Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

Software Tools

When I was in college in the 1980s the school I was at used Digital Equipment Corporation VAXes running VMS, and didn't have any Unix machines. I was quite interested in Unix and the Unix philosophy, but was frustrated by my lack of access to Unix machines. However, Brian W. Kernighan and P. J. Plauger wrote a couple of books about writing tools in the Unix style: Software Tools was in published in 1976 and used Fortran as its portable implementation language, while Software Tools in Pascal was published in 1981 and used Pascal.


Here is a quote repeated on each book's cover:

Good Programming is not learned from generalities, but by seeing how significant programs can be made clean, easy to read, easy to maintain and modify, human-engineered, efficient, and reliable, by the application of common sense and good programming practices. Careful study and imitation of good programs leads to better writing.

Both books worked through writing software tools that were simpler but still useful versions of many of the standard Unix tools.

I got Software Tools in Pascal because I knew Pascal better than Fortran and worked through implementing each of the programs on the college's VAX, which taught me a lot about programming and was significant influence on me. I later got Software Tools because I wanted to read the section on implementing the ratfor processor which that book used to add additional control structures unavailable in the Fortran of the day.

I was not the only person who was influenced by these books. Deborah K. Scherrer, Dennis E. Hall, and Joseph S. Sventek at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with help from others greatly expanded the set of programs from the book into an entire Virtual Operating System (VOS), and founded the Software Tools Users Group in 1976 to distribute it, eventually leading to ports on over 50 operating systems.

Luckily for me VAX/VMS was one of those operating systems, and the port appeared on various tapes distributed by DECUS, the Digital Equipment Computer Users' Society. Luckily MPL Corporation, where I worked at the time, always got the DECUS tapes and had a Fortran compiler, so I could install it there. I found it a very useful and usable computing environment.

Anyway, I retain a fondness for that software, known variously as LBLTOOLS, LBL SWTOOLS, and LBL VOS, and have begun using the version from the DECUS VAX Languages & Tools SIG tape from 1986 again on the (emulated) VAX I maintain at work. This gave me the opportunity create a PDF with the documentation for that version, which I'm making available here for the curious.

“I really enjoyed that book. The first computer book I read where I thought my world was larger after reading it.” — C. Paul Bond

Last edited: 2024-07-05 14:57:16 EDT

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