Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

The Unix Workshop in 2011

I was recently involved in delivering a Unix workshop to the new freshmen intake of AY2011/2012. It’s something that the freshmen attend every new academic year. The idea is to expose them to Unix, particularly since many of them haven’t seen such an operating environment before, so that they would not be totally clueless, particularly when they start attending classes that requie them to use a Unix system. Nowadays, the role of Unix has changed somewhat. Many people don’t login to our Unix servers… not unless they absolutely have to because of their academic work.

It seems very contradictory that although Unix seems to be more “commonplace” nowadays compared to a decade ago, yet actually fewer people are really interested in it now than there were a decade ago. What do I mean?

A decade ago, Unix was not “everywhere”, many people didn’t have the opportunity to use such a system, and in fact, perhaps many people never even hear about it. Today, however, everyone knows about Unix from movies, mainstream media, and how Unix runs many of the servers behind famous Internet services. Linux is so much more common, and even Mac OS X is really an operating system built on Unix roots. With Unix becoming more prevalent than ever before, you’d expect that more people would be familiar with it nowadays.

Yet, it seems that fewer people are interested in Unix. They might have heard about it, but asking them to use it is a totally different matter altogether. I remember that years ago, people had a lot of fun snooping around in a Unix login shell, discovering what they could do, creating mischief now and then, etc. They did this on their own, because they were interested and perhaps fascinated about what a big Unix server could do.

It’s not quite the same nowadays, or even from back a few years. Most new students are nowadays avoiding Unix as much as they can. They have “official” email delivered to their Unix account, but one of the first things they do is to figure out how to forward the mail out to the campus Exchange server, or to their own personal Gmail account. They login to their Unix account only when they have to. (When they have to, it is during the first practical programming class, and then there would be a mad rush to reset passwords because they have forgotten/lost them.)

So the strange thing is that while Unix ought to have become more heard of, the reality is that actually fewer people seem to be interested in it. For many people in this intake of freshmen, possibly this Unix workshop was the first time ever they typed anything into a Unix shell. I see so many people struggling with ^S, because they think it saves their file in the text editor, but it ends up suspending the terminal and they think the program or system has hung. Then, there is a plethora of other problems stemming from typos, out-of-order command sequences, etc.

I used to joke that in the past, we know when the freshmen were having their first lab when the terminal bell sounds incessantly, because they were struggling with using the vi editor. The vi editor would ring the terminal bell with every invalid command input. Today… they are using nano. No bells to draw attention to them, but nevertheless, still plenty of challenges.

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