September 2010 Archives

Super Mario as metaphor for self determination

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I'm firmly convinced that, as texts and cultural artefacts, many video games are just as valid as their more traditional book-shaped peers. In this vein, I think that Super Mario is, above all, a fine example of the heroic quest archetype. It's pretty obvious. It's the story of one simple, relatively unremarkable man against a hostile world, trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds for the good of the Mushroom Kingdom.

More importantly, though, Super Mario is a fine analogue for self determination and self employment. The idea that Mario gains through pain and exertion fits pretty well into our ideas of work and reward. Mario is motivated to bash his head constantly against bricks and boxes because he knows that from his pain will result gain, in the form of coins and other prizes. Mario makes the decision, for himself, to exert in order to gain coins.

Now look at it slightly differently. What if Mario were in the employ of someone else, perhaps someone who excelled at collecting rolling coins. Mario's employer would contract with him to do only the bashing portion of the work. Someone else would collect the coin resulting from the bashing of the prize box. Then, at the end of the day, Mario would get a portion of the day's gains. Mario's gain might not be proportional to his efforts or to the number of coins collected, but it might at least be consistent. By specializing his labour and allowing his actions to be determined by someone else, Mario defrays the risk involved in his bashing efforts. If a coin escapes, it is not Mario's problem. He has done his part by bashing the block. Someone else is responsible for collecting the coin.

But in the reality of the game, Mario is effectively self employed. He takes responsibility for all actions of box bashing and coin collecting. He does run the risk of losing some coins, but he can be sure that every coin he collects is entirely his own. Mario may spend his day bashing boxes and running the risk of headache, but he can be sure that his gain is actually proportional to his effort and, more importantly, that the headaches are for himself, not incurred on behalf of some other party, profiting from Mario's pain.

I raise you a 23 year old meat dress

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I don't normally talk about Lady Gaga because, well, I'm just not interested in her. I don't think she's terribly exciting. However, in the last week, people have continually mentioned the dress made of meat that she paraded around in over the weekend. Everyone seems very fired up over it. Like the Lady herself, the meat dress does not excite me. I am not offended, as a vegan, that a celebrity would wear so obvious a dead animal. I am not aghast that someone known for looking outlandish (apparently) would wear a garment so sure to attract attention.

The reason I'm not at all surprised is Jana Sterbak, the incredibly accomplished and incredibly incredible Czech-Canadian artist. In 1987, she completed a piece called Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic. It caused quite a stir. Why? Because it was a dress made of meat. Flank steak, to be precise. And instead of being shown for one night only, part of its purpose was to age and become dessicated in the gallery. It was (and continues to be) a comment on ageing, on the concept of women as meat and on any number of other things. And it's in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center, too.

All of this is to say that, to the student of contemporary Canadian fine art, a meat dress is not a shocking thing. And I'm forced to conclude that the one Lady Gaga wore over the weekend was either very derivative or that the designer needs to get a broader grounding in the truly kick-ass art work that's already been done on female body, image and consumption.

My conference poster, I show you it

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I'm co-chair of this conference. I'll talk more about the conference later. As I do, I've gone and done the most fun stuff first. I've designed the poster for the keynote. And, if I may say so about my own work, I think it's awesome. See below. The one blank, the location of the keynote, is going to be settled quite soon. For those who want to attend, there'll be notice about that closer to the date, in the new year. The website mentioned on the poster isn't live yet. But give me a week. For now, I give you pretty poster.


Social issues for techies

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I'll admit it. I was a teenage activist. Then I outgrew my teens and became an adult activist, focusing my attention on issues that matter to me and on which I can make a difference. In my particular circle of vegan, hippy town activism, I learned a lot about gender, orientation and all the manifold things springing from those simple words.

A particular thing that often comes up is the conflation of gender and sex. Lots of people think that the two words mean the same thing. So I've come up with a handy metaphor. That's what makes this post about social issues for programmers. It's a tech metaphor. And it's occurred to me that many social issues can be well explained using techy metaphors.

Try this explanation on for size. Gender has to do with software and sex is about hardware. Your sex is effectively the hardware that everything runs on and your gender can be likened to software, specifically, your operating system. So, for example, someone who feels that they're running the right software for their hardware would be called cisgendered. Someone with a conflict between software and hardware would be transgendered. But it all comes down to whether or not your software and hardware match up.

I'm wondering what other thorny social issues (the ones that are so often misunderstood) there are that could be explained with simple, techy metaphors. Or, in fact, whether it's worth using metaphors that only tech-oriented folk will understand.

Libre Graphics Magazine website: done (for now)

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Exciting things are happening. Libre Graphics Magazine is on the move, with our first numbered issue (1.1) due to come out in November. For now, I've designed a very spare website to house our call for proposals, manifesto and contact information. I'm rather pleased with it. Screen shot below, with the whole thing available at

Screenshot-Libre Graphics Magazine: soon. - Mozilla Firefox.png

Libre Graphics Magazine issue 1.1 call for proposals

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Below is the call for proposals for Libre Graphics Magazine issue 1.1. Please feel free to copy and distribute.

Libre Graphics Magazine is seeking submissions for its first numbered issue, which loosely follows the theme First Encounters/Taking Flight. Submissions can range from the written, to the visual, to the interactive. If it can be flattened and printed, it could appear in our print edition. If it moves or requires user input to be seen properly, it might just be a good fit for our web edition. Proposals for articles or works (or even already completed works), may be submitted until October 3, 11:59PM Eastern time. Proposals for articles should be no more than 100 words, although the articles themselves may be up to 1000 words. Proposals and work may be sent to

First times are seen as momentous events in our lives. The first time away from home, first job, first kiss, all are seen as seminal events, meant to be packed up and remembered, fondly or not. The first, narratively, carries a heavier weight in our memories than so many subsequent events. After the first time, you start getting used to it, you become proficient, the magic and mystery start to wear off.

This issue, we're talking about firsts. We're talking about first experiences, first efforts, first anythings, about the liberation of letting go and trying something new, and the terror that sometimes comes with it. Firsts are about taking flight, about leaving behind the things you know and embracing something else.

That's where our second theme, Taking Flight, comes in. Taking flight, leaving behind, in a physical and a metaphorical sense, carries with it that sense of liberation and trepidation, that change of perspective. Lifting off of our metaphorical ground and looking down from above packs the power to change our perspective, to let us a little bit out of ourselves. In the same way that seeing your own city from above can completely change your conception of it, seeing your own possibility and creative process from above has the power to make you stop and think again about the elements of process, style or workflow that you take for granted.

Taken together, the ideas of First Encounters and Taking Flight are all about discovering the new, the momentous, the big and the unexpected that you never even thought you possessed. These things, in your own head, in your own possibility, unlocked if only you give them a chance and break from the norm. That's why, this month, we're talking about firsts and flights, about the magic, the mystery, the revelation of doing something new and discovering what you never even suspected you possessed.

Recycling bins in fast fashion stores

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Point of purchase recycling bins are all the rage right now. Most stores selling mobile phones have bins in which to leave your old device. IKEA has those charming bins for batteries and light bulbs. Basically, retailers are making it easier and easier to recycle their hazardous or reclaimable products. Why not clothing?

I know, that sounds strange. Clothing isn't hazardous waste, right? But if you think in a systemic way, it is. Let's start with cotton. According to the Organic Trade Association (admittedly not the most impartial observer of the ills of conventional farming), cotton "covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop" (source). That's a pretty chemical intensive crop. And the insecticides used on it aren't exactly pleasant. A t-shirt, then, which takes about a pound of cotton to produce (according to that same OTA page), is busy little thing. The cotton gets grown in one place, sent to be milled elsewhere, cut and sewn in quite possibly a third place and then has a nice little boat trip to get to the country in which they're to be consumed. (Let's forget, for the moment, that about 10,000 containers go overboard every year, their contents floating off into the ocean.) Already, in one little cotton t-shirt, we've got a pile of chemicals, lots of fuel for growth and transportation, water for growth, transportation and processing and a shirt that's probably better travelled than its soon-to-be owner.

That little t-shirt is hazardous enough already. But the next bit of its life cycle is no better. You buy it from a fast fashion clothing store for somewhere between ten and twenty dollars. At that price, it has nearly no value to you. So you wear it a few times, for a couple months. And then it gets a little rip in the arm pit, or you spill something on it, or that shade of blue just plain isn't in style any more. Out it goes in the bin. Or sits in the back of your closet until spring cleaning. Sure, there are second hand clothing stores that want your old shirt, but it's a lot of effort to bundle all your old clothes into a bag and drive them to a collection bin. So you don't.

And this is where point of purchase recycling comes in. In those fast fashion clothing stores, there ought to be some nice big bins. Bins for accepting used clothing. The clothes could go off to any number of places (whether it be a charity clothing store or a rag merchant), it doesn't really matter where. What matters is that they'd got to a second use, instead of to a landfill.

Mechanical dress: now with adjustable pouf

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Non-Standard Bodies, which I've posted quite a bit about in recent weeks, is very nearly done. What was a pretty clunky prototype in April is now functioning well and looking good. Today, the job was to pad out the shoulders and crinoline, for the sake of roundness instead of extreme angularity. Tomorrow, we do a (hopefully) final test on the servos.

Next week, we're installing it for a four month run at the Ontario Science Centre, where I fully expect legions of pre-teen boys on field trips to adjust it to the shortest and tightest settings. Still, if they bother to read the statement that goes with it, they'll at least get some idea of how standards impact their lives. In addition, of course, to the silly thrill of being able to mess with clothing fit at a distance.

Below, the dress in full-on nun-mode; partially shortened with one sleeve up and waist tightened; the requisite up-skirt photo of electronic guts; a detail of the newly padded shoulder armour; the back of the dress, when waist is tightened; and a detail of the underside of the skirt, when shortened.


Now, women in F/LOSS

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Below is part two of me trying to work through the issue of women in tech, generally and in F/LOSS specifically. It goes with one from yesterday, about optics and marketing.

There's this issue of women in software. Everyone knows it exists. Everyone bemoans the fact that there aren't enough women in math and the hard sciences, never mind women in applied fields like software. It gets worse, of course. It always does. Not only are there not enough women in software, there are even fewer women in F/LOSS. Oh my goodness, no! So not only are there very few women who want to work in software, there are even less who want to effectively volunteer in it. Not that all F/LOSS is volunteer work, but it is a very different dynamic from just working in an office with a defined management structure.

So here are some problems. There's the issue of management structure. When people govern themselves, in the sort of pseudo-libertarian way that F/LOSS does, they tend to think that they're eliminating barriers to entry. Because anyone can look under the hood, contribute, discuss and so on, they think that, well, anyone can contribute. Not so much. The overwhelming majority of people who actively participate in F/LOSS (as far as I can tell from an unscientific survey of various F/LOSS conferences) are white, male and first world. That's not just anyone. That's a privileged group of people who, historically, have had very few barriers to entry in any case. So they think, because they have low to no barriers to entry into the world of F/LOSS, that nobody else has barriers.

Once again, that's crazy talk. There are loads of barriers: time (you need to have enough time to actually do stuff), skill (you need to build up the skill to do the above stuff and building that skill takes time and lots of effort), lexicon (you need to understand the stuff that the group is talking about), courage (you need to believe that your stuff is good enough to be contributed), thick skin (you need to realize that if people criticize your stuff, it's not personal and it's nothing against you) and so on. There are loads more barriers. These are just a few obvious ones.

And then, of course, there's that very problematic problem: impostor syndrome. Lots of women feel like they aren't worthy of note in the software context, that they don't have anything valid or exciting to contribute. And when things are so argumentative and trial by fire, who's to blame them for worrying about that? F/LOSS can be a scary place. It's really easy to feel like an outsider with no one vouching for you. At least when you start a new job, you have the validation imparted by being hired. You, of all the applicants, are the chosen one, the one the employer thinks is best suited to do the job. No such thing in F/LOSS, really. You don't have anyone vouching for you, giving much of a damn about your success. To everyone else already in the community, you're an unproven outsider. And this is where being sensitive to social situations can be a real beast. If you're actually socially sensitive and care what people think of you, going through that trial by fire can be hell. So all of the above contributes to the problem of women in F/LOSS. Add to that the general invalidation of people outside of programming functions and you've got what adds up to a perfect storm of hostility. It's not a specific or targeted hostility, not even a conscious one, but something worse. It's an unthinking, institutionalized hostility. And it does a great job of keeping women out, even if that's not an intended outcome.

Disjointed bits about women in tech

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I'm working on an article about the always thorny and very much already mulled over issue of women in tech in general and in F/LOSS specifically. Some slightly disjointed thoughts about it are below, because I think many efforts have gone about the sell in the wrong way.

Here's the tricky bit of the problem (that problem being that young women don't seem interested in pursuing most tech and science careers): we seem to forget about the insecurities that teenage girls have. We fail to market the tech industry to them as something that can fulfill their needs and desires. Stereotypically (and I'll dig up the requisite studies later), they want to be creative, they want to be attractive, they want to be popular and they want to belong. An industry made up (or so it appears) of rugged individualists and unattractive geeks doing math and logic problems all day doesn't appeal.

We're not showing the fun side of the industry (and there sure as heck is a fun side), only the bits that look good on paper. But looking good on paper isn't all that impressive when the appearance is of a steady but boring life. It's not sexy. Actually, maybe sexy is the wrong word. But it sure as heck isn't attractive. There's no romance in steady and sensible. There's romance in recognition and role playing (why do little girls want to be ballet dancers?). There's romance in changing the world and helping others (the ever popular career aspiration, veterinarian, springs to mind). But when we talk about working in tech (which really, also doesn't happen quite enough), we don't talk about the world changing or the recognition.

There's also the issue of the perception of tech folk as geeks with no social skills or lives. Girls don't realize that women in tech are well rounded, perfectly human people with lives just like everyone else. We're not stinky misanthropes living alone in basements. Heck, the grown up ones often have houses, partners, families. And while these things aren't highly aspirational, they do fit into the normal conception of growing up, which is something at very least sub-consciously important to teens choosing their career path.

Also, of course, we're failing to talk to them where they'll actually listen. Never mind doing things in school. I want to see pro-tech ads running in teen magazines, showing actual women who work in the tech industry, being real, being aspirational, being the women that girls want to grow up into.

Design and protectionism

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Design (especially graphic and web) is one of those fields that seems to breed a lot of protectionism among its practitioners. For good reason. As with writing, it's a skill lots of people possess, or at least think they do. Designers grumble a lot (and I'm no exception) about crummy work, over-involved clients, low pay and what I think of as the nephew problem ("Why should I pay such a high rate for your work? My nephew has a copy of Photoshop and can do the work for a quarter that price!"). All of this because lots of people are creative, the tools of our trade are readily available, and the results of our work don't hold human lives in the balance (much).

So designers are often protective of their work and qualifications. Those degrees, portfolios and lists of former clients really matter, because they make us feel a little safer, a little more important, and a little more as if we'll actually be taken seriously. But this can often be a source of serious tension. What brings this all to mind is the comment thread currently building up on an article about F/LOSS design. The article, written by designer, educator and generally cool guy Mushon Zer-Aviv, presents the problems and precedent behind collaboration in design. But it also makes a case for that very thing. The fascinating bit, though, is in the comments. Designer after designer has weighed in, telling some variant of the stupid client story. It's a common trope in design: the client wanted to get her hands dirty, felt really invested in the design, wrote a pile of memos, wouldn't be placated and eventually, the design died a committee death. It ended up pink, with kittens, with 72pt type or some other egregious design no-no that every other designer in the room can identify with and groan about. We get it. Clients aren't designers. If they were, they wouldn't need to hire us. There's a parable about this in the world of F/LOSS, about painting the bikes shed. Because the colour of the bike shed is something that everyone feels qualified to contribute on, they do, even if their input isn't necessarily helpful.

All of this really misses the point, though. Collaboration, with good communication and with good collaborators doesn't need to result in a stupid client story. Of course, as far as the article goes, using the word "committee" in the headline was just asking for trouble. Committee connotes committee syndrome, which designers will automatically get up in arms over, no matter the actual arguments presented. It's our own protectionist nature. In a field where creativity is the going currency and a world where everyone is trying to unleash their own inner artist, of course there are clashes. Those clashes are over ego and self worth. As long as we hunger to be right, valuable and more qualified than thou, those clashes will remain bothersome and every designer will be able to cherish a cache of stupid client stories.

My thesis proposal, I show you it

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As we know, I'm working on the Open Colour Standard, which is a great big daunting project which fully intends to eat a lot of time. How will I accomplish this while also working on roughly two bajillion other things (at a rough estimate)? It's quite simple: I've turned it into a thesis. It's a win-win situation. I get a degree out of my work and the rest of the world gets the assurance that I'll actually finish the project or suffer certain academic death. This is why I've been basically living in a super secret lab in the basement of a big ugly concrete building for the last eight months, drinking orange juice to ward off the scurvy that would surely otherwise set in from lack of sun. Having done a boatload of preliminary research, I'm now writing the proper thesis proposal which will make the work properly, for serious, official. Below, then, the first draft of one section of the proposal: the introduction to my research question.

The purpose of my proposed thesis is to explore the theoretical, historical and practical underpinnings of the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement, standards, colour and colour standards (especially open ones). Put more practically, the aim is to look at how standards are made, what standards do, what impact they have on professional and institutional practice, what sorts of standards exist, what colour standards are currently in existence and use and how the ideologies and practices of the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement and communities might come to bear on the creation and implementation of professional colour standards.

Put even more practically, the purpose of the proposed research is to look at the processes and problematic practices behind standards, their creation, implementation and use. Further, the research will take a practical turn, in attempting to lay out the groundwork for a new colour standard, one which keeps in mind the needs of users beyond those represented by the normal participants in the standards-setting process. This practical turn, however, is not simply for the sake of creation. Instead, it takes cues from Critical Making and other ideas of reflexive practice. Essentially, its purpose is to better understand the problematics of the standards creation, setting and implementation processes through participation in such processes, although always with a critical eye.

    This proposal offers a brief overview of the history and rationale behind F/LOSS, with background useful in the understanding of the benefit of open standards, protocols and tools. Then, an exploration of literature on what standards are, what uses they serve, how they are made and implemented, what significance they have and what tensions exist in their creation, implementation and existence. Where colour and its related standards are concerned, the review focuses on an overview of common and less common uses of colour, historical and current colour standards, the physical realities of making and viewing colour and finally, the politics of colour. Two theoretical frameworks are approached: Ratto's Critical Making, exploring the value of doing in order to gain understanding, and Star's points on the purpose and concerns of infrastructure. A description of proposed methodology follows, as well as a discussion of limits and ethical concerns which may be associated with the proposed methodology.