Real artists ship

It’s that time of the semester again when all the classes are reaching their climax, final projects and papers are rearing their ugly heads and you’re wondering where did the last three months go. I still have a good three weeks to go before finals hit, but at least for my independent study projects it’s time to wrap things up and call it a semester. I’ve been doing two independent projects: one pure computer science about parallel computation and another in art about data visualization. As you can probably tell from the title I’m going to be talking about the art project.

I decided to take up this project on something of a whim late last semester. I had been working with a particular art professor a few summers ago doing some interesting things related to computational art. That was an interesting experience but I hadn’t really thought about it for over a year. In that time I became increasingly interested in computer interfaces, design and digital art. The art I was thinking was not really painting or drawings in the generally understood sense of the term, but rather the use of visual elements (possibly interactive ones) to present data and convey a message.

I started the project with the idea that I would work on automated data visualization. There is a lot of data on the internet in the form of blog posts, websites, RSS feeds and of course the Twitter stream. I wanted to look at and come up with ways to build visual forms out of all this data that would allow people to both explore the datasets as well create visually appealing creative works.

As time went on, I realized that I really had no idea what I was doing. The data was out there, it was a bit of pain actually getting to, but with some time invested in strengthening my programming kung-fu I could build what I needed. The more pressing concern was that even with the data in hand, I didn’t really know how to go about turning it into visual form. Jonathan Harris’s wonderful We Feel Fine (and other projects) was really an inspiration for what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t quite enough. I wanted my visualizations to be informative as well as appealing. You would look at them and go “Wow, that’s cool” but you could also use the images created to come to important conclusions about the data that you had just visualized. And I had no clue how to do that.

So I started studying. Luckily for me, at the time the artist Loren Madsen was visiting Lafayette and I got to meet him, sit in on two lectures that he gave and talk to him over dinner. I was interested in his work and really liked the examples that he gave during his talk. When I talked to him over dinner I got to air my ideas and get some feedback from him and professors who were around at the time. It was also around this time that I discovered Edward Tufte. He is a person with really interesting ideas and four really beautiful self-published books. The more I read about him I realized that what I wanted to do was similar to the sort of things he did and talked about in his books. I even went to a class that he was teaching near Philadelphia and spent the better part of a sunny Tuesday learning straight from the man himself (I also got all 4 of his books). I just finished the draft of a 3500 word essay on Tufte and his ideas that will be online in the near future.

While all these ideas, concerns and questions were flying around in my head I had continual input from multiple professors about what to do, what to look at and what other people were doing or had done. A few weeks ago I buckled down, learned some JavaScript and built two simple interactive art pieces I call Typacolor and Readacolor. I’m still thinking about them, planning improvements and spinoffs (especially after talking to a professor yesterday). They don’t quite achieve the goal of allowing visual analysis of data, but they are a step on the way. I feel that my original goal is something that is going to take longer than a semester and significant improvements to my coding chops.

But as I trawled the intertubes looking for inspiration, ideas and things to talk about with my professors, I stumbled on yet another little phenomenon lurking in the wings: blogazines. Blogazines are in many ways a reaction to the template and theme driven look-and-feel of modern blogs and a return to more old school, handcrafted, standalone web pages but with the modern convenience of newer web technologies and better graphics. Heart Directed is a directory of blogazines (or art directed blogs) and looking through them I realized that visual presentation doesn’t have to be linked to actual graphics. The careful use of fonts, colors and images coupled with careful layout can create webpages that are as beautiful and capable of conveying an idea (or presenting data) as any image. I haven’t created any art-directed web pieces yet, but I’m kicking around a few ideas and hope to have at least done before the semester ends.

Coming to the end, I can say that this semester has been quite a journey. I learned a lot about art, graphics and the presentation of data. I learned that we can find beauty when we’re least expecting it. I also learned that I can’t learn new programming languages and technologies at the drop of a hat, but I can do a decent job when I devote sufficient time and energy (the interactive art pieces were built in an afternoon each). All in all, it’s been pretty worthwhile. I haven’t created as much cool stuff as I would have liked to, but I made up for that by learning a lot of things I didn’t think I would and meeting a number of very interesting people (and having lots of interesting conversations). Not too bad for my first art class.

The semester is coming to an end in less than a month, but my art expedition isn’t stopping. I’m heading to Italy for three weeks to be immersed in a completely different kind of art but at the same time. I’m going to be doing research on campus over the summer but I should have enough time to take up some interesting projects. In particular, I’m very impressed with the power of JavaScript to create art on the web (especially with Processing.js) so that is definitely something I’ll continue to do. And at some point I’ll finally get around to writing some sort of data visualizer for the web like I had originally planned to. My last independent study sparked an interest in programming languages that is probably going to take me to graduate school and I think this one is going to have a similar impact on my life in the next few years.

Why phones are toxic

I don’t make a secret of my dislike of phones. For all of my first year in college I didn’t have a cell phone and even now I use my phone as little as I can. When I do use it, it’s generally more for texting than for actually making calls. Back in high school having a phone was something of a status symbol. They were the hip new gadgets and all the cool kids had one. I didn’t get my first one till almost my senior year and even then I can’t say I really used it. My real dislike for phones only came in college after getting used to not having them and developing a lifestyle where most communication was based on email, IM and face-to-face meetings (one advantage of living on a small, residential campus). I’m going to try to logically support my dislike of phones without getting emotional

Phones are designed for interruption

Phones are designed from the ground up for interruption. It all starts with a noisy ringer that will tear your mind away from whatever it is that you’re doing. That’s followed by answering the phone and dealing with whatever it is the other person is talking, which more often than not has nothing to do with whatever else you were dealing with at the moment. Even if you have a caller ID and can choose not to pick up, you still have to disconnect from the task at hand and think about who the person, why they might be calling and make the decision to pick up or not. Your concentration is practically guaranteed to be broken.

Data transfer rates are low

This might sound heartless and inhuman, but in most circumstances I’d much rather read something than listen to someone say. Given a piece of text, most people can skim over it pretty quickly and grasp the main points. You can then reread it (or just the important parts at a slower rate). But if you’re listening to someone else talk, you’re limited by their speed. If they speak too fast you can’t grasp what they’re saying and if they’re too slow it takes forever to get to the point. Not to mention the punctuations of “umm..” and “err…” that creep in. Plus actually having to write out something often forces people to rethink what it is they want to say and make it more concise.

Only one dimension

Voice communications and telephones in particular are inherently linear. You can’t skip ahead or backward when someone is talking. Most voicemail systems suck and are a horrendously bad way to see who called you or left a message. Unlike email or IM you can’t quickly glance over things to make a decision to act or put off till later. You actually have to sit down and listen to every single darn message. This isn’t really all telephone’s fault: sound is a one-dimensional medium, at least human perception of it is. People can’t listen to more than one voice at a time and make sense of it.

You have to act RIGHT NOW

I love text-based communication because it gives you a chance to think things through before actually communicating. Even if it’s just a quick email reply you at least have a few seconds to think things through before you hit “send”. But in a telephone conversation you have to act right now. If you forget to say something, you can’t just add it in a second later. You have to interrupt the other person or wait for them and remember what you wanted to say. IM also has some of these difficulties, but each party can scan the text stream on their own so you can send your message knowing that the other person will read in their time and adjust their messages accordingly.

It’s not the same as a face-to-face

Talking to a person over the phone is really not the same as talking face to face. Human communication involves a large number of non-verbal queues that get dropped when you’re limited to just voice. In contrast, written communication has developed it’s own style. It’s meant to be absorbed in a different manner using more brain power to imagine the context and surroundings of the text. If something is important enough that you need someones undivided attention: schedule a face-to-face meeting. If that’s not possible and a phone conversation is inevitable, then you make sure you set aside a particular time and stick to it.

The Disclaimer

As you might have noticed, a lot of my complaints aren’t about verbal communication, it’s about the current incarnation of the telephone. It’s possible to use a phone in a manner that mitigates these issues to a large extent. Jason Fried of 37signals has specific weekly office hours where people can call in and ask him anything they want. This eliminates the uncertainty and interrupting potential of phones. Google Voice offers a really nice modern voicemail system. even if the text transcription is somewhat buggy, at least you know who called and when and don’t have to listen through the whole queue. I would personally like things if I could plug my phone line into my computer and then just interface through some good software. Till such a day comes (or VoIP rules the world) I’ll stick to Google Voice.

Guns don’t kill people, people do

No, this post is not about guns, gun control or the right to bear arms. This post is about the iPad (you knew it was coming). There’s been a lot of talk of the iPad and like all such things, there’s a lot for and a lot against. I used one for a few minutes yesterday and it was an interesting experience. The iPad I was on didn’t have a lot of apps and I can’t say  I gave it a very thorough run down, but from how much I did use it, there are some things that become obvious (and not all of those things are about the iPad itself).  Here’s what I learned:

It’s a great e-reader

I loved reading on it. I used both the iBooks app as well as miscellaneous stuff online. I wanted to try out Instapaper on it too, but didn’t get a chance to. But it’s very clear from the get-go that it’s a great reading tool. The text display is beautiful in the same way that text display on Macs are. And the fact is that you can hold it at book distance instead of monitor display which makes it a pleasure to read. It’s not hard to think that you are reading a book.

It’s all about the interface

Make no mistake about it: the whole point of the iPad is the interface. As Jef and Aza Raskin tells us, the interface is the application to most people. The iPad takes this to heart and so do the apps on it. The iPhone apps run on it, either at normal iPhone size or at double-pixel size. Either way, they’re suboptimal (if not absolutely terrible). The apps that become successful will be the ones that use the large screen area and the touch interface best. It’s not about raw functionality, it’s about how well it’s exposed. And this understanding leads to my next understanding:

The interface could live outside the iPad

I have an Eee Netbook which I use fairly regularly. The screen size is about the same size as the iPad’s. After using the iPad coming back to the netbook was a bit of a pain. It was annoying because I was using standard desktop apps on a tiny screen. However, if the iPad interface (or just some of the apps) were ported to netbooks, then things would be much better. Apps like Instapaper and the WordPress would do really well on a netbook because they maximize screen usage. In fact, some of them might even be better since you don’t lose screen space to the keyboard when you need to type. I really really hope that some people take ideas from iPad apps and port them to the netbooks. In particular, I hope webapps start using the same interface for the iPad as well as netbooks. More on this in a later post.

It’s not going to kill computing

There has been a lot of talk on how the iPad is a threat to real computing. But here’s my take on the matter: the iPad is a different medium entirely and it’s not going to replace the general purpose computer any time soon. I agree with Dave Winer: At the moment, the iPad is a toy. I also agree with Alex Payne’s suggestions on how Apple could make the iPad experience better for both users and developers. There this going to take a lot of work (and a lot of apps and web services) to make the iPad a standard computing platform in any sense. Right now, I’m going to hold off judgment on the matter until the next generation or two come around.

About the post title

I chose the post title to emphasize the point that the iPad itself is not revolutionary, or good or bad or dangerous. There are a lot of factors that will come into play over the next few years to see how the iPad works out. But many of the ideas that the iPad is bringing to light (such as carefully building interfaces tailored to the task at hand) are applicable outside the device itself and it would be nice to see them popup elsewhere (including other mobile computers). Where the iPad story ends is up to us: the users, the programmers and Apple Inc. We live in exciting times and the iPad is a sign of those times. The way we interact with our machines is changing and the good thing is that we can drive the changes in the way we want to. Let’s embrace that opportunity.

Book Review: Rework

37sginals is a really interesting company that makes some neat software and they have equally interesting and unusual ideas about how to run a business. They also give away useful tidbits of how to run a business the way they do on their blog Signal vs Noise. The two people heading up the company: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson compressed some of the knowledge from their blog into a book called Getting Real which you can buy from their website but also read for free online. Over the course of a month or so, that’s exactly what I did. I read Getting Real, mostly on my iPod Touch in the few minutes in between classes and similar slivers of time. My reaction to the book was pretty subdued. The ideas in it were interesting, but it wasn’t something I would pay for. When they announced that they were releasing a new book along the same lines, I was interested but wasn’t as exited as a lot of people around the web seemed to be. I bought it a few days ago and this time just sat down and read it in one afternoon in two sittings. Here’s what I learned in the process.

The Book Itself

First off, the book was really hyped in the time before and just after it’s release. It got glowing reviews from a number of important people including Seth Godin. I didn’t really buy into the hype and decided to let things calm down a little until I bought and read it.

Being someone who regularly reads their blog and has read Getting Real I didn’t expect to get anything earth shattering. And that was exactly what happened. I could easily recognized large sections of the book that I had read before (mostly on their blog) and I feel that if I cared to look hard enough, I’d find that a lot of the book is actually on their blog in one form or another. If you’re someone who has never heard of 37signals, or don’t know about the way they do business then you’ll learn a lot from it (and may not like everything you read). But if you already know about them and read their blog your reaction will be more along the lines of “meh”.

I also found the general organization and style of the book rather disappointing. It’s set up as groups of “essays” under certain headings. The groupings are fairly accurate, but the essays seem disconnected and aloof from each other. There is no gentle introduction and no conclusion to tie things together. You feel like you’re constantly being hit with 1-2 page snippets of what you should or should not do without a larger structure to place it into. I agree with the Management Today review in that the style of writing lacks grace and charm and often seems unnecessarily confrontational. In contrast to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book that changes the way you live your daily life, this book seems pretty shoddy.

I can’t help but feel that Jason and David were just out to take the best parts of their blog and put them into print rather than sit down and write a proper book. Having 200-500 word articles on a blog is fine, but when I read a book I expect some form of continuity and cohesion. In the end, my reaction to this book is probably that it’s not worth the money for the content. The ideas are powerful and I admire 37signals for doing the business the way they do, but Rework is not one of their better.

The Artwork, Look and Feel

In contrast to how unpolished the writing feels, the physical appearance and feel of the book is very different. It’s hardcover and the jacket feels and looks great with a great choice of black, red and greys for the text. The cover features a picture of a crumpled piece of picture in some kind of glossy paper. It’s obvious that someone took care to think this through.

The illustrations and section titles were done by Mike Rohde and I personally really like them. They’re not very artsy or intricate, but they have a sort of casual beauty to them. They’re simple, but well thought out, each one fitting in well with the essay it accompanies. I would actually be willing to spend money just for the artwork (maybe not a lot, but some reasonable amount). You can learn about the process and see all the pieces together as a Flickr set.

In conclusion

Rework is not a great book or 37signal’s best product by any stretch of the imagination. If it weren’t for the good design and artwork I would tell you to just of read their blog and their last book instead. But this book only if you either really like 37signals or have never heard of them and want to know what all the fuss is about. They make great software and they do good business, but the next time they want to write a book, they should really sit down and write a book instead of seeing how much of their blog they can recycle.

April plans

Today is the 1st of April. It’s time for the internet to get out of control with craziness and ridiculous April’s Fools Day. Today was also registration day at college, meaning that all of us 20-something year-olds had to get up at 7 in the morning (known as the crack of dawn to most of us) and schedule next semesters dreary existence. It’s also the start of a new month and hopefully the start of good weather that actually lasts. Since it’s a new month, I decided it would be a good time to try doing things a little bit different. I suppose you could think of them as 30-day trials in some ways, but most of them are minor enough that I don’t think I need to use the ‘trial’ concept on them. In no particular order, here goes:

Writing daily: quantity over quality

I already write a fair amount, mostly in the form of blog posts and email. But I’m also prone to slacking off terribly. I’ve gone for a week at a time without writing anything substantial. Writing isn’t a day job for me, but it is something I enjoy, something I value and something I want to improve on. So I’m going to try a bit every day.

I’ve thought about doing this at various points in the past, but I’ve always agonized about the process. I would like to sit down at any computer and just write for a few minutes. But I could never decide how exactly to do it without having writing scattered all over the place. And I always knew in the back of my head that I needed to start down for an hour or so to actually write something of value.

I’ve always been a fan of quality over quantity, but for once I’m going to give it a rest. I’m going to write everyday in the hopes that the much increased throughput will produce a greater number of good works in the long run and it will also develop my writing skills (especially in terms of avoiding writer’s block and being able to switch into writing mode at the drop of a hat). When I have an extended period of time (an hour at least) I’ll write techie articles for this blog and when I have shorter snippets I’ll just dump them into documents on Google Docs.

Reading: everywhere, anytime

While I like to write, I like to read too. Unfortunately I don’t often have the time to sit down and read for a few hours at a time. On the other hand I have short bursts of time every now and then (5-10 minutes) and instead of just sitting right or looking at funny videos of cats, I want to spend that time reading. I’ve already read one book on my iPod Touch using little snippets of time here and there. Though I don’t think I’ll want to do that with all forms of literature, I can certainly do it for short pieces. I’m considering getting the Instapaper Pro app (which lets you save stuff you want to read) and offers some features like text extraction and font customization that I think will come in pretty handy.

Using both brain hemispheres

I’m going to be graduating in just over a year with two degrees: computer engineering. So yes, my left brain is going to be very well exercised. But I want my right brain to get some training too. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to pick up a studio art major, but I like what I have know.

In order to exercise my right hemisphere I’ve taken to looking at art and design. I don’t really study anything formally (though I among going to Italy over summer to study Renaissance Art) but I do observe and absorb. In particular I’ve been looking at data presentation and web design. I plan on spending some time building “blogazine“-like content on my website, probably centered about poetry and stories I’ve written before. I might even dabble in some hand-drawing (which I haven’t seriously done in years). Of course everything I do will be free for everyone to see and reuse.

Measuring my time usage

I often have days where I feel like I did a lot and didn’t really waste time, but didn’t quite accomplish much. I tried to apply the principle of “what you measure improves” by tracing all my time usage for a day. It turned out to be rather clumsy because I wanted a system where I could write things quickly and still get fairly good analytics on how I spent my time. Unfortunately paper is great for recording, but it sucks for analytics and most time tracking solutions I found were too heavy and expensive.

A few days ago I stumbled across a new webapp called Freckle which seems to hit the sweet spot between features and usability. All you do is enter a time (or use their timer bookmarklet), what project it was for and a bunch of tags and it gives you a set of fairly decent analytics. You have to pay for it and I just started a free month long trial. If I find that it actually works well, that I use it and that I’m getting more stuff done, then it’s a keeper and I’ll gladly fork over the $12 a month and wish them well.

Agile daily productivity

The agile development methodology eschews large complicated schedules and project plans in favor of smaller chunks of work, quicker feedback and review and greater flexibility. I’ve been an applying a similar system to my own daily workloads and it seems to be working, but I’ll be enforcing it better. Being a college student it makes absolutely no sense for me to have long schedules because every day brings new challenges (homework, tests, projects, random coffee drinking sessions) and any long-term plan would be shattered in a day. Instead I’m using a dual system: due dates to make sure I’m on track with my long term goals and shorter lists of daily and weekly tasks that need to be done. I’ll try to set aside large blocks of time for things like homework sets and fill in shorter blocks with reading and writing. I’m also consider doing weekly reviews but I’m not sure how much of a value that will provide to me right now.

All that probably seems like a lot and taken individually it is. But I’m going to try to collapse/multiplex them into a congruent workflow where I schedule with flexibility in mind. Ideally, I’ll spending large blocks of time on homework, programming and content creation with shorter blocks on light reading, practice writing and random errands that pop up now and again.

In 30 days my free trial of Freckle will run out and that’s also when I’ll sit down, take a deep breath and see if all this actually worked or not. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try to see what it failed and see if I can fix it. Even if it didn’t work, I’m sure there will be places to tweak and improve. And though I’m tired from having written this (and from everything else I’ve done and need to) I feel pretty excited for this month.