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Posts Tagged ‘Trivia’

Maybe I’m just an old Unix hack…

Posted by Preston on 2009-12-13

In the land of Dilbert, I’d probably be obligated to wear suspenders and have my socks pulled up past my knees, but ultimately I think I’m becoming an old Unix hack. Why?

  • Not because of my disdain for Windows. (Though that probably helps.)
  • Not because of my passion for Linux. (I have little in that regard.)
  • Not because of my rigid adherence to a particular Unix platform. (Used to be Solaris, now Mac OS X.)
  • Because of my ongoing use of vi.

I’ve been using Mac OS X now since 2005. The date is fairly well fixed in my head simply because it happened about a month after 10.4 (Tiger) was released. It’s also fixed in my head since I’ve never been as productive on a computer as I am on a Mac.

The Mac has changed a lot of my workflows, but the one thing that it hasn’t changed is the absolute automatic way I lunge for vi whenever I need to edit text, source code, etc. Now, I’ll admit I have the absolutely fantastic BBEdit program from Bare Bones Software. I even use it a lot of the time for in-depth coding across a lot of files. I’d certainly recommend anyone doing lots of software development on the Mac outside of Xcode to buy a license.

But it’s never what I open first when I need to edit a file. There’s something so spartan and uncomplicated about vi. (Which incidentally is probably why emacs just never appealed. It was never spartan or uncomplicated – at least in my opinion.)

I know it’s arcane. The idea of a editor mode and a control mode freaks a lot of people out. The use of freaky control commands that make WordStar look like the Paragon of User Interface Design take a lot of getting used to. Yet, whenever I’m in Word, or OpenOffice*, or even BBEdit, I still find myself automatically trying to type in vi search and replace commands. (Hint to any Bare Bones product manager that stumbles across this. Please please, pretty please, can we get a “vi” mode in BBEdit?)

To me, and I know a lot of Mac users out there will probably have a conniption in response to what I’m going to say: vi is a lot like Mac OS X. It’s like a butler. It doesn’t jump up and down and pester you every 5 minutes (like Windows) about what you want to do, or that you’ve got an icon not being used on your desktop, or that a new network was found, or any other garbage like that. It just hangs back, lets you work, and jumps to your assistance when you want it.

Call me an old Unix hack if you want, but I can’t go a day without vi. Being able to do things such as the following:

(esc) :.,$s/^/insert into blah(x) values(‘/

(esc) :.,$s/$/’);/

Is for some reason vitally important to my ability to work productively. Heck, I even use vi in NetWorker, thanks to default editor settings and nsradmin‘s response to the keyword ‘edit’ on Unix platforms.

I think every technical person who works on heterogenous systems should learn vi. It’s pretty much the one interactive editor you can guarantee being available on every Unix system. (Discounting ‘ed’, and disrespecting emacs ;-) ) I can also guarantee that anyone who has used vi for more than 5 minutes and successfully saved a document can navigate around the user interface behaviours of the Windows default editor, ‘notepad’, or the Mac OS X default editor, ‘Text Edit’. The same isn’t in reverse, and I find that a lot of say, Windows admins who start doing bits and pieces of work on Unix systems are usually hampered by the entire vi experience. vi, it seems, is suitably foreign to people who grow up in GUI only environments that it taints the entire Unix interactivity process. However, being an old Unix hack, I don’t think this is vi‘s fault. Indeed, I’d suggest that anyone who can’t type “vi quick reference card” into Google and then use the results productively is doing themselves a disservice.

If you’re a Windows admin and you’ve just assumed I’m having a dig at you for not knowing vi, I’m not. Like knowing a cross platform scripting language (e.g,. perl), I merely recommend that administrators in heterogenous environments enjoy their job more, and can do their job more easily, if they know vi.

Oh, and as a final point, can someone please explain why almost everyone else on the planet except me seems to save and quit in vi either through multiple actions or more obscure commands (e.g., esc :wq) than just:

(esc) :x

* And if someone could explain the arrogance of having OpenOffice on the Mac takeover all possible document types whenever it is first run, I’ll be very interested in rebutting your arguments.


Posted in Aside, General Technology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Aside – How I stay organised

Posted by Preston on 2009-02-21

(Or, information is like water – you can drink from it, you can swim in it, or you can drown in it. What do you want to do?)

IT people work in what I’d refer to as information rich domains. That is, there’s a huge amount of information out there that can be of use, and so the struggle is not necessarily a lack of information, but a challenge in finding the information you want.

(This, for what it’s worth, is why I think that certification exams as a whole are at best poorly representative of skills. Certifications for the most part seem to be about rote recall, which doesn’t reflect real life situations. That is, in real life when faced with a challenging technical problem, I don’t think many people lock themselves in a room devoid of any contact with anyone or anything else and attempts to solve the problem based on memory.)

Real life problem resolution is about not only having access to a plethora of information, but also being able to find the key bits of information. Yes, you need a certain base amount of knowledge in the area to get started, but after that the solution will come from your overall ability to problem solve, and your skill or capability to retrieve the right information.

There’s a few things I do that I think helps me to access information I need quickly. I’m not saying this suits everyone, but it works for me, so people of a similar ilk may find it useful.

First, when it comes to file storage, I’m incredibly anal retentive. (That means for instance, that it literally gives me the shudders if I look at someone’s desktop (Windows, Linux or Mac) and it’s full of files. To me that’s just like having a desk covered in papers and files 3 inches deep on every surface*.)

So I have lots of folders – lots, and lots, and lots of folders, nested, structured named in such a way that I can quickly access stored data. Yes, it may take a few clicks to navigate through folders, but I found this easier to do than searching through a few folders with hundreds or even thousands of files.

Being on a Mac, I make heavy use of Spotlight, the integrated search tool. To be quite frank, in Mac OS X 10.4 this feature sucked, performance-wise, and I regretted every time I tried to use it. In 10.5/Leopard however, it screams, and is fast enough that I even use it as an application launcher when I’m in a hurry.

Next, and what has helped me most in the last two years is a product called Yojimbo, from Bare Bones Software. This makes use of the SQLite component of Mac OS X to do information storage with full text search. I simply drop PDFs, text files, web locations, HTML pages, etc., into Yojimbo, (and also when I have the time add a few tags for additional identification).

The beauty of Yojimbo is that I don’t have to actually go to it in order to search it. One of its features is full Spotlight integration, so thus at any point that I’m looking for information I can just hit CMD+Space, type in the query in Spotlight, and get search results for both files still on disk, and content in Yojimbo’s database. Currently my Yojimbo database is about 1.5GB and continuing to grow as I bring more documentation into it**. (In fact, I don’t store documentation on my filesystem any more – unless I’m being lazy, I put everything into Yojimbo as I get it now.) If I need to send a document I find to a customer or colleague, I can export it and drop it in an email in a matter of seconds.

The final bit of organisation I do is archiving. I don’t like deleting information – in the past I’ve suffered the consequences of deleting something that I later found was no longer available. (E.g., needing to access a software compatibility guide from say, 1999 due to ancient versions of software in use.) At the same time though, I don’t want searches for current issues and problems to be cluttered with matching keywords from documents that are so old that all they’ll do is hinder, not help me. So I keep out of reach of my day to day searches older, historical information. Usually that’s stored on a separate fileserver – it’s there, it’s protected, it’s available if I want to access it, but it’s not getting in the way of what I need to do today.

So there’s a rough overview of how I stay organised. I know it won’t help everyone, but if you’re drowning in information, it may just be the start of a lifeline.

* I had a boss once who called such disorganisation a “discussion feature” for when he had customers in his office. You can imagine what I thought of that.

** Of course, it gets backed up! (I had to learn some AppleScript in order to properly quit Yojimbo at a strategically appropriate time of the day, copy the files for subsequent backup, and then restart it.)

Posted in Aside, Trivia | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

9 brain habits you didn’t realise you had

Posted by Preston on 2009-02-08

My partner reads a news/blog site called, which can often link to some really interesting bits of information. One such item that the site linked to a couple of days ago is an article, 9 brain habits you didn’t realise you had. While there were a few things in there I was already aware of (hint: one of them wasn’t about the colour chartreuse!), the thing that most interested me was confirmation about the subconscious. I often found it weird that if I didn’t think about a particularly vexing problem for a while after gathering all the data, the answer could sometimes just pop into my head at the most bizarre of times. It seems it’s not too unlikely after all.

Posted in Trivia | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on 9 brain habits you didn’t realise you had

The naming of backup servers

Posted by Preston on 2009-02-07

I’m a big fan of RFC-1178; thus, I’m not too keen on backup server names such as say, nsrserv, bckmast01, unxserv134, etc. I guess it’s partly proof of how much of a geek I am at times, but I think backup servers need good names.

Since backup is all about protection, I tend to look for names that reflect a general sense of protection. Over the course of the last decade or more, most of my backup servers have ended up with names that reflect that notion of protection, and out of a general sense of trivia I thought I’d mention some of them:

  • archon – a title used in some religions for ‘protector’
  • bastet – an African goddess of protection
  • bes – another African goddess whose roles included that of protection of children
  • diana – the Greek goddess of the hunt and protector of children
  • dryad – mythical woodland creatures that protected the forests
  • ent – borrowed from Tolkein, a protector of forests
  • gnome – mythical creatures that live in gardens and who are protectors of nature
  • isis – the Egyptian goddess of protection and magic
  • tara – the Tibetan goddess of peace and protection
  • venus – the Roman goddess of love and protector of gardens

These obviously all come from the one theme, and there’s plenty of more examples to be found.

Posted in General thoughts, NetWorker, Trivia | Tagged: | Comments Off on The naming of backup servers