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Behind the painstaking process of creating Chinese computer fonts

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Behind the painstaking process of creating Chinese computer fonts


But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid was too small to make them legible. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or larger—i.e., at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Were one to imagine a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require approximately 256 kilobytes just to store the bitmaps. That was four times the total memory capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s.

As serious as these memory challenges were, the most taxing problems confronting low-res Chinese font production in the 1970s and 1980s were ones of aesthetics and design. Long before anyone sat down with a program like Gridmaster, the lion’s share of work took place off the computer, using pen, paper, and correction fluid.

Designers spent years trying to fashion bitmaps that fulfilled the low-memory requirements and preserved a modicum of calligraphic elegance. Among those who created this character set, whether by hand-drawing drafts of bitmaps for specific Chinese characters or digitizing them using Gridmaster, were Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.

Draft bitmap drawings of Chinese characters for the Sinotype III font.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The core problem that designers faced was translating between two radically different ways of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, produced with pen or brush, and the bitmap glyph, produced with an array of pixels arranged on two axes. Designers had to decide how (and whether) they were going to try to re-create certain orthographic features of handwritten Chinese, such as entrance strokes, stroke tapering, and exit strokes.

In the case of the Sinotype III font, the process of designing and digitizing low-resolution Chinese bitmaps was thoroughly documented. One of the most fascinating archival sources from this period is a binder full of grids with hand-drawn hash marks all over them—sketches that would later be digitized into bitmaps for many thousands of Chinese characters. Each of these characters was carefully laid out and, in most cases, edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, using correction fluid to erase any “bits” the editor disagreed with. Over top of the initial set of green hash marks, then, a second set of red hash marks indicated the “final” draft. Only then did the work of data entry begin.

A close-up of a draft bitmap drawing of bei (背, back, rear) showing edits made using correction fluid.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Given the sheer number of bitmaps that the team needed to design—at least 3,000 (and ideally many more) if the machine had any hopes of fulfilling consumers’ needs—one might assume that the designers looked for ways to streamline their work. One way they could have done this, for example, would have been to duplicate Chinese radicals—the base components of a character—when they appeared in roughly the same location, size, and orientation from one character to another. When producing the many dozens of common Chinese characters containing the “woman radical” (女), for example, the team at GARF could have (and, in theory, should have) created just one standard bitmap, and then replicated it within every character in which that radical appeared.

No such mechanistic decisions were made, however, as the archival materials show. On the contrary, Louis Rosenblum insisted that designers adjust each of these components—often in nearly imperceptible ways—to ensure they were in harmony with the overall character in which they appeared.

In the bitmaps for juan (娟, graceful) and mian (娩, to deliver), for example—each of which contains the woman radical—that radical has been changed ever so slightly. In the character juan, the middle section of the woman radical occupies a horizontal span of six pixels, as compared with five pixels in the character mian. At the same time, however, the bottom-right curve of the woman radical extends outward just one pixel further in the character mian, and in the character juan that stroke does not extend at all.

The bitmap characters for juan (娟, graceful) and mian (娩, to deliver) from the Sinotype III font, recreated by the author.

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Across the entire font, this level of precision was the rule rather than the exception.

When we juxtapose the draft bitmap drawings against their final forms, we see that more changes have been made. In the draft version of luo (罗, collect, net), for example, the bottom-left stroke extends downward at a perfect 45° angle before tapering into the digitized version of an outstroke. In the final version, however, the curve has been “flattened,” beginning at 45° but then leveling out.

A comparison of two draft versions of the character luo (罗, collect, net).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

Despite the seemingly small space in which designers had to work, they had to make a staggering number of choices. And every one of these decisions affected every other decision they made for a specific character, since adding even one pixel often changed the overall horizontal and vertical balance.

The unforgiving size of the grid impinged upon the designers’ work in other, unexpected ways. We see this most clearly in the devilish problem of achieving symmetry. Symmetrical layouts—which abound in Chinese characters—were especially difficult to represent in low-resolution frameworks because, by the rules of mathematics, creating symmetry requires odd-sized spatial zones. Bitmap grids with even dimensions (such as the 16-by-16 grid) made symmetry impossible. GARF managed to achieve symmetry by, in many cases, using only a portion of the overall grid: just a 15-by-15 region within the overall 16-by-16 grid. This reduced the amount of usable space even further.

Symmetry and asymmetry in the characters shan (山, mounting), zhong (中, middle), ri (日, sun), and tian (田, field).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The story becomes even more complex when we begin to compare the bitmap fonts created by different companies or creators for different projects. Consider the water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (below and on the right), as opposed to another early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (on the left), a Chinese-American psychotherapist and entrepreneur who experimented with Chinese computing in the 1970s and 1980s.

A comparison of the water radical (氵) as it appeared in the Sinotype III font (right) versus an early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (left).

LOUIS ROSENBLUM COLLECTION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

As minor as the above examples might seem, each represented yet another decision (among thousands) that the GARF design team had to make, whether during the drafting or the digitization phase.

Low resolution did not stay “low” for long, of course. Computing advances gave rise to ever denser bitmaps, ever faster processing speeds, and ever diminishing costs for memory. In our current age of 4K resolution, retina displays, and more, it may be hard to appreciate the artistry—both aesthetic and technical—that went into the creation of early Chinese bitmap fonts, as limited as they were. But it was problem-solving like this that ultimately made computing, new media, and the internet accessible to one-sixth of the global population.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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