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Wed, May. 23rd, 2018, 06:53 pm
Self-driving cars won't work. We'll buy them anyway.

I've just been reading some complaints about self-parking Nissan Qashqais. Apparently they can't safely park themselves in, for instance, an underground car park with concrete pillars in the way, and the drivers in question felt that this was unfair, unreasonable, and unexpected. Why can't the car defend itself from concrete? Doesn't it know that concrete is harder than it is and will damage it?

I responded thus...

You do realise that you've just identified the principle general problem set that has had all the planet's best minds in the AI field working as hard as they can for about 50 years now without any significant progress, right?

That since Asimov wrote "Robbie" in 1940 -- the first story in I, Robot -- he invalidated and obsoleted all previous robot fiction, stopped and redefined the field. His "3 Laws" ended the "killer robot" story and made them about what having robots would do to humanity.

Asimov, writing before digital electronic computers had been invented, assumed that the stuff about seeing, walking, listening and understanding and so on would be easy. After all, a 2YO human can do them, self-taught. A mouse, even a cockroach, can run around and avoid hazards.

Speech would be hard. Stuff like chess would be really hard.

He was, of course, totally wrong. Chess is almost trivial. Talking isn't particularly difficult. Crappy early-1980s 8-bit computers could do that.

Walking is difficult. Seeing and knowing what it's seeing is very difficult. Telling the difference between a bollard and a child is extremely hard, and as we all know, even the best and most complex software regularly fails and screws up.

We've solved speech recognition, badly, for some languages, in limited domains, by brute-forcing it, and it still doesn't work very well. It's getting there, though.

What you're asking is a general-purpose artificial intelligence, capable of sophisticated discrimination and value judgement, and that is the hardest thing there is. It's been a couple of decades away for longer than we've been putting things into space, and it still is.

So, no, self-driving cars can't do that. And they won't, not until some time after they're on the market, if then. And a *lot* of people and other animals on the roads will die before they do.

Like the credit card companies accept that their security is a bit shite and that necessarily they will lose tens of billions per year to fraud (US$20 Bn per annum!) but it's so profitable that they tolerate that as a cost of operating, motor cars are the most dangerous form of transport ever invented, but we tolerate it because it's so damned convenient.

It kills 3¼ thousand per day, 1.3 million per year.

That's good going for modern international war, but we ignore it. It's normal.

So, soon, very stupid robots will be killing thousands a day, but if it makes cars easier and more convenient, we'll put up with it, and pay good money for the privilege.

We should have wrapped Asimov in copper wire before we buried him. We'd be getting a few kiloWatts off the old sod by now.

Mon, May. 14th, 2018, 07:23 pm
On GNOME 3 and design simplicity

(Being a sort of coda to Why I don't use GNOME Shell.)

[EDIT: copy-pasta fixed. Sorry about that.]

Someone on the Ubuntu user list was saying that they gave up on Nautilus in GNOME 3 when the developers removed the split-pane feature.

That in itself wasn't a deal-breaker for me, but the removal of support for desktop icons more or less is. I also dislike the desktop layout. GNOME 3 fans tell me "it keeps out of my way" but that huge top panel, almost totally unused, is an egregious waste of space. Along with desktop icons, notification icons in the top panel are now deprecated. The username/network/volume/brightness controls are all merged into 1, for no good reason I can see.

At least Unity put the menus in there -- a good big target to hit:


This is the thing that irks me.

Many parts of older UIs, back in the 1980s when things were still developing, were designed one the basis of solid academic research. So, for example, Fitt's Law is behind the Mac's top menu bar.

Lots of people curse at it, but they don't realise there is science behind it.

Microsoft, constrained by avoiding a look-and-feel lawsuit, moved the menu bar from the top of the screen to in the window. It's a much harder target to hit, but it's different and that was the main thing.

(Acorn didn't have menu bars at all. Everything is context menus. They take no screen space at all, ideal for a desktop displaying on a CGA-res monitor (640*200 at first, or 640*350), and requiring no mouse movement at all -- but you have to know they're there and what to do to summon them.)

But once there was a difference, people started to form preferences, and holy wars raged over it.

Take Apple's single mouse button. There are studies, with solid numbers. It takes thought to pick what button to click. A lot for beginners, a fraction of a second for experts, but thought, every time. So Apple reduced it to one.

Microsoft, appealing to "power users", gave you 2. The original Unix machines, and Acorn, 3.

3 is more powerful, but it takes decision-making time.

That, and having to aim at in-window menu bars, has wasted millions, billions, of man-hours across the world over 3½ decades.

In System 7, Apple made the titles of aliases italic. You can't set filenames in italics, so if the filename was in italics, it wasn't you. It was the system telling you something -- that this wasn't the original file, it was a pointer to it.

In Win95, Microsoft couldn't do that, because look-and-feel lawsuits, so it put a little curvy arrow in the corner. Easier to miss, but perhaps more logical. Later, Apple copied that back again. (!)

Lawsuits and holy war. Powerful reasons, but bogus ones. Some people don't like Apple's choices, but Apple had reasons for making those choices.

Now, happily, that mouse-button/menu-bar stuff is moot, because of touchscreens.

But the GNOME devs, in the admirable pursuit of simplicity and a desktop that's as easy as a phone, are not doing the science. I suspect they don't even know the research existed. I'm damned sure they didn't study the research.

They're just identifying features they don't use, and removing them. No consultation, no research, just "we can get rid of that".

But it is virtually an axiom: you cannot get to a simple design by starting with a complicated design and removing bits.

Simplicity has to be the goal from the start.

You can't write a haiku by starting with a novel and removing words.

But that's what they are trying to do.

Tue, May. 8th, 2018, 02:54 pm
Updating DR-DOS 7 -- now with downloads!

While I was off work with a dislocated shoulder, I spent some time dabbling with DR-DOS. It's an OS I've long been fond of. What I was aiming to create were images that could make a bootable DR-DOS USB key and VM image.

The OS that made the PC great was MS-DOS, an adaptation of SCP QDOS, which broadly speaking was reverse-engineered from Digital Research's CP/M (itself now FOSS). Much later, DR responded with DR-DOS -- a cut-down version of Concurrent CP/M-86, without the multitasking but with near-perfect MS-DOS compatibility.

The first version was 3.41, basically a response to MS-DOS 3.3. DR-DOS added large disk support -- i.e. multiple FAT16 partitions of >32MB. MS-DOS 4 added little more except a graphical shell, DOSShell. DR-DOS 5 added support for mapping upper memory blocks and loading TSRs into them, and a graphical shell, ViewMax, a cut-down version of PC GEM. MS responded with much the same in MS-DOS 5. DR responded with DR-DOS 6, which bundled disk compression, and ViewMax 2. MS DOS 6 bundled disk compression too. Novell bought DR and responded with Novell DOS 7, which added peer-to-peer networking via Netware Lite -- but ViewMax 3 wasn't ready and was dropped. Most people were using Windows 3 on top of it by then anyway.

Microsoft's response was Windows for Workgroups, with peer-to-peer networking built into Windows, and then Windows 95, which built-in MS-DOS 7 too. And that was about it for DR-DOS. Novell spun its DOS and Linux division off as Caldera, which released DR-DOS 7.01 as open source. It then changed its mind and closed-sourced DR DOS 7.02 and the handful of later versions. The DOS business was spun off again as Lineo, which made subsequent releases, went broke and sold off DR-DOS again. It made it to DR DOS 8, but that was partly built from FreeDOS source code and was later withdrawn when this was demonstrated.

The history of DR-DOS after 7.02 is confused and confusing. Most of the Novell sources were lost, along with updates and fixes Novell made. Backups of some were later rediscovered  and the fixes incorporated, and it gained FAT32 and LBA support, but it's not freeware.

So DR-DOS 7.01 remained the latest free version. The OSS licence only covered the kernel and some core files. To build the FOSS version, you need the rest of Novell OpenDOS 7.

A heroic programmer called Udo Kuhnt picked up development of the FOSS DR-DOS 7.01 as the DR-DOS Enhancement Project. Its site is long gone now, although there are plenty of mentions of it. He released versions through to 7.01-08. Unfortunately, that is an incomplete work-in-progress version. But both it and the previous releases, which can be found for download in various places, don't work.

So I fixed it!

I started with the floppy disk image from ArchiveOS.org. First, it's the wrong size. VirtualBox can't mount it. VMware can.

I truncated it to exactly 2880 sectors using the advice from ``jleg094'' here. VBox mounts that. But it won't boot, nor in VMware -- it just displays 2 dots and freezes. Embarrassingly late in the troubleshooting process, I found why.

Foolishly, I didn't think to check what was on the image. I tried mounting it on a pre-booted VM and looked, and it's totally blank. There's nothing in the image at all.

So, I mounted the empty image file as a loop device under Linux, copied the boot files in there, followed by the rest of the files in the distro archive. Lo, it worked! It booted my VM just fine, and I had a DR DOS VM running 7.01-08. However, the older DR-DOS SYS command couldn't make a bootable hard disk from this. After further fiddling, I found how to fix that, too.

But I've decided for now to focus on the actual complete version 7.01-07.

I took the downloads for Enhanced DR-DOS 7.01-6 and 7.01-7, trimmed the boot disk image to work with Virtualbox, added the actual files to make the boot images bootable, and also added in the other updated commands -- SYS.COM, XCOPY, TASKMGR, SHARE, and their README files etc.

I have re-zipped them and put them on Dropbox.

Here are the links:
Please mirror these elsewhere.

To use them, the easiest way is to get a copy of DR-DOS 7.01, e.g. from BTTR Software or WinWorldPC. Install it in a VM. Reboot and check it all works.

Then, boot from one of my boot floppy images, SYS the hard disk, and copy the other files into C:\DOS or whatever you called the DOS directory.

Reboot and you should be in business.

To forestall some FAQs... A few people have asked me why I am bothering, since FreeDOS is out there and works fine. (I have contributed a few fixes to FreeDOS and my name was in the credits of at least one version that I have seen, which came as a surprise.) That's true and I do not mean to decry or lessen the work of the FreeDOS Project. However, for me, it's just a bit too different from old-style MS- or DR-DOS. Commands don't do what I expect, or the output is weirdly different. Config files are not named as they usually are. I'm told it's pretty compatible, all the same.

I just happen to prefer DR-DOS. Caldera is dead, Lineo is dead, and oddly, I now work for Novell. DeviceLogics owns the later versions of DR-DOS but it is no longer trading and as far as I know the project is no longer available for purchase -- although the rights to the entire line were up for sale.

Thus I am very much hoping not to be prosecuted for this. I have not added anything to the code, merely made the existing code usable.

My future plans include directly-downloadable VM and USB images. I have 7.01-07 working, complete with ViewMax 2, TaskManager multitasking in both text and GUI modes, mouse support, FAT32 and LBA support. I am hoping to add NTFS and USB support as well, if there seems to be any interest.

The reason I got interested in this was trying to get actual IBM PC DOS 7.1 working on my Thinkpad. This is not the same thing as the widely-available PC-DOS 7.01! IBM continued development of DOS after Microsoft lost interest. PC-DOS 7.01 included Y2K fixes. PC-DOS 7.1 also includes FAT32 and LBA support, many long-standing bugs in MS-DOS were fixed, and IBM offers it for free download as part of the Server Guide Scripting Toolkit. However, IBM does not permit re-distribution, and therefore I can't share the complete, fully-working version that I have built for my own use.

Mon, Apr. 30th, 2018, 04:39 pm
A quick re-assessment of Ubuntu GNOME now it's got its 2nd release

I've been playing a bit with the new LTS edition of Ubuntu in VMs. As of the last version, Ubuntu abandoned its homegrown Unity desktop -- a pragmatic business decision, but one that personally dismayed me as it was by far my favourite Linux desktop environment.

The last release of Ubuntu, 17.10, featured GNOME 3 as the default desktop, and I didn't like it at all. I even made it onto Hacker News!

But now, the rough edges have been smoothed off a little -- as they should, as this is a long-term support release and will be the current Ubuntu for 2 years for many people.

It's improved. I don't like it, but it's better. OMGUbuntu has done its usual things to do after you install piece and makes some good points. The only thing I'd question is the themes one -- all right, and maybe the need for Snap/Flatpak, but fair enough.

But here are my suggestions for a few tweaks that I find really useful, though...

"Extend Panel Menu" -- https://extensions.gnome.org/extension/1201/extend-panel-menu/

Splits the combined system menu back into separate options, and moves the clock over to the right where it belongs.

"Pixel Saver" -- https://extensions.gnome.org/extension/723/pixel-saver/

Merges the title bar of maximised windows with the top panel. Not as elegant as the Unity way (there's no menu so the panel remains mostly wasted space; the window controls get mixed in with your status indicators) but it works.

"Dash to Dock" -- https://extensions.gnome.org/extension/307/dash-to-dock/

The full version of the tool Ubuntu uses to make the "launcher" into a dock.

"Topicons Plus" -- https://extensions.gnome.org/extension/1031/topicons/

This puts app indicators in the panel where they belong.

I personally also add "Hide activities button" and "no topleft hot corner" but they might be more controversial. :-)

I also install the un-castrated Cinnamon file manager, Nemo, and make it manage the desktop: https://askubuntu.com/questions/294421/how-do-i-install-nemo-file-manager

Saying all that, I still don't like GNOME 3 much. I am currently pondering upgrading my personal travel laptop to the new edition, or waiting for a while and reinstalling with a Unity remix.

Mon, Apr. 16th, 2018, 11:04 pm
Resurrecting the best Windows screensaver ever

From a G+ thread that just won't die.

A British digital artist called William Latham -- he has a site, but it won't load for me -- once co-developed a wonderful screensaver for early 32-bit Windows, called Organic Art.

There was even an MS-sponsored free demo version.

Sadly this won't install on 64-bit Windows, as the installer has 16-bit components. However, you can get it working. I did it, after a bit of fiddling, on Windows 7.
Here's how, in brief:
* Install XP Mode
* Boot it, let it update etc.
* In Win7, meanwhile, download the demo from Nemeton
* Once XP Mode is all updated, install the OA MS edition demo from the host drive
* Check it works
* I copied the whole Program Files/Computer Artworks tree into my W7 Downloads folder
* I also retrieved the screensaver (.SCR) file from C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32 -- and as mentioned above, D3DRM.DLL
In W7, I copied this into the same locations on my Win7/64 system.
I used the documented hack to re-enable screensavers (JFGI).
It now ran but couldn't find any profiles.
* In XP Mode, I exported the entire Computer Artworks hive from the Registry to a file in my W7 Downloads folder.
In W7 I imported this file.
Now the 'saver runs. It's worth disabling mode switching and forcing it to use Hardware Acceleration. Not all of the saver modules work but most do -- and very quickly and smoothly, too.

This won't work as-is on Windows 8 or newer. There are hacks but I only got the VirtualPC component of XP Mode running on Win8. Nothing newer worked.

But you can run XP Mode in VirtualBox, and I've published an article on how to do that. The other steps are much the same.

Try it. It's really quite beautiful.

Sat, Mar. 3rd, 2018, 12:09 am
Containers and the future of Unix

A lot of my speculations concern the future of new, alternative operating systems which could escape from old-fashioned, sometimes ill-conceived models and languages.

But I do spend some time thinking about what is happening with Linux, with FOSS Unix in general, and especially with container technologies, something I deal with in my current and recent day-jobs more and more.

One answer to legacy nastiness for years now has been to virtualise it. Today, that's changing to "containerise it".

There is a ton of cruft in Linux and in the BSDs and so on which nobody is ever going to fix. It's too hard, it would break too much stuff... but most of all, there is no commercial pressure to do it, so it's not going to happen.

I can certainly see potentialities. There are parallels that run quite deep.

For instance, consider a few unrelated technologies:

- FreeBSD jails and Solaris Zones. Start here.

They indirectly evolved into LXC, the container mechanism in the Linux kernel which gets relatively little attention. (Docker has critical mass, systemd namespaces are trendier in some niches, CRIO is gaining a little bit of traction.)

Docker now means Linux containers are a known thing, already widely-used with money being poured into their R&D.

Joyent, a company with some vision, saw a chance here. It took Illumos, the FOSS fork of Solaris, and revived and modernised some long-dead Sun code: lxrun, the Linux runtime for Solaris. Joyent SmartOS is therefore a tiny Solaris derivative -- it runs entirely from RAM, booted off a USB stick, but can efficiently scale to hundreds of CPU cores and many terabytes of RAM -- which can natively run Docker Linux containers.

You don't need to run a hypervisor. (It is a hypervisor, if you want that.) You don't need to partition the machine. You don't even need a single copy of Linux on it. You have a rack of x86-64 boxes running SmartOS, and you can throw tens of thousands of Docker containers at them.

It gives capacities and scalability that only IBM mainframes can approach.

Now, if one small company can do this with some long-unmaintained code, then consider what else could be done with it.

 - Want more resilient hosts for long-lived containers? Put some work into Minix 3 until it can efficiently run Linux containers. A proper fully-modular-all-the-way-down microkernel which can detect when its constituent in-memory services fail and restart them. It can in principle even undergo binary version upgrades, piecemeal, on a running system. This is stuff Linux vendors can't even dream of. It would, for a start, make quite a lot of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities moot, because there's no shared kernel memory space.

Unlike Darwin and xnu, it's a proper microkernel -- no huge in-kernel servers for anything here. (Don't eve try to claim WinNT is a microkernel or I will slap you.) Unlike the GNU HURD, it's here, it works, it's being very widely used for real workloads. And it's 100% FOSS.

 - Want a flexible cluster host which can migrate containers around a globe-spanning virtual datacenter?

Put some work into Plan 9's APE, its Linux runtime. Again, make it capable of running Linux containers. To Plan 9 they'd just be processes and it was built to efficiently fling them around a network.

I have looked into container-hosting Linux distros for several different dayjobs. I can't give details, but they scare me. One I've tried has a min spec of 8GB of RAM and 40GB of disk per cluster node, and a minimum of 3-4 nodes.

This is not small efficient tech. But it could be; SmartOS shows that.

 - Hell, more down to earth -- many old Linux hands are deserting to FreeBSD in disgust over systemd. FreeBSD already has containers and a quite current Linux runtime, the Linuxulator. It would be relatively easy to put them together and have FreeBSD host Linux containers, but the sort of people who dislike systemd also dislike containers.

Not everything would run under containers, sure, no. But they're suitable for far bigger workloads than is generally expected. You can migrate a whole complex Linux server into a container -- P2V migration as was once common when moving to hypervisors. I've talked to people doing it.

Ubuntu LXD is specifically intended for this, because Ubuntu isn't certified for SAP, only SUSE is, so Ubuntu wants to be able to run SLE userlands. Ditto some RHEL-only stuff.

But what if it doesn't work with containers at all?

Well, as parallels...

[1] A lot of Win32 stuff got abandoned with the move to WinXP. People liked the new OS enough that stuff that didn't work got left behind.

[2] Apple formalised this with Carbon after the NeXT acquisition. The MacOS APIs were not clean and suitable for a pre-emptive multitasking OS. So Apple stripped them out and said "if you use this subset, your app can be ported. If you don't, it can't."

Over the next few years, the old OS was forcibly phased out -- there is a generation of late-era gigahertz-class G4 and G5 PowerMac that refuses to boot classic MacOS. Apple tweaked the firmware to prevent it. You _had_ to run OS X on them, and although versions >= 10.4 could run a Classic MacOS VM, not everything worked in a VM.

So the developers had to migrate. And they did, because although it was a lot of work, they wanted to keep selling software.

It worked so well that in the end the migration from PowerPC to Intel was less painful than the one from classic MacOS to OS X.

So maybe Linux workloads that won't work in containers will just go away, replaced by ones that will -- and apps that play nice in a container don't care what distro they're on, and that means that they will run on top of SmartOS and FreeBSD and maybe in time Minix 3 or Plan 9.

And so we'll get that newer, cleaner, reworked Unix after all, but not by any incremental process, by a quite dramatic big-bang approach.

And if there comes a point when it's desirable to run these alternative OSes for some users, because they provide useful features in nice handy easy ways, well, maybe they'll gain traction.

And if that happened, then maybe some people will investigate native ports instead of containerised Linux versions, and gain some edge, and suddenly the Unix world will be blown wide open again.

Might happen. Might not. It's not what I am really interested in, TBH. But it's possible -- existing products, shipping for a few years, show that.

Sun, Feb. 4th, 2018, 07:04 pm
"The Circuit Less Travelled" -- #FOSDEM 2018 "History" stream talk, notes & slides

So, yesterday I presented my first conference talk since the Windows Show 1996 at Olympia, where I talked about choosing a network operating system — that is, a server OS — for PC Pro magazine.

(I probablystill have the speaker's notes and presentation for that somewere too. The intensely curious may ask and I maybe able share it too.)

It seemed to go OK, I had a whole bunch of people asking questions afterwards, commenting or thanking me.

[Edit] Video! https://youtu.be/jlERSVSDl7Y

I have to check out the video recording and make some editing marks before it will be published and I am not sure that the hotel wifi connection is fast or capacious enough for me to do that. However, I'll post it as soon as I can.

Meantime, here is some further reading.

I put together a slightly jokey deck of slides and was very pleasantly impressed at how good and easy LibreOffice Impress made it to create and to present them. You can download the 9MB ODP file here:


The notes are a 110 kB MS Word 2003 document. They may not always be terribly coherent -- some were extensively scripted, some are just bullet points. For best results, view in MS Word (or the free MS Word Viewer, which runs fine under WINE) in Outline mode. Other programs will not show the structure of the document, just the text.


I had to cut the talk fairly brutally to fit the time and did not get to discuss some of the operating systems I planned to. You can see some additional slides at the end of the presentation for stuff I had to skip.

Here's a particular chunk of the talk that I had to cut. It's called "Digging deeper" and you can see what I was goingto say about Taos, Plan 9, Inferno, QNX and Minix 3. This is what the slides on the end of the presentation refer to.


Links I mentioned in the talk or slides

The Unix Haters' Handbook [PDF]: https://simson.net/ref/ugh.pdf

Stanislav Datskovskiy's Loper-OS:  http://www.loper-os.org/

Paul Graham's essays: http://www.paulgraham.com/

Notably his Lisp Quotes: http://www.paulgraham.com/quotes.html

Steve Jobs on the two big things he missedwhen he visited Xerox PARC:

Alan Kay interview where he calls Lisp "the Maxwell's Equations of software": https://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=1039523

And what that means: http://www.michaelnielsen.org/ddi/lisp-as-the-maxwells-equations-of-software/

"In the Beginning was the Command Line" by Neal Stephenson: http://cristal.inria.fr/~weis/info/commandline.html

Author's page: http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

Symbolics OpenGenera: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genera_(operating_system)

How to run it on Linux (some of several such pages):

A brief (13min) into to OpenGenera by Kalman Reti: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4-YnLpLgtk&t=5s
A longer (1h9m) talk about it, also by him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBfB2MJw3qg

Fri, Dec. 22nd, 2017, 12:22 am

It might interest folk hereabout that I've had a talk accepted at February's FOSDEM conference in Brussels. The title is "The circuit less travelled" and I will be presenting a boiled-down, summarised version of my ongoing studies into OS, language and app design, on the thesis of where, historically, the industry made arguably poor (if pragmatic) choices, some interesting technologies that weren't pursued, where it'll go next and how reviving some forgotten ideas could lend technological advantage to those trying different angles.

In other words, much of what I've been ranting about on here for the last several years.

It will, to say the least, be interesting to see how it goes down.

SUSE is paying for me to attend, but the talk is not on behalf of them -- it's entirely my own idea and submission. A jog from SUSE merely gave me the impetus to submit an abstract and description.

Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2017, 03:49 pm
It is not just me. I swear, it really isn't.

Once again, recently, I have been told that I simply cannot write about -- for instance -- the comparative virtues of programming languages unless I am a programmer and I can actually program in them. That that is the only way to judge.

This could be the case, yes. I certainly get told it all the time.

But the thing is that I get told it by very smart, very experienced people who also go on to tell me that I am completely wrong about other stuff where I know that I am right, and can produce abundant citations to demonstrate it. All sorts of stuff.

I can also find other people -- just a few -- who know exactly what I am talking about, and agree, and have written much the same, at length. And their experience is the same as mine: years, decades, of very smart highly-experienced people who just do not understand and cannot step outside their preconceptions far enough to get the point.

It is not just me.

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Thu, Jul. 27th, 2017, 07:18 pm
If you're an outsider in the world of computing, you can see for miles… but you annoy everyone.

This is a repurposed CIX comment. It goes on a bit. Sorry for the length. I hope it amuses.

So, today, a friend of mine accused me of getting carried away after reading a third-generation Lisp enthusiast's blog. I had to laugh.

The actual history is a bit bigger, a bit deeper.

The germ was this:


That story did very well, amazing my editor, and he asked for more retro stuff. I went digging. I'm always looking for niches which I can find out about and then write about -- most recently, it has been containers and container tech. But once something goes mainstream and everyone's writing about it, then the chance is gone.

I went looking for other retro tech news stories. I wrote about RISC OS, about FPGA emulation, about OSes such as Oberon and Taos/Elate.

The more I learned, the more I discovered how much the whole spectrum of commercial general-purpose computing is just a tiny and very narrow slice of what's been tried in OS design. There is some amazingly weird and outré stuff out there.

Many of them still have fierce admirers. That's the nature of people. But it also means that there's interesting in-depth analysis of some of this tech.

It's led to pieces like this which were fun to research:


I found 2 things.

One, most of the retro-computers that people rave about -- from mainstream stuff like Amigas or Sinclair Spectrums or whatever -- are actually relatively homogenous compared to the really weird stuff. And most of them died without issue. People are still making clone Spectrums of various forms, but they're not advancing it and it didn't go anywhere.

The BBC Micro begat the Archimedes and the ARM. Its descendants are everywhere. But the software is all but dead, and perhaps justifiably. It was clever but of no great technical merit. Ditto the Amiga, although AROS on low-cost ARM kit has some potential. Haiku, too.

So I went looking for obscure old computers. Ones that people would _not_ read about much. And that people could relate to -- so I focussed on my own biases: I find machines that can run a GUI or at least do something with graphics more interesting than ones before then.

There are, of course, tons of the things. So I needed to narrow it down a bit.

Like the "Beckypedia" feature on Guy Garvey's radio show, I went looking for stuff of which I could say...

"And why am I telling you this? Because you need to know."

So, I went looking for stuff that was genuinely, deeply, seriously different -- and ideally, stuff that had some pervasive influence.

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And who knows, maybe I’ll spark an idea and someone will go off and build something that will render the whole current industry irrelevant. Why not? It’s happened plenty of times before.

And every single time, all of the most knowledgeable experts said it was a pointless, silly, impractical flash-in-the-pan. Only a few nutcases saw any merit to it. And they never got rich.

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