The Meaning of ls

3 Jun 2007
Back in 1986 I shared a cubicle wall at Apple Computer with a great guy named Rick Auricchio. He was one of a very few people working on Apple's new Unix called A/UX, which had been running on Lisa and was being ported to Macintosh. I was working on HFS and the original Macintosh HD-20, the first Macintosh hard drive from Apple. (I still have an HD-80 with A/UX 2.0.x on it! For that matter, I still have a Lisa as well.)

We would talk through the cubicle wall about all sorts of things - I would help him with Mac things and he would help me with Unix things. (I still use vi and FreeBSD a lot.) His business card title was Software Swami and mine was Software Explorer. He got me a great vanity email address: It was a badge of honor to have an email address with just your first name at a company which had many, many people. He was, of course, I had that email address for ten years before it became popular for people to be on email. In fact, I had that email address for several years when I did not even work at Apple! (1991-1993) During that time I still used it. I then returned to Apple again in 1994 to work on PowerPC Macs but when I left for Microsoft at the end of 1994 I finally lost my email address.

I also went flying with Rick in his airplanes, including a Mooney 201 and a Piper Malibu. We would fly to the Nut Tree, or to the Elephant Bar in Santa Barbara, or to Harris Ranch in central California. These trips were just for dinner after work. Those were great days!

Anyway, one day Rick was laughing and laughing and the source of his laughter was this document, which he gave me a copy of years ago in 1986. It was called The Meaning of ls. The place names are mainly from California. It is humorous to Californian Unix programmers and probably to few others. (Rick and I are both Californian Unix programmers.)

Rick offers this further explanation of the origin of this document:

I was indeed a major author of "ls." At the Portland Usenix Conference in 1985, Sonja Bock (then of Genentech) introduced me to The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams. She and I then began making up items in a similar vein, naturally related to Unix. There were a few other contributors; I'm sure Eryk Vershen must've offered a few.


December 2, 1986

                     The Meaning of ls

    (n) The act of  trying  to  figure  out  the  mean  time
    required  for  e-mail  delivery  over  the  several hops
    between sites.

    (n) The command line option you always tend to forget.

    (n) You have wasted time with  an  Aldercroft  when  you
    change  a  program  and  keep testing the old version by

Alum Rock
    (n) A problem which requires  rebooting  the  system  to
    clear  up.  Many times an Alum Rock will send the system
    directly to Morgan Hill.

    (n) A meaningless warning message.

Ano Nuevo
    (n) The process of logging out and logging in  again  in
    the attempt to cleanup a confused terminal state.

    (n) The cabinet in which backup tapes are stored.

    (n) The mental state entered during the  debugging  pro-
    cess  when one decides to write a filter to identify and
    locate  missing  closing  braces,  parens  and   comment
    sequences.  Also known as Nesting Instinct.

    1. (n) One who gives the appearance of  great  knowledge
    of  the  system,  but is immediately proven phony by the
    first real question; 2. (v) To document or comment using
    conventions, constants, or variables defined nowhere.

    (n) The column which contains an invalid delimiter.

    (n) Any sequence of heavily  quoted  and  escaped  meta-
    characters  which will be accepted unquestionably by one
    shell and cause the other to go Hayfork.

    (n) The holy war between  two  factions  of  programmers
    about  the  ``correct''  way  to format C programs.  See

    (n) State of mind during which you solve someone  else's
    problem  when  you  don't have to, and don't have nearly
    the time to spend, but you help anyway.

    (n) 1. In hacking, the as-yet unrecognized bug that  has
    been  commented out pending further enlightenment; 2. Of
    sailing, to throw up over the correct side of the boat.

    (n) That subset of files or versions created between the
    last backup and the next headcrash.

Big Basin
    (n) The inevitable catastrophic mistake which will some-
    day be made while logged in as root.

Big Sur
    (n) The furor caused by a Millbrae which  turns  out  to
    have been bogus.

Bodega Bay
    (n) A directory liberally sprinkled with filenames  that
    contain Piedmonts.

    (n)  The  dazzling  and  highly   technical   discourses
    delivered by staff (in bored and condescending tones) to
    meddlesome users to explain why the last  fixes  to  the
    system  do  not  seem  in  any  appreciable  way to have
    improved its efficency.  See Pinnacles.

Bonny Doon
    (n)  A  particularly  enjoyable  practical  joke  played
    remotely  to  someone's  terminal.  For example, sending
    the  scroll-up/scroll-down  sequence   periodically   to
    jitter the screen image.  See Lafayette.

    (n) Any of a number of syntax errors  involving  missing
    white space, as in


    (n)  Any of a selection of net-oriented highly  competi-
    tive and interactive games involving skill, cunning, and
    a  modicum  of  strategy,  highly  touted  and  provided
    (binary  only)  by  the  newest  arrival  at any giveor.
    sound made by a tape drive unloading.

    (n) The six-minute wild blur of keystrokes issued  by  a
    wizard  while  fixing  a  problem.   A Campbell is never
    really understood by the observer, and often  cannot  be
    fully explained by the perpetrator.

    (n) The state of perplexed fury  felt  when  seeing  awk
    bail out for the umpteenth time.

    (n) The coating of shiny  glaze  on  the  bottom  of  an
    unwashed coffee mug.

    (n) Cost-cutting measures imposed on long distance  uucp

    (adj) Any spectacularly tedious and obscure document  is
    said to be Castroville.

    (n) The protocol performed by one computer upon  another
    during a uucp link.

    (n) The condition of waiting patiently for screen output
    when  one  assumes the system is slow, however something
    has actually crashed.

    (n) A cute engineering-achievement award you keep around
    long after the product has died.

    (n) The tool for cutting a neat new leading  edge  on  a
    tape.   Cupertinoes  are  often nowhere to be found when
    you need them.  Should you try to buy one, everyone  you
    call  will  know  exactly what you want, but nobody will
    have one.

Corte Madera
    (n) The foreplay  protocol  used  by  two  computers  to
    establish  a  uucp  connection  prior to performing Coa-

Daly City
    (n) The collection of header, object, and  source  files
    for  cunning  examples  of  creeping  featurism  written
    specifically to avoid tackling a sticky algorithm.

    (n) The hole left by a missing square of  raised  floor-

Diablo Canyon
    (n) Technical name for the state a  process  has  gotten
    into wherein it ignores all attempts to kill it.

Donner Pass
    (n) When a command doesn't work, it's often typed  again
    just  to  ``make sure''.  The second attempt is referred
    to as ``Making a Donner Pass.''

    (n) An effect on pids of getty  processes  caused  by  a
    Hayward line.

    (n) A person who still doesn't understand the proper use
    of a program, even after repeated tutorials.

El Cerrito
    (n) The corran out.

El Granada
    (n) A  severe  hardware  crash  which  persists  despite
    repeated  repair attempts by an army of Field Engineers.
    An El Granada  can  be  recognized  by  its  distinctive
    series  of replies from the FE's that they've ``Found it
    for sure this time.''  Some El Granadas have been  known
    to persist for months.

    (n) One who uses root privileges without due caution.

    (n) Of systems managers, the state in  which  one  grows
    increasingly  abrasive  towards  the  user  community in
    /etc/motd.  An example of this is ``Users exceeding quo-
    tas  will  have  their passwords arbitrarily changed and
    their rogue.saves removed!''

    (n) Documentation which has  been  photocopied  so  many
    times  that it is almost unreadable.  Most copies of the
    John Lions Unix Version 6 notes are Fairfaxes.

    1. (n) The technique used to make a connection in a Por-
    tola  Valley;  2. (v) Used as a verb to describe the use
    of this technique, as in ``he kept Felton  around  until
    he found the right cable''.

Foster City
    (n) The local source directory containing  pirated  code
    with one- or two-line changes to make the program appear
    specific to your application.

    (n) The person who knows where blank  tapes  are  to  be

    (n) Measure of the amount of time spent waiting for  the
    DEC field engineer to call back.

    (n) The unknown control character you've typed which has
    set  your  terminal  into a wierd state.  Unfortunately,
    it's impossible to reverse the effect of a Gilroy.

    (n) The directory containing old versions of programs.

Glacier Point
    (n) A print job at the head of the  print  queue  for  a
    particularly  unreliable printer is said to have reached
    the Glacier Point if it is never  expected  to  complete

    (n) The momentary attack of nausea and  dizziness  which
    occurs after having committed a Big Basin.

Half Moon Bay
    (n) A Half Moon Bay is the situation  you  have  created
    when  you  fix  one problem and cause a far more serious

    (adj) Descriptive of a process which has  gone  into  an
    orgy of recursive forks of subprocesses.

    (adj) A communication line is said to be Hayward when it
    is  open  and  particularly noisy, generating breaks and
    false carrier transitions.

    (n)   The   erroneous   initialization   or    misplaced
    increment/decrement operator which causes any given loop
    to terminate one iteration too soon or too late.

    (n, archaic) Steel knife used to clear jammed bits in  a
    keypunch  machine.  Hollisters are extremely rare today,
    though surprisingly not as rare as in the days when they
    were used.

Holy City
    (n) A site which changes root passwords regularly.

    (n)  The  formula  used  to  determine  the  number   of
    redirects necessary to make a command of any use.

    (n) A sudden hardware glitch  which  usually  sends  the
    system directly to Morgan Hill.

    (n) The key, especially space or carriage-return, struck
    with   distinctive   violence,   which   punctuates   an
    individual's typing style; hence hackers can be  identi-
    fied by their Klamath falls.

    (n) The characteristic laugh of the recipient of a Bonny
    Doon  who  immediately  begins thinking of a retaliatory

    (n) Technical term describing login  behavior  when  two
    gettys are directed at the same terminal, usually as the
    result of a Milpitas.

    (n) A diversieries of innovative shortcuts;  eventually,
    all  Larkspurs end in the realization that the conserva-
    tive approach would have been finished long ago.

    (n) The seductive code patch received via that
    results in a Big Sur amongst the gaming community.

    (n) Measure of the amount by which any given  buffer  is
    slightly too small.

Los Altos
    (n) Measure of the time wasted during  a  hurried  login
    because you typed your password too soon and now e too.

Los Gatos
    (n)  Handshake  protocols  described  in  operating  and
    owner's manuals in which a typo has gone unnoticed.

    (n) A ``possible cause'' for  your  problem,  which  you
    check  for lack of a better idea.  As expected, you find
    out it was fine all along; at least it gave you time  to
    think of something new to try.

    (n) The state of  your  terminal  after  trying  to  use

    (n) Any promise that the changes made  will  not  affect

    (n) A small error made while logged in as root.  A  Mil-
    pitas  is  usually  not very serious and is easy to fix,
    though it often raises a few eyebrows.

    (n) A guru who solves all  problems  quietly  and  accu-
    rately, with minimal fanfare.  Opposite of a Ukiah.

Monta Vista
    (n) The safe plahe canned ``caveat'' speech  given  when
    delivering  a  preliminary  version  of  a program which
    isn't quite complete.

Monte Sereno
    (n) The false sense of security one gets when a  program
    appears to be running perfectly, before finding out that
    things were actually going terribly wrong.

    (n) Description for the sudden sharp  pain  that  occurs
    when an obviously private e-mail message appears on your
    terminal during a demo for corporate management or  roy-
    alty.   Often  occurs in the presence of a colleague who
    is especially adept at putting two and two together.

Morgan Hill
    (n) The place a system goes when it's hung or  otherwise
    in serious trouble.  See Alum Rock and Inverness.

    (n) The silence of your terminal during  login  password

    (n) Unit of measure of  magnetic  tape  spooled  to  the

    (n) To perform a Novato, you  execute  a  quick  command
    sequence dance to ensure that you did actually exit from
    the su shell you were running.

    (n) The ``illegal lhs'' error messages reported by the C

    (n) Statements, made to users, to the  changed''.   Both
    the  speaker  and  the  listener know that a Pacifica is
    patently false.

    (n) The laughter caused when you do  something  so  dumb
    that your colleagues can't help breaking up.

Palo Alto
    1. (n) The head-spinning rush of  adrenalin  experienced
    by  those logged in as root after typing rm -r *  as
    they remember forgetting to give the  pwd  command  just
    previously;  2.   That feeling only experienced in other
    people's bathrooms as one realizes that the water in the
    bowl  is  surging up rather than down following a hearty

    (n) The familiar hardtenance.

    (n) Aerson who complains of system  troubles  when  it's
    actually  his problem.  The term's Latin origins suggest
    a literal translation to  the  effect  that  something's

    (n) An erratic power failure which causes damage to  the

    (n) The nonprinting character in a filename  which  pro-
    tects the file from further access.

    (n) The sharply barbed remarks  made  by  the  users  to
    stafnges  to the wrong version of a program.  Often used
    in speech as ``feeling like a real Pinole...''.

    (n) The situation which occurs when trouble  strikes  at
    5pm on a Friday.  A Pittsburg often starts out appearing
    like a simple Pleasanton, but one  soon  finds  out  the

    (n) Where all lost jobs end up.

    (n) A small, easily solved  problem.   True  Pleasantons
    are rare.

Point Arena
    (n) Where all Floating-Point Exception errors take  your

Portola Valley
    (n) The inaccessible or invisible place in a patch-panel
    where cable connections must be made.

    (n) A small program or script whose usefulness is  real-
    ized  when  you  delete  it  after  it's lain fallow for

    (n) The state of mind during which you decide  to  beau-
    tify  someone  else's program because its present format
    is maddening.  See Belvedere.

    (v) The act of resetting a device several times in  suc-
    cession to ensure that it is in a known state.

    (n) The person who always has the odd cable or  hardware
    widget that you need.

    (n) An unfamiliar program which  you  execute  to  ``see
    what  it does'' and all it does is hang, or cause you to
    go Seaside.

    (n)  1. The enlightenment felt by a Unix hacker who gets
    a  VMS  hacker  to  see the light;  2. The enlightenment
    felt by a VMS hacker who gets a Unix hacker to  see  the

    (n) A Milpitas which takes 3 people to  figure  out  and
    fix  while you're out to a long lunch.  Often results in
    a Sebastopol.

San Gregorio
    (n) Exclamation of anger  and  disgust  uttered  through
    clenched jaws as you realize you just made the same mis-
    take for the second (or third) time.

San Jose
    (n) The art of selecting forms of alloc() which  provide
    both memory and a random selection of hieroglyphics.

San Luis Obispo
    (n) A piece of code which expands to fill all  available

Santa Cruz
    (n) The contented state of  an  unattended  system  left
    running over a long weekend.

    (n) The ill-fitting sweater shared by the staff for  use
    during  long  debugging  sessions  in  a chilly computer
    room.  Typically, the Saratoga  originally  belonged  to
    someone who left the company years ago.

    (n) 1. The nonexistent #ifdef or #ifndef that adds spice
    to the concept of portability. 2. The critical step left
    out in a set of written or spoken procedures.

    (n) Your login session goes Seaside because of something
    you  have  done  as a naive user.  Using various control
    keys only makes matters  worse.   Generally,  you  don't
    know  enough  to  have  caused a Hayfork, but your login
    session will likely have to  be  killed  from  elsewhere

    (n) The barrage of good-natured  insults  endured  after
    committing a Salinas.

    (n) The exact measure of the  difference  in  efficiency
    between BSD4.1 and BSD4.2.

    (n) The interminable delay during an fsck.

    (n) Little bits of nonsensical output, often  containing
    unprintable characters, produced by an errant program.

    (n) One who gets stuck reloading the paper in a hardcopy

    (n) The place where zombie processes  spend  their  time
    while waiting for init to collect them.

    (n) The person who knows where the backup tape you  want
    is stored.

    (n) That mode of graphics terminals in which it  becomes
    impossible  to  clear graphic memory without hitting the
    power switch.

    (adj) Descriptive term applied to a particularly verbose

    (n) The exact measure of the  difference  in  efficiency
    between BSD4.1 and BSD4.3.

    (n) The condition which exists when someone else has the
    key  to  the  VAX  front  panel, and you're working on a

    (n) One who drones long  and  loud  about  his  intimate
    knowledge  of the system, and is avoided because of this
    tiresome banter.  It is an unfortunate fact that  Ukiahs
    often  know  the solution to a problem, but nobody wants
    to ask them.

    (n) Exclamation given when some serious and arcane prob-
    lem  is  finally  fixed  through  a combination of lucky
    guesswork and trial-and-error.

Walnut Creek
    (n) 1. The sound made by the vacuum columns  in  a  tape
    drive  as they first suck the tape in; 2. Where a kernel
    hacker often finds he's gotten.

    (n) Generic name for any home-brew computer system.

Yuba City
    (n) The failure of the system to reboot after preventive
    maintenance.   Intentionally  mispronounced Yubiccity in