Category Archives: Report

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?

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:


Table practice

A late report from I Don’t Know! — an artistic conference on knowledge production [18/09/2011]

Arriving for the second day of the conference, I am welcomed by EVC with a cheerful: “We are very curious what you’ll do. When we received your proposal we really did not know what to expect!“. At that point I had just read the descriptions of the other parallel ‘table practices’, and was panicking about choosing such a pragmatic approach. Oh well.

Before the seven sessions begin, the organisers ask us ‘to make our notes public’, meaning to write them on vertically placed cardboard surfaces scattered around the room. Additionally, we are invited to formulate ‘matters of concern’ on pink post-it notes (yellow ones are for possible responses, solutions). It is probably post-it fatigue but the question rubs me the wrong way, as does the term ‘mise en abyme’ that is used to explain the purposeful recursion of the discourse. Another coffee, and it is time to start.

The two discussions starting from The GML-Field Recorder Challenge are each useful and interesting in their own way thanks to many smart and generous people around the table. First we ‘simply’ discuss The Challenge in relation to the questions posed by the conference. Participants point out the difference between ‘writing about’ (or data from?) movement and the act of moving itself; the interplay between standard and practice (referring to choreographer Steve Paxton who resented the standardization of ‘his’ method Contact improvisation, feeling it would risk transforming a practice between people into a technique) and reminding me that the relation between markup and text is architectural.

The second session is a bit more complicated. It takes a while to get started, and in the end The Field Recorder Challenge is used as a ‘case’ in an attempt to compare artistic research to case law, or in short, to a ‘file’. Surprisingly, the situation gets almost out of hand when we discuss one of the stipulations of The Challenge: “The winning design will have some protection in the event that the device falls into the wrong hands“. Apparently one of the blockages for approaching artistic research as a ‘file’ is that it would imply an act of sharing without control. What if your work would be used for a bad cause? How then to take responsibility for your work?

The entertaining Discourse Machine is another kind of ‘table practice’, developed by EVC and PR. It is a conversation-game in the genre of Talkaoke1, though more intellectual in style. In proper Don’t Know!-fashion, it at the same time provokes discourse AND a reflection upon the discourse itself (or on the provocation?). The game is played in rapid succession by seven participants who take up the role of presenter, audience member, interviewer, critical facilitator, feedback-person, interviewee or communications manager. PR confirms that this Discourse API could work with altogether different questions too.

Throughout the conference, the vocabulary of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour is omnipresent. The confidence by which participants refer to them in conversation makes me wonder about my own usage of their work. A week later, inspired by AL, SV, PH, and LL working courageously through Stengers’ essay Ecology of Practice, it is good to read:

To challenge is something rather easy, you can always challenge somebody. But challenge as related to the eventuality of a cosmopolitical achievement must include the very special fact that in front of a challenging situation, nobody can speak in the name of this situation. Indeed borders are involved and there is no neutral, extra-territorial, way of defining what matters in the situation. It implies, for each involved party, different risk and a different challenge.”2

When it is my turn to speak in the gigantic plenum that concludes the day3, I am too impatient to say anything properly nuanced. As usual, KVDB is to the point: “Be careful not to fetishise your Don’t know!“.

  1. “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on”
  2. Ecology of practices and technology of belonging
  3. 50+ exhausted participants placed in a large circle. One by one we respond to yet another quest for ‘matters of concern’. In the middle some conference debris, a recorder slid into the void space, two microphones and a spaghetti of black cables.

Degrees of playing nice: two days at the Desktop Summit

Photo: Michael Fötsch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With only two out of three days of presentations and missing out on the BOF-sessions altogether I am still happy to have made it to the second Desktop Summit in Berlin.
The event operates on a scale that filters out the kind of experimental work you might come across at LGM or even at FOSDEM; with both KDE and GNOME targeting ‘normal users’, this event cares more about high-level work on community developed software and less about specific tools. As an anti-dote it would have been interesting to find projects outside the KDE/GNOME stratosphere such as the OpenBox window-manager, the Fedora design team or even to hear from Canonical’s Unity. That said, the overall atmosphere at the Desktop Summit was vigorous, frank and energetic. These are clearly interesting times, judging from the more than 700 people actively trying to get their heads around developments that continue to radically change the landscape of free software. It is great to see it so much alive and kicking.

The Desktop Summit brings two largish communities together: KDE and GNOME. Both are in essence window-managing projects for the free desktop, and ‘fight for the same mindshare’ as someone expressed it. But their interest in comparing notes seemed genuinely more important than the need to organise two meetings in parallel. The diplomatic agenda of the summit was apparent from the choice of keynotes that carefully bridged interests (hence stayed rather superficial?) and the decision to schedule talks like Stuart Javis’ Why Are We Here, about the future of KDE or GNOME Shell: Iteration’s what you need as single-track. In this way, the only option was to hear each other out.
Many talks were related to toolkits: QT for KDE and Clutter and GTK for GNOME. For me it was interesting to find out more about these collections of widgets, mixing properties of applications, frameworks and standards.
The Summit clearly functioned as an occasion to scope out overlaps, divide territories and articulate differences. It created an atmosphere of reflection and discussion rather than the usual tribal energy that is all about community-affirmation.
The Summit organisation omitted (on purpose or not) to put projects on the conference-badges, and this must have boosted the sales of T-shirts significantly. But if you were like me, not wearing anything that clarified affiliation, people simply came up asking: So, what do you think about GNOME3?

‘Design’ was present in many of the presentations. Essential, lacking, desirable, impossible, hard to manage, needed, hard to scale, wanted, hated and loved: the success of the free desktop is measured by design. Applications for interface-prototyping were discussed at some point, and Boudewijn Rempt showed off Krita but mainly talks tried to make sense of how design-practice could interface with software development; how to design functionalities that are ‘discoverable’ by users.
The much-debated development of GNOME3 (Gnome Shell) seems to finally have broken the Apple-spell and I enjoyed many interesting and self-confident talks about how to integrate User-Interface-design into development cycles, possible relations between software design patterns and … design patterns, the problems and affordances of doing designing in a community. The discussion went far beyond the fear of ‘design by commission’ and in that respect it was important to hear some serious thought being put into the idea that developers might need to learn how to design. “Some people decided to stop writing software so they could develop ‘a pure design mind’. I think that’s not a good thing. We need people that can wear different hats1

Repeat after me: Design Thinking for developers (Clemens N. Buss)

As a way to start such a learning, more and less digested flavors of ‘design thinking’2 were tested out. This method is probably a sensible choice since it seems to have (superficial?) overlaps with software development: iteration, testing etc. It is also rather post-it note-dependent and I wonder how it helps teams to deal with the hard question: what would a free desktop look like?
Donald Norman suggests that users need a ‘coherent mental model’3 to comfortably navigate digital services spread over multiple devices, and participants at the Desktop Summit seemed to be in agreement about the need for such a thing. How might they differ from a proprietary model? What ideas of inter-usability (Claire Rowland) could you imagine to come out of the principles of free software? The GNOME Shell Design Principles offer a modest start, but there were other interesting ideas around as well. Federico Mena Quintero proposed to think of well-designed free software as having the same ‘qualities without name’ that make organically grown cities comfortable for example. His anti-urbanist approach could do with some nuancing, especially if connected to design-learning as an “informal apprenticeships, like craftsmen teaching skills to each other” but I guess we’ll hear more from him about this one day.

A less positivist explanation of their ‘readiness to behave’ is maybe the apparent awareness of why and how business interests cross paths with free desktop development.
Besides the glib contributions of Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth in the panel on copyright assignment, there was very little outright commercial speak, and no hysterical trying-to-please-business whatsoever. Many presenters spoke from a clear understanding of the dependency on and deep relations with business interests and the free desktop. As Dirk Hohndel said in his keynote: About 90% of the people actively developing free software are also employed by software companies.
The perversity of the roller-coaster relation with companies such as Google (Android) and Nokia (Symbion, Troltech) was clearly brought out during the Panel on Copyright Assignment. The pressure on free software developers to double-license their code is a result of businesses interest in free software fitting their system. The question is of course, if that is in the interest of free software itself.

The excitement felt at the Desktop Summit seems largely fueled by the explosion of smart devices and I am not sure what role the free desktop is actually plotting out for itself. To me it seems back to a depressing lack of standards, working with very expensive devices who’s architecture is kept secret, consuming tons of developers energy before being replaced by yet other devices. This all at a pace that not many people can afford to code for without remuneration.
In a nice session about connecting the desktop to the web, Xan Lopez quoted Alan Kay saying that “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware4. Unfortunately, besides a rather gratuitous lightning talk by Michael Meeks about the RepRap project, hardware wasn’t really on the table. Judging from the quality of the discussions, no doubt it will be there at a next iteration of the summit.

  1. Comment by Pippin in the session Features follow function – design-driven development of GNOME Shell
  3. “A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about their own acts and their consequences. Our mental models help shape our behaviour and define our approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and carrying out tasks.” In his book The Design of Every Day Things, Donald Norman argues that in a well designed object, the mental model of the design should match the mental model of the user.

Desktop Summit (Day 1)

Karl Marx shines his light on the Desktop Summit (at the Humboldt University Berlin): “Die Philosophen haben nur die Welt verschieden interpretiert. Es kommt aber dar auf an die Welt zu verändern” (Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however, is to change it)

Desktop Summit (Day 0)

August 5, 2011 Berlin, Conference, desktop, gnome, LGRU, Report

I have found an empty seat with a working AC-power outlet; they are scarce in the ICE that takes me from Cologne to Berlin. Someone obviously looking for the same thing sits down across and I signal that I am OK to share. He produces a four-socket extension-cord from the depths of his bag and […]