Generalized fonts

Before going on with this exploration of “chess fonts”, it might be worth thinking about how this concept of fonts generalizes to other areas of everyday life. In furniture, dishware, utensils, and anywhere else where we find a set of designed objects, there is a kind of “font semantics”.

Within any such set there are traits that clearly distinguish one member of the set from the others — the spoon is different from the knife is different from the fork — yet if the objects are well designed, there is no question that each object belongs within the set.

I’m sure you’ve all had the experience, when putting away dishes or utensils, of needing to put different sets with their own kind — this drawer for the fancy silver, the other drawer for the everyday stuff. Whenever you do this you are actually mentally analyzing somebody’s design of a generalized font.

Even the characters in South Park and The Simpsons are examples of a kind of generalized font design, as are Lego characters and the Na’vi in Avatar. It would be interesting to implement this generalized notion of fonts as a set of transformational filters, which would allow us to, say, start with the Na’vi version of a given person, and from that generate the Simpsons version.

The protean pawn

In order to build different chess set “fonts”, first we need to understand what are the different visual parts of a chess piece.

Today I deconstructed the virtual pawn I had yesterday constructed, and I discovered that the pawn has five distinct such parts. For want of better words, these might be called (moving from bottom to top) the base, skirt, stem, collar and head.

The image below shows the pawn with skirt and collar missing. If you click on the image, you are taken to a Java applet that allows you to remove and replace each of the pawn’s five visual parts.

Variation in chess fonts is going to largely come down to making sure that corresponding parts are varied consistently for every piece. For example, changing the skirt of the pawn should produce a corresponding change in the skirt of the bishop.


I also think “The Protean Pawn” would make a hell of a great name for a bar. 🙂

Chess fonts, continued

I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, and try to create a space of chess fonts.

As a first step I tried out my new interactive geometry modeler to design one pawn. Below you can see a screen shot of the result.

Now I need to (1) create the other five types of chess piece, and (2) parameterize everything so that an entire family of chess sets can be explored interactively by varying sliders.

Chess fonts

Today I passed by the various shops on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village that sell chess sets. These shops are truly extraordinary. You can get all the variations on Staunton and other traditional chess sets, abstract minimalist, as well as Alice in Wonderland, Civil War, Tolkien, Dinosaurs, or just about any theme you can think of.

I had passed by these shops many times before, but for some reason today my first thought was of my little 3D printer at home, and the possibility of using it to design and print out my own chess set.

This created a chain of thoughts in my head, centering around the fact that once you have a 3D printer, much of design moves from a hardware problem to a software problem. All the major decisions about design are made in a computer simulation, at the end of which you essentially just hit “print”.

And it occurred to me that it would be an interesting exercise to create software to design chess sets, as well as families of chess sets, much as we now design text fonts and families of text fonts. In particular, one could create a software tool for designing chess sets, so that you could do the two opposing things that are important for font design: (1) Allowing for global changes that affect all chess pieces, in which common design decisions are applied to every piece (e.g.: make every piece taller and slimmer, or add weight to the base, or move the narrowest point of the stem higher up), and (2) Allowing for custom changes to any individual piece (e.g.: the knight) that nonetheless remain consistent with the overarching design parameters that categorize your chess set.

Once designing chess sets is moved to software, all of this becomes more practical. Essentially, just as we now have families of text fonts, we could have families of chess fonts.

Where everybody knows your name

I was having lunch yesterday with a friend who works at Google, and he was saying that one of the things he likes about their Google+ product is its requirement that you use your real name.

This is in marked contrast to some other social network products in which you can adopt an alias that disguises your true identity.

These differing policies can lead to very different user behavior patterns. For example, the extreme trolling that goes on in comments at YouTube (ironically also now owned by Google) is quite likely tied to the anonymity of the commenters. I suspect that many of those comments would not be so aggressively nasty (or in some cases, just plain stupid) if the commenter’s identity were known.

In a sense, the sort of smaller scale but more collegial conversations on Google+ are reminiscent of the early days of the internet, when the number of people on-line was relatively small, and there was therefore a kind of mutual trust that is now lacking in the wild west that the internet has become.

When my friend pointed out this property of Google+, I told him that it reminded me of the theme song for “Cheers” written in 1982 by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

So there you have it, the wisdom of social networks reiterating the wisdom of television.

Also, a neat framing of the two sides of freedom: Anonymity provides ultimate freedom of action. Yet in any community where you are anonymous, you can never enjoy the freedom of feeling at home.

The New York Times renounces the scientific method

I was astonished to see the following letter in today’s NY Times, which I herewith print in its entirety:

To the Editor:

I have no idea whether humans are contributing substantially to global warming, and I agree with those who say we should plan “as if” because not to take steps could be catastrophic if writers like James Hansen prove to be correct. But consider one of his claims: “Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real.”

Here’s a news flash: European scientists in the 15th century agreed that the earth was the center of the universe. That didn’t make it true.

Warren, N.J., May 10, 2012

Let’s think a moment about what this letter is actually saying. Supposed Mr. Thomas had made precisely the same assertion, but had used slightly different phrasing:

Science in the 21st century can be thought of as being essentially the same as science in the 15th century.

It is doubtful that such a bizarre claim would have been published in the Times. After all, the scientific method as we know it was not even practiced in Europe until the 17th century — two hundred years after the era in question.

I’m not faulting Mr. Thomas. He is entitled to be a crank, and to write nutty letters about whatever notion enters his head.

But it is inexcusable that the editors of what claims to be the “newspaper of record” are so intellectually lazy that they would publish a letter like this.

New games

I heard today that Rovio, maker of the hit game Angry Birds, has just come out with a new educational game. This makes me happy. These people clearly understand how to create compelling games. Having their expert level of game design at work in the educational space will, no matter how things turn out, raise the entire enterprise to a higher level.

I’ve also heard through an anonymous source on the inside that other innovative educational games may be in the pipeline. Here are a few:

Angry Words: A fun game in which young children learn principles of modern speech by smashing words against various sentence structures. The player advances in the game by progressively destroying the structure of English grammar, and eventually even words themselves. The underlying educational process is also known as “lrng 2 txt”.

Angry Bards:The player learns about questions of authorship in Elizabethan drama by playing a first person shooter in which a heavily armed William Shakespeare has it out with Francis Bacon, the 6th Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford. In the game, Marlowe is hard drinking and cynical, Bacon wields a giant meat cleaver, Oxford pounds opponents with his dictionary (Volumes I and II, unabridged), whereas Derby relies entirely on the razor sharp edge of his hat — which with a flick of his wrist will slice off the head of a rival playwright and then return to his grasp. The game culminates in a scene of bloodshed and mayhem, during which one of the non-player characters manages to say “We few, we happy few…” before his head is sliced neatly off at the neck.

Angry Kurds:In this immersive role-playing game, the player learns about the history of Middle Eastern geopolitics, and why it can really really suck to be an ethnic minority.

I understand there are many other games in the educational pipeline as well, including Angry Nerds, Angry Brads (special Hollywood edition), and the hugely anticipated Hunger Birds. But I think this has been quite enough for one day.


There were two moments
One passed unnoticed, the other fairly screamed.

Yet each one led to everything that followed.

In time the world forgot this misbegotten wound
As time and distance did their necessary work.

Yet anyone was there could still remember

That there were two moments
The one they talked about, and the one

The other one, never talked about.

You, who will never say the words,
Who can worship only frozen time,

Who believes all has been forgotten,

Are not innocent, any more
Than I.

For there were two moments,

The one seen by the world, and
The other one, seen only in your eyes

And reflected, I confess, in mine.

Rocks in the head

My sister, who is an expert in geophysics, was talking today about the three stages of rock — igneous (when the rock is fresh out of the volcano), sedimentary (when time and pressure have started forming the rock into layers), and metamorphic (after so much time and pressure have accumulated that the rock is completely hardened). I found my mind wandering to three similar words that could be used to describe the ways we experience pleasure at different stages of our lives.

When we are young and hot headed, our pleasure is intense and immediate, because it comes from not knowing any better. This is our age of ignorant pleasures.

As time passes, and layer upon layer of obligation have begun to accumulate, we find ourselves settling down under the increasing weight of life. This is our age of sedentary pleasures.

Finally, after much more time has passed, we are able to achieve true permanence and solidity. Alas, by that time, all pleasure has become metaphoric.

By the light of the moon

When I was a very small child there was an ad on TV, I was far to young to know what it was for, that featured a young mother reading aloud to her child. Her voice was beautiful and haunting, and these were the words she said:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
      The moon,
      The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

I did not know the meanings of all the words, but I loved the sound of ‘mince’, and of ‘slices of quince’, and I long pondered the great mystery of how a spoon could be runcible. It was clear, whoever these dancing people were, that they were very happy.

It would be quite a few years before I learned that “they” were an owl and a pussycat very much in love, and that I was hearing the work of Edward Lear, born 200 years ago today.

The feeling I had as a small child hearing these magical words, learning that there can be deep and powerful meaning even in the sound of things, has never left me. I suspect it contributed to my love of poetry, and perhaps even a bit to my love of the moon. I also suspect that the work of Edward Lear has had a similarly profound and lovely effect on the minds and souls of children for many generations.

Happy birthday Mr. Lear, and thank you.