My colleague, Erik Eckel, recently reviewed Neal Stephenson's book titled In the Beginning…Was the Command Line. Seeing as how Erik is as much a Microsoft zealot as I am a Linux evangelist, I thought it would be an interesting twist to review the book through my own Linux-biased eyes.
Read this book. No matter what team you play for, whether you’re open or closed source, there is much to learn from this metaphor-filled quick read. And that's what I want to bring to you from this review. It's all about metaphor. Neal Stephenson highlights plenty of them, and he makes you come up with lots of your own.
Bringing truth to light
Before I get too deep into discussing the metaphor of Neal Stephenson's essay, I will say that Stephenson's words bring a good deal of truth to light. Some of these truths are painful, while some are not. One such truth that rang especially painful was Stephenson's illustration of how Microsoft indirectly made Linux possible. Say what? As much as I hate to agree with Stephenson, I must. Think about it—Linus Torvalds created Linux just so he could run a version of UNIX on cheaper Intel x86 hardware. As Stephenson points out, "In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist." How can Stephenson make such a claim? The proof is simple, and it’s something I've actually been quietly proclaiming for a number of years. Bill Gates and Microsoft have turned the PC into a household name. Because Microsoft has accomplished this, it has effectively driven the cost of PC hardware nearly as low as it can possibly go. This, of course, has allowed Linus Torvalds to achieve his goal of bringing a UNIX-like operating system to the cheaper x86 hardware.
A vast slice of humble pie for the Linux crowd to swallow, but it's a truth nonetheless.
With that out of the way, I can now move on to what I'd like to call a “playground of metaphors.”
In his book, Neal Stephenson does what only a writer of his caliber can do: entice the reader to dig deep into his or her own mind and play along with the game the writer is laying out. While I was reading this particular work, I found my mind in a constant state of “oh this and yeah that and what about this.” Huh? Let me explain...
Stephenson spends a good deal of time creating metaphors that the reader can relate to—direct and immediate metaphors. For instance, Stephenson relates the GUI to Walt Disney World, and he perfectly relates the metaphor of the OS to the facade of Disney: "Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting, laborious, explicit, verbal communication with expensively-designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself... let's call it a Sensorial Interface." Of course, Stephenson also states that if Disney was in the business of creating operating systems, they would crush Microsoft in a matter of a couple of years. Bring it on, Disney!
Let me continue with the idea of what I'll call writer-induced metaphor. While reading this mini-tome, I discovered that Stephenson did an amazing job of inspiring me to create a few metaphors of my own. The first metaphor was inflicted upon me while I was reading a Stephenson-reflection of his childhood, where his friend’s father managed to get his old rusting MGB started and took them for a ride. Why did the father enjoy the old rusting MGB so much? It was about the experience. Strip away the polish and the flash, and all you have left is the drive.
From there, I realized that, for me, the difference between Linux and Windows is like driving a stick shift versus driving an automatic. Windows, being the automatic, shifts gears for you when it feels the time is right. You may be driving up a steep hill, and the automatic says, “You're in fourth gear—you'll stay there.” Linux, being the stick shift, forces you to know how to use a clutch in order to smoothly and efficiently shift. If you don't know how to use that clutch, you won't be shifting. No clutch and you'll hear nothing but grrrrrrind! The stick also allows you to make those shifts at just the right time, making your engine a much more efficient machine. Not only does the stick make the machine more efficient, it also puts the driver in touch with the machine. It's a very simplistic metaphor, but one that rings true.
This book continues with metaphors weaving a loose tale that perfectly illustrates the ways and means of the evolution of the PC.
I sit here writing this review with my favorite text editor Pico in strict Linux console mode. There are no bells and whistles here. I save my text with a simple [Ctrl]X, I check my word count with the wc command, and I know that my words are safe from the fallibility of many of the GUIs. I recollect one final statement from Stephenson's essay. In reference to Microsoft's attitude toward business, “...it's better to have billions of chronically annoyed customers than millions of happy ones.” I spend all of my time as a very happy Linux user, surrounded by throws of, as Stephenson so perfectly states, “chronically annoyed” Windows users.
Of course the irony here is that for you to be able to read this text—text that was rendered in a completely GUI-free environment—it will have to leap through many GUI-ladened hoops. But in the beginning... was the command line!
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Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.