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Thread: UNIX (Non tech)

  1. #1
    Senior Member gore's Avatar
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    Oct 2002

    UNIX (Non tech)

    [ From http://www.performancecomputing.com/.../9809of1.shtml ]

    The Elements Of Style: UNIX As Literature

    If there's nothing different about UNIX people, how come
    so many were liberal-arts majors? It's the love of words
    that makes UNIX stand out.

    Thomas Scoville

    In the late 1980s, I worked in the advanced R&D arm of the Silicon
    Valley's regional telephone company. My lab was populated mostly by
    Ph.D.s and gifted hackers. It was, as you might expect, an all-UNIX

    The manager of the group was an exception: no advanced degree, no
    technical credentials. He seemed pointedly self-conscious about it. We
    suspected he felt (wrongly, we agreed) underconfident of his education
    and intellect. One day, a story circulated through the group that
    confirmed our suspicions: the manager had confided he was indeed
    intimidated by the intelligence of the group, and was taking steps to
    remedy the situation. His prescription, though, was unanticipated: "I
    need to become more of an intellectual," he said. "I'm going to learn

    Needless to say, we made more than a little fun out of this. I mean,
    come on: as if UNIX could transform him into a mastermind, like the
    supplicating scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." I uncharitably imagined
    a variation on the old Charles Atlas ads: "Those senior engineers will
    never kick sand in my face again."

    But part of me was sympathetic: "The boss isn't entirely wrong, is he?
    There is something different about UNIX people, isn't there?" In the
    years since, I've come to recognize what my old manager was getting
    at. I still think he was misguided, but in retrospect I think his
    belief was more accurate than I recognized at the time.

    To be sure, the UNIX community has its own measure of technical
    parochialism and nerdy tunnel vision, but in my experience there
    seemed to be a suspicious overrepresentation of polyglots and
    liberal-arts folks in UNIX shops. I'll admit my evidence is sketchy
    and anecdotal. For instance, while banging out a line of shell, with
    a fellow engineer peering over my shoulder, I might make an
    intentionally obscure literary reference:

    if test -z `ps -fe | grep whom`
    echo ^G
    # Let's see for whom the bell tolls.

    UNIX colleagues were much more likely to recognize and play in a way
    I'd never expect in the VMS shops, IBM's big-iron data centers, or DOS
    ghettos on my consulting beat.

    Being a liberal-arts type myself (though I cleverly concealed this in
    my resume), I wondered why this should be true. My original
    explanation--UNIX's historical association with university computing
    environments, like UC Berkeley's--didn't hold up over the years; many
    of the UNIX-philiacs I met came from schools with small or absent
    computer science departments. There had to be a connection, but I had
    no plausible hypothesis.

    It wasn't until I started regularly asking UNIX refuseniks what they
    didn't like about UNIX that better explanations emerged.

    Some of the prevailing dislike had a distinctly populist
    flavor--people caught a whiff of snobbery about UNIX and regarded it
    with the same proletarian resentment usually reserved for highbrow
    institutions like opera or ballet. They had a point: until recently,
    UNIX was the lingua franca of computing's upper crust. The more
    harried, practical, and underprivileged of the computing world seemed
    to object to this aura of privilege. UNIX adepts historically have
    been a coddled bunch, and tend to be proud of their hard-won
    knowledge. But these class differences are fading fast in modern
    computing environments. Now UNIX engineers are more common, and low-
    or no-cost UNIX variations run on inexpensive hardware. Certainly UNIX
    folks aren't as coddled in the age of NT.

    There was a standard litany of more specific criticisms: UNIX is
    difficult and time-consuming to learn. There are too many things to
    remember. It's arcane and needlessly complex.

    But the most recurrent complaint was that it was too
    text-oriented. People really hated the command line, with all the
    utilities, obscure flags, and arguments they had to memorize. They
    hated all the typing. One mislaid character and you had to start
    over. Interestingly, this complaint came most often from users of the
    GUI-laden Macintosh or Windows platforms. People who had slaved away
    on DOS batch scripts or spent their days on character-based terminals
    of multiuser non-UNIX machines were less likely to express the same

    Though I understood how people might be put off by having to remember
    such willfully obscure utility names like cat and grep, I continued to
    be puzzled at why they resented typing. Then I realized I could
    connect the complaint with the scores of "intellectual elite" (as my
    manager described them) in UNIX shops. The common thread was
    wordsmithing; a suspiciously high proportion of my UNIX colleagues had
    already developed, in some prior career, a comfort and fluency with
    text and printed words. They were adept readers and writers, and UNIX
    played handily to those strengths. UNIX was, in some sense,
    literature to them. Suddenly the overrepresentation of polyglots,
    liberal-arts types, and voracious readers in the UNIX community didn't
    seem so mysterious, and pointed the way to a deeper issue: in a world
    increasingly dominated by image culture (TV, movies, .jpg files), UNIX
    remains rooted in the culture of the word.

    UNIX programmers express themselves in a rich vocabulary of system
    utilities and command-line arguments, along with a flexible, varied
    grammar and syntax. For UNIX enthusiasts, the language becomes second
    nature. Once, I overheard a conversation in a Palo Alto restaurant:
    "there used to be a shrimp-and-pasta plate here under ten bucks. Let
    me see...cat menu | grep shrimp | test -lt $10..." though not
    syntactically correct (and less-than-scintillating conversation), a
    diner from an NT shop probably couldn't have expressed himself as

    With UNIX, text--on the command line, STDIN, STDOUT, STDERR--is the
    primary interface mechanism: UNIX system utilities are a sort of Lego
    construction set for word-smiths. Pipes and filters connect one
    utility to the next, text flows invisibly between. Working with a
    shell, awk/lex derivatives, or the utility set is literally a word

    Working on the command line, hands poised over the keys uninterrupted
    by frequent reaches for the mouse, is a posture familiar to wordsmiths
    (especially the really old guys who once worked on teletypes or
    electric typewriters). It makes some of the same demands as writing an
    essay. Both require composition skills. Both demand a thorough
    knowledge of grammar and syntax. Both reward mastery with powerful,
    compact expression.

    At the risk of alienating both techies and writers alike, I also
    suggest that UNIX offers something else prized in literature: a
    coherence, a consistent style, something writers call a voice. It
    doesn't take much exposure to UNIX before you realize that the UNIX
    core was the creation of a very few well-synchronized minds. I've
    never met Dennis Ritchie, Brian Kernighan, or Ken Thompson, but after
    a decade and a half on UNIX I imagine I might greet them as friends,
    knowing something of the shape of their thoughts.

    You might argue that UNIX is as visually oriented as other OSs. Modern
    UNIX offerings certainly have their fair share of GUI-based OS
    interfaces. In practice though, the UNIX core subverts them; they end
    up serving UNIX's tradition of word culture, not replacing it. Take a
    look at the console of most UNIX workstations: half the windows you
    see are terminal emulators with command-line prompts or vi jobs
    running within.

    Nowhere is this word/image culture tension better represented than in
    the contrast between UNIX and NT. When the much-vaunted UNIX-killer
    arrived a few years ago, backed by the full faith and credit of the
    Redmond juggernaut, I approached it with an open mind. But NT left me
    cold. There was something deeply unsatisfying about it. I had that
    ineffable feeling (apologies to Gertrude Stein) there was no there
    there. Granted, I already knew the major themes of system and network
    administration from my UNIX days, and I will admit that registry
    hacking did vex me for a few days, but after my short scramble up the
    learning curve I looked back at UNIX with the feeling I'd been demoted
    from a backhoe to a leaf-blower. NT just didn't offer room to move.
    The one-size-fits-all, point-and-click,
    we've-already-anticipated-all-your-needs world of NT had me yearning
    for those obscure command-line flags and man -k. I wanted to craft my
    own solutions from my own toolbox, not have my ideas slammed into the
    visually homogenous, prepackaged, Soviet world of Microsoft Foundation

    NT was definitely much too close to image culture for my comfort:
    endless point-and-click graphical dialog boxes, hunting around the
    screen with the mouse, pop-up after pop-up demanding my attention. The
    experience was almost exclusively reactive. Every task demanded a
    GUI-based utility front-end loaded with insidious assumptions about
    how to visualize (and thus conceptualize) the operation. I couldn't
    think "outside the box" because everything literally was a box. There
    was no opportunity for ad hoc consideration of how a task might
    alternately be performed.

    I will admit NT made my life easier in some respects. I found myself
    doing less remembering (names of utilities, command arguments, syntax)
    and more recognizing (solution components associated with check boxes,
    radio buttons, and pull-downs). I spent much less time
    typing. Certainly my right hand spent much more time herding the mouse
    around the desktop. But after a few months I started to get a tired,
    desolate feeling, akin to the fatigue I feel after too much channel
    surfing or videogaming: too much time spent reacting, not enough spent
    in active analysis and expression. In short, image-culture burnout.

    The one ray of light that illuminated my tenure in NT environments was
    the burgeoning popularity of Perl. Perl seemed to find its way into NT
    shops as a CGI solution for Web development, but people quickly
    recognized its power and adopted it for uses far outside the scope of
    Web development: system administration, revision control, remote file
    distribution, network administration. The irony is that Perl itself is
    a subset of UNIX features condensed into a quick-and-dirty scripting
    language. In a literary light, if UNIX is the Great Novel, Perl is the
    Cliffs Notes.

    Mastery of UNIX, like mastery of language, offers real freedom. The
    price of freedom is always dear, but there's no
    substitute. Personally, I'd rather pay for my freedom than live in a
    bitmapped, pop-up-happy dungeon like NT. I'm hoping that as IT folks
    become more seasoned and less impressed by superficial convenience at
    the expense of real freedom, they will yearn for the kind of freedom
    and responsibility UNIX allows. When they do, UNIX will be there to
    fill the need.

    Thomas Scoville has been wrestling with UNIX since 1983. He currently
    works at Expert Support Inc. in Mountain View, CA.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    May 2003
    nice read
    Everyone is going to die, I am just as good of a reason as any.


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