“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

December 2020

Postal Voting

Posted on December 29, 2020 at 15:00

(If you don’t live in Scotland, this is probably not very interesting.)

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are scheduled for Thursday 6 May 2021. There’s a small possibility that might need to be pushed back, and there are contingencies for that eventuality, but I don’t think it’s likely to happen unless things get really bad.

Neither do I expect things to get really good by that time, and if you feel the same way it’s worth reflecting that in the UK it is possible to vote by post in this election. You don’t have to give a reason; in fact, there’s nowhere on the form to put one. You do have to apply for a postal vote in advance, however, and the deadline for that is proposed to be brought forward for this election to allow for the expected higher volume of applications.

So, why not take a few minutes and do it now? The generic application can be found on the Electoral Commission site. You can fill out everything but the signature online before printing it out, signing it and posting the form to your local Electoral Registration Officer.


The Downside

Posted on December 28, 2020 at 17:42

Engineering is about tradeoffs. The upside of the recent changes is that the site is now more readable in general, but there’s always a downside in any tradeoff. The main burr under my saddle with the new design is that in general, sans-serif typefaces tend to shy away from little typographical details. As a typography nerd of long standing, this particular example irks me:

This paragraph is set using $serif. When I say “Hello, world!” I expect you to see curved quotation marks: visibly different glyphs are used for the opening and closing characters. These are commonly likened to “66” and “99” respectively.

On the other hand, using $sans, when I say “Hello, world!” you may well not see any difference between the opening and closing glyphs, particularly at normal text sizes. In Apple’s San Francisco font (the default user interface font on current versions of their operating systems), the two glyphs are different: although they appear to be paired bars sloping in the same direction, in the “66” glyph the tops of the bars are slightly thinner than the bottoms, with the reverse being the case for the “99”. The difference is, I would say, pointlessly small at normal text sizes.

It’s a little more obvious at font-size: xx-large; but still something only a typography nerd would ever care about:

“Hello, world!”

For the benefit of those using a system presenting a different font, here is an image of just the two glyphs, at xx-large size and then magnified by a factor of two just to be sure:

curved quotation marks in San Francisco

There’s always a downside. The trick, I suppose, is reducing it to the point where you can accept it. This is acceptable, but still sometimes irritating.

I did find the issue irritating enough in <blockquote>s like this that you will see that the large glyphs surrounding the block are in fact set in a serif typeface, although the body is sans-serif.


Site Design Changes

Posted on December 28, 2020 at 12:38

I have a long list of changes to make to this site one day, when I get the time or (more plausibly) when I am looking for a distraction.

This year, I have finally addressed the first of these, and if you’re reading this on the site rather than in a feed reader you may notice that most text now appears in the sans-serif font used by your operating system’s user interface. These fonts are usually highly optimised for screen use, and the result in most cases will be an improvement in readability, particularly on smaller devices.

This change sounds simple (and in the end, it was very straightforward) but required a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get to the point where it was simple to do.

If you’re interested, read on for details.