our speakers are awesome, lovelace colloquium is fab, pornography is strange

For the last few months, my writing here has been slow, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Actually, I’ve had articles published on a couple of other blogs, which probably have a slightly higher readership than this one…

On computer weekly

The BCSWomen Lovelace is a conference I set up and have been running for 7 years. This coming event has a super lineup, so I have done a post introducing our awesome speakers at the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium

And a general overview of the colloquium which describes the background, and also why it is great.

Still spaces (Reading Uni, April 16th, sign up here: at the BCS site) if you want to come. Awesome speakers, inspirational students, free lunch…. maybe even free beer.

On the software sustainability institute blog

I’ve published an article on Lena or “How a photo from Playboy became part of scientific culture”; describing how computer vision seems to have strangely adopted a photo from a 1973 issue of playboy.

I was born in 1973 so that particular image is older than me… How strange is that?

Data collection in March can be a chilly business

Last week we went out data collecting with my PhD student Max. Max is working on an airborne robot which can be used in navigation – floating above (say) a robot boat, and giving a top down view of surrounds.

Out at Clarach bay, it was a bit misty. The plan was that I would play the role of the robot boat, whilst sat in the Aberystwyth University Robotics Group Kayak (yes it does exist) paddling back and forth. We’d then test the ability of the vision system to detect targets on the boat, and the control systems to do stuff with the motors. Unloaded the van, flew the balloon, tethered it to the Kayak at about 8m…

It turns out that the motor wasn’t working. It also turns out I’m not actually as good at kayaking as I think I am. Well, I’m probably better in my own kayak, but… basically I was pants. I fell in, on the way out to sea… and then I fell in again at the end. Here’s a balloon’s-eye-view timelapse, where you can detect both events. You can also detect that the blimp doesn’t keep up with me, as the motor wasn’t working, but that the targets are in shot when I turn and that looks OK.

More work needed, I think… both on the blimp front, and the kayak-skillz front. But hey. I fell in the sea in March for Science. Sometimes I love my job.

QCon London 2014

Last week I was invited – by the lovely Graham Lee – to talk about mobile code at the QCon London conference. I said that the most interesting thing I’d been doing in the mobile sphere was my AppInventor workshop for kids (the BCSWomen App Inventor Family Fun Day) and so I talked about that, with the title Creating Apps with 6-Year Old Girls (and their Dads) (BTW slides are available from that last link). I’ve done loads of conference speaking in the past, but the vast majority of it has been at computer vision conferences, or at women in tech gigs. Mainstream technology conferences, particularly massive ones, like QCon, are a different beast.

Firstly, they invite you! This is great. To get into a computer vision conference, I have to do some original research, write it up in a paper (usually 6-10 pages), submit that paper, get that peer reviewed by people who don’t know who I am as the paper is anonymised, and then get accepted (the big conferences have, like, a 4% acceptance rate for presentations). If you get in you’ve been selected to talk about that one paper, and you’ve most definitely not been selected on the grounds of your speaking ability.

Secondly, you don’t have to pay to attend. QCon paid my conference fees… and even the richest research conferences don’t pay your attendance fees. They may be free for keynotes, & for the main organising committee. But not for presenters – if I stand up and talk at BMVC, I’ve paid my registration like everyone else.

Thirdly, they sorted out my hotel. All the speakers were in the same hotel, and it was a cut above the places I usually stay in London. Not only did I not have to pay for it, I also didn’t have to book it. SWEET!

Fourthly, the swag is much higher quality. We’re talking free t-shirts, nerd gear, prize draws for 3d printers (I lost). One stand, organised by Trifork, had the best coffee, with actual barristers.

Anyway. QCon: Fun conference! If I had the cash I’d probably quite like to attend as a normal attendee. Talks were varied and the ones I saw were strong. Apart from one slightly off-colour t-shirt (“kiss my app”? please!) and a keynote who made a couple of comments about aspergers, the conference was super friendly. I met some really interesting people. The view from the stairs at the QE2 is pretty much a “greatest hits” of Westminster, which is also nice.

My talk went well, too. The conference app let everyone vote on your talk, and I got 75 green smiley faces, 2 yellow unsure faces, and 0 red frowny faces. I’m not sure that’s the most sophisticated way to evaluate a talk, but I’m fairly sure it indicates I was OK.

International women’s day|week

For International Women’s Day, the Athena Swan team at Aberystwyth put on a series of events over the course of the preceding week. I was off to London for a conference so helped organise an event on the Monday before jetsetting off to The Smoke (if you can call travelling via Arriva Trains Wales “jetsetting”). Thanks to all the speakers, to my co-organiser Carina Fearnley (who did most of the hard organisational work) and to Computer Science in Aberystwyth for sponsoring the evening (paying for amplification and tech setup). We had about 70 people there, I think, and there were a few more watching on the internet livestream.

The idea of Monday’s event was that we’d have a series of talks looking at women and science, from pre-school and girls toys right through the school and education pipeline up to professorial science. Turns out the professor had to drop out (something important came up) but the rest of us did short talks, and my co-organiser Carina Fearnley made some last-minute adjustments to her slides to cover some of his content.

First up, I spoke about girl’s toys and science and why, in my opinion, Pink Stinks

Next was Dr Rachel Horsley on school science and girls, who took as her starting point a famously cheesy video from the EU, called “Science, it’s a Girl Thing”. I’m not going to link to it – it’s awful! Rachel spoke about the way in which the concept “girl” is constructed, and how this might affect such a campaign.

Grace Burton, our students’ union’s education officer (did I get the apostroph’es right?) spoke about undergraduate experience, looking at women in science and the broader picture for undergraduate women. Props to Grace for tackling some major issues and presenting a really well thought out argument.

Finally, Dr Carina Fearnley talked about the Leaky Pipeline, and the way in which pressures on career (particularly at the early career/post-doc stage) can stack up against women in science.

We then had a break for the bar, and the results of the Athena Swan Women in Science photo contest. This was won by a superb picture from Ramona Tapi, a third year computer science student. Here’s the pic:

After the break there was a panel debate where the audience could join in and comment on issues around women and science : I’m not going to put up the video for that bit, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the discussion was lively and people really joined in. One phrase which seems to resonate is something I heard Rebecca George say once, when talking about tech:

A profession that’s better for women is better for all

I think that quote applies just as much to the broader sphere of science as it does to IT and computing careers. The stuff that’s important – flexible working, not being treated like shit, decent pay, equality of opportunity, support – is important to all genders. How we go about ensuring this is a hard, unsolved problem. But there seems to be some effort being made, some acknowledgement that there is a problem there, and some willingness to try.

On a nerdy note: this was the first talk I had a go at live-streaming and it worked really well. About 25 people watched the livestream at some point whilst the event was going on, and Youtube canned the stream for later usage. My excellent MPhil student Matt Pugh recorded the videos you can see above, which are better quality than the live stream, but it was really useful to a) be able to broadcast live (we used Google hangouts via Youtube, and it was easy to set up working first time); and b) to have the event record up on line from the moment it finished. Nice work Google.

David Hockney, Kyffin Williams and colour visualisations

This is a quick writeup of some work in progress that might never actually progress any further… so I thought I’d put it out here just in case it’s interesting to anyone.

If you think of colour as computer people do, you probably think of it as red, green and blue values. In digital images, colours go from 0 to 255 in the red, green and blue channels, with 0,0,0 being black, and 255,255,255 being white. 255,0,0 is bright red. 255,255,0 is yellow. And so on. We can think of colour this way making up the colour cube: here’s a video I have put together which provides a visualisation of that. You start off with black top left, and end up with white bottom right, and you can think of it as being a cube where you move through the cube over time (although I’m not sure that’s a particularly clear explanation…).

That video includes every colour that it’s possible to have in an ordinary 24 bit (“true colour”) digital image.

Different types of image use different parts of the colour cube. We can build a statistical model – specifically a Gaussian Mixture Model – which learns the way in which colours are distributed in a set of images. Feeding this kind of model a set of photographs of landscapes downloaded from Flickr, we can then re-colour the colour cube with the mean colours of the elements of the mixture. This gives some kind of idea of what landscape photographs look like, statistically speaking.

In the next video clip there’s the same animation/visualisation, but this time for the paintings of Kyffin Williams:

And here’s David Hockney:

I’m not quite sure where I’m going to go with this yet, but I think the videos look kinda cool.

Aberystwyth storm damage

We went for a walk on the prom this morning, to assess the damage. Timing our walk to just miss high tide, things were still fairly hairy. Here’s a short (4 minutes) video I’ve cut together from clips on the way.

Pythagoras day

Yesterday was 5/12/13 – numbers which make up a Pythagorean triple – the sides of a right-angled triangle. A guy called Marco Matosic spotted this quirk of the date system and decided to put on an event at the Ceredigion museum, involving various people from around aber. During the day about 150 pupils from local schools came through to stroll around the exhibits and learn a bit about Pythagoras.

I was there helping to run the computer installation, with Anne Marggraf-Turley from Coleg Ceredigion and Amanda Clare from aber uni (like me).

Amanda and I setting up before the day began

Our activity was based around the golden ratio, and I’d put together three computer programs that let kids experiment with the golden ratio and – hopefully – go away with some idea of what it is. Students from Anne’s IT class at Coleg Ceredigion made some posters about the golden ratio, pentagrams, and so on, and we borrowed laptops, projectors and screens to put it all together and make a stall. Turns out 8 year olds don’t really know about ratios, but hey. We had a go at explaining them.

Looking down on the museum from the top of the balcony

Our exhibit was in the middle of the auditorium; there were about 8 different activities going on in and around the museum, but I think we had the prime spot. Which was nice. One of our computer installations was just a rotating animation with the golden spiral in it, which we had running on a projector. The second involved a webcam with the golden ratio superimposed, and the kids had to move around infront of this to try and work out whether they could find the golden ratio in their face or body or hand (or whatever).

A kid testing out whether he can find the golden ratio in his hand

Once they’d found the golden ratio in something, they were asked to draw that on their workbook.

One of my favourite student drawings – this girl said she wanted to be an artist and usually draws much better than that (!)

The other computer program I put together for this was a game – really it’s a very basic game. Indeed you could call it the most rubbish computer game ever. There’s a rectangle on the screen, and you can drag the corners, and when you think you’ve got a rectangle that has the golden ratio you double click. If you get close, it flashes different colours, goes “YAY!!!”, and lets you enter your hiscore.

Some kids playing the world’s most basic computer game whilst one of the Coleg Ceredigion students looks on

Turns out that 8 year olds really like high score tables. One kid played the game for half an hour or so. Each school was in the museum for about 2 hours, moving around the exhibits, so there was time for kids to come back to their favourites and to hang around if they wanted (or to just experience the museum, which is a cracking place to look around) so I didn’t feel too guilty about Mr Hiscore, but honestly? 30 minutes? At least he’ll recognise the golden ratio now I guess…

The result of playing a game for 30 minutes

In all the day was good fun, and exhausting. I think the schoolkids enjoyed it, and it was great working with Anne and the lads from Coleg Ceredigion, we’ll have to do that again. I think the FE students enjoyed helping out too, although it might have taken them out of their comfort zone a bit!

I’ll put the web resources up somewhere publicly shortly, along with PDFs of the posters, and will update this post then with a link.

Show and tell

On Friday, we had a BCS Mid Wales show and tell. These are informal evening events where people who have cool projects come along and talk about them, and the BCS pays for free beer and pizza. They’re good fun, we’ve had about 5 of them now, and it doesn’t seem like we’re running out of projects. Indeed there are loads of cool things going on in and around Aberystwyth involving technology, coding, robots, and other stuff. The format of the evening is a set of short (5 minute) talks, then a break for pizza and walking around to look at stuff, then another set of talks. This time we had…

Jim Finnis talking about his Gormenghast minecraft castle generator…

This makes automatic castles in minecraft. Some of the code looks great.

And then Jim showed off his homemade electric oboe thing.

After that we had a couple of other talks – about whether we could do 3d modelling of traffic accidents and therefore open up roads quicker; some stuff on artificial life and insects, and about an online code thing called 3301 involving Tor and steganography, and all sorts of other stuff. Then we broke for pizza and strolling around – exhibits/demos included leapmotion, an octocoptor, sailing robots, and a humanoid 3d printed robot. Here are a few shots looking in to the venue with people chatting to exhibitors.

In the second half of talks I spoke about WWLUG, the west wales linux user group, and then John Murray from Lincoln uni talked about 3d printing robots. The last two talks were on autonomous robot boats – from Colin Sauze, talking about the big project “Minty2″, trying to build an autonomous vehicle for surveying glaciers, and from the Aber Sailbot team who spoke about their boats and their plans for the coming year’s sailing robot competitions. Colin bought minty2 along to show and tell but it was too big to fit in the doors, so I coudn’t get a decent picture. Here’s the sailbot which went to the world robotic sailing competition last year:

Each show and tell has a prize -this time a raspberry pi with camera board – and it goes to the person or group who collected the most stickers (everyone gets a sticker to give out). This time, the sailbot team won – here they are with their pi:

It was good they won – they actually need a pi for their robot…


In the last four weeks I’ve been to Gregynog Hall 3 times. Luckily for me it’s a beautiful place – a stately home in the middle of Powys, with superb gardens, and really nice cake. The first visit was with our first year students, who we take there every year for a team building weekend. The second visit was with our second year students who’re going out on industrial year. And the final visit was Monday and Tuesday of this week for a staff awayday. Here’s a picture of dawn mist over the fields in the grounds:

I think it’s great that we take the students there – the first year weekend is an intense series of team-building exercises, designed to stretch the students in terms of their interactions, their computational skills, their presentation skills and their critical thinking. We get them doing indoor stuff, outdoor stuff, and creative stuff. With the second years, it’s more about employability, so we have actual people from industry in to do mock interviews, we have an “assessment centre” type exercise, and we try to prepare them for interview and application situations before they go out to do a sandwich year. The staff awayday was more strategic, but still very useful (actually, I found it surprisingly useful and positive – I’m usually kind of cynical about these kinds of events). So all in all it has been a pleasant Gregynogging, but to be honest? I’m now pleased to be home.

Mathematics playground

This summer, Amanda Clare and I won a small grant for teaching development. The idea was to use the stuff I teach (HTML5, JavaScript) to help students learn the stuff Amanda teaches (Mathematical concepts for computer scientists). We won just under £2k from the Aberystwyth University Learning and Teaching Enhancement fund, and we spent most of it on employing Mike Sheldon, a recent Aberystywth PhD graduate. I can thoroughly recommend working with Mike – he’s not only a good coder but he’s really quick at understanding problems, and imaginative at coming up with solutions. If we manage to get funding to extend the site, I’d employ him again immediately.

The idea of the site is that it’s a set of interactive examples, which let students experiment with equations and concepts without actually necessarily understanding the maths. It’s based on the idea that sometimes, an intuitive understanding (this kind of sum has this kind of visual effect) can really speed up that deeper mathematical understanding. I know that I find learning maths much easier if I can picture it in my head! It also enables Amanda to use interactive animations in her lectures, rather than trying to sketch things on the whiteboard. What it isn’t is a full e-learning or teaching site – we hope it complements existing courses, without pre-supposing any pedagogical structure or curriculum. Basically it’s just a collection of thematic examples and interactive graphical illustrations. We currently have trigonometry, vectors, matrices (arithmetic and transformations), quadratic equations, and prob & stats. We’d like to extend it and have a to-do list already though!

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Mathematics Playground. I think my favourite is the unit circle, showing how sin cos and tan change, but to be honest? I like it all.

We’ve got about £100 left, which we will spend on some lunches for groups of students who’ll test the site for us and give us their opinions. We’re also looking for people outside of Aber to use the site – I think it’s probably of broader interest (maybe even for A-level students). If you use it, please get in touch – we’d love to have feedback on how it works, what people think it’s good for, and how it can be improved.