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Who made this mess?

Please allow me to introduce myself... oh, wait, that line's been used in stories, movies and songs. Let me start again. I'm a grouchy old fart. It must be true; I've been told that so many times. The following is presented to explain why this exists and just because I feel like it (maybe it's therapeutic). The miracle of hypertext allows you to read as much as interests you or jump elsewhere as you please.

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How I arrived at this:

Pong did it. It warped my brain and sparked an insatiable appetite for more digital power. The magic of being able to control and interact with a simple image on my television screen was infectious. I doubt it can be explained to anyone who did not experience the time. I consider Pong to be the ancestor to every affordable digital game and personal computer.

First steps

My first hands-on experience with computers was sometime in 1980. The first one I owned was a solder-it-yourself clone of the Sinclair ZX80 called MicroAce. A Zilog Z80A microprocessor and a whopping 2 K of static RAM, coupled to a portable cassette recorder, a black and white television and a tiny plastic membrane keyboard. A lot of tinkering, reading, soldering and experimentation added a real keyboard, 16 K of DRAM, and a crude-looking home-made printed circuit board providing an expansion port and Centronics-compatible parallel printer port. Even with all the wire-wrap boards, dangling components and uneven pcb traces, the darned thing worked. I was hooked and ever since it has been a continuous mania to extend the functions of these unique tools.

A Timex/Sinclair 1000 replaced the cobbled MicroAce, but inherited the home-built extensions. A Texas Instruments TI 99/4a was acquired when they gave up and dumped a load on the market. This was followed by a "portable" Kaypro. This machine was no-nonsense. A 9 inch green screen didn't make for very satisfactory games. The dual 390K 5.25" floppy drives, 64K RAM, and 4 MHz Z80 microprocessor were good for word processing (not WYSIWYG) and number crunching. It used CP/M 2.2u as an operating system. The price was less than 1/5 the cost of setting up a new IBM PC. And PCs did not come with software that would come close to comparing to the full bundle packed with a Kaypro. It served me well as I used it to provide supplementary income by typing and printing term papers for future teachers. The upgrade fever was cooled until 1986. That was the year I finally joined the PC masses.

Joining the crowd

The super-computer that lured me over was a 386sx16 with 2 MB RAM, an 80 MB RLL Seagate hard drive (which lasted 1 month beyond the warranty and caused me to avoid Seagates ever since), a 14" VGA monitor and a pile of bundled software. It was also my first experience with Windows and I've been griping about it ever since. In my opinion, it should be called Broken Blue Windows, regardless of whatever pseudo-version number is stuck beside it. The Blue Screen Of Death has been a free feature since version 3.0. The first time it trashed a database and took so much work down its "General Protection Fault" hole (or whatever it labelled its inadequacy then), I thought it was my fault. The second time, I knew better. I've tested each new version since and have been satisfied they are still not trustworthy. The instability and inability of Windows 3.0 to protect itself (and my work) caused me to buy OS/2 2.0. I had to add another 2 MB of RAM and jump through strange installation hoops, but it was worth it. OS/2 worked. If you could get it installed, it ran very efficiently and was solid. My old programs even ran faster in DOS sessions under OS/2. There was not a single incident of a program being able to crash the system. This was important as I was now handling the monthly billing for a local business.

OS/2 2.1 was installed on the next acquisition: a 486dx33 from Maximus Computers. My opinion of that vendor is too low to describe. It took over three months of battle just to get a working computer. It was a package of dead on arrival parts, damaged parts (the 3.5" floppy drive had a bent spindle with no evidence of parcel damage!), and just plain wrong parts. The case was the only piece of the machine that was good. It came with Windows 3.1, which was left on it only long enough to confirm that it was still buggy, bloated and capable of allowing a single program (oops, "application") to crash the entire system. OS/2 Warp 3.0 was installed as soon as it came out. A Texel 2x SCSI CDROM drive and a Soundblaster Pro turned it into a "multimedia" (I hate that redundant, illogical term) machine. The 8 MB of RAM, 64 K of cache and 120 MB Conner IDE hard drive felt tremendously roomy.

Doomin'

The new first-person games, such as Wolfenstein 3D, being offered as shareware and an external 2400 baud Zoom faxmodem soon began to fill the hard drive. They also began to strain the machine and my pocket. Every BBS was a long-distance call away. DR DOS 6.0 and Warp's dual-boot feature provided a way around OS/2's paranoid reluctance to allow programs to have direct access to certain things like the SoundBlaster. I didn't complain; OS/2 was doing its job. DR DOS kept me from having to use MSDOS, which I felt was inferior anyway. All my old programs still worked, either in DOS sessions under OS/2 or under DR DOS after dual booting. I accumulated many shareware demos (along with large telephone bills) while seeking new entertainment and utility uses for "Max". The prospect of downloading Doom shareware via long-distance call at 2400 baud convinced me to get a 14400 modem.

The telephone bills didn't go down, though. After only approximately 60 hours of trying out DoomSW with my son, I ordered it. Then I discovered DWANGO (Dial-up Wide Area Network Games Organization). Naturally, all of their servers were a long distance call away. The game-time fee was insignificant compared to what the telephone company charged. There were some real sports on the Houston DWANGO server; they were willing to wait the minute it took for DoomII to load from my old hard drive, and willing to put up with running in low detail to accomodate my strained computer. (I was never a competitor among them, but my son, using the online alias "Elric", eventually took 2nd by the time of the last Doom tournament on DWANGO). A couple of months with $300 telephone bills convinced me that local Doomers had to be found.

Making a connection

I placed an advertisement in a local newspaper to try to find local gamers. The first respondent was a young man in high school who convinced me to set up a BBS. A little research, some long distance modem calls and I installed Wildcat! TD. The telephone line was shared between the infant BBS, voice, and DWANGO. The name of the new BBS was easy; we apparently live at the edge of the electronics communications world. With a handful of files, no experience, a shared telephone line, a computer that was rapidly falling further from state of the art, and a tiny classified advertisement, The Edge of the World BBS was launched in April of 1995.

Here's a little sidetrack rant. The buzz at the time was "Chicago", a.k.a. Windows95. I read all the glowing reports in the magazines, but didn't believe them. It seemed especially suspicious when one prominent magazine published a "comparison review" of OS/2 (on the shelves for what, 2 years?) and the then-soon-to-be released Windows95. A lot of this "comparison" was based on the perceived difficulty of installation of OS/2 (not true since 2.1) versus the _claims_ of what Win95 _would_ be capable of.

The majority of people who called and were active on the BBS were teens from the local high school. They put up with the early necessity of calling by voice to ask me to "turn on The Edge". The LaunchPad in OS/2 made that a simple mouse-click. These folks worked out a convoluted daisy-chain of file transfers among themselves so that the ones within local calling distance of an AOL number could send shareware, public domain, and Doom wad files back down the pipeline to The Edge. I added a dedicated telephone line, registered Wildcat! and put the BBS online 24 hours. The long distance calls to grab updates, utilities and bug patches continued. A 1.2 G Western Digital IDE hd was added, with difficulty. The OEM-kludged AMI bios couldn't handle anything above 504 MB so I bought a new VLB controller along with the drive from MegaHaus. (I wonder if their tech support is still clueless?). I was told it would allow the drive to work without using anything like Disk Manager. It didn't. I had to buy an "AMI BIOS Extender" ISA card for that. Total cost of adding the new drive was nearly $500. At least DoomII would load in only about 20 seconds, though, and there was plenty of room for the growing pile of files and door games the teens supplied to The Edge. DWANGO calls were now held to affordable levels thanks to all the local talent discovered and patched to the same DoomII versions and .WADs from the BBS. It had become the local swap-shop for maps and repository for shareware. The "sneakernet" of floppy sharing among the teens led to several virus outbreaks. The Edge carried several free anti-virus packages though. Things were hectic but fun.

Murphy strikes

Then came a partition crash. A buddy from DWANGO mailed his 486 DX2 50 cpu to me when he put in an overdrive (one of those quasi-Pentium things). I installed it in 'Max' but apparently the dinky motherboard manual had some misprints concerning jumper settings, or possibly the Vesa Local Bus controller wasn't meant to operate at the new settings. At any rate, things got out of sync and some data got shuffled around where it shouldn't. The first clue came when OS/2 halted the system and dumped a bunch of registry data all over the screen. This from the operating system that once kept everything chugging along smoothly late one scary night while: 1. a 1989 database program was running in a DOS session sorting and updating customer records, 2. I was using another DOS session to PKZIP a backup of the entire BBS tree to another drive, 3. an insomniac Edger was downloading a batch of games, and 4. the print spooler was churning out a thousand postcards. Keep in mind that occurred with a 486dx33, 8 MB RAM, 64 K cache, Vesa Local Bus, and 3 button mouse (I mention the mouse because Win95a seemed to despise a 3 button Mouse Systems mouse. It always moved in jerks and fits while printing. Maybe MS just didn't like the initials. If you have a CD of the original issue of Windows95, see if you can find the one mouse driver on it that is not automatically installed). I later tried to duplicate that load handling on a Pentium 75 with 32 MB RAM, 256 K cache, and Windows95a. It failed miserably.

Back to the corrupted partition. I restored the 33 MHz cpu, rescued most of the data from the drive, repartitioned and reformatted, and everything worked again. The Edgers patiently re-uploaded the files that were lost. The 50 MHz cpu was used later in a caller's machine without trouble. More evidence of the klunkiness of the motherboard from Maximus? A Seagate 1.2 G hard drive was added, then started making noises like it was grinding metal and died after about 30 days. I requested a Conner or Western Digital for the warranty replacement. Conner had since been bought by Seagate, so I received a Conner-Seagate drive. It makes funny sounds, but still works.

Where do you think you're going?

Windows95 finally hit the store shelves and I ignored it. IBM's television advertisements for Warp faded away, as did their development of it. I bought a Pentium 75 and opted for Windows 3.11 with it for those few Windows-only "apps" I needed. Also, this allowed easy rebooting to DOS, because this computer's main purpose was to run DoomII. I also chose not to install Win95 on it because of the increasing number of messages on my BBS that were desperate cries for help. Strange that this upgrade from previous versions of Windows left so many thoroughly Windows users thoroughly confused about how to use it. Also strange that I just gave them tips I had learned over the years with OS/2 and these tips worked in Win95. Never could drag and drop something on the printer in Win95, though, nor create a customized, moveable button bar like LaunchPad. But the whole world was swinging to Win95. It was useless to try to stand against the tide.

My next machine was an AMD K5-75 that I assembled and which ran circles around the pre-built P75 with as nearly identical setup as I could manage. There were more and more games being produced that required Win95, so I finally succumbed and bought an upgrade CD for this machine. I still feel like that $89 was wasted. Before finally giving up on it, there were 13 patches (excuse me, I mean "updates") applied to it. That's a ton of time considering how many times it had to be reinstalled. Thankfully, I was learning more about Linux and Linux itself was progressing steadily.

Linux!

My first fumbling use of Linux, Slackware 3.2, was a joyous thing. It felt like rediscovering all those CP/M programmers who wrote such compact, stable, efficient code. The biggest trouble was that they seemed to imitate the notoriously mystifying CP/M documentation. Once the READMEs and HOWTOs and man pages were deciphered, things worked without fuss. No more crashes. No more rebooting for every little adjustment to every minor piece of the system. No more 20% to 30% wasted hard drive space because of cluster sizes that grew with partition size. No more drive letter shuffle and reinstall because of having to add more hard drive space to accommodate more and more bloat. No more throwing buckets of money at it to add some minimal upgrade to software. It just quietly and elegantly worked.

The Edge of the World was moved to a 386 machine so old Max could be resurrected as a Linux box. I tried, once, to run the BBS on that old 486 under Win95. Caller complaints of "choppy" and "slow as sh*t" made me abandon that. An old Goldstar 386sx20 with 2 MB RAM provided better performance under MSDOS 6.22 than running the BBS under Win95 on the 486dx33 with 8 MB RAM.

A K6-2 350 with 64 MB SDRAM, 1 MB cache, a WD 6.4 G hd and a 16 MB Diamond Fusion video card runs pretty well with Win95b (not sure what patch level it is: OSR 2 - 2.5). I may be using its Win95 CD for a wall decoration soon; looks like several games are following Quake's example of supporting Linux. Guess it's too late to get a refund on whatever extra Win95 added to the computer's price.

Home LAN

My home network is tied together with cheap 10 Mb/s cards and 10Base2 coax cable. The heart is that old 486, now running RedHat 5.2. It provides http, ftp, firewall, dial-out, WINS, DNS, and Samba services. The last time it was rebooted was the last power outage (I've got to get a bigger battery backup). Next to it is a Compaq Deskpro 4000 (P166) running Win95b. It needs to be rebooted on average about every third day to get it out of sluggishness, unless I actually work with it. Then it's liable to need to be reset or rebooted several times a day. Its main functions? The Edge of the World BBS and a browser for the internet. I don't think I can blame Compaq for the instability. The expensive, non-standard parts, yes. But not the lockups, crashes, and "...illegal operation..." crap. My $89 original Win95a upgrade CD is now a dust collector. The K5-75 also runs RedHat 5.2 with KDE 1.1.2. Another P166 runs SuSE 6.2 with GNOME and KDE installed.

grouch

Why am I a grouchy old fart? Because of rebootathons from the creation of a monster by forces beyond my control. I'm just glad there are such amazing programmers out there who enjoy creating wonderful works and then offering that work to the world for use and for critique and improvement by other current and future programmers. The whole Open Source Software movement, and Linux in particular, is making my life easier and making me less grouchy.

Update:

I got tired of the wincrap on the old Compaq, so it now runs Mandrake 7.0 twenty-four hours a day. It alternately runs KDE and fvwm2 for two different users. The KDE user was formerly all Windows, but is delighted to have left "illegal operations" errors behind.

Update2:

The home network has changed some. The old 486 runs Debian 2.1 (rock solid! Thanks to the folks at Debian for such an excellent package management! Thanks also for creating an installation that does not assume a GUI desktop machine is the target.), the k5-75 has retired, a p166mmx received its drives and cards but Windows choked on the change while Linux booted perfectly, a K6-2-500 runs Mandrake, and the K6-2-350 stays in Windows for windows-only games. So, out of 5 computers in use, 1 runs Windows continuously, 1 is used in Linux and Windows about equally, 1 is Linux mostly with occasional boots to Windows, and 2 run Linux continuously. The trend here should be obvious.

Update3:

This page is overdue for corrections and updates. However, I'll just summarize what makes up my home LAN, just in case the info somehow helps someone. I have managed to avoid having to buy MS Windows on all but 5 computers since 1986, if I remember correctly. Versions of MS Windows that were bundled with computers I've purchased: 3.0 (1 computer, 3.5" floppy disks), 3.11 (1 computer, 3.5" floppy disks), 95 (2 computers, only 1 included a proper installation CD), 98 (no media for restoration or re-installation included, just instructions on how to create "restoration disks"). Then there was the "upgrade" CD I purchased. The purchase of MS Windows 98 on one computer was a concession to my daughter's fascination with the game "The Sims".


If you've read this entire rambling thing, you deserve some kind of medal. Sorry I don't have one to give you. How about a penguin instead?

Curious? Check out this site.[Penguin Power sticker]

Disclaimer:

All opinions expressed are my own. Naturally some of them may conflict with your opinions. Your mileage may vary. The ownership of various trademarked or otherwise protected names and symbols used herein should be obvious and respected, and is acknowledged. This is not a trade report, journalistic review, nor scientific study of any product; damnit, it's an opinion!

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Copyright 1999 - 2005 Terry Vessels. All rights reserved.