Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 7, 2023

"New and Improved"

Did you ever return to a website you have visited repeatedly, only to discover it is now "new and improved" ... or at least that is what the site proclaims?

You know what that means. While it might be good news - that doing your business will be easier than in the past - there is a considerable likelihood the opposite will be true. You well may have to relearn how to navigate the site. The phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind.

I understand most readers stop by my column as a small diversion from their daily duties. So as much as I can, I try to keep the design and process as simple and unchanging as possible. But occasionally change is good. I enjoyed publishing my column in the local newspaper, but moving to the internet gave ready access to people far from where I live. It also allowed me to add pictures, something the newspaper often didn't have room for. It is again time for a change.

"What will it be?" I can imagine you asking. What change am I about to thrust on you? The answer is ... drum roll here ... I'm changing the font!

OK, when you quit laughing, I'll explain.

In 1932, the London Times newspaper debuted its new Roman font, so named as it was patterned after one previously used in Italy. Today, that "Times New Roman" has spread to every corner of the globe. Over time, it has been updated such that unusual characters found in non-English languages and many commonly-used mathematical symbols derived from the Greek alphabet now have Times New Roman versions. And, for a person like me who had my origins in the newspaper business, it just seems like a go-to friend.

So if it has stood the test of time, why then would a venerable body like the U.S. Supreme Court ban the use of it? The answer is simple: other fonts have proven to be more legible, particularly for older folks.

And the "Supremes" aren't alone. At the beginning of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken directed the State Department to ditch Times New Roman. The Home Office in Great Britain took the same step more than a year ago. For that matter, the Times newspaper has been quietly modifying the font for years.

Despite their ubiquity, fonts don't just appear out of thin air. People frequently invest a substantial amount of time creating a new one and the results are considered private property, just like a work of art. The Times had been magnanimous. A year after its introduction, the Times made its font freely available. Certainly that helped spur its popularity.

This popular work of art has serifs - a word of uncertain origin, but some feel may have come from the Dutch "schreef," meaning stroke. Serifs are the decorative projections attached to the basic lines of the letters. These additional elements are assumed to be the culprits in making it harder to read than its sans-serif siblings - fonts constructed with just the essential lines.

Since I have no desire to make my own typeface, what should I choose? Nephew Michael, a professional graphic designer, said some of his favorites are Avenir, Futura, Gotham, and DIN.

But there is more at play here than personal favorites. The operating systems of computers, tablets and smart phones are shipped with embedded fonts. Times New Roman will almost certainly be one of those. The most widespread sans-serif font on the internet is Arial, developed first by a team of 10 people at IBM and later sponsored by Microsoft. Good choice!

There ... that was painless.

So what if I chose something someone's tablet doesn't have? The browser, which retrieves and displays the column's characters, will take one it has on board and use it. Does that open the door for the column to look different on different devices? Of course.

If I ask someone to bring me a dozen eggs, I expect to receive 12. But I should be prepared for some to be large, medium or small. Some may be white, while others are brown. In a similar fashion, even if the fonts are the same, different devices with different screen sizes must display the words in different places. The internet, as ubiquitous as it is, retains a great amount of "Wild West" in its bones.

In my column of last week, a few people mentioned they had an overlap problem, where one paragraph was displayed on top of another. Of the computers in use today, 73 percent use the Chrome browser with Apple's Safari coming in second at about 13 percent. Displays are generally set at 1,000 pixels - the pixel or picture element is the smallest item displayed - or more in width. So that is what my columns are designed for. But an older browser, a tablet with a narrower field, or a smart phone with its very small screen may try, but must fail, to solve the riddle of how to display the information in a similar fashion.

Alas, those folks with an overlapping problem were not alone. I was one of them. I have a cute little laptop computer I have used for years. The majority of these columns were written on it. But it is unsuitable for a more modern operating system, thereby eliminating the option of a newer browser as well. I too am paying the price for being out of date.

Art gave me a new computer at Christmas, but I'm still using my old standby. For some time now, for certain things, I have to go to my office to fire up a newer machine. If you, like me, had some problems with the display last week, it's a sign it's time to move on or, as a minimum, be prepared for increasing problems.

I hate to let go of my tried and true companion, but I must. Who knows, there also may be other benefits now unimagined. Maybe the change will make future columns "new and improved" as well!

Three screen-capture segments taken with a digital camera of a portion of last week's column. The top is a modern display driven by a Chrome browser. The transition from the paragraphs next to the picture to those below is normal. The middle image is the same area driven by a Chrome browser on a Samsung cell phone. The browser attempted to display the text beside the image by shifting to a very small font. It still ran over onto the paragraph below. The bottom image is from my long-time literary companion running the Firefox browser.

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