General

SystemModeler....

I've had SystemModeler for a while, but struggled to get on with it.  I guess the issue that I've had with it is that there are very few learning resources and tutorials around to help cut your teeth.  Mathematica has been around for years, so there are endless resources that are suited to the individuals preferred method of learning, from PDF's, Stack Exchange, and even Lynda.com now has a video based learning method for the basics.  Given that even simple models have dozens of flags that can be plotted and graphed and that certain flanges aren't enabled by standard, I've waited until I've had a few minutes spare to start tinkering.

Today I've been fiddling about with a mass and two springs with dampers, what I've been trying to do (and failed) is to make both supports displace over a given time period to push a displacement through the system to see what effect spring stiffness and damping have on the system, eventually this will be scaled up to a chain of springs of about 40-50 elements and used to model a structural system but this is my validation model.

Screenshot 2014-09-10 17.55.26

I've not worked out how to give the supports a nudge (something that we do when modelling in ANSYS) so I've cheated a bit by essentially shortening the left hand spring to give a similar effect and then watched to see how the system has damped down. Parameter settings below for the spring/damper system.

Screenshot 2014-09-10 18.33.22

By specifying the spring length as 1m, then setting the nominal value for it as 0.5m to start with it gives the system a nudge to start it bouncing.  I'm sure there's another more elegant way of achieving this but I'll have to figure it out over the next few days.

Screenshot 2014-09-10 18.19.11

I'll keep tinkering over the coming days, to try and refine the process.   Hopefully I can find some more learning materials or a decent community... something comparable to the Mathematica StackExchange community would be ideal.

If anyone's come across a decent text or resource I'd love to hear about it.

General

No More Heroes...

I studied for my Civil Engineering degree a long time ago and did a sandwich degree at what was an old school polytechnic.  When I was on my year in industry I was dragged along (slightly reluctantly) to a technical meeting at Warwick University to listen to a chap called Heinz Isler.

Up until this point I'd never heard of Heinz Isler, but after sitting through his lecture for an hour I was utterly spellbound listening to his thought process and the shear creativity and quite frankly maverick nature of how he achieved his engineering structural forms.  This was the first time I'd seen structural engineering really become exciting and not be slavish to design codes or afraid of being bold.  This was my first time being inspired by a structural engineer and feeling that even if I lived for 12 lifetimes I could never be as good as this guy in front of me... and actually not feeling in the least bit bad about it, the guy before me was an utter genius.

 

IMG_1497

Creative Commons Image courtesy of Trevor.Patt on Flickr.

After graduation I went to work for a lightweight structures company and when I eventually (and reluctantly) left so that I could gain some traditional engineering experience I was given a book called 'An Engineer Imagines' all about Peter Rice.  Again to my shame, this was the first time I'd heard about Peter Rice and reading through his autobiography I was in awe at how far ahead of his time he was, refusing to take the tried and tested path and instead developing innovative solutions.

Unfortunately both of these engineering heroes of mine are now dead... with my only engineering hero Frei Otto, remaining alive.  There are lots of good engineers out there and I'm sure that they inspire and lead their respective fields.... and whilst I have a few academics who I'm in awe of in my research field, I can't say that I have any engineering heroes of the same ilk as Isler, Rice, and Otto left anymore.

Perhaps that golden age of engineering has gone?  Where new techniques could be implemented and tested through modelling?  But I would have hoped that with the power behind geometrical computational models nowadays that perhaps this technology and power could be combined with the artisan skills of the past to create some genuinely beautiful and inspiring structures.

If Isler can create massive spanning thin concrete shells through freezing his wife's bed linen, then surely we could be doing something even more mindblowing with the computational power that is now at our fingertips...

Who are the engineering heroes of tomorrow I wonder? Will they have the same passion and ability as those from the past or will they be limited as the world becomes a far more commercial place and less experimental?  Are the talented engineers being driven out of the technical aspects of the design process to become managers and is this damaging the market?

Uncategorized

Undo!..

Mathematica 10, finally has a multiple undo function added.... finally!

Clearly the undo petition here brought it's functionality screeching into the 20th century... so happy...

Tutorial

Searching...

I thought I was pretty good at finding information using Google and other search engines, but after the recent Mathematica seminar I went to I realise that actually I could be searching smarter using Google.

For example, all of the Mathematica documentation sits on one site reference.wolfram.com and I could trawl this if I wanted, or even add the domain into the search field to help give it some focus, maybe even break out some simple BOOLEAN algebra to proper show off.... or I could read how to use Google properly and just constrain all of my search results to this site using site:

For example, entering the following into Google searches the reference.wolfram.com site (and only that site) for the word Transpose.

site:reference.wolfram.com Transpose

Now to take it a step further I could limit all of the responses to be PDF files incase they are tutorials that would be helpful.

site:reference.wolfram.com Transpose filetype:pdf

Give it a whirl on whatever sites you frequently search.

General

Speed...

I'd never really given speed a lot of thought when coding my Mathematica notebooks, but after recently attending a seminar I think it's something I need to spend some time thinking about.  My sheets are normally fairly trivial in comparison to some of the large banking house notebooks that run, but what I was interested to hear was that some of the sheets being run take over 6 hours from the other delegates.  That's a long time to wait to see if your numbers are rubbish.

Also what was interesting was that the presenter spends a lot of his time making other people's code work faster, essentially that's the core of his consultancy business.  Some speed improvements were up to 912% faster.

So a 6 hour sheets would potentially run in less than 30 seconds.  Which is a hell of a lot faster and lets you run various scenarios in a day rather than one a day.

One simple thing that I took away from all of this is if I'm only interested in numerical results rather than symbolic, then I need to think carefully about the level of precision I require.

For example using the /AbsoluteTiming flag you can do a simple test to see the difference that the level of precision makes.  By simply adding a decimal point to the number 2 it will convert to machine level precision.

Gives a timing of 0.283438 seconds on my machine.  Simply adding a decimal place to the number 2 gives a significant speed jump.

Gives a timing of 0.000293 seconds, which is a massive shift in computation time.

Something to consider.

Tutorial

Rotations...

In a previous post I showed how complex numbers are useful when rotating co-ordinates and since then I've hard coded several geometrical translation and rotation routines that have been crude, but functional in Mathematica.  Nothing too complex, but a nice little achievement, working with matrices and manipulations.

But the scary thing about a big program like Mathematica, is that it has lots of built in functions that whilst incredibly well documented, you have to be aware that they exist before you can start to search for them.

The transformation matrices scripted above, can be automated using some of the inbuilt functions in Mathematica 9.  So for example if I wanted to rotate some co-ordinates about the z-axis the syntax is quite straightforward and can be taken from the documentation.  Rotating 4 co-ordinates (a) around the z axis (b) to give the newly updated co-ordinates (c).

There are quite a few neat and compact examples over on the documentation website if you're interested.

I personally struggle with Mathematica at times, not because the documentation is poor, but because the scope is so vast.  But with helpful sites such as Stack Exchange or the Wolfram Community Page I'm sure I'll start to work my way through some of the more hardcore functions given time.

General

Annual report...

Last year I created an annual report to help me reflect on the year and determine what it is that I need to keep the same, change, eliminate, or get counselling from to recover.  I found it a really helpful process so I'm going to try and make it an annual event even though I'm a little late with it this year.

1 What are your biggest accomplishments this year?

Last year I've achieved quite a few things that I wanted to, plus a few nice surprises.

  • I was nominated for an NUS teaching award by one of my students, this means an awful lot to me as it shows I'm appreciated and genuinely making a difference.  Plus I got a mug and some free food!
  • I won the Vice Chancellor's Teaching Excellence Award.
  • I passed my interim assessment on my PhD, although I'm still not sure how.
  • We moved into our new family home and got ourselves established after a much harder build than we expected.
  • I turned 40... quite a few of my friends I grew up with never made it this far. I feel blessed.

2 What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned this year?

I'm a dreadful communicator.  I can sing, dance, argue the point about the most complex of subjects, but I'm rubbish at talking about how I'm feeling, particularly if I'm feeling negative, tired, upset, or worried.  I've plenty of friends who'd let me bash their ears if needed, but I choose not to, I bottle it up, burn out, creak along until I fall over.

177:365 - FBE...

I've been surrounded a lot by serious illness this year, from close family, friends, work colleagues, students... and I've got to admit it's been pretty scary.  There's been times where I've genuinely feared for those I hold dearest and panicked that there's about to be a big hole in my life, I need to let these people know more often how much they mean to me, I've learned that life is fragile and precious.

3 With a grade, how satisfied are you with how you spent the year? Why?

I'd struggle to give this a universal grade.  I'm made up with the new house, it's given us a lot of space and we can have friends round for parties and food which has helped us strengthen relationships with friends and have visitors stay for catch ups, this has really contributed to life quality in a positive way.  The glass is definitely half full...

148:365 - Glass half empty?..

As always there are parts of work I love, parts I'd prefer to have surgically removed, but I attended graduation for the first time last year and I really enjoyed seeing my students graduate, which bearing in mind I didn't want to go to my own graduation is quite something.  It was also nice that we went for a few beers with our students afterwards and I think they liked seeing that we're human too... we think a lot of our students, but sometimes feel we have to maintain a bit of distance.  I'm not sure we've got the balance always right.

I think on the whole I'd give the year a B, because I need to gain more balance between home and work and find some collaborators for my research to work with, but on the whole I'm satisfied.

4 What do you want to accomplish next year, such that it’s your best year ever?

  • I want to learn to relax.
  • I want to make progress on my PhD and I want to build a team around my research.
  • I want to survive my chairmanship with the IStructE in one piece.
  • I want to be more anarchic and chaotic in my thinking and behaviour, I want to challenge convention.
  • I want to surround myself with more brilliant people, to collaborate, contribute, relish....
  • I want to grow.

5 What new habits to cultivate that will help you to achieve your goals in Q4?

I hope to identify better places to work, either through sharing an office space with someone, getting a study buddy to work with or perhaps just working from home more often with a colleague/friend.  I really want to immerse myself in research the coming year, but would work better if I had someone to immerse myself with in the topic.

I intend to chill out a little more, I work far too many hours on too many different roles this sometimes results in me spreading myself too thinly.   More concerts, more beer, more silliness, more doing nothing from time to time...

Untitled

Once my chairmanship is up with the IStructE I am seriously considering walking away from several positions to free up time.  I've learned enough about roles to support/coach/mentor future graduates and I've no intention of pushing for a senior position.  I would like to become a Fellow of the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering, but I can't see that happening as I'm not linked to either institution and you're nominated for membership.

I will be more anarchic, I'm intending that this will be my last full calendar year as an academic (I plan to leave in 18 months time) and so before I leave I will challenge the system and try and leave a positive mark.  However, if I build a good research team around me with PhD students I genuinely could see me extending my timescale, or sharing myself between academia and an industrial role.  I will try my hardest to not become a passenger, I will be different, I will make a difference...

206:365 - Feeling blue...

6 What are your immediate next steps to achieve these goals?

I will make more time to spend time with the family, this year we started playing board games with the kids and going out for walks.  I just need to try and protect more time to head out with my wife.

Last year I said I'd start growing plants and baking with the kids.... the baking part took off and I learned a few basic recipes and even taught my daughter how to use the electric whisk.  I need to do more of this.

Untitled

I will grow, with purpose, focus, and a mohawk...

 

General

Difference...

Since moving into academia three years ago, I don't think that a week goes by when one of my students doesn't humble me or make me appreciate just how lucky I am.  A few of my students recently have commented that I treat them as equals and peers and they like this.  But in all honesty I don't think I make a conscious effort to, I just enjoy working with people who are enthusiastic about my subjects, regardless of if they're a student, engineer, lecturer, layman, or even a professor.... well maybe not a professor, everyone has limits.  I just enjoy working with people who are prepared to step through the gate and share with me...
221:365 - Plas Newydd...
Last week a student asked me to proof read their personal statement for a PhD application and the words they'd written about the support I'd given them and how much of a difference it made to their outlook on education stopped me dead in my tracks.  I'm rarely lost for words, but it took me a minute or two to compose myself, even though I know the student is grateful for all the help they receive, seeing it in writing was humbling and almost gave me a bit of a wobble.  What I didn't realise is that two years ago they'd have happily walked away from their degree if they'd been offered a job, but with a little support and the right topic for their dissertation, they now enjoy their subject enough to want to take on a PhD in the same area.

This week we've had one of our current students talk to 40 prospective students about how his level of maths skills upon leaving school meant that they couldn't understand simple fractions, but through the support of the foundation degree and the additional Math-Scope sessions we run they now regularly score in the 80's and 90's in maths phase tests at degree level.  They were brimming with praise and pride about what they have achieved, and quite rightly so.  One of the mum's even offered to adopt him she thought he was so inspirational...

And that's before all of the trials and tribulations that some of the students face to simply allow them to attend the course, fund the course, keep up to speed with the work.  Personally I don't think I'd have the resolve to deal with some of the issues that these students take on at my age, let alone in my early twenties.  I am in awe at their get up and go attitude and it's the perfect tonic for when I need to give myself the 'man up princess' pep talk.

For all the crap that comes with life as an academic, it's these special people and moments that make it all totally worthwhile, it's this that keeps me teaching in all honesty and it's the pride I feel for my students that has stopped me jumping back to industry on several occasions.  Because the secret is; the lecturers probably learn just as much from the students as they do from us.

If you're thinking of becoming an academic, brace yourself to be humbled regularly and get used to the odd damp eye.  There are a lot of very special and amazing students out there, all you have to do is remember that they're people too.

General

Mathematica Valentines...

Sharing the love through Mathematica... even equations can be beautiful.

How to plot a love heart using maths.

 

 

Taken from here.

Teaching

Mentoring...

Ever since I graduated I’ve always wanted to learn new things and for that reason I’ve pretty much always had at least three different types books on the go at any given time.  Typically I have a fiction book to read when my brain is really tired, a technical book linked to engineering, maths, or programming, and some sort of self-improvement book.   I want to be the best I can be, to reach my full potential and not be limited by my lack of understanding.

007:365 - Unlimited...

Over the past few years I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about how mentoring (and what I believe to be the lack of) is affecting the environment for modern graduates in industry.  As margins become tighter and tighter in industry, the experienced engineers have less and less wriggle room to spend mentoring graduates.  Instead the experienced engineers merely push the less-experienced engineers to a quick solution so that deadlines are met and fee structures are not blown – resulting in a shallow learning experience.

I’ve always tried to make time to help less experienced engineers understand new concepts, even if I think they should know them already from University.  This has meant frequently giving up my dinner hour and time after work to help someone understand a new concept.  I’ve not always been successful and that’s a limitation of my skill and something that I’m getting better at with time as I improve as a mentor, but as time goes by I wonder if my approach is mentoring or coaching?

Most of the time I spend on a 1 to 1 basis with students takes the form of conversations and specific questioning to change the way they think about things.  To change or reinforce their perceptions about how something can be improved in the future.  This is the commonest form of mentoring that I’ve taken over the years, but through what I’ve read of Starr (2010) this approach isn’t mentoring at all, it’s more like coaching.  It’s essentially a series of conversations to help change a future outcome.  One of the favourite activities I teach is the supervision of dissertations, this is the module I can see the biggest leap in a student’s abilities, particularly with regards critical thinking and it presents the biggest opportunity that I get to mentor and build a connection with the students.  It’s the one area that probably sucks a disproportionate amount of time out of my week but it’s definitely where my mojo (Goldsmith, 2010, p17) lies when I’m teaching.

It’s this connection with the students and their topics I think that I enjoy the most, especially as I watch them grow and I still get emails and calls from some of the students that I supervised a few years ago simply so they can let me know what they’re up to.  Of course quite a few students only get in touch when they’re chasing a reference or contacting me because they want something from me but when someone drops you a note to say hi or let you know what they’re up to now without wanting anything from you it's personally very rewarding and it’s this type of contact that I treasure as it’s then that you know you’ve made a real impact on someone’s perspective on life.

Dissertations are also one of the key activities that is keeping me in academia, as it’s giving me an opportunity to continually learn and grow on a personal level although the longer I stay in academia the lower my career progression opportunities and the lower my earning potential become…. Perhaps Robert Greene (2012) is right, when looking back on my life nobody will remember the wonderful report I sacrificed weekends and evenings to complete, but perhaps they’ll remember the time I gave them to help improve their critical thinking skills and understanding of structural behaviour and I know my kids will hopefully appreciate the time we have together now I’m no longer being continually shipped out all over the place to design buildings.

068:365 - Behind the Wheel...

After all I’ve changed quite a few skylines around the world when I had a proper job, maybe there’s more satisfaction to be had creating brilliant engineers to create even more radical designs.  Or perhaps there's a compromise to be had by spending some of my time teaching and another chunk of my time working with brilliant engineers and architects to design really radical and life-changing designs... I think this could be where my future lies in all honesty, it's about time I seized the steering wheel again as these things don't happen by themselves.

References.

Goldsmith, M. (2010). Mojo. London: Profile Books.

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. London: Profile Books.

Starr, J. (2010). The Coaching Manual (Third ed.). London: Pearson Business.