Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Anxiously Flipped

It is 4:57 on Marathon Monday, and by the time you read this, I'm sure you all know what transpired today in Boston at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am grateful to be safely home and am at my keyboard waiting for all my students to check in. As Harvard has classes today, I am optimistic that my students were all in Cambridge, safely out of harm's way. Even so, I'll be happier when I see their messages. If only everyone else would be so lucky.

I figured that blogging might be a distraction from the day's events, but nonetheless, my suspicion is that this will be short and perhaps scattered.

It was a rough week to be a CS161 student. The virtual memory assignment was due on Friday and it is a particularly devilish assignment -- the number of lines of code to write is not huge, but getting the synchronization correct is just downright hard. This sets the students up for a lot of late night debugging, perhaps an all-nighter, and then perhaps a couple of late days. This has all played out reliably over the past many years.

So, this week's status has much less to do with flipping and much more to do with CS161, virtual memory, and why anyone would put themselves through this. For your reading pleasure, I bring to you a Facebook discussion that took place after I posted a note about how guilty I felt coming in at 8:00 AM and finding my students (surprisingly happily) working away, having been up all night. Let me just say that I never looked that happy after an all-nighter.

My original post: There is nothing quite so guilt-inducing as walking into your office at 8:00 am and seeing your students sitting in the lounge working on your problem set after having been working on it all night. Oh wait -- there is -- seeing multiple groups later that day around 4:00 PM -- all of whom have been up all night and are still working. Many of them now have operating systems that mostly support virtual memory, though!

In the following, I have converted names to initials, to provide some shred of anonymity.

  • GK: That last bit, "mostly support virtual memory," reminded me of this and this.
  • MO: that's guilt-inducing? I thought that's what you live for!
  • RH: And yet, it didn't keep you from giving them the assignment in the first place. Hmm! Actually, IIRC, that was the easy assignment. It was the stupid filesystem one that almost killed me. I wonder if these assignments would still seem as hard today as they did 15+ years ago when I did them (am I really that old?).
  • GK: Tell them that in 24 hours Andy Sudduth finished his operating system, finished putting together his HeathKit computer (this was in the early-to-mid 1980s), wrote a full screen editor, and then wrote a paper due the next day in his editor on the computer he built running the OS he wrote. Or, you can tell them what I try to tell myself—start sooner. Editorial note: Yes, Andy Sudduth, Harvard legend and Olympic rower is also a graduate of CS161
  • Me: We've tried many, many things over the years to attempt to make the problem sets less time consuming, but at the end of the day, learning to build and debug asynchronous, multi-threaded programs is just plain hard. And we continue to get the feedback, even years later, that the time is well spent. I have an awesome class of 45 who, although exhausted, still seem deeply happy with what they are doing.
  • GK: And since I mentioned Andy, rest his soul, he also loved that course.
  • PA: I have fond memories of programming such things when using an ascii terminal to an under-powered VAX11/750 running BSD4.2 with it crashing every now and again... your students should be happy their development environment is pretty stable!
  • RH: @Margo: I agree. It was a good class. It retains, however, the distinction of being the only 40-hour-a-week class I ever took. Second place was about half that. @GK: If those students are anything like me, not starting soon enough wasn't the problem.
  • MO: it's no fun without an all-nighter once in a while
  • MO: Of course, I never took the course, just had the enjoyment of watching BF and others suffer through it
  • MW: Wow, 45? That's awesome.
  • PR: It's a public service. Think of of the trouble those students could be getting into if they weren't locked up building an OS.
  • NM: I wonder how many techies at the likes of Google, Facebook, etc. would still get a chill down their spine at the mere mention of "assignment 3"?
  • DK: I still fondly remember our all-nighters in CS161 (with CY). Professor Hsu said we built the class's most elegant OS (everything was based on a common semaphore implementation). And it always ran for at *least* 30 seconds before crashing.
  • CY: I remember the class being a 9 to 5 affair. PM to AM, as that was the only time M, D, and I had in common. And I fear that the elegant semaphores were woefully slow--the guys that used atomic ops to access the priority queue were twice as fast as our version where the semaphores also managed priorities.
  • DK: I think that was also the class where we wondered "what happens if you tell the unix shell while (1) fork() ?" and took down the department compute server for the night.
  • CY: I think it was only microvax-6.husc.harvard.edu, out of of a fleet of 10 or so microvaxen, and not the file server (thank goodness). The Magican's Apprentice moment was priceless, though, as we tried and failed to kill the parent process and started getting "no more processes" messages from our other shells. The next morning, the sysadmins were more worried that we were doing some important computation than about our abuse of the machine--they just power cycled it and everything returned to normal.
  • CY: Actually, the real thing I should say about Prof. Hsu's CS161/261 class is that, of all the hacking classes I took at Harvard, it was by far the most useful in the rest of my career. I think it was the construction of synchronization primitives in a raw environment and figuring out how to debug code built on top of those primitives--there's nothing like it for combining power and danger, and for whatever reason being able to build such things remains a rare skill.
  • DK: I think the "whatever reason" is that we have done such a good job of creating layers that shield students from the "raw environment"---students building a web application in Django have no idea how many layers of complexity are hiding between them and the hardware, and wouldn't know what to do down there. The hard question is whether this is a good thing or bad----given that we have already built the layers, do we want to force every student to really understand them, or is it enough for them to use them?
  • And to make my colleague MM happy, I won't cut this one out DK: As for most useful classes, I've got to flag Umesh Vazirani's CS124, at least to the extent that "useful" means "determined where I am now".

And to top it all off -- this week's picture, straight from China: Tao Stein's students at midnight working on their ray tracer.

Next: Flipped Out (April 22, 2013)

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