One of my classmates from MIT (i.e., an old guy who has been using Unix for nearly 20 years) thought that his personal Web/mail server had been hacked. The GNU/Linux machine was behaving inexplicably and not doing any of the things that it had been configured to do. Last night he finally figured out why. Logged in as root he’d tried to list a tar file from another computer. But he got one character of the incantation wrong and instead wrote the tar file over the existing file system. Basically all of the files in /etc were replaced by /etc files from the old computer, which had a different set of users/passwords and was in a different network.
I’m not going to say who it is because he’d be embarrassed but perhaps the incident reveals something general: people over the age of 25 shouldn’t use Unix/GNU/Linux/whatever, unless they are full-time professional Unix sysadmins. The dialog boxes on WinXP are annoying but for those of us nearing 40 perhaps it would be nice to have the computer ask “Are you sure that you want to overwrite all the most critical files on this machine?”
My instrument instructor in Alaska was 77 years old at the time that I got my rating. Tom Wardleigh had 33,000 hours of flying experience including 15,000 hours on floats and was considered perhaps the best flight instructor in the state of Alaska. His son had refused to learn to fly, despite his proximity to such a renowned instructor and all of the freedom that flying brings in a state with substantially no roads. One of the things that Tom’s son had noticed was how many times his father went out to search for pilots who had crashed. His stated reason for never learning to fly: “I don’t want to do something where the opposite of perfection is death.”
Being root on Unix is sort of like that.