Love and UNIX: An Undying Affection

By Allen Noren
February 13, 2009 | Comments: 8

Way back in the last century, in 1999 to be exact, we had the good fortune of publishing several articles by Thomas Scoville. One of his most popular, and certainly the most timeless, is the following song to UNIX. It used to be a Valentines tradition for us, but for various reasons it lay neglected for several years in a little visited directory on one of our servers. But it's time we dusted it off again, and shared it with the world. Enjoy, and Happy Valentines Day.

Love, as a rule, doesn't figure prominently in discussions about computing. Perhaps this is for the best; computer virtuosi are not generally renowned for their grands amours, and it's probably better for all concerned not to call attention to this.

But at the risk of alienating all my other significant relationships, I'm compelled to proclaim that other love that dare not speak its name: I love my operating system. And even though linear-thinking, arch-rational computer adepts like myself are seldom compelled to such attachments, when love blooms on the desktop, the object of affection is very often UNIX.

I've seldom heard such bold proclamations of love for Windows NT. Certainly there are plenty of other strong emotions within its orbit: There is awe -- for the strategic positioning and sublimely ruthless marketing tactics supporting its proliferation. There is fear -- that it might subjugate the world in desktop tyranny. There is plenty of subjugated, groveling admiration of Bill Gates and his company's share price. But no love; Microsoft creations do not touch the heart.

I've been around the block. I'm not proud of it, but I must admit to having embraced a good number of OSs over the years. I've been a real libertine -- a slut, even. I've taken my walks on the wild side, from VMS to MVS. I've committed youthful indiscretions with CP/M and TOPS-20 that I've lived to regret. But none could ever measure up to UNIX. I will always carry a torch.

What was it about UNIX that won my heart? Like many great loves, it does not yield to rational analysis. But I do know that UNIX shares a lot in common with anyone else who ever won my undying affection. I'll try to explain:

UNIX is mysterious when you first approach. A little intimidating, too. But despite an unadorned and often plain presentation, the discerning suitor can tell there's lot going on under the surface.

She's complicated, too -- getting to know her takes some effort. She can be a little unforgiving on the command line. And of course, there are the inevitable arguments -- regular expressions, switches, and such -- so you have to choose your words carefully. Eventually you'll realize you're going to need to know a lot about her history before things ever get very far.

But if you show the right level of commitment, you can get close -- much closer than other OSs. When you become a superuser, both you and UNIX will be at your most vulnerable. You'll need a steady hand and an even temper to make it work out. And in many UNIX relationships, you'll even get source code and a compiler; you can ask her to change for you. A relationship doesn't get any closer or more committed than that.

I must confess that when I first met NT, I was dazzled by the flashiness. Lots of color, slick user interfaces, shiny icons inviting me to point-and-click. Relentlessly cheerful. There were no expectations I might have to burden myself with the distractions of typing or thinking much -- I just followed the defaults, flirting with the check-boxes and radio-buttons, clicking the inviting "OK" buttons. Wow. For a first date, things went just great.

But after a while I noticed a certain shallowness -- conversations never went beyond the pop-ups and dialog boxes. When I wanted to deepen the relationship, NT was stand-offish, aloof. Worse, I had the feeling that whatever might be going on under the surface, I would never be allowed to know. Such impediments to intimacy would definitely get in the way of a long-term relationship.

Time confirmed my worst fears: when it came to questions about NT's inner life, she wouldn't tell me anything. She wouldn't make herself vulnerable. And she'd never, ever show me the source code.

I know what you're thinking: this metaphor -- this author -- is deranged. Anyone with a need for this kind of intimacy with a virtual machine could use some serious psychiatric attention. And maybe you're right. UNIX isn't flesh and blood. Maybe I'm just a little too needy.

On the other hand, an operating system is a reflection of the values, personality, and ultimately, the psyche of the designer. And if I'm going to have to settle for a reflection, is it too much to ask it be a nice, warm, sympathetic psyche in the glass? One that will enjoy walks on the beach and dinners by candlelight as much as I do? Is it wrong to want more out of a relationship in which so much of my time is spent? Isn't it okay to want to feel just a little more fulfilled? I have so much to give... Must I throw my love away?


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I understand you perfectly well and I know there's a lot of people who loves and adores UNIX no matter in with shape or flavour it came to us.

If this is a reason for some serious psychiatric attention, we'll get a group discount for sure.

P.S I'm in love with Debian GNU/Linux. My real one and only and maybe today the World'll have a date with Lenny ;)

You can love an OS. But you don't want to looooooooove an OS.

I recently read "The UNIX Haters Handbook" again, which made my day.
A lot has been improved for the average end user since back then.
It might not be perfect and yes there are some idiosyncrasies in the UNIX world, but like democracy it seems to be the best we have.
That comparison might be a stretch since many projects follow the "Benelovent Dictator Model", but there are more often than not different implementations you can freely choose from.

In a way a computer and the OS even more so is a reflection of mental world models. The many models seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts where a special intangible quality emerges in comparison to other OSes. Besides some complexity, its core philosophy is pretty lean, clean and beautiful since the early days and could be adapted to the changes in computing for about thirty years quite easily!

Behind UNIX and Linux stand people who try to shape the digital domain a bit more human in terms of freedom and choice and want to share that. With UNIX there seems to be a good amount of humour involved, too. That shows already its name UNIX MULTICS or sometimes in the manpages. Once in a while you can even find some self irony there or in the source code. Like artists these people are interested in the work of expression itself not primarily in money or the short termed razzle dazzle effects. OK, ok, sometimes there might be a bit of art pour l'art involved ...

With Microsoft or Apple it is nearly impossible for the individual authors to "shine through" therefore their products are very impersonal to me.

There are lots of people out there like you who do computing for the fun or love of it - people round the world who care.
And in the end it should be about people communicating, sharing with people - with or without OSes in between. The less of distractions the better.

The fun goes on.

Am I the only one who finds this just a little creepy ?

What I find a little creepy is that all this time, my operating system has apparently been female.... I feel betrayed! :-)

A clarification-- I am also female. :-)

Unix is kind of like owning a Harley - you'll never understand the love until you actually have the experience.

Very funny article ...hope you have a copy of "Life With UNIX" now pushing 20 years old!

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