12 October 2008

The philosophy and psychology of fonts

Rands of Rands In Repose offers a Nerd Handbook for people conducting relationships with aspies, or at least folks in the foothills of Asperger's. There's a witty little aside about fonts which I really like.
He sees the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable. This is a fragile illusion that your nerd has adopted, but it’s a pleasant one that gets your nerd through the day. When the illusion is broken, you are going to discover that…

Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around with a mouse.

The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality. Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant grid construction where X and Y mean something.

For the uninitiated:

This is an example of a monospaced font in 
action. Notice the way the letters line up; 
this is what most typewriters produced, back 
in the day. Monospaced fonts are useful for 
making ASCII art like this:
___________________ _-_ \==============_=_/ ____.---'---`---.____ \_ \ \----._________.----/ \ \ / / `-_-' __,--`.`-'..'-_ /____ || `--.____,-'

... but being significantly less readable than the proportional fonts that post-Mac computers have made us accustomed to seeing, they're not good for much else. Unless you have a certain frame of mind which requires a certain kind of order.

For the record, I held onto monospaced fonts for my email for a little while — how else could I be sure I was seeing a .sig as intended? — but I'm not geeky enough to use them any more.


Veleda said...

given..i may have inspired this post.. i figured i would respond.

In my world nerd does not equal aspie.

i know and am friends with and consider myself a nerd or geek or what have you.

This is highly different from aspergers..

it is however.. a cute handbook for nerds.

Jonathan Korman said...

Agreed. In my own personal lexicon:

Nerd means someone with intellectual skills and obsessive intellectual interests. Classic interests for nerds include math, science, and computers ... but can also include art history, military strategy, music theory, you name it.

Geek means someone with certain subcultural allegiances that surface in, among other things, an interest in stuff like comic books, computer games, Tolkien, Star Trek, dice & drama, and Japanese animation. Dig a couple of these things and you're not necessarily a geek; many, if not most, folks have a little bit of a soft spot for Star Trek. But you don't have to be into all of it to qualify; if you have a dice bag and a box of back issues of X-Men, it doesn't matter if you think Tolkien is stupid and wouldn't know Totoro from Akira — you're still a geek.

Dork, for completeness, means a certain distinctive style of social ineptitude, á la Napoleon Dynamite.

Asperger's is an actual neurological condition.

Nerd ≠ geek ≠ dork ≠ aspie, though there is a high correlation along all of these axes. (For the record, I count myself nerdy and geeky, but neither a dork nor an aspie ... though to a certain degree I can see aspie from here.)

But in his Handbook, Rands does not use “nerd” in this sense. It seems clear to me that he actually does mean aspies ... or folks within spitting distance of Asperger's.