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Eric Raymond -- 'The Art of UNIX Programming' and other cool things

Dec 21, 1999, 06:10 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Plant

On the last day of The Bazaar, I caught up with Eric Raymond in the hotel lobby of the Hotel Empire as I was checking out. Since we were both there and we were both hungry, we decided to get some breakfast. I had visited the Opera Espresso diner the night I arrived in New York, so we headed there and ordered the same breakfast; Eggs and corned beef hash. The odd diner feel made Eric feel at home.

We talked about all kinds of cool stuff, including Eric's latest book. However, when you're sitting at a diner discussing the community, thoughts don't travel in a linear fashion. I decided to call Eric after the show at home and conduct a real interview there. So, this evening I talked to Eric a while more. Here's the best of the conversation.

Eric! You're working on a cool new book. How's it going?

"I have finished Chapter 7, the chapter on interface design! What I'm doing is an attempt to capture the community wisdom of the UNIX tradition. My perception is that there are a lot of guidelines about how to do good design, and expertise that's passed between UNIX programmers as a kind of folk tradition, and these things mostly don't get written down. Unfortunately, the result of this is that we have a generation of eager young programmers that would like to grok what the UNIX tradition is about, but they can't, and it's not their fault."

What's the working title?

"'The Art of Unix Programming'. The reference to 'The Art of Computer Programming' by Knuth is deliberate."

What is the creative process difference between writing a manuscript for 'The Art of UNIX Programming' and essays like 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar?'

"From the beginning, I had the idea about this book that I would write as a draft, expose it to a community of expert peers and reviewers early in the process, and then use their feedback to refine the draft. The purpose of this method is when you're trying to write a book about community wisdom, it can't all come out of your own head. In some respects this is similar to what I've done before, 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' and the following two papers have a change history attached to them, and I incorporate feedback in later versions. Going further back, the 'New Hacker's Dictionary' was a collaboration, with me in the middle, but a collaboration of hundreds of people."

How far along is the manuscript so far?

"I've released the preface, contents page and chapter one. I have draft chapters up to chapter seven. However, I have made a deliberate decision to space out the release of the material so there will be a higher quality discussion around each piece."

How long has it taken?

"I have been working seriously on this book for about 2.5 years."

What's next after the book?

"I don't know yet. I'll probably find something interesting to hack on, whether it's a piece of code, a book or a social system remains to be seen."

What did you think of The Bazaar?

"Fun, but sadly underattended."

You're well-known for your roadshow Open Source evangelism. How much are you traveling now?

"I'm spending about half my time on the road. About half of that time is spent talking to street-level developers, user groups and so forth, and the other half is spent talking to corporate types, CEO's, finance people, investors and so forth. So, I oscillate between talking to the West Nowhere LUG and the Forbes New Economy Conference. That's a really strange transition, culturally speaking."

What is the most well attended LUG meeting you've ever attended?

"That's tough. The largest was probably the joint Swedish/Danish; I think it was called Skåne Linux User Group. They're actually centered in Copenhagen, and the Swedish city of Malmø, and I actually gave part of my speech on the ferry between Copenhagen and Malmø. No, that wasn't the largest, I'm sorry. The largest would have had to have been the last time I was in Arizona. Five groups got together and put on a giant event. There were about 400 people there."

We all have our reasons for being part of the Open Source universe. What do you think is the coolest thing about the community?

"The fact that it accomplishes complex collaborative work without any use of coercion at all."

You and I have discussed privately who you'd like to publish 'The Art of UNIX Programming.' While I don't want to tell tales outside of school, who's interested?"

"There are three publishers hot for this book. I guess it wouldn't be telling tales to say that O'Reilly, Macmillan and Addison-Wesley are all interested in this book."

Do you think people will buy your work for name as well as content?

"I detect genuine interest in the topic material, and I think that there are people at these publishers who agree with me that such a book is very much needed. Do they also want to cash in on my current box office? Sure. What else is new? Why would this be a novel or a startling phenomenon? That's not even bad, it's just life. I try to be realistic about these things. The reason I try to be realistic is partly because it keeps me anchored in reality."