This post accompanies a pair of talks given at CMU in November 2018.

Coming soon: my notes from the talk, and possibly a screencast.


I decided recently to embrace my dilettantism. I don’t think there have been two consecutive days in my life where I wanted to pursue and learn the same ideas. Now mind you, the complete list of topics is finite and I cycle back eventually.

But recently, when I was reminded of the existence of superfast Rubik’s cube solver people, blindfold solvers, one-handed solvers, and foot solvers, I thought it might finally be time to learn how to solve the cube, and to push down the stack the rest of my crazy research agenda.

A couple weeks later, I can assert that I can solve the cube within a few minutes. And moreover, I am able to do it with some modicum of understanding of what I am doing. My goal was not to memorize recipes, which is the approach that most tutorials assume for some reason. Instead, I wanted to know the most granular small changes that can be made and how to carry them out, and also why they work out. And I achieved that! I am impressed with myself, way more than is warranted. This outcome is of course all due to the existence of the Internet and especially YouTube. Here are my favorite links.

  • all current speed records in one video:
  • one of the better math-flavored tutorials: link
  • same teacher, but now we’re getting somewhere with a discussion of commutators: link
  • dour but breakthrough presentation that clinched my understanding:

I have seen what 1080p from a Blu-ray looks like on iPad 3, and it is something to behold. The detail and the colors are just beautiful. Over the last few days I’ve worked through the technical issues of ripping one of my Blu-ray discs and converting it losslessly to a format the iPad can play. This doesn’t work for every Blu-ray because they are not all encoded on the disc in H.264. For example, Blade Runner: The Final Cut is encoded in VC1, and so I had to transcode that (but it still looks amazing). But the LOTR Extended trilogy uses H.264 and so you can have perfection. The steps were:

  1. On Windows, where my Blu-ray reader is, I ran makemkv and ripped the main movie plus all the audio tracks to disc. Each of the 6 discs in this trilogy takes between 20-35 GB of disk space. So, a lot!
  2. I copied each .mkv file to my Mac and ran MP4Tools, but just to convert the DTS audio track to AAC stereo format.
  3. I opened the .mkv and the AAC in Subler and “muxed” them together.


As I have written previously, I created an annotated list of excerpts from The Lord of the Rings to encapsulate the differences in the plot (and theme) from the Peter Jackson films. I was unhappy with the tabular format of a Google spreadsheet though, and so I cast around for other ways to present this information. My requirements were

  1. Each excerpt should have its own page so I could write expanded versions of my thoughts.
  2. There should be a feature to assign structured metadata to each post so I could assign fields like “page number in edition X”, “novel name”, “chapter” and so on.
  3. Each page should support user comments.
  4. There should be a one-page view that is condensed and tabular like the spreadsheet.
  5. There should be a robust category feature so I could group things in various ways.

I contemplated using a CMS and even installed a few. But at the end of the day I decided to use WordPress, even though it required some research to solve items 2 and 4. Also, WordPress has a numeric paradigm for linking to posts (each post has a unique number starting from 1), and I didn’t like that because it makes the excerpts look sequential. Although they are sequential in a sense (inside the novels) if I ever were to insert a new excerpt between two existing ones, it would have a nonsequential post ID.

I found solutions to all of this, but haven’t fully implemented everything yet. The results will go up at

This is a post to test the functionality of MathJax. Just put a simple script tag in your header, pointing to a global copy of mathjax.js distributed via Amazon’s CloudFront content distribution network. After that, you can enter LaTeX or MathML directly in your posts and MathJax will render it into beautiful equations. Here is a favorite (from my dissertation):

\[ \Pi \wedge^{2}_{+}TX\otimes\wedge^{2}_{+}T^{*}X \hookrightarrow
\Pi\wedge^{2}_{+}TX\otimes T^{*}X\otimes T^{*}X \]

Screenshot of The Ur-Quan Masters
The Ur-Quan Masters

I learned something new this weekend. First, I learned that one of my favorite childhood games, Archon, has some spiritual successors. The game designer Paul Reiche III, who designed Archon, went on to design other games from his studio Toys for Bob. I just learned all of this when I was listening to a podcast where some old timers like me were discussing the game Star Control 2, which Reiche designed and which was released for PC in 1992, and then on 3DO. It sounded like a great game, and given the Archon pedigree I was curious to try it out. Well the good news is that 3DO released the source code back to Reiche in 2002 and he made it open source, and so there are many ways to play the game today on modern hardware including Mac, PC, Wii, and Android. The name “Star Control 2” is trademarked and so this open source version is called “The Ur-Quan Masters.” Having played for 30 minutes, I was immediately drawn in to the accessible gameplay, the gentle introduction that gives you full control but subtly guides you to try new things, and the tinge of humor in the dialog. An abandonware success story!

The only bad news is that the iPhone port seems to have stalled just when it was almost complete.

I finished editing Star Wars, and my 3-year-old loves it, and I feel guilt-free about showing it to her. There were some wrinkles during the process, so the current version is actually the third one I made (I’m REAL familiar with the movie now, at least around the problematic scenes). I ended up having success with the Mac-based tool SimpleMovieX, and in fact it’s the first piece of software I’ve paid for in a long time (and it’s not cheap, $40). The free version is full-featured, but saving out the whole movie would have taken a couple of days because they deliberately slow down file saves in order to get you to pay. Still, I ended up liking that particular method of having a free trial, because it let me experiment with all the features over any number of weeks or months (which is sometimes how long it takes me to get my act together).

All that said, I would like to make a fourth version. In addition to fixing a couple of my edits, I have two other problems. First, the file size is too big, and I think I can get decent quality with a lower bit rate and smaller file size. Secondly, there is a white line along the bottom. I believe this is because the software decided to render it at 768×327 instead of 768×328. Many players assume a multiple of four for the resolution, and so put a white line since there’s no data on the 328th row. I’m not sure how to force SimpleMovieX to use a different size, since it only had a short pop-up of choices. Maybe I can use a different tool for the transcoding part.

Oh, and by the way, I didn’t find any good tools that could work directly from a DVD rip, so I had to encode to H.264 with very high quality and size, edit that, and transcode it. Moreover, I had started off hoping to directly edit the H.264 and just save it out, but the audio kept getting out of sync more and more after each edit. I learned about keyframes, and that’s how I found SimpleMovieX, whose primary feature was to let me only visit keyframes while editing, but it helped NOT AT ALL. Come to think of it, if SimpleMovieX didn’t let me edit, and didn’t transcode well, I’m not sure I’ve even found the right tool after all. But I did get a pretty good result, so there.

My daughter is 3, and her best friend is also 3. He has been shown the entire Star Wars trilogy already, and is in love with Darth Vader. So my daughter hears about it a lot, and is excited to see it too. Recently I showed her a couple moments from Episode 4, and she loved it. So I’m going to try to make a version of the movie that is appropriate for her. I’ll edit out everything I deem too intense or violent, and see how it goes. So far, I have a rip of the DVD, and I’m trying to get it into iMovie.

I am so excited at the possibilities the iPad holds for gaming, especially strategy gaming. Others have voiced enthusiasm, but I think there’s another level or two of excitement that folks are missing. So let’s hasten the story along because I want to play these games. Let me convince you I’m right, and then you can go make some games for me. I’ll pay $50 for the games I have in mind. Do you hear me, Matrix, Paradox, Slitherine, Panther, Creative Assembly, SSG, Firaxis, Big Huge Games, TGW, Wizards, and friends?

The best examples of strategy games on the iPad right now are Small World and Civilization Revolution. I consider these “console-like” games, since Civ Rev is in fact a port of a console game, and Small World is in the same vein as the recent spate of board game conversions for XBLA, like Catan, Carcassonne, Lost Cities, and Ticket to Ride. I’d like to argue that these titles are not nearly ambitious enough, because I think the iPad can supplant every aspect of PC gaming due to the touch interface. Small World comes closer to what I mean since it uses touch, and it makes excellent use of pretty 2D graphics and sound, but still, it could easily live on XBLA. Conversely, I don’t see any reason all of Civ IV couldn’t be brought to the iPad.

The console comparison, however, is strengthened by the analogy of the App Store to the curated download stores that live in the consoles. John Gruber of makes the case that the iPad and iPhone are best thought of as “app consoles” (see here). So I expect to see games that are only as ambitious as XBLA titles for a while, but I am sure much more is possible.

Holding the iPad in your hands and using your fingers is a whole different level of control than that offered by the game consoles. An iPad is great for reading, and for touching. It offers terrific precision, and greater immersion than a PC. It has a gaggle of new UI paradigms that are best observed in the non-game apps that exist now, like Mail, Pages and Keynote. The popover menu is one example (see here). All of this can bring nice, neat order to complex interfaces. This, in fact, is one of Apple’s strengths.

I also feel strongly that reading on the iPad is an entirely different experience than reading on a laptop screen or monitor. There is empirical evidence to back this up here (punchline: reading on an iPad, Kindle, or from a real book scores about 5.7/7 whereas reading on the PC scores 3.6/7). But you don’t need the studies really, because if you try one you will see. Reading web pages on the iPad is actually a joyful experience. My theory is that the brain processes visual input differently when it’s being held in your hands. Maybe it’s the reinforcement coming from using two of your senses, even if all there is to touch is smooth glass. Whatever the reason, and however surprising it seems to you, it’s just not the same medium as the PC screen.

So the iPad offers a device where reading is superior to a PC, interactivity is superior in many ways (every device has an accelerometer, compass, and a mic and speakers, which developers can count on), and the UI is different, and arguably superior, but certainly not inferior (touch versus mouse). Plus new UI paradigms exist that smart designers can take advantage of to bridge the remaining gap in screen real estate. So why limit ourselves to ports of simple boardgames? I want to see Advanced Squad Leader and other wargames brought to the iPad as ports from the physical games. I want to see all the Paradox titles and SSG and Panther wargames brought over, as ports from the PC games. (Strangely enough, Paradox announced an iPhone port of Hearts of Iron and Majesty in 2008, but then never followed up in words or deeds. The press release has been removed from their archive, but some game sites are still tracking the HOI port, like IGN.) I want to see the back catalog brought over as well: X-Com, Heroes of Might and Magic, you name it! (Someone is working on DOSBox for iOS, called DOSPad, but it will probably not be approved given current App Store policies.) I’m just naming the games of most interest to me, but I don’t really see any limitation.

After all those games are brought over, there’s even another level we can go, because none of these ports will make full use of the accelerometer and multitouch capabilities, and the greater immersion possible on the iPad. I can’t foresee those games, though, because I’m not a designer. One category of example for the hardcore strategy gamer might be a hybrid approach where a board game or wargame with lots of rules and calculations could have a tabletop component and an iPad component that makes playing more fun. You could even take *that* idea to the next level by making the game even more complex without adding strain to the players. It would be some sort of interactive engine that contains all the rules. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe what we want are sandboxes with lots of pieces and board configurations, and we can play whatever game we want and enforce the rules ourselves like with boardgames. I’d especially love a sandbox that came with MTG cards but didn’t force the linear application of rules into the UI the way Duels of the Planeswalkers does, but rather leaves it up to me like OCTGN2 or Magic Workstation.

OK, having said ALL of that, I actually do like the way things are going. There’s an X-COM clone in the works for iPad (Isochron), and plenty of SRPG originals and ports coming (e.g., Final Fantasy Tactics in September). As I learned on Three Moves Ahead, Small World was profitable for Days of Wonder on its first day of release, so that will surely be noticed, and hopefully at least all the XBLA board games will be brought over. But what I really want is EU3!