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Slackware, Unix, PLASMA and Nethack: A discussion-based retrospective of the 1980s to the 2010s - Pt I

Posted 10-13-2019 at 12:58 PM by Lysander666
Updated 10-13-2019 at 01:48 PM by Lysander666

Earlier this month I conducted a discussion with a close companion and programmer who I will call M. M has been programming since the 1980s and has been using a host of different languages and operating systems since. Going from CP/M and Unix-based systems at work and home in the 1980s to Slackware in the 1990s and the 2000s, this discussion maps out his experiences and opinions on the world of free and proprietary software, parts of which will hopefully be of some interest. He is not, as far as I am aware, registered or active at LQ.

N.B.: apologies for any grammatical/syntactical errors, or any inconsistencies in the timeline. I have tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original audio
.

Due to character constraints, this entry will be published in two parts.

This entry - Unix, Gaming, Santa Cruz Xenix and Slackware.

Unix

Lysander: Was Unix your first serious foray into computing? If not, what was before that and when?

M: No. It depends what you mean by Ďseriousí, of course, but my first foray into computing was because I was starting a job Ė this was a long time ago, you understand Ė where I was going to be entering data into a Visual Display Unit.

L: Can you say what year it was?

M: I have no idea. I must have been around 20, so only a couple of years ago! So mid-í80s, letís say. And I had no interest in computers, but I thought I should know how to type. I wanted to buy a typewriter but as I was going to be entering stuff onto a computer - and I didnít know what a computer was - I saw the Commodore VIC-20 and thought that maybe it would be sensible to get something that I could type on that was also a computer. So that was my first foray, because when I got the Commodore VIC-20 and I started reading the manual I thought it would be nice if it could be used for more than just typing. So I started to poke and peek and learn a little bit about programming on the Commodore VIC-20.

L: And what languages, or language where you using?

M: Well, it had a 6502 processor so I started to learn a bit of Assembly, not anything particularly impressive, but I started to be able to move things about the screens and fiddle about in Assembly. However, Basic was much easier and less effort and Iím basically lazy, so I learned Basic and I wrote a couple of crappy little games and did things that are not particularly interesting, but it did get me interested enough in computers and programming, and though I was in that [data entry] job it didnít really help at all with that.

I was made redundant from that in the end and I had to get a new job afterwards and my interest in the Commodore VIC-20 ran in the background. I canít remember entirely, but I got a job at the Church of England Pensioners Board as an administrator and I was charged with looking through maintenance documents with houses owned by the Church of England that were rented out to retired vicars. Fascinating work. I had been learning a little bit about programming and they had some computers but they didnít know what they were for, or anything about them, so I started, in my spare time, to write little bits and pieces on computers in the office and I started to write little programs to help with the work that I and other people were doing. I eventually wrote something to calculate mortgage payments for priests which one of the departments in the Church of England pensioners board was very interested in. They started to use that and eventually I started fixing computers, and I was doing less talking to priests about their plumbing and more programming and fixing stuff on these old machines - CP/M machines - which were before MS-DOS and before Unix.

L: Well when you say, ďbefore UnixĒ, you mean before -

M: Before Iíd ever heard of Unix, yes. But I still remember the Peripheral Interchange Program Ė PIP Ė which was the most important program to know on CP/M. It was a great little operating system and you can probably find it even now - it didnít do anything much but it worked - and was a little precursor to MS-DOS. Anyway, they eventually gave me a job as the Ďcomputer personí in the Church of England Pensioners Board and I had my own office eventually.

L: Where exactly was the physical location?

M: Millbank in London. The Pensioners Board was in Tufton Street just around the corner but the Church Commissioners were in Millbank. The Church Commissioners thought they owned the computing of the Church of England Pensioners Board and in fact they did: theyíd put the original computers in but theyíd walked away and left everybody at the Church of England Pensioners Board to get on with their own stuff and they didnít expect some snotty-nosed kid like me to start learning about it. So I had my own little office and I remember I had some very odd equipment, I had some Rank Xerox PCs with 8.5 inch floppy disk drives, and 8.5 is quite a big floppy disk. We had some of those which the typists were using for word processing and I ended up fiddling about with those as well. I canít remember when, but then the Church Commissioners obviously thought that they wanted to get involved in Unix systems because theyíd heard of it and they were a proper IT department Ė I wasnít Ė I was some guy sitting in a room in the Church of England Pensioners Board. And they decided that we were going to upgrade to Unix systems, we were going to be their guinea pig, I think, so they bought this Olivetti 3B2 which is a Unix box -

L: Iím amazed that you remember all these machines.

M: Me too. And it was delivered, but they didnít tell me about it. They told me that we were going to get this new machine but they didnít tell me anything about what was planned for it. What they had planned was for it to be delivered and for them to come round and learn about it and install it and set it up but sadly, as they hadnít told me, when it arrived I opened the box and read the manuals and set it up so when they actually came around it was already up and running and had things working on it. And that was my first introduction to the wonderful world of Unix.

L: Did you find it difficult to set it up? How quick was the process of understanding?

M: I donít know actually, thatís quite a difficult question. I remember opening the box and in those days Unix came with all the man pages printed Ė in printed form Ė you had loads and loads of books, it was fantastic, I wish they still did that. Itís not as convenient to search through as a man page, but a man page doesnít allow you to look at things you werenít looking for whereas the books did. I didnít understand any of it. There were installation instructions, or how toís to set it up and thatís what I went through. I followed those, I didnít really know what was going on but there were loads of manuals and I started flicking through them, not understanding anything, really, but you saw the names of the commands like if you look at a man page. If you look at a man page now it still looks the same as those pages did in those manuals, in the physical manuals. Same layout.

L: Same font!

M: Probably the same source. It was exactly the same layout, so you had the name of the command at the top and a brief synopsis of what it did and 99% of those I couldnít understand what they meant when they said what they did, but some of them I did understand Ė Ďlsí Ė itís not difficult to understand what that does. But in flicking through the manual pages I saw things which later, maybe a month later or two months later, I knew more about, I knew enough to perhaps think, ďwasnít there something back there in the book that might be what Iím looking for?Ē I think it was a very important way to learn because I never went on a course or anything, so thatís how I started to learn Unix. Incidentally, thatís also how I learned C and itís not a way Iíd recommend people to learn C - just by reference to the Unix pages on C libraries and what they do - but thatís how I did it. I didnít know anything, I did not understand anything about C when I learned it Ė I didnít know what a pointer was, I didnít know what a library was, I didnít know what a compiler was, and I didnít know what header files were, I didnít understand the format of the pages for that but somehow I managed to learn C eventually.

L: Why did you start learning C?

M: That I canít remember, but I learned C a lot later, at the Church of England Pensioners Board, when this machine was up and running and I was responsible for running it within the organisation. We had a programming language called Sculptor at the time which described itself as a 4GL Ė we had four generations of languages and this was a 4GL Ė I donít think we ever went to 5GL, actually I donít think we even had a 3GL, but it described itself as a fourth generation language. I loved it. Sculptor was fantastic. By modern standards it was rubbish. We had no GUI, we had dumb terminals but with this thing you could put boxes on the screen in the position you wanted and you could set conditions for what could be put in those boxes and what happened with them afterwards and put them in a nice B-tree index database and it was really fast, really quick, you had a report generator to easily generate report from the data you had. So I started writing programs for the Church of England Pensioners Board in Sculptor. From time to time, even now, I look to see if itís possible to get a copy of Sculptor and I do find some references to it. But I loved that. I really did love that language. It was elegant and fast.

L: Not used anymore?

M: No, nobody uses that anymore. There was another one at the time called Informix which more people have heard of which was a 4GL-er and that was much more expensive and that was much better known, but the Church of England Pensioners Board chose Sculptor and I think it was a wise choice at the time. I was able to write a multi-user space-trading and warfare game for it in the report generator. It was never completed but it worked and you could fire missiles at each other and it didnít have any graphics apart from the cracked screen if you got hit by a missile. It wasnít particularly sophisticated but it worked and it was something to do in your spare time.

Gaming

L: Your interest in computers was not purely programming-related because in the Ď80s you were also into gaming as well.

M: Iíve never considered myself a gamer. I would play games but later, actually. I think Doom was really the first one that I became very good at and I was referred to as Doctor Doom by my colleagues. That was later when I was working at Barclays, I think, and we had a Unix team and we set up our network specifically for Doom and we used to play Doom in the office Ė we did lots worse Ė but we specifically played Doom and they were no match for me at Doom. They werenít! There are two things Iím proud of in my career and Iím not sure which Iím a lot more proud of: finding a bug in Perl Ė for some reason Iím proud of finding a bug in Perl handling of shared memory which I raised as a bug and it got fixed -

L: Do you remember what the bug was?

M: It actually wasnít that long ago. It was about six or seven years ago, maybe a bit longer. It was to do with the way that Perl was handling shared memory so that if you Ė I canít remember exactly Ė but if you created a piece of shared memory and you wrote a number to it and got another program to take that number, add 1 to it and put it back, the number would be wrong when you read it by the first process. Something like that, I canít remember exactly, it took me a while to find out that that was a bug in Perl because you donít expect to find a bug in Perl. I wrote a bit of code and demonstrated it and sent it off to the Perl monks and they fixed it. So thatís one thing Iím proud of, the other thing is completing the final level of Doom on Nightmare, I think it was Nightmare mode, in one minute and twelve seconds.

L: I donít know if thatís good but Iíll presume it is!

M: For me, I was particularly proud of that.

L: Thatís like computer game athletics isnít it, really, a Personal Best kind of thing.

M: At the time I was impressed because most people couldnít even get to that level on Nightmare mode, let alone complete it in one minute twelve seconds. I think it was one minute twelve seconds, something like that.

L: Did you not play quite a bit of Elite as well?

M: I forgot about Elite. Elite and the other one, Defender, which was an arcade game, but then it came out on the Acorn Electron because I didnít have an Acorn Electron and it had Defender and Elite on it but it wasnít as good as the BBC version of Elite because there wasnít quite enough RAM, so it didnít have suns which was quite disappointing although I wasnít disappointed by it at the time. And a couple of other things - it didnít have Thargoids, I donít think it did.

L: Thatís one of the most exciting things about Elite, isnít it?

M: I canít remember whether it had Thargoids or not, I donít know whether it was one of the most exciting things but I was full-on Elite for, I mean... there was nothing else in my life except Elite.

L: Can you maybe confirm an erroneous memory of mine? Did Thargoids only appear in Witch Space or not? I think that Thargoids and Thargons relate to Witch Space.

M: Thargons were actually little subships of the Thargoids. If a Thargoid got really upset with you it would launch its Thargons at you, and they would hover around the mothership and cause you all sorts of trouble. Did they exist outside of Witch Space? I canít remember, to be perfectly honest, and Elite Dangerous of course, I got a bit bored of Elite Dangerous around about the time the Thargoids were joining because I really wasnít interested in them but they can exist outside of Witch Space in Elite Dangerous.

L: And Xenon 2, of course.

M: Xenon 2 I vaguely remember. It almost has a smell, that game. I remember it just as if it were a smell rather than playing it or anything. But I was never a big gamer, there were bits in my life where I spent a lot of time on a game and then I havenít played anything for a long time. I did that with Grand Theft Auto. I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto.

L: Vice City, was this?

M: Well, I had all of them. Liberty City was the first one I think, and then there was Vice City, which I think is still by far the best one. For me. A lot of people disagree, but I didnít like IV, the fourth one, it started to get more aggressive and less funny, and just nasty. OK, it was nasty before, because you were killing people quite a lot and punching people in the face and murdering prostitutes, so it was never pleasant, but it got... uglier, I think. So I stopped playing it. The last Grand Theft Auto that I bought I didnít have anything to play it on but I decided I wanted to play it so I bought myself a Playstation 3 and the game and a new TV to watch it on, and thatís the only game I ever played on that setup. And there was Elite Dangerous of course, I got into Elite Dangerous quite seriously.

L: Obviously many years later, weíll get into that. Youíve touched a little bit on the early Ď90s with your mention of Doom and Ď93, I think Doom was Ď93. So what was happening in Ď93, roundabout then in your employment and what kind of systems and languages were you using?

M: Well, from the Church of England Pensioners Board...

L: So you were still there.

M: No, the story is still there. I was at the Church of England Pensioners Board when I had just started to learn Unix. I had changed jobs and I had started to work for a small computer dealership in Baker Street and I was their Unix guy, they didnít know much about Unix. They had some strange Israeli lady called Ayelet, she was sweet in her own way but she was crazy as hell and she was their Unix person beforehand. She didnít really know much about Unix so I had to be diplomatic because I was junior to her. So I was working for them and fixing their customerís computers, I quite enjoyed that actually, doing a bit of programming and learning new machines. There were Altos machines, they ran a version of XENIX which was just called ĎXenixí - those were the beesí bollocks at the time, those big Altos machines, great big things, I remember turning one on and smoke coming out of it, which I thought was quite cool. But Santa Cruz Xenix, which was Unix for the PC, or Xenix as it was then, was great. That was revolutionary because then you could have commodity hardware running a version of Unix and it was pretty good. Santa Cruz were a good company at the time, theyíre well-known more recently for not being a good company but at the time when they had Santa Cruz Xenix they were very good.

L: What were you using at home?

M: At the time, before Santa Cruz Xenix, I didnít have one. I mean, well, I had an Acorn Electron. I didnít have one. I had an Atari ST for a bit, actually.

L: Was this a 520 or 1040?

M: It was a 520 and it had GEM. I donít know if that was its operating system or if it was just a GUI, GEM, I canít remember. I donít even know if that was a native GUI for it.

L: I think GEM was made by another company.

M: It was. I think it was, this could be total rubbish but I think it was Rank Xerox. That could be completely made up but for some reason I think it was. But that was a great machine, it had Dungeon Master, I had forgotten Dungeon Master, I used to play Dungeon Master. That was fantastic, I loved that. That had a great little feature, I donít know if youíve ever played or seen Dungeon Master. It was basically wondering around a corridor hacking and slashing things but what it did do, and I read in one of the gaming magazines at the time that it was done intentionally, was that every now and then it would put the light on the floppy drive on, it would just start the floppy drive spinning Ė it didnít need to do it -

L: Thatís quite clever, I like that.

M: It did it just to build up some suspense that something was happening.

L: Thatís a very nice touch, isnít it.

M: That game was fantastic.

L: Itís like when youíre playing Quake or maybe Doom and you go into a new area, a new chamber, a new room, and thereís lot of ammo around. You know that some shitís going to kick off. Same kind of feeling.

M: Or if the screen suddenly freezes just for a couple of frames. Then you know thereís trouble. And that was the spinning disc of Dungeon Master which I thought was quite clever. It was a great game, I liked that. I donít know whether I learned much on the Atari ST, I canít remember what I used it for but it was a solid machine. I had that at home, I think, but then because of Santa Cruz Xenix... or was it later? It was actually later that I got a copy of Santa Cruz Xenix because it was expensive, it was incredibly expensive to buy a copy of Santa Cruz Xenix.

Santa Cruz Xenix

L: How much are we talking?

M: Iím guessing, and this is a long time ago, Iím thinking £4,000, something like that. It was a lot of money.

L: Why was it so much, do you think?

M: A PC would cost you £10,000. A good PC would be £10,000 Ė by Ďgoodí I mean it had 4MB of RAM.

L: So how much would an Atari 520 cost new?

M: At the time they were expensive, I think they were about 600. Iím pretty much guessing, but they were not cheap. At the time £600 was a lot more than it is now. It was a hobby machine. Well, it wasnít really a hobby machine, it was a gaming machine. It was a cross between a gaming machine and something you could actually do something serious on. It had a MIDI port on it as well which was really unusual at the time. So a lot of people started using them in recording studios for recording music, sampling, whatever you want to do with your MIDI port, controlling musical instruments, what have you. So that was quite ground-breaking. But I canít really remember what I used it for apart from playing Dungeon Master, it was fantastic. I loved that.

L: So weíre still kind of in the -

M: So Iíve been working with Unix for some time and was becoming an adept shell-scripter. I remember writing a program in dBase II, I donít think that exists anymore, certainly dBase II doesnít but whether dBase anything still exists, I donít know. But that was quite a funky little language, it had a database and you could write database applications in it and it was pretty good. I know there was a dBase III but I donít know if it went any further than that. So I was writing dBase, Sculptor, I was beginning to write Sculptor programs at Baker Street.

L: Weíve also neglected to mention PII [one of M's earlier startups].

M: Havenít got there yet.

L: So when was PII?

M: It was after [the Baker Street firm].

L: That was your own enterprise/company?

M: Yes, it was my company.

L: What did it do?

M: Sold computers.

L: So you didnít write anything.

M: Yeah, I did. [Baker Street] had lots of customers. One of their biggest customers was an antiquarian bookshop in Notting Hill and I was writing stuff for them, putting in their computers. I was doing innovative stuff, at least I thought it was innovative stuff, with the systems we were putting in. There was a word processor called Uniplex and there was a desktop publishing system called Ventura and both could output ASCII files. And they were an antiquarian bookshop and they created catalogues and when books came into the shop they used to type some information about the books and then basically my software in the background would produce quality desktop publishing catalogues for them to get sent off to the printers, although that actually wasnít at Baker Street, I did that later. But anyway, I decided I was going to leave Baker Street and start a company on my own to do this myself and I remember a customer coming round, his name was Ashley, he ended up being the best man at my wedding, as it turned out, crazy guy, he came into the Baker Street office one day and he asked me whether theyíd be able to do something in a few months time and I said Iím leaving so I wonít be able to. He asked me what I was doing and I said Iím starting my own company and he said can we keep in touch and I said yes, of course. He became my first customer. I had a customer immediately when I left and a big customer, a relatively big customer. So I had a lot of work and interesting stuff I could do with them over the years and then I got other customers. PII computers systems was only running for three years before I left.

L: What year did it start?

M: Dates I cannot do. Itís possible to find out somehow but I have no idea. All I remember is that those was the days of the large NEC mobile phones because I had one which I got free with my suit, and that shows how expensive my suit was, because in those days not many people got mobile phones.

L: Not until the late Ď90s. So weíre obviously not talking late Ď90s then.

M: No, I doubt it.

L: So how long did PII last for?

M: It could still be running for all I know, only as a holding company, I donít know, but I left after three years but those were some great times, really great times, thatís how I know that computers cost £10,000 because I was buying them at 7 and selling them for 10Ė14,000 and everything was incredibly expensive. Somehow I got a customer who was cash and carry and I ended up with a couple of these cash and carries and I was their point of sale system so I was building point of sale systems in Sculptor and selling them into these cash and carries. It ended up being quite sophisticated but I never moved on price and some of these people who owned these cash and carries, this guy, canít remember his name, an Indian guy, a very wily guy, he was always trying to push the price down and I was always saying no. One of my biggest triumphs at PII computer systems was when he wanted a kit out price for new equipment in one of his warehouses and I gave him all the prices with Ďinstallation freeí at the bottom and he sent me back a mail saying, ďwell, Iíve been to another company and theyíve given me all these things much cheaperĒ and I said ďwell, youíd better go with them thenĒ. He said, ďOK, I will do, but I want you to install it, how much would you charge for installing it?Ē and I got more profit from just doing the installation from that and none of the hassle than I would have done if Iíd put the whole thing in and installed it for free. But in those days I was standing on forklift trucks and wiring cables, soldering cables together in this ceiling of this warehouse, it was quite entertaining, RS-232 cables. I remember how to solder them very well, even now. Those were the days. Or a Ďnorrisí cable - there was some guy who used to work for the church commissioners who thought he knew a lot about computers and he one day asked if we had a Ďnorrisí cable and nobody knew what he meant and somebody realised he actually meant an RS-232 Ė a Ďnorrisí.

L: Why a Ďnorrisí?

M: Well, thatís what he thought we were saying, Ďnorrisí. Not an ĎRSí-232.

L: Letís go towards Linux, where does Linux fit into this and when did you start using it, how did you hear of it etc?

M: When I left PII computer systems. I left PII with debts, or at least PII computer systems had debts and by then there were two other directors of the company and I left because they werenít doing anything. I was doing the work but they didnít pay any of the debts and I could have become bankrupt or whatever, but I chose not to, so I had the choice of being responsible for all the debts or being bankrupt or getting into trouble anyway. Somebody had to pay it, and that was me, and the only way to do that was to get a job, a real job, and where was it, it was a company called Metrologie, a French company I believe, it sounds very French. They used to sell computers to computer dealers, so they would buy from manufacturers and this is when I got introduced to AIX, IBMs, Unix, HP Unix and Santa Cruz Xenix and Santa Cruz Unix at that time I think and thatís what I was responsible for and there was another PC Unix called Interactive. I donít know whether thatís still around, probably not but thatís what I was working on at Metrologie but I still had these debts from PII computer systems and somebody rang up and said, ďdo you want to earn three times as much?Ē and I said, ďyeah OKĒ so they told me that I could become a consultant, a contractor as they called them then and go and work for myself, so I did. And they put me into a company, Barclays Bank. And I was working on HP-UX. But there was a guy at HP-UX, a French guy, and he told me about Ė at home, at that time I had Santa Cruz Unix at home, Santa Cruz Xenix on some PC, this was still a long time ago Ė and he told me about a free version of Unix which had X and everything and I went round to his house and he showed me - ďthis is all freeĒ, and that was Linux.

L: Do you know what distribution?

M: I think I still have it.

L: Do you know what it was?

Slackware

M: It wasnít anything that anybodyís heard of. Iím pretty sure I could still find the CD somewhere, the install CD for it. It pre-dated a lot. I canít remember what it was called but I installed it on my PC, wiped out my Santa Cruz Unix or Xenix, I canít remember, and I installed this on my PC and wow, it had fwm, itís a window manager - wow that was impressive - it was fantastic and I had a proper Unix operating system. I started to get to know it, at work I was still running HP-UX but at home I was running Linux. What version kernel was it? I donít know but they werenít running elf binaries, it was before then, 1.-something or other, or was it even 1? Probably was but I canít remember exactly. And the CD that I installed that original Linux from was given to me by this French guy I worked with, but at some point I needed to update it for some reason and put it on another machine, so I had to look for another Linux and the only one that you could really install then was Slackware. I went and downloaded a hell of a lot of crap and made disk images, loads and loads of floppy disks and installed it from loads and loads of floppy disks and it took forever.

L: Do you have any idea that version it could have been, what version number?

M: Slackware?

L: Yes.

M: No, at that time I didnít think of these things. Linux is huge now, itís massive, the company I work with is a massive international company, offices all over Europe, high secure payments etc, it all runs everything on Linux. In those days, nobody had heard of it. Very very very few. Iíd been working in Unix for a long time and Iíd only just learned of it and it was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. It had everything, it was all there. Somebody had put all this effort and time into making a free Unix, remember that Santa Cruz Unix cost around £4,000, something crazy like that, and this was much better for free, it was incredible.

L: And with Slackware it was one man.

M: Well that is the remarkable thing, but it was not so remarkable then because everybody was Ďone maní really. I mean, I donít go back to the beginning of Linux but there was no Red Hat, there was no SUSE, there were just people putting distributions together and Slackware was the, I may be wrong, I think it was the biggest distribution. There were other ones around but you had to run Slackware.

L: Itís the oldest one thatís still maintained now and it was Ď93 when it came out, and then it was hotly followed by Debian after that.

M: I was before Debian.

L: You were before Debian?

M: I was before Debian.

L: If you were before Debian youíre talking about mid Ď93.

M: It could be that I just hadnít heard of it but I donít think Debian was a choice for me when I was installing my Linux. Why wouldnít it be? I moved abroad in 2001 so weíre only talking 7 years, 8 years between Debian and my moving abroad and I was running Linux, Iím sure, earlier than that.

L: So were you running Slackware all that time?

M: No, I moved to S.u.S.E Linux and I canít for the life of me -

L: Which was based on Slackware.

M: Was it? I didnít know that. In fact Iíve still got the SUSE penguin I bought and the SUSE cup. I canít remember why I moved to SUSE actually. But from Slackware I went to SUSE which I quite liked for a while and then I moved to Red Hat which I quite liked for a very short while and then I realised that I hated all this crap that they were putting into the operating system. These little tools to make things easier which didnít make things easier for me.

L: What kinds of things?

M: adduser. Itís a simple little command. Why do I need that? Iím not saying it was adduser but that was a -

L: Slackware uses adduser.

M: Well, that was an example. Commands to set up your network. Commands for this, commands for that, administrative tools. Why do you need an adduser command at all? Itís incredibly simple to set up a user. The only complication is not using the same user ID twice or group ID twice if you want to synchronise user IDs between many many machines but itís still not very complicated.

L: So how do you set up a user?

M: This is before the /etc/shadow file so in those days you edited your /etc/passwd file and you typed in the details of the user, probably created a home directory for them and that was it. I guessed you would give them a password as well but then youíd just run the the password for them as root and it would give them a password, thatís all you needed to do. Presumably now, apart from the slight complication of the /shadow password file itís exactly the same. Thereís a lot more things that get added now, a lot more tweaks because thatís not really a very secure way of behaving, thereís PAM, and Kerberos and LVAT and all kinds of things that get linked into it all now or donít, depending on your setup but I still didnít need that command on my computer. I knew how to edit a password file. I knew how to edit an inittab file and I knew why I would be editing an inittab file. I knew what respawn at the end, or the beginning, I canít remember, meant. I didnít need all the rubbish. They were trying to make it foolproof and idiotproof for the common person, which is a great goal but I always thought these are technical, these are complex, they donít need to be manageable by everybody and theyíre not now. If you look at Apple OSX over there [motions to his girlfriend], she canít do much on there but she can work on it and she does her stuff but if anything goes wrong itís actually less penetrable than it used to be. Thereís Windows there as well, if anything goes wrong most people, unless they learn about technology and spend some time learning about their operating system, they canít fix it either. In the old days if you spent some time learning about Linux you would also be able to enter the information into a /passwd file.

L: Was it a concern that the quality or type of user base would dilute the quality and utility of the system?

M: No, it was just getting in my way. It was stopping me from doing things. Things would change and I didnít know why they had changed. It was a Red Hat way of doing things or a SUSE way of doing things. There was a file called SuSE.config in SuSE Ė what the hell was that for? And if you donít change things in SuSE.config, what changes you did could get overwritten by something you didnít even know existed. When you install SuSE for the first time, if you donít read the manual of course, you donít know that thereís a SuSE.config. I went back to Slackware.

L: That was going to be my next question actually, because I know that you went back to Slackware because when I came here years ago I asked you what Linux system you were using and you said Slackware.

M: I think I was running it in a virtual machine on a Macbook Pro at the time!

L: Thatís quite funny. I thought you were using it as your main system.

M: Yes I was, but my Macbook Pro booted straight to Slackware running in a virtual machine.

L: Why did you have that setup rather than have it on bare metal?

M: Because one problem with Linux is that it could always be a bit of a battle plugging things in and expecting them to work.

L: Especially with multiple internal hard drives.

M: Or with anything. Youíd get some funky new piece of hardware, some really flash thing that youíd buy in your local electronic shop and it might work but it probably wonít. You might have to tweak something, fiddle about a bit. If itís been around for a year then it probably will work, you probably wonít have to do anything, itíll just work, but with Apple it does work. VMWare could see it. Youíd plug it into OSX, if OSX could see it, VMWare could see it and then you could pass that through to Linux. And it was pretty fast. So I used it like that for a long time and I didnít use OSX, I just had Slackware running in a virtual machine.


Pt II - PLASMA, systemd, Nethack, security and the Unix philosophy.
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