Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Num Wrongs Plus Plus

I was teaching Git to a room of roughly 25 students on day 2 of a Software Carpentry workshop and we ran into a problem that feels like a case study on the reason it's hard to move science to safer practices.

If you've taught Git before, you know that the first thing you do is have everyone open the shell, navigate to a new directory somewhere (remember how to do that from yesterday?) and type git init. A few hands will shoot up, and red sticky notes start to flower. If you are lucky, you have less people in need of help than you have helpers. We weren't so lucky.

Now what? Do you pause the lesson, let everyone get good and comfortable on Facebook while you jump in to help? Do you keep going and trust that the people whose Git isn't working will be able to catch up? I paused the lesson to help out. I've taught Git five or six times and I do not remember a single case of a student getting a late start on Git that was still with me by the first coffee break.

I think if we're honest, we accidently assume that a lot of the problems with installing Git are the learner. Maybe they didn't read the memo about installing it? It happens. Maybe they should have asked for help before I started my lesson? They've only known you could type into the terminal for 24 hours. Maybe we should provide better tools so they know they even have a problem? See previous answer.

Maybe the reason Git fails to install on a few machines every workshop is because software installation is just so incredibly broken.

This is the output that our student saw:

user173-85:~ user-name$ git init
dyld: lazy symbol binding failed: Symbol not found: ___strlcpy_chk
  Referenced from: /usr/local/git/bin/git
  Expected in: /usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib

dyld: Symbol not found: ___strlcpy_chk
  Referenced from: /usr/local/git/bin/git
  Expected in: /usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib

Trace/BPT trap: 5

Remember that lofty goal about de-mystifying computers so that smart people can use them to do lofty work? It's in danger.

One of our goals is to teach how to get "unstuck." We search for "git dyld: lazy symbol binding failed: Symbol not found: ___strlcpy_chk". We explain, loud enough for a few more interested neighbors to overhear, that stackoverflow.com is the place to go for this sort of information, and that they should start there.

Stack Overflow tells us to install Xcode. Right! Instructors don't think of things like that because instructors installed that ages ago. We gloss over what Xcode is and why the student needs it while they are navigating to the Mac Store. We shrug when the person in the seat didn't need to install Xcode and his seems to be working fine.

They find Xcode and start installing. I'm a little nervous about what our iffy wireless will think of a 4.4 Gbyte install and whether this will tank the GitHub module coming up in an hour.

Except that Xcode, which is in the store, will not install because this version of OSX is too old. (I believe it was version 10.8.) Instructors don't run into this because even those of us with creaky old machines were set up with programming tools ages ago.

Back to the internet, this time with less confidence. At that point, we were looking through the apple website, explaining why the "probablynotspyware.net" ad on google isn't a good idea, and growing more and more nervous about the amount of time this is taking. The student actually suggested the final fix: "why don't I just run the installation instructions for windows? I have it in parallels." Genius! This install worked as advertised, and the student finished the entire lesson running a GitBash-enabled Windows cmd shell on her Mac. Fortunately, she was able to keep the file systems straight.

So that's the time that we fixed an OSX install issue by using the Windows shell instead. Or as they say in C++:

while(num_wrongs != right) {
    num_wrongs++;
}

Full disclosure: the author works at Microsoft. Software Carpentry takes an intentionally unopinionated view about the OS that our learners use. Our hope is that they learn to use it better.

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