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

Posted 10-13-2019 at 01:08 PM by Lysander666
Updated 10-14-2019 at 06:05 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.

Part I is here.

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

This entry - PLASMA, systemd, Nethack, security and the Unix philosophy.


L: How long did you stay with [Slackware] for [in the 2000s]? Because you left it at some point.

M: KDE. KDE killed it for me.

L: What version KDE?

M: I canít remember if it was 4, I think it was 4. It was the one with PLASMA. Remember I was running this in a virtual machine on OSX. I loved KDE, I was in there I think it was from beta 2 or beta 3, so from very early on I was running KDE and I loved it and I started to get really into it and I was doing funky stuff with it because it was very good. Suddenly there was a new version, I canít remember whether it was version 4 or version 5 and it was clearly trying to look like OSX. I remember the settings screen, it started to look like OSX, it was as annoying as OSX, it was as irritating as OSX, it was as rubbish as OSX and I thought, ďI may as well run bloody OSXĒ. So I did. I got rid of my virtual machine and Linux and started running OSX. Why not? They were trying to make it look the same but OSX did it slightly better so what was the point? I just thought it was awful. Absolutely awful. From something which I thought had been fantastic. I thought it was a real step backwards, it didnít even work very well when it came out either, which you can kind of expect but KDE had always been rock solid before that, and fantastic, and it had DCOP and all these little things you could use for communicating between applications. And they changed the whole lot then, fair enough, I think that happens a lot in the open source community, but this new version redoes the code, like anybody cares. I understand that itís probably beneficial but the users donít give a damn what the code is like as long as it actually works.

L: That must be a big concern.

M: Oh it still happens now. GIMP did it as well, a great big code rewrite which it probably needed but itís not very exciting for anybody. If you want to use GIMP, if you want to actually use it rather than play with it because itís great to have a tool that does that, if you want to actually use it professionally or use it seriously, you donít care. You just want it to do the stuff. I do get that a code rewrite is important but KDE and GNOME actually are constantly talking about toolkits and libraries, I donít care. But when KDE4 came out, it was ugly, it didnít work very well, Iíve never understood why people want things to look like Windows or OSX. Why were they doing that when they had their own thing? Take Enlightenment as a desktop. Now that wasnít trying to look like Windows. That was not trying to look like OSX. That never went very far but that was really trying to do something different. There was another desktop, a 3D desktop, I canít remember what it was called Ė totally unusable but it looked really cool.

L: Why did you not consider running Xfce or something and just running with that?

M: My machine was basically looking like the system which was the host operating system for it. The host operating system was going to be much better. I donít like OSX very much, I donít think itís very consistent, it is at least half Unix, things you plug in work first go. Maybe I just got older. In the old days I would spend days trying to get things to work on Linux and enjoy it, I remember taking two days off work sick trying to get ImageMagick, I think, some old tool which may or may not be around, to write text over jpegs. I think the problem was getting it to compile a jpeg library or something. I spent two days trying to get that to work and I was seriously excited when it did work. Maybe I was just getting less interested in banging my head against a wall when my Macbook Pro just did it, I didnít have to bang my head against a wall. I have OSX now and I still donít like it.

L: Thereís one other person whoís expressed similar sentiments about their frustration with what happened with Linux and that was this forum guy called dasein, a German word, a controversial chap and a lot of people didnít like him, but he and I were very good friends before he passed away. Your exact words in an email to me a few years ago were that youíd decided that all operating systems were crap and made you want to chew your own eyeballs out. He said that his sentiments were more or less exactly the same and if Windows 7 were going to be supported longer-term out of Redmond then he would ditch Debian Ė because he was using Debian but he was anti systemd, hugely anti systemd Ė and he would run with Windows. So I wonder if thatís a common symptom after spending so long in Unix and seeing how things have gone and thinking ďscrew itĒ and going for the easiest route.

M: Maybe yes, but when we started having Unix-like systems at home you didnít expect GIMP to work, Blender to work, we didnít expect these things to work and they werenít available in Windows and they werenít available in Macintosh but there is vast amount of tools and applications we have now, but then we couldnít get frustrated that they didnít work -

L: It was nice to have them.

M: Yeah, and when I first found GIMP I thought it was a fantastic piece of software and it worked and there were big fights about it - libraries, GNOME libraries - I always battled between that and the other one which KDE was using, I canít remember the name of it now, which is odd because I went for a job there.

L: Did you get it?

M: Yes, I did actually. Actually it wasnít a job there it was a job at Trolltech - the people who worked at Trolltech had set up a new company - and I was offered a job there, which I accepted. All those fights and arguments drive me nuts, but we have very complex software now, very capable software, very good software and we use it for all sorts of things so maybe now the operating systems do need more complexity and annoyance, or maybe itís simply that they are trying to make them accessible for everybody... but none of them are. And they shouldnít be, why should they be? You donít expect everybody to fix their cars, in fact people are less and less able to fix their cars, like their phones Ė [picking up his phone] you canít fix that Ė you have to take it to experts, I donít see any problem with experts taking on very technical things.

L: What are your thoughts on distributions like Ubuntu and Mint then?

M: I just never cared. There were lots of different distributions that came out and Debian had some philosophy behind it -

L: They have a social contract.

M: And Iím not interested in that, I just wanted to run the operating system and for it to be as elegant and beautiful as Unix is. When Red Hat became commercial and IBM got involved with them and everyone got involved with them, it was great but they changed it, they added all sorts of crap like systemd. Itís not the first time theyíve done something that was different to what everybody else wanted. There was another big change around sound or something, but it all became a bit fragmented and overly-complicated because underneath all this complication is something that still works perfectly and simply.


L: Iíve got to mention it, what was it about systemd that annoyed you so much when you first came across it?

M: Iíve never actually used systemd myself so you have to bear in mind that if I did I may think itís absolutely brilliant and fantastic and like, why didnít they think of this before? But as I mentioned to you in the car the other day just before hearing about systemd I had been working on a Solaris box, and I think it was the utmp file that was corrupted or one of the user logging files, and Solarisí dependency boot system refused to start sshd because utmp wasnít available. It didnít mount it for some reason, I canít remember. The dependency software didnít load sshd so I couldnít log in to the box purely because utmp was not there and you donít need utmp to log into the box. And the solution, if you donít have utmp, is to go mkdir and create a new one! But I couldnít log into the box. And at the particular organisation you couldnít just log into a production system, you had to go through all sorts of security gates and have two people with keys to get into a box in order to get the bloody thing to work but I couldnít log into the ssh. So I didnít have a very good feeling about startup dependencies to start with.

L: So you thought that trouble was on the way.

M: Well, I just experienced a problem with dependencies that pissed me off. Then I started reading about systemd and I thought, well, what problem are you trying to solve here? And I remember after many many years of seeing things not behaving as they should be and going back through the steps of how that system had booted and going through all the configuration files and I realised I couldnít do that with systemd. Iím sure you can get the stuff out, the information, but itís not obvious how to do it but the way the machine boots [with e.g. SysV] is simple and has been around for a long time and it works so well. You can get into dependency problems when something has not started but you tend to know while youíre testing it, not in production because something has stopped behaving correctly. It could happen, I admit that it could, but for me itís complexity over simplicity and I canít see that the complexity is giving me anything of benefit.

L: In my experience which is scant in comparison to yours, systemd is less stable. I run four Slackware systems and Iíve never had a failed boot, not once, on any of them.

M: Iíve never had a Linux boot fail.

L: The only time thereís been a failed boot is because I did something wrong.

M: Yes, I have done the same thing myself. I remember my biggest one was at a customerís, a two day contract, with some government. I canít remember why but I wanted an enormous sleep running in the background when you boot the machine. There was a bit of a panic, itís getting late in the evening on the first day and I only had one more day, I booted the machine, it hung, and that was a nightmare. I had no idea why. I remember going home that night really nervous because I had to Ė had to Ė get the job finished the next day and I had a machine which had been working and Iíd now basically broken it. I remember lying in bed thinking, ďoh shit, I bet I left the ampersand off the end of that sleepĒ. I thought, well if I have, it probably will have booted in the morning... and I got there and it had. Thatís probably the most scary moment that Iíve had and Iíve done some stupid things. There was a national computer dealership, I canít remember their name, and I was working there in their computer room which was small, it was full of IBM computers and me and the other guy, we used to go in there to smoke. I remember fiddling about with a chair and banging my knee against one of the disk drives and it powered off and it shut down the whole country for that dealership.

L: It does make you wonder how many of these unscheduled outages happen at big companies because someone has tripped over an Ethernet cable.

M: That happens a lot, that does happen a lot. I remember hearing a story about someone shutting down an Air Traffic Control system, I think heíd typed Ďshutdowní instead of Ďman shutdowní and he got the sack for that. Something like that, something really stupid, something that anyone could do.


L: We should wrap up soon because weíre coming up to 75 minutes...

M: Before we do, we do have to mention the most important game, which hasnít been mentioned yet which has been with me through my earliest career, in fact before I started in computers.

L: Repton!

M: How do you remember that game?

L: I donít know.

M: No, itís Nethack.

L: Iíve heard of it, I havenít played it.

M: Still the most incredible game ever made. A roguelike game, and theyíre called roguelike because of the original Rogue. An ASCII adventure game. If you ever get the chance, check out Nethack.

L: Whatís so good about it?

M: It is beautiful, it is elegant, it is insanely difficult to complete. Iíve never completed it, Iíve played it for forty years, on and off, Iíve never completed it. It is a Unix game and itís just beautiful.

L: When you say Ďelegantí - this is a word I hear coming up Ė what are you talking about? Elegance of operability, elegance of coding?

M: Itís been a long time since Iíve been involved in all this but I think there was a phrase that people who play Nethack used to use which is ďdevelopers of Nethack think of everythingĒ. Itís a very free game, itís an ASCII character walking around a maze, basically, and thereís lots and lots of little items, magic things, potions, things like that, but you mix them together in a way that nobodyís ever thought of doing that the developers have, and it will react in a way that makes you think ďwow, theyíve thought of everythingĒ. Itís an amazing game.

ĎUnix philosophyí

L: Looking back, what was your favourite era of computing, what has been the most exciting and interesting for you? Not necessarily what the Ďgolden ageí is because thatís subjective Ė and though this is also subjective itís more relevant to this discussion.

M: Thatís actually quite an interesting question because there have been very specific eras in my computing and theyíve all been very different. I mean, at Baker Street it was great fun turning up at 3am to some accountant, someone whoís got a problem with his computer, in your Land Rover, beaten up old Land Rover, and heís got a bottle of Chablis in there while youíre trying to fix his computer, it was great. Thatís one great thing. Writing system software for national ID systems and fraud detection systems just recently, well fairly recently: itís fun and interesting but a lot of my answer would depend on who I was at the time as well. Itís all been interesting in different ways and now, right now, when Iím learning CAD software, Fusion 360 and Iím learning Blender for 3D modelling. Itís not operating system level but itís a good fun thing to be doing. Itís all been different, thereíve been no dull moments.

L: Thereís no time which you think it better than another time?

M: No, different, not better. You can have that same feeling as I did when I first got that crack to appear of my space-trading warfare game - multi-user - written in Sculptor report generator, the same feeling of making that work as making a cloth wrap around a solid object in Blender now.

L: Thatís kind of an intellectual satisfaction, in the way of learning and accomplishment.

M: Itís problem-solving and seeing the problem fixed. Thatís what Linux has always been able to do, and Slackware particularly, because it lays itself open to you and if youíve got the time and the effort to learn what itís showing you, you have all the tools you need to do everything and you can find problems and fix problems and solve problems using those tools like you have with Perl or with Python or with C or with Blender or with Dungeon Master. Certainly Nethack - ďtwo dead humunculiĒ - not ďone dead humunculusĒ, you have one dead humunculus, two dead humunculi!

L: Which systems are you running now at your workplace?

M: Red Hat. We always have some Solaris boxes and one or two Windows boxes but mostly Linux, itís a Linux shop. We have some SUSE too.

L: So where do you think itís all going to go? Do you think the user base is going to get increasingly diluted by more people who donít know and donít care about their systems? Is it a generational thing? Fewer and fewer people caring about systemd and whether itís in their computer or not?

M: New people wonít care about systemd because theyíll grow up with it. I think itís a shame because Unix has been around since the Ď60s in one way or another. It shouldnít be that something has been around for that long, it has changed of course, but that elegant small tools Unix philosophy, if itís lost - so many things get lost over time - it would be a shame. Things will still go on. Ultimately I canít see Linux on the desktop going much further than it already is, but Linux everywhere else and in everything else, yes. My carís got Linux in it, my phoneís got Linux in it.

L: Your microwave?

M: Canít be, because it annoys me too much. Everythingís got Linux running in it, or the root of Linux, like Android, its roots are in Linux, iPhone. Itís everywhere, the long battle thatís been around since Iíve been in the industry was between Windows and Unix, and Unix was always looking to be the loser but it turns out itís very much the winner.

L: When you try to convince a lot of younger users about systemd and why it could be considered a bad thing, one of the epithets that often gets used is the ĎUnix philosophyí. Itís said that a lot of people donít really understand what it means, so what does it mean to you?

M: Itís just simplicity. Unix is simple and it does what it says itís going to do and you have total, total control. It never does anything insane or crazy or unexpected. When they say the Ďphilosophyí they mean thereís lots of small tools that do one thing and they do it well and you build them all together to make big tools like you make a house out of bricks, and thatís what people mean by the Ďphilosophyí. For me the Ďphilosophyí is possibly more about the elegance of it all, the design of how things are put together. Itís not just systemd that annoys me, I get annoyed by the echo command being an internal bash function rather than an external command - I get why itís there but for me it loses something for it - and Iíve noticed now that you can tar-*. When you use an asterisk or any kind of similar expression, the shell expands that into the current directory, so if it comes up to a lot of file names they get appended to the end of the command and thatís why they work. But it doesnít work with 'find', I think it was with find where it doesnít work, because people donít remember that and they just think it means all files that match Ďthisí - Iím not explaining it very well because I donít remember it that well - but now I notice that find has been changed, so that it actually does what youíd expect rather than what it should do, which is break. There are lots of little things like that, things which have been Ďfixedí, tiny little things which have been Ďfixedí but only because people kept making mistakes whereas what they should have done, in my view, is not make the mistakes.

L: I think what youíre talking about, when you talk about the Unix philosophy, is an ethos. And distributions have ethoses behind them - Debian was all about free software, Ubuntu was about making things accessible and Slackware was about making things as Unix-like as possible - thereís a genuine intention behind that and thatís one of the things that makes it - I donít want to say a work of passion necessarily because that makes it sound ephemeral - but thereís a genuineness behind it which comes across in how it works and how stable it is. Maybe thatís whatís behind it, that intention behind the philosophy.

M: There are philosophies in different distributions as you said, and thatís why I never got interested in any of them, I was not interested in any of the philosophies of the distributions, I didnít care, I really didnít. If Iím honest I didnít care about the GPL - Iím glad for it, I didnít care about it at the time - I didnít care what Richard Stallman was saying that we needed, that we shouldnít do this, we should do that, we should call it this, we shouldnít call it that, I admired the guy, like I admired all those people but the only Ďphilosophyí that I personally could identify with was Slackware trying to do things right. Thatís the philosophy - for me it never looked like it was trying to stay as close to Unix as possible because Unix is all but disappearing - it was more that it was trying to do it right and remember what was good in Unix, and AU/X started to go a bit funny and move away from what Unix was, but I think Slackwareís always kept it, kept what Unix was always supposed to be. I like that, and if I installed Linux again on one of my machines which, as I said to you, I nearly did the other day, it would be Slackware.


L: With regard to security, people say theyíve never seen a Spectre or Meltdown attack in the wild. People are patching their machines like crazy and using microcode but I hear that thereíve been very few attacks.

M: What Iím going to say is very politically incorrect but I have never suffered from a security attack - well, I may have had an attack but Iíve never suffered a security incident. Iíve seen security incidents and I work in an area currently which is very sensitive to security but Iíve never ever seen anything. We run machines that have uptimes of 1,500 days that we donít dare reboot anymore. Is that a good thing? No, itís certainly not compliant with some of the auditory requirements that weíre supposed to be following and those machines are special-case machines, if you manage to penetrate the security in front of those machines - to get to them - in my view you deserve to have access! Because theyíre not easy machines to get to, we canít even get to them within the organisation. So itís very difficult to say. My personal gut feeling is itís too much of a religion and I have seen problems introduced by patching, Iíve seen systems break because of patching, Iíve seen new security holes arise because of patching. Iíve been to security conferences where they show you how easy it is to break into machines and no amount of patching is going to fix that and no amount of security scanning software is going to solve the problem.

If you can patch, and you can patch regularly and you can patch reliably and you can patch automatically then you may as well do it, as long as you have a good testing regime in there so you can test the stuff first. I personally, on my phone and on my computers, I make sure Iím not at the latest patch level.

L: Youíre not?

M: No, I donít want to be at the latest patch level.

L: Why not?

M: Itís nearly always broken in one way or another. I donít like it, I hate it, I hate upgrading stuff on my phone, itís always worse than it used to be.

L: How much risk is the average home computer user at?

M: No doubt thereís a risk of becoming part of a botnet. Of course thereís a risk, so what Windows do with their occasional patch releases is probably a good thing, but religiously patching with every single patch that comes out? I donít think itís worth it. I actually think itís damaging. If you can afford it and youíve got the time, itís not going to do you any harm, well, itís not going to do you much harm.

L: Itís kind of an ďif it ainít broke, donít fix itĒ kind of thing?

M: Iím certainly a big believer in "if it ainít broke, donít fix it".

L: So having a 1,500 hour [uptime] -

M: Day.

L: Day, sorry.

M: Iím not proud of it.

L: You should be!

M: Actually in some ways I am proud of it, but the fact is that this machine has been running a national identification system and we have other machines with that kind of uptime and no security breaches ever. There was a security alert on some library, I think it might have been TLS or SSL, some kind of encryption algorithm, I canít remember, but it was some library, an enormous hole had been found in it and everybody needed to panic about it, the whole organisation and the whole of all the organisations were jumping up and down needing to patch this hole in this library but ours were so old that we werenít affected by it. It was quite pleasant at the time.

L: People are religiously patching and worrying about the next incremental kernel update or the microcode, theyíre obsessed by it.

M: Being on the latest version is never a good idea. Oracle release patches to their database, I think four times a year. Solaris used to release patches four times a year and HP-UX four times a year. There are more people desperately trying to get into these machines now but you never stayed on the latest version so you were always six months behind at best. Because the latest version will introduce bugs. At the place I work now - I think it was SUSE which changed the way that su worked. It took me a while to find out that it was su but we patched it - we had automated patching, if we want to patch we donít go and patch all our machines individually - and we rolled out the latest versions of patches and some obscure script that somebody had written just broke, and it was an important script, it ran once every six months and it broke. And the reason why it broke was that the guy had written the script properly, really carefully and really well, redirecting standard outputs, standard error, and it didnít work with su because there was a new feature with su and you had to put some incredibly annoying and fashionably long flag on the command line to get it to behave in the same way that it used to. Itís not a huge thing, I suppose, but we had a production failure because of a patch.

We had a change control system written in Perl at one place, some guy patched another machine which patched Perl and it broke the change management system because it changed the way it handled databases. And the change management system failed. It broke because he had patched the system. Itís not a religious thing to do. I think itís something to do with care, even with Oracle. The best practice with Oracle is to look through every patch first before you apply it.

L: Slackware -current is a testbed for the next stable. Itís not like the very very latest things get dropped into it, sometimes they get dropped into /testing and then they end up going into -current but -current is for the users to report any bugs or if they need it because itís got more recent hardware support. But the stable version only ends up having security updates.

M: Yes, donít keep fixing it until you break it. Itís a difficult thing to say. People do get attacked and machines do get taken over and they do become part of botnets which attack other machines, it does happen. Itís just never happened to me.

L: Have any of your colleagues had serious issues?

M: The only serious security issue Iíve ever known was an enormous security issue caused by the customer doing something really stupid.

L: Can you say anything about what it was?

M: A customer sent us his private key through email. That is a serious security incident.

L: Did anything happen as a result?

M: Yes, we had to create certificates, we had to basically go through a key ceremony again.

L: So some of the most serious computer security issues are PEBKAC?

M: Yes, that is the only time Iíve ever been involved in something thatís been called a security incident or that has been confirmed as a security incident. A firewall, or patching, would not have fixed that customer being stupid.

L: Or PICNIC - Problem In Chair, Not In Computer. OK, we'll probably do more at another point but I think thatís enough for now. Thank you very much.

M: No problem.

3rd Oct 2019. This conversation was fuelled by a respectable quantity of beer, wine, e-cigarettes and dog noises.
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