The Day of the Doctor(s)

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A brief respite from the rain for photos

A brief respite from the rain for photos

Just recently (two Saturdays ago to be precise), I was back in the UK to attend what would be my formal elevation to doctorhood: a graduation ceremony at the University of York. It brought to an end a long journey, and despite its odd timing – roughly one year after moving to ETH – I was very glad to have attended; a delightful day throughout, from the formalities and speeches to the eating and mingling.

Unrepentantly challenging the stereotypes of computer scientists, the ceremony organisers had us arriving by 8am to be fitted with our robes and bonnets. After the handshaking, near-continuous clapping, and some amusing words from our Chancellor, Greg Dyke, the informal parts of the day began: a lovely reception with the computer science department (bacon butties and Champagne aplenty), an outstanding lunch at Krakatoa, and some evening drinks in London (allegedly for a friend’s birthday, but the celebration was mine to appropriate!).

The majority of PhD students in Britain will graduate in a similar fashion to this, but the protocols followed in the rest of Europe certainly vary quite widely; many institutions not having a centralised ceremony at all (making the robes we wear all the more bemusing). And of course, the differences are not just in the styles and means of graduation; there are many surprising variations between aspects of the PhD programmes themselves.

The Chancellor's favourite handshake that morning? We'll probably never know.

The Chancellor’s favourite handshake that morning? We’ll probably never know.

In Britain, for example, it is not uncommon to commence a PhD immediately after a three-year bachelor’s degree; in Switzerland (and many other countries), a master’s degree is expected. In Britain, tuition fees are to be paid for each and every year of study (albeit often covered by scholarships or sponsorships); in Switzerland, you are hired as a research assistant with a contract, salary, and benefits. In Britain, there is often pressure to finish in as close to three years as possible; in Switzerland, there is time for diversions, side projects, and internships. And then there are the examinations. We in Britain favour the viva: a private, oral examination, that may last several hours, and comes with no guarantee of success. In Switzerland, a PhD defence is open to colleagues, comprises a presentation and several rounds of questioning, with a passing outcome usually presumed from the outset (so much so that the candidate is expected to organise an “apéro” beforehand!). Supervisors, whilst forbidden from partaking in British vivas, are actively examining in Swiss ones (and also have discretion over whether a candidate can defend at all – a serious issue for anyone to whom item (3) of this letter applies).

These observations admittedly arise from my experiences as a computer scientist at York and ETH, and there are many more general ones that can be made. But on the occasion of my graduation, I did find myself reflecting upon this set; just a little. On the one hand, I was certainly chuffed that the British system could facilitate a PhD so “efficiently”. And whilst I never had a contract or the benefits of being an employee, I was never obliged to teach either; it was entirely optional and came with an hourly rate. Yet, on the other hand, I’ve come to envy somewhat the extra time that my colleagues at ETH can exploit. It facilitates side projects, collaborations, internships; time to build a stronger, broader research portfolio, and time simply to learn more about our discipline. Perhaps the best of the best can do all this too within a three-year scholarship; but for me, I was always aware of this pressure, and found myself repeatedly resisting the temptation to diverge too far away from our research plans. If I did it all again (not anytime soon!), this’d be something that I’d want to change.

A nugget for googlemail.com users: Chrome and 2-step verification

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Reading this rather alarming story of blackmail and negligence prompted me to review my own security settings, starting with by far the most important aspect of my digital life: my Gmail account. For reasons that escape me (I hope they were good ones), I never did enable Google’s 2-step verification; today that changed (and most certainly it should have changed much sooner).

Enabling 2-step verification was painless but for one small niggle: that I could no longer use the account to sign into Google Chrome. After all sorts of fiddling and frustration (aggravated by the many written assurances of Chrome’s 2-step compatibility), I stumbled upon the unlikely cause of the problem: the fact that I had not a gmail.com account but rather a googlemail.com one. This had been the case since registering in the midst of a trademark dispute over the Gmail brand, and despite its resolution in 2010, inertia meant that I continued to use the longer domain anyway. After recalling some difficulties we had with Google Analytics a few years ago – it wouldn’t delegate access to @googlemail.com users – I decided to finally make the switch to @gmail.com to see what (if anything) might change. It turned out to do the trick, and Chrome immediately became compatible with my 2-step enabled account.

I suspect that I might have been one of the few remaining patrons of the googlemail.com domain. But for the benefit of any others, might I suggest that you also consider making the switch if you are seeing similar such oddities in 2-step verification, Chrome, Analytics, or any other Google service. (And should inertia hit you too, then perhaps it helps to know that @googlemail.com addresses continue to work post-switch anyway!)

A warm welcome

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Welcome dear guest to my little corner of the internet, which has just completed a bit of a transformation; one that I certainly hope my regular visitor (hi, mum!) will agree is for the better. This iteration of my website is really the outcome of two desires. The first one being, to have a homepage that is quite frankly less dull; that is less like a CV. The second one being, to have a place to share thoughts, news, opinions, and various other tidbits that arise from my work as a software engineering researcher. Of course, the things you would expect to find on an academic homepage – publications, talks, events and the like – remain present and maintained, all accessible from the tabs above. The real change that isn’t simply cosmetic is this integrated blog.

The blog is certainly an experiment on my part – I’ve never attempted to maintain one before – so it will remain to be seen exactly how this project will pan out. My plan from the outset is to post here on an ad hoc basis, and to do so with a variety of focuses. Personal activities (new papers, talks, conferences) are the obvious ones, but I also hope to occasionally share interesting research developments of colleagues, both of those in the ETH Chair of Software Engineering, and of those in wider circles. Not just for the reader’s benefit of course, but for mine too: endeavouring to explain such work is surely the best way to really get a good grasp of it.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions over the coming months. Fingers crossed that this welcome post shall not remain the only post!