Unix: a history and a memoir

It was a bit surprising to me that Brian Kernighan self-published a book about Unix history with Kindle Direct publishing, but given how many other books he’s published he must have his reasons for not using traditional channels for this one. The book is an engaging read, with quotes which still seem timely today popping up every so often. Certainly the decision to self-publish does not appear to have been because of a lack of effort put into the book. An example of a quote I think is still relevant today:

“Stable funding was a crucial factor for research. It meant that AT&T could take a long-term view and Bell Labs researchers had the freedom to explore areas that might not have a near-term payoff and perhaps never would. That’s a contrast with today’s world, in which planning often seems to look ahead only a few months, and much effort is spent on speculating on financial results for the next quarter.” (page 7).

Kernighan covers his own early career and the general functioning of Bell Labs, before starting to delve into the history of Unix. Describing at a high level early batch processing systems and then Multics, Kernighan describes how Multics suffered from the second systems effect (see The Mythical Man Month for a good description of that).

Overall, Kernighan describes what must have been an amazing work environment — a grouping of absolute leaders in their field at a time where there was so much fundamental technology to be invented and described. I can’t help but be a little jealous — I’m not sure there is a modern equivalent. Google for example would have had a similar set of circumstances at times in its history, but wasn’t as inclined to share with the greater world like Bell Labs did. Interestingly Eric Schmidt was a summer student at Bell Labs — he re-wrote Lex while there.

Another interesting contribution from Kernighan is the following rule, which I think we’ve lost sight of in a world of large monolithic code bases:

“…a good example of a general rule: if a program writes your code for you, the code will be more correct and reliable than if you write it yourself by hand. If the generator is improved… everyone benefits.” (page 96).

I think this applies to libraries as well — if you’re going to write something which might be useful to others, its much better off in a library where others can get to it than in your own codebase. That said, I think avoiding leftpad seems like a noble goal.

Overall this was an enjoyable book and I recommend it.

Unix Book Cover Unix
Brian W. Kernighan
Operating systems (Computers)
October 18, 2019

"The fascinating story of how Unix began and how it took over the world. Brian Kernighan was a member of the original group of Unix developers, the creator of several fundamental Unix programs, and the co-author of classic books like "The C Programming Language" and "The Unix Programming Environment".

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