Ripley v2.0: Let Her RIP

What’s In A Name?

During this re-design phase, I’ve been thinking about what Ripley actually is. She’s not really a robot as she doesn’t perform any specific tasks, she’s not a drone as a) she isn’t remotely controlled and b) she has no specific purpose and nor is she an android as she doesn’t look remotely human.

Eventually I did discover a way to describe her: she’s a RIP: Roving Intelligent Platform:

  • Roving: She moves around under her own power and can be given planned routes or decide her own, depending on the environment.
  • Intelligent: She can make decisions based on what her senses tell her about her immediate environment and resolve conflicts should they arise.
  • Platform: She has no current purpose except that of an experiment, but can be tailored to whatever function is required.

I hadn’t named her with the RIP acronym in mind but, fortunately, it fits quite nicely.

 

Intelligent Design?

As a basis for the redesign, I have managed to cobble together the following diagram, mainly to organise my thoughts into some form of coherent pattern and also to give me a bit of a starting point. I’ll eventually expand on each of the topics (the bits with the thick blue lines) to a point where there is actual code but, for now, this will serve as the basic description.

RIPleyIdeas_IV_ALPHA_v1a

RIPley: Initial Design Layout

As you can see, the left-hand part of the diagram is the hardware/software interface, featuring the RC2014 & the Pi. The right-hand portion shows my thoughts on the management software and the intelligence functions (decision making, conflict resolution etc). This is wholly Pi-based, written in C/C++ and running under Linux (Ubuntu).

 

Hardware Management:

In the Hardware Management pane you can see the Operations topics of Forward, Rear & Tilt sensors and the camera. These are the functions that will control the hardware and are detailed in the Software Control pane on the left. These function names are leftovers from the original software build used to test Ripley’s hardware, prior to this re-design.

Further Operations functions are:

  • GPS (location services) which will be provided by the Adafruit HAT GPS module,
  • GSM/GPRS (mobile data) provided by a DROK SIM800 GSM module &
  • WiFi services provided by the Pi’s builtin Broadcom wireless NIC.

 

All of these Operations functions are controlled by the Management functions:

  • Forward, Rear & Tilt sensors are managed by Spatial Management (SM), giving Ripley a sense of her external environment (what’s in front, what’s behind and the direction of any incline she’s on, as well as a feed from the GPS so she knows how far from her OP (origin point) she is).
  • Camera Management (CM) controls the camera, including pan/tilt/zoom and whether nor not image recognition is required or just a feed to the ‘net.
  • Location Management (LM) monitors the GPS feed and provides GPS data to other functions as required.
  • Remote Control Management (RCM) switches between WiFi and GSM/GPRS (depending on whether recognised WiFi is in range or not) to maintain the network connection and also manages remote control instructions when requested.

 

Logic/Intelligence:

These functions provide Ripley’s ‘brain’, such that it is:

  • Image Recognition (IR) utilises basic object recognition to allow Ripley to distinguish between static objects (such as rocks, fences, walls etc) and mobile objects (cats, dogs, humans etc). This gives her the ability to decide whether or not to go round an object (as in a rock or a fence) or to wait for the object to move of its own accord (as in human or canine obstacles) or even to run away. IR works alongside the forward and rear ultrasonic sensors.
  • Collision Avoidance (CA) works alongside IR, Spatial & Location management to avoid roads (LM), mobile obstacles (IR) and static obstacles (SM).
  • Decision Making is fairly self-explanatory and works hand-in-hand with all of the other functions including :
  • Conflict Management. This function is for resolving conflicts in decisions, being the final arbiter. Not much is known about this function at the moment.

 

Epilogue:

This has been a fairly short intro to the current layout. I’m sure that it will change with time but any changes will be documented here in the blog. As each topic is developed, I will post an individual explanation of each. I’m sure there is someone out there who will find this vaguely interesting.

As always, if so inclined then leave comments but keep them clean. Ta.

Christine x

 

Tesla Girl Notes: Punishing Luxury*

Many things have happened since I restarted this blog and wrote the “Hidden Triggers” entry back in November 2017. The biggest of which is finally getting a job back in IT. It’s a contracting job but a job nontheless.

 

Taking Out Contracts:

It started out as a really low-level contract: upgrading monitor stands & docking stations for a large law firm. Hard work, boring but, hey, it brought in the much-needed finance. It also meant a bit of travel: Basingstoke, Reading, Oxford, London, Guildford, which gave me an insight into the vagaries of public transport, not having a car at that time (getting to & from the office in Oxford was a particular joy, especially as I had to be onsite at 9am, which necessitated leaving home at about 5am and usually not getting home till about 8pm).

Once that job was over I then went on to some cable-monkey work, installing switches, cabinets and mid-level cabling for a dental ceramics company near Sunbury then some floor-level networking for a artiste management company in London, giving credence to a comment I once made that:

“I seem to spend most of my time under other peoples desks”

Moving on, I then stepped up the ladder a little by being moved to a large accountancy firm near Tower Bridge, ostensibly to diagnose and repair Lenovo laptops, with a slight increase in pay that allowed me to finally buy a car. I chose a nice little 1999 VW Golf 1.9 GT TDI, which I named “Halo“, after one of my all-time favourite characters in 2000AD.

Fortunately, the organisation I was then working for were based just outside the Congestion Charge Zone and my route to and from work took me along the edge of the Neutral Zone (as I call it). Unfortuantely, due to Halo’s age and engine, I would have had to pay not only the congestion charge but also the T-charge, an extra payment for diesel vehicles that don’t have a registered emissions rating (introduced in 2000).

I eventually left the accountancy firm, (strangely, they were reluctant to let me go and wanted me full time) and moved onto my current contract in Mayfair which is a long-term contract providing IT support to 250+ users. The site I’m now working at is the HQ of one of the top 5 ad & media management companies in the world (to give you an idea of their size their total revenue last year (2017) was £15.2 billion).

 

Travelogue:

The working hours are good and the remuneration means I can live in a style I’ve not been accustomed to in many years but the travel can be harsh. I tend to miss out on standing and being squashed aboard a train for an hour from Aldershot to Waterloo by driving to Clapham Junction where I can park Halo in a secure underground car park and then get the train to Waterloo. This is where the ‘fun’ starts. Fortunately, I have several options and many trains to choose from but they all have one thing in common: severe overcrowding. Under good conditions I can arrive at Clapham at 0800 and be at my desk by 0840 but, there have been mornings where I’ve had to miss as many as five trains because I’m unable to get on them due to the sheer numbers of people trying to cram on them. It can often take me longer to get from Clapham to the office than from home to Clapham. Once at Waterloo (or Victoria, depending on the route), its time to negotiate the ‘crowd control’ measures in place most mornings: Ususally a single escalator down to the Underground ticket hall, closure of the link-door to the hall and forcing everyone outside and then back in via the outside door of the ticket hall. This can add nearly a half-hour to what is normally a ten to fifteen minute journey. (A good example is last Thursday: Left home at 0700, arrived Clapham at 0800, on platform at 0805, arrived at desk 0935!).

Going home can be even worse, especially when there are faults on the line, signalling problems or just plain bad management.

 

Epilogue:

So, contracting is great and having the money to live in a bit of luxury is wonderful but getting there and back can be punishing.

*My thanks to Andy & Paul (OMD) for inspiring the name of this blog and the many entries that may, or may not, be in it.

Hey, I Can Actually Hear The Radio….

To say that things have been quiet at work would be the understatement of the year. For some reason Friday and Saturday have been extremely quiet. I suspect it has to do with the confluence of end of the month and Halloween combined with school half-term. Still, it meant that we managed to get some work done. One of our biggest  attractions is our repair service. Unfortunately, our success at getting people back into work has also meant that we are short-staffed, meaning the repairs have been backlogging. The volunteers we do have are wonderful and they are helping  to get the repairs done. This is also on top of running the shop floor and helping users of the IT Suite. So this quiet time has been, in a way, fortuitious.

One of the biggest types of repair that we contend with is viral and malware infection. Unfortunately malware is prevalent out there on the ‘net, just waiting for the unwary surfer. I am still in the process of developing a set of basic security lessons I will be teaching at TechStart, and a list of safe-surfing tips which we will be handing out with every machine we sell. The following is part of an article I posted in Passing the Speed of Light but I thought it would be useful to post it here as well.

I’ve tried to create a simple list of precautions and it is quite long but, hopefully, easily understood and may help reduce the amount of times I have to run through the above process.

EMAIL:

  •  – If an email looks too good to be true, it nearly always is.
  •   – Your email address is precious. Before you give it out, think about who you are giving it to.
  •   – Don’t open attachments sent with unsolicited emails. Even if you know who the email is from, exercise a modicum of caution and save and scan the attachment with AV software before opening it.
  •  –  If an attachment has a .pdf.exe or .zip.exe extension then it is almost certainly malware.
  •  – Do not follow links in unsolicited emails, especially if they appear to be from your bank.
  •  – If you get an email purporting to be from your bank, don’t follow embedded links, use your normal method of accessing your account. This way you won’t accidentally give away your details.
  •  – Never, ever respond to Spam emails. This confirms to the spammer that the email account is active, and so you will suddenly be inundated with spam and potentially malware and/or adware.
  •  – Turn off preview in your email client. Many emails contain viral code that can be executed simply by viewing the email in a preview. It can also be used to send a confirmation back to the spammer that the account is active.
  •  – Be careful where you use your email online. Web-bots can be used to ‘harvest’ email addresses from public info and forums.
  •  – Keep a second email account. This can be used to register at sites from which you don’t want to receive further info or spam. It can also be used to recover password/username information in the event that your primary email account is compromised.

WEB BROWSING:

  • – When going to a website from an email, type the website address into the browser rather than clicking the link, (unless the email is from a known, trusted source), as links can be falsified. (What you see is not what you get).
  • – Ensure that privacy settings on your browser are on. This helps prevent too much info being passed to the website.
  • – Ensure your pop-up blocker is on. Some websites drop malware onto your machine using a “background pop-up”.
  • – Empty your webcache on a regular basis. Applications such as CCleaner are handy for this.
  • – When browsing a site that claims to be secure, check that the web address starts with “HTTPS://”. There should also be a padlock symbol on the browser’s toolbar at the bottom or to the left of the address bar (if using Firefox or Chrome). If there isn’t then there is a good chance that it is a ‘phishing’ site, designed to harvest your details.
  • – Try to avoid “Download Managers”. These frequently include malware in the downloads and some don’t even download the file you want, giving excuses such as “payment required”, “file unavailable”, “not enough disk space”, all the while downloading malware to your machine.
  • – Avoid using banking or other private websites over public access wifi. Its too easy for an attacker to acquire your information, (known as a “Man-In-The-Middle” attack), as there is rarely any encryption or other security.
  • – If using public machines do not allow the browser to store your passwords.
 I hope these precautions are helpful. As usual, I welcome any comments.

 

Sanguinem Non Habere Tempus

Sorry for appearing pretentious with the title, but I’m in one of those whimsical moods, characteristic of the end of a busy day, (so, more to come in future).

Its been a very busy day for all. To start with, Mark, unfortunately, was unavoidably out this morning which left me with the unenviable tasks of running the shop, effecting customer repairs and attending a Techstart board meeting at the same time. Couple this with being short-staffed and you can see where I’m coming from (and, if you’ve worked it out, the blog title). Fortunately, both Mark and I are used to this, (and particularly proud of the fact that we have never had to close due to staff shortage).

Apart from Mark, myself and Susie (our training manager), Techstart is wholly staffed by volunteers. This means that between the three of us, we have to create a working atmosphere and environment such that people want to come to us to work and then want to stay when they do. I think we have achieved that with some measure of success. Unfortunately there’s only so much one can do against illness and circumstance, which is what happened today. So, to start off the day, there was only myself and two volunteers to run the shop. Consequently, thanks to Susie and the very understanding members of the board, I was able to flit between the meeting and the shop floor when needed. Eventually, the meeting ended and this, closely followed by Mark’s arrival, eased things somewhat.

One of the increasingly more popular services that Techstart offers is our repair service. This is one of my primary area’s of responsibility. Having spent a large part of my career in IT customer service (most of it, actually), I tend to be a bit draconian when it comes to customer machines. I have a set of rules I’ve built up over the years that I try to stick to when it comes to customers and their machines:

  1. Never, ever lie to a customer about a fault. If it’s a simple fault that will take five minutes to fix then tell them.
  2. Along with No1, do not, under any circumstances, invent a fault to increase charges.
  3. Always treat customer machines with care and respect.They’re not your property.
  4. There is no such thing as “that will do”. Repairs must be complete and whole and the machine fully tested.
  5. If you damage a machine during repair, own up. Don’t try to hide it. Sometimes you’ve just got to take the hit.
  6. Never try to hide not knowing something in jargon. If you don’t know, admit it and say you can find out.
  7. Never belittle a customer by trying to sound superior. Even if you do know more than them, its just plain rude.

Following these rules is probably why I’m not driving an Audi R8 and holidaying in Tahiti but then, I get more pleasure out of seeing customer’s faces when they discover that their precious family photo’s, music and writings are safe within a working machine, or that the something they’ve been working on for years has not been lost. (I wouldn’t mind the R8 though).

To be fair, most of the repairs that come through our doors are the result of viral or malware infection and are easy fixes, albeit time-consuming ones. Sometimes, though, we do get hard ones, such as one where the customer was told by various parties that the hard drive had failed and all her data had been lost and she would have to replace it. None had offered to attempt recovery. It took me less than 24 hours to recover nearly all the data and, after replacing the drive and OS, the machine was back to almost new. I have to admit, we take tenacity to new heights but, so far, we haven’t had a customer machine that we’ve been unable to repair.

We just don’t give up.