James Croft talks Imagine Cup at our Rather Useful Seminar

James Croft came to see us yesterday. He now works for Black Marble and they were kind enough to let him slip across from Leeds to give a Rather Useful Seminar all about the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition. I've been involved with the Imagine Cup as a mentor, judge and competition captain and I think it completely rocks. But I'm very old. I thought it would be more meaningful if someone who has actually taken part came along and said how good it is. Which is just what James did in a well put together presentation. 

Microsoft have done some neat things with your pathway into the competition so that you can build up your development, from pitch video to working software, over the weeks leading up to the finals and get credit, feedback and prizes at every stage. There are the usual three challenge areas, Game Development, App Development and World Citizenship. The World Final is in Seattle and involves trips to Microsoft Campus among other places. And the prizes are awesome. 

The bottom line is that if you're a student you really should engage with the competition. I say this not because I'm convinced you will win (although students from Hull have an enviable record) but because taking part adds hugely to your personal value as a developer and communicator and also sets you up with valuable industrial contacts who will give you feedback, advice, a reference and maybe even a job. It has happened. 

Anyone from Hull who is thinking about forming a team should come and see me so that we can start making plans. 

Thanks for coming and doing such a good job James. I took a video of the session but something strange has happened with the dimmed lighting in the room which has caused awful banding effects on the picture, making it hard to see. Never mind though, James will be doing a webcast of the presentation later on his YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter and find out when it becomes available. 

Completely Mad Tuesday

Today was completely mad. It started at 6:00, getting up to grab breakfast and zoom up town to review the newspapers with Radio Humberside. Which was fun. Then over to C4DI to chat with David Burns (again on Radio Humberside) about technology, Hull and the exciting things going on at the moment. And all against a fantastic sunrise which I managed to grab some snaps of.  You can find them here.

David Burns and Jon Moss of C4DI get the wide angle treatment. With a guest appearance of my knees.  

If you're quick you can get to hear the broadcast here.  I arrive around 20 minutes or so in...

Then it was back to the department to give a 10:15 First Year programming lecture in the nick of time. Then more lectures, labs, delivering chocolate brownies to a cake sale and finally a bit of Python Wrestling. 

By 7:15 pm I was wandering around the lab bouncing of walls and muttering "Today has been great, and busy, and all, but I'd quite like it to stop now...."

C# Yellow Book on Kindle

A while back I put the C# Yellow Book on Kindle, just to see what would happen. Turns out that people quite like it, which is nice. You can get a free PDF here and of course if you are sensible enough to come and study at Hull we'll give you a free printed copy for your first year course.  Or you could buy a copy :)

I'm going to spend some time on the text over Christmas and bring out an updated version in the new year. Some of the text and program samples got a bit mangled in the transfer to the Kindle format and I want to make it a bit tidier.

But I'll be leaving the good jokes in there. Both of them. 

Next Gen Grand Theft Auto Rocks

Grand Theft Auto 5 is a game about mostly horrible people doing horrible things. With guns, cars, planes and large ugly dogs. But I reckon it is a towering work of art too. And on the next-gen consoles it is even better.

I spent a happy afternoon watching number one son run through a few missions in the new First Person View and it really is disgustingly great. Even if you have played the previous versions on your PS3 or XBOX 360 I reckon you should get a copy for your next gen console too. 

Return of the .NET Micro Framework (Please)

I love the .NET Micro Framework. We used it for years in our teaching of embedded systems. This year, with the robots and other components showing their age we moved onto the new fangled Arduino platform.  It's nice enough, and very popular at the moment. But I really miss being able to run (and debug) C# code inside a tiny embedded device. 

But how the Micro Framework might be roaring back. Colin Miller (the chap that wrote the foreward to the wonderful book above) recently wrote a blog post about new plans for the platform. With a bit of luck, and the rise of the Internet of Things (tm), it might be that the "little platform that could" might be returning. 

I certainly hope so. 

Python: Soup to Nuts

I think I picked up the phrase "Soup to Nuts" when I was in the 'states a while back. I used it in a session today and all was confusion and hilarity. It simply means "all the way from the beginning to the end". 

We're doing some "Soup to Nuts" work at the moment in the Wrestling with Python sessions. I've put together something that looks a bit like the kind of assignments that are being used in schools in the UK and we are all going to work through it over the next few weeks.

If you fancy having a go you can find the assignment here.

Windows Phone and Pebble Watches

One of the nice things about owning a Windows Phone is that, well, it's a Windows Phone. And lovely. One of the less nice things about it is that a few things are not available for the device just yet. One of the things you can't do is Smartwatch integration. 

Except that you can. Sort of. 

I've started using my Pebble watch that I got a while back. As a watch I rather like it. Some of the watch faces look really nice and I can make it talk with my Lovely Lumia using a program called Pebble Watch Pro that you can get from the Windows Store.

The program does the best that it can in difficult circumstances. It can show you tweets, and the weather, and let you control your music. It also lets you download and install watch faces, applications and firmware updates for the watch. If you run it under the lock screen it will work when you are not using the phone too. 

It's kind of got me sold on the idea of a watch as an extension of the phone, and I'm looking forward to getting proper integration at some point in the future. When my Lovely Lumia is running Windows 10 and allows background applications this will all get a lot easier. 

Mouse Foolishness and Product Ideas

While I was in the 'states I got myself a new mouse. My beloved Presenter mouse from way back has reached the point of no return I think. Mind you, it must be quite a few years old now. The replacement one is a Sculpt Comfort Mouse with a fancy blue tag that you can use to scroll between open applications and open the start menu. A great match to my blue keyboard and a really nice device to use.

So nice that I nearly lost it. 

I left it in Lecture Theatre A after the last Rather Useful Seminar on Wednesday. I remembered this as I was walking past the theatre on Friday and thought I'd drop in and see if it was still there. It was, along with around 100 students who were expecting a lecturer, not someone who would bound up to the lecturn, exclaim "Ooooh Goody. And it's still working", show the bright blue light underneath to the assembled multitude and then leave cackling. 

Actually, I've just had a horrible thought. Perhaps there was somebody in there lecturing at the time I burst in. Oh well.

Which brings me to my business idea. It might have been done before. I don't know. But what I really needed was a program on my PC that told me when the Bluetooth mouse had gone out of range. We can do this with things like the Nokia Treasure Tag, so why not with mice?

(If you make a million from this idea good luck to you, just a few percent will keep me happy)

Open Data and the Leeds Data Mill at C4DI


You can learn some really interesting things from data. And there is a lot of out there, freely available to anyone with a theory to test or an idea for an app. Mark Barrett and Simon Zimmerman work at Hebe Works where they are trying to make more data available and tell interesting and useful stories from what is already visible.

Yesterday they came over to C4DI to talk about what they are doing and tell us all about Leeds Data Mill.  Mark took to the stage and told us all about the challenges of making data available. He is also the chap behind the GP Ratings App for iPhone, a wonderful program that leverages thousands of patient ratings and uses them to show you how good the doctors are in your area. 

This was a very thought provoking talk with an eye on the future. Mark and Simon reckon that open data is a great way to create completely novel applications, as well as giving people much greater insight into how the services around them actually tick. 

I headed over to the Data Mill and had a look round. There are some interesting data sets that you can just download, or hit with ready made Python, Ruby or JavaScript templates. I happened upon one that give the incidence of parking fines in the city and how many miscreants have paid up. And I started wondering if people who get fined in the morning are better payers, or worse, and when during the day they take the most fines. And I was hooked. Not written the program yet, but there is a good chance I will. And there are over 150 (and growing) data sources to go with that one.

C4DI are working with the Hull City Plan to bring this kind of open data to us. I'm really looking forward to seeing it all come together.  

Which Computer Science Option Should I choose?

After my First Year lecture today someone asked me an interesting question: "Which Computer Science option should I choose for next year?". Our course is structured so that you can choose your specialism (Computer Science, Software Development, Game Development, Information Systems or Computer Systems Engineering) at the end of year one. I think (although I may be wrong) that the person asking the question was primarily concerned about the best option to choose from an employ-ability point of view.

My answer was that you should pick the one you are most interested in. When you go for a job it is very likely that your prospective employer will not necessarily be looking for someone with a particular specialism. They will just be looking for someone who is keen on the field of Computer Science and shows the prospect of being useful.

To me this means a candidate who has done lots of things that aren't on the syllabus and can talk about the things that they have made "just for the fun of it" as well as the good grades they got on their set coursework.

So, do the thing you enjoy, and do stuff that you haven't been told to do, and don't worry quite so much about being a good fit with what you think the employers might want.