Wednesday, December 17, 2014

RobotsConf 2014: ZOMG, The Swag

At Empire Node, the swag bag included a portable USB charger. It kind of boggled my mind, because it was almost the only truly useful thing I'd ever received in a swag bag. That was a few months ago.

Since then, my concept of conference swag has kind of exploded. The swag bag at RobotsConf was insane. In fact, the RobotsConf freebies were already crazy delicious before the conf even began.

About a month before the conference, RobotsConf sent a sort of "care package" with a Spark Core, a Spark-branded Moleskine notebook (or possibly just a Spark-branded Moleskine-style notebook?), and a RobotsConf sticker.

At the conference, the swag bag contained a Pebble watch, an Electric Imp, an ARDX kit (Arduino, breadboard, speaker, dials, buttons, wires, resistors, and LEDs), a SumoBot kit (wheels, servos, body, etc.), a little black toolbox, a Ziplock bag with several AA batteries, and a RobotsConf beanie. There were a ton of stickers, of course, and you could also pick up a bright yellow Johnny Five shirt.

Many people embedded LEDs in the eyes of their RobotsConf hats, but I wasn't willing to risk it. I live in an area with actual snow these days, so I plan to get a lot of practical usefulness out of this hat.

Spark handed out additional free Spark Cores at the conference, so I actually came home with two Spark Cores. This means, in a sense, that I got five new computers out of this: the Pebble, the Arduino in the ARDX kit, the Electric Imp, and both Spark Cores. Really just microcontrollers, but still exciting. And of these five devices, the Pebble can connect to Bluetooth, while the Imp and Spark boxes can connect to WiFi.

Technical Machines didn't include Tessel microcontrollers in the swag bag, but they did set up a table and loan out a bunch of microcontrollers and modules to play with. I saw one developer code up a point-and-shoot camera in CoffeeScript, in about a minute. (The Tessel runs JavaScript, including most Node code.)

Likewise, although you couldn't take them home on the plane with you, there were a bunch of 3D printers you could experiment with. All in all, an amazing geeky playground. The only downside is that presented a tough act to follow, for Santa Claus (and/or Hanukkah Harry).

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nodevember: Make Art, Not Apps

I nearly went to this conference, but I'm aiming for a max of one conf per every two months (and even this schedule will likely let up after a while). Even kicked around the idea of sponsoring it, because it looked cool. Turns out, it was cool.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

RobotsConf 2014: Simple Hack with Leap Motion and Parrot Drone

RobotsConf was great fun, and oddly enough, it reminded me of Burning Man in two ways.

First, it was overwhelming, in a good way. Second, there was so much to do that the smart way to approach it is probably the same as the smart way to approach Burning Man: go without a plan the first year, make all kinds of crazy plans and projects every subsequent year.

The conf's split between a massive hackerspace, a roughly-as-big lecture space, and a small drone space. You can hop between any/all of these rooms, or sit at various tables outside all these rooms. The table space was like half hallway, half catering zone. Outside, there were more tables, and people also set up a rocket, a small servo-driven flamethrower (consisting of a Zippo and a can of hairspray), and a kiddie pool for robot boats.

I arrived with no specific plans, and spent most of the first day in lectures, learning the basics of electronics, robotics, and wearable tech. But I also took the time, that first day, to link up a Parrot AR drone with a Leap Motion controller.

Sorry Rubyists - the code on this one was all Node.js. Artoo has support for both the Leap Motion and the Parrot AR, but Node has embraced hardware hacking, where Ruby (except for Artoo) kinda remains stuck in 2010.

I started with this code, from the node-ar-drone README:

With this, I had the drone taking off into the air, wandering around for a bit, doing a backflip (or I think, more accurately, a sideflip), and then returning to land. Then I plugged in the Leap Motion, and, using Leap's Node library, it was very easy to establish basic control over the drone. The control was literally manual, in the classic sense of the term - I was controlling a flying robot with my hand.

Here's the code:

As you can see, it's very straightforward.

With this code, when you first put your hand over the Leap Motion, the drone takes off. If you hold your hand high above the Leap, the drone ascends; if you lower it, the drone descends. If you take your hand away completely, the drone lands.

The frame.gestures.forEach bit was frankly just a failure. I got no useful results from the gesture recognition whatsoever. I want to be fair to Leap, though, so I'll just point out that I hacked this whole thing together inside about twenty minutes. (Another caveat, though: that twenty minutes came after about an hour or so of utter puzzlement, which ended when I enabled "track web apps" in the Leap's settings, and I got a bunch of help on this from Andrew Stewart of the Hybrid Group.)

Anyway, I had nothing but easy sailing when it came to the stuff which tracks pointables and obtains their X, Y, and Z co-ordinates. I ran off to a lecture after I got this far, but it would be very easy to add turning based on X position, or forward movement based on Z position. If you read the code, you can probably even imagine how that would look. Also, if I'd had a bit more time, I think I probably could have synced flip animations to gestures.

In fact, I've lost the link, but I believe I saw that a pre-teen girl named Super Awesome Maker Sylvia did some of these things at RobotsConf last year, and a GitHub project already exists for controlling Parrot drones with Leap Motion controllers (it's a Node library, of course). There was a small but clearly thrilled contingent of young kids at RobotsConf, by the way, and it was pretty amazing to see all the stuff they were doing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Questions Worth Asking

What is programming?

How do you choose an open source project?

What are the consequences of open source?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two Recent Animations

I've been studying animation recently. As we're approaching the end of the semester, I've had to turn in my final projects. Here they are.

For this one, I created the video in Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects, and I made the music with Ableton Live. Caveat: it looks better on my machine. YouTube's compression has not been as kind as I would have hoped.

The assignment for this one was to create an intro credits sequence for an existing film, and I chose Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The film's based on a series of graphic novels, which I own, so I scanned images from the comics, tweaked them in Photoshop, and added color by animating brush strokes in After Effects.

The soundtrack's a song called "Scott Pilgrim," by the Canadian band Plumtree. The author of the comics named the character after the song.

I figured I had aced the basic skill of coloring in a black-and-white image back when I was five, with crayons, but it was actually an arduous process. If you count brush stroke effects as layers, two comps in this animation had over 300 layers.

Ironically, I picked this approach because I had limited time. I had to turn in both projects a little early. On the last day of class, I'll be on an airplane back from RobotsConf. I have to give a big shout-out to my employer, Panda Strike, not just for sending me to this awesome conference, which I'm very excited about, but also for being the kind of company which believes in flexible scheduling and remote work. Without flexible scheduling and remote work, I would have a much harder time studying animation.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rest In Peace Ezra Zygmuntowicz

Ezra Zygmuntowicz, creator of Merb and co-founder of Engine Yard, has passed away.

Some notes from Hacker News:

"He was funny, patient, and most of all kind."

"We [left Engine Yard for] our own colo but Ezra helped us at every step of the way, long after it was clear we weren't coming back."

From @antirez: "Ezra was the first to start making Redis popular..."

"Ezra was a innovator in the glass pipe world. A world class artist that reinvented lampworking."

"He used to fly little radio controlled helicopters all over our office at Engine Yard."

I had a conference call with Ezra in 2006 as part of a project and was a total fanboy about it. His work on the Yakima Herald, before he founded Engine Yard, was one of the main things that made me start taking Rails seriously back in those days, back before the hype train really even began. One time we shared a car to the airport after a conference, and of course I saw him at a ton of conferences beyond that as well. He was a very cool guy, and he'll be missed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Text Animators

Another quick animation in After Effects, with original music by me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

GlideRoom: Hangouts Without The Hangups

Many years ago, a friend of mine took a picture of me with a dildo stuck to my face.

The worst thing about this picture is that I didn't have it on my hard drive. I found it via Google Images. But the best part is it took me at least 3 minutes to find it, so, by modern standards, it's pretty obscure. Or at least it was, until I put it here on my blog again.

(Actually, the worst thing about this image is that I just found out it's now apparently being used to advertise porn sites, without my knowledge, consent, or participation.)

Anyway, back in the day, this picture went on Myspace, because of course it did. And eventually the friend who took this picture became a kindergarten teacher, while I became a ridiculously overrated blogger. That's not just an opinion, it's a matter of fact, because Google over-emphasizes the importance of programmer content, relative to literally any other kind of content, when it computes its search rankings. And so, through the "magic" of Google, the first search result for my former photographer's name - and she was by this point a kindergarten teacher - was this picture on my Myspace page.

She emailed me like, "Hi! It's been a while. Can you take that picture down?"

And of course, the answer was no, because I hadn't used Myspace in years, and I didn't have any idea what my password was, and I didn't have the same email address any more, and I didn't even have the computer I had back when Myspace existed. Except it turned out that Myspace was still existing for some reason, and was maybe causing some headaches for my friend as well. I have to tell you, if you're worried that you might have accidentally fucked up your friend's career in a serious way, all because you thought it would be funny to strap a dildo to your face, it doesn't feel awesome.

(And by the way, I'm pretty sure she's a great teacher. You shouldn't have to worry that some silly thing you did as a young adult, or in your late teens, would still haunt you five to fifteen years later, but that's the Internet we built by accident.)

So I went hunting on Myspace for how to take a picture down for an account you forgot you had, and Myspace was like, "Dude, no problem! Just tell us where you lived when you had that account, and what your email address was, and what made-up bullshit answers you gave us for our security questions, since nobody in their right minds would ever provide accurate answers to those questions if they understood anything at all about the Internet!"

So that didn't go so well, either. I didn't know the answers to any of those questions. I didn't have the email address any more, and I had no idea what my old physical address was. I would have a hard time figuring out what my current address is. Probably, if I needed to know that, I might be able to find it in Gmail. That's certainly where I would turn first, because Google has eaten my ability to remember things and left me a semi-brainless husk, as most of you know, because it's done the same thing to you, and your friends, and your family.

Speak of the devil - around this time, Google started pressuring everybody in the fucking universe to sign up for Google Plus, Larry Page's desperate bid to turn Google into Facebook, because who on earth would ever be content to be one of the richest people in the history of creation, if Valleywag stopped paying attention to you for five whole minutes?

My reaction when Google's constantly like, "Hey Giles, you should join Google Plus!"

Since then, my photographer/teacher friend fortunately figured out a different way to get the image off Myspace, and I made it a rule to avoid Google Plus. Having had such a negative experience with Myspace, I took the position that any social network you join creates presence debt, like the technical debt incurred by legacy code - the nasty, counterproductive residue of a previous identity. So I was like, fuck Google Plus. I lasted for years without joining that horrible thing, but I finally capitulated this summer. I joined a company called Panda Strike, and a lot of us work remote (myself included), so we periodically gather via Google Hangouts to chat and convene as a group.

But just because I had consented to use Hangouts, that didn't mean I was going down without a fight.

When I "joined" Google Plus, I first opened up an Incognito window in Chrome. Then I made up a fake person with fake biographical attributes and joined as that person. Thereafter, whenever I saw a Google Hangouts link in IRC or email, I would first open up an Incognito window, then log into Google Plus "in disguise," and then copy/paste the Hangouts URL into the Incognito window's location textfield, and then - and only then - enter the actual Hangout.

This is, of course, too much fucking work. But at least it's work I've created for myself. Plenty of people who are willing to go along with Google's bullying approach to selling Google Plus still get nothing but trouble when they try to use Hangouts.

Protip: don't even tolerate this bullshit.

Imagine how amazing it would be if all you needed to join a live, ongoing video chat was a URL. No username, no password, no second-rate social network you've been strong-armed into joining (or pretending to join). Just a link. You click it, you're in the chat room, you're done.

Panda Strike has built this site. It's called GlideRoom, and it's Google Hangouts without the hangups, or the hassle, or indeed the shiny, happy dystopia.

Clicking "Get A Room" takes you to a chat room, whose URL is a unique hash. All you do to invite people to your chat room is send them the URL. You don't need to authorize them, authenticate them, invite them to a social network which has no other appealing features (and plenty of unappealing ones), or jump through any other ridiculous hoops.

We built this, of course, to scratch our own itch. We built this because URLs are an incredibly valuable form of user interface. And yes, we built it because Google Plus is so utterly bloody awful that we truly expect its absence to be a big plus for our product.

So check out Glideroom, and tweet at me or the team to let us know how you like it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How Much Of "Software Engineering" Is Engineering?

When you build some new piece of technology, you're (arguably) doing engineering. But once you release it into the big wide world, its path of adoption is organic, and sometimes full of surprises.

Quoting Kevin Kelly's simultaneously awesome and awful book What Technology Wants, which I reviewed a couple days ago:

Thomas Edison believed his phonograph would be used primarily to record the last-minute bequests of the dying. The radio was funded by early backers who believed it would be the ideal device for delivering sermons to rural farmers. Viagra was clinically tested as a drug for heart disease. The internet was invented as a disaster-proof communications backup...technologies don't know what they want to be when they grow up.

When a new technology migrates from its intended use case, and thrives instead on an unintended use case, you have something like the runaway successes of invasive species.

In programming, whether you say "best tool for the job" or advocate your favorite One True Language™, you have an astounding number of different languages and frameworks available to build any given application, and their distribution is not uniform. Some solutions spread like wildfire, while others occupy smaller niches within smaller ecosystems.

In this way, evaluating the merits of different tools is a bit like being an exobiologist on a strange planet made of code. Why did the Ruby strain of Smalltalk proliferate, while the IBM strain died out? Oh, because the Ruby strain could thrive in the Unix ecosystem, while the IBM strain was isolated and confined within a much smaller habitat.

However, sometimes understanding technology is much more a combination of archaeology and linguistics.

Go into your shell and type man 7 re_format.

Regular expressions (``REs''), as defined in IEEE Std 1003.2 (``POSIX.2''), come in two forms: modern REs (roughly those of egrep(1); 1003.2 calls these ``extended'' REs) and obsolete REs (roughly those of ed(1); 1003.2 ``basic'' REs). Obsolete REs mostly exist for backward compatibility in some old programs; they will be discussed at the end.

This man page, found on every OS X machine, every modern Linux server, and probably every iOS or Android device, describes the "modern" regular expressions format, standardized in 1988 and first introduced in 1979. "Modern" regular expressions are not modern at all. Similarly, "obsolete" regular expressions are not obsolete, either; staggering numbers of people use them every day in the context of the find and grep commands, for instance.

To truly use regular expressions well, you should understand this; understand how these regular expressions formats evolved into sed and awk; understand how Perl was developed to replace sed and awk but instead became a very popular web programming language in the late 1990s; and further understand that because nearly every programming language creator acquired Perl experience during that time, nearly every genuinely modern regular expressions format today is based on the format from Perl 5.

Human languages change over time, adapting to new usages and stylings with comparative grace. Computer languages can only change through formal processes, making their specifics oddly immortal (and that includes their specific mistakes). But the evolution of regular expressions formats looks a great deal like the evolution which starts with Latin and ends with languages like Italian, Romanian, and Spanish - if you have the patience to dig up the evidence.

So far, I have software engineering including the following surprising skills:
  • Exobiology
  • Archaeology
  • Linguistics
There's more. There's so much more. For example, you need to extract so much information from the social graph - who uses what technologies, and what tribes a language's "community" breaks down to - that it would be easy to add anthropology to the list. You can find great insights on this in presentations from Francis Hwang and Sarah Mei.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kevin Kelly "What Technology Wants"

Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants advocates the idea that technology is an adjunct to evolution, and an extension of it, so much so that you can consider it a kingdom of life, in the sense that biologists use the term. Mr. Kelly draws fascinating parallels between convergent evolution and multiple discovery, and brings a ton of very interesting background material to support his argument. However, I don't believe he understands all the background material, and I almost feel as if he's persuading me despite his argument, rather than persuading me by making his argument.

So I recommend this book, but with a hefty stack of caveats. Mr. Kelly veers back and forth between revolutionary truths and "not even wrong" status so rapidly and constantly that you might as well consider him to be a kind of oscillator, producing some sort of waveform defined by his trajectory between these two extremes. The tone of this oscillator is messianic, prophetic, frequently delusional, but also frequently right. The insights are brilliant but the logic is often terrible. It's a combination which can make your head spin.

The author seems to either consider substantiating his arguments beneath him, or perhaps is simply not familiar with the idea of substantiating an argument in the first place. There are plenty of places where the entire argument hinges on things like "somebody says XYZ, and it might be true." No investigation of what it might mean instead if the person in question were mistaken. This is a book which will show you a graph with a line which wobbles so much it looks like a sine wave, and literally refer to that wobbling line as an "unwavering" trend.

He also refers to "the optimism of our age," in a book written in 2010, two years after the start of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The big weakness in my oscillator metaphor, earlier, is that it is an enormous understatement to call the author tone-deaf.

Then again, perhaps he means the last fifty years, or the last hundred, or the last five hundred. He doesn't really clarify which age he's referring to, or in what sense it's optimistic. Or maybe when he says "our age," the implied "us" is not "humanity" or "Americans," but "Californians who work in technology." Mr. Kelly's very much part of the California tech world. He founded Wired, and I actually pitched him on writing a brief bit of commentary in 1995, which Wired published, and that was easily the coolest thing that happened to me in 1995.

Maybe because of that, I'm enjoying this book despite its flaws. It makes a terrific backdrop to Charles Stross's Accelerando. It's full of amazing stuff which is arguably true, very important if true, and certainly worth thinking about, either way. I loved Out Of Control, a book Mr. Kelly wrote twenty years ago about a similar topic, although of course I'm now wondering whether I was less discerning in those days, or if Mr. Kelly's writing went downhill. Take it with a grain of salt, but What Technology Wants is still worth reading.

Returning again to the oscillator metaphor, if a person's writing about big ideas, but they oscillate between revolutionary truths and "not even wrong" status whenever they get down to the nitty-gritty details, then the big ideas they describe probably overlap the truth about half the time. The question is which half of this book ultimately turns out to be correct, and it's a very interesting question.