Jul 20

We’ve just replaced a load of the shonkiest lab chairs with new models – and the world did rejoice! [1]

The new, beefier Linuxproj will be going live on the 2nd of August. [2]

On a side note, some people may be happy to discover we’re almost ready to get some of the lab Macs back into service; vague stirrings of Jobsian life should start tomorrow… [3]

[1] Or at least found it more comfortable to sleep at lab machines…
[2] Back up your databases! Or not. We’ll be deleting them all in any case.
[3] Please do not start queuing at 8AM, this is not the Apple Store(tm).

UPDATE 22/07/2011

Two 27″ iMacs are now available in the breakout zone for testing purposes – looking good so far! Please note that they have a limited set of mostly desktop-y programs installed (no dev tools etc. until we’re sure they’re working properly). Please do not kiss the Macs.

Jul 1

Hello everyone,

As usual, while you’re all off earning some extra cash or having a well-earned rest for the summer, we’ll be here improving the teaching systems infrastructure and lab machines ready for the next academic year. This means that from time to time certain systems will be unavailable as we’re upgrading them – details will be posted on the systems notice board.

Upgrades and suchlike

Here’s some of the stuff we’ve got planned:

  • Linuxproj is getting an upgrade (we’ve got a nice beefy machine racked up and ready to go pretty soon now!)
  • The undergrad login server (uglogin) will be upgraded and moved to a virtual machine – this will give it improved resilience and lower power usage
  • The lab monitoring system will be improved – the plasma display map will become more readable, and we will be able to get better usage stats
  • The UG print server hardware will be upgraded, and we’re planning some improvements to the software
  • CSLib are migrating their various servers to less ancient hardware
  • We’ve ordered some new chairs to replace the ones that are really showing their age

STACS Overflow

We’ve also got a new system that’s been kindly set up for us by Dave Challis (ECS webmaster) – STACS Overflow. This is a question-and-answer site much like Stack Overflow which many of you have probably seen; it’s a place where you can ask and answer questions about programming, hardware, electronics, debugging, software advice, etc. We’ve had a few people trying it out and asking questions already; we may even be opening it up to other departments later in the year!

Toys^WTeaching equipment

Some of you have already seen the two quadrotor helicopters (ARDrones) we’ve got in the STACS office; we’ve also got a pair of Microsoft Kinects and a few keen individuals have been having a go with the OpenNI software under Linux. With a little help from Dave Tarrant, some of our students have even linked the two together and caused terror in the breakout zone with handwave-controlled robotic flying machines! If anyone would like to help improve the software and get it packaged up (or invent new and exciting uses for a scarily advanced computer vision system), give us a shout.

There’s also a shiny new (surprisingly small) 3D video camera available for loan from stores, and rumour has it there will be some extra stuff turning up there soon – watch this space…

Mar 31

STACS are pleased to announce two new trial deployments in the Computing Labs:

  1. Ubuntu!
  2. DPP – the Distributed Print Project

You may have noticed some of the lab Linux workstations have become a bit purple. This is because we’re trialling a build of Ubuntu Maverick as a replacement for the ageing RedHat 5 install in labs. It’s not completely finished yet, but most stuff should work. Give it a try and tell us how you get on! All bug reports to the STACS office, please.

We’ve also got the trial of a brand-new scheme for making better use of lab space, in the form of the (rather formally named) Distributed Print Project. Tired of fighting to get to the colour printers? Wish there was more room in labs? Look no further, for we may have the solution. The trial will be running tomorrow morning (we can’t guarantee it’ll run any longer than a day, as we’re nearing coursework handin time). Try out Duplat and let us know!

Jan 7

Huge thanks to everyone who applied for the Helpdesk support team positions.

Read More

Dec 21

Ready for next semester, we are looking to recruit a team of undergraduates and postgraduates to join us in the day-to-day running of the ECS Systems Support service.

As a member of our crew you will be paid at full demonstrator rates and gain prestigious and valuable experience working for the School.

We are looking to build a team of around 12 people, each of whom will be offered either one or two two-hour slots per week (depending on timetabling). During your shift, you will have your own desk in the Helpdesk office and take part in our front line support activities.

Read More

Dec 10

Top Mistakes To Avoid #3: Printing On Hand-In Day

Many people seem to have decided that the very best time to do all of their printing is on the afternoon of the deadline.

Do remember that this will maximise your chances of being stuck in a long print queue, or discovering that the person ahead of you has just printed 45 pages of solid black and simultaneously emptied the toner cartridge and jammed up the fuser unit. You should take this risk into account when you work out how long you need.

Printing, binding and finishing are all part of the time allocation required to complete your project work, so it is up to you to manage this time effectively. Do remember that leaving your printing too late is not a valid excuse for late submissions.

Handy hint: colour printers take around twice as long per page and are 50% more expensive than their super-fast black-and-white cousins.

For jobs with only a few colour pages, send the black and white pages to the black and white printer and print the colour pages separately – this saves time and money.

Nov 30

Ever wondered why some people get to leave the lab in a smooth unhindered fashion, whereas others always seem to get stuck at the glass door with the autolock?

As far as we can tell, much of this is cause by the sensitivity of the anti-tamper mechanism on the door lock. If it gets jogged or jiggled or bashed, it will assume you’re Made Of Evil, and it will lock up for several seconds. The same applies if you’re on the way in and you don’t wait for the latch to click open, or if the door has just slammed from the last person who went through.

The solution: always approach the door gently, and if it locks up, don’t HEAVE at it, just ease off and try again with a few soft pushes. After a couple of very gentle attempts to go through it will usually decide that you’re ok after all, and unlock for you.

– HD

Nov 30

Currently if you walk in a southerly direction from near Helpdesk down towards the QZ, you’ll notice quite a striking temperature gradient.

At the end of last week, Estates identified a problem with the coolant in one of the aircon units. They drained the refrigerant from that part of the system and have been pressure testing it with oxygen-free nitrogen over the weekend.

We were hoping that it would be refilled with refrigerant this morning, but we’re guessing they got waylaid; we haven’t heard back yet. We’re hopeful that it will soon be back to normal, though. In the meantime, moving to the cool end of the lab might be a great reason to use the Linux machines… (we didn’t plan this, we promise!).

– 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