Thursday, May 31, 2007


Presumably this is a COLLEGE rather than a HIGH SCHOOL graduation photo.  He's not THAT young.Well, for the first time in a pretty damn long while, I have a boyfriend, pictured at left.

His name is Ed, he's 23, and he's a computer science grad student at the School of Mines.

What? 23?!?

I wish I could say he's extra mature for his age or something, but he seems just kinda regular for his age. (Sorry Ed!)

So what is he like? Pretty much a bit geekier than I am, a certifiable math genius, shy (he claims, though I have seen no evidence of this), argumentative (naturally), and kind of a smartass. In other words, basically what you'd expect.

How did we meet? Funny you should ask. The actual origins of our mutual acquaintance shall remain shrouded in mystery, but the official, CIA-approved answer is "We met at a party."

Life is good :-)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Hiding Assumption Lists & Parnas Partitioning

I'm posting about this both because I think it is interesting and because "hiding assumption lists" is a really poor name, such that I can never remember what it refers to. I don't think you have to know anything about programming to get the gist of this post.

When designing software, one idea that everyone basically subscribes to is making the software "modular." That means instead of having one giant clump of code, you have many smaller clumps. Ideally, each clump kind of does one thing, and doesn't contain too much code. The smallest level of clumps can clump together to form larger modules.

This modularity can mean a lot of specific things in terms of how code is organized, because it takes place on a number of levels and partly depends on what type of programming language you're using, but the more important general question is, how do you decide what things to lump together (or, alternately, what things to separate out)?

A general design principle is that you want to have high cohesion and low coupling. "High cohesion" means that each module handles one thing and not several things. "Low coupling" means that the modules are not interweaved together.

For instance, if we compare the modules of a program to a group of people making dinner, it would be like this. Cohesion (which is good) would be something like one person making the salad, one person making the stir-fry, and another person making the bread. You might get even higher cohesion if you had one person doing all of the vegetable prep (cutting things up), one person running the stove, and another person managing the oven: this way each person's taks would be quite specific. Coupling (which is bad) means, how much do the people have to interact? It's OK if the vegetable prep person interacts once with each person - taking orders for vegetables and filling the orders. But it would be annoying if two people were working on different aspects of the same dish at the same time, so that they constantly had to interact with each other, passing information and ingredients back and forth. What you want is for each person to have a single, coherent task (high cohesion) and also for each person to interact with the others a minimum amount (low coupling).

But "hiding assumption lists" give you a different way to think about design. What you do here is think about what might need to be changed about your program later. Might it be ported to a different type of machine? Might the type of database it uses change? Might the user interface be improved? Your ideas about what changes might occur are the "hiding assumptions" (you assume such-and-such might need to change).

You then divide up your modules (this is the "Parnas Partitioning") such that the changes you assume might be needed will be as easy as possible. For instance, if you think that the form of output might change (maybe right now your program puts information on the monitor, but you think later it might just print everything out to a printer), you might respond by making sure all of your output functions are grouped together, rather than interleaved into all of the other code. That way you'd only have to go to one place to make those changes.

Going back to our dinner-makers, let's guess that we might want to change what type of salad is made. If we originally had the salad-making functions divided up between the veggie-prep person and the salad-maker, it could be annoying to have to tell them both that we now want a caesar salad. (This isn't so bad with humans, because they program themselves, but with code you have to write out - and thus later modify - exact instructions.)

We might have originally had a "make salad" function in both our veggie-prep person (it could say "chop up a head of iceberg lettuce, three tomatoes, and an avocado") and our salad-chef ("when veggie-prep gets you the vegetables, put the lettuce on the bottom, tomatoes and avocado layered on top like so"), and then we'd have to change both in order to change the type of salad. It would make more sense to have the veggie-prep person simply take orders ("5 cups of chopped romaine") and deliver the prepared veggies. That way we'd only have to change our instructions to the salad maker ("order romaine from veggie-prep", etc.), and the salad maker would just give a different order. We'd never have to worry about the veggie-prep person at all in making the change.

The design change I described also results in lower coupling, but the idea is that by thinking in terms of future changes, it's easier to see where the problems are in the design and which ones are most important to fix.

When we first learned about this, I realized that I think about my own code this way all the time. I've hardly done any design ever - I tend to design by coding, which works fine for tiny projects but very poorly for larger ones - but I do think about how easy it will be to change certain things without messing everything else up. I'm always pleased when a formal technique turns out to correspond to something I instinctively do, though it would make more sense to be pleased at the opposite - a new technique that gives a perspective I never thought about.

(Yes I realize the way I talked about people making dinner together is kind of an idiotic way to think about people - "you want a minimum of interaction", etc. - but I only meant it as a highly imperfect metaphor. I am really not like the Borg or anything. "Number 8, slice 2 carrots.")

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

End of Semester Nearing

Yep, it's another boring post about (mostly) school.

This is the last week of classes; next week is Finals. I'll have a final next Tuesday in Software Engineering Principles (swep), and tomorrow I'll get our take-home final for Geometry, which will be due the following Thursday.

I have a pretty decent A average in Geometry so far. According to my calculations, if Dr. T is calculating grades the way he says he is, I need an 80 on the final in order to have an A. Even on the super-hard test that took me a whole week of stress (story here), I got a 97, so that should be easily doable. But I have to admit, I'm hoping it's more like our recent exam, which was pretty easy.

Geometry was an interesting class in the beginning, but as we near the end I've gotten really fatigued with it. Every class is just going through theorems and proofs, and it's just a long slog - the parts of the material that are interesting are spaced too far apart by the parts that are both difficult and boring at the same time. But I only have one more lecture to sit through, so I'll survive.

I anticipated that Geometry would be pretty easy, and it sure hasn't felt that way, though in the end it looks like I'll have a high A, so it must not have been too hard. I did put in some real effort, at least early on. I also hoped this course would make me smarter (not by teaching me geometry, but by working my brain) and it has definitely done that. As a side benefit, it caused me to buy and learn to use Mathematica, which is a huge good thing.

I went into Software Engineering Principles with some dread. I liked the professor, but a friend who's taken him for the next course in this sequence told me it was a ton of work, and basically, my underlying feeling was that I did not actually want to get involved with the "yucky" parts of software engineering - the planning, project management, design diagrams, etc. (as opposed to the "fun" part, the coding). In fact, on the first day of class, Dr. P asked us to state our primary concern about the class, and that was mine ("I think I hate this material").

Well, either I was wrong or I've become a convert, because I've actually loved the material of this class. We started with five students (six if you count the guy who only showed up one time) and are ending up with four, so it's been like a seminar, but it isn't just the format that's been fun - the material has absolutely rocked.

Am I coming out of this feeling equipped to run a software project? Hell, no. But I feel like I have a good idea of what is required to do it, how it might be done fairly well or poorly, and basically what the desired characteristics are. I could certainly run a software project now better than I could before taking the class (though it would likely still be a failure).

And, of course, we've had this fun project. I'm still working on that, and plan to keep working through at least this weekend.

So, speaking of that class, I currently have a low A average. I suspect I'll get an A almost regardless of what I do, since nobody else currently has above a D average, and I've done extremely well on everything other than the midterm, but it would help to get at least a high B on the final exam next Tuesday. I don't have any plans about making that happen, but I've actually been reading the material the second half of the course, so I should be OK.

I'm a bit sad about swep coming to an end - it really has been a lot of fun - but it's satisfying to complete a course, and in general I'm really looking forward to having a relaxed and empty head for at least a few weeks. (I have two easy online courses this summer.)

In those few weeks, Sally is visiting me for a whole week! That's very cool also, especially to consider that she'll be visiting during my relaxed, between-semesters period.

Life is good.