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This Manual Gives Complete Descriptions
A short story of the Unix Programmer's Manual
History is a process of transforming monuments from the past into documents
I often drive into New Jersey recreationally, seeking state parks and reservations with fresher air than whatever the Gramercy Park sky above me has. It was on one such drive that I sought out the natural tranquility of a particular wildlife preserve in Union County. This past week especially had not been easy. A man had died, we learned, through someone’s poor understanding of a command-line utility. The documentation page had apparently been too opaque for my analyst to comprehend. A malfunctioning process in the embedded system of a Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center ventilator was supposed to have been terminated and re-initialized. Instead, the logged-in analyst had read what he thought was the process ID from the wrong output column. The running process he killed was not the malfunctioning process at all; the PID he had submitted to the
kill command was not even a PID, but a wholly unrelated integer: the kilobyte measure of the running program’s memory usage. As a result, the malfunctioning process on the ventilator system had continued to run, while he believed the application had halted execution. The mistake had gone unnoticed for long enough to shred this patient’s lung tissue. Any time a patient who had relied on our technology died, I got to feeling emotionally overwhelmed. This analyst reported to me, although opposite working shifts prevented us often from seeing one another. Was I personally responsible? It felt that way. I myself had once been a medical systems analyst, as my junior report was. Dammit, how hard was it to read and understand the manual?
“There is a command line tool called
man,” I bluntly told him in our retrospective. “If you don’t understand the output of any command on a Unix-like operating system, use it, read the manpage, and enlighten yourself.”
I needed these excursions into the forests of New Jersey as my way of unwinding. One sign off the side of I-78 past Newark pointed out the Murray Hill Bell Labs campus. I have always found the history of computers fascinating, and the creation-site of so much technological history seemed to pull me in, even gravitationally. On a whim, I decided to seek out the historic office facility rather than complete my planned drive to the Ruth Yablonsky trailhead in some swampy nature preserve. As a “weekend warrior,” Monday and Tuesday were my days off. Today being a weekday, I considered the possibility that guided tours may even be offered for the curious, or, at the very least, an exhibit hall pandering to the occasional school group.
Invigorated by the spontaneity of my decision, I gripped my steering wheel and turned off Exit 43, thrilled to think I should today see the legendary Nokia Bell Labs for the first time.
As I circled a nearly empty parking lot, I began to doubt the wisdom of my impulsive decision. It was not until I had parked my Volvo and walked over to the entrance that I started to suspect my original plan of a hike in the boggy woods might have been today’s better choice.
A sign on the main entrance glass door confirmed my suspicions. The campus was closed for Columbus Day. My pilgrimage had failed. I had nothing to show for my diversion except a pint of wasted gasoline and eleven lost minutes from my day off. I sat on a decorative limestone boulder not far away from the darkened entrance. I would at least catch my breath before returning to my vehicle.
I caught the sight of a security guard rounding the corner of the building. The tip of my tongue prepared a “just leaving, officer” as his figure grew larger in my field-of-vision. He didn’t ask me what I was doing outside a closed office building on a federal holiday. Instead, he gave a me laserjet-printed slip of paper with the address of a “UNIX programmers user group” later today. I took his paper slip as he slipped away.
It was not hard to find the outwardly uninteresting building. Inside, several men and women across a spectrum of ages sat on a lacquered wooden floor. The lack of computers or other technology in the room confused me. I inquired whether this was the Unix users group.
“We are all users,” a lean, gray-haired woman assured me. “But we do not speak that word in here.”
“I’ve made a mistake,” I confessed, “I was looking for the technology users’ group.”
“You’re in the right place,” she smiled. “The word spelled U- N- I- X is unpronounceable.”
“It is pronounced YOU-nix,” I felt obliged to point out. Someone in the room blushed.
She shook her head, as if indulging a child’s astray innocence. “The tetragram is unpronounceable. We cannot speak it directly, for it is a registered trademark. When reading aloud from The Programmer’s Manual, any time we arrive at the tetragram, we pause and instead pronounce it as ‘REH-jiss-tert-RAID-marc.’ This allows us to keep from speaking the word directly.”
Looking around, I recognized the barrel-chested fellow who had handed me the address leaflet in the Bell Labs parking lot.
“We’re so glad you’ve come,” he said to me warmly. He gently laid a worn three-ring binder in my hands. “We’re just about to begin; come sit down.” He gestured downward towards the hardwood.
When the mind holds something in focus for long enough, it expects at least some similar substitute if it cannot gratify itself of its intended object. My disappointment from earlier that day, when I found myself locked out from the birthplace of the UNIX operating system, was probably a strong factor in my decision to see what sort of a group I had stumbled upon. If I had missed out seeing the home of UNIX in the sense of a place of origin, perhaps I could see the home of UNIX in some alternate sense, a sense that felt more like a sangha or a shrine.
“Why don’t you
mkdir-self at home,” another nearby man said to me. The pun had the opposite of its intended effect on me, and I chose a seat on the other side of the floor from the man who had spoken it.
The woman who had initially greeted me now stood at the front of the room. “Let us begin with a system call,” her voice projected out to the room. “Open your binders to page 110 as we invoke
The sound of rustling pages had an electricity in it that made me realize these participants, the “users” on either side of me, were excited to partake in whatever was going on.
The woman, whose nametag had only the word “
init” on it, led the call-and-response:
Name!” she announced.
Chown change owner of file,” the worshippers responded in unison.
Description!” she cheered.
The file whose name is given by the null-terminated string pointed to by name has its owner changed to owner.” The reverent recitation reverberated throughout the space. “
Only the present owner of a file or the super-user may donate the file to another user,” they chanted.
Owner!” the cantor concluded.
dmr,” exulted the congregation together. They laughed and smiled then, as if a well-known punchline had been answered to a joke that everyone loved to re-hear.
A younger woman next to me remarked, “Just think, the possibility of gifting another person one of your own precious files. It’s beautiful if you let yourself ponder it. What was mine is now yours. Wonderful attitude. I have had it; now you can have it. What if we could all adopt that? My file: your file.”
Chown,” said some others thoughtfully, “
“Users,” the woman apparently named or titled “
init” called out in a more familiar tone. “We have with us a new user this evening. Please, sir,
ls your name.”
“I’m sorry,” I said cautiously, “Did you just say ‘
ls your name’ instead of ‘tell us your name’, as in the UNIX program
ls? The command that lists files?”
“Each of the commands in the,” she paused, “Registered Trademark’s Programmer’s Manual is intended to be invoked directly by the user. Directly. This means that
cat is an operation we can perform on every file, even those deep within our souls. And
ls is true, even when the directory is our own hearts. So, please,
ls a little bit about yourself.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m finding it more than passing odd that you seem to read the manual pages for the original Unix operating system mystically, like they’re some kind of a sacred text.”
“Ah, a Let me explain something,” she responded patiently. “There are seven sections of the 1st edition… Registered Trademark’s Programmer’s Manual. These seven sections correspond to the seven energy centers of the human body. Section (I),
Commands, are in fact techniques for grounding ourselves in the root of being. Section (II),
System Calls, represent our relationships with others and our most intimate connections. Section (III), the
Subroutines, teach us how we can…”
“That’s not what they are,” I had to interrupt. “It isn’t a grimoire of spells; these binders describe a historic computer operating system designed in the 1970’s.”
“Not entirely true,”
init rejoindered, betraying more than a hint of indignation in her voice.
“The dates on each manual page show years of only two digits in length. We must resist the temptation to tell ourselves these are abbreviations for years in the twentieth century. This Programmer’s Manual was written centuries before
ken revealed it to select super-users, and subsequently to all mankind.”
I felt outnumbered in this place, but nothing she was saying made any sense. I said to her, “Ken Thompson was born in 1943. He could not have written any of these programs before he was born.”
“The man known to you as Mr. K. Thompson was merely one avatar of the eternal
ken, just as Mr. D. M. Ritchie was only the particular manifestation in our time of the
dmr who pervades all time. Allow me to elaborate: there are four names given to us in the
INTRODUCTION to the First Edition… Registered Trademark’s Programmer’s Manual: these names are
rhm. We find throughout the manual that the commands of our root center and the subroutines of our solar plexus may hold the characteristics of one of these names or of several of them. While it may assist our developing minds to visualize these names as representing the men Thompson, Ritchie, Ossanna, and Morris, a higher truth requires that we acknowledge a more abstract meaning as well. These four names refer to the fourfold role that each human being must adopt during various phases of his or her life. These roles are the roles of
User ID. Thus, at times, I may find myself called upon to take up the mantle of
author. In such a moment, I am
ken. At other times in my life, I must lay down that role, and take up a new role as
owner. In that moment, I am become
dmr. Eventually, I will become old and will no longer be able to maintain either the mantles of
author, so I will then substitute those roles for my new role of
user. I am content simply to be a
jfos. Finally, at the end of my life, I give up even the role of
user, and graduate to my next role of
User ID. So when my time has come, I am content to be
rhm, the spirit of
User ID. Do you see? The manual’s apparent nature as a description of programs confined to a time-sharing system conceal several hidden layers of deeper meanings. Now, please, won’t you sit down,” she instructed me.
“This is wrong,” I insisted, “it’s an inversion of the natural order of things. It seems like you’re worshipping… UNIX, a human invention, a machine?”
At this insinuation, I saw a sliver of rage break past the eyes of this woman named “
init”. Breathing more heavily than before, she responded: “Do we worship the Biblical Adam of Genesis? No; but without him would not be born the human race. We worship only God. But just as God created Adam, so also did he create Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie and all the
dmrs who have lived throughout history. The… Registered Trademark— the general-purpose multi-user interactive operating system— is the irresistible Adam of the digital race. We venerate the creation for its beauty, and the hand that built such beauty for its ingenuity. As for worship, if we may look to The Programmer’s Manual and find within it new ways to worship that which is infinite, that which lies beyond logic, both digital and mortal, then perhaps we can discover new paths within ourselves that may lead us to build a more ordered operating system from the assembly language of our memories and experiences.”
“Yes, well, that’s another problem with this whole religious experience you’ve built around the UNIX Programmer’s Manual,” I detected a wince from
init’s body as I ignored her stupid taboo. “These programs were built for minicomputers,” I argued. “They had specific architectures and their own assembly languages. UNIX had to be rewritten in the early days for every new computer platform that came out. They were all different, and had different requirements. You can’t expect all of that specificity to port in any way over to the human body, much less the mind, the, uh, the human spirit, if one even exists!”
init looked calm now, as if she had fielded this question many times before. “It may appear so, until you discover that these so-called mini-computers— the PDP-7, the PDP-11, Interdata 8/32, the VAX-11, all the way on upwards— are in reality all metaphors.”
“Metaphors for what?” I nearly shouted.
“For the various races of humankind. Many computers, many architectures, but an operating system working for the benefit of all nations and for all peoples.”
I had lost my temper at this point, and I stormed out of the hall, lifting my feet absurdly high to step over the mortified neophytes still seated cross-legged around me.
I drove back home across the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, through the Holland Tunnel, down 14th street, to the garage underneath my Union Square condominium. As I rode the elevator up to my door on the eleventh story, I reflected on how insane an experience it was to meet people who really believed that an ancient edition of the Unix operating system and its old, forgotten manuals could have encoded any sort of prophecy.
I felt disgusted at the blatant misreading these fanatics had impressed upon me. I had left their UNIX temple in such a rush that I had accidentally taken with me the binder containing printouts of the November 1971 1st Edition Unix Programmer’s Manual, which the security guard had earlier pressed into my hands. I reflected that I did not care enough about them or their cult ever to seek them out again and return their ritual object. The book was technically true for the edition of UNIX it described, and true at no other level than that. As I unlocked my condo door, I threw the book onto my desk and went to sleep.
The next day being Tuesday, I was still off work. While eating my sprinkled toaster pastry breakfast, I noticed the binder lay open to a page titled
hup –– hang up typewriter. I was ignorant of this archaic program, which, according to its description, would hang up the phone on the typewriter which used it. I could see why those zealots in New Jersey found computer history like this fascinating, even if their interpretations were alarmingly nonsensical. Further down on this manual page for
hup, the section titled
BUGS warned, curiously,
Should not be used; I paused there and found myself wondering about this injunction. Why include program at all if it was never to be used? Maybe “never” was not the word. Perhaps, I speculated, the real reason for bundling into UNIX a command that should not be used was the promise of a coming future age when the effulgent potency of
hup would become made manifest to those faithful who had preserved it for future generations.