Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The New York Times Discovers xkcd

Image credit: xkcd.com

I was surprised and delighted to see this article in the New York Times yesterday:

FOR a certain subset of Internet users, “Sudo make me a sandwich” may as well be “Take my wife ... please.”

This Is Funny Only if You Know Unix

Being a part of that subset is an unusual thing these days. A decade or so ago, Unix was the operating system most often used in server and workstation computers. Nowadays, Windows is dominant in workstations, and has a pretty large segment of the server market, as well.

Still, for those of us familiar with it, Unix and its cousin, Linux, are often the programming environment of choice. Its many utilities, including sudo, can be combined together in numerous ways to form a powerful system programming environment. System administration on Unix systems is often done by setting up scripts that take care of settings and maintenance, and then checking once in a while to make sure the hardware's OK.

So, not surprisingly, there are many of us out there who are still quite fond of the environment.

The NYT article, though, was about xkcd.com, a comic strip site created and run by Randall Munroe, a physics student and computer programmer:

Mr. Munroe, a physics major and a programmer by trade, is good for jokes like this three times a week, informed by computing and the Internet. By speaking the language of geeks — many a strip hinges on crucial differences between the C and Python programming languages — while dealing with relationships and the meaning of a computer-centric life, xkcd has become required reading for techies across the world.

The site, which began publishing regularly in January 2006, has 500,000 unique visitors a day, he said, and 80 million page views a month. (Why “xkcd”? “It’s just a word with no phonetic pronunciation,” his Web site, xkcd.com, answers.)

This Is Funny Only if You Know Unix

Actually, the name of the site imitates many of the utility names in Unix. Directories are listed using the ls command, for instance. What does it stand for? Nothing; it's just what you get when you type the characters under your left and right ring fingers, respectively. There are similar origins for many of Unix's commands, like df, du, awk, and grep. When it was developed in the 1970s, Unix was run from a command line. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were something that was being experimented with at a Xerox research lab. The first Macintosh was still a decade in the future. Authors of Unix's various commands tried to keep the typing they had to do to a minimum.

Of course, xkcd isn't the first comic strip to make light of programmers and the world we work in. Dilbert and User Friendly are two that come to mind, but for humor based on out-and-out esoterica I don't think it gets much funnier than xkcd.

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