Take Apart A Computer: Follow-Up Post

(If you’re here because you want to know what to do with your shiny new Linux DVD, you can skip about the first third of this.)

Today I attended Take Apart A Computer Day, hosted by the Women In Computing club here at UNI. This was kind of a beta test run for a potentially larger event later on.

I worked together with two other girls (if you ladies are reading and want your names here, let me know–but I don’t generally mention names on this blog unless asked, for people’s privacy) on a huge old box. We have no clue if it worked beforehand (the consensus after two professors and all three of us took a crack at testing it was no), but it definitely isn’t working now, so I guess that’s a success. After all, the event isn’t called “Put a Computer Back Together in Full Working Order Day,” and we did get it apart. Eventually.

So, we learned a couple things from the beta run for next time:

  1. Test all the machines beforehand–after moving them.
  2. The test monitors that the computers also need to be tested on a known working box, so we know our testers work. Nothing like screwy monitor settings to make you crazy wondering what’s up with the computer.
  3. Two people is probably a good number for working on a computer together… three is a bit much. Having a partner makes things easier, but six hands is pretty awkward even if the people are friendly.
  4. WHERE IS THE RIGHT SCREWDRIVER. WHAT EVEN IS THE RIGHT SCREWDRIVER. NONE OF THESE SCREWDRIVERS WORK. HOW.
  5. Juice boxes! Yes, this is kind of a tradition with me now: bring juice into a place where it would be very bad to spill juice. But they were still all consumed! On the other hand, we need more people willing to take home pizza that’s been sitting out for a few hours…
  6. Having extra Linux install DVDs to hand out is a good thing! Not necessary, but good–people are curious!

Anyway, I’m sending this post around the WIC mailing list (er… Google group? It’s different from the CedarLUG list, which is legitimately an old-fashioned mailing list). About five of you folks from this event now have Linux test/install DVDs. If I remember right, I handed out a Xubuntu, a Mint, two versions of Debian, and… something else? Maybe that was it.

I’m pretty sure I’ve used each of them at one point, and they should all work even if they’re not all the newest and greatest; I think they’re all the long-term-stable releases so they’ll be fine. If they don’t work for whatever reason, don’t sweat it; email me or whatever and I’ll make more, or if you have blank DVDs lying around (or are willing to buy a pack for $5 at an office supply store), you can make one.

 

Anyway, when I give people techie stuff, I like to make sure they can easily figure out how to use it. (Doesn’t always happen, but I try to.)

So! If you’re curious about Linux and maybe just got a DVD from me, here’s a guide to all the guides I’ve written on the subject:

If you didn’t get a DVD or yours turned out to be a non-functional dud, here’s how to make one.

If you don’t have an optical drive in your computer, or want a more permanent plaything than the DVD, here’s how to make a virtual machine instead.

If you’re confused about the Linux ecosystem, here’s how I learned what I know.

If you’re just confused, period, here’s the FAQ I wrote for another event which involved lots of Linux newbies.

If you just want to run Linux off your DVD to play with it a little, it’s simple. Stick it in the optical drive of your computer, and restart the computer. While it boots, tap F12 (it’s probably F12, but keep an eye out for what key you’re supposed to press for menu options during your computer’s boot sequence) and select “Boot from CD/DVD” in the menu.

The difference between doing that and making a virtual machine is that a virtual machine will save any files you create from session to session (unless you do magic to configure it otherwise). An install DVD won’t save anything, so you get a fresh, clean system every time you start it up.

If that’s not working for you, email me in the list or comment on this post and I’ll try to help. If that still doesn’t work for you, bring the offending computer to the next WIC meeting if it’s portable (let me know what you’re doing so I make sure to come), or invite me over to your place if it’s not/if you can’t attend the meeting. I will help you get a Linux running if that’s something you want.

I’ve installed Linux on some weird old machines and gotten at least workable solutions out of them. Sometimes a setting needs to be tweaked or Google needs to be scoured for information. Sometimes a certain distro just doesn’t like your hardware, and you need to try a different one or download extra driver files or plug your computer into a wired Internet connection or something weird. Such is technology.

That’s usually not the case though. Most installs these days go really smoothly, especially with Mint or Xubuntu.

Speaking of installs, CedarLUG–UNI’s Linux Users Group–is holding a Backup Day pretty soon, and an Install Day sometime after that. If you want in on that, here’s the web site (I coded that! The penguin at the top is a bit of a giveaway…). Subscribing to that mailing list will get you updates on those events, and the occasional computer puzzle.

Happy Linux-ing!

How to make a Linux CD

A CD or DVD with Linux on it is a useful thing to have! There are quite a few things you can do with it:

  • You can try Linux out without installing it. Just putting the CD in the optical drive and running Linux from there won’t touch your main operating system or files. Using it like this can actually help you fix a Windows computer–you can still access the hard drive and back up all the files that are on it from Linux even if Windows is acting weird. (You can also use it to kind of crack into your machine if you’ve been locked out for some reason, but don’t try it on a network because the sysadmin will notice and flip out. You didn’t hear this from me.)
  • You can install Linux alongside or instead of your main OS–be careful about your files if you’re doing a wipe-and-install, of course, and be careful about partitioning your drive too. Make sure you have a backup of at least everything important if you do it this way!
  • You can also install Linux on a virtual machine, although using the .iso file you download from the Internet and burn to the CD works just as well for this.

So how do you make one? It’s pretty easy:

Get yourself a blank CD or DVD.

Some distros won’t fit on a CD and you’ll have to use a DVD. If you don’t know what this means yet, get a DVD.

Pick a Linux distribution (or “distro”).

There are lots of different “flavors” of Linux. They might look a little different, or be designed for special systems or specific groups of users.

If you’re new to all this, I suggest Mint or Xubuntu. They look a lot like Windows, so they’ll seem familiar, but they’re way better! And they’re a breeze to install. Normal Ubuntu I wouldn’t recommend as a first distro, actually; the user interface it comes with is kind of clunky. The only difference Xubuntu has is that it looks simpler and that makes it a little easier to use.

If you’re curious or you’ve tried this before, try searching around for a distro that’s particularly suited to you. I’m quite fond of Debian, but I’ve been playing with Elementary, which looks more like Mac OS X than the normal Windowsy-looking interfaces.

Mint and Xubuntu are great general-purpose distros. Xubuntu is probably the better one on older computers–I’ve made a ten-year-old box on two gigs of RAM run like a decent computer by installing Xubuntu. If your computer is THAT old, you’ll want 32-bit; otherwise, use 64-bit.

A word about some terms you’ll see. Unless you’re developing or testing for the distro as a project–in other words, if you’re a normal user–you won’t want to use the development versions. Anything that says “nightly release” or whatever, stay away from using as a main operating system because it’s still in testing.

“LTS” means “long term stable.” That is a GOOD thing to download. It may not be the very most recent version, but it’s a well-tested one that’s going to be supported for a reasonably long time.

You can also just get the most recent stable release. Those or LTS releases will be fine.

Download the .iso file

Either from the Internet directly or as a torrent. Googling the name of your distro should make it pop up. Where possible, always use a download link suggested on the project web site. There are probably multiple “mirrors” to download from; try to choose one that is on the same continent as you.

Any computer with 4 gigs of RAM or more should be using 64-bit operating systems. That’s probably what you want unless your computer is really old.

If this is your first time, I’ll make it easy on you. Here’s the download page for the latest Mint (64-bit, Cinnamon desktop), and here’s the download page for Xubuntu.

A torrent is a more reliable way of getting a distro if you have a torrent client set up. They’ll keep going even if they’re interrupted, and they’re less expensive for the maintainers. However, the clients are kind of tricky to set up, at least in my experience. There’s nothing wrong or sketchy about torrenting Linux distros–you can use torrent clients to get hold of sketchy Internet stuff, but that’s not what we’re doing here, this is super innocent and it’s just another way to get your .iso file.

Burn the .iso file to the CD

You probably know how to do this on your computer. If not, Google it. It’s pretty simple.

Label the CD, and maybe put it in a paper sleeve

Lots of people forget to do this, and it’s really confusing! Make sure you mark your CD with the distro name (e.g. Linux Mint), the version number (e.g. 18), and whether it’s 32- or 64-bit (probably 64).

Optional but fun: Burn more CDs for your friends

Self-explanatory.

“Did you get it to do that thing you were trying?”

“I figured out how to install programs!”

“I found a tutorial about the command line!”

“My resolution is acting funny, anyone have ideas about that?”

This is why Linux User Groups exist. Get enough nerds in one room playing with a shiny toy and something fun is going to happen.

 

Happy hacking!

New toy?

Kotlin

I read about this language on Medium, and I’ll let you go read that instead of writing about it here. Basically, it’s trying to be Java cleaned up, with all the libraries and support and the JVM intact. I have no clue how well that’s working.

In addition to the features listed in that article, semicolons are optional in Kotlin–and it’s kind of funny-sad how keen the web site is to point this feature out.

Data Structures: a rant

(If you’re curious, the textbook from this class–and the source of the explanatory links I’m using in this post–is available online free here: http://interactivepython.org/runestone/static/pythonds/index.html)

– – –

I just got out of another Data Structures class. I zoned out halfway through, which is somewhat unusual for me. Happens more often in Data Structures, because the class starts at 8AM. (Fortunately, I think I found a less winding route to cut down on my time walking to class–hopefully the shortcut will make me less prone to lateness. I am not a morning person. I tend to dream about waking up and going to class. I’ve even slept through the 10AM labs, which is ridiculous and frustrating–but also kind of understandable, because they’re on the day after the 8AM class, and my brain is trying to get rid of its sleep debt.)

But that’s not really why I started tuning out the professor’s lecture today. It was the result of another impractical implementation on the projector, at which point a thought struck me:

If these data structures are so useful, why aren’t they part of the language already?

Python (which is what we’re using, 3.5 at that) is not a dinosaur, and most of the math for these data structures was done like fifty years ago. I’d understand if the point was to get C to be more efficient, but most people don’t even code in C any more. It’s not the right tool for very many of the jobs we have to do.

In fact, this class seems closer to a language design course than something practical to software development. I know that’s the point of the high-flown “computer science” department, but… come on. Even interviewers are getting the idea that this kind of question doesn’t matter that much in the real world. It seems more to me like something to be learned on the fly, when needed. Which in practice would probably just mean memorizing Cracking the Coding Interview because you need a job.

Why does this theory class have to be so… theoretical?

I wish the teacher would spend some time telling us when to use these structures, rather than just what they are and how they’re implemented. Otherwise I think this course may do more harm than good.

Why in the world would you ever use a singly-linked list? Most languages–and especially the ones most commonly in use–have array or list structures of their own, which are 1) optimized for you, 2) don’t require extra code, 3) have been tested far more thoroughly than your code ever will be and are thus more stable and predictable, and 4) don’t confuse the hell out of other people who come in and read your program!

Why in the world would you bother implementing a doubly-linked list either, unless you’re coding a programming language of your own?! None of this makes sense! We have a dedicated class for language design! We have a dedicated class for C programming! Why isn’t it in there instead?!

Ahem. *deep breath*

Hash tables are kind of cool, and so are binary heaps (although they’re less practical). My affection for their clever hackitude is rather stifled by the suspicion that, again, they’d probably be built-in structures if they were that useful. Like Python dicts–those are hash tables behind the scenes. Use those. Everyone knows what they are and you don’t have to code them yourself.

If you’re working with large amounts of data, hash tables and binary heaps could be useful. But the professor doesn’t talk about when, just how to use them. If you’re not working with big data, chances are you just need a dict or list, and can spare yourself and others the experience of trying to interpret your weird code later.

But the professor doesn’t talk about that kind of thing. I wonder if he’s getting homework assignments that use this stuff unnecessarily. He hasn’t been taking points off mine because my work still does what the spec asks for, as clearly/briefly/user-friendly-ly as possible. I haven’t been looking for ways one might use weird data structures in the assignments, so I don’t know if they’re designed to invite us to use them or what.

He also covered recursion, which I think is very useful–again, if you know when to use it, which depends both on the problem you’re solving and the language you’re using. I will casually use recursion to make my code cleaner-looking even if it isn’t always the most efficient option (in Python). But that’s for readability. Mostly I use it when I’m getting user input, and I stick the prompt in its own method and loop if I get bad input. That lets me put all the lengthy, messy error-checking off somewhere and the main program will get back a good value.

I think this practice is supposed to be kind of evil according to functional programming, because user input functions aren’t pure functions? Or maybe, because I’ve sectioned them off and make sure they return good values, they’re exactly what you’re supposed to do in functional programming. Don’t know yet. It works, anyway.

I still use “else:” almost exclusively for “Can’t Happen” errors. It saves me headaches when I screw up the recursion. That’s a minor change with using recursion, but it’s an issue only while writing; I’ll put in extra effort when I’m writing the program to make sure it’s easier to read later.

What I will not do is write code whose purpose is to make me look or feel clever for writing it a certain way. That’s insane. Sacrificing readability, even efficiency because you think it’s cooler to use some homebrew data structure code rather than a freaking built-in Python list? That’s absolutely insane.

When interviewers select for people who know how to do this, I wonder if they realize they may be selecting for a subset which includes the actual worst candidates: the smug “Of course I know everything, if you lesser mortals don’t, that’s your problem, Google it, and also I have very strong opinions about i++ vs. ++i and will totally correct you if you’re wrong.” Fools and incompetents may eventually learn. This person doesn’t think they have to.

(Of course, sometimes a person like that is useful to look impressive in customer meetings, but in my admittedly limited experience, they’re just as likely to insult your customers as to impress them. Ever seen a bunch of startups pitch? Some of those folks need an attitude adjustment. Of course, they’re going to fail; it’s hard to have enough empathy with customers to produce a good product if you have such scorn and disdain for their intelligence. Then they’ll claim they went under because they “failed to pivot.”)

Oh, one more thing. Big-O notation is pretty useful. Even if your main use for it is understanding what other people are talking about, and/or making yourself look impressive. It’s so you can find out which of two algorithms is more efficient, which will probably be something you’ll need to do eventually. It looks way more complicated than it is.

I could very well be wrong about this, and I’d be pleased to find out if I were. I’d love to find something that’d make me a better programmer. I’d be terribly pleased to find out I wasn’t learning something nearly useless. But I don’t think that’s the case.

The CS math course I have (enigmatically titled “Discrete Structures”… I have yet to find out why, unless the reason is “because it sounds fancy”) seems a little more practical at least. Logical thinking comes pretty naturally to me, but I know it doesn’t to everyone, so it makes sense to cover it. I know there’s also set theory, graph theory, and combinatorics later on in the course, and I’ve heard those are good things to know for programming. I guess I’ll find out.

Oddly enough, it’s my English course that’s the most practical. The professor decided to forego the traditional giant clunky writing textbook and told us to order this list of like eight different short story collections, which we read and then write and talk about. That takes up about half our class periods. The other half (each day is dedicated to one or the other) is the professor talking about writing: elements of stories in general that are important (like what the stakes are–is war at risk, for instance?), writing style (like sentence structure, word choice, voice, POV), what it means to have universal appeal, what it means to capture an audience and how to get their attention–and especially the skills of critical thinking and backing up your claims.

This format is a little odd for a class called “College Writing and Research”–but it isn’t bad. I think it’s more effective than the normal route. No writer I know learned writing out of a big clunky textbook, or by doing essays on symbolism in Dickens or whether school uniforms are a good idea.

Since CS folks often point and laugh at the liberal arts, saying their study is useless bull and all those English majors should be studying something useful and practical (like computer science of course), well… I have an uncomfortable piece of news.

Not that I’m saying majoring in English is more likely to get you a job (although it’s better off than, say, Gender Studies). But knowing how to write effectively, which my English class will teach you, is far more practical than knowing how to invert a binary tree.

Sorry, prof.

Please read the comments.

There’s a new site I’m excited about

Hashnode – An open, friendly and conversational community for software developers

Remember when Atwood and Spolsky were developing StackOverflow, and their informal pitch was, “We’re like Experts Exchange, but without the evil”?

Hashnode is like StackOverflow, but without the evil.

Don’t get me wrong–SO is still a powerful resource, especially if you’re after something fairly simple and the question has already been asked. But the community is so huge that the moderators–who are supposed to be a result of Atwood’s valiant attempt at designing a system for the community to govern itself–have become Julius Caesar… and the system kind of needs a Brutus. If you know what I mean.

Basically, what I’m saying is: SO is a great resource, but not a great community any more.

Anyway, Hashnode looks to be more casual. It’s still a smallish community, or at least it feels small, and it looks like there isn’t so much policing.

I think SO’s problems are mostly just a result of its bigness, and also the fact that employers want to see a StackOverflow account on a dev’s resume, with as many points as possible. A tool meant for collaboration has become the subject of competition.

The solution to the bigness is the breakup of SO’s monopoly. I think there are several other sites cropping up to take its place, or at least take the load off; if you look in the comments on that article (which is where I found Hashnode), there appear to be a few different options that hopefully aren’t so dictatorial.

I suggest you join one, if you don’t belong to a forum or something already. Dream In Code is okay, if I remember right, but there was something about it that made me not stick around. Don’t remember what it was. Probably my own inexperience and inability to contribute; it was a while ago.

I don’t think Hashnode has that problem. They’re making a point of trying to welcome beginners. Anyway, you might want to check it out.

Happy hacking!

Encouragement

The last of today’s post trio; the three have a common thread.

There are loads of Internet people who will tell you how to do stuff, or give you cheesy motivation posts that are all the same except for their peppering of spurious advice that rotates in and out depending on the latest fads (“Get up early! Drink 8 glasses of water daily! Do a juice cleanse!”). This isn’t that.

If you’re trying to learn to code (that is, you’ve decided you still want to, not because other people have pressured you into learning), this post is for you to bookmark and return to when you’re feeling apathetic.

Because if you’re feeling apathetic, we lose something important. Your work is important.

What you’re doing is developing the kind of abilities that let you tinker with the world around you. Your ideas, if you choose to pursue them, can change how other people live. You can extend what humans are capable of.

You’re a maker. You’re powerful. You fix things. You solve problems. You’re capable. You’re creative. You’re clever. You’re sitting on a lot of potential. Whether you can feel it right now or not, you have all this pent-up energy waiting to be released into something.

Your code is art. With your mind alone you can make things that are not only beautiful and elegant, but serve a purpose.

Half the companies in America want to hire people like you because of the things you can do. No matter how you seem on the outside, your mind is a powerful tool. You’re among the relative few who understand a chunk of what’s going on with computers. Your skill set is prized and not common enough to fill the massive, gaping need for the things you can create.

And you’re getting better and better.

You can’t be apathetic. You can’t put yourself down. If coding is what you want to do, you can’t keep putting it off.

We need you too much.

We need the people who developed and maintained Kiva Loans so that struggling business owners and entrepreneurs in countries around the world could move out of poverty.

We need this guy and OptiKey, his open source software project that uses optical tracking to let people with motor and speech limitations use computers.

We need the people who are running OpenMRS, a medical record system designed for use in developing countries and now used basically everywhere.

We need the many, many open courseware projects that provide education to people around the world who might not otherwise have access to that knowledge.

We need the people who are building a bridge into a world that is way better than the one we live in now.

We need you, and those learning around you, to hold up the bridge with us. It’s a very important bridge and lots of people need to walk across.

Every time you build something, or answer someone’s question, or successfully learn something new, you are creating something incredibly valuable that didn’t exist before. And especially when you give away something other people will use, or even that other people are paying you for making (assuming they’re not terrible people)–that means you have changed a piece of the world.

Never forget how powerful you are.

I believe in you.

On impostor syndrome

I’m feeling pretty good about my skills lately. Maybe I’m realizing I didn’t have quite so much “catching up” to do as I thought. The theory stuff I’m learning in my classes is useful, but not as complicated as it looks.

(Well, most of it. Some of it is. Though I’m starting to pick up on the idea that if I don’t understand a recursive algorithm, it probably wasn’t efficient anyway–and if I don’t understand it [I’m usually good at this sort of thing] then it better be a darn good optimization hack for me to use such an unreadable piece of code. My standards may change as I’m learning Clojure, though.)

I dislike the whole “impostor syndrome” craze. If you read tech articles on Medium and Quora and so on, everyone and their dog has impostor syndrome. Saying you have impostor syndrome is like this big, socially-acceptable, self-contradictory humble-brag: “I’m actually a genius but I don’t think I am.”

It makes about as much sense as the girls who listen to “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” on repeat:

“You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh, / That’s what makes you beautiful”

and then say, “Omigosh, 1D just totally gets me.

First off, the point is that you don’t know, so if you acknowledge the song as something you relate to then you’re canceling out your own point. Second, this song is about how the singer finds it super attractive that you have no self-esteem. Catchy.

When you’re a beginner, of course you’re looking around and thinking, “Wow, everyone else knows so much more than me.” Because they do, duh, you’re a beginner. And you’re going to be a beginner for at least a few months. If you start calling your thoughts “impostor syndrome” at this point, you’re deluding yourself. On the other hand, you need to trust your ability to learn. Just don’t underestimate that it’s going to take some work and you’re not there already.

Impostor syndrome is when you’ve still got this mindset, but you’ve also got concrete evidence that your mindset is flawed, which you then brush off by thinking that everyone else is some kind of idiot you’ve fooled into believing you have way more technical knowledge than you do.

Listen, you have respect for the other techies around you, right? Anyone you talk to on forums, StackOverflow, GitHub, your school/bootcamp/job. (If you’re roughing it alone, try to connect with someone. It helps.) If any of them are actually worthy of that respect, they can smell technical BS from a mile off. That’s a skill we all develop. If they were going to suddenly find out you’re not as skilled as they thought you were, it’d have happened a long time ago.

It’s hard to feel like you’re making progress when you can’t measure your own skill. I get it. Nobody in tech knows how good they are at what they do; we can estimate, or take the judgment of those around us. And the problem with the latter is that most everyone else is as insecure as you are, and some of them will lowball you to feel better about their own skills, while others will try to flatter you so you’ll like them.

Listen. There’s a solution to this. Not a perfect one, but one all the same.

You have to build stuff. You have to solve problems. You have to read code. You have to write code.

Empirical evidence of your own skill grounds you. It puts a lower boundary on where you are. It gives other people something tangible to assess you on. Working on something real will tell you very quickly whether you’re out of your depth or just underestimating yourself.

Here’s how you tell the difference: If you’re super confused and have to look everything up before you can do any real work, you’re just underestimating yourself. If you’re actually out of your depth, you don’t even know where to start. Misleading, I know.

The problem with the advice “just build stuff!” is that it’s really freaking hard to start. You don’t know what to make. The things you want to make are complicated. You don’t have the syntax memorized. You don’t know how to split things up sensibly into different methods or files. That’s a big problem with programmers who are just past the point of doing lots of tutorials. You don’t know where to start, and it seems like you should go back to the tutorials and learn more, because that’s usually how it works. But in this case, it’s doubly misleading. The bigness of open-source and the complexity of many of its projects are also terribly confusing.

In practice, impostor syndrome is a lack of information about your own ability. So do the scientific thing and experiment. Run some tests. And remember that, with more practice, you can change the results.

Related sidenote

Listen, I’ve been thinking about writing some more how-tos. Programming how-tos, not the Linux ones from before.

And I wonder if I might also accept some… I guess students? Mentees? Just informally. If you try to do one of my programming tutorials and you post your code on GitHub, and then drop a line here, I could look at it and help you get unstuck or suggest improvements or that kind of thing.

I can’t promise a specific response time or anything that formal. And I know some of you don’t really qualify to be my students, because you’re legitimately better programmers than I am. But otherwise, I might help you learn something new, and/or feel a little more confident about your skills.

Is that something you might be interested in?