16/11/2016: Talk by Alex Chan

This week, Alex Chan was invited to give us a talk about Colossus, a British code-breaking machine from World War II. The former Queens’ student noted three remarkable facts about the Colossus: that it was created to decrypt a machine the British know nothing about; that it was created in such a short time frame; and that despite being a huge advance in computing at the time, it had almost no impact on the history of the modern computer.

Alex began with a brief description of the cipher that the Colossus was eventually built to crack, and the machine that was used to implement it. The folk at Bletchley Park knew none of this to begin with, and deduced it entirely by studying the intercepted messages — an incredible feat! Eventually, the team at Bletchley figured how how to decrypt the messages, but unfortunately the process was too slow. To speed this up, they built successively faster and more reliable machines, requiring less and less human input, and this resulted in the construction of the Colossus. This machine could translate any message in about 5 hours, and provided the British war effort with crucial intelligence in time for the D-Day landings in 1944.

In total, there were 10 Colossi at Bletchley Park. What made this collection special is that together, these machines were the first to be Turing complete — a key benchmark in measuring how powerful a computer is. Unfortunately, this achievement was buried deep under the veil of secrecy that covered all that transpired in Bletchley Park, which is why the Colossus did not make its rightful contribution to the field of computing. The talk concluded with a quick summary of the the timeline and how incredible it was that Colossus came around to be.

Apart from finding about a fascinating topic in the history of Computer Science, we also learned plenty from Alex’s polished presentation and delivery. Thank you for a wonderful talk!

How the Part IIs spent their summer

It’s now the end of week three and at Queens’ we have been talking in our weekly seminar about how our Part II students spent their summer. Queens’ Computer Scientists are in the lucky position of being highly-sought-after in the jobs market, with many of them spending the summer in a well-paid internship. Each year companies pay the Computer Lab a fee to attract our students to working for them at a careers fair and there are usually more companies than freshers attending!

One of our freshers, Jamie writes about this evening’s event:

Mark Twain said that “the lack of money is the root of all evil”, so this week the part IIs told us about how they made money over the summer. Of the five part IIs that spoke, four had internships over the summer vacation.

Sam spent his time working for a “startup-like” company called Improbable, who build distributed simulation systems for applications such as weather simulation and large game worlds. Sam worked in the demos building “cool stuff” to show off Improbable’s technology and raved about their friendly culture and staff.

Boeing Defence had the pleasure of Bradley’s internship, where he worked on a machine-vision project. Bradley said that the environment in the R&D office was much better than that in other offices.

Rob stayed in College and worked in the Computer Labs where he developed an open source processor design with the Computer Architecture team. He wanted to explore opportunities in hardware development to complement his previous work in software teams.

The College also hosted Alex while he worked for Mediatek’s testing team developing tools. Mediatek produce phone processor and modems where testing is critical. Alex enjoyed working in a large company where he could experience a globally connected work environment.

With the Computer Lab’s careers fair coming up, this is the perfect time for all years to be looking for temporary internships or permanent post-graduation employment.

How to Give a Talk

Queens’ famous wednesday meetings are evening sessions, normally an hour long, organised by our Director of Studies to give us a bit of extracurricular experience and networking with each other.

Our first session of the year was led by Dr Ramsey Faragher, a Bye-Fellow of the college. With his experience working in industry he led a talk on… well, giving talks.

Ramsey had lots of advice to give us, the main points being:

  • Get your audience’s attention quickly (i.e. the first 10 seconds). The worst thing you can do is boringly introduce yourself and give a long contents page.
  • Design your talk for your audience. Don’t patronise them and don’t skip over slides because you fear they won’t be understood.
  • Keep your slides brief and don’t just read them out. Be fluent in your speech
  • Know your talk inside out, so you can fluidly move from one slide to the next

If you’d like more tips, the below video gives plenty:

Our next meeting will be the following Wednesday where the Part II students talk about their summers.

A CompSci meeting on communication

Let me introduce this post with a ‘joke’ on CompScis:

Q: How do you tell an introverted computer scientist from an extroverted computer scientist?

A: An extroverted computer scientist looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

Ha, ha, ha…

As CompScis supposedly have trouble communicating (an essential skill at any point in life), the second Part 1A meeting was on communication.

Just like last week, we were told to split up into two groups. Armed with a laptop each, the groups were put in separate rooms. Once we got our Skype connection set up (important detail: we had audio communication only) the instructions of the game were told.

Both groups were given a set of Lego which was not too complex, but involved more than just stacking 4×2 blocks. The instructions belonging to sets, however, were swapped. Now, the challenge was to build both of the Lego sets using audio communication only.

Surprisingly enough (not so much…), we did quite well building the Lego sets. The difficulty of the game was therefore increased by limiting the number of persons to touch the Lego in a group to one and that one person had to keep his eyes closed. The result:

img_5458

A fully working helicopter

A Queens’ compsci’s first week

The first thing that I noticed about my first week at queens is that it was over.

That is to say, it was a very busy week.

On the Saturday, I arrived at Queens’, got my keys, found my room and started to unpack. I said goodbye to my mum and dad, and went to find my new parents -every fresher at Queens’ is assigned to a ‘college family’ to help everyone to get accustomed to life at Queens’.

So, once I found my parents, and had met my family, the week had already started. I was shown around the college, taught the etiquette of formal hall and shown around Cambridge by my parents. We even took to the river on a punt.

Already, it’s Monday. On Monday, I met our DoS Bogdan, and the rest of the first year CompScis. We’re all pretty similar, so we became good friends pretty quickly.

The next day was matriculation. This basically consists of a fancy ceremony, were you sign a book and meet the president, and a fancy meal. At the matriculation dinner we met Robin Walker, who was the DoS for computer science at Queens’ for many years – he had plenty of stories to tell.

On Wednesday, the day was useful to catch up with all the administration and things. In the evening was a meeting with all the Queens’ CompScis, followed by a formal dinner. We had a great time getting to know all the other compscis.

Finally, on Thursday, lectures began with a 9AM maths lecture. Afterwards was a databases lecture at the William Gates building, followed by a department induction event.

And that was my busy first week as a Queens compsci.

Our First Part 1A Group Meeting

Every Tuesday, the 1A (first year) compscis at Queens’ have a weekly meeting, where we do things that are quite different from the material we are covering in lectures. For our first session, we split into two teams of three and disassembled some old computers as far as we could.

before

The first stage was to remove the components from the case, which proved harder than we expected because the screws were so worn out, while also figuring out how all the parts work together.

Eventually we got all of the parts out of the case, and we were ready to start disassembling the components (after a short cake break). One group decided to work on the power supply, while the other attacked the floppy and hard drives.

Unfortunately, due to some inaccessible screws and missing tools, we were unable to fully disassemble the hard drives (a key would have been needed to extract the drives from their hot swap bays), but the other parts came apart well, revealing even more complex circuitry.

inside-psu

From Cambridge offer to coming up.

It’s the start of the new academic year and we’re all go at Queens’. Lectures have started, we’ve had two group meetings of compscis and supervisions are starting imminently.

I asked one of our new fresher’s, Aliyah, to write a few words on her experience of the time between getting a Cambridge offer to coming up to Cambridge. She says:

From Cambridge offer to coming up

Those who have had a conditional offer from any university know exactly how it feels – a few days of elation, followed by panic that you won’t make your grades.

You probably expect me to say “don’t worry, everything will be fine,” but it’s a stressful process and completely natural to have concerns. What I do want to say is that Cambridge is most definitely worth the effort you put in to get here.

We were told on arrival that every offer is made to someone who stands out from the crowd as exceptional. Trust that the academics have chosen you for a reason, but be prepared for the hard work that’s yet to come!

We’re glad the the effort is worth it🙂.