What's that daemon?
What's that daemon?
by Greg Lehey
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Last update: $Date: 2005/11/02 20:44:35 $

If you don't know the BSD world, you might be surprised by this guy with the trident (used for forking). The daemon is the mascot of BSD UNIX, and it has a long and venerable history. See the BSD Daemon home page for more images. The following excerpt from The Complete FreeBSD gives you some of the flavour:

The Berkeley daemon

The little daemon on the cover of this book symbolizes BSD. It is included with kind permission of Marshall Kirk McKusick, one of the leading members of the former Computer Sciences Research Group at the University of California at Berkeley, and owner of the daemon's copyright.

The daemon has occasionally given rise to a certain amount of confusion. In fact, it's a joking reference to processes which run in the background. The outside world occasionally sees things differently, as the following story indicates:

 Newsgroups: alt.humor.best-of-usenet
 Subject: [comp.org.usenix] A Great Daemon Story
 From: Rob Kolstad <kolstad@bsdi.com>
 Newsgroups: comp.org.usenix
 Subject: A Great Daemon Story
Linda Branagan is an expert on daemons. She has a T-shirt that sports the daemon in tennis shoes that appears on the cover of the 4.3BSD manuals and The Design and Implementation of the 4.3BSD UNIX Operating System by S. Leffler, M. McKusick, M. Karels, J. Quarterman, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA 1989.

She tells the following story about wearing the 4.3BSD daemon T-shirt: Last week I walked into a local “home style cookin' restaurant/watering hole” in Texas to pick up a take-out order. I spoke briefly to the waitress behind the counter, who told me my order would be done in a few minutes. So, while I was busy gazing at the farm implements hanging on the walls, I was approached by two “natives.” These guys might just be the original Texas rednecks.

“Pardon us, ma'am. Mind if we ask you a question?”

Well, people keep telling me that Texans are real friendly, so I nodded.

“Are you a Satanist?”

Well, at least they didn't ask me if I liked to party.

“Uh, no, I can't say that I am.”

“Gee, ma'am. Are you sure about that?” they asked.

I put on my biggest, brightest Dallas Cowboys cheerleader smile and said, “No, I'm positive. The closest I've ever come to Satanism is watching Geraldo.”

“Hmmm. Interesting. See, we was just wondering why it is you have the lord of darkness on your chest there.”

I was this close to slapping one of them and causing a scene--then I stopped and noticed the shirt I happened to be wearing that day. Sure enough, it had a picture of a small, devilish-looking creature that has for some time now been associated with a certain operating system. In this particular represen- tation, the creature was wearing sneakers.

They continued: “See, ma'am, we don't exactly appreciate it when people show off pictures of the devil. Especially when he's lookin' so friendly.”

These idiots sounded terrifyingly serious.

Me: “Oh, well, see, this isn't really the devil, it's just, well, it's sort of a mascot.

Native: “And what kind of football team has the devil as a mascot?”

Me: “Oh, it's not a team. It's an operating--uh, a kind of computer.” I figured that an ATM machine was about as much technology as these guys could handle, and I knew that if I so much as uttered the word “UNIX” I would only make things worse.

Native: “Where does this satanical computer come from?”

Me: “California. And there's nothing satanical about it really.”

Somewhere along the line here, the waitress noticed my predicament--but these guys probably outweighed her by 600 pounds, so all she did was look at me sympathetically and run off into the kitchen.

Native: “Ma'am, I think you're lying. And we'd appreciate it if you'd leave the premises now.”

Fortunately, the waitress returned that very instant with my order, and they agreed that it would be okay for me to actually pay for my food before I left. While I was at the cash register, they amused themselves by talking to each other.

Native #1: “Do you think the police know about these devil computers?”

Native #2: “If they come from California, then the FBI oughta know about 'em.”

They escorted me to the door. I tried one last time: “You're really blowing this all out of proportion. A lot of people use this `kind of computers.' Universities, researchers, businesses. They're actually very useful.”

Big, big, big mistake. I should have guessed at what came next.

Native: “Does the government use these devil computers?”

Me: “Yes.”

Another big boo-boo.

Native: “And does the government pay for 'em? With our tax dollars?”

I decided that it was time to jump ship.

Me: “No. Nope. Not at all. Your tax dollars never entered the picture at all. I promise. No sir, not a penny. Our good Christian congressmen would never let something like that happen. Nope. Never. Bye.”

Texas. What a country.

In fact, the daemon tradition goes back quite a way. In 1996, the following message went through the FreeBSD-chat mailing list:

 To: "Jonathan M.  Bresler" <jmb@freefall.freebsd.org>
 Cc: obrien@antares.aero.org (Mike O'Brien),
         chat@FreeBSD.org, juphoff@tarsier.cv.nrao.edu
 Date: Tue, 07 May 1996 16:27:20 -0700
 Sender: owner-chat@FreeBSD.org
> details and gifs PLEASE!

If you insist. :-)

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for around 1976 or so (see Peter Salus' A Quarter Century of UNIX for details), when the first really national UNIX meeting was held in Urbana, Illinois. This would be after the “forty people in a Brooklyn classroom” meeting held by Mel Ferentz (yeah I was at that too) and the more-or-less simultaneous West Coast meeting(s) hosted by SRI, but before the UNIX Users Group was really incorporated as a going concern.

I knew Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie would be there. I was living in Chicago at the time, and so was comic artist Phil Foglio, whose star was just beginning to rise. At that time I was a bonded locksmith. Phil's roommate had unexpectedly split town, and he was the only one who knew the combination to the wall safe in their apartment. This is the only apartment I've ever seen that had a wall safe, but it sure did have one, and Phil had some stuff locked in there. I didn't hold out much hope, since safes are far beyond where I was (and am) in my locksmithing sphere of competence, but I figured “no guts no glory” and told him I'd give it a whack. In return, I told him, he could do some T-shirt art for me. He readily agreed.

Wonder of wonders, this safe was vulnerable to the same algorithm that Master locks used to be susceptible to. I opened it in about 15 minutes of manipulation. It was my greatest moment as a locksmith and Phil was overjoyed. I went down to my lab and shot some Polaroid snaps of the PDP-11 system I was running UNIX on at the time, and gave it to Phil with some descriptions of the visual puns I wanted: pipes, demons with forks running along the pipes, a “bit bucket” named /dev/null, all that.

What Phil came up with is the artwork that graced the first decade's worth of “UNIX T-shirts”, which were made by a Ma and Pa operation in a Chicago suburb. They turned out transfer art using a 3M color copier in their basement. Hence, the PDP-11 is reversed (the tape drives are backwards) but since Phil left off the front panel, this was hard to tell. His trademark signature was photo-reversed, but was recopied by the T-shirt people and “re- forwardized”, which is why it looks a little funny compared to his real signature.

Dozens and dozens of these shirts were produced. Bell Labs alone accounted for an order of something like 200 for a big picnic. However, only four (4) REAL originals were produced: these have a distinctive red collar and sleeve cuff. One went to Ken, one to Dennis, one to me, and one to my then- wife. I now possess the latter two shirts. Ken and Dennis were presented with their shirts at the Urbana conference.

People ordered these shirts direct from the Chicago couple. Many years later, when I was living in LA, I got a call from Armando Stettner, then at DEC, asking about that now-famous artwork. I told him I hadn't talked to the Illinois T-shirt makers in years. At his request I called them up. They'd folded the operation years ago and were within days of discarding all the old artwork. I requested its return, and duly received it back in the mail. It looked strange, seeing it again in its original form, a mirror image of the shirts with which I and everyone else were now familiar.

I sent the artwork to Armando, who wanted to give it to the Ultrix marketing people. They came out with the Ultrix poster that showed a nice shiny Ultrix machine contrasted with the chewing-gum-and-string PDP-11 UNIX people were familiar with. They still have the artwork, so far as I know.

I no longer recall the exact contents of the letter I sent along with the artwork. I did say that as far as I knew, Phil had no residual rights to the art, since it was a `work made for hire', though nothing was in writing (and note this was decades before the new copyright law). I do not now recall if I explicitly assigned all rights to DEC. What is certain is that John Lassiter's daemon, whether knowingly borrowed from the original, or created by parallel evolution, postdates the first horde of UNIX daemons by at least a decade and probably more. And if Lassiter's daemon looks a lot like a Phil Foglio creation, there's a reason.

I have never scanned in Phil's artwork; I've hardly ever scanned in anything, so I have no GIFs to show. But I have some very very old UNIX T- shirts in startlingly good condition. Better condition than I am at any rate: I no longer fit into either of them.

Mike O'Brien
creaky antique

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