Hursley Celebration

Today is one of those great days in Hursley when everyone lifts their head and gets away from their desk for a little while…

Car Fair

OK, so excuse the quality of that picture as it’s just a quick snap from my phone. Every few years we have a classic car fair on site, there seems to be no rhythm to when they’re held, possibly it’s just long enough since we’ve all forgotten about the cars we saw at the same show last time round – but I’m sure there are some different ones too.

Today’s celebration is under the guise of an Olympic celebration so in addition to the car show there’s a big quiz taking place, a careers fair, several different “sporting” events (such as egg and spoon race and the like) so it’s as much a summer fair as anything else; and it’s not raining which is always a bonus. The real draw of course is the free cookie or scone and drink of course, but however you look at it, to have these sorts of events on site (and such a lovely site on a summers day) is absolutely brilliant. It’s a great chance for us all to take a little time away from the desk in the afternoon, catch up with friends, see what’s going on while enjoying ourselves and having a bit of fun.

<edit>More pictures are coming in of the event on Twitter…</edit>
Reproduced with permission from Simon Maple
Delorean at Hursley by Simon Maple

Reproduced with permission from Peter Anghelides
Looks like the IBM Hursley car park is full again

Natural Language Processing Course

Over the first few months of this year I have been taking part in a mass online learning course in Natural Language Processing (NLP) run by Stanford University.  They publicised a group of eight courses at the end of last year and I didn't hesitate to sign up to the Natural Language Processing course knowing it would fit very well with things I'm working on in my professional role where I'm doing more and more with text analytics and continuing my work in speech to text.  There were others I could easily have signed up for too, things like security or machine learning, more or less all of them are relevant for something I'm doing.  However, given the time commitment required I decided to fully commit to one course and the NLP one was to be it.

I passed the course with a grade of 85% which was well above the required 70% pass mark.  However, the effort and time required to get there was way more than I was expecting and quite a lot more than the expected time the lecturers (Chris Manning and Dan Jurafsky) had said.  From memory it was an 8 week course with 10 hours a week required effort to complete the work. As it went on the amount of time required went up significantly, so rather than the 80 hours total I think I spent more like 1½ times that at over 120 hours!

There were four of us at work (that I know of) who embarked on the course but due to the commitment of time I've mentioned above only myself and Dale finished.  By the way, Dale has written an excellent post on the structure and content of the course so I'd suggest reading his blog for more details on that stuff, there's little point in me re-posting it as he's written such a good summary.

In terms of the participants on the course, it seems to have been quite a success for Stanford University - this is the first time they have run courses in this way it seems.  The lecturers gave us some statistics at a couple of strategic points throughout the course and it seems there were around 40,000 people registering an interest, of which around 5000 were watching the lecture material and around 2000 completed the course having taken part in the homework assignments.

I'm glad I committed as much as I did.  If I were one of the 5000 just watching the lectures and not doing the homework material I don't think I would have got as much out of it, but the added time required to complete the homework was significant so perhaps there's a trade-off here?  It's certainly the first time I've committed this much of my own personal time (it took over the lives of myself and Dale for quite a few weeks) as I was too busy at work to spend many business hours working on the course so it was all done in evenings and weekends.  That's certainly one piece of feedback I gave at the end of the course, Stanford could make the course timing more flexible but also allow more time for the course to be completed.

My experience with the way the assignments were marked was a little different to the way Dale has described in his post.  I was already very familiar with the concepts of test, development and held-out sets (three different sets of data used when training NLP systems) so wasn't surprised to see that the modules in the course didn't necessarily have an exact answer to them or more precisely that the code your wrote to perfectly analyse some data on your local system may not get full marks as it was marked against a different data set.  This may seem unfair but is common practice in all NLP system training that I know of.

All in all, an excellent course that I'm glad I did.  From what I hear of the other courses, they're not as deeply involved as the NLP course so I may well give another one a go in the future but for now I need to get a little of my life back and have a well earned rest from education.

Hursley Emerging Tech on the News

Kevin Brown who also featured in my previous eightbar post appears to be increasing his level of fame after appearing on Channel 4 news last night.

Kevin has done a lot of work with HCI (Human Computer Interfaces) and is leading the way in the Hursley Emerging Technology Services department. He has a huge interest and wealth of knowledge on the topic but the bleeding-edge HCI device catching people’s attention again at the moment is the brain reading headset from Emoviv Technologies. Kevin has been working with this device for quite some time already, having for example used it with hospital patients, and a wealth of other uses too including driving cars. This gives a good indicator to how far ahead of the curve our emerging tech team can be at times.

The Channel 4 news clip focuses on using the headset to drive cars and puts this in the context of Google’s self-drive car too, here’s the video:

Mad thermostat plan

Something I’ve really wanted to have a go at for a long time is hacking together a smarter heating system. The long process of moving house prevented any progress until now but I think a few things fell in to place today to get the project off the ground. And so a slightly mad thermostat plan was hatched…

The first part of the puzzle is a side effect of getting a solar water panel; to make the most of the solar panel we should only be using the boiler to top up the hot water at the end of the day. (Obviously that’s just theoretical at the moment because its pretty much been raining non stop since we got the solar panel!) Unfortunately the current central heating controller will only turn on the heating if the hot water is on at the same time, which is no help at all, so we really need a new controller to make the most of our zero carbon supply of hot water. There’s another, purely aesthetic reason to want a new heating controller; the kitchen upgrade got under way this week and the old controller has seen better days.

The current kitchen destruction has a bigger part to play though; now is an ideal opportunity to hide cables behind the new cupboards. For a while that didn’t actually seem like it was going to be all that much help, based on where the old thermostat was (hidden behind a door in the living room). I was looking at various programmable thermostats but the existing wiring from the thermostat restricted the options somewhat. The programmable thermostat we had in the old house seemed to work quite well with the existing wiring and controller… as long as the battery was fresh, otherwise it got confused about the temperature. Obviously not ideal for a thermostat, so I was hoping to avoid batteries this time!

Then, while being distracted by the wonky light switches yet again, inspiration struck…

The house hasn’t been constructed with the greatest care in the world, but those switches just could not have been original. The only thing that makes sense is if they were another botched DIY job, and it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would have dropped another cable run down the wall to do it. My hunch, based on the fact that there’s a water cylinder directly above those switches, is that there’s a horizontal cable run between the two. I checked, and… eureka! So now it’s a simple job to put both switches back on the same box, leaving an empty recessed box with a now bare kitchen wall behind it, making it perfect to run a new thermostat cable through the back of the box and round to the boiler! (Well I was pretty excited by this plan at the time.)

The thermostat to finish off this puzzle is a Heatmiser combined programmable thermostat and hot water timer. My theory is that I need the PRT/HW-N thermostat to go in the living room and a PRC powered relay card in place of the old central heating controller. I’m almost certain that the wiring will work with the existing system anyway, but if anyone has any experience/tips/gotchas, please let me know! That programmable thermostat should give me an RS485 interface to the thermostat which, if all goes well, won’t be too difficult to connect to my nanode- either with a bit of soldering, or one of these IO shields if I’m feeling lazy! The thing I like about this arrangement is that it should be possible to achieve plenty of automation if all goes well but, if there are any technical hitches, there’s a decent off the shelf controller to fall back on.

Update: a quick update since I’m doing some head scratching over whether the existing wiring from the central heating timer to the junction box in the airing cupboard will allow the heating to run independently from the hot water. If it does, the new thermostat is in place ready to go…

If it doesn’t, the new thermostat will just be a decorative feature while I figure out where I can sneak a new cable upstairs without disturbing the new kitchen! I don’t want to break the heating until I’m sure everything will work, so I’m working off a photo for now…

I’d love to hear from anyone who can decipher that lovely nest of wires! Here’s my theroy so far:

The black cable is the valve, and the other two cables that enter with it at the bottom are the pump and cylinder stat. It looks to me like the grey cable should be to turn the hot water off, which seems to be connected to the cylinder stat and a red wire from one of the cables above, which I’m hoping is from the timer. That just seems too easy for this house though, and I’m a bit puzzled by what the connections on the orange wire actually are. Lucky it’s all neatly connected and labelled so I can check the orange wire is connected to the cylinder stat and pump… bother. I guess I’m going to have to wait until Jo’s not looking so I can investigate more thoroughly!

Emerging Technology Services Interviews

The British Computer Society recently came to Hursley to interview some of the members of Emerging Technology Services about some of the work we’ve been doing recently. The results, as ever in ETS, are really interesting so here is the set of video interviews reposted for all you Eightbar subscribers out there.

To kick things off we have Bharat Bedi, IBM Master Inventor, talking about his work on the Universal Information Framework. This is an innovative idea that allows secure interactions that could benefit, for example, banks:

Another piece from Bharat Bedi but this time talking about his work on the Living Safe project which runs in Balzano, Italy to help older residents who live by themselves:

Now something a little different from Kevin Brown, IBM Senior Inventor, talking about his work using a mind-reading headset. Here he gets Brian Runciman from the BCS to drive a car with his brain and trains him to run a brain wave reading headset:

Next up we have Dominic Harries, IBM Emerging Technologies Specialist, talking about some of his work using a multi-user multi-touch surface. Here Dominic is demonstrating the use of a business application on the multi-touch table:

Last, but not least we have Helen Bowyer, Emerging Technologies Manager, talking about her work on Automatic Sign Language. Helen explains and demonstrates the Say It, Sign It (SiSi) project which uses an avatar to translate spoken English into sign language.

The original content can be found at