Dec 10

Congratulations to: Matthew A (mca1..)
who was the first person with the right answer to Challenge #1

Also congratulations to: ‘Al’ G (tag1…), Clare L and friends (cl27…), Anna A (ama1…), Steve HP (shp1..), Tom O (to1…), Owen S (os1…), Peter L (pjcl1..), Paul T (pjt2…) and Rachel G (rng1…)
all of whom provided at the correct answer with a suitable explanation.

A mention also to Andy D (ad10…) who came so close but sadly missed out the all-important explanation. Don’t forget!

For the rest of you that didn’t make the cut:

You needed to begin at the very beginning – the top of the Challenges page – where you would have seen the text “Gur rairybcr vf oruvaq gur ybbfr oevpx!”. This shows an example of a substitution cipher in use, in this case a simple alphabetic shift (Caesar cipher). One of you gave us the wrong shift size (saying 14 instead of 13), but we let you have it anyway. It’s a 13-character Caesar shift, which in computing terms is also often known as “ROT13”. ROT13 used to be a favourite on internet newsgroups to hide information from casual browsing, although its cryptographic strength is practically nil.

Well done to everyone who got it right!

Dec 3

Challenge #1 has been correctly solved, and so entires for it will close on Friday afternoon at 5pm. The solution and the list of winners will be posted some time shortly after that.

We will be keeping a rolling leaderboard of people who solve the challenges correctly so it’s worth getting an entry in, especially on the easy puzzles.

– HD

Dec 3

Think you’re smart? Find out.

Until we have our own microsite, which we hope to set up in the future, challenges will be put up here as a blog page. Click on the relevant link for the challenges or use the site menu at the top and you’ll find the details. Tell all your friends…. and then beat them to the answers anyway.

– HD

Nov 27

And the results are in!

A huge thank-you to everyone who took part in the Free Money competition; of the 95 entries, many were brilliant and we have had a really hard time choosing between them.

It was also quite striking to see how much some of the entries had in common (not in a plagiarism sense, just agreement!).

Generally speaking, your suggestions fell into three categories:

  1. Things that we agree with that we will try to do for you
  2. Things that we agree with but that are already done
  3. Things that we probably won’t do

Before we get to announcing winners, we’d like to share with you a few of the common issues that came up. If you want to skim-read, look for the bits in bold.

tuxbutton Good Ideas for Linux

The overwhelming majority of you offered exactly the same reason for not using the Linux machines as much as the Windows ones: they’re a bit intimidating and you’re not sure how to get the best out of them. If only I could give prizes to every one of you who came up with ideas for seminars and tutorials and multimedia presentations on how to make the most of the OS (I can’t, I’m paying the 20 quid out of my own pocket…).

We will definitely be taking this on board, and are already drawing up plans for taster sessions and tips and lunchtime talks to make you into more Linux-capable computer users. For those of you who don’t like heavyweight presentations (thanks James S), we will also be aiming to put up posters and online resources with ways to improve your Linux-foo.

There are also several software packages you have asked for, and we will be going through adding as many as possible to the build (including Matlab!) over the next couple of months. Support for non-latin alphabets has been a source of problems in the past, but we’ll give it another go. We’ll also keep looking for something better than evince!

Since the survey results came in, we have installed Flash support on the Linux machines. If you find this isn’t working, let us know.

We also have several other ideas on the go which seem to match with your comments in the survey, including a top secret new venture we will be asking CSLib to get involved with. Watch this space for more rumours about Project Silverhorse

yesbutton Good Ideas for ECS and the Labs

There were also several exciting ideas from “Part B” that we will be working on over the coming months.

Many of you commented about the overcrowding in the labs, and expansion is something we are continuing to lobby for. Our Head of School has been enormously supportive of this, and so we’re very hopeful for the future. However, whether we get the space we need may now end up being affected by the results of the current MSc survey, so unfortunately no promises just yet!

Possibly the biggest news of all, though, is that we are also working on a feasibility study for putting vending machines in right here in the Computing Lab! It’s long been a dream of Zepler Computing Lab users to avoid that trip allllll the way down to Level 1, and that dream may now be closer to reality than ever before!

HOWEVER… on the other hand we are fighting off complaints about food and drink in the labs, in particular the Quiet Zone. If you’re still reading, you’re probably one of the caring folks who wouldn’t dream of taking food and drink into the QZ or leaving rubbish on the desks in the lab… But seriously, if it continues, rather than having nice new vending machines, we might lose the privilege of food and drink in the lab altogether and change to the same policy as the rest of the University. That would be a real shame, so we’re counting on you all to prove you can treat the lab with respect.

button Already Done That

Several of you asked for things that are already done. These include:

  • Printing directly from wireless. Watch for a future blog post with gory technical details about this, and forthcoming KB articles on how to print from your laptop without even needing VPN!
  • Faster wireless in the labs. Our order of three brand new top spec Cisco APs has finally arrived, and you should find that as of this evening you can get A, B, G and N wireless with much, much better throughput.
  • Dual screens throughout the lab. The order is in for another 30 machines to update lab equipment, and this will include more monitors. By the new year, we should be on 22-inch widescreen monitors almost exclusively.
  • Firefox fixed. Several people referred to a Firefox bug which, so far as we have been able to tell, has been fixed for over a month. Let us know if you can still reproduce the problem. Also see how you get on with Flash.
  • Faster log-on times (Linux). The Linux machines should take just a handful of seconds to log on (although this may be a little more during very busy periods). E-mail us directly if you are able to reproduce any specific problems, as they may be down to account-specific preferences.

nobutton Less Practical

We also had several suggestions that we won’t be able to do much about. In the spirit of honesty, we’ll tell you those, and also tell you our reasoning.

  • “You don’t keep your machines updated” and “You should have lots of different linux distros“. Actually, we do keep them updated. Ultimately both of these come down to the same answer: we barely have enough staff to cover our core workload without unpaid overtime, so compiling from scratch all the features we might like is a non-starter. This means we rely on using an Enterprise distribution of Linux, so that security fixes are backported and the systems keep on running. The University already pays for RHEL, so we use that. Unfortunately, while RHEL packages are kept secure and well-tested, their feature set often lags behind, and version numbers don’t get updated even when the packages do. All of which comes down to the following: if you want extra fancy from-source software on the machines… join CSLib and get compiling!
  • “The labs should be open 24/7“. Sometimes we think that as well. And then sometimes we think back to when we were students and the labs were open 24 hours a day and realise: you need to go home and sleep, and if nobody forces you to leave the labs, sometimes you can forget. “Whoops, I accidentally a whole day”*. It’s campus-wide Health and Safety arrangements that mean working hours stop at 11. Yours probably should too.
  • Dual-booting. This ends up causing us more problems than it helps with, both from a maintenance point of view and because it increases average log on times considerably. We do reconsider this occasionally, but the benefits are heavily weighted in favour of spending the effort on getting single-OS machines working well.
  • Compiz – find us a repo with maintained 64-bit Centos/RHEL RPM and we’ll consider it. ZeroInstall – great idea, but a disappointing lack of updates to installers within the last 18 months make this much less useful.

* meme not misprint

The Results

Yes, we know, you’ve skipped past all that lovely information above. But if you come and talk to us about anything we’ve discussed up there, and you haven’t read the article, we will send you away to go and read it first. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

It’s a bit cliché to say it was a “difficult decision”. In some cases it really wasn’t. We had to be brutal to narrow it down, and anyone who said:

“The Linux Lab machines would get used more if … they had Windows on them ha ha

got eliminated at the first round. We had people telling us that we should have more Linux machines, we had people telling us we should have fewer Linux machines. These were not winning answers.

Beyond that, it was tricky. Many people said very valuable things, some of which we have addressed above. Eventually, though, we decided that the results should be as follows:

  1. FIRST PLACE (£20 cash prize): Ashley B (amb1…)
  2. SECOND PLACE (£20 printer credit): Nicholas H (nh4…)
  3. JOINT THIRD (£5 printer credit): John C (jc34…) AND Edward P (ejp1…)

(Yes, we added the third place prize in as an extra, because they were all very deserving). On Monday we’ll be putting their submissions up on the boards in the main lab.

Congratulations to the winners, and a huge thank-you to everyone who took part, we read all of your entries in detail and you’re a very smart and talented bunch.

Watch out for a new cash prize competition coming soon!

Epilogue and (dis-)Honourable Mentions

There were also a few great suggestions that we simply couldn’t go without putting in here:

  • Chairs hooked up to car batteries to “zap” people who are too noisy in the labs (vicious, Alex B!)
  • A big fish tank (you’re volunteering to muck it out too, right Michael GW?)
  • Free hugs for students at the end of long days (a lovely fluffy idea Andrew H, although I suspect the end of a long tiring day wouldn’t be the best time to be hugging a sweaty unwashed student…)
  • Several requests for mascots, both robotic and living… we might turn this one into a future competition! (thanks Matt G, Albert H and others)
  • “Al” G wins an honourable mention for sheer quantity of suggestions, many of which took him very close to the shortlist
  • And finally an anonymous mention for the person who submitted an entry several hours after the deadline suggesting that ECS needs more ‘communication’…

– HD