Bluetooth Arc Touch Mouse

While I was in Seattle earlier this month I took the opportunity to pick up some mice and keyboards. I got a Bluetooth version of the Arc touch mouse which is really nicely designed . It lies flat and you turn it on by folding it into an arc. Hence the name. It's more comfortable than I expected and it works very well. There's no scroll wheel, but the touch area in its place is a usable replacement. The mouse contains a sounder that "clicks" as you scroll up and down providing good tactile feedback. It's a bit pricey, but it does have a nice premium feel and the way it snaps flat is very pleasing.

Paul Talks Security at a Rather Useful Seminar

I bumped into Paul Orlowski a while back. Apparently I taught him something about computers in the 1980's. Paul was studying electronics at the time, but now he is into security. Proper, full on, big company to government security. Of course I asked him to deliver a Rather Useful Semnar. And today he did. 

It was great. Security is a big thing. A big big thing. And it is going to get bigger. Paul made the point that as a career security is an increasingly interesting (and lucrative) choice for a Computer Science graduate.

Paul also explained that security is all about governance and process. If there's nobody at the right level in an institution to ensure that security policies are are properly enacted, or if systems are built without having security at the heart of the development, then we won't get the secure systems that we need. 

We had a really good turnout and everyone went away with plenty to think about. 

GPUs and Surface Books

So, I was talking to Lilian from Microsoft last week, and explaining how I didn't think I needed to buy a Surface Book device because the only difference between it and my Surface Pro 3 is that it has a Graphical Processor Unit (GPU) in it.  I reckoned I that I had no need for GPU support because I don't play games or do graphical things. She reminded me that lots of programs, including Adobe Lightroom - which I use a lot - make heavy use of GPU hardware to speed things up. 

I tested this theory over the weekend, running Lightroom on my HP Sprout, that has a reasonable GPU in it. Turns out she's right. The GPU makes raw decoding of images much, much, faster. So now I want a Surface Book. The big one. With the GPU.

Thanks for that Lilian. 

Suiting Up Pays off

The "Black Godzilla" team in Three Thing Game made an awesome game. And they turned up at the Finalist Presentations fully suited and booted, and looking really sharp. Like winners in fact. I caught up with one of the team today and he told me that they had decided to dress properly for the event. 

I think this is a great idea. Way back when I was mentoring Imagine Cup Teams I had a habit of nipping down to Asda and picking up sets of matching shirts for the teams that I was looking after. This got a bit expensive when we had four teams in the UK finals one year, but it made a huge difference. For one thing, the students looked like proper teams.

If you're engaged in any kind of team work it is well worth giving some thought to this. It doesn't have to be expensive, just all get the same style T shirt or whatever. And the funny thing is, once you look like a team you start to behave more like a team too.

Three Thing Game Video Links

Awesome competition yesterday. And here are some awesome videos fromthe entries:

Here's a stupid video I made in five minutes detailing my Three Thing Game entry. I did text because talking was too hard. Ignore my awful "comedy". More details below: Team Name: Twich Plays Three Thing Game Team Members: Just me Words: Blank, Minded, Thought Idea: The idea of the game is that you are a newly awoken artificial intelligence with barely any grasp on the world.

Our Spooky Elephant production for the November 2015 Three Thing Game. Our three words were Like, Hate, and Why which we used to create multiplayer networked game of intrigue and manipulation.

I'll be putting these videos on the official Three Thing Game site, so if any other teams have got videos that they want to share, please send them through. 

Three Thing Game Finals

These are the hardy survivors

These are the hardy survivors

By the end of the competition we had around 20 teams that wanted judging. This is about par for the course for the November Three Thing Game, as people discover to their cost what happens if they ignore my "Keep it Simple" advice and end up with not a lot at the end (although I would strongly advise teams to always submit something for judging - you may not win, but you'll get a lot of good feedback and very likely some respect to).

By the end of the judging pass we had the top finalists, and they got to present their games. Here they are in no particular order:


First up was first year team TBC with an astonishingly rich text based adventure game written "because we don't know enough XNA just yet". They'd managed to fashion a compelling narrative from the things "shoe, horn and cream". Very nice work.

Next we had the "Ice Team Cones" who had created "Bereavement Bonanza", a fast paced shoot-em-up where you have to fight for your inheritance, from the things "Inheritance, property and goods". Some nice gameplay twists around what happens when you die (other players get your goods) and "retro-cheese" graphics in this one. 

This is team "Penetration Innovation" with their zombie game created from "dread, dead, grave". It's a bit hard to see the zombie hordes chasing the player around a scary village, but they all use some very clever algorithms to get an effective chasing action. 

Team Baeshaw are a bunch of Three Thing Game old hands, and they brought some lovely polish to the competition with a musical line following game inspired by "Equation, crescent and curve". Players control the waveform type (sine or square) and the amplitude with the aim of following the target line and hitting all the notes. Get it right and the music goes up a gear. Miss a few and the tune reflects your lack of skills. Very nice work, one that should go for sale I reckon. 

This is team "Just One Guy" got the words "hot, cold and bear". He was showing off  a lovely puzzle platformer built with a bear that could heat to steam to fly, wander round as cold and then turn to ice to freeze over the watery barriers. The artwork fitted the theme perfectly and the gameplay was beautifully thought out and with great progression as the various "states of the bear" are used to solve puzzles. 

If there was a prize for the sharpest dressed team in the competition it would have to go to the "Black Godzillas" who still managed to look freshly pressed after a night of development. There game, inspired by the things "Why, are and you" had a fighting knight forced to re-examine his choice for a peace-full life when his quiet village is razed to the ground by invaders. The animation was jaw droppingly good and the storyline intriguing. 

I didn't envy the judges their task when they went out to pick the winners, but they managed somehow to come up with four teams who were announced, as is the fashion, in reverse order.

Team TBC came away with fourth place, the judges praising their story telling and how much content they'd managed to create and fit together in the time they had.

Team Baeshaw were third, being singled out for the polish of their creation and its "just one more go" appeal.

Team "Penetration Innovation" were second. The judges were hugely impressed with their algorithms to give the Zombies a life-like (or should that be death like) behaviour as they hunt down their prey.

Which left "Just One Guy" to pick up the First Place. Judges were full of praise for the way that the artwork and the gameplay complemented the things and the overall thought and design that went into the finished product. A stunning piece of work from just one developer. 

After the main prizes had been given out the judges wanted to specially commend a few teams. Here's Lee (on the left) giving awards to "Twitch Plays TTG", the one man next to Lee and "Spooky Elephant", Warren and David on the right, for their technical innovation in gameplay.

Final award of the night went to team Alex² + 2AlexDan + Dan² who produced something really special with an adherence to theme that was above and beyond the call of Three Thing Game. You have to see the video to find out more. 

Thanks go to Lee and Lilian from Microsoft for their support, to Derek for judging, for the team from BetaJester who not only helped with judging, but also served the pizza, Louis for judging assistance and the 3D viewers given to each team  and Lindsay from Platform Expo for helping to judge and also producing some much appreciated alcoholic prizes for the winning teams.

Three Thing Game will be back in March next year, but keep your eyes open for Global GameJam Hull, coming at the end of January.

I'll post links to the videos later. 

Three Thing Game Overnighter - It Begins

We started the overnight portion of Three Thing Game November 2015 today. We handed out the things and got folks going early in the evening. Lilian from Microsoft came along and told us all about the neat cloudy things available for students from Azure (find out more here) and I did my "Keep it Simple" routine where I advised teams to start with something simple that works and then build on that. We'll see how many follow my advice....

After the briefing, and once the labs had finished, it was time to head for the various computer rooms around the campus and for everyone to get set up. I was very concerned that we wouldn't fit in the department but as it turned out everyone spread themselves around the department rather handily, with four different labs playing host to teams of developers.

I settled down in the Fenner Computer lab and tried to get a few things done, in between ordering pizza and sorting things out. The pizza was a little bit later than I planned, but we did have a lot of pizzas. Three car's worth.

By the time we had fed everybody there were a few pizzas left, but Warren reckoned that by the morning they'd all be gone.

Once food had been had everyone settled down for the night. I'm now much to old to work overnight so around 10:45 or so I gave Lilian a lift back to her hotel (and had some wonderful shenanigans outside Hull Paragon Station where I tried to drive the wrong way a Taxi rank (they didn't like that).  I think I had the look of Uber about me. 

Anyhoo, things look set for some interesting games tomorrow. I took a bunch of pictures of the teams as they got started. You can find them here

Give Things Away

One of the smartest things I ever did was to give away the C# Yellow Book. I've had more interest and traffic from the free downloads than I'd ever have got if I tried to make a profit from the text. 

I was talking to one of the musician folks who will be helping make music and sound effects for Three Thing Game on Friday and I was expounding on this theory. My theory is that people really love free stuff, and that if you make a name for yourself as a provider of good, free, stuff then sooner or later someone will want to hire you for a proper job.

The great thing about being young and creative is that you often have more ideas than you know what to do with. So why not put some of the stuff you make out there for free and see what comes back. If you're a programmer you can get a similar effect by taking part in Open Source Projects.  

Rob at Future Decoded


That's me on the Red Stage. I wonder how it got it's name? Thanks to Edward for the picture. You've not given me permission actually, but you put the shot on the internets and so I reckon it's fair game. And anyway, I think I may have taught you to program a while back and I so I reckon we are probably quits. 

Anyhoo, today saw me up bright and early and heading off to London for Future Decoded. I was giving a "Grok Session", in fact one of the very last ones of the day. I was a bit worried that nobody would come - after all 

That's me at the bottom...

That's me at the bottom...

One thing that amazed me was the number of people who came up to me and told me that I taught them to program many years ago. Fantastic to see them doing well. And quite a few came to my talk, which was lovely.

I was talking about Snaps, my little framework that is designed to help people learn how to program, but turns out to be a neat place to create simple applications. The audience was great, much fun was had and I managed to get to Kings Cross to catch my train back in good time. Thanks to Lee for inviting me.  I took some pictures, as you do...

Robot Bartenders..

Robot Bartenders..

Big Banners

Big Banners

I think their "goodies were well tuned to the audience demographic"

I think their "goodies were well tuned to the audience demographic"

Windows 10 on Raspberry Pi - Snaps secrets of the LogoBlaster

Spent a lot of today working on the presentation for Future Decoded tomorrow. I'm showing off my Snaps framework for creating simple applications. It's almost ready for release. If I hadn't just decided to renumber all the chapters of the book that it is linked too, thereby breaking all the sample code, it would be available now.....

Anyhoo, I dropped Snaps onto a Raspberry Pi (which is really easy to do) and built a bunch of embedded snaps.  I'm going to show how easy it is to use Snaps with embedded code and show of my LogoBlaster device.

This is the code that reads from a pin and changes to the next logo if the pin has been pressed. All that displayNextImage does is fetch the next picture. No need to set up an GPIO, just use the snaps engine methods. I'm really looking forward to the talk tomorrow.

Biggest Ever Three Thing Game - with added thing trading

If you download the big images from Flickr you can just about read the things at the back...

If you download the big images from Flickr you can just about read the things at the back...

We launched our biggest ever Three Thing Game today. We have over 200 students and 50 teams taking part. I'm a bit worried about fitting everyone into the department on Friday night.

I had this theory that quite a few folks wouldn't turn up. But in the end we had all but three teams come along to get their things. This year I've used the Edinburgh Associative Database to produce sets of three related things. I've written a little C# program that reads the network of words and produces enough sets of things for the competition.  I'll put it on GitHub when I get round to it. 

Thing Trading

Thing Trading

This year, for the first time, we are also allowing teams to trade their things with each other. This resulted in a flurry of activity and some very strange sounding conversations. 

The development starts now, with the overnight session on Friday and judging on Saturday. Great fun. 

Visual Studio Code and Alien Invasions

One thing that got pretty heavy mention at the MVP summit was Visual Studio Code. Turns out this is awesome. I reckon that if aliens ever come to earth it won't be to steal our water or turn us all into their slaves or whatever. It will be to get hold of Visual Studio. It is the best place in the universe to write code. 

Visual Studio Code is a lightweight development environment that takes the essence of the Visual Studio development process and makes it work on Lunix, Mac OSX and Windows. It is designed to be extensible, so that you can create bindings for your own development process and programming language (although there are lots available already). And it's free.  Great stuff.

Perhaps by beaming the installer out into space we can save ourselves an alien invasion or two. 

Printer Bashing

This had better keep working...

You should never try and do anything when you have jetlag. Especially print things. Today was the day I needed to print up all the materials for the Three Thing competition. Like I did for the last few years I fired up my printer and, like it did for the last few years, it promptly proceeded to jam up with paper.

Some things about the modern world confuse me. We can put men on the moon (although that was a long time ago). We can fathom out the deepest mysteries of science. We can create vast and powerful networks that span the globe. But we can't make a device that reliably feeds paper into itself.

Up until now I've just fixed all the paper jams and carried on, repeatedly printing until I get all the copies I need. But today I had jetlag, which reduced my tolerance of such foibles to avery bare minimum. So that, and the realisation that I'd have to do exactly the same thing next year, and the year after that, made me pick the printer up, throw it in the car and take it to the tip.

Then I went on to Staples and picked up a replacement printer. I think I may have annoyed the staff by the way that I went along the row, typing product numbers into Amazon and looking for a device with a set of good reviews. Turns out that there aren't that many in that situation. Which confuses me. (see above)

Anyhoo, the HP Envy device that I selected was well reviewed and comparatively cheap. It will cost a huge amount to keep going - of course - but I'm hoping that it will print reliably for a year or two.

MVP Summit Last Day

This is what passes for MVPs on the rampage....

This is what passes for MVPs on the rampage....

Today was the last day of the Microsoft MVP Summit. Tomorrow I fly home. I've just about got over the jet lag, in time for another bout when I get home. We had another day of interesting discussion and a hackathon which was great fun. Then out for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and then packing.

It's been a great summit. I always leave these occasions with a head full of ideas for things to do and a strong desire to come back for the next one. Thanks to Microsoft for setting up such a fantastic event.

HoloLens Experience at the MVP Summit

They wouldn't let me take a picture of the HoloLens device...

They wouldn't let me take a picture of the HoloLens device...

It wasn't quite a "Golden Ticket" in the Willy Wonka style, but it did open up a rather interesting new world. On Sunday night, at the party, I was given a ticket to a session at the rather grandly named "Holographic Academy" on the Microsoft Campus. Today was the day that I got to try the new augmented reality.

From what I can tell, the academy is a large room with a bunch of powerful PCs, some tables and couches, and of course some HoloLens devices. I initially thought that the PCs were there to perform the rendering for the headsets. I was wrong. The headsets are completely self-contained. They are also very well made and looked "production quality" to me. They even fitted over my rather large glasses.

The 3D augmentation effect that they produce is totally believable. I placed a virtual "cat" on a table, walked the length of the room and then went back to it. The cat was still in exactly the same place. I looked up and down, let and right and the virtual objects in the scene all moved exactly as they should have done with no discernable lag or flicker. The sound experience is worth mentioning too. I could place objects in 3D space with my eyes closed, just by listening. And if I turned my head the objects moved as well.

The only real issue is that the region of filled with the virtual objects is only about a third of your field of view. This is a limitation of the display technology they are using. Perhaps over time the field of view will improve, but even now it is good enough to give a very impressive experience.

After a few minutes I took my headset off and was intrigued by the spectacle of a whole bunch of people wearing the headsets and moving round the room looking at things which just were not there.  You could tell where they were looking, you just couldn't see what they were looking at.

A future with these devices in it is going to be a very interesting one indeed.

Using the US Surface Pro 4 Keyboard in the UK

I really like my Surface Pro 4 keyboard. Especially the fingerprint sensor bit, which makes unlocking my device very easy. Unfortunately the fingerprint sensor enabled version of the keyboard is not available in the UK. Fortunately I'm presently in the 'states and I've been able to get hold of one from the Microsoft Store here.

The bad news is that it is, of course, a keyboard with the US layout. The good news is that it is extremely easy to change keyboard layouts in Windows 10. The first thing you need to do is make sure that your machine has both languages installed. Go to Settings> Time and Language

If you're missing the USA language option just press the + and add English(United States). Then, whenever you call up the keyboard you can select the language to use by calling up the on-screen keyboard and  pressing the key in the bottom right. Then, pick your language. The change takes effect immediately and it means that I can swap between my docked keyboard (UK) and my Pro 4 keyboard (US).

The only snag is that of course some of the keys are in different places, but I'm getting better at adapting....

MVP Summit 2015 Day 1

These are the trees across from the hotel

These are the trees across from the hotel

Today was the first day of the MVP Summit proper. After getting up bright and early (it was kind of hard not to bearing in mind the time difference I'm working with) we headed off to the Microsoft Campus. The sessions at the summit are organised into tracks and this year I've decided to follow the "Internet of Things" track. I want to find out what the future holds in the embedded computing space from the Microsoft perspective.

The answer is; a lot. I've always liked making embedded gadgets, although I've been painfully aware of their limitations in the greater scheme of things. It's fine to make a balancing robot, or flashing lights or a Logo Blaster, but for me the true usefulness of embedded devices only comes when they are properly connected to each other and the internets. And by properly connected I mean behind industrial strength networking, loophole free operating systems and trustworthy authentication.

I don't think I'm giving much away when if I say that Microsoft seems to feel the same way too. For me the great stuff was not just the future of Windows 10 on embedded devices (although that is looking really interesting) but also the cloud elements that are going into place behind these tiny, cheap processing machines. Inspiring stuff.

When we arrived at the hotel and got off the bus after a day of fascinating content Doug turned to me and said "Careful that you don't sit down on the bed in your room, fall asleep and wake up at 10:00 pm". I assured him that I wouldn't do anything as silly as that, and that I'd see him at the MVP Summit Welcome Reception in an hour or so. Then I went upstairs to my room, sat down on the bed and........

Oh well.

I'm a bit cross with myself to be honest. Missed a party with free food and drink. Ho hum. At least I'll be nice nd fresh for tomorrow morning. At 3:00 am....

MVP Summit Party at the Living Computer Museum

Driving over the floating bridge to Seattle

Driving over the floating bridge to Seattle

One of the highlights of the MVP Summit is the party organised by Desiree and her team. I've been lucky enough to go on a few of these over the years, and there was much excitement tonight as we boarded the bus to "Who knows where" for the event this year.

The coach driver was sworn to secrecy but after a short journey from Bellevue to the Seattle outskirts we arrived at the party venue  The Living Computer Museum.  

Commodore Pet running my bubbles program

Commodore Pet running my bubbles program

The key word in the name of the museum is "living". These machines are all in working order and you are allowed, even encouraged to play with them. I was able to relive some of the coding of my younger days and I went round putting my "bubbles" program on as many machines as I could find (and there were a lot of them):

10 PRINT SPC(RND(1)*40);"o":GOTO 10

This displays a rather nice rising bubble display. See if you can work out how it works.

I learnt to program on one of these

I learnt to program on one of these

Once I'd had a play with all the microcomputers (and there were a lot of them) I spotted something that really made my heart jump. They had a card punch machine just like the one that I used when I was learning how to program. At the university we had a bunch of these and you would type your program onto punched cards that were fed into the machine two or three times a day, They even let me sit down and punch a card for old time's sake.

It's a very weird feeling to see something that you used to use (and which was at the cutting edge in it's day) turning up in a museum like this. When you think that the iPads and flat screen TVs that we think are state of the art now will be in a similar situation in forty years or so it gives you pause to think about technology and how fast it changes things.

A truly awesome place.  Not for all perhaps, but for Microsoft MVPs I can't really think of a better place to have a do. I'd be happy to have the party there every year. I'm certainly going back there under my own steam at some point in the future.