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Brainiac

The type detective

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
November 14, 2010

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The British prime minister’s house, 10 Downing St., isn’t much to look at from the outside, and photos often focus on the somber front door with its iconic number 10. Unfortunately, the 10 is “unaccountably crude in its design,” “historically badly informed,” and clearly painted by “a barely competent signwriter,” according to type historian James Mosley, who writes typographical criticism on his blog, Typefoundry.

Mosley points out the numbers are very widely spaced, and the zero is actually just the letter O turned slightly on its side. It’s often said that the bizarre lettering is “traditional,” but, by examining archival photographs, Mosley shows that the crooked zero was just a mistake made during the 1960-63 renovation of the building, probably by a rushed contractor who had fallen behind schedule and didn’t have a proper zero on hand. Raymond Erith, the architect of the renovated 10 Downing, called the result “beastly.”

Nowadays, of course, it seems that the 10 has always been that way, and its weirdness has a natural, historical feeling. The crooked zero signifies the prime minister’s unassuming nonchalance, and suggests, as Mosley puts it, that “for the last couple of hundred years the prime minister has lived in a modest but comfortable town house in an unpretentious street.” The rushed sign writer might have messed up the door, but he contributed quite a lot to the idea of 10 Downing St. — or to its theme park atmosphere, depending on your point of view.

Mosley, like many typographers, is obsessed with details, like the serifs and slopes of letters; the terrible 10 just rubs him the wrong way. But he’s also an English curmudgeon, offended by the “slickness” of politics, and motivated, as Roland Barthes put it, by “impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.” Everything starts somewhere.

The fully automated argument The weeks between Nov. 2 and Thanksgiving are a special time: With the mid-terms over and Thanksgiving yet to come, there are 22 whole days during which you don’t have to argue about politics and religion. Now Nigel Leck, an Australian software developer, has found a way to make the joy last year-round: He’s written software that automatically argues about global warming over Twitter.

Leck’s “bot” scans Twitter for phrases it associates with skepticism about global warming; it then replies with a relevant scientific article. For example, in response to a Twitter post like “The Earth is warming! It’s cooling! No, wait...,” the bot replies with a link to an article and the assertion that “there is NO ‘global cooling.’ ” In reply to a speculative tweet about the “increasing heat of the sun,” the bot points out that the “Sun’s output has barely changed since 1970 & is irrelevant to recent global warming.” Twitter-based argument is so robotic already that many climate skeptics argue right back, thinking that the bot is a real person with a lot of time on his hands.

Whether you agree or disagree with Leck’s (bot’s) point of view is almost beside the point. The bot reveals the mindlessness of a certain kind of political argument, in which both sides endlessly trade facts, figures, and talking points, neither crediting the other’s sources. The bot might make more of a contribution if, instead of just making assertions, it could use the Socratic method: asking pointed questions and prompting self-examination.

Alas, it also represents the convergence of two trends: the increasing dependence of political discussion on talking points, and the rise of the brief “message” as a form of communication, whether via cellphone, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s hard to have a real dialogue when you can only write 140 characters at a time.

Who invented the paper bag? Who invented the folding paper bag? Over at the Museum of Modern Art’s Inside/Out blog, Aidan O’Connor, a curator of design at the museum, unfolds its history, in response to a reporter who wrote in to question the attribution of a paper bag displayed as part of the museum’s kitchen design exhibit.

MoMA had attributed the paper bag to Charles Stilwell, who is remembered here and there as the “inventor of the self-opening sack.” It turns out, however, that Stilwell’s method of producing the bags drew heavily upon a previous method invented and patented by Margaret Knight. Knight worked at the Columbia Paper Bag Co. in Springfield, Mass., and, O’Connor writes, is “believed to be the first woman to achieve a US patent.”

The whole story is like a time warp back to Industrial Revolution America: The main thing with paper bags, of course, was that they could be produced at unbelievable speed — as many as 3,600 an hour. (One man, George West, was apparently considered the “Paper Bag King.”) Having looked into it, the museum has revised its attribution: The label next to the paper bag in MoMA’s display now credits Stilwell and Knight as co-inventors.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.