Chilly Sunday

It feels like a little bit of winter has finally hit Sydney this weekend, with cold weather and strong winds. It was a good day to stay inside, but Scully needed some exercise so we went out for a bit in the afternoon to run around the park. Oh and this morning she had a visit from Luna next door for a play date:

Play date

Yes, our neighbour has a black toy poodle too!

Otherwise I continued preparing for tomorrow’s school visit, finishing off my slides on the solar system. And figuring out relative sizes of various balls that I’ll be using to represent planets and the sun and stuff.

Oh, and I’ve been intending to start doing this for a while, but keep forgetting, so let’s start today. New content today:

School prep

Saturday is housecleaning day at Chez DMM. After the weekly chores, I spent much of the day preparing for my school science visit on Monday, putting together slides for my talk on the solar system, and calculating what size balls I need to have ready to show the kids the comparative sizes of the sun and planets. I’m borrowing a 600 mm exercise ball from a friend. If the Earth is that size, I need a 160 mm diameter ball to represent the moon – I think the styrofoam ball I used for this 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe post will work nicely. It’s 150 mm, but close enough. And then to show the relativedistance between the Earth and moon I need to put the balls 18 m apart, which I think I can just about manage in the school library where I do my presentations.

And if the sun is represented by the exercise ball, then the Earth needs to be a 5 mm bead, and it needs to be 64 metres away! And Neptune needs to be 19 kilometres away! Hopefully this will impress on the kids just how big space is.

On a different topic, I noticed a disturbing thing today. I made a post to the Irregular Webcomic! Facebook page, and as I was doing it I noticed that Facebook was advertising some groups that it thought I “should join to increase your audience”. What sort of groups were these? Let’s take a look at them:

  • FOR THE BOYS – a group whose icon is a bunch of bikini models
  • Over 18 PEEP SHOW – icon is a silhouette of a woman
  • Holden Haters – icon is a Ford logo
  • Have a laugh Australia – icon is an “R over 18s” logo

So, Facebook, I’d like to know (a) why do you think people in these groups might be interested in my comics, and (b) why is there no feedback mechanism to let you know that these groups are not appropriate, or to hide them as suggestions?

School science prep

Today I did further preparation for my school science visit on Monday. I’ve been trying to contact a nearby high school to borrow some of their lab equipment, but they kept not returning my calls. So this morning I decided to try Sydney University, where I studied for several years, and know some of the staff in the physics department. I called up and got onto the first year lab coordinator (who I hadn’t met before) and asked her if I could borrow some stuff. She put me onto the lab technician, but he wasn’t in yet, so I sent an email.

Then I was planning to go do some grocery shopping, but I didn’t want to be out driving the car when he phoned back, so instead i stayed home in that sort of anticipatory state that makes it hard to concentrate on anything. He emailed back at 11:00, saying to meet him in the physics labs at 11:45.

Now, I was at home, and the university is on the other side of the harbour… I mailed back saying I might be a few minutes late, and jumped in the car. Fortunately traffic wasn’t bad and I managed to find a parking spot right next to the university gate closest to the physics building, so I was actually on time. I borrowed a retort stand and clamps, and a brass mass carrier with a stack of brass weights. Pretty simple stuff, but it would have been tricky to improvise adequately for Monday.

And I spent some time trying (in vain mostly) to help solve puzzles for the MUMS Puzzle Hunt. I don’t know where the rest of the day went!

Oh! I queued up a bunch of new comic submissions for Lightning Made of Owls. We had a bit of a slump in submissions for a while, but now there are several comics in the queue. If you want to make a simple gag comic and have it published, send it in!

Bento box

Today was a bit of a lazy day, work-wise. I actually spent most of my time at home refactoring code, which didn’t achieve anything tangible beyond making it easier to add on more stuff later.

I also spent a lot of time out. I arranged to meet a friend for lunch at a Japanese place near the station two stops away from where I live. I could have caught the train, but I decided to walk to get a bit of exercise.

Now let me tell you about the area where I live. It ain’t flat. Not by a long shot. There are hills everywhere. My tracking app (I use Strava, if you want to follow my profile) tells me the walk there by the most direct route was 3.72 km, with an elevation gain of 103 metres. (I ended up only 29 m higher than I began, so I also went downhill 74 m.) The restaurant does bento boxes, and I had one with some sushi, a bowl of udon soup, and something I’ve never seen before: fish katsu! It was good.

For the walk home, I took a longer route, covering 5.55 km, with an elevation gain of 72 m. Later in the afternoon I also took Scully for a walk and play in the park. The weather’s turned windy here, but it wasn’t very cold – the forecasters say tomorrow we’ll get a blast of colder air. Anyway, here’s Scully, posing after fetching her ball in the dog park.

Chasing the ball in late winter sunshine

Announcing mezzacotta Café v2.0

It’s Wednesday, Ethics teaching day. I walked to the school, taught my class, and walked home – a total walk of 8 kilometres. Well, I took a slightly indirect route home because it’s a more pleasant walk than along the main road.

Back home, I did a bunch of work for the ISO Photography standards committee that I’m still on. I started on this committee back with my old job at Canon Information Systems Research Australia. When the company decided to close down, I decided to continue working on the committee, since it’s a good way to keep up with professional photographic technology research, and I wanted to make sure Australia maintained its role in the international committee. Anyway, I had a bunch of documents to go through, so that took some time.

Then I spent time solving puzzles from the 2019 MUMS Puzzle Hunt, which started today. I’m part of the team “mezzacotta” with some of my friends.

In between I worked on integrating HTML/CSS to make the new mezzacotta Café look nice. Here’s the old original version. And here’s the new updated version made with our new mezzacotta Random Generator technology. The new version began with the same vocabulary a few days ago, but has had a few new additions made to it already. And it looks nicer!

Colour naming

I spent all day today doing science! If you weren’t aware, I do volunteer work with a primary school, going in to teach science stuff to kids from kindergarten to year 6. I talk to all of the kids at the school, but this year I’m also running a Science Club for 13 of the very keen science students, ranging from years 2 to 5.

A couple of months ago I ran a colour naming experiment with them, to explore the psychophysics of what colours we see and deciding what names they should have. I won’t go into gory detail here, because I described the experiment in detail in a previous post over on my science blog, 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe. Today I spent all day (about 10 hours of work as I type this) analysing the results and preparing slides to present to the students next time I see them (on Monday next week). Again, I’ve written a detailed post about it over on 100 Proofs. But here’s a sneak preview of the results:

results preview

Besides showing the kids the results and talking about them on Monday, we’re going to do another new experiment: measure the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity! I’ll write that up over on 100 Proofs too.

Olive oil flavour

This morning I had a blood test, and had to go to the pathology place while fasting, so couldn’t eat breakfast beforehand. I like breakfast. I don’t really understand those people who skip breakfast or who don’t feel any urge to have food until lunchtime. I wake up ravenous every morning and am hoeing into a bowl of cereal within about 5 minutes of getting out of bed every day. So having to wait until I walk up the street and wait for half an hour at the pathology centre is torture. Immediately after I left I raced to the nearest bakery to get something to eat.

Back home, I worked on writing annotations for the batch of Irregular Webcomic!s that I’d made over the past few days. This is the final step before publication, and can take most of a day, depending how much research I do and how much I write for each comic. But it’s a good feeling having the batch completed. And now it’s time to start thinking about writing the next batch…

I stayed in for lunch today and made myself bruschetta. I’m trying to use up a bottle of extra virgin olive oil that I got as a gift, before it passes its “best before” date. And also some caramelised balsamic vinegar.

It got me thinking about olive oil. We have extra virgin olive oil, for stuff like bruschetta and salads and those things that everyone says you should use extra virgin olive oil for, because it has a strong “fruity” flavour. And we have the “light tasting” olive oil that everyone says you should use for cooking, because it has a less strong flavour that won’t dominate a dish.

Now, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I can’t taste any difference whatsoever between “extra virgin” olive oil and “light tasting” olive oil. Not just the current brands we have either – I’ve never noticed any difference between any of the brands of either we’ve had over the years. I’m honestly beginning to think this whole “fruity” and “light” olive oil flavours are really just the Emperor’s New Clothes, and a way to make us all buy more olive oil because we “need” to have two different types. They all just taste equally bland and oily to me – none of them have anything that could remotely be called a “strong” flavour that might dominate anything else. Can anyone actually taste a difference between these olive oils?? Or even taste them at all??

And on another note, I took some photos of flowers. This winter in Sydney has been ridiculously warm. Besides flowers everywhere, there are new green shoots and leaves on many of the trees already as well. This is all at least a month early, possibly more. Take a look: magnolias, irises, lavender, azaleas.

Spring flowers in winter

Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal

This morning I woke up with the idea for a new random text generator: Random breakfast cereals! But more on that later. First it was a Sunday morning walk with the wife and Scully. We did a roughly 5 kilometre loop, stopping at a nice bakery/cafe along the way for morning tea.

Back at home, I finished work on tonight’s new Darths & Droids comic. Then I implemented the random breakfast cereal generator. Technical coding details follow in the next paragraph (feel free to skip it if not interested in coding nitty-gritty):

One issue critical with this generator was a problem that Andrew Coker and I have wanted to tackle for some time. The idea was to generate a cereal name (e.g. Crunchy Chcolate Bombs), and then a description of the cereal. But the description should use some of the same words as in the name, so that it’s described as “Scrummy bombs of chocolate with extra marshmallow bits” rather than, say, “Yummy shreds of bran with raisins”. To do this we needed to store some of the randomly generated words in a context dictionary and then recall them later on using variable names, rather than just generate more random text. Doing this required quite a bit of code refactoring, and a lot of heavily nested text replacements in the partially munged output string. This of course generated a slew of bugs with other replacements such as capitalisations and stuff. So we worked together to track them down and squash them. After a few hours of coding, we think we have it working properly.

TL;DR: Here’s the brand new mezzacotta breakfast cereal generator!

Another thing I’ve been doing is getting back into my Italian language practice. I’ve been practising regularly on Duolingo for a few years, doing some every day, but I slipped after my last overseas trip and didn’t start up again when I got back home, until a few days ago. Now I’m back into doing some revision every day. Fortunately it seems like I haven’t forgotten too much! If you use Duolingo, you can follow my profile here.

And a photo today, another behind-the-scenes of a set I built for the Cliffhangers theme. It might not be obvious where they are from this, but when you see the actual comic hopefully it’ll be convincing enough.

The train to Abydos

Comic maker, makin’ comics…

It’s Saturday, and the day when I finished off making that batch of Irregular Webcomic! strips that I photographed back on Thursday. I composed some of them that day, but most of them waited until today.

While assembling the comics, I did my usual thing of changing the scripts and punchlines of a few of the strips. For one of them I solicited advice from my friends on our private chat channel, on whether to go for a broad audience punchline that was not necessarily as funny, or a narrower audience punchline that I thought was funnier. They agreed that the narrow punchline was in fact funnier, so I used that. My general philosophy is that I’m happy to target a fairly small niche audience with a technical punchline that nobody else will fully understand, as long as it’s funny enough for the people who do understand it.

On a slightly different note: have you ever wondered how I keep track of which characters have which coloured speech bubbles? Wonder no more! Here is a little image file that I keep handy and always have open when I’m assembling new comics. I can easily use Photoshop’s eyedropper tool to sample the exact colour of each major character’s speech bubbles, so they remain consistent across strips. (I didn’t do this early one, and some of the characters’ bubbles changed colour once or twice, but I’ve been consistent for a long time now.)

IWC palette

D&D night

I’m a few hours later than normal, because Friday was the day of the big Dungeons & Dragons game that I’ve been preparing for. I had a lot of last minute preparation to get done, and then it was off to AS’s place, where he was hosting for the evening.

We had five players, plus me Dungeon Mastering. The adventure was set in Ravnica, a giant plane-spanning city first described in the game Magic: the Gathering. I instructed the players that their characters did not know one another before the adventure begins, and that they were to keep their characters secret from each other. When pizza had been consumed and everyone had settled at the table to play, I began the adventure:


You are woken suddenly by cold water pouring over you. A LOT of cold water. You flail around, trying to get your bearings, and realise you have no support – you’re splashing in a pool of deep water. You find the surface and gasp for air. You instantly regret this move as a horrible stench of decay and filth fills your nostrils and lungs. But you need to breathe, so struggle to maintain your position on the surface. Your legs reach down and can’t find anything to stand on. And as you blink frantically with your wet eyes you realise it’s dark. Very dark. Darker than the deepest night in the narrowest alleyways of Ravnica. And as your eyes try in vain to adjust to the darkness, you realise there are other people next to you, also flailing about in the putrid water.

The first thing they had to do was figure out how to not drown. They were in a sewer, and had to swim to a side of the tunnel where there was a narrow ledge where they could crawl out of the water. Once a couple of them had managed this, the crocodiles attacked. This was when they discovered that their most of their weapons and magical gear were missing. A few had concealed daggers, with which they fought off the crocodiles.

Once they had time to breathe (the foul, stinky air), they could introduce themselves to each other. And begin the process of working out what just happened. None of them knew each other and the last thing they remembered was going to sleep at night after a fairly boring day.

And thus the chain of adventure had been set off! They ended up tracking across the city, encountering a disinterested bath house attendant (nothing in this city surprised him any more, and he only wanted to cadge an extra gold coin off each of them for a fresh set of clothes), ogre thugs, a goblin gang, helpful librarians, a mystical dryad, and a torture chamber operated by a demon. By the end of the night they had some idea what they were doing, and we packed up to continue the adventure another day. I think everyone really enjoyed it!

As a helpful prop, I made everyone reference cards for their magic items, so they could instantly see in front of them what they had, and hand them back to me when used up (for example magic potions). Here’s an example of one card:

Lantern of Revealing card

(Lantern image is copyright Wizards of the Coast, reproduced from D&D Beyond, at smaller size for non-profit illustrative purposes only.)

Another thing was that Andrew Coker decided his character would have the personality trait: Loves a good insult, even when directed at him. To assist in coming up with good insults, he and I worked together on a random fantasy insult generator, using our mezzacotta random text generators code that I’ve been taking about previously. We kept this one secret form the other guys until after the game, so it was all new to them. It was very cool seeing Andrew’s character slinging these amazing insults at everyone he met during the game. Do check it out, and perhaps use an insult next time the opportunity strikes.

So, a good night was had by all!