Aerial raspberry pi installation. The boxy-head is the pi(s), attached to a tripod held up by a jib arm. A ten-port powered usb hub is duct taped to the tripod, providing lots of data storage and internet to the Pi’s.
Almost immediately after my first foray with the Raspberry Pi timelapse I was contacted by Cookie Roscoe, who coordinates a weekly farmer’s market for The Stop. The Stop is a community food center here in Toronto, providing lots of programming and emergency food access for lower-income people. My partner, Elizabeth, worked with them for about three years, so I was super happy to try doing a time-lapse of their market.
Here’s the results! Lots of technical stuff about what went into the video after the break!
A camera made of legos! I’ve built two of these; this photo was taken with the other raspberry pi camera, during a three-week time-lapse shot.
My recent DIY electronics project has been putting together a Raspberry Pi-based camera. The Pi foundation sells a camera board which plugs into the Pi; it’s sold as ‘a bit better than the average camera in a mobile phone.’ But the Pi’s default Raspbian Linux installation comes with a couple programs for controlling the camera, and lets you take still pictures and videos easily.
In the interest of using the camera for something you can’t usually do with a store-bought digital camera, I wrote a short python script which takes a photo assigns it a file name based on the date and time taken. It then does some sampling of the picture, and only keeps pictures which aren’t ‘too dark.’ And then cron runs the photo script once every five minutes. In other words, the Pi is set up for long-form time-lapse photography. The resulting pictures are then easy to compile into a movie.
A 3D printer at HackLab printing a model of a jet engine turbine.
On Tuesday evening I finally made it to the Toronto Hacklab, after meaning to make it over for weeks!
It’s a really interesting space. There are currently five 3D printers, lots of tools for playing with electronics, and a giant computer-driven laser in the bathroom for etching and cutting plastic or acrylic. (Actually, I should try to make an acrylic LakeHub logo to send back to Kenya….) According to Eric, who gave me a tour of the space, about a two thirds of the members come through to work on these sorts of projects, and a third are mainly software people who use it as a common work space.
A couple of my favorite toys that I saw on the tour were a giant LED pixel board and a ‘flip dot board’, both of which had been salvaged from the Toronto Transit Commission, which runs all the buses and subways. Members of the Hacklab built electronic interfaces to both of the devices: the LED board is run by an arduion and can be sent messages to display, and otherwise acts a clock. The flip-dot board looks like it’s run by some custom microcontrollers, and is hooked up to a joystick for playing ‘snake.’
I’m happy to say that LakeHub will soon be hiring its first employee!
During my early involvement in Kenya, I had the pleasure to chat with Prof. Haynes Miller, an MIT mathematician, about the potential for e-learning in Africa. He related the story of a relative who had gone to work in a small developing country, creating an interesting technological component in a library. After working for a year to get everything set up, the project leader went back to North America. Two years later, the leader went back to visit and found the library in terrible disrepair. Computers busted, the e-library unusable. The lesson here is that a successful project needs to have a good mix of leadership and capacity on the ground to continue after the mzungu founders have departed. A good project needs to have long-term participants involved in the design and deployment, and respond directly to the needs and capacities of the local community. And as one unravels these ideas, the whole notion of the ‘mzungu founders’ is itself quite problematic; our success is really measured by our ability to promote quality leadership, build capacity, and facilitate the vision of people who are committed to live and work in Africa for the long term.
All of which is to say that I think LakeHub hits a number of the right boxes. The leadership is almost entirely Kenyan, and the project is about harnessing and amplifying the abilities of the tech community in Western Kenya. I’m extremely excited to see it continue and thrive now that I’ve wandered back to North America. The Kenyans who are taking the lead on the project so fa are fantastic, and have the skills and vision to help take it forward. These are people like James Odede, Google’s student ambassador to Maseno University and head of the Maseno ICT guild, and Simeon Obwego, who works for Innovations in Poverty Action, and is a truly fantastic self-starter. Evan Green-Lowe, also from IPA, has also been a great contributor, and is largely responsible for the current push to get a full-time employee.
But we’ve run into the limits of volunteer organizing: there’s a lot of vital-but-time-consuming work that needs to get done. Like scouting for potential spaces, building partnerships with local businesses and community organizations, and, yeah, locking in funding sources. The plan is to search the budding Kenyan tech community for someone with a great combination of drive and vision to help build LakeHub up to meet its fantastic potential.
The Art Caffe at Junction, where I drank many Americanos and wrote many blog entries. (Image Source)
I’ve never been a hang-out-at-the-mall kind of person. The prices are higher than things I can find in the internets or strange alleys, the food courts unappealing, and the general level of “shiny” doesn’t really match my self-concept.
And yet, during my year in Kenya, I spent a lot of time at various malls. When staying in Nairobi, I would find myself in a mall every other day, it seemed. And it makes sense in retrospect: The specialist shops and on-line stores where I usually use to get my obscure electronics aren’t available in Kenya, and food safety seems a bit more reliable in the malls. The biggest factor, though, are the coffee shops. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops wherever I travel, unwinding thoughts and sketching proofs and sipping on a simple black Americano. And most of the coffee shops in Kenya are in malls.
The mall I spent the most time at in Nairobi was The Junction, and most of that time was spent at Art Caffe. It’s a space with a great slice of the mix of modern Nairobi. Yeah, there are a lot of jackass travellers like myself plugged into their laptops, but just as many people stopping through for a business lunch, mommas chatting about their kids, young people hanging out with friends, and men from unidentifiable Eastern European countries discussing possibly shady business in an unidentifiable language. It’s a great cross-section.
It’s also a bit of an escape.
3rd Maseno Maths Camp group photo (silly version).
The third annual Maseno math camp ran in the third week of August; it’s a bit hard to believe that we’re up to three already!
The week started with a great talk from Rejoyce Gavhi, a South African mathematician who just finished a postdoc in Canada, and who is now starting a new job with AIMS:Sec. She talked about the challenges she overcame in pursuing mathematics as a woman from Africa, and was quite inspirational for everyone involved.
As usual, we divided this year’s camp up into five ‘themes.’ The themes this year were programming, modelling, geometry, combinatorics, and code-breaking. I mainly helped put together the combinatorics section with Ingrid Mostert (from AIMS:Sec) and Santiago Borio, a Geogebra virtuoso who teaches school in London; the sessions were about the bijection between subsets and lattice paths, and seeing the binomial coefficients from different perspectives. Chris Clarke put together some great sessions in the modelling section (for example, using massively multi-player dice-games to model the spread of a disease in a population). The programming section focused on building flow charts to describe algorithms, which was a pretty different tack than we’d previously considered, and I think a good one. I never really think of flow charts when I program, but breaking a process down into some ‘decision points’ and considering all possible outcomes is quite useful as a programmer. Approaching the process via flow charts is a great way to organize that process in a visual way.
Return to the Fields Institute!
And I’m back in Canada now and still somewhat jet-lagged, which means going to sleep and waking up at hours that would be normal for anyone else. I’m doing the second year of a postdoc with Nantel Bergeron and Mike Zabrocki, keeping up the research while looking for the next big thing, or at least a job. I have a great big pile of projects to work on this year, too, which have been on back-burners during the end of my time in Kenya. I decided to do more people-oriented things while in Africa, and come back to some things (like programming projects) once back in a place where the location matters a little less to the project.
I’m really looking forward to a lot of these projects: thinking more about getting Sage into an online homework system, q-counting simultaneous core partitions, inventing a new type-free definition of the k-Schur functions, experimenting with the Raspberry Pi camera board, building a Pi-based Beowulf cluster, and moving my website to a new domain. Oh wait, I guess that last one’s done now…. I also need to catch up on my writing! There’s a recap of the third Maseno math camp waiting to be written, and an article for the Notices of the AMS.
So off to work!
Speaking of writing… I’ve finally decided to buck up and get my own domain; partly so people can find the site more easily, and partly because I think the African Maths Initiative site where I’ve been writing is probably going to undergo some big changes over the next few months: the site should be much more focused on showing what AMI does, and there’s a separate plan to build a kind of registry/network for math initiatives across Africa. This is also my 50th post on the blog, so we can think of it as a nice upgrade to commemorate the occasion.
Balázs Szendrői works with participants at the Mombasa algebraic geometry workshop.
This week I’ve been giving lectures at an algebraic geometry workshop in Mombasa. I know what some of you are thinking: ‘But Tom, you’re nothing like an algebraic geometer!’ And that’s true. But often the best way to learn something is by putting yourself in a position where you have to know it, like standing in front of fifty people expecting a clear explanation. In this case, I’ve learned some basics of Grobner bases (mostly from an excellent book by Cox, Little, and Shea) and have been augmenting the lectures and exercise sessions with Sage. I’ve written up some notes on the talks, and I’ll probably convert them into a web-based format with Sage cells and stuff sometime next week…
The workshop has participants attending from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia. The participants have been super motivated; we’re just finishing up the third and final week of the workshop, and the participants have been staying up late working on final projects. Attendance has stayed high throughout the workshop, to a degree you wouldn’t expect in (say) North America. The chance for exposure to math going on at the international level is a big draw, since it’s still so rare for international mathematicians to come through East Africa. I imagine it’s like if you only got to eat ice cream once every year or three: you’re not going to let anything go to waste.
Group shot from the Bahir Dar math camp. The waterfall in the background is one of the major sources of the Nile!
I’ve spent this last week helping with the first-ever Ethiopian math camp, hosted by the math department at Bahir Dar university. As with the Maseno math camp, we focused on giving activity-based sessions, teaching interesting math topics outside of the standard curriculum. The intention is to boost student interest in maths and to expose some teachers to different ways of thinking about mathematics. The big difference between the Maseno and BDU camps is that the students in Ethiopia are mainly Amharic speakers, with maybe a couple years of learning English under their belt. This makes it essential to build up and utilize the local staff to a degree that we aren’t forced to in Maseno. Luckily, the local staff is bright, imaginative, and ready to try new things. On the whole, it was a fantastic first attempt.
We gave thirty-ish sessions, divided into five topic areas: geometry, scientific research, card tricks, history of numbers, and ‘rules.’ I was a few days late arriving at the planning week, due to some medical exams I needed to get done in Addis, and so was mainly designing the card trick sessions. I also did a lot with the geometry group and gave a session each on cryptography and complex numbers.
A quick game of Go with Yan X Zhang at the Sage-Days in Orsay. I lost badly!
Back for a day in Nairobi after visiting Paris for FPSAC 2013 and Sage-Days 49. On the whole, it was a really productive visit; I met a number of my primary goals. On the mathematics front, Kenya has been extremely isolating: One of the big goals for the conference, then, was to connect to some new things to work on and figure out what’s been happening in the algebraic combinatorics world in the last year. It was exciting to actually work on math with people: when I arrived in Maseno, it turned out that no new graduate students had come into pure maths in some time, which meant there was no real outlet for doing math with other people. So it’s been kind of a lonely year: I did a lot of work on education, and did some interesting community building around computer science with LakeHub, but often felt like my big area of expertise really wasn’t terribly helpful in Kenya. The institutions weren’t really ready to make use of what I was bringing, since there wasn’t time or space for people to do research. I obviously found lots of great stuff to work on anyway, but it felt a bit funny that I was so unable to engage people on the maths.