Mac GNU/Linux install, i3-wm setup & usage, homebrew, iTerm 2, & other thoughts.

Hello everyone!

So, the semester has had a fair amount of time pass and I decided to finally get a post in about a good amount of things I’ve experienced so far in the class and what not. Alright, so let’s get this started:

Installing GNU/Linux on it’s own partition along side Mac OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.2. Goodness, all I have to say about this is that it was pretty terrible getting things worked out. All the blame is able to be aimed at the almost infinite amount of incorrect and outdated “documentation” there is in a google search. The first time, after a couple tries and trying to tweak various things to get the Linux boot to work or trying blah blah blah to make blah work, I had to ultimately completely restore my Mac from a Time Capsule backup. I upgraded the harddrive in my computer so it was basically going to have to restore around 400GB of stuff back from this time capsule back up so that took about 24 hours. Ha, good start right? This was after screwing around with this first set up terribleness for about 4 hours. This first round of terribleness was caused by something I totally knew about already but had forgotten about at the time making it much more terrible haha. And this was the fact that there is a “security” feature for Mac’s that doesn’t let you boot anything or install anything from bootable devices or CDs if they are connected via a USB port. Just use the CD drive you say? Well, I took out my CD drive to have another HDD installed. So, how did I get GNU/Linux installed? Yeah, you got it. I had to take out the extra HDD, put back in the CD drive, install it to the partition on my original HDD, take the CD drive back out, put back in the extra HDD, and then use my computer like normal. What a mess! But that isn’t the half of it! The first time I did this, I messed up the install. Basically, I think it came down to either you cannot have a /sda/boot partition because the installer will try and write the MBR there AND/OR you CANNOT let the GNU/Linux install write the MBR to Mac’s boot record whatever because it’s a different type of boot record that is called EFI so it will mess things up AND/OR you have to, for sure, write that GNU/Linux MBR to the ROOT ( / ) directory or your life will end instantly AND/OR the ROOT ( / ) has to be the first after all your Mac (and bootcamp Windows install if you were triple booting) so it can see that boot record you installed to that ROOT partition and load up GRUB (or LILO or whatever you decided to use) and load up your GNU/Linux install. Gee, that all seems really simple, doesn’t it? Yeah, not at all. I eventually got it all installed after at least 3 days total of screwing around. Brutally… fun…?

So, wow, that was great! I then had it going in class with mostly everything I needed installed and wanted to switch from the windows manager that came with my install and use i3 (which if you don’t know what i3 is, it’s the windows manager that Darren uses on his GNU/Linux install on his Mac so take a look at that in class). i3 is pretty much the definition of useful and productive. Pretty much very little to no mouse usage, relatively simple hot keys, window management made easy, great stuff. Well, after I first got it installed, I had no idea how to open a terminal window haha. The mouse does nothing on the desktop and there are no menus or anything available (which is fine because that’s the point) but I could not figure it out after 5 minutes so I eventually ended up having to google it from my iPhone haha. OKAY! Got it! mod-return. Mod is whatever key you decided to set it at when you first start and configure i3. Usually, it’s the windows / command key or the alt key. Those are the two most popular. I continue to play around with this and do the first homework assignment on this install. Only a few things that aren’t configured that I need like how to make the laptop go to sleep when I shut the lid, some things about the scroll pad that do some behavior that is goofy like scrolling really fast, things like that. But overall, I got it going nicely. It is still a little annoying having to reboot to do linux homework or what not.

This is where homebrew comes in. On the Mac side, there are a few popular community supported equivalents of yum, apt-get, emerge, etc aka package managers. There is Mac Ports but I’ve used that before and it’s the definition of pain. The more logical, popular, and less painful one is homebrew. Homebrew is awesome. Just like “apt-get install blah” you can do “brew install blah” and it will more than likely have a Mac ported version of the things we have in Unix class. And this allows me to do a few things I couldn’t on my other partition, namely listen to music (I could have configured a music player on my other install but iTunes has everything already together since I’ve been on my Mac side longer), not have to reboot, learn to navigate my computer with the terminal instead of the Finder, etc. So, I eventually got everything set up here all easy (an hour tops I think) and got connected to the IRC server with mosh / ssh and tmux with a little help from Darren after class and bam, I’m pretty much golden!

Darren suggested I check out iTerm 2 which is a better Terminal emulator than the Mac terminal because it adds some slick features. So I did. He wasn’t kidding. iTerm 2 is awesome. I love it. Better hot keys, better usage, plays better with weechat and IRC, just better. So now I leave iTerm 2 full screened and try and basically play in that window more than I do in my other desktop windows essentially making the iTerm 2 terminal my home stomping group over using my mouse to click around. I can’t live in there forever, of course. I have to write blog posts, check scholar, Skype, iTunes, etc, but that’s much less Finder usage which means I’m more efficient. Finder usage is equivalent to slow.

I was going to have another section on “other thoughts” but I think I’ve written more than enough and tortured anyone actually reading this long enough! I will say this though: bash programming is rough. Until next time everyone, stay awesome.

-Mattie (pengii23)
Currently listening to: “Gravel (Original Mix)” by Feed Me

What a great class, amirite!?

Ok, so some of you may not agree (yet) but if you know what’s good for you, you will soon enough! There is nothing better than Unix class, and honest to goodness, there has not been a better version of this class than the one we are currently receiving! I’ve taken this class years ago and dropped it due to too many credits and needing to relieve some stress. So what, you say? A legitimate response. Well, had I been in your position and learning all of which we have already learning as a sophomore or hell, anyone younger than my age and class, I would’ve been much better off in almost all my classes in the future. I can say that for a fact. I love this class right now. I know a lot of what we are learning, but that makes me excited for you all! I love seeing that the things I learned all during my co-op experiences are being taught in classes! I love that so much because you all will be able to take more advantage of your co-op and internship experiences and not learn things like git or GNU/Linux generics, but rather, learn all the specialties the company has to over you. I cannot wait to see what you all do in the future. But hey, I will also be the guy keeping you on your toes because I still know some things you don’t. If you want to know more, you now know where to find me.

Well. until next time everyone, stay awesome.

Mattie, out.

Current Tune (Song by Artist): “Wait (The Killabits Remix)” by Adventure Club && Father Said (ft. Skrillex)” by 12th Planet
Current Preferred Language: Python
Current Fun: Making some fun tunes with Ableton Suite 8 :D and blogging with

Thoughts about the second class

This is my second time taking this part of 2524. Last semester, I had scheduling issues and had to drop it, but I did so after a few weeks of class. Now that I am taking it again, I am going into the class with a different attitude. Now I have gone into the class with some experience with Ubuntu and Shell and bash, and other various ideas that we use in this class, rather than none. I never really thought about it that way, and especially didn't think that my little experience in the class before was enough to make me a lot more comfortable in class now. I look forward to the rest of the semester, and becoming fluent in terminal operations.
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Thoughts about the second class

This is my second time taking this part of 2524. Last semester, I had scheduling issues and had to drop it, but I did so after a few weeks of class. Now that I am taking it again, I am going into the class with a different attitude. Now I have gone into the class with some experience with Ubuntu and Shell and bash, and other various ideas that we use in this class, rather than none. I never really thought about it that way, and especially didn't think that my little experience in the class before was enough to make me a lot more comfortable in class now. I look forward to the rest of the semester, and becoming fluent in terminal operations.
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mxj2524 2013-02-09 07:47:58

Hello everyone, welcome to my ECE2524 blog and this is my first blog post. Taking this class and installing Ubuntu is my first Unix experience. It did take me a while to make it installed successfully. I was planned to make a new partition and install the new system on it. However, creating a partition requires an unallocated disk space that can only be obtained by shrinking an existing partition which, in that way, will cause the disk type to be converted from basic to dynamic. I had no idea about the cons and pros of doing so. Then I was introduced to Ubuntu Windows Installer — a desktop version that needs no free disks or CDs but some free space in your existing partitions. You would install it just like how you install an application on your PC, easy and fast. It works as exactly same as the ordinary version but runs slightly slower.

I had no problem when I installed Ubuntu Windows Installer. However, the initialization was stuck at 100% about 10 minutes when I first ran the system. I did a search on the official forum and it seems like a good amount of people had experienced the same “bug” as they chose this version of Ubuntu, but the problem can be easily fixed by a force reboot and your Ubuntu would work as it is supposed to.

I will be making another post soon to talk about the Unix shell-level commands and, hopefully, some python experiences.

See you all next time.

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Semester in Review

Well, as I’m about 6 hours in* into a 14 hour bus+train journey to Massachusetts I figured this would be a good time to reflect and respond to the past semester which seems to have flown bye.

The Blogs

I really enjoyed the blog assignment. Even though I wasn’t able to write a reply to every post I felt a lot more in sync with how the class as a whole was progressing. When there was confusion or frustration regarding a particular assignment, or just towards the class in general, I was able to respond quickly (I hope!). I feel I learned much more about how the material in ECE2524 was connected both to other courses and to events that interested you outside of coursework (open source gaming, personal server setups, commentary on Ubuntu as a general purpose OS).

There are a couple things I plan to change with the blog assignment with the end goal of adding a little more structure to the syndicated class blog, and hopefully encouraging more of a discussion.

  • enforce “category” and “tag” rules. If you look down the right sidebar of the mother blogyou will see a list of all the categories posts have been made under. The current list is too long and not focused enough to be of any amount of use to someone trying to sift through the many posts for a particular topic. Most of the words used for “categories” should have been “tags” instead, so spending a little time up front talking about the difference I think would be helpful in the long-term organization and usefulness as an archival tool of the blog. Some categories I’ve thought of are:
    • Introspective: reflect on the course itself, whether it be assignments, discussions or structure.
    • Extrospective: explore connections between course material and using *nix systems or applying Unix design philosophy to other courses or events.
    • Social Network: comment on and continue the discussion taking place at VTLUUG and VTCSEC meetings.
    • Instructional: Discussing personal setups and/or workflows. Posts here will have sort of a “tutorial” or “howto” feel.

    There are a couple optional assignments I want to offer that would be linked to blog posts:

    • Learn a Language: There are many benefits to learning a new programming language. From The Pragmatic Programmer, Tip #8 “Invest Regularly in Your Knowledge Portfolio”:
    • Learn at least one new language every year. Different languages solve the same problems in different ways. By learning several different approaches, you can help broaden your thinking and avoid getting stuck in a rut. Additionally, learning many languages is far easier now, thanks to the wealth of freely available software on the Internet

      Throughout the semester those opting to do this assignment would document their progress with their language of choice and share any new ways of thinking or problem solving gained by thinking outside their language comfort zone.

    • Explore an Environment: An assignment suggested (I need to go through the list to recall who made it) has participants try out an alternative desktop environment and/or window manager. Learners participating in this assignment would make regular blog posts documenting their experience with a particular DE.
    • VTLUUG/VTCSEC: There were some issues with the attendance implementation at VTLUUG (in particular) and VTCSEC meetings that frustrated a lot of people and made my life a little more difficult. In addition, an attendance count isn’t really a good metric for the success of this assignment since the purpose isn’t simply to sit in a room for an hour, but to engage with a larger community. Next semester credit will be counted towards the VTLUUG/VTCSEC assignment for blog posts containing targeted discussion and thoughts of the specific topics covered at each meeting.


I noticed several people commented that the Inventory Management assignment was about the time when python and the motivation behind assignments started to “click”. I don’t mind that it takes a few assignments in before connections start clicking, but I would like to try and provide more motivation up front about where each assignment is headed, so that earlier along there is at least a notion of “this is going somewhere”. So I’ve been penciling out a clear, focused progression of assignments that goes from basic text parsing up to something like Inventory Management. That project in particular I am also going to make into a group project so that there is some exposure to using git as a collaborative tool before the final project. It also easily breaks up into sub-modules:

  • Data Parser
  • Command Parser
  • Controller

As the name implies the two parsers make use of text parsing concepts, while the controller is more of an exercise in logical program flow. I think with clear enough specs on what the internal data structures should look like, the three parts should be able to be written mostly independently and then combined into one project.

I would also like to start C/C++ development earlier in the semester. I am going to try and restructure exercises and lecture slides so that C/C++ and Python assignments are interwoven throughout the semester. I hope that this will prevent the feeling that I got that the semester was split into two distinct phases, the “python” phase and “C++” phase. That way the content can follow a logical flow and touching on the merits of each language. A brief example of what I’m thinking about:

  • simple line parsing (one primitive type, e.g. double/int per line)
    • in python
    • in bash
    • in C++
  • processing command line arguments
    • in python
    • in bash
    • in C++
  • parsing text lines into an array structure
    • you get the picture
  • parsing text lines into a hierarchical structure (e.g. command parser)
    • probably drop bash for this case
  • manipulating lists
    • python list comprehension
    • C++ stl algorithms
  • Inventory Management (python)

And I am toying with the idea creating a similar progression (overlapping mostly) that will cover fork/exec, basic IPC with pipe and lead to a simple shell. As I mentioned in the “Think about it” of the pipeline assignment, all were missing to create a basic shell program was a string parser that would parse something like “generator | consumer” into an array. Along those lines, I may adjust example code in the “Make a Makefile” assignment to use flex/bison to generate a simple command parser instead of an arithmetic parser.

As those of you familiar with bash are aware, as the complexity of the algorithms and data structures we work with increase, at some point bash will become overly cumbersome. At this point, it will be relegated to the task of writing unit tests of sorts for each assignment (Thanks to George for the suggested assignment.) This will make bash a more integral part of the course material, there was a notable lack of bash this past semester, which I regret.

Classroom Time

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to use the classroom time effectively in a way that makes everyone want to come. I think it’s really important that everyone shows up regularly, not just those that feel they need some extra guidance, but also those who have been programming in a *nix environment for 10 years. It’s really important because both the novice and expert can learn a lot from each other if they’re in the same room. It also makes my job easier. There are 60 people enrolled in the class in the Spring: it will be nearly impossible for me to check with everyone individually every time there is a typo in an entered command. Getting a second set of eyes looking at everyone’s commands and code will help people avoid extended debugging sessions and make people more aware of common typos and bugs. To that end I would like to do more collaborative discussions in the classroom, and less of me talking. Regarding assignments, I’d like them due and committed to a network accessible git repo at the beginning of class. Then, in class people will pair up, fork each others’ assignment, review, make edits, and initiate a pull request so that the original author can merge in any bug fixes. The grade for the assignment will be determined by a combination of the functionality of the original commit and the merged changes. This probably won’t take place after every assignment, but at least a view of them.

Depending on how efficient we become at fork/review/merge, I’d like to have more discussions like the one we had about the Process Object assignment. I will try to come up with 3 or 4 “make you think” type questions for each assignment and then in class break up into groups, each discussing one question in depth, then come together as a full class and share the response each group had.


I think this post turned into more of a “What I plan to do next semester” more than the reflection I had intended. Because it’s probably already too long I’ll try and come to a close. The first semester I taught this course I pretty much followed the supplied lecture slides and exercises that were given to me. The second semester suffered from “all this stuff should be changed but I don’t have any rhyme or reason to it” syndrome (not unlike second system syndrome that Raymond talks about with regard to Multix). The next couple semesters, ending on the most recent, I have been tweaking and polishing and streamlining. There were still some bumps this past semester that I would like to eliminate (issues with VTLUUG attendance, problems submitting the midterm, lack of clarity on some of the assignments, much too long a delay on returning some of the graded assignments, to name a few), but I’m optimistic that the next revision will address many of them and hopefully provide a smoother and more enjoyable experience for all. Remind me to write another post about my vision for the class :)

*and now I’m 10 hours in… only 4 more to go!

Last Post – Goodbye World!

Okay, not really goodbye, but this is where my blog for this class comes to an end. Yeah, they were kinda cramped and totally all at the end (sorry), but it was seriously good to sit down and reflect on what, throughout the semester, was REALLY worth writing about. Thinking back may be good, but writing about it really helps you think about what you got out of the semester. If it wasn’t particularly significant, you realize it because there’s nothing to write about it.

Improvements? Well for one, I know that physical attendance in class was lackluster at best. Maybe offer an incentive to actually show up? There were quizzes, yes, but they were all online and doable from home, as us college slackers are so quick to figure out. Class was interesting enough, but unfortunately that doesn’t guarantee attendance. I’m not blaming the class itself for this, but a change may be needed. Just a suggestion.

Office hours should be more convenient. There were many times that I feel like I should have gone, but it was only possible to meet on friday–and on friday, I didn’t want to or forgot. Maybe that’s just my issue, but it would have been more convenient to have it on a day that I was going to be on campus, and not ready to crash and go home. Sometimes physical presence is more helpful than gchat? I don’t know, something to think about.

Anyway, I had fun in the class. Writing is a bit cumbersome to me usually (which results in procrastination), but the things learned in class is definitely going to be useful later.

Thanks, and have fun with next year!

-Brian Chen

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Surprisingly, this was not the first semester that I have been to VTLUUG meetings. I had heard about and attended VTLUUG meetings last year, when I knew one of the officers and another friend that attended as well. The officer graduated, so alas me and my friend stopped going. When I found out that going to meetings got us class credit, I was more than willing to go back. While many of the people I knew were no longer there, it was nice to know that the club wouldn’t be completely new, and that I wasn’t just going for class. Granted, the knowledge of most of the people far surpassed my own, so I felt a sort of disconnect between what I could contribute and what they were discussing, but it was better than nothing. They were talking about things that I had no understanding of, so unfortunately meetings could get dull. When they brought up things I had just explored from class, however, it was cool to see how much they knew and how deep that particular thing could get. They also touched on other things, being so technologically inclined, so I learned about a bunch of other things that weren’t necessarily Unix or Linux related, such as tor. Did you know that VT hosts a tor node? I didn’t.


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