January 5, 2004

Raymond's Rules of Cosmic Order

Eric S. Raymond is a UnixGod with no shortage of controversial ideas. That's the nature of Unix Gods. Strip the t-shirt off a UnixGod and you'll as likely find Mars as Jove. (Rarely, if ever, Venus.)

Curmudgeonly, scratchy and brilliant, Raymond is the author of numerous articles and several books which have a wide influence outside the arcane field of Unix programming. His most well known works are:The Cathedral & the Bazaar and The New Hackers' Dictionary AKA The Jargon File.

Last month, Raymond published a new book, The Art of Unix Programming which, according to Raymond,

attempts to capture the engineering wisdom and philosophy of the Unix community as it's applied today not merely as it has been written down in the past, but as a living "special transmission, outside the scriptures" passed from guru to guru. Accordingly, the book doesn't focus so much on "what" as on "why", showing the connection between Unix philosophy and practice through case studies in widely available open-source software."

All well and good and I am sure that all those like myself who cannot write a line of Unix wish those that can well in their endeavors. But, while not Unix literate myself, I do know guttural Unix as a consequence of many years dealing with various commands in the shell of a conferencing system called The Well. While frittering my years away on this limping, wheezing system I found I had to learn a few very basic Unix commands. I was also introduced to my first Unix Wizard, one "jef," who always seemed to know everything one could want to know about Unix and would share it in his gruff and blunt way. I liked his gruff bluntness, especially when it was directed against the personalities of others on the Well who yearn for bluntness like the landed fish yearns for the club.

Years of online communication with jef gave me some insight into the kind of personality that is either drawn to Unix and to programming, or is shaped by Unix and programming. I've come to believe it is a symbiotic relationship, at best. So, even though I can't code, I was interested to see what lay at the core of Raymond's Unix epic. And what seemed closest to the core was his: Basics of the Unix Philosophy ) -- a series of 'rules' derived from a number of different programmers over the years that Raymond boiled down into a simple and elegant list. But, as is easy to see with only a brief perusal, this is not just some list to be pasted next to a programmers work station, this is a list that can function on many other levels. In short, it is a list with more to teach than just how craft Unix.

The Raymond Rules for Unix

Lets see how these rules work when applied to writing:

The Raymond Rules for Writing

Not bad and thats only one draft. What this should suggest is that these rules are clever and useful well beyond the realm of Unix programming. Which, I believe, is one of Raymonds aims in drafting them; that they suggest not just a way of programming but a way of life.

But dont take my word for it. Apply them yourself to the realms of law, of politics, of love and of war. Youll find they hold true in all of these areas. I suppose Raymond could have called these rules the Commandments of Unix, but why would a UnixGod do that?

Posted by Vanderleun at January 5, 2004 4:18 PM
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