Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Joy of Poetic Computation

The team over at Improvised Life highlighted a terrifically interesting talk by Zach Liberman. Zach walked us through his discovery of using code to generate art, or as he calls it, Poetic Computation.

He did an on the fly demo, which I started off less than impressed with. OK, he convinced the computer to draw a circle. Then copied that circle. Feh, this is CS 101 stuff. Then he animated it by cleverly using the current time and a trigonometric function. And just like that, I was hooked. He'd used just a splash of code to make something visually quite interesting; now that's impressive.

He then went on to explain that his daily practice is to experiment with these animations, which you can find published on Instagram. I would have thought this process might have gotten old, but his image feed proves me otherwise: the creative possibilities are endless.

Another practice he describes is having his students examine and reverse-engineer famous artists' work. In that spirit, I thought I would rig up my own Poetic Computation playground. I expected mine to be far more primitive than what Zach works with daily, but I hoped no less fun and inspirational.

My sketching environment offers two types of objects to work with: Lines and Drawings. A Drawing, can contain both Lines and other Drawings. Lines and Drawings contain the same set of operations, mainly: scale, translate, rotate and copy. A Line, by default, is one unit in length and goes from (0,0) to (0,1). A Drawing, when created, is empty. As you can see, I've strived to make the core operations as bland as possible. However, my hope was that by combining basic operations in interesting ways, you'd end up with, well, art.

My drawing framework was definitely inspired by SICP's picture language, even though it's been years since I've reviewed that code.

Here was my first picture, aptly called Hello World:

var helloworld = function() {
  var d = new Drawing();
  for(var i = 0; i < 360; i += 45) {
    var l = new Line();
    l.scale(i + 1).rotate(i + 1);
  return d;


And here's how it's rendered:

Taking a page out of Zach's book, I quickly started fiddling around with trigonometric functions. Also, I added basic support for animation. This allowed me to code this guy:

function sparky() {
  var pic = new Drawing();
  var d = new Drawing();
  for(var i = 0; i < 4; i++) {
    var l = new Line();
    l.scale(10).rotate(90 * i);
  var fudge = (Math.cos(now())) * 10;
  for(var j = 0; j < 360; j += 5) {
    d.translate({x: Math.sin(j) * 100 + fudge, y: Math.cos(j) * 100 + fudge}).rotate(fudge);

  return pic;


While it's far from a polished finished product, this animation does clearly demonstrate that even with my primitive setup I can make fun creations.

I've now been a Poetic Computationalist for about 15 minutes, and I have to say, this is really unlike any other code I've written. When you're coding to implement an algorithm you have a fixed point you're moving towards. But with my toy animation above, I had no such goal. I just wanted to make something interesting. Instead of being the professional chemist carefully measuring and adding ingredients, I was the 8 year old in the kitchen flinging whatever I wanted into the pot. I have to say, it was a lot of fun!

You can find the source code for all of this here and see all my creations here.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Warm weather skating, and playing art detective

Yesterday's high temperature was a whopping 60°F. So naturally, it was the perfect day to hit an outdoor ice skating rink. Seriously, it was.

There are a number of outdoor rinks in the area, but for this adventure we trekked into DC and visited the one in the National Gallery of Art's sculpture garden. If the weather wasn't enough of a draw, the surrounding buildings and sculpture sealed the deal. This is truly a wonderful location to casually grab some skate time.

After getting our fill on the rink, we ducked out of the park to buy ice cream from a nearby food truck. And then we did a quick walk-through the sculpture garden. This one piece caught our eye:

Besides the hulking nature of the sculpture, there was it's name: Aurora. We put our heads together and could only come up with two things related to this name: a Disney princess and something having to do with light (as in Aurora Borealis).

A quick Google search didn't turn up much in the way of help. This archived post describes the work as such:

Aurora is a tour de force of design and engineering. Its sophisticated structural system distributes eight tons of steel over three diagonal supports to combine massive scale with elegance of proportion. Several of the linear elements converge within a central circular hub and then explode outward, imparting tension and dynamism to the whole.

'Tension' and 'dynamism' are great and all, but what does it mean? And why associate hulking, rusted metal with light?

Our first clue came from this line of the description: "The title, Aurora, comes from a poem about New York City by Federico García Lorca."

That poem can be found here and it's perhaps not the nicest portrayal of New York. Here's the first two verses:

The New York dawn has
four columns of mud
and a hurricane of black doves
that paddle in putrescent waters.

The New York dawn grieves
along the immense stairways,
seeking amidst the groins
spikenards of fine-drawn anguish.

It doesn't get any cheerier from there. And in Spanish, the language the poem was written in, the first verse reads:

La Aurora de Nueva York tiene
cuatro columnas de cieno
y un huracán de negras palomas
que chapotean las aguas podridas.

There it is, 'Aurora.'

This article describes what the poet saw when he spent time in New York, which explains why he'd write a poem that highlighted New York's gritty (to be kind) side.

With this 'Auora' in mind, the sculpture certainly makes more sense. The hulking girders, and they chaos they invite, do indeed belong in a rough and tumble New York dawn. While we may not exactly know what the artist was trying to say, I think we're now on the right wavelength.

One final twist, though. The current sculpture garden description of the work includes this addition:

The steel forms a letter "k": the artist has said the work is a portrait of his wife, Kate.

Having read the poem Aurora one has to wonder how this sculptor truly sees his wife. Ouch.

Next time we have a crazy warm day in DC, take some time to hit the rink and the sculpture garden. There are still plenty of art mysteries to untangle.

Friday, January 19, 2018

DSLRs on a Plane - A new strategy for getting my camera to its final destination

Over the last few years I've managed to tune my murse man-bag so that it works as my airline carry-on bag. It's got earbuds, a Buff to act as a sleep mask, foam earplugs, common medications, a Bluetooth keyboard and battery and other items that are handy mid-flight. And, it's smaller than a backpack, so I can stuff it under the seat in front of me and have some bonus leg-room.

It's a great system until I need to bring along either a laptop or DSLR.

For short'ish or international trips, I can usually get away with leaving the laptop at home. But the DSLR is a trickier proposition. During the planning stage, it's easy to imagine leaving the DSLR with its heavy telephoto lens at home. But when you're in the field, and there's a monkey peaking out from the canopy 75 feet above you, that telephoto lens is invaluable. So for nearly all personal travel, the DSLR has to come along.

The question: what's the best way to transport it on the airplane? I've never been a big fan of the obvious answer: use a single purpose camera bag. They seem bulky and too limited for my taste. On the other hand, putting my camera and lens in bulk-free neoprene sleeve and dropping them into a backpack is a recipe for disaster.

I've even tried carrying the camera through the airport without storing it in a bag. This method has promise because it's such a useful habit to actually have the camera available and ready to shoot with. But I've found that there's just not enough need for a DSLR while in-flight or making my way through a terminal. Not to mention, there was that time when I left the camera at security because I wasn't thinking about it.

This last trip I do believe I found my solution! Check it out:

As you can see, I grabbed one of the handful of kids lunch boxes we have lying around and placed my camera, telephoto zoom lens and a couple of batteries in it. I then dropped the lunch box into a dirt cheap, but super practical 10 liter backpack.

The result was a secure way of carrying my camera, without a lot of bulk, or emphasis on single purpose gear. As a bonus, the setup doesn't look like it contains hundreds of dollars of photo equipment. I like that the backup is compact enough that it pairs well the man-bag I'm using already. I'm not sure why I didn't try this setup earlier?

If Princess lunch boxes aren't your thing, another option would be to order a camera bag insert to use in a regular bag. Though the above items fit so well, I plan to stick with them for now.

How do you opt to schlep your DSLR or other fragile equipment when you travel?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Universal Studios - How much fun can you squeeze into one day?

OK, the Bone Museum was fun and all, but nobody goes to Orlando, Florida to learn about natural selection. Including us. Our true mission was to spend one epic day playing at Universal Studios. The fact that the weather was unseasonably cold wasn't going to stop us. After taking a luxurious dip in the hot tub the night before, we were ready to go at 7:00am.

After a short water taxi ride, followed by a short walk, we found ourselves 3rd in line to get into the park. At 8am, we burst in and quickly headed to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™, a 3D simulator ride that's supposed to be the best in the park. J. loved it. Shira got mildly nauseous. I waited in the gift-shop with the bags. This would pretty much be the theme for the day. Shira and J. tackled ride after ride while I stood back and ruminated about how amusement parks so aren't my thing.

I tried, really I did. I took J. on Poseidon's Fury, a tough sounding ride with absolutely no motion. But he got freaked out by the story line and pyrotechnics, so we bailed. I also took him on the Men In Black Ride, where you attempt to rack up the highest score possible. And I did pretty well, with a score of over 35,000. J. racked up over 55,000, trouncing me, which was perhaps the greatest gift I could have offered him.

But this is truly Shira and J.'s thing. For one day, they're not hearing me go on and on about history or logging more miles on the trail. Instead, it's just fun. Shira's not the biggest fan of the 3D simulator rides that Universal is known for. Give her a good o'l fashion roller coaster. But J. sure enjoyed being part of a Transformers and Spiderman story, among others.

We opted to get express passes, which while pricey, were totally worth it. All of the lines moved fairly quickly.

We all enjoyed the Horror Make Up Show, which is more comedy schtick than anything else. It was fun to grab a laugh, and unlike some stunt-shows I've seen in the past, it was fresh material (for me, anyway). As a bonus, J.'s the perfect age to get schooled in the topic of horror effects, which teach him that what looks real, isn't always so.

While I can't speak to the rides, I can say that Universal does go all out with their characters and surroundings. The Simpsons town was packed with jokes, from the obvious ones like being able to get a drink at Moe's, to more obscure references, like getting a fish sandwich from the Flying Dutchman. J. enjoyed meeting Spiderman, Green Goblin and other characters from that universe. And I was left amazed and baffled by the Megatron character. Is it a remote controlled robot? A guy in a suit? An actual Decepticon? Who knows. I'm sure if you were a die hard Harry Potter fan you would have loved that land as it was packed full of interesting storefronts and things to see. Even the parade was fun to watch, being just the right length to keep it interesting.

We didn't opt to get sit down food service in the park, instead picking up sandwiches and pizza on the go. The service was surprisingly slow, but the food was OK and the fruit tart fresh. We had a dinner at the end of the day at Antojito's a Mexican place on City Walk and it was tasty.

The only let down of the day has to be the wand experience over at Harry Potter land. The concept is a good one: park attendees use a 'magic wand' to cast spells in storefront windows which trigger animatronic effects. My beef? The wands cost $50.00, the sensors in front of the windows are finicky, and the weather was too cold to stand outside and enjoy the experience.

Seriously, a 'magic wand' is little more than a stick with passive sensor in it. I get that it makes sense to offer $50.00 wands so Harry Potter fans can indulge in a high quality replica; heck offer $500 and $1000 wands while you're at it. But given the (insane) price of admission, would it kill Universal to offer a $10 or $15 version? And they really need to up their game with respect to the technology. I watched multiple kids try their best to cast spells, only to walk away from storefronts disappointed. As for the weather being too cold, I'll grant that's not on Universal.

J. obviously wanted a wand and was disappointed we didn't get him one. He even looked at the map and found the money exchange and Grigott's bank, explaining to us that we could pick up cash if we needed it. Such a helpful little guy! If I had this to do again, I suppose we could have planned this better and made the wand his birthday and Christmas gift or something. But even then, I'm not sure if the hassle of not being able to get the spells to work would have been worth it.

One of the highlights of our Disney Trip from a few years ago was participating in the Pirates of the Caribbean treasure hunt challenges. The idea is that you get a free map, unravel clues, and use your NFC based wristband to unlock animatronic treasures. There was no extra fee, an interesting puzzle to solve and the tech worked reliably. In my mind, Universal could learn a thing or two from Disney on this one.

Wand frustrations aside, Universal really did deliver one very fun and memorable day. If pressed, I think Shira would still rank Disney higher given their emphasis on old school rides as well as not having to carry around and worry about losing paper tickets as your Express passes. And I sure did love the Lego component of Lego Land. But if you've got a Transformers, Harry Potter, Spiderman or other theme obsessed kid, it's hard to argue with what Universal delivers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Field Testing makePad v1.0

This past weekend I had perfect conditions to field test makePad v1.0. We were traveling in Orlando Florida with a friend's 8 year old. He was the ideal beta tester to try my content-creation-only device.

I had a pretty good idea as to how this was going to go down. First, he'd be disappointed that the device had no movies or games on it. Then he'd create a Bitmoji character and start to see the light. I expected him to experiment with the drawing and music apps, but quickly give up on them. I figured PicSay, the photo editing app would be the winner, as it's easy to snap a photo and throw a hat or mustache into the pic. Ultimately, I figured the lack of games and other content would cause him tire of the device.

I was wrong on nearly every point.

First, Bitmoji was a bust. On my LG G6, the app is fun and easy to use. You can create your likeness by making a few simple selections. But the BLU Advance 4 phone that I used just doesn't have a enough oomph to run the app. Or maybe it was the lack of network bandwidth. Regardless, I spent a disappointing few minutes with the makePad struggling to get Bitmoji running.

My test subject then moved on to PicSay, which he did enjoy. He turned out to be more interested in the visual effects (like, say 'Neon') then using the stickers. But what really pulled him in was the drawing app, Sketchbook, and the music app, Walk Band.

He was especially fascinated by Sketchbook's pen selection options. Another win was his discovery of the mirrored drawing mode, which as the name suggests mirrors every stroke. He came up with some slick abstract drawings using this tool. Check out his work below.

And he really got a kick out of noodling around in Walk Band. In fact, when he was telling his folks about the device, he explained that there aren't any games on 'my phone' except for Walk Band. I'm clueless as to how to help him turn his random mashings on the guitar and drums into music, but I suppose that's OK. The point is for him to discover and create.

He never did tire of experimenting with the device. The phone form factor (versus, say a tablet) was definitely a novelty and helped. At the same time, I was pleased that the device wasn't so addictive that for the vast majority of our day at an amusement park he didn't even think about it.

The only point I got right was his quick detection that the device had no games on it. He was adorable in that he asked if Google Play was on the phone, and if it was, he would be glad to install some games for me.

The use of the BLU Advance 4 phone was mostly positive. The camera is slightly sub-par in ideal lighting conditions, and most of the time the conditions aren't ideal. I'd forgotten how crappy cell phone cameras used to be. These days my LG G6 takes as high quality photos as my DSLR, but back in the day, a "real camera" definitely trounced a cell phone. Still, the ability to capture, edit and send off pictures make up for the lack of quality. Simply put, better a mediocre camera with these capabilities than a high quality camera where the images sit on an SD card.

The BLU Advance 4 also had limited battery life. This turned out to be more feature than bug. For one thing, it gave us natural breaks to disconnect from the phone. It also teaches a valuable lesson on resource management. You can snap tons of photos now, but then you'll have no battery juice later, so plan accordingly.

On the sharing side of things, e-mail worked well, while publishing to the blog, not so much. For one thing, I don't think he's as jazzed as I am about sharing content with the whole world. And for another, the Blogger app struggled to keep up. Posting a single photo required multiple attempts. Perhaps I drop the Blogger app altogether and just use Blogger's post by e-mail capability?

In many respects, this little experiment went well. I wanted him to take an active approach to tech, and he did. But still, it was a reminder how of much of an attention magnet a device can be. He had other goodies in his backpack, but almost always opted to fiddle with the phone. On a more existential level I can't help but wonder: is drawing in an app the same as drawing in a sketchbook? Is fiddling around with a ukulele the same as strumming virtual strings in Walk Band? I'm not sure. He certainly never tired of the device, as I had predicted he would.

As it stands, I'm planning on picking up a few more of the BLU phones. They're sluggish, but their compact form and core functionality make up for this. I'm curious what happens when a group of kids all have the same device at their disposal. Do they learn from each other? Do they go into their own zones? Will they form a mesh network to watch movies and play games? I'm not sure, but the results are sure to be interesting!

Here's a sample of items made with makePad v1.0:

And here's a Walk Band creation. He's got a future in death metal, no?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Good to the Bone: Orlando's Museum of Osteology

We started off our Orlando adventure with a trip to the Museum of Osteology, or the Bone Museum. Even as you're paying the entrance fee, you can't help but notice the massive skeleton of the killer whale (if memory serves) that peeks out the gallery and think: c'mon, is this for real? I mean, this is Orlando, a place that specializes in fake make believe. But, as the signs on the wall repeatedly mention: it's all real.

We made our way through the gallery and ooh'd and ahh'd at all the amazing skeletons on display. From massive rhinos to fragile looking bats, the museum had an impressive collection of all things vertebrate. The skeletons are grouped not only by animal type, but also into fun displays. One of the first displays shows a human riding a horse. I think we blew J.'s mind when we pointed out that both humans and horses both clearly have tail bones.

For my part, I have to say my favorite skeletons in the museum were the elephant skulls. Check out these examples:

I can totally get how'd you'd find one of these and think: whoo! uh-oh, I've stumbled on cyclops remains! Alas, what looks to be a socket for a big 'ol eye is actually the elephant's nasal cavity.

Another display I found fascinating was on the placement of eyes and the resulting field of vision. I believe the display compared a tiger and a gazelle. The tiger has vision not that far off from ours, but a gazelle's field of vision is massive. It's not hard to imagine how natural selection would work its magic to arrive at this distinction. The gazelle who can't see the tiger lurking nearby gets eaten. The gazelle with better vision lives another day and makes more baby gazelles. You can read more about this phenomena here.

On our way out of the museum we were chatting with one of the guides when he mentioned that the man who just walked by was the founder of the museum himself. Sure enough, it was Jay Villemarette. I asked Jay how he got into the bone business and he explained that he had found a skull in the woods when he was a 7 year old. Rather than recoiling in disgust, his parents encouraged him to ID it. And the rest, as they say, was history.

In many ways, this little museum reminded me of Treasure Museum in Ocean City Maryland that we visited last year. Both are small, authentic, outstanding collections in areas dominated by schlock. In both cases, we had a chance to chat with the founders and learned that a young boy's interest can turn into a life long passion.

One word of caution: The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum has The Bone Hall which has many of the same specimens on display as the Museum of Osteology. If you've been to the DC exhibit, then the Bone Museum is going be far less novel. On the other hand, if you've never see a large display of various creatures' skeletons side by side, then this is a must see. Oh, and you can consider the flesh eating beetles the icing on the cake. Enjoy!


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