Go for the Smaller City...

This place serves really nice chocolate balls

This place serves really nice chocolate balls

If you want to find out what a country is really like don't go to their biggest city. England is a case in point here. I'd really hate it if people thought that we were all as friendly and outgoing as the sort of folk you find on the tube in London...  

Some time back we had a really enjoyable time in Brno, which is not the largest city in the Czech Republic, but turned out to be a super nice place to visit.

When we were planning a trip to Sweden we discovered Malmö, which is the third largest city in the country. So we went there. Although, because of it's proximity to Copenhagen, we also ended up going to Denmark as well. 

Malmö is lovely. We didn't quite know what to expect, although it seemed to have a goodly quotient of museums and parks and stuff from our explorations on the internets. We we didn't spot was the Kings Gardens, which is just fabulous. 

There's even a windmill, and displays that by early September are probably slightly past their best, but still stunning.

I don't know the name of any of the flowers in this picture. And I am not proud of this fact.

I don't know the name of any of the flowers in this picture. And I am not proud of this fact.

Oh, and in travel writer mode: "The roots of the name Malmo is the phrase "pile of sand" and the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest Final was held in the city. The UK did not win this competition, scoring 23 points and coming 19th". 

Travel Writing from Somewhere

We are heading off on our "proper" holiday of the year today. Not that we have had improper ones earlier, it's just that this is the one that involves the use of a passport.

This departure put something of a strain on our aging frames, in that we haven't had much time to recover from the London trip yesterday before heading off to foreign parts, but I've decided that if I'm going to go of anything, it is going to be from having too much fun. 

The destination of our trip was carefully chosen by the use of Expedia and a pin, and there was actually quite a bit of confusion about just which countries we were actually going to visit.

Hopefully the handy map should give you a good idea of where we are headed. 

Just the kind of things you want to find in your room when you arrive. 

Since I've hardly done any, I thought I'd spend the week brushing up on my travel writing skills. So stay tuned for a bunch of reports from your intrepid reporter.

3D Printer Show

Today we got up early and headed off to the 3D Printer Show in London Town. This is the third printer show that we’ve been to and I think it is fair to say that we have watched the business grow up a bit. The first one was full of people who were into 3D printing. Last year there were a lot of people who had heard about 3D printing and wanted to find out more. This year there were just a lot of, well, people.

This is the third location and I think in some ways this was a bit of a step down. Last year they had a lovely large venue with a great café which overlooked the exhibition floor. This year they had a place which was optimistically titled the “Food Court” but was actually a room where a few harassed folks were selling coffee, cakes and sandwiches. They were nice enough, but it didn’t feel quite the same.

As for the printers, there were some new brands and some old brands. Most of the printers were what we call “Fused Deposition Manufacture” or FDM. These work in the same way as a cake icing machine, squirting molten material onto a platform one layer at a time to build up a 3D structure. From the look of things this has probably reached the state of the art in terms of how to get from rolls of filament to the finished product. I reckon that Una, my Ultimaker 2 printer which is now over two years old, can still hold her head up high in the company of the newer devices.

However, there are some very interesting things happening in terms of the raw materials that we can put into our printers. There were a lot of companies showing off new designs for printing materials which improve on the ones we presently use. 

This printer can print cakes and chocolate. 

This printer prints seeds and soil, all in one, so you can make things like the display at the top of the post.

I got samples of some of these new filaments, I'm looking forward to having a go with them. 

This is one of the genuinely new printers at the show. The Roland ARM-10 is a departure for the company, which makes a lot of milling machines and CNC tools. It is interesting because it uses a different technology from the filament printers we know and love. It uses Stereo Lithography, where beams of light are shone at liquid resin, causing it to harden and generate hard objects. The prints are still built up layer by layer, like the FDM "cake icing" printers, but the layers are much thinner and the quality of the finished print much higher.

I think that Roland have probably decided that the market for FDM printers is well served at the moment and that in the future there will be a move to the higher quality that this technology can produce. Having said that, these printers cost quite a lot more to feed, with a litre of liquid resin costing over 100 pounds, and the printer itself didn't seem to offer much (if any) of an improvement on the Form Labs printer which is cheaper (and who were also at the show).

Ultimaker were there too, of course, and I had a great chat about where they see the future going. There was also some amazing 3D printed art on show. I've put a bunch more pictures on Flickr, you can find them here

I left the show with loads of ideas for things to try and stuff to play with.

Surface Pro 3 Review

Almost worth tidying my desktop for...

Almost worth tidying my desktop for...

My Surface Pro 3 arrived earlier this week. I ordered it when they were released because I really, really wanted one. I'm going to have to sell lots of things to pay for it, but from the look of things it will replace my iPads and desktop machines. 

The hardware is lovely. It's as if they've listened to all the complaints about earlier versions and acted on them. The power plug is no longer designed to gouge lumps out of the expensive paintwork, the kick stand tips all the way back to make it work really well on your lap and the touch pad on the keyboard is actually usable (like it was on the original Type keyboard before they broke it with the 'improved' version). 

I've spent a happy evening or two loading software onto the machine and it has finally got all my working files from OneDrive. For this new machine I'm trying a new trick. I'm writing a log of all the software that I install and all the funny settings changes that I make to get things to work. This will be useful to me if I ever move to a new machine (it has been known). I always end up having to remember where I got that program from, or what it was that I did to make it work properly. And writing the log gives me something to do as the progress bars drag themselves across the screen.

I've not noticed any problems, except for one. The Surface Pro 3 has a feature called InstantGo. This makes the machine wake really quickly from sleep. It also enables a neat trick where you can start the machine and open up OneNote just by clicking the button on the active pen that comes with the machine (and is lovely by the way). Problem is that this feature doesn't work if you enable Hyper-V on the Surface.  So, why would you enable Hyper-V? Well, you need it to use the Windows Phone emulator among other things.

If you install Visual Studio 2013 it enables Hyper-V automatically, which causes a couple of bad things to happen. Firstly InstantGo (and Sleep) disappear from the Power Options, which become really confusing. Secondly the machine doesn't reconnect to the WiFi at all well. I had a nervous few minutes thinking I had a broken machine before I did some searching and found the cause of the issue. 

This is not a huge problem for me just right now. Without Hyper-V enabled I can debug Universal apps using the local machine (although the simulator doesn't work) and I can deploy programs into the phone to debug. To make life easier for myself I've written a couple of batch files that turn Hyper-V on or off and reboot the machine. I just right click on them and run them as administrator (or I could create a Start Menu shortcut that does that). This makes it easy for me to flip between the modes. If you have a use for them you can find them here

One thing about the Surface Pro 3 that is completely wonderful is the way that it works with Xinio. I signed up for Xinio a while back and earlier this week they had a 40% discount event (I think they have discounts quite frequently).  I managed to get subscriptions to four titles that I normally buy for around 45 quid for the year, which I reckon is very good value. 

Magazines look lovely on the screen and the pages are pretty much life sized. The 4:3 aspect ratio of the screen is just right for reading and the Surface itself weighs a bit less than one magazine, particularly if you unclip the keyboard. I think the days of me having a big pile of paper by the bed are now numbered. 

This really does look like the "everything device" I've been after for a while. I reckon that it should replace my desktop and I should be able to use it as a proper tablet too. The OneNote integration is very useful if you want to scribble a note or capture something off the screen and use it somewhere else. In fact it has left me looking at OneNote anew. I've never really got to grips with it, finally this platform might be the one that makes it part of my life.

If you are looking at your iPad and thinking "Wouldn't it be nice if I could actually use it to make things" then the Surface Pro is for you. I've got the i7 version (I'm going to have to sell a lot of things) but my old i5 Surface Pro 2 ran all the power applications I could throw at it, including Photoshop, Visual Studio, the Office Suite, FreeCad and Cura. Sometimes all at the same time. So I reckon you could quite comfortably get the i5 Surface Pro 3. 

I hope they sort out the Hyper-V issue. I've a feeling that a machine like this will be lapped up by serious developers and it is a shame that their lives are being made more difficult by this problem. But apart from that, strongly, strongly recommended. 

Hardware Fun Resumes at C4DI

Tonight we had our sixth hardware fun and games at C4DI. This time we were using the Arduino multicoloured LED and photosensor to make a device that could recognise colour. And it works. It uses some cunning software to shine different coloured lights on the object and measures the intensity of the light coming back each time. Peter did all the clever stuff, and you can find his notes here.

I also took along my 3Doodler which folks had great fun with.

We didn't think you could make things like this with it....

As I left there was lots of activity outside setting up stages for Hull Freedom Festival which is on over the weekend. If you are in Hull you really should go. We had a blast last year.


One of the bees in my bonnet is the importance of being able to write well. And writing is something that you only get good at if you do it a lot. Forcing myself to write a blog post every day has been very useful in improving my style, even though some of the blog posts are truly awful

Anyhoo, one of our ex students is also keen on writing and has put together a web site where you can find interesting articles and also publish your own. Take a look at urite.co.uk

Printing the Humber Estuary

Some time back we got an email from Chris in the Geography Department. He had some data that he wanted to visualise in 3D. Warren and I thought it might be fun to have a go and so Chris sent through a file and I wrote a little Python program that converts it from the DEM format that Geographers like to the STL format that Cura and Una like. Above you can see the results being displayed in FreeCad.

This is the surface being printed. You can see that the bits close to sea level have been filled in and the higher regions are being "shaded" with mostly empty space. The printer will put those bits on later. The groove is the path that the river has cut into the seabed.


This is the finished result. If you look carefully you can spot the Spurn Point at the end of the land. The height has been massively scaled up, along the top you can see some hills, this is about where the Humber Bridge goes. 

Chris wants to use the models to help people visualise what happens when an area is flooded. The next thing to do is try to produce some models with different colours for the areas above and below sea level. 

Cash and Guns is Great Fun

While I was in London I bought a board game called Cash and Guns. Tonight we got to play it. The game is set in the aftermath of a successful heist. The gang is gathered to share out the loot, but it seems there is no honour amongst thieves. So everybody gets to try and stick each other up to get the richest pickings. It's a fast moving game of risk taking and score settling. Each player gets a foam gun to point at the other players and you can shout "Banzai" at crucial points in the gameplay. 

It is a riot. We played it with 7 players (the maximum is 8) and it worked really well. I think it would be less fun with four though. 

London By Degrees

Today we got to go to a degree ceremony.  I've a professional interest in these, what with helping to run the ones at Hull, and it was nice to see how another institution does it. The answer would seem to be, in a tent and very well. 

We were there in honour of Number One Daughter, who you can find above if you look hard enough. Full disclosure, I didn't actually buy the sweatshirt with the graduation list on, but we did buy some other bits and bobs and so my conscience is clear on taking the picture. 

Anyhoo, a wonderful time was had and now I am by far the least qualified member of the family. If it wasn't for my amazing 99% performance in my Cycling Proficiency test I'd have no standing at all..

London Ho

You might be forgiven for thinking that my life is one long holiday, what with me heading off to London this week for a few days (and further travel shenanigans to come). However, we're spreading our time off over a few different weeks this year. So there.

Anyhoo, this means that we are presently away for a few days. With two tablets, a bunch of cameras and the fat lens. Which is rather nice.

Spooky Three Thing Game

We are holding our next Three Thing Game at the end of October. Right at the very end in fact. Over Halloween from Friday 31st October to November 1st. Spooky eh?

Any of our students can take part and with a bit of luck lots of First Year students will sign up and join in. It is a great way to get programming, even if you don't really see yourself as a games programmer. You learn programming best if you are trying to build something and what better way than by trying to make something playable out of "Eiffel Tower, Underwater and Flying Fish"? Indeed.

If you are a Hull graduate and fancy coming back for a dose of Three Thing fun and games please get in touch with me directly and I'll see what I can do. If enough folks want to come back I'll set up a "Three Thing Alumni Tacky Prize" for the best effort from past stars.

One thing to remember though, the event runs from Friday to Saturday, starting Friday evening and then ending on Saturday night. This means that if you are in a job you might have to take some time off if you want to come along. Or tell the boss that you are on an "outreach visit" and dish out a few business cards when you turn up.......

Galileo and Windows Development Just Got Interesting

This is why Galileo development is going to be awesome...

This is why Galileo development is going to be awesome...

I've got the Windows operating system running on my Galileo board now and I've actually managed to deploy a program to it.

No thanks to the Galileo Watcher program though, which is supposed to detect your board and tell you when it is available. This has steadfastly refused to notice my device, even when I run the watcher program as Administrator and connect both the computer and the Galileo board to the same wired network. 

However, Visual Studio 2013 detects the board and will deploy to it quite happily. Even via WiFi. I built the sample project and flashed a led, as you do. I noticed, much to my great joy, that I can put breakpoints in the code, single step through it and work with variables in the immediate window of Visual Studio. 

This board just got a lot more interesting. You can find out more here

Update: This is the Galileo version 1 board, which it would appear is now replaced by the Version 2. In other words, if you decide to splash out on one of these devices, make sure that you get the Version 2. It has much better connectors and a higher performance interface to the Arduino pins.

Read "The Martian"

Number one son recommended this. He was so right. A proper, hard science fiction story. No wizards, no "use the force", just Newton and chums driving the narrative forwards.

It tells the story of a man who ends up on Mars for a lot longer than the mission plan allowed for. Everything hangs together brilliantly and the science behind his fight for survival is expertly set out.

The book reminded me strongly of "A Fall of Moondust",  one my my all time favourites. Reading jacket notes after I'd started the book I wasn't surprised to find that someone else has made the association too.

 A thunderingly great read. 

Current Affairs (and Voltage)

I hate it when I plug something into something and I've no idea what is going on.  Is the device taking any power? How much? Is the supply holding up?

Some time back I ordered one of these. The price was amazing (and delivery was free). It arrived today and it works a treat. The case is a bit flimsy, but I'm not going to submit it to anything too rough, and so it should do just what I want.

What does it do? You plug it between a USB device and a power source and it tells you the voltage that the source is providing and the current the device is consuming. It can tell you if your phone is charging or not. It can tell you if your Raspberry Pi is taking too much current out of the adapter. For the price, well worth picking one up and adding it to your toolbox.

Making the Web Work for you at C4DI

Another interesting evening at a C4DI meetup.  I don't actually make a website that sells anything (other than the brand of me I suppose) but the session was fascinating even so. Mike Jessop from Strawberry gave a talk on Digital Marketing. Used properly the technology can give web vendors invaluable insights into how their customers tick and what makes them actually go ahead and buy stuff.  Used badly it can give customers the feeling they are being stalked by an oven

The most important single point for me was that Google Analytics is where you need to go and live if you want to this kind of thing properly. I do have it switched on for my site, but I don't really use it as much as I probably should. But then again, I'm not really selling anything.

Analytics is free, and very powerful. I didn't know that you could use it to create dashboards that show real time activity on the site, summary reports of the way your site is being traversed by visitors and even perform a/b comparison of site designs to work out which is the most profitable. 

The other thing that came out was just how much tagging and profiling goes on. Mike recommends the Wasp profiler as a way of finding out how many tags each web page contains. A tag is a link embedded in web page that lets servers behind the scenes track what you are doing and pass the information around so that what you see on the next page reflects where you have been.  This is how my oven managed to follow me from site to site.

Apparently the Holy Grail of web marketeers is a system that can track the way that you move between mobile, tablet and desktop as you move from following a link in an advert through finding out more about the product from your Facebook friends to search for the product on Bing and then buying it. We are not quite there yet apparently, but we are heading that way.

Personally, I'm not sure if this is scary or not. I remember years ago that when you answered an advert in the paper and you put "Department G176" on the top of the address you knew that this was how they were tracking the success of their promotions.  However, nowadays it all takes place in the background. I reckon it is all about making sure that folks are aware that this kind of thing is going on.

Mike was very keen to make it clear that if you get too heavy handed with the technology and start gaming it to swing results your way this will end in tears as the users and the service providers change the way they behave, and his talk provided a really good overview of how to make the best use of what is out there. The best sessions leave you wanting to find out more, and this one did that for me.

Galileo Windows Upgrade Now Available

I wrote about the Intel Galileo a while back. It's an Intel Quark based device which, as you can buy it at the moment, runs a cut down version of Linux which allows it to behave as an Arduino (it has shield connections) with a high performance backend

At the time I took my first look I was bemoaning the way that the really interesting aspects of the platform (the ones which have it running a variant of Windows) weren't available for shop bought Galileo devices.

Well, that's changed. If you have (or you get) a Galileo device you can now upgrade the firmware and install a Windows based operating system on an SD card for the device to boot from. Upgrading the Galileo and making the boot image are easy enough (I know this because I've done it) and raise the interesting prospect of running full fat Windows programs, created and deployed using Visual Studio, on a processor around the size of your toenail.  You can find out more here