Unconscious Inertia


Some things that came across my desk this week:

  • Harvey Matusow—quite an interesting character—was interviewed by the BBC in 1970, in his role as head of the International Society for the Abolition of Data-Processing Machines. Twitter has a clip.
  • Now you can run old Windows screensavers under XScreensaver. Because.
  • Daniel Berrangé has come out with exactly the sort of software tool I like: it’s simple and, strictly speaking, it’s unnecessary, but it’s still great because it makes things easier. It’s called Bye Bye BIOS. Its sole purpose is to be run against an OS image (say, for a VM) which is set up only to boot via EFI and, if you try to boot it via (legacy) BIOS, tell you that you need to use EFI.

#computers #software

I’ve been using a Pinebook Pro for about a week now, so I thought I’d write up a quick synopsis of my thoughts so far.

My goal with it was to have a portable personal machine to use Firefox, Emacs, and SSH (i.e., not a high bar) with a better experience than the old Thinkpad Yoga 11e I’d been reduced to using.

TL;DR, it’s not perfect, but it was worth the money for me.


The keyboard is fine, if unexceptional, though it’s personally irritating that the placement of Ctrl and Fn is reversed from what I’m used to. The screen is crisp and clear, and a good size (the small screen was probably the biggest part of what made the Yoga a pain to use). The trackpad—well, I don’t like it, but it works; and maybe I can fiddle with the settings enough to make it more acceptable.

When I plugged it into a docking station via USB-C, it didn’t pick up the attached monitor. I haven’t tried to fix that yet, but it would be nice if that worked.


I have some experience running an inexpensive ARM machine on Linux, so to be honest my hopes weren’t very high, especially with the Pinebook Pro only having 4GB of RAM. Plus I have no experience of Manjaro or of modern KDE (the defaults it ships with), so I was concerned about having to fight with either or both. I’m happy to say that everything mostly just works and I have spent zero time searching the Web for “how do I do thus-and-so?”

In particular, the graphical software updater worked without any issues, which I was slightly concerned about given my admittedly long-ago experience with Arch Linux (Manjaro is based on Arch).

Firefox is slightly laggy—kind of expected that—but not so bad I can’t put up with it. I’ve never been the sort to have hundreds or even tens of tabs open simultaneously; five is about my max. I haven’t put it to the test of something extremely Javascript-heavy like Slack or YouTube, and probably won’t.

One of the nice things about going in on the Emacs ecosystem is that it does practically everything; I don’t have to care what system I’m running on.

Next Steps

If I get time, I may try to pare down my graphical session further (simple WM, just the DE bits I actually want), but, unlike on the RasPi 4, I don’t feel the need for that.

#reviews #Linux #computers

One of the most consistent patterns in business is the failure of leading companies to stay at the top of their industries when technologies or markets change.… The pattern of failure has been especially striking in the computer industry. IBM dominated the mainframe market but missed by years the emergence of minicomputers, which were technologically much simpler than mainframes. Digital Equipment dominated the minicomputer market with innovations like its VAX architecture but missed the personal computer market almost completely.[1]

VAX is both a line of computers by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and the architecture of its processors, produced from 1977–2000. They were once common enough that Henry Spencer listed “all the world’s a VAX” as one of the assumptions programmers should avoid, in his tongue-in-cheek Ten Commandments for C Programmers. When they came from DEC, the systems ran either OpenVMS or the Unix variant Ultrix.

Ultrix’s last release was in 1995. I don’t have any numbers, but in general if something was popular it got talked about, and I’ve seen so little about it that the only reason I know it existed is because there is a Wikipedia article. OpenVMS continued to be developed both for VAX (up to version 7.3 in 2001) as well as VAX’s successor, Alpha. Even after development for OpenVMS on VAX ceased, you could continue to get “Hobbyist” licenses for it (as well as Alpha, and eventually, Itanium) from HP/HPE, to use with some restrictions on your old hardware or in emulation. HPE ended its Hobbyist program earlier this year, and though VMS Software, which bought all the rights for OpenVMS, has started up a new program, the latter does not include VAX.

In the meanwhile, the OpenBSD project ported its OS to VAX in 2000, and continued to make releases for the architecture until 2016, when it was dropped after OpenBSD 5.9.

NetBSD still theoretically has a maintained port for VAX, albeit one they label as Tier II. Even its future is in doubt, since GCC is now looking to drop support, though by “drop” what is apparently meant is to remove a whole bunch of code where the upstream version hasn’t been able to compile itself for a decade, and even the patched NetBSD version hasn’t been able to do so since the GCC 4.8 series (ca. 2013–2015). I have to say that to my mind, the port is effectively dead at this point, even if somebody somewhere is still technically doing work on it.

Maybe it shouldn’t, but it makes me a little sad to see things like the VAX end. Not to suggest that VAX was the crowning achievement of human endeavor, or anything like that; but a lot of people’s time, effort, and ability went into designing these machines. It’s regrettable that all that is essentially vanishing, even though lots of other people are doing all kinds of wonderful things on other architectures in other operating systems.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

[1] Joseph L. Bower and Clayton M. Christensen, “Disruptive technologies: catching the wave,” Harvard Business Review, 1995.

#OpenVMS #OpenBSD #NetBSD #Ultrix #VAX #DEC #computers