Working through density

Photo 21 05 12 2 21 53 PM

There is a reason (or actually a whole bunch of reasons) I haven’t posted anything here for a while: trying to make sense of the density of my PhD work. I’m hoping I’ll have a better idea of how to write about it ‘in public’ soon.

Meanwhile, here is a little sketch which describes my current train of thought:

Photo 7 05 12 11 46 28 AM

Subtext: material practice and designing by accident

One of my most used apps on my Mac at the moment is a prototype of my own making: a plain text editor with a working title of subtext. You could say I designed subtext by accident. I’ve been working on another app (in collaboration with Chris Marmo), and I built subtext as a tech demo: I was learning how to create view based NSTableViews in Cocoa, learning about the NSControl system and some of the in’s and out’s of text handling. The idea for the tech demo was to see if I could built a table view that could handle multiple cells containing passages of text, with a few animated elements, copy & paste support, drag to reorder, dragging between documents, a few other things. Basic stuff. On a whim, to test my knowledge of control event capturing, I added a new interaction – hitting ‘return’ at the end of a line would, rather than inserting a new line in to the current cell, insert an entirely new cell of text. This might not seem so dramatic – it’s just like treating cells as paragraphs, right? Well, the answer to that is ‘sort of’. What I discovered is that having paragraphs as draggable ‘cells’ by default, (which affords quick structural editing), and having paragraphs conceptually separated (by horizontal lines) — and this is not hyperbole — completely changes the way that I think about writing. Subtext is like a funny cross between a plain text editor, a basic outliner (with no nesting), and an iPhone style list. When using a regular text editor I write in ‘paragraphs’ or ‘sentences’. When using an outliner I feel the need to establish structure before writing. When using subtext I write in ‘thoughts’. What subtext enabled was something I didn’t even know I was missing: a different level of control over structural flow. Using subtext, I can create an outline as a I go. I can write an idea as soon as I think of it, out of order, and move it later. I can delete a thought without worry. I can easily skip over a paragraph while reading. Regular text editors can do this too, but subtext seems designed for it. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one — one that has changed the way that I write. Subtxt This points to two important things related to my PhD research: the first is the act and impulse to collect (much, much more on this later, I promise). The second, which I’ll discuss here, is the material practice of prototyping. Something that I think is missing from the UX and IxD design world is enough focus on material practice as a way of discovering and knowing. What I am talking about is making as a way of discovery. Design as research 1. Here is my personal revalation: the process of making software can materially change the way that a design works, and — more importantly — changes what is possible to think of. When working with digital materials, prototyping is the best way to do this: I’ve talked about ‘dynamic gestalt’ 2 before: when working in a digital space you can’t understand something until you use it — you have to actually make something to know what it is. Now: I know that I could never have ‘designed’ subtext had I sat down specifically to do it. I would never have considered that it might be useful to me. I would never have considered using the interactions that the app now includes. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that a basic structural text editor could become my most used app. The process of making made all this possible. This is why it is important for designers of technology to actually work with their materials. It’s not enough to have a great idea, it’s not enought to ‘design’ it: you have to make it to know what it is. You have to make it to know what it could be.  

  1. I know this is not a new discovery in the ‘contribution to knowledge’ sense: the idea has been around in the art and architecture world for many years. But I now think I really understand what it means and why it is important. 
  2. Löwgren, Jonas, and Erik Stolterman. 2004. Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology. The MIT Press, December 1. 

“Because I say so”

There is a little sketch that I keep drawing in my research notebooks: Two boxes with linking arrows. Sometimes the arrow is dotted, sometimes it is solid.

The experience of understanding the archive, of being in the archive, comes from the ability to make connections between objects. In a traditional physical archive, these connections are made through proximity (in time, in space), or through cataloguing decisions (made by an archivist), or through history (the  access log provides a kind of record: who saw what, when).

When dealing with digital records, connections can be implicit. If dealing with a video archive of performance (which I am), videos containing the same performers should be related: they are the same in some aspect, some metric. Likewise for videos on the same date, or videos on from the same location, or videos shot sequentially. Links are implicitly formed using data about the record. Metadata.

There is another kind of link used in a lot of video community “archive” sites — YouTube is the obvious example — that of the community generated link. Tags. Comments. Browsing behaviour. An digital system can infer that videos are related because people say the same things about them (similar tags, similar descriptions), watch them one after another regularly (proximity through time), etc.

There is another kind of link between objects that could, and should, be afforded in a digital archive: “These two objects go together because I say so”. In the case of the Circus Oz Living Archive: Here are two shows that I saw as a kid. Here are two shows that I think should be related because they contrast in an interesting way. Here are two acts that go together because I think they are good jokes. Here are two acts that, if put together in sequence, might make a new and better show.

These links can’t be made via data in the content (implicit), or crowd-sourced consensus (community), these are links that can only come from individual understanding. You might call them explicit links. This is the user — the reader — acting as an archivist.

My argument is that it is individuals are best placed to know what meaning is inherent in any particular object, on relationship between objects. Crowdsourcing is great up to a point: the information from your social graph can be scarily accurate sometimes. But only you really know why you are looking at something, why you make a connection between two things.

There has been plenty of work around the power of the collective in multi-user environments, social networked sites. What I am interested in exploring is the power of individual user agency and knowledge in these environments.

So this becomes the question: how do we design a digital archive environment that encourages the formation of explicit links between objects?


Time… it flies. Sometimes.

It’s been more than a year since I released my first iPhone app, Time Flies. One year, 3 months, 4 days in fact. (Yes, I use my own app. If I didn’t do that, what kind of developer would I be?) It’s also been that long since I released my only iPhone app. I had plans to make more apps, but since then I’ve, let’s see… started a software development company with a friend, started a PhD, got married… you know… life, etc.

But this post isn’t to lament my lack of time to work on iPhone software. This post is to announce an update to Time Flies. An update! At last! With the two most requested features: reminders and data export. (It’s true what they say: you don’t have to respond to feature requests — you’ll hear about the most important ones again and again and again). I had planned for iCloud integration too (and have been working on it), but iCloud + Core Data is currently too unreliable for me to be happy releasing a product into the wild. I might rant more about my problems with this another day.

So now comes the part where time doesn’t fly: Apple’s obligatory “waiting for review” period. Expect the Time Flies update to show up on the app store in a week or so. Meanwhile, thanks everyone that has given me feedback over the last year, 3 months and 4 days — even if I don’t respond to your email, know that I read and appreciate every one — and thanks for waiting.

On the vagaries of performance perception

Last night we saw Feist play at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. It was a seated show and we got tickets quite late, ended up high in the balcony.

Feist is an amazing performer and by all accounts the show was fantastic: great renditions of her songs, a very tight and accomplished band, fun audience interaction, great stage presence, excellent sound quality, wonderful music. I could tell, objectively, that the show was fantastic.

Subjectively it was a different story. K and I came out of the show feeling angry, disappointed, upset. Why? Because of the lighting setup. “Really?” you say, “you were that upset by the lighting at a gig?” This sounds churlish I know, but hear me out.

In any normal circumstance I wouldn’t pay any attention to the lighting at a gig. But for this gig, someone, somewhere, had made a decision: there would be lots and lots of silhouette effect, through the use of a little smoke from a smoke machine and some backlighting on stage. That’s fine — I like a good silhouette as much as the next guy: it can be exciting, dramatic — but this decision came with a pretty serious drawback for people sitting in our particular (numbered seat) position:

The lights, when on, shone directly in our eyes. The entire time. The lights flashed at regular intervals. They changed colour. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time on stage (I have a little), but stage lights are bright. Sun reflecting off snow bright. High-beam headlight bright.

It is a testament to the quality of Feist’s performance that we stayed at all. We managed to cope by sometimes wearing sunglasses, or turning away and closing our eyes at very regular intervals. Our experience of the show (which should have been about the experience of the performance), became the experience of trying to enjoy the show despite the unnerving nature of the lights in our eyes. Just when we were getting in to a great version of a song, we’d get a blast of bright light straight in the face, along with the resulting retinal after-image which affected our vision even when the lights were off. The best parts of the show were the songs where they didn’t use the backlight, but I spent a lot of that time preparing to shut my eyes again quickly or turn away when the next light came on.

It seems ridiculous. I feel like an old curmudgeon, complaining about lighting at a gig. In many ways, the fact that it was ‘only’ the lighting makes it worse: if it was a bad performance at least I could say “well, not every performance is good, maybe she had an off night” . I’ve been to bad shows, ones that I was particularly excited about (including the infamous Cat Power show at the Corner Hotel where she didn’t even finish a song). But this wasn’t a bad show, it was a ruined experience. As I said, by any objective metric the show was wonderful. We shouldhave walked out elated, enriched. But we didn’t.

* * *

This points to a peculiar issue when it comes to recording and archiving live performances: that the experiential memory of a spectator — “the spectator’s more or less distracted perception” 1 —  can be at odds with the authoritative, ‘documentary’ nature of the archive.  The Feist show would have made an excellent recording, video or otherwise. But our experience of the show — the ‘authentic’ live memory — was something completely different.

To address this problem, Matthew Reason [great name! – ed.] argues for a “mutable live performance archive”, that “accept[s] the positive valuation off memory’s transformative power.” 2 This is my current understanding of where the Living Archive Project is headed: an attempt to create a digital performance archive that somehow captures the complexities of memory involved in archiving an ephemeral, live performance.


  1. Pavice, Patrice. 1992. Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, London: Routledge, p. 67 
  2. Reason, Matthew. 2003. “Archive or memory? The Detritus of live performance.” New Theatre Quarterly 19 (73): p.87 

Manufactured nostalgia, authentic structure

We threw a new years eve party this (last?) year. We decided early on that we wanted to have a costume party of some kind, and after tossing a few themes about with various friends we settled on one we thought would work for everyone: we would have a 90s party. Reuben and Kate’s all or nothing 90s party.

Why 90s? Most of our friends are in the 25 to 35 age group, so they were teenagers in the 90s. This is more important than you might think: because we were teenagers, the 90s was the period in our lives when we really started engaging with the world, when we became aware of music, and art, and cinema, and each-other. It was a formative period. And because we lived it, we knew all the fine details. No clichés and stereotypes. We remember exactly what we wore. We were there, man.

So: we wanted our invitation to reflect the party theme, and to act as a nostalgia trigger — something to remind our friends of the 90s, to inspire them when it came to costumes, to get them in to the right mood. We wanted it to be fun.

In the past, Kate and I have made well received video invitations for events (another party, and a wedding). This was our original plan: to collect classic 90s videos (movie trailers, TV shows, advertisements) and produce a video mash-up in the style of Liquid Television. But after some discussion we realised that no, a video wasn’t actually appropriate.

Why? Because in the 90s, amateur video production was expensive and hard. It would have been almost impossible to collect all of those videos in one location and edit them together. You couldn’t send out a video invitation to someone without posting them a videotape, let alone send them one over the dial-up internet.

* * *

In Archive Fever 1, Derrida suggests that the process of archivization (consigning an external trace of an object to the archive) is determined by technological constraints such that it directly affects our reading of history. Or: we are limited in what we can capture in the archive by technological constraints. (Full disclosure: I am yet to read Archive Fever, my knowledge here is second-hand via Marlene Manoff 2 ).

The archivization argument seems to point to the political implications of the archivists curatorial decision: you can only add the objects that the technology will allow — “the structure of the archive determines what can be archived” 3 — thus determining what can be added to (and hence, retrieved from) the historical record.

But this technological limitation is also interesting when considered in the context of a layperson readingthe archive, especially if he/she is reading for some kind of nostalgic gratification. The structure of the archive is laden with meaning, and the technical constraints of a period are essential markers of the authenticity of the archival object.

* * *

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with an invitation to a 90s party?

Well, we wanted to create a (loosely defined) archive: a collection of curated works, representative of the era, with the goal of manufacturing nostalgia for the 90s. But for our invitation to be an authentic nostalgic trigger, we required more than just the correct archival objects: we required the correct structure, the correct technical limitations. And this was the 90s — when we, the non-archivist laypeople, began to break the boundaries between the personal collection and the public one.

I’m talking of course about the personal “home page” — the first living archive. So, without further ado, I present to you our own attempt at manufactured nostalgia: Welcome to my home page.

  1. Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive fever: a Freudian impression. University of Chicago Press. 
  2. Manoff, Marlene. 2004. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4 (1): 9-25. 
  3. Ibid. p. 12 

Two short questions

I’ve been thinking again. Well, actually, I’m a PhD student, I’m always thinking. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about personal digital archivesagain. And I have two questions:

What does the archive gain in the transition from physical to digital?

And, (perhaps more importantly):

What does the archive lose?

No coherent answers yet, but I thought I better note the questions down. All part of the messiness of my PhD.

Performing 2012

There is a certain amount of struggle required to get back in to a work rhythm after a break. So I’m writing this post partly just as a way to force me to start writing seriously about my work again, instead of posting drawings of my cameras, or photos of paint, or photos of my photos.

I had this idea that I could write a really great comprehensive post about all the amazing things I did and learned last year. But that was a struggle too. Not because there weren’t things to write about, oh there were. But because I didn’t know where to start. I started a list of All the Great Things that I Did, Thought, Read Etc Etc last year, but that got tiresome, and really didn’t do the year justice. And now I’m thinking — what is this about anyway? I’m keeping pretty good documentation of my PhD work in notebooks, in a Scrivener document, in Lightroom catalogue, in a series of artefacts. I know what I’ve read, I know what I’ve written. Why do I need to write about it, again, here, in public?

I’ve been reading “The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life” by Erving Goffman. I’m not far through it yet, but I’m already fascinated by his take on human interactions and relationships: viewing our interactions through a frame of performance. When we interact with each other, we perform: we project a view of ourselves in an attempt to control the impression that the other (the observer) receives. But the observer also projects an “agreeable view” of said projection to form a working consensus: an agreement about the nature of the situation. In any given interaction, the observer is also performing.

When an individual plays a part, he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. 1

This blog is part of my performance as a PhD student, as a professional designer, as an amateur photographer, etc. But who are my observers (and do I even have any)? Who, exactly, am I performing for?

And herein lies a problem: I am my own observer. I am performing on this blog, hoping that I will take seriously the nature of the impression. But I am well aware of my own performance: I know what I am presenting, here, in public. I know what I am keeping hidden backstage. As I read back through my blog posts about my PhD, the impression that I get is one of controlled thought, of meticulous thinking, of structure an neatness. But I know that isn’t true: a PhD is messy. And maybe that’s why I felt that a structured post about All the Great Things that I Did, Thought, Read Etc Etc can’t do my work justice: because it’s just not messy enough.

I don’t really know how to follow through on this idea just yet: it’s just an observation at this stage. But perhaps an interesting one for how I approach my PhD this year.


  1. Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1st ed. London, United Kingdom: Penguin. p28 

Just doin’ some photo framin’

I finally learnt how to properly mat and frame photos yesterday. For DIY tasks like this Youtube is an incredible resource.

Photos from various overseas trips: (clockwise from top) Nepal (near Chamki), Seville, Madrid.

Cameras I own: Pentax K10 D

Part five in a series. Read parts four, three, two and one.

On top of the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Climbing Mount Takao

This camera is a beast. I bought it because I wanted a real SLR again (my last film SLR, a Pentax MZ50, had been stolen years earlier). It was a big step in my move to digital photography, the other digital cameras that I’d owned up to that point were all travel cameras, point and shoot. This is a “prosumer” camera: interchangeable lenses, RAW, fully manual modes. It’s big. It’s noisy too. It wasn’t until I used a friend’s Canon a few months later that I realised just how loud the shutter on the Pentax was. And it was my companion.

Looking back through the photos, I can attach this camera to two major points in my life: the first is 6 months living in Tokyo, the other is a trip with my sister to India and Nepal in 2008.

* * * *

Hanami in Saitama

In a bar in Shibuya, Tokyo

While in Japan I carried this camera everywhere, despite it’s weight and bulk. Although I had my Hexar with me, and bought the Yashica while I was there, the Pentax was the camera I used to document my life. In the bars I frequented in Asagaya I became recognised as the strange foreigner with the camera (to the point that when I left Japan, one of the bartenders gave me a t-shirt with a camera on it as a going away gift).

One of the major selling points for the Pentax over Nikon or Canon (apart from the price) was the lens: a lovely, small, 50mm 1.4. It was perfect for shooting at night in the lights of Tokyo, and gave the camera a very low profile which made it great for street photography.

The Pentax was reasonably versatile (interchangeable lenses will do that). While in Japan I had two lenses (the aforementioned 50mm 1.4 auto, and a manual 28mm 2.8), once back in Australia I was lucky enough to win a photography competition with one of my Yashica photos and won a Tamron 18-250 lens that I took with me to India, along with the 50mm. My sister had a Pentax too, so we shared lenses, carrying one each.

* * * *

Gosaikunda pass, Nepal

Chamki, Nepal

Somewhere near the Taj Mahal

Although its been almost four years now, I’m yet to go through all my India and Nepal photos. I’ve printed a few of them, but I took thousands (part of the danger of digital photography). The camera has some fond memories attached to it: surviving the Mumbai bombings (we were stuck in a hotel across from the Mumbai hospital), being accosted by small children in Tirivunamulai (who all insisted that we take photos of them, their families, their houses), the frozen lakes and bright yellow hand-painted signs high up in the Himalayas, the Taj Mahal totally hidden by fog.

I barely use the Pentax anymore. It’s too big, heavy and noisy for the kind of photography that I find myself doing now. I do pull it out occasionally when I want to do some more “pro” photography than my Lumix GF-1 can handle.

* * * *

It’s funny how you attach memories to objects. I didn’t realise until I started writing this post just how many important memories are associated with this particular camera, how I remember the events through its lens.

“You don’t need a methodology”

This would have to be some of the best and (in some ways) oddest advice about doing PhD study that I’ve yet heard.

It comes from Margot Brereton, and was part of some of the wonderful feedback that I received at this years doctoral consortium at OzCHI 2011. (And this is certainly not to discount the excellent and insightful advice from Gerhard Fischer 1, Lian Loke 2, and Toni Robertson 3.)

Ok, so. You don’t need a methodology. What does this mean?

The way I understood it is this: To do research, you need a question, and way of getting data to respond to that question. You then need a way of analysing that data to answer your question. Your question drives your methods. Your methods for data collection and your methods for data analysis are different.

Once you have some data you can begin to ask yourself: what does your data tell you about your question? This is an iterative process: a PhD is about question reframing in response to you data.

But you don’t start with methodology. What you need is a good question.


  1. “if you do not like what you are are doing then it is a bad idea” 
  2. “treat a PhD like an apprenticeship: find a good supervisor” 
  3. “The PhD is the side effect of the person you become” 

Cameras I own: Konica Hexar AF

Part four in a series. Read parts three, two and one.

Somewhere in Western Australia, 2006

Now here is a camera that is truly close to my heart. When I’m asked the inevitable question (as a visitor looks up at my collection on top of our bookshelf) “which is your favourite?”, my answer is always “the Hexar”. I first became aware of the existence of the Hexar while taking photos at the Meredith music festival with my Canonet—I noticed another photographer with a few vintage cameras, and around his neck was an amazing looking one: like a Leica, but sleeker, more modern, with a neat little LCD showing the shot count on the top. I didn’t manage to speak to him, but my quest had begun.

I found my Hexar my first time in Japan, partly because I knew that I wanted to buy a camera in Japan, and partly because my good friend Pete (who was living there at the time) convinced me (after some single-malt scotch) that this was the one. He was right of course.

Akihabara, Tokyo, 2004

The Konica Hexar is a truly special 35mm rangefinder: it sports an incredibly sharp fixed 35mm f2.0 lens, aperture priority and program settings (or fully manual if you desire), fast and precise autofocus, solid construction. I have heard it called “the perfect street camera” because of it’s fast wide angle and extremely quite operation. Plus it just looks awesome with its sleek lines, sci-fi looking reflective autofocus array and LCD screen.

ACCA, Melbourne, 2006

I bought the later (1997) model “Silver” edition, which (apparently) comes minus the Hexar’s most lauded feature: Silent Mode. Silent Mode slows down the motorised film advance and autofocus to whisper quiet, and combined with the very quiet leaf shutter turns the Hexar into one of the quietest motorised film cameras around. Now, I said “apparently” because of a fact that was pointed out to me by Pete: the missing feature is just a software setting—it is actually possible to override it and restore Silent Mode to the camera by performing a complex sequence of button presses (which I managed to do, after a few aborted attempts). Pete explained this fact to a salesman at Map Camera, and it was listening to this conversation that I first learned about the existence of “Japanese” words that are strangely warped English words: “Onnu-offu” (on-off switch), “cunningu” (cheat, as in “cunning”).

Kyoto, 2004

But I digress. I continued to use this camera right up until I bought my Lumix GF-1, as none of my other digital cameras could do quite what the Hexar did (and the Lumix is still louder than the Hexar). There was something about the combination of size, speed and lens quality (I still think it has the best lens of any camera that I own) that made it, for me, perfect. The Hexar is retired now (the cost of film is sadly not worth it anymore), and I have managed to damage the hotshoe (now held in place with gaffer tape).

I took some of my favourite film shots with this camera over the years, and I am still a little sorry that it just sits gathering dust now. A note to all digital camera manufacturers: I’m still looking for a true digital replacement for the Hexar, so when you release one, I’ll happily be your first customer.