Friday, 10 September 2004


I think this whole “forged documents” thing is taking off.

Meanwhile, Occam’s Razor suggests that the theory that the documents might not be forged (discussed by Gary Farber) is unlikely. I find it difficult to believe that by coincidence, someone would produce a document with a 1973 typewriter that would look essentially identical to the output of the copy of Microsoft Word 2002 on my desk, down to the inter-letter spacing [not the kerning - Ed.], superscripting of the ordinal “th,” and margins, or that someone would go to the trouble of purchasing a non-standard typewriter ball for a military-issue typewriter (were these golfballs even in the GSA contract with IBM?) and install it just to write memos about a particular officer for filing—but switch back to the standard one for other correspondence. (But Gary is to be commended for at least taking the time to seriously think about this, something a lot of people haven’t done.)

I think Colby Cosh nails it in a sentence:

If the reports are accurate, CBS—estimated annual news budget: one squillion dollars—has been taken in by a fraud that, roughly speaking, anybody over the age of 30 in the industrialized world could have spotted.

Of course, I strongly suspect the people doing the real legwork on this story either (a) are like my students and don’t remember an era before ubiquitous computing or (b) are folks like Dan Rather who haven’t touched a typewriter in 30 years. Speaking of Dan, CBS News is saying we don’t need no—investigation. That stand, er, does not seem wise.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

Yeah, well, ol’ Dan’s never been the fastest sled on the slope.
So it is that both the Democrats, and the MSM end up with whale poop on their keels.

I find it hard to say which I will mourn less.


”... Gary Farber’s theory that the documents might not be forged is…” respectfully, not a theory I put forth, and I was very careful to make that clear. Repeatedly.

”...1973 manual typewriter….”

Is not an idea that anyone, anywhere, has put forth.

”....(were these golfballs even in the GSA contract with IBM?)””

I gotta suspect that you didn’t work in many offices with typewriters in the Sixties or Seventies, or you’d know how clueless this is. Nobody had a Selectric without multiple golfballs; one snapped them back and forth in under five seconds, and being able to do so was the main point of the typewriter. The Selectric was in pretty much every office everywhere by the Seventies, and was the main default typewriter everywhere by then, and pretty much everyone who used them switched typeballs as easily as they hit the “shift” key. It’s just how it was. I have no idea how old you are, Chris, but it’s not obvious youworked in an office in the Seventies.

Repeating, however, again: the documents, or some of them, may well be forgeries, and I’m inclined to suspect so myself. Which doesn’t excuse clueless writing about simple facts about typewriters by so many people. Imagine, thirty years from now, reading that the only way anyone back at the turn of the century used a home computer without Windows was that it cost them $20,000. It’s that ignorant and wrong.


not a theory I put forth, and I was very careful to make that clear.

Fair enough.

(Manual typewriter) Is not an idea that anyone, anywhere, has put forth.

I was thinking “manual” in the sense of not being a word processor, but the terminology I used was incorrect. (I’ll fix the post.)

Nobody had a Selectric without multiple golfballs; one snapped them back and forth in under five seconds, and being able to do so was the main point of the typewriter.

Certainly, secretaries and people who typed a lot would swap golfballs. But why would a lieutenant colonel (not a secretary or writer by trade) go to the trouble to swap golfballs for two characters in a single memo that was only going straight in a file (all of his other memos don’t have the superscripted “th”)? I’d just type “116th” (or whatever) and be done with it, unless this was meant to be correspondence to someone else.

FWIW, I hung around military offices as a kid, and actually worked in one over a summer, (Air Force brat) and the old IBM Selectric typewriters were still in use (though Zenith PC clones with WordStar and dot-matrix or daisy-wheel printers were coming into wider use for correspondence); I remember there being Elite and Courier balls around (one, I think Elite, was the one you were supposed to use for military correspondence on the 8×10.5 letterhead, so you left that in the machine), but I don’t remember any proportional-type balls around the office, and I can’t think of anyone who’d ever gone to the trouble of swapping the balls—I probably did it once just because I was curious about such things.

Granted, that was a few offices in the 1980s and early 1990s; maybe the TANG was staffed by typography snobs ☺.


Elite is 12 pitch versus pica 10 pitch. Varying the two is precisely a common usage of the Selectric, done by reflex within a few seconds. This was precisely the most common switch, made a gazillion times a day.

The argument here boils down to whether or not the guy knew how to use his typewriter. I have no opinion on that, beyond the fact that it was no more an unusual skill than knowing how to hit “start” in Windows.

They may be forgeries. Claims that all this stuff was rare, unusual, expensive, etc. are absolute crap. (Who isn’t already laughing at how “impossible” it was asserted a whole day ago this was?)


No, it isn’t impossible; however, not bloody likely springs to mind. How many typists would exactly duplicate Microsoft Word’s line-wrap behavior and margins using a proportional typeface in four separate documents? I think we’re approaching million monkeys territory there.

Granted, there’s no way to verify this either way without determining whether or not the letters were originally made using an impression-based device, toner from some sort of page printer, thermal transfer, or inkjet technology. And since CBS doesn’t have the originals, just nth generation photocopies, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. Not to mention now that the images are out there, they could be duplicated fairly trivially for an “amazing discovery” to support one side or the other (including by CBS, so even if it does produce the originals nobody will believe they are not fakes—either to reinforce their claims or to get the attack dogs off of them).

Of course, when CBS’s experts say one thing and everybody else’s say the opposite, and CBS refuses to show on-air anyone who disputes their allegations (I guess the fourth estate is above investigation, even from within, being so critical to democracy and all), you have to wonder.


“How many typists would exactly duplicate Microsoft Word’s line-wrap behavior and margins using a proportional typeface in four separate documents?”

Using standard rules, pretty much everyone, I’d think. Not a brain-twister. I rather marvel that people think that’s difficult, and again wonder how much they’ve used a typewriter. Basically, you couldn’t pass a sixth-grade typing test without being able to do that. Who is this news to? This is just a nutty question. People can hyphenate almost like computers. And use margins! Jeebus, what did they do before computers?

I agree, however, completely, that CBS not putting up its own “experts” is contemptible, and only invites scath and doubt, and I repeat again, for the zillionith time I (since I’ve commented on many blogs) that I suspect fraud in some fashion here myself.


Not a brain-twister with a monospaced font (count the number of letters in the rest of your word, see if it will fit between the “bell” and the predetermined margin, since you know the pitch of your typeface), but I think you’d make some mistakes with a proportional font—i.e. go slightly beyond the hard margin and have to press margin release to finish your word—unless your typewriter was sophisticated enough to do word-wrap automatically, which typewriters of the era weren’t. Zero margin errors (relative to Word with 1.25 inch margins) in 32 lines of proportional type? Not statistically impossible, by any means, but not very likely either.

FWIW, none of the memos use hyphenation; again, consistent with the default behavior of Word.

I think the only likely “genuineness” possibility is that someone, for some unknown reason, retyped the memos by Killian in the last decade and faked his John Hancock on them (or photocopied a genuine J. Killian). Why? Beats me; people have done stupider things. Still doesn’t explain why CBS fell for them—though the fact that their “expert” was a handwriting expert, not a typography expert, may help explain that.

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