“The Drifter” – Preview

After a considerable hiatus from publishing short stories on Pixelated Thinking (although I did continue to write a few very short ones that remain unpublished), I’ve finally decided to release a new one (the last short story I published here was The Walker in 2011). This is more of an experimental piece than anything. Since the recent few months have had me preoccupied with completing my first manuscript of a sci-fi thriller I’ve been developing over a few years now, it was nice to venture away from that world and those characters with this more abstract project. Also, I needed something new to write to distance me from that first draft that I know is going to need an insane amount of work to rewrite.

This story is called The Drifter. It’s an experiment into a darker-tinged, fantasy-sci-fi dystopian world, something I haven’t actually written before. I think it serves as a nice threshold between my first 45 000+ word manuscript that’s occupied my mind for years now, and a new crime/noir/thriller drama I’m in the early stages of developing into a novel.

Here’s a preview of The Drifter. The story is complete, by the way, and sits hidden away on my MacBook’s harddrive. I will release the full 1000+word story soon, so look out for it on this blog and @RahulDowlath.

*

THE DRIFTER (a preview)

The Drifter had walked these roads before. He had been subjected to this hell of placelessness, namelessness, facelessness… he moved like a dark shadow across the grey landscape, gliding like a phantom through these parts.

The towns he passed looked the same: single roads, dusty streets, broken windows in falling-down buildings. An empty existence. All because of the One.

The One who had started it all.

The One who he tried to stop.

The One for whom defeat was never a word.

The One.

A shiver crept through the Drifter’s thin frame, rattling his very being. He stopped.

The town lay before him, just like the countless others he’d experienced.

But there was something different about this one… something he couldn’t quite place just yet.

A single street, flanked by crumbling structures.

Dust billowing in the afternoon gust, the buildings bathed in dusk’s golden light.

*

Look out for the full version of The Drifter, coming soon to Pixelated Thinking.

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Building Osaka

Osaka's "Welcome Screen" which displays the various things you can do with the software.
Osaka’s “Welcome Screen” which displays the various things you can do with the software.

Osaka is a new software system I designed and coded in December 2013/January 2014 to significantly overhaul the SKKSA admin system and update the existing software architecture (which had been conceived as a modular design in June 2012, and had been in use ever since).

It replaces an app called “Nexus” which had been showing its age, and which desperately required an integrated philosophy to ensure scalability and enable a critical new feature – the Student Profile.

The Technologies

Three major technologies were used to create Osaka:

  • Visual C# (programming language/environment)
  • Microsoft SQL Server Compact Edition
  • MySQL Workbench (to design the database architecture)

C# is a language I’ve been using for some time now. I’m comfortable with it, hence I chose it as the best and most efficient way of undertaking this considerably complex project. Say what you want about Microsoft, but their developer tools are great. Visual Studio was an excellent IDE to design Osaka’s UI, and execute the entire project – from bringing the interface to life with UX code, to linking the screens to the database backend.

The Project

Osaka was a big step up in SKKSA’s digital systems. When we introduced SKKSA ID with the Nexus app back in 2012, we were one of the few karate organizations in South Africa to have a digital student database. Barcoded student numbers could be used to scan-in to sessions and validate registration for a seminar. But it was still very limited in its capabilities. My ultimate goal was to have a holistic solution that captured a student’s entire karate record in a single place.

Thus arose the idea of the Student Profile. A single screen could display the selected student’s records for their tournaments, gradings, Saturday senior training attendance, seminars and affiliations. This would go along with their contact info, and data central to their karate life – i.e. their dojo affiliation, current grade and SKKSA ID (their student number).

Design began with the welcome screen. I mocked-up a basic UI, and then decided what elements were critical to Osaka’s initial release. However, due to logistical reasons – me being in Cape Town and the software being in use in Durban – the development process required me to design the initial release with as many critical features as possible to avoid potential usage problems down the line.

At its heart, Osaka is really a dataset with various tables linked to each other. Each table holds data specific to a part of the student’s profile – there’s a table for their gradings, their affiliations, their tournaments etc. This all ties into the “primary” table, the “Students” table. Then there’s various other tables that hold data about seminars – seminar names, locations, dates; Saturday training – dates etc. It was complex to think about, and so I resorted to designing the dataset using, first, pen and paper (very tech-savvy, I know :P), and then migrating those initial sketches to MySQL Workbench, where I mocked-up the dataset’s tables and relations. This allowed me to see what the overall database would look like.

Designing the UI

From there, things started to get very messy. Moving over to Visual Studio, and armed with the database design, I began building the user interfaces. I chose to go with as simple a UI as possible given the time constrains. Designing for simplicity is actually really complex. I believe that the more pedantic you are about designing things and the more work you put in, the simpler the overall result will be. So with Osaka, I wrote many lines of code for the most mundane things, like automatically moving the cursor to the next textbox once a student’s ID number is captured, and using their ID number to automatically write their date of birth. In the end, these little things save a lot of time when it comes to capturing registration forms.

I attempted to tie SKKSA’s new brand image into the software. The organization’s primary colours – deep red, gold, silver, white, grey – were the basis for the colour palette. I ended up using a third-party designed icon set to minimize design time.

In future updates, I hope to focus more on making the UI design even simpler. The Profiles screen is my next focus, and I want to change the cluttered look into something cleaner, readable and information-rich without any complexity. This is what the Profiles screen looks like with Osaka 3.0.2: (certain info blurred for obvious reasons…)

Osaka's Profiles screen
Osaka’s Profiles screen

The most critical feature, though, was the TrainingBook module. This system replaces the traditional pen-and-paper register. Now, students just scan their cards, and their name is automatically added to the day’s register and to their profiles. TrainingBook was perhaps the main reason for designing Osaka. It’s where a lot of the development focus rested, and its UI inspired other aspects of the software, including the new Seminar module which functions almost exactly like TrainingBook, but for training courses instead.

TrainingBook ready to scan student cards.
TrainingBook ready to scan student cards.

Registers can be printed on a daily basis.

With an all-digital register, lots of interesting data can be extracted. While Osaka alone can’t manipulate data and provide in-depth analysis, by exporting the lists to Excel as CSV files, reports can be compiled for the instructors so they can chart their students’ progress.

Next Steps…

Osaka, like any software project, is not complete. Nor do I think it ever will be. But in its current state, it’s already significantly more powerful and feature-rich than anything we’ve had before. I’m really interested to see how it will be used; from that, I can begin mapping out the software’s future and next feature set.

And then there’s the next project I’m contemplating: an online web portal for instructors first, and then students. While Osaka is not in any way connected to an online web service, this website would take periodically exported data from Osaka and make it available as a personalized online profile page for each student. I’m still in the earliest stages of planning that project, but I know it will be based in PHP, use MySQL as a backend, HTML5 and the Twitter Bootstrapper for front-end design and UX, and in its first iteration will be exclusive to the instructors. It’s an exciting project – my first “Web 2.0” (if they still call it that) project.

Student Card Design

Along with the new software, I designed a new student card that again tie this new design aesthetic of SKKSA with their new digital systems. Here’s a collage of the initial designs:

Six designs were tested for the new student cards.
Six designs were tested for the new student cards.

The challenge with designing the new student card was that it needed to succinctly convey SKKSA’s identity, whilst also remaining functional and eye-catching. A bold design would mean that the SKKSA ID brand image was powerful, and a noticeable object that would distinguish it from other documentation a student might carry to training or tournaments. In the end, a design similar to the fourth card above was chosen. And instead of grey (which I initially chose to be subtle and “professional-looking”), I went with a deep red and radial gradient that framed the famed tiger graphic. It’s simple, bold and carries the new SKKSA aesthetic.

The final design choice.
The final design choice.

It’s been a while

It seems like I’m writing this type of post too often, but I find it a nice way to get back into the flow of writing after a gruelling term filled with coursework and general university angst.

So without further ado, and without attempting to make any promises about being regular on this blog (since I am, after all, majoring in Procrastination 101), here’s a small update on what I’ve got planned for the next few weeks, time permitting:

  • Reading: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. I’ve been meaning to get into this book for over a year now, but many distractions have got in the way – from university, to other projects, to even other books (I’m looking at you, The Casual Vacancy and The Hunger Games). Horowitz is one of my all-time favourite writers; he, along with J.K. Rowling, really drew me in to reading insatiably, and it’s thanks to their words and love of books and the craft that I have been inspired to pursue this thing they call writing.
  • Writing: I’m still pushing through with the fabled manuscript. Yes, it does exist, and I’ve managed to break past 35 000 words. It’s still very slow-going, and being me, I’ve already got ideas for another book (unrelated to this one). No, I can’t reveal anything about it for a very long time. Hopefully you’ll find out about it soon.
  • More writing: I’ve become fascinated with gothic horror recently, and so I want to try my hand at writing a short story in this realm. Short story writing is always fun; maybe it’s because as humans we’re wired for instant-gratification, and so writing short-form pieces such as these blog posts and short stories are an affirmation-act for my writing life. Whatever it is, I am excited to get back to this type of writing, and also to explore a new piece of fiction other than the manuscript that has occupied much of my writerly life and thoughts recently.
  • Learning: I never stop learning. And so I’m hoping to continue my studies in server-side web programming and database design, in preparation for bigger things in the future.

Oh, and there will be many films watched between all of the above, and I really hope to write about them on this blog. Here’s a short list of films I’m looking forward to:

  • Now You See Me
  • This is the End
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • Thor 2
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • … and, of course, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

All for now!

SKKSA ID: Building a Software System

About four years ago, I had the idea of creating a student database program for my dad’s karate organization, SKKSA. Since then, my technical experience in programming has evolved, and so has the karate oraganization’s reputation – as one of South Africa’s leading karate organizations. SKKSA has become known for a unique, innovative flair that’s unparalleled.

This year, after much research and testing, I was able to finally sit down and write a completely new system for the organization, initially codenamed “Project Nexus”, and now officially renamed SKKSA ID. In this post, I’ll attempt to explain some of the processes, and philosophy that drives this new system.

Continue reading “SKKSA ID: Building a Software System”

Hello, December Old Friend

Wow. Yet another year has gone by. 2010 seems to have gone by far quicker than previous years – I can’t be much of a judge of time on this spinning ball we call Earth (seeing as I’ve only been on it for just over 17 years) but the speed at which this year has travelled at would make old Einstein giddy with joy.

This is my last year of being “beneath” a grade at school; from next year, I will be in my final year. This is going to place major implications on my blogging career (as you might’ve noticed from my devastating absence over the past few months whilst I was deep in preparation for this year’s final exams). I will be limiting my extra-writing in 2011 – and it will be completely cut-out as I approach the final stretch (probably around mid-2011…)

2010 has been an incredible year. From the 2010 World Cup, to my school tour to Europe (my first time travelling overseas on my own). I had a blast exploring the history and culture of such a remarkable continent over two weeks with some of the best friends one could ask for. Then there was Target, the short film that I made along with Imtyaz Rahim and Bryan Smith. It won the Technical Excellence award at our “Oscars” evening, so that was a great way to close that awesome chapter. There has also been some difficult decisions I’ve had to make this year, but I’m hoping that they will pay-off in the long run as I aim to continue focussing on the important stuff. (On the mention of “focus”, I highly recommend fellow blogger Leo Babauta’s new e-book, focus. It’s free and has some great info on how to keep a clear mind and be focussed.)

I’ve also had the privilege this year of being invited to write for Blogote, a technology blog based in Bangalore, India run by a passionate tech enthusiast and awesome guy, Sidharth. Rock on, dude! m/

So, December is here, and that can mean only one thing: free time! I plan to spend my summer break reading, writing, and having some well-needed down-time. Here’s my plans…

To Read

I’m an avid reader, and apart from some classics, here’s some of the leisure books I have lined-up:

To Watch

At the cinema:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
  • Tron: Legacy
  • Spud – The Movie
  • Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

On DVD:

  • Inside Man (inspiration for a little something I’m working on… hint hint.)
  • Inception
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Casino Royale
  • Quantum of Solace

Probably more. I’ll see how my film tastes emerge as the holidays progress.

Amongst all this reading/viewing, I will indulge myself in excessive bouts of writing – something I love doing best. I am planning my novel in earnest, and Literature & Latte’s Scrivener, coupled with my good old Moleskine (because sometimes putting pen to real paper can ease the flow of the imagination, you know) are making this process all the more enjoyable.

I aim to blog often, too. I have already begun to post regularly to Blogote – look out for those posts being published soon. Of course, this blog – Life in Pixels – will be having its fair share of writing. I plan to blog about my adventures in writing this behemoth novel of mine, my thoughts on the books and films I’ll be consuming and of course, my opinions on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

(Sorry – couldn’t help those Douglas Adams references. Perhaps I should add him to my reading list? We’ll see.)


Thoughts on “TARGET”

Over the past two months I’ve been busy, amongst other things, with producing a short film for an English assignment, along with two very good friends.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride, as we typed away at a script that we hoped would convey an engaging story, and fought with film-editing applications to ensure that our finished product did justice to the concept we were working on for so long. You see, the main idea we had when starting work on Target was to create the most exciting, engaging film that included techniques not-bef0re used in this assignment.

The idea for the film came from news reports in the months just before the 2010 World Cup was to be held in South Africa. There was a great sense of panic when it was suddenly reported that there were apparent terror threats on the new stadiums that had been build for the event. Thankfully, nothing did happen, but my team and I decided to take our own fictional spin on the reports, and asked the fundamental question that spurred Target‘s writing: what would you do, if you knew there was a bomb placed in the new stadium – if you were the only person to know, and could be the only person to stop such an attack? Of course, some of this does sound a little absurd, and rightfully so – after all, this is a fictional tale, and we made express use of our prose licence in exerting the most amount of freedom in writing the film.

Redemption

The “terrorist” angle took on a new face when a member of the team, Bryan, was to go to London for a short holiday. We seized this opportunity to write-in a new character, the “mastermind” of the whole plot that Target is centred on. So it was to be that a man with twisted logic was born out of the words woven on our digital page, who thought that the only way of getting back at the country that supposedly “betrayed” him pre-1994 was to seek redemption in the form of terrorism. He poisoned the minds of men who in their own right felt betrayed to an extent, and one such man was given the task that fits in the narrative arc of the film – the character aptly (and very imaginatively) titled – I’m sure you’d agree with me – “The Terrorist”.

Filmmaking

For many years now, I’ve been fascinated with the art of filmmaking; of movie magic. I’ve tried my hand at writing numerous screenplays, and as such, when we were given the task of this film assignment, I took up the opportunity with great relish to work on what would become the screenplay of Target.

But Target stretches far from just a story that we wanted to tell; it was a great process of two months’ hard work, painstakingly agonising over the most minute of details, to ensure that the visual media we were working in did justice to the words written in the script.

And it would never have been possible without the amazing talent of the actors involved. They brought those words to life, and gave them an added twist of their own, adding that perfect mix of drama and engaging an atmosphere that’s hard to achieve with a static script.

I found it fascinating to note that, after paging through my trusty Moleskine notebook, a single paragraph written in the section where we planned the film, summed up the entire plot. So it was that Target had been “almost” fully-conceptualised before its full writing process began. Still, however, that final scene that incorporates some ambitious visual effects had always been a component that I wanted to include no matter what the storyline would end up being. I had originally written it into the finalé of another screenplay, Kiss of Death, a 1930s “shoot-’em-up” gangster film that was supposed to be our Grade 11 Film Project – until we received the theme – and after pitching it to the directing/production team, we unanimously decided that if it could be done right, that was an awesome way to kick into the credits sequence.

Throughout the filming phase we were inspired by the great directors of our age: Quintin Tarrentino, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and, of course, Steven Spielberg. Their use of camera, movement through time and space, and distribution of colour gave us guidance in working on the production of Target.

Whilst Target is a very amateur project, the three of us – Bryan, Imtyaz and myself – are incredibly proud of what we’ve worked on. It was a long process, but a greatly enjoyable one and a time through which we all learnt a great deal about the art of movie magic. Target does have its flaws, but at the end of the day, to the three of us, what we’ve learnt far outweighs those setbacks.

And in case you’re wondering, the story I hinted at in a previous post (“[PREVIEW] New Short Story”) is indeed based on the film. It is altered slightly, and was written parallel to the writing phase of Target. It should be releasing on the blog sometime soon.

[Preview] New Short Story

Here’s a short preview of a short story I’ve been working on for some time now. I’m almost finished with it (got the last scene to write in). It’s been a great experience working with fiction again; I’ve been bombarded with a load of school work, and a lot of critical essays. Now I’m not complaining – I love writing, full stop. Just having to sit down and weave words into something – I do get a kick out of it. But writing fiction is a lot different; it’s difficult, yet absorbingly fun at the same time.

Interestingly, the majority of this story was written in my Moleskine notebook; it was a new expereince for me to write the bulk of the text of a story the traditional way – putting pen to actual paper.

So, without further ado, here’s a short excerpt from the new story. When the entire text is complete, I will be posting it in its entirety on Life in Pixels.

Also, due to other reasons influencing/being influenced by the story, I can’t as-yet release the title of this new short story… sorry!

Here we go:

It was going to be a good day. The best day of his life. Redemption. The very thought tasted sweet in his mouth, and for second – almost unnoticed – what could’ve passed for a sliver of a smile crossed his hardened face.

But effortlessly he pushed such thoughts away from his mind. There was work to be done. A quick glance at the luminescent-green digital clock fixed into the wall next to his workbench glowed 2:59 am. Despite the early hour, he was wide awake, his mind sharper than ever.

Only four hours to go. Redemption never tasted sweeter.