TweetFollow Us on Twitter

ESR, etc.

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Programming

Section 7

ESR, etc.

by Rich Morin

A multiplex review of a singular individual...

Eric S. Raymond (aka ESR) is best known for his activities in support of Open Source software. Several years ago, he convinced a group of key developers to adopt the term as a less-ambiguous and more "marketable" replacement for the existing term, "free software".

Note: The term "Open Source" was actually coined by Christine Peterson (President of the Foresight Institute; http://www.foresight.org). Also, the term "Free Software" still has its adherents; see http://www.fsf.org/philosophy.

Since that time, Eric has written extensively on topics related to Open Source software. His essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" is probably the best known of these essays, but the others are also worth reading. See "The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Unix and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary" (O'Reilly; http://www.oreilly.com).

Two of Eric's essays, "A Brief History of Hackerdom" and "The Revenge of the Hackers" appear in the excellent collection "Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution" (DiBona, et al; O'Reilly). If you want to understand hacker culture and the Open Source movement, both of these O'Reilly books would be excellent starting points.

Eric has also been busy on the organizational and legal sides of Open Source. He is President of the Board of Directors of the Open Source Institute (http://www.opensource.org). He has also published (and publicized) a number of internal Microsoft documents, weighed in on relevant lawsuits (e.g., the SCO unpleasantness), etc.

Other Publications

Eric writes extensively, covering a wide range of topics. His home page (http://catb.org/~esr) has links to essays on anthropology, economics, politics, science fiction, and many other areas. Even if you don't agree with Eric's opinions, you should find his writings to be interesting and thought-provoking.

As the long-standing steward of the Jargon File (http://www.jargon.org; also available as "The New Hacker's Dictionary" from MIT Press, http://mitpress.mit.com), Eric acts as an editor, lexicographer, historian, and (occasionally) anthropologist. The definitions tend to be far more interesting and enjoyable than one might expect from a conventional "dictionary".

The Art of Unix Programming

Over the past five years, Eric has been working on a distillation of the lessons that Unix has to offer the programming community. Taking his own advice ("Many eyes make all bugs shallow.") seriously, he brought in a number of Unix wizards as advisors. As a result, "The Art of Unix Programming" (Addison-Wesley; http://www.aw.com) is enjoyable, educational, and for the most part, authoritative.

Although the book doesn't address Mac OS X, in particular, it has quite a bit to say about the BSD side of the operating system. For instance, it talks at length about the Unix practice of encoding information in text files. OSX, with something like 100K text files, certainly seems to have adopted this idea.

It also discusses popular ideas such as object-oriented programming, threads, giving reasons why these might not be the best possible approach in all circumstances. All told, this book is the best introduction I can suggest for a Mac OS programmer who wants to understand the BSD (read, Unix) side of Mac OS X.

More can be less

True to Unix tradition, Eric extols the benefits of having many different tools. Again, OSX is right there, providing a plethora of programming languages and other useful utilities. I wonder, however, whether OSX (and the Open Source community, in general) may not be suffering from an embarrassment of riches.

In perusing leads for programming positions, many of us have noted the extreme diversity of skills that may be demanded for a single position. Applicants are expected to have several years of experience in each of several languages and tools. Often, it is hard to conceive reasons for using these languages and tools in a single project.

Ignoring the discouraging effect of such postings on prospective applicants, let's consider how the company managed to get into the position of needing this sort of polymath. Speculating, I propose that the company once had a number of programmers, each developing part of a complex system. Each programmer chose the "right tool for the job", in true Unix fashion.

The company now has far fewer programming positions, but it still needs to maintain a polyglot mass of software. Their job postings are totally unrealistic - no single programmer can have extensive skills in more than a few areas - but they are merely a symptom of a larger problem.

OSX has similar historical baggage. If you look in /etc, you will find numerous control files. Most of these are "flat files", employing newlines to separate records and some form of delimiter (e.g., colons or "white space") to separate fields. Unfortunately, the exact format varies, so programs (and administrators) must "understand" different syntax for each file.

The log files are in even worse shape. They may be written by multiple programs, so the format can vary from entry to entry. Because the entries were written for human consumption, they often provide no unambiguous way for a program to distinguish fields. This is a serious problem; if log files are too big for humans to read, and too messy for programs to read, exactly what purpose are they serving?

Moving on to OSX's "plist" files, we find two distinct formats in evidence. One, inherited from NeXT, uses a C-like syntax. The other, strongly encouraged by Apple's current documentation, is based on XML. Using the appropriate frameworks, an Apple programmer can read either file. An administrator, however, may need to be familiar with both.

Although I'm a big fan of YAML (YAML Ain't Markup Language; http://www.yaml.org), I sometimes wonder if I might be making some programmer or administrator's life more difficult, by introducing yet another data format. Sigh.

Programming languages are another area of concern. OSX is built out of C, C++, Objective-C, and a smattering of scripting languages. C is used for the "Core OS" (kernel, BSD libraries and programs), but C++ is used for the IOKit and most device drivers. Objective-C is used for the higher-level frameworks and applications. Finally, the scripting languages are used for all sorts of administrative glue.

Fortunately, few programmers write programs in all these areas. If you're writing GUI-based apps, you're unlikely to be writing device drivers at the same time. If you're a serious scripter, you may never look at any C (etc) code. Unless, as I am, you're using Perl, Python, or Ruby to build Cocoa-based apps.

For all my misgivings, however, I wouldn't want to be restricted to a single data format or programming language. XML is powerful and very "buzzword-compliant", but it's also verbose and a poor match for associative arrays. Objective-C is a tidy integration of OO into the base C language, but its memory management seems a bit awkward to my Perl-accustomed eyes.

Ockham's Razor ("Pluralitas Non Est Ponenda Sine Necessitate.") transliterates to "Plurality should not be posited without necessity", reminding scientists to remain parsimonious in imagining new mechanisms. It is also translated, however, as "Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity" and even "Keep It Simple, Stupid".

In short, our challenge as developers is to decide how to achieve simplicity (once we have decided what "simplicity" is, in a given context :-), while retaining the power and flexibility that our mixed programming heritage provides.

Eric's latest offering, like many of his earlier writings, helps to show us the way...


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1986 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Pocket Arcade Story (Games)
Pocket Arcade Story 1.00 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.00 (iTunes) Description: Here comes a new challenger: it's the arcade simulation game you've been waiting for! Build your very own gaming... | Read more »
How to get coins faster in Rodeo Stamped...
There comes a time in a cowboy or cowgirl's life when all the riding and lassoing skills in the world aren't enough. You're going to need some cold, hard cash to keep your sky zoo expanding in Rodeo Stampede. [Read more] | Read more »
How to out-do Cam Newton in Can You Dab?
The thing about dance crazes is that you're never really sure when they've run their course. Take the Dab, for instance. Propelled by its adoption as the touchdown celebration of choice for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the Dab seemed... | Read more »
Artik Games releases Splashy Cats for An...
Splashy Cats had us hooked from the title alone, and when we found out the game was literally just zig-zagging one of our favourite pop-culture references, guised as a playable cat character, down a river – our appetites were whetted to say the... | Read more »
Battle Cars (Games)
Battle Cars 1.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.1 (iTunes) Description: Welcome to the world of Battle Cars. Battle Cars is a classic arcade top-down racing game with fast mini cars and funny weapons to... | Read more »
How to get started with live.ly
One could be forgiven for thinking that there are already plenty of streaming video apps out there. It's just that the App Store charts would insist that you're mistaken. [Read more] | Read more »
Rodeo Stampede: Guide to all Savannah an...
A "gotta catch 'em all" joke seems appropriate here, even though we're talking animals in Rodeo Stampede and not pocket monsters. By now you've probably had plenty of rides, tamed some animals and built yourself a pretty nice zoo | Read more »
Is there cross-platform play in slither....
So you've sunken plenty of hours into crawling around in slither.io on your iPhone or iPad. You've got your stories of tragedy and triumph, the times you coiled four snakes at one time balanced out by the others when you had a length of more than... | Read more »
Rodeo Stampede guide to running a better...
In Rodeo Stampede, honing your skills so you can jump from animal to animal and outrun the herd as long as possible is only half the fun. Once you've tamed a few animals, you can bring them home with you. [Read more] | Read more »
VoxSyn (Music)
VoxSyn 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $6.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: VoxSyn turns your voice into the most flexible vocal sound generator ever. Instantly following even subtle modulations of pitch and... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Why Use Indie Opera And Vivaldi Instead Of Sa...
For many years my web browser workhorses were various permutations and spinoffs of the Netscape/Mozilla/Firefox Open Source platform, and the Norwegian indie browser Opera, which I took a shine to... Read more
Western Digital Launches Worlds Fastest 256GB...
At the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai Western Digital Corporation this week introduced a new suite of 256 gigabyte (GB) microSD cards, which includes the new 256GB SanDisk Extreme microSDXC UHS-I... Read more
KeyCue 8.1 Integrates With Typinator To Displ...
Ergonis Software has released KeyCue 8.1, a new version of the company’s keyboard shortcut cheat sheet. KeyCue 8 introduced a new way to define a wide variety of triggers, which can be used to... Read more
Save up to $600 with Apple refurbished Mac Pr...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Mac Pros available for up to $600 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each Mac Pro, and shipping is free. The following... Read more
21-inch 2.8GHz iMac on sale for $1199, save $...
Amazon has the 21″ 2.8GHz iMac (model #MK442LL/A) on sale for $1199.99 including free shipping. Their price is $100 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for this model. Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (Apple refurbished...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros available for $829, or $270 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros... Read more
MacBook Airs on sale for up to $50-$100 off M...
B&H Photo has 13″ and 11″ MacBook Airs on sale for up to $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 11″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air: $849 $50 off list price - 11″ 1.... Read more
Brexit Vote Result Forecast To Slash UK 2016...
Uncertainty and economic volatility can be expected to increase over the next nine months, as the Brexit and concerns over the future of the EU hit IT investment, say Canalys market analysts, with... Read more
13-inch 256GB MacBook Air on sale for $1149,...
Amazon has the 2016 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air (model MMGG2LL/A) on sale for $1149.99 including free shipping. Their price is also $50 off MSRP. Read more
Haven App Launches New Age Of Wirless 911 Eme...
Haven from RapidSOS represents a transformation in access to emergency services from a phone call solely dependent on voice to a robust data connection for voice, text, medical/demographic data.... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions, Willow...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
*Apple* iPhone 6s and New Products Tester Ne...
…we therefore look forward to put out products to quality test for durability. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.