POSSE 2011 at RIT: End of the Trail

meme: if u in posse, y u no got gun?

courtesy memegenerator.net

What an interesting week! Five fun-filled days living, breathing, eating, drinking, and sleeping (well, maybe not as much sleeping as I should have done) the Open Source Life.

I and about a dozen fellow professors and a few grad students participated in the Professor’s Open Source Summer Experience (POSSE). It was all about contributing to open source through teaching open source development. See my page on the TOS Wiki for my thoughts on the week.

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Anatomy of an Open Source Community

spine, from Gray
The Case Approach

Some learning is cognitive. “Do A, then you’ll get B.” On the other hand, some things you need to learn are less cut-and-dried; pedagogically, we refer to these topics as method. How do you teach method? The Harvard Law School pioneered the case approach, and revolutionized legal education. How do open source communities work? That’s a methods question. Here’s a cursory case study of the community that maintains a very successful open source project, GNU/Octave, or, henceforth, simply “Octave.”

What is Octave?

First of all, what is Octave? Octave is an interpreted numerical environment that efficiently handles arrays, matrices, and higher-dimensioned analog, with applications in science and engineering. There are loads of “toolboxes” to do statistical tests, optimization, control, and other fun things.

Primary language: C++, accounting for approximately half; Octave itself about 14%, with remainder distributed among several others.

The licensing is likewise diverse, though the bulk of the files were under GPL version 2 or 3.

Divide and Konquer

There is a large development community. ohloh identified 195 contributors, and 26 individuals committed changes last month. The contributors come from several continents. We identified two channels of communication (there are probably more): an IRC channel (#octave) on Freenode, and mailing lists for users and maintainers, respectively. Given the geographic distribution of the community, it is not surprising that more traffic was seen on the mailing lists than IRC.

One of the reasons why Octave has what seems like a large ratio of committers to contributors-at-large is attributable to the structure of the project. In addition to the base language, there are numerous files (many written in Octave itself, others from compiled sources for performance) that perform core operations, as well as the numerous toolkits mentioned earlier. Each toolkit can function and exist more or less independently from the others, so a “divide and conquer” methodology can work.

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Git Up To Date

Time to jump into a third-generation source control paradigm. I’ve used SCCS (pre-Y2K) and RCS, and have built a number of projects by grabbing their SVN repositories. Chris Tyler did a half-hour jump-start on Git, but I know I’ll need to refer to more than my notes. Here are links to some resources:

From the horse’s mouth, as it were:

http://www.kernel.org/pub/software/scm/git/docs/gittutorial.html

(You may already have this installed; try man gittorial)

A collection of links (with screenshots) of after-market how-tos, apparently targeted at web developers:

http://sixrevisions.com/resources/git-tutorials-beginners/

*photo by Ron Baker, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia commons

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Are we there yet?

Over two decades ago, professor Guy Johnson and I worked together on a photographic light meter simulation program for an instant camera manufacturer. “What’s software engineering all about?” I asked him. “Mainly, it’s about working with people,” was his sage reply.

The second half of our first day was spent getting our feet wet with collaboration tools — things we’ll need to work with other people, especially those at more than arm’s length away.

After some frustrations with the wiki, irc, and blogs, there were more than a few murmurs of “When can we start coding?” Sort of like kids asking “Are we there yet?” when a long car trip is only just beginning.

What will the next few days hold? I am confident the impatience will not devolve into what afflicted the “gentleman” in this clip:

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A man, a .plan…

What’s your .plan file say? (You can cat ~/.plan, if you’ve got one.) My old colleague con Hermano Nathan Moroney’s used to say in the mid 1990’s:

> cat ~nmmrc/.plan
A man, a .plan, a canal, Panama
>

Plans have gotten longer since then. Here’s a link to my plan for the week:

Gibson Explorer electric guitar

http://teachingopensource.org/index.php/Electric_Guitar_Pickup_Transfer_Function

It may not yield 42, but it may answer that age-old question:

Thenneck: What’s the quefrency?

(If you get that one, you just may be a saphe cracker.)

Enjoy.

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Joinin’ the POSSE!

I’m participating in the Professor’s Open Source Summer Experience 2011 at RIT. Highlights of my experiences will be logged here.

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