On Writing, Part Two

November 21st, 2005 by Potato

I still have a fair bit of work to do on my thesis, but it is essentially done. That is to say, I’ve written all the important parts, and now I just need to go back and redo my graphs and look up some small details and the like. It’s a pretty big relief. I’ve started sleeping through the night again, stopped hallucinating… all sorts of normal goodness.

Anyway, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days doing formatting, and then last night I was helping Wayfare write a cover letter for a job application. And she went through and put two spaces after every full stop. I asked why she bothered and we got into a big discussion of one space vs two. Turns out it’s a bit of a raging debate elsewhere on the internet, too.

I’ll tell you this: I used to be a two-spacer, myself. It was what they taught us in middle school and even sometimes at the beginning of high school. It makes differentiating any old period and a full stop easier (for example if a sentence were “e.g. the difference between a period and a full stop.” then the dots around the e.g. would not be full stops since they don’t end the sentence).

But then things changed, and computers came along. And let’s face it, two-spacing is a product of the typewriter era. The actual standard is about 1.5 spaces after a period, if you go by what the professional typesetters have been doing all along. And that’s largely accomplished by having the period offset in your font so that there’s already half a space there, and then pressing the spacebar but once to finish it off.

Modern word processors will, for the most part, automagically adjust the kerning to give the appropriate amount of space after a period. Usually that’s done by parsing the text to determine the end of the sentence: if there’s a period not followed by a capital letter, it’s probably an internal period. If it is followed by a capital letter (and not preceeded by an acronym such as Dr. and followed by a proper noun) then it’s probably the end of the sentence. Other software will ignore extra spaces entirely, such as HTML.

I’m also in favour of single-spacing because it meshes better with my typing sytle (no lingering on a space bar double-tap), and because it saves a tiny, tiny amount of bandwidth which can better be used on emoticons :) Also, while a double-space makes differentiating sentences easier, it breaks up paragraphs strangely, with larger-than-normal whitespace gaps appering in your wall of text.

But either way you choose to do it, it’s still a fairly minor thing, and I’m sure most (normal) people never notice one way or the other. I can almost guarantee you Wayfare will read this, shake her head, call me crazy, and continue to hammer out two spaces after every sentence.

Some choice quotes from the Wikipedia discussion on the topic:

Modern proportional fonts have what’s known as a “kerning table” that contains the optimum spacing for every possible combination of adjacent characters (including spaces). When authors create new fonts, they spend a lot of time compiling this information according to the actual shapes of their fonts’ characters. When you stick in an extra space after a sentence, you defeat this wonderful capability the font’s author worked so hard to include. But take heart: You’ve already made the far-more-challenging leap from typewriter to computer. (Well, I assume you have, if you’re reading this.) Learning to drop that anachronistic extra keystroke is child’s play by comparison. I know you can do it! –Ander

Oh, apparently underlining for emphasis is also anachronistic, because italics and bolding are more professional ways of grabbing attention, whereas underlining was all you had available to you with a typewriter. While I still like underlining sometimes, I would generally agree, and it’s by far the most common thing you see in books/newspapers. Plus, it frees up the underline as a way of setting off hyperlinks, which is also a slightly older tradition, but one I quite liked. Any idea where in my WordPress CSS I go to to turn that back on?

Also, does anyone remember the threat of &nbsp? That’s the html code for a non-breaking space, and many WSIWYG HTML editors threw it around like it was free. Someone went through and started taking statistics of how many &nbsp’s were out there relative to regular spaces. Now keep in mind that that’s 4 characters to transmit vs just one for a space. Anyhow, at the time (’99?) his statistics showed that the &nbsp represented something like 15-20% of all spaces, and that at the rate of growth at the time, up to 95% of total content on the internet would solely consist of &nbsp’s. I can’t find that page now, but it was hilarious. He was blaming the &nbsp and lazy WSIWYG webcoders for slowing down his internet connection… this whole double-space thing kind of reminds me of that (especially since people who want two spaces after a period are recommended to use a combination of a normal space and an &nbsp).

Having settled that oddly petty dispute, I was going to go on to discuss how putting your toilet paper in so that it unfurled over-the-top was clearly superior, but it turns out Orson Scott Card already settled that one for me.

Anyhow… back to my usual madness.

For the last little while I’ve been experimenting with what you might call a distributed blog: rather than bothering to put my own up here, I just went around to a few other blogs/forums that I frequent and just took over their comments section. I think the most salient posts went to Netbug’s blog. I leave finding the other, more assorted and random thoughts, as an exercise for the reader.

While writing my actual thesis, I’ve found I’ve essentially gone insane. The stress got to me and I started hallucinating. Not the “hey I just had a wonderful conversation with a garden gnome who tells me that if I hook up a computer to spew my thoughts out to the internet I can save the world”, no, those are happening at about the same rate. I’m talking about the “seeing something flash in the corner of your eye” type hallucinations that anyone who’s ever tried staying awake for more than 36 hours is probably familiar with. At one point I thought I had a stroke since I couldn’t see anything over about a 10° arc just below my centre vision. I called TeleHealth Ontario and everything (who recommended I go to a hospital for treatment. Pssh.). It looks like a blurry region just off center, like a discontinuity in the scroll bar at the bottom of the window, smearing out one or two of the icons on the bottom of my screen, too. It was highly disconcerting, since it’s not nearly as similar to other types of vision spots (such as those from looking at bright lights) as one would hope. It reminds me of a description of looking at things in hyperspace by Larry Niven: it slips out away from your vision, so you can never look directly at it. At the same time I had some other dissociative phenomena, for instance I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror for a few days there. And of course the twitching was back and in a bad way for a while there.

The other crazy thing is that my latent agoraphobia became raging for a while there. If I needed to go in to work, I’d wait until about 2 am and slink in when nobody was there. Thank goodness for the 24-hour A&P!

Anyway, most of that appears to be back under control now that the stress levels have dissipated a bit.

I’m going to leave this entry at that, and just mention that I kind of like this WordPress thing — the setup wasn’t nearly as easy as their website makes it sound, but that was largely due to issues with MySQL and my formatting with CSS (learning by trial-and-error really wasn’t the best approach). The wordpress software itself seems to work well, and I really like the ability to do updates from any computer (like when I’m at my parents’). At first I was worried it wouldn’t be as secure because of that, but I just realized that it’s no less secure than my old webpage was (with the exception that before someone needed an FTP client to mess things up whereas now they just need a web browser).

I had lot of stuff to say sort of built up there while I was waiting to finish my thesis to bring this back up, so don’t expect this pace to continue (3 updates in a day!). For the next few days any updates will likely be backend as I tweak the look and migrate some sections of the old page over. One thing I’m thinking of is getting my .sig compilation and having it cycle through quotes on the top section (rather than having the “Blessed by the Potato” text title, since it’s not necessary with the pretty graphic there). But that would require a plug-in of some sort (possibly a custom one), which I’m not going to worry about now. But remind me in the future if/when I start to learn PHP.

4 Responses to “On Writing, Part Two”

  1. rez Says:

    To change the style of your links in CSS look for “a:link”. That’s the style for a link, and there may also be “a:visited”, “a:hover”, and “a:active”, which I think are pretty self-explanatory.

    I am, and have always been, a two-spacer, myself. The only place I don’t two-space is when coding HTML/PHP. I have considered switching over to one-spacing altogether, but it’s not easy to change such a deep-rooted instinct like double-tapping the space bar at the end of a thought. Your post has inspired me to try to convert, however.

    Who says blogs don’t change lives?

  2. Potato Says:

    Thanks for the help, Rez! Links are now underlined.

    And yes, the fonts did get bigger. I’m old and hard of sight.

    Blogs do change lives, like the one that uncovered the Sony root kit and how terrible the fix for it was… but most blogs don’t :)

  3. Netbug Says:

    “Having settled that oddly petty dispute, I was going to go on to discuss how putting your toilet paper in so that it unfurled over-the-top was clearly superior, but it turns out Netbug’s blog.”

    What? and why does this link to a 404 on OSC’s site?

    “because it saves a tiny, tiny amount of bandwidth which can better be used on emoticons :)” Best debating factoid ever.

    Two spaces bad. Napster bad. One space good!

    PS: You know those fields up there? For name, etc? I have to type “netbug” 4 times and “net” 6 times everytime I post. :P

  4. Potato Says:

    Thanks Bug! That looked fine to me when I first posted it, so who knows how this happened… but a tag didn’t get closed so there’s almost a whole paragraph contained in the link. I’ll fix it now.