Contingency Plans

by David Lane

"The standard guide for vi since 1986, this book has been expanded to include detailed information on vim, the leading vi clone that includes extra features for both beginners and power users."

So begins the write-up for the seventh edition of O'Reilly's "Learning the vi and vim editors." In 1986 when O'Reilly first brought this book out I was in my second year of university and I had a passing knowledge of computers. I knew they existed but I still wrote my papers by hand and then typed them up on an automatic typewriter. No grammar checker, other than myself or my friends wielding a red pen. No cut and paste, only lots of "white-out" or corrector ribbon. The personal computer was still a couple of years away. Yes, there were some, but most people talked to mainframes and "servers" with green screens and dumb terminals. At the time, I was in a special program that focused on Technology in Society and we had a network in our residence hall. It ran Novell as the network operating system (a beta version if I am not mistaken) and we spent more time trying to break the system then we did actually working on our lessons.

Fast forward to 1990 and I had an IBM PS/2 on my desk, my typewriter relegated to my closet. My parents bought it for me, and with a dot-matrix printer, it cost more than five thousand dollars. It has a forty megabyte hard disk, and a couple of hundred kilobytes of RAM. It runs a version of DOS and Microsoft Windows 3.0. I say all this in the present tense because it is still sitting in a cupboard in my den and as far as I know, it still runs. I used it for papers, CAD programs and presentations. It was all done pretty much by hand with only a few templates or wizards to help.

Today, five thousand dollars will get you a quad core server with a terabyte of disk and several gigabytes of RAM. You can run a couple of wizards and the software will spit out preformatted documents, ready-made presentations and W3C blessed web pages. The workstations under the average desk spend more time asleep than actually processing, with most users using less than one percent of the total processing power available to them. We have the choice of at least three operating systems, dozens of applications and hundreds of time wasters at our command. But have we made progress?

I sat in a meeting last week, discussing emergency preparedness. In that meeting, a wise man said, "We need to have two sets of contingency plans. One for if we have electricity and one for if we do not."

What does a new book on vi and contingency plans have to do with each other? Simplicity. Without starting a vi vs. emacs debate, as Linux systems come with both, it is important that every administrator should be familiar with vi. At least the simple commands. And every administrator should have contingency plans. As much as the technology changes, some things remain the same.

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