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6.033: Computer System Engineering - Spring 2004

6.033: Computer System Engineering - Spring 2004

The 6.033 FAQ:
Answers to Frequently-Asked Questions

For prospective students // 6.033 mechanics // Submitting assignments

Part I: For people thinking about taking 6.033

Q. Prerequisites. I want to take 6.033 this term, but I haven't taken 6.004 yet, and the catalog says that is a prerequisite. Is the prerequisite really needed? I might be able to take 6.004 at the same time. Will that work? My friend started 6.004 but dropped it after the second quiz. Can she take 6.033?

A. 6.004 really is a pre-requisite, not a co-requisite for 6.033. 6.033 builds on material from the last half of 6.004, and it takes off with no review and at a substantially faster pace. If you haven't completed 6.004 in a previous term 6.033 will be sheer torture. In addition, 6.033 assumes that you really did absorb the transitive closure of the prerequisites to 6.004, namely 6.001, 6.002, 8.01/2, and 18.01/2/3.

Q. Sophomores. I'm a sophomore. I got an A in 6.004, I've been hacking systems for four summers at Microsoft and Akamai, and I want to take 6.033 now. But I have been warned that sophomores have a lot of trouble with 6.033. What's the story?

A. We strongly discourage sophomores from taking 6.033 even if they have already accumulated the nominal prerequisites. 6.033 depends on a lot of unwritten computer street knowledge, of which juniors have accumulated another year's worth in various ways--their UROP assignments, doing other courses on Athena, one more summer job, a few more Computer Science subjects, etc. Although we don't require it, some of the things we discuss will be much easier to follow if, as most upperclass members, you know some probability, such as found in 6.042. The success rate of sophomores is typically lower than for juniors and seniors. A few sophomores try it every year, and about half of them survive to the end. On the other hand, if you really have been hacking systems at Microsoft and Akamai for four years, you are welcome to give it a try.

Q. Writing Practicum. Do you recommend that I take the writing practicum with 6.033?

A. That is mostly a matter of how much help you think you need in technical writing. Everyone needs to know how to do it, but some people have acquired writing experience in other ways--reporters for The Tech (usually) don't need the writing practicum. But if you find that paper writing is a struggle, and your instructors write comments on them to which your reaction is "But that is exactly what I said!", then you may find the writing practicum is of considerable benefit.

Q. Late start. It is now {choose one: 1, 2, 3, 4} weeks into the term and I want to add 6.033. I haven't been participating up till now, but I'm willing to work hard to catch up. What are my prospects?

A. It is harder than it looks, for three reasons. First, some of the material in the lectures, especially the examples, isn't in the class notes; you will be depending on your classmates' notes taken in lecture. Second, much of the learning experience in 6.033 comes from participating in recitation discussions of assigned papers, and the level of the discussions advances rapidly in sophistication as the term progresses. Finally, the reading assignments are long. Many people can barely keep up with the reading even if they started on day one; catching up in addition to keeping up can be really tough. There are short assignments due each week; as of the Nth week you have missed N of those. The cumulative impact of all these considerations suggests that for N > 2 it is probably hopeless.

Q. Evaluations. Is the latest Eta Kappa Nu Underground Guide review of 6.033 on-line anywhere?

A. Yes. Since the 6.033 staff changes quite a bit from year to year, we maintain a set of links to the reviews of the last several years in the "MIT catalog description" part of the 6.033 General Information page. The reviews are restricted to use inside MIT; you can't get at them unless you have an MIT Personal Certificate, and use a web browser that handles personal certificates (such as Netscape 6).

Q. Listeners. 6.033 isn't in my list of requirements, and I don't need a grade. But the material looks interesting. Can I have permission to register for it as a listener?

A. In 6.033, we regularly have a much larger enrollment than the department has teaching resources. At the same time, we would like to cater to students who want just to listen. So we offer a compromise: we have no objection to listeners attending the lectures, but we don't permit listeners to join recitations. The reason is that 6.033 recitations are intended for discussion. Active listeners usurp opportunities that registered class members should have to participate. And passive listeners act as negative role models for those registered students who are hesitant to participate. Either way, it doesn't work very well.

Part II: The mechanics of 6.033

Q. Book. The grapevine around our dorm says that there is a book by Tanenbaum that every 6.033 student needs, but it isn't in the reading list. Why not?

A. The book in question is Andrew S. Tanenbaum, Modern Operating Systems, second edition (Prentice-Hall: 2001).

Before we had much in the way of class notes written, we listed Tanenbaum as a required textbook, and then as we accumulated more class notes we listed it as a non-required but suggested book. The class notes cover essentially all of the material of 6.033 now, so most students won't get enough use out of the book to be worth the cost. We no longer recommend it except in some special cases.

6.033 comes with notes, papers, and instructors and teaching assistants who get their kicks by showing off how much they know in answering questions on the most trivial of details. And that is what Tanenbaum's book does. Whether you would find it useful or not depends on how much street knowledge about computer systems and computer jargon you have accumulated. We will be reading a number of professional papers. Some of the authors never dreamed we would be handing their papers to undergraduates, so they didn't bother to define their terms, or remind their readers of the concepts; they just assume you know everything that has gone before. With a little bit of background and a certain amount of nerve, you can deal with this by guessing, asking questions, and diligently reading class handouts and chapters. But if you come to this course feeling somewhat clueless about computer systems in comparison with your classmates, you may find that having a copy of Tanenbaum's book on the shelf is reassuring when you encounter a string of seven concatenated, unfamiliar buzzwords in one of our readings.

Q. Old versions. Can I use an old copy of Tanenbaum's book? Of the Brooks book? How about the class notes that are for sale in the EECS Instrument room?

A. For each item there is a different answer:

Q. Library. I'm on-campus, but I left my copy of the 6.033 class notes at the fraternity. I have an hour between classes and I'd like to do some reading. Is there a set anywhere?

A. We try to keep one current set of the 6.033 class notes and outside readings in Barker Engineering Library. If you find it isn't there, please let us know.

Q. Section assignments. I'd really rather be in a different section from the one you are trying to push me into. Why can't I switch to the section I want? Does one more person really matter?

A. One of the main features of 6.033 is discussion in recitations, of the papers we are reading, almost like in a humanities class. A good discussion, involving all the class members, doesn't often happen in a large class. Since the department can't afford an unlimited number of recitation instructors, we therefore have to push for more equally balanced sections than in other EECS subjects. In fact, we don't just push, we employ forcible measures as necessary to get the sections closely balanced.

Q. Confidential info. I'm working for a start-up company that is doing nearly the same thing as the second design project, and my non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the company will prevent me from doing a good job on the design project. Could you please assign me a different design project?

A. (short answer) No. (longer answer) Honest, in recent years this really has become a frequently-asked question. After much careful thought and debate about priorities and the purposes of education, the conclusion of the teaching staff and the EECS department is that students should be cautious about signing NDA's that relate to things that they may also study in class. In 6.033 we try to come up with assignments, quizzes, and design projects that are both realistic and timely. Those are two of the same criteria that start-ups use to choose business opportunities. So the chance of conflict is actually surprisingly high. We don't want to avoid an interesting project idea, assignment, or quiz question just because a start-up is also working on it, and in the case of design projects, we think that our educational goals are better met by having everyone work on the same topic. So our formal policy is: if any 6.033 assignment conflicts with an NDA, then your choice is to fail the assignment or resolve the conflict with the company with which you have an NDA. (Incidentally, experience suggests that working for a start-up, which requires 150% of your attention, is fundamentally incompatible with getting a good grade in 6.033. You might consider delaying one or the other of these activities so that they don't happen at the same time.)

Q. Medical needs. I have extremely thick glasses, which take a long time for light to propagate through. As a result, the medical department has suggested that I ask instructors for extra time on quizzes. Can you handle that?

A. If you have special needs for taking quizzes (e.g., you need additional time), 6.033 will be happy to accommodate, provided you can supply a letter from either the medical department or an academic dean and you give us enough advance notice.

Q. Teams. For the second design project I understand we are supposed to form teams of three people. One of the people I want to work with is in a different recitation section. Is that OK?

A. Unfortunately, no. Your recitation instructor, in consultation with your teaching assistant, assigns your design project grade, and your friend's recitation instructor assigns his or her grade. If you work together on the same team, then both recitation instructors will have to read your team's design project and agree on a grade for the team. This procedure causes two problems, one for the teaching staff and one for you. The problem for the teaching staff, which, like you, has a finite amount of time, is less reading time per design project. The problem for you is that whenever two instructors read the same design project, they will find two completely different lists of things they don't like. When they get together and compare notes, they will start by merging the lists of things they didn't like into one longer list. So your team is almost certain to get a lower grade than it would have if either instructor had evaluated it alone. We've tried it in the past and found that it simply doesn't work. In addition, we think there is some educational value in occasionally working with someone different.

Q. Rewrites (non-seniors only). Should I rewrite design project 1?

A. If you are a senior, you need to satisfy Phase II; see the next question. Otherwise, rewrites give you a chance to improve the writing portion of your DP1 grade (which is 10% of your overall DP1 grade). The technical grade is final, and no one from the 6.033 staff will read your rewrite -- only the writing staff will do that. You will receive CIM credit automatically by passing 6.033, so you don't need to rewrite just to satisfy the writing program.

Q. Phase II rewrites (seniors only). My recitation instructor gave me a C on my first design project so it couldn't be submitted to the Writing Program. Can I rewrite it to get a better grade so that I can get the Writing Program people to look at it?

A. The Writing Program staff sometimes suggest this idea, but we think it is a real loser. The reason you got a C is that the paper wasn't technically up to the necessary standard. We would rather see you applying your technical effort to the current 6.033 assignment. In addition, the teaching staff has plenty of better things to do with their time than to reread a revised version of last month's design project. We suggest instead that you wait until you have a paper in some other subject that gets a grade of B or better, and have the Writing Program evaluate that one instead.

Sometimes this question arises because it resembles another question where the answer is more flexible: if your 6.033 instructor gave you a B or better on your design project, but the writing program evaluated it as below their standard for phase 2, you are welcome to rewrite and resubmit it to them as many times as you wish. The difference is that this scenario doesn't involve either your 6.033 time or your 6.033 instructor.

Q. Teams and phase II. If we do the second design project in teams, I don't understand how the write-up of that design project can qualify me for phase II of the Writing Program.

A. The reason is that it won't. Occasionally someone proposes to be the scribe for their team in order to pull this off, but if you are having that much trouble getting through Phase II, the other members of your team should be reluctant to trust you with that job.

Q. What is phase II?

A. If you are subject to the new Communication Requirement, rather than the Writing Requirement, all that stuff about Phase II doesn't apply to you. Instead, 6.033 is a 'Communications Intensive in your Major' (CI-M) subject. See the 6.933 general information page for details of how 6.033 works with the Writing Program as part of the Communication Requirement.

Q. Quiz grading. I just got my quiz back. It had several multiple-choice questions, and it looks like they were graded by an ogre who doesn't appreciate the concept of partial credit. Why?

A. Actually, in 6.033 we use a quiz scoring procedure that includes quite a lot of partial credit. But if you aren't careful, you can lose credit that you gained for correct answers. Here is how it works: As you have noticed, each question has some number of assigned points. When the question offers several "choose all that apply" answers, the staff carefully reviews the various offered answers to decide which right answers require the deepest understanding and which wrong answers reveal the most egregious misconceptions. If a 10-point question has two answers that should be circled, the one that requires deeper understanding may thus be assigned 7 points and the one that can be circled with only a superficial acquaintance with the material receives 3 points. A correct response thus receives 10 points.

But...the answers that should not have been circled are assigned negative points. An answer that reveals a serious misconception may be assigned -8 (thus losing most of the credit for also circling the right answers), while one that suggests that the examinee missed an exceptionally subtle issue may be assigned just -1. Most wrong answers are assigned something in between. The point total for an individual question has a floor of zero.

When a multiple-choice question offers a "choose the best answer" response, the right answer receives full credit, but a wrong answer that is almost right often gets some partial credit.

In all cases, circling a wrong answer and adding an explanation why it is really right always receives careful consideration and, depending on how good the explanation is, it may receive full credit, partial credit, or no credit.

Part III: Submitting assignments

Q. Turn-in by e-mail. Can I hand in my written assignments by e-mail?

A. For the same reason that we don't make you read the reading assignments on-line, we don't make the graders read your submitted assignment on-line. Unless your teaching assistant specifically announces a different policy, please hand in your assignment on paper.

Q. Late assignments. I've been sick this weekend. Can I have an extension on my hands-on assignment?

A. The brief answer is no. The long answer is that one of our purposes in making assignments is so that you gain some familiarity and practice before the recitation class discussion or tutorial that immediately follows. Even if you later do a good job on the write-up, you still have missed one crucial component: an opportunity to discuss the topic after doing the exercise. However, we offer the following compromise: if you hand it in late we will record it with an "L" rather than a check (your TA will still review it, so you can find out whether or not your write-up was OK). If you turn in only one or two assignments late it won't have any noticeable effect on your grade. But if they are systematically late or missing, the effect on your grade grows non-linearly, like most 6.033 graphs.

Q. Format. What's the format for written assignments?


  1. Please use a word processor (or type the assignment, if there are any typewriters left). Hand-written assignments don't go over with the graders.
  2. Please put your name, the name of your recitation instructor, and your section meeting time at the top of the page. (Section numbers are assigned by the registrar at random, and no one, including your instructor, can ever remember what number is associated with which section, so don't bother to list it.) If you're unsure which section you are in, find your name on the student page, which is a class roll by section, and find your instructor's name on the list of recitations.
  3. Use a type font and size that is large enough to be easily readable (11 or 12 point is good for most fonts), and leave enough leading (vertical space between lines) so that graders can make comments. The entire assignment should fit on one side of one sheet of paper.

Q. Writing. Should the first sentence of each paragraph be a summary of the whole paragraph?

A Usually the first sentence of the paragraph acts as the topic sentence for the paragraph. The topic sentence signals to the reader your main argument for the paragraph. It's not a "summary," but a "claim," i.e., a point that you want to make to your reader. The remainder of the paragraph provides evidence to support that claim (examples, etc.).

Questions or comments regarding 6.033? Send e-mail to the TAs at 6.033-help.

Questions or comments about this web page? Send e-mail to 6.033-webmaster.

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