A few years ago, a foundation ran a billboard campaign with an image of Kermit the Frog and the caption, "Eats Flies, Dates a Pig, Hollywood Star. Live Your Dreams." Beyond being a huge fan of the Muppet Show and its sardonic humor, especially as offered by Statler and Waldorf, I have always loved this billboard because it captures an essential element of human life, the desire to make a difference, to live life with the passion of commitment. It is a feeling Thoreau captured in Walden, to the enduring delight of secondary school English teachers across North America:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
UNIX and C transformed our notions of operating systems and programming, seeding a cornucopia of software tools and technologies. I still have my dog-eared copy of the 1978 Bell Systems Technical Journal (BSTJ), which was devoted to the "UNIX Timesharing System."
I was a graduate student then, and it brought my first exposure to UNIX on a VAX 11/780 at Purdue. We ran VMS part of the time and UNIX the rest, largely because VMS had a decent FORTRAN compiler. The numerical analysts among us used FORTRAN, but for the rest, it was UNIX and C. It was a heady time, when new tools and approaches were transforming academic computing research from a largely theoretical discipline to an experimental science. I created a compiler for John Backus' FP language using lex and yacc on that VAX, and I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation using troff.
As da Vinci supposedly remarked, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." UNIX was elegant in its simplicity and functionality. It and the C language inspired multiple generations of hackers (and I use that word in its original, pure sense) to create so many things. It is not exaggeration to say that one can date operating systems as pre-UNIX and post-UNIX.
Richie's passing was not noted with great fanfare, but he made a difference. All of us in computing honor that.
Meditations on Dreams
In between the endless work deadlines, the email deluge and the frenzied travel, take a deep breath and ask yourself what matters and what you are doing. The answers may surprise you, particularly as mortality seems more than a tale told by the wise and aged to the young and uncertain. Those are the essential facts Thoreau described.
Throughout my life, I have been able to live many of my dreams. Far too many people are not so fortunate. (For the record, eating flies, dating a pig and being a Hollywood star have not been among them.) I have a few dreams left, both in computing and in life, and I suspect you do too. In my case, there is a book or two trying to escape via my fingers. (See Eudora, You Got the Love?)
Seize the opportunity. Live your dreams. Make a difference. It is all that any of us can hope to do.