The Dangers of Following Directions

I often like to complain about Windows. As a longtime Apple programmer I can't help it. Growing up and growing old with this industry I've just seen too many ripoffs perpetrated by Redmond. I think that corporations get an imprint from their founders, and that imprint, those patterns of working and behaving stay with them for a long time. Many times they persist even after the founders have long since left the scene.

Software gets imprinted too. I guess you could say that any large organized self sustaining entity (like an operating system) tends to move in the directions and follow the patterns it was initially set upon. Sort of a Newton's Law of organized activity, if you will. So after that introduction I'll bet you are waiting for some Wintel bashing. But I'm talking about unix.

One of the things that used to make me smile was when I'd see a product manual for both Windows and the Macintosh and the installation instructions for Windows took up a page or two or more whereas the Macintosh installation amounted to something like: Step one - insert the CD; Step two - double click the icon; Step three - there is no step three. Well if you've been programming the Macintosh lately and find yourself at the command line trying to install some open source (maybe it should be called open sores) you'll notice that pages and pages of installation directions are the norm.

Now as a programmer I'd like to have a job so maybe pages of instructions unintelligible to few ordinary humans isn't such a bad thing. Bringing back the high priesthood of technology is OK if you get to be one of the priests. But the problem with this stuff is that no-one agrees on how to install it. In fact, there are web sites devoted to giving out the instructions missing from the other web site's instructions and there are usually comments from people attached to those instructions explaining the glitches they encountered while trying to follow the instructions. And god help you if you follow the instructions! Because you will find the glitch that isn't mentioned anywhere in any of the myriad notes, errata and alternative instructions available.

You can google all night and scan 485,325 hits but you won't find a thing until you have either given up or found a workaround. After that, you may get lucky and find the answer by studying the source for a week or bumping into someone who has done it all before. Why is it this way? One part of the answer lies with my earlier article complaining about software legos. Another issue is the chaos that results from trying to make the software infinitely configurable. That is why these people can't actually write decent instructions. (There is also the problem of what happens when you take a wrong turn. For more about that read my other article written tonight.) And we end up back at the central theme of my rant. Unix was set into motion by hackers. Smart hackers, but hackers nonetheless. They wanted to solve every possible problem with as few tools as possible. It still continues in the direction and mode set by its creators. So the result is that it is all hacked up. Every rule has an exception and every exception a rule.

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