibility and accessibility. Worst of all, search engines can’t index the text in a picture. So though they are used a lot for the headers of pages, images are deeply unsuitable when it comes to the body text.

There is some flexibility; the designer can specify what font they want. But “want” is the operative word – the wish will only come true if the user happens to have that font installed on their computer. While this is OK for a handful of almost ubiquitous “Websafe” fonts like Times New Roman or Arial Black, go for anything more imaginative and you’re taking your chances. There are different fonts installed on PC, Mac, Android, Linux, and so on. If the one specified isn’t there, another must be substituted. The result might look OK, or it might be grotesque.

But hey, it’s the Internet – why not just download a font? The idea looks good at first glance but there are a number of problems. A font is a big thing and takes time to download, so you either wait for it to finish before the text can appear, which would be tedious, or switch to it when the font arrives, which would be ugly and annoying.

What’s more, fonts tend to be expensive and proprietary. It’s a profitable industry, and foundries (many still call themselves that) are reluctant to give their high-value goods away. Thanks to this lack of cooperation, attempts to make downloadable fonts part of Web design have sputtered and died several times already in the medium’s brief history.

And that’s the stage we’re still stuck at, as I was telling a friend a couple of days ago. Afterwards though I decided to check on the latest developments – and I found I was dead wrong. Things have moved fast since I’d last looked. There are currently two “Webfont” services actually up and running. Adobe’s, which you pay for, and one from Google that’s free.

Hmm. I do like free.

So I had to try this. I’ve been (sporadically) working on a whole new cutting-edge website using Drupal and PHP and MySQL and all that good stuff. It’s still a long way from being finished though, and the aesthetic stage of the design, when I get there, must start with a clean sheet. So I can’t be doing experiments on that. In the meantime however I’ve neglected my actual working website. In fact it’s dated to the core now. Standards compliant, sure, but not to standards that people remember now. And the newest material on it must be five years old. But it’s all the showcase I’ve got, and I do actually get business from that site. A design refresh might be just the thing.

So I gave it the Google Webfont treatment. You might find it displays the old sensible face first before the fancy handmade-looking one appears, but once it has loaded you wouldn’t know it’s not a normal font.

The range Google has is still limited, at least when it came to my specific need for an all-cap, comic-lettering style font. The best I found is called “Walter Turncoat”, for some bizarre reason. It might remind too many people of MS Comic Sans, but it bears a surprisingly good resemblance to my real hand-lettering.

It’s not hard to use Google’s free Webfonts on your own site. (If you take care of your own hosting anyway. If you have a hosted blog it can be more tricky and/or costly. I’ve added a few useful links below.) In fact there are three ways: The easiest is to simply add an “@import” link to your style sheet. That way you can change the whole site with just one edit. However that method can cause some browsers to slow down, so the faster way is to add a link to the header of every page. There’s also a technique using JavaScript, but I don’t know of any advantage to that. More details on Google’s page.

It’s true that it seems a little rough. In the illustration I’ve inflated one up to some ridiculous size (350pt!), and you can see that in spite of it being a real vector font the edges are bizarrely complex and jagged. This I guess is an artefact of the compression that makes them load at such an impressive rate.

I’d like to see the roughness improved upon somehow – or perhaps it will be less important as screen resolutions continue to increase – but even with it I think the font gives the site a personality and friendliness that simply would not have been possible otherwise. We are on the threshold of a new era here.

So Where *Do* You Begin?

A Stonking Motherboard, Earlier Today

Going back then to my guide to making your own computer, it’s at this point that I’m supposed to say something wise like: “Before choosing the parts for your PC, ask yourself what you’re going to be using it for”, or “Decide now how much you really want to spend”. To my mind however, the only sensible answers to these questions are:

A) Everything! And

B) As little as I can possibly get away with.

PCs are meant to be flexible, inexpensive and upgradeable computing machines, so let what you can get be the guide to what you should get; what happens to be available at a good price now. Perhaps memory is really more important than that crazy amazing video card, but if the card is on sale at a great price now, memory can always be upgraded later. Seek bargains, go with the flow. Though bear in mind that by a bargain I mean something that’s cheaper than it usually is, not the kind of part that’s always cheap. Reliability is everything in a computer, so quality is worth paying – or at least waiting – for. Look out for brands with a track record, read all the reviews you can get your hands on.

So you could say that the place to start is wherever you’re at. See a bargain? Start! But from another point of view, your real starting point is the motherboard. Virtually everything else slots or plugs into it – as you may guess from the photograph – so more than any other it’s your motherboard that will define what components you’ll be able to use. It’s crucial therefore to have a nice one. But what goes into the choosing?

One choice is between the two major makers of processors, the chips that sit at the heart of a computer. Intel you will surely have heard of; AMD perhaps not, though they offer the chip design Goliath some degree of rivalry. Indeed – though l may be lynched for saying this – I suspect their David status may help explain their lasting popularity with system builders. Their image is not so sleek and corporate as Intel’s.

AMD have been technology leaders from time to time – producing the first 1 GHz processor, developing the 64-bit architecture that Intel themselves later adopted – but I think Goliath has it all over them just now. Processors have to fit into a socket on the motherboard, the design of which usually changes with the technology. Intel however have just introduced a new generation that are largely compatible with the socket – known as LGA 115 – used by the previous. That means these boards can use processors ranging in price, to go by, from €35 to almost ten times that much. That is a hell of a range of options.

And that means you can get a cheap one now and upgrade at least once, perhaps more, over the lifetime of that motherboard. Which is exactly the route I chose, purchasing a dual core, 2.7 GHz Celeron G555 – a processor that could by no means be described as feeble –  for only €50. So you may have a particular reason to prefer some other family of processors, but to my mind that LGA 1155 socket is the thing to look out for in a motherboard right now.

But there’s more…

What I Did In School Today

FirstDay - Copy

Seriously, we did this in class. OK, a lecture. It brought me back to a very different, though in some ways surprisingly similar, but mostly different school I went to many years ago.

I drew a house there too, maybe on my very first day. It’s certainly one of the first things I remember. I distinctly recall having trouble making the place I finished drawing the roof be the same as the place I started. Triangles are the hardest basic shape.

I recall my contempt for the children who drew their square windows in the very corners of their square house. Imagine that! Had they no powers of observation? Obviously the windows should be a little bit in from the corners. I mean, otherwise you’d see the edges of  the side walls through the glass. Sheesh.

The biggest difference is that I drew that house with a pencil. Today in school we drew houses with the Java programming language. It’s harder, drawing your house with the Java programming language. For example, at the age of four I didn’t spend a weekend staring at my pencil and paper going “How the **** is this supposed to work?”

So you’re seeing here the first thing I ever made in Java. I really do feel a little like a small child in school again. At the end of the class I printed it out and gave it to the teacher.


Tinned horse meat

There’s nothing wrong with horse meat. Horses are healthy, clean, athletic, and mad. Their flesh is low in fat and full of flavour – rather like Labrador. No, the problem is not with horses per se. There are other, quite valid, reasons to object to this animal turning up unexpectedly in your burger.

The first of course is that an animal has turned up unexpectedly in your burger. It’s more than a bit disconcerting. And, disrespectful. If a waiter brought you something you didn’t order and when you objected told you it didn’t actually matter what you ate, you’d be annoyed. We want to know what we’re putting in our mouths. To an extent I mean. We’re all aware that sausages are made out of eyelashes and earwax, but we’re prepared for that. Beef – or ‘beef’ – we at least expect to be made out of cows’ eyelashes and earwax.

And then there’s this worry: Remember bovine brain and spine matter. How can we feel sure they’re successfully keeping that out if entire horses can slip in? It’s an awful thing for the image of the food industry. Now probably it’s perfectly good terribly bad meat, sourced on the continent as a legal, safe, and seriously cheap filler ingredient for barely-edible bargain burgers. It’s just that somewhere along the way someone missed a memo about what is considered a food in some markets and a friend in others.

So I think it shouldn’t be destroyed. I’d eat it. Once they test it for everything from BSE to cat AIDS, I’d eat it. Whatever about the morality of meat, it’s clearly immoral to kill something and then refuse to eat it – not to mention rude. And as meat in itself is incredibly wasteful – the same amount of land feeds around twenty times as many people on a vegetable diet –  it’s just stupendously wasteful to waste meat.

Or well, waste hair follicles and mechanically recovered connective tissue.

The Leviathan Takes Form

Still Life With Celeron, by the author

To build a good system cheaply, you need the help of a friend: Sheer damn luck. You’re going to have to find bargains.

But this is the sort of luck that only happens when you’re ready for it. You can’t get good deals until you know exactly what you’re looking for, so the magical serendipity comes only after the painstaking research.

This article aims to save you some of that. To start with the basics then, the minimum you’ll need for a PC is:

Video card is in brackets because many motherboards and processors have video built in. You have the option of adding one (or more) for demanding tasks like gaming.

Similarly, audio and wired networking usually come integrated these days. (Be aware though that Wi-Fi isn’t so common.) You may notice I’ve left out speakers, on the basis that they’re not strictly necessary – and of course there’s a good chance you’ll have passable speakers or at least headphones lying around somewhere. Can we cut the bill down still further? Well, you may be able to do without the monitor. If your motherboard or video card has an HDMI output you can probably plug it straight into your new flat panel digital TV. And if you happen to have a portable USB DVD drive, that should do the job fine. (And arguably is a better investment than a built-in one, which these days is going to spend most of its time idle.) If you want you can add these pieces, and much more besides, as and when you have the money. This expandability is the nicest aspect of the PC architecture, and it’s worth exploiting while it’s still here to be enjoyed.

It is essential therefore to begin by planning for the future. You’re building a good-but-inexpensive system now with a view to transforming it into an amazing-but-still-not-too-expensive system over time, so you need to start out on the right track. There’s no point in saving money on say a cheap motherboard if the memory it takes won’t be made any more. A component is no bargain if it’s only compatible with others that are expensive, and to an extent every component of a PC is dependent on, and so must be compatible with, every single other.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Where the hell do you begin?

A Great Computer, Cheaply


Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.

Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.

My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.

Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.

Challenge accepted.