Episode 149 is an odd duck for sure. It changes every day due to some magical coding trickery that is happening behind the scenes. That episode is a part of a bigger project, a new podcast project that’s potentially the first of its kind. It’s called Neutrinowatch.
Tagged with “coding” (3)
Orca is a visual programming environment for making music. Except it’s not graphical, it’s just text arranged in a grid. Except it doesn’t actually make music, it just silently emits digital events across time. When you first see it, it’s utterly alien. When you start to learn how it works and why, the logic of it all snaps into place, and it becomes a thrilling case study for authors of live programming environments and interactive media tools.
Devine Lu Linvega, Orca’s creator, struck a wonderful balance between flashy style and significant utility. Orca is typically encountered as an inky black and seafoam green alphabet soup, pulsating to some species of broody electronic industrial throb. But it is also a forgiving learning environment that doesn’t crash, puts code and data together in the same space, lets you directly manipulate code and data interchangeably, allows generous recovery from mistakes, and supports discovery through freeform play.
I invited Devine to come on the show specifically to brain dump about the design process of Orca, how he started the project and built it up to what it is today. During our three-hour conversation we wound up talking a lot about all the other tools he’s created, and you can hear that discussion on last month’s episode. This time it’s all Orca — inspirations, execution model, operators, interface, system design, ports & reimplementations, interactions with other tools, and the community.
This episode contains many snippets of music, as examples of what you can make using Orca. All of it was created by Devine, and is available on his Youtube channel. If you like a particular piece and want to hear the full thing — and see exactly how Devine made it — they are all linked down below in the transcript at the point that they appear in the show. So just scroll and skim, or search this page for some phrase that neighbours the song you want to find.
Quote of the show: “It’s for children. The documentation fits in a tweet, basically.”
We live in a world that is gradually becoming more closed off, more controlled, more regional. Our relationship with technology is now primarily one of consumption, buying new hardware on a regular cycle, using software conceptualized to meet a market need and fulfill promises made to venture capitalists. It’s common to hear people talk about both computing hardware and software as though they were appliances, not meant to be user-serviced, not meant to be modified. The tools we use are being designed for the 80% who live in a city, use grid electricity, want to keep up with the industry, and have an unacknowledged learned helplessness about the limitations of their tools.
Devine Lu Linvega and his partner Rekka live on a sailboat. He makes art, music, software, and other cultural artifacts. When Photoshop’s DRM required that he maintain a connection to the internet, he wrote his own creative suite. When his MacBook died in the middle of the ocean, he switched to Linux with hardware he could service. His electricity comes from solar panels, and every joule counts — so that’s out with Chrome and Electron and in with Scheme, C, assembly, and maybe someday Forth.
I wanted to interview Devine with a main focus on just one of the dozens of tools he’s created over the past few years — Orca, a spatial programming environment for generating synchronized realtime events. It’s ostensibly a tool for music, but has been applied to all sorts of other disciplines in wildly creative ways. Devine and I ended up talking for over three hours, and after editing out everything superfluous there was still too much matter for just one episode. So we’re going to take this in two pieces. Today, you’ll hear the bits of our conversation that covered everything other than Orca — Devine’s philosophy, the stories of his other tools, the ways in which boat life have forced certain technology choices on him. On the next episode we’ll have the rest — a deep dive into Orca, covering the thinking and story behind the design of the tool, the community that has picked it up and run with it in all sorts of wild directions, and lots of little nooks and crannies in the space around this fascinating project.
My hope is that the topics discussed today will let you see from Devine’s perspective, so that when we look at Orca in detail you can appreciate exactly why it is the way it is, and take away valuable lessons for your own projects.
Given that his most recent explorations have been making art and programming tools that run on the NES, the best quote of the show has to be: “I never want to have a stronger computer than the one I have today.”