## Towards a Ransom Note for Libre Typography

Shortly before leaving for Open Design Weeks in Vietnam, I received my copy of Fonts in Context from Boekplan in the mail. It’s a start in the direction of generating a higher volume of documentation for Context, an issue which remains a sticking point for broader adoption of the software.

Perusing it I came across an interesting feature called font fallbacks. These allow you to specify a specific font to be used in the case your main typeface is a missing any glyphs. Thanks to Context’s consummate configurability, a typeface can utilize multiple fallbacks and one can specify which Unicode hexcodes (or ranges thereof) are to be substituted in any given case. This allows flexible typographic responses to inadequate coverage in any given typeface.

But my favorite aspect of this feature’s configurability is the

force

parameter. By passing

force=yes

into the parameter of the macro, one can swiftly replace a character in any typeface with the missing (or totally different) character from any another.

This might not seem too useful, but in terms of doing actual generative-style design through a generative typesetting process, it provides the perfect platform for a functional design piece I’ve tentatively labeled ‘Libre Ransom’. My goal is to have something of this working by (or during) Libre Graphics Meeting 2011 in Montreal.

The idea behind ‘Libre Ransom’ is to build a visual test for libre font coverage of underserved alphabets. By using a relatively simple phrase and translating it into various languages, we can generate typescript definitions in Context which will utilize the maximum available amount of libre typefaces for the phrase. You can think of this as something like the ACID test suite for CSS, which you can watch visually gauge the capabilities of your browser’s implementation.

Thanks to the contributions being made to the (soon to be Phoenix-like) Open Font Library and Google Web Fonts, English will have every individual character of it’s phrase in a different font. Likely this will be true of more complicated Latin alphabets as well.

Other languages, however, will not be so lucky.

On the one hand this project will be a showcase for the already broad-range of coverage for the languages of European extraction. On the other hand, it will serve as a reminder of the privileged position of those languages, their tendencies towards colonization of lingustic, economic, and physical space, and a signal of an intent to utilize the unique capacity of libre type, our freedom to contritube, in order to ensure that under-served languages continue to see more and more options for their liberated typography.

## A long, strange trip it’s been…

It doesn’t take much to notice that this blog has been inactive for a long time. This is a function of many things, not least the rapid influx of different projects all demanding attention at once. I’d like for this to change, however. So today I’m posting about the latent possibilities that can be found in every moment.

For instance, making space to speak with a stranger. Today I debated whether to head straight to work or to stop for a coffee. End up talking to a pro basketball player taking some time off due to an injury. Topics ranged from web design and blog presence to hippie schools to the encroachment of Big Brother, the potential for totalitarian control in the Age of Information, and the implications of nanotechnology. What up Nick George?! Hit me up man.

After showing him the way to the Kalverstraat shopping center, I head towards work via the Spui only to stumble across “Vote With Your Fork”, a picnic on the Spui organized by students to raise awareness about improving food quality through the choices we make at the supermarket. Talked with some friendly people there, and ended up with a recipe for some of the best hummus I have ever had:

 Heat the following in a pan: - oil - paprika - chili powder - cumin - garlic After this has heated for a while, add tahini. Heat additionally. Transfer to a blender and add cooked chick peas. 

That’s the recipe inasmuch as I understand it. I’ll post again once I’ve made it myself

Basically, today I decided to go with a different flow, and it worked out for the better. Do yourself a favor and do the same at some point.

## Typesetting Poetry in ConTeXt

This week I’m attending the 4th Annual ConTeXt User Meeting in Breijlov, Czech Republic. The location is awesome: an old-ish hotel situated next to a roaring river that white-caps right in front of the outdoor seating/smoking area. If I were to open the window in the conference room right now, no one would be able to hear the person speaking.

I took the opportunity last night during the post-talk hackathon to ask the prolific Wolfgang Schuster for advice on an issue that has been bugging me considerably. For my thesis I composed a dedication page to the friends I’ve lost this year, which includes a poem. The version I handed in with my thesis ended up looking like this:

The spacing there is quite un-poetic, don’t you think?

It was generated by a macro that I defined inside a Pandoc template, which allowed me to keep my Markdown source (from which the ConTeXt is generated, through Pandoc which molten melds it with the template I just mentioned) from having any ConTeXt in it. This macro looked like this:

\def\makededicated{
\startalignment[center]
\blank[force,3*big]
{\bf This thesis is dedicated to}
\blank[none]
{\bf the living memories of Caroline Gallagher and Jacob Renshaw.}
\stopalignment

\setupnarrower[left=4cm]
\switchtobodyfont[9.5pt]
\startnarrower[left]
\blank[big]
Though forever is longer than
\blank[none]
the time we meet again,
\blank[none]
in the space between
\blank[none]
this now and our then,
\blank[none]
as absence brings you
\blank[none]
into moments, I'll miss
\blank[none]
you, my friends.
\stopnarrower

\switchtobodyfont[12pt]


There are a few newbie errors in there. For instance, rather than having two \switchtobodyfont commands–one for setting the font smaller for the poem, the other to set it back to the size of the rest of the document–I can simply use \bgroup at the beginning and \egroup at the end.

The main reason the line-spacing is awkward there, however, is that I did not set \setupwhitespace or \setupinterlinespace to smaller values. If we wrap the poem in the \broup..\egroup “on-the-fly” environment, these values can be set to whatever we want without affecting the look and feel of the rest of the document. This is important because the reason I wasn’t playing around with these settings is that I couldn’t afford to break my workflow so close to the thesis deadline, let alone spend much time making the dedication page look perfect in the first place.

The final mistake was that I used \blank[none] to format the separate lines. While it technically works (obviously), it is not the cleanest way to do it. No, ideally the poem is set just as the following:

\setuplines[space=on]
\startlines
Though forever is longer than
the time we meet again,
in the space between
this now and our then,
as absence brings you
into moments, I'll miss
you, my friends.
\stoplines


THIS IS THE WAY TO DO IT IN A NORMAL DOCUMENT! Enjoy your beautifully typeset poetry!

And indeed, in a normal usage it would work perfectly! Even concrete poetry can be achieved, because ConTeXt will treat all whitespace as intentional. So you can go ahead and re-typeset your favorite e.e. cummings, or lay out your own wildly spaced poetry with incredible ease.

However, because this poem appears in a macro, \startlines..\stoplines is not available (remember, I had to macro-ize the poem so that it would integrate easily into my non-standard workflow). The answer lies in using the \par command to break the lines (Wolfgang says this is preferable to \blank. I’m not totally sure why, but I’ll take his much-respected word on it).

The final solution looks like this in ConTeXt:

\def\makededicated{
\startalignment[center]
\blank[force,3*big]
{\bf This thesis is dedicated to}
\blank[none]
{\bf the living memories of Caroline Gallagher and Jacob Renshaw.}
\stopalignment

\bgroup
\setupnarrower[left=4cm]
\switchtobodyfont[9.5pt]
\setupinterlinespace[1.5em]
\setupwhitespace[none]
\startnarrower[left]
\blank[3*big]
Though forever is longer than \par
the time we meet again, \par
in the space between \par
this now and our then, \par
as absence brings you \par
into moments, I'll miss \par
you, my friends.
\stopnarrower
\egroup
}


and like this in PDF

A much better looking testament to my friends, in my opinion.

## Demo Me Mystical

Something truly unruly, a gift from brainstorm. Courtesy of Demoscene.tv,

Challenger Deep

WAIT!

It gets even better,

Momento Mori

Double click on any video to go to the demoscene.tv feed itself. There you can find an HD version, and also the option to download and run yourself (recommended, if you have Windows and a decent graphics card).

## Quake: The Immortal

1996. Dawn of the Internet era. Only one game counted when it came to deathmatch through my 28.8kbps modem. QUAKE. The unambiguous king of first person deathmatch, in my opinion. I played on MPlayer a whole lot. I’ve never been incredible, but I could hold down a frag fest or two. As others moved on to CounterStrike and other updates and twists on multiplayer, I swore at the empty servers of “Spill the Blood.” Others moved on, but I refused. To this day, I haven’t gotten involved in online gaming to the extent I was with Quake. Luckily, it seems there are significant numbers of folks who feel the same way as me. Since I’m here testing out my new open source ATI graphics drivers in Linux 2.6.32 with various things (QuakeLive works perfectly!), I thought it would be a nice opportunity to showcase some developments in the Quake arena.

Oh, and a little post called Open Source Immortality? at QuakeOne may have provided a little inspiration as well. Because, yes, it is true: Quake is and always will be immortal. And for that we can thank the foresight of John Carmack, who chose to release the Quake and QuakeWorld source code to the world in 1999 under the GNU Public License. Free for all time, baby!

So now the world have an entire landscape of modified Quake engines. I personally run DarkPlaces, but that may only be because I’ve been happy enough that I haven’t checked out any other ones yet. Paired with Rygel’s high quality texture pack, it is quite a beauty to behold. But wait! There is more. The Quake Reforged project aims to do for the monsters what Rygel has done for the textures.

The Knight, Reforged

I’ve pestered them to release their already finished hi res skins for Christmas

For more developments, check QuakeOne. It’s amazing that almost fifteen years later, Quake is doing better than ever.

I’ll be blogging more about Quake and also another example of open source immortality (can you guess?? oo the suspense!) in the coming days.

## LyX-able MLA Citations

Recently I have been diving headfirst into using LyX as my primary document production environment. Nothing but love so far, as the beauty of TeX elicits an immediate response.

Yeah, that’s right: I’ve got the best looking notes in class.

Anyway, while typing up my new Digital Methods assignment, I decided to finally start using BibTeX for my bibliographies. In the process it became obvious that there is no immediately available MLA BibTeX style shipping with my LyX install. Luckily, my old friend Reed College has a solution.

So when you import your BibTeX database into LyX, select browse and look for the style you just unzipped from the archive you downloaded from the Reed site. That’s in Insert->List/ToC, if you are wondering like I was. Make sure you put \usepackage{natbib} in your pre-amble and use the following citation style (\citeauthor*{citekey} pagenumber).

Voila! Beautiful, easy citations. Never look at that damn MLA style guide again!

## From Demo Till Dawn

Now you can get your demo fix all night long. With a frankly intense library of streaming video of demos, demoscene.tv is the perfect venue to get your demo fix. Plenty of classic Amiga and MS-DOS that would be hard to run these days.

Of course, there’s nothing like running them on your own hardware. For that, check out scene.org.

In honor of late nights, may I present you “Midnight Run” by Andromeda. I fully recommend this group, they’ve been in the game for a minute. Check out their channel at demoscene.

EDIT: By accident I originally posted a different demo. It is called “Chameleon”. Also fun

## Github, Virtue, and Commons-based Peer Production

Github, online beginning in 2008, has quickly changed the face of source code hosting. Called “social coding” by participants and commentators alike, the site has propelled the adoption of distributed version control systems (DVCS) in general, and git in particular. One of the key features of DVCS is the way in which all individual nodes in a network of source code are equivalent, leading some to wish a more descriptive name had been chosen for this new system, such as “federated” or “peer-to-peer.” The switch from centralized to distributed version control represents a sea change in the organization of source code online.

### What?

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps a few visuals are in order (I hope Kalid Azad doesn’t mind me borrowing his vizporn here):

Centralized Version Control

Centralized Version Control

Distributed Version Control

Distributed Version Control

While code in the centralized example requires an iterative (one step at a time) methodology, code in the distributed example can be undergoing many changes at once in a diverse range of locations. Certain limitations of truly centralized version control, such as allowing only one person to edit a given file in the source code tree at a given time, had already been overcome years ago. The prime differentiation between distributed and non-distributed version control in modern times is the primacy of a given repository (a folder of code that keeps track of changes)–in DVCS every repository is equivalent in importance, whereas previously “true authority” resided with a single repository through which all changes to the code were coordinated. In DVCS, repositorial authority is a social function rather than a technical distinction.

To introduce an analogy, traditional version control systems implemented the equivalent of a central government, with a capitol repository through which all operations are coordinated. Distributed version control, on the other hand, implements anarchy. And does it well.

### Github the Virtuous?

In 2006 The Journal of Political Philosophy published a paper by Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum titled “Commons-based Peer Production & Virtue.” Stepping back from the kind of economic analysis he usually engages in, Benkler collaborated with Nissenbaum to construct a moral argument for “commons-based peer production” (which is a form of the broader concept of “social production” which he describes at length in his book The Wealth of Networks, available for free online). Noting examples such as SETI@home, Slashdot, Wikipedia, and the Open Directory Project, the authors acknowledge that free/open source software (FOSS) is the most pervasive and successful example of commons-based peer production in today.

Acknowledging that virtue is a sticky philosophical subject, Benkler and Nissenbaum take a very broad, zoomed out look by assembling what they consider “clusters” of virtuous impulses. The first cluster includes autonomy, independence, and liberation. The second cluster contains creativity, productivity, and industry, while the third and fourth are composed of benevolence, charity, generosity, and altruism, and sociability, camaraderie, friendship, cooperation, and civic virtue. All of these characteristics are in some way stimulated by, as well as driving forces behind, commons-based peer production. Furthermore, Benkler and Nissenbaum argue that, by its virtuous nature, commons-based peer production may very well encourage the development of virtue. They cite thinkers such as Winner, McLuhan, and others who have noted the shaping of the social by technology.

For the philosophers and social scientists who study technology, this metaphor draws attention to a world in which we are constrained not only through the narratives and expectations of the self and other social agents and institutions, but by the material world which is constituted in increasing measure by technology. (416)

It is clear to me that this is directly borne out by the continuing expansion of FOSS principles and practices throughout the software industry. Hardware is also increasingly open source as well. Considering the explosive growth of Github, which is now home to many high profile OSS projects whether those projects have consciously moved there or not, can it be said that Github is virtuous software?

Since the distributed/federated/anarchic nature of git clearly enables new opportunities for virtuous action through its emphasis on autonomous repositories, perhaps an instance of the phenomena the authors intend to evoke with their statement “[Commons-based peer production] does not bypass virtuous action, but generates new opportunities for it.” (418) It’s virtue emerges through the distributed activities of its developers. Since no one is in true control, the overall form of the code is shaped by individual decisions regarding quality and appropriateness of contributions. Something you perhaps find appropriate for your repository may invoke git blame in others’.

The software further induces virtue in its participants through the git blame function, which immediately calls up the person responsible for a commit. In practice it used as much to know who to praise as it is to know who to berate, but it fulfills one of the the paper’s common criteria for extant commons-based peer production: that of a mechanism to mitigate the potential impacts of malicious users. Slashdot has its moderation system, Wikipedia its editors, and git has blame. In fact this functionality is a crucial part of what enables the ‘virtue spreading virtue’ element of such peer production.

Since Github automatically inherits all the virtue of git, in a sense my question has already been answered. But because Github is also a free service for those who wish to engage in commons-based peer production (and one that doesn’t involve ads, I would add) that makes git hosting “no longer a pain in the ass” (their marketing slogan at launch), they too encourage virtue to spread. It costs money to host your code privately, and thus withhold the source.

As institutions in the past could be considered to spread virtue, is it possible that today software could do the same? To further Benkler and Nissenbaum’s argument, I’d argue that not just the process of commons-based peer production (as they say), but the very outputs of that process in the form of free software are engines of virtue. In the case of git and Github we are faced with ‘recursive enablers’, free software (completely in git’s case, and totally dependent on in the case of Github) that quite directly enables and encourages the spread of further free software.

The question of morality in software is not generally addressed, so Benkler and Nissenbaum’s contribution is a welcome one. All too infrequently do we see moral cases presented before us these days. In that vein, a coda:

Unlike many political analyses of technologies, ours does not warn of a direct threat or harm. Rather, it warns of a threat of omission. We might miss the chance to benefit from a distinctive socio-technical system that promotes not only cultural and intellectual production but constitutes a venue for human character development. (417)

Sources:

## Short shorts: On their merits, circumsatnces, and pitfalls

### The Mighty Morphing Short Short Forms

Literature has been shrinking. No, I’m not referring to the decrease in readership demographics, but about “new” literary forms that sprang up in the 1990s and which continually morph names and word counts. First came flash fiction, which was designed to fit on two standard paperback pages. In other words, a complete story within one turn of a page. Then came microfiction, which was designed to be read in one click of the mouse: stories in the microfiction genre must be under 500 words, which allows them to fit on a single web page that requires no scrolling. Along the way, forms such as the drabble (exactly 100 words), 55 words (exactly 55 words), and the 69er (you guessed it, exactly 69 words) appeared. Now the newest and shortest form has appeared: hint fiction (25 words or less).

There is a long precedence of short fiction, of course. The penultimate example is Ernest Hemingway’s infamous story “Baby Shoes”

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Reputedly written to satisfy a bet that he could write a complete story in less than 10 words, these 6 small words hint at a story much larger than its diminutive length. It is this kind of compressed yet expansive text that Robert Swartwood has been collecting for an as-yet-unpublished anthology. In Swartwood’s opinion, a story is defined by fulfilling the following goals:

1. It should obviously tell a story.
2. It should be entertaining
3. It should be thought provoking
4. And, if done just right, it should evoke some kind of emotional response from the reader

### Whither Voice?

“If a story of 2,500 words or more can do all that, why can’t a story 25 words or less?” Swartwood asks in the thesis of the anthology. Though there is disagreement in literary circles (by Swartswood’s own admission), it has been difficult to find much academic discourse that attempts to invalidate the “short short.” One such available example is from 2004, a piece called “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust” by Jason Sanford. While Sanford does not completely disregard the merit of the short short (a phrase I will use as an umbrella term for the competing sub-forms), he sees a large deal of the problem lying with Masters of Fine Arts programs and their focus on word candy (“writing that passes through the system with no effect but tooth decay.”) In fact Sanford cynically pairs the popularity of short shorts with the ease of publishing both for the editors (easier to wade through submitted short shorts than longer forms) and writers (easier to write short shorts than longer forms, though this is likely a point of contention for Swartwood).

The problem with most short shorts is not the genre—it is that they are being written by writers who are not committed to the true exploration of voice that’s at the heart of great literature. Too often short shorts are written by writers emerging fully deformed from MFA workshops and programs around the country, writers churning out page after page of bland academic writing that has as little style, voice, and vision as George Bush on ritalin.

The question of literary voice, the truly defining factor that separates great literature from the rest, concerns Sanford greatly. In his mind, it is much more difficult to inject a unique voice into short shorts. This alone does not detract from the form(s), because the best writers will still be able to shape voice within the short short. Hemingway’s tersely short writing style, for instance, is perfectly embedded in “Baby Shoes.” Rather the problem is that the brevity of short shorts can provide a masking layer that hides a lack of literary voice by relying on word candy.

Writing before the advent of the hint fiction form, it is curious to wonder what Sanford’s reaction might be. Does the following story, the first place winner in a hint fiction contest, contain a literary voice?

HOUSE HUNTING

The fence is tall. Good. The mother is typical white-trash, too loud. But the kids … they seem frightened and quiet. Good. Easier that way.

Perhaps the largest drawback of the short short forms in general, and the hint fiction form in particular, is the fact that they are generally too short to be able to determine, from inside one piece, whether the author has a distinctive voice or is simply good at arranging short sequences of words.

### The Attention Factor

Regardless of their merits and pitfalls, short shorts are seemingly everywhere. Is it a result of the internet’s effect on attention span, or as Nicholas Carr put it in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”? In that piece Carr points out evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that the browsing of text on the internet has a negative effect on our ability to concentrate while reading longer works. Yet flash fiction came into prominence as a printed form, and, as Swartwood points out, flash fiction dates back at least to the days of Aesop. Like all human-machine interaction, I suspect that it is a dynamic interplay. The internet does indeed seem to foster the shortening of short shorts: from flash fiction to microfiction to hint fiction, for instance.

Microfiction is often intimately tied to the web. As Craig Snyder states in his introduction to microfiction,

Another difference might be that a Micro Fiction is more strictly a web phenomena, is more suited by it’s very nature to the screen environment. A story that can fit on the screen without scrolling can be manipulated in many ways via CSS. For example, through font-styling, letter and word spacing, and adding borders and images. Javascript may be added to make sections of text appear or disappear—to fade in and out, change color, etc. Flash Fiction at a thousand words or more must be scrolled.

Some examples of this interplay include In Your Monkey Suit, Snyder’s own Microdot, and Ellen Kennedy’s “novel” yesterday I was talking to myself…. However, it goes further. The-phone-book.com, for instance, was “a digital publishing project that commissions international new works of ultra-short fiction for quarterly distribution by wireless and traditional internet” that ran from 2000-2003. Twitter itself has come to host authors who publish their work in tweets, which is not to mention the gimmicky If Homer’s Odyssey Was Written On Twitter. (Grammar-minded people here no doubt shudder at the use of “was” here, rather than “were”). Hint fiction itself seems like a perfect fit for Twitter: at 25 words or less In Japan, serialized SMS novels have been popular for years and have recently made it to the bestseller lists when published in paper form. The capacity for mass distribution and quick consumption are highlighted by Daniel Heath as prime benefits for writers in his defense of scratch fiction (another short short form, this one characterized by a focus on publishing the process over releasing an already refined piece). Unfortunately so far the communities of short short fans seem to also be composed mainly of those who also enjoy writing short shorts, leading to a “genetic bottleneck” effect that Sanford sees as a problem for both short shorts and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs alike.

### Epilogue

Personally I think there is a lot of potential for short short forms. Like Sanford, I do notice a general tendency toward absurdism and a lack of a distinct voice. Countering such trends, however, is a journal called Brevity. By focusing solely on nonfiction short shorts (of 750 words or less, per their submission guidelines), they erase the potential for nonsensical absurdity, as for instance in “In Your Monkey Suit.” And 750 words is more than enough space for a good writer to express a unique voice, for instance Sherman Alexie’s Somebody Else’s Genocide. These differ from short blog posts in the same ways that creative nonfiction works differ from journalism articles.

If Carr is correct and the internet does literally reduce our attention spans, the emerging prevalence of short shorts is not only an effect of a decaying capacity for concentration but also one of the most coherent responses to it. If someone will read 750 words where they would not read 2,500, an author does well to attempt to compress the point to that number of words.

At the same time, such capitulation to an inability to concentrate feels cynical. To not even be able to process a longer piece of writing should be seen as a problem by all. So catering to such tendencies could be seen as a cynical act. Yet an artist who neglects their audience finds themselves without.

Regardless, and as librarians well know, anything that gets them reading is a good thing. Short shorts can serve as inspiration to further reading. The interplay between author, screen, and concentration will remain a space of controversy for years to come. Apart from a potentially cynical catering to attention deficit disorder, short shorts take on liberating forms for both writers and readers. Rejecting or criticizing the various forms for containing examples of poor writing misses the point entirely. Literature has never been about the mediocre. To expect serendipity from every short short is as ludicrous as expecting every published book to be captivating.

The short short forms, especially micro and hint fiction, leave a lot for the readers to imagine themselves. Their small size nevertheless contains a distinct expansiveness. The need to say more with less is ever present, intensified by the world today but stretching back as a tradition to Chuang Tzu, not to mention the Tao te ching. Fully harnessed, the short short forms contain the power to convey Truth, that is to say, the power to be art.

## Preliminary Napster LOLCat

I don’t have it in me to get much further in GIMP tonight beyond the skill level to do this. But it’s definitely on my list.