Category Archives: Networked graphics

Tools for a Read-Write World I

While working on a call for projects in the context of LGRU (codename: Tools for a Read-Write World) I drift off into reading an interview with Ward Cunningham. Cunningham developed concepts and codes for collaborative tools such as the Wiki, and also inspired programming methods like Extreme Programming.

Bill Venners: Everyone would likely agree that predicting the future is difficult, but is it always a bad idea?

Ward Cunningham: (…) When we start talking about what will be desired in the future, we might have some instincts and they might be right, but they won’t always be right. And we have to attend to the times when they aren’t right. (…)

Somebody might say, “Why don’t we look forward, look at all the work we have to do? Why don’t we design a system that makes all work easy from the beginning?” And if you can pull that off, that’s great. It’s just that, over and over, people try to design systems that make tomorrow’s work easy. But when tomorrow comes it turns out they didn’t quite understand tomorrow’s work, and they actually made it harder.

Bill Venners: To tackle the cost of change curve, you found a way to make it practical to make changes all the way through the lifetime of a project. And that made it less important to plan for the future, because you could make changes when they were actually needed as the future unfolded. Does an overall architecture simply emerge through the process of focusing only on each small step?

Ward Cunningham: I like the notion of working the program, like an artist works a lump of clay. An artist wants to make a sculpture, but before she makes the sculpture, she just massages the clay. She starts towards making the sculpture, and sees what the clay wants to do. And the more she handles the clay, the more the clay tends to do what she wants. It becomes compliant to her will.
A development team works on a piece of code over several months. Initially, they make a piece of code, and it’s a little stiff. It’s small, but it’s still stiff. Then they move the code, and it gets a little easier to move.

Working the Program: A Conversation with Ward Cunningham, Part III. Bill Venners, 2004

forget that you are

click for video!
i P a d (Michael Murtaugh’s melted version for Prototyping Futures)

I am enjoying Household Words, an associative analysis of ‘common-sensical’ words such as Sucker, Bloomers, and Bombshell. In her last chapter, Cyber, Stephanie A. Smith refers to On the road to intimacy, a 1992 whitepaper calling for the development of ‘personal digital assistants’. The authors David Dunham and Scott Shwarts predict that we would one day all carry “a helpful friend in our pocket”. Intimate devices for them, should be like telephones:

The telephone is an intimate device. You don’t have to think about using it, and probably don’t consider yourself to be using high technology when you do. When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are. An intimate computer should be equally transparent. Ideally, you shouldn’t know you’re using a computer until it does something wonderful.

Smith asks herself:

Now really, who can forget they’re on the telephone? More interesting is the syntax of the statement “When you talk on the phone, you frequently forget that you are.” What might it mean that you forget that you are?

LGM 2012

This year I could only make it for a few days to LGM, but I am glad I came. First of all to meet friends and colleagues, to find out how they and their projects have been. I enjoyed getting hold of a fresh issue of Libre Graphics Magazine for example; The Physical, the Digital and the Designer is once again an excellent collection of articles, images and reviews so make sure you get your hands on it too!

SK1 reloaded: 'Printdesign', a new tool for office printing

I arrived just in time in Vienna to witness the birth of a Scribus GUI-team, something that has been in the making for a while now. Although the discussion at the meeting GUI of Scribus and effectiveness of work showed that developers and designers involved still are getting to grips with what this will mean for the project and it’s team-dynamics, it is a start.

Tom Lechner's demo of a future align+distribute tool

Unfortunately I did arrive too late for Tom Lechners’ talk Weird Layout. Using Inkscape-like align and distribute functionalities, his fresh approach to putting elements in relation to each other actually doesn’t seem that weird at all. If only it would deal with text as elegantly as it handles images?

The Auditorium. Photo: Nicu B., 2012 CC-BY-SA

This year’s venue for LGM was the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien (a brand new auditorium, cantine and several classrooms at our disposal) and ran parallel to the Linuxwochen. It made for some lively inserts but also put the lean organising team and minimalist style of hosting under pressure even more. But participants happily found their way to other places like Metalab, a hackerspace not far from the glossy MuseumsQuartier. Metalab offered us comfortable spaces for working and discussing, and a broken power plug was successfully re-soldered and taped too.

Beautiful cusps with Powerstroke

New to LGM were exciting projects such as Powerstroke, the result of Johan Engelen’s work on multiple width strokes in Inkscape. The construction of smooth ‘calligraphic’ strokes (always in quotation marks!) clearly benefitted from his background in mathematics. Ricardo Lafuente compiled Inkscape with it and looked *very* happy.

HarfBuzz: A fast-moving target

The text-shaping engine HarfBuzz takes care of lay-out at an atomic level. Behdad Esfahbod explained in accessible terms how HarfBuzz tries to simplify and make legible the process of shaping even the most complex of text-lay-outs.

Keeping a promise: Joao delivers Brazilian chocolate for transport to Belgium

It was also interesting to see Máirín Duffy from the Fedora Designteam at work; with her colleague Emily Dirsh she toured us through several collaboration tools for interactive design that they were thinking about and developing. Their slides on Sparkleshare, Magic Mockup and Design Hub:

And, classified as #tehweird at lgm: SoundFumble; an audio player that takes GIMP image data as input. Without taking anything away from the GIMP-experience, your favourite digital image editor can be a soundmachine too.

I enjoyed introducing Marcos Garcia to LGM and vice versa. We did not present much of the LGRU-work in the end because we wanted to make sure that the Libre Graphics community felt as excited as we were ourselves about LGM in Madrid next year. So we used most of our time to tell some inspiring Medialab Prado stories and I think that was convincing.

Stefanie at Mz Balthazar's Laboratory

That evening I met with Stefanie from Mz Baltazars’ laboratory, a lab or hackerspace for women and trans. We discussed the various methods we were both using to create ‘fearless, accessible plattforms’. It was a nice and useful strategy-swap before I joined the party at Metalab.

Over lunch on Saturday, a discussion with Kate Price, Peter Sikking, Joao Bueno and Chris Lilley about being stuck with the page-metaphor and what that means for graphics traversing from web to print and vice versa. Kate agreed that relational placement made more sense: “Measure at the point where the relationship is“. Which prompted Chris: “The problem with intelligent tools is that you end up argueing with them“. Kate also made interesting connections to CAD-software and Peter referred to Theo Van Doesberg and his idea of designing from the smallest element outwards. Hopefully to be continued.

An invitation to Madrid at the closing session. Photo: Nicu B., 2012 CC-BY-SA

At the closing talk, our invitation to host LGM 2013 in Madrid was accepted with enthusiasm. It felt a bit strange that we were deciding on a second European meeting while being in Europe, but still I am glad to have an opportunity to connect LGM to LGRU and the Spanish-speaking free software community. Apparently the same team of people that invited LGM to Vietnam in 2011 is working on LGM-Asia in 2014 … wouldn’t that be great?

What you can learn from digging a hole

In an intense discussion about ‘the interface of the future’, John Lilly (then CEO Mozilla Corporation, now working for another company); Aza Raskin (then Head of User Experience at Mozilla Labs, now running his own company) and Dan Mills (then Lead Developer of Weave, now leading the Account Manager project at Mozilla Labs) debate what happens between intent and result. If the interface goes away, how do you learn what to look for?

00:01,671 --> 02:15,276
AR: Let’s jump a little bit forward because I think when you know where we are going, it is easier to figure out how we chart our course there. So really simple example, starting with the shovel. A shovel has two bits. It has the thing that does the work, that is the blade. And it has the interface or the handle.
What we often see is that most projects is that people work on that blade, making it titanium, making it diamant encrusted. Spending all their time making an incredible backend technology but forgetting about the handle so you and up with a beautiful blade with a tiny short handle and you can’t really use it.
Let’s go a step further. What would the ultimate interface be, for a shovel. The very best one.
Some people might say you want an automatic digging machine, where you might get to ride it like a tractor trailor, other people might call that bloatware.
But what is the ultimate expression of a shovel? It’s a hole, it is having a hole already dug.
Instead of needing the tool, you would just have the result. So I think if we go way way into the future, the place we cannot get now, when we think of interfaces, what you really want, is just the result already done.
I think that is mighty spaceship thinking, what we can pull from that is the closer we get from no interface, the closer we get to not having to think about the interface between us and the machine and us and the artifact to having just the result that we want, the better.
For instance instead of going to our browser and typing in a search query, to get a search result, we should just be able to think or say and interact … “I wonder whether the [?] won this season?” or “Won the last season”, and you get the answer immediately.
To most people, that is not going to feel like an interface. And that is the sort of interface we want. Because as soon as you need to stop and realise and think about an interface, you’ve already lost.

02:15,276 --> 03:09,056
JL: I think that in digging the hole, you learn much about what you are trying to do. I think you are presupposing an intentionality that is not always there.
So I think when you look for knowledge, when you construct knowledge, when you construct a future space station, you don’t always know the goal from the outset, where you are trying to get.
The process of getting there often creates new knowledge. So I argue at c-base the point is not actually (I’ve known you for thirty minutes, so I don’ know if this is actually right) but the point is not to get to the space station, but it is all the things and all the aha’s and all the insights you have along the way.
And you can only get those insights, by struggling. By working through it. So I think that if you presuppose that you understand what you want always and that you are very intentional about everything you that you do, and that you understand precisely the results that you want, than I agree with you. But I think that human beings most of the times are not like that.

03:18,484 --> 03:25,633
AR: So if I understand what you are saying, than you are saying that imperfect tools are better?

03:25,633 --> 03:48,717
JL: No that is not what I said. I said, that you construct knowledge, through the use of tools. You are articulating one type of interface that is getting to the result without use of tools. And I am saying you miss a type of knowledge creation by thinking that way.

03:48,717 --> 04:03,437
AR: Rather what I think I am saying that if your goal is to dig a trench to add a landline, some place, that there are a whole bunch of problems there that go way beyond the physical act of digging of the hole.

04:03,437 --> 04:12,262
JL: I agree with you. If you know exactly the result you are trying to get to, and you don’t believe that you need to create knowledge along the way, than you are good with no interface.

04:12,262 --> 04:21,456
AR: Really what I am saying that any time you spend fiddling with your tool, instead of doing the job or the task that you set out to do, is wasted time that we should be trying to minimize.

04:21,456 --> 04:23,593
JL: And I think that is an over-broad generalization.

04:23,593 --> 04:26,797
DM: What if you don’t know what the task you are setting to do is?

04:26,797 --> 04:34,877
JL: Or what if what you think you know what you are doing but you are wrong? I think that in many cases you are correct, but I think it is an over-broad statement though.

04:34,877 --> 04:40,728
AR: Well, in that case you are going to use a tool that isn’t particularly apropos; discover that it is wrong and make a new tool.

04:40,728 --> 04:46,254
DM: But in your case, there is no tool. There is only intent and result.

04:46,254 --> 04:56,425
JL: That is right. Intent and result. And there is a process between intent and result. And sometimes the process changes both intent and result.

04:56,425 --> 05:05,295
AR: I think I’d argue rather that if your intent is wrong the result will be wrong, and that is the iterative loop you want.

05:05,482 --> 05:19,507
JL: I don’t think that is obvious either. I don’t think the result is wrong if the intent is wrong either. you often think you are headed in one direction, and you end up in a different place entirely. It is an ok result.

05:19,507 --> 05:25,358
AR: I won’t disagree with you there, I just think it is not our tools that should be…

05:25,358 --> 06:24,057
JL: I can be specific. I think right now on the web, we are heading to this non-serendipitous web. What people really want, they want the news they want, just the news. They just want what they are interested in, what their filter is, what their lens is.
But I will tell you that it misses serendipity. When you read through a paper, that you did not expect, but that you wanted to learn and needed to learn. When you walk through Berlin, you notice up a whole bunch of things that you did not think you needed to know, but now you do.
I think that serendipity and the process of knowledge construction… I think that we are talking about different types of activities, but I think that … I’ll tell you that I have learned a lot about myself when I’ve been digging in my yard with a shovel.
It is not that I say we should look for imperfect tools, but I think that connecting intent and result too tightly will not always be the right thing.

This discussion took place in C-base, Berlin in October 2008

A flow of material across different sources

The first ever Research Meeting in the context of the Libre Graphics Research Unit took place now more than a week ago. Organised by Worm and themed Networked Graphics, 30 participants from across Europe gathered in Rotterdam for five days. We traversed “The extremes of Networked Graphics” as WL puts it: From demo-scene classics to the unparalleled world of ‘Fundamental Research’, from high-powered 3D-graphics to an informal state-of-the art in 3D-printing, from Visual Versioning to the need for dialogue between edit and lay-out.

On Wednesday we start with a tour of Worm, or more precisely their newly opened building. We linger with Esther Urlus in De Filmwerkplaats, enjoying her astute understanding of the multiple relations between technology and practice. She hands us a copy of To Boldly Go: A starters guide to hand made and d-i-y films:

Let’s not keep any secrets! These (chemical) receipts, printing processes, after dev. Effects, emulsion extras and celluloid experiments should be absolutely public. Let’s make hand-made d-i-y films! Let’s make a lot!1

On Thursday, The Unit is invited for lunch at the Piet Zwart Institute’s Networked Media department. We are welcomed by RT, MM and AM. Their presentation is more than encouraging:

The pipeline, as an approach to creating an artistic work, is in dramatic contrast to a traditional image of the “isolated artist working in the ‘clean room’ of his/her creative suite…” and recasts work as being a flow of material across different sources. This acknowledges that the tools are themselves represent decisions, assumptions, work of others, negotiations/compromises. Often a project can have a powerful impact simply by making an unexpected connection between systems.2

Later that night the Constant/OSP delegation decides to return to school and work. RT has lend us her master-key and we feel strangely excited as we let ourselves in to the building that seems lit by fluorescents 24/7.

PH and PM continue their discussion on what could be a flow-based approach to lay-out. Like a pearl necklace, they imagine lay-out actions to be threaded on a string. Sparked by the simple gesture of touching a keyboard, a deeply political process of linking previous and future decisions is launched. To be explored.

GDH has taken up on another challenge. In a session on Networked Lay-out earlier that day we end up talking about how canvas-based and typesetting engines have different relations to computation, parametric design and the physicality of the printed page:

FS: It was frustrating but interesting to discover that in TeX/ConTeXt the idea of a fixed page doesn’t exist. I mean… the page does not exist before compilation.
PM: That’s not true. Page size is the first thing that TeX will ask for!
FS: Yes, you are right. But beforehand it knows only about the page in terms of size, not in terms of amount. It meant that I had to recompile my document several times, trying different font-sizes and margins in order to end up with a booklet of exactly 36 pages. It felt as if I was doing the kind of work that the engine could have more easily done for me?*

After midnight GDH finishes his prototype: A Python script for Scribus which treats margin and font-size as a variable, depending on how a text can fit a fixed amount of pages. It might sound like a small step, but I see the contours of a more interesting connection between canvas based and generative design.

In the mean time, work has commenced on the LGRU-reader. This Reader is a thinking tool disguised as publication, a collection of wanted and existing texts that helps us develop and focus research on Libre Graphics. The editorial team is made up of people living in different continents, so the discussion happens simultaneously on IRC, Etherpad and live in the Worm-cafetaria:

<NM> But the point is not to look for the purest grass root formats
<LN> ah
<NM> Rather to look for the complexity of spec-design
<LN> Hmm: so collaboration in this case is dependent on limitations of mediary figure?
<SV> AL: The UFO format was made to exchange between different softwares. He's not sure though. ES knows?
<ES> Yes for that and for longevity. But to get to your question LN...
<SV> Sorry. Now we have to go outside to make a group photo to prove to that we are here.

--> IML (~nn@ has joined #lgru-reader
<ES> So LN ... with intermediary figure you mean the format or the people introducing, mediating the format?
<IML> ey :-)
<LN> I don't know. In the case of what NM said about "interference and intermediary above" I wasn't sure if this was the format, or people.
<SV> IML!! :-)
<NM> The intermediary is both file and people, or interest groups.

Friday is about the interdependence of the physical and the digital. I struggle with the adolescent sexist imagery that Visa-Valtteri tours us through, but am fascinated by graphics that result from the play of hardware against software or vice versa.

Bas Schouten works for the Mozilla Corporation and his presentation of the Azure project takes on a different tone. Azure is ‘a stateless graphics API that’s closer both to platform APIs and hardware‘ and as his talk3 progresses, we start to understand why high-end 3D graphics such as WebGL require direct access to user’s machines. But we also understand that richer networked graphics paradoxically necessitate a more closed approach to the web, or at least that is how Bas presents the situation:

LGRU: You presented the Azure project as a way to shortcut the CAIRO open source/community-based development; can you say more about that?
BS: You mean: Is the slowness from CAIRO not part of openness actually? Yes. People hamper progress. It is like politics, it happens a lot, people that hold a project hostage. We do develop CAIRO – we do contribute to that project, but our resources are limited. We need to compete with Chrome and Explorer. And don’t forget: paid employees review code at Mozilla; in the end all API decisions are made by The Company. What is our mission? Trying to be as open as we can but there are trade-offs. We do want to stay around for a few more years.*

Robert B. Lisek: The Strongest Link is the Weakest

On Saturday, Robert B. Lisek catapults us back into the world of networks with his delirious trip linking terrorism to graphics. To think about graphics is to think about the relation between things, he seems to say:

Maybe it is my brain, but when holding this book, I see it as a group of elements.

On Sunday, just before the Constant/OSP delegation drives back to Brussels, PH crosses the Maas-bridge by foot to pick up his car parked on the other side of the river. Underway he discovers Maasbeeld, a sculpture by Auke de Vries that connects the pillars of two bridges. PH thinks that as a visual reference to the work on Co-position that has started to cook, this image might be more useful than a pearl necklace. Locals have nicknamed the sculpture ‘De Waslijn’ (The Clothesline).

Auke de Vries, Maasbeeld (1981). Photo: René Hoeflaak, all rights reserved.

*This is not a direct quote, but a faithful reconstructions based on our collective notes.

More notes and images:


Tying the story to data

In the summer of 2010, Constant commissioned artist and researcher Evan Roth to develop a work of his choice, and to make the development process available in some way. He decided to use a part of his fee as prize-money for The GML-Recorder Challenge, inviting makers to propose an open source device ‘that can unobtrusively record graffiti motion data during a graffiti writer’s normal practice in the city’.

In three interviews that took place in Brussels and Paris within a period of one and a half years, we spoke about the collaborative powers of the GML-standard, about contact points between hacker and graffiti-cultures and the granularity of gesture.

The text is based on conversations between Evan Roth (ER) and Femke Snelting (FS), Peter Westenberg (PW), Michele Walther (MW), Stéphanie Villayphiou (SV), John Haltiwanger (JH) and momo3010.

Download PDF: Tying the story to data

Space filling algorithms

AM: Pre-designed software, be it commercial or open source, pre-supposes how users intend to interact with it, what they want to do, and how they ought to do it, what the pipeline and the process ought to be.
M: Whenever I need a new functionality, I immediately try to design a simple re-usable API for it. I absolutely HATE copy / pasting code between projects, or even within a single project.
DP: It’s a practice. Space filling algorithms. Patterns of growth. At any given point in time, I have to choose a constraint to embrace, the boundaries of the page are an easy starting point.
AM: I have a lot of things I am no where near finished exploring with aesthetically, but also have a myriad of unfinished, generally useful tools for end users.
M: If I need to do the same or similar stuff in different places, I’ll try and make sure my code is parametric enough to accommodate for it, and the API allows it.
ZL: I remember thinking something simple like, “Better tools = better starting point = better work”. That was the motto.
AM: My private policy is: when I get bored and tired of a specific effect (that I’ve found has a sort of “signature”) it’s a candidate for release.
ZL: There are just so many pieces to know about and how they fit together, it seems to me an inherently collaborative medium and one which we should actively work to demystify and to lower the barrier to entry. Good tools do that.

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May 2011, Kyle Mconald interviewed colleagues and friends Zach Lieberman, Anton Marini, Memo and Dan Paluska about “open source, media art, and digital communities”. The Sharing Interviews were conducted using Etherpad and published on GitHub.


MM reads the introduction to Mark Pilgrims’ Dive into HTML5: “HTML has always been a conversation between browser makers, authors, standards wonks, and other people who just showed up and liked to talk about angle brackets. Most of the successful versions of HTML have been “retro-specs,” catching up to the world while simultaneously trying to […]