[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Maybe it’s time to accept failure

Okay, so let’s start by agreeing none of us like to fail. It’s in our cells. Our genes want to get as far down the evolutionary ladder as possible, and there are plenty of much more immediate ways we want to succeed. But could it be possible that our relationship with failure is stopping us dealing with some of the biggest problems of our time?

That’s @critter‘s fail whale tattoo. Fail whale would be very familiar if you were using Twitter early on – it flashed up every time the website timed out.

It was designed by Yiying Lu (originally “Lifting Up A Dreamer”), and I’m chatting with her tomorrow. So every time Twitter failed, Yiying’s artwork flashed up in front of a ballooning groups of ‘tweeps’. So failing is clearly something Yiying has a mixed relationship with. From what I gather, she doesn’t have a significant base of failure to draw on. But she has Twitter’s turbulent path from buzzed online curiosity to news-breaking social media platform to thank for a serendipitous rush of international exposure.

Anyway, Yiying’s also dabbled in lecturing. Teaching design students at the University of Technology, Sydney. And when I said I was super interested in failure and her mixed experiences with it, she sent several vollies of link-filled emails as required reading.

Yiying pulled this quote from a spectacular speech by author JK Rowling.

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

That seems intuitively true. In my experience, failing is a good sign you’re trying something new. But Rowling went far deeper, explaining how crucial failing was to her phenomenal success.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

It’s just the kind of mythologising that works in a graduation speech, and Rowling was speaking to a graduating group of Harvard students. But what makes it inspiring listening is that it’s borne out in Rowling’s story. She had to fail to get where she did.

Yiying also sent  a couple of interviews she had done – a good overview of the fail whale story in Failure magazine (of course), and another in the New York Times Magazine’s Consumed column.

One of the things I find interesting about failure is how it can be a doorway to some great inspiration that social taboos (“that’s wrong!”) or intellectual rigidity (“that’s ridiculous!”) would veto.

Most worrying, is the risk that a fear of failure will stop people solving ‘wicked problems’.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

That definition’s from a great piece by New York University media researcher/commentator Jay Rosen.

It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)

That is key: “Failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try.”

Dealing with complex problems, we need to experiment, take risks, and not be afraid of stepping away from incremental development. And that’s going to take a very different relationship with failure.

What use is an unmade idea?

The sheer effort needed to develop, prototype and attract financial support can often stop an amazing idea dead in its tracks. There’s no question steps like those are critical on a commercial project. But when the alternative is a moment of inspiration that disappears into the air, can cutting the process short still make a contribution?

Massachusetts architecture firm Choi + Shine came up with this idea in 2008. They entered it in a pylon design competition run by Landsnet, a public company that owns and runs the electrical transmission system in Iceland. The project got an honorable mention, but has since taken out a string of prizes, including a Boston prize for unbuilt architecture (I originally heard about it on TreeHugger).

It only calls for minor alterations to standard steel-framed tower design. What entices me is how it says, even those heavily functional aspects of our world and landscape, those elements of infrastructure that seem bound up in technical and bureaucratic red tape, even those things could be open to rethinking – and really creative reimagining – to make them an intriguing and inspiring part of the landscape.

At the other end of the spectrum is this collaborative project from Denis Krylov, Yuri Pitomtsev and Andrei Hakhovich in San Francisco.

It’s been hard to miss the cassette tape nostalgia this past year or two, often from people too young to have heard tapes first time round. In April 2010, Krylov, Pitmotsev and Hakhovich sent around photorealistic renderings of their idea, and it went viral on design blogs, and popped up in a New York Times feature on cassette nostalgia.

They prototyped the TapeLamp in July, and were selling a lamp made of laser cut plexiglass and 100 micro-cassettes, with a 40 watt bulb, by November. Their idea is really about the rethinking of how these nostalgia-loaded objects might play a part in our lives long after their functional use has been superseded. And in many ways, that rethinking happened months before the product was actually prototyped.

Some ideas need to be made to make any sense, to make a contribution. But as in these two cases, sometimes the point may have been made partway.

Is this a call for giving up halfway through a project? I don’t think so. There’s too much waste and rubbish already. But opening up a great idea that would otherwise vanish could catalyse another brilliant insight. And that’s worth something, right?

Three great things I came across this year

It’s almost the end of December, best of lists are everywhere. And I love lists. But… I find them a bit arbitrary – it’s all so dependent on what you saw, where you were, how you felt. Still, there’s something to them: a look back, before leaping into a new year.

I’m a science writer and researcher, an arts broadcaster and music obsessive, and a compulsive reader, so there is a  lot to draw on. Too much. So I decided to focus on three great things I came across this year and haven’t been able to stop talking about.

Tipping Point, Performance Space

It’s seems right to start here, considering I started this blog a week later. The idea had been kicking around a while, of doing a radio show, online thing, whatever, about ideas and where they come from and how they’re made. But talking to people at Tipping Point convinced me to get this ball rolling.

I didn’t know what to expect of #tpoz10 (as it went on Twitter). Several events this year promised fascinating ideas, brilliant minds, but delivered typical programs of good and/or dull. Tipping Point stemmed from a UK event of the same name – it was even sponsored by the British Council and Royal Institution, alongside the Australia Council for the Arts – and ran over two days in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Producer Angharad Wynne-Jones and her team assembled a stellar group to talk about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change.

On the first night, I met a sound designer, a theatre director and an urban wastewater consultant. Over the course of the following couple of days, I chatted with IPCC lead authors, a design activist, a narrative specialist and a huge range of other creative people. There were artists, scientists and others – not sure which camp I fitted in, though with the low count of scientists, I found myself explaining that part of the game most often – but at any point in the weekend it felt as though the organisers could have arbitrarily picked speaking talent from the audience, it was really pretty special.

There was a lot of electricity. The British Council announced a round of Climate Commissions for new work. People talked about doing art/science job swaps, coming up with ‘Carbon Dating’ or ‘Me & We’ websites to connect artists and scientists who want to collaborate, a new online database of climate change knowledge, documentary ideas, and stacks of other stuff. It’s been pretty quiet since then, so I’m not sure how much real stuff came out of the weekend.

But for me, the most important thing was realising my eclectic mix of experiences make sense together. Science, technology, art, music, ideas – that intersection was the centre of a lot of discussions over the weekend, and that was a fascinating place to be.

Other Film, Sydney Opera House

Video art may have come of age, but its half sibling film art still languishes. The captivating scribbles, daubs of paint, images, bursts of colour, text and found footage aren’t quite film, they’re not a linear, or often even two-dimensional narrative, and they haven’t made complete sense to the art world either.

Len Lye’s show at ACMI last year showed just how difficult this work is to place – much of his work was made as advertising. But Lye’s show was part of a growing reevaluation of film art – I interviewed Mark Titmarsh early this year about his experimental film in Sydney in the 1980s and his magazine at the time, On The Beach, as well as a retrospective on the Canadian film maker Norman McLaren.

It can be as simple as projecting an (albeit wildly inventive) film on a standard screen, or something closer to a ’60s ‘happening’ with sculptures in front of the projector scattering the film, shapes protruding from the screen, and even performances with the film or screen being scratched and painted as the film rolls.

It is a very 1960s vibe, actually. Heavily psychedelic, with a lot of music. That’s how a couple of Brisbane locals came to film art. Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela were more involved with the fiercely independent and experimental music scenes, and regulars at events like This Is Not Art, Newcastle, and Straight Out Of Brisbane, when they came across some of the experimental film being shown alongside the music. It quickly spiralled out, and Zuvela’s academic work on the topic is attracting increasing attention.

In Brisbane, Other Film runs regular expanded film happenings. But I saw a rare Sydney show that paired a spectacular Robin Fox with Melbourne’s difficult but hugely influential Cantrills, an intense Joel Stern performance with Sydney film maker Paul Winkler, and Holy Balm playing a stop start set of psychedelic clunk funk through a film from George Gittoes. Captivating.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

When I first mentioned to my former obstetrician father-in-law that I was reading a book about ‘HeLa’ cells, he asked: “Helen Lane?” That’s who the textbooks say she was, a white woman called Helen Lane or Helen Larson. She was actually a poor Southern farmer called Henrietta Lacks, and this book tells the whole, fascinating story.

Rebecca Skloot writes for the New York Times, New York, Oprah Magazine, Discover and she’s a contributor to WNYC’s Radiolab, so she has form. But the kernel that became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared when Skloot caught a stray remark about the HeLa cells in high school biology. She was 16. She kept that kernel of an idea in her head for a decade, until at 27 she finally started working on a book.

It took her another decade to write it, and that time and dedication is so crucial to the book’s rhythm and flow. It’s an adventure to dig out information, to find Henrietta Lacks’s family and to get them to talk, and that’s why Skloot is a key part of the story. She talked to everyone, and in a stellar piece of literary journalism, wove the story from Henrietta, whose cancer cells were taken to form the cell line, through to her descendents (human and cellular). Insightful and intensely readable.

Review: Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky

Madeleine Preston lives in Potts Point. She paints, draws, illustrates, does printmaking, media art, sculptures, installations and public art: “Whatever medium or method works with the idea.” She’s been in 30-something group shows and made the beautifully nostalgic Darlinghurst Eats Its Young blog. She teaches art too. Madeleine comes up with ideas, and turns them into real things, and she teaches other people to. So she’s just right to review a new book about Making Ideas Happen.

(Scott Belsky, photographed for an interview by design association AIGA‘s Baltimore section)

In a world obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the ‘left-brain people’ and the ‘right-brain people,’ under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively – that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders. But they can…

This is the opening gambit of Scott Belsky’s new book Making Ideas Happen. Belsky is best known for founding Behance, an online creative network. Belsky argues that artists and designers and creative people have a flawed perception of themselves where disorganisation is viewed as a creative cornerstone, ‘a badge of honour.’

The myth of the artist, the romantic legacy of the nineteenth century is attractive. Someone else can deal with the detail. It is one of the hardest things to impress upon people, and in particular students: organisation and deadlines don’t hamper creativity; they push your ideas to fruition.

What successful creatives like IDEO, John Maeda and Seth Godin have in common is they deliver to deadline. Ideas that are untested and remain ideas are perfect precisely because they are not realised. Whether you are an artist working in the commercial or institutional realm you still need to make your work to deadlines: to grant or residencies’ terms, to some form of constraint.

One of the biggest often unspoken fears in making art and resolving designs is fear of failure.

Making Ideas Happen presupposes you have ideas, Belsky even suggests you probably have too many ideas. So how do you start? How do you maintain momentum? And when your exhibition, design or company has been created, how do you take advantage of the inevitable criticism? How do you use failure effectively? Making Ideas Happen seeks to address these questions.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section covers organisation and execution. Belsky introduces the ‘action steps,’ the foundation of his method, where ideas become action steps or verb-driven sentences. Consistency and routine are the keys to making the Action Method work.

One of the appealing aspects of Making Ideas Happen is the quirky examples, one such example is the Daily Routine, a blog that sources the quotes about the routines of artists and designers. The majority of those quoted on the site attest to fairly dull routines, no eureka moments, just consistency and often quite idiosyncratic routine.

Belsky’s interviews reveal different successful people’s understanding of the obstacles to delivering to deadline. Godin cites the lizard brain or the amygdala, which provides the basic functions of the brain for food, for sex and for shelter as an obstacle to realising ideas.

…The lizard brain says, “They’re going to laugh at me”, “I’m going to get in trouble…” The lizard brain [screams] at the top of his lungs. And so, what happens is we don’t do it. We sabotage it. We hold back. We have another meeting.

One of the biggest often unspoken fears in making art and resolving designs is fear of failure. I have seen many students who continue to tweak or completely change an idea perilously close to deadline because they fear failure. By not relentlessly organising the process, the final outcome is compromised by injection of idea after idea until, out of time, the project is poorly executed or unfinished.

The second section of Making Ideas Happen deals with community, and, as founder of a successful creative hub in Behance, he has a lot to say. To distill this section to some of its key components is difficult. In essence, Belsky argues that recognising and finding professionals who have different skills to your own can propel your ideas forward.

The power of community became apparent to me in two recent art projects, the first Darlinghurst Eats its Young gained momentum online through social networks and through its associated blog. Community helped my subsequent show, Childs Play, where the idea had stalled and was only propelled into action again after meetings with the curator Robyn Wilson. Wilson suggested I needed to work with an artist and arts writer; in this case, Bridie Connell. I was forced to engage with someone I didn’t know, someone who understood visual arts but not necessarily what I was trying to do, and then maintain a conversation in order to create a written piece that would engage the audience further.

The final and smallest section deals with leadership, and in particular self-leadership. The part that resonated with me the most here was about overhauling your reward system.

It is these insights, slight as they may seem in the context of this review, that I loved about Making Ideas Happen. The information reminded me of things that were said at art school, but were never delivered in a cohesive form. When I heard similar things, or when a moment of clarity would hit me it didn’t lead to a plan, to a methodology. Instead,I hoped like hell a method would be revealed. Many glimpses later I feel like I have a plan.

Read and see more from Madeleine Preston.

Digging Charles Jencks’ black hole garden

A black hole garden?

Gravity is a law of nature. Electromagnetism, the four forces—those sort of things are nature and they underpin all of growing nature. And so a garden is a really interesting place to speculate on the ultimate forces of nature and laws of nature and constants, and that’s what I do with scientists and artists and friends and philosophers.

22 years ago, Charles Jencks found himself with a huge amount of excavated earth. Being an architectural thinker and designer, he reinvented the language of landscape design.

Katie Yurkewicz wrote a great piece for the particle physics magazine Symmetry, and you can see why she was interested, Jencks’ garden touches on biology, cosmology, mathematics, philosophy, and above all, physics. Look at his projects to get a sense for how he approaches them.

(oosp took this photo of ‘Life Mounts’ by Charles Jencks. The sketch at top is the ‘Black Hole Oval’ from Jencks’ own site. Plenty more at Flickr, and on this Vulgare post)

Get the idea? His designs are based on complexity theory, fractals, black holes, genetics, waves and solitons.

Peter Lindberg transcribed some good bits of a 2003 interview on the BBC’s Front Row.

It’s a very 18th century project, when gardens were full of ideas, and were meant to be.

The scientists and philosophers and others are bringing to us this extraordinary, liberating world view, and yet there isn’t a Michaelangelo, who can signify it to us.

Say, Damien Hirst, takes—remember that famous model, a foot-high model, which he blew up to 25 feet high and bronzed, the model of the human body with all the parts, called Hymn—a hymn to the human body. Well, that’s illustration blown up. And there’s no imaginative or artistic transformation, or interpretation. And what I’m doing is not illustrating DNA, so much as interpreting certain aspects of it.

So I work with scientists, but it’s not illustrations from a text book, at all, it’s a kind of overcoming of the inherent metaphor that we’re given by scientists. For instance, the black hole. Martin Reese, who visited, understands black holes better than anyone. He, you know, can give you many ideas on it. Okay, what is a black hole? Metaphor—is it a good one? Black—yes, you don’t see it. Okay, hole—it’s a rip in space-time. Fine, but that isn’t enough. That metaphor was around for 40 years. If you really get yourself into what is a black hole—it holds together galaxies; we know that from the last 10 years. It’s a very dynamic, creative element, which pulls together not only those stars which whip around it, but it explodes them into existence, and therefore creates stars, it creates therefore planets, it creates this energy. Of course it sucks in things, it’s black, but it’s really—I’ve renamed it Invisibilia, after a woman, because it’s so creative, and pro-creative. And I think that’s the kind of investigation that interests me, taking the insights of recent physics, or science—the most important ones, and questioning them, overcoming them, and going beyond them. And yet being constrained by them.

Jencks’ own garden of cosmic speculation is in Scotland (open one day a year), his Landform is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and he’s developing a garden at particle physics lab CERN in Geneva.

Worlds away from most science communication.

Scratch flair with Async’s Luke Dubber

Last year, Luke Dubber got a call. He was on tour with his band Hermitude, and a programmer friend Gordon Childs had an idea for a scratch DJ iPhone app. With illustrator Eddie Dolan, they quickly sketched out their first app Flare Scratch.

It’s been a meteoric rise – and one that’s stepped up since Apple’s iOS 4 gave direct access to the iPod library, meaning scratch software like this can avoid clunky imports, and play directly with the music files.

When Steve Jobs launched the iPad in San Francisco this year, the only music app he mentioned was from this same three man development firm based out of Sydney: Async Games. They’ve been used by Z-Trip and DJ Craze and A-Trak, and even featured in an all-iPad instruments take on Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. There’s a string of tutorials and demonstrations on YouTube.

Luke also performs with Gauche, The Tango Saloon and The Bird, as well as Hermitude, and he took time out from recording in Melbourne to reply to some of my questions (on his iPad, of course).

So what does everyone do?

I compile all the sounds to scratch (battle records) and write all the music within the apps, Eddie makes it look beautiful and Gordon makes it feel and sound like a real turntable.

When did you start thinking about making a scratch game?

Well it’s not actually a game. We get a lot of mail from people all the time saying they don’t actually like the game, but it was never intended to be a game.

With our first app Flare Scratch, we set out to make the most realistic sounding and feeling scratch DJ emulation app in the app store. Baby Scratch was more about offering a light version of Flare Scratch with a couple of different features, like a sampler and different themed artwork. Then Baby Decks DJ on the iPad is like a combination of the two utilising the extra screen real estate to offer two turntables on the one screen.

The idea to do DJ scratch apps in the first place came from Gordon, actually. I was in the middle of doing a gig in Sydney one night in February, 2009, and my phone rang. It was Gordon calling from his house in Arezzo, Italy. He called to tell me he’d figured out a way to scratch sounds on his iPod Touch and that he planned to make an app with Eddie. He asked if I was interested in contributing. I, of course, said, ‘Yes.’ So i went out, bought an iPod Touch, because I couldn’t afford an iPhone, and Gordon sent me the beta version. The interface was already drawn up and roughly in place by the time I got a copy, so it looked similar to how it does today, with a few minor differences. None of us live in the same town so everything is done by millions of emails to develop the ideas. Then three or four months after I came on board, we submitted Flare Scratch to Apple.

What were the key steps from deciding to do it through to having a product in the iTunes store?

Since I’ve been involved, it’s always been about having a product on iTunes. It’s funny though, because Gordon, who programmed the app, isn’t really familiar with DJing or scratching. So once I joined up, being the DJ in the team, I told the guys what kind of features it needed to have, and where these features need to live within the app. That’s pretty much how it works today, too, although through the whole experience, Gordon and Eddie have learnt a lot about DJing, so we all have equal input when it comes to developing new ideas.

How did it change as you went along?

The ideas constantly change. Developing these products over many emails means that things can take time to finish, compared to all being in an office together and being able discuss ideas as soon as they arise. We often find ourselves designing interfaces, and then a few months down the track wanting to change it all up because we found a new feature that we wanted to introduce but had nowhere to put it. So as time has gone on, we’ve learnt to start thinking about the future of our apps, and what functionality they should have as early on as possible to avoid that kind of thing happening anymore.

It took us a long time to find any type of marketing that did anything for us at all. We tried online advertising, magazines, YouTube videos, but none of them really gave us any real headway.

Do you sketch things out in the development process?

There are some really dodgy blueprints drawn on tissues, etc, lying around somewhere I’m sure. I’ll see if I can dig them out. It’s a really fun part of the process actually, because we pool our ideas and then each of us draw what we think it should look like. Obviously, Eddie’s are the best, but Gordon and myself come up with some alright attempts. It’s definitely a necessary part of the process, especially since we never see each other face to face. The odd Skype conference call is another good one for when it’s just too difficult or time consuming to explain.

Where did you work?

My workspace has varied a fair bit for this project as I have been living in different countries during its development. The first six months was in my bedroom. The following six months was in various apartments, hotels, cabins, planes, trains and buses throughout Europe and Asia while I was on tour with another band. The last three months has been back in my bedroom.

What sort of technical challenges?

When we first started on Flare Scratch, the average size of an app was 10 MB, I think. They’re bigger now, but this always limits you as you have to conserve CPU power and size, so little animations that may have looked nice don’t always make the cut. Also catering for all the different audio file types that are available these days, and decoding them so they can be scratched smoothly has been challenging. Especially since you can upload your own music into Flare Scratch and Baby Decks via wifi or iTunes. There are a lot of crusty audio files floating around the internet, that’s for sure. Luckily we have a lot of testers so not much falls through the cracks.

As for getting into the iTunes Store, I think we have been quite lucky. There are a lot of horror stories online of people working on apps for months or even years only to be rejected by Apple. I think there was a gap that needed filling when we came along. There were a couple of scratch apps on the market but they were all rubbish so that definitely worked in our favor.

How did this differ from other apps on the market?

There are a lot of fantastic DJ apps available on the App Store and there are more on the way. I guess ours has always been focused on scratching, so that separated us from the rest of the competition a bit, as all the other apps are more for mixing. Baby Decks for the iPad is the first app where we have started to focus on mixing as well as scratching.

But I think what’s really separated us from the rest is the sound of our apps. The audio engine is really quite amazing, thanks to the whiz programming skills of Gordon. Also the feel. It really does feel and sound like a real turntable, except of course for the fact it is a touchscreen and not a record. But the latency is ridiculously low and the quality of the scratching sound is so close to the real thing that I think that has ultimately been the secret to our success. I mean we definitely couldn’t have done it without all three of us, but the backbone of all our apps is the sound and feel and in all honesty, I don’t think any other DJ apps on the App Store have come as close as us to the real thing. There are amazing DJ apps that look incredible and have a million features and are developed by reputable companies, but none of them scratch quite like ours.

What marketing issues did you think about?

We obviously research marketing and pricing strategies, but it’s been a massive learning curb for all of us. We always tried not to underprice our products for the sake of more sales. It’s better to start your price a little higher and then at least you have room to move. Marketing has also been a learning curb. It’s been a slow climb through the ranks, and in the beginning it was especially slow.

It took us a long time to find any type of marketing that did anything for us at all. We tried online advertising, magazines, YouTube videos, but none of them really gave us any real headway. We had two apps on the store at this stage, Flare and Baby Scratch. Flare was doing OK, we were lucky to score a “new and noteworthy” spot on the front page of iTunes in the US, but Baby Scratch, which was only one dollar, wasn’t selling at all. We really thought that for such a cheap price we’d sell heaps of them. But it wasn’t the case.

We then came up with the idea that was our biggest turning point with sales and that was to make Baby Scratch free and put an ad within the app allowing people to upgrade straight to Flare if they so desired. This was the best thing we could have done, I guess you’ve got to give a little to get a little. Baby scratch soared up the free app charts reaching number one in 64 countries! In one week, we had around 700,000 downloads and then Flare Scratch started selling nicely from upgrades. That simple move really put us on the map, and it cost us nothing.

The second turning point was our decision to release Baby Decks DJ with the US release of the iPad. We slaved away on it for months to get it ready for the release date, even though we weren’t sure whether the ipad was even going to sell or if people would pass it off as a gimmick. It turns out that they sold like hotcakes and because we’d created the worlds first dual turntable app for a touchscreen device, and got in early, we scooped up a lot of sales.

Steve Jobs also featured us at his keynote address shortly after, the only music app he mentioned, which no doubt helped a lot. We have definitely had our fair share of luck over the last 18 months, but these small decisions we’ve made have made a huge difference.

Were you surprised at its success?

We were completely blown away with our success! We never dreamt that our apps would be reaching so many people. Now when I look on YouTube, there’s pages and pages of people doing their own little routines and it’s really satisfying to know that you’ve helped create that platform for people to release their inner DJ. But it’s a fast market and if you sleep on your success, five new apps pop up on the market that give you a run for your money.

So you gotta stay working, check out what other people are doing and keep the ideas coming. We are constantly upgrading and releasing new builds. We never let our apps sit there and collect dust like some other companies do.  Developers are creating more powerful apps everyday so you have to stay relevant to keep people scratching those virtual records!

Find out more about Async.

Steampunk Blogging, meet Ross Floate

You can’t escape the death of print media talk. Newspapers may not be folding at quite the same rate as they were earlier this year or last, and there are plenty of exciting projects getting up, but print newsrooms are still clearing out – the latest is Fairfax cutting some $10 million in costs with a new restructure.

Still, there’s always someone doing things differently.

I first heard about a British group called The Newspaper Club on Dan Hill‘s blog – and a new scene or creative community or maybe even genre called ‘the papernet.’ And Ross Floate, Ned Dwyer and James Noble‘s new Melbourne-based paper And Now It’s In Print is definitely part of it.

(the first edition – well, really, the pilot edition)

It’s small: indie publishers find stories online, and print them. But with giants like Hewlett-Packard getting involved with their MagCloud project, and The Newspaper Club expanding, it has the potential to be something quite different.

So when Ross was in Sydney a little while ago, we met up.

What is it exactly?

What we tried to do is create a newspaper out of the best pieces of material we had on the web. As you say, most things have been going the other way. What we did was try to find things we thought were great, and bring them to an audience that was kind of offline.

Did you grow up with papers?

I used to read an extraordinary number of papers growing up. My parents are massive newshounds, my father especially. So I always read a lot and I studied journalism, so I was always around writing and reading and so forth.

What sparked the idea?

I went to South By Southwest earlier this year, which is a big festival in Austin, Texas, and one component of that is the Interactive Festival. I saw this newspaper called Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing, which was basically a small, I think a 12 page newspaper put out by a group called the Newspaper Club. And it was material that was written specifically for that newspaper, but it was by people who were better known as bloggers or online writers. And out of all the things that I was inspired by when I was there, it was this one thing that I thought that’s a really cool idea, why couldn’t we do something like that, a little bit more localised?

What struck you about it? What grabbed your attention?

Well for a start, everything else was online material. It was all, what’s the latest technology, what is the greatest new website, what is the greatest new cool thing. And the idea that these people were saying, ‘No it’s worth doing something in paper’ really struck a chord with me. There’s something we get from newspapers that people don’t realise. What people think they’re buying when they buy a newspaper is the news that’s in it. In fact, the value of a newspaper is what’s left out. Because you’ve got a limited amount of space, having an editor or a curator saying, ‘Well here’s actually the only important stuff, it’s all we’ve got room for, so we’ve given you the best stuff of that space’ is of tremendous value. So what we wanted to do was say, ‘Well here is 12 or 24 pages of the Internet, and here’s the stuff that we think you should know about now.’ So the scarcity was important.

Is that something that came to you while you were looking at this thing at South By Southwest, or was it as you were on the plane home filtering through what you’d got out of the festival, you started to come to that idea, to realise this might be something?

The idea of scarcity being important is something I’ve always kind of realised. That the editor and the curator was important, and that was one of the things that wasn’t really around on the web. But the idea that a small group of people, which the Newspaper Club people are, would just go out and have a crack at it and do it themselves, was really interesting to me. I went to SXSW to see what was going on, and be inspired by things there, and I thought well there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen here, and we couldn’t do something that was interesting and largely local. So I came back and spoke to some people about doing it, and we got started pretty quickly.

Why do this now and here?

Australia is an interesting case in cultures worldwide. We constantly look overseas and we have forever. One of the things we hoped out of the Internet is that it would bring us closer to the rest of the world, instead it’s made it very easy for us to look overseas even quicker which makes us even less likely to create our own things. There’s always something better overseas, people have bigger budgets there, why not just get the thing from elsewhere. I think it’s important people realise things can be done locally. We can do things that are looked at internationally as interesting, and we’ve sold a lot of copies of this overseas, we’ve had a lot of international interest.

(fan photo in Chicago)

Was there an article you read on a blog or somewhere else that you thought online’s just not doing that justice?

There’s one piece in there that’s actually from overseas, called ‘Better’ by Merlin Mann, which is kind of a call to arms to be good at whatever you do, and to always give everything your best shot. It was something I first read online some years ago and it didn’t really grab me at the time, and then I kept going back to it, thinking this is an important piece, this is something more people should read, and people who aren’t online all the time, people who aren’t aware of this person from their fame on the web should be aware of this.

And Now It’s In Print opens with a story by Andy Ramadge about the closing of The Tote, a classic Melbourne rock venue, and towards the other end of the paper, you’ve got another article by Dan Hill, a really ambitious piece that envisions Australia’s future as a kind of southern Nordic hub, focussing on innovative design. Andy’s piece was published in Mess + Noise, Dan Hill’s was published on his City of Sound blog. Does it make it easier, as an editor, focussing on stories like these that already exist?

Absolutely, it’s tremendous to be able to access this material that’s already been written. And the people who were gracious enough to let us run their material, let us run it free of charge. It was a fantastic thing, people wanted to be involved. There were challenges involved with that, too. If you’ve ever worked in a newspaper or in the press, one of the best things you can do is being able to edit things to length. We couldn’t do that, we had these really long pieces that had been written for online, and trying to fit those into a newspaper was very difficult. We discovered that people write in a really unusual way for the web. Really, really unusual. It’s not stream of consciousness, but if it’s like anything it’s like talking to a PowerPoint or making a presentation, rather than the more formal writing structure of soft or hard news. That was an interesting thing to deal with and it informed the way we had to design the newspaper.

You’ve been a designer for BRW in the past, how different was this as a designer?

Starting off with no template, nothing to work with, and not really having an idea how this was going to be, it was a difficult design challenge. We wanted to make sure this was an interesting thing to look at. When we first started it, we thought we’d be able to make it look like a 12 page newspaper, with large articles, small articles, five columns, photograph over to the right, the standard newspaper format. We discovered quickly that we couldn’t do that, and so we ended up making each article pretty much its own design. There are some design cues that are common, but pretty much each article is separate.

Why couldn’t you do that?

Because we couldn’t edit. We got permission to run the articles, but not to edit. Beyond that, say if you look at a piece like Dan Hill’s, that is a really difficult piece to lay out. When you read it on his blog, he talks to images that are in the copy. You don’t do that when you write for print, if you have an illustration you want to talk to, you mention it, but you don’t talk about it like it’s right in front of you. So to be able to design that, we needed to find ways of making the images go inside the run of the copy, which you just don’t do in newspapers. So it was very challenging.

(Ross Floate at work on a page layout)

Was it harder than you expected?

Absolutely. From a design perspective, it was a much bigger challenge than I thought it was going to be. And that might seem odd, but those challenges kind of made it worth doing. They made it really interesting.

Is it more design intensive than you’d want something regular to be?

No… I think now we know what the challenges are, we wouldn’t approach it in the same way. We wouldn’t spend days and days on a layout, which commercially you could never do.

Why go to the effort of printing and publishing something like this?

We wanted to do something interesting and something that was fun. We kept saying, we want to do something awesome, just for the sake of it. You don’t do enough of that these days, and certainly when you get later in your career, you do less and less of that sort of work. One of the other things we wanted to do was expose people, who have an opportunity to become much better known. Like for example, Ellie Won who wrote the food story at the end (‘Digging For Rubies’), should be better known, and if she was better known, would probably get a better audience, and if she had a better audience, would be able to not have to shoot the photographs herself, come up with the recipes, and everything else. She’s a real talent waiting to be discovered.

On the other hand, these articles were originally published on Mess + Noise, Fairfax’s The Vine, Dan Hill’s City of Sound blog – these have big audiences themselves, probably far more than the print run of the newspaper.

Yes, certainly more than the print run of this newspaper. But we wanted to recontextualise things, and put some people in a context that they otherwise wouldn’t be in. Like I said, Ellie Won’s blog is fantastic, but she’s not getting a massive readership, and so to put people who are lesser known in a context with people who are better known is worth doing.

Everyone’s got a story about print media dying at the moment, and everyone’s looking for an alternative business model for journalism. This project is definitely one of those exploratory models, is that part of the attraction?

It’s trying to even work out the question as much as the solution. There is something going on, there needs to be a model for writing, new journalism, for people who are doing creative things to get better known, and also to get remunerated. This product is our first kind of attempt at trying to work out what the question is and hopefully to work out the solution.

You’ve said you were looking for inspiration, for something to really latch on to. Is this a polished take on DIY culture, zine making?

Back in the olden days, I was the editor of the student newspaper at my university. And there’s no other project I’ve worked on that was as close to that as And Now It’s In Print has been. It’s effectively a very polished university student newspaper. It’s about finding some things that we think are very interesting and printing them.

It’s clearly marked issue zero, is it a pilot?

Yes, we wanted to see if it was something people would be interested in. It was a bit of a gamble, in as much as it was an idea that I had and then I got a couple of other people interested in, and we thought, great let’s do this. But there’s an extent to which you can fall in love with your own idea and not know whether it’s going to work or not. So we didn’t want to say this is definitely going to take place all the time. But we wanted to do it anyway, and so one of the things we did was set ourselves a short timeframe. We created some artificial deadlines to create a product that was… a fast prototype.

In the UK, the Newspaper Club has spiralled this out into an online space that can underpin or support people who want to make their own. Do you imagine going in that kind of direction?

We’re certainly going to continue on an individual level. We have plans to do an issue one. We hoped it might inspire others to do something cool themselves as well, in the same way I had been inspired by Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing. What the Newspaper Club people have done, which is fantastic, is turned that into a business model, in a not dissimilar fashion to what Hewlett Packard have done with MagCloud – a really interesting product where you can create a magazine, upload it to their website, and make it available for sale, so people can buy one of a printed magazine that then gets sent out. That’s a similar, if substantially larger business model to what the guys at the Newspaper Club are doing.

When should we expect issue one?

Hopefully by the end of the year, December-January. This was a product that we paid for out of our own pockets, and it was not inexpensive for something like that. We’d be hoping to get people involved in sponsoring it. So it depends on that, and finding the right material again, that was a really important thing.

This idea of the papernet: Things Our Friends Sent Us For Printing, And Now It’s In Print, MagCloud, it seems to have come from nowhere, but seems to be coalescing into something?

There’s an extent to which people want to interact with something that is real. They want to touch things that aren’t necessarily perfect. One of the great things about newspapers is that it’s serendipitous, you don’t realise what you’re going to get, and you don’t get to choose what you’re getting. I don’t know about you, but most people’s RSS feeds are an echo chamber of their own thought processes and I don’t think that’s great. Something like a newspaper is a way of throwing something into somebody’s lap and saying I know what you think you want, but here are some things that might be interesting that you don’t necessarily know that you want. I think it’s tremendously important. There’s an extent to which, as much as this is not something that really works for me, but there’s an extent to which this is a retro thing in the same way that people are buying Holgas and Lomos and people are using Hipstamatic on their iPhones to get an aged effect, there’s certainly an extent to which this taps into that idea of wanting to touch something old and real.

Collecting records, swapping tapes…

I mean, the way this was described by Ned, who was one of the people who did it with me, was that this is a kind of steampunk collection of blogposts effectively. I mean this is going backwards technology wise that shows people some new things.

Read up at And Now It’s In Print, and follow the links to the original articles.

Seeing is believing

This appeared outside Surry Hills Library on Crown Street, and I couldn’t help thinking guerrilla marketing.

Look closer though. It’s actually nothing of the sort.

Bizarrely enough, it’s a research project. Part of the Visualising Research class at UTS, Poster: More Than A Gaze aims to “examine the potential of the poster as a ‘public and communicative’ medium in a public space.” They’re blogging too.

It’s 12 A4 pages pasted up alongside the typical band and club posters – and, although I used to have a radar for those things, I wonder how many people are tuned in? I’d be interested to see what, if any, reaction it got.

The rest is window dressing

I often spot curious things in this window as I walk down Devonshire Street in Surry Hills.

It’s the shopfront of a design firm called Ascender, and this time it’s stocked with odd little felt patches bearing phrases related to Bjork’s old group, the Sugarcubes, like the songs ‘Mama’ and ‘Fucking In Rhythm and Sorrow’, ‘Blue Eyed Pop’, ‘Motor Crash’ and ‘Birthday’.

They blogged about it – you can see their back catalogue of window dressing there, too – though there’s not much by way of explanation.

Half man, half amazing

You can see this big face on the corner of Arnold Lane and Goulburn Street, in Surry Hills, just behind Crown Street

The old BPM record shop (now Record Store/Machine Musik) wall’s a regular canvas for legal street art – check previous signatures from Anthony Lister and others on the curb.

The current piece is by Brad Eastman – Beastman. He’s part of the design/art scene in Sydney – and as well as founding the online publication We Are The Image Makers, and designing skateboards, he’s shown work at galleries like Oh Really, Stupid Krap and China Heights.

It went up six days ago, according to @recordstoresyd. Watch it go up in this slideshow.