Super Smash Christmas Bash

Today we had our Christmas Bash. This is usually a fairly quiet and select gathering, what with a lot of coursework being due and folks going home for Christmas. But we still found enough people to get through 128 pounds worth of pizza, which is a success of sorts....

Thanks to Adam and his advance purchasing power this event had a strong Super Smash Bros theme. He had managed to get a complete set of amiibos as prizes (including the much sought after Villager amiibo) and set up a tournament for folks to win them. We also had the lovely folks from Platform Expos with their network of Xbox One consoles playing Titanfall. Lob in Halo collection, Super Mario Kart and a wordsearch and you get a pretty good night's worth of entertainment. 

A tense moment in Titanfall

A tense moment in Titanfall

If you have any fears about the survival of Nintendo or the future of their Wii U console I really don't think you have much to worry about. From the reaction to the 8 player action (and the fun I had playing it too) I reckon they are going to be fine. One hard core PC gamer left with a newly acquired amiibo and a plan to try and get a console for Christmas. Great stuff

The winners with their prizes

The winners with their prizes

Of course we had a wordsearch. Of course some people came along, sat down with it and spent all their time finding words. And one of them won a prize.

A worthy winner, but still some words left to find...

A worthy winner, but still some words left to find...

We were having so much fun that we forgot about the timings and the event ran on for quite a while after the finish time. And we will definitely be having another Super Smash Bros session next year. There are more pictures of the event on Flickr. You can find them here

The Power is Mine

Today I ordered the final component for the "Wall of Lights" project. I've decided that it is worth getting proper devices where mains is concerned so I've plumped for a nice little Mean Well power supply that can deliver 20 amps at 5 volts. This should be comfortable with the 300 or so coloured leds that I'm going to be plugging into it as part of the Light Mesh project. With a a bit of luck it should arrive in the next couple of days. I'm hoping to get the thing going before christmas. 

Pinball Wizardry

Took a trip into Lincolnshire today to take a look at the Christmas Cracker Pinball event. Ross has an enviable collection of pinball machines and we were all able to go and have a play on them. I wasn't able to stay for the competition part, but I did get a bunch of pictures of some of the tables. There was a range of machines from electo-mechanical devices all the way through to ones with large displays. Great fun. Perhaps I could spend the 12 months or so practicing and then have a proper go next year. 

Buy this Windows Tablet. Like now.

Now this is just crackers. A well sorted 7 inch screen Windows tablet PC with a workable processor, reasonable storage (which can be expanded) and even a monitor socket. For 69 pounds. It's made by Linx, a firm you won't have heard of. But don't let that stop you from getting one. 

The price is less than it used to cost to buy Windows. And it comes with a years worth of Office 365. Which also costs more than the tablet. And to complete the madness, if you have an old tablet to trade in you can get 30 pounds cash back on top.

Did I get one? You bet. I'm not planning to put Visual Studio on it. It only has 1G of RAM, but I've been running the office suite (which is thrown in too) quite comfortably. I'll put a few more programs on it (it uses an Intel chip so it runs all the proper code) and I'm expecting them to work just fine as long as I'm careful not to start them all at once.

The screen is bright and clear if a tiny bit grainy. The angle of view is good and the standard of construction just fine with a slim build and light weight. The only slight snag might be battery life, which is quoted at 4-6 hours, but everything else about the device screams "Buy Me".

An impoverished student looking for a cheap way to be able to take notes in lectures and write up reports could get one of these, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and have a great little self contained device which they could even plug into a larger monitor for proper work.

Slap in a micro-SD card to supplement the 32G in the device (I have around 12G or so free at the moment) and you can load it up with media too if you want. It has OneDrive integration so you don't need to store much on the device itself and really cannot recommend it highly enough.  

I got mine from Staples in Hull, who are doing the 30 pound cashback deal too. It is presently discounted there from 99 to 69 pounds. I'd have been rather pleased to have such a neat device at 99 pounds. To find it this cheap is just amazing. We do live in interesting times. 

Moto 360 vs Sony Smartwartch

Some people think nothing of spending thousands of pounds on a watch. I can't see myself spending that kind of cash personally. But I do like gadgets. If the MVP Summit and my Microsoft Fitness Band shenanigans taught me one thing it's that I really wanted a wearable of some kind. Snag is that the Microsoft Fitness Band is slightly harder to get hold of than powdered unicorn horn. And to be honest I'm a bit nervous about wearing anything with Fitness in its name. I might give being fit a bad name. 

Anyhoo, I decided that I really wanted the proper wearable experience. Unfortunately that there is nothing wearable that you can get which works with my Lovely Lumia 1520 Windows Phone. So, one Android phone and two watches later I am now part of the wearable revolution. I make no (well, perhaps some) apology for buying two watches. Their combined price is considerably less than a single Rolex (not that I could afford a Rolex I suppose). And anyway, the watches  complement each other very well. Although I'm not planning to wear them both at the same time. 

The first watch I got was the Moto 360. The round one on the left. This has a screen to die for and an air of style that completely belies a first generation product. It looks like a slice of tomorrow, particularly when you get notifications that go all the way to the edge of the watch screen. The effect is spoiled slightly by a cut off area at the bottom of the watch screen which gives full screen displays a "flat tyre" appearance, but in general it looks terrific. If you want to feel that you are part of the future, this is a great watch to have. 

The second one I got was the Sony Smartwatch 3.  The square boring looking one on the right. It has a much less impressive screen than the Moto. But, being square, it can show you more text. And it uses an LCD technology called "trans-reflective" that means two really good things for a Smartwatch. The first is that the screen is visible in direct sunlight. The second is that it is readable when it is not lit up, saving battery life and making the device usable as a watch, which is nice. The Sony device also has a better processor, larger battery and more internal gizmos including GPS, NFC and WiFi. Not that any of the software lets you use much of these features just yet. From a style point of view it looks just like a sports watch in a plastic strap. Because that's essentially what it is. There is talk of more straps becoming available, and a metal wristband too, which might make the watch more acceptable as part of your formal dress. They'll have to come from Sony though, because the watch module fits inside the strap and is all very custom. 

Both watches run Android Wear and are pretty much functionally equivalent. The Moto 360 has been given a bit of stick by some reviewers because of its slower processor, but I didn't notice anything running slowly. The watches pair with the phone and you are notified of incoming email, texts and phone calls along with calendar and program alerts too.

The setup is fairly reliable, although I've had the watches reset a couple of times and sometimes you have to reboot the phone to re-establish the connection to the watch. The idea is that you use the watch to be alerted of things that you read and dismiss very quickly. In fact you have to work like this, because time spent on the watch quickly drains the battery. And therein, as they say, lies the rub.

The Moto 360 has a battery that will last a day with good luck and a following wind. And as long as you turn off the "ambient mode" that makes the watch tell you the time. The Sony is better in this respect. The battery is larger and the "trans-reflective" display means that you can leave the screen on and be able to tell what time it is just by looking at the watch. I reckon these watches need to be charged every night. This is easy enough with the Moto 360, it comes with a nifty stand that charges the watch if you just plonk it down on it at night. With the Sony watch you have to fiddle around the back, open a tiny waterproof hatch and plug in a standard USB cable. Much less fun. Although easier to take on holiday. 

Choosing between the two is very hard. The Moto is very stylish and formal, but you worry about bashing it into things and running out of battery life. The Sony looks built for fun, with a bouncy plastic strap (which attracts dust like nobodies business) to match. It also runs for a lot longer on a single charge. At the moment I'm using the Moto in the week and the Sony for the weekends. You can't use them both at the same time, but it turns out to be the work of seconds to switch from one to the other. No information is stored on the watch (although you can put music there if you are prepared to grapple with Google Play, which I'm not) so you just have to re-pair with the phone to change from one to the other. 

I was initially very skeptical about the whole wearables thing. If the phone is in your pocket, why do you need notifications on your wrist? Well, it turns out that this may be true, but you can triage your incoming messages and stuff on the wrist really easily, which saves on getting the phone in and out of your pocket. And you can turn the phone ringer off without fear of missing a call as your watch will alert you without disturbing anyone else. And you will know who is calling, so you can respond appropriately.  

But the convincer for me was the response of number one wife to the Pebble watch I connected to her iPhone. She loves it. Finds it very useful. The phone stays silently in her bag and she can get texts and phone alerts really easily. I'm the gadget person in our family and I'd be expected to love a new device like this. But number one wife is much more pragmatic. If it is not useful she just won't use it. Now she is looking forward to having a "proper" Apple watch in the future. She sees wearables as a progression. And I think a lot of folks will agree with her.

As for missing Windows Phone. I'm doing that. A lot. Android is nice enough, but it is a bit like riding a bike. All very well, but if you know there are these things called cars that can get you where you want in more comfort and with less effort then you have to find the cycling  experience a bit unappealing. For me at the moment the hassle of using Android, the inconsistent user interface, the wasted screen space and even the "lumpy" fonts is more than compensated for by the amount of fun I'm having with the wearables. When Windows 10 lands on the Lumia that will definitely change though. And I might even have a Microsoft Band by then. 

But a Windows Phone with a watch. Now that would be something. And would result in a flurry of activity from me on Ebay....

Finished Marking

We finished marking the First Year ACW today. It's been four long days of sitting down and asking the question "So, does it work?". Many thanks to Mike, Kevin, David, Simon and Septavera for rising to the challenge and getting everyone marked in good time. Now I've got to go through 190 or so of the mark sheets, normalise them and put them on eBridge with the comments transcribed.

It is always interesting looking at programs from people who are learning to code. What struck me this time was that as they were writing the software students were improving their style. So parts of the program would be rather messy constructions and the later bits would be tidier. 

This year we had some stunning submissions. XNA is great platform for making sprite based games but it is really hard to implement a turn based board game using it. But quite a few students had risen to the challenge and we had marks in the high nineties and one or two 100%s being awarded.

I'm rather looking forward to marking the work in the second semester.

Hour of Code

The Hour of Code is a great idea. Spend an hour playing with programming and get an understanding of what happens inside the black boxes that take up so much of our lives today. Learning a bit of programming will make you better at everything. We interact with computers so much these days that it is very useful to know a bit about just what happens when I give that command to the machine. 

I reckon programming is the most creative thing you can do because it enables you to build a universe that functions exactly the way that you want it to.  You can take ideas and make them come alive in a way that nobody else can. It's hard work, but much easier than learning to play the piano (in my experience). 

Take a look at:

  • Getting started with Python (a fun programming language) at CodeAcademy.
  • Writing games in JavaScript (the programming language behind web pages) at Code Avengers.
  • Writing code with Anna and Elsa from Frozen at (thanks for the link Emma)
  • Learn a bit about C# with my free, downloadable, book.


I quite forgot to mention that I've been chatting to Radio Humberside folks about programming and why to do it. I even ended up roping in Phil Cluff (one of our ex students who came to see us a while back). You can find the results here:

Making Less of Rob

I've been trying to lose weight for a while. When I first made the decision I did what anyone in my position would do, which is that I bought some gadgets to do the job for me. I got a Fitbit to track my activity levels, and a set of Fitbit Aria scales to track my declining bulk.  And I waited to get lighter. 

This did not work. 

In fact it didn't work to the extent that the scales stopped recognising me as Rob and referred to me only as "Guest". I'd managed to put on so much extra weight that I was no longer me. Turns out that gadgets alone don't work. 

So I tried another extra step, which was to exercise a bit more and eat a bit less. I tried to live by the maxim "No snacks after seven pm". It wasn't easy, but after a while I got back on the radar of the weighing machine and started losing a few pounds every now and then. 

The scales are rather neat. They are hooked up to WiFi and each time you weigh yourself the numbers are sent up into the cloud. A couple of weeks ago I weighed myself and promptly got an email from FitBit congratulating me on reaching one of my goals. I think the goal I had reached was "You have got back to the same weight you had when you started the programme", but at this stage I'll take any praise, even that from a faceless piece of robot software.  The Fitbit activity tracker is neat too and did a good job of tracking my activity right up to the point where I lost it. Maybe I'll get another one when I start doing more exercise.

My plan is to get to the point where I can  put on some trousers I bought a few years ago thinking "They are a bit tight, but I can slim down into them.". We shall see.

Coloured Lights for Christmas

I've got a plan for the Christmas lights this year. On the amazing AliExpress website I found a listing for 50 pre-soldered WS812B leds in a strand for the amazing prize of around 12 quid. Post free. These are the same devices that I used in the hugely successful Wedding Lights earlier in the year. So it was out with the credit card and away I go. What could go wrong?

The plan is to make a mesh of them for the living room. I've even got permission from number one wife to hang them up. I've found this thing called FadeCandy that I can use to control them, although for testing at the moment I'm making do with an Arduino I happen to have lying around.  

Eventually I want to learn how to use Processing (a very interesting language that looks great fun) to put lo-res images and other stuff up on the wall. 

Step 1 is to make some enclosures for the lights. As supplied they are just soldered onto cable. I've come up with Version 1.0 above, which is a simple cube of white PLA along with a base that just snaps onto the back. I had a happy hour this morning designing them and test printing them and they seem to look OK. 

Step 2 will be to hang a strand downstairs and see how they look. Great fun, and much more interesting than all the other things I really should be doing. But hey, it is Sunday after all. 

Christmas Bash is Coming

The Christmas Bash for 2014 is coming and it is going to be a corker. We are going to have Wii U Smash Bros 8 player, with amiibo prizes, Team Fortress 2, Xbox One, Playstation 4, board games, word searches, pizza, mince pies and a super bumper hyper mega wordsearch which might include the words super, bumper,hyper and mega.

Tickets will be on sale in the Departmental Office on the Third Floor of the Robert Blackburn Building from 2:30 pm on Monday 8th December. Numbers are strictly limited.

Flashing Lights and Drones at C4DI


Today we had another of our hardware meetups at c4di. Great fun was had by all who attended. We had two activities, playing with coloured leds or creating a Larson Scanner. Ross had brought along a little quadcopter with a video camera and much fun was had with that too. I'm not saying you should get one, but if you fancy making an investment you can find it here.

Python Wrap

Python wrap sounds like the kind of dish you don't pick off the menu, or perhaps a piece of music that you really don't want to hear. But in this context I'm talking about the last of our "Wrestling with Python" sessions for a while. They have been great fun to deliver, and it has been lovely to watch people come to terms with the artful business that is programming. 

This week we were making good on our promise of a "Soup to Nuts" implementation, going from problem description to working code.  And we added some File Handling, just to make it even more useful. You can find the slides and completed code here.

We'll be running more of these next year. 

Writing a Program is not a Fight

Our First Year students are busy at the moment working on their Assessed Coursework. They are implementing computerised versions of Tactical Space Cheese Racer, a board game that we've invented just for this year. 

One student came to see me today and told me that he was having problems getting the code to work. Each line of his breathless report was prefaced with "And then it does this...." as if the code was some kind of malign being that he was fighting against. 

After listening for a while I had to remind him that he is not in a battle here. The program is something that that he created, and therefore he really should focus on the steps that it follows and why it does what it does. Just poking the beast by moving code around and adding and deleting statements will not actually tame it. What you have to do is focus on the sequence of operations it goes through when it does these bad things. 

We started going through the code and finding stuff here and there that could be fixed, and by the end he was referring to the thing as "my program", which I think is progress.