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My Recurse Center Syllabus

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|  Ashley Blewer!         (=) (=) (=)   |
     "--"                      "--"

Creating a syllabus for myself

I will be attending the Recurse Center from April 2 until June 28. For the uninundated (non-inundated?), I have been describing RC succinctly as "like a writer's retreat for programmers." although maybe that's not quite sufficient. But in general, it is a place to focus intensely on my craft and be surrounded by and inspired by brilliant people.

I am verrrrrry excited!

Because the time you spend at RC and what you choose to work on is self-initiated and self-motivated, I am setting up this repository to create a sort of "syllabus" for myself and what I want to accomplish. BUT! I do not expect to follow it, just give myself some rough structure to make sure I hit my personal productivity goals while leaving enough room for unanticipated discovery.

This will also be a living syllabus,
updated with links to blog posts,
works I produced,
and things I used to tackle these problems
or build things for each week.

Some things will get bumped and other things will get shuffled around as part of the normal un-learning process.

Here is how I answered the application question "What would you like to work on at the Recurse Center?":

I really love video and I understand it (relatively) well, I think, but would really like to better understand compression algorithms and how things work. I think trying to make my own video codec would be a good way to do that, and RC seems like a great place to attempt a task that sounds difficult and academic. I think this kind of broad, open-ended task would allow me to have one major goal to accomplish, and would allow me to break down the problem and potentially tackle mini-problems along the way, accepting productive distraction (like committing to an open source video framework as a mini-goal towards the larger educational goal).

General suggestions from RC to help think about projects:

  • What are the main 2-3 things I'd like to learn? (i.e. why am I doing this?)
  • Which features could I build to learn them?
  • Are there other things I can ignore because they won't help me achieve my learning goals?
  • Does my project divide naturally into certain chunks?
  • How will I know when my project is finished?

Thinking about how to think about this

I want to create goals for myself that are concrete enough to be able to tackle but open enough that I can move in different directions as I grow and learn more.

I also think it's important for me to think about this work as at most 80% of a week, leaving 20% to spread out and learn about or engage in other projects unrelated to this one. But I hope that for each week, I can formulate an idea of readings/tasks to complete, and ensure a solid balance of learning-time and active-programming time.

Week 0 (Now until April 2)

Create this syllabus.

Here are some things inspiring me (and related to this topic):

Popular algorithm names:

  • Huffman
  • Adaptive Huffman!
  • Shannon-Fano
  • Schwartz-Kallick

(Pre-RC Ideas Zone, this will move)

  • Video container/codec review, how do significant properties relate to each other when established by each format?
  • containers versus codecs, how do they work together (or not together?)
  • Begin manipulation of raw video data
  • "signal processing"
  • Muxing, demuxing, compiling code
  • ffmpeg filters
  • Visualizing compression: Is there a way to extract only-the-compression from audio or video for visualization purposes?
  • Build something in C -> I did build something in Rust with much help, so maybe this has been satisfied
  • Colorspaces
  • Subtitles
  • Codec manipulation
  • Web Assembly, put C in the browser
  • Electron, put JS on the desktop
  • Thinking about open source contributions here

Week 1 (April 2-6): "Containers/codecs"

Code written

  • Hmm, nothing that would merit a check-in...


Exploring Matroska attachments

  • file format polyglot-ing (put mkv file inside mkv file)
  • This was very easy thanks to MKVToolNix!

Understand how codecs are made

  • read up on codecs

Open or non-open codecs, standards:


  • FFmpeg has been coming up a lot in conversation, with a lot of people working on different things. Someone told me about this book which is like the best thing ever. I'm ready to start a graduate level program and teach only this book. So many example commands and a visual representation of what they do.
  • I need to follow advice that Misty De Meo was given and passed along via Mastodon, which is "hacking around some stuff in FFmpeg's encoder to see what happens"
  • Misty's Sega FILM demuxer is in ffmpeg now github and I'm #fangirling

Codec exploration: ./lenticular

  • investigation of lenticular, a codec-in-progress for lenticular film
  • Running lenticular partially successfully
  • Ran into segmentation faults and I'd like to explore these more, but moving on for now

File formats, methods of implementation

  • deep read: the secret life of nan. This blog post casually mentions standardization drama and I clicked on the link to read more SO fast. It's here
  • deep read: google docs, not a file format I like these two quotes in a succinct blog post: "Proprietary formats are always risky. When the format isn’t a file format at all, you can’t even reverse-engineer it in principle." and "Don’t be a cheapskate. Pay for the storage you need."
  • deep read: How can we preserve Google Documents?

gdb / debugging in C

  • brew install gdb
  • extra stuff for macOS
  • Is the problem: macOS, gcc, gdb, Homebrew, XCode, the code, or something else?
  • "Reading symbols from lenticular...(no debugging symbols found)...done."
  • "Undefined symbols for architecture x86_64" - sometimes this is macOS being weird, but sometimes this is just me not remembering to call an external lib in C
  • "duplicate symbol _main in:"" - added -c to the two .o rules to tell gcc to stop at the compilation stage. But also noting that this could be main being defined twice in the program.
  • My brain today: "How do you debug a debugger?"
  • Valgrind
  • brew install valgrind


Manipulating data


  • Intro from Ernest
  • pki, public key infrastructure
  • "web of trust" / "strong set"
  • expiration and revokation
  • "security convenience balance"
  • yubikey is closed source, nitrokey is open software/hardware
  • Ring (end to end encrypted Skype)

Cultural heritage and copyleft opinions

Lots of talks and inspiration from batchmate Marianne:

Preservation of complex media


  • Something obvious to me when working in the context of the humanities is that we each have specific knowledge about a subject derived from our own lenses and cumulative individual experience (hello Black feminist critical theory), and the sooner I acknowledge this applies to technical subjects too, the better off I’ll be. RC is a great place for this because of the diverse experience and backgrounds collaborating in one space, but harder in a small monoculture like digital preservation.
  • adding increasingly dangerous amounts of coffee, trying to reign it in


  • first added a xml feed to my blog, next day I actually showcase that endpoint so people can use it: if you want to subscribe
  • TIL zulip offers free hosting for OSS projects
  • more zulip love: you can view source, you write in markdown
  • Looking at
  • my review was requested on audiorecorder
  • "are you upstate or something? I picture you in some sort of compound like the end of mad men"
  • YCbCr: "But how do you make yellow?" Because colorspaces are cubes, and the absence of blue produces yellow, and the absence of red produces green.
  • fell into the same Jekyll time zone trap as Marianne did this week: A few of my posts was originally written at something like "23:16:00 -0400" so when the time changed for daylight savings, it reverted to thinking it "should" be the next day, deleting the original page and replacing it with a date that was one day later. Tricky! My hack to resolve it was to not get so granular with time-of-posts and kept it at the day-level for these late-ish night additions.
  • Lydia recommends:

Week 2 (April 9-13): R U S T

Code written


Minimum Viable Codec

  • What does this look like?

Rust vs multimedia

  • Kostya's Boring Codec World
  • but especially: NihAV — Concept and Principles
  • The above blog post helps me break down my own problems-I-will-be-creating-for-myself with this statement: "I hope the domain for NihAV is clear: it will take ByteIO input, demux data using it (packets or elementary stream chunks—if you want them in packet format then use a parser), optionally fill timestamp information, decode frames, reorder them in display order if requested, similar approach for writing data."
  • Huffman coding implementation in Rust

Rust in general


Codecs, etc

Video, in general

Linear Algebra

I think I may have to overcome my utter lack of maths knowledge soon...


  • Learning can feel painful and that's okay!
  • How to make mistakes, acknowledge them, correct them, and move forward.
  • The difficulties of committing (and wanting to commit) to 100% focus on something (this) but still having to manage winding down paused or ending freelance projects, maintaining pre-existing relationships, and trying not to worry about housing and employment after RC.


Week 3 (April 16-20) "Minimum Viable Codec" (Encoding)

Code written


Analog Video!




Week 4 (April 23-27) "Minimum Viable Codec" (Decoding)


Goals at the start of this week:

  • Writing h264 decoder / mini-player
  • Getting Rust to the browser with wasm - done!
  • Writing encoder for video streams using huffman algo
  • Not have a cold anymore - done!

Code written

  • Hmmm...




Deep video


YUV2RGB shader math

vec3 yuv = vec3(yColor.r - 16.0/256, uColor.r - 0.5, vColor.r - 0.5);
oColor.x = dot(yuv, vec3(1.164,  0.000,  1.596));
oColor.y = dot(yuv, vec3(1.164, -0.391, -0.813));
oColor.z = dot(yuv, vec3(1.164,  2.018,  0.000));

Week 5 (April 30 - May 4) (Floating in space)

Code written


Calling C in Rust

A return to Rust+WASM+JS


Video players


Week 6 (May 7-11) (Planets in alignment)

Code written


Malaysian General Election 2018



BONUS WEEK (May 14-18)

!!Con May 12-13 - I got a ticket!

This is when Never Graduate Week happens. SPRING BREAKKKKKKKK!

Code written

  • I-Ching gets a save-state upgrade and makeover

Week 7 (May 21-25) (Reboot)

Code written

  • X


  • X

Back 2 video

Manipulating video in the browser

Deepfakes again



Week 8 (May 28 - June 1)

Code written





YUV - RGB Conversion

R = Y + 1.4075 * (V - 128)
G = Y - 0.3455 * (U - 128) - (0.7169 * (V - 128))
B = Y + 1.7790 * (U - 128)

Y = R *  .299000 + G *  .587000 + B *  .114000
U = R * -.168736 + G * -.331264 + B *  .500000 + 128
V = R *  .500000 + G * -.418688 + B * -.081312 + 128

Week 9 (June 4-8)

Code written


Real Life Hour




Week 10 (June 11-15) 🎊🎂🆎

Video Pixel Formats


Week 11 (June 18-22) ⿒




Week 12 (June 25-28) 🙀


Back on my bullshit


scanlime video content



There is no end! Never graduate!

Thanks for reading!

~ ~ ~


I did not take time off for this week, and I regretted it. I was able to spend some time in the space, see old friends, listen to lots of talks, participate in a few group discussions, including some deep dives into web archiving and digital preservation and video.

NGW'20 / two years later! What will I build?

This year, I took the week off and couldn't wait to see all of my friends spread over the globe, but then a global pandemic happened and everything has shifted into being remote-only. I am still taking the week off, and intend to focus on researching and building.

Like my time at RC, I will track some of my work here as a bit of a time capsule into what I explored during this time.

My research focus is on virtual worlds, past and present. I want to be able to structure my thinking around this topic in a way that is deeper than my own memory. I have a few other ideas, including visualizing and searching a PDF database, more adventures in digital divination, and focusing on CSS and SVG animations.

Beginning of May

Trying to make up for long time? I have started planning what to work on and look into, which have shifted slightly from the paragraph above this one.


  • techno-divination (continuing theme of aura-reader, i-ching, barthes-tarot, et al)
  • visualization of archival material (have a collection of 3300 PDFs, how can I produce meaningful access?)
  • network-based performance artwork
  • exploring virtual worlds

Code written

  • aura reader 2020
  • jams page for me to track audio inspiration while in quarantine
  • all the code and assets for a project that I have not yet checked into a git repo (rare for me!), more tbd. I usually don't hide things but this is something that is meant to be viewed in a specific way, and I don't usually do that, either.
  • OCR and thumbnail generation for a set of PDFs, data transformation, small sqlite proof of concept also not quite ready for primetime


2020-05-11 Monday

Here is where I will do a check-in of what I've done and what I plan to do yesterday and today. I think this is a useful way of keeping myself accountable even if it is similar to tactics deployed by power-hungry middle-managers seeking to control a workforce. 🙃


  • configure DNS for network-based art project
  • write artist statement
  • reallife: last class sendoff
  • remembering to stretch neck/shoulders


2020-05-12 Tuesday

Today I remembered that doing things right takes time. Repetition and testing. Some things can't be rushed through.


  • still stretching
  • html/css up an intro-site to give context, refine artist statement, and...
  • Throttled is now live, sending it to testers before I can feel like it's really wrapped! Checking "network-based performance artwork" off the list -- I am really happy with this. It feels like there's not much to talk about technically, but maybe I will write a blog post about it since I did some diving into a few places I hadn't explored before.
  • reallife: time to give students meaningful feedback on their final projects! this took a lot of time and talking about it in detail is not appropriate for these notes
  • Finishing the ebook for Normal People before it gets auto-returned to the library in 24 hours


2020-05-13 Wednesday

Lots of social/group learning events today! Excited for: web standards disucssion, weird internet spaces, apl, intersectional feminist scifi talk, caaaats.

I am trying to switch gears and into the meaningful archival access project, but still hanging on to finishing up Throttled with regards to blog-post writing and formalizing notes so I don't forget in the future.



2020-05-14 Thursday

Yesterday was the halfway point, and I haven't gotten back into the archival access project, but hope to make a lot of progress on it today -- now that is my sole focus, now that the other project is out of my brain and in the world. This morning, I am going to start with writing what I've already done with the assumption that that will lead me to where I need to go in a way that feels more inviting than my todo list.


  • Made a lot of progress on a forthcoming blog post about this week's project


  • reallife: it is still grant-review season, deadline imminent
  • reallife: signed a contract for a small but impactful project :)
  • I just keep opening this and eventually closing it 🤦
  • "The museum does not exist"
  • Trader Joe's Organic Tusi Holy Basil Herbal Tea
  • Browsing Open source, experimental, and tiny tools roundup and wishing I had more time!
  • a friend and new coworker wrote something personal and I read it and cried because I'm so happy for her. 😭💖
    1. Charli XCX - 7 years.mp3
  • This is a very thorough StackOverflow answer listing out Node/Express response methods, something I didn't easily find elsewhere.

2020-05-15 Friday

Last day :(


  • lightning talk on Throttled
  • lightning talk on the Vasulka archive project
  • blog post with notes about the Vasulka exploratory project. I want to spent two more days on this and then wrap it up completely, since I didn't get to spent the full week focused on it -- really only just a couple of days.


2020-05-16 Saturday

And that's a wrap! There's more I want to do, but I have to start acclimating back into reallife obligations.

NGW is such a refreshing burnout-prevention supplement. It's not the cure, but it helps get you there.


updated regularly while attending Recurse Center in Spring 2 '18



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