Monday, August 30, 2010


whoami is an old Unix command that simply tells you who what username you are logged in as. These types of computer systems allow you to login as one person, but then temporarily act as another user or even as the superuser. In the days when the only interface to a computer was a command line interface, it could sometimes be confusing to remember which user account you were currently using. Hence, the whoami command was created to provide a simple reminder.

Being a Computer Science professor, this seems like an appropriate way to introduce myself -- by showing you the output of the whois command on my computer. On my laptop, which runs the Ubuntu version of the Linux operating system, this is what it shows:
$ whoami
(Most command line interfaces use a black background with white text because it is easier to read.)

My last name is Zappala, which is a fairly common name in Sicily.  The few times I've visited the place my grandfather is from, I'm welcomed as a long-lost son, simply because of my last name.  There is even a dairy company run by a ZappalĂ  family, so when you eat at a restaurant, you get butter packets with my last name displayed prominently:
A more clever command line interface might respond:
$ whoami
One of five brothers raised in an Italian-Catholic family who joined the LDS church in graduate school
Because of my heritage I've learned to love researching my family history.  The Italians were great at keeping detailed records, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed copies of nearly every small town in the country.  And these records have a wealth of information -- marriage records list not just the bride and groom names, but their ages, birth place, their parents names, and the maiden names of their mothers.  In some cases, the records also include the birth certificates of the bride and groom, plus the death certificates of any parents that had already died.  In the latter case, a grandparent stood in for the deceased parent, and if the grandparent had already died, that death certificate is also included.  Pretty amazing.

Of course, my mom would not want me to leave out that her side of the family is Danish, English, and Scottish.   I was raised with a mixture of Italian traditions (HUGE meals whenever we visited my Italian grandparents) and Danish desserts, with attendance at Catholic mass every Sunday a must, plus serving as an altar boy for any weddings or funerals that occurred each week.

If my computer was smart enough to access my Facebook profile, it might respond:
$ whoami
Associate Professor of Computer Science at BYU, husband, dad, landscaper, painter, reader, hiker, photographer, cook, and family historian
I have a BS in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in Computer Science from USC, which is where I met Prof. Burton.  I initially taught at the University of Oregon, and came to BYU in 1984.  I met my wife at USC as well, where she was studying film criticism, and we have three kids.  Because we own a house, I have become the landscaper and painter in my spare time.  I love reading, which is one of the reasons I'm excited to teach this class -- it's a great excuse to read something other than Computer Science texts.  I enjoy hiking in the woods and would love to take a photography class some day.  This is one of my favorite photos of Yellowstone:

I'm also an avid cook, and particularly enjoy making homemade pizza:

Finally, the most accurate result of whoami might be:
$ whoami
a geek
I mean that in a good way.  My goal for this class is to help you to understand a little bit about Computer Science and how computing concepts intersect with the history of Western civilization.  I will do whatever I can to help demystify the world of computing for you.  I hope you'll find that computing can provide an interesting way of interpreting our readings, and that our texts can also illuminate our understanding of computing technology and its impact on our lives.  Along the way, we'll both become more familiar with using digital media to express ourselves and to make connections with each other and the world.


Gideon Burton said...

Dude, you're raising the bar already! I'm going to have to go all multi-media in my "Hi, I'm Dr. Burton" post now!

That butter thing is cool. Wish I had a table top commodity named after me... But I do have Burton snowboards to show off my tribe. Not that I'm related.

It's almost midnight and I'm not ready with my part of class prep for tomorrow. Midnight oil time!

Andrew said...

Prof. Zappala,

This was a great way to get to know you better. I also learned something about you by your introduction in our #digiciv class. I thought I ought to mention this to you because you might find it amusing. I noticed today that you probably use Ubuntu Linux command-line a lot more than windows command line. The reason I think so is because I noticed your first thought in typing the command for listing out all the files in the directory was:


but you quickly realized you were using a windows computer, deleted that and typed instead


and pushed enter.

I use Linux command-line frequently in astronomy research so I thats why I noticed.

I look forward to this class.
-Andrew DeWitt

Daniel Zappala said...

Andrew, you definitely caught me! I very rarely use Windows, so you'll see me doing some idiosyncratic things in class from time to time.

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