Open Letter: Begin at the Beginning (Off by One)


Dear Writers of Beginners’ Guides,

There seems to be some miscommunication about the nature of “beginning”. My Beginning Linux Programming book “assume[s] that you know the basics of getting around in UNIX,” and in fact says directly, “Watch out if you’re new.” The top Google result for beginning emacs “assumes minimal famililarity with vi or a similar editor.”

In short, you assume lists begin with one, while in reality the first item is zero. Since this is a common programming error, I completely understand your confusion. The workaround will likely involve inserting some header at the beginning of your content; a tutorial pointer as the zeroth element would work quite well. This even provides an elegant recursive solution, as each zeroth element would direct a user to even more basic information, until (given sufficient detail) she learns how to create her own universe from scratch.

Meanwhile, I will continue to use superfluous quantifiers (“absolute beginner”) to find emacs tutorials.

Thank you for your attention,

A Relative Neophyte

Open Letter: Regarding “Hack”


Dear prescriptivist hax0rs,

You allege that “hacker” is a term that the “media has subverted… based on ignorance” to imply malicious behavior, and now the “true hackers” are offended. The term chosen to describe programming low-lifes, you say, is “cracker.”

My friends, may I suggest to you that grammar and usage is about as open source as it gets. We freely obtain words and use them to our own ends, and while a smaller community may make localized changes (c.f. “jargon”), the language users as a whole maintain semantic control. Within the Linux community, by all means, please continue to boast of “spend[ing] the night hacking”–but also be aware that outside your group, the phrase “What a cracker!” has different connotations.


A Descriptivist Grammarian