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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

von Neal Stephenson

ISBN: 0380815931

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You may well ask what light cyberpunk maestro Neal Stephenson can shed on the subject of operating systems and interface design. He's better known for his novels: Snow Crash, a dystopian not-too-distant future of avatars, linguistic software viruses and rent-a-nukes; The Diamond Age in which Victorian values come a cropper of nanotechnology; and Cryptonomicon, his 900 page opus spanning the development of hacking from before Bletchley Park to a contemporary data haven in Southeast Asia, complete with an (imaginary, obviously) gay love scene in the woods outside New Haven involving cryptography pioneer Alan Turing.

No one could read a Stephenson novel and not recognise his frighteningly powerful grasp of social and political history, and of technology that underpins all his stories. Read the liner notes on Snow Crash and you'll realise this is a man who probably considers Apple's Human Interface Guidelines to be soothing bedtime reading.

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line gives Stephenson an opportunity to flex his own non-fictional muscles. Part memoir, part developer's history of operating systems, it trawls through CLIs (command line interfaces) such as MS-DOS to GUIs (graphical user interfaces), the then-as now--revolutionary Macintosh OS, and everything since: Windows 98 (note: purist Stephenson doesn't even consider this an OS), Unix and Linux.

By the end of his enlightening, exhaustive elucidation of these and other TLAs, you too may suffer the subject of one of the book's final chapters: "geek fatigue". Not to worry--if there's one thing of which you can be certain it's that Stephenson never takes himself, or his subject, too seriously, and anything that cites Dilbert cartoons and H. G. Wells as source material has got to be a giant step forward. --Liz Bailey

there's a reason it's only $6
In short, the book is Mr. Stephenson's opinions of operating sytems and the companies/organisms that create and sell them. This seems based on his private experience - very narrow & anecdotal. His treatment of BeOs is so thin I don't really know any more about it than when I started (it's the Batmobile? what does THAT mean?) He lauds the emergence of Linux and asserts that operating systems are "born to be free" as is Linux. That same idea could be applied to books, but I still had to pay $6 to find out what he had to say. Oh, and by the way, I just paid $400.00 to have a qualified Linux jock install Linux as my dsl gateway. I love it...but it's NOT free. He IS right that NT server is overpriced and could be tons more reliable. I think Mr. Stephenson wanted to get a few things off his chest, and he should have done it with a nice essay in Wired. I don't think he should have put it out as a book.

Just for the record, I've read Snowcrash and loved it, Diamond Age and thought that was pretty good but flawed.

While Stephenson isn't as careful a writer as I'd like, he does make many interesting assertions in the course of this essay. The metaphores and similes are mostly well handled, and the writing is straight-forward and non-technical enough for the average non-techie reader to follow. If the book is treated as the flow-of-consciousness essay it appears to be, then the minor flaws can be forgiven, allowing the reader to enjoy the sometimes brilliant writing that went into the work.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about what it means to use a windows/icons/mouse/pointer interface vs. the command line. Every little detail of what he says isn't true, but the overall themes he hits are at least arguably true. And the message of the book - that not only doesn't simpler equal better, it actually makes things worse for anyone but the most casual of users - is demonstrably true.

Definitely worth a read.

Required reading for all computer users
Warning: I am a die-hard Neal Stephenson fan. If this bothers you, don't read further!

That aside, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" should be required reading for anyone who a) regularly uses a personal computer b) has expressed an opinion on the current DOJ vs. Microsoft case. Most computer users are as unfamiliar with why they use Windows (or Macs) as they are with the history of the elevator. The elevator did not significantly change the world; GUI's & PC's have. I know half of you are already yawning, looking for another book to purchase, but wait...this is a really quick read, &, better yet, it's hysterically funny! Yes, folks, you not only get informed, are given some concepts to contemplate, you actually enjoy the process!

Stephenson admits this book is simply an essay, his musings on the 4 main operating systems currently in use (MacOS, Windows, Linux, BeOS) & how they can be viewed in the context of global culture. He gives examples from personal experience, & unlike most techno-geek/hacker types, he doesn't appear to view Bill Gates as the anti-christ (which is probably why some people hate this book). But please, don't let that scare you off. This book is an easy read for those who have never typed a single line of code in their life, while still being thought provoking for even the "Morlocks" (Stephenson's term) of the world.

Let's face it: if you're reading this, you're an Internet user. Thus, you use computers. You need the information in this book. It's only $6. BUY IT!
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