Unintentional forensic edit logs via font changes

I always enjoy it when people tell on themselves with their font changes, making it clear that they have sent a hastily-edited form letter rather than a sincere one-to-one communication. Here's what a recent email looked like when viewed in Mail on iOS:

And here's what it looked like in Mail on macOS. The difference is more subtle, but the text of [MAJOR METROPOLITAN AREA] is still smaller (capital letters are 25px instead of 28px).

Also one of them is Arial and the other is Helvetica. Now, I know what you're thinking -- normally when someone makes that distinction you know that you're dealing with some kind of font-hipster super-nerd. This is true. But when they're side by side, sometimes even normal people can tell them apart!

Here's an easy way to screw up like this on macOS:

  • Compose an email in Mail.app.
  • Format / Make Rich Text.
  • Type stuff.
  • Open Notes.app and copy stuff.
  • Paste.

You will almost certainly get different fonts, because you didn't do "Paste and Match Style".

"Make Plain Text" also works, because nobody needs to see the damned fonts in your damned email in the first place (sorry not sorry).

And it's not just Apple; the Google and MICROS~1 tool sets all fuck up in nearly identical ways. Besides the highly visible breadcrumbs that they reveal through this kind of font fuckery, view source also reveals many other edits. You tend to get a new DIV or SPAN every time you paste something or join paragraphs, and that reveals clues about your editing process, information that you probably didn't intend the recipient to have.

I guess it's unsurprising that the people writing these rich-text editors screw up in this way -- it's probably inconceivable to them to be concerned about the on-the-wire representation of the data they are emitting, beyond whether it displays correctly for them personally. For other examples of this lack of craftsmanship just look at how pathetically every mail reader encodes quoted-printable -- a format intentionally designed to be readable by humans in the raw, but now universally treated as a binary blob. Or the criminally incompetent manner in which they all convert HTML to text/plain in multipart/alternative. Or, gestures wildly at the entirety of XML and JSON.

But the font size changes are surprising, because it's so obvious. It makes you look like you screwed up. Surely people have complained about this. And by "people" I mean "people who matter", you know, wealthy clients.

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10 Responses:

  1. pagrus says:

    I mean, there are people who do like actual forensic typographic investigating. Adobe is right up the street from you and it's full of type nerds

  2. J. Peterson says:

    The modern equivalent of ^H!

    Previously.

  3. Hal says:

    I'd never convince anyone to return to plain text email. However, what's to keep us from adopting some html-free subset of Markdown as the standard encoding of email?

    • Thomas Lord says:

      Markdown is plain text and it's a good idea, with a mail client user preference to convert. I'd like to see a whole alt-web along similar lines, for that matter (it'd take some careful thought). Everyone could start making fun of people who send mail with markdown bugs, forcing the recipient to read it as plain text. That alone might be worth it.

      All of this already exists - there is literally almost nothing needed by way of new code to have it. All you have to do is get everyone to switch away from all the popular email dis-services and non-libre email clients, and that will probably entail mass marketing some libre phones that work on all networks and aren't in permanent early beta testing and are priced sanely. Easy Peazy. Probably take, what, 6-12 months?

      • jwz says:

        Markdown is not really any more "plain text" than HTML is, and GUIs that emitted it could spew out an equally unreadable dumpster fire of markdown as they do with HTML or QP.

        • Thomas Lord says:

          I'll certainly agree that the whole challenge of a fancy word-processor-style editor for markdown is to make sure that the ASCII version is pleasingly and readably formatted. (You're right that I shouldn't assumed that that was taken for granted these days.)

      • Tim says:

        Markdown is shit and terrible. Bold /italics/ _underscore_ (or maybe __underscore__) are much better than Markdown. _italics_ or italics are both wrong.

        And if you want to link to something that ends in a parenthesis ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenthesis_(disambiguation)

        Use angle brackets for links, because they are not valid in links! You can still put your text [like this if you want].

        ---
        And because I assume that WordPress will fuck up the above, here it is again, replace %word% with the symbol.
        Markdown is shit and terrible. %asterisk%Bold%asterisk% /italics/ _underscore_ (or maybe __underscore__) are much better than Markdown. _italics_ or %asterisk%italics%asterisk% are both wrong.

        And if you want to link to something that ends in a parenthesis ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenthesis_(disambiguation)

        Use angle brackets for links, because they are not valid in links! You can still put your text [like this if you want]%leftangle%https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenthesis_(disambiguation)%rightangle%.

  4. Richard says:

    To fuck things up on sites that won't take HTML in their forms, I have this little utf-8 nugget in my bookmarks:

    Super cool unicode text magic. Write 𝐛𝐨𝐥𝐝 and/or 𝑖𝑡𝑎𝑙𝑖𝑐 updates on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere

    and use it regularly. ;-)

    Sorry, ... not sorry

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