Saturday Aug 11, 2007

Weird and wonderful Solaris variety

One of the weirdest and coolest things about Solaris, at least to me, is that there are so many different ways to interact with it. Instead of presenting a single face to the world, like Windows or Mac OS, Solaris is a hydra with a hundred heads, and you can talk to any one of them -- or even create a new one. Case in point -- as I write this post I'm using Roller, but I didn't open the Java Desktop System to do it. I'm writing the post in a window that I opened in FVWM, one of the dozens of alternate window managers that UNIX and Linux have spawned. I downloaded FVWM from Blastwave.org yesterday, and followed instructions I found on a blog by Sun's own Brendan Gregg to get it running. Thanks, Brendan!

Why would I want to do this? I guess it's the same reason that sometimes I like to look at my email using Pine, and sometimes I like to speak Spanish. The freedom to choose one's mode of communication is something very basic. They can build the best monolithic desktop system on the planet, like the one I was fooling around with down at the Apple store today, but there are still going to be a lot of shadetree mechanics like me that are going to want to roll our own, and you'll find us down at the corner of Solaris Avenue and Linux Street, here in UNIX Town.

Saturday Aug 04, 2007

Another terrific UNIX bookl

My quest to find the perfect UNIX book is approaching an obsession. I'm only half way through Understanding UNIX, A Conceptual Guide and already I've gone and bought another. This one is Visual Quickstart Guide UNIX, Third Edition, by Deborah S. Ray and Eric J. Ray. Eric is a noted Sun engineer, so I knew the book would be good, but it turns out that Deborah and Eric have written more than a dozen books on software, and their expertise shows throughout. 

I wonder if there is something about male/female teams that produces great software books? Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates wrote the breakthrough Head First Java, and the brother-sister team of John R. Levine and Margaret Levine Young wrote my well-thumbed and beloved UNIX for Dummies.

The Rays' book takes more of a cookbook approach than I have liked in the past, but now that I have gotten past the initial learning stage with other books that explain everything in detail, I think this information-packed handbook is exactly what I need to have at hand when I actually sit down at the computer. Excellent!

I should note that the book focuses exclusively on the command line -- true classical UNIX. This is what interests me now, but as I move into learning about X and window managers, I think I will need yet another book. Or two. Or five. Obsession is a terrible thing.

Sunday Jul 22, 2007

Enlightenment from a 24-year-old UNIX book

BW and I were hanging out at Out of the Closet, a thrift store that raises funds for an AIDS assistance group here in LA. BW has an eagle eye for classic vintage clothes, and I like to peruse the used books. I came across a real gem: Understanding UNIX, A Conceptual Guide, by James R. Groff and and Paul N. Weinberg, published by Que in 1983. What a cool blast from the past! From page 1: "Exactly what is the UNIX system? Why do such intense interest and controversy surround it? How does UNIX relate to other microcomputer operating systems, such as CP/M and MS-DOS?" And from Page 2: "What are the relationships among the different versions of UNIX, such as System V, Berkely UNIX, XENIX, and PC/IX?"  No mention in the book of that little startup called Sun Microsystems, but it does say that "over a hundred different computer vendors offer UNIX or 'UNIX look-alike' products."

Oddly enough, I'm getting a lot out of reading the book, and not just quaint references to long-vanished UNIX variants. In 1983 the authors were writing about something that was exciting in its newness, and their enthusiasm makes the text come alive. I'm learning about the features that made UNIX important then, the ones we take for granted now because they've become part of every other operating system. And UNIX was simpler then, so I'm learning about what is most important in the system, without becoming bogged down in chapters about all the less-important stuff that's been added since.

The authors weren't kidding, either, when they called it  A Conceptual Guide. A lot of the UNIX books I've seen are too monkey-see-monkey-do for my taste, telling you what to do rather than why you do it. Understanding UNIX  is organized by concept, with chapters on the file system, the shell, file processing and so forth, with explanations of the underlying structure at every step. I like that. Maybe it stems from being over-educated, but I find that I have a much greater attention span when I understand the "why" of what I'm reading. For me, this is the best UNIX book I've come across. Sometimes older really is better.

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