Friday, August 31, 2007

Tutorial: MaxMSP

On Thursday and Friday, Innovation North organised a tutorial on Max/MSP, the graphical tool for designing and prototyping music interaction software. Many of our students use this in their music projects, and this tool is a standard staple in many electronic music systems and installations. I was curious if this software could help me in my work, or if I would continue authoring these applications in C/C++/C#.

Overall, this software is quite powerful, and is certainly a good tool for prototyping. But it cannot deny its roots from a time long ago, when graphical interaction was still a novelty. Its user interface is not very smooth: one has to use both mouse and keyboard, a sole reliance on either input device is not possible. For example, there is no mouse button for "CTRL-E", which switches between edit mode and performance mode. On the other hand, there are no keyboard shortcuts for the many button functions for creating the code.

Also, the interaction paradigms seem to be driven by Apple MACs: there is no drag-and-drop from controls that pop up on a sidebar; instead one has to click on the control, then release, then click on the edit surface to put the control there.

The line drawing seems not very "pretty": no anti-aliasing is done, diagonal lines are jagged without smoothing. When using the mode where lines are only made of horizontal or vertical segments, the re-arranging can look quite messy, as there is a not very smart automatic re-arranging of the node points.

These are all very minor things, but they are quite obvious when starting with this software. I am sure that this tool is quite useful, and one can get used to the interface hick-ups. Behind the scenes, it is quite a powerful application that allows rapid and sophisticated prototyping. But some of the driver interfaces did seem to have some problems too: addressing and polling a simple gamepad made the application crash and disappear without a trace, several times. Not sure, maybe this was due to the networked installation... but there must be a more graceful way of exception handling.

I will give it a try in the future, but I will not yet abandon writing audio and MIDI software in C# and DirectX.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Inaugural Lecture: Prof. Tony Collins

Later on Wednesday evening, an inaugural lecture tookplace at the Headingley Carnegie Stadium: Professor Tony Collins talked about '1895 and all that: the past, present and future of rugby'. In this, he illuminated the history of Rugby League and Rugby Union. Shame on me - I had not even been aware that there had been two Rugbys, with two different sets of rules.

Treadmill Arrives

In the middle of the RUN event, I got a phone call on my mobile that the treadmill which we had ordered, would arrive soon at Leeds Met. This treadmill is for capturing motion of somebody walking or running. It was placed in the motion capture room and is now awaiting its first use in a project for capturing the running action of an athlete.

Concert by Former Members of "ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA (ELO)" at Leeds Met!

The Marquee for the Festival Activities.
The Staff Development Festival was officially opened today in the afternoon with a concert in the Marquee on the Acre. First there was some Bollywood-style dancing, performed by Indian dancers. Our Pro-Vice-Chancellers Sally Brown got very much into the mood of this - and performed on stage a nice dance!

Sally Brown dances.

Then came - the group "The Orchestra", which is the successor band of the "Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)".

In the late 1970, this band was among my favorites, with their quite original sound! And so I enjoyed the nostalgic sounds of the songs like "Confusion" and "Don't bring me down...russsss". What a festival!

Electric Light Orchestra

Regional University Network Event

Today began the new academic year at Leeds Met. As in every September since I have been here - now for the 3rd time - the year begins with the Staff Development Festival, a fortnight (=14-days) filled with workshops and events of all kinds for staff activities.

The day began with an event celebrating the Regional University Network (RUN), which is a collaboration of colleges around Northern England, lead by Leeds Met. Two workshops, several keynote speeches, and plenty of opportunities for networking.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Summer in Yorkshire

Problem with feeds

When adding keywords to older posts in my blog, I realised an issue with feeds: the posts that are being changed, are fed again to subscribers, even if the posting date still shows the previous date when the post was saved for the first time. This is a little annoying - I recently added keywords to about 50 older posts, and now these old posts appear as new posts on the feed subscriptions, with dates from the time when I added the keywords.

It is notable that the original full website here does not display this problem: the posts appear in their original order, with the original posting date.

I plan to add keywords and labels to all my previous posts, which will result in all those posts being re-fed into feed subscriptions. So please, feed subscribers, please bear with me, when I do this. I will start from the oldest post and try to finish this labelling within one day, so that all posts will appear in the feed subscriptions in the correct order. They will all have an incorrect date, but there is nothing I can do.

Apologies for this inconvenience, but I hope that the keyword labelling is beneficial for archiving and searching of older posts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What is wrong with Britain?

I have been here in the UK since almost 2 years, and I have enjoyed the country and the people. But this generally positive attitude is not shared by everybody: in today's news one of the main stories was about the fact that more Brits than ever emigrate from their country and settle somewhere else in the world. (e.g. article in Times Online).

There is speculation about the reasons, and I can contribute a few, based on my own experiences during these 2 years here:

  • The weather. Last year it was actually quite nice, with a warm summer, not much rain, so that there was even a danger of drought in the South of England. But this year the summer did not deserve its name: lots of rain, in fact record rainfall since the beginning of weather recordings, and low temperatures. Warm days here in Leeds were about 20 deg C, not warmer. Not a single day was above 25 deg C, at least I cannot remember one. But for me, the weather would not be a reason to move. There can be bad weather anywhere. And most of the time I sit in my office anyway and would miss whatever weather is outside.

  • The food. Well, there can be some examples of bad food, for example those sausages which have less then 50 % meat in them - they taste as if a sock had been dumped in liquid fat (not that I would know how such a sock would taste...). But in general, the bad reputation of British food is somewhat wrong. Sure, in general the British do not take food very important, it just has to fulfill the purpose of getting something to eat ("crub"). Therefore, not too great care has been placed in the preparation of foods in the past. But the wave of cooking shows has also reached the UK - there is almost no evening where there is not a program on TV about someone cooking something (Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, ...). And I have eaten here quite well. What is actually excellent here are the local produce: from vegetables to milk and meat, everything is available at an excellent quality. The milk here has a delicious nutty taste (esp. the Jersey milk), you can get youghurt in which the only listed ingredient is milk (none of that stabiliser stuff), the meat can be fried without letting out half of its volume in water. Strawberries have a very intensive aroma and taste. Especially when I compare these items with things in the US, then the higher quality of the goods here is quite evident. The only problem is that here (in Leeds) are very few fresh fruit and vegetables, compared with California. And a strange thing: much of vegetables comes from far away, beans from Kenia, salad from South Africa. I wonder if these things could not be grown locally here, to avoid the expensive and polluting air transport, and the food in Africa could go to their local people - much of Africa is in famine, and I have a very bad conscience in eating away their food.

  • The living expenses. They are high indeed. Prices of many things here in the UK cost in Pounds what they cost in the US in $ - but one pound is worth 2 $. This makes everything double as expensive as in the US. Restaurants appear even 3-4 times more expensive than in the US. But salaries are lower. So overall, the life quality here in the UK is lower, in quite measurable terms. Direct taxes on income are actually not that high, appear to me quite reasonable. But there are high taxes on many other things: the usual 20% VAT, a high tax on alcohol imports, on gasoline. These are not much different across Europe, they only appear high when considered from a viewpoint of a US American. But what is quite amazing is a masochistic attitude of a part of society (mainly the "intellectuals") of gladly accepting higher taxes: higher tax to fund the NHS? Yes, gladly! Road pricing? Yes, the tax on gasoline is not high enough. More tax on flights? Yes, flying is bad for the environment, and that is why poor people should not be allowed to fly. Quite amazing, how a part of the public blindly trusts the government to spend the revenues from these tax proposals on actually purpose-full spending - but what really happens: with the generated tax revenue, more Euro-fighters will be bought.

  • The health service. UK has made an intersting experiment, in establishing a nationalised health service, with free health care for everyone: the National Health Service (NHS). Financed is the whole thing from taxes. Now in principle this sounds excellent, compared to the US where many people have no health care at all, because they cannot afford insurance. But in practise, the system does not work: everyday there is a news report about some NHS deficiency: drugs are not prescribed to patients because they are too expensive. Treatment is only done when the disease is at a worse stage. Operations are available only after a waiting time of months, sometimes years. Cancer patients in the UK have the worst survival chances of whole Europe, because NMR scans are delayed, the cancer grows, and the early recognition fails completely due to waiting lists for all the procedures. Everybody has to register with a "General Practicioner" (GP), a doctor in the neighborhood. Patients cannot freely choose their doctor, based on his/her reputation, but have to go to whoever is closest to their home. A specialist can only be seen after referal from a GP - like in those infamous HMOs in the US. Dentists are not allowed to treat more patients than the "plan" provides for - even if they have capacity and would work overtime, they have to send patients away, while these patients have to be on a waiting list for a dentist appointment. The whole system stinks. It is totally ruled by state planning, a relict from a time of socialist experiments. There is no incentive for doctors to work hard, to be good, as they get their patients allocation from a central plan. There is no accountability, as money comes from the state budget - and is at the discretion of the government to spend it. Of course, the government needs a lot of money for their military adventures in the world, so there is nothing left for the health of their citizens. I avoid getting sick, and I do not look forward to the day when I eventually would fall into the hands of the NHS butchers. I would rather pay myself for individual private treatment than to rely on anything from that health service. This is really a reason to emigrate, considering that there are very sucessful health service models in Europe, such as in France or Germany.

  • The crime. Statistic tells that violent crime has gone down. I am not sure how these statistics are being manipulated, but my overall impression is that crime is up. Especially the type of crime: excessive senseless violence by youth gangs. There are strict gun laws here - no private person is allowed to own a gun. But gun crime is on the rise - shootings appear on the rise in every large city. So these folks can get their hands on a gun somehow - seems to me that the gun laws have failed. The senseless violence seems to be unique to the UK. In the US, criminals are interested in money and in getting their booty. As long as a victim hands over the wallet, there is a good chance of survival. Here in the UK, violence is committed just for the fun of it. "Happy Slapping" has been invented here: gangs beat victims and record it on a cell phone. People who interfere when they see acts of vandalism get killed. Some parts of society are completely out of control, and it seems to get worse. A stable with little piglets is vandalized, the piglets slaughtered all over the place. Gardens are devastated and vandalised. I myself have been a victim of crime 3 times in these 2 years - and never in my whole life before anywhere. Sure, these were "just harmless" property crimes, but annoying nevertheless, and they cost me monetary damage. I can understand when people flee from this criminal climate - no place in the UK seems to be safe from the jobs in their hoodies.

So what is wrong with Britain, that these bad trends are not stopped? In my view, one of the reasons for things going so wrong is actually something that I have admired: the British "coolness". This seems to be an attitude which cannot be brought into rage, accepting everything that happens as something that cannot be changed. I often have encountered the sentence "this is just one of those things...". Well, this is exactly the attitude that accepts all of those things as something that cannot be changed. It seems to paralyse the country into a stagnating downward spiral. There are endless discussions, many people make suggestions, but nothing is actually done. But action is necessary. Otherwise the emigration stream will increase more, and those who leave are usually the more capable, more active elements of society.

I still enjoy living in Britain, with its beautiful countryside, its historic sites, its cultural achievements, and its open and tolerant society. But eventually these above issues need to be addressed - I want to see some action, some attempts on improving the health system and reducing crime.

Germany - England soccer game: 2:1 !!

A nice soccer game tonight, in the Wembley Stadium. I was thinking of hanging a German flag out of a window of the cottage, just to "show some flag", but I guess this would have been treated like a sacrilege here in this country where the passions about soccer are an essential part of many people's life.

This seemed to be an important game, even UK's prime minister Gordon Brown and Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel attended.

The German team won. And the mood among the reporters here in the UK who have to comment on this is quite muted.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pre-Announcement: "Rule Zero"

My friend D. Dolson Dolson plans to publish a book: "Rule Zero - How Things Really Work". He sent me the manuscript a few weeks ago, and I must say that it is hilarious! He is looking for a publisher right now, and he has asked me not to post any excerpts of his book anywhere. But I want to take the opportunity to post here just the plain fact that this book is in the process of being published, and once it is out, I will write a review of it.

In this book D.D.Dolson describes the inner workings of US corporations, abstracted into a set of rules. In my opinion, not only US corporations work on the basis of those rules, but also a large part of the rest of the world.

Well, I cannot tell more, but I will let anybody know when this book is out (maybe around christmas?). I think it will be a bestseller, in the same league as Michael Moore.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Automatic Feeding RSS on Web Pages

Finally I bothered to look for the originator of that software which converts RSS feeds into Javascript - there are many sites which feature this tool as mirrors. The sites that I had tried out, had a bug: the RSS feed from my blogspot blogs (atom blogs) did not show a correct posting date: instead of the posting date, today's date was displayed.

But then I found the site where this Javascript conversion tool originated: FEED2JS.

The author wrote there that he recently fixed the date bug - and now I could use this excellent tool on a variety of web sites, to show automatic updates from blog posts.

Also in this my blog I added a few feeds with this tool on the left side bar (further down): I put a feed from my Flickr pictures there, a feed of the BBC weather forecast for Leeds, and a few feeds from blogs of my friends. Seems to work great!

Friday, August 10, 2007

SciAutonics among Semi-Finalists in DARPA Grand Challenge!

As indicated earlier, DARPA announced on 9. August 2007 the 36 semi-finalists, which were selected after site visits to each of the teams. And, our team SciAutonics is among them!

Congratulations to the team, and best wishes for the remaining work!

I remember what a hard struggle this was in preparation for the first Grand Challenge in 2004...

Currently I am uploading photos about the DARPA Grand Challenge 2004 preparations from my large archive onto Flickr, placing them into a collection of several sets. The original RASCAL which is depicted in these pictures will no longer run; instead the team has now a more conventional vehicle, suitable for the anticipated urban scenario near Victorville.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Talk about Driverless Vehicles

This summer, Leeds Met has organised a lunch-time lecture series in Leeds city centre, where speakers from Leeds Met could give presentations about their work or an interesting topic. The audience were intended to be just people from the street, during their lunch break. I was asked to give such a talk, about "Automotive Futures: Driverless Vehicles".

The series had been going on since June and was relatively well visited. However, now in August most people are on vacation. So when I set up my laptop and was ready to talk, there were only 4 people in the audience - all of them from Leeds Met. Well, this was a bit disappointing, but I went ahead anyway and gave an overview on driverless vehicles, with a history of robotics and some of my own work in the PROMETHEUS program and in the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge. The latter was actually quite relevant, as one day later there would be the announcement from DARPA about the Semi-finalists.

The talk took place in the Old Schoolboard in Leeds, 13:00-14:00. It might be repeated within the next few months, when people are back from vacation, and when the next DARPA Grand Challenge is in preparation on 3. November.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

OpenCoffee in Leeds

Following an invitation by Imran Ali, I attended the 3rd OpenCoffee meeting in Leeds. I did not know anyone other than Ben Dalton who also attended, but I had interesting conversations with several people about technology, web, geo-tagging, mobile phones, augmented reality etc. A very interesting group of engineers and technologists!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A few days off - Excursions in East Yorkshire

The weather back in Leeds is nice. Finally summer seems to be here, after 3 months of rainfall. But in Yorkshire, the temperature is always about 5 deg C colder than in the south of England. London almost seems tropical, seen from here in the North. I take a few days off, to do a few trips in the countryside and to the East Coast. Walking along the cliffs near Bridlington, going with the bicycle through York and towards Selby. A nice cherry tree near the bikeway (apparently without any owners) provides excellent refreshment fruit!

There are a few farms where you can pick your own fruit, for example the Balloon Tree Farm.

Excellent black and red currants grow there!

The coast north of Bridlington appears to bne very remote. Not many tourists, just quiet countryside, abruptly ending at the white chalk cliffs.