File: blk00256.txt

Operation "rakushka" :)


In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 2/6


HONEY-POT, TAR-PIT, WHATEVER


When Gates and Allen invented the idea of selling software, they ran
into criticism from both hackers and sober-sided businesspeople. Hackers
understood that software was just information, and objected to the idea
of selling it. These objections were partly moral. The hackers were
coming out of the scientific and academic world where it is imperative
to make the results of one's work freely available to the public. They
were also partly practical; how can you sell something that can be easily
copied? Businesspeople, who are polar opposites of hackers in so many
ways, had objections of their own. Accustomed to selling toasters and
insurance policies, they naturally had a difficult time understanding how
a long collection of ones and zeroes could constitute a salable product.

Obviously Microsoft prevailed over these objections, and so did
Apple. But the objections still exist. The most hackerish of all the
hackers, the Ur-hacker as it were, was and is Richard Stallman, who
became so annoyed with the evil practice of selling software that, in
1984 (the same year that the Macintosh went on sale) he went off and
founded something called the Free Software Foundation, which commenced
work on something called GNU. Gnu is an acronym for Gnu's Not Unix,
but this is a joke in more ways than one, because GNU most certainly IS
Unix,. Because of trademark concerns ("Unix" is trademarked by AT&T) they
simply could not claim that it was Unix, and so, just to be extra safe,
they claimed that it wasn't. Notwithstanding the incomparable talent and
drive possessed by Mr. Stallman and other GNU adherents, their project
to build a free Unix to compete against Microsoft and Apple's OSes was
a little bit like trying to dig a subway system with a teaspoon. Until,
that is, the advent of Linux, which I will get to later.

But the basic idea of re-creating an operating system from scratch was
perfectly sound and completely doable. It has been done many times. It
is inherent in the very nature of operating systems.

Operating systems are not strictly necessary. There is no reason why
a sufficiently dedicated coder could not start from nothing with every
project and write fresh code to handle such basic, low-level operations
as controlling the read/write heads on the disk drives and lighting up
pixels on the screen. The very first computers had to be programmed in
this way. But since nearly every program needs to carry out those same
basic operations, this approach would lead to vast duplication of effort.

Nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than duplication of
effort. The first and most important mental habit that people develop
when they learn how to write computer programs is to generalize,
generalize, generalize. To make their code as modular and flexible as
possible, breaking large problems down into small subroutines that can
be used over and over again in different contexts. Consequently, the
development of operating systems, despite being technically unnecessary,
was inevitable. Because at its heart, an operating system is nothing
more than a library containing the most commonly used code, written once
(and hopefully written well) and then made available to every coder who
needs it.

So a proprietary, closed, secret operating system is a contradiction in
terms. It goes against the whole point of having an operating system. And
it is impossible to keep them secret anyway. The source code--the original
lines of text written by the programmers--can be kept secret. But an OS
as a whole is a collection of small subroutines that do very specific,
very clearly defined jobs. Exactly what those subroutines do has to be
made public, quite explicitly and exactly, or else the OS is completely
useless to programmers; they can't make use of those subroutines if they
don't have a complete and perfect understanding of what the subroutines
do.

The only thing that isn't made public is exactly how the subroutines do
what they do. But once you know what a subroutine does, it's generally
quite easy (if you are a hacker) to write one of your own that does
exactly the same thing. It might take a while, and it is tedious and
unrewarding, but in most cases it's not really hard.

What's hard, in hacking as in fiction, is not writing; it's deciding
what to write. And the vendors of commercial OSes have already decided,
and published their decisions.

This has been generally understood for a long time. MS-DOS was duplicated,
functionally, by a rival product, written from scratch, called ProDOS,
that did all of the same things in pretty much the same way. In other
words, another company was able to write code that did all of the same
things as MS-DOS and sell it at a profit. If you are using the Linux OS,
you can get a free program called WINE which is a windows emulator;
that is, you can open up a window on your desktop that runs windows
programs. It means that a completely functional Windows OS has been
recreated inside of Unix, like a ship in a bottle. And Unix itself,
which is vastly more sophisticated than MS-DOS, has been built up from
scratch many times over. Versions of it are sold by Sun, Hewlett-Packard,
AT&T, Silicon Graphics, IBM, and others.

People have, in other words, been re-writing basic OS code for so
long that all of the technology that constituted an "operating system"
in the traditional (pre-GUI) sense of that phrase is now so cheap and
common that it's literally free. Not only could Gates and Allen not
sell MS-DOS today, they could not even give it away, because much more
powerful OSes are already being given away. Even the original Windows
(which was the only windows until 1995) has become worthless, in that
there is no point in owning something that can be emulated inside of
Linux--which is, itself, free.

In this way the OS business is very different from, say, the car
business. Even an old rundown car has some value. You can use it for
making runs to the dump, or strip it for parts. It is the fate of
manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and
have to compete against more modern products.

But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.

Microsoft is a great software applications company. Applications--such as
Microsoft Word--are an area where innovation brings real, direct, tangible
benefits to users. The innovations might be new technology straight from
the research department, or they might be in the category of bells and
whistles, but in any event they are frequently useful and they seem to
make users happy. And Microsoft is in the process of becoming a great
research company. But Microsoft is not such a great operating systems
company. And this is not necessarily because their operating systems are
all that bad from a purely technological standpoint. Microsoft's OSes
do have their problems, sure, but they are vastly better than they used
to be, and they are adequate for most people.

Why, then, do I say that Microsoft is not such a great operating systems
company? Because the very nature of operating systems is such that it is
senseless for them to be developed and owned by a specific company. It's
a thankless job to begin with. Applications create possibilities for
millions of credulous users, whereas OSes impose limitations on thousands
of grumpy coders, and so OS-makers will forever be on the shit-list of
anyone who counts for anything in the high-tech world. Applications
get used by people whose big problem is understanding all of their
features, whereas OSes get hacked by coders who are annoyed by their
limitations. The OS business has been good to Microsoft only insofar as it
has given them the money they needed to launch a really good applications
software business and to hire a lot of smart researchers. Now it really
ought to be jettisoned, like a spent booster stage from a rocket. The
big question is whether Microsoft is capable of doing this. Or is it
addicted to OS sales in the same way as Apple is to selling hardware?

Keep in mind that Apple's ability to monopolize its own hardware
supply was once cited, by learned observers, as a great advantage over
Microsoft. At the time, it seemed to place them in a much stronger
position. In the end, it nearly killed them, and may kill them yet. The
problem, for Apple, was that most of the world's computer users ended
up owning cheaper hardware. But cheap hardware couldn't run MacOS,
and so these people switched to Windows.

Replace "hardware" with "operating systems," and "Apple" with "Microsoft"
and you can see the same thing about to happen all over again. Microsoft
dominates the OS market, which makes them money and seems like a great
idea for now. But cheaper and better OSes are available, and they are
growingly popular in parts of the world that are not so saturated with
computers as the US. Ten years from now, most of the world's computer
users may end up owning these cheaper OSes. But these OSes do not, for
the time being, run any Microsoft applications, and so these people will
use something else.

To put it more directly: every time someone decides to use a non-Microsoft
OS, Microsoft's OS division, obviously, loses a customer. But, as things
stand now, Microsoft's applications division loses a customer too. This is
not such a big deal as long as almost everyone uses Microsoft OSes. But
as soon as Windows' market share begins to slip, the math starts to look
pretty dismal for the people in Redmond.

This argument could be countered by saying that Microsoft could simply
re-compile its applications to run under other OSes. But this strategy
goes against most normal corporate instincts. Again the case of Apple
is instructive. When things started to go south for Apple, they should
have ported their OS to cheap PC hardware. But they didn't. Instead,
they tried to make the most of their brilliant hardware, adding new
features and expanding the product line. But this only had the effect
of making their OS more dependent on these special hardware features,
which made it worse for them in the end.

Likewise, when Microsoft's position in the OS world is threatened,
their corporate instincts will tell them to pile more new features into
their operating systems, and then re-jigger their software applications
to exploit those special features. But this will only have the effect of
making their applications dependent on an OS with declining market share,
and make it worse for them in the end.

The operating system market is a death-trap, a tar-pit, a slough of
despond. There are only two reasons to invest in Apple and Microsoft. (1)
each of these companies is in what we would call a co-dependency
relationship with their customers. The customers Want To Believe,
and Apple and Microsoft know how to give them what they want. (2) each
company works very hard to add new features to their OSes, which works
to secure customer loyalty, at least for a little while.

Accordingly, most of the remainder of this essay will be about those
two topics.

THE TECHNOSPHERE

Unix is the only OS remaining whose GUI (a vast suite of code called
the X Windows System) is separate from the OS in the old sense of the
phrase. This is to say that you can run Unix in pure command-line mode
if you want to, with no windows, icons, mouses, etc. whatsoever, and it
will still be Unix and capable of doing everything Unix is supposed to
do. But the other OSes: MacOS, the Windows family, and BeOS, have their
GUIs tangled up with the old-fashioned OS functions to the extent that
they have to run in GUI mode, or else they are not really running. So
it's no longer really possible to think of GUIs as being distinct from
the OS; they're now an inextricable part of the OSes that they belong
to--and they are by far the largest part, and by far the most expensive
and difficult part to create.

There are only two ways to sell a product: price and features. When OSes
are free, OS companies cannot compete on price, and so they compete on
features. This means that they are always trying to outdo each other
writing code that, until recently, was not considered to be part of an
OS at all: stuff like GUIs. This explains a lot about how these companies
behave.

It explains why Microsoft added a browser to their OS, for example. It
is easy to get free browsers, just as to get free OSes. If browsers are
free, and OSes are free, it would seem that there is no way to make money
from browsers or OSes. But if you can integrate a browser into the OS and
thereby imbue both of them with new features, you have a salable product.

Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that this makes government
anti-trust lawyers really mad, this strategy makes sense. At least, it
makes sense if you assume (as Microsoft's management appears to) that the
OS has to be protected at all costs. The real question is whether every
new technological trend that comes down the pike ought to be used as a
crutch to maintain the OS's dominant position. Confronted with the Web
phenomenon, Microsoft had to develop a really good web browser, and they
did. But then they had a choice: they could have made that browser work on
many different OSes, which would give Microsoft a strong position in the
Internet world no matter what happened to their OS market share. Or they
could make the browser one with the OS, gambling that this would make the
OS look so modern and sexy that it would help to preserve their dominance
in that market. The problem is that when Microsoft's OS position begins
to erode (and since it is currently at something like ninety percent,
it can't go anywhere but down) it will drag everything else down with it.

In your high school geology class you probably were taught that all life
on earth exists in a paper-thin shell called the biosphere, which is
trapped between thousands of miles of dead rock underfoot, and cold dead
radioactive empty space above. Companies that sell OSes exist in a sort of
technosphere. Underneath is technology that has already become free. Above
is technology that has yet to be developed, or that is too crazy and
speculative to be productized just yet. Like the Earth's biosphere, the
technosphere is very thin compared to what is above and what is below.

But it moves a lot faster. In various parts of our world, it is possible
to go and visit rich fossil beds where skeleton lies piled upon skeleton,
recent ones on top and more ancient ones below. In theory they go
all the way back to the first single-celled organisms. And if you use
your imagination a bit, you can understand that, if you hang around
long enough, you'll become fossilized there too, and in time some more
advanced organism will become fossilized on top of you.

The fossil record--the La Brea Tar Pit--of software technology is the
Internet. Anything that shows up there is free for the taking (possibly
illegal, but free). Executives at companies like Microsoft must get used
to the experience--unthinkable in other industries--of throwing millions
of dollars into the development of new technologies, such as Web browsers,
and then seeing the same or equivalent software show up on the Internet
two years, or a year, or even just a few months, later.

By continuing to develop new technologies and add features onto their
products they can keep one step ahead of the fossilization process,
but on certain days they must feel like mammoths caught at La Brea,
using all their energies to pull their feet, over and over again, out
of the sucking hot tar that wants to cover and envelop them.

Survival in this biosphere demands sharp tusks and heavy, stomping feet
at one end of the organization, and Microsoft famously has those. But
trampling the other mammoths into the tar can only keep you alive for
so long. The danger is that in their obsession with staying out of
the fossil beds, these companies will forget about what lies above the
biosphere: the realm of new technology. In other words, they must hang
onto their primitive weapons and crude competitive instincts, but also
evolve powerful brains. This appears to be what Microsoft is doing with
its research division, which has been hiring smart people right and left
(Here I should mention that although I know, and socialize with, several
people in that company's research division, we never talk about business
issues and I have little to no idea what the hell they are up to. I have
learned much more about Microsoft by using the Linux operating system
than I ever would have done by using Windows).

Never mind how Microsoft used to make money; today, it is making its money
on a kind of temporal arbitrage. "Arbitrage," in the usual sense, means to
make money by taking advantage of differences in the price of something
between different markets. It is spatial, in other words, and hinges on
the arbitrageur knowing what is going on simultaneously in different
places. Microsoft is making money by taking advantage of differences
in the price of technology in different times. Temporal arbitrage, if I
may coin a phrase, hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what technologies
people will pay money for next year, and how soon afterwards those
same technologies will become free. What spatial and temporal arbitrage
have in common is that both hinge on the arbitrageur's being extremely
well-informed; one about price gradients across space at a given time,
and the other about price gradients over time in a given place.

So Apple/Microsoft shower new features upon their users almost daily,
in the hopes that a steady stream of genuine technical innovations,
combined with the "I want to believe" phenomenon, will prevent their
customers from looking across the road towards the cheaper and better OSes
that are available to them. The question is whether this makes sense in
the long run. If Microsoft is addicted to OSes as Apple is to hardware,
then they will bet the whole farm on their OSes, and tie all of their
new applications and technologies to them. Their continued survival
will then depend on these two things: adding more features to their
OSes so that customers will not switch to the cheaper alternatives,
and maintaining the image that, in some mysterious way, gives those
customers the feeling that they are getting something for their money.

The latter is a truly strange and interesting cultural phenomenon.

THE INTERFACE CULTURE


A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was
presented with the following tableau vivant: near the entrance a young
couple were standing in front of a large cosmetics display. The man was
stolidly holding a shopping basket between his hands while his mate raked
blister-packs of makeup off the display and piled them in. Since then I've
always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting human
tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured
images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are eager to
be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park ride,
vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding the
basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

I was in Disney World recently, specifically the part of it called the
Magic Kingdom, walking up Main Street USA. This is a perfect gingerbready
Victorian small town that culminates in a Disney castle. It was very
crowded; we shuffled rather than walked. Directly in front of me was a
man with a camcorder. It was one of the new breed of camcorders where
instead of peering through a viewfinder you gaze at a flat-panel color
screen about the size of a playing card, which televises live coverage
of whatever the camcorder is seeing. He was holding the appliance close
to his face, so that it obstructed his view. Rather than go see a real
small town for free, he had paid money to see a pretend one, and rather
than see it with the naked eye he was watching it on television.

And rather than stay home and read a book, I was watching him.

Americans' preference for mediated experiences is obvious enough, and
I'm not going to keep pounding it into the ground. I'm not even going
to make snotty comments about it--after all, I was at Disney World as a
paying customer. But it clearly relates to the colossal success of GUIs
and so I have to talk about it some. Disney does mediated experiences
better than anyone. If they understood what OSes are, and why people
use them, they could crush Microsoft in a year or two.

In the part of Disney World called the Animal Kingdom there is a new
attraction, slated to open in March 1999, called the Maharajah Jungle
Trek. It was open for sneak previews when I was there. This is a complete
stone-by-stone reproduction of a hypothetical ruin in the jungles of
India. According to its backstory, it was built by a local rajah in the
16th Century as a game reserve. He would go there with his princely
guests to hunt Bengal tigers. As time went on it fell into disrepair
and the tigers and monkeys took it over; eventually, around the time of
India's independence, it became a government wildlife reserve, now open
to visitors.

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual
building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are
weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries,
the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal
tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have
been made to the ancient structure, they've been done, not as Disney's
engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would--with
hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted
on, or course, and protected from real rust by a plastic clear-coat,
but you can't tell unless you get down on your knees.

In one place you walk along a stone wall with a series of old pitted
friezes carved into it. One end of the wall has broken off and settled
into the earth, perhaps because of some long-forgotten earthquake, and
so a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is
still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many
animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse
animals. This is an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in)
to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney's
Animal Kingdom just as the Castle dominates the Magic Kingdom or the
Sphere does Epcot. But it's rendered in historically correct style and
could probably fool anyone who didn't have a Ph.D. in Indian art history.

The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of
Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one
after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave,
part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow
back, but now Man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other
animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

It is, in other words, a prophecy of the Bottleneck: the scenario,
commonly espoused among modern-day environmentalists, that the world faces
an upcoming period of grave ecological tribulations that will last for
a few decades or centuries and end when we find a new harmonious modus
vivendi with Nature.

Taken as a whole the frieze is a pretty brilliant piece of work. Obviously
it's not an ancient Indian ruin, and some person or people now living
deserve credit for it. But there are no signatures on the Maharajah's game
reserve at Disney World. There are no signatures on anything, because it
would ruin the whole effect to have long strings of production credits
dangling from every custom-worn brick, as they do from Hollywood movies.

Among Hollywood writers, Disney has the reputation of being a real wicked
stepmother. It's not hard to see why. Disney is in the business of putting
out a product of seamless illusion--a magic mirror that reflects the
world back better than it really is. But a writer is literally talking
to his or her readers, not just creating an ambience or presenting them
with something to look at; and just as the command-line interface opens a
much more direct and explicit channel from user to machine than the GUI,
so it is with words, writer, and reader.

The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts--the only
medium--that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring
torrent of electronic media (the richer tourists at Disney World wear
t-shirts printed with the names of famous designers, because designs
themselves can be bootlegged easily and with impunity. The only way to
make clothing that cannot be legally bootlegged is to print copyrighted
and trademarked words on it; once you have taken that step, the clothing
itself doesn't really matter, and so a t-shirt is as good as anything
else. T-shirts with expensive words on them are now the insignia of the
upper class. T-shirts with cheap words, or no words at all, are for the
commoners).

But this special quality of words and of written communication would have
the same effect on Disney's product as spray-painted graffiti on a magic
mirror. So Disney does most of its communication without resorting to
words, and for the most part, the words aren't missed. Some of Disney's
older properties, such as Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, and Alice in
Wonderland, came out of books. But the authors' names are rarely if ever
mentioned, and you can't buy the original books at the Disney store. If
you could, they would all seem old and queer, like very bad knockoffs
of the purer, more authentic Disney versions. Compared to more recent
productions like Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, the Disney movies based
on these books (particularly Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan) seem
deeply bizarre, and not wholly appropriate for children. That stands to
reason, because Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie were very strange men, and
such is the nature of the written word that their personal strangeness
shines straight through all the layers of Disneyfication like x-rays
through a wall. Probably for this very reason, Disney seems to have
stopped buying books altogether, and now finds its themes and characters
in folk tales, which have the lapidary, time-worn quality of the ancient
bricks in the Maharajah's ruins.

If I can risk a broad generalization, most of the people who go to Disney
World have zero interest in absorbing new ideas from books. Which sounds
snide, but listen: they have no qualms about being presented with ideas
in other forms. Disney World is stuffed with environmental messages now,
and the guides at Animal Kingdom can talk your ear off about biology.

If you followed those tourists home, you might find art, but it would be
the sort of unsigned folk art that's for sale in Disney World's African-
and Asian-themed stores. In general they only seem comfortable with
media that have been ratified by great age, massive popular acceptance,
or both.

In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers
who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into
unmarked graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome
and stirring in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have
no idea who built it. When we walk through it we are communing not with
individual stone carvers but with an entire culture.

Disney World works the same way. If you are an intellectual type, a
reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is
that the execution is superb. But it's easy to find the whole environment
a little creepy, because something is missing: the translation of all
its content into clear explicit written words, the attribution of the
ideas to specific people. You can't argue with it. It seems as if a
hell of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Disney World might
be putting one over on us, and possibly getting away with all kinds of
buried assumptions and muddled thinking.

But this is precisely the same as what is lost in the transition from
the command-line interface to the GUI.

Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting
laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed
interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself--and more than
just graphical. Let's call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied
to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing
graphical or sensorial ones--a trend that accounts for the success of
both Microsoft and Disney?

Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now--much more
complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to
cope with--and we simply can't handle all of the details. We have to
delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney
or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close
off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century,
intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and
Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional
folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the
ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an
abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they
seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some
point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have
inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set
of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But
we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like
intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more,
though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating
those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of
being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree,
for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are
insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps
in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they are
in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become
outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may
turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than
the Declaration of Independence.

A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values
through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of
running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which
is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts
like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the
messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written
set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump
loads of crap into people's minds.

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force
Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba,
or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been
scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando's civilian
airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists
from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney
World and steep in our media for a while.

To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this
is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious,
to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords,
multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in
many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural
differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity"
or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging
each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that
this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing
ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that
set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that,
in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully
on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to
suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of,
and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David
Foster Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is the
fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take
home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not
expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as
the presumption that all authority figures--teachers, generals, cops,
ministers, politicians--are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded
coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make
judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real
culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability
to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having
a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up
in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They
perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons
come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways,
the dads go out of their minds.

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of
the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards
of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly
inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it
is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely--and that is
actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this
global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching
TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere
of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions
on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie
to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and
quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human
being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless
so we won't nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you
end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and
understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture
you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools.

In this country, the people who run things--who populate major law firms
and corporate boards--understand all of this at some level. They pay
lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness,
but they don't raise their own children that way. I have highly educated,
technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa
to live and raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves
in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according
to traditional beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as
a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to
live among others who think the same way.

And not only do these people feel some responsibility to their own
children, but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class
are vile and cynical, of course, but many spend at least part of
their time fretting about what direction the country is going in,
and what responsibilities they have. And so issues that are important
to book-reading intellectuals, such as global environmental collapse,
eventually percolate through the porous buffer of mass culture and show
up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.

You may be asking: what the hell does all this have to do with operating
systems? As I've explained, there is no way to explain the domination of
the OS market by Apple/Microsoft without looking to cultural explanations,
and so I can't get anywhere, in this essay, without first letting you
know where I'm coming from vis-a-vis contemporary culture.

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the
Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside
down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported
by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels
turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in
the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand
how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything
they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed
and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could
be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've
evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious
and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them
unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details,
go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial
Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their
minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously
explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free
versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks
insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no
problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the
point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum
about those unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses,
coming down from the mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets
bearing the Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone--the original
command-line interface--and blowing his stack at the weak, unenlightened
Hebrews worshipping images. Not only that, but it sounds like I'm pumping
some sort of conspiracy theory.

But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe, here,
could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily bad now:


It simply is the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend
everything in detail. And it's better to comprehend it dimly, through
an interface, than not at all. Better for ten million Eloi to go on the
Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney World than for a thousand cardiovascular
surgeons and mutual fund managers to go on "real" ones in Kenya. The
boundary between these two classes is more porous than I've made it
sound. I'm always running into regular dudes--construction workers, auto
mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general--who were largely aliterate
until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start
actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with
alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease,
or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people
can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly. Sometimes their
lack of a broad education makes them over-apt to go off on intellectual
wild goose chases, but, hey, at least a wild goose chase gives you some
exercise. The spectre of a polity controlled by the fads and whims of
voters who actually believe that there are significant differences between
Bud Lite and Miller Lite, and who think that professional wrestling is
for real, is naturally alarming to people who don't. But then countries
controlled via the command-line interface, as it were, by double-domed
intellectuals, be they religious or secular, are generally miserable
places to live. Sophisticated people deride Disneyesque entertainments
as pat and saccharine, but, hey, if the result of that is to instill
basically warm and sympathetic reflexes, at a preverbal level, into
hundreds of millions of unlettered media-steepers, then how bad can
it be? We killed a lobster in our kitchen last night and my daughter
cried for an hour. The Japanese, who used to be just about the fiercest
people on earth, have become infatuated with cuddly adorable cartoon
characters. My own family--the people I know best--is divided about evenly
between people who will probably read this essay and people who almost
certainly won't, and I can't say for sure that one group is necessarily
warmer, happier, or better-adjusted than the other.


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In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 3/6


MORLOCKS AND ELOI AT THE KEYBOARD


Back in the days of the command-line interface, users were all Morlocks
who had to convert their thoughts into alphanumeric symbols and type
them in, a grindingly tedious process that stripped away all ambiguity,
laid bare all hidden assumptions, and cruelly punished laziness and
imprecision. Then the interface-makers went to work on their GUIs, and
introduced a new semiotic layer between people and machines. People who
use such systems have abdicated the responsibility, and surrendered the
power, of sending bits directly to the chip that's doing the arithmetic,
and handed that responsibility and power over to the OS. This is tempting
because giving clear instructions, to anyone or anything, is difficult. We
cannot do it without thinking, and depending on the complexity of the
situation, we may have to think hard about abstract things, and consider
any number of ramifications, in order to do a good job of it. For most
of us, this is hard work. We want things to be easier. How badly we want
it can be measured by the size of Bill Gates's fortune.

The OS has (therefore) become a sort of intellectual labor-saving device
that tries to translate humans' vaguely expressed intentions into bits. In
effect we are asking our computers to shoulder responsibilities that
have always been considered the province of human beings--we want them to
understand our desires, to anticipate our needs, to foresee consequences,
to make connections, to handle routine chores without being asked, to
remind us of what we ought to be reminded of while filtering out noise.

At the upper (which is to say, closer to the user) levels, this is done
through a set of conventions--menus, buttons, and so on. These work in
the sense that analogies work: they help Eloi understand abstract or
unfamiliar concepts by likening them to something known. But the loftier
word "metaphor" is used.

The overarching concept of the MacOS was the "desktop metaphor" and it
subsumed any number of lesser (and frequently conflicting, or at least
mixed) metaphors. Under a GUI, a file (frequently called "document") is
metaphrased as a window on the screen (which is called a "desktop"). The
window is almost always too small to contain the document and so you
"move around," or, more pretentiously, "navigate" in the document by
"clicking and dragging" the "thumb" on the "scroll bar." When you "type"
(using a keyboard) or "draw" (using a "mouse") into the "window" or use
pull-down "menus" and "dialog boxes" to manipulate its contents, the
results of your labors get stored (at least in theory) in a "file,"
and later you can pull the same information back up into another
"window." When you don't want it anymore, you "drag" it into the "trash."

There is massively promiscuous metaphor-mixing going on here, and I could
deconstruct it 'til the cows come home, but I won't. Consider only one
word: "document." When we document something in the real world, we make
fixed, permanent, immutable records of it. But computer documents are
volatile, ephemeral constellations of data. Sometimes (as when you've
just opened or saved them) the document as portrayed in the window is
identical to what is stored, under the same name, in a file on the disk,
but other times (as when you have made changes without saving them)
it is completely different. In any case, every time you hit "Save" you
annihilate the previous version of the "document" and replace it with
whatever happens to be in the window at the moment. So even the word
"save" is being used in a sense that is grotesquely misleading---"destroy
one version, save another" would be more accurate.

Anyone who uses a word processor for very long inevitably has the
experience of putting hours of work into a long document and then losing
it because the computer crashes or the power goes out. Until the moment
that it disappears from the screen, the document seems every bit as solid
and real as if it had been typed out in ink on paper. But in the next
moment, without warning, it is completely and irretrievably gone, as if
it had never existed. The user is left with a feeling of disorientation
(to say nothing of annoyance) stemming from a kind of metaphor shear--you
realize that you've been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that
is essentially bogus.

So GUIs use metaphors to make computing easier, but they are bad
metaphors. Learning to use them is essentially a word game, a process
of learning new definitions of words like "window" and "document" and
"save" that are different from, and in many cases almost diametrically
opposed to, the old. Somewhat improbably, this has worked very well, at
least from a commercial standpoint, which is to say that Apple/Microsoft
have made a lot of money off of it. All of the other modern operating
systems have learned that in order to be accepted by users they must
conceal their underlying gutwork beneath the same sort of spackle. This
has some advantages: if you know how to use one GUI operating system, you
can probably work out how to use any other in a few minutes. Everything
works a little differently, like European plumbing--but with some fiddling
around, you can type a memo or surf the web.

Most people who shop for OSes (if they bother to shop at all) are
comparing not the underlying functions but the superficial look and
feel. The average buyer of an OS is not really paying for, and is not
especially interested in, the low-level code that allocates memory
or writes bytes onto the disk. What we're really buying is a system
of metaphors. And--much more important--what we're buying into is the
underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the
world.

Recently a lot of new hardware has become available that gives computers
numerous interesting ways of affecting the real world: making paper
spew out of printers, causing words to appear on screens thousands of
miles away, shooting beams of radiation through cancer patients, creating
realistic moving pictures of the Titanic. Windows is now used as an OS for
cash registers and bank tellers' terminals. My satellite TV system uses
a sort of GUI to change channels and show program guides. Modern cellular
telephones have a crude GUI built into a tiny LCD screen. Even Legos now
have a GUI: you can buy a Lego set called Mindstorms that enables you to
build little Lego robots and program them through a GUI on your computer.

So we are now asking the GUI to do a lot more than serve as a glorified
typewriter. Now we want to become a generalized tool for dealing with
reality. This has become a bonanza for companies that make a living out
of bringing new technology to the mass market.

Obviously you cannot sell a complicated technological system to people
without some sort of interface that enables them to use it. The
internal combustion engine was a technological marvel in its day,
but useless as a consumer good until a clutch, transmission, steering
wheel and throttle were connected to it. That odd collection of gizmos,
which survives to this day in every car on the road, made up what we
would today call a user interface. But if cars had been invented after
Macintoshes, carmakers would not have bothered to gin up all of these
arcane devices. We would have a computer screen instead of a dashboard,
and a mouse (or at best a joystick) instead of a steering wheel, and
we'd shift gears by pulling down a menu:

PARK --- REVERSE --- NEUTRAL ---- 3 2 1 --- Help...

A few lines of computer code can thus be made to substitute for any
imaginable mechanical interface. The problem is that in many cases
the substitute is a poor one. Driving a car through a GUI would be a
miserable experience. Even if the GUI were perfectly bug-free, it would
be incredibly dangerous, because menus and buttons simply can't be as
responsive as direct mechanical controls. My friend's dad, the gentleman
who was restoring the MGB, never would have bothered with it if it had
been equipped with a GUI. It wouldn't have been any fun.

The steering wheel and gearshift lever were invented during an era when
the most complicated technology in most homes was a butter churn. Those
early carmakers were simply lucky, in that they could dream up whatever
interface was best suited to the task of driving an automobile, and people
would learn it. Likewise with the dial telephone and the AM radio. By
the time of the Second World War, most people knew several interfaces:
they could not only churn butter but also drive a car, dial a telephone,
turn on a radio, summon flame from a cigarette lighter, and change a
light bulb.

But now every little thing--wristwatches, VCRs, stoves--is jammed with
features, and every feature is useless without an interface. If you are
like me, and like most other consumers, you have never used ninety percent
of the available features on your microwave oven, VCR, or cellphone. You
don't even know that these features exist. The small benefit they might
bring you is outweighed by the sheer hassle of having to learn about
them. This has got to be a big problem for makers of consumer goods,
because they can't compete without offering features.

It's no longer acceptable for engineers to invent a wholly novel
user interface for every new product, as they did in the case of
the automobile, partly because it's too expensive and partly because
ordinary people can only learn so much. If the VCR had been invented a
hundred years ago, it would have come with a thumbwheel to adjust the
tracking and a gearshift to change between forward and reverse and a big
cast-iron handle to load or to eject the cassettes. It would have had a
big analog clock on the front of it, and you would have set the time by
moving the hands around on the dial. But because the VCR was invented when
it was--during a sort of awkward transitional period between the era of
mechanical interfaces and GUIs--it just had a bunch of pushbuttons on the
front, and in order to set the time you had to push the buttons in just
the right way. This must have seemed reasonable enough to the engineers
responsible for it, but to many users it was simply impossible. Thus the
famous blinking 12:00 that appears on so many VCRs. Computer people call
this "the blinking twelve problem". When they talk about it, though,
they usually aren't talking about VCRs.

Modern VCRs usually have some kind of on-screen programming, which means
that you can set the time and control other features through a sort of
primitive GUI. GUIs have virtual pushbuttons too, of course, but they also
have other types of virtual controls, like radio buttons, checkboxes,
text entry boxes, dials, and scrollbars. Interfaces made out of these
components seem to be a lot easier, for many people, than pushing those
little buttons on the front of the machine, and so the blinking 12:00
itself is slowly disappearing from America's living rooms. The blinking
twelve problem has moved on to plague other technologies.

So the GUI has gone beyond being an interface to personal computers,
and become a sort of meta-interface that is pressed into service for
every new piece of consumer technology. It is rarely an ideal fit, but
having an ideal, or even a good interface is no longer the priority;
the important thing now is having some kind of interface that customers
will actually use, so that manufacturers can claim, with a straight face,
that they are offering new features.

We want GUIs largely because they are convenient and because they are
easy-- or at least the GUI makes it seem that way Of course, nothing is
really easy and simple, and putting a nice interface on top of it does
not change that fact. A car controlled through a GUI would be easier
to drive than one controlled through pedals and steering wheel, but it
would be incredibly dangerous.

By using GUIs all the time we have insensibly bought into a premise that
few people would have accepted if it were presented to them bluntly:
namely, that hard things can be made easy, and complicated things simple,
by putting the right interface on them. In order to understand how
bizarre this is, imagine that book reviews were written according to
the same values system that we apply to user interfaces: "The writing
in this book is marvelously simple-minded and glib; the author glosses
over complicated subjects and employs facile generalizations in almost
every sentence. Readers rarely have to think, and are spared all of
the difficulty and tedium typically involved in reading old-fashioned
books." As long as we stick to simple operations like setting the clocks
on our VCRs, this is not so bad. But as we try to do more ambitious
things with our technologies, we inevitably run into the problem of:


METAPHOR SHEAR


I began using Microsoft Word as soon as the first version was released
around 1985. After some initial hassles I found it to be a better tool
than MacWrite, which was its only competition at the time. I wrote a
lot of stuff in early versions of Word, storing it all on floppies, and
transferred the contents of all my floppies to my first hard drive, which
I acquired around 1987. As new versions of Word came out I faithfully
upgraded, reasoning that as a writer it made sense for me to spend a
certain amount of money on tools.

Sometime in the mid-1980's I attempted to open one of my old, circa-1985
Word documents using the version of Word then current: 6.0 It didn't
work. Word 6.0 did not recognize a document created by an earlier version
of itself. By opening it as a text file, I was able to recover the
sequences of letters that made up the text of the document. My words were
still there. But the formatting had been run through a log chipper--the
words I'd written were interrupted by spates of empty rectangular boxes
and gibberish.

Now, in the context of a business (the chief market for Word) this sort
of thing is only an annoyance--one of the routine hassles that go along
with using computers. It's easy to buy little file converter programs
that will take care of this problem. But if you are a writer whose
career is words, whose professional identity is a corpus of written
documents, this kind of thing is extremely disquieting. There are very
few fixed assumptions in my line of work, but one of them is that once
you have written a word, it is written, and cannot be unwritten. The
ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the
clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a
theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets--he can recognize
the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But
word-processing software--particularly the sort that employs special,
complex file formats--has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small
change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months' or years'
literary output can cease to exist.

Now this was technically a fault in the application (Word 6.0 for the
Macintosh) not the operating system (MacOS 7 point something) and so the
initial target of my annoyance was the people who were responsible for
Word. But. On the other hand, I could have chosen the "save as text"
option in Word and saved all of my documents as simple telegrams,
and this problem would not have arisen. Instead I had allowed myself
to be seduced by all of those flashy formatting options that hadn't
even existed until GUIs had come along to make them practicable. I had
gotten into the habit of using them to make my documents look pretty
(perhaps prettier than they deserved to look; all of the old documents
on those floppies turned out to be more or less crap). Now I was paying
the price for that self-indulgence. Technology had moved on and found
ways to make my documents look even prettier, and the consequence of it
was that all old ugly documents had ceased to exist.

It was--if you'll pardon me for a moment's strange little fantasy--as
if I'd gone to stay at some resort, some exquisitely designed and
art-directed hotel, placing myself in the hands of past masters of the
Sensorial Interface, and had sat down in my room and written a story in
ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, and when I returned from dinner,
discovered that the maid had taken my work away and left behind in
its place a quill pen and a stack of fine parchment--explaining that
the room looked ever so much finer this way, and it was all part of
a routine upgrade. But written on these sheets of paper, in flawless
penmanship, were long sequences of words chosen at random from the
dictionary. Appalling, sure, but I couldn't really lodge a complaint with
the management, because by staying at this resort I had given my consent
to it. I had surrendered my Morlock credentials and become an Eloi.


LINUX

During the late 1980's and early 1990's I spent a lot of time programming
Macintoshes, and eventually decided for fork over several hundred dollars
for an Apple product called the Macintosh Programmer's Workshop, or
MPW. MPW had competitors, but it was unquestionably the premier software
development system for the Mac. It was what Apple's own engineers used
to write Macintosh code. Given that MacOS was far more technologically
advanced, at the time, than its competition, and that Linux did not even
exist yet, and given that this was the actual program used by Apple's
world-class team of creative engineers, I had high expectations. It
arrived on a stack of floppy disks about a foot high, and so there was
plenty of time for my excitement to build during the endless installation
process. The first time I launched MPW, I was probably expecting some
kind of touch-feely multimedia showcase. Instead it was austere, almost
to the point of being intimidating. It was a scrolling window into which
you could type simple, unformatted text. The system would then interpret
these lines of text as commands, and try to execute them.

It was, in other words, a glass teletype running a command line
interface. It came with all sorts of cryptic but powerful commands,
which could be invoked by typing their names, and which I learned to use
only gradually. It was not until a few years later, when I began messing
around with Unix, that I understood that the command line interface
embodied in MPW was a re-creation of Unix.

In other words, the first thing that Apple's hackers had done when they'd
got the MacOS up and running--probably even before they'd gotten it up
and running--was to re-create the Unix interface, so that they would be
able to get some useful work done. At the time, I simply couldn't get
my mind around this, but: as far as Apple's hackers were concerned, the
Mac's vaunted Graphical User Interface was an impediment, something to
be circumvented before the little toaster even came out onto the market.

Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July
1995, there had been danger signs. An old college buddy of mine,
who starts and runs high-tech companies in Boston, had developed a
commercial product using Macintoshes as the front end. Basically the
Macs were high-performance graphics terminals, chosen for their sweet
user interface, giving users access to a large database of graphical
information stored on a network of much more powerful, but less
user-friendly, computers. This fellow was the second person who turned
me on to Macintoshes, by the way, and through the mid-1980's we had
shared the thrill of being high-tech cognoscenti, using superior Apple
technology in a world of DOS-using knuckleheads. Early versions of my
friend's system had worked well, he told me, but when several machines
joined the network, mysterious crashes began to occur; sometimes the
whole network would just freeze. It was one of those bugs that could not
be reproduced easily. Finally they figured out that these network crashes
were triggered whenever a user, scanning the menus for a particular item,
held down the mouse button for more than a couple of seconds.

Fundamentally, the MacOS could only do one thing at a time. Drawing a
menu on the screen is one thing. So when a menu was pulled down, the
Macintosh was not capable of doing anything else until that indecisive
user released the button.

This is not such a bad thing in a single-user, single-process machine
(although it's a fairly bad thing), but it's no good in a machine that is
on a network, because being on a network implies some kind of continual
low-level interaction with other machines. By failing to respond to the
network, the Mac caused a network-wide crash.

In order to work with other computers, and with networks, and with
various different types of hardware, an OS must be incomparably more
complicated and powerful than either MS-DOS or the original MacOS. The
only way of connecting to the Internet that's worth taking seriously
is PPP, the Point-to-Point Protocol, which (never mind the details)
makes your computer--temporarily--a full-fledged member of the Global
Internet, with its own unique address, and various privileges, powers,
and responsibilities appertaining thereunto. Technically it means your
machine is running the TCP/IP protocol, which, to make a long story
short, revolves around sending packets of data back and forth, in no
particular order, and at unpredictable times, according to a clever
and elegant set of rules. But sending a packet of data is one thing,
and so an OS that can only do one thing at a time cannot simultaneously
be part of the Internet and do anything else. When TCP/IP was invented,
running it was an honor reserved for Serious Computers--mainframes and
high-powered minicomputers used in technical and commercial settings--and
so the protocol is engineered around the assumption that every computer
using it is a serious machine, capable of doing many things at once. Not
to put too fine a point on it, a Unix machine. Neither MacOS nor MS-DOS
was originally built with that in mind, and so when the Internet got hot,
radical changes had to be made.

When my Powerbook broke my heart, and when Word stopped recognizing
my old files, I jumped to Unix. The obvious alternative to MacOS would
have been Windows. I didn't really have anything against Microsoft, or
Windows. But it was pretty obvious, now, that old PC operating systems
were overreaching, and showing the strain, and, perhaps, were best
avoided until they had learned to walk and chew gum at the same time.

The changeover took place on a particular day in the summer of 1995. I
had been San Francisco for a couple of weeks, using my PowerBook to work
on a document. The document was too big to fit onto a single floppy,
and so I hadn't made a backup since leaving home. The PowerBook crashed
and wiped out the entire file.

It happened just as I was on my way out the door to visit a company
called Electric Communities, which in those days was in Los Altos. I took
my PowerBook with me. My friends at Electric Communities were Mac users
who had all sorts of utility software for unerasing files and recovering
from disk crashes, and I was certain I could get most of the file back.

As it turned out, two different Mac crash recovery utilities were unable
to find any trace that my file had ever existed. It was completely and
systematically wiped out. We went through that hard disk block by block
and found disjointed fragments of countless old, discarded, forgotten
files, but none of what I wanted. The metaphor shear was especially brutal
that day. It was sort of like watching the girl you've been in love with
for ten years get killed in a car wreck, and then attending her autopsy,
and learning that underneath the clothes and makeup she was just flesh
and blood.

I must have been reeling around the offices of Electric Communities in
some kind of primal Jungian fugue, because at this moment three weirdly
synchronistic things happened.

(1) Randy Farmer, a co-founder of the company, came in for a quick
visit along with his family--he was recovering from back surgery at
the time. He had some hot gossip: "Windows 95 mastered today." What
this meant was that Microsoft's new operating system had, on this day,
been placed on a special compact disk known as a golden master, which
would be used to stamp out a jintillion copies in preparation for its
thunderous release a few weeks later. This news was received peevishly
by the staff of Electric Communities, including one whose office door
was plastered with the usual assortment of cartoons and novelties, e.g.

(2) a copy of a Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert, the long-suffering
corporate software engineer, encounters a portly, bearded, hairy man of a
certain age--a bit like Santa Claus, but darker, with a certain edge about
him. Dilbert recognizes this man, based upon his appearance and affect,
as a Unix hacker, and reacts with a certain mixture of nervousness, awe,
and hostility. Dilbert jabs weakly at the disturbing interloper for a
couple of frames; the Unix hacker listens with a kind of infuriating,
beatific calm, then, in the last frame, reaches into his pocket. "Here's
a nickel, kid," he says, "go buy yourself a real computer."

(3) the owner of the door, and the cartoon, was one Doug Barnes. Barnes
was known to harbor certain heretical opinions on the subject of
operating systems. Unlike most Bay Area techies who revered the Macintosh,
considering it to be a true hacker's machine, Barnes was fond of pointing
out that the Mac, with its hermetically sealed architecture, was actually
hostile to hackers, who are prone to tinkering and dogmatic about
openness. By contrast, the IBM-compatible line of machines, which can
easily be taken apart and plugged back together, was much more hackable.

So when I got home I began messing around with Linux, which is one of
many, many different concrete implementations of the abstract, Platonic
ideal called Unix. I was not looking forward to changing over to a new
OS, because my credit cards were still smoking from all the money I'd
spent on Mac hardware over the years. But Linux's great virtue was,
and is, that it would run on exactly the same sort of hardware as the
Microsoft OSes--which is to say, the cheapest hardware in existence. As
if to demonstrate why this was a great idea, I was, within a week or
two of returning home, able to get my hand on a then-decent computer (a
33-MHz 486 box) for free, because I knew a guy who worked in an office
where they were simply being thrown away. Once I got it home, I yanked
the hood off, stuck my hands in, and began switching cards around. If
something didn't work, I went to a used-computer outlet and pawed through
a bin full of components and bought a new card for a few bucks.

The availability of all this cheap but effective hardware was an
unintended consequence of decisions that had been made more than
a decade earlier by IBM and Microsoft. When Windows came out, and
brought the GUI to a much larger market, the hardware regime changed:
the cost of color video cards and high-resolution monitors began to
drop, and is dropping still. This free-for-all approach to hardware
meant that Windows was unavoidably clunky compared to MacOS. But the
GUI brought computing to such a vast audience that volume went way up
and prices collapsed. Meanwhile Apple, which so badly wanted a clean,
integrated OS with video neatly integrated into processing hardware,
had fallen far behind in market share, at least partly because their
beautiful hardware cost so much.

But the price that we Mac owners had to pay for superior aesthetics and
engineering was not merely a financial one. There was a cultural price
too, stemming from the fact that we couldn't open up the hood and mess
around with it. Doug Barnes was right. Apple, in spite of its reputation
as the machine of choice of scruffy, creative hacker types, had actually
created a machine that discouraged hacking, while Microsoft, viewed as a
technological laggard and copycat, had created a vast, disorderly parts
bazaar--a primordial soup that eventually self-assembled into Linux.


THE HOLE HAWG OF OPERATING SYSTEMS


Unix has always lurked provocatively in the background of the operating
system wars, like the Russian Army. Most people know it only by
reputation, and its reputation, as the Dilbert cartoon suggests, is
mixed. But everyone seems to agree that if it could only get its act
together and stop surrendering vast tracts of rich agricultural land
and hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war to the onrushing invaders,
it could stomp them (and all other opposition) flat.

It is difficult to explain how Unix has earned this respect without
going into mind-smashing technical detail. Perhaps the gist of it can
be explained by telling a story about drills.

The Hole Hawg is a drill made by the Milwaukee Tool Company. If you look
in a typical hardware store you may find smaller Milwaukee drills but not
the Hole Hawg, which is too powerful and too expensive for homeowners. The
Hole Hawg does not have the pistol-like design of a cheap homeowner's
drill. It is a cube of solid metal with a handle sticking out of one face
and a chuck mounted in another. The cube contains a disconcertingly potent
electric motor. You can hold the handle and operate the trigger with
your index finger, but unless you are exceptionally strong you cannot
control the weight of the Hole Hawg with one hand; it is a two-hander
all the way. In order to fight off the counter-torque of the Hole Hawg
you use a separate handle (provided), which you screw into one side
of the iron cube or the other depending on whether you are using your
left or right hand to operate the trigger. This handle is not a sleek,
ergonomically designed item as it would be in a homeowner's drill. It is
simply a foot-long chunk of regular galvanized pipe, threaded on one end,
with a black rubber handle on the other. If you lose it, you just go to
the local plumbing supply store and buy another chunk of pipe.

During the Eighties I did some construction work. One day, another
worker leaned a ladder against the outside of the building that we were
putting up, climbed up to the second-story level, and used the Hole Hawg
to drill a hole through the exterior wall. At some point, the drill bit
caught in the wall. The Hole Hawg, following its one and only imperative,
kept going. It spun the worker's body around like a rag doll, causing him
to knock his own ladder down. Fortunately he kept his grip on the Hole
Hawg, which remained lodged in the wall, and he simply dangled from it
and shouted for help until someone came along and reinstated the ladder.

I myself used a Hole Hawg to drill many holes through studs, which it did
as a blender chops cabbage. I also used it to cut a few six-inch-diameter
holes through an old lath-and-plaster ceiling. I chucked in a new
hole saw, went up to the second story, reached down between the newly
installed floor joists, and began to cut through the first-floor ceiling
below. Where my homeowner's drill had labored and whined to spin the huge
bit around, and had stalled at the slightest obstruction, the Hole Hawg
rotated with the stupid consistency of a spinning planet. When the hole
saw seized up, the Hole Hawg spun itself and me around, and crushed one
of my hands between the steel pipe handle and a joist, producing a few
lacerations, each surrounded by a wide corona of deeply bruised flesh. It
also bent the hole saw itself, though not so badly that I couldn't use
it. After a few such run-ins, when I got ready to use the Hole Hawg my
heart actually began to pound with atavistic terror.

But I never blamed the Hole Hawg; I blamed myself. The Hole Hawg is
dangerous because it does exactly what you tell it to. It is not bound
by the physical limitations that are inherent in a cheap drill, and
neither is it limited by safety interlocks that might be built into a
homeowner's product by a liability-conscious manufacturer. The danger
lies not in the machine itself but in the user's failure to envision
the full consequences of the instructions he gives to it.

A smaller tool is dangerous too, but for a completely different reason:
it tries to do what you tell it to, and fails in some way that is
unpredictable and almost always undesirable. But the Hole Hawg is like
the genie of the ancient fairy tales, who carries out his master's
instructions literally and precisely and with unlimited power, often
with disastrous, unforeseen consequences.

Pre-Hole Hawg, I used to examine the drill selection in hardware stores
with what I thought was a judicious eye, scorning the smaller low-end
models and hefting the big expensive ones appreciatively, wishing I
could afford one of them babies. Now I view them all with such contempt
that I do not even consider them to be real drills--merely scaled-up
toys designed to exploit the self-delusional tendencies of soft-handed
homeowners who want to believe that they have purchased an actual
tool. Their plastic casings, carefully designed and focus-group-tested
to convey a feeling of solidity and power, seem disgustingly flimsy and
cheap to me, and I am ashamed that I was ever bamboozled into buying
such knicknacks.

It is not hard to imagine what the world would look like to someone
who had been raised by contractors and who had never used any drill
other than a Hole Hawg. Such a person, presented with the best and most
expensive hardware-store drill, would not even recognize it as such. He
might instead misidentify it as a child's toy, or some kind of motorized
screwdriver. If a salesperson or a deluded homeowner referred to it as a
drill, he would laugh and tell them that they were mistaken--they simply
had their terminology wrong. His interlocutor would go away irritated,
and probably feeling rather defensive about his basement full of cheap,
dangerous, flashy, colorful tools.

Unix is the Hole Hawg of operating systems, and Unix hackers, like Doug
Barnes and the guy in the Dilbert cartoon and many of the other people
who populate Silicon Valley, are like contractor's sons who grew up using
only Hole Hawgs. They might use Apple/Microsoft OSes to write letters,
play video games, or balance their checkbooks, but they cannot really
bring themselves to take these operating systems seriously.


THE ORAL TRADITION


Unix is hard to learn. The process of learning it is one of multiple
small epiphanies. Typically you are just on the verge of inventing some
necessary tool or utility when you realize that someone else has already
invented it, and built it in, and this explains some odd file or directory
or command that you have noticed but never really understood before.

For example there is a command (a small program, part of the OS) called
whoami, which enables you to ask the computer who it thinks you are. On
a Unix machine, you are always logged in under some name--possibly even
your own! What files you may work with, and what software you may use,
depends on your identity. When I started out using Linux, I was on a
non-networked machine in my basement, with only one user account, and so
when I became aware of the whoami command it struck me as ludicrous. But
once you are logged in as one person, you can temporarily switch over
to a pseudonym in order to access different files. If your machine is
on the Internet, you can log onto other computers, provided you have a
user name and a password. At that point the distant machine becomes no
different in practice from the one right in front of you. These changes
in identity and location can easily become nested inside each other, many
layers deep, even if you aren't doing anything nefarious. Once you have
forgotten who and where you are, the whoami command is indispensible. I
use it all the time.

The file systems of Unix machines all have the same general structure. On
your flimsy operating systems, you can create directories (folders)
and give them names like Frodo or My Stuff and put them pretty much
anywhere you like. But under Unix the highest level--the root--of the
filesystem is always designated with the single character "/" and it
always contains the same set of top-level directories:

/usr /etc /var /bin /proc /boot /home /root /sbin /dev /lib /tmp


and each of these directories typically has its own distinct structure of
subdirectories. Note the obsessive use of abbreviations and avoidance of
capital letters; this is a system invented by people to whom repetitive
stress disorder is what black lung is to miners. Long names get worn
down to three-letter nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river.

This is not the place to try to explain why each of the above directories
exists, and what is contained in it. At first it all seems obscure;
worse, it seems deliberately obscure. When I started using Linux I was
accustomed to being able to create directories wherever I wanted and to
give them whatever names struck my fancy. Under Unix you are free to do
that, of course (you are free to do anything) but as you gain experience
with the system you come to understand that the directories listed above
were created for the best of reasons and that your life will be much
easier if you follow along (within /home, by the way, you have pretty
much unlimited freedom).

After this kind of thing has happened several hundred or thousand times,
the hacker understands why Unix is the way it is, and agrees that it
wouldn't be the same any other way. It is this sort of acculturation that
gives Unix hackers their confidence in the system, and the attitude
of calm, unshakable, annoying superiority captured in the Dilbert
cartoon. Windows 95 and MacOS are products, contrived by engineers in
the service of specific companies. Unix, by contrast, is not so much
a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker
subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic.

What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that
they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart,
and told over and over again--making their own personal embellishments
whenever it struck their fancy. The bad embellishments were shouted
down, the good ones picked up by others, polished, improved, and, over
time, incorporated into the story. Likewise, Unix is known, loved, and
understood by so many hackers that it can be re-created from scratch
whenever someone needs it. This is very difficult to understand for
people who are accustomed to thinking of OSes as things that absolutely
have to be bought.

Many hackers have launched more or less successful re-implementations
of the Unix ideal. Each one brings in new embellishments. Some of them
die out quickly, some are merged with similar, parallel innovations
created by different hackers attacking the same problem, others still
are embraced, and adopted into the epic. Thus Unix has slowly accreted
around a simple kernel and acquired a kind of complexity and asymmetry
about it that is organic, like the roots of a tree, or the branchings
of a coronary artery. Understanding it is more like anatomy than physics.

For at least a year, prior to my adoption of Linux, I had been hearing
about it. Credible, well-informed people kept telling me that a bunch of
hackers had got together an implentation of Unix that could be downloaded,
free of charge, from the Internet. For a long time I could not bring
myself to take the notion seriously. It was like hearing rumors that a
group of model rocket enthusiasts had created a completely functional
Saturn V by exchanging blueprints on the Net and mailing valves and
flanges to each other.

But it's true. Credit for Linux generally goes to its human namesake,
one Linus Torvalds, a Finn who got the whole thing rolling in 1991 when
he used some of the GNU tools to write the beginnings of a Unix kernel
that could run on PC-compatible hardware. And indeed Torvalds deserves
all the credit he has ever gotten, and a whole lot more. But he could
not have made it happen by himself, any more than Richard Stallman could
have. To write code at all, Torvalds had to have cheap but powerful
development tools, and these he got from Stallman's GNU project.

And he had to have cheap hardware on which to write that code. Cheap
hardware is a much harder thing to arrange than cheap software; a
single person (Stallman) can write software and put it up on the Net
for free, but in order to make hardware it's necessary to have a whole
industrial infrastructure, which is not cheap by any stretch of the
imagination. Really the only way to make hardware cheap is to punch out
an incredible number of copies of it, so that the unit cost eventually
drops. For reasons already explained, Apple had no desire to see the
cost of hardware drop. The only reason Torvalds had cheap hardware was
Microsoft.

Microsoft refused to go into the hardware business, insisted on making its
software run on hardware that anyone could build, and thereby created the
market conditions that allowed hardware prices to plummet. In trying to
understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single
innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard
Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would
not exist.


:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Apache-1","autR


In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 4/6


OS SHOCK


Young Americans who leave their great big homogeneous country and visit
some other part of the world typically go through several stages of
culture shock: first, dumb wide-eyed astonishment. Then a tentative
engagement with the new country's manners, cuisine, public transit
systems and toilets, leading to a brief period of fatuous confidence
that they are instant experts on the new country. As the visit wears on,
homesickness begins to set in, and the traveler begins to appreciate,
for the first time, how much he or she took for granted at home. At the
same time it begins to seem obvious that many of one's own cultures and
traditions are essentially arbitrary, and could have been different;
driving on the right side of the road, for example. When the traveler
returns home and takes stock of the experience, he or she may have learned
a good deal more about America than about the country they went to visit.

For the same reasons, Linux is worth trying. It is a strange country
indeed, but you don't have to live there; a brief sojourn suffices to give
some flavor of the place and--more importantly--to lay bare everything
that is taken for granted, and all that could have been done differently,
under Windows or MacOS.

You can't try it unless you install it. With any other OS, installing
it would be a straightforward transaction: in exchange for money, some
company would give you a CD-ROM, and you would be on your way. But a lot
is subsumed in that kind of transaction, and has to be gone through and
picked apart.

We like plain dealings and straightforward transactions in America. If
you go to Egypt and, say, take a taxi somewhere, you become a part of the
taxi driver's life; he refuses to take your money because it would demean
your friendship, he follows you around town, and weeps hot tears when
you get in some other guy's taxi. You end up meeting his kids at some
point, and have to devote all sort of ingenuity to finding some way to
compensate him without insulting his honor. It is exhausting. Sometimes
you just want a simple Manhattan-style taxi ride.

But in order to have an American-style setup, where you can just go
out and hail a taxi and be on your way, there must exist a whole hidden
apparatus of medallions, inspectors, commissions, and so forth--which
is fine as long as taxis are cheap and you can always get one. When the
system fails to work in some way, it is mysterious and infuriating and
turns otherwise reasonable people into conspiracy theorists. But when
the Egyptian system breaks down, it breaks down transparently. You can't
get a taxi, but your driver's nephew will show up, on foot, to explain
the problem and apologize.

Microsoft and Apple do things the Manhattan way, with vast complexity
hidden behind a wall of interface. Linux does things the Egypt way,
with vast complexity strewn about all over the landscape. If you've
just flown in from Manhattan, your first impulse will be to throw up
your hands and say "For crying out loud! Will you people get a grip on
yourselves!?" But this does not make friends in Linux-land any better
than it would in Egypt.

You can suck Linux right out of the air, as it were, by downloading the
right files and putting them in the right places, but there probably
are not more than a few hundred people in the world who could create
a functioning Linux system in that way. What you really need is a
distribution of Linux, which means a prepackaged set of files. But
distributions are a separate thing from Linux per se.

Linux per se is not a specific set of ones and zeroes, but a
self-organizing Net subculture. The end result of its collective
lucubrations is a vast body of source code, almost all written in C
(the dominant computer programming language). "Source code" just means
a computer program as typed in and edited by some hacker. If it's in C,
the file name will probably have .c or .cpp on the end of it, depending
on which dialect was used; if it's in some other language it will have
some other suffix. Frequently these sorts of files can be found in a
directory with the name /src which is the hacker's Hebraic abbreviation of
"source."

Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to most
users, but they are of gigantic cultural and political significance,
because Microsoft and Apple keep them secret while Linux makes them
public. They are the family jewels. They are the sort of thing that in
Hollywood thrillers is used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core,
the top-secret blueprints, the suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of
microfilm. If the source files for Windows or MacOS were made public on
the Net, then those OSes would become free, like Linux--only not as good,
because no one would be around to fix bugs and answer questions. Linux
is "open source" software meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies
of its source code files.

Your computer doesn't want source code any more than you do; it wants
object code. Object code files typically have the suffix .o and are
unreadable all but a few, highly strange humans, because they consist
of ones and zeroes. Accordingly, this sort of file commonly shows up in
a directory with the name /bin, for "binary."

Source files are simply ASCII text files. ASCII denotes a particular way
of encoding letters into bit patterns. In an ASCII file, each character
has eight bits all to itself. This creates a potential "alphabet"
of 256 distinct characters, in that eight binary digits can form that
many unique patterns. In practice, of course, we tend to limit ourselves
to the familiar letters and digits. The bit-patterns used to represent
those letters and digits are the same ones that were physically punched
into the paper tape by my high school teletype, which in turn were the
same one used by the telegraph industry for decades previously. ASCII
text files, in other words, are telegrams, and as such they have no
typographical frills. But for the same reason they are eternal, because
the code never changes, and universal, because every text editing and
word processing software ever written knows about this code.

Therefore just about any software can be used to create, edit, and read
source code files. Object code files, then, are created from these source
files by a piece of software called a compiler, and forged into a working
application by another piece of software called a linker.

The triad of editor, compiler, and linker, taken together, form the core
of a software development system. Now, it is possible to spend a lot of
money on shrink-wrapped development systems with lovely graphical user
interfaces and various ergonomic enhancements. In some cases it might even
be a good and reasonable way to spend money. But on this side of the road,
as it were, the very best software is usually the free stuff. Editor,
compiler and linker are to hackers what ponies, stirrups, and archery sets
were to the Mongols. Hackers live in the saddle, and hack on their own
tools even while they are using them to create new applications. It is
quite inconceivable that superior hacking tools could have been created
from a blank sheet of paper by product engineers. Even if they are the
brightest engineers in the world they are simply outnumbered.

In the GNU/Linux world there are two major text editing programs: the
minimalist vi (known in some implementations as elvis) and the maximalist
emacs. I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word
processor. It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written
in Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is
colossal, and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is
to say, no fonts, no boldface, no underlining. In other words, the
engineer-hours that, in the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to
features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion
pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of emacs, focused with
maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing
text. If you are a professional writer--i.e., if someone else is getting
paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed--emacs
outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that
the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it
simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout and printing you
can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in C and also
available on the Net for free.

I could say a lot about emacs and TeX, but right now I am trying to tell a
story about how to actually install Linux on your machine. The hard-core
survivalist approach would be to download an editor like emacs, and the
GNU Tools--the compiler and linker--which are polished and excellent to
the same degree as emacs. Equipped with these, one would be able to start
downloading ASCII source code files (/src) and compiling them into binary
object code files (/bin) that would run on the machine. But in order
to even arrive at this point--to get emacs running, for example--you
have to have Linux actually up and running on your machine. And even a
minimal Linux operating system requires thousands of binary files all
acting in concert, and arranged and linked together just so.

Several entities have therefore taken it upon themselves to create
"distributions" of Linux. If I may extend the Egypt analogy slightly,
these entities are a bit like tour guides who meet you at the airport, who
speak your language, and who help guide you through the initial culture
shock. If you are an Egyptian, of course, you see it the other way;
tour guides exist to keep brutish outlanders from traipsing through your
mosques and asking you the same questions over and over and over again.

Some of these tour guides are commercial organizations, such as Red
Hat Software, which makes a Linux distribution called Red Hat that has
a relatively commercial sheen to it. In most cases you put a Red Hat
CD-ROM into your PC and reboot and it handles the rest. Just as a tour
guide in Egypt will expect some sort of compensation for his services,
commercial distributions need to be paid for. In most cases they cost
almost nothing and are well worth it.

I use a distribution called Debian (the word is a contraction of "Deborah"
and "Ian") which is non-commercial. It is organized (or perhaps I should
say "it has organized itself") along the same lines as Linux in general,
which is to say that it consists of volunteers who collaborate over
the Net, each responsible for looking after a different chunk of the
system. These people have broken Linux down into a number of packages,
which are compressed files that can be downloaded to an already
functioning Debian Linux system, then opened up and unpacked using a
free installer application. Of course, as such, Debian has no commercial
arm--no distribution mechanism. You can download all Debian packages over
the Net, but most people will want to have them on a CD-ROM. Several
different companies have taken it upon themselves to decoct all of the
current Debian packages onto CD-ROMs and then sell them. I buy mine from
Linux Systems Labs. The cost for a three-disc set, containing Debian in
its entirety, is less than three dollars. But (and this is an important
distinction) not a single penny of that three dollars is going to any of
the coders who created Linux, nor to the Debian packagers. It goes to
Linux Systems Labs and it pays, not for the software, or the packages,
but for the cost of stamping out the CD-ROMs.

Every Linux distribution embodies some more or less clever hack for
circumventing the normal boot process and causing your computer, when it
is turned on, to organize itself, not as a PC running Windows, but as a
"host" running Unix. This is slightly alarming the first time you see it,
but completely harmless. When a PC boots up, it goes through a little
self-test routine, taking an inventory of available disks and memory,
and then begins looking around for a disk to boot up from. In any normal
Windows computer that disk will be a hard drive. But if you have your
system configured right, it will look first for a floppy or CD-ROM disk,
and boot from that if one is available.

Linux exploits this chink in the defenses. Your computer notices
a bootable disk in the floppy or CD-ROM drive, loads in some object
code from that disk, and blindly begins to execute it. But this is not
Microsoft or Apple code, this is Linux code, and so at this point your
computer begins to behave very differently from what you are accustomed
to. Cryptic messages began to scroll up the screen. If you had booted a
commercial OS, you would, at this point, be seeing a "Welcome to MacOS"
cartoon, or a screen filled with clouds in a blue sky, and a Windows
logo. But under Linux you get a long telegram printed in stark white
letters on a black screen. There is no "welcome!" message. Most of the
telegram has the semi-inscrutable menace of graffiti tags.

Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev syslogd 1.3-3#17: restart. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: klogd 1.3-3, log source = /proc/kmsg started. Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Loaded 3535 symbols from /System.map. Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Symbols match kernel version 2.0.30. Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: No module symbols loaded. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
Intel MultiProcessor Specification v1.4 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
Virtual Wire compatibility mode. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: OEM
ID: INTEL Product ID: 440FX APIC at: 0xFEE00000 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: Processor #0 Pentium(tm) Pro APIC version 17 Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Processor #1 Pentium(tm) Pro APIC version 17 Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: I/O APIC #2 Version 17 at 0xFEC00000. Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: Processors: 2 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
Console: 16 point font, 400 scans Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Console:
colour VGA+ 80x25, 1 virtual console (max 63) Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: pcibios_init : BIOS32 Service Directory structure at 0x000fdb70
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: pcibios_init : BIOS32 Service Directory
entry at 0xfdb80 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: pcibios_init : PCI BIOS
revision 2.10 entry at 0xfdba1 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Probing PCI
hardware. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Warning : Unknown PCI device
(10b7:9001). Please read include/linux/pci.h Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: Calibrating delay loop.. ok - 179.40 BogoMIPS Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Memory: 64268k/66556k available (700k kernel code, 384k
reserved, 1204k data) Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Swansea University
Computer Society NET3.035 for Linux 2.0 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
NET3: Unix domain sockets 0.13 for Linux NET3.035. Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Swansea University Computer Society TCP/IP for NET3.034
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: IP Protocols: ICMP, UDP, TCP Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: Checking 386/387 coupling... Ok, fpu using
exception 16 error reporting. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Checking
'hlt' instruction... Ok. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Linux version
2.0.30 (root@theRev) (gcc version 2.7.2.1) #15 Fri Mar 27 16:37:24 PST
1998 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Booting processor 1 stack 00002000:
Calibrating delay loop.. ok - 179.40 BogoMIPS Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: Total of 2 processors activated (358.81 BogoMIPS). Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: Serial driver version 4.13 with no serial
options enabled Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: tty00 at 0x03f8 (irq =
4) is a 16550A Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: tty01 at 0x02f8 (irq =
3) is a 16550A Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: lp1 at 0x0378, (polling)
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: PS/2 auxiliary pointing device detected --
driver installed. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Real Time Clock Driver
v1.07 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: loop: registered device at major
7 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: ide: i82371 PIIX (Triton) on PCI bus 0
function 57 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: ide0: BM-DMA at 0xffa0-0xffa7
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: ide1: BM-DMA at 0xffa8-0xffaf Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: hda: Conner Peripherals 1275MB - CFS1275A,
1219MB w/64kB Cache, LBA, CHS=619/64/63 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
hdb: Maxtor 84320A5, 4119MB w/256kB Cache, LBA, CHS=8928/15/63, DMA Dec
14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: hdc: , ATAPI CDROM drive Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev
kernel: ide0 at 0x1f0-0x1f7,0x3f6 on irq 14 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel:
ide1 at 0x170-0x177,0x376 on irq 15 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Floppy
drive(s): fd0 is 1.44M Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Started kswapd v
1.4.2.2 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: FDC 0 is a National Semiconductor
PC87306 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: md driver 0.35 MAX_MD_DEV=4,
MAX_REAL=8 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: PPP: version 2.2.0 (dynamic
channel allocation) Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: TCP compression code
copyright 1989 Regents of the University of California Dec 15 11:58:06
theRev kernel: PPP Dynamic channel allocation code copyright 1995 Caldera,
Inc. Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: PPP line discipline registered. Dec
15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: SLIP: version 0.8.4-NET3.019-NEWTTY (dynamic
channels, max=256). Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: eth0: 3Com 3c900
Boomerang 10Mbps/Combo at 0xef00, 00:60:08:a4:3c:db, IRQ 10 Dec 15
11:58:06 theRev kernel: 8K word-wide RAM 3:5 Rx:Tx split, 10base2
interface. Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Enabling bus-master transmits
and whole-frame receives. Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: 3c59x.c:v0.49
1/2/98 Donald Becker http://cesdis.gsfc.nasa.gov/linux/drivers/vortex.html
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Partition check: Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev
kernel: hda: hda1 hda2 hda3 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: hdb: hdb1
hdb2 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: VFS: Mounted root (ext2 filesystem)
readonly. Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Adding Swap: 16124k swap-space
(priority -1) Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: EXT2-fs warning: maximal
mount count reached, running e2fsck is recommended Dec 15 11:58:06
theRev kernel: hdc: media changed Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel:
ISO9660 Extensions: RRIP_1991A Dec 15 11:58:07 theRev syslogd 1.3-3#17:
restart. Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: Unable to open options file
/etc/diald/diald.options: No such file or directory Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev
diald[87]: No device specified. You must have at least one device! Dec
15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define a connector script (option
'connect'). Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define the remote
ip address. Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define the local
ip address. Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: Terminating due to damaged
reconfigure.

The only parts of this that are readable, for normal people, are the error
messages and warnings. And yet it's noteworthy that Linux doesn't stop,
or crash, when it encounters an error; it spits out a pithy complaint,
gives up on whatever processes were damaged, and keeps on rolling. This
was decidedly not true of the early versions of Apple and Microsoft
OSes, for the simple reason that an OS that is not capable of walking and
chewing gum at the same time cannot possibly recover from errors. Looking
for, and dealing with, errors requires a separate process running in
parallel with the one that has erred. A kind of superego, if you will,
that keeps an eye on all of the others, and jumps in when one goes
astray. Now that MacOS and Windows can do more than one thing at a time
they are much better at dealing with errors than they used to be, but
they are not even close to Linux or other Unices in this respect; and
their greater complexity has made them vulnerable to new types of errors.

FALLIBILITY, ATONEMENT, REDEMPTION, TRUST, AND OTHER ARCANE TECHNICAL
CONCEPTS

Linux is not capable of having any centrally organized policies dictating
how to write error messages and documentation, and so each programmer
writes his own. Usually they are in English even though tons of Linux
programmers are Europeans. Frequently they are funny. Always they
are honest. If something bad has happened because the software simply
isn't finished yet, or because the user screwed something up, this will
be stated forthrightly. The command line interface makes it easy for
programs to dribble out little comments, warnings, and messages here and
there. Even if the application is imploding like a damaged submarine,
it can still usually eke out a little S.O.S. message. Sometimes when
you finish working with a program and shut it down, you find that it
has left behind a series of mild warnings and low-grade error messages
in the command-line interface window from which you launched it. As if
the software were chatting to you about how it was doing the whole time
you were working with it.

Documentation, under Linux, comes in the form of man (short for manual)
pages. You can access these either through a GUI (xman) or from the
command line (man). Here is a sample from the man page for a program
called rsh:

"Stop signals stop the local rsh process only; this is arguably wrong,
but currently hard to fix for reasons too complicated to explain here."

The man pages contain a lot of such material, which reads like the terse
mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes. The
general feel is of a thousand monumental but obscure struggles seen in
the stop-action light of a strobe. Each programmer is dealing with his
own obstacles and bugs; he is too busy fixing them, and improving the
software, to explain things at great length or to maintain elaborate
pretensions.

In practice you hardly ever encounter a serious bug while running
Linux. When you do, it is almost always with commercial software (several
vendors sell software that runs under Linux). The operating system and
its fundamental utility programs are too important to contain serious
bugs. I have been running Linux every day since late 1995 and have seen
many application programs go down in flames, but I have never seen the
operating system crash. Never. Not once. There are quite a few Linux
systems that have been running continuously and working hard for months
or years without needing to be rebooted.

Commercial OSes have to adopt the same official stance towards errors
as Communist countries had towards poverty. For doctrinal reasons
it was not possible to admit that poverty was a serious problem in
Communist countries, because the whole point of Communism was to eradicate
poverty. Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can't
go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes
all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that
Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.

This is a problem, because errors do exist and bugs do happen. Every
few months Bill Gates tries to demo a new Microsoft product in front
of a large audience only to have it blow up in his face. Commercial
OS vendors, as a direct consequence of being commercial, are forced to
adopt the grossly disingenuous position that bugs are rare aberrations,
usually someone else's fault, and therefore not really worth talking
about in any detail. This posture, which everyone knows to be absurd,
is not limited to press releases and ad campaigns. It informs the whole
way these companies do business and relate to their customers. If the
documentation were properly written, it would mention bugs, errors,
and crashes on every single page. If the on-line help systems that come
with these OSes reflected the experiences and concerns of their users,
they would largely be devoted to instructions on how to cope with crashes
and errors.

But this does not happen. Joint stock corporations are wonderful
inventions that have given us many excellent goods and services. They
are good at many things. Admitting failure is not one of them. Hell,
they can't even admit minor shortcomings.

Of course, this behavior is not as pathological in a corporation as
it would be in a human being. Most people, nowadays, understand that
corporate press releases are issued for the benefit of the corporation's
shareholders and not for the enlightenment of the public. Sometimes the
results of this institutional dishonesty can be dreadful, as with tobacco
and asbestos. In the case of commercial OS vendors it is nothing of the
kind, of course; it is merely annoying.

Some might argue that consumer annoyance, over time, builds up into a
kind of hardened plaque that can conceal serious decay, and that honesty
might therefore be the best policy in the long run; the jury is still
out on this in the operating system market. The business is expanding
fast enough that it's still much better to have billions of chronically
annoyed customers than millions of happy ones.

Most system administrators I know who work with Windows NT all the time
agree that when it hits a snag, it has to be re-booted, and when it
gets seriously messed up, the only way to fix it is to re-install the
operating system from scratch. Or at least this is the only way that
they know of to fix it, which amounts to the same thing. It is quite
possible that the engineers at Microsoft have all sorts of insider
knowledge on how to fix the system when it goes awry, but if they do,
they do not seem to be getting the message out to any of the actual
system administrators I know.

Because Linux is not commercial--because it is, in fact, free, as well
as rather difficult to obtain, install, and operate--it does not have
to maintain any pretensions as to its reliability. Consequently, it
is much more reliable. When something goes wrong with Linux, the error
is noticed and loudly discussed right away. Anyone with the requisite
technical knowledge can go straight to the source code and point out
the source of the error, which is then rapidly fixed by whichever hacker
has carved out responsibility for that particular program.

As far as I know, Debian is the only Linux distribution that has
its own constitution (http://www.debian.org/devel/constitution),
but what really sold me on it was its phenomenal bug database
(http://www.debian.org/Bugs), which is a sort of interactive Doomsday Book
of error, fallibility, and redemption. It is simplicity itself. When
had a problem with Debian in early January of 1997, I sent in a
message describing the problem to submit@bugs.debian.org. My problem
was promptly assigned a bug report number (#6518) and a severity level
(the available choices being critical, grave, important, normal, fixed,
and wishlist) and forwarded to mailing lists where Debian people hang
out. Within twenty-four hours I had received five e-mails telling me how
to fix the problem: two from North America, two from Europe, and one from
Australia. All of these e-mails gave me the same suggestion, which worked,
and made my problem go away. But at the same time, a transcript of this
exchange was posted to Debian's bug database, so that if other users
had the same problem later, they would be able to search through and
find the solution without having to enter a new, redundant bug report.

Contrast this with the experience that I had when I tried to install
Windows NT 4.0 on the very same machine about ten months later, in late
1997. The installation program simply stopped in the middle with no error
messages. I went to the Microsoft Support website and tried to perform
a search for existing help documents that would address my problem. The
search engine was completely nonfunctional; it did nothing at all. It
did not even give me a message telling me that it was not working.

Eventually I decided that my motherboard must be at fault; it was
of a slightly unusual make and model, and NT did not support as many
different motherboards as Linux. I am always looking for excuses, no
matter how feeble, to buy new hardware, so I bought a new motherboard
that was Windows NT logo-compatible, meaning that the Windows NT logo was
printed right on the box. I installed this into my computer and got Linux
running right away, then attempted to install Windows NT again. Again,
the installation died without any error message or explanation. By this
time a couple of weeks had gone by and I thought that perhaps the search
engine on the Microsoft Support website might be up and running. I gave
that a try but it still didn't work.

So I created a new Microsoft support account, then logged on to submit
the incident. I supplied my product ID number when asked, and then began
to follow the instructions on a series of help screens. In other words,
I was submitting a bug report just as with the Debian bug tracking
system. It's just that the interface was slicker--I was typing my
complaint into little text-editing boxes on Web forms, doing it all
through the GUI, whereas with Debian you send in an e-mail telegram. I
knew that when I was finished submitting the bug report, it would become
proprietary Microsoft information, and other users wouldn't be able to
see it. Many Linux users would refuse to participate in such a scheme on
ethical grounds, but I was willing to give it a shot as an experiment. In
the end, though I was never able to submit my bug report, because the
series of linked web pages that I was filling out eventually led me to
a completely blank page: a dead end.

So I went back and clicked on the buttons for "phone support" and
eventually was given a Microsoft telephone number. When I dialed this
number I got a series of piercing beeps and a recorded message from
the phone company saying "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as
dialed."

I tried the search page again--it was still completely nonfunctional. Then
I tried PPI (Pay Per Incident) again. This led me through another series
of Web pages until I dead-ended at one reading: "Notice-there is no Web
page matching your request."

I tried it again, and eventually got to a Pay Per Incident screen reading:
"OUT OF INCIDENTS. There are no unused incidents left in your account. If
you would like to purchase a support incident, click OK-you will then
be able to prepay for an incident...." The cost per incident was $95.

The experiment was beginning to seem rather expensive, so I gave up on the
PPI approach and decided to have a go at the FAQs posted on Microsoft's
website. None of the available FAQs had anything to do with my problem
except for one entitled "I am having some problems installing NT" which
appeared to have been written by flacks, not engineers.

So I gave up and still, to this day, have never gotten Windows NT
installed on that particular machine. For me, the path of least resistance
was simply to use Debian Linux.

In the world of open source software, bug reports are useful
information. Making them public is a service to other users, and improves
the OS. Making them public systematically is so important that highly
intelligent people voluntarily put time and money into running bug
databases. In the commercial OS world, however, reporting a bug is a
privilege that you have to pay lots of money for. But if you pay for
it, it follows that the bug report must be kept confidential--otherwise
anyone could get the benefit of your ninety-five bucks! And yet nothing
prevents NT users from setting up their own public bug database.

This is, in other words, another feature of the OS market that simply
makes no sense unless you view it in the context of culture. What
Microsoft is selling through Pay Per Incident isn't technical support so
much as the continued illusion that its customers are engaging in some
kind of rational business transaction. It is a sort of routine maintenance
fee for the upkeep of the fantasy. If people really wanted a solid OS
they would use Linux, and if they really wanted tech support they would
find a way to get it; Microsoft's customers want something else.

As of this writing (Jan. 1999), something like 32,000 bugs have been
reported to the Debian Linux bug database. Almost all of them have
been fixed a long time ago. There are twelve "critical" bugs still
outstanding, of which the oldest was posted 79 days ago. There are 20
outstanding "grave" bugs of which the oldest is 1166 days old. There
are 48 "important" bugs and hundreds of "normal" and less important ones.

Likewise, BeOS (which I'll get to in a minute) has its own bug database
(http://www.be.com/developers/bugs/index.html) with its own classification
system, including such categories as "Not a Bug," "Acknowledged Feature,"
and "Will Not Fix." Some of the "bugs" here are nothing more than Be
hackers blowing off steam, and are classified as "Input Acknowledged." For
example, I found one that was posted on December 30th, 1998. It's in
the middle of a long list of bugs, wedged between one entitled "Mouse
working in very strange fashion" and another called "Change of BView
frame does not affect, if BView not attached to a BWindow."

This one is entitled

R4: BeOS missing megalomaniacal figurehead to harness and focus developer
rage

and it goes like this:

----------------------------

Be Status: Input Acknowledged BeOS Version: R3.2 Component: unknown

Full Description:

The BeOS needs a megalomaniacal egomaniac sitting on its throne to
give it a human character which everyone loves to hate. Without this,
the BeOS will languish in the impersonifiable realm of OSs that people
can never quite get a handle on. You can judge the success of an OS not
by the quality of its features, but by how infamous and disliked the
leaders behind them are.

I believe this is a side-effect of developer comraderie under miserable
conditions. After all, misery loves company. I believe that making the
BeOS less conceptually accessible and far less reliable will require
developers to band together, thus developing the kind of community where
strangers talk to one- another, kind of like at a grocery store before
a huge snowstorm.

Following this same program, it will likely be necessary to move the BeOS
headquarters to a far-less-comfortable climate. General environmental
discomfort will breed this attitude within and there truly is no greater
recipe for success. I would suggest Seattle, but I think it's already
taken. You might try Washington, DC, but definitely not somewhere like
San Diego or Tucson.

----------------------------

Unfortunately, the Be bug reporting system strips off the names of the
people who report the bugs (to protect them from retribution!?) and so
I don't know who wrote this.

So it would appear that I'm in the middle of crowing about the technical
and moral superiority of Debian Linux. But as almost always happens in
the OS world, it's more complicated than that. I have Windows NT running
on another machine, and the other day (Jan. 1999), when I had a problem
with it, I decided to have another go at Microsoft Support. This time
the search engine actually worked (though in order to reach it I had
to identify myself as "advanced"). And instead of coughing up some
useless FAQ, it located about two hundred documents (I was using very
vague search criteria) that were obviously bug reports--though they were
called something else. Microsoft, in other words, has got a system up and
running that is functionally equivalent to Debian's bug database. It looks
and feels different, of course, but it contains technical nitty-gritty
and makes no bones about the existence of errors.

As I've explained, selling OSes for money is a basically untenable
position, and the only way Apple and Microsoft can get away with it
is by pursuing technological advancements as aggressively as they can,
and by getting people to believe in, and to pay for, a particular image:
in the case of Apple, that of the creative free thinker, and in the case
of Microsoft, that of the respectable techno-bourgeois. Just like Disney,
they're making money from selling an interface, a magic mirror. It has
to be polished and seamless or else the whole illusion is ruined and
the business plan vanishes like a mirage.

Accordingly, it was the case until recently that the people who wrote
manuals and created customer support websites for commercial OSes seemed
to have been barred, by their employers' legal or PR departments, from
admitting, even obliquely, that the software might contain bugs or that
the interface might be suffering from the blinking twelve problem. They
couldn't address users' actual difficulties. The manuals and websites
were therefore useless, and caused even technically self-assured users
to wonder whether they were going subtly insane.

When Apple engages in this sort of corporate behavior, one wants to
believe that they are really trying their best. We all want to give Apple
the benefit of the doubt, because mean old Bill Gates kicked the crap
out of them, and because they have good PR. But when Microsoft does it,
one almost cannot help becoming a paranoid conspiracist. Obviously they
are hiding something from us! And yet they are so powerful! They are
trying to drive us crazy!

This approach to dealing with one's customers was straight out of the
Central European totalitarianism of the mid-Twentieth Century. The
adjectives "Kafkaesque" and "Orwellian" come to mind. It couldn't last,
any more than the Berlin Wall could, and so now Microsoft has a publicly
available bug database. It's called something else, and it takes a while
to find it, but it's there.

They have, in other words, adapted to the two-tiered Eloi/Morlock
structure of technological society. If you're an Eloi you install Windows,
follow the instructions, hope for the best, and dumbly suffer when it
breaks. If you're a Morlock you go to the website, tell it that you are
"advanced," find the bug database, and get the truth straight from some
anonymous Microsoft engineer.

But once Microsoft has taken this step, it raises the question, once
again, of whether there is any point to being in the OS business at
all. Customers might be willing to pay $95 to report a problem to
Microsoft if, in return, they get some advice that no other user is
getting. This has the useful side effect of keeping the users alienated
from one another, which helps maintain the illusion that bugs are rare
aberrations. But once the results of those bug reports become openly
available on the Microsoft website, everything changes. No one is going
to cough up $95 to report a problem when chances are good that some
other sucker will do it first, and that instructions on how to fix the
bug will then show up, for free, on a public website. And as the size
of the bug database grows, it eventually becomes an open admission,
on Microsoft's part, that their OSes have just as many bugs as their
competitors'. There is no shame in that; as I mentioned, Debian's bug
database has logged 32,000 reports so far. But it puts Microsoft on
an equal footing with the others and makes it a lot harder for their
customers--who want to believe--to believe.


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In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 5/6


MEMENTO MORI


Once the Linux machine has finished spitting out its jargonic opening
telegram, it prompts me to log in with a user name and a password. At
this point the machine is still running the command line interface,
with white letters on a black screen. There are no windows, menus, or
buttons. It does not respond to the mouse; it doesn't even know that
the mouse is there. It is still possible to run a lot of software at
this point. Emacs, for example, exists in both a CLI and a GUI version
(actually there are two GUI versions, reflecting some sort of doctrinal
schism between Richard Stallman and some hackers who got fed up with
him). The same is true of many other Unix programs. Many don't have a GUI
at all, and many that do are capable of running from the command line.

Of course, since my computer only has one monitor screen, I can only see
one command line, and so you might think that I could only interact with
one program at a time. But if I hold down the Alt key and then hit the F2
function button at the top of my keyboard, I am presented with a fresh,
blank, black screen with a login prompt at the top of it. I can log in
here and start some other program, then hit Alt-F1 and go back to the
first screen, which is still doing whatever it was when I left it. Or I
can do Alt-F3 and log in to a third screen, or a fourth, or a fifth. On
one of these screens I might be logged in as myself, on another as root
(the system administrator), on yet another I might be logged on to some
other computer over the Internet.

Each of these screens is called, in Unix-speak, a tty, which is an
abbreviation for teletype. So when I use my Linux system in this way
I am going right back to that small room at Ames High School where I
first wrote code twenty-five years ago, except that a tty is quieter and
faster than a teletype, and capable of running vastly superior software,
such as emacs or the GNU development tools.

It is easy (easy by Unix, not Apple/Microsoft standards) to configure
a Linux machine so that it will go directly into a GUI when you boot it
up. This way, you never see a tty screen at all. I still have mine boot
into the white-on-black teletype screen however, as a computational
memento mori. It used to be fashionable for a writer to keep a human
skull on his desk as a reminder that he was mortal, that all about him
was vanity. The tty screen reminds me that the same thing is true of
slick user interfaces.

The X Windows System, which is the GUI of Unix, has to be capable of
running on hundreds of different video cards with different chipsets,
amounts of onboard memory, and motherboard buses. Likewise, there are
hundreds of different types of monitors on the new and used market, each
with different specifications, and so there are probably upwards of a
million different possible combinations of card and monitor. The only
thing they all have in common is that they all work in VGA mode, which
is the old command-line screen that you see for a few seconds when you
launch Windows. So Linux always starts in VGA, with a teletype interface,
because at first it has no idea what sort of hardware is attached to your
computer. In order to get beyond the glass teletype and into the GUI,
you have to tell Linux exactly what kinds of hardware you have. If you
get it wrong, you'll get a blank screen at best, and at worst you might
actually destroy your monitor by feeding it signals it can't handle.

When I started using Linux this had to be done by hand. I once spent
the better part of a month trying to get an oddball monitor to work for
me, and filled the better part of a composition book with increasingly
desperate scrawled notes. Nowadays, most Linux distributions ship with
a program that automatically scans the video card and self-configures
the system, so getting X Windows up and running is nearly as easy as
installing an Apple/Microsoft GUI. The crucial information goes into a
file (an ASCII text file, naturally) called XF86Config, which is worth
looking at even if your distribution creates it for you automatically. For
most people it looks like meaningless cryptic incantations, which is the
whole point of looking at it. An Apple/Microsoft system needs to have the
same information in order to launch its GUI, but it's apt to be deeply
hidden somewhere, and it's probably in a file that can't even be opened
and read by a text editor. All of the important files that make Linux
systems work are right out in the open. They are always ASCII text files,
so you don't need special tools to read them. You can look at them any
time you want, which is good, and you can mess them up and render your
system totally dysfunctional, which is not so good.

At any rate, assuming that my XF86Config file is just so, I enter the
command "startx" to launch the X Windows System. The screen blanks out for
a minute, the monitor makes strange twitching noises, then reconstitutes
itself as a blank gray desktop with a mouse cursor in the middle. At
the same time it is launching a window manager. X Windows is pretty
low-level software; it provides the infrastructure for a GUI, and it's
a heavy industrial infrastructure. But it doesn't do windows. That's
handled by another category of application that sits atop X Windows,
called a window manager. Several of these are available, all free of
course. The classic is twm (Tom's Window Manager) but there is a smaller
and supposedly more efficient variant of it called fvwm, which is what
I use. I have my eye on a completely different window manager called
Enlightenment, which may be the hippest single technology product I
have ever seen, in that (a) it is for Linux, (b) it is freeware, (c)
it is being developed by a very small number of obsessed hackers, and
(d) it looks amazingly cool; it is the sort of window manager that might
show up in the backdrop of an Aliens movie.

Anyway, the window manager acts as an intermediary between X Windows and
whatever software you want to use. It draws the window frames, menus,
and so on, while the applications themselves draw the actual content
in the windows. The applications might be of any sort: text editors,
Web browsers, graphics packages, or utility programs, such as a clock
or calculator. In other words, from this point on, you feel as if
you have been shunted into a parallel universe that is quite similar
to the familiar Apple or Microsoft one, but slightly and pervasively
different. The premier graphics program under Apple/Microsoft is Adobe
Photoshop, but under Linux it's something called The GIMP. Instead of
the Microsoft Office Suite, you can buy something called ApplixWare. Many
commercial software packages, such as Mathematica, Netscape Communicator,
and Adobe Acrobat, are available in Linux versions, and depending on
how you set up your window manager you can make them look and behave
just as they would under MacOS or Windows.

But there is one type of window you'll see on Linux GUI that is rare or
nonexistent under other OSes. These windows are called "xterm" and contain
nothing but lines of text--this time, black text on a white background,
though you can make them be different colors if you choose. Each xterm
window is a separate command line interface--a tty in a window. So even
when you are in full GUI mode, you can still talk to your Linux machine
through a command-line interface.

There are many good pieces of Unix software that do not have GUIs at
all. This might be because they were developed before X Windows was
available, or because the people who wrote them did not want to suffer
through all the hassle of creating a GUI, or because they simply do not
need one. In any event, those programs can be invoked by typing their
names into the command line of an xterm window. The whoami command,
mentioned earlier, is a good example. There is another called wc ("word
count") which simply returns the number of lines, words, and characters
in a text file.

The ability to run these little utility programs on the command line is
a great virtue of Unix, and one that is unlikely to be duplicated by pure
GUI operating systems. The wc command, for example, is the sort of thing
that is easy to write with a command line interface. It probably does
not consist of more than a few lines of code, and a clever programmer
could probably write it in a single line. In compiled form it takes up
just a few bytes of disk space. But the code required to give the same
program a graphical user interface would probably run into hundreds or
even thousands of lines, depending on how fancy the programmer wanted
to make it. Compiled into a runnable piece of software, it would have a
large overhead of GUI code. It would be slow to launch and it would use up
a lot of memory. This would simply not be worth the effort, and so "wc"
would never be written as an independent program at all. Instead users
would have to wait for a word count feature to appear in a commercial
software package.

GUIs tend to impose a large overhead on every single piece of software,
even the smallest, and this overhead completely changes the programming
environment. Small utility programs are no longer worth writing. Their
functions, instead, tend to get swallowed up into omnibus software
packages. As GUIs get more complex, and impose more and more overhead,
this tendency becomes more pervasive, and the software packages grow
ever more colossal; after a point they begin to merge with each other,
as Microsoft Word and Excel and PowerPoint have merged into Microsoft
Office: a stupendous software Wal-Mart sitting on the edge of a town
filled with tiny shops that are all boarded up.

It is an unfair analogy, because when a tiny shop gets boarded up it
means that some small shopkeeper has lost his business. Of course
nothing of the kind happens when "wc" becomes subsumed into one of
Microsoft Word's countless menu items. The only real drawback is a
loss of flexibility for the user, but it is a loss that most customers
obviously do not notice or care about. The most serious drawback to the
Wal-Mart approach is that most users only want or need a tiny fraction
of what is contained in these giant software packages. The remainder
is clutter, dead weight. And yet the user in the next cubicle over will
have completely different opinions as to what is useful and what isn't.

The other important thing to mention, here, is that Microsoft has included
a genuinely cool feature in the Office package: a Basic programming
package. Basic is the first computer language that I learned, back
when I was using the paper tape and the teletype. By using the version
of Basic that comes with Office you can write your own little utility
programs that know how to interact with all of the little doohickeys,
gewgaws, bells, and whistles in Office. Basic is easier to use than
the languages typically employed in Unix command-line programming,
and Office has reached many, many more people than the GNU tools. And
so it is quite possible that this feature of Office will, in the end,
spawn more hacking than GNU.

But now I'm talking about application software, not operating systems. And
as I've said, Microsoft's application software tends to be very good
stuff. I don't use it very much, because I am nowhere near their target
market. If Microsoft ever makes a software package that I use and like,
then it really will be time to dump their stock, because I am a market
segment of one.

GEEK FATIGUE

Over the years that I've been working with Linux I have filled three and
a half notebooks logging my experiences. I only begin writing things
down when I'm doing something complicated, like setting up X Windows
or fooling around with my Internet connection, and so these notebooks
contain only the record of my struggles and frustrations. When things
are going well for me, I'll work along happily for many months without
jotting down a single note. So these notebooks make for pretty bleak
reading. Changing anything under Linux is a matter of opening up various
of those little ASCII text files and changing a word here and a character
there, in ways that are extremely significant to how the system operates.

Many of the files that control how Linux operates are nothing more than
command lines that became so long and complicated that not even Linux
hackers could type them correctly. When working with something as powerful
as Linux, you can easily devote a full half-hour to engineering a single
command line. For example, the "find" command, which searches your file
system for files that match certain criteria, is fantastically powerful
and general. Its "man" is eleven pages long, and these are pithy pages;
you could easily expand them into a whole book. And if that is not
complicated enough in and of itself, you can always pipe the output of
one Unix command to the input of another, equally complicated one. The
"pon" command, which is used to fire up a PPP connection to the Internet,
requires so much detailed information that it is basically impossible
to launch it entirely from the command line. Instead you abstract big
chunks of its input into three or four different files. You need a dialing
script, which is effectively a little program telling it how to dial the
phone and respond to various events; an options file, which lists up to
about sixty different options on how the PPP connection is to be set up;
and a secrets file, giving information about your password.

Presumably there are godlike Unix hackers somewhere in the world who don't
need to use these little scripts and options files as crutches, and who
can simply pound out fantastically complex command lines without making
typographical errors and without having to spend hours flipping through
documentation. But I'm not one of them. Like almost all Linux users, I
depend on having all of those details hidden away in thousands of little
ASCII text files, which are in turn wedged into the recesses of the Unix
filesystem. When I want to change something about the way my system works,
I edit those files. I know that if I don't keep track of every little
change I've made, I won't be able to get your system back in working
order after I've gotten it all messed up. Keeping hand-written logs is
tedious, not to mention kind of anachronistic. But it's necessary.

I probably could have saved myself a lot of headaches by doing business
with a company called Cygnus Support, which exists to provide assistance
to users of free software. But I didn't, because I wanted to see if I
could do it myself. The answer turned out to be yes, but just barely. And
there are many tweaks and optimizations that I could probably make in my
system that I have never gotten around to attempting, partly because I
get tired of being a Morlock some days, and partly because I am afraid
of fouling up a system that generally works well.

Though Linux works for me and many other users, its sheer power and
generality is its Achilles' heel. If you know what you are doing,
you can buy a cheap PC from any computer store, throw away the Windows
discs that come with it, turn it into a Linux system of mind-boggling
complexity and power. You can hook it up to twelve other Linux boxes and
make it into part of a parallel computer. You can configure it so that a
hundred different people can be logged onto it at once over the Internet,
via as many modem lines, Ethernet cards, TCP/IP sockets, and packet radio
links. You can hang half a dozen different monitors off of it and play
DOOM with someone in Australia while tracking communications satellites in
orbit and controlling your house's lights and thermostats and streaming
live video from your web-cam and surfing the Net and designing circuit
boards on the other screens. But the sheer power and complexity of the
system--the qualities that make it so vastly technically superior to other
OSes--sometimes make it seem too formidable for routine day-to-day use.

Sometimes, in other words, I just want to go to Disneyland.

The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was
easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could
revert to the command line interface, and run GNU software, when it made
sense. A few years ago, Be Inc. invented exactly that OS. It is called
the BeOS.


ETRE


Many people in the computer business have had a difficult time grappling
with Be, Incorporated, for the simple reason that nothing about it seems
to make any sense whatsoever. It was launched in late 1990, which makes it
roughly contemporary with Linux. From the beginning it has been devoted
to creating a new operating system that is, by design, incompatible with
all the others (though, as we shall see, it is compatible with Unix in
some very important ways). If a definition of "celebrity" is someone who
is famous for being famous, then Be is an anti-celebrity. It is famous
for not being famous; it is famous for being doomed. But it has been
doomed for an awfully long time.

Be's mission might make more sense to hackers than to other people. In
order to explain why I need to explain the concept of cruft, which, to
people who write code, is nearly as abhorrent as unnecessary repetition.

If you've been to San Francisco you may have seen older buildings that
have undergone "seismic upgrades," which frequently means that grotesque
superstructures of modern steelwork are erected around buildings made
in, say, a Classical style. When new threats arrive--if we have an Ice
Age, for example--additional layers of even more high-tech stuff may be
constructed, in turn, around these, until the original building is like
a holy relic in a cathedral--a shard of yellowed bone enshrined in half
a ton of fancy protective junk.

Analogous measures can be taken to keep creaky old operating systems
working. It happens all the time. Ditching an worn-out old OS ought to be
simplified by the fact that, unlike old buildings, OSes have no aesthetic
or cultural merit that makes them intrinsically worth saving. But
it doesn't work that way in practice. If you work with a computer,
you have probably customized your "desktop," the environment in which
you sit down to work every day, and spent a lot of money on software
that works in that environment, and devoted much time to familiarizing
yourself with how it all works. This takes a lot of time, and time is
money. As already mentioned, the desire to have one's interactions with
complex technologies simplified through the interface, and to surround
yourself with virtual tchotchkes and lawn ornaments, is natural and
pervasive--presumably a reaction against the complexity and formidable
abstraction of the computer world. Computers give us more choices than we
really want. We prefer to make those choices once, or accept the defaults
handed to us by software companies, and let sleeping dogs lie. But when
an OS gets changed, all the dogs jump up and start barking.

The average computer user is a technological antiquarian who doesn't
really like things to change. He or she is like an urban professional who
has just bought a charming fixer-upper and is now moving the furniture
and knicknacks around, and reorganizing the kitchen cupboards, so that
everything's just right. If it is necessary for a bunch of engineers
to scurry around in the basement shoring up the foundation so that it
can support the new cast-iron claw-foot bathtub, and snaking new wires
and pipes through the walls to supply modern appliances, why, so be
it--engineers are cheap, at least when millions of OS users split the
cost of their services.

Likewise, computer users want to have the latest Pentium in their
machines, and to be able to surf the web, without messing up all
the stuff that makes them feel as if they know what the hell is going
on. Sometimes this is actually possible. Adding more RAM to your system
is a good example of an upgrade that is not likely to screw anything up.

Alas, very few upgrades are this clean and simple. Lawrence Lessig,
the whilom Special Master in the Justice Department's antitrust suit
against Microsoft, complained that he had installed Internet Explorer on
his computer, and in so doing, lost all of his bookmarks--his personal
list of signposts that he used to navigate through the maze of the
Internet. It was as if he'd bought a new set of tires for his car, and
then, when pulling away from the garage, discovered that, owing to some
inscrutable side-effect, every signpost and road map in the world had
been destroyed. If he's like most of us, he had put a lot of work into
compiling that list of bookmarks. This is only a small taste of the sort
of trouble that upgrades can cause. Crappy old OSes have value in the
basically negative sense that changing to new ones makes us wish we'd
never been born.

All of the fixing and patching that engineers must do in order to give
us the benefits of new technology without forcing us to think about
it, or to change our ways, produces a lot of code that, over time,
turns into a giant clot of bubble gum, spackle, baling wire and duct
tape surrounding every operating system. In the jargon of hackers,
it is called "cruft." An operating system that has many, many layers
of it is described as "crufty." Hackers hate to do things twice, but
when they see something crufty, their first impulse is to rip it out,
throw it away, and start anew.

If Mark Twain were brought back to San Francisco today and dropped into
one of these old seismically upgraded buildings, it would look just the
same to him, with all the doors and windows in the same places--but if
he stepped outside, he wouldn't recognize it. And--if he'd been brought
back with his wits intact--he might question whether the building had been
worth going to so much trouble to save. At some point, one must ask the
question: is this really worth it, or should we maybe just tear it down
and put up a good one? Should we throw another human wave of structural
engineers at stabilizing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or should we just
let the damn thing fall over and build a tower that doesn't suck?

Like an upgrade to an old building, cruft always seems like a good
idea when the first layers of it go on--just routine maintenance, sound
prudent management. This is especially true if (as it were) you never
look into the cellar, or behind the drywall. But if you are a hacker
who spends all his time looking at it from that point of view, cruft
is fundamentally disgusting, and you can't avoid wanting to go after it
with a crowbar. Or, better yet, simply walk out of the building--let the
Leaning Tower of Pisa fall over--and go make a new one THAT DOESN'T LEAN.

For a long time it was obvious to Apple, Microsoft, and their customers
that the first generation of GUI operating systems was doomed, and that
they would eventually need to be ditched and replaced with completely
fresh ones. During the late Eighties and early Nineties, Apple launched a
few abortive efforts to make fundamentally new post-Mac OSes such as Pink
and Taligent. When those efforts failed they launched a new project called
Copland which also failed. In 1997 they flirted with the idea of acquiring
Be, but instead they acquired Next, which has an OS called NextStep that
is, in effect, a variant of Unix. As these efforts went on, and on, and
on, and failed and failed and failed, Apple's engineers, who were among
the best in the business, kept layering on the cruft. They were gamely
trying to turn the little toaster into a multi-tasking, Internet-savvy
machine, and did an amazingly good job of it for a while--sort of like a
movie hero running across a jungle river by hopping across crocodiles'
backs. But in the real world you eventually run out of crocodiles,
or step on a really smart one.

Speaking of which, Microsoft tackled the same problem in a considerably
more orderly way by creating a new OS called Windows NT, which is
explicitly intended to be a direct competitor of Unix. NT stands for "New
Technology" which might be read as an explicit rejection of cruft. And
indeed, NT is reputed to be a lot less crufty than what MacOS eventually
turned into; at one point the documentation needed to write code on the
Mac filled something like 24 binders. Windows 95 was, and Windows 98 is,
crufty because they have to be backward-compatible with older Microsoft
OSes. Linux deals with the cruft problem in the same way that Eskimos
supposedly dealt with senior citizens: if you insist on using old versions
of Linux software, you will sooner or later find yourself drifting
through the Bering Straits on a dwindling ice floe. They can get away
with this because most of the software is free, so it costs nothing to
download up-to-date versions, and because most Linux users are Morlocks.

The great idea behind BeOS was to start from a clean sheet of paper and
design an OS the right way. And that is exactly what they did. This was
obviously a good idea from an aesthetic standpoint, but does not a sound
business plan make. Some people I know in the GNU/Linux world are annoyed
with Be for going off on this quixotic adventure when their formidable
skills could have been put to work helping to promulgate Linux.

Indeed, none of it makes sense until you remember that the founder of
the company, Jean-Louis Gassee, is from France--a country that for many
years maintained its own separate and independent version of the English
monarchy at a court in St. Germaines, complete with courtiers, coronation
ceremonies, a state religion and a foreign policy. Now, the same annoying
yet admirable stiff-neckedness that gave us the Jacobites, the force de
frappe, Airbus, and ARRET signs in Quebec, has brought us a really cool
operating system. I fart in your general direction, Anglo-Saxon pig-dogs!

To create an entirely new OS from scratch, just because none of the
existing ones was exactly right, struck me as an act of such colossal
nerve that I felt compelled to support it. I bought a BeBox as soon as
I could. The BeBox was a dual-processor machine, powered by Motorola
chips, made specifically to run the BeOS; it could not run any other
operating system. That's why I bought it. I felt it was a way to burn my
bridges. Its most distinctive feature is two columns of LEDs on the front
panel that zip up and down like tachometers to convey a sense of how
hard each processor is working. I thought it looked cool, and besides,
I reckoned that when the company went out of business in a few months,
my BeBox would be a valuable collector's item.

Now it is about two years later and I am typing this on my BeBox. The
LEDs (Das Blinkenlights, as they are called in the Be community) flash
merrily next to my right elbow as I hit the keys. Be, Inc. is still in
business, though they stopped making BeBoxes almost immediately after
I bought mine. They made the sad, but probably quite wise decision that
hardware was a sucker's game, and ported the BeOS to Macintoshes and Mac
clones. Since these used the same sort of Motorola chips that powered
the BeBox, this wasn't especially hard.

Very soon afterwards, Apple strangled the Mac-clone makers and restored
its hardware monopoly. So, for a while, the only new machines that could
run BeOS were made by Apple.

By this point Be, like Spiderman with his Spider-sense, had developed
a keen sense of when they were about to get crushed like a bug. Even
if they hadn't, the notion of being dependent on Apple--so frail and
yet so vicious--for their continued existence should have put a fright
into anyone. Now engaged in their own crocodile-hopping adventure,
they ported the BeOS to Intel chips--the same chips used in Windows
machines. And not a moment too soon, for when Apple came out with its new
top-of-the-line hardware, based on the Motorola G3 chip, they withheld
the technical data that Be's engineers would need to make the BeOS run
on those machines. This would have killed Be, just like a slug between
the eyes, if they hadn't made the jump to Intel.

So now BeOS runs on an assortment of hardware that is almost incredibly
motley: BeBoxes, aging Macs and Mac orphan-clones, and Intel machines
that are intended to be used for Windows. Of course the latter type are
ubiquitous and shockingly cheap nowadays, so it would appear that Be's
hardware troubles are finally over. Some German hackers have even come
up with a Das Blinkenlights replacement: it's a circuit board kit that
you can plug into PC-compatible machines running BeOS. It gives you the
zooming LED tachometers that were such a popular feature of the BeBox.

My BeBox is already showing its age, as all computers do after a couple
of years, and sooner or later I'll probably have to replace it with
an Intel machine. Even after that, though, I will still be able to use
it. Because, inevitably, someone has now ported Linux to the BeBox.

At any rate, BeOS has an extremely well-thought-out GUI built on a
technological framework that is solid. It is based from the ground up
on modern object-oriented software principles. BeOS software consists of
quasi-independent software entities called objects, which communicate by
sending messages to each other. The OS itself is made up of such objects,
and serves as a kind of post office or Internet that routes messages to
and fro, from object to object. The OS is multi-threaded, which means that
like all other modern OSes it can walk and chew gum at the same time;
but it gives programmers a lot of power over spawning and terminating
threads, or independent sub-processes. It is also a multi-processing OS,
which means that it is inherently good at running on computers that have
more than one CPU (Linux and Windows NT can also do this proficiently).

For this user, a big selling point of BeOS is the built-in Terminal
application, which enables you to open up windows that are equivalent to
the xterm windows in Linux. In other words, the command line interface
is available if you want it. And because BeOS hews to a certain standard
called POSIX, it is capable of running most of the GNU software. That is
to say that the vast array of command-line software developed by the GNU
crowd will work in BeOS terminal windows without complaint. This includes
the GNU development tools-the compiler and linker. And it includes all
of the handy little utility programs. I'm writing this using a modern
sort of user-friendly text editor called Pe, written by a Dutchman
named Maarten Hekkelman, but when I want to find out how long it is,
I jump to a terminal window and run "wc."

As is suggested by the sample bug report I quoted earlier, people who
work for Be, and developers who write code for BeOS, seem to be enjoying
themselves more than their counterparts in other OSes. They also seem
to be a more diverse lot in general. A couple of years ago I went to an
auditorium at a local university to see some representatives of Be put
on a dog-and-pony show. I went because I assumed that the place would
be empty and echoing, and I felt that they deserved an audience of at
least one. In fact, I ended up standing in an aisle, for hundreds of
students had packed the place. It was like a rock concert. One of the
two Be engineers on the stage was a black man, which unfortunately
is a very odd thing in the high-tech world. The other made a ringing
denunciation of cruft, and extolled BeOS for its cruft-free qualities,
and actually came out and said that in ten or fifteen years, when BeOS had
become all crufty like MacOS and Windows 95, it would be time to simply
throw it away and create a new OS from scratch. I doubt that this is an
official Be, Inc. policy, but it sure made a big impression on everyone
in the room! During the late Eighties, the MacOS was, for a time, the
OS of cool people-artists and creative-minded hackers-and BeOS seems
to have the potential to attract the same crowd now. Be mailing lists
are crowded with hackers with names like Vladimir and Olaf and Pierre,
sending flames to each other in fractured techno-English.

The only real question about BeOS is whether or not it is doomed.

Of late, Be has responded to the tiresome accusation that they are
doomed with the assertion that BeOS is "a media operating system" made
for media content creators, and hence is not really in competition with
Windows at all. This is a little bit disingenuous. To go back to the
car dealership analogy, it is like the Batmobile dealer claiming that
he is not really in competition with the others because his car can go
three times as fast as theirs and is also capable of flying.

Be has an office in Paris, and, as mentioned, the conversation on Be
mailing lists has a strongly European flavor. At the same time they have
made strenuous efforts to find a niche in Japan, and Hitachi has recently
begun bundling BeOS with their PCs. So if I had to make wild guess I'd
say that they are playing Go while Microsoft is playing chess. They are
staying clear, for now, of Microsoft's overwhelmingly strong position in
North America. They are trying to get themselves established around the
edges of the board, as it were, in Europe and Japan, where people may
be more open to alternative OSes, or at least more hostile to Microsoft,
than they are in the United States.

What holds Be back in this country is that the smart people are afraid
to look like suckers. You run the risk of looking naive when you say
"I've tried the BeOS and here's what I think of it." It seems much more
sophisticated to say "Be's chances of carving out a new niche in the
highly competitive OS market are close to nil."

It is, in techno-speak, a problem of mindshare. And in the OS business,
mindshare is more than just a PR issue; it has direct effects on the
technology itself. All of the peripheral gizmos that can be hung off of
a personal computer--the printers, scanners, PalmPilot interfaces, and
Lego Mindstorms--require pieces of software called drivers. Likewise,
video cards and (to a lesser extent) monitors need drivers. Even the
different types of motherboards on the market relate to the OS in
different ways, and separate code is required for each one. All of
this hardware-specific code must not only written but also tested,
debugged, upgraded, maintained, and supported. Because the hardware
market has become so vast and complicated, what really determines an
OS's fate is not how good the OS is technically, or how much it costs,
but rather the availability of hardware-specific code. Linux hackers
have to write that code themselves, and they have done an amazingly good
job of keeping up to speed. Be, Inc. has to write all their own drivers,
though as BeOS has begun gathering momentum, third-party developers have
begun to contribute drivers, which are available on Be's web site.

But Microsoft owns the high ground at the moment, because it doesn't have
to write its own drivers. Any hardware maker bringing a new video card
or peripheral device to market today knows that it will be unsalable
unless it comes with the hardware-specific code that will make it work
under Windows, and so each hardware maker has accepted the burden of
creating and maintaining its own library of drivers.


Mined by f2poolscant
u=https://cpr.sm/G1tq_7HBK4
Mined by AntPool nmg0&
Mined by AntPool bj2/


In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 6/6


MINDSHARE


The U.S. Government's assertion that Microsoft has a monopoly in the OS
market might be the most patently absurd claim ever advanced by the legal
mind. Linux, a technically superior operating system, is being given
away for free, and BeOS is available at a nominal price. This is simply
a fact, which has to be accepted whether or not you like Microsoft.

Microsoft is really big and rich, and if some of the government's
witnesses are to be believed, they are not nice guys. But the accusation
of a monopoly simply does not make any sense.

What is really going on is that Microsoft has seized, for the time being,
a certain type of high ground: they dominate in the competition for
mindshare, and so any hardware or software maker who wants to be taken
seriously feels compelled to make a product that is compatible with their
operating systems. Since Windows-compatible drivers get written by the
hardware makers, Microsoft doesn't have to write them; in effect, the
hardware makers are adding new components to Windows, making it a more
capable OS, without charging Microsoft for the service. It is a very good
position to be in. The only way to fight such an opponent is to have an
army of highly competetent coders who write equivalent drivers for free,
which Linux does.

But possession of this psychological high ground is different from a
monopoly in any normal sense of that word, because here the dominance has
nothing to do with technical performance or price. The old robber-baron
monopolies were monopolies because they physically controlled means of
production and/or distribution. But in the software business, the means
of production is hackers typing code, and the means of distribution is
the Internet, and no one is claiming that Microsoft controls those.

Here, instead, the dominance is inside the minds of people who buy
software. Microsoft has power because people believe it does. This
power is very real. It makes lots of money. Judging from recent legal
proceedings in both Washingtons, it would appear that this power and
this money have inspired some very peculiar executives to come out and
work for Microsoft, and that Bill Gates should have administered saliva
tests to some of them before issuing them Microsoft ID cards.

But this is not the sort of power that fits any normal definition of
the word "monopoly," and it's not amenable to a legal fix. The courts
may order Microsoft to do things differently. They might even split the
company up. But they can't really do anything about a mindshare monopoly,
short of taking every man, woman, and child in the developed world and
subjecting them to a lengthy brainwashing procedure.

Mindshare dominance is, in other words, a really odd sort of beast,
something that the framers of our antitrust laws couldn't possibly have
imagined. It looks like one of these modern, wacky chaos-theory phenomena,
a complexity thing, in which a whole lot of independent but connected
entities (the world's computer users), making decisions on their own,
according to a few simple rules of thumb, generate a large phenomenon
(total domination of the market by one company) that cannot be made sense
of through any kind of rational analysis. Such phenomena are fraught
with concealed tipping-points and all a-tangle with bizarre feedback
loops, and cannot be understood; people who try, end up (a) going crazy,
(b) giving up, (c) forming crackpot theories, or (d) becoming high-paid
chaos theory consultants.

Now, there might be one or two people at Microsoft who are dense enough
to believe that mindshare dominance is some kind of stable and enduring
position. Maybe that even accounts for some of the weirdos they've hired
in the pure-business end of the operation, the zealots who keep getting
hauled into court by enraged judges. But most of them must have the
wit to understand that phenomena like these are maddeningly unstable,
and that there's no telling what weird, seemingly inconsequential event
might cause the system to shift into a radically different configuration.

To put it another way, Microsoft can be confident that Thomas Penfield
Jackson will not hand down an order that the brains of everyone in
the developed world are to be summarily re-programmed. But there's no
way to predict when people will decide, en masse, to re-program their
own brains. This might explain some of Microsoft's behavior, such as
their policy of keeping eerily large reserves of cash sitting around,
and the extreme anxiety that they display whenever something like Java
comes along.

I have never seen the inside of the building at Microsoft where the
top executives hang out, but I have this fantasy that in the hallways,
at regular intervals, big red alarm boxes are bolted to the wall. Each
contains a large red button protected by a windowpane. A metal hammer
dangles on a chain next to it. Above is a big sign reading: IN THE EVENT
OF A CRASH IN MARKET SHARE, BREAK GLASS.

What happens when someone shatters the glass and hits the button, I don't
know, but it sure would be interesting to find out. One imagines banks
collapsing all over the world as Microsoft withdraws its cash reserves,
and shrink-wrapped pallet-loads of hundred-dollar bills dropping from
the skies. No doubt, Microsoft has a plan. But what I would really like
to know is whether, at some level, their programmers might heave a big
sigh of relief if the burden of writing the One Universal Interface to
Everything were suddenly lifted from their shoulders.


THE RIGHT PINKY OF GOD


In his book The Life of the Cosmos, which everyone should read, Lee
Smolin gives the best description I've ever read of how our universe
emerged from an uncannily precise balancing of different fundamental
constants. The mass of the proton, the strength of gravity, the range
of the weak nuclear force, and a few dozen other fundamental constants
completely determine what sort of universe will emerge from a Big Bang. If
these values had been even slightly different, the universe would have
been a vast ocean of tepid gas or a hot knot of plasma or some other
basically uninteresting thing--a dud, in other words. The only way to get
a universe that's not a dud--that has stars, heavy elements, planets,
and life--is to get the basic numbers just right. If there were some
machine, somewhere, that could spit out universes with randomly chosen
values for their fundamental constants, then for every universe like
ours it would produce 10^229 duds.

Though I haven't sat down and run the numbers on it, to me this seems
comparable to the probability of making a Unix computer do something
useful by logging into a tty and typing in command lines when you have
forgotten all of the little options and keywords. Every time your right
pinky slams that ENTER key, you are making another try. In some cases
the operating system does nothing. In other cases it wipes out all of
your files. In most cases it just gives you an error message. In other
words, you get many duds. But sometimes, if you have it all just right,
the computer grinds away for a while and then produces something like
emacs. It actually generates complexity, which is Smolin's criterion
for interestingness.

Not only that, but it's beginning to look as if, once you get below
a certain size--way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of
string theory--the universe can't be described very well by physics as
it has been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small
enough scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature.

I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and
beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable
spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating
system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a
teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down
into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype,
pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of
fundamental constants of physics:

universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....

and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky
hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going
to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big
Bang.

Now THAT is a cool operating system, and if such a thing were actually
made available on the Internet (for free, of course) every hacker
in the world would download it right away and then stay up all night
long messing with it, spitting out universes right and left. Most of
them would be pretty dull universes but some of them would be simply
amazing. Because what those hackers would be aiming for would be much
more ambitious than a universe that had a few stars and galaxies in
it. Any run-of-the-mill hacker would be able to do that. No, the way
to gain a towering reputation on the Internet would be to get so good
at tweaking your command line that your universes would spontaneously
develop life. And once the way to do that became common knowledge, those
hackers would move on, trying to make their universes develop the right
kind of life, trying to find the one change in the Nth decimal place
of some physical constant that would give us an Earth in which, say,
Hitler had been accepted into art school after all, and had ended up
his days as a street artist with cranky political opinions.

Even if that fantasy came true, though, most users (including myself,
on certain days) wouldn't want to bother learning to use all of those
arcane commands, and struggling with all of the failures; a few dud
universes can really clutter up your basement. After we'd spent a while
pounding out command lines and hitting that ENTER key and spawning
dull, failed universes, we would start to long for an OS that would
go all the way to the opposite extreme: an OS that had the power to
do everything--to live our life for us. In this OS, all of the possible
decisions we could ever want to make would have been anticipated by clever
programmers, and condensed into a series of dialog boxes. By clicking
on radio buttons we could choose from among mutually exclusive choices
(HETEROSEXUAL/HOMOSEXUAL). Columns of check boxes would enable us to
select the things that we wanted in our life (GET MARRIED/WRITE GREAT
AMERICAN NOVEL) and for more complicated options we could fill in little
text boxes (NUMBER OF DAUGHTERS: NUMBER OF SONS:).

Even this user interface would begin to look awfully complicated after
a while, with so many choices, and so many hidden interactions between
choices. It could become damn near unmanageable--the blinking twelve
problem all over again. The people who brought us this operating system
would have to provide templates and wizards, giving us a few default lives
that we could use as starting places for designing our own. Chances are
that these default lives would actually look pretty damn good to most
people, good enough, anyway, that they'd be reluctant to tear them open
and mess around with them for fear of making them worse. So after a few
releases the software would begin to look even simpler: you would boot
it up and it would present you with a dialog box with a single large
button in the middle labeled: LIVE. Once you had clicked that button,
your life would begin. If anything got out of whack, or failed to meet
your expectations, you could complain about it to Microsoft's Customer
Support Department. If you got a flack on the line, he or she would
tell you that your life was actually fine, that there was not a thing
wrong with it, and in any event it would be a lot better after the next
upgrade was rolled out. But if you persisted, and identified yourself
as Advanced, you might get through to an actual engineer.

What would the engineer say, after you had explained your problem,
and enumerated all of the dissatisfactions in your life? He would
probably tell you that life is a very hard and complicated thing;
that no interface can change that; that anyone who believes otherwise
is a sucker; and that if you don't like having choices made for you,
you should start making your own.


"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"Sample-1","autR
Mined by AntPool sc0
u=https://cpr.sm/5KeCHU_E2k
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"SAMPLE-1","autR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"SAMPLE-3","autR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"SAMPLE-5","autR
Mined by AntPool bj78
Mined by AntPool sc12
'NOTHING BIG CAME OUT OF SOMETHING SMALL
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"Block-1","authR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"Block-2","authR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"Block-3","authR
Follow the white rabbit.
Mined by AntPool bj2/
Mined by lz272202222
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
>{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"158","auth":"2R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"rayliang","autR
u=https://cpr.sm/G1tq_7HBK4
}Mined by fusionminer
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
E{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"NewWorld-1","aR
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
E{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"NewWorld-3","aR
u=https://cpr.sm/G1tq_7HBK4x
u=https://cpr.sm/G1tq_7HBK4
Mined by bao105244124
Mined by AntPool bj2/
u=https://cpr.sm/G1tq_7HBK4po
Mined by AntPool bj0
xMined by f2poolscant
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Cyber-1","authR
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
A{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Cyber2","auth"R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Cyber3-1","autR
Mined by AntPool sc12
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
>{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"ZYX","auth":"2R
Mined by AntPool usa1%
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
?{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"ZYX2","auth":"R
Mined by AntPool sc12
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
D{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"
+https://mining.bitcoinaffiliatenetwork.com/
u=https://cpr.sm/_K_7g31bPZ
 http://omaks78.wix.com/1234
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Wonder-1","autR
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Wonder-2","autR
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Wonder-3","autR
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
C{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Wonder-5","autR
Mined by baoyufan2011
Operation "rakushka" :)
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-1","authR
Mined by AntPool bj78
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-3","authR
Mined by xiaoyue8008
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-1","authR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-2","authR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-3","authR
"! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
B{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
"! rg/AP/"],"title":"elite-4","authR
Mined by AntPool nmg0&
p[! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
>{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
p[! rg/AP/"],"title":"ZOO","auth":"2R
Mined by AntPool usa1%
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Mined by AntPool bj78
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Mined by AntPool sc12
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Mined by AntPool usa1%
Mined by AntPool sc12
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Mined by AntPool bj0
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by AntPool usa1%
Welcome to the real world.
Mined by AntPool sc0
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by AntPool bj69
Mined by AntPool sc0
Mined by AntPool usa1%
u=https://cpr.sm/y6cvvz3Azt8]
u=https://cpr.sm/y6cvvz3Azt8]
Mined by AntPool bj0
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSA
Mined by AntPool bj5/
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSAN
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLTRANSFER
Time is always against us.
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
u=https://cpr.sm/y6cvvz3Azt
ASCRIBESPOOLTRANSFER
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSA
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by AntPool sc0
Mined by AntPool sc0
?Mined by f2poolscant
Mined by AntPool bj78
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
K{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Silicon ValleyR
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
K{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Silicon ValleyR
Mined by AntPool bj2/
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSA~
Mined by f2poolhaobtc
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
A{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"
Mined by AntPool sc0
u=https://cpr.sm/_K_7g31bPZX
u=https://cpr.sm/_K_7g31bPZ
Mined by AntPool sc0
@Mined by liangyong2014
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by f2poolscant
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
H{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"We love P2P-1"R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
H{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"We love P2P-2"R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
H{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"We love P2P-3"R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
H{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"We love P2P-4"R
Mined by AntPool usa1%
u=https://cpr.sm/SUU1jYtZw28]
Mined by zhangjing111
$/mining.bitcoinaffiliatenetwork.com/
Follow the white rabbit.
Mined by AntPool bj2/
Mined by AntPool sc0
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
Welcome to the real world.
&HE WHO IS GIVEN EVERYTHING HAS NOTHING
Mined by AntPool sc12
ASCRIBESPOOLTRANSFER
ASCRIBESPOOLTRANSFER
Welcome to the real world.
ASCRIBESPOOLREPLENISH
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
ASCRIBESPOOLTRANSFER
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
]{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"1GV6PLMntWkpGNR
! 3qvF4VwgnjAP2octu763","auth":"0"R
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
D{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Landscape","auR
Mined by sww11005088
Mined by AntPool usa1%
Mined by AntPool usa1%
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
?{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Test","auth":"R
Mined by klminer2014
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by AntPool sz0$
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Mined by AntPool bj78
:;! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
@{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
:;! rg/AP/"],"title":"Jinsu","auth":R
Mined by f2poolscant
#The truth is that there is no spoon
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
D{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Monster-2","auR
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
D{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"Monster-4","auR
! P2P is future! ppkpub.org->ppk:0R
@{"ap_list":["http://ppkpub.oR
! rg/AP/"],"title":"XCP-1","auth":R
Mined by qq772641164
Mined by AntPool bj69
Mined by AntPool sc12
ascribespoolverbtest
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSA
d-SMILE TO LIFE AND LIFE WILL SMILE BACK AT YOU
'NOTHING BIG CAME OUT OF SOMETHING SMALL
Mined by AntPool usa1%
$/mining.bitcoinaffiliatenetwork.com/
'NOTHING BIG CAME OUT OF SOMETHING SMALL
Mined by AntPool bj0
u=http://n.opn.as/23,n
Mined by AntPool bj0
Mined by AntPool sc12
Mined by haosen3310363
Mined by AntPool nmg0&
...BUT SWEAT MEMORIES REMAIN
u=https://cpr.sm/lzpDfBzzSA
Mined by AntPool bj2/
Mined by AntPool sz0$
Mined by AntPool bj5/
Welcome to the real world.
Mined by AntPool bj2/
'NOTHING BIG CAME OUT OF SOMETHING SMALL
What is the Banking? Control.

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