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Algorithmic Design

I have the penmanship of a four-year-old. I have always been completely incapable of freehand writing, drawing, etc. The only way I can produce anything artistic is if I can specify what I want mathematically, or by mechanically adjusting something until I get what I want. (ie: I always use a tripod for photography, and it's got to be pan-tilt, not ball-head.)

I like using chop saws and milling machines, hate using circular saws. (In some way I think this also relates to the fact that I like CLI's over GUI's, mail over chat, batch mode over interactive, etc. I just don't do realtime.)

Where this really leads to is that I do graphic design in Postscript and edit video in C.

People generally think of Postscript as being a printer-control protocol (if they remember it at all, at this point). However, it is actually a full programming language. It was Adobe's first product, and a direct descendant of earlier experiments by the founders that can be traced back to John Warnock's "Design System" language at Evans & Sutherland which he extended with Martin Newell after moving to Xerox PARC into the "JaM" language which then merged with an earlier PARC system into the InterPess system.

Warnock eventually left Xerox along with Chuck Geschke and founded Adobe on their next-generation, simplified version, Postscript. Their first major customer was Apple and that kicked off the desktop publishing revolution.

There's a fantastic usenet posting on the details of Postscript and InterPess history by Brian Reid.

Here's a tiny example of some Postscript code:

%!Adobe-PS-1.0
%
% Radiation symbol
% by Dave Fischer

72.0 dup scale % work in inches

4.25 5.5 translate % center of 8.5 x 11 page
2.4 dup scale

% Three 60 degree arc triangles, with 60 degrees between them.
3 {
	0.0 0.0 moveto
	0 0 1.5 0 60 arc closepath fill
	120 rotate
} repeat

% center space & dot thingy
0 0 0.30 0 360 arc 1.0 setgray fill
0 0 0.20 0 360 arc 0.0 setgray fill

showpage

Which generates this image:

The biggest difference people used to markup languages like TeX or HTML find with Postscript is that it is not based on text with some hints towards layout, but based entirely on geometric objects, of which text is one particular type.

I dabbled in algorithmic graphics earlier, mostly initiator-generator fractals output to Tektronics storage tube vector graphics terminals:

But I didn't get serious about art until I started making flyers for local shows in Postscript.

( The Flying Luttenbacher's logo was a perfect subject for me - that robot head was trivial to recreate with basic geometric primitives, and then iterating it along a spiral was simple in Postscript. A little sneaky counter-rotating of the head versus the speach balloon, and it was done. I had one copy printed out poster-sized. It looked great.)

The flyers didn't necessarily have obvious mathy elements in them like that robot-head-spiral. Some of them looked like perfectly normal flyers - I just like laying out design like that by typing numbers and code, instead of using something like Illustrator.

As web access became widespread, I decided that flyers only needed to remind people about a show. They would find all the details online (the people interested in these shows were from a very small, tight-knit community), so I really didn't need to put much info on the flyer itself:

This particular flyer however, because of the chopped up typography, resulted in a rumour that Arab on Radar had reformed, because someone misread the Rah Bras part. Ha ha ha. Oops.

More flyers.

After that, I typeset a few books, as Cryptomaoist Editions (most notably, my edition of Roadside Picnic has proven to be very popular), and did a four-issue zine called Providence Machines. I did a few Oz books purely because I wanted to do a Futurist style Oz logo:

Providence Machines was inspired by my growing fascination with the Italian Futurist movement, and Fortunato Depero in particular.