cat -v harmful stuff

UNIX Style, or cat -v Considered Harmful

At the USENIX Summer Conference of 1983 Rob Pike made a presentation titled ‘UNIX Style, or cat -v Considered Harmful’ and together with Brian Kernighan wrote the paper ‘Program Design in the UNIX Environment’ (pdf version, ps version), published as an article in AT&T Bell Laboratories Technical Journal, October 1984, Vol. 63 No. 8 Part 2.

This was a prelude for their famous book The Unix Programming Environment (Prentice-Hall Software Series) that today is considered the bible of Unix.

Unfortunately their advice has been completely ignored, and today Unix has become overcome by exactly the kind of mistakes they warned against.

Bell Laboratories

Murray Hill, NJ (dec!ucb)wav!research!rob

It seems that UNIX has become the victim of cancerous growth at the hands of
organizations such as UCB. 4.2BSD is an order of magnitude larger than Version
5, but, Pike claims, not ten times better.

The talk reviews reasons for UNIX's popularity and shows, using UCB cat as a
primary example, how UNIX has grown fat. cat isn't for printing files with line
numbers, it isn't for compressing multiple blank lines, it's not for looking at
non-printing ASCII characters, it's for concatenating files.

We are reminded that ls isn't the place for code to break a single column into
multiple ones, and that mailnews shouldn't have its own more processing or joke
encryption code.

Rob carried the standard well for the "spirit of UNIX," and you can look
forward to a deeper look at the philosophy of UNIX in his forthcoming book.