I've been a mint user for a while now, a few years in fact. On occasion dug around these forums for help and assistance which makes me like mint even more.
I have just built a new PC and had a few issues (mostly solved) installing mint and while doing the obligatory backup of the old HDD collection came across something I wrote a little while ago, it was a bit about my computing history and I thought it might be amusing/interesting/boring to others. Bear in mind it was penned a while ago and times have moved on.
Sometimes I don my rose tinted spectacles and look back over the last 30 odd years and wonder where it's all going..
Sure, today we have multicore CPU's and memory so large a 32 bit OS's can't address it all, but it's all about Microsoft, and PC compatible machinery, with continued legacy support. (Of course there is always Apple). Where are the supercomputers on a desk, where are the load-sharing network topologies, where are the phenomenal graphics. Oh wait... the modern PC can be all that.
However, I remember a time when the PC was seen as a bit of a toy compared to a proper workstation. For example the first CAD system I used in my work was a Prime 550 series. It ran at 0.7 MIPS, had 1MB of memory and 500MB of disc storage and a 9 track tape unit. Along with 8 Westward graphics workstations, these were bits of furniture rather than a beige box and a monitor. Each had an enormous CRT monitor, a small mono text only screen to the side, space for a large A3 touch tablet, joystick and keyboard. Slung underneath was a box the size of a very large PC case full of electronics, some of these desks even had powered adjustment for position. These things were basically a thin client with onboard graphics for the workhorse Prime system (housed in its own air-con room). The software was Medusa CAD running on Primos OS, this was cutting edge stuff at the time! The PC was just about at 8086 level, we had one of the original IBM ones, it had a 10Mb hard drive and a mono screen. We also had an industrial CPM machine it was an open machine with an S100 bus, its main task was burning E-Proms for the CNC machine tools we manufactured... Ah! the heady days of uncovering the silicon and leaving on the window-sill for a few days so the UV could clear the program.
As time passed, technology moved on. So did I, and moved to a company that had an Atari 400 and no other computer hardware at all. I ended up writing a simple program that asked a few questions about a particular job, and then listed the long delivery items so they could be ordered quickly, it was quite a revelation for the purchasing department. Despite trying to get the company to invest in more/better computers, they resisted and went bust. I was looking for work again, and got a job that saw me using Medusa running on HP Unix boxes, similar to Primos in some ways, and quite snappy. This was my first exposure to a unix-like environment. I then moved jobs again, and was working on Medusa again, but running on DEC-VAX systems, again this was a unix-like OS. Eventually I moved back to my original workplace. Here I was tasked with upgrading the CAD as the maintenance contract costs were huge. I spent some time evaluating the "new" CAD packages that ran on cheaper hardware, IE Autocad. It was nice and speedy running on the brand new PC, with a maths co-processor. We tried to move a native Medusa CAD drawing from the Prime to the PC, it was a nightmare, we had to send a 'tape'(big 10 inch reel) to Germany for a specialist company to convert the ".she" format of Medusa to ".dxf" format. Took about 4 weeks and the drawing we got back was huge, well over a megabyte, the original took about 20 kilobytes. I won't mention the cost (It would have been faster and cheaper to employ a draughtsman to copy the thing into Autocad by hand).
So for the moment Autocad was out, the migration costs were vast. Like many CAD companies, Prime had employed the tactic of locking-in customers by using a proprietary format (Seems to me that practice never really died out. Microsoft Office anyone?). I searched for alternatives. What I discovered was Medusa running on Sun workstations (IPC was the model). They brought one in, it was tiny and more powerful than the Prime 50 Series. What an eye-opener! SunOS was fantastic after using CPL and ED on the Prime, I was hooked, a machine that could run 'proper' CAD, had a decent text editor, took up little room, had fantastic monitors, keyboards and mice. It actually made the PC we had look like a pocket calculator from a bygone age in comparison. As an added bonus, Autocad was available for this box too, opening the possibility of an easier migration path at some future point. Despite DXF being the de-facto CAD data exchange format it is now, back then there were even competitors to drawing information data exchange formats. IGES, DXF, STEP and many others.
So I talked with the CAD suppliers, and came up with a plan called "rental purchase" where we rented the gear over a set term (5 years) and at the end, we could purchase the gear for a nominal fee. During the contract the gear could be upgraded and the contract end date extended, all software support was included too. The cost was slightly less than the maintenance contract on the Prime system hardware. To me that was a good deal that would cause minimal disruption to the design office, but the Director involved kept repeating his mantra of Autocad on PC's... (ultimately he was correct) despite my best efforts, the cost of converting to Autocad on PC's was always at least twice the cost of the Medusa CAD offer due to the drawing conversion costs, not to mention the re-training required (Autocad and Medusa are very different) The project got shelved.
Around this time, Sun had licensed it's hardware, and it was possible to buy a workstation from another manufacturer and still be 100% compatible with Sun products and software, Solbourne spring to mind, I saw this as the way forward at the time, similar to PCs there was the possibility of a standard hardware platform for unix based machines. Sadly this never really took off, there were too many competitors for the 'workstation' Alpha, DEC, SGI etc. The fragmentation of Unix and the 'unix wars' on the software side put an end to that dream. That's the trouble with standards, there's so many to choose from.
We were stuck with an ancient CAD system, paying a fortune for support and with money tight, it was depressing. Meanwhile, PCs were getting more powerful.
Time for a little CAD history.
Prime Computers made hardware, but they lacked any killer applications, they paid Cambridge Interactive Systems for a CAD package that would run on Prime hardware, once delivered, Prime took control of the product 'Prime Medusa' and marketed it from the USA. However, CIS managed to keep the rights to Medusa and developed their own version in parallel, 'CIS Medusa', which by all accounts was a better product, and sold it in Europe. CIS were eventually bought by Computervision. Then around 1988 Prime went on a CAD buying spree deciding that's where the future was. This made them ripe for takeover, and after a lot of financial dealings Prime became Computervision and the 2 forks of the software were at last under one banner. Prime Medusa was at version 5, and CIS Medusa was at version 7, they released version 12 (5+7) which became the last gasp of the heavy duty Medusa CAD products. Prime/CV stopped making hardware. The story goes that when the software engineers finally told the boardroom that Medusa could not hope to match the competition unless it was completely re-written, the board refused citing cost reasons. The engineers that had originally written Medusa (in fortran no less) left the company and gained venture capital to start their own company. They wrote a new CAD package that used 3D and parametrics at it's heart and used 'C' language so cross platform wasn't a big issue. They were Parametric Technology, the product was Pro-Engineer. This changed the face of CAD, it was fairly easy to use, produced amazing 3D models on screen and targeted Medusa users, within a fairly short time Pro-E took over the market. In due course, Parametric Technology bought Computervision and stopped Medusa development.
Using Medusa for 3D was a bit complex, sending the model data to manufacturing (Delcam Duct I seem to recall), which produced a punched tape for a CNC machine tool. I actually used this procedure during an in-house exhibition when working in machine tools. The visitor would look in awe at the rotating 3D model of an ashtray, I would take his business card, and draw their logo into the base of the ashtray. By the time they reached the machine shop showing our 5 axis machine tools, the ashtray would be finished and waiting for them, a shiny block of freshly machined metal. This impressed a lot of people even though it was a simple task.
After I was laid off once more, another job saw me using CIM Cad system, I was given a morning's training, and by the afternoon was happily producing drawings. There were some innovative ideas in that CAD package. It used 'strokes' as the main method of drawing, think mouse gestures, it could group objects by a multitude of methods, colour, layer, linetype, thickness, whatever. So 'blocks' were not needed. The 3D side was quite impressive too, you drew an object in traditional 3rd angle (or 1st angle) and the software 'guessed' the model, so draughtsmen could draw in the traditional way, yet produce 3D models for use in manufacturing. Shame it never got better recognition.
Meanwhile, PCs were getting more powerful.
These days, most CAD is PC based and although very good, is limited by the legacy constraints of Microsoft and the PC architecture. For 'proper' CAD you still need a unix box, preferably many. It's a little bit anachronistic that I actually prefer to use Autocad for my electrical schematic drawings, it's now a useful drawing tool for lines on paper, but that's the difference in meaning... Computer Aided Design vs. Computer Aided Draughting.
If only Sun's initiative to release hardware had worked, and the various unix suppliers could agree on a standard, the unix wars could have been avoided, we could be using a proper workstation, without Microsoft, and using a proper grown-up OS...
Then again, if that had happened, Linux may not have been born. I know Pro-E has a version that will run under linux, and suspect many other of the heavy-duty CAD packages could be re-compiled for linux. I hope that happens.
Evolution of the PC was rapid. I remember working at a textile machinery manufacturer, and having 3 computers on my desk. A Sun workstation running the CAD system (brilliant load sharing network topology), a PC for general duties such as programming PLC's and the normal office tasks, and an IBM terminal for accessing the MRPII system (what a horrible bit of software). I hated having 3 computers on my desk, there was hardly any room for actual work. I decided to look at some way of getting rid of the machines. I found a product called Exceed (which still exists) from Hummingbird software. This was an x-windows system for the PC, after much fiddling with TCP/IP (Windows 3.11 was light on networking tools), I finally managed to display the CAD system on the PC, then using a terminal emulator got the MRPII to display too! I got rid of the Sun box and the IBM box, both replaced by the PC and emulation software. The CAD was still being run on a Sun server on the network, and the MRP system still used an AS400 IBM stashed in an air-con room.
I remember a small war between CPU architectures, one side advocating the complex instruction set, this needed less instructions to execute a task, but ran slower. Reduced instruction set on the other hand, required more instructions to carry out a task, but ran them much faster. Not really sure how that turned out. There seemed to be a multitude of chip manufacturers who promised the quantum leap in computing power, I don't think any really delivered, many were victims of the "Not compatible" syndrome. I remember the 'Transputer' from Inmos, this being British suffered the usual fate of not enough funding, and so was sold to a French company STMicroelectronics and incorporated into their embedded solutions division. The dream of the transputer was to have many cpu cores in a single box, if you needed more power you could add more cores, so instead of cramming more and more transistors onto a chip, just add more cpu cores... why does that sound familiar? Core2Duo, i7, anyone?
In parallel to my computer use at work, I was there when the 'home computer' happened. I used to go into 'Tandy' (Radio Shack) during my lunchtime at college, pressing my nose against the window looking at the TRS80 workstation, trying to figure out how I could afford one, even though I really wanted a commodore PET because they looked cooler. Then the ZX80 arrived, followed by the ZX81 I bought one of these little things, and the 16k ram-pack. I must have spent hours typing programs into that machine only to have the rampack wobble and the thing reset. At the time and for the price it was a fantastic bit of kit. Naturally I upgraded to a Spectrum 48K when I could afford, I had that machine for quite a while, I eventually had it housed in a proper keyboard, built in joystick ports, a composite video out signal, hard wired reset button, along with Interface 1 and 2, microdrives, an impact ribbon printer and finally a VTX5000 modem, which was my undoing, the phone bills were horrendous! Friends had Commodore 64's BBC's Oric's and such, but I remained true to my Speccy, I learned Z80 machine code, and could backup most games without resorting to tape to tape machines. Once I hid a bit of code in the printer buffer, this waited for the program to load, then instead of running, it executed my little prog and saved the loaded game to tape. Fun days. I had a friend with a BBC Micro (he was rich) this was a big computer, but it was pretty limited if you used the high screen resolution, you had almost no memory left to store programs.
A little story. When I had the speccy, I also had a friend with a motorcycle sales/repair shop, he was exhibiting at a trade show, Doncaster racecourse. One drunken evening we came up with the idea to have his show-bike there on a low table, drape the area with white sheets (cheap you see), make it look like an operating theatre! We had a friend who was a GP, he gave us some stuff like a drip stand and the bags/tubes. Meanwhile I wrote a looping program on the speccy which emulated a heart trace monitor, complete with a beep, beep... Of course that wasn't all, once every few minutes the beep beep and heatbeat trace turned into a flatline and continuous loud annoying beep to attract attention. Followed by a teletype effect telling the visitors about my friends business, contact details, info about the bikes on display etc. It was very effective with the added benefit of letting us sit in the exhibitors bar all day drinking Unfortunately, the stand next door was the BMF stand, so was manned all the time. They soon got a little irritated with the flatline beep (amplified through a hidden ghettoblaster) Good job there were plenty of security around! It took me ages to find the most annoying tone for the beep hehe. I suppose that was an early version of a powerpoint presentation, if only I had patented it...
The last home computer I was seriously considering was the Sinclair QL it was well ahead of it's time using the Motorola 68000 series CPU. The machine code structure for this was very elegant, nothing like the Z80 code, but suffered a few handicaps, namely the Sinclair microdrive, these were a very clever idea, badly executed. Eventually the fact I used computers at work and computers at home made me realize I needed to get a life, so gave all my home computer stuff to a friends son, and it was a long while before I got a computer back in the home.
The WWW exploded, that's when I decided I needed a PC in the home. Being me, I built one from parts given to me when a firm I worked for chucked out some old kit, I got a 56k modem, and searched for a cheap way to access the net. there were a few places where you could get free internet numbers, but with big downsides. I remember spending hours trying to connect to a free number, for a few minutes of slow net access. This is where I met Christine, my other half. She too spent hours trying to connect to the net so we could spend a few minutes chatting in IRC. (why not just use the damn phone? it's a real mystery.) Once we got together, we realized that sharing a 56k modem was not a good thing. We decided to try cable, Telewest, what a revelation! When the guy came to install the cable modem, I let him connect to an old PC running smoothwall, he was sceptical, but within a minute I was sharing the connection to 2 other PC's with the benefit of a firewall, he left the house with a fresh CD of smoothwall in his pocket, commenting that this was the easiest install he'd ever done.
I built my first 'new' PC after scouring the magazines, and websites of the time. I remember driving to Sheffield to purchase a mainboard (FIC PA2013 with extra cache onboard) a K6-III-450 cpu from Aria. I remember walking around the computer fair in Manchester looking for the perfect AGP card, I wanted a Matrox G400 but couldn't find one, finally getting an ATI Rage 128 after my second choice of Nvidia was also hard to find. This PC ran Half-Life flawlessly but like all things PC it aged and became slow to the point of reformat and install Linux.
By the time we moved house, we had 4 PC's sharing the cable connection. I prefered to assign IP addresses manually rather than rely on DHCP as sometimes I would allow access to one PC from outside when I was playing with web servers and CMS websites. The new house had no cable, so we went with the only real alternative, ADSL. Pipex wires only, and bought a Solwise modem/router and a 5 port switch. I have a wireless modem/router and an alternative modem/router due to Pipex insisting the bad net access was my equipment. One incident that explains a lot was the time the net dropped and after a few days with no net access I phoned tech support. I know that the poor kid on the end of the line has to read from his script, but it takes forever to battle through all the crap, 'have you tried a new microfilter, is the phone working, is the computer switched on...' Eventually I managed to get them to send a BT engineer out to check the line, after dire warnings we would have to pay if the fault was with our equipment. The BT guy pulled out his laptop, connected to the BT test server and soon declared that Pipex had upgraded me from a 1Mb line to a 2Mb line but the copper couldn't handle it, and the ADSL hardware was not adaptive enough to drop it back to 1Mb automatically. Pipex put us back on the 1Mb line we were back to normal. Pipex never admitted this though and we were never charged for the BT visit.
Currently I'm looking to get a new PC for the missus, she has a 939 board, and showing it's age. I notice that while searching through the specs, and dreaming of an i7 based system, I am constantly trying to 'futureproof' the prospective hardware as much as possible, before I've even bought the stuff! The reviews and articles covering the latest tech are guilty of the same, "... it should run the nextgen CPU with a bios update ..." and my fave "... this allows an upgrade path ..."
However, when I look at my history of building PC's I realize there is little point future proofing. By the time a PC has slowed down enough to cause a problem, the technology has changed, making an 'upgrade' just as expensive as building a new PC. An example is to look at the cpu sockets, once upon a time we had socket 7 which could take either an Intel or AMD device, then they split and the different sockets for different CPU's got more complicated. Socket A, Slot A, 939, AM2, AM2+, AM3 and the various changes to the Intel line, the latest being the new i7 socket. Graphics cards too seemed to change at a rate slightly slower, PCI and Vesa, AGP, AGPx4, AGPx8, PCI-x is the latest. Memory changes fast, PC100, PC133, DDR of various speeds, then DDR2, now DDR3.
If I wanted to upgrade the wife's PC, I would need an new 939 CPU (obsolete and hard to find) more memory (DDR400) still available but very expensive, a new graphics card (AGP) the cost is so high I may as well get a new PC, even though I tried to 'future proof' originally.
The next PC is going to be a P31 chipset because of the graphics options, maybe the P43 would be better incase we want to uprate the graphics, then again an X38/48 chipset would be better for upgrading...
Dammit! doing it again.
So that's the state of hardware, where I came from and why I'm not really a fan of the PC. (But it's all we've got)
Memorable software ranges from Star-Trek on a CP/M machine, or the college mainframe, sneaking into the computer lab even though I was on an electrical technician course with no reason to be in the computer room. Jet-Set-Willy on the speccy, Lemmings, Half-Life and my current obsession Eve-Online. Along the way I've used Wordstar (still use pico to edit text, it has wordstar keystrokes) talked on BBS at 300 baud (The Gnome at Home), used GEM environment, a Windoze competitor. Wrote a program that today would be regarded as very naughty, but we needed admin access to fix things, and the sysadmin was appointed not for his tech ability, but for his management ability. (We re-wrote the print command to grant us access rights of whoever ran the command).
Eventually I came across linux...
This was intriguing, a free operating system that looked like unix. I was at a computer fair looking for a new keyboard when I found SuSE in a box, 6.2 I think it was. It had 6 CD's and a weighty book. Took some courage to re-partition the hard drive and mess about with the MBR, I was a linux user! Ever since I've messed about with linux in one form or another. I even installed BeOS at one time, that was an impressive piece of software, fast and easy to use. I think at one time I had 3 versions of linux, 2 of windows and beos all on the same PC, then had VMware installed and had guest OS's... My desktop looked really weird.
I've tried Litestep (an explorer shell replacement) it has promise and once I had figured out how to add programs to the menu systems it became my normal desktop for a long time.
As for the flavours of linux I've used... SuSE, Mandrake, Puppy, Linux from scratch, Gentoo, Ubuntu, redhat. My favorite has to be gentoo, it's fast and lets you only install the stuff you want, ubuntu is very good, combined with compiz-fusion it freaks out the windows users
I would gladly make the switch to linux tomorrow, apart from a couple of things. There is no linux CAD program that comes close to the useability of Autocad, there is also a lack of support for games. My personal gripes with linux are the sound system, generally is works, but then you install an application that uses the 'other' sound system and conflicts start to appear. I'm talking about ALSA and OSS. Why can't developers bite the bullet and converge the hardware driver side of things. It reminds me of the bad old days when every application had it's own driver database for printers and screens (Early Autocad). The other is the uglyness of linux. Sure installing the MSttfcorefonts helps, but generally a default install of linux looks like it was designed by Fisher Price for 5 year olds, big chunky controls, big blocky text, big menu bars... It's fairly easy to fix, but why should I have to?
So I dual boot, XP for games and CAD, Linux for messing about with code, playing with compiz, and testing webpages or indeed hosting them for testing. For me having a PC an my desk has opened up a new world, well ok, not the PC, but the web and the places you can go. My only worry is that the 'establishment' will somehow manage to get in there and regulate the content, so you'll get a sanitized, government approved web experience. Get it now while you still can, but that's a whole other story.
Ah well, time to sign off and shutdown the PC
Here's to the next 20 years.