Category Archives: York University CS Student Blogs

Yacht Hack – The Best Week Ever

I was super super lucky this summer and was able to attend Yacht Hack 2014 – the first hackathon on a Yacht, organised by Entrepreneur’s Handbook as part of Tough Hackers.  And without any shadow of a doubt, it was the most enlightening single week of my life.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually on a yacht with some of the most innovative, creative people in the world and had the chance to work with them to create something really special.

What is Yacht Hack I hear you asking?  Julie Markham summed it up perfectly with “Yacht Hack is the epitome of an island effect, bringing brilliant creative misfits together on a yacht, that are brainstorming positive ways to make an impact on society.” in the promotional video (below).

So, at the end of August, I arrived in the port of Split, Croatia, to meet the rest of the Yacht Hack team.  Boarding the Yacht (a 40ft Catamaran) was super exciting – not knowing quite how cramped living conditions would be was fun, and it didn’t take long for everyone to migrate to the trampoline-like net at the front.

After an evening of getting to know each other, we set-sail on the Sunday.  We worked in teams of 3 to first come up with a project to work on – something that solved real-world problems.  Each team contained one Hustler, one Designer and one Hacker, which was the absolutely perfect combination of people.

Julie Markham, Nicholas Hopper and I came up with the idea for Shy:

Shy is a mobile app and service that aggregates frequently asked questions a user may feel uncomfortable to ask publicly to their friends and family. Shy is a trusted source that gathers these private questions for curious teenagers ranging from information on their body to sex, to drugs & alcohol. Shy’s mission is to empower people with useful and relevant information and advice that they can quickly find right in their pockets to help them make more informed decisions. Shy also tries to encourage a user to ask more questions by learning what areas they are searching in and suggesting relevant questions they could ask.

Don’t be Shy (sorry!) – check out some screenshots:

Yacht Hack really gave me a new perspective on what I want to do with my skills in the coming years – having seen what others are doing and the effect they are having.  Working on Shy has further driven me to create products that bring knowledge and education to those who would not normally have it.

If you want to know more about Yacht Hack, check out our interviews here.

And if you’re reading this, you’ve likely no excuse not to apply for one of the future Tough Hackers hackathons.  I’ve never been to an event where the connections I made were so meaningful.  Brainstorming world-changing ideas with trend-setting geniuses on the roof of a yacht in the middle of the sunny sea is not an experience I’ll ever forget, hence the connections are so strong – as shown by the constant, continued collaboration between attendees since Yacht Hack.

Most of us on the Yacht Hack yacht roof

Most of us on the Yacht Hack yacht roof

By taking people away from the distractions of everyday life, they can truly focus on developing innovative ideas.  What better place to do this than a Yacht with super-slow internet access?

What a Summer… A Summary

What a Summer…

This last summer of 2014 has been an incredible summer – on a similar level to that of last year. It differed from last year in that instead of one really big awesome thing, I did loads and loads of smaller things – all of which gave me shed loads more experience, and some of which were life changing. So, without further ado, let’s get started:


Above: Summer of Opportunity – Movie of the best moments of my summer.

The combination of hacking and sailing really works well...

The combination of hacking and sailing works well…

Summer started at the start of June when I headed back to Cornwall to relax and unwind from a hard term of exams and coursework. The first weekend, I took the RYA Powerboat Level 2 Qualification, enabling me to drive our speedboat – which has been fantastic – every weekend I returned since I’ve been speeding around the South Coast of Cornwall in blissful weather.

I then shot off to London for the start of my Internship at Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, working in Technology. The experience was so enlightening, and I could not be more glad that I did it. I worked in a small team which managed a significant enterprise product, and got the opportunity to work with some really great, intelligent people. Living in London was an experience I never thought I’d have, and although I went into it with a negative attitude (expecting to not like it, been a ‘open space and countryside lover’), it outdid every single one of my expectations. I even had chance to participate in a fund-raising event for the Princes Trust (cycling across London).  Having all of England’s history, museums and beautiful gardens within 20 minutes was incredible, and I loved the opportunity to try experiences that only exist in a capital city (for example Dans le Noir, the restaurant where you eat in the pitch-darkness, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships, and drinks in The Shard).

Drinks in GŎNG on the 52nd Floor, The Shard

Drinks in GŎNG on the 52nd Floor, The Shard

During my Internship I was pointed towards applying for Yacht Hack, a week long hackathon on a Yacht, pootling around Croatia. Never missing an opportunity, I applied. And, with the Yacht leaving Croatia on Saturday 30th August, I received an email on the preceding Monday 25th saying something along the lines of “Congratulations, see you in Croatia in 5 days”. What a rush! But of course, come Saturday morning I found myself in Split, Croatia, about to meet 10 of the most amazing people. The Yacht was absolutely beautiful, a fairly new Lagoon catamaran, and only slightly cosy. Within hours, the ideas were flowing, and so were the concepts and products. Our team came up with Shy – a service aggregating and curating answers to all the questions you are too shy to ask.  I’ll be writing a full post on Yacht Hack, including how it significantly changed the next few years of my life, at the end of next week.

Most of us on the Yacht Hack yacht roof

Most of us on the Yacht Hack yacht roof

Once I got back from Yacht Hack and had spent another few days in Cornwall (yep – speedboating was included!), I kicked off back to London to present shy to a group of investors.

Because I hadn’t travelled enough in the preceding few weeks, the next day I took off to Zürich to see old friends from last year and enjoy the city, culture and mountains for two weeks. Meeting up with friends and then cycling through the city and eating chocolate and cheese was just fantastic. I tried a very fun Swiss activity as well – taking a chairlift up a mountain and then riding a scooter all the way back down. Not to mention the incredible 2 day hike to Mount Tamaro (with overnight stay in the hut) around Lugano and Locarno, which ended with a swim in the spectacular Lake Maggiore.

Lugano Hike - the final push to Tamaro Hut

Lugano Hike – the final push to Tamaro Hut

So, summer’s over now and I’m now back at University for my final year.  I’m looking forward to challenges ahead and my final-year dissertation (a post on which will be following soon).  Bring on the next 12 months!

The UK’s First Official Google Glass Hackathon – Ok Glass, Where is the Space Station?

Last weekend (19th-20th July) was the UK’s first official Google Glass Hackathon, and it was a fantastic event – just a few short weeks after Glass became officially available in the UK.  Places were very limited for those without Glass (to ensure there were enough spare pairs floating around), but since I have Glass I was able to go without going through a very competitive lottery.

So, what was talked about, what happened, and what did we build?  Let’s get started.

The Hackathon was organised by Hoi Lam, the Wearables Developer Advocate for Google UK, and a few Googlers came across from the US, including Timothy Jordan, who is a Developer Advocate for Google, focussing on Glass.

Timothy Jordan introduces everyone to developing for Glass #throughglass

Timothy Jordan introduces everyone to developing for Glass #throughglass

After breakfast, the first event was an introduction to the event by Hoi, with some overview of what Glass was (at a non-trivial level) for the Android developers in attendance who hadn’t experienced it before.

Then we moved onto a Design Sprint – just classic stuff really, here’s a use case, design an app that would help this user, that’s Glass specific – not a cell phone app.  Although it was simple, it was a useful exercise in moving some developers away from this idea of a smart phone app with lots of buttons and tons of information.

Finally, it was the main part of the hackathon – the hacking!  People split into groups of between 2 and 8 to produce whatever app they wanted to, with the occasional guidance of a Glass engineer.  I teamed up with two Android developers who were also working in the city, Alessio Fabiani and Antonio Matarrese, and we started brainstorming.

Alessio, Antonio and I - the three creators of 'Ok Glass, Where is the Space Station'

Alessio, Antonio and I – the three creators of ‘Ok Glass, Where is the Space Station’

One idea that came out was a Google Authenticator app for Glass, so that, for users with two-step authentication enabled for their Google Accounts, instead of having to get their phone out when they needed a code, they could just say “Ok Glass, Give me a 2-step code” and Glass would show/read to you the 6-digit code necessary to login to your account.  However, we’ll either leave this until next time or for someone else to make, as we decided to make an application that is especially well suited to the Glass platform – an app to help you find the International Space Station.

There were lots of opportunities for some fun as well, like with this unfortunately labelled bin.

There were lots of opportunities for some fun as well, like with this unfortunately labelled bin.

All a user would have to do is wake up Glass, and say “Ok Glass, Where is the Space Station” – Glass then tells you how long it will be until the Space Station is next visible to you (i.e. it will be visible in the horizon of your current position), using location data from both NASA and the GPS in your phone, tethered to Glass.  We then showed four arrows, at the top, left, bottom and right sides of the screen, pointing in the direction of the Space Station, with annotations indicating at what angle in each positive direction you would have to move your head to be looking straight at the Space Station (calculated using the positions of both you and the ISS, and the accelerometer/tilt sensor and compass built into Glass).

This is an example of a really great app for the Glass platform, since because the device is worn on your head it can measure the angle you are currently looking at and direct you as to exactly how to adjust your head position, as opposed to a phone app which can tell you the positions relative to magnetic north and ‘flat’, and then you have to align your head using some other method (e.g. a compass and knowledge of what ‘flat’ is).  Check out the video below of the app working.

Although the code is hackathon level (poor, badly documented, little-if-any code style), and we got a bit confused with the maths for calculating elevation angles, it all seems to work well.  Take a look at the code on GitHub here, try putting it on your Glass and let me know your feedback.  We’re hoping to get it on the MyGlass app store eventually.

Although we didn’t win, we did very well – we had about 18 ‘votes’ (stickers) on our card, compared to the winners who had twenty-something.  We were commended on creating a piece of undeniably useful piece of Glassware, which was a great use-case of the Glass platform.

All in all, a great event – a big Thank You to the Glass Team who organised this – bring on the next Glass Hackathon!

The Glass Hackathon Organising Team

The Glass Hackathon Organising Team

Creating a Useful and Awesome Screen Saver for Mac

This summer I spent a lot of time working in the Library and wanted to be able to keep my laptop open so I could quickly refer to it, whilst keeping it locked.  Of course, the obvious choice is a screensaver, but they’re all pretty boring – static content, never changing day-to-day, and never useful.  So, as someone who loves Google and has a problem with the size of their inbox, I came up with this – a screensaver that shows currently entered Google Searches (from Google Trends) and the number of items in my inbox, along with a coloured background to indicate if I’m doing well (it’s always always red at the moment).  Check it out below:

It’s very easy to create – all you need is:

  1. A Gmail inbox that you want to keep clear
  2. A PHP file to check how many emails are in your inbox and to change background colour (and a server to run it on, whether remote or local).
  3. A HTML file to bring this together with the Google searches.
  4. WebSaver

(1 and 2 could easily be combined to save the use of an iframe, and this is not great code – but it works).

For the PHP file, you’ll need to fetch the number of items in your inbox (using your mailbox password) and echo back the appropriate page background colour.  I do this with:

<?php
/* connect to gmail */
$hostname = '{imap.gmail.com:993/imap/ssl}';
$username = '<Your gmail or Google Apps email address>';
$password = '<Your Gmail Password or device-specific password (for 2 step)>';

/* try to connect */
$inbox = imap_open($hostname,$username,$password) or die('Cannot connect to Gmail: ' . imap_last_error());

/* grab emails */
$emails = imap_search($inbox,'ALL');

if($emails) {
        if (sizeof($emails) < 100) {
        echo '<body style="background-color:green">';
        } elseif (sizeof($emails) < 150) {
        echo '<body style="background-color:orange">';
        } else {
        echo '<body style="background-color:red">';
        }
        echo '<div style="width:200px; height:200px; margin:auto; position:absolute; top:0; bottom:0; left:0; right:0; color:white; font-family: Verdana; font-size: 50px;" align="center">' . sizeof($emails) . ' Emails</div>';
}
?>

Note, where I have set my username and password at the top, and that I have set the level for doing badly (a red background) as 150, and the level for doing OK (a orange background) as 100 (less than that is good, so I get a green background).

In the HTML file, I simply create an IFrame to this page and the page containing the cool Google searches (simply replace below):

<html>
<style>
iframe {
        display:inline-block;
        width: 49.89%;
    height: 100%;
}
body {
    margin: 0px;
    border: 0px;
}
</style>
<body>
<right>
<iframe src="<path to your PHP file>" frameborder="0"></iframe>
<iframe src="http://www.google.co.uk/trends/hottrends/visualize?nrow=5&ncol=3" frameborder="0"></iframe>
</right>
</body>
</body>
</html>

Finally, set your new webpage as your screensaver. Simply download the WebSaver, install it, open Screen Saver options from System Preferences on your Mac, and click on WebSaver on the left. Then click “Screen Saver Options” and enter the URL to the HTML webpage for your screen saver.

Voila, done! Enjoy your awesome screensaver.

(On a final note, I configured a keyboard shortcut on my system of “Command+Alt+.” to activate the screensaver, so I could quickly lock my screen.