Saturday, August 6, 2005

The Viva Voce

The viva voce, or the viva - a spoken examination for the project that spans 2 academic semesters, will determine if a student gets an honours degree or not. A student will be evaluated by 3 examiners - the "first", a high-and-mighty, "highly-qualified" someone who oversaw a class of 40-60 students for the entire span of their projects; the "second", a commoner lecturer who supervised and guided the student for the second of the two semesters for the project; and the "third", an independent academic who'd (hopefully) be free of any partiality or otherwise for the student. Each of us commoner lecturers (as mentioned earlier), will be assigned several of these students for supervision each semester, and at the end, there will be a chain of these vivas for us.

This semester, I had 6 students to supervise, and at the end, had 6 more to be the "third" examiner for. 12 vivas all in all - not as bad as those who had 15, but quite enough, as some others have only 5 or 8. Anyway, here's just a highlight of what happened (the tip of the iceberg!)

One of my students, a girl, never came to me for any advice or guidance throughout the semester, and met me only at the end to show me her end product. She'd came up with a system which combined the public key cryptography with hashing for secure file transfer. And it does just that (nothing else - no additional functions!) The system interface consists of a small dialog box (and that's all) and the cryptography works only for text files. And, ya - her hashing function does not work properly. When she showed me, it was just a week from her viva, so there wasn't much I could do for her, even though I knew there is no hope for such a product. I asked her if her "first" saw her system throughout its developement, and she said yes. So I asked what his comments were - and to my surprise, she said that he (shall we call him Mr A?) did not comment anything. Well then. On the day of her viva, this poor girl came to me early in the morning, and told me that her "first" told her that hers would be a borderline pass project, but only if she can fix her hashing function. But she couldn't. One can only wonder why Mr A didn't tell her earlier - if he intended to tell her at all. Of course, there was also no excuse for the girl's not bothering to consult with me, even though she had the entire semester to do so. Sad case.

Another student who worked on cryptography method was the most incredible Tai Chi Master I've ever seen. Tai Chi GrandMaster in fact. When questioned, he was extremely good at evading the main points questioned, twisting the words, giving excuses - anything, but provising straight, honest answers for the questions asked. Let me just quote a simple example - in his project documentation, there was a "preliminary studies" chapter in which he wrote in details about the characteristics and encoding and decoding steps of several encryption methods, which are not those which he implemented in his system. It was like telling someone all the goodness there are in apple juice, then serving him orange juice. It was totally out of place. When I pointed it out to the student, he gave me a long story on how he initially wanted to use the methods he studied on and wrote about, and then realised they were too simple for the project, so he decided to implement other methods instead (for the note - he wrote on 5 or 6 algorithms in his documentation, but implemented 5 other totally different ones). I said, in that case, he should've changed the content of that chapter in his documentation. And he gave me another long story on how the content were already written as phase reports, and there were no time for changes, and bla, and bla bla and more. Excuses, excuses!

The best one's gotta be the viva of this girl (who, although was not drop-dead gorgeous, was considered not-bad-looking lar) who came up with a system that can be run on a palmtop computer, and communicate with a mobile phone through Bluetooth, and receive and reply SMS. The system is supposed to be very useful for people who are in meetings, and could not SMS with their phones without appearing rude or anything (errr... ok, I'll accept that). The work was quite impressive and the little lady actually proved that she did most of the programming for the system. However, I was not convinced that the whole thing was a good, practical idea. For one thing, the communication between the palm (an HP Pocket PC) and the phone can be initiated by the palm only, which means it send a "query" signal to the mobile at fixed intervals to see if any SMS came in. And the time interval fixed was 50 seconds. This means that the poor handheld device is actually firing out a signal very much more often than there would be SMS coming in. Like, if within a half-hour time frame, 5 SMS is received, the palm would've queried 36 times for incoming SMS, with 5 affirmative and 31 negative responses. That's what I call seriously low efficiency. The student herself agreed to this point, and confirmed that a fully-charged palmtop battery would probably last about two hours only, running the system. She admitted she couldn't find a way to get around it (and to tell the truth, I had no problems accepting that from her, because at least she was honest about it). During the grade discussion, however, the student's "second" (let's call this one Mr B) tried a bit too hard in defending her. Coming from a man who is somewhat infamous for being very partial to members of the fairer sex, I probably shouldn't had been surprised. First he said that the palmtop has to initiate communication because it has greater processing power and can perform a lot more of complex tasks that a mobile phone can't, so it is logical that it sends the first command to the phone. I told him that to initiate a communication, the mobile phone does not need a complex command - just a simple signal, something of the nature of an interrupt will do. Then, what the palmtop needs to be doing, is to listen for this signal from the phone, which the phone will transmit only when an SMS is received - at least the palmtop battery wouldn't drain so quickly. But, Mr B said, the palmtop's battery will drain anyhow, if it is switched on all the time (which it must, for the system to run), whether or not it sends a signal every 50 seconds. (Is he stupid or what???) I told him, it makes a BIG difference (I widened my eyes at this part of the speech to provide extra emphasis :P ). Have you ever noticed that your mobile phone battery drains extra quickly when the service provider's signal is weak? Did you know why? I then told him why. He was quite for a moment, then said that what I had suggested (that the mobile phone initiates communication with the palmtop) could be impossible because not all phones would be equipped with the capability to do so, and probably only some very sophisticated phones could. (This man is confirmed to be stupid, or blinded by sheer lust for the girl) I told him, that is beside the point (I almost screamed it out) - the system is defined with a set of prescribed equipment with specified minimum features (like they MUST support a Bluetooth channel), so you can't say that a solution is not feasibly simply because you use a phone that can't make it work! I mean, if you want to argue in that direction, then I can say that since I am using a Nokia 3330 which does not even have Bluetooth embedded in it, the system is TOTALLY USELESS because it won't work for me! Then, Mr B insisted that my suggestion would not work, because the technology for it does not exist. At this point, I decided not to waste my time talking to a total moron who think with his balls instead of his brains. When the "first" (who, amazingly just kept quiet while Mr B and I debated - mostly because he's so empty in the skull that he has not the slightest idea what we were saying) asked about the grade that should be awarded, I simply said - WHATEVER. Yeah, I can't believe I said that. Whatever - whatever you guys wanna give, I'll just follow. Man, I was so pissed off. Nothing pisses me off like a stupid person who thinks he is so smart that he can't wait to show off just how stupid he really is.

I am really glad it's over - for this semester anyway.

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