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Monday, July 27, 2009


Visiting a woman in Khon Kaen

On the weekend I visited Khon Kaen, the province west of Mahasarakham. I didn’t go there for fun but I did enjoy myself—most of the time. Even though I hadn’t been there for a few years I returned to Sawasdee Hotel where I’d stayed in the past. The rooms are adequate for my needs and the rate still reasonable. In the area there is a night market—at least on Saturday night—that is worth a visit. There is also quite a large market—selling fruit, vegetables, some live produce and much more—that is very active in the mornings. Over the weekend I picked up a few bargains that I couldn’t have got in Mahasarakham.

The purpose of my visit was that my dentist had referred me for some root-canal treatment. Apparently this was not available in Mahasarakham. For the size of this city there are not so many dentists. On the other hand they are abundant in Khon Kaen. I put this down to the fact that Mahasarakham University does not have a faculty of dentistry but Khon Kaen University does. Locals who study dentistry there probably stay on to practise after they graduate.

My dental specialist is a woman and I have to say that the hour I spent with her was not the most fun I’ve ever had with a woman. Once she got down to serious work I was not allowed to close or rinse my mouth until she finished—more than half-an-hour later. She asked if I could read Thai. ‘Nit noy—a little,’ I answered. She gave me a fact sheet on my treatment but at the speed I read Thai I think two A4 pages would take me far too long. A friend scanned through it and declined to explain it to me claiming it was too depressing. Gee thanks.

One day later and my mouth doesn’t feel too bad. I’ll be visiting Khon Kaen again over the next couple of weekends as this treatment is still a long way from finished.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Obvious mistakes

While I'm reminiscing about my early career as a typographer in the days long before personal computers, here's a story from those days.

At this particular time I worked in the Sydney office of a large American publishing company—a publisher of books and magazines. I won't mention the name but you would know them. I worked in the art department as a typographer. My assistant and I had the job of specifying the typography for all publications and promotional materials produced by the company.

The head of the art department was a man we'll call D—a nice man but he had a huge ego. I don't think he was particularly creative or knowledgeable. He was basically an administrator. Everything produced by the art department had to have his initials on it in a little rubber-stamped box in the corner. And before he would add his initials he always had to change something.

This drove me crazy. If I had a typographic layout I'd done I would take it to him and he would say something like, 'That looks good, John, but I think you should add just a little more space between these two lines here.'

And I would reply, 'Well, if we add more space there, then we need to take some space out of here and that upsets the balance of these elements here.'

He'd say, 'Yes, you're right John, then what you need to do is this...' and he'd make another suggestion that was worse than the first. I'd explain why that wouldn't work and he'd come up with another suggestion. At this point I realised that it was better to accept what he said because every suggestion got worse than the previous one and one way or another he was determined to have some input into my layout.

Among my colleagues in the art department were two illustrators, we'll call F1 and F2. They were both about the age I am now. F1 did very fine pen illustrations that resembled hand engravings. He got a lot of freelance work from publishers who wanted illustrations that looked like they were from a previous era.

F2's style was almost the opposite of F1's. Where F1's illustrations were fine and detailed and took hours, maybe days, to complete, F2's were very loose. He had the ability to pick up a pencil, put a few rough strokes on the paper and in no time you were looking at a very free representation of the subject. F1 greatly admired F2's ability. In fact, both of them were masters at their own particular form of illustration.

One day I returned to our section after having one of my layouts destroyed by D's ego. I had a chat with F1 (perhaps one of my first mentors). He pointed out that when F2 took a drawing down to D for approval, D would say something like 'That looks very good F but look at this guy's leg. It's a little too short.' F would return to his drawing board, throw the picture away, angrily grab the first pencil that came to hand and redo the picture, being very careful to get the leg right. Ten minutes later he'd take it down to D and D would say, 'Well, the leg looks great now F but unfortunately this guy's hat is a bit crooked.' So F would return, throw that one away and start again. Sometimes he would end up doing 20 versions of that one picture and eventually would end up with an F2 rendering of a D illustration.

F1 then showed me how he handled the situation. He would very carefully make an obvious mistake in his illustration, one that was easily fixed. He would take it down to D and D would say, 'Look at what you've done here, F. This guy's got six fingers!'

'How silly of me,' F would reply. He'd return to his drawing board and make the illustration the way he wanted it to be in the first place.

After that I started making obvious mistakes in my layouts and D and I got on fine.

BTW, there's a footnote to this story. There was a photographer in the art department about my age. He often worked back late. I discovered much later that after the others had gone home and before the cleaners had gone through, he would collect F2's reject drawings. I once saw one of F2's sketches framed in a gallery. It was selling for about the same as my weekly wages. Perhaps that photographer was smarter than all of us.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Legacy of the typewriter

Forty years ago not many offices had computers. They were too big and too expensive. Those that did certainly didn't use them for day-to-day writing tasks. The cost couldn't be justified. In those days the most commonly used writing tool, apart from pens and pencils, was the typewriter.

Today we writers are spoilt with so many fonts, so many sizes and weights and styles to choose from when we want to create emphasis. Most typewriters in those days had one style, one size, no bold, no italic. Also the letters were designed to be one fixed width, ie the lower-case i was the same width as the capital W.

Typists were, however, quite inventive in the use of their single font to create different degrees of emphasis in, say, a heading. For a major heading it could be typed all in capitals and underlined. A less-major heading might have capitals without underlining. A lower-level heading perhaps had initial letters capitalised. Sometimes when a typist thought a heading might be particularly important they might add an exclamation mark. Such skills were taught to typists at typing schools.

On the other hand, publishers had their publications typeset on machines such as Linotype and Monotype. Such machines could set type in many different sizes and styles. One particular font might have bold, extra bold, normal, light, condensed, expanded and of course italic. Without changing the basic font, the publisher had many ways to create emphasis.

When the typesetter received the copy to be set it had been created on a typewriter and he might have a challenge to decide which of the typist's styles he should follow and when he should use his typographic training and substitute something perhaps more appropriate. If he made a decision that did not suit the customer the setting might have to be done again at no charge.

To alleviate this problem, publishers and advertising agencies employed editors and typographers to mark up the copy with clear instructions so that the typesetters knew what was required.

I was such a person. I gained my typographic knowledge first from my superiors and also from studying Publication Typography and other related courses at Ultimo Technical College, School of Graphic Arts in Sydney. I was committed to understanding the craft and read every book on the subject that I could lay my hands on from the college and other trade libraries.

I and my colleagues spent much time going through the copy putting vertical lines through each of the capital letters we wanted to be set as lower case.

Why did we go to so much trouble? Because the purpose of print is to communicate. Our job was to create the best communication possible.

One of the maxims which guided my decisions was: 'Anything that doesn't add to the communication probably detracts from it.' Therefore if I was in doubt about whether to follow the typist's style or change it, I would ask myself, 'Is the communication improved by this?' If it wasn't, I removed it.

In a heading do we need to put all the initial letters in capitals? To decide, ask 'What does this practice communicate?' If it is intended to communicate 'Hey, this is a heading.', doesn't the fact that we've put it a few sizes larger than the text and in bold do that? I feel that overemphasising something can be condescending to the reader. We're saying, 'Pay attention stupid! This is a heading.' I trust my readers are intelligent enough to have already figured that out. How about yours?

Sometimes those trained in the Typist School of Typography go even a step further. They add an exclamation mark/point to a really important heading. The purposes for an exclamation mark are to indicate something that is shouted or exclaimed; to indicate an intensity of emotion or loudness; or to express a speaker's dumfounded astonishment (refer dictionary.com). Overuse of exclamation marks is a sign of a writer's lack of ability to communicate.

Following the maxim I quoted above, I have my own personal campaign to remove all unnecessary punctuation. Regular readers of this blog might have noticed, for example, that I write 'eg' without punctuation. Do you understand what it means? I'm sure that if you know that 'e.g.' means 'for example' then you won't be confused by my 'eg'. If I think a reader of average intelligence might be confused I'll add the punctuation. You'll notice I do a few little things like this. Perhaps I'm being a little innovative but I don't believe I'm the first person to do so. I'm not aware of any dictionaries that acknowledge this spelling but no doubt they'll catch up in due course.

On the other hand, words such as Mr, Dr, Ms etc have been spelt without full stops/points for many years. I remember my eighth grade teacher pointing this out almost fifty years ago. He said it wasn't an abbreviation but an alternate spelling and quoted the Oxford Dictionary to support him. This practice is common in both England and USA. Check dictionary.com once again. It shows that there are some American dictionaries that still use the full stop/point but the more progressive ones have dropped it. Likewise, the more progressive ones also accept that tertiary qualifications such as PhD, MBA etc may be spelled without full points. Eventually, I suspect, everyone will be doing it this way. If you want to be the last to change, feel free.

So, am I alone in this or is what I am advocating standard for respected publishers? I made a list of ten English-language news publications without knowing where they stand. I thought it might be an interesting exercise to see how many agree with me. The publications are Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Bangkok Post, The Nation (Bangkok), New York Times, Los Angles Times, Washington Times, London Times, The Economist and New Statesman.

Eight of these ten publications, like me, do not capitalise initial letters in headings. Seven of these publications do not use full stops for Mr, Dr, Ms etc. Two of the other three seem to avoid the issue. They simply use the person's name without a title. I'm sure they have a ruling in their style manuals but I suspect their style manuals encourage journalists to avoid use of such titles altogether. Therefore, only one out of ten is regularly adding full stops to these short titles. I did not find one publication that used an exclamation mark in a heading.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons


Thursday, July 09, 2009


Sharing the germs

A student commented the other evening that there was a case of H1N1 flu at the demonstration high school on campus and asked if I recommended they should wear masks to protect themselves. Dr John has no particular expertise in this area however I had read the advice on the WHO website because I incorporated it in a newsletter article I wrote. It said that there was no evidence that masks reduced infections. It then went on to give advice on how to use masks. I guess because, despite what they advise, there will still be people who use them. I told the student what WHO said and he said that the Thai Health Department advised wearing a mask.

If you have a cold or the flu and you wear a mask WHO advises that when you cough or sneeze, you should replace the mask. If it's disposable, get a new one. If it's washable, put it in the washing. The point seemed to be that we shouldn't wear the same mask all day long. Think about it. If you're coughing and sneezing into that mask over and over it will soon be full of germs. WHO also advised keeping hands away from your mouth and regular washing of hands.

We've just had another of our five-day weekends here in Thailand. If you live in a tourist area that means it gets busy. If you live somewhere like Mahasarakham, that means it virtually dies. The place you usually eat may no longer be open. I went to a different place for lunch on Saturday. The woman who served me was wearing a mask. After she served me she started coughing and automatically put her hand to her mouth. A series of thoughts entered my head: 'How long's she been wearing that mask? Does she have flu? Did she cough before she handled my plate? Did she wash her hands? Did she help to prepare my food? If she's not the cook, does the cook have the flu?'

Living in Asia, I rarely cook my own food but the danger of eating out is that you simply do not know the hygiene standards of the person preparing your food. Will her mask protect me from her flu? Not if she's been wearing it all day. In this case it will aid in the transmission of the germs.

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Friday, July 03, 2009


End the craziness of nuclear weapons

Does it seem dangerously crazy to you that previously insignificant, possibly unstable governments have nuclear power now and are developing nuclear weapons? To me it is crazy that any government has nuclear weapons. I don’t think humans have enough intelligence to be trusted with weapons with the potential to destroy the planet.

It seems I’m not the only one who thinks like this. If you agree too, perhaps you can sign the petition and show your support.

Does it seem dangerously crazy to you that previously insignificant, possibly unstable governments have nuclear power now and are developing nuclear weapons? To me it is crazy that any government has nuclear weapons. I don’t think humans have enough intelligence to be trusted with weapons with the potential to destroy the planet. It seems I’m not the only one who thinks like this. If you agree too, perhaps you can sign the petition and show your support.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Why do we work?

I’m aware that some of my friends check this blog from time to time to make sure I’m still alive. Therefore I’ll post this one to let you know that I am not sick, dead or in jail—just busy.

I’ve had a few trips to Bangkok lately as my flickr page will attest. In fact, I have more pictures to post but haven’t had time to process them. And I have another trip away this weekend. More about that later. I’m still finding time to do a little reading so I’ll share a quote from my favourite Buddhist teacher:

'Allow me to oppose the statement "Work is money. Money is work." which is a false statement not in line with Buddhist principle which teaches that work is duty and duty is work and the "work" here implies the morally right kind of work for every kind of living being. Work is not something to be done for the sheer purpose of earning money to pander and indulge ourselves in vices or various sensual pleasures which are in reality, merely a matter of "flashes of madness".'

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
'A Consigned Legacy'

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