My last exam… hopefully

My MSc. consists of six taught modules, and I sat the exam for the module #6 Optimization for Learning, Planning and Problem Solving this morning. It seemed to go pretty well, nothing in there that I hadn’t prepared for so with any luck there’ll be no resits and that was my last exam. At least, for this MSc, anyway.

I usually post up about each day as I’m doing a module, but I didn’t this last time. The module was pretty heavy on the coursework, involving a bigger than usual time investment, plus trying to balance that with my day job and my dissertation project is tough going. To be honest, trying to split my focus over these things and still retain some semblance of a home and social life was taxing, and it felt a little like it was maybe a bit too much. That’s a depressing feeling, but hey. With this last module down, there’s one less thing I need to split my time over.

The optimization module was actually very good, covering a pretty wide range of material in enough depth to be implementable. The lecturer, Dr Joshua Knowles, made all the course materials are available at the site I linked to above, as well as details about further reading, self-test questions, background materials and the like, broken down by week. If you want to know what a CS module at Manchester is like, I don’t think you can do better than familiarising with the background stuff on there and then trying to follow the course in sequence completing the coursework as you go.

I might post up more about how I found the course sometime later. Right now, it’s time to get back on top of my project.

Preparing for the Logic and Applications Exam

It feels like a long time between finishing the Logic and Applications course back in early November and the exam, which is next week on the 27th January. In between, I’ve done a little work on my project proposal in the meantime, but certainly since late December I’ve been focussing more on preparing for the exam.

It’s always a bit surprising when I start revising how much stuff we covered in a five-week course and this one was no exception. The syllabus is here on the UoM CS website. It’s also a new course this year, so there aren’t any specific past papers (exam papers from previous years) to get a feel for how the exam will be phrased and what kind of content has been examined before.

The nearest course in previous years was the Automated Reasoning course, which covered similar stuff but also included some aspects of logic programming in Prolog. In this course we used theorem provers SPASS and MiniSAT for the small amount of experimental work involved. Hopefully there won’t be any ‘remember-the-syntax’ style questions…

Manchester University’s CS Legacy

When I chose Manchester University for my Computer Science MSc, it was partially because of its reputation but I realized I didn’t actually know anything specific about that legacy.

I thought I’d find out a little more about some of the computing cornerstones that were laid in Manchester’s labs. Did you know that the first Random Access Memory was created there? Fast, random access memory is a core part of computer systems today. Having enough of it is crucial to making your laptop or desktop run all those applications quickly for you.

The Williams (or Williams-Kilburn) Tube was the first random access memory that could access at speeds suitable for a computer. It was the ancestor of the multi-gigabyte cards you’ll find in your computer today.

Back in the days before TVs were two inches thick, the moving pictures on the screen were drawn by magnetic fields and streams of electrons in a glass tube called a Cathode Ray Tube, or CRT. Did you ever hold your hand near the screen of a CRT television and feel the static tingle? Somewhere around 1946, Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams at Manchester University used the charge on a CRT’s phosphorescent coating to store ones and zeroes (effectively as dots), where they could be detected by a ‘pickup plate’ which lay over the ‘screen’.

As the electron beam hit the screen, a positive charge would be left behind at that position. Not for long mind you, as the charge would dissipate, but the information read by the pickup plate was used to refresh the tube before the charge had chance to leak away. This refreshing process is still required by the RAM chips in your computer today.

If you’re interested in knowing more, you can read all about it on Wikipedia and computer50.org, the sources I used to get this information.

To test the Williams Tube, the folks at Manchester built the first stored-program computer, a pretty important milestone in its own right. Maybe more on that some other time.