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Sunday, 29 March 2015

Posted at 02:04AM under Code?,.


So I've been using the same tiling Lego stud pattern as my wallpaper for a couple of years now. I forget where I originally tracked it down - my brain seems to remember it may actually have been something a freelancer whipped up on spec for the actual Lego website. It came in a couple of colours, as - of all things - .gif files.

All I know is that a) it looks amazing on any size desktop, because hey, tiling; and b) what I am about to do is thus not just one but two levels of intellectual property infringement.

I've been playing around with my desktop environment recently and stumbled on a feature in my Linux that lets you set a different background for each virtual desktop. This is really cool - it makes it a lot trickier to lose that one window when its background was definitely bright red.

I don't really go for bright red wallpaper though, especially not on bigger screens. So I make my own colours, by playing with sliders in image editing software. And I was halfway through redoing these yet again when I thought, "There's got to be an easier way."

There is, but beware - we're going off the technical deep-end here.

This environment actually lets you set a background colour as well as an image. Usually this would be seen as just the colour around the edges if you use a picture that's too small and choose to center it, but it turns out it's also the colour that shows through if your background image happens to be transparent.

So, after some fiddling with the white version of the file, I produced a version that consists almost solely of an alpha channel. It's really just some appropriately placed Lego-shaped shadows. So I can set this guy as my background, and happily slide my way through my monitor's entire colour space on a whim, and have it look like a trippy, amazing Lego board.

And thanks to some javascript magic, you can try this for yourself.

hit me.

It is well past midnight and I have a Birthdays shift tomorrow, but I am so chuffed with this that I don't even care.

Caveats: I have no idea if this will work on Windows or Mac, or even on Linux environments that aren't XFCE 4.12. Best I can do is say grab the file and give it a try. I also do not own the rights to Lego™, or indeed to the original file, for which I apologise.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Posted at 06:02PM under DnD,SCIENCE,.


It is an exceptionally weird feeling to watch a machine squeeze something you designed out through a nozzle layer by layer and then turn it over in your fingers as it cools. Weird, but very, very cool indeed.

Meet the party!

This is a bit of software called Tinkercad, and about half way through last night's D&D game (sorry James!) I fired it up and decided to make some miniatures. Because, quite frankly, there is no honour in being a Samurai who is represented solely by a folded up bit of paper with a stick figure drawn on it.

Tinkercad is awesome, for two reasons: 1. It's free. 2. It runs in a browser(!)

It can also, I found out, export files straight to STL, which is exactly what the Makerbots at work need. It's also incredibly simple to learn - I put these guys together in about half an hour. That's half an hour after typing 'Tinkercad' into Google, with no idea what it was other than that I'd read that word somewhere.

This is very impressive.

I started with something kind of like a chess pawn, and put some Order of the Stick inspired oval-shaped eyes on it. Fairly minimal, but it's the right scale and looks pretty cute, actually.

hardcore pawn

Given that I knew I was designing for a 3D printer, I tried to avoid too many overhangs, but I've seen it do some much more amazing stuff so I didn't think the head would be too much of a problem.

I duplicated this a couple of times, and then moved on to props. Myself first, obviously. Blue Fan's defining features are his samurai sword and his headband. The headband was easy, just a torus aligned with the head. The sword was a little bit more tricky - Tinkercad only lets you work with primitive shapes, so I ended up union-and-differencing a whole bunch of very flat cylinders to get roughly the shape I wanted.

It was at this point that I revealed my activities to the rest of the table, and over potato dinner I did a couple of the other players. From left to right: Azab, Haydn's Cleric, Morgan's multi-classed monk (with powerful fists), Blue Fan (yours truly, samurai) and Graham's magus - whose sole descriptor was "Kinda like the Blood Mage from Warcraft III".

the origin story

Then my laptop went flat, because it turns out running CAD software in a browser is hard work. I tried to concentrate on the rest of the game, I really did, but I pretty soon fell asleep on the sofa and awoke, at midnight, to some of James' impromptu sound effects of creepy whispering demon voices.

I spun these guys out into their own files this morning, and loaded them into Makerware on the train. Somehow, between coaxing 25 schoolkids around, I found time to do some test prints. They didn't quite work. Okay, they didn't work at all. They just turned into squiggly threads of filament spaghetti. I was halfway through tearing the printer apart to realign everything, when Rodney comes up to me and asks if I've checked the file, because he was having the same problem this morning.


I jump back into Tinkercad and eliminate the 0.5mm gap between the base and the model, and...

hello world!

...there was that weird feeling.

I worked my way through the rest of them - and through the rest of the day, even though I was meant to go home at half one - ironing out the kinks as I went. The samurai sword I redid from scratch and lay flat on the bed - it was tending to glitch out because the holes I was using to subtract were the same size as the actual oval. The wizard hat took a couple of tries as well, but didn't really need any modifications in the file - it was just our finnicky printers.

One by one, they emerged.




And now they're sitting on my desk. Four things, four characters, which before yesterday only existed on paper. Despite being a story about D&D and 3D printing, that to me is undeniably cool.

Go team!

You can play with the CAD files - I think - on my Tinkercad page? And grab printable versions from Thingiverse.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Posted at 11:57AM under IRL,.

Mars says hi!

This job is completely ablating whatever was left of my personality, leaving pretty much pure unadulterated space-geek. But I think I might be okay with that.

mars says hi

So here are some observations from my first time as a planetarium presenter.

I actually know quite a lot about space! Possibly this surprises nobody except me, but I found a lot of the questions I was getting was stuff I already knew, even before researching for my show. Even just the little practical things like where to get cool space pictures or what's going on in the news. Sometimes I forget that not everyone follows this kind of thing.

Despite that, having a script: super important. It is very easy to fall off into directionless rambling, and having a script - or at the very least, a direction, somewhere that you want to end up - is incredibly useful. If you're curious, this is what my first script looked like. Written the night before, as is the custom.

As opposed to this, which was my other first script:

glowing green code!

Plaentarium presenting is a this weird cross between performance and programming. You're trying to control a pretty complex computer and talk engagingly about some pretty complex ideas at the same time. Fortunately, the whole thing is programmable. So you can offload a large amount of your thinking to about the software to chunks of code - assuming you have time to think about it and know roughly what you want the software to do in advance, which is another reason having a script can be so useful. It's going to take a fair bit of practice, I think, to get properly good at this.

I guess the best way to think about it is in terms of chunks. You have discrete chunks of computer code, which you've written and debugged and so on, and discrete chunks of human-code, which you've rehearsed and fact-checked and so on, and you develop them at the same time and pair them up and then from hose chunks you do your improvising and write your larger script.

It makes for an interesting mental workout, at any rate.

I did four shows, and the one I was most nervous about was the 12pm show with 75 year 5 kids in it.

The system has all this distant universe stuff loaded on it, but I didn't really use it. Partly because I'm not super confident with it yet, but also because I feel like the solar system gets really underrepresented, mostly as being just a sun and some planets. But there is so much cool stuff out there, and what's more, we actually have a chance of exploring it. Yeah the distant universe is cool, but there really is so much awesome stuff right here in our backyard.

(I reckon there's a hard sci-fi niche waiting to be filled there.)

I think the kids show was the best, to be honest. They were responsive and engaged and interested. They asked loads of questions, which was rad. And they totally didn't notice when I couldn't find the moon, although I think that probably had more to do with the fact that we were orbiting the earth when I lost it and they were very interested in showing off their geography skills. Plus, I got to use my Trojan Asteroids button, which was, yes, that first script I wrote. I can't tell if they'll remember the specifics, but at the very least they'll walk away with a much more diverse concept of what the solar system is.

I think people should give kids more credit. They make much better audiences than most adults.

I did something good yesterday. No, that's not quite right. I don't mean morally good. I feel like I did something that is perfectly in alignment with everything I believe, and that is very viscerally satisfying. I feel like I fit in this job. It feels right.

Thank you again to people for coming and not heckling. It was awesome. I'd also like to thank the universe, for following the laws of physics instead of superstition. Because even though it was Friday the 13th, nothing went wrong.

Finally! A testable prediction of the simulated reality hypothesis. - Elliot Nunn.

This time, anyway.


Friday, 13 March 2015

Posted at 11:55PM under IRL,.


So today was my first solo shift downstairs. It has been a really long day, and I am that special kind of exhausted that only happens when you've been excited all day and have just run out of juice.


I taught sixty-odd year 5s about Trojans and Lagrange points today.

I am quite frankly very pleased with myself.

Deep thoughts coming tomorrow, but until then, thanks to everyone who showed up - It was really awesome having you all there.

And with that, I'm putting myself to bed.


Monday, 16 February 2015

Posted at 03:22PM under IRL,Rants,.


Actually, while we're talking about growing up and weird senses of continuity, let's address what I feel is a pretty common sentiment among people my age.

"...because I'm a real grown-up."

"...Oh god, does that make me an adult now?"

"...Is this what adulthood feels like?"

This kind of stuff is usually prompted by doing something particularly childish, like buying Lego online. Or alternatively, something particularly grown up, like filing taxes online. Or something particularly adolescent, like spending all day online. And to be honest, it's actually starting to grate a bit.

Maybe it's a weird generational thing, and we are totally under-prepared emotionally and skill-wise for what lies ahead, but somehow I doubt it. Every single other human, in every other culture, has pretty much managed to figure this out. Well, okay. Not all of them. But I guess that's sort of the point. Nobody becomes a soulless robot as soon as they start paying taxes, and nobody arrives into this world totally clued in on how to do those taxes either. The constant, semi-ironic self-referential surprise that these turn out not to be the case for our generation, just like every other generation, is starting to get a bit old*.

We have this obsession with what adulthood actually means, and joking at how unprepared we are. And yet we spend our whole time as kids playing at adulthood. Why do we panic once we get there? You've spent your entire life to date preparing for this. Go out there and do the stuff you always pretended you could.

Because in all seriousness: We are grown ups now, and it is our turn to decide what that means.

xkcd 150: grownups

* No pun intended.


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