May 8, 2013
Since writing last week’s post about the possible origin of the QWERTY keyboard and the viability of new digital alternatives, I’ve been especially mindful of every keyboard I use. As a footnote of sorts to that post, I’ve noticed that there’s a particularly strange feature on the iPad’s virtual keyboard: a raised bar on the F and J keys. On physical keyboards, these raised indicators allow touch typists to orient their eight fingers on the center row of the keyboard without looking. So why would a flat touchscreen have these raised indicators? One word. Skeuomorphism.
“Skeuomorphism” is a design principle in which an obsolete design element is integrated into a new object –often as a superficial graphic detail– even though it’s no longer functional or necessary. For instance, when the ancient Greeks started building in stone, they imitated the forms of wood construction – including unnecessary wood joints and ornamentation; protruding joists were eventually transformed into dentils. The term is certainly not a neologism (although spell check still refuses to acknowledge it) but its use has become much more widespread with the emergence of touchscreen applications. Digital skeuomorphic elements can help give users a sense of familiarity when dealing with a new technology – like a notepad app that looks like a legal pad, the page-turning animation on a digital book, or the sound of a shutter clicking on digital cameras and mobile phones. Soon these elements may outlive their usefulness or take on a new meaning, but for now these vestigial details work as sensory cues.
Let’s get back to the keyboard. In our previous post, it was suggested that the very nature of “keys” is obsolete for touchscreen devices. A case could be made either way, I think, but a graphic representation of the tactile raised bars are most definitely unnecessary on keys that are never physically touched. In fact, most touchscreen devices do not include these vestigial elements. Cursory Googling reveals that the keyboards on the Kindle, Nook, and Surface all lack any sort of tactile carryover. The iPad appears to be unique in this respect, but is in line with Apple’s initial approach to user interface design for mobile applications. In their iOS Human Interface Guidelines for software developers, the company recommends using visual metaphors to “suggest a usage or experience without enforcing the limitations of the real-world object or action on which they’re based” or adding physicality and realism to a user interface:
Sometimes, the more true to life your app looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it….Think of the objects and scenes you design as opportunities to communicate with users and to express the essence of your app. Don’t feel that you must strive for scrupulous accuracy. Often, an amplified or enhanced portrayal of something can seem more real, and convey more meaning, than a faithful likeness.
Recently, the tide seems to be turning against skeuomorphism. Apple has taken a lot of flack for the skeuomorphic graphics in their mobile software, and after a recent executive shakeup it sounds like many of these elements won’t make it into the next iteration of their operating system. Yet with advances in touchscreen technology, there might actually be a chance that the virtual keyboard will once again require those home row “bumps”. Apple and other companies are researching touchscreens that can provide haptic feedback through the use of vibration, electronic impulses, and screens that can literally change shape to create a textured surface. With these new displays on the horizon, perhaps it’s only a matter of time until the vestigial home key bumps on virtual keyboards have their function returned.
May 3, 2013
What came first: the typist or the keyboard? The answer depends on the keyboard. A recent article in Smithsonian’s news blog, Smart News, described an innovative new keyboard system that proposes a more efficient alternative to the ubiquitous “universal” keyboard best known as QWERTY – named for the first six letters in the top row of keys. The new keyboard, known as KALQ, is designed specifically for thumb-typing on today’s smart phones and tablets. It’s an interesting and by all accounts commercially viable design that got me thinking about the rationale behind the QWERTY keyboard. Unlike KALQ, it couldn’t have been designed to accommodate a specific typing technique because, well, the idea of typing –touch typing, at least– hadn’t been invented yet. It turns out that there is a lot of myth and misinformation surrounding the development of QWERTY, but these various theories all seem to agree that the QWERTY layout was developed along with, and inextricably linked to, early typewriters.
In the 1860s, a politician, printer, newspaper man, and amateur inventor in Milwaukee by the name of Christopher Latham Sholes spent his free time developing various machines to make his businesses more efficient. One such invention was an early typewriter, which he developed with Samuel W. Soulé, James Densmore, and Carlos Glidden, and first patented in 1868. The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. The team surely assumed it would be the most efficient arrangement. After all, anyone who used the keyboard would know immediately where to find each letter; hunting would be reduced, pecking would be increased. Why change things? This is where the origin of QWERTY gets a little foggy.
The popular theory states that Sholes had to redesign the keyboard in response to the mechanical failings of early typewriters, which were slightly different from the models most often seen in thrift stores and flea markets. The type bars connecting the key and the letter plate hung in a cycle beneath the paper. If a user quickly typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other, the delicate machinery would get jammed. So, it is said, Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. This theory could be easily debunked for the simple reason that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language. However, one of the typewriter prototypes had a slightly different keyboard that was only changed at the last minute. If it had been put into production this article would have been about the QWE.TY keyboard:
By 1873, the typewriter had 43 keys and a decidedly counter-intuitive arrangement of letters that supposedly helped ensure the expensive machines wouldn’t break down. Form follows function and the keyboard trains the typist. That same year, Sholes and his cohorts entered into a manufacturing agreement with gun-maker Remington, a well-equipped company familiar with producing precision machinery and, in the wake of the Cilvil War, no doubt looking to turn their swords into plowshares. However, right before their machine, dubbed the Sholes & Glidden, went into production, Sholes filed another patent, which included a new keyboard arrangement. Issued in 1878, U.S. Patent No. 207,559 (top image) marked the first documented appearance of the QWERTY layout. The deal with Remington proved to be an enormous success. By 1890, there were more than 100,000 QWERTY-based Remington produced typewriters in use across the country. The fate of the keyboard was decided in 1893 when the five largest typewriter manufacturers –Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore, and Smith-Premier– merged to form the Union Typewriter Company and agreed to adopt QWERTY as the de facto standard that we know and love today.
There’s a somewhat related theory that credits Remington’s pre-merger business tactics with the popularization of QWERTY. Remington didn’t just produce typewriters, they also provided training courses – for a small fee, of course. Typists who learned on their proprietary system would have to stay loyal to the brand, so companies that wanted to hire trained typists had to stock their desks with Remington typewriters. It’s a system that’s still works today, as illustrated by the devout following Apple built through the ecosystem created by iTunes, the iTunes store, and the iPod.
While it can’t be argued that deal with Remington helped popularize the QWERTY system, its development as a response to mechanical error, has been questioned by Kyoto University Researchers Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka. In a 2011 paper, the researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard alongside a record of its early professional users. They conclude that the mechanics of the typewriter did not influence the keyboard design. Rather, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators. For example;
“The code represents Z as ‘· · · ·’ which is often confused with the digram SE, more frequently-used than Z. Sometimes Morse receivers in United States cannot determine whether Z or SE is applicable, especially in the ﬁrst letter(s) of a word, before they receive following letters. Thus S ought to be placed near by both Z and E on the keyboard for Morse receivers to type them quickly (by the same reason C ought to be placed near by IE. But, in fact, C was more often confused with S).
In this scenario, the typist came before the keyboard. The Kyoto paper also cites the Morse lineage to further debunk the theory that Sholes wanted to protect his machine from jamming by rearranged the keys with the specific intent to slow down typists:
“The speed of Morse receiver should be equal to the Morse sender, of course. If Sholes really arranged the keyboard to slow down the operator, the operator became unable to catch up the Morse sender. We don’t believe that Sholes had such a nonsense intention during his development of Type-Writer.”
Regardless of how he developed it, Sholes himself wasn’t convinced that QWERTY was the best system. Although he sold his designs to Remington early on, he continued to invent improvements and alternatives to the typewriter for the rest of his life, including several keyboard layouts that he determined to be more efficient, such as the following patent, filed by Sholes in 1889, a year before he died, and issued posthumously:
But the biggest rivals to ever challenge QWERTY is the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, developed by Dr. August Dvorak in the 1930s.
Dvorak users reported faster and more accurate typing, in part because the system dramatically increases the number of words that can be typed using the “home” row of keys where your fingers naturally rest – also known as the keys you type when you’re just trying fill space. asjdfkal; sdfjkl; asdfjkl; asdfjkl; dkadsf. asdfjklasdfjk. More recent research has debunked any claims that Dvorak is more efficient, but it hardly matters. Even in 1930 it was already too late for a new system to gain a foothold. While Dvorak certainly has its champions, it never gained enough of a following to overthrow King QWERTY. After all, the world learned to type using Remington’s keyboard.
When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the system – computers didn’t get jammed. But of course, there’s the minor fact that millions of people learned to type on the QWERTY keyboards. It had become truly ubiquitous in countries that used the Latin alphabet. Not only that, but way back in 1910, the system had been adopted by Teletype, a company that would go on to produce electronic typewriters and computer terminals widely used around the world, thereby ensuring QWERTY’s place as the new technological standard.
When a design depends on a previous innovation too entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist to change, it’s known as a path dependency. And this why the new KALQ proposal is so interesting. It attempts to break from the tyranny of Christopher Latham Sholes, whose QWERTY system makes even less sense on the virtual keyboards of tablets and smartphones than it does on a computer keyboards. Is the new KALQ system any different? In some ways, the answer is obviously yes. It has been designed around a very specific, very modern behavior – typing with thumbs. Like the telegraph operator QWERTY theory, the user is determining the structure of the keyboard. But it could still be argued that the KALQ system, or any similar system that may be developed in the future, is also a product of path dependency. Because no matter how the letters are arranged, they basic notion of individually separated letters distributed across a grid dates back to Sholes and co. tinkering away in their Milwaukee workshops. But it’s just not necessary in a tablet. If you gave an iPad to someone who had never used a keyboard and told them to develop a writing system, chances are they would eventually invent a faster, more intuitive system. Perhaps a gesture based system based on shorthand? Or some sort of swipe-to-type system? This is not to say that such a system would be better, it’s merely an observation that our most bleeding edge communication technology still dates back more than 150 years to some guys tinkering in their garage. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
April 30, 2013
To the untrained eye, cattle brands, those unique markings seared into animals’ hides with a hot iron, might just seem like idiosyncratic logos or trademarks designed to clearly and simply indicate ownership. However, unlike the graphic logos and trademarked images of popular commercial brands, they must comply with a rigorous set of standards and are developed using a specific language ruled by its own unique syntax and morphology.Livestock branding dates back to 2700 BC, evidenced by Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ancient Romans are said to have used hot iron brands as an element of magic. But brands are most famously associated with the cowboys and cattle drives of the Old West, when brands were used to identify a cow’s owner, protect cattle from rustlers (cattle thieves), and to separate them when it came time to drive to market (or rail yards or stock yards).
At its most basic, a cattle brand is composed of a few simple letters and numbers, possibly in combination with a basic shape or symbols like a line, circle, heart, arc, or diamond. But these characters can also be embellished with serif-like flourishes to create myriad “pyroglyphics.” For example, such serifs might include extraneous “wings” or “feet” added to a letter or number. Each character can also be rotated or reversed. Every addition and variation results in a unique character that is named accordingly. The letters with “wings” for example, are described as “flying” while those with “feet” are, you guessed it, “walking.” An upside-down characters is “crazy” while a 90-degree rotation makes a character “lazy.” These colorful designations aren’t just cute nicknames used to identify the characters, but are actually a part of the name, a spoken part of the brand language, which like most western languages is read from left to right, top to bottom and, perhaps unique to brands, outside to inside.
The vast array of combinations made possible by these characters and variations ensures that unique and identifiable brands can be created –hopefully without repetition– using only limited formal language. And sometimes they could even be used to make a joke:
Serifs and rotations are just two of the primary ways brand letters can be modified. Multiple symbols may be joined together forming a type of ligature – a term used in typography to describe a single character representing two or more letters, such as æ. Some of these ligature brands are read as “connected” while others are given unique identifiers:
When it comes to getting your brand approved by the authorities, location is as important as design. The reason? The same brand can be registered in the same country as long as its located on a different part of the animal. The following two brands, for example, are considered distinct markings:
Brands are registered like trademarks or copyrights and are monitored, taxed and regulated. So if an owner failed to pay the brand tax, the brand could no longer be offered as “valid prima facie evidence of ownership.” Brands were, and continue to be, a critical element of the cattle industry unless –bonus fun fact!– you happen to have been 19th century Texas politician and rancher Samuel A. Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle and consequently saw his own surname immortalized as a brand for those independent few who refuse to follow the precepts of social order.
Today, the most successful trademarks and brand identities are the simplest and easiest to identify. Think of Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches. The same is true for cattle brands. Not only is it easier to read a simple brand, but its less painful for the livestock. However, it can’t be too simple because the brand itself also serves as a means to combat theft and fraud, in much the same way that the swoosh is also an indicator of authenticity. Cattle rustlers would sometimes use a hot iron to alter brands into a similar graphic, then claim the cow as their own – its like a failing middle school student changing an “F” on his grade card to a “B” with a few pen marks so his parents don’t get upset. Although the phrase “cattle rustler” conjures romantic images of the Old West, it is still a very real problem for today’s ranchers. In fact, the U.S. is currently experience something of a rustling renaissance. Consequently, there’s also something of a branding revival. Despite the invention of GPS tagging, DNA testing (yes, for cattle), and other preventative measures, branding is still the top preventative measure to combat cattle theft. Carl Bennett, director of the Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission recently told USA Today that ”We have yet to find a system that can replace a hot brand on a cow. There’s nothing in modern society that’s more sure.”
April 26, 2013
Cities around the world are covered in spray-painted hieroglyphics and cryptic designations scrawled on public surfaces; unintelligible tags and arcane signs intended to communicate messages to a specialized audience with a trained eye. Such markings are so prevalent that they just blend into the urban patina of dirt and disrepair and go largely unnoticed. I’m not talking about illegal graffiti. Rather, the officially sanctioned infrastructural “tagging” employed by public works departments around the country.
You’ve probably seen these markings on streets and sidewalks. Multi-colored lines, arrows and diamonds denoting the presence of some subterranean infrastructure or encode instruction for construction or maintenance workers. A secret language that temporarily manifests the invisible systems that power our world. Recently, Columbia’s Studio-X blog shared the decoder ring that unlocks these secret messages:
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block. To prevent future incidents, a system of notation known as DigAlert was developed to communicate vital information to anyone who might be doing construction work or excavations in areas near underground cables or pipelines. Since then, the American Public Works Association established a standard color code to identify subterranean infrastructure in American cities. This standard is a recommended by most national agencies, but, like the “fire diamond,” it is not a mandate intended to supersede any local regulations.
These “safety colors” –expanded to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey, white, and black– have been formalized by the American Standards Institute (ANSI) as Safety Color Code Z535, which provides Munsell notation and Pantone color-matching information to help ensure consistency across mediums.
While the color system warns workers about certain types of hazard, there is a complementary language used to approximately mark the underground location of a conduit, cable, or pipe. According to the Guidelines for Operator Facility Field Delineation established by the Common Ground Alliance, spray-painted lines (in the appropriate color, of course) space between four-feet and fifty-feet apart should be used to mark the center of a single facility or, if multiple conduits are running in a single trench, over their outside edges with arrows pointing in the the direction the services are running with a perpendicular line connecting the edge marks to form an H (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). A diamond is used instead of the perpendicular line to indicate a duct system.
While just as esoteric (though not as artistic) as illegal graffiti, these regulated utility markings encode a different type of turf. And knowing that Krylon code can save lives. Such urban annotation reveals the danger and complexity of American cities and is just one more example of the standardized, secret signs that surround us.
Previously: Decoding the City: The Fire Diamond
April 17, 2013
Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. We previously looked at examples from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.
It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:
As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.
So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.
Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.’”
There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.