All In

Well, that's it. I've finished writing all the text for the C# book. I think they call this "all in". It's certainly how I feel just at the moment. It seems to me that writing (and programming) always takes longer that I think it will. Even (or perhaps especially) if I allow for this. 

Anyhoo, the good news is that now I'll have more time for Hull Pixelbot, Lora and, of course, the blog. 

Thwaite Gardens


Thwaite Gardens was open today for the afternoon. They had a choir, beautiful gardens, tea, and cakes. It's amazing that a place like this is right in the middle of the Cottingham area. 

The gardens are attached to Thwaite Hall, which until recently was a hall of residence for students from Hull University. It's closed now, and looks very forlorn with all its windows boarded up. 

I really hope that they come up with a way of making proper use of the hall, and that the gardens stay the wonderful place that they are now. 

Working with the Arduino at the Hardware Group

I really must take more, or at least some, pictures of the Hardware Group at c4di in action. But I'm always too busy talking about stuff to get out the camera.

Anyhoo, we had a great meetup today. We've got a bunch of new members who are just getting started, so we've put together some tiny hardware kits that they can use to get started. Like those "Build an Aston Martin in easy steps" magazines that you can buy in the new year, If you want to pick up a kit and have a go, come along to our next meetup on the 7th of June. You can sign up here

Universal Paperclips

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In Universal Paperclips you play the role of an artificial intelligence that was created to maximise the production of paperclips. Thing start off slow, with a button to press to make a paperclip. One mouse click equals one paperclip. But pretty soon you've earned enough to afford one or more "auto-clippers" that will press the button for you. Then you can start to set the price of your paperclips and advertise to drive demand. 

After a while your anonymous sponsor starts to reward you with trust that brings your AI system more memory and processing speed. So you can start having ideas about paperclip production and marketing. And you make more, and more paperclips. And perhaps sing some songs.

They say that the game ends when the entire universe is made of paperclips. But they might be wrong, I've not been playing the game long enough for that. 

It's a delightful little game. I mentioned it yesterday at Pint of Science as an example of the way that, given a goal, an AI system will behave in a totally amoral way. You can play it online or you can buy a copy for your iPhone or Android device. 

Rob at Pint of Science 2018


So, tonight finds me in Furley and Co in the middle of Hull. I was there to give a talk about the Robots to be most afraid of. I was second on the bill, the first speaker was Dr Stephen Burwood, a lecturer on Philosophy, talking about Science and Human Nature. It was really interesting to hear a philosopher's take on science, and where it fits in. I learned a few new words including the word "aporia", which means an "impasse in reasoning".

The central tenet in Stephen's talk was that we seem to have used the scientific viewpoint to prove that we are really just a very clever kind of ape, but this leaves us with a really big thing about us that just don't seem to have a scientific explanation for; namely the things that we do that make us human.

Is there a scientific explanation of why we have things like good and bad, morals and stuff like that. If there is, then where is it? If there is no explanation, then what does that say about the scientific method? Deep stuff. Great exercise for the brain. 

Then it was time for me to do my stuff. I talked about my worries about machine learning, that we are building tools that will be making decisions for us based on potentially shaky reasoning and dodgy stats, and that we are using software in situations where an ethical framework is urgently needed. It was interesting how Stephen's discussion on reasoning collided nicely with my observations on Machine Learning. More great questions, more great discussion. 

Thanks to Phil for inviting me, and the audience for being awesome. I mentioned a few things in the talk that I'd link through to in the blog. Here they are.

One of the most accessible books on philosophy that I've ever read is Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. You can track down a copy on Amazon here

The video of the Google software agent booking a haircut and using umms and ahhs in its speech is here

The Universal Paperclips game is here

You can find the Hull branch of the British Science Association here

Bristol 10K

When someone says "10K" to me I think of this.


Turns out this is wrong. At least this time. We were in Bristol for the 10K run, which number one son was taking part in. We were there to provide ground support, hold his coat, etc etc.

It was great. I've never been to one before and the atmosphere was amazing. There were quite a few runners who looked around the same age as me, maybe even older. And an eighty year old chap who went round the course too. Perhaps I should have a go at this running thing. 


Concorde in Bristol


Today we went to the Aerospace Museum in Bristol. Home of Concorde, and lots of other interesting stuff. We remember when Concorde was out exposed to the elements; now it's in a custom built hanger and beautifully presented. 

Quite right too.


They've got a lovely mock up of the cockpit that you can sit in and pretend you're flying at Mach 2.


There are lots of other displays too. We had a great time there. The tickets that we got are good for re-entry for the next year. We'll be back. 

David Parker is blogging

I've just discovered that David Parker, one of my chums from Hull University Department of Computer Science, is blogging. He's written a lovely post about why you should blog, and then followed his own advice to create this

He's also reminded me of Compsciblogs, a great way to keep track of Computer Science blogs. If you start blogging (and you should) you can add your blog there too.

Whiskey Galore at Hull Truck

Whisky Galore is a tale of scheming Scots folk and shipwrecked whisky. Set on the twin isles of Great Toddy and Little Toddy during the Second World War, the action starts with the inhabitants enduring a whiskey famine. No small affair when "a wee dram" is so much a part of life.

Things brighten up considerably  when a boat runs aground nearby and releases thousands of bottles of whiskey into the sea. Then it becomes a race to spirit away as much as possible under the noses of salvage teams, the army and the dreaded revenue officers. And of course there is the little matter of a few romances to be guided to their happy endings.

It's all great fun, made all the more so by the fact that the play is being performed by the Pallas Players, an all-female touring theatre company from 1955. The staging and the way the scenery and props are used to build an atmosphere (and get some laughs) is very impressive.

At times you think that you're watching a very well engineered piece of machinery ticking on the stage in front of you. But it's done with such verve and obvious enjoyment that you don't sit there thinking of Swiss watches at all. 

If you can get tickets you should go. It's not that much more expensive than a movie, and it's much more interesting to see real people present stuff in front of you than any number of movie special effects. Find out more here.

Rob at the Insider Dev Tour

 Click on the image to register

Click on the image to register

This is big news. Oh. Ahem.


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

Robot Rumbles at Dot Net North


Turns out that Dot Net North is a great place to go and talk about robots. It's in Manchester and they run regular events about technology. Pete had offered me a chance to take along some Hull Pixelbots and explain that they are all about. Great fun. You can find the explanation here

We had Pizza, and at the end a Robot Carrying Cheese Race. 

 A tense moment with the cheese.

A tense moment with the cheese.

The audience was splendid, most things worked (although one of the cheese carrying robots could probably have used some new batteries). 

You can find out about more Dot Net North events here

Beasts of Balance

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Bank Holiday Monday finds us out shopping in Leeds. But I was there for a reason. I wanted to buy a copy of "Beasts of Balance" from the Apple Store. I'd nearly bought a copy on a recent trip but I was talked out of it. But the person who talked me out of the purchase isn't on this trip....

We had a go this evening. I thought it was a game where you try to balance objects on a plinth. It is, but there's a lot more to it than that. The idea of "balance" goes a lot further than than stopping things from falling over. Some of the objects that you balance are beautiful, stylised models of creatures from land, sea or air. And you have to keep their worlds in balance by adding other things too.

We kept adding the octopus (mainly because he has a flat head, and is eminently stackable) but that meant we had to balance his watery needs with  creatures from different realms and he turned out to be quite needy...

So the game turns into a ecological balancing act as well as a physical one. And it gets even more interesting when you add in the "modifier" pieces. There are two types of these. One of them lets you "cross" one creature with another, to make a new species. The other lets you "migrate" a species into another realm. Perhaps we could have used one to get that pesky octopus out of the water. There are a couple of "miracle" pieces too, I'm looking forward to seeing what they do. 

Each piece you add to the plinth contains an RFID tag that is used to identify it. You tap the tag on the plinth before you put it on the structure you're building. The plinth can detect when you've added the piece successfully, and also when everything falls down....

The game is played in conjunction with an app that runs on your Android or Apple device which keeps score and shows the effect your actions are having on the ecosystem you are creating as you play. 

Lots of players can cooperate, but there's not really a competitive mode (although it is kind of fun to put your piece on the plinth in a way that makes it horribly difficult for the next person to do anything). 

Everyone who started playing (including me) began by regarding the game as "Computer Jenga with an ipad scoreboard". It's not. There's a ton of depth to the gameplay. It's not about getting everything on the plinth, it's about getting the right combination of objects on there, and adding bits to find out what they do. 

It's a bit pricey, but not that much more than a video game. And I've seen board games with far fewer, and less engaging, pieces, on sale for a lot more money. The game has a lot of polish, from the beautifully made models to the well drawn user interface of the game. Strongly recommended. 

Makers Central

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Today, feeling much better, it was into the car and off to Makers Central in Birmingham. It was a very enjoyable trip. There wasn't as much 3d printing and embedded technology as I might have liked, although Pimoroni and RoboSavvy were there, and it's always nice to see what they are up to.

There was some lovely work being done with wood and resin, and some of the woodworking tools looked a lot less expensive than I was expecting. Had a good look round and then rumbled back up the motorway (which for some reason wasn't closed or anything). 

Hull Raspberry Pi Jam with robots


Well, that was great fun. Spent the morning at the Hull Raspberry Pi Jam. It was something of a "RobotFest". I had my Hull Pixelbots and Coretec Robotics were there with their balloon Raspberry Pi powered balloon busting robots. I was trialling a new idea I've had, called the "Robot Rumble". The idea is that players code up their robot warriors to get as far into their opponents area as possible. You can find the draft rules here

As it turned out we didn't get that many rumbles going, but folks had great fun making their robots do things, including some things I'd never have thought of, which was rather nice. And from the sounds of bursting balloons and cries of victory coming from the other side of the library, fun was being had there too. 

The second part of this post was going to have the title "Three Thing Game Judging Fun". But instead I'd have to use the title "I probably shouldn't have eaten that chicken from the fridge". Number one wife did ask me to check the sell by date but I was confident it was fine. And besides, I'd thrown the package away.

By 2:30 it was turning out that the chicken might not have been that fine after all. And an attempt to "kill or cure" by drinking a can full of "Old English Ginger Beer" didn't have the desired effect. Which meant I had to beat a hasty retreat from the event and head home for a lie down amongst other things. 

Fortunately the effects don't seem to have been too long lasting, which is a good thing as I'm supposed to be driving to Birmingham tomorrow. 


Hardware Meetup - now with biscuits

 I had to tear myself away from a really good conversation to take this picture

I had to tear myself away from a really good conversation to take this picture

We had another really good Hardware Meetup at c4di yesterday. Three new folks turned up and we’re going to start working with Arduino devices at the next session. We’re assembling some kits and some content to get folks playing with hardware. The idea is that you spend a princely five pounds on a starter kit containing an Arduino and some lights and switches. And then over the next sessions we’ll introduce other components to play with. If you fancy coming along, you’d be more than welcome.

The next meeting is on the 17th Mary at c4di as usual. Only now we have coffee, tea and biscuits. And hardware. It would be great to see you. 

Apple Homepod Review


One of the nice things about being a writer is that every now and then you get a note saying that a bunch of people have bought copies of your book and, as a result, you've got some money to spend. It doesn't happen to me as much as I would like, but it did happen last week. 

And so, of course, I used some of it to buy myself an Apple HomePod. What with there being one for sale second hand in a local shop, and me having come into a bit of cash, it seemed like fate was actually willing me to get one. 

I'm glad I did. I've got a couple of Amazon Echo devices and I thought that their sound quality was OK. But the HomePod blows them, and just about anything else I've got, away in terms of sound quality. It's far, far, better than the speaker and sub-woofer setup I have in my working room and has therefore completely replaced it. There is a lot more bass present than there has any right to be. It's actually quite startling.

Some reviewers have talked about the impressively wide sound stage that the speaker manages to create using its assortment of drivers and cunning calibration. I've not noticed this much to be honest. The output sounds like it is coming out of a speaker. But what output....

The setup was a breeze. I just held my phone close to the HomePod the first time I powered it on, tapped Yes to confirm access and away we went. It did such a good job of finding the best tracks in my music collection that I let it do that for around eight hours before I actually asked it to play anything specific. 

Voice control is not as great as it could be. It doesn't understand the artist name "Boz Scaggs" at all. I had to ask for the album by name from my library in the end. And saying "Hey Siri" is not how I like to start any kind of conversation. And when I do every single Apple device in the room pricks up its ears. The computer generated voice of the device is not a refined as Alexa from Amazon. I've gone for the Australian female voice as this sounds the least strange to me. Or perhaps I can't actually tell whether its strange or not. 

I've not used the HomePod for much more than playing music. I will tell me the weather and If I get some remotely controlled kit it should be able to control it. I've got an Apple Music subscription, which makes it a proper free-standing device. Otherwise I'd have to use my phone to get the audio source and play it over Airplay. I've not tried the HomePod as a speakerphone yet. It works in this role, but not in a way that you'll find particularly useful. 

From a software point of view it is a bit limited at the moment. There is a serious shortage of third party skill and, unlike the Amazon Echo, I can't use it to listen to the radio, which is a shame. 

However, it is what I thought it would be when I bought it. It is a super, super, speaker with some indifferent network features and a whole ton of room for improvement. I just hope enough people engage with the product to make Apple fulfil its true potential. Until then I'll be very happy listening to the amazing sounds it makes. 

Hull Pixelbots at Dot Net North in Manchester next Tuesday


Another Hull Pixelbot event coming up. On Tuesday next week I'm going across the Pennines to Dot Net North in Manchester. You can sign up here.  I'm going to try and crowd source some robot control. And apparently the pizza is really good. 

If you want me to bring my Hull Pixelbots to your neck of the woods (do woods have necks?) then let me know.