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The Value of Unix's High Barrier to Entry

I've put together detailed design specifications for driver-side controls in future automobiles. 

* The conventional steering wheel will be replaced with a knob extending out from the passenger-side door.

* The gas pedal will be replaced by a hand grip extending from roof of the vehicle, and the brakes will be controlled by a special bit inserted in the mouth of the driver.  The more the teeth are clenched, the more the brakes are applied.

* The turn signals will now be controlled using sophisticated sensors embedded in the driver's seat.  Clench the left buttock to signal a right turn, and clench the right one to signal left.

Bad drivers present a danger to us all.  It is vital that these changes be implemented in order to weed out bad drivers.  This new design presents a higher barrier to entry, and therefore the unskilled drivers will be culled in much the same way that Unix has rid the software industry of unskilled professionals.

Wednesday, August 6, 2003


Unfortunately, that's the Unix that we all love to hate.

Sgt. Sausage
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

"Dennis Ritchie, designer of the C programming language, revealed his design for a new model of car today. Instead of the multiple confusing gauges on the dashboard is a single light that lights up with a '?'.

"The experienced user", Ritchie says, "will usually know what's wrong."

I think I read this in the Unix Hater's Handbook. Still funny. ;-)

Chris Tavares
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

You forgot to mention that the ignition will be located under the hood - that makes it more secure.

Jeff MacDonald
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

On the other hand, Windows has more of a "You appear to be pressing the brake pedal. Would you like to slow down? Yes/No" feel to it. Assuming, of course, that the brake pedal was not automatically hidden when left unused for 15 min.

Devil's Advocate
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

The funny part, Chris, is that the best way to handle multiple confusing error warnings has been staked out by the fighter manufacturers.

A red light and a yellow light.  Master alarm light, master caution light.  Alarm means that something really bad is about to happen, caution means that something bad could happen.  So in the case of cars, alarm means turn off the engine and coast to the side, caution means head to the service station.

There's another display that will actually denote what's wrong, if the person actually wants to try to debug the issue.

Since the system also involves some obnoxious noise if either lights up, you push down on the button to shut it up.

So, strangely enough, Ritche's only about 1 light too short.

Flamebait Sr.
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

It was Ken Thompson's car, not Dennis Ritchie's.  The story is older than the Unix-Hater's Handbook, but is quoted there.  The UHH is out-of-print but can be downloaded as a PDF (sans Unix barf bag) from>.

Rob Mayoff
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Just keep in mind, we Mac users tell the same kinds of jokes about Windows.

Jim Rankin
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

I'm bi-platformal (Mac and Windows), and I tell those kinds of jokes about Macs... ;>

Sam Livingston-Gray
Thursday, August 7, 2003


your link is invalid, do you have a better one?

Geert-Jan Thomas
Thursday, August 7, 2003

>> The funny part, Chris, is that the best way to handle multiple confusing error warnings has been staked out by the fighter manufacturers.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is the only group of aircraft that comes fitted with an ejection seat?

The red light meaning "um...this is your aircraft speaking.... we kinda have a problem down here, which um.... is pretty terminal.  We don't um.... recommend diagnosing..... we um rather recommend a rapid, yet graceful, exit from the aircraft, in a vertical direction...."

(A)bort  (R)etry    (F)ail....

Bruce Johnson
Thursday, August 7, 2003


Not only fighters, but also cilvil airliners have those red and yellow alarm and caution lights but no ejection seats :-)

Its not a "time-to-eject-now" kindof light, it warns when the plane is set in an unsafe flight configuration; ie. when flaps, slats, speed brakes and gear and such things are somehow misconfigured.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

...and remember, in the case of a water landing your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Never underestimate the ability of humans to overestimate their ability.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, August 7, 2003

Perhaps then the difference is one of Training <g>... ie all it takes to start using a computer is some cash (not even a lot).  To be a pilot takes a fair amount of training, and a fairly large bundle of cash.  And I'm guessing you don't get to see one of these planes until you've logged quite a few hours...

Not disputing the interface <g>.... but methinks it's not a completely accurate analogy.... Then again maybe it is...

Bruce Johnson
Thursday, August 7, 2003

If pilots had the same training as your average user....

ring ... ring...

Hello this is Boeing support ....  your call is important to us....  you are number 432 in the queue.... please hold on....

<red warning light is flashing ..... angry hooter is sounding.....  altimeter is unwinding..... >

... you are number  231 in the queue .... please hold on.....

<ground is coming alarmingly close.  Gentleman in charge (ie pilot) is starting to press buttons randomly in the hope something will work....>

... you are number 42 in the queue .... please hold on....

<passengers are tightning their buckles, and frantically writing their last will & testament on complimentary paper napkin, with 2cm long complimentary pen... door over the wing keeps opening and closing...>

.... hello, how can I help you ?  I see....big red flashing light?  oh you need the emergency department - please hold.....
.... welcome to the emergency response line.... press 1 if you're in the air, and 2 if you're on the groun.....


Bruce Johnson
Thursday, August 7, 2003


Not to drag this too much farther off topic (although once Joel's made a mint off of Fog Creek Software and has retired a multi-millionare geek, there's a good probability that he'll pull a Phil Greenspun and get a aircraft and blog about it) but I'd generally say that the reasons why aircraft are safe is generally:

1) Fault resistance.  They assume that things are going to fail and present acceptable modes of failure for them.
2) Ruthlessley enforced maintenence and testing restrictions.
3) High penalties for failure of vital parts.  If the wings fall off, the plane will crash.  This makes it very important that the wings don't fall off.
4) Training.  In order to get to be an airline pilot, you must have a lot of hours and go through a series of licensing restrictions.  You have to prove that you can handle a given aircraft before you are allowed to fly it.
5) Space.  It's very hard to interact with other pilots when the air traffic controllers make sure that you are well seperated in three dimensions from other aircraft.  Thus, it's only you and your mechanic who can make a mistake, not you and any number of cars that are in your vicinity on the highway.

The problem is that it's costly to have all of these safety measures for most things.  Not worth it for most things, otherwise people would do it.

I was once on an airliner in the business section where they told us that our seats were NOT usable as a flotation device.  Freaked me out severely.  I figure that if there was an emergency and I freaked out, I'd be more likely to remember the seat cushin and how to safely operate it much more than I'd remember to grab a life vest and operate it correctly, so it kinda scared me.

Flamebait Sr.
Thursday, August 7, 2003

> If pilots had the same training as your average user....

Hello? All I did was I pushed the little lever forward and the plane crashed. Again. This software really sucks. Why don't you design good software?

Friday, August 8, 2003

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