Sunday, 30 September 2007

Where to start reading the Discworld

If you have ever wanted to start reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, but haven't know where in the 33-book series to start, then take heart.

BoingBoing just carried a story about a community-maintained reading list (or rather, reading schematic) that shows the books broken down by chronological order, with dotted lines showing where story lines interact.

Downloads are available in Powerpoint PPT, Adobe PDF, JPEG and Excel XLS formats. For readers of the translated series, the list is available in Bulgarian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, and Spanish.

A publication order list is also available in English and in German.

Also, there is a new Discworld book out! It's called "Making Money" and is a sequel to "Going Postal". It follows the continued adventures of Moist von Lipwig. More information as I get it. See it on for more information.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Sneakers for the abos

It's not every day that you cannot quite decide how to feel about something in the news.

Nike is making a specially-adapted sneaker shoe for the American Indian demographic. Apparently there are some very good physiological reasons why they should have special shoes, like a different foot shape and so on. All laudable and stuff.

What I can't get over, is their putting tribal designs all over the bloody thing. To quote the BoingBoing article:

The design features several "heritage callouts" as one product manager described it, including sunrise to sunset to sunrise patterns on the tongue and heel of the shoe. Feather designs adorn the inside and stars are on the sole to represent the night sky.


Sorry, what?

Next thing you know, North Star or Toughees is going to make a Khoisan Edition. With embroidered "cave drawing" style designs on the sides, depicting buck being slain by groups of little men with bows.

The mind boggles.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

But is it art?

Technology is in a precarious place right now. We can do magic, as Arthur C Clarke defines it, in many ways. We can also design many wonderfully beautiful things.

The problem is that, mostly, the technologically marvelous things and the intrinsically beautiful things are not the same things. Technology is awesome but ugly.

To name one example: One of the largest obstacles to the adoption of Open Source software is based in design.

To the programmers among us, "good design" means something along the lines of "good code". I appreciate the mindset, since the alternative is bad code. Our programmers are precious to us. We need you, and appreciate what you do to make our lives easier.

Unfortunately, not all of us are programmers. Regular people can take advantage, right now, of all that Open Source Software has to offer us. For free, gratis, and verniet.

Why don't they?

There are many people who fully support the Open Source ideal. They agree with the philosophy, they hate Windows (whichever version), they are sick and tired of viruses and their information not being secure. And yet they still go home and boot up Windows. Why is that?

Partly it's what they're used to. They have always used Windows and they're used to it, with all its quirks and foibles. If there is one true thing Terry Pratchett has said, it's that what people want, what they really really want, is for tomorrow to be pretty much the same as yesterday and today. Microsoft has given users 7 years to get used to the XP interface, and then changed it a bit too much in Vista. There are many other things wrong with Vista, fair enough. I must maintain, however, that the most immediately frustrating thing upon initially opening Vista, has to be the interface. Not the fact that it was different from XP's interface, but the fact that it was less discoverable.

The strength that Windows has, in my opinion, is that it abstracts (to a great extent) the administration of a system. This is a good and a bad thing... bad for the engineers, who need choice, but good for the user that doesn't want to learn all that much about their computer before operating it.

In a recent discussion about (the Open Source 3D rendering and animation program) Blender, a animation producer of my acquaintance quoted the general response of her animators to Blender: that the interface was written for programmers, by programmers. While the interface probably makes a lot of sense to programmers who happen to also be good at animation, it's not for specialist programmers. They will probably continue to use their proprietary software packages until such a time as the Blender programmers stop engineering interfaces, and start designing them. There's a major difference right there, and requires a slight but significant paradigm shift:

Beauty is a good thing. Beauty in an interface contributes to productivity. Beauty should be unobtrusive and functional. A streamlined and functionally designed interface is inherently beautiful. Beauty is a feature.

A designed interface, as opposed to an engineered interface, is an interface which disappears. It should be intuitive enough to "disappear"... the user should not notice that they are using an interface. A user should be able to ignore what the program wants to do, in favour of what the user wants to do. Almost every program interface today forces the user to interact in certain ways, all of which make sense to the engineer; not all of which are immediately transparent to, or accessible by, the user.

Many programmers regard "the user" as a necessary evil. "The user" is seen as an intermediary stage, a larval form of "the guru". ("The guru" being a user that can troubleshoot and fix the problems they have on their own system. The mindset, generally, is that the user will be their own system administrator. When something doesn't work, the user is expected to go online, learn about their operating system, talk to gurus and other users, and fix their own problems. This is a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, the user learns more about his operating system. Fair and good. This will allow the user to help other users with their problems and, in time, become a guru. Very laudable.

On the other hand, this gets in the way of the user doing actual creative work during the time spent fixing problems. This is a larger problem than might be immediately apparent.

Let us put it in the context of another specialist area: fine art.

In order to create a great work of art, the artist spends some years of his life acquiring skills: drawing, composition, painting in and on various mediums, and so forth. He spends some time practicing his art. He makes some mistakes, and learns from them. We end up with the Mona Lisa.

Do I need to expend the same effort, study the same theory, acquire the same skills, just to appreciate the art? Of course not. It helps, of course, to know some of the technicalities of the art, in order to better appreciate the monumental skill needed to paint the Mona Lisa. But it's not necessary as such. A lot of effort has been made, over centuries, to explain fine art to the beginner. Even if you know little about art, a helpful leaflet may be picked up at the museum door.

In the same vein, knowing that a lot of very arcane knowledge went into creating a program helps to appreciate the achievement. A certain passing skill with the operation of a computer is necessary to gain the full benefit of any given program. The issue I have with many Open Source programs and operating systems is that the equivalent of a leaflet is not enough for the average user to gain the full advantage of the program. Rather, the user is required to pick up the knowledge to the tune of a certificate-level course in order to know what to do.

This needs to change.

What we need desperately in Open Source Software is specialist interface designers. People who understand the user's point of view. People who can see the value in abstracting what the system does from what the user wants to do.

There is a reason why programs like Adobe Photoshop are used over Open Source alternatives like Gimp (The GNU Image Processor). Why Maya is used over Blender. That reason has almost nothing to do with the quality of the underlying technology and almost everything to do with the interface. That is the reason why Gimp offers you the option of running Gimpshop (which makes Gimp act more like Photoshop) while Photoshop does not now and never will offer you the option of making it act more like Gimp. Interfaces.

We need to make a shift in technological thought. Beautiful interfaces need to be designed. Interfaces need to be seen as a valid technological field. Beauty is not an option.

Beauty is a feature.


Blender animation suite:

Gimp (The GNU Image Processor):


Sunday, 16 September 2007

A Tale of 50 Cities

It was the best of times, it was the most open of times. It was a time of bravery, honesty, and frankness. We shared our dreams and they were heard, fostered, and reciprocated. Our young men saw visions and our old men dreamed dreams. This was the winter party of our Open Content.

The Open Content party at Deer Park Cafe was a sensual experience in many ways. The heavenly smells drifting from the kitchen, the awesome music drifting from the sound system, the thrill of new acquaintances, and the creative ideas drifting from mind to mind (flying so fast as to almost bypass speech altogether), made this evening a total sensory overload.

The entire evening reminded me of nothing so much as a 60's era love-in. The beards in evidence were not as matted and mangy, the dreadlocks were legitimately African, the drugs were (I think) limited to legal ones, and the quality of the hippy folk music has undeniably gotten better... yet it was a night where the ideas got their clothes off and shagged on the tables in front of everyone. (Thank Tristan for that line, which I must honestly attribute to him. He also had some skanky ideas about Snowy, see below.)

Cross-pollination of interesting ideas was the point of the exercise, and it seems that almost everyone made a point of meeting random interesting-looking strangers. The stiffness evident at the start of the evening had long evaporated into a congenial mood; you could pretty much walk up to anyone and introduce yourself, and be deep in an interesting conversation within minutes.

A few impressions of conversations in which I was either involved with, overheard, or shamelessly eavesdropped on:

  • The Freedom Toasters (link) may be carrying local bands' Creative Commons-licensed music pretty soon. This will serve to promote the artists and make the Freedom Toasters more valuable to the community at large. It is a valuable resource already, but mostly in the fields of Open Source Software... adding creative content to the mix gives it a broader appeal and will almost definitely spread the word on Open Source Software as well. Tristan Waterkeyn (from and Brett Simpson (from the Shuttleworth Foundation) will most likely be collaborating about this very soon.
  • The animation industry in South Africa is frankly almost dead, or at least haemorrhaging badly. "Locally-produced" animated TV series dealing with traditional South African tales and content, is (ironically) outsourced to Korea. Our locally-trained animators are leaving our shores in droves for climes more amiable towards their profession. A lady named Canda Kincses would like to change all that. She has a personal mission to build a world-class local industry in animation, and I believe she has the drive, vision, and determination to do just that.
  • An idea we came up with one night, after a journalist friend was ordered to sit on a story which could have saved lives. The story isn't mine to tell, but the idea was this: A database for journalists to share important information... anonymously, and deniably. Reputations and trust can be built up by a Slashdot-type karma system, so that "reliable sources" can still be that, and yet literally cannot be revealed as you will not know who they are. This has special application in totalitarian states, especially those that still torture journalists. The details still need to be worked out, but strong encryption and data anonymisation will be the cornerstones of this service.

As I write this, I'm humming revolutionary marching songs under my breath and shopping online for beret prices... a grand age of the Communism of the Idea is coming, compadre.

The Brotherhood of Artists and Geeks (BAG) believes that:

0. The Zeroth rule of BAG Club is you have to talk about BAG Club.
1. Keeping an idea to the intellectual elite is the worst form of capitalism.
2. It is a fallacy to say that our ideas make us rich and should be hoarded.
3. An idea, once shared, does not devalue the giver;
4. does not merely give value to the recipient, but add value to the giver.
5. An idea is viral and cannot be killed except by apathy and ignorance.
6. An idea is a virus which incubates in minds. All minds are fertile to ideas. The more viruses your mind cultivates, the more fertile it becomes.
7. Ideas are packets of information living in a mutually advantageous symbiosis with humanity.
8. You have a moral obligation to share ideas with the right people.
9. You need to eat. People's time is precious, and should be compensated appropriately.

That shall be the first rules. I want to hear which rules you can come up with. Add your suggestions for additions to the Manifest on Facebook (link).

I might move a few suburbs up Main Road to Woodstock, in the spirit of the rebellion and this whole psychedelic tripped-out weekend.

PUBLIC SERVICE MESSAGE: No animals were harmed, and no psychedelic drugs were taken, during this weekend. A foot massage was administered to a hurt foot from kicking the plastic donkey kiddies seat / abstract sculpture. It was promptly named Snowy, and there was a suggestion made to add a pink spiked leather S&M collar around its paw to offset the virginal whiteness of it. In the spirit of the breeding party for ideas, you understand.

It is a far, far more open thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better future for artist-geeks that I go to, than I have ever expected.