...making Linux just a little more fun!

The Cognitive Style of Unix

Ben Okopnik [ben at linuxgazette.net]

Wed, 16 Mar 2011 00:18:52 -0400

On Wed, Mar 09, 2011 at 04:38:18PM +0100, Predrag Ivanovic wrote:

> <courtesy of LWN>
> "One of the most deeply held beliefs in the culture of *nix (and everything that springs from it)
> is that the steep learning curve pays off. Yes, the tools seem cryptic and “hard-to-use”, with hardly
> any crutches for the beginner. But if you stick with it and keep learning you will be rewarded.
> When you grok the power of economical command lines, composability and extensibility, you’re glad
> you didn’t run back to the arms of the GUI on the first day. It was worth it.[...]"
> Yes it was, and still is :).
> Full text at
> http://blog.vivekhaldar.com/post/3339907908/the-cognitive-style-of-unix

This is, or closely related to, the thing that attracted me to Linux in the first place. In the Windows world, you're either a user - which is defined by a very narrow, small set of pointy-clicky skills and not much if any understanding of the mechanisms you use - or you're some sort of a "wizard", which gets defined in all sorts of arcane ways, mostly meaning "knows some stuff beyond what users know." All that "stuff", however, doesn't form any kind of a coherent whole: it was all chunks and bits and pieces, no relation of anything to anything else. The only choices, if you wanted more than the minimum, were 1) specialize - meaning something like learning a certain language or a given application, or 2) gather enough critical mass of random stuff until you formed a gravity well of your own and could pull out some sort of a related useful fact when a problem came along. All very haphazard, and somewhat akin to stumbling around in a dark dungeon until you found some treasure or (far more likely) ran into some kind of a monster.


(It is worth noting that I functioned in that world, professionally, for a number of years, all the way from a wet-behind-the-ears teenage computer repairman to working as CIO for an insurance company. This perspective is not formed by my desire to promote Linux; quite the opposite, if anything - I advocate Linux usage because I have this perspective, which was formed by long experience.)

The Linux world also has a clearly-defined slot for users; you can fire up your Firefox, OpenOffice, etc., and stay within that environment at all times while using your computer - clickety-click, hurrah! However, if you do want to learn just a little more, in whatever direction - AHH, what a difference. Yes, it does require that fixed investment of time and effort... but that's an excellent life strategy anyway: pay the biggest costs up front and then enjoy the results (in a system that actually works, the benefits at that point will generally continue to grow proportionally with the effort that you put in, while the costs continue to diminish until they reach some fixed low level.) Linux follows that model - and it's no surprise that Professor Whatsisname (I'm having trouble getting back to the page - Chrome claims "too many redirects") found it to be effective. I mean, duh. What part of "effective life strategy" did he miss? :)

My point is that once you've paid that "cost" (and it can't really even be considered a pure cost, since you get paid back for having that knowledge, again and again), you're in a situation where the tide is lifting all the boats at the same time: everything you do will provide feedback which results in more learning - *because there are no blind alleys*. Nothing is hidden behind a wall marked "PROPRIETARY", which you can only scale illegally or through crazy contortions that the average human simple can't perform. The world really is wide-open in nearly every direction.

A related aside: I was at a large office supply store today, and happened to glance at the numerous aisles of software while passing them. For just a moment, I would swear that I saw them behind dusty, cobwebbed glass - like a museum full of ancient relics, the way our ancestors used to do stuff in the distant past. Even after that momentary flash, I looked at it for another moment and thought, with a small shock "man, I'd forgotten that people still do this." Seriously, it seemed odd.

And that is the kind of world I like living in.

* Ben Okopnik * Editor-in-Chief, Linux Gazette * http://LinuxGazette.NET *

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