Friday, February 29, 2008

Google Student Ambassador Programme

A couple of days ago I received an email from a university programs coordinator at Google about the Google Student Ambassador Programme they are launching in Africa and the Middle East. One student is selected from a university as the student ambassador and his role is responsible for representing Google at his university. This involves organising Google-sponsored events and handing out Google goodies. One of their popular things they like to do is organise pizza for the other students during exams and other deadlines when people are pulling all-nighters.

The requirements of the job are pretty standard:

  • Student in Computer Science or related field
  • 2nd or 3rd year undergraduate or graduate-level student
  • Excellent academic performance (equivalent to an A- mean grade or above)
  • One-year commitment
  • Active in university student community
  • Passion for technology, innovation and learning
But not the benefits :P :
  • Leadership role
  • Exposure for your university at Google
  • Free food
  • Google gear
  • Admiration from your CS peers
It's a small step, but an interesting one I find. Very often companies approach the staff as an entrance point into universities, but not with Google. Yes, they did have a series of meetings one day with our staff, but they have made a far greater effort in approaching the students directly. Is it necessarily a good thing though? Well, it is unusual and that alone gives it a chance of working. But in many cases students just aren't interested in this sort of thing.

Is the fact that they are just Google going to make this work? Would it work for any other company? My feeling is that it very much depends on the company and its culture. NVIDIA, for example, has the right culture to make a strong student-company relationship work as well. I was actually trying to discuss this very sort of relationship with them towards the end of my internship. I think it also requires that the student has an active interest in the company, such as I do in Google.

If you are interested in applying (and you are a UCT student) then let me know and I can recommend you to Google. I found some further information on the program here and you can also read the email below. This is definitely a step forwards, but I hope it moves further.

The full email I received:
Dear Marco,

I hope this email finds you well.

We wanted to get in touch with regards to a Google Student Ambassador Programme we have just launched for students enrolled at universities in Middle East and Africa.

The Google Student Ambassador Programme, an exciting new opportunity open to high-achieving technical students at select universities in Middle East and Africa.

Google Student Ambassadors are the voice of Google on university campuses and work with Google to plan and implement university events, which promote information technology, Google products, and student learning.

Ambassadors act as a technical resource amongst their fellow students and a university liaison for Google. Students who participate in this programme become part of an international network of students dedicated to improving knowledge transfer between industry and academia.

One student per university is chosen to serve for the duration of the academic year, after which they'll receive an official certificate in recognition of their achievements and contributions in this role. While the responsibilities associated with this position are a considerable time commitment, they are also a fun way to learn more about Google and give back to the university community.

Being a former intern we believe you know Google, our culture and products very well and could make you a very good ambassador.

We have just launched the programme and are currently soliciting details of interested students to whom we will reach out with more information about how to apply to become a Google Student Ambassador by March 10th, 2008. I wanted to get in touch with you before though to see whether you would be interested in applying for the programme.

If you can't commit, maybe you know fellow students that you could refer?

The requirements for becoming an Ambassador are:

  • Student in Computer Science or related field
  • 2nd or 3rd year undergraduate or graduate-level student
  • Excellent academic performance (equivalent to an A- mean grade or above)
  • One-year commitment
  • Active in university student community
  • Passion for technology, innovation and learning
If you can think of someone who would make a great ambassador, please do not hesitate to send me their contact details and we will reach out to them with further details by March 10th, 2008.

Please let me know should you have any questions in the meantime.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,


Friday, February 22, 2008


RoboCup has become fairly well-known over the past few years. It's a soccer championship for robots. It started out by using Sony AIBO robots and just getting the teams develop the AI for the generic robots to play against one another. Many leagues have since been introduced to concentrate on different aspects of the game. Recently they have gone into the area of humanoid robots, which add a whole new level of complexity as they now have to learn to walk and recover from falls.

Towards the end of last year UCT was invited to participate, working together with a German and Austrian institute. This has resulted in the merger of our Agents and Robotics labs to work together on this one big goal together. The next championship takes place in Suzhou, China in July and our aim is to be ready to participate by then.

Going on the assumption that I will get into either UIUC or Waterloo, I have six months before I would start. Six months that I didn't want to sit around doing nothing. I'm back in Cape Town now by the way -- my internship at NVIDIA is over. So I went to visit Anet Potgieter, the Computer Science lecturer supervising the local RoboCup effort to see what was still open for the taking. They are participating in two leagues, but the one that interested me most was the humanoid league. They will soon be receiving four Aldebaran Robotics' Nao humanoid robots to compete with. Here's a video clip of one walking:

The component that caught my interest was the computer vision. The robots each have a small webcam that record at 30 FPS. The stream needs to be processed in realtime and when you consider that these things have only a 500MHz processor this is a rather daunting task. I know from my segmentation research last year that any sort of image processing takes time and being responsive in this game is crucial. So I envisage myself doing a lot of optimisations and dropping as much redundant data as possible while still being able to get decent results. It's going to be all about trade-offs between accuracy and efficiency.

Most of the work is done with a simulator, which is apparently very realistic. Since we haven't got the robots yet, we're pretty much stuck with the simulator only. My work on vision I foresee being impacted the most by external factors such as lighting and so I'm very anxious to get the real bots. The simulator (screen below) has ridiculous recommended system requirements. It needs a quad core and an 8800GT to run effectively. It literally crawls with even a single robot on my dual 2GHz laptop!

It definitely sounds like a lot of fun and not being too restricted (I'm doing this more as a filler than anything else) should make it more so and I'm really looking forward to digging in deep. I'll keep this blog updated with progress as things get moving!

Friday, February 15, 2008

They're Running Out!

From Princeton:

Dear Mr. Gallotta:

Thank you for applying to our Graduate School for the 2008-2009 academic year. While I assure you that the materials you submitted were carefully reviewed by the faculty in the Department of Computer Science and by the Graduate School, I regret to inform you that the department did not recommend your admission for the coming year.

The number of places available at Princeton for entering graduate students is extremely limited and we cannot offer admission to all who are well-qualified. Indeed, many departments consistently have applicants who would be admitted without hesitation if the resources were available. Our decisions take into account not only the applicants’ merits, but also the suitability of the department’s programs to the candidates’ expressed interests. Our goal is to achieve a sound match between the strengths of our programs and the interests of the relatively small number of outstanding students that can be accommodated.

We chose to advise you of our decision via email on the assumption that a timely response would outweigh the informality of this means of communication. I would be happy to provide a formal letter upon request.

I wish you success in your plans for graduate study and thank you for considering Princeton University.


William B. Russel

Dean of the Graduate School
So, only two places left: UIUC an Waterloo. And UIUC is the one I really wanted!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

It Won't Be The Bay Area For Me

This just in from UC Berkeley:

I regret to inform you that you have not been accepted for graduate study in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Berkeley campus has a strict enrollment ceiling and thus each department is limited in the number of new students it may admit each year. Our department has the difficult task of selecting students with the strongest overall records from a large pool of well-qualified applicants. Unfortunately, this means we are not able to offer admission to many applicants who are capable of excellent academic work.

I am sorry that we do not have a place for you and hope that you will be able to make other arrangements to achieve your academic goals.


Joe Hellerstein, Vice Chair
EECS Graduate Matters
I'm not sure how wide-spread this his, but a friend tells me he hasn't heard of any South African being accepted by more than two US universities. I can only hope this is the reason I am getting all these negative responses back.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SACO Training Camp One Online

Making the SACO final round and the online training camp available to the general public has proven rather successful, so we're planning on continuing to do so indefinitely. We've been getting lots of participation from TopCoder members, however, we'd really like stronger participation from South Africans. So if you're a South African reading this and are interested or know someone that might be interested please read further.

The first training camp of the year is being held in two weeks time over the weekend of 23-24 February. We'll be holding it online during at the same times as the on-site contest:

To participate, all you have to do is register over here:

If you have already registered for a previous contest, then you don't need to re-register as your account will carry over to the new contest. The coaches will be on IRC, in #saco on the FreeNode network during the contest for any potential issues that may arise. To see what type of problems to expect, have a quick look through the problem archive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

One Down, Four To Go

Just a couple of hours ago, the following hit my inbox:

February 11, 2007

Dear Marco Franco Antonio Gallotta,

Thank you for applying to the Computer Science Ph.D. Program at Stanford University. The Ph.D. Admissions Committee has reviewed your application and we are sorry to inform you that the committee did not recommend you for admission. The number of applicants far exceeds the number of those we can admit, which makes the admissions process a difficult and painstaking one. As a result, many strong candidates must be turned down.

We wish you every success in satisfying your educational and career goals.

Sincerely yours,

Graduate Admissions
Computer Science Department
Stanford University
I'm not sure what my response is to it yet, but it's sinking in fast. This is a big step I'm taking, one which will decide my future for at least the next five years. And now that that the first response has come in, I'm starting to feel very nervous as the rest are likely to start coming through rather soon now. Nervous as hell! I just want it to be over, either way!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Overbooking...The Joy!

Flying is fun. I love it. Well ok, not the flying part, but the travelling bit. But airlines have their way of miraculously screwing up your entire trip...just like that! And the scary thing is, they get can away with it. Maybe I've had bad luck, but I don't think so. I've heard too many bad experiences from others, but this one I just had went a little far.

Two weeks ago I went to Las Vegas. It was a wonderful, amazing experience and I'll post more about this and my trip down to Southern California when I return to South Africa in two weeks. Unfortunately though, we missed out on so much in Vegas. United Airlines are the ones to blame for this, not us.

We were supposed to fly out on Friday evening. I had booked tickets about two weeks in advance, however, I was not able to select seats at the time, which I assumed at the time was due to the flight being rather full. I was travelling with my aunt who was visiting from London and my two roommates from South Africa, Migael and Nick. Migael and Nick booked separately as they were taking a different return flight, but otherwise we were all on the same flight to Las Vegas.

When we checked-in they told us we had to get seats at the gate. This has happened to me enough times already so I hadn't started worrying at all. We get to the gate and they tell us to wait until we're called up. Now that's when a little worry started creeping in. Some time later I overheard them say there were 16 passengers without seats and only 7 available. Soon after they started boarding the plane and still they had not started calling us up. Then only did they make the announcement that they were overbooked and they were asking passengers t step down and get re-routed through Los Angeles arriving in Vegas early the following morning, with the only compensation being out up in a hotel in LA and getting either a free round-trip within the US or $400 United vouchers.

I think I remember about 4 or 5 people taking the offer to step down. We thought about it for a brief moment, but it really wasn't worth losing one of only two nights in Vegas. Most people were busy boarding so they either didn't hear the announcement or didn't have enough time to think about it. I've seen this happen plenty times in Europe, especially at Heathrow, but they know well in advance that they might have an overbooking situation on their hands and they have signs up when you first arrive at the gate so many more people actually take note of it and they have plenty time to consider the option. This was the part about this experience that frustrated me the most -- the complete lack of organisation and prior planning. Non-existent!

Eventually they started assigning seats to those like us without seats. Migael and Nick were one of the first few to be called up and they quickly boarded the plane. However, we waited anxiously while they called up other groups. After a while it appeared as though they had stopped calling people up. They were constantly being overwhelmed by several others that were on standby for the flight after having missed an earlier one trying to find out if there was any possibility they could get on the flight. Their policy, however, was that passengers booked on the flight had precedence over those that had been booted off an earlier flight, even if it was purely the airline's fault! In the position I was in, I was obviously glad this was the case, but looking back I find it rather disturbing that those that are affected just get constantly treated so shockingly and without any consideration whatsoever. It's as if their sole priority is to reduce the number of bad experiences and not dampen the effects in any way whatsoever!

The reality started sinking in when I saw the gate close. They carried on hacking away at their computers as though there was still the slightest possibility they could make something happen, but I knew the truth. It wasn't long before the plane took-off and we were left behind. Yet still they were busy hacking away!! Finally I lost my patience and I was determined to get anything out of them. They told us we could either take the route via LA and arrive in Vegas the following morning or be put on standby for the last flight to Vegas at 22:25. Unfortunately, if we took the standby option and missed it we would also miss the LA flight and only end up arriving in Vegas Saturday evening as all the flights till then were also fully booked. And the later flight was also likely to fall under the exact same overbooking issues we had just experienced! So we were advised to take the flight to LA.

They seemed to take a ridiculously long time to book us onto this LA flight and in that time they finally realised we would be able to make this US Airlines flight to Vegas at 20:30 that evening. However, they couldn't have done a better job at screwing that one up royally. They were on the phone with someone (turned out to be the same person we were to next bump into) to try get us on that flight. They took such a long time and it appeared as though it was US Airways being a pain, but as it turned out it was actually the guy at our end... Only after booking the tickets were we told we had to run all the way to the other terminal. It ended up being about a 10 minute rush to catch the flight. But we arrived only to hear that the gate was closed. Oh dear! Apparently the US Airways staff had told United that the gate had already closed even when they were attempting to purchase the tickets! How far can these guys go?!

By this time time were four of us doing the running up and down together. There was my aunt and I, Sarah who was in the exact same situation as us and was missing a huge party that night due to this gemorse and Yousef who had missed the flight by such a small margin and was trying to follow the same flights we were being put on. When we got back to the United counter we had to start all over again as we couldn't get though security back to those who were originally dealing with us. We got this guy that I swear didn't have an ounce of personality. We would tell him to contact Michelle Hughes who was trying to help us at first, but he would give absolutely no response. But he heard us and eventually we figured he was listening. I don't even feel like getting into this guy any more as I'd just explode.

After waiting patiently yet again he finally came back to us, with the wrong flight!! Sigh...

It took him a while, but finally we got everything sorted out and we were on the flight to LA. We had lunch, waited a bit, boarded the flight and arrived in LA past midnight. You can just imagine what time we arrived at the hotel! And we were to catch a 06:30 flight to Vegas, leaving us about three hours sleep...

Never again! I will remember next time to never ever, never take United Airlines again! Unfortunately my flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt is with them when I return home and I have these $400 vouchers with them, which wonderfully last for only a year.