Semester 5

Posted on Dec 9, 2010

Its been ages since I’ve got a post up, but I have my excuses. I have been working on a static site for myself, self-hosted and with my own domain name. I thought I would only resume blogging once that was done, but it is going to take some more time. Now with December a week old, it is time for my customary brain dump about the entire semester. In many ways these posts are highlights of the semester according to me. The short version: It was busy.

Last time, it was summer and I was in GSoC euphoria, and since then I’ve had a couple of posts about it and KDE, but I left out all the human bits.

The fifth semester is an important stepping stone in DA-IICT. It is the first time that you are free to chose half of the courses depending on your interests. It meant I could give up Communications, which had always hit me hard when it came to grades. So I had Introduction to Algorithms, Embedded Hardware Design (EHD), Database Management Systems (DBMS), Computer Networks (CNS), Introduction to VLSI and Approaches to Science Fiction (SF).

EHD was a course which was very interesting and very boring. The interesting part was programming Atmel micro-controllers in C. I. Loved. It. We even made a wicked cool one-way chat that used two Atmel boards. Typing messages to the serial port on one computer, would send it to the board, which would Huffman encode it, send it across the SPI bus, where another board would decode it and send it to the second computer. The SPI bus can be swapped with any system for longer range communication, it was only that our board didn’t support it. The boring part was the second half, when we were programming FPGAs using Verilog. FPGAs are the kind of technology that tries to think too much. It also makes programming the simple things on them extremely convoluted, with pin assignments on the massive board and using the god-awful slow Xilinx ISE environment. Write to Run time is a crucial parameter of programmer happiness. When you can finish a large ice-cream scoop in the time it takes to burn changes to a board, something is wrong.

Speaking of ice-cream cones, for the first time ever, I bought an entire pack worth of ice-cream (Baskin Robbins) and ate it all. It was delicious! It was great. It just got a bit boring towards the end. The 24th was incidentally the coldest day of November in Gandhinagar, and at 1pm in the afternoon, I was shivering, it was raining and it was the middle of final exams. It’s good I wasn’t thinking about the probability of getting sick.

VLSI was my most challenging subject. The professor was top-notch, and I loved the course. The look at how ALUs and memory is made using CMOS gates — that was truly full-stack knowledge. It was calculating the delay that seemed really tough for first two exams, but by the third exam I had it down well and managed to get a 7/10 overall.

DBMS was a fiasco. I disliked the course, I disliked the teaching assistants, I disliked the boring stuff we had to do in the labs. CNS labs on the other hand were very interesting, we did a lot of Wireshark inspection and set up BGP/OSPF routers. Very hands-on. The lectures were another matter. I attended 3 out of the 40 odd that happen in a semester.Algorithms was pretty normal, some very interesting things like O(n) median finding in an unsorted array and dynamic programming is a wonderful technique for solving problems, although not easy to get your head around.

Which brings me to the final course, Science Fiction. It was brilliant! We watched influential movies from the last fifty years, and I plan to review all of them in another post. It gave me a chance to review Stephen Baxter, analyze time travel and opened my eyes to this whole idea of SF being influenced by the society in which it was written. We had a very questioning professor, who introduced all these ideas. For all my life I’ve read novels pretty cursorily. The deeper themes and clues were lost as I spread through them. But that course brought all these things out. I’ve learnt to appreciate writing — the subtlety of language, the thorough research, the names — everything has to come together to create that perfect book.

With that course, and Entelechy bringing out 3 editions in one semester, I’ve written tonnes of articles in those 4 months, and it has spurred a certain love of writing. I need to work more on my description, and emotion more though.

Football always proceeds in fits and starts at DA-IICT, and this semester was more of fits. First I got a nasty ankle sprain, there went two weeks. Then my new pair of studs/cleats tore. Fortunately, the showroom didn’t have a replacement, so they gave me better ones! Neck-deep in work, I also had to forgo the tournament in IIT Kanpur.

As October approaches, Synapse preparations start. After last year’s series of disasters with a bad looking website and a server fire during the actual fest, we needed to strike back. So check out this year’s website. In fact, a full post about its making seems to be in order. This was done in one week, with two very late nights and taking advantage of the superb back-end code from last year. It has reinforced my belief that for something to be successful and worth doing, that initial idea has to be top-notch, a vision that provides very strong motivation. A mediocre idea will often lead to lack of perseverance in the team. Also I shamelessly request all readers who are college students to take part in Apps Dreamer

There was Hackfest of course, and I’m going to this year too. With an extremely busy four months, I’ve realised that its time to start saying no. I had a lot of mandatory tasks plus some others I took on voluntarily, but it proved a bit too much. So I’ve been really relaxing this month. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped programming or learning. It means that I don’t do too much and the moment I feel tired, I stop. Next semester will again have a few projects, and I’ll be attempting the GRE, so I need to recharge this month.

Overall, semester 5 was good. Not enough academic learning, but lots of non-academic learning, and very busy days. Something I don’t want to repeat again :) The weather all throughout was magnificent though. The rains decided that 4 months was too short a time, and continued almost till the beginning of November. That coupled with winter felt just great.

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