Thursday, October 13, 2011

For dmr

Logo I designed for Kottu, in tribute to dmr
Is October the month of tech's heroes dying, or something?

C was the very first language I learned at university. I had dabbled in bits and pieces of code before, with VB6 (ugh), a bit of C++ (utter failure) and maybe JavaScript. But C was my first proper language, and I fell in love. And I've seen many languages since, but none that were as easy to grasp, yet as useful as C. Today's languages are much fancier, but there's something about it that you can't beat.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie can be described in many words, but I would call him a true genius. In his own words: "Unix is simple. It just takes a genius to understand its simplicity". He, and the rest of the Bell labs team, took a very pragmatic approach to programming. They kept things simple, and put power in the hands of the user, with merely the warning to use it wisely. The theoreticians can say what they will, but in practical terms UNIX (and the C language it was written in - becoming one of the first major operating systems to be implemented in a high-level language) has responded by being one of the most successful operating systems in history. Today, a major part of the world's IT infrastructure runs on UNIX-derivatives and UNIX-clones. BSD (and its child Mac OSX) is wildly popular, and so is GNU/Linux. Even though the original UNIX code is not used in these implementations, the features, the layout of the file-system, the shell, the common utilities... the basic concepts and most of all the awesome little language that all of it is written in pretty much owe their existence to the work of the original Bell labs team.

Imagine what it must've been like to walk with giants? I would give everything I own to go back and work at circa-1970 Bell labs. :)

Rest in peace, Dr. Ritchie. Future generations will continue to read K&R, appreciate your genius and your contributions (and your humility about it all) and hopefully your life will be celebrated much more in the coming years. You deserved a much better send-off than that which you received today.

P.S. There was a quote of either Thompson's or Ritchie's that I've read and was trying to track down all day (if any of you guys know where it is, please send me the link) about how they never usually duplicated work while writing code, but once accidentally wrote the same utility in assembly code. They then went through the code, to find that they had implemented it almost identically - line for line. That story just blew my mind away. :)

Edit: Adding this cool Japan Prize video that I found today. The Japan Prize 2011 was awarded to Dennis and Ken.