Project Nexus

I realise it’s been a while since I last wrote here. I think, given the current global situation, I’d like to revisit this blog and use it, once again, as a repository of my thoughts — particularly on the projects I’m working on. As creators, one the best ways to engage with our own work is to write about it. (And it gives me an excuse to do more writing!).

In 2014, I embarked on an ambitious digital adventure to create a complete student administration system for our karate organisation SKKSA. The project, called “Osaka” (after a line in a Coldplay song I was listening to at the time — Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love) enabled us to streamline a lot of our admin. It also gave me the opportunity to lean a lot about software dev and C# programming in general.

Over the years, of course, this suite has grown to reach the limits of its capability. And my new experiments with web-based technologies like PHP/HTML 5/JavaScript has afforded me the opportunity to rethink the entire system.

Enter Project Nexus.

The login screen on the mobile web portal (“MyDojo” is the front-facing name; Nexus is the internal codename)

Named after the original app I envisioned almost 10 years ago (Nexus), this is an entire reimagining of the student admin system. It also opens up opportunities for having a more meaningful front-end student portal. More importantly, it allows us to have a more engaging, meaningful experience in understanding our students, their progress, and more.

Envisioned as a platform rather than a collection of apps, Nexus is a system that will allow our instructors to get access to live data from training sessions, and completely streamline a lot of admin processes such as creating diplomas and enrolling new and returning students.

The platform comprises 2 major elements: a web portal, and a traditional desktop app.

Rather than using a local Microsoft SQL Server Compact database as the DB backend, we’re harnessing the power of the Web by using MySQL as the new backend. Porting over from the old DB seems to have gone fairly well so far.

More importantly, this allows us to have a more powerful web portal. This means instructors have access to important data about their clubs on their mobile. This includes access to our training syllabus, student attendance records, student contact details, and more. A future feature I have planned is a digital attendance record register, where instructors can use their phones to scan students in to sessions, and then manage that attendance data later on the desktop app.

The desktop app remains the central hub, but this time its redesigned, streamlined and powerful.

I will write more about this project in the coming days and weeks as I continue to develop it in my free time. We’re hoping to launch the first release very soon. I’m excited about the opportunities that Nexus will open up — not just for SKKSA, but as a system that can be scaled-up for commercial use in the far future.

The best writing app

I’ve been getting back into the writing groove over the past few weeks. Often though, I tend to keep searching for the ideal app that will help me be productive and write more often. Usually the criteria is an app that allows me to write across devices — iPhone, iPad or macOS. The thinking behind this is that I’ll be able to write wherever, whenever.

However I’ve discovered that the ultimate app for my writing is actually not an app at all.

Analog writing — writing with my Sonnet fountain pen into my Moleskine notebook, is the best way to keep me focussed and connect more with the actual content. At this point my focus is writing for myself, to explore a host of ideas that are clamouring in my head. Writing by hand is also a nice way to reconnect with my thoughts and ideas, to stay disconnected from the chatter of the digital world, and to actually be present in the act of writing.

This doesn’t mean I’m not discounting the digital writing world — I’ve expressed my undying love for Scrivener and I will continue to use that as my app of choice for long-format writing (I’m currently planning a long-term writing project for which Scrivener will be invaluable, as usual). But for now, for me, the ultimate writing app is my Parker Sonnet and a notebook.

Podcasts to work with

Podcasts are seeing an amazing resurgence in the last few years. I’ve been using them since I started working in 2015 as an alternative to music when working. As an architect, I’m often confronted with doing long stretches of work that affords me the opportunity to have something playing in the background without distracting me. I’ve found podcasts to be an excellent way to keep me going through the day, and to learn something new along the way.

Here is a list of some interesting podcasts that I enjoy whilst working:

My podcast app of choice is Overcast for iOS; but there are plenty of other good apps, including the stock Podcasts app on most phones, that works just as well.

Emerging from hibernation

It’s been well over a year since my last post.

But slowly I am re-emerging from this writing hibernation and eager to get back behind the keyboard, behind my trusty Parker Jotter, and continue my rumination on the world, the built environment, technology, and, well, life in general.

A lot has happened since my last post. I’ve completed my Masters in Architecture and am getting to grips with the ‘real world’. And I’ve come to realise that writing is a key tool in helping me navigate this new terrain.

I am thinking of what Life in Pixels means to me now, at this point in my life and career. So there might be some changes… but I feel like this blog, being a personal repository of my writing and ideas, should remain exactly that.

Stay tuned.

Scrivener for Architecture Dissertation Writing

Scrivener: a writing studio like no other.

Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.

Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.

Why Scrivener?

Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section –  can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.

Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.

You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).

The outliner (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

The virtual corkboard (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).

Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.

The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.

Project targets window  – I should probably be doing my dissertation writing to get that session target counter moving for today…

Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.

 

Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂

I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.

The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).

Workflow

So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).

For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)

My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout

Going from Scrivener to Word

Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.

The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.

Félix Chénier has an awesome tutorial here that contains the macros you need to copy into Word. But here’s the process:

  1. Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
  2. Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
  3. Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
  4. Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?

Closing remarks…

I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.

Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.

Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.

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Space, Life and Architecture

What is architecture but the deft manipulation of space? The forms we design seek to contain, and to define, spatiality such that life may be lived. Space, then, is the canvas for urban life.

Space is therefore a critical component that demands attention. As an abstract thing, it becomes challenging to define. In some ways, perhaps we can understand “space” in terms of Laozi[1], specifically, his idea of wu; emptiness.

Space commands a philosophical perspective. Through this we may unpack its ambiguity. The means of encapsulation, then, derive from this abstraction. If we consider it an entity, just like any other architectural component, then we can begin to use it as a mechanism. Here, digital tools can begin to take space into an entirely new dimension. Generative systems can rapidly reconfigure, and biomimetic algorithms can transcend space from this abstract, invisible entity into a a responsive idea that reflects a series of dynamic, evolving characters.

I think here of the neo-plasticists, who, perhaps more than any other, really pushed this idea that space is an entity we can mould, that architecture is truly, at its essence, an organisation of space.

Footnotes

  1. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Myth of the All-Nighter

I’m entering my sixth year of architectural education very soon. It’s been a long, often frustrating, but fruitful journey. At such a time as this, reflection becomes a key point as the final stretch looms. One of the things that has intrigued me so far, both looking inward to the profession as an outsider (before I began my architectural education), and as a young “newbie” to the professional world of architecture, is this fascination with the all-nighter.

It’s sort of expected that the architecture student must labour continuously on their projects, whether their body yearns for sleep or their mind has become a tangled mess of meaningless mulch. The architecture student is expected to pull off countless all-nighters whilst still maintaining a particular standard of work, and failure to do so means instant discrediting of one’s entire stature as a student studying this field. It somehow suggests that one is not putting in the requisite “effort”, that a little more time spent on the work might have meant a different letter grade – and in an abstract field such as design, doubt becomes a prevalent spectre that haunts the self-critique of ongoing work.

I feel that this fascination is disturbing and entirely unhealthy, both physically, and in its fixation on working hard rather than working smart. The subtle distinction between these two things means the difference between a productive, happy young architect who is energised to start a promising career in the profession, and a burnt-out student who might be on the verge of giving it all up for something else.

A serious paradigmatic shift is necessary to move the mindset from working hard, where the number of hours somehow correlates, to some degree, the quantity/quality of work produced, to the idea of optimising workflows, exploiting the benefits of technology and ultimately adopting a smarter way of getting things done. Of course I’m not arguing for a generation of lazy architects who find every excuse to avoid work. Work is an essential part of our culture, and it’s a fundamental aspect of living, of building something meaningful both to society and to the builder’s life, of leaving a true legacy to benefit future generations. But this morbid fascination with a culture of sleep-deprivation, which itself propagates an aura of anxiety, stress, and unpleasantness, needs to stop. Right. Now.

Much needs to be done in reforming architectural education today. One aspect we can begin with is a critical rethinking of what studio culture is. Lack of sleep and deriding physical and mental health runs diametrically opposed to the kinds of environments that we as architects are expected to produce for the betterment of society.

Judgement of work based on the hours put in does not paint a proper picture of the final product. Rather than overworking oneself in order to satisfy this arbitrary time-centric idea, a more intelligent workflow is needed. This is the exciting part: designing is intrinsic to us, so why can’t we design better means of production? Instead of shirking from advanced computational technologies, this is the time to be adopting those tools. Truly understanding the power of BIM technologies, parametric tools and modern productivity strategies such as Pomodoro are just a few examples of the potentials lurking beyond that sleep-deprived horizon.

It’s time we got over this myth that the all-nighter is a necessity to architectural education, and embraced a healthier, smarter way of learning and working.