The dark intelligence of Scribus, the voodoo sides of ConTeXt, plus excitements and disappointments in html2print

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Pierre Huygenbaert and Manetta Berends, sitting on a wooden bench in a small garden of the Speculoos studio in Brussels. It's July 2023. A big table is standing in front of us. Pierre just took a moment to search in the Speculoos book shelves for some books made by OSP throughout the years, which now has created a nice messy pile of a lot of different kinds of publications.

P: It was after several attempts by OSP and Femke seperately, but mainly by OSP, to use Scribus for long texts, for books. And it was painful. After the really beginning of OSP in 2006, 2007, 2008, many works were made in Scribus. We were always in and out with Scribus, but it was really painful to work with long documents, because at the time it was a very bizarre behavior of Scribus, that made files grow exponentialy in size with the page count. I do not remember at what moment precisely, but Andreas Vox, the Scribus dark intelligence, has admitted it at some point.

M: The more pages there are in your Scribus document, the bigger the size of the file?

P: Yes, very bizarrely. Because there is a kind of a loop inside that process. And so for that kind of stuff you are really obliged todiv ide your Scribus document into multiple. So with Femke we decided to go elsewhere, which was TeX. I don’t remember how much the text in Tracks in electr(on)ic fields describes how much it has been super painful. It was even more.

P: In the case of Tracks in electr(on)ic fields, the book is made with ConTeXt, which works through a process of compilation, so it’s the same with html2print. And at some point your file is not compiling, and all the stuff, you know… For me, and so for Femke, it was the first experience being so frustrated. To go to the author of ConTeXt, Hans Hagen, in the Netherlands, to ask him to help us… Overall, clearly for me it was super traumatic as an experience. Because also at some point, my own limitiations to work with abstractions of the language, computer language I mean, was really blatent and in many occassions I have been obliged to let Femke alone. It was also very painful to see that. And you don’t know what to do.

M: Because it was you and Femke working on the book?

P: Yes yes. So the classic but frustrating for both sides, when the developer part is split. At some point Femke asked some help from Michael, but Michael was only helping on the principles of extreme computing and like that, but not in the core problems that we had. So it has been solved mainly by Femke alone.

M: Do you remember what the problems were? There were multiple problems right?

P: That voodoo stuff with TeX. What is bizarre with TeX is that it needs multiple loops to finalize a compilation. So it bizarrely processes a file and reprocesses it with stuff that it has gained in the first iteration. And some stuff goes voodoo. Some stuff are breaking and you see randomly there is stuff that go outside the boxes, that is not really a big problem, but also all the indexation system that has gone really another way. In the end it was beautiful, but it was not the way we wanted to do it.

P: [browsing the book]

P: And also it was really frustrating to see how we hang on the fact that it was not possible to change the font. Each time we changed the font it just exploded.

M: It didn’t compile?

P: Yes. Or in a crazy way, or… So many dimensions of unpredictability. I think it has provoked my reluctance to go to other kinds of compilation based ways of working.

M: But you came close to them when making the Balsamine programme booklet for 2013-2014, right?

P: Yes, this was the first one that was made with HTML and CSS, but also many other things: Scribus, Python, Graphviz, Ghostscript.

P: Wow, the Making of text is really high level abstract, even in French. It is probably partly linked to the Gutenberg traces that we encountered in the making of the Tracks in electr(on)ic fields publication. I’m not sure if Knuth, the person behind TeX, refers to Gutenberg directly, but if I remember it well, Hans Hagen was referring to that. And you feel it everywhere. So the understanding of Gutenberg’s legacy is probably infused with that.

M: Are fixed margins on all the pages of a book one example of a Gutenberg legacy?

P: Yes, the margins were quite difficult to change in fact. We were fighting with that. Then the font… Many things were quite resisting any change in fact. Like it was hard coded.

M: And running headers?

P: This is not Gutenberg in fact, it’s an idea of how a document should look.

M: In a way Gutenberg is also an approach, no? It’s clear that legibility is a really important aspect within this way of thinking. Maybe we can try to formulate differences? What was for example different between the making of Tracks in electr(on)ic fields using ConTeXt and the Balsa booklet using HTML and CSS?

P: I think, for me when I have seen the Balsa booklet taking shape, which was not too far from here actually, it was at Ludi’s place. What was really exciting, was to really code it in HTML and CSS. To see the flow and to say, oke, break that in this and this and this. That kind of stuff was not possible to do in other software. And immediately there were also frustrations when it did not work, when it breaks things, but it still was like a [wow]. It is probably the excitement of making things in another way.

P: What was super exciting in this stuff, was the fact that you feel the flow even if that flow is articulated or broken in a very specific way. And also to know that it was a flow. Or it’s a flow that is guided through a quite detailed secrecy. At that moment it was feeling like, okay, we are there, we found something super exciting, yet it’s only the beginning. But now some of our problems are behind us.

M: You mean some of the problems with Scribus and ConTeXt?

P: Yes. It was then possible to have at the same time a flow, with that practicality of efficiency and being able to lay out it in a different way for the web, etcetera. And at the same time it’s something that is not looking like a flow, with all the clumsiness we want or need, and with the blocks, without the painful approach of working with a canvas to pick every part… Which is like layouting stuff in Photoshop…

P: Working with HTML for print for Balsa 2013-2014 was super super exciting, I remember. And, yes after, we could see that, for me, and I might be wrong… I never felt again that kind of excitement… All things afterwards were more disappointing, because the clash with the CSS standards, the fact that the browsers at that moment were so full of promises, and not the kind of dissection we have seen afterwards with Google optimizing and stuff, removing possibilities that seem crazy.