It has now passed a little more than a week since my first semester officially ended. That was a tiresome (and stressing) exam phase but fortunately it's now over. And with good results as well! Managed to obtain 5 "matrículas de honor" which is the equivalent to first class honours in English-speaking countries. Seeing as I was only registered in 5 classes, it couldn't have been better! Although I must say, I do prefer the examination system used by IST where you have 2 exam rounds and where you can complete most of the classes by performing multiple tests as opposed to a single monolithic exam.
As for the classes and the teachers themselves, I'm quite satisfied. As always, you get good teachers and not-so-good teachers and some subjects are inherently more interesting than others but overall I'd say I'm satisfied. Especially liked the Distributed Systems labs where each 2 weeks we would implement a distributed system in Erlang using one of the mechanisms/algorithms taught on the theory lectures. The Information Security labs were also quite entertaining but some felt quite outdated (why the hell would a pot dealer keep information about his provider on a FAT12 disquette?). And it was also quite rewarding to see the final project of AMPP (Algorithms and Models for Parallel Programming) take shape and to interact with a super computer (BSC Minotauro). Granted this last part is not that different from a normal SSH session to a remote host but cmon!! It's a super computer!
During the days after the last exam (which was at 8AM on the 21st January, making me get up at 6:30AM) some of my EMDC colleagues and I decided to do some more sightseeing. Most of us still had not been to Tibidabo and as the weather was predicted to be quite good last Friday, we decided to schedule a trip there. From the Diagonal metro station one can take the FGC train up to Av. Tibidabo and, once there, there's a bus that stops on the other side of the road which takes you to the start of the "funicular" (cable car). Unfortunately the cable car was not operational when we went there (or maybe it was and we just didn't notice ah ah). We took the 1-hour walk to the top and it was very rewarding. The track runs along the side of the mountain and you get amazing views of the city of Barcelona as you can see from the photos below. On the top there's a 5-star hotel as well as a church. On the "terrace" (if you can call it that) of the church you were at the highest free-access point in Barcelona (unless you were willing to pay 2€ and take the elevator up to the second terrace). The wind was quite chilly but as the sun was shining bright, if you sat against a wall you could feel a relaxing warmth. For the trip down we took a small bus whose stop was right in front of the church (I would have gone down walking but alas my EMDC friends turned out to be quite lazy).
The next day, we went to visit Tarragona. It's a relatively small city 1-hour away from Barcelona by train. The weather was once again beautiful and the vast expanse of sea nearby offered a refreshing variation from Barcelona's city centre. The main landmarks of Tarragona are a bunch of ruins, walls and churches, some of them dating back to the Roman Empire. For those that enjoy long walks (or better yet, bycicle rides) there are extensive tracks (the whole track network easily has more than 20km in length) passing through each of the major landmarks. We started by visiting the ruins of a Roman anphitheatre but only from the outside as to go inside you had to pay 3.5€. Then we moved on to the old city centre where you can see some old walls as well as several museums and churches. We happened upon a small vegetable market on the main plaza and took the opportunity to grab something to eat. I ate this delicious freshly-baked mini-apple pie which had me begging for more. However, one has to mind his diet wink. Our search for more ruins led us to the rich part of the city with some really beautiful streets and condos. From there, we went to the coast before going for lunch at the new city centre. Ate a 2-plate menu starting with a tortilla and salad, moving on to some grilled fish and potatoes and finishing with a cup of hot cocoa. After lunch, we walked down the Nova Rambla avenue to catch a bus that would lead us to the rest of the ruins located on the outskirts of the city and immersed into the forest. I really enjoyed walking there, surrounded by all the nature and having the occasional opportunity to explore some hidden structures.
Also of interest was the Facebook Hacker Cup. For those who don't know what it is, it's a programming competition where you are presented with algorithmic problems and are asked to create a program to solve them. Prizes for the finalists can go up to 10000$ not to mention the prestige associated with such an achievement. The qualification round lasted from Friday, the 25th to Sunday, the 27th. Since I spent Friday and Saturday on the previously mentioned trips, that left Sunday to do some coding. Some of us from EMDC gathered at Leo's (he's also in the EMDC programme) to have a coding afternoon. The competition is individual but it is always better when you can take some breaks to chat and drink with your friends smiley. I passed the qualification round with 2 out of 3 correct implementations (although just 1 would suffice). I was a little too eager to submit my 3rd implementation and didn't test it with large input values which made the application struggle to provide the answer in the allotted time (6 minutes). The next round is in 2 days, on the 2nd of February so lets see how that one goes! I'll certainly be more careful with my testing!
From the 6th to the 9th of February, all EMDC students that entered in the programme this year (both the ones staying in Portugal as well as those of us staying in Spain) are going to a snow-trip to Vall de Núria. We'll have an opportunity to get to know one another and there'll also be some talks by EMDC alumni and current 2nd year students, from the EMDC coordinators at each country and from a Microsoft spokesperson highlighting the main things we will be doing the next semesters, giving us a view of possible research areas and professional opportunities. In between there will also be some time for some skiing and/or hiking. Since I didn't have adequate clothing/shoes for such an environment, yesterday I went to Decathlon and bought some snow pants, gloves, a scarf, breathable and warm pants and torso underwear, a nice 2 layered impermeable jacket and some lightweight snow boots.
I've also resumed work on an Android application I started back in August for tracking personal expenses. I've been getting by with CashTrack but there are certain details I'd like to improve and I wanted to work on a big Android project to force myself into getting my hands dirty with the SDK. It has been coming along pretty well and if things continue to go smoothly I might be able to deliver an initial version by the start of next semester.