Literature Survey: A Sinking Ship

So school has been fairy devastating recently. The course I TA proved overwhelming for about a stretch of 10 days, impeding my ability to work on course work that was coming up with due dates. Consequently, I've missed a fairly important due date (I'm not sure what else I could have done?) for a literature survey. However, I've completed it anyway, because the benefits of the work will be essential for the remaining presentation and paper in the course. Sigh.

Selecting papers

Most stages took more time than I would have liked, as I was trying to compress this into a few days (and failed, heh). Anyway, I took two papers from 2010 that I had already reviewed for another assignment that focussed on my area of interest. I re-scanned them and looked at their citations and what they were cited from. I took note of the relevant papers, but more so the authors. From there I looked up a selection of 8 of the authors that seemed important and looked up their work on Google Scholar, which provides approximate (unreliable) citation counts for given papers.

Doing this, I picked papers that were both highly cited and whose topics seemed relevant, as determined by their title and abstract. Eventually, I had 18 papers. The survey only is for 10, so I then picked out the 10 that seemed most relevant to my interest.

Reading papers

I think I started this off wrong. My original goal was to understand each paper. After spending too many hours reading one, and trying to look up concepts I didn't know (Wikipedia isn't actually that helpful when you get deep enough), I eventually conceded. I wasn't going to make my deadline this way, so I resolved to try to understand the point (as described in the introduction and abstract) and the consequences (as presented in the conclusion) and ideally at least skim the related works, methodology, results, etc.

By the due date, I'd eventually gotten through half of the 5 papers. I considered my options and thought I might note this to my professor, who didn't appear overly sympathetic. Nuts.

There were some unpleasant interruptions the day before, but I don't think that I would have been able to finish writing the report for Tuesday even without them. I guess it was pretty hopeless all along. Regardless, as noted above, it should be worthwhile to finish it anyway, so after a day of despairing, a couple more of working, and one spent life-stuffing, I'm finally done surveying the 10 papers and now working on writing up a simple report on them. (I'm not being too ambitious, given that I've missed out on my chance to have it marked, and I have enough other work that's running low on time now too.)


I originally anticipated that it would take me a normal week to finish this, and it more or less has, though life and TAing tried to sabotage it, mwahaha. Still, I would have liked to have had a normal two weeks, so I could say read a paper a night, and do things properly. I'm trying not to despair too much at this point.


Mein Vater

Quimburga. On November 13th, 1972, the Lower Saxony Storm that ravaged Germany. My dad was there and helped people out, helping someone trapped on the road. 250km/h winds ripped trees out of the ground and paved a view for my dad to his house. It hadn't snowed yet, but the dust that was ripped from the ground made your eyes red for a week. Concrete shingles were ripped from roofs.

Tausendjährige Eiche. There is a 1000-year old Oak in Dötlingen. My dad knows it.

Kleinekneten has great stones. The gräberfeld has many burial mounds from centuries ago. There's a sheep barn that borders it. That was my father's sheep barn.


On the go

I am just sitting on campus working on late assignments, feeling doomed.  It is quiet.



So, I was so busy working on Monday night I ended up not sleeping before classes on Tuesday. That was fine, but it meant I slept as soon as I got home until I awoke at 1:30AM. A good early morning :) Starting a day in the dark can be gloomy though.

That said, I just processed a backlog of e-mail (I really need to resume reading papers, yikes) and it took me about 3 hours! I encountered 2 very important e-mails, though, that had been missed before, so that's important.

I do look at all e-mail that comes in, but I don't necessarily act on it all. I try to star (Gmail) those that are important, but sometimes the merely important drown out the urgently important. Yikes!

The Insanity of School

Good morning. For CIS*2750, I've had the responsibility of working on the automarker. It's begun interfering with my other classes, such that I almost had to fail to submit two important pieces of work this week to complete the automarker (that about 70 students depend on). Yikes. But let's look at some of my more interesting work on the automarker.

CIS*2750: Isolating tests

I did some fun work ensuring our tests were more isolated from one another. Currently, I write a test plan and then implement a series of pass/fail tests for their code, divided across a few different suites. Previously, each suite and all its tests ran in a single process. (Each suite is run independently by some Perl code.) However, if a student's code messed up its memory accesses severely enough or had an infinite loop, we'd have to interrupt that whole suite. Some students might end up with lower score than they warranted, or 0, as they'd lost the subsequent tests in the suite. Our policy was to re-run their tests when they reported it.

For the first automarker, I alleviated the issue a bit. We use a nice C exception handling library writ by a former student. I modified the framework a little so it could catch interruptions (that are usually fatal to the process, like SIGINT) as an exception and we could handle that in the test code and recover. That only helps in some cases, like infinite loops or recursion, or when their code inexplicably finds some way to block that isn't a memory error. However, many problems involved serious memory handling errors that would prevent the subsequent tests from doing anything less than locking up anyway. (Crazy mallocness.)

The true solution was obvious. We really should run each test in its own process. And now for the 2nd assignment's automarker, we do. I wrote a two function test manager, to which I passed a test function and its data, and it forks the process into two, the one running the test and then quitting, the other waiting for the first to end, so it can resume and continue running the rest of the tests. The second one, the managing process, will wait 2 seconds for the test-running process to quit before assuming the student code has erred irretrievably and kills it. (Recorded as a fail.)

One of the main differences is that the automarker should now be truly automated. Before, it had to be supervised so you could interrupt hanging tests, and sometimes many times over. It was a pain for our professor. Now, you should be able to start it and come back after 5 minutes to a complete grade log for the whole course :) (It would be faster, but for the 2 second time out.)

CIS*2750: Tracing a stack

When student code fails a test, we want to give them the best idea as to why. This usually involves printing out a useful error message about how the output of their code differed from what we expected. But when their code crashes in the automarker, we currently give them nothing more than that. "You crashed," basically. The exception handling library mentioned above can catch most crashes (segmentation faults or often "bus error" on Mac OS X), and it actually has code to print a trace of the code stack, to show the student where exactly the crash occurred in their code.

However, we have an issue, and I wasted several hours on it before giving up. We link in their code from a static archive for A2 (for A1, we compiled it right in). For some reason, this confuses the stack tracer (the glibc backtrace () call and __built_in_return_address ()) which ends up returning a bizarre address offset from I don't know what into I don't know where. I googled around for a while, but it might be one of those esoteric cases that comes up so seldom there was no (or at least not easily found) prior discussion. ARGH (there's a whole post about the difference in problem solving between googling and dissecting it yourself). Sadly, my time is not infinite, so I could not fix this, and thus the students will have to run their code in gdb or something to find their crashes. (They shouldn't rely on a marking programme to show them anyway. It would just be a courtesy.)

CIS*6890: So Much Work

I've actually managed to get quite behind in CIS*6890 (Technical Communication and Research Methods) due to all my automarking work over the past 1.5 weeks (automarker 1 revisions, then automarker 2 test plan, then automarker 2 implementation). There was stress, and panic, and despair, but eventually understanding and mercy. I am fortunate. I am now still very busy though :) Hopefully I will get to write a little about all the papers I have to finish reading for this soon!

TAing for CIS*2750 has taken up much more time than I'd usually like. I ended up talking to the professor about it, and I feel a bit foolish for how that conversation went, but I just felt I had to do something. It's understood that there is a lot of up-front work for TAing this course, and I think I'd actually like to do it again at some point, as it would be much easier then, and I feel like I could have a better impact on the students in my lab.

CIS*6050 Neural Networks

Right, I need to not forget about this! Lectures are surprisingly riveting. I actually didn't sleep last night (finishing up automarker code), and I kept almost dozing off in lecture today. I survived, somehow, though. (And slept quite a bit after class, hence the early morning post.)


Data Loss

So I tried to submit text through a typical HTML form the other day, and it was fairly sizeable.  My browser didn't crash (yay), and I thought I submitted it.  Today, when I went to update what I'd sent, there was no trace of the original.  What?!

Fortunately, I happened to write it in a local text editor first!  I wasn't smart enough to save it, but I did incidentally still have it open.  (Hooray for not restarting my computer.)  The fault could have been mine, perhaps I failed to note whether it had succeeded or not?  But I distinctly recall submitting it and I don't recall getting any abnormal response. 

I suppose I'd like it if my browser's text editor was smarter.  If websites didn't need to implement rich text controls, but the browser could.  If it could store a history of submissions, and even working drafts for things not submitted. 

I shudder.


School: weeks upon weeks

School: Research Methods and Communication

This past week I finally got to submit my paper review and received two to evaluate.  I quickly realised that requirements can be interpreted wildly differently.  I had probably spent more time than had been necessary on it.  That said, I got to review a paper that was probably stressful for the author and ultimately warranted an evaluation of 0, and I'm a generous person.  The main issue was probably their understanding of what was required.  I laboured over how to deal with it, but just sent in my evaluation of it.  Yay!

I also got to give my presentation, which was delayed once by illness and once by time.  Sadly, a brief power outage sabotaged my alarm clock.  Miraculously, I still awoke with 20 minutes to just run to campus.  Sadly, this deprived me of time to setup my laptop with the projector before hand, and it didn't instantly work.  Thankfully, I had saved a slightly earlier version in PDF.  Sadly, this lacked page numbers and deprived me of my timer.  This resulted in failing two important requirements for the presentation which I must now account a dismal failure.  Ah well :) 

School: Neural Networks

I now have this large assignment to finish.  I didn't have too much time for it this past week because of ...

School: CIS*2750 TAing

So, the grades were less than stellar.  I hoped it was my automarker, but mostly it seemed to be a lack of attention to detail.  Submissions captured the broad strokes of the assignment, but in this case, nearly there isn't really good enough.  The fundamental pieces need to work well.  After that, you can afford to lose marks here and there.  Without the foundations, nothing works.

I spent a lot of time in the last week answering questions on the course forum, helping people understand where they went awry.  I went to the lab for a couple of pro-bono hours to help people understand particularly stiff problems.  One lad seemed to be trying to get me to debug all his memory issues for him, so I had to cut that short.  I would like to think that it's a lighter first year that makes this course so difficult for students these days. 

I had a LOT of fun planning changes for assignment 2's automarker.  There is a design deficiency in the largely great framework we have so far: each test in a suite shares the same process, so if one test sufficiently corrupts memory, the rest are impacted.   I've planned a change in how we call tests, forking them and killing them if they time out.  Also, fewer macros, more functions.  I've blamed my use of macros for A1's automarker on tradition and existing convention for the automarker, but I now acknowledge that the previous one used them more sparingly, and that my abuse of them was the gradual result of macro-creep and my own inattention.  Oops.

Research and NLP

So, I've a project that lingers on.  Now I have insufficient time to allocate to it, but I don't want to give up on it yet, as I still see bright avenues for improvement.  Sadly, I haven't had time for my proper research either, and have actually missed a couple meetings with my professor.  Even when I'm super-responsible in another domain, another one can suffer before I realise it.  Sigh.


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