Monday, September 13, 2004

Typewriters, memos and bloggers

There's been a lot in the local blogosphere (and not just from the usual suspects)about the memos featured on the CBS (60 Minutes) programme. Most right wing blogs (DPF is an honourable excepion) seem to be taking it as gospel that the documents have been forensically proven to be forgeries and the only remaining question is whether John Kerry typed them personally or got someone else in his campaign team to. Left wing blogs are much more dismissive of the "forensic evidence".

Having (unlike, I suspect, most NZ bloggers) actively authored numerous memos, letters and technical documents over the relevant period (1972-3). I thought I might have some contribution to add. In those days very few of the people who wrote memos or documents could type so it is hardly surprising that Lt Col Killian could not. We hand-wrote rough drafts, put them in our out-tray and waited for an immaculately typed and laid-out copy to appear in our in-tray for checking and signature. No doubt the procedure was similar in the TANG.

Any copy of the CBS memos that I have seen show evidence of substantial (up to 50%?) spatial distortion and coarse pixelation (to 60dpi or worse). This is consistent with passage through a low resolution Fax or hand-held scanner but makes it impossible to judge the precise font or to tell whether letters are, in fact "kerned" (half pixel overlaps don't count).

The specific alleged pieces of evidence I have seen raised are -

1 Coincidence of exact MS Word Times New Roman font - but is it? Sure you can produce something very similar to the memo font by reducing MS Word Times New Roman to 60 dpi, but you could do the same with virtually any font (certainly any New Roman font) when you butcher the resolution that far.

2 Proportional spacing - unusual on 1972 typewriters. But on the other hand it did exist. The TANG may have bought one or more brand new IBM Selectrix typewriters in 1972.

3 Headline Centering - according to my wife (who did this sort of thing for a living at the time), you fold the paper (very lightly) in half to locate the centre; measure half the width of the heading (if necessary print the whole heading out on a separate sheet) and mark with a very light pencil. Then put the paper in and slide the carriage to the correct position before typing.

4 Kerning - This would be a smoking gun if you could show it happened, but you can't. The low resolution means that the images are randomly "blurred" by 1/120 inch (at least) and this obscures any kerning.

5 Superscripts - This one gets really interesting. Typewriters (even quite old ones) often had special keys for fractions (1/2, 3/4, etc) and some golf-balls also had special keys for the ordinal suffixes (th, st, nd). It would therefore be a simple matter to do high quality suffixes (similar to typing TM as Ctrl-Alt-T in Word with standard settings). Word automatically superscripts (at least with my settings which I believe to be default) ordinal suffixes and so we might expect to see superscripts whenever the ordinal is typed without a space (111th) but not when it is typed with a space (1 st). In fact no such pattern exists. The May 4 memo has no spaces in ordinals yet superscripts one of them and leaves two unchanged. Given that (manual) superscripting in Word is a pain it seems hard to see why someone would go to the trouble of doing it twice (in the four memos) but not elsewhere. If the superscripts were done automatically why bother removing them unless you had realised that they gave the game away (and then surely you'd be more careful). If done on a typewriter it would be equally easy to type superscripted or not (providing the right golf-ball was installed) so the inconsistency is easier to understand.

The real point, though, is that the CBS memos didn't add anything new. Material about Dubya's (eg less than heroic service has been around for some time and CBS could have made the same points with less suspect (if only because of low resolution quality) material. But of course, they couldn't have taken the credit in that case. The real Achilles heel of the "mainstream" media may be the "you heard it here first" syndrome rather than partisan bias.


Blogger Bug Me Not said...

This is actually gordon @ nzpundit. I couldn't be fagged signing up for blogspot so used bugmenot. Actually it would have been quicker just to sign up.

Anyway what I wanted to say was Occam's razor is what you're looking for here. The list of things that would need to happen for these to be real are so slim as to be close to zero. Far more likely that they are exactly as they seem, created in Word.

I see the prize for recreating the memos on 1972 technology is up to $38,000. That should resolve the problem pretty quickly.

I should also mention that Limbaugh is hedging still this morning (so he's a notable exception), but he had some interesting inside info that CBS is working night and day to find the originals. They're not even certain how they got the copies they worked with.

14 September 2004 at 12:58 PM  
Blogger Greyshade said...

Gordon: I don't think Occam's Razor actually helps because the match between the documents (as posted) and MSWord isn't remarkable when you take the reolution down this far. Presumably someone faxed the documents to CBS (or made the copies on a hand scanner). Evidence is pretty clear that documents indistinguishable from the posted samples (at low res) could have been produced on an IBM Selectrix Composer (with the right golfball(s)) or more credibly on an IBM Executive Model C or D customised / modified to include a th key (such customisations were apparently common).

Of course it's possible that the degraded resolution was a "cunning plan" by the forger to conceal the forgery but "Occam's Razor" would suggest to me that any forger aware of the issue would have picked a font (eg Courier) and format settings that resembled the typefaces on the documetns already in the public domain.

If CBS don't have the originals (or other corroboration) than the low quality speaks volumes about their journalistic standards but says nothing about the authenticity or otherwise of the documents.

14 September 2004 at 4:39 PM  
Blogger sagenz said...

The Grey Shade thnks the CBS memos arent fakes"Typewriters, memos and bloggers
There's been a lot in the local blogosphere (and not just from the usual suspects)about the memos featured on the CBS (60 Minutes) programme. Most right wing blogs (DPF is an honourable excepion) seem to be taking it as gospel that the documents have been forensically proven to be forgeries ". whilsdt some of his comments are interesting, particularly about the trick of folding the paper, there have been a number of technical experts in the field who are equally or more familiar with typing at the time. From pixelation to kerning to the availability of the selectrix. The burden of proof is on kerry. Agreed that there is nothing new there. The funniest thing to me was the fact the white house reissued them. obviously not quite sure if they were true or not. But how biased is the herald when its only comment on the subject is to suggest they were generated by Rove.

15 September 2004 at 1:10 AM  
Blogger Greyshade said...

SageNZ: Surely the burden of proof is on CBS. There is no evidence whatever to implicate Kerry or Rove. One might argue that it is slightly more reasonable to suspect Rove than Kerry on the grounds that the latter would have put in some real (or at least new) dirt - but that's all pretty silly speculation. All we know is that CBS ran the story and expected to boost their ratings by doing so.

17 September 2004 at 12:49 PM  
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