Category Archives: Academia

All things to do with Academia

Programming languages course

So I ran a talk on learning programming languages last week. It was the second time I had done that particular talk, and in this case the hardware setup went smoothly – as it was done by Stephen Wattam the CSLU VP.

We had a pretty good turn out, mostly of year year undergraduate students who so far had only played with a little C. I took pictures of everyone hard at work doing their task … well, ok. They were mostly on tryruby.org which was even better.

It showed that they had an interest in a new language which is fairly good at prototyping and will allow them to try out their ideas fast. I may have semi pushed them on to it in my talk, so I’m glad they were listening. No one tried learning Haskell though, but then I’ll drop in on everyone next term and see how they are doing. The slides and some info for my talk can be found  at the CSLU site.

On a side note … My Instagram tshirt came! I’m not sure if I’ll ever wear it outside as it’s a bit long, but still!

4 weeks in corporate research – initial thoughts

So I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in Cambridge working as an intern at Microsoft Research and I thought I’d share my observations on the differences between academia and corporate research.

Academia, I find, is far from the ivory tower that it once was. Forgetting the worrying need to find economic benefit for projects, most research is now being spun as a product.

Surely the last thing you want for a product is a buggy bloated research prototype, and surely the last thing you want for a research project is a polished product. I mean you want it for one thing, to prove a hypothesis for your thesis.

This of course, is a massive generalisation, and more applied to the recent batch of Ph.Ds coming through, especially as they come through doctoral training schemes which mesh (mostly unsuccessfully) different fields together. Still, scoring a blue-skies research project without lying through your teeth in the impact section of a proposal is like finding real ale in Essex.

Of course, there is the positive side of academia too. The freedom to tackle your problem via any means. Flexible working hours (unless you are an RA), flexible supervision, flexible scope. You can produce a highly polished massively overworked Ph.D, or the bare minimum which gets the job done. It is a very personal thing. Research projects are a bit more managed, you have a more rigid supervisory system, project meetings, but your section of stuff is pretty much yours to do as you will.

This environment breeds two types of people: the successful ones who generally ask for and give help to their peers, accept criticism with grace, and who thrive in a space where they make the rules; and the other ones who, having seen the gaping ravine of work in front of them, bottle it and fail. Maybe not straight away nor suddenly, as it could creep up after a year or two, but Ph.Ds have been known to just disappear into industry after 4 years, with not a word to anyone. It is very easy to lose sight of where you are aiming to get to, reaching a false summit of your thesis and calling it done.

Academia is very much a dog eat dog world. The UK has a much nicer tenure-free environment, but even the tenant of the American “publish or perish” culture still exists. Academics live off their reputation, and their reputation is written in the black ink of a bibliography.

Corporate research is exactly the same landscape but with a few key differences.

For a start, the “build a prototype” message is very clear, especially for systems which may one day be products. You are building and evaluating a proof of concept, as it should be.

Secondly, the atmosphere is completely different. Whereas in the academic environment it is almost taboo to ask on a struggling Ph.D how their work is going, in corporate research struggling researchers are actively propped up and discussions at lunch and the pub are refreshingly problem orientated.

Thirdly, your supervisor is your manager. Which from a managerial point of view is awesome, you have someone who is your boss and *knows* what they are talking about, whilst still being your supervisor and knowing all the issues that come from research and how best to stimulate ideas out of dead ends. From an intern perspective this is also good, as seeing your supervisor as your boss makes you want to impress them more, and meet deadlines days earlier.

Finally, the pay is miles better.

Those are the good bits, and of course, there are some bad bits too.

Corporate research labs tend to have a “eat your own dog food” policy, which means that if the company creates a tool that can do you job, you use it, unless you can find a valid research reason not to. Working at Microsoft and being a Linux user, you can see how this has led to initial slow productivity as I’ve readjusted to an alien tool-chain.

There are also some scary law type things which get attached to the job, such as losing a kidney if I speak of what I see on whiteboards and such. However, this style of development is slowly losing ground as projects like Gadgeteer are being released under an Apache licence.

As a final point, having worked in some small companies where you have the “family” feel, I still find that you get this here. It may be due to the organisation of the research lab, but everyone is very friendly and you associate with your research group quite strongly. But not in a “compete against other group” way, as everyone in the building is amazingly friendly.

So far I’m enjoying it, we’ll see if I still do in 8 weeks time 😉

C

CSLU Demo Prep

Well, this is getting rather fun, but quite time consuming.

My alarm clock is ticking away and my sleep time dwindling as I type, but I just don;t feel the urge to sleep yet. I’ve got a talk/demo I’m preparing for Wednesday for CSLU and it is getting bigger and bigger workload wise.

I’m hoping this translates to geeky hacky fun though.

The talk is on languages and paradigms, so I’m introducing a load of languages (8 I think, off the top of my head), describing the basic constructs, and then getting the room to build a “99 bottles” program using 3 of the given languages.

The fun, but time consuming, part of this is that I’m building cheat sheets for each language. Done the first one tonight, and it was for C, so quite detailed. Hoping I can cut/paste a lot of stuff for similar languages, and hoping I don’t have to fall back to a stock one. It is nice to make a custom one for the group, and also cements my own knowledge, especially of the languages I am unfamiliar with.

After the 99 bottles task, I am going to set some slightly longer challenges which can be made easier using certain paradigms. I have an OO one, which can be done procedurally. It’s based around a game scenario. For procedural I will probably do a processing batch type thing. For functional I need to do a little more research.

With the department allowing me to set up a load of VMs for everyone to use too, this should be pretty fun on Wednesday … so long as I get it all finished in time!

Conference season

September time is conference time it seems and I am currently at UbiComp2010. The UCSE2010 workshop convened yesterday which was very successful and discussion driven.

One of the main technical company sponsor was in the workshop, Autodesk, and gave an interesting talk on how they are opening their whole building’s Building Information Model(BIM) to the internet. I would point you to Digital 210 King for more information.

2 weeks ago I was at IPIN, which was hosted for the first time at ETH Zurick. Very successful conference, with lots of content (200+ talks!).

For all those interested, I am putting my slides on slideshare, those being my IPIN talk (30 min ish) and my UCSE talk (5 min). The UCSE presentation has had a slide removed for confidentiality reasons, so the short presentation is even shorter.

Please navigate to http://www.slideshare.net/CarlEllis to view.

C

Very basic Makefile for LaTeX documents

So I wanted to make a basic makefile for my tex documents, so I took the Makefile from http://www.acoustics.hut.fi/u/mairas/UltimateLatexMakefile/ and modified it to be amazingly simple.

Heres the Make file:

CC=
FLAGS=

LATEX= latex
BIBTEX= bibtex
DVIPS= dvips
PS2PDF= ps2pdf

SRC := $(shell egrep -l '^[^%]*\begin{document}' *.tex | sed -e 's/.tex//')TRG = $(SRC).dviPSF = $(SRC).ps

all : pdf

dvi :  $(LATEX) $(SRC) && $(BIBTEX) $(SRC) && $(LATEX) $(SRC) && $(LATEX) $(SRC)

ps : dvi  $(DVIPS) $(TRG)

pdf : ps  $(PS2PDF) $(PSF)

clean :  rm *.bbl *.aux *.blg *.dvi *.log *pdf *.ps

Fairly simple and lets you choose your toolchain.

C

Academic Updates

Francois, Hugo and myself have almost finished writing the paper summing up our work on PAMPA for the last 2 years. We shall be submitting to the International Workshop on Middleware for Pervasive, Mobile and Embedded Computing, at Middleware 2009 in Illinois, USA.

I have also been working on making my NS-2 trace anaylser package ready to be released and making a small example program to use. Hopefully shall be released soon. Shall open it and SourceForge it once it is ready.

Cheers all!

Exam 1 Science 0

Well, it has been a while.

I have been working on a paper of my cumulative work from the past 2 years to submit to IEEE LCN 2009 …. however the paper deadline was today. I had an exam, and so time was spent revising.

I decided to pull the paper and look to submit for MobiCom09. This should give me some time to get some more data and show better trends.

Plus any edit time is good time.

So! Exams. Concurrency and Operating Systems today. I think it went ok. Questions I answered were on User/Kernel threads, implementing fork() from first principles, some mutual exclusion questions, spin locks over semaphores and such for the lower level concurrency section.

Discussion piece for System calls, device drivers and then some file system questions and Amdahls Law stuff.

All in all it was a rather decent exam.

Right. Personal stuff.

New house, with FLATMATES. Makes such a difference not coming home to an empty cold flat everyday. There are challengers for Xbox supremacy. I like living here.

Stuck in exam period however, with exams Wednesday and Friday and the following Monday. Cram time.

Later

Summer, Lisbon and Research

Well the talk in Glasgow went great, and I managed to receive a grant to visit the university of lisbon for a week in the summer to continue my research.

I managed to find some interesting results and managed to create a small java application to view my results visually.

It came out quite nice, and as such I have plenty of interesting avenues of new research for next year, including a new radio propagation method that takes into account buildings. It would help urban scenarios imensely.