Book review: ed Mastery

2023-04-15, post № 272

book-review, software, #ed

Depicted on the around eighty pages strong paperback ed Mastery [L18 [1]] is a grey-bearded Beastie in a study illuminated in a soft red. Sitting on a throne, eyes layed upon a lectern’s open book, Beastie smiles. When opened, one is greeted with three pages of justification for covering ed in this “bleak age” [L18, p. 3] we call ours. Though cheekily elitist in tone, it spells out this book’s intent to educate on one of the classics that make up a UNIX system.

In the next thirty pages, ed is seen in action. From core concepts of modes and addresses to commands and shell interaction, one is guided not just through what this editor can do but most importantly how it expects one to work with it. Being concise but not cryptic, it is at times as if one read the man page with someone by one’s side giving enough context to truly grok ed. As a basis for demonstrating editing functionality serves a poem in traditional UNIX-style text representation, the loose file format ed was designed to effectively manipulate, and later a ficticious, though humerous, list of chores and dreams.

Chapters five and six are dedicated to ed’s regular expression engine. Being a line-based editor, working with heterogenous or overly long lines is not a task ed excels at. Lamentably, Lucas does not address this weakness and gets carried away with an imprecise introduction of ed’s regular expressions exemplified by contrived examples followed by scatterbrained artificial workflows such as ASCII-underlining minutely and laboriously specified lines of text.

This low is only in parts resolved by the final six pages showing off ed’s power as a UNIX-universal scripting asset.

Unfortunately, ed Mastery was envisioned as an April Fools’ joke and appears not to be able to shed its provenance. Whilst ed’s historical significance and conceptual strengths in a world where metaphor sheer [S99 [2]] is an occurring phenomenon shimmer through at times, the work gets undermined by both said inception as buffoonery and its author’s play [L18b [3]] into LoPresti’s interpretation of a comedic take on computing [L91 [4]] as well as the drudgingly kept-alive so-called editor wars.

Nevertheless, ed Mastery is a joyous read. If one does not let typesetting inattentiveness dampen the mood and focuses oneself on the book’s title, one is left with a sincere and informative guide through ed’s facilities. Furthermore, as I understand it, Lucas in his works tries to represent a non-tribal, pragmatic approach to computing; with this in mind and thus avoiding identity-entanglement, room is left for a skin thick enough to cope with the mockery.


  1. Michael W Lucas: ed Mastery, 2018. Tilted Windmill Press. ISBN: 978-1-64235-003-6
  2. Neal Stephenson: In the beginning ... was the command line. Perennial, 2003. ISBN: 0-380-81593-1
  3. Michael W Lucas: Book Review: ed Mastery. In: Dan Langille’s Other Diary. Online: https://dan.langille.org/2018/04/01/book-review-ed-mastery/ [accessed 2023-04-10]
  4. Patrick J. LoPresti: Ed, man! !man ed. In: FSF’s email archives of the GNU Project. Online: https://www.gnu.org/fun/jokes/ed-msg.html [accessed 2023-04-10]
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