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.
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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