Aesthetics and computation

This evening, the Western Mass. Developers Group was treated to a talk by Ben Fry of Processing fame. It was excellent and inspiring. Having not much prior exposure to Processing or his work, I left hungry for more. (The title of this post is taken from the name of the group at the MIT Media Lab where Fry did his PhD work.)

I liked the graphical-REPL flavor of his live demos. Surprisingly, the feeling reminded me of being a kid flipping through Alan Kay’s article about the Xerox Alto in Scientific American 30 years ago.

He gave a fun tour of creations by Processing users, with various highlights along the way including magazine cover art, a Superbowl ad, a scene from Minority Report, and the work by Robert Hodgin that was picked up by Apple for the iTunes 8 visualizer. Along the way he was concientious about giving his co-conspirator Casey Reas (not in attendance) his share of the credit.

Turnout was good, by our small-town standards: a full room, 25 people or so. Many had come out of the woodwork from local colleges (notably Smith and UMass). O’Reilly gave us a few copies of his book, which we had a drawing for at the end.

I found his work to be a heady mix of technical acuity, aesthetic commitment, and pragmatism. And I liked his dry sense of humor – jokes that many non-technical audiences probably wouldn’t have even known were jokes.

His work is especially interesting to me because I’ve straddled the design/enginering line most of my professional life.

At the end I asked him about this cross-disciplinary world of his, and whether he had observations about qualities that were good predictors of success. He thought for a moment. His answer, which included mention of a Harvard class he taught to a mix of art/literature/CS/etc. majors, began with one clear word: “Curiosity.”

Alexander Kahn commented :

He gave a talk at Smith College last year that was superb. Really impressive stuff. Have you seen John Resig’s port of Processing to JavaScript, called Process.js? Here’s the link:

Paul commented :

Yes – in fact, it was first in a list of Processing ports-and-the-like that he showed during his talk! I understand better now what Resig left out of the port (3D, for example) but it’s still a very impressive piece of work.