10 Dec 2004 raph   » (Master)

Thesis work

My thesis work is going great, although I'm now less in the mood to write about it publicly in detail, because I might seek patent protection on some of the ideas.

For one, I've started to seriously dig into the study of real splines (i.e. thin strips of wood and the like). I just got Love's Treatise on the Mathematical Theory of Elasticity and am trying to wrap my head around the math and physics concepts contained therein. I think it's possible to do as well as, or even better than, real splines, as long as you're not afraid of using advanced math to make the numerical problems tractable.

The math involved is mostly Calculus of variations. I came across it a little when I was a taking math classes over my head as a young teenager, so it feels like nice closure to actually be using it now.

Grayscale bitmaps

The response to my query on grayscale bitmap fonts was disappointing, to say the least. Hrant Papazian is working on a series of monospace grayscale fonts called Coda. He is offering to release them for free assuming the community gets its act in gear and is actually able to use them.

Why have grayscale bitmaps utterly failed to take hold? One theory is simply that they are too hard to design, but I don't think that holds water; there is now a small community of grayscale font designers producing very impressive work. A more disturbing theory is that, failing copyright or other "intellectual property" protection, the incentive to create the fonts has been missing. It's a strange quirk of US copyright law that typeface designs and bitmap images are free of copyright, while packaging a typeface design as "font software" (presumably, executable code rather than a static data structure) confers upon it the protection given to software in general. Thus, we have something of an testbed for a public domain utopia advocated by anti-copyright extremists.

And the empirical result of that testbed are devastating. The technological limitations of the early '80s created a golden era of monochrome bitmap design (most especially the work of Susan Kare for Apple and others). But as soon as technology made scalable fonts feasible (with the corresponding upgrade in copyright protection), bitmaps were abandoned as fast as possible.

Even in the scalable domain, we still have lots of effort poured into making hinted TrueType fonts as opposed to nurturing the development of unpatented font technology. It's the triumph of GIF and MP3 over PNG and Vorbis all over again.

I think there is an optimum level of copyright-style protection to serve the public interest. The current Mickey Mouse-dominated legal environment almost certainly errs on the side of too much protection. The experience with bitmap fonts provides another datapoint on the "too little" side. Who will make the case for the baby bear?

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