What to make over summer

David was kind enough to invite me into South Hunsley School today to give a talk to some computer science students seeking a bit of direction for the summer. I wrote a few notes, and I though I'd put them in a blog post too. I

What to make?

If you have a long summer stretching ahead of you and you are wondering how best to spend it Computer Science wise, here are a few tips. 

What language?

I don’t care about the language. Anything you use to practice programming is fine by me. Sometimes it helps to use something you know, but then again you will be expected to know many languages when you go out into the big wide world. Don’t get sucked into “my language is better than your language” debates. The best language is either the one you enjoy using the most, or the one you get paid the most to work with. End of.

I like C#, Python and C, along with a bit of assembler. But things like Ruby, Haskell and Prolog are great if you want to stretch your brains a bit. Take a look at codeacademy.com for online training.

What application?

Build what you like. Think of something you might find useful and have a go at that. Keep it simple and don’t add things. Every idea you have will make the job bigger. Write your ideas down, but don’t feel obliged to act on them. Take a look at hardware. I love the Arduino, I love robots, and I think you should have a go at this as well. You get the bonus of learning a bit of electronics too.

What for?

To find out if it is possible. To find out things by accident. For fun. It’s important to regard programming as an experimental exercise. Sometimes people write programs just to see if they work, or what they will do. Don’t be afraid to do this.

What with?

My strongest advice is to get yourself some Arduino kit and have a go at embedded development. Pick up a Sintron kit from ebay (search eBay for Arduino Sintron) and play with that. Buy one extra stepper motor and then you can think about making moving robots. Take a look here for help getting started and some things to do. 

What else?

Make sure you write about what you have done. Make a blog, get a domain, put your code on GitHub. It might be that only 10 people read about what you built, but if one of them offers you a job on the strength of it, it is worth doing. Employers prize the ability to write well and quickly, regular blogging will make you into a much better writer. And give you a destination on the web.

In praise of big PCs

I must admit I'm quite liking having a big PC again. I've been using Surface devices as my main machine for a while and they are great, but there's nothing like a big lump of hardware to get things done. One surprising thing is how quiet the PC is. It contains big, slow-moving fans rather than small, whizzy ones. I don't hear it "rev up" when I start doing something difficult. I'm using Onedrive to synchronise with the other machines, which is working quite well so far. 

HTC Vive Fun and Games

I thought I'd spare you any pictures of me in shorts with headset stuck on my face....

I thought I'd spare you any pictures of me in shorts with headset stuck on my face....

The reason for my new hairy new PC is that I ended up getting an HTC Vive VR system. We finally got it working today. The delay has been technical, but it has also been spacial, in that it has taken me this long to clear an area large enough to use the system. And there is now a huge pile of stuff in the corner that I need to find somewhere to put... 

Anyhoo, the system worked wonderfully. The Vive comes with a couple of "lighthouses" that spray infra-red positioning signals all over the room. The headset and the controllers detect these signals and use them to place themselves very accurately in 3D space. What with it being our house and all, I was able to actually screw the lighthouses to the walls and furniture, and they work really well. There's going to be a bit of fine tuning required, and I have managed to try to put my hand through a window sill once so far, but the experience is proper and it is real. 

Next step is to play a few games, get a feel for the system and then pull down some of the software development kits for the platform and have a go at making stuff. And the developments with Windows Holographic are very interesting too. 

Building a PC

It's been a while since I've built a PC from components. Actually, it's still going to be a while, since my role in building this one was mostly confined to watching number one son put the bits together and asking questions like "Is it supposed to bend like that?" during the construction. 

The answer to the question is "Mostly yes.". I remember from years ago that there are some parts of the process, for example plugging in the memory, where a certain amount of "proper force" is required. We built the machine yesterday evening and left it running all night to give Windows 10 a chance to get its ducks in a row.

The installation of Windows 10, from a memory key, went really well. The only minor hiccup was when we discovered that the network drivers for the motherboard aren't part of the Windows 10 distribution and so we needed to install them by hand (from a CD-ROM - remember them?) before we could get on line. But apart from that it was smooth sailing (I'm writing this in the full knowledge that the next thing that will happen is a catastrophic failure of something or other). 

Anyhoo, to celebrate our success number one son bought Doom for the PC. It's available from Game, in a fancy box with extras for 27 quid, which seems good value when you consider that the download from Steam, which comes in no box whatsoever, costs 40 pounds. 

The PC kit included a fancy graphics card and we had the game running in 4K resolution on the big telly at a steady 60 FPS. Which was nice. 

HullPixelBot on WiFi

We had a pretty good turnout tonight at the C4DI hardware group. The focus was on building and powering up HullPixelBots. I'd printed a few sets of parts and some folks had even turned up with all the other bits, so we made some robots from scratch. Important lesson learned, make sure that you link the two pins on the motor driver board If you want the motors to work. 

I even managed to get the WiFi working on the "bot with two brains". The code made the motor move when I browsed a website on the phone. From an access point hosted on the robot. My dream of a networked army of robots doing my bidding is coming closer.

Dual Processor Hull Pixel Bot

I think you should know I'm rather proud of this...

I think you should know I'm rather proud of this...

I've just finished building the prototype for the dual processor version of the HullPIxelBot. A single Arduino is a nice enough way to do simple robot control. But I want WiFi. And access points. And web servers. So I've coupled an ESP8266 device (in this case the Node MCU) up to an Arduino Pro-Mini. The Pro-Mini takes care of the low level motor control, producing the signals that will drive the steppers. The ESP8266 device doesn't really have enough pins for the motors, and it has better things to do than drive steppers, so I've linked the two with a serial connection.

Since the Pro-Mini costs around a pound and has a negligible effect on power consumption I reckon it is worth doing. At the moment we have a really simple one byte command protocol, but I can build that up a bit if I need to use the Pro-Mini to do some sensor integration. 

Next step is to work up the web side so that I can make a wireless, web controlled robot. Then we add the coloured pixels to the bot and we are really in business. 

I'll be releasing all the code and the circuit diagrams later. If you want to see the real thing, come along to C4DI tomorrow evening at 6:00 pm. 

Robot Building at C4DI this Thursday

We will be holding a special Robt Building meetup this Thursday (16th of June) at C4DI. I'll be bringing along a bunch of printed components (see above) for people to use to build their own robots. If you've been collecting the hardware to build your own robot, come along and we'll help you put it together and get it moving. 

I'll also be showing off the latest "two brained" version of the PixelBot and we'll be discussing the way forward. Everything will start around 6:00 at C4DI in Hull on Thursday. 

Got Lightstream

Another achievement unlocked. That's two in less than a week. Got LightStream fibre optic broadband. at home. My data doesn't come down a wire any more. It comes as light. Right into the living room. I could even undo the cable and take a look at it. Although this would do horrible things to my data rate (and probably my eyes too).

To be honest I was a bit meh about it. I've never had that much of a problem with the old wired connection, although it was annoying if Windows 10 tried to download an update when we were watching iPlayer. But having had it for all of four hours or so, I'm hooked. Stuff just happens faster. Or instantly. It even seems faster than the network connection in my office at work.

According to the speed test web site I'm getting around 10 times my previous speed. And that is over WiFi or USB network dongle. I've not tried a proper wired connection yet. I wonder what going back to work will feel like. 

Draughts Board Game Cafe in London

I think you should know that this game is way complicated

I think you should know that this game is way complicated

We've been meaning to go to Draughts for a while. the first Board Game Cafe in London. In case you're not sure what a "board game cafe" is. It's a cafe. With board games. And it's awesome.

You pay a fiver each for a session and then have literally hundreds of games, all neatly categorised, for you to grab off the shelf and have a go with. I wonder if they'd charge 'game corkage' if you brought your own games? Anyhoo,  they also have great coffee and amazing brownies (and I'm a connoisseur) 

I've always fancied having a go at the Thunderbirds board game, and they had a copy there. The box says the game takes around 40 minutes to play. That might be true. But it also took us around 40 minutes just to set the game up.

Each player takes on the role of a character from the show and pilots Thunderbird craft around the globe performing rescues and defeating the Hood's evil schemes. Or in our case losing. In around 40 minutes. The loyalty to the show is pretty slavish. The nicely printed cards are all dotted with stills from the episodes. There are FAB cards you can play, pods you can load with equipment and even the automatic camera detector gets a look in.

And yet, I'm not completely sure it's fun just yet. I think a lot of the problem was lack of familiarity, and numbers - there were only two of us playing - but I'd love to have another go. 

As for the venue, as we left around Sunday lunchtime it was filling up nicely. If I lived in London I don't think I'd want to go anywhere else on Sunday morning. 

Hull has a boardroom cafe too, the Boardroom. I really must check it out. 

Whose Line is it Anyway. Live.

Achievement unlocked. Seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? live in London. Not quite the whole crew, but enough to be properly awesome. I remember the TV show many years ago. And now I've got fond memories of seeing them perform on the London Stage.

If you've not seen the show before I'm sure you can find it on YouTube. If you have, you'll know all about the improvisation, the lightning quick wit and the musical cleverness that goes on. It was one of those shows that makes your face ache from laughing. If you are in London and have a chance to catch one of the shows, you really, really should. 

German Floppy Discs

It's interesting how some things can acquire a life of their own. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little item for The Conversation about the way that floppy disks are still in use in nuclear missile silos, among other places. One thing led to another, and since then I've been on BBC 5 Live taling about the issue, had the item printed in The i paper and there's now a German translation out there too. Great stuff. 

3D Printing at Cottingham WI

I've done talks at Cottingham WI before. Great fun. I was invited back again this year and, rather than talk computes I thought I'd take along the 3D printer and print some cheese.

The printer behaved herself impeccably. I love the way that I can throw my Ultimaker into a blue IKEA bag, take her somewhere and have her just work. Anyhoo, everyone was fascinated. Best question of the evening: "Why is it called a 3D printer?"I really don't know. You can't really call it a printer as it does't print as such. It makes things. I quite like the name "fabricator", but the world seems to have decided its a printer. So that's that. 

Thanks for inviting me and being a great audience folks. And I got to judge the chocolate brownie competition, which entailed sampling every one. Which was lovely.

Tapped out

Fired up with the success of my work with the kitchen door, today I transferred my attention to the tap in the garden. This has been dripping for a while. I'm not saying that the garden now looks like the picture above, but I think it is only really a matter of time.

Anyhoo, determined not to get caught out by fate, I equipped myself with a selection of different sized tap washers, turned the water off at the mains and set to. And of course got caught out by fate. The top of the tap would not unscrew. I was just about to give it what might be called a "proper" go, when I paused to consider a possible downside; namely that if I broke the thing I would be unable to turn the water back on. And I quite fancy having a shower tonight. Not to mention a cup of tea. So I paused for a re-think. The only part that did move was the entire tap itself. So it was on to Amazon and the pleasing discovery that a replacement tap could be mine for just five pounds (does every job I do have a component that costs five pounds?).

The order has gone in, the tap is still dripping and I'm calling the day a partial win.