Friday, June 10, 2011

Unix and Magix

I feel like I've said this before, but if you think of magic as a predictable system of powerful arcane commands, there is no better metaphor in our world than computers.  And, no, I don't mean GUIs, I mean get under the hood, the command line.  You need to know what obscure formulae to use and if you don't use it exactly in the way you are expected, it will either just not function or, sometimes, put you at great peril.

Today I worked with the words of power: sudo, chown, and fstab.  The last one almost did me in.  If I were a mage, a demon nearly ate me.  I thought I had the solution to my problem, but it was really a tesseract loop:
  • Read-only filesystem (I can see you fiend!)
  • You are not the owner of these files (what is the demon's name?)
  • Try chown and chmod (these words of power shall bend you to my will!)
  • Read-only filesystem (foiled, noooooooo!)
Blarrgh, I was looking for some old geomorph files on a dead laptop, but I think I'll just go into the mountains, I'm burnt.

18 comments:

  1. Watch out for the Zombies... :)

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  2. I've thought about that before too.. I was considering writing up the Mysteries of the Order of the Servants of the Servers and have them required to know decent command line by a certain level. Hey, you never know when you might stumble on a still working server down there in the dungeon!

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  3. I have often thought this, especially with the ability to remotely manipulate unseen things. Arcane indeed.

    You may need to remount the filesystem read-write and specify the owner. Check the man page for mount, as the options depend upon the filesystem type.

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  4. I feel your pain.

    They say that everybody who uses a Unix system will eventually mess something up on their own so badly that they'll have to reformat their computer.

    Also, see the post above me: If that doesn't sound like magic, I'm not sure what does (You must rebind the books of magic and name thyself as their masters! Study you must the ancient books of wisdom contained in the Great Library of Nyl'Mshk, wherein the sages will assist you!)

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  5. Heh, I took this class from a weird old dude who didn't really seem to be part of this world. You'd translate English statements into strange symbols, manipulate them according to arcane rules, then translate them back into a new message.

    Ah, Formal Logic class...

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  6. You need to read The Wizardry Compiled by Rick Cook. It's a series of novels based on this premise.

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  7. One of the secrets of my old World of Cinder milieu is that all magic is powered by Asimovian planetary computers left over from a previous galactic civilization of elves. That meditation thing elves do instead of sleep? They're actually websurfing.

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  8. cue xkcd: "how are you doing that?" "Python!" "Sudo get me a sandwich" etc.

    When I worked on computer games I thought of the programmers as a priesthood.

    And documenting code! Don't get me started. It was all "wave a dead chicken" this and "grep" that. My favourite moment was when my lead programmer turned to me with a Mephistophelean smile and said "but you have to know what you want. I will give you exactly what you ask for!"

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  9. There is(was?) actually a couple of Linux distros called "Sorcerer" and "Source Mage" that take this as the design philosophy, especially the package management which used a spell/grimoire paradigm to install and configure source code.

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  10. I've been considering making the ephemera of the magic for my D&D games based off programming. Things like python scales and rubies and perls as necessary components for writing spells, and so on . . .

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  11. This is my favorite Unix spell WARNING it is a powerfull spell of destruction, a fork bomb. Once you grok the syntax it's so elegant and small yet powerful/seductive like the One Ring.

    :(){ :|:& };:

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  12. Thanks for all the comments. It looks like there is some untapped interest for random charts or supplements here :)

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  13. Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology? Perhaps I should be worried this is so easy to believe.

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  14. Ha! This is the best thing I've read all day!

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  15. Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives is a whole book dedicated to this premise.

    And if you think about it, it goes even deeper - crafting a one-liner in UNIX is very much like how informal magic is rendered in literature, whereas compiled spells written in the arcane language of 'C' are like ready-made spells that even the relatively untutored can cast - what they lack in adaptability, they make up for in relative ease of use. However, even masters of the art have trouble casting and maintaining spells like Microsoft Exchange, or Windows - there's plenty of room for disaster still.

    Even better, regular maintenance activities like changing tapes map pretty well to ritual magic.

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  16. Thanks, folks.

    @J. Random: great stuff, thanks. Makes me wonder if we might envision a system of magic for the game that would be more like art. Or maybe if we knew enough, art would be very systematic too. Anyway, a system that is the opposite of working with computers, where the only mystery is because we lack total knowledge, otherwise everything would make perfect sense.

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  17. So does this mean there's a possibility that there are bugs in spells that may pop up unexpectedly or under certain specific circumstances? E.g. like the blackjack program in the Story of Mel, if you try to cast Cause Serious Wounds it will instead Cure Serious Wounds with maximum effect. Or like the famous Intel math unit bug, where your rolled results might get a +1 or -1 adjustment per die.

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  18. Hey, that story of Mel is crazy cool isn't it? And yeah, if you don't understand the system you maybe giving it very clear instructions to do the opposite of what you want. Back in the day I read a lot of books on the early hackers and their pseudonyms, secrecy, and attempts to achieve results no one else had remind me of alchemists or wizards. I think every wizard character should pick a pseudonym at some point.

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