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The Fontastic Stories Behind 5 Common Typefaces

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Every time we read printed material, we’re interacting with a font. It’s easy to take them for granted, but every typeface has an inventor and a story. Let’s take a look at the origins of five common ones.

The ubiquitous typeface that fills our computer screens and books owes its existence to the British newspaper The Times. In 1929, typography expert Stanley Morison had blasted The Times’ printing and typeface for being too difficult to read and aesthetically unpleasing. The paper’s publishers accepted Morison’s criticism and asked him to develop a new face for The Times. Morison collaborated with the paper’s in-house draftsman Victor Lardent to create a new font that became known as Times New Roman.

The new font debuted in The Times on October 3, 1932. The paper held a one-year window of exclusivity on the typeface, and once the font hit the open market it quickly became a favorite of book publishers thanks to its readability.

The widely used typeface began its life with a less melodious name: Neue Haas Grotesk. Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman developed the typeface for Switzerland’s Haas Type Foundry in 1957. The font’s neutral design made it useful in a huge number of applications, but the name wasn’t as marketable. When German company D. Stempel AG began marketing the typeface a few years later, it wanted a fresh name that could be used internationally. The company settled on one that paid tribute to the font’s Swiss roots; Confederatio Helvetica was the Latin name for Switzerland.

The typewriter-esque typeface on your computer was originally a typewriter font. IBM commissioned the typeface from Howard “Bud” Kettler in 1955, but the company failed to secure legal proprietary rights to the font. That oversight meant that when Courier debuted, it was fair game for anyone in the typewriter world to grab and use on their typewriters. It soon became one of the world’s dominant typefaces.

When Kettler was working on the typeface he referred to it as “Messenger.” However, shortly before the font’s release he changed the name to Courier. His reasoning: “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability.”

Not everyone still thinks the typeface radiates dignity and prestige. For years, the U.S. State Department used Courier New 12 as its default font for treaties and other official diplomatic documents. In 2004, the department announced that it was banning Courier from its official documents and replacing it with Times New Roman 14. Although Times New Roman is the older of the two fonts by 23 years, the State Department explained the move by saying the font provided more modern look than Courier.

The much-maligned font favored by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is the creation of former Microsoft designer Vincent Connare. Connare created the font in 1994 as a casual, kid-friendly offering for Microsoft products.

In April 2009, Connare explained the font’s birth to The Wall Street Journal. Microsoft had been designing their user-friendly interface Microsoft Bob, and the test version of the children’s edition included a talking cartoon dog. Connare didn’t like that the words in the dog’s speech bubbles were written in Times New Roman, so he consulted two comic books, The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen, and spent a week working on a new, less stolid font. The font’s name came from the comic-book inspiration and the lack of serifs – small projecting features at the ends of strokes – on most letters.

Over the years, the font has become commonplace in situations where a more serious counterpart would probably have been a better option, and typography nerds love to hate and mock Comic Sans. To Connare’s credit, he seems to get a kick out of the violent hatred of the font. As he said in the aforementioned WSJ story, “If you love it, you don't know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don't know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby.”

As ridiculous as Comic Sans seems now, one of its more absurd little flourishes has fallen by the wayside. The font’s original rendering of the currency symbol for the euro had a small eyeball on the top right of the symbol. Connare has said Microsoft dropped the eyeball after the European Union threatened to sue company over defacing its symbol.

The popular Web font was also the brainchild of Connare. The name springs from a joking conversation about trebuchets, or large medieval catapults, that Connare heard in a cafeteria on Microsoft’s campus. One Microsoft employee asked another, “Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away?”

Connare was almost finished designing the new font and was on the lookout for a good name. When he heard the word trebuchet he said, “I thought that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the Internet.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]