Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I came home to Westport to see old friends this weekend. Last night we watched [title], which was super-fun. As expected from all the reviews I’d read, it’s a member of no genre I can identify, a surrealist farce that both adopted and parodied chunks borrowed from video games, sitcoms, anime, and rock music. What I hadn’t expected was how well its references were targeted for me. The music scene, video game, and anime references are matched to my childhood (early ’90s), while the comic situations are built to resonate with people at my stage in life.

I’m not sure how well it would do for everyone else. The name of the central band is running joke, a reference to the bob-ombs of the Super Mario series. No one else can pronounce it properly, much to the consternation of the members. I’m sure there are deeper references that I haven’t even noticed.

Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun.

Encouraging

We only have two rehearsals left before the big VoiceLab concert, and I was beginning to get really worried about this… but I found this rehearsal pretty encouraging. We went through every song in our planned repertoire, and we really can sing every one of them. Some definitely need some more work, though… there certainly won’t be a minute of rehearsal to spare.

I think we have shot at putting on a really good show.

Barbeque

I went to a barbeque with some OLPC/Sugar folks, and spent most of the evening chatting with the good old boys about the good old days. I learned that one of them designed this album cover for the Talking Heads using specially written editing software. I learned about bit plane graphics and why they make sense. I learned about the methods and dangers of pointer arithmetic on a CPU whose ALU is narrower than its pointer (incrementing a pointer becomes non-atomic!).

Someone told me that a 14-year-old kid wrote a Sugar activity that’s based on a library I wrote, which is basically the highest level of success I could have hoped for.

In short, it was a really nice evening, with more than enough calories to pay for the 12 miles of bicycling today.

Transparent Video with GStreamer

So you wrote a script to generate an animation with ImageMagick or something. You have a folder full of transparent PNGs, one for each frame. Now you want to do some alpha-channel compositing in gstreamer (e.g. with PiTiVi). Instead of having to shove around a huge pile of PNGs, you want a single movie file that contains them all, and retains the transparency. So here’s what you do:

gst-launch-0.10 multifilesrc location=images%05d.png caps="image/png,framerate=1/1,pixel-aspect-ratio=1/1" num-buffers=95 ! pngdec ! videorate ! alphacolor ! "video/x-raw-yuv,format=(fourcc)AYUV" ! matroskamux ! filesink location=images_raw.mkv

Boom. I just saved you my last two hours.

Fall Concert 2010

I went to the Chorallaries fall concert last night. It was simply great stuff, with huge block chords in the back and real performers up front. I heard hardly a trace of the fiddly nigh-impossible backgrounds that dominated while I was in the group … or maybe they just made it sound easy.

Going to a party at an MIT fraternity, with some of the same people I was going to frat parties with 8 years ago, is a little weird. I have come to the conclusion that, contrary to popular perception of college life, my cohort and I got much better at throwing enjoyable parties after graduation.

The Tesla Roadster

A good friend of mine, who lives in one of the Harvard College Houses, called me up on Saturday night with an intriguing challenge. A buddy of his from college was coming into town tomorrow on business, and this buddy just happened to be Camille Ricketts, Communications Manager for Tesla Motors. She was driving a Roadster Sport up from New Haven to let Boston newspapers review it, and had made him an offer: he could keep the Roadster in the courtyard overnight if he could have it fully charged by morning. Otherwise she would park it at some arbitrary Boston-area charging station, and we would probably never get a chance to see it.

I’ve been fascinated by Tesla since their very first news splashes circa 2005, so I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to see one up close. We started scheming. My friend had already identified a usable high-voltage outlet, but it was on the wrong side of the building, and the wrong connector type. We dashed to Home Depot, bought 56 feet of 30-amp cables, and were about to start soldering a plug adapter when we learned that there was a compatible outlet, more conveniently located, in a basement laundry room.

We also measured the breezeway that leads to the courtyard, and realized that there was a high stone kerb and no depression for crossing it. The nearest depression was at the corner, meaning the Roadster would have to drive 20 meters along the sidewalk, then make a 90 degree turn, somehow avoiding the Harvardian brick walls and iron gates. We measured everything, and the tolerances seemed unreasonably tight for anyone but a professional stunt driver. I advocated building a ramp to go over the kerb, but without any legal way to clear the parking space and only a few hours to go, we gave up on the idea.

Instead, when Camille arrived we directed her to drive over the grass on the sidewalk, and then make a very careful 20-point turn, with just inches between sharp red brick and black carbon fiber. You can see the tortuous maneuver here:


(If you don’t see it here, you can watch it on YouTube)

With the car finally in place, we disassembled the laundry room’s vent fan and snaked in the charging cord through a basement window. The car’s charge port lit up in color codes, and a cheer went up through the team. My friends asked forgiveness (EAFP) from appropriate higher-ups, and Camille answered questions from the small crowd that appeared around the glistening black form, barely visible in the moonless shadow.

For no reason I can discern, Camille decided to reward me with a personal test-drive of the Roadster. She picked me up from lab Tuesday morning, during a free moment between the Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson, and I spent 20 minutes driving around Boston in one of the most exotic vehicles on the planet.

I’ve been reading about what it is like to drive the Roadster for years — since before it was even released, in fact — and the experience was so well-described that I have almost nothing original to say about it. The seating position is wonderfully low, but it feels perfectly normal, indeed tremendously comfortable once you’re in. I entirely forgot how low we were until I glanced out the window and found myself at eye level with a small pickup’s headlights. Driving at low speeds seemed utterly normal, save for the intriguing silence.

Driving a $128,000 super-sports car at 10 MPH between traffic lights and crosswalks is not the right way to experience the beast, so I had planned a route along the nearest twisty bit of highway. Inevitable traffic prevented me from getting more than a taste of what this machine can do, but even so I managed to find a few opportunities to punch the accelerator and twist the ergonomically sculpted steering wheel.

I feel dumb repeating the same assessment as every other Roadster reviewer, but this car isn’t just fast, it’s easy. My point of comparison is the Porsche Turbo, whose 0-60 time of 3.7 seconds is identical to the Roadster Sport (and absurdly fast). Driving the Turbo was a genuinely frightening experience. The car’s power delivery seemed somehow to catch me off guard, and arrive with such intensity that I worried about my basic ability to control speed and direction.

The Roadster Sport, in contrast, was not only rocket-ship fast, but easier to drive than my Toyota. The car converts intent into action with extraordinary, reliable precision. I attribute it to some combination of the horizon-flat torque curve, digital drivetrain, strong regenerative deceleration, and dead simple mechanical steering. Five minutes after getting in for the first time, I was blasting down the Jamaicaway, accelerating hard, turning slightly to the right, and giggling like a schoolgirl.

Camille informed me that everyone who test drives the Roadster giggles on acceleration, even the rich old men. I zoomed up a curving hill, and she giggled too. Blame the unmistakable electric zziiiiIINNG that the motor makes under load.

I wouldn’t tell every Turbo driver to buy a Roadster. If you’re acrobatic enough to wedge yourself in, the Roadster is so easy, so quiet, so predictable, that all the drama is drained out of performance driving. Tesla’s electric drive is doing what technology always does: converting a subtle, tricky art form into a precise reliable science.

Personally, I welcome it.

Rally Signs

I’ve been trying to think of what to say about the rally, which has turned out to be harder than I expected. Some experiences are difficult to translate into text.

What if you wandered into a crowd of 250,000 people, and every single one of them seemed like a good candidate for a new friend? That’s the best way I can describe the sensation of the day. The rally brought together my kind of people. The specific filter, according to the organizers, was for people who believe that we can only solve our biggest problems by applying concerted, dispassionate analysis. Dogma and slogans will not do. The only thing to do is to construct appropriate predictive models, and then apply rational logic to determine the best course of action. Calmly.

Anyone who has ever met me knows how enthusiastic I am, and have always been, about rational public policy … which I wish we could call Social Engineering, since that’s what it is. Being surrounded by other people who felt so strongly, the same way as you do, was truly wonderful.

One of the things that made the event so wonderful was the paradoxical zaniness of a rally for reason. The quiet, attentive crowd was fillled with fantastic signs. Some parodied the unthinking Rightists with which America is currently plagued (e.g. “Keep your socialist policies out of my Medicare” and creative variations), and many specifically critiqued the Tea Party’s tendency to compare Obama to Hitler and other men of history-shattering evil. Other signs celebrated a shared intellectual/cultural base. One of my favorites simply said “ROMANES EUNT DOMUS”, a references to a hilarious joke that requires the reader both to have watched Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and to understand the conjugation/declension rules of classical Latin.

My friends and I made signs of our own, and carried them around throughout the rally. Thankfully two of them took some excellent pictures, which you can see here and here.

My sign was a four foot high interrobang (“an interrobang‽”), which combines the confusion of ? with the surprise of !. I was pleasantly surprised by the 10 or 20 people who walked by and yelled “interrobang!”, often demanding a picture of, or with, the sign, starting even before we managed to get on the subway. (My friends carrying Hitler-related signs got even more attention, to the point that our progress through the crowd was slowed by their admirers.)

Any event with that many enthusiasts of obscure typography, all full of energy and ready to think hard before acting, is all right by me. It’s too bad that the ethos of this crowd demands that most of our dynamism on that day was necessarily contained, and discarded. We rallied that day by the hundreds of thousands to demand a society not driven by the momentary demands of rallying crowds.

FLOODTHECLUB

Seemingly for years now I have been getting text message spam that announces itself as being from FLOODTHECLUB and inviting me to attend various unappealing events at disreputable-sounding establishments. Usually they arrive while I am in the middle of something, and are an irritating distraction that I never have time to deal with. Today I finally got one during a free moment and decided to do something about it.

Google directed me to their gaudy and minimally informative website, from which I gradually gleaned that they are club promoters operating somewhere on the outskirts of New York City. How they got my number is a mystery, but I got theirs from their website and called them up.

They told me that all I had to do was reply to one of their messages with my own text message saying “STOP”. I did, and immediately got an automated unsubscribe confirmation.

So if you get irritating and mysterious text message spam, trying telling them STOP.

Backup^2

I was sufficiently scared by last weekend’s server crash (it turned out to be the death throes of a faulty and superfluous graphics card) that I decided to get my backup system working again. I’d hate to lose the contents of this weblog to a hard drive crash!

I had a nightly external backup system running until this summer, when I replaced my laptop due to hardware failure. I looked through my backups to remind myself how I had the system set up, and then I realized: I had been backing up all of my personal data, but I hadn’t backed up the backup script!

Thankfully it didn’t take too too long to reconstruct it. Of course, since I’ve reconstructed it correctly as it worked before, I’ll be in the same boat if this happens again.