Preface to The Unix-Haters Handbook

(Editors note: this page is a verbatim reproduction of the preface in the published version of "The UNIX-HATERS Handbook.")

Things Are Going to Get a Lot Worse
Before Things Get Worse

"I liken starting one's computing career with Unix, say as an undergraduate, to being born in East Africa. It is intolerably hot, your body is covered with lice and flies, you are malnourished and you suffer from numerous curable diseases. But, as far as young East Africans can tell, this is simply the natural condition and they live within it. By the time they find out differently, it is too late. They already think that the writing of shell scripts is a natural act."

Ken Pier, Xerox PARC

Modern Unix is a catastrophe. It's the "Un-Operating System": unreliable, unintuitive, unforgiving, unhelpful, and underpowered. Little is more frustrating than trying to force Unix to do something useful and nontrivial. Modern Unix impedes progress in computer science, wastes billions of dollars, and destroys the common sense of many who seriously use it. An exaggeration? You won't think so after reading this book.

Deficient by Design

The original Unix solved a problem and solved it well, as did the Roman numeral system, the mercury treatment for syphilis, and carbon paper. And like those technologies, Unix, too, rightfully belongs to history. It was developed for a machine with little memory, tiny disks, no graphics, no networking, and no power. In those days it was mandatory to adopt an attitude that said: "Being small and simple is more important than being complete and correct." "You only have to solve 90% of the problem." "Everything is a stream of bytes."

These attitudes are no longer appropriate for an operating system that hosts complex and important applications. They can even be deadly when Unix is used by untrained operators for safety-critical tasks.

Ironically, the very attributes and design goals that made Unix a success when computers were much smaller, and were expected to do far less, now impede its utility and usability. Each graft of a new subsystem onto the underlying core has resulted in either rejection or graft vs. host disease with its concomitant proliferation of incapacitating scar tissue. The Unix networking model is a cacophonous Babel of Unreliability that quadrupled the size of Unix's famed compact kernel. Its window system inherited the cryptic unfriendliness of its character-based interface, while at the same time realized new ways to bring fast computers to a crawl. Its new system administration tools take more time to use than they save. Its mailer makes the U.S. Postal Service look positively stellar.

The passing years only magnify the flaws. Using Unix remains an unpleasant experience for beginners and experts alike. Despite a plethora of fine books on the subject, Unix security remains an elusive goal at best. Despite increasingly fast, intelligent peripherals, high-performance asynchronous I/O is a pipe dream. Even though manufacturers spend millions developing "easy-to-use" graphical user interfaces, few versions of Unix allow you to do anything but trivial system administration without having to resort to the 1970s-style teletype interface. Indeed, as Unix is pushed to be more and more, it instead becomes less and less. Unix cannot be fixed from the inside. It must be discarded.

Who We Are

We are academics, hackers, and professionals. None of us were born in the computing analog of Ken Pier's East Africa. We have all experienced much more advanced, usable, and elegant systems than Unix ever was, or ever can be. Some of these systems have increasingly forgotten names, such as TOPS-20, ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System), Multics, Apollo Domain, the Lisp Machine, Cedar/Mesa, and the Dorado. Some of us even use Macs and Windows boxes. Many of us are highly proficient programmers who have served our time trying to practice our craft upon Unix systems. It's tempting to write us off as envious malcontents, romantic keepers of memories of systems put to pasture by the commercial success of Unix, but it would be an error to do so: our judgments are keen, our sense of the possible pure, and our outrage authentic. We seek progress, not the reestablishment of ancient relics.

Our story started when the economics of computing began marching us, one by one, into the Unix Gulag. We started passing notes to each other. At first, they spoke of cultural isolation, of primitive rites and rituals that we thought belonged only to myth and fantasy, of depravation and humiliations. As time passed, the notes served as morale boosters, frequently using black humor based upon our observations. Finally, just as prisoners who plot their escape must understand the structure of the prison better than their captors do, we poked and prodded into every crevice. To our horror, we discovered that our prison had no coherent design. Because it had no strong points, no rational basis, it was invulnerable to planned attack. Our rationality could not upset its chaos, and our messages became defeatist, documenting the chaos and lossage.

This book is about people who are in abusive relationships with Unix, woven around the threads in the UNIX-HATERS mailing list. These notes are not always pretty to read. Some are inspired, some are vulgar, some depressing. Few are hopeful. If you want the other side of the story, go read a Unix how-to book or some sales brochures.

This book won't improve your Unix skills. If you are lucky, maybe you will just stop using Unix entirely.


The year was 1987, and Michael Travers, a graduate student at the MIT Media Laboratory, was taking his first steps into the future. For years Travers had written large and beautiful programs at the console of his Symbolics Lisp Machine (affectionately known as a LispM), one of two state-of-the-art AI workstations at the Lab. But it was all coming to an end. In the interest of cost and efficiency, the Media Lab had decided to purge its LispMs. If Travers wanted to continue doing research at MIT, he discovered, he would have to use the Lab's VAX mainframe.

The VAX ran Unix.

MIT has a long tradition of mailing lists devoted to particular operating systems. These are lists for systems hackers, such as ITS-LOVERS, which was organized for programmers and users of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory's Incompatible Timesharing System. These lists are for experts, for people who can-and have-written their own operating systems. Michael Travers decided to create a new list. He called it UNIX-HATERS:

Date: Thu, 1 Oct 87 13:13:41 EDT
From: Michael Travers <MT>
Subject: Welcome to UNIX-HATERS
In the tradition of TWENEX-HATERS, a mailing list for surly folk who have difficulty accepting the latest in operating system technology.

If you are not in fact a Unix hater, let me know and I'll remove you. Please add other people you think need emotional outlets for their frustration.

The first letter that Michael sent to UNIX-HATERS included a well-reasoned rant about Suns written by another new member of the Unix Gulag: John Rose, a programmer at a well-known Massachusetts computer manufacturer (whose lawyers have promised not to sue us if we don't print the company's name). Like Michael, John had recently been forced to give up a Lisp Machine for a computer running Unix. Frustrated after a week of lost work, he sent this message to his company's internal support mailing list:

Date: Fri, 27 Feb 87 21:39:24 EST
From: John Rose
To: sun-users, systems

Pros and Cons of Suns

Well, I've got a spare minute here, because my Sun's editor window evaporated in front of my eyes, taking with it a day's worth of Emacs state.

So, the question naturally arises, what's good and bad about Suns?

This is the fifth day I've used a Sun. Coincidentally, it's also the fifth time my Emacs has given up the ghost. So I think I'm getting a feel for what's good about Suns.

One neat thing about Suns is that they really boot fast. You ought to see one boot, if you haven't already. It's inspiring to those of us whose LispMs take all morning to boot.

Another nice thing about Suns is their simplicity. You know how a LispM is always jumping into that awful, hairy debugger with the confusing backtrace display, and expecting you to tell it how to proceed? Well, Suns ALWAYS know how to proceed. They dump a core file and kill the offending process. What could be easier? If there's a window involved, it closes right up. (Did I feel a draft?) This simplicity greatly decreases debugging time because you immediately give up all hope of finding the problem, and just restart from the beginning whatever complex task you were up to. In fact, at this point, you can just boot. Go ahead, it's fast!

One reason Suns boot fast is that they boot less. When a LispM loads code into its memory, it loads a lot of debugging information too. For example, each function records the names of its arguments and local variables, the names of all macros expanded to produce its code, documentation strings, and sometimes an interpreted definition, just for good measure.

Oh, each function also remembers which file it was defined in. You have no idea how useful this is: there's an editor command called "meta-point" that immediately transfers you to the source of any function, without breaking your stride. ANY function, not just one of a special predetermined set. Likewise, there's a key that causes the calling sequence of a function to be displayed instantly.

Logged into a Sun for the last few days, my Meta-Point reflex has continued unabated, but it is completely frustrated. The program that I am working on has about 80 files. If I want to edit the code of a function Foo, I have to switch to a shell window and grep for named Foo in various files. Then I have to type in the name of the appropriate file. Then I have to correct my spelling error. Finally I have to search inside the file. What used to take five seconds now takes a minute or two. (But what's an order of magnitude between friends?) By this time, I really want to see the Sun at its best, so I'm tempted to boot it a couple of times.

There's a wonderful Unix command called "strip," with which you force programs to remove all their debugging information. Unix programs (such as the Sun window system) are stripped as a matter of course, because all the debugging information takes up disk space and slows down the booting process. This means you can't use the debugger on them. But that's no loss; have you seen the Unix debugger? Really.

Did you know that all the standard Sun window applications ("tools") are really one massive 3/4 megabyte binary? This allows the tools to share code (there's a lot of code in there). Lisp Machines share code this way, too. Isn't it nice that our workstations protect our memory investments by sharing code.

None of the standard Sun window applications ("tools") support Emacs. Unix applications cannot be patched either; you must have the source so you can patch THAT, and then regenerate the application from the source.

But I sure wanted my Sun's mouse to talk to Emacs. So I got a couple hundred lines of code (from GNU source) to compile, and link with the very same code that is shared by all the standard Sun window applications ("tools"). Presto! Emacs gets mice! Just like the LispM; I remember similar hacks to the LispM terminal program to make it work with Emacs. It took about 20 lines of Lisp code. (It also took less work than those aforementioned couple hundred lines of code, but what's an order of magnitude between friends?)

Ok, so I run my Emacs-with-mice program, happily mousing away. Pretty soon Emacs starts to say things like "Memory exhausted" and "Segmentation violation, core dumped." The little Unix console is consoling itself with messages like "clntudp_create: out of memory." Eventually my Emacs window decides it's time to close up for the day.

What has happened? Two things, apparently. One is that when I created my custom patch to the window system, to send mouse clicks to Emacs, I created another massive 3/4 megabyte binary, which doesn't share space with the standard Sun window applications ("tools").

This means that instead of one huge mass of shared object code running the window system, and taking up space on my paging disk, I had two such huge masses, identical except for a few pages of code. So I paid a megabyte of swap space for the privilege of using a mouse with my editor. (Emacs itself is a third large mass.)

The Sun kernel was just plain running out of room. Every trivial hack you make to the window system replicates the entire window system. But that's not all: Apparently there are other behemoths of the swap volume. There are some network things with truly stupendous-sized data segments. Moreover, they grow over time, eventually taking over the entire swap volume, I suppose. So you can't leave a Sun up for very long. That's why I'm glad Suns are easy to boot!

But why should a network server grow over time? You've got to realize that the Sun software dynamically allocates very complex data structures. You are supposed to call "free" on every structure you have allocated, but it's understandable that a little garbage escapes now and then because of programmer oversight. Or programmer apathy. So eventually the swap volume fills up! This leads me to daydream about a workstation architecture optimized for the creation and manipulation of large, complex, interconnected data structures, and some magic means of freeing storage without programmer intervention. Such a workstation could stay up for days, reclaiming its own garbage, without need for costly booting operations.

But, of course, Suns are very good at booting! So good, they sometimes spontaneously boot, just to let you know they're in peak form!

Well, the console just complained about the lack of memory again. Gosh, there isn't time to talk about the other LispM features I've been free of for the last week. Such as incremental recompilation and loading. Or incremental testing of programs, from a Lisp Listener. Or a window system you can actually teach new things (I miss my mouse-sensitive Lisp forms). Or safe tagged architecture that rigidly distinguishes between pointers and integers. Or the Control-Meta-Suspend key. Or manuals.

Time to boot!

John Rose sent his email message to an internal company mailing list. Somehow it was forwarded to Michael Travers at the Media Lab. John didn't know that Michael was going to create a mailing list for himself and his fellow Unix-hating friends and e-mail it out. But Michael did and, seven years later, John is still on UNIX-HATERS, along with hundreds of other people.

At the end of flame, John Rose included this disclaimer:

[Seriously folks: I'm doing my best to get our money's worth out of this box, and there are solutions to some of the above problems. In particular, thanks to Bill for increasing my swap space. In terms of raw CPU power, a Sun can really get jobs done fast. But I needed to let off some steam, because this disappearing editor act is really getting my dander up.]

Some disclaimer. The company in question had bought its Unix workstations to save money. But what they saved in hardware costs they soon spent (and continue to spend) many times over in terms of higher costs for support and lost programmer productivity. Unfortunately, now that we know better, it is too late. Lisp Machines are a fading memory at the company: everybody uses Unix. Most think of Unix as a pretty good operating system. After all, it's better than DOS.

Or is it?

You are not alone

If you have ever used a Unix system, you have probably had the same nightmarish experiences that we have had and heard. You may have deleted important files and gone for help, only to be told that it was your own fault, or, worse, a "rite of passage." You may have spent hours writing a heart-wrenching letter to a friend, only to have it lost in a mailer burp, or, worse, have it sent to somebody else. We aim to show that you are not alone and that your problems with Unix are not your fault.

Our grievance is not just against Unix itself, but against the cult of Unix zealots who defend and nurture it. They take the heat, disease, and pestilence as givens, and, as ancient shamans did, display their wounds, some self-inflicted, as proof of their power and wizardry. We aim, through bluntness and humor, to show them that they pray to a tin god, and that science, not religion, is the path to useful and friendly technology.

Computer science would have progressed much further and faster if all of the time and effort that has been spent maintaining and nurturing Unix had been spent on a sounder operating system. We hope that one day Unix will be relinquished to the history books and museums of computer science as an interesting, albeit costly, footnote.

Contributors and Acknowledgments

To write this book, the editors culled through six years' archives of the UNIX-HATERS mailing list. These contributors are referenced in each included message and are indexed in the rear of the volume. Around these messages are chapters written by UNIX-HATERS experts who felt compelled to contribute to this expose.

We are:

Simson Garfinkel, a journalist and computer science researcher. Simson received three undergraduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He would be in graduate school working on his Ph.D. now, but this book came up and it seemed like more fun. Simson is also the co-author of Practical Unix Security (O'Reilly and Associates, 1991) and NeXTSTEP Programming (Springer-Verlag, 1993). In addition to his duties as editor, Simson wrote the chapters on Documentation, the Unix File System, Networking, and Security.

Daniel Weise, a researcher at Microsoft's research laboratory. Daniel received his Ph.D. and Master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and was an assistant professor at Stanford University's Department of Electrical Engineering until deciding to enter the real world of DOS and Windows. While at his cushy academic job, Daniel had time to work on this project. Since leaving Stanford for the rainy shores of Lake Washington, a challenging new job and a bouncing, crawling, active baby boy have become his priorities. In addition to initial editing, Daniel wrote large portions of Welcome, New User; Mail; and Terminal Insanity.

Steven Strassmann, a senior scientist at Apple Computer. Steven received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory and is an expert on teaching good manners to computers. He instigated this book in 1992 with a call to arms on the UNIX-HATERS mailing list. He's currently working on Apple's Dylan development environment.

John Klossner, a Cambridge-based cartoonist whose work can be found littering the greater northeastern United States. In his spare time, John enjoys public transportation.

Donald Norman, an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer, Inc. and a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of more than 12 books including The Design of Everyday Things.

Dennis Ritchie, Head of the Computing Techniques Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He and Ken Thompson are considered by many to be the fathers of Unix. In the interest of fairness, we asked Dennis to write our Anti-Foreword.

Scott Burson, the author of Zeta C, the first C compiler for the Lisp Machine. These days he makes his living hacking C++ as a consultant in Silicon Valley. Scott wrote most of the chapter on C++.

Don Hopkins, a seasoned user interface designer and graphics programmer. Don received a BSCS degree from the University of Maryland while working as a researcher at the Human Computer Interaction Lab. Don has worked at UniPress Software, Sun Microsystems, the Turing Institute, and Carnegie Mellon University. He ported SimCity to NeWS and X11 for DUX Software. He now works for Kaleida. Don wrote the chapter on the X-Windows Disaster. (To annoy X fanatics, Don specifically asked that we include the hyphen after the letter "X," as well as the plural on the word "Windows," in his chapter title.)

Mark Lottor, who has actively hated Unix since his first Usenix conference in 1984. Mark was a systems programmer on TOPS-20 systems for eight years, then spent a few years of doing Unix system administration. Frustrated by Unix, he now programs microcontrollers in assembler, where he doesn't have to worry about operating systems, shells, compilers, or window systems getting in the way of things. Mark wrote the chapter on System Administration.

Christopher Maeda, a specialist on operating systems who hopes to have his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University by the time this book is published. Christopher wrote most of the chapter on Programming.

Rich Salz is a Principal Software Engineer at the Open Software Foundation, where he works on the Distributed Computing Environment. Rich has been active on the Usenet for many years; during his multiyear tenure as moderator of comp.sources.unix he set the defacto standards for Usenet source distribution still in use. He also bears responsibility for InterNetNews, one of the most virulent NNTP implementations of Usenet. More importantly, he was twice elected editor-in-chief of his college newspaper, The Tech, but both times left school rather than serve out his term. Rich wrote the Snoozenet chapter.

In producing this book, we have used and frequently incorporated messages from Phil Agre, Greg Anderson, Judy Anderson, Rob Austein, Alan Bawden, Alan Borning, Phil Budne, David Chapman, Pavel Curtis, Mark Friedman, Jim Davis, John R. Dunning, Leonard N. Foner, Simson Garfinkel, Chris Garrigues, Ken Harrenstien, Ian D. Horswill, Bruce Howard, David H. Kaufman, Tom Knight, Robert Krajewski, James Lee Johnson, Jerry Leichter, Jim McDonald, Dave Mankins, Richard Mlynarik, Nick Papadakis, Michael A. Patton, Kent M. Pitman, Jonathan Rees, Stephen E. Robbins, M. Strata Rose, Robert E. Seastrom, Olin Shivers, Patrick Sobalvarro, Christopher Stacy, Stanley's Tool Works, Steve Strassmann, Michael Tiemann, Michael Travers, David Vinayak Wallace, David Waitzman, Dan Weinreb, Daniel Weise, John Wroclawski, Gail Zacharias, and Jamie Zawinski.

The Unix Barf Bag was inspired by Kurt Schmucker, a world-class C++ hater and designer of the infamous C++ barf bag. Thanks, Kurt.

We received advice and support from many people whose words do not appear here, including Beth Rosenberg, Dan Ruby, Alexander Shulgin, Miriam Tucker, David Weise, and Laura Yedwab.

Many people read and commented on various drafts of this manuscript. We would especially like to thank Judy Anderson, Phil Agre, Regina C. Brown, Michael Cohen, Michael Ernst, Dave Hitz, Don Hopkins, Reuven Lerner, Dave Mankins, Eric Raymond, Paul Rubin, M. Strata Rose, Cliff Stoll, Len Tower Jr., Michael Travers David Waitzman, and Andy Watson. A special thanks to all of you for making many corrections and suggestions, and finding our typos. We would especially like to thank Matthew Wagner at Waterside Productions. Matt immediately gravitated to this book in May 1992. He was still interested more than a year later when Simson took over the project from Daniel. Matt paired us up with Christopher Williams at IDG Programmers Press. Chris signed us up without hesitation, then passed us on to Trudy Neuhaus, who saw the project through to its completion. Amy Pedersen was our Imprint Manager. The UNIX-HATERS cover was illustrated by Ken Copfelt of The Stock Illustration Source.

Typographical Conventions

In this book, we use this roman font for most of the text and a different sans serif font for the horror stories from the UNIX-HATERS mailing list. We've tried to put command names, where they appear, in bold, and the names of Unix system functions in italics. There's also a courier font used for computer output, and we make it bold for information typed by the user. That's it. This isn't an unreadable and obscure computer manual with ten different fonts in five different styles. We hate computer manuals that look like they were unearthed with the rest of King Tut's sacred artifacts.

This book was typeset without the aid of troff, eqn, pic, tbl, yuc, ick, or any other idiotic Unix acronym. In fact, it was typeset using FrameMaker on a Macintosh, a Windows box, and a NeXTstation.

The UNIX-HATERS Disclaimer

In these days of large immoral corporations that compete on the basis of superior software patents rather than superior software, and that have no compunctions against suing innocent universities, we had better set a few things straight, lest they sic an idle lawyer on us:

It might be the case that every once in a while these companies allow a programmer to fix a bug rather than apply for a patent, so some of the more superficial problems we document in this book might not appear in a particular version of Unix from a particular supplier. That doesn't really matter, since that same supplier probably introduced a dozen other bugs making the fix. If you can prove that no version of Unix currently in use by some innocent victim isn't riddled with any of the problems that we mention in this volume, we'll issue a prompt apology.

Inaccuracies may have crept into our narrative, despite our best intentions to keep them out. Don't take our word for gospel for a particular flaw without checking your local Unix implementation.

Unix haters are everywhere. We are in the universities and the corporations. Our spies have been at work collecting embarrassing electronic memoranda. We don't need the discovery phase of litigation to find the memo calculating that keeping the gas tank where it is will save $35 million annually at the cost of just eight lives. We've already got that memo. And others.

Editors of "The Unix-Haters handbook",