Recalling the Beginning of Covid-19 and Work-from-Home

Recently, we had a discussion at work (in our daily virtual team “fika”) where we reflected on just how many weeks we had been working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been quite a few; I last saw the office in week 11, and week 19 is beginning… so I am looking at eight weeks personally. Just how did it all begin? I thought it useful to go back and try to remember how we got to this point. In hindsight, I never thought it would be this huge.

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Adjusting to Work-from-Home: Remote Live Simics Training

In the current world-wide lockdown due to Covid-19, many things that were done in-person in the past have to become virtual. The Simics® New User Training that we run at Intel and with our customers and partners is no different. In normal times, we run in-person classes around the world, but that is not an option right now.  Thus, we shifted to running remote live classes as a substitute for the time being. This blog shares some of my experience from running remote live classes.

We changed the cover page of the Simics training to symbolize the change.

Alternatives

As I see it, there are two alternatives to in-person training:

  • Recorded videos
  • Live teaching, done remotely

The remote-live format is superior in my opinion since it keeps the energy and immediacy of an in-person class and allows the students to ask questions interactively. It also requires a lot less work to do and can be set up pretty much immediately.

Recording a quality video is a ton of work. You need to write a script and follow it To. The. Word. While still sounding natural. Add editing and retakes, and the pandemic might well be over before the work is completed.

Reformatting for Remote Live

The standard Simics New User Training format is to do two full days in-person, for approximately eight hours per day. Lectures and labs are interleaved, giving the teacher some time to catch her or his breath between sections, and providing students a chance to immediately practice what they learned in the lectures.

That format does not work for remote live training – having the conference call sit idle while students work is not a workable method (I have discussed this with other training organizers in the past, and most agree that labs are best done offline and not in-conference). Instead, lectures and labs have to be split up in a more coarse-grained fashion.

Another aspect to consider is attention span. For a student, it is a lot easier to stay focused on a topic when in the same room as the teacher, and it is easier for the teacher to adjust to the attention level of the students. Previously, I did some improvised remote trainings that crammed the lectures into two four-hour sessions. That was totally exhausting for everyone involved.

The current concept is shown below. The course is spread out over three days, with about three hours of lectures each day (and a rather large buffer towards the end). Each day also has a set of associated labs that the students are expected to do on their own after lunch.

Reformatting the in-person class to remote live

The topic sections of the training had to be reshuffled a bit to fit this format and get the labs spread out in a reasonable way. It is not exactly the same sequence as in the in-person training, but fortunately some of the sections were rather stand-alone and possible to move around a bit in the schedule.

There are still some small breaks inserted between the sections, just like when teaching live. When working from home, even five minutes is enough to get a cup of coffee or other refreshment.

Remote Live Training Technology – Video, Screenshare, and Chat

For the lecture part, it made sense to use video of the teacher alongside the slides. We did not use video for the students, since that would just waste bandwidth and reduce the quality of the screen-share. It is also hard for the trainer to both present and look at the student video streams at once – especially if there are tens of students in the class. I used to be rather skeptical to video conferencing, but I must admit to coming around to finding it rather valuable.

For the labs, it makes sense to use chat in an app like Microsoft Teams or Skype to answer questions. There are usually not all that many questions, and having the teacher sit and wait on the video conference for the occasional interaction is not an efficient use of time. When I present a class live, I tend to walk around the front of the room and point at the projector screen using either hands or a laser pointer. Sometimes, to illustrate a point or an answer to a question, I will draw things on white boards or a flip board. Neither of these things work with a remote screen-sharing session, but using annotation tools to draw on top of what is shown on the screen offers a decent replacement. The screenshot below shows an example of a heavily-annotated slide from the training.

Annotating a slide as a way to make the presentation a bit more lively

The Gear

It is quite feasible to run a training session like this from home using an average laptop. However, it is worth investing a little bit in audio and video gear to provide the best experience and the most effective teaching setup.

My personal home working setup, used to run Simics training in the remote live format.

You want a good web camera, instead of using the rather poor camera built into most laptops. It makes sense to put it on top of an external screen to get it up a bit compared to where a laptop screen typically resides and avoid the “up your nose” angle. For the sound, a headset works, but it is better to use a good external microphone. This looks better on the video (no headset on top of the speaker) and produces superior sound compared to most headsets. Using a “pop filter” is definitely beneficial. Figure 3 shows my personal home office setup used in the training, including an external keyboard and mouse.

For best results, it is good to work in a room featuring some amount of fabric to dampen echos and provide a better sound environment. For the video, a reasonably neutral background makes sense. Also for the video, it is a good idea to avoid clothes with busy patterns as that tends to result in very messy videos (especially when the image is shrunk down to a thumbnail).

This is not a good choice of shirt for a video session (but it is one of my favorites)

One upside of live remote training is that product demos using screen sharing actually work better than at most in-person trainings since reading a screen with small fonts from the back of a room is a lot harder than seeing it on your own local screen.

Simics is also a good subject for remote training in that it is just a piece of software. There is no need for specialized hardware or development boards for the students. Simics can be downloaded and installed on the students’ local computers, reducing the load on VPNs to connect back to corporate servers to access the software.  In particular for training, the required software is well-packaged and easy to download and install.

Final Thoughts

Doing a live remote training works, but it is not a perfect substitute for an in-person class. You do not get the same connection with the audience, and as a trainer you cannot sense the attention of the class. You also miss a lot of the informal discussions you get over lunch and before and after classes. 

On the positive side, remote live lets us keep doing training even during mandatory work-from-home times and with people scattered across multiple cities and sites. It is still live, and we still get interactive discussions going. The technical requirements are not overwhelming, and most people should be able to partake in training from home as well as teach it from home.  Technology really works, and it can help us get through these trying times.

Cancer Part 3: So Far So Good

It has been a bit more than six months after my radiotherapy treatment for thyroid cancer, and I feel pretty much normal. Several times over the past few months, I have talked to people I have not seen in a while and they have asked me how I am doing. At first I just say “fine”… and I then realize that they are asking about the cancer. It’s not top-of-mind for me since I have been living with it for almost a year now, and it feels (currently) like it is “done”. Of course, it will be years before I am formally considered to have fully recovered, but right now I feel like I am functioning mostly normally (except a small side-effect from the medication).

Getting Back in Business

My last update was written as I was in isolation after radiotherapy. Following the hospital time, I stayed one night in a hotel to get the radiations down a bit more before going home. Once home, it was just me and my wife for a few days until the kids got home from their fall break. Until two weeks had passed after the radiotherapy, I made sure to sleep in my own room and stay several meters away from all the other family members.

I went back to mostly normal life just in time to give a talk at the Embedded Conference Scandinavia in early November. Guidelines from the hospital were that I could be around people again by then, but preferably only for a short time and keeping some distance. Giving a talk from a stage kept a safe distance for the audience, and I skipped the conference dinner.

At the talk, a friend of mine showed up with a Geiger counter (he works in a company where they use such instruments), and I got an actual measurement of the situation post-therapy. It turned out that while there was a noticeable amount of radiation right at the skin of my throat (which I suppose indicates that the radiotherapy did hit the right spot, but I am not a doctor and cannot know for sure). More importantly, at a distance of about 50cm the radiation level was indistinguishable from the background radiation. That felt pretty good to know, as it did indicate that the risk I posed to other people was rather limited already at that point.

Later in November, I went to India to teach a long-planned Simics training. There was some (theoretical) concern that I might get caught in airport security somewhere due to being radioactive, and I did have a letter with me certifying that I undergone radiotherapy and explaining the situation. However, nothing happened and the trip went off without a hitch.  

Radiotherapy Done

Thus, radiotherapy was “done” after a couple of weeks and life could go back to its normal routine. It is noticeable just how unaffected I was from this treatment. It is highly localized and should not really affect your system much. I basically felt nothing.  The big question was obviously if the therapy had done its job.

Answering that questions comes down to taking blood tests to check for indicators that I should not try to explain. The first tests late in 2019 came up inconclusive, and I stayed on the rather high dose of 175mg of Levaxin per day. Recently, the second test indicated that the process is going in the right direction, and I could lower the Levaxin dose just a little: taking 150mg every second day, which lowers the average just a little to 162.5mg per day.

Levaxin and its Side Effects

That leads on to my last observation about the cancer treatment: taking a high dose of Levaxin has side-effects. Even before the cancer, I was known for my high tempo and high energy. Taking 175mg of Levaxin definitely exacerbated that to the point that it has been a bit tough for the family and close to debilitating for me. It is like having a little rocket push you around and losing a bit of self-control and self-restraint.  

With the Levaxin, I have had a harder time focusing and actually finishing something that I start. It is like my brain is on a slippery surface and kind of skids around, requiring a conscious effort to stay on task. I left a trail of half-done to-do notes for myself in Outlook at work. Sometimes, it felt like being slightly drunk, and unable to stop myself from doing things even if I knew deep inside that it was unnecessary or not a good time. Overall, a slightly disconcerting experience.

One particularly visible aspect of this is that I have had a hard time getting around to writing and finishing blog posts (which is clearly visible in the output on this and my Intel blog). It has been too easy to get distracted with shorter-term tasks and interruptions at work and at home.

However, lowering the dose just a little made a huge difference. I feel much better, like some kind of fog has lifted. I feel calmer and less jittery. I am really looking forward to the next step in lowering the dose. Even 150mg is fairly high, but it seems closer to the level of drive I had naturally before the cancer. Clearly, I won’t do anything until I get instructed by my doctor. Right now, the plan is to try the lower dose for a while, take new tests, and check that nothing creeps back in. The standard procedure as I understand it seems to be to run a high suppressing dose for something like a year after the initial surgery. I will find out this coming Summer I suppose.

Covid-19 Note

This was written and posted in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. My personal process with cancer goes on regardless of the much bigger issues in the world, and I wanted to get this update out since I myself got updated rather recently. And the question comes up every so often.

The Benefit of Live Teachers (Applied to Myself)

I have been spending quite a bit of time in recent years developing training materials and doing trainings for Simics. There is always a discussion on how best to do training, in particular between live sessions with actual trainers and offline video and other self-study resources. I am a firm believer in the value of live training, and during our recent winter vacation up in the Swedish mountains I made myself provide a perfect example of the value of a teacher. I took a skiing lesson.

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Cancer Part 2: Going Radioactive

As I chronicled earlier this year (see “A Sudden Case of Cancer”), I got a Thyroid Cancer diagnosis back in May of this year. In June I went through surgery which went very well. After only three weeks, I was sufficiently recovered to travel to Greece and give a keynote presentation at the SAMOS conference. My scar prevented me from taking as much as advantage as I could have of the sun and pool, but it was possible to do at least a little bit of bathing towards the end. Now, I have reached part two of the treatment, radioiodine therapy to knock out any lingering cancer cells. Basically, I am going radioactive for a few days.

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Failing to See WiFi Login Page [Captive Portal] / Solved

I have had some annoying problems in recent months with my work laptop refusing to connect to certain WiFi login pages (more technically known as Captive Portals), essentially locking me out of the WiFi in certain places. Here is how I solved it.

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Intel Blog: Simics 6 Device Register Coverage

I have a new blog post out on the Intel Developer Zone, about the Simics 6 device register coverage feature. I use device register coverage to look at how different operating systems use the same hardware. The differences are significant, demonstrating the (rather expected) observation that different software stacks use the same hardware in different ways.

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Excel 2016 & CSV Import – Hilariously Broken

I just started using Office 365 at work, and almost immediately I hit a hilariously bad problem in the core simple “import CSV” functionality. Basically, the Excel 2016 that I got (it is 2016, not the latest 365 that my home machine all use) does not understand Windows line endings or decimal numbers.

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Using FPGAs to Simulate old Game Consoles

A while ago, Ars Technica reviewed the Mega Sg, a modern clone of the old Sega Genesis gaming system. I stumbled on this review recently and realized that this is a fascinating piece of hardware. The Mega Sg is produced by a company called Analogue (https://www.analogue.co/), presumably named thus because they create analogues to old gaming consoles. The way this is done is different from most current “revive the old consoles” products that simply use software emulation to run old games. Instead, Analogue seems to have settled on using FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) technology to basically build new hardware that is functionally equivalent to the old console hardware.

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Off-Topic: Vacation in Crete

This year’s family vacation was spent on the Greek island of Crete, in an all-inclusive resort close to Chania on the north coast. Overall we got nice weather and an enjoyable pool-and-sun holiday, mostly staying at the hotel with a few excursions. In the following, I will go through some of the most surprising or interesting observations I made in Crete. Greek letters are cool, but I do not think we will go back to Greece any time soon when there are higher-quality places available (such as Spain).

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A Sudden Case of Cancer

Cancer – it is a scary thing, and it recently became part of my life. It is only two weeks ago today that I got my cancer diagnosis, and I am already out of surgery and recovering. It has been a very speedy process, and hopefully this will be the end of it. Getting a cancer diagnosis is a bit rattling, but there is no reason to panic.

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DOOM Black Book – This is Brilliant!

Book cover

I heard about the DOOM Game Engine Black Book by Fabien Sanglard on the Hanselminutes podcast episode 666, and immediately ordered the book. It was a riveting read – at least for someone who likes technology and computer history like I do. The book walks through how the ID Software classic DOOM game from 1993 works and the tricks and techniques used to get sufficient performance out of the hardware of 1993. As background to how the software was written, the book contains a great description of the hardware design of IBM-compatible PCs, gaming consoles, and NeXT machines circa 1992-1994. It covers software design, game design, marketing, and how ID Software worked.

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Living with a Nokia 7.1 Phone

For the past couple of weeks, I have been using a Nokia 7.1 phone as my main phone while my main Sony phone has been off for repairs. My habit for quite a few years has been to use Sony “flagship” phones as my work phones (and way back, even Sony-Ericsson). The question this poses – how was it to use a theoretically far weaker “mid-range” phone instead of a flagship?

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Off-Topic: Windows Explorer Tip: Shift Right-Click

For some reason, Microsoft has decided to hide some decidedly useful features in Windows 10 explorer behind the non-intuitive and rather unknown “shift-key + right-click” combination.

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Off-Topic: The Corsair K55 Rather Silent Keyboard

I have tried yet another keyboard at home in my quest to find one that the rest of the family finds sufficiently silent – while still being nice to type on. While my fingers love the feeling of the super-clicky MX Blues in my K70 at work, it is not the best choice with other people in the same room, especially at home. Thus, my long-running quest for a keyboard with a nice feel but less noise. I started with a Matias Quiet, and when that broke I tried a Corsair RGB Silent Strafe with the rather expensive MX Silent switches. The “silent” was not sufficiently silent, though, bringing me to the latest keyboard I am trying: the Corsair K55 RGB.

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Windows 10 Reboot Loop – CUDA & Alienware

Late last year I was trying to do some machine learning work on my brand new Alienware 15 R4 gaming laptop. I had bought the laptop in order to have something portable with sufficient performance to actually do convolutional neural network (CNN) training and inference “on the road”. The GTX 1060 in the laptop is just as powerful as my home desktop machine, and should run Tensorflow and Keras well. I had the setup working on the desktop already, and copied the code over to the laptop. When trying to run the code the first time, I got some rather strange errors that I finally figured out meant that I was missing the CUDA toolkit. I downloaded CUDA version 10, installed, and the machine rebooted into the Windows 10 automatic repair mode.

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Keyboard Miscoloring – Just how does this Bug Happen?

I have a documented love for keyboards with RGB lighting. So I was rather annoyed when one of my Corsair K65 keyboards suddenly seemed to lose its entire red color component. The keyboard is supposed to default to all-red color scheme with the WASD and arrow keys highlighted in white when no user is logged in to the machine it is connected to – but all of a sudden, it went all dark except a light-blue color on the “white” keys. I guessed it was just a random misconfiguration, but it turned out to be worse than that.

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Off-Topic: Swedish Armed Forces Airshow 2018

Last weekend, the yearly Flygdag (Airshow) of the Swedish Armed Forces took place in Uppsala at Ärna. Huge crowds, but it was still easy to get a good view of the aerial displays that took place. In this blog post, I just wanted to share a few photos.

Clever marketing for the show – instead of flight mode, we have “combat flight mode”.

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Off-Topic: Some Ice Cream Places

During this year’s vacation trips, we sampled an unusual number of ice cream places around Sweden & Europe. Here are some notes on a few places we visited and where I took the time to actually take some photographs…

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Experiencing Gamla Uppsala in the Year 650 using Virtual Reality

Last month, I (together with my family and some friends) tried the virtual reality (VR) experience that has been created for the museum in Gamla Uppsala. VR is used to let people explore the area around Gamla Uppsala, experiencing what it looked like back in the year 650 AD. 650 AD is in the middle of the Vendeltid era (before the Viking age which is typically considered to start around the year 800). At this point in time, Gamla Uppsala had been an important religious and political center for a long time. The big burial mounds that dominate the landscape to this day were already old by then, having built in the 500s.

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Corsair RGB Strafe Silent – Another not-so-noisy Keyboard

The Matias Quiet keyboard that I have been using for a couple of years recently gave up the ghost. The Enter key broke off and it seemed kind of unreliable in the USB department too – sometimes not activating when attached to a laptop, and sometimes just disappearing. I had got complaints about it being a little noisy still, despite being a lot quieter than a standard ALPS-style Matias keyboard. The replacement I got was a Corsair Strafe RGB Silent. I am rather fond of Corsair keyboards and mice, and this variant sounded promising.

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Google IO 2018 Keynote / IO Extended

Earlier this week, I attended a Google IO Extended event in Stockholm. It was really nice event organized by Google to extended the reach of Google IO across the globe and those of us who would not be able to attend live. The main event was watching the IO keynote live, but before it started we had some good team games (my team did so-so I must admit) and talks on WebRTC and real-time communications using standard web technology rather than custom plugins. Watching a keynote like this live in a theatre setting gives a different experience from just reading about it post-facto or watching it on your own where it is easy to be distracted (which is something that was addressed in the keynote…).

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A Little Snow Sure Can’t Hurt?

I had the honor to have a scheduled talk at the Embedded World 2018 show in Nürnberg, right at the start of the show on Tuesday morning.  Getting to Nürnberg for the Embedded World without paying a fortune for plane tickets is tricky due to all the other people flying down from Swedish embedded and tech firms at the same time. This year, I was lucky and I had managed to get a very convenient flight at a decent price. Leaving Stockholm in the afternoon around 14.00 on Monday, flying via Frankfurt and then on to Nürnberg, arriving in the early evening just in time for a nice Bavarian dinner. No stress, no late evenings on the U-Bahn into town. A good night’s sleep before getting up and getting to the show with plenty of time to set up for my talk. What could possibly go wrong?

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We need Another USB Standard Connector

The USB standard has spawned quite a few connector variants over the year. Apart from the basic “A” connector (the one that you put in one way, then the other way, and finally the right way), there have been quite a few mini and micro variants of the “B” connector. Now, with “C” we seen to be approaching, finally, a reduction in the number.  But it seems to me that there is a need for another variant…

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Off-Topic: Pocket Casts – How I Listen to Podcasts

I am an avid podcast listener, using podcasts as the main source of entertainment on my commute, when I go to gym, go shopping, cook at home, et cetera. In the past, I have used a long line of iPod nano devices  to serve my listening needs (see my review of the 7th and final generation iPod Nano), downloading podcasts to a Windows PC and then syncing them over to the device. This worked well enough, and I kind of liked separating out the battery used for listening from the battery my phone used for calls and data traffic. But nothing lasts, and now that Apple killed off the iPods I had to find a replacement solution before my last iPod broke.

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Windows 10 Controlled Folder Access – Good Idea, Implementation not Quite There

The new Windows 10 Controlled Folder Access (CFA) feature is a great idea – prevent unknown programs from modifying your files, to stop ransomware in its tracks.  It is so good that I forced an early update to Windows 10 Build 1709 (“Fall Creators Update”) on a couple of my home machines and enabled it.  Now, I have quickly disabled it, as it is not possible to actually use it in a real environment.  It just stops things a bit too hard.

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Off-Topic: Loka Brunn

More travel notes. This time from Loka Brunn, a spa hotel and conference facility in the vicinity of Grythyttan in mid-west Sweden. The place dates back to around 1720, when an organized “Kurort” was founded. I spent a weekend there with my wife, and found the place to be very relaxing and professionally run.

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Android 7.1 Screen Scaling – Keyboard Buttons the Same Size, Text Shrinks :)

After updating my Sony Xperia Z5 Premium from 2016 to Android 7.1, I noticed the settings for screen scaling (known as Display Size). The setting has probably been around since I got Android 7 (Nougat) on the device a while back, but I did not notice it until now.  I tried it out, and it is kind of useful to shrink text a bit to get more onto the rather large screen of the device. But the keyboard behaves in a rather funny way…

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Off-Topic: Playa Garden Hotel & Spa, and Mallorca

It is summertime, and time for another off-topic blog post about travel. This year, we took our family vacation on the island of Mallorca, at the Playa Garden Hotel & Spa. It is located in Playa de Muro, between Port d’Alcudia and Can Picafort on the east coast of Mallorca. The goal was to enjoy a bit of sun & sea, and that worked out very well. It looks like we were lucky in our hotel choice, too.

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Assembly Programming as Game: “Human Resource Machine”

Human Resource Machine, from the Tomorrow Corporation, is a puzzle game that basically boils down to assembly-language programming. It has a very charming graphical style and plenty of entertaining sideshows, hiding the rather dry core game in a way that really works! It is really great fun and challenging – even for myself who has a reasonable amount of experience coding at this low level. It feels a bit like coding in the 1980s, except that all instructions take the same amount of time in the game.

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