Amy Alexander on Thu, 25 May 2000 16:02:40 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> OFSS01: First Orbiten Free Software Survey (fwd)

On Wed, 24 May 2000, Benjamin Geer wrote:
> I'm not sure that it will ever be possible to maintain a Unix system
> without a system administrator.  Microsoft tried to do that with

yes, i wonder about this myself all the time. i really don't the
answer. and what defines a "systems administrator?" i have a
couple of former students who knew some but not a ton of unix, and
successfully installed and use linux on their home systems, learning as
they went along.  on the other
hand, i believe they are running a somewhat limited assortment of
applications and services. at what point do they become "systems

i do think it's become easy enough now that most people can handle getting
a default configuration installed (neither of my former students seemed to
have had an inordinately difficult time with the install process.)  to the
extent that the default install gives you certain things that work out of
the box (web and mail servers, e.g.), people can work with that - provided
that they don't need to change/fix anything. (e.g., in my recent mandrake
installation, the default installed ftp server would not work for some
reason - so i just installed a different one. wouldn't work for a newbie,
because you have to know about things like inetd ... ) also, the students
i know who have done this are computer literate and interested in
learning more about computers... i think overcoming one's technophobia is
a good prerequisite. 

but, with all the sales/PR hype about "moving linux into the
mainstream" and "linux for the desktop", it will be interesting to see how
realistic this idea does or does not become... and whether the PR hype
will actually alleviate the technophobia and convince some people to try
it who might not otherwise have done so. i've noticed in the past year
that my students in general have become a lot more curious about
linux, at least thinking about whether they want to try it. a year ago
everyone had heard of it but nobody was interested.

> You could make a GUI that would let people configure, say, cron jobs,
> which don't take much technical knowledge to understand.  (Even
> Windows 95 has a `task scheduler'.)  However, there are quite a few
> daemons that you need to have sysadmin knowledge to work with,
> e.g. ssh, kerberos or identd.
right, but then, one has to ask how severe are the security implications
of running without those for an independent (of course, that varies). if
they don't run their system at all, they are effectively their own DOS
attack. plus, most currently are connecting to the net with win98, so...
(we could start a whole
thread here on the security implications for newbies, but i have to bow
off the list for awhile, so... :-) )  plus, you might be
surprised. a few weeks ago i watched someone who was newly administering 
his linux system download and install an sshd RPM based on about 2 lines
of instructions in an e-mail from a friend. he didn't do any of the
advanced configuration stuff with the keys, but he was in business for
encrypted password authentication in about 5 minutes flat. so, it's a
mixed bag. KOffice can be hard; sshd can be easy. :-)

> Wouldn't it be better just to have lots of freelance sysadmins who
> made house calls?
great idea! i could use the money... :-)

btw, there are such people for windows also. screw up that registry, and
you're in deep trouble, as you point out. MacOS is the one system i've
seen that can be adminned by just about anyone, but it's got its own set
of problems.

> On a more basic level, if you wanted Unix to be usable by people who
> know nothing about computers and don't want to learn, you'd have to
> get rid of the command line.  While this is perhaps possible, Unix
> without the shell just wouldn't be Unix.  What people like about Unix,
> when they get used to it, is having a lot of small, general-purpose
> tools, which they can combine in ways that the operating system's
> designers never anticipated.  If you wrap everything in a GUI, you
> lose that.
it might be a mixed bag. KDE does a pretty good job of hiding your shells
from you <g>. or how about MacOS X? i'm really interested to see how this
one works out. the shell is "there if you need it," but apple really
doesn't want the average user to worry about it. and, in this case, it's
inevitable - there won't just be a contingency of self-selecting
tech-savvy users trying it out, as with Linux, et al.. this one is coming
soon to the desktops of many of the least tech-savvy users, 
BSD-under-the-hood and all...

> If you dumbed down Unix so that it conformed to the expectations of
> today's average user, you'd just have a more stable Microsoft Windows
> or MacOS, and I think that would be a shame.  It seems to me that the

interested to hear what you think of the "shells if you need 'em" approach
of KDE/Gnome and especially MacOS X.

> average user would benefit much more from learning to use Unix as it
> is, starting with a shell and a bit of scripting.  I used to work in

yes, but due to my job working with art students and faculty who ask me
the same question constantly, i am obliged to put on my devil's advocate
hat here and ask what they ask me:
"*why* do we/they need to know this? what does this have to do with the
art we're making?" or its variant, "why do they need to spend so much time
learning technical things - it takes time away from their
artmaking. windows takes less of their time away from artmaking than unix
does, because it's easier for them. why should they learn any command
line things at all? they're artists - not programmers! can't you just
write GUI programs for them to do what they need to do?"

(though i probably won't have much time for the list for awhile, i'd be
very interested to hear how you and others would respond to these

unfortunately (or fortunately <g>) i don't have time to go into some of my
own answers here, which vary depending on the situation and context, but i
think this is the crux of the geek/non-geek disagreements. the geeks see
the non-geeks as passive and lazy for not wanting to dig in more with
their computers, while the non-geeks see the geeks as eggheads
who expect everyone to waste their time fiddling with their computers
instead of getting their work done, just because the geeks enjoy
fiddling. the reality, i think, is somewhere in between, and the balance i
think comes when the point can be found where the user learns enough
things to be able to have some control over his or her system and work,
but doesn't need to spend so much time working with/learning the
system/software configurations that it interferes with actually getting
work done. 

my concern is that the current schism could have the effect of keeping
systems which are best-suited to content *distribution*, not just
consumption, in the hands of only geeks and the people who can afford
to hire us (i.e. mostly companies.) 

> an investment bank, and every trader I knew was using highly
> specialised custom Excel spreadsheets with complicated custom macros.
> None of them had any training as programmers, but they were
> programming, although they probably didn't think of it that way.
excellent point. my 3D animation students learn all sorts of complicated
things about topics like nurbs weighting, yet many are intimidated by 
simple unix commands. i think it's more conditioning than anything.

> Programmers usually prefer to use applications whose behaviour they
> can control using scripts.  Nowadays, scripting languages such as
> Python are so easy to learn, that there's little reason why people
> with no programming experience couldn't use them.  If this were
> encouraged, could it not be a way of empowering the end user, and
> narrowing the divide between end-user and end-programmer?
agreed. though i had a bit of formal sysadmin training, my programming
background is more self-taught than not. i'd had a few programming classes
in school, but they bored the hell out of me and seemed very tedious and
nerdy (programming bubble sorts in fortran on punch cards didn't seem to
be winning over a lot of other artists, either ;-) ). i really started
getting interested in programming when i started
working with lingo - you're doing interesting things in no time, and the
language is so simple you can concentrate on learning programming concepts
and structures without falling all over syntax errors. then when you move
on to something more substantial, you're not so overwhelmed, and you've
got the basic structures under your belt already. 

interestingly, i was having a similar discussion with someone in another
e-mail today, and he mailed me this url:
the "Computer Programming for Everybody" essay by the author of
python, Guido van Rossum. (not surprisingly, he advocates teaching people
in python too.) 

but then, didn't Grace Hopper argue 50 years ago that computer languages
should be like human languages so more people could learn them?

-amy, probably offlist for awhile.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: