Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Grandparents


Earlier this week, my grandfather passed away. Looking at the way I've turned out, it's amazing how I landed up as the culmination of the collective influences of all four of my grandparents. Naturally, my parents did play a significant role, but a lot of what they passed on to me came from their parents. There is no doubt that I'm extremely grateful that I had the grandparents I did.
  • Douglas (1918-1988): My father and aunt often told me the story about how he was once asked "What do you want to do when you finish school?" He smiled, because by then, he already had a Master's degree in analytical chemistry. Although the only memory I have of him is one of sitting on the floor next to him in his armchair, he still played a fairly significant role in my life. Apart from the fact that I look remarkably similar to him when he was my age, the chemistry and electric kits that I grew up messing around with (which played a big role in how I turned out) came from him.
  • Barbara (1923-1997): We did not have many TV channels when I was younger, and if it weren't for my grandmother carefully recording shows like TMNT, Dinosaucers, Saber Rider, and most importantly, Wallace and Grommit, I would have missed out on the shows that more or less defined my early childhood imagination. I have no idea how she knew what to tape, but she somehow managed to get the right shows every time.
  • Ethne (1932-1999): There's no doubt that my the large majority of my tastes came from my grandmother - from food, to art, to furniture, to music. There are so many piano pieces that make me feel nostalgic because I can remember hearing my grandmother playing them, or even because they have something in common with something she used to play. Even though it's not a piece she played, I cannot listen to Chopin's Prelude in E-minor without thinking of her and crying.
  • Alan (1928-2012): I remember when he taught me and my brother how coordinates worked (I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time). We sat with graph paper and carefully worked out the coordinates of vertices so that we could get the computer to plot a Tyrannosaurus. At the time, I thought it was a game, not realising that I'd be using the same concepts at university more than a decade later. It never ceased to amaze me how he could remember maths he'd studied at university 60 years earlier, when I could barely remember stuff I learned in the last couple weeks. My fascination with engineering and large machinery definitely comes from him. One morning in 1995, we followed one of the last steam pulled journeys of the Blue Train. There is still a framed picture from a calender of that very train on my wall. On one occassion, I got to drive a steam engine by myself (under supervision, of course), taking it up to 70km/h, which is an experience no 9-year-old could ever forget.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

On the construction of a Boeing 747 in Minecraft - Part II


So, I did mention when this blog was still young that I very rarely finish things. But I did promise in my introductory post for my Minecraft Boeing 747 project that I would make the effort to finish it. And now I have. At least, I have finished the exterior.

I started building it around the end of March on the EnderSouls Minecraft server, so it's taken about 6 and a half months to get this far (admittedly with several breaks, at least one of which lasted several months). It's twice the size of the real thing, and mostly to scale, with a little bit of artistic license here and there (mainly around the windows and the writing on the side).

All of the building and material gathering was done in survival mode, although I did cheat a little by paying other players to gather a lot of the snow for me (the build took a staggering 160 stacks of snow blocks - which means over 40 000 snowballs needed to be harvested).

Anyway here are some screen shots.






Because I had a few people asking me how I did it, I guess I'll give a rough breakdown of my approach to the build. I started by getting a few reference photos, together with what engineers call a "3 view" - which is just a scale drawing of the top, front and side views of the aircraft. You'll also need to know a couple of dimensions of the real aircraft, and the obvious place to get those is Wikipedia. It's important to note that no matter how good you think the photos are, you must be careful taking direct measurements off them, because perspective distorts distances. Stick to the drawings for measurements, and use the photos more for minor adjustments to get appearances right.

You'll almost certainly need to resize the 3 view. It's best to get a lower resolution image and enlarge it, because thicker blurry lines make it easier to fit a blocky curve. You need it pretty big, and you're not concerned about how it looks. The exact size you want is a easy to calculate, but you could find it with trial and error approach. Take the length of the aircraft in pixels in the image, and divide by the real length to get a distance of pixels per metre. I find that you need a minimum of 7 pixels per metre to get a decent representation, so find the factor you need to scale your image by to get 7 (or more) pixels per metre, and scale the image. In my case, I went from a roughly 700x400 image to a 2100x1200 image.

I used Gimp to do most of the measuring, but pretty much any photo editing software that can show a grid over your image and allows resizing and repositioning of the grid will do. Set the grid size to the number of pixels in a metre (in my case, 7). You can then use your discretion to judge the edges of curves. Start by building a frame, and then fill it in later. I found it easiest to mark the blocks roughly in bright colours using the pencil tool. Here's the 3 view I used once I was done with it.

Click for full size image

The wings and horizontal tail proved the most difficult to design. After a couple of attempts at doing it by eye from the photos and 3 view, I gave up. Instead, I wrote a very simple script in Python that calculates the positions of the blocks based on a minimal number of parameters (I've made this Minecraft wing design script available for download). One of the files output by the script gives a layer-by-layer breakdown of the wing, which is perfect for building in survival mode. You can easily calculate the angles by reading your coordinates in Gimp, and then using trigonometry to get the angles. If you do this, atan2 is your friend.

These techniques will work reasonably well for any build. If you want to try something like this yourself, all you need is time, patience, and an eye for detail. Good luck.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

On Stupid Outdated Laws in South Africa


November is just around the corner, and that means NaNoWriMo. That is National Novel Writing Month, for those too lazy to follow a link. I'm well on track and fully intend on finishing the novel I started for last year's NaNoWriMo, and I've started making plans for self-publishing, distributing, and of course, making some money.

I'm a big fan of the creative commons license, so naturally I'll be releasing the completed novel under a CC license and distributing the e-book for free. I don't really care whether the book makes money or not (I just want people to read it), but I have no problem if some people enjoy it and feel like donating a little.

Many bloggers, artists, authors and even musicians do this. Kevin McLeod of Incompetech, for example, creates music and releases it for free under a CC license. All he asks for in return is that people share his music, tell the world about him, and if they like, they can donate a little money.

That's exactly the model I would love to use. There is however one small complication. I live in South Africa, and for some reason or other South African law apparently makes it illegal for anyone to receive a donation unless they are a registered Nonprofit Organisation, which I am most certainly not. As far as I can tell, South Africa is the only country that has a law like this.

While I understand the purpose of that sort of law, and I can conceive the role in fighting fraud and corruption it might play, I think that it may be time for the South African government to review it. There needs to be a better way that I can make money from my book than forcing people to pay for it if they don't want to. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not even going to make suggestions about how the law should be changed, but I'm sure that looking at how other countries handle this sort of thing would be the first step.

It's disappointing that a small legal complication stands in the way of the free culture movement in this country.

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On Psychoactive Drugs (Sort Of)


When I was 19, I made a concious decision not to drink alcohol. I don't know why I chose to be like that, but I think it had something to do with the fact that my brain is hard enough to control at the best of times, and I don't like losing control of it, even slightly. I feel the same way about all psychoactive drugs, including caffeine. I even feel that way about painkillers, which I take only when absolutely necessary - which is about once or twice a year, if that.

One morning about a month ago, I was fairly short on sleep, so I decided to try a cup of coffee to wake up. It worked, and I felt incredibly alert for the next few hours. However, by lunch time, the effect had worn off, and I was rendered useless for the rest of the day. The next day, I didn't get quite enough sleep either, and so I did the same thing. I kept it up for about two weeks, after which I introduced a second cup a day in order to try to keep my brain functioning for longer. In order to avoid developing a dependence on caffeine, I made sure to have at least three consecutive caffeine-free days a week.

I've definitely felt more alert and productive on those days that I've drunk my coffee, but looking back on how much I've achieved on those days, I don't think I've achieved any more than usual. If anything, I've been procrastinating even more than I usually do (and that's saying something), and I've felt particularly existential and irritable over the past month, which tends to be even more counter-productive. Not to mention that I've had a couple of the worst headaches I've had in years over the past month (not counting those from when my titanium bolt was screwed in), and I blame it all on caffeine.

I think I'm going to put a stop to this. No more psychoactive drugs for me.

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