Unix: An Oral History

From ‘s “Unix: An Oral History” (: ):


Gordon M. Brown

[Multics] was designed to include fault-free continuous operation capabilities, convenient remote terminal access and selective information sharing. One of the most important features of Multics was to follow the trend towards integrated multi-tasking and permit multiple programming environments and different human interfaces under one operating system.

Moreover, two key concepts had been picked up on in the development of Multics that would later serve to define Unix. These were that the less important features of the system introduced more complexity and, conversely, that the most important property of algorithms was simplicity. Ritchie explained this to Mahoney, articulating that:

The relationship of Multics to [the development of Unix] is actually interesting and fairly complicated. There were a lot of cultural things that were sort of taken over wholesale. And these include important things, [such as] the hierarchical file system and tree-structure file system – which incidentally did not get into the first version of Unix on the PDP-7. This is an example of why the whole thing is complicated. But any rate, things like the hierarchical file system, choices of simple things like the characters you use to edit lines as you’re typing, erasing characters were the same as those we had. I guess the most important fundamental thing is just the notion that the basic style of interaction with the machine, the fact that there was the notion of a command line, the notion was an explicit shell program. In fact the name shell came from Multics. A lot of extremely important things were completely internalized, and of course this is the way it is. A lot of that came through from Multics.

The Beginning

Michael Errecart and Cameron Jones

Files to Share

The Unix file system was based almost entirely on the file system for the failed Multics project. The idea was for file sharing to take place with explicitly separated file systems for each user, so that there would be no locking of file tables.

A major part of the answer to this question is that the file system had to be open. The needs of the group dictated that every user had access to every other user’s files, so the Unix system had to be extremely open. This openness is even seen in the password storage, which is not hidden at all but is encrypted. Any user can see all the encrypted passwords, but can only test one solution per second, which makes it extremely time consuming to try to break into the system.

The idea of standard input and output for devices eventually found its way into Unix as pipes. Pipes enabled users and programmers to send one function’s output into another function by simply placing a vertical line, a ‘|’ between the two functions. Piping is one of the most distinct features of Unix …

Language from B to C

… Thompson was intent on having Unix be portable, and the creation of a portable language was intrinsic to this. …

Finding a Machine

Darice Wong & Jake Knerr

… Thompson devoted a month apiece to the shell, editor, assembler, and other software tools. …

Use of Unix started in the patent office of Bell Labs, but by 1972 there were a number of non-research organizations at Bell Labs that were beginning to use Unix for software development. Morgan recalls the importance of text processing in the establishment of Unix. …

Building Unix

Jason Aughenbaugh, Jonathan Jessup, & Nicholas Spicher

The Origin of Pipes

The first edition of Thompson and Ritchie’s The Unix Programmer’s Manual was dated November 3, 1971; however, the idea of pipes is not mentioned until the Version 3 Unix manual, published in February 1973. …

Software Tools

grep was, in fact, one of the first programs that could be classified as a software tool. Thompson designed it at the request of McIlroy, as McIlroy explains:

One afternoon I asked Ken Thompson if he could lift the regular expression recognizer out of the editor and make a one-pass program to do it. He said yes. The next morning I found a note in my mail announcing a program named grep. It worked like a charm. When asked what that funny name meant, Ken said it was obvious. It stood for the editor command that it simulated, g/re/p (global regular expression print)….From that special-purpose beginning, grep soon became a household word. (Something I had to stop myself from writing in the first paragraph above shows how firmly naturalized the idea now is: ‘I used ed to grep out words from the dictionary.’) More than any other single program, grep focused the viewpoint that Kernighan and Plauger christened and formalized in Software Tools: make programs that do one thing and do it well, with as few preconceptions about input syntax as possible.

eqn and grep are illustrative of the Unix toolbox philosophy that McIlroy phrases as, “Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.” This philosophy was enshrined in Kernighan and Plauger’s 1976 book, Software Tools, and reiterated in the “Foreword” to the issue of The Bell Systems Technical Journal that also introduced pipes.


Robert Murray-Rust & Malika Seth

McIlroy says,

This is the Unix philosophy. Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams because, that is a universal interface.

The dissemination of Unix, with a focus on what went on within Bell Labs

Steve Chen

In 1973, the first Unix applications were installed on a system involved in updating directory information and intercepting calls to numbers that had been changed. This was the first time Unix had been used in supporting an actual, ongoing operating business. Soon, Unix was being used to automate the operations systems at Bell Laboratories. It was automating the monitoring, involved in measurement, and helping to rout calls and ensure the quality of the calls.

There were numerous reasons for the friendliness the academic society, especially the academic Computer Science community, showed towards Unix. John Stoneback relates a few of these:

Unix came into many CS departments largely because it was the only powerful interactive system that could run on the sort of hardware (PDP-11s) that universities could afford in the mid ’70s. In addition, Unix itself was also very inexpensive. Since source code was provided, it was a system that could be shaped to the requirements of a particular installation. It was written in a language considerably more attractive than assembly, and it was small enough to be studied and understood by individuals. (John Stoneback, “The Collegiate Community,” Unix Review, October 1985, p. 27.)

The key features and characteristics of Unix that held it above other operating systems at the time were its software tools, its portability, its flexibility, and the fact that it was simple, compact, and efficient. The development of Unix in Bell Labs was carried on under a set of principles that the researchers had developed to guide their work. These principles included:

(i) Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new features.

(ii) Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don’t clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don’t insist on interactive input.

(iii) Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don’t hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.

(iv) Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you’ve finished using them.”

(M.D. McIlroy, E.N. Pinson, and B.A. Tague “Unix Time-Sharing System Forward,” The Bell System Technical Journal, July-Aug 1088 vol 57, number 6 part 2. P. 1902)

The widespread corruption at the heart of Greek culture

From Michael Lewis’s “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds” (Vanity Fair: 1 October 2010):

In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.

A handful of the tax collectors, however, were outraged by the systematic corruption of their business; it further emerged that two of them were willing to meet with me. The problem was that, for reasons neither wished to discuss, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. This, I’d be told many times by other Greeks, was very Greek.

Tax Collector No. 1—early 60s, business suit, tightly wound but not obviously nervous—arrived with a notebook filled with ideas for fixing the Greek tax-collection agency. He just took it for granted that I knew that the only Greeks who paid their taxes were the ones who could not avoid doing so—the salaried employees of corporations, who had their taxes withheld from their paychecks. The vast economy of self-employed workers—everyone from doctors to the guys who ran the kiosks that sold the International Herald Tribune—cheated (one big reason why Greece has the highest percentage of self-employed workers of any European country). “It’s become a cultural trait,” he said. “The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes. And they never did because no one is punished. No one has ever been punished. It’s a cavalier offense—like a gentleman not opening a door for a lady.”

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases. “The one who does not want to pay, and who gets caught, just goes to court,” he says. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the activity in the Greek economy that might be subject to the income tax goes officially unrecorded, he says, compared with an average of about 18 percent in the rest of Europe.

The easiest way to cheat on one’s taxes was to insist on being paid in cash, and fail to provide a receipt for services. The easiest way to launder cash was to buy real estate. Conveniently for the black market—and alone among European countries—Greece has no working national land registry. “You have to know where the guy bought the land—the address—to trace it back to him,” says the collector. “And even then it’s all handwritten and hard to decipher.”

On he went, describing a system that was, in its way, a thing of beauty. It mimicked the tax-collecting systems of an advanced economy—and employed a huge number of tax collectors—while it was in fact rigged to enable an entire society to cheat on their taxes.

Tax Collector No. 2—casual in manner and dress, beer-drinking, but terrified that others might discover he had spoken to me—also arrived with a binder full of papers, only his was stuffed with real-world examples not of Greek people but Greek companies that had cheated on their taxes. He then started to rattle off examples (“only the ones I personally witnessed”). The first was an Athenian construction company that had built seven giant apartment buildings and sold off nearly 1,000 condominiums in the heart of the city. Its corporate tax bill honestly computed came to 15 million euros, but the company had paid nothing at all. Zero. To evade taxes it had done several things. First, it never declared itself a corporation; second, it employed one of the dozens of companies that do nothing but create fraudulent receipts for expenses never incurred and then, when the tax collector stumbled upon the situation, offered him a bribe. The tax collector blew the whistle and referred the case to his bosses—whereupon he found himself being tailed by a private investigator, and his phones tapped. In the end the case was resolved, with the construction company paying 2,000 euros. “After that I was taken off all tax investigations,” said the tax collector, “because I was good at it.”

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

The Vatopaidi monastery, along with 19 others, was built in the 10th century on a 37-mile-long-by-6-mile-wide peninsula in northeast Greece, called Mount Athos. Mount Athos now is severed from the mainland by a long fence, and so the only way onto it is by boat, which gives the peninsula the flavor of an island. And on this island no women are allowed—no female animals of any kind, in fact, except for cats. The official history ascribes the ban to the desire of the church to honor the Virgin; the unofficial one to the problem of monks hitting on female visitors. The ban has stood for 1,000 years.

The ferry chugs for three hours along a rocky, wooded, but otherwise barren coastline, stopping along the way to drop monks and pilgrims and guest workers at other monasteries. The sight of the first one just takes my breath away. It’s not a building but a spectacle: it’s as if someone had taken Assisi or Todi or one of the other old central-Italian hill towns and plopped it down on the beach, in the middle of nowhere. Unless you know what to expect on Mount Athos—it has been regarded by the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than a millennium as the holiest place on earth, and it enjoyed for much of that time a symbiotic relationship with Byzantine emperors—these places come as a shock. There’s nothing modest about them; they are grand and complicated and ornate and obviously in some sort of competition with one another. In the old days, pirates routinely plundered them, and you can see why: it would be almost shameful not to, for a pirate.

Otherwise the experience was sensational, to be recommended to anyone looking for a taste of 10th-century life. Beneath titanic polished golden chandeliers, and surrounded by freshly cleaned icons, the monks sang; the monks chanted; the monks vanished behind screens to utter strange incantations; the monks shook what sounded like sleigh bells; the monks floated by waving thuribles, leaving in their wake smoke and the ancient odor of incense. Every word that was said and sung and chanted was Biblical Greek (it seemed to have something to do with Jesus Christ), but I nodded right along anyway. I stood when they stood, and sat when they sat: up and down we went like pogos, for hours. The effect of the whole thing was heightened by the monks’ magnificently wild beards. Even when left to nature, beards do not all grow in the same way. There are types: the hopelessly porous mass of fuzz; the Osama bin Laden/Assyrian-king trowel; the Karl Marx bird’s nest. A surprising number of the monks resembled the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercial. (“His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”)

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 percent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans either.

But this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change. I am told 50 times if I am told once that what Greeks care about is “justice” and what really boils the Greek blood is the feeling of unfairness. Obviously this distinguishes them from no human being on the planet, and ignores what’s interesting: exactly what a Greek finds unfair. It’s clearly not the corruption of their political system. It’s not cheating on their taxes, or taking small bribes in their service to the state. No: what bothers them is when some outside party—someone clearly different from themselves, with motives apart from narrow and easily understood self-interest—comes in and exploits the corruption of their system.

HDTV’s widely adopted by American households

From Alex Mindlin’s “Room to Grow as Homes Add HD TVs” (The New York Times: 21 November 2010):

High-definition televisions have entered American homes with startling speed; 56 percent of households now have at least some HD channels and an HD set, according to Nielsen. Among consumer technologies, that speed of adoption is rivaled only by the VCR.

But the average television viewer is still unlikely to watch television in high definition. One reason is that people watch some standard channels on their HD sets. But a more important reason for the low HD viewing rate is that most homes have several televisions, of which the HD set is only one.

“What we’re seeing,” [Pat McDonough, a senior television analyst at Nielsen] said, “is that people want a second high-definition set pretty quickly, once they get used to watching it.”

Indeed, in households with a single HD set, family members diverge from normal American viewing patterns; rather than migrating to their rooms at night to watch TV on separate sets, they cluster in the living room around the HD set.

Shelby Foote on how the Civil War changed the gender of the teaching profession

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

About the time that war started I think roughly eighty-five or ninety percent of the teachers in this country were men. After the war was over something like eighty-five to ninety percent of teachers were women.

My favorite iPhone apps

Someone on a mailing list asked for a list of our favorite iPhone apps. Here’s what I said:

Reeder is the best RSS reader (tied to Google Reader, natch), bar none.

Articles presents Wikipedia beautifully.

Dropbox is an essential for the reasons Martin gave.

Echofon is a great Twitter app, especially since it syncs with its Mac desktop app.

Pano takes panoramic pix, ColorSplash allows you to make pix B&W & then selectively colorize them, & Camera+ has all sorts of goodies.

Rowmote Pro lets me control my Mac mini connected to my TV remotely.

Simplenote is a great note app that syncs with its website & JustNotes on my Mac.

1Password keeps passwords, account info, serial #’s, & sensitive notes encrypted & synced with the Mac version of the app using Dropbox.

Nightstand is a gorgeous alarm clock & more. makes it too easy for me to spend $$$.

PhoneFlicks manages my Netflix queue.

And finally, even though it’s only been out for a day or two, Rage 3D is a killer shooter that looks freakin’ gorgeous.

Don DeLillo on how film has changed our society completely

From Adam Begley’s interview of Don DeLillo in “The Art of Fiction No. 135” (The Paris Review: Fall 1993, No. 128):

Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed.

John Steinbeck on how Europe & America view poverty

From Nathaniel Benchley’s interview of John Steinbeck in “The Art of Fiction No. 45” (The Paris Review: Fall 1969, No. 48):

I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic twenties and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.

You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful.”

Evaluating software features

When developing software, it’s important to rank your features, as you can’t do everything, & not everything is worth doing. One way to rank features is to categorize them in order of importance using the following three categories:

  1. Required/Essential/Necessary: Mission critical features that must be present
  2. Preferred/Conditional: Important features & enhancements that bring better experience & easier management, but can wait until later release if necessary
  3. Optional/Nice To Have: If resources permit, sure, but otherwise…

Of course, you should also group your features based upon the kinds of features they are. Here’s a suggestion for those groups:

  • User experience
  • Management
  • Security

Dan Ariely on irrational decision making

From Dan Ariely’s “Dan Ariely asks, Are we in control of our own decisions?” (TED: 24 June 2009):

I’ll give you a couple of more examples on irrational decision making. Imagine I give you a choice. Do you want to go for a weekend to Rome? All expenses paid, hotel, transportation, food, breakfast, a continental breakfast, everything. Or a weekend in Paris? Now, a weekend in Paris, a weekend in Rome, these are different things. They have different food, different culture, different art. Now imagine I added a choice to the set that nobody wanted. Imagine I said, “A weekend in Rome, a weekend in Paris, or having your car stolen?” It’s a funny idea. Because why would having your car stolen, in this set, influence anything? But what if the option to have your car stolen was not exactly like this. What if it was a trip to Rome, all expenses paid, transportation, breakfast. But doesn’t include coffee in the morning. If you want coffee you have to pay for it yourself. It’s two euros 50. Now in some ways, given that you can have Rome with coffee, why would you possibly want Rome without coffee? It’s like having your car stolen. It’s an inferior option. But guess what happened. The moment you add Rome without coffee, Rome with coffee becomes more popular. And people choose it. The fact that you have Rome without coffee makes Rome with coffee look superior. And not just to Rome without coffee, even superior to Paris.

Here are two examples of this principle. This was an ad from The Economist a few years ago that gave us three choices. An online subscription for 59 dollars. A print subscription for 125. Or you could get both for 125. Now I looked at this and I called up The Economist. And I tried to figure out what were they thinking. And they passed me from one person to another to another. Until eventually I got to a person who was in charge of the website. And I called them up. And they went to check what was going on. The next thing I know, the ad is gone. And no explanation.

So I decided to do the experiment that I would have loved The Economist to do with me. I took this and I gave it to 100 MIT students. I said, “What would you choose?” These are the market share. Most people wanted the combo deal. Thankfully nobody wanted the dominated option. That means our students can read. But now if you have an option that nobody wants you can take it off. Right? So I printed another version of this. Where I eliminated the middle option. I gave it to another 100 students. Here is what happens. Now the most popular option became the least popular. And the least popular became the most popular.

What was happening was the option that was useless, in the middle, was useless in the sense that nobody wanted it. But it wasn’t useless in the sense that it helped people figure out what they wanted. In fact, relative to the option in the middle, which was get only the print for 125, the print and web for 125 looked like a fantastic deal. And as a consequence, people chose it. The general idea here, by the way, is that we actually don’t know our preferences that well. And because we don’t know our preferences that well we’re susceptible to all of these influences from the external forces. The defaults, the particular options that are presented to us. And so on.

One more example of this. People believe that when we deal with physical attraction, we see somebody, and we know immediately whether we like them or not. Attracted or not. Which is why we have these four-minute dates. So I decided to do this experiment with people. I’ll show you graphic images of people — not real people. The experiment was with people. I showed some people a picture of Tom, and a picture of Jerry. I said “Who do you want to date? Tom or Jerry?” But for half the people I added an ugly version of Jerry. I took Photoshop and I made Jerry slightly less attractive. (Laughter) The other people, I added an ugly version of Tom. And the question was, will ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their respective, more attractive brothers? The answer was absolutely yes. When ugly Jerry was around, Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular.

A vote for CrossOver

Let me recommend Codeweavers’ CrossOver, a commercial implementation of WINE that works on Linux & Mac OS X. It’s reasonably priced, & it makes setting up & configuring both WINE and the programs that run inside WINE much easier. Plus, the company is made up of good people, & they’re very upfront on their site about what works with WINE, what mostly works, what kinda works, & what doesn’t work at all.

How the Madden NFL videogame was developed

From Patrick Hruby’s “The Franchise: The inside story of how Madden NFL became a video game dynasty” (ESPN: 22 July 2010):


Harvard grad and former Apple employee Trip Hawkins founds video game maker Electronic Arts, in part to create a football game; one year later, the company releases “One-on-One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird,” the first game to feature licensed sports celebrities. Art imitates life.


Hawkins approaches former Oakland Raiders coach and NFL television analyst John Madden to endorse a football game. Madden agrees, but insists on realistic game play with 22 on-screen players, a daunting technical challenge.


EA releases the first Madden football game for the Apple II home computer; a subsequent Sega Genesis home console port blends the Apple II game’s realism with control pad-heavy, arcade-style action, becoming a smash hit.


You can measure the impact of “Madden” through its sales: as many as 2 million copies in a single week, 85 million copies since the game’s inception and more than $3 billion in total revenue. You can chart the game’s ascent, shoulder to shoulder, alongside the $20 billion-a-year video game industry, which is either co-opting Hollywood (see “Tomb Raider” and “Prince of Persia”) or topping it (opening-week gross of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”: $550 million; “The Dark Knight”: $204 million).

Some of the pain was financial. Just as EA brought its first games to market in 1983, the home video game industry imploded. In a two-year span, Coleco abandoned the business, Intellivision went from 1,200 employees to five and Atari infamously dumped thousands of unsold game cartridges into a New Mexico landfill. Toy retailers bailed, concluding that video games were a Cabbage Patch-style fad. Even at EA — a hot home computer startup — continued solvency was hardly assured.

In 1988, “John Madden Football” was released for the Apple II computer and became a modest commercial success.

THE STAKES WERE HIGH for a pair of upstart game makers, with a career-making opportunity and a $100,000 development contract on the line. In early 1990, Troy Lyndon and Mike Knox of San Diego-based Park Place Productions met with Hawkins to discuss building a “Madden” game for Sega’s upcoming home video game console, the Genesis. …

Because the game that made “Madden” a phenomenon wasn’t the initial Apple II release, it was the Genesis follow-up, a surprise smash spawned by an entirely different mindset. Hawkins wanted “Madden” to play out like the NFL. Equivalent stats. Similar play charts. Real football.

In 1990, EA had a market cap of about $60 million; three years later, that number swelled to $2 billion.

In 2004, EA paid the NFL a reported $300 million-plus for five years of exclusive rights to teams and players. The deal was later extended to 2013. Just like that, competing games went kaput. The franchise stands alone, triumphant, increasingly encumbered by its outsize success.

Hawkins left EA in the early 1990s to spearhead 3D0, an ill-fated console maker that became a doomed software house. An icy rift between the company and its founder ensued.

A summary of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society

From a summary of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (Abridge Me: 1 June 2010):

The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom

The paradigms on which society’s perception of reality are based are highly conservative. People invest heavily in these ideas, and so are heavily resistant to changing them. They are only finally overturned by new ideas when new events occur which make the conventional wisdom appear so absurd as to be impalpable. Then the conventional wisdom quietly dies with its most staunch proponents, to be replaced with a new conventional wisdom. …

Economic Security

… Economics professors argue that the threat of unemployment is necessary to maintain incentives to high productivity, and simultaneously that established professors require life tenure in order to do their best work. …

The Paramount Position of Production

… Another irrationality persists (more in America than elsewhere?): the prestigious usefulness of private-sector output, compared to the burdensome annoyance of public expenditure. Somehow public expenditure can never quite be viewed as a productive and enriching element of national output; it is forever something to be avoided, at best a necessary encumbrance. Cars are important, roads are not. An expansion in telephone services improves the general well-being, cuts in postal services are a necessary economy. Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses boast our standard of living, street cleaners are an unfortunate expense. Thus we end up with clean houses and filthy streets. …

[W]e have wants at the margin only so far as they are synthesised. We do not manufacture wants for goods we do not produce. …

The Dependence Effect

… Modern consumer demand, at the margin, does not originate from within the individual, but is a consequence of production. It has two origins:

  1. Emulation: the desire to keep abreast of, or ahead of one’s peer group — demand originating from this motivation is created indirectly by production. Every effort to increase production to satiate want brings with it a general raising of the level of consumption, which itself increases want.
  2. Advertising: the direct influence of advertising and salesmanship create new wants which the consumer did not previously possess. Any student of business has by now come to view marketing as fundamental a business activity as production. Any want that can be significantly moulded by advertising cannot possibly have been strongly felt in the absence of that advertising — advertising is powerless to persuade a man that he is or is not hungry.


… In 1942 a grateful and very anxious citizenry rewarded its soldiers, sailors, and airmen with a substantial increase in pay. In the teeming city of Honolulu, in prompt response to this advance in wage income, the prostitutes raised the prices of their services. This was at a time when, if anything, increased volume was causing a reduction in their average unit costs. However, in this instance the high military authorities, deeply angered by what they deemed improper, immoral, and indecent profiteering, ordered a return to the previous scale. …

The Theory of Social Balance

The final problem of the affluent society is the balance of goods it produces. Private goods: TVs, cars, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol are overproduced; public goods: education, healthcare, police services, park provision, mass transport and refuse disposal are underproduced. The consequences are extremely severe for the wellbeing of society. The balance between private and public consumption will be referred to as ‘the social balance’. The main reason for this imbalance is relatively straightforward. The forces we have identified which increase consumer demand as production rises (advertising and emulation) act almost entirely on the private sector. …

It is arguable that emulation acts on public services to an extent: a new school in one district may encourage neighbouring districts to ‘keep up’, but the effect is relatively miniscule.

Thus, private demand is artificially inflated and public demand is not, and the voter-consumer decides how to split his income between the two at the ballot box: inevitably public expenditure is grossly underrepresented. …

Errol Morris on “investigative journalism”

From Errol Morris’s “Film Legend Errol Morris Salutes New Graduates At 2010 Commencement” (Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism: 10 May 2010):

I have often wondered why we need the phrase investigative journalism. Isn’t all journalism supposed to be investigative? Isn’t journalism without an investigative element little more than gossip? And isn’t there enough gossip around already?

Microsoft’s real customers

From James Fallow’s “Inside the Leviathan: A short and stimulating brush with Microsoft’s corporate culture” (The Atlantic: February 2000):

Financial analysts have long recognized that Microsoft’s profit really comes from two sources. One is operating systems (Windows, in all its varieties), and the other is the Office suite of programs. Everything else — Flight Simulator, Slate, MSNBC, mice and keyboards — is financially meaningless. What these two big categories have in common is that individuals are not the significant customers. Operating systems are sold mainly to computer companies such as Dell and Compaq, which pass them pre-loaded to individual consumers. And the main paying customers for Office are big corporations (or what the high-tech world calls LORGs, for “large-size organizations”), which may buy thousands of “seats” for their employees at hundreds of dollars apiece. Product planning, therefore, is focused with admirable clarity on those whose decisions really matter to Microsoft — the information-technology manager at Chevron or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example — rather than some writer with an idea about how to make his colleagues happier with a program.

Luther & Poe both complained about too many books

From Clay Shirky’s “Does The Internet Make You Smarter?” (The Wall Street Journal: 5 June 2010):

In the history of print … complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

The dangers of loyalty based on personality, not policies

This quotation is directly about politics, but it’s about anyone – or even anything – we emotionally attach ourselves to.

From Glenn Greenwald’s “My friend the president” (Salon: 8 December 2009):

Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies. But for those looking for some emotional attachment to a leader, rather than policies they believe are right, personality attachments are far more important. They’re also far more potent. Loyalty grounded in admiration for character will inspire support regardless of policy, and will produce and sustain the fantasy that this is not a mere politician, but a person of deep importance to one’s life who — like a loved one or close friend or religious leader — must be protected and defended at all costs.

Lovely – Microsoft will let companies create ad-filled desktop themes

From Jeff Bertolucci’s “Windows 7 Ads: Microsoft Tarts Up the Desktop” (PC World: 13 November 2009):

Microsoft has announced plans to peddle Windows 7 desktop space to advertisers, who’ll create Windows UI themes–customized backgrounds, audio clips, and other elements–that highlight their brand, Computerworld reports. In fact, some advertiser themes are already available in the Windows 7 Personalization Gallery, including desktop pitches for soft drinks (Coca-Cola, Pepsi), autos (Ducati, Ferrari, Infiniti), and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters (Avatar).

The advertiser themes are different, however, in that they won’t be foisted on unsuspecting users. Rather, you’ll have to download and install the ad pitch yourself. As a result, I doubt many Windows 7 users will gripe about ad themes. Hey, if you’re a Preparation H fan, why not devote the desktop to your favorite ointment?

Linux Phrasebook in Russian

My book, Linux Phrasebook, which is still selling well & still just as useful today as when it came out in 2006 (& will be for another decade or two, given how consistent the Linux command line is), has been translated into Russian. You can find it at this Russian website, where I found out that it’s translated title is Linux Карманный справочник, which looks pretty cool. The other cool thing I found out from going to the page is how to display my name in Russian: Скотт Граннеман.

SMS gateways you can use to get around high texting charges

Tired of high SMS charges? Use these SMS gateways, which translate emails & IMs into SMS text messages … for free (well, to the sender, anyway – the recipient still has to pay). And when recipients reply, those replies come back to the sender in the same format; in other words, you email someone, they receive a text, they reply, & you get it back as an email.

One more caveat: you obviously have to know which carrier people are using in order to send them a text message, so ask.





AIM: +1phone#

The information here came from “The Great Text Rip-Off”, originally printed in the June 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.

David Foster Wallace on what’s wrong with memoirs, celebrity profiles, & academic writing

From Dwight Garner’s “We Are In a State of Three-Alarm Emergency” (The New York Times Paper Cuts Blog: 11 September 2007):

In his brooding and kaleidoscopic introduction to the new “Best American Essays 2007” – a 5,000-word chunk of it is online – David Foster Wallace doesn’t write so much as shred (in the Jerry Garcian manner) about the idea of compiling collections like this one.

He explains, for example, why he tended to exclude:

A) Memoirs: “The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to themselves.”

B) Celebrity profiles: “Some sort of personal quota was exceeded at around age 35. I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities.”

C) Academic writing: “As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious.”