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Mac OS X for Unix Geeks Brian Jepson and Ernest E Rothman
Published by O'Reilly and Associates
216 pages
£ 17.50
Published: 10th October 2002
reviewed by Bob Vickers
   in the March 2003 issue (pdf), (html)

This book has the virtue of a clearly defined target audience, plus a pleasing slimness and a lack of those irritating screenshots which clutter up so many books nowadays. But I was disappointed; I did not sense the authors really understood what a Unix geek would wish to see in this book.

My background includes over a decade of Unix experience but as a Mac user I am a complete novice. I volunteered to review the book because someone at work has just acquired a Mac and we were having great difficulty persuading it to import NFS file systems. Eventually we managed to find the solution in the help system, but I thought maybe the book would make things easier next time that we hit a problem.

I would have really appreciated an introductory chapter giving an overview of the Mac OS architecture and the concepts that might be unfamiliar to me. For example: what is a resource fork? These beasts are mentioned 2 or 3 times in the book without any explanation, but I suspect you could go badly astray if you tried to back up data without knowing what they were.

Although the book leaves a lot unexplained it does devote a lot of space to quite unnecessary material. For example, the first chapter includes 10 pages on tcsh; surely it can be taken for granted that a Unix geek will already be familiar with one of the 4 shells available on the system? In the same chapter 10 pages are devoted to an incomplete list of Mac OS commands; this list would be both shorter and more useful if it omitted all the standard Unix commands; we really don't have to be told that there are commands called 'echo', 'man', 'cp', etc.

After this poor start the book improves. There is a chapter on Startup explaining how to configure which services get started, followed by a vital one on Directory Services which tells you how the familiar /etc configuration files work in the Mac world. Both these chapters provide useful information for system administrators, though I suspect they barely scratch the surface. It did not answer my question about importing NFS file systems, for example.

They are followed by three chapters on building and installing applications. The first two tell you about compiling Mac-specific applications as well as telling you how to port existing Unix applications; the third describes the package management systems used by the Fink and GNU-Darwin projects. I felt there was too much detail here and not enough overview. I do not buy a book to replicate instructions I can easily find on the web or in man pages; I want the authors to give me insight and the benefit of their experience so that I if I need to do something I can go straight to the right tool and not waste time ploughing through documentation irrelevant to my needs. In this instance they could have explained when you would choose to look a package at Fink rather than GNU-Darwin or vice versa.

In part III of the book there are chapters on Building the Darwin Kernel, System Management Tools and the X Window System. This last chapter goes into quite a lot of detail about installing X11, which is the first step a Unix geek would need to take before downloading a batch of favourite applications. There is also information about using ssh to connect between machines...yes, you can login to a Mac remotely just like any other Unix box.

Appendix A gives us a tour of the Mac file system and appendix B is a list of missing man pages. We must hope that the man pages find their way into their rightful place in the distribution.

So in summary: there are some good things in the book but also some irrelevant parts and a lot of omissions.

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