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Dennis Ritchie - RIP

I didn’t post last week. It was Canadian Thanksgiving and I spent more time in the kitchen than at my keyboard.

Yes. Canadian Thanksgiving is different from American Thanksgiving. Although not so different for the turkey. Though I wasn’t cooking turkey, personally.

Anyway. I didn’t post last week. I was busy not cooking turkey. So this is a little late. But better lute than chenda, as the minstrels might say. Well, they might if they’d ever been to India, anyway :-P.

On October 08, Dennis Ritchie died.

I know. Dennis who?

There's no need to feel bad. I work on a floor full of technos and geeks, and only 2 in 11 I asked knew who he was. Who he actually was the man who originally wrote the C Programming Language. He was one of the two people (the other was Ken Thompson) who created the Unix operating system. And without Unix, there would have been no Apple as we know it, since the Apple operating system is largely based on a form of Unix. So without Dennis Ritchie, a man even geeks and nerds may not remember, there would (probably) have been no Steve Jobs.

Yes, that Steve Jobs.

But if none of that means anything either? Well, that's fine too. No, really, it is!

That's not why I'm posting this :-P.

Dennis Ritchie, along with Brian Kernighan, wrote what is to this day (to me at least) one of the best written, most intelligible technical books I've ever read. It was 'The C Programming Language'. But it's OK. You can still not worry - I'm not going to quote any of it.

I'll quote something else :-P.

After Thompson and Ritchie created Unix, some time after, someone else wrote 'The Unix Haters Handbook'. Mostly in good fun, it was a compilation of postings about why Unix was a Really Bad Thing(tm). And those writing it wrote a Forward, supporting the book's aims.

And they offered Dennis Ritchie the chance to write an 'anti-forward'. All in good fun. Well, mostly in good fun.

He took them up on it :-). Still in fun, but with his own serious intent. And that’s why I’m posting this. Because technical genius though he was, he was someone else as well.

He was someone who could write :-)).

So here it is. His anti-forward. Remember, this is a technical writer. Not just a technical writer, a genius. RIP Dennis. I think we could use some more of you :-)).

To the contributers to this book:

I have succumbed to the temptation you offered in your preface: I do write you off as envious malcontents and romantic keepers of memories. The systems you remember so fondly (TOPS-20, ITS, Multics, Lisp Machine, Cedar/Mesa, the Dorado) are not just out to pasture, they are fertilizing it from below.

Your judgments are not keen, they are intoxicated by metaphor. In the Preface you suffer first from heat, lice, and malnourishment, then become prisoners in a Gulag. In Chapter 1 you are in turn infected by a virus, racked by drug addiction, and addled by puffiness of the genome.

Yet your prison without coherent design continues to imprison you. How can this be, if it has no strong places? The rational prisoner exploits the weak places, creates order from chaos: instead, collectives like the FSF vindicate their jailers by building cells almost compatible with the existing ones, albeit with more features. The journalist with three undergraduate degrees from MIT, the researcher at Microsoft, and the senior scientist at Apple might volunteer a few words about the regulations of the prisons to which they have been transferred.

Your sense of the possible is in no sense pure: sometimes you want the same thing you have, but wish you had done it yourselves; other times you want something different, but can't seem to get people to use it; sometimes one wonders why you just don't shut up and tell people to buy a PC with Windows or a Mac. No Gulag or lice, just a future whose intellectual tone and interaction style is set by Sonic the Hedgehog. You claim to seek progress, but you succeed mainly in whining.

Here is my metaphor: your book is a pudding stuffed with apposite observations, many well-conceived. Like excrement, it contains enough undigested nuggets of nutrition to sustain life for some. But it is not a tasty pie: it reeks too much of contempt and of envy.

Bon appetit!


Kelly Hashway's picture

Well, I learned something. I had no idea who Dennis Ritchie was. Seriously though, what is going on lately? So many people are passing away. It's a little scary.

Sorry you had trouble posting on my blog again. Very strange. I had to laugh about you revising the 10th time to make the piece look like it did the 7th time! :) I've been there.

Graeme's picture


It can get more scary if they're younger than you are - but let's not get scared quite yet :-). Maybe we just notice more as we (well, I at least :-P) get older :-(.

It does raise the question. Who would be remembered more? The one who invented a new type of brick, that made buildings never before possible, um, possible? Or the one who used the brick to make that new building? Both are worthy of merit, but likely only one would get it.

As an example, and as an exercise for any that would care to seek out the answer, what's the connection between Leonardo da Vinci and Jesse Ramsden? And why is Henry Maudslay like Steve Jobs?

Yes. I'm a Bad Person(tm) :-P.

Bill Hay's picture

I hope you cut up the geek cards of the other 9. I just reread the foreword to the Unix Hater's handbook and note that Donald Norman apparently switched to a Mac to get away from unix...

Graeme's picture

Well, today just got even worse. I just learned Warner Bros have signed to make a new movie. The subject? The life of Alan Turing. The lead? Leo de Caprio. To be directed by Ron Howard. Sigh....

DM's picture

Thank you for this blog. I had never heard of him. You did great honor to him.

Graeme's picture

There's an old joke. Or lesson, perhaps. 'What was the biggest island in the worrld before Australia was discovered?' And the answer? Australia. It was still there, even if we hadn't discovered it :-).

I think it's easy to remember the great ones we hear so much of. And, of course, we can't remember those we never hear of. But, like Australia, they're still there.

So maybe we should stop now and then, and make a moment's memory - of those we never heard of, whether great or not - that they don't pass unnoticed into the dark, or even toil unknown in the light. We may never know of them, never know their names - but we can remind ourselves they exist. Because we too are of their company. We are the great unknown - and no less for that. And so are they, and they also not lessened by it. Or so I think.

Thoughts? Comments?

Shyxter's picture

I didn't know who this guy was until I read your post! So nice of you to remember him and let others know how great his contribution was to technology. He may not be as renowned as Steve Jobs but the world should thank him too.

Graeme, I didn't know you have another talent :))) Programming!!!

Graeme's picture

Oh, I'd not call it talent, wise one. We all do many things 'twixt child and older, don't we? So I've been many a thing in the days I've had :-). And aye, programmer was one once. But I've also sold drink to those with thirst who wanted it, and sold other things to those who didn't want what I was selling - but wanted to get rid of me more :-P. And a few things here or there in the field of technology :-).

But here's the thing. If someone makes a new kind of brick, and someone else builds a great cathedral that couldn't have been made without the brick - who do we remember? The one who made the cathedral, I think most often, and the brick maker we forget. But without the brick maker - the cathedral wouldn't stand.


Shyxter's picture

Yeah, probably the one who made the cathedral because the total package or beauty of the bricks is seen as a great edifice. Mr. Ritchie's contribution was the raw material used to make amazing technology! I share your sentiments now, he should have been recognized and thanked too. It's sad how many other people like Dennis Ritchie have shared their ingenuity yet remain unnoticed.

Good for you, Graeme, you can do programming when you don't feel like writing :D. Well, a programmer is still a writer, right? A writer of weird codes only the smart ones understand. I actually majored in a programming course but I never, ever totally understood the dizzying loops and arrays involved in it. My humble brain just didn't grasp its complexity :D But I finished my course because even if I didn't do much programming, I spent most of my time writing the manuals and my classmates just loved me for that. Hehehe...Writing saved me.

Graeme's picture

There's a list a mile long of things I'd love to spend time at when not writing.
Not that I want to spend time not writing :-P.

Thigs like, oh - get better at LSL (if you know what that is, yay!, if not then I'd probably better not admit to knowing any :-P). Get to know Photoshop and Blender better. Or, indeed, at all (blushes). Learn to play something, so I can mess with some of the type of writing I don't admit to in public that Lady Donna and Lady Elizabeth keep saying should be songs instead.

Unfortunately, I have to keep working for a living. Sigh. Boo. Yea, verily, and hiss!

Oh. And there's this whole 'publicity and marketing' thing. Which means I'm barely writing at all at the moment as I try to come up with novel ideas (pun intended :-P) to make sure people have heard of 'A Comedy of Terrors' before it comes out and actually want to buy it. Another subject of which I know nothing.

Andrew Marvell had it right. 'Had we but world enough and time'. We never do, of either. Which is both good and bad.

So what do you do when you're not writing? What keeps your fingers from the keyboard? Not the boring minutae of life, the feeding of the washing machine, the transferring coin from hand to hand and bringing home bread to the table. The other things you love, that interfere with the thing you, um, love? :-).

Shyxter's picture

I'm so sorry for this very very late reply my friend. Can you forgive me? ;-) Well, if I'm not writing, I am out there having fun with family or friends. And oh, I love to play the guitar and sing my heart out in videokes....But at the end of the day, I always go back to my passion. I feel incomplete without writing.

Tricia Linden's picture

Loved the writing of Dennis, so elegant, and it's great how you choose to honor his life at the time of his passing, but I have to say, I loved the comment about Australia. And yes, the brick designer deserves lots of praise. As does the brick layer toiling at the direction of the cathedral designer. We are all connected, like Jinga, and without each other to support us we would all fall down.
Thanks for the connection. Enjoy always, T

Graeme's picture

My thanks indeed for the comment. I think our eyes are sometimes blinded by bright lights, when much we might find of merit and interest lurks in the shadows that light makes and blurs.

Bill Hay's picture

Also dead...
Dropping like flies.

Graeme's picture

... for whom the bell tolls. I can't hear you - there's this bloody great bell ringing in my ears.

Bill Hay's picture

Just be careful not to create a programming language and you should be safe.

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