Rachel Carson Trail Challenge report
(21 Jun 2009 at 10:20)
Yes!terday Cortney (visiting from DC) and I completed the 2009 Rachel Carson Challenge again. Rachel Carson was a smart science lady who I think invented DDT. This is advertised as a "34 mile" "hike" on the "brutal" Rachel Carson "trail". The function of my quotation marks is manifold: First, they are literal quotations from the Challenge site, now properly attributed. Second, scare quotes on 34 miles; it is actually at least 36 miles, and for us measured at 37.7 because we got a bit of coffee and stopped at the checkpoint where you have to go off the trail a bit. (Actually, maybe as much as 41; see below.) For "hike" also envision my finger-based air typography; for sure there is a lot of walking but also a lot of downhill gravel-skiing, multi-pitch mud climbing, and fell running. That's because the "trail" (again I am scratching the backs of four very small floating people) is sometimes literally a walk in the park, but also sometimes a stroll on the highway, or a schlep in the clay, or a 100ft drop over the course of 200ft of trail, immediately followed by the reverse. Some parts sometimes it's like someone took a microminiature unsharp push-mower to the Poison Ivy Kingdom and mowed a little line merely to mark where you should go.
It's good stuff. The event is not cardiovascularly hard like a long run. It is pretty leisurely and you are constantly held up by people in front of you on the trail anyway. (Some professional self-flagellators do run it. The course record is something like 6h12m, which pace would be a very slow marathon of 4h48m!) The hard part for me is just stress on the body. Blisters and chafing and other surface ailments are a given, and you just tough that out, but all the stepping on uneven ground really activates my old and new deeply internal foot and knee injuries. At the end you can barely walk and then naturally the course comes within .2 miles of the finish line but you actually have 2 miles left, oh and now you're done but j/k lol because this year they moved the finish line another third of a mile back so they can have more space for the cookout. The real metric aside from the length is the hilliness. It is preposterous. It's hard to give a really indisputable measurement for the hilliness (Even Mandelbrot, a smart science guy who I think invented the movies Jurassic Park and The Butterfly Effect, wonders How Long Is the Coast of Britain?), but a conservative estimate is our smoothed GPS trail collated with USGS data, giving 18,009 ft of total elevation change. That's 3.4 miles up and down. (I think it would be fair to describe it as more than that, since many of the important trail features surely exceed the resolution of USGS.) For comparison, the San Francisco marathon measured the same way was "just" +/- 2,000 ft. (Actually I wonder if there is any IOC standard about how you factor elevation change into the "length" of a road race? I struggle with this in my Pac Tom project overintellectualization/cartographic obsessiveness: Should I measure distance between GPS coordinates as great circle distances on the ideal sea-level earth pear? Or as points in three dimensional space? The latter seems fair but not consistent with how people seem to do it. Even distances on a "flat" surface at 1,000ft are longer per degree than at sea level, because you're really running on an arc, not a line.) Anyway point is maybe this challenge should be nominally 40+ miles. Misleadingly scaled graphic:
It could easily have been much worse. We just had a rainfall-record-setting, inch-sized hail dropping, 4-lightning-strikes per second, car-washing-away, office-closing storm in Pittsburgh two days ago, with forecasts of strong thunderstorms throughout the weekend. This kind of news is in some ways secretly welcomed by professional self-flagellators, even not just because it removed some of the plastic people from CMU's most sore eyesore, but because it might create one of those lifelong memorable suffering trenchfoot scenarios. I wore just a bathing suit, hiking boots, and backpack. It started thunderstorming as we feared/hoped on the drive out there, at 5am, and a few brief times during the hike, but most of the time it was actually sunny. Here is a representative picture of me photographing myself while Cortney is taping up her toenail casualty:
See? That ain't so bad. There was lotsa mud leftovers but some people pay hundreds of dollars for mud baths, after all.
This year the graduating CS Ph.D. students got lab coats among their gifts, replacing laser-engraved knick-knacks and other garbage with irony, as we should do whenever possible. Since I am an alumnus, illustrator at large, and known to wear a lab coat when pretending science, I found myself in charge of making this instruction sheet to go in the program, so that the students know what to do with their new clothes. It seems a lot of people didn't end up seeing this, oh well, but now you can take a look whether you got Ph.D. or not. It says:
Shortly after your friends get over addressing you as "Doctor <lastname>" (this is mostly ironic and will probably only last a day or two) you will find out that you do not actually get any additional respect for having a PhD. Most of the people you know already have one. When say you're a doctor, real people think this means medical doctor, which can result in uncomfortable questions. You'll even start to feel guilty when you select the prefix "Dr." from the drop-down menu when filling out your address online, beginning to suspect that this indulgence is not intended for doctors of philosophy, whatever that even means. People can sense this self-doubt like dogs can smell fear, which reduces their esteem for you further. However, in a pinch, there is a universal symbol of scholarship and stature available: the Lab Coat. It is easy to use. Simply by wearing it, you will be perceived as having the dignity of a medical doctor, scientist (the kind with test tubes), or dentist. This means instant respect. So: Go forth! Stand tall! You're a doctor!
Pittsburgh Marathon: Tell me that guy's not from the CDC
(03 May 2009 at 22:42)
So today I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon, I lovely jaunt through Pittsburgh's many distinct neighborhoods. My time was pants. Embarrassing, really, at 4h13m17s. I say that because my first marathon last year I did in a respectable 3h23m04s. But I knew this would happen: I had lost a month and a half of training because of a mysterious back injury, and then when I got mysteriously better I immediately overtrained myself into some kind of other illness, and so I was totally out of shape for this event. Since I knew I was not going to have a shot at beating my personal best, and who wants to try hard and put in a mediocre-bad non-best time, I decided yesterday that I would run in costume. Costumes are a kind of marathon tradition, though there were hardly any other costumes in Pittsburgh this year, surprisingly. I only have pretty much one costume making strategy, which is to use a full-body Tyvek jumpsuit with something written on it and maybe some kind of props. This time it was a timely reference. I wore it as a hazmat suit, and picked up a respirator at the hardware store too (all sold out at the drugstore, somewhat alarmingly), then emblazoned it with "CDC — INFLUENZA UNIT" and on the back "H1N1 INFLUENZA-A 2009". This was the first time I ever wore a costume in a race but I really liked it. Lots of cheering people (or others in the race) got it, and it is really fun to hear them mention it or pick up the cheer volume/directedness as you go by, since 4 hours is a pretty long and potentially boring period without stimulus. 1/3 of people approximately thought it was just doctor scrubs, which I can understand because med students are in the habit of around here wearing their scrubs to the coffeeshop or the Shadyside X gym or whatever, I think as a way to attract mates. (Obviously they do not make good workout clothes nor would it be any particular hardship to change.) But if the costume was scrubs it would be dumb to write CDC INFLUENZA UNIT H1N1 all over it. At least one other comment suggested the interpretation that I was an escaped prisoner, which I think is funny, especially the idea that I might have escaped and run 26 miles only to end up right where I started, back at the penitentiary. The downsides of this costume are multitudinous: e.g. the respirator made it basically impossible to breathe. I wore it for the first mile and a half but it was like sucking bigtime wind, whereas the first few miles are usually super easy. So most of the race I had that around my chin and maybe covering my mouth but breathing from the nose, except that I'd put the hood and mask on again when I sussed that a cheering and photography gauntlet was coming up—even though then it was soaked in sweat and gatorade so I'd be inhaling that moistness—because it definitely increased the cheering factor. Here's what it looks like with all options enabled:
(Thx to Nels for this photo.)
Downside #2 is majorer: Fact: That suit is basically waterproof to protect the skin or underclothes, so it just stores up sweat drops and heat to make a sort of stinko jacuzzi inside. After a few miles I took off the clothes I had underneath, which helped a bit, and I also ran for a bit with the top down bare-chest just me holding it like an oversized jacuzzi diaper, but then I thought if I'm going to do a costume marathon I should really wear a costume the whole time. Anyway, this did not help my speed but it would have been shit anyway.
Why did I suxx so much? The costume was some trouble but the lack of training was the biggest component. This was a good lesson. I felt much worse running this than I did putting in a very much better time in SF. Training works. I also thought this course was pretty hard. You can't really tell it from the elevation chart, but lots of it is these rolling up- and down-hills. The three-mile continuous climb comes at pretty much the worst time, and it was responsible for offing me and a few friends. The weather started out and ended perfect but there was some water on the road from a storm yesterday and it drizzled a bit more, and by mile 16ish my shoes were soaked with juice, which actually really sucks because it makes the shoes a lot heavier and harder to move and blister-raisins up your feet in an uncomfortable way. I also got some bigtime muscle cramps, I don't know why. The 4-mile bike trip to and fro probably did not help.
Big ups to the folks from the CMU running club, most of which were doing their first marathons and many of which put me to shame. Thanks a lot to all the friends that showed neighborhood pride by coming out to cheer (sometimes in multiple locations!).
Speaking of bigtime, I made the KDKA news. Check out the rousing story Supporters Cheer On Marathon Runners for my one-second appearance at about 1:43. They don't even explain or mention my costume, so I guess they must have just thought I give a mean high-five, which is true.
Tom 7 Entertainment System Hero (show and demo reel)
(16 Apr 2009 at 20:14)
Hey, okay. Finally I have the videos ready to reveal secret project 7H, which is called Tom 7 Entertainment System Hero.
This is part video game and part performance art piece. The video game is essentially an implementation of Guitar Hero, where the songs are Tom 7 Entertainment System tunes. Some of these are ridiculously intricate and most have weird time signatures, which makes for advanced play. It supports keyboard on Mac, Windows, and linux or real USB guitar controllers (like the XBox 360 ones) on Mac and Windows. That includes accelerometers and whammy bar. The best introduction is to watch the demo reel:
This video has a bunch of clips in it, mostly from the Show at Belvedere's. You'll see a bunch of things. One is that I actually mess up a lot when playing. I'm better than this but two things contributed to my mistakes: (1) I was kinda drunk since the show started like 3.5 hours late and I got free beer for being a "musician" and (2) in the last week before the show I was sprinting to get all the software and hardware working, so I actually didn't practice hardly any of these songs more than the one time it took me to decide to put them in the setlist. Once it's available publicly I will challenge you to high-score battle to prove it. Hardware you ask? I didn't build the guitar or drums of course, but I did build the Laser Suspension Womb, which to be more pithy I sometimes call my "USB laser hat." It's a hardhat with a bunch of very bright LEDs and actual laser diodes embedded in it, powered by 1.5A, worn on the head, and connected to the computer via USB implemented on a custom circuit board with a PIC microcontroller. The in-game music and events ("drums were kidnapped!") trigger the lights and lasers to play along. I have a clever hack so that it doesn't need special drivers on any platform, though that's not helping penetration much because there's only one of them. This was my first real hardware project in my adult life, but now that I know how to do it I hope to do more (especially input devices, i.e., "instruments"). It's much better in 2009 than I recall from sticking paperclips and resistors in the parallel port in 1993.
Rock Band drums are supported too. Unlike the guitar, which has a goal pattern for you to match, these are totally freeform. Commodore 64 samples are played in response to drumhits. I wish the controller supported some kind of velocity sensitivity, because that is kind of important for drum expressiveness, but too bad so sad.
Techno details: The implementation is almost all in Standard ML using SDL, except for the low-level sound synthesis thread and the interface to the USB laser hat. That stuff's in C. It's easy to mix them. The code has some shortcuts in it for sure and deserves to be cleaned up (lots of them introduced in that last week sprint) but it also has some really nice parts, like the algorithm that matches your input to the score. The matching is ambiguous, so there's an on-line dynamic programming algorithm to be maximally generous to your playing. (I don't think Guitar Hero II had this maximally generous algorithm, which was one of the reasons I started working it out like a year and a half ago, but I do think that GH III and on do it right.) The finger patterns you're supposed to match with the guitar, which I call the "score", is generated automatically from MIDI files. To turn a T7ES MIDI file into a T7ES Hero game file, I have to assign instruments to each of the tracks, and then pick which tracks or track parts are supposed to be played on the guitar. The rest is automatic, save some tuning parameters. "genscore" has a model for how closely a candidate score matches the original MIDI (for example, if consecutive MIDI notes are rising in pitch, then it's better for the fingers to also be rising on the fretboard) and then it solves for the optimal assignment, measure-by-measure. I thought that I would need to modify the score after this to get good quality, but it actually works amazingly well. Some of the stuff it comes up with is super fun, like I would assume was created by a human with a good sense of fun. No. Only cyber-brain.
Here's the last two songs of the regular set in full. In this you see that you can actually play drums and guitar at the same time if you're good enough (I am not). 2 player mode? Maybe soon:
I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to perform this again (befriend T7ES Band Page on Facebook for guaranteed notification), but maybe. Either way, I'm looking forward to sharing the software with you guys, which I will do as soon as I finish the auto-update and high score table, so that we can compete with each other and I can release song packs.