(This was originally a Usenet response to some eager newbie questions.)
Speak, O Guru: How can I become a Unix Wizard?
O, Nobly Born: know that the Way to Wizardhood is long, and winding, and
Fraught with Risks. Thou must Attune thyself with the Source, attaining the
arcane Knowledge and Conversation of the System Libraries and Internals. Yea;
and such an all-consuming Time and Energy Sink is this as to greatly Imperil
thy Grade Point Average (if one thou hast), not to mention thy Sex Life (if one
thou hast). But persevere, oh Larval One; rewards beyond the Dreams of Lusers
Speak, O Guru: What books should I study? Are the O'Reilly "Nutshell"
guides a good place to start?
O, Nobly Born: know that the Nutshell Guides are but the outermost Portal
of the True Enlightenment. Worthy are they (and praise to the Name of
O'Reilly, whose books show forth the Hacker Spirit in numerous pleasing ways),
but the Nutshell Guides are only the Beginning of the Road.
If thou desirest with True Desire to tread the Path of Wizardly Wisdom, first
learn the elementary Postures of Kernighan & Pike's The Unix
Programming Environment; then, absorb the mantic puissance of March
Rochkind's Advanced Unix Programming and W. Richard
Stevens's Advanced Programming In The Unix Environment.
Immerse thyself, then, in the Pure Light of Maurice J. Bach's The
Design Of The Unix Operating System. Neglect not the Berkelian
Way; study also The Design and Implementation Of The 4.4BSD Operating
System by Kirk McKusick, Keith Bostic et. al.
For useful hints, tips, and tricks, see Unix Power Tools,
Tim O'Reilly, ed. Consider also the dark Wisdom to be gained from
contemplation of the dread Portable C And Unix Systems
Programming, e'en though it hath flowed from the keyboard of the
mad and doomed Malvernite whom the world of unknowing Man misnames
"J. E. Lapin".
These tomes shall instruct thy Left Brain in the Nature of the Unix System; to
Feed the other half of thy Head, O Nobly Born, embrace also the Lore of its
Nurture. Don Libes's and Sandy Ressler's Life With Unix
will set thy Feet unerringly upon that Path; take as thy Travelling Companion
the erratic but illuminating compendium called The New Hacker's
Dictionary (Eric S. Raymond, ed., with Guy L. Steele Jr.).
(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Camel.)
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Speak, O Guru: To attain Mastery, how many Kernels do I need to take apart
O Nobly Born: this question reveals that indeed thou hast touched upon an
Ineffable Truth about Unix --- that thou canst not Plumb its Mysteries by
mere Study but must become One with it through Practice. The true Way to the
Knowledge of the Source is not the timid and footling way of the Student,
but the Divine Foolery of the Hacker. Hack, then; strive against Mighty
Problems, have joy in thy Striving, and let the Crashes fall where they
may (maintaining the while, for the Good of thy Karma, a Rigorous Backup
(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Lion.)
In this day of Boot-Time Autoconfiguration and Dynamically Loadable Device
Drivers, reassembling a Kernel is no longer the daunting Test and Seal of
Mastery that once it was. However, writing and verifying thine own Device
Driver for some piece of Exotic Hardware is still a worthy challenge to thy
Budding Guruhood. Indeed, such Challenge may be found the Crafting of any
Program sufficiently Powerful to Extend or Compete with the Tools now
available in Open Source.
Therefore: seek thee out the Open Source Unixes: OpenBSD, FreeBSD,
NetBSD, and most Especially Linux in many of its Incarnations. Join
the Wizards and Aspirants to Wizardhood who Labor Unceasingly to
Improve these. Commune with them in their Great Work, their unceasing
Extension and Reinvention of Unix. In this wise may thou become one
among the Mighty.
Speak, O Guru: Some there are who claim that the sole Path to Wizardry and
the proper Way of every Right-Thinking Hacker is to rewrite the Unix Kernel
from Scratch. Is this not Sacrilege?
Sacrilege, O Nobly Born? Nay! Certainly the Kernel Source is the Inmost
Mystery of Unix --- but there is a Mystery beyond that Mystery. The Nature
of Unix inhereth not in any one Version but in the Design Tradition of which
all Unixes are Evolving Parts.
The Rite of the Rewrite is not the only Path to Mastery, but it is perhaps
the highest and most Sacred of all Paths. Few indeed are those who, travelling
it, have crossed the dark and yawning Abyss of Implementation to Delivery.
Many, yea, many in truth stagnate yet in the Desert of Delay, or linger ever
in the ghastly limbo called Perpetual Beta.
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Speak, O Guru: What, then, is the True Path to Wizardhood?
O Nobly Born: learn, and seek within thyself. Cultivate the cunning of
the Serpent and the courage of the Tiger; sup deeply from the Wisdom of
those who came before thee. Hack, and hack again; grow, by trial and by
error. Post thy best hacks to the Net and gain in Repute thereby. Also, O
Nobly Born, be thou grave and courteous in thy speech; be helpful to those
less than thee, quick to succour and slow to flame.
If thou dost these things faithfully, if thou travellest with high heart
and pure intention, soon shall thy callow Newbiehood be shed. By degrees
imperceptible to thyself shalt thou gain Power and Wisdom, Striving and
Doing all the while. Gradually shall thy Puissance unfold and deepen.
O Nobly Born, if thou dost all these things, thy Wizardhood shall surely come
upon thee; but not of a sudden, and not until after thy arrogant Mind hath
more than half Forgotten that such was its Aim. For know this --- you may not
by thyself in Pride claim the Mantle of Wizardry; that way lies only Bogosity
Rather must you Become, and Become, and Become, until Hackers respect thy
Power, and other Wizards hail thee as a Brother or Sister in Wisdom, and you
wake up and realize that the Mantle hath lain unknown upon thy Shoulders since
you knew not when.
(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Child.)
SHANTIH! SHANTIH! SHANTIH!
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This was originally a Usenet response to some eager newbie
questions; it appears that I wrote it on 21 November 1992 in response
to a post by one Ade Barkah. After ten years, I guess it's time to
draw aside the veil of the mysteries.
For those of you who are not native English speakers, the entirety
is written in imitation of the Early Modern English of the late 1500s
and early 1600s, the language of the King James Bible. The influence
of the King James Bible is such that its dialect has retained
connotations of majesty, solemnity, and religious authority. Holy
scriptures from other languages are, therefore, often translated into
a KJB-like pseudo-archaic English rather than following modern
Parts of this border on obsolescence now. Portable C And
Unix Systems Programming has been out of print for a long time,
but the Lovecraft joke was too funny to lose. Life With
Unix is history, too, but the other references are still good.
In 1998 I changed references to "freeware" and "free software" to
"open source". Otherwise changes have been pretty minor.
"the Berkelian Way"
The title of the document is a play on the name of the
Tripitaka, an early compilation of Buddhist scriptures.
- "Oh Nobly Born:"
The formulaic use of the salutation is
intended to be reminiscent of the Bardo Thödöl
— the Tibetan Book Of The Dead.
"the Name of O'Reilly"
A phrase rich with meaning in the clan system of old Scotland and
Ireland. It might refer to the reputation of the clan O'Reilly, or to
the person of the clan chief. The implied image is of Tim O'Reilly,
be-tartaned, surrounded by louring Celts bristling with weapons. It's
worth noting that O'Reilly and Associates was pretty new at the game
when I wrote this; it was over the following five years that they built
up their remarkable reputation as friends of the hacker community.
"attaining the arcane Knowledge and Conversation"
This is a reference to the occultism of Alesteir Crowley. He wrote of
attaining the "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel"
as the central aim of Thelemic mysticism, and added that he had
chosen that term for it because it was the most absurd locution he could
- "the Pure Light"
In Buddhist mysticism, the Pure Light of the Void ("void" being
the usual English translation of Sanskrit sunyata) is a frequent
metaphor for the wisdom that comes from realizing the emptiness of all
If you caught the previous reference to sunyata, you
might also recall that Bishop Berkeley famously denied the existence
"the mad and doomed Malvernite"
This is a play on H.P. Lovecraft's "mad and doomed Arab", Abdul
al-Hazred, the author of the Necronomicon. And the
actual doomed Malvernite was...er...me, in 1987. The "world of
unknowing man misnames" because I wrote the book, but was
pressured into allowing it to be published under a corporate
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"feed the other half of thy head"
Cue Grace Slick, in the last lines of Jefferson Airplane's White
Rabbit, a song about a hallucinogenic drug experience:
"Remember...what the dormouse said! FEED YOUR HEAD! FEED YOUR HEAD!"
"the Way of the Camel"
The references to the Ways of the Camel, Lion, and Child are to a
mystical rant somewhere in the works of Friederich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
I've forgotten the details.
"Divine Foolery of the Hacker"
The image of the Fool of God is a pervasive one in world mysticism.
I was thinking here especially of the Fool card in the Tarot, showing a
clown walking or capering at the edge of a precipice.
In alchemy, the production of the Philosopher's Stone that could
transmute lead to gold, confer immortality. In some mystical interpretations
of alchemy, the transmutation of the adept's own soul. Modern Hermetic
occultism generalizes the second meaning.
"Desert of Delay"
This part is intended to recall the landscapes in Bunyan's moral
allegory Pilgrim's Progress.
"cunning of the Serpent and the courage of the Tiger"
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Matthew 10:16
exhorts Christians to be as cunning as serpents and as harmless as
doves. This in turn refers to the "cunning of the serpent" in the Old
Testament Book of Genesis.
"if thou travellest with high heart and pure intention"
In the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, "I have travelled
here with high heart and pure intention" is part of the ritual one
must speak to pass the Weigher of Souls.
"Shanti!" is Sanskrit and means "Peace!" I deliberately used
the older transliteration "Shantih!" because it's found at the end of
T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland. The threefold
repetition is a form of invocatory magic closely equivalent to the Catholic
ritual blessing "Peace be with you!"
If you found this entertaining, you would probably also enjoy Rootless Root: The Unix Koans of
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