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Bill Hill, digital typography and e-book pioneer, died Wednesday.
October 20, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Bill Hill, digital typography and e-book pioneer, died Wednesday. A pioneer in using science to explain how our brains let us read, he was at Microsoft in the 1990s, and was one the inventors of ClearType, a technology for improving online reading on Windows. His passionate and entertaining lectures include Homo Sapiens 1.0 (transcript) which advocated that programmers need to learn as much about how their user's brains work rather than just OSes and programming languages, Why you only need one space after a period and the section of that talk on Why underlining hurts your brain. He died Wednesday from a heart attack.
posted by Berkun (42 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sadly, 3 semesters of touch typing 30 years ago plus many more years working on non-computer keyboards (I believe the archaic term is "typewriter") has the two spaces after a period thing so firmly ingrained in me that I cannot not do it. Thank goodness for search and replace I can run after I'm done typing something up for things which require adherence to stylebook stuff.

In any case, Bill Hill was awesome, and he did a lot that most of us don't even think about. We don't see many of his sort, and he will be missed.

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posted by hippybear at 10:37 AM on October 20, 2012


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the Forbes link is borked.
posted by HumanComplex at 10:44 AM on October 20, 2012


That's really more an argument against using two spaces after a period for full-justified text, which is itself another argument entirely.

I use two spaces. That's what you do. That's how you distinguish the end of a sentence from an abbreviation. Formatting syntax should always reduce ambiguity.
posted by kafziel at 10:45 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


It hurts my brain to see the link for "Why underlining hurts your brain" being underlined, even if it is incorrect.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2012


What a character - and fantastic speaker.
posted by rotifer at 10:49 AM on October 20, 2012


[Corrected Forbes and Youtube links, added title to front of main post for clarity, carry on.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:55 AM on October 20, 2012


Thanks for the post, Berkun -- I have learned much of what he taught without knowing where it came from.
posted by theredpen at 10:56 AM on October 20, 2012


"That's how you distinguish the end of a sentence from an abbreviation."

YES.

"You have a Ph.D. I hate with great intensity." is not at all the same as "You have a Ph.D. [NEW SENTENCE] I hate with great intensity."

To my last breath from my cold dead hands on my dying day etc. etc.

Also:

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posted by kyrademon at 11:04 AM on October 20, 2012


I hope two-spaces-after-a-period fans note that MetaFilter, inheriting from HTML, collapses any number of spaces to a single space.

*waits to see if everybody will start typing   *
posted by glhaynes at 11:08 AM on October 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


"You have a Ph.D. I hate with great intensity."

Your clarity problems might transcend punctuation.
posted by found missing at 11:13 AM on October 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


..
posted by infini at 11:20 AM on October 20, 2012


Never got to try ClearType, but I loved his writing. Well, I'm glad that he at least got to see his Universal Communicator before he went.

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posted by ignignokt at 11:21 AM on October 20, 2012


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posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on October 20, 2012


MetaFilter, inheriting from HTML, collapses any number of spaces to a single space

Proper text formatting systems place additional whitespace after an end-of-sentence period regardless. (I'd argue that this should be part of the font metrics, really.)
posted by hattifattener at 11:43 AM on October 20, 2012


I assume all these "."s have two spaces after them.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:44 AM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


He will have my eternal gratitude for ClearType and for being one of those rare nerds who obsess because they want to make things better, even if they're better in ways that are imperceptible to the average person.

That said, I disagree with both of the arguments he makes in that YouTube video.

With regards to spacing after a period: there is a semantic difference between a word boundary and a sentence boundary, and I see no reason why that shouldn't be reflected as a syntactical distinction as well. For example, the two-spaces approach makes it easier to distinguish abbreviations, acronyms, etc. that are in the middle of a sentence from those that terminate it.

As for underlining, his argument that underlining is bad because it "breaks the word shape" seems to be begging the question. A broken shape in a sequence of correct ones is visually emphatic. In actuality, proper italics are also "broken" with respect to the original word shape; they add flourishes that are not present in the original glyphs. Having the "slant" effect without changes to the word shape is called "oblique" and it's not considered an ideal way to show emphasis unless no proper italics exist.

An important consequence is that preserving the word shape can make the emphasis easy to miss, especially for people with reading disabilities. So while underlining is certainly ugly, it's often better when emphasizing text on something like a warning label where visibility is more important than aesthetics.

In Hill's honor, . 
posted by Riki tiki at 11:48 AM on October 20, 2012


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posted by trip and a half at 12:12 PM on October 20, 2012


Is this two spaces after a full stop thing just American? I only came across it when I started hanging out online with septics, and the idea that not only is it a thing but that it's a thing people care about is... weird.

However, I am massively interested in the perceptual boundaries of reading and will disentangle those Homo Sapiens 1.0 posts soon. Some recent eye probs have left me unable to read italics or rotated text, and also put some fonts into the v. hard category (including Courier, which remains a retro fave of quite a few sites I used to enjoy reading).
posted by Devonian at 12:20 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some recent eye probs have left me unable to read italics or rotated text, and also put some fonts into the v. hard category (including Courier, which remains a retro fave of quite a few sites I used to enjoy reading).

Many web browsers will let you determine what font is used to display text, overriding anything the style sheet may want to serve you. If those don't work, there are probably plugins which will do the same thing. I don't know of any, but someone here on the Blue might, or a bit of Googling will probably lead you directly to them.
posted by hippybear at 12:27 PM on October 20, 2012


Courier also makes your term papers look longer, true story.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:12 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


..
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 1:58 PM on October 20, 2012


If the United States Government, the European Union, the Canadian Government, the Associated Press, Oxford University, the University of Chicago and Bill Hill suggest that you use a single space after the end of a sentence, I'm going to use a single space.

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posted by helicomatic at 2:51 PM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can't remember which conference it was–possibly ISTE or NECC–but I got to hear him give a keynote. He spoke about ClearType, the brain, and learning. He was engaging and entertaining. I'm sorry he's gone.

On the single or double space after a period controversy, my copy editor finally broke me of two spaces about two years ago and I don't miss the extra space at all. In fact, two spaces now looks excessive to me–a crevasse for my eyes to jump across. Regardless, I love that there are people who think deeply about such things.

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He also had a kick-ass brogue.
posted by smirkette at 2:59 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


• RIP, Sir.
posted by bz at 3:28 PM on October 20, 2012


Alas, I cannot double-favorite your comment.

Double-spacing after a period is a work-around for primitive authoring systems. Whenever I hear someone arguing for double-spacing I imagine them twirling a ridiculous mustache with one hand, holding a monocle in the other, while dressed in the very best steam-punk outfit money can buy.
posted by device55 at 4:05 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm a two-spacer forever. It's hard-wired into my nervous system, and I am absolutely convinced that I couldn't change it without some kind of active shock feedback mechanism... and it would take one hell of a lot of batteries. And, as others are pointing out, it's easy to render "period plus two spaces" as "period plus one space", should you wish, but if you ever DO want two spaces, you can't go the other way. It's lossy compression.

ClearType is awesome, and it's very interesting how the design goals differed from Apple's. ClearType is designed for screen legibility. It will change the shapes of letters somewhat, if necessary, to get them to align with pixel borders properly. Apple's version of font aliasing is oriented first and foremost around preserving letter shapes.

So, if you want to read text on a Windows machine, it will often be noticeably sharper than on OS X, at least on normal resolution screens. (the new high-dpi screens are making this much less relevant.) But if you then print the document out, and hold it up next to the screen, it will look somewhat different. So if you're doing design work to go onto a printed page, you can't quite trust the Windows screen rendition. OS X will be a little blurrier, but the letter shapes will be right, and what you see on screen will closely match what you get on paper.

Myself, I'm in the Windows camp on this one; I don't print very much, and I certainly don't do it professionally. But I read text a lot, so I love the design goals of ClearType. It matches my use of a computer exactly. If, however, I were a print professional, I'd have the exact opposite opinion.

So, sir, to whatever degree you're responsible for the design goals and implementation of ClearType, I thank you. It was a giant leap forward in the legibility of computer screens, and it cost us consumers almost nothing to implement.

Man, once upon a time, operating system companies actually genuinely cared about customer benefit, enough to hire guys like this. Imagine.
posted by Malor at 4:19 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


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posted by liza at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2012


MetaFilter, inheriting from HTML, collapses any number of spaces to a single space

“Well, HTML does it” is not a particularly convincing argument.

I, for one, like my authoring systems, primitive or otherwise. In non-WYSIWYG environments, two-spacing makes a great deal of sense. Steve Losh covers the for and against.
To recap, the arguments for single-spacing are:
  1. Two-spacing is ugly in proportional fonts.
  2. It’s less work to press the space bar once instead of twice.
  3. It’s pretty much arbitrary anyway, so why bother with two?
Number 1 is irrelevant, because writing and rendering are (except in trivial cases) two orthogonal activities.

Number 2 isn’t very convincing.

Number 3 is false, because two-spacing gives you two advantages over one-spacing:
  1. It looks better in your editor.
  2. It gives you more power when editing and parsing.
posted by zamboni at 6:57 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Everything zamboni said.

That said, the second space isn't like the oxford comma. It's not wrong to use one space, it's just significantly less right.
posted by kafziel at 7:01 PM on October 20, 2012


The only study I turned up (er, which I found linked from wikipedia) failed to measure a statistically significant difference in reading speed between 1, 2, and 3(!)-spaced periods. If that's the case, then it's a matter of preference and common practice. Personally, my preference is for LaTeX-style in proportional fonts and two spaces in monospaced fonts (which, being a neckbeard, I still use extensively in my daily life). In proportional fonts, I don't know whether my preference is for 1-space or 2-space, if those are my only choices.

The only study I turned up (er, which I found linked from wikipedia) failed to measure a statistically significant difference in reading speed between 1, 2, and 3(!)-spaced periods. If that's the case, then it's a matter of preference and common practice. Personally, my preference is for LaTeX-style in proportional fonts and two spaces in monospaced fonts (which, being a neckbeard, I still use extensively in my daily life). In proportional fonts, I don't know whether my preference is for 1-space or 2-space, if those are my only choices. (paragraph with unicode "EN QUAD" space at end of each sentence)

The only study I turned up (er, which I found linked from wikipedia) failed to measure a statistically significant difference in reading speed between 1, 2, and 3(!)-spaced periods.  If that's the case, then it's a matter of preference and common practice.  Personally, my preference is for LaTeX-style in proportional fonts and two spaces in monospaced fonts (which, being a neckbeard, I still use extensively in my daily life).  In proportional fonts, I don't know whether my preference is for 1-space or 2-space, if those are my only choices.  (paragraph with space + html non-breaking space at end of each sentence)
posted by jepler at 8:23 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Prior to that snarky summary at the end of that Steve Losh piece is a lengthy diatribe about the power of the double space when used with arcane vim commands and how "text editors", i.e. highly technical tools used by programmers and other technicians, use monospace fonts.

This is classic nerd fallacy - the assumption that the needs of one's highly technical, specific, edge case scenario has any implication for, or relevance to, the world at large. See also: non-removable iphone batteries.

I'll bet the overlapping region of the venn diagram showing people who double space after a period and people who indent their code with spaces is huge.
posted by device55 at 9:34 PM on October 20, 2012


If the United States Government, the European Union, the Canadian Government, the Associated Press, Oxford University, the University of Chicago and Bill Hill suggest that you use a single space after the end of a sentence, I'm going to use a single space.

Now, about the serial comma . . .
posted by stopgap at 9:58 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those institutions have differing opinions on the serial comma.
posted by helicomatic at 10:11 PM on October 20, 2012


Single verses double was a big pain when I was in school. Typing class hammered double spacing into my head, but it's impossible to double space on the Linotype in the print shop. But that was nothing compared to that damned keyboard... Thanks etaoin.

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posted by Marky at 10:49 PM on October 20, 2012


I loved how sharp ClearType made on-screen text in Windows (all hail Bill Hill for helping the Windows platform display type better than it used to—I’m looking at you, early Windows XP *cough* *cough*). Then I got a Mac, and for the first few weeks hated how fuzzy the fonts looked—I do a lot of page layout production art, so on-screen type is important to me (admittedly, much of my work really relies on Adobe’s rasterizer!). After a while, though, the Mac way of rasterizing fonts started to look normal, so that when I went into Windows and looked at a Web page, my thought was, “Gee, why is Georgia [my default browser font] looking so spindly?” (It’s amazing how quickly we get used to “the new normal,” as it were.)

Although I learned two-spacing from my typewriting classes in high school, when I switched to typesetting on the old Varityper and Compugraphic film-and-early-digital machines, I quickly learned how to one-space. I suppose for those of us steeped in the old typographic rules, one-spacing comes naturally, whereas if all you’ve ever heard is your high-school typewriting instructor drilling you on the two-space rule, and you haven’t been exposed to the finer points of typographical theory, then two-spacing rules. As long as you’re not typesetting for publication, it doesn’t really bother me; I’m not going to critique people’s e-mails or Facebook posts as to their after-period-spacing preferences!

Bill Hill was a genius, no doubt about it, and not just in matters typographical. That Homo Sapiens 1.0 lecture was great.

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posted by kentk at 11:31 PM on October 20, 2012


Prior to that snarky summary at the end of that Steve Losh piece is a lengthy diatribe about the power of the double space when used with arcane vim commands and how "text editors", i.e. highly technical tools used by programmers and other technicians, use monospace fonts.

This is classic nerd fallacy - the assumption that the needs of one's highly technical, specific, edge case scenario has any implication for, or relevance to, the world at large.


Well, the separation of writing and rendering has many benefits, not least of which is complete control of the presentation of semantic elements and the ability to present the same material in many formats trivially. If you write any quantity of words, for any reason, you should consider learning a good "text editor" in order to "edit" "text." You might be surprised by the difference in productivity.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:33 AM on October 21, 2012


I was raised to double-space, but then, I was raised on manual typewriters, then electric, then Selectrics, then those fucking awful nightmare Daisywheel shit typewriters that made noises out of sync with your typing so you'd constantly be dancing with one shorter leg because goddammit, those things were like replacing Jean-Pierre Rampal's flute with a wax paper and a comb with three missing teeth. On the latter two, I typed one space, because they used proportional spacing.

Then, I was on a computer, writing on Apple Writer on an Apple ][ plus that didn't render lower case SO EVERYTHING WAS UPPER CASE, EXCEPT FOR UPPER CASE, WHICH WAS RENDERED INVERTED AND EVERYTHING PRINTED OUT IN UGLY BUZZING NOT-REMOTELY-PROPORTIONAL BLOCK FONTS ON AN EPSON MX-100 ON GREENBAR PAPER, so I double-spaced.

Now, I double-space when I'm working on a draft on my lovely Hermes 2000 manual, and I single-space when, say, I'm rambling on the internet or working on my collection of unpublished books. I'm not sure why people dig in so hard on this one, other than that we all tend to believe that things were always better before and now everyone's just a damn philistine.

I used to drive Saabs, and they had this amazing little gizmo called a "freewheel," which is common in things like bicycles, but hasn't really been a major of cars for a long, long time. It was essentially a little knot of engineering that meant that, while you were accelerating, the freewheel would engage and the engine would drive the wheels, whereas when you let off the gas, you'd coast. This was a feature in the days when Saabs (and their DKW ancestors) were powered by two-stroke engines that were only lubricated when a mixture of fuel and oil were flowing. When coasting down a hill, the engines would get zero lubrication and live shorter, unhappier lives, so the freewheel let you coast without frying your engine.

In Saab's case, the freewheel lived on after the two-stroke engines were replaced with a nice little V4 supplied by Ford of Germany, partly because they didn't feel like redesigning the transmission to reflect the new engine, but mostly because they knew that the Saab traditionalists would freak the hell out (see also BMW Motorrad's attempt to replace the boxer). So they invented new reasons why the freewheel was a good thing for the marketing department—Improves Fuel Economy! Makes Gearshifting A Snap! Quieter Cruising!—and so the weird old workaround became a "feature."

It was fun to drive on the freewheel, of course. Couldn't drive anyone else's car without crashing, grinding gearshifts, because "sorry, I forgot you can shift normal cars like this" and so forth, and would occasionally have a lurch before I remembered that just letting off the gas in a non-Saab would make you suddenly slow down. Fun, but not much use beyond the joy of the gimmick.
posted by sonascope at 8:48 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the separation of writing and rendering has many benefits, not least of which is complete control of the presentation of semantic elements and the ability to present the same material in many formats trivially. If you write any quantity of words, for any reason, you should consider learning a good "text editor" in order to "edit" "text." You might be surprised by the difference in productivity.

I use text editors and IDEs for programming and similar tasks - for those tasks monospaced type makes a lot of sense. It allows for advanced features like block editing, nicer formatting (with indented code) and, as suggested by the Losh article, allows for easier programatic text parsing when needed.

I write all of my notes, blog articles, docs, etc in Markdown formatted text in a plain text editor. I do use a proportional font for prose-like things, simply for my own readability. Code and prose are different things; I use different tools. So I'm well aware of the benefits you speak of. Double-spacing after a period might be a useful syntactic trick for specific use-cases, but it's bad practice in the general case.

Remember also, that most people don't write 'any quantity of words' - they write text messages, tweets, facebook statuses and comments, and emails. In these cases syntactic sugar is useless. Grammar is barely required. The "long form" things most people write are business letters, résumés, memos, and other office documents which, for most cases, don't exist outside of their strict format and presentation. They're documents, not writing.

Arguing for double-spacing after periods in general use is like claiming you can't make brownies at home without a centrifuge.
posted by device55 at 9:16 AM on October 21, 2012


"You have a Ph.D. I hate with great intensity." is not at all the same as "You have a Ph.D. [NEW SENTENCE] I hate with great intensity."

Right. Where's the object to form a complete sentence?
I hate with great intensity [the Ph.D. you have.]

If we're talking formal writing styles...


Screw the double space. Now if you want to talk about affecting meaning, let's fight for that serial comma. Tom, Bob and Bill split $300 does not equal Tom, Bob, and Bill split $300. Give Bob and Bill that lawyer's comma every time. I am always reminded of the millionaire's will. The will stated that the inheritance of the money would be left to his children Tom, Bob and Bill. Tom sued successfully for 50% of the inheritance because it was written specifically "Bob and Bill" as if they were one person.
I'd like to kiss Paul, an officer and a gentleman doesn't equal I'd like to kiss Paul, an officer, and a gentleman. 1/3 more kisses!

Actually, I always make my brownies with a centrifuge.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:18 PM on October 21, 2012


Double spacing--what about those ugly 'rivers' of white space down the page, eh? Eh?
posted by BlueHorse at 1:27 PM on October 21, 2012


Knuth (see my previous comment) writes that he originally intended to add a term to TeX's dynamic-programmed line-break algorithm to discourage rivers, but he discovered that optimally broken paragraphs tended not to have rivers anyway. So he didn't add an extra penalty.

These conversations always depress me: it's not that we don't know how to make computers produce beautiful, readable text; it's that we choose not to do so.
posted by hattifattener at 8:35 PM on October 21, 2012


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