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Introduction: Of Pixels and Progressive JPEGs

Introduction: Of Pixels and Progressive JPEGs

Technologies don't just appear. They start small, almost like stray pixels in a freshly-scanned image. You don't see them unless you really start looking for them. The stray pixel that led to this book first appeared on a dull, damp, and drizzly March day in Toronto. It was the type of day that forces one to curse the weather, not to look for trends. It happened this way.

Josh Davis. Yes, that Josh Davis—food dye in the eyes, fish tattoos on the back—that Josh Davis is in town to speak to the new media community about “Being Josh.” The venue fits Josh to a “T.” The Bloor Cinema is located in the university area of town, which is an area populated with book resellers, CD-resellers, clothes resellers, and resellers for any item you could possibly imagine. Every university town has a place like this, and as you might expect, the area is a bit run down, but like the Bloor, it has a hip seediness to it.

Huddled under sagging store awnings or in unoccupied doorways are a hundred or so black-clad New Media Developers, waiting to learn how to “Be Josh.” Cries of “Cool,” “Dude,” and “Wassup” ricochet out of doorways and along the street, creasing the “wild fruit explosion” or jet-black hair that is this week's style. The mood is electric, and one would almost expect electricity to start arcing between the piercing studs and nose rings as everyone waits to see Josh. It is in this crowd, this oh-so-hip crowd, that the stray pixel first appears, and it appears in the last place one would think to look.

One of the authors has been dragooned by the organizers of FlashinTO as a greeter, ticket taker, and all-around “gofer.” The doors aren't scheduled to be open for a few minutes, and the volunteers are gathered in front of the theater's lobby espresso bar. The conversation is the usual mundane New Media developer conversation, touching on a myriad of techniques and technologies and including liberal usage of the word “cool.” Except for the author and Lorraine Spiess, the dress is mandatory black, set off with “wild fruit explosion” or jet-black hair.

Lorraine, she of the long blonde hair and prim and proper deportment associated with the suburban housewife, is on the fringe of the conversation. She is not listening intently; instead she is leaning into the conversation, waiting for a polite pause where she can participate. It arrives and… “I have been playing around with databases and Flash,” says Lorraine, “and I have been getting some cool results.” She then launches into a full rundown of what she is doing, and she is politely dismissed with a “That's interesting” before the conversation moves to something really “Cool.”

It wasn't until 18 months later that author understood he had seen the stray pixel. It had landed on a suburban housewife and not some black-clad, pierced, multi-hue hair trendoid on the other side of the glass entrance to the Bloor Cinema.

As these things tend to do, the conversation stayed with the author. It rattled around his subconscious, forcing him to pay attention to anything associated with the words “dynamic,” “scalable,” or “application.” It was in this way he started gathering other stray pixels, and it was in this way the pixels started to form an image, and, like a progressive JPEG, the trend started to take on resolution.

Six months later, the image came into sharper focus, and it happened this way.

The FlashinTO crew has gathered for its monthly get together at the Mockingbird, a rather large bar located at the geographic center of the industry in Toronto. They are gathered around the screens set up at either end of the establishment, watching their peers present some rather “cool” stuff. They are hanging around the bar, gossiping and trading business cards, or they are in the back area of the bar, just on the other side of the DJ booth, playing pool and foosball; others are gathered on the couches littered throughout the area, discussing business and strategic alliances. In the midst of all this, oblivious to her surroundings, can be found the suburban housewife Lorraine.

Here, surrounded by the black-clad cool-crew, she has been joined by 10 others, and the subject is “Database Connectivity.” The paper notepads are carefully placed so as not to jostle the pints of Toronto's finest, and those around the table who have their laptops open are keeping a close eye on the table to ensure their heavy metal doesn't become wet heavy metal. Among this group, the code is flying, and the participants are so focused on the conversation they don't notice the cool-crew has tossed an invisible quarantine area of five feet around their table. Those that wander into the DMZ soon leave, and, when asked why, they will tell you straight out, “Dude, they are too hardcore for me.”

The progressive JPEG came into sharper focus a few months later. It happened this way.

The “MX Studio” is on the street, and we are all gathered at the Mockingbird for the FlashinTO gathering. This is a special one, and seats close to the screen are at a premium. The bar area is sparsely populated, as are the pool and foosball tables. Knots of people can be found sprinkled among the couches, but everybody is ready for tonight's topic. There is no talk of “Cool.” There is no sassing. The talk is of “Flat Architecture,” “Dynamic Flash,” “ColdFusion MX,” and “recordsets,” “components,” and “templates.” Finally, somebody is going to at least explain it to us.

At 7:30, the projector is switched on, and all conversations cease as Lorraine Spiess, that Lorraine Spiess, the “hardcore” Lorraine, the snubbed Lorraine, steps in front of the crowd and begins to enlighten the masses.

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