UNIX Review 95 Bookshelf

This is not quite what was ultimately published by UNIX Review. This was the draft I sent them, with some later revisions and cleanup. The reviews were re-ordered (alphabetically) for publication.

Andrew Binstock added one review himself, Debugging the Development Process. That review is not included here since I neither wrote it nor have any copyright to it!

The published article did not include my comments about the CDs provided with the books.

Finally, I have included the original bio information, since it was correct at the time the article was published, but it is now out of date. -Miles

This year has seen a bumper crop of both UNIX and Internet books. While this includes the usual percentage of "shotgun approach" books worth very little, it also happily includes more good books than ever before. With one exception, the books reviewed here are among the best new books out (the lone exception could have been excellent with better technical review). There are other good books as well; I wish I had time and space to review them all.

The categories I've used are fairly loose; several books (such as ORA's "What You Need to Know" books) could fit in more than one.

  1. terrible [unworthy of shelf space at a garage sale]
  2. not so hot [has some real problems]
  3. average
  4. a good book [well worth considering]
  5. superb [go buy it now]

Software Engineering and Management

Title:          Designing Visual Interfaces (Communication Oriented Techniques)
Author:         Kevin Mullet, Darrell Sano
Publisher:      SunSoft Press (Prentice Hall)
Pages:          270
Price:          US $??.??
ISBN:           0-13-303389-9
Audience:       designers, especially of user interfaces
Rating:         5
Other than two typos, my sole complaint with this book was that it left me hungry for more. Drawing from a broad palette of both good and bad GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces), traffic signs, architecture, appliances,maps and other real-world items, Mullet & Sano have produced the definitive introduction to designing visual interfaces.

Worth reading for the principles alone, this book is especially valuable for the GUI designer because of the in-depth analysis applied to existing GUIs from Apple, HP, Microsoft, NeXT, OSF, Sun and others. It's unfortunate, but most GUI developers have little to no experience with graphic design, and little or no interaction to people with such experience. This book is the next best thing. Every GUI designer should have this on their bookshelf.

(Extra credit: even though the book is published by SunSoft, Sun interfaces get the same fair treatment as those of its competitors.)

Title:          The Mythical Man-Month (20th Anniversary Edition)
Author:         Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.
Publisher:      Addison Wesley
Pages:          320
Price:          US $??.??
ISBN:           0-201-83595-9
Audience:       system & software engineers and managers
Rating:         5
I approached this book with some trepidation. I must confess I never got around to reading the original. How could I judge the revision? Fortunately, they only corrected errors in the original text, and simply added 5 more chapters (each chapter is a stand-alone essay) to update the book.

This is both good and bad. The original essays were clear and to the point. On the other hand, some of the examples are surely lost on newer readers - many of my colleagues haven't a clue about overlay loaders ("They didn't really have to code that way, did they") or batch debugging, and (happily) many have never made a flow chart.

The irony of that last statement is that the original edition helped flow charts to disappear, which is overall a Good Thing. On the other hand, as Brooks newer essays chronicle, his warning that there is "No Silver Bullet" with which to slay the software design, coding and debugging monsters has been largely ignored - people continue to see every new buzzword as the Holy Grail of instant, perfect software.

Brooks is not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and includes his own mistakes as examples of how not to do things. If software engineers and project managers (and even upper management) today will study this book and respond thoughtfully, the world of computers will be a far better, more interesting, and rewarding place.

The Internet & Communications

Title:          HTML for Fun and Profit
Author:         Mary E. S. Morris
Publisher:      SunSoft Press (Prentice Hall)
Pages:          260
Price:          US $??.??
ISBN:           0-13-359290-1
Audience:       all web information providers
Rating:         4.5
This is definitely one of the better of the current spate of books about the World Wide Web. Morris covers the bulk of framework for running a server, from bringing up a server to page production to hinting at aids to billing.

HTML page production, as the name implies, is the main focus. Ms. Morris covers most of the material thoroughly, although she neglects to mention that Mosaic cannot (yet) use anything other than plain text inside tables, and doesn't really cover Mozilla extensions at all. The style guide, though a bit short, is good, and the appendices are thorough and well-organized. She also uses the original comment style (">" instead of "-->) which breaks on most browsers. My only real complaint is with the CD-ROM. Better

organization, better on-line examples, and index files would all allow the examples to be more generally useful than simply as on-line copies of what's in the book. (I had to fight the disc away from the book in hand-to-hand combat; it might have been hot-glued in, and removal left an unusual crinkle finish on the artwork side.)

Title:          Managing Internet Information Services
Author:         Liu, Peek, Jones, Buus, & Nye
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          630
Price:          US $29.95
ISBN:           1-56592-062-7
Audience:       Internet information providers
Rating:         4.5
This is another book packed with an astounding amount of information, from basic network services such as fingerd to running mailing lists to web server security to HTML authoring to firewalls. It covers so much that the easiest way to describe it is by what's missing: That's about it.

The HTML tutorial, like any other in print, is already out of date, but this is more than made up for by the excellent coverage of configuring and managing a web server (especially since there are plenty of online HTML tutorials).

I never did find the alleged reference on initial setup of majordomo config files. The chapter on setting up majordomo is far better than anything I've seen on the Net, but I still ran across a couple of minor gotchas. Nevertheless, this is the most comprehensive, practical guide to managing Internet resources around. Accept no substitutes.

Title:          The Usenet Handbook - A User's Guide to Netnews
Author:         Mark Harrison
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          375
Price:          US $24.95
ISBN:           1-56592-101-1
Audience:       Usenet News users (current or potential)
Rating:         4.5
News, one of the reasons for the Internet's growth, is often overlooked today in light of the "sexier" uses of the net, such as the World Wide Web. But News is alive, well, and growing. But of you aren't using News already, how do you learn about it?

By reading this entertaining and extremely useful book. It should be required reading for newbies and oldbies alike (Harrison oddly never mentions these terms). The handbook covers the better news readers, netiquette (net etiquette), some of the more interesting history of the net, a dictionary of the news groups available at publication time, and peripheral issues such as ftp (for getting files from other sites) and email as it relates to News.

If there's a better off-line resource for practical advice and just plain fun with News, I haven't seen it. Kudos to Mark Harrison (and to Val Quercia, whose off-beat notes scattered throughout the book make it even better). One of the few things I would add is a note that in some news groups (talk.bizarre springing readily to mind), everything Harrison (or anyone else) tells you goes right out the window - which makes the suggested, read-only familiarization period even more important.

I'm in love with ORA's new "What You Need to Know" series. The style, the presentation, the useful addition of color - these are for today's ordinary users what the Nutshell series has always been to the technical Real UNIX Types, while still containing useful information, concepts and tips for even the oldest UNIX lovers.

Title:          Using Email Effectively
Author:         Linda Lamb & Jerry Peek
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          145
Price:          US $14.95
ISBN:           1-56592-103-8
Audience:       all email users
Rating:         5
_Using Email Effectively_ has something for everyone, from the manager suspicious of email to your friends and family who've never touched a computer before, to UNIX old-timers who need to learn to deal with the Real World that has suddenly invaded their lives.

Plenty of anecdotes and personal experiences support the information, all of which is designed to help you find the best way of not merely dealing with email, but using it as an effective communications tool. The authors have wisely included advice and ideas from people with a wide variety of approaches to to email.

My favorite anecdote is Frank Willison's complaint about not only getting 50 messages a day, but once getting 45 over a weekend. The rare time my incoming queue has dropped that low in the last 5 years, I immediately knew our site or its provider was having problems!

Systems Administration

Title:          When You Can't Find Your UNIX System Administrator
Author:         Linda Mui
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          140
Price:          US $19.95
ISBN:           1-56592-104-6
Audience:       all UNIX users who aren't SAs
Rating:         5
Linda Mui is one of my favorite technical authors. She manages to convey phenomenal amounts of useful information in an informal, fun style. This book is a perfect example.

The book also abounds with personal tips and stories from a variety of SAs and users, some primarily for entertainment value, but many of which offer useful insight into what SAs really do, and why they sometimes react as they do.

The emphasis here is on understanding what you do and don't know, can and can't do, and how to organize things to let you do the most you can, not only without annoying your SA, but actually working better with them. She stresses written information (which will help both you and your SA), and gives work-arounds wherever possible.

This book will make both you and your SAs more productive.

Title:          Panic! - UNIX System Crash Dump Analysis
Author:         Chris Drake & Kimberley Brown
Publisher:      SunSoft Press (Prentice Hall)
Pages:          490
Price:          US $??.??
ISBN:           0-13-149386-8
Audience:       system administrators, UNIX gurus
Rating:         4.5
I'm not a system administration guru, nor do I play one on the net. But I've fought my way through a number of non-UNIX system dumps and debugging sessions in the past, and been happy to avoid them with UNIX. While that is generally true, part of avoiding it has been the lack of documentation. This is no longer a problem.

While focused mainly on Solaris (including Solaris 1, a.k.a SunOS), the principles, and indeed many of the details, apply to most flavors of UNIX and UNIX-like systems. The adb macros on the CD-ROM (freed only after another life-and-death struggle which left me cut as well as the disc's sealed sleeve) look like a gold mine.

Most of us never have to get down to nearly bare metal, but if you do, this book could be a life saver.

Title:          Running Linux
Author:         Matt Welsh and Lar Kaufman
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          580
Price:          US $24.95
ISBN:           1-56592-100-3
Audience:       Linux SAs and users
Rating:         4
While much of the information in this book is available freely over the net or with Linux, _Running Linux_ is worth its modest price for the organization, overview, and editing and proofing. Despite its heft, this is merely an introduction to running Linux. (A proper set of Linux documentation would rival the VMS Wall of Binders, if only because Linux encompasses so much more that the average UNIX.)

While useful to anyone installing or running Linux for the first time, this book is perhaps most useful to those with no experience installing or running other UNIX systems, especially PC and Mac users. references to detailed docs for further information abound. My one complaint is that there is little here (or elsewhere) on configuring serial lines.

My initial thought was that this is not the right book for those whose primary interest is using Linux. And I still believe that those without a programming or SA background should consider buying a pre-configured system. Such people who wish Internet access will hopefully have helpful network providers. But then I recalled my experiences with DOS and Windows configuration, and decided that anyone who can handle that can run Linux, especially with this book handy.

Power Users

Title:          The Underground Guide to UNIX
                (Slightly Askew Advice from a UNIX Guru)
Author:         John Montgomery
Publisher:      Addison-Wesley
Tips:           336
Price:          US $24.95
ISBN:           0-201-40653-5
Audience:       Beginning UNIX User
Rating:         2
The writing style is witty - this book won't bore you. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it's chock full of both useful and interesting arcana, it's also chock full or both mistakes and misleading information. Powerful features are often called bugs or glossed over. Sometimes it's unclear whether Montgomery is just wrong, or merely losing something in attempting to simplify.

Which is too bad. Montgomery is an entertaining writer, and there's a lot of good information here. But you have to test everything he says. If you use this book, I strongly recommend not only checking all the information and examples, but making corrections and margin notes. Then you will have an entertaining, useful book. It's not my preferred way to learn an operating system, though...

Title:          Exploring Expect
Author:         Don Libes
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          570
Price:          US $29.95
ISBN:           1-56592-090-2
Audience:       SAs, developers, testers, power users, almost anyone
Rating:         4.5
Maybe I'm getting old early, but I really don't want to learn yet another language. Tcl, however, and brilliant tools like expect which build upon it, are here to stay. And indeed they solve a number of problems I've long wanted solved, all involving the automation of interactive programs.

Fortunately Libes, expect's author, recognizes this problem. The expect/Tcl overview is clear and complete enough to let you quickly begin writing scripts to solve basic problems. He then launches into a mind-boggling set of examples of solving everyday problems with expect, with enough oddities to keep things interesting.

I wish he had written a bit more about using expect with Tk, but that is probably a book in itself.

Title:          Using csh & tcsh
Author:         Paul DuBois
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          220
Price:          US $24.95
ISBN:           1-56592-132-1
Audience:       UNIX users
Rating:         4.5
I've waited a long time for a good csh book, but at last I have one. I have always prefered csh over sh or ksh as an interactive shell, and was interested in tcsh as well.

There are a couple of omissions (Mr. DuBois obviously doesn't have to deal with a hairy rsh/rlogin environment) but overall coverage is excellent. I've been using csh for years, but somehow always overlooked a couple of features in the man pages that I really wanted - and now know how to use.

At first I wanted a cleaner distinction between csh and tcsh, but I soon changed my mind - to the point I plan to make tcsh my standard shell wherever possible. If you use csh or tcsh, or are simply unhappy with your current Bourne shell derivative, get this book.

Technical Topics

Title:          PGP: Pretty Good Privacy
Author:         Simon Garfinkel
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          390 (plus reference card)
Price:          US $19.95
ISBN:           1-56592-098-8
Audience:       Anyone interested in computer privacy
Rating:         5
This is an exceptionally well-written book. I couldn't put it down while reading the history section. I interact regularly with people on DOS/Windoze boxes and Macs - _PGP_ describes installing the PGP package on those systems as well as on UNIX systems.

_PGP_ consists of three main parts: an introduction to cryptography & PGP, a history of cryptography, including PGP and patent/licensing issues, and everything you will want to know about obtaining and using the PGP package. It's probably not complete enough for a full-fledged spook, but, like PGP, it's just about perfect for the rest of us.

Title:          POSIX.4: Programming for the Real World
Author:         Bill O. Gallmeister
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates
Pages:          550
Price:          US $29.95
ISBN:           1-56592-074-0
Audience:       real world and real-time programmers
Rating:         4.5
_Programming for the Real World_ is just that - covering the broad spectrum of programming with POSIX to interface with the real world - whether that's traditional, real-time tasks, inter-process communication, or (comparatively) slow I/O over serial lines.

Writing with a top-down perspective, Gallmeister starts with generalities (issues and approaches) then moves logically to fundamental details of topics such as asynchronous I/O.

The book includes a set of "pure" POSIX man pages, updated and expanded by the author.

Title:          TCP/IP for Everyone
Author:         Pete Loshin
Publisher:      AP Professional (Harcourt Brace & Company)
Pages:          430
Price:          US $??.??
ISBN:           0-12-455827-5
Audience:       Everyone (of course!)
Rating:         4.5
Explaining all the aspects of TCP/IP to the masses is surely one of scarier undertakings I've heard of lately, but Mr. Loshin has done an admirable job. No UNIX software is described (the screen shots are all from Windows-based programs), but the Internet grew up around UNIX, and most of the information here pertains.

Well-organized and fairly thorough, this makes either a good college-level textbook, provides a good way to learn for yourself, and provides a better-than-adequate reference for most of what it covers. The lower layers and older protocols (including extensions, such as IP Next Generation) are covered in depth, in a style anyone with a relatively intact brain can understand. The explanation of traceroute is the most succinct, and best, that I've run across.

The weak spots are primarily in newer technologies. HTTP (the primary protocol for the World Wide Web) is barely mentioned, while HTML is treated as a protocol (it is a document layout specification, or language if you must).

Computers and You

Title:          The Future Does Not Compute
                (Transcending the Machines in Our Midst)
Author:         Stephen L. Talbott
Publisher:      O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
Pages:          480
Price:          US $22.95
ISBN:           1-56592-085-6
Audience:       everyone
Rating:         5
Okay, so it's not really a UNIX book. It's not even a book about the Net. It's a book about people, and how we interact with and use computers and networks, and how this does and might impact us, and how we should approach the issues.

This is far, far more than "Is Usenet good or evil?" [1] Talbott tears apart all the standard conceptions and misconceptions and gets down to basics - the meaning of things, the differences between data, information and wisdom, how people communicate and inter-react - and builds his discussion both logically and artfully.

While I disagree with some of his conclusions, Talbott challenged many of my assumptions and long-held feelings about the net and computers, and their roles in my life, much more than anyone has managed to in a long time. It's especially interesting since it came out at the same time as _using email effectively_. I strongly recommend you read this book, preferably right after you read or reread _The Mythical Man-Month_.

  1. To which I would once have answered much as I suspect Talbott would, with a long explanation of tools and their uses, and the tendency to anthropomorphize, and the like. But after years of using it I can only answer, "Yes, of course it is."


SunSoft needs to package their included CDs better. They are the most difficult to remove of any I've seen.

UNIX is finally becoming mainstream, and bookstore shelves reflect this fact. As mentioned earlier, these are not the only good books out, and we may have missed a few good ones. But with everyone and their siblings now writing about UNIX (never mind the explosion about the Internet!), you can waste a lot of money. You can't go wrong, though, with any of the highly-rated books above.

Miles O'Neal is a senior software engineer at Pencom Software (Austin, TX) by day and runs a web business by night. He specializes in X, user interfaces, and the World Wide Web, but his background encompasses most of the realm of computers. You can reach him at meo@schoneal.com .
Last updated: 16 May 1997

Copyright 1995, 1997 Miles O'Neal, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Miles O'Neal <roadkills.r.us@XYZZY.gmail.com> [remove the "XYZZY." to make things work!] c/o RNN / 1705 Oak Forest Dr / Round Rock, TX / 78681-1514