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Operating Systems

Journal Epsillon's Journal: BSD community has a superiority complex?

There is a lot of talk about BSD at the moment, not least of which centers on the experiences of new users on mailing lists, newsgroups and forums. There is a false feeling that the BSD community suffers from a misplaced sense of superiority due to answers of the "RTFM" type. Whilst understandably frustrating, this is simply a difference between the BSD and other cultures. The reason? Documentation.

I use FreeBSD. I make no apology for the shameless plug as I think it is a useful and worthwhile system to learn and use and, since I know FreeBSD, I'll concentrate on it for the rest of this entry. The FreeBSD documentation project is the reason for this journal entry, simply because a lot of people misunderstand why it is there and what it does.

FreeBSD is developed as a whole: Kernel, base system, ports and documentation. They all follow a basic structure laid down by the core team, the ports team and other subgroups and all follow POLA (point of least astonishment) as far as practical across releases. As such, most questions about FreeBSD can be answered in one of four places:
  • The FreeBSD Handbook (English version, also available in other languages). This really is a book, not a Wiki or a random collection of HTML pages. It is installed with every new system (except minimal install) in multiple languages and is quite readable. Find it in /usr/share/doc/en/books/handbook. Whilst you're there, have a look at the other books and articles in /usr/share/doc/en/. Nice, eh? Just think how long all that took to write.
  • The online man pages or man from a local console. Yes, man pages can be over-hyped, but I've found FreeBSD's to be both clear and concise. Tip: Install sysutils/most from the ports and set it as your pager for a much nicer layout of man pages. / searches forwards and ? searches backwards if you're looking for keywords. Don't forget apropos(1) either.
  • I really don't know whether to do this, but if you're offended by the term "newbie" look away now. The FreeBSD resources for newbies page offers alternative information for people not finding the answers in the other three places.

One of the reasons why the BSD help resources frequently appear to be populated by Big Scary Demons (with apologies to O'Reilly) is that people rarely use the above resources before asking questions. This principle applies to all software, not just the BSDs. Simply put, the documentation in FreeBSD is so extensive and so much time has been spent getting it right and accessible that it offends people when it is ignored. Smart questions are welcomed, of course. Things like "How do I install Samba" are likely to and, IMHO, should be greeted with a healthy dose of "RTFH" (read the fine Handbook).

The FreeBSD documentation people have worked hard to make the project's books, manuals and man pages as good, if not better, than any other project's. To ignore these resources is kicking sand in the faces of those who gave up their time to produce them for you. In short, it's not a superiority complex at all; it's a simple reaction to a lack of courtesy toward people who have tried to help you before you even knew you needed help.

Another little tip: If you're moving from one "flavour" to another, this might be just what you need.

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein