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March 10, 2005

Why are road signs so hard to read?


Phil Patton, who writes on things design-related for the New York Times, did an interesting story about why it is that street and highway signs seem to have been designed by a guy in a studio sitting quietly sipping coffee, not even beginning to consider the fact that the person who most needs to be able to read his handiwork is tired, anxious, driving at night, lost and going 65 miles an hour on a crowded interstate.

It's the typeface, dummy.

A team of researchers has now created a new typeface called ClearView to try and change things for us hapless tourists of the tarmac.

Did you like that?

Up top this post are James Montalbano (left) and Donald Meeker, the leaders of the ClearView design team, with their handiwork and the old typeface.

Can you tell which is which? (The answer's at the end of this post - you knew I was a tease, but I'm not mean...)

Here's the January 21 Times story about the effort to make things more legible for road warriors.

    Road Signs of the Times

    If drivers on Pennsylvania highways can see where they're going a little more clearly these days, they might thank the town of Bergaults.

    Except it doesn't exist.

    This was one of a number of imaginary place names tested by highway safety engineers and sign designers in their attempt to develop more legible road signs for America's aging population.

    Most drivers read road signs without noticing much about them.

    They speak with the mute force of officialdom.

    Road signs are taken for granted, and their grammar and vocabulary are so familiar and unchanging that they appear timeless.

    But road signs do, in fact, change — slowly and subtly — according to the rules embodied in a volume known as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices or M.U.T.C.D. (Amateur road buffs instinctively want to call it the "MUTT-sid," but traffic professionals pronounce each letter.)

    The manual, revised periodically since its beginnings in 1935, now fills more than 500 virtual pages online.

    Changes in the manual have reflected changes in society, according to Gene Hawkins of the Texas Transportation Department, a historian of the regulations.

    World War II brought blackout instructions; the 1950's, signs for fallout shelters and escape routes.

    Today's new entries reflect America's changing demographics.

    More than a decade ago, a Federal Highway Administration study predicted that by 2005, 20 percent of American drivers would be over 65, creating a major safety problem.

    Age tends to diminish night vision, especially the ability to distinguish contrast, and older drivers are vulnerable to what engineers call "overglow" or "halation," when letters lighted by headlights blur together.

    The government's recommendation: Make the type on signs as much as 20 percent larger.

    But simply increasing the height of letters would mean much larger signs — 40 to 50 percent larger, with a resulting increase in cost as well as visual clutter.

    But a team of researchers led by Donald Meeker, a sign designer in Larchmont, N.Y., and James Montalbano, a type designer in Brooklyn, offered a different approach.

    They urged replacing the familiar letters of the Federal Highway Administration Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices with new ones designed to accommodate older drivers.

    Devised by Mr. Meeker and Mr. Montalbano and researched by scientists at Penn State and Texas A&M, the new typeface is called Clearview, and in the world of sign engineers it is monumental.

    "It is the biggest change in the last 30 years of traffic control devices," said Art Breneman, who recently retired as the chief of traffic engineering and operations at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

    In 1988, Mr. Meeker was hired by the State of Oregon to create new signs to guide motorists to recreation areas.

    He was frustrated by the clutter of the roadside and the lack of clarity in existing signs.

    To help, he searched out Mr. Montalbano, and the two men started researching typefaces, comparing American sign type with other faces like the German DIN (for Deutsche Industrie Norm), which goes back to autobahn signs from 1936, and British Transport, a 1964 typeface used on motorway signs.

    The Federal Highway Administration's current typeface dates back to 1949 and came from the tradition of handmade signs, Mr. Montalbano said.

    The letters "had never really been tested," he said, and "they had origins in stencils and paintbrushes."

    Mr. Meeker and Mr. Montalbano made subtle changes, opening up the interiors of the letters, making the descenders on letters like "g" and "y" sharper and redrawing all the letters to make them thinner.

    Their aim was a simple but clear typeface.

    Federal highway officials were less than enthusiastic, they said, but they tested their new alphabet on test tracks at the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State, and at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M.

    "You can't do it in a lab," Mr. Meeker said.

    That's where the fictional Bergaults came in.

    Its three vowels (they tend to "fill in" under bright lights, making them indistinguishable); its troublesome descender on the "g"; and its "l" and "t," which can be mistaken for "i" or "1," all pose a challenge for many drivers.

    After the first tests, Mr. Montalbano made some final refinements, changing the height-to-width ratio of the letters and making the lowercase letters larger.

    Then, in April 2002, the designers tested the typeface again on the Pennsylvania track.

    The improvement over the current typeface was striking, they said.

    Or as Mr. Meeker put it: From 500 feet away, the current sign typeface "was already breaking up, but at 750 feet, the Clearview was still sharp."

    The researchers were surprised.

    "Everybody was stunned at how much better it performed," Mr. Montalbano said.

    "People's jaws dropped open."

    Last September, after some 22 months of effort, Clearview's proponents succeeded in persuading Ernest Huckaby, who oversees the traffic manual, and others at the Federal Highway Administration to grant interim approval for the new typeface.

    Drivers on Interstates 80 and 380 in Pennsylvania can already see examples of the new signs.

    Clearview was shown to provide as much as a 20 percent improvement over standard highway signs in legibility and recognition.

    That translates to as much as two seconds of additional reaction time.

    And though that might not seem like much, "two seconds multiplied by millions of drivers is a huge deal," Mr. Meeker said.

The new ClearView typeface is on the bottom in the picture leading this post,


and to the left in the graphic just above.

March 10, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

eCreamery — bespoke ice cream


This company creates extremely high-end ice creams.

You choose from among their base mixes and flavors to create your own customized ice cream.

Among their flavors:

• Almond

• Anise

• Avocado


• Blueberry

• Cardamom

• Cheesecake

• Clove

• Cola


• Cotton candy

• Durian [!]

• Hot pepper

• Licorice

• Lychee

• Mango

• Nutmeg


• Pandan

• Papaya

• Peanut butter

• Red bean

• Saffron


• Sour cherry

• Tamarind

The minimum order of four one-quart containers costs $80-$100 and arrives in 7-10 days.

March 10, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings'


"In his day, he bestrode the art world like the proverbial Colossus," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Eric Gibson in his rapturous review of this show featuring 115 of the Flemish master's finest drawings, up through April 3 at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Rubens' paintings were often largely executed by his pupils; the drawings, in contrast, show nothing but the grace, mastery, and magic of the master's hand.


Beauty, power, whispers of eternity all combine in this, the first major retrospective in the U.S. of Rubens' drawings.


The works represent the finest sheets from over 40 public and private European, Russian and American collections, including more than 30 drawings from the world-renowned collection of the Albertina in Vienna.


Reviewers from the New Yorker, New York Times, The Financial Times, and the Washington Post, among others, were equally floored by the mastery on display in this show.

March 10, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Anti-Microbial Dr. Doormat™


What's this?

A germ-fighting pushover of a doctor?

Not on your life, kiddo.

It's a brand-new product that's "the first step [get it?] to a healthy home," according to the company selling it.

"This is the first doormat that's manufactured with an EPA-registered anti-microbial treatment that's permanently bonded to the fibers, so it won't get tracked into your home."

"Wiping your shoes on Dr. Doormat™ removes 99% of the debris on the bottom of your shoes."

Your choice of navy, hunter green, or burgundy.

Measures 2' x 3'.

$69.99 here.

But I must tell you, dear reader: if you're even considering buying this foolishness, then I've got a lot more work to do here than I thought.

How could anyone fall for this scam?

The chance of your being healthier/getting sick any less because you have this doormat as opposed to any other doormat or no doormat is zero.




Come on now, do they think joeheads just fell off the turnip truck?

Give us a little credit, huh?

I must say, though, that when I first read the name of the product, I burst out laughing.

Maybe it's because I always tell my pediatric patients my name's "Dr. Dirt."

They love it.

"Dr. Dirt, Dr. Dirt," they scream with glee.

Hey, better with glee than fear is how I look at it.

And to think you thought I was some sort of pompous, self-important fool.

Well, maybe one of those.

The four-letter one.


March 10, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

This Time — by Gerald Stern

That was his picnic table and those were his two
spruce trees growing so vertical you'd think
there was some desperation, say a roof
eating the light up, say a chimney, and those
two things that flew from gutter to gutter and perched
for only a second—each of them—were the black-streaked
white-faced goblins coming to eat and sing
above the noise of cardinals and the humming
of rubber and its echoes and the roaring
of the early train. Lord, he was here again
not far from the jungle gym beside the plastic
zebra. Lord, he would stare at the lightbulb
in front of the voltage box bolted to the untarred
telephone pole. He would study the guy wire
and how it stretched between the roses, the wire
that caught the earth just so that nothing fell there
and dip his face to suck his tea without
using his hands this time and say his chanson
in English and French the way they did centuries
ago without one word of rage, with reference
to the lark this time and the white hawthorne, beating
one hand and one heavy knuckle, his tongue whacking
the roof of his mouth, his musical thumb scraping
across the dining-room table, his pitiful slurs
in front of his metal quail, his fripperies
over his wooden-faced carp, his hapless rib cage
and nerveless fingers, his clumsy flutters
and three or four poor staccatos, hard time this time.


March 10, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lesley Craze Gallery: On the edge — cutting, leading and bleeding


This London gallery specializes in metalsmithing,


textiles, and contemporary jewelry -


or jewellery, as they say over there.


They currently feature the work of over 100 designers, mostly British.


The gallery tries to showcase the work of emerging talent.


If you happen to be in London, you could stop by: it's at 33-35a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU; tel: +44 (0)20 7608 0393; Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

March 10, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Einstein@Home Starsphere Screensaver


In 1905 Albert Einstein, a then-unknown 26-year-old Swiss patent clerk, published four papers, any one of which would have sufficed as the basis for a subsequently glorious career in the physics department of any university in the world.

In this, the 100th aniversary of what was truly an annus mirabilis, among the many ways to keep Einstein on your mind - or at least running in the background - is by installing this superb screensaver, created by three physicists.


It's way beyond my intellectual pay grade but that doesn't mean those of you who enjoy slumming here can't make use of it.

March 10, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Snoring Arbitrage


The Breathe Fit™ Nasal Dilator (above and below) is all over the internet, promising relief from snoring forever.


What I find fascinating is that you can pay $29.95 for one, or $19.95, or $12.95, or $9.99.

All for an identical little piece of blue plastic — which probably costs about five cents to make — that won't work as advertised.


The device purports to act by "applying gentle pressure to your septum trigeminal nerve."



Never knew that something so simple could stop snoring.

Maybe that's because it can't, won't, and doesn't.

Ya think?

If you'd like to try putting pressure on your "septum trigeminal nerve" but would prefer not to spend a bundle doing so, you might want to consider a much older iteration, developed by cliff drivers in millenia past and brought up to 21st-century snuff by Speedo, Arena, Tyr, and a host of other makers of swimming accessories.


Simply take one of their inexpensive nose clips ($2.50–$3.99)


and put it inside


instead of outside your nostrils.


Ah, how peaceful.


What is the sound of no one snoring?

March 10, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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