Posts in 2012

 

APIs, Libraries, and Code

Let’s say you want to display a JPEG-compressed image, calculate Pearson’s correlation coefficient, parse an XML file, or create a key-value store. You can often choose between using the functionality of the application’s platform (Java EE or .NET), calling one of several available external libraries, or writing the code on your own. It isn’t an easy choice because you have many factors to consider. Specifically, you must take into account the task’s complexity, as well as the licensing, quality, and support of competing alternatives. See how you can narrow down your choice by eliminating alternatives at the earliest possible decision point.

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Changes in the Way we View Computing

The Association for Computing Machinery recently released the 2012 version of the ACM Computing Classification System (CCS). This is the work of 120 volunteers and marks significant changes over the previous version, which was released in 1998. To create it the volunteers mined ACM Digital Library search terms and used the services of a specialist company that creates ontologies. To see what has changed in the past 14 years in the way we view computing, I used Wordle to create word clouds from the 1998 and the 2012 versions. Here are the two views of our discipline's Zeitgeist and my take of their differences.

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Programming Languages vs. Fat Fingers

A substitution of a comma with a period in project Mercury's working Fortran code compromised the accuracy of the results, rendering them unsuitable for longer orbital missions. How probable are such events and how does a programming language's design affect their likelihood and severity? In a paper I recently presented at the 4th Annual International Workshop on Evaluation and Usability of Programming Languages and Tools I showed results obtained by randomly perturbing similar programs written in diverse languages to see whether the compiler or run-time system would detect those changes as errors, or whether these would end-up generating incorrect output.

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Chemical Element Trump Cards

I can still remember the weight of the Lancia Stratos car that featured in the Top Trumps cards were playing as children in the 1970s: 870kg. It was the lightest of all the flashy cars in the set, and therefore a much sought-after card. Other card sets that kept us busy included airplanes, motorcycles, and tanks. Through them we learned tens of useless trivia, but also got a feeling of the compromises inherent in engineering. Wondering whether I could leverage such a game to make it even more educational, I created a set of trump cards containing properties of chemical elements.

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Virtualize Me

The virtual machine (VM) is the most dazzling comeback in information technology. IBM implemented a VM platform architecture in the late 1960s in its CP/CMS operating system. The company’s goal was to provide the time-sharing capabilities that its batch-oriented System/360 lacked. Thus a simple control program (CP) created a VM environment where multiple instances of the single-user CMS operating system could run in parallel. Thirty years later, virtualization was rediscovered when companies like VMware found ways to virtualize the less accommodating Intel x86 processor architecture. The popularity of Intel’s platform and the huge amount of software running on it made virtualization an attractive proposition, spawning within a decade tens of proprietary and open source virtualization platforms.

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How to Calculate an Operation's Memory Consumption

How can you determine how much memory is consumed by a specific operation of a Unix program? Valgrind's Massif subsystem could help you in this regard, but it can be difficult to isolate a specific operation from Massif's output. Here is another, simpler way.

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Research Proposal Becomes Reality

Eight years ago I submitted a research proposal for developing a tablet-based game platform for toddlers. Although the proposal was not accepted for funding, it's nice to see the idea becoming a reality through the unveiling of the Toys 'R' Us $150 Tabeo tablet for kids.

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Don't Install Software by Hand

An IT system’s setup and configuration is a serious affair. It increasingly affects us developers mainly due to the proliferation and complexity of internet-facing systems. Fortunately, we can control and conquer this complexity by adopting IT-system configuration management tools.

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Importing an RCS Project into Git

RCS stands for Revision Control System. You may have never heard it, because it's more than a quarter-century old; a paper describing it was published in 1985. Although its commands are still available in most Unix distributions and it's one of the easiest systems to use in a single-user scenario, it is clearly showing its age when compared to more modern systems. Here is how to move an existing project managed with RCS to the 21st century and Git, while preserving all its history.

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Impact Factor of Computer Science Journals 2011

The Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge has published the 2011 Journal Citation Reports. Following similar studies I performed in 2007, '08, '09, '10, and '11, here is my analysis of the current status and trends for the impact factor of computer science journals.

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Why are AWS Command-Line Tools so Slow?

Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud command-line tools are useful building blocks for creating more complex shell scripts. They allow you to start and stop instances, get their status, add tags, manage storage, IP addresses, and so on. They have one big disadvantage: they take a long time to run. For instance, running ec2-describe-instances for six instances takes 19 seconds on an m1.small AWS Linux instance. One answer given, is that this is caused by JVM startup overhead. I found that hard to believe, because on the same machine a Java "hello world" program executes in 120ms, and running ec2-describe-instances --help takes just 321ms. So I set out to investigate, and, using multiple tracing tools and techniques, this is what I found.

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Git

Even by our field’s dizzying rate of progress I wouldn’t expect to revisit the subject of version control just six years after I first wrote about it in this column (Version Control Systems. Software, 22(5):108–109, September/October 2005). Yet here we are. The new kid on the block is git, a distributed revision control system available on all mainstream development platforms through a Free Software license. Git, a brainchild of Linus Torvalds, began its life in 2005 as the revision management system used for coordinating the development of the Linux kernel. Over the years its functionality, portability, efficiency, and third-party adoption have evolved by leaps and bounds to make it its category’s leader. (Two other systems with similar characteristics are Mercurial and Bazaar.)

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How do Big US Firms Use Open Source Software?

We hear a lot about the adoption of open source software, but when I was asked to provide hard evidence there was little I could find. In an article I recently published in the Journal of Systems and Software together with my colleague Vaggelis Giannikas we tried to fill this gap by examining the type of software the US Fortune 1000 companies use in their web-facing operations. The results were not what I was expecting.

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Package Management Systems

DLL hell was a condition that often afflicted unfortunate users of old Microsoft Windows versions. Under it, the installation of one program would render others unusable due to incompatibilities between dynamically linked libraries. Suffering users would have to carefully juggle their conflicting DLLs to find a stable configuration. Similar problems distress any administrator manually installing software that depends on incompatible versions of other helper modules.

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How to Decrypt "Secrets for Android" Files

Secrets for Android is a nifty Android application that allows you to securely store passwords and other sensitive data on your Android phone. Your data are encoded with your supplied password using strong cryptography and are therefore protected if your phone gets stolen. Although the application offers a backup and an export facility, I found both wanting in terms of the availability and confidentiality associated with their use.

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Refactoring on the Cheap

The refactorings that a good integrated development environment can perform are impressive. Yet, there are many reasons to master some cheap-and-cheerful alternative approaches. First, there will always be refactorings that your IDE won’t support. Also, although your IDE might offer excellent refactoring support for some programming languages, it could fall short on others. Modern projects increasingly mix and match implementation languages, and switching to a specialized IDE for each language is burdensome and inefficient. Finally, IDE-provided refactorings resemble an intellectual straightjacket. If you only know how to use the ready-made refactorings, you’ll miss out on opportunities for other code improvements.

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Mind Mapping

In a recent NPR interview the journalist described how I used a mind map to organize my work while I served as Secretary General for Information Systems at the Greek Ministry of Finance. A number of people asked me for more details; if you're interested read on.

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Become a Unix command line wizard
edX MOOC on Unix Tools: Data, Software, and Production Engineering
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Book cover of The Elements of Computing Style
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