Archive for the 'rapidBOOKS' category

 | March 8, 2012 12:15 am

For many writers, the act of writing (or placing one word after another) is synonymous with the tool that they use to do it. There’s a reason why writers feel so strongly about their moleskin notebooks, fountain pens, and computer software. I’m no different than any other writer. I have my preferred tools, and I love them dearly. They help to focus on my ideas and craft prose that I can be proud of.

When writing on a computer, the tool of choice for many writers (dare I say most?) is Microsoft Word. It’s everywhere and everyone has used it. It comes preinstalled on most computers and is a de-facto standard for exchanging written material with others.

Unfortunately, Word is not part of my preferred toolset. I prefer to write using LyX and an add-on I’ve written for it called LyX-Outline. But while I love my writing program, it makes it difficult to collaborate with other writers who use Word, as LyX doesn’t have a straightforward way to directly import Word files.

This isn’t a new problem and I’ve written about it before. I’ve even proposed a solutions. But while that solution was a good fit for me, it isn’t something that I would recommend to others.

For starters, it required a great deal of software to be installed. You needed a program to convert Microsoft Word documents to Open Office documents. You then had to use a second utility to convert it to HTML or LaTeX. After that, you used to a third utility to clean it up and import the LaTeX code into LyX. Three distinct steps, with a lot of places where things could go wrong.

Over the past few months, I’ve found that I need a better way, a tool that can directly import a Word document and cleanly translate its content. So, I decided to create one.

MSDoc2LyX

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 | June 9, 2011 5:51 pm

At the moment, I’m entranced with eBooks. There are many reasons for this (and I’m preparing a rather long blog post which explores them), but one rises above all the others: electronic books offer an author the best way to tell complex stories.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this video from TED, which demonstrates a “next generation electronic book” called Our Choice, by Al Gore. (The video is only four minutes long and well worth your time.)

Though I may be succumbing to hyperbole, I really think that we are seeing the future of non-fiction. We live in a tremendously complex world and those of us who in the business of shaping and communicating ideas — scientists, engineers, idealists, philosophers, teachers, and so forth– face an enormous challenge: how do we take that complexity and make it understandable to others?

For centuries, books have done an excellent job of combining two types of media: text/narrative and images. But while you can communicate many ideas with text and images, there is still a limit. For example, who really thinks that math and certain scientific disciplines are best learned by reading a book? Even an excellent mathematical textbook is only an adequate tool, hardly an exceptional one. It simply leaves out too much of the logic necessary to understand how certain relationships are derived. In such cases, one of the best ways to understand those relationships is to watch them be derived in front of you. When done well, think Richard Feynman, it’s much more instructive than a text narrative could hope to be.

This is where electronic books might take up the slack. In addition to text and images, it’s possible to add video and even interactive elements. There are certain principles that are best explained by a narrative and video clip. There are other concepts where an interactive examples best illustrate an idea. And there are still others where trial, error, and feedback are the best way to teach the concept. With an electronic book, you can include all three. Indeed, just about anything you can do on the web is possible, which is really exciting!

For the electronic version of the Open Source Writing book, I’ve been experimenting with video. (Both ipad and the Nook Color provide rudimentary support for the HTML5 <video> tag.) In the process, I’ve learned an important point: motion and voice make it really easy to show certain points. For example, if talking about how to accomplish a certain task with a computer program, there is nothing more effective than showing how it is done. The rest of the text becomes supporting documentation.

And I think that’s cool because it expands the types of stories I can tell (and isn’t that generally the point of new technology). Cool tech without soul is just flash in the pan.

Which leads to the next important question: how do you create these amazing pieces of electronic art without breaking your wallet or mortgaging your soul? Turns out, the answer isn’t nearly so complex as you might think.

 | March 31, 2011 7:50 pm

In the Open Source Writing book, I’ve got a section on Visual Thinking. While I’m hardly an expert, the way we perceive and understand the world is a serious interest of mine an I read everything I can find on the subject.

This morning, while I was fact checking a few things for the book, I came across this video by Tom Wujek. In it, he talks about the neuroscience of understanding and a few of the ways that the brain interacts with the world of ideas. Though a bit dated (from the 2009 TED conference), it’s still excellent.

Of related interest, you may want to take a look at the TED project he references, TED Big Viz.

 | March 28, 2011 10:06 pm

You know that obsession I’ve got with awesome stuff and the compulsion to share it? Well, it seems to have taken hold this morning.

There are two things in the RSS feed today that simply must be shared. For these, everything – looming deadlines, familial responsibilities, and miscellaneous addictions – can wait.

The first item is a link to LibreGraphics magazine. The second is a call for proposals from a conference of the same name.

LibreGraphics Magazine

First, the magazine:

LibreGraphics magazine is designed to serve as a catalyst for discussion; to build a home for the users of Libre Graphics software, standards, and methods. As users of these tools, we know that our work, when executed well, is indistinguishable from work produced by more traditional means. Thus, here we will unite all our previously disparate successes. We will elevate the discourse around Libre Graphics as a professionally viable option, raise awareness, and show that it is the vision of the artist (not the cost of the tool) that is important.

LibreGraphics Magazine - Issue 1.1LibreGraphics Magazine - Issue 1.2

There are two issues currently available. Both are great examples of what a LibreGraphics and open design magazine should be. They provide tutorials, opinion, perspective, and healthy doses of ideology. (Not too different from the publications written for open source code jockeys, actually.)

You can download both issues from the project’s website, or from one of the handy mirrors.

LibreGraphics Conference

Like LibreGraphics Magazine, the LIbreGraphics Meeting exists to “unite and accelerate the efforts behind Free, Libre, and Open Source creative software It’s the premiere conference for developers, users, and supporters of porjects such as GIMP, Inkscape, Blender, Krita, Scribus, Hugin, the Open Clipart Library, and the Open Font Library to gather and work.” In short, a meeting of magic and liquid awesomeness.LGM

The conference organizers are currently looking for help on two fronts:

  1. They need money. Since there are many open source developers and volunteers who would dearly love to attend and might not be able to afford the travel costs, they are trying to raise money for travel grants. They estimate that they need about $12,000. Please donate.
  2. They are also in need of presenters. If you are doing amazingly creative things with open source, consider submitting a proposal. The submission deadline is April 20th.
 | 4:57 pm

kde-iconNext Monday, I’m going to be giving a talk entitled “Writing and Publishing With Open Source Tools” at Camp KDE, the annual KDE conference for North America. For those interested in attending, the talk happens at 12:15 pm at the Hotel Kabuki, in San Francisco.

I’m really excited about the talk and I think it’s going to be excellent. (I know, having high expectations for your own performance is the route to obscurity, disappointment, and insanity.) If you live in the bay area, or are going to be near San Francisco next Monday and Tuesday, please consider coming.

Note: While I think you should come to hear me, you might also be interested in the conference as a whole. There are going to be a number of interesting talks that cover KDE developments and core technologies.

I’m particularly excited to hear about what KOffice/Calligra is up to. The abstract talks about “Office Engines” and how KOffice/Caligra can be used to build custom applications. I’m wondering if the technology might be adapted for a mobile project I’m working on. The talks on QtWebKit and the Qt Graphics tools also look neat.

One of the reasons why I’m so excited about my talk is that it brings developments with the book full circle. I first started writing “Writing With Open Source Tools” due to a request for proposals  launched by KDE nearly two years ago. Now, I’m going back to KDE to talk about the (nearly) finished project.

I’m also going talk on other developments I consider timely. For example:

  • How open source publishing tools can be used to target print, web, and eBook platforms from a single source file.
  • How editors, writers, designers, and production people can work together in a seamless, collaborative manner.
  • The strengths of an open approach and where things stand to improve. (Especially for writers and designers.)

While there will be motifs common to the Salt Lake Linux User’s group presentation, most of it is exciting and new. (Which also means untried and untested. So, if it goes well, you can expect to be enlightened. If it goes poorly, expect to be entertained. Either way, it should be a good time.) Since I haven’t quite finished the presentation, it’s also adaptable. If there is anything specific you’d like to see covered, let me know in the comments and I will try to oblige.

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 | March 17, 2011 9:01 pm

Note: I have a tentative release date for the book in electronic format, March 31. The print volume will follow shortly. At this point, I am mostly removing things, in the words of Nancy Duarte, “murdering my darlings.” Below, you will find one essay that has been scrapped. It talks about the enabling power of technology, within the context of the Egyptian reovlution of January 25.

On the 11th of February, 2011, a miracle happened. After eighteen days of protest, Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt for nearly thirty years, resigned as president of his country. But like the despots of earlier times, he did not go willingly.

Starting eighteen days earlier, on January 25th, demonstrators had taken to the streets and public squares of Cairo and Alexandria to demand a voice in their government. They were upset with the pervasive poverty, terrible government corruption, and police brutality which had become its most obvious outward manifestation. They were angry that political dissidents, like Khaled Saeed, could be brutally murdered in the street by members of the security establishment, or, that a Google marketing manager could disappear for asking, “Why?”

Note: Khaled Saeed was a Egyptian programmer who died after being arrested by the Egyptian police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. Photos of his corpse were spread by Wael Ghonim and others on the Facebok group, “We are all Khaled Said,” inciting outrage over his death. Later, Ghonim himself would disappear for 11 days, abducted by officers of the Egyptian state police. He was later released after significant public outcry, which played an important role in Mubaraks resignation.

But while the story of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power is similar to that of other dictators, it was also distinct in one important aspect. Since ancient times, successful revolutions have been the products of careful organization. The marches, protests, and civil disobedience of the American and South African Civil Rights movements weren’t spontaneous. They didn’t just happen. They required articulate leaders — Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, respectively — and years of political organization.

What makes the Egyptian revolution of January 25th so remarkable, though, was the apparent lack of formal organization. In contrast to the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle against Apartheid — or older revolutions, such as the American and French revolutions — the Egyptian Revolution seemed to spring out of nothing.

Certainly, there were agitators. Asmaa Mahfouz, a twenty-six year old blogger and activist, was instrumental in cataloging and exposing the abuses of the regime, for example, as were individuals like Khaled Saeed and Wael Ghonim. But for the most part, though, groups traditionally associated with the political opposition — such as the National Progressive Unionist Party (the Tagammu) and the Muslim Brotherhood — explicitly stated that they would not participate in protests and demonstrations.

The hard work of organizing, constructing alliances, and preparing for the protests happened invisibly. Not just underground, but completely out of sight. It made use of Twitter, Facebook, and other new-fangled web technologies. No one group was responsible for it. In many ways, there were no groups responsible, just networked individuals. And in contrast to the revolutionary spokesmen of yore, the administrators of these websites remained largely anonymous. Their great contributions consisted of a virtual forum for messages to spread and like-minded individuals to connect. Of his involvement, Ghonim commented:

[The] revolution is like Wikipedia … Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people … Revolution in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone gave small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution, and no one is the hero in that picture.

Note: The comments were made during an interview on the CBS news show, “60 Minutes” on February 13, 2011. During the interview, Ghonim described the strategies used by the Egyptians as “Revolution 2.0.” News and plans were passed amongst forum members, who were then encouraged to tell friends, acquaintances, and contacts so that “everyone knew.” The mediums — Facebook, Twitter, text-message, and email — were secondary to the strategy: get the message out quickly and organically.

The actual “content” of the revolt — grievances, evidence of corruption, plans, photos, stories of abuse — was very similar to those of the past. In this, Malcolm Gladwell makes an important point:

People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone — and they ended up with hundreds of thousands in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years — and in the French Revolution the crowd in the street spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.

Note: See Malcolm Gladwell, “Does Egypt Need Twitter,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html#ixzz1CqneJJOu.

But the way that the Egyptian protests played out, the speed at which groups rallied together, and how the Egyptian reformers communicated with the international community had a vastly different feel to them. Technology enabled the protesters to formulate and move their ideas to a hugely diverse audience. In essence, it allowed for them to be more effective, and because of that, Mubarak’s government collapsed in days, rather than months or years.

Technology, in all of its forms, has typically had such effects. Spoken language, for example, allowed for stories and wisdom to pass from one generation to the next. Writing then built on the foundation of spoken communication, and allowed for rising generations to “hear” the precise words of those who had come before. Literally, allowing the dead to speak. Gutenberg’s marvelous printing press then made it easier to disseminate those thoughts to an enormous audience.

Each new development — language, writing, printing — made previously difficult tasks more efficient. Language communicates thought, writing preserves it, and printing disseminates it. But in addition to allowing people to do old things in new ways, it also prompted novel innovations, and, its effect in the Egyptian revolution should not be understated.

Technology made it easier for potential revolutionaries to locate one another, share information, coordinate their actions, and execute their plans. It also made it possible for an everyday group of Egyptians, people like Wael Ghonim, to bring down the government of a dictator.

 | October 26, 2010 2:37 am

Note: Still working on the book.  Making progress, hope to be finished very soon.  (Very, very soon.)  Regular programming will resume when the draft is sent to the editors.

There’s nothing like a deadline to throw you into pandemonium and confusion.  I am trying to finish up the chapters on stuff and things, and I’ve found myself deeply conflicted on what I want to do and how I want to do it.

I can take one of several paths, but all options require compromises which don’t excite me.  And due to the need to actually finish sometime in my lifetime, I’m going to have to cut material.  I’ve already made really deep cuts and  now it’s time for more.  Without supporting bits (already cut) I’ve discovered that a lot of remaining material doesn’t make sense.

This is painful, because I thought the material lovely, interesting and essential.  The bits were amongst my favorites, and I hate to see them go.  (But then, after you’ve worked on a book for a year, you lose any semblance of objectivity. Ideas are like your children, cutting them feels tantamount to murder.)

One piece that I had and really liked was a bit about the history and evolution of type, particularly how new letterforms allowed for new stories and types of ideas.  Then, I removed much of the surrounding material and the graphics no longer make sense.

But some of the ideas are nifty, and I’m always a sucker for history of any kind, so I’m making a last minute salvage attempt.

What do you think of the layout below?  (PDF to be found here.)  Is it too dense?  Are there too many words?  Does it work?  Does it help to tell a (somewhat butchered) story?  Opinions, thoughts and critiques welcome.

 | October 6, 2010 8:44 pm

Elegant-Book-page1Note: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted due to a need to finish the Open Source Writing book. It will resume once I have sent a draft to my editor/publisher.  They have been very patient and I have been irresponsible.  And though I have been working like a banshee for a month now, a looming deadline has me approaching hysterics.

With one of the deadlines for the Open Source Writing book looming in just over 9 days, I’ve been deeply immersed in it.  Other than sleeping, sanity breaks (usually which are spent by going to the gym) and eating, it’s the only thing I’ve been working on.

Whenever I get immersed this deep into a project, I lose all semblance of objectivity.  Sometimes this is good, because it lets me try out new ideas and combinations that I wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Most of the time, however, it is not.  I become ridiculously attached to things that don’t matter and generally become neurotic.  This neurosis usually manifests in the form of a need for external validation.

(Since my insecurities have absolutely nothing to do with anything, I should probably come to the point.)

Formal Versus Modern Design Examples

Amongst the loads of wonderful stuff I’ve been perusing, I found a book with a marvelous comparison of different design styles.  (Which, really, shall be a whole blog post on its own.)  While reviewing this book and the various samples, I’ve fallen in love with a style known as “Formalism.”

As described, Formalism is a mash up of the Swiss/Modern school (which places an emphasis on negative space and the removal of unnecessary decoration) and the controlled use of decorative elements.  It’s cool, calculated and controlled.  But not extreme or brutal.  (Think Classical, which was a response to Baroque rather than Brutalism, which was a response to … I’m not sure, really.) So while, it adopts the tenants of minimalism, it also encourages decoration and free-swinging fun where appropriate, but doesn’t go to decorative extremes like Grunge or Collage have been known to do.Elegant-Book-page2-3

A Formal design will often utilize Baroque, Renaissance or Romantic letterforms and encourage you to make creative use of space.  The examples in the book (drawn from humanist texts, museum catalogs, and others) are simply amazing.  I became so inspired, I even tried my own hand at a few layouts.  They aren’t anything special, but they do showcase a few of the techniques.  The example layouts were created in Scribus using the  Linux Libertine (chapter headings and body text) and Linux Biolinium typefaces (reference material).

(You can download a PDF copy here.)

On a completely unrelated side note, I think that Linux Libertine might  be my favorite open source type.  My all time favorite is still Minion, because it’s just awesome.Elegant-Book-page4-5

I particularly appreciate how a more formal design contrasts against Modernism and its tyrannical little brother, Minimalism.  It’s more permissive, sophisticated and refined.  It’s the sort of design style I’d want to spend an evening with.  More French than Puritan.  Where “what you see” isn’t “all you get”.

(And with those sentiments shared, it’s time to get back to work.)

 | September 28, 2010 2:26 pm

Note: The normal programming of the website is still temporarily on hold in an effort to finish the Open Source Writing book.  I fully intend to pick things up very soon, but I must first send a finished draft to my editor/publisher.  They’ve been very patient and I’ve been irresponsible.

While I am trying to work in seclusion (or at least a reasonable approximation thereof) in order to finish the Open Source Writing Book, I put together a layout that I wanted to share.  (Mostly because I liked it and thought it cool.)

It covers the typographical niceties that distinguish a typesetting system from a traditional Word Processor and will appear in the “Writing and Editing” chapter of the book as a double page spread.  (In this layout, the material appears as a single, long-form poster.)  I’d love to hear people’s comments, thoughts or suggestions.  Particularly if there are any additional elements that I missed and you think might be included.

You can download a PDF version here.  Many thanks to Dario Taraborelli for creating his wonderful essay, the Beauty of LaTeX, from which this layout borrows heavily.

The poster is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share and Share Alike license.  Copyright 2010, Rob Oakes.  Some Rights Reserved.

Typographical Detail

 | September 1, 2010 8:52 pm

The Elements of Typographic Style, Letterform AnatomySince starting work on the Open Source Writing project, I’ve become hyper attentive to many little things that I’d previously overlooked.  For example, I’ve started to notice the typefaces in books, magazines and advertisements and think, “I wonder what that is” and even contrive thoughts on how things might have been done better.

I’ve also started to visit my local bookstore much more frequently.  I go to browse the art and design books and the magazines.  I want to see what other authors are doing (particularly those of art, design and computer books).  I enjoy looking at their layouts and comparing them to the style I’ve chose to use.  I look at the prose and illustrations and think about components that I might make use of.  While in the store, I’ve also become interested in how people interact with the books on display.

If you’ve never people-watched in a bookstore, I highly recommend it.  It’s very revealing and you’ll immediately notice several different groups.  Some of the buyers like to pull multiple titles from the shelves and then go to the coffee shop to  review them; others will wander the aisles until they find a title that catches their eye; and still others will compare similar books side by side.

It doesn’t take long to see that book-store shoppers are very different than those who use sites such as Amazon.com.  Browsing in a store is a tactile and interactive experience, and for that reason, decisions are made based on sight and touch as much as they are on feedback, reviews and more logical factors.

For this reason, I want to see which books get picked up by shoppers, and, I want to know which ones stay in hand versus those that go back to the shelf.  I’d like to understand why a patron chooses one Photoshop or Illustrator book over another and what factors go into making a purchase.  Most importantly, though, I want to know if there are a few general principles that I can use to make my own work more attractive and, as a result, more likely to get bought.  (I’ve also spoken with the book store management and they’ve been kind enough to share some of the sales statistics with me.)

It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned many lessons that I’m trying to put into practice.

There is one lesson, however, that stands above the rest.  The art, design and computer books that are successful all share one thing in common: they are visually stunning and incorporate amazing examples.  Every last one of them.

In fact, stunning visuals might just be the single deciding factor as shoppers try and determine which book will go home with them.  The content, after all is mostly the same.  They all cover the same fundamental principles and techniques, and for that reason, must differentiate themselves on appearance.

And in the very best art/computer graphics/design books (such as Thinking with Type, the  Adobe Classroom in a Book series, and anything by Edward Tufte), the illustrations aren’t just stunning, they are positively lavish.  More than that, though, they are practical, illustrative, useful, and provide enormous value to the text.  They make an impact, and for that reason, they sell books.

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