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Seeking help: Drawing machines

Matt is making a drawing machine. A robot which will live on a wall and plot out paths which are an algorithmic solution to the artistic seeds that Matt feeds it. I’m helping Matt, but we’re stuck with a bit of the maths.

Due to artistic and practical constraints, this is how the robot will work: there will be two motors, top left and top right, from which a ‘pen’ is suspended. Our problem is about how to change the length of the chains from which the pen is suspended to draw a straight line between two points. I’ve done a diagram to make this easier to explain. The crudely drawn black circles are the two motors. There is a small blue circle (a start point), and the two chains in green (with lengths l1 and r1 respectively. The target endpoint is show as a red cross, with the chains shown in purple (with lengths l2 and r2 respectively (obviously there are only ever two chains, one right and one left, not four).

Calculating the length of the chains at the start and the end is fairly trivial. The problem is at what rate to turn the motors to lengthen or draw in the chains to get between the start and the end points drawing a straight line. For artistic reasons it is absolutely essential that the line drawn between two points is straight.

I had a go at solving this. You can have a look at this python code (incidentally, my first ever python script!). The problem is, my solution makes curved lines, like this (points along the path shown as blue dots)

The chains need to be tightened by some amount during travel to stop a curve being described, but I know enough maths to know that I don’t have a hope of solving this one. Can you help?

We’re hiring!

The Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield is hiring! Due to recent departures and a forthcoming expansion we have 6 academic posts to fill, for lecturers, senior lecturers/readers and chairs. Perhaps you, or someone you know, is looking for a job or a change – here’s why you should apply to work with us:

The Department: One of the very best Psychology departments in the UK for research, consistently rated ‘excellent’ (i.e. the top score) in the Research Assessment Exercises over the last 20 years. In the last RAE the department ranked 6th in the UK in terms of Research Power (i.e., quality × quantity of research activity). We have a strong tradition of interdisciplinary research and you’d be joining at a great time to renew that tradition of cognitive science. We have smart and enthusiastic Undergraduate students, 80% of whom have AAA at a-level (ie the top grades). We have one of the largest number of postgraduate students for any UK psychology department, which includes taught masters courses (I teach on this one) and PhD students. The academic faculty are dedicated and collegiate, small enough in numbers to be friendly, large enough to be a resource for you in your research. We have one of the best staff-student ratios of any UK psychology department…All this, and you get me as a colleague

The University: Times Higher Education University of the Year 2011, and globally one of the best universities in the world. The University of Sheffield has academic departments covering all major disciplines and is a ‘research intensive University‘, meaning you wouldn’t spend all your time teaching.

The City of Sheffield. Ah, Sheffield! More parkland within the city limits than any other UK city. 7 trees for every person. The so called “largest village in England”, a city renowned for its friendliness, for its sporting links, creative industries and generally too many good things to list here. And it’s in the middle of the country, so you can get about easily – two hours from the capital, three from Bristol, four Edinburgh. And cheap – I live in a house which makes my London friends who can’t afford a flat sick with jealousy. I can walk to work, or round to friend’s houses. I’m talking quality of life here people.

So, please pass the word around that we’re looking for psychologists of all types to apply for these positions. If you want to get in touch I’m happy to talk informally to anyone who is thinking about applying. Not that I have any significant power over the hiring decision, but I’m happy to spill the beans over what we’re looking for and what the department is like. You can contact me by phone or email.

(In sad, but unrelated news, we lost our Professor of Development Psychology earlier this week. These job adverts are obviously quite separate from this sudden gap we have in Developmental Psychology and about which no plans have yet been made).

What Sheffield’s sharing (bit.ly hack day report)

Yesterday was my research group’s first hackday. It’s a concept I borrowed from the software geeks, but which I thought we could use a bit of in psychological science. The plan was for the whole lab to get together and spend the day working on the same dataset, to see what we could come up with after a day of intense work.

Inspiration was provided by visiting data wizard Mike Dewar, who works with the link shortening service bit.ly. Mike was able to give us a slice of bit.ly data – all the shared links which the people of Sheffield had clicked on in a week. The leap from tech/internet business to psychology department isn’t so weird when you think about it. We’re both interested in taking high volume measurements of behaviour and trying to understand what is really going on (for us, inside the mind, for bit.ly, with the users behind the clicks).

We got together in one room and Mike guided us though some of the nuances of analysing the data. After a few busy hours, and along with those essential hackday accompaniments – takeaway food and cola (open source of course) – we had a snapshot of the kind of sites that people in Sheffield shared with each other.

This plot shows the trend of the weeks’ clicks for the top ten shared sites for Sheffield (with total click rate on the y-axis, and time on the x-axis). The scale is a bit small (click to expand), so here in a list is Sheffield’s top ten shared links for the analysed week:

1. Facebook (of course)
2. BBC (public service broadcasting FTW)
3. YouTube
4. GiveMeFootball
5. Celebuzz
6. Guardian
7. Google
8. Linksynergy
9. southyorkshire
10. swfc

Perhaps not a surprise, but we can see that people are sharing information on facebook, on news sites and about celebrities and football. And I note that the Owls win the Sheffield link-sharing derby! You can also see the daily peaks in click activity (at lunchtime? Or just after lunch perhaps!). With a bit more time we could delve into what times people preferred to click on different types of links (news vs business vs gossip would be an interesting comparison), and how the activity of a particular links changes over time, as it spreads out along social networks, passing from person to person, and a thousand other things. So think of this as a work in progress report. I’ll come back to you if we generate anything else.

Thanks to Mike and bit.ly for allowing us to play with their data, and to C, Maria, Donny, Tom, Martin and Stu for taking part.

Can you touch-type? Would you like to get to know your brain better?

We’re looking for touch-typing data-geeks who’d like to have their brainwaves recorded, all in the name of science. All you have to do is be able to touch-type, and be willing to come to see us at the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield for an hour and a half. We’ll record your neural activity while you show off your typing skills for us. Afterwards, we’ll provide you with your brainwave data, and the behavioural data of what you actually typed.

We collect a record of what your brain is doing using an 128-channel EEG net. This looks like this and works by recording electrical activity at the scalp. This electrical activity changes depending on the activity of your brain cells – as they produce the billions of electrochemical signals that are the basis for your every thought and action. We’ll be analysing this data ourselves, because we’re interested in typing as an example of complex skill performance, but we’d also like to give everyone who helps us out the chance to take away their individual data. We’re really curious to see how people outside of the Psychology department might use it. EEG data contains lots of oscillations and lots of spreading and merging waves of activity. As well as telling us something about when and how certain brain regions become active, this means it can also be used to generate cool pictures and sounds! If you’re comfortable with processing numbers and would like to try out your skills on some numbers that come direct from your most intimate organ, please get in touch!

It’s t dot stafford at sheffield dot ac dot uk or @tomstafford

Small Worlds, article in Now Then

Now Then is an independent Sheffield-based arts and community magazine. They are monthly, good chaps and have an out of date website. It is part of the Opus Productions media empire. For the first issue of the magazine, last year, I wrote them an article about something that has interested me for a long time: small worlds. Specifically I’d been thinking about social networks and what the Watts and Strogatz small-world result had to tell us about them. The article is now here, should you wish to read it. It is pretty upbeat. I think if I had more room and less inclination to try to be positive I would include something about how we tend to organise our social worlds so that it seems, from the ‘ground-level’, that we are talking to everyone important, but in actually fact we are ignoring — completely estranged from — most of the people we are physically close to, insulated in comforting small worlds.

See also bridging and bonding social capital, ‘60 Million People You’d Never Talk To Voting For Other Guy’, We Live in Small Worlds

When they’re gone, they’re gone

Eon announces demolition of Sheffield’s Cooling Towers. Go press release:

Unless you do something big and bold soon in the regeneration of Sheffield, no-one will care. Literally, no-one outside the city will care. No-one will care about a city with the same shops as everywhere else, the same flats as everywhere else, the same cafes as everywhere else, but slightly uglier buildings.

Full text here if the hyperlink works

Great things about being a cyclist in Sheffield

  • Other cyclists smile at you. Doesn’t happen if you drive a car, does it?
  • The drivers are generally a kind and courtous bunch, even when you are pulling some technically-illegal ninja moves at the traffic lights
  • Sheffield has lots of hills. You have thighs of rock
  • On a bike, the city exists on a human scale. Friends in a pub the other side of town? You’re there in ten minutes
  • In rush hour you are the fucking coolest thing on the road
  • You can go to CCC Cycles and they’ll help you out, and be nice to you however little you know about bikes.
  • Sheffield is next to the peak district. On a bike, Sheffield is virtually *in* the peak district

  • Cool the Towers!

    [Local news warning]

    This is Go, pestering you again. We promise we’re nearly done. But, once more, we need your help.

    Now, most of you will have been bombarded with our emails before. Remember the Cooling Towers at Meadowhall? Yeah you do. We wanted to turn them into Sheffield’s own Angels of the North. Super-scale public art. Many of you nominated them for Channel 4’s Big Art Project ( www.channel.com/bigart), and up against competition from all over the country, thanks to you, we were the MOST NOMINATED SITE. Merci Beaucoup. We made it down to the last 30ish and they came up to have a poke around and a bit of a film. It all went well, but now it’s getting really exciting…..

    Out of the thousands of sites nominated, we have now made the final final short short shortlist, from which 6 sites will be chosen to actually be turned into art. The towers will definitely be on the program, but we just need one last push to make it actually happen.

    This is where you come in.

    Channel 4 are coming up with a full film crew and the site selection team on Thursday 9th March. We need to get AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE in one place on that afternoon to visibly show the support that this project has. We don’t know exactly where in Sheffield this will be yet. But if you email us back then we will mailout to you all the details as soon as we have them ourselves.

    This is not something that “somebody else will do, so you don’t need to bother”. This means you. Please email us back and clear your diary for that afternoon. We are so close to making this happen. Time to pull out all the stops.

    Your city needs you.

    Get in touch with GO at go [dot] sheffield [at] gmail [dot] com

    free wifi in sheffield, uk

    A google for the phrase “free wifi sheffield uk” doesn’t turn up much useful information, so here’s my list. Let me know if you know of anywhere else.

    Free wifi hotspots in Sheffield, England:

  • The Showroom – independent cinema and cafe bar near the station
  • The Rutland Arms, Paternoster Row – also near the station, and opposite Access Space
  • The Runaway Girl, 111 Arundel St, S1 2NT (and they do bottomless coffee for
  • midland mainline complaints address

    [local news warning]

    You can wait on hold for 20 minutes to get this address to write your complaint letter to, like i did, or you can copy it down from here:

    Midland Mainline Customer Services
    Nelson Street
    Derby
    DE1 2SA

    Normally Midland Mainline are fantatic, it’s their internet sales support which i’m complaining about (and guess who that is run by? Virgin, of course)

    ethical shoes

    [local interest warning:]

    I found a shop that sells ethical shoes. Vegan shoes, locally made shoes (for trainers this means inside europe), non-sweatshop shoes. They guy is just starting up, and I was surprised at the range that is available (there had to be at least 40 different types there). It’s in leeds and the address is

    Out Of Step, 100 Merrion Centre. Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 8PJ
    Tel: 0113 245 1730

    Blind Institute to close

    [Local News Warning]

    Mappin Blind Institute is to close. This will be a disaster for anyone who is not a business wanting to run events in the center of Sheffield. There is nowhere comparable for location, size, versatility and affordability. Many community groups, cultural and other non-profit groups rely on the Blind Institute for events (and fund-raising). Yikes!

    I’m sure someone knows more of the ins and outs of the bulldozing redevelopment of the building (please God let it not be for more luxery flats!), but its not me. So I wrote to the manager of the Blind Institute Steve Hambleton (address below, with my letter). If anyone knows any more, or has any suggestions for points of leverage to do something about the situation, please get in touch.

    Steve Hambleton, General Manager
    Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind
    5 Mappin Street
    Sheffield, S1 4DT

    Dear Mr Hambleton,

    I was disturbed to learn that the Mappin Street Blind Institute is to be redeveloped (a.k.a knocked down). I’m sure I don’t need to persuade you of the variety and vitality of the events that the Blind Institute hosts, but I did want to write and communicate my distress that this venue is to cease to exist.

    There is no other venue that is so suitable for hosting community, fund-raising and musical events by non-profit groups. Nowhere else is as affordable, as central (and safe) nor as versatile as a venue. Just in the last year I’ve attended meals, dances, gigs and conferences in the Blind Institute by a range of non-profit community and cultural groups. The loss of the Blind Institute will be a disaster for non-commercial culture in Sheffield!

    So, some questions:

    What, if anything, can be done to stop the redevelopment of the building?
    What can be done to ensure that the redevelopment plan includes provision for establishing alternative venues for all the facilities the Blind Institute currently provides?
    In whose hands is the coordination of the redevelopment? What are their contact details?

    You’ll have to excuse my ignorance of the plans, but I only just found out about them and wanted to write to you immediately to register my dismay. If you are able to answer any or all of these questions I would be most grateful. Email is just as good as post, if that is more convenient for you.

    Many thanks,
    Yours,

    Tom Stafford

    update: Note corrected name, Steve Hambleton (not Mather)

    GO sheffield is live at www.gosheffield.net

    GO Sheffield is a fanzine dedicated to celebrating sheffield, and town planning, and everything human, lo-fi, and cool-because-its-not-trying-to-be in this ragged beautiful city. Yes, a fanzine that is kind of about town planning. And it’s damn cool. In their lo-fi underground kind of way the fanzine has been in a photocopied, limited release, format thus far. But now you can see scans of all the back issues at www.gosheffield.net, as well as the current issue and the results of the Cooling The Towers competition (that i mentioned before here). Also, because I don’t really like frames, here are links to a couple of pages from issue four about ‘city living’. Urban housing projects, then and now, and this for the quote about how the new flats in the center of town are being marketed:

    The reality. A bunch of hollow ugly men live out their in-crowd fantasies by telling people what’s cool

    GO sheffield has attitude and something to say. You won’t get a party line, and you will get engaging and engaged writing about the city. Awesome stuff.