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Feb 21, 2008 8:20am

blog all dog-eared pages: the nature and art of workmanship

Until his death in 1993, David Pye was a professor of furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London. The Nature And Art Of Workmanship is a guide to his theory of workmanship as distinct from design. The tone of the book is slightly musty, frequently dipping into old-mannish complaints that ring slightly of "the kids today", but on balance Pye is a clear writer with a coherent idea to communicate.

The book focuses on laying to rest the fallacy of "things done by hand" in favor of the terminology of risk and certainty. These two terms form the core of Pye's theory of workmanship, and boil down to "can it be fucked up?" For Pye, the meaningful distinction is whether a thing is a result of a risky process, or a certain one. The former requires dexterity and judgement while the latter requires an assembly line and planning. The division was a new one to me, but it has occasionally snapped into focus since I started this book over Christmas, as when reading Jeff Veen's latest blog post on Indi Young's new book:

In the end, using Indi's process, we were able to convince teams that we weren't researching all the creativity out of their projects. We were researching the risk out. And no matter how the industry is faring, that's a story people want to hear.

For what it's worth, Stamen is teetering on the cusp of this distinction (among other cusps we teeter on) as we investigate the sense of formalizing our process with an explicit producer role. Thus far, our work has been raw risk. I don't mean to say that we routinely snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but we consciously lack a "process" as someone like Jeff, Indi, or the company they helped found might understand it. It's personally interesting to me that computation and programming can still be seen to be risky in the same way that woodworking or pottery can, especially with the rapid growth of social websites whose success can not be measured by technical means alone.

(slide nabbed from Scaling Twitter)

As we take on larger slices of work, there's a natural inclination to manage risk by introducing certainty into the workflow. Namely, developing a process, knowing whether we're sticking to it, and starting think about hiring as filling holes rather than seeking out fellow travelers. I offer no opinions on this, except to say that it's an active debate.

It's also worth noting that Pye is no dogmatic fan of doing things the hard way. He devotes a number of pages (some excerpted below) to exploring why precise workmanship has been historically valued, notes that much work traditionally thought of as "hand labor" is really as jigged and regulated as machine work, observes that in many settings certainty and uniformity are desirable, and takes the Arts and Crafts movement itself to task for misunderstanding the potential joy inherent in competent work.

Page 17, on design, workmanship, and defining terms:

In the last twenty years there has been an enormous intensification of interest in Design. The word is everywhere. But there has been no corresponding interest in workmanship. ... This has not happened because the distinction between workmanship and design is a mere matter of terminology or pedantry. The distinction both in the mind of the designer and of the workman is clear. Design is what, for practical purposes, can be conveyed in words and by drawing: workmanship is what, for practical purposes, can not. In practice the designer hopes the workmanship will be good, but the workman decides whether it shall be good or not. On the workman's decision depends a great part of the quality of our environment.

Page 20, on risk, certainty, and defining more terms:

If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall this kind of workmanship, "The workmanship of risk": an uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive. ... With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation. In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single salable thing is made.

Page 25, on doing by hand:

Things are usually made by a succession of different operations, and there are often alternative ways of carrying any one of them out. We can saw, for instance, with a hand-saw, an electrically driven band-saw, a frame-saw, and in other ways. To distinguish between the different ways of carrying out an operation by classifying them as hand- or machine-work is, as we shall see, all but meaningless. ... The source of power is completely irrelevant to the risk. The power tool may need far more care, judgement and dexterity in its use than the hand-driven one.

Pages 32-33, on roughness:

In the workmanship of risk rough work is the necessary basis of perfect work, just as the sketch is of the picture. The first sketchy marks on the canvas may become the foundation of the picture and be buried, or they may be left standing. Similarly the first approximations of the workman may afterwards disappear as the work proceeds, or they may be left standing. For the painter and the workman it is sometimes difficult to know when to stop on the road towards perfect work, and sooner may be better than later. In the workmanship of certainty, on the other hand, there is no rough work. The perfect result is achieved without preliminary approximation.

Pages 49-50, on design intent:

The intended design of any particular thing is what the designer has seen in his mind's eye: the ideally perfect and therefore unattainable embodiment of his intention. The design which can be communicated - the design on paper, in other words - obviously falls far short of expressing the designer's full intention, just as in music the score is a necessarily imperfect indication of what the composer has imaginatively heard. The designer gives to the workman the design on paper, and the workman has to interpret it. If he is good he may well produce something very near the designer's intention. If the workman is himself the designer he almost certainly will (but that does not imply that the designs a workman intends are necessarily good ones).

Pages 58-59, on the origins of precision:

In nature we see varying degrees of disparity between the idea and the achievement wherever we look. To Plato it may perhaps have seemed that things would look better if there were no such disparities. We, having lived in an age where to all appearances such disparities really can be banished from our environment, may doubt it. ... Our traditional ideas of workmanship originated along with our ideas of law in a time when people were few and the things they made were few also. For age after age the evidence of man's work showed insignificantly on the huge background of unmodified nature. There was then no thought of distinguishing between works of art and other works, for works and art were synonymous. ... Then and for a long time afterwards - and even now in some remote places - all the things in common use for everyday purposes were of fairly free or rough workmanship and anything precise and regular must have been a marvel, amazing and worshipful.
This reverence for precision had, I think, two explanations. ... The second, and I believe deeper, reason lay in the opposition of art to nature. The natural world can seem beautiful and friendly only when you are stronger than it, and no longer compelled with incessant labor to wring your livelihood out of it. If you are, you will be in awe of it and will propitiate it; but you will find great consolation in things which speak only and specifically of man and exclude nature. When you turn to them you will have the feeling a sailor has when he goes below at the end of his watch, having seen all the nature he wants for quite a while. Precision and regularity, in those days signified that, to the extent of his intellect, man stood apart from nature, and had a power of his own.

Page 62, on spatial frequency and diversity:

It is a matter of the greatest moment in the arts of design and workmanship that every formal element has a maximum and minimum effective range. In can only be "read" - perceived for what it is - by an observer stationed within those limits. ... In nature, as in all good design, the diversity in scale of the formal elements is such that at any range, in any light, some elements are on of very near the threshold of visibility: or one should say, more exactly, of indistinguishability as elements. As the observer approaches the object, new elements, previously indistinguishable, successively appear and come into play aesthetically. Equally, and inevitably, the larger elements drop out and become ineffective as you approach. But new incidents appear at every step until finally your eye gets too close to be focused. The elements that at any given range, long or short, are just at the threshold, that we can just begin to read, though indistinctly, are of great important, aesthetically. They are perhaps analogous to the overtones of notes. They are a vitalizing element in the visible scene.

Page 118, David Pye doesn't like John Ruskin:

The deficiencies in the Arts and Crafts movement can only be understood if it is realized that it did not originate in ideas about workmanship at all. Indeed it never developed anything approaching a rational theory of workmanship, but merely a collection of prejudices which are still preventing useful thought to this day.
Much of what Ruskin writes is ambiguous because it is impossible to be sure what he is referring to. When he cites examples he always manages to leave room for doubt about his meaning. So far as one can judge, the essence of the ideas he wanted to express was that: 1) To make men do tedious repetitive tasks is unchristian. 2) High regulation always involves such tasks and must therefore be eliminated. 3) If the workman is allowed to design he will do rough work and so will eliminate it.
Above all, the workman's naive designs will be admirable. What Ruskin is inveighing against is not hard labor, but patient work. He did not realize, or so it seems, perhaps because he never had to work for a living, that a fair proportion of patient tedious work is necessary if one is to take any pleasure in any kind of livelihood, whether it be designing or making, for no one can continuously create and no one ever has. He did not realize there is great pleasure in doing highly regulated workmanship.

Feb 18, 2008 7:43am

slippy faumaxion

"Your side projects always seem to involve the Hard Way" (Tom Carden, November 14th, 2007)

(Update, March 1: Check out a new revision of this map with a calmer, more predictable drag behavior)

Late last year, I posted about the "faumaxion" world map, a slightly modified version of Buckminster Fuller's famous Dymaxion World Map. I've finally put the finishing touches on this project, implementing it as a command-line script for composing static images (similar to Modest Maps compose.py) and a Flash slippy map.

Go play:

Or download the Python library: faumaxion-py.tar.gz (requires PIL).

There are a bunch of interesting things going on here.

The panning action is different from a typical Google Maps interface. With the mercator projection centered on (0N, 0E) that all the popular providers use, North is always vertical. Here, the faces of the icosahedron wrap around the sphere and meet at non-right angles. As you pan the map, the focal point marked by the small circle is kept North-oriented. A less jarring way to design this would be have the drag action work just like a normal slippy map, and animate the reorientation to North at the end of a move. I'm curious, though, how this version is perceived, and whether it's too infuriating to use.

I definitely think it does a good job of illustrating how the interrupted projection works.

Unlike your typical mercator or albers projection, the map is divided into twenty separate gnomonic projections, each framed in one triangle from an icosahedron. Buckminster Fuller designed his original projection so that the edges of the triangles fell on water as much as possible, dividing the globe neatly into chunks of inhabited land - it's a humanistic map, designed to focus on human views of the world. I'm calling this one "faumaxion" because it doesn't strictly follow Fuller's model - he didn't use the gnomonic projection, and I don't do any additional cuts near Australia to keep it whole (sorry, George).

Typically, the imagery we handle in Modest Maps is continuous, with aerial photography or road maps covering large areas that are broken down into smaller and smaller squares. The math for handling rectilinear tiles is fairly straightforward, and is covered by Modest Maps' geometry classes: Location, Point, and Coordinate. In the faumaxion case, the tiles are equilateral triangles at a range of zoom levels.

The tiles are all being served from Amazon S3. They're regular square JPEGs in the Flash version, masked behind triangles in the display. For the Python version, I'm using 24-bit transparent PNGs with the bits outside the triangle already cut out. You'll notice that at the higher zoom levels, some tiles are missing or screwed up. Sorry.

The imagery source is all NASA Blue Marble loveliness, which I've raved about before and use in the first Modest Maps demo.

A strategy that seems to work for interactively arranging icosahedron faces here is based on an article from Scott Bilas of Gas Powered Games, The Continuous World Of Dungeon Siege. I make no claims about this interactive toy being anything like a complete 3D game, but I borrowed Scott's idea of maintaining a central reference point ("there is no world space") and performing whatever linear transformations are necessary to arrange a world around that point on every frame. Faumaxion's central reference point is the circle in the middle - it's the first face to be drawn, and every other face is continually arranged around it using a variation of the "ghost finger" hack I described in "gefingerpoken," a recent post on multi-touch interfaces.

My hope is that in combination with some excellent work that Tom Carden's been doing to port Modest Maps to Processing, the transformation-based placement of faces here will eventually migrate into the mainstream ActionScript 3.0 version of Modest Maps, making it possible to display a wider range of intermediate zoom levels and generally make the TileGrid a little less crazy.

Although I didn't go so far as to add geographic markers to this map, it's possible to do so, and I threw the tiny latitude/longitude display into the upper-left hand corner to show it. For all its oddities, the Dymaxion World Map is wonderfully suited to showing global concerns: Fuller created arrangements focused on different parts of the globe to demonstrate the sense of historical political and military moves, such as Japan's grab for empire in the 1930s and 40s, or British domination of the south seas in the early 19th century. Other uses might include visualization of transcontinental flights that otherwise look like wasteful loops when plotted on a standard mercator projection. I'm looking at you, noted Web 2.0 travel-sharing website.

Feb 10, 2008 10:09pm

now with comments

I've been toying with Akismet and ReCAPTCHA a bit, and I feel comfortable adding comments to this blog again. I last tried this this almost four years ago, and the near-instant flood of Texas Hold 'Em spam made me turn them off. ReCAPTCHA uses the Internet Archive's book-scanning project as a source of difficult-to-read text, so there's a social good that results from any submitted comments.

I had originally wanted to use Akismet as a primary filter, so that the ReCAPTCHA form was only displayed if a comment triggered their spam alarm. However, I became uncomfortable with the comments on my personal site being used to stock a commercial database. I will still use this pattern elsewhere, because it's a self-evidently better user experience, but while you are in my house you shall be forced to suffer.

Comments only work on relatively recent posts - anything older than three months or so has the form turned off.

Feb 9, 2008 8:40pm

thinking about spreadsheets while washing the dishes

I've had reasons to think about spreadsheets in the context of a number of clients recently. They're becoming something like a lingua franca for delivery of sample data. In some ways, this is frustrating: files are inevitably in Excel format, sizes are limited, delivery is clunky, etc. In other ways, it marks a sort of graduation into "real business" land for us, where we have to buy copies of MS Office and use them more than once or twice each month. That or just hit xlrd.

I'm inevitably reminded of Ian C. Rogers' post on music, Convenience Wins, Hubris Loses. There, he introduces the genius metaphorical arithmetic iTunes is a spreadsheet that plays music. For Rogers, this is a critique: It's context-free. You just paid $10 for that album - who plays drums? I dunno, WHY DON'T YOU GO TO THE WEB TO FIND OUT, BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE THE CONTEXT IS. Ian, as a Yahoo! Music guy, makes the point that background context for music is the domain of the web, and the missing piece to iTunes. For me, the analogy is a reminder of what makes iTunes so great: my listening habits have become much more spreadsheet-like lately: my two most-used smart playlists are "Been A While" (all tracks where last played is not in the last 3 months) and "Top Songs" (all tracks where rating is greater than two and time is less than 15:00). The first one feeds the second one as I listen to music and get around to rating it. The first one also helps guarantee a continuous degree of novelty.

The spreadsheet has an older, wiser cousin, and it is called database.

My first exposure to a database in the now-familiar application context was during an early contracting gig for which I learned ColdFusion and modified some sort of forms-based site. Everything made sense for the most part, except that there was this monster lurking under the covers and I could ask it to SELECT and UPDATE things, but only Tim in the room next door knew how to modify tables or make new instances. I had no mental model for what it was doing. The thing that makes a relational database more interesting to me than a spreadsheet is that it is meant to store a bag of facts rather than a particular representation of them. Excel's rows have a given order, and that's meaningful. I continue to be confused when I open the program, select a row header, and no automated sorting happens. I bump up against a particular idea of permanence that makes order matter for a spreadsheet and not matter for a database, and I've been conditioned to expect the latter by eight years of working on the web with a succession of open source SQL engines.

A blog post by Theresa Neil that I encountered early last week, Seek Or Show, pokes at this distinction from the interface point of view. She talks about two paradigms: the Seek (Search) paradigm is typically used in web sites, and the Show (View Based Lists) paradigm exists mainly in desktop applications. The distinction comes from differing economies of scale on the web vs. the desktop: the seek/search paradigm works when storage is cheap but transmission expensive, as in the context of a large database published over the web. The show/lists paradigm works when transmission is cheap, as on a desktop computer.

Theresa describes ways in which the show/lists pattern might move onto the web. I'm interested in the ways in which traditionally show-based applications might switch paradigms entirely. Local storage is becoming cheap, and technologies like Spotlight, CoreData, and SQLite are making it easier for all kinds of developers to think like a database admin (not to mention the way that Apple and Mozilla have their sites on actual application development with WebKit and XULRunner). Above all, the volumes of information typically associated with a show/lists UI are growing past the point of reason.

If iTunes is a spreadsheet that plays music, what would a database that plays music look like? There are a few hints out there at what this would be. The most obvious is Last.fm, the UK music site that observes your listening habits through an iTunes plug-in and publishes them on the web. My primary use of Last.fm is a the presence of a frequently-updated script that displays Shawn's recently-played music on my desktop. Up until a few months ago, this would migrate into search terms on OiNK (now it goes nowhere). Friends Ryan and Gabe eschew iTunes altogether and play their music from a custom-built web application that streams everything in via Flash in the browser. Here's a screenshot:

The blue dot at left is an animated radial EQ, the gray arc around it is the MP3 loading progress, and the orange arc is the track time progression. The orange dot at right is a growing/shrinking volume control.

The interesting thing about this case is that the site has rudimentary social features that mimic a few of Last.fm's, but you can actually listen to the music on it. It's storage as well as index. The thing it does not do is present a view of its music too far outside the traditional album-artist-track hierarchy.

Feb 5, 2008 6:42am

super duper tuesday

Tomorrow morning is Super Duper Tuesday, the first time I get to vote in a presidential election, and the first time that my vote (as a Californian) will count for anything.

(photo yoinked from the New York Times)

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