Many years ago, I worked for The Polk Company, a provider of automotive data, much of it collected from state motor vehicle departments. While employed there, I came up with the idea of making a dictionary of personalized license plates.

Think of it. Often while driving, you see a personalized license plate with some odd combination of characters and it takes several seconds before you can figure out what it says. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a book full of these encoded messages? The Polk Company would be the perfect source for this data and I figured it would only take me a few weeks to put together a book and shop it around to a publisher.

Unfortunately, it turns out it had already been done at least once. Within a couple days several of my coworkers told me they had already seen such a book and one of them brought one in and gave it to me. Alas, the book has since been lost. (Sorry, Carol.) A search on Amazon turns up thousands of possible replacements, so maybe there would still be room for one more. Oh well.

NiftyPlates

One of many fun fact books on license plates. Image from Amazon

I hadn’t thought about that project in quite a while, but within the past two weeks artwork made from personalized license plates has caught my eye twice.

The first was a piece called Preamble by Mike Wilkins, an artist the same age as me. He recreated the preamble of the U.S. Constitution using license plates from all 50 states and Washington, DC. The work was completed in 1987 in celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution. I saw it while visiting the American Art Museum in Washington.

He uses many of the abbreviations common to personalized license plates. I wonder what the censors at the department of motor vehicles thought of some of them:

WE TH | P PUL | OF TH | UNI | DIDD | ST8S

INNOR | DUR 2 | 4M A | MOR PUR | FEC UNE | NONE

S TAB | LISH | JUSTIZ | N SURE | DOME

ESTIK | TRAN | KWILI | T PRO | VIDE 4 | TH COM

UN DE | FENZ | PRO MOT | THE JEN R | L WEL

FARE N | C CURE | TH BLES | NGS OF | LIBBER | T 2 R

SELVES | N R POS | TERI T | DO R | DANE N

S-TAB | LISH | THIS | CON STI | 2 10 | 4 TH

U NI | TID | ST8S | OF AH | MARE | E CUH

The 51 plates are arrayed in a grid, in alphabetical order. (I think it would have been even more clever to lay them out to form the shape of the continental U.S. with the plates placed close to their geographical location. But that’s me.) You can see a photograph of this wonderful piece at http://www.americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=27722. (More on the reason for my visit to DC, an fMRI scan of my brain, in a future blog post.)

The second piece of license plate art I saw recently was in connection with the famous typographer and designer Jessica Hische. Her work is featured at the cleverly named website, http://jessicahische.is/awesome/.

The Society of Design in Pennsylvania recently invited Ms. Hische to speak at an event. In order to create the invitation, they crafted a heartfelt message. Then 35 members of the society each bought a personalized license plate with a piece of the message. The text was broken up as follows, notice the lack of cute abbreviations:

DEAR JES | SICA PLE | ASE CONS | IDER VIS

ITING SO | CIETY OF | DESIGN I | N PENNSY

LVANIA A | ND SHARI | NG CAPTI | VATING A

ND AMAZI | NG TYPOG | RAPHIC W | ORK THAT

WILL AMA | ZE ASTON | ISH MOTI | VATE AND

PROVE TO | BE BENEF | ICIAL TO | AN ENORM

OUSLY LA | RGE CROW | D THANKS

You can read about the project and see a photo of the actual invitation at http://invitinghische.com/.

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The historian Edward Tenner has posted an article on The Atlantic Aug 2010 that describes the work of Tim Brookes on the Endangered Alphabets Project. As some of you know, I am a lover of calligraphy and  good typography. So I just have to put in a plug for this project. You can contribute to the Endangered Alphabets Project by going to Kickstarter and making a pledge.

There are literally thousands of rare languages that are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people each. Many more are already lost and nobody remembers them. Many of these languages also had their own written alphabets (or more accurately, scripts).

Mr. Brookes is a writer and a calligrapher/sculptor who is attempting to preserve many of these rare scripts by carving text into blocks of curly maple, a beautiful tree wood that grows near his home in Vermont. An example of Manchu is shown below. Manchu is one of the written languages derived from the Mongolian script. It is written vertically from top to bottom with the columns running left to right. Characters in a word are joined in a  cursive style with spaces between the words. Diacritical marks are used to clarify pronunciation. (Think of it as Arabic rotated counterclockwise 90 degrees.)

Manchu-vertical-smaller

Manchu carved in curly maple. Image from the Endangered Alphabets Project

The Endangered Alphabets Project consists of 14 carvings. Each carving is in a different rare language (Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh and Nombut) but all composed of the same text, Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of the United Nations.

As Mr. Brookes notes, “The irony, of course, is that many of these forms of writing are endangered precisely because human beings do not always act towards one another in that spirit.”

Although these languages may disappear in their spoken form, their written forms may continue to live on. Each of these written scripts are described within the Unicode system of computer text encoding.

[Update: Added hyperlinks to language names.]

There is a quote attributed to Frederic Goudy, “Anyone who would letterspace blackletter would steal sheep.” Mr. Goudy felt that the glyphs in Gothic script fonts which are intended to mimic handwritten text, were already perfectly spaced and that it would be a crime to adjust that spacing.

James Felici is one of the world’s leading experts on good typography. But this week’s issue of CreativePro contains an amusingly ironic lesson in bad typography.

Someone, probably not Mr. Felici, tagged all of his HTML special characters and replaced all of his apostrophes with the escape code ‘ which is wrong. It should have been ’ which is the right single quote. ‘ is the escape code for an apostrophe in XML, not HTML. This leaves the text of his article riddled with code. The ironic example is in the middle of his section about the incorrect use of straight quotes shown below.

If you view the page using browsers that interpret XML and display it as HTML, the page will look fine. Specifically, if you use the Firefox, Chrome, or Safari browsers (I didn’t actually check Chrome), it will display as an apostrophe. But if you use Internet Explorer, as over half the population does, then it looks pretty darn ugly. It’s a crime I tell you.

BadPunctuation    Image from CreativePro using Internet Explorer 8

Today’s Tech. Rev. describes an epaper technology developed by Nemoptic that the company hopes will be cheap and efficient enough to be used as disposable unit price tags, replacing the ubiquitous paper unit price tags currently used on store shelves. Very cool.

unitpriceexample

A paper unit price tag. Image from getrichslowly.org

About 20 years ago, I came up with an idea for wireless shelf tags (just the concept, with no idea how to build a working prototype) and showed it to my mother, who was a manager in a supermarket at the time. Given prices and technology at the time, my thought was the tags would be permanent, not disposable and would require an external power source. I explained to my mother the labor savings from having a tag that could be updated without requiring a clerk to print and attach it. I also explained how the tags would always display the same price as the scanner at the cash register because both would get price information from the same database. (This doesn’t necessarily mean the price is correct though, just consistent.)

Her reaction was interesting.

First, she wanted to know how the tags would be attached to the shelf. I said probably with a couple of screws. She explained to me that the tags had to be easily moved as shelf space needs changed. This is easy to do with paper tags with the current plastic tag holder. She was afraid that securing electronic tags to the shelf would make it too hard to move them.

Then she said the biggest problem with paper tags is not that they need to be updated. It was that they constantly need to be replaced because they are stolen by customers. Really!

Even if my electronic tags were screwed to the shelf and were useless when disconnected from the shelf, they would be an irresistible target for malicious thieves. My mother said that sometimes the only difference between a profitable store and a money losing one (in the same chain) was the amount of shrinkage. So preventing theft and damage is a key consideration in selecting materials used in a retail environment.

In response, I proposed replacing the tag with a bar the full width of the shelf. That way it would never have to be moved. The clerks would “move” a price tag by sliding it along the bar. She then asked how durable the display bar would be. Even if customers couldn’t steal them, she was sure some would attempt to pull them off the shelves.

She also wanted to know how a clerk would move a tag from one shelf to another and how much training the clerks would require to do this. And she wanted to know, how would clerks prevent malicious customers from watching them and then copying those actions themselves throughout the store. The user interface and security issues stopped me from pursuing the idea further.

The advantage of the paper shelf tags was that they were easy to move and cheap to replace. Factors like easy to update and absolute accuracy were not important to her. So even if disposable epaper unit price tags are less expensive than paper ones, they may cost more to implement, if customers take them and you need more of them.

I read the news today, oh boy. The Mainichi Daily News carried two stories describing the end of two unrelated eras. The first story is that the Kabuki-Za Theater in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward had its final performance today after 59 years. A crowd of people stood and stared.

1646   Photo from Mainichi Daily

The second story was not entirely unexpected. But still the news was rather sad. Sony, the inventor of the 3.5-inch floppy disk, which isn’t very floppy, announced it would discontinue sales of the disks in Japan by the end of its fiscal year, in March 2011. As a longtime Mac user, and a Lisa user before that, I mourn the passing of this classic format. But I admit 30 years is an amazingly long run for any single format in the computer industry. (Just let me dig out my old SyQuest cartridges from the basement.)

sony-floppy-discs-vertical    Photo from CBC

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When I was working on the college newspaper, we made the transition from outsourced punched tape typesetting to in-house computerized typesetting using a Compugraphic machine on campus. Prior to having a Compugraphic machine available, we sent all of our copy to a print shop across town. They generated yards of punched tape and fed it into the photoimager to generate the galleys which were then developed. The whole place reeked of photographic fixer. Then, if there were any changes, we had to set additional lines of type and used X-Acto knives and wax to cover over the older lines. Sometimes, if you were in a hurry, you just dug through the pile of scrap galleys and cut out individual letters or words and pasted them into place.

Using the Compugraphic wasn’t much different. You still couldn’t edit stories after they were saved to the 8-inch floppy disks. However, it was a bit easier to request a new printout of a story that contained the one or two lines with your desired change. The real improvement was it saved the drive across town, a major concern on days it snowed, or when finals were coming up. Ah, those were the days.

My friend Carol Borthwick sent me a link to 20 photographs of vintage computers featured in Time. The photographs are by Mark Richards, who has a book out entitled Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.

CoreMemory    Image from Amazon.com

Most of those pictures are for devices that are before my time. So maybe you want more recent images of the 10 worst keyboards of all time as judged by PCWorld in 2007. It’s amazing to see how much variation there was in the past for something that is so standardized today.

WorstKeyboards  Image from PCWorld

But of course why dwell on the quaintness or horrors from the past. At the other end of the scale is a brand new computer keyboard that does everything. The Optimus Maximus keyboard has an OLED screen on the top of each of its 113 keys. Each key-top screen is programmable so that it can display a variety of images, or even video at 10 frames per second. And it’s yours for only $2,400.

OptimusMaximus

Video from ThinkGeek

There are actually some practical uses for a keyboard that has programmable key labels. First, if you like to use keyboard shortcuts or are unable to use a mouse because of a disability, then having the feature list appear when you press a modifier key like Shift, Alt (Option on a Mac), AltGr, Ctrl, Windows (Command on a Mac), or Function would really aid in recall of the features available.

Second, if you customize key bindings, which someone who uses keyboard shortcuts a lot does, then being able to modify the key label would be helpful to remind you which key is associated with which command. It would also serve as a notification to a guest user that the keys have been mapped in a nonstandard way.

Third, if you are bilingual and often type in another language you may discover that you need two keyboards, one for each language’s keyboard layout, and switch between them. Alternatively, you can stick with the keyboard for your primary language and use a character map utility to find and insert characters needed for your secondary language but not available on the keyboard of your primary language. Using either method is a big hassle. Having a keyboard with programmable key labels would allow you to use a single keyboard and switch mappings to enter text for both languages easily and conveniently.

Finally, in the very rare case that you are a professional software tester specializing in internationalization and localization or a prodigious multilingual savant, then you can switch between all the available keyboards in the world and type every Unicode character without switching between physical keyboards.

Of course, keyboards will be obsolete soon, if you believe the leaders of the natural user interface (NUI) movement. We’ll soon be using gestures and voice to interact with computers. So this whole blog entry is moot.