AUC Conference 2005 – So it began

Array

The conference proper kicked off with the welcoming reception at 5:30 or so on the Sunday night. Everyone gathered in the foyer area of the conference section, and Stephen Young said a few welcoming words. There was a whole host of assorted drinks going around, along with (from memory) some nibbles. Ashley, Brett & I gravitated together as familiar faces to one-another, and maintained an orange juice black-out in our immediate vicinity – since none of us were drinking, and on each tray of half a dozen drinks there was only one or two orange juice’s, one had to be quick. 🙂

There was also food going around – chicken on skewers, rolled up meaty things, all the usual party foods. All very good, of course. The waiters and waitresses quickly learnt not to bring the fresh food trays by us first, as we consistently laid waste to them in no time flat. 🙂

But beyond the food – did I mention the food? 😉 – the first night was nicely casual. Everyone chatted, got to know each other a bit, all the usual introductory socialising. From memory this was when I was introduced to Daniel Woo, who as it turns out works with Ashley (at uni). There was James Lucas, as well, whom I spent quite a lot of time with over the course of the conference. And I also met many other people, who will have the awkward pleasure of re-introducing themselves to me next time I see them, seeing as I’ve largely forgotten all their names. 🙂

Once that wrapped up, which was fairly early, I retired to my room, probably wrote some emails, did a little coding, before hitting the sack. Knowing I’d be looking at a 6am waking the next day, I was careful to be asleep by a mere 9:30 or so – which felt like it was barely even midday to my twisted student body clock. Oh well. 🙂

The next morning I fought with the crazy shower for a long while – it was one of those “water saving” ones which never give you enough flow to actually wash yourself properly, and had the crazy bath-shower hybrid system I grew oh-so fond of in San Francisco… shudder. Anyway, I was up and down to breakfast in good time, amongst the first to arrive. I found it a pleasant, albeit unnecessary touch that Natalie Evans – one of the handlers from ID Events & Meetings, with whom the AUC entrusted the conference’s operations – was at the door in these wee hours to greet people (and, let’s be honest, check they had their conference badges, but hey, let’s be nice 🙂 ). Breakfast was a little skimpy for my tastes – the kind of “continental” breakfast you get in U.S. hotels which mostly involves toast and muffins. Well, muffins are all good and well, but I’m a cereal man myself. There was some cereal there, but with tiny little bowls, with which I was too embarrassed to go for seconds and thirds lest I scare away other attendees. 😉

I’ll digress blatantly at this point, to point out – yes, ironically – that I keep digressing onto the food. It’s a genetic problem inherited from my grandfather, I’m afraid. Although I’ve been lucky so far in seemingly not inheriting his desire to visit every bathroom in Australia. Anyway, onwards…

Breakfast was a good chance to socialise again, and meet a few new faces. After that, it was up to the main hall for the opening speeches. Stephen Young kicked off again with the usual housekeeping stuff, before handing off to Tony King, the managing director of Apple Computer Australia. He talked about where Apple was, where it was going, and all that sort of thing. He was a good speaker, and kept interest up, although for myself – someone who reads all the Apple news sites religiously – there wasn’t really anything too new. Nonetheless, I good “state of the union” style opening for the conference.

After that, Stuart Lynn – past President of ICANN among many other impressive accolades – spoke on the topic “Build it and they will come…”. His main point, I think, was impressing the importance of natural evolution over intelligent design, if I can needlessly incite furious debate with that pointed analogy. 🙂 He was excited about where the future was taking us – particularly relating to networking technologies – and left a good impression. I regret I cannot now recall more details of his talk – the conference proceedings contain only the papers presented by other speakers, not an overview of all the sessions, so I’ve got nothing to jog my memory with… I’m sure snippets will come back to me as I write on. But one key thing I do remember him emphasising was the importance of providing the infrastructure without immediate justification – i.e. just building it, and seeing who comes. It’s an important message – let’s face it, 90% of the stuff we propose today is unnecessary for our immediate uses, but it’s because of the recklessness and the over-provision of facilities that we get bold new revolutions. For example, sure, the average person doesn’t need a 20 megabit internet connection for their email and web browsing, but it brings with it all new possibilities – VoIP, IPTV, advanced peer to peer technology like BitTorrent, etc. But I digress to my own opinions… Stuart’s talk was kind of a “feel good” thing about all this, and how in the end things tend to work out pretty cool for everyone.

After Stuart there was a break for morning tea – won’t talk about it, promise 🙂 – and then we resumed sessions. I think – although I’m hazy – that it was Joe Cox who spoke for the Apple Plenary session, on MacOS X technologies. It was an interesting talk, but much like the “Apple Directions” talk by Tony King earlier, really just a rehash for someone like myself, already “in the know” on all things Apple. Still, it was a good intro for those new to the platform, or without a technical background on it.

At noon we kicked off the streams. For the first session, while I did want to see Sandy Shuck’s talk on “Teachers as Producers, Students as Directors”, I gravitated in the end towards James Steele’s talk on “Streaming TV via IP”. This was a fascinating talk, where he discussed the streaming video system at Australian National University (henceforth ANU) from it’s prehistoric days as a satellite TV relay via analogue coax, up to it’s current incarnation as a true video over IP solution. It was interesting from all points of view – seeing how they originally started out with their coaxial system, and hearing of the problems and costs associated with installing such niche infrastructure, in sharp contrast to their modern system, which utilised the existing networking infrastructure.

It was also amusing to see how they had tackled many of the interfacing issues with their various TV sources. They have numerous satellite dishes amongst their sources, as well as AM/FM radio and possibly even terrestrial broadcast TV as well. For the AM/FM radio they actually had, in their server rack, half a dozen car stereos, each tuned into a single station and outputting via [presumably] a standard 3.5mm stereo connection. I think they also had some VCR’s and other crazy equipment linked in somehow.

They used numerous PowerMacs for the real-time encoding, and ultimately piped their channels out using m3u playlists which could be viewed in VLC (VideoLanClient). I don’t think they were at the point of streaming directly to Quicktime or similar, which is a shame, but I seem to remember him mentioning that it was certainly something they hoped to do in future.

It was also funny how the project came in to real, financial being – originally the AUC provided funding for a single Xserve so that they could prototype a digital system… but then somehow they landed over a million dollars in funding from some other project that had been cancelled or run underbudget, or somesuch… so they – like all good kids in a candy store – went all out and built up the whole system in quite a short time. It’s always funny, things like that – of course it never rains, it pours. 🙂

After that session was lunch – which was good of course – followed by two more stream sessions. I should note that some time during morning tea I started to get quite nervous about myself having to talk later that afternoon, so I began ferreting through my Documents folder, rounding up anything that might be demoable at short notice. Similarly, I whipped up some horrible but succinct notes on what I wanted to say. Lunch was spent similarly.

The next session I went to was by Paule Bourke, from Swinburne University, on the topic of “Using Mac OS X to drive immersive displays for science visualisation and education”. This was a really cool session from a “whizbang” point of view, as he showed off a lot of their technology and research into immersive displays – that is, 3D displays and very wide-angle displays (e.g. planetarium-style).

It was impressive to see how they were dealing with the problems within stereoscopic displays and immersive displays. The immersive displays, for example, that they used utilised a quarter-sphere mirror to reflect the image onto a large portion of the room (or dome, or whatever was available). They could then use precisely calibrated texture maps in OpenGL to warp their outgoing images so that they would appear perfect on the final surface. Very interested stuff – we’ve all probably seen or heard of people doing simple fish-eye distortions for dome projections and such, but these guys were working on arbitrary mesh distortions, so they could use any shape of surface they like. Very cool.

And the stereoscopic stuff was good, although they were a bit down on the fact that MacOS X doesn’t really make life easy in that area… none of the graphics cards currently available support gen-locking, which is where two graphics cards are synchronised to output frames at exactly the same times, necessary with stereoscopic and multi-panel displays to prevent tearing. There were also some issues, I believe, with actual stereoscopic support… OpenGL has supported this pretty much forever, but they were having some issues making good use of it…

Anyway, overall it was pretty cool. I love seeing scientific visualisations in these ways – it really is so vital to facilitating understanding, and can really increase interest in the sciences.

The next session I went to was titled “Wicked problems and shared meanings: Evaluating design competence”. The speakers were Grant Baxter and Nick Laird, from the university Otago in New Zealand (although we didn’t hold that against them 😉 ). The name of the session doesn’t mean a whole lot, really, I know. But what it was about was an online community for design students, which encompassed online coursework as well as submission and review. It really stood out to me in two ways:

a) It didn’t suck horribly. In fact, it was pretty fantastic.
b) They really “got it”, with regards to what students and staff really want out of such a system.

The first point is pretty easy to define – if you’ve ever used WebCT, you’ll know about the horrible sucking. Their system was the opposite – it was smooth, elegant, aesthetically appealing and simple. Students could obtain their assignments online, then submit them, and lecturers could keep track of everything with great ease. The marking system was great – marking was broken down into weighted categories, which could be assigned marks using a slider. In addition, each category had a whole lot of checkboxes which could be filled out to provide more detailed feedback, e.g. “Understood the application of soft lighting in this scene” or somesuch. And there was of course a provision for free-form textual feedback as well.

And there was a cool feature were you could see the distribution of overall marks in various histograms, and could adjust the current student’s mark to see how that changed the distribution. This is essential for lecturers to ensure their markings are consistent – on the first run through they mark each submission in an absolute sense, and then they go through and adjust the marks slightly to ensure the better students actually get better marks than the others. All too often I’ve seen marking go haywire for this reason, because it’s difficult with traditional submission schemes (i.e. paper) to do all this adjustment.

There were also other really nice touches, such as personalised home pages for each student which listed relevant information, news, etc. There was also a real-time slide show feature of student’s works, updating as they were handed in. In this way students could see what everyone else was submitting, and get a real sense of engagement. The speakers noted that they’d ended up setting up dedicated computers in public places to showcases these slideshows, which gathered large audiences around submission time. Very cool.

It really emphasised, in my mind, how crap La Trobe’s systems are. We have a generic, boring home page for each department – all completely different styles and arrangements just to make things difficult – and online submission consists of a jumped-up cp clone (on the Unix machines), or a web form. No marks or feedback or usually given online, or if they are it’s just a crappy Excel document.

In fact, feedback on formal submissions is generally non-exist at La Trobe. Very counter-productive.

I really hope Ric (from La Trobe ITS) saw this session – someone really needs to light a fire under the administrata at La Trobe, and get the whole system out of the 19th century.

After that session was afternoon tea, followed by the Student presentations. Yikes! I was getting pretty nervous at this point, and really running out of time to get my presentation in order. But, more on that in the next instalment. 😛

AUC Conference 2005 – The Arrival

Array

I’m going to have to cover this in multiple parts, since there’s so much to write about, and I’m a very verbose writer in any case. Part 1 in your local newsagency for the low starter price of $9.95. 😉

The conference was placed in the Wrest Point Hotel in Hobart. Attendees flew in on the Saturday and Sunday, for the conference which kicked off in earnest Monday morning, and ran through to Wednesday afternoon.

My silly mistake to start off with was in choosing flights. There were only a few available, as the booking was to be done in just a few large groups, for efficiency and economy. The selections were made months ago, and I didn’t realise at the time that the conference fell unto to the mid-semester break. Thus, I mistakenly thought I would be missing uni during it, and so endeavoured to return as quickly as possible. That meant a flight out Wednesday night, and a silly early flight Sunday morning – departing 8:25am, to be precise. That meant, what with all the check-in and so forth to be done, that I was up at 5:00am, to be on the way to the airport by 6. My father drove me there, which provided a good opportunity to catch up, as I hadn’t been seen much for the past few weeks, on account of various uni committements. As it turns out, the trip at that hour on a Sunday was uninterrupted, and we arrived before 7am. So, we had a second breakfast and chatted for a while, before I eventually went through the metal detectors and x-rays to the boarding lounges.

I should add at this point that I am most definitely not a morning person. In fact, getting up before 6am usually makes me feel ill, as it did in this case. It wasn’t until lunch time that the “oooh, I think I’m going to throw up” sensation dissipated. Needless to say I wasn’t much with it all of Sunday.

It wasn’t long ago that I was flying to San Francisco for WWDC, and that wasn’t the first time I’d flown by any means, so the novelty had worn off somewhat. Still, I think I’ll always love that pushed-to-the-back-of-your-seat feeling as the plane first takes off, and will hopefully always appreciate and admire the amazing view one always gets from a plane. The world looks so simple and small, even from only a few kilometres up. I was one seat away from a window, 6E, so I could still see out the window. I sat next to a very pleasant older lady – and I say older in the nicest possible way, since she was probably in her fifties or possibly even sixties, but was mentally a far cry from the stereotypical senior – and on the other side a web designer, probably in his thirties or so. As is always my way, I can’t for the life of me remember either of their names. I’d forget my head if it weren’t screwed on.

Anyway, they were quite pleasant company down to Hobart. It was interesting the route we took – heading west for a wide berth around the city, then cutting across Rosebud (or thereabouts) on the Mornington Peninsula, to then turn south and cross over Philip Island. It was sporadically cloudy most of the way, so I didn’t see all that much. I would have loved to have seen more of Tasmania as we flew over, given it is reputably such a beautiful scenic place, but alas I was granted only a few brief looks as we descended into Hobart International Airport.

It’s odd how changes in pressure can effect you. Having had the flu (or somesuch) for nearly two weeks by the time of this flight, my sinuses were quite well blocked. As we flew up and decompressed slightly, my sinuses cleared very nicely, and I was having a great time. Of course, once you start to recompress on the descent, well… it can get icky. More worrisome was the pain I experienced in my neck – feeling very stiff and as if all the blood was at a very high pressure. It almost felt like I was heading towards passing out. I nearly called for assistance from the air hostesses, but didn’t want to worry anyone – most of all myself, I suspect. So, I toughed it out. It lasted only a few minutes, although after landing I did still feel a little stiff. We did descend very fast, I thought – a sentiment shared by many others, including those on other flights that day. Perhaps it is just the way it goes flying into Hobart.

But in any case, I did arrive safe and sound at Hobart International Airport. Which, if you’ve been there, you’ll no doubt find an immensely humorous name. As someone later joked, they could barely fit the name on the building. The first thing I noticed was that the only aircraft in sight, parked right under the name, was a two-seater light plane and a tiny Leerjet-style craft. I half expected the mayor and some locals to be greeting us in our great huge flying device. 🙂

Quite a few people were confused once they walked off the plane – which of course meant down the steps onto the tarmac, and then the short distance into the one and only building. I myself walked in and nearly all the way out of the airport before I realised that, yes, really, that was it. Several people were audibly confused that they could not see any baggage carousels. As it turns out, the “shed” we were in sufficed as baggage pick-up. 50 feet or so away it was hauled off the plane onto one of those baggage trains, which was then driven into the shed alongside us. We then watched for a few minutes while a beagle was instructed to thoroughly trample our belongings, before finally being able to pick them up and depart.

I found myself onto one of the standard airport<->hotel buses quite quickly, and was on my way. It was quite funny – there were at least 30 AUC people on that flight, possibly more. Indeed, we may well have consisted of the majority of the passengers. Yet I was not forward enough to introduce myself – it seemed everyone else knew everyone else, and in my groggy early-morning state, I wasn’t mentally equipped for actual conversation. My iPod served as a convenient escape.

Anyway, the situation on the bus was more or less the same as the plane – in fact I think only three or four of the 15ish people on the bus weren’t heading to the AUC conference. I found myself sitting just in front of two rather attractive women (older than me a little, I think, but well within my interest). Now, I’ve never been to an AUC conference before, but I do know geek events in general, and knew the odds of any woman being involved is pretty slim. So I presumed these two were unrelated to us. A pity – of course they were attending the conference, and I should have used that fact to generate some appropriate line. But, poor shy old me, no, I couldn’t summon the courage. In any case, I was enthralled with the scenery as we drove from the airport, through Hobart, out to the Wrest Point.

I must say that Hobart is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. It reminded me a little bit of Sydney, only without the snobs and much nicer, and quainter. It’s so hilly, as is most of Tasmania, that nearly every house has a beautiful view over the Derwent River (which is bogus – it’s salt water and no more a river than the Yarra is to Port Philip bay, but anyway)… although I did notice that there were extraordinarily few blocks larger than about a quarter of an acre, which seemed extremely odd. Even the brand new housing estates we passed on the way, which were a good 10 minutes east of Hobart centre, were poky little quarter-acre affairs. Very strange.

Now, the check-in time for the hotel is officially 2pm or somesuch, which meant up to four hours of waiting around, potentially. They had a concierge for baggage storage, so it would have been all right, but as it turns out I was lucky enough to have a room already ready, at 10:30am or so, which meant I was straight up to drop of my crap and relax… which involved a little bit of poking around on my Powerbook – more in a moment – followed by a nice healthy nap for two hours. That brought my total sleep up to somewhere in the vicinity of seven hours, which got me through the rest of the night.

What really stunned me more than anything else that day was the view from the hotel room. When I came in the shade curtains were drawn shut… I opened them and was blown away. I was on the 9th floor, facing east, more or less. To the north I could look up the river to Hobart centre and the bridge, and to the south down out towards the Tasman sea. I was actually laughing out loud to myself at this, thinking that the AUC had really done us up sweet. I sat for a good ten minutes or more just admiring the view. I even messaged my mother, father and Bobo to tell them I’d arrived safely, and that the view was fantastic. They all thought it quite uncharacteristic, which emphasises how amazing it was.

Of course, being a true geek I inevitably whipped out the Powerbook and iSight, to try and capture the beautiful view. Unfortunately my iSight has decided not to do infinite focus anymore, so it’s all a little blurry. 🙁 The photos are available here.

So, after a little nap and once settled in, I head downstairs and wandered around a bit, to get my bearings and see what the hotel had to offer. There were numerous restaurants and bars, a very nice outdoor area (as shown in the photos), and of course the casino areas. I never ended up going into the casino proper, although I’d wanted to – apparently no one else was willing to spend $10 or so for a half hours entertainment. 🙂

Eventually of course 5:30 rocked around, and it was time to the welcoming reception… which I’ll write about in the next instalment. 🙂

Introduction

Array

I’ve been working with the AUC for nearly three years now. And by working I mean, a student developer sponsored by them. In 2003 I received a seeding grant to develop a system for distributed processing. The area isn’t an original one, but some of my focuses were – that the system work in an ad-hoc fashion, requiring no central administration, no complex configuration, and with high security manageable by even the most basic users.

There was also an interest in very low latency operation, such that interactive programs (e.g. Photoshop) could be parallelised with this system, and deliver direct, visible benefits.

They extended the seeding grant – which included loan of a G3 iBook and other resources – through 2004. In 2005, I applied for and received the first AUC Student Scholarship (of three available, for the first time, in 2005). This was essentially to continue on with my work, but encompassed much more – the scholarship included a trip to WWDC in 2005 (which I’ll write about in much detail soon) and has “blossomed” into an internship at Apple this summer.

I certainly owe the AUC a great deal of appreciation and thanks. Without their support my project wouldn’t have gone very far at all, and certainly wouldn’t be alive today. Thanks to them I’ve managed to survive without a part time job during the uni year, which has meant both more time for my projects as well as uni.

I’d like to start this little stream of my journal off with tales from the AUC’s 2005 conference in Hobart, from which I returned just two days ago. So much of it is still fresh, that I’d like to get set in pixels before I lose it forever. I’ll then tackle WWDC last June, from which I gained so much and still remember like it was yesterday.