Inspiration Research

Daemons and Evi Nemeth

I learned about daemons in a mindfulness course, and recognized the term from computing. This led me to learn about the matriarch of system administration, Evi Nemeth.

Written May 28, 2021:

I learned something interesting today that has a connection with computing. I am taking an online class about mindfulness for anxiety and sleep [1]. One lecture is about demons and “feeding our demons” with love to turn them into daemons. The root of the word demon is daemon, which means a guiding spirit.

I thought…wait, I know about daemons!

The word “daemons” also refers to programs that run in the background of a computer system (where “run in the background” means they do their thing automatically, without requiring user input) [2]. I recalled a specific daemon, launchd who [3] starts and stops other daemons [4]. According to the Wikipedia entry, “daemon” can be pronounced DAY-men or DEE-men. The term in this context was coined in 1963 by a team at MIT.

Also from the Wikipedia entry, I learned about Evi Nemeth, who was “well-known in technology circles as the matriarch of system administration and technology infrastructure measurement” [5] and lost at sea in 2013 during a sailing trip around the world after her retirement [6]. And, it’s thanks to her we have sudo, the command that allows us to authenticate root commands with a password [7].

A woman with short white hair and sunburnt white skin on a sail boat
Evi Nemeth, the matriarch of system administration and technology infrastructure measurement.

Photo Credit: Telluride Tech Festival

During her life, “Evi carried the torch as one who separates myth from reality in the technology arena” [5]. About daemons, Evi Nemeth said:

Many people equate the word “daemon” with the word “demon”, implying some kind of satanic connection between UNIX and the underworld. This is an egregious misunderstanding. “Daemon” is actually a much older form of “demon”; daemons have no particular bias towards good or evil, but rather serve to help define a person’s character or personality.

Evi Nemeth

Daemons – our background processes; our guiding spirits. Have you met your daemons?

  1. Mindfulness for Anxiety and Sleep, online course by Tara Brach
  2. Daemon on Wikipedia
  3. I’m currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass, a beautiful book about plants and indigenous wisdom (and is wonderful). The author, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes about learning the language of her people, the Potowatami language, and that, like other indigenous languages, there is no notion of “it”, no distinction between animate and inanimate objects. Plants and animals are referred to as people. While writing this post, I had a thought that in the future, maybe we will return to a lack of distinction between animate and inanimate, and computer systems will be referred to as people. So, I used the word “who” instead of “that” for launchd for fun.
  4. A Launchd tutorial
  5. Read about Evi Nemeth here. Being lost at sea after a world-shaping career actually sounds like a great way to die when I stop to consider it.
  6. Evi Nemeth on Wikipedia
  7. The Woman That Saved Sudo on Everything Sysadmin