Freezing, Flattening, Rasterization, and Rendering

I haven’t written in a little while. However, my blog is still sitting around as an artifact of the kinds of things I’ve been thinking about. Even though I haven’t put any actual work in for a bit, I’m still reaping the (meager) rewards of having the previous work out there. It’s like having a passive income stream, only the value you’re getting is with people interacting with something you created instead of a financial reward.

It’s been nice to get the occasional “oh, I read that thing you wrote”, although it’s a bit difficult to know that all this…stuff is just sitting there waiting to be critiqued. It’s hard to let go and just have something you made be a frozen snapshot in time. A lot of creative work involves a creating/editing stage, and then requires that you repackage your work as a final product, losing some ability to keep playing with it.

One thing I’ve been doing more is learning how to make music. Mostly this is done with editing MIDI in Ableton Live—basically a way to draw notes on a keyboard, and select which instruments you want to play them and which effects should go on top. In Live, you can “freeze” your MIDI into an audio file. This is good for saving your CPU usage (it doesn’t have to calculate all the effects you’ve applied on the fly anymore—it’s just playing a single audio file) but has the downside that it’s much harder to go back in and make changes. There’s a further step called “flattening”, which involves “irreversibly” converting MIDI to audio. (You can of course reverse this if you just keep the original MIDI around).

Photoshop has a similar flow. There are items, like text or “smart objects”, which you can manipulate in many different ways (for example, editing what the text says). However, there’s also a process called “rasterization” which takes your object and turns it into a bunch of pixels. It’s easier to make certain edits on a bunch of pixels, but much harder to go in and correct typos in your text. Sometimes an effect you want requires that you edit text as an image, but usually it’s better to put off rendering so that you can make those other changes easily.

This also applies at the very top level. In Live, you can edit your project file all day long, but once you render it out to a .wav or .mp3 it’s a lot harder to edit those formats. Same with Photoshop and rendering a .jpg or .png—sure you can edit later. But it’s a lot easier to edit with the original project-file-type format. However, the solidified versions are way more ready for consumption, so it’s essentially necessary to eventually put a freeze on your work if you want people to interact with it.

To borrow a computing analogy, freezing/flattening/rasterization/rendering makes it harder to context switch. When a CPU is told by the OS to switch to running a different process, it needs to load in all the necessary context for that process so it can pick up where it left off. An analogous effect applies to humans—it’s harder to pick up something you haven’t seen in a while vs. continuing to work on something in an already-focused state.

Luckily, with digital work we can have it both ways. The original version of your projects can live on in case you ever want to go back and make some tweaks. However, anyone without access to an easy way to update won’t get to see your new work.

The web is great for this! I can make tweaks to my writing at basically any time. However, I still treat much of my stuff as frozen, simply because there isn’t enough time to comb through and make everything as good as it could possibly be. Nothing is ever finished, just abandoned. Could it be made better? Sure. There are plenty of mistakes, and even arguments I may no longer agree with sitting around under my name. At some point, though, you unfortunately have to settle for doing the best you can with limited resources, and move on to learning new things.