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The Loginataka

Translations: Czech Polish Indonesian Ukrainian

Speak, O Guru: How can I become a Unix Wizard?

O, Nobly Born: know that the Way to Wizardhood is long, and winding, and Fraught with Risks. Thou must Attune thyself with the Source, attaining the arcane Knowledge and Conversation of the System Libraries and Internals. Yea; and such an all-consuming Time and Energy Sink is this as to greatly Imperil thy Grade Point Average (if one thou hast), not to mention thy Sex Life (if one thou hast). But persevere, oh Larval One; rewards beyond the Dreams of Lusers await thee!

Speak, O Guru: What books should I study? Are the O'Reilly "Nutshell" guides a good place to start?

O, Nobly Born: know that the Nutshell Guides are but the outermost Portal of the True Enlightenment. Worthy are they (and praise to the Name of O'Reilly, whose books show forth the Hacker Spirit in numerous pleasing ways), but the Nutshell Guides are only the Beginning of the Road.

If thou desirest with True Desire to tread the Path of Wizardly Wisdom, first learn the elementary Postures of Kernighan & Pike's The Unix Programming Environment; then, absorb the mantic puissance of March Rochkind's Advanced Unix Programming and W. Richard Stevens's Advanced Programming In The Unix Environment.

Immerse thyself, then, in the Pure Light of Maurice J. Bach's The Design Of The Unix Operating System. Neglect not the Berkelian Way; study also The Design and Implementation Of The 4.4BSD Operating System by Kirk McKusick, Keith Bostic et. al.

For useful hints, tips, and tricks, see Unix Power Tools, Tim O'Reilly, ed. Consider also the dark Wisdom to be gained from contemplation of the dread Portable C And Unix Systems Programming, e'en though it hath flowed from the keyboard of the mad and doomed Malvernite whom the world of unknowing Man misnames "J. E. Lapin".

These tomes shall instruct thy Left Brain in the Nature of the Unix System; to Feed the other half of thy Head, O Nobly Born, embrace also the Lore of its Nurture. Don Libes's and Sandy Ressler's Life With Unix will set thy Feet unerringly upon that Path; take as thy Travelling Companion the erratic but illuminating compendium called The New Hacker's Dictionary (Eric S. Raymond, ed., with Guy L. Steele Jr.).

(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Camel.)

Speak, O Guru: To attain Mastery, how many Kernels do I need to take apart and reassemble?

O Nobly Born: this question reveals that indeed thou hast touched upon an Ineffable Truth about Unix --- that thou canst not Plumb its Mysteries by mere Study but must become One with it through Practice. The true Way to the Knowledge of the Source is not the timid and footling way of the Student, but the Divine Foolery of the Hacker. Hack, then; strive against Mighty Problems, have joy in thy Striving, and let the Crashes fall where they may (maintaining the while, for the Good of thy Karma, a Rigorous Backup Policy).

In this day of Boot-Time Autoconfiguration and Dynamically Loadable Device Drivers, reassembling a Kernel is no longer the daunting Test and Seal of Mastery that once it was. However, writing and verifying thine own Device Driver for some piece of Exotic Hardware is still a worthy challenge to thy Budding Guruhood. Indeed, such Challenge may be found the Crafting of any Program sufficiently Powerful to Extend or Compete with the Tools now available in Open Source.

Therefore: seek thee out the Open Source Unixes: OpenBSD, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and most Especially Linux in many of its Incarnations. Join the Wizards and Aspirants to Wizardhood who Labor Unceasingly to Improve these. Commune with them in their Great Work, their unceasing Extension and Reinvention of Unix. In this wise may thou become one among the Mighty.

Speak, O Guru: Some there are who claim that the sole Path to Wizardry and the proper Way of every Right-Thinking Hacker is to rewrite the Unix Kernel from Scratch. Is this not Sacrilege?

Sacrilege, O Nobly Born? Nay! Certainly the Kernel Source is the Inmost Mystery of Unix --- but there is a Mystery beyond that Mystery. The Nature of Unix inhereth not in any one Version but in the Design Tradition of which all Unixes are Evolving Parts.

The Rite of the Rewrite is not the only Path to Mastery, but it is perhaps the highest and most Sacred of all Paths. Few indeed are those who, travelling it, have crossed the dark and yawning Abyss of Implementation to Delivery. Many, yea, many in truth stagnate yet in the Desert of Delay, or linger ever in the ghastly limbo called Perpetual Beta.

(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Lion.)

Speak, O Guru: What, then, is the True Path to Wizardhood?

O Nobly Born: learn, and seek within thyself. Cultivate the cunning of the Serpent and the courage of the Tiger; sup deeply from the Wisdom of those who came before thee. Hack, and hack again; grow, by trial and by error. Post thy best hacks to the Net and gain in Repute thereby. Also, O Nobly Born, be thou grave and courteous in thy speech; be helpful to those less than thee, quick to succour and slow to flame.

If thou dost these things faithfully, if thou travellest with high heart and pure intention, soon shall thy callow Newbiehood be shed. By degrees imperceptible to thyself shalt thou gain Power and Wisdom, Striving and Doing all the while. Gradually shall thy Puissance unfold and deepen.

O Nobly Born, if thou dost all these things, thy Wizardhood shall surely come upon thee; but not of a sudden, and not until after thy arrogant Mind hath more than half Forgotten that such was its Aim. For know this --- you may not by thyself in Pride claim the Mantle of Wizardry; that way lies only Bogosity without End.

Rather must you Become, and Become, and Become, until Hackers respect thy Power, and other Wizards hail thee as a Brother or Sister in Wisdom, and you wake up and realize that the Mantle hath lain unknown upon thy Shoulders since you knew not when.

(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Child.)

Hear, O nobly born: Techniques can be taught, but the Way of the Hacker cannot be taught. Skills can be acquired, but the Way of the Hacker is not a checklist of skills. Programming can be accomplished, but the Way of the Hacker is not a place at which you can stop and say "I have arrived!"

Hear, O nobly born: The Way of the Hacker is a posture of mind; he who seeks a teacher of the Way knows it not, but he is only looking for a mirror. All those competent to teach the Way know that it cannot be taught, only pursued with joyous labor and by emulation of the great hackers of the past.

Hear, O nobly born: Great were the hackers of the past! Subtle and deep in their thinking, shaggy-bearded and with thunder on their brows! You may seek to become as them, but it will not suffice you to grow a beard.

Hear, O Nobly Born: The center of the mystery is the act of coding. You have a keyboard before you; pursue the Way through work.



Most of this (up to "(In this wise shalt thou travel the Way of the Child.)") was originally a Usenet response to some eager newbie questions; it appears that I wrote it on 21 November 1992 in response to a post by one Ade Barkah. After ten years, I guess it's time to draw aside the veil of those mysteries. The remainder I wrote in 2010 after I was actually asked to give an answer in the style of the Loginataka.

For those of you who are not native English speakers, the entirety is written in imitation of the Early Modern English of the late 1500s and early 1600s, the language of the King James Bible. The influence of the King James Bible is such that its dialect has retained connotations of majesty, solemnity, and religious authority. Holy scriptures from other languages are, therefore, often translated into a KJB-like pseudo-archaic English rather than following modern usage.

Parts of this border on obsolescence now. Portable C And Unix Systems Programming has been out of print for a long time, but the Lovecraft joke was too funny to lose. Life With Unix is history, too, but the other references are still good. In 1998 I changed references to "freeware" and "free software" to "open source". Otherwise changes have been pretty minor.


The title of the document is a play on the name of the Tripitaka, an early compilation of Buddhist scriptures.

"Oh Nobly Born:"

The formulaic use of the salutation is intended to be reminiscent of the Bardo Thödöl — the Tibetan Book Of The Dead.

"the Name of O'Reilly"

A phrase rich with meaning in the clan system of old Scotland and Ireland. It might refer to the reputation of the clan O'Reilly, or to the person of the clan chief. The implied image is of Tim O'Reilly, be-tartaned, surrounded by louring Celts bristling with weapons. It's worth noting that O'Reilly and Associates was pretty new at the game when I wrote this; it was over the following five years that they built up their remarkable reputation as friends of the hacker community.

"attaining the arcane Knowledge and Conversation"

This is a reference to the occultism of Alesteir Crowley. He wrote of attaining the "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel" as the central aim of Thelemic mysticism, and added that he had chosen that term for it because it was the most absurd locution he could think of.

"the Pure Light"

In Buddhist mysticism, the Pure Light of the Void ("void" being the usual English translation of Sanskrit sunyata) is a frequent metaphor for the wisdom that comes from realizing the emptiness of all things.

"the Berkelian Way"

If you caught the previous reference to sunyata, you might also recall that Bishop Berkeley famously denied the existence of objective reality.

"the mad and doomed Malvernite"

This is a play on H.P. Lovecraft's "mad and doomed Arab", Abdul al-Hazred, the author of the Necronomicon. And the actual doomed Malvernite, in 1987. The "world of unknowing man misnames" because I wrote the book, but was pressured into allowing it to be published under a corporate pseudonym.

"feed the other half of thy head"

Cue Grace Slick, in the last lines of Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, a song about a hallucinogenic drug experience: "Remember...what the dormouse said! FEED YOUR HEAD! FEED YOUR HEAD!"

"the Way of the Camel"

The references to the Ways of the Camel, Lion, and Child are to a mystical rant in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

"Divine Foolery of the Hacker"

The image of the Fool of God is a pervasive one in world mysticism. I was thinking here especially of the Fool card in the Rider-Waite Tarot, showing a clown walking or capering at the edge of a precipice.

"Great Work"

In alchemy, the production of the Philosopher's Stone that could transmute lead to gold, confer immortality. In some mystical interpretations of alchemy, the transmutation of the adept's own soul. Modern Hermetic occultism generalizes the second meaning.

"Desert of Delay"

This part is intended to recall the landscapes in Bunyan's moral allegory Pilgrim's Progress.

"cunning of the Serpent and the courage of the Tiger"

In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Matthew 10:16 exhorts Christians to be as cunning as serpents and as harmless as doves. This in turn refers to the "cunning of the serpent" in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

"if thou travellest with high heart and pure intention"

In the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, "I have travelled here with high heart and pure intention" is part of the ritual one must speak to pass the Weigher of Souls.


"Shanti!" is Sanskrit and means "Peace!" I deliberately used the older transliteration "Shantih!" because it's found at the end of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland. The threefold repetition is a form of invocatory magic closely equivalent to the Catholic ritual blessing "Peace be with you!"

If you found this entertaining, you would probably also enjoy Rootless Root: The Unix Koans of Master Foo.

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