How much math you need for programming

December 5, 2014 at 10:47 am | Posted in art, Hacking, Patterns, Programming | Leave a comment
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Whenever I wanted to learn Algorithms, Mathematics used there somehow seemed to be an obstacle. I admit my Math is not that good but it ain’t that bad either but this “ain’t bad” level of knowledge was not enough to learn Algorithms and the time and space complexities involved and comparisons of sorting and searching techniques which are at the heart of measuring performance of computer programs. I needed to learn all these and in that search I came across several articles written on Mathematics required for programming. I will explain what did I learn from these articles. When it comes to programming, most loudly known math-proponent is Steve Yegge. Here is what I have found on Math required for programming:

  1. Steve Summit notes on Math (author of brilliantly written C-FAQs)
  2. Steve Yegge who has written two articles Math Everyday and Math for Programmers
  3. Eric S. Raymond talks about how much math you need to become a Hacker
  4. Paul Graham on Math
  5. Evan Miller’s article as reply to 3 authors above
  6. Steven Noble wrote an article as reply to Evan Miller’s example of calculating fibonacci numbers

If you do not read all of those above then you will miss the intent of my blog post. As per Steve Summit, Eric Raymond and Paul Graham, you do not need to focus much on Math to become a brilliant programmer, a hacker, the most decorated word for a programmer (I do not mean Crackers who break into computers and steal private data. Read Wikipedia definition and Eric Raymond’s article on definition of a hacker). Steven Noble says you should learn a little bit of Math and Evan Miller somehow seems to agree with all of them but in a bitter way. I myself started programming just for the love of it. Since 2009, professionally, I am progrmming mostly in C, sometimes in C++ and almost always on Linux and sometimes on UNIX. My passion for programming has made me read and write code in many different languages where I had to learn different ways of thinking. Writing code is easy, thinking along the lines of the paradigm on the top of which a particular language was modeled is a tough, daunting and very time consuming task. I have always tried to do my best and got good amount of experience doing that. I think I am qualified enough to write smo comments about those articles mentioned above. So, let me tell you one thing very clearly: Computer Prgrommaing is not Math. Let me say it again, computer programming is not Math and will never be. You want to learn computer programming, then learn computer prgramming. Do not flip through Math books, read whatever is written on a particular newsgroup (comp.lang.c, comp.lang.lisp for example), read about all the software that came from GNU and use Linux distro exclusively for everday tasks (I prefer a distro with least amount of binary blob). If you are learning lot of Math because you want to learn computer programming then you are confused and headed in the wrong direction and you will not learn much of programming. Except in the speialized fields like 3D game programming etc., you only need Math as much mentioned by Steve Summit.

As computer programmers, we write programs, but why ? We write programs to solve problems of this world. That is what computer programmers do, they solve problems.

Now what does does a mathematician do ? He tries to understand nature and uses mathematics as a language to do that. Mathematics has helped solved many problems of this world. Look at what Quantum Physics, a branch of physics that has literally changed our millenia old assumptions about atoms, is heavily dependent on Math. Math is everwhere, from chemical industry to societal problems we use Statistics. Take any part of your daily life and you will see how deeply it is influenced my Math. Math has been used as the most prominent vehicle not only to understand nature but also to solve problems of this world. There is a reason for this, all these properties are just inherent in Math. I was not good at Math, so I was trying to solve the problems I was facing everday as a programmer using my intuition, common-sense, flow-charts and more other kinds of diagrams. This went on for few years and I came up with some rules and ideas on which I was building a model to solve problems, the problems that I faced everday as a computer programmer. Building up this model had one aim: to be extremely clear and very brief on what the problem is and same for solution. I was creating a model, to which you will feed a problem as input and it will produce a solution as output using English language, flow charts and lot of other kinds of diagrams I created. This model had certain assumptions, rules and conditions, which again were very clear. Clarity and simplicity were high on agenda. It was a kind of a general, abstract mechanism to be applied to problems to get solutions. Now a few months back, after I read all these Math articles I came across one more article from Evan Miller titled Don’t Kill Math which was actually written in response to Kill Math by Bret Victor.

These two article hit me very hard. First, Bret was trying to do the same thing I was trying from few years, though he was more successful than me in producing something. I could never come up with some solid model which could have been used by everyone and here is Bret who has already done that. Was I happy, yes, because I found what I was looking for and I was ready to follow Bret’s footsteps but I never did. Why ?

There was a reason I could never come up up with a solid model. I always thought it lacked something. No matter what I did and how much I worked on it, I always felt that something very fundamental and basic is lacking. My model lacked a soul, a life can not exist without a soul. Whenver I read Theory of Relativity, whenever I studied Schrodinger equation, Maxwell’s equation, Newton’s laws, Kepler’s laws, The Uncertainty Principle or Shulba-Sutras, I always felt that all those equations are complete, that they have a soul but my model does not. Both of these articles Kill Math and Dont’ Kill Math made me realize what is that soul. It is the properties of Mathematics mentioned in Don’t Kill Math. The questions Evan asked in this article and the way he has explained in very simple and basic details, concluded my search for a model. Math is a terse, short and succinct and the curtest method to solve problems and understand a phenomenon. These brutal characteristics are inherent to Math, just like soul is inherent to every being. With Math you can solve problems in a much shorter and better way than not using it. Try it yourself, read both of Kill Math and Don’t Kill Math and try to solve some problems using both methods.

This brings me to a very basic question: Why did I hate math ? If I truly do not like math then I must not like it now too, but instead it is opposite now, I like math. It was the way math was taught to me in school and college. I was taught rote-math, not real math. Same is true for hundreds of thousands of children who pass out of Indian schools. It is not their fault that they can not comprehend and hence hate Math. It is very common statement from Indian parents that “my kid does not know math, my kid hates math”. It is the fault of school, fault of our education system, not of the student.

Coming back to the primary question of whether we need Math for becoming a great programmer, this is how tho world solved its problems in beginning:

math-1

Then came Math and this is what most mathematicians did:

math-2

I have worked in software industry for more than 5 years now and this what almost all computer-programmers/software-engineers/developers do:

math-3

Evan Miller says you can become first rate hacker without using a lot of Math and I think he is right and that is in agreement with all other authors. The point he stressed was role of Math in solving problems of this world, that Math is brutally efficient in solving real world problems. As programmers, we solve problems, but if we solve problems using Math and then apply programming solutions to the mathematical model of the solution, then we can have some amazing ways of providing better solutions that will make our lives easier as a programmer (kind of side-effect):

math-4

I conclude this blogpost with these points:

  • You do not need math to become a first-rate programmer because we do not use much of Math directly. If you want to become programmer then learn programming. Computer programming is very different from mathematics, and as a computer programmer you have to focus more on how to write better programs, how to think in a particular paradigm (e.g functional, OO, Generic, Procedural, logical, declarative etc), find better ways to create software, you need to understand design-patterns, not to mention learning and using C for few years will add new dimension to your thinking. All these are not related to math in anyway. These tools we use to solve problems of this world and they are in no way related to Math e.g look at the different paradigms on which different languages are created, you need to learn these first and it will take you few years before you get a grip at them and then you can learn Math if you want. Read Introduction to Progrmming using Emacs Lisp by Roberrt J. Chassell to know how the problem of creating a customizable, self-documenting, ever-extensible real-time display text-editor was solved. Read GNU Make Manual and find out why does it need M4 and Autoconf.
  • Math is the most widely used vehicle to understand the nature and solve problems of this world. We can learn more ways of solving problems by learning mathematical methods. I myself have started studying probability because like Steve Yegge said, once you understand Math then you can look at the problem and see whether it a probability problem, calculus problem or statistical problem etc. Math is related to the nature of the problem, not nature of software, software has its own methods and tools of solving problems, keep that in mind.

I want beginning programmers to go on right path. Learning Math when what you actually want to write computer programs is a wrong, wrong path to walk on. Install a Linux distro, I prefer Trisquel for latest softwares and gNewSense if you want a solid and stable distro but with little bit outdated collection of softwares. Install Emacs using package manager on command-line and start reading Introduction to Programming using Emacs Lisp and you will get true taste of computer programming. This image shows you the world of computer programming

math-5

Copyright © 2014 Arnuld Uttre, Hyderabad, Telangana – 500017 (INDIA)
Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 license (a.k.a. CC BY-ND)

The Emacs Way of understanding Humans and Computers

November 30, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Patterns | 1 Comment
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I was using gNewSense frow sometime now and one thing about softwares endorsed or created by FSF is that you get to know some amazing ideas or some incredible ways of solving some problems that you never came across before and you yourself never knew those either. For example, take icecat, it comes default with libreJS add-on installed. Generally we think an OS can control your machine and then you. After using libreJS I see how you can use javascript in a web-browser to control the user, without giving any hint at all. User will use his computer for 10 years and for those 10 years he will not have slightest of the idea that he is being controlled. Then I came across duckduckgo search engine and then ThinkPenguin router  with 100% Freedom and then h-node  and now gNewSense.

When I used Emacs first time, in year 2006, after few weeks of usage I came across The GNU Project (open Emacs and press “Control-h g”), that one keystroke (C-h g) changed my life. I got hooked onto Linux forever (or GNU/Linux as RMS calls it). Since last few years, I have never used/installed any proprietary OS on my machine, my machine runs only on Linux, yes, no other OS, only and only Linux (something that majority of Software Engineering students and prfossionals in INDIA are always scared to do). Just few months back I came across gNewSense and from there I came across one gNewSense BlogPost, an introductory book on programming in Emacs Lisp written by Robert J. Chassell. For those who don’t know, Emacs is one of the most (if not the most) advanced text editors available. I am sure if you make a list of top 20 softwares ever created with best design ideas then Emacs will be one of them (and Apache web server will be there too along with several softwares starting with letter “g” 😉 ). Emacs is written using Emacs Lisp (a dialect of Lisp, an amazing language) while some parts are written in C for portability/efficiency reasons. I am using Emacs all the time for writitg code but I do admit I hardly make effective use of it. I think I use may be 10% of its power. I always wanted to learn more and the book written by Robert seemed like a decent start. I am already writing code from few years now and Robert mentioned that it is “not for experienced programmers” but I am reading it anyway because I always wated to understand Emacs and then this book is so interesing and engaging and I can not seem to put it down. It is as much interesting as The Man Who Sold The Moon . Whenever I will come across some idea that I will like then I will post about it here. So, here is the first design idea I really loved (I assume you are familiar with some dialect of Lisp. If not, then just read 17 pages of first chapter of Robert’s book. That will be more than enough. Do not worry, it will not take much time to read those)

  • You want to evaluate something written in Emacs Lisp ? Just open emacs, put cursor at the end of the variable or function name or the closing parenthesis or whatever you want to evaluate and press “C-x C-e” and you got the answer. That’s it, that is how simple it is in Emacs.
  • File and Buffer are two different entities. File is what permamently stored on your computer’s hard disk whereas a buffer is inside emacs which will go away as soon as you exit emacs. A buffer visits the file or is a pointer to the file, not the actual file. You want to save changes into the file then just save the buffer and changes will be written to the file.
  • This one is most interesting. switch-to-buffer is an Emacs Lisp function that helps you in switching to another buffer. Generally when you look at any editor (Notepad, Notepad++ or gedit etc. for example) , you usually look at the file you are editing. If you switch to another file then you will see only and only this another file and previous file will not be visible. Previous file is open but it is not visible and hidden in the editor). What I mean is you can see only one file in front of you, not two (I am not talking about splitting-frames). Within Emacs code, switch-to-buffer is less used than set-buffer. Why ? … Because computer does not need eyes to see while humans do. When a a computer program needs to work on a buffer/file, it does not need to see it, visibility is not needed. switch-to-buffer was designed for humans and it does two things:
    • It switches to the new buffer .
    • It switches the buffer “displayed” in the window with new one.

You can easily guess now that set-buffer only walks the first step, it switches the program to other buffer while buffer on the screen remains unchanged.  Doesn’t this concept feel like one of the rules of the creation of this Universe while still being so simple and straightforward. I salute RMS for creating Emacs and keeping it free


Copyright © 2014 Arnuld Uttre, Hyderabad, Telangana – 500017 (INDIA)

Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 license (a.k.a. CC BY-ND)

The DVORAK Experience

October 26, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Posted in Hacking | Leave a comment
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A few months back I wrote about how I switched to DVORAK from QWERTY. Last week my logitech keyboard died and I searched for DVORAK keyboards and could not find anyone selling that online in INDIA. I guess INDIA is QWERTY, therefore I got myself a new DELL KB212-B wired USB2.0 keyboard. As per hardware quality, I will say for 440/- rupees it is damn good. DELL did a great job on manufacturing. I started typing on it and guess what, after using DVORAK for few months QWERTY arrangement felt so idiotic and dumb, not to mention painful, as if QWERTY was designed specially not for typing English words.  I was accidentally hitting DVORAK arrangement on QWERTY keyboard.  I have used QWERTY since the day I touched computer first time (10 years I guess) but subconciously my hands/fingers were never able to memorize more than half dozen key-positions but few months usage of DVORAK and now I can write 20 or more key-positions of DVORAK arrangement. Heck, I can draw full fledged DVORAK arrangement on paper just from my memory. With practice you can easily memorize any random key arrangement but mind you, I did not practice memorizing DVORAK. What I wean is: DVORAK matches human thought better than QWERTY.

I  did lot of search on QWERTY vs DVORAK vs XXXXXX and 99% of comparisons were based primarily relative to speed. Let me tell you again, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed, speed and all comparisons were based on one criteria of speed. Everyone (especially the ones who are biased) have ignored the most basic requirement when it comes to typing: “comfort and ease of typing”.  I type almost whole day, I do programming and I write this blog and reply to my emails etc.  That is me. What about professional clerks and authors and fiction/non-fiction writers who have to type much-much longer hours.  Will you sacrifice your body (RSI and CTS) for just a keyboard habit ?  QWERTY does not give you more speed than DVORAK, it is the practice which does. All you have to do is change your habit to use DVORAK. Habit before Health or opposite ?

Well, I needed to chang the key arrangement. I noticed that keys were fixed, hence I could not change their places. Therefore, I decided to stick some handmade letters onto the keys and this is how keyboard looks like now. Trust me, I have not regretted a bit that my brand new keyboard looks like a children’s toy now. It is immense pleasure typing on DVORAK

Jpeg


Copyright © 2014 Arnuld Uttre, Village – Patti, P.O – Manakpur, Tehsil – Nangal, Distt. – Ropar, Punjab (INDIA)

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice, and the copyright notice, are preserved.

The curse of QWERTY

August 6, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Posted in art, community | Leave a comment
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Two years back I started having pain in my hands, wrist joints, finger joints, neck and upper back. I searched about it and came to know lot of programmers face this and for some of them this pain turns into Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome . This was serious . The height of chair and monitor and keyboard were pretty right and I did not feel any problem with that. Then the biggest surprise came in the form of DVORAK keyboard. I came to know that QWERTY keyboard was actually designed to slow down typing. You should check out DVZINE at http://www.dvzine.org/ . That is just one website with few solid articles. The problems with QWERTY keyboard are mentioned at so many places on internet that it is impossible to read them all.  QWERTY is such a disgrace for humanity and I am amazed that with so much advancement in technology we still manufacture QWERTY keyboards. I came across so many different keyboard layouts: Colemak, Workman and Norman among the popular ones. I like to improve myself and the pain in hands, finger joints, neck and upper back was much of motivation to try something. I chose DVORAK above Colemak and Workman because latter two were based on QWERTY. I think one can not design a new and better model to solve a problem if its design is based on a faulty old model. Norman layout I could not find on Arch Linux. In India only QWERTY keyboards are available (as per hardware availability), so the only option was to change software and Linux has so many possibilities and options that it made me more happier. You do not need to change hardware, just some settings as per your distro. I have logitech wireless K260 motherboard and I decided to change the placement of keys on keyboard manually to DVORAK along with software settings. This is how it looks like:


As you can see every key was a fit for every other socket except these four: F, U, J and H. These four keys were fitting only in their original positions, I don’t know why. Hence I put handmade stickers on them and this is how my keyboard looks now:

Using this for 3 months now and pain in hands and finger joints is gone. Neck and upper back pain have reduced to a much larger degree but not totally gone. All these parts pain a lot if I sit for longer hours in front of computer (6-9 hours or more). I am not a doctor and you should consult a doctor if you are experiencing pains then please do not postpon a modical checkup. Here aro some points that may help:

  1. make sure monitor is at a height from ground where your neck is straight when you look at it
  2. make sure your chair has cushion and flexible back support. You can adjust the height of your chair to a comfortable level.
  3. Keyboard and mouse need to be at comfortable height and distance

The best option is to find a good computer table according to your height and build. It is very easy, you know your comfort level within few seconds of sitting on that chair and putting your hands on table. Please do not type (for Desktop Computer) while sitting on bed. It will cause lot of discomfort for many days.

There are many scientists/researchers/gvernment-organizations who after doing lots of research have concluded that all these alternatives like DVORAK, Colemak, Workman, Norman etc do not offer any advantages over QWERTY because human mind can adapt to any random pattern of keyboards, that a person can type as fast on QWERTY as on any other random pattern. Well that may be true and I can agree to that and I do not give much damn if my typing speed is 20 wpm or 50 wpm but what about RSI and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome ? I am using DVORAK from 3 months now and one day I just wanted to try QWERTY again to see how it feels. It was horrible experience to use QWERTY again. My hands were literally moving from one corner of keyboard to another (diaognally) causing mugh stress and pain in fingers. With DVORAK most of the words (of English language) exist on Home Row and hence there is not much diagonal movement of hands when you type. My mind did not forget the QWERTY layout though but that one hour was torture. I switched back to DVORAK and till date never tried that again. Though I face problems because keyboard is changed at Operating-System level(software level) than hardware level. So, when I have BIOS or a bootloader at my disposal then it behaves like QWERTY keyboard because this is what it is as per hardware construction. But this is a minor isssue compared to 99% of my time which I spent in OS than in BIOS/bootloader.


Copyright © 2014 Arnuld Uttre, Village – Patti, P.O – Manakpur, Tehsil – Nangal, Distt. – Ropar, Punjab (INDIA)

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice, and the copyright notice, are preserved.

Humbleness of comp.lang.c folks

June 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Posted in Programming | Leave a comment
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I mostly hang on comp.lang.c and sometime discussion go deep into technical details of C language while solving a current problem. At comp.lang.c, folks do not go into details for the sake of details but to solve a particular problem. I got stuck in some issue and was continuously referring to comp.lang.c and then to K&R2 and then to H&S5 and I discovered one error in H&S 5. Actually I did not even know this till Keith Thompson credited and mailed me on the discovery (he mailed Harbison too). You can get the original post at googlegroups or velocityreviews . I thought it is better if I share his kind and humble words here on my blog (I am kind of quite late to post this but better late than never 🙂 ) :

Credit for finding this error goes to Arnuld Uttre, whom I’ve cc’ed on this e-mail (if I got his address right). It came up in a discussion on comp.lang.c, subject “strtoul() behavior”.

I have a first printing of H&S 5. On page 413, in the discussion of thestrto*() functions, it says (any typos are mine):

If no conversion is possible because the string does not match the expected number model (or is empty), then zero is returned, *ptr is set to the value of str, and errno is set to ERANGE.

In fact, errno is not set in this case. See C99 7.20.1.4p7:

If the subject sequence is empty or does not have the expected form, no conversion is performed; the value of nptr is stored in the object pointed to by endptr, provided that endptr is not a null pointer.

A quick experiment with one implementation shows that errno is in fact left as 0.

(A very small quibble: though the previous page mentions that ptr is ignored if it’s null, it might be worth changing “*ptr is set to …” to “*ptr (if it’s non-null) is set to …”. This is not actually necessary, but in my opinion it would make it slightly clearer.Feel free to ignore this.)


Copyright © 2013 Arnuld Uttre, Village – Patti, P.O – Manakpur, Tehsil – Nangal, Distt. – Ropar, Punjab (INDIA).

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice, and the copyright notice, are preserved.

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