Sun, 14 Sep 2003

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retrograde consolidation revisited

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Yeah, maybe I need a better name. I really didn't give it much thought. Hell, maybe there's already a name for it. I'm trying to think of a term for the phenomenon of returning to an older technology because it's actually better than whatever we got. And it's not mere regression into the past. The old technology gets adapted to whatever new challenges we face. Often times, the old technology is merely a shell, a vehicle, for what really is new technlogy. It looks like an Apollo Command Module, but it's designed with 21st century technology. Sometimes the "old" technology only continues to exist in an abstract (though still palpable) sense, although the real nitty-gritty is all new stuff. (I am thinking of UNIX, which, on one hand doesn't really exist, but on the other hand, is proliferating everywhere.)

Probably because I'm using Blosxom, the power of plain-text is on my mind, as I mentioned previously. And so I spotted this quote:

The problem is, once we store data in a non-transparent, inaccessible format, then we need code to read it, and that code disappears. Code is disappearing all the time. You probably can't go to a store and ask for a copy of Word 1, or whatever the first version of Word was called. So we are losing vast quantities of information, because we can no longer read the files.
One of the reasons we advocate using plain text is so information doesn't get lost when the program goes away. Even though a program has gone away, you can still extract information from a plain text document. You may not be able to make the information look like the original program would, but you can get the information out. The process is made even easier if the format of the plain text file is self-describing, such that you have metadata inside the file that you can use to extract out the actual semantic meaning of the data in the file. XML is not a particularly good way to do this, but it's currently the plain text transmission medium du jour.
Another reason for using plain text is it allows you to write individual chunks of code that cooperate with each other. One of the classic examples of this is the Unix toolset: a set of small sharp tools that you can join together. You join them by feeding the plain text output of one into the plain text input of the next. There's no concept of trying to make sure the word count program outputs things in a format that's compatible with the next tool in the chain. It's just plain text to plain text, and that's a very powerful way to do it.
—Dave Thomas Plain Text and XML

The mention of UNIX has me thinking about the evolution of operating systems, too. UNIX as a concept has been present for 30+ years. Maybe because I went to UC Berkeley, in the mid-to-late '90's, most of the computers still ran some variant of UNIX. (Although, ironically, they didn't run BSD.) I remember the sense of incredulity I had when Windows 3.0 came out in 1990, and everyone was excited, as if a windowing system had never existed before, when I had known for a fact that they were already deployed and quite powerful (I ran GEOS on a Commodore 64, and I remember playing around with Workbench on my friend's dad's Amiga. I never saw a Macintosh until I was in college, and that was when I was already an x86 chauvinist. Although, I did run Linux briefly even before Windows 95 came out.) Obviously, Microsoft had much at stake with trying to spread the FUD that UNIX was dead, despite the fact that it or some of its genetic and symbolic offspring ran almost all of the Internet. But in the past few years, the OS world seems to have come full-circle, with Apple deciding to build MacOS X on top of BSD. The only remaining (quite significant) hold-out is the Microsoft World, and even there, UNIX toolsets have established a foothold.

One OS to rule them all.

15:07:31 14 Sep 2003 > /computers/www > permalink > 0 comments

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