Establishing “tech criticism”

Dave Winer posted a short article last week whereupon he lamented lack of sophistication and erudition amongst technical journalists. In particular, he notes that many journalists have are not cognizant of how exactly most new technology is designed and created, citing Steve Jobs as an example of the go-to “lone creator” journalists use when discussing Apple products.

There’s very little understanding of how we [software creators] work. That’s illustrated perfectly by the Issacson bio of Steve Jobs. We now see what a disaster this is going to be, from the future-historian point of view.

I’ve thought that perhaps a panel of product creators could give awards to journalism that really captures the spirit of technology. The goal would be to move away from the lone inventor myth and see tech projects as more like film production or a even more apt, a TV series. Software is a process

The issue with technical journalism is not specific to the aforementioned domain – all journalism suffers from the fact that it consists of non-experts having to write (theoretically) truthful and insightful pieces about extremely complicated subjects, whether it is economics, world affairs, or emerging technologies. However, in the technological field this problem is exacerbated because there is a sense of wonder and “gee-whiz” mentality still associated with software and hardware. As Winer rightfully pointed out, these products are now ubiquitous in our daily lives and there is no excuse for this trite, disingenuous attitude.

What is to be done? Diner’s suggestion of an awards panel is a step in the right direction, but that doesn’t extend far enough in the realm of criticism. Journalists have a duty to report the facts and occurrences within their specific beat, but if we wish to promote technology to “art” status, we must also cultivate a canon of criticism analogous to literature and film as well.

A good first step would simply be to have more engineers writing in the public domain about technology and what it means to create and maintain “good” soft/hardware. For example, online forums, such as Hacker News, extol the virtues of the qualitative “user experience” that reminiscent of critical theory, but there is rarely such crossover into mainstream outlets. If members of the technological domain take initiative to write and publish articles that serve to establish criteria upon which we can evaluate technology, written with both engineers and initiated laypeople (e.g. journalists) in mind, we would be well on our way to propagating technical literacy at large. Journalism schools could reciprocate this notion and offer classes specifically focused on technology journalism – understanding how software operates, what it takes to build and ship it, etc etc.

Personally, as a student a liberal arts college, I think it would be wonderful to have engineers come and take courses on the history of technology in order for them to gain perspective and be able to think critically about what impact their soft/hardware is having beyond simply its function as an end-user product. We invite literature professors and journalists to come speak about matters of technology’s influence in our society, so why not the people who are making it first-hand, especially people who have been through a rigorous curriculum designed to broaden their interests and perspective?

BitCam: old-school hardware palette filters for your webcam

Since my first post nearly a month ago, a colleague and I been tweaking and optimizing my K-Means algorithm in order to have it be suitable for palette transformation. Here’s the result using the Commodore 64 palette:

Not to spice my own goose, but I think that looks pretty good. K-Means provides image segmentation procedures that allow me to transform the image in a manner that is more faithful to the original C64 aesthetic compared to just direct color swapping (using this Processing sketch):

Using K-Means, I weight certain parameters, such as brightness (converting colors to YUV first), so that colors don’t appear washed out. The segmentation allows for a non-photorealistic rendering so I can accurately recreate the resolution and pixelation seen in C64 games.

So far I have implemented the Teletext, ZX Spectrum, and C64 palettes. Next on the list are the palettes for the Nintendo Entertainment System, BBC Micro, and the IBM PC CGA mode. Then Curtis and I will release BitCam for Android phones, probably with a .99 cent price point. Depending on how busy my winter break is, I might take a stab at deploying it to iOS as well.

A further, more ambitious application would be a general purpose filter so that indie game developers can easily create in-game assets without the need of a professional designer e.g. they would take a picture of a person or object and then use the BitCam algorithm to create sprites.

Necrophilia, or, the FreeAgent GoFlex never deletes your data

I plugged in my old GoFlex 500gb external HDD to delete some movies and add new ones, standard procedure. However, it was a while since I had touched that drive and now had Xubuntu installed where I was previously using Windows 7.  Specifically, I had a Xubuntu install in which I enabled “See Hidden Folders” in Thunar.

.Trash-1000? Was it really that simple to recover deleted files?

files to delete

Let’s delete this old bookmark file, right-clicking and using the “delete” option (more on using ‘rm’ later).

there it is!

There it is! And hey, some other stuff I deleted, too. I can watch a movie from data I thought was vanished!

Going into $RECYCLE.BIN unearths folders with names like “S-1-5-21-3705785426-1514880510-973035464-1000″, dating all the way back to January 11th. I found a folder with mp3s and they played perfectly as well.

However this is only when using the right-click and delete method. A proper “rm [filename]” does not move the file into .Trash-100.

Suffice to say, this is a bit ridiculous to expect from Seagate, a company I normally respected as having high-quality HDDs.

The Interactive Aesthetic: Non-linearity in Digital Comics

Multimedia in comics

When Scott McCloud authored the seminal work Reinventing Comics in 2000, he determined that one possible route for the future, digital aesthetic of comics could come from the integration of other media, citing a few examples of comics released on CD-ROMs that included sound and moving images (a modern multimedia comic example would be Killer, a “motion comic” produced by Submarine Channel). But by including animation, music, and sound effects, the resulting artifact is, essentially, an animated cartoon. Comic-ness can be claimed by virtue of having “panels” and “speech bubbles” included in the animation. However, such arbitrary elements do not truly add an innovative dimension to comics, but merely transplant conventions into other mediums. Is the film version of American Splendor considerably a comic because it has the camera slowly pan over comic pages, or because characters will occasionally have thought bubbles grow from their scalps? An open question, perhaps. Certainly if one un-spooled a reel of film you could argue its worth as “sequential art” just as if you decompilied the Flash source for Killer and watched it frame by frame

While these are novel experiments in genre convention and inter-media aesthetics, I would hesitate in saying they advance the form of comics in any meaningful way. Animated elements in an otherwise statically illustrated break a reader’s immersion in a comic and draw their attention to the novelty of that specific facet rather than further merging the reader’s focus into the storytelling or art. Same goes for sound effects. Such little inclusions serve to distract the reader and thus come off as hokey at worst and a novelty at best.

For what it is worth, I do not think all attempts are multimedia innovation are misguided. Nawlz does an excellent job with animation and sound by keeping them subtle, accents that reinforce the in-panel concept rather than try to awkwardly augment it with outside concepts. The scrolling terminal-like text of a character’s “brain crash” is excellent and is meaningful to the comic’s superstructure (that is, how one Platonically recalls the comic as an overall artifact). It is sad that this comic’s approach seems to be an exception to McCloud’s vision.

How else can comics embrace technological advances?

A major innovation in comics would be the inclusion of non-linearity in the narrative that takes advantage of the gamification that computers offer. This is sort of a spiritual succession of McCloud’s infinite canvas wherein the physical limitations of paper are subverted. The infinite canvas explores multiple ways of arranging the sequence of a comic’s “panels” (Note: I do not define panels as square entities in which a drawing is bounded, but rather the bodies wherein identifiable and distinct illustrations occur) as well as how to guide a reader through the comic. There are plenty of experiments wherein panels are arranged in unorthodox manners, with a reader “scrolling” the page via the z-axis (going inwards rather than across), or panels are completely done away with and the comic takes place in one huge unbounded domain. These experiments are still linear at the core and are still bind the reader to normative conventions. While not a digital comic, Grant Morrison did an excellent job in Animal Man and especially The Filth in transforming the ontological orientation of comics – The Filth, in fact, is a deconstruction of the id experienced whilst reading a comic as well as the notion of predestination and authorship. The characters wonder about why they are made of ink and why their field-of-view is so limited.

Morrison’s self-reflexive tendencies can be off-putting to those not acquainted with the more interesting aspects of postmodernism, but nonetheless illustrate how emergence can operate on paper.

In the digital realm, however, emergence can be achieved through gamification and modulating the role of the audience. With the advent of advanced image manipulation and computation through languages such as Processing (as well as markup languages like HTML5), it is entirely possible to construct a comic where the narrative flow is dependent on user input. For instance, imagine a scenario wherein a character got into a fight with their spouse. As they leave the house, they take out their cell phone and look at a list of contacts, shown from a subjective first-person perspective. The reader is then given agency to choose which contact they select, taking the comic off in a tangential direction. Four different names, four different paths. Furthermore, the subtle switch to first-person perspective also attaches the reader to the character, instantiating a deeper relationship as they make choices for what was hitherto seen as a remote illustration on their screen. Such a process can be likened to developing a character in a roleplaying game.

Giving the reader agency within the comic reinforces the form, as opposed to external panel-direction options that are more like cheesy choose-your-own-adventure books than substantial works of sequential art. There is also a “replayability” factor in having multiple worldpaths for one contained comic artifact that can result in higher reader satisfaction. Given a quality comic, an enthusiast may re-read it. A quality comic with many branching paths and story lines is guaranteed multiple re-reads, and, if each path is given enough care and attention, further emphasizes the innovation and craft embodied in this new form.

Comics of this sort would also attract fans of the long-dormant adventure game genre. It is quite evident that there is a large degree of crossover between the classic point-and-click games of Sierra / LucasArts and the comic form I am proposing. A tablet would make the perfect device for displaying and interacting with these comics and the explosion of the mobile market makes me think perhaps a mini-revival could be possible.

As I experiment more and more with Processing and expand my illustration skillset, I will provide a working prototype of this new form sometime in the coming winter. Writing a non-linear, branching-path comic is going to be an intensive experience, one that may, at best, be relegated to a hyperlink in a Scott McCloud column, but I hope that it will precipitate a change in the digital comic form that has been a long time coming.

Passing the buck with Gumroad

This past spring Sahil Lavingia launched a new online purchasing platform named Gumroad. I remember reading the initial Show Hacker News post and being very excited.What attracted me to the platform was its decentralization of commerce. The creator of a digital good could now also be its distributor. It gives artists, from poets to painters, nearly first hand control on how to deliver their art. A service like Gumroad completely eliminates the need for a major publisher or other middleman in handling distribution of a product like a literary magazine, for example. Bandcamp for musicians operates on a similar principle and many musicians I know love the autonomy it offers. The neat “packaging” of a Gumroad product as a link also makes the goods more susceptible to viral promotion while maintaining a sense of intimacy between the buyer and seller. Coders could use it as a way to deliver small, but useful programs while also making money on the side. Musicians could let slip rare demos or new songs with a single link.

According to the twitter acount, Gumroad is in fact profitable and netted Sahil a tidy ROI.  However, at the risk of being anecdotal, I have yet to come across a Gumroad link in the wild. Gumroad’s discrete itemization of any digital good is too brilliant of an idea to go unheeded as a watershed for entrepreneurs and artists alike .

A google search for “gumroad” returns a smattering of press releases with titles like “Why Gumroad Is The Next Billion Dollar Startup” (written only a few days after Gumroad was launched) for about two pages and then drops off into real estate. A query for “gumroad.appspot.com” (where Sahil directs product traffic for security) is better, with over five thousand results directed (mostly) to gumroad product links hawked on twitter and blogs. Yet, it becomes apparent that perhaps the biggest flaw in Gumroad is that it is a delivery platform with not much room for merchants to stand on. When a musician sells a song with a Gumroad link posted to their twitter, only those who already follow them receive the link. Thus an established base for the seller is a necessity if Gumroad wants to see more traffic, since the product links are entirely self-contained (no links or images of other products for sale). If an interested buyer wants to see a wider selection, they must either google “gumroad.appspot.com [artist / creator name]” or hope that there is a duly-updated section of previous links on the artist’s page.

While profitable and gaining traction, it would appear Gumroad is not yet the barrier-smasher it could be. What etsy has done for homespun artisans, Gumroad could do for those dealing with the digital realm. Centralizing products within the Gumroad infrastructure would be a boon to independent creators.

Introducing the Interactive Aesthetic

What is the aesthetic experience of using a computer? Interactivity, otherwise known as an advanced implementation of primal “call and response” instincts. I think a big draw of the computer to nerdish children is that once you gain a certain level of proficiency, you don’t necessarily feel “alone” with the computer. It reacts to what you do. It is both a reflection of your actions and a separate entity unto itself.

The deep draw of the physical book is that it is a silent and totemic record of a person’s imaginative and/or reasoning faculties. These records sift and mingle through the reader’s mind, cultivating an intellectual relationship.  Beyond this, a reader has no interface to the story besides mulling it over internally (I liken reading an excellent book to meditation). The book, of course, can never react to thoughts like a computer reacts to code. In this sense, the aversion to e-readers among some bibliophiles smacks of a weird application of the Uncanny Valley: it looks like a book, it reads like a book, but its not a book. To them, the book is trapped in the computer, misappropriated. Why? Because even though a computer’s greatest asset is interactivity, ebooks have yet to approach that dimension in an aesthetically satisfying way.

Taking notes and looking up words  are fantastic applications of textual computability, but these have no direct artistic bearing on the way the work is perceived mentally. These utilities are, like the ebook itself, digital implementations of a physical product. A dictionary and thesaurus are useful, but does even the dedicated bibliophile swoon over a concisely-defined word like they do to a great sentence in the novel? A few might. I do not.

A quality ebook that uses interactivity to engage the emotional and imaginative faculties would be the herald of a revolution. The-author-as-programmer-as-artist.

K-Means Color Clustering

K-means is an algorithm that is used in many different problem domains. It works by creating K amount of centroids, or clusters, that hold specific values – whether RGB color values or file extensions (useful in data mining!) – and then assigning data points to these centroids based some distance measurement. For instance, in this program, the user selects four clusters by clicking on points in the window. The RGB and XY values of the selected point become the cluster values. Then, by iterating through every pixel in the image, we can check which pixels belong to which cluters using a Euclidean distance metric. This process is run until all pixels have been normalized into a cluster, resulting in a posterizing type effect seen in the following image: Although this a rudimentary application of K-means, it can still be used to develop powerful and interesting programs. My next project is focused on using K-means to transform photographs into sprite images reminscient of vintage video games. In that case, the centroids will be composed of the color values for specific palettes (Commodore 64, Atari 2600, NES, etc).

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