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Thoughts: UNIX - History and Memoir (Book)

March 30, 2021

It’s always good to know about the things you love the most. It somehow makes you love them even more. I am glad non-living things are not stupidly self-conscious and self-doubting like us and I can understand them more deeply than I can understand other humans.

Some mind(ful|less) blabberings

With that said, I enjoyed this book. In Brian’s succint prose, he recollects the history of the mother of all operating systems: UNIX. And along the way, describes the sideways development that it encouraged such as the development of C (the “lingua franca of computing”), various timeless tools like grep, awk, sed, yacc, lex, make, document formatters and so on. He talks about what lead to the development of UNIX and ruminates on the kind of environment contagious to such breakthroughs. Unfettered management, fun atmosphere, great minds, stable funding and the freedom and willingness to solve real-world problems. He also points out and clear a lot of the admittedly confusing history that is the legacy of Unix as the (licensed) source code of Unix reached Berkeley. As he correctly pointed out, AT&T tried to “lock the barn door after the crown jewels had flown the coop”. And then we had BSD, Minix, Linux, Xenix and yada yada.

He talks about the revered “Unix philosophy” and spells it out in its entirety which is what I was looking for. He talks about the genius of Ken Thompson (May the Nerd God bless him), the technical eloquence of Dennis Ritchie, the management of Doug and so on. Who wouldn’t love to work at a place where people respect and rever things they loves?

He kind of skims very gently on the technical innovation that Unix brought to the table such as pipes, hierarchial file system, user-level shell programs along with the basic good design decisions and principles of system design.

He talks about pranks on other colleagues, defiance of the management and other geeky things that sound wholesome and naive (It makes me feel that Gods do sometimes play). He points out rather coyly the Unix system in use in the Jurassic Park which controlled the security locks and latches and how Lex navigated it and saved the day. He talks about the infamous comment in the Unix source code that apparently described code responsible for context-switching between processes and it went like:

/** You are not expected to understand this. **/

I think I can safely attribute the code it described to Ken :P.

And he did all that in his usual mix of humour and nostalgia which is heart-warming and I guess will be to anyone who had helped build something that has literally changed the world.

The masters have shown the way, it is time we lead.

Logs

This was a (relatively) short book and I think I completed it in three to four sittings. I finished it on Mar 30, 2021 though I’m sure to dig into the myriad of resources Brian has linked to. I also want to get my hands on the Unix src (6th edition) preferably with Lions’ commentary.

Basil | @itbwtsh

Tech, Science, Design, Economics, Finance, and Books.
Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
This blog is his passion project.