Bricks and the Unix Philosophy

VP of Operations, Opreto

3 minute read

My first experience with Unix was my father’s Silicon Graphics Indy workstation, whose sleek new Indigo Magic Desktop hid all the complexity behind what was arguably, at the time, the world’s most beautiful desktop GUI. Much like the first time I found myself firing up the C shell command line for the first time on that system, I had my first go at masonry work out of necessity.

My home is ancient by Western Ontario standards. It was built in 1866, on a fieldstone foundation that might be a century older, following a fire that completely destroyed the previous structure. The 1861 census lists that earlier iteration as a frame house. Understandably, the owners opted to replace it with three-wythe brick construction.

Over 150 years and some significant interior renovation later, I inherited a number of masonry projects: repointing the original lime mortar, replacing spalled bricks, bricking in old windows, rebuilding the basement stairs and door frame, repairing the bench footing around the foundation. I had no previous experience, but was motivated to learn. Brick work is expensive, and the more labour-intensive traditional techniques even more so, if anyone will do it that way at all.

I dove into a multi-week YouTube binge, and quickly zeroed in on a few tutors who were working with materials that looked like my house. They were all UK brickies, with the exception of one aging Pennsylvania mason: from places where old buildings stand and demand for traditional brick work endures. Something common in their demeanour reminded me strongly of the archetypal Unix graybeard from the Usenet lore of the 1990s, back when my now business partner Alan and I were teenagers taking our first steps with IRIX, Solaris, FreeBSD, and Linux. They represent a vanishing art they believe still has merit today.

Traditional bricklaying and the Unix philosophy share a common principle: the idea of breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones that can be executed independently and then combined to achieve a more complex goal. Masonry is modular by definition, and bricklaying is the art of combining component patterns like bonds, corners, arches, and piers into a sturdy and aesthetically pleasing whole. Similarly, the classical Unix interface is a set of minimal tools that do one thing and do it well, and a skilled power user can achieve surprisingly complex results with elegant command lines combining a few compact utilities with a bit of shell script mortar.

In both cases, the result is a system that is robust, flexible, and easy to maintain, because each component fulfils a specific function, and changes can be made to individual components without affecting the system as a whole. The techniques may be somewhat arcane, but mastering them arguably yields a payoff that can’t be had any other way.

Sadly, there is a sense in which both the art of bricklaying and the Unix philosophy are disappearing in the modern age.

In the case of bricklaying, as labour gets more expensive and commodities get cheaper, there is a growing trend towards the use of prefabricated materials, such as concrete block, rather than traditional brick and mortar construction. This has naturally led to a decline in the number of bricklayers, as well as a loss of the skills and techniques that have been passed down for generations. While some still practice the craft today, it is becoming increasingly rare.

Similarly, while the principles of the Unix philosophy are still widely known and used in software development, there is a growing trend toward more monolithic, all-in-one solutions, rather than the modular approach favoured by Unix. This trend is driven in part by the desire for simplicity and ease of use. While the old guard laments the resulting erosion of robustness, efficiency, flexibility, and maintainability, with the absurd computational power and network bandwidth available to modern devices, the Unix way is losing influence among younger developers.

Ultimately, these arts, like many others, will be preserved by those willing to put in the time apprenticing for the promise of uniquely elegant outcomes. There is something too satisfying about strong, compact units interlocking into a beautiful gestalt to let everything be built out of big and ugly prefab monoliths.