Thursday, August 21, 2008

Books: The Art of UNIX Programming

I just finished reading The Art of UNIX Programming. In short, I liked it a lot.

Here are a few fun quotes:
Controlling complexity is the essence of computer programming -- Brian Kernighan [p. 14]
Software design and implementation should be a joyous art, a kind of high-level play...To do Unix philosophy right, you need to have (or recover) that attitude. [p. 27]
Microsoft actually admitted publicly that NT security is impossible in March 2003. [p. 69, Unfortunately, the URL he provided no longer works.]
One good test for whether an API is well designed is this one: if you try to write a description of it in purely human language (with no source-code extracts allowed), does it make sense? It is a very good idea to get into the habit of writing informal descriptions of your APIs before you code them. [p. 85, this is a good explanation for why I write docstrings before I write code.]
C++ is anticompact--the language's designer has admitted that he doesn't expect any one programmer to ever understand it all. [p. 89]
One thing Raymond does very well is document things that the rest of us implicitly assume. For instance, he described the various cultures revolving around UNIX. Now I know why I'm so mixed up! I sympathize with several different cultures such as:
  • Old-school UNIX hackers
  • The Open Source movement
  • The Free Software movement
  • BSD hackers
  • MIT Lisp hackers
  • The IETF
My copy of the book is from 2004, and as timeless as this book is, I still wish I could get a "post-modern" opinion on several topics. For instance:
  • Linux is so commonplace these days, what should we do now that everyone takes it for granted?
  • OS X has really won the hearts of a lot of developers. Is there any hope that the rest of the world will move closer to the Free Software ideal? (Please see my post A Hybrid World of Open and Closed Source Software.)
  • I'd love to get his take on Eclipse, TextMate, and modern-day Emacs and Vim.
  • I'd also love to get his opinions on Ruby and Rails.
In general, I think it's a fair critique that there weren't enough critiques of Unix. He mostly saved them until the last chapter. I would have enjoyed more critiques throughout. As much as I love Unix, one of my favorite books is The UNIX-HATERS Handbook.

Similarly, all of his discussion on Emacs vs. Vi seemed a bit biased. I know it's hard not to be biased on this topic, but I was a bit frustrated when he called all of Emacs' complexity "optional complexity" and all of Vi's complexity "accidental and ad-hoc complexity." Because of his statements I even gave Emacs another shot. However, as usual, I was reminded that in theory Emacs is my favorite editor, but in practice I'm a Vim user.

Nonetheless, I do have high praise for this book. When I was totally burnt out and couldn't code for two months, I found this book refreshing and relaxing. I owe Raymond my thanks :)


CorkyAgain said...

I think the best critiques of Unix are the ones made by Bell Labs/AT&T guys when they were working on Plan 9. In particular, Rob Pike has said some interesting things.

Copies of the relevant papers and presentations are out there on the net. Well worth the time to search them out.

Eddy Mulyono said...

I love that book.

I think it might've helped me land my first programming job (back in 2004).

ESR touched my life in so many ways.

Thomas Guest said...

I've read TAOUP a couple of times; it's an inspiring book, and has influenced me strongly. I think the name is somewhat misleading since the book isn't really about Unix programming, it's about the lessons programmers can learn from the Unix community.

Mark said...

Looks like Raymond has the full text of this book available on line: