Category Archives: Academia

All things to do with Academia

The PhD and Industry

Back in April I was invited to give a talk at the  Lancaster University Postgraduate Research Conference held at the university. The room would be full of PhD candidates and other postgraduates, so I wanted to give a talk that would have been helpful to me when I was at this stage.

I know the main thing worrying me at the time was about my options and if academia was right for me. I didn’t really consider that industry would be interested in my skills or if they even applied.

I was wrong about that, so I wanted to make sure the students in the room knew it was an option for them.

Here’s the video of the talk

Top 3 things to take away:

  1. Time and project management skills learned during the PhD are incredibly transferable to any other role you choose to pursue.
  2. A PhD is all about communicating complex concepts into understandable language. This puts you at an advantage within industry as you can quickly and efficiently spread your message.
  3. The skills you’ve picked up by finishing a PhD are valuable, rare, and sought after outside of academia.

If you’re interested in transitioning from your PhD into industry, I’m happy to advise. Please email me at carl at heinventions dot com or DM on twitter @carlc75

Android development talk

On Thursday 10th May, I was asked to present a small talk on android development. I have not been coding android for very long, but I had learned enough to get background services working and activities not popping up where they should be. The slides won’t be as complete without my talk, but they should get the idea across.

The following is a very light overview of the tools at your disposal:

Viral Marketing

I’ve been slowly writing up a skills bank for the Lancaster Award and while finding something for organisation I came across the old working documents for a viral marketing campaign I ran in my first intro week as president of the Computing Society.

I was trying to attract more people to the academic side so I made a simple challenge that went up on posters around campus. The poster that was put up can be found here.

This led to a landing page which sadly is no longer available at the original URL as I no longer control the domain, however I have put it back up here (for those who wish to give the challenge a go, change the domain for http://cslu.co.uk to http://109.74.204.44).

I think overall we had 5 people email in and solve it, which wasn’t very many – but I remember there was a lot of talk wondering what the posters were about, and as they had our logo on them a fair amount of people turned up to the first meeting.

I think if I was to do it again, I wouldn’t say which society it was (there is still a lot of social stigma attached to computing societies) but would just put the date, time, and venue of the first meeting. A few different levels of challenge with prizes would be better too. The challenge was very easy and would fall very quickly when put up against the internet, but a university has a different make-up of population and not everyone who could easily solve mental challenges may want to do so at intro week.

It was quite exciting seeing the posters scattered everywhere though.

Big displays and tabletops – the wrong approach?

The current model

Current research trends are in favour of large public displays, hidden projectors, and table top displays – Microsoft’s Surface being a prominent example along with the many research projects involving public displays.

A lot of these projects have options for multiple users operating the systems, in fact some are made only for collaboration in the workplace (Highwire’s CoffeeTable, and Intel’s What Do You Bring To the Table?). However, when systems are in a public setting, the use becomes more of a public service than a means for collaboration and when the users are acting independently great efforts are made to determine identity and facilitate independent interaction and data presentation.

The classic example of this is where you walk up to a public display in a university and the display shows your time-table.

In the above scenario, what happens when a display is surrounded by more than one person – say 5 people. Does it show 5 individual timetables? If 50 people approach the display does it show 50 timetables? That is impractical, so what is a fair way to display a crowds worth of information to a waiting crowd? It could be shown one at a time, but then who gets to see theirs first, and more importantly how does one recognise your own timetable if you can’t remember it in the first place? Does your name have to appear with the time-table? Will public users be comfortable with this scenario? What authentication methods are used for systems such as these, do users need to opt in, will these questions have the same answers for different displays?

If we ignore other issues except authentication, how does the display know who you are to display the relevant information? Read a unique ID from your phone, a smart card, or some other wireless unique device? How does this deal with phones being sold, or smart cards being lost? What happens if someone of a criminal nature got hold of young student’s ID card and started stalking the student? Is there a line of how public information must be before it appears on a public display? Even if the display is not in a completely public setting, say it is behind the security check point in a company, who decides the amount of information which is displayed on a screen? The user, or the programmer in charge of the presentation software? If authentication is required before information is shown on a display, does this not ruin the workflow of the display – and would this not also stop frantic late users from approaching the system?

With privacy being a current issue within society, do not public displays get relegated to becoming glorified billboards with the only personal information they will be allowed to show will be that which could be found on the public page of a person? Will the only use of these systems be for when one has lost their phone, and the display is currently free?

Currently I believe the only use of these systems will be gained from location-based advertising – where content is changed based on the demographic of people around it and the time of day.

A different model

If we are looking into the future (a trait which many scientists are likely to do) there is another model which is what I believe public interacting displays should be tending towards.

By dissecting the mission of a public display it can be seen that it encompasses two functions.

  1. Being a dedicated geographical point for a certain type of information or request,
  2. Having a method to display feedback to the user.

If we look to the future and imagine a hypothetical piece of hardware exists, we can remove point 2 from the list of needed functions – and remove a lot of privacy issues.

We have this technology – albeit in a crude way – at the moment. A personal screen. Currently, this tend to be a smart phone/device of some sort. These tend to have authentication when they are switched on, via a pass code. They even support banking systems which – one would hope – worry about the security of the device in question.

The limitations of these devices are their size and resolution. A personal screen of 4 inches isn’t brilliant, so let us create a hypothetical product to facilitate this model. Imagine a pair of glasses which could project upon its lenses virtual displays at any arbitrary projection and geometry to simulate real life displays. They could even be simulated on static points in the real world, needing a user to be close to it for it to be used – as in real life. The simulated displays would be displaying what ever the public display wanted to – by virtue of its number 1 function: being a dedicated geographical point for a certain type of information or request.

Let’s go back to the 50 people in front of a timetable billboard. With their own personal screen they would be seeing just their timetable, in an almost completely private setting – while still being surrounded by 49 other people. In fact, if wireless communication density is sufficiently high, it could replace conventional screens on desks, on phones, all together. With regards to public billboards though, advertisers would be able to get what they have always wanted – a message directly to who they want it to go to.

This is of course all conjecture, but I think it should be where the domain should be heading.

Code Golf

CSLU did code golf today. I did 1 and a half tasks, which were:

  1. Output the first 100 prime numbers
  2. Output e to 100 decimal places

Prime numbers

I’m quite proud of this, I managed to do this in 55 characters initially but then after some collaboration with the rest of the club shrunk it down to 49 characters

2.upto(541){|a|i=2;i+=1 while a%i>0;p a if i==a}

e

I never got his fully working as I ended up getting caught up in list comprehensions. Ended up with:

1 + sum [1 / (product [m | m<- [1..n] ]) | n <- [1..300] ]

 

Which is the same as e = sum_{n=0}^{infty } frac{1}{n!} and shows how pretty Haskell is.

Arduino Gas Sensor – Part 2

Previously

So I left the last article with the following:

Well apart from the hardware I need, so issues need to be addressed which may or may not require extra hardware – as I’ve just thought of them.

  • DateTime equivalent object for when I register a pulse
  • Work out how long these will last on battery
  • Can I set an interrupt to go off when a digital value hits a threshold? Or does this require analogue input? If I can it would massively save on battery as no polling! But, it may require fiddly per-house calibration, which the brute force method ignores
  • Laser/3d Printed box and some form of mounting which will let me attach to anything. Probably going to be velcro

So I’ll go through what has been done since then via this criterea.

Hardware Changes

The DateTime object style thing was achieved through an RTC module (http://www.sparkfun.com/products/99) which communicated to the ‘duino using the I2C bus and takes 5V. A microSD card shield was also added to the hardware for saving events into a simple text file (http://www.sparkfun.com/products/9802).

Rather than use my hastily build photosensor, I used a load of RFXcom sensors as they are well built and have a housing designed for sticking to the meter (Which is by far the biggest engineering challenge of this project). A board layout for interfacing with the sensor units was created and the gEDA/gSchem schematic file can be found on the git hub project page.

Software Changes

Well, apart from the stuff which interfaces with the RTC module and the microSD card, not much has changed code wise. The way the RFXcom modules work was backwards to my prototype, so I measured the time it takes to discharge a capacitor rather than charge. An LED on a meter normally flashes for .1s, so the timout is set to 0.05s.

Battery Life

Using a multimeter showed the whole sensor drew 92mA. It isn’t ideal, but with a 6 AA battery pack which packs ~3000mAH which lasts a bout a day ( 🙁 ) However,  that was with a ridiculously high powered infrared LED on the RFXcom board. Using just the photosensor (rather than the reflective) the power output was 42mA and that was with the SD card always powered. There is a lot of scope for battery life improvement on this project.

Source

The source can be found on my github page at https://github.com/carl-ellis/Arduino-Gas-Sensor .

Arduino Gas Meter Sensor – Part 1

Motivation

My newly ordered Arduino Uno came in the post today so I got to start building with it!

An upcoming sensing deployment needs a way of sensing gas usage, so I’m building a basic sensor to measure it. Luckily, most gas meters have an LED pulse which goes off every so often and we can measure that. The one in my house informs me the light will pulse every 10 dm^3 of gas, so every time the second number from the right on the meter ticks the light will pulse. Failing this, the 0 on the right most dial is very reflective, and an LED can be used to reflect light from it.

As the extra bits I need to finish the sensor hasn’t come yet, namely the SD card shield and a battery pack, I can’t lock the sensor in my gas cupboard and give it a test, so for the time being I’m turning off my computer screens and lights, then flashing a red head torch at it to simulate a pulse.

Code

After a bit of internet trawling, I found an ace site laying down how to do the wiring for a digital light sensor (http://www.ladyada.net/learn/sensors/cds.html#bonus_reading_photocells_without_analog_pins [This link seems to have died since the post was written, the circuit diagram will be linked in at the end of the post.]). From that, I added in a method which took a rolling average of the last 5 measurements and outputted if the measured light was brighter than 110% of the average (not exactly statistical, but I intend for these to be locked in a dark box…).

Here’s what I have so far:

/* Based on: Photocell simple testing sketch. 
Connect one end of photocell to power, the other end to pin 2.
Then connect one end of a 0.1uF capacitor from pin 2 to ground 
For more information see www.ladyada.net/learn/sensors/cds.html */

// Number of measurements for averaging
const int AVERAGE_LENGTH = 5;

int photocellPin = 2;     // the LDR and cap are connected to pin2
int photocellReading;     // the digital reading
int ledPin = 13;    // you can just use the 'built in' LED

// for the circular buffer
int lastReadings[AVERAGE_LENGTH];
int average = 0;
int counter = 0;

void setup(void) {
  // We'll send debugging information via the Serial monitor
  Serial.begin(9600);

  // Initialise the array 
  for(int i=0;i<AVERAGE_LENGTH;i++) {
    lastReadings[i] = 0;
  }   
}

void loop(void) {
  // read the resistor using the RCtime technique
  photocellReading = RCtime(photocellPin);

  // Calculate rolling average
  ++counter %= AVERAGE_LENGTH;
  lastReadings[counter] = photocellReading;
  calcStats();
  int bound = average - (average/10);

  // Glorious debug
  Serial.print("Av = ");
  Serial.print(average);
  Serial.print(" = [");
  for(int i=0; i<AVERAGE_LENGTH;i++) {
    Serial.print(lastReadings[i]);
    Serial.print(",");
  }
  Serial.print("] ");
  if (photocellReading < bound) {
    Serial.print(" . RCtime reading = ");
    Serial.println(photocellReading);     // the raw analog reading
  } else {
    Serial.println();
  }

  delay(100);
}

// Calculates the new mean based on the last 20 measurements 
int calcStats() {

  // average
  average = 0;
  for(int i=0;i<AVERAGE_LENGTH;i++) {
    average += lastReadings[i];
  }
  average /= AVERAGE_LENGTH;
}

// Uses a digital pin to measure a resistor (like an FSR or photocell!)
// We do this by having the resistor feed current into a capacitor and
// counting how long it takes to get to Vcc/2 (for most arduinos, thats 2.5V)
int RCtime(int RCpin) {
  int reading = 0;  // start with 0

  // set the pin to an output and pull to LOW (ground)
  pinMode(RCpin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(RCpin, LOW);

  // Now set the pin to an input and...
  pinMode(RCpin, INPUT);
  while (digitalRead(RCpin) == LOW) { // count how long it takes to rise up to HIGH
    reading++;      // increment to keep track of time 

    if (reading == 30000) {
      // if we got this far, the resistance is so high
      // its likely that nothing is connected! 
      break;           // leave the loop
    }
  }
  // OK either we maxed out at 30000 or hopefully got a reading, return the count

  return reading;
}

 

Next Steps

Well apart from the hardware I need, so issues need to be addressed which may or may not require extra hardware – as I’ve just thought of them.

  • DateTime equivalent object for when I register a pulse
  • Work out how long these will last on battery
  • Can I set an interrupt to go off when a digital value hits a threshold? Or does this require analogue input? If I can it would massively save on battery as no polling! But, it may require fiddly per-house calibration, which the brute force method ignores
  • Laser/3d Printed box and some form of mounting which will let me attach to anything. Probably going to be velcro.

Here’s a video of it working: