Apple, and dumbing down

My wife uses a Mac. She occasionally saves flash videos on the disk for the little one’s entertainment. The other day she was trying to play one, but the file browser was trying to open it in the text editor. She figured out that she had omitted to give the file the extension “.flv” while saving it. Once she added the extension, the file’s icon changed to VLC‘s traffic cone, and clicking it opened it in VLC. (This is in Snow Leopard, the sixth and most recent release of Mac OS X.)

Windows users may not be surprised, but I was. Mac OS X is not Windows: it is Unix in its underpinnings. And Unix has a command, file, whose function is precisely to determine the type of a file based on its contents (rather than its extension). It works by magic (see Wikipedia for a brief explanation). On current Linux systems, I have basically never known it to go wrong: in the worst case, it reports an uninformative “data”, but for nearly all common file types, it correctly identifies them.

This command has existed since 1973, according to Wikipedia — and, in fact, according to Apple’s own manual page for that command.

Yes, the file command exists in Mac OS X. You can use it from a terminal. I tested it and it works as advertised: I can rename the flash video file to have a .pdf extension, or .txt, or whatever, and file still recognises it as a Macromedia flash video file. Apple’s file browser is unaware of a Unix command that has existed for 38 years and remains in its own base system.

I don’t know which circumstance is sorrier: that Apple distributes a file browser that is so spectacularly unaware of how Unix solved certain problems a couple of generations ago, or that Apple’s users happily lap it up, on the grounds that Windows is worse.

In memoriam: Rahul Basu

Rahul Basu, colleague, friend and fellow blogger, passed away today after an illness of nearly three months. He was taken ill with respiratory problems in mid-December; after a period of hospitalisation he seemed to be making a recovery, but in late February he had a relapse from which he never recovered.

Rahul’s name will be familiar to readers of this blog, but those who knew him in real life will forever miss a truly unique character. Apart from his enthusiasm for physics (and science in general) and teaching, he had a wide range of interests and strong opinions. He also had the valuable ability to express himself forcefully without losing friends. The institute will feel substantially emptier without him. His large circle of friends will always feel his presence.

I had little scientific overlap with him, but always enjoyed his talks (especially on the Large Hadron Collider, for which his enthusiasm was palpable). Outside of research, however, we have discussed nearly every topic under the sun — usually animatedly, always enjoyably.

He is survived by his wife Neelima Gupte, physicist at IIT Madras. Her area of research is just a little more up my street, and she is as familiar as he to the physics community in India (and elsewhere). While nothing can repair the loss, she can count on the support of many, many friends and well-wishers.

UPDATE, March 7: An official memorial page is now up. Friends of Rahul are requested to leave their comments there.