Archive for July, 2006

Simplicity 101

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

a simple task: make sense, quick

Two weeks ago I was told to give my first public talk in the Media Lab. The situation was far from usual. Not only would it be the first time for me to face an audience in english, my mission was to do it by delivering a report after another talk I just listened to, with 24 hours to get my presentation ready, and around three minutes to get done with it, if possible using nothing more than the projection of a single slide, all for the sake of simplicity. Interesting. And surprisingly unstressful. I was quite nervous, of course, but less than I would have expected. I was offered a rich collection of characters as my audience: Media Lab faculty, media Lab sponsors, other students, and guest speakers. Talks, mini-talks, tiny-talks and super-talks, all organized in a way that everyone there would get the spotlight at least once. Your 15 minutes of fame, would Warhol say, or maybe just three? Anyway, it will be hard to understand what this is about until I explained a little, but here is my slide:

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I was lucky. I got to talk about a romantic project I love called olpc (one laptop per child) led by famous founder and former Media lab director pop icon Nicholas Negroponte. The olpc aims to help deliver better education opportunity to the undeveloped world, and if you think a little deeper, it could be a strategy to establish OpenSource Linux as the standard digital platform of the future. The olpc project was born in the Media Lab and has now a life of its own. Chris Blizzard from RedHat delivered a very straightforward message about it to the Simplicity people. Even though he is the ultimate hacker and one of the leading forces developing sugar (the olpc core), he didn’t showoff on tech stuff or even give us a hint of how the laptop’s user interface is gonna look like. He kept himself true to the spirit of the project and described it as a goal: to deliver knowledge and encourage learning, expression, collaboration and sharing. On the real world side of things, I still don’t understand how the laptops are going to be delivered in a functional way to the children they are meant for, specially when (mostly corrupt) governments are heavily involved in the distribution process, but I really hope for the olpc project to work.

Lost in (S)hell

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Yesterday I found a cute OpenSource SVG editor called InkScape that runs on X11. After I played with it for a few minutes I decided to explore the source. I got the thing from Subversion, checked out the readme files and bravely (or innocently), I ran ./configure in my shell, just to realize I was missing a Perl XML parser. Ok, that sounds like fun I thought. A little research about Perl modules led me to the CPAN (Comprehensive Perl Archive Network) module, a useful utility that comes with a console tool to check for and install or update Perl modules. The Perl XML parser seemed to be just around the corner, but not before I could find and install another XML parser, Expat for C, necessary to successfully run the CPAN command that installs the Perl XML parser, no problemo. That done, I ran ./configure again, just to find out I needed to upgrade my Libpng to something after version 1.2… Oh, and what about the Boehm-Demers-Weiser Garbage Collector (version 6.4+) for C++? Done! I ran ./configure again only to have the terminal spit out the following not-so-good news:

configure: error: Package requirements (gdkmm-2.4 glibmm-2.4 gtkmm-2.4 gtk+-2.0 >= 2.4.0 libxml-2.0 >= 2.6.11 libxslt >= 1.0.15 sigc++-2.0 >= 2.0.12 gthread-2.0 >= 2.0) were not met.
Consider adjusting the PKG_CONFIG_PATH environment variable if you installed software in a non-standard prefix.

Oh-oh, a handfull of obscure libraries still seemed to be missing! It was already three hours after I began pretending to build the InkScape source and I couldn’t even make it to the make command… pathetic! Another beautiful afternoon disappeared behind the window as I decided to quit on trying to build InkScape because the truth is I am in no position to understand the source code anyway.

I wanted to explore the brains and guts of InkScape in search for a better understanding of the SVG file format and the design of a simple Vector Graphics Drawing Application, like the one we are using in OpenStudio. This afternoon’s experience of mine is just another example of how much of a super complex and extremely cryptic backend can be cloaked away from the user by a seemingly simple frontend. When it comes to drawing into the machine, I want the user’s experience to resemble the conventional drawing experience as much as possible, even though the means and results of the drawing action will hopefully be different from what can be done when using a piece of paper and a brush or pencil. As long as the relation between perception and the material expression of a human gesture on a surface is well established, the experience of drawing will be delivered to the user. Complex backend implementation is unavoidable and will always be hidden from the user by a simpler frontend. The user shouldn’t have to be expert. The question is whether the constraints established by the frontend design will deliver or not a rich experience to the user in terms of function and interaction.

If you’re not the ultimate nerd and you actually read my text and visited some of the links in it, and if you are curious about computers, internet, and information-media technologies in general, you will probably feel like you’re missing on a lot. And you are, just like me. I can talk all I want about what the ultimate super simple vector drawing application should feel like, but when it comes to creating something as simple as that, I am lost and powerless. I have been using digital media tools for more than 12 years and I want to find out where they come from. Creative Techno Culture is not half as global as the products it delivers, most of the times it’s not global even in the same city.

Hello World…

Friday, July 14th, 2006

Information is not Knowledge is not Wisdom is not Love. Zappa

I have been thinking about the kind of content I will publish in this journal. My subjects will describe my activities as a member of the PLW group, my learning experiences, my personal understanding of the PLW and my role within it. I think of the PLW as a self-organizing social experiment on the relations between information (and media) technologies and creative human activities. I will write about these relations from a variety of perspectives that will span from descriptions of my personal struggles to understand and master digital constructs to the study of the visible consequences of machine-human interactions, including those that most people would consider inhuman, like war and cultural segregation.

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