Nick George

man(ual) pages are all you need

First published: April 14, 2024
Last updated: April 14, 2024

With the ever decreasing quality of search thanks partly to ad-tech, google, and SEO (and more recently AI/LLM-enhanced SEO1) I’m noticing that it is becoming much more difficult to find quality technical information online.

In the past, I defaulted to tutorial style learning, involving web searches for tutorials and “getting started with …” style articles, skim those and work from there.

This style was easy, beginner friendly, and great for starting out. Unfortunately, it has also become much more difficult if your topic is popular/mainstream (e.g., Python/JavaScript/LLM). You have to know a decent amount about the topic to even know if you are reading time wasting SEO garbage or useful information. If your topic of interest is more esoteric or niche and doesn’t have a lot of high value SEO keywords you might get lucky and find quality information– but there is also a better way!

Read… the manual ¶

I’ve started using FreeBSD in my home lab to learn more about ZFS and BSD jails. FreeBSD is a bit outside of the tech blogger mainstream, which is good for filtering SEO garbage, but makes it more challenging to find out how to get started. Luckily, FreeBSD has shockingly good documentation. When I stumbled across the FreeBSD handbook, I downloaded the HTML version and found myself reading the reference manual like a book!

Similar story for FreeBSD Jails. After mixed success with tutorial searches, I connected to my server and typed man jail2, and scrolled down to the EXAMPLES section, and found a very detailed step by step walk through of setting up and managing jails, along with links to other relevant sections throughout.

All this in a terminal– without any ads, internet, or distractions.

While this may simply be a testament to the fantastic committment to quality documentation in the BSD community, it has dramatically changed my information search patterns for anything tech-related. Now, when I am unsure of a command or flag, my first stop is man. It is much easier to search a flag in the manual (/<flag>) than it is to wade through piles of medium dot com garbage on the internet. I maintain that even with the ability to use an LLM to create or explain flags on curl or tar3, you’re better off looking it up yourself in the manual. Next time you might not have internet, or you may even learn something and not need to spend the tokens at all next time!

As LLMs and SEO team up to steal your attention and time, I’m retreating back to lower bandwidth and simpler tools to increase productivity and remain sane.

  1. something something “best minds of our generation…” ↩︎

  2. Really take a look: I can’t think of a better getting started guide! ↩︎

  3. I’m not saying they are never useful, I also occasionally use them for things like this, but it is definitely not my default, and I’ve seen that people who rely on them are much slower to pull out a tool than those who took the time to learn the tools. ↩︎