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Sunday, September 12, 2004
More on the Composer v. Word

By Steven Taylor @ 8:59 pm

Edward Mendelson of PC Mag tries to demonstrate that the same document could be produced on both a PC today and an IBM Selectric Composer back then.

First, he misses the point-the question isn’t can you make a document that looks identical on both formats, of course you can-the question is can you produce the Killian memo as it was presented by CBS News on the Composer? Thus far, it seems to me that you can’t. As a commenter somewhere noted: the question isn’t can you produce a document in 2004 that looks like it was produced on 1973 tech, but could a 1973 machine have produced a document that has the appearance of a document produced in 2004.

Indeed, Mr. Mendelson misses the point of the exercise given that he had to work to get the documents to appear to be identical:

The image that was prepared in Word was typed without any adjustments whatsoever to the spacing of the type. I reproduced the hyphenation of the IBM original by manually inserting hyphens (without spaces afterwards) after the same letters where hyphens occur in the IBM text.

If once has to work at getting them identical, then that is not big feat-I have no doubt once can make identical-looking documents in both formats-but that isn’t the issue.

The point of the lgf experiment, is that with no work whatsoever, the Word doc looks like the alleged Killian doc (the pulsating version, really makes the point).

I decided the try the lgf experiment myself-I opened Word, and I use the default settings, and I started typing The “Killian” memo. The results are that the words track exactly. Proof that the doc is a forgery? No. Compelling? Yes. And again, having used typewriters, I know that the margins aren’t so auto-perfect unless one is really good at using the machine-while with Word the margins and word-wrapping is so natural for a 21st-century typist that one doesn’t even think about it. The bottom line is that without any formatting adjustments one gets the CBS-Killian memo by just tryping into Word. What are the odds that one would have gotten proportional spacing and the appropriate word-wrapping in a typed document in 1973? I recall that one of the biggest hassles of typing on a typewriter was making sure that you didn’t start a word that would go beyond your margins without having to hyphenate. One the main reasons I often used White Out or the correction strips was because a word needed to be on the next line to look right. The Killian memo has perfect word wrapping with no indication of White Out or of corrections-things that this former office clerk remember do usually show up on photocopies.

Second, note that I used the word appear above-as in Mendelson appears to have produced an identical doc in Word and on the IBM Composer, lgf demonstrates that they are not identical (at least assuming that the scans at PC Mag are the right size, which they appear to be)-just as the Shape of Days experiment demonstrates that it may not be possible for the Killian memo to have been produced on the Composer.

Third, of course the fundamental argument here isn’t what might be possible, but what is reasonable to assume actually happened. I will grant, Mendelson doesn’t claim to be answering that question. But it seems to me that many folks are so focused on the technical possibilities, that they are missing the point that even if the technology existed, it was unlikely to have been used by Killian, let alone expertly by Killian.

  • The American Mind linked with Missing the Point

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