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.

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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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: 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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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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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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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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Corsair K65 and K70 Keyboards

When my old CM Storm mechanical gaming keyboard stopped working a while ago, I looked around for replacement alternatives. I ended up getting the new Corsair K65 RGB LUX narrow keyboard. A while earlier this year, I got a Corsair K70 at work. Thus, I can do a double review on a pair of closely related keyboards, but with different key switches, sizes, and backlighting systems.

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Electric Bikes – Useful Alternative

trekicon

Electric bikes have started to become common,in Sweden in recent years. It’s been a big thing in other countries for a while, so I guess they have finally matured to the point that they can stand our climate. To be honest, I never quite saw the point of such a vehicle, until my wife took a job that perfectly fit their sweet spot, and I got to try hers. It was quite a revelation. I am usually rather hesitant to believe hype, but in this case, I think we do have the making of a really useful type of vehicle that offers a useful alternative for a particular niche in the transportation continuum.

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Google ”IoT” Testing for Chromecast: Cloud Emulation + Physical Gear

Thanks to the good folks at Vector Software, I was pointed to a conference recording on Youtube, from the Google Test Automation Conference (GTAC) 2015 (Youtube video). The recording covers quite a few talks, but at around 4 hours 38 minutes, Brian Gogan describes the testing used for the Chromecast product. This offers a very cool insight into how networked consumer systems are being tested at Google. Brian labels the Chromecast as an “Internet of Things” device*, and pitches his talk as being about IoT testing. While I might disagree about his definition of IoT, he is definitely right that the techniques presented are applicable to IoT systems, or at least individual devices.

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The Matias Less Noisy Keyboard (Matias Quiet Pro)

matias-quiet-iconI am a big fan of proper real decent mechanical tactile clickety-clack keyboards. Writing is my means of communication, creation, and commercial contribution to the world. I write a lot of text – both code and normal language, and I feel that I type faster, more accurately, and produce better text when using a tactile keyboard. I cannot understand how anyone cannot love them once they have their fingers on them. However, mechanical keyboards have a bad reputation for being NOISY. The rest of my family thinks my CoolerMaster Trigger Cherry MX Brown is a bit too noisy when I use it at home. Thus, when I read about the Matias Quiet Pro keyboard, I spent the money and gave it a try.  If I could have the feeling of a tactile keyboard without the noise, it would be a wonderful compromise!

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Thin Phone, Fat Core

nvidia_logoWhen mobile phones first appeared, they were powered by very simple cores like the venerable ARM7 and later the ARM9. Low clock frequencies, zero microarchitectural sophistication, sufficient for the job. In recent years, as smartphones have come into their own as the most important computing device for most people, the processor performance of mobile phones have increased tremendously. Today, cutting-edge phones and tablets contain four or eight cores, running at clock frequencies well above 2 gigahertz. The performance race for most of the market (more about that in a moment) was mostly about pushing higher clock frequencies and more cores, even while microarchitecture was left comparatively simple. Mobile meant “fairly simple”, and IPC was nowhere near what you would get with a typical Intel processor for a laptop or desktop.

Today, that seems to be changing, as the Nvidia Denver core and Apple’s Cyclone core both go the route of a few fat cores rather than many thin cores.

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Off-topic: Review: Apple iPod Nano 7th Gen

ipodnano7 icon Last week, my iPod Nano (6th generation) stopped working since its power button got stuck and failed to do anything to activate the machine. I rushed out, and got myself a replacement player in the form of an Apple iPod Nano 7th generation. I must admit that I have not found any alternative to an iPod paired with iTunes when it comes to a plain stand-alone audio player. After the utter disappointment that the 6th gen nano was, the 7th gen turned out to be surprisingly good and might even be almost up to the standards of the near-perfect 3rd generation.

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The First 64-bit Phone

apple_A7_image

Apple just released their new iPhone 5s, where the biggest news is really the 64-bit processor core inside the new A7 SoC. Sixty four bits in a phone is a first, and it immediately raises the old question of just what 64 bits gives you. We saw this when AMD launched the Opteron and 64-bit x86 PC computing back in the early 2000’s, and in a less public market the same question was asked as 64-bit MIPS took huge chunks out of the networking processor market in the mid-2000s. It was never questioned in servers, however.

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Qualcomm’s Batteryguru – and Branding

It is quite interesting to see how Qualcomm has emerged as a major player in the “processor market” and is trying to build themselves into a serious consumer brand. I used to think of them as a company doing modems and other chips that made phones talk wirelessly, known to insiders in the business but not anything a user cared about. Today, however, they are working hard on building themselves into a brand to rival Intel and AMD. At the center of this is their own line of ARM-based application processors, the Snapdragon. I can see some thinking quite similar to the old “Intel Inside” classic, and I would not be surprised to see the box or even body of a phone carrying a Snapdragon logo at some point in the future. A part of this branding exercise is the Snapdragon Batteryguru, an application I recently stumbled on in the Google Play store.

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Buying High Technology

Selling and marketing high technology is what I do for a living. My counterpart is the customer or buyer, and I help design, build, explain, an market these products.  In this role, I am most usually the expert on the domain, helping potential customers understand what we sell and why it will help them.  Both at the high-level value proposition and the details behind it.  Some people focus most of the their energy on the high-level value proposition, but I feel that youoften need a bit detail backing that as well.

I recently had the enlightening experience of being on the buying side instead, experiencing the transition from high-level value proposition to low-level details.  It struck me as being quite similar to what the customers for our virtual platforms would experience when coming in new to the field.

I bought a camera.

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Touch the Screen vs Press a Button

Is the touchscreen the end-all of user interfaces for mobile devices? There were rumors in early 2011 that the iPad2 would lose all physical buttons (which did not come true, obviously).  To me, that sounds like a really good and bad idea. Good, in the sense that a device that is all a big screen certainly looks nice. Bad, since it would be much less user-friendly than a device with some real physical buttons to press.

I have been thinking about this subject lately, after using a BlackBerry Torch 9800 as my work phone for a few months.  I like the device a lot, but there are certainly some rough edges and some places where there is a UI conflict between touching the screen and pressing the buttons. At the same time, I am using both an iPod Nano 3G, and a couple of iPod Touches. I used to have SonyEricsson Symbian-based P900, P990i, and G900 smart phones which also were combined touch/press devices with a stylus.

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Off-Topic: Set Own Number on BlackBerry

Ever since I got my BlackBerry smartphone, I was annoyed that the display said “My Number: Unknown number” in a number of places. I assumed that this would be automatic, just like everything else information-related on this device. However, I finally worked out how to “fix” the problem by manually setting my phone number.

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Product Holes: Greatest Hits break iPod Cover Flow

Following on my previous posts about broken phone browsers, phones, and cars, here is another case of “why didn’t they catch this in testing?”

We recently got ourselves an iPod Touch, to entertain our oldest child on long trips. It is a brilliant device in many ways, I can understand why people love their iPhones (even though I am very happy with the very different style of the Blackberry phone that I was given by my employer). However, I have found one weird behavior in the music player that leaves me wondering how it got through into the shipping product.

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Product Holes: Tesla Roadster & iPhone 4

Continuing on the thread from my previous post about the testing of products that fail to find problems that become obvious to (some) users after a very short time, I just read an article (in Swedish) about how the famed Tesla roadster cars behaved when they were confronted with Scandinavian winters.

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Off-Topic: Old and New Lego

During the Christmas holidays, I got the chance to compare my oldest child’s brand new Lego set with some from the mid-1980s. It is quite striking how much larger the things in the sets have become, and how much more affordable (in relative terms) Lego has become since then.

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A Toast to Abstraction Layers

toasterI just found “The Toaster Project“, a Royal College of Art project where Thomas Twaites built a simple toaster from scratch. Really from scratch, going all they way back to iron ore and raw petroleum. In the process, he had to smelt ore, create plastic from petroleum, etc. It is a very interesting observation about the immense industrial complexity behind the very simple everyday items of our lives. I also think it has something to tell us computer scientists about abstraction.

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Off-Topic: My Phone wants a vacation in Greece

maps-48x48I have installed Google Maps on my trusty SonyEricsson G900 (last of its kind, unfortunately, as UIQ is shut down and SE is moving to Nokia S60 etc.), and I find it an almost too fun and useful toy-tool. However, today, something really funny happened. For some reason, when asked to display my current location, it decided that I was in Northern Greece — to within 5000 m.

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Biking Topic: Chariot Carrier Baby Seat

corsaire-smallThis is a follow-up to last year’s post on the Chariot Corsaire XL bike trailer we have. Now that we have a baby girl as well as our older boy, we have upgraded the trailer with a baby seat. Works very well, even though it was quite a bit of work to install it.

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I Got a Yubikey!

yubico-imageI been listening to the SecurityNow! podcast raving about the coolness of the Yubikey, created by Swedish startup Yubico. It seems like the device has captured the imagination of quite a few people, and I have been kind of curious about it. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when I got one a few days ago, since we are testing it as a new way to authenticate to our VPN at work.

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