Unix, GNU/Linux Tools & Outdated Source Material

Unix, GNU/Linux Tools & Outdated Source Material

I tend to use a lot of tools that have origins in Unix. Tools like vi, bash, grep, awk, sed, and roff for example. And for guidance I like to read O’Reilly’s publications on these tools because I like the silly animals on the cover.


However, these books tend to be old. Most of the copies I use date from the late 90s at the latest. Is there anything wrong with using source material this old? I’m using the same tools & documentation some pixel-necked geek used in 1988; and these guys didn’t even have RGB keyboards.

But the books still explain these tools accurately, because they still function in the same way. Bash, more or less, operates in the same way it has for the past 30 years; a new edition isn’t necessary if there is nothing to change or add in the text.

Is there anything wrong with using dinosaur tools with dinosaur documentation? A shark that doesn’t move is a dead shark, sure; but what’s wrong with settling on a tool that works well and calling it a day? Progression for the sake of progression. What am I missing? A bunch of programs that worked before; but now have an approachable GUI with advertisements and a subscription strategy built on top of an open source tool made 30 years ago? The shark must keep moving; but have you tried visiting a web site in the past decade? It’s disgusting. Let the shark die.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

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If it gets the job done and is not network facing, it doesn’t matter much if the software in use is ancient.

I do have some caveats. Not disagreeing, but a few things to note. Some of this is acting as a devil’s advocate.

Your books likely have survivorship bias, because they continued to be useful, and were not thrown out or weeded. This is especially true for books in a library. Books with low or no circulation are quickly removed. For personal collections, when someone moves apartments or houses, the big dusty volume on Photoshop 3 gets ditched, while “The Art of Computer Programming” gets to ride on. This is especially evident in any book from before, about 1995 or so. If a CLI or terminal based program from back then is still relevant today, then it’s basic UI is likely to remain the same or similar. GUI programs do not have this luxury - While I would argue there were some GUI applications that exist today that had better design in the 1990’s, a lot of the design back then was awful because people didn’t know ‘‘how’’ a good GUI would look.

I have more to say, but will split this into additional posts.

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Websites today are certainly very bad in many ways. However there are a few key improvements.

  • Flash is dead, most client side code is nominally based on open standards.
  • HTML is more semantic and CSS is much more powerful out of the box.
  • As soon as websites started using images commonly, accessibility on the web took a huge nosedive. It’s just now starting to get better, if barely.
  • Connections and servers now generally permit better then VGA resolution multimedia very commonly.
  • For things that actually should be webapps, they tend to work decently enough now, and can access APIs that reduce the need to have a locally installed application. This has pros and cons, but overall the choice is a good thing.
  • Media codecs, multilanguage support, etc is now far better.

There are a few serious platform-wide degradements to the web.

  • DRM as a standard feature in browsers rather then as a plugin.
  • Needless JS, bloat, etc is common.
  • 3 common rendering engines, and really only one de facto rendering engine. (Chromium, Webkit, Gecko - In order that web developers care about supporting)
  • NPM and other half assed, security flaw laden package managers are standard now.
  • Social media has always been a cesspool. However, dumbass algorithm design with no sane opt in or event opt out made it much worse.
  • Saving developer time by fucking over the user experience on “native” applications with a fucking electron app.

For open source tools co-opted into an advertisement laden GUI, this is especially bad and equally perplexing. To a certain extent, I blame app stores, especially those that strong armed open source developers into moving away from copyleft software, wasting their time so user freedom could be fucked over further. (See VLC - I’m not mad at the VLC devs, but it’s the textbook example of this)

It would be very easy for some proprietary monopolies to be broken with the full time support of a few devs, but it never happens because funding for open source is fucked.

You bring up a lot of good points. I will admit I am a little out of my element with the topic. My opinions on tech may not be practical. I tend to work in a bubble with this kind of software; and I don’t get to talk about it that often.

I’d like to say that I choose the software I use because it is good, not because it is old; and I believe open source development tends to create better software.

In summary, me-likey the old stuff. What’s wrong with the old stuff?

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That’s because the old stuff tends to be made for a general purpose and extensible by design. The reason you throw out the Photoshop 3 book when you move out is because it was designed to be thrown out. If the software is old enough that the context of using it has dramatically changed, but it’s still useful, then that’s how you know it was made purely with usefulness in mind instead of the MVP / sellable-experience stuff that’s incentivized by bureaucrats that expect constant and infinite capital growth from code.


I’m not saying you’re wrong. Quite the opposite - We stand to learn a lot from older software. I just want to acknowledge the caveats (Be a devils advocate)

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