Silicon Valley Cocoaheads and Amit Singh

This evening I was a first-time visitor at the Silicon Valley Cocoaheads meeting at Apple’s campus in Cupertino. There we enjoyed a presentation from Amit Singh, author of the newly-released Mac OS X Internals: A Systems Approach from Addison-Wesley. This evening I saw his book for the first time, and it was a stunning sight.

Over 1600 pages long, it is rumored to be the largest technical book that Addison-Wesley has ever published (the next-largest may be Richard Stevens’ Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment, 2nd Edition only 960 pages, but just as thick - Amit’s book is printed on thinner paper). Amit describes Apple’s OS X in scrupulous detail, which you can begin to see by reviewing the table of contents on Amit’s web site for the book.

Amit’s presentation focused on the story of the book and his reasons for writing it. “I think that opinion is a substitute for knowledge”, he claimed, and then Amit explained his belief that one of the ways we can help one another is by writing down as many facts as we can so that we can reduce our reliance on subjective opinions. His book has the depth to answer many questions about OS X, and it was written without any special access to Apple’s inner world. In fact, one of the first questions from the Apple employees tonight was “how did you manage to write this?”

“She made my life hell” was another memorable line from Amit tonight. It came in response to a complimentary question that asked how he had developed his clear and informative style of writing. After giving “the politically correct answer” (that he just tried hard), Amit shared his secret: his mother, who had emphasized the importance of writing beginning when he was very young. Every day, Amit said, he was expected to memorize five new words from the dictionary and write five one-page essays on topics of his choice - with no repetition! Five one-page essays every day. We had to hear that twice to believe it, too. And if Amit’s mom happens to read this, he also admitted that he’s thankful now that she put him through that - and that he plans to do the same for his two year old son!

Here are a few more quick notes from tonight’s event:

  • Amit’s initial plan was for a 400 page book that would take 9 months to write. The final version was 1600 pages and took nearly two years.

  • Amit had no advance notice of new features in Tiger nor of the switch to Intel.

  • During his writing he found a few bugs in OS X (no surprise for any large software project) and organized a contest around one of them. Amit posted a small executable that triggered a kernel panic; it was downloaded over 1000 times by prospective debuggers. Among the 5 who managed to identify the defect was a high school student from Marin County who also joined us for tonight’s meeting.

  • There was more that we learned tonight that was simply too good to post. You had to be there to get it, which I write with reluctance because the room was over capacity. But Apple’s a big company. I’m sure they have a bigger conference room.

Many thanks to Amit, the meeting organizers, and our Apple hosts. I’ll hope to join them again soon.