Saturday, June 16, 2001

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BOOK Reviews



It began with a letter I thought deserved a lengthy answer, and ended up with a bunch of other mail appended; it's all on the same subject so it may as well be put in one place. Those who are not interested in this can skip it easily.

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 Friday, October 30, 1998 on behalf of Bill Davidson [];

I’m sorry I can’t use your preferred mail format, but I don’t use MicroSoft software, so saving this as MS Word is not an option for me.

Hi Jerry:

As you may already know, based on my previous missiles, I am a Linux user and lover of Unix-type systems. I have been reading the info on your new web site ( and I keep finding inconsistencies.

You keep referring to UNIX as a system that keeps sys admins employed. Well, I’m a Linux user who is not a professional systems administrator (although I would like to be), and I manage to get "real work" done without resorting to WinWhatever.

You refer to Linux/UNIX as something that requires a "guru" to understand what is going on. I have no problem with that. Managing and administering a UNIX system requires someone who is "clueful". That is, you need someone who understands the basics of how a UNIX system works. You, I respectfully submit, are not (yet) such a person. However, becoming "clueful" is not difficult and doesn’t take long. You, however, run into the simplest problems (i.e., permissions) and, without any knowledge of the underlying OS, proceed to freak out and want to re-install the whole OS (a nasty Microsoft habit, completely unwarranted in Linux).

Meanwhile you try to download a HUGE "upgrade" for NT4, only to be told that it needs another component that you cannot find. You find the missing component (tens of MegaBytes) and it does all kinds of magic, but first it makes you get rid of a bunch of stuff on your hard drive [1]. Then it tells you that it has deleted (but maybe not really deleted) your "upgraded" web browser.

So how come an OS upgrade alters your application? Doesn’t that seem a bit strange?

Here’s the inconsistency: when Linux asks you to know a bit about it to accomplish something, you say "Here be monsters and only brave men dare to tread"; when NT demands that you do something nigh impossible and download (if you can find it) a 37MB file that UN-installs your last application upgade and does you-only-can-guess-what, you get mad but shrug it off. Meanwhile, I remember reading your column a few scant years ago where you laid out in gory detail how to massage various DOS memory managers to work with various combinations of hardware and software. So how come figuring out all the switches for QEMM is easy, but learning the first thing about UNIX is hard? That is the inconsistency that, from you, I find alarming. In other words, you seem to have approached Linux/UNIX with the pre-conceived idea that it is hard. Meanwhile you spend more time and energy trying to massage M$ systems to do what they say they wil.

I don’t mean to be overly critical, but I read about your incessant problems getting M$ software to do what you want and I keep thinking "If only he was running Linux at least he could fix it."

Exmple: I use an offline newsreader. It’s a pretty good little program, but I know it has some bugs (all software has bugs). Today (really!) I used the program to read Usenet news and the program hung. It had never done that before, and I had been using it for a while. None the less it was clearly hung. So I did a "ps" to get the process ID of the program. This was all under X windows so I started another terminal window. There I started "gdb", the GNU debugger. I told it where the source files were for the program in question, I told it where the executable was, and then I told it to "attach" to that process. Bingo, I’m debugging a running process, and I can quickly find where the problem is. Try that with a buggy M$ program. Anyway, I emailed the author of the program with the info to fix the bug. I am sure that he will incorporate my fix in his next release, and that will be RSN.

[1] Nevr mind that your NT4 "upgrade" was bigger than a whole Linux system. Never mind all kinds of negatives. What really freaked me out was that you couldn’t do a "copy", but had to use a program called Drag’N’File. Think about that. The basic file-copy utility that came with your OS, perhaps the most basic file-manipulation command provided by any OS, didn’t work. You had to rely on a third-party program to accomplish the simplest task. That is scary. Really scary.


| Bill Davidson |

| |

| |



Let's take this point at a time since you make some good points, but apparently I haven't been clear either.

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? Let us begin, then.

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.

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. About all that the Linux applications software I have seen can do that I couldn't do in CP/M is handle larger files. I hate to tell you this, but Microsoft OFFICE works, and for the most part works very well. I sit out on the bleeding edge, and I deliberately work at boundary conditions. I guarantee you I can produce problems as vexing as I routinely get here with any operating system in the world: just go looking for them, which I largely do by trying new stuff and refusing to work at the limits. Often my reports end up with product managers who FIX the problem. 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.

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.

For me, I had no temptations: I saw that WRITE and later Q&;A and a bunch of other applications were better for just getting the Christmas card list out, and keeping track of the calendar, and writing books and articles, than the BEST UNIX had to offer. 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.

Well, AT&;T didn't take my advice, and those who did try that went broke, because the user community never was persuaded that UNIX would give them enough applications for their purposes, and the UNIX community was HORRIFIED at the notion of making UNIX "understandable to the masses."

Now I do play about with things. I could have done nothing about the NT upgrade. I didn't NEED the upgrade. You seem upset that I tried it. Look: I knew it would be an adventure. And I get very upset when something doesn't work properly. 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.

I will continue the LINUX experiments, and I will continue to work with everything else, including, if I can get one, the latest Mac systems, which are in fact cheaper and more reliable and with Office 98 as useful for what 90% of computer users do as most Wintel systems. But I will also continue to work with Outlook and Office 2000 in the hopes that I can shape things in a useful direction. I am glad of competition to Microsoft, and I wish there were more: real competition, like Linux, that forces Microsoft to rethink not just hire more lawyers. 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.

Now as to the copy problem: I attempted to remove a large block of programs without uninstalling them, simply to make space so I could compact the disk properly. In doing that I copied some dll's that have been sucked up into the system on initialiazation; Apple users would think of them as 'inits'. The proper way for me to have done this would have been to reboot and bring the system up in a mode that did not bring in those DLL's on startup. This is possible, and not all that difficult, although it is a bit tedious. I didn't do that, Instead, I merely copied the whole directory including all the inits, deleted what I could, 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. 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 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.

If no UNIX user ever used a shell or other third party program I would be astonished to learn that. 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. And posting this stuff, including reformatting letters from people who don't seem to have the tools to do it themselves.



Here, on the other hand, is one I can agree with somewhat, although I do not put Linux and mopdern Apple in the same camp. The original Apple company was a commercial venture run by suits pretending to be beards. They made a lot of money by gouging their loyalists, who would pay to avoid the "1984" grayness but who were manipulated by people who wanted to keep their profits high with high prices. Market share plummeted. The new Apple may be a different kettle of fish.

I append below a number of comments, all worth making and thinking about. At the end of this I guess I'll try to do a conclusion.


Donald W. McArthur []


This is a "religious" arguement and not subject to resolution in this lifetime, but nonetheless I will add my $.02:

Wintel products are written for people who don’t want to be bothered with the complexity of computers and programming. For the tasks they take on, they do a great job.

I can think of no company that would have been as successful writing an OS for virtually any type of hardware that the consumer cared to load it on (as opposed to Unix and Mac).

I can think of no company that would be as successful writing software that allows customers to publish a commercially viable web site without learning HTML; or competent business applications without learning a complex programming language (MS Access or Visual Basic).

To do these tasks for the customer injects massive complexity in the code. This leads to bugs. Which get fixed. And the software gets better and better.

The view of the world of computing envisioned by Mac and Linux advocates is elitist, arrogant and nonsensical. And carries with it more than a touch of adolescent rebelliousness.

Just a contrarian viewpoint.

Donald W. McArthur


"At age 24, he went to Hollywood,

where he got a job dubbing in screams

for horror movies. Pay was low,

but he eeked out a living."


But then we have:

Your Journal of Linux Installation is delightful reading!

Thanks for posting it.

I’ve long wondered how long it would be before you gave Linux a try. And I have to admit that you appear to be taking it all rather better than I had imagined. I well remember when I first started learning Unix (without benefit of box, and on a mainframe) It will quickly teach you a new meaning for "frustration."

But now, years later, I find Windows to be much more frustrating that Unix. It seems like I can never work on a Windows box for more than an hour without getting so mad that I’m ready to spit nails. I guess its all according to what you’re use to...

Anyway, the point of mail email is to encourage you to hang tough. Unix/Linux will start to make more sense as you work with it. And, like learning to touch-type after years of hunt-and-peck, you’ll eventually get to the point where you find it indespensible and wonder how you ever survived without it. But the road between where you are now and this far-off eutopia can be long an arduous. (On the other hand, RedHat has now given us a road, at least. You used to have to journey cross-country. Things are improving...)

As you journey, here is a contraversial thesis for you to ponder:

A Command-Line Interface Is Inherently Superior To A Graphical Interface.

"Are you crazy!?" is the usual first response. But I fully believe it is true. Why? Because a command-line interface is based on language. And words are more powerful than pictures. Pictures are easier to learn. They can be understood with less training. But words are more powerful.

Consider an analogy. If I travel to the Istambul, I can learn a few words of Turkish or Arabic, and go to the open markets to buy food and other necessities. By pointing at things, and using fingers to negotiate prices, I can get along with minimal training.

But I cannot make arrangements to have a large party catered. Nor open a food distribution warehouse. For that, I really have to learn to speak the local language.

Using a graphical user interface is like a tourist how gestures and points to communicate what he wants. Minimal training is required, and the media is adequate for the simple communication needs of a casual tourist. But to do more, you have to speak a language. This involves years of intense study. But to those who put forth the initial effort, the ability to speak opens up many communication possibilities that were previously closed. One finds that speaking is actually easier (for most things) than gesturing and pointing. This is like a command-line interface.

Returning to the issue of Unix: You really have to learn to speak the language of Unix in order to take advantage of the powers of the system. Learning this language is not easy. But once you master it, everything becomes easier than it ever was under Windows.

Whenever I use Windows, I feel like I’m playing an elaborate game of charades. I long to just tell the machine what I want it to do, but it insists that I use this tiresome point-and-click pantomime. Surely this is how stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak must feel! But on Unix (Linux), I am free. I can point-and-click when that makes more sense. Or I can use crafty language to do in a few keystrokes what would take hours with a mouse.

A summary of my rambling:

  • Unix is hard to learn, but easier to use once you learn it.
  • The command line prompt is a Good Thing.
  • Hang in there!




D. Richard Hipp—drh@acm.org




And some more good sense. The point, I think, is that much can be said on all sides of this mess.



This is my first attempt at using the format you requested, and I hope it appears as it should.

I enter the PC v. Mac argument with no little trepidation. Normally, I would avoid such an unwinnable discussion entirely, but the overly broad assertions that a switch to Mac would be the solution for you is just too bloated a target to miss.

First, the assertion that the G3 is equivalent to a 500mhz PII is simply not true. Only in integer operations does the G3 beat the PII. In any event, do your computing needs really exceed those of a PII 450? Or the various network servers you have constructed? Clearly not.

Second, while there are mirror applications (and some superior applications) on the Mac, you, as with most of your readers, also game. The Mac is a fine game platform, but games do not appear there as quickly. The majority of power games are built for the Wintel platform, and then, later, ported over.

Finally, anyone who urges the iMac as anything but a simple student box is kidding themselves. 2 meg video ram, not upgradeable, 15" monitor, no floppy, and entirely dependent on USB. It is a fine word processing box, but you can build a similar Wintel box cheaper, more expandable, and better. The IBM Aptiva series compares well in both price and performance.

Mac Os/8 is probably better than Win98, but OS/2 Warp was better than Win95. The difference for a user is program support. The Mac is behind due to their own mismanagement, and catching up is not a certainty. Inertia is on the side of Wintel, and the iMac is not a good long term way to catch up.

Bryan Broyles

Well, the games issue is in fact quite imprtant, and quite correct. I'll add this to the OS wars page. Thanks. At some point I'm going to do a summary, but for now I'll keep adding to this page as more comes in.

 And there is now another letter from Bill Davidson. For reasons I won't go into it got its own page. I may just glue it into here, but I am running out of time.



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