Rob at Black Marble Architecture Forum

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I’m doing a couple of sessions at the Black Marble Architecture Forum next week. However you can’t get to see both of them unless you are both a student and an industry professional.

Black Marble have this lovely policy of running a one day event for both students and developers, with twin tracks. For the first time they’ve let me loose on the professional track, so I’ll be talking about Azure IOT Hub for them and Air Quality Sensor building for the students. There’s actually a bit of cross over between the two - I’m going to use Azure to store the air quality data. It’s going to be quite fun.

The event is in Leeds on Wednesday next week. I’m not sure if you can still sign up but the event page is here.

Hornsea Radio Rally

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When I was a lot (and I mean a lot younger) Radio Rallies were a big thing. Lots of fascinating components and bits and pieces for sale. You could watch the progress of half-finished projects as they moved from one person’s “Bring and Buy” stall to another over the years. This was in the days when talking to someone a long way a way (perhaps even abroad) was not a thing that anyone did because it was either too expensive or impossible.

Nowadays, with the internet and Skype making the planet a tiny, tiny, thing, the lure of long distance ham radio has diminished a bit. But there are still people doing it, and I bumped into a bunch of them at the Hornsea Amateur Radio Rally today. The event was held at the lovely Hornsea Floral Hall and things were pretty much as I remembered. There was stuff that people had brought out of their sheds to see if anyone was interested, along with a few component suppliers. And even a lot of valves.

It was great. I vowed only to spend cash and keep all my bank cards safely tucked away in number one wife’s handbag. So I only spent fifteen quid. I got a programmable led badge that I think I can connect to a Raspberry Pi, some tools, a UV torch for playing with fluorescent printed objects and a few other bits and bobs. Great fun.

Hull Pixelbot at the Digital Awards

 Hull Pixelbot finalist in two categories. Yay!

Hull Pixelbot finalist in two categories. Yay!

Hmm. Three blog posts in one day. What an interesting life I lead….

Anyhoo, today it was time to put on my best smart casual wear and head for the Bonus Arena for the finals of the Digital Awards. This was all rather exciting. Firstly because the Hull Pixelbot is a finalist in two of the competition strands, secondly because I really fancied having a look around the new Bonus Arena, which is where the event is being held.

Well, the arena is is splendid. After an lovely meal, accompanied by a saxophonist with a fantastic illuminated saxophone, we went through to the arena for the awards themselves. We had a few speeches at the start which were all shot through with a theme that this is a great place to do digital business. One speaker made the point that they were feeling a bit sad about being in the bottom 48% of Lightstream users in Hull for network performance. He was cheered up a lot when he found that this still meant he was in the top 2% of network users in the country.

And another fun fact stood out for me: A third of the optical fibre in the UK is under the streets of Hull. The government has set what it calls an ambitious project to get all households in the UK connected to fibre by twenty thirty something. KCOM (the telecoms company that provides home networking in Hull) will achieve this in Hull by the end of March next year. Other cities in the UK are now playing catch up with us. Big time. And, we don’t just have networks. We have talent too. As the awards were about to show.

 Mark Dolan was a great compere

Mark Dolan was a great compere

I’d not seen that much of Mark Dolan before to be honest. But by gum he’s good. After a brief (and very amusing) comic set to break the ice he got things going and presided over the proceedings with some wry observations and knowledgeable comments. The finalist in each award category was introduced by a short video of them in action. Which for me meant two sessions of squirming in my seat as I watched pictures of me and my stuff on the enormous screen. Although I loved the moment when the audience went “Ah…” when they saw a bunch of Hull Pixelbots doing one of their little dances.

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I didn’t win. I didn’t expect to, to be honest. I’d taken a look at the field and come to the conclusion that there were much better entries in my categories than mine. But I was mightily honoured to have been picked to get into the finals. And I did get two lovely certificates in really nice frames. One for the office at c4di , one for home. And If you check the awards lineup you’ll see that the Hull Pixelbot was actually first in each category. Alphabetically…

It’s a measure of the confidence that I’m seeing in the area that it can put on what I consider to be a world standard awards ceremony. I’ve been to a few of these over the years and the whole setup, the organisation, the venue and the presentation really was world class. And, and this is the really wonderful bit, so were all the finalists. The winners were real stand-outs.

I was especially pleased to see Hayden Barton win “Young Digital Person of the Year”. I first met Hayden at a Hardware Meetup at c4di when he showed me a neat little device he’d brought along. “That’s nice” I said. “Where did you buy it?”. His reply marked him for greatness in my book. He said “I made it.”.

After the awards we staggered home tired and happy. Thanks to every one who put the event together. Great fun and great for the region.

Rob at Ron Dearing UTC

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Despite arriving a tiny bit late, I had a great time at the evening event at Ron Dearing UTC today. A whole bunch of folks came to see me to talk about technology and I showed off some Hull Pixelbots, my silly goggles and the prototype air quality sensor that we’re working on over at Connected Humber.

Of course, I totally forgot to take any pictures at the event. Silly me. That’s why there’s a rather splendid picture of Whitby pier at the top of this post instead of anything relevant to the night.

Anyhoo, I talked to a bunch of folks and gave out a bunch of advice. Summarised thusly (posh prose)

  • If you’re into computing, start playing with the Arduino device. It’s cheap to get started (much less than a video game) and extremely creative. Buy a Sintron Arduino kit (search ebay or Amazon for “Sintron Arduino” to see a selection of kits. The one that is around thirty pounds is good value. If you want to start cheaper, come along to a Connected Humber event (we have them on the first and third Thursday of the month at c4di starting at 6:00pm in the evening). We’ll sell you an Arduino and some hardware for five pounds and give you some things to do with it. You can find out more here.

  • Start learning about 3D design. Lots of people that I spoke to were already doing this. The ability to think in 3D will stand you in good stead whether you go into fields ranging from video games to product design. There are lots of free packages you can use, I quite like FreeCad, although it can be a brute to get to grips with. If you’re a programming type, take a look at OpenScad. If you want to use a free, professional level, tool take a look at Blender. It will really make your head hurt, but you can do awesome things with it. Take a look online for howto videos for these tools. If you don’t like the ones that you find, make some better ones of your own.

  • Which brings me to my third point. Lean to write and talk. When you start doing something, start writing about it too. Put your writings into a blog, a personal diary or a log. I don’t mind. The important thing is that you do this. I made the point lots of times that you can learn a good living, and have fun, as a programmer. But if you also have the ability to write well and are good at communicating your ideas this makes you much more useful and interesting to employers, getting you even more interesting and rewarding things to do. So you should work at getting those skills. Deliberately do things that take you out of your comfort zone. Practice talking to people (networking is a big part of success) and try to force yourself to speak in public. Trust me. It really pays off.

By the end of the evening my voice had just about worn out, as had the batteries in the robots. But it was great fun. And then I went home and had bananas and custard for supper. Such fun.

Heading Home

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We were up bright and early and on the road home by 8:00. The whole event was fantastic from start to finish. They say the next one will be in 2020. I’ll be there.

There is also talk of “electromagnetic pulse” events being organised in the gap between the “fields” events. It would be great to set up one of these in the Hull area.

Anyway, time to head for home and then to get the Air Quality sensor working with the badge…..

Day 3 of Electromagnetic Fields

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Achievement Unlocked: Shower Ninja Level now at Master. Take a large waterproof bag for clean clothes and dry towel on the way in and dirty clothes and damp towel on the way out. Leave boots outside the shower cubicle, facing outwards so I can just step into them on the way out. I'm really getting the hang of this camping lark. Of course, it’s not rained at any point…..

Having settled into something of a routine the realisation is dawning that this won't go on forever and today is in fact the last day. Wah. I resolve to go to lots of sessions and get the badge air quality sensor working. 

After a great session on LoRa networking, and another on the scary way that you can hack into car keys, I went to some that were all about how the event itself. First up was a session on the making of the emf badge. It turns out that making a complete mobile phone device is actually quite tricky. Kudos that they actually managed to make it work. The next session was about power, amongst other things.

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This is the power distribution to the tents in our area of the camp. There were a bunch of “Tardis” booths that contained nothing but distribution boards and, I suppose, a whole bunch of fuses and whatnot. These were connected to a backbone that was powered by a bunch of great big generators spread over the camp.

After the talks and another abortive attempt to get my badge to work with the Air Quality sensor, we went for a wander into the “Null Sector”. This was a seemingly haphazard collection of shipping containers that held, well, interesting stuff. The best time to see it is at night - of which more later - but there were quite a few things to take a look at, including a container from MSRaynsford that contained a kind of steam punk workshop with a laser cutter and some lovely things for sale. I ended up with a useless box (which I’ve always wanted) and a wifi controlled StrandBeest. Of which more later.

After some more coding we headed for the closing ceremony. Rather sad. There was enough content for several weeks I reckon, I wish there had been more of me to go to all the things that I know I missed out on.

The good news was that we still had the evening to enjoy, including some electric car racing that was great fun to watch. I was also able to practice my panning technique as the cars whizzed past.

 I have no idea why there is a Christmas tree on the back…

I have no idea why there is a Christmas tree on the back…

As the night came down we ventured back into “Null Sector”. They had buttons you could press to send out great big gas flares, art installations, an RFID powered treasure hunt and a powerful laser light show. I did the best with my little camera, but the shots don’t really do the setup justice.

 Lasers and gas flares

Lasers and gas flares

 Mostly lasers

Mostly lasers

Then it was time for bed for the last night under canvas.

Day 2 of Electromagnetic Fields - Starting with Furby Hacking

 Good morning...

Good morning...

Shower Ninja Level Zero: Stand fully clothed in a shower booth and press the water button "just to see if it works". Then wonder why all the clothes you're wearing are now soaking wet. And have nothing to put wet clothes into. Oh well; the good news is that the shower was clean and the water was nice and warm. 

After breakfast it was time for some more sessions, starting with "Attacking Websites for Educational Purposes Only". The exploit that was explained was specific only to an elderly version of the PHPBB bulletin system that was released for a short time a while back, but the talk did bring home how vulnerable a site can be.

Then it was time to attack something a bit more cuddly, with a fantastic session on Furby hacking. From modest beginnings, intercepting Bluetooth messages containing firmware updates, the speaker ended up showing how to take complete control of the device, downloading sound and graphics into the hapless cuddly toy. It was so impressive that, not surprisingly, I've gone and bought a Furby device to play with. Such are the perils of connected sessions and Amazon's Buy it Now button. 

Next up was a really good talk on podcasting. I've never podcasted, despite apparently having "The perfect face for radio". However, after this talk, that set out why you would do it and why it is such a good idea, I'm strongly tempted to give it a go. 

 Building the badge al-fresco

Building the badge al-fresco

By now the emf badge had been released and it was back to the tent for a bit of assembly and testing.  I had a plan to connect an Air Quality sensor to the badge for no particular reason, and in an uncharacteristic piece of forward planning I'd actually 3D printed a case for the badge and attached a sensor and a rechargeable battery to it. Now all I had to do was connect up the wiring and write the code. This meant that session attendance had to take a bit of a back seat, although I did manage to catch part of an awesome session about converting photographs to poetry and another which went into scary levels of detail about how easy it is to hack RFID car keys. 

 It turned out that the bar was a good place to set up base camp and start developing

It turned out that the bar was a good place to set up base camp and start developing

After gatecrashing an Arduino session and hijacking a soldering iron for a few minutes I got the cabling wired up to connect the sensor to the badge and then my software worked first time. 

I always get nervous when that happens. My theory, which has been validated many times, is that any given project requires a "pound of flesh" of effort, and if it seems to be going easily that's because there's something nasty lurking round the corner. It turns out that my nervousness was well founded. Although I could get values from the sensor and display them, when I tried to turn the program into an application to publish in the app store for the badge it all went horribly wrong. I was sure it was something stupid that I'd done, but it was very hard to work out what. So, after a while I gave up and went for a wander down to the Hackaday tent where they were showing off hacks. There was a chap there with an amazing barrel organ made using laser cut panels. I also got to have a really good chat with the man behind the RC2014 project

After tea (pizzas this time) we headed for a special showing of Hackers, a deeply silly movie from 1995 that was one of the first on-screen portrayals of hacking. It was great fun and lovely to be part of a huge audience that shouted "Hack the Planet" at every opportunity. The presentation was followed by a question and answer session with the director of the film who gamely entered into the spirit of the thing, even down to judging the best hacker costume. Style tip: the more LEDS the better....

 A message for our times. 

A message for our times. 

After that we took some pictures of the fun and games going on in the Null Sector, and took a walk around the camp. There are various "villages" set out for particular interest groups. You could spend your entire time at the event just going round and seeing what they are doing. 

 Hardware hacking by moonlight

Hardware hacking by moonlight

 Across the camp

Across the camp

Day 1 of Electromagnetic Fields

I’ve not done any camping for over thirty years. After my previous experiences with horizontal rain, sleeping bags frozen solid and forgetting the tin opener, I reckoned it would take something rather special to get me under canvas again.

 Home for the next three days...

Home for the next three days...

Turns out that EMF is something special. Electromagnetic Fields is a techie festival in a field. And it is awesome. There are technical tracks, there are crafting tracks, there are things that have been done “just because we were told they were impossible”. You have to stay the night in a tent, but it turns out that in good weather and with working toilets and showers, camping is actually quite fun. Particularly if you have mains power in your tent.

 They had these "Tardis" devices all over camp supplying power...

They had these "Tardis" devices all over camp supplying power...

We arrived on site bright and early and picked a spot that looked sensible. Pro tip number one: Lay your power cable from the supply before you pitch your tent, otherwise you’ll find that your wire is six feet too short and have to move everything. However, with that hiccup out of the way, and having made the decision that the fact our tent looked like a “lean to” owing to some curious asymmetry in its inner workings was not going to significantly impact on its integrity, we established base camp and had a look around.

It was around two minutes before I heard someone say to me “You’re Rob Miles aren’t you”. Turns out that I am, and that the techie world has a good quotient of Hull University Computer Science graduates you are out there doing good things and remember the tall bloke who talked a lot about C#. Rather more surprisingly was that the second person to say this, thirty seconds later, was also called “Rob Miles” and was giving a talk in the afternoon. Which of course I was going to attend. I just hoped he’d maintain the integrity of the brand.

The camp is huge, with three large stages for talks, four hardware labs for, well, hardware, and a bunch of other places to go and do stuff. There are themed areas around the site, with different makerspaces and interest groups all over the place.

 The best instructions you can get at the start of any event

The best instructions you can get at the start of any event

The first session was the opening one, which brought home the complexity and difficulty of creating a very well-connected village in the middle of a field. Everybody in the emf organisation does it for the hell of it, and it seemed like this year the setup had been more hellish that usual, with failing tent suppliers, hillsides and all manner of other things turning up to cause hassle. Not that we’ve noticed much not working; the only real disappointment being that the badge; a very interesting piece of technology that we all get to play with, is not ready just yet.

Anyhoo, after the opening talk the session tracks started. The great thing about emf is that at any given time there are two or three sessions that look really interesting. The bad thing about emf is that at any given time there are two or three sessions that look really interesting, and you can only go to one.

After a brief look at the Air Quality Sensor workshop being run by Southampton University (and someone else going “You’re Rob Miles aren’t you”) we caught a lecture on a tele-presence robot by Libby Miller. It was a great talk, emphasising the ease with which you can create a something that works well for remote interaction and guaranteeing a peak in sales of a certain Ikea lamp which was used as the basis of the device. I’d love to build one. The instructions are here if you fancy making one to: https://github.com/libbymiller/libbybot_eleven

After that, a change of pace with a session with the fascinating title “101 Hacks for Late Soviet Water Towers”. The presenter of this session certainly leads an interesting life, which involves buying a water tower in Latvia by mistake for five euros and then finding out that you can save your five pound membership fee of the British Water Tower Appreciation Society (http://bwtas.blogspot.com/) if you actually own a water tower.  Which almost makes it a profitable option, assuming you want to join the society as cheaply as possible. The tower is very tall (higher than a Space Shuttle) and not likely to fall down any time soon, which is good. It needed a door to make it harder for people to climb to the top and fall off, and doesn’t actually hold water at the moment, but it all made for a very enjoyable story told in a very engaging way.

 After a burger lunch (very nice) it was time for my namesake to talk about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. If we make a device that is clever enough to be useful, will it also be clever enough to be dangerous? It was a timely talk, what with the rapid advances in the field and the tendency of humanity to rush into technology without thinking about the consequences.

Then it was time for some hard-core hardware, in the form of a very detailed description of the creation of silicon devices that contain more than just transistors. It turns out that we can put all kinds of sensors directly onto the silicon and even make them small enough to be swallowed and take pictures during their journey through our system.

Next came a description of algorithmic light displays. I've been doing these since my discovery of Neopixel technology and my wedding lights of many years ago. However, the speaker was operating in a slightly different league, with huge displays containing hundreds of lights. There was some very interesting content about gamma correction and the proper use of randomness. Very interesting.

By now my brain was pretty much full for the day, but there was just enough space to take in a description of the project that is recreating one of the first ever stored program computers, the EDSAC project

After that it was dark, which made it a perfect for tying some Light Painting/Light Writing. Everyone else turned up with proper camera on huge tripods. I just had my tiny Sony camera and a table top tripod. However, after literally shaky start, when I fell over onto the grass after setting up the camera, I got some pictures that I'm not too unhappy with. 

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We got some nice looking results with some tiny lights on strings. But then a chap turned up who just happened to have hundreds of leds on a pole. Electromagnetic Fields is that kind of place. And the pictures got even more fun. 

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After that it really was time for bed. So, after picking our way through guy ropes and power cables we found our way to our tent and turned in, the best kind of happy-exhausted and with the prospect of even more fun and games tomorrow. 

Rob at the Insider Dev Tour

 Click on the image to register

Click on the image to register

This is big news. Oh. Ahem.

THIS IS BIG NEWS.

Microsoft are rolling out an Insider Dev Tour next month. There are around 30 events all over the world, with 2 in the UK. One in London and one in Manchester.

I'm very pleased to be able to report that I'll be presenting at the Manchester event next month, on the 20th of June. I'm doing a session on Machine Learning, really looking forward to it. You can find out more about the Insider Dev Tour here. You can sign up for the Manchester event here

Comicon 2017

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Ever since happy times spent at the Collectormania events in Milton Keynes many years ago, I've had a hankering for a bit more comic book madness. So today we headed off down the motorway to Comicon 2017 at Birmingham. It was great.

There were lots of people in "cosplay", which I guess is a posh name for "dressing up", but some of the costumes had to be seen to be believed. There were even entire families heading out in character. The atmosphere was great, and I even ran into a bunch of ex- students. At a Comic Book conference? Who'd have thought?

It was great fun, and I'd love to go again next year. There were some really impressive "steam punk" outfits around and I fancy having a go at that.....

Rob at "Pint of Science" on Monday Evening

I'm doing a bit of talking tomorrow night. It's as pat of the "journey inside the human body" part of the "Pint of Science" talks in Hull. I'm going to be talking about whether or not we can make "Artificial Brains".  It's a look at artificial intelligence, computer software, killer robots and what we should really be afraid of.

And there are giveaways. You can sign up here. (please note that the 37 on the screenshot above might be out of date soon - especially when people find out that I'm coming along....)

Tick Tock Unlock Fun and Games

 I can't post any pictures of the puzzles or the room, but they did have this rather nice Tesla in one of the arcades in Leeds..

I can't post any pictures of the puzzles or the room, but they did have this rather nice Tesla in one of the arcades in Leeds..

Went to Leeds today for another birthday treat. We had booked a go at Tick Tock Unlock, a locked room escape experience where you have an hour to complete a mission which involves puzzles, cooperation and some really cool padlocks. 

It was great fun. There were five of us and I like to think that we turned into a well-oiled puzzle solving machine. We managed to get out within the the allotted hour and the chap in charge reckoned that we did really well, only needing three clues. (but I bet he says that to all the groups).

The setup is very smooth and well organised and the puzzles themselves are nicely paced so that you get plenty of things to do as you piece together the clues that will get you past the final door.

If you are looking for a novel experience which is great fun then you should have a go. We'll certainly be having a go at another one. 

BJSS at Hull

BJSS are a great bunch of folks. I can say that because I've met quite a few of them. They came over to Hull from Leeds to run a programming challenge event type thing in our computer labs. With free pizza and drinks. It was excellent. They posed an interesting task and the students who came along set about solving it. Then they wandered around giving comments and advice on coding and having chats about CVs etc. 

It was great to have a professional perspective on problem solving. I even had a little go myself, until my natural laziness took over and I reverted to chatting with the BJSS folks about board games and stuff.  As you do. 

The students that came along had a great time, and any time BJSS want to come by it would be lovely to see them again. 

Rob != Winner

Well, my suspicions were correct. Three minutes of unfocussed content does not a Famelab winner make. Even if you add a gadget.

I got the email today saying that I've not made the top six. I'm actually quite relieved about this. From what I saw of the entrants we have some proper science folks who are keen on presenting the subject that they are passionate about. The local final is in Hull soon. You can find out more here, and I'd advise you to go along if you can.

Famelab Beckons. Or not.

 A not so secret weapon

A not so secret weapon

Today was the day that I made my Three Minute Pitch for fame at FameLab. The idea is that you speak about something scientific for three minutes. No more. No less. No computers, no script. Just you and 180 seconds. 

Of course I cheated.

Turns out that you are allowed props. The night before the talk I put together the little device you can see above. It uses LittleBits devices to create a timer. It uses two rows of lights that increase as the time goes by.The bottom row fills up over the three minute and the top row fills over the last thirty seconds. It was actually quite fun to make. I used the Arduino LittleBit to make it work. I'll post the program later. 

The timer worked out fine, but I don't think I've made it to the final. Everyone else was doing hard core science stuff, you know, origins of the universe and serious stuff like that where I just did my piece about how Computer Science is the bestest ever subject.  I think if I want to make it in this field I need to come up with some slightly more focussed content. 

Anyhoo, the great thing for me was to see lots of enthusiastic people talking science in front of an appreciative audience. Great stuff. 

Careers and Internships Events at Hull

Gaming: 27th January 2016 12:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Development: 24th February 2016 12:30 pm - 4:30 pm

There is still time to register for the two events we are holding this year. The Gaming one is next week  and the Development one runs in around a month or so. 

These events are for students at Hull University who want to find out just what software development is going on and meet up with the folks doing it. If you are a First or Second Year you should be looking for internships and summer placements. If you are a Third or Fourth year you should be talking to people with a view to employment. There is a lot going on in the development space and this is how you can become part of it. Everyone who attends as a conference delegate will get a set of business cards and some other conference goodies. We'll have talks from industry and stands from companies. And maybe some free pens.

Register here by 12:00 on Monday 25th of January to take part. 

Enter FameLab - I have

I've signed up for FameLab. I think you should too. Being able to handle yourself in front of an audience is a terribly useful skill. If you are going to start, it's best to start small. FameLab gives you three minutes to fill with something scientific that you feel passionate about. The Hull heat is on the third of February 2016 and you can find out more and sign up here

I'm going to speak about why Computer Science is the most important subject of all. Should be fun.