The pleasure of working text

Tinkered today with the outlook of Mirrors of Eris — my soon month-old project of making up theologies and conspiracies for the fun of it. Ended up throwing the whole serif font stack away and replacing it with sans-serifs; Arial and the like are nice and readable. The serif Linux choice, URW Palladio L, was pretty, but I had trouble finding a nice enough font that would be in most Windowses.

(If you’re thinking “fonts? Are you mad? Aren’t those terribly risky to order, you not knowing what fonts people have?” — well, partly true, but if you pile up enough there’s going to some font, most often, that John Q. Randomsurfer has before falling through the stack all the way to using whatever generic sans-serif he has. There are even very useful sites for examining this up-piling; see my sans-serif stack calculations over on Code Style.)

Then I happened to look a bit more into my CSS sheet, and swore a bit. I know there’s an ideal length to a line, from a readability standpoint; and still I had somehow thought it a good idea to make the main text frame fifty-percent wide. That’s murder on both small and huge screens! A few nudges, and now it’s round 30 em. (“em” being the width of the letter M in the font currently in use — because M:s are wide, there’s round 2 characters per em, or round 60 characters on a 30 em line; this averages to 12 words or so.) Apparently the human eye best likes lines in the 25-35 em range.

Then some half an hour later I was wondering about line height issues (apparently 1.4 times the text height is fine; and incidentally Scalzi uses 1.8, which is blindingly obvious and cannot be unseen once you see it). Then I’m finding out unitless line heights (i.e. 1.4 and not 1.4em) are a good idea, because otherwise the value that’s inherited by the CSS’d object’s children is a fixed measure, and not a proportion. This can lead to a page for which the technical term is “fugly”.

I’m still nothing but an amateur, and it shows; but tinkering like this sure is fun. (Design parameters for Mirrors of Eris: (a) breaks down as something plain, not as a flaming ball of illegibility, (b) no Javascript, no Java, no funny stuff; only HTML and CSS, (c) more or less validates when I feel like it, (d) every update makes it prettier, and (e) readable over ooh-able.)

This all is probably a convergence of (a) having played with computers all my life (not as in “gaming”, but “tinkering”; and “all my life” as in “from age six up”), (b) having done a whole lot of LaTeX wrangling, a part of it university-related mathematickery, and a part my own, hem hem, literary ambitions (all the way from Lulu to actual scissors-glue-sheets work), and (c) having this omnivoracious info- and bibliophilia of mine; books in any guise and form, about almost any subject at all, I love to dig into them hammer and tongs.

Still, kind of funny how tinkering like this can be fun. Makes one wonder if there was, once upon a time, a monk that whispered — “Ah, abbot. Just a moment — I’m trying to think whether three fingerwidths is good for both inner and outer margins.”

The difference being, with CSS you change one line and your entire site changes its appearance; and no matter how you tinker and vacillate, no abbot’s gonna bop me over the head.

(Looks anxiously around; sees no abbots; relaxes somewhat.)

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