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Bitstream Charter and more


July 4 2014

In today’s blog, I discuss the typeface update for my web site, the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), and post a rant about Google’s long-dead (and rightly so) SideWiki service. But first...

==Happy Independence Day!==

I would like to wish my fellow Americans a happy Independence Day as we celebrate my nation’s 238th anniversary. My prayers are with those suffering the effects of Hurricane Andrew, but I hope everyone has a safe enjoyable day today. Drinking and enjoying today’s festivities is OK, but remember: Do not drink and drive. One’s freedom to drink ends when risking innocent people’s lives.

==The typeface facelift==

I have just praised Bitstream Charter in my last blog entry, and now that it is the font I use for body text on my web page, let me praise it again.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of typefaces knows about Georgia, a beautiful serif font that is installed on nearly every computer (not to mention iPhone) on the planet and is one of the most widely read fonts in the world. Georgia, of course, was made by Matthew Carter.

Not as well known as Georgia is Bitstream Charter, a typeface Carter made back in 1987. Matthew Carter is a font designer whose genius shines the most when he is faced with a unique challenge. The challenges Carter faced when making Bitstream Charter was to make a font that looked good on the then-300dpi laser printers of that era, and to make a serif font with a very small file size that could fit in the very limited space of the rendering engine Carter was using at the time; while the limited size issue Carter designed Charter to work around was solved by the time Carter finished the design, the font is still one of the most compact fonts out there: My WOFF conversion of Charter, in two font faces (Roman and italic), takes up only 33,244 bytes of space.

While older than Georgia, Bitstream Charter looks more modern and fresh to my eyes. Its serifs are more angular and crisp; I prefer its tabular lining numbers over the old-style numbers Robert Norton hoisted upon Georgia at the last minute. Since Charter was a font made for the printer instead of the extremely limited resolution screens of the 1990s, its italic is a true italic, lighter and more compact than the non-italic “Roman” form, and with flourishes such as a very stylized z that Georgia does not have.

While Carter claims he doesn’t have a style to his font design, to my eyes Georgia and Charter have a similar feel to them. They have the very same X-height, the “Q”s are very similar, and the metrics are almost the same in the non-italic form.

Web font rendering technology in the mid-2010s has finally caught up to the point it can render a font made for a 1987 laser printer. I only felt the need to reduce the size of the serifs in the “E” and “F” with the Roman font (as well as raising where the underline is placed) to make it a screen font for today’s web pages — as well as remaining a beautiful font when printed out.

Since Bitstream very generously donated the four basic forms of Bitstream Charter to the X Consortium back in 1992 under very liberal licensing terms, it can be legally downloaded, modified, and used for free. Professional graphic designers, of course, are better off using one of the commercial versions of Charter:
Charter has been used in a number of places. My older Shirt Pocket New Testaments from the International Bible Society are typeset in Bitstream Charter; they are the most readable small Bibles I have used. There is a greatly expanded Charter variant that is also free, Charis:
When I lived in México, I printed my English lessons in a Charis variant which my students loved.

Bitstream Charter is what you get when the same font designer who gave us Georgia is asked to make a more modern-looking serif font that renders well with today’s font hinting technologies, that fits in as little space as possible (to minimize web page load time), that has a more traditional italic form than Georgia’s pseudo-oblique italics, and is a fully free font with a generous open-source license.

I understand why Matthew Butterick feels that Bitstream Charter is one of the very best free fonts out there.

For people who are interested in variants of the Free version of Charter, I have a number of downloads here:
==Why I changed the typeface==

Since I mentioned I was waiting for Windows XP holdouts to upgrade in my last blog entry, I should explain why I changed my mind. When I looked at my server logs, under 2% of visitors to my site in 2014 have used the only browser (Chrome in Windows XP) that might not be able to effectively render a modern web font. Chrome users who haven’t enabled Clear Type are free to read this site in another browser, or turn on Clear Type in their system.

I am not going to hold back the design of this webpage from using the latest technology of the mid-2010s on account of at most 2% of my visitors.

==Why SideWiki sucked==

Google’s now-dead SideWiki was an attempt by Google to put their own content on every single page on the Internet. SideWiki was a browser extension that added, to the left of every web page, a section where anyone on the Internet could comment on the web page or anything else; the comments were visible to anyone else on the internet who visited that web page and had SideWiki installed.

Google introduced it in the fall of 2009. It, thankfully, did not last very long. In under two years, Google already announced its termination; it was removed (including having all comments deleted) before the end of 2011.

SideWiki was not the first attempt to add a place for comments on every single web page. There has also been, over the years, Third Voice, Diigo, Fleck, ShiftSpace, Stickis, and Trailfire, to name just a few. Like SideWiki, all of them are either out of business or no longer actively marketing web annotations.

What Google did was more menacing. They made SideWiki part of their popular toolbar; they leveraged the userbase of another unrelated product to hoist SideWiki upon web pages. People who didn't know what SideWiki was were suddenly under the impression that webpages now had a comment bar on the left hand side.

They never even implemented a way for webmasters to opt out of it, despite repeated requests for them to do so.

SideWiki was a haven for spammers, trolls, crackpots and pretty much no one else. Here is some of the documented abuse SideWiki was forcing webmasters to put up with:
Also, here is Jeff Jarvis’ well articulated criticism of SideWiki:
Remember: Freedom of speech does not guarantee one a printing press — or, in the case of SideWiki, the ability to vandalize other people’s printing presses. Based on the precedence in the related Washingtonpost.newsweek Interactive Company, LLC, et al. v. The Gator Corporation case, I think there would have been legal sanctions imposed against Google for SideWiki (such as enjoining them to allow web sites to opt out via a special HTTP header) had it actually caught on.

==A SideWiki alternative==

One of the few good features SideWiki offered was the ability to warn people about online scams. This feature, however, is better served with the Web of Trust browser plugin. Web of Trust rates sites for whether they can be trusted and whether they are safe for children.

Web of Trust is available for all major browsers, and, unlike SideWiki, does not attract trolls and crackpots, nor does it pretend to be part of the website the way SideWiki did.

==Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark==

I have always been a fan of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD), especially their more peppy music (“Enola Gay”, “Locomotion”, “Tesla Girls”, “So in Love”, and their biggest US hit, “If You Leave”), and even once had their album “Crush” on vinyl.

Then again, I never cared for “Joan of Arc” (too brooding for my tastes).

The Mexican Radio my wife and I listen to has “Enola Gay”, “Secret” (which didn't even break top 40 in the US — strange how “So In Love” from the same album is forgotten there and this song which was only an album track here ended up being a big hit there), and “If You Leave” in heavy rotation every weekend when they play oldies.

Some trivia: OMD’s lead singer Andy McCluskey formed the British girl band Atomic Kitten and co-wrote their only original #1 song “Whole Again”. This is the only #1 hit penned by an OMD member — and they needed the Tesla Girls to sing it for them to hit that spot.

They recently reformed and are coming out with new albums. Here’s a really good NYT piece on them from last year:

2016 edit: Fixing link rot with

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