Sunday, May 10, 2009

taking a breath...

Yeah, I need to post more. But coursework got in the way, and so did life. Work on the project I began with in January ramped up and then ended abruptly, and then, serendipitously, I hooked up with another group that needed a lot more documentation-type stuff. There will, hopefully, be some design work a little later, but for right now I'm enjoying getting to do what I like best: making information accessible to larger groups of people...and applying some of my new skills.

Currently, I've taken over a tutorial (which is probably less than half complete) for new users on a distributed system of supercomputing resources around the country (currently, we have two such machines here at Major Midwestern Supercomputing Center). Users are mostly scientists from a huge range of disciplines and their undergraduate and grad students, and many are new to scientific computing, so in addition to getting them used to using the user portal, I have to help them get used to working with the UNIX shell.

So right now, as a matter of fact, I'm putting together a section on shells of various kinds that users are likely to encounter at different institutions: mainly, csh, tcsh, and bash. I'm still puzzling over how to explain the differences between the shells in a way that is useful and will make sense. But I'm also working on creating a very basic tutorial on getting around in UNIX, because I've noticed that existing documentation often instructs users to do things like this:

rm -rf directory/subdirectory

If you don't know that rm -rf should be used with caution and type a wrong filename, the results could be disastrous. Oh, and you could accidentally clobber files while trying to redirect output, and make a lot of mischief with tar and other utilities if you don't know what you're doing with them.

Besides, when I don't know a system, cookbook-style instructions, which often seem to communicate, "Just do this, don't ask questions, and everything will be OK," make me feel helpless and disoriented. And the man pages are not really written for novices. I know that I could probably just link to half a dozen Linux tutorials for beginners, and I will anyways, but that also seems like it could be overwhelming, so my plan is to take the commands and utilities I find sprinkled throughout the original documentation and devote a screen or two to each one, just to explain what it does, some of its common options, and what users might want it for later on.

So my coursework is yielding tangible results already. I think the feeling of being a novice user is also helpful and something I want to hold onto for a while--part of the reason such tutorials are necessary is that the original authors of current site documentation are mostly technical experts and seem to have forgotten--or perhaps never known--what it's like to see UNIX and computing in general as a black box.

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