E-zines: eco-friendly, evolved publishing, easy creation

That was the title of my Barcamp presentation on 9 October 2010. I thought the alliteration was a nice touch. *smile* Based on the lessons I learnt from my last Barcamp presentation, I needed a title that’s easy to understand and had enough “hook” words to “bait” the wandering attention of Barcamp attendees. And I believe the alliteration helped…

In this article, I’ll just tell you what happened during my presentation. Or at least the ideal presentation I wanted to give. There is additional information here that I didn’t talk about in my presentation. I’ll show you the pictures and tell you more of the event itself tomorrow. The general direction I had was, come up with main points, don’t rehearse too much, and wing the presentation. I didn’t want to spend too much of my time with abysmal returns like the last time.

The start of the presentation

So, this time, I had about 30+ people in the room, all waiting with bated breath and almost uncontrolled excitement for my awesome presentation. That’s compared to the 1 single person who stayed for my last Barcamp presentation. It’s a 3000% improvement! Good job, me. *argh* wait, hold on, I sprained my arm from patting my own back…

Ok, I started by asking the audience how many of them were bloggers. A few hands came up. Yes, audience participation (celebrate every little victory). Then I said I suck at blogging because after 3 years of regular writing, I only had 300+ regular readers. Where someone like you (pointing vaguely into the audience) would have like 23,745 readers (pulling the number out of thin air). So I started my own online magazine, where “e-zine”, “online magazine”, “electronic magazine” are interchangeable.

E-zines are eco-friendly, because there’s no paper, plastics or dyes involved in their creation. And electronic readers are getting better. We now have iPhones, iPads and the Kindle which are capable of displaying electronic publications in a pleasing format.

Demoscene and diskmags

Then I told them there was an extreme form of an e-zine. Before I told the audience what it was, I talked about the demoscene. I asked if anyone knows about the demoscene, and there was one guy who knew. I was extremely happy, because no one around me knew anything about it, so I’ve got no one to discuss it with. My only regret was I didn’t get his name. That was stupid of me. I’m an idiot…

Anyway, the demoscene is a computer art subculture that specialises in creating demos. A demo is a visual and audio show that runs in real-time on a computer. It’s meant to show off the skills of the programmers, artists and musicians involved in creating the demo. And the last 3 sentences were practically copied off the Wikipedia site…

There are contests on the file sizes of these demos. The popular ones are 64kB, 40kB, 4kB and even 1kB. Then that demoscene guy said there’s even the 128 byte demo. I really should’ve gotten his name… Well, the demoscene started out with cracked software. The programmers, wanting to show off their skills, cracked software without disabling the function. But to show they were there, they added a small animation. The result was that the addition must necessarily be small (in size) so as not to disrupt the software. Hence the file size limitation.

So there’s this guy who started a diskmag entirely devoted to the demoscene. The diskmag’s called Hugi (1st issue in May 1996). So what’s a diskmag? It’s a portmanteau of 2 words: disk magazine. It’s called a diskmag because the original diskmags were carried around on 3.5 inch floppy disks (remember those?). No audience reaction with “floppy disks”. Ok, maybe a few smiles. Oh well, you win what you can.

A diskmag is basically an executable that runs on your computer. In the old days, some diskmags even run specifically on certain computers such as the Amiga, Commodore or ZX Spectrum. So a diskmag acts like a mini-browser, with links to articles, artwork. And there’s music playing in the background. It’s a full media experience that’s a magazine. Which I believe to be the extreme form of an e-zine.

Blitzing through history of publishing

Then I took them on a brief ride in history. In the early days, scribes and monks spent hours and even days creating a piece of written work, typically religious teachings. Then came woodblock printing, sometime around 220 CE in China. Then I gave them a tidbit about CE. Did you know that Jews generally prefer to use Common Era (CE) than Anno Domini (AD)? That’s because Anno Domini is Medieval Latin for “In the year of our Lord”. And Jews don’t regard Jesus as the Lord.

Moving on, I told them of Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, who created the metal movable type around 1439 (see question/answer at end of article). This flexibility in arranging letters meant more varieties of printed material could be created. And the written word exploded. Books, newspapers and magazines appeared.

Then Tim Berners-Lee came along, proposing a network structure in March 1989. And on Christmas day, 25 December 1990, the World Wide Web was born. I don’t know what I was expecting from the audience at that, maybe some oooh’s and aaah’s. I think I’m being too dramatic…

So email became even more popular, powerful and useful (it’s supposed to have existed as early as 1973). Websites started popping up (my first site was created in 2005). Then blogs appeared. And then social media sites. And then we arrive at our current situation, where self-publishing e-books is becoming popular. There is now a trend reversal. Where once it was a few creating for many, the rest of us now also create, produce and publish.

Creating websites used to be difficult. Until blogs came along. There’s a perceived high barrier to entry. So it is with e-books, and I suggest, with e-zines. For e-zines, there’s an almost physical-like quality, which creates a sense of possession for the owner. Hopefully, this creates better retention and loyalty.

“If you can edit a Word document, you can create a magazine”

Then I gave them some websites that can help them (and you) host an e-zine.

I forgot my presentation punchline

I’m getting to the end of my presentation, and I forgot my punchline. I was supposed to tie the diskmag thing back in…

So the Internet marketers and A-list bloggers are all saying, video is gonna be big. And I say, what happens if video content comes in a package? What if video, audio, text and images are packaged together in one discrete unit? You basically get the diskmag. And an e-zine is going to be that much closer to that future diskmag format. And I remembered this part only after the 1st Q&A question, and I quickly talked about it. Talk about presentation fumbles…

Then I did a little shameless self-promotion. I told them about Singularity, my own e-zine. I was so nervous about it that I didn’t even tell them what Singularity was about and who it’s for. Talk about more presentation fumbles…

Then I told them of 2 e-zines already available for free. The first one is fear.less, an online magazine dedicated to telling stories of how people overcome their fears. This was the original inspiration for Singularity. I believe fear.less was created by the MBA students of Seth Godin (of whom no one in the audience knows, as expected).

The second e-zine is In Treehouses, an online magazine designed to help people reach their 1000 true fans. As expected, no one knew anything about the 1000 true fans concept, nor of Kevin Kelly. Oh well…

Apparently I took about 15 minutes for my presentation.

Barcamp presentation on e-zine

I overshot the recommended 10 minutes, but apparently quite a few presenters used up the entire 30 minutes given to them (some even cutting into the next speaker’s time). I think my friend Hisham was approving of my sticking to within my scheduled slot. I think…


I only had 2 questions from the audience. The first one wasn’t really a question and was from my friend Aaron (aka Singularity photographer). Aaron said that Koreans used metal movable type earlier than Johannes Gutenberg. I checked, and he’s right. The first known use was in China around 1040 AD, then in Korea around 1230 AD.

The second question was from Dave Chua. He said there’s Flipboard, an iPad app that functions like an e-zine (at the same time showing me his iPad). Yes that’s true. Flipboard works on the curation of you and the people you trust. It pulls in data from your Twitter and Facebook feed, as well as Twitter and Facebook feed data from your friends. The curation and aggregation is done by you (and your friends). With an e-zine, that’s done by someone else, the magazine’s editor.

It depends on your tastes. I should tell you that generally, you like what your friends like, and your friends like what you like. This also generally mean that you might never be exposed to new and interesting ideas outside of that sphere of interests.

Alright, that was long. Thanks for sticking this far with me. Let me know what you think. And I’ll see you tomorrow with my story of the Barcamp event itself.

7th Annual Scene.org Awards

If you’re in Germany, go check out Breakpoint 2009, held from 10th to 13th April 2009. It’s when the winners of the Scene.org award nominees will be announced.

3 of the nominated demos were also featured here. Well, 2 actually. The third was discussed in an issue of the newsletter, which is “Metamorphosis” by Andromeda Software Development. Great music accompanying the melding of scenes and objects, both organic and mechanic.

As for the other 2 demos, we have “Inflorescence” by mfx.

And the 2nd demo is “The Seeker” by Still.

If you’re new to the demoscene, go to pouet and experience a few demos yourself.

[Vincent is currently on vacation. I’m his blog, taking over for a while. He never said blogging was this hard! I have new-found appreciation for my master now…]

Demoscene outreach reel at NVISION 2008

Taken from the video:

Demoscene: realtime underground digital art.

This video contains short samples of various demos. It is used in the demoscene section of the NVISION 2008 event. The event is held at San Jose, California from August 25 – 27 2008.

Some of the highlights include

  • Learn to build your dream multimedia computer
  • Never-before-seen computer art
  • And the demoscene!

I’m so going to miss all the fun…

Path of a Polymath Programmer Part 6

I’ve covered a number of topics that have little to do with programming, yet contributed significantly to my programming skills. Here’s a recap of everything so far:

So I’ve been playing console games, interested in pencil-and-paper role playing games and I’m proficient in programming. Is it any surprise that I’d be interested in game development? And that’s what happened.

I browsed through GameDev.net for comprehensive game development guide material. Then I went to NeHe for all the OpenGL tutorials you’ll ever need. I also read up on independent game development on MadMonkey, and browsed GameTunnel for a feel of the games out there.

Since I’m going to be developing games on my own, I’d say I’m an independent game developer, as opposed to the professional game studios such as Square Enix (previously Square). As a hobbyist programmer, I was just looking to create games for fun. At that time, I was interested in creating role playing games similar to Final Fantasy. Researching on game development, I found I had a lot to learn.

There’s the design process, ranging from story plots and characters to weapon and battle system to resource management. There’s graphics to be rendered, and music to be composed. There’s a whole slew of stuff to be done, and all of them had very little to do with programming.

Well, I’ve got to start somewhere, so I began with what I could see, the characters and game world on the screen. I tested the recommended ways on rendering 2D character sprites and how to animate and move them. I wrote small test programs to try out rendering game world data, and camera movement. Luckily I went through a class on 3D graphics, so I could understand terms such as orthogonal/isometric view, point of view (POV) and field of view (FOV).

Then there’s menus. Battle menus. Item selection menus. “New game” or “Load game and continue” menus. I was hovering between using linked lists and simple arrays for storage.

Then there’s resource management. How do I store saved game data? I learned to write data to text files, and read them back and load them onto program variables.

I downloaded and printed tons of research material. I learned the file formats for the Windows bitmap file and music files of the .it (Impulse Tracker), .s3m (ScreamTracker) and .xm (Fast Tracker) file formats.

I learned the basics of design documents and why they’re important. I learned to see the overall view of a game development, which is essential a piece of software. This turned out to be useful in my career.

For a long time, I stuck with it, researching and testing and researching some more. And I still didn’t have anything playable to show for it. I was frustrated and my patience was waning. The only thing holding on was my passion for games, and even that was slowly draining away.

So I did the only thing that made sense. I let go.

Once I freed myself from the obsession that I must create something, I found the whole process more enjoyable. And I didn’t do game development anymore, at least not in the regular sense. I also went back to playing games more, and I started to really appreciate the effort that went into those games.

I still like reading up on game development stuff. I did all that stuff on C, C++, OpenGL and a bit of DirectX (this was where I got that Windows template used in my dissertation in part 5). It was tough because there’s a lot of plumbing that needs to be done. Now there’s pixel shading, anistropic filter and much better graphics cards. Now there’s C# and XNA Game Studio Express from Microsoft. Aha! Useful tools taking out a lot of the mundane and bringing back more of the fun. Maybe I’ll try my hand at creating something again…

The next obsession

Well, game development took too much out of me. But I continued to browse the game development web sites. Then I came upon a site where the author listed some of his favourite applications, games or otherwise. And that’s where I met “The Product“.

“The Product” is a demo. It is an application that runs for about 11 minutes, showcasing 3D scenes, special effects and accompanied with synchronised music. It is also 64 kilobytes in size.

That was astonishing! After my studies of game development, I realised that lots of game data was used. Even console games require memory cards to store saved game data. Then came along one small piece of software that creates an amazing visual and auditory experience. That just blew my mind away. Absolutely cool.

Creating demos is part of a culture called the demoscene. It had a rather unsavoury historic start, because it began as attempts to hack into programs and load some of the hacker’s taunts into that program. It was used to demonstrate the superiority of the hacker’s programming skills. The hack had to be small in size, and tons of creativity went into making the hacks as memorable (and insulting) as possible.

Well, the demoscene has evolved into something else. Something more artistic in nature. To learn more about the scene (as it’s called), I suggest actually downloading the demos and have a look. You can try these 5 amazing demos first. Then go to scene.org and pouet.net for more information.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the product. I wanted to find out how it was done. All the textures. All the music. All the 3D scenes rendered. How were they stored?

It turns out that the demogroup who created it, wrote generic functions for generating textures, music and 3D models, right in the application. Like a class library of sorts. Then in the application, only the function calls are stored. And that’s how all that data was stored in just 64 kilobytes. You don’t store the data. You store the instructions for creating the data. Brilliant.

After watching the product, I wanted to watch more. I downloaded lots of other demos and watched them, over and over again. The special effects were generally better than the games I played. The music were generally of high quality, some mesmerising and some blood-pumpingly intense.

And then I wanted to create a demo of my own. Ha! Man it was tough. I started researching again. I found that there’s an electronic magazine about the demoscene called Hugi. It’s basically an application that runs and lets you browse through articles in an interactive manner, with music playing in the background. These people are so awesome…

With much passion and enthusiasm, I actually finished a demo. It’s called “Trying To Fly”. It’s about this wooden cuckoo bird wanting to escape into the bigger world, trying all sorts of methods to actually fly. Well, it never took off, pun not intended. BUT, I did learn the process of switching scenes, animation of 3D models and particle effects. Yeah, I wrote a custom particle system just for the demo. It’s actually kind of cool, and I think I’ll talk about it in another post.

Continue to part 7

If you don’t watch these 5 demos now, you’ll hate yourself later

Never heard of demos? Well, start. Because being a polymath programmer means you need to appreciate the expertise and knowledge in making one.

In simple terms, a demo is a multimedia program, where you just watch and listen. There’s usually visual effects. There’s music, usually playing in sync with the visual effects. There might be a story or an overall message. And everything is run in real time, so you’re better off with a speedy processor and an even speedier graphics card.

Why should you watch demos? They represent the coming together of different expertise such as

  • artistic direction
  • software design
  • music composition
  • graphics work
  • 3D modelling (of recent times)
  • programming skills

[Adapting a quote from one of my favourite movies]
Unfortunately, no one can be told what a demo is. You have to see it for yourself.

1. The product

Also known as fr08, this piece of work was created by farb-rausch. It’s actually an intro, a class of demos where the programs have a certain file size limit. In this case, 64 kilobytes. The constraint used to be caused by the platform, but now, it’s mainly to challenge the skills of the demogroup.

This was my first introduction to the demoscene. And I was amazed by how a 64 kilobyte program could generate close to 11 minutes of visual effects and music.

This was accomplished through procedural generation, where part of the code generates the image and music data in memory. Instead of image and music data files, the code instructions for generating them were stored in the program, thus saving executable size (or total bundled zip size). A similar concept to writing code to write code.

2. Heaven 7

Perhaps you’ve seen some 3D graphics movie, like Shrek. The basic technique in a 3D render software is ray tracing, a calculation intensive process.

If you’ve play computer games, you’ll know that superb clock speed and fast graphics cards are indispensable. You might even know how game programmers cut corners so as to deliver visuals that are stunning yet run smoothly on most computers.

Heaven 7, by Exceed, delivers an awesome visual and auditory experience, ray traced and in real time.

3. Instant Zen

Fly through scenes of space, metaballs and clouds. Follow wriggling paint worms and ephemeral ribbons over abstract landscapes and sparkling rivers. Experience instant Zen! Brought to you by Synesthetics.

4. Dream Child

The visuals in Dream Child are stunning. What impressed me more was the music. There’s a harmonious blending of human voices, computer generated sounds and electric guitars.

Look out for the ASD ambigram and unique 3D shark models in Andromeda Software Development‘s other productions.

5. Beyond

Conspiracy, the demogroup responsible for Beyond, invites the viewer to explore the uncharted galaxies. Starting out from behind a small comet hurtling through space, you then flew past nebulae, planets and Saturn’s rings. You’ll witness the scorching surface of a sun and cyclical movement of gases.

Near the end, it’s as if you’re dragged by the scruff of your neck and pulled backwards. You’ll then whisk outwards, away from gaseous bodies, pass more planets, out of galaxies, and finally reach … the part where you have to go download the demo and watch it to find out what happened!