Wednesday, December 31, 2014

James Golick, Rest In Peace

A pic I took of James with Matz in 2010:

I met James at a Ruby conference, probably in 2008. Later, I stopped going to Ruby conferences, but we stayed in touch via email and text and very occasionally Skype. In 2011, I probably sent more drunk emails and/or texts to James than to any other person. Not 100% sure, I don't have precise statistics on this, for obvious reasons, but I hope it paints a picture.

I have very specific dietary restrictions that make travel a real pain in the ass for me, but I figured out some workarounds, and last October I went to New York for a Node.js conference. While there, I met up with James for drinks with a few other people from the Ruby world. The next day I dropped by his office because he wanted to show off his showroom. It was pretty awesome. He was stoked about his new job as CTO of Normal Ears, as well as his new apartment, and his relocation to New York in general. With a sometimes cynical sense of humor and a badass attitude, he was kind of like a born New Yorker. Like somebody who had finally found their ideal habitat.

The last thing James ever said to me was that it had been 4 years since we had last hung out in person, and I shouldn't make it four more. I made a mental note to figure out some excuse to come back to New York in 2015.

I really wish I was at his funeral right now.

Although I've met a ton of really smart people throughout my life, there have been very few that I ever really bothered to listen to, probably owing to my own numerous and severe personality problems. But I listened to James, I think more so than he guessed. After talking to James about jazz, I spent weeks and weeks on the harmonies and melodies in the music I made. After spying on his Twitter conversations about valgrind, I went and learned C. James was the only skeptic on Node.js I ever bothered taking seriously.

He was the best kind of friend: I would always hold myself to higher standards after talking to him.

Honestly, I cannot fucking comprehend his absence. It feels like some insane hoax. And although he was a good friend, he was a light presence in my life. For others, it must be so much worse. Utmost sympathies to his family and his other friends. This was an absolutely terrible loss.

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.