Sunday, June 17, 2007

A "man pages" approach to information

It still amazes me how Unix man pages shaped my approach to digesting information.

I first started using Unix-based systems around 1997. My Unix mentor had, in retrospect, a fantastic approach to helping me out on my autodidactic path. Whenever I needed help with a command, he would always prepend his answer with "man".

I: How do you check your disk space?
Len: man df
I: ???
Len: man man

I am now more than grateful for his wisdom, but I cursed it many times in context.

What amused me the most about the man repository was how it was simply impossible to read one page without reading ten others, by curiosity if nothing else. The same holds true for many subjects, but man pages have this special twist that unlike so many other publications, they never dumb down their content to widen their audience reach, but instead historically assume that the reader is a highly trained operator and knows (or should know) everything about the rest of the system. This shapes an interesting vicious cycle, since it makes for a documentation system with essentially no true beginning or even accessible entry point.

While this might be perceived as a flaw in the man's matrix, it truly catalyzed my habit of always pushing myself to learn and know more than just what I need for the very task that brings me to a piece of information. To this day, I find myself quasi-incapable of reading anything without going into the research equivalent to a shark's feeding frenzy, unless I'm on a on a tight schedule, in which case I only limit and control myself.

In the end, two things are for sure: Thank [insert fav' deity here] for hypertext, and Digg, Facebook , Slashdot, et alii sure do not help one bit. ;)

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