Monday, April 21, 2008

Default Font

Sometimes technology *features* are simply there, just showing off or so it seems. On the Kindle, I’ve noticed that Wall Street Journal articles give a word count – this article has 1244 words, that sort of thing. It follows the byline. “Does this help the reader?” I wonder. The New York Times doesn’t do this sort of thing, so it’s something Journal folks have cooked up, not something endemic to the Kindle. Just how long is an article with 1244 words? Does the reader count the words in deciding whether to continue the piece. “I’ve got 572 words to go and this seems blather, so I’ll stop now.” I don’t need word count to make that choice, or do I?

On the Kindle the user can vary the font size, but the font itself is fixed, Times Roman I suppose, though without a menu to choose from I can’t be sure. In MS Word, there is an awesome menu of fonts. I only know what a handful of them look like. How many are variations on a theme? I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another. But I’m pretty sure the Kindle font is Times Roman. Kindle so aspires to read like a book. Many books are printed in Times Roman. The Harry Potter Books are the exception that proves the rule. With books aimed at adults, the text is supposed to be pure symbol, not an artifact in itself that the reader should react to. But nowadays, why not a book with a sans serif font? Why does tradition rule here?

A couple of weeks ago I had an assignment to write a 500-word essay on a topic. I go back and forth between my office computer (MS Word 2007) and my home computer (MS Word 2003). I am cognizant of the file type (.doc or .docx) but believe that in itself has no effect on the viewing. I am also aware that the default font has changed, from 12 point Times New Roman in Word 2003 to 11 point Calibri in Word 2007. What explains this change? I first moved to Outlook 2007 on my office computer and for quite a while used in conjunction with the other tools in MS Office 2003. The default font colors in Outlook 2007 are pastel, as if progress in the software requires a softer look in the text on the screen. Calibri is a sans serif font. I suppose the softer look requires a sans serif font.

It occurred to me in writing the assigned essay that with the change in the default font type, that would change how long a 500-word essay would appear on the screen. What would such an essay look like page length-wise? I believed that one page of Times Roman 12 point was somewhere between 300 and 350 words. What would the switch to the to Calibri 11 point do to word count per page? I wrote this post partly to practice the 500-word essay. (It is not quite 600 words.) I was quite surprised to find out it fit entirely on one page. And I was a bit disturbed by this observation. Could the font change account for such a big difference in words per page? So I converted what I had written to Times New Roman 12 point, expecting the text to then run over to the next page. Lo and behold, it didn’t. It still fit into one page, with a couple of lines to spare.

Now I was scratching my head. How had I come to the belief that a page of text in MS Word had about 300 – 350 words? My current experience showed a page plainly could accommodate in excess of 500 words, perhaps even 600 words. In writing this post I’ve not yet hit the first page limit and this sentence culminates with the 649th word. (One of my sidebar discoveries is that Word 2007 has a status bar at the bottom of the page where Word Count is one of the options and is turned on by default. If you are looking for a technological cause of writer’s block in a student doing a term paper, this could be it.)

This was a real discrepancy. I don’t typically come up with a belief in fact that has no basis in experience. Sometime in the past my pages had 300 – 350 words. Was that when I was a Mac user? Perhaps. I recalled some difference in pagination when crossing platforms. But this seemed too extreme to be explained by this. Something else was the likely cause. I double spaced the text. That produced the requisite 300 – 350 words. Now I single space. Did I double space in the past? Probably I did but I don’t have a good memory of it.

Reconstructing the likely error, sometime when I did double space I did a tiny bit of looking to find word count per page, got the 300 – 350 words as the ballpark, and remembered that. Later I switched to single spacing, but had no immediate reason to track words per page. When I needed to consider that, I used my old beliefs, though circumstances had changed. I hadn’t recalibrated, though the circumstances demanded that I do.

This type of error is particularly troublesome to an economist, who has been trained that rational actors should not experience money illusion. But now, with a somewhat greater appreciation of cognitive challenges, for me personally and for our species as a whole, I began to wonder not so much why I had made this mistake, but rather whether we’re all prone to make mistakes of this sort on a repeated basis, namely we don’t recalibrate our world view that was determined in a previous regime while knowing full well that the regime has changed. Hence we are prone to make errors, because our world view is not up to date appropriate for the current circumstance.

Let me illustrate with a more profound mistake. I took the SAT in 1971, once in the spring and again in the fall. I’ve written about this extensively in the context of the current testing craze so I won’t belabor it here. I simply want to recall two things from that experience. At the time I believe that test measured something important. And I performed significantly better on the Math part than on the Verbal part. The Bakke case, which got enormous publicity at the time, happened in the late 1970’s. So by the early 1980s I must have been exposed to the argument that there was a cultural bias in the SAT that had an effect on minority student performance. But I believe I completely discounted that argument regarding my own performance. And even to this day, I believe that the math proficiency correlates with performance in certain college disciplines (e.g. Chemistry or Economics) and that reading comprehension can be measured to some degree by the type of questions that the SAT asks (although I would concede that prior knowledge of the subject matter is implicitly measured, not just understanding of the passage under question).

It was not till I started to get involved with learning technology and listening to faculty from all across campus that I began to hear criticism about standardized testing in general and the SAT in particular. Perhaps this is just human nature, but I started off by resisting those criticisms because of the above mentioned correlation, which I had witnessed in my own experience both as an undergrad and in grad school. Over time, however, I’ve come to believe the test is insufficient in some important ways. The situations it covers are all closed ended. We want thinking on open ended problems. Skill at the one does not necessarily translate to skill at the other. And the SAT is a speed test. By its nature it can’t measure persistence. Yet stick-to-it-ness is probably a more important characteristic than aptitude. Hard problems require chewing on them for quite a while. Sparks of genius are great, but they are fueled by hours and hours of being stuck.

This altered perception about the test notwithstanding, I still clung to the belief I was a math guy; verbal skills were out of my purview. In retrospect, and especially because there actually was considerable other evidence to the contrary, this represents a remarkable lack of recalibration. Now I can see how I made the error. I had a strong taste for intellectual argument, certainly in college and I believe even back in high school. But I had limited places to express this interest. What I found was outside the classroom, with friends in a social setting. I didn’t see that as verbal skill because it was outside of school. Writing, which I do now largely because such friends are not close at hand, is my current way of making intellectual argument. But because much of that happens via blogging, and there is a community of .edu bloggers of which I’m a part, now it seems part of school, so I must be a verbal guy.

* * * * *

Profound errors of this sort make me wonder whether others are making them. I think the answer has to be that they are. Let me illustrate, but this time in reverse.

Look at this list of symptoms for jet lag. Note that irritability is a significant consequence. Then scroll up to the previous item and read about the causes for jet lag. To this I would add that whether in a plane or a car the passenger is subject to vibrations and if traveling for a long period of time those can be disorienting. (They give me a sense of internal hum well after the trip is over. Consequently, I have a well deserved reputation for being a poor traveler.) I’d add to this that on airplanes the engine roar itself can create a feeling of assault and deprivation. Most of us have been through this and continue to experience it now and again. But we get over it; it’s part of the routine.

Now consider the consequence of taking one trip after another, without enough time for recovery in between. What happens to our attitude? Our behavior? Suppose we’re in a high visibility, high stress job. How will others interpret what they see in us? Will they make adjustments for the travel and the schedule we’ve been keeping? Suppose these people have seen us when they visited us in our usual environs and where we performed at a very high level. They’ll likely have experienced us acting at lower level while on this grand tour of trips. Will they think of that as a fall from grace or simply an inevitable consequence of the unforgiving schedule we’ve been operating under?

Now consider the current presidential campaign where the Democratic candidates have gone negative. Many in the press have noted that the candidates are tired. But they note that and go on; then these reporters compare the candidates to their own best moments and to each other. Here’s a simple hypothesis that I’d call recalibration. If candidates have to continue to campaign well beyond when they expected it was necessary, they’ll be more negative at the end since that matches how they actually feel, due to jet lag and related fatigue. It might take years to confirm this, because the actual test would be how the candidates are with their inner circle. It could be that all this negative stuff is an act. But I don’t think so.

If we voters as well as the pundits are capable of recalibration, might we not more readily forgive the candidates for making promises during this part of the campaign that they renege on once assuming office, understanding that under fatigue the pandering that results doesn’t constitute a commitment? Or are we so locked into the memory of “read my lips” that we’re incapable of making such allowances. David Brooks seems to think Obama has fallen from grace, and that he has boxed himself into an ungovernable corner with his performance in last Wednesday’s debate. In my view, Brooks has got it wrong. He hasn’t recalibrated.

And if that is true, what if the pundits do this sort of thing regularly? They read the Ouija Board, but don’t make allowance for the known change in the rules. Do we do the same thing in Higher Ed?

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