Tweeting the Mariner Valley

Last month I was thrilled to attend WTC14 - the annual technology symposium at Wolfram Research in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.  Wolfram retains some of the most brilliant programmers in the world and so it's always intellectually refreshing experience filled with interesting talks and inspired people. The halls were teeming with world class exports in computer algebra and software engineering, but my favorite experience during the event was helping to code ideas with child prodigy Jesse Friedman - the youngest conference participant ever, shown below on the right.

 Theo gray of Touch press

Theo gray of Touch press

 Me and jesse freedman programming A Hypnocube

Me and jesse freedman programming A Hypnocube

I thought that the best talk of the conference was Theo Gray's presentation of the story behind the Disney Animated project, winner of Apple's Best App of 2013 Award.  Theo illuminated the struggles of implementation with great clarity and a wonderfully dry sense of humor. The biggest algorithmic hurdle was accurately replicating the ice crystal visualizations from the movie Frozen. It was hard to dynamically draw those snowflakes in real time on a mobile device when their rendering took multiple minutes on a supercomputer.

Being the CEO of one of the most successful app companies is no small potatoes, and so I stalked him down and talked shop afterwards. We chatted about his first block buster app "The Elements" and he joked that he had made more money in a day than his entire career at Wolfram. When developing the Elements, Theo was not to bothered with the overly ceremonious Core Data framework, nor did he build objective-c delegation towers of babel! Their Xcode project used merely a .plist key-value store for persistence and prerecorded movies for interactive transitions!

 Visualization of Valles Marineri - the MAriner Valley on Mars

Visualization of Valles Marineri - the MAriner Valley on Mars

On the last day of the conference I decided to submit an entry for the infamous One-Liner programming competition. My first attempt was to construct a classic 3d graphic - the Mathematica 6 styled Surface-Textured Hyperbolic Dodecahedron. But with only 128 characters, it wasn't a piece of cake.  I wound up trying something a bit more fun instead: downloading interesting data files from NASA and rendering 3D scenes though which I animated the camera viewpoint along B-splines to render movies. A little while after tweeting my program I received a text message from a friend at the company saying that I won - my "Mar's Flyby" submission was in first place, followed by a second place program that I helped write, with my other entry "Gödel Escher Batman" rounding out the top three prize. Here's a night-time perspective of what I made in 128 characters:

But in a dramatic turn of events, a mere 15 minutes before the award ceremony, a minor glitch in the front-end of my notebook was noticed. A tiny error message displayed on one of the judge's screens disqualified my wining entry! Now, everyone knows that the front-end of Mathematica has been somewhat seditiously unstable since version 6 was released. But that is a small price to pay for the power of dynamic notebooks - awesome functionality originally unveiled by Steve Jobs and Theo at WWDC 2005.  This glitch is an easy bug to fix but I had submitted it and didn't check my email after that. Alas I didn't win first place but at least I still took home a Raspberry Pi.  For more on the winning entries check out Chris Carlson's 2014 one-liner competition blog post.

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