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'Hilarious Unix admin tools'

Author helps explain why those who understand them think they're a hoot

By Paul McNamara on Tue, 05/01/12 - 5:40am.

We're not talking about the kind of funny that starts off with three Unix administrators walking into a bar. Were that the case I might be able to explain why Brendan Gregg's collection of "freeware tools" is so amusing - no, make that so "hilarious" - that it landed on the front page of Reddit yesterday with the headline that I borrowed above.

But I do know that these "tools," the newest of which dates back to 2006, are getting rave reviews - "beautiful," "brilliant," "awesome" -- among those who speak the language, so I'm confident that they're worth sharing here along with a few words of translation from Gregg. (There's also a bonus video at the end that you won't want to miss.)

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The tool eliciting the most robust laughter is one called "maybe," and since I don't want to risk telling it wrong, here's a picture of "maybe" in use:

maybe

Gregg and I swapped some email yesterday. Here's an edited transcript:

"Maybe" seems to be getting the biggest laughs. Can you explain it for those of us not in the loop?

gregg

Wow, this was subtle. That shows an example use, where the sysadmin will maybe unlock a user's account today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. This was back in the days when sysadmins would lock user accounts for being "naughty," and then unlock them sometime later when they thought the user had learned their lesson. I'm not sure there is an analogue today, since we are so dependent on computing. It'd be like blocking an employee from the Internet for a few days for running bittorrent; I guess they'd learn their lesson, but they'd probably be unable to do their job, too.

The maybe command itself stems from the black and white industry of computing, where everything is either zero or one, true or false. The maybe command sometimes returns true, and sometimes returns false. This allows for programs to be written that have levels of grey, or unpredictable behavior, much like the real world, and read like it too "if maybe; do this; else do that". Of course, this is unlikely to have any real use, since we expect and like our computers to be predictable.

And might you walk us through another example or two from the collection?

Sure: psss lists process status along with their star sign, based on the process birth time. lsss does the same with files based on their creation time. One of the more sophisticated tools is ged, which puts a GUI on the Unix "ed" line editor, providing colors, themes and sound effects. The joke there is that ed is archaic and obsolete, and the addition of a GUI does nothing to improve its usability.

Did you write them or is it a collection of faves?

I wrote all of these; a few ideas came from buddies at the time, and I dropped their names in the comments (to share the blame :).

Do they have any purpose beyond being funny?

They are tools that are designed to have no use at all. But they are tools, and they do work.

One tool, "allslow", slows down all CPUs by a programmable rate. Years ago I heard this was being used in production to artificially limit an application before other tenants moved in. I considered yanking it from the page - these aren't supposed to have a real use! :)

What inspired you to write the them?

Too much time on Unix, an odd sense of humor, and a love of coding. I used to teach Unix classes at the time, and they were sometimes handy to break the ice.

I see the list hasn't been updated since 2006. Why'd you stop?

I got a job in kernel engineering and didn't touch my homepage for years; only this year I've been starting to fix it up again, and catch up on projects.

I have a dozen more ideas for (these kinds of) "specials" that I need to code up, some more ambitious. These include an "upgrade" to the Mac OS X spinning beachball (this thing: to make it bigger, spin for longer, and play a sound effect - maybe a siren.) Again, software that has no use (I hope), but would be amusing to see written.

An Australian living in California, Gregg's current work involves cloud computing. He's been a Unix system administrator, instructor, consultant and programmer.

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He's also known as the guy who shouts at disks by the almost 800,000 people who've watched this YouTube video:

 

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