Watch "The Men Who Made Us Spend"

I'm a dream target as far as advertisers are concerned. I like new shiny things and have got pretty good at rationalising my impulses to purchase gadgets. I don't buy a new game console, I "invest" in it. I reckon that if you do the maths you would probably discover that my shiny Xbox One purchase actually makes about as much commercial sense as buying shares in a bank. So I reckon I can call it an investment.

Anyhoo, I watched "The Men Who Made Us Spend" last night with more than a smidgen of interest. It told the story of how advertisers have turned us all into eternal children who can be provoked into impulse buying simply by showing us stuff in films and on TV. The presenter told the story of how the makers of the Star Wars films were the ones that first discovered this magical effect but I'm not too sure about that. I remember Thunderbirds.  

I, along with thousands of other schoolkids of the 1960s, were glued to to the antics of International Rescue, with their squad of numbered machines that made them very easy to order in toy shops. Which just happened to be full of them at the time. They even managed to corner the girls market too, with  Lady Penelope. I also remember my dad showing a keen interest in the program, and often reading my TV21 magazine before I did. And we were bonding over Men from Uncle movies and James Bond cars as well. 

"The Men Who Made Us Spend" made some very good points, but I think if they had gone a bit further back in time they would have discovered that this kind of thing has been going on since the point in human existence when we had a bit of spare cash jingling in our pockets. The scale has changed and the toys have changed but this stuff is all powered by human nature. And that hasn't changed for thousands of years.

The whole series is well worth seeing. I watched the episode while building a Lego Mini. Go figure. 

Sending Unix Commands to Galileo

I've been playing with the Galileo and written my first little program. It doesn't do much, but it does let you send commands to the Unix part of the system from the USB debugging connection. 

The program just assembles a command message and sends it to the system. It appends a redirect so that the result of the command is sent back to the debug serial port.

To send commands to your Galileo just open the Serial Monitor from the Tools menu and type the command in the send window. Put a * on the end to mark the end of the command and press enter to send it.

It is not particularly elegant, but it is my first program and it does work. If you want to send a * to the command line you have to change the code. But I'm sure you can do that.

You can download the sketch from here.

Whelmed by the Galileo

A Galileo with a very distant relative

A Galileo with a very distant relative

There is a wonderful exchange in the film "Ten Things I Hate About You"* where one of the characters poses the question "You can be overwhelmed. And underwhelmed. But can you ever be just 'whelmed'?". I think you can be. And I've just found the thing that does it. I've been playing with an Intel Galileo board. And I must admit that I'm totally whelmed by it. 

It looks like an Arduino that has been eating all the pies. It has all the connections that an Arduino has, but they are subtly less useful (more of that in a minute). It is based on the Intel Quark architecture which is a complete system on a chip. The Quark is the tiny thing right in the middle of the Galileo device. The Quark chip provides serious amounts of processing grunt, and it is coupled to 512 megabytes of memory. It runs a flavour of Linux and you can put bigger versions of that operating system, plus a lot of data, on the micro-sd card.

Flip the board over and you can find a PCI Express socket which could take all kinds of high speed devices.  You can also connect the Galileo to a wired network and it will work a treat, and you can run Python and lots of other stuff. And you can plug Arduino shields into the board and directly interface to hardware. That cat-flap that sends you an email each time the cat goes in or out is well within your grasp.

So far, so neat. But it is expensive, at over fifty pounds it is around five times the price of a single Arduino clone. And the Arduino hardware ports are limited. While they are electrically the same as the ones on your trusty Uno they can't be updated at more than 230 or so Hz. This rules out driving things like NeoPixels from the Galileo. It supports USB hosting, but you have to have an extra connector, and you need a really funky cable if you want to do serial communication with it. 

If you really want to have Arduino compatibility and some unix power round the back you should probably get a Yun device. This is cheaper, smaller, lower power and you get WiFi thrown in. If you want to do proper unix with a bit of interfacing then the Raspberry Pi might be more up your street. And you can plug a monitor directly into that. 

The Galileo is not a bad device. It is just not anything other than whelming at the moment. That could change though, remember that Quark computer on a chip. It really is tiny. If Intel release a slew of properly small and properly cheap Quark based platforms, then the Galileo would be a fantastic place to prototype the next generation of "internet of things" gizmos.

Update: The review above is all about the Galileo that I paid money for, arrived in a box last week, and I've just had a play with. It is not about the Galileo that Microsoft have been giving away as part of their Internet of Things effort. I signed up for that, but nothing has come through yet. Thanks to leonellive for pointing that out.

As far as I can tell the IOT device is the same, but it comes with an SD card containing a different operating system that is Windows based and you can write programs using Visual Studio. Now that might be a lot more than just whelming. (Does anyone know where I can get an SD card image?). 

* If you've not seen the film, or you have and you want to relive the magic, head over to this fantastic essay all about it from Bim.

The Eimo Vital Sign Monitor on Kickstarter

Some time a go I was a little bit unwell, and every since then I've been quite careful about keeping active. I went on this very useful post-procedure programme to improve my fitness where they measured my heart rate and blood pressure before and after exercise and I now do the same kind of thing at home.

At regular intervals I do a bunch of exercises which are based on the programme I used to do at the hospital. Before and after each one I measure my heart rate and at the start I measure blood pressure. I've now got a whole bunch of bits of paper holding numbers which are actually pretty similar and I really like it that way. If I do my routine and the numbers start to look odd, that's when I will go and see someone about it. I'm probably being a bit obsessive about the process, but I view this as a healthy kind of obsessive...

Turns out that the university is involved in a project that would make my routine a lot easier. It's on Kickstarter, and I've backed it. The device they are proposing will capture all the readings that I take using my various different devices, plus a few more. It will also allow the data to be transferred into a PC so I can look at proper graphs rather than scribbled numbers. 

I really hope they get funding, I'd love to have an Eimo in my life.

C4DI Summer Party

These guys were making the music. Now, I'm no expert, but those record players look a bit small to me.....

These guys were making the music. Now, I'm no expert, but those record players look a bit small to me.....

Went to the C4DI Summer Party this evening. Fantastic venue. Lovely weather. Great company. And Free Food. 

What more can you ask for?

Met up with some Hull graduates who seem to have "accidentally formed a software development company" by being in the right place (C4DI) at the right time. (a few weeks ago). Fantastic work guys, and I'll see about getting you in to do a "Rather Useful Seminar" in the future. (nobody ever really escapes Hull University......)

Also spent some time chatting about 3D printing, future embedded stuff at C4DI, teaching and all kinds of other bits and bobs.

Of course I took some pictures. I think I may have over-processed them a bit, but hey, it's my blog....


Birthday Bluetooth

It's my birthday today. I had my treat over the weekend and am now saving up for a Segway (just about doable) and a twenty acre estate that I can use it in (pretty much impossible). So I'm here in the office, eating chocolates and writing C#. Which counts as a pretty good situation in my book. 

Anyhoo, I've been playing with a present I bought myself last week. It is a Texas Instruments SensorTag. You can pick these up for a very reasonable sixteen pounds or so and they are enormous fun (if you like connecting devices to sensors). It talks Bluetooth BLE and I've fancied having a go at this for a while.

Turns out to be easy to get it to connect to a Windows 8.1 device. Just remember that for Windows you have to pair the tag over Bluetooth. It just works with iOS and Android - I hope that they remove the need for pairing with Windows at some point. 

If you fancy having a go I've written a very simple universal app and put it on GitHub. You can use this to connect to the accelerometer in a SensorTag and get events fired in your program when a new reading is produced. 

I used a superb post from Dan Ardelean to get started, and just built a little wrapper class around methods that he described.  Great fun.

Kindle Mysteries

There are many mysteries in my life. Is there a god? Are we alone in the universe? What does the phrase "lifetime guarantee" actually mean? I would love to know the truth behind any or all of these.

But right now I'd settle for a solid answer to the question "How do you put things into a mono spaced font when you are authoring a Kindle ebook?"

Scary Things You Shouldn't Do


One of my programming rules is that "just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should". Take this piece of magic for example:

This is a lump of XAML, the code that you use to design the user interface for a Windows application. It tells the computer what the display will look like and defines display objects which link to the underlying code that provides the behaviours.

Except that it turns out that you can actually put code into your XAML, along with the display markup.

You should never do this. But I guess that knowing about it is cool. Find out more here.

Most of Monty Python Mostly Live

Monty Python Live.PNG

I was just a bit too young for Monty Python first time around. That is, the show was on telly, but dad wouldn't let me stay up to watch it. At the time I was mostly into radio comedy, being a huge fan of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again.  I still have some reel-to-reel tapes of their shows in the loft. Now that was the proper stuff. And anyway, Spike Milligan and Q5 were already doing that kind of thing.

When I finally got round to watching the show (on the old black and white telly that we kept upstairs) I thought the first few seasons were marvelous. The structure was just amazing. They were supposed to be anarchic and wild but to me the best bit was the way that the various sketches were threaded together.

That linkage disappeared in the later seasons, when the cast discovered that their success was such that they could to turn up and shout at the camera to get huge laughs from a devoted fan base, but if you've not seen the first two seasons you really should seek them out, they are fantastic constructions of comic genius. 

Their earlier films brought back the tight structure again and of course I ended up with the books, records and whatnot over the years. The world of computing owes the comedy troupe a debt as well, the origins of "spam" email are the celebrated "spam with everything" sketch and the Python language is so named because the creator "Just likes Monty Python". 

And so we come to the live show this evening, either a cynical cash-in from once great performers or a chance to see the magic live again. Or perhaps a bit of both. But you have to go along, don't you?

We turned up at the cinema and were told that "due to a satellite fault" we would not be able to see all of nearly all of Monty Python. Technical troubles meant that a third of the picture was being lopped off the screen. They didn't blame the satellite for the failure of the air conditioning (perhaps they thought that an audience with a high geek factor wouldn't fall for that one) but at least the ice cream was keenly priced.

As for the performance, it was everything I expected. Even with the missing part of the picture. Most of the gems were present and correct (even if John Cleese kept forgetting his lines - probably out of boredom). There were some clips from the original shows, including the wonderful Fish Slapping Dance and some sparkly song and dance numbers.  All in all the evening delivered.

I think there is probably an ancient Chinese saying somewhere along the lines of "Age turns you into the things you most despised when you were younger." And if there isn't, there probably should be. At the end of their career the Pythons are the kind of thing that the younger versions of themselves would have lampooned mercilessly. But they are all clever enough to be aware of that and the need to keep the customers happy. In the end we all left with smiles, humming "Always look on the bright side of life".

And I'll probably end up buying the inevitable Blu-Ray and book.......

Segway in Dalby Forest

Does that sky look ominous to you? I've done a bit of image processing it must be admitted, but things were a bit grey when we arrived at Dalby Forest at 11:00 in the morning.

Number one daughter had arranged a Segway expedition around the forest as a birthday treat for me (my favourite kind of birthday treat) and this was the day. We arrived in good time and managed a walk around in the dry before a packed lunch and then heading for our steeds.

But I did get a certificate...

But I did get a certificate...

I've never ridden a Seqway before. And now I want to buy one. They are ace. My abiding memory of the hour is whizzing through the trees in driving rain, the water running down both sides of the huge grin on my face. Such fun. 

I had all these cunning plans to take video of the event and whatnot, but I was beaten by the twin perils of flat batteries and having too much fun to want to bother recording anything just at that moment. 

Playing with TinyDuino


One of the things I love about the Arduino platform is the huge number of different form factors that are available. This has got to be the smallest I've seen so far. It is TinyDuino.

The picture above shows some of the boards and a Starburst to give an idea of scale. The devices are, clockwise from the Starburst, processor, Bluetooth BLE, Accelerometer and programmer. The boards stack on top of each other using the tiny connectors.

When you want to program your device you put the programmer board into the stack and plug it into a USB port in your PC. It appears as an Arduino Pro-Mini clocked at 8Mhz (use the 3.3 volt option). It has all the pins of a standard Arduino uno and you can stack a tiny prototyping board onto the end of the stack if you want to directly access the signals. Once you've programmed your processor you can remove the programmer board to make your device even tinier.

There's a lovely little 16 LED array you can put on the end of the stack, and also a circular row of leds you can program up for a super-tiny cylon effect. There are also wifi, Bluetooth and even motor control boards you can add. The BLE device is a bit longer than the other ones, but you can still create really tiny devices with this platform. One version of the processor board has a clip for a lithium battery so you can easily create self-powered devices. 

They work a treat and I strongly recommend them. However I would mention one word of warning. The manufacturer has recently changed their website and so all their documentation for the devices has moved around and is now very hard to find. If you need any help with the platform you are mostly on your own.  Having said that though, most of the boards are based on very standard technology and so once you install the appropriate Arduino libraries they will work just fine.

I've been trying to get the Bluetooth BLE device to work with Windows 8.1 and not having a lot of success so far. I think this is down to my not understanding the way Bluetooth BLE works. The idea is to make a "ring of power" that I can wear so that I can send commands to my devices just by waving my hands. We shall see....

Three Thing Game@School Video

Rob Miles, lecturer at the University of Hull, describes the University's 'Three Thing Game @ School' competition which was held on 15 July 2014. The event involved around sixty school pupils wrestling with Python programming and writing games.

On Tuesday Rachel came round with her posh video camera (and tripod) and took a lovely video of the Three Thine Game@School event, which you can watch if you like. Note how I'm heavily channeling my nerd-power, with a pen in my top pocket...

Three Thing Game@School

Yesterday I went out between the degree ceremonies and bought 16 rubber snakes. The chap in the joke shop thought I'd gone mad. I pretty much cleaned him out of snake stock. He's going to have to reorder them, and the last time he got them was several years ago.  He's thinks they may have gone up in price.....

I had this idea that as part of the welcome pack for our Python based game development event I'd put a snake in each envelope. Python - snake, do you get it?

It seemed to work OK and the teams really took to their mascots. Head over to the Three Thing Game wrap-up if you want to see the best possible way to pose with your snake and read the full report of the event.

It was such fun. If anyone has any doubts about the future, and whether we are going to be OK they really should have have been there. From the way the kids worked I reckon that we are in safe hands and things are going to turn out just fine. 

Degree Day

This is the first ceremony

This is the first ceremony

I helped to run a couple of degree ceremonies today in City Hall in the middle of town. I've not done any summer ceremonies for a while, as I've usually been off doing Imagine Cup things when they take place. But they are great fun. And I really wanted to try my new fish eye lens, to see if I could get a picture of everyone in the audience. I reckon it pretty much worked, as you can see above.

Sheridan look v. pleased, as well she might be.

Sheridan look v. pleased, as well she might be.

For the first ceremony we had Sheridan Smith as an honorary graduand, and she was great. 

The second ceremony was very dear to my heart, since lot of the graduands were students who I had taught during their time at the university. It is really, really, great to see them all dressed up and ready for the big wide world.

I'm strongly of the opinion that it is the students that make a university. And we seem to get the best at Hull

Class of 2014

Class of 2014

If you want to get hold of larger copies of the images, simply click through to their Flickr pages.

York Chocolate Story - A Delicious Place to Go

We went to York Chocolate Story today. It's an exhibition in York that tells the story of chocolate. So its name really makes sense. Its also very good. We had a genial guide who talked us through the history of chocolate makers in the region.

Lots of names that were huge in chocolate and sweets were based around York. (My claim to fame is that for many years the laser marking machine that put datestamps on Kit-Kats was powered by software what I wrote).

Anyhoo, if you are looking for a well put together little tour and you fancy making your own chocolate bar, or you've got kids, I can strongly recommend it.

Free Zinio Magazines for Lumia Owners

Most of the flat surfaces in our house are covered with magazines. Every now and then we have a clear-out, and every now and then I want to read an article that I've chucked in the bin. So, apart from the fact that they are the absolutely best way to read anything, magazines aren't working as well for me as they could.

This weekend I wanted to read a camera review from a copy of the Amateur Photographer magazine  that I hadn't bought when it came out a while back. So I took a look at getting an online copy. Of course I could get it from the Apple store, but that would tie me to Apple products, and I don't use my iPad enough to have it charged and ready to go at any given time. 

So I ended up downloading Zinio onto my Lovely Lumia 1520 and then buying the magazine from them. Zinio is available for lots of platforms, which means I should be able to read it on any device, including my Surface Pro 3 when it comes. (such excitement)

The app and the purchasing experience were pretty smooth, although I was a bit confused when I was asked to pay in dollars. Turns out that because a while ago I told my Lumia it was american to get Cortana to work in the UK, all the apps think they are in america too. 

This actually works very well because at the moment Zinio are doing three month's free subscription to three magazines for american Lumia owners who join up. In other words, if you have a US Lumia you can get a whole bunch of free magazines, including Popular Mechanics, a really interesting US magazine that doesn't seem to have a UK counterpart. 

The reading experience on the phone is not as good as a proper magazine, but then putting ten magazines in your pocket is tricky too. I'm not sure if I'll go over to reading all my magazines on phone and tablet, but given that this would mean I could read all the old issues really easily, it is quite tempting. 

What I really, really, want though is some way that I could convert my printed paper into an electronic licence. I'd be quite happy to pay a small fee (say fifty pence or so) to be able to access the digital version of a magazine that I'm about to throw out. This could be activated by scanning a barcode in the publication, and it needn't go live until a couple of months after the magazine is published. 

3D Printed Winterfell

I'm not a fan of Game of Thrones. But I do quite like 3D printing. Our 3D printerns found a really superb 3D model of Winterfell, which is apparently a location in the program. They used the departmental Ultimaker 2 to produce a lovely version of it, so I had a go at getting Una, my home made Ultimaker 1 to print the model. And I'm very pleased with the results, which you can see above.

The great thing about this is that it really doesn't look very 3D printed. It just looks like a little model.  Looking at the picture I need to do a bit of tidying up, but the fundamentals are very solid. 

In terms of comparing an Ultimaker 1 with an Ultimaker 2 the most noticeable difference is that the Ultimaker 2 seems to be better at retraction. This is when the printing filament is pulled back into the print head prior to a move. The printers do it so that they don't leave strings of excess printing material between features on model. Una is a tiny bit more messy than the Ultimaker 2. This is probably due to the slightly larger size of the heated head. 

But overall I'm well pleased with this. 

A Cunning Use for Screen Shots

This picture is not particularly relevant to the post, but  Hull Station is just over to the right, and I don't want to show you any of my booking codes....

This picture is not particularly relevant to the post, but  Hull Station is just over to the right, and I don't want to show you any of my booking codes....

I'm not sure I'm the only person who does this, but I don't think everyone does, so I thought I'd mention it. You quite often find things on your phone that you want to "bookmark". This happens to me when I need to use that email with the magic sequence of characters that will unlock a rail ticket delivery from the machine in Hull station.  I don't like having to open the email, scroll to the right bit and then enlarge the characters so that I can read them. Particularly if there are a bunch of people waiting behind me. 

So what I do now is open the email, zoom it so that it just fills the screen how I want, and then take a screenshot of the phone display. This is really easy to find later and has exactly the data that I want, with no messing at all. Once I've picked up the ticket I can then erase the picture, ready for the next one. 

Works for me.