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.

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.

Continue reading “Failing to See WiFi Login Page [Captive Portal] / Solved”

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.

Continue reading “Intel Blog: Simics 6 Device Register Coverage”

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.

Continue reading “Excel 2016 & CSV Import – Hilariously Broken”

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.

Continue reading “DOOM Black Book – This is Brilliant!”

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.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Windows Explorer Tip: Shift Right-Click”

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.

Continue reading “Windows 10 Reboot Loop – CUDA & Alienware”

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.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Pocket Casts – How I Listen to Podcasts”

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.

Continue reading “Windows 10 Controlled Folder Access – Good Idea, Implementation not Quite There”

Off-Topic: Getting Rid of the Heads in Skype for Business

Skype for Business is an interesting beast.  It is a nice little program for internal collaboration, but some of its behaviors are just super-annoying. One my pet peeves is the fact that when you get into a meeting with screen sharing you have a bunch of big heads covering up a sometimes significant chunk of the materials being presented. I finally figured out how to get rid of them.  It comes down to the view mode. This little icon in the toolbar:

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Getting Rid of the Heads in Skype for Business”

Kindle App on Android: Turning off Annoying Page Curl

kindle-app-curlA recent update to the Amazon Kindle app on my Android devices introduced a severely annoying page curl animation when flipping through pages in a book. This unnecessary animation slows things down and disrupts the reading flow, or at least that is my opinion. It was really hard to find any kind of help on the Amazon pages or elsewhere on the Internet for how to turn it off. I finally figured it out, and here is how I did it so that other people with the same problem can search and find a solution…

Continue reading “Kindle App on Android: Turning off Annoying Page Curl”

Off-Topic: Outlook Plugins do not activate when program starts – registry fix

skypemeetingIn my sporadic series of IT fixes that I happen to find, here is another one about how to fix the load behavior of plugins in Outlook.

This is a solution to a problem that I have had myself with plugins for Outlook. I assume it works the same for other office programs. Basically, some plugins, in particular the Skype Meeting/Lync Meeting plugin, would not load when Outlook started and I was forced to manually enable it in the add-ons manager each time. Highly annoying. I managed to fix it by doing a small registry fix.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Outlook Plugins do not activate when program starts – registry fix”

Windows 10 – An Upgrade Worth Doing

icon-windows-logo  Now that Windows 10 has been officially out for a while, I decided to give it a try on one of my home machines. I expect that all my Windows 8.1 machines will be updated eventually – it is a free update, after all, and supposedly things should work just as well as in Windows 8.1. Just with a different user interface. Windows 10 is indeed different from Windows 8.1 in fairly significant ways, and it really feels like what would have come after Windows 7 if Windows 8 hadn’t come between. I can see why many or even most people see this as the better upgrade path, even if I lament some of the changes made.

Continue reading “Windows 10 – An Upgrade Worth Doing”

Off-Topic: Dropbox not Synchronizing Files Linux-Windows: Watch that Colon

blue_dropbox_logoI am using DropBox quite a bit to move files around between various machines (nothing confidential, just stuff that I need to move around and that is a tad on the large side). Today, I hit a very issue where I saved screenshots from a Ubuntu machine and waited for them to show up on a Windows machine. And they never did. Confused, I went to the web interface, and the files were indeed in place there. I could download it from the web interface without an issue. Weird. Other files did sync in the meantime, so just what was going on?

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Dropbox not Synchronizing Files Linux-Windows: Watch that Colon”

Off-Topic: Microsoft Word styling of change tracking balloons & text

winwordI just got hit by a strange behavior in Microsoft word: the comment and format change “balloons” that pop up next to the text when using change tracking and viewing changes started to overflow their allocated balloons. The font used look very funny too. The issue was that a document contained a format specification for these balloons that used a font not present on my system, which in turn caused Word to use something like Courier to display it. Which did not look nice. However, it was easy to solve.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Microsoft Word styling of change tracking balloons & text”

Off-topic: How to Get Rid of the Annoying Webex Tab on Top of Skype Windows

2014-11-03_09-49-56I am using the “Webex productivity tools” at work to quickly schedule and start meetings from within Outlook. It really is a very useful piece of software for those of us that do quite a few Webex conferences each week. However, it came with one annoying side effect: little webex tabs started to appear on select application windows. In particular, on top of Skype windows.

Continue reading “Off-topic: How to Get Rid of the Annoying Webex Tab on Top of Skype Windows”

I Like Windows 8 (More Precisely, Windows 8.1)

windows8logoWhen Microsoft released Windows 8 in 2012, the operating system received an incredible amount of bad press. There were lots of good ideas, but also a lot of bad execution, and some pretty drastic changes to the old familiar way that personal computer desktops had worked since approximately 1995. Most people that voice an opinion about Windows 8 dislike it, whether it be on social media or in person. For some reason, I seem to be one of the few people who really like it. When I just recently got a new laptop at work and it came with old Windows 7, I was actually disappointed. Here is why.

Continue reading “I Like Windows 8 (More Precisely, Windows 8.1)”

Application Expectations built on Touch

windows8logoI recently made my first acquaintance with Windows 8, having bought a new Sony ultrabook for the family. Including a touch screen. The combination of the touch-based interface and the phone-like look of Windows 8 even on a PC has led me to think about the (unconscious) expectations that I have come to have on how systems behave and how services are accessed, from how smart phones and tablets have come to work in the past few years. In particular, where are web-based services going?

Continue reading “Application Expectations built on Touch”

Building a Spy-Proof OS?

I am not in the computer security business really, but I find the topic very interesting. The recent wide coverage and analysis of the Flame malware has been fascinating to follow. It is incredibly scary to see a “well-resourced (probably Western) nation-state” develop this kind of spyware, following on the confirmation that Stuxnet was made in the US (and Israel).

In any case, regardless of the resources behind the creation of such malware, one wonders if it could not be a bit more contained with a different way to structure our operating systems. In particular, Flame’s use of microphones, webcams, bluetooth, and screenshots to spy on users should be containable. Basically, wouldn’t cell-phone style sandboxing and capabilities settings make sense for a desktop OS too?

Continue reading “Building a Spy-Proof OS?”

Off-Topic: Analyzing Outlook Mailbox Size

Where I work, we use Exchange as our email server and Outlook as the primary client (at least I do). We also have an email quota that I keep bumping into, since I have a tendency to attract many emails with large attachments like image-happy PowerPoint files or binary code modules to patch things. I am also an extreme user of email folders. My main Outlook account contains some 650 folders, and my offline archive of all my old emails reaches towards 1300, with many 100s of thousands of emails for a total of almost 20 GB. So, pretty extreme.

My problem is: what do I do when the email system tells me (and it is serious, I can attest) that I am close to hitting my quota and that soon email will neither be received nor sent? I want to find the folders that are very large and candidates for some archiving. The answer has eluded me for a long time, until I stumbled upon a 2010 Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3skJOd4GIak, from “tech-informer.com” (which now looks pretty dead). With some modifications, this solved my problem.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Analyzing Outlook Mailbox Size”

Off-topic: Windows tip: Hide Desktop Icons

I often have to create screenshots and screen recordings as part of my job, and to make that look good I don’t want any part of my Windows desktop or task bar to show in the results. Until now, I have done this the hard way by using very few desktop icons and putting them around the edges of the screen.

There is a better way.

Continue reading “Off-topic: Windows tip: Hide Desktop Icons”

msys git – error could not allocate cygwin heap

I am using TortoiseGit on Windows for a while now, and it works OK. However, today, it just stopped working. The error I got persistently was:

0 [main] us 0 init_cheap: VirtualAlloc pointer is null, 
Win32 error 487 AllocationBase 0x0, BaseAddress 0x68540000, 
RegionSize 0x480000, State 0x10000 
c:\msysgit\bin\sh.exe: 
*** Couldn't reserve space for cygwin's heap, Win32 error 0

Continue reading “msys git – error could not allocate cygwin heap”

Cubase64 – Impressive Impossible Retro

I recently read the “Cubase64 White Paper” by Pex Tufvesson. It is a fantastic piece of retro computing, where he makes a Commodore 64 do real-time audio effects on a sampled piece of music. There is a Youtube movie showing the demo in action. Considering how hard we worked in the early 1980s to make a computer make any kind of useful noise at all, this is an amazing feat. It is also a feat that I think would have been impossible at the time.

Continue reading “Cubase64 – Impressive Impossible Retro”

Product Holes: Microsoft Office vs Internet Explorer

There seems to be no shortage of bugs that “should have been obvious” and subject to the “how can you not check that your own products work together” phenomenon. Just the other day, I stumbled on another one. This time, it was the Microsoft set of applications and operating systems that do not quite work together the way you would expect them to.

Continue reading “Product Holes: Microsoft Office vs Internet Explorer”

Eclipse: Changing the Java Heap Size

eclipseiconI just won a battle against Eclipse, managing to finally rid myself of a string of strange out-of-heap warnings. It is a long story, involving lots of web searching and fiddling with the eclipse.ini file options for the JVM. It just never seemed to work as I wanted it to, despite changing the -Xmx VM argument to 256, then 512, and finally 1024m.

Continue reading “Eclipse: Changing the Java Heap Size”

Off-Topic: Getting Excel to Open Files Again

excel1For a while now, I have had the issue that I could not open Excel sheets (files) by double-clicking them in the Windows Explorer, nor could I directly open Excel sheets sent to me in email from within Outlook. I got an error like this: “Cannot find the file path (or one of its components). Make sure the path and file name are correct and that all required libraries are available.”

Turned out this is a fairly common problem, with a documented solution.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Getting Excel to Open Files Again”

Driving an Old Canon Scanner using a VM

lide30I have an old Canon LIDE 30 scanner that I purchased sometime late in 2003. At that time, it was connected to a PC running Windows XP, and drivers worked just fine. However, after I got my new computer in early 2009, with Vista 64, there are no more drivers available. There is a funny way around this though, using a virtual machine.

Continue reading “Driving an Old Canon Scanner using a VM”

StackOverflow interviews CouchDB

couchdbLast year, FLOSS Weekly interviewed Jan Lehnard of the CouchDB project. I put up a blog post on this, noting that it was interesting with a scalable parallel program written in Erlang, a true concurrent language. The interview was interesting,  but not very deeply technical. Now, almost a year later, the StackOverflow podcast, number 59, interviewed the founder of the project, Damien Katz. This interview goes a bit more into the technical details and what CouchDB is good for and what not, as well as some details on the use and performance of Erlang.

Continue reading “StackOverflow interviews CouchDB”

Off-Topic: Vista, Laserwriter 12/640 PS, and FoxIt

laserwriter12640I have an old Apple LaserWriter 12/640 PS network printer at home that I bought back in 1997. In those days, I had a PowerBook G3 at 266 MHz, Windows NT was new, and my work computer was one of Sweden’s first 300 MHz Pentium II machines… since then, my home machines have moved from MacOS 8 to Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000 to Windows XP and now Windows Vista 32- and 64-bit. But the trusty LaserWriter remains, keeps printing, and is still on its first toner cartridge!

However, moving to Vista has made the printing bit harder.

Continue reading “Off-Topic: Vista, Laserwriter 12/640 PS, and FoxIt”