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scrottie (4167)


My email address is Spam me harder! *moan*

Journal of scrottie (4167)

Tuesday July 31, 2007
07:26 PM

Death of Unix culture: The unmerged with collective

[ #33939 ]

Human destructive instincts dept: Making simple, elegant things horrifically overly complex, and shunning community in favor of isolation.

It used to be that the University Unix cluster was the center of life. Okay, maybe the 24 hour labs. But now we have laptops. That's not terrible, I guess. There's a lot written about the creative energies that flowed when hackers coded together, mostly silently, through the night, at 24 hour computer labs. Closing them was a serious injury to the hacker community. Attempts have been made to bring the atmosphere back -- things like That's awesome and I fully support that. But it's once a month or something.

After the 24 hour Unix lab died, Unix culture carried on in the form of online BBS type things. People adapted the waffle to run online. was a famous one. another. There were a bunch.

File sharing? chmod -R ugo+r mp3s # except it was mods or xms or mp2s back then.

Chat? write, talk, irc.

Deploying an application? vi

Email? email.

Single signon? useradd fred.

The same culture existed at a lot of companies -- places that didn't use IBM stuff (which was much hated by the hackers for good cultural reasons). There would be a Sun 3 (if it were a research type place) or an Apollo or HP or IBM AIX box (POWER) with X terminals on people's desktops. X terminals are like dumb terminals except they're connected on Ethernet rather than serial, and they speak X rather than vt100 or whatever. That's right -- a thin client. People would write applications, put them on the server, and boom!, everyone had them "installed". Rather than trying to fend off a wave of Windows viruses, the computer guys spent most of their time writing ad hoc applications to process data for people in the company and help them automate their work away -- it was in this environment that Perl originally thrived.

This setup was a about a billion times less crappy than Windows for Workgroups, 3.11, which is what actually took off, where to share data you had to drop it on the Novell server, email was non-existant and expensive and almost impossible to set up when Microsoft did the ultra-crappy Microsoft Exchange (which was never designed to be attached the Internet), made it almost impossible to write or deploy applications -- but was cheap, and most of all, let people each have "their own computer". Isolation.

This Unix stuff is still attainable -- even more so, with single image computing (where you have hundreds or whatever of CPUs in one large "virtual" machine, kind of the opposite of what people use Xen for -- "single image" refers to all of the CPUs running one copy of Unix). I have a dream of going into a company and setting this up again. I've used it, and I'd love to architect it. Things like Wine, Perl/Tk, OpenMOSIX etc happened since then and make it even more fantastic, fun, and scalable.

Unix is becoming more and more like Windows to the point that it's more like Windows than Windows is sometimes. Rather than running it single user, we each have our own machine. We don't make guest accounts for people any more -- or it's becoming more and more rare to do so. We've forgotten that the X protocol is network transparent and we're still trying to fill the terrible void with utter crap like Javascript+HTML.

What killed shared Unix?

* crappy misconfigured fascist shared hosting providers offering ghetto user experiences with screwed up permissions creating the stereotype that shared Unix is bad Unix

* universities with stupid ass restrictive policies and no beat-em-up machines raising a whole generation of geeks without Unix being a social nexxus

* influx of the Windows using or Windows reformed mongolian hoards who spread their Windows using ways even as we have better ways we've just forgotten about

All of this is part of a larger problem: multiple untrusted Unix machines talking to each other. Multiple networked machines talking to each other, really. The design was originally for machines with multiple users where the people on the machine were closely connected but the set of services provided over the 'net was limited, unless you had an account and could telnet in and possibily fire up a program over X. This didn't adapt well to each person having one more, or each person having several machines (crap, my Nokia N800 runs Unix and X but is terribly neglected).

There were attempts to fix this -- afs (Andrew's File System) is like an anonymous, ad-hoc NFS; guest accounts (crap, I should set up with that); kerberos, the Athena project (form the early days of Unix workstations, where you'd sit down at your own DEC3100)... none of them really nailed the core problem though. I'm not sure what the core problem *is*.

Now, not only are we alone on our Unix machines, with no one else in 'who', but we have to convince people to install fun software and can't just deploy it. Our configurations are generic. I loved Knoppox for the flavor of using a system thoughtfully set up by someone else with a bunch of neat stuff -- besides installing the software and minimally configuring it, a fun shared Unix system would have all sorts of automation in place with scripts hooked up to finger and such. You could add to the user experience for everyone using the machine without having to get your patches into Debian. And you could do it in lively ways -- like fortune (used to be popular to have house 'fortune' files) that would be far too contraversial or too site specific to bundle and distribute. A Unix machine was something with personality, life, love, people living there, imporoving it, sharing, spying on each other, reading code and small examples from each other without anyone ever having to explicitly publish anything (if anything, taking away the o-r bit explicitly where necessary)... something that you'd never considering reinstalling another distro over the top of. It was like a small world... the stuff of dreams.


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  • And you tell it like it is.

    I guess I was one of the last people to experience some of this, in some places that were the last holdouts to give it up. My job used to consist of "writing ad hoc applications to process data for people in the company and help them automate their work away." My university taught us UNIX. Life was good.

    At least I can teach it to my kids some day.

    You can bet if I ever start a company it'll look like what you've described. But to do that I'll have to figure out how to do

    J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
    • I'm not this pessimistic.

      People abandoned mainframe accounts because they wanted to be able to change their desktop backgrounds. Or their prompt. Or whatever they wanted. And you had to jump through hoops to get the high priests to do anything like that.

      Personal computers grew because people like to be able to change whatever they want, install the programs they want, and so on.

      People don't shun community. Look no further than (shudder) myspace for that.

      Moving to 'personal' computers in a business envir
      Beware the Jabberw0k, my son!