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Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Why I Love Linux

I like the shell, the keyboard interface for getting around, issuing commands, and generally making things happen with a minimum of fuss and hand-waving. Hand-waving -- that's what all this mousing around amounts to. Lots and lots of hand-waving, when really you usually just want to do one simple thing.

So everything's moving more and more toward the mouse -- that puck of an information bottleneck, impedance-matched to your average user's mental bandwidth. Move the little arrow around, click the button. Move the little arrow around some more, click the button. Move the little arrow around still more, click the button. It's basket weaving for the web.

Every time I want to save a file from the web, up pops the damned file dialog -- this 2d box full of fields scattered about which I have to review, peck through, or at best tab between. All the useful features of the shell are missing here, because they would be just too much work for a mere file dialog. So it's move the little arrow around, click the button, delete delete delete delete, type in the correct name, move the little arrow around some more, click the button, and again, and again, until I've navigated to the proper directory, move the little arrow around some more, target that "OK" key. Woo woo! We've saved our file.

And this is on every platform, of course. Mac, PC, and yes, sadly, Linux, as it is becoming more popular, is heading that way too, the weight of the lowest common denominator trying so very hard to drag it down down down.

But it's not gone yet, because you can still open the hood and tinker if you care to. Like what I just did a minute ago that made me think "ah, I love Linux!":

There's a generic pluggin application for Netscape and Mozilla under Linux called Plugger. With about twenty minutes of hacking (mostly just reading docs to learn how the configuration files work), I've cajoled it into doing something its authors probably never thought of: It opens a shell right there in my web browser, brings me to whatever directory I was last in, and gives me a new command "put" that will save the file wherever I specify. And when I hit "back", the shell goes away, and I'm back on a web page. It's rather magical.

So now when I want to save a file, I (sigh) click on the link, and if I'm happy with all the defaults, I just say "put ." (for put the file here). If I want to name it something else, say "foo.pdf", I say "put foo.pdf". If I want to put it somewhere else -- say in my home directory -- I say "put ~". Or, say I have a file with a long name which I'm replacing: "put rump<tab>" (the tab completes the filename to rumplestiltsken.pdf for me). And if I want to do anything with it right then, like email it to someone, or edit it, or copy it, or compress it, or whatever, I'm right there, in a shell, and I just have to type a few more keystrokes and it's done -- at sixty words a minute. And my hands never have to leave the keyboard -- no hopping back and forth between the mouse and keyboard constantly.

Imagine if spoken language were punctuated by removing your tongue from your mouth and patting people on the head with it. Think how long it would take to finish a paragraph if you have to do that two or three times every sentence. That's your modern mouse-based user interface. Who thinks of these things? Geeze.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com