Thursday, 23 February 2012

Upgrades - hotels, airlines and HPC

I was pointed to this short but interesting blog today: "What's your upgrade?" by @therichbrooks, which makes the point that customers like it when businesses over-deliver on expectations. It is easy to understand what over-deliver might mean for hotels, airlines, rental cars, etc. - upgrades! - but it is equally important for other businesses to consider.

In the contexts of High Performance Computing (HPC) and of software, upgrades are a part of the routine. This covers both upgrades to newer or more powerful hardware (e.g. see the recent upgrades to the Cray supercomputers at HECToR - the UK's national supercomputing service - run by partners including NAG for CSE Support); and software upgrades for new features etc. However, these are all expected and planned upgrades - whilst they do deliver more to the customers, they are not a "over-delivery". And of course, for the service teams, upgrades mean hard work installing, testing, benchmarking and documenting the updated system.

But the key point of the linked blog was not upgrades, rather it was about managing (and meeting) customer expectations - and about over-delivery.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Self Improvement - An Algorithm for getting to "empty"

Whether we like it or not, at NAG and many other organizations, we live in an "e-mail" culture meaning that e-mails are how we communicate, receive and retain information. For many of us, e-mails also document both what we have done and what we still have to do. If you are like most in this culture, your e-mail inbox is the hub of your work life. I'm going to suggest an inbox "experiment" for you but first, a little fun.

One of my favorite ways to get to know someone is to ask how they use their inbox. It's almost a litmus test for personalities. So, what does yours say about you? Is yours:

The Black Hole: E-mail gets sucked in but never leaves, a filing cabinet with one gigantic drawer and two folders labelled "In" and "Sent". Periodically, either due to an inspired desire to get organized or "intervention" from a systems administrator, the inbox gets purged and the cycle begins anew.

The Formula One Pit: E-mail comes racing in and the pit crew (you) frantically tries to dash off a response that nominally addresses or acknowledges the item. It could be a "holding" response (thinking about it, promise to get back to you later) or a delegating response (passing it on or telling the writer to see some one else). The key feature, like the pit crew, is to get it out as fast as possible. This is a difficult personality to maintain, especially when you aren't connected to the network or need to sleep;-)

The Swiss Army Knife: This inbox, like its multi-tool namesake, can do most everything. It carries information for later reference, tasks that need to be done, dates/times for meetings, etc. It does it all. Stuff gets thrown out or filed elsewhere occasionally when it has been taken care of but it remains the ultimate "nerve center" of work life.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

How to solve a NLLS problem using SQP method in Excel?

NLLS stands for nonlinear least-squares and SQP is sequential quadratic programming. So essentially this is an optimization problem, and everyone knows that NAG Library's chapter e04 is the best place to look for optimization solvers. The appropriate NAG routine in our C Library is nag_opt_nlin_lsq (e04unc).

A few weeks ago one of our users contacted NAG and asked for an example program of using e04unc in Excel. NAG and Excel page has quite a few examples and guidelines about using NAG Library in Excel, but we didn't have this particular one.

I wrote this example and now it is available for download on the Excel page. I encourage readers of this blog to download it and play with it on your own. It wasn't difficult to create it, but there was one issue that caused me a nasty headache. Some routines that have callback functions (just as e04unc does) where a vector or matrix is passed to/from a subroutine require usage of Windows API subroutine RtlMoveMemory.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Girls, Geeks, Twitter and Me.

When I get to work one of the first things that I do each morning is check out what’s happening on my Twitter timeline. One Thursday, a couple of weeks ago, one particular tweet caught my eye. It lead me to a great blog 'Girls can love computing; someone just needs to show them how' about the Manchester Girl Geeks. They are a group who are trying to encourage more girls and women to be interested in maths, science and technology. Being a girl myself, (OK, a woman really), and working for a mathematical software company, the article sparked a real interest.

A Girl Geek Tea Party

When I was at school, maths wasn’t my best subject, well actually and I’m going to be completely honest with you, it was my worst subject. My fear of all things mathematical started after being made to stand in front of the class reciting times tables. So it’s somewhat ironic that I found myself working at a numerical software company a few years ago, albeit in the marketing department. Had the 'Girl Geeks' been around in the 80s and had visited my school it might have made maths and science a bit more alluring for me. It’s a sad truth that girls are still way in the minority in choosing technical and science options at GCSE, A’level and degree level*. 

NAG want to help in some way to reverse this trend. I think I can speak for NAG in saying that we want to see more women achieving prominence in our organisation and in scientific computing in general.

Anyway, back to my reason for blogging. After reading about the great work that Manchester Girl Geeks are involved in we decided to support them by way of sponsorship. I’m writing today to raise awareness of their mission as we feel it’s really worthwhile. We have some ideas for other ways in which NAG can assist their goals in the future.

What other ways can we as an organisation make a positive difference?

*around 16% in 2009 of students in undergraduate computer science degrees are female.