Saturday, June 16, 2001
| A letter from Bill Davidson started a long
debate. He has since sent a very long letter commenting on what he originally said, my
replies, and more comments on Linux vs. Windows/Windows NT. It's far too long to put in
mail. In fairness, and because to whose who are interested it is interesting, I've put it
here on its own page.
Normally I would just ignore that long a letter, but this is a good one.
Subject: OS debate 11f
Hi Dr. Pournelle:
It is my misfortune to have been the individual that wrote the rather scattered email that started this "debate" so I feel obliged to respond. This may be my undoing... A while after sending that message I found myself wishing that SMTP had an "unsend" command. I wrote it very late at night when I was not at my best. I had something in mind when I sent it, but I am not at all sure that what I wrote communicated that idea(s). The gist of what I was getting at is as follows:
I read your "view" column wherein you detailed your experiences "upgrading" your NT4 system. As you detailed the horrors that ensued I empathized. When you shouted "I Hate MicroSoft!" (and you did) I shouted back "Yes! I understand! How could an OS upgrade path be so broken? How could an OS upgrade break applications and roll back app upgrades? How could MS make it so difficult to do such a simple thing?" I ranted and roared (we do a lot of that here in the Maritimes, viz. the song "We'll rant and we'll roar/ Like true Newfoundlanders..."). I felt your pain. Then I proceeded to another of your pages where you made a statement to the effect that UNIX exists only to keep SysAdmins employed. The irony did not escape me. That is, the "upgrade" process you described would have kept a team of SysAdmins busy for a day. If they had to deploy it on a network of systems (and given that it claimed to fix Y2K problems in NT there would be a strong incentive to do so) it might have taken a week. It likely would have broken all kinds of apps, systems would be crashing right, left and centre, and management would have been sending the dreaded memos (but no one would be getting them because the servers were down).
I have recently "upgraded" both my Linux kernel and my libc.so (roughly a dll that provides the services of the ANSI standard C library and is needed by ALL applications). No, it was not a matter of point and click. I actually had to use commands like "tar", "patch" and "make". This is roughly equivalent to typing "pkunzip" under DOS. The result was that the most essential system components were upgraded with no muss or fuss (in the case of the kernel I had to reboot). Anyone could do it, and millions (literally) do it every day. But you made it sound like UNIX/Linux is somehow inherently "harder" than DOS/Windows.
OK, so that got my back up. I started writing a reasoned, sober, logical response, but I managed to outsmart myself and go off on a series of tangents. The following is an attempt at a response to your response (your quotes preceded by ">"):
>Let's take this point at a time since you make some good points, but apparently I >haven't been clear either.
Well, see above, but I'm not sure that you haven't been clear. I wish I could say the same for myself.
>I'm also sorry you can't use my format; but of course we both know the reason, which >you state above. In other words, you want me to use WORD to reformat your letter to >something that fits my site because you don't have the tools to do it?
I didn't think I have the tools, but I might have been wrong. That is, I told a little fib. It's true that I don't use MicroSoft software, as a rule; it is not true that I cannot use MS software. I did install Win95 on my old DOS6.2 partition some time ago in order to run one very expensive but not very good application. So I can boot in Win95 and use whatever comes with it. MS Word is not an option, but Wordpad can, I think, save in Word format (?).
So here I am, trying to adapt my work methods to your strange format. Hey, it's your website and you can impose whatever restrictions you wish. However, it is not true that I "want" you "to use WORD to reformat your letter to something that fits my site". I really don't care whether you use Word, WordPerfect, WordStar, Emacs, sed, or perl to reformat my letter. I don't care whether you reformat it at all or whether you redirect it to /dev/null. I sent my previous letter(s) to you using the standard Internet mail format and protocol. If that is inconvenient for you to use because your MS products make it difficult, then I honestly appologize. It's true that I don't like the notion of Word becoming the new lingua franca for information exchange, forcing everyone to buy commercial products just to communicate. I thought that was what ASCII was for (American Standard Code for Information Interchange is how I learned to read it, maybe I was wrong).
I mean, I have friends (really, I do!) who have computers but who have never ventured on the "upgrade" path. They have old 8 or 10 MHz 8088 PClones (you remember them) and use local free community nets to connect to the Internet. They can't view graphics, but they can use chat, email, news, and WWW via Lynx on a terminal emulator program. Anyway, those friends of mine who still use the "dinosaurs" would probably find your web site and discussions interesting, and could probably provide interesting and thoughtful feedback (they're mostly smarter than me, and include a former submarine commander and a mathematician turned actor), but they don't have access to Word and friends. If they choose to communicate with you but have to use standard ASCII text to do so, is that an imposition?
Anyway, no big deal. But what did I just do to get this into WordPad? Lets see:
1 I booted my computer into Linux.
2 I hadn't saved your "debate" page explicitly, so I started up Midnight Commander and went through the ~/.netscape/cache/* directories to find the cached copy of your page. That was easy, and I knew roughly where it would be; I should have used find.
3 I copied the document to /dos/jerry.htm (/dos being the mount point for my Win95 partition).
4 Rebooted to Win95 (much slower than booting Linux, but then it also starts a GUI).
5 I started WordPad.
6 I opened C:\jerry.htm.
7 Oops, WordPad doesn't seem to understand HTML.
7a Strangely, this made my floppy drive (empty) do a seek and make a strange noise.
8 Started MSIE
9 Opened C:\jerry.htm -- looked very different than it had under Netscape, but welcome to the new computer revolution, eh?
10 Highlighted your response to my misguided communication.
11 Spent some time making wrong guesses about the use of Cut/Copy/Paste in the Windows GUI (but it is all "intuitive").
11a Spent more time navigating help topics to figure out how to do what I wanted -- still *much* easier than accomplishing same in emacs, really. Except I don't actually have to use emacs' tools to do simple cut and paste, I can just use the mouse under Linux whether in X or on the text console.
12 Eventually copied your text into WordPad, Yay!
13 Now I will compose this reply, which is already too long, then I will save it while trying to make sure that WordPad doesn't put it someplace stupid. Then I will reboot into Linux, start up pine, and "attach" this document to the appropriate mail message.
13a Meanwhile, I don't know what Control-e is supposed to do in Wordpad, but to me it means "go-to-end-of-line", but Wordpad keeps reformatting my paragraph!
Anyway, I hope this makes your life easier... :-)
>To begin with, if I wrote exclusively for UNIX and LINUX users I would have an >interesting hobby, (which this sort of is anyway) but damned little connection with the >world of small computers.
> That may or may not be regrettable, but it's still true, and I get extremely weary of >people who seem to think I should ignore 90% of the computer users in order to >concentrate on a much smaller number who don't need my ministrations to begin with. >As a formula for journalistic suicide it works fine; as real advice for someone who writes >what has always been called "The User's Column" it's foolish.
Your weariness is quite understandable, and again I apologize for the inappropriate tone of my earlier message. You are quite right; most people use Windows, you use Windows, writing exclusively about anything else would be insane. That doesn't mean you can't write *at all* about other platforms, and you do write about them, and I applaud your ecelecticism.
>If only I were running Linux software I wouldn't be working with a word processor a hell >of a lot better than I had custom written for me in CP/M.
This is where we start to differ. I have no idea what you had custom written for you in CP/M or what it looked like. It might have been the whiz-bangiest wp ever written for all I know, but I assume from your tone that it wasn't. However, under Linux you have multiple choices for word processors. There's Applix and Star Office, there's WordPerfect, I believe Lotus SmartSuite or whatever it's called is about to be released for Linux. Then there's real free-ware (free as in speech, not necessarily free as in beer). Emacs, properly configured and in tandem with LaTeX makes a killer text processing system. There is a free more-or-less WYSIWYG (actually What You See Is What You Mean) wp called Lyx that acts as a front end for LaTeX; I confess I have only used an early beta of that and lost interest (I must check out the latest release). There are several other interesting and free word processors available for Linux which I haven't checked out, but I am pretty sure they are better than MultiMate, which was the first wp I used under DOS and which was horrible but probably better than what you used under CP/M. For that matter, I can run my trusty old WordPerfect5 for DOS under Dosemu under Linux, and I can do that on a virtual terminal or in an X window.
>About all that the Linux applications software I have seen can do that I couldn't do in >CP/M is handle larger files.
Really? Could you, in CP/M, select a portion of your text, pipe it to another command (say a filter like sed, if that means nothing man sed), save the output to a buffer and paste that back into another document? I dunno, maybe you could, but I doubt it. Could your CP/M word processor read email and Usenet news, and also compose replies and send them? Larger files, yes. Is that all? No. Meanwhile, I would strongly suggest that you take a look around at just what software actually is available for Linux.
>I hate to tell you this, but Microsoft OFFICE works, and for the most part works very >well.
This is probably true, but I wouldn't know. I do, however, keep hearing from people for whom the underlying OS and possibly Office crash on a regular basis. You, yourself, often complain about various Word/Office bugs that have cost you work. Again, however, I am not in a position to judge.
>If you are seriously trying to tell me to switch to LINUX as an end user application >system to get all my work done, you are either a greater expert than I will ever be, or >you wish my demise as a writer.
Umm, I don't think that is what I said, but I can see how you might have inferred that I did. Having said that, I do actually believe that you could (eventually) get all your work done under Linux; I will not claim that you would be as comfortable doing so as you are now (note use of "comfortable", not "productive"). Note that I am saying "you could", not "you ought"; I am not trying to be prescriptive here.
>Twenty years ago when AT&;T tried to get into the desktop computer business, I told >them what to do: set some of your geniuses writing APPLICATIONS FOR USERS that >run on top of UNIX, keeping UNIX more or less invisible beneath them. Make them at >least as simple to use as, say, WRITE and SUPERCALC for CP/M, and build a shell >with some commands that make sense rather than forcing people to learn the >difference between 'grep' and 'egrep'. Have one of your brighter accountants try to use >your stuff without having to learn the gory details. Then when people are using things >and getting work done they will themselves begin to look under the hood.
(Sorry for the longish quote but it is so good...) That was excellent advice, and it is a shame AT&;T didn't listen to you. I missed the glory days of CP/M, so I can't comment on it's utility. But I remember DOS, and I remember you writing about DOS, and I remember the tools that you and I used to get work done in DOS. I'm pretty sure you used the "features" of COMMAND.COM and wrote a few batch files, as well as tweaking CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT. When you booted your DOS box you had to do *something* to start up Write or Q&;A or WordPerfect or whatever. Unix is not inherently more difficult, just more powerful.
As for `grep' vs. `egrep', you really don't need to know the difference most of the time. Grep just works, and GNU grep (which comes with linux) has, I believe, an option "-e" which is equivalent to egrep, and I think egrep is just a symlink to grep. As noted above, I am now in Win95 and can't access my Linux partition (other way around is OK) so I can't check this stuff, but you might try "man grep" and "ls -l /usr/bin/*grep" (assuming /usr/bin is where your grep is, try "which grep" to find out).
>UNIX, in other words, offered that if I spent months learning its arcana, I would then be >able, maybe, to write applications that would sort of do what I was already doing. That >isn't my profession. My profession is writing, not building writers' tools.
Luckily, those days are long behind us. Today you don't have to write your own apps. At least I don't, and I manage to communicate (LaTeX writes beautiful letters).
>and the UNIX community was HORRIFIED at the notion of making UNIX >"understandable to the masses."
Fair comment, probably true at the time and still true for a few "gurus". But I still say that anyone that could understand DOS (and there were millions) can understand UNIX, even if there are a few additional complexities (quoting comes to mind).
>I could have done nothing about the NT upgrade. I didn't NEED the upgrade. You >seem upset that I tried it.
I never said that. I was upset that such a fundamental procedure would be such a horrorshow.
>But for all that, I wouldn't be all that proud of an operating system that will erase >everything on a disk including all the backups with a single command that can be typed >by mistake.
Yes, UNIX has that power IF you are logged in as root and IF you find yourself doing strange things like typing "rm -rf *" while in the root directory or "rm -rf / something", which is neither a smart nor a likely thing to do as root. Some people say you are not really a sysadmin until you have accidently wiped out a whole filesystem. I say that's BS, except maybe it makes you actually use your backups (I don't know what you mean about backups above). Of course, this is also possible in most other operating systems. It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure I could cobble together a DOS command that would either erase or seriously mung a DOS filesystem, even in a DOS box under Windows. The point of UNIX is that ordinary users do NOT have that power, whereas in Win95 evrybody is root.
>But I have yet to find Linux applications that would let me do with your letter what I am >doing now, and get it posted into my pages fairly rapidly and easily.
Hmm... I remember a ton of fascinating Byte articles by Jon Udell about the Byte Site, and how he used perl and other Linux apps to massage mail and news messages into Webified, searchable, indexed databases. It was some of the best stuff Byte ever published ("your column excluded, of course," said the brown-noser). He started doing a lot of the stuff on NT but eventually just found it easier to use Linux.
>Now as to the copy problem:
>...and when it came to the DLL's that are in fact used as 'inits' it would not delete them. >Later, when I tried to copy back, it tried to overwrite those. It can't do that. This may not >seem like a feature but it's intended to be one.
OK, now I get it. In Linux it is possible to, say, delete your libc.so and essentially render your system useless (but only as root); I guess it could be considered a feature if the OS refused to do this. On the other hand, the current system makes it possible to upgrade one's libc.so (or any other shared library) "on the fly" without rebooting, and this is handled by shell scripts that come with libc.
> However, the straight copy program doesn't seem to have a "copy only later files" >option; if it does, I have never bothered to learn it
Surely the Windows "Find File" program would do that? Certainly UNIX "find" makes that a snap.
> because the convenience of the Drag N File file manager (it does a LOT more than >just this) is high enough that I tend to use it, as I tend to use Norton Commander for file >management.
I know you know, but *really* use Midnight Commander in Linux.
>If no UNIX user ever used a shell or other third party program I would be astonished to >learn that.
Shell? I guess you mean a file manager program like mc (and many others), not a shell like bash or tcsh or ksh?
>Frightening? Really? What I was attempting was something one does not DO very >often. Perhaps UNIX and LINUX users spend their days manipulating their files and >moving things around. I spend mine writing books.
Well, it's called "housekeeping" and you and I both do it all the time. At least, I remember reading many articles about your adventures putting stuff on WORM drives and transferring files from one drive to another, etc. Except you wouldn't have written about them if they had actually *worked* on the first and most intuitive go, would you?
>And posting this stuff, including reformatting letters from people who don't seem to >have the tools to do it themselves.
Ouch... Ok, I'm trying now to do it your way. As I said above, it's your web site, it's your show... If you want this document in Word or PostScript or PDF or Klingon Runes, it's your right to say so.
There is actually one strong motivation for me to use your preferred format. I am now writing this under Win95 and it is very late at night and I attended a wine fair earlier this evening. I have no way to submit this letter under Win95 (I never bothered to set up dial-up networking because I use Linux to do all my net stuff). So tonight I will save this document (in Word format, if I can) and I will have the opportunity to come back and read it and edit it. I wish I had done that prior to sending the message that started all this...