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GNU is Not Unix Books Media Book Reviews

Prime Time Freeware Manual: the Dossier Series 66

Posted by timothy
from the libre-not-gratis dept.
doom writes "There seems to be some interest just now in technical books based on freely licensed content, so I thought I would discuss the Dossier series from Rich Morin's Prime Time Freeware project." Doom has provided an overview of this series; read on below to find out for yourself why he says man pages and other free documentation are worth paying for in dead-tree format.
Prime Time Freeware Manual: the Dossier Series
author (Various)
pages (Various)
publisher Dossier/Prime Time Freeware
rating 8
reviewer doom
ISBN (N/A)
summary Free documentation worth paying for.

You're all of course aware that there's a huge quantity of excellent technical material on-line about the free/open software that you use ... but how much of it have you actually read? Computer's being what they are -- noisy glowing bulky contraptions with awkward physical controls and displays with a resolution a fraction of paper publications -- most of us aren't inclined to read long works on line. So the next step is where you resolve to do printouts of some of the manuals... and then you discover how long they really are. Many a project can fill multiple looseleaf binders with a single-sided printout of its docs. But if you spend about half a day on it you can probably figure out how to get a nice double-sided printout in a smallish typeface and squeeze it all into a single looseleaf binder... which turns out to *still* be too bulky to want to carry around with you. RTFM is easier said ...

The solution to this is of course professionally printed editions of the manuals. These have been easy to get for GNU software for some time -- the GNU Project standardized on documentation in 'texinfo' format which they use to generate both their online documentation and a very good series of books.

But all that is free is not GNU, and filling that gap is one of the goals of the Dossier series, which uses some semi-automated procedures to generate high-quality, up-to-date hardcopy-on-demand publication.

Thus far they've got books out on the following topics (available on-line through the BSD Mall):

  • C, etc.: Essential Tools
  • Email: Exim 3
  • Email: Mail and Sendmail
  • File Systems: FreeBSD
  • File Systems: RedHat
  • Kernel: FreeBSD
  • PostgreSQL: Programming
  • PostgreSQL: Reference Manual
  • PostgreSQL: Use and Administration
  • Processes: FreeBSD
  • Processes: RedHat
  • Python: Library Reference
  • Python: Miscellanea
  • Security: Local System
  • Security: Remote Access
  • Text Processing: Essential Tools
  • User Commands: FreeBSD
  • User Commands: RedHat

Some of the prices might seem a little high for works based on free content (usually $30 to $35 per volume), but on the other hand these are for small press runs without much in the way of economies of scale going for them. And it certainly beats messing with doing print-outs yourself. (Though if you want to go that route, Dossier can help take the sting out of that process: they offer online access to PDF versions of these works, which is much more inexpensive than paying them to ship you bound volumes.)

When I first heard about Prime Time Freeware/Dossier, I immediately ordered the Postgresql documentation, a set which fills three volumes. At that time the only Postgresql book out was Bruce Momjian's which only covered up to version 7.0. At the speed the postgresql development team was working, having docs more than one release behind was definitely a problem (outer joins weren't even supported in 7.0!). I really appreciated having some books I could flip through that discussed the actual state of the software (and man, there are some weird features in there I didn't know about ... graphical data types so that you can try and use postgres as a backend to a CAD system?).

Next I started looking at the volume on "Text" (now renamed "Text Processing" ... which is a shame, in my opinion. I thought it was really funny putting "Text" on the same level as "C" and "Python"). This is a book I would have liked to have some years ago when I needed to understand troff/nroff for man-page hacking (the only time I ever bought one of those 4-inch-wide junk books the 80s were buried under was to get a copy of "UNIX UNLEASHED" because it had a table of *roff commands ... it still bugs me that I had to do that).

One of the things that struck me immediately about this "Text" volume though, was that there were some utilities discussed here that I'd never heard of before, e.g. a2ps which has some decent features for formatting docs for postscript printers. I'd never run across it before, in part because it wasn't installed by default on my RedHat 7.x box. It's a pretty funky command that does a bunch of things automagically that are sometimes hard to predict, but if you need printouts of some docs, I recommend giving a2ps a try for double-column duplex output -- but only if you can't get them from some place like Dossier (yet).

Rich Morin has been working on the problem of making it easier for users of open systems to get information about them for some time, hence The Meta Project, which thus far has resulted in "Meta Demo," aka the FreeBSD Browser. The Dossier series is a spin-off of this research in documenting open systems... check-out the Meta Project sometime. (I'd like to see that system browser extended to cover Linux, myself).


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Prime Time Freeware Manual: the Dossier Series

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  • Excuse me? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gazbo (517111) on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @12:27PM (#5231683)
    How is this a book review? Saying that there is a series of books available doth not a review make.
  • I like it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @12:29PM (#5231695)
    Reading a paper medium fior a long time is always best than on screen.
  • Split Opinion (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wzm (644503) on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @12:34PM (#5231743) Homepage

    I'm of two minds about printed documentation. On more consumer oriented platforms, such as the Mac OS, and Windows, I've never had need to touch the printed stuff, and the built in help is rarely of use. With *NIX machines, I've always wanted to get full printed documentation, but once I get ahold of if for the stuff I'm using, I never pull it out. Man pages and online documentation are just to convenient.

    I feel as though having printed documentation ought to help, but it doesnt. Do people who learned computing through batch systems find things to be different? I know that old DEC junkies typically have a few bookcases of documentation, is that because they learned the systems that way (and find it useful), or just because they are pack rats?

    • Re:Split Opinion (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Rojo^ (78973)
      Sometimes it's easier to grep for an answer than flip flip flip for it. I have a few tech books I read through when I'm on the toilet, but other than that, the books don't have as good a refresh rate as my monitor as I'm searching Google for HOWTO's. Books usually have lots more information than I'm looking for as a quick reference, and it's kind of a pain weeding out the extraneous info.
  • Too long (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Can I order the paperback version of this review?
  • by phorm (591458) on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @12:58PM (#5231904) Journal
    To name a few nice things about documentation on paper:

    You can highlight it (a big plug)

    You can tag/mark important pages

    You can read the paper and the screen (fullscreen) at the same time without switching TTY's

    You can have multiple pages open at ones (if looseleaf) and sometimes switching between is easier as well

    You can take then with you when not at a PC

    If you're in the loo and run out of TP... well...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @01:00PM (#5231919)
    Most *NIX man pages have a horrible interface and are poorly written. They do not have a tutorial style, and generally show you the commands and a brief definition, but nothing more.

    But whether that's online or on paper, it's still going to suck. It's even worse on paper because it's not hyperlinked and has no search capability.

    I have read manuals that were completely on the computer and also printed out. I shipped the printed copies back to my parent's home to occupy my old room; I exclusively use the online stuff. It's better, it's faster, and it's exactly the same well-written stuff.

    Printing books is a step backwards. It's destructive to the environment. What is really needed? A) Better writers B) a devotion and committment to explaining concepts more thoroughly C) more examples.

    • I agree 100%. The value added by putting existing docs on paper is minimal. It is nice to be able to look at the paper and the screen simultaneously, some time. But that is not justification for charging about what it would cost for the user to simply put the docs on paper with their own inkjet.

      It is fairly boggling that the man pages don't contain examples. (I'm not sure if this is part of the standard for man pages, but I don't recall seeing examples at all). Better docs would not only include examples of each option, but guide the reader to an understanding of (1) when to do this, (2) why to do this, (3) what else you need to do this, (4) if he really wants to do this, (5) likely problems with doing this, (6) blah, blah, blah ...

      Then you need to keep it all up to date as the software continuously evolves and do some packaging and presentation to convince the reader that the doc is correct for someone with his distro, his data, his computer, ... (I once wanted to be a mathematician, but all I learned was the "..." part.)

      Anyway, that means that maybe there is some need to include a little original work to the 'get stuff free, sell it, PROFIT!' business model before you've got a lucrative business. The approach without original content that I could suggest would be to add original cross-referencing, linking, and indexing to the free docs. Put it all on a CD so that when the user gets boggled by one section of the docs, he at least gets a link there to another section of the docs to click on so that he might forget that he is boggled.

    • they do not have a tutorial style, and generally show you the commands and a brief definition

      Uh, that's all they (man pages) are supposed to have. Back in the dawn of time, or at least of Unix, the documentation consisted of two "volumes" (several inches thick each if you printed it all out on looseleaf paper to put in a binder). Volume 1 consisted of man pages, with the different sections being numbered as we know the numbering today. Volume 2 -- rarely seen anymore -- consisted of white papers, users guides and other detailed documentation for the commands that weren't obvious from the man page. (For example, cp only needs a man page, even with all the bells and whistles added since the early days. Something like troff or yacc needs a bit more -- and you'd find that bit more in Volume 2.)

      Online documentation (speaking in general here) is great (searchable, hyperlinks, etc) when you're looking for something specific. Paper documentation is wonderful when you just want to browse (in the old fashioned sense) to discover stuff you didn't know you needed -- especially if you want to do that in places where a computer isn't convenient.
      • Then why do they call this bucket of random bits a 'browser'?

        Fine to have volume 1 and volume 2, but in this age of the digital wonderland, shouldn't there be hyperlinks from volume 1 to volume 2? The concept of the smart library was one of the original dreams of the juicy fruits of smart technology, and that was 50 or more years ago. What we have equals dead trees converted to digital media, with some of the benefits of dead trees lost and few of the potential advantages of digital media realized. And this is for presenting information about the computer to someone who is trying to use the computer. That paper can be at all competitive in this market is most telling -- telling about the low value of IT, even to IT people.

        • >Fine to have volume 1 and volume 2, but in this age of the digital
          >wonderland, shouldn't there be hyperlinks from volume 1 to volume 2?

          Yes, definitely. The same guy who put these books together has organized the FreeBSD documentation in a way you'd probably like.

          For example, halfway down this summary page for vi [cfcl.com] you'll see hyperlinks to the appropriate tutorials and references found in /usr/share/doc/

        • Hyperlinks are well and good -- but they shouldn't serve as a crutch for bad writing, either. A well-written man page (there are some) is a joy to behold, and stands on its own. Which would you rather have -- Microsoft hyperlinked "help" or a plain text readable-from-the-command-line man page?

          As far as paper editions go -- paper is easier on the eyes, more portable, more durable (spilling coffee on your books is annoying, but beats heck out of spilling coffee on your laptop) and easier to make notations on.

          Besides which, the CO2 absorbed by that tree gets retained in the paper for as long as it lasts. Do your bit to prevent global warming, use paper documentation!

          (And all that said, I have a couple of the O'Reilly "library on a CD" discs -- all HTML-ized -- mounted on my internal server so I can refer to them instantly.)

    • It's destructive to the environment


      No more so than all of the electric power we use to run the computers on this planet.

    • A) *NIX man pages are supposed to be references, not tutorials. As such, they are superb. Well, at least the FreeBSD man pages are superb, sometimes the Linux man pages seem to be lacking finish.

      B) All of the XFree86 documentation is installed as man pages. Very useful. But I still crack open the hardcopy X series from O'Reilly, most of which are merely printed copies of the man pages.

      C) Books are printed on paper, which comes from trees, which is a renewable resource. In addition, the trees used for paper are grown on farms. It's much less destructive to the environment than generating the electricity used to display ephemeral information on your computer monitor.

      D) No one is requiring you to buy these books. If you don't want them, you don't have to buy them.
  • by Clover_Kicker (20761) <clover_kicker@yahoo.com> on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @01:33PM (#5232153)
    For those who haven't followed the article's link to the Meta Project [cantaforda.com], you really should give it a spin.

    Here's a sample from the FreeBSD browser, showing a metric arseload of info about the vi [cfcl.com] command. This page includes pointers to the vi man page, lists of other programs that are really symlinks to vi (and their respective man pages), config files used by vi, and temp files created by vi: all just a click away.

    Here's another FreeBSD browser page for /etc/fstab [cfcl.com]. This points to the man page for fstab, as well as listing commands that read info from fstab (mount, umount, mount_nfs, etc) and their respective man pages.

    Unix is complex, it is hard to succinctly show the interelations between all of the many pieces. The FreeBSD browser is a really nice step in the right direction!
  • Advantages (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mr_Person (162211) <mr_person@mrpe[ ]n.org ['rso' in gap]> on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @02:49PM (#5232835) Journal
    For some documentation, I prefer to have it on the computer because you can't grep a dead tree. However, for some things, like for instance the Camel Book, I prefer to have it printed because it's something that I read all the way through, like a book. It's also easier to take with you (you don't always have access to a computer for reading). If it's just for reference about one particular part of the subject covered, on the computer is much more handy. But for something I'm going to read all the way through (possibly more than once), printed is the best.
  • Aren't MAN pages and other docs also covered, by and large, by some form of "free" license? If so, then why aren't they required to freely distribute the pdf files?
  • Dead tree editions are good if you have nothing better to read while sitting on the throne(or loo). They are also indispensible if you are having problems with your PC and can't connect to the internet to read the documentation online. Paper can also be better if it is well indexed because it can be easier to find a certain page than trying to page up/down each screen looking for the information that you need.

    However, the biggest problem with paper will never be solved; by the time it is published, distributed, and sold it is out of date. If you need to look up the most recent information, online is the only way to go.

  • by Rich_Morin (547665) on Wednesday February 05, 2003 @04:16PM (#5233808) Homepage
    Thank you, doom, for the nice review. Thanks, as well, to timothy, Slashdot,
    and the folks who have taken the time and effort to comment. I would like to
    respond to a few points that have been raised here; I'll try to be brief (:-).

    Printed and online documentation are not mutually-exclusive alternatives. I
    use either or both, depending on my needs of the moment. Books have been
    around for about two millenia, so it's not surprising that they work well for
    certain purposes. It is obvious, however, that electronic access has its own
    advantages.

    An edited collection (whether printed or PDF) adds significant value over the
    "raw" body of source documents. Documents must be located, evaluated, selected,
    organized, and formatted. It's not accidental that doom found some novel tools
    in our collections; part of our objective is to introduce readers to relevant
    tools, whether they are part of a "standard distribution" or not.

    Doom is quite correct about the economies of scale for small press runs. Our
    books are demand-printed in very small lots. This keeps the investment small,
    but the cost per item is about three times (!) that of offset printing. Only
    the use of Internet-based sales allows us to offer reasonable pricing.

    Like doom, I'd like to see a "Linux Browser", but my resources are limited and
    I'm concentrating on other tasks right now. If some Linux-knowledgeable folks
    want to help (e.g., by annotating directories and file system relationships),
    I encourage them to get in touch.

    Aside from DOSSIER, my current efforts are concentrated on creating a browser
    that will run on a local system and provide integrated access to documentation
    and system metadata. I'm writing a series on this for MacTech Magazine.

    A final note on DOSSIER: send topic suggestions! If you'd like to see a volume
    on a particular topic, let me know; I may be able to do something about it (:-).
  • Use FinePrint 2000. You can print up to 8 pages on one side and print doublesided quite easily.
  • But why do they charge almost as much for the PDFs?
  • by doom (14564) <doom@kzsu.stanford.edu> on Wednesday February 12, 2003 @06:42PM (#5291270) Homepage Journal
    Some I "should've saids" have been running through my mind since writing this review (or "review", if you like):

    The physical quality of the books is pretty good: they're roughly comparable to the trade paper backs that you get from O'Reilley or the Free Software Foundation.

    I mentioned the pricing of the books, but neglected the pricing of the PDF subscription service: $15/year/volume gets you a subscription to the current PDFs based on the latest versions of the documentation. There are somewhat cheaper deals if you order more, e.g. the three Postgresql volumes I discuss are probably a "topical set", so a subscription to PDFs of all three of them would be $10 * 3 = $30/year.

    I didn't talk about the PDF option much because personally I'm not that interested in it: I want pages trimmed and bound like a real book. But it's option you should know about to make your own decisions.

    Does the cost of the PDF seem excessive? Well you know, if you think you can do better, no one is stopping you (if you haven't tried it yet: formatting on-line docs in a reasonable way for paper printout is probably harder than you think).

    And in defense of my quasi-review here: what kind of review would be *preferable* for these kinds of books? The source material for them is out there on the web, you can go and skim it yourself... though probably you know what it's like, more or less. (However: don't just assume it's all man pages. The postgresql docs are considerably better fleshed out than that.) My take is: does it help to have the information in this form? What do you get out of it that you wouldn't get from having it on your hard drive (or on the web)? And in case it isn't clear, the point is that you tend to do a different kind of browsing with books than with computers, and so you learn about slightly different things.

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