Thoughts on In the Beginning was the Command Line


I’ve been meaning to read Neal Stepheneson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line for quite some time. It pops up here and there, and I’ve never been able to tell what was in it from these brief encounters. Somehow (OK, I was searching for NetHack stuff) I ran into Garote’s page (Garrett Birkel). He is a programmer and in 2004 wrote some comments in with the full original 1999 essay here. This gave a nice 5 year update to Stephenson’s original. It has been 10 years since that update. I don’t plan on doing much commentary, but I did want to record thoughts I had as they came up.

In the first half of the essay there is a long diatribe on American culture. My first large scale thought is that this should be removed. There are some really nice clarifying analogies throughout the essay, but this is not one. It adds probably 1000 words and layers of unnecessary confusion. A good analogy is the Morlock and Eloi from The Time Machine as the types of people using computers. It doesn’t take long to describe and illustrates the point. Having a huge political discussion about TV ruining people’s brains and being easily distracted by shiny objects is an essay in and of itself and not a useful discussion for the main points.

Speaking of main points, I should probably try to distill them. One is that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as opposed to the original command line prompt were created for the wrong reason. This led to a lot of bad. It is unclear to me from the essay whether or not this is supposedly inherent in the GUI concept or just because of the original circumstances under which they were made. Another main idea is the history of Linux. It is well-done, but you can find this type of thing in a lot of places. The more interesting historical description was of BeOS, because this is far less known. The last main argument is about the monopoly that proprietary OSes have in the market. We’ll get to that later.

Notes (I don’t distinguish whether the quotes are of Garote or Stephenson, sorry):

“All this hoopla over GUI elements has led some people to predict the death of the keyboard. Then came the Tablet PC from Microsoft — and people have been complaining ever since, because most things that you would use a computer for, still involve letters and numbers.”

This was without question the right thing to say in 2004. Ten years later our move to tablets and phones as our primary computers is so close to being a majority that Microsoft revamped Windows as if no one uses a laptop or desktop anymore. It was widely criticized as a mistake, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come since 2004. It may not have been a mistake if they waited 2 more years.

“Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs.”

It is interesting to me to see how much emphasis is put on “losing files” throughout this essay. It seems a point that the 2004 comments still agrees with. I certainly remember those days as well. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but “cloud computing” (which I now just call “using a computer”) is so pervasive that no one should lose work anymore. I could format my hard drive and not lose anything important because my work is stored all over the world on various servers. It would take a major, organized terrorist-level catastrophe to lose work if you take reasonable precautions. I have a 2 TB external storage device to do regular back-ups on, but it just feels a waste now.

“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.”

It is interesting that even back in 1999 this was clear. The proprietary OSes had to keep up appearances that they were better than the free alternatives. Despite the marketing that you were actually buying quality, the OSes you paid for were bigger, slower, had fragmentation issues, were more likely to crash, and got viruses. The Windows bloat is so big now (over 20 GB!) that older laptops will waste half their space just for the OS. In effect, the OS you paid for was worse than Linux in every way except for the intuitive GUI and a few select professional-grade programs.

In 2014, the GUI issue is fixed. The switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu is less jarring and more intuitive than the switch from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I claim even the most computer illiterate could handle some of the modern Linux distributions. Now you basically pay for the ability to pay for a few high quality programs. There are certain professions where this is worth it (mostly in the arts, but certainly use Linux for work in STEM areas), but for the average person it is not. Now that WINE is better, you can even run those specialized Windows programs easily in Linux.

The next section is an anecdote about how difficult it was to fix a bug in the Windows NT install on one of Neal Stephenson’s computers versus the simplicity of getting help with Debian. This whole section is basically making the argument that a for-profit software or OS must maintain the illusion of superiority to get people to buy it. This means they hide their bugs which in turn makes it hard to fix. Open source encourages bugs to get posted all over the internet. Thousands of people see the bug and have an opportunity to try to fix it (as opposed to the one, possibly incompetent customer service rep you tell). The solution, when found, usually very quickly, will be posted for all to see and will be incorporated into the next release.

I’m not sure if the cause/effect that is proposed is really the reason for this (he admits later that there are now bug reports for Microsoft and Apple, but they are very difficult to find/use), but it matches my own experiences as well. I only note this here, because I often hear that you are “paying for customer service” or “support” when you choose Windows over Linux. For the above reasons I just don’t believe it. If the Linux community somehow stopped being so darn helpful so quickly, then maybe this would be a point in favor of proprietary software. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The last part of the essay on the monopoly might be a little outdated. When I buy a computer and Windows comes as part of the package, I feel a little cheated because the first thing I do is delete it. Why did I just pay for something that I was going to immediately delete? The reason this is outdated is because in 2014 you can find “Linux boxes” that come with Linux installed in place of Windows. They are harder to find, so you don’t have as many choices, but this is a big improvement from 2004 where 100% of Dell (or whatever) computers came with Windows.

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