Book Review: Ed Mastery

I don’t normally offer guest posts here, but on this rare occasion I couldn’t say no. Here’s a guest post from Michael W Lucas.

What one of us finds delightful, another person might find loathsome. That’s human nature. I keep reminding myself of this every time people start babbling about the virtues of something I find completely idiotic. Keeping my mouth shut gets me out of many arguments before they start.

People learn by crossing the line between poor taste and simple stupidity. That’s rough, but expected.

A fraction of those folks never learn. They keep crossing that line. A man keeps publicly humiliating himself, never doing better, but doesn’t hurt anyone? We’re all best ignoring him, or perhaps offering him help.

When someone repeatedly offers terrible advice, and not only gets people to pay him for that terrible advice but somehow has fans that enable him to make a living giving that advice, the question becomes: how much do you want to have that fight? Maybe the person who’s always wrong is sincere in his beliefs. I’m not going to walk into a church whose beliefs I disagree with and throw down at the altar.

At the top of the pyramid of wrong, though, is the person who gives terrible advice, knows it’s terrible advice, and charges for it anyway. And right there, right now, is where I must take a stand.

I’m talking, of course, about Lucas’ latest book, Ed Mastery. He’s obviously running off of Patrick LoPresti’s alt.religion.emacs post advocating ed as the One True Editor. That’s a hilarious post, well worth reading.

It was published in 1991.

Lucas took a gag old enough to be doing its own post-doc work and beat that dead horse until all that remained is a greasy spot on the ground.

First off, ed is not the standard Unix editor. And EVERYBODY KNOWS IT. Despite Dennis Ritchie’s famous slide on the primordial Unix utilities, ed isn’t “a standard.” At the time, it was “the only.” Text editing has advanced since the Sinclair ZX80 was considered a desktop computer.

His cutesy babbling about the necessity of knowing ed? Oh, please. People constantly argue about text editors. Vi! Emacs! Nano! Frankly, any editor you can access in single user mode will do. Modern computers measure memory in gigabytes. The few extra megabytes you’ll need to load all of vim’s overblown dependencies just… don’t… matter. At all.

Lucas carries that “standard editor” trash through the entire book. If you can call a hundred pages of blithering a “book.”

I’m not sure who’s supposed to buy this. Retired sysadmins who remember when memory was measured in bits, because the size of a byte was dictated by the hardware architecture? Unix hipsters? Users looking for gag gifts?

The section on regular expressions might be convenient, yes… for the small percentage of sysadmins unfamiliar with basic regular expressions. No, not extended regexes. Not Perl-compatible regular expressions. Basic regular expressions. The syntax that underlies almost every regular expression implementation in use today. You’ve been exposed, whether you want it or not. You’ve probably learned it by osmosis and excruciating trial and error, not through reading the essentials.

Especially not essentials weighted down by what Lucas passes off as “humor.” My six year old neighbor writes better footnotes.

Yes, you can script ed. But we have Perl, and Python, and bash, and sh, and a thousand other ways to have scripts edit files.

The multiple editions of this book? Yes, he says he’ll give money to charity if you buy the expensive version. But I can assure you that even with that expenditure, the expensive edition puts more money in his pocket than the cheap edition. But that’s not the worst part. That other edition, regardless of any chances in the contents, is pure social commentary. A “Manly McManface” edition is pure sucking up to social radicals.

(In that edition’s defense, however, I should say that my wife caught a look at the cover and shouted “That’s what computer books need! More of that!”)

So: don’t buy this book. Seriously. You’ll just encourage him.

It is completely obvious that Lucas does not now have, and in fact never has had, any idea whatsoever about what he writes about. His second edition of Absolute FreeBSD existed both to correct all of the errors from the first edition and to generate a whole new slew of inaccuracies. I have no doubt that the forthcoming third edition will contribute a whole new brew of witchcraft and superstition to systems administration, damaging a whole generation of BSD users.

His haphazard approach to any technology subject could be improved upon by covering the floor with the source code in question, releasing an intoxicated capybara in the room, and making him follow its tracks. An even more sensible approach would be finding him other employment–and no, not writing tasteless Linux “erotica.” Preferably digging ditches, or perhaps painting jail cells. But not crossing guard, because that would put childrens’ lives at risk.

His work could be excused by delusional overconfidence. Sure, someone should write books on BSD operating systems. Lucas filled that gap. It’s easy to be the best when you’re the only competitor.

But by writing a book on ed, Lucas demonstrates that he knows precisely what he’s doing. He’s offering harmful advice. He’s almost certainly a scam artist.

To be charitable, it’s possible that we’re witnessing a final, perhaps even tragic end state. Lucas’ constant self-deprecation on social media would be called impostor syndrome in anyone competent. And yet, he somehow thinks that he has something worth saying to the world. The irreconcilable conflict might be tearing his psyche apart. It’s possible that if he got extensive treatment and heavy medication, he might be able to contribute to society as a crossing guard.

Otherwise, I wouldn’t be shocked if his personality shatters from the strain and starts attacking itself.

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