The letter L. How do you spell that?

For a short time in the early '90s, I administered a small SCO UNIX system (from the Santa Cruz Operation, not the litigious SCO Group) while working for Nesbitt Thomson, a Toronto-based investment house, later reconstituted as Nesbitt Burns.

The system was reliably flaky, particularly when executing the overnight batch process. I was living an hour's distance from the city at the time (two hours, should a drop of rain fall anywhere along the length of the Don Valley Parkway) and had to correct the inevitable 3:00am glitches over the phone, relaying commands to the server operations staff (the guys that print the reports, swap the backup tapes, and surf the porn).

As would any UNIX admin, I had set up a number of aliases for common commands: px as a shortcut for ps -aux and even l for the ls list files command (why type two characters when one will do?).

One early, early morning, the system again zigged when it should have zagged, and before long an operator was on the horn. I started walking him through a diagnosis of what might be the problem. The first thing to check was a set of log files produced by the batch process: the more that appeared in a given directory, the further along was the process before the crash.

He navigated to the log directory with aplomb and then I issued the fateful instruction:

"Let's look at the files in that directory. Type 'L'."

Came the response, "It says 'command not found'."

"Try it again. Maybe you hit the wrong key. Type 'L',"

"Nope. It says 'command not found' again."

Over the phone it sounded like he was hitting too many keys. It should have only taken two keypresses: one for the "L" and one for the return key. "Are you just typing 'L'?"

"'L', ya that's it."

"Just the one letter? It sounded like you were typing more. You didn't hit the shift key, did you?"

"Which letter?"

"The letter 'L'. Just type the letter 'L' and then hit return."

"What letter 'L' are you talking about?"

It is 3:00am after all, so at least one of us is pretty punchy. I must've been or I would've just told him to type the ls command rather than my custom alias. But I was on the rails now and not to be diverted. Before this was over, one of us was going straight to "L".

"The letter 'L' on the keyboard," I patiently explained. "Just type that one letter and hit return."

Click, click, click, click, click. "It says 'command not found'. Same as before, man."

"I heard you typing a bunch of keys that time. You should only type 'L' and return. That's just two keys."

"How do you type 'L' with just two keys?"

"Well, one key for 'L' and one for the return key."

"Oh. How do you spell 'L'?"

Long silence.

"It's the letter 'L'. As in the letters 'I', 'J', 'K', 'L'. It's one of the letters of the alphabet. It's somewhere on the right side of the keyboard." At this point I'm stumbling about the house in the dark looking for a QWERTY keyboard so that I can precisely describe the key's coordinates. I find one. "It's the key just to the right of 'K' and to the left of the semi-colon."

"What's a semi-colon?"

"'L' is the key to the right of the 'K'. The letter 'L'. It's shaped like a vertical line with a smaller line at the bottom pointing to the right. Just press it once. Just once and then hit return."

"Let me go get Chris."


Chris and I worked out the problem fairly quickly, and even fixed the original problem with the batch process. In the morning I checked the command history for the operator's account. In quick succession, it read "elle", "elle", "ell", "el", and finally "elle" again.

I shudder to think what might have happened had I abbreviated the command to the single letter "aitch."