18. 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.

In The Beginning Was The Command Line
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