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feb 23

The Joy in Csh & Vi

Although I’m no stranger to the more established shells out there, I’ve been using Csh quite a bit recently, and when used in combination with Vi (although I do use Vim), I like to think I’m crawling inside the brain of their creator day in, day out.

It’s a wonderment how much output Bill Joy produced in his early days of hacking just around the time he was recruited as a founding member at Sun Microsystems. When one takes a moment to reflect that quite a few of us still use the tools created by one man, many decades ago, it’s nothing short of astounding.

Around the time of his stint at UC Berkeley, Bill Joy tackled an enormous corpus of projects such as Vi & Csh; tools like vmstat, apropos, colcrt, mkstr, strings, whereis, whatis, vgrind, soelim, msgs. In addition, Bill was a major contributor on The Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD).

It’s humbling when one considers what he was able to accomplish. But most astounding to me is the fact that a lot of these tools are still in use today.

Sand castles

When I think of software, in the back of my mind I can’t help to conjure up the image of lapping waves slowly yet surely eroding sand castles at the beach. To me, we are in the business of making kludges, built to last for a day, but more certain than not, our mere scaffolding can only carve way for the next version of software that ultimately replaces ours.

Or said differently:

‘Programming is rather thankless. [You] see your works become replaced by superior ones in a year. Unable to run at all in a few more.’

— _why (the lucky stiff)

But it’s a marvel when software defies this gravity. Of course the older generation of hackers had the advantage of getting to the table early, and were able to become early influencers, and perhaps even set the table for the next generation whereby their software became the ground floor upon which one could build upward.

So, perhaps those who got there first could avoid the dangers that ossify today’s SW, by mere virtue of good timing. Or perhaps the reason we still use their tools several decades later is that, like great symphonies, they’re just that darn good.

These two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But I’m of the mind that the later is overwhelmingly the reason Csh & Vi sit before me, some forty years after Bill Joy banged them out.

Csh by the seashore

Csh gets a lot of hate. I stayed away from it until only recently, in fact, because in the Ether, there’s this common knowledge that it’s better to use something like Zsh, Bash, etc.

I only started using Csh recently because I noticed it had a restrained feature-set; it was the brainchild of Bill Joy — I figured if it brought me as much productively of Bill’s more famous software, Vi, I would be in heaven.

So far: indeed, I like Csh. Everything I need is right there, and there’s only a small handful of features I miss from Zsh, a modern and quite popular shell-à-la-mode.

And although I’ve come to understand that Csh can really drive you nuts, perhaps I will never bump into this ugly side of it. It’s quite possible: my scripting days seem to be behind me, as I use (or abuse, more accurately) Makefiles to death nowadays.

(It may be the case that I’m of a generation whereby shell-scripting is a tad passé, and therefore, I will never bump into the awfulness that is Csh scripting. At least for me, tooling and orchestration is so generalized, now, that shell scripting lives in a kind of no-man’s land: too weak for ‘X,’ but overkill to be used for ‘Y.’)


The last I heard, Bill Joy was a VC, and an integral player at some futuristic battery Startup that seems to be getting some excitement from the DoD. Although, that’s just what I could gather from a quick search on the man.

This all seems like a far cry from a hacker’s life, but maybe even a legend like Bill Joy came around to ‘_why the lucky stiff’ view about the whole SW game.

I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of this whole hacking thing. And I don’t even mind demolishing my sand castles to make room for a series of new ones every week, either.

But, it must be said, Bill Joy, wherever you are: You, sir, are an inspiration to many. We thank-you for your timeless, ingenious contributions to the craft.

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