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.

Assignments

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.

Reflection

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 ūüôā

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

Re: the little things of ubuntu

In a recent post thomaswy mentioned some things he liked about the CLI in Ubuntu (Linux in general, running bash in any distribution should yield an extremely consistent experience) and some things he disliked about the GUI. He’s not alone, just do a quick google search for “what I hate about Ubuntu Unity”. ¬†Luckily, there are numerous ways to resolve this. ¬†If you read the “Futures” chapter and other bits about the X-windows system in The Art of Unix Programming you learned that to remain consistent with the Unix design philosophy the¬†designers¬†of X created a clear separation between policy and mechanism. ¬†A result of this is several graphical toolkits available to developers who want to create a GUI, and a result of *this* is many different GUI environments. ¬†Unity is but one of them and just because it comes packaged with Ubuntu doesn’t mean that’s all Ubuntu can use. ¬†If you aren’t in love with Unity, consider some of the alternatives:

Alternatives to Unity

and because it didn’t make it onto the previous list:

Cinnamon

And that is but a small sampling of the graphical environments available for Linux.  A more complete list quickly becomes overwhelming

21 of the Best Free Linux Window Managers

and that still doesn’t include the one I use, i3.

It’s easy to see why Ubuntu, a distribution aimed at the¬†casual¬†user, would opt not to emphasize the amount of choices you have when it comes to picking a graphical environment!

And then many of the environments are¬†further¬†configured through themes and settings to control the look and feel and behavior for events like “click on a minimized window”. ¬†Yes, you can easily spend a day or more finding and configuring the “perfect” desktop. ¬†But that’s what makes Linux fun ūüėČ

Structure, Language and Art

In a recent post tylera5 commented that the last time he wrote poetry was in high school, and wasn’t expecting to have to write a poem for a programming course. I got the idea for a poetry assignment from a friend of mine who teaches a biological science course. She found that the challenge of condensing a technical topic into a 17 syllable Haiku really forces one to think critically about the subject and filter through all the information to shake out the key concept. And poems about tech topics are just fun to read!

I think the benefit is even increased for a programming course. As tylera5 mentioned, both poems had a structure, and he had to think a bit about how to put his thoughts into the structure dictated by the poetry form, whether it be the 5/7/5 syllable structure of a Haiku, or the AABBA rhyming scheme of a limerick.

Poetry is the expression of ideas and thoughts through structured language (and the structure can play a larger or lesser roll depending on the poet, and type of poetry). Programming also is the expression of ideas and thoughts through structured language. The domain of ideas is often more restricted (though not necessarily, this article and book could be the subject of a full post in its own right) and adherence to structure is more strict, but there is an art to both forms of expression.

Are there artistic and expressive tools in other STEM topics as well?

The Tides of Change?

As Linus Torvalds has mentioned in several video interviews, probably the main reason Linux has been lagging behind in the desktop market is that it doesn’t come pre-installed on desktop hardware, and the average computer user just isn’t going to put forth the effort to install a different operating system and configure it* than came with their new machine. Recently Dell caused a bit of¬†excitement¬†with their release of an Ubuntu addition of their “XPS 13: The Ubuntu developers” edition laptop. ¬†To be fair, this is not the first machine that Dell has offered with Linux pre-installed, but it does seem to be the first that they’ve tried pushing to the mainstream (or in this case, developer) community (in the past you really had to make an effort to find the Ubuntu option on their ordering form). ¬†Dell is also not the only desktop distributor to offer systems with Linux pre-loaded (indeed, many of the others exclusively offer Linux¬†machines), but it is probably the brand with the most name recognition to the general audience. ¬†Could this be the beginning of the end of the Microsoft monopoly on the desktop OS market? ¬†I am¬†optimistic!

*Be wary of the blog posts and forum comments that recount stories of installing Linux and being frustrated with the difficulty of getting all the necessary drivers for their hardware and using that as an argument that the OS wasn’t “ready” for prime time. ¬†If you have ever installed Windows on a fresh new machine you will be well aware that it can be just as frustrating. ¬†Windows doesn’t “just work” on the machines you buy because it is a¬†superior¬†OS (it isn’t), it works because the system distributors like Dell take the time to make sure that the necessary drivers for the particular hardware in the machine are all included.