Mac Format dumbs down UNIX for no reason

I bought Mac Format magazine at the weekend, which was the first and will be the last of such occasions. Aside from the fact that it was six quid for what is actually a very thin magazine, and ignoring the fact that the “full version” software supplied on the accompanying DVD was, in fact, a restricted demonstration version (presenting a clear violation of the Trade Descriptions Act), I was particularly appalled at one of the features in the magazine which concerned itself with Mac OS X’s UNIX underpinnings.

One of the things I like most about Mac OS X is that it can be as simple or as advanced as you wish to make it. If you are a UNIX-head like I am then your familiar environment and tools are there if you want to use them. But if you are quite the opposite and you’re a floral trouser wearing designer hippy then you most certainly do not ever need to go anywhere near the operating system’s UNIX like features and interface. This is in stark contrast to modern Linux desktops, which are trying their hardest to become like this but still rely on the shell (command prompt) to a degree and thus force its users into its UNIX world on a reasonably regular basis.

So this article in Mac World attempted to introduce the “normal” Mac OS X user to the operating system’s UNIX base by describing the Terminal program and presenting a basic command, which was:

/sbin/fsck -fy

This command was “translated” into English by the author of the article and the translation read “run a filesystem check on the system binaries directory“.

This, as anyone with even a basic knowledge of command prompts let alone UNIX specific command prompts will know, is an absolute load of bollocks. Yes, fsck is the program that checks file systems, similar to “chkdsk” or whatever on Windows, this is true. But it is certainly not true to say that “/sbin/” is somehow an argument passed to fsck to tell it just to check the contents of the sbin directory. sbin is merely the path on the disk to fsck. The arguments to fsck are “-fy”, which in this case are quite irrelevant and in no way tell fsck to just pay attention to a particular directory.

This might sound pernickety, but this is simply misleading and represents unnecessary and frankly dangerous dumbing down, something which the BBC News website is guilty of on an almost daily basis in articles in their technology section. If you’re going to introduce Mac users to the wonderful and historical world of their computers’ operating system’s origins then either do it properly or not at all. UNIX is complicated and difficult to use; this is a commonly known fact and it makes no apologies for it. As discussed previously Mac OS is pretty unique in that you don’t even need to know that UNIX exists in order to use it, so there’s no reason to try to dumb it down for its users. You’d be better off pretending it doesn’t exist.

Of course, it’s entirely plausible that the author of the article actually believes what he’s writing and that, from his point of view, he isn’t dumbing anything down at all. If this is the case then I ask how he got the fucking job in the first place and to whom I should apply to write the column in his place.

It totally winds me up when “technical journalists” dumb things down to the point where they actually don’t tell the truth, whether they are aware that they are doing so or not. Whatever good intentions they have about making technology news understandable and accessible to “normal” people, it should be acknowledged that computers aren’t always point-and-click and not everybody is or can be a computer expert. How some of these people are paid for their drivel staggers me.